Chapter Eight – The Job

I decided to get serious about finding a job. Every morning I’d get up, e-mail my resume to a bunch of different places, and wait for someone to call me back. It didn’t look like I was going to get back into television anytime soon so I swallowed my pride and aimed a notch lower: copywriter, technical writer, media relations specialist, copy editor, proofreader, greeting card conceptualist. No one returned my calls. For some reason the years I’d spent writing for television was working against me. Maybe I was overqualified. Maybe I was underqualified. Maybe the corporate types in charge of hiring were jealous that I’d once kissed the big sweaty belly of the exotic dancer that is show business. I couldn’t make sense of it.

As the days went on I set my sights lower and lower. There was even a period where I gave up looking for a writing job altogether. I put in applications at the bowling alley and a lighting store in the mall and even a couple fast food joints. At an Arby’s in Pasadena the manager read over my application and then gave me a look like I was crazy.

“You were a television writer and you’re white. What you want to work here for?”

“I’m desperate. I need work.”

He handed the application back to me.

“I’m sorry, but I don’t think it’s gonna happen.”

“But why not?”

“You speak Spanish? Se habla Espanol?”

“No…”

“That’s problem number one. My crew don’t speak English. So now we got a problem.”

“But I can learn!”

“Problem number two is that someday you gonna get a white man’s job. When that happen you gonna take off your apron and walk out the door, and next thing you know I’m back there cutting up the roast beef myself. No thanks.”

I stood there with my eyes welling up. I couldn’t even get a job slinging roast beef sandwiches, for Christ’s sake! The manager felt sorry for me, I guess. He didn’t give me a job, but he did give me a free Beef ’N’ Cheddar Deluxe, a jar of Horsey sauce, and a handful of coupons for free food. I walked out to my BMW and threw the stuff on the passenger seat, tears streaming down my face. I was so upset, I couldn’t even eat the Beef ‘N’ Cheddar.

Meanwhile, Amber had come to the conclusion that I was a waste of time and had moved on— I’d even heard unsubstantiated rumors that she was dating a third-stringer on the LA Rams. I called her up and said I hoped we could still be friends and asked her if she wanted to see a movie. I reasoned that if I could get her alone I could talk her into sleeping with me one more time.

It didn’t go well. At the theater’s concession stand I made the fatal mistake of suggesting we go dutch on the refreshments. She called me a “straight up loser bitch,” I called her a “ghetto golddigger,” she hit me with a double leg takedown, I went down hard on the soda-stained carpet, she walked out, a zit-faced usher politely asked me to leave…and that was the last time I ever saw Amber.

And then, the next morning, I received a call from a company offering me a job. In my esteem-denuded state, I felt more than grateful for the opportunity to claw my way back up from the bottom. I took it.

THE NAZARI BROTHERS sold dental tools of all shapes and sizes.

The eldest brother was Kamran Nazari. He was short and plump, with a head shaped just like a big heirloom tomato and a thin mustache and bewildered little eyes. He said he’d been an oral surgeon back in Iran but couldn’t practice in the United States because of “politics.” It was he who handled the technical side of the business while his brother, Samir, was the company salesman. Their business model was simple—they bought dental tools wholesale from a Malaysian supplier and resold them with an outrageous markup.

Samir Nazari may have been a dental tool salesman, but in appearance and lifestyle he more closely resembled a drug dealer. He drove a top-of-the-line Benzo and wore expensive silk shirts and gaudy jewelry and had a long pinky nail I assumed was for snorting up coke but which he claimed was his “built in opener for envelopes and cigarette packages.” Unlike his older brother, Samir still had the hair on his head—and everywhere else, too. Black tufts poked out at shirt sleeves and collar; he looked like a werewolf. His personality was decidedly one-dimensional in the way that salesmen’s personalities are, though truth be told he was more pimp than salesman. He closed a lot of deals at his West Hollywood condo, where graying, socially awkward oral surgeons from all over Los Angeles mingled with venereal disease-laden, coke-addicted bimbos Samir found in dance clubs and on the internet.

My job was to write ad copy for the Nazari Dental Tools Inc. company catalog, which went out once a month, as well as ad copy for the scores of trade publications that deal with dentistry and oral surgery. As subject matter goes it was duller than the dregs of a dentist’s spit cup, but I resolved to do my best. The existing literature was full of techno-jargon gobbledygook that did little to help sell the products, and frankly I didn’t know what most of it meant, so I wrote my first piece with a breezy, conversational tone, and submitted it to the brothers. They angrily insisted I reinsert all the ten-dollar words I’d removed and told me they would be overseeing my work going forward. I was a little shocked, but I carried on.

The daily routine went like this: they’d give me all the collateral material and I’d write until noon and then they’d go over what I’d written. Kamran would stare angrily at the copy and slash through it with a red pen, flinging the pages to the side as he finished, and then Samir would pick them up and scribble revisions in Farsian-flared English that I would spend the better part of the next hour decoding. This process would repeat throughout the afternoon and sometimes even into the evening, and yet they were never completely happy with the finished product.

At the end of each work day my copy was an unintelligible mess full of esoteric terms like osseointegration and peri-implantitis and tomography that I didn’t understand in the slightest. What got to me, though, was that no matter what I did, no matter how hard I tried to give them what they wanted, the result was always the same: they looked at the work I handed them like it was just-used toilet paper.

As the weeks went by I my inner tension became unmanageable. Every time I handed over my copy I’d sweat like I was in a sauna and watch their faces hoping for a positive reaction that never came. I would have (and probably should have) quit, but an admixture of fear and indignation pushed me onward. I had to prove something, to them and to myself. I had to know that I wasn’t a loser.

And then I lost my cool. I’d just finished the tenth revision of an article called “The Immunohistochemical and Histomorphometric Evaluation of Xenogeneic Collagen Containing Bone Augmentation – A Love Story,” my head throbbing with the terrible dullness of the subject matter, my hands shaking as I anticipated another big dose of bad attitude. As Kamran read the copy with a condescending little smirk I had a sudden and near-uncontrollable urge to pummel his tomato head into pulp.

“Now what?” I said. “What’s the fucking problem with this one?”

He looked up from the paper and frowned.

“What you saying, Jock?”

“JACK. MY NAME IS JACK. NOT JOCK.”

“Okay, Jock, okay.” And for the first time ever, seeing me lose my composure, he smiled pleasantly.

“Tell me what is on your mind,” he said.

“I’ve done everything you’ve asked me to do, have gone against every bit of training I have as a writer to churn out these completely incomprehensible catalogs and ads and articles. I’ve gone through this torture every damned day since I’ve been here and the two of you treat me like something on the bottom of your shoe. It’s really killing my confidence, man!”

Kamran smiled and nodded his head but didn’t say anything. I didn’t feel like I was getting through to him.Samir, who’d been listening to our exchange at a desk in the corner of the room, picked at his teeth with the coke pinky and said casually,

“We are very happy with what you’re doing. You have to realize that we are Persian people; we bring a passion to everything we do. That is how we made this business thrive: because we do is never good enough. So, what YOU do is never good enough, either.”

“Is it too much to ask for a little encouragement? I’m doing my best here.”

Kamran winked and said,

“You need pat on head? Like good little doggy?”

Samir laughed.

“Pat him on the head. Pat him so he feel good.”

They both laughed. Kamran reached over as if to pat my head and I slapped his hand away.

“Fuck is wrong with you, man?”

“Oh come on now Jock. You are doing good job. We know you do not understand complexities of dental business. That is why we have to help you. With time, you too will understand all of the terminologies and this will all be second nature to you.”

“I’m not sure about that.”

“For now, please trust us. Our business is very young and already we have been very successful. You are at the beginning of something BIG, Jock. You have to trust this, what I tell you.”

“Just tell me this. You two spend most of the afternoon complaining about my work and “fixing” it. Why even keep me around?”

“Only people we can get for same pay are young people looking for first job. They are always on phone, that’s all they know is phone phone phone. They can barely write their name! At least you can write complete sentence, can write with big word if you try hard.”

“Well I don’t know.” I was wavering. I’ve always been a sucker for flattery.

“Listen Jock. Tomorrow you take it easy. We need someone to run errands. You can take company car. Go out, pick up our merchandise, have nice long lunch, relax. In afternoon, you can do writing.”

“You want me to be your gofer?”

“Gopher? What the hell you mean gopher.”

“This guy thinks he’s a fucking chipmunk,” said Samir. They laughed.

“Forget it,” I said. “I’ll do your errands. Maybe it’ll help freshen up my writing.”

“Don’t freshen it up too much,” said Kamran. “The dentists, they don’t like it fresh.”

“Except fresh hooker,” said Samir. “And even then, not so fresh is okay too.”

SO THE NEXT morning I took the company van over to the docks at San Pedro to receive the week’s shipment of dental tools. I showed my ID and signed the necessary documentation and a dockworker used a forklift to place the crate into the back of the van. After that I drove around until I found a quiet side street where I could inspect the contents of the crate. I took a crowbar and went to work on the crate lid and when I finally got the lid off with a terrible screech of nails I looked into the box expecting to see a mega-shipment of cocaine, since that would only make too much sense, but no—it was all drills and probes and mirrors and lasers and spit-sucking machines and carefully designed boxes with dental implants that sold for hundreds of dollars apiece. I was a little disappointed. I’d imagined driving off with a big cocaine drop, never to be seen again, but it was all just a figment of my imagination. The Nazaris’ line of work was as boring as advertised.

I hammered the lid back down and drove back to the loading dock behind the office where Kamran was waiting to take careful inventory of everything. I got out and opened the back of the van and Kamran got up in there and pried open the crate.

“These nails are fucking loose,” he said. He looked out at me. “Did you open this crate?”

“Absolutely not.”

“Well now I have to take extra careful inventory because of bastard dock workers and sticky bastard fingers.”

I got up in the van and handed the stuff out to Kamran. We’d got about half of it unloaded when I handled a box of dental implants a bit too carelessly, letting go of the box before he was able to get a grip on it.

“NO!” he screamed. He lunged forward and caught the box just as it was about to hit the floor. Then, holding it at arm’s length, he walked over and set it gingerly on the long gray workbench with all the other inventory. After that he took a handkerchief out of his back pocket and wiped it over his bald head and let out a long, slow sigh.

“You must be careful with the dental implants,” he said. “They are very expensive, and very fragile.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Out of all the items we sell, you must treat those implants with utmost care. If you can’t do this, I fire your ass!”

“I said I’m sorry. What the hell.”

He took a long breath and exhaled.

“Ok, just be more careful, you clumsy bastard.”

After he left the room a little while later I walked over and examined one of the implants closely. It was a little metal cylinder with a screw on one end that went into the patient’s gums. Once it was screwed in you stuck a fake tooth onto the cylinder. It didn’t look fragile or expensive. I wondered what the hell Kamran’s problem was.

FOR THE NEXT couple weeks the job was easier and I relaxed. The brothers left me alone in the mornings to play around on the computer and run errands. At noon I’d take a long leisurely lunch at the Spotted Owl, a strip club just a mile or so up the street, and then in the afternoon I would write. They’d still look at the products of my labor with expressions of distaste, but I’d gotten used to it and didn’t take it as personally. I think it was those strip club lunches that got me into a nice relaxed state of mind—It’s funny how a plate of wings and a few pairs of breasts can do that.

I was feeling so good about the job, in fact, that I completely missed the signs that something was amiss with the Nazari brothers. Like the thing with the dental implants, there were small incidents that I would have done well to take more seriously than I did.

The one that stands out most was when I went back to the office after hours to pick up a forgotten cell phone. I swiped my key card and walked through the front door and at the rear of the darkened office I noticed Samir sitting in front of a computer monitor in the midst of a teleconference call. On the screen was a man wearing a white turban with a white beard and large, round eyes in a sun-blackened face. He spoke in low tones in an unfamiliar tongue, Samir listening intently and nodding as if he were taking instruction. I didn’t want to interrupt their meeting but I really needed my phone, so I walked over to my desk and said “Hey Samir.”

The man on the screen saw me first. His round eyes widened and he let out a terrifying shriek, a chant that to my ears sounded like the kind of thing you hear right before a machete separates your head from your body.

Samir quickly turned off the monitor and stood up out of this chair.

“What the hell do you think you are doing here?” said Samir. He spoke calmly, but his eyes were full of fury.

“Just…uh…picking up my phone.” I held it up and gave him a sheepish grin.

“Picking up your…” he took a half-step toward me, fists clenching and unclenching. I thought for one crazy second that he was going to take a swing at me. Then, suddenly, the anger dropped away, and the corners of his mouth tugged up in a forced smile.

“Oh hey, sorry guy, you just startled me.”

“I’m really sorry…I just need my phone…”

“No problem, buddy. No problem. Maybe next time you call ahead and let me know you coming in, huh?”

“I didn’t mean to interrupt your, uh, sales meeting…my bad…”

“No no no,” he said, His ersatz smile widened, but the fury still smoldered in his eyes. “Not a sales call. That was my uncle. We sometimes video chat at night because where he lives, it is morning-time.”

“Well I’m really sorry I interrupted you. You didn’t have to hang up on him; I was just gonna head right back out.”

“No problem, guy. No problem, buddy.”

“I’ll just be leaving now…”

“Sounds good. I’ll see you tomorrow morning.”

I walked out the front door and got in my car. I looked back. Samir’s shape was silhouetted against the doorway as he watched me leave. As I pulled away I looked in the rearview and he was still there, staring.

THE NEXT DAY I forgot all about Samir’s strange behavior and the man in the turban. It was late August and apparently that’s the beginning of the dental season, I have no idea why, and suddenly we were swamped with orders. The brothers took me off of copywriting duties and handed me a tape gun and operations shifted into a frenzy of packing and shipping. The FedEx guy developed this wild-eyed, harried look, and every afternoon we put so many packages in his van that as he pulled away the bumper almost touched the curb.

This went on for a week and then it was Friday, the busiest day yet. Kamran walked around with his little clipboard, matching products with their shipping labels, I followed close behind boxing them up. It was relentless work. As 3 PM approached, the time when FedEx would pick up, the brothers became more and more frantic. Kamran glanced up at the clock, sweat pouring down his bald dome and pooling at the place where his shirt collar wrapped around his turgid neck.

“COME ON, JOCK. WE MUST WORK FASTER! FASTER!”

I redoubled my efforts. The tape gun flew. Samir paced back and forth, screaming into his cell phone in his unintelligible native tongue. Occasionally he would go into his office and return sniffing coke out of his pinky nail. His dilated-black shark eyes darted around the room at nothing in particular as he screamed into the phone and gesticulated angrily and paced back and forth on the platform above the loading dock. Between his cocaine frenzy and Kamran’s general agitation I was on edge myself.

“WE MUST GET ALL OF THIS OUT TODAY!” screamed Kamran.

“I’m trying, dammit!”

I looked at what still needed to go out: a crate that was taller than my head and took up half the room. It seemed so hopeless. Why were these assholes so hellbent on getting everything out all at once, I wondered? And why didn’t I walk out right now? Just set down my tape gun and walk right out the door…

The buzzer sounded.

“Fed Ex man is here early,” said Kamran. “Son of bitch.”

I walked over and hit the red button that opened the big rolling door and sighed with relief as a pleasant breeze filled the room. I was soaked with sweat. Outside the delivery van backed slowly up to the loading dock. I stretched from side to side, still half-considering the idea of just quitting now, right now. No, I told myself, just load this up and finish packaging up the rest of the stuff and then it’s the weekend and you can decide what happens on Monday.

The van came to a stop and idled. The driver didn’t step out of the cab.

We waited.

“Okkaaaayyyy,” yelled Kamran. “Let’s get a move on, honey!”

No response. The engine kept running.

Samir muttered something and Kamran responded in kind. I glanced back at them. The both of them were frozen in place, staring at the van with suddenly fearful expressions. Something wasn’t right and they sensed it.

I looked back at the van and in slow motion I saw the doors swing open and four men in full combat gear with machine guns, huddled there. In that frozen moment I saw every detail of their flak jackets and myself reflected in the polarized glass of their eyewear and each gun muzzle yawning wide like mouths about to release the death-belch, and then I was on the concrete floor with a heavy knee grinding into my spine and the hard steel of a gun barrel behind my ear.

“HOMELAND SECURITY! STAY THE FUCK DOWN!”

I felt my bladder release, the urine scalding hot and then suddenly cool. From my vantage point I could see nothing but combat boots, scrambling up the stairs and onto the platform. Samir screamed that same blood-curdling battle cry the man in the turban had let forth—and then a short burp of machine gun fire cut it short.

“Got ‘em both,” someone said from inside. “Easy peasy.”

“What about the civilian?”

“He’s a’ight,” said the one with his knee in my back. “I think he pissed himself, though.”

Someone laughed. Another voice said,

“The cleanup crew can change his diapy. And tell them to bring extra mops…there’s brains all up in this piece.”

“I’ll call ‘em now.”

“I hope they send that crew from last time. Gutierrez Maids, the crew from Whittier. Remember that girl Maria? That’s one hot tamale, man…”

“No luck. I called Sanchez Janitorial. You’re gonna get the big mama with the moles on her face and her fat sister…if yer lucky.”

More laughter.

“Whoa, look at this! Dude was cutting up some serious lines of coke in here.”

“No shit? Maybe we gotta search the civilian then. See if he’s holding.”

“You holding?” said the guy with the knee in my back.

“What?”

“Coke. Nose candy. Booger sugar. You got any in your possession?”

“N-no!”

“He says no.”

“Good, I don’t wanna write up the paperwork for some chickenshit possession charge anyways. This guy’s been through enough. Let him up.”

“Okey-doke.”

The knee dug harder into my spine as the guy pushed himself off of me and I yelled out in pain.

“Sorry about that bro, can I give you a hand up?”

“No, I got it.”

I lay there face down for a second, then slowly turned over. He looked down at me with a mouth full of broken teeth jutting at all angles from an amiable grin. A nameplate on his left breast pocket read MAHELONA.

“‘Sup, bro,” he said.

I sat up. The room was a mess. Shipping labels and boxes were strewn everywhere. Up on the platform, Kamran was propped up with his back against the wall. His eyes stared out blankly. The wall behind him was pretty well sprayed with gore. An officer stood nearby, one hand holding a machine gun, the other checking a cell phone. “Shit, man, Kershaw just gave up a walk-off homer to the Cubbies,” he said.

Mahelona held his machine gun to the side in one hand and brushed off the front of my shirt with the other.

“Sorry about that, bud. Gettin’ you to the ground was the best way to keep you from gettin’ smoked.”

“Can you tell me what’s going on?”

“Don’t know that I’m authorized, chief. But The Captain can probably clue you in. Here he comes now.”

Two of the officers emerged from the back. The bigger of the two walked towards me, grinning pleasantly. He was a hulk of a man, nicely tanned. I could see a few strands of blonde-white hair poking out from his combat helmet. He looked and sounded like a surfer.

“I’m Captain Rogers,” he said. “Sorry you had to get caught up in this whole situation, dude. There was really no way around it. If we’d alerted you to the reality of the situation our friends here might have gotten spooked. No bueno.”

“I have no idea what just happened…”

“I know you don’t. We’ve had this place bugged for a month. If we thought you were involved you’d be human hamburger, just like these terrorists.”

“Terrorists? We’re shipping dental tools out of here. What does that have to do with terrorism?”

Captain Rogers flashed big white John Elway teeth that looked like they could bite through cinderblocks. “Let me show you something,” he said.

He walked over to one of the tables and rummaged through the pile of boxes until he found a container of the company’s number-one product: Kamran’s precious implants.

“They sell these things to oral surgeons, and within a week or two they’re nestled deep in the gums of some poor unsuspecting citizen. But what are these, really? I’ll tell you. Each one of this is a micro-container of nerve agent. The exterior of the implant looks like metal, but it’s not. It’s a compound that dissolves over time with exposure to human saliva.”

“We’ve been intercepting these as fast as you were sending them out,” added Mahelona. “If we hadn’t been watching these scum since they entered the country…”

“…You’d have people dying left and right before anyone could figure out what in the hell happened,” finished The Captain.

I looked back at the corpse of Kamran Nazari. He stared back at me with his sightless eyes.

“So what happens now? Are you taking me in for questioning?”

They all thought was funny for no reason that I could see. After they were doing enjoying another laugh at my expense, Captain Rogers said:

“Nahhhh… We already know everything we need to know. Your name is John Edgar Barajas, date of birth January 6 1977. Your parents are Herb and Gloria, and they live in Reseda. You were an only child and a sometimes lonely child. You were in the Boy Scouts and achieved the rank of “Webelo.” This was as high in the ranks as you would ever get. You had a girlfriend named Amber, but she recently began dating Jamal Jenkins, a defensive tight end for the Los Angeles Rams. Your best friend is a guy named Fooz Pinkley…and trust me, we’re keeping a close eye on that dude.”

“Is there anything about me you don’t know?”

He shrugged.

“‘S no big deal, bra. The NSA knows all, sees all. That’s the way it is.”

“So I’m free to go?”

“Sure. Unless you wanna hang out while we dump what’s left of these jerks into bodybags and clear ‘em outta here.”

“But what about my last paycheck? These guys owed me for a week’s worth of backpay.”

Captain Rogers and Mahelona looked at each other.

“More paperwork,” said The Captain. “Fuuuuck that. I was hoping this would be a simple operation. Maybe you shoulda smoked this guy.”

“We could let him pull a graverobber,” said Mahelona.

The Captain nodded slowly. “Sure, why not. These pieces of camel shit won’t mind.” He looked over at me. “Okay, Barajas. Go ahead and rummage through their pockets. Whatever valuables or money you find, you can keep. Courtesy of Uncle.”

“I don’t believe this…”

He looked at his watch.

“I’m giving you three minutes to commit your depredations and split. If you’re still here at the end of that three minutes, we’re taking you in for questioning. And if I have to do that, we may find connections between you and these terrorists. Can you dig it?”

“I can dig it.”

“Good. Now…on my mark…”

He looked at his wristwatch and held up one hand.

“3…2…1…GO!”

I didn’t have to be told twice. I ran over to Kamran’s corpse and felt through his pockets until I found his wallet, then ran into the front offices where Samir lay draped over his desk in a pink slurry of blood and cocaine. He had about 400 bullet holes in him.

“One minute thirty seconds left,” called The Captain from the back.

I clumsily ripped off his gold chains and pulled diamond rings from fingers already gone cold. I tried to reach into his pocket without getting any of the coke/blood slurry on me, found nothing, reached around into the other pocket and found his wallet. It was thick with cash.

“Twenty seconds!” yelled Captain Rogers.

Get the Rolex, I told myself. I got the Rolex and ran out the front door. The street out front was the same as any Friday on the Westside—traffic, no pedestrians, sunshine. No indication whatever of the bloodbath inside.

I got in the BMW and headed down Robertson, the blood-spattered loot next to me on the passenger seat.

I’d just got on the 405 when my phone rang. It was Fooz.

“You’re not gonna believe what happened to me today,” I said.

Fooz barrelled right over me, as per the usual.

“You still looking for a job? I think I found something right up your alley, Jack.”

“Jeez, I dunno. You got a lead for me?”

“Lead, schmead. The Fooz Pinkley Experience is going on tour and I wanna make a movie about it. How does the title “documentarian” sound to you?”

Chapter Seven – The Birthday Party

So I was sitting in front of The Prissy Café again and I had a pretty good buzz going but the inspiration, as usual, just wouldn’t come. They’ve got all-you-can-drink mimosas on Saturday morning, and I’d downed 15 or 20 of them, and I had the damned yellow pad in front of me, and though I’d intended to write out a script for a new show all I could manage were little doodles. It had been going on like this for weeks. If I got my mind completely annihilated a few ideas would dribble out like piss droplets and I’d write furiously, sure I’d broken through, but the next day when I sobered up it was always the same—I found that what I’d written was little more than the ramblings of an over-lubricated brain.

It was becoming clear I’d have to dry out if I wanted to get back on track.

Just not today, I told myself. Maybe tomorrow.

I’d just knocked back another mimosa when my phone rang.

“Jack Barajas speaking.”

“You slurring, fool. You at the Prissy again?”

“Maybe.”

“You gotta get a life, man.”

“This is my life, Fooz.”

“Hey asshole. Did you forget what day it is today?”

“Arbor Day?”

“No…”

“Secretary’s Day?”

“No…I’ll give you a hint…36 years ago, I saw the inside of mommy’s love canal for what would be the first and last time.”

“Oh. It’s your birthday?”

“That’s right, bro. Thanks for remembering.”

“How is it I’m 39 and you’re 36, though? I mean, we were in the same grade growing up.”

Silence on the other end of the line. Then, in measured and patient tones, Fooz said:

“I’ve told you many times, Jack. I was precociously gifted at five years old, so the school district bumped me from Kindergarten to the second grade.”

“But last year you claimed to be 37. And if you skipped 2 grades, how is it that there’s a 3 year diff—”

“Hey bro. Enough about my AGE, okay? All I wanna know is this: are you coming to my birthday barbecue at Casa Pinkley?”

I looked at the yellow pad covered in doodles.

“Maybe. What’s the scene like?”

“It’s gonna be off the hook.  We gonna have brews, barbecue, maybe some coke. The Experience is coming over, and a buncha chicks too. We’re gonna jam, get wasted, eat like pigs.”

“What time does it start?”

“Started when the sun came up, Bro-en-heim.”

“You got stuff to make mimosas?”

“That’s what you’re drinking now? Good God.”

“That’s my chosen fuel for the day, and it’s what I’m sticking with.”

“I suppose I can scare up a bottle of Cooks and some OJ, degenerate. Get your ass down here.”

“I’ll be there in 30.”

I drove the Honda fit up Reseda Blvd. and got on the freeway. It was a typical early summer day in the San Fernando Valley, already broiling at 11 AM,  smog residue collecting in the back of your throat like you’d smoked a pack of unfiltered cigarettes. I got off at the exit for Calabasas and drove up into the foothills with the valley spread below me like a dirty gray blanket, pulled up to Fooz’s place, parked in the driveway next to the Foozmobile, then got out and walked through the side gate into the backyard.

Fooz had the grill going, huge plumes of black-gray smoke billowing all around. He wore an apron that read MAY I SUGGEST THE SAUSAGE? and the egg yolk and aqua net in his carefully styled mohawk glistened in the sun. When he saw me he performed a series of back flips away from the barbecue, landed on his feet in front of a big blue igloo cooler, flipped the lid, grabbed a Miller Genuine Draft, tossed it in the air with his right hand, did a 360 spin, caught the bottle in his left hand, ripped the cap off with his teeth, spit the cap at his dog (a dyed-orange mongrel named Doggy Rotten), downed half the beer with one long gulp, let out a tremendous belch, and said:

“Good afternoon, Jack.”

“Good afternoon to you, Fooz. Am I early, or what? Where is everybody?”

“Early, late, who knows? I don’t keep a timetable for the comings and goings of the people in my life, these ephemeral rock stars in eternity, these falling stars of the dusk. They come and go in this back yard, this portal of pulchritude, and whence from here is not my concern.”

“Groovy, Jerk Kerouac. I need to imbibe.”

“The fixings for your queer drink are on that table over there.”

I walked over and made myself a king-size mimosa in a red tumbler.

“Where’s the chicks?”

“Not here yet. It’s only one o’clock, Jack. Most people I hang around with awaken no earlier than noon. You’re the exception to that rule.”

“If you say so.”

“When they get here, they’ll be delighted to see the arrangements I’ve made to accomodate those with special dietary needs.” He gestured with his beer, and we walked out by the badminton net.

“I’m going to tell you something about women you may have not realized,” said Fooz. “And that is this:
90 percent of them subscribe to a vegan lifestyle.

“Is that so?”

“That’s so. And let me tell you something else: Me? I couldn’t care less about the lives of cows and chickens. If people saw chickens without feathers they’d be horrified, Jack.”

“I know. They look like lizards.”

“That being said, if you go out of your way to make a vegan spread for the babes, the vegan babes will spread for YOU. Dig?”

“Oh, I dig.”

“Now here we have the secondary grill which we’ll be using for today’s vegan cookery. To differentiate the two grills, I’ve spraypainted this one hot pink.” He lifted the lid. A wave of heat rose up, and everything looked wavy for a second.

“So what you do,” he continued, “Is you fill a bowl full of canola oil…like this…then you take the veggie burgers and dip ’em in the oil.”

“They look like something that came out of Doggy Rotten’s butt,” I said.

He held the burgers down in the oil. “Let ‘em soak real good, like a couple of minutes. These things got no fat. You gotta add the fat. Get me?”

“Yeah.”

“Now the coals are nice and hot. We’re ready to roll,troll.”

Fooz pulled the burgers out of the oil, the fluid running down his hand and forearm.

“Looks like you fisted an elephant,” I said.

“Or your mother,” Fooz said casually. “So dig my technique.”

He flicked the burgers through the air like frisbees. The discs of compressed soy landed on the grill one after the other in perfect formation, bang bang bang bang.

“DID YOU SEE THAT?  DID YOU SEE…THAT…SHIT?

“You play horseshoes a lot, hey?”

“On the real, daddy-o. And now for the finishing touch, to give this crap authentic flame-kissed flavor.”

Fooz sauntered over to the porch and picked up a bottle of charcoal fluid, held it to his crotch, and simulated a piss-stream from 20 feet away. Flames leapt into the air.

“We’ll get these vegan broads fed, get ’em tipsy, and commence the orgy sometime later this afternoon,” said Fooz.

“Orgy, huh? Who exactly did you invite to this bash?”

“One-Eyed Rhonda, Sharin’ Sharon, Betty Plague….remember that all-girl band I played with at the Red Eagle?”

“You mean ‘Grrrlz With Prrrlz?”

“That’s the one.”

Hairy armpits, purple hair, facial piercings, hour upon hour of being lectured about white male privilege. This was not the afternoon I’d envisioned.

“You know what,” said Fooz. “Let me give them a call and get an ETA.”

He whipped out his cell phone and punched in a number and started pacing around the way he always does when he’s on a phone conversation.

“Sharon! You and your girls showing up? …Wut? If I don’t call you ‘girls’ what am I supposed to call you? Uh huh…uh huh….womyn, you say. OK. So when are you and your ‘womyn’ showing up?”

He was quiet, listening. I could hear Sharon’s chipmunk voice jabbering on the other end.

“A gig in San Diego? Hey man, San Diego SUCKS!  Okay, okay. I’m sorry I called you a man. But why did you book a gig today? I told you more than once today’s my birthdaaaayyyy.” A whine was creeping into Fooz’s voice as it became clear he wasn’t going to get his way.

More chipmunk talk. Then Fooz said:

“You know what? If you don’t wanna celebrate my forti–my thirty-seventh birthday, then I’ll tell you what. I hope you drive your van off the Coronado bridge, you TWAT.”

He hung up the phone with an angry, dramatic flourish.

“It looks like the orgy’s off, Jack.”

“Bummer,” I said. It didn’t feel like a bummer, though. I had no desire spending my afternoon watching Fooz’s pockmarked buttocks thrusting away on top of some punk skag.

“It’s cool.. My homeboys are still comin’. We’ll get tanked up on shitty corporate beer and jam and when our need to rock is sated we shall eat of the cow’s flesh. Which reminds me…”

He walked over, grabbed a garden hose, turned on the spigot, and hosed down the pink vegan grill. A terrific plume of gray smoke whooshed up into the sky. The boca burgers really did look like turds now—dark, smoldering, wet turds.

“I wasted six dollars on that and for what?”

“Don’t worry about it, man. Let’s get wasted,” I suggested.

A couple of hours passed. We knocked back some drinks and had a pretty good time shooting the breeze but then Amber started blowing up my phone. She’d dropped me when I lost my job but we’d recently begun flirt-texting again and I needed that big rump like I needed food and water.

Fooz saw me texting and his eyes narrowed suspiciously but he disregarded it and told me about the time he’d met Jello Biafra at the Law Offices of Rosenblum, Smith & Felcher LLP.

“Yeah man, it was awesome. The dudes in his band were suing the shit out of him. He didn’t like what his legal counsel in Frisco was doing so he came to us looking for help BLAH BLAH BLAH…”

“You don’t say,” I yawned.

“Those fools in his band thought they should get publishing money, you believe that shit? When you’re the frontman like me or Jello—the talent,the brains, the creative force, the Alpha and the Omega—you gotta be on constant guard against the other guys in your band. Becuz they’re JEALOUS, man. Maybe they can play a little, but when everything shakes out they’re glorified session musicians and they know it.” He belched. “That’s why I changed the band’s name to ‘The Fooz Pinkley Experience’. I realized early on that you gotta set muthafuckas straight on who’s in charge.”

“You had some other good band names, though. I always kind of liked ‘Chum Chugger’.”

“What about ‘The Kenny Butt-Loggins Band’?”

“That was good too.”

“ Hey, speaking of ‘The Experience’, where are those assholes?”

He pulled out his little flip phone and started dialing again. It took him a few tries to get the number right because, lightweight that he was, three-and-one-half bottles of Miller had him near-ossified. I’d once seen him pass out on his feet after downing five Zimas at a bar in Culver City— he’d staggered into a Toyota Prius, careened off the rear bumper, and face-planted on the concrete, requiring twenty stitches to repair his chin. Fooz and alcohol was a combination that almost always ended in disaster.

Which was going to prove true, once again, in the next 24 hours.

Fooz paced around the yard listening to the phone on the other end ring. Finally someone picked up.

“Hey motherfucker, where the hell are you? Oh…what? Sorry, Billy. Go get your daddy, wouldja?”

He rolled his eyes and looked over at me. “You know what’s NOT punk rock? Fatherhood. Good God.”

I poured myself another mimosa and thought again about Amber. Get home, shower, sober up enough to hold erectile dysfunction at bay, and fall into her sweet brown embrace…

“Hey Todd…what? I didn’t call your kid a motherfucker…kid’s a liar, man. You oughta beat his ass. But forget about that…I thought we were jamming today.”

Fooz paced ever more frantically, right hand jammed into the pocket of his cargo shorts, while Todd talked.

“What do you mean, your kid has band recital? Motherfucker, we have band PRACTICE! I got dogs, brews, steaks, I got my gee-tar polished and ready…”

I couldn’t make out what Todd was saying on the other end but he did a lot of talking and as he talked Fooz’s eyes bugged out like yo-yos.

“Hey man. You need to get your priorities straight. If you don’t wanna treat this seriously then maybe you should go play for some blues band with all the other middle-aged bozos. No. NO. I can go down to Guitar Center right now and find someone to replace you in two seconds….Oh yeah? You don’t like it? Well guess what? YOU’RE FIRED! NOW GO HANG OUT WITH YOUR FAG KID…aw, shit, he hung up.”

Fooz stood there and stared at the phone in disbelief. Then, teeth clenched, he walked over to the vegan grill, kicked it over, threw his cell phone across the yard, and screamed into the sky.

“FUCK ! FUCK! FUCK! FUCK!”

I hardly noticed Fooz’s anger and consternation—Amber’s text messages were coming at a rapid pace,
each one more sexually suggestive than the last:

 

SO HORNY RITE NOW WHITE BOY—LOL—

NEED U 2 HIT IT FROM BEHIND BAE

—MAY B STRAP ON? —LOL—

 

“Hey Fooz?”

“Punk rocker family man,” said Fooz. “Punk rocker family fuckin’ maaaannnn…

“Fooz?”

He looked at me.

“Yeah?”

“I’m sorry your party is not working out, but look. Amber’s getting me worked up with all these text messages, dude.”

“Amber….Amber…hey, why not tell her to come up here?! We can all hang out!”

“I dunno Fooz, uh….I don’t wanna make you feel like the third wheel…”

“What d’you mean? The other guys in the band are gonna show up eventually. We don’t have to orgy with your chick, if that’s what you’re worried about. We’ll just hang.”

“Well that’s just it. I mean, I haven’t got laid in months, Fooz. I thought maybe I’d get lucky here, but it doesn’t look like that’s gonna happen, so…”

“Jack, Jack.” Fooz shook his head and gave me a disgusted look. “Is that all you can think about? Getting your knob wet? How about getting your whistle wet? Hanging with your bros?”

“I don’t mean any offense, Fooz, it’s just that…well, whenever you and The Experience hang out, you guys just jam and talk to each other and sometimes I feel kinda left out. And besides, you’ve got women crawling all over you. I gotta take my opportunities when they come, you know?”

My phone buzzed. Another text from Amber.

 

GONNA SUCK U DRY BUT U BETTER HURRY UP—AINT GOT ALL DAY 2 WAIT—LOL—

 

I looked up from my phone. Fooz must have recognized the look of sheer lust on my face because his own look of disgust changed to one of resignation and he said, with a sneer:

“So go. I don’t need you here anyway, Jack.”

“Are you sure? ‘Cause if you want I could—“

“Hey man, you know what? If everybody I care about wants to shit on me on my special day, that’s fine! Just get the fuck out of here…NOW!”

I put up my hands in a conciliatory gesture. Fooz picked up the bottle of lighter fluid and reared back like he was going to wing it at me. I backed away slowly, hands still in the air. As I turned to walk out through the side gate Doggy Rotten charged, a growling, furry blur of orange. As he leapt into the air I slammed the side gate shut and he hit it hard with a thump and a yelp. I hustled my ass out to the Fit and took off down the side of the mountain and got back on the freeway.

“You want some more of this shit?”

I held up the vaporizer. Amber took it and hit it and blew a cloud of vaporized cannabis oil into my face. I noticed as usual the weird little brown specks in the whites of her eyes. I’d brought it up once and asked her if that was an African-American thing and she’d given me that look, you know? Like I was the one white person she thought she could trust, and I’d let her down. The whole interracial thing turned me on, though. I grooved on how her skin looked on mine, the contrast of it. I giggled. I was high on the weed and post-sex endorphins and the residual effects of 35 mimosas.

I’d just lifted the vaporizer to my lips and was about to take another hit when the cartoon clanging of the iPhone brought me back to reality.

“Shit, it’s Fooz,” I said.

“What the hell does he want?” said Amber.

I looked at her a bit askance. I was pretty sure she’d fucked him, but who knew for sure? Every time the three of us got together they avoided eye contact, and I could swear there was some weird kind of energy in the room. Hell, Fooz had fucked every girlfriend I ever had. Why not this one?

The weed was making me paranoid…maybe. I answered the phone.

“Hello?”

“Jack….Jack. ‘Sme. ‘SFooz.”

“You sound a little messed up. You all right, Fooz?”

“I’m jes fine. I’m feckin GOLDEN, brah.”

“So what happened? Did “The Experience” show up?”

“No. No they did not. Todd got me so pissed off, man, that I called em all up one by one and told them they could go take a long walk off a short pier right after screwin’ their mothers and fathers.”

“You drunk dialed your band.”

“Yes I did. I fired all of em. ALL OF EM! ALLLL OF EMMMMM!”

I held the phone back from my ear as Fooz screamed. I looked at Amber; she rolled her eyes and reached for the Thai food on the bedside table.

“…And now I’m gon do something crazy man, something so punk rock you won even bleeve it, okay? Okay Jack?”

“Yes Fooz.”

“Right now. In fact I got a great idea, a great fuckin idea. My band doan wan get me famous, I get famous some othur way.”

“Fooz, listen. It’s almost midnight and you’ve been drinking since noon. Why don’t you have a couple of burgers and hit the rack? Just call it a day, what do you say man.”

“Hey Jack?”

“Yeah?”

“FUCK YOU.”

He hung up. I put the phone on the nightstand and wondered what I should do next, if anything. As I pondered this with a brain working in exquisite slow motion I watched Amber slurp up pan-fried noodles from the Styrofoam container perched on her enormous breasts. The sheet tented up.

“Look!” I said.

I awoke the next morning,yawned, stretched, got up, and walked into the kitchen. Amber was doing the dishes in her sexy pink velour pajamas that read BLING across the ass. I started to get excited again. It had been a long night, and you’d think she’d sucked every last bit of vitality out of me, but I had a little bit of a weed-over and was feeling my oats. Should I eat breakfast? Try to write? Grab her rear end with both hands and squeeze? The TV in the nook blared on, the morning news, and I contemplated my next move.

“You want some eggs?”

“Oh yeah,” I said. “Overeasy? Runny yolks?”

“That shit is disgusting, eating runny yolks with no bread or nothing to soak it up.”

“What can I say. That’s the way I like ’em.”

“So what time are you going to work?”

“Work? Oh yeah…work. Uhhhh…we’re off today.”

She gave me a suspicious look. I’d been feeding her a line of bull about how I’d been hired to write a big reality TV show for Paramount, which was probably why she’d relented to giving me sex again. Amber had a particular allergy to losers; little did she know I was still 100 percent unemployed.

I decided it was a good time to change the subject. I walked over, turned on the morning news, and poured myself a cup of coffee.

I sat there and watched thje morning news–or what passes for it in Los Angeles, meaning stories about celebrities. The lead story was about the Kardashians, whose home had apparently been vandalized. I watched the anchors discuss the situation with facial expressions like it was 9-11 all over again; then they cut to a wall spraypainted with swastikas, various epithets, and one phrase repeated over and over again:

 

JACK FUCKS.
JACK FUCKS.
JACK FUCKS.

 

“Oh my God,” I said.

“What is it?”

I ran over with my coffee and turned up the volume. A female reporter stood on the sidewalk in a tony neighborhood in Calabasas. Fooz’s neighborhood. I turned up the volume.

“….the Kardashian family has no comment at this time. Earlier this morning Chief of Police Freddie Stetson held a press conference in which he had this to say.”

Cut to a shot of Stetson. He looked into the camera with tiny, suspicious, bored eyes.

“….the LAPD will not rest until we find the perpetrator of this act. We estimate damage to the Kardashian property at over $300,000. We are also considering this a hate crime.”

A reporter’s voice off-mic.

“What’s that, Jim? No, there is no sign of anti-Armenian sentiment. Just the swastikas and the reference to this “Jack.” Is the perpetrator named Jack? Is someone named Jack a party to this hate crime? We intend to find out.”

“WHAT THE FUCK,” I said.

My phone rang. I took the phone and walked out on the balcony.

“Hello?”

“Hey man, it’s me. I guess I blacked out…I’m in Palmdale, man, fucking PALMDALE! I don’t know how I got here…I woke up in a field, man, I’ve got no wallet or anything….I’m calling you from a library phone….you gotta help me out, Jack…”

“Fooz. There’s a manhunt going on for you, do you understand that?”

“What did I do?”

“You spraypainted swastikas and stuff all over Kim Kardashian’s home,” I said.

“I did?”

“And not only that. You spraypainted the phrase “JACK FUCKS” all over the front of her house.”

“Huh.” He paused. “That’s actually kinda cool.”

“No it’s not, Fooz. It’s really not. I’ve told you a million times that swastikas aren’t just cool punk rock symbols, they represent the extermination of millions of people. Don’t you get it?”

“Don’t start with the lectures again, maaaaannnn….”

“It’s not a lecture, Fooz, it’s reality. And now you’ve implicated ME in your crimes, you idiot!”

“I’ll make it up to you later, bro-en-heim. For now, though…can you pick me up? I’m at the library on Palmdale Boulevard….”

“If the cops get to you before I do, you leave me out of it. Tell them ‘Jack’ doesn’t mean anything. Can you do that?”

“You callin’ me a rat? I ain’t no rat, maaannn.”

“You really screwed up this time. Jesus H.”

“Just pick me up bro…It’s hot, I gotta massive hangover….PICK ME UUUPPPPPPP–“

I hung up the phone and walked back into the apartment. Amber stood there in the kitchen with folded arms and slitted eyes. I wondered how much I was actually getting by her, if anything.

“Did Fooz have something to do with that hate crime?”

I feigned a look of ignorance.

“What? Oh, THAT. No no no, that’s ridiculous. Fooz is all about anarchy against the government and supporting the rights of women and minorities. You know that.”

Amber rolled her eyes and put my eggs in front of me. They were nice and runny, just the way I like them—but I’d lost my appetite.

“He don’t know shit about women or minorities,” she said. “He’s a middle-aged man playing teenaged games. Maybe it’s time for him to grow up, you know what I’m saying?”

I took a bite of eggs and said,

“You fucked him, huh?”

Now it was her turn to feign ignorance.

“Say WHAT?”

“Fooz has banged every woman I’ve ever dated–why should you be any different? I know he’s a big rock musician and has that animal magnetism, something which I sorely lack, so I don’t blame you. It just sucks that you can’t be honest with me.”

“Let’s say I did sleep with Fooz, which I am denying, OK? Why do you just roll over and let him take your woman? Why don’t you stand up for yourself, instead of being such a damn worm?

I sighed, took the last bite of eggs, wiped my mouth with a napkin, and said:

“Because he’s my bro. That’s why.”

I picked up my phone and keys and headed for the door.

“Thanks for the eggs. I gotta give Fooz a ride.”

“Say WHAT? You just gonna leave–”

Door: slam.

Behind me I heard her scream:

“I KNOW YOU AIN’T GOT NO JOB EITHER, ASSHOLE!

 

Palmdale is a burg in the desert about 70 miles north of L.A. You drive up and up on a freeway that curves around golden sere mountains and foothills with desert valleys below and you feel like you’re ascending into the limitless blue sky. Then you cross a windblown pass and descend into a valley the color of horse crap. That’s Palmdale.

On the way over I listened to news radio. The Kardashian Hate Crime was big news in L.A. At just past noon a report came through that a disgruntled former employee of the family, a man named John “Jack” Stefanino, was being questioned.

Good news.

The library was at the corner of Sierra Highway and Palmdale Boulevard. I parked and got out and walked around, looking for Fooz. No sign of him anywhere. I took a look inside the library and he wasn’t there, either. I walked back down Palmdale Boulevard and was about to give up the search when I saw him sitting crosslegged on the sidewalk with a crude handwritten sign scrawled on the back of a pizza box:

HOMELESS
WAR VET
NEED TO GET BACK TO LA
PLEASE HELP

I walked over to him.

He looked up. His eyes were blood red. There was a cut across his forehead that had scabbed and clotted and probably should have been stitched up hours earlier. He looked like he’d been on the street for years.

“Can you spare a dolla?” he said.

“Fooz…it’s me. Jack.”

“Jack? Oh sweet Christ. I never thought you would come, Jack.”

“You just called me an hour and a half ago, Fooz.”

“In this desert, time slows down, becomes distorted. I’ve lived a thousand years, died a thousand deaths, all on this street corner. Not only that, I’m still a little drunk.”

“You make any money with that sign?”

“An old woman gave me a fiver, but a giant spider with wings swept down from the sky and plucked it out of her hands.”

“Oooookay…Look, Fooz, we’d better get outta here before you attract the attention of the local authorities.”

“And go where? I’m a fugitive from the law, Jack. I’ve defaced the house of L.A. royalty, man. And they’re my neighbors! They’re good people!”

“I think it’ll be all right,” I said. “The cops have someone they like for the crime. The gardener, a guy named Jack.”

“Really? You mean some innocent squarejohn is going to pay for my actions?”

“They’re questioning him right now. Does that bother you?”

“Of course not.”

He stood up, dusted off his pants, and tossed the bogus homeless sign into the gutter.

“Let’s go.”

We drove back into LA, the dung-colored tract home mosaic of Palmdale disappearing as the lip of the valley rose behind us. Fooz dozed off, water buffalo snores issuing from his mouth, a thin rivulet of drool on his unshaven chin.

“I didn’t do it, ma,” he said. “I din’t do it.” Then his eyes opened and he looked blearily around. “Where the hell are we, Jack?”

“In Santa Clarita. About 30 minutes from home.”

He sat back in his seat and stared out the window. I wondered what he was thinking about.

“You know, Jack, I lost my shit because I turned 40 yesterday. Not 36 like I said.”

“I know, Fooz. We were in the same grade, remember? And I’m 39.”

“I always can count on you to go all in on my illusions of grandeur,” he said.

“Don’t you mean delusions of grandeur?”

He shot me a look.

“They might be illusions, but don’t say they’re delusions, Jack. Don’t ever say that.”

“Sorry.”

He looked back out the window.

“I’ve been on this search since I was a kid. Trying to find a way. Trying to burn down the world with what’s in my heart, you know? And I never thought that flame could sputter, much less go out.”

He sighed.

“But man…Forty years old? I’m just so damned tired.”

He sat back in his seat and in a few moments he was snoring again. I tooled the Fit over the Newhall Pass. We were back in the San Fernando Valley.

Chapter Six – The Mall

It was 10 A.M. I’d just started in on the day’s beer-drinking when the doorbell rang. It was Fooz. I grunted and let him in, walked back over to the kitchen table, sat back down, and took a hit of my Budweiser.

“You look like shit, Jack, you know that?”

“Good morning to you too, Fooz.”

“Just sayin’ man. I left you at the Chongo Hut at what, midnight? Did you close the place down again? You’ve been out every night getting ossified, man.”

“You show up banging on my door at ten in the morning and moralizing… like a Jehovah’s witness with pink hair. It’s not my problem if you wanna leave the bar early. You’re a friggin’ lightweight.”

“Why so aggressive, man?”

“Lemme finish this Bud, take the edge off. Then we talk.”

“When I think of your liver right now I see a blue U-Haul blanket covered in cigarette burns.”

“Such poetry. Let’s not talk about my liver. Right now, I need a cigarette.”

“You’re smoking now too?”

I had a pack of Camels in the green terrycloth robe I was wearing. I lit up and held the pack out to Fooz, even though I knew he didn’t smoke. He sat there with a sullen look on his face as I smoked and scratched myself underneath the robe.

“You remind me of my mom right now,” he said.

“Maybe you better go see a psychologist about that.”

Fooz sighed.

“You ready to go, Jack?”

I vaguely remembered that I’d agreed the night before to accompany Fooz to the Glendale Galleria. He was a real pro at that—waiting until I was completely intoxicated to ask me for a favor.

“Why don’t you ask Todd to go with you? I’m in no condition to descend into that seventh circle of hell.”

“You love the mall, man! The happiest I’ve ever seen you is sucking down suds at the Red Robin!”

It was true. Whenever I went on a bender I had a thing for getting drunk at corporate joints. I found my buzz magnified greatly by depressing, sterile environments, and when I was a writer, creating television for middle America, I considered those hours of getting mind-blasted at Chili’s or Applebee’s or The Olive Garden time well spent to “get out among them,” to be tapped like a tuning fork by each drink until I could vibe with the moronic masses.

“Let’s go already,” whined Fooz. “You owe me, man.”

“For what?”

“I picked up the bar tab last night before I left.”

“You were only there with me for a half-hour!”

“Doesn’t matter. You know the rules. I pick up tab, you go with me to the mall. I’m not gonna go there ALONE, Jack!”

“All right, all right…let me get dressed…”

I put on my old cargo shorts and the blue Hawaiian shirt I’d worn for 2 weeks straight. I took one quick look in the mirror to check in on the beer belly and the haggard, bloated countenance.

Four months out of work and I seemed to be completely disintegrating.

Fuck it.

I grabbed another Bud from the fridge, slammed it down in three long swallows, chucked it across the room into the kitchen sink, and belched.

“Okay. I’m ready.”

We walked out into the blinding North Holllywood light. I put on my shades and got into Fooz’s VW bus.

“On these highways full of text-messaging morons, weedheads, and heavily medicated psychopaths…in these times of instant death…” I paused, belched again. “Excuse me. We must carefully gauge the skills of the person who is driving us, and the suitability of said driver’s vehicle. Both the driver and the vehicle in this situation are lacking, in my opinion.”

“What the hell are you talking about? You need to sober the hell up.”

“Just try to get us there in one piece.”

Fooz looked at me like he was about to say something, thought better of it, shook his head, and started the bus. We tooled up Lankershim and got on the freeway. For all his wild on-stage antics and burning intensity, Fooz was one of the most timid drivers I’d ever seen. My 90 year-old grandmother drove her Monte Carlo with more confidence. To make matters worse, the Foozmobile topped out at about 50 MPH, and he always insisted on camping out in the fast lane. I was sure I’d die in that bus one day, the question was how: car accident, or road-rage shooting by someone who didn’t take kindly to Fooz’s liberal use of the middle finger?

“So you sit around drinking beer and watching TV all day, and go to the Chongo Hut at night. Is that really the kind of life you wanna live, Jack?”

“This is all the life I need right now.”

“You gotta get it together, man. You smell like a brewery, and you look like shit too, if you want me to be honest.”

“So I need a shave. What’s the big deal?”

Fooz gave me a half-glance and smirked.

“I’m talking about your outfit, Jack. I mean, a HAWAIIAN SHIRT? What the hell izzat?”

“We’re almost forty years old, Fooz. Don’t you remember the guys we’d see at the clubs when we were kids? The guys who were middle-aged with beer bellies and gray hair and still dressed like Joey Ramone? That’s what you want me to be?”

“No way, dude. I am not…and YOU are not… THAT guy. THAT guy was always stuck in the past, thinking that CBGBs was the be-all and end-all. Like anybody ever really liked Television or any of that other art shit. At a certain point you have to change with the times, yet stay the same…get it? Look at me…I stay on the cutting edge. I still listen to new music. I never lost my fuckin’ ideals, though.”

“Ideals, huh? That’s a hot one.”

Fooz looked over at me.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“ You talk about ideals and how you’re “fucking shit up from the inside” but when it came right down to it you fucked me over, man. Your so-called ‘friend,’ stabbed in the back at the bidding of The Man.”

“THE MAN DOES NOT TELL ME WHAT TO DO! TAKE IT BACK!”

“I’ll take back shit.”

We drove along in silence.

“I still play out,” muttered Fooz. “The gray-haired guys can take all that Patti Smith fag stuff and go FUCK themselves.”

We parked and walked into the mall through JC Penney. The perfume counter created a wall of cloying stench visible as a fog bank, a faintish cloud of pink and green from which heavily made-up women watched us with black, uninterested, insect eyes.

Fooz stopped in Men’s Clothing to check out a bomber jacket. After examining the tag and the seams he made a dismissive sound and threw it on the floor.

“Cheap piece of Taiwanese shit and they’re charging 150 bucks for it. I could get that for 30 bucks over at the Military Man surplus.”

“Too bad they don’t sell band t-shirts at the Military Man, or you’d never have to come here. And you could leave me the hell alone.”

Fooz stopped, turned around, and pushed me hard in the chest. I staggered backwards and nearly toppled a rack of Rustler jeans.

“What the hell!”

“Enough bullshit, Jack. Are we bros, or not bros?”

“You’re a bro, all right. A backstabbing bro! A bro who works for The Man!”

“That’s it. I’m gonna kick your ass for that, Barajas.”

“You wanna fight, Fooz? I’ll fight you right now in the JC Penney!”

“Come at me then.”

I lunged at him, got him into a headlock, and dragged him to the floor. I was half-drunk and a little looser than usual and my sudden move took him by surprise. He swung wildly and biffed one of my ears real good but I held on,  beer-benumbed just enough to not feel the pain. I tagged him with a couple knuckle punches to the ribs and he yelled out in agony.

“ARRRRRGGGGHHHHH!”

“DO YOU YIELD?”

“I YIELD, YOU ASSHOLE!”

I waited another minute until he stopped struggling and then let him go. He jumped up onto his feet with a nimbleness surprising for one so portly. I got up too. We stood there and looked at each other. Fooz raised his fists and I thought it was time for round two but then he said,

“Ahhhh, forget it. Let’s get out of here before they call mall security.”

We walked out of the front entrance of JC Penney into an indoor plaza with blank paper light coming down from skylights high above.

“Okay, Jack. You got your aggression out. Are we bros now or what?”

“I reckon.”

“Good. My ribs hurt like hell, man.”

We got on an escalator. Fooz looked down at the people walking to and fro beneath us and said loudly, “Look at this scene, Jack! I can’t stand these fucking trendies, man. It’s like…all they wanna do is CONSUME, CONSUME, CONSUME. Like, uh, rats in a maze or something.”

“I can’t stand these places either. I find it helps to look at the mall from an anthropological angle.”

“What the hellzat mean?”

“Someday archaeologists will regard these places like we regard 13th century churches.They will examine what is left of the great frescoes of our world: women running in the surf, half naked; children in the garb of the day, playing; men in sweaters, men of different ethnicities, a representation of our great and prosperous and egalitarian society. They will speculate on the lives of the artists who sign these works: EDDIE BAUER will be considered the Michelangelo of our time, an artist particularly obsessed with the male besweatered form. Future generations will carefully control the temperature in these ruins to keep the “art” from deteriorating. Or maybe there will be no future generations, eh?”

“Why,” said Fooz. “Nuclear war? Global warming?”

“No. The deterioration of our minds due to smart phones and computers. Evolution is going backwards. The human animal is becoming more vicious, and more stupid, by the day. Society will dissolve in the blink of an eye. You watch.”

“Man, you drunk,” said Fooz.

“And about to get a lot drunker,” I said. “I’m going to the Red Robin. Meet me there when you’re done shopping.”

We parted ways at the top of the escalator.

The light coming in from the big glass doors was pale blue and it mixed and bled into the red neon of the Red Robin, and sitting there with a giant schooner I observed the waitress talk to the bartender. The waitress was pretty hot but looked like she’d already put on a bunch of miles at a young age, with the overtweezed eyebrows and green eyeshadow and overall dishevelment, like a dog who needed a good brushing. The bartender was a young man with a neck that formed a solid meat-cylinder from chin to chest. He stared at me with his little pinhole eyes and that bothered me until I realized that I was just another part of the background, like the plastic plants or the sign over my shoulder that read TRY SAM ADAMS.

I listened to them talk.

“This is not the right time.”

“It’s never the right time. You’ve got trains going into sides of mountains.”

“Did you see that Jessica dropped her phone in the toilet.”

“Bleach is a conduit, you get better reception.”

“I think that order of chicken fingers is ready. I’ll be right back.”

The waitress walked past me away from the bar and toward the kitchen. Meatneck yawned and brushed a fly away from his face and stretched. His arms were freckled, gelatinous, and massive.

I don’t know what it was that made me do what I did. He was just some bozo football player working the bar at a chain restaurant and I didn’t feel any particular dislike for the kid, but before I knew what I was doing I made a gun shape with my hand and pointed it at him and pulled the trigger and said: “Peyyyoooo…”

“What is that? You trying to be funny?”

I smiled and held up the glass.

“The plastic plant lives and breathes. How about another one, chief?”

He stood and stared and then walked over and poured me another. He set it down hard on the bar and the beer foamed over the side and made a pool of suds underneath the glass.

“I don’t wanna deal with no drunks in here, man. It’s waaayyyy to early for that.”

“Okay, chief. Us plants are just gonna disappear into the background again.”

I’d just had a couple sips of the brew when Fooz appeared, face red, out of breath.“You gotta come with me, Jack. We throwing down.”

“Say what?”

“No time to explain. I got in a little bit of a scrap. I need you to back me up…”

“What do you mean, ‘a scrap’?”

“Just drink up and let’s go.”

I looked sadly into the amber hues of the pint. Through the glass I could see Meatneck, arms folded. I was just starting to warm up to the guy. I lifted the glass and slugged it down, ran my hand over the back of my mouth, and belched. I gave Meatneck a wave. His expression didn’t change. I followed Fooz out into the mall.

Fooz was doing the tough-guy walk: fists clenched, arms and shoulders perfectly straight and immobile as he walked purposefully in the direction of wherever we were going. I hoped he wasn’t going to expect me to fight anyone. I looked down at my spindly arms and suds-bloated beer belly: not exactly an intimidating sight. Fooz stopped abruptly and I bumped into him, almost knocking both of us over. We were in front of Goth Topic, the place that sells band t-shirts and bondage gear. This was why we’d come, so Fooz could find a shirt he’d been looking for.  I scanned the inside of the place with some trepidation, looking for our adversaries, but all I saw was one girl with green hair and zits and a teenaged boy with an Errol Flynn mustache and  outsized adam’s apple trying on earrings in front of a wavy funhouse mirror.

“What’s the problem?” I asked.

He pointed. “That’s the problem…that fucker…”

He was pointing at the young man working the counter. The kid was done up in a full-bore imitation of David Bowie circa 1974 but with a few modern touches thrown in—in addition to the red hair and white pancake makeup and scarves and pirate eyepatch the kid wore a Justin Bieber t-shirt  and a big button with a picture of Beyonce that said BROWN SUGAR.

“Get my back,” said Fooz. “I’m gonna go wild on this fool.”

Fooz strode in and I followed at a distance, like we didn’t know each other. As he walked up to the counter I strolled casually to the rear of the store and smiled at a chubby girl in a tinkerbell get-up perusing the nail polish. She frowned and turned away.

“I DON’T CARE WHAT FUCKING BAND YOU LIKE, OKAY? WHAT’S YOUR PROBLEM, MAN?”

Everyone, including me, looked up at the front counter.

“Uh oh,” I muttered.

Fooz flashed a maniacal grin and said through clenched teeth: “Say what I told you to say…”

“Why don’t you just get out of here before I call security?”

“I am not leaving here until you say it. I’m giving you exactly five seconds, bro.”

“Or what?” The kid was trying to act brave but I could see he was a bit shook.

Fooz reached into the inside of his leather jacket. I knew right away what he was going for.

“Aw shit,” I said. “Not good. Not good.”

He held up the knife and flicked the button to reveal six inches of razor-sharp steel. Fooz called it “The Equalizer,” after that old TV show. He’d never stabbed anyone with The Equalizer, as far as I knew; it was meant as a deterrent. That being said, he’d become a little too comfortable over the years with brandishing the damn thing. One time on ‘shrooms I’d seen him hold the blade to Moody Mick’s throat because he was sure Mick had transmogrified into a chimp. That was scary, sure, but Mick was part of our inner circle, not some teenaged punk at the local mall.

The kid was trying to show a stiff upper lip but tears were welling underneath his dyed-red eyebrows. I assumed that he was just another suburban white kid who had never seen violence up close. Never been hit by his father. Never jumped by a gang of punks because his skin was too dark (or not dark enough). Never told no, never shown the appalling truth of his own insignificance.

“SAY IT!” screamed Fooz.

The kid rolled his eyes. “Septic Death is the greatest punk band ever,” he said.

The tip of the knife touched the soft spot underneath the kid’s chin. His head twitched involuntarily. Fooz pressed the tip in ever so slightly.

“And?”

The kid’s eyes looked past him, glazed over as shock set in.

“And…and Blink 182 sucks the big one.”

“Right…”

Fooz pulled the knife back. There was a dot of blood on the kid’s neck, one microscopic dot of blood in stark contrast with the pale white skin. The kid started to tremble.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw Tinkerbell crouched down behind a rack of Harry Potter costumes, cel phone pressed to ear. I knew right away she was calling the cops. I reached down and plucked the phone out of her hand and stuck it in my pocket and she looked at me with not so much shock or fear as indignation: to take away someone’s cel phone is to today’s youth the ultimate human rights violation.

“Fooz, we’d better go now…”

He looked at me and smirked and hit the button on The Equalizer. The blade disappeared back into the handle. He put the knife back in this pocket and said:

“Always remember. Always. Recognize. The old school.”

“Come on, let’s go,” I said.

We walked quickly out the front entrance. Behind us I heard a scream; whether it was the girl in the tinkerbell outfit or the Bowie clone, I couldn’t tell you. I threw the girl’s cel phone into the wastebasket by the escalator and we backtracked through the entrance of JC Penney and into the parking garage.

“I asked the kid for a Septic Death shirt,” said Fooz, “and he rolled his fucking eyes at me, said he never heard of them, and asked me how old I am. You believe the nerve of that little shit?”

“Little asshole,” I said. I figured it was a bad time to tell Fooz that I had no idea who Septic Death was either.

We got back in the Foozmobile and made our way out of the parking structure. Fooz pulled a left and we stopped at the light to make a left onto Colorado Bouelvard.

“These kids don’t know shit about punk rock,” said Fooz. “Speaking of, you coming to the show tonight? Or you gonna keep up the whole friggin’ hermit routine?”

“I dunno, maybe. OH MY GOD!”

“Wut? Wut izzit?”

He was on the corner of the sidewalk to our left. It was Meatneck, and he was standing with the Bowie kid from Goth Topic. The kid’s face was blotchy and flushed and streaked with tears; he held his finger to the little dot of blood on his neck, trembling like he was about to drain out. He saw us at the same time we saw him. He pointed at Fooz and I saw him mouth: “That’s the guy.”

Meatneck turned to the kid and they engaged in a passionate french kiss. When finally they broke their ardent embrace Meatneck pointed in the direction of the mall and the kid set off, still holding his fingers to his neck and walking slowly, as if from blood loss.

Fooz looked over at me with a grin. “You believe this?”

“I believe I just watched Lyle Alzado french kiss David Bowie.”

Meatneck stood by the driver-side window and stared at Fooz with intense hatred. He looked like he could crush both of us at once with those hamhock arms. “Roll down the window,” he said. Nothing moved on him save for the neck-meat, which seemed to be tightening and slackening in turn as he readied himself to fight.

Fooz looked at me and winked. “Watch this,” he said. As he rolled down the window with his left hand he reached into his leather jacket with the right.

“Don’t do it, man. Don’t do it.”

It was too late. He had the window rolled down now.

“What seems to be the problem, good sir?” said Fooz in a jovial tone.

MeatNeck’s eyes bugged with indignation. He opened his mouth to say something.

He didn’t get out a word.

Fooz’s hand came out of his pocket. There was a popping sound, a puff of smoke. Meatneck screeched and fell back like he’d been punched in the chest. Fooz threw the taser in the back seat and as the light turned green he floored it and the Foozmobile putt-putted out onto Colorado Boulevard. Pretty soon we were back on the freeway.

“Hey Fooz?”

“Yeah bro.”

“I’m not going to the mall with you anymore.”

“Well maybe next time we’ll go the Grove. Might be best to stay away from the Galleria for a while.”

“Gee, ya think? You’ll be lucky if they don’t get you on an assault charge. I keep telling you, I’m getting too old for this.”

Fooz looked over and smirked.

“You a big Patti Smith fan, Jack? A gray-haired, tired old geezer? Or are you gonna realize age ain’t nothin’ but a number?”

“Good God.”

“Hey listen. I appreciate you coming out with me. How about we go have a couple drinks at the Chongo Hut and chill?”

“The most sensible thing you’ve said all day, Mr. Pinkley.”

Chapter Five – The Needful

It was around this time that I lost my job.

I was writing for a show called My Ex-Wife’s Fat Neighbors, a middle-of-the-pack clunker that Eichelbaum used as filler for their EB Network stations. Our ratings were nothing special, but that’s the case for most shows on EB; the thing we had going for us was that we scored unusually high in the teen female demographic. This had little or nothing to do with the writing, by the way. Girls tuned in because of Bradley Steddit, the handsome himbo who played a neighborhood tough; his recalcitrant sneer and vein-laden arms sold millions of dollars worth of tampons, feminine hygiene spray, and IUDs. The show itself, ostensibly a dramatic comedy, was both bereft of laughs and dripping with maudlin melodrama. It was awful.

Anyway, I went into work every day feeling like I’d gotten away with something. Those were truly my salad days, days when I’d hang with the other writers and drink coffee and chat about how much the show sucked and how very beneath us it was, none of us admitting, at least to each other, that when it came to writing talent we were a pool of water that had sought its own level—a low level indeed. I was just happy I’d gotten out of the mail room, to be honest.

Meanwhile, the studio was onto us. They knew the writing was garbage, that we were easily replaceable, and shortly after signing Bradley Steddit to a multi-year deal they did to us what they’d already done to the IT and accounts payable departments:

They replaced us with cheap labor.

It started during the “Great Recession.” The company decided it was necessary to cut costs so they started with administrative positions. The head management at Eichelbaums hired a slave-trader company that shipped in Indians by the hundreds and housed them at the Elmwood, an apartment complex in Encino. There are prisons in California less crowded. Each one bedroom apartment housed ten people, and if the Indians didn’t like it, too bad. Anyone who complained would be shipped back to India faster than you could say “Ravi Shankar.”

The economy recovered, but the Studio’s rapacious need to cut costs was never sated. When I was fired, Eichelbaum Bros. was having the most profitable year in its history. Hell, the fifth movie in the Billy Dungee, Boy Wizard series made 3 billion domestic. DOMESTIC. I don’t even want to tell you how much they made in China. It didn’t matter. The layoffs and outsourcing continued apace, and slowly but surely the Eichelbaum lot began to resemble Mumbai.

You’d see them walking around the lot, hunched over, brown eyes full of fear, treated like dirt by both management and the employees they were replacing. I wasn’t worried about losing my job; we of EB’s creative class were far removed from the concerns of the everyday workers, and considered ourselves untouchable.

Imagine my surprise that fateful Thursday when I showed up to the writer’s meeting, and saw the Indians sitting there.

The executive producer (or showrunner, if you will) sat there running his hand over his jowls and talking pidgin English to the new hires.

“You makee show funny? Makee sell commercial?”

The Indians looked at him: four men with Saddam Hussein mustaches and tucked-in pastel dress shirts. They nodded slowly, grinning. I could tell they hadn’t understood a word. There was a girl, too, and she was sort of stunning, with long black hair and cute little buck teeth. I pictured myself in an apartment in New Delhi, padding around in a bathrobe and slippers, drinking coffee and waiting for her to come home and service her American master. I compartmentalized my liberal guilt and played around with this fantasy for awhile.

“You makee joke, make American teenager laugh,” the showrunner went on. “You likee rap music?”

The men glanced at each other uncomfortably and then nodded and smiled again. The girl just stared and smiled with those perfectly white buck teeth, her face vibrating with naive innocence. I squirmed in my seat and thought to myself: if this tight-jean trend goes on much longer I’m gonna blow out a testicle.

“Makee joke that rap music fan enjoy. Street, savvy street?”

More nods.

The showrunner’s name was Herb MacGilvray—maybe you’ve heard of him. The hair on his head was brown but all the little hairs in his nostrils were gray. I looked away, then back at the nostrils. Those nostrils always mesmerized me.

MacGilvray crossed his hands on his gut and looked over at his assistant, Annette. She was thin, anemic, with bad skin and thick glasses; she adored the man, saw to his every need. They had some kind of uncle/niece dynamic going on. MacGilvray, like most big-time producers, had no shortage of hot, impressionable young golddiggers on speed dial for a Friday night get-down, but his relationship with Annette provided psycho-sexual satisfaction the bimbos couldn’t give him. It was all about control, I suppose, and who had it, and how it could be manipulated.

“Take this down, Annette. I want our new friends to watch every episode of Mad About You we can get our hands on. When they’re done with that, I wold like them to immerse themselves in urban culture. You know, black stuff. I want them to understand American teens, the way they think, the way they talk.”

“Got it, Mr. MacGilvray.”

MacGilvray leaned back in his chair. It creaked. The room was silent but for the ineffectual air conditoner humming in one window. We were all waiting to see what would happen next. I fixated on a bead of sweat that had pooled on Annette’s philtrum. She let it pool, unperturbed. The heat seemed to be making the Indians drowsy, which is funny because I always assumed they were most at home in a sweltering climate.

MacGilvray slapped his hand down hard on the top of his desk. The Indians snapped to attention, servile grins dissolving into expressions of terror. MacGilvray winked at the woman and I felt a twinge of absurd jealousy and resentment—he was a plantation master, and I was some corn-pone asshole strolling up a dirt road with a stem of grass in his mouth.

“Now all the rest of you guys,” he said. “It’s nut-cuttin’ time.”

He looked around the room at us: me, Jeanette Blumkwitz, Bill Sunderson, Nick Rothko, Switch-hitter Sam, Todd Dean. None of us could believe what was happening. Sure they could do that to jerks in the accounts payable department but hey, we were CREATIVES. We played by different rules, enjoyed exalted status. We were the lifeblood of the company.

Denial is a powerful thing.

“I don’t have to tell you folks that this is the nature of the business we work in,” said MacGilvray. “It’s not about art. It’s not even necessarily about business, because what’s good for business doesn’t always matter. What matters is perception.”

MacGilvray pulled a tube of Certs out of his pocket and started crunching away, the slight grin still stuck to a gray face portending heart failure, stroke, a face revealing a soul scooped out and replaced with the cottonpuffs of privilege. His life was television and would be television until that day when he went to go see the big studio head in the sky.

“It comes down to the recession, folks. Eichelbaum studios CEO Harry Schmelielberg sent out a memo to all production staff a few months ago, telling us to cut costs. Telling us to bring shows in at 30 percent lower than what they’d already budgeted. They want us to bring in good comedy at next to nothing. You think you got stress, sitting around here on your fat asses typing out shitty dialogue? Try walking a mile in my mocassins, you pricks.”

He was careful to look at us, one by one. When he looked into my eyes I realized he did not see me. I knew that his eyes were looking past me and seeing something else entirely: the boat he’d be on later in the marina, the blue-grey water, the blonde head bobbing up and down between his legs. Still, I nodded. When there’s an authority figure around my head bobs up and down like that blonde’s—even though I wanted to point out to him that the recession was nine years ago, I found myself nodding, slobbing the knob. Taking it.

“They came up with the idea to outsource anything on the show that doesn’t have to be here on the lot. If they could move our whole operation to India they would, but that’s not quite feasible. Still, they can do other things. Like, say, replace writers.”

“What about the WGA?” Nick Rothko blurted out, his little hamster’s eyes peering out from behind Jeffrey Dahmer glasses.

“What about the Guild, Nick? You wanna go on strike, go for it. The last strike went on for a year and all you guys got at the end was a shittier deal.”

Nick didn’t have anything to say to that.

The boss regarded the tube of Certs with a look of disgust. He threw the Certs into the wastebasket underneath his desk.

“You Indians always smoke. You over there.” MacGilvray looked at a piece of paper in front of him. “Says here your name is Raji…Pathmarajah?”

The man smiled and nodded enthusiastically.

“You gottee cigarette? Savvy?”

Raji smiled and nodded and looked at him with his mouth hanging open.

The boss made puffing motions with his hand.

“You know…cigarette? Beedees? You brown bastard…”

Suddenly Raji got it. He nodded and jumped up and reached into his back pocket for a pack of Merit 100s.

“Put it in my mouth,” said the boss, pointing.

Raji walked over and put it in his mouth.

“Now light it.”

Raji lit it.

MacGilvray blew a plume of smoke in his face.

“Good boy,” he said.

Raji stood there, grin frozen to his face underneath the Saddam Hussein mustache. MacGilvray motioned with his hand.

“Uh, you can sit back down…” he said.

Raji sat back down.

MacGilvray coughed and leaned back in his chair and savored the coffin nail. Then he pointed at Nick Rothko and said:

“Your union doesn’t mean shit anymore. You know why? Internet piracy.”

We all looked at each other.

“Internet piracy?” said Nick.

“Yeah. It’s cut into business so much that we can’t make a red cent, least not like we used to. Used to be you could make a CD for ten cents and sell it for fifteen bucks. Now, nothing. You know, Eichelbaum Records is barely holding on. You think it’s bad here, over there it’s a goddamned bloodbath.”

He snorted and ran his index finger along the rim of one nostril.

“DVDs, too…no one buys them anymore. They want everything on the goddamned internet for free. So what’s the end result? We gotta hire guys from India to write our shows. End of story. Keep that in mind when you’re sitting at home ripping stuff off the torrents.”

“But what about the quality of the shows?” said Jeannette. Jeanette: she of the red hair and tremendous thighs. I’d given her oral pleasure at the Christmas party back in ’07. We hadn’t talked much since that night.

“The quality of the shows, my dear, isn’t important anymore. Not in the post-internet age. Stuff needs to be made for almost nothing to turn a profit. The standards have lowered.”

He stood up, hands on the table, and looked around at each of us in turn.

“NO ONE GIVES A SHIT, DO YOU HEAR ME? Everything on television SUCKS and it just DOESN’T MATTER ANYMORE.”

Silence in the room. Jeanette was crying, dabbing at her eyes with the back of her hand. Nick Rothko looked like he was going to cry, too. I guess we all felt pretty bad.

“So, without further ado,” said MacGilvray, “you’re all fired. You’ll receive severance packages in accordance with your union contract and all that happy horseshit, okay? Just…get out.”

I was at a table in front of Prissy’s Place, a little sidewalk cafe right down the street from the studio. From where I sat I could see the Santa Monica Mountains overlooking the Eichelbaum Studio. You’d see a movie from 80 years ago and there would be those mountains—eternal, unchanged,the people caught on celluloid in front of its verdant expanse long dead. The mountains went on and the actors were gone. I was gone, too.

I was on my way to getting mind-blasted on Gin and Tonics. Tiny Tony was my dining companion, as usual.

“I don’t know what I’m gonna do with my life,” I said. “I’ve been working at the Studio since I was 23 years old. Now what? It’s tough all over for writers, not just here.”

Tiny Tony was eating a Cobb salad from a bowl so large he couldn’t see over the top of it. His pudgy hand appeared holding a fork, speared a tomato and a hard-boiled egg, and disappeared again.

“You’re looking at this all wrong,” he said from behind the bowl. “You wanna know the truth, Jack? ‘Cause I’ll lay it on you if you want it.”

“Lay it on me,” I said.

“Hold on. This salad is bugging me.”

He grabbed the bowl and hefted it into his lap and picked out little pieces of hard-boiled egg with his pudgy, dirty little fingers. There was soot all over his hands and his shirt and his face. He was co-host on a variety show at Eichelbaums and at the beginning of every episode they shot him out of a cannon into a giant pile of charcoal.

“The truth is, you gotta stop crying like a little bitch. You ain’t gotta work for a little while,right? So consider this a break from the grind. Take it easy for a bit. Get laid, get high. Stop your moaning.”

I thought about that. I was always pretty careful with my money, and had a decent amount saved up. But then there was the lease on the BMW…I couldn’t give that up, could I? And what about my condo in North Hollywood with a bar and a 58-inch HDTV and a waterbed and a spectacular view of Lankershim Boulevard? What about the money I spent on hookers every month? What about Amber? For a girl who grew up African-American on the mean streets of Carson, she sure had an insatiable yen for fine dining and fancy shoes.

The truth was, I’d grown accustomed to a certain lifestyle, a certain level of comfort.

“I have to work,” I said. “There’s really no way around it. I’ve got bills to pay.”

“Oh please. You guys are all the same—you make a few bucks in this business and you forget what it’s like to be a human being. You forget your roots.”

“My roots are two miles from here. In Reseda. Don’t tell me about my goddamned roots.

“No need to get agressive, drunky.…say, here comes Fooz Pinkley.”

Fooz strolled up the sidewalk, face scrunched up with disgust (no doubt at the trendiness of the cafe and all the people eating there), wearing his work shirt and ID badge that said Smith & Felcher LLP – F. PINKLEY. He’d smeared on some crushed rose lipstick and wore pink Chuck Taylors to match his pink tie. That’s his “proletariat” look. I don’t know many proles who make upwards of 130K a year, but there you go.

He walked over and sat down next to Tiny Tony. They nodded acknowledgement to each other and then Fooz sat back in his chair and looked at me with his usual unfathomable anger.

“I got your text. Fuck you mean, you got fired?”

“I mean I got fired. They outsourced my job to some company.”

“Well that’s bullshit man. They can’t do that. You’re a writer, not a fucking janitor.”

“They can. They just did.”

“You don’t know how cheap Eichelbaums is,” said Tiny Tony.

“How the hell,” said Fooz, “can a bunch of foreigners show up one day and start writing an American mothafucking sitcom?”

“You saw my show, right?”

Fooz chuckled condescendingly.

“I don’t watch TV, man. That’s the opiate of the masses.”

“You’re on “YouTube” 10 hours a day, how is that any better?”

“That doesn’t make any sense, Jack. Apples and oranges.”

“Never mind. The show was terrible. The writing was terrible. I’m terrible. Forget about the Indians; I don’t know how I lasted as long as I did, Fooz. I started in the mail room, and that’s where I should have stayed.”

I admit it, I was getting a bit maudlin. The booze had me seeing myself as a character in some Greek tragedy. I motioned to the waiter for another G&T.

“You were the smartest guy I knew in college,” said Fooz. “The mail room was always beneath you.”

“You went to college?” said Tiny Tony. He laughed.

“What the fuck is so funny?”

“Sorry, but…” Tony sat back and covered his mouth with one fist and coughed. “It’s just that I have seen that show, and it don’t strike me as the product of superior minds. What’d you major in, anyway?”

I looked at him, then looked at Fooz. Fooz looked away and out at the traffic on Ventura Boulevard.

“I majored in German history,” I said.

Tiny Tony howled with laughter.

“Fuck YOU,” I said.

Another G&T arrived. I guzzled half of it down straightaway.

“We’re gonna get your job back,” said Fooz.

“We are? Howwegunna do that?”

“I got an idea. It’s a crazy idea, but it just might work.”

We parted ways with Tiny Tony and headed over to Fooz’s place in Calabasas. We played Xbox, drank Pabst Blue Ribbon, and smoked weed all night. Every once in awhile I’d look out the living room window at my BMW out there on the street and think about all I’d lost—but the pain was gone, replaced by anger and indignation.

Around 5 AM Fooz and I got in his VW bus and drove back to Encino, to the Elmwood Apartments. Fooz found an open spot in the carport facing the buildings and we sat there in the dark and had a couple bong rips and Fooz played some shitty bootleg recordings of an obscure 1980s hardcore band from Des Moines, Iowa.

“It’s funny. You’re the only guy I know who still has a tape deck.”

“That’s because the sound quality of magnetic cassette tape is amazing, Jack. These days, with the advent of mp3 technology, otherwise known as a “lossy” format, much of the warmth of the sound is lost to BLAH BLAH BLAH…”

I was zoning out. The sun was a smudge of blue over the San Gabriels. Fooz continued on with his long rambling tirade about audio formats, and I started to nod off. I awoke to Fooz punching me excitedly in the arm.

“There they go, Jack!”

He turned down the music. It was still dark and we were fairly well hidden in the shadows of the carport. I could see the dim glow of their pastel-colored shirts in the dark, their mustaches, as they walked to work. The studio getting them an automobile was out of the question. Even if they were somehow able to get driver’s licenses, it would have cost the company a few extra dollars to rent them a car. Not going to happen. They walked out of the entrance to the Elmwood and turned right, towards Eichelbaum Studios. It was a good two-mile walk each way.

“Let’s go,” whispered Fooz.

He grabbed a backpack from behind the driver’s seat and we walked up to the apartment the Indians had come out of. It was still dark, but the sky was turning from black to blue and I knew soon there would people everywhere leaving for work at the studio.

“C’mon c’mon c’mon,” I said.

“Chill.”

Fooz unzipped the backpack and pulled out a lockpicking kit he’d ordered from the back pages of Maximum Rock’nRoll in the late 90s.

“I always knew this would come in handy,” he said.

He jammed two metal rods into the lock and twisted them back and forth with much grunting and cursing under his breath. Finally the door opened and we were inside. I shut the door quietly behind us and we stood there for a moment while our eyes adjusted to the dark .

It was pre-furnished, and there was no indication that anyone lived there, no indication of personalities inhabiting the apartment at all. Except…

“Cumin. You smell that? It’s pretty strong,” said Fooz.

“They’re Indian, Fooz. Indians eat a lot of cumin.”

“Whatever,” said Fooz. “Let’s get rolling.” He pulled a can of black spraypaint from the backpack and went to work on the living room wall. When he was finished he stepped back to admire his handiwork and grinned.

JIHAD!
DEATH TO ALL HOLLYWOOD JEWS!
DEATH TO ALL INFIDELS!
JIHAD!
ISIS FOREVER!

“Needs a little something more,” he said.

He gave the can a few shakes and then added some swastikas to the ceiling, just for good measure. Nodding with satisfaction, he said:

“Perfect. Now give me those maps.”

We’d brought along photocopies of the Eichelbaum Studios lot map on which Fooz had drawn red dots on various executive’s offices and then scrawled crudely across the bottom: “BOMB GO HERE.”

We scattered the maps all over the apartment.

“Now, the final touch,” said Fooz. He pulled the last item from the backpack: a large framed photo of Osama Bin Laden with a bronze plaque at the bottom that read: “R.I.P. 5.02.11 NEVER FORGET.”

“You don’t think anyone will find it odd that a bunch of Hindus use terms like “jihad” and follow Osama Bin Laden?” I asked.

Fooz gave me a puzzled look.

“What are you talking about? These guys are Indian, man. Jihad. ISIS. Al Qaeda. And like that.”

“Aren’t those groups made up of primarily Muslims? Not Hindus?”

“Aw, who knows the difference? I didn’t, anyway, ‘til you just said that. The important thing is that one call to the FBI and these guys will never set foot on that lot again. Those suits will come crawling back to hire you, Jack.”

“It seems like a crazy plan,” I said. “But maybe it’ll work.”

“Of course it’ll work. Now hold on, I’m going to hang this plaque in the bedroom.”

He walked over to the bedroom door and opened it.

“What the hell,” said Fooz.

The room was dimly lit by a television, an episode of Mad About You playing with the sound turned down. I saw what I at first surmised to be brown buttocks thrusting into a mound of blankets. Then, in the millisecond that the synapses in my weed-addled brain connected, I saw the pile of blankets was the girl, the beautiful buck-toothed Indian girl getting plowed by the guy who’d given MacGilvray a cigarette. Raji Pathmarajah.

The girl saw us and screamed. Raji rolled off and started to get up.

We ran out of the room and out the front door. Outside the sun was coming up. We made it to the VW and peeled out in a screech of tires.

“One thing’s for sure,” said Fooz. “That wasn’t cumin you smelled.”

We drove west on the 134 freeway, back to Calabasas. The adrenaline had worn off, and we were both exhausted. There were thousands of cars on the other side of the freeway, heading to work. I looked out the window and thought about what had transpired. Finally I said,

“Do you think they saw us?”

“Naw. The room was too dark, and they were mid-fuck.”

“I dunno, man. We could get in a lot of trouble for this.”

“Don’t sweat it, Jack.”

Fooz was unusually pensive; he seemed to be thinking about something. Finally he said:

“You know, Jack, I gotta tell you something that’s been weighing on me, bro. I had my own part in this whole thing. That’s why I tried so hard to make it right.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“I mean Smith & Felcher LLP negotiated the outsourcing on behalf of Eichelbaum Bros. We ate the Writer’s Guild for lunch.”

“I don’t believe this. You helped me get fired?”

“What do you want me to do? That’s my JOB, Jack.”

“Your job.”

“Yeah, Jack. My fucking job.”

We drove along. I didn’t know what to say. Fooz had done a lot of things that had affected me in a negative way, but it was usually just the byproduct of his naturally irresponsible personality, the result of his well-meaning schemes. This was the first time he’d done something that actually felt like a betrayal of our friendship.

A week passed, then two. I was nervous maybe we’d be in trouble with the law but as the weeks went by I relaxed. In our inebriated state we’d forgotten to phone in an anonymous tip to the FBI as was planned, which ended up being a real stroke of luck. If the FBI had gotten involved and talked to the humping Indians there would have been an investigation and we would have been tracked down, no doubt about it.

I called around, looking for work. It was the same thing at every studio. Writers were dropping like flies and being replaced by low-priced lackeys. My buddy Gary Twitchell at Warner Bros. told me half of the staff on the “reality” show he wrote for (Transexual Bachelorette) had been replaced by custodial staff, and that after each writer’s meeting they were still expected to pour bleach in the toilets and vacuum the offices.

A friend at Paramount, Sam Pritchard, said the brass there had eschewed writing altogether. They’d invested in a new computer program that could take a bare-bones plot from an old show and add in dialogue and plot elements from an extensive database. Sam reluctantly admitted that the computer-generated scripts were indistinguishable from the ones written by humans—maybe even better.

The situation looked hopeless, but I couldn’t bring myself to look for work anywhere else in the private sector. How could I write ad copy for some insurance company when I’d once been a part of show business?

It didn’t look like I was going to find work anytime soon. I filed for unemployment assistance, and I started to drink.

In the morning I would stagger out to the liquor store up on Lankershim and get a case of cheap headache beer and by noon I’d be pretty well buzzed. The drinking would continue through the day. Sometimes I’d go to the Chongo Hut, a neighborhood dive bar, but mostly I’d pull down the shades and watch TV and get blasted.

It was awhile before I could bring myself to watch my old show, My Ex-Wife’s Fat Neighbors. I just couldn’t do it. One night, though, about four months after I’d been fired, I was more blitzed than usual and decided to check it out. The familiar music came on, the smarmy lyrics:

When you’re feeling all alone
Lost your wife, your kids, your home
Don’t eat that shotgun sandwich
Have a hoagie…with meeeee….
I’m your neighbor
I’m your neighbor
Fat Neighborrrrrr

I watched the show feeling numb. Bradley Steddit was on with his leather jacket and veiny neck, cracking jokes at the expense of Noel Benning, the aforementioned “fat neighbor.” It was the same old shit. The same stale jokes. It didn’t matter that we’d been fired. Not one whit.

The show was over. I watched the credits with fascination: every one on the staff had an Indian name. The unit production manager, the assistant directors, everyone but the cast.

Everyone except, I assumed, Herb MacGilvray. The big boss man.

And then I saw it:

EXECUTIVE PRODUCER/HEAD WRITER
Raji Pathmarajah