1

2420 Ruby Lane

Chapter One

Dear Gil, I hope you’re doing well. I’m in London. I fed the pigeons at Trafalgar Square and walked over the Thames River. London is beautiful. It’s a huge city. I took the underground once but I prefer the doubledecker busses. They take longer, but I get to see the city. Besides, I’m in no rush. Not anymore. Tonight I’ll watch a play, not sure which one. I’ll write again soon. Love, Rachel

Gil Miller lays the postcard on his desk and looks out the window: a stout middleaged Hispanic woman is pushing a pink stroller toward the park’s playground. The stroller is sturdy as a Hummer, thick wheels, wide handlebar. The woman parks the stroller by a bench. She reaches in and brings out a blonde baby girl. Gil wonders how many white nannies care for Latino babies. In Culver City CA, where a three-bedroom house goes for a million bucks, white mothers work as hard as their husbands while pursuing the American Dream. Someone needs to mind the babies.

2 He fiddles with the postcard and admires Rachel’s roundly precise, feminine penmanship. Rachel wanted a baby. He did too. After dating for three years, they decided to get pregnant. A year passed and nothing happened while they tried to hide frustration and disappointment. One evening, after they made love, Rachel cried. “I can’t do this anymore.” “Do what?” Gil asked, though he knew. She sat up on the bed. “I’m going to get checked.” He caressed her shoulder. “If that’s what you feel is right, then do it.” Rachel’s blue eyes narrowed. “I want you to go also.” “Oh . . .” Gil’s hand dropped from her shoulder. He feared the test results—a sterile man sentenced by evolution to never procreate, but he knew that Rachel wouldn’t let the subject go, so he capitulated—trying to masturbate into a plastic cup while thumbing through a worn-out copy of Hustler. He thought of the men before him who’d fondled the pages, and couldn’t get an erection. He shut his eyes and imagined Rachel’s heavy breasts. A mixture of relief and concern accompanied the results: he was virile, which, in sophomoric Alpha-male ways confirmed his masculinity, but that meant Rachel had issues.

Drumming his fingers on the desk, Gil recalls the teary-eyed day Rachel got the test results. The twinkle in her eyes dimmed. She grew cold to his touch; she hated her body and didn’t want to feel pleasure.

3 “How long is this gonna go on?” he asked a few weeks later while they sat at the kitchen table and ate takeout Chinese. Twilight had settled over the spring evening. Rachel gnawed on her lips and looked at the wall. “We can adopt,” Gil said. “I love you.” Rachel gnawed on her lips and crossed her arms. “How can you love me if I can’t give you a child?” “Are you saying that love is only about having kids?” “I don’t know.” Rachel stood up. “I need to go away for a while.” “Go where?” he quivered. He couldn’t believe what was happening. Rachel ran her fingers through her dark hair. “I don’t know. I don’t know what else to do.” Gil tried to hug Rachel. Her body stiffened. He backed away and scowled. “You don’t love me anymore.” Rachel sighed and smiled sadly. “I don’t love me anymore.” Six years earlier he’d taken his last drink, and that night he almost broke his sobriety. He didn’t. Three days later, Rachel left the US. “I want to be a fly on the wall of humanity,” she said before boarding the plane. Then she hugged Gil for a long moment. “I’ll be here when you need me,” he whispered and kissed her neck. Sadness trickled from his heart into his stomach. Gil was convinced that if Rachel could love again, she would love him. The thought of her sleeping with another man while they separated never crossed his mind.

4 Rachel didn’t leave him for another man or because she failed to love him. Her heart was broken because motherhood had eluded her.

The nanny places the baby girl in a swing—a rubber chair chained across the front —and gently pushes the baby who waves her tiny arms and coos with delight. Sunrays twinkle through the eucalyptus trees. Tennis rackets thwack from the courts next to the playground. Gil puts the postcard in the bottom drawer of his desk; it settles on the pile of eighteen postcards Rachel had sent over six months. He turns his attention to the computer screen, to a home-improvement article about hanging plants he’s copyediting for Patios and Gardens magazine. ***

Andy Cloud lets his spectacles settle on the bridge of his chubby nose and impatiently blinks his pale-blue eyes. “Listen. Take the Blu-ray. It costs a little more than HD, but you get what you pay for.” The pimply teenager shrugs at the two electronic devices on the glass counter. “Something new will come out next year.” “You bought Playstation when it came out. Was it worth it?” “Yeah, it was fun.” “My point exactly,” Andy says. “Technology mutates every eighteen months. It’s the nature of the beast. And after all the R&D that Sony put into this baby, they’re not

5 gonna change the format.” He pats the Blu-ray. “You’ll have years to watch Spiderman on this baby.” The teenager squints. “I hate Spiderman.” Andy forces a weary smile. “An astute young man you are. I hate Spiderman too, almost as much as I hate the FBI.” He glances at his wristwatch: 7:52. Closing time in eight minutes. “I’ll give you thirty days money back. And you know why?” He pauses for a second and then lies, “Cause I wouldn’t sell you something I don’t own.” Five minutes later, the teenager leaves the store, a cardboard box tucked under his arm. Andy tallies up the cash in the register, sets the store alarm, turns off the lights, and steps out to the chilly winter evening. A welcome salty Pacific dampness tingles his nostrils. He sits in his beat up Nissan Stanza and takes a few hits of pot from a pipe. Sweet smoke fills his lungs and eases his mind. He holds in the smoke for a long time; little escapes when he exhales. On his way to In-and-Out Burger on Sepulveda Boulevard, he listens to KPFK: A retired Marine officer is trying to justify the troop surge in Iraq. “We have to finish what we started.” The host cuts him off. “McCain says he’ll stay there for a hundred years. It’s costing nine billion, that’s with a B, every month. That’s 108 billion a year, not to mention the trillion, with a T, it’ll cost to take care of the veterans coming home. Still think it was worth going in there?” “I do,” the Marine officer replies. In his voice, Andy detects unwavering sincerity.

6 “Some people still believe the earth is flat,” Andy says to the radio dial. “Don’t mean they know shit.” The double-double-burger combines with large fries and a milkshake to soothe Andy’s stomach, but his mind continues to rattle with man’s stupidity and cruelty, how American citizens continue living carefree, complicit while their leaders create havoc and promote misery around the world. “I wish I could do something about it,” he whispers and parks his car on the street in front of 2420 Ruby Lane. Andy sits in the car and recalls his recent trip to Costa Rica. He spent two weeks on the Caribbean coast, in Parismina, a poor village on a pristine and desolate beach, where Reggae music played and cheap pot was plenty. The villagers, ancestors of black slaves, were laid-back. He didn’t want to leave Parismina, but lack of funds forced him to return to the US. Andy smacks his bloated stomach and burps loudly. “I gotta lose fifty pounds,” he says, though he knows he won’t. His shoulders sag. “Fuck that,” he says to an invisible companion. “It’s not like I’m going on dates. Women and me don’t mix. But that’s okay. When’s the last time you seen anyone happy in a relationship? Trust me, relationships are way overrated. Look at Gil. What a great guy, and Rachel’s playing him, traveling the world and sending him postcards.” His voice rises in tone to mimic a woman. “Poor little me. I can’t have babies,” and drops to his natural baritone. “Like we need more people on this planet.” A drizzle cascades down the car’s windows. Wet from the rain, Andy’s scalp glistens beneath the streetlight as he walks up the path and enters 2420 Ruby Lane.

7 Sitting at his desk and typing on his computer, Gil smiles to acknowledge his roommate. “How was your day?” Andy nods. “Same old, and yours?” “I got a postcard from Rachel.” Andy walks to the kitchen and takes out a Coke from the fridge. “Is that a good thing?” Gil leans back in his swivel chair and says nothing. “You know how I feel about Rachel, so I’ll keep my mouth shut,” Andy says. Gil chuckles. “The Casanova that you are.” Andy shrugs. “You don’t need to get stung by a scorpion to know it hurts.” Gil looks out the window. “I like the rain.” “Me too.” Andy drains the Coke can. “Excuse me. I need to use the bathroom.” Gil returns to stare at the computer screen while Andy walks down the hallway toward his bedroom-bathroom section of the house. ***

Victor Melon reclines on the massage table set in a dark room lit with peach candles. Soft music plays—a piano with ocean waves and a sitar. A tiny waterfall set in a birdbath cascades cheerfully over smooth pebbles. The scent of candles and oils mixes with a tinge of sweat. A barefoot Asian woman wearing a flowery dress, black hair cropped below her ears, enters the room. Victor smiles. “Hi Hanna.”

8 “Hi Victor,” the woman purrs and lightly runs her fingers down his spine and over his exposed buttocks. He shudders with excitement. Hanna dribbles oil on his back and begins the massage; her strokes over his lanky body are even and firm, fingers soft yet sure. Victor dangles his long arms to the sides of the table. “How’s your boy?” he asks. “Sometimes good, sometimes naughty.” “He’ll be four next month, right?” “Yes, four.” He reaches to caress her smooth calve and runs his fingers up her thigh. Hanna walks to the edge of the table and tends to his feet. Her knuckles knead his soles. Then she climbs on the table. On her knees, reclined between his legs, her arm movement from his calves up to his shoulders flows like water. The room’s temperature rises and Hanna’s perfume mixes with the peach candles. Victor lies still, passion rising. “You turn over please,” Hanna says softly. Victor lies on his back, shuts his eyes, and takes a deep breath while Hanna skirts her fingers across his groin. She drips oil onto his spear and rubs it with warm hands and expert fingers. He reaches under her dress. His fingers nestle between her thighs. She rubs his erection with increasing vigor until Victor groans. The entrance doorbell, like the one found on a goat, jingles—sign of another customer arriving at the massage parlor. Hannah pulls lightly on his chest hair. “I wait outside.”

9 Victor gets dressed quickly, so not to disrupt the streamlined operation. Walking out, he sees the man, but their eyes don’t meet. Hanna hugs Victor briskly at the entrance door. “Goodbye. Come back soon.” “Will do,” he says and slips her a hundred dollars. She bows lightly and smiles. “Thank you.”

Dusk has fallen when Victor drives away in his pickup. The truck’s bed is loaded with a lawn mower, garden tools, and bags of fertilizer. He dines at Natalie’s, a Thai restaurant on Venice Boulevard. The slender brown-skinned waitresses with their almond-shaped eyes and high cheekbones trigger his passion. Scarcely thirty minutes had passed since Hanna satisfied him, and already the hunger for more wells in his groin. Finished with his dinner Victor sits in his truck and smokes a cigarette. Then he drives away, stops at the liquor store, and picks up a six-pack of Coors Light. At nine in the evening he pulls into the driveway of 2420 Ruby Lane and parks in the back of the house, by the converted garage—his home nicknamed The Cave. He steps out of the car and hears the kitchen’s back door open and sees Andy’s round face peer out. “Hey Victor.” “How you doin’ Andy?” “Same old.” “No news good news.” “I hear ya.” “How’s Gil?” “Brooding.”

10 “That’s fucked up. Tell him I said hi. I’m beat. Catch you later.” “Easy.” Andy shuts the door. Victor enters the converted garage. A queen-size mattress lies on the floor. A counter with a sink and a hot plate center the room, with a square refrigerator to the right. A door leads to a narrow bathroom jammed with a toilet, sink, and shower stall. Victor lies on his bed, pops a beer, and drinks it down. He shuts his eyes and thinks how beautiful Hanna is. He’d marry her and help raise her kid if she let him, but she’s twenty-five and he’s forty-seven. That wouldn’t work, at least not in the US. If he had money, he’d move to Thailand or the Philippines, marry a young woman and start a family. Two hours later, the six-pack lays empty at the foot of Victor’s bed and his snoring rattles the walls. ***

Gil Miller shuts down his computer at midnight and takes one last look out the window: a streetlight dimly lights the playground. A teenage couple has converged on the swings. The girl is sitting in the boy’s lap and giggling. “Rachel, they’re sitting in our swings,” Gil whispers into the darkness.

11

Chapter Two

At eight the next morning, dressed in denim overalls and work boots, Victor Melon leaves the converted garage and enters the main house through the back door into the kitchen. He brews a pot of coffee, boils six eggs, and toasts two slices of bread. The morning is clear with patchy high clouds. The drizzle from the night before sparkles on the grass; the empty park benches are wet. Victor sits at the dining table and is eating his breakfast, when footsteps thunder from the hallway. Andy enters the kitchen, pale stomach pouring over white briefs, his few tufts of gray hair in disarray. “Mornin,’” he mumbles. Victor nods. “Thanks for the coffee and eggs,” Andy says and pops two slices of bread into the toaster. “No problemo.” Andy pours coffee in his cup and sips noisily. “Where you working today?” Victor chuckles; the diagonal wrinkles crossing his cheeks deepen. “New account for Rick Perry,” he says, not without a hint of pride.

12 Andy’s eyebrows rise. “The DJ from 108.9?” Victor nods. His hawkish light-green eyes observe Andy’s jiggling stomach. “Don’t you worry about gettin’ sick? Heart attack, diabetes?” Andy grabs his love handles. “Not really. There’s more of me to love. And you should talk, mister pack-a-day.” “Yeah, but I get lots of exercise on the job,” Victor says and flexes a bicep. He points to his yellow teeth. “But I’d like to whiten my teeth.” “Why?” “It’ll help me look younger, healthier.” Andy separates the hard-boiled eggs from their shells. “For who?” Victor shrugs. Andy sits at the dining table. “At our age, chicks don’t care how we look. You could look like fuckin’ Brad Pitt, but if you’re not wealthy or famous, forget about it.” “Human Relations 101 by Andy Cloud,” says Gil, standing in the kitchen doorway. Andy laughs. “Mister Heartbreak in the flesh. Guess what? Victor’s working Rick Perry’s estate today.” Dressed in dark-blue flannel pajamas, sandy-blonde hair in boyish tangles, Gil pours himself a cup of coffee. “The DJ? That’s cool.” With a teaspoon, he scoops the last two eggs from the pot. “Two acres,” Victor says. “And he wants a bunch of stuff done. I’m meeting him today.” He spies the clock above the doorway. “In about two hours.” Gil joins his roommates at the table. “Great. Good luck.”

13 “Presidential primaries in Michigan tomorrow,” Andy says. Gil shrugs. “I’m done with politics.” Andy frowns. “This country’s goin’ down in flames, and no one gives a shit.” “The country’s doing just fine,” Victor says. “Stop crying wolf.” “Whatever,” mutters Andy and rolls his eyes. Gil groans. “I have three articles to edit today. Some of these writers don’t know the difference between a period and a semicolon.” “Semicolon sounds pretty kinky,” Victor says. Gil smiles. “With you everything boils down to sex.” Victor raises his arms. “Guilty as charged.” “Sex? What’s that?” says Andy. Victor laughs. “Come to the massage parlor. You’ll find out.” Andy shudders. “Pay for sex? That’s disgusting. No way!” “To each his own,” says Gil and yawns. “I’m gonna go jog in the park. I got hours staring at the monitor coming up.” Victor stands up. “I gotta get going. Gonna get a haircut and clean out the hair from my ears and trim my eyebrows. Fuckin hair starts growing everywhere when we get old.” “Welcome to male menopause,” Andy says, and sings, “Viva Viagra.” Victor scowls. “I don’t need that shit.” “Neither do I,” says Andy. “At least I don’t think so.”

14 Gil leaves to jog in the park. Victor drives off to meet with his barber. Andy sits at the table and sips his coffee. Then he makes a turkey and cheese sandwich and goes to shower before leaving for Andy’s Electronics. As he drives away, a stroller and a Latina nanny arrive at the toddler playground. * * *

Jogging always set Gil’s mind drifting in thought, whether about childhood friends, or his deceased parents, or his days in college studying philosophy and literature, or his travels through the Middle East and Europe. He could never predict what memory would rise, that is, until Rachel left him to become a fly on humanity’s wall. Since then, all memories centered on times they’d spent together. Today is no different. A few minutes after he settles into rhythm, sneakers kicking up raindrops off the grass, a tingling warmth spreading through his loins and up his chest, Gil recalls how Rachel and he met. He was teaching philosophy 101 at West Los Angeles College, a diverse and laidback campus with pastoral grounds off Overland Boulevard. He’d recently turned thirtyeight and celebrated his second year of sobriety. The small class consisted of men and woman aged 18-20 with the exception of Rachel, a tall blue-eyed brunette in her late twenties. Any man, unless he was blind and possibly even then, would peg Rachel as a sensual woman undoubtedly created when God ruminated exceptionally good spirits. Aware of that and the fact Rachel was about ten years younger and four inches taller than him, Gil quickly noted she was unattainable.

15 Men, Gill had decided long before he’d met Rachel, were always eager to frolic with fair maidens. How an attractive woman walked the streets while every horny male ogled her breasts and butt, Gil could not fathom. The intrusion on privacy, the rude comments, the lowest common denominator of amoebic desires, would have left him, were he an attractive woman, suspicious and contemptuous of all men. Thus, it came with great and pleasant surprise when he noticed Rachel look at him in ways appearing seductive—a mischievous tilt of her head, which he at first attributed to a kink in her neck, or a wink, which he pinned on a nervous tick she may have. But on the fourth class, while he walked the aisle lecturing about Plato’s Timocracy, he passed Rachel’s desk and locked eyes with her. She straightened her shoulders. Her breasts rose majestically within her pink angora sweater. Gil lost his trend of thought. Rachel cupped her mouth and giggled. When class ended, she remained in her chair after everyone had left. Feeling his cheeks on fire, Gil walked up to Rachel, legs numb and separated from his torso. “I shouldn’t be doing this cause I can’t handle rejection, but would you like to have coffee?” She smiled and stood up. “I thought you’d never ask.” Gil looked up at her sparkling eyes. “You’re quite a bit taller than me.” Rachel laughed. “Is it all about size and length these days?” “I bet you dated a linebacker or basketball player in high school.” Rachel leaned in and whispered in his ear, “I dated the whole team.” Her rosy perfume zoomed to tingle his groin.

16 Gil sulked. “I was on the team. You didn’t date me,” and smiled. “Oh, but I was on the debate team.”

Trapped in memories, Gil clenches his fists and widens his strides. The sun rises over the eucalyptus trees. An old couple is playing tennis on one of the courts; the ball travels over the net in a wide ark. The playground is coming to life with toddlers enthralled with creation. The nannies carry on in Spanish. A squirrel runs through the grass and scurries up a tree.

They walked to the Starbucks on Washington Boulevard where they sat at a corner table. Feeling he’d lost reason within his infatuation, Gil asked, “Why me?” Rachel bit on her coffee cake. “Because you’re smart.” “That’s it?” “You’re handsome in a stocky way.” “Is that a good thing?” “Depends how smart you are.” “Smart turns you on?” Rachel sipped from her latte. “Now that wasn’t very smart.” He blushed; under the table, his fingers drummed on his thighs. “I guess that was pretty lame.” “What’s your favorite book?” Rachel asked. Gil shrugged. “Don’t know…so many.” “Mine is Love in the Time of Cholera.”

17 He nodded. “Great book. Marquez is one of the best.” “The movie’s playing,” said Rachel. “Really?” He frowned. “Kinda difficult to replicate the story in film. It’s a love story but the magic’s in the prose.” “You’re probably right. The review mentioned that. But they shot the movie in Colombia, and the sets and costumes are authentic.” Gil placed his elbows on the table, leaned forward and said, “I’d love to see Love in the Time of Cholera with you.” Rachel placed her elbows on the table, leaned in and whispered, “Now that was smart.” Before they parted ways that night, Gil, already in love, said, “It’s dumb of me to mention this, but I really hope you don’t break my heart.” Rachel pecked his cheek. “Promise I won’t. Friday at seven at our Starbucks?” She pointed to the neon sign. He smiled. “I like the sound of that.” Rachel offered him a ride home, but Gil chose to walk the mile thinking sweet and trepid thoughts. That was a Wednesday evening. He had forty-eight hours to kill until they met again on Friday. How to do that, he had no idea; nothing came to mind that could distract him from her rosy perfume, high forehead and rounded chin, curving hips and kissable lips, and the promising twinkle in her eyes.

18 Gil sprints around the park’s last curb. Standing by the house, he bends over, puts his palms on his thighs and tries to catch his breath. Rachel lied to him. It took four years, but she did break his heart. He’s angry. The run hadn’t calmed his battered heart. Gil wants a drink—single malt whiskey swirling in a snifter. He showers for a long time and ups the water temperature until his back feels like it’s peppered with shards of glass. At ten in the morning, Gil sits at his desk and turns on the computer. He wants to open the drawer and read Rachel’s postcards for the hundredth time but he knows it’ll only make him feel worse. He plunges into editing an article praising the spiritual benefits of Bonsai trees. * * *

After Victor is done with his hairdresser appointment, he drives to the hills of Pacific Palisades. The day has warmed, in the mid-seventies, so he rolls down the window and enjoys the ocean breeze. His drive ends at a bronze gate, where he buzzes the intercom and states his business to a distorted voice. He drives his truck up a circular driveway and parks in front of a Victorian house painted white and blue. A slim, paleskinned and reddish-haired man in his thirties, dressed in white cotton shorts and a blue Hawaiian shirt, walks out from the house. He smiles heartily and offers a clammy handshake. “Rick Perry,” he says with the smooth British accent Victor’s heard on the radio. “Victor Melon at your service.” “What do you think?” Perry’s arm sweeps over the neglected front yard. “I moved in last month.”

19 “Pretty messy,” Victor says. “What do you have in mind?” He hands Perry his portfolio. The DJ flips through the laminated pages and hums approval. They walk the grounds and discuss plants, grass, trees, repaving the driveway, and erecting a water fountain as the yard’s centerpiece. Perry rubs his palms. “This is going to be grand. Let me show you the back, though not much to do there, it’s mainly the pool area.” A brown cobblestone patio overlooks the pool, a Jacuzzi set in a wooden deck, and a grassy area with a volleyball net. A hedge fence circles the property. Victor sees all that, but also the two naked young women swimming in the pool. One is blonde with cup-size breasts, the other a full-breasted brunette. They wave to Perry who waves back and then points to a cooler resting by two beach chairs. “Care for a beer, mate?” Victor swallows nervously. He wants a beer, wants to chum with the celebrity standing before him, but is worried about being too casual and losing the account. “I shouldn’t,” he says when Perry says, “I insist. Like John Wayne said, ‘Never trust a man who doesn’t take a drink.’” Victor looks the man in the eye. “I don’t want to appear unprofessional. I need the work and want to do the best job I can.” “No worries mate,” the DJ says. “You got the job. Now have a pint with me and the girls.” Victor accepts a Heineken and reclines on a beach chair. “I like your look,” Perry says. “Lanky and spry, like an ex-Marine who stays in shape.”

20 Victor sips his beer. “Good call. You know what they say, Once a Marine always a Marine.” Perry laughs. “I’m good,” then reaches in his shirt pocket and brings out a plastic bag with white powder. “Do blow?” Victor shakes his head. “Tried it a few times. Don’t like it.” “No worries,” the DJ says and waves the bag. “Time for a snack, girls.” The women giggle and rush out from the pool. Free in their nudity, they ignore the tortured glances cast by the middle-aged man. Perry spreads lines on the cooler. The brunette, her back to Victor, bends down to snort the powder. Her ass rises and her spread thighs reveal a shaved vagina in innocent pink. When she’s done snorting the coke, the brunette turns to Victor and smiles. Her brown eyes are shielded by long eyelashes. Hearing the blood thump inside his ears, Victor looks away. Perry laughs. The blonde is sitting in his lap. “No need to be embarrassed. Vanessa doesn’t mind if you look.” He smiles at the brunette. “Do you Love?” She laughs, then stands over Victor and places her crotch in his face. “Wanna eat me?” Perry is discarding his clothes. The blonde kneels over him and blows him. Victor looks up at Vanessa. She’s barely out of high school. His stomach shrinks with desire and confusion. Perry groans. “Go ahead, mate. We only live once.” Vanessa turns her back on Victor who’s reclined on the beach chair. She steps one leg over him and lowers her ass onto his face until her lovebox presses against his nose. A

21 parched man walking in from the desert, Victor laps on her sourly-sweet juices while his rough palms massage her firm buttocks. Vanessa yelps and grinds her ass further into his face. Her vagina squirts and wets his cheeks. She grabs at his crotch, zips open the fly, and devours his penis. When Victor is happy, Vanessa wipes her lips and giggles. Then she runs to dive into the pool. The blonde follows. Rick Perry, reclined on the beach chair, quips, “Ain’t life grand.” Victor’s head hums with humiliation: He’s a pawn in the narcissist exploits of Celebrity, a guest treated to pussy by an arrogant, insensitive host. Never in a millennium would a young beauty like Vanessa attest to the fact he was alive, yet, like a well-trained bitch, she obeyed her master’s command and pleasured him. Jealousy floods his heart, dark envy for the average-looking man with the blotchy cheeks who swims in the ocean of wealth and fame, who plunders the willing flesh anxious to bask in his rarefied status. How empty and callous is fame, yet how Victor yearns for it, for the world to bow to him and reward him with feminine treasures like Vanessa. But the world never will. He stands up. “Fuck you and your landscape,” he shouts and walks off briskly. “Mate, come back. Don’t go loony on me,” Perry cries. Victor gets into his pickup and, tires squealing, drives off. His drive home is running red lights and passing without regard. He stops at the liquor store and buys a twelve-pack. Moments later, he’s back in the converted garage, the cave, where he quickly drinks himself into a stupor. By noon, he’s snoring loudly, body twitching in restless sleep. * * *

22 Andy Cloud’s selling techniques would receive a thumbs-down verdict from any business college or corporate office, yet he was an excellent salesman. Coining his primary sales persona, Impatient Nerd, he shifted feet and rolled eyes behind his thick lenses. He made the customer feel like an elementary school child humored by a stern librarian. To the buyer’s doubts, he sighed, to technical inquiries, he shrugged and frowned, all the while communicating that he was the expert who needed to be heeded to without diffidence. He used his overweight and bespectacled look to earn customer trust. He must know what he’s talking about, they’d think, as it’s obvious by his attire and demeanor that he has no life. Aware of their thoughts, Andy would shrug. Wanna think I’m pathetic, go ahead, I promise not to sue. And when you walk out of here, leaving your money in my pocket, we can both feel good about ourselves. Andy proved his diversity when the prevalent Impatient Nerd was sometimes laced with Chummy Buddy, appropriate for young men, and Sensitive Intellectual, when selling mainly to women. Truth be told, Andy was an expert on all things electronic. The customers walked away with the right product at a fair price, which was paramount to why his store thrived amid the onslaught of mega-malls and internet shopping.

It’s 8:45 when Andy parks his car behind his store. He takes two hits from his pipe and sits in the car until his mind settles. Then he unlocks the store door, turns off the alarm, and flips over the Closed sign. The banner above the entrance reads, If you didn’t buy at Andy’s you paid too much.

23 Unperturbed whether one customer or fifty will grace his store that day, Andy turns on a Panasonic plasma TV and flips between CNN, MSNBC, and C-SPAN. World news is filled with violence and strife, stupidity and greed, genocide and fundamentalist fervor. In the two hours he communes with the world on a flat screen, only one customer walks through the door and buys two boxes of Maxell CD-RW. Another hour passes while Andy surfs the internet, before he eats his turkey-cheese sandwich.

Finished with his austere lunch, Andy pours over computer manuals, eyes scanning pages, mind filled with data. He’s in pursuit of chaining four big computers— many times the computing power it took to land a man on the moon. He’s named his effort The Godzilla Project, in memory of The Manhattan Project—the one responsible for mushroom clouds over Japan. Andy’s concentration wavers when a young and well groomed Latino couple walks in. Sitting in front of an open computer, circuit boards littering the table, Andy knows he looks impressive. The man looks over the shelf showcasing HDTV. Andy says, “You’re probably thinking of gettin a 19-inch Sharp for 399.99, but I can tell you’re serious about quality. I highly recommend going with the Element 32inch. It’s on sale for 539.99, better deal than you’ll get at Circuit City.” “How’d you know we’re looking for HDTV?” the young man asks. Andy sees the Lexus parked outside and decides the man could never afford one, probably a car salesman who borrowed one off the lot on his lunch break. Chummy Buddy points to the Lexus and says, “Would you put your client in a Camry if you thought he should drive this?”

24 The man says to the woman. “This dude’s good.” The woman shrugs and continues to browse the cell phone display while Andy surfs to Circuit City.com and opens the page listing HDTV. “Have a seat and compare,” he tells the man. The man sits at the computer and scrolls down the page. Andy points to the Element advertised on the Web site. “See? I beat their price.” “Only by ten bucks.” “Ten bucks is a twelve-pack of Dos Equis. And Circuit City charges tax. Pay me cash and forget about the tax.” The man laughs. “You’re good. You should sell cars.” Andy chuckles. “Funny you should say that. I’ll be in the market for a new car in about three months. Leave me your card. You bought from me, I’ll buy from you.” The sale is in past tense—the decision had been made. Ten minutes later the man walks out with his new Element 32-inch HDTV. Satisfied with his performance, Andy returns to study The Godzilla Project. * * *

25

Chapter Three

He and Victor are sitting at the bar counter at the Pink Elephant. Behind them a rowdy tag-team pool game rumbles on. Aussie Sue, the blonde cocktail waitress comes up to the bar-station and orders three kamikaze’s. Steve, the mustached and heavily tattooed bartender, tries to look cool twirling a bottle of vodka, but drops the bottle onto the rubbery-surfaced floor. Aussie Sue laughs. “You’re such a klutz.” “Cheers,” Victor says and slams a shot of tequila and bites on a slice of lime. “Cheers,” he says and drinks the cacti juice. He puckers his lips as the lime settles the tequila’s bitter aftertaste. Pleasant warmth spreads to his limbs. He sips from his beer, smiles at Victor and proudly says, “I got six years of sobriety under my belt tonight—January 18 2002 is when I had my last drink.” “That’s awesome,” Victor says. “I don’t know how you do it. I gotta have a drink every day.” “You have to admit you’re an alcoholic,” he says and sips beer. Victor shrugs. “Guilty as charged. Wanna do another shot?” “Absolutely.” Victor signals Steve to pour tequila into their shot glasses. “He’s celebrating six years of sobriety tonight,” Victor tells the bartender. Steve’s eyes widen. “That’s amazing.” He turns to the heavy bell hanging over the liquor shelves and rings it with vigor. The patrons cease reveling. “Six years of sobriety,” Steve yells and points to him.

26 He lifted the tequila shotglass, bows comically to the cheering crowd, and drinks. The fiery brew swirls his stomach. His brain lights up in jagged rainbows. Aussie Sue walks up to him and plants a wet kiss on his lips. “I’m so proud of you.”

Gil startles awake. He’s lying sweaty in his bed. The clock-radio says 3:18 in the morning. Surrounded by silent darkness, Gil swallows and tastes the tequila and lime in his throat. Fear grips his stomach: the fear of the desire to drink. Sobriety had become more difficult than usual to deal with lately. Though in shock when Rachel left, he dealt with that shock well. AA’s Twelve Steps had clear guidelines for crisis modes: don’t blame yourself. You’re not a bad person. Don’t blame Rachel. She’s only doing what she needs to do. Relax. The answers will come. Accept your lack of control and surrender to a Higher Power, a kind-hearted one leading you to Clarity. He did all that and more—daily jogs, vitamins, massage, heavy workload, even acupuncture—all the while fighting off the snarling wolf and its saliva-dripping jaws. Every day that Rachel stayed away, every week that passed without a phone call, every emotionless, ambiguous postcard he received, pushed him closer toward the comfort found in clear amber liquid swirling in a snifter. Single Malt Whisky, Glenfiddich, had been his choice companion, a sophisticated brew for high-minded imbibers. Fancy bottle in emerald green, golden label with flowery letters, and a clean, friendly scent, assured that drinking was good. He joined the

27 esteemed company of a million well-to-do people—business moguls, entertainers, even princes and Lords, who smiled with confidence from magazine advertisements. Gil pictured British explorers in the heart of Africa: khaki uniforms pressed meticulously in spite of the murderous heat and humidity, curly mustaches manicured, steely-blue eyes assuring self-discipline. “Have a drink, ol’ chap,” they’d say. And he would. The first drink made him feel like a new man, and that man wanted a drink….

Gil lies rigid in the dark unsure what to do next. Sleep will not return; reading requires concentration he does not have; jogging in the middle of the night arouses suspicion; the liquor stores open at six, but that doesn’t matter cause he ain’t going there. He settles on watching TV in the living room—the movie Braveheart, starring Mel Gibson as William Wallace, who formed the independence movement that liberated Scotland from England. Gil saw that movie with Rachel. She cried during the final scene, when Wallace is beheaded and envisions his dead wife calling him from the afterlife. Rachel clasped his hand and cried, and he was honored—a quasi-knight-in-shining-armor—to comfort her. When the movie ended, before the lights came on in the theater, Rachel kissed him, lips softer than ever, salty tears mixing with lilac perfume. The memory shrinks his heart. Dawn—a baby’s innocent smile—seeps through the blinds. Gil sits at his desk and looks out the window. Gray gives way to silver and white, light, emeralds of dew sparkle in the grass.

28 Gil turns on his computer. The cyber eye blinks, ready to sweep the depths of galaxies in search of comforting answers—millennium-old riddles waiting to be solved, resolved, regurgitated, and spit out when one answer gives birth to ten new questions. An email from Rachel waits in his in-box. She’d sent only four over the time she’d been gone. Gil drums his fingers on the desk, unsure if he needs to, wants to open the email. The email reads: I’m sorry. Gil sighs and slumps in his chair. Sorry about what? Me? Us? The worldview seen by a fly perched on humanity’s walls? Rachel’s pain is his pain, for such is the destiny of Love, for one to navigate the other through swells of confusion and sadness. But how can he do so? Rachel will not call. She never acknowledged receiving his emails, which he sent daily for three months. His correspondence vanished into the abyss of the cyber wastebasket.

At seven in the morning, he vacillates between jogging, brewing a pot of coffee, or returning to bed. He decides on the latter, when Andy, wearing a black bathrobe, walks in the living room. “You’re up early,” Andy says. “I had a nightmare that I started drinking again.” “No shit. Have you had that happen before?” “Not in years.” “What do you think it means?” Andy asks and sits on the couch across from Gil’s desk.

29 Gil chuckles wearily. “What do you think it means?” “That you miss her.” “You’re a perceptive man, Andy Cloud.” The computer geek runs chubby fingers through frizzy gray hair. “Maybe smoke weed before you go to bed.” Gil frowns. “Weed makes it worse. Sends my brain into overdrive.” Andy fixes his eyes on Gil—one of two people on the planet whom he cares about. He believes that if other people behaved like Gil, the world would be a better place. Andy never loved a woman like Gil loves Rachel, and thinks his roommate should “Let’er go. Snap out of it,” but to say that would be callous and condescending, so he shrugs and says, “Time heals all wounds.” Gil nods. “I hope so,” and wonders if the empty pit in his heart could be filled with emotional substitutes—work, books, exercise, another woman, world travel. The thought alone exhausts him. He yawns. “I’m gonna crash.” Andy nods. “Take care. Maybe we can go see a movie tonight.” “Maybe,” Gil says and staggers out of the living room. He lies in bed and quickly falls asleep—a wounded animal. * * *

Andy remains sitting on the couch in the living room. He yawns and massages his pudgy cheeks and mourns another night of restless sleep and vivid dreams. He’d been

30 able to forget the dreams when daylight and busy-ness took over, but lately the dreams of childhood remained with him throughout the day, to insist he’ll never outdistance, outrun the frightened child cowering in the corner of his room while his mother lets loose with venomous hysteria. One dream repeats itself more than others: “You’re driving me mad,” his mother shrieks and pulls on her stringy hair. Dressed in a crumpled, flowery dress, her eyes are red from crying and lack of sleep. “I’m sorry, mommy,” the eight-year-old boy whimpers. “I told you to take out the garbage last night, but you forgot. Now the kitchen stinks and cockroaches will come to eat our food. Maybe even rats. Do you want us to have rats running around the kitchen?” She’s standing over him, wagging a forefinger; the pink lacquer on her fingernail is chipped and faded. “No, mommy. I’m sorry.” “Sorry isn’t good enough.” His mother’s feet rise off the floor. She floats to the kitchen and returns holding the garbage can. She lifts the can and dumps the garbage over her head. Rancid meat, rotten vegetables, clumpy milk, shattered eggshells joined by hundreds of cockroaches come pouring on to his bedroom carpet, while his mother cackles, hair matted with soured tuna. The roaches scatter to the room’s corners, under the bed, the dresser, while he curls up in paralyzing fear. “Clean it up!” his mother roars, incisors long and sharp as a lion’s. She floats out of his bedroom. He runs after her. “Don’t go mommy.”

31 She locks herself in the bathroom. “You don’t love me,” she screams and bangs her head against the bathroom door. “You don’t love me.” Bang! Bang! her forehead rattles against the door. “I love you mommy,” he pleads when a crimson trail oozes from under the door. He grabs onto the door handle and tries to jar the locked door. Blood stains his bare feet. He rises on his toes, but the blood rises with him, he can’t breath, he’s dying. The blood sucks him in like quicksand. His feet dissolve into sticky, swampy red liquid….

Andy mutters, “Fuck!” He returns to his room and smokes a few hits from his pipe. The pot calms him, separates him from the woman in his dreams, the woman dead thirty years who cuts through time’s abyss and dominates the little boy hiding in middle-age. Andy lies on his bed and looks out the window: the willow tree’s supple branches sag to the ground; blue skies peek through the leaves; a vocal blue jay flies about in search of worms; drops of dew trickle down the rain gutter; one drop clings to the metal and swells; a sunray lights up the shimmering drop. His gaze wanders over bare bedroom walls to the open closet and the pile of crumpled clothes, to the stacks of dusty technical magazines under a dusty desk, to the brown carpet he hadn’t vacuumed in months, to the bathroom’s stained linoleum floor and the counter sticky with toothpaste and soap scum. Andy lies on his side, curls his legs up to his chest and sucks his thumb. He’d long forgiven the insane woman who committed suicide decades ago. Engulfed by her madness, she swallowed dozens of valium, washed down the pills with a quart of whiskey, and drowned herself in the bathtub.

32 Andy, then fifteen years old, returned from the grocery store to find her naked body submerged in the bathtub, bluish face frozen with her last breath, eyes bulging with a final stare of defiance. His knees shaking, he stared in disbelief, heart cluttered with love anger and relief. Throughout his childhood he’d become like the hostage who, though treated cruelly by his captor, yearned to be acknowledged even if in sadistic ways, preferring that to being ignored, which was how an indifferent world treated him from that day on. But there are islands of kindness in the ocean of callousness, and Gil was such an island for Andy, who occasionally shared his wretched past with his roommate, times when Gil ceased what he was doing, entwined his fingers, tapped his thumbs, and gave Andy undivided attention. Lately though, it appeared that Gil was the one lost in memories. His soul had cracked, suffered a blow Andy recognized in his own existence, a blow he wanted Gil to overcome but also enjoyed in perverse ways, as it had the potential to cement their friendship in a common cause.

Patchy clouds in pinkish gray and a light breeze greet Andy as he leaves for work. For a moment, his soul quiets, eased by the seemingly sane universal order of seasons and elements, constellations and galaxies, mothers and babies, of invisible waves harnessed from thin air to accommodate the human race in its pursuit of happiness. As always, Andy drives at precisely 33 miles per hour—the speed needed to flow with the green wave dictated by the stoplights. How careful man is in setting up green

33 waves, and how uncaring he is for the sufferings of his neighbor. So thinks Andy as he parks his car in the back of his store. * * *

Victor wakes up with stabbing pain in the back of his neck. His mouth is dry and smells foul; his stomach is queasy. The light pouring from the open window assaults his eyes; the gregarious blue jay’s squawks hurt his ears. The twelve-pack he drank the day before, compounded by half a bottle of Jack Daniels and two packs of cigarettes, light up pulsating agony in his forty-seven-year-old body. He stumbles to the refrigerator and drinks two glasses of cold water with alka-seltzer before returning to bed and waiting for the medication to kick in. He recalls the embarrassing spectacle of Vanessa sitting on his face, sweet womanly juices dripping down his cheeks. A belligerent fool, he’d stomped away from his most lucrative contract in years, maybe ever. He let his wounded pride cloud his judgment, let his past mistakes loom large, exacting yet another toll from his future. The antacid relaxes his muscles; the pounding at the center of his skull subsides. Victor falls asleep. He’s standing at the tip of the Grand Canyon. Beth and Megan are beside him. The five-year old girl raises her arms to mimic wings. “I want to fly to the bottom,” she cries and points to the riverbed thousands of feet below. “We can’t fly on our own,” Beth says, “but there are helicopters that fly above the canyon.” Megan’s eyes light up. “Helicopter?” “Forget about it,” he says. “It’s hundreds of dollars we don’t have.”

34 Tears gather in Megan’s eyes. “I want to helicopter.” “I want to a lot of things,” he says impatiently. “No reason to raise your voice at the child,” Beth says. He tries to contain himself. “She needs to learn that not everything is a given.” Beth narrows her eyes. “I know adults who still think they deserve everything.” He’s convinced she means him, so barbs back, “And I know adults who think they’re always right about everything, including how to parent a child.” “I know one like that,” Beth says. “He smokes and drinks in front of his child. Says that second hand smoke is hype.” He clenches his teeth. “And I know a woman who can’t control her temper and starts screaming at her husband in front of their young, impressionable daughter.” Beth crosses her arms over her chest. “Maybe that’s a good thing, so she’ll know better and not have to deal with an alcoholic when she gets married.” He snorts. “When you’re done with her, she’ll hate all men and become a dyke.” “Better she date a responsible woman than a loser of a man,” Beth shoots back. He leans into her and whispers, “Why don’t you wear a strap on and go fuck some guy in the ass. It’s what you really want to do, don’t you?” “Maybe if your father was castrated, I wouldn’t have to deal with you,” Beth says, then turns to Megan. “Come, sweetie, let’s go back to the room. Your daddy’s gonna go get drunk.” He’s about to slap Beth across her face, when Megan says, “I wanna be a bird.” She spreads out her tiny arms, runs to the canyon ledge, and dives off. “Megan!” he screams and waves his arms. “No!”

35

Victor’s waving arms strike the lamp on the nightstand by his bed. The lamp crashes to the floor; the bulb shatters. His heart beats quickly and loudly. He tries to catch his breath; his chest hurts. “She’s not dead, she’s not dead,” he mutters. “It’s just a stupid dream.” Victor eats a banana and calms his upset stomach, then smokes a cigarette while staring at the walls and thinking about his daughter. Megan is seventeen, and he hasn’t seen her in fifteen years. Beth made sure he wouldn’t, and he was tired of fighting, so he walked away—another nail in his coffin of bad choices. The phone rings. He doesn’t want to answer but does anyway. “Hey mate, you done with your diva antics?” says Rick Perry. Victor sits up on his bed and tries to clear his mind. “I’m really sorry. I was totally outta line.” He can’t believe the DJ’s calling him after his outburst. “That’s an understatement. A beautiful babe blows ya and that’s the thanks I get?” “I’m sure you meant well. It’s not you, it’s me.” Perry laughs. “You sound like a bird breakin’ up with her bloke. Ready to get your bum over here and do the job?” Victor stands up. “I’d really appreciate another chance to do that.” “Fair enough,” the DJ says, “but on one condition. You have a beer with me, just me, no girls, and you tell me why you took off.” “I can tell you now if you want.” “Jolly good then. Why?” “I was jealous of you, ‘cause Vanessa did me only because you told her to.”

36 After a short pause Perry says. “You’ve lost your marbles. Vanessa’s a big girl. She’s a groupie, that’s true, and a bit of a cokehead, but she’s not a whore. If she didn’t want to suck your dick, nothing I could’ve done or said to force her to.” Victor frowns at the phone receiver. “She ran off and didn’t even look at me.” “So?” “She thought I was old. She’d never give me the time if I met her in a club.” “For Christ’s sake, mate. The girl’s nineteen. Ever consider she’s shy? You’re treating her like she’s a pro. She’s actually a fulltime pre-med student.” Victor’s brow sizzles with renewed embarrassment. “I totally read it wrong,” he finally says. It occurs to him that his daughter, Megan, is only two years younger than the pretty Latina. The thought sends fearful tremors down his spine. “No shit!” Perry says. “I promise to make up for my fuck up,” Victor says. “You’ll have a first-rate yard when I’m done.” “I know that. That’s why I called your sorry ass. I’m not here to play shrink. I’ve seen your portfolio. You have a good touch, artistic. I know talent, don’t make five million a year cause I’m a fool.” The staggering sum strikes Victor like a whiplash. Envy crowds his heart, but this time he swallows his response, tucks it deep under his diaphragm. “You deserve it,” he says. “You have a good show.” Perry laughs. “Deserve five million? Me? No fuckin way, mate. I grew up on the east end of London. Fuckin smokestacks and hoodlums. All I do is talk into a fuckin microphone. Nobody deserves this kind of cash to talk. I got lucky. Stupid Americans

37 think I’m cool cause I talk Cockney. I’m a lucky bastard. Hell, there’re people out there, like you, who work a full day rain or shine and live in a converted garage.” Victor is speechless. He desperately wants to please the fair-skinned British man with the clammy handshake. Finally he says, “I’ll be there by noon. I’ll make a list of materials and plants, and have everything ready to go by nightfall.” “Carry on, then,” Perry says and hangs up. * * *

38

Chapter Four

Gil wakes up at ten in the morning and doesn’t want to leave his bed, doesn’t want to edit another article about crossbreeding roses or how much bat guano mixes in a square-foot of earth. The desire to drink dominates his mind. He knows that when he gets up, he has two options: go to the liquor store or attend an AA meeting. In the meanwhile, he ducks under the quilt and recalls the Hawaiian vacation Rachel and he took a few months before they decided to try to conceive. They booked the typical vacation—seven days, six nights, double occupancy, continental breakfast and flights included—and stayed at the Maui Sheraton, perched on the shore of a tranquil bay. Neither had been to the islands, and both were enamored with the turquoise water and white, fine-grained sand, with the tropical fruits and the silent, colorful aqua-world seen through a snorkeling mask. They spent lazy mornings lying in the sand watching the calm Pacific waters melt into a cloudless horizon. Around noon, they’d return to their room and make love, licking the salty residue off each other’s tan bodies. Rachel was insatiable. “Swimming in the ocean makes me so horny,” she panted. Under the quilt, Gil shudders thinking about Rachel’s body: the deep tan lines circling her ass and breasts, how she straddled him and moaned, eyes shut with rapture, long hair cascading to tickle his chest. Unable to contain the memory to his mind alone, Gil pleases himself.

39

Then he feels lonelier. The moment of pleasure highlights his distress, deepens his desire to get belligerently drunk so he can give Rachel the finger and say, “Fuck you, Bitch.” He wants to drown his sadness in liquor, but fears the morning after—the helplessness that accompanies the tired brain and weakened body. He recalls the last time he got drunk.

That happened in Veil Colorado, high in the Rockies, when he was visiting his friend John. They sat in a bar/restaurant with large windows overlooking the snowy peaks. A band was playing classic rock; young women in tight ski outfits came and went. John cautioned him that, at 10,000 feet, where the air is thin, an alcoholic drink is equivalent to two consumed at sea level, but he scoffed at the warning and drank eight tequila shots and six beers. For the only time in his illustrious drinking career, he blacked out, couldn’t remember how he got back to his hotel room. He woke up with a headache unlike any he’d had before— knives rattled inside his skull. He willed his shaky body across the street, to a massage/sauna establishment where a fit woman in her fifties exerted cries of pain from him when she dug her knuckles and elbows into his knotted back and shoulders. “You’re tight as a drum,” she said. “I drank too much last night.” “You need to be careful with the elevation and alcohol.” He groaned. “Tell me about it.”

40 “You need protein,” the masseuse said and recommended the steakhouse across the street. Still shaky, he sat at a table in the restaurant and ordered a steak. He wasn’t going to drink, but the house beer on tap sparked in clear amber, so he ordered a pint. A hair of the dog. He was about to sip from the mug when the entrance door opened and the masseuse walked in. He never forgot the look she gave him—pity, contempt, revulsion, bewilderment, anger—they all dwelt in her gray eyes. His shoulders shriveled. He grinned and clumsily raised the mug, but he didn’t drink from it, rather, he set it back on the table. The masseuse shook her head slightly and walked to the other side of the restaurant—away from him. He stared at the mug and knew in ways he could not yet comprehend, that he was done with drinking. He pushed the mug to the corner of the table. Leaving the restaurant, he was compelled to walk up to the masseuse and say, “I’m done with drinking, I swear.” “If you say so.” Her voice was thick with doubt. “Really, I am.” “I’d appreciate it if you left me to enjoy my salad,” she said, eyes downcast. His proverbial tail drooped, he shuffled out. That was on January 18 2002. He hadn’t taken a drink since that day.

Gil’s palms sweat as his heart quickens. Fearing his thoughts, he seeks the comfort found in scrambled eggs and toast. He puts on a bathrobe and walks to the kitchen.

41 Victor is sitting at the dining table eating cereal and sipping coffee. His eyes are bloodshot and his forehead wrinkles appear deeper than Gil recalls. “Hey Gil,” Victor says. “Hey Vic,” he says and sets the frying pan on the stove. “How come you’re not at work?” Victor shrugs. “Long story, but I’m leaving in a few minutes.” Jealousy tugs on Gil’s heart: Victor gets to drink while he cannot. “Looks like you partied hard last night,” he says, condescension buried deep in his voice, the masseuse’s gray eyes boring through the fog of years. Victor nods. “Too hard.” “I’m going to a meeting,” Gil says. “Wanna tag along?” “I have to go to work. Maybe some other time.” Gil cracks two eggs into the frying pan. “To each his own.” After a cumbersome silence, the eggs sizzling in the background, Gil says, “I had a dream that you and I were drinking together.” Victor raises his arms slightly. “I don’t want to feel guilty about my drinking and your sobriety clashing.” “Then don’t.” Victor points to the refrigerator. “I don’t keep beer in there, and I never walk in the house with a drink. But the cave is mine to drink in.” Gil pours the scrambled eggs from the frying pan onto a plate. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I’m dumping on you.”

42 Victor gathers his plate and stands up. “Lemme take you to see Hanna. She’ll massage Rachel right out of you.” Gil places his plate on the table and sits down. “It sounds crass when you imply that a massage with a happy ending is what I need to get over Rachel.” Victor nods. “Maybe Hanna can jump start your love life.” “Not interested. Sorry.” “To each his own,” Victor replies with Gil’s mantra. “I’ll see you tonight.” “Have a nice day,” Gil says, slight terseness about him.

The noon meeting of AA consists of three other people—two old men who haven’t taken a drink in decades yet sill carry the disheveled look they’d earned through countless bottles of cheap wine, and a long-haired and tattooed biker in his thirties who says he’s attending after falling off the wagon and spending a week in jail for driving drunk. The meeting is lackluster, peppered with the same tired stories of fighting genetics and child abuse, of resigning oneself to a higher power, of various supplements that lessen the desire to imbibe. But when the meeting adjourns an hour later with the Serenity prayer: “God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, courage to change the things we can, and wisdom to know the difference,” Gil doesn’t want to drink. He is heavy-hearted and tired, but drives down to the Washington Boulevard pier, where he jogs along the shoreline until his ankles threaten to crumble. This time the exercise helps. He’s able to channel his anger and disappointment, able to tell himself that he’d loved Rachel as much as he could.

43 “It’s out of your hands, buddy,” he mutters while sitting on the beach and watching surfers brave eight-foot swells. He stops to eat curry at the Thai restaurant on the corner of Venice and Beethoven, and returns home, to 2420 Ruby Lane, where he surfs the net and buys three used books from Amazon. One of them, Love in the Time of Cholera, is Rachel’s favorite book—the story of Florentino Ariza, a man who waits fifty-four years to unite with Fermina Daza, the love of his youth. Gil’s glad that Rachel and he never got to see the movie on their first date. They ended up holding hands and walking the ocean shoreline and kissing on the pier. * * *

Andy sits in his brown swivel chair behind the counter in his electronics store and watches the news. Barack Obama has won the South Carolina Democratic Primaries, handily beating Hilary Clinton’s political machine. Andy’s both in awe and repulsed by the candidates. In awe of their amazing physical stamina—how they go for months with meager sleep, flying to all corners of the country, giving six speeches a day, shaking hands, kissing babies—and repulsed by the assuring promises they can never fulfill, demeaning their rivals, accepting donations from corporations and lobbyists, and insisting, be they Republican or Democrat, they would continue supporting the powerhungry military-industrial complex. Andy has affinity for the black candidate with the Kenyan father and Kansian mother, who touts a tolerant and racially even-handed demeanor. He loves the poetic justice in the Obama-Osama rhyme, not to mention the middle name, Hussein—the

44 embodiment of evil in the eyes of W and his cronies. He’s taken the time to find out that Barack means lightning in Hebrew, and enjoys the confluence of a Christian African American with a Hebrew first name and an Arab middle name: Audacious Hope rings in the cosmopolitan ramifications. Nonetheless, Andy believes that even if the affable and brilliant candidate wins the general election, there’d be little he could do about repairing the damage done.

He recalls Alan Weisman, a highly respected award-winning journalist, who’d published a book called The World Without Us, about how a million babies join the world’s population every four days, how the human race will soon number ten billion, and how a species multiplies until it outstrips its resources and is left to die off by war, famine, and disease. The only way to avoid such calamity, Alan Weisman says, is to emulate the Chinese model and institute a one-child-per-couple policy worldwide. The solution appears dogmatic, he admits, an Orwellian Big Brother approach, but he insists that no other option exists. “I’m partial to Homo-sapiens,” he concludes. “I want us to survive.”

Andy believes the human race is headed for extinction. He agrees with Alan Weisman about the tragic state of the world, but knows that no credible candidate would ever discuss such issues in depth and with critical thinking. They’d never be elected. He wonders how the US continues to operate—a jittery house of cards susceptible to the slightest breeze.

45 The whirlpool of Andy’s circular thoughts is disrupted when Seymour Duncan, one of his better customers, walks in. A rail-thin, hook-nosed man with droopy brown eyes, Seymour had earned Andy’s respect with his technical savvy and high-end spending. He always carried an unusual-looking attaché case, with a dozen or so brown and silver diamond-shapes laminated in plastic covering its exterior. “Hi there,” Andy says, glad for human company. “How’s it going?” “Not so good,” Seymour says raspily. He’s pale. Sweat dots his furrowed brow. “I was driving over here when I started feeling sick. I ate sushi about an hour ago. I think it was bad.” Andy squints. “Ooh…that sounds nasty. Want me to call an ambulance?” Seymour doubles over and groans. He sets his attaché on the floor by the counter and looks imploringly at Andy. “Can I use your bathroom?” “Of course. Please, take all the time you need. There’s bottled water under the sink. You need to drink lots of water to flush out the poison.” Seymour says nothing. In a crouching position, he staggers-wobbles to the bathroom on the other side of the store and shuts the door behind him. Andy lets out a low whistle. He wouldn’t be caught dead eating sushi. He put his faith in fast food—processed and cooked until not a single living cell remained. He’s about to return to sit in his swivel chair when the attaché case catches his eye. Intrigued by its unusual cover, his picks it up and places it on the counter. Curious how the laminated plastic bonds with the internal panel, Andy is weary of violating Seymour’s privacy but decides that an innocent observation of attaché craftsmanship is acceptable. After all, he thinks, what his client doesn’t know won’t hurt him.

46 Andy clicks open the latches. The attaché isn’t locked. It is filled with documents. Andy glances at the top page. The words, secret, Federal Bureau of Investigation, classified, interrogation, GTMO, dance before his eyes. His hands shake; the back of his skull tingles with hairs no longer there. He shuts the attaché and stands frozen, blinking rapidly, arms dangling by his sides. He walks briskly to the bathroom and places his ear to the door. Muffled moans indicate that Seymour is incapacitated. Andy returns to the counter, clicks open the attaché and carefully, so not to obstruct their order, rummages through the documents. A man possessed, like a pirate who’d sailed the seven seas to finally stumble upon the treasure chest hidden deep in the sands of a desert island at the end of the earth, Andy is scribbling phone numbers, email addresses, and names of agents. A few short moments pass before Andy clicks shut the attaché case and places the page with the information in his back pocket. He wipes his sweaty brow with paper towels and hurries to the bathroom. His thighs shake like they’re buried in snow. He swallows the fear. “How’s it going Seymour,” he says casually. “Do I need to call the paramedics?” “I’ll be out in a minute,” the FBI agent says hoarsely. “You got any air freshener?” Andy forces a chuckle. “It’s that bad?” Seymour’s answer drowns in the sound of a flushing toilet. Andy retreats to the counter and is sitting in his swivel chair reading a cell phone catalogue when the bathroom door opens. Seymour’s complexion is yellowish and his eyes are bloodshot. “You don’t look so hot,” Andy says, trying to muster genuine concern. “Can you drive home?”

47 “I think so.” “Did you need to buy anything? You can pay some other time.” “No matter. I’ll come back when I feel better.” “If you want, I’ll close the store and give you a ride,” Andy says, praying it won’t come to that. “No thanks,” Seymour says and takes hold of his attaché. Barely concealing the shaking in his thighs, Andy walks the sickly customer to the entrance and remains standing in the doorway while Seymour waves weakly and drives away. His feet seemingly off the ground, Andy floats to his car where he smokes several massive hits from his pipe. His internal shaking finally abated, he nods with satisfaction and says, “Time to get Comet into the loop, for I have struck the mother load. It’s payback time.” * * *

Victor returns to his cave at seven in the evening. In his wallet lay ten crisp $100 bills—the advance from Rick Perry. He’d spent the day buying materials for the landscaping job. It was all business, as he and the DJ set aside yesterday’s embarrassing events. “I’m throwing a barbeque tomorrow afternoon,” Perry said before Victor left for the day. “Take the day off and I’ll see you Monday morning.” Knowing he has the next day off, and comforted by the financial expanse in his wallet, Victor decides to dedicate the evening to alcohol and sex. On his way home, he

48 buys a twelve-pack, the memory on the hangover earlier that day no longer weighing on his heart. After he showers, Victor sits at his desk, turns on his laptop, pops open a beer, and surfs the ads on Craigslist erotic personals. Every ten minutes, another thirty or so new ads appear: Black, White, Latino, and Asian, barely legal, Milf’s, FBSM, Tantric Goddesses, Mistresses, GFE’s and PSE’s, the selection is staggering—a cyber whorehouse to eclipse any Red Light District that ever existed in the history of man’s pursuit of womanly treasures. NUBIAN PRINCESS smooth as silk and ready to get hot wet and wild, outcall, writes Sandra, a twenty-two-year-old. Her photo shows her on all four, generous behind exposed. HOT BAD GIRL. I’ve been very bad!!!! I’m ready 4 U right now!! advertises Kelly, a slender blonde with small breasts and a mischievous smile. Like a rat pushing the lever in quest of another grain of cocaine, so Victor clicks the mouse and sails the cyber ocean of flesh, when he finds the partner he hopes will join him on a lusty sojourn. 5’7, 118 lbs. and very sexy Asian girl… incall or outcall is OK. Please call me at 310/555/6636 (Only serious callers and… PLEASE *82 your blocked numbers) There’s no photo, but he trusts his instinct and calls. A feminine, lucid, well mannered voice answers. “Hi, this is Valen.”

49 “Hi Valen. I’m calling about your ad.” “Great. What’s your name?” “Victor.” “How victorious are you, Victor?” “I’ve had my share.” “Where do you live?” “Culver City.” “I can be out there in an hour. Do you want me to come over?” “How much is the donation?” “Donation…how about 200 for full service?” “Sounds good.” “I’m off the 101 in Hollywood. What’s your address?” Victor gives her directions and Valen says, “Call you when I’m close.”

Valen is indeed slender. Filipina, about thirty, her face obscured by dark curls dripping from a straw hat, her eyes are small and a bit puffy, but her body is nice. She’s driving a battered Toyota Hatchback, and is accompanied by a friendly brown pitbull. “Hi Victor, I’m Valen.” They shake hands, while the dog waters a tree. “Can Bruno come in? Please...” “I guess… ” “Here.” She hands Victor a bag of dog food. They enter the cave. Bruno jumps on the bed.

50 “Off my bed. Now! ” Victor shouts, but the dog ignores him. “You don’t need to yell,” Valen scolds and coos, “Come baby,” and pulls out a stuffed puppy from her bag. Bruno grabs it, finds a spot on the rug and lays content. Valen eyes the kitchenette. “I need to feed him.” “You can use this.” Victor hands her an old pot, and soon Bruno is crunching away. “He will need to poop when he’s done eating,” Valen informs. “Oh, so you’ll take him for a walk?” “Unless you don’t mind him going on the rug.” “You’re funny…” “Oh, you have a computer. Can I check my emails?” “Before or after you walk Bruno?” “You’re funny...” Valen sits at his desk; her fingers fly across the keyboard. She surfs while Bruno stands squealing impatiently by the door. “Coming Bruno, one more minute,” she says. “Valen, I don’t want him crapin’ on the rug!” Her squinty eyes narrow. “Fine!” Mistress and dog are out the door. Victor wonders if he should let them back in. He does. Valen hugs him. “Sorry, I’m a little spacey. You’re far from Hollywood. It took me an hour to get here.”

51 “Yeah, it’s kinda far.” “Victor…” she seems embarrassed. “Can I take a bath?” “Do you need a bath?” “If you want me all clean and smelling good, just for you.” “Pardon me asking, but aren’t you supposed to do that before you come?” She sighs. “I got evicted from the Motel 6 I was staying in. I’m sleeping in my car.” “With the dog?” “Bruno likes the car.” “…..okay….but all I have is a shower.” Her brow crunches. “Oh well.” She pecks him on the lips. Bag in tow, Valen enters in the bathroom and cries, “Victor!!” He rushes into the bathroom. “What’s wrong?” Hands on her hips, she’s standing by the shower. “I can’t take a shower in this! This is filthy! Do you ever clean it?” The shower stall and floor are grained with brown-black spots. Victor shrugs. “Sorry. No one showers here except me, and I don’t care.” “Do you have bleach?” “You’re going to clean the shower?” Valen rummages under the sink cabinet and brings out the Ajax. She examines the toilet brush and shakes her head. “That won’t do. I’ll be right back.” Valen goes to her car. A concerned Bruno perks his ears. “It’s okay. Mommy will be right back,” Victor says.

52 The dog takes solace in his words and curls up with his stuffed toy. Valen returns brandishing a heavy-bristled brush. “This should work.” “Valen, please don’t clean my shower.” “Don’t worry. It’ll only be a minute.” She enters the bathroom and starts to scrub and scrub. Victor comes to the bathroom door. Valen’s bending over. He can distinguish her heart-shaped behind and imagines its soft touch. “How’s it going?” he asks. “Good. I’ll be done soon.” Another ten minutes pass before he peeks in again. “Well?” “Done.” She stands up. The shower’s almost back to its original shine. “Wow. Thanks Valen. It looks great.” “Okay, now can I wash up?” He leaves the bathroom, and she closes the door. Ten minutes later, he knocks. “You okay in there?” “Fine.” “Okay. Take your time.” Finally, the door opens. Valen stands lazily leaning on the doorway. Wearing only red lace panties, her skin radiates smoothness. She has perky cupsize breasts. Her belly’s flat and her long, toned legs converge upon a promising triangle. “How old are you Valen?” “Twenty nine.”

53 “Your body is amazing. You have the breasts of a fifteen-year-old.” “Really? When’s the last time you saw fifteen-year-old breasts? Isn’t that illegal?” “You’re really sexy,” Victor says and gets under the covers. She joins him and purrs, “It’s cuddly in here.” “Yes it is!”

Victor and Valen engage in a long session of steamy frolicking.

Later, a foolish grin on his face, Victor lights a cigarette. “Can I smoke too?” she asks. He offers her one. “No. I got my own.” Valen walks to her purse, and brings out a Ziploc bag with a pipe, a mirror, and a bag with two small white rocks. “You’re gonna smoke this?” Victor cries. “It makes me feel so good.” “Valen! You’re smoking crack!” She rolls her eyes. “Please, don’t start.” Her fingers crush the rock on the mirror and devoutly load the pipe. She takes a huge hit. The smell is noxious. Victor opens the door to let the smoke cloud escape. “You want some?” she offers.

54 “Of course not!” He starts to lecture her about the evils of crack, but she tells him to can it. Victor is confused but also mesmerized. There she is—a stereotype, a crack whore, yet she’s really cool, and her skin, so young and soft. “How do you keep your skin so healthy?” he asks. “Victor…can I be honest with you?” “I hope so.” “I’m fifty-years-old.” “No you’re not!” “Wanna see my driver’s license?” His eyes caress her breasts. “Yes.” Valen is indeed fifty; an unsettling feeling comes over him. How can that be? Her face is a bit older, fingers a bit wrinkled, but neck down, she defies time. Valen takes another hit, then returns to bed and snuggles up to him. “I feel good. Ready to rock?” “Valen,” he says, “You blow my mind.” “Your pretty nice yourself, Victor. Have you ever had your prostate massaged?” “Say what?” Valen introduces Victor to a new and invigorating holistic ritual. He’s surprised by how comfortable he feels surrendering to her penetration. It’s a passive, feminine role he’d never imagined for himself—the crusty Marine, but

55 with Valen, completely at ease with her woman within, he feels safe. The orgasm is intense and his body tingles for long moments after. Valen stays for another two hours. They eat microwaved pizza. Bruno wakes up and greets them with sloppy licks. She hits the pipe, he gets drunk, and their bodies celebrate. Then Valen asks, “What time is it?” “Almost midnight.” “I need to go.” “Are you okay to drive?” “Sure.” Valen’s getting dressed. Bruno perks ears—mistress is on the move. “You can crash here, if you want.” Victor is sad to see her go. “Thanks. I’d like that, but I’m out.” Valen points to the empty mirror on my desk. “I need to score.” She holds his hand as they walk to her beat up hatchback. “Careful driving, Valen.” “I will. Call me soon, I had fun tonight.” She pecks his lips. “I did too.” They stand unsure what to do, like neither wants to part, that perhaps the soft emotions they feel transcend the financial transaction that had taken place, one strictly of the body. “Maybe you should stay?” Victor says.

56 Valen caresses his cheek. “I can’t, but you have to promise to call me soon.” “I will. You have my word.” “Good,” Valen says. This time they kiss deeply. Valen drives off, Bruno in the back seat looking at him through the back window. Victor returns to the cave. Perfection is sometimes found in the most unlikely places, and tonight he’d found just that in the arms of a fifty-year-old crack whore. Will he call on her again? He knows he will, as he drifts off, his thoughts, for once, removed from past failures, slim hope sprouting in his heart that maybe some good can still be salvaged from his chaotic life.

57

Chapter Five

A week had passed since Gil received Rachel’s apology e-mail. In pursuit of spiritual strength, he’d attended three more AA meetings and jogged daily, whether at the park or along the Pacific shoreline. No more emails or postcards arrived to unsettle his fragile equilibrium.

Gil is sitting at his desk and looks out the window, to the park across the street. The storm from the night before had passed; the air is chilly and fresh; streaks of pink clouds race across the sky; sunlight showers the benches circling the playground. Gil decides to sit on a bench, and continues reading Rachel’s favorite book. Only two toddlers chaperoned by latino nannies populate the playground. Turns out that the protagonist, Florentino Ariza, does indeed wait fifty-four years for his first love, Fermina Daza, to reciprocate his courtship, but that while the jilted lover waits, he’s also humping hundreds of women to pass the time. He lures them in selfdeprecating fashion, his ordinary looks serving as a trap. He’s also wealthy and lavishes gifts on his concubines. Numerous sexual exploits, however, do not dull his longing for the woman of his youth. Gil enjoys the brilliant prose, but he doubts the True Love alluded to by the Nobel Laureate. That love serves well for dramatic affect, but probably doesn’t exist, and

58 someone bedding hundreds of women while never committing to neither because he’s waiting to realize the elusive dream of his youth, is a lying manipulator unworthy of True Love.

“Reading a book. How quaint,” says a voice behind him. Gil looks up and sees a pretty brown-eyed woman in her late thirties, blondish hair in a ponytail. She’s dressed in baggy jeans and a gray sweatshirt somewhat obscuring the fact she’s a bit overweight; light freckles dot her small nose and upper cheeks. Beside her and holding her hand is a girl, about five, who looks much like her mother. Gil points to the nannies. “A girl accompanied by her mother, how quaint.” The woman laughs loudly and cups her mouth. She isn’t wearing a wedding ring. The girl runs off to climb the obstacle course. The mother joins Gil on the bench. “I’m Susan,” and reaches out her hand. “Gil,” he says, and shakes her hand—soft—he hasn’t touched a woman’s palm in six months. “May I?” Susan reaches for the book lying face up on the bench. “Please.” She reads the title and nods. “I love him. One Hundred Years of Solitude is a great book. I haven’t read this one.” “He wrote this one after One Hundred Years of Solitude. The writing is tight. He knows his voice so well.” Susan smiles—a dimple shows in her left cheek. “And he never took a class in,” she mirrors quotation marks and solemnly says, “creative writing.”

59 Gil laughs, doesn’t remember hearing himself laugh in some time. “You don’t believe in learning to write well?” “Can’t be taught,” she says with certainty. “Maybe learning can help a lousy writer become adequate, or an adequate writer become competent, but no one can teach great writing.” “Fighting words,” he says. She laughs. “I’m actually quoting Stephen King…a lousy writer.” Gil shakes his head. “He’s not a lousy writer. He’s a fine writer with a good imagination.” Her brown eyes—tint of fertile earth—widen. “I can’t believe you said that.” “If literature consisted on brilliance alone, we wouldn’t have too many books to read,” he says. Susan nods. “And your point is?” “Point is that many readers aren’t that bright either, and commercial literature exists for good reason. Anyway, I feel that reading a mediocre book is better than watching good TV.” Susan smiles. “I like that.” Gil points to the girl scaling a rope ladder. “And she is?” “She’s Naomi, the light of my life.” He nods. “A bright light she is.” The breeze floating his way carries the flowery scent of Susan’s perfume—a twinge of innocent erotica. “You’re good with words,” she says.

60 “I better be or I’d be lousy at my job.” Gil is relaxed and chatty. Confident that Susan likes him, he further fans his tail feathers. “I also teach college philosophy.” “Aren’t we the educated ones.” Susan folds her arms and looks toward her daughter. Sensing he’d boasted too much, Gil says, “Where’s Naomi’s dad, if I may ask.” “He sees her on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and every second weekend.” “Sounds civil enough.” “And you?” “Me? No strings attached.” He doesn’t know if he’s being honest. “How come?” Gil shrugs. “Can it wait till I know you better?” Susan tilts her head. “Are you gay?” He rolls his eyes. “Please…not that there’s anything wrong with being gay.” “How PC we are,” his new friend says. He points to 2420 Ruby Lane. “I live across the street.” “Wow! Great location.” With no thought, the words stream from his mouth, “Wanna come in for coffee?” Their eyes lock. Then Susan smiles. “I’d like that.” Gil’s heart skips a beat. “Cool.” He stands up. “I’ll go brew a pot. Come by when Naomi’s done playing.” Susan stands up. She’s about five-three, four inches shorter than he is. “See you in a bit.”

61 Gil watches Susan walk toward her daughter. Her behind is wider than Rachel’s, and her shoulders a bit stooped, but she’s attractive. His stomach knots with excitement. * * *

A week had passed since Seymour Duncan, the FBI operative, waddled his way to the bathroom in the throngs of a bacterial assault triggered by a slice of salmon that had languished in open air, but Andy Cloud has yet to do anything with the information he’d plagiarized from the agent’s attaché case. Twice daily, upon rising and before lights out, Andy reaches under his mattress and excavates the sheet of yellow paper scribbled with confidential, highly classified national security information. He stares at the seven names of the email addresses he’d copied, and tries to imagine what those people look like. James Norton—a wasp with a crewcut and beady blue eyes, frosty eyes that had witnessed death first hand. Julia Abrams—a tight-lipped Jewish neo-conservative, skinny to a fault, frizzy hair painfully squeezed in a bun. Brooke Adams—a sultry blonde, covert and deadly, who passionately beds her victims and then calmly slits their throats with razor-thin wire she wraps around their neck while they’re in deep post-orgasmic slumber. Jerry Wellington—on loan from the British MI-6, a slender, dark-haired fellow with a square jaw and a perpetual sneer. Gretchen Black—the scariest of all operatives, a butch-dyke and karate black-belt who thrives on humiliating men. Rounding up the list, aside from Seymour Duncan, is Orville Sanchez, a name Andy’s imagination struggles with. Is he Latino or Caucasian? Fat, thin, tall or short, no images attach to the name, which, in Andy’s mind, points to the man’s

62 stealthy qualities—an amorphous presence lurking at the darkest corners ready to pounce upon innocent victims. Andy justifies his inaction in the fact Seymour Duncan hadn’t returned to the store. He worries that he hadn’t worn gloves when he raided the attaché, leaving finger prints on the documents that could serve to incriminate him. Could he be fingered as a subversive element? A shadow would follow him wherever he went, waiting for Andy to fall into the trap. He’d be paraded as a homegrown terrorist who planned to harm the Homeland’s God-fearing and illustrious citizens. His face plastered across TV screens worldwide, he becomes a martyr to a small group of mavericks who follow in his footsteps. While he’s denied Habeas Corpus and rots in a secret FBI jail, the movement to liberate America from the stranglehold of sleazy corporations grows to fever pitch. And when the government is overthrown, Andy Cloud, much like Nelson Mandela, exits the prison gates to a hero’s welcome, a national treasure. The new leaders have his number on speed-dial, heck, he might even run for office. And one day, while addressing a rapturous crowd, he notices a man sitting in the front row, an old man with a round face and thick frames sheltering light-blue eyes. Something about the man is familiar in subliminal ways. When Andy, now Secretary of State, winds down his speech to a thunderous applause, the man stands up and shuffles toward him. Secret service agents move to block him when Andy orders, “Let him through.” He and the old man exchange curious glances. “How can I help you,” Andy says. “I am your father,” the old man says.

63 Tears cloud Andy’s eyes as he sits in the swivel chair behind the counter of his electronics store and imagines uniting with the father he’s never known.

With hope, however farfetched, comes renewed sense of self, bathing the days in gentler light. Refined purpose nourishes Andy’s responsibility toward his fellow man, even if such purpose calls for sabotage. Subversion, after all, isn’t there for destruction’s sake alone; it flourishes for the ideal—to build a better vision of humanity’s future. Andy finds himself walking taller and tucks in his belly. He passes attractive women on the street without feeling perversely incompetent. He eats lighter and even takes a few morning walks, akin to an athlete training for an important competition. Most of all, his sales pitch has never been better. A new persona has evolved, one combining Impatient Nerd with Chummy Buddy and Sensitive Intellectual to give birth to a salesman so articulate and intuitive, that an impartial observer would conclude that Andy was psychic—a mind reader. He refuses to take no for an answer, does so with great care and finesse, and has almost doubled his already impressive sales rate.

On the morning his friend Gil is meeting Susan in the park, Andy’s putting on the final touches on his Godzilla Project, when Seymour Duncan’s scrawny silhouette casts a shadow from the entrance. Having diligently rehearsed for the encounter by standing before his bathroom mirror, smiling politely and saying, “Look who’s back from the dead,” Andy executes his greeting flawlessly. He notes that Seymour’s demeanor is no different from usual— somewhat distracted and brooding, like a man preoccupied with eight different issues.

64 “I’m never eating sushi again,” mutters the FBI agent with the attaché case. “I’ve never tried sushi and don’t intend to,” Andy says. “Fire was invented for good reason: to cook the food.” “Smart man.” “I’ve been meaning to ask you. That attaché case of yours, what’s it cover made of?” “Rattlesnake skin.” Unprepared for the answer, Andy barks a laugh while his knees liquefy. “Shot’em myself on a trip to Arizona,” Seymour says with pride. “I’m flummoxed,” says Andy. “I never pictured you, a fellow technophobe, as the hunting type.” “There’s lots about me you don’t know.” “Oh? For instance?” Skirting his fingers over the flame excites Andy. “You don’t wanna know.” “Why?” “‘Cause then I’ll have to kill you,” Seymour says and laughs. “Just kidding.” Andy suddenly needs to pee. “You’re a riot,” he manages. “What can I do you for today?” “The La Crosse Moon Phase,” Seymour says and points to the rectangular alarm clock set inside the counter’s glass display. “Good choice,” Andy says, almost breathless. He reaches into the display box and brings out the clock. “On the house, in appreciation of your excellent patronage.” “Really? Thanks!”

65 The grateful look in Seymour’s eyes convinces Andy that the FBI agent isn’t suspicious of anything concerning the storeowner standing before him. The shaking in his knees tapers off somewhat, but his bladder still screams for relief. “You’re most welcome,” he says and pats his nemesis on the shoulder. “You’ll have to excuse me, nature calls.” He points to the infamous bathroom. “Catch you later, Andy,” the rattlesnake hunter says and, attaché in one hand, digital clock in the other, saunters out of the store. Andy rushes to the bathroom. Standing over the toilet bowl and relieving himself, he whispers, “Tonight, I call Comet Livingston.” * * *

While Gil is meeting Susan in the park, and Andy’s offering Seymour a digital alarm clock free of charge, Victor is hard at work on Rick Perry’s estate. He’s spent the week showing up at eight in the morning and working until dusk. Perry has been away in Las Vegas for three days and is due back that late afternoon. While the DJ vacationed, only the housekeeper, Luciana—a stocky middle-aged Guatemalan woman who barely spoke English—remained on the estate grounds, and Victor came and went as he pleased without distractions of drugs, alcohol, or naked groupies. He enjoyed the solitude and worked diligently to make sure that when Perry returned, the improvement of the grounds would be evident and striking—new grass seeded, rosebushes planted, apple and citrus saplings lining the circular driveway, the partially completed reddish flagstone path leading from the house toward the center of the front yard, to where the centerpiece—a ten-foot tall volcano-shaped fountain—is yet to be constructed.

66

Thus, on Friday afternoon, Victor is working next to a wheelbarrow filled with wet cement, and is laying square and triangular slabs of rock, when the master of the house zips up the driveway in his red convertible Alfa Romeo Spider. He walks up to Victor. “I like it,” he says with a smile and smacks the landscaper across the shoulder. Victor smiles proudly. “Thanks. It’s coming along.” The British celebrity cocks his thumb and forefinger and fires a shot. “You’re coming in the house to have a beer with me.” He laughs. “No naked girls hiding in the pantry.” Victor chuckles nervously. “A beer sounds good. Gimme ten minutes to finish laying the slabs while the concrete is wet.”

The kitchen is small, with an oak table at its center and stained glass windows funneling sunrays in green and orange. Victor sits at the table while Perry brings out two Guinness Stout from the refrigerator. “I tell you, mate,” he says while offering Victor a beer and sitting in the chair across from him, “when you’re rich, money comes to you. I go to Vegas to party, to gamble. I set aside ten grand, figure to lose. Fuckin Vegas doesn’t exist cause people win, now does it? But blow me down, on my first night I’m out eight grand when my luck changes and I win fifteen thousand on the roulette.” He swigs from his beer, burps, and says, “I get up from the table at three in the morning. I feel great, like I fuckin cheated god. Then I think: that’s how it starts. You win, get cocky, get sucked in, and before you

67 know it, you take it up the arse and lose everything.” He taps knuckles on the table three times. “So I decide I’m not going to gamble anymore. I cash in the chips and spend the rest of me time playing golf, going to the spa, dining in the best restaurants, and feeling bloody good spending the casino’s money.” He drinks the rest of the beer. “Moral of the story, Victor ol’ chum, is that if I had only five hundred or a thousand to lose, I wouldn’t have won. Money begets money. Another beer, mate?” “Only one more,” Victor says, enamored with Perry’s folksy demeanor. “And you? How’d you end up landscaping?” Victor shrugs. “Didn’t plan it. Kinda have the knack for it and don’t mind the work.” Perry hems, then says, “Tell me about your dad. Y’see, it all starts with the father.” “He died in a car crash when I was two.” Perry squints. “Bloody sad. Me pop’s my hero. Took me to West Ham United soccer matches, taught me how to fish.” He laughs. “Took me to a whorehouse when I turned sixteen. ‘Get it out of the way so you don’t wonder about it anymore,’ he’d said.” Perry laughs. “I didn’t tell him I’d been getting laid since I was fourteen. Didn’t want to ruin it for him.” “I had a stepfather, a real asshole,” Victor says, unsure he should bring up the subject. “What was it? The classic ‘you ain’t me flesh and blood so I’ll kick you around?’” Victor recalls the years of beatings he took from his stepfather while his mother stood frozen with terror. He’d rarely shared the subject before and finds the words hard to

68 come by. He suspects that Perry—a blue-collar hoodlum in his blood, would identify with the abused son and what he had done to render justice. He sips from his beer. “Can I smoke in the house?” “You smoke and I’ll do a line,” Perry says and brings out a glass bullet filled with cocaine. Victor lights up and drags deeply. His finger following the shimmering green light pebbles cast on the table’s surface from the stained glass windows, he says, “My stepfather was a construction worker, beefy guy and not too smart. He slapped me around when I was a kid, but when I became a teenager he started gettin’ rough, gave me a black eye, kicked me in the ribs. I was scared of him. I had an older buddy, a Marine. I told him what was going on. He started teaching me self-defense like they teach in the army. Three months he worked with me, and then said, ‘Now go kick his ass.’ I was sixteen. A few days later, I came home late. My stepfather waited for me, started yelling at me. I ignored him, so he got pissed, came at me with a punch. I ducked sideways, grabbed his wrist, and sent him flying head first into the wall. He collapsed like a sack of potatoes.” Victor drags from the cigarette. His voice rises. “He got up and came at me again. I kicked him in the groin, then I grabbed his hair and swung my knee into his face. Fuckin’ broke his nose like it was a tortilla chip. He didn’t get up. Blood fuckin’ everywhere. My mom came running from the bedroom. ‘Call an ambulance,’ I said and walked out of the house.” His voice calmer, Victor puts out the cigarette. “From that day, I’ve been on my own. Joined the Marines in 78, served in the Philippines, in Korea. Never saw action.” Perry’s eyes are wide with coked-out curiosity. “No shit. That’s heavy, mate.”

69 “I still think I did what I needed to do,” Victor says. “Bloody right you did. What about family? Wife, kids?” Victor fixes his gaze on the shimmering rainbows dancing on the dining room table. “I don’t wanna talk about it.” Perry nods. “Scars still raw. I understand. Didn’t mean to pry.” “And you?” Victor asks. “How’d you get here?” Perry pops open two beers, hands one to Victor. “Hell if I know. No planning on my part. I’m visiting San Francisco five years ago, meet this chick, cool chick, a little crazy like all American broads, but real smart. We go visit her friends in Missoula, Montana, wicked college town, hippies and rednecks living happily ever after. We decide to stay for the summer. One night I’m having a beer at the pub, telling me stories, when this guy says, ‘I run the college radio station. Come do an hour, tell stories, play what you like.’ So I do, and word gets out and my show starts streaming on the internet to other colleges, and one day, out of the fuckin’ blue, this bloke from LA calls, says he heard me stuff and wants me to come down to audition.” Perry throws up his arms. “And the rest, as we say, is history.” “We can’t plan our destiny,” Victor says. “I’ll snort to that,” the DJ says, and does. “Word of advice from someone slightly your elder, you should lay off the powder.” Victor says, the memory of Valen, the crack whore, tugging on his heart. “I do drugs, they don’t do me,” the cocky Cockney says. He reaches in his pants pocket and brings out a wad of one-hundred dollar bills. He peels off five of them and

70 hands them to Victor. “Here. A bonus. Me pop says that no harm comes to a rich man who spreads his wealth around.”

Chapter Six

71 Dear Gil, Amsterdam is both cosmopolitan and quaint. It’s a big city built on flat land. No hills at all. I rented a bicycle at the train station and have been cycling everywhere. Visited the Rembrandt House Museum. So many amazing paintings. Did you know he was a master in etchings? There’s one called The Three Trees, from 1643. Very brooding and ominous. Lots of places to buy hash but I haven’t taken advantage. The Dutch are polite, relaxed, and everyone speaks English. It’s a nice city to live in, though I’m not sure I would. I’m not sure about anything. Hope you are well. Love Rachel

Gil reads the postcard while drumming his fingers on his desk. For the first time since Rachel had left, he’s convinced himself that he doesn’t care where she is, how she feels, or if and when she’s coming back. Her presence has become like the postcard—twodimensional. His conviction is propelled by anger and contempt—emotions he finds effective in ending what has become, in his mind, an unbearable and pathetic farce. Rachel may have what she considers legitimate reasons for her actions, but that doesn’t mean he needs to continue absorbing her insecurity-laden punches. If Rachel truly loved him, she’d consider, at least partially, his emotions. For that is Love—to navigate one another through wicked swells on rough seas. His love for her, Gil decides, cannot remain a one-way street. That kind of love is fit for a pimply teenager suffering through his or her first crush, but for a middle-aged man to accept such insensitive, nay, toxic conduct from his mate, is unacceptable.

72 On their third date, he’d repeated his concern that Rachel would break his heart. She promised not to do so, but lied, pure and simple, choosing her pain over his love. She acted like a pouty little girl who couldn’t get another stuffed toy. Overnight she pulled the plug and sauntered off to exotic locals, leaving him to, day after depressing day, stare out the window while his heart dripped sorrow. He’s had enough! Consumed with revenge, he imagines the day Rachel returns from her travels and knocks on his door in quest of reconciliation. He’ll stare her down with gleeful compassion and shake his head. “It’s too late,” he’d say and shut the door, leaving her standing teary-eyed on his doorstep. Gil tosses the postcard into his desk’s drawer; with a slight rustle, it joins the pile of postcards already there. He wants to burn the postcards in a symbolic act of defiance, but cannot bring himself to do so. Instead, he writes Rachel a two-word email: Fuck U. His forefinger hovers over the mouse, like a man unsure if to pull the trigger, but then he clicks the mouse. The email drops into the vortex of cyberspace and disappears. He finds it ironic that Rachel’s postcard arrives on the day Susan and he plan to have lunch. Over the past week, they’d met at the park several times. He spent time with Naomi, a loving girl who hugged him without doubt, and he carried on stimulating and funny conversations with Susan, who signaled by occasionally touching his hand, that she desired him. He’d failed to mention anything concerning Rachel, or even the fact he loved another woman.

73 Today, Susan and he, for the first time without her daughter in tow, are to lunch at Roll&Rye, the Jewish delicatessen on Jefferson Boulevard. She’d declared her fetish for the Matzo ball soup, and he liked their corned beef sandwiches. Gil is excited and nervous about spending time alone with Susan. Her sarcastic and quick mind has challenged him with ideas Rachel had never offered. Then the postcard arrived and presented a double-edged sword: is Rachel’s correspondence a warning he should take his time, or is it proof of the futility in waiting?

The doorbell rings at noon. Susan is dressed in tight jeans, unlike the baggy pants she wore to the park. Her full lips are glossed with pink lipstick, a touch of rouge on her cheeks, a light stroke of mascara promotes her long eyelashes. Her cheekbones stand out and her brown eyes seem larger, sultry. She smells of sweet perfume Gil doesn’t recognize. “What perfume are you wearing?” he says while she walks by him and enters the house. Susan sits on the couch. “Christian Dior Hypnotic Poison. You like?” He chuckles. “I do. Who comes up with those names?” “Probably some queen in New York City.” “New York City?” he cries, and both say, “Get a rope.” Gil laughs. “Ready to go?” “No.” Her eyes are serious.

74 Erotic tension thickens the air. Gil’s heartbeat quickens. Susan stands up and reaches for his hand. “Come with me,” she says plainly, and aims for his bedroom. He follows quietly, his palm clammy and cold in her warm one. In the bedroom, Susan kisses him, gentle as a sea breeze, hot like a desert wind. His body, like a flower opening up to a spring shower after a frosty winter, drinks her sweet scent, her soft tongue. She pushes him to sit on the bed. A shade of a smile on her lips, her eyes centered on his, Susan undresses slowly, movements flowing with confidence. Gil’s mouth is dry and he can barely swallow. When Susan is naked, her voluptuous body a beacon to femininity, she slides under the covers and says, “Your turn.” Gil undresses. His heart has only beaten faster once in the past, when he was chased by a gang of Turkish youths in the streets of Istanbul. His jogging abilities had saved him then, but now, faced with a lioness on the prowl, he’s a helpless lamb. He joins Susan under the covers. Her body radiates heat. His is layered with goosebumps. They kiss and grope, caress and squeeze, but he can’t feel his manhood. Like a frightened snail, it has packed its antennas and retreated into its shell. He enjoys Susan’s scent and smooth skin, her soft breasts and cozy stomach, but his spear is dull. She cups his limpness but says nothing. In desperation, he kisses his way down to her treasure, hidden within soft, blonde hairs. He reclines between her thighs and laps her delicious amber, fresh honey. Susan groans and thrusts her crotch into his face. Her orgasmic shudder pierces through him; lightning bolts of pleasure shoot from her womb. Gil’s stomach shrinks with desperation. There’s nothing more he could wish for in a lover, yet never has he loved so poorly, powerless within his passion, a sexual amputee.

75 * * *

The gray two-story brick house perched on the hill overlooking the Playa Del Ray shoreline offers a solemn, foreboding presence. With only two small windows on the second floor, their blinds drawn, the house has a metal entrance door and is enclosed by a six-foot tall wooden fence. The yard is dry dirt sprinkled with tired weeds. Two satellite dishes center the flat roof. Deep silence permeates the air; even the boisterous seagulls shy away. Eyes darting nervously, Andy Cloud walks slowly up to the entrance door and rings a red intercom button. A camera above the door lights up and silently observes the intruder. The door creaks open. Andy enters a corridor lit with red lightbulbs. The door squeaks shut behind him. Two black Dobermans wearing spiky collars emerge from the shadows. They omit the lowest of protracted growls and sniff his pants. Although he knows they will not attack unless given the order, Andy’s knees shake and his heart races. Accompanied by the dogs, he comes to a spiral metal staircase, where the dogs retreat into the shadows. He climbs the narrow steps up to the second floor, and enters a room half the size of a basketball court lit with red neon. A large table shaped in a half-circle and set with ten 25-inch flat screens occupies the center of the room. A black swivel chair with thick rubber wheels stands in front of the table. In the chair sits a giant of a middleaged black man, about 400 pounds, with a well-manicured beard and frizzy locks in a ponytail. Each one of the flat screens projects a different image: American F4 fighter jets screeching at tree level and dropping napalm bombs; a mob of Muslim men dressed in robes, stoning a young woman; black teenagers wielding machetes dripping blood

76 hacking an old man; an Apache combat helicopter firing a missile at a group of men armed with AK-47’s; the infamous airliners slamming into the Twin Towers; a hospital ward filled with children, many of them missing limbs, bruised faces covered with bloody bandages; city blocks engulfed in a firestorm; hundreds of B-52’s swarming like angry hornets and dropping bombs; mushroom clouds prying the heavens; emaciated babies covered with flies, bellies swollen with parasites. The soundtracks combine with the images to create a cacophony of pain and misery, a human lament graphic and loud. The bile rises in Andy’s throat. He swallows hard to force the bitter acid back into his stomach, and covers his ears and shuts his eyes. The man in the swivel chair moves a fader on a consol. The volume subsides. The images remain on screen, somehow more eerie in their silence. “What up, Cloud?” The man’s voice is as gravely as he is big. “Hi Mister Livingston. I think I got something,” Andy says, trying to calm his strained heart. In rushed sentences, he shares his subversive actions of raiding Seymour Duncan’s attaché case. He hands the yellow sheet of paper over to the man who reads its contents carefully, his left hand’s fingertips fondling his beard. He places the sheet of paper on the consol. “Where the fuck you get that?” “I told you.” Comet Livingston entwines his thick fingers and places his palms on his huge stomach. “Tell me again,” he says and frowns impatiently. Andy does, this time speaking slowly and answering questions posed to him. When he’s finished, Comet points to an austere metal chair beside the swivel chair. “Have a seat.”

77 Andy sits, and is struck by the scent of sour sweat drifting off Comet’s body. He breathes through his mouth. Comet opens a wooden box sitting on the consol and starts to roll a spleef. “Obama’s doing well,” Andy tries to converse, looking forward to the skunky scent to overcome the lingering sweat. “Motherfucker’s an Uncle Tom.” “Better him than Hillary or, worse yet, McCain.” Comet seals the spleef with his tongue. “McCain’s the scariest motherfucker I ever seen. Motherfucker will blow us all up.” He points to the TV screens oozing violence. “Motherfucker sat in a Vietcong jail for five years, can’t lift his arms to comb his hair. If he’s chief it’ll be payback time.” He lights the joint and drags deeply. Andy nods. “Says he’ll stay in Iraq for a hundred years. Every second sentence from him is about Islamic Fascism.” He takes a hit. The thick smoke expands in his lungs. He coughs until his eyes tear. Comet laughs like an old engine revving up. “Shit’s too strong for a white boy.” Andy catches his breath. “What are you going to do with the information I gave you?” Comet leans toward Andy, dwarfing the rotund salesman. “Ain’t your business what I do.” Andy slumps in his chair. “But—” Comet raises a massive palm and cuts him off. “What you don’t know, you can’t tell. We do it my way or,” he holds up the sheet of paper, “you can take your information and wipe your ass with it.”

78 Andy remains slumped in his chair and folds his arms over his chest. Comet smokes a few more hits from the joint and offers it to Andy. “I ain’t dissin’ you brother. You’re my nigger. But I got my rules of play. That’s why I survive. Fuckin’ Murphy’s Law got nothin’ on me.” Severely stoned, Andy’s mood turns conciliatory. “I hear you.” Silence lingers for a few moments, when Andy asks, “How can you watch this stuff all day long?” Comet resembles King Kong as he thumps his chest. “So I don’t forget the cause. So I don’t become complacent like all them motherfuckers out there.” He points to the screen showing an emaciated black child encircled by vultures waiting for life to dim from his eyes. “I am the Lord’s messenger sent to cast the evildoers into His fury.” Livingston reaches into a drawer in the consol and brings out a roll of bills. He peels some off and hands the money to Andy. “Here you go. You’ve been an active agent of change.” Andy shakes his head vigorously. “I don’t want the money.” “I ain’t askin’ you to take it,” the big man says. “I’m tellin’ ya. Take the fuckin’ money. Y’know what I’m sayin’?” The ripple of wrath in Comet’s voice convinces Andy to obey. “Thanks,” he says and pockets the bills. Appeased, the big man leans back in his swivel chair. “You’re a good man, Cloud. We need more like you to mount the revolution. Now be on your way. I’ll need new monitors soon, so I’ll be coming in your store.”

79 Andy stands up. He’s nauseous and wants to leave. The violence, fear and anger emanating from the screens combine with the stale air and Comet’s sweaty odor to exhaust him. “Take care, Mister Livingston,” he says. The black man has already turned away and is rolling another joint. Andy descends the spiral metal stairway. The growling Dobermans wait at the bottom of the stairs and escort him to the entrance door. Once outside, Andy realizes his underwear are soaked with sweat. He counts the money—fifteen one hundred-dollar bills. He walks slowly toward his car, his mind reeling with thoughts about what Comet Livingston will or won’t do with the information. He feels helpless, suddenly unsure he’d done right to hand over the data, but then admits he would’ve never garnered the courage to do anything on his own. Cowardice has been his intimate nemesis throughout his life, and that wasn’t about to change. Let Comet ride the Trojan Horse into the Pentagon’s catacombs, let him fire the lethal virus that will wreak havoc and wipe out the enemy’s cyber world.

Andy sits in his car and rolls down the window; low clouds rush in from the Pacific. The chilly night air clears his mind and he recalls the morning when a dominating presence dimmed the sunlight as a giant black man stood at the entrance door

80 of the electronics store. The thought seared through his mind that he was about to get robbed. The giant man walked up to Andy and slapped a sheet of paper on the counter. He leaned in toward the frightened clerk and, voice like gravel turning in a concrete mixer, said, “I’ll give you one chance. Read the list and give me a price, you know what I’m sayin’? And don’t try to fuck with me, cause Comet knows everything about everything you got in this store.” His colossal arm swung in a wide arc, like a beleaguered prophet standing on the mountaintop. Andy swallowed hard. None of his sales personas was right for the customer standing before him. Impatient Nerd’s mildly condescending overtones may result in the big black man killing him. Chummy Buddy wouldn’t do either. Trying to emulate hip-hop lingo could imply that Andy was making fun of Comet, and could result in the big black man killing him. The same fate applied to using Sensitive Intellectual. So he remained Andy, the traumatized, insecure and sarcastic man who failed to comprehend humanity’s follies and why his father abandoned him. “I’ll need a few minutes,” he informed the client. “Five minutes is all you get.” “Yes, sir. That should be ample time.” Andy sat at the computer and rapidly surfed several mega-electronic store websites while jotting numbers next to the items on Comet’s list, which included four hi-end computers, five flat-screen TV’s, five VCR and DVD players, and stockpiles of cables, disks, and other electronic paraphernalia. Comet reached out his titanic palm. “Time’s up.”

81 “The list is done,” Andy said and handed over the sheet of paper. He was certain that Comet couldn’t get a better deal anywhere else, unless he stole the merchandise. Comet’s dark eyes, pink capillaries running across their yellowish whites, skirted over the figures Andy had written. When he was finished, he frowned at the salesman. Silence lingered for a moment while sweat ran down Andy’s neck and tickled his back. “So $22,564 is your final offer?” Comet’s eyes widened and his lips narrowed. “Yes sir,” Andy replied, a slight quiver in his voice. Comet turned over the sheet of paper and dangled it in front of Andy. Five numbers were scrolled on it: 22,700. The client smiled—yellow and chipped teeth—and then laughed—a barrel of nails rolling down a steep hill. Andy overcame his dizziness and grinned. Comet reached into his pocket, took out a large wad of one-hundred dollar bills, and handed the money to Andy. “All there, my esteemed white friend.” “Thank you, sir,” Andy said to the biggest sale of his career. They loaded up Comet’s Mercedes and Andy’s Stanza, and drove to the foreboding house standing on the hill overlooking the ocean. To the tune of another twothousand dollars, Andy installed the equipment. While he did, the two men smoked weed and engaged in deep political rhetoric, after which, Andy trusted Comet, who, though intimidating and forceful, was also fair and loyal, if not gentle and loving. Comet’s past was never discussed, and neither where his money came from.

82 Now, three years later, their bond is tightened in common cause to bring about forceful change that cannot be ignored, change that will signal the drowsy masses to wake up before their power over their lives is lost forever. Andy drives away from Comet’s compound and settles into the green wave going east on Jefferson; he makes it to In-and-Out Burger with five minutes to spare. The double-double, fries, and milkshake soothe his anxiety. He’s tired. All he wishes for is to sleep a long time and wake up when the world is a better place. * * *

Victor leaves Rick Perry’s estate at six in the evening. The DJ’s insistence on entertaining resulted in Victor drinking four beers. He’s tired from five days of landscaping work, and decides to forsake calling Valen or exploring the unknown pleasures and pitfalls of Craig’s List Erotic Section, for Hanna’s familiar and soothing sensual massage. By now, after seeing her about twenty times, he’s become intimate with her routine and enjoys the erotic predictability—caressing her smooth thighs when she massages his shoulders, her breasts skirting across his buttocks when she’s on her knees between his legs, the firmness of her ass, the mutual moaning when she jerks him off while he fingers her. The scent of lavender oil and peach candles have become Pavlovian. Even the water’s trickle as it flows through the tiny fountain serves as a sensual precursor. Waiting for her to say softly, “Turn over please,” he’s like an excited boy receiving the promised chocolate bar after he’d eaten all his vegetables. “You look tired,” Hanna says when he walks in. “I am. Long week at work.”

83 “You fix new yard?” “Yes. Big one.” “Go in room and lie on table. I come massage you.” As she always does, Hanna leaves him to rest on the table for about ten minutes before entering the dark room and performing her magic.

He’s pliable and tired when he leaves the massage parlor. The fatigue centers his neck and shoulders; he’s looking forward to a hot shower, a few beers, and watching a movie on HBO. After he showers, Victor dresses in sweats and enters the house through the kitchen door. Darkness greets him; it’s nine in the evening. Gil and Andy aren’t home. He sits on the living room couch, surfs the TV guide, and settles on The Last King of Scotland, a movie starring Forrest Whitaker. He knows little about Idi Amin, the Ugandan dictator who murdered 300,000 of his countrymen and suffered from acute clinical paranoia. Whitaker portrays the man chillingly, encouraging Victor to see that evil is many times the result of mental illness, that psychosis links to brutality. Well into the movie, the front door opens and Andy walks in. “Hey Vic,” he says. “Hey Andy.” Having just returned from Comet’s volatile compound, Andy doesn’t care to watch more violence, even if staged. Still, being a Forrest Whitaker fan and having read about the movie, he’s compelled to join Victor on the couch. They silently watch the

84 harrowing images, the sad man, a rabid dog, like a disgruntled child oblivious to the chaos he’s created. The movie ends and the credits start showing. “Whitaker won the Oscar for this role,” Andy says. Victor nods. “If anyone deserves the Oscar, he does.” “No doubt. Where’s Gil?” “Don’t know. Hasn’t been in tonight.” Andy hems. “That’s unusual. Where could he be?” “Hopefully getting laid.” “I wonder if he got another postcard from Rachel.” Victor shrugs. “I don’t get him. A handsome man with so many fish in the sea.” “I agree,” Andy says. “He should move on. But I don’t know much about being in love.” Silence lingers a bit before Victor says, “Neither do I.” “How’s the job at Rick Perry’s going?” “Great,” Victor says and proceeds to tell the tale of Vanessa sitting on his face. The shame he’d felt has morphed into juvenile pride, a rooster mounted on a fence, spreading its wings and cawing at dawn. “Celebrity perks,” he concludes. Andy is speechless. Neither appalled nor jealous, he had never had a woman sit on his face, and is unsure if he cares for such forms of affection. “Aren’t you afraid of getting STD’s?” he asks.

85 “You can’t get sick from eating pussy,” Victor says. “Besides, she just got out of the pool, all chlorinated if you know what I mean.” He laughs. “I guess…” Andy says and stares off into space. His eyelids weigh a ton. Victor stands up. “I’m going in my cave to smoke and drink. Super Bowl on Sunday.” “Like I give a damn,” Andy says. “Primaries on Tuesday. Are you gonna vote?” “Go McCain.” Andy scowls. “How can you vote for that man?” “Better him than Hillary the Witch.” “She’s not a witch. Can’t you see McCain’s lost it? The guy’s seventy-two. He’s been through too much.” Victor raises his arms slightly. “You and I have different opinions. God bless the Constitution that lets us agree to disagree.” Andy laughs. “Yeah, the constitution that allowed slavery, didn’t let women vote, and created the Electoral College so plantation owners could control the election.” “Well, it’s a whole lot better than any other country.” “That’s bullshit. We should have a parliamentary system, like France and England. All we got is two parties and special interests.” Victor frowns. “If it wasn’t for us, fuckin’ England and France would be part of Germany.” Andy double-frowns. “Funny coming from you, who thinks that invading Iraq was a good idea.”

86 “It was a good idea. Problem is we went in too easy. Should’ve gone in with half a million troops and done the job right.” “Well, we didn’t. Now we have 4000 dead and a trillion in the hole. Happy?” Victor’s voice rises. “Same shit like Vietnam. We went too easy on them.” Andy shakes his head and rolls his eyes. “The Bay of Tonkin, like WMD, was a lie. We should’ve never gone into Vietnam or Iraq.” “What? And let the Chinese and Al Qaeda take over? You’re crazy.” “I don’t believe in war,” Andy shouts. “Any war!” “What you believe in means shit,” Victor shoots back. “Life is conflict. You got it so easy you whine about everything being wrong. But you got a good life. Your own store, a roof over your head, fuckin in-and-out burger, smokin’ your weed. What are you always bitching about?” “I don’t want to continue this conversation,” Andy hisses through clenched teeth. He storms off to his room and slams the door. “Fine,” Victor mutters, and is about to leave through the kitchen door when a timid knock sounds on the front door. He opens the door. The entrance light illuminates a thin teenage girl with copper-red hair. She’s holding a backpack; her brown eyes are wide with trepidation. “Can I help you?” he asks. “Are you Victor Melon?” “Who needs to know?” A tear rolls down her cheek. She whispers, “Are you?” Alarmed by her crying, his voice softens. “I am. And you are?”

87 “I’m Megan, your daughter.” * * *

88

Chapter Seven

“It’s okay. We can try again some other time,” Susan says and lightly squeezes Gil’s shoulder. Gil hears her voice muffled and echoed, coming from the far corner of a deep cave. His back turned on Susan, he’s staring out the window. The open blinds sway with a winter breeze tinged with sunlight. A hummingbird skirts by, stops briefly, and flies off. According to the laws of physics, the Hummingbird can’t fly, Gil thinks. Its wings are too small. But the bird compensates its wing size by fluttering them fifty times a second. So much for physics. “Gil?” He turns to sullenly face her raised eyebrows, but quickly looks away, unable to confront her questioning eyes. The bed is too small. The universe is too small. Big Ben’s chiming, was it standing in the room, would have paled in comparison to the deafening silence in the room. “I’m sorry,” he finally mutters. “What about?” Susan asks. What is he sorry about? Sorry for failing in bed? Sorry for lying to Susan when he said he had “No strings attached?” Sorry about being unfaithful to Rachel, who’s traveling the world and is able to bed any man, anytime, anywhere, yet does not? So, he lies, again. “You’re beautiful and sexy. I don’t know what happened.”

89 Susan sits up. “Are you sure?” Is he sure about what? About wanting to be with Susan? About wanting to be with Rachel? About needing to be alone? Therefore, he lies, again, “It’s been so long. I guess I’m nervous.” Gil can’t bring himself to hug Susan in friendly ways and say, “There’s something I must share with you,” and then go to his desk drawer and return with the postcards. “Rachel can’t have babies so she wants to be a fly perched on humanity’s walls,” he’d say and lay the postcards on the bed. He would let Susan read them; let her enter his tormented world of rejection. What’s the worst that could happen? Susan could choose to be offended and walk away with a huff. She could cup her mouth with concern and say, “Poor woman. I can’t imagine living without my daughter. I understand her pain.” She could say, and that scares him, that, in her opinion, Rachel doesn’t love him anymore, that if Rachel loved him, she’d never leave as she did. Susan would say so calmly, her soft eyes telling him she’s speaking the truth, that no jealousy or pettiness factored into her opinion. He doesn’t want to hear that. Susan gets out of bed and starts to get dressed. “What are you doing?” he asks. Her golden thighs now encased in tight jeans, Susan leans toward him and narrows her eyes. “Something really weird is going on, and it has nothing to do with your limp dick. I don’t know what it is, but I don’t like it.” ‘Now, Gil, now,’ cries the voice in his head. ‘Tell her! There will not be another chance to confess, and what follows if you don’t tell her is nothing you want or need. Tell Her!’

90 Once again, he lies, “There’s nothing going on.” Susan steps into her shoes. “Too bad. I thought you were different, but you’re a lying sack of shit, like all men.” “Please don’t go,” he says, wishing she did. Hands on her hips, she shakes her head. “If you don’t mean it, don’t say it.” Susan walks out. He hears the front door slam shut. Gil remains lying in his bed for a few moments when his torment reaches the point of no return.

The spectacled, gray-haired Indian store clerk with the finely trimmed mustache smiles at the stocky man with the boyish haircut. “That it, Boss?” Gil nods and hands the clerk an ATM card. “Debit or credit?” “Debit.” “Paper or plastic?” “Paper.” The clerk hands him the bottle wrapped in a brown paper bag. “Thank you boss. Have a good day.”

Walking back to 2420 Ruby Lane, Gil can barely contain his giddy excitement. He wants to jump and click his heels. Why he waited so long, he doesn’t understand. He puffs his cheeks. Sometimes thinly veiled curtains mask the obvious. All he needed to do was draw the curtain and, Voila!—his intimate friend awaits, one who doesn’t talk

91 back, doesn’t leave for strange lands, doesn’t question his manhood, and quietly listens to his thoughts, his fears. Gil can’t wait to unburden himself to his friend, to share how bad he feels, how wronged. He knows his friend will nod with great empathy and say, “Your feelings are completely legitimate. Any man would react the same way. With the weight of the world pressing heavily upon your broad shoulders, is there any question of what you need to do? Of course not! After all, it’s clear that no one cares about your feelings. Take, take, take, is all they do, stomping on your heart as they would on an empty can of Coke, crushing the tender love you give and give, and give, day in and day out. It is time, my dear Gil, that you put your foot down. Even the most limber branch bends so much before it snaps. You don’t want to snap. Have a drink instead.”

The bitter smoothness of Glenfiddich slides down his throat; his stomach swirls with a warm breeze, his tense shoulders stoop with relief. Gil takes a deep breath, shuts his eyes, and exhales his troubles away. His once tortured mind now hums contentedly, like a creaky wheel rejuvenated by a squirt of WD 40. He feels like a new man, and that man wants a drink. The second shot tastes even better. The third and fourth combine to trigger euphoria. He looks out the window, to the park and playground basking in warm sunlight, to nannies chatting away in Spanish, to angelic children fascinated by simplicity. His heart overflows with alcoholic love. A tear creeps into the corner of his right eye and rolls down his cheek, followed by a tear dripping from his left eye. More, many more tears follow as Gil weeps. He cannot stop. The pressure from the overflowing reservoir of tears within his stomach threatens to split

92 him in two. Smashing the dam of his resolve, the tears gush up his chest and out of his eyes. Tears drip to stain his desk. A few settle at the bottom of the shot glass. * * *

Brow crunched with anger, Andy sits on his bed. His stomach sour from greasy fast food, his mind reeling with violent images, his heart saddened by society’s prevalent ignorance, he dulls his emotions by smoking several hits from his pipe. He’s upset with Victor, who advocates war and US cultural domination of the world, who believes that America is the best nation to ever grace the earth. Andy doesn’t understand how it’s possible that two people who share the same environment, can reach opposite conclusions. He refuses to accept that truth comes in myriad shades. Since Reagan came to power in 1980, Republicans had been a pressing issue in Andy’s life. At first, he humored them, found them to be overbearing and simplistic, but when Reagan won again, he began to dislike them, to view them as a force to reckon with. Then W stole the 2000 election and Andy’s dislike turned to hatred tinged with fear, his world view based strictly in black and white: whoever likes W and supports the invasion of Iraq is an idiot, callous and cruel, a fascist who deserves no respect. And when W won reelection, Andy began to seriously consider violent and disruptive solutions. Had he come across the data in Seymour’s attaché case before W’s reelection, he would’ve let it be. Delivering the FBI email list into Comet’s hands was an accumulation of decades of frustration. Comet called him “An active agent for change,” the word, active, a trophy handed to a diligent student who’d challenged adversity and overcome it.

93 Andy wishes he’d been more active throughout his life. His mind wanders to the painful incident in middle school, which he knows still ripples in his psyche and has crippled his self-esteem.

“Hey, look guys, it’s Andy Shmandy loverboy,” sounds the voice from his past. Billy and Steve snicker. “What’s up cutie?” Jimmy says in his nasally voice, his perpetual sneer deepening. He grabs Andy’s cheeks and pinches them until they bruise. Andy starts to cry. “Oh…poor baby’s crying,” Jimmy says, his sinister eyes filled with glee. He strips the backpack off Andy’s shoulders, opens it, and pours its contents in the dirt. “Stop it,” Andy whispers while Jimmy kicks the books until their covers rip and their pages tear. Jimmy slaps him once across each cheek. “And what if I don’t? Watcha gonna do about it?” Andy’s eyes pinned to the ground, his legs shake. He says nothing, does nothing. “Hey Jimmy,” says Billy. “Look what I got,” and brings out a can of red spraypaint from his school bag. “I like that,” Jimmy cries. He pushes Andy to the ground. “C’mon guys, hold him down.” Billy straddles Andy’s chest while Steve sits on his ankles.

94 Jimmy sneers. “Close your eyes Andy Shmandy, here comes the makeover.” He sprays paint into Andy’s hair, on his face, on his crotch. Andy squirms but cannot move. He wets his pants. “He’s peeing on me,” Billy shouts and jumps up. Jimmy chants, “Andy Shmandy wet his pants, Andy Shmandy’s queer.” He kicks Andy in the ribs. The boys run off while Andy, lying in the dirt, cries in pain.

For years after that and other incidents, Andy would lie in bed at night and imagine ways to retaliate: packing a hammer or knife in his backpack, which he would use to kill Jimmy; splashing acid in the bully’s face, blinding him and permanently wiping off that sneer; tossing a noose around his feet and hanging him by his ankles from a tree until his head, like an overly ripe and gaseous watermelon, explodes from the pressure of the blood within it.

In ways, Andy remains the middle-school kid who never fought back. The Jimmy’s of the world haunt him. They have become Republicans. Now, for the first time in his life, he’d retaliated, had become, in the words of Comet Livingston, “An active agent for change.” Has his defiant act come too late to erase the childhood images of docile resignation, of the destitute child who no one loved? More than anything, Andy knows that his defeatist attitude had robbed him of female company. Women retreat from him as they would from the plague, his sad eyes and bulky physique filled with unrequited love he yearns to offer but never receives.

95 The optimistic thrill of plundering the attaché case and passing the data on to Comet, gives way to the avalanche of his past misery. Andy lies sideways in his bed, curls his legs up to his chest, and sucks his thumb. Voices sound from the living room— Victor and a woman speaking in hushed tones. The voices recede to the kitchen and Andy hears the kitchen door shut. Silence. He wonders where Gil is. His friend had lately seemed exceedingly distracted and morose, and Andy worries about Gil seeking comfort in drink. Sadness trickles to flood his heart. Andy groans. He covers with a sheet and quilt he hasn’t washed in some time, and waits for sleep to release him from the day’s tumultuous events. Sleep does not come. Long minutes pass while his sadness deepens, until tears flow to stain his pillow. His thumb sucking intensifies as he cries about his missing father, his deranged mother, the school bullies, the women who ignore him, the starving children in Africa, the maimed soldiers returning from Iraq to an obtuse society who will shrug them off, the inherent evil of man who could and should do so much better with God’s gift of life. An angel finally descends from heaven and gently sprinkles sleep dust over Andy’s eyelids. * * *

96

“I’m Megan, you daughter.” The words swirl in front of Victor’s eyes, like chirping canaries circling Elmer Fud’s head after Bugs Bunny struck him with a metal pipe. “I can’t believe it’s you,” he whispers. A gurgle rattles his stomach, an expansive sensation that moves up into his chest, pushes its way up his throat and clouds his vision. He barely remembers the ten-year-old boy who cried and who later pounded his fists against the walls of his room and swore to never cry again. Victor reaches to embrace the frightened child, nestles her head against his shoulder. Megan’s arms timidly circle his torso. He feels her heart beat quickly against his stomach. He caresses the back of her head while his tears drop and dampen her hair. They embrace for a moment, then she withdraws. “I’m cold.” “Come in,” he says and takes hold of her backpack. They enter the house and stand in the living room. Trying to calm his racing heart, Victor tries to breathe shallow. “It’s really you,” he says, his mind searing with memories of the two-year-old he’d left behind, abandoned. Megan is pale; her face is dotted with acne; she’s wearing faded jeans, a green Tshirt, and a zipped gray sweatshirt, all desperate for a washing machine. Her lower lip trembles and tears stream down her cheeks. “I’m pregnant.” He commands his knees not to buckle. “Oh…” he says… “Does your mother know?” “She wants me to get an abortion.”

97 “I see.” Reality blinks—an ominous canvas strewn with shards of memories, while his pores sing with love kept at bay for too long. Never had he spoken in gentler tones. “Does your mother know you’re here?” “No.” “How did you find me? How did you get here all the way from Sacramento?” The teenager shrugs. “I Googled you, then I took the bus.” “I see. Come, let’s go in the back, where I live.” He motions her to follow him into the kitchen. “I’m hungry,” Megan says, her gaze combing the counter—bread, bananas, apples, avocados. He grabs bread and fruits. “I have soup in my room.” They enter the cave. “My palace,” he says, deeply ashamed of his living quarters. Megan sits at his desk and eats a banana in big bites while he opens a can of chicken noodle soup and pours its contents into a pot. Countless questions and statements crowd his mind, yet none seems right to put into words. Finally, he says, “As much as I don’t want to, we have to let your mom know where you are.” “No!” “Not tonight, maybe even not tomorrow,” he says quickly. “But you’re still a minor. The police are looking for you. They will probably come here. If they find you here I will go to jail for kidnapping you. I’m not allowed to see you.” Megan starts to cry.

98 Victor sits on the bed beside her chair and reaches for her dainty fingers. “Please don’t cry. I’m so happy you came here. I want to help you.” Megan sobs and rubs her slightly protruding belly. “I want the baby. Don’t let her kill my baby.” “Okay,” he hears himself say. “You can have the baby. You can live here with the baby. You can do anything you want.” The soup is gurgling on the stove. Victor pours it into a bowl, butters the bread, and places the food on the desk. Megan turns her attention to eating. He wants to smoke, but doesn’t: that would endanger the expecting mother’s health. He sits on the bed and, reverently, like a devout Christian witnessing the Sistine Chapel, takes in the sight of his daughter—copper-red hair cropped above narrow shoulders, long legs, light-brown eyes, small nose slanted upwards with the remnants of childhood. He cannot take his eyes off her. Finished with eating, Megan offers a weak smile. A dimple dents her right cheek. He claps his hands once. “Someone needs a shower.” “You’re taller than I remember,” she says. “And you used to have hair.” “I still have it, but now it grows out from my nose and ears.” A moment passes in silence, then Victor says, “Go shower. We’ll have lots of time to talk.” “Why did you stay away?” The question lashes his face, sucks the air from his lungs. “Maybe after you shower, I can try to explain,” he says in measured tones. Megan takes her backpack and goes to shower.

99 Victor stands in the doorway and smokes a cigarette. He wants a beer but decides against it. His daughter may not approve. He tries to organize his thoughts. How will he explain his absence from her life, the irrevocable time lost? Memories flood his heart— bad ones. He will share those memories with her, honor her need to know even though nothing will compensate for lost years. Except one fact: he won’t tell his daughter that seventeen years before, he’d advocated an abortion, but that Beth, then thirty-nine and elated by the unexpected pregnancy doctors said could never happen, told him “to shove it where the sun don’t shine,” and carried the pregnancy to term. Now Beth wants their daughter to abort, probably thinks that Megan is too young to be a mother, which may be true. But if Megan wants the baby, why is Beth insisting? She must remember her own objection. Megan comes out from the bathroom dressed in blue sweats and looking younger than her seventeen years. Her acne and the bags under her eyes are more evident. She looks exhausted, pale in sickly ways. “Can I hug you again?” he asks. “Okay.” She’s so skinny, he thinks, brittle. Is that normal? What does she eat? His dormant fatherly instincts awaken: Megan’s doing drugs. He’s scared to confront his daughter, petrified she’ll walk out. That can never happen again, he swears to himself. Anything she does, however wrong, is better than losing her trust. He’s still hugging her when she says, “I’m tired. Where can I sleep?”

100 He would like to say, “You can sleep with me in my bed,” but worries such an intimate offer could be misconstrued. He’s sickened by the thought of his daughter sleeping where other women had slept, women he’d hired to have sex with him. “There’s a guest room in the house. Let me show you.” She points to the bed. “I want to sleep here.” “Okay. Then I will sleep in the guestroom.” “I don’t mind if we sleep together.” “Are you sure?” He’s thrilled. Megan gets under the covers and scoots to the bed’s far corner. “There’s room. Can you leave the light on? I don’t like to fall asleep in the dark.” “Sure.” Victor lies on the bed, over the covers. He’s happy in ways he hadn’t felt in a long time, maybe ever. A profound sense of purpose courses through him. Tears return to cloud his vision. “Now tell me why you stayed away,” Megan says softly. “Are you sure you want to talk about it now? You’re tired and it’s late.” “Now is fine.” Victor sighs. Dredging memories will rob him of sleep for the rest of the night, but Megan’s need to know is more important than a night’s sleep. “Your mother and I met almost twenty years ago,” he says. “It was up in Northern California, in a town called Guerneville, on the Russian River….”

101

Chapter Eight

“Hey Mister, wake up!” Gil opens his eyes. He’s lying on his back looking up at the night sky and two police officers standing over him, a man and a woman. “You okay?” asks the female officer. “I guess. Where am I?” He’s dizzy as he tries to sit up. His head hurts something fierce. The male officer reaches out his hand and helps Gil sit up. “You’re in Heidelberg Park.” Gil looks around and recognizes the northern section of the park, the softball field and the batting cage. He’s been asleep, resting his head on the second base cushion. “Not sure how I got here,” he says. “I live over there,” and points south. “2420 Ruby Lane.” “You been drinking?” asks the male officer. “Yes officer. I had a death in the family. I guess it knocked me for a loop.” He’s standing now, trying to salvage his dignity by patting down his dusty clothes. “Let’s walk you home,” the officer says. “Thank you. I’m sorry to have been a public nuisance.”

102 The woman officer chuckles. “We’ve seen a lot worse.” “We’ll need to see an ID,” says the other officer. Gil pads his pockets. “My wallet’s probably in the house.” He’s trying to remember what he’d been doing all day. He can’t. Susan came over, he couldn’t get it up, Susan stormed out, he went to the liquor store, he started drinking and crying, then….his mind is blank. They reach the house. The front door’s locked and he doesn’t have the keys. They walk to the back and he enters through the kitchen door. The officers wait outside. His wallet is resting on his desk. Gil returns to show his ID to the officers. “Sorry for your loss,” the woman officer says, “but drinking doesn’t help.” “I appreciate your concern. Thanks for getting me home safely,” he says and thinks, what do you know about what helps or doesn’t help? To each his own. The officers walk off. Gil sits at his desk and sees them walk by the house and disappear in the dark. His computer shows 3:34 in the morning. The liquor store opens at six. He’d like some Tylenol, but doesn’t have any. Another item to buy at the store, he calmly notes to himself, when he remembers the Longs Drugs—open 24 hours. The store is three blocks away. He could shower, walk to the store, buy painkillers and eat at Denney’s next door to the Longs Drugs, and be first in line when six in the morning comes around…Glenfiddich Time. He likes the plan—simple and efficient, with tangible results, unlike swirling thoughts about lost romance. The shower invigorates him. At 4:30 in the morning, he sets out on his predawn mission to secure his plunder. He’s famished. The Denver omelet tastes divine. The headache disappears. Not too bad a hangover, he thinks, not too bad at all. Shame on you,

103 chimes the masseuse from Veil Colorado, but he tells her to take a hike. You blacked out! warns Woody, his AA sponsor from when he first joined the program, but Gil patiently explains it was a one-time-thing, cause his body isn’t used to alcohol. He promises to drink in moderation. At 5:45, he’s wandering the drugstore’s neon-lit isles. They call it a drugstore, he thinks and chuckles: the war against drugs, but only certain drugs—ones not marketed by humongous corporations. He eyes his wristwatch and counts the seconds; they tick by infuriatingly slowly. Six a.m. finally arrives. He takes a bottle of Glenfiddich off the shelf, but thinks again and takes another one. He’s walking to the counter when he decides beer would go well with the whiskey, so he goes to the coolers in the back of the store and secures a twelve-pack of BudLight. Gil walks home carrying two plastic bags, a pleasant Pacific chill in the air; breaking dawn; loon chirping; a street sweeper thunders by; an eighteen-wheeler unloading produce behind Safeway; cars start to fill the streets. He takes a deep breath. Life is good! He remembers the Tylenol and rolls his eyes at his incompetence. Fortunately, he’s walking by the liquor store close to the house. He enters. The Indian clerk smiles, “Good morning boss.” “Tylenol please.” “What size?” “The big one.” “That it, boss?” The clerk tilts his head, as if expecting him to buy a bottle.

104 Why not, Gil thinks and shrugs. Might as well stock up. He takes a bottle off the shelf and hands the clerk his credit card. “Debit or credit?” “Debit.” “Paper or plastic?” “Paper,” he says and thinks, this is becoming a ritual, a nice one. “Thank you, boss. Have a nice day.” “You too.”

Gil returns home at 6:30. He puts the twelve-pack in the refrigerator, the two extra bottles in the pantry, and, hands trembling slightly, opens the third bottle. The alcoholic fumes twist his colon in knots, as does the first shot. After that, warm calm settles his stomach and spreads to his head and limbs. He turns on the computer and surfs—the LA Times endorses Obama for the Super Tuesday primaries; five soldiers killed by an I.E.D. north of Baghdad; record opium crop in Afghanistan. He opens the drawer, takes out Rachel’s postcards, and reads them in chronological order. He looks for signs that she’s in love with him, hopes the liquor will illuminate a turn of a phrase or reveal hidden meaning, but the postcards are clinical, matter-of-fact descriptions of cities and monuments. Her writing mirrors the emotional cripple she’d become, a joyless person. His thoughts shift to Susan. Could he earn her grace? He’ll beg her forgiveness. His groin stirs as he recalls her sweet kisses, her curvy-in-all-the-right-places body, her soft belly. He gets hard and is very pleased to have an erection, a sign that he’s functional. Will Susan let him redeem his masculine pride? Why couldn’t he perform? Is Rachel so

105 anchored in his mind that he’s impotent without her? Has Rachel emotionally castrated him? Gil shudders. “That’s unacceptable,” he mutters and commits to calling Susan later in the day. Gil has a nice, glowing buzz going, his body cruising like a car driving away from Jiffy Lube.

Andy, in his underwear, enters the living room. He’s about to smile and say good morning when his gaze shifts from Gil to the open bottle on the desk. The emerging smile drains from his lips now pursed with concern. “What’s going on?” Gil smiles heartily. “Havin a drink is what’s goin on,” and before Andy can respond, he lifts a forefinger. “Please. No Jewish mothers allowed.” Andy’s shoulders slouch; his pale stomach protrudes further and descends to engulf half his underwear. His gray tufts of hair, like pieces of cotton stuck to a fence, appear ready to obey a gust of wind and float from his head. He shakes his head. “Why are you doing this?” “Why do you think I’m doing this?” “Because you miss her.” “Elementary, my dear Watson, except this time you’re wrong. I don’t miss her. I’m over her for good. Even have a new girlfriend, Susan. She’s gorgeous, and has a fiveyear-old daughter, Naomi.” Andy frowns; his spectacles tumble to the edge of his pudgy nose. “So if you’re happy, how come you’re drinking?”

106 Gil taps his knuckles on the desk. “Who says the two are mutually exclusive? I’m celebrating the closing of one door and the opening of a new one.” “Let me take you to a meeting,” Andy says. “Did you call your sponsor?” “Don’t need a meeting or a sponsor,” Gil says. “This is making me very sad,” Andy says. “But if you don’t want to listen, I guess there’s nothing for me to say.” He tumbles to the kitchen where Gil hears him pour water in the coffee maker. Gil notes that his friend cares, and that warms his heart. He comes to stand in the kitchen doorway. “I appreciate your concern, but I’m okay, really I am.” Andy’s tone is dismissive. “If you say so.” That’s what the masseuse in Veil Colorado said. Gil pushes her stern image out of his mind. He sits at the kitchen table. “What about you? How’s the store doing?” “Good.” “What else is new? Who’s Obama’s running mate gonna be if he wins the nomination?” “Probably Richardson, so he can get the Latino vote.” “I see. And Hilary’s, if she wins?” “She won’t. The super delegates will go Obama’s way cause he has a better chance to win the general election.” “Why?” “Hillary’s too divisive. Republicans will vote to spite her.” Gil shrugs. “I don’t get it. She’s a good candidate. Why do people hate her?” “Because she’s a tough woman. She scares men.”

107 Gil performs a karate chop. “Off with their dicks.” “Would you like coffee?” Andy asks. He wants to tell his friend about his meeting with Comet Livingston and how he raided Seymour Duncan’s attaché case, but remembers Comet’s warning, ‘What you don’t know you can’t tell.’ If anything goes wrong, Gil needs to appear innocent and genuinely surprised or the F.B.I. will break him, worse yet, lock him up in one of their secret jails. “Coffee sounds good,” Gil says. “Can I have a joint?” Andy sighs. “No. I’m not going to contribute to your downfall.” “Jeez, excuuuuse me.” “I don’t want to give you a joint. I’m upset by your behavior,” Andy says, when a course of action to combat Gil’s fall-off-the-wagon takes shape in his mind. “Okay,” Gil says quietly, again touched by Andy’s concern. “I’m gonna have breakfast at Roll&Rye,” Andy says. “I should get going.” Gil sips his coffee. “See you tonight. Thanks for your concern but don’t worry about me.” “I won’t,” lies Andy. He showers quickly, dawns his polyester garb, and is out the door by eight o’clock. He doesn’t stop at the delicatessen for breakfast, but instead drives north on Sepulveda, in quest of the gray one-story building. He parks in the back. The meeting room is empty aside from a rotund Hispanic man in his forties, who smiles at Andy and offers a warm handshake. “Haven’t seen you before,” he says. “How’s the recovery going?” “I don’t drink,” Andy says. “I’m here about my roommate Gil Miller.”

108 The man narrows his eyes. “What about Gil. Is he okay?” “No. He’s drinking. His girlfriend left him and he can’t handle it.” The man tucks in his cheeks. “That’s bad news.” “What should I do?” Andy asks. “You? There’s nothing you can do. Alcoholics, if they listen, only listen to other alcoholics.” “He doesn’t want to come to a meeting.” The man smiles wearily. “If Muhammad can’t come to the mountain, let the mountain come to Muhammad.” Andy taps his right foot impatiently. “What are you saying?” The man reaches out to shake Andy’s hand. “Gil is lucky to have a friend like you. Thanks for coming by. I’ll take over from here.” “Okay,” Andy says, comforted by the man’s soft yet resolute voice. Bothered by his sleepless night and his friend’s shenanigans, Andy drives away. He looks forward to sitting in his swivel chair behind the counter in his store and tinkering with Godzilla—an environment void of bullies and broken hearts. * * *

109

While Andy’s night is haunted by dreams of his late mother, Victor, lying on his back and staring at the ceiling, is telling Megan, his daughter, how he met her mother in Guerneville, a sleepy town on the Russian River. “I’ve been to the Russian River,” Megan says. “It’s pretty.” “Your mom and I met at Fife’s, a gay resort. It was the eighties, before AIDS, when the carefree gay lifestyle was at full steam. I was in my mid-twenties, a year out of the Marines, and worked at the resort as a maintenance-gardener man.” He turns to his daughter and shakes his head. “Not a gay bone in my body, just so we’re clear.” “Gay guys are way cooler than straight guys,” Megan says. Victor shrugs. “I won’t debate that issue. Your mom, who’s nine years older than me, came up from San Francisco with a group of friends. I was pruning roses by the pool when she walked by me and said, ‘I’ll bet a million bucks you’re not gay.’” Megan laughs. “‘And I bet you’re not lesbian,’ I said. She was wearing a pink bikini and looked hot. We talked a few times over her stay but nothing happened. Before she went back to SF, she gave me her number and invited me to visit. I did. We fell in love, I can honestly say that. Four years later, you were born and we were very happy.” The lie burdens him so he’s silent for a moment. He wasn’t happy when Megan came into the world, was oblivious to the baby’s soft divinity. He felt “tied down,” didn’t want to be a father. “Too much responsibility,” he’d said, “and no matter how much you try, they end up hating you.”

110 That attitude changed within a month, after which he grew to love the baby in ways he didn’t know were possible. Leaving her behind remained the most painful experience of his life. Megan says, “Mom has pictures from when I was born. She’s standing on a pier, holding me. But you’re not in the picture.” “I was a jerk, or as she’d said, ‘I had issues.’ I was drinking a lot, and smoking two packs a day. Your mother hated that. She wanted me to stop, to, ‘Shape up and take responsibility.’ Our age difference became an issue. Our relationship became very unhappy. A lot of it had to do with me, but your mom isn’t all peaches and cream. She’s an angry person.” His daughter sighs. “Tell me about it.” He wants to tell Megan about his stepfather, about the discontent teenager who’d joined the Marines and thrived on street fights and drunken revelry, but he doesn’t want to scare her. “No one gets along anymore,” Megan says. “Do you get along with him?” Victor asks. “If I may, who’s the father?” “Robby.” “And he is?” “He’s my boyfriend. He wants the baby.” “That’s unusual for a teenager.” “He’s thirty-two.”

111 Victor’s skin crawls with disdain and he cries, “He’s committing statutory rape.” Were the infamous Robby standing before him, Victor, with a swift sidearm to the man’s Adam’s apple, would silence him forever. Megan rises to balance on an elbow and sternly rebukes him. “He treats me better than anyone else in my life. I know he loves me and will always love me.” Fearing any level of confrontation, Victor swallows his rage and continues his confession. “I hit your mother. I was drunk. She started screaming at me, and I lost it.” “She told me.” His eyes fixated on the ceiling, he says, “So you know. I went to jail for six months. Your mother got custody of you, and I was ordered by the courts to never set foot in her house, to never be in around you or her.” “I know that,” Megan says, “but it doesn’t explain why you stayed away. You didn’t even try, maybe even five or ten years later. Wouldn’t the court let you see me?” “Maybe the court would, but your mother wouldn’t. She really hates me. And I don’t blame her.” Victor shifts his gaze from the ceiling to his daughter’s pale face. “I beat her up. End of story. She believes I’m a terrible parent and would never let me be part of your life. You have to try to understand that.” Megan looks fearlessly into his eyes, both his and her mother’s combativeness apparent. “I don’t know that I can do that.” He sighs. “Will it help if I get on my knees and beg your forgiveness?” Megan’s eyes are still serious. “Would you do that?” He chuckles sadly. “That and anything else you’d want me to do.”

112 “Help me keep the baby,” she says plainly. “Don’t try to change my mind, and don’t hate Robby. He’s going to be a great dad. If you can do all that, I will forgive you.” The words ‘great dad’ whittle his heart. He never had one, hadn’t been one. Does the anonymous Robby deserve a chance? “I promise to do all that,” Victor says, “but I can’t control your mother’s decision. You’re going to have to deal with her.” “I will,” she says. “Tomorrow. I’m going to sleep now.” She turns to face the wall. Scared at first, he then lifts his arm and caresses his daughter’s hair. She doesn’t flinch. A short moment passes before her breath is even. Victor sits at his desk and joyously listens to her breathing. As the night deepens, so does his understanding of the situation. Perhaps resigning to the law and her mother’s wishes isn’t the right course of action. He steps outside to smoke a cigarette and wonders how best to defend Megan’s rights and the ones of her unborn child. * * *

113

Chapter Nine

By ten in the morning, Gil is drunk. Unlike the day before, when he’d cried and lost track of time and ended up sleeping in the park, today’s drunkenness is familiar with the one he had nurtured during his drinking years: his mind is sharp, speech clear, his body able to soak up alcohol and remain in charge of its faculties. In the old days, when someone commented on his superior capacity to drink and remain lucid, Gil would say, “My Jewish great, grandmothers were probably raped by Cossacks. How else can you explain a liquor-lovin’ Jew?” He’s able to work for an hour, then eats a sandwich and reads the last chapter of Love in the Time of Cholera: After fifty-four years, Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza, unite. Both in their seventies, they sail down river and make love while reminiscing about their past. Love champions. The End. With a salute to the wonders of the written word, Gil shuts the book when the kitchen door opens and Victor enters in the company of a skinny redheaded teenage girl. Gil’s first thought is that Victor has crossed the line in his pursuit of sexual exploits. “What’s up?” he says. Victor looks pale, bags under his eyes, as if he hasn’t slept. “This is Megan, my daughter,” he says. “She came by last night….” His words trail off. He sniffs the air and his eyes dart in search of the scent when he sees the whiskey bottle on Gil’s desk.

114 The diagonal wrinkle between his eyebrows deepens. “What the fuck is going on? Are you drinking?” “I am,” Gil replies plainly and smiles at the teenage girl. “You’re Victor’s daughter? Wow! I’m Gil,” he mimics quotation marks, “the landlord.” “Nice to meet you.” The girl’s acne-strewn face and matchstick body signal to Gil that she isn’t well. He’d like to ask Victor many questions, but dampens his curiosity for company’s sake. “I’d like Megan to stay with me a few days,” Victor says. “Is that okay with you?” Gil nods and pours himself a shot. “She can stay as long as she likes.” Victor takes a deep breath before asking, “Why are you drinking?” “Why not?” “Because you’re throwing away six years of sobriety.” “Gotta take out the garbage sometime,” Gil says, and to Megan, “Do you like to read?” “Yes.” He holds out Love in the Time of Cholera. “Really good book, one of the best,” and to Victor he says, “It was Rachel’s favorite.” Megan takes the book. “Thanks,” and Victor says, “So that’s it? Now you’re drinking because of her? Man, don’t let her take you down.” Gil raises his arms in bewilderment. “What’s up with you and Andy? Like clucky aunts the two of you.” “You should listen to us.”

115 Gil frowns. “You get to drink and he gets to smoke pot. Neither of you has the right to give me crap,” and to Megan, “Right?” Her eyes widen with uncertainty. Gil laughs. “No need to answer,” and to Victor he says, “I appreciate your concern, but I’m fine. I’ll drink until I’ve had enough. Hey, I quit once, I can quit again.” “If you say so,” Victor says, repeating verbatim the words of Andy and the masseuse in Veil. Déjà vu all over again, a shudder runs down Gil’s spine and goosebumps rise on his arms. He takes a drink and feels better. “We need to go,” Victor says. “The pipes and wire mesh for the fountain I’m building at Perry’s place are coming today.” “Be on your way, then, father and daughter,” Gil says and raises his shot glass. They leave, and Gil wonders what’s going on with Victor, who’d mentioned his tumultuous past and ugly divorce, but did so sparingly, like describing events that had happened to someone else, a nephew or cousin perhaps. “To each his own,” he says and looks out the window, to a sunny, pre-spring day. The playground is brimming with action: Four toddlers riding the stationary train, all swings and seesaws in motion, nannies feeding fruits and sandwiches while speaking in rapid Spanish. Now would be a good time to jog, he thinks, but is too drunk to do so. Now would be a good time to walk the Washington pier and catch a glimpse of dolphins arching over the waves, he thinks, but is too drunk to drive. Now would be a good time to call Susan and try to explain his sexual dysfunction, maybe have her come over for a conciliatory

116 lunch, he thinks, but realizes he’s too drunk to make the right impression. He’d proudly discussed his sobriety with her; never imagined that a few days later he’d be drinking again. Unable to engage in the above mentioned activities, Gil strolls around the park listening to birds chirp and rustle in the high branches, watching industrious squirrels scamper up and down trees, noticing the pods on branches waiting for an ancient signal to trigger their bloom. The sky’s blue and grass’s green comfort him, an idyllic setting for contemplating all that is good and precious. Such musings became difficult for Rachel, saddened because she couldn’t share them with her child, much like he feels when he can’t share his joy with her. Now, with his old buddy Glen Fiddich back from the British Isles, Gil believes he doesn’t yearn to share his joy with Rachel and is content to appreciate the universe in solitude.

“Tell me about how you got sober,” Rachel had asked soon after they got together. They were dining at Versailles, a Cuban restaurant on Venice Boulevard. Rachel had a glass of Pinot with her rotisserie chicken, and he had a coke. “It was nasty,” he said. “I got back from Veil and, for a couple of days, things were okay. On the third night, I couldn’t sleep, all night. My brain wouldn’t stop. All kinds of memories, mistakes, regrets. It took me a few days to realize I was in really bad shape. I went to see my doctor. He prescribed anti-depressants and sleeping pills, to help me, as he said, ‘get over the hump.’” “Did you take them?” Rachel asked.

117 Gil shook his head. “Almost. I came home with two vials, Ambien and Zoloft. I read the side effects. Creepy. You know, they have no idea how this synaptic stuff works. Long story short, I never took a single pill. But I was losing my mind, and losing weight, like a pound a day. I was clinically depressed and suicidal.” “Poor baby,” Rachel said and reached across the table to caress his cheek. Gil smiled. “I was a basket case. I called my friend Mike, who lives in Florida, and who’d quit a few months before I did. He sent me to AA. I sat in my first meeting feeling totally out of place. Most the people were older and many were Latino. At the end of the meeting, I came up to the organizer, Westbrook, a guy in his late sixties with dentures, scruffy looking, with a crew cut and eyes like a hawk. He’s known as The Cleaner, for his gruff, no-nonsense attitude.” Rachel laughed. “The Cleaner? Like Harvey Keitel in Point of No Return?” Gil laughed. “Pretty damn close. So I tell him I can’t sleep and what should I do. He looks at me like a sergeant looks at a whining recruit. ‘You do nothin. You wait it out. Go for a walk, jerk off, call your sponsor.’ I told him I didn’t have a sponsor, so he assigned this guy, Woody, to see me through. A week later, Woody falls off the wagon and I’m left to fend for myself.” Rachel’s sky-blue eyes were wide with interest. “And?” Gil raised a forefinger. “It took about three more weeks. By then, I’d quit my job, couldn’t drive on the freeways, and wouldn’t talk to anyone, friends and family. I lost twenty pounds and looked like crap. So, one afternoon, I fell asleep for two hours—the longest stretch of sleep I’d had in a month. And when I woke up, I knew the worst was over. Sure, lots of recovery still waited, but I knew I’d pull through. Best part about that

118 period: no matter how shitty I felt, I wasn’t tempted to take a drink. That’s the higher power they talk about.” “Sounds like you needed to quit,” Rachel said. “I’m happy you did. I have a feeling we wouldn’t have met if you kept drinking.” Gil nodded. “We probably wouldn’t, or if we did, you’d think I was a jerk.” Rachel sipped her wine. “But I do think you’re a jerk.” Gil rolled his eyes. “You’re a riot, Alice, a riot, you hear?”

The park still looks beautiful in imminent spring, and the kids, precious as ever, but that isn’t enough anymore. Gil returns home, slams a shot, and then drinks a beer. “No more tears,” he says and sits at his desk to copyedit an article about how to humanely discourage rodents from infesting your garden. * * *

“Six years sober down the drain,” Victor says as they drive away. “Why did he start again?” Megan asks. Victor relays the Rachel saga. “He really loves her,” his daughter says. “You think so? Maybe he does, but now he’s using that as an excuse to drink, so maybe true love ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.” “You’re mad at him.” “I am. He’s a nice guy, doesn’t deserve to be treated that way.”

119 Megan rubs her stomach. “I understand why she’s unhappy. It’s so beautiful to have a baby growing inside of me.” “Did you get pregnant on purpose?” Victor asks. She shakes her head. “I don’t know how it happened. I was on the pill. But once I was pregnant, I thought about it and decided that God wouldn’t give me a baby if he didn’t want me to have her.” “How do you know it’s a girl?” Megan shrugs. “I just know. I feel her vibe.” Victor is curious to know what God Megan is talking about, but knows better than to throw religion into the mix. Instead, he decides that a bit of fatherly concern is better late than never. “Will you be honest with me?” “I’ll try.” “Are you still doing drugs?” Megan looks out her window. “What makes you think I’m on drugs?” “You look unhealthy, really skinny and pale, and your face is breaking out.” Megan withdraws into the seat. “I’m stressed out. I’m not doing drugs, and even if I was, I stopped ‘cause I’m pregnant.” Victor helplessly clenches his left fist while his right hand steers the pickup truck. “What were you on?” “Crystal.” He tries to sound casual. “You can’t do that anymore or you’ll have a baby sick for life.” “I promise.”

120 “Does Robby do drugs?” “No. He’s very religious.” Victor chuckles sadly. “A religious man sleeping with a minor?” Megan frowns. “In the bible, girls got married when they were twelve.” “That doesn’t make it right,” her father says. Megan’s voice is stern. “I’ll be eighteen two months after she’s born, so you don’t have to worry about it, kay?” Victor does the math. “So you’re about three months pregnant.” “Yes. And I don’t need a lecture ‘cause I’m not changing my mind.” His shoulders droop and he quietly says, “Okay.” He turns the radio on. CCR’s Heard it through the Grapevine is playing. When the song is finished, Rick Perry’s voice sounds in the car, “Speaking of Grapevine. Britney’s out of the nuthouse. I guess the law can’t keep her there unless she’s harmful to herself or others. Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m so bleadin’ sick with that twat. She should do us all a favor and get creative with a razor blade or a bottle of pills. God knows she can’t be creative singing. To me it sounds like a donkey braying. Yeah, that’s it! Britney, the Ass, Spears. No, you morons, I’m not referring to her butt. She used to have a nice one but now it’s sweeping the floor. I mean, Ass, as in Donkey, haha. That’s the show for today, mates. Tune in tomorrow at seven and I’ll make your morning drive a bit more tolerable. Adios Amigos.” American Woman, the Lenny Kravitz version, comes on. “My boss,” Victor says. Megan’s wrinkles her nose. “What a loser creep.”

121 Victor laughs. “It’s all show. He’s actually down to earth, one of the guys.” Megan doesn’t answer and leafs through the book Gil gave her. “Just so you know,” she breaks the silence. “Robby is black.” Victor tries to sound casual, “I don’t care. My best buddies in the Marines were black,” but he does care in subliminal ways he isn’t proud of. He especially abhors the younger generation of black males, with their foul-mouthed swagger and propensity for violence. After growing up with Motown and Soul, Rap music’s vulgarity offends him deeply. “What does Robby do for a living?” “He works in a bank, a loan officer. But he’s studying to be a cleric. We want to travel the world and help others.” “What’s a cleric?” “It’s the Muslim equivalent of a Christian minister.” His eyes widen in alarmed disbelief. “Robby’s a Muslim?” “It’s not a Muslim, just Muslim, and yes he is.” Megan’s voice is sharp and ready for battle. Easy does it, Victor thinks, then asks, “Why aren’t you with him?” “He’s in Africa, working with an NGO in Darfur. I talked with him a month ago and told him I was pregnant. He’s coming back in a month. We’re getting married.” Victor looks out his window and rolls his eyes. The more he hears, the less enchanted he becomes. He keeps reminding himself to bite his tongue, that Megan’s entitled to make her own choices, that she will leave if she doesn’t get her way. He must not allow that to happen.

122 “Sounds noble enough,” he says. Megan reaches her hand and lightly squeezes his shoulder. Her voice is measured and warm. “I know I’m throwing a lot of stuff at you. You probably think I’m crazy, but I’m not.” Victor blinks rapidly to hide the mist clouding his eyes. “I don’t think you’re crazy. My love for you has been buried for so long. I’m overwhelmed.” They drive up to the gate to Perry’s estate and drive up the circular driveway. Victor walks his daughter through the property and parades his work. “And here,” he says and points to the center of the front yard, “we’ll have a tenfoot-tall volcano-shaped water fountain. I build an outline with wire mesh, fill it up with cement, paint it grayish-blue, and embed round, flat stones into the walls. On top I’ll have red lights like lava.” He shrugs and smiles. “A little cheesy, but it’ll look good. Besides, that’s what the man paying the bills wants.” “I think it’ll look cool,” Megan says when Rick Perry’s Alfa Romeo zips up the driveway and comes to a screeching halt in front of the house.

Father and daughter walk up to greet Perry. “The truck with the pipes and wire mesh isn’t here yet,” Victor says. Perry smiles. “No worries. And who might the dashing damsel be?” “Megan, my daughter.” The DJ’s eyes widen. “Well, I’ll be a son-of-a-gun. You never mentioned a daughter,” and to Megan he softly says. “Nice to meet you. Your dad’s tops in my book.”

123 Megan folds her arms over her almost girly chest. “I heard what you said about Britney Spears. That was real mean.” Perry winks to Victor. “A warrior like her father, outspoken and lethal,” and to Megan he says, “I’m sorry I offended your refined cultural tastes, but, trust me, I’m the least of Britney’s problems. I doubt she knows I exist.” Megan frowns. Her pale cheeks blush with anger. “She’s a human being like the rest of us. She’s only twenty-five and you guys, the media, are cruel. It’s a witch hunt.” Perry shrugs, and then nods. “You know what, my esteemed Megan? You are one hundred percent correct. I have wronged Miss Spears and callously used her to secure my ratings with the sophomoric male audience. By doing so, I have offended as many as I have entertained. Tomorrow, on my show, I’ll offer an apology, after which, I will cease to ridicule the poor girl.” Unsure if he’s serious, Megan tilts her head and says nothing. Victor is embarrassed and proud. He’s realizing that his daughter is combative and out-spoken much like he was at her age, and like her mother—red-headed and hot-tempered. He grins at Perry. “She can be blunt.” “And I like that,” Perry says. “Fire and brimstone. Let’s have a beer while we wait for the truck.” He turns to Megan. “It’s a glorious day. Feel free to take a hot tub or swim in the pool. Bathing suits in the locker by the pool.” Megan smiles. “I could use a hot tub. The bus ride from Sac was brutal,” and asks Victor, “Is that okay?” Tormented by the memory of Vanessa—scarcely two years older than his daughter, Victor swallows with apprehension, when Perry pulls him aside and whispers,

124 “Your daughter is like my daughter, if I had one. No one fucks with her.” His eyes are hard with honesty. “I appreciate that,” the confused father says. Perry chuckles. “But I’m not lettin’ Britney off the hook. Don’t tell her, though.” “It’s your show. If she doesn’t like it, she can turn the dial.” “Well said.” Megan is off to change and soak in the hot tub while the two men sit at the kitchen table and sip beer. Perry sighs. “One day I’ll find me a good woman and have a few munchkins. Me mom is nagging me for a grandkid.” His heart twisted with love, confusion, and fear, Victor shares how Megan showed up on his doorstep, confesses to his past mistakes, and admits his doubts of how to proceed. Perry lets out a low whistle. “Bloody mess. You don’t wanna dance with social services in California. They will fuck you up, fuckin Nazis.” “I know,” Victor says. “They’re probably looking for her as we speak. And her mom’s really vindictive. Nothin more she’d like than to put me away again.” “Tell you what, mate,” Perry says and twists open two beers. “At seventeen, I was brash and naïve, but not stupid. Your girl knows what she wants. She’s a smart cookie. Let’s get her in here and have it out. I have a plan I’ll run by the two of you.” He looks out the window. “She’s one stripe on a pajama. We got to beef her up.” Victor groans. “She promised to stay clean. I believe her. She really wants the baby.”

125 “Go get her,” the DJ says. “I’ll get Luciana to make tacos.” He walks out of the kitchen in search of the housekeeper.

Thirty minutes later, the three of them are sitting at the kitchen table eating tacos, when Perry says, “To the situation at hand. Megan, what do you want to do?” “Have the baby.” “Can you do that while living with your mom?” “No. She’s really pissed off at me. There’s a lot of bad energy.” She rubs her stomach. “Not good for the fetus.” Perry nods. “I understand. Can you see that living with your dad is dangerous? That he can go to jail?” Megan withdraws into her chair. “I don’t have anywhere else to go.” “Maybe you do,” Perry says. “You can live here.” Victor cries, “What?” The DJ’s arm mimics a tempered wave. “Easy, mate. It’s all about degrees of separation.” He raises a forefinger. “Megan needs a safe place where you can visit her without causing suspicion.” He points his thumb behind his back, to where the housekeeper is washing dishes. “Luciana will build her up. She’s the best cook and had ten kids, she knows all about this stuff.” “What if they find me here?” Megan asks. Perry laughs. “I play dumb. I say I needed another housekeeper and that my gardener recommended his own daughter. How am I supposed to know you’re an underage pregnant runaway?”

126 Victor shakes his head. “This is insane.” Perry laughs, then lifts his arms in mock surrender. “No worries. Go sleep on it and call me tomorrow.” The entrance gate intercom buzzes, and soon after, the truck carrying the wire mesh and pipes rumbles up the driveway. Victor can’t brush aside his concern while unloading the truck and making sure all the parts are there. Less than twenty-four hours had passed since Megan arrived, and already that seems like a lifetime to him. Thoughts come crashing from so many angles— Megan’s poor health, her mother’s need to know what her daughter’s doing, Rick Perry’s generous offer, his feelings as a father. By the time he’s done unloading, he’s sure about one thing: he politely declines the DJ’s offer even though he believes it to be genuine. Perry nods. “You’re the dad. Talk it over with Megan. The door’s open if you need one.” “I appreciate your offer,” Victor says and means it.

“What do you think?” he asks his daughter once they’re driving east on PCH, the Pacific gleaming in sliver and blue. “If you mean do I trust him? I do.” Megan says. Victor smiles. “Even though he rags on Britney Spears?” “I trust him because I can tell that he likes you.” She’s quiet for a moment then asks. “Why does he like you?” Unwilling to share the Vanessa episode with his daughter, Victor says, “Cause I’m an ex-Marine. He has a thing for military. He also likes my work. By the way, do you

127 mind if we stop at an internet café? I need you to email your mom. Tell her you’re okay and that you’ll stay in touch.” “That’s a bad idea,” his daughter replies with confidence. “The police will track the email to LA and then to you.” “I see. You may be right,” he says and contemplates how to get in touch with Beth. He imagines the mother’s agony and feels bad to be part of it. Moments later, they are driving east on Ruby Lane when Victor sees the two police cars parked by the house. “Cops,” he whispers loudly and makes a right onto Louise and turns left on Washington. He parks in the Safeway lot. His heart is pounding so quickly he can barely breathe. Megan’s already pale face is snow white.

128

Chapter Ten

By three o’clock in the afternoon, Gil is enjoying a heavy buzz. Six beers and an undetermined number of shots have turned him into Superman. Like someone effortlessly riding a bicycle after not doing so for years, so his body favorably reacts to the liquor after the long abstinence. Walking around the house and in the yard, his feet somehow elevated off the ground, he feels invincible. The world is a friendly place; even the harshest personal conflicts seem manageable. Rachel’s need to travel the world meets with an understanding shrug, as are Andy’s excessive pot smoking and Victor’s indiscriminant sexual appetite. His mantra, to each his own, has never felt truer. “Why can’t we all just get along,” he mutters and chuckles, recalling Rodney King’s plea for civil order after half of LA burnt down in the 91 riots. He’s watching a re-run of a Seinfeld episode called The Soup Nazi, and is laughing loudly when he hears a stern triple-knock on the entrance door. He opens the door and sees four LAPD officers, three men—two Caucasians and one AfricanAmerican, and an Asian woman. The police officers are in their mid-twenties, blue uniforms finely starched and ironed crisp. Their waists are adorned with guns, handcuffs, batons, walky-talky’s, and flashlights. Through the eyes of his approaching middle age,

129 the officers look young and silly, how they try to project authority and seasoning they hadn’t earned through life’s trials. He’s also sure they’re knocking on the wrong door. He smiles. “What a diverse group of officers you are. California is truly the epicenter of the racial and cultural melting pot.” The officers don’t smile. “Are you Victor Melon?” asks one of the white officers. Gil chuckles while his mind cuts through the evolving situation. He isn’t about to disclose anything about Victor. “Do I look like a melon to you? If you ask my preference to fruits, I want my name to be, Pineapple, sweet and juicy with a tropical slant. Alas, I am Miller, Gil Miller, which points to my Jewish ancestors in Russia who grounded flour for a living.” The officer’s thick eyebrows converge. “Sir, are you drunk?” Gil wrinkles his nose. “Drunk has such harsh, negative connotations, a drumbeat of war.” He rattles his tongue off the roof of his mouth, “Drrrrrunk.” Then he smiles. “I’m imbibed, a temperate state of mind in tune with the lovely spring weather.” The officer narrows his eyes impatiently. “Is this the residence of Victor Melon?” He produces a sheet of paper and hands it to Gil. “We have a search warrant.” Gil takes a moment to scan the page while trying to plan his next move. His drunkenness serves to relax him. He isn’t intimidated by the posse standing before him. He also realizes he can’t lie. He returns the search warrant to the officer. “Victor Melon, who isn’t here at the moment, is indeed a resident of this house. He lives in the back, in what used to be the garage. Let me show you the way.”

130 The officers follow him through the living room into the kitchen and out the back door. Victor’s cave isn’t locked. The officers enter. Gil stands in the doorway while they search the room. “Since I’m the landlord,” he says, “may I inquire as to why you’re here?” The woman officer produces a photograph of a red-haired teenage girl. “Have you seen her?” Gil’s drunkenness allows him to casually shake his head and purse his lips. “I haven’t. Who is she?” “Mister Melon’s missing and pregnant daughter.” “No kidding!” Gil says, genuinely surprised and furious with Victor withholding that information. “He mentioned something about having a kid, but I’ve never met her. Something about him and his ex.” “We need to search the main house,” the white officer says. “Be my guests, but please don’t confiscate my roommate’s pot. He’s a real basket case without his weed.” The officer—well over six-feet—steps forward and towers over Gil. “Sir. You are drunk and belligerent. I suggest you not speak anymore or I will find a reason to arrest you.” Gil bows. “Yes officer. My sincerest apologies.” He enters the house and sits at his desk. His mind filled with questions, he looks out the window at the toddlers riding the stationary train. The officers search the house, come up with nothing, and walk out, aside from their captain who asks Gil, “Do you know Mister Melon’s whereabouts?”

131 “No, I don’t,” Gil replies, eyes pinned to his computer screen. “It’s imperative that Mister Melon get in touch with us as soon as possible regarding his missing daughter. Do you understand?” Gil nods. “Yes officer.” The universal love he’d felt earlier is replaced with contempt for the authorities barging into his life. He observes the squad cars drive away. Suddenly, he’s exhausted. Without second thought, he gets in bed and falls into heavy slumber.

Gil wakes up parched and dizzy, stomach sour, mind in painful disarray. Twilight peeks through the drawn curtains. Muffled thwacks of rackets striking tennis balls drift in through the open window. He swallows three Tylenol, pounds a beer and a shot, and sits at the computer, where he composes an email addressed to Rachel. In the email, he declares that his violated sobriety is all her fault, that she will have to contend with his spiraling into the alcoholic abyss. “I was doing fine before I met you,” he writes, “better than fine. I was Happy. I warned you not to break my heart, but you did. Why? You’re a man-hating, castrating bitch who thrives on hurting men. You chose me to be your victim. Who’s next? What excuse to walk away will you use next time?” He contemplates calling Rachel a cunt, but backs off from using the toxic word. In his anger, he throws a pen at the window. A thin crack runs through the glass but the window doesn’t shatter. His finger doesn’t hesitate over the mouse when it’s time to send the email. For that matter, he begins writing another one, filled with accusations and profanity, when the kitchen door opens and Victor enters. Megan isn’t with him.

132 Gil stands up and screams, “What the fuck is going on with you, you fucking asshole?” * * * At eight in the evening, Andy Cloud tallies up the cash register: it has been a hapless sales day. The new, improved sales persona he’d cultivated while drunk with revolutionary thoughts, had abandoned him. Like dawn’s mist that hovers over the ocean when the sun rises to evaporate it with her rays, so his confidence has vanished. Falling back on Impatient Nerd proved ineffective because he was being an impatient nerd rather than acting like one, and that, the customers didn’t care for. The barely perceived yet potent elegance of his tolerant agitation, the older-wiser, cantankerous yet caring salesman, had given way to someone unconcerned with if when and what the customer bought. He drives away from the store, down Culver Boulevard and right on Centinela, and parks on the street in front of small house painted sky-blue and shadowed by a giant willow. A hoarse, “Come in,” follows his knock on the door. The living room smells of medicines, dust, and bitterness of old age. At the rooms’ right corner, in a sturdy armchair, sits a white-haired man with thick glasses and a bulbous nose who’s watching C-Span on a small TV. “Hi Andy,” he says and waves. Andy waves back. “Hey Jules, how are you?” he asks in a gentle voice. “At eighty-five every day’s a good day.” “Ready to go shopping?” Andy asks.

133 “I’m on my last diaper,” Jules says and rises with a grunt. He shuffles toward Andy and smiles a toothless smile. “That Orin Hatch is a bastard. They wanna pass that FISA bill and give immunity to the phone companies that gave the phone records to the FBI. Fascism’s right around the corner.” “Totally unconstitutional,” Andy says. “Are you going to wear your dentures or scare the crap out of everyone we see?” “They won’t be ready till next week,” Jules says and opens his mouth wide. Andy wrinkles his nose and looks away. “Okay, then go brush your gums, they smell bad.” “Does that mean you don’t want to kiss me?” “Yes Jules. That’s exactly what it means.” The old man shuffles to the bathroom to brush his teeth while Andy opens five vials and distributes pills into a plastic box with seven compartments marked with the days of the week. The pills are to treat blood pressure, cholesterol, prostate, blood sugar, and bi-polar.

Jules takes a while to reach the car. Andy stands patiently holding the open door until the old man settles into the car seat. On the way to the supermarket, Andy is finally able to share his ordeal with another human being—how he innocently opened Seymour’s attaché case and discovered the secret documents, and how he delivered the information to Comet Livingston. Andy feels safe sharing his experience with Jules. He knows the old man—a radical anarchist in his views—won’t breathe a word to anyone,

134 and figures that even if Operation Comet goes astray, the evil FBI won’t persecute an old man with one foot in the grave. He concludes by asking, “You think I did the right thing?” “What’s the right thing?” Jules retorts. “If Comet sends the Trojan Horse and wipes out their servers, then yes. But we don’t know if he’ll do that.” “He’s the best programmer I know,” Andy says. “If anyone can cut through their firewall, he can.” “I never met the man, so I’ll have to take your word on that. Question remains about degrees of separation. Is he under surveillance?” “I don’t know,” Andy says, suddenly concerned with satellites focusing their lenses on the foreboding house perched atop the hill overlooking the Pacific. “You should’ve let him copy the information using his paper and pen, and then burnt the page with your writing on it. No writing samples and fingerprints.” Andy’s gut twinges fearfully; are invisible eyes watching him? They park in front of Ralph’s. Jules shuffles toward the market doors where Andy is waiting with an electric cart. The old man settles into the cart, takes out a crumpled page from his breast pocket, and gives it to Andy. For the next fifteen minutes, Jules drives around the fruit and vegetable section where he fusses about one apple or another or a possibly too ripe tomato, while Andy traverses the rest of the store and returns several times with groceries that he places in the cart. “I want a bottle of wine,” the old man says. “No can do, Jules. You know it doesn’t mix with your diabetes and bi-polar medication.”

135 Jules smiles. “I had a checkup last week. Doc says I’m good. My prostate is down to 2.0. Boy, he takes pleasure in shoving his finger up my butt. I showed him my dick, asked him when I can get Viagra. He says, ‘Jules, you have a lovely penis. It’s a shame to have it go to waste. Let’s get your prostate down to 1.5 and get you laid.’” Andy nods. “Countless women are circling the block waiting for that happy day.” Jules holds out his thin arm and clenches his fist. “Hard as steel, it was, harder than steel.” Andy rolls his eyes. “Treasures lost forever to mankind: The ten commandments, Machu Picchu, and your steel-hard dick.” “Be a mench, go get your buddy Geltman a bottle of Chardonnay. If it kills me I’ll die with a smile.” “Fine!” Andy says and fetches a bottle of wine. “My conscience is clear. I warned you but I’m tired of arguing.” Jules drives the electric cart toward the checkout stand. “Did I tell you the story about the banana lady of Okinawa?” “No, but it sounds like a dirty story so can we wait until we’re driving back? I don’t want to offend the cashier.” The cashier is a large black woman who smiles kindly at the old man. “You’re too young to ride the cart.” “That’s true,” he says, “But looks can be deceiving. How old you think I am?” “Not a day over seventy.”

136 “No. I’m forty-nine, but when you have five daughters, that ages a man. And none of them plays with a full deck.” With a shaky hand, he reaches into his worn-out wallet and brings out a faded photograph of his wife and him standing over five young women. “How come your son isn’t in the picture?” the cashier asks. “I don’t have a son.” “Oh…I thought he was your son. You look alike,” she says and points to Andy. Jules tesk’s, “Now you’re being mean. I thought you liked me.” The cashier laughs. Jules looks to Andy. “I bet she can handle the banana lady story.” “Jules! Please don’t!” The old man shrugs at the cashier. “You’ll have to excuse Andy. He’s repressed. My doctor says I can take Viagra soon. Can I call you to help me check out if it works?” Andy frowns and whispers loudly, “Jules! That’s enough. I won’t take you shopping anymore if you keep this up.” The old man chuckles. “Keep it up? Haven’t done that in twenty years.” The cashier’s laughing hard.

They’re driving back to Jules’s house when the old man says in a slow, reflective voice, “We docked back in Okinawa about a year after the war ended. By then, the memories of the dead had faded somewhat. These days I remember them better than ever, but then, we were young and full of cum, invincible. We wanted to forget the battle, needed to forget it or we’d lose our minds. So me and Pete go out on the town, if you wanna call it that. The island was barely coming to life again. We come up to this shack

137 that has one red neon light and a sign above the entrance. The sign reads, Floor Shoo. ‘Wanna see a floor shoo?’ Pete asks. ‘Show me a floor shoo and I’ll show you a good time,’ I say. The place is empty, maybe five guys. This old Japanese man serves us warm beer. We brought our own whiskey so we’re loaded pretty quickly. There’s a tiny stage in the corner. Koto music starts playing; the record is so old you can hear the scratches over the music. A Japanese woman in a red kimono, maybe forty or fifty, not young, with her face painted white comes on stage. She has a boa constrictor wrapped around her shoulders, maybe a ten-footer and thick. She starts petting its head and lets it slither between her thighs, erotic like you can’t imagine. Then she puts the snake in its cage. Her arms on her hips she squints at the tiny audience. ‘You come here,’ she says and motions to Pete. Her voice is brittle and harsh, a don’t-fuck-with-me voice. We’re drunk, so Pete chuckles at me. ‘What the hell,’ he says and goes on stage. She tells him to lie down on his back. He does. She takes off her kimono. Her body’s kinda worn out, but hey, I haven’t seen a naked woman in two years. I’m all excited and I know Pete is too. He’s looking right up her cunt. She takes a banana out of her kimono pocket and peels it, gyrating and trying to look sexy while she does, but I can tell she’s not into it. Probably hates all American GI’s. She stands over Pete, who’s still lying on the floor, and shoves the banana up her pussy. Then she crouches about two feet over his face. ‘Open mouth,’ she commands. He does. She starts chopping the banana with her pussy muscles. The slices drop into Pete’s mouth. He chews them eagerly. Her mouth is gaped in an angry sneer, her teeth clenched, like a Samurai chopping off someone’s head. I start to laugh. Can’t stop. In eighty-five years, I never laughed harder.”

138 They’re parked by the old man’s house. Jules sits quietly, wrinkled skin dotted with liver spots, deathly pale under the streetlight. “That was a great story,” Andy says. “Anyone who has a banana lady story to tell has lived a full life.” Jules sighs. “Life is a sand clock, and I’m running out of sand.” He shuffles into the house while Andy brings in the groceries, unpacks them, and prepares cheese casadias while Jules sits in the armchair and turns on the TV. On the Senate floor, Jon Kyle, Republican Senator from Arizona, is going on about how the American people must be protected from Al Qaeda, how the war with Islamo Fascism is a generational one—a global war lasting decades, and how the terrorists hate American freedom and will stop at nothing until they topple the American Dream. Jules shakes a fist at the TV. “For that worthless asshole my buddies died on Okinawa? So he could spout his lies and try to scare us? Fucking scum! For that Johnny and Mark and Duane, died? For that Chilly and Bobby lost their limbs?” “Easy Jules,” Andy says from the kitchen. “You’ll give yourself a heart attack.” The old man growls and leans back in his chair. Andy serves the casadias and says, “Maybe Obama will change things, put the country back together. I never had a chance to vote for a presidential candidate younger than me.” Jules bites into the warm tortilla. “If he lives. I like that he doesn’t end his stump speech with God bless you. How trite is that phrase? ” “You really think they’ll try to assassinate him?”

139 Jules frowns. “They lied about the Bay of Tonkin, which was fifty thousand dead. They lied about WMD, that’s another five thousand dead. What makes you think they care about one man?” Andy sighs. “I always wonder who They are.” “No one knows. Not even me,” Jules says. Andy shrugs. “How can you fight an invisible enemy?” “You can’t.” “So, what do we do?” “We? Count me out. I done my share.”

They quietly watch the Senate twist and shroud itself in propaganda and false patriotism. If that’s a true picture of man’s essence, Andy thinks, then we really don’t stand a chance. “Six-hundred billion they spent on a missile defense shield,” Jules says. “Sixhundred fuckin billion. And best yet,” he chuckles, “damn thing don’t work half the time.” Andy sighs. “And those Trident submarines. They have twenty of them, each armed with ninety-four nuclear missiles. One submarine can destroy the world, but they need twenty.” The old man says, “And they bitch about Iran building one bomb. Hey, if I were Iran I’d be building one. They’re surrounded by Russia, Israel, India, Pakistan, and the US Sixth Fleet. They all have nuclear bombs. What’s Iran to do?”

140 “This hasn’t been a good day,” Andy says, thoughts drifting back to Gil’s shattered sobriety. Jules shakes his head. “Everyday is a good day. Get out there Andy. Go grab God by the balls before you’re too old, like me. Look at me.” He sighs. “I miss Lucille. Fortynine years she dealt with my crap, raised the kids, carried my weight.” He smiles at Andy. “She was the best wife a man can ever wish for.” “I’m sorry I never got to meet her,” Andy says and looks up at the portrait on the wall across from him: a couple in their fifties. Lucille’s a tiny woman with frizzy white hair and a narrow chin; Jules is robust, no glasses and a full head of dark hair. Andy finds no resemblance to the man in the armchair. “Be a mench, go pour me a glass of wine.” Andy returns with the wine. Jules sips and says, “Who would’ve imagined. Two years ago I come to your store to buy a cassette player, and here we are, still friends.” Andy recalls how the witty, sarcastic old Jew opened up to the lonely and forlorn salesman, how their political observations meshed, how the WWII veteran could hold Andy’s attention while telling a story, and so many stories he had, as though he’d lived five lifetimes. Your life’s value is determined by your affect on other people’s lives, was the saying Andy had once heard, and he’d become an important part of an old man’s life —taking him to doctor appointments, helping him buy food, making sure he took his medications, and lending an ear to memories from times long gone by. “You need a new TV,” Andy says, suddenly embarrassed he’d let Jules watch the 17-inch Panasonic for so long. “I’ll bring one next time. Much better definition.” “That would be nice. That way, I’ll be more accurate when I spit at the screen.”

141 It’s almost ten o’clock. Andy’s beat. “I need to get going.” “Thank you, Andy. You’re my only friend.” “My pleasure, Jules,” Andy says and wonders about the old man’s daughters. They never visit or call, not even a letter. He’s waiting for Jules to share why that is happening, but the old man has yet to do so.

He leaves Jules sipping his wine in front of the TV. He sits in his car and takes two hits from his pipe. Man is a precious and ferocious animal, he thinks while driving home. On one hand toddlers in the park and an old man who misses his dead wife, on the other, nuclear submarines and Apache gunships. It makes no sense, no sense at all, he thinks as he parks his car in front of 2420 Ruby Lane. He walks in the house. An empty bottle of whiskey and beer cans fill the trashcan under Gil’s desk. The window above the desk is shattered, glass strewn on the floor. CD’s and DVD’s litter the carpet. Gil is sleeping on the couch. A big bruise adorns his forehead.

142

Chapter Eleven

Victor and Megan are parked in the Safeway parking lot. The teenager winces and clutches her stomach. “My baby’s nervous.” “Take it easy,” Victor says. “We’ll be fine.” His military training kicks in: options are few: They can’t go back to the house. Renting a motel room would be costly and uncomfortable. He reaches for his cell phone and dials Perry’s number. “The cops are at the house,” he says, then listens for a moment, nods, and hangs up. “Let’s go,” he tells Megan. “To his house?” “For now.” They drive in silence. Victor’s mind rustles with confusion. He’s now unwelcome in his cave—his refuge for five years. His skin crawls with claustrophobic sensations. Where can he run to? Part of him wants to get on the 5 freeway and drive directly to Sacramento. He’ll drop Megan off with her mother and return to his predicable mundane —work, drink, and fuck. Megan starts to cry. “Don’t take me back to mom. I don’t want to go there.” “I won’t,” he says, terrified and amazed by her intuition.

143 Megan weeps. “I’m sorry I messed up your life.” Victor holds the steering wheel with his left hand while his right reaches to caress his daughter’s shoulder. She’s skin and bones. “Stop it. You’re not messing up my life. I will protect you.” He takes a deep breath and says, “I love you.” The words ring inside his head and widen his heart with bliss. Like a lighthouse sending a beacon through clouds and pelting rain to guide the rudderless ship to safety, so his daughter has come to salvage his useless life. Never has he been more certain about anything. He tries to remember when he’d last said, I love you, to anyone. He can’t remember. How has he managed for so long without love, he wonders, and again says, “I love you.” Megan stops crying and sits quietly looking out her window. Her chin trembles. “Why is your mom hell-bent on you having an abortion?” The question has been at the forefront of his mind for some time. “She says I’m too young, that I’m not ready to be a mom. She also hates Robby cause he’s black and Muslim.” “I was hoping she’d be over her bigotry by now,” Victor says and recalls Beth’s aversion to black men; she didn’t like the way they smelled. He never gave her attitude much thought. “She thinks that all Muslims are like Bin Laden, terrorists who want to kill Americans,” Megan says. “I don’t care for Muslims myself,” he says, “at least not those crashing planes into the World Trade Center.”

144 Megan frowns. “You have the American government to blame for that. They’re the ones supporting the Saudi Royal Family, giving them weapons for oil. Fucking morons won’t let their women drive a car or wear a dress.” Enthralled by his daughter’s feistiness, Victor laughs. “I wish the situation was as simple as you make it to be, but let’s not argue politics. I get my share of that from Andy. Maybe you and he can have a peace-fest one day.” Megan withdraws into her seat and looks out the window. “We got to let your mom know you’re okay. How can we do that?” “I’m going to send a letter to my friend in Portland and have her mail the letter to mom. There’s no way the police will connect the dots. If anything, it’ll throw them off my trail for a while.” Victor chuckles. “Inspector Megan Melon.” He’s feeling better, stronger and filled with purpose. Let the chips fall where they may, he thinks, and if he goes to jail, so be it. Twenty minutes later, they park by Perry’s house. “Let me show the lady to her quarters,” the DJ says. He ceremoniously entwines his arm in hers and leads them upstairs to the second floor, to a cozy room painted beige, with a twin bed and a pink dresser. French doors open to a small porch overlooking the pool. “Cute spread,” he says to the teenager who smiles wider than Victor has seen her do—the dimple in her cheek is deep. “Go ahead, unpack, while I walk your dad out.” Victor hugs his daughter; her weight against his body comforts him in profound ways. “I’ll see you tomorrow,” he says. “You can help me in the garden.”

145 “Bye dad, thanks,” Megan says. Victor’s heart trembles to the word, dad. She hadn’t used that word until now. Last he remembers, Megan called him Duddy, when she was two-years-old. Embarrassed tears may show while he’s in Perry’s company, he swallows hard and tucks then into his stomach.

“What are you going to do?” Perry asks as they descend the steps. “Haven’t quite figured it out, but I won’t leave the yard unfinished.” Standing by Victor’s truck, they shake hands and Perry says, “No worries about Megan. She’s in good hands.” “I know. See you tomorrow,” Victor says.

Enemy territory is rife with hidden traps. You step on an innocent branch and suddenly you’re head down, your foot caught in a loop, swinging toward a bed of knives embedded behind inconspicuous foliage.

Victor drives around the block twice to make sure the law is gone, before parking his truck in the back of 2420 Ruby Lane. He inspects the cave—nothing there to disclose Megan’s presence, and then enters the house through the kitchen door. Gil, who is sitting at his desk, stands up and screams, “What the fuck is going on with you, you fuckin asshole.” “I’m sorry,” Victor says, when Gil runs toward him, the top of his head aimed at Victor’s stomach.

146 “Stop,” Victor cries, but Gil doesn’t, his stocky body gaining speed. When Gil is a foot away from him, Victor moves to the right. Gil flies by and smashes his forehead against the entertainment center. The CD’s and DVD’s on the shelf scatter on the carpet. A second later, the window above Gil’s desk shatters. “What are you doing?” Victor cries and tries to help Gil stand up. The drunken copyeditor pushes him away. A trickle of blood shows through his hand, which is covering his forehead. Victor runs to the kitchen and returns with a hand towel filled with ice. Gil is lying on the sofa and groaning. “Quick, put this on,” Victor says and hands him the towel. Gil presses the towel against his forehead. “Fuckin cops walking in here like they own the place.” “I’m really sorry,” Victor says. “Did you tell them anything?” Gil removes the towel from his forehead. A bump is rising above the bridge of his nose. He contemptuously narrows his bloodshot eyes. “No. I didn’t. I’m not an asshole like some people I know.” Victor sighs. “Thanks. So they don’t know she was here?” Gil is horizontal again, pressing the towel over his cut. “No. There’s a bottle of scotch in the pantry. Go get it.” Victor returns with the Glenfiddich and two cups. He pours some in each, hands one to Gil and says, “We finally get to have a drink together.” “Not funny!” Gil drinks the liquor and asks for more. Then he lies down and shuts his eyes.

147 Victor takes advantage of the sad silence and tells Gil about the last twenty-four hours, from the moment he’d opened the door and saw the frightened teenage girl standing in the doorway, until he dropped her off with Rick Perry. Gil listens and doesn’t interrupt. “I have to help her,” Victor concludes. “She’s my daughter and I love her.” “You’re gonna go to jail,” Gil says calmly. “Maybe, but it’s for a good cause,” Victor says and sips the scotch. “This is delicious. Never had Glenfiddich before.” He reaches for the towel in Gil’s hands. “Lemme get some more ice.” “Why did you attack me?” he asks when he’s back from the kitchen. “I’m pissed at you, and the cops, but truth is I’m more pissed at Rachel. I’m also really drunk.” “Hate is sometimes the first step to getting over someone,” Victor says. “I don’t hate her,” Gil says, and whispers. “I love her.” Victor’s about to recommend taking Gil to the massage parlor, when he thinks better of it. The words, I love you, so alien one day ago, now ring true. His acerbic cynicism about relationships has been tempered. He, too, can lay claim to the words, I love you. “Maybe you have to believe that she’ll work it out and come back.” “And what am I supposed to do until that glory day?” Victor drains the cup and smacks his lips. “Drinking’s probably not the way to go, at least not for you. I don’t know what it feels like to quit for six years. I could never do that. But you did it, and you were proud of it.”

148 Gil drains his cup. “I’ll drink to that.” “I’m gonna have to leave,” Victor says. “I can’t stay in the cave. They’ll be back.” “Where’ll you go?” “Even if I knew I wouldn’t tell you. The less you know, the better.” Gil sits up on the couch and pours himself another drink. “You’re a big boy. I can’t tell you what to do.” Victor reaches out his hand. “I’ll be in touch. Thanks for everything you’ve done for me. The cave’s been a great place.” Gil reciprocates the handshake. “You’ll be back. Take care.”

Victor walks out to the cave, and Gil lies back on the couch. He’s scared and ashamed of his conduct. Who was the person who attacked Victor? He doesn’t recognize the violent man, filled with red rage. Alcohol had never brought out that behavior in him; what happened to the happy drunk he was known to be? “I don’t want to get back on the wagon,” he then says to himself. “It’s a bumpy ride and the wheels squeak.” He touches the throbbing bump on his head—a sign that his drinking has become unmanageable, but brushes the notion aside. He stares at the bottle sitting on the coffee table, and then takes a drink. The warmth is comforting. “I wanna feel sorry for myself,” he says. “Ain’t nobody’s business if I do.”

Before he leaves his beloved cave, Victor takes a few minutes to lie on his bed and think. He has enough money to stay in a motel for two, maybe three weeks. He hopes

149 the confusion will clear up by then; perhaps Beth will come to accept Megan’s pregnancy. Wasn’t there a time limit as to when an abortion became illegal? He’ll have to find out more about that option. He’ll have to cut down on eating out and drinking binges, and give up sexual exploits indefinitely. That last concession doesn’t bother him. He believes he’s found a higher power—the power of love—to help him overcome the lonely abyss of his sexual addiction. Victor packs a backpack with essentials and drives away from 2420 Ruby Lane. He stops at a Verizon store and buys two pay-as-you-go cell phones that he registers to Mike Campbell. The clerk doesn’t ask for ID verification. Victor hopes the cell phones will allow for discrete communications between him and Megan. Thirty minutes later, he checks into a rundown motel on Pico Boulevard—three hundred a week for a smoking room on the second floor. Mexican immigrants fill the motel, families of five and six to a room; cumbias sound from behind shut doors; barefoot children play on the concrete path separating the motel’s two wings. Lying on an uneven mattress, the excited voices of children at play bubbling in through the open window, Victor recalls the day that changed his life and eventually led him to the motel room on Pico Boulevard.

“I’d appreciate if you don’t drink while we’re celebrating Megan’s birthday,” Beth said. “Her daycare teacher will be here, and my friends from work.” “I see,” he said, and whispered, “We wanna look normal and happy for them, a suburban couple, the nuclear family.”

150 “No need for your sarcasm. It’s a simple request. Don’t drink on your daughter’s second birthday.” “When’s the last time we fucked?” he asked. “Do I get some if I don’t drink?” “I don’t want to sleep with you,” Beth said plainly. “You know that.” He sneered. “And why is that? Remind me.” Beth’s eyes glowed with defiance. “You’re an alcoholic. You remind me of my abusive father. He was an alcoholic and that turns me off.” “It didn’t bother you when we met,” he said what he’d said many times before. “It did bother me, but I had no self-esteem. I didn’t believe I deserved better.” “And now you do?’ “Yes.” “So what the fuck are we doing in this marriage?” Beth folded her arms. “It’s up to you. If you want to save our marriage, you’ll have to stop drinking.” He stood up and towered over her. “Ain’t gonna happen, so learn to live with it. And tell that to that analyst bitch of yours, who’s filling up your head with this crap.” Beth stood up fearlessly. “I’m not going to dignify your comments with a response except that you’d be doing us all a favor if you talked to a professional about your issues.” He laughed. “Issues. Who’s the fuckhead that came up with this word? Issues. Such a tidy word.” Beth walked away and entered the house. Through the window, he sees her hang paper-chained Teletubbies over the fireplace. Then he walked to the liquor store and

151 bought a twelve-pack. He placed the beer in the refrigerator and, throughout the afternoon, while presents were opened, cake was served, and a piñata succumbed to a golf club swung by blindfolded toddlers, he drank, smiled at the guests, and avoided his wife. Later that evening, after the guests had left, he and Beth continued their toxic purging. “That was fun,” he said mockingly and sipped from his beer. “I want you to leave,” she said. “I beg your pardon?” “Leave. I want a divorce.” He laughed, but his anger began to bubble. “I want a fuckin’ million dollars. Don’t mean shit what you want.” Beth walked up to him and screamed, “I want you out of my house.” “Fuck you,” he screamed back. “If you want a divorce, be my guest, but I’m not going anywhere. You want out? You leave.” She grabbed the beer out from his hand and threw it across the room. It landed on the couch and leaked on the cushion. His arm swung and the back of his palm struck her across the face. Beth flew halfway across the room and landed on her back. She got up and charged at him, gnarled fingers aiming for his face. He struck her again. She lay unconscious for a moment, then got up. Blood gushed from her nose, and her right eye began to swell. For a second, their eyes locked in hatred he’d never felt before or since. Beth ran to the bedroom and locked the door. Victor sat on the couch, buried his face in

152 his palms, and remained so for a few moments when he heard the sirens getting closer. Loud knocks sounded on the entrance door and then the door swung open. Six officers charged in, guns drawn. “On the floor,” one of them yelled. Victor lay on the floor; the handcuffs snapped around his wrists. Beth walked into the living room. Her nose and eyes red and swollen, she pointed at him and hissed, “Get this scum out of here.” Moments later, he was sitting in the back of a squad car. The seat was wooden and smelled of sweat and urine. A thick metal screen separated him from the officers in the front seat. The handcuffs dug into his flesh. He knew he was going to jail, knew he would lose the house and his daughter in the divorce proceedings, yet, as his world came crashing down, as the squad car drove away from the house, he sighed with relief, free from the chains of tortured love, free from the unhappy marriage that needed to end. By the end of his six-month incarceration, the divorce was final, the house was gone, the custody over Megan was lost, and the restraining order was in effect. In the letter he received from her lawyer, Beth wrote that she didn’t intend to forgive him. He was a bad person, an alcoholic who would perpetuate the pain of his abusive childhood and the childhood abuse she was trying to overcome. She did not intend to let him have any contact with Megan, and if he tried anything against her wishes, she’d make sure he rotted in jail. Within a month after reading the letter, he relocated from Sacramento to Los Angeles, where he continued his employment as a gardener-landscaper. He shut away the past and moved on until the knock sounded on the door and the teary-eyed teenager stood

153 in the doorway. The past had come full circle and returned to heal and torment him, to push him toward once again losing his home and becoming a wanted man, to catapult him to room 234 in a fleabag motel on Pico Boulevard. * * *

Andy goes to fetch a hand broom and dustpan from the kitchen. He returns to the living room and sweeps the broken glass into the dustpan. Gil stirs on the couch, opens his bleary eyes and hoarsely says, “Hey Andy.” Chin locked in the indignation a wife exudes when she returns home to find her drunken husband on the couch, Andy doesn’t answer while picking up CD’s from the floor and placing them back on the shelf. Gil says, “I said I didn’t want any Jewish mothers.” “I’m not Jewish and I’m not your mother,” Andy says, “but I reserve the right to be upset.” He observes Gil sit up on the couch, and then stagger to clutch the bottle of Tylenol on his desk. “What happened here?” Andy asks and points to the DVD’s lying on the carpet. “I tripped and hit my head on the cabinet.” “Of course you did.” Gil pops two Tylenol and drinks them down with warm beer. “Crazy stuff with Victor, no?” “What about Victor?” “Holy crap,” Gil cries. “You don’t know what’s going on.”

154 “Hello,” Andy clips, “I’ve been at the store all day and then visited Jules.” “You gotta hear this,” Gil says and points to the couch. “Sit.” Andy listens while Gil delivers the Victorian Saga minus the part when he attacked Victor. “So he’s gone?” Andy asks. Gil nods. “For a while, at least.” “I hope he works it out,” Andy says, “but I won’t be heartbroken if he doesn’t come back. He’s really starting to get on my nerves with his political crap.” “Let him be. He’s had a rough life.” Andy scowls. “He’s not the only one. And the way he treats women, paying for sex, is sick.” “It’s not my bag either,” Gil says, “but it’s not like he’s abusing them.” “Bullshit,” says Andy. “That’s exactly what he’s doing. These women come from broken homes. Their fathers, uncles, brothers, have abused them. They wouldn’t be hookers otherwise. Victor’s perpetuating the abuse, using their bodies. He doesn’t care about their suffering.” “Maybe,” says Gil. “But take, for instance, a high-end hooker. Say she has twenty regulars she sees twice a month and charges four-hundred an hour. That’s two hours from her day and she makes twenty grand a month, tax free.” Andy shakes his head. “It comes with a price.” “Come on man, you sound like the morality police. Maybe she enjoys having lots of sex. She’s treated well, gets gifts, and, if you ask me, she’s providing a needed service. Kinda like a healer. Besides, she’d rather hook than work at Jack in the Box for minimum

155 wage, enslaved to a greedy corporation that, if you ask me, is much more corrupt than a hooker.” “So how come you don’t use hookers?” Sipping his scotch, Gil retorts, “To each his own.” “To each his own doesn’t work,” Andy cries. “It’s a copout. There needs to be collective responsibility.” Gil’s eyes widen. “Easy, buddy. You know I don’t mean anyone can do anything. But you can’t put everyone on the analyst couch. Shit happens. Victor’s kinda right when he says that you want a perfect world, a utopia. Doesn’t work that way.” Andy clinches his fists. “Well, it should.” Gil shrugs. “Coulda, shoulda. If it worked your way, Rachel would still be here and I probably wouldn’t be drinking….” He smacks himself over the top of his head. “Crap,” he cries and strides to his desk. He clicks on the email sent folder. “Shit!” “What is it?” Andy asks. Gil groans. “I sent Rachel a nasty email this morning.” He sits at his desk and grins at Andy. “Time to walk to Canosa.” Andy points to the shattered window. “And that?” “A moment of frustration,” says the jilted lover. “So we have a broken window, a nasty bump on the head, and an obnoxious email to Rachel.” Andy raises three fingers. “Three strikes, you’re out. No more drinking.” “Consider one of them, say, the window, a mulligan,” Gil says and is about to begin typing the apology email to Rachel, when the computer rings an incoming message.

156 “It’s from Rachel,” Gil says and looks at Andy, his lips tight with dread. “Can I make you a sandwich?” Andy’s had enough turmoil for one day. He wants to see his friend tucked in bed and sleeping off his liquor. “I’m not hungry,” Gil says even though his stomach rumbles with hunger. “Fine,” says Andy indignantly, and goes in the kitchen. A hidden universe lurks in a click of the mouse. Gil’s finger hovers, left and right, up and down. A chilly breeze floats through the broken window and rustles pages lying on the desk. Gil opens the email. I love you I’m sorry. I love you I’m sorry. I love you I’m sorry…reads the email. Gil counts thirty-nine repetitions. The number means nothing to him. He grunts and his shoulders stoop. Rachel’s again managed to remain ambiguous: he finds no comfort in the chain of love and forgiveness. An email he would find comforting would state: Arriving in LA on British Airways flight 450 Sunday 7:00 PM. Dinner at Versailles? He would also find solace in an email that read: Waiting in Suva, Fiji. I’m in room 401 at the Holiday Inn 67-93-301600. Come on down. Fingers perched over the keyboard, Gil is ready to respond to Rachel’s email, when he realizes there’s nothing he can write except, I love you I’m sorry. So he does, thirty-nine times. He knows their relationship has reached the no words left to say stage. Arguments have been made, accusations and judgments, aired, longing and loneliness, declared, unrequited love trumpeted from the mountaintop. Rachel will not travel forever. The moment will come when they look in each other’s eyes. Will the spark be there? Will it have dimmed? Will his eyes sparkle while hers dim, or vice versa? Until that fateful day, that unavoidable meeting, time will stretch—slow and ponderous—days will pass in

157 joyless expectation, and life, his life and happiness will remain on hold. In the meantime, he will continue to drink. Gil pours the amber liquor in his shotglass, lifts the glass to eyelevel, and embraces the comfort offered by Glen Fiddich, his trusted, nonjudgmental friend. Then he sends the email and swears it’s the last one he will send, unless Rachel sheds her cryptic veil and is ready to talk again.

That chapter of his life sealed, Gil joins Andy in the kitchen. His friend is almost finished eating his sandwich. “What did the email say?” “It said I’m going to have to be patient.” “Does being patient involve drinking?” “Yes,” Gil says while making himself a turkey and cheese sandwich. “How can I help you stop?” “You can’t, but you can roll me a joint.” Andy shrugs. “Fine. Smoking weed is far better than drinking.” He goes to his room and returns with rolling papers and an Altoids aluminum container. While Gil is eating his sandwich, Andy rolls a joint, which he places on the table. “Thanks,” Gil says. “Pot is a good thing,” says Andy. “I can imagine the UN Security Council getting stoned. I bet it’ll do good for the world.” Gil laughs. “That would be great.” “The planet would be a better place if everyone got stoned,” Andy lectures. “Production quotas for corporations would drop, more people would watch sunsets.” He

158 chuckles, “We’ll have more fender benders, but since everyone will be driving slower, the damage will be minor.” “It’ll be good for kids,” Gil says. “Stoned parents have better imaginations and more patience.” Andy nods. “Definitely.” “I feel good,” Gil says. He touches the bruise on his forehead; it’s tender, but the Tylenol has kicked in to temper the pain. “I’m beat,” Andy says and eyes the clock above the kitchen door. “It’s almost midnight.” “I’m going to work for a while. Did you know that spraying your garden with a mixture of eucalyptus oil and garlic can eliminate 99% of insect infestation?” “I did not know that. A fascinating statistic.” “And doing so also promotes robust growth and improves the taste of your vegetables.” Andy shrugs. “I’m flummoxed. It’s inexcusable that I go through life not knowing amazing facts such as these.” “Thanks, Andy,” Gil says. “You’re a good friend.” “You’re welcome,” Andy says casually, though his heart joyously skips a beat.

Andy goes to bed feeling good. He socialized with Gil and Jules, the two people in his life he cares for the most. Victor is gone. Andy sincerely hopes the landscaper will live happily-ever-after with his pregnant daughter. If that happens, Victor will not return; the cave is too small for a family. Maybe he could talk Gil into letting Jules move into the

159 cave. Andy sighs, comforted by the thought of the three of them sharing the house at 2420 Ruby Lane. The old man could sit on a park bench and watch toddlers tumble. Doing so would liven up his life. The three of them could watch movies together and comment acerbically on current events. And come November 8th, they would congregate around the TV and breathlessly watch the election of the first African American president in US history. After forty-three white men, finally a welcome wind of change. * * *

Gil sits at his desk and smokes two hits from the joint. He hadn’t smoked pot in about eighteen months, the last time being with Rachel when they visited the Napa Valley. “I want to tour the wineries,” she had said. “Will you be tempted to drink?” “Not at all,” he said. They drove through the lush valley and visited several wineries. He drove and Rachel tasted the wines. He enjoyed watching her get tipsy. They walked through vineyards, up a hill to a waterfall, and had a picnic. Later at the hotel, Rachel said, “I brought a little pot.” Her eyes sparkled. “I didn’t know you smoked,” he said. “Sometimes I do, but I didn’t know if you mind.” “Why would I mind?” “Doesn’t AA say you can’t?” “They do, but I know members who smoke weed. For some, it’s good, takes the edge off so they don’t want to drink. An apples and oranges kinda thing.”

160 Rachel giggled. “It makes me horny,” and licked her lips. Like a bloodhound on a fresh trail, his manhood sprung up with a howl. “Let’s get stoned.” They lay naked and stoned in bed, lips locked in a long kiss, when the passion stirring in his groin rose up his belly and settled in his diaphragm. He entered her treasure and had complete control over his erection—knew he could sustain it indefinitely. The emotions rushing through him had nothing to do with sex. He was making Pure Love, his penis but an extension of his heart. Rachel rose to the challenge; they made love for three hours. Rachel came many times; her orgasms flowed through him like rainbows. And when they fell asleep, he still hadn’t come, yet felt completely satisfied. When he woke up the next morning, Rachel was leaning on an elbow and watching him intently, her face serious in ways he’d rarely seen. “What is it?” he asked. “What happened last night?” He smiled. “Did I ever mention my real name is Gumba Jumba, world renowned Tantric Master from Lhasa?” “I want a baby,” Rachel said.

“I want a baby,” Gil whispers and drinks from his shotglass. “The beginning of the end.” The night in Napa Valley fresh in his mind, Gil is sad yet optimistic. The universal currents of love had brought Rachel and him together, and it is his duty to navigate those currents and bring the ship to anchor in the peaceful lagoon—white sand beaches dotted

161 with palm trees swaying in a warm breeze. Rachel wants to be with him but cannot. She needs to heal first, needs to, in AA terms, dry out, like he’d done when he quit drinking. The human spirit is strong and strives for light. One morning, Rachel will smile at sunrays illuminating drops of dew, at geese flying south in V formation, at squirrels scampering up a tree. She will still grieve for what she cannot have, but will also rejoice in what she has—the eternal love they share. A compassionate soul, Rachel will find room in her heart to love a baby, maybe two or three lonely, orphaned babies who deserve a good home. Her maternal love will not go wasted, of that he’s sure. Gil writes all that in an email and sends it off into cyberspace. His recent conviction that “the ball is in Rachel’s court,” is no more. Love isn’t a tennis match. There is no division on the court of Love, only unity of spirit and unconditional loyalty. Moreover, those who cannot understand that concept with every beat of their hearts, well, maybe they’re not ready for Love.

Chapter Twelve

Three days after he’d checked into the motel on Pico Boulevard, Victor is on his way to Pacific Palisades, to Rick Perry’s estate. Driving down PCH, he’s quieted by blue skies and placid ocean embracing on the horizon. He’s excited about seeing Megan. She’s been doing well, resting, eating, and displaying the dimple in her cheek when they meet. His life purposeful in new ways, Victor smiles to himself and turns on the radio.

162 “Mates, I don’t know about you, but I’m laughing me bum off. Have you seen the congressional hearings about Roger Clemens? I mean, and I know I’ll be ruffling a few feathers, but if you believe that pitching gorilla, then may I also sell you a bridge? They spend an hour arguing about the bruise on his ass, probably a hairy ass, maybe pimples and hemorrhoids too. Yuck! Phewy! Was the bruise caused by steroids injections, they ask. I say, yes, or may the sun rise in the west and the pope be Jewish. And that trainer guy who turned Clemens in, my, my, talk about a ferret, a truly despicable character. Back in London’s East End, we have ways of dealing with such scum. Waterboarding is a stroll in the park compared to our Cockney methods, but I’ll stay clear of the details. This is a family show, ha, ha. Sadly, mates, as much as I find that man to be the lowest of weasels, he’s also telling the truth when he says he injected Roger the Gorilla Clemens with HGH. How could that be, weep the Republicans on the committee. He’s an American icon. He may be, say the Democrats, but he’s also a liar. Funny thing, my friends. All the Republicans ragged on the trainer, while all the Democrats ganged up on the gorilla. If that isn’t a sign of broken government, I don’t know what is. They can’t agree on anything whatsoever. Off with their heads. I tell ya, mates, us Lymies know best. Get a bloody king or queen. Better yet, get rid of baseball and start playing a real game like, and I bubble with heresy when I say the word, but here it is. Soccer, mates, so-ccer.” Grand Funk’s We’re an American Band, kicks in. Victor laughs. He’s proud to be Perry’s friend even if he doesn’t agree with his diatribe. He likes the man’s blunt honesty, his street smarts, his handshake that’s worth a thousand signed contracts.

163 On the estate grounds, improvements show in the new grass peeking through damp soil, potted plants decorating the front and back porches, cherry saplings gracing the backyard, and the completed reddish flagstone path leading from the house to the center of the front yard where, today, Victor intends to start constructing the volcanoshaped waterfall. He stands by the pile of Ashland wire mesh and plans the task ahead. The volcano’s base is set to be ten-feet in diameter, while its top diameter will be three feet. He’ll dig a four-inch wide, one-foot deep circle, place wire mesh in it, and anchor the wire mesh by packing cement into the circle. He’ll continue to weave wire mesh around the base that will narrow gradually as the structure gets taller. When he’s done with the structure’s wire mesh outline, he will dig a similar circle about ten inches outside the first one, and repeat the procedure. Once both parallel wire mesh walls are standing, he plans to pour concrete into the space between them and embed smooth, colorful stones into the volcano walls. He hopes to complete the task in about four days. Now is the morning of the first day, and he’s digging the first circle, when Megan walks out of the house and down the flagstone path. She’s wearing red plaid pajama bottoms and a bulky white T-shirt, and is barefoot. “Victor’s Volcano,” she quips with a smile. “Upon which sacrifices to the gods shall be made,” he says. “What kind of sacrifices?” “Don’t know. How about goats or sheep, like the Old Testament?” “Marshmallows,” Megan says. His eyebrows rise. “Megan Melon’s marvelous marshmallows?” She nods. “The one and only trademark to be trusted.”

164 They laugh. Victor is lightheaded with fatherly affection. “It’s so good to see you every day,” he says. “You’ve changed my life.” Megan sits on a rock by the wire mesh. “It’s good to see you, too.” “Did your friend in Oregon get the letter?” “She did, and mailed it to mom yesterday, so it’ll get there today or tomorrow.” He sighs. “We have to find a better way to communicate with her.” “I’ll be halfway through the pregnancy in six weeks. By then, it’ll be much harder to get an abortion legally approved. Also, Robby will be back in by then and come to visit me, if that’s okay.” “I would like to meet him,” Victor says, no longer weary of the father to be, that is, if he truly intends to make an honest woman out of Megan and marry her. In ways, he’s grateful to Robby, for without him, Megan wouldn’t have arrived at his doorstep. From what he’s come to know about his daughter, Victor concludes that no one can talk her into doing anything she doesn’t want to do, and that includes a thirty-two-year-old black man studying to become a Muslim cleric. It’s clear to him by her maturity level and intelligence, that she can and will be a terrific mother. “So in six weeks you can go home?” he asks. Megan shrugs. “We’ll see. I kinda like it here. It won’t be pretty between mom and me, but I can handle it. She’ll come around.” “Might have to wait until the baby’s born,” he says. “Once she holds the baby, she’ll be fine.” Megan laughs. “I’ll have a black girl with red hair.” “Whatever you do, please don’t name her Kayisha or Moyisha.”

165 “Her name will be Petra. It means rock in Greek.” “That’s a beautiful name,” Victor says. Luciana’s round figure appears on the front porch. “Megan,” she cries, “Ju food.” “Are you coming to eat?” Megan asks him. “I’m good. Ju go eat,” he says and chuckles. Megan walks off, and Victor, amazed by how perfect his life has become, continues digging the volcano circumference.

About an hour passes before Perry’s red sports car screeches up the driveway. The DJ approaches the work in progress, drops to his knees, raises his arms and says, “Genie of the earth, rise from the volcano and grant me three wishes.” Victor laughs. “I can’t wait to hear what you’ll wish for.” “Quite simple. An endless supply of steaks, beer, and, of course, gorgeous women to warship my rod.” “I heard that,” Megan says, walking the path toward them. “You and Midas have lots in common.” “I object,” Perry says in mock indignation. “All he cared for was gold.” “Gold is only symbolic to all hedonistic cravings,” says the teenager. Perry’s eyes widen. “Hedonistic pleasures? Me? I’m Robin Hood, taking from the rich and comforting the poor.” He smiles at Victor, “I could use a beer, though, how about you?” Victor nods and wipes his brow. “A beer at one in the afternoon sounds civil enough.”

166 Megan joins the two men at the kitchen table. Sunshine sparkles through the stained glass window and shimmers on the table. Luciana serves chips and salsa, smiles at the master of the house and says, “Megan no delgada no more.” “That means skinny,” Victor says, and to Luciana, “Megan gorda.” The housekeeper smiles a mostly toothless smile. “Si. Muy gorda.” Perry winks at Megan. “I kept my word. Haven’t said anything bad about Britney.” “Thanks. And you lost half your audience, right?” “I liked the Roger Clemens bit,” Victor says, “but I think the trainer’s lying.” “Let me see,” Perry says. “That means you’ll vote for McCain.” “I will.” Megan’s eyes widen with disbelief. “How can you?” Perry laughs. “And who will you vote for?” “I can’t vote. I’m not eighteen yet. But if I could, I’d vote for Hillary. I’ve had it with men running the show.” Perry shrugs. “We Brits tried a woman. Sadly, Thatcher’s balls are bigger than any man’s.” “And you?” Victor asks the DJ. “I can’t vote. Not an American citizen, but even if I was, I wouldn’t vote. I exercise my voting right by not voting. See, if no one voted, no one could be elected.” “That would be anarchy,” Megan says. Perry sips his beer. “Maybe, maybe not. And who says anarchy is a bad thing?” “That’s pretty out there,” Victor says.

167 Perry nods. “It could be messy, but if everyone took responsibility for their actions, you know, the Golden Rule bit, then we wouldn’t need fat greedy politicians tellin’ us what to do.” “That requires human nature be inherently good,” Megan says and sighs. “It isn’t.” “Good may be the wrong word,” Perry says. “How about ethically selfish? You do good for others not because you give a shit about them, but because you give a shit about yourself and want to be treated well by others.” Megan shakes her head. “Can’t work this way. Humans are programmed to gravitate to the Alpha male.” “Agreed,” says Perry. “But if people operated in an ethically selfish way, doing so would naturally lead to worthy leaders.” Victor observes the exchange; his heart wells with pride of how smart and articulate Megan is, how mature compared to him when he was seventeen, when all he’d cared for was running with a pack of pool-playing, card-dealing, women-chasing, liquorloving, foul-mouthed and violent punks who knew nothing about history, politics, or the environment, and who never read a book. Then he enlisted in the Marines and behaved much the same except he learned how to shoot guns, his violent streak channeled yet encouraged by military doctrines. The violent impulse, which had served him well when dealing with his stepfather and holding his own with fellow Marines, finally backfired when he beat up on Beth and went to jail, and lost his privilege to raise his daughter. Until now. He places the empty beer bottle on the table. “I need to get back to work.”

168 “I’m tired,” Megan says. “I need a nap.” Perry burps. “And I have a lecture to give at UCLA faculty of communications department. Me, who never graduated from high school, am teaching their professors about radio. How pathetic is that?” “Higher education, along with health care insurance, are the biggest scams,” Megan says. Perry laughs. “The whole US is one humongous scam. Why do you think it’s called the American Dream?” “Wouldn’t replace the US with any other country,” Victor says. “Amen, mate,” says Perry. “I love this place.” “It could be a lot better,” Megan says, “but I won’t get into it. I’m tired and you guys are too stubborn to change your minds.” Later that evening, after taking Megan out to Togo’s for sandwiches, and buying her three outfits at Old Navy, and sharing a banana split at Baskin & Robbins, Victor drops his daughter at Perry’s place. “Thanks dad,” she says and offers a hug. “Don’t forget to watch the lunar eclipse tonight.” “I will. See you tomorrow,” he says casually, though he isn’t feeling casual at all. He’s filled with serenity he’s never experienced throughout his troubled life. If he controlled the universe, he would order this day be repeated indefinitely. From the sunny weather, to his successful effort at work, from palling with Perry and the time enjoyed with Megan, he couldn’t wish for a better day, as if his harsh and lonely life had purposely been building to that day—a reward for his hardships, a culmination of

169 suffering that finally made sense, like he’d been climbing a ladder, unsure where it led to, rungs snapping beneath his blistered feet, when, very high up the ladder, thousands of feet up in the air, the clouds he’d navigated blindly suddenly part to reveal a heavenly landscape—lush colorful gardens, lively parrots squawking in high branches, waterfalls crashing into clear water lagoons rife with goldfish.

Back at the motel on Pico Boulevard, Victor showers and then relaxes on his bed while sipping beer and watching Survivor, when he can no longer contain the happiness brimming in his heart. He must share it with someone. He wants to do that with Valen, the ethereal crack whore whose body defied time and whose womanly ease had comforted him in ways no other concubine had. He attributes their chemistry—he believes she’d felt the same—to their similar age and life experience. Perhaps he could dare to wish for her to love him. Victor is amply ready to forgive her for sleeping with hundreds of men, for her toxic crack habit, for whatever mistakes she has made in her life. In ways similar to his, maybe Valen has been climbing her own ladder, searching for meaning, her swollen palms throbbing with wooden splinters, when she breaks through the clouds and recognizes in him the refuge she yearns for. He dials her number. A recording informs him the number is no longer in service. Biting his lower lip with frustration, he tries twice more to similar results. Victor uses his laptop to surf Craig’s List to see if Valen is advertising with a new number, but he comes up with nothing. He sighs and paces the room.

170 He could explore Hollywood’s dark alleys and ask around, but Hollywood has thousands of dark alleys. Valen could be in the Valley, another urban beehive with infinite dead-end searches. LA is too big and anonymous. While he considers his options regarding Valen, he continues to mindlessly scroll the erotic listings, when an ad catches his eye. Latina Beauty—21 and a perfect 36-24-38—a luscious bit of extra junk in the trunk . No driver no pimp, only me and 100% satisfaction. You like my pic? 250 for outcall. If it’s not me, it’s FREE. Deana 310-555-8765 Wearing a skimpy bikini, Deana is brown-skinned and curvaceous. Victor can sense her skin’s velvety smoothness. Curly black hair straddles her round shoulders. Her wide lips and high cheekbones define erotic sensuality, and the twinkle in her dark-brown eyes—wide and almond shaped—could bewitch any man. Her looks are slightly reminiscent of Jennifer Lopez. Victor’s shoulders stoop; he’s challenged by his decision to abandon sexual endeavors, that he didn’t need them anymore, now that he’d found fatherly love to alleviate his loneliness. He gets up, paces the room while smoking a cigarette, then returns to the computer, and gazes at Deana’s photograph—she’s a beauty; having sex with her would be amazing. He swears this will be the last time he pays for sex. Barriers still stand to temper his need. The first will be Deana’s voice—he wants it to be soft, in accord with her smooth skin. He wants her to sound smart, not trashy. She doesn’t need to be a rocket scientist, but he doesn’t want to hear cusswords. And even if Deana passes that first test, a more rigorous one awaits her when he sees her standing in the doorway. She had better look every bit as good as her picture or he will not let her

171 enter the room. He’ll hand her twenty bucks for gas money and say, “You’re not as attractive as your picture, that’s false advertising, now be on your way.” “Hello.” The voice answering the phone is feminine and sultry. “Hi, I’m calling about your ad on Craig’s List. Is this Deana?” “Yes,” a lilting j sounds in her y. “I’m on Pico and Overland, at the Pinegrove motel.” “Oh…I am in Santa Monica, not far from you.” Victor likes her voice, her brittle South American accent. “Where’s your accent from?” “I am from Colombia.” “And you’re independent, right?” “Yes.” “I gotta be honest with you, Deana. I want the girl in the picture, not someone twenty pounds later.” Her hearty laugh sprints to his groin. “No need to worry. I am the girl in the photograph.” He loves how she annunciates, photograph, the f, breathy, the r, rolling off the roof of her mouth—Fotogrraaf. “Okay. When can you be here?” “One hour. What is your name?” “Victor.”

172 Her laughter is deep. “Strong name. Are you a strong man? I do not like weak men.” Her w sounds like a v, and Victor imagines her pouty lips drooped in dissatisfaction. “I guess you’ll find out when you see me.” He gives her the address and hangs up. Now begins the time he’d often found more satisfying than the encounter, when expectation and fantasy mix to excite and tease, like a junky knowing his fix is on its way, and who imagines the buzz soon to cloud his brain. Victor opens the door to his room, stands in the doorway and smokes a cigarette. Traffic zooms by on the wide boulevard; the ballpark across the street is lit, bats striking balls, cheering crowds. The salty Pacific air dominates over exhaust fumes. All is well with the world, and soon, a warm-blooded Colombian honey will further raise his spirits. That will be the last time, he again swears, and means it. In preparation for the carnal visit, Victor airs the room of smoke, brushes his teeth to eliminate alcohol and nicotine from his breath, and sprinkles Stetson cologne on his face, chest, and armpits. In search of Deana’s car, he stands by the window and is peeking through the drawn blinds, when he sees the red moon, medieval and menacing in its bloody shroud. A pale, silver sliver appears at the moon’s right corner and begins to crawl, numbingly slow, enacting the symbolic, mythical battle between good and evil, light and darkness. Victor is soon bored with the lunar eclipse and returns to spying the parking lot. About ten minutes pass before a blue Acura parks beneath his window. His shoulders tightened with curiosity, he sees a brunette exit the passenger side. It’s Deana. She orients herself for a moment and then climbs the stairs to the second floor. Victor

173 sees her approach, hips swaying like a yacht upon gentle seas. He waits for her to knock on the door before opening it. The woman standing in the doorway is more mesmerizing than the one in the picture, tight sweater hugging her hips, long legs, ample behind. In person, Deana looks even more like Jennifer Lopez, except she’s much younger. “Hello Victor.” Her smile puts him at ease, though a major issue remains. He lets her in. “You said you were independent. How come you have a driver?” Deana puts her purse on the table. “My car would not start, so my friend gave me a ride. He’ll wait downstairs. Don’t worry, he won’t bother us.” She’s wearing perfume Victor doesn’t recognize, sweet and sexy. He peers out at the parking lot, can barely distinguish the silhouette of the man in the driver’s seat. Deana sits on the bed and crosses her legs. “You are a strong man. I want you.” Victor’s military instincts signal him that something is wrong, though what it is, he isn’t sure. He sits on the bed and says, “You’re gorgeous. How come you’re turning tricks?” “I moved from Colombia one year ago. I need the money.” “Your English is really good for someone who’s been here only a year.” “I studied in private school in Bogota.” “Where’s your family?” “My father is dead. My mother and brother still in Bogotá.” She leans toward him and skirts her fingers over his arm. “Why are you nervous?” “I never do this,” he lies, “and your beauty intimidates me.” She laughs. “Thank you, but do not be nervous. I like you. Can I please use your bathroom?”

174 He nods. Deana goes to the bathroom and shuts the door. In speedy motions, Victor opens her purse and finds her wallet. Her name is Maria Ortega, her address is on Roscoe Boulevard in the San Fernando Valley, and her birth date is February 24 1991, which means she’s barely seventeen, about four months younger than Megan is. Aside from trepidation concerning the dangerous proposition of soliciting a minor in his hotel room, Victor is also sad. Never had his lurid conduct hit so close to home. Deana is ready to fuck, take his money, and be on her merry way, but he can’t fathom using her body for his pleasures. Now that Megan is in his life, doing so would be tantamount to incest. Deana emerges naked from the bathroom. Her body—firm 34D’s, flat stomach, dark hair over soft shoulders, smooth thighs and shaved vagina—is so beautiful that Victor looks away. She struts over to him, curls up in his lap and places his right hand on her left breast. Her skin is silkier than any he’s ever caressed. “Stop!” he says and lifts her off his lap. He takes out his wallet from his back pocket, peels off 200 dollars, and holds up the money in front of Deana’s questioning eyes. “I’ll give you the money, but I’m not going to fuck you. I want to talk.” She frowns. “I’m not here to talk.” “Well, if you want the money, that’s what you’re gonna have to do.” “Fuck you,” Deana says, her accent and demeanor now thoroughly American. She marches to the bathroom and returns with her clothes. She starts getting dressed, skewing him with her dark eyes.

175 Victor puts the money on the table. “I don’t think you’re eighteen,” he says. “You could get in a lot of trouble, not to mention the men you sleep with can go to jail.” “Fuck off,” she spits. “I only want to talk. I have a daughter a bit older than you. I can’t imagine how I’d feel if she sold her body for sex.” Deana is sliding on her tight jeans. “Hey asshole, what’s your problem? Are you some fuckin creep that can’t get it up? What the fuck’s wrong with you? You don’t like pussy?” “Maria, please,” he says when she screams, “How the fuck you know my name?” Her gaze settles on her purse. “You fuckhead. You looked through my wallet.” Victor stands up. “I’m glad I did. If you don’t stop what you’re doing, I’ll report you to the police.” Her mouth gaped in disbelief, Maria, now dressed, is frozen for a moment. Then, in two quick moves, she grabs the money off the table and bolts out the door. Victor chases after her, footsteps like thunder claps sounding off the walls. His mind consumed by anger, remorse, confusion, he knows she’s freaked out, but he needs to talk to her, needs one more chance to try to change her mind. Maria is getting into the car when he reaches the bottom of the stairs. He sees her yelling at the man in the driver’s seat. That’s her pimp, Victor thinks, rage gushing through his heart. He sprints to the driver’s side with the intent of pulling out the pimp and beating him to a pulp, when the car’s window rolls down and Victor finds himself staring at a Browning 9 mm pistol. The man holding the gun is no older than twenty—a heavily-tattooed and bald-headed Hispanic wearing a white tank-top.

176 “Fuck you, motherfucker” the young man says and fires a shot. The soft thunk strikes Victor in his upper chest, left of the shoulder socket. He’s knocked backward when the man fires another shot that strikes Victor’s abdomen. He doesn’t feel any pain. His legs buckle under him and a red veil descends over his eyes. From far, far away, a woman’s scream echoes and ripples, echoes and ripples, and fades.

Chapter Thirteen

In the three days since Victor had moved out of 2420 Ruby Lane, Andy Cloud’s life has returned to welcome mundane. The heady episode of stealing the email addresses from

177 Seymour Duncan’s attaché case and giving the information to Comet Livingston, has receded in his mind. He concludes that his subversive conduct will mount to nothing— another hallucinatory episode of grandeur. He understands, once again, perhaps more than ever, his insignificant lot in life—he isn’t destined for glory, isn’t the prism through which rational thinking and common sense will shine to educate and galvanize the masses. He tacitly admits that what Victor had said about Andy having a good life—a successful business, roof over his head, in-and-out-burger, weed to smoke—is mostly true, and that he should find comfort in the predictable day-in-day-out. At the store, he’s back to morphing his sales persona to fit the customers perceptions. He visits with Jules and is glad to notice the old man is feeling better. He mentions the possibility of Jules sharing 2420 Ruby Lane with Gil and him, but is rebuffed. “I’m too old to move and I enjoy my solitude,” the old man says. Andy also keeps a close eye on Gil, who has settled into functioning alcoholism— he drinks all day, every day, but acts cordially and remembers to eat. “I’m on standby,” he tells Andy, meaning he intends to self-medicate until Rachel returns—he doesn’t know when—or until she unequivocally rejects him, which he doesn’t think she has. It’s an ambiguous timeframe, Gil admits, but claims that ambiguous is good. He refuses to attend an AA meeting. Andy wonders why Gil’s AA comembers haven’t taken action. Meanwhile, he enjoys the fact that Victor is gone. The vibe in the house is mellow. Also contributing to his relative wellbeing is Barack Obama’s emphatic win of the Wisconsin Primaries. Barring assassination, which Andy is greatly concerned about, it seems the affable ethnically mixed candidate is destined to soon work from the Oval

178 Office. Could it be that Obama represents the rational yearning of the collective consciousness? Is the US able to evolve beyond partisan hatred and petty bickering? Andy suspects he’s clutching at straws, but that maybe the straws end up rooted in firm soil—the audacity of hope, however dim, is still better than no hope at all.

On the evening of February 20, Andy walks the Washington Boulevard pier, which reaches about 200 feet across the Pacific. At the end of the pier are three wooden benches. Andy sits on the left one and gazes at the sky. The full moon rising in the east, majestic in its gray craters and silver glow, is soon invaded by a red stain that spreads slowly and, within about thirty minutes, covers the moon like a red quilt. Stars shrouded by the moon’s initial brightness are now visible. Low tide quiets the ocean. Other people on the pier are holding binoculars, a few have small telescopes. The group of about thirty people exudes camaraderie—human beings, together, staring out into a timeless, infinite cosmos, a universe far too big and ancient for anyone to comprehend. Compared to the smallness of Earth in space, a grain of sand on the beach appears gigantic. So thinks Andy, who muses that some galaxies swirl hundreds of billions of light-years away, and that more galaxies swirl beyond them, ones no telescopes would ever see, because none can glimpse infinity. Tonight, he finds solace in his insignificance. Witnessing the celestial dance—moon sun and earth, elliptic movement converging—comforts his sad soul. Who knows why man’s karmic predicament is to die by his own hands? Maybe God —whomever he, she, or it may be, is responsible. After all, the tools given to man to try and wisely navigate his time on earth are limited in profound ways. Why would God do that?

179 Andy’s also convinced that life, some of it far more advanced than humanity, exists on many other planets. The thought of an infinite universe with only one aware life form is as self-centered as the doctrine once claiming the sun rotated the earth. He’s even given serious thought to the possibility that human life is a social experiment conducted by a benevolent race from the stars. He keeps that theory to himself. The red quilt covering the moon begins to peel away. Silver light gains mass as Luna returns to her conventional glow. Stars seen during the eclipse disappear. Sun earth and moon continue their speedy movement through space. The folks on the pier trickle away and disperse toward the city lights. The ocean sparkles in silver. Waves slapping against the pier’s wooden pillars signal tides rising. Having patiently waited for the celestial spectacle to end, clouds stream eastward and obscure the moon. Andy alone remains sitting on the bench. For a moment, his soul bonds with infinity. Life’s rigid format—you live until you die—melts into the void before him. A joyous mist clouds his eyes. For a moment, the scared boy isn’t scared at all. Bliss. The moment passes. Once again trapped in the body he loathes, Andy walks– bulky torso swaying back and forth over stocky legs—back to shore, to his car, and drives home, to 2420 Ruby Lane.

At the house, Gil is watching a Seinfeld episode called, The Manssiere, in which Kramer and George’s father invent a brassiere for aging men whose once proud chests have succumbed to gravity and muscle fatigue. Andy joins his friend on the couch and chuckles at the hapless exploits of dysfunctional people in a world gone mad.

180 “Rachel sent me a postcard from Rome,” Gil says. “Is that a good thing?” “Neutral. She doesn’t tell me to fuck off, or that she’s coming back ‘cause she misses me.” “What does she say?” “That the Coliseum is impressive.” Andy nods. “It probably is. I’ve never been to Europe.” “You should go, especially Amsterdam, where you can smoke pot anywhere.” “I pretty much do that already. Any word from Victor?” “No.” “Did the cops come back looking for him?” “No. Can I have another joint? The one you gave me lasted three days, so I’m not smoking much.” “Is it helping you drink less?” “No, actually, maybe a little.” Silent friendship lingers while Andy rolls the joint. “Can I tell you something I’ve never told anyone?” Andy asks. He isn’t sure why he’s about to disclose the darkest secret of his life. Maybe the eclipse is to blame, maybe the fact he and Gil are sharing the house, just the two of them. Nevertheless, he yearns to unburden his heart. “Of course,” Gil says and, as always, entwines his fingers and taps his thumbs, a sign of his undivided attention. “I’m a virgin,” Andy says, head bowed, gaze fixed on the carpet.

181 Gil stops tapping his thumbs. Silence. Then he says, “Wow….that’s heavy.” Andy blushes. “I shouldn’t have said anything.” “No, no,” Gil cries and vigorously shakes his head. “I’m honored you shared that with me. I was just surprised. Didn’t expect that.” Andy slouches on the couch. “It just never happened.” “Have you made out? You know, kissing, necking?” “No.” “You’ve never kissed a girl?” Andy shrugs and locks his lips. Heavy silence. “I was thinking,” Andy says, “that maybe I should take Victor’s advice and go see his masseuse, Hanna.” His eyebrows rise in nervous anticipation of his friend’s response. Gil chuckles. “Really?” “I still think it’s cheap,” Andy says hurriedly, “but I want to touch a woman before I die. I want to know what it feels like when she touches my dick. And the way Victor describes her, she’s real nice, and she doesn’t fuck him, only gives a great massage with a happy ending.” Gil walks to his desk and pours himself a drink. “Tell you what,” he says after drinking the shot and smacking his lips. “Let’s go together.” Andy’s sluggish frame straightens. “Really? What about Rachel?” Gil smiles. “I have a feeling she wouldn’t mind at all, probably want to know the details and laugh about it. Is me going cool with you?”

182 Like a boy who’s found the accomplice to raid the cookie jar, Andy nods and his eyes widen. “Do you know where the massage parlor is?” “Victor mentioned it’s on Venice, north of Lincoln. We could drive and look for it. If we find a massage place, we go in and ask for Hanna.” Andy blushes and his heart quickens. “When?” he asks and smacks his dry lips. Gil takes another drink. “Too late tonight, how about tomorrow evening?” Andy fidgets his fingers; his palms sweat. “Okay. I’ll close the store at five.” “Should be exciting,” Gil says. “A first for me.” Andy giggles. “Hanna oh Hanna, come play with my banana,” Gil sings while waltzing with an imaginary partner. The word banana, reminds Andy of the Banana Lady of Okinawa, and he shares Jules’s WWII story. As he tells the tale, he is teleported to the dusty, dimly lit shack with the sign advertising a Floor Shoo. He sees the pasty-faced woman fondling the Boa constrictor, the drunken sailors, the old man—yellow and heavily wrinkled cheeks, serving warm beer. How wonderful it would be if he had such memories to share. Gil is laughing loudly and slapping his thigh. “It’s hard to imagine Jules when he was twenty,” Andy says. “He’s so old and slow. He’s the one who made me seriously think about seeing Hanna. ‘Grab God by the balls,’ he told me.” “I think it’s a good idea,” Gil says. “I bet we’ll have a blast. Who’s going first?” Andy shrugs. “I don’t care. Can you imagine how many dicks she’s jerked off with those hands? Hundreds, maybe thousands.”

183 Gil wrinkles his nose. “Stop. You’re starting to turn me off.” “You can go first,” Andy says. “Besides, like Victor says, it’s just another muscle. I should learn to enjoy my body before I’m too old.” “Amen, brother. I’ll drink to that,” Gil says, and does. Andy stands up. “I’m real excited. Thanks for listening to me.” “My pleasure. Anytime.” “You’re a good friend,” Andy says. “I’m sure Rachel will come back. I’ve never been in love, but I think you guys are a good couple.” “Thanks,” Gil says and shrugs. “I have to believe you’re right. Truth is, I can’t imagine being happy without her.” Affected by the orderly universe displayed by the eclipse and the intimate exchange with his friend, Andy’s mood is agreeable. Though still melancholy about man’s follies and the not too distant evolutionary extinction of the human species, he knows he will sleep well tonight and not dream about his mother. He yawns. “I gotta crash.” Gil salutes. “Report for duty tomorrow at five. We have a mission to execute in the Asian love jungle.” Andy salutes. “Yes mon Capitan.”

Andy observes his chaotic room and decides that tomorrow night will be the time for a deep cleaning. He wishes his room to be in-sync with the orderly cosmos he’d witnessed from the pier. His groin tingles with promise of the forbidden fruit stowed away in a dark room in a massage parlor. It has been a good day for Andy Cloud, one he

184 will cherish for the rest of his life. He falls asleep at eleven and wakes up at seven—eight hours of solid sleep he hadn’t experienced in years. * * *

The next morning, soon after he’s opened the store and has settled in his swivel chair behind the counter, Andy is watching a testy exchange between Condoleezza Rice and Senator Barbara Boxer. Calling one another unpatriotic, the two women bicker about whether the US army in Iraq is an occupying presence, according to Senator Boxer, or a liberating one, championed by Miss Rice. By their squinty eyes and tight lips, it’s clear that were it not for the civility required in such gatherings, the two women would be on the floor tearing at each other’s hair and trying to gouge one another’s eyes. Chuckling to himself and trying to imagine who would win the catfight, Andy’s attention is distracted by a large shadow standing in the store’s doorway. He doesn’t need to shift his eyes from the television screen to know only one man could cast such a shadow—Comet Livingston. He springs to his feet, forever nervous in the big man’s presence. “Hi Mister Livingston,” he says, knowing that is how Comet prefers to be addressed. Comet’s 6’9 frame rumbles up to the counter. He frowns at the TV set and says, “That Condoleezza Rice is whiter than fuckin’ Strom Thurman, may his soul burn in hell for eternity.” “She’s indeed quite the abnormal manifestation of a black woman,” Andy says. “A dried prune is what she is,” Comet says in his gravely voice. Andy chuckles. “Safe to say you don’t like her.”

185 Comet’s bloodshot eyes settle on Andy’s thick frames. “She’s an abomination, an insult to the Black race.” “I was thinking about the word abomination,” Andy says, “it sounds like Obama Nation. Kinda trippy.” Comet’s laugh gargles nails. Then he says, “I need bigger flat screens, five of them.” “How big?” Andy asks. “What do you think?” “I would recommend the Sony 40” Plasma at 1080p resolution. Let’s check Circuit City for prices.” “You’re a good man, Cloud. Get me a good deal.” “Yes sir,” Andy says. He turns sideways from the counter and is scrolling the website for prices, when the shuffle of feet sounds from the door. “Be right with you,” Andy says, his back turned to the entrance. “No rush whatsoever,” says the voice Andy would least care to hear. Instantly, his brow sweats; his bladder threatens to erupt; his throat is so dry that his swallowing muscles are petrified; his left upper cheek twitches; the dead roots of fallen hair on his skull attempt to reach for the sky. Before he turns to face his new customer, Andy needs to perform several actions. Most important, he must appear cordial and relaxed, possibly enthralled to see his new customer. It is paramount he act as naturally as he does lying on his bed and smoking his pipe. For that to happen, a convergence of two of his three personalities: Impatient Nerd and Chummy Buddy, must happen instantaneously on a never more sublime level. That

186 will happen while his eyes shift from the new customer to Comet, who Andy suspects has no idea of what’s happening. Then, while he’s greeting the new customer, Andy must make another quick decision: is the visitor here coincidentally? If so, one course of action takes place, rather then if the convergence of the three of them points to deliberate, sinister intent. That last option aggravates Andy almost to the point of throwing up. He rises from his swivel chair. Chummy Buddy rolls his eyes at Seymour Duncan. “Don’t tell me. The La Crosse Moon Phase is screwing up,” and to Comet, Impatient Nerd says, “I can’t get you the price you asked for. I’m sorry. Maybe you can come back next week when the new Panasonics come in.” The right side of his face, one eye and half his mouth, looks at the FBI agent and offers a warm smile, while his left eye, narrowed, and the other half of his mouth, tight, critically observe Comet. Beads of sweat dot both sides of his forehead. For a few seconds, the black man’s angry eyes dart from rotund Andy to scrawny Seymour while in the background, Senator Biden is grilling Miss Rice about the partitioning of Iraq into independent provinces. Seymour, meanwhile, is standing stoopshouldered, patiently waiting for Andy to complete his business. Comet’s eyes flash in comprehension and a twinkle of fear. Massive palms curl into fists before he nods and says, “I’ll be back next week.” “That would be advisable,” says Andy. Leaving Comet to slowly walk away in a trail of sour-smelling sweat, Andy immediately turns his attention to Seymour. “How’s your health these days? Staying away from sushi, I hope.”

187 “I am,” the FBI agent says, his cold eyes following Comet until the black man exits the store. He turns to Andy. “That’s the biggest man I’ve ever seen. Do you know him?” Andy barks a short laugh. His speech is clipped. “Know him? Why would I know him? How does one define what knowing a person really is? He comes in sometimes, always asking for more than I can offer. Why, do you know him?” Seymour laughs like a squeaky door. “Why would you ask me that when it’s clear that I’ve never seen him before in my life?” For several seconds, the two men squint and stare at each other while slightly tilting their heads back and forth and raising their chins. To the culturally hip observer, their action is reminiscent of the one in the show, Curb your Enthusiasm, when Larry David is trying to ascertain whether he’s being lied to. Andy cannot decide if Seymour is truthful, or if his appearance at the store is planned. Nothing in the agent’s behavior has changed, but that could be in tandem with his training as a spy. Meanwhile, the salesclerk is doing all he can to quiet his anxious bowels, to will the sweat to dry off his forehead. “Why are you sweating?” Seymour asks. His eyes are hard. “That black guy makes me nervous. I’m never sure he won’t pull out a gun.” “Why? Cause he’s black?” “Maybe, and he’s so big, an intimidating presence,” Andy says. “That sounds like racial bias. Are you racist?” The lilt in Seymour’s voice morphs Andy into a mouse trapped in a corner while the cat, claws gleaming, is ready to pounce. His groin tightens as the claustrophobic

188 sensation wraps her frosty tentacles around him. Only several minutes have passed since Seymour had entered the store, but for Andy, time is standing still. The last of Chummy Buddy drained from his face, he sighs. “I’m not racist.” “I know,” Seymour says, his voice softened. “But I still have to arrest you.” “What?!” Seymour’s forehead wrinkles upward while he holds out his palms. “What what?” “What did you say?” says Andy in a raspy whisper. “Andy. The game’s up, curtain’s down, kaput, sayonara.” Seymour sounds like an impatient parent who’s caught his teenager stealing from his wallet. The bile rises in Andy’s throat. “What game? I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He wipes his sweaty brow. “I’d appreciate if you leave my store and do not return, or I’ll have to call the police.” The words ring hollow in his ears. “No need to call them,” the agent says. “They’re already here.” He reaches into his jacket pocket and brings out a laminated badge. Andy squirms and cups his groin. “I gotta pee,” he whispers. Seymour Duncan gestures toward the bathroom. “Don’t let me stop you. I remember how it feels when you must use the toilet.” Thighs jiggling, Andy races to the bathroom and shuts the door. His hands shake and his fingers stiffen; he can barely unzip his fly; his knees vibrate with fear; his penis is compressed with terror. He stands over the toilet and tries to urinate, but his bladder will not obey, so he presses on his abdomen and tries to stimulate his bladder. A trickle dribbles; too faint to reach the water in the bowl, droplets splash off the rim and ooze onto the floor. His heart beats quickly and Andy cannot breath. His legs shake so badly he

189 needs to sit on the toilet so not to faint. A moment passes while he tries to clear his head from the dark spots swirling in his eyes. A rapid triple knock sounds on the bathroom door. “I need you to come out now, or I’ll add resisting arrest to your charges,” says Seymour Duncan in a calm voice. Andy’s voice trembles. “I can’t pee. It won’t come out.” The fear shivering his body reminds him of his days in middle school, when Jimmy sprayed him with red paint while Bobby sat on his chest. The Jimmy’s of the world had haunted Andy throughout his life. Now, they were back. “You have two minutes before I tell my boys to break down the door,” Seymour says matter-of-fact. Still sitting on the toilet, Andy aims his penis downward and squeezes his stomach muscles as hard as he can. His bowls move and, as he farts and defecates, a urine stream is finally let loose. He wipes hurriedly, pulls his pants up, and opens the bathroom door. Four tall men in gray suits and dark sunglasses are in the store. One of them is unplugging Godzilla’s modems; two others are rummaging through the cash register and confiscating files stacked in folders on a shelf behind the counter. On the street by the entrance park two black Cadillac Escalade SUV’s. Seymour walks up to Andy. Lips tight and nodding slightly, he says, “Nothing personal, Andy, but you really fucked up.” He reaches out a wrinkled, mousy palm. “I need the keys to everything.” Andy hands him the bundle of keys. “A peace sign key chain, how quaint,” says Seymour and hands the keys to one of the agents. “Finish up with the store and go to his home.”

190 “Don’t hurt my roommate,” Andy blurts. “He doesn’t know anything, I swear.” Seymour chuckles. “You mean Gil Miller? The one writing love-struck emails to Rachel? He’s harmless enough. He’s never voted, did you know that?” Andy clasps his palms. “Please. I swear he doesn’t know anything. He doesn’t even know Comet exists.” Seymour tilts his head back and laughs. “Comet. That’s a stupid name.” He returns to serious form. “You know what happens to comets when they hit the atmosphere? Burn baby burn. And by the way, his name is Joshua Morris Livermore.” Andy’s sweaty shirt is stuck to his pudgy torso; his head throbs with each beat of his heart; his tongue is so dry it would snap off if he bent it. Arms dangled in defeat, he stares at his toes. The thought invades his mind: he won’t see Hanna tonight or ever. He will never feel a woman’s touch. Tremendously sad, Andy starts to cry. Seymour shrugs to his men. “Why do they always cry?” and turns to Andy, “It’s not like we’re taking you outside and executing you. That’s barbaric. We have more humane plans for you.” He dangles the handcuffs. “Ready?” Andy holds out his arms. The handcuffs—cold and metallic—snap on his wrists. Head bowed, feet scraping the ground, Andy is flanked by two agents who walk him toward one of the black SUV’s. He’s seated in the back. The two agents get in the front. Seymour joins him a moment later. The Escalade drives away from the store, toward the 405 freeway. Seymour smiles mechanically while his watery-brown eyes remain dead. “And now, as Monty Python would say, for something completely different.” He opens his

191 palm, which is cradling a dark-blue cylinder. “I’m only trying to protect the American people,” he says and presses the cylinder against Andy’s upper arm. Andy feels a sting, like the one from a bee and, within seconds, is engulfed by darkness.

Chapter Fourteen

Dear Gil, I made it to Rome, the city I’ve always dreamed of seeing. It’s gorgeous. The Coliseum is impressive. How the Romans built such structures is beyond my comprehension. A lot of slaves probably died so I could walk those ruins. I eat pasta and nothing else, so I am gaining weight. But I don’t care. Italians are very flamboyant and the men act like boys, which I find funny. I hope you are well,

192 Love, Rachel.

“I’m well, alright,” Gil says and pours himself a drink. The scotch settles his stomach while he shakes his head in frustrated disbelief. Not a word from Rachel about his drinking, the I love you, I’m sorry exchange, or his lengthy email stating that love isn’t a tennis match separated by courts, only unity of spirit and unconditional loyalty. If that’s what he really means, Rachel’s clinical postcards are testing his resolve. “Fine…be that way,” he mutters and shrugs his shoulders. “I’m going to the beach.” It’s ten in the morning and he’s had only two shots, so feels safe to drive the four miles. He scolds himself for not jogging since he’d started to drink. The scolding, however, doesn’t motivate him to put on his sneakers. The morning is clear and brisk; LA’s notorious smog is nowhere to be seen. The playground teems with toddlers and nannies, two of which are sitting on the bench Gil had sat on, reading Love in the Time of Cholera, when a feminine voice behind him said, “Reading a book, how quaint.” He sighs. He hadn’t the nerve or will to call and apologize to Susan. Unlike the day when his manhood had failed, he’s now clear as to what he would apologize for, if he called. He would admit to loving another woman who haunts his waking hours and midnight dreams, and whose lost love has driven him to drink. But to put Susan through such an admission wouldn’t serve her any good and, if anything, would cause her to feel cheated. Silence is called for, the severance of what should have never taken place. Part of him wants to dive into her pool of nectar—a golden pond it is—but he is terrorized of

193 failing again. He wonders what his life would be like had he risen to battle, had Susan comfortably straddled his spear. Perhaps he wouldn’t be drinking. Maybe Susan’s passion and quick humor would have cured him of his longing for Rachel. And Susan is mother to Naomi. Spending only a few hours with the little girl had already awakened fatherly affection within him. Susan and he could’ve been a good couple, maybe even conceived a child…. The circular thoughts about what could have been swirl away and evaporate: He loves Rachel.

Gil strolls south on the shoreline, toward the Marina Del Rey canal. The tide is low, the sand moist beneath his feet. Submerged by gentle waves, his footprints melt into the sand. Warm sun and gentle breeze caress his face. A flock of seagulls squabbles over red pieces of plastic. Rachel and he had walked that stretch of beach many times—the happiest moments of his life passed while traversing the shoreline, lightly entwining his fingers in hers and talking about everything and nothing. Feeling her presence bedside him, Gil reaches out to hold an imaginary hand and remembers Rachel’s long, thin fingers. “You never grow your fingernails,” he says, pretending she’s listening. “You never wear high-heel shoes, and don’t care for jewelry, never even had your ears pierced.” He chuckles. “You refuse to wear makeup, say that women look silly when they do.” He shrugs. “I love you just the same without makeup, so maybe you’re right. Maybe

194 all women should stop wearing makeup. I remember you saying, ‘Why do women rearrange their breasts and cheekbones, erase wrinkles and wear three-inch pumps to highlight their behind?’ You thought that was a lame way to go about feeling better about oneself. You said that women fussed over their appearance so they could attract a desirable male. You found the notion idiotic, that you’d have to jump through hoops of wardrobe and makeup to impress a man. I must tell you, though: few women are blessed with your natural beauty. I thought of saying something about that, but let it go. I’ll tell you now. You’re a bit of a snob. You won’t admit it, but you know you’re hot, so you can say that makeup doesn’t matter. Makeup does matter to women who want to look like you. It ain’t a level playing field.” Gil sits in the sand and looks to the horizon. The docile sea has encouraged many sailboats to venture out from port. “Remember the German guy who took us out on his boat to go snorkeling when we went to Hawaii? Helmut was his name. He couldn’t take his eyes off you. But you,” and he sings softly, “only had eyes for me.” Two young women in bikinis jog by. Their bellies are flat, their legs are long and tan, their perky breasts defy gravity. They’re wearing sunglasses and listening to i-Pods. Gil shakes his head. “I don’t get it,” he tells Rachel. “They cover their eyes and block their ears. I mean, if you’re gonna jog on the beach, you might as well listen to the waves and see the sun sparkle on the water.” His gaze follows the women’s lithe bodies and gyrating behinds, and he nods approval. “You don’t mind that I check out other women, do you? Can you believe how I lost it in bed with Susan? Never happened to me with you. You have a great smell. I believe that smell is the most potent aphrodisiac, wouldn’t you agree? I mean, I’d rather sleep with an average looking woman who smells

195 great than one with a killer body who smells strange.” He smiles. “You happen to possess both,” then sighs. “Actually, Susan smelled amazing. She’s really sexy, but I guess my libido’s hooked on you.” He stands up and stretches. “Back to the pad for me. Time for the noon drink. Are you coming?” Pretending to hold Rachel’s hand, Gil walks back to his car.

Two hours later, Gil is drunk. He’s sitting at his desk and looking out the broken window. A friendly late-afternoon breeze rustles the papers on his desk. The playground is bathed in the idyllic innocence of toddlers, and he’s chuckling at a boy driving the stationary train and imitating a train whistle, when the cute scene is blocked by a black SUV that coasts into the parking place in front of 2420 Ruby Lane. Four tall, square-jawed men with crew cuts, dressed in black suits and dark sunglasses, step out of the vehicle and walk up to the entrance door. Two loud knocks sound. “What the fuck?” Gil mutters. As he’d felt when the police showed up looking for Victor’s daughter, Gil isn’t threatened. Unlike Andy, he isn’t steeped in conspiracy theories. Knowing he’d done nothing wrong and has nothing to hide, he opens the door and smiles. “Let me guess. You’re the FBI and you’ve taken over Victor’s case from the LAPD.” One of the agents flashes his badge. “Is this the residence of Andrew Cloud?” Gil takes a step back. “Andy? Why do you ask? Aren’t you here to look for Victor? ”

196 “Are you the owner, Gil Miller?” Gil bows slightly. “The pleasure is all mine.” “We have a search warrant,” the agent clips and hands Gil a white page. Gil takes a moment to review the warrant, but is too drunk to read the details. He shrugs. “Whatever,” and lets the agents enter. For the next halt-hour, Gil is ignored by the FBI agents who search every inch of floor, walls, and ceiling in the house. Sounds of drawers thrown to the floor and the slamming of cupboard doors reverberate throughout the house. Pots, pans, and silverware clank and chime as they drop to the kitchen floor. While ruckus surrounds him, Gil is rooted in his chair. Every few minutes he slams a shot and each shot raises his anger. His shoulder muscles tighten and contract every time he hears something hit the floor. The FBI ambivalence about his property infuriates him, how the agents trample his belongings as if he were a criminal. His mind rustles with questions, the main one being: what’s Andy, the timid, traumatized geeky pothead, done to deserve such scrutiny? And when the lead agent comes for his computer, Gil stands up, narrows his bloodshot eyes and growls, “You can’t have it.” “Yes I can,” the agent replies mildly. “Over my dead body,” Gil says. The agent removes his sunglasses. His steely-blue eyes twinkle with malice. “I don’t have a warrant for your arrest but I could easily produce one. Do you care to test me?” Two agents, arms dangling menacingly to their sides, now flank their leader.

197 A chilly trickle of fear tingles Gil’s stomach—he’s lost the battle over his computer, and he will lose his freedom if he resists further. It’s a helpless sensation unlike any he’s ever felt. His angry drunkenness melts into deep fatigue. “All my work, my livelihood, is on the computer.” The leader motions to the agent to his right. “Agent Harris will gladly download any information you need onto disks that you can reload into your new computer.” “New computer? And who’s going to pay for a new computer?” “You are, sir.” Gil clenches his fists in dismay. “Why are you doing this?” he asks and, knowing he won’t get an answer, feels foolish while the agent silently stares him down. He moves away from the desk. Agent Harris slides into his chair. He sweeps the files while politely inquiring what he should download. Several minutes later, Gil’s computer modem is hauled into the black SUV. Gil slumps in his swivel chair while the agents drive away and leave an open field of view to the stationary train. Dusk has fallen and the playground is empty. His heart is also empty, barren, stripped of honor and all purpose except one—to drain the bottle before him and then buy another at the liquor store on the corner.

“That it boss?” asks the Indian clerk with the wavy, silver hair and the neatly trimmed mustache. “Yes,” Gil says and hands over his ATM card. “Debit or credit?”

198 “Stop it,” Gils shouts. “How many times do I need to buy from you until you figure out it’s debit. Always debit!” “Yes boss. Paper or plastic?” Gil waves a forefinger. “You’re fuckin with me, right?” “No boss.” The clerk’s eyes flicker with honesty. Gil rolls his eyes. “Whatever. Paper.” “Yes boss.” The clerk slides the bottle of Scotch into a paper bag. “And stop with the boss crap. I’m not your boss.” The clerk’s shoulders drop in resignation. “Yes sir.” “It’s Gil,” he says and points to his own chest. “What’s you name?” The clerk’s eyes widen with friendly gratitude. “I am Robert Singh.” Gil reaches out to shake the clerk’s wrinkly palm. “Okay Robert. See you soon.” “Yes boss, I mean, sir, I mean Gil.”

Back at the house, after he’s seated in his chair, and after he’s opened the bottle and taken a drink, Gil calls Andy’s cellphone but gets no reply, not even a message box. He calls the store. No answer. The FBI had taken his friend into custody. The thought rings absurd, surreal. Like a condemned man, Gil stumbles through the house. Andy’s room has been ransacked; leaning against the wall, the mattress had been split open and its woolen interior covers the floor; parts of the rug have been torn lifted. Everything else Andy owns—clothes, books, computer, trade magazines, photo albums he’d shared with Gil—is gone. He stands dazed and stoop-shouldered, unsure how to right the violation, when he sees a faded black and white photograph lying on the floor: a boy, maybe six or

199 seven, sitting in the lap of a woman in her late thirties. From her dark eyes and lips curled downward, to her frizzy, unkempt hair and her pale complexion, everything about the woman is sad. The boy is trying to smile but his eyes project tragic fear; wide ears flanking a chubby face, he looks equally unhappy. Gil enters his room and finds his mattress and rug intact. His clothes and books are scattered everywhere. For the first time since he’d bought the house on 2420 Ruby Lane ten years before, Gil wants to leave his home, to disappear to an obscure corner of the earth, a place removed from police chasing after Victor and the FBI persecuting Andy, an alien place where nothing will remind him of Rachel. But he has nowhere to run, except into the abundant forgetfulness stored in the arms of his loyal friend Glenn Fiddich.

Loud knocks sound on the entrance door. Gil startles awake. The room is dark. The thumping inside his head reminds him of the excessive amount of scotch he’d been drinking. He groans to sit up on the living room couch. The loud knocks sound again. Through the broken window across from the couch, Gil sees the flickering red lights of the police cruiser. “Fuck,” he whispers. “What now?” He staggers to the door, opens it, and recognizes the officers—a man and a woman—who’d woken him up on the first day he fell off the wagon, when he’d passed out in the park, his head resting on the second base cushion of the softball field. He

200 remembers they were polite and helpful, how the woman had chuckled and said, “We’ve seen a lot worse,” after he’d apologized for being a public nuisance. Tonight, they are also polite, when the man says, “Good evening Mister Miller.” “Hi guys,” he says and tries to smooth out his hair. “I look like shit.” The woman officers’ eyes flicker with doubt when she says, “I see you’re still coping with the death in your family.” “What death?” he asks and realizes he’s caught in a lie. “I understand that Victor Melon shares this residence,” the male officer says. “I’m not sure he does anymore,” Gils says. “I haven’t seen him since the police came looking for his runaway daughter.” The officer nods. “I’m afraid I have bad news concerning Mister Melon.” The room spins before Gil’s eyes. “I’ve had a really bad day,” he says. “I don’t think I can handle anymore bad news.” The officer ignores his plea. “Mister Melon has been shot. He’s in intensive care at Centinela hospital.” Gil’s knees shake. He backs away from the door and sits at his desk. The bottle of scotch in his grasp, he lifts it and swigs heavily. The liquor doesn’t calm him down at all. “You can come in,” he says in a shaky voice. The officers do so, and stand in the living room that reeks of scotch. “What happened?” Gil asks. “We’re not sure. Possibly gang related. He was shot in the parking lot of the Pinegrove motel on Pico Boulevard.” “That’s where he was staying?”

201 “Yes.” Heavy silence lingers while Gil searches within the bottle to calm his desperate heart: Had Megan not come in search of her father, bringing with her the police, Victor wouldn’t have moved into the motel and wouldn’t have been shot. Dominos anyone? “We need to locate his daughter,” the woman officer says. Gil shrugs and lies. “I swear I don’t know where she is. Never even seen her. Victor and me weren’t real close. He’s a tenant who lives in the back and pays his rent on time. That’s pretty much it.” Another long silence lingers. Gil desperately wants them to leave. A while later, after the officers inspect Victor’s dwelling and find nothing, they do leave, and Gil eyes the half full bottle. Will its clear amber soften the load weighing down his heart? The futility found in drink, like the red blanket he sees inching over the silver moon, begins to spread over his heart. He’d known that day would arrive since he’d forsaken his sobriety for that first drink. The sensation reminds him of the morning in Veil, Colorado: he’d brought the beer mug to his lips when the masseuse entered the restaurant and stared at him with revulsion. Then, he’d placed the mug on the table, pushed it away from him, and knew he was done with drinking. Today, though, he hasn’t the resolve. He brings the bottle to his lips and drinks in big gulps until the bottle is empty. The scotch swirls in his stomach; he feels nauseous. Before he can rise and run to the bathroom, the liquor shoots up his throat and out his mouth and sprays his mahogany desk with a sour smelling mixture of spirits and bile. Bubbly vomit settles in between the letters on his keyboard.

202 Rage he didn’t know dwelt in his heart erupts like Mount Aetna on a bad day. He throws the keyboard to the floor and stomps on it until it shatters into tiny bits. He hurls a basket filled with office paraphernalia at the television screen. The screen remains intact, but the office knickknacks scatter on the floor. He lifts the computer monitor and throws it against the wall. A large dent appears in the wall while the monitor lands on the couch and rolls to the floor. With a wide swipe of his arm he sends piles of paper and folders flying off the desk. He takes Rachel’s postcards out from the drawer and casts them into the wastebasket. Then he lights a match and, without a trace of trepidation, like he is burning old newspapers, watches them turn to weightless ashes that fill the room with smoke. The fire alarm goes off. He runs to the kitchen and returns with a hammer that he swings at the fire alarm, crushing it. The hammer’s rubbery handle feels good in his grip, so he turns his attention to the shelf above the TV. He topples the shelf to the ground and smashes all the CD’s and DVD’s. They yield easily to the hammer. All the while, he’s grunting and growling, cussing and moaning while his heart threatens to leap through his ribcage. The thumping in his head intensifies. His heart beats so weakly and quickly he can barely feel its pulse. He can hardly breathe. Black spots swirl before him. He staggers to his desk and collapses in his chair. The room is spinning violently and he cannot keep his eyes open. He shuts his eyes. The spinning continues inside his head and gets worse. Thick sweat drenches his body. Heavy shaking rattles his shoulders and chest. Gil tries to stand up when his legs give way. He reaches for his desk to break his fall. The wood slips through his shaky, sweaty fingers. Gil collapses. The back of his head thumps against the hardwood floor.

203

Chapter Fifteen

Emerging from silent darkness doesn’t feel as he expected. Rather then rising from silent darkness, he’s descending into wakefulness, as though he’d been suspended in outer space and is pulled back to earth’s gravitational field. He weighs a ton. He tries to wiggle his left pinky finger but cannot; it’s weighed down by a force far superior to his finger muscles. He doesn’t feel pain, rather, dull pressure on his chest and abdomen. A raspy groan sounds and he becomes aware of his throat. Something is lodged in his throat and is sticking out from his mouth. He flits his eyelashes and tries to raise his eyelids, but

204 gravity denies his effort. He continues to wrestle with his eyelids until the right one lifts just enough to allow gray light to strike his darting pupil. He fights to steady his pupil so he can see through the gray blurriness—a chair, a metal table, a television suspended from the ceiling, a white sheet covering his body. He hears a gargling sound, and a soft, thumping sound, and a steady, low, beeping signal. Again he tries to move his left pinky finger, but is unable to do so. He is scared but his heart beats slowly. He doesn’t know who or where he is. He tilts his head slightly to the left and sees the source of the soft, thumping sound: a rubber pump rising within a glass cylinder. He looks downward and sees catheters protruding from his arms. He wrinkles his nose and sniffs loudly: antiseptic smells, medicine, disinfectant. I am in a hospital, he thinks, but who am I? No panic follows the realization he doesn’t know his identity. He is like a driver who’s lost his way but knows he can stop at a gas station and ask for directions. His eyelids grow heavy. More than anything, he is tired, a fatigue unlike anything he imagined a man could survive through. I’m a man, he thinks, man, not woman. I know the difference between a man and a woman. Exhaustion ripples through his body, from his bone marrow to the pores of his skin, from the top of his scalp to his toenails. Numbness, like water into a sponge, soaks into his body.

He wakes up and immediately knows who he is: Victor Melon, forty-seven-yearsold, landscaper, ex-Marine, Megan’s father. Why he’s in the hospital still escapes his consciousness. His eyelids open with little effort. The gray light has turned brighter. The light streams through a window and he sees blue skies and the roof of a building with antennas and a satellite dish. Something thick and wide is stuck in his throat and he

205 cannot close his mouth. He can move his right arm. He tries to move his left arm. The arm won’t move but his fingers do. He tries to clear his throat but whatever is stuck in it will not budge. He tries to move his legs and toes but cannot feel them. A woman dressed in a blue hospital outfit walks in. She notices his open eyes and, in a clipped pace, walks out. A moment later, she returns with another woman dressed in a white outfit. A stethoscope hangs from her neck and she’s holding a folder. The women stand on the left side of his bed. The woman in white smiles. She’s about sixty, with deep crow’s feet around her eyes and wrinkles beneath her mouth. Her blue eyes, though, twinkle with youth. “Hi Victor,” she says. “If you hear me and understand me, please nod.” He does. She skirts her fingers across his left arm and her smile widens. “That’s terrific. I’m Lisa James, your surgeon. Do you remember what happened to you?” He shakes his head slightly. “Would you like me to tell you what happened?” He nods. “You’ve been shot twice,” the doctor says. “One bullet hit your upper left chest. Fortunately, it entered about three inches above your heart. The bullet severed the ligaments attached to your shoulder. That’s why you can’t move your arm. In time, you will recover the mobility in your left arm. Do you understand what I’m saying?” He nods. “Good. The other bullet entered your abdomen and lodged very close to your lower spine. We managed to remove the bullet but the lower spine suffered trauma. That’s

206 why you can’t feel your legs. I believe the injury is severe, but that you will walk again. You’re an especially strong and well-conditioned man. Do you understand what I’m saying?” He nods. Throughout her monologue, he knows she’s talking about his body, his injuries, his rather serious injuries, yet he doesn’t feel urgency, like she’s discussing a yard that needs cleaning after a winter storm or a back porch needing a coat of paint. He’s concerned about Megan. How long has he been unconscious? How is her wellbeing and pregnancy? How will he get in touch with her? Doctor James smiles. “The worst is over. You’re off the critical list. I would like to remove the intubator from your throat and have you breathe on your own. Are you ready to let me do that?” He nods. The doctor slowly extricates the tube from his mouth; the pressure on his throat lessens. He tries to breathe and begins to choke and wheeze, when the nurse places an oxygen mask over his nose. The oxygen’s coolness relaxes his lungs. “Don’t breathe too deep or you will hyperventilate,” the doctor says. “Relax.” She and the nurse remain by his bed and follow his breathing. The doctor cradles his left hand’s fingers. “Nice and easy,” she says. “You’re doing good.” He shuts his eyes and concentrates on breathing when the past comes crashing into his thoughts: the motel, the underage prostitute, the young man with the Browning 9mm gun, the shots, the darkness. His heart rushes. The beeping monitor beats quickly. “What’s wrong?” the doctor asks, an edge of alarm in her voice.

207 He squeezes her fingers. “I remember,” he says in a hoarse, cracking voice unfamiliar to him. She leans toward him and caresses his forehead. “That’s excellent news, Victor, really excellent news. Try to remember as much as you can.” His tries to swallow but his throat is raw and dry. “Water,” he whispers. The nurse fetches a plastic cup with a lid and a straw, which she places in his mouth. He sucks on the straw and enjoys the cool water trickling into his stomach. After he’s finished drinking, he is tired, like he’d run five miles. He shuts his eyes and drifts off.

The next three days are a blur of sleep and groggy wakefulness, of beeping machines and catheters, of liquid nutrients and blue-uniformed nurses. He’s never alert enough to assess his situation—a paraplegic who may not walk again. Paralysis as the outcome is inconceivable to him. His moments of lucidity center around Megan’s welfare: is she okay? Does she know what happened to him? Will she take the chance and visit him? She’s probably ashamed to see him, blames herself for what happened to him. He operates the TV remote control with his right hand. The reception is only of local channels with soap operas and infomercials. He cannot watch more than a few minutes before fatigue assaults his eyes and he falls asleep. He’s dying for a cigarette but has to settle for Nicorette gum. In one brief conversation, the doctor says that he’s groggy because of the pain medication he’s receiving, and that within a week, provided his condition keeps improving, he will be taken off most his medication. By the third day, he’s able to raise his left arm a few inches, progress the doctor notes as, “Remarkable.”

208 She tests his legs for sensation but he feels none. Still, he doesn’t panic and uses his military training under fire to convince himself that, no matter what, he will walk again. On the fourth morning, the doctor enters his room in the company of a chubby, moon-faced man with a five-o’clock shadow. Draped in a crumpled beige raincoat and wearing a gray wide-rimmed hat, his appearance portrays the generic detective seen in noir films. The doctor smiles. “This is detective Schultz. He’d like a few moments of your time. Is that okay?” Victor nods. His stomach tightens. Regardless of the detective’s comic appearance, he senses that Schultz is a bloodhound who completes the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle in fifteen minutes or less. Schultz nods. “Good to see you’re doing better,” he says in monotone. “I’ll be back soon,” the doctor says and walks out. The detective pulls the metal chair up to the bed, tumbles into the chair, reaches into the wide pocket of his overcoat, and brings out a stubby pencil and a small notebook. “What happened?” he asks. A long silence ensues while the detective shifts in the chair and Victor stares at the ceiling and tries to organize his thoughts. At first, he decides to confess about the prostitute he’d invited to his motel room and to what transpired, but then realizes he would be entrapping himself. He’s quite sure that if Maria and her pimp are reprehended, she will insist that Victor slept with her. That would constitute statutory rape, his word against hers, and could greatly complicate his life.

209 “I heard a man and woman arguing in the parking lot,” he says, still looking up at the ceiling. “I walked down from my room and tried to talk to the guy. He was a bald Mexican, about twenty with lots of tattoos. ‘Fuck you motherfucker,’ he said and pulled out a Browning 9mm. I know guns cause I’m ex-Marine. Motherfucker just shot me point blank without second thought.” He thinks of telling the detective about the blue Acura they were driving, but decides against it. He realizes that he doesn’t want Maria and her pimp to be caught. That would entail legal proceedings, trials, statements, all of which he wanted nothing to do with. If he is to seek vengeance, he will do so on his own terms: a swift snap of the pimp’s neck when he’s alone and off guard. “What did the woman look like?” Victor shrugs. “I don’t remember.” “Why were you staying in the motel?” Another silence follows while Victor tries to line up his ducks. Does the detective know about Megan and the police looking for her? “I had a fight with my landlord,” he says. “The living situation wasn’t working out so I checked into a motel while I looked for a new place to live.” The stubby pencil makes slight swishing sounds while the detective scribbles in his notebook. “You are a gardener?” he asks. “A landscaping contractor.” “Pardon my French.” “No offense taken.”

210 “Self employed?” “Yes.” “Who’ve you worked for lately?” “Only my regulars,” Victor says, adamant that Schultz never find out about his work at Perry’s estate. The detective whistles softly for a moment. “Witnesses report they saw a young woman enter your room.” “They’re confusing my room with someone else’s.” “You sure?” “Yes.” “Any other details you can provide about the man who shot you?” “Looked like a gang banger, white sleeveless T-shirt.” “Can you describe his tattoos?” “Sorry. I don’t remember. I was concentrating on the gun.” The detective removes his wide-rimmed hat, scratches his bald scalp, puts the hat back on, and stands up. “I guess this is all for now. I’ll be in touch. Here’s my card if you remember anything else.” Victor takes hold of the card. “I’m not going anywhere,” he says and tries to joke, “I’m not a flight risk.” “Why would I consider you a flight risk?” Schultz says. “You’re the victim.” “That’s true,” Victor says and feels foolish for perhaps exposing his lies. The detective walks to the entrance door. As he reaches the door, he turns around and grins. “You know…there’s one thing that bothers me,” and before Victor can

211 respond, he says, “I’m just wondering if you were at the motel because you were hiding from the police, you know, your missing daughter and all. Any truth to that?” Realizing the detective is well informed and intuitive, Victor nonetheless replies, “I haven’t seen my daughter in fifteen years. I’m not allowed to associate with her. I’m sure you’re aware of that. My landlord called me and said the police came looking for her, but I have nothing to hide. Besides,” and he narrows his eyes, “she has nothing to do with me being shot, so fuck off and take your Colombo act somewhere else.” Schultz raises his arms in mock surrender. “Didn’t mean to upset you. Have a speedy recovery,” and walks out.

Victor’s heart beats quickly. He’s like a wounded soldier who’s trapped behind enemy lines and cowers in a foxhole and peers into ominous darkness, waiting for the sound of twigs snapping beneath the feet of the army patrol sent to capture him. He wants to jump out of his bed, run down the corridor and out the hospital’s main entrance, so he can find Megan and escape to Mexico, but there’s nothing he can do except lie in his hospital bed, legs paralyzed, tubes sticking out from his arms. For the first time, the helplessness and loneliness of his condition dawn on him. Terror grips his heart: he’ll remain bed ridden for life, fed and wiped by nurses. He concentrates heavily, desperately tries to move his legs but feels nothing. No amount of will power can undo nerve damage, he thinks, eyes tearing up with frustration. Goosebumps of fear sprout on his skin. His chest constricts; he can hardly breathe. He squeezes the buzzer. A nurse walks in. “What’s wrong?” “Can’t breathe. Not feeling good.”

212 A few moments later, doctor James comes to his bedside. She measures his blood pressure and listens to his heart and lungs. “You’re having a panic attack,” she says. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have let the detective talk to you. I’ll be right back.” She returns with a small blue pill and a cup of water. “Take this and try to rest.” Victor swallows the pill. “When can I leave the hospital?” “Not for a while, Victor. You’re going to have to be patient.” His lips tighten. “I need to know the truth. Will I walk again? Don’t sugarcoat me.” Doctor Lisa James calmly stares into his eyes. “I don’t know. That is the truth. Every case is different. But you’re going to have to be patient either way. You’re not getting out of this bed on your own anytime soon.” He frowns. “Well, I don’t plan to spend the rest of my life in a wheel chair.” She holds his hand and lightly squeezes his fingers. “Please, Victor, let’s take it one day at a time.” He sighs and looks out the window. There’s a street below him, where people walk the sidewalks, where teenagers zoom by on skateboards, where old men lumber with canes, where mothers pushing strollers saunter by. He holds the doctor’s fingers and says nothing. The pill takes affect–a relaxing warmth spreads throughout his body. Fatigue, like a massive wave, rises in curly motion and crashes over his eyelids. * * *

213

Chapter Sixteen

Andy Cloud wakes up on a narrow foam mattress in a small cell. The sedative still in his veins, he feels groggy and lethargic. The brick walls are painted gleaming white; bright neon lights the room. At the left corner of the concrete floor stand a lidless toilet and sink, both stainless steel buffed to shiny perfection. His glasses have been confiscated and his vision is a bit blurry, but he estimates the cell size at about twelve feet long, eight feet wide, and seven feet high—a windowless cage. A gray metal door without a handle or a peephole separates Andy from whatever lies beyond the cell. Deep silence permeates the cell. It’s impossible for him to tell if it’s night or day, what the weather is outside, if he’s on the 50th floor of a skyscraper or in catacombs underground. His wristwatch is missing so he can’t even tell what day it is. The temperature in the cell is in the low 70’s and the air is clean and fresh. It takes Andy a moment to locate the vent—a two-inch hole above the entrance door. He places his palm up to the hole and feels the silent yet vigorous

214 movement of air into the cell. He pees in the toilet, which doesn’t have a flush handle, rather, it has a sensor that triggers a brief yet powerful and echoed flush. The sink, too, is equipped with a sensor. Andy places his hands beneath the spout and waits for the stingy trickle of water to rinse his hands. No towels are available to dry his hands. He walks up to the metal door and knocks three times. “Hello? Anyone out there?” No one answers. Andy returns to lie on the foam mattress and stares up at the ceiling. His mind is yet to accept the fact he’s in FBI custody, possibly in one of their alleged secret jails, the ones where, like in the infamous Russian Gulags, people are incarcerated without charges or legal representation. He assumed those jails existed, knew about the ones run by the CIA in other countries, but never in his wildest conspiratorial dreams did he believe he would end up in one. Somewhere along the line, reality had seeped into his fantastical and collusion-based theories; a convergence happened when, in his absolute stupidity, he opened Pandora’s Box—Seymour Duncan’s attaché case—and decided to play Secret Agent Man. The attaché’s rattlesnake laminated cover screamed at him to stay away, warned him of challenging the enemy, but did he listen? No. Andy shuffles to the sink, cups his palms underneath the faucet, and waits for water to trickle into his palms. The water tastes fresh. His stomach growls with hunger. He’s ready to sacrifice his first born for a in-and-out burger. He paces the cell and tries to figure out what he should do, what he can do, to extricate himself from prison, but is unable to arrive at any solutions. He lies on the mattress, curls his thighs up to his chest and sucks on his thumb. He knows that the FBI—that monstrous beast with thousands of toxic tentacles—is trying to break him by using sensory deprivation—an environment void of anything that could distract the prisoner from his thoughts. No sound, no time, no

215 seasons, no images or words. Monotone neon, stainless steel, white-washed walls, all effortlessly deflect any intimacy and humanity. Not even a speck of dust keeps him company. He’d rather be in a Turkish prison, where cockroaches rustle and rats squeak, where the floor is damp earth he can crumble in his fingers, where he smells other people’s shit, where metal bars offer the view of a corridor patrolled by sweaty widemustached guards and of prisoners shouting from other cells. That prison would be so much easier to tolerate than the sterile solitary confinement he faces. He tries to find solace in the fact the FBI needs him to officially confess, that they wouldn’t lock him up without some due process, but is then overwhelmed by the thought he would remain to rot in the cell until he dies of hunger. “They wouldn’t do that, just lock me up and throw away the key,” he whispers. The whisper echoes in the morbid silence. He decides to find out if he’s being monitored and spends a long time, a few hours as far as he can tell, tapping the walls and door and crawling on the floor in search of a microphone or a camera hidden in the cell. He brings forth all the expertise he’s accumulated over the years, all the knowledge he’s amassed selling electronics, but finds nothing. Still, he’s convinced that someone, somewhere, is watching him. The essence of the FBI and agencies of its kind lies in voyeurism, a fetish they relish in, and which their purpose justifies. He imagines three middle-aged agents sitting in a basement. Dressed in gray suits and overweight, they’re smoking cigars and drinking whiskey sodas. The wall in front of them has dozens of black and white 12-inch monitors spying on prisoners like him, for he knows he isn’t alone in his fate. Some prisoners are asleep, others pace their

216 cells nervously, a few are exercising, and others rant and rave, their sanity compromised by their long incarceration. “Number 124 is flipping out,” one of the agents says and points to a monitor showing a man bashing his head against the wall. “It’s about time,” another agent says. “Fucker’s been in there for six months.” They calmly watch the man collapse to the floor. His skull oozes blood. “You think he’s dead?” an agent asks and sips on his whiskey soda. “I hope so,” says another and puffs on his cigar. “Useless information we got from him. Gotta make room for someone new.” Andy’s eyes dart to the room’s four corners. Is he being watched? Are they snickering about his thumb sucking? Will they let him stay in solitude until his mind snaps, until he’s an incoherent babbling fool? He takes a deep breath: let them try. He will construct an inner-world, one filled with fantastic imagery, a universe he’ll cultivate for decades if need be. In that universe, he’ll be taller, slimmer, handsomer, richer. He will complete triathlons, fly his own jet, safari in Kenya, and hobnob with business tycoons and entertainment giants on the beaches of Saint Tropez. Runway models will trip over each other as they rush to bask in his male aura, but he will opt to marry a soft-spoken African America activist who travels the world and writes passionately about the plight of three billion people who live on a dollar a day and whose children die from preventable disease. In his new world, he will cast the first pitch in the World Series, christen an ocean liner by smashing a bottle of champagne against her stern, and be invited by NASA to fly on the space shuttle. And he will be wealthy, very wealthy. But he won’t flaunt his riches, rather, he will start an NGO unlike any other, one that will shame the Bill and

217 Melinda Gates Foundation. And he will adopt a Tibetan monastery and create retreats for world leaders, symposiums to promote tolerance and compassion. And when he receives the Nobel Peace Prize, he will dedicate it to his mother, the psychotic woman who struggled with insanity, who abused him, and who, through her tortured life, taught him the courage to seek love wherever love can be found. Yes. That will be his new world— an infinite universe within the cell of isolation and sensory deprivation. Years will pass while the fat, cigar-smoking, whiskey-drinking federal agents watch him on the TV monitor. Eventually, they will scratch their bald heads and mutter, “There’s no breaking Andy Cloud. Like Nelson Mandela, he’s indefinitely resilient.” Fear will flutter in their stomachs when they realize they’re dealing with a spiritual master immune to mortal weakness, a man who, against all odds will defeat the clandestine organization trying to deprive him of his righteous place among the great men of history. His heart resolute, Andy ignores his rumbling stomach. He lies on the foam mattress, turns to face the wall and, his thumb sucking echoing in the cell, falls asleep.

He wakes up to white-washed walls, bright fluorescent, and a silence so deep he can hear his nostrils quiver as he breathes the air. He has no clue how long he’s slept, whether it’s night or day, or what he will do with the waking hours he’s to face until he sleeps again. He pees in the stainless steel toilet and sips from the faucet. He splashes water on his face and wipes the back of his neck. He walks to the gray metal door and knocks. “Can anyone hear me? I want a lawyer. I’m an American citizen and I have rights. And I want to eat. You have no right to starve me.” No one answers, but Andy enjoys the metallic thud created by his knuckles against the door. Any noise is better than

218 deafening silence. He experiments and finds that his palm produces a softer thud than his knuckles do, thus simulating a bass drum and a snare drum. He drums on the door and chants in fashion of recruits marching in sync, “I want a burger, shake and fries, but no one listens to my cries. I need to smoke some Mary Jane, it helps to take away my pain.” As he raps, he thinks about Comet Livingston: was he busted? Did he try to send the Trojan Horse into the Pentagon’s servers? Did he succeed? Is Comet incarcerated in a cell like this one, denied food and human contact? Or maybe he got a head start on the FBI, had the fifteen minutes needed to launch his escape to Nigeria or Cameroon or Liberia. Comet probably left the store, drove at breakneck speed to LAX where a private jet waited in an unmarked hanger. Of course, the FBI followed him, but they were caught off guard by Comet’s swift escape. He imagines the agents radioing the airport control tower. “Fugitive taking off,” they shout. “Deploy the F-16’s.” Doing so takes only a few minutes, but by then, Comet’s jet is in Mexican airspace. The F-16’s, like defeated dogs, turn tail and return to base. Andy paces the cell. Comet is probably planning a jailbreak. After all, Andy is an agent of Change, a necessary component in the revolutionary movement. Without his inspiration and deft guiding, his uncanny ability to nip problems at the bud, Change might falter. He cups his ear to the door and holds his breath. He needs to hear something, anything, be it a squeak, a rustle, a shuffle, or maybe the sound of distant machine gun fire spurting from the weapons of the maverick combat unit sent to rescue him. The gunfire gets closer, accompanied by shouting and heavy boots pounding the parquet hallway floors. “He’s in here,” shouts a man with a Spanish accent. Rapid fire hits the metal door that yields to the bullets. Three men dressed in black, faces shielded by ski

219 masks, burst into the cell. “Come with us and hurry,” one of them says respectfully. “After you,” Andy says nonchalantly, though the flicker in his eyes portrays his admiration for men willing to sacrifice their lives to save their spiritual leader. “You’ll need one of these,” the commando says and tosses Andy an Uzi. Andy cocks the semiautomatic machine gun; it feels warm and malleable in his hands. They run down a wide corridor, footsteps like claps of thunder sounding off the walls. Government agents dressed in military fatigues try to stop them, but are too slow, much too slow to do so, as the rescue party’s phallic symbols riddle their bodies. The rebels swiftly scale ten stories of metal stairs; Andy’s light on his feet, decades of rigorous training serving him well. They burst through the door at the top of the stairs and Andy finds himself atop a skyscraper in downtown LA. A chopper hovers above; two rope ladders dangle from its open doors. Like squirrels zipping up a tree trunk, so the rescue party scampers up the ladders, the enemy’s bullets missing them by inches. A warrior on the chopper fires a Stinger missile from a shoulder launcher. The missile explodes amidst the enemy’s ranks. Body parts and the smell of scorched flesh fill the air. The rescue party now secure in the chopper, Andy recognizes the pilot. It’s Comet. The giant black man laughs—a barrel of nails rolling down a steep slope—“I ain’t gonna leave you behind,” he says with a wink. “You’re my nigger.” “Never assumed otherwise,” Andy replies as the chopper banks a hard left and flies into the setting sun. The End.

Unable to hear anything from the hallway, Andy lies on the barren mattress and tries to sleep. He’s starving, famished like never before in his life. “That’s one way to

220 lose weight,” he says and remembers the writings of Pigafetta, the diarist who kept the log of the Victoria, the ship piloted by Magellan on his famous journey to circumnavigate the planet. “We ate crumbling biscuits infested with grubs, ox hides from under the yardarms, the leather from our shoes, sawdust and rats. The gums of the men swelled so much they could not chew,” Andy quotes the Italian chronicler from centuries ago. He pictures the Pacific Ocean, the largest body of water on the planet, and the ship, like a toothpick riding the ocean’s swells. Imagining he’s a young sailor named Orlando, his body pained with scurvy, he’s standing duty at crow’s nest and peers through the lifting mist. “I see land,” he screams, “I see land!” Emaciated and burning with fever, shadowy figures rise from the decks. Many can barely move, but a few crawl out and stare in the direction Orlando is pointing. They witness a peaceful lagoon leading to a sandy beach upon which hundreds of people stand watching the huge wooden ship. Small rowing boats sail toward the ship. “Captain, they’re rowing out,” the first officer, who is looking through his spyglass, remarks. “Do you see any weapons?” “None at all.” “Let them come aboard,” the captain orders. The boats come up to the large hull, and their occupants, short brown-skinned natives with high cheekbones and dark eyes are welcomed aboard. They stand smiling docilely, when a tall white man offers them colorful beads, bracelets, combs, and something they had never seen: a shiny surface that, when staring into it, like staring into

221 still, clear water, they recognize their own faces. The miracle of the shiny surface confirms to the village elders that gods had indeed descended. Endless days of salty death finally behind them, the sailors stumble ashore. Food is offered and sweet water. The men drink and eat, then sleep, and slowly recover from the voyage, though not all survive. Word about the arrival of the gods travels quickly, and gift bearing dignitaries from other villages make the pilgrimage. All are thrilled with the bells, mirrors and knives they receive in return for their gifts. It is a blessed time, one in which the captain is happy, as is the crew, as are the natives. The sailors are treated kindly by the women who willingly engage in sexual acts in return for trinkets. The women have soft smooth skin, small perky breasts and a playful, erotic disposition. One night, Orlando, who had first spotted land as he languished in the crow’s nest, is summoned to sit with the captain. Through his eyes God had guided the ship, and the captain shows his gratitude by inviting the young sailor to join the circle of officers. The captain says, “God has bestowed upon us the best of his offerings.” Orlando nods, “Indeed he has.” He’s met a native girl who has awakened in him powers he did not know he possessed; all he can think about is the scent of her skin and the taste of her mouth, and the warmth of her breasts and the dark triangle above her thighs. The captain says, “It is time to instruct the natives in the ways of Christ. Time to show them the love of God, and his wrath, if they choose not to listen.”

222 Orlando isn’t sure what the captain has in mind, but quickly agrees. “Indeed,” he says, “the ways of the Lord shall be heaped upon the heathen.” The captain laughs. “Heaped upon the heathen? Why Orlando, you surprise me with your verbal flourishes.” The young man blushes in pride and excuses himself to join his native girl waiting in the shadows.

Andy’s daydreaming is disrupted by thoughts of Jules, the old man he helped with shopping and with whom he shared political diatribes. Will Jules remember to take his medication? Will he eat? Guilt consumes Andy’s heart when he imagines the old man waiting for him to arrive, sitting in the wide armchair, running out of diapers, cussing at intellectually moribund politicians squabbling on C-SPAN. “Sorry, Jules,” he says. “They got me. Remember when I asked, ‘Who are They?’ and you said, ‘Even I don’t know,’ and I said, ‘How can we fight who we can’t see?’ and you said, ‘What’s that We stuff. I’m done.’ Well, now I’m done.” He wonders how Gil is doing. No doubt, the FBI invaded the house at 2420 Ruby Lane and confiscated whatever they needed. Was Gil arrested? Seymour Duncan said he was harmless, but harmless didn’t necessarily mean immune. And if Gil remains free, what will he do to help Andy? What can he do? Nothing. He could get in touch with a lawyer, but what would a lawyer do? What can a lawyer do? Nothing. Even if word of his incarceration became public, the FBI would claim, proof in hand, that Andy is a homegrown terrorist who actively planned to sabotage National Security. “I’m fucked,” he whispers, then says, “Fucked!” and shouts, “FUCKED!”

223 The word, fucked, triggers the memory of his favorite joke: Magoomba, so he recites the joke to himself, his voice booming in the empty cell: “Three missionaries are apprehended by a fierce African tribe and are brought to the village center where they’re bound to poles staked over sizzling coals. The Chief, a large man with bones piercing his nose and lips, folds his arms over his rippling chest muscles and stares contemptuously at the missionaries. “You have violated our ancestral burial ground,” he growls, “and must pay the price. You have the choice of death or Magoomba.” “What’s Magoomba?” asks one of the missionaries, his voice quivering with fear. “Magoomba is when all the tribe’s men fuck you in the ass,” the chief says and exposes his foot long penis. The missionary squints in dismay, but finally says, “I don’t want to die, so I choose Magoomba.” A long time later, his buttocks bruised and his anus bleeding, the missionary lies helpless on the ground. Before he passes out, he says, “Forgive me, Jesus, for I have sinned, but it’s good to be alive.” Seeing his friend’s precarious position, the second missionary swallows hard and pleads for leniency before agreeing to Magoomba. Following the painful and lengthy ridicule, and before he passes out, the missionary says, “The Lord has tested the flesh in me, but my spirit remains resilient.” The third missionary will have none of it. He glares defiantly at the chief, sticks out his chest and declares. “Give me death.”

224 The chief nods casually, then says to his men. “Death for him, but first, Magoomba.” Andy groans, “Magoomba,” and falls asleep.

He wakes up: bright neon, silence, white-washed walls, silence, stainless steel toilet, silence, 72 degrees, silence, silence and more silence. He curls up into a ball and starts to cry. “Please talk to me, anyone, please talk to me. I’m sorry for what I did. I’m a fool, an idiot. I didn’t mean to be bad. Please, mommy, don’t be mad. I promise to take out the garbage and wipe the kitchen table. I promise to keep my room tidy. Victor was right. I had a great life, my store, a roof over my head, in-and-out-burger, weed to smoke. But I didn’t appreciate. I promise to always appreciate from now on. I don’t care about the war or Trident submarines. You can do anything you want. I promise to vote anyway you tell me. God bless America. God bless President Bush.” His sobbing grows louder and heavier. Snot runs from his chubby nose and drips into his mouth. “Help me,” he cries. “Someone please help me. I don’t want to stay here. I can’t stay here. I’m going crazy.” He pulls on the hair at the corners of his scalp and plucks tufts of grayish hair. A slight draft swirls through the cell. Andy opens his bloodshot eyes. The gray metal door is open. A dimly lit corridor lies beyond the door. He hears footsteps. He sits up on the bed and holds his breath. His heart beats wildly and gratefully in anticipation of his savior.

225

Chapter Seventeen

Gil startles awake and finds himself drenched in cold water. “What the fuck,” he cries and sits up, when he sees the tall man standing over him. The man is holding a bucket. “Have some more,” the man says and empties the bucket over Gil’s head. The cold water strikes him forcefully and further awakens him. “Stop,” he shouts and wipes the water from his face. He looks up and recognizes Westbrook, The Cleaner, and head of the AA chapter he belongs to. The crusty sponsor reaches down to grab Gil by his armpits and swings him up to his feet. He keeps one hand on Gil’s throat while the other smacks him firmly across each cheek. Then he puts Gil in a headlock and drags him to the couch. He hurls the hung-over copy-editor onto the couch and, arms crossed over his chest, says, “Welcome to hell.” “What’s going on?” Gil says. “Are you out of your fuckin mind?”

226 The wiry old man leans toward Gil. His blue, hawkish eyes twinkle with sarcastic joy. “I’m out of my fuckin mind, for sure, and you know that. I’m also stronger than you, so if you fuck with me, I’ll fuck you back, only harder, much harder. Wanna try me?” Gil lets out the most protracted groan of his life. The back of his head is on fire, like a branding iron is pressing against it. Westbrook grabs him by the collar and stands him up. “Wanna try me?” he yells, his angry eyes an inch away from Gil’s nose. “No,” Gil mutters. The cleaner shoves him back onto the couch. “Can I have a glass of water?” Gil asks. “You may not,” Westbrook snaps. “You may lie on the couch and listen to me.” He pulls out a crumpled pack of Marlboro Lights from his shirt pocket, lights a cigarette, and says, “I am now your shadow. You don’t eat, sleep, or shit without my permission. And if you try, I will mess with your head so you’ll wish you were never born. You will do everything I tell you to do, and you will do it without question and with gratitude. I am your God, your Priest, your Rabbi, and your therapist all bundled up in one handsome and articulate package.” He thumps his fist on his chest. “Me.” “I really appreciate what you’re doing,” Gil says, “but you don’t have to do that. I’m done with drinking, had my moment of clarity.” Westbrook’s throaty laugh is layered with decades of smoking. “And pigs don’t roll in shit. See? You’re already trying to fuck with me. Get it into your pointy head, brother, you and me are stuck together with superglue. Nothin’ you say or do can change that. Capisce?” “Please stop,” Gil says, “My head hurts.”

227 Westbrook mimics a dissatisfied child. “My head hurts,” then returns to his throaty bass. “Am I supposed to feel sorry for you? Fuck you.” His inflection imitates someone talking to a frisky puppy. “You want me to hold your hand, poochie poo? Want Uncle Westy to kiss your owey and make it all better?” Gil stands up. “Stop it! You’re pissing me off.” “C’mon, c’mon,” Westbrook sneers through clenched teeth and motions with his wrinkled fingers. “You wanna piece of me? Come get a piece of me, motherfucker.” Gil sits on the couch and buries his face in his palms. “This is bullshit.” “No. This is not bullshit. Bullshit is when you drink and wreck you house.” Westbrook points to the crushed CD’s littering the carpet. “What are you, a fuckin rock star trashing a hotel room?” “You don’t know the half of it,” Gil says. “Oh, really? Then why don’t you enlighten my saggin’ ass.” “Okay, I will,” Gil says, “but I really need water and Tylenol.” The cleaner sinks into the armchair and places his feet on the coffee table. “So be it. I grant you permission to drink water and take Tylenol, but before you do that, I want you, for one minute, to close your eyes and listen to the pain inside your head. I want you to remember that pain, that helpless, stupid, empty pain you don’t need and that will never, you hear me? never make anything in your life better. Now, close your eyes.” Gil shuts his eyes and listens to the pain inside his head– worthless agony, toxic thumping, a devilish buzzing of synaptic damage. He tucks in his lips and clenches his fists. He’d let himself roll down the mountain of sobriety and ended up in the smelly

228 ditch of drunken pain and remorse. For a moment, all he wants is to heal, to once again jog on the beach, to get lost in a good book…to be with Rachel. He opens his eyes. “Glenn Fiddich will be returning to the British Isles.” “Good idea,” Westbrook says. “Fucker’s visa has expired.” After Gil drinks a tall glass of water and swallows three extra-strength Tylenol, he lies on the couch and tells Westbrook about the last two weeks, how Rachel’s ambiguity finally seeped into his sobriety and melted his resolve. “That was tough,” he says, “but I kept it together, kinda, until the shit really hit the fan.” He then recounts the developments with Victor and Andy, and how the police and FBI raided his house with total disregard. “Now Victor’s at Centinela hospital with gunshot wounds,” he concludes, “and Andy’s god knows where, probably in FBI custody. I’m still clueless why.” Westbrook chuckles. “As the Chinese curse goes, ‘May you live in interesting times.’ But all this shit is distraction, all excuses for your drinking ego. You know that. You’re no fool, and you got six years under your belt.” Gil gazes at the ceiling. “There’s one more thing, but you can never breathe a word of it.” “Now that hurts,” the cleaner says mockingly. “I spend twenty years keeping secrets and now you doubt me? You’re breaking my heart.” “Fine,” says Gil and confesses about his sexual failure with Susan. “After that, I snapped. I lost it, like my feet floated to the liquor store.” “Ego,” Westbrook cries. “Ego, ego, and nothing but drinking ego.”

229 He lights another cigarette and says, “You need to connect with your Higher Power, with your God energy. The desire to drink isn’t your true self, it’s the ego, which is conditioned by your past and your environment, by your physical form and your desires.” “I know,” Gil says and recalls the fiery sermons preached by Westbrook at AA meetings he’d attended during the first years of his sobriety. The cleaner takes his feet off the table and leans toward Gil. “Your dick was trying to tell you something, a good thing. You’re in love with Rachel, not with Susan. But you tried to replace your love, your true self, with lust, a product of your ego. That shit don’t work.” “But Rachel’s not here,” Gil says, “I don’t know if she’ll ever get over not having kids.” “Maybe she will, maybe she won’t,” Westbrook says. “That’s irrelevant to your spirituality. See, what you’re doing is letting your egoist love rule you. Or you love unconditionally, or forget about it.” “That’s true,” Gil says and reflects on his own tennis court analogy, how the ball is never on one side of the court, that love is a rough sea navigated in unison. “I can’t believe I burnt the postcards she sent me. Fuckin stupid. I was so pissed.” Westbrook pinches his nose. “Go take a shower. You stink. Then we’ll go eat.”

While Gil is in the shower, the hot water soaking tension from his neck and shoulders, he is grateful for the cleaner’s intervention, but not entirely so. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he wants to drink. He knows it’s wrong to desire alcohol, but is

230 tempted by that first drink, the warmth glowing in his stomach, feeling like a new man and knowing that man wants a drink…

“How long you’ve been sober?” Gil asks while they’re eating Denver omelets at Denny’s. “Seventeen years, three months, and four days.” “That’s a long time, but you still go to meetings every day. How come?” Westbrook’s eyes measure Gil with disdain. “Cause I know better, unlike some fools who think they got it covered and stay away.” “What made you quit drinking?” “Acute Pancreatitis,” the cleaner says and sips his coffee. “Nastiest stuff you can ever imagine.” “I heard about it,” Gil says. “Vomiting, fever, abdominal pain.” “Jaundice, skin rash, anxiety, sweating,” Westbrook says, “but the worst is the nausea, like a permanent really bad hangover. Problem is, with a hangover, you have a hair of the dog and feel better, but with Pancreatitis, if you drink, the nausea gets worse. You fuckin wanna die, I kid you not.” “Fear is a great motivator,” Gil says. Westbrook shrugs. “For some. Others never learn. So I’m lying in the hospital and I wanna die, but I want a drink even more, when I hear the guy lying next to me say, ‘Would you like to read a book?’ I turn to look at him. He’s a young guy, maybe thirty, but looks like he’s ninety, fuckin skinnier than a match. His hair is gone, and he’s got purple sores all over his arms. But his eyes, light-green eyes, are clear, like he’s serene,

231 content that he’s dying, which he did, two days later. He had AIDS. Before I can say anything, he hands over a thick book and says, ‘It’ll save you, I promise, and I don’t need it anymore.’ I had to take the book. I had no choice. You know the name of the book?” “I think you mentioned the name at a meeting I went to,” Gil says, “but I don’t remember.” “Don’t remember? Maybe you weren’t paying attention? Maybe if you paid attention you wouldn’t have ended up passed out.” “Maybe. So what’s the book about?” The young waitress comes by to replenish their coffee. Westbrook smiles at her and says, “How about you and me going back to my place?” She rolls her eyes. “When I decide to date men my grandpa’s age, you’ll be first to know.” “Age is only a number,” he says. “And the moon is made of cheese,” she retorts and saunters off. Westbrook’s gaze follows her gyrating behind. Then he shrugs at Gil. “Never hurts to try.” “If you say so,” Gil says. “So what’s the book about?” “Ah…the book is called A Course in Miracles.” Gil nods. “I heard good things about it from Rachel, but I didn’t read it.” “Like anything, it’s got the fair share of crap and you gotta take it with a grain of salt,” the cleaner says, “but its also got some interesting stuff in it. Like when I first opened the book, I read something like, ‘This is a course in cause and not effect.’ What

232 that means is that we don’t seek to change the world—the effect, but to change our mind —cause, about the world.” “I don’t get it,” Gil says. “It means that our perception of a problem and any pain that comes to us from that perception, is our mind telling us we got a problem. Case in hand, Rachel, whom you think you have a problem with. But it ain’t Rachel. It’s your mind. And if Rachel comes back and swears to love you until death do you part, that won’t be enough. Your mind will find something new to bitch about, you’ll feel sorry for yourself, and then, you’ll drink. Vicious cycle.” Gil leans back in his chair. “I get it. Very cool,” but in his mind, he wants to drink and is scheming how to get rid of Westbrook. The crusty old man nods and puckers his lips. “Really? That was awful fast of you.” Gil shrugs. “Like I said, I really did have a moment of clarity last night. I’m done drinking. From now on, you’ll see me at a meeting every day.” Westbrook stands up. “Good, and no time is better than now. If we leave now, we’ll make it in time for the two o’clock meeting.” “Let’s go back to the house and get my car,” Gil says. Westbrook frowns. “No need. It’s only about two miles. Walking will do you good.” Before Gil can protest, the cleaner’s out the restaurant door and walking down Sepulveda Boulevard.

233

While attending the AA meeting, Gil is looking for ways to unload Westbrook, the wily fox who’s heard every excuse and derailed many drunkards trying to abandon their sobriety. Legend in AA circles said that when the cleaner had sunk his claws into his victim, chances were better than fifty percent that the mutinous drunk would stay sober for years if not forever, an impressive percentage compared to the 97% early recidivism —the ugly statistic behind AA’s well-meaning rhetoric. He could pretend to use the bathroom, then slip out the back door, but he knows Westbrook will be waiting by the house. Checking into a motel is a possibility, an anonymous environment conducive to drinking, but he’s discouraged by the sleazy overtones. Besides, he’s used to drinking at his desk, at his computer, and looking out the window at the kids on the playground. That image reminds him that he doesn’t have a computer—it’d been confiscated by the FBI. Fortunately, he can go to Andy’s store and get a new one at rock bottom price, he thinks, when he remembers that Andy’s in jail and that his store is probably closed. And Victor is lying wounded in a hospital bed. And Rachel is roaming Europe. The enormity of his recent loss, the tragic outcome dished out to his roommates, dawns on him with renewed force. A mist clouds his eyes. Gil feels alone and lonely. No one loves him. The world is one big pile of shit and he’s buried waist deep in it. Westbrook may think he understands Gil’s morass, but he doesn’t. To each his own, chimes the mantra in his head, and his own is to feel sorry for himself in the company of his ostracized buddy, Glenn Fiddich.

234 He gets up and walks out. Within seconds, the cleaner is marching by his side. “I need to you fuck off,” Gil says. “No. You don’t need me to fuck off. You want me to fuck off. Big difference.” “Okay. I want you to fuck off.” “I don’t care what you want. I care about what you need.” Gil stops walking at glares at Westbrook “And I don’t care what you care or don’t care about. Now fuck off.” His leathery cheeks plowed with deep wrinkles, the lanky sponsor shrugs. “I’m not going anywhere.” “Suits me fine,” Gil says and takes off jogging. He figures he has twenty years on his opponent who also smokes cigarettes. Half a block away, he looks over his shoulder: the cleaner is walking in swift military fashion, arms swinging evenly by his sides. Gil is reminded of the evil android in Terminator II, who’s cloaked as a police officer and who walks through walls with single-minded determination: to kill the boy who grows up to lead the resistance against the machines. Not having jogged in weeks and still exhausted from his alcohol poisoning from the night before, Gil is quickly out of breath. He is dizzy and nauseous, and settles into a brisk walk, but even that tires him and, as he nears 2420 Ruby Lane, the cleaner is not far behind. Gil gathers the last gasp of energy in his battered body, runs to and enters the house, and locks the door behind him. Breathing heavily, he collapses in his swivel chair behind his desk and sees Westbrook turn the corner and come up to the door. The sponsor knocks. “Let me in.” “No,” Gil shouts.

235 “Fine, then, I’ll wait outside,” the cleaner says. He sits on the entrance steps and lights a cigarette. “I’m not ready to quit,” Gil says, his voice traveling through the broken window above his desk. “No one is ever ready,” Westbrook says. “That’s not true,” Gil says. “I was ready when I quit six years ago.” “Refresh my memory,” Westbrook says. Gil tells him about the blackout in Veil and about the exasperated look the masseuse gave him in the restaurant, how he lay down the beer mug and knew he was done with drinking. “Cute story,” says the cleaner, “but that was then and this is now.” “So you’re gonna sit on my doorstep indefinitely?” “Shit, when I was a POW in Vietnam I lived two years locked up in a wooden cage overlooking a swamp with mosquitoes that ate kittens for breakfast. This is the fuckin Hilton.” Westbrook leans against the door and stretches out his long legs. “I didn’t know you were a POW,” Gil says. “Sorry to hear that.” “ No you’re not. You don’t give a shit.” “That’s not true, I just never heard you talk about it.” “You’re a sweetheart,” Westbrook says and lights a cigarette. “So when I got back stateside, I crawled into a bottle for twenty-five years. Why did you crawl into a bottle?” “I don’t know. Jews aren’t supposed to be good drinkers.” “You gotta find out what you’re trying to forget. Until you do, you’re fucked and will repeat the pattern. Did your mother breastfeed you?”

236 Gil laughs. “What’s that got to do with anything?” “I’m serious. Did she?” “I don’t know,” Gil says. He’s exhausted and….his desire to drink is abating. “Try to find out,” Westbrook says. “Lots of drunks are trying to make up for the nipple they miss from when they were babies. Did you know that babies who are breastfed for at least twelve months have a fifty percent less chance of becoming alcoholics?” “I didn’t know that,” Gil says, his mind searching for proof of whether he was breastfed. Perhaps his sister, Sarah, would know. His brain still flickers with desire to drink but his body repels the thought. All his body wants is a good night’s sleep even though it’s scarcely four in the afternoon. “Your voice sounds tired. Why don’t you take a nap?” the cleaner says. Impressed by the old man’s intuition, Gil admits he’s tired. “What are you gonna do if I take a nap?” “Maybe you can let me in and I can watch TV. We can talk more when you wake up. “Okay,” Gil says. Westbrook enters and smiles wearily. “Congratulations. You made it through your first craving.” “I guess I did,” Gil says. “Thanks.” The sponsor reclines on the couch, clicks on the TV, and says, “You’re welcome.”

237 Gil staggers to his bedroom. Moments later, he’s fast asleep and dreaming about Rachel and him frolicking in a bath filled with beer. “I wasn’t breastfed,” he says. “Poor baby,” Rachel croons. “Let me breastfeed you,” and offers a full breast brimming with nourishment. He ravenously sucks her nipples, but instead of milk, Glenfiddich comes pouring out from her breast.

238

Chapter Eighteen

From the upright position of his hospital bed, Victor sees Doctor Lisa James enter his hospital room. Her lips are tight with concern as she pulls up a chair and sits by his bedside. She crosses her legs and raises her chin, narrows her eyes and stares at him. For a moment, he returns her gaze but then looks up at the ceiling. “Not eating for three days isn’t helping you get better,” she says. Victor shrugs slightly while staring at the ceiling. “What happened to the fighting ex-Marine, to the crusty warrior?” the doctor asks. “I’m here with you in the trenches. Are you with me?” “No.” “Victor, I need you to start eating.” He frowns. “Why? If I’m not going to walk, I don’t want to live.” The doctor sighs. “First of all, there’s a reasonable chance that you will walk. But if you don’t try to heal, then you will not walk. You are depressed, that’s understandable, but you have to try to fight the depression. Why won’t you take the medication?” “I’m tired of fighting, been fighting all my life and look where I ended up,” he says and points to his lifeless legs. Four days had passed since detective Schultz questioned him, four days since the reality dawned on him that he’s a cripple who will need round-the-clock care for the rest

239 of his life. Though Doctor James insists that isn’t necessarily the truth, Victor doesn’t believe her. He’s convinced she’s withholding his true prognosis, that she doesn’t want to overwhelm him. Even his love for Megan has fallen by the wayside: he doesn’t want her to see him lying helplessly in bed, doesn’t want to burden her or anyone else. He hadn’t called anyone, even Gil or Perry, to inform them about his situation. He realizes he has no one who loves him enough to care for him unconditionally—a crushing reality that reduces his life to a worthless chain of mistakes and regrets he cannot stop dwelling on. He reflects on his compulsive nature—alcohol and sex—and how now he has neither. His penis, dead flesh, has lost all sensation, and Victor can’t remember the excitement coursing through his loins, which drove him to lust for women. Beer and cigarettes, and scanning erotic ads in search of female companionship. That was his life, he thinks with self-contempt. As if reading his mind, Lisa James says, “A lot of what you’re feeling is withdrawal symptoms from nicotine and alcohol. How about if I get you a beer? I don’t mind if you drink in moderation. God knows you’ve got enough to deal with. I can’t let you smoke here, but if you get better and go home, you can take up smoking again.” She smiles and shrugs. “I can’t believe I’m encouraging a patient to smoke and drink.” Victor bites his lower lip and tucks away the tears trying to rise in his throat. Unable to bear his loneliness any longer, he says, “I can’t let my daughter see me like this.” The doctor sits up in the chair. “What daughter? You never mentioned you had family.”

240 Feeling he has nothing to lose, that he doesn’t care if he is charged with kidnapping Megan or cavorting with an underage hooker, Victor describes his life from the moment the red-headed teenager showed up on his doorstep and said, “I’m Megan, your daughter.” Her entwined fingers resting in her lap, the doctor listens to Victor’s confession, and when he’s finished, she says, “So if she hadn’t shown up looking for you, her father, you probably wouldn’t have been shot.” “It’s not her fault,” he cries angrily. The doctor skirts her fingers over his arm. “I know that and you know that, but Megan’s seventeen. Teenagers always feel guilty even if they’re not.” She points a forefinger at him. “And you want to die? That’ll mess her up for sure. You have to get better, if not for your sake, then at least for hers.” “I’ve been a horrible father,” he says, “I deserve everything that happened to me.” “That’s ridiculous,” Doctor James says. “You’re behaving like a spoiled brat.” Victor knits his brow. “She’s better off without a cripple father who will remind her of her guilt. She’ll get over me and move on if I’m not there. She hasn’t had time to get close to me.” He returns to gaze at the ceiling. If he could, he would defiantly cross his arms over his chest, but he can barely lift his left arm more than a few inches. Lisa James stands up and smoothes out her skirt. “I need to continue my rounds. I guess you need to pout, which I understand. I only hope you get over yourself and start thinking about your daughter. In my opinion, and I may sound harsh, you’re repeating your life’s pattern of living selfishly, except now you want to die selfishly.” She walks out.

241 Victor’s left to stare at the ceiling, his stomach grumbling with hunger, his lungs yearning for nicotine, his mind craving a beer, his heart wishing for his stupid life to end. But the doctor’s last words, ‘now you want to die selfishly,’ resonate in his soul. Why has he lived angrily and selfishly? The answer is easy: because his stepfather was a violent asshole and his mother a bland and docile woman incapable of expressing love. He remembers eating cereal for breakfast while his mother sat at the table with him, her eyes remote and filled with sadness, her thin, pale fingers clutching a coffee mug. Her sadness repulsed him, scared him, and he resented her for letting another man into their lives, a man who didn’t love him. By doing that, his mother chose sides, and he chose not to love her, and when a child stops loving his mother, his life will undoubtedly drift in turbulent doubts and self contempt. Victor sighs. One needn’t be a psychologist to understand the pattern set in childhood, and which, as he grows older, casts a longer shadow than he’d ever imagined it would or could. And as someone who never received love, he couldn’t shower love on anyone. All he could do was follow the blueprint of his childhood abandonment and punish Megan, his own flesh and blood, with a similar fate. Beth was an angry person, a difficult wife to stay married to, but he reacted to her anger, added his own rage to the fires of marital discontent. What would have happened on Megan’s second birthday, if, instead of getting drunk, beating up on Beth, and going to jail, he would have said, “Okay. I’ll quit drinking. I don’t want a divorce, don’t want to perpetuate what was done to me as a child. I will break the chain of abuse and dedicate myself to my daughter.” That was the path not taken, the fork in the road leading to the hospital bed. Now it’s too late to backtrack that path. He stares at his numb legs and feels worthless without his physical attributes. He clenches his fists. The time for change has

242 passed. Perhaps Doctor James thinks otherwise, but she doesn’t know his life; she’s a physician programmed to keep her patients alive, no matter what. In his condition, he would be a burden to anyone, mainly, his daughter. She’s suffered enough damage. The doctor is wrong. He doesn’t want to die selfishly. He’s choosing to die for altruistic reasons, noble ones.

A nurse stands in the doorway. “You have a visitor.” Victor frowns: how’s that possible? He’s told no one about his situation. “Much obliged, me nightingale,” says the visitor and walks in. Wearing his signature white cotton pants and blue Hawaiian shirt, Rick Perry walks up to Victor’s bed. His eyes serious, lips tight, he stands by the bed and shakes his head. “What the fuck, mate. You been here for a week and didn’t call. We’ve been losing our mind with worry. Shame on you.” “I didn’t want Megan to find out,” Victor says, elated to have the DJ’s company. “I hope you didn’t tell her anything.” Perry sits in the chair. “I have a big mouth, but not that big. She’s in the dark. But she’s worried sick about you. Luciana says that a pregnant woman can’t worry, that the fetus feels her anxiety. I’m no spiritual mumbo-jumbo person, but on that issue I tend to agree.” Victor motions Perry to get closer. “This detective came by a few days ago,” he whispers. “He was asking about Megan.” Perry chuckles. “Let me see. He’s a disheveled-looking fellow, with a scruffy beard, and he dresses like a private dick from the forties, fedora and raincoat.”

243 “Oh shit!” Victor exclaims. “He found Megan.” “Yes and no,” Perry says. He reaches into his pants pocket and brings out a silver flask “I brought the cure-all, Courvoisier,” and offers the flask to Victor. The wounded man takes a protracted swig. Pleasant warmth washes over him. “They’re saying I may never walk again,” he says. “They’ve been known to be wrong more times than not,” Perry says and drinks from the flask. “What do you think?” Victor shrugs. “I don’t know. What happened with the detective, Schultz.” “Talk about a perfect fit for the man and the name,” Perry says. He glances over his shoulder at the entrance door, sees no one, and says in hushed tones, “Yesterday, I’m driving home when I see this beat-up Corolla parked by the entrance gate, and that Schultz fellow waiting by the gate. ‘Can I help you,’ I ask him, and he nods and says, ‘That’s a possibility.’ ‘Are you a dick,’ I ask, amused by his attire. ‘I can be a dick if I have to,’ he says, and I know he’s trouble right there and then. ‘Do you have a search warrant,’ I ask and he says he doesn’t need one if I cooperate. ‘Your gardener, Victor, is in the hospital with gunshot wounds,’ he says. By my shocked expression, he knows I have no idea. He leans toward me and narrows his already beady eyes. ‘Let’s cut the crap,’ he says. ‘I know he works for you cause I have his phone records and know he’s been here.’ ‘So what,’ I says. ‘Is that a crime?’ He shakes his head and says, ‘That’s not a crime, but harboring a pregnant teenage runaway is a crime and, as far as I know, people like yourself who only have a work visa, can be immediately deported if they commit a felony.’”

244 “Fuck,” Victor cries. “I knew he was a real jerk when he questioned me, a smart jerk.” “No doubt,” Perry says. He drinks from the flask and offers it to Victor, then continues his story. “‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ I say. He shakes his head. ‘Wrong answer,’ he says. Pretending to be an absent minded fool, he rummages through all his coat pockets before showing me a photo of Megan sitting on the porch. What’s he up to, I ask myself when he says, ‘Don’t fuck with me again, you hear?’ Then he tells me that you got shot by a pimp, that you fucked an underage hooker, and that unless I’m totally straight with him, you’re screwed big-time. Says you suffered superficial wounds and that you’re healthy enough to stand trial for kidnapping your daughter and for statutory rape, that you’re going in the can for ten years. ‘Do you want that to happen to him,’ he asks, ‘or would you rather be deported for being a coconspirator in kidnapping Megan Melon?”’ Perry clenches his fists. “The guy’s a fuckin sadist, I see the gleam in his eyes, how he relishes my squirming under his thumb. My mind is going 120mph in all directions, but I’m boxed in, checkmate, and he knows it. And there’s no point in appealing to his conscience, bastard’s heart is harder than a fuckin diamond.” “What an asshole,” Victor says through clenched teeth. “‘Are you giving me an option?’ I ask, and he says, ‘That’s the cool thing about options, we always have them.’” Perry raises a forefinger. “Suddenly, I’m starting to get it, you know. I come from the East End, ain’t no fairyland over there, plenty of gangs, mob action, and, naturally, tainted cops. I nod at that Schultz fellow and tell him how much I care about young

245 women gone astray, who turn to prostitution and drugs, who get pregnant and have abortions, or give birth while in their teens. I tell him I’d be honored to help these women in need, and if he knew how I could do so.” “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Victor says and takes a drink. “You will soon enough,” Perry says and takes a drink. “So this weasel nods and commends me on my civic awareness, and then mentions he knows of an organization that could use my help. ‘How much do they want,’ I ask, and he hems for a moment before saying they’d appreciate fifty thousand dollars.” “Oh my god,” Victor shouts. “Okay,’ says I. ‘Who shall I write the check to?’ ‘They prefer electronic deposits into this account,’ he says and hands me a piece of paper with a bank account number. ‘First Maldives Security,’ he says. ‘You can Google them. Five $10,000 deposits three days apart.’” Victor clenches his fists and cries, “He blackmailed you for fifty grand?” Perry shrugs. “That’s cheap, matey. Remember I make five million a year. I got off Scott-free.” “How will I pay you back? I can’t pay you back. I’m a fuckin cripple.” “I tell ya how you pay me back. You stop your whining, get out of this bed, and start living your life again.” Victor lets his head drop back and sink into the pillow. “You don’t understand. Megan will blame herself for my injury. She’ll decide it’s all her fault, that if she didn’t come looking for me, I wouldn’t have moved to the motel and wouldn’t get shot. I can’t pile that guilt on her. And I can’t have her find out I’ve been paying for sex.”

246 Perry leans back in his chair and shakes his head with dismay. “Must be your military training, you know, black and white with no gray. Or he’s on your side or you shoot the bastard.” Victor frowns. “What are you talking about?” The DJ holds out open palms. “Why should Megan know shit about what happened? We tell her you went back to your place, that you figured the cops had nothing on you. Later that night, you’re taking your usual stroll, when these gang bangers rob you and shoot you.” The kniving simplicity of Perry’s solution astounds Victor. He lies speechless and shaking his head. “I can’t believe I haven’t thought about that,” he finally says. Perry shrugs. “You haven’t been terribly lucid lately, plus, you’re a soldier taught to blindly follow orders. That shit stays with you for a lifetime. I’m the anarchist, always questioning authority, always looking to write outside the margins.” He taps his temple. “It’s all in the mental conditioning.” “So you think Schultz is off our backs?” “Definitely. He knows his limits. We’ll never hear from him again. Even weasels have a code of honor, however twisted.” “What now?” Victor asks. His will to die has evaporated. All he cares is to see Megan. Perry narrows his eyes. “Here’s the deal. I know you’re one determined son of a bitch. You’re fuckin balls to the wall when you need to be. I want you, nay, I insist that you swear to me on Megan’s life, that you will fight with everything you got to get out of this bed. I don’t wanna hear you whine or bitch about nothing. You got your daughter,

247 your granddaughter, your life. I want you to appreciate that and fight like hell. Otherwise, I’ll get pissed, and you don’t want to get on my bad side, I kid you not. I’ll help as long as you sweat bullets. If you stop, I throw the switch. I send you to some cripple homeless shelter, I send Megan back to her mom, and I walk away whistling a jolly tune. Comprende, amigo?” “ I swear,” Victor whispers, his voice choked with tears.

248

Chapter Nineteen

The man entering Andy’s prison cell is about five-feet seven-inches tall. He carries a slight paunch but is neither slim nor overweight. His face is round, his nose, small, his pale cheeks are freshly shaved, and he wears generic frameless spectacles. His blue eyes, neither large nor beady, project average intelligence and don’t call for attention. His thinning hair is in accord with millions of men his age—mid forties—who sadly observe their youthful curls give way to baldness. The man is wearing a non-descript bluish-gray suit, a bit crumpled and faded, and a red tie noosed haphazardly beneath a soft chin. He is carrying a tray with food—a hamburger, French fries, and a 24 oz bottle of Pepsi. His stride is careful, so not to spill any of the food. He walks up to Andy who is sitting on the mattress, and offers the tray. “You must be hungry,” he says and smiles. His voice is a high baritone, not a memorable one, and his accent is West Coast and indistinctive. His smile is apologetic, almost shy, and a shade of that smile, for the briefest of moments, rises to light up his eyes. All in all, Andy notes that the man before him is as average as the middle-aged American man, one who looks like a bank teller, could be ascertained as a doctor or a lawyer, or a car salesman, who appears comfortable on the sidelines of little league games

249 (since he wears a thin, gold wedding band), behind the checkout counter at the supermarket, in a golf cart on the public links, or, for that matter, as a clerk in Andy’s electronics store. In all these places and many others, he would fade into the walls. The people who saw him and did business with him, would quickly forget him, and, if pressed to recall what he looked or sounded like, would shrug and say, “You know, I just don’t remember.” “Thanks,” Andy says and lays the tray on the mattress. Never had a meal looked or smelled better—musty scent of grilled meat, salty steam rising from the fries, frosty streaks gleaming on the Pepsi bottle. He reverently places one string of potato in his mouth, chews it slowly, and shuts his eyes to relish the oily flavor. The man chuckles. “Delicious, isn’t it? By the way, I’m Orville Sanchez and I work for the FBI.” The name strikes Andy like the wet whip from an octopus’s tentacle. Orville Sanchez is one of the agents whose email he’d stolen from the attaché case, the only name his fantasy musings couldn’t tie in with a face or a demeanor. Now he knows why: Sanchez is non-descriptive in his plainness, the generic civil servant and much like the character played by Matt Damon in The Good Shepherd, the realistic movie about how the CIA was formed in the aftermath of WW II. Except that Matt Damon forced himself into the role, deliberately tucked in his shoulders and tempered his stride, while Sanchez is the character upon which the role was tailored—the amorphous presence lurking at the darkest corners, ready to pounce upon innocent victims. At a loss for words, Andy replies, “Nice to meet you.”

250 “I’ll be right back,” Orville says, and when he returns a few minutes later, a folded metal chair tucked under his right arm, the tray lies empty. “Would you like another burger?” he asks. Andy burps under his breath. “No thanks, but another soda would be nice.” “I’ll be right back,” the agent says. He walks out carrying the tray, and returns momentarily with another Pepsi. He opens the metal chair, sits across from his prisoner and says, “I bet that under other circumstances, you and I would be friends.” High on sugar and carbohydrates, Andy’s mood has turned agreeable. He’s grateful to his captor and yearning for his sympathy. His claustrophobic fears are tempered and he hopes to find a way out from another term of isolation. His voice trembles. “I’m sorry for what I’ve done. It was stupid. I was stupid. I’ll do anything you want me to do. Anything.” The agent nods. “It’s great to hear you say that. I’m sure there’s a way for us to accommodate each other.” “Really?” Andy sits up on the mattress. “That would be great.” “All you have to do is suicide bomb an Obama campaign rally.” “What?!” Sanchez laughs. “I’m kidding!” He reaches into his jacket pocket. “And to show you our good intent, I give you this,” he says and opens his palm, which is cradling a joint. Andy narrows his eyes. “How do I know it’s not dipped in LSD or some other hallucinogenic?”

251 Sanchez laughs gregariously and shakes his head. “I swear it’s not spiked with anything. Look at me,” and when Andy does, he holds up the joint and says, “Nothing but hydroponically grown Umber-Kush from our labs. We pride ourselves on our organic growing methods. I swear I’m not leading you on.” Feeling he’s entered a surreal and parallel universe, Andy accepts the joint and a lighter from the agent. He fires it up, drags lightly, and, like a seasoned wine taster, puckers his lips several times in search of the illusive bouquet. The skunky-sweet taste clearly points to a superior product to match anything on the market, including the Purple Kush he’d smoked with Comet Livingston. The high is strong, but not the debilitating one that leaves the smoker gazing glassily at a TV screen, rather, it’s a mentally stimulating buzz, one that motivates the musician to commune with his instrument and the artist to embrace his paints and brushes. Andy exhales. “Wow. You guys really know your shit.” “Don’t bogart the joint,” Orville says and reaches out his hand. Andy’s eyes just about pop out from their sockets. “You’re a stoner!?” The agent inhales deeply. “As far as I’m concerned, pot should be legal.” “Amen,” says Andy. “But I don’t think America’s ready for a black president.” “He’s not black,” Andy says, “he’s racially mixed.” “Still, he’s too black for the White House. They call it the ‘white house’ for reason.”

252 They pass the joint back and forth and Andy is higher than he’s been in years. He can’t believe he’s getting stoned and talking politics with his archenemy, the toxic carrier of evil, the FBI. “So,” says Orville Sanchez, “you believe the FBI and the American government are at the root of all evil.” “No I don’t,” Andy says hurriedly, when Sanchez shakes his head and says, “Don’t worry. I’m not trying to entrap you, honest. I want to understand your head-space, why you think that way. I mean, you’re an intelligent man, well read and all. I’d like to believe that I’m also smart and well-informed, yet you and I passionately disagree. How come? Let’s try, you and I, to figure that out.” “Okay,” says Andy. “You locked me up without due process. I’m entitled to a lawyer but you haven’t provided me with one. You’ve violated the law.” “So have you,” the agent says. “So we’re both wrong. Seriously, though, we couldn’t take the chance of you fleeing the country, and a good lawyer in cahoots with a liberal judge could’ve had you released on bail.” “I thought we’re living in America, land of the free,” Andy says. “The Russians lock people up in gulags, not us.” Sanchez leans back in his chair. “Semantics. You have broken the law, you have conspired to cripple the Pentagon’s computers, and you will face trial. As soon as we’re ready to press charges, you can have a lawyer. For that matter, we’d like that to happen sooner than later. We need the publicity.” “How long will I stay in solitary confinement?” “I don’t know.”

253 “You don’t know?” Andy exclaims; his stomach tightens. “Let’s get back to that later,” Orville says. “What do you know about Joshua Morris Livermore, a.k.a. Comet Livingston?” “He came to my store, was a great customer, and we started talking. I think he rarely leaves his house, sits there in front of the TV monitors with all the violent clips showing. Crazy man.” “Yet you gave him classified information and got paid for it.” “I didn’t want the money. He insisted.” Sanchez crosses his legs. “And that money he gave you, where do you think it comes from?” “I have no idea.” “Okay. I believe you. He’s a gangster, a drug dealer, one of the biggest on the West Coast. Does that surprise you?” Andy’s shoulders sag. “Not really.” “All the money he’s spent in your store is from crack he sells in inner cities all over California, blood money.” The agent leans forward in his chair. “He’s scum, a hypocrite. Says he wants to help his people, save the world, then he poisons a whole generation of black people. Psychopath.” Andy sighs and says nothing. Sanchez stand up and paces the cell. “You’re an idealist, you want to heal all the world’s ills, and when you can’t, you get angry and look for someone to blame. Since you live in a fairly decent, if far from ideal democracy, you have access to lots of information, some of it, bogus, like the conspiracy theories about the government planning 911, and

254 some of it real, like how we lied about WMD in Iraq. But consider this: you could be living in China, or Russia, or Rwanda, or Saudi Arabia, not pretty places.” He stops pacing and points at Andy. “You know what I think? I think you’re an unhappy person, that you had a miserable childhood, and that you take that frustration and try to transfer it to us, the government, making us the Boogie Man.” He shrugs. “We’re not. We don’t have grand schemes to disenfranchise the middle class. Actually, we want the middle class to thrive. Otherwise there’ll be civil unrest.” He points to himself. “I have a wife and four kids. Why would I want civil unrest? I want to see my kids in college, to retire and play golf. None of this will happen if the middle class isn’t content.” “A million people died in Iraq because we invaded,” Andy says. “Doesn’t that bother you?” “It does, but not much. We screwed up. The invasion was a good idea, but the execution was poor. Maybe if your life was more fulfilling, you wouldn’t be obsessed with people you don’t know who live ten thousand miles away. And to clear the slate, no more than 100,000 died.” Andy shakes his head. “There’s no way I can believe that, and I seriously doubt that you do.” “Never mind that,” Sanchez says. “We’re drifting away from the core issue. You mind taking a short survey?” “Fine.” Over the next few minutes, Orville Sanchez poses questions like, Do you have a car and how many miles a month do you drive—yes, about three hundred miles. What’s

255 your house like and do you share it—it’s 2000 square feet and I share it with two people. How much processed food do you eat, stuff that isn’t grown locally—quite a bit, almost daily. Do you use public transportation—never. When he’s finished asking the questions, the agent hems for a moment, then says, “The consumer consequences of your lifestyle indicate that if everyone on the planet lived like you, we would need 3.8 planets to sustain everyone. And your lifestyle, by American standards, is simple.” He shrugs. “But that’s not good enough if you want equality for all.” “There’s a lot we can do to change that,” Andy says. Sanchez locks his chin. “Not without destroying our society. Is that what you want? If you ask me, you’re looking at the issue through the wrong end of the lens. See, we can’t reduce our living standards without causing a rebellion. What are you gonna do? Abolish Suburbia and SUV’s? And there’s no way we can have the rest of the world live like us. That would outstrip resources and kill everyone.” Andy chuckles in dismay. “Sounds like you read Alan Weisman’s book, A World without Us.” “I haven’t. What does he say?” “That unless we have a global policy of one child per couple, we’re going to be extinct.” Sanchez laughs. “One child per family? What are we, communist China? And even if the developed nations went for it, try telling that to the Muslims and Africans who have ten, fifteen kids each. There’s no way to stop that. Really, Andy. It isn’t the US fault

256 that seven billion people are living on this small planet. We didn’t plan that, but, now that the threat is clear and present, we, Americans, need to defend ourselves.” Andy clenches his teeth. “So what should we do, can we do?” Orville Sanchez leans back in his chair and tucks his palms behind his neck. “We look through the other end of the lens. We refuse to live like most the rest of the world, and there’s no room and resources for them to live like us. We’re left with one option.” He raises a forefinger. “Evolutionary Pragmatism.” “You’re gonna kill off eighty percent of humanity? That’s insane,” Andy cries. Sanchez nods. “Who says evolution is sane? For every thousand species, all go extinct but one. Actually, that’s bogus. They all go extinct sooner or later. I’m here to make sure the American Species survives a while longer. As far as the rest of humanity, it’s kill or be killed, eat or be eaten.” He widens his eyes and stares at the rotund geek slumped on the mattress. “What’s you solution?” “No matter. You wouldn’t listen anyway,” Andy says, no longer high. “I don’t think you have a viable solution,” the agent says, “but you’re afraid to admit that, even to yourself. I’m a bit disappointed. I was hoping you’d illuminate me, but you haven’t. Same old wishful thinking without critical observation.” “We need to love one another,” is all Andy can muster. Sanchez rolls his eyes. “Please, spare me the communal hug. Been there, done it, and it doesn’t work. We’re a ruthless species and might as well come to terms with it.” Having said that, the physically unassuming FBI agent stands up. Tears once again rushing up Andy’s throat, he whispers, “What will happen to me?”

257 “You’ll stay in here until our lawyers outline your charges. How long that will take, I don’t know. Several weeks maybe a couple of months. After that, you will stand trial. It will be a fine public spectacle. You will be sentenced to prison, for how long, I don’t know. The country is weary of terrorists, and you are a terrorist.” “Please. You know that’s not true.” Orville Sanchez frowns. “I beg your pardon? I know nothing of the sort. You conspired to harm the national security of the United States of America. The fact you’re incompetent changes nothing. The shoe-bomber was incompetent, but he tried to blow up an airliner. You’re punished for your intent, not the outcome of your intent.” “I made a terrible mistake,” Andy whispers, tears streaming down his pudgy cheeks. “I promise to be good. Please don’t leave me here alone. I don’t want to be alone.” The FBI agent narrows his eyes. “I’m sorry Andy, but it’s too late for that. We’ll be in touch.” He strides out from the cell. The door swings silently and shuts with a click. Andy rushes the door and bangs on it and kicks it with all his might. “You’re the terrorist,” he screams. “You’re the fascists, you and your fuckin FBI and CIA and NSA and all the greedy corporate bastards. I hate you. I hate you. I hate you.” From behind the door, only silence. Weeping with fear and rage, Andy staggers to lie on the mattress.

258 Silence. White-washed walls. Silence. Harsh fluorescent. Silence. Stainless steel toilet and sink. Silence. 72 degrees. Silence. Concrete floor. Silence. Flimsy mattress. Silence, silence, silence.

259

Chapter Twenty

Gil wakes up and stares at the clock by his bedside—6:30 in the morning. The liquor store is open. He gets out of bed and tiptoes out from his bedroom. He leans on the hallway wall and sneaks a glance into the living room. Westbrook is sprawled on the couch, mouth gaped, snoring almost loud enough to awaken the dead. Gil tiptoes back into his bedroom and throws on sweat pants and a T-shirt. He walks down the hallway, away from the living room. He enters the laundry room and slowly opens the back door. The door squeaks. He cocks his ears and listens for the snoring sailing from the living room. He’s out the door. Barefoot, hair uncombed, eyes blurry, and sporting a three-day beard, he paces quickly toward the liquor store when he realizes he’s forgotten his wallet. Cussing under his breath, he decides to appeal to the store owner, Robert Singh, rather then return to the house. Surely, the good-natured Indian clerk will extend him credit for a few hours. The morning is a sunny one, trees bursting in bloom—red flowers and white ones —and a noisy one—chirping birds flying vigorously in their dance of spring. Gil’s heart, elated in promise of drink, mirrors the rites of spring. He wants to, needs to feel like a new man. Too many of the world’s problems have conspired to take their toll

260 on his weary soul—Rachel’s ambivalence, Andy’s disappearance, Victor’s injury, his sexual dysfunction, and the cleaner’s gruff manners, have combined to disquiet his heart. Is it any wonder he needs to reunite with his pal Glen Fiddich? Not in the least. And whoever cannot understand his needs or objects to his decision to imbibe, well, Ray Charles said it best when he sang, and Gil sings quietly, “Hit the road jack, and don’t you come back no more, no more, no more, no more, hit the road Jack, and don’t you come back no more.” Still singing, he saunters into the store. “Mister Singh,” he says loudly, “so good to see you. Lovely morning we’re having, say you not?” The clerk’s eyes widen at the disheveled customer, but he quickly returns to his agreeable disposition. “Hello Gil,” he says and bows slightly. “It is good to see you.” Gil secures a bottle of scotch off the shelf and comes up to the counter. He sets the bottle on the counter and pretends to search through his pockets. “What?” he mutters and slaps his pockets. Then he shrugs at the clerk and grins. “Can you believe it? I forgot my wallet on my dresser.” He shakes his head. “I’m such a space case.” Silence rings in the store while Singh’s cautious gaze darts from Gil to the bottle. Before he can say anything, Gil, in a soothing voice, right arm mimicking a tempered wave, left one wrapped tightly around the bottleneck, says, “I’ll be back right away, but first, I really need a hair of the dog in my cereal. I’m sure you understand.” His gaze rests firmly on the Indian man’s face. “I’m sure you realize I’m good for it.” A few seconds pass in slightly tense silence, before the clerk nods and capitulates. “Of course. Paper or plastic?”

261 Gil laughs and wags a forefinger. “You’re a funny one, Mister Robert Singh.” The man smiles nervously. “Yes, Gil, thank you,” he says while sliding the bottle into a brown paper bag. “See you very soon, not to worry,” Gil says and walks out. As he crosses the store threshold, an arm reaches to clamp on the bag and yank it out of his hand. “You won’t be needing this,” Westbrook says. Gil stands dazed while the cleaner enters the store and quickly walks out without the bottle of scotch. He wraps a long arm around Gil’s shoulders while the other points to the McDonalds on the corner. “You know what works best to take away a morning craving? Chocolate malt shake from McDonalds. I don’t know what the fuck they put in it, but it sure takes the edge off.” “Fuck you,” Gil mutters, but doesn’t resist the old man guiding him across the street and into the fast-food restaurant. “Drink a shake,” Westbrook says, “and when you’re done, if you still want liquor, I will pay for the bottle.” “Yeah, right,” Gil says, head bowed. While the cleaner orders the food, Gil sits at a table, sets his elbows on the plastic surface, and covers his face with his palms. He wants to drink but is too weak to do anything but wait for the chocolate beverage.

262 Carrying a tray with two shakes and two egg McMuffins, Westbrook walks up to the table. He sits across from Gil, takes a bite from the sandwich, slurps from the milkshake, and smiles. “You’re a crafty one. You almost got away. Now eat.” Gil sips from the beverage—sweet, thick, and filling. The McMuffin is salty, crispy, and hot. The rich tastes fill his stomach, balance his sugar levels and lull his craving for liquor. When he is finished eating, he still wants to drink, but not nearly as much as he did earlier. Westbrook raises his eyebrows. The wrinkles on his forehead deepen. “So?” Gil reluctantly nods. “Better.” “Good. Malt shakes are a great distraction, just so you know. I’m not going to hold your hand forever, so you better remember the tips I give you.” Gil groans. “My life is shit. I don’t know what to do with myself. My girlfriend is gone, my roommates are gone. I can’t even get it up. Susan was hot, I tell you. Even for lust alone, she was a great lay. And she was into it. I bet you that if I’d fucked her good I wouldn’t start to drink. She was there to heal me, to help me forget. She’s a cool lady and she has a sweetheart little girl…” he tapers off and waves a frustrated arm. Westbrook sips on his shake. “And your point is?” “I don’t know.” Gil rests his forehead on the table. “No time for tears,” says the sponsor. “Let’s go to Venice Beach. I wanna show you something.” Gil looks up and frowns. “Now? It’s seven in the morning.” “A good time. When’s the last time you swam in the ocean?” “Last summer. It’s freezing. That’s what you want to show me?”

263 “That, and something else. And if I can handle the cold water, so can you, or would you rather I buy you the bottle of scotch? What’ll it be, Mister I’m-in-the-shitter?”

The sand beneath their feet is cool with night’s retreating dampness. The ocean lays peacefully before them, surface smooth like a mirror. Four surfers in wetsuits straddle surfboards on the water and wait for a wave that won’t arrive for hours. Two homeless people are waking up and packing their blankets into shopping carts. Westbrook takes a deep breath. “It’s a beauty of a day, wouldn’t you say?” Gil sits in the sand. “I miss jogging.” “I don’t jog,” Westbrook says, “but I like to swim.” He strips down to his briefs and races into the ocean. His lanky body disappears beneath the water, but soon rises. “Wheee-hooo!” He looks to shore and shouts. “Are you coming or what?” “I don’t think so,” Gil says. “Chicken!”

Gil takes off his shoes and walks to the water’s edge. Tiny waves tickle his toes. He presses the balls of his soles into the wet sand. Small craters appear and quickly vanish. Hands clasped behind his back, he strolls the shoreline and tries to center his thoughts. Wrapped up in his pain, he’d paid little attention to his struggling roommates, and now feels guilty. He decides to visit Victor’s hospital bed later that day, and to file a missing person report concerning Andy. Both activities sound strenuous and frightening, that is with hospitals and law enforcement, none of which he cares for, but his friends,

264 and they are his friends, are in crisis, and if he can alleviate their hardship by showing concern, he should do so. Westbrook comes ashore, skin prickling with goosebumps. They sit in the sand and watch the horizon. A school of dolphins rises over the water. The sun sparkles off their silver-gray skin. An ancient rhythm dwells in their arching bodies, millenniums of nature in one of her most elegant and powerful forms. “I’m coming back as a dolphin,” the cleaner says. “Had it with human form.” Gil sighs. “Rachel and I swam with dolphins in Hawaii. They’re unbelievably strong and agile, and so smart.” “A whole lot smarter than people,” Westbrook says, “but that’s easy. People are pathetically dumb, myself included.” “I think you’re pretty smart,” says Gil. “I am now, after sixty-five years of trying to figure it out. In the meantime, I fought in a war and killed people, spent two years as a POW, got married only to abuse my wife, crawled into a bottle for twenty-five years, and lost everything I owned, including my teeth.” He points to the dolphins. “They get it right from the get-go.” “Now all you have left is to stop smoking,” Gil says. “Fuck that,” says the cleaner and lights up. “Gotta have one vice. Besides, and this is the truth: if I drop dead this instant, it’s cool with me. I’m ready to go anytime. Where we end up is much better.” Gil draws figure eights in the sand. “What makes you so sure?” “Because God wouldn’t put me through all this shit just for the hell of it.” “Sounds like the illusive Leap of Faith,” Gil says. “I’m agnostic.”

265 Westbrook starts to get dressed. “You have about forty years left to figure it out, that is, unless you drink yourself into an early grave. Somehow, I don’t think that’s gonna happen, and I have real good instincts about who’s hopeless. You know, there’re people who drink every day and who aren’t alcoholics, and some who drink once a year and are raging drunks. Moderation does exist for some. Maybe, down the road, you’ll find a balance. See, drinking, to me, is a privilege, and I lost my privilege to drink. But everyone’s different.” “To each his own,” says Gil, “and I don’t want to drink now.” “Exactemundo,” declares the cleaner. “One day at a time. Fuck forever. Tomorrow, maybe you’ll polish off a fifth of scotch, but today,” he points to Gil, “you won’t drink. Let’s go. He should be on the boardwalk by now. And don’t ask me who, cause I’m not telling.” “I still don’t know why I like to drink, what I’m trying to forget,” Gil says while they walk toward the boardwalk. “And your folks are dead?” “Yes. But my older sister is around.” “And you guys are on good terms?” “Of course.” “Why of course? Most siblings hate each other’s guts.” Gil shakes his head. “No. We’re good.” “Cool. Then sit down with her and see what she remembers. I betcha you’ll learn something.” “She doesn’t drink, and neither did my parents,” Gil says.

266 The sponsor stops walking. “You see, with you it ain’t hereditary. Maybe cause you’re Jewish, but I’m gettin the feel you’re not a hardcore alcoholic. That doesn’t mean that you can’t fuck up your life, but I think you have more control than most of us losers. And you quit once, for six years, that’s a good stretch. Maybe, in a few days, my work here is done.” “Really?” Gil isn’t sure what to think. The cleaner’s company is suddenly acceptable and the thought of staying sober on his own scares him. Why would Westbrook leave him to be? Is it because he trusts Gil, or maybe he’s lying, sees that Gil has way too many problems, that he’s rebellious in the extreme. “We’ll see,” Westbrook says and points to the left. “Here he is.” A bare-chested man is standing next to a tall unicycle. Beside him on the ground lies a thick long rope. The man is in his late thirties, about five-feet tall, with muscular thighs and broad shoulders. He’s bald, with a Fu Manchu mustache-beard combo, and is wearing black spandex pants and cloth ankle slippers. The unicycle has a small wheel, maybe a foot in diameter, and six rungs on each side of a pole leading up to a wide leather seat. “Hey Zig, how’s it going?” Westbrook gives high fives, and introduces Gil as, “another cookie jar raider who needs a spanking.” Zig reaches out a wide palm with stubby coarse fingers and warmly shakes Gil’s hand. “Listen to the big guy,” he says. “How long you been sober?” the cleaner asks. “Goin on four years.” The unicyclist flexes his muscular chest.

267 Westbrook turns to Gil. “Zig’s practicing to break the Guinness world record for jumping rope on a ten-foot-tall Hipo Giraffe unicycle. Hipo means high-performance. Giraffe means the unicycle has a small wheel and kinda looks like a giraffe. The world record is twenty jumps. He uses this rope, two-inch thick and fifteen-feet long. Heavy sucker. Try to lift it.” Gil lifts the rope. It must weigh fifty pounds. He shakes his head. “Sorry, I don’t understand. What does he do?” “Actions speak louder than words,” Westbrook says. “You mind showing him, Zig?” “Still a little morning stiffness, but I’ll try,” the unicyclist says. In figure eight motions, he wraps the rope around his waist and neck. He hoists the bike onto its wheel and mounts the first rung. While keeping the bike balanced, he mirrors a monkey scampering up a tree as he scales the rungs and ends up in the seat, now ten feet in the air. While peddling in place to maintain balance, he unwraps the rope from his body and dangles it behind his back from both arms. Much like a girl on the schoolyard who swings her arms backwards to set the rope in motion, Zig swings his muscular arms. The rope lifts off the ground and sails over his head. As the rope comes full circle and is about to strike the wheel, Zig flexes his thighs and jumps. The unicycle lifts off the ground and the rope swishes under it. He executes three more jumps before letting the rope drop to the ground. Still balanced atop the bike, Zig smiles. “Enough for now. I don’t wanna pull a muscle.” Westbrook and Gil clap while the cyclist dismounts his bike. “Thanks for the show, bro,” the cleaner says.

268 “Anytime.” Zig says. “Without you, I’d be six-feet under rather than ten-feet high.” He points to the bike and laughs.

“Tough trick,” Gil says as they walk away. Westbrook chuckles. “He started two years ago. That’s his moment of clarity, when the wheel’s in the air and the rope sneaks under it. When he told me what he had in mind, I thought he’d lost his marbles. Lots of dry drunks turn out to be crazy. But I said, if that floats your boat, Zig, who am I to argue? Still has a way to go to break the record, I think his best is twelve jumps, but guess what: it don’t matter if he breaks the fuckin record. He’s healed his body and spirit. And on a good day, he makes five hundred bucks in tips on the boardwalk. Meets lots of chicks, too. You wouldn’t believe how fucked up he was when I became his sponsor. Six weeks I rode his ass, day in day out, until one morning, he looks at me and says, ‘I’m good to go.’ And I knew by the look in his eyes, a calm, sane look, that he was tellin the truth.” They stroll down the boardwalk toward the parking lot. Gil is exhausted, spacedout, and anxious. Two days had passed since his last drink. The hangover after the hangover, the real bitch, is kicking in. The mental daze will last for a week, maybe two or three. He recalls how depressed and suicidal he became when he quit six years before. A fearful chill runs down his spine. Will drying out be as bad this time? Does he have the resolve to see it through? He imagines taking a drink. His stomach shrinks. He recognizes the sensation—feeling like shit but still not craving a drink. His battered body wants to hide from the world, to curl up in bed and sleep. Will sleep come? Last time, he couldn’t sleep for weeks. His heart races in fearful memory.

269 “Silent we’ve become,” the cleaner says. “I couldn’t sleep last time I dried out,” Gil says. “That scares me the most.” “It ain’t gonna be as bad this time,” Westbrook says. “I guarantee you that. You’ve only been off the wagon for a couple of weeks. But it ain’t gonna be easy. Still, you have the experience and, most important, you know the shitty part is temporary.” Gil’s shoulders sag. The sun is too bright. A headache starts pounding behind his eyes, in his temples, at the back of his neck. “Let’s get you back home,” Westbrook says. “Enough training for one day.” “It’s nine in the morning,” Gil says. “I can’t sleep now.” “You sleep when your body tells you to. You’re on a different clock. And when you wake up, let’s go to The Massage Place, on Washington. Forty-nine bucks for deep tissue. I know this woman who works there, Monique, black as night and three hundred pounds of healing power. She’ll suck the toxins outta you in no time.” Stomach in knots, head on fire, knees trembling, heart racing, Gil says, “I’m dying.” The cleaner laughs. “Not quite, but close enough. Gimme the keys. I’m driving.”

270

Chapter Twenty One

Victor is sitting up in his hospital bed and eating breakfast when Doctor Lisa James enters the room. She observes the movements of his left arm balancing the plate, while his right uses a fork to stab at the scrambled eggs. “Amazing progress on your left arm,” she says. “Ten days ago you couldn’t lift it.” He rotates his shoulder cuff several times but then winces. “No weight lifting yet.” “You’ve been heroic this past week,” the doctor says. “You changed your attitude and I promise it’s not in vain. You have lots to look forward to.” Victor nods. “I’ll keep that in mind. Keep telling myself that one day I will walk again.” “Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” Doctor James says. “Ready to go home? Are you excited?” Victor sets the plate on the tray. “Excited? No. More like terrified. I don’t know how I’ll get by, and I’m real anxious about seeing Megan.” He’s dressed in sweat pants and a T-shirt, an activity he’d taught himself to perform on his own.

271 “You should have let her visit you here,” the doctor says. “No way. I remember how I hated hospitals when I was a kid, still do. I didn’t wanna make it tough on her.” “She’ll be fine if she sees that you’re positive. People are overwhelmed by other people’s injuries, they feel guilty even if it’s a stranger. Let her know you’re strong.” He sips orange juice. “I’m sure glad I can pee and crap on my own. That part freaked me out, to have catheters running out from my butt.” The doctor nods. “Those functions aren’t related to the nerves in your legs, though you may need to take laxatives sometimes. How does it feel to move to a sitting position? Is it getting easier?” “Pretty easy,” Victor says. He flexes his abdomen muscles while pushing on the mattress with his right arm, then swings his torso to the left, and comes to a sitting position, legs dangling to the floor. Hand claps sound from the doorway. Perry enters in the company of a stern looking and large blonde woman, blue-eyed, bulbous-nosed and double-chinned. “You’re about ready to swim the English Channel,” he says and smiles at the doctor, who smiles back and says, “If I didn’t know you better, and judging by your radio show, I’d conclude that you are a mean-spirited jerk. But you’re not.” Perry bows and kisses the tips of her fingers. “Thank you my lady. It’s only showbiz, my alter-ego, as I’m sure you understand, that is, you living in LA and all.” He gestures to the woman beside him. “This is Gertrude, an Eastern German national and a certified nurse.” He frowns at Victor and, in a mocking German accent, stiffly says, “You vill do vot she says and you vill like it.”

272 “Hi Gertrude,” Victor says, “nice to meet you.” He’s not sure what to think about a personal nurse, is embarrassed but also grateful. He’ll undoubtedly need professional care at least for a while. The thought saddens him, but he doesn’t let it show. Gertrude bows slightly. “Guten tag, Herr Melon.” Her voice is soft and much in contrast with her coarse features. Perry laughs. “Herr Melon? I like the ring of that!” The doctor says, “I’ll go fetch a wheelchair, be right back.” Moments later, the wheelchair fronting the bed, Gertrude wraps her chubby arms around Victor’s back, and inserts her wide palms under his armpits. She commands, “Eins, zwei, drei, stand oop,” and, in one swoop, lifts Victor off the bed and into the wheelchair. Victor chuckles. “You’re strong.” Gertrude blushes. “Dankeshein.” Her lower chin quivers. Perry brings out the silver flask from his pants’ pocket and says, “A toast to Victor leaving the hospital.” He takes a sip and offers the flask to Victor who does the same. Lisa James and Gertrude politely decline. Victor rubs his palms. “Get me outta here, so I can smoke a cigarette.” Doctor James holds out her hand. “I’ll see you next week so we can do an MRI. Good luck and stay strong.” Victor looks into her youthful, generous eyes. “I can never thank you enough. I wish my life was as meaningful as yours.”

273 “You can thank me by appreciating your life,” she says. “Indeed,” says Perry. “I’ll make sure he does, or he can go sulk somewhere else but not in my house.” Victor points toward the entrance. “Let’s do it!”

A van is waiting by the hospital entrance, one equipped with a hydraulic lift. Victor is moved from the hospital’s manual wheelchair into one with wide wheels, electronic levers for navigation, and a plush seat. “This beast can race at four miles an hour and it does windows,” Perry says and offers Victor a pack of Marlboro Reds. “I always wanted a Hummer. Now I have one,” Victor says. He lights a cigarette and takes a deep drag. The pleasing light-headed effect is instant. Gertrude pushes the wheelchair onto a platform shaped like a forklift. A soft whirl sounds as the chair rises off the ground until it’s flush to the van’s floor. The forklift pulls the wheelchair into the van. They drive away. The hospital and its misery are replaced with shopping malls and parks, freeways and people—healthy people. Sitting in his wheelchair and smoking a cigarette, Victor looks out the window and sees the world through a new lens, one he sadly believes will be based mostly in observation rather than participation. He’s weary of compassionate glances people will toss in his direction, ones they will avert when he looks back at them. How will he function? The thought terrifies him in ways it hadn’t while he lay in the hospital, surrounded by an army of nurses. He purses his lips and stares forward, through the

274 windshield, when he sees Perry looking at him through the rearview mirror. Their eyes lock in a serious stare that lasts a few seconds. “Why are you doing all this for me?” Victor asks the question he’s pondered for some time. “Actually, the answer is simple,” the DJ says. “About a year ago, just after I started my job at the radio station, I’m eating at Cantor’s, the deli on Fairfax, when I see this man reading a newspaper in English letters, but in what appears to be German words. I ask him what language it is. Turns out he’s reading Yiddish, and that he’s a reformist Rabbi. He’s chattier than I am, which says a lot, and smart as a whip. We’re trading stories for a while when he says he needs to leave. ‘Give me, Rabbi, a pearl of wisdom for the road,’ I say. He hems and fondles his beard, nods his head back and forth, left and right, and then says, ‘He who saves one soul has saved an entire universe.’ That saying stuck in my mind, and when you got shot, I decided you’d be the soul I will save. Now, I’ll never feel guilty again, and I have you to thank.” “I don’t deserve saving,” Victor says, ashamed of his life of debauchery. The doctors and nurses compassion and dedication had awakened him to his selfishness. Why hadn’t it ever occurred to him to join the Peace Corps, to spend his life helping others? He was a capable man, strong and talented. Many less fortunate could’ve benefited from his services. Now, it’s too late: he’s dependent on the generosity of others—generosity he had never bestowed. Perry shrugs. “That’s for you to decide. I’ve done my share.” “Thank you,” is all Victor can muster to say.

275 Perry’s voice is stern. “You’re welcome. Just remember that my help is conditional on you proving you deserve to be saved, so, if I were you, I’d try to get over the poor-little-me part real quick.” “Consider it done,” says the ex-Marine.

The van drives up the driveway of Perry’s house. Victor sees Megan standing on the porch. Love fills his heart. His daughter looks younger than he remembers. Her arms hang stiffly to her sides, fidgety fingers showing her nervousness. Victor stares at the floor and tries to calm his thoughts. As the doctor said, he needs to show strength, that he’s comfortable with his impediment, that it’s no big deal. He looks up toward the porch. Megan is gone. “Where’d she go?” he asks. Perry sighs. “She ran in the house. She’s been quite the emotional wreck lately, may not be ready to face you out in the open, with us looking on.” He nods. “She’s come to care for you a great deal.” Never have words resonated sweeter in Victor’s heart. “She’s right. I feel the same. Maybe after I settle into my room she can come to visit me.”

Some time later, Victor is settled into the room adjacent to the kitchen and overlooking the pool and backyard. The room is large, with a king-size bed and French doors that open to the deck. From his room, with the help of several wide planks of wood set over the stairs, he’s able to navigate the wheelchair into the backyard or through the front entrance onto the porch. He can even guide the wheelchair onto the reddish

276 flagstone path he’d constructed before his injury. The wire mesh skeleton of the volcano stands gloomily as a reminder of his changed life. As he stares sadly at his unfinished work, Megan’s footsteps sound behind him, barefoot and light on her feet. He sits frozen in the wheelchair, when slender arms wrap around his neck. His weeping daughter lays her cheek against the back of his head. Three tears stream down his cheeks but he quickly recovers. “I’m fine, baby, I’m fine,” he says in a quivering voice and bites his lower lip and takes a deep breath. “Please don’t cry. I hear it’s bad for the baby. How is she? How’s Petra?” “She’s fine,” Megan whispers. “And your mom? Does she know what’s going on?” “She’s really pissed but I don’t care.” “Does she still want you to have the abortion?” “Yes.” “I’m sorry to hear that. When is Robby coming back?” “April 13.” “That’s good. Only three weeks away. I look forward to meeting him.” Father and daughter have yet to look in each other’s eyes. “I’m sorry,” Megan says. “What about?” he asks, fearful she found out the truth about how he was shot. “I’m sorry you got hurt, sorry there’s such stupid and cruel people in this world. I don’t understand why you have to suffer like that.” “Can I turn around and look at you?” he asks. “Okay.”

277 The wheelchair hums as it rotates on its axle. Then Victor sees her—pale face, eyes red from crying, two acne pimples—one on her chin, the other on her right cheekbone—copper hair now grown to touch her shoulders, and the most precious sight he’s witnessed in his life—his daughter. He smiles. “I’ll race you to the porch. I’m hungry, what about you?” She smiles weakly. “I’m not hungry.” “I’ll have to report you to Luciana,” Victor says and holds her thin, still childish fingers, nails chewed to the flesh. “Listen, Megan. Do you want to help me get better?” “Of course.” “Then I need you to stop feeling sorry for me. I’m really happy to be alive. As far as I see it, I got real lucky. I should be dead but the ambulance came real quick and saved me. I’m the luckiest SOB in the world. And I have you, and Petra, and plenty of life left in me. Do you understand? I really mean what I’m saying. Treat me like you did before, get pissed at me when you need to. Only my legs are hurt. My heart is doing great!” Megan takes a deep breath and nods. “I’ll try. But I need time.” “Good,” he says. “Now let’s go eat. You can push the chair, if you want.” Her voice is but a flutter. “Okay.” Then she points to the wire mesh structure and says, “I want to help you finish the fountain volcano.” Victor laughs. “That’d be great, get’em biceps of yours looking good.”

He dines with Perry and Megan, an early dinner that passes in casual conversation and Perry’s sarcastic humor concerning people in wheelchairs: when Victor changes a lightbulb, he does so by spinning his chair rather than twisting his wrist.

278 Victor declines Gertrude’s offer to give him a sponge bath, dresses himself in pajamas, and moves independently from the wheelchair to the bed. Megan visits his room, lays on the bed and tells him about her years in elementary school, about her Albert Einstein science project, her best friend, Gracie, about learning how to snowboard. He shuts his eyes and imagines her during those times, but soon grows tired and begins to doze off. Apparently, he’d fallen asleep and hadn’t heard Megan leave the room, because he finds himself dreaming: He’s sitting up on the bed of his new room in Perry’s home. It’s 10:14 at night according to the clock radio on the nightstand. The room is lit with soft, pulsating pink hues. A middle-aged woman is standing by the bed. Her smile is radiant, teeth perfectly aligned and sparkling white; her blue eyes twinkle with the delight reserved for children when they enter an amusement park; her vibrant silver hair flows down her mid-back; she is wearing a light-blue cotton dress held by thin straps, smooth skin fit for a woman half her age. Her forehead is free of wrinkles, and her fingers are long and thin, like ones of a concert violinist. “Hello Victor,” the woman says, voice like bells on a sleigh ringing from a snowy mountaintop. The love in her eyes warms his heart. “Who are you?” “I’m Nyra, your Guardian Angel.” “Nyra? That’s a strange name.” Her laughter is as gentle as drops of dew trickling down a flower stalk. “Do you like it?” He shrugs. “It’s okay, kinda like a name from Star Wars.”

279 Again she laughs. “My name evokes mythic overtones in some people’s imaginations.” “And you’re my guardian angel?” Nyra sits on the bed and pats his knee. “I am.” “I wouldn’t be too proud of that.” Victor points to his legs. “You haven’t done a very good job.” “I tried to warn you, but you exercised your free will.” Victor recalls how he vacillated between keeping his promise not to use callgirls, and the erotic promise in Deana’s sexy photograph. There was a voice in his head insisting he not call her, but he succumbed to his obsession, promised himself the rendezvous with Deana would be his last. “That was you?” he asks. “Yes.” He frowns. “You could’ve spoken a little louder.” Nyra nods. “Perhaps, but let us not dwell on the past. I am here to tell you that I sense a good change taking place in your heart. Sometimes we need to lose something precious, like not being able to walk, to help us gain appreciation of our lives….” He cuts her off. “Am I going to walk again?” “No,” Nyra says gently. The room is silent while the soft hues pulsate around them. “What will become of me? And Megan, will she be safe?” “Megan will be fine, and so will baby Petra. You will have many years to enjoy their company.”

280 Victor recalls the last day he walked: he’d started building the fountain, had taken Megan shopping for clothes and shared a fudge sundae with her—a perfect day, which, had he been Lord of the Universe, he’d repeat indefinitely. “That was a special day,” Nyra says. Victor startles. “You can read my mind?” “Of course. How else can I be an effective Guardian Angel?” “Can you promise me that I’ll be happy?” he asks. “I can promise you can be happy if you remain compassionate, as you have been lately. Sometimes what we feel is an impediment, turns out to be a blessing.” He frowns. “That’s really corny.” Nyra laughs. “Life is waiting for you to live it, but it is up to you to embrace and accept yourself. Can you do that?” He nods. “I promised Perry and Doctor James I wouldn’t complain, so I’ll try to do that. And I want Megan to be happy, so I need to be strong.” “You have the right attitude, and that is a good start,” Nyra says and leans down to kiss his forehead. Her breath is lilacs in bloom, lips softer than satin. “I need to be on my way, but remember I am always watching you. I love you.” “Please don’t leave,” he cries. “I have so many questions. I don’t want to wake up yet.” Nyra smiles. “You are not asleep Victor. This is not a dream.” “What?” He pats his face and pinches his cheeks. He feels the pain. “How can that be?” he cries. Nyra’s image is fading, as are the pink hues. The room turns dark and silent but for the sound of his frantic heart pounding in his ears.

281 Victor tries to calm down when a thought jolts his mind. He turns on the nightlight and reaches for his wallet, takes out the piece of paper folded in it and dials the number. The phone rings eight times before a lucid, feminine voice says, “This is Valen.” His voice trembles. “This is Victor.” “Why did you wait so long to call me?” Valen cries. “I called you two weeks ago. Your number was disconnected.” “It was, but only for two days. I’ve been thinking about you. I want to see you.” “I miss you,” he says and lets the tears come. “I miss you, too,” she says softly, as one lover says to another. “Will you come to visit me?” His happiness hangs by a thread. “I’m on my way, baby.” “But I’m not the same,” he says hurriedly. “I’ve been shot. I’m paralyzed from the waist down.” He shares the events of the passing two weeks, and says, “I wanted to see you, only you, but your phone didn’t work, and then I called her, the call that changed my life. I’m sorry.” After a short silence, Valen, in the gentlest of voices, says, “More reason for me to be with you.”

282

Chapter Twenty Two

As time remains suspended in the windowless cell, the one thing Andy grows to hate more than the deafening silence, is the bright fluorescent light embedded in the ceiling and secured by thick plastic. Maybe a hammer could have cracked the plastic, but Andy hasn’t a hammer or anything else hard enough to strike the plastic with. For that matter, he has nothing that moves except the thin foam mattress. He can escape the silence for short periods of time by singing or talking to himself, but there’s nothing he can do to turn off the light. Even when he shuts his eyes tightly, the slightest flutter of his eyelashes allows the harsh light into his head. He sometimes smothers his face into the mattress and shields his head with his arms, but the mattress smells musty and irritates his sinuses. He doesn’t know if it’s day or night, doesn’t know how long he sleeps or how long he’s awake. His anxious heart beats quickly even when he lies still on the mattress, and stabbing pains frequent his temples. Every so often, by the time he’s famished, the door opens and a stern looking man with dark sunglasses and a crew cut slides a tray into the room. The man returns shortly after to claim the tray. Andy has only minutes to consume the food—watered down chicken broth, white rice, two slices of white bread coated thinly with margarine, and canned peas and carrots. Andy dumps the rice, bread,

283 and vegetables into the broth, to create a stew, which appears more substantial, but when the man returns to collect the tray, Andy’s still hungry. He’s hungry every moment of his incarceration. He’s wearing the clothes he wore on the day he was arrested, hasn’t been allowed to shower, hasn’t been given a bar of soap, toothpaste and toothbrush, not even a hand towel to wipe his face or toilet paper to wipe his ass. He imagines the cell must stink horribly, but his sense of smell is numb, as are his taste buds when he slurps the soup. He briefly considers going on a hunger strikes but cannot find the willpower to refuse the food…it’s the single momentary distraction he has. His bowels move stingily, and his shit doesn’t smell, or so he believes. He tries to masturbate but cannot get an erection. His penis is dead in its skin, and Andy suspects his food is spiked with sexual inhibitors. His capturers do not want him to have a single moment of pleasure. Andy cries often, sometimes with sadness, other times with rage, and many times with fear. Orville Sanchez hasn’t returned to interrogate him. Andy wishes he would, for if he did, Andy could hurriedly and emphatically confess that Orville was right onehundred percent when he mentioned his desire to sustain the American Species a bit longer at the expense of the rest of the world’s inhabitants. Fuck the rest of the world, Andy would say and raise a stiff middle finger. Kill all’em motherfuckers, he would shout, eyes blazing with patriotic zeal. The US is rich and powerful for a reason, Andy would add, and its proud people are destined to continue man’s evolutionary ascent while other nations—failed Darwinist experiments—can go fuck themselves and disappear into time’s abyss

284 So is the sermon Andy practices while hoping for the FBI agent to return with a burger, fries, and a milkshake—American foods of deserved gluttony—and a joint from the FBI’s hydroponics labs. But, like Godot, Orville Sanchez fails to show.

Time stretches for days, maybe a week. Andy is lying on his mattress, his tired eyes closely observing the tiny bumps of paint on the white-washed walls, when he feels the draft coming from the hallway, which means the door is open. He quickly sits up and clasps his palms in anticipation of the meager meal, but instead sees the large German shepherd and the two men, one of whom is restraining the dog with a tight leash. The men are dressed in fatigues, military boots, and their eyes are obscured by narrow and dark sunglasses. The dog’s fur around its neck is erect with rage; its yellow eyes glow murderously; its jaws are drawn back in a saliva-dripping snarl; its growling barks fill the room with viciously unbearable noise. “What are you doing,” Andy whimpers, his crotch instantly soaked with urine. He rises to shaky knees and, his terrified eyes fixated on the dog, backs away until he feels the wall at his heels. The men say nothing, their faces blank, as they inch toward him. The dog’s rage grows by the second; it’s consumed with attacking Andy, and only its handler’s powerful arms and the sturdy leash stand between the prisoner and gruesome death. Andy ends up huddled in the corner, his knees pressing against his chest, eyes shut, arms shielding his face. The dog closes in on him; he can smell its putrid breath. Drops of saliva pepper his arms; the dog’s jaws snap as it tries to bite him. Andy’s body rattles with fear; liquid feces stains his pants and oozes to the floor. The feces smell sends

285 the dog into incomprehensible rage; its barks turn to high-pitched yelps as it chokes on the leash, and its back legs flail on the concrete floor as it tries to anchor its paws so to lunge at Andy, who has never been more scared—a paralyzing terror threatening to stop his heart from beating and his lungs from breathing. The torture stretches into infinity, when the crazed barks slowly recede into a black void until he hears them no more.

Andy comes to lying in the corner, his head resting in a trickle of shit. He thought he had died, and, however traumatized and disoriented, is nonetheless thrilled to be alive. He crawls to the sink. Balanced on wobbly knees, he places his palms under the tap and waits, endlessly, for the sensor to trigger a trickle of water. Never more thirsty, he laps the water from his palms and quickly places them under the tap. After repeating the action many times, Andy is finally quenched. He strips naked and starts to rinse his body. All he can think about is rubbing water on every inch of his body. He starts to shiver, but continues, like an obsessive-compulsive trying to erase a stain long gone. All the while, he mumbles, “I’m sorry, mommy. I promise to be good. I love you, mommy.” His body soaked, skin bluish and dotted with goosebumps, Andy, on all four, staggers to the mattress. He falls asleep and dreams about a pack of rabid wolves chasing him through a forest. Wide awake, he springs to his feet and starts to pace the cell. His heart beats very quickly. “I’m losing my mind,” he whispers, the fear of insanity more palpable and profound than he ever imagined. He collapses on the mattress and begins to sob until his eyes swell, and when his heart finally calms enough to let him sleep.

286 Three days have passed, or maybe a week. Andy is lying on his mattress, intently observing his fingernails, when the cool draft signals the door opening. Having eaten not too long ago, Andy shrivels with fear of the dog returning to torment him, but is instead surprised to see a man in a gray business suit and blue tie, and a curvaceous brunette wearing a black miniskirt and a low-cut blouse. The man is holding a handgun, but its gun barrel is square and dammed up, which leads Andy to conclude the man is brandishing a stun gun. He sits up on the mattress and, eyes wide with trepidation, stares at his guests. “It reeks in here,” the woman says and pinches shut her nose. “Are you my lawyer?” Andy whispers. The man sneers. “You’re not gettin a lawyer. Terrorists have no right to the legal system, or haven’t you heard about the Patriot Act?” Tears stream down Andy’s cheeks. “Please, help me.” The man’s eyes harden. He points the stun gun at Andy and snaps, “Take off your clothes.” Andy’s teary eyes dart from the man to the woman. He’s deeply ashamed to be naked. No woman has seen him naked. “Please, don’t make me do that….” he pleads, when the man steps up to him and fires the taser gun into Andy’s stomach. A massive electric shock rattles Andy’s body. He collapses to the floor and starts to twitch; a million ants are biting him and Andy screams, overcome by pain he hadn’t known existed. Stars explode inside his head and his lungs fight for every molecule of oxygen.

287 “That was a medium charge,” the man says. “Wanna find out what the high charge feels like?” “No…please,” Andy whispers and groans. “Then take your clothes off.” On all four, Andy staggers to the mattress, where he gets undressed. “Stand up and face me,” the man commands. Andy gets up slowly. He covers his genitals and, like a scolded puppy, raises his tormented gaze at his captors. The woman wrinkles her nose. “He’s ugly! He has hair all over his body, like a gorilla. Look at that belly. He’s a fat fuck and he stinks.” “Remove your hands from your genitals,” the man says and raises the stun gun. Andy stands with his arms dangling to his sides while the man yanks out the electrodes embedded in Andy’s stomach. Two red circles remain. The woman cackles. “He’s got the tiniest dick I’ve ever seen. I bet if he fucks a virgin, she won’t even feel it.” “Jerk off,” the man says. Andy touches his penis but feels no sensation, like it’s made of wood. “I can’t,” he whispers. “They put something in the food.” “Poor baby,” the woman croons mockingly. She raises her skirt and flashes Andy with a shaved crotch coddled in red thong panties. “Look at my sweet pussy,” she says. “Wanna eat my pussy? But you have to get hard first.” Andy’s thighs shake. His toes and fingers are freezing. He fondles his manhood but still feels nothing.

288 “He’s got a rope, not a dick,” the woman says and laughs. She glares at Andy and shouts. “You can’t get it up? What’s the matter, I don’t turn you on?” She turns around, lifts up her skirt and exposes her ass. “Come eat my ass, baby, eat it good.” “What a fucking loser,” the man says. He unzips his pants and shows off his erect penis. “See? This is what a dick looks like, you fat fuck.” The woman holds on to the man’s penis and sends Andy a droopy-eyed glance. “I like his dick. Want to watch me suck his dick?” Andy’s head thumps. Tears stream relentlessly down his cheeks. Please…please,” he keeps mumbling, never more shamed. Even the snarling dog seems preferable to this humiliation. The woman walks up to him. With her forefinger, like tickling a baby under its chin, she flicks his meat. “Cootchie, coo,” she murmurs, “wake up little man.” Then she grabs his testicles and squeezes them hard. Shooting pain races through Andy’s body. He falls to his knees and stays bent over and moaning. The woman kicks him in the ribs. “You’re pathetic, the biggest loser I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen many. You’re a fat fuckin loser.” She straddles his back, smacks his ass twice, then slaps the back of his head. “Ride’em cowboy,” she hollers. The man’s deep laughter rings loudly in the cell. “Let’s go, Gretchen,” he says. “I can’t stand this poor excuse for a man. If I stay here any longer, I’ll taser this fucker to death.” Seconds late, the door shuts. Closer to dying than he’s ever been, Andy lies on the floor for a very long time.

289 Three days later, or maybe a week, his thumb dangling limply from his mouth, Andy is lying naked on the mattress. Silence. Harsh florescent. Silence. White-washed walls. Harsh florescent. Stainless steel toilet and sink. Silence. 72 degrees. Harsh florescent. He feels no hunger or cold, no thirst or need to move his bowels. The last four times the man arrived with the tray, Andy left it to lie by the door and ate not a morsel. The man returned to pick up the full tray and left without a word. The dog hasn’t returned, and neither has Gretchen, the sadistic brunette. Orville Sanchez also stays away. Andy’s mind floats in and out of childhood memories—his marble collection, headed by Butch, a dark-purple marble with pink swirls; his stamp collection, captained by a UK Penny Black issued in 1840, and which could fetch up to two-thousand dollars on today’s market; his collection of comic books, championed by a first addition Spiderman that sold for twelve cents and was last estimated to be worth five-thousand dollars. What foolish people live on this earth, he thinks with great sadness. They spend five thousand dollars on a comic book, when they could give the money to a soup kitchen. He swears that if he gets out, he will sell the comic book and donate the money to the homeless. A chill runs down his spine when he realizes he’s never getting out, will never live through another moment of freedom. “I hate people,” he mutters under his foul breath. His gums are swollen and omit a rotting smell. Much of his idle time passes in remembering his mother—she was a bad cook, fed him Campbell chicken noodle soup and hotdogs, potato chips and fast-food, which remained his staple food. He misses her insanity, knows it wasn’t her fault that she was crazy, and laments that maybe today’s antidepressants would’ve alleviated her neurosis.

290 He converses with her about their times together, the tense silences, the shrieking accusations, the explosive violence. “I know you loved me, mother,” he whispers and wants to cry, but his tears have run dry. He is alone in the world. No one knows where he is and no one will come to save him, not even Barack Obama. There is no justice in America, no rhyme or reason to the universe. Andy recalls the elation he’d experienced watching the lunar eclipse, how, for a brief moment he was one with the expanse of space—the timeless, infinite cosmos man can only sense but never comprehend. But his universe—a windowless cell—has become finite to the extreme. Never will he watch a sunset or tinker with Godzilla. Never will he share his life with Gil and Jules or enjoy a double-double at In-and-Out Burger. Never will he smoke a joint and drift in a rerun of Star Trek, the Next Generation. And never will he know a woman’s touch except Gretchen’s cruel, cold finger flickering his numb stallion and her hand crushing his testicles. Let death come, he thinks with a shrug. Fiftytwo years were ample time to live. But then fear grabs his throat and he doesn’t want to die. Let torture rain on him daily rather than death sweep him in its frosty tentacles.

A cool draft signals to Andy that the door is open. Even though he pretends to ignore the open door and remains lying on his side and facing the wall while sucking his thumb, every muscle in his body tightens. What other torture awaits him? Extended time in strenuous positions? Sleep deprivation? Extrication of nails? Waterboarding? The FBI must have hundreds of ways to discomfort its detainees, has transformed the art of human suffering into fine scientific detail captured in colorful brochures and lectured about in

291 power-point presentations. His fists clenched in fear, Andy shuts his eyes in preparation of hell’s fury to break loose, when he hears a soothing voice say, “Andy, it’s me.” He opens his eyes and relaxes his fists. Could it be he is hearing the familiar, friendly voice? He must be asleep and dreaming. He tugs on his thinning hair and feels the pain. He observes the wall closely and searches for the paint bump that looks like a meowing kitten. There it is. But how can it be that he isn’t dreaming, yet is hearing that voice? “Dear God, what have they done to you,” says the soothing voice. Still terrified that he’ll look to the door only to realize he’s hallucinating, Andy, his body shaking, turns over slowly and witnesses his savior. His voice cracks with infinite doubt when he says, “Jules?” His face is instantly awash with tears. “Yes, Andy, it’s me,” the old man says while shuffling up to Andy’s filthy mattress. He’s carrying a small suitcase, which he hands over to the prisoner. “I brought some toiletries and a set of clothes. You can go shower down the hallway.” Andy squints to better see through his tears and blinks rapidly. “What? How is this possible? What are you doing here?” “It’s a long story. Let’s get you washed and dressed, and while we’re sitting somewhere to have dinner, I’ll tell you everything.” Living the happiest moment of his life, Andy sobs loudly, like a lonely boy whose father returns from battle and bear-hugs his son, his scruffy cheeks comforting in their abrasiveness. Andy wants to happily cry forever, but is motivated by Jules’s tapping foot to catch his breath and contain his gushing emotions. He opens the suitcase, takes out a

292 towel, and wraps it around his waist. He clutches the suitcase, looks at his savior with bloodshot and grateful eyes, and says, “How can I ever thank you?” The old man’s pale-blue eyes blink with empathy, and his leathery cheeks flutter with a smile. “What goes around comes around. How can I ever thank you for your help over the last two years? Now, do me a huge favor. Go shower and get dressed. This place gives me the creeps.”

The hallway is eerily empty, as is the locker room. The hot water streams forcefully and strikes his bruised body like shards of glass. Andy leans on the wall and relishes the pain. He wants to remain in the steaming shower for hours, let the water soak each pore of his skin, rinse off the abuse, fear, humiliation, hopelessness, but he knows Jules is impatiently waiting outside the locker room. Still, he takes his time brushing his teeth, the minty flavor and soft bristles enlivening his senses in their cleanliness like a monsoon striking dusty pavements at the height of the day’s stifling heat. As he dries off, a long rumble rattles inside his stomach, and he’s consumed by hunger like no other he’s felt. He realizes that his incarceration has led to many ‘like no other moments,’ whether hunger, pain, humiliation, defiance, resignation, fear, remorse, he’s been stretched emotionally, physically, and psychologically, like, well, never before. Contentment permeates Andy’s body and soul when he considers the ordeal he’d survived through: he didn’t lose his mind, though at times he felt like he did. Are the people who tortured him really more powerful than he is, or could it be their glee in his pain is nothing but terrible weakness, like a boy who tortures a helpless kitten because he doesn’t know any better? Could it be their ability to behave callously and still experience a good

293 night’s sleep only point to their profound unhappiness? Surely, one cannot treat his fellow man with such cruelty and still retain any sense of lucid morality. As creatures granted free will, are they not defying God’s Love, the universal message deciphered in the orderly movement of constellations? And most important: is he able to forgive them? To say, as Jesus said on the cross, “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do.” Andy believes he can do that, for if he does not, their malice will fester within him and the torture will continue. He realizes that forgiving his mother—the most difficult of his life’s lessons, is helping him now. Forgiveness is singular and applies to everyone, everywhere, always. Andy’s heart is lighter and illuminated like ‘never before’—the profound phrase now almost redundant. He dresses in the gray sweats and flip-flops Jules has brought, and steps into the hallway, where the old man is waiting. “You lost a lot of weight,” Jules says. “At least twenty pounds.” Andy pats his shrunken stomach. “I needed that.” Without talking anymore, they walk to an elevator that takes them up three floors. The doors open up to a lobby like many others, with a receptionist, ringing phones, people in business suits sitting at desks, a coffee station and a water cooler. The square-jawed and crew-cut men Andy has come to acutely fear and loathe, ignore the unusual duo who walk through the lobby and exit into a parking lot where Jules points to the cab waiting for them. Andy turns to observe the building that had served as his prison—three-stories with panoramic windows, and as innocent looking as any office building housing medical, financial, or insurance corporations.

294 He pauses to touch the trunk of a palm tree and relishes the coarse wood against his skin. A breeze rustles the tree’s canopy; the swishing branches ring like a heavenly chorus of angels. He bends to smell a white rose; its sweet fragrance affirms all that is good in life. He raises his face to the sun and lets her warmth caress his pale cheeks. His senses are clamoring like a group of toddlers let loose in a petting zoo; he wants to spread his arms and run to eternity, or to roll down a grassy slope until he’s too dizzy to stand up. He wonders if he’s ever felt more alive, and sighs, “Everything looks so beautiful.” “Try to remember that feeling,” Jules says as they enter the cab. “Where are we?” Andy asks as the cab drives away. “You don’t need to know,” Jules says, a hint of impatience in his voice. He looks sternly at Andy and says, “I won’t be able to fully satisfy your curiosity. I promised them you would stay out of the loop, and I intend to keep my promise.” “After all they’ve done to me…” Andy says, when Jules rattles a forefinger and cuts in, “Don’t go there, ever. Do you understand? Go live your life and don’t push anymore buttons, cause I won’t be able to help you next time.” Fearful again, Andy retreats to the corner of the seat and crosses his arms. “I’m sorry, Andy,” the old man says in gentler tones. “This is for your own good.” “If you can’t tell me how you managed to get me out, then I have nothing to say to you anymore,” Andy says and looks out the window, his forgiving mood drowned in confusion and anger. Jules sighs. “Okay, I’ll tell what I can, but we can never discuss it after today.” “Fine,” says Andy with a huff. “Remember the banana lady from Okinawa story I told you?”

295 “Yes.” “Well, the guy I went to see the show with, Pete, the guy who lay on the floor and ate the banana the woman chopped into his mouth, well, he became a big shot, a real big shot. His name isn’t really Pete, but I can’t tell you his real name or what he does. All I can say is that after the war, I stayed in the service and took part in clandestine operations I’m not proud of, and which I can’t and do not want to share with you or anyone else.” Jules falls silent while he searches in his jacket pocket and brings out a handkerchief he uses to wipe his brow. He sighs, then continues, “Let’s say that I’m familiar with the inner works of the organizations I’ve come to despise, and leave it at that. When you didn’t show up to visit me, I suspected something was wrong. You are always punctual, and when not, you always call. I called your cell phone, it was disconnected. I took a cab to your store, it was shut down. So I called your roommate, Gil, and he told me you were gone and that the FBI raided your room. It was time for me to call in the favor, and I did. You’re a free man, Andy. Your record is expunged. You won’t be monitored and harassed any longer.” The old man narrows his eyes and leans toward Andy. “But you gotta forget everything that happened, like it never happened, and never, you hear, never stick your nose in other people’s shit again. Got it?” Sensing the severity in Jules’ voice, one he’d never heard and did not suspect existed, Andy mutters, “I guess,” his heart and mind noisily cluttered like never before.

296

Chapter Twenty Three

Ten days have passed since Gil stopped drinking, and three days since Westbrook, the cleaner, said, “You don’t need me 24-7 anymore. Call if you feel a strong craving coming on. Otherwise, eat a Snickers bar. Can I trust to see you at the two o’clock meeting every day?” It was three in the morning and they were eating breakfast at the Denny’s on Overland and Jefferson, not far from the Starbucks Gil and Rachel had coffee at after he brazenly came on to her following the philosophy class he was teaching and she was attending at the college. More than four years had passed since that day, yet the memory of her playful eyes remains clear in his mind, like it happened yesterday. “I’ll be there,” Gil said. “And your motivation is?” Gil nodded. “Tomorrow, I may polish off a fifth of scotch, but today, I won’t drink. One day at a time.” “Good,” the cleaner said. “Show me the schedule again.” Gil pulled out a page from his back pocket and handed it to the crusty and compassionate man who read it aloud, “Seven a.m, rise and shine. Eight a.m., fruit

297 smoothie and go to the beach for an hour jog. Back home for shower and mindless TV until noon, or, if you can concentrate, copyediting articles. Lunch, heavy on carbs, and walk in the park till one p.m. AA meeting from two till three. Four o’clock yoga at the community center until five-thirty. High protein dinner at seven. Choice of mindless TV, reading, or working until ten. Stroll in the park until ten-thirty. Sugar free malt shake before bed. Lights out at midnight. No sleeping pills no matter what.” Westbrook folded up the page, returned it to Gil, and said, “Aside from that, you get acupuncture treatments three days a week, but that’s your choice. I hate needles and think this Chinese medicine crap is bogus.” Gil shrugged. “To each his own.” The sponsor stood up. “I’m gonna head on out. See you at the meeting tomorrow,” and reached out a rough-skinned palm. The sponsored stood up and the two men shook hands. “Thanks for everything,” Gil said, trying to sound casual. “You helped me a lot.” By Westbrook’s shifting shoulders and darting eyes, he senses the cleaner prefers reserved military farewells rather than New Age Californian hugs of emotional gratitude. “Glad to be of help. Remember to talk to your sister about your childhood. Maybe something’s hiding there, maybe not. Otherwise, stop feeling sorry for yourself. The world’s your fuckin oyster.” Having completed another successful mission of prevent and support, the cleaner clicked his heels, saluted, and was on his way. Gil remained sitting at the counter at Denny’s. It was four in the morning and time to try to get some shuteye—even an hour or two would do until his body allowed him more rest.

298

A week later, Gil is still restless and sleep is hard to come by, but, as Westbrook suggested, drying out this time is easier than what he’d gone through six years before. Still, sobriety ain’t a stroll in the park. Gil is anxious and spaced out. Unsure what to do with his time, he diligently follows the routine outlined on the wrinkled piece of paper. Day in and day out, he promises to visit Victor in the hospital and report Andy missing, but he fails to do either, mentally unable to face public and intimidating situations.

Now it’s April Fools Day, ten in the morning. Gil’s back from his three-mile jog on the beach and is sitting at his desk staring at the screen of his new computer—a Dell XPS 420 with a 22-inch flat screen and enough computing power to run a small commonwealth. He’s trying to edit an article about the medicinal qualities found in garlic, but his mind is drifting in thoughts about Rachel. She hadn’t sent a postcard or an email since her visit to Rome, and Gil hasn’t a clue where she is or if she’s dead or alive. He’s helpless within his worry and needs to resign his anguish to a Higher Power—a difficult task. His potential for happiness is still tied to a life with Rachel, waiting for the sign—a postcard, email, phone call, or a knock on his door—to signal his loneliness is over, which, although a precarious state of mind, does not entice him to drink. That part of the struggle, he believes, is over, but the moment of clarity eludes him. The words in the article are jumbled in his mind. He looks out the window, hoping to be amused by toddlers riding the stationary train on the playground, when he recognizes the invitingly plump blonde woman and the little girl by her side.

299 Naomi runs off to the swings and Susan sits on a bench—the one he was sitting on and reading Love in the Time of Cholera, when a voice behind him said, “Reading a book, how quaint.” Gil nervously clinches his fists and sits up in his chair. Does Susan suspect he’s watching her? While on his drinking binge, he’d stared out the window many times, but never saw her. Does she want him to notice her, or has she moved on to the extent she doesn’t care one way or the other, and has returned to the park with only her daughter’s welfare in mind? Regardless, he knows he must try to make amends, and if Susan chooses to glower at him and tell him to fuck off, so be it, at least he tried. And what if he spots the lustful twinkle in her eyes, the one encouraging him to offer not only friendship amends, but sexual ones too? He reaches in his pants and touches his manhood—no sign of excitement, like a child who’s fallen off his bike, scraped his knee, and is afraid to get back on the bike, scared to fail again. And what if passion had stirred his groin? Would that mean he should encourage Susan to sleep with him, or is it a test of his love for Rachel and his belief in their reunion? These questions race through his mind while his legs lead his body to open the front door, and, like a marionette, stiffly walk toward the bench Susan is sitting on. She sees him, crosses her legs and moves to one side of the bench. “Hi,” he says. “Can I join you for a minute?” She faint wrinkles under her mouth deepen. “Why?”

300 The words shoot from his mouth. “Her name’s Rachel. We dated for three years, then we tried to get pregnant but she couldn’t, so she went to Europe cause she wants to be a fly on humanity’s wall.” Susan crosses her arms. “Why didn’t you tell me?” “I’m sorry, because I was trying to forget her,” he says and knows the words are coming out all wrong. “I didn’t mean that…I like you a lot…thought that maybe we could make it happen.” “Stop it,” she snaps. “You meant what you said. You were trying to forget her and I happened to come along, so you lied to me and tried to use me.” “No.” “Yes!” He’s beyond exasperation. “After you left, I broke my six year sobriety and went on a two week binge. I quit again ten days ago.” Her voice is harsh, condescending. “I bet if you fucked me good you wouldn’t start drinking again.” He’s peeved by her insight into his selfishness, but also by her rudeness. “That wasn’t nice of you to say.” Susan leans forward. “Nice? Why should I be nice to someone who lied to me and tried to use me, poorly if I may add, as a sexual object to help him get over the fact his girlfriend wants to be a fuckin fly on the wall of humanity?” His neck retreats into his shoulders. He rises to shaky feet. “I’m sorry,” he says, and walks away. “Fuck you, Gil,” Susan says.

301 He doesn’t turn around to respond, rather, he snakes his way back into 2420 Ruby Lane, slumps in his chair. Susan, clutching her daughter’s tiny hand, walks away. Her head lowered, shoulders bent, she’s an epitome of unhappiness. The desire to drink clutches at his throat. “No fuckin way,” he mutters. Gil forces himself into his car and drives to the beach. He walks down the pier and sits on a bench. He shuts his eyes and breathes the salty air, feels the breeze, and mumbles, “Tomorrow, I may drink, but today, I will not. One day at a time,” over and over, like he’s praying. Then he reaches in his shirt pocket, takes out a snickers bar, and slowly chews on its chocolaty sustenance, while his eyes comb the horizon, where the singularity of ocean and sky is plainly and abundantly evident.

His mind pacified somewhat, Gil returns from the beach and enters his house, only to freeze in his tracks when he sees Andy sitting on the living room couch. His friend has aged far more than the two weeks Gil hadn’t seen him. His face is gaunt, with dark bags under his eyes; wrinkles have formed at the corners of his mouth, and the once gentle wrinkles on his forehead have burrowed deeply, violently, into his skin; baldness has replaced the tufts of gray hair on his head; his body, once borderline obese, is like a lemon that had its juices squeezed out. More than anything, Gil is alarmed by the look in Andy’s eyes—bewildered, scared, vacant in almost psychotic ways, his pupils are restless, but overriding everything, his stare is frightfully sad. “What happened to you?” Gil cries. Andy shrugs and lets out a long sigh.

302 “The FBI raided the house,” Gil says. “They arrested you, didn’t they?” Andy nods. “So what’s going on? You look terrible. What did they do to you?” Andy’s eyes widen with what Gil can only ascertain as deep terror. “They didn’t do anything to me,” he says in hurried and clipped fashion. “Just asked me a few questions.” Gil narrows his eyes. “Bullshit! You look like you’ve been hit by a bus.” “I got real sick, the flu, like I never had it,” Andy says. “They helped me get better, put me in their hospital. It’s not their fault I look sick.” His eyes fill with tears. The fearful look is replaced with one of tremendous anguish, as he whispers, “Please, don’t ask me what happened.” His shoulders retreat into his torso, like a man shivering in a blizzard, and tears stream down his sickly face. “Oh shit,” Gil says. He sits next to Andy and wraps his arms around the poor man’s shoulders. Bawling loudly, Andy leans on Gil’s shoulder, but slowly slides sideways until his head rests in Gil’s lap. “It’ll be okay,” Gil whispers and holds Andy’s hand. “It’ll be okay. It’s over,” even though he suspects nothing will be okay and that nothing is over. Andy sits up abruptly, glares at Gil, and whispers loudly, “You can’t ever say anything to anyone about what happened…that I was arrested, cause they’ll find out and they’ll take me away and I’ll never come back, ever, ever, ever.” As he speaks, his voice rises to a shrill.

303 Realizing his friend is teetering on the verge of a nervous breakdown, Gil doesn’t know what to do, so does what is familiar to him. He stands up and says, “Let’s go get a bottle of scotch. You need a drink.” Andy’s eyes are lucid again. “Are you till drinking?” “Actually, I quit ten days ago. The scotch is for you.” “I don’t want to drink,” Andy says, “but I could really use some weed.” “Okay,” says Gil. “Let’s go get you some. Where should we go?” “I don’t know,” Andy says, his usual source, Comet Livingston, probably tucked away in a windowless cell lit with harsh fluorescent. Trying to make light, Gil sings the reggae song, “Take me to Electric Avenue, it’s gonna get you higher,” in reference to the famous street only a few miles away, in Venice. “No,” Andy cries, fear again dominating his tightened cheeks and widened eyes. “They’ll be there….looking for me…I can’t.” “Okay Andy,” Gil says softly and clasps his palms. “I’ll go. Are you okay by yourself for a while? Are you hungry, need a shower?” Andy retreats to the corner of the couch. “I’m okay. I feel safe here, in the living room. But I can’t go in my room…they slashed my mattress and tore up my carpet…I can’t live there ever again.” “How about the guest room?” Gil offers. Andy’s eyes light up. “Yes…I like that room.” His expression and voice take on a child asking for another serving of pudding. “Can I stay there?” “Let’s get you bedding,” Gil says, feeling he’s in the company of a boy, or a feeble old man, but not in the company of his friend, Andy Cloud.

304

About thirty minutes later, Gil is driving down Electric Avenue, a downtrodden, graffiti-laden neighborhood minutes away from luxury condos and yuppie eateries. He isn’t worried about getting busted for trying to score pot, but is concerned about the sullen black youths hobnobbing on street corners. Still, he trusts the not-so-mighty dollar to rule, and that an amicable transaction can take place. He’s driving slowly and makes a left turn when he sees two young black men standing by a mailbox. He rolls the passenger window down and waits to be acknowledged. One of the men, dressed in red sweat pants and a black windbreaker, approaches the car. “Wassup, man?” he asks. “I need some weed, the good stuff,” Gil says. “How much cash you got?” “Two hundred.” The man holds out his open palm. “Lemme see.” Resigned to the fact he may get ripped off, Gil nonetheless gives the man the money. “Cool,” says the man, then reaches in his windbreaker’s pocket, and hands Gil a small plastic bag with several midsize buds. “That’s it?” Gil says. “For two hundred?” The man smiles disarmingly. “It’s Grand Daddy Purple, homey, less is more. One hit turns you into a nine-year-old Hindu boy.” Appreciative of the fact he is the man’s homey, Gil lets down is guard. “Do I get a money back guarantee?”

305 “No buyers remorse here, later,” the man says and walks off to join his buddy. They trade high fives and disappear into an alley. Satisfied with his street credibility, Gil drives away. Already, the pot in the plastic bag is emitting a skunky smell. He’s anxious to get home and get Andy stoned. He realizes he will probably never satisfy his burning curiosity to find out what Andy had done to suffer incarceration, and what took place while his roommate was in custody. He promises himself to never bring up the subject again. If Andy, at some point, feels like he needs to share his ordeal, Gil will cease whatever activity he may be doing, entwine his fingers, tap his thumbs, and listen patiently to his friend’s confession. Otherwise, he carries on like before Andy vanished, and hopes that time, that ancient sage, will once again heal all wounds.

When Gil walks in, Andy is lying on the couch, but springs to his feet when he sees the bag in Gil’s hands. “You did good,” he says after he smells and squeezes the buds. He starts rolling a joint, his fingers jittery with ecstatic expectations. “For two hundred, I better,” Gil says. “You paid twice what you should’ve,” Andy says. “I’ll pay you back.” He lights the joint, takes a long drag, and resists the cough while holding the smoke in his lungs until his eyes bulge and threaten to pop out from their sockets, and when he exhales smokeless air. Gil observes in amazement how Andy’s face and body respond to the smoke circulating in his veins. First to relax are his shoulders, followed by his thighs assuming a

306 wider stance, as Andy leans back into the couch. His cheekbones and jaw sag, his eyes droop, and his lips widen. He coughs. “Oh…..yeah…” and leans his head back on the couch. “I needed that.” Seeing the transformation in his friend’s demeanor, Gil cultivates slim hope that perhaps the damage done to Andy isn’t permanent, when Victor zooms to the forefront of his thoughts. “You don’t know about Victor, do you?” he says. “He moved out,” Andy says and takes another hit off the joint. “And got shot the same day you got busted, some gang banger. He’s in Centinela Hospital, or was. I was gonna visit him but was caught up in drying out.” “Is he okay?” Andy asks. “I don’t know. I’m a selfish bastard, buried in my own shit,” Gil says. The phone rings. Gil goes to the desk and presses the speaker phone. “Gil here.” “Hi Gil, it’s Victor.” Gil decides to pretend he doesn’t know about Victor’s odyssey. He grins at Andy, and says, “How’s it goin, man? Andy and me were just talking about you.” “I got shot.” “What?” Gil shouts with great conviction. “Are you kidding me? It’s April fools, you know.” Victor proceeds to share his ordeal, how he’s now paralyzed from the waist down, but that’s okay, and that he’s living with Megan at Rick Perry’s house in Pacific Palisades.

307 “I’m so sorry,” Gil says and is blushing with guilt. “Me, too,” Andy chimes in from the couch.. “It’s okay, shit happens,” Victor says. “Sometimes bad things turn out good.” “How so?” Gil asks, unfamiliar with the serene resignation in the combative and sometimes petulant man he remembers Victor to be. “I’ll tell you some other time,” Victor says. “I want you guys to come visit me.” “Sure…that would be great,” Gil says. “How about tomorrow?” Victor says. “We’ll have veggie burgers and a few beers.” “I’m on the wagon again,” Gil says, not without a hint of pride. “Good to hear that,” Victor says warmly, an inflection that catches Gil by surprise. “But I still want to come visit you and Megan,” Gil says, and Andy says, “Me too.” “Great. See you tomorrow around three,” Victor says and rattles off the address. Gil hangs up and shrugs at Andy. “Veggie burgers? What’s up with him? He sounds different.” “I don’t know,” says Andy and smokes the last of the stem. “I’m hungry. Wanna get some In-and-Out?” “You bet!”

308

Chapter Twenty Four

309 Gil is reclined on a lawn chair by the pool at Rick Perry’s estate. The date is April 2 2008, a sunny and warm Wednesday late afternoon. He’s sipping a coke and watching two women engage in a water fight in the pool shallows. No older than twenty, the women have flat stomachs, perky breasts, and not a wrinkle on their face or body. Their still childish laughter and exuberance reminds Gil that his forty-third birthday is coming up at the end of the month, and that he isn’t a young buck anymore. Even in his twenties, he never felt buckish, and now, is at a loss of how he would woo a twenty-year-old woman even if he wanted to, which he doesn’t, as his heart still belongs to Rachel. He recalls how, about six months into the time they were trying to conceive, Rachel came home with a short haircut. He was astounded she had cut off her jet-black, thick, beautiful hair, which had reached her lower back. “Why did you cut your hair?” he asked. “Too much upkeep. I want a summer look,” Rachel said. “It’s no big deal.” At the time, though flummoxed by her decision, he let the matter drop, but later realized it was a big deal—the first sign of Rachel suspecting something was wrong with her womanly attributes, the beginning of the self-loathing she would feel for her body, the initial disgust with her procreative failure, and what fueled her desire to leave. Even though he doesn’t know if Rachel still loves him, or if he’ll see her again, Gil, for two reasons, is willing, if not content, to wait for her decision, one being the fact he’s still in love with her, the other based in the gnawing trepidation he would never meet someone who could love and accept him like Rachel had, that every woman he meets will have to compete with Rachel’s magnanimous womanhood, and fail. He believes that each man and woman have only one destined partner, one soul mate. Many times people never

310 meet their soul mate, which results in the rampant divorce rate when people, plagued by insecurity and loneliness, settle for less than a soul mate. Others remain solitary throughout their lives, while few are fortunate to meet their destined partner, their real significant other. And since he’s convinced that Rachel is his soul mate, whether or not they end up together, what is the point of trying to find another one? That would amount to digging through a needle-less haystack—an enormously futile pursuit. So he sits in the lawn chair, sips his coke, watches young damsels at play, and resigns his and Rachel’s combined fate to a Higher Power. “Nice view,” says Victor. The physically-challenged landscaper is navigating his wheelchair toward Gil. Walking beside him is a Filipina woman Gil estimates to be in her early-mid-thirties. Her walk is sensual and she exudes femininity. Victor introduces her as Valen. “V&V,” Gil notes. “That has a nice ring.” “Ring is an appropriate symbol when you’re in love.” Victor smiles and points to the modest silver bands he and Valen are wearing. “No kidding!” Gil exclaims. “Congratulations. So you’ve found your soul mate.” “Yes I have. Thank you,” Victor says. Valen smiles, offers to fetch Victor a beer and Gil a coke, and walks away.

Much has changed in Victor’s psyche and life since Nyra, his Guardian Angel, had dropped in for a visit. For one, his urge for nicotine has evaporated without a struggle. He isn’t sure how or why, except he simply doesn’t feel like smoking. He still enjoys a beer or two, even three, but the compulsion to get inebriated is gone. Also, his

311 long association with eating meat is over. He cannot fathom a dead animal within his bowls. Much like a snake sheds its skin—effortlessly and naturally, and leaves it to dry and crumble by the wayside, so Victor has relieved himself of his bad habits. He is able to do so because he isn’t angry and doesn’t have the need to suppress his anger, which is what he did all his life. He realizes it was all about anger, the toxic emotion, which, like corrosive acid, scorches the soul—his eternal self. Like a flower instinctively spreads its petals to soak up sunshine, so Victor’s heart opens to the Word of God, not the selfrighteous, short sighted and stifling one created by man, rather, the timeless oneness of all that is, was, and will be. If someone had suggested he could be so happy, especially after losing his mobility, he would’ve puffed his cheeks and called that someone a degenerate fool, yet, he feels enormous Love with every breath he takes. For fear of being considered insane, or someone who suffers from PTSD, Victor hasn’t shared his vision with anyone except Valen, who nodded and, without an iota of condescension, said, “That sounds beautiful. When do I get to meet Nyra?” He wants to share his vision with Megan, but, even though he believes she will accept his spiritual transformation at face value, he decides to wait, perhaps even a few years, before telling her. He’d rather show than tell, prove to her by his daily conduct how positive and strong he can be, so she never has to worry or feel guilty anymore. He has no intention of sharing his revelations with Perry, who remains supportive of Victor’s healing but is also too acerbic in nature to seriously contemplate a spiritual metamorphosis, or with his former roommates, Gil and Andy, whom he thinks will try to find reasons in analytical and subconscious explanations related to trauma and denial.

312 “What happened to Andy?” Victor asks. Gil knits his brow. “What do you mean?” “I mean he’s different, like he’s in another world.” Gil shrugs. “You know Andy, probably smokin too much weed.” “Please, Gil, tell me what happened to him.” The recovering alcoholic copyeditor eyes the paraplegic ex-Marine and notices his peaceful, steady eyes, unlike the restless, hawkish, darting ones he remembers. “Forget what happened to Andy,” he says. “What happened to you?” Victor chuckles. Knowing he won’t be believed, he says, “My Guardian Angel, Nyra, visited me and took away my anger.” Then he shrugs. “I don’t know what happened, but I feel okay. It’s probably having Megan and Valen in my life.” “Good for you,” Gil says, bewildered. “I need you to tell me what happened to Andy, unless you really don’t want to,” Victor persists. Gil narrows his eyes. “Can I trust you not to say anything to anyone?” “Of course.” “The FBI busted him. He was gone for two weeks. I have no idea why. He won’t talk about it, won’t say a word, but if you ask me, they tortured the crap out of him.” Victor cups his mouth. “Oh, my god,” he says and shakes his head. “He looks like he’s suffered so much.” Gil nods. “Like he was ambushed by old age.”

313 They look across the pool, to the patio, where Andy is sitting at a table with a laptop open in front of him. Megan is sitting beside him, and the two are engaged in animated conversation. “Your daughter looks better, healthier,” Gil says. “Did she work it out with her mom?” “Not yet, but she will,” Victor says. “What are Andy and her all excited about?” Gil chuckles. “Let’s go find out. Can I push your wheelchair?” “Really, Gil. I didn’t know you felt that way about me, but if you insist, then yes, you may.” “A gay joke from you? Now I’ve heard it all.” Victor laughs. “To each his own, right?” “Most definitely,” Gil says and guides the wheelchair toward the patio.

Like Victor, Andy Cloud’s perception of life has changed dramatically, if not toward Nirvana. Within a few hours of being released from FBI custody, Andy is certain about one thing: he doesn’t want to live in Culver City anymore. For that matter, he doesn’t want to live in California or anywhere else in the US. He knows where he does want to live but is unsure how to financially facilitate the change. The event that convinced Andy he wanted out of the US wasn’t the obvious one— the illegal detention and torture by the FBI—rather, it had been the conversation with Jules, while riding home in the taxicab. Even though he remains grateful to the old man for saving his life, Andy is motivated to leave the US because he knows that no one can be trusted. The fact he’d dedicated two years to helping a man who confessed to engaging

314 in clandestine operations and working for the very same organizations Andy despises, leaves the geeky pothead at a loss for words.

When the cab dropped him off at 2420 Ruby Lane after the thirty-minute ride that passed in thudding silence, Andy looked at Jules and said, “I hope you understand that I can’t and do not want to see you again.” Jules sighed. “I was hoping you wouldn’t say that, but I respect your wishes.” “Good,” said Andy. “Have a nice life,” and walked away and entered the house without looking back. The house was as he remembered it, that is, until he entered his barren room and witnessed the slit mattress, torn carpet, and his missing belongings. He bolted to the living room and was jittery sitting on the couch, bereft of what to do, when Gil came through the front door, and Andy proceeded to thoroughly embarrass himself when he broke down in tears and needed to coddle his head in Gil’s lap. The resolve and forgiveness he’d felt while showering in the FBI locker room had been replaced by anger with Jules, loathing for his violated room, and embarrassment of his outburst with Gil. He was able to center himself somewhat when Gil returned with the Grand Daddy Purple, Andy’s favorite brand of weed, and potent medicine to calm his whirling mind. Later that night, after staying awake for hours and evaluating his life, Andy realized he wanted to live happily and needed to find a place where he would be left alone. The US wasn’t that place. He could never pass a black Escalade SUV without his heart dropping into his underwear; he could never watch FBI and CIA briefings on TV without the bile rising in his throat. He had come to despise the government so much,

315 that even Barack Obama as president wouldn’t be enough for him to feel safe and forget the windowless cell with the tomb-like silence, harsh neon, and white-washed walls— that smothering cage of injustice. The next morning, while Gil and he were driving along the coast on PCH to visit Victor, Andy looked out at the great body of water and remembered his jail cell hallucination about being Orlando, the sailor in Magellan’s crew, who stood watch at crow’s nest and spotted land after the Victoria had sailed the endless Pacific for ninetyfour days. It then became clear to Andy that he wants to return to Parismina, the fishermen village nestled on the Caribbean Coast in Costa Rica. The instant expanse in his heart when he realized his destiny, caused him to straighten his shoulders as he hadn’t done in decades, like he was almost capable of flight.

Now, he’s sitting on the patio by Rick Perry’s pool, waiting for his laptop (how he missed the internet) to warm up, when a slender young woman with copper hair comes up to him and says, “My dad says you’re Andy, his former roommate. I’m Megan. My dad says you and I should have a peace fest.” He’s taken with her open face and warm smile. “Victor’s daughter, wow…so nice to meet you.” She points to the laptop. “You’re not gonna get a signal here. The only place you can get any reception is in the front yard.” “Oh, well,” he says and is about to shut the computer—a MacBookPro—when Megan pleads, “Don’t….can I see the graphics? I so need one of these, or better yet, a MacPro desktop.”

316 Andy chuckles. “Why so much power? Do you plan to fly to the moon?” “I write software for games,” Megan says. “I almost got a development deal with Game Cube, but then this happened,” and she pats her slightly protruding stomach. “You write gaming software? That’s high-end stuff.” “You sound surprised,” she says. “Is that cause I’m a woman?” “Of course not,” he says, though in his heart of hearts he believes women are inferior to men when it comes to technical prowess. “It’s that you’re so young.” She laughs. “Are you kidding? I know thirteen-year-olds out there who can do anything a computer scientist from MIT can do.” Andy sighs. “The internet didn’t come around until I was forty plus. You kids get to have all the fun.” “I can build a computer from scratch,” Megan says. He chuckles, “No way!” “Yes way,” the teenager says. “I’ll show you.” Andy shoves his laptop her way, and Megan proceeds to navigate his programs with the intuitive certainty of a flock leader leading his geese south for the winter. Andy watches dumbfounded when an idea lights his brain. “What do you intend to do for a living? Do you plan to stay in LA?” Megan nods. “For sure I want to stay, but I’ll need a job real soon. I feel bad about Perry supporting me, especially since my dad can’t work.” “I may have a proposition for you,” says Andy, and proceeds to break down his offer into details. Megan listens quietly, and when Andy is finished, she says, “Are you sure?”

317 “I’ve never been more sure about anything in my life. I need to get out of here.” Megan nods. “I can see your point. The US isn’t what it used to be.” “It never was,” Andy says. “It wasn’t better when women couldn’t vote, or when the government created the gold rush when it lied about how much gold there was in California. It was a way for them to develop the west. It wasn’t better when blacks were slaves and then couldn’t vote for two hundred years. It wasn’t better when the military manufactured the Bay of Tonkin incident to get us into Vietnam. The US was never what it used to be. It’s all lies, greed, selfishness, and ignorance. Believe me, I know what I’m talking about.” “That’s heavy,” Megan says. “No light at all at the end of the tunnel?” Andy shrugs. “I’m sorry, maybe a bright light, like atom bombs wiping out everyone and everything. I don’t mean to depress you.” “You’re not God, so maybe you’re wrong,” says the expecting mother and pats her stomach. “There’s nothing I pray for more than being utterly wrong,” he says, his sad smile caressing her face, his heart weighed down by the conviction that Megan and her baby will not survive to old age. “I really appreciate you offer,” Megan says. “How come you’re so trusting?” Andy chuckles. “Interesting you mention the word, trust, when I’m leaving this place because no one can be trusted. Actually, Gil can be trusted. I guess I was wrong about no one. You, I trust. Why? Because maybe trusting you gives me the slightest hope for the future. I’m also convinced that if you put your mind to the task, you have the talent to succeed. We can have a mutually beneficial arrangement.”

318 “I’ll have to talk to my dad and see what he thinks,” Megan says and points to Victor, whose wheelchair Gil is pushing. “What up guys,” Victor says. “You seem real excited.” “Andy wants me to take over his store so he can move to Parismina,” Megan says. Victor does a double take. “Excuse me?” “Allow me,” Andy says to Megan, and then smiles at Victor. “It’s all quite simple, and I say simple only because your daughter is an exceptional technophobe, and I mean that in the nicest terms.” Victor shrugs at Gil. “Help me. I always had a problem understanding him.” Gil rolls his eyes. “I’ll do my best. Andy, what the fuck are you talking about?” Andy takes a deep breath, and proceeds to outline his plan. The lease on the store and the invoices on the merchandise will remain in his name, while Megan will manage the store. Every month, she will send Andy one thousand dollars—more than enough for an opulent lifestyle in the Caribbean village he intends to reside in. Providing Megan is a good salesperson, which he is highly certain she is, the store can bring in about four thousand a month, enough for her, even after sending him money, to support herself. Communicating via the internet, they can discuss inventory, while Megan deposits the revenue needed to buy new products. Andy concludes by saying, “And if after a year, all’s well, she can take over the lease and accounts, because she’ll be eighteen, though she may need a co-signer.” “And what if all’s not well?” Victor asks. Andy raises his arms. “No harm, no foul, but it won’t happen.” “Why are you so sure?” Gil asks.

319 Andy’s eyes are steady and serious. “My karmic cup hath runneth over,” and points to the heavens. “It’s payback time from the big guy.” “I see,” Gil says, and is reminded of Westbrook, the cleaner, and his comment while they sat on the beach. “Cause God wouldn’t put me through all this shit just for the hell of it.” “What do you think, dad?” the teenager asks. “Back at you, daughter. What do you think?” “I think I can do it.” “Fair enough, but can you do it well?” Silence lingers around the table while the three men—a spiritually reformed crippled landscaper, a traumatized geeky pothead, and an ambivalent recovering alcoholic copyeditor, eye the redheaded expectant mother, who nods and says, “Yes I can.” More silence persists until Victor entwines his fingers and says, “I can see how the convergence can work.” Gil chuckles. “You stepped in what?” Megan laughs. “Dad, you surprise me with your verbal flourishes.” “Convergence is a good way to look at it,” Andy says. Gil pouts. “So now Andy will split and I have to live alone or find new roommates.” “Or meet a new girlfriend,” Andy says. Gil emphatically shakes his head. “I’m waiting for Rachel.” “Good choice,” says Victor. “Can I suggest a group hug for old times sake?” Andy knits his brow at Gil, who shrugs his shoulders and says, “Whatever.”

320 Victor opens his long arms. “I’m waiting.” * * *

“Hello mates and welcome back to the show. I’m Rick Perry and you’re not, haha, so you’re gonna have to live with the fact that I get laid more than you do, make more money than you do, and, in general, live an adventurous and fascinating life you can only imagine could be yours. Dream on, baby, dream that American Dream for as long as you can, cause that dream may not last for too long. I’ll be honest with you mates, or as John McCain says, ‘my friends.’ I love America. Hell, come spend an afternoon on the East End with yours truly, and you’ll see why no one is a bigger American patriot than Rick Perry. With that said, I ask you: who is a patriot? Now, some of you confuse non-patriotic with one critical of government. If he protests, you say, than he doesn’t love his country. Well, to you I say that you need a red-hot poker shoved up your arse. Love of country, mates, transcends government and administrations. Love of country is love of its people not its leaders. For instance: would I sob if someone took out Her Royal Highness? No. Does that mean I’m not an English patriot? Hog Washington! Cause if you ask me, that whole King-Queen-royalty crap is outdated and quite stupid. Mind you, in olden days I would be swiftly decapitated if I spoke such heresy, so we’ve come along some, we’ve come to America, where a poor, uneducated and uncivilized bloke such as me, myself and I, can rise to prominence because of his British accent, his ability to sell Doritos, and his intimate and sometimes humorous observations of and on male sophomoric sexuality. Hooray for me! Let me be clear. No one is more grateful than me when it comes to appreciating the human promise in America and its inexplicable

321 ways. Now, after circling my patriotic wagon to the point of exhaustion, I say, for the first time for the whole world to hear. Bring back each and every bloody American troop from Iraq. Not in two years and not in one, but today. And don’t do Bush—we stand down when the Iraqis stand up. Don’t do McCain—we stay for one-hundred years, like Korea and Germany. Don’t do Hilary—I want the troops out but need to consult the generals. And don’t do Obama—we must be careful getting out as we were careless getting in. Just start today, this very moment, and end this stupid, imperialist nightmare. As you can hear, I’m quite irate. Want to know why? I’ll tell you. A friend of mine got shot a while back, by some gang banger in the parking lot of some motel. He’ll never walk again. One bullet is all it took, two-inches of penis-shaped steel. And it got me thinking about the moms whose boys are dead, or who are in wheelchairs for life, or have brain injuries so bad they can’t take a pee on their own…and mates….there are so many of them, ten of thousands, who are suffering while you and I drink our lattes and complain about not getting to second base with the bird we spent a hundred bucks wining and dining. Bad. Let’s get our heads out of our arse and bring the troops home. So here’s the website: Rick hates war dot com. Me pop would be proud of me becoming an activist. I bet he’s smiling down from heaven. Okay mates, time to sell Doritos, but I’m not done. My crusade has only just begun. Back at you in two and two.”

Gil chuckles and turns off the 108.9 internet audio stream on his computer. Like many others, Rick Perry has won Gil’s sponsorship of his radio show. Lately, it has become his habit to listen to the show online while reading his emails, sometimes, even while editing an article, though doing so is also distracting. Rick Perry has become a

322 catalyst in Gil’s life, the get-together at his estate serving as the last union of the three inhabitants of 2420 Ruby Lane. Six weeks had passed since that sunny afternoon, with only one brief email from Rachel saying she’s taking a train ride from Berlin to Shanghai, a ride that will whisk her across the Asian Continent, and that she will not be in touch for a while. Trying to see the glass half full, Gil decides that Rachel’s movement eastward will ultimately lead her back to California. Whether her doing so is good for him…he doesn’t know and tries, many times successfully, not to obsess about. In the interim, the crinkled sheet of paper outlining his sobriety regimen is secured to the refrigerator door with a flower shaped magnet. The struggle has eased. His concentration has improved. He finds the idea of ‘one day at a time’—the mantra at the center of AA philosophy, as one that applies to other spiritual venues aside from sobriety, for, the moment is all he has, past and present only memory and fantasy. So he runs and reads, works and eats, sleeps and breathes, and tries to pay attention to the life found in a tree. Through the window above his desk, he observes life continue its eternal dance through the innocent, wonder-filled eyes of toddlers, their laughter and weeping, their cumbersome bodies navigating gravity, their timeless soul settling into flesh—the finite form through which it must, for a while, learn to survive. Why has creation taken so much time and pain-staking effort to chisel away and create man, he wonders, and has no answer, the slippery ambiguity of his agnosticism unable to solve the riddle of life. Even so, he isn’t cynical, rather, he appreciates what is—a creative tapestry beautiful and cruel beyond any poetic elegance.

323 A week had passed since he took Andy to the airport, where his friend boarded a Continental flight to San Jose, Costa Rica, and two days had passed since he received an email from Andy saying he’d rented an austere cabin five hundred yards from the beach, and that he will send pics soon. Gil is relieved. The fear he had about Andy losing his mind turned out to be unfounded. Though clearly traumatized by his incarceration, evident in vocal nightmares, Andy was also transformed in positive ways, mainly an inner confidence he hadn’t exhibited in the past. “I always thought I was a little crazy about my conspiracy theories,” he told Gil. “So it made my life a little spooky, like I believed in what I preached but couldn’t be onehundred-percent sure. Now I am, and that validates my, so called, paranoid delusions. I am more myself than ever before, in a good way. Does that make sense?” Gil replied that it made sense, but said so only because he wanted Andy to feel secure. Gil believes that hadn’t Andy dwelled incessantly on his fear and loathing of government, he wouldn’t have created the eventual hardship he had suffered through. Our thoughts are potent sources of energy, not abstract inconsequential forces, and our thoughts eventually take shape in our daily life. Proof of that lay in the fact Gil wasn’t arrested and tortured because he was innocent and posed no threat. That said, he strongly objects to how Andy was treated, but, somewhere, somehow, maybe his friend yearned to be arrested. And, as Victor had mentioned: sometimes bad leads to good. Gil is convinced that Andy will be happier in Parismina, and that if he hadn’t been pushed to the limit, he wouldn’t have decided to move there, where he belongs. Look on the bright side: for the

324 remainder of his life, Andy will be content, healthier, and, God willing in her infinite power, will hook up with a well-tempered local woman who could open up his erogenous horizons.

Gil visited with Victor once. The man’s transformation confounds him—the perpetual smile, soft tone of voice, steady eyes, the renunciation of hedonistic earthly pleasures. To someone who hadn’t known Victor before the shooting, the man appears sagely, like a Zen teacher sitting on a bed of nails at the entrance of his Himalayan cave, and who people from around the globe pilgrimage to consult in search of wisdom and serenity. For Gil, the sensation of spending time with Victor was eerie. He misses the combative ex-Marine, the excessive drinker, the hard working sexual compulsive whose anger propelled his energetic and debauchery-filled life. True, that man was cantankerous and sometimes belligerent, but there was an identity about him, an authenticity, which, Gil believes, is missing in Victor’s stoic spiritual reincarnation. He sadly contributes Victor’s state of mind to trauma caused by the injury, and to psychological denial triggered to help the man whose once active life had been shattered by a bullet. He suspects that their association, which, though mostly friendly, was never intimate, will fade with time. Gil wonders why, as he did in Andy’s case, he can’t allow Victor the benefit of the doubt when dealing with the ‘good from bad’ paradigm. After all, why is Andy’s

325 incarceration and torture a gateway to happiness, while Victor’s injury remains a road to delusional nirvana? Gil has no answer to that question. All he has is gut level intuition.

Gil is sitting at his desk watching a boy with a Stetson hat ride the stationary train, when the postman walks by and deposits a few articles of mail in his mailbox. The hope of a postcard from Rachel very dim in his heart, Gil nonetheless walks outside to fetch the mail. A warm breeze ruffles the eucalyptus trees; the chatter of Hispanic nannies rides the wind; a sobbing girl runs to be comforted by her mother; a couple of teenagers in love recline on the grass; the sound of tennis rackets thwacking balls travels from the courts. He reaches into the mailbox, takes out the mail, and sees the postcard of a lighthouse perched on a cliff over a sea.

Dear Gil, The train ride across Asia was amazing. It was important for me to see how different life is in places like Uzbekistan, but that all people are basically the same. This is good for me. I am now in Byron Bay, Australia. It is the most eastern part of the continent. The lighthouse in the postcard was built in 1901. I rented a cabin and will stay here for a month. From all the places I traveled to, this one feels most like home. It is a small town, with a gorgeous beach, and everyone is genuinely nice. Love, Rachel.

326 Gil sits at his desk and reads the postcard again, and again, and three more times after that. As he is reading and soon memorizing every word, he feels a tingle in his scalp, like it’s ever so slightly separated from his head and hovering, vibrating, above him. He then hears gentle thumping in his ears—his heart beating quickly and forcefully inside his temples. He sets the postcard on the desk. For long moments, he stares out the window and listens to his heart beating, to his breathing, to the tapping of his foot on the hardwood floor. His mind circles the change taking place, one he finds hard to believe in…still…for the first time, a shade of reality has crept into Rachel’s ambiguous correspondence. What shall he do? He struggles with that question while his fingers are already typing an internet destination and his right hand is clicking the computer mouse….

At six in the evening, Gil is sitting at his desk when the blue airport shuttle drives up to 2420 Ruby Lane and honks its horn. He takes hold of the suitcase by his feet, steps outside, and locks the front door. He enters the back of the van, nods hello to the driver and says, “International terminal, Qantas.” As the airport shuttle turns the corner, Gil looks over his shoulder. His home, shutters closed, willow tree’s long braches sagging over its roof, appears lonely and sad, ready to shed tears, but Gil knows that the house on 2420 Ruby Lane is resilient—it will survive summer’s heat and winter’s cold and patiently wait for the master to enter and swing open its windows and let in the evening breeze and the laughter of children at play.

The End

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