Earthscape artwork by Andres Amador
P.K.'s assistant, the guy famous in the office for banging secretaries against the wall of the powder room off the main corridor, a guy named Nate Binswanger, told me to get over it. What exactly "it" meant to him, I wouldn't know, but it pertained to my sulky attitude, he said, following the death of the gay hustler found in the deep freezer of the seedy hotel he found not far from the architecturally-esteemed Bradley building where Blade Runner was filmed. LA, one would think, is the only city in the world that identifies its landmarks by their association to Hollywood movies. Not true. In Memphis, where I am from, one could drive downtown and point out settings used for The Firm, a film which, now that I think of it, strangely resembled the seedy future world of Philip K. Dick in its despair.
In America, even the old are expected to work. That is surely one of lessons of both of these films. Lots of decrepit geezers running their companies and the world into the ground. No rest for the wicked. How true. Even in retirement, one goes to bed exhausted. There's no relief. We are all required to pump our own gas. It used to be a step down to buy our clothes off the rack. Now we sift through suits tossed on the floor. There are no clerks. Profits are up. They've figured out how to serve the masses without any help, as waiters and waitresses were called when I was a boy. Now they are called, "not much help."
Do-it-yourself people. I blame it all on Pampers. No one does the wash. It's a throwaway society. In just a matter of time, we'll be picking through the garbage as they do in Jakarta. You remember that scene in Night of the Iguana when Richard Burton makes Deborah Kerr puke? He tells her about watching little naked peasant children at the garbage dump as they picked through piles of shit in search for golden nuggets to pop into their mouths. One couldn't help noticing how much pleasure Burton got out of making her sick. That demonic smile. I figure it gave Tennessee Williams a kick to upset movie fans, a form of literary sadism.
Why have stores? Why build shelves? There's no point in placing clothes on hangers. Dump it all in a pile and let the masses go for it. Sell the merchandise by the pound, regardless. Books, too! Enron nation. For a while there, people were on to corporate greed. For some reason the dismay was dropped or absorbed like toxic gasses into the blood.
CEOs live in mansions with basketball courts in their living rooms. There's a movie theater, spa, and a panic room in which to hide. Where's the ballroom? There are 17 bedrooms and as many toilets, but no library. America's elite no longer reads. There's no dining room table, just a trough. There's a drain on the floor as in a pigsty. America's elite goes directly from middle-school to the boardroom. They skip the 19th century education; forget Matthew Arnold, forget Cicero. Latin and the Greek are unneeded. America's future CEOs begin their education with a study of criminality.
The department stores are gone. If they were anything, they were places distinguished by their neatness. Places of order, cleanliness, and public appeal. An escape from the streets. Now we have warehouses, where customers do the unpacking. The underwear can be found on Aisle Nine. Get your stuff and head over to the checkout counter. You don't need cash or a card. One can scan one's wrist. Look into the camera and say "Kraft."
The only people working in the store are floor detectives in uniform. They're there to discourage shoplifting and to prevent customers from setting up meth labs. Take your rifle and your box of ammunition to Aisle Seven for a license, on sale this week at $89.99. Illegals can buy an ID on Aisle Eleven. While shopping today, why not get a flu shot? That'll be at our self-service kiosk, Aisle Three. Returning customers get a discount. The deceased are free.
We were promised more. The malls now are filled with the homeless. There's no air, so they break down the doors. The atrium was once filled with Bird of Paradise and stuffed toucan. Today people shop online. Marauding teens play knock-out games, but the tattoo artist set up where Kabakoff's Bakery once stood refuses to get involved. The Kabakoffs, who once baked the best rye bread in town, sold out when their daughter never came back from Sarah Lawrence. Their son Nathan became a heroin addict and a drag queen. He finally died of an overdose. When paramedics found his body, his teeth were black. His mother, Melinda, was said to have cried because her son had stopped brushing.
I was living by myself off 6th and Westmoreland. My place was on the first floor, in one of those picturesque cottage complexes built around a courtyard lined with hibiscus and palms. I even had a back door, giving the place the feeling of being roomy. It wasn't, but it worked. I spent most of my time on the road. When I came back at night, I lay on the bed and listened to my neighbor moan. The man who moaned lived next door. I never saw him. He only moaned at night, or like other critters blended in by day and stood out at night, like cats. He moaned because he lived alone. His moans were not the same as the couple upstairs. Say no more. He moaned because he was still alive. No doubt, like me, he wished he were dead. His moans were like sighs. They communicated isolation. It was the human equivalent of an owl's hoot, almost like boohoo. But not quite. If the guy had been female, he might have cried.
The guy was lonely. In my experience, when a young man is lonely, he whistles. Evidently, the man who moans can't. Maybe his father punched him in the kisser. Not sure. But he wanted company. He was lonely. When we hear moaning, we feel discomfort. I do. Humans recognize despair. It's in our genes. It's coming for us, and we know it. It's basic. That was what it was: recognition. I recognized myself in my neighbor. He was lonely, and so was I. Boohoo. Instead, we laugh. We laugh our asses off. Or whatever. Age. You don't hear a lot of moaning from the young. Groaning, yes, but that's difference. Nor from the young at heart. I know some jolly types who would never dream of moaning. Impossible. It's disturbing.
A whistle is a mating call. The young man wants company. He expresses appreciation, however awkwardly, however rudely. It's base, but it's sexy. Women secretly love it. Dying men don't whistle. The dying want company but not sexual attention. Sex is the farthest thing from the mind of the man who moans. He's alone.
The penis no longer works. It doesn't even perform its primary function, which is pissing. Even that is an ordeal. Hey, this is real. The man moans for all that's gone, including his once sharp mind. The ease of pissing goes first, then the brain. The combination is discouraging. You can't piss, and you can't remember where you laid your glasses.
Some cry. I never do. I moan.
At least I did that morning when the alarm went off at 4:30 AM. I wanted to slam my fist down, dramatically cover my head with my pillow, and fall back to sleep, but I couldn't. I had to be at Nikko's for breakfast. Not to eat, mind you, although I would, but I was doing an undercover surveillance of the place for the owner, Nico Andropolis, up in Atwater, whose family owned-and-operated spot had been losing money mysteriously for the last few months. Usually, a dive like this wouldn't be able to afford my boss's fees, but P.K. breakfasted there and had been doing so for over 30 years, so he felt he owed Nico something, and so he loaned them me.
I sat down at the counter, brought in a copy of the LA Times, and made myself at home. I planned to stay a while, watch the servers and cashiers, and get a feel for the place. P.K. planned a dramatic arrest and a little publicity. I was to stay on it until we found whose hand was in the till. I'd done this sort of thing recently at a bar in Century City that had been losing money. I had to sit at the counter and count drinks.
Nikko's had a New York diner's feel, plus one of those gigantic menus with everything from deluxe sardine salads with hard-boiled eggs and head lettuce to apple pie a la mode, burritos, and steak tartar. The menu at Nikko's was a reflection of the man himself: colorful, filled with purpose, and open to all. The Atwater Village location spawned all sorts of imitators, but whether a monstrous and delicious two-handed triple burger or a pancake stack with a side of sausage, the place served uninspired diner fare of the sort found every ten blocks throughout Manhattan. In New York it would be greeted with a shrug, while here in LA it drew crowds, especially on Sunday mornings when it was a favorite among addled drag queens, street walkers, lonely beat cops, and young lovers.
After 90 minutes, I called it a day. I didn't see much cooking. I did make note of a couple of guys, not suspicious, and I couldn't help noticing they both made a point of heading back to the men's room area and, I thought, stayed too long. Who knows, but I wondered if one of the waiters might have gone back there to meet them. I just couldn't make out anything worth calling in the troops for, so I headed back to the office to make my first report. I was to return at lunch time and then for a late supper. Later in the week I planned to come in at dinner hour, when it was certain to be a madhouse, but tonight I would come about nine, or so I planned. Traffic moved very slowly in LA. I had something to do down in Orange County in the late afternoon.
An hour after I turned in my report, Binswanger called me into the conference room. He had the surveillance team in: Don, a retired guy from military intelligence; and Sims, a black dude who drove a green Torino wagon. They liked my report. They intended to bug the men's room. Besides that, they wanted the two male employees, whose names I can't remember, placed under surveillance. Binswanger had talked to the Greeks and decided we were on to something. Nico's son had had his eye on these clowns and believed they had found a way to steal inventory. We had their home addresses and would be on them 24 hours a day for a week. They wanted me to stand ready to assist. I was to return as planned, only they wanted me there today for dinner and then back again in the morning. Sims would come in for supper to eat at about nine and I could take his place in the wagon. They wanted someone watching the back door to the restaurant and the alley just behind the restaurant. But they wanted me to lie low, keep my head down. I couldn't be seen in the alley at dinner time and then again in the morning. This would cause talk in the kitchen.
Nikko's at 6:00 PM
The good professor eyed my dessert. He'd been quiet up to then, waiting for his order. He and his lady friend were delighted when their tomato soup arrived. Then he pointed to my wife's plum and apple crumple and expressed interest. I noticed how he eyed my wife's tits, too. We were seated in adjacent booths.
As we ate, I couldn't help overhearing their conversation. I noted his distress. I also noticed the waiter had been by three times to fill his water glass. This made me wonder. The same waiter had ignored me.
The professor was a bearded little man in a blue blazer. Unlike me and my "wife" (I had brought a lady friend for cover), he and his companion came dressed for dinner. She had on a gold Rolex. She also wore the sulk of a woman who's seen it all or at least has it all. His beard was worn as a statement. Just what that statement was, I do not know, but it wasn't just hair. I knew better than that.
They ate quietly, but the gentleman was all worked up. No, he was not happy at USC. You'd think so, but he was not. It was not what it once was. I heard him say that three times. "They are scraping the bottom of the barrel." He was talking about graduate students. "We are not at all able to get the best." He'd just as well not teach. He's been working on something big, so he could walk away. He was planning to set up something like TED Talks to sell seminars and workshops in luxury settings, not Los Angeles which was too low. New York was what it once was, either, he sniffed. "There's money in them thar hills," he swept his arms out as he spoke and made like a preacher. Dollar signs glistened in his eyes. His companion seemed to be half asleep.
He spoke in his pretentious academic accent, a sort of mock European lisp, to his companion who was American, too, as far as I could make out, although she, too, was putting on airs. She had a magnificent nose, a stage nose like John Gielgud's, the sort that can be seen from the balcony, perfect for performing Shakespeare in, say, 1928. She intrigued me. In his youth, I surmised, he'd schemed to get tenure and had won. Now, he was full-professor at USC but had convinced himself he was miserable. He was bored. He felt poor. After all, his salary was under 200 thou a year and he was living in Manhattan Beach. The kids down on Wall Street made that at 22; houses in LA started at $550,000. He appeared to have taken the university for everything it was worth. He had every grant, even mortgage assistance he made reference to, but he was not a young man. Teaching, not being what it used to be, forced his hand. Was it not natural to talk big bucks?
He'd just as well not teach another day his life. The students lacked "a sense of purpose." "They're lost," he said. They had no business being in grad school. They say they love Jane Austin. Well, who cares? That's not good enough. He was sick of all these hobbyists thinking they were graduate school material. "PhDs are not for fans, not for romantics, not for rich kids looking for something to do with their worthless lives." He was ranting now, but kept eating. He was shouting in a whisper. He had control. It was all for effect. He was having fun, I concluded. She'd heard it all before, or so it seemed. Then it occurred to me he really was putting on a scene. Perhaps he wasn't a tenured professor after all, possibly a con-artist, wouldn't be surprised.
I decided to step out and see if I could find a decent car in the lot with a USC bumper sticker or a faculty parking decal on the bumper. I excused myself, taking a pack of cigarettes out of my jacket. I didn't smoke, but I learned to carry a pack for this purpose. I ostentatiously departed through the front door and headed for the lot, where I took a brisk spin around, even lighting up so as to look less conspicuous. I found a vehicle I thought might fit the bill, but there was no USC decal. I called it in so the surveillance team could keep an eye on it.
I returned to our table and threw my pack of cigs on the table. Our neighbors were still at it. "On top of all that, the students are conservative!" He was getting loud. This he said with disgust. He had some soup. The waitress returned with his steak. It was a fine, game-reserve-certified, organic, $35 steak. Its plate had been warmed. She carried it with her hand wrapped and set it down like a matador. Olé. He took a good look and licked his chops. Yes, this was one of the rewards of hard work. He deserved every bite, too, I guessed he must be thinking. But if he were able to get out of this shitty university and make some real money, he would order the wild boar and oyster pie at the Pacific Dining Car and give up little Nikko's. He'd splurge. I overheard him talking about ordering a bottle of wine. Oh, well. Some day.
And on he went. I noticed as we were getting up that he'd ordered the plum and apple crumble. Another bottle of wine was being delivered to their table. The evening was young. We headed for the exit.
On our way out, however, I noticed one of the boys from the restaurant was standing over by the car I had caught sight of. It was a large, older Toyota—not a Lexus, but that luxury Camry, the Avalon. It looked like the kind of car a guy like him might drive. One of the dishwashers I had seen was standing over by it. I had already called in to the surveillance team, so I didn't think I should loiter or make myself known to anyone. I just headed for the company Blazer, but I called Louis this time to tell him to be on guard. He said the boys were on it. There had been some action they'd taken note of, and they had the car's license.
III. The Hand on the Neck
I had a description and an address, his car, and the lady's car, too, a Volkswagen Jetta, so I could not go wrong. I'd let the air out of my tire, had the jack and my spare leaning on the rear bumper. I hoped this gal would take notice, offer me a lift. She worked ten minutes away (I knew her route), and I figured on being offered a ride. I was careful to clean myself up. I even put on a little cologne, shaved, and tried to remember to smile. I wasn't blocking her car, but I was parked in such a way it would be rude of her to ignore me.
It was her nose that caught my attention, not a prim thing but a real schnoz, with loads of character. It made her something grand like a tropical toucan. As the poet's jar engulfed by Tennessee, this nose was more a presence than an object. The lady's green eyes, though, were not jungle wild; they took one to places like the Warsaw ghetto, a pre-war face. I think today of her as a piece of art, because like a carving, or even more, an engraving, her features seemed immortal. In short, the dame impressed me.
We met in front, and she offered me that ride, as planned. Professionally, I wasn't interested in her. It was the boyfriend from the restaurant, the guy in the Avalon whom we were after. The surveillance team had filmed the kitchen help filling his trunk with prime rib and frozen steaks. Obviously, it was an inside job, easy to fire the dishwashers and that would be that, but Nico wanted the ring leader. There were other restaurants in the area losing money, so the restaurant association paid a hefty retainer to have P.K. nab the lot, come what may. So far, the LAPD had not been involved, but P.K. had talked to some pals in the attorney general's office in Sacramento. There were whispers the mafia might be involved through the union, but I noticed people didn't talk about that too loudly.
The Avalon belonged to the Armenian. The girlfriend in the Jetta was Georgian, both refugees from the old Soviet Union. The gal worked at Rio, a local favorite now long gone. She sat in front and I right behind her. Her front seat was filled with boxes. I had already met her nose. As I got in the back seat, I reached for the headrest, and I couldn't help touching the nape of her neck. When we stopped and I got out of the car, she whispered, "I liked the hand on the neck." What a thing. The only time in my life I have loved someone's nose. I created an instant fantasy whereby we fucked all the time, anywhere. I felt freed from the unknown. Had it been another time and place, we might have had a go, but the reality was I didn't want to provoke the Armenian wise guy, and I needed to keep seeing her to find out about her boyfriend's operation.
I had tried the flat tire bit, an old standard. Now I needed an excuse to hitch another ride. Finally, I decided to simply go straight to her door, no subterfuge, and ask, "Is there anyone home? We are here to end all human suffering." I always got quite sentimental when I was working. I liked going undercover, inventing myself, creating a new presentation. "We have come for the tyrant." In fact, I was there for a ride to work, not to arrest the king. I had to get a grip, pull myself together.
As it was, I was all hyped up. I wanted to say something like, "In the end, he will be stabbed with a bayonet. There should be no profit in profiteering," but, instead, I just pretended to be as ordinary as possible, as usual. I knocked on her door a few days later, at 7:30 AM, just before she would be leaving for work. This time I said my girl had taken the car, and I wondered if we could carpool. I'd spring for the gas. I liked the fact that her eyes roamed as she thought about it. I especially liked where her eyes settled when she said yes.
After our third outing, she offered me a ride of a different sort. Maria Jakeli had giant, soft tits. She wondered aloud if they were what had drawn me, as they had attracted others. She recited men's comments. I couldn't help but note the sadness in her voice. She hadn't wanted to be loved for her tits. I'm sorry, my love, I wanted to say, it wasn't your chest, not even your beautiful green eyes; it was that majestic nose—the beak of an eagle, bride of the sky—that did it. I withheld my erotic flight into ecstasy and complimented her huge tits, neither of which, I noted, looked me straight in the eye.
We were compatible in some way—well, truth be told, only in one way—but the thing of it was I had to stay away. I couldn't be sexually involved with a subject of investigation. This thing could wind up in court. As my last fortune cookie said, "In the future, nothing will be owned except for human beings." I had sold my soul. Take the Kabuki Underground to the end of the line. Paranoia is its own species of adrenaline. I was afraid the whole thing might blow up in my face. I was on an expense account, after all. Nothing was free. Even the party was deductible. As I left her place, a tune ran through my mind: Sing. Sing a song. Just sing. Make it simple.
We all obey kings in matters that are reprehensible. This had been written not on a fortune cookie, but at the bottom of my detective license. I was beginning to understand what it meant.
IV. Not Yet on the Offensive
It was clear now the Armenian had masterminded a scheme to rip off local restaurants like Nikko's by siphoning off one and two-day of beef, some before and some after being inventoried. Restaurants were notorious for using meats after the sell-by dates, so Tegran Terjimanian had set up a plan with the brilliant insight that the restaurants would never report missing meat if it had expired. Officially, it was illegal to use the meat, but many restaurants did. None could afford to toss unused steaks just hours or days past due. They trimmed them up and used them, who cared? They made breakfast steaks out of them or put them in the chili or beef stew.
Terjimanian and his team had worked out a way to get hundreds of pounds of prime or near-prime beef out of the restaurants without drawing attention and ship them frozen to China. It wasn't a billion-dollar rip-off, but it paid the bills and brought its masterminds enough money to pay for houses in such far-flung parts of LA as Northridge and Fullerton. Not Malibu, not Beverly Hills, but decent properties in areas where houses started at half a million. They carpeted the places with blue shag, hung mirrors on the walls and ceilings, bought console sofa sets, hung little chandeliers in the bathrooms, and presto, the houses looked like small palaces back home in Tbilisi and Yerevan.
The surveillance team had picked something up out of that restaurant's men's room, and there had been some other stuff they were able to put together. The Armenian had made the mistake of returning too often to Nikko's and got sloppy. One of the Mexican dishwashers they were paying left the trunk to Terjimanian's sedan ajar, and Binswanger's team got some good photos. That was when P.K. went to the police and to the F.B.I., who in turn got some warrants. I was beginning to learn how much of the job depended on contacts, favors. When I overheard him on the phone with the Attorney General, he spoke a lot like the women back in Memphis arranging a picnic for the Sunday polo game. Lots of compliments, smarmy flirtations, a kind of over-the-phone blow job for these civil servants and office holders who had to be flattered before they would lift a finger. He said to me over the phone, "On the military side, we are not yet on the offensive, but we soon will be." I loved it when he talked like this. To put the whole thing in perspective, when I told my older brother about it, he offered his two-cents worth: "Life is a shit sandwich."
The Armenian had three freezers in the basement of his little house in Pico Rivera, and the jig was up. It turned out, almost a dozen restaurants were being ripped off. It had been an almost foolproof plan, on account of the desperation of the restauranteurs who couldn't afford to toss good meat that hadn't sold on slow nights. No doubt a lot of it turned up in hotels in cities such as Shanghai, Wenzhou, and Guangzhou, not so much for Western travelers but Chinese businessmen of the kind who could afford a serving of broccoli beef prepared with imported beefsteak.
When the matter finally blew over, I was able to hook back up with Maria for a while. She was down 50 pounds and had lost her shape. She kept her nose and her sexy laugh, but her thighs and marvelous ass were gone. No longer Renaissance, she had become modern. She was sleek and sickly like Twiggy. Even her voice had changed. She was a ghost. She'd once, this Maria Jakeli, had an appetite for things; now she bore the poet's sorrows. It was true she still had her nose, but she had dropped her beguiling smile. I knew then and there something was irretrievably lost. She was thin and brittle, and I could see a mile off, she was no longer interested in me.