Fong’s was a low-slung outpost on the eastern edge of Pomona, one of the oldest Chinese restaurants in town. Santa Ana winds and the blistering summer sun had weathered its red and black paint. Fong’s neighbors, a plumbing supply yard and a used truck-radiator shop, shared a gravel driveway that led away from a pot-holed street.
The door opened into a mist of fried sesame oil and soy sauce and a clamor of tea cups, Asian cooks banging woks with metal spatulas behind an old Formica counter that ran across the front of the room. I sat at the counter next to a man who slurped hot and sour soup from a bowl without a spoon. A woman on the other side of me pulled open a fortune cookie then smashed it on the small white plate upon which it had arrived.
A red vinyl-backed menu covered in clear plastic had two pages; Lunch, and Dinner that started at 4:30 PM. A man put a stainless teapot in front of me and held a note pad in his hand. I ordered the whole fried fish. He wrote something, stuck the small page on a rotary rack and gave it a spin until it ended up facing the kitchen.
Fong’s narrow dining room went from the left side of the counter to a banquet area and a back hallway where the restrooms were located. At the end of the short hallway I found a door to an alley outside leading from the back of the parking lot. A busboy was outside next to a Jeep Wrangler smoking alone looking west into the sunset. Dusty had said to order the fish. The message, I was hoping, meant something more. None of the cars did anything to spur my memory. Bips had an old used Cadillac, but that was several years ago. There were no Caddies in the lot. The busboy stamped out his cigarette and opened the door to the restaurant.
“Evening sunset is the finest time of the day in California,” I said. The busboy looked at me, his hand on the doorknob.
“Sunset. Nice.” He started to turn the door handle. I asked him for a cigarette. He pulled the pack out of his pocket and handed it to me. I flicked my finger, asking for a light. He pulled a out disposable lighter and put up a flame.
“Fong’s has been here a long time,” I said.
“Long time,” he said.
“Guy named Bips come in today?”
“Tall, dirty blonde hair, heavy set, mid forties.” I repeated his name.
“Bips? No name I know. Heavy set guy, blonde hair. Yeah. Sometimes. Brings a girl with him.”
“I ordered the whole fried fish. What kind of fish is that?”
“Ever see an old Cadillac back here?” I was reaching.
“You order the fish? Let me go check on it.”
I nodded, watched him go back in the restaurant. The sun was gently lowering itself into the Great Pacific Ocean, sixty miles away. Red rays bounced off clouds hanging over the horizon, a moment or two of brilliant orange light, then it disappeared.
Inside the hallway, the restroom sign said Vacant. In the stall, messages were scratched through the yellow paint of the metal partition. 12”Baby. . . I hung for you--phone numbers for trysts—Jamie sucks your cock, distorted human hook-ups, drugs, madness of men whose legacy vanished with the wand of a spray paint gun. No mention of ‘Bips’. If he was here, he was avoiding the Men’s room wall.
Around the corner the busboy was looking at the hallway. He came over.
“You like Pompano?" he said. "Or Redfish?”
“Which is better?”
“Red Fish. Cost more.”
“Ten dollars more? Twenty dollars?”
“Make it ten. Meet me in the back alley. Half an hour.”
The fish was waiting at the counter, steaming under a lid that covered the plate. It was moist and delicious. The tea was hot and perfect. I left money for the bill and tip and went out the front to check on my truck. A thin crescent moon waited in a light blue sky on the horizon. The gravel crunched as I walked around the edge of the restaurant to the back. The busboy was smoking. He offered me a cigarette.
“No thanks.” I pulled a ten dollar bill out of my pocket and held it, but not so he could take it.
“You know Bips?” he said. I nodded.
“He pick up cans at night.” He pointed to a dumpster hidden behind a low brick wall to the left.
“He brings a girl in here sometimes, you say? And he picks up cans? Nice date night, huh?”
“What you want?”
“He owes me money.”
“You owe me money.”
“What does he drive when he picks up cans?”
“Sometimes his girl drives. Nice SUV. Other times, maybe he drives, I don’t know, a Nissan.”
“Hatchback. A new model or something? What does he drive, man?”
“All Japanese cars look alike.” He laughed.
“Yeah, all Japanese cars look alike.” He was working for more money. I stuffed the ten spot back in my pocket.
“Hey, how was your fish?”
“Not too fresh. Like your information.”
“I tell what I know. Fish fresh today.”
“Information fresh today too?”
“Last night, he came late. I had to scrub the bathrooms. He comes in the back, asks about a guy who might want to see him.”
“He and I go back. I’m not going to burn you.”
“Give me your phone number. He call you.”
“I don’t think so.” I pulled my hand out of my pocket, held up my palms. “Twenty bucks you give me a phone number, a description of the car.”
He said nothing. I put my hands back in my jacket pockets.
“The fish was great. I’ll be back for more. Maybe in a couple of days I’ll have cigarettes, we can smoke and look at the moon.”
“Around eleven thirty tonight, he usually comes in. Drives a Nissan Pathfinder. Blue Pathfinder.”
I was reaching into my pocket, when a tall man in a white sleeveless t-shirt came around the corner of the building and stood in the dim light. His right hand was in his jeans pocket, his left hand smoothing his shiny dark hair. I didn’t like it. I didn’t like him. Twenty dollars was burning a hole in my pocket but there wasn’t a way to get it and give it to the busboy, be on my way without the man in the wife-beater watching.
“He okay,” the busboy said. “Dishwasher. We go watch Laker game tonight. Star Bar over in Covina.
My watch said 7:30 PM. Lakers tipped off in five minutes. I put the twenty dollar bill in the busboy’s hand, walked past the tall man, through the back of the parking lot and stepped into my truck. I turned on the radio. A Sports Talk radio host was complaining about USC’s probation and previewing the upcoming Lakers game. Tomorrow night’s Laker game. A sound bite had coach Phil Jackson talking about Kobe’s knee and the abbreviated travel-day practice this morning at the Laker’s El Segundo facility. Preparing for tomorrow’s game. A three game road trip beginning in Portland, a city where the Lakers hadn’t won a game in almost three years. World Champs two years straight, the Lakers couldn’t win at Portland.