It was a day where Cal could smell the heat coming before the sun even rose, the promise of temperatures high enough to kill a person just a scent now on the pre-dawn breeze. Never one to sleep late to begin with, the first whiff had driven him from bed early enough that he had to light a lamp to dress by. Sheep out in the west lands needed moving closer to the home place, harried as they had been by some unknown predator. From the smell of the air, they were like as not to drop dead on the trail if he dallied.
Besides, he stood a chance of making it out early enough to catch sight of whatever had been picking off the lambs and blowing it straight to hell.
He drank yesterday’s coffee and chewed a strip of dried beef. The dark felt right for fresh, hot coffee and porridge, taken on the front porch to watch the sun rise, but with the air the way it was, he figured he could settle for less today. Even his big palomino stallion Branson thought it was too early, and he wondered if the horse would have found it a coffee and porch sort of hour as well. As it was the beast nickered softly and shook off whatever passes for sleep in a horse, one long shiver from snout to tail.
He fed the horse well before saddling it. Branson would be doing all the hard work after all and it’d be cruel to ask it from a beast with an empty stomach.
Washington would have to fend for himself. There weren’t much to spare and that dog would eat anything, so he didn’t figure he owed it more than a soup bone now and again.
Together the trio rode into the hills just as sunlight broke over the valley and drove what little existed of the cool morning breeze into its grave. All around them swelled the kind of loud silence that he loved. The pleasure of it wasn’t lost on him, despite the first beads of sweat down his spine. Above Branson’s breathing, above the clip of hooves on the buried rocks, the crisp snap of pine needles and twigs underfoot and the creak of saddle leather, lay the rest of the world. The birds chattered in the trees and the air seemed to rustle as the deer fled between the towering, pockmarked sandstone pillars which filled the hills.
Washington trotted ahead and Cal paid him no mind, up until the dog stopped suddenly and growled. Branson hesitated, and Cal felt as though all his blood drained into his boots.
It was likely nothing--the dog growled at the damn trees anytime they dared move--but he pulled the rifle free anyway. He slid from Branson’s back,stepping quietly onto the soft, dry dirt. The dog continued to growl as the man made his way in a big arch around the trees that blocked his view, hoping to spot whatever had Washington on edge before it caught scent of him.
The dog stepped forward, growls falling away to occasional chesty rumbles, twitchy black nose pushed as far forward as possible to safely sniff whatever it was.
A pair of well-worn and dusty leather boots came into view about the time Washington’s body relaxed, comfortable enough with whomever to step towards them.
“Morning, friend,” Cal called. He kept the rifle up and pointed to the side, ready to bring to bear if this stranger meant him harm, but the boots didn’t move. Then they did, one toe wiggling back and forth erratically as Washington began rolling in the person’s lap, neck pressed against the legs as he wiggled back and forth.
Washington looked up at his voice, full of the pleasure dogs experience from meaty bones and rotten smells. His dog, who hated other people enough that the man had taken to locking him in the stables on the rare occasion he had company, was happily rolling in this person’s lap.
“Git,” he said to the dog, who ignored him for the glorious bounty of scent he’d found, until Cal added more gravel and meanness to his voice. “Washington, git!” Head hung, the dog slunk away, staying well out of striking range, and put his nose to finding something else to roll in.
He didn’t know if it would have been better or worse to find a stranger out here, but it wasn’t a stranger he’d found, it was a neighbor. This was Teddy Williams, a cattle rancher and sometimes late-night card companion that Cal had found the bottom of a bottle with more than once.
“Well, hell,” he said again, crouched in front of the body. The flannel shirt had long ago dried stiff, the brown of old blood like a bib down its front. It hadn’t all been spilled here, for trails of it ran from the two holes—one through Teddy’s neck, one through his cheekbone—down and under his head. He bore a halo of pine needles, sticks and blood-muddied dirt.
The body was in too good of shape to have been dragged a long ways, but Teddy hadn’t been shot here. Somebody had pulled him to this rock and propped him up, which seemed as odd a thing to do as murdering somebody in the first place.
The right side of the body had been gone at by something, likely the same thing that had been helping itself to his lambs. Unbidden, the thought came that this body, this murdered man, like as not had kept a few of his sheep alive, giving the predator something else to fill its belly with at night, and he shooed the notion away as quick as it’d come. It was unkind and cruel, even for the note of truth it rang.
The sun threatened to simmer him in his own clothes and he wished he could smell the sweetness of the grasses and slow creek around the home place, instead of the body’s putrefaction. To the west, farther in the hills, were his sheep, badly in need of better grazing and better protection. Town was a good few hours ride south then back again with Sheriff Gardner, a ride that would leave both him and Branson close to heat stroke.
And to the north a solid forty-five minutes lived this man’s wife, forevermore the Widow Williams.
With a foot in the stirrup he whistled for Washington, and the three turned north.
Annie Williams didn’t answer the door of she and Teddy’s house when Cal knocked, and the garden was likewise empty and quiet. He could have been hustling his sheep towards the lowlands and the time lost was lamentable if he couldn’t find her. He felt he’d at least done the right thing in coming to tell her first. Tomorrow he’d fetch the sheriff from town and together they’d stop by again.
The dark thought occurred to him that it was possible Annie had yet to be discovered amongst the sandstone too, body gone at by scavengers after falling victim to whatever hell Teddy had called down upon them both. It wouldn’t do to dwell on such a thing. Dead or alive, it wasn’t his concern until it was.
He had Branson half-pulled around to climb into the saddle when he heard a cow lowing in distress, and a woman’s sweet, soothing voice. He hadn’t thought to check the barn but when he moved around the house there she was, standing behind a fat black heifer trapped in the chute. Her auburn hair was sweat-matted to her face and she wore Teddy’s leather apron over her pale blue skirt, the sleeves of her white blouse rolled up and her round face red with exertion.
Cal quickly tossed Branson’s reins over the top rail and climbed in to help. He took one end of the rope from Annie’s hands and together they pulled, the coarse fibers biting into their palms. Two tiny hooves appeared from inside the cow, held taut by the pull of the rope.
“On three,” Annie said, and counted. Cal pointedly kept his eyes on the calf, instead of on the mottled green and purple bruise that painted her cheek and the two black eyes that winced as she wound the rope against a likewise bruised wrist.
They used the chute posts for leverage and yanked together, rewarded with the slime-covered calf head, all the way up to the ears. It slowly slid out until it snagged again.
“We’re to the hips,” he said.
Sweat dripped from her face as she nodded. “Again on three.”
With a sucking sound the calf fell to the straw below the cow. Both he and Annie dropped with it, her pulling the sac from its head while he shook its legs, prompting the blood to flow and the lungs to take over. When it started pulling air they moved it to the corral on more fresh straw, tossed some hay in next to it, and let the cow free of the chute.
“Late for calving,” he said as they watched the heifer nuzzle and lick her new calf in between bites of alfalfa.
“Anderson’s bull got into my heifers. I’ve got a whole dozen ready to drop now.”
“That big brahma he’s got? Cream-colored with the black nose?”
“That’s the one.”
“Maybe you’ll get your own nice bull out of the lot, then.”
“That’s the hope. If they’re going to calve in July I might as well get something useful from it. Breakfast?”
“I’ve got sheep to move. I just came by to talk with you about Teddy.”
Her jaw flexed at the name, making the bruises on her face ripple. “It’s too hot to move sheep and I owe you for the help. You can put your horse in the next paddock, or in the barn. I’ll get washed up and get to frying.”
She didn’t make eye contact as she said it, just watched the heifer a moment, and swung towards the house.
Cal started unsaddling Branson but guilt made him pause and drop his forehead against the pommel. It wasn’t the first time he’d seen Annie roughed up, but that didn’t change the fact that there was a murdered man up in the hills. To sit at her table and bring up such a dark matter over a shared meal seemed beyond the pale. But she wasn’t wrong—it was too hot to move the sheep by now and with her already disappeared into the house, he’d missed his chance to protest.
So he finished loosening the saddle. After throwing it over the fence and turning Branson out, he washed blood from his arms and hands as best he could, though his shirt had to be what it was. She had bacon going inside and fresh coffee heating. Or old coffee. Didn’t matter much to him if it was just reheated, hot would be nice.
“There hasn’t been time to make bread, with the calving.”
“Go out to the coop and grab some eggs, would you?”
He came back with eight and she threw all but two on the griddle just as the bacon came off.
“Something still pestering your sheep?” she asked when they finally sat down.
“Lost two lambs just last week.”
“We ought to organize a party to hunt down whatever’s out there. It won’t stop with your lambs.”
“We ought to,” he agreed. “About Teddy…” he started, but she cut him off before he could say more.
“You moving them out through the old Kendell place, by the sandstone?” she asked.
He noticed she didn’t look up when she asked. He also noticed how tenderly she chewed with her bruised jaw, and the dark lines encircling both wrists. When he didn’t answer she glanced up, caught him looking, and looked back just as hard with both black-and-green-rimmed eyes.
Cal was starting to get the impression she knew exactly why he was there, though he himself was starting to have doubts.
If it had been him, the law would have considered it self-defense. The sheriff would see it differently when it came to a wife.
Cal made a decision.
“Ayup,” he said. “Though I might bring them down through Reynold’s canyon now. More water. If this heat holds, they’ll need it on the way.”
She held his eye another moment and he could see her thinking on what he’d just said, what he’d really said, hiding behind the words he’d used. Satisfied, she went back to her breakfast.
She came out drying dishwater from her hands on a towel as he threw the saddle back on Branson, Washington busy licking at the birthing mess in the chute.
“Big calf,” he said. “No wonder you had to pull it.”
“Came from a big bull. Might be more like that.”
He nodded and slipped the bit between Branson’s teeth. “Once my sheep are settled by the creek I’ll come stay in the barn, if you think you might have to pull more.”
“I’d be awful indebted.” She opened the gate as he mounted and walked the horse out. “What…” She took a moment, swallowing as she refastened the gate. “What was it you wanted to see Teddy about?”
“Oh not much. Got a bit of woodwork I need done but it’s more for pastime than necessity. I reckon it’ll wait.”
She nodded, one hand patting Branson’s neck.
“You mind if I cut through your south lands? I can’t move them ewes but I should at least get an eye on the flock, see how they’re faring.”
“Of course,” she said. “I guess I’ll see you for calving then.”
“I guess you will.”
After a time Cal stopped yelling at Washington and let the dog have its fun. The way he leapt and bit and barked at the body of Teddy Williams made Cal sick to think about, so he decided not to think about it. Occasionally the dog would stop and roll in whatever scent Teddy left in the dirt and rocks and though Washington didn’t know it yet, he was getting thrown into the creek later, which was as close to washing the beast as the man could stomach, considering.
Branson was sweaty long before the rope around the body’s feet had been tied to the saddle horn but he didn’t hesitate or slow, just leaned into the hill and pulled steadily onward. The man walked in front, loose hold on the reins, not looking back. It reminded him of pulling the calf, that rope tied around its feet as well, pulling a life into this world by force much the same as this one had been forced out of it by two well-placed bullets.
At the top of the ridge he looped Branson’s reins over a low pine branch and aimed enough of a boot at Washington that the dog took off without needing to be struck, happier to find a new stink to roll in than to tempt the anger of its master. Once the rope was off Teddy’s legs, he pulled him the rest of the way to the rim and rolled him off the side. He wished he could have missed hearing the body strike first the cliff face, then the rock-strewn forest floor below, but he couldn’t change the fact that he did.
Branson shied from him and he knew then he didn’t smell much better than Washington did, and that he’d be in the creek along with the dog and a bar of hard soap. Despite the messy business of the day he looked forward to the bath, given how his shirt had soaked through and the brim of his hat long since stopped absorbing sweat. He’d like as not coax the horse into the water as well to get the foam and sweat from its hide.
Then a full dinner, for all three of them. Tomorrow they’d start early again, get the sheep settled, and settle in themselves for a hot July of calving at the Widow Williams’ place.
Monday, January 20, 2020
Sunday, January 5, 2020
If the Torrance Costco would’ve just had the right damn pickles, Montrose Laughlin III wouldn’t have had to stifle his day, driving mother’s beloved Jag twenty minutes outside his comfort zone to visit the Long Beach Costco. Although, it wasn’t as if he had any real plans—like most days. The inconvenience was what irked. Surely, the Torrance store’s employees had taken notice every time he trudged inside (first day of every month) to re-stock his cabinets for another thirty days. And he always bought multiple four-packs of monster hot and sour dills—couldn’t live without them—and now, today of all days, they hadn’t the foresight to replenish their goddamn load. For certain, the world was playing a fine cruel joke.
The San Diego Freeway was crammed, inching along, bumper to bumper—no longer functional in its design for modern vehicles. Mother’s Jaguar hadn’t been on any freeway in over two decades, a garaged beauty fit for coastal cruises or a night on the town. She’d be inflamed at the thought of her only son cruising her “baby” into the bowels of Los Angeles on such a laughable task. But she couldn’t react one bit, not from the mantel she was perched back home—her gold urn, cold and unamused as her lifelong gaze. The Jag’s engine revved in-place. Monte huffed in defeat, searching the radio for any sign of sports talk, it being mid-season when baseball trades shook the world.
He arrived at the Costco thirty minutes later than it should’ve taken, exiting the car and charging a bay of carts. By the clothes on his mousy frame, one never would’ve pegged him as an heir to a real estate fortune. When mother passed, he gave up on appearances, one thing she had an iron-grip throughout his youth. Private school uniforms. Apparel for every season in matching hues. The last time he’d purchased sneakers was in 1997: Air Jordans (black/red/white), an entire crate, size nine. Same with baggy denim and loud T-shirts. Mass quantities of comfort that he didn’t care looked dated nowadays.
Mother’s ghost just grabbed her chest.
For a Tuesday afternoon, the store seemed tranquil. Layout looked to be nearly identical to Torrance, so he headed through stacks of processed foods, towards giant canisters and condiment buckets. Eight pallets ahead, on the left, sat the pickled goods. The sight of that pink pig on every jar nearly sparked flatulence. He loaded up the cart, buying triple his usual, just in case Torrance couldn’t get their shit together. After free samples of sausage and a long line at the register, he was back on the road for home.
With the 405 still a mess, Monty navigated streets, hoping to open the Jag’s engine down Willow till it morphed into Sepulveda. Hadn’t been outside the South Bay in so long, almost forgot what the real world looked like. Everything was in decline: roads, buildings. The violet pedals on jacarandas even appeared to be weeping. He revved to a stop at Long Beach Boulevard; the looks on other drivers’ faces had him wishing he’d raised the convertible’s roof. A hearty voice called to him from the center median. He craned to see a large black gentleman holding a sign with a picture of a teen flashing his gold teeth. The poster blared, FUNERAL DONATIONS 4 ’LIL MEEZY.
“Anythin’ will help us, sir. My son. Firstborn—only twenty-three an’ taken back to God’s glory.” The man pointed across to the far median. “Two young girls ova dere his keeds. Four an’ nine.”
Monty scanned the intersection, watching other poster clad family members walk up and down car lanes, pleading for compassion, scooping an occasional dollar. The light flashed green. Monty returned to the man, meeting his crystal gaze. “Sorry. No cash.”
Before, “God bless,” could leave the poor man’s lips, Monty’s engine charged west.
Lamont Craig II decided he’d had enough for today, soon as that pricey foreign roadster left him penniless, flying down Willow—its driver a disheveled, shell of a man. He guzzled a large Gatorade from out a cooler in the rear of his “work truck”— a ’92 Suburban with magnets across its body that read:
CRAIG ELECTRICAL CO.
You’ve been Had by The Rest. Now try The Best!
His wife, Eloise, was fanning off his granddaughters with a newspaper beside him, misting water above their beaded braids. Their faces were painful to take in, two pairs of his dead son’s eyes beaming back. He handed the bottle to his remaining son (Trey, eighteen), busy counting donations they’d gathered before the heat beat them down. “What it do?”
“Made like two hunny.”
Lamont reflected, adding the total for the past two days in his mind: $520. A drop in the bucket—the urn for what they needed to send his boy to heaven right. There was no savings to dip, no retirement plan to plunder. This was all a bad dream, aftershocks in play for the rest of his days.
How could his boy be gone in a whisper?
Eloise loaded the girls into the car, its insides finally cool enough to buckle them. The men climbed inside. As Lamont drove home, the blank looks off every person he approached in that intersection churned the brain. Nevermind what they thought: another dead thug on the ghetto streets. To them his boy was probably just some hood that deserved what he got. But he didn’t. No one earned the right to be on the wrong side of a bullet—no matter who they were. And Lamont Craig III—Meezy to the homies—was his son. His blood…taken out like a rabid dog for wearing the wrong color shoes. He sparked a Marlboro 100 to vanquish them all, those dumb stares, ghosts out his lungs into a blistering sun.
Eloise and the girls gently wept in the backseat; Trey handed over fresh Kleenex as the Suburban pulled into the driveway of their weathered abode. Couldn’t remember the lawn ever being green or window bars not rusted. His brother would often joke about the place, calling it The Kennel, often met by father’s sneer; Pop’s knees had been obliterated by years spent crawling floors, wiring nicer homes in better neighborhoods so his family could eek out this life. One thing was certain: There was no way he’d be another stooge on his knees when he grew up. Life was one big hustle, either the moon or the gutter, and Trey wasn’t going to gamble on something better—he would achieve it—become a professional in this world. He’d already killed the SATs and been accepted to two private colleges. Wasn’t like he was in line for any grants or scholarships though. The plan was to hit Long Beach Community for his undergrad; hopefully by then, he could save enough working for Pops and take out a loan to help make that dream a reality. But there was one major caveat: He wouldn’t be taking over the family business, like his brother was supposed to—and that wouldn’t be tolerated by Pops. Shit, just going to community college got met with a chuckle by the old man. With this sudden death in the family, that dream would have to be a secret from now on.
The room he shared with Junior had cracks in the walls covered by pictures of Gang Starr and Tribe. (He never called him Meezy. He was Junior since day one—no matter what the streets claimed.) Band posters were all that Momma would allow, never tolerating big titties or butt cracks inside her home. He opened the closet, staring at Junior’s blue wardrobe, taking out a puffy Dodgers jacket and sniffing it, burying emotion deep inside. He slid it on in front of the mirrored door. His hands dug into the pockets, right one hit something cold, hard. Instantly, he knew what it was, slowly pulling out the revolver, noticing it was loaded.
The fuck, Junior?
When did it all go south?
He opened a high drawer, one used for socks and undies, burying the Smith & Wesson deep inside. He wondered how much it’d fetch on the street. Could buy a haul of textbooks. Knew exactly who to approach: Kermit. Tomorrow they were going down to the funeral home too—same one Kermit’s dad owned. He’d probably be there, working. Kermit ran with a questionable crew, like most boys out here. Surely, he’d know someone that needed a piece—hell, maybe even himself. Trey took another glance in the mirror before tearing off the jacket and kicking it into the closet.
A brisk, salty breeze welcomed Monty back to Manhattan Beach, ocean a snoring beast in the distance. To think his great grandfather had the foresight to purchase large swaths of acreage up this coast many years ago; Monty still held title to several homes and businesses throughout the community. Would’ve had more if mother hadn’t began selling off parcels to eager socialites and celebrities throughout the ’70’s. Didn’t really matter though—not like he had any children or other family to pass the fortune. If he ever got short of money, he’d just sell a home for five to ten million and go on with his humdrum ways. There were no worries in store for Monty, so when the issue of a potential new neighbor moving in next door became a possibility, it tilted his barge.
ESPN radio had no reports of any Dodger players being traded yet. Monty felt a short relief wash over as the Jag climbed up his narrow driveway, then descended into a subterranean garage. The home was originally built as a two-story, back when his father still controlled the acreage between it and the coast. Upon his passing, after mother’s selling spree to uphold her gilded existence, the home was demolished and re-built to accommodate four-stories, cementing a panoramic view above all who’d built downhill. Monty rarely even visited the first two stories, now converted into storage, filled with mother’s artifacts from her global escapades and priceless paintings sheathed in plastic. He rode the elevator up, arms heavy with pickle jars. Approaching the kitchen, a sound of the television brought concern. In the living room sat his best and only friend, his neighbor—a relief pitcher for the “Boys in Blue” named Robbie Slate.
“Elle’s having another one of her Real Housewife parties. Had to bail, man. You don’t mind, right?”
Monty tossed him a beer can from out the fridge.
Robbie caught it with his right arm—the left shackled in an intricate brace from a recent labral tear repair.
“My place is your place—why I gave you that emergency key. You didn’t have a problem with the new security system, right? Same code.”
“Nah, it was cool. What’d you do to it?”
“Upgraded the surveillance—smaller cameras. Guess I just got bored with the old one. They’re coming out next week to set-up the exterior."
“You don’t have outdoor cameras?”
“I do, but the monitor’s busted. Wear and tear.”
Robbie popped the can with his teeth and sniffed its contents. “This a new South Bay brew or what?”
“Nah, they’ve been ’round a few years. Harbortown Ales. Specialize in Belgians but this is their unfiltered Citra DIPA. Drink it.”
Robbie swilled. “Tastes like oranges…grapefruit even.”
“People are going ape shit for it—camping out along Western.”
“Fuckin’ delicious. You buying in?”
“I’ve made it known that I’m willing to invest. They’re all young though. Kids. The brew master ain’t out his twenties. See what happens, but yeah…I want in.” He cracked his own can. “Heard you haven’t been placed on the chopping block yet.”
“Who told you that?”
“Radio. If you get traded, wanna sell your house back to me?”
“Fuck no. We’ll rent in whatever shit city they send me.”
“If you get traded.”
“Think it’ll happen?”
“Fuck if I know. My numbers were solid, before…” He raised his broken wing.
“What the doc say?”
“I’m on ice for at least ten months—best case scenario. Anyway, if I don’t hear from my agent by midnight tomorrow, I’m good for another season.”
He plopped on the couch, admiring a yacht in the bay.
“Lemme ask you something, Monty.”
“Beer, you serious? Why don’t you put money in real estate—I mean, it’s in your blood, bro?”
“Golden Road just sold to Budweiser for nearly a billion. How’s beer not lucrative these days? I own enough property as it is."
“I’m talking new developments. Have you been in downtown lately?”
He laughed. “No."
“Elle and I were at this charity function the other night—”
“Some foundation for the blind—or maybe it was prostate cancer. Shit, I’m at so many of these things, I lose track.”
Monty reflected on the last time he ever did anything nice for anyone other than himself. Charity? He should try it one of these days.
“What was I saying?”
“Yeah, so, we’re at this dinner at the Ritz—I’m gazing out the windows, taking in the view. Fuckin’ cranes galore, man. Every corner has something new going up—and I mean up—high in the sky. Most of the designs are bat-shit too. Everyone’s got a boner for Frank Gehry, right? So, then it hits me. The Future.”
“Future smacked you in the face?”
“Kinda. Marvels are being built, man. Mini metropolises. Giant works of art! Live/Work/Play. Condo owners never have to venture out their building’s grounds. That’s when it hits me—this is the future of Los Angeles. Build some giant campus—a contained city within the City, make it shaped like something weird—a legion of colliding locomotives or some shit. Next door, a developer builds another, even more outlandish—the view out every unit window framing another 3-D Dali built across the way. That’s the future. Build ’em high and keep folks dumb—drunk on steel. I’ve already got my accountant reaching out to developers, ones moving into South Central. Never been done before in the history of L.A. The future is now, and if you don’t buy in, you’re gonna miss out, man.”
Monty snickered into his beer.
“That funny to you? Think I’m crazy, right? I’m not.”
“No, I feel you. It’s just—”
“My father used to always say the future depended on investing in children—their livelihood…education.”
“Whose children? You an’ I don’t have any dogs in that race.”
“I know but kids own the future—can’t argue with that—even ones that brew beer.” By the twist on Robbie’s face, the concept was lost, so Monty refrained. “Forget it. That’s a good idea though—yours. I’m sure you’ll make a killing."
“Please. Hey, you should come with Elle and me to the next event. She thinks you look generous. Always says you got them Vin Scully eyes. Very kind.”
Monty headed for the kitchen, smiling. “Don’t know about that, but Elle’s an angel for thinking.” The word charity flashed like neon in his brain.
Why hadn’t he entertained it earlier?
He knew the answer, it reflected back at him, eye to eye in the sleek refrigerator door. “Maybe I’ll take you up on that offer. Come here, check this out.”
Robbie rose from the couch and joined Monty before a ceramic nude bust of a female torso, hanging at the hallway entrance. “That’s cool, man. Erotica. New?"
“Yeah. See anything weird about it?”
Robbie analyzed the bust. “Nah.”
Monty switched off the hall lights. Inside the ivory nipples were pinpoint red dots.
“No way. New security cameras?”
Monty nodded. “These spy minis are all over. Pretty cool, right?”
“Shit, yeah. Maybe the home security market is where to invest?”
“Possibly…or else we just keep on living our dang lives.
Monty smiled as Robbie mimed slurping an areola.
Next morning, the Jag pulled into an industrial corridor just north of Old Town Torrance. The Strand Brewing Co. was located inside a large warehouse where craft beer was brewed and bottled on a daily basis. Monty retrieved two amber growlers from out his trunk and walked inside to have them filled. The tasting room staff didn’t know him very well, but they knew of him—word through the beer community about some stiff with deep pockets, hoping to pay to play in their business. He sipped a pint of pale while his bottles were filled, sitting at a picnic bench, scrolling through his cell to see Robbie’s trade status. Looked like his neighbor was safe for now, their conversation yesterday keeping Monty awake for part of the night. He should do something positive with his inheritance. An act that would cost little to him but change someone’s life for the better. Fuck real estate, that empty void often displaced those truly in need. A random monetary donation would be like tossing a stone into a lake, watching the ripples, knowing that he made the impact. He’d start off small, maybe pay for someone’s groceries or write a check to a soup kitchen or. . .
What would Vin do?
The beerback called his name; he approached for both growlers. The moment his fingers touched that icy brew, it hit him like a crisp jab.
Yesterday: that family with the funeral!
A grin climbed his face as he rushed to the Jag and peeled out the lot.
The intersection mirrored the day before, family members at every median in the ninety-degree heat. Monty spotted the father at the southerly light; he hooked a right down Long Beach and cut a quick U, heading back to Willow. The father looked in his direction, but upon seeing him, turned and headed back to a foldout chair set-up with an umbrella. Monty honked to get the man’s attention. Soon as he craned, Monty waved him over.
Lamont leaned Meezy’s poster to his chair and approached the foreign roadster, thinking, Fuck this white fool want? Grin on the dudes’ face was waxy—kind he’d seen in a hundred horror movies. Before he could open his mouth, the man spoke.
“I’d like to have a word with you.”
“This whole production you got here.”
“Production?” Lamont sneered. “Get the hell on witchoo.”
“I mean no disrespect—that came out wrong.”
“I wanna help. Can we talk somewhere?”
Lamont scanned the intersection; Trey was giving him a look, wondering what was going on. He waved him over. The light turned green. “Meet me in the parking lot—over there,” he pointed, “beside that Suburban.”
Trey’s face remained blank, wondering who this white man was in the vintage Air Jordans, along with his agenda. By the frozen look on Pop’s face, figured the old man held the same thought.
Monty stood silent for a beat, wondering if they’d misheard him. “Said I’d like to cover the costs…for the funeral—all of ’em.”
Lamont: “May I ask why? I mean yesterday you—”
“That’s just it. Yesterday got me thinking. Seeing your family out here, that picture of your son—couldn’t recall the last time I ever helped anyone beside myself. Look Laah…what was it again?”
“Lamont. This here is my son, Trey.”
“Lamont. Trey. Nice to meet you. I know this may sound bizarre, and I understand your tentative reaction, but hear me out. My name is Monty Laughlin. I’m a lifelong Angeleno from Manhattan Beach who is capable of erasing the financial burden of your tragedy. That’s all there is to it. There are no hidden fees with this offer or monetary gain seen on my behalf—only the satisfaction of knowing that I did something positive today—helping ’Lil Meezy get a proper burial. Now…all you gotta do is say yes, and we can get started.”
“I’ll need to speak with my wife first.”
“Sure thing. I’ll wait.” He watched as Lamont walked to the rear of the Suburban, tractor beamed by his spouse’s hungry eyes.
Trey stayed put. “You serious about all this, Monty?”
“Cross my heart. Can I ask what happened to your brother?”
“Got shot outside a strip club—Fantasy Castle—over in Signal Hill.”
“Jesus. I saw that in the Times. They catch the bastard responsible?”
“Nope. Never do. Say, what you do for a living?”
“I’m in between things at the moment. Guess you could call me a…Beer Man.”
“Beer? What, like Bud Ice or something?”
“Craft beer—West Coast IPAs mostly. I’m trying to invest in local breweries.” The kid looked at him as if he were speaking French.
Lamont returned with his wife and grandkids.
Monty said, “Well?”
The woman let go of the children’s hands and walked up to him, a glimmer in both eyes. For some reason, Monty had the feeling she was about to slap him. Before he could flinch, the woman wrapped both arms around his ribs and began to sob.
They insisted Monty come to their home for lunch; after all, they needed to discuss moving forward with his help. Trey asked to ride along with him in the Jag, helping guide the way. Monty couldn’t believe this turn of events, a simple decision having him feeling completely alive.
“You’re going to have to park this car in our driveway. Believe me. You don’t want it out on the street.”
Monty surveyed the neighborhood, his jovial feeling subsiding with every awkward glance by young men draped in blue, loitering on corners or smoking on front porches. The sight of their home struck him oddly, its deferred state. To Monty, the place was condemnable. He parked where Trey recommended, not having the gumption to tell the boy that this car meant as much to him as finding a heads-up penny.
He humored his way through a lunch of leftover soul food, the dish both warm and comforting. A Black Jesus cast judgement upon him, crucified to a far wall. A matching Last Supper hung near the dining table. He grubbed as the couple let on. Lamont and Eloise had already picked out a funeral home they would use, a friends’ business. Still up for discussion was the proper urn for their child’s ashes. Lamont slid him a brochure with some modest looking urns, nothing close to the grandeur of mother’s golden vessel.
Monty slid back the brochure. “Why don’t we head on down there and see what else they have. I want everyone to be satisfied.”
Lamont smiled at Eloise, taking off her apron. “Well, they were expecting us to swing by today.
Monty wiped off with a napkin. “Great. What’s the address?”
“I’ll roll with you. Lemme just grab my phone and meet you out front.” He sprinted into the bedroom, opening the closet and retrieving the pistol from Junior’s jacket.
The crematorium was located amongst a stretch of dilapidated commercial and industrial buildings, the last functioning business on the whole damn block. Monty counted liquor stores and USMC billboards the whole way there. Once he parked the car in the lot, Trey began to giggle.
“What is it?”
“Nothin’. Just your getup is all? You realize what kinda shoes you’re wearing, right?”
“Jordans, man—come on. I love these shoes. Now you’re gonna goof on me?”
“Goof? Nah. Them kicks be worth a lot a cash, dog. Jordan eights. Saw a pair online go for over five
“Well, then I guess I made a smart investment, huh? What size you wear?”
Trey perked. “Twelve.”
“These are size nine. Bummer.”
Trey squinted, contemplating a biblical gesture. “Were you just about to give me the shoes off your
Monty killed the engine. “What? No. Just asked ’cause I have about twenty pair in their original
boxes, back home. Bought them in bulk in ’97. Would’ve given you a pair, if they fit. Bummer, right?”
They exited, Suburban pulling into a slot beside them. Trey watched the interaction between Monty and his parents; the man was some kind of genie, one they never summoned.
Monty chummed it up with the head of the mortuary, a skeletal black fellow named Isaiah. They exchanged pleasantries, ones appropriate for such a setting. Upon closer inspection of the grounds, the funeral home didn’t look to be financially solvent: ceiling water damage, torn carpeting—not even a secretary to answer the bereaved. Place didn’t do custom urns either, like mother’s. Lamont and Eloise were stuck surveying a shelf of copper urns till Monty pointed at some featuring higher end precious metals. Isaiah jumped in to describe each of their fine attributes. There being only two variants meant this place hardly sold them. A young man came in from the back room. Monty watched as Trey slapped hands with the kid—a deep scar on his chin like one found on a flawed pumpkin. The boys headed outside. Focusing back on the task at hand, it was easy to see which urn Eloise wanted for her son—she just wouldn’t say it, caressing cold silver like a newborn. Monty tapped Isaiah’s shoulder: “We’ll take it. I’d like to cut a check for the total sum as well, including cremation, et cetera. Do you accept checks?”
The man’s eyes turned devilish, his broken smile could’ve split the world.
The boys took cover behind a tall dumpster at the rear of the building. As Kermit perused the weapon, Trey kept his eye on the parking lot in case his parents and Monty came strolling out. Kermit snapped the cylinder, sniping down the barrel as if he’d ever shot one of these before. Maybe he’d had; Trey didn’t care to ask, only thing on his mind being book money.
“So, what you think?”
The scar on Kermit’s chin frowned. “Got bullets?”
Trey dug out the original six from his pocket. “Jus’ a starter kit. They sell ’em at Big Five.”
“I know that.” Kermit handled the ammo. “How much you say again?”
“Got wax in them ears, nigga? Four hunny.” Trey had done his research online and knew the gun was, at best, a two Benjamin steal. Now he sat back to see if Kermit had done his own homework, banking the kid hadn’t when it came to high school. “Hey, you guys toss body parts in here?” His knuckle knocked the dumpster.
“What? No.” Kermit flinched at Trey, jutting his arms out like a zombie. “Quit playin’.”
“Listen, this piece ain’t for me, okay? It’s for my boy—”
“Don’t tell me his name! I don’t wanna know nothin’ ’bout ’nothin.”
“Well, he ain’t gonna pay you four hunny—I can tell ya that.”
“So what then?”
Trey stuck out his hand. Kermit shook it, removing a wad of twenties from out a hip pocket slouched beside his kneecap. He counted the bills. “Who dat white fool witchoo?”
“Jus’ some dude. He’s paying for Junior’s funeral.”
“Fool’s Richie Rich then?”
“I dunno. Enough bread to bury the dead.”
“His Jordans are tight as fuck.” Kermit handed over the cash.
Trey shoved it into his jeans. “Dude’s got a bunch at his house, he said.”
“O.G.’s, brand new—from ninety-seven. Not sure if I believe him though—” Trey heard the Suburban roar to life on the other side of the building. “Shit. Gotta roll.”
“Nice doin’ binness, cuz.”
“First and last time, son. First an’ last.” Trey sprinted through the parking lot, hollering for everyone to wait up.
Kermit’s father could be heard, yelling for him outside the funeral home. He quickly opened the dumpster, slid the Smith & Wesson inside a sweaty McDonald’s bag and stashed it before rushing back.
Isaiah was in his office, massaging the knot of his paisley tie back to its pristine form when his son rushed through the door.
“What is it, dad?”
“Where were you?”
“Took out some garbage.”
His stern look pierced the boy. “Need your help with deposits again.”
“You know I can make them on your phone these days? I told you that, right?”
“Boy, you don’t tell me shit. Why do I need to use a phone when I have you?”
Before Kermit could answer, the man brought up a fist. He winced.
“Such a weak, weak boy. Take after your bitch mother. But you already knew that—can feel the weakness coursing your veins, can’t you?” He approached his desk and handed over Monty’s check. “Take this to the bank now. The sum is too great to have lying around. They close soon."
Kermit’s eyes bulged at the amount, just under eighteen thousand. Images conjured of a procession for ’Lil Meezy featuring a glittering hearse with twenty-four-inch spinning rims—or maybe Snoop playing the wake…. His eyes fell on the check’s signature. He scoped the top corner for the dude’s details: Montrose Laughlin III, 210 16th Street, Manhattan Beach—” A palm struck the back of his head. “Fuh!”
Isaiah paused before a second blow. “Run along, boy.”
Kermit pocketed the check and sped for his bicycle.
“No shit! You just…what—got a feather in your ass and decided to fly, huh?” Robbie reclined on Monty’s couch, sipping White Sand IPA straight from a growler Monty had filled. “Paid for just the urn or the whole shebang?”
Monty leered out the windows, sunlight dancing about the tide. He licked froth from his upper lip, beer tasting better than any he’d ever had. Could feel mother’s disdain from the mantle, bellyaching his deed. “I ponied up for the whole tamale. Even tossed them a grand to handle the reception—food, booze, whatnot. They want me to go, but…I dunno.”
“That’s great, man. You should go. When Elle and I attend to these charity events, we don’t ever get to see how much the donated funds accomplish firsthand—just read about it on a printout the following year—at the next event. You marched into ground zero and came out a hero. Better man, I can say that.”
“Wanna come with? It’d blow their minds—a real Dodger in their midst.”
Robbie paused to gulp. “When is it?”
“I’ll see if I can move some stuff around."
“Prolly busy sitting on my other sofa, I suppose.”
“What can I say? I’m a man of leisure these days. Plus, I hate the public seeing me in a sling like this—some fucking gimp.”
“No one respects a gimp."
“So, tell me more about this family, man? The Craigs.”
“Good people. Hard working. Father is an electrician—son, Trey, works for him.”
“Hey, you should get them to finish wiring the outdoor security cameras. Might hook you up with a deal.”
Monty thought about it, not caring about expense. He did enjoy talking with the man and his son. Could be another chance to get to know them, outside of their family tragedy. After all, they were the first real folks he’d encountered in some time. “I should do that,” escaped his lips, even though he knew deep down he probably wouldn’t. After all, he’d just stepped out of his cocoon for a day, wasn’t quite ready to welcome others inside just yet.
Kermit leaned his bicycle against a picnic table in Veteran’s park, placing the McDonald’s bag beside him as he sat atop warm wood. His stomach growled, having no time to grab a quick bite. A Rally’s burger sounded nice. They told him to be here now but, obviously, the gun buyers weren’t present. He hated having to deal with such thugs, but one had to do what they could to survive in these parts. His cousin, Young Mel, ran with this crew and vouched for Kermit. When Trey phoned with his proposition, Kermit dialed Mel soon as he clicked off the call. His stomach roared. As he doubled over, he locked onto his left hand, scribbled across the back of it in blue ink was the name and address on that check. Montrose Laughlin III. An Idea had struck him as he waited inside the Wells Fargo, completing father’s errand. Maybe he could squeeze a few more bucks out of Mel’s boys with it. Sell them the pistol, along with some information—the whereabouts of a rich fool giving away his wealth.
A dense mass of four bodies entered at the park’s rear. As the blob came closer, its color set Kermit at ease, a legion of blue, puffing blunts, acting belligerent. He waved them over, as if he wasn’t sticking out like a wart on a nose.
Mel came up close before smacking him upside the head. “The fuck you thinking, Kerm, carrying that piece in a goddam baggy. Hide the pistol on your person, fool. Don’t be slippin’."
The other boys laughed, chiming in with their own taunts until Mel shushed them with the back of his palm. Kermit wanted to hand over the gun and run away that second, not being cut out for this type of thing. But then he’d be out all the money he’d saved working the past three months. And what the hell would he do with a gun? It’d be all for nothing. He humored the crew, acting as if he were just like them, swiping a hit from a blunt while one of the older boys inspected the merchandise. He’d have to act the part to get paid; couldn’t let these jerks know how soft he actually was. An attack of coughs overcame him soon as he exhaled the plume. More laughter ensued. Someone called him a little bitch.
So much for saving face.
The older guy named Smoke purchased the pistol for three hundred, biting Kermit’s profit to negative twenty-five dollars. He lied and said he turned a dollar. For three hundred, the crew wanted to buy more, if he had any. Kermit poo-pooed the notion, claiming (like Trey had told him) that this was a one-time deal. He then proceeded to disclose his other item for sale.
“Hey, lookie here…”
He’d anticipated some interest when he told the crew about this rich dude in the South Bay, but their exuberant reactions took him by surprise, the boys all high as fuck, jonesing for a lick. When he said they could have the dude’s address for another hundred, everyone roared in laughter. He pretended like he was playing too, nearly on his bicycle to head for a cheeseburger.
Mel pushed Kermit off the bike and forced him to come along, clawing the back of his neck, shoving him in the direction of a parked sedan. “You talk a big game, Kerm. Now take us to where this moneybags lives.”
Without hesitation, Kermit surrendered the scribbles on his left hand.
The sun dipped its final brilliance through the living room windows as Monty and Robbie watched an Angels’ game snoozer, tearing into the team’s coach for not believing in sabermetrics, oblivious to the perfect L.A. sunset. A tirade out Robbie came to an unexpected halt.
Knocks at the door.
Monty glanced down at his phone before remembering the security monitor on the entrance wasn’t hooked-up; it had fed through his cell with a view of guests. Usually it was either Robbie or UPS. He placed his pint down and went to a wall mount to buzz the person up. If it was UPS, they always left the parcel behind a front post. Could be a neighbor signed for the package. Monty craned to Robbie, now busy inspecting the nipples on the hallway bust; looked as if the growler was mixing perfectly with his pain meds. The elevator shaft began to whine. Robbie accompanied Monty in seeing who was here.
The doors began to part.
Elle Slate walked in wearing a soft red sun dress, slightly buzzed enough to come over barefooted.
“Another cocktail party, Elle?”
She gave Monty a friendly embrace. “Got the gals headed over in a few.”
Robbie: “What’s up, babe?”
“The audio is messed up, a button got hit—haven’t a clue.”
Monty: “Real Housewives again?”
“Bachelorette in Paradise.”
Monty’s eyebrows became enlightened.
Robbie pointed to the second growler on the counter. “I’m coming back, so don’t kill that.”
Monty opened the refrigerator for some pickles as the couple headed to the elevator.
Mel’s Monte Carlo made it to Manhattan Beach just as the sun was gulped by the Pacific. He parked the sedan a few blocks from their target, having circled the block three times to scope the setting. Smoke loaded the pistol with six bullets from out Kermit’s pocket. The crew got out, eyeing a sidewalk lined with manicured roses, cement clean enough to slurp spilled ice cream. They lit Newports in unison to brace nerves. Kermit pretended to smoke one, never inhaling, a trick he’d learned in middle school to avoid getting bullied. The five boys sat at a lone bus bench, trying not to turn heads. They tranced on the open ocean, its normal dark blue bleeding oranges and pinks. Was as if they’d only seen this type of thing in drug store picture frames or a textbook from long ago. They waited for darkness to seep up the hill, bringing them back into their comfort zone. The moon sparked howls from backyard dogs. Mel punched Kermit’s arm, signaling him to lead the way.
Monty had a clean buzz off his growler, closing one eye to focus on landing another pickle, spearing it with a knife. There were only a few left in this jar, all scurrying from his blade with each thrust as if they were alive, fish in a barrel, all smarter than him. He reclined on the sofa, exhausted from concentrating, belly full of red pepper, vinegar and dill. He checked the wall clock; there was no way he’d be able to stay awake if Robbie came back. These craft beers wore heavy on the brain. He’d had a full day too—one he was glad to have had, but would most likely relive only once a year. Next time he’d do something nice on Christmas. He clicked off the television, steadying himself on seafaring legs. Approaching the counter, he emptied his pockets into a crystal candy dish, one mother used for her beloved butterscotch. The checkbook sat prominent before a bowl of apples, stoic almost, as if it’d known what it accomplished today. Monty opened it to a carbon copy of the check, grin climbing his drunken face.
A stone tossed in a lake.
Ripples…all because of him.
He turned to mother’s urn, raised his fist and exploded the middle finger. This is what I think about what you think, mother. He returned to the check, contemplating removing it from the pack to frame or laminate, maybe put above his toilet: a daily reminder of how great he could be…you know, when he felt like it. On second glance of the copy, a slight panic took hold.
The billing address.
He’d forgotten to buy new checks once moving into mother’s old house—this house. After years of extensive remodeling, he’d finally shifted all his things from next door, barely two years ago. Robbie became a Dodger around then, his people making an offer on the “Bastard Home” (mother’s words) that he couldn’t refuse. How could he say no to a Big Leaguer…a potential celebrity friend? Oh, how embarrassing it would be if that check were to bounce. Did things like billing address even matter these days? He’d call the bank first thing tomorrow. No need to worry the Craigs about it—not during this horrible time in their lives. Everything would be fine. He’d make sure of it. And order new checks. For next time.
“What. A. Doll. He did that?” Elle sipped Shiraz at the breakfast nook, watching Robbie eye the stereo system as if it were from Mars.
“Paid for everything. Cremation, urn. See, that’s rewarding. No banquet. No autographs or selfies. Straight to the source.” He punched the a remote to zero response.
“It’s them Vin Scully eyes, I tell ya. What a kind-hearted man.”
“Don’t remember what you pressed here, huh?”
“I didn’t touch anything. Think Priscilla might’ve used it as a chew toy.”
Robbie sent a dirty look at Elle’s Yorkie, snoozing on the couch. “When’s everyone supposed to be here again?”
“Soon. Like ten minutes.”
“Fuck.” He adjusted his sling, techno stress killing his buzz. A strange button at the top corner of the remote caught his eye. Auto Vol? He punched it and sound came blaring out the speakers. As he scrambled to save the subwoofer, Elle approached and draped an arm around him, planting a wet kiss, careful not to disturb his shoulder. Her breath was sour, pungent as bile. She began to undo his belt.
“We have ten minutes...”
He slid his good hand up into her sun dress, caressing the fold of her ass.
She went in for another hard kiss, but the doorbell stifled the moment.
Robbie cursed, re-doing his belt. Elle went to freshen up for her guests. The second Robbie cracked
the doors’ frame, he was met by a revolver pointed at his nose.
The computer screen lit-up Trey’s face in purple hues, his eyes scanning pages and pages of textbook sales, titles dancing in the glint of his eyeballs. Pops was asleep on his recliner; Mom busy putting the girls to bed. He scrolled a new page, eyeing a piece of paper with his undergrad curriculum requirements, then back at book titles. It was all happening, the future coming at him in spectral bursts. And all he had to do, so far, was numb his conscience. He sold a gun, so what? Who cared what others did with their own wretched lives? Not like he was pulling the trigger. He added another text to his online cart and thought, I’d do plenty worse to this world just to be done with the neighborhood forever.
Smoke held the gun steady as Young Mel had Kermit and the others use duct tape to bind the couple together on the floor. Hoods helped conceal all their faces. Kermit immediately knew something was wrong, too frightened to mention that he’d never seen this man (or woman) in the funeral home earlier. Didn’t matter now. The act was in progress.
He was a full-blown criminal.
A safe in the bedroom had been opened by the husband; a quick smash to the face with Smoke’s pistol helped speed the process. Dude’s nose was gushing for days. Mascara exploded about the wife’s eyes, her sobbing turned to gentle weeps. There weren’t any Air Jordans like Kermit had promised; however, the guy had an unhealthy amount of Dodger gear. The three stacks out the safe softened that blow, just over thirty grand. Their shit dog began to yap at the door. Mel turned to see four older women, faces pumped to the max with Botox, all fisted with wine or champagne. The sight of Smoke’s weapon sparked banshee screams, the ladies trembling in horror.
A bottle crashed to the ground.
Smoke jumped, accidentally firing a round.
Kermit ate the bullet, directly in the chest.
The boys scurried out a side door and sprinted up the block.
Kermit collapsed to the tile floor, eye to eye with the yapping dog, warm blood pooling beneath him until a coldness came over, one he’d only feel for the first time. Such a weak, weak boy.
Monty stirred from his drunken slumber, a pop followed by screams in the night disturbing sweet dreams. He got up to close the sliding glass door, gazing out at adjacent homes, not seeing anything alarming. A car must’ve backfired, sparking someone’s night terrors. He climbed back into bed, feeling sorry for whoever was that frightened this time of night. He thought about his deed again and smiled, closing his eyes, licking his teeth. He’d place mother’s urn in a closet or drawer tomorrow. No need to have her so prominent within his house. A truly great day, today. The ocean purred him back to dreamland, an angel’s sleep for the angel he was.