If you are getting the feeling that Bruno's life is about
to explode, you might be right. He's just found out that the woman he loves
has a son - a genius chatterbox, and that she doesn't give a damn for anything
other than her next hit of crack. So, let's see what happens...
Numb, my mind nearly sober from seeing Jimmi, the sneering voice of my dead
brother ranting behind my eyes, I needed escape. Relief. My Chrysler was
heading back toward the Prince Carlos when I chose to change directions.
To just go.
Years before in New York, as a cabbie, I had
discovered driving as an escape. Late at night I'd learned to rescue myself
from my depressions by rolling through the empty streets of Manhattan, alone,
listening to the humming of the tires, hour after hour. Drifting. Safe.
Solutions had come easily. Ideas. Poems.
I needed that again.
Taking the 5 Freeway into the 10, I headed
east instead of toward the ocean, San Bernardino - stopping only for two
quarts of Stoli at a 2 a.m. liquor store. Fifty miles later, at the base
of the mountains, I caught the off ramp to the 15, up the hill toward Hesperia
and Baker and Barstow, in the direction of Death Valley and Las Vegas, the
openness of the wide Mojave Desert.
Hours later, deep into the murky hills, my
brain felt comfortable. In front of me, a dotted line of headlights extended
fifty miles onto the flat desert. A pure black night, stars popping above
me like a billion sparks bursting at the same time.
When the rim of the sky began turning pink,
I decided to pull off on a dirt road and watch the sun come up, then head
back toward L.A.
A few hundred yards into the sand, with the
main highway behind me, far enough out of sight, I rolled to a stop then
put the car's windows down to let in the chilled desert air. There was half
a bottle of vodka left on the seat. After taking a dozen long hits, I clicked
the headlight switch off and killed the engine. I lit a cigarette and smoked
it. No ghosts. Only stillness. Not the roof of a house nor the eyes of
a face. Nothing. Immense, undisturbed, raw space. Perfect quiet.
I found paper and a pen in my glove compartment.
An old order book from my vacuum job. I began a new letter on the back of
one of the carbon pages. "Jimmi," it started, "I stole from
you tonight. A pair of your panties. I found them on the floor by your bed
and stuffed them into my pocket when you weren't looking. I will never give
them back. I will lick them and smell them and keep them in my pocket and
never return them. When I die, they will be cremated in my coffin with me.
I stole a lipstick from your desk at Orbit too. I'm keeping it. I love you,
Jimmi. I can't help it or stop it. I have not ever felt this way about any
woman before. When you breathe, I breathe. When you drink water or wash
your hands, I am there with you. I came to you tonight knowing you do not
understand or care at all for me. That is why I left you. You are beautiful
and you are mine and what has happened between us has left a magic that
has changed my life forever. I will love you, Jimmi. Your boy too. Your
wonderful son. I love him too. We will be together. Bruno."
It was dawn. I was okay. I folded the letter up and stuffed it in the pocket
with her underpants. Then I closed my eyes.
* * *
When I woke
up, I was sheathed in sweat, convulsing and twitching. My first impulse
was panic. Clearing my vision, I looked around. Great squiggly waves of
incinerating heat were out every window, like huge, dancing, transparent
snakes hovering above the weird landscape. My head was pounding, and a
sour taste began swelling and choking my throat. I reached for my Stoli
and took a hit. It didn't help. Something was wrong. It was a sickness.
A terrible demon had taken possession of my guts and flesh.
Reaching for the key to start the Chrysler,
pulling my body upright in the seat, I badly scorched my hands on the
car's flame-temperature steering wheel. Wave after wave of the shakes
hit. Convulsing, I could only wait for it to pass. Finally, when I could,
I twisted the ignition key to the right. The car started.
Now I was shivering. Dizzy. I got the windows
up, then clicked on the A/C. Air began coming out - a tepid, weak stream
- like blowing at a volcano. But it was something.
When I flipped the car's chrome shifter
down into "D", the wheels lurched forward, then stopped. I was
light-headed, beginning to pass out. In retaliation, I punched the gas
pedal. It accomplished nothing. The tires spun, and I felt the car sink
deeper in the sand.
A new wave of the shudders hit. Out of
control, I felt myself shit my pants. My mind, disconnected - off somewhere
watching - gave me one last oracular message: I was going to die. Right
here. A sick, decomposing hog. This was hell.
When I came too, the car was cooler, my breathing easier. Five minutes
might have passed or half an hour. Somewhere I heard thudding. Pounding.
A person - a body - was at my driver's window. A cop or my final death
vision. The thing was yelling through the inferno of heat, but there was
no sound reaching me. A cowboy hat. Sunglasses. A tan uniform and a gold
badge. I tried to talk back, but my mouth was too dry.
"Zurg," the cop voice yelled.
Now I could heard it. "Zurg! Egofo, Zurg!" the noise insisted.
"Egofo ug wagga donnn...Groll jurr winnnerr down...Zurg!" I
found the crank handle, then lowered the glass.
The cop removed his hat and shades so he
could lean in. A huge head, drenched in sweat. Big, distorted, eyes. Horse
eyes. A crushed red pepper for a nose. "Dug fallow dar muter stoff,
I understood. My brain decoded the words.
I reached the ignition to shut the car off. But the action was crazy.
With the engine off there would be no more cool air. Why would I want
that? I yelled back: "No. No fucking way!"
"Zurg," the cop demanded, "Nift
you doll chadd zur aggin stoff ug fallow gule der motor."
"No" I yowled, now believing
myself to truly be hallucinating, clumsily attempting to roll the glass
But the cop was passed arguing. A brown,
sweaty sleeve reached across me and turned my motor off. "Sir, I'm
the Highway Patrol. It's a-hundred-and-twenty-two degrees out here. Do
what I tell you."
* * *
truck driver, a strange desert inmate-looking fuck in rock-star mirror
sunglasses and a turned-around Dodger's cap, arrived and charged me $91.67
to spray something on my motor to cool it down then haul and pull my Chrysler
by cable back to the main road. The guy talked to himself the whole time
while he was hooking my car up. Me standing in the sun, watching, terrified
- needing a drink - experiencing near-death.
After the crazy man took my money, he counted
it three times slowly, stacking the bills on the scalding hood of his
The CHP cop, Officer Essmann, was an okay
guy. He gave me a quart of hot drinking water in plastic from the trunk
of his black and white, then let me sit in the air-conditioned passenger
seat of his cop car until my body temperature lowered and I could stop
trembling. As a taxpayer courtesy, he ignored the smell of the drying
shit in my pants and let me know by not bringing the subject up, that
he was choosing to avoid writing me a ticket for the empty vodka bottle
on my front seat.
Essmann stayed in my rear view mirror for
several miles down Route 15 until I pulled off into a rest area to clean
up. I watched his cop car disappear into the wavy Mojave furnace.
After washing myself and soaking my head
under the faucet in the bathroom, I lit a cigarette and checked my pants'
pockets. Seventeen dollars. My Chrysler had only a quarter tank of gas
to get me the two-hundred miles back to L.A. Not nearly enough. But not
having gas money was trivial. I needed a drink. My stomach was beginning
to spasm and cramp from alcohol deficiency. Back at the sink I sucked
in as much cold tap water as I could stand, filling my stomach. It helped.
Then I got back in the Chrysler, hit the A/C button, and headed west.
The first green highway sign I came to read SAN BERNARDINO - 189 MILES.
Approaching Barstow, my fuel gauge showed
just above 'E.' I was beginning to get the fly-aways and more severe,
jabbing, stomach cramps. My body began trembling and convulsing. I had
to pull off.
At the bottom of the exit ramp, like a
snake carcass in the dust, was an 'L' shaped shopping center, a pizza
place, a gas station, and a Thrifty Drug Store. Beyond Thrifty's was a
tractor dealer with a giant yellow and green two-story sign: Duke's Killer
Tillers. On top of Duke's sign, a clock/thermometer reported the only
meaningful news in the desert mall: 1:37 P.M., 119 DEGREES.
While I waited for a shaking spasm to subside,
my brain assembled a frantic scheme. To make it work all I needed was
a drinking cup.
Pulling up to a parking space in front
of the pizza restaurant, I cut the engine and the air conditioning. Through
the windows I could see two or three customers eating lunch on the enclosed
patio. Opening the car door, I sucked in my breath, and stepped into the
Just inside, at the first empty table,
I found what I needed: a used, tall, waxed soft-drink cup with Mendoza's
Pizzeria stamped on the side. A red straw was sticking up through the
plastic lid. Grabbing the cup, I walked out.
Across the parking lot, staying in the
shade of the mall roof as I walked, I made it to Thrifty's. My gut spasming
and cramping was now constant.
The big drug/department store was cool
inside. Wonderful. Only one cashier and a handfull of customers. I pushed
my damp hair back and tucked in my shirt.
Empty pizza-drink cup in hand, impersonating
a nonchalant shopper, I made my way to the liquor department. Next to
a vodka display, after making sure no one was watching, I unscrewed the
cap on a half-gallon jug of Smirnoff from the back row. Then, holding
the fat bottle beneath eye level of the liquor rack, I tipped it down
until my cup was filled. 16 ounces of clear joy juice. I spun the cap
back on and returned the decanter to it's empty slot. As I walked away,
even before I had the straw to my mouth, even before my first hit, a felt
a wave of peace soothe my body, like a kiss from God.
For a long while I was content to roam
the store's aisles, sucking back deep wallops through my straw as I went.
Making the rounds of the different departments.
Always a fan of clever display advertising,
I paused to admire a nifty five-foot-high fold-out of an actress's parted
red lips in the makeup/perfume area. My brain envisioned the size of a
cut-out erect cock for a compatible exhibit.
Greeting cards were next. Cleaning products.
Microwave ovens and counter-top appliances.
A realization came. An intimate anthropological
understanding. Everything important in life could be found at Thrifty's.
Everything. If one never left - a person could spend the rest of their
life going from store to store in the vast California chain operation.
All Thrifty outlets had a paperback best-seller section and were uniformly
Arriving at SOFT DRINKS, I realized that
I was more than half way down on my cup. Working up a very good buzz.
It was time to make a health decision.
Opening the glass stand-up cooler, I popped the top on a can in a six
pack of Schwepp's Tonic Water, then splashed in a few ounces with my vodka.
Sweet bubbles to help soothe my troubled digestive tract. I slid the can
back in its place with the others and let the glass door hiss closed.
From behind me I heard someone clearing
Turning, I saw a person, a man. He was
planted several feet away near a lightbulb display, observing me. A rat-faced
little fuck in khaki work clothes, a carton of Benson & Hedges Menthol
Lights tucked under his arm. The logo on his shirt pocket read: DUKE'S
He stepped closer. "You going to buy
that 6-pack of soda, buster?" he inquired angrily.
"What?" I said, self-assured,
my hand empty except for the Mendoza's Pizza drink cup. "Are you
speaking to me?"
"Don't lie. You just poured from that
can of soda. Then you put it back. I seen you."
"I believe you're mistaken."
This further pissed him off. He scanned
me up and down, then marched up to a foot from my chest. I was now able
to make out the name sewn in smaller script above the DUKE'S KILLER TILLERS
logo on his shirt. This was Duke himself. "My ass!" he sneered.
"I been observing you. The manager of this store, Ray, is a friend
of mine. A good man. A straight shooter. Around here, we look out for
"How swell for you," says I,
a little goofy from my vodka. "I'd wager that you and Ray have OBSERVED
your share of serial killers and Shiite terrorist suspects prowling around
the Arco Station or that pizza joint across the parking lot."
Duke let his carton of cigarettes drop
to the floor. He was ready for action. "There's two ways we can do
this, buster...The first way is the easy way. I'll ask you for the last
time: Are you going to purchase that 6-pack of Schweppe's?"
I took a long, slow hit from my straw.
I was bigger than Duke, but I wasn't ready to have an episode of tactical
stupidity come between me and a return visit to the liquor department.
"Okay Duke, you win," I confessed. "I made a mistake. I'll
buy the goddamn soda...when I'm done shopping, okay?"
Duke pushed past me to open the cooler.
He yanked the rest of the torn-open 6-pack off the shelf. "You're
done shopping NOW, asshole. We're going to the check out-counter NOW."
In for a penny, in for a pound.
Making our way up the aisle to the register,
Duke stayed behind me emitting audible whiffs and rodent-type snorts.
I deduced that the smell of the dried shit in my pants had come to his
At the cashier, he dropped my stuff on
the rotating counter, then made an announcement loud enough to be heard
in PAPER PRODUCTS. "This CUSTOMER here would like to purchase a six-pack
of Schwepp's Tonic Soda."
"Tonic water, Duke," I corrected.
He grabbed me under the arm. "Time
to show the color of your cash, smart guy."
The register girl wasn't sure what was
up but scanned my item anyway. Two ninety-seven.
Toting my plastic Thrifty's bag in his
hand, Duke followed me through the automatic doors out into the blazing
desert. "Where you parked, buster?"
The sudden combination of heat with the
vodka had me reeling. The best I could do was gesture across the asphalt.
Duke handed me my bag of tonic water. "Don't
come back around here. Next time I'll call in the law. Do we understand
Although leaning against a pillar, I was
able to salute Duke. Like one I'd seen in a Demi Moore movie about Navy
skin divers. "Say it loud," I yelled, clicking my heels, "I'm
black. I'm proud."
I could feel his eyes on me as I shuffled
across to my Chrysler.
the car, I backed out then rolled down to the Arco Station at the end
of the mall. While I was pumping the gas in my car - my last fourteen
bucks - I glanced across a couple of times at the showroom window of Duke's
Killer Tillers. There, through the glass, stood the midget proprietor,
the rat-snouted protector of Barstow, glaring, observing me.
I decided to stall. First, I took my time
wiping my windows with an available paper towel, then I went from car
door to car door shaking out the filthy floor mats. That done, I emptied
the ash tray. I even tried to check the engine oil for the first time
since my mother had given me the car. It took a full minute to isolate
the whereabouts of the dip stick. There, with the hood still up, I stole
another peek at the tractor showroom window. Duke was involved with two
customers wearing work clothes.
I didn't hesitate. Slamming the hood closed,
I fired up the Chrysler, then whipped around out of sight behind the Arco
to a parking space by the coin-op bathrooms.
Mendoza's Pizzeria drinking cup in hand,
staying at an angle to Duke's window, walking in the shade, I hurried
back to the entrance to Thrifty's.
Inside, I was re-embraced by the cool sanctity
of the store. When the girl cashier spotted me, she appeared surprised.
I waved. A public relations gesture. "Forgot something," I called
out, grinning happily. She smiled back, and I headed for the liquor department.
It took only a few seconds to pour my vodka
refill, then push the 1/2 gallon jug back into its place on the shelf.
On my way out, sucking at my straw, I yelled, "Stay cool, y'all,"
to the cashieress." She responded, a perky institutional reply; "Thank
you, sir. You have a good day, now."
On my way
back to L.A, Route 15 West was nearly empty. Safely numb again, an old
Jimmy Reed tune came on FM, "You Got Me Runnin'."
I hit the gas pedal. Fuck it. I hadn't
been over 120 miles an hour in years. This was fun.
Standing at my P.O. Box, I read the return address on the envelope.
Orbit Computer Products. A window envelope. I tore it open immediately
and found a check inside. The shock of seeing the numbers was like the
sudden sweetness of blended whiskey; $311.00. Four of my printer ribbon
orders had been paid after deferred shipments. I was rich.
I dug in my pocket for coins. I wanted
to call someone. Celebrate. Then I remembered. In my wallet I found Cynthia's
number. Thinking of her fat tits, I dialed. With Cin I could drink and
get drunk and pretend to forget about Jimmi and act like a writer. I'd
bring a bottle and we'd talk about books and politics. And fuck. I had
used her before, and now I would do it again.
I began dialing, but as I did her smell
came back to me. The sadness. How it coated the walls and clung to her
bookshelves like Egyptian dust. A needy, forlorn deaf creature living
in a house on stilts. We were alike: two cripples with books in common.
She'd be glad I called. We deserved each other. It didn't matter that
she was old. I'd use anyone. People in line at the 7-11. Anyone.
The phone rang six times, then a machine
answered. Cin was gone, the message said, back to Australia. A vacation.
Her antiseptic voice reported her absence and brought back the melancholy
in her face. Two months in Byron Bay. A friend named Kim, her message
said, would be house-sitting in Laurel Canyon.
I tore the paper up that held the number,
then flung the pieces into the air.
On my way back to the motel, after cashing
my check and stopping at the market, I went by the pawn shop on Washington
Boulevard. Jonathan Dante's typewriter had brought eleven bucks in hock.
The guy remembered me. I paid him and got my typwriter back.
I was half drunk again, so we engaged in
affable consumer-type conversation. Trying to think of something to keep
him going, I confided that my ship had come in. I was on a shopping spree.
I yakked on like a fool, willing to say any type of nonsense to keep myself
from returning to an empty motel room. To prove I was newly rich, I started
spending. A thick harmonica gleamed in its velvet case. A collector's
item, he said. A real investment. He was lying but I didn't care. I proclaimed
my love of blues music and said it was time I learned to play an instrument.
Forty-nine-ninety-five. I shelled out more cash from my roll of bills.
We talked as I went from shelf to shelf
examining his merchandise. I tried on rings and a gold bracelet and a
withered leather bomber jacket. On the shelf with his stereo stuff was
a CD/Tape player with a box of CD's. A package deal. Another forty-five
dollars for everything. Dinah Washington and Ray Charles. Early Sinatra.
I took it all. An hour later he helped me haul the stuff out to my car.
* * *
Squinting, looking around, objects began
appearing in strange color streams. One color was shit beige - the shade
of my room's walls, the floor - but the other colors were new. Brown.
Black. Crazy red too. Disney red. Everywhere. I closed my eyes.
I was woozy from the wine I'd been drinking.
Mad Dog 20-20. Weak too. Tired and terribly weak.
I looked again. The light beneath the blinds
told me it was day again.
More loud knocking. Again and again and
again. Finally, fully conscious, I yelled, "Okay! Jesus! Fuck! Okay!...Whoizzit?"
"Diega...The day man-eye-yer."
I swung the door open and went blind from
the daylight. "Okay - What's up?"
"Jou hab a kall...a womeng. Chee says
emergencee. Chee says to tell you..." Then - a look of horror in
her eyes - "MY GOW!! WHA HOPPENG?..."
Diega was holding her mouth, stepping back
My eyes followed her eyes down to my arm.
Blood. Soaking my pants, my shirt.
Looking around, the floor was red too.
The bed too. Red and dark brown. Everywhere. Red was dripping from my
arm while I stood at the door. My blood.
* * *
what the L.A. police call it. "ATTEMPTED SUICIDE -DANGER TO YOURSELF
AND OTHERS," is the charge. Diega, hysterical, began knocking on
doors up and down the hall, dashing about - sure that I was about to die
- which I was not. Finally, her fat ponytail Cochise-looking boyfriend,
Miguel, back in the office muted the TV, got off his ass, and dialed 911.
There was half of an empty gallon of Mad
Dog on the floor by my bed. My enemy; sweet wine. Knowing the police were
arriving, I chugged what was left in the bottle, hoping that the stuff
would stay down.
Blue men began coming into my room. Sirens.
I swapped my bloody shirt for another one and held a bathroom towel against
my arm. Several of my motel neighbors peeked in from the hallway. People
I didn't know. Then the paramedics.
Diega was worse off than me. Crying. Yelling
shit at fat Miguel in Spanish. One of the medics advised her to go home
and eat a tranquilizer.
Twenty minutes later I sat on my bed watching
cops shuffling around, picking stuff up, moving stuff, looking through
my shit in the hope, I assumed, of finding dope and contraband. There
is an immutable law that wherever cops congregate, more cops must join
in. Thoroughness is a watchword in law enforcement.
A paramedic gauzed my arm and taped it,
then gave me an injection. Then, just before they took me out, under The
Demon, my Hubert Selby novel on the nightstand, I found a note. I had
written it sometime in the night, in the blackout. The note was to Jimmi.
went to the County USC Emergency Room and was put on a gurney. The two
policemen who followed the ambulance told me the charges again: 51/50.
Danger To Myself And Others. I was made to sign a report.
My cuts were deep, not across, but up and
down my wrist. But the bleeding had mostly clotted and stopped.
A guy near me, sitting on a chair in the
ER waiting area, was named Marvell. A thug. A Crip gang member. When the
nurse left the room and we were alone, we talked. He asked about my cuts.
Marvell was on some kind of meds they had given him, but he was communicating
okay, just slowly. He had arrived in the middle of the night. A drug OD.
They had pumped his stomach, and now he was waiting for transfer. Crack
and Dalmane. Marvell's next stop was to be the Forensic Unit at the Twin
Towers County Jail - the whack ward where they collect all 51/50's. According
to Marvell, who knew of such things, attempted suicides in L.A., like
him and me, are sent to lock-down for a mandatory eleven day hold and
evaluation. A legal requirement.
I have been confined to jail nut wards
before. Mostly in New York. These are terrible places: airless and small,
one-room, cells. At first you are tied to a bed. The bed is bolted to
the floor. There is only one window, and it is in the door. Glass with
a chickenwire center. A slot beneath the window is for food and meds.
The stench of shit and puke and disinfectant is everywhere. The crazies
in whack-wards scream constantly, twenty-four, seven. Everyone is medicated
to keep them acquiescent, but still the screaming goes on non-stop. I
wanted no part of the whack ward at Twin Towers Jail.
I asked Marvell if he knew of any way to
beat the mandatory 11-day confinement deal. It took his face half a minute
to take in the question, then answer. "Got priors in L.A.?"
he said. "You got a jacket?"
"Nothing in California."
"Okay...just one arm....might-could-be...an
accident. What papers...you sign?"
"Nothing. Just the cop's police report."
"Okay, don't say...admit...nothin'.
By law...they got to let you out. Stitch you...let you out...the law...izza
law, my man. Hole you till you sobers up - 'n cut chu loose."
My doctor came in. Doctor Cortez. He examined my arm. Then a Filipino
nurse with a mustache wheeled me to a stitch room, out the door passed
where the cops were waiting, to where I was examined and x-rayed and stitched.
The pictures showed I was okay, no ligaments cut or tendon damage. They
sewed me up and taped my arm. Three cuts - eighteen sutures.
When I returned to the ER waiting area,
Marvell was gone. Doctor Cortez had already filled out the 51/50 confinement
form, and the police were waiting for me to sign it so they could leave.
ATTEMPTED SUICIDE was checked.
I refused the clipboard.
Marvell had been right; they couldn't hold me. Attempted suicide is two
arms. One arm is an accident. Cortez made a face, then tapped on the window
for the two cops to come and get me.
* * *
myself by the phone message I left for Eddy Kammegian. It was this: "Mister
Kammegian: Bruno Dante calling you from The Twin Towers Jail. Downtown.
On twenty-four hour hold. I don't know any reason why you would want to
help me. But I can tell you I've had enough. I'm making a commitment to
never drink again. I want my job back, Mister Kammegian. I'm asking for
your help here. Please."
There were nineteen men in my jail pod. Many more came and went in the
short time I was there. The Twin Towers jail has one centrally-located
mirrored glass sheriff's position watching each floor of inmates. Sometimes
hundreds of men. The place is huge. I found out that L.A. has the largest
jail in the world.
My body was withdrawing from alcohol. Shaking
violently, I spent most of the next ten hours puking into a seatless,
stainless steel shitter. In the middle of the night, one of the 'brothers'
got involved in a game of toss-my-salad with a bald, ex-school teacher
from El Segundo, while two of his bunkmates kept watch. Salad-tossing
is a jailhouse amusement where the 'volunteer' is made to lick food -
popcorn or peanuts - out of another man's asshole, then suck his cock.
The cum is the salad dressing.
The bald teacher from El Segundo was punched
in the head many times until he had licked all the blood and salad dressing
off the jail's concrete floor.
morning at dawn - 5:15 a.m. - the owner of Orbit Computer Products himself
appeared. Not Doc Franklin or Frankie Freebase or one of the company's
admin flunkies. I nearly crashed into Kammegian as I was walking, head
down, coming through the one-way hissing double-door exit. The big man
stood in the middle of the hallway like a cement post, his thick neck
stuffed inside a two thousand dollar attorney-looking pinstriped suit.
At my jail release, I signed for my clothes
and was also given a bill for hospital services: stitches, blood tests
and X-rays, and the examination. $1,471.00
On the freeway ride back to Kammegian's
house in Santa Monica Canyon, my withdrawals were still extreme. Constant
tremors and stomach cramps. Eddy K. kept silent the whole way.
Upstairs in back of his house, above the
garage, was a converted weightroom/studio apartment. Unlocking the door,
Kammegian pushed it open with his foot. A big, open room, musty and chilled
in the early-morning light. But anything was better than where I had been.
There was an exercise machine, a futon bed, a bathroom and shower, a microwave
oven, stained carpet, and a black dial phone with a metal lock to prevent
his guests from making outgoing calls.
Kammegian tugged open a casement window,
then sucked in a mouthful of clean air. "Shake it out, Dante,"
"Get some sleep."
"Feeling any better?"
"Like death. Awful."
"I'll bring you fresh sheets and towels
and orange juice and honey and some canned food from downstairs. You'll
be okay. Half a dozen men have sobered up right here on that couch."
There was something different for me this
time. Beyond the puke stink and my filthy clothes and the humiliation.
I felt crushed. Old. I was sure I was done. I tried to tell Kammegian.
To say the words. "I'm okay," I said, my body rattling badly,
making my way to the couch, easing myself down. "I'm ready. I mean
it. I want you to understand - I really mean it."
For the first time, as people, we connected.
Big-necked Kammegian folded his arms across his chest. "I believe
you. When a man says he's ready, I'll do whatever I can."
"Can I have my job back?"
"You tell me something. Tell me what
you think the difference is between us - you and me?"
Out of answers, I shook my head. "No
"Faith is the difference. Willingness
and belief. Other than that, we're exactly alike."
"Look, I'm ready. That's all I know."
"An alcoholic has to be desperate
in order to recover. Pain is the key. Your pain is the beginning of change.
Faith follows the pain and desperation. If you really want to, one day
at a time, you never have to take another drink. That's how it works."
"I'm desperate. I know that."
"Will you trust me? Will you do exactly
as I say?"
"Sure," I said. There was nothing
left to lose. "Okay."
"Good. Sleep now. I'll send someone
from the office to your motel to pick up your clothes. In a couple of
days when you're better, you'll start riding to work with me. Call Liquorstore
Dave. Tell Dave I'm your boss again - and your new AA sponsor. Questions?"
I didn't have any. "Thank you,"
From a desk drawer, Kammegian pulled a
yellow legal pad, a pen, and The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. "Direction
number one: read this, the first one hundred sixty-four pages. Then write
about Step 1, what you think being powerless over alcohol is, what
an unmanageable life is."
I hated the fucking AA Big Book. I'd read
it three different times cover to cover, studied it in endless group sessions
in half a dozen different recovery programs. The story of Bill Wilson's
Jesus conversion from bourbon whiskey after sobering up in a nut ward
seventy years ago. Trite. Arcane, hackneyed bunk. The manifesto of an
unemployed, busted-out, egomaniac stockbroker. But shivering now, looking
up at Eddy Kammegian, there were no no's left in my mouth. "You'll
have it tomorrow," I said.
On the floor at the end of the bed was
an ugly green plastic waste basket. The big man yanked the liner bag out,
then kicked it toward me. "Puke in that," he said. "And
clean yourself up. You stink, Bruno. You stink like hell."
* * *
next eighteen hours I wrapped myself in a ball, shook and slept. When
I could, I read Eddy Kammegian's used copy of Alcoholics Anonymous
and guzzled orange juice, ate slices of bread with mayonnaise, and took
hot showers. Somewhere in all the madness my head became quiet. The voice
of dead Rick Dante was gone. Silent.
The apartment was on 27th Place in Venice. Number 12A. Up a flight
of brick stairs. The corner of Speedway, a hundred feet from the beach.
Two bedrooms. The view was my reason for signing the lease. Great wide
windows looking out at an endless Pacific Ocean.
Thirty days after my return to work, the
stitches were out and my wrist cuts were healed. On the phone I'd been
selling like a man possessed, my one aim was to prove myself to Eddy Kammegian.
To show him I was serious.
It was a Saturday, 7:00 a.m. My boss and Doc Franklin and eight other
receiving alkie employees teamed together to help me move in to my new
place. Kammegian had dubbed these guys his Orbit relocation SWAT Team.
We converged at my new apartment building
with a rented truck loaded with furniture. A king size bed and frame came
from Doc's garage, along with a desk for my typewriter. The leather couch,
pots and pans and dishes, and two tall oak bookcases I'd bought myself
from a second-hand store on Venice Boulevard. A table and chairs were
donated by Eddy's secretary, Elaine. The only unusued piece of furniture
was the TV; a big 35' job. I'd put five hundred down on it. The owner
of Orbit Computer Products co-signed for the balance - another thousand
dollars - to help me re-establish my credit.
With Eddy Kammegian barking orders, the
whole move was done in under two hours.
There was no bullshit in my boss. His commitment
to his employees and recovery was absolute. On our way back from returning
the rental truck, Doc Franklin and I talked. It was then that I finally
learned Eddy's story, the beginning of Orbit Computer Products. As it
turned out, Eddy K's early circumstances had been similar to my own. Just
worse. Kammegian grew up, adopted, in Ghost Town in Venice, a shithole
of a neighborhood, even then. By fifteen he had quit school and was hanging
with bikers, sucking back brown-bag Nightrain wine. At twenty-six he began
a thirty-month sentence in the slam for dealing dope. After release, on
parole and jobless, is when his life changed. One morning, after a two-hour
bus ride from L.A., tattooed, long-haired, Kammegian answered a phone-sales
job add in The L.A. Times. A telemarketing bucket shop on Van Nuys Boulevard.
Pens and pencils. No one, least of all Eddy himself, would have believed
what happened. By quitting time that day, he had earned $500 in commissions.
move-in was done and the other guys were gone, me and my boss stood alone
at my window above Venice Beach. This was my first apartment, by myself,
in years. The phone and utilities in my name. The heat of the weekend
day was already beginning to drive an inland tidal wave of cars, filled
with a hundred thousand sweating bodies, toward the sea.
In a parking lot north of my building,
the first beachies were arriving. Looking down, we saw a dozen teen age
Asian kids, tapping a soccer ball back and forth, make their way across
the sand. Two of the guys, gang members in head bands, were carrying 40-ounce
beer bottles. Already half drunk. They were arguing and pushing. Their
girlfriends, wearing thong bikinis, looked on.
Kammegian's face distorted as he took the
He turned to me. "I want you to do
something for me, Bruno," he said. "A favor. Sponsor direction."
"Do you know your way to the 'Hollywood'
sign, in the hills?"
"At the top of Beachwood Canyon,"
I said. "Off Franklin Avenue."
"I want you to leave now. Get in your
car and drive to the 'Hollywood' sign."
"There's a good view of Los Angeles
from there. Above the freeway shootings and the porno shops on Sunset
Boulevard. I want you to make a pilgrimage, Bruno. Will you do that?"
"When you're on the road above the
sign, stop your car and get out. Just stand there. Will you do what I
"Fill your lungs and yell these words.
Yell out, I will never be a fucking loser, again! Will you do that?"
This was pure Eddy Kammegian. Symbols of
self-actualization and AA recovery. I stood scratching my face. "No
problem," I said.
hours later, after I got back to my apartment from Hollywood, I plugged
in my refrigerator, opened the door, and found a note along with ten fifty-dollar
bills. The money was stuck in the fly leaf of a copy of How to Master
the Art of Selling by Tom Hopkins. The note read: "Bruno; your
move-in bonus. I'll see you at the top!... Best wishes. Your Pal, Eddy
It was five months before my fortieth birthday.
No one, not my own father, or a wife, or an ex-boss or a teacher or a
friend or anyone else in my life, had ever extended himself to me the
way Eddy Kammegian had. I made a commitment to myself - consciously made
my mind up - I would stay sober and give Orbit everything I had.
The company was in the last six weeks of its annual summer contest, PARIS
FOR PREDATORS. Orbit had plaques and prizes for everything, but this year's
two-month Paris deal was the biggest contest ever, the monster. Kammegian
had a fire house bell mounted on the sales floor and made each of his
salesmen clang the thing when we wrote a fresh order. Team banners hung
from the rafters. Loud, piped-in marching music came through the sales
room speakers before work and at breaks. There was even a dart board with
money pinned behind the balloons. You got one dart to throw if you sold
two dozen or more of any product.
First prize in the contest was a round
trip for two: ten days in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. All expenses
paid. Second prize was two weeks in Puerta Villarta, and third prize was
a 60' TV/DVD home entertainment center.
Orbit's top people were pushing hard to
finish in the bucks. Eddy Kammegian loved the casino atmosphere. Tempers
flared. Ego was king. Out of the seventy-five telemarketers in the running,
the two men to beat were Frankie Freebase and Doc Franklin. Frankie was
ahead with twenty-eight grand in confirmed, shipped orders. Doc was second.
Judy Dunn, a pretty, ex-IBM printer division rep, was a distant third,
tied with four or five other salesmen.
Doc had won the contest three years in
a row but this year the worm had turned.
As phone guys, Frankie and Doc were opposites.
Freebase was old school, like me - a relentless banger. He slurped coffee
seven hours a day at his desk with the telephone glued to his ear. A bad-tempered
asshole on most any occasion, contests made Frankie worse. He'd built
a massive account base of one thousand active customers.
Doc was his opposite: loose and funny,
never letting himself work more than a couple of hours at a stretch without
a break. In conversations in the coffee room, telling his Internet jokes,
Franklin affected the voice of an FM radio jazz DJ and referred to himself
as, "The Doctor of Love." Franklin was cool. Everyone liked
Doc. But his real talent was a lethal ability at landing the big fish:
huge orders. Having once been a data processing manager himself, he knew
many of the top DP people in the industry and his account files included
Orbit's five biggest customers.
From his beginning at the company, Doc
had been top gun, just beneath Kammegian himself in personal sales. Until
now. And his bread and butter client for the last four years was the giant:
American Farmers Insurance, with fifty-three branch offices across the
country. Franklin had the DP Manager, Milton Butler, at AFI's headquarters
in Denver, in his pocket, "tagged and bagged." Over time Doc
had manipulated steadily-increasing orders from Butler and worked American
Farmer's up to paying absurd prices for their supplies. Every August Franklin
made sure that AFI's huge summer order corresponded exactly with the deadline
of our company's contest. Nasty Frankie Freebase had been edged out twice.
But things had gone sour for Doc. For the
first time in a decade, AFI's annual earnings slipped. Overnight, a directive
came down mandating Milt Butler to cut costs. He was ordered to drastically
limit his supply orders.
Naturally, shit rolls down hill. Butler's
phone call hit "The Doctor Of Love" like a sucker punch after
the bell, and he over-reacted to the setback. Too slick for his own good
and determined to salvage as much of his yearly commission as possible,
Franklin shot an angle and 'created' a bogus sale, introducing a new product
to AFI: a second-rate generic cheepo toner cartridge our company had been
buying for years from Korea. The product cost us half as much from the
Asian factory, but it was junk. Doc knew this, but selling it to Butler
allowed him to cut our price to American Farmers on the cartridge by 30%.
The made-up sale gave Milt Butler a reason to go to his Purchasing Department
with a hefty supply requisition.
Then, everything backfired. An eight-dollar-an-hour
bean counter in AFI's Vendor Control Department spotted the weight disparity
between the contents of the two toner cartridges and Butler's requisition
got red flagged. The DP Manager had no choice but to follow AFI's NEW
PRODUCT protocol and do a test study. His department was instructed to
buy samples only from us and conduct a six month comparison test. Snickering
Frankie Freebase looked like a shoe-in to win the PARIS FOR PREDATORS
of Orbit Computer Products took the loss in revenue from American Farmers
as a challenge. Kammegian thrived on overcoming shit. Any adversity. His
personality was equal parts Billy Graham, Tony Robbins, and George Patton.
"The Big Guy" began spending every day on the sales floor setting
an example, slamming customers, opening new accounts himself, leading
his troops. Within two weeks, between Kammegian's personal sales contribution
and the hysteria of the PARIS FOR PREDATORS contest, our company was back
to having its biggest three months ever.
My recovery in AA and my success had become a priority to Eddy Kammegian.
We attended three AA meetings a week together. On Tuesdays and Thursdays,
at the end of the day, I was called in to review my sales and to receive
a monograph on personal growth. I had homework too: books to read and
tape programs. THE GREATEST SALESMAN IN THE WORLD, THE PSYCHOLOGY OF SUCCESS.
THINK AND GROWN RICH. My "IN" basket was thick with magazine
and newspaper clippings on self-motivation.
And, as a salesman, I was taking no prisoners.
I had won the New Accounts bonus three Fridays in a row, and my average
weekly commission was twenty-one hundred dollars. One Tuesday morning,
on a fluke, from a referral to the data processing manager of First Gulf
Savings in Shreveport, I sold 432 re-stuffed Lexmark printer cartridges.
The guy had an emergency and was out of supplies. A $10,800 commission.
One call. The largest order on a new account pitch in the history of Orbit
The news rendered Eddy Kammegian delirious.
He used the sale to further boost morale and paid my commission in cash
the next day at our morning meeting. Ten thousand loose silver dollars
wheeled in a wagon. Noise makers and confetti were passed out, and I was
presented with a plaque and a special momento from my boss's collection:
his own personally-signed photograph of Dwight Eisenhower.
* * *
rang. It was after midnight early Friday morning. When I answered, there
was no voice on the other end, only breathing. I knew it was her. Like
a ghost - a child listening behind a keyhole. I could feel her heartbeat.
"Hello," I said again.
Over the last several weeks, I had left
only one message on Jimmi's sister Sema's answering machine; it contained
my office extension number at Orbit and my new home number. There had
been no reply until now.
I could hear traffic noise in the background, a horn honking. "Is
that you?" I said.
Finally, a ripple of laughter: "Bob,
do these toner cartridges go out to your attention?...Guess who, baby?"
"I don't need to guess."
"Missed me, right?"
"How are you?"
...No answer. More cars going by.
"...How's the boy? How's Timmy?"
"Timothy! My son's name is Timothy."
"Okay, Timothy. How's Timothy?"
"...You got your job back at Orbit
with Adolph-fucking-Hitler-fucking-traffic-cop-Kammegian. Right?..."
"Are you okay?"
More laughter. Crazy. "There's a sale
made on every call, BRUUUUNNNOOO, you buy their tears, or they buy your
"...Sema said you said in your message
that you have your own place now."
"At the beach...Where are you?"
"Hollywood. Here on Franklin. You
should see this shithole, man. Junkies 'n weirdos everywhere. A billion
cucarachas and no fucking air-conditioning. You. You'd look straight down
your fancy writer's nose...Hey, can I tell you something?"
"Guess what, man?"
"I missed two periods. I'm pregnant.
Guess who the daddy is?"
"Don't worry. They want $247.00 at
the women's clinic to take care of it. My appointment is for Monday. In
the morning." "You think I'm the father?"
"Hey man! I lap dance. I suck dick
for money. I had sex with one person in the last three months."
"Fuck you, Bruno..."
"You sound high."
"I'm sick iz what I am. Weak all the
time. First thing; I need to get out of here. And I need a ride to the
clinic on Monday. You got money now, right?"
"Money's no problem."
"Man Bruno, this fucking dump! Disneyland.
Ya know? Every time I open my fucking door to go down to the bathroom
or the pay phone, some zombie crack-head motherfucker is breathing on
me - checkin' out my tits - talkin' shit. I gotta get outa here. Okay?"
"Where's your car? Your bug?"
"Okay. Now! Come now! Right now."
"Is Timothy with you?"
"He's okay. With Sema and her girls...but
they don't want us there nomore. Caesar, my brother in law, made me leave.
Hey, guess what, they gave my kid tests, you know. Sema took him to UCLA."
"Is he sick?"
"My son's I.Q. is one thirty-eight!
They want to put him in special advanced this-and-that. They're making
him a G.A.T.E. kid. Gifted And Talented Education. Sema says I have to
put him in special school. Computers n'math n' shit."
"Remember the way we did it in my
car, Bruno? That's when it happened. Remember?"
"I remember, Jimmi. What's the address
"It's the Hollywoodland Motel. The
Holly-weird-land. By Wilcox. By the corner of Franklin. I feel like shit,
man. How soon will you be here?"
My red handed clock at the other side of
the bed blinked the time. 2:05 am. "Half an hour," I said.
The laugh again - strange - off sync -
as if owned by another body. "You still love me, done chu? You still
crazy like a rat for me? Yes or no?"
"You're high, Jimmi."
"Honk your horn when you get here.
You know, easy: beep-beep-beep. Two - three times. I'll hear it, and I'll
come out. But keep your doors locked, and done talk to none of these donkey
motherfuckers. Iz crazy over here, man. Half an hour, okay?"
* * *
morning, still sleepless, I called in to work at 5:32am, trying to time
it right so Eddy Kammegian would be away from his desk, on the Orbit sales
floor, revving up his swat team. I'd waited an hour for Jimmi outside
the motel on Franklin Avenue. Now she was asleep across my living room
on the couch, curled up under a blanket, a ratty Barbie under her chin.
She had come with almost nothing. A purse, her dolls, and a plastic bag
of clothes. Timothy was still at her sister's house.
the receptionist - took my phone call. I lied, telling her I had food
poisoning, saying I would not be in. After a long, stupid silence, Elaine
said she would pass my message on to the boss.
At Lucky's Open-All-Night Supermarket on
Lincoln Boulevard, I stocked up on groceries and aspirin and over-the-counter
nausea medicine for Jimmi.
I got home before six-thirty. The heat
of the day was already seeping into the apartment. Jimmi had relocated
herself to the bedroom. Coming through the door, seeing her naked on the
bed, her black hair splashed across my pillow like careless silk, my breath
stopped. In the daylight her beauty was flawless. Even the room seemed
different, remade by her being there. Her perfume was everywhere.
Crossing to the bed, I looked down, watching
the steady, quiet, up and down of her chest, studying each detail of her.
Fingers and arms had just been created for the first time. Perfection.
Her hands, their length and elegance. The line down her neck to her back
and ass. A Degas painting. It made me shiver.
Then I understood something. I knew why
it was that I loved this woman. She was like my dead father, at war against
her own life and time. Ten thousand disappointments would kill her as
they had killed him. Living head-on against herself would kill her.
Her legs were apart.
I wanted to taste her flawlessness, kneel
down and worship that place, slide my tongue far inside that holy door.
I eased my weight across the mattress until
my face was there and began to lick, gently and slowly, afraid she would
stop me if I woke her. The sensation caused her to turn on her side then
come to rest on her back.
I began again. Cautiously. Working my tongue
inside the wetness of her, more deeply, until I felt her body accept me.
She awoke but didn't stop me. "Okay,
do it," I heard her whisper. "Do it, baby. Lick it. Suck it.