Pete, Russ, Dusty, Bips, our cadre of booze and pills, distributing goods and sometimes services out of Dusty’s little roadside bar outside of Mentone just down the mountain from Big Bear, those days were in the past now, and I was in the present. With someone looking for me, a guy I knew a little about, seeming to promise answers when he showed up in Southern California. Fighting off memories threatening to suck me back to the past‒the bleary haze of misguided dreams and the haunting way we rearrange them‒it catches up to you with health problems, mental instability, when you check out for a few years to conquer shame and postpone living until it’s late, and your life skills and your will haven’t kept pace with the rough edges of wasted battles. I wasn’t feeling sorry for myself, rather coming to grips with my tin-box life on the edge of a feudal client’s land, and he held it over me like a hammer ready to pound me into the ground. And I was already there. I was already at bedrock, scraping the earth for a living and smoothing it over, paving it with impenetrable surfaces of aggregate to cover the imperfections.
Bips, he could do some of the damage I needed done, this Matt KillenVP Marketing, TML Distributing, jetting into town trying to intimidate his way into my life. Wanting to be my buddy in AA, clean and sober now, saying he was anyway, flaunting his high-level position in northern Florida, inviting himself to lunch. The last time I bought anyone lunch on business, I couldn’t even remember. Must have been Gustav. But the most I could recall about his eating habits was the way he sucked his fingers after pulling dark meat chicken off the bone at a barbecue place in Pomona. Titus’s Q. Good sauce, okay baby back ribs, really fine beef ribs, nice view of Latinas coming from the courthouse, legal aides for DA’s and a few that worked with defense attorneys that didn’t try and get in their jeans. Pants. Skirts. Gustav made the comments. I’d eat. He’d point a greasy finger at one walking up the sidewalk and offer to buy her something to eat saying ‘Hey der, leedle gurl’, and he’d chuckle when they’d frown and stalk by with a click of shiny heels on cement. Gustav would snort, lick his finger, scrunch his face in a rictus grin, gap-teeth spaced through his mouth like a discount ad for orthodontics‒‘perfect your smile, widen your influence, give you confidence in all situations’. Pick up chicks at Titus’ Q. There was no miracle cure to fix up Gustav, and the money he’s signed for in the contract was more than three times what I’d ever made in my life. I was gripping my palms every time he’d scream some hideous outburst when I’d tell him the cost to bring in Italian marble or import Southwest Desert sandstone to use as landing markers, Gustav’s ‘arrow to his heart’ he called it, the runway he’d seen in his dreams. His credit check showed he’d run up loans for property in Cabo San Lucas, and when Betty ran the title, it turned out to be a 20 acre ranch with views and paths cutting down to the beach, a white one-story stucco villa and a bumpy dirt landing strip. The times Gustav had bragged about marlin fishing in Cabo he mentioned a beach front time-share he said he owned. Nothing more. Gustav used the word ‘nice’ a lot, saying the condo time-share was nice, the pool, small but nice, the maid‒she’s nice, a little pudgy, but she likes to scrub down the member’s lounge and I’d pretend to laugh at the veiled reference to his sexual prowess, like I’d give a damn how many chicks he’d bang down there. Couldn’t score here, had to fly down south, the way I saw it.
We’d settled on some red earth-toned ceramic flagstone for the runway headings, tile Gustav said was crafted in May-he-Co, the way he’d say it, showing his big gap-teeth, nodding at me while I’d pretend to acknowledge his multilingual skills, throwing a few words back at him in Spanish, always adding a peso or two to the price. He’d never caught on. So that was the game, in effect. The ebb and flow of servitude for a fat cat Greek with a penchant for Ouzo and barbecue, Latinas that weren’t too pudgy who could wax the flag pole, bare flattened airstrips hidden among sand and cacti in a desert oasis. And me, trying to extort as much cash as I could while maintaining code and skimming a bit for the county inspector. He’d always come through. Turned me on to a few deals on heavy equipment up for repossession, leases gone bad, rusted out scrapers, free passes to dump at the landfill down the road from the archery range where bulls eyes fell prey to cross-bow hunters tuning up for deer and antelope, sometimes out of season. Tags for sale cheap, Bert the County Inspector would pass on to me, black market hunting licenses handed out like lottery tickets under the counter. It was astounding the amount of corruption going on at the County, he’d complain, as if he were helplessly embroiled in institutional trafficking and graft, justifying his schemes to pick up spare cash from contractors and trade permit sign-offs for Dodgers tickets and the perks of corporate construction, box seats and suites for Lakers games that no internal auditor would ever find, he’d say. His way of convincing me the balance of power evened out. When in fact, life wasn’t so good for most of us little guys trying to find a median point between psychosis and rehabilitation for alcohol or pills or failed marriages. My case, a three-peat. So while Bert kicked back at Staples Center sipping martinis and trolling private buffet spreads for pricey finger food, watching Hollywood stars make cameos in the glow of the Lakers and the girls who pranced at mid-court, I watched games on the 19” office TV, maybe having KFC and a club soda, and that was okay. I’d come to grips with the ‘free rent’ angle at Gustav’s end-of-the-runway, in the metal box I was lucky to call home. But this narrative arrives before the storm, so to speak, this introspective ruminative self-analysis, before the convergence of Matt Killen, VP Marketing, TML Distributing saying he’d show up to explain the features and benefits of Diamondback Tactical Swat Headgear with his Crusader Forge Metro-Tactical folding blade knives, and the chilling post-mortem details about somebody who probably felt a throbbing headache and complained of spine-tingling nausea before someone sawed his head off and pulled the skin away from his skull like a tomato.