As Roger walked out of the foyer of the Gaylord Apartments, he immediately noticed two police officers huddled around the yellow tape across the alley. Looking past, he saw two more, appearing to stoop over an oil stain. Next to the yellow tape several officers were hanging around just some other bum shit canned some smoking, some just looking bored. They all appeared to be waiting for something; Roger thought it must be the two guys in jackets, who had just emerged from the cop sedan. He stood bemused as he watched the two men, one in a straight lined Newman knockoff, the other rumpled in an off the rack special. His journalistic instinct piqued for a second, but died down in the aftermath of his hangover, coffee was a far more pressing business at hand.
Roger walked across the street, then down Wilshire Boulevard, feeling the fall in the breeze for the first time this season. He came upon South Normandie Avenue, as a gust of wind forced him to raise the veil of his hoodie early for cold weather as he ambled down the sidewalk in search of coffee. Roger walked past the empty windows of bankrupt businesses, now spray painted with slogans of hate and violence, all aimed at Drumpf. Several caricatures of The Donald in crude pantomimes lined the walls of Koreatown. As he walked, cement towers rose, endless stories of blank windows, empty husks of buildings built merely for the sake of building, to feed the construction machine that amounted to the last industry in the country. Families huddled in vacuous entrance ways, one with a hibachi cooking breakfast, children running up to him in a screeching tone, begging for money. Roger tossed the loose change he had in his pocket behind him and rushed forward until he made his way into Olympic Park.
In the open, Roger felt the wind against his cheek, a refreshing breeze from the ocean; it began to soothe some of the cobwebs. He thought of his mother, who was an alternate on the USA swim team, the one that would never find its way to Moscow. His father had always joked that if 31 backstrokers died in a plane crash, still not bad, 31st in the nation he would have made the team also. Built in the 80’s for the Olympics, the Russians returned the favor for this one in ‘84, Roger always felt a sense of wonder as he passed the palladium that held the swimming now closed to the children the coliseum unused the virus killed it, the velodrome off limits to skateboarders Each building spoke of a bygone day, and even though unkempt and sooty, there still rested a majesty about the hulking buildings, a monument from some bygone dynasty like a soldier donning his dress uniform far past his prime. The pride of a televised nation that focused only on the grandeur, not the poverty that festered several blocks away.
Seeing the Donut King, Roger entered and sat glumly at the Formica counter. Pink and gold squiggles poured an intricate design between his fingertips as he tapped a nervous tattoo. The lady behind the counter shot him a harried look and then sauntered over.
“What can I get ya, Sugar?” she managed a smile, a glint of gold tooth and not much else. Roger felt sick again as he gazed at the glaze on the doughnut tray made while you sleep and decided against them.
“Just coffee, “he tried to smile, “and a heap of cream and sugar.”
“So ya like a little coffee with yer cream, eh?” she put on a tired I-need-a-tip smile, but her remark scratched across his brain; a memory of another life, another place, the big man he worked for on the construction crew had laughed as Roger poured the sugar in his cup and asked what was he making a coffee shake or something. Outwardly, Roger groaned. The lady, a little put off, poured his cup and set it on the Formica, spilling some as she did; sending the squiggles into a fury. He became mesmerized by their amoeba-like dance. He shook his head; gotta cut down on the booze.
“Ya want anythin else,” it was not a question. Roger’s head jerked up unexpectedly.
“Oh yeah, could you give me change for a paper?” The inside of his skull was itching now, the squiggles on the counter now mingling with the coffee like some biology culture gone wild. The waitress jolted back a step as if stunned, and then leaned over the counter in an almost schoolgirl pose. Her face took on an almost pleasant hue as she twirled a lock of her hair; her voice sounded as glazed as the doughnuts.
“Search your mind for the Drachr,” she voice took on a conspiratorial hue, “for he is within you.” Roger shook his head, a twinge in the beginning was a twinge of recognition emerged as he digested the statement.
“What did you say,” he raised his head towards the waitress as the dream, the wedding it was more like Daktari or something flitted across his imagination. “Please, what did you say?”
She smiled and moved within his space her lips brushing his ear, “Look to your periphery and beware the shadows,” she twirled her lock of hair and giggling popped imaginary gum. “Trust in the luck you create,” singsong. Suddenly, what the hell Roger felt a pressure from inside his sinuses, a barometric shifting. He shook his head; couldn’t put together what she had said. Roger leaned in and grabbed her arm, too roughly.
“What the hell are you playing at?!” he demanded. He looked closely at her face; but it had resumed the tired look from before, but now the eyes were glazed by a very different emotion entirely. He quickly let go, embarrassed by his actions.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to…”, she had seen those eyes before a fifth or more of hard whiskey had danced at that table and she was suddenly frightened and repulsed in like measures. Long graveyard shifts had still not hardened her enough for some of these characters, yet she wasn’t about to take any shit at the end of her shift with the pigs that staggered in from the bottle clubs up the street.
“I’m not sure what I said, mister,” she tore her arm away, “but there’s a damn paper right behind you,” a tear of confusion, “and I hope you never have a lucky day.” She staggered back to her station, suddenly feeling defeated and much drained. He looked back to finish apologizing for grabbing her, but all he saw was the swinging door to the kitchen.
Roger watched the lazy door, feeling depleted himself, what had Sartre called it, the nausea was ebbing. His eyes focused once more on the doughnuts, still pooling in their lard and he felt a jolt in his stomach. Hand shaking, he dumped spoonful after spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down into his coffee. He then turned and picked up the paper, discarded on the seat beside him, and tried to regain his composure as best he could. He did not look up for fear that the waitress would return, perhaps with the guy who baked the doughnuts, so missed her confounded stare coming from the window in the door, before the face disappeared out of sight.
The wave of realization yeah, the nausea had first struck him as he scanned the mailbox for the LA Times on his way to find coffee. So, it had not been a spur of the moment decision as she had claimed; she had canceled the subscription, had planned this thing; had already decided to leave long before they had that final talk. He was not sure if he could forgive the affair, but in all honesty, they weren’t married and if only they had been able to talk it out once they gained a little space. It may have even begun with his suggestion that she keep that pretty figure for the trial, and just when she’s looking spectacular, he should have known better; someone was going to make a move on her; she had always been way above his league.
His taking a job with that godforsaken rag of a tabloid didn’t help the situation, she stopped telling people what he did for a living, seemingly embarrassed by the association; but it had gone deeper, more vital. It had gone to her view of him as a man, as a lifelong companion. Her perception of his ambition as being nothing more than a sidelong crawl into the easiest situation, and she was right for the last year and a half he was no longer a mover and shaker, but merely another schlep filling out online applications and sitting in offices waiting to be turned down for yet another job. Until after 18 months he was merely a bystander lord knows she had made that perfectly clear to him in the last few months. Perhaps the notoriety had come at too young an age, perhaps he’d expected the world to bow and give him his due. Lord knows, the paychecks had been halved several times in the past two years. But he had always expected fate to sweep him off his feet, had always held a belief Dracula? in the back of his mind that everything would work out in the end, like that prince in the fairy tale living happily ever after.
He had absentmindedly walked the few blocks to the doughnut shop, trying to piece together what that prince had to go through to get to the happily ever after part. Terrasea had grown tired of the split on the country, tired of being looked down upon after having worked her way up, tired of the new race war, which she now promoted. And I’m sure tired of Roger squandering his god-given talents and settling for the job, any job that would help rebuild his fragile ego. He realized now that she had begun working out not for the exercise but to work out her frustrations; but lately, it had taken on the form of an obsession. Then the court case was the fulcrum for both of them. For him the slippery slope descent that had landed him at SCAB! for her, the exposure she needed to break into the big time. She had made a decision about her life, was back in the swing of things, hobnobbing with the beautiful people, Biff drove a Benz, God how could he have been so blind! while he had melted away in the horizon, his job a joke, his novel just another excuse to miss a party; one step forward, three steps back.
He made a mental list of the things he would need to check on: did she turn off the electric, was it under her name, what about the water, the cable, no that one was mine. Roger’s eye caught the headline in the lower right hand corner of the newspaper, Third Homeless Man Found Incinerated in Dumpster. He was immediately transported back to the scene at his apartment; they wouldn’t have had time as he scanned the story: no witnesses, the corpse had been dumped in a garbage bin; a sanitation engineer had noticed a foot in the garbage truck shovel another burning just before they hoisted it in the bed and managed to stop his partner before crushing the refuse. The writer made the assumption that the unfortunate man was doused with kerosene and incinerated by Hispanic street gangs, anything to illicit fear in the community. And, of course, there was the obligatory plea for the city to be on the lookout for any suspicious mask wielding youths toting five-gallon cans of flammable liquids around with them wonder which hot shot gets this story at the Times. He rubbed his temple to get some bearing wonder if SCAB! has sniffed out this story yet? Might not be a bad idea to pop back by, check it out.
Then the mariachi band blaring in his head tuned up for another go round and with it the nausea, the all-encompassing, all too sobering nausea played yet another encore. Roger fumbled with the phone on his belt and looked up homeless burned found that this was the third four with our guy he was about to look up spontaneous combustion help me spellcheck but this time the pressure in his sinuses appeared to emanate from the outside, like an implosion it pushed across the room. Roger noticed a single drop of blood hit his phone shit a nosebleed? and decided to make a dash for the bathroom and a check it out, but even as he turned in his seat, the bell on the door jingled.
What Roger saw came straight from an old Clint Eastwood movie: the door swung open and silhouetted in the blaze of the sun, which had risen while he sat, a man entered. He emerged from the light in crumpled jeans, stained work shirt, sole flapping shoes. He may have passed for just any old bum, if it hadn’t been for the quiet dignity in his carriage, or the beret that fit diagonally across his ravished scalp the very beret he could have marched through Paris wearing in the Big War. The man had a charisma that all eyes would follow; the waitress swung through the kitchen doors. He cheerfully waved and gave her a wink.
“It appears that I have missed out again, my dear,” he warbled. “Back with the boyfriend I see.”
“My lord, how you know these things,” but she gave him a smile much different than the saccharine one Roger had received. “Why you must sweep every girl off her feet.”
“Only you my dear,” the old man made a gesture, like a half bow, half Captain Morgan stance. Years seemed to fall away from the pair, as they gazed in each other’s eyes. For just an instant, Roger could have sworn he had seen them as players in another story, a story filled with the quiet games of flirtatious teens. Then the wave of nausea struck again; he doubled over, raised his head and the scene played just as before, a tried old man, the sagging youth of a woman.
“You must learn to hold your libations better, son,” Roger fell back in his seat, almost as if an invisible hand thrust him. The man came close, so close Roger could smell a tinge of kerosene on the man’s breath. Roger looked up; but the smell brought up a bad feeling; still there was something vaguely familiar about this man. “What you gawkin at, son?” the man was squinting at him. “You okay or do you need some help with your manners?” Roger could do nothing but smile, bile propped at his throat.
“Sorry, you just reminded me of someone I might have known.”
“Is that right?” the old man rose within his carriage, no longer seeming so old or so tattered. “Maybe you’ll find in this world that looks are deceiving, and maybe you’ll find that you might just know me a whole lot worse than you ever thought you did.” The man poked Roger’s chest. “And when you can see yourself in a man like me, then maybe you can say that you see yourself as a true man.”
Roger’s jaw dropped, this was too much to put up with on a three day bender and a two day fast. The bile began creeping back up his throat, he moved to get out of his chair, but the man beat him to the spot, blocking his way.
“Who are you, boy?” the man gave him a steely stare, holding his gaze for an endless moment. “Have you seen a portrait of Juan de Pareja adjusting a string on his mandolin!” Roger attempted to walk past, Juan de Pareja but the stranger grasped him around the throat, showing remarkable strength. He moved Roger against the wall then lifted him to his toes, Roger’s air cut off and he floundered like a marionette.
“Have you seen a portrait of Juan de Pareja adjusting a string on his mandolin?” Roger gave a distinct struggle to get away from the clutching hand, but to no avail, the man’s forearm ballooned like Popeye as it held him fast. Roger could feel the pulse in his neck and was sure that he would barf all over this lunatic. He felt a distinct pounding accelerate through his brain, almost electric, a probing thong of light flared in his mind’s eye. Shaking, he fought the perverse exploration, visions of his youth oscillated in a kaleidoscope of pain. The visions emerged one upon another: his swimming awards, first football game, first necking date, first…GET OUT! Arms flailing he was barely able to break the hold, falling to one knee on the floor, his neck, his mind, his temple screamed for peace.
Suddenly, his world calmed as he slid down the wall. He looked up wide eyed at the old man, but saw only sympathy in the eyes that returned his stare.
“There is still a will within you, my son. That is a good thing for there will be trials and tribulation before your journey is complete.” The old man rubbed his chin musing, “And willpower may come in handy down the line.” The old man offered his hand, “When you find Juan de Pareja, take it to Dallas.” Roger took the proffered hand, as the tattered hobo helped him up. “I’m sorry, Sonny, it’s these voices in my head; they make me do these crazy things.”
Roger staggered a little but got to the door, he turned once more to look at the figure, who had now returned to his banter with the waitress. He thought about kicking his ass for about a millisecond, but somehow knew that wasn’t going to happen; thought again of the police tape must get back to the crime scene it didn’t seem so important. There was something about this man that he both feared and felt akin to, both didn’t want to touch, and didn’t want to distance himself from. As he passed the window, he looked in once again. He turned to see the man in the beret giving him a cockeyed salute just some asshole vet still in the war, then saying something that made both he and the waitress laugh. A tired laugh, a laugh that stretched across the galaxy.