Hugger Orange

“Fuck…” Jackson planted his left foot, palms flat on either side of his gas cap, stepped into the push. “You sure the brake’s off, it’s out of gear?”

Dash leaned against the open driver’s-side door, flicked sweat off the end of his nose. “Tasks such as this are why auto-mobiles and I are currently at odds.”

“Fuck.”

“You ’bout in desperate need of a more di-verse and entertaining dialog. ‘Nother half a block, all we need.”

“You said that two, three blocks ago. Why the hell did we go to Venice Beach anyway?”

“I painted you a verbal picture of mustachioed muscle men in mi-nute elastic panties and beautiful women on roller skates in far less. You were overcome with a need to see those wonders for yourself. I was obliged to accompany, you a stranger in a strange land and all.”

“Fuck…”

“Must I admonish you further?”

“Whose idea was Ripple or whatever that was we put in the radiator?”

“The mixture of ‘whatever’ be a varietal blend of leftover fluids found in the Venice trash, and was installed under decree by committee. We come close to makin’ it, though.”

“Said the Titanic to the iceberg.”

“See what you come out with, you think on it?”

***

Jackson backed out of the passenger door of his dead ride with a shopping bag full of six years of console, under seat, trunk and glove box junk. He stepped away a few feet, took it in. All the memories. All the bullshit. There was still a quarter of a tank of gas in it. All he needed was a match.

“Somethin’ on your mind, Casper? I perceive a vibe that bodes ill for this sad piece of industrial sculpture.”

“Maybe we get a keg, throw a block party with a bonfire.”

“Block party in El Lay always a winning proposal. Famous bands and topless women a given. But an auto-motive bonfire spells R-I-O-T to the po-leece. We be fingerprinted and on Channel Seven ‘fore the fire’s out.”

“Fuck.”

“There you go again.”

“I can’t afford to fix it.”

“Don’t want to afford to fix it. Howsome ever,” Dash turned his palm up in a game show model’s ‘here’s your new washer and dryer’ move. “Even in its current immobile state ride still looks cock. If you will allow me to speak on your behalf with a brother I know who specializes in vee-hicular transactions I might persuade him to offer you a modest amount of cash or functional in-kind trade for your lifeless possession.”

“You have a friend who deals in dead cars?”

All kinds of cars. Magic is afoot in East Compton, my brother. Buster put a black Jag-u-ar in one end and a red Lincoln pops out the other. Same may be said of dead or damaged in, alive and well out. Shined all the hell up and runnin’? This’ll be seriously ripe for a low down and payments guaranteed to last longer than Star Trek reruns. Buster will perceive, as I do, that a Messican or pimply-assed kid will think their dick grew three inches they find themselves behind the wheel of this aww-toe.”

“He’ll keep it the same color? I’d hate to —”

“Output color depends entirely on condition and Buster’s means of acquisition. It’s legal and wrinkle free. Only his feelings on Day-Glo Orange come into play.”

Hugger Orange.”

“Nigger, please. A rose by any other name, we understand each other?”

***

Jackson followed Dash down from the wrecker cab in a swirl of east Compton dust. Dash took a fistful of cash from a tall, skinny kid with red eyes and an eighteen inch ‘fro, disappeared through a heavy, steel-clad door. A few long minutes passed and from the minor sea of Quonset huts and rutted gravel a primer coated 1964 Impala SS with shiny bumpers, pimp wheels and zero trim pulled up purring smooth and low like a fat cat in a circle of sunshine. A sweaty, wiry gray-haired black man in grease stained pin-stripe overalls stepped out, leaving a hint of Bay Rum and an old time barbershop in his wake.

“You bein’ the only thing white I see ‘sides the garage door, this’n must be yours.” He stepped around, popped the hood, spit tobacco juice in front of Jackson’s feet. “Supra Sport Shivvies came stock with a 409. Big and dumb as our current crop a heavyweights. I put this new 327 crate motor in yestiddy. Old with no blue smoke keeps the gov’nor happy an the po-leece away. Break ‘er in easy she’ll stay that way. ” He dropped the hood, wiped his hands on the red shop rag hanging from his back pocket, spit again. “Small block’s lighter, lets you keep some rubber on the tires, drives past a gas station ‘casionally. Axe me, rides some better, too, all that weight gone. Had in mind to paint it, but you come along.”

He paused, examined Jackson like a man encountering a disease. “Air conditioner blows cold, no back seat, no radio. No charge for the trunk mount spare cover. It come in from somewhere, don’t fit nothin’ else, tired a walkin’ around it.” He held up the keys, dropped them so quick Jackson almost missed the mid-air save. The old man nodded, spit another stream of tobacco juice. “The Dash be along drekly with paper an plates.”

Jackson watched the man walk away, his bowlegged side to side gait kicked up light puffs of gravel dust, a walk punctuated with an off-beat sway of the shop rag hanging from his pocket and an every fourth step spit. “Nice to meet you, too.”

***

“Needs paint. Legal, mostly. Nothing due, no change, even up.” Dash put his hands on the door sill. “You an Ellis get on?”

“You mean the old guy who spits redneck diarrhea, no. No handshake, no thanks. No take it easy, no fuck off kiss my ass honky punk. Must’ve left all that in the same place as the back seat and radio.”

“No radio?” Dash’s head rolled back. “Muh-ther fuh…” He tossed the plates and registration on the passenger seat, went back through the heavy door, wasn’t gone long, wasn’t happy coming out. He landed in the seat, right leg still out, hand on the door. “Hang left, follow the drive around back. Stop where I tell you.”

Jackson stopped on command, Dash slid out, vanished behind a corrugated metal door, was back in under thirty seconds with a nearly new Delco combo radio and cassette player from a Cadillac. He eased back into the passenger seat, set the radio where the back seat should have been. “Radio’s for the shit paint job. I told the motherfuckers, you know, I be ridin’ in this aw-toe and you were cold as ice. Next thing I’m back, askin’ all them old domino an Jack niggas sittin’ around, you know, what’s their fuckin’ damage, where’s my fuckin’ radio? They tryin’ to fuck a brother ‘cause I brought a deaf dumb and blind cash money client to their criminal empire? Motherfuckers. ‘Take the deal, fool, you an the ghost take a walk’? Fuck they doin’, talkin’ that shit to me? Thinkin’ I didn’t come up in here, don’t know their shit?” He took a breath, smacked the door sill. “Fuck it. You drive, I’ll di-rect. Weekend comin’, college calls on Monday an I need some unwind time. You’ll be droppin’ me down to Lakewood at my little slice of heaven’s place. I’ll draw you a map home from it on the way.”

Jackson drove south out of east Compton, Dash ranted on Buster’s crew like they were his dysfunctional family while he took a BIC Stick and drew a map on a paper napkin that would have done a retentive Renaissance mapmaker proud. He had Jackson roll up slow on a semi-residential, semi-small business street in Lakewood and stop near the middle of the block.

“You get to the crib, call your people. Tell ‘em you’re alive and where you’re at, how wonderful your new friend Dash Man be. ‘Cause if San Andreas opens up an your white ass drops they can tell the bloodhounds start lookin’ for you in Long Beach. They need to find you and this ray-dee-oh on the west side, don’t need nobody sniffin’ around my shit in Compton. Least till Buster’s player’s caught some chill.”

“Anybody. You don’t want anybody, or anyone, sniffin’.”

“You gonna be the grammatically co-reckt English Nazi all the fuckin’ time? I thought you played music or some shit.”

“Habit. Can’t get sloppy. People take you more seriously when you don’t talk like a refugee from a corn field full of single-wides.”

“Your accent don’t clean up soon you’re gonna need all the help you can get you expect to gain some on serious.”

“Doesn’t. Not don’t. Accent doesn’t clean –”

“We have arrived, Jeeves. I doesn’t require your services any longer,” he interlocked his fingers, popped his knuckles. “You straight on how to get to the crib?”

“Yeah. And ‘don’t.’ That one was ‘don’t.’ Like that shit’s bad for your hands, don’t.”

“Get back to me, I ‘don’t’ got room in my head for any of that shit today. You know where the stash is. Blank’s for the drive.” Dash tossed a thin black cigarillo on the empty bucket seat, lit one of his own and walked away. Jackson leaned over to pick it up, looked out the window and damned if they hadn’t pulled up in front of a beauty shop called Little Slice of Heaven.

Turd in the Punchbowl

I went back and forth with Galby68 about the music genome and how the stupidest songs show up in the wrong places – This is also the opening of Land Run, which I can’t seem to finish, other bits are strung out in here under Say Hey, Neighbor

Brad Davidson shuffled through the half dozen cell phones on his desk, picked one, flipped through a couple of screens, tapped once and waited “Harli? Hon, got a minute?” Seconds later the door of his office banged open.

“Daddy, what?” An obviously peeved early twenties female stepped inside, pointed her phone at him. “I’m in the room next door. Text me if you can’t get up, or use the phone system intercom. You don’t need to fucking call me.” She made a production of hanging up on him by mashing her finger on the glass face of her phone before she parked it in the back pocket of her sprayed-on torn knee jeans.

He’d given up on the fat fingers and auto correct excuses. It was easier to push “College $ Pit” in his recent list and talk. “Lookit this, Harli.” He handed her a dog eared, recycled manila folder stuffed with what he’d been reading about his upcoming guests. “Tell me what you think.”

She stood in front of his desk and studied the paper hand off for several minutes until she pulled the chair up with her foot and sat. She grouped the papers between her fingers while very low volume Kenny G on the Pandora channel that was pumped throughout Bumpers Erotic Resort drifted in the open window. She set the stack down on on his desk, held one paperclipped set back, screwed up her mouth for a second, let it go.

“M’kay. The investment guru might be good for stock tips. And there might be some lightweight ‘favors’ in the form of low or no interest financing from the international banker being here with his daughter-in-law’s sister when he’s supposed to be in Bali on business. The tobacco farm heir and his lingerie model bride, the New Orleans cop and her boyfriend, and the chubby early retirees with a lottery annuity from Tennessee are all your standard kink experimenters. But this one? Randall Everitt Coleridge the Third, 37 and his wife Lora Lee Worthington-Coleridge, 35? All kinds of wrong, all kinds of ways.”

“That’s the one. How do you see it?”

“Looks like Randall the lawyer pushed the envelope too hard one too many times and their business took it in the butt. Now he’s dumping his wife and running off with the freshly re-boobed real estate agent who happens to be his partner’s wife. He’s using her to sell his and his partner’s houses out from under his wife and the partner. He’s liquefied his savings and retirement and borrowed one point five mill against what’s left of the business assets. Company cars, office trailers, some big diesel pickups and a small, two-story glass box office building. If his partner’s wife doesn’t fuck him the hard way and run with the money at closing? They end up with over six million in cash and a grass hut in Samoa.”

“Repercussions?”

“Taxes are pulled on the front end of the cash-outs, so the plan’s not likely to aggravate the government. Screwing your partner and his wife isn’t illegal. The bank can scapegoat the partner or repossess the assets. If no one dies, it’s honeymoon time.” She cocked her head slightly, listened. “Toto? Tell me how Toto gets into the hot tub channel?”

“Pandora has the same problem finding good help that the rest of us have.”

“I doubt Pandora has an ‘all females except your daughter work naked’ requirement.”

“Maybe they’d get people who knew Toto wasn’t Jacuzzi Jazz if they did. And panties or bikini bottoms required on the non vinyl doesn’t equate to naked. It would cost me a fortune to keep the upholstery clean if everyone just sat around naked. What about the borderline indigent California videos of houses fool?”

“He’s the turd in the punchbowl. He’s working for both wives on the real estate front and he worked for the dipshit lawyer once before, and maybe now. The beard makes him look like a fur-lined salad plate and his eyes say gay, not skirt hound, but I think he’s just a California weed basted pansy. He wants to do exactly what you want to do. Stand under the window and catch the briefcase full of money and exert as little effort as possible doing it, maybe get laid in the process.”

“So?”

“So wait. See where the loyalties lie. If video boy is all about himself, you can manage a short skirt distraction with one of your employees for a grab and go. If his heart beats for the soon to be lonely housewife or he can’t get the money away from the lawyer’s squeeze before they leave town he’ll definitely be here for the money, maybe the lonely wife if he can pull it off. If this is where the dump takes place.”

“The lawyer needs to wait for the money somewhere. He’s booked in here in a few days with the wife and has another room booked at Sandals for the partner’s wife. ‘Here’ is the dump and jump point so the money has to show before they can blow. Any issues with the partner and the dumped wife?”

“The partner is a brick in workboots and a gimme cap. He’ll take the hit, go bankrupt, start over and never look back expect to spit. He’s the least of your problems. The wife…Artsy fartsy. She’s got something up her sleeve with the video loser because they talk too often and aren’t having sex. From your reports she’s talented and popular and squeaky clean, but not a real Town and Country on the coffee table Stepford wife. Like a Little Debbie’s spice cake with a big smile, in sensible heels who can paint and take or leave the high life. From the reports video boy sent back to her husband from San Francisco last year, it’s obvious he fell for her, hard. We’ll have to wait and see if he’s a love or money person. You didn’t see all that?”

“I sent you to college to figure out things like this for your dear old dad.”

“When I go back in the fall and finish my Masters, dear old dad can retire or see if one of his whores can use a calculator. Or pay a fucking accountant because I’m gone. To where people have normal, monogamous sex that doesn’t require a Teflon covered altar or Kahlua or honey or walnut pieces or whipped cream or an audience of overweight kinksters.”

“You forgot fresh fruit. And you sound just like your mother sometimes, you know that? There’s nothing wrong with a little –”

“Shut up dad, this place is like the capital of planet disgusting. When I saw mom at spring break she said to make sure I told you to go fuck yourself.”

“If it were possible to stream Baywatch re-runs all day long and do what your mother suggests I would sell this place tomorrow. Go up there, put eyes on the punchbowl turd and the real estate agent with new boobs, watch the closings. Keep me in the loop. Take one of the ladies with you in case they split up.”

“Dad, I’m not taking one of your ridiculous, scalpel sculpted, can’t wear clothes man candy mannequin whores to where? Okla-fucking-homa? To keep me company? She’ll stick out like a, a…”

“Like a whore in Oklahoma? Take Maddie, she does the upscale housewife fantasy better than anyone. Put her in something country club tweedy, pull her hair back and she’ll look just like the rest of them.”

“The rest of the whores or the rest of the locals?”

“If you can figure out the difference in the neighborhood you’ll be in, write a book.”

Certificate of Authenticity

When she saw the Welcome to Umbridge Enterprises sign, painted in a trendy whitewashed font on a plank sign on the side of the two lane, Annabelle whipped the rented Grand Cherokee across a small sea shell parking area in danger of being overgrown by saw grass, parked between a faded used-to-be-red Ram pickup and a new, black Mercedes SUV. She put her right hand in the square red leather shoulder bag, took the safety off her Glock, stepped out into the bright Florida sunshine.

She started across the fifty-foot arched wooden bridge paved with asphalt shingles that led to an unpainted, faded cedar shake façade manufactured home surrounded by a covered veranda that sported a random collection of patio and beach furniture and a pair of rusty propane grills. The waist high ballustrade was draped with fake fish nets, adorned with faded plastic starfish and seahorses. The whole mess sat on pilings over the St. Johns River narrows and tied to a floating dock behind it was her missing white Swamp Vue Cabrio.

***

Preston Umbridge clicked the remote, brought up the four-panel screen of security cameras on the wall mounted TV. “Either of you two pig fuckers order up a jigaboo hooker?”

“What the fuck, Boss? Fella was about to nail him a big ass gator an – whoa shit,” the dirty wife beater and camo cargos clad Pillsbury dough boy on the couch sat up. “Who the hell is that?”

“No shit ‘whoa shit’ Wally. Fuckin’ dumb ass.” The tall bony guy pulled on his waders, pointed at the screen. “That’s the nigger woman we done stole the boat from, that’s who.”

Umbridge dropped the remote on his desk. “You’re telling me you two idiots was so obvious stealin’ that boat a woman could find it? Shit.” He ran his hands over his hair and beard, wiped his lips with his thumb and forefinger. “Don’t just stand there, Steep, let her in ‘fore she breaks the goddam door down.”

Annabelle, black leggings and long tailed black silk blouse, matching red heels, earrings and purse stepped into the man cave of Umbridge Enterprises. “Good afternoon, gentlemen. Annabelle Monette. Whom do I have the pleasure of addressing?”

Umbridge stood behind his desk, undisguised snicker in his voice. “Preston Umbridge, may-am.” He bowed. “To my right is Mr. Walrus. My associate Mr. Steeple let you in. Without an appointment.”

“I make my own appointments. Walrus I understand. Too much mustache, belly and ugly. Steeple makes no sense to me.” She studied the man walking back toward his boss. “Beanpole, maybe.”

“Now, now. Legend says Steep’s sainted Momma christened him with it just before she died, lookin’ out the hospital window at the First United Methodist Church of Mun-row bell tower.”

“I had an Ontie named Iris and she told the same story about flowers in her momma’s garden. We could go on about the Indian named Two Dogs Fucking in the Mud but let’s not waste each other’s time, gentlemen. I have come for my boat.”

“I’m sure we don’t have ‘your’ boat.” Umbridge tugged his longish manicured beard, puffed up. “And if we did, I doubt we’d return it. Things that end up here are like gifts. Or tithe offerings. Ain’t that right boys?”

“It’s the white Swamp Vue Cabrio tied off next to two patent and intellectual property theft counterfeits. Both to be confiscated and destroyed as contraband. The Swamp Vue is not now, nor was it ever, a gift.”

“The white one?” Umbridge put a point on ‘white.’ “That’s different. Lessee, Cabrio, Cabrio…I recall having a Bill of Sale for that somewhere.” He made a show of opening and closing drawers.

“Never you mind looking for it. I have an equally legitimate certificate of authenticity for the lock of our Lord and Saviour’s hair my Ontie Delores keeps in a Café Du Monde coffee tin and prays to five times a day.”

“Ain’t nothin’ any of us can do about our families, is there?” He slammed  the drawer he had open. “I also seem to recall Larson makes theirselves a Cabrio. Whattaya think it’s worth to them to find out about yours?”

“I’ve spoken to them and all the lawyers are satisfied that as I do not manufacture mid-cabin drug-running speed boats there is no conflict. That’s how it is when people cooperate. Had you come to me with a franchise manufacturing offer we might have bypassed all this unpleasantness. I am not a fool, Mr. Umbridge. After I talked to your local people, showed them the manufacturing paperwork, patent applications, all more than most around here could read in a lifetime I concluded that I needed to look elsewhere for assistance in recovering my property. And to come see for myself what a genuine corrupt, low life thief and liar Floor-ida bad man looked like.”

Walrus flicked open a three-inch lock back pocket knife, cleaned his index fingernail with it. “We don’t cotton to name callin’, now. Smokes and O-yays particular doin’ that shit ain’t seen much of after.”

“Where I came up in Detroit my momma’s paperboy was more dangerous, and considerably smarter than all three of you put together. I’m not here to get in a pissing contest with some Little Dick-ey Mafia fiefdom, I’m here for my boat and to bring you the gospel according to Annabelle Monette.”

Umbridge held out an arm to stop Walrus. “Which would be?”

“Not everyone is scared of you Mr. Umbridge. Least of all me. Come hell or high water, with or without your blessing, I will sell boats in central Florida.”

Walrus took a step. Without looking Annabelle pointed her non-purse hand at the television. “While we’ve been having our little chat, those gentlemen arrived to pick up my boat and destroy your copies.”

“What the hell?” Umbridge pulled a revolver from his desk drawer. “You two, what the fuck do I pay you for? Go stop those mother –”

“I wouldn’t. Those are Federal Marshalls. From Miami. Looking for you to give them a reason to level this place once I am safely out the door.”

“She’s fuckin’ lyin’.” Walrus took another step Anabelle’s way and one of the counterfeit Swamp Vues below went ka-whoooom. The explosion sent a geyser of water and debris up past the sliding patio doors at the back of the office, rained down on the roof.

Steeple slid the patio door open, leaned out over the veranda rail far enough to see the brown-water gun boat, look down the barrels of its 50-caliber machine guns. “She ain’t lyin’, Wally.” He glanced down further, counted at least eight red laser-sight dots on his chest, and froze. “No fuckin’ shit she ain’t lyin’.”

“And wired, too. Goddammit.” Umbridge grabbed Steep by the back of his fishing vest. “Git back in here ‘fore you piss yoursef.” He turned a red raged face at Annabelle. “We’ll continue this discussion, Annabelle Mo-nay. Soon.”

“My door is always open, gentlemen. If you come, wear shirts with sleeves. I only need to see three cheap, dirty white men in cheap, dirty wife beaters one time to know it’s not an experience I choose to repeat.”

Mescaline Blue – 2 -Baby, You are Mine

What the hell, it’s Friday. I went to the museum with small grandkids, stared at Monets and a late Van Gogh (Paris) and noticed even in their minor work that at least they were brave. So here’s some run-on two people standing around talking ’bout nothin’ ‘cept insecurity, replete with era-accurate cultural sexism backstory and background noise. 

Jade saw the flashing light that these guys used for a studio doorbell, sighed, clipped the tape measure to her tool belt. She’d let herself in at six-fifteen with the key and alarm code Jackson had given her, walked and measured the space a dozen times, made and thrown away as many sketches, and had a lock on what needed to happen. And here was that fricking man shit she always had to get past just to get her job done. Why did they all need to talk about how they knew everything when most of the time they didn’t know shit? She turned the deadbolt and let him in.

Jackson was holding two coffees from the Exxon station and looked reasonably relaxed for a guy who had driven through L.A. at seven-thirty in the morning.

She mumbled “Thank you,” couldn’t look at him, felt her ears start to burn. Dammit. She squatted, set the coffee on the floor and measured a point on the floor from the far wall she’d measured a dozen times, stayed there staring at the tape measure and stood up. She repeated the process several times around the room.

Jackson noted the precise marks where the dust had been cleared, the half wall he’d built had a big X on it, made with the masking tape that was gone from where he’d laid out the small kitchen. All the response he could get from his questions were mono syllables and “Mmm.” He put the tip of his Converse on her tape measure.

“I didn’t hire you to agree with me, or ignore me pretending to measure what’s already measured. I’m just some guy. You have opinions, let it go.”

She stood up, made a note in the small steno pad with “AIR BISCUIT STUDIO” written on it in marker, flipped back to the first few pages.

“There’s no flooring, sir. How do I address that? Guess? A furniture grade ‘removable’ table top for a pool table that will weigh a frickin’ ton? That maybe you can play ping pong on because I have Jade’s secret miracle coating to finish it with? A kitchen laid out in the middle of the room where there’s no plumbing? I’m not selling Feng Shui, but common sense is a good idea.” She squinted, pointed her pencil at the top of the far wall. “You have those nice, high transom windows that could use a cleaning, and nothing. No trim, not even mentioned. The only thing you’ve written down are pipe dreams, and almost everything you’ve done so far that I don’t need to do again is the big bathroom that’s probably been here since Eisenhower drove a Jeep. You actually ate in here?” She pushed the rickety card table with a boot. “This is all men, right?”

“No, but females stayed on the other side of that insulated door unless they needed the genderless powder room that had walls until I took them out. If they wanted to eat we moved the card table into the control room. There was a long, hollow wall right here, all the way to the front door. Before I took it out —”

“It hid all of this dusty air and those beautiful east windows. You also spec’ed ‘A chill and reception guest seating kind of area’ isolated from the rest of the place by a forty-eight-inch-high half-wall. ‘With maybe plants or a planter.’ Why not a fricking aquarium like my dentist’s office or every Chinese place in town that gurgles and makes everyone need to go pee? All you’re missing is giant Legos or Lincoln logs and Tigger on the wall and it’s every pediatrician’s waiting room in California. Is that what you’re after? Little boys waiting for their turn at whatever the real toys are back there?” Uh-oh.

“No…No. Open. I wanted it to all feel open, and multi-use. I read that somewhere, about open, multi-use rooms and —”

“Stop reading or read something besides suburban housewife throw-pillow decorating magazines. For a client with a nice space who says ‘open’ a lot you have sectioned off all your ‘open’ into several smaller one-shot rooms. No walls and chaos isn’t ‘open.’” She made finger quotes every time she said “open.”

“What you’re trying to tell me is whatever I built already is bunk and that you have a better idea for the kitchen and the pool table and all the rest of it?”

“Yes sir. We can re-use most of your’bunk’. At least you kept it to standard lengths and didn’t anchor them or hang sheetrock.”

“I built them like gobos, or room dividers. I was waiting on an electrician to tell me what —”

“Wait a little longer and let me talk to someone who knows the codes. Where are we, Silverlake? East Hollywood? Do you even know?” She bit her lip after that one. Her mouth had gotten her fired before, particularly when she had the plan in her head already, got wound up and in some man’s shit when she’d rather be working than talking.

He snorted, shook his head. “Silverlake, commercial. We’re code correct, except the Fire Marshall inspections bust us for the tape boxes on top of the control room if they get too close to the ceiling. And call me Jackson. Or something besides Client or Sir or Mister anything. You’ll meet a girl on the phone this week who says ‘Yo, boss’ when she talks to me, but she might as well say ‘Hey, fuckhead’ because I’m nobody’s boss.” He waited two beats, went right to it. “I know you’re uncomfortable. About this gig or last Wednesday or something. We have to work together, so tell me what will make that go away.”

She fumbled for a second. He was supposed to be a dick and start all that ‘so what smart ideas do you have, shorty’ crapola, but…

“Sir, I served six years as a lead field mechanic in the Army, and I got attitude. Too much of it. The men wouldn’t do what I needed them to do and I was a bitch because I wouldn’t fuck them. I knew in the field that, they, we…we just couldn’t do sex and do our jobs. Some of them got it, but…Just because you drink a beer with someone doesn’t mean you’re in love or heat, or it’s an invitation to visit the vacation they thought they were going to find between my legs. It’s taken me a long time to get past that and an asshole ex and single momming an eight year old. And when I finally wanted to, with you, I drank too much and…”

She reeled out a couple of feet from the tape measure. “Hold this. Down there, in the middle of the X.” She walked off across two thirds of the empty the space, nodded her head as if agreeing with herself, tugged the tape out of his fingers and took a deep breath while she waited for the clatter to stop.

“I haven’t…Sex…In four years. I wanted to, I told you that, sir, and that was embarrassing enough. And then I woke up in your apartment after we didn’t. Embarrassment number two. I don’t go out to intentionally pick up piano players who listen to me and are a lot younger in the daylight, sir. Honest, I don’t. So embarassment number three. And here we are. You spent time on me and we didn’t do anything and just like the Army that’ll somehow be all my fault and you’re going to question everything I do. And I can’t handle all that attitude now that I’m out from under it, okay? I’m damn good at what I do, but when that shit starts up I want to say ‘fuck you all,’ sir, and stick my middle finger in everyone of your noses like you did to that actress, and I really have to watch it or I’ll starve. Eventually some people listen to me but most people run on about shit that doesn’t matter or won’t work and I say fuck it and do what they want because it’s work and I need the money.” She took another deep, needed breath, let it go but kept her tension.

“That’s all good to know, I think, but you haven’t told me how I can help.”

“Sir, what I’m trying to say is you can’t make me do lame work on the cheap or argue with me about everything because we didn’t have sex. Please. This job, I can see it. I have a chance to do it right in here, on budget, and I have to. Or I can’t stick.”

“I can work with that.” He dumped his cold coffee down the rusty sink, tossed the cup in the galvanized can. “About that non-sex thing? We both made it home, I got my car. I was a dick for working a piano bar like I was sixteen. Every now and then I get tired of my skin and do something stupid, so I’m right there in the middle of that embarrassed business with you. You and I are okay. ” He watched her work her face and take that on.

“As far as this room is concerned, Jade? It’s yours. I threw out some ideas, you threw them back. You know a lot more about this than I do. Air and function is what I, what we all need out of this space. No, now….look at me.” He caught both of her nervous hands on the way to her cutoff’s pockets. They seemed tiny, but still hard as granite. “You’ll meet a French woman this week who says ‘The story completed, my love?’ So finish it.”

“My face is burning, sir, I know it is. The last thing is I didn’t bring your coffee cup back. On purpose. That blue is, I don’t know. Strange and beautiful. Like you said, a blue only mescaline knows. I drink my coffee, set it down and stare at it. I started to lie and say I broke it, that’s how much I like it. That’s what needs to go away, being embarrassed about everything with you. Because I have been so wrong since climbing all over you in Bellacardi’s to ditching you without a car, to thinking of ways to steal your coffee cup. And…”

“And?”

“I need you to mean that, sir, about this room being mine and us being okay. Let me do a good job we can both be proud of and I can take pictures and use you and this project for a reference. I’ll be okay with us and the sex we didn’t have and the embarrassments if we can work that way. Maybe I could buy the coffee cup from you, sir, or you could tell me where to get one.”

“First, and get a hold on this, I’m not a sir. I can get you a whole damn box of those mescaline blue cups and the girl who designed them will be gassed that you like them. Straight up, Jade, last verse. Between you and me? You’re really cute almost naked for a little bitty girl with a killer, squirrelly tan. The white hands and feet? My mom would have named you Socks or Boots if you were a stray that turned up. That’s all there is of our short, sorta funny, didn’t make it to sex story. You and I are cool. And hopefully friends.”

“And as long as I’m in budget, this is my project?”

“Yes ma’am, all yours. C’mon, Boots, stop worrying. Do I need to sign something, get you a check?”

“Both would be good. Neither are required on consultation day. Boots? Oh, don’t. That’s not funny…You mean it, ‘straight up’? We didn’t, I’m weird and kept your Mescaline blue coffee cup, and that’s all okay and there’s no ‘who’s the boss’ weirdness?”

“There it is.”

“Contract and a check and I’m okay? My mouth sometimes…I brought a contract in.” She fished a folded sheet out of her tool belt, handed it to him. “And the check would be good, if it’s alright. Not that I don’t trust you yet, but I could really use it. And as a safety, in case you’re jacking me around because of my tan lines and I’m being happy-carpenter-girl-with-a-job blind and don’t want to see it.” She took a couple of deep breaths. “Shooo-eee.” She dropped her shoulders, shook out both of her hands and finally smiled.

He reached into the fridge in the old bathroom, pulled out the last two cold Cokes, handed her one. “Coffee kind of died on us. Caffeine is caffeine. So we have a deal, Boots?”

“Yes sir. Deal!” She frowned, tapped the old, rusty, spray painted, duct taped fridge. “This has to go, sir. This is a new, unisex restroom with real light and a lady grade vanity setup, not a room where men hang out, eat greasy take out, drink beer and pee.”

“Will there be a room for that?”

“No. I did your kitchen open, half size, with an island. On the other side of the restroom wall that goes where I’m standing.”

“Pool table?”

“Front side of the kitchen, plenty of elbow room. Are you any good, sir? At pool?”

“I can tell by the look in your eye that I need to be careful how I answer that.” He signed the contract, wrote her a check for half the budget, set them both by the rusty, dinged up sink in the old eat and pee and shower room.

“Sir? Where are you going?”

“It’s your room. ‘Ma’am’.” He bowed, deep. “I’m getting the hell out of your way.”

She waited for the door to close, hugged herself and spun all the way around on the ball of her right foot. When her work boot landed she looked up at the high east windows. “Ma’am! Yes Ma’am! Contract. Sold. Check. Boom. Boots? Crap-ola. But…” She turned a slow three-sixty with her arms out. “A ‘kick ass small recording studio front end’? Oh my God, baby. You are mine.”

Mescaline Blue

In WC#8 I said “just write it.” You see a character, have an encounter, tune in and let it go. In year 3 of THG III the studio Jackson works out of needs a remodel. That’s the short version. It could have been handled with a paragraph or two of narrative, or the story delivered, as it currently stands in the draft, embedded in 400 words of dialogue that contains other elements. But – I needed a character (I thought), let the tape in my head roll and got a 4k full-blown interaction with two characters. Don’t worry, this is the 1.4k part 1. I won’t use it for the book, but what I said about Writer’s Block. It’s a myth. I met this character when she did my car inspection a few years ago, know nothing about her, but I listened and there she was. I think this is how short story collections are born.

Jackson’s Apartment / Long Bach California, July, 1981

Jackson sat on the edge of the bed in his old apartment’s spare bedroom, gave the well rendered lioness’s head an appreciative eye. It lived in a deep Coppertone-colored jungle, surrounded by a ring of flowers he was pretty sure were coloring book versions of petunias or something, not foliage native to sub-Saharan Africa. The tips of the long grass that weaved through it all and poked out around the top half of the picture created a nice, crown-like effect, but they looked out of place as well. Like Palm Sunday palm frond handouts Catholic junior high school girls could fold into religious origami.

A thin, pale line ran straight across the lioness’s nose and the width of the small, tan, muscular back it lived on. It all reminded him of a pastel chalk art project, as if he had run his little finger across her back and smudged the color off down to the paper. Which is how he decided to wake her up. He dragged the tip of his middle finger lightly from the where the pale line and Coppertone met the new bottom sheet on the new bed in Dash’s old bedroom, across her back and the lioness’s nose to the middle of her rib cage on the opposite side.

She pulled the top sheet straight up her back from her waist, bumped his hand out of its Etch-a-Sketch trance. “Unh-uh, Rafe. Fuck off. Show your latest your morning wood ’cause we are so divorced.” She smacked the pillow with a fist, pulled the other one over her head. “Get the kid ready yourself if you’re so frisky.”

“My name’s not Rafe, I don’t think we were ever married and I’m fresh out of kids.” He’d been awake for a while, was already dressed in a t-shirt and jeans. “Coffee?”

He stood, heard the covers being tossed behind him and some low, exclamatory profanity. He turned and glanced. She did have some squirrel-ly tan lines. White feet, white hands, white butt. Not a bikini white butt, but white from waist high to three or four inches past where everything came together. About a minute later, while he was pouring water in the top of the Mr. Coffee, she blew out of the bedroom in her red paisley bikini panties, clothes clutched to her chest.

“Phone?”

“Right in front of you,” he nodded to the small counter that divided his kitchen from living room. “One in both bedrooms if you need some space.”

She disappeared back into Dash’s old bedroom, he heard her bark at someone on the phone, the toilet between the bedrooms flushed, he never heard the door close or open. Jesus. Two minutes later she was standing at the small divider again, dressed in the red and yellow flowered dress that had gotten them into this situation.

“I hate to be a bitch, but I need to go. Now. We can beat the lock on the 405 or run up through…What?”

“You drove, didn’t trust me. We weren’t that far from here when you passed out at the gas station. I didn’t know where else to take you, didn’t want to troll your purse trying to find out.” He waited for her to wake up, but she was absorbing as fast as he laid it out. “Your pickup’s on the street out front. If you have to book we’re cool. I can get to my car.”

“You don’t mind? Crapola, I’m…I have a time window to beat. I bet you think I do this all the time, huh? Not at all…I told you that, didn’t I? That’s why I’m so scattered. I’m…I shouldn’t be here. Did I drink? Did I explain my tan?”

“A couple of drinks too many and a couple of times explaining a lot of things. Just saw the tan a minute ago. Interesting. Are you a trim carpenter for real?”

“Yeah. My hands.” She rubbed her fingers with her thumbs, screwed up her lips. “Rough. Sorry. I’m not the usual Wednesday piano player’s door prize at Bellacardi’s, am I?”

“I doubt it. Leave me a card, or your number?”

“Right. You’re going to call me. After no car, and no sex and…” Damn, he looked like he might be serious. “Okay.” She pulled an overstuffed red patent wallet out of her purse and sifted through a handful of cards, offered him one.
Jaeyden Hammett Carpentry – Serving the Greater Los Angeles Area. Two state license numbers and a phone number.

“You real busy?” He pulled one of his cards out of the second kitchen drawer he opened, set it on the divider. She picked it up, held it with her teeth and talked around it.

“This week, yeah. I have a remodel finishing up in West L.A. They say the bust is coming. Just my luck, right? Nothing next week yet. What am I saying? Nothing anywhere past Friday. I’m state licensed for trim and frame. Oh, and I’m bonded, too. A hundred grand. I think.”

She pulled one of her hands off shoe duty, took the card out of her mouth and dropped it in her purse. She was trying to talk, hang onto the counter with her elbow, stand on one leg and put on some kind of ankle wrap sandals that tied. The sandal wrap was an attempt to hide where her work boots cut off her tan. Women. He reached out, put a hand on the shoe between them.

“Next week’s job just landed, Jade. Solid. I’ll call.” He nodded at the shoe under his hand. “You might want to blow these off and drive barefoot.”

”Right. You need to get rid of me. Heard and understood. Someone is coming and I need to beat it. I feel so stupid…”

She stopped at the door to organize shoes and keys, fumble in her purse. A kicked around some, hard working, deeply tanned, tiny, no make up thirty-ish female carpenter with a mess of sun bleached hair and more of a mess tan lines under a pretty, probably rarely worn dress.

“No reason for stupid, and nobody’s coming. You had to take off the shoes to drive last night, carried them in when I woke you up.”

“I musta forgot that part.” She fidgeted with her dress, small shrugs, twists. “There was some story, right? One name Jackson? If you do call? Never mind, men don’t ever call me that way.” She dropped her shoes, threw her head back, gathered up a fistful of ponytail and popped a band around it. “They find out I was in the Army and I’m divorced with a kid and what I do for a living and think I’m a lez, so if you do call, I’ll know it’s you.” She picked up her nowhere-to-belong shoes, patted her purse. “And I have your card.”

She poked her head back in just before the door closed. “Thanks, you know…For being…And not getting…” She heard the Mr. Coffee gurgle. “Do you have a styrofoam cup, sir? Or a cup I can borrow?”

He reached up into the cabinet and pulled out a tall, translucent blue Morisé coffee cup, loaded it two thirds full for her.

She tied her shoes together and hung them around her neck while he brought the cup, took it with both hands, held it up to the light. “Amazing glaze. What’s the little gold M for?”

“Mescaline. It’s the only place I know where you can find that color of blue.”

“That’s true, you know, about this blue. But I think you’re bullshitting me about the M. Sir. I’ve seen it somewhere.” She gave him a slightly more relaxed look, between gratitude and mild surprise. “Nice cup. Don’t worry, I’ll get it back to you.” She pulled the door as she backed out, stuck her head around again just before it closed. “Because you are going to call me.”

Fried Hog Poop – No Charge For The Fold

Another “The Hot Girl -part 3” writing exercise casualty. Dialogue vs Narrative for backstory. Investment Alert – Long Read- almost 3k. Coffee or wine may be required.

Las Vegas – Mid-Summer 1979

Jackson unbuttoned the top button of his collarless shirt and tried to clear his head of the endless piano bar requests for “After the Love Has Gone” before he stepped out the back door of the hotel kitchen with a couple of waiters. One male, one female, the three of them on their daily post-lunch-rush burn one and chill in the heat retreat.

The girl, Missy, was close to his age. Everyone called the guy Five-Oh because he dyed his hair, combed two-thirds of it back in a duck’s butt to cover the tanned or spray painted bald spot, left the front hanging greasy like Jack Lord from Hawaii Five-O. He could have been thirty or sixty. His sun spotted hands looked ancient covered in wiry, salt and pepper hair and they shook, wide and slow like a lazy blues vibrato when he passed the flat joints he carried in his wallet. He was weird, too thin and jumpy, probably a speed freak, but he knew somebody who grew killer, lime green hydroponic weed and he was loose with it.

Missy was too thin herself, wouldn’t talk to anyone but her customers. After her shift she changed into the same long, hippie-print tapestry skirt and a slightly dingy white, cap sleeve t-shirt, hit the joint with them and headed out the alley and west on foot. After a week of everything he said to her running into a wall, Jackson followed her. It felt like she was going to walk them to where the west side of Vegas met the desert if he didn’t stop her.

He caught up at an intersection, pulled out the first conversation starter he could find. “Nice bracelet. Indian?”

“I knew you were back there, space man. I missed the ‘walk’ light on purpose and waited up so we could bale this and stack it in the barn. I don’t need a boyfriend or a new savior or a better job or a better way or better sex or Avon or Amway or the New York City Sunday paper or anything you’re selling. Leave me alone.”

“I asked about the bracelet.” It was thin leather covered) in beads and more of a cuff, almost like lightweight Indian biker wear, and laced on with orange yarn.

“Indian, yeah. I don’t know what kind. It was wide enough for what I needed, and the bead pattern was cool.” He thought she was going to bite a hole in her lip. “I lace it on and forget it. Thanks for caring. Gotta go.” She took off across the street without the walk light, dodged a couple of cars and kept on west. He watched for a minute, jogged in the heat all the way back to his car and drove west on Flamingo. He crossed under the interstate, saw her a quarter mile ahead. He rolled up in front of her, stopped and got out.

“This is stupid. Missy’s not your name, nobody’s really named Missy and nobody in Vegas nicked you with it.”

“I’m not from Vegas and it’s not your problem, is it?”

“I’m from bale it and put in the barn country myself. You don’t talk through your nose, and Missy is still bullshit.” He could see her frustration with him ramping up.

“Do you get away with this, wherever you’re from, talking to girls like we need to talk back and telling us it’s bullshit if we don’t? I told you —”

“You didn’t tell me anything, it’s hot as hell and you aren’t walking like you’re going anywhere. You can ride in the back with the tire iron like the last girl that got in my car, but get off your feet and outta the heat, tell me where you need to go.” They stared at each other for a few seconds. He drummed on the top of his car with his fingers while she fidgeted with the leather cuff. “Hey, I liked that one. Feet, heat.” She still wasn’t sold, but she let a quick, faint smile get out. He was gaining ground.

“What, now you’re some kind of prairie poet or something? I heard twang. Texas? Not tin can enough to be Okie.”

“Okie born and raised. But I’ve spent a lot of time getting it out of my nose and down into a drawl.”

“You’re not there yet.” She gave up another faint smile, crawled into the back seat. “Wow, baa-ad. The air conditioner in this thing works!”

He pulled away from the curb, had no choice but silence since his radio had been stolen, idled them out Flamingo in third.

“Nice hole you have in your dash.” She opened his back window a crack, lit a long, white filtered cigarette and blew “Kansas” out with the smoke.

“No Kansas without a tape player.”

“Me, you Okie clown. I’m from Kansas. Though where I lived? I could almost throw a rock and hit Oklahoma if I wanted.”

In the mirror he watched her make a face while she leaned, twisted, pulled a seatbelt buckle out from under her backside. “Now I’m living across town the other way in a runaway shelter, so you aren’t taking me ‘home’ anywhere around here, if that was your big ‘help Missy out’ idea.”

“Little old for that shelter, aren’t you? Twenty-two?”

She slapped the side of his headrest. “Good guess! Twenty-three. Twenty-four in August. They don’t check ID there, I don’t do hard drugs, and I wash my face with Noxzema to keep up my girlish looks. There’s girls in there not even fourteen look a lot worse than me. I hate the place, but it’s not coed, so it’s safe. Horny mixed up chicks I can handle. It’s horny, mixed up dudes I can do without.”

He checked her taking his temperature over that in the rear-view. “I’m starving. The no feed us rule at work sucks.”

“So does the food, space man. So really it’s like a benefit, you know? Them not feeding us.” She continued to watch him, his eyes keeping time between the road and her in the mirror. “They weigh that shit is why we don’t get to eat it. Every ticket gets a weight and they check it once a week to see who’s skimming. They even weigh those pans under the counter where they throw the fuckups away. The Mafia runs a way tighter ship than the Navy, that’s for sure.” She let the smoke and her mind drift a little, ashed her cig out the window. “I don’t eat much so it doesn’t matter to me. I walk all afternoon, drink a lot of water. My car’s broken, so I walk back to the shelter after dinner shift. They usually have some kind of chunks in macaroni. It’s slimy, but nice of them. And it keeps me from blowing away. But me and food. It’s just…” She watched the smoke curl, dropped the butt out the window, sighed and stared after it.

“I live on this end of town,” Jackson said to the mirror. “Out where they’re building houses. Not many restaurants yet. Not much of anything yet but apartments, stick framed houses not getting finished. The economy is what I heard. I was going to fix something easy. You can bring the lug wrench in with you.”

“You’re not dangerous, I picked up on that. Okie weird, maybe. I’ll come in ‘cause it’s hot, but I’m just gonna watch.”

***

Jackson made quickie stir fried rice with two Uncle Ben’s boil-in-bags, a bag of frozen veg, a couple of scrambled eggs and pepper. He set two bowls on the counter, grabbed Tabasco and soy sauce from the fridge. He splashed a bowl with some of both, forked the rice, shrugged approval. “I gotta do some laundry this afternoon.” He pointed to the main bedroom with his fork. “There’s all kinds of robes in the front bedroom. Take the tire iron when you’re done with the rice, toss your clothes out. No charge for the fold.”

All she could do was snort with her mouth full because he’d let that go without seeing it as a fantastic jest. “I can’t get stuck out here looking at a dinner shift with no clothes and some crazy Okie weirdo who hates radio. It’s not ever going to happen.” She spooned some more of the rice, shot the bowl of it with a generous dose of soy sauce and took it to the big front bedroom, yelled for him from inside. He ambled in with his bowl, watched her through the open double door on the closet while she slowly fanned through several dozen silk robes on plush hangers. She held a simple, long pink one under her chin, took three steps sideways to the full length mirror and whistled soft and low.

“Wowzer…” She hit the light switch that handled the atmospheric indirects, not the overhead “work” lights. “Will you look at that…How the hell do you live here on the piano bar, space man?” She leaned forward, slowly turning her head to take it all in. “Just being in this bathroom has to be a sin. What’s with all the clothes?” She caught a glimpse of both of them in the wall to wall mirror, blushed. “And the perfume and all these lotions and make up?”

“Office supplies.”

“Yeah?” She hung the robe on a brass hook by the door, gave it a loving pat. “Too much. Too-oo much.” He followed her back to the kitchen where she went straight to the skillet and spooned the remainder of his simple chef Chinese into her bowl.

“I’m only eating because this is the first time any man has ever cooked for me. And I can’t let that one get by, you know? Truly. Never happened before.” She talked around a mouth full of rice and veg, gestured with her bowl. “This could be a bowl of fried hog poop, but knowing a man cooked it for me makes it great, whatever it is.” She swallowed the last of her rice and veg, balled up her paper napkin and dropped it in the bowl. “Seriously. Lay it out, space man. What’s up with the bathroom and the silk robes and everything?”

“This place belongs to seven non-affiliated, free lance hookers. They rented the place right after it was built because it was in the furthest out burbs, no one is looking for hookers out here, and they don’t do business or live in the apartment. They pull up, come inside and prep, walk out dressed up in expensive, real world clothes, climb back in their cars and hit their appointments. Town and Johns are east, desert and construction are west, they live wherever they live. I make sandwiches or omelets, do their laundry, keep the place clean, gas up their cars, glue heels back on shoes, fix stuff. C’mere.”  He set their bowls in the sink, tossed their napkins in a can under it and walked her back into the master bath in the front bedroom.

“See that?” Jackson pointed through the glass surround on a garden tub at a shiny brass shower head the size of a dinner plate. “I put that in for them last week. A hundred and twenty bucks, no shit. From Italy, I think. That paddle thing on the side goes all the way around. From standing in the rain to that little circle of holes in the middle that will beat your ass. It’s —”

She pushed him out of the room and locked the door. Less than a minute later her clothes flew out and the door locked again.

He waited until he heard the bathwater stop before starting the load of hooker office wear and Missy’s clothes. He sat on the couch and watched a video tape of a guy with a foreign accent explain beginner guitar and music theory. He couldn’t keep up with the guy on guitar, yet, but it was good for his brain to stay on top of even simple theory. And the only other tape, the sensual massage lesson, would have primed him to climb, uninvited, into the bathtub with his nameless guest.

***

“Massey, not Missy? Ferguson? Like the tractor?” He leaned his head on the back of the couch in mock shock. “Jesus. Alice Chalmers would at least have been more chick sounding.”

“Hey,” she kicked him on the shin with a bare foot, “there’s nothing wrong with Massey. I just stay away from all of that except for government forms because I have to tell it all, like now. I only told you ’cause nobody else has cooked for me or washed my clothes since mama died.” She pulled he robe tighter, eyed him for a moment with hopeful intensity. “Tell me you didn’t do it ‘cause you’re a panty sniffer, space man. I could use a friend.”

“I only sniff to check for clean or dirty.” He grinned, held up the red can. “More Coke?”

“No. I like to crunch the ice chunks that still have some taste of it. I’ve never, ever seen anybody beat up ice with a hammer before.”

“I don’t like cubes. Don’t know why, just never have. My mom indulged me, so it’s a habit now. When did your mom die?”

“When my dad ran over her with a combine ‘cause she was fucking Nueller down in the air conditioned garage of the Esso. I was twelve then? Yeah, twelve, and just a couple of days before it happened my brother’d pulled a shotgun on dad when he went off on mom, told him not to touch her again, ever. I didn’t blame her when it all came out. Dad’s about a pig and a fucking half. Fat, drunk mostly, showers when he remembers. Nueller was always shiny clean, smelled like Old Spice even on a hot day, always had a crease in his pants and was fucking every woman in three or four counties in two states who had a guy like dad for a husband.”

“Nice work if you can get it.”

She wrinkled her nose. “Not really. He’s dead now, too, Nueller is. The man who owned the Ford lot from over in Anthony waited for him to step out from behind the pumps and ran him down. He was going about twenty-five, nailed Nuellie with the dead center of a brand-new Ford. Backed up over him, ran over him some more. The paper said Nueller was smiling. The Ford lot man’s wife looked a lot like Marilyn Monroe, some kind of hot girl everybody said. I didn’t know her. Nueller probably thought it was her coming for him, not her husband. Happy to dead. Boom.” She covered her knees again with the slippery, oversized pink silk robe. She went thoughtful for a moment, set her glass of ice on the coffee table, looked at him and was surprised he was listening.

“I guess that’s the best way to go, you know, looking forward to something. Mama was miserable and said all the time she only stayed for me. I know she had to have heard that combine, had to know what was coming, and didn’t try to run or anything. Miserable to dead. Boom.” She pulled the sleeve of the robe down over her left wrist where the wide, beaded Indian bracelet lived when she wasn’t fresh out of the tub. “I think that’s why I’m still here. Some days I feel too miserable to die. If I get happy someday? Lightning will strike me, I know it.”

Jackson pulled the sleeve back, looked at all the small, white scars on her wrist. Nothing deadly, just knicks. Manifested frustration. He got up, set his Coke can on the counter. She turned, chin in the crook of her arm, watched him unload the clothes from a dryer in a closet by the kitchen.

“The Indian bracelet you like? I only got it because it stops me. I know it’s crazy, but sometimes I’ll even pinch myself with a roach clip if I’m bummed. I’m right-handed and if I tried any of that with my left hand I’m so retarded I’d cut my arm off. I really sort of need my right one or I couldn’t do anything and then I’d be more miserable and not dead.”

“Cutting your arm off might be a good start on dead.” He dumped the basket of dryer friendly panties, teddies, slips, nothing but lace and hooks bras, a couple of nylon halter top with hot pants onesies along with Massey’s clothes on the big, square coffee table and started sorting. He was almost done, folded her panties, dropped them on top of her skirt and t-shirt.

“How’d you know?”

He held up a small piece of v-shaped lace draped over his finger and her tired at the seams tiger-striped bikinis, raised his eyebrows. He also held up what had once been a bra and was now a lot of stringy elastic and shapeless nylon and cotton. “Your bra is shot. You oughta toss it.”

“And wear what?”

“Go liberated or get in the top drawer in the big bedroom. Probably forty in there. Two of the ladies are about your size. Find one you like that fits. They’ll never miss it, and if they do I’ll tell them the dryer ate it.”

She came back dressed, with an obviously lacy bra under the t-shirt. “You’re a weird sort of guy, space man. You cook a little, do laundry like a Chinaman. You’ll look at my legs and show me the shower but not to make me feel creeped. Where’d you learn to be a house boy?”

“Lived with a girl who failed home-ec. The rest was mom went to work. Simple survival.”

“Same here on the survival. Only my mama was murdered and he got away with it.”

Painted Ladies

Tuesday September 11, 1979 – Los Angeles

The rattle of locks and chains stopped the heel of Jackson’s fist from landing on the warehouse door for his third set of bam, bam, bam. The locks continued to rattle against the galvanized door, up the left side, down the right, then the middle. The rattles stopped, nothing happened for long enough he considered announcing himself to see if that would help. An electric motor behind the door started grinding, the door split in the middle and rolled away across the front of the almost waterfront warehouse. Three mid-twenties Art and Dance grad school girls in loose clothes, all sporting a tangible air of caution, were spread out across the opening, the two on either side holding three-foot long steel pry bars. The middle one looked right and left down the alley with no name, waved to a forklift driver two buildings down before she turned back to him.

“Jackson?”

“Yeah. I –”

“Who was your ref again?”

“Audrey. Boriman. Atlanta Bal –”

She pulled him inside, the grinding commenced, considerably louder inside than out, and the doors came together behind him with a boom that seemed to reverberate forever.

“Sorry.” All three of them frisked him. “Weirdos. You never know.” The one who’d pulled him inside left them, lifted several industrial breakers and flooded the space with light.

Old welded angle iron and pine-plank bleachers like the ones at high school practice fields were arranged in a loose horseshoe in the middle of the warehouse. He knew by heart from reading the seat bottoms when he was a kid they’d hold “approximately 105 adults or 3, 250 lbs.” On the floor in the center of the horseshoe was a twenty by twenty-foot pad resembling a boxing ring. Its edges, the floor around it and the first couple of rows of the bleachers were splattered with paint.

“Aja,” the middle one, introduced herself. “Hope Audrey knew what she was talking about.” She stripped down to her flip flops. “Hard to find good help these days. Everybody can talk, nobody can do.”

“Uh…” Jackson eyed the other two still gripping their pry bars. “The ad in the  practice hall said ‘Painted Ladies Dance Troupe seeks non-derivative sound artist.’ There wasn’t anything about, um…Clothing being, optional?”

“Are you high?”

“No, but I –”

“Excellent.” Naked Aja grabbed him by the elbow and pulled him across the warehouse while she talked. “What we do is totally dependent on a high level of intuitive interpersonal communication. We can’t…No, we won’t have the integrity of our work disgraced by tainted sensory reception.”

It was getting weirder, but art and dance majors all talked a stream of crazy shit most of the time, with or without their clothes, and he could hang right in the middle of it with them.

Aja marched him to the far, open edge of the splattered pad, lifted the lid on a good sized wooden shipping crate and proceeded to pull out a wide assortment of junk and toss it in his direction.

Jackson caught a few of them, had to let others clang and bang on the floor. Juggling metallic kitchen utensils and construction site junk in a “surprise, I’m naked!” interview wasn’t what he expected.

Aja continued to toss until she was satisfied with the mess of debris at his feet, dusted her hands. “Make us some music.”

He squatted, went through the chunks of pipe, enameled wooden boxes and paint sticks, kitchen spoons, stainless steel dog food and salad bowls, sheet aluminum, a bowling ball with a chunk missing, a small galvanized flower pot with French writing on the side and other junk.

“Lots of it, but not much to work with.” He held up a wooden meat tenderizing hammer, thunked it on a bowl suspended from a banana hanger, got a dull bunggggg for his effort. “Short term interesting, not very good percussion is the only possibility for most of this. The wash basin and some marbles would make a decent groove. Nothing lyrical. I’m not sure what you expect here.”

“You’re the ‘Sound Artist.’ Make something wonderful happen.”

He knew they were waiting for him to fold or build a drum set out of dog food bowls and fold even harder. He looked past the two expressionless security girls leaning on their weaponized pry bars, scanned the warehouse.

“That.” He pointed to the far corner where a version of every church basement and grandmother’s house upright piano sat, adorned with a psychedelic multicolored paint job and partially draped with a splattered canvas painter’s cloth. “I need that.”

“It will never be in tune. Piano players are like gum under church pews, and Piano Man is not who we…” She stopped, weighed his enthusiasm against her cynicism, waved in the piano’s direction. “We let you in.”

There was something unsettling in a naked girl with her fists on her hips in that “You’re wasting my time” way watching him push the piano across the warehouse, the ancient brass casters screeching on concrete.

He scattered the pile of junk with his foot, spent a few minutes modifying the piano with odd bits and pieces, set a chunk of steel on the damper pedal. At first he coaxed some eerie, metallic drones out of it by scraping the strings with a steam basket, ringing occasional dissonant bells from the top end with a medium sized aluminum serving ladle. He looked up and all three of them were naked, rolling all over the mat in and out of what he recognized as modern dance poses. He abused the strings and soundboard with other objects from the floor, monitoring the ‘dance’ out of the corner of his eye and adjusting his output to their activity dynamics as best he could until they folded into each other. He smashed a raspy, banged strings-on-aluminum-strip from the upper middle of the sound board and stood, eyes closed and arms wide while the warehouse’s huge natural reverb decayed around them.

“Cool. The room lets you stand inside it.” He absently set two metal ladles on top of the piano along with several lengths of galvanized pipe. “I need an egg beater like I used with Aud. More dynamics.” With the steel block still resting on the pedal he played a slow, out of tune arpeggio that rang through the warehouse like distant church bells on acid.  “Man. I could get up inside of that with one and –”

All three of them, naked and slightly sweaty, hugged him. They helped him toss the excess junk back in the crate and dressed before they led him to a glassed-in upstairs office that overlooked the small arena and handed him a steaming pottery class cup.

“Honest to God fresh roasted coffee.”

His first instinct was to refuse. After his last three girls and their Timothy Leary’s Gatorade in New Mexico he liked to watch his drinks being mixed. But they were all drinking from the same pot. He might die crazy, but not alone.

Aja pulled a chair away from an old, metal, paint splattered like everything else in the warehouse work table, pushed a box of donuts his way. “I was afraid you were another Bartok tone cluster wannabe. But…” She looked at him with clear, appraising eyes. “That was amazing. Magical.” She checked in telepathically with her two partners who had left their pry bars downstairs. “Yeah?”

“Yeah,” one of the ex-pry bar girls laughed. “Thanks for being the most disappointing real piano player in L.A.” A comment that in any other context he might have found disturbing.

***

“You got a gig doing wha?” Dash had to set the bong on the counter while he coughed. “Sheee-it, my man. Fine, nekkid women rollin’ around in paint? However much they payin’ you be too much. As you have piqued my interest, what is the entry fee to witness this creative endeavor?”

Jackson loaded and fired the bong. “Two-hundred and fifty dollars.” He blew a series of smoke rings. “Fifteen hundred in the paint splatter zone. I figure they have to gross close to a hundred grand for a full house.”

“Call me Sambo, slap my momma, order pizza for later. You shittin’ me?”

“Nope. The canvas auctions start at twenty grand. Unless they find something artistically disagreeable on one or it won’t fit in the buyer’s space and cut it up into smaller pieces that add up to more money. I’m going to a show at some Warbucks’ pad in Malibu on Sunday. I have to be ‘Rasputin’ for a while, but you can hang if you’ll play my awestruck, culturally underprivileged token sidekick.”

“Depend first upon what a Rasputin be. I refuse to be seen in such an enlightened environment wearing a Sunset Boulevard at midnight bulldog collar.”

“None of that. I’m supposed to blow my hair up crazy, take kitchen utensils out of the host’s drawers and gently abuse the inside of their grand piano in a cocktail piano version of what I do at the paintings. While they all eat shrimp cocktail and talk art and admire their wall size naked chicks in paint art.”

“And what do you say as you peruse their drawers for these magical implements of sonic construction?”

“Nothing. I grunt, but not too dangerously, and if pressed I guess I’ll tilt my head with an air of quizzical seriousness, like a dog that doesn’t get it.”

“Sheeee-it. It is my assumption, as your friend and confidant in this affair, they be payin’ you way too much for that artistically suspicious activity as well?”

“Mama said stand up tall when confronted by a truth.”

“Then you are an artistic fraud of the highest order.”

“I prefer carefully constructed poseur.” Jackson raised his hand, wiggled his fingers like a magician. “An elaborate accessory to the festivities.”

“Fraud by any other name. I am down, my brother. For shrimp and a rich white people in Malibu tableau I will become the epitome of Buckwheat and suspend belief in any creative photography degree that bears my name.”

Land Run – Say Hey, Neighbor – Final Installment

Kevin’s throbbing head, the low whine from the chartered Gulfstream’s fans and the dust the wind kicked up off the tarmac had turned his ‘We should take separate flights’ pitch to Cheryl into a whiny duet with the idling jet. The briefcase with over five million dollars inside did a little dance between them every time Cheryl tugged on it with both hands and Kevin pulled it back.

“There’s no good reason why we can’t take the same plane, Kevin.” Cheryl almost got the briefcase away from him. He yanked it back hard enough to get it away from her and clutched it to his chest.

“Yeah, Kevin.” Maddie checked her lipstick in the bottom of the tube. “The three of us again. Mile high club? Do you just not like women, Kev, is that it? Or is it that little patch of gauze on your head that’s the problem? Not today, darling, I have a headache?”

“I like women fine and I do have a fucking size twelve headache, thank you very much, ” his indignance building. “What I don’t like is women who crack me with a gun, stuff a soapy washcloth in my mouth, cable tie me into a pretzel and rob me.” He tried a glare on Cheryl, raised a finger off the briefcase, pointed at Maddie. “And I think that bitch standing next to you was one of them. I know she was.”

“You know nothing of the kind. She had her way with you earlier, without cable ties or hitting you on the head. Your weak bullshit about getting whacked on the head and losing Randy’s car money was past it’s sell-by date before you finished spewing it the first time. You stashed Randy’s one-sixty somewhere for the Benz and now you want to take the rest of it and disappear. That dog won’t hunt ’cause half that’s my money. Get your butt on the plane, now, or give me the briefcase and hit it.”

“You are mad about the hot tub. Your new boobs are between you and me, Cheryl. I didn’t mean it like that. I mean the massage never happened, Randy doesn’t need to know about me and your boobs and a little stiff and sticky in the hot tub. He’s going to be pissed enough about the car money. I thought look, if this plane goes down, Randy is stuck down there with nothing. I was thinking of his, like, uh, welfare.”

“My ass. You first.” Cheryl grabbed his arm, turned him toward the Gulfstream’s boarding steps. “Maddie?”

“Right behind you. You don’t know how much I appreciate you two letting me tag along. I’ve always wanted to see Acapulco. Bumpers, huh. What kind of place is it again?”

“You’ll be right at home, Maddie. Trust me.”

Maddie hugged them both from behind, pinched their butts while the attendant raised the steps. “Going home sounds like so much fun. God I love to meet new family. Don’t you?”

 

***

Harli stuck the phone in her bra, stuffed her carry-on in the overhead bin, slid into her seat and stared out the window. There was no reason to feel like she did. She and Flash had split the money and the pizza, Maddie had left them alone and they’d talked. A lot. That’s all. Until Kevin called from the ER for Flash to pick him up. He’d smiled his car thief smile, said, “Bye, neighbor to the South,” squeezed her shoulder like she was a girl bud. She pulled off the Niner’s cap she’d “forgotten” to give back and got a little wistful. Jesus, she’d spent yesterday riding around her home town in stolen cars with a stranger, whacked a guy she didn’t know on the head with a gun and committed an armed robbery with her Dad’s top erotic retreat hostess. On the way to Summa cum Laude international finance grad students didn’t do things like that. Well, not until yesterday.

“Miss Davidson?” The flight attendant who had been starched into his clothes and shaved with a new blade twice checked the small slip of paper in his left hand, wrestled her bag out of the overhead, and backed down the aisle to let her out. “I need you to come with me, please.”

Her heart sank. Shit. They’d been busted. For all of it. The stolen cars, the money, the head whack. All of it. That asshole her dad knew hadn’t liked her attitude about the surcharge when she sent her $80,000 offshore and had called her out. Shit. She could feel her glass ceiling getting lower in real-time. Nobody wanted a convict accountant except politicians and other convicts. She shouldn’t have worn the Niner’s cap. That was it. Security had spotted her. She thought about trying to cry her way out of it.

“Where are you taking me?”

“First Class, Miss Davidson. Your ticket was upgraded at the counter. Don’t you remember?” He smiled like he owned three dentists and wanted his money’s worth.

“Right. Forgot.” She hadn’t done anything at any counter, but whatever. First Class wasn’t jail. She sat where the flight attendant pointed before he took her bag and stacked it neatly in a closet close to the front. It was harder to see the baggage guys practicing their long-distance loading techniques from her new window, but she could see the pilot talking to the light stick and headphone people. She felt someone land on the other side of her first-class console, caught a faint whiff of a nice, light cologne. Probably some money-guy suit on the way to Acapulco to see her dad and his “hostesses.” She hoped he wasn’t a talker. And dammit, who would be texting her?

He poked her arm. “Saw you go to the restroom twice, think about a huge cookie five times before you got on the plane.”

“Shit! What are you —”

“I can’t miss this one.” He handed her a cellophane-wrapped chocolate chip cookie the size of a cow pie.

“Yeah? I thought you were out of clean underwear, art poser.”

“I was. I’m functionally artsy. I can do laundry and shop a little.”

She broke off a piece of the cookie, handed it to him. “A cookie bribery car thief stalker with domestic skills following me to Acapulco? Is this part of a master plan?”

“Not yet. The essence of man is to be, not to plan.”

“God, Berkeley has rotted your brain.”

She switched her phone off. Dad could sit on that one for a while, she had a takeoff hand to hold. And it had to belong to a freaking car thief working on a liberal arts masters. Her dad was going to kill her. Her mom might commit suicide.

She decided a single seat in first class was big enough for both of them, if they stretched out. She needed to tell him when she climbed over the console that she drooled in her sleep sometimes. So he should get a towel in case she passed out on his shoulder.

Land Run – Say Hey, Neighbor – Part 3

Flash rolled into the abandoned lumberyard and up the ramp into a fifty-three-foot trailer that had bags of gluten and corn free organic dog food painted on the sides. He pulled the battery and ratcheted the Mercedes down like a professional calf roper and jumped off the back of the trailer as the driver started to reload pallets of dog food. Flash stood in the swirling gravel dust churned up by the forklift and gave minimal load directions. It took them under six minutes from the time he’d driven through the gates to locking the trailer.

The driver smacked his gloves together, tossed them in the cab. “GPS?”

“History before I started it.”

“Dead, set and locked down?”

“Come on, Colin. I didn’t start yesterday.”

“No, but you took your sweet time.” Colin leaned on the cab with one hand, unlocked the “Fire Extinguisher Inside” box with the other. He pulled the fire extinguisher, slammed the box door. “Trouble?”

“Met a girl.”

Colin turned his head, popped a grin, elbowed Flash in the shoulder

“Not like that, man. A girl girl.

“Worst kind of trouble.”

“She’s not a banger…She’s…different.”

“What I said.”

They split up, climbed into their respective sides of the cab. Flash dropped his leather bag on the console, took the fire extinguisher handoff. Colin lurched the rig through the deserted lumberyard’s gates while Flash unscrewed the bottom of the extinguisher, stuck his hand inside and fished out two waxed paper bundles.

“One-sixty.” Colin hit the ignition on a vape, blew the smoke sideways out the window.  “How many non-target free-styles you pull today?”

“Six?”

“Don’t be cute, you’re a freaking one-man white car crime wave in this town. Scanner’s lit up with hot cars. The Lexus I know was you belonged to a city councilman’s wife and they have everybody with a badge that can drive out looking for it. You’re finished here.”

“How am I supposed to —”

“Uber. I’ll drop you someplace civilized.” He chuckled, hit the vape again. “Six? Jeez, Flash. You shopping for a keeper?”

“Not really…” He zoned a few extra seconds, could still taste onion rings through the dust. “But I might have found one.”

***

Harli and Maddie, from their vantage point in the rented black Camaro three parking spaces away, watched Cheryl the real estate agent slam Kevin’s motel room door, climb into a metallic red Lincoln SUV and chirp the tires getting out of the Super 8 lot. Harli thought the Lincoln would be a cool car for Flash to steal. She pushed on her temples with the heels of her hands. God. What was she thinking?

“This isn’t going to work, Maddie. You know that, right?”

“Of course it will work. You could have gone horny college girl, done the Flash til he was stupid and walked out of his room with the cash. Would have saved us some trouble.”

“I don’t do that. Weaponized sex is like so Twentieth Century and reality TV and so not me. Besides, I think he’s one of those weird Unicorn kind of guys who can see that stuff coming, and I…Well…”

“You don’t want him to think that about you because you’re not one of me. Got it. Ten minutes. Do you need to pee again? Questions?”

“Do you think the police will get the video from Target of us buying all these black clothes?”

“No one will call the police, Harli. The money is payment for an insurance fraud stolen car. Relax.”

“Will Flash hate me forever for this?”

“Flash will get over it. Anyway, you’re robbing Kevin, not Flash.”

“Black lipstick?”

“What do you suggest for a black ski mask, Harli? Pink? Red?”

“The masks cover our mouths. Our eyes will give us away.”

“Not with these. Party City. White-out vampire contacts.” She tilted the rearview, popped the contacts in, flashed Harli a buck-toothed smile. “How you rike me now, Grasshoppuh?”

Harli rolled her eyes. “Talk about Twentieth Century…”

***

At straight-up 9 pm Flash carried a Red Dragon branded paper bag from his room to Kevin’s, knocked on the door, raised his voice to delivery driver level. “Red Dragon.”

Kevin opened the door, reached out and dragged Flash into the room, stuck his head back out to look around and Harli cracked him on the head with Maddie’s Browning. Hard, but not too hard.

Shit..OW! The fuck?” Kevin clutched the top of his head with both hands, staggered back into the room, fell on the bed. “Whaaa? Who? Awwwww…Dammit. OW! He pulled his hands down, looked at his fingers. “Holy mother of fuck! I’m bleeding!” Harli raised the gun again and Kevin dove under the pillow. “Take it, whatever you want, but don’t hit me again…Don’t fucking shoot me, either, you crazy bitch. God dammit, OW!”  He rolled onto his stomach buried his head further under the pillow. Awww…Bitch! My fucking head.”

Maddie pushed her way past Harli and Flash, lifted the pillow and stuffed a dirty washcloth in Kevin’s mouth. She had trouble at first with her gloves and the cable ties stuffed in the side of her boot but got organized, pulled his hands together and zip tied them. She motioned to Harli to pull his feet up and in a few more awkward moves they had Kevin cable-tied and thrashing on the bed like a prize-winning fish in the bottom of a bass boat. In white Jockeys.

“Kung Pao chicken’s getting cold, ladies. Gotta run.” Flash bowed, took a back step toward the door and Harli stuck the Browning in his ribs.

“Yo, yo, yo, sisters of spandex darkness. Guns scare me and I’m wearing my last clean pair of underwear.” Maddie pointed to the desk next to the TV, Flash set the Red Dragon bag down. Maddie motioned for him to open it and when he stepped back she counted fifteen ten-thousand-dollar bands. She spun Flash around, rubbed him down fore and aft in the pocket range, and came up with the missing ten grand.

“Hey, come on. The rub was quality, but it wasn’t worth ten grand. Finder’s fee, okay?”

Maddie dropped the money in the bag, spun him again, pushed him and Harli out the door. She followed them with the dragon bag and continued to push until they were all in the Camaro. She pulled off her ski mask, shook out her hair, Harli did the same.

Flash didn’t seem surprised to see them. “Which one of you is Bonnie and which one is Clyde?”

“Cute, junior. She tells me you’re a Berkley boy. Can you prove it?

“Is there a latent hippie blood test?”

“Cassie’s Place is what?”

“Since 1964 it’s been a continuous ‘meaning of life’ talk-a-thon coffee bar, upstairs behind Grant’s Market. Cute, smart girls who don’t buy razors or hair brushes until they graduate, guys in stupid round Amish looking hats and designer chuka boots, all flying low on over-priced caffeine wishing they weren’t virgins.”

“Ding! The money for the car is between you and Harli. We’re going to drop you at Lowe’s across the street. Walk back over and unhook Kevin. Act scared, like we kidnapped you and threw you out.”

“And then?”

“Then hook up with us in 723 at the Marriott. We’ll order pizza, have some fun.”

“Only if Harli stays in that black leotard. I thought I was falling in love with Bonnie or Clyde, whichever one she is. Was?”

“Shut up.” Harli managed an on the edge of disgusted frown. “Liberal Arts guys fall in love every other week.”

“What about Global Economists? When do they fall in love?”

“They don’t,” Maddie interjected. “Not on my watch. Harli, can we take his lofty bullshit horniness to Lowe’s, please? Before the smell of youth in heat overwhelms me?”

***

Harli stopped the Camaro by the pro door cart corral, Maddie leaned forward, pulled the seat back with her. “Adios, junior. If it takes too long to smooth Kev out, save the walk to the Marriott, we girls need our beauty rest. He might be pissed, don’t let him kick your ass.”

“The last ass he kicked was his mother’s, on the way into planet Earth.” He squatted down, hung on to the open door. “Harli with an I, next time you rob someone, put a clip in the gun. It’s more convincing that way.”

Maddie’s eyes got huge. She raised her eyebrows and they got even bigger. “Sweety?”

“I didn’t want it to go off and shoot him on accident.” Her smile sneaked out again, with a blush building behind it.

“That’s comforting. I think.” He stood, stayed bent into the car. “Order pizza, ladies. Easy on the bell peppers.”

Harli had turned her head, trying to kill the blush, and mumbled at her window. “I don’t eat bell peppers. On pizza, anyway.”

“All that and a black leotard. I knew I felt something tug at my heart.”

“That wasn’t your heart, and you were doing the tugging.” Maddie pushed him away from the door. “You. Beat it. By that I mean leave. Harli? Drive.”

Land Run – Say Hey, Neighbor – Part 2

More of ‘Land Run’ and my 20 somethings against the crazy world. There’s a lot of peripheral activity cut to see if these two gel inside the bigger story. I suppose it’s good sometimes to watch sub text like picture in picture.

Maddie reached for her phone on the towel by the tiled, built-in hot tub in the fleeing lawyer’s almost ex-wife’s back patio. More like a courtyard. The house was a big U around the xeriscaped back yard and patio, pool, hot tub set up. Nice grill, too. And a stainless steel baby fridge full of decent chardonnay. There were worse ways to be dumped.



***

Harli watched the city she grew up in go by, north to south. Riding in a stolen luxury SUV, with a guy she didn’t know. “How long have you been stealing cars?”

“Thirteen.”

“Thirteen years?”

“Thirteen years old. Thirteen years and I would have been 10 when I started.” He checked her out the corner of his eye. She’d been talking to the window like she was afraid to look at him. “That was in Detroit, before we moved. I tried to quit a squad when I was fifteen, they didn’t like it, mom wanted me alive a little longer. Like Fresh Prince. Only the Oakland side of the Bay, not L.A., mom came along, and no rich relatives. What about you?”

“Dad. And mom…I was eighteen. Just graduated high school.” She let that hang a few beats. “Ka-Bloooey! Mom said she’d never been so happy. Turned out it wasn’t for me, but because she was tired of my dad’s ‘endless quest for stupid things to with his penis’, and with me out of the house she could finally do something about it. The next day mom called some guy with the biggest pickup I’ve ever seen to come get all dad’s stuff and take it to the drilling company’s pipe yard. She was his business partner, on paper, and she forced a sale on his drilling business. Told him how the money was going to go and he could take the deal or she’d make him out to be the biggest weenie waving hole driller in history and he’d lose everything. He took it. I went to college, Mom sold everything and went to Florida to be a snotty, country club divorcé and Dad went to Mexico to run a high end kink carnival and whore house .”

“And you fit into their reincarnated shituations how?”

“I don’t. If it wasn’t for school, I’d be homeless.” He watched her shoulders sigh with that. “Not broke…”

“But nowhere real to be? I get that.” He tipped the blinker, checked the lane camera and moved over for the airport exit.

She turned away from her window of denial, watched him drive in his state of relaxed vigilance for a few before she blurted, “Have you ever felt like someone launched all the pinballs in your game of life at once, and then walked away from the table?”

***

Flash drove around the airport parking lot one time, scanned each row as he went by, parked the Lexus in the middle. “Stuff your hair in the hat and pull it down.” He handed Harli a pair of big, seventies style sunglasses from the bag, watched her stuff her hair and helped her squash the hat. He pulled his cap down, flipped up the collar of his shirt. “When you get out, look at the ground and follow my feet.”

She stuck to him like velcro. He kept his head down, counted the rows as he walked. On the eighth one he turned right and stopped four cars in. He tapped the handle and the doors unlocked. He dropped into the driver’s seat, entered a four number code on the console. A woman’s robot voice said from somewhere behind the dash, “Entry Validated. Anti-theft disarmed.” He sat back into the seat and relaxed.

They left the top up and kept their sunglasses on because he’d joked that neither of them looked like foreign software engineers or plastic surgeons. A comment that cemented him as West Coaster for her, because where they were it was more likely oilies and crooked lawyers. Which they didn’t look like, either.

Flash was full of easy conversation, had let her talk out her parent’s messy divorce and her loss of a sense of place without placating commentary. He was comfortable with himself, and her, and was becoming addictively fun to be around. For a car thief. The drive-through cherry limeade and onion rings at Sonic that ended up in the shade of a struggling tree in the adjoining WalMart parking lot were an unexpected treat.

She set the limeade back in the cup holder on her side. “You’re still shitting me about your name.”

“No more than you. Harli with an I, Davidson. Hookers are more original.”

“Look.” She handed him her thin, front pocket driver’s license and credit card only wallet. “Harli. With an I, Davidson.”

“I know a guy who prints these. Why’d you go for California? It’s easier to not be you in Ohio or West Virginia, somewhere off the reality index.”

“I go to school in California. Leventhal, USC. Almost a Masters in Accounting. Global economies and all that.”

“Say hey, neighbor to the south. Berkley. Almost Modern Literary and Visual Culture Masters. More like film and lit cross contamination. Nobody knows what’s art and what’s not, so we argue and throw money at the university until the day they say we need to write a thesis and graduate.”

“A liberal arts car thief from Berkley with a crazy fake name. My lucky day.”

You look, my Southern Cal global economist friend.” He handed her his identical to hers front pocket wallet. “See. Flash Lieght. It’s even on my debit card.”

“That’s Leet. Or Late, not –”

“The i-e is like ‘pie’. Lieght. When I was little they called me Lite. L I T E. Like Lite Lieght because I was skinny and…Never mind.”

She knew she was laughing too much and couldn’t help it. “You said you knew someone who could print these. My name’s on my American Express, Lite Lieght.” She stuck her tongue out at him. “So there.”

They handed back their respective front pocket card and license wallets, got in a finger tug of war over the onion rings. He laughed, she blushed and flipped the visor down and checked her teeth in the mirror to hide it.

“This place has always made me feel like I have dust on my teeth. Since I was a little girl. All gritty.”

“It’s the dust and wind combo. That airport parking lot was a sandbox.” He reached for the limeade, too late. “Where am I taking you when you finish the rings and the Route 44 by yourself?”

She pushed the nearly empty onion ring bag towards him and held out the Route 44. “My friend has been driving, but it’s the Marriott, on the north loop, I remember that. And it’s not far from the Chili’s where we stole…” She stumbled over the thought speed bump of car boosting. “I don’t remember the exit but there’s a Lowe’s across the street. With a Starbucks and a Wendy’s in the parking lot.”

“That corner repeats every five miles anywhere you go.”

“Well, I —”

“No prob. I’m in the Super 8 off the same exit.”

“Say hey, neighbor to the north.” She smiled, big. He grinned back before he looked over his shoulder and pulled out into traffic.

Shit. Her stupid, big, happy-girl smile had to jump out on its own. Maddie better not want to shoot this Flashlight guy. It would totally suck if she did.