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