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Exquisite Corpse - A Journal of Letters and Life

Mooch (Continued from Cybercorpse #10)
by Dan Fante ||
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If you are getting the feeling that Bruno's life is about to explode, you might be right. He's just found out that the woman he loves has a son - a genius chatterbox, and that she doesn't give a damn for anything other than her next hit of crack. So, let's see what happens...

Chapter 14

Numb, my mind nearly sober from seeing Jimmi, the sneering voice of my dead brother ranting behind my eyes, I needed escape. Relief. My Chrysler was heading back toward the Prince Carlos when I chose to change directions. To just go.
     Years before in New York, as a cabbie, I had discovered driving as an escape. Late at night I'd learned to rescue myself from my depressions by rolling through the empty streets of Manhattan, alone, listening to the humming of the tires, hour after hour. Drifting. Safe. Solutions had come easily. Ideas. Poems.
     I needed that again.
     Taking the 5 Freeway into the 10, I headed east instead of toward the ocean, San Bernardino - stopping only for two quarts of Stoli at a 2 a.m. liquor store. Fifty miles later, at the base of the mountains, I caught the off ramp to the 15, up the hill toward Hesperia and Baker and Barstow, in the direction of Death Valley and Las Vegas, the openness of the wide Mojave Desert.
      Hours later, deep into the murky hills, my brain felt comfortable. In front of me, a dotted line of headlights extended fifty miles onto the flat desert. A pure black night, stars popping above me like a billion sparks bursting at the same time.
      When the rim of the sky began turning pink, I decided to pull off on a dirt road and watch the sun come up, then head back toward L.A.
     A few hundred yards into the sand, with the main highway behind me, far enough out of sight, I rolled to a stop then put the car's windows down to let in the chilled desert air. There was half a bottle of vodka left on the seat. After taking a dozen long hits, I clicked the headlight switch off and killed the engine. I lit a cigarette and smoked it. No ghosts. Only stillness. Not the roof of a house nor the eyes of a face. Nothing. Immense, undisturbed, raw space. Perfect quiet.
      I found paper and a pen in my glove compartment. An old order book from my vacuum job. I began a new letter on the back of one of the carbon pages. "Jimmi," it started, "I stole from you tonight. A pair of your panties. I found them on the floor by your bed and stuffed them into my pocket when you weren't looking. I will never give them back. I will lick them and smell them and keep them in my pocket and never return them. When I die, they will be cremated in my coffin with me. I stole a lipstick from your desk at Orbit too. I'm keeping it. I love you, Jimmi. I can't help it or stop it. I have not ever felt this way about any woman before. When you breathe, I breathe. When you drink water or wash your hands, I am there with you. I came to you tonight knowing you do not understand or care at all for me. That is why I left you. You are beautiful and you are mine and what has happened between us has left a magic that has changed my life forever. I will love you, Jimmi. Your boy too. Your wonderful son. I love him too. We will be together. Bruno."
It was dawn. I was okay. I folded the letter up and stuffed it in the pocket with her underpants. Then I closed my eyes.

*   *   *

When I woke up, I was sheathed in sweat, convulsing and twitching. My first impulse was panic. Clearing my vision, I looked around. Great squiggly waves of incinerating heat were out every window, like huge, dancing, transparent snakes hovering above the weird landscape. My head was pounding, and a sour taste began swelling and choking my throat. I reached for my Stoli and took a hit. It didn't help. Something was wrong. It was a sickness. A terrible demon had taken possession of my guts and flesh.
      Reaching for the key to start the Chrysler, pulling my body upright in the seat, I badly scorched my hands on the car's flame-temperature steering wheel. Wave after wave of the shakes hit. Convulsing, I could only wait for it to pass. Finally, when I could, I twisted the ignition key to the right. The car started.
      Now I was shivering. Dizzy. I got the windows up, then clicked on the A/C. Air began coming out - a tepid, weak stream - like blowing at a volcano. But it was something.
     When I flipped the car's chrome shifter down into "D", the wheels lurched forward, then stopped. I was light-headed, beginning to pass out. In retaliation, I punched the gas pedal. It accomplished nothing. The tires spun, and I felt the car sink deeper in the sand.
      A new wave of the shudders hit. Out of control, I felt myself shit my pants. My mind, disconnected - off somewhere watching - gave me one last oracular message: I was going to die. Right here. A sick, decomposing hog. This was hell.

When I came too, the car was cooler, my breathing easier. Five minutes might have passed or half an hour. Somewhere I heard thudding. Pounding. A person - a body - was at my driver's window. A cop or my final death vision. The thing was yelling through the inferno of heat, but there was no sound reaching me. A cowboy hat. Sunglasses. A tan uniform and a gold badge. I tried to talk back, but my mouth was too dry.
     "Zurg," the cop voice yelled. Now I could heard it. "Zurg! Egofo, Zurg!" the noise insisted. "Egofo ug wagga donnn...Groll jurr winnnerr down...Zurg!" I found the crank handle, then lowered the glass.
      The cop removed his hat and shades so he could lean in. A huge head, drenched in sweat. Big, distorted, eyes. Horse eyes. A crushed red pepper for a nose. "Dug fallow dar muter stoff, zurg."
      I understood. My brain decoded the words. I reached the ignition to shut the car off. But the action was crazy. With the engine off there would be no more cool air. Why would I want that? I yelled back: "No. No fucking way!"
      "Zurg," the cop demanded, "Nift you doll chadd zur aggin stoff ug fallow gule der motor."
      "No" I yowled, now believing myself to truly be hallucinating, clumsily attempting to roll the glass up.
      But the cop was passed arguing. A brown, sweaty sleeve reached across me and turned my motor off. "Sir, I'm the Highway Patrol. It's a-hundred-and-twenty-two degrees out here. Do what I tell you."

*   *   *

The tow truck driver, a strange desert inmate-looking fuck in rock-star mirror sunglasses and a turned-around Dodger's cap, arrived and charged me $91.67 to spray something on my motor to cool it down then haul and pull my Chrysler by cable back to the main road. The guy talked to himself the whole time while he was hooking my car up. Me standing in the sun, watching, terrified - needing a drink - experiencing near-death.
      After the crazy man took my money, he counted it three times slowly, stacking the bills on the scalding hood of his truck.
      The CHP cop, Officer Essmann, was an okay guy. He gave me a quart of hot drinking water in plastic from the trunk of his black and white, then let me sit in the air-conditioned passenger seat of his cop car until my body temperature lowered and I could stop trembling. As a taxpayer courtesy, he ignored the smell of the drying shit in my pants and let me know by not bringing the subject up, that he was choosing to avoid writing me a ticket for the empty vodka bottle on my front seat.
      Essmann stayed in my rear view mirror for several miles down Route 15 until I pulled off into a rest area to clean up. I watched his cop car disappear into the wavy Mojave furnace.
      After washing myself and soaking my head under the faucet in the bathroom, I lit a cigarette and checked my pants' pockets. Seventeen dollars. My Chrysler had only a quarter tank of gas to get me the two-hundred miles back to L.A. Not nearly enough. But not having gas money was trivial. I needed a drink. My stomach was beginning to spasm and cramp from alcohol deficiency. Back at the sink I sucked in as much cold tap water as I could stand, filling my stomach. It helped. Then I got back in the Chrysler, hit the A/C button, and headed west. The first green highway sign I came to read SAN BERNARDINO - 189 MILES.
      Approaching Barstow, my fuel gauge showed just above 'E.' I was beginning to get the fly-aways and more severe, jabbing, stomach cramps. My body began trembling and convulsing. I had to pull off.
      At the bottom of the exit ramp, like a snake carcass in the dust, was an 'L' shaped shopping center, a pizza place, a gas station, and a Thrifty Drug Store. Beyond Thrifty's was a tractor dealer with a giant yellow and green two-story sign: Duke's Killer Tillers. On top of Duke's sign, a clock/thermometer reported the only meaningful news in the desert mall: 1:37 P.M., 119 DEGREES.
      While I waited for a shaking spasm to subside, my brain assembled a frantic scheme. To make it work all I needed was a drinking cup.
      Pulling up to a parking space in front of the pizza restaurant, I cut the engine and the air conditioning. Through the windows I could see two or three customers eating lunch on the enclosed patio. Opening the car door, I sucked in my breath, and stepped into the volcanic heat.
      Just inside, at the first empty table, I found what I needed: a used, tall, waxed soft-drink cup with Mendoza's Pizzeria stamped on the side. A red straw was sticking up through the plastic lid. Grabbing the cup, I walked out.
      Across the parking lot, staying in the shade of the mall roof as I walked, I made it to Thrifty's. My gut spasming and cramping was now constant.
      The big drug/department store was cool inside. Wonderful. Only one cashier and a handfull of customers. I pushed my damp hair back and tucked in my shirt.
      Empty pizza-drink cup in hand, impersonating a nonchalant shopper, I made my way to the liquor department. Next to a vodka display, after making sure no one was watching, I unscrewed the cap on a half-gallon jug of Smirnoff from the back row. Then, holding the fat bottle beneath eye level of the liquor rack, I tipped it down until my cup was filled. 16 ounces of clear joy juice. I spun the cap back on and returned the decanter to it's empty slot. As I walked away, even before I had the straw to my mouth, even before my first hit, a felt a wave of peace soothe my body, like a kiss from God.
      For a long while I was content to roam the store's aisles, sucking back deep wallops through my straw as I went. Making the rounds of the different departments.
      Always a fan of clever display advertising, I paused to admire a nifty five-foot-high fold-out of an actress's parted red lips in the makeup/perfume area. My brain envisioned the size of a cut-out erect cock for a compatible exhibit.
      Greeting cards were next. Cleaning products. Microwave ovens and counter-top appliances.
      A realization came. An intimate anthropological understanding. Everything important in life could be found at Thrifty's. Everything. If one never left - a person could spend the rest of their life going from store to store in the vast California chain operation. All Thrifty outlets had a paperback best-seller section and were uniformly climate controlled.
      Arriving at SOFT DRINKS, I realized that I was more than half way down on my cup. Working up a very good buzz.
      It was time to make a health decision. Opening the glass stand-up cooler, I popped the top on a can in a six pack of Schwepp's Tonic Water, then splashed in a few ounces with my vodka. Sweet bubbles to help soothe my troubled digestive tract. I slid the can back in its place with the others and let the glass door hiss closed.
      From behind me I heard someone clearing his throat.
      Turning, I saw a person, a man. He was planted several feet away near a lightbulb display, observing me. A rat-faced little fuck in khaki work clothes, a carton of Benson & Hedges Menthol Lights tucked under his arm. The logo on his shirt pocket read: DUKE'S KILLER TILLERS.
      He stepped closer. "You going to buy that 6-pack of soda, buster?" he inquired angrily.
      "What?" I said, self-assured, my hand empty except for the Mendoza's Pizza drink cup. "Are you speaking to me?"
     "Don't lie. You just poured from that can of soda. Then you put it back. I seen you."
     "I believe you're mistaken."
      This further pissed him off. He scanned me up and down, then marched up to a foot from my chest. I was now able to make out the name sewn in smaller script above the DUKE'S KILLER TILLERS logo on his shirt. This was Duke himself. "My ass!" he sneered. "I been observing you. The manager of this store, Ray, is a friend of mine. A good man. A straight shooter. Around here, we look out for eachother"
      "How swell for you," says I, a little goofy from my vodka. "I'd wager that you and Ray have OBSERVED your share of serial killers and Shiite terrorist suspects prowling around the Arco Station or that pizza joint across the parking lot."
      Duke let his carton of cigarettes drop to the floor. He was ready for action. "There's two ways we can do this, buster...The first way is the easy way. I'll ask you for the last time: Are you going to purchase that 6-pack of Schweppe's?"
      I took a long, slow hit from my straw. I was bigger than Duke, but I wasn't ready to have an episode of tactical stupidity come between me and a return visit to the liquor department. "Okay Duke, you win," I confessed. "I made a mistake. I'll buy the goddamn soda...when I'm done shopping, okay?"
      Duke pushed past me to open the cooler. He yanked the rest of the torn-open 6-pack off the shelf. "You're done shopping NOW, asshole. We're going to the check out-counter NOW."
      In for a penny, in for a pound.
      Making our way up the aisle to the register, Duke stayed behind me emitting audible whiffs and rodent-type snorts. I deduced that the smell of the dried shit in my pants had come to his attention.
      At the cashier, he dropped my stuff on the rotating counter, then made an announcement loud enough to be heard in PAPER PRODUCTS. "This CUSTOMER here would like to purchase a six-pack of Schwepp's Tonic Soda."
      "Tonic water, Duke," I corrected.
      He grabbed me under the arm. "Time to show the color of your cash, smart guy."
      The register girl wasn't sure what was up but scanned my item anyway. Two ninety-seven.
      I paid.
      Toting my plastic Thrifty's bag in his hand, Duke followed me through the automatic doors out into the blazing desert. "Where you parked, buster?"
      The sudden combination of heat with the vodka had me reeling. The best I could do was gesture across the asphalt.
      Duke handed me my bag of tonic water. "Don't come back around here. Next time I'll call in the law. Do we understand each other?"
      Although leaning against a pillar, I was able to salute Duke. Like one I'd seen in a Demi Moore movie about Navy skin divers. "Say it loud," I yelled, clicking my heels, "I'm black. I'm proud."
      I could feel his eyes on me as I shuffled across to my Chrysler.

Starting the car, I backed out then rolled down to the Arco Station at the end of the mall. While I was pumping the gas in my car - my last fourteen bucks - I glanced across a couple of times at the showroom window of Duke's Killer Tillers. There, through the glass, stood the midget proprietor, the rat-snouted protector of Barstow, glaring, observing me.
      I decided to stall. First, I took my time wiping my windows with an available paper towel, then I went from car door to car door shaking out the filthy floor mats. That done, I emptied the ash tray. I even tried to check the engine oil for the first time since my mother had given me the car. It took a full minute to isolate the whereabouts of the dip stick. There, with the hood still up, I stole another peek at the tractor showroom window. Duke was involved with two customers wearing work clothes.
      I didn't hesitate. Slamming the hood closed, I fired up the Chrysler, then whipped around out of sight behind the Arco to a parking space by the coin-op bathrooms.
      Mendoza's Pizzeria drinking cup in hand, staying at an angle to Duke's window, walking in the shade, I hurried back to the entrance to Thrifty's.
      Inside, I was re-embraced by the cool sanctity of the store. When the girl cashier spotted me, she appeared surprised. I waved. A public relations gesture. "Forgot something," I called out, grinning happily. She smiled back, and I headed for the liquor department.
      It took only a few seconds to pour my vodka refill, then push the 1/2 gallon jug back into its place on the shelf. On my way out, sucking at my straw, I yelled, "Stay cool, y'all," to the cashieress." She responded, a perky institutional reply; "Thank you, sir. You have a good day, now."

On my way back to L.A, Route 15 West was nearly empty. Safely numb again, an old Jimmy Reed tune came on FM, "You Got Me Runnin'."
      I hit the gas pedal. Fuck it. I hadn't been over 120 miles an hour in years. This was fun.

Chapter 15

Standing at my P.O. Box, I read the return address on the envelope. Orbit Computer Products. A window envelope. I tore it open immediately and found a check inside. The shock of seeing the numbers was like the sudden sweetness of blended whiskey; $311.00. Four of my printer ribbon orders had been paid after deferred shipments. I was rich.
      I dug in my pocket for coins. I wanted to call someone. Celebrate. Then I remembered. In my wallet I found Cynthia's number. Thinking of her fat tits, I dialed. With Cin I could drink and get drunk and pretend to forget about Jimmi and act like a writer. I'd bring a bottle and we'd talk about books and politics. And fuck. I had used her before, and now I would do it again.
      I began dialing, but as I did her smell came back to me. The sadness. How it coated the walls and clung to her bookshelves like Egyptian dust. A needy, forlorn deaf creature living in a house on stilts. We were alike: two cripples with books in common. She'd be glad I called. We deserved each other. It didn't matter that she was old. I'd use anyone. People in line at the 7-11. Anyone.
      The phone rang six times, then a machine answered. Cin was gone, the message said, back to Australia. A vacation. Her antiseptic voice reported her absence and brought back the melancholy in her face. Two months in Byron Bay. A friend named Kim, her message said, would be house-sitting in Laurel Canyon.
      I tore the paper up that held the number, then flung the pieces into the air.
      On my way back to the motel, after cashing my check and stopping at the market, I went by the pawn shop on Washington Boulevard. Jonathan Dante's typewriter had brought eleven bucks in hock. The guy remembered me. I paid him and got my typwriter back.
      I was half drunk again, so we engaged in affable consumer-type conversation. Trying to think of something to keep him going, I confided that my ship had come in. I was on a shopping spree. I yakked on like a fool, willing to say any type of nonsense to keep myself from returning to an empty motel room. To prove I was newly rich, I started spending. A thick harmonica gleamed in its velvet case. A collector's item, he said. A real investment. He was lying but I didn't care. I proclaimed my love of blues music and said it was time I learned to play an instrument. Forty-nine-ninety-five. I shelled out more cash from my roll of bills.
      We talked as I went from shelf to shelf examining his merchandise. I tried on rings and a gold bracelet and a withered leather bomber jacket. On the shelf with his stereo stuff was a CD/Tape player with a box of CD's. A package deal. Another forty-five dollars for everything. Dinah Washington and Ray Charles. Early Sinatra. I took it all. An hour later he helped me haul the stuff out to my car.

*   *   *

Now there was banging.
      Squinting, looking around, objects began appearing in strange color streams. One color was shit beige - the shade of my room's walls, the floor - but the other colors were new. Brown. Black. Crazy red too. Disney red. Everywhere. I closed my eyes.
      More banging.
      I was woozy from the wine I'd been drinking. Mad Dog 20-20. Weak too. Tired and terribly weak.
      I looked again. The light beneath the blinds told me it was day again.
      More loud knocking. Again and again and again. Finally, fully conscious, I yelled, "Okay! Jesus! Fuck! Okay!...Whoizzit?"
      "Diega...The day man-eye-yer."
      I swung the door open and went blind from the daylight. "Okay - What's up?"
      "Jou hab a kall...a womeng. Chee says emergencee. Chee says to tell you..." Then - a look of horror in her eyes - "MY GOW!! WHA HOPPENG?..."
      Diega was holding her mouth, stepping back in shock.
      My eyes followed her eyes down to my arm. Blood. Soaking my pants, my shirt.
      Looking around, the floor was red too. The bed too. Red and dark brown. Everywhere. Red was dripping from my arm while I stood at the door. My blood.

*   *   *

51/50 is what the L.A. police call it. "ATTEMPTED SUICIDE -DANGER TO YOURSELF AND OTHERS," is the charge. Diega, hysterical, began knocking on doors up and down the hall, dashing about - sure that I was about to die - which I was not. Finally, her fat ponytail Cochise-looking boyfriend, Miguel, back in the office muted the TV, got off his ass, and dialed 911.
      There was half of an empty gallon of Mad Dog on the floor by my bed. My enemy; sweet wine. Knowing the police were arriving, I chugged what was left in the bottle, hoping that the stuff would stay down.
      Blue men began coming into my room. Sirens. I swapped my bloody shirt for another one and held a bathroom towel against my arm. Several of my motel neighbors peeked in from the hallway. People I didn't know. Then the paramedics.
      Diega was worse off than me. Crying. Yelling shit at fat Miguel in Spanish. One of the medics advised her to go home and eat a tranquilizer.
      Twenty minutes later I sat on my bed watching cops shuffling around, picking stuff up, moving stuff, looking through my shit in the hope, I assumed, of finding dope and contraband. There is an immutable law that wherever cops congregate, more cops must join in. Thoroughness is a watchword in law enforcement.
      A paramedic gauzed my arm and taped it, then gave me an injection. Then, just before they took me out, under The Demon, my Hubert Selby novel on the nightstand, I found a note. I had written it sometime in the night, in the blackout. The note was to Jimmi.

First I went to the County USC Emergency Room and was put on a gurney. The two policemen who followed the ambulance told me the charges again: 51/50. Danger To Myself And Others. I was made to sign a report.
      My cuts were deep, not across, but up and down my wrist. But the bleeding had mostly clotted and stopped.
      A guy near me, sitting on a chair in the ER waiting area, was named Marvell. A thug. A Crip gang member. When the nurse left the room and we were alone, we talked. He asked about my cuts. Marvell was on some kind of meds they had given him, but he was communicating okay, just slowly. He had arrived in the middle of the night. A drug OD. They had pumped his stomach, and now he was waiting for transfer. Crack and Dalmane. Marvell's next stop was to be the Forensic Unit at the Twin Towers County Jail - the whack ward where they collect all 51/50's. According to Marvell, who knew of such things, attempted suicides in L.A., like him and me, are sent to lock-down for a mandatory eleven day hold and evaluation. A legal requirement.
      I have been confined to jail nut wards before. Mostly in New York. These are terrible places: airless and small, one-room, cells. At first you are tied to a bed. The bed is bolted to the floor. There is only one window, and it is in the door. Glass with a chickenwire center. A slot beneath the window is for food and meds. The stench of shit and puke and disinfectant is everywhere. The crazies in whack-wards scream constantly, twenty-four, seven. Everyone is medicated to keep them acquiescent, but still the screaming goes on non-stop. I wanted no part of the whack ward at Twin Towers Jail.
      I asked Marvell if he knew of any way to beat the mandatory 11-day confinement deal. It took his face half a minute to take in the question, then answer. "Got priors in L.A.?" he said. "You got a jacket?"
      "Nothing in California."
      "Okay...just one arm....might-could-be...an accident. What papers...you sign?"
      "Nothing. Just the cop's police report."
      "Okay, don't say...admit...nothin'. By law...they got to let you out. Stitch you...let you out...the law...izza law, my man. Hole you till you sobers up - 'n cut chu loose."
My doctor came in. Doctor Cortez. He examined my arm. Then a Filipino nurse with a mustache wheeled me to a stitch room, out the door passed where the cops were waiting, to where I was examined and x-rayed and stitched. The pictures showed I was okay, no ligaments cut or tendon damage. They sewed me up and taped my arm. Three cuts - eighteen sutures.
      When I returned to the ER waiting area, Marvell was gone. Doctor Cortez had already filled out the 51/50 confinement form, and the police were waiting for me to sign it so they could leave. ATTEMPTED SUICIDE was checked.
      I refused the clipboard.

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

*   *   *

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

There were nineteen men in my jail pod. Many more came and went in the short time I was there. The Twin Towers jail has one centrally-located mirrored glass sheriff's position watching each floor of inmates. Sometimes hundreds of men. The place is huge. I found out that L.A. has the largest jail in the world.
      My body was withdrawing from alcohol. Shaking violently, I spent most of the next ten hours puking into a seatless, stainless steel shitter. In the middle of the night, one of the 'brothers' got involved in a game of toss-my-salad with a bald, ex-school teacher from El Segundo, while two of his bunkmates kept watch. Salad-tossing is a jailhouse amusement where the 'volunteer' is made to lick food - popcorn or peanuts - out of another man's asshole, then suck his cock. The cum is the salad dressing.
      The bald teacher from El Segundo was punched in the head many times until he had licked all the blood and salad dressing off the jail's concrete floor.

The next morning at dawn - 5:15 a.m. - the owner of Orbit Computer Products himself appeared. Not Doc Franklin or Frankie Freebase or one of the company's admin flunkies. I nearly crashed into Kammegian as I was walking, head down, coming through the one-way hissing double-door exit. The big man stood in the middle of the hallway like a cement post, his thick neck stuffed inside a two thousand dollar attorney-looking pinstriped suit.
      At my jail release, I signed for my clothes and was also given a bill for hospital services: stitches, blood tests and X-rays, and the examination. $1,471.00
      On the freeway ride back to Kammegian's house in Santa Monica Canyon, my withdrawals were still extreme. Constant tremors and stomach cramps. Eddy K. kept silent the whole way.
      Upstairs in back of his house, above the garage, was a converted weightroom/studio apartment. Unlocking the door, Kammegian pushed it open with his foot. A big, open room, musty and chilled in the early-morning light. But anything was better than where I had been. There was an exercise machine, a futon bed, a bathroom and shower, a microwave oven, stained carpet, and a black dial phone with a metal lock to prevent his guests from making outgoing calls.
      Kammegian tugged open a casement window, then sucked in a mouthful of clean air. "Shake it out, Dante," he ordered.
      "Get some sleep."
      I nodded.
      "Feeling any better?"
      "Like death. Awful."
      "I'll bring you fresh sheets and towels and orange juice and honey and some canned food from downstairs. You'll be okay. Half a dozen men have sobered up right here on that couch."
      There was something different for me this time. Beyond the puke stink and my filthy clothes and the humiliation. I felt crushed. Old. I was sure I was done. I tried to tell Kammegian. To say the words. "I'm okay," I said, my body rattling badly, making my way to the couch, easing myself down. "I'm ready. I mean it. I want you to understand - I really mean it."
      For the first time, as people, we connected. Big-necked Kammegian folded his arms across his chest. "I believe you. When a man says he's ready, I'll do whatever I can."
      "Can I have my job back?"
      "You tell me something. Tell me what you think the difference is between us - you and me?"
      Out of answers, I shook my head. "No idea."
      "Faith is the difference. Willingness and belief. Other than that, we're exactly alike."
      "Look, I'm ready. That's all I know."
      "An alcoholic has to be desperate in order to recover. Pain is the key. Your pain is the beginning of change. Faith follows the pain and desperation. If you really want to, one day at a time, you never have to take another drink. That's how it works."
      "I'm desperate. I know that."
      "Will you trust me? Will you do exactly as I say?"
      "Sure," I said. There was nothing left to lose. "Okay."
      "Good. Sleep now. I'll send someone from the office to your motel to pick up your clothes. In a couple of days when you're better, you'll start riding to work with me. Call Liquorstore Dave. Tell Dave I'm your boss again - and your new AA sponsor. Questions?"
      I didn't have any. "Thank you," I said.
      From a desk drawer, Kammegian pulled a yellow legal pad, a pen, and The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. "Direction number one: read this, the first one hundred sixty-four pages. Then write about Step 1, what you think being powerless over alcohol is, what an unmanageable life is."
      I hated the fucking AA Big Book. I'd read it three different times cover to cover, studied it in endless group sessions in half a dozen different recovery programs. The story of Bill Wilson's Jesus conversion from bourbon whiskey after sobering up in a nut ward seventy years ago. Trite. Arcane, hackneyed bunk. The manifesto of an unemployed, busted-out, egomaniac stockbroker. But shivering now, looking up at Eddy Kammegian, there were no no's left in my mouth. "You'll have it tomorrow," I said.
      On the floor at the end of the bed was an ugly green plastic waste basket. The big man yanked the liner bag out, then kicked it toward me. "Puke in that," he said. "And clean yourself up. You stink, Bruno. You stink like hell."

*   *   *

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

Chapter 16

The apartment was on 27th Place in Venice. Number 12A. Up a flight of brick stairs. The corner of Speedway, a hundred feet from the beach. Two bedrooms. The view was my reason for signing the lease. Great wide windows looking out at an endless Pacific Ocean.
      Thirty days after my return to work, the stitches were out and my wrist cuts were healed. On the phone I'd been selling like a man possessed, my one aim was to prove myself to Eddy Kammegian. To show him I was serious.

It was a Saturday, 7:00 a.m. My boss and Doc Franklin and eight other receiving alkie employees teamed together to help me move in to my new place. Kammegian had dubbed these guys his Orbit relocation SWAT Team.
      We converged at my new apartment building with a rented truck loaded with furniture. A king size bed and frame came from Doc's garage, along with a desk for my typewriter. The leather couch, pots and pans and dishes, and two tall oak bookcases I'd bought myself from a second-hand store on Venice Boulevard. A table and chairs were donated by Eddy's secretary, Elaine. The only unusued piece of furniture was the TV; a big 35' job. I'd put five hundred down on it. The owner of Orbit Computer Products co-signed for the balance - another thousand dollars - to help me re-establish my credit.
      With Eddy Kammegian barking orders, the whole move was done in under two hours.
      There was no bullshit in my boss. His commitment to his employees and recovery was absolute. On our way back from returning the rental truck, Doc Franklin and I talked. It was then that I finally learned Eddy's story, the beginning of Orbit Computer Products. As it turned out, Eddy K's early circumstances had been similar to my own. Just worse. Kammegian grew up, adopted, in Ghost Town in Venice, a shithole of a neighborhood, even then. By fifteen he had quit school and was hanging with bikers, sucking back brown-bag Nightrain wine. At twenty-six he began a thirty-month sentence in the slam for dealing dope. After release, on parole and jobless, is when his life changed. One morning, after a two-hour bus ride from L.A., tattooed, long-haired, Kammegian answered a phone-sales job add in The L.A. Times. A telemarketing bucket shop on Van Nuys Boulevard. Pens and pencils. No one, least of all Eddy himself, would have believed what happened. By quitting time that day, he had earned $500 in commissions. Shazam!!

When the move-in was done and the other guys were gone, me and my boss stood alone at my window above Venice Beach. This was my first apartment, by myself, in years. The phone and utilities in my name. The heat of the weekend day was already beginning to drive an inland tidal wave of cars, filled with a hundred thousand sweating bodies, toward the sea.
      In a parking lot north of my building, the first beachies were arriving. Looking down, we saw a dozen teen age Asian kids, tapping a soccer ball back and forth, make their way across the sand. Two of the guys, gang members in head bands, were carrying 40-ounce beer bottles. Already half drunk. They were arguing and pushing. Their girlfriends, wearing thong bikinis, looked on.
      Kammegian's face distorted as he took the scene in.
      He turned to me. "I want you to do something for me, Bruno," he said. "A favor. Sponsor direction."
      "Sure. What?"
      "Do you know your way to the 'Hollywood' sign, in the hills?"
      "At the top of Beachwood Canyon," I said. "Off Franklin Avenue."
      "I want you to leave now. Get in your car and drive to the 'Hollywood' sign."
      "There's a good view of Los Angeles from there. Above the freeway shootings and the porno shops on Sunset Boulevard. I want you to make a pilgrimage, Bruno. Will you do that?"
      "When you're on the road above the sign, stop your car and get out. Just stand there. Will you do what I ask?"
      "Fill your lungs and yell these words. Yell out, I will never be a fucking loser, again! Will you do that?"
      This was pure Eddy Kammegian. Symbols of self-actualization and AA recovery. I stood scratching my face. "No problem," I said.

That afternoon, hours later, after I got back to my apartment from Hollywood, I plugged in my refrigerator, opened the door, and found a note along with ten fifty-dollar bills. The money was stuck in the fly leaf of a copy of How to Master the Art of Selling by Tom Hopkins. The note read: "Bruno; your move-in bonus. I'll see you at the top!... Best wishes. Your Pal, Eddy K."
      It was five months before my fortieth birthday. No one, not my own father, or a wife, or an ex-boss or a teacher or a friend or anyone else in my life, had ever extended himself to me the way Eddy Kammegian had. I made a commitment to myself - consciously made my mind up - I would stay sober and give Orbit everything I had.

Chapter 17

The company was in the last six weeks of its annual summer contest, PARIS FOR PREDATORS. Orbit had plaques and prizes for everything, but this year's two-month Paris deal was the biggest contest ever, the monster. Kammegian had a fire house bell mounted on the sales floor and made each of his salesmen clang the thing when we wrote a fresh order. Team banners hung from the rafters. Loud, piped-in marching music came through the sales room speakers before work and at breaks. There was even a dart board with money pinned behind the balloons. You got one dart to throw if you sold two dozen or more of any product.
      First prize in the contest was a round trip for two: ten days in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. All expenses paid. Second prize was two weeks in Puerta Villarta, and third prize was a 60' TV/DVD home entertainment center.
      Orbit's top people were pushing hard to finish in the bucks. Eddy Kammegian loved the casino atmosphere. Tempers flared. Ego was king. Out of the seventy-five telemarketers in the running, the two men to beat were Frankie Freebase and Doc Franklin. Frankie was ahead with twenty-eight grand in confirmed, shipped orders. Doc was second. Judy Dunn, a pretty, ex-IBM printer division rep, was a distant third, tied with four or five other salesmen.
      Doc had won the contest three years in a row but this year the worm had turned.
      As phone guys, Frankie and Doc were opposites. Freebase was old school, like me - a relentless banger. He slurped coffee seven hours a day at his desk with the telephone glued to his ear. A bad-tempered asshole on most any occasion, contests made Frankie worse. He'd built a massive account base of one thousand active customers.
      Doc was his opposite: loose and funny, never letting himself work more than a couple of hours at a stretch without a break. In conversations in the coffee room, telling his Internet jokes, Franklin affected the voice of an FM radio jazz DJ and referred to himself as, "The Doctor of Love." Franklin was cool. Everyone liked Doc. But his real talent was a lethal ability at landing the big fish: huge orders. Having once been a data processing manager himself, he knew many of the top DP people in the industry and his account files included Orbit's five biggest customers.
      From his beginning at the company, Doc had been top gun, just beneath Kammegian himself in personal sales. Until now. And his bread and butter client for the last four years was the giant: American Farmers Insurance, with fifty-three branch offices across the country. Franklin had the DP Manager, Milton Butler, at AFI's headquarters in Denver, in his pocket, "tagged and bagged." Over time Doc had manipulated steadily-increasing orders from Butler and worked American Farmer's up to paying absurd prices for their supplies. Every August Franklin made sure that AFI's huge summer order corresponded exactly with the deadline of our company's contest. Nasty Frankie Freebase had been edged out twice.
      But things had gone sour for Doc. For the first time in a decade, AFI's annual earnings slipped. Overnight, a directive came down mandating Milt Butler to cut costs. He was ordered to drastically limit his supply orders.
      Naturally, shit rolls down hill. Butler's phone call hit "The Doctor Of Love" like a sucker punch after the bell, and he over-reacted to the setback. Too slick for his own good and determined to salvage as much of his yearly commission as possible, Franklin shot an angle and 'created' a bogus sale, introducing a new product to AFI: a second-rate generic cheepo toner cartridge our company had been buying for years from Korea. The product cost us half as much from the Asian factory, but it was junk. Doc knew this, but selling it to Butler allowed him to cut our price to American Farmers on the cartridge by 30%. The made-up sale gave Milt Butler a reason to go to his Purchasing Department with a hefty supply requisition.
      Then, everything backfired. An eight-dollar-an-hour bean counter in AFI's Vendor Control Department spotted the weight disparity between the contents of the two toner cartridges and Butler's requisition got red flagged. The DP Manager had no choice but to follow AFI's NEW PRODUCT protocol and do a test study. His department was instructed to buy samples only from us and conduct a six month comparison test. Snickering Frankie Freebase looked like a shoe-in to win the PARIS FOR PREDATORS contest.

The owner of Orbit Computer Products took the loss in revenue from American Farmers as a challenge. Kammegian thrived on overcoming shit. Any adversity. His personality was equal parts Billy Graham, Tony Robbins, and George Patton. "The Big Guy" began spending every day on the sales floor setting an example, slamming customers, opening new accounts himself, leading his troops. Within two weeks, between Kammegian's personal sales contribution and the hysteria of the PARIS FOR PREDATORS contest, our company was back to having its biggest three months ever.

My recovery in AA and my success had become a priority to Eddy Kammegian. We attended three AA meetings a week together. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, at the end of the day, I was called in to review my sales and to receive a monograph on personal growth. I had homework too: books to read and tape programs. THE GREATEST SALESMAN IN THE WORLD, THE PSYCHOLOGY OF SUCCESS. THINK AND GROWN RICH. My "IN" basket was thick with magazine and newspaper clippings on self-motivation.
      And, as a salesman, I was taking no prisoners. I had won the New Accounts bonus three Fridays in a row, and my average weekly commission was twenty-one hundred dollars. One Tuesday morning, on a fluke, from a referral to the data processing manager of First Gulf Savings in Shreveport, I sold 432 re-stuffed Lexmark printer cartridges. The guy had an emergency and was out of supplies. A $10,800 commission. One call. The largest order on a new account pitch in the history of Orbit Computer Products.
      The news rendered Eddy Kammegian delirious. He used the sale to further boost morale and paid my commission in cash the next day at our morning meeting. Ten thousand loose silver dollars wheeled in a wagon. Noise makers and confetti were passed out, and I was presented with a plaque and a special momento from my boss's collection: his own personally-signed photograph of Dwight Eisenhower.

*   *   *

My phone rang. It was after midnight early Friday morning. When I answered, there was no voice on the other end, only breathing. I knew it was her. Like a ghost - a child listening behind a keyhole. I could feel her heartbeat. "Hello," I said again.
      Still nothing.
      Over the last several weeks, I had left only one message on Jimmi's sister Sema's answering machine; it contained my office extension number at Orbit and my new home number. There had been no reply until now.
I could hear traffic noise in the background, a horn honking. "Is that you?" I said.
      Finally, a ripple of laughter: "Bob, do these toner cartridges go out to your attention?...Guess who, baby?"
      "I don't need to guess."
      "Missed me, right?"
      "How are you?"
      ...No answer. More cars going by.
      "...How's the boy? How's Timmy?"
      "Timothy! My son's name is Timothy."
     "Okay, Timothy. How's Timothy?"
      "...You got your job back at Orbit with Adolph-fucking-Hitler-fucking-traffic-cop-Kammegian. Right?..."
     "Are you okay?"
      More laughter. Crazy. "There's a sale made on every call, BRUUUUNNNOOO, you buy their tears, or they buy your toner..."
      "What's wrong?"
      "...Sema said you said in your message that you have your own place now."
      "At the beach...Where are you?"
      "Hollywood. Here on Franklin. You should see this shithole, man. Junkies 'n weirdos everywhere. A billion cucarachas and no fucking air-conditioning. You. You'd look straight down your fancy writer's nose...Hey, can I tell you something?"
      "Guess what, man?"
      "What, Jimmi?"
      "I missed two periods. I'm pregnant. Guess who the daddy is?"
      "...It's mine?"
      "Don't worry. They want $247.00 at the women's clinic to take care of it. My appointment is for Monday. In the morning." "You think I'm the father?"
      "Hey man! I lap dance. I suck dick for money. I had sex with one person in the last three months."
      "Rick McGee."
      "Fuck you, Bruno..."
      "You sound high."
      "I'm sick iz what I am. Weak all the time. First thing; I need to get out of here. And I need a ride to the clinic on Monday. You got money now, right?"
      "Money's no problem."
      "Man Bruno, this fucking dump! Disneyland. Ya know? Every time I open my fucking door to go down to the bathroom or the pay phone, some zombie crack-head motherfucker is breathing on me - checkin' out my tits - talkin' shit. I gotta get outa here. Okay?"
      "Where's your car? Your bug?"
      "Sooo...you'll come?"
      "I'll come."
      "Okay. Now! Come now! Right now."
      "Is Timothy with you?"
      "He's okay. With Sema and her girls...but they don't want us there nomore. Caesar, my brother in law, made me leave. Hey, guess what, they gave my kid tests, you know. Sema took him to UCLA."
      "Is he sick?"
      "My son's I.Q. is one thirty-eight! They want to put him in special advanced this-and-that. They're making him a G.A.T.E. kid. Gifted And Talented Education. Sema says I have to put him in special school. Computers n'math n' shit."
      "Good news."
      "Remember the way we did it in my car, Bruno? That's when it happened. Remember?"
      "I remember, Jimmi. What's the address on Franklin?"
      "It's the Hollywoodland Motel. The Holly-weird-land. By Wilcox. By the corner of Franklin. I feel like shit, man. How soon will you be here?"
      My red handed clock at the other side of the bed blinked the time. 2:05 am. "Half an hour," I said.
      The laugh again - strange - off sync - as if owned by another body. "You still love me, done chu? You still crazy like a rat for me? Yes or no?"
      "You're high, Jimmi."
      "Honk your horn when you get here. You know, easy: beep-beep-beep. Two - three times. I'll hear it, and I'll come out. But keep your doors locked, and done talk to none of these donkey motherfuckers. Iz crazy over here, man. Half an hour, okay?"

*   *   *

The next morning, still sleepless, I called in to work at 5:32am, trying to time it right so Eddy Kammegian would be away from his desk, on the Orbit sales floor, revving up his swat team. I'd waited an hour for Jimmi outside the motel on Franklin Avenue. Now she was asleep across my living room on the couch, curled up under a blanket, a ratty Barbie under her chin. She had come with almost nothing. A purse, her dolls, and a plastic bag of clothes. Timothy was still at her sister's house.

Elaine, the receptionist - took my phone call. I lied, telling her I had food poisoning, saying I would not be in. After a long, stupid silence, Elaine said she would pass my message on to the boss.
      At Lucky's Open-All-Night Supermarket on Lincoln Boulevard, I stocked up on groceries and aspirin and over-the-counter nausea medicine for Jimmi.
      I got home before six-thirty. The heat of the day was already seeping into the apartment. Jimmi had relocated herself to the bedroom. Coming through the door, seeing her naked on the bed, her black hair splashed across my pillow like careless silk, my breath stopped. In the daylight her beauty was flawless. Even the room seemed different, remade by her being there. Her perfume was everywhere.
      Crossing to the bed, I looked down, watching the steady, quiet, up and down of her chest, studying each detail of her. Fingers and arms had just been created for the first time. Perfection. Her hands, their length and elegance. The line down her neck to her back and ass. A Degas painting. It made me shiver.
      Then I understood something. I knew why it was that I loved this woman. She was like my dead father, at war against her own life and time. Ten thousand disappointments would kill her as they had killed him. Living head-on against herself would kill her.
      Her legs were apart.
      I wanted to taste her flawlessness, kneel down and worship that place, slide my tongue far inside that holy door.
      I eased my weight across the mattress until my face was there and began to lick, gently and slowly, afraid she would stop me if I woke her. The sensation caused her to turn on her side then come to rest on her back.
      I began again. Cautiously. Working my tongue inside the wetness of her, more deeply, until I felt her body accept me.
      She awoke but didn't stop me. "Okay, do it," I heard her whisper. "Do it, baby. Lick it. Suck it. Do it."

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