by Greg Burk
I thought Jack the Dogphotoman was my friend, or maybe that’s too simple a word, but something pretty close to that. I was wrong, or I wouldn’t be looking at these walls walls walls till I die I guess, and everything that happened wouldn’t have happened, or it would have happened to somebody else. Don’t ask me if I’m sorry, because it’s not my fault. It’s all on him. Unless you ask Jack. He doesn’t know from fault.
And then, of course, to ask him you’d have to find him. Wherever he is, I hope it stinks.
I got to know Jack because we worked the same crowds. Parks, museum grounds: I blew my sax, expecting the occasional tax-free donation -- just to grind my chops, understand, I didn’t need the cash, not really. And I have simple tastes.
I had caught his act a few times before the day we first talked, which was a windy fall Sunday on the grass in back of the Art Museum. The leaves were blowing east among the trees -- wind is bad for collecting listeners, because humans don’t linger. And the wind rapes my sound. But dogs like the wind, which was good for Jack, who took pictures of dogs. For money. And for art.
The dogs were revved that day, chasing rolling barking. But one at a time they would stop for no reason and come to Jack. Abandon prime butt-sniff and trot right over. I saw it again and again.
Every dog likes to be petted in a certain spot, and the Dogphotoman knew where, he just knew. Ears, chin or nape first. Then -- in seconds! -- the dog belonged to him, lying with its legs stuck up in the air for the belly rub. Rottweiler or chihuahua, it didn’t matter. Helpless. It was uncanny.
That’s when the owner would show. Jealous, at first. But then Jack would shovel the compliments. Not that he grinned or fawned, he was cool. He knew every breed in the world, all about them, and even if the dog was an eight-way compromise, he could list them all.
"Notice the eyes?" he would say, looking down. "He’s part Skye Terrier. I don’t know how the terrier and the Bergamasco got mixed, but nature has a way of making these things work out, ’cause it’s a great combination. When you’re coming home, I bet he starts barking when your car is still a block away, knows the engine sound. That’s the Bergamasco -- phenomenal hearing. And he’s protective, won’t let a stranger come near you. That’s the terrier. Am I right? I know I’m right."
The Dogphotoman would purse his lips and stroke, and the owner would eat it up: People love to hear pet praise, same as kid praise. And Jack seemed sincere, because he really did have a thing for dogs. Not kids, though -- kids he tried to keep out of the picture. That cost him business, but he couldn’t help it.
Jack looked unthreatening. He was just tall enough to avoid contempt. He had two identical suits, wore one while the other was at the cleaner: vintage brown wool, with the wide lapels and pinstripes. Any weather, the same suits, like a uniform. White shirt, tie. He had a trim mustache, a little wider than Hitler’s, and he knew a guy who would buzz his hair every three weeks in exchange for processing family snaps.
The Dogphotoman carried a good instant camera. He would ask to frame the pooch for a trial shot, and he could get dogs to do anything: sit and look soulful, peek out from a bush, jump up on a birdbath. All this through eye contact, gestures, voice -- he didn't offer treats. He always got pictures the dog owners would drop a few bucks for. You could see the owners’ expressions as the instants developed: appreciation. Then Jack would pass his business card and make his pitch for a studio sitting. "Ring me," he would shrug. He got calls, too. No ads, no fuss.
The day I’m talking about, he had just snapped a collie and netted a fiver. He walked over to me -- grimacing down his nose, wincing, waving the bill. I was playing "Chim Chim Cheree." I know, I know, but people pay to hear it.
"I’ll give you this," he said, "if you stop."
I’d heard worse. "Tell it to Coltrane," I said.
"I’m telling YOU, and you’re no Coltrane." What was this guy, from New York? "Coltrane only played that crap to get the housewives. ‘My Favorite Things.’ ‘Greensleeves.’ Christ. At least he cashed in, and he stuffed the real goods down their gullets on the flip side. He didn’t toot for nickels among the camellias."
"Excuse me, Diane Arbus."
"Don’t you know any Bird?"
I snarled, stuck the alto in my mouth and pealed out 20 bars of "Red Cross," which on the scale of difficulty is not exactly "Happy Birthday."
"Not bad." He was short of enthusiastic. "Most clowns would have done ‘Night in Tunisia.’" He was about to add something when he raised his head, looked over my shoulder and said, "Later." He tucked the camera under his arm. "I’ll see you at the William Tell." He walked away -- quick, long strides, and he was gone with the wind.
The William Tell? Where did he get that? I turned. Two LAPD blueshirts were taking the afternoon air, strutting like pigeons, letting the populace know they COULD be enforcing the leash laws. They were angling my way, but the Finest rarely dealt grief to sax-lugging park entrepreneurs, so my antiperspirant held. But Jack. What made him burn his valves like that?
So I suppose I could have used a beer. But I wasn’t gonna stray near that mudhole called the William Tell Lounge.
I’m curious. It’s a fault.
When happy hour struck, I found myself flogging my vintage Toyota over to Santa Monica Boulevard by Normandie, in a deservedly unfrequented part of Hollywood. The William Tell Hotel was a small two-story bum-crash with a "lounge" on the ground floor. It was cheap. A citizen with enough change for burgers could get wasted there if he turned his assets liquid. Provided he could stand the atmosphere, the well liquor and the company.
It was a toilet, not a hip buddy bar. Sometimes I didn’t want to be found at home or anywhere else, so I would squat in the William Tell, stare into the cracked mirror and choke down the house "scotch" with beer. There was usually a drunk on a stool, and I’d just let him talk at me. I never arranged to meet anyone there, not even guys; they would have thought I was nuts.
It didn’t smell as sweaty as usual when I pushed out of the pale pre-twilight into the room, which was dim. Reliable as snot, there was a drunk at the end of the bar, this one wearing a shirt that used to be white, talking at none other than Jack the Dogphotoman, who was ignoring both the drunk and his own greasy shot glass of amber something. I climbed onto the next stool, putting Jack between me and the drunk, who kept babbling even when Jack swiveled toward me. It was okay, the drunk wasn’t loud. I ordered my scotch and beer.
"You’re a chump," said the Dogphotoman.
"Obviously, since I’m here."
"Do you always do what you’re told? I bet you only call club bookers during specified hours. I bet you don’t pad expenses on your tax return. I bet when you were a kid you spent your allowance on rare stamps."
"From some old Polish faggot, right? ‘Billy, you have such a tone. Bootiful, bootiful.’ You play like an Auschwitzer."
"Have a nice day," I said, but I didn’t get up. I hate to waste liquor, even bad liquor.
The Dogphotoman gave me a look like you’d give a corpse in a wheelchair. "Altar boy," he said. "That’s it, isn’t it? Suffer on Earth, get your reward in heaven."
"Just a musician."
I have a temper, but I don’t squander it. Why give the asshole the satisfaction? Anyway, his constant aggression came off almost friendly.
I asked his name.
"Jack," the Dogphotoman said, and downed his shot.
"I’m Bill," I said. But he’d just called me that. "So why did you ask me to come here?"
"Just to see if you would. You can go now."
Okay, he was starting to tug my shorts. "You’ve got a kingly attitude for a panhandler," I suggested.
"Speak for yourself."
"I suppose you think you’re some kind of artist."
"I’m not attached to the term. You’ve seen me work."
"Pictures of dogs? I need a break here."
"Maybe I gave you too much credit. You’ve watched my moves, but you’ve learned nothing. Look at these," he said, and pulled some photos from his breast pocket. "These are the ones I couldn’t sell today."
They were pictures of dogs, all right. But I had to admit there was something unusual about them. Though I had been in the park when he took them, I wouldn’t have guessed the site. They were focused in a way that obliterated the background into splotches of white, green, brown, blue, with the dog popping out in sharp detail. Most were closeups; the dog’s head dominated the frame -- not centered like a portrait, but composed so the geometric lines of ears and snout drew together at a bright doggy eye. Each hound was revealed clearly, and at the same time abstracted.
"Mmm," I said.
"What do you see?"
"Pictures of dogs."
"Okay. Something. I don’t know."
"Simplicity. That’s what you see. Take everything else out, leave the essential. Nobody knows how to do that. Nobody even thinks it’s worth doing. Maybe some Japs, but they’re gutless."
The barmaid was bending over toward us, peering at the pictures. She had a blond Marie Antoinette wig and an extremely low décolletage, which might have harvested bumper gratuities 30 years ago but had the opposite effect in the here and now.
The drunk was also craning his neck, probably figuring we had some porn. "Lemme see," he said, stretching a mitt around in front of Jack.
The Dogphotoman didn’t say anything. He just stuck out a fast football-style open-field stiffarm, and the drunk went flying off the barstool onto his back. His head struck the floor with a crack like a plastic bat. He lay still, eyes rolled back.
The barmaid screamed. Her jowls were flapping, her wig was jiggling as she slid from behind the bar and backpedaled toward the rear. "Get out! Get . . . the hell . . . out!"
The only other patrons, a couple of old slobs in booths, shrank down and shut up. Jack rose and strolled toward the door, with me stumbling behind.
We hit Santa Monica Boulevard, almost dark now, the rush-hour traffic creeping along. Eyes. Eyes on me, I could feel it. I hustled down the sidewalk past Jack and jumped into the Toyota, which was parked half a block down. As I cranked the engine, Jack opened the passenger door (lock broken, why fix it?) and settled down into the cracked upholstery.
I seethed. "WHAT do you think you’re doing? The cops will be on top of us in five seconds. They’ll think we’re fucking married!"
The Dogphotoman looked straight ahead.
"Drive me home," he said.
I couldn’t believe the Dogphotoman’s balls. And I really couldn’t believe I kept going along with him. But what was I gonna to do? Push him out of my car? Conspicuous and time-consuming. Leave him in the seat? He’d probably hot-wire the ignition. Wait for the cops? I would be in it up to my nostrils. I crunched the car into gear, edged west on the jammed Santa Monica Boulevard and randomly took Western north, sweating my shirt wet and jerking my eyes to the rear-view every two seconds.
"Turn right," the Dogphotoman said. "I live over by Riverside and Fletcher."
Was he still there? He’d been so quiet. I yelled. "When did I get to be your wheel man? Get out and find your own car."
"I don’t like to drive. Go on, the light’s changed."
I shouted "Why should I?" but turned right anyway. My heart had a steel fist clamped around it; I was shaking.
"What’s the big deal?" said Jack. "Do me a favor. I don’t have a car, all right? Driving makes me nervous. And do you think it’s an accident that I tabbed you? I’ve been watching you. I suspect you might be capable of understanding some things that not many can get to. We have some shit to discuss. Important shit."
His tone was softer. It was the first time he’d backed off at all. And he was calm. He didn’t act like a suspect fleeing a murder scene. I just drove. It’s easy.
"Jack." We were winding down Fountain and past the auto repairs and flat warehouses that sat under the green hills off Hyperion Avenue. "What is up with you? That guy could be dead back there."
"Drunks fall off barstools all the time. Turn right on Rowena. I want to show you something."
Rowena became Glendale Boulevard; we veered left down Fletcher past the Space Age Cup & Saucer to a barren area by the concrete-ditch L.A. River where it parallels the 5 freeway. Huh. Interesting that the Dogphotoman would hole up around here. Addresses close to the river are no man’s land to the police. If a cop is deeply involved with a Lakers broadcast or a chocolate eclair, when he gets a call to come here he’s more than likely to belch twice and let the other station handle it. If the other station wants it. Gangs and strip clubs love the river.
Jack aimed me to a dirt driveway in front of a low cinderblock building on a bare lot. The whole thing was surrounded by chain-link topped with spirals of razor wire. It was the kind of place where you’d expect a doberman to come charging out and leap against the fence barking. But nothing. A single pale floodlight lit the dirt between the fence and the Dogphotoman’s windowless bunker. Jack went to unlock the gate, and I had a definite impulse to peel out. But like I said, I’m curious.
At the structure’s metal door, Jack turned the key in an industrial-size padlock, and we went in. Jack shut the door. The room was dark. Only a dim red light bulb glowed high against the back wall. I guessed it was a big old-fashioned darkroom for processing film.
Jack stood facing me, five feet away. I could just see his outline against the red light behind him. Maybe I should have been afraid. But he never scared me. In spite of all the abuse, I felt he . . . I don’t know, liked me or something. And anyway, I’m strong enough to bust him over my knee.
The Dogphotoman just stood there, mouth shut, for at least a minute. I couldn’t make out much, but I thought he was staring into my eyes, which must have reflected the red light behind him. Tick tick tick. Just when I was about to blurt something, he finally spoke.
"So. What do you see?"
Christ. I looked around. To my right, some vague shapes along a counter -- photographic equipment, I guessed. Straight ahead, under the light, was a door -- storage, or a bathroom, or the entrance to his living quarters? To my left were shelves with more shapes I couldn’t make out.
"I see red," I said. "It would help if you’d, y’know, turn on the light."
He walked to the back wall and flipped a switch. But instead of a main light going on, the red light went off. We were now in total darkness.
Jack whispered, "Now what do you see?"
I could still see the red light, even though it wasn’t on -- moving around erratically in my empty field of view, getting larger and smaller. And there was something else, which I noticed for the first time: a smell. It was faint in the cold room, but distinct. And unpleasant. I couldn’t place it.
Then . . . Switch scene, everything gone. I wasn’t in the room. I was back in my car, driving west. I didn’t remember leaving the bunker, or getting back into the Toyota, or telling the Dogphotoman thanks for a lovely evening pleased to make your acquaintance. Or anything in between.
I looked at my watch, and it was after 8. Shit, my group had a rehearsal at 9, and I had to pick up Mona first. This memory-loss thing was scary. It had never happened before, even when I drank a lot, which tonight I hadn’t. The Dogphotoman was roaring in my head like a four-alarm fire, but I didn’t have time to get all analytical about it. Thing one, Mona.
I liked to call Mona my girlfriend, although there might have been eight or ten guys who would dispute that. She worked as a waitress at the Galaxy Lanes, a beat-up Hollywood bowling alley frequented mostly by Koreans. Some of us musicians used to get together and bowl on Wednesday nights, and that’s where I met her, when she slung the beers.
The first thing I had noticed about Mona was the first thing everybody noticed, because she made no effort to conceal it, and I’m not talking about her religious beliefs. Her assets poured out in every direction from the tightest tops and shortest skirts she could legally wear. Her kinky hair, dyed burnt orange, puffed out in a halo around a soft, almost-pretty face, and her voice was high and coarse, with some kind of East Coast accent. Like the rest of the patrons, I assumed she was a bimbo. Then I began to notice things she said.
"How’s your friend doing with his guitar lessons?" she asked me once. She nodded toward tall, skinny Eli lining up his feet to pick off a 4-7 spare.
"Eli plays keyboards," I said.
"Oh. I guess I thought that because of the fingertips."
Eli missed the spare, grabbed a beer and plunked muttering beside me. I looked at his fingers. The tips were kind of mangled and grooved, the way they get before you develop guitar calluses.
I said, "Uh, how are the lessons going?"
He scrunched his brow, like, who told? "Gonna blow it off. The fingers." He wiggled them. "Unnatural."
I started thinking more about Mona. When I start thinking about a woman, it leads to more thinking. One time after the bowling I took an extra-long piss stop, hoping to talk to her after the others had split, washing my hands with extreme care. I told myself the scrub was a good idea, considering how grimy the fingers get from those house rack balls, which look like they’ve been dropped from an airplane into a latrine. I looked at myself in the mirror. Not so great.
I shoved out of the men’s room and smacked right into her.
I gobbed out a hi. Elocution is not my forte, but I tried: "What’s going on? You getting off?"
"Yeah. I need to unwind. Why don’t you come over? Did you ever play blinko? I can teach you."
I was struck dumber. I wondered if she dug losers -- some women just do, thank god. Not that I thought of myself as a loser. Okay, maybe I did. I had no idea what blinko was, but -- you know -- I was curious. Curious as hell.
Blinko turned out to be a game you play by pushing around beer-bottle caps. Mona had learned it in Nova Scotia, where she was from. Fortunately, I had picked up a sixer of Molson, which is just right for playing weird Canadian games.
She lived in a gigantic brick tenement on Kenmore near Fourth, and we were squatting on the floor with the bottle caps between us, because there was almost no furniture. But there were paperback books piled up all along the walls. The game required Mona to bend over toward me a lot, which I enjoyed tremendously, although she showed no sign of being interested in anything but blinko. I was trying to figure out an excuse to close the gap when the door opened.
A guy built like an oak desk was standing there. He wore a black leather jacket and Doc Marten boots, and his blond hair was sculpted up into a rockabilly quiff. His skin was pocked, and his nose was crooked. He smiled a genial smile.
"Bill," Mona told me, "this is Bo, my roommate."
I got up slowly. "Glad to meet you," I grinned. We shook.
"Playin’ some blinko, I see."
"Yeah. Interesting game."
"You a musician?"
"Saxophone." I made sure to enunciate all three syllables.
"Me too. Bass."
"Well, it’s getting kinda late," I said. It was 1 a.m., in fact. "Good to meet you, Bo."
"See ya!" Mona waved. I walked down six flights, vibrating like a high E string.
When I saw Mona at the alley the following Wednesday, she had a black eye and needed a new place to live. I really believe she was surprised by her predicament -- no guile, this woman. I helped her track through the want ads, and that’s how we got to be friends.
So the night I’d had all the craziness with the Dogphotoman was a year after that. I was picking up Mona because she liked to attend my jazz combo’s rehearsals. She would sit in the corner with a book -- seemed boring to me, but she said that she liked to be near the music, that listening to even a bad band up close was better than listening to a recording of a genius, because you could really feel it. And my band, of course, was not bad.
The apartment I’d helped Mona find was an improvement over the Kenmore slum: a bright, airy modern nook on Beachwood Drive, in a semi-affordable part of the Hollywood Hills. I knocked, she opened the door, and I got a boner. These days, I kind of wished she wouldn’t dress like that. For my rehearsals, at least.
I flopped onto the couch. "Damn. I’m whacked. You would not believe the day I had. I met this guy . . ."
Mona stood rigid in the middle of the floor, staring at my face.
"Stay away from him," she said. "Stay away from him."
Mona seemed serious about my avoiding somebody she’d never met, but she didn’t pursue the subject. Instead she came over to the couch and slid sideways onto my lap, which made me forget how tired I was. Her eyes were a little sad, and her tits were in my face. She smelled clean. I put my hands in her hair and we kissed, soft.
So, later . . . oh yeah, the guys. They were kind of pissed when we showed up an hour late at the Burbank warehouse where we rehearsed. Leonard was leaning over his drum kit, tightening one of the wing screws on the floor tom. He talked without looking at me.
"Doo-dah, it’s Thousand Dollar Bill, too rich to worry about studio hourlies. You better not have snorted up all the blow."
I opened my sax case. "If I let you at it first, my ho would go wanting."
Leonard tossed Mona a sympathy frown. "Poor girl needs a new daddy."
I grunted. "And you’re applying? Everybody knows you’re the only mandingo with a toy tool."
"Big enough your mama choked. It just won’t grow with you trying to rub on it all the time."
Across 11 feet of ripped carpet, Eli ignored us, fingering fast scales on his electric keyboard with the volume down, the way he always did when shit was slack. He knew a lot of scales.
I stuck a reed in my mouth and looked over at Angelo’s P-bass leaning against his amp. "Where's the wop?"
Eli kept diddling. "Said he was going to the john. Half hour ago."
"Jesus. He lives in that hole."
Mona was already sitting on the floor in the corner, reading "UFOs: Truth or Fact?" I had grabbed the door handle to go fetch Angelo when he flew through and almost knocked me over. He wasn’t tall; I looked way down on his premature bald spot as he bent over, clutching his gut. I could hardly see the bad-oyster expression on his face.
"Agh," he said. "I have no shit for a week."
I handed him a bottle of Moosehead from the six-pack Mona had carried in. "You should drink more Canadian beer. Moose brews make loose stools."
Angelo sucked on it. "Moretti is better. Anyway, I tell you again, making shit is in the mind more than the body. I don’t shit because life is crap."
"I thought all those computer-programming classes were finally paying off. Aren't you a big dick with some internet-security outfit now?"
"A small dick. And you know what I do there? I make virus."
"You mean you make software that protects against viruses."
"No, I make virus. Where you think the virus come from? Companies want this. Write a good virus, it take time, cost money. Everybody tell you smart kids do it just to mess up the world, because they have no sex. Ha. No. I write code, get paid."
"Lucky you’ve got the compensation of being in a hot band, so you get plenty of sex."
"No such thing as hot jazz band."
Leonard heehawed behind me. I turned and gave him the schoolmarm grimace. "What’s this, another slob discontented with the blessings of high art?"
Leonard picked his nose. "My landlord could use some manna."
"Come on. That funk gig must be keeping you in grease."
"Brothers kicked me out for playing polyrhythms."
"The only poly you know is Ester. I bet you ate all their waffles."
"No, but I ate them Hush Puppies of yours. Now I don't got to look at them."
"So I didn’t lose ‘em under my bed. Do you know what those shoes cost me?"
Angelo was on the floor now, moaning into his imitation-Armani sportjacket lapel. "When I not shit -- it is a sign. God does not like the jazz." He grimaced and waited, and waited some more before he went on. "Many pardons, Bill, but I must quit the band." As soon as he said that, he began to breathe easier.
Leonard was a big help. "What a coincidence, God told me the exact same motherfucking thing, 'cept He said not to apologize. I quit too."
Eli didn’t say anything; he was already unplugging his keyboard.
Mona got up, rubbing her ass with one hand and holding the book with the other. "Bill, hey. Did you know that the soil at 11 of the top 13 encounter sites has high concentrations of selenium?"
So everybody quit the band. We had a gig scheduled for the next night at Puteoli Pasta World. I didn’t bother calling my bastards, I just showed up. Free food. They’d be there.
Mona held the door as I stuck my tenor case into the restaurant. The room was carefully designed to avoid shocking anybody with décor novelties -- please observe the red leatherette, the checked tablecloths, the rows of old basket-weave chianti bottles, the dead gangster in the corner booth bleeding from his mouth. No, that was Leonard, face smeared with Bolognese sauce, six now-empty plates spread in front of him. He had settled back snoring, and the owner, a weary time-server with a dyed-black comb-over, was giving him the eye. I said hi. The owner turned and scowled.
Leonard’s drums were already set up on the 11-inch bandstand. Eli was fiddling with his keyboard settings. Angelo was humping a bass cabinet twice his size onto the stage; he had only one amp, which he used for both jazz and heavy metal. The ceiling was scooped out in one of those big Art Deco acoustical ovals that would have signified vintage class if not for the water stains and the crumbling plaster. I went up by the lone microphone to unpack my sax.
It was 6 o’ clock. A waitress was zooming around planting flatware on the 18 tables; Mona went over and hugged her. The waitress was a tiny thing with a dark pixie cut, a hairstyle I hoped she would never change, because that was how I remembered her name, Dixie. Maybe I called her Trixie sometimes, or Dexie. Ha-ha, funny me. She greeted Mona with a dazzling amphetamine smile -- Dixie gulped pills before every shift, whether she was going to need them or not, and she knew she wouldn’t be needing them this particular Wednesday night. She was not my favorite person. She’d landed us this weekly no-pay gig, but I was less grateful to her for procuring it than pissed off at myself for accepting it. Leonard, of course, always kissed her ass because of the food.
The night began slow and got slower. Starting with "Mood Indigo" was a mistake. Leonard’s eyelids were drooping as he slid the brushes over his snare. Angelo passed gas -- one of his high, whiny ones, loud enough that an old lady at a table in the middle woke up and turned her head; I segued with an inappropriate matching overblow on my tenor, hoping she’d think we were being avant-garde. She winced.
Not that the captive audience cared whether we were treating them to Duke Ellington or the Duke of Earl. Only five tables had diners. Nobody clapped for the standards, so I called a couple of my original tunes -- nothing to lose.
Judging by the continued vast non-response, the risk was justified. Certainly I was used to it in a place like this, but the way things had been going, tonight it was driving me suicidal. I bent the mike up from my tenor bell to my mouth and hissed, "Any requessssts?" I was hoping some local comedian would request "Silence," so I could jump down and strangle him. Instead, God inspired some snooty-looking coot to call out "Passion Flower" before he dug back into his gnocchi. It was another Duke number, and not even very obscure, but I didn’t know the song. I looked over at Angelo to see if he knew it; he rolled his eyes. I made teeth at Eli, Master of a Thousand Fake Books. He set his keyboard to an organ sound and began to mush out the ballad all by himself. The Requesting Customer grunted approval and gnawed a slice of mortadella.
Two women with bad perms were sitting at a stageside table to the right, in front of Angelo; one of them was using the stage to park her purse. For the past 40 minutes, they had been slurping tea, chomping bread sticks and talking louder than the band.
The one wearing a paisley blouse yelled to the one with huge glasses, "I think my son is on drugs."
Huge Glasses yelled back, "How do you know?"
"He smokes funny cigarettes, doesn’t even try to hide it. He rolls them himself. They smell like cookies."
"Cloves! Clove cigarettes! It’s not drugs, kids smoke them so people will think they’re on drugs when they’re not."
"So people will think they’re on drugs? Why?"
"Why? Why ask? Why don’t they shave? The girls don’t seem to care."
"You’re right. The girls are pretty, but the boys don’t even try. I saw the prettiest girl today, hanging on a boy looked like a hobo. Fat, too, he was!"
Leonard had brushed along with "Passion Flower" for a few bars, but seeing that Angelo and I were laying out, he stopped, got off his stool and strolled off the stage.
"A fat musician," Glasses was explaining. "I hope my daughter stays away from musicians. Daphne’s daughter is shacked up with one. The daughter has a job, but she asks Daphne for money and more money. Daphne knows who it’s really for."
Leonard walked to the women’s table, pulled out the third chair, sat down and turned to Glasses. "You’re right about musicians." He drew a bread stick out of the bundle and waved it at Paisley. "Clove cigarettes, huh? You shouldn’t be worrying if your son is on drugs. You should be worrying if he’s a faggot."
Paisley pulled back like a snail; Glasses’ eyes went from big to bigger. Leonard bit the bread stick. "He might not know it himself. Tell me, does your son like pizza?"
Paisley decided to answer. "Yes . . ."
"Does he get it with extra cheese?"
"Sometimes, yes." Paisley was starting to be more surprised than afraid. "How did you know?"
Leonard shrugged. "Did you make custard for him when he was a kid?"
"Yes. He liked custard."
"Hot or cold?"
"He liked it when it was still warm from the oven."
"You put some in the refrigerator for later, though, huh?"
"Did he eat it cold?"
"Not so much. My husband, Larry, he ended up eating it all."
"Your son ain’t got a girlfriend, does he?"
"No . . ."
"How old is he?"
Leonard spoke quietly. "Maybe it’s not too late. You got a garage?"
"Make it into a room for your son. With its own entrance."
"But it’s my husband’s workshop."
"This is more important. Don’t tell me what kind of music your son listens to, I already know." Leonard motioned Dixie over, got a pen from her and rotated back to Paisley. "Your son talks to you, not the old man, right?"
Leonard was writing the names of albums by Marvin Gaye, Rick James and Miles Davis on a napkin. "Start him off with these. By the time he get to really diggin’ ‘em, that garage be all fixed up for freakin'. If there still hope for him, he gonna take it from there and pick up more music like this. Buy him some real weed, too. Cloves, shit. When word get out he got good sounds, good smoke and a red bedspread, he be belt-deep in pussy. If he don’t know what to do with it, well, I did all I could."
The woman with the glasses was clutching her purse. Paisley scrutinized Leonard’s scribble on the napkin. "Thank you . . ."
Leonard looked up. The owner was standing over his shoulder. The gig was over.
No gig, no food, no band. I went back to the splendor of solo musicianhood in the great public marketplace: streets, parks, subway stations.
It might not have been an accident that I found myself gravitating toward the hills above the western stretch of Hollywood Boulevard, to Wooster Park, one of the county’s designated dog runs. Dark clouds hung low, in the sky and in my head. I had dug up an old jug of gin under my sink behind the drain acid the previous night, and I felt as if I had swigged the wrong bottle. I didn’t see the Dogphotoman till he tapped me on the shoulder while I was trying to put some energy into a saxophonic rendition of "How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?"
"Impressive, Bill -- Doris Day. You have really found your level."
I tried indignation. "Most requested, most highly remunerated." Change the subject. "I thought I might run into you here." I nudged a smashed styrofoam cup with my foot. "What exactly happened at your place the other night?"
"Nothing. I showed you a few pictures and kicked you out. I was tired, I told you."
"There didn’t seem to be anything . . . the matter with me?"
"Nothing that isn’t always the matter with you."
"I lost a few hours."
"The world weeps. It must have been all over the pages of the Hobo Herald, but my subscription lapsed."
"The newspapers, that’s another thing. I haven’t seen anything about that bum you shoved in the bar."
"I did. He had a lobotomy and got elected to the state legislature."
"I guess he must not be hurt too bad."
"He’ll be all right as long as he doesn’t join your band."
"No band to join."
"I know, I was there last Wednesday. Pathetic."
"What? I didn’t see you."
"I believe we have established that you don’t see much." The Dogphotoman got a pen knife out of his suit pocket and began to clean the middle nail on his left hand. "How many fingers am I holding up?"
My head felt stuffed with cottage cheese. I didn’t feel like fronting. "The band . . . what the hell, I'll live without it."
"That sorry act is all you’ve got, and now you’re making wimp noises. A lot of clowns limp by with less."
Was the Dogphotoman tired of socking me? "Good musicians . . ."
Jack snorted. "Yeah, bring your musicians over and I’ll have them paint my walls. What I’m saying is you’re not exploiting your resources."
"I’ll tell you if you shut up."
I inhaled and sank down on a bench, wishing I had some water. Jack stood over me and dictated. "Why are you doing this music thing?"
"To communicate. To use my . . . tools."
"To scare up some money, maybe."
"I assume you’re aware that almost everybody is an idiot." I didn’t argue, so the Dogphotoman continued. "Therefore, your goal is to pick idiots’ pockets. So tell me, how do you connect with an idiot? Do you ransack the jazz legacy for hip obscurities?"
"That’s right. But you don’t want to play "Doggie in the Window" every hour, either. You saw my pictures. What do you think I have in common with Thelonious Monk and Kiss?"
"I have no clue."
"We all say one thing: Keep it simple. You play jazz. You might as well put a magnum to your head instead of a saxophone. Why do you think idiots don’t get jazz?"
"Correct. The musician wins a cherry sucker. So for every eight notes you’d normally play, withdraw seven. Open the door. Let the idiots in. That’s the first thing."
"I’m guessing there’s more."
"Zip it. The second thing is don’t forget that you, too, are an idiot. It will make this easier for you. And the third thing is right under your nose."
"Idiots don’t enjoy music that lacks la-la." Jack made blabbing motions with his mouth. "And they need something to look at. You have a bimbo at your disposal. Use the bimbo."
I knew Mona’s friend sang in a band sometimes. "You mean Dixie?"
"You’re more of an idiot than I thought. Do you want to fuck her?"
"Neither does anyone else with a dick. The other bimbo."
"Mona? She’s not a singer."
"I suppose Jayne Mansfield was an actor. Take care of business. You know I’m right."
I wished he hadn’t uttered that last sentence; he used it on his customers all the time. But the conversation was over. Jack had turned away and was quick-stepping his way between the dog turds down the slope toward Sierra Bonita Avenue.
I pulled a bottle of aspirin out of my chinos and stuck four in my mouth, forgetting I had no water. But heaven provides. It was starting to rain.
On my way to Mona’s place, I hit the megamarket for a bottle. It had a white label imprinted with the word Scotch. It’s made in Scotland, they say.
By now, the rain was dumping down. No umbrella in my car; raincoat, ha. So when I knocked on Mona’s door, I looked like a dunked clown. I doffed my rags; Mona handed me her fuzzy robe. Pink. Sleeves to my elbows.
Her place always looked like a magazine ad. This woman actually waxed her floors; they were shined up all the time, even though since moving she had gotten a dog, Frannie, a little gray mutt with bright eyes. I scratched the dog’s ears, settled down at the kitchen table and peeled the wet paper bag off the scotch bottle. Mona put a juice glass in front of me, got a Labatt Blue for herself. It was her least favorite Canadian beer, but she bought it as a hometown memory because it had a brewery in Halifax. She had the night off from her new job hostessing at a West Hollywood yuppie boite. Beat the bowling alley all to hell.
My booze went down the way cheap booze goes down: It disinfected my tongue, choked in my throat and trickled down around my heart, where I could feel it eating away at my ventricles. I’ve always thought this is the way liquor should taste; otherwise a person might be inclined to drink too much of it. Feeling a chill, I poured another three fingers and popped the question.
"Mona, who’re your favorite singers? Female." After a year with her, I should have already known the answer to that.
She tugged at her T-shirt, took a slug from the narrow brown bottle and pursed her ruby lips. "I dunno. Billie Holiday, for sure. Peggy Lee." She considered. "Astrud Gilberto. Nina Simone. Dinah Washington. Helen Merrill."
My admiration was spreading. "How about outside of jazz?"
"Huh. My god. Patsy Cline. Etta James." She tilted her head. "Grace Slick."
"Don’t you like anybody recent?"
"Not really. Cassandra Wilson?"
I had heard Mona crooning over the dishes now and then, but hadn’t paid much attention. I asked her to sing something.
She sat back, then gazed over at the kitchen window and opened her mouth half an inch. "Love . . . brings such misery and pain . . . I guess I’ll never be the same . . . since I fell for you . . ."
The rain brushed against the window. My mouth was open more than half an inch. She sang the way she breathed, without even thinking about it. Her singing voice was deeper than her speaking voice, and soulful.
Musicians don’t cut songbirds big respect, because singing is a gift. The gift can be honed, but any teenager who’s got it starts off with a five-year drop on a sax jockey like me. The gift’s a pisser to us axfucks -- it seems like a shortcut, and on top of that, we know everybody’s gonna be looking at the singer, not us.
Of course, millions of singers with great pipes aren’t worth a shit. They’re show-offs, they’re copycats, they’re actors. Mona, though, had the voice and the instant connection; she was a double-barreled natural. No point in being jealous of something like that; you’ve just gotta bow to it, like a sunset.
I went around the table and pulled her up to me. She was warm, I was cold. She smiled like she was embarrassed, and we drifted off to the bedroom. My apartment had a futon on the floor; she had a real bed. While she was pulling off her jeans, I shoved two paperbacks, three magazines and a newspaper off the bedspread.
Normally we fucked like animals. This time, must’ve been the rain and the singing, we were slow and quiet. Mona fell asleep. I lay in the dark, looking at the blur of a framed picture on the wall: Mona, in a quilted blue winter coat, her hair even bigger than now, standing with two girlfriends on a wharf in front of a three-mast sailing ship. Nova Scotia.
I got up, put the pink robe back on and went back to the kitchen. I found some soda crackers on a shelf and munched while resuming my scotch commitment. A full bottle is a challenge.
I had made good progress when Mona shuffled out an hour or two later in just the T-shirt, said she had to walk the dog. It was after midnight, and Frannie was sitting by the door, ears up. Oh yeah. I said it was still raining. Mona shrugged. I said I’d get an umbrella and take Frannie out for a minute. Mona smiled and turned back toward the bedroom.
"Hey," I said. "You want to sing some stuff with me?"
"You have no band."
"That could change."
Eyes half shut, Mona looked at my half-empty bottle, then looked at me. "Sure," she said. Then she was gone.
I pulled a little subterfuge on Eli. Asked him to come over and help me with a new tune, ha-ha.
He was supposed to show up at my shack on Saturday afternoon. The sun had broken through the clouds to shine on the wet leaves; the birds were tweet-tweeting in the magnolias; the dogshit was melting into the grass.
I lived in a Hollywood courtyard -- Spanish-style bungalows from the 1920s, with Philip Marlowe’s old girlfriend stretching out her golden years in a corner unit full of gin bottles. I’d been there a long time. Too long, the landlord would have said, but that’s what he had to endure in a commie society that permitted rent control. The neighbors loved me equally, what with the "strange people coming and going at all hours" that always accompany drug dealers, perverts and musicians.
Eli came in the open door and took a little plastic keyboard out of a shopping bag. His curly hair was uncut, and he looked as if he hadn’t slept, same as always. He had kind of a poetic face, but it didn’t help him with the women -- he didn’t chase them enough to score a percentage, and he didn’t ignore them enough to be mysterious.
Mona brushed the tortilla-chip fragments off my coffee table into their empty bag, then went into the kitchen and started stacking the dirty dishes. I looked around. The white polyester drapes, which I never opened, were creased with Los Angeles smog fuzz. The green shag carpet was matted into paths of grease brown. There was nothing on the beige walls except a gas-station calendar. End tables with non-matching lamps stood beside the couch where I spent my life. A cockroach crawled up the wall behind it for a better view of the television, which was tuned to whatever with the sound down.
Eli lodged no complaint; it looked a lot like his place. He put the battery-operated keyboard on the coffee table. I was holding two beers, and he held out one hand while tweaking the controls with the other.
I hooked my tenor to my neck strap. "I wanna warm up. Play ‘Fever’ in A minor." Eli put a tick-a-boom beat on the drum machine; I told him to slow it down. He switched to an ironic lounge-organ sound and poked into a vamp. I blew a few long tones, adusted my mouthpiece and tried a few simple phrases.
From the kitchen, Mona began to sing, almost to herself. "Never know how much I love you. Never know how much I care. When you put your arms around me. I get a fever that’s so hard to bear." She didn’t sound cool and snappy like Peggy Lee. She sounded like a man-starved drug offender sweating on her back in a Singapore prison.
Mona sang the whole song; I played bonehead obbligato.
Eli switched off the drum beat. "She can sing."
He nodded once. Mona came out of the kitchen wearing rubber gloves and a wet apron. A tasseled bikini could not have made her look hotter.
Eli caught my eye. "You’ve got an idea."
"Let’s do it."
Mona sat down with us on the couch. We drank beer and watched a ballgame.
Leonard and Angelo unquit the band, the way they always do. I told them that Eli and I wanted to hash out a few songs with Mona; they decided to come on board. Their plans to study >>Hawaii Five-O>> reruns could go on emergency hold.
I drove to Mona’s crib grinning like a fool -- she would be jazzed at the reunion news. I tapped fingertips on the door and soft-keyed the lock, watching my big feet because noon was not always wakey-time for her.
Bedroom: Mona sitting up in a T-shirt, eyballing an Impossible Science magazine with Michael Jackson and Hitler on the cover. Next to her, under the sheet: a human-size lump, with just pixie hair sticking out.
Mona smiled; I looked at Dixie. Mona filled in: "We got drunk last night and she stayed over. Didn’t want her driving." I grunted; Mona continued. "Dixie knows the guy who runs Snakebite. Says she can get your band a spot."
Snakebite was a mystery club that popped up at various bars around town. For the current three minutes, it was a big hang for young movie scum. Snort powder, pretend to dodge paparazzi, that whole deal.
I turned my frown upside down. "My band? Make that our band. The guys want to try you out."
Mona smiled even bigger. Dixie pulled the sheet over her head.
We did Snakebite a couple of weeks later. Beatnik Night, and we were the cool jazz cats. Dixie said berets were "de rigueur." She enjoyed the expression on my face when she told me that.
This week’s Snakebite was in the basement ballroom of an old hotel downtown. Leonard turned up in a beret and sunglasses, settled on his drum stool with a skinny paintbrush in each hand and started to warm up, trying out both ends of the brushes on the snare and cymbals -- if he had to be an ass, he was not going halfway. He completed the look with his idea of an Art T-Shirt, spattered with forest green, pale yellow, off-white and brick red.
Dixie whined at him. "You’re supposed to be a beatnik, not a house painter."
"You ain’t seen the house."
Eli surprised me, looking as if he’d been born in his beret. Angelo was delighted to model one; he owned several. He didn’t have a standup bass, but with this crowd, nobody would know the difference. Mona was cute, of course; even a big black sweater couldn’t hide her stuff. Me . . . Mona scrunched my chapeau this way, that way, but I still looked more like Gil Hodges than Dexter Gordon.
We were hired for three sets. First set, room empty; we just drifted through Miles’ "All Blues" till catatonia loomed. Mona and Dixie had disappeared. The bartender was chomping a sandwich. The hostess, a blonde with an attitude, sat by the door scrutinizing her black nail polish.
Second set, some customers rolled in -- ten underage white kids from the Valley, five sharp Japanese, a dozen garish Armenians, a lost tourist couple from the hotel, a black drug dealer who gave Leonard the eyebrow. We did "’Round Midnight," "I Got Rhythm," "Cherokee." For the last song in the set, Mona climbed up and sang "Every Time We Say Goodbye," cool Chet Baker-style. The mood out in floorland changed a little for her. First time I’d seen anything but the backs of heads.
And right about then, gosh and golly, the entourage plowed in -- six or seven fresh aristocrats wearing, like, T-shirts, jeans and berets that cost as much as an island in the Greater Antilles. No price tag required, you could just tell. Four muscle guys tagged along, pulling little tables and chairs out of a closet and settling the nobles to the side behind a translucent black screen -- no, I am not kidding; a screen. Wealth must really suck.
It was time for the band break, and given the developments, I told my gang to take a literal five and not six to minimize the lull. To be safe, I even asked Angelo to grab us all beers from the bar, just to keep his ass away from the water closet. Meanwhile, screeches of hilarity arose from behind the black screen; the star posse had warmed up real good in the limo before making their entrance here. Suddenly, by the way, the place was jammed.
We mustered back quick, and I decided to make the last set the Mona Show. She was game, figuring three rehearsals oughta be enough to launch a career in entertainment. No nerves! I started us off by calling Diz’s "Salt Peanuts," which customers like because it’s a bopper with no arty pretensions; Mona did the goofy octave-jump vocal completely deadpan while I blew crazy hepcat shit. Whoring is easy if you let yourself go. "Fever" came next, and I spied some beefy frat boy rubbing his crotch as Mona milked the sweat. When we swung into "Blues in the Night," I snaked a look over at her schoolgirl devil-may-care interpretation. Her hips didn’t move more than an eighth of an inch; the bump-and-grind stayed right in her eyes. Where the fuck did she learn that?
I am not a generous soul, but I happen to believe that Mona can sing "The Man I Love" without making you pine for Billie Holiday. She closed her eyes and let the ballad pour out of her. Did you ever see a movie where some howling trashpit falls silent in the face of great art? You always think, "Yeah, sure." Well, this pit fell silent.
Except over to the side, I noticed the black screen shaking. Then, from the same direction, I saw bodies getting knocked aside and drinks slopping around as somebody fought straight up to the stage. Then I saw it was Becca Bershovsky.
I don’t read the tabloids, but with Bershovsky, that is not necessary. Now that she had trashed her film career with kamikaze behavior, she was more famous than ever at 23.
Bershovsky was also -- news bulletin -- drunk. Her hair was cut in the kind of thick black bob that never seems to get mussed; it was her face that was a mess. She was crying. She planted herself directly in front of Mona, still in midsong, and she kept crying. She laid her head sideways on the stage and drooled, rolling her eyes to look up at Mona.
The number ended on a deep note. Becca Bershovsky slurred, "I love that song," and vomited a pink pool onto Mona’s black pumps. Dixie sprang from stage right and helped Mona pull Bershovsky onto the stage. They each grabbed a pale Bershovsky arm and dragged her toward the women’s convenience. All around the room, people were screaming.
"Drunk Bershovsky and the Woman She Loves" was the headline in the Star that week. Mona danced around my dump, giggling and holding the paper out at me. She’d picked it up at the ShitMart when she scored a Molson sixer on the way over. The article included an old photo of a bleary Becca Bershovsky tilting out of a limo on Sunset Strip, and a smaller nonpro snap of Mona in the beret. To Mona, the newsprint was better than a Ph.D. from Oxford.
And really, she was right. Lately we had needed to scissor our phones because of the calls at all hours. Clubs wanted to book the band, creeps begged to manage us, publications demanded pronouncements from our sacred lips.
A couple of days after the Beatnik Barf Incident, as the newshounds called it, a national TV gossip show had tapped Mona for a quickie interview. She looked sweet, didn’t say anything about Bershovsky being blotto, just that the filmchick was "feeling a little ill" and needed to splash some water on her angelic face. In return for the discretion, Bershovsky waxed grateful; she tossed up a press release mewling about her love for the great American jazz tradition, and painting Mona as "the most talented singer I’ve heard in a long time."
I tossed the Star into the peanut shells on the coffee table and sighed. "What are we gonna do, Mona?"
"Dixie! Dixie! My god, Bill, we've got to get her on the case. She knows everybody, and she can get us more. More shows. More word. More money. She'll work like a slave!"
Mona was so hyped, I was not about to piss on her fire with the voice of experience. Anyway, although the thought of Dixie made my tummy feel icky, Mona's idea made sense; her little bitch had amphetamine energy and a hide like a rhino.
I told Mona I'd think about it; she grabbed the Star and ran off to tell the world. I stretched out my bones on the couch, but before I could settle my brains, the phone rang. I'd gotten sick of answering it lately, but for some reason this time I fumbled it up to my ear.
It was Jack. "Meet me at the Kamakura Tea Room in a half hour."
"I'm gonna read your leaves, asshole."
The Dogphotoman spat out an address and clicked off. I was slug tired. What the hell, though, some tea might perk me up.
I hate going downtown -- the one-way streets, the empty tall buildings and miserable immigrants. I was fated to go there, though; Jack's destination was around Sixth and Grand. So I drove. My one functional wiper smeared the drizzle on my windshield as I pulled into an underground parking lot at Pershing Square, a little cement urban fortress for bums. I cursed when I saw the 15-minute rates. Jack better keep it short.
An inscription on a concrete wall praised Los Angeles' diversity. Yeah, we kill 'em all here. I walked down the nearly empty sidewalk of Sixth with my shoulders up against the wet. The address Jack had given me didn't seem to exist; there was no signage for the Kamakura Tea Room. I turned around and walked back past the entrance of what I had taken to be some derelict SRO, and saw that the glass door had two addresses in little gold-and-black stick-on numerals. The lower one matched.
I pulled the door open to a small foyer with a wooden desk and two chairs. Stairs going up, stairs going down. I went down. Black curtain with a Japanese-looking circular red design on it. I pushed it aside.
It was dark, really dark. There were six tables, two of which had little electric candles with bulbs like you'd get in a flashlight, except giving off 4 percent of the light. A small human in a gold satin coat bowed at me, or maybe that was his default posture -- he was older than the shoguns. He led me to the table where Jack huddled, and I sat down. We were the only customers.
Jack said nothing. A woman in a kimono shuffled over at the speed of a mail-in rebate. She looked like a withered apricot. There were already two cups on the table. The woman poured hot water over the leaves with a steady hand, poked the leaves with some special stick and inched away.
Jack allowed the liquid to steep for as long as it took me to play "Tired of Waiting for You" in my head. He sipped. I sipped. It was tea.
The Dogphotoman finally spoke. "Here's what you do now."
"Yeah, well, I hope you're feeling tiptop too."
"Using the bimbo obviously worked. But you're still playing too many notes." I hadn't seen him at the beatnik show; he must've sneaked in when it was full. "Just lose the jazz."
"Mona likes jazz. I like jazz."
"I like knobjobs, but knobjobs don't pay my rent. You want a hobby, collect stamps. What did I tell you about simplicity? The Japanese understand simplicity." I looked around. It was so dark that I couldn't see the walls. It was simple, all right. "You've got songs. Use your songs."
"My songs are jazz."
"Take most of the notes out and they won't be jazz."
"They don't have words."
"Boo hoo, I don't have a handkerchief." Jack took a napkin off the table and stuck it in his breast pocket. "Oh, look. Now I have a handkerchief."
"I've never written lyrics."
"Do you know how to say 'Baby, I love you'?"
"Ask somebody who knows."
Since Jack was being so helpful, I decided to ask him about management. "Mona wants Dixie to help out with gigs and stuff."
The Dogphotoman shrugged and looked at me. I was getting sleepy, very sleepy. This tea was not working. Decaf? Bedtime Blend? That did not seem very traditional.
Perhaps it was impolite of me to drowse while having tea with Jack. I dreamed we were sitting in a rowboat on a dark lake, fishing. I felt a tug. The line played out for eight seconds before I realized it, then I started cranking the reel, and the rod bent toward the water. This was a lake fish, not a huge marlin or something like you'd get in the ocean, but it was fighting hard. It darted back and forth, went under the boat, but I kept reeling; pretty soon the fish's range diminished, and I had it alongside. Jack had been sitting like a yogi the whole time, but now he took a large scoop net, slid it under the fish and pulled the creature into the boat. It was big, and it didn't look like any fish I'd ever seen. It was thrashing and flapping, but it couldn't get out of the net. I told Jack I wanted to throw the fish back. He looked at me and held my gaze as he laid light hands on the fish's head and tail. It stopped struggling. Its jaw stopped working. Its gills stopped moving. I turned my whole attention toward the fish. I looked into the fish's eye. And the eye looked back at me.
When I woke up, I was alone in the tea room. I blinked, couldn't see much in the murk. But there was no check on the table, so I got up and said goodbye to nobody.
The sun had gone down; there was a break in the rain. My watch said I had been dozing three hours. Wha? I did not feel springtime-fresh. I should've been hungry, but my stomach was like a rusty gasoline can. Time for rehearsal anyway, no chance to dine.
At the parking garage, I owed the maximum. I emptied my wallet, raked every penny out of my car's console and still came up 34 cents short. The attendant snorted and opened the gate.
Off to practice, trailing a cloud of exhaust. One liquor store on the way took credit cards. I bought onion-jalapeño corn chips and a tall six of some acrid malt poison. Drank half a can in the car. Fuck the cops.
Eli, Angelo and Leonard were set up and scratching their armpits. Leonard chugged one of my cans and grabbed another one; Angelo sniffed and abstained; Eli fired up a roach. We didn't need Mona because we were gonna hammer on new material.
I plunged right into the Dogphotoman's philosophy. "What do you dickwads think about this? I got it out of a fortune cookie. We stop acting like righteous artists and transform ourselves into glorious pop musicians. Not fusion guys -- I mean regretless, prideless, bent-over-and-screwed-with-a-broom-handle corporate prostitutes." The dudes took this in. No one seemed offended. Howbout that.
Even Eli, Mr. Purity, barely pouted. "Motown session hacks were all moonlighting jazzbos. Nobody knew 'em in the '60s, now they're gods. 'Kind of Blue' -- Miles boiled down his shit in 1959 and didn't get called on it. Before that, he dumbed down bop into Cool Jazz. Booker T. knew what groove was for. Pop? It's a word. Musicians make music. Sometimes they make money."
It was a tirade by Eli's standards, and he was through. He sat back at the keyboard and started fingering "Time Is Tight."
Angelo looked as if he'd seen the Beatific Vision. "I know something good happen today. This morning I make big, big shit. Fill up the whole bowl, like chocolate gelato." He made an upward spiral with his finger and topped the swirl with a cherry. "I flush four times!"
Leonard wrinkled his nose. "No lie, wopdog. I whiffed that all the way down Crenshaw." He tilted his head back and slitted his eyes in my direction. "What down with you, Mr. Bill Overdue? You pass out next to a bean pod and wake up with brains? 'Bout time you see the 'vantages of bein' a house nigguh."
"And all the time I thought you liked picking cotton."
"I like cotton candy."
Leonard licked his lips and scanned the womanless room. "Hungry fo jelly."
"You got class, Leonard. Regular George Sanders."
"Listen to Colonel Sanders."
I gave up and struck a drillmaster pose. "Listen up, worms. Imagine you're even dumber than you are. Dumber than the dumbest ass-clown you know. Think about the bouncer at the Klip Klub." I paused. "All right, now cut that in half." Pause. "And cut THAT in half."
Leonard's tongue was hanging out of his mouth. Angelo imitated a toothpaste smile.
Eli went behind his drum cases, came back with an electric guitar strapped over his shoulder, plugged it in and started picking da-da-da-da two-string eighth notes, a faraway look in his eyes. Leonard stomped his kick drum on the one and the three beats, slammed his snare on the two and the four. Angelo plucked one bass bomb per measure.
They sounded good. Because, you know, they were good. Simplicity is not simple. The timing and feel need to be unconscious, like breathing. You can't be trying. The instrument has to be part of your body. Gotta play a long time to get in that space. Or so I kept telling myself.
We worked at making the old smart material new and stupid. It was a minor emotional challenge for me to stick my grownup babies back in the nursery. But I didn't waste time crying.
When I hit Mona's place after rehearsal, she was half-wearing the pink bathrobe, making a nice dent in the couch, thumbing a paperback called "Rangerider." On the cover, a hunky stable boy was squeezing the unreluctant mistress of the ranch while a thoroughbred looked on jealously.
I asked Mona to read me a good part. She flicked back a few pages and enunciated like a schoolteacher. "'I'm through muckin' out the stall, Mrs. Brookridge,' said Drew, leaning on a shovel. 'Will that be all for the day? When you got off that horse just now, I had the feelin' you wasn't done ridin' just yet.' Clara twisted the gloves in her hands as he came closer. She smelled the fresh sweat on Drew's work shirt, and became uncomfortably conscious of the moisture that bedewed her own breeches. 'I'm quite finished,' said Clara. But her eyes held Drew's a second too long."
Mona read it straight, no smirks. I sat down next to her. The bathrobe was all she had on, and I was getting my own barnyard impulses. "Now I see why you read that shit." My hand was like a dog, with a nose of its own. It got loose and went hunting.
Besides "Rangerider," Mona had about a hundred pulp throbbers piled around her bedroom: "Buccaneer Blade," "Heart of the Manor," "Mistress of the Sky," you get the idea.
I gave her an assignment: Mark 20 "good" selections from the books. Took her a couple of hours. I semi-plagiarized some phrases, slammed rhymes into 'em, and stomped them into the newly simplified melodies of what used to be my jazz tunes. Hardly hurt at all! I had five lyrics in a week.
Possibly you imagine that the songs were total garbage. Not total. And the funny thing was, when Mona sang them, they didn't sound like garbage. They sounded like her.
The band rehearsed most every night -- had to. To capitalize on our fresh publicity, Dixie had gotten us tacked onto a bill in a Sunset Strip nightspot just three weeks after the Beatnik Barf affair. The Doors and Love had played some incarnation of the venue in the '60s; now it was called the Staircase, because it had stairs. Not exactly a stairway to heaven -- no, the steps went down down down, to a vault with a vibe like a meat locker.
After what I said about downtown Los Angeles, you're gonna think I'm negative, but I can't stand the Sunset Strip either. The whole district must've been built on an Indian graveyard; no matter how much I drink, I can never shake the feeling of a cold hand tightening around my heart. Kids charge down the sidewalks, sort of excited but more nervous, as if they know they're on this historic glamor track but can't figure out why they're not having fun. The fact that parking attendants just ripped half their bankroll from their mitts could be part of it. The knowledge that they're about to be squashed into a sheep pen could be another part. And yet another part could be the empty slouch of the ghouls who hold the clipboards at the doors. But mainly, especially at night, the Strip just feels evil.
Dixie said we needed to meet the guy who booked the Staircase before the show. Oh good. Dixie and Mona and I went down the stairs, then up some stairs, then through a hall so narrow I had to walk sideways.
The walls of Arthur's office had posters of bands I'd never heard of; they served to cover some of the cracks in the plaster. The room was just big enough for a desk, Arthur's chair, and another chair with a torn vinyl seat, which Arthur offered to Mona. Arthur's mouth smiled; his eyes did not. He had curly hair and a stubble that resisted shaving. He wasn't old, but he already looked disappointed.
Dixie turned on the sparkle. "Thanks for the gig, Arthur, I mean it! You're a sugar bear for squeezing us in." She backed up her tooth service with coin of the realm, dumping and chopping a vial of cocaine on the desk's glass top. Arthur whiffed up half of it and flicked a wrist at Dixie and Mona, who each took a polite hit. I stood there trying a grin. It probably looked more like a sneer.
When Arthur saw I wasn't into winter sports, he plowed the rest of the drift without complaint. "There's a big buzz on you guys." The pun was not intended. He spaced his hands 27 inches apart. "Big, big buzz. It's my pleasure to have you." He pretended to look at Mona's eyes. "I haven't caught you on the scene before. I would have remembered."
Mona scrunched up her face with appropriate delight. "My god, I'm so excited to be singing here! All my friends think I'm a huge star now!" She giggled. "You'll be glad you gave us a chance, Arthur."
"I'm already glad. Thanks for stopping in." He clasped Dixie's hand, kissed Mona on the cheek and ignored me. "We'll party later, okay?" I knew what that meant.
The giant favor Arthur bestowed was to let us open a Friday night for five other bands -- 7 o'clock set. Normally this would have ended up being a private concert for the sound man, but Dixie had an angle. She knew that journalists and record-company creeps, not to mention human beings, like to cut loose Friday after work. In addition to the venerable Open Guest List, she invited key players to enjoy libations on her tab, and since there wouldn't be time for dinner, they'd be fully tanked when we hit the stage.
Everybody far and wide also figured Becca Bershovsky might show, a speculation Dixie made no effort to discourage. In fact, she costumed one of her little girlfriends in a tight black shift and a beret with a veil (you ever see a beret with a veil?), and marched her up the backstage stairs right before set time, in full view of the mob.
It turned out to be a mob indeed, tottering and slobbering; no question, the Staircase had never served that many clients before sundown. They got their first payoff in the first 10 seconds when Mona, packed into a tight red gown with a canyon of decolletage, bent forward to set her Tom Collins on the floor next to the mike stand.
There was some music, too. We were granted 20 minutes, which, contrary to musicianly grousing, is the perfect amount of time to watch a band you don't know. We played like a pop machine; Eli's guitar had four strings he never used, and I didn't disturb the dust on my sax keys much, either. The five originals had as many hooks as a fisherman's hat, if I do say so myself. Without a twitch or a blush, Mona crooned lines like "Put down your tool and go to work on me." For the Bershovsky fans, Eli switched to keyboard and we closed with "The Man I Love."
The crowd howled like football hooligans. Even the industry types, who normally stand like suits of armor, were clapping and nodding. The noise didn't relent until Mona, in lieu of more pop songs we didn't have in our repertoire, came out and bowed deep-deeper-deepest. Which was all they wanted anyway.
Backstage, Mona powdered her nose like Bette Davis and said she was gonna stroll back and thank Arthur for booking us. I huddled in a corner, scarfing antacids; her announcement did nothing to settle my gut. I made a face. Mona just smiled and marched out.
I kept looking at my watch. Hmm-dee-hmm. Mona swayed back after half an hour, when we were loading Leonard's drums into his disreputable 1975 Lincoln Continental. She was clutching her arms in her vintage black velvet jacket, and she was sniffling. But cheerful.
One thing I knew: Mona could take care of herself. I didn't ask questions. Her red nose -- well, Arthur was the kind of guy who might accept alternate tender in exchange for preferred considerations. Business.
The next few days were a splatter painting. If I dreaded the phone before, now I couldn't even look at it; I just gobbled sleeping pills and let Dixie absorb the love. Word of mouth on the band kept stampeding; 16 feebs were claiming they'd gotten wasted at the Staircase with Becca Bershovsky, who of course had been present only in, er, spirit. Dixie said big-bucks offers from several mega-labels would be landing on us in two seconds.
Mona didn't care. Because the night after the Staircase gig, her dog disappeared. Usually when Mona did her Saturday-night waitressing shift, she left Frannie in her apartment building's little yard, and asked the downstairs neighbor couple to watch the mutt. Terry and Charlie were as solid as marble cupids, and they adored the dog.
So Terry was wringing his lotioned hands when Mona got home. Where was the dog? Charlie was out looking for her; she'd been tethered in back by the big porch, same as always, the gate latched but not locked. At sunset, Terry had gone out to bring Frannie in -- rope slack, dog gone.
Mona barged in my door at midnight, shook me off the couch and put me to work. She had dug up a picture of Frannie to put on a lost-dog flyer; we drove to an all-night copy place and printed up a hundred.
No sleuthing we could do in the dark, so I sat up with Mona till morning. I wasn't exactly lounging, but damn, she was tense -- arms folded, head turned, hardly saying a word. I don't think she'd have been that twisted if the missing party was me.
I elected not to make things worse by telling Mona about the news story I'd read a week before: A lot of dogs had disappeared, something like 50 in the last month. Not just high-priced exotics, either -- every breed and size. Whites blamed Mexican Santeria rites. Mexicans blamed the Chupacabra monster. Blacks blamed Korean barbecues. Koreans blamed black pitmasters. There were no leads.
As soon as it got light, we charged out to staple flyers all around the neighborhood, and left Charlie to call the animal shelters. We hit on citizens walking dogs. We harassed gardeners -- "¿Como está, señor? Mi perro es partido. "Your dog is generous? Oh, you mean perdido." If we saw signs of life in a house, we pounded on the door. I was sure every firearm within a mile was getting pulled out of the closet and pointed at our unwelcome heads.
We divided the labor: Bill puts up flyers, Mona does the facework. It had to be that way: Nobody would open the door for me, which kind of hurt my feelings.
The sun was losing its battle with gathering clouds by the time we got to the little Craftsman house with the sign advertising psychic readings. I watched from the sidewalk as Mona rapped on the screen door. A 50-year-old Armenian woman with bank-teller hair opened, tugging at a purple sweater with sparkly appliqués. About to meet sis for lunch, maybe.
Mona gave her the worried smile. "Hello . . ." -- she glanced at the sign -- "Madame Clara. I'm trying . . ."
"I know what you want. Come in."
Mona waved a hand in my direction. "My friend . . ." Madame Clara scowled and beckoned me in too. Her living room was like any other living room, but less. There was almost nothing in it -- no pictures, no flowers, certainly no weird gypsy props. A television was babbling out the Armenian news; she didn't turn it off. She put us on a fraying couch and sat on the edge of a plush chair on the other side of an ugly '60s moderne coffee table.
She had a Russian accent. "I am sodry about your dock."
"You know about Frannie. Have you seen her?"
"Do you know where she is?"
"I do not see her now."
"Give me your hand." Mona stuck it out. Madame Clara leaned over, squeezed the hand, glanced at the palm and let go. "You are liked. You will do well. But you choose bad companions. You must make new friends." She didn't look at me.
"What about my dog?"
"I do not see the dock." Madame Clara got up. We got up. Madame Clara waited. Mona opened her purse, took out her last 40 dollars and handed it over. Madame Clara nodded. We left.
I was not thrilled by either the fortune or the extortion. "Why did you pay the bitch?"
"Oh. You know."
"No, I don't."
"Witches. You have to stay on their good side."
"What makes you think she's a witch?"
"Couldn't you feel it?"
Mona walked homeward with her eyes down. She wasn't going to knock on any more doors. A flock of black birds flew over and settled on a wire. Gusts shook the trees, and a few big drops began to fall.
After the dog search, Mona said she needed to be alone. Fine with me; I was tired of humanity. She dropped onto her bed like a sack of sand. I grabbed her umbrella -- pink with Japanese cartoons -- and trudged into the flood looking for the Dogphotoman.
I told myself Jack's canine expertise might be of value in the hunt for Frannie. Sheer masochism on my part, because he always made me feel like a busboy, but I never stopped wanting to ask him for advice. I mean, he >>had>> been right about everything. So I drove to the dog park on my bald tires in the rain. As I got out and popped open the pink umbrella, he was just stepping off the grass under his black one. What luck.
"Jack. Hey. You want a ride somewhere?"
"No." He walked.
I followed. "Where are you going?"
"Can I talk to you?"
Jack waved a hand at the rainy sky and kept striding. "When I get there."
"Sure you don't want a lift?"
He answered without looking back at me. "Don't you like walking in the rain? And wishing on the stars up above?"
We walked eastward for 20 minutes without saying anything. My sneakers flapped and my socks squished; Jack had rubber boots. I thought Jack had been joking about the church thing, but when we got to Franklin and Highland he went straight up the steps of a huge gray Gothic structure and opened the door. I didn't think churches left their doors unlocked anymore.
It was empty. Stained-glass windows let in faint light. Gloom outside, gloom inside. Jack dropped his umbrella without bothering to collapse it, and climbed up some rear steps to the choir loft. I tucked the pink umbrella under my arm and went after him.
Jack looked at me as if he hadn't noticed I'd been trailing him. Like, oh well. Then he beckoned me to the back of the loft and pointed at the south wall. "What do you think that is?"
I could see an area of vertical reddish streaks. Even though they didn't seem deliberate, they formed an unmistakable shape. "Huh. Looks like Jesus on the cross."
"You're a moron. It's rust." Jack sat down in a pew and talked way too loud, the words echoing. He gestured at the vaulted ceiling. "What do you think is the construction material?"
"Blind as well as deaf. This is America. It's concrete, like a sports stadium. It leaks like a bastard. The rebar inside the cement rusts, and when there's rain, rusty water drips out."
Jack lay down in the pew and relaxed his wet galoshes on the old butt-worn wood. "Eighty years ago, when they were digging the foundations of this church, they ran into a subterranean spring. Some Indians heard about the construction and went on the war path. They said that for hundreds of years this ground had been sacred, the home of the spirit who brings us the water of life. And you know what the priests did?" Jack sat up and chortled. "They diverted the spring! Diverted it away from the church, and filled up the cavity with a million tons of concrete!" He cackled and wheezed. I thought somebody would show up to shush him.
I dared to change the subject, told him about Mona's missing dog.
He shrugged. "The dog's dead."
"What makes you think that?"
"The bimbo liked the dog, right? Had it for a while? If it was alive, it would have come back."
"Then why didn't we find the body? We looked all over."
"People see a dead dog, they call the city, they don't leave it lying around. They think it's bad luck." Jack looked around the church and snickered again.
"Maybe it was stolen."
Jack snorted. "Oh, then it was a rare Tibetan mastiff?"
"Okay, no. Anyway, I don't know what to do about Mona. She's wrecked over this."
"Have her work it off." Jack leered. "By . . . singing. Everybody loves a sob story, especially when there's pussy involved. And good gosh, this presents an opportunity for her to wear mourning onstage. It'll appeal to her fashion sense. The rest of you can wear black too. Suggest it. She'll think you're the sweetest thing since the Good Ship Lollipop."
"Well, yeah, the band should be working. I don't want to take a break right now. A lot of people are coming to our shows, and we're getting good reviews."
Jack gave a sympathetic frown. "Favorable notices? That's too bad. Don't worry, though, people have short memories; they won't hold it against you for long. And the writers will stop being nice as soon as you start to be worth a shit."
Jack got up, stretched and headed down the stairs. When we were in the narthex about to leave, he noticed a cast-iron heating vent in the wall at floor level. He dropped his umbrella, unzipped his pants and proceeded to urinate into the vent.
Oh no. I choked and hissed at the Dogphotoman. But what was I supposed to do, grab his dick? He finished and had just zipped up when I heard steps; a pasty-faced middle-aged gent in a minister's black pants, black shirt and clerical collar drifted around the corner out of the sanctuary.
The man seemed apprehensive. He looked at my pink umbrella, then he looked at Jack. "May I help you?" His voice was weak.
As Jack shouldered out the big door, he gave the minister an angelic smile and bowed just a kink. "Thank you, Reverend. You've already helped me."
"Do you think we should pray for dogs?" That was the first thing Mona said to me when she dragged into our next rehearsal.
It'd been, like, two days, but I hardly recognized her. I now saw it was possible for her not to smile. Her eyes looked at my knees. She'd re-dyed her hair -- the 'fro was still orange, but there were splotches of purple in it, which actually muted the trash effect.
I winced at the dog question. "I guess. Why not pray for dogs? I mean, if you're gonna pray for anybody."
"My mama prayed for her dog Missy. Missy was sick for a year before she died, and Mama got to take care of her and tell her she loved her and say goodbye to her."
"That's . . . good."
"I don't know what to do."
"Maybe Frannie will come back."
Mona looked at the floor and moved her head a negative millimeter.
I pumped myself up for the transition. "Maybe . . . maybe we should wear black for a while."
Mona's eyes snapped up and bored into mine. "Who told you that?" I fell back a step. "Did you see . . . Jack? Did Jack tell you that?"
I lied. "No. No. I just thought of it."
Angelo accidentally saved me. While we were talking, he had lugged in his bass case and flicked open its locks. He looked weak. His shoulders were like a wire hanger for his Italian jacket. But his eyebrows were up; he'd been listening.
"Wear the black, that is good idea." He always wore black. "I have shit one hour ago, and right away I think it mean something bad. It is sticky and black, black like tar, like the first shit of a baby. But now I see what it means. It means . . . We all wear black!" He moved over to Mona and put his hand on her ass. "I am sorry about Frannie. She is good dog."
Mona clenched her jaw. Angelo removed his hand.
Eli had been listening too; he saw us looking at him. He hesitated, then shrugged. "Black."
Leon, of course, had to be a pain. "I don't need to wear no black. I am black. Ain't nobody can see me back here regardless."
I flung my arms out to measure his width. "Can't see you? How could they miss you?"
"They be too busy gettin' a eyeful of the mammaries. Nobody give the drummer his due."
"The poor African-American, always in the back of the bus."
Leon threw a stick at me. "In the back till he come up front and put his foot up yo crack. I can't afford no new clothes. Where all this bread sposed to be comin' down on us?"
Mona crossed her arms. "I'll take care of the clothes."
She did, too. Angelo's wardrobe already had the goods for him, but Mona hit some thrift stores the next day and got dead-man suits for Leon, Eli and me. Didn't even measure us, but when she handed out the black rags at our next rehearsal, the fit was damn close. Eli changed in the bathroom. I changed behind an amp.
Leon dropped trou in the middle of the room and tried on his suit; Mona ignored him. He straightened up and shook the shoulders into place. "All right, now we dressed. Who we gonna kill?"
Mona tilted her head, made a few notes on a pad. She took the suits back from us, and before the next practice she had altered them on her own sewing machine. She also brought us each a red T-shirt. She said the whole rack cost her as much as a new brassiere.
"Don't got to wear none for me," Leon said. "And keep track of the charges. I pay you back in love."
Our next gig was a "secret" show. Dixie's idea again; the weaslet was developing her natural gift for indirection. She knew a chick named Flora, a greeter in a funeral parlor, who said the big cemetery chapel never got used on Mondays. We were gonna use the hell out of it.
It had to be a sneaky thing. Flora opened up the cemetery gates after sundown; we wheeled in our gear and four cases of my favorite plain-wrap bourbon. We charged 10 bucks. Completely illegal.
Everybody loves a secret, and sure enough, everybody was there -- suits, sluts, slobs, bozos whose entire identity depended on knowing where the hot party was. Must have been half a thousand enjoying one another's exclusive company.
We kept the lights low and warmed up the room by spinning Billie Holiday's "Lady in Satin" album, a weirdly beautiful mess with a ton of strings and Lady Day croaking out standards like "You've Changed" in this ravaged voice that can't help but make you feel the chill of death. And damned if she didn't get herself laid out in satin five months after she waxed the thing. Mona's idea to play it, and she didn't tell the audience why.
When I took in the size of the crowd and how fast they were going through the booze, I knew we didn't have long before the cops invited themselves. So I prodded the band onto the little stage and cranked it up.
Or cranked it down. We didn't play any up numbers, and we took about a third of the tempo off our other tunes.
Mona's performance terrified me. Squeezed into a black satin dress, moving her body almost not at all, she wrung my lyrics for meanings I'd never thought of. For a closer, we had worked up Bob Marley's "She's Gone," but slowed it down into a torch ballad -- no reggae bounce, just pure agony. As I stepped back from my sax solo, I looked over at Mona; tears were pouring down all the way into her decolletage. Then I looked out in the audience. And most of those drunk motherfuckers were crying too.
We ended the song, and people started moving toward the stage. Quietly. Then they started climbing up on the stage. Uh-oh. I tried to wave them away, but up they came, more and more. Leon edged out from behind the drums, holding a cymbal stand like a bayonet.
But he didn't have to do anything. Nobody even touched Mona, who had backed up against the kick drum; the people just formed a semicircle around her and sat down on the boards. The rest of the crowd who couldn't fit on the stage stood and watched. There were a couple of minutes where nothing happened. Then Mona said "Thank you," walked past the drums, parted the back curtain and left.
The crowd left, too. The cops had arrived by then -- morons had parked in citizens' driveways, and the late activity at the cemetery had raised alarms. But the gendarmes had never seen such a peaceable throng of lawbreakers. The partiers just filed out, got in their cars and split. Dixie told Sergeant Pooper there had been a "special service," and who knows why, he bought it. We didn't even get a citation.
Flora, the mortuary greeter, got fired, though. When I called to convey our sympathies, she wasn't as upset as I thought.
"No sweat, Bill. I saw the show -- it was worth it. And hey. Do you think I wanted to stay in that hole forever?"
With all the hurl between Leon and me, a casual observer might have thunk we had a blood feud. Naw. Anyone who spent a minute and half around us knew he was my best friend.
I'd met him years before, at Tricky Rick's birthday party. The birthday boy had a lot of music and no sense; he let all comers rifle his racks. His collection, therefore, stayed seriously uncollected.
Dawn loomed, so Rick tabbed me to yank the Motown standards out of their inevitable party rotation and select some ammunition that would blow the lategoers outa there. As I was flicking through the shelves, I got that prickle on my spine and turned to catch a big black dude glaring at me from the couch. Oh, one of those lurkers -- the Arbiter, on guard to enforce the code when some ofay moron busts up the groove.
Pissed me off. Time to send this stooge to school. I ran across some Coltrane. "Giant Steps"? Too listenable. "A Love Supreme"? Too peaceable. I put on "Vigil," from Trane's mid-'60s period of extreme outness. It's a sax-drums duet with Elvin Jones where they're just blasting for 10 minutes, like a nonstop heads-down boxing match where every punch, every step, every grunt makes rhythmic sense. The pinnacle of both musicians' genius, in my opinion, but to most civilians it's just noise.
Score one for my spotting instincts -- Leon closed on me like a grizzly. He grabbed my arm in a death grip, and I began to think I'd made a mistake provoking him. He spun me around . . . and sat me down next to him.
"Motherfucker!" He was practically spitting in my face. "That Elvin Jones was the baddest mother that ever slammed a skin! You hear that?" He began slapping along on his thighs and making cymbal noises between his teeth. "Whappa-de-boppa-de chang-chang-chang!" He went on like that for the whole track; my contribution to the conversation consisted of nods and eye pops. When "Vigil" was over, Leon jumped up and put on "Transition," which is more of the same except with the whole Coltrane quartet, recorded in something like the same month of 1965.
For the purpose of sweeping out the late-night lingerers, the non-pop strategy worked like a new broom. Rick's problem then became getting rid of Leon and me. Leon amplified his dissertation on great drumming while pulling examples from Rick's collection: Art Blakey with Thelonious Monk, Al Jackson with Al Green, Charlie Watts with the Stones. Rick eventually shrugged into his bedroom and shut the door.
After that party, Leon and I started hanging out and spinning discs all the time; obviously we had to start a jazz band. As much as he always griped, I trusted his opinions on music. And maybe he was an acquired taste, but he was a born entertainer and a man of little bullshit. Now that I think about it, he was about the only human I could really relax around.
That was why I crashed his lair the night after the cemetery gig. My nerves were poking at me so I couldn't sleep; my gut was like a cement mixer full of gravel and acid. And I knew that anytime the sun was down, Leon would be up.
He lived in a formerly modern box apartment building off Crenshaw Boulevard not too far south of Wilshire. From there, he could hit the blues and funk gigs of South-Central and still not be faced with a huge haul for rock or jazz shows in Hollywood or Santa Monica. He swore he wouldn't trek to the northern valleys unless he had money in hand, but that was a front -- he'd show up all right, play like shit and act like an asshole.
I removed from my vehicle anything I didn't want stolen, and puttered down. Driving a junker had its advantages; the thing would probably still be parked on Leon's crime-time street when I came back. Hint: If you have an oil leak, don't fix it; when your stereo's stolen, don't replace it; when the dirt cakes, don't wash it. That's how you keep your car in Los Angeles.
It was after 2. I rapped lightly on Leon's door so as not to rouse the neighbors, who were people you did not want to rouse. No answer. The outer door was an iron security job; every place down here had one, for a nice aesthetic match with the bars on the windows. I turned the handle, and it wasn't locked -- Leon made a point of never bothering, just daring anyone to fuck with him, which they didn't.
I went in the warped wooden door, also unlocked behind the iron screen, and looked around. Lamp burning but no Leon, just his usual trash heap of pizza boxes, dirty socks, jazz recordings and porn. The place was not vast. The empty kitchenette, grimy as an auto garage, was in plain sight; the door to the mildewy bathroom was open with the light on.
"Hey. Leon." The bedroom door stood mostly closed. I pushed it open.
Leon was naked. Not unusual. Less typical was the condition of the bed he sat on -- blanket folded on the floor, sheets and pillowcases pulled neat and tight. Leon leaned against the wall, eyes closed; his palms rested on his huge thighs; his legs were crossed. He looked like a goddamn buddha.
I said, "Dude, I am fucking impressed. I didn't know you could cross your legs. What are you meditating on, the perfect booty of the seventh vyahrti?"
No answer. Then I saw the bedstand and the works on it -- the hype, the blackened spoon, the lighter, the necktie. No.
I spanned ten feet in one bound and grabbed Leon's arm. His skin was cold, cold. I slapped his face. He did not move. He was not breathing.
I jumped back again and just stood there, shaking so hard that I almost fell down. Leon's face looked so calm, so impassive, so unlike him. But it was Leon's face, and it brought back all the memories -- the jerkwater jam sessions, the mock fights, the bad movies, the long nights, the stupid jokes.
The face I saw got blurry, and I realized that tears were gushing out of my eyes like beer from one of those cans he used to shake up when I wasn't looking. And what was that weird wheezing sound? Oh, it was me, sobbing. I felt as if I should say something to Leon, but my head was spinning, and my throat was all knotted up, and the language bank had nothing in it, and all I could do was choke out one word.
"D . . . d . . . drummer."
Mona didn't say anything when I told her Leon had died. She didn't say anything because she couldn't. She stepped back and turned white; her lips moved, but nothing came out.
Her voice stayed gone for days. When she wanted to say something, she wrote it in neat lowercase letters on a little notepad bordered with cheerful daisies. After I told her as much as I knew, the first thing she wrote was "Why?" I got to wishing that useless word had never been invented.
Dixie had set up an appointment with a big-deal manager, which happened to fall, like, now. Fantastic: He could unveil his grand plans for a dead drummer and a singer without a voice. The guy's name was Robert Bryce; he was about to take off for three months in Europe, so it was now or much later. Meanwhile, the coroner would need Leon's body for weeks of investigation, so there couldn't be a funeral. Eli and Angelo said we might as well slump ahead with the meeting. When I asked Mona, she didn't write anything, just looked at me with a "whatever you think" expression. What did I think? I thought doing the meeting was better than doing nothing.
I taxied my classic compact around town and picked up my remnant -- long-legged Eli in front, elfboy Angelo enjoying the squash between Mona and Dixie in back. Lucky the meeting wasn't in the Valley; my wreck never would've squeaked over the Cahuenga Pass with that kind of load.
It was still raining, the most skywater in 80 years according to the weather creep. My window defogger struggled as we drove in miserable silence to the glass towers of Century City and parked underneath between a Mercedes and a Lexus.
I don't know if there's an ideal design for a professional's waiting room -- they all make me feel like a bug, which must be the general idea. Robert Bryce's lobby was done in quiet tones of mauve; a modern abstract hung on one wall. The receptionist took us into a bare conference room that would have commanded an impressive view of the Santa Monica Mountains when the sun was out, and brought in a tray of bottled waters. I took one and used it to wash down some antacids.
Bryce was one of those small, trim, enthusiastic suits who can't stop smiling; I bet he smiled in his sleep. I hated him immediately. I looked around the table: Eli hated him. Angelo loved him. Dixie rolled her eyes but gave a half-wink, like, "Hear the guy out." Mona's eyes were hidden behind sunglasses so the crying redness wouldn't show. She just sat with hands folded in her lap.
Bryce managed not to smile for five seconds while he offered his condolences. "I'm very sorry about Mr. Heywood."
Angelo said, "Who?" I said, "Leon."
Bryce continued. "I understand he was a very remarkable person, and a fine musician." If Leon had been there, he would've started scratching his balls right about then. "Of course Leon can't be replaced. Still, since you're here, I imagine you're thinking of moving forward with your music, and I want to encourage you in that. I've got to tell you, my friends have been coming to me about you, reporting the kinds of things I haven't heard in my whole career, and I've been doing this a long time."
He had; his client list looked like the cast of a music awards show. He scanned the table to check our reaction. He got little except from Angelo, who was squirming with delight.
"I'm just going to toss this idea out there. I have a client named Mo Than Zero." Bryce might as well have said "Elvis Presley"; MTZ was that big. "We're about to announce that Mo is taking a two-year hiatus to spend time with his family. His drummer, Rollo Childress, is interested in working with you." Childress had been on the cover of drumming magazines constantly for as long as I could remember; he brought a funky feel to pop, and he jammed with jazz heavyweights in his spare time. Chops from here to Singapore, and a cool dude on top of it. I considered him a god, and Leon had owned two of his instructional videos.
Now Bryce was getting some reactions. My mouth was hanging open. Eli looked as if he'd just won a lottery he hadn't even entered. Dixie was trying like hell not to act smug.
Bryce picked up. "It goes without saying that I would consider it a privilege if you would sign with me." He was looking straight at Mona, who hadn't moved. "But regardless, it would be my pleasure to introduce you to Rollo." He shook his head with self-amusement. "He's quite a guy, and I think you'd have a lot of fun working with him. This is the part of my job I enjoy the most -- putting talented people together."
A secretary slipped in with a stack of documents and passed them around. Bryce explained. "If you're interested in the management thing, take a look at these. Take your time, and be sure to show them to a lawyer. It's just a starting point. A contract draft might seem scary, but the whole point is what >you> want -- it's a way of clarifying what it is you're trying to do." He paused. "Kind of like the I-Ching, I think. An opening, not a closing. If there's something you feel needs to be addressed, just say, 'Hey, what about this?' People say a band is like a marriage, but I've always thought it should be more like a party -- you bring the chips, I'll bring the beer." Bryce kept smiling; he slouched back in his chair and flicked up his right hand. I tried to picture a beer in it.
A few minutes later, clutching contracts, we were packed with a crowd of suits in the downbound elevator. All of us were stunned and thinking. Except Angelo, who was talking.
"When I have the black tar shit, first I think it is bad." A woman lawyer edged away from him. "Then I think it is good, because of the black suits we start to wear. Then I think it is bad, because Leon dies. Now again I think it is good. The black is ink, like the ink on a contract. We must sign."
On the way home, Eli drove while I read the document. Normally reading on wheels makes me carsick, but given the state of my gut, it didn't make me any worse.
I'd seen a few of these things before. And I'd tried to slog through one of those music-industry self-help books. So I was practically an expert, ha. The contract language didn't intimidate me; it was English, more or less, just stiff as hell.
It would need a few revisions, all right. The agreement would tie us up for 10 years -- unless Bryce wanted to release us, which could happen anytime. He would pay us an allowance, and in return he'd get 40 percent of the gross. He would own most of the publishing. Dixie was down for a hefty cash buyout if she released us from any possible "oral agreement" we might have previously made. Those were the terms for Eli, Angelo, Dixie and me; our contracts were all pretty much the same.
When Mona and I got to her place after dropping off everybody else, she handed me her sheaf. It was thicker than the others, not even printed in the same typeface. I leaned back on the bed and leafed through the pages, skipping the boilerplate.
I zoomed in on the main action laid out on pages 13, 41 and 50. "Hey, Mona. I think you have a secret admirer."
I called a band meeting to discuss the devil's bargain; Mona didn't come. Mainly, she couldn't face the rest of us after the way Bryce had crowned her star diva; she looked up to us as musicians and thought she owed us everything. Sweet. But yeah, we knew Bryce had a point.
Eli and I convened at Angelo's apartment. It was in West Hollywood -- Angelo wasn't gay, he could just afford better digs because he had the computer gig, and a Sicilian uncle threw some lire his way as "U.S. rep" for some kind of import-export concern, if you know what I mean. I was on unemployment from my messenger job; Eli gave piano lessons. Typical musicians with bad teeth. Angelo also had the distinction of owning three chairs with four legs each. There were even two big framed photos on his wall: one of Stanley Clarke, the fusion guy from Return to Forever, and the other of Geddy Lee from Rush. Bass players. There are a few bass geeks around, but you'd have to travel some parsecs to find pictures of both those heroes in the same place. Italian music fans are crazy dedicated motherfuckers.
The flat was spotless and infuriatingly tidy, with photography magazines fanned on the coffee table. Wait, maybe Angelo was gay after all. I took off my shoes. Angelo didn't get the joke; he beamed and beckoned me to the best chair. Eli sat down and lit a cigarette. Angelo ran for an ashtray.
Angelo sat down, put his hands on his knees, leaned toward me and showed all his teeth. "So. We sign, yes?"
"Sure. But like the man said, we gotta make some adjustments." I bumbled on, the way I do, about the inequities of the contract language, the period of indentured servitude, and the desirability of subjecting gift horses to full medical examinations.
Eli grunted, nodded and dropped ash on the cream carpet. Angelo stopped smiling. He closed his eyes, crossed his legs, crossed them the other way, then put both feet on the ground. He planted his hands on the armrests, knit his brows, hunched over, wriggled. Finally he got up, excused himself and trotted to the bathroom.
I tried to keep explaining things to Eli, but it was hard to keep engaged because of the sounds coming from the can -- moans, curses, pleas to the Blessed Virgin.
When Angelo finally came out, his face was pale and covered with sweat. He was hugging himself tightly, and his eyes didn't meet ours. "You must come and see."
"You must see the shit."
"I don't want to see your shit, Angelo."
"It is important."
I sighed. "Priorities. First your shit, then the other shit."
Eli and I got up. Angelo moved beside the bathroom door. Eli and I went in, stood on each side of the toilet and looked down.
The water was clear. There was no toilet paper in it, just a single turd. No smell. I was almost glad Angelo had made us look at it, because this was a tourist attraction. Although it was identifiable as fecal matter, it had edges. Not quite sharp edges, but slightly blunted angles connecting eight or ten flat surfaces. It was four inches across, and it was perfectly black.
Angelo had excreted a hunk of volcanic crystal.
There was no point in continuing the general discussion. Angelo had worked himself into such a state that he could hardly move. Eli and I offered to stay with him, but he shooed us off, muttering that he had to think.
I didn't call Mona; I knew she had no voice to answer the phone, and anyway I didn't want to attempt explaining this. I dropped Eli off. When I got home, I grabbed a plastic jug of something evil off the kitchen counter and drank myself to sleep without using a glass.
I thought it was early when I heard the knocking on my door, but that was because it was raining and dark; my clock said 11:30 a.m. Clonk-clonk-clonk. I rolled off the couch, still in my clothes, and opened up.
Two cops in suits were standing there. I knew they were cops before the badges came out, because cops all buy their suits in the same place, and cops come in pairs. Also, they didn't have any holy books. One cop was tall; the one who did all the talking was taller.
I whisked my jug into the kitchen on the pretext of bringing out an extra chair, a rusty metal/vinyl thing with a torn seat patched with plastic tape. Detective Tall looked at it and remained standing. Detective Taller sat on my other chair. I tried to sit up straight on the couch. I thought about cleaning up the crap from the coffee table. Naw.
I said, "I guess you have more questions about Leon."
Taller said yes. "But first, I'd like to ask you about Eli Metzger."
"Mr. Metzger was in an automobile accident."
"What? He doesn't have a car. Is he all right? I dropped him off last night."
"What time was that?"
"Just before 10, I guess."
"And the location?"
"His place on Normal Avenue."
"And then where did you go?"
"When did you arrive here?"
"Ten minutes after I dropped Eli."
"Where did you go after that?"
"Has anyone been here with you?"
"No. I just woke up."
"Do you own a brown Toyota?"
"Does anyone else have keys to the vehicle?"
"No . . ."
"Do you know anyone who lives in Trancas Canyon or Malibu?"
"I know a guy who has a little place on the beach up there."
"What is his name, please?"
"Larry. Larry Holmes."
"His address and phone number?"
What? Why? Well, no sense in pissing off a cop for nothing. "I don't remember the address. It's just north of the big cross that's on the hill on the east side of PCH."
"So you don't need the address. How do you find it when you go there?"
I balked. "Well, he has a neon star in his window." It was a pentagram, actually. "Anyway, what's going on with Eli? Is he hurt?"
"Sir, the car he was driving went off the road and down a cliff in Trancas Canyon at about midnight last night." Taller looked me in the eye without moving his face. "I'm sorry to report that he did not survive the crash."
I looked to my left, then to my right, and leaned back into the couch. I did not want to hear this. I did not want to know this.
Taller took a photo out of a folder and laid it on top of some peanut shells on my coffee table. The shot looked as if it had been taken in the dark with a floodlight. There was some brush, and the trunk of a big tree. Eli was touching the base of the tree with his head, which was tilted to the side. His legs were extended away from the tree toward the camera, with one ankle crossed over the other. His arms were stretched straight out, perpendicular to his body. His eyes were closed.
Eli was gone. I was still here, but I wished I wasn't. My head hurt. My stomach hurt. I felt terribly, terribly alone.
As the cops were leaving my dump, Detective Tall cast an eye toward my elegantly veneered TV stand and plucked some band's flyer off a stack of music mags. The advertised gig was a month past. The flyer was adorned with rock art: a sweating pig in a policeman's cap, with a gun stuck in the pig's mouth. A balloon from the gun said, "Make me come, faggot."
Detective Tall said, "May I take this?" It was the first time he'd spoken; he had a high voice for a big guy. I didn't say anything. He took it and they got gone. For now.
I sat there trying to work out a plan. Dammit, I'd been too stunned and groggy to ask the right questions, like how the cops connected me to Eli, and how they knew what kind of car I had. Too late. I couldn't have doused their suspicions anyway. At least I was still free, but somebody needed to spread the bad news about Eli. Volunteers? The fly on the chicken bone failed to raise its hand.
Mona -- I had to deal with her in person. So I called Angelo first. No answer, not even a machine. Unusual.
I wished the drive to Mona's could have been longer. I felt as if everything I said to her lately had to be business or an obituary. Maybe this whole lost-voice deal was her excuse not to talk to me. Paranoia -- she didn't roll that way.
I cursed the Dogphotoman for ever suggesting I put Mona in the band. Hey, I knew what that did to relationships, and now I was reaping the shitstorm. She wasn't just Mona anymore, she had become all that stood between me and eight hours a day hunched over the wheel of a delivery car next to a box of soap-opera scripts. Without her, the industry bigfoots wouldn't bother to wipe their Italian loafers on me. Fuck.
Mona was sitting on the couch, smoking a cigarette. Never saw her do that before. No makeup, no lipstick. Her Afro was yanked back in a hairband, and the pink bathrobe barely covered her. She was a goddess. I fell in love with her all over again.
From her expression, I realized I must look like hell. "Mona. Goddamn it. There's more." I sat next to her. "Cops just left my place. They told me . . ." I was choking. "They told me that there was a car accident. They told me that Eli's dead."
Mona jumped up. She tried to swallow. Her mouth opened, and a dry sound came out. "What? My god! What do you meeeeeaaan?" The previous death shock had paralyzed her vocal cords; this new hit had shaken them loose. "What is happening? What did I do wrong?" She burst into tears. "I want my dog!"
I tried to comfort Mona over Eli's crash, but she wouldn't stand still for it. She just turned in little circles, trying to talk and wring her hands and smoke at the same time. Nothing she said made any sense; she was just getting used to making sounds again.
Finally she looked at me. She was trembling. "I need to be alone, Bill." That hurt. It hurt more than the deaths, more than the fear, more than my tortured gut. I did not need to be alone.
Go. But where? Anywhere but Home Sweet Hole and the beatdown couch, the crappy television, the smell of spilled beer. So I made a semi-random choice and drove to the church -- that same church -- in the rain. I half wanted to see Jack, though I knew he wouldn't be around, and half wanted to see the minister, who was the only Man of God I'd encountered in about 20 years. Or how about the janitor? Or the homeless guy who hung around the parking lot? I was willing to listen to anybody without a badge.
The church's lot was closed; the nearest parking spot I could find was up the hill five blocks away. I walked, no umbrella, and got soaked in seconds.
As I passed a side street, a dog came ambling down the hill from my left. It was a big dog, big and black, with eyes a weird shade of almost red. I cringed at the sight of it. The hairs on the back of my neck tried to stand up, but they were too wet.
I walked on and looked back. The dog had followed me. I could see its red tongue hanging out, and the fog of breath from its panting mouth. Its head was low, and its steps were light and quick.
I sped up a little. Don't run, I thought, don't run. Did I hear a growl? In the rain, I couldn't be sure.
Have you ever been stalked? It makes time go slow; the three-minute walk felt like a half hour. The church waited just ahead around the corner.
I finally broke into a panic run, bounded up the stone steps and grabbed the handle on one of the three big oak doors. Ack! It didn't budge. I turned around. The dog was coming up the steps. I could see its teeth now. I jumped to the next door and pulled another handle. The door opened. I hopped through and yanked it behind me. Pneumatic hinge! It resisted; the gap got smaller oh so slowly as the dog tried to squeeze its head in, growling. I kicked at its head; it backed off just enough, its paw still sticking through the crack. The door closed on its hock. It yelped and pulled out.
If I hoped it would be warm inside, I was disappointed. The nave was nearly dark. I could hear the outside splash from the overflowing rain gutters; the cement interior amplified the sound of several substantial drips. Then I heard an echoing grunt. Then another grunt. They seemed to be coming from around the altar.
My feet squished in that direction, and I saw that there were stairs leading downward behind the altar. Another grunt proved that a basement was the source. I just stumbled on down.
A single dim bulb illuminated a narrow cement corridor with rusty metal racks along one side holding candles, altar cloths, old hymnals, whatever. The grunts were coming from the minister. He was standing in water almost to his knees and tugging at a large, carved wooden chest.
I said, "May I help you?" and the minister jerked around, dropping the end with a splash. He took in my matted hair and wet clothes, and I could see he was thinking about running. But there was nowhere to go, so he thought he'd better do his blessed-are-the-meek thing.
"Oh, thank you, sir. I happened to come down for some linen, and the place was flooded." He looked at me harder. Maybe he associated my face with the smell of urine. But he went ahead and threw himself on the mercy of God. "This trunk contains some vestments that are special to me." He smiled as well as he could. "They're not worth much, of course, and you'll think I'm an old woman for caring so much, but they were worn in Canterbury Cathedral at one time. I thought I might try to get this box up the stairs."
I was already as wet as I could get, so I ploshed in and gripped the brass handle on the back end of the chest, so I would be holding most of the weight, which was considerable -- water must have gotten in. The minister pulled, I pushed, and we dragged it up, a stair at a time. When we had settled it by the altar, he whisked through a door to the side, and a second later the area was brightly illuminated. He returned with a ring of keys.
"Thank you very much, sir."
I said, "You're welcome, Reverend," but I didn't go away. I'm curious. It's a fault. The minister hesitated, then stuck a key in the padlock, which didn't open till he jiggled it some. He pulled open the lid.
It looked bad. And it smelled bad. Large, fluffy spots of whitish mold were growing on the wet fabric, which looked black, but not black enough to be originally black. Red? Purple? Here and there I could see a spark of gold thread. The minister gently pulled at the edge of the top garment, and it flaked off in his hand. He moved away and slouched on the altar steps. I thought he was going to cry.
I said, "I'm sorry," and turned away. He didn't reply. I wasn't ready to head right out to black-dog territory, so I killed time by climbing up to the choir loft.
By the dim light filtering through the stained glass, I looked at the wall where the Dogphotoman had showed me the rust stain. The shape had kept the same general proportions, but it didn't look like Christ on the cross anymore. More rust had leaked through the cement, filling in the image's spaces and darkening the impression. I pulled back and squinted.
The form drew to a sharp angle at the bottom. A pair of points defined the top. Now I could see two spots that could have been eyes, and the whole thing came into focus.
Just when my flesh already felt as cold as a dead penguin, the temperature dropped 20 degrees. I couldn't deny that the crucifixion had become something else -- a six-foot face. The face seemed familiar, too. Looking at me. Snarling at me. It was the most horrible face in the world.
I spent the night with some ugly bastard I happened to see in my bathroom mirror after I pulled my face out of the toilet. Bad fucking company.
Angelo still wasn't answering his phone. Sleep wouldn't come, no matter how much I drank; the rain and the evil face had chilled me to the liver, and I couldn't warm up. Maybe I was sick. Maybe I couldn't tell the difference anymore.
I had just drifted off into a last-chance morning snore when the thudding on my door started. I thought I recognized the rhythm, and when I yanked the warped plywood away from the jamb, I got confirmation: It was Detective Tall and Detective Taller. They still looked serious. I wondered what they looked like when they were having fun.
"Mr. Flannery, we hope you will not mind coming to the precinct to answer some questions."
My eyes were half shut, and my jaw was out of joint. "Wha? Why? Why can't you do it here?"
"At this stage of the investigation, procedure requires a formal interview."
"I'll put on a gown." I was waking up now, pissed off and stupid. A bad combination.
I shrugged. "Let me take a leak."
"May we wait inside?"
"Okay. Sorry I don't have any doughnuts." I took my time in the can, splashing water on my face, mulling over the situation. Should I ask for a lawyer? Fuck no, I hadn't done anything.
We rode in one of those cars that's so unmarked that it might as well be marked. I sat fidgeting in the back seat. No cuffs, though, no screen.
The Hollywood station was blank and soulless, to match its occupants. We went in the back way. I had been through the front and the back before, and I preferred the front.
They put me at a table in the blankest of all blank rooms, and gave me a cup of bad coffee. There was nothing to look at except, on the floor, one of those little finger rubbers that they employ for, you know, cavity searches. Previously used, by the look of it. I sat by myself and waited. Then I waited some more, and followed that with more waiting. A spider crawled up the side of my styrofoam cup, fell into the coffee and died.
A door opened. A little balding Asian guy in a white shirt came in and sat across from me with a yellow notepad. He shook my hand and sort of smiled.
"I am Detective Chang. How are you today?"
"Not too great."
"May I ask you some questions?"
He pulled a voice recorder out of his baggy pants, set it on the table, flipped through the pad. "With your permission, I will record our conversation."
"No overdubs, okay?"
"You are a musician?"
"Some would say."
"Two of your band members have died recently, is that correct?"
"You found the body of Leon Heywood?"
"It was late. May I ask why you went to his apartment at that hour?"
"I go there all the time."
"Did he invite you?"
"He didn't invite me, and I didn't invite him. We'd just show up. We were friends."
"Do you know of any problems Mr. Heywood had with anyone?"
"He had problems with everyone. What's that got to do with anything? He OD'd."
"Did he use heroin frequently?"
"No. He'd chip a little."
"Did you use it with him?"
"Sometimes. Mostly we just drank and smoked pot."
"How did you ingest the heroin?"
"We snorted it."
"Do you know when he began injecting it?"
"He had no track marks."
"I can believe that."
"May I see your arms?"
I rolled up my sleeves.
"May I see your feet?"
Fucker. I didn't have to do that. But I hadn't changed my socks in a few days, and I thought he might enjoy the smell. He did. I put my damp Hush Puppies back on. I thought of Leon and smiled.
"Did you lend anyone your car two nights ago?"
"When you went to your car yesterday morning, was it where you had parked it the night before?"
"Yes. Why do you want to know?"
"An automobile matching its description was seen on Trancas Canyon Road the night Mr. Metzger had his automobile accident. A couple in another car were parked in a turnout, and they were frightened by an incident. They said it appeared that Mr. Metzger's car was racing with a brown Toyota."
"Eli didn't have a car."
"The Volkswagen he was driving was reported as stolen."
"Eli was no thief. Racing? A Volkswagen and a Toyota? Come on. And my car can hardly make it over a speed bump. That canyon road is steep."
"Where do you think Mr. Metzger was going?"
"I dunno. To see Larry Holmes, maybe."
"Had you visited that place with Mr. Metzger before?"
"Did you get along well with your bandmates?"
"What about Angelo Abruzzi?"
I was suddenly worried. "Is he all right?"
"Do you have a reason for asking?"
"It's just . . . my luck hasn't been so good lately."
"Are you friendly with him?"
"Of course. Why don't you ask him?"
"Mr. Abruzzi flew out of the country two nights ago."
First I was stunned, then I almost laughed. "You can't think Angelo had anything to do with all this. He wouldn't kill a silverfish."
"His plane left for Italy an hour before Mr. Metzger's accident."
That was fast. Angelo must have taken off like a shot as soon as Eli and I walked out his door. I hoped he'd flushed the toilet.
Chang was wheezing. He pulled an inhaler out of his pocket and took a hit. "The singer in your group is Ms. Mona Threadmore."
"She is also your girlfriend?"
"Have there been any group conflicts in regard to her?"
That question had Dixie's lipstick all over it. "No."
"So no other member of the group made advances toward Ms. Fellows?"
"No. I mean, not for real. There was a little hazing, that's all. You know, like a fraternity. She didn't have any problem with it."
"Did you have a problem with it?"
"Naw. Stupid guy stuff."
"Does Ms. Threadmore have a dog?"
"What happened to it?"
"I don't know."
"Are you familiar with the Sword of Christ Church on Highland?"
Oh, so they'd been following me. "I've been there."
"Why did you go there yesterday?"
"To admire the architecture." Dumb answer.
"Did you speak to the minister?"
"What did you say to him?"
"Not much. I helped him move a box."
"Did you intend to seek counseling from him?"
He thought I wanted to confess my sins. "No."
Chang's head was tilted down as if checking his list of questions, but his eyes were studying my face. "Do you know a bar called the William Tell Lounge?"
I wasn't expecting that one. I flinched and spilled the coffee on the table. The spider lay in it like a little mop. I looked around for something to clean up with.
Chang made no attempt to help. He was quiet. "Did you witness an altercation at the William Tell three months ago?"
Now I had to pause. Chang was sure to ask me about the Dogphotoman, and I needed to decide in a hurry what I was going to say. "I don't remember."
"You don't remember a man being pushed from his stool and striking his head on the floor? The barmaid has stated that a patron answering your description was sitting quite near him."
"Maybe I saw something." I found myself repeating what Jack had said: "Bums fall off barstools all the time."
"Other patrons say the man was pushed. They also say that you fled the scene."
Me? What about Jack? "I didn't flee, I had just finished my drink. I didn't see any reason to hang around. Did something happen to the bum . . . I mean the man who fell?"
"The gentleman has been in a coma. He died yesterday."
So let me sum up the police assessment. I had given Leon a hot shot because I thought something was going on between him and Mona. I had stolen Mona's dog to punish her for the same offense. I had run Eli off the road because . . . I dunno, because he had a deeper knowledge of Nicolas Slonimsky's chord thesaurus than I did? I had killed the bum in the bar just because I'm a hotheaded sonofabitch. Or because I enjoy talking to cops so much.
Their case added up to nada. They knew it, because if they had evidence, they would have turned the key. And I knew it, because I didn't do any of that shit.
But maybe Mona suspected me too. If Dixie was bending her ear, it would explain the recent chill. I needed to see Mona. To tell her I missed her. To tell her I loved her, no matter what.
I told Chang I was finished talking. He took another hit off his inhaler and shuffled out, leaving me with the spilled coffee. I sat there a long time, till I realized he wasn't coming back, then I went to the door. It was locked. I pounded on it.
"Excuse me! Officers! Let me out!" No answer. "You can't fucking keep me!" No answer. "I really need to piss, dammit!" No answer. "If I don't get out of here, I'm gonna have to use the floor!" No answer. "It's starting to feel like a number two, man!"
I waited. Screw it. I unzipped. The second before it was too late, an old cop unlocked the door and pointed to a bathroom down the hall. I limped in and did my business. When I came out, nobody was there -- apparently my presence was no longer required, thank me very much you're welcome. I peeked down a couple of corridors, eased out the back door, slid to the right past all the black-and-whites in the parking lot, turned right again and skipped out the driveway back onto Wilcox.
How long had I been in there? Christ, it was getting dark, and I had no car. The shortest way to Mona's place was no more than a couple of miles northeast into the hills, so I figured I'd take a stroll.
The stroll proved to be a bit of a problem, but I was glad I wasn't driving -- some kind of parade was creeping down Hollywood Boulevard, and traffic had backed up in all directions. Crowds -- every tourist and Mexican family in the county -- packed the Boulevard sidewalks for the free entertainment, and the cops weren't letting anyone cross the street. I tell ya, I don't love a parade. At least this one wasn't getting rained on.
I pushed my way west through arms and legs and shopping bags and baby strollers past the Chinese Theater, where the parade route ended. I fought back along Hollywood for a couple of blocks, then zigzagged north and east along the more lightly swarmed side streets. The detour, mostly uphill, tripled the distance to my destination. I realized I was trembling -- not from fear of the fuzz, oh no, but from no sleep, no food since the day before.
I trudged up Argyle, a pleasant Old Hollywood hill that turned into a hellhole of crime and noise at night, which had now fallen. The protectors and servers wouldn't go there after dark unless they were getting a bribe or a blowjob, and I wasn't offering either. I dragged along past gloomy courtyards, waved off a couple of drug dealers and cut over to the east at the top. A little bench I knew was hidden just off a side street, surrounded by trees and shrubs; I used to sit there with Mona and take in the view and the evening breeze. Not many places like that in the city.
The bench looked inviting. I was beat and panting. I sat down. I leaned over. I fell asleep. I dreamed.
In the dream, I went up a back stairway to Mona's apartment and let myself in -- I wanted to surprise her with something. She was on the couch reading a book; her pink robe could've used a trip to the Maytag. As I came in, she glanced up. She didn't look that glad to see me.
"Mona," I said, "I have a present for you." I reached into the paper bag I was carrying and pulled out a steel chain.
"What's that?" Her voice still sounded dry from disuse.
"I've been thinking. Maybe Frannie will come back to us. I hope she will. But I know you need a dog. I want to help you get one, and this leash is . . . it's my way of opening that up. Let's go to the animal shelter tomorrow and see what we can find." I wanted this connection. I meant it so much, I was almost crying.
Mona got up slowly and circled away. She said, "That's not a leash."
"What do you mean?"
"It's not a leash. It's a choke chain."
"A choke chain?"
"You don't put that around someone's neck. It hurts."
Her words stabbed my heart. I mumbled, "You know I wouldn't hurt anyone."
Mona said, "I'm tired. I'm going to sleep now." She turned, went into the bedroom and closed the door.
I stood there, moving the chain from one hand to the other. Talk about chains and hurt -- why would she talk to me that way? I could feel my face turning hot from shame, confusion, helpless love. I took a step toward the bedroom door. I took another step, and another. I put my fingers around the handle.
And that was the end of the dream.
I must have slept a long time; the sun was burning away the dew when I woke up on the bench, stiff as new canvas but not too cold. Maybe the rain had finally leaked its last.
My eyes cracked open, and I saw the bubbles. A lot of them, the size of tennis balls, were drifting around -- must have been some kid party nearby, though I didn't hear kid sounds. Right in front of me, twin joined bubbles eased down toward the tips of an agave plant and settled. I waited for them to pop, watching the sunlight on their surface. But they just stayed there, contrary to everything I knew about bubbles. I stood up and started walking.
I changed my mind about visiting Mona, who was not an early riser. A more pressing concern was Jack the Dogphotoman. Why hadn't Detective Chang dropped one word about him during my interrogation? It was plain as a pustule that the cops had followed me to the church a couple of days ago and pumped the minister afterward; they must have learned that Jack and I had made a substantial impression when we violated the sanctuary on our previous visit. It bugged me that although Jack had been the one who shoved the bum in the bar months ago, I was the sucker the barmaid had fingered. At least that was what the blue boys wanted me to think. But why wouldn't she have noticed Jack? Granted, I'm bigger, but with that mustache, suit and attitude, he doesn't exactly fade into the draperies.
As Detective Chang had crawled through his questions, slowly turning up the flame under me, he must have been waiting for me to shift the heat onto the Dogphotoman. I hated to disappoint Chang, but that was not my job. Whatever Jack's faults, he deserved to know he might be wanted for murder. I decided to drop in on him.
A pack of bloodhounds and a helicopter squadron couldn't have tracked me through the previous day's parade crowd and all those back streets; I was pretty sure I wasn't being tailed this time. But since I wanted to keep it that way, I couldn't go back to my apartment and my car. I walked the four blocks down the hill to Hollywood Boulevard to grab a bus.
Cleaning crews -- all black and brown dudes, in the tradition of L.A. city labor -- were still sweeping up the burger boxes and confetti from the parade route. I stood by the bus bench, trying to look cool. You can't look cool when you're waiting for a bus.
My wait wasn't long. When an eastbound slimeliner arrived, I dumped all my change into the till and made my way down the smelly aisle through the derelicts, maids and technical-school students. I felt right at home, but that didn't mean I felt good. It took two transfers and 1.3 hours admiring burrito stands and auto-parts stores through the wide-view windows to get within eight blocks of the Dogphotoman's bunker. I could've walked the five miles in the same amount of time, but I'd had enough walking.
Getting off the bus, I realized I was starved. I had no money left, but I thought my charge card wasn't maxed out, so I sidled into a gas station, scooped three Mounds bars from a tray and put them on the counter. The beat-down attendant pointed to a sign that said, "$10 minamun for creadit cards." I pulled a $7.99 Majik Multipurpose Tool off a prong on the wall and put that on the counter too. You can always use a screwdriver.
The Dogphotoman's bunker looked even more depressing in the daylight, when I could appreciate all its cinderblock bleakness. The padlock on the chain-link gate was gone. I swung the gate open and walked across the drying mud, gumming the last of the classic coconut goodness and wiping the chocolate off my fingers onto my T-shirt, which after all was already black. As I crumpled the wrapper and dropped it by the door, I saw that the big padlock was closed -- but it hung from the dangling hasp, which had been ripped from the frame. Maybe the cops had been there already.
I knocked on the door without expecting an answer -- sometimes you can just feel when nobody's home. The handle didn't resist. I went in and felt for the light switch, which was where it should be.
The big room was filled with nothing. No furniture. Empty walls. All the photo equipment gone. A burglary? Uh-uh, there would have been some kind of mess. An eviction?
I walked around, looking closer. Okay, there was something on one of the counters -- a neat stack of about a dozen small instant photographs. I gave them a quick look-through.
Dog photos, of course; I couldn't mistake Jack's stark, focused/unfocused style. Still, these had a different feel. I went through them again more slowly.
It looked as though Jack's control-freak side had taken over. The colors and lines of the backgrounds didn't seem natural. The framing was perfect -- too perfect. Jack's signature dog-eye placement was there all right. But the eyes were wrong, in a way I couldn't pinpoint.
I noticed something else while I was thumbing the pix: a smell. Actually, THE smell, the same one that had hit me the first time I was there. Only now, in the heat of the day, it was stronger and worse. I sniffed around the place. The smell didn't seem to be coming from inside. There was a door in the wall opposite the one I'd come in. I opened it and went through.
I was outside in the sun again. It was now clear that the bunker stood in the middle of a lot, with chain-link all the way around. A few weeds and tufts of grass stuck out from the clay ground, which had dried almost firm after the rain. A three-foot spool of rusty barbed wire sat under the eaves to my left, along with a weathered sawhorse and some sticks of lumber. To my right, leaning against the building, was a dirt-caked spade.
Somebody had been digging. Digging quite a bit. Although the clay had softened and blended in the rain, I could see that the ground a few paces from the back door had been mounded slightly over a 20-foot trench parallel to the wall. Some dirt was still piled up past the right end. I went over.
This was definitely the source of the smell, and I didn't like what I was thinking. The end of the trench had not been completely filled with dirt; a little brown water had pooled in a 4-inch depression. In the water, I could see a glint of metal.
I grabbed the spade from the wall and poked at the metal, scraping the mud away from it. The metal emerged as a round embossed dog tag. The tag was attached to a collar. Beneath the collar was wiry fur. I recognized the tag, the collar and the fur. Frannie.
I threw the spade behind me; it clanged against the cinderblock wall. I was crying again. Damn -- I had never been a sob sister, but the floodgates just seemed to be jammed open all the time these days. Tears of rage, as the poet said. Tears of grief.
Those cops were wrong, suspecting me of murder. But I was thinking I might kill somebody yet.
Now I really needed to get hold of the Dogphotoman. And I mean physically get hold of that sick little fucker. I intended to make a citizen's arrest, and I hoped he would resist. But if he didn't, I could always say he did.
Where the hell was he, though? The bare condition of his bunker suggested he wanted to drop out of sight, so he wouldn't be out in some park creating his goddamned art.
Then I thought of something. I pulled out my wallet, which was thick with everything but money: business cards, phone numbers, punch cards for car-wash discounts. Not that one. Not that one. Not that one . . . All right, there it was -- a card for a florist on Glendale Boulevard.
I had no use for flowers. I was always looking for someplace cheaper to rehearse, though, and when I had asked Jack, he'd written down an address on the back of this card. He said it was an old building downtown where he stored stuff. Lots of empty rooms.
My eyes zoomed in, and something clicked in my head. The address -- it was the same as the Kamakura Tea Room, the place where Jack had . . . I don't know, bored me to sleep or something.
Suddenly I felt -- no, I KNEW that the Dogphotoman was hiding out in that crumbledown old building. I walked a few blocks from the bunker back to Glendale Boulevard and waited at another southbound bus stop. My transfer was all wrong, and when I waved it at the driver as I growled onboard, the weary tan-skinned woman behind the wheel gave me a look. She didn't mess with me, though. I wouldn't have messed with me either.
The bus passed crackerbox houses, cement-bolstered dirt hillsides and Echo Park Lake, which is a concrete reservoir, same as all the handful of lakes in L.A. Funny that the basketball team kept the name Lakers when it moved from Minneapolis.
While hugging my knees in a rear bus seat, I had time to think about the photos I'd found in the bunker. Gradually I realized why the dogs' eyes looked wrong -- the animals brought nothing to the image. They had no spark, because . . . because they were dead. Dead. Dead and posed. I looked out the bus window. The sun was bright, but I felt the chill returning. I remembered another photo I'd seen lately: the one of Eli after the car wreck. It didn't have the masterful framing, but it was marked with the same kind of artificially posed look. And still another picture stuck in my mind's eye: Leon, overdosed on the bed. Same thing. Same thing. Same thing. The dogs. My friends. The Dogphotoman had been at work. He had made them all into his models. Models that always obeyed.
I leaned forward and gripped the metal tubing of the seat in front of me -- sweating, grinding my teeth from the Mounds sugar rush and vibrating with fury. The little Guatemalan woman next to me clutched her shopping bag and shrank against the window.
A bail-bond hut slipped behind us to the left of the bus, and I realized I had to maintain. I sat back, hands on knees, heart pounding. Glendale Boulevard became Second Street; homes turned to warehouses. I got off at Figueroa downtown and used the last few blocks of walking to imagine my fists in Jack's face and my fingers in his eye sockets.
Normally, I'm considerate of other pedestrians -- a lot more considerate than they are of me. Today, no manners. I had gone from chilled to boiling, and the afternoon sun didn't make me any cooler. I took long strides, eyes glazed, straight down the sidewalk, which was crowded with fat women and fat men dragging their fat kids. There were idiot teenagers on skateboards. There was a walleyed moron on a bicycle. There was a crazy old black man jingling change in a paper cup. There was a midget hawking peppered pineapple from a little cart. And they all got the hell out of my way.
As I got near the building, I slowed down. Exactly where was I going to look for Jack? I figured I'd start with the basement tea room. If he wasn't nibbling a fortune cookie there, I'd ask the old Asians -- as calmly as I could -- if they knew his whereabouts. "Remember me? I was in here with him the other day. Nice tea." Or maybe there'd be a directory in the lobby that would give me a hint. Right: "Jack Blank, Dog Photos and Random Assassinations, Room 311." If none of that worked out, then what? There must have been ten stories to that empty brownstone. Most of the doors were sure to be unmarked, and the Dogphotoman wouldn't be advertising. So what? I'd knock on a hundred doors. Knock 'em right down if I felt like it. He was there. I knew it.
I arrived at the glass entryway with the gold adhesive numbers, gulped a lungful and went in. The foyer, as big as your bedroom, was quiet. Elevator to the right, stairs to the left. Between, in the corner next to the upward staircase, I saw a four-by-four wooden table with two wooden chairs. In the chair facing the street, a man sat reading a newspaper by the yellow light of a sconce. Paper obscured face, but I knew who it was.
The newspaper came down, and Jack looked at me. "Bill. I was just reading about you."
When the Dogphotoman opened his yap, all the air leaked out of me; rage didn’t align with his presence. His enunciation was as crisp as his brown pinstripe, and by contrast I could imagine my condition. I tried to lock on his eye. It’s not like he avoided it, more like it didn’t occur to him.
He got up from his chair and pulled the other one out from the streetward side of the table. "Sit down."
I stood for five seconds and then sat. I had figured he would run. Not only did he not run, he sat back down in the corner, where he'd have to get past me if he tried to make the door or the stairs.
Jack poked a finger at the newspaper. "It's a good thing you came to me. I'm gonna try to help you with this."
"This says you're wanted for questioning in a bunch of killings."
"They already questioned me."
"It says you escaped."
"I didn't escape. They let me go." I clenched my teeth at Jack. "The cops must have thought I’d lead them to you. You're the one they want."
"Want me? What for?" He was such a little lamb.
"Stow it, Jack. I was just at your place. I saw your trench. I saw your pictures."
"I haven't been there in weeks. And what pictures?" I described them. He shrugged. "Come on. Surely you can tell an original Pheidias from the work of his school."
"You try, Bill, and you're improving, but you're not there yet. Don't blame the teacher. Those are your pictures."
The bastard. “I don’t even have a camera.”
“Coulda fooled me. Anyway, you’re on the right path. Imitation comes first, then an original vision. If you’ve got it inside, it won’t be denied. But we can talk about dog photos later. Right now you should be more worried about the bloodhounds.”
Jack was right about one thing – I was wasting time I could’ve been using to excavate his pancreas. My neck was starting to burn again. “So you’re going to be my friend. You’ve been quite a pal already.” I rose halfway and leaned across the table. “You fucked up my music. You made my chick hate me. You killed her dog, and a lot of other dogs.” Tears and fists were competing for dominance. “You . . . killed . . . my friends. And you tried to make it look like I did it. Now. You. Are going. To pay.”
Finally I had the Dogphotoman’s attention. He looked me in the eye. But where I expected fear, I saw something else -- thoughtfulness. He cocked his head to the side, and I felt the air seeping out of me again.
“Bill, you’re . . . more of an artist than I thought. We’ve got to figure out a way to channel this. But first let’s get down to the fundamentals. Why do you think the cops are after you?”
“Because you framed me.”
“And my motivation was what?”
“It’s all your fucking art project.”
“It’s my art, but I want your name on it? Not very satisfying. And who benefits from your rising fame as a musician, and the management interest, and the money that’s about to start piling in? Me? I bet you never even told your band that your new direction was my idea.”
“I couldn’t tell them I got it from a guy who takes dog pictures.”
“That's one explanation for the omission. But then too, maybe you felt a little guilty, because the creative juice wasn't all yours. And later, when you had some success, maybe you thought you didn’t deserve it. Maybe you found ways to sabotage yourself. And even with me out of the spotlight, maybe you thought all the attention was being directed at someone else -- someone who deserved it even less than you.”
“That’s the way you stacked it, you dirtbag. No wonder the cops were fooled. You tied it up tight, I’ll give you credit for that.”
The Dogphotoman looked straight into my eyes again. “Hmm. I must hate you a lot, then. When you played ‘How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?’ – that really must have offended my sensibilities, to make me commit multiple murders and everything.”
He was speaking softly. I wasn’t buying his spiel, but I wasn’t throttling him, either. He sat back, folded the newspaper in his lap and continued. “You know, I’ve thought a lot about art. It’s weird shit. Comes down to it, you wouldn’t wish the job of an artist on a . . . on your worst enemy. An artist doesn’t get to live his own life, doesn’t get to feel and enjoy and love and despise it the way other slobs do. He’s always turning his life into the melody, the picture, the story. But he can’t help himself -- he’s stuck with the job, born to it.
“So you won’t find much great art that isn’t full of conflict and perversity. If it's not twisted, it's not much. So when you go to a gallery, you see all the farm boys and ice-cream girls scratching their heads and chuckling, like, ‘What’s this crap doing on the wall?’ If they like it, they like it for the wrong reason – because it’s pretty, or because it has a cat in it. They don’t get it. And why should they? It’s not for them. It’s for sick motherfuckers who hate the rubes. And hate the world. And hate themselves most of all.”
The Dogphotoman stopped and looked over my shoulder toward the glass door. I turned just in time to glimpse a black-and-white coasting past, looking as if it was about to park. While I was diverted, Jack slipped around my elbow and headed up the stairs, calling back to me.
“We can still beat this. Follow me.”
Follow him? I wasn’t going to let him get away.
Even though Jack didn’t seem to be hurrying, he moved fast, light as a ghost, and built a flight-and-a-half lead on me within seconds. As I hit the fourth-floor landing, I could hear heavy footsteps behind me -- sounded like two men.
I was wiped out from the walking and the heat and the emotion; the sugar rush had crashed. I stumbled up the steps panting, still aware that Jack was gliding up ahead. At the sixth floor, I heard a fire door squeeze shut on the landing above. I reached it in a fog of sweat and jerked it open, the thundering hooves of the cops still a couple of flights down.
I charged down the dim hall, feeling as if I could smell the Dogphotoman's trail. Door. Door. Door. Door. All closed.
Then on the left I spotted a door a couple of inches ajar. I shouldered through it and stopped.
Jack stood facing me, breathing deeply in front of an open window. It was nearly dark outside; I could see one lighted room in the building across the street. A naked ceiling bulb showed Jack's face in ugly detail. He had no expression, but his eyes held me. Those eyes were deeper than space, empty of reflection, as old as Anubis. They reminded me of something, I don't know what. I shivered, suddenly cold, my heart palpitating. I took a step backward toward the door; Jack took a step backward toward the window. I didn't even see his lips move when he said, "Goodbye, Bill."
The Dogphotoman rolled up his eyes and fell backward, out the window.
I must have passed out when Jack fell. I revived unpleasantly on the floor, with one blueshirt slapping my face and another one standing over me with his hand on his holster. Jack was gone.
Gone, along with what I had come to think of as my life. The months that followed seemed like one long, dull day. A cold cell. Regular plates of slop and gristle. Meetings with my court-appointed counsel. I looked forward to those -- not because I could stand the little weasel, but because he was the only soul who visited me.
Delays, delays, and then the courtroom. Through all the days, I couldn't shake the sense of disbelief.
Why was I accused? Though I had no alibi, no one could place me near Leon or Eli at the exact times they'd died. My fingerprints were all over Leon's place, of course, because I was there all the time, but that proved nothing. No prints on Leon's needle works; no solid link between me and the car Eli had been driving when he crashed.
The evidence was stronger in the case of the bum, which was tried separately. Even though nobody had seen him get pushed off the stool, the barmaid and a patron identified me as being near him and splitting the scene when he split his skull on the floor. I didn't deny I'd been there. But I wasn't covering for the Dogphotoman anymore; I told the cops and my counsel all about his pushing the bum, and his interest in dogs, and his access to my dead bandmates.
And that was the area where things got really weird. See, they never found Jack's body, although he had to have fallen seven stories. The cops said there was a ledge outside the window he dropped out of, but according to them the window was closed -- latched, in fact -- and the fuzz hit the room no more than six seconds behind me.
The prosecution claimed I'd invented Jack; I realized I couldn't prove otherwise. None of my friends had met him. The police couldn't find any dog owners who knew him -- yeah, but I doubt they knocked themselves out trying.
Jack's bunker hadn't been rented in a year; anyone using it had to be a squatter, and the only fingerprints there belonged to the owner, his workmen and me. The discovery of Mona's dog in the ditch out back, along with 17 other canine corpses, plus my prints on the muddy spade, did not make me look good. Neither did the bunker door's broken hasp and the screwdriver in my pocket. My credit-card purchase of that Majik Tool, in fact, had been the link that alerted L.A.'s Finest to my whereabouts. Some tattler had seen me get on the bus, and the driver had spilled about where I got off. Then on the street, I had made enough of an impression on a pushcart vendor that he watched where I went. Good police work, I must say. Wrong, but good.
There was also nothing to connect Jack (his last name? I didn't know) with the upstairs room in the downtown brownstone. And the tea room in the same building, where I'd sipped with him? Just an empty basement.
Add to all that the fact that I was the last person to see each of the three murder victims unharmed, and you had what's called a powerful circumstantial case. Bang, bang, bang. Rack 'em, loser.
So here I am. For life.
Mona came to see me yesterday. I know -- I was surprised, too; even though she wasn't one of the trial witnesses, I hadn't seen her in the gallery cheering me on, either, so she had to have been swayed against me like everyone else. Last night she came up to my cell unannounced, and not during visiting hours, so I don't know how she got in. She just drifted over and said hello. I could hardly hear her through the safety-glass window, but it seems like she's doing okay; she said she was going to keep at it with the music. She should. I've never seen a beginner with talent like that.
Mona didn't even mention the crimes. What could she say? It was all over. She didn't smile. She didn't say she loved me. I don't suppose she does. And I don't suppose she'll be back.
After she left, I couldn't shake the memory of the Dogphotoman's face, the way I'd seen it the last time. That had been the first moment I thought I truly saw him, and there was something about him so strange and frightening, yet finally so familiar.
He destroyed me. Chewed me up and swallowed me alive. Somehow, though, I felt about him the same way I would about a wolf or a bear: It just does what it's designed for. And aren't we humans -- all of us --animals too?
Morality -- what is it? Or the Ten Commandments? Golden laws from God? No. Just hints for showing us how to keep from riling up a bigger animal.
So I remembered Jack's human face. Eyes, nose, mouth, ears like mine or anybody's. And I figured, what the hell, I might forgive him.
And then I thought . . . well, maybe it's not my call.
* * *
© 2010 Greg Burk