A Nice Letter Home to Mama.
And chill the fuck out, I did. All the way down to the bottom, again. No, not again. It can’t be again, if it’s a place you never left. It’s just a place that you exist in. A plain of being. Down there. That’s where you are. At the place where nothing exists. If nothing can exist. A notion to boggle the mind. Because that’s where it all started. At a place a human mind can’t fathom. A sleep where the subconscious knows no tales.
This time I didn’t dream of any friends. There was no Jackie in the mud, on the side of the road. There was no one. No one there but me. And even that was something loosely based on me. An ego untethered. A braided rope, unstrung. You forget about will, in a place like that. The will to do something. Like live. Heartbeats run on their own accord.
Eyes open involuntarily.
Still in that corridor. But nobody else was around. Those Armenian goons weren’t lying around with you. Funny. That’s damn funny. But not funnier than the storage unit to my left being empty. The blue, plastic barrel was gone. A clean-up crew called Big Willie Winsboro.
But why leave me? Because you’re an asshole who took a swing at him with a bat on the word of a two-bit cop.
My head felt like a rotten watermelon. I got up, I think, and stumbled against a metal wall. It made so much noise, that I thought the police would come. But then I remembered, they don’t come down this far.
190th and Normandie.
I hadn’t been out that long. The sun was sitting just above the horizon. I could see it out of that window by the elevator. Looking down, I could see my truck was where I’d parked it by the cinderblock wall.
The bed was full of Armenian goons and a blue, plastic barrel.
I yelled, but Big Willie couldn’t hear me. He was getting behind the wheel, ready to drive that carnival of goods to clown-town. More yelling and beating on the window did no good. I hit the elevator button. It took about a month for the thing to bing and open. Another month to get down to ground level and watch my shitty, little Toyota roll out of the gate and take a left on Normandie.
Curious. A left, on Normandie. The highway was to the right. Where was Willie going with that mess? Heading towards the heart of the Southbay. Towards an entanglement of powerlines and train tracks and warehouses galore. I thought about how I could follow him. Looking around at my surroundings. Vehicles everywhere. Big lumbering things. But there was that Mustang sitting there in front of the pop-up camper.
I walked over and could hear, right away, snoring from inside the camper. Stepping over to the Mustang I could see the keys in the ignition. A moment of glory, some would call it. God is good, some would say.
Some would say it was meant to be.
I would say it was dumb luck.
That’s where things sit, between chaos and fate.
I got in the car. Cranked the thing up and pulled the thing into drive and shot towards the gate that was just now closing after Willie had gone through it. I braked and glanced at the rear-view mirror. The gate was motion censored. It had to close first and then re-open. The thing was slow as tar. It started creaking back on itself. Still, no one came running out of the camper. I imagined a bearded meth-head rampaging out with only his whitey-tighties on and a shotgun in both hands. But no, nothing. The gate opened enough and I flew out of there like bats do from Hades.
Left on Normandie, and I was swerving through cars before I knew it. The Mustang’s accelerator was loose and as soon as you touched it, it surged ahead. Almost a buck every time you tapped it. Sensitive thing.
There was nothing but big-rigs down this way. The movement of industry. Its bedrock was trucking. Works great on a highway, but on city streets it played havoc with traffic and destroyed pavement. Potholes and train tracks tore up the underbelly of the Ford. I didn’t even give two thoughts to worrying about that meth-head’s ride. Probably should have, but all I had were justifications in my head. Like, leaving your keys in the ignition, just what are you asking for dummy. For a thief to come along. And that’s all that I was. In every aspect a leech.
My Toyota truck came up at Normandie and Carson. Stopped at a red light. I came to stop behind him and thought about honking but suppressed the urge. I looked around. Did anyone else see this pile of men in the back of my truck? If they did, they chalked it up as a thing you might see in L.A. They were filming shit all the time. You’d see all kinds of crazy shit out here. No telling what you’d see. Jurassic Park jeeps driving on the 405, Whooley-mammoths caught in tar out on Wilshire, folks wearing costumes drinking coffee out of paper cups, waiting for action to be yelled, caught in a perpetual year-around Halloween. Go into any neighborhood in Los Angeles and see the crane lights at night and watch the poets of nightfall work. Watch the people hustle for fame or art or just plain paychecks. But it’s anything goes in a city that pretends for a living. Dreams coming to life become innocuous in the minute details of the making. Bystanders become acclimated to the bizarre and the focus on one’s own life sets in.
So, a little, red Toyota truck filled with Armenian goons and a blue, plastic barrel, deep on South Normandie gets a just a raised eyebrow and a slight frown.
The light on Carson turned green and Willie still hadn’t looked in his rear-view. He hadn’t taken me as a thief either. We rolled through and headed towards 228th Street. Willie hit the left blinker at 228th and we cruised along that street until it ended at Avalon and took a right. Then took that to Anaheim and found ourselves in an even more twisted up, corrugate, man-shaped place near the Port of Long Beach.
There was a landfill tucked into a little corner of a modern industrial port. Where water ways had been dug out in exact angles and concrete poured in fine, rigorous molds. Everything built for large vessels to maneuver easily and ready the spread of goods and services. Bridges had been laid over the waterways and giant, metal power-poles stretched their lines out over the port. The hairs on my neck and arms stood up. A crackling of energy moved in this place. Too much electricity. Too many moving parts. I almost missed Willie pull my truck into the landfill. He took a right onto E 1st Street, and the road flipped back on us. At this point Willie knew somebody was following him. Or someone was behind him doing the same thing he was. Getting rid of bodies. It troubled me that none of them had moved at all. They were just unconscious goons that last time he’d checked. It seemed a severe ending. Bodies left in a dump. What had Big Willie done?
There were more RVs down here. All along the right side of the road. Older, dustier things that had come to rest in a junkyard, near a landfill. Willie took a right into a wide opening between two, low brick walls. I stopped the Mustang just before the opening, pulling over in front of a blue sign that read: Falcon Refuse Center.
It was early morning, the sun just up, behind us. I turned the ignition off and got out of the Mustang and walked around to the entrance. Willie had stopped my truck just inside the place. I stood there looking at the red brake-lights. The smell of refuse filling my nostrils. The sound of seagulls squawking overhead. The hum of industry all around us.
Big Willie got out of the truck and faced me. He gave me a knowing nod. Like, hey, glad you could make it. Then a head popped up in the back of the truck. And then some more stirring of bodies. The goons were coming to life.
I found my legs moving towards the truck as the goons got out of the back, like clowns at a circus. They looked dazed and confused but aware of something I wasn’t. I got within ten feet and stopped.
“What the fuck?”
Willie looked at me. “Mr. Hosseini.” Was all he said.
I looked around like a feral dog at a large metal structure; a garage or hangar, with large openings, where you could see massive piles of garbage sitting in the shade of the aluminum roofing.
“He owns this.” I said, trying to piece anything together, but my mind was a box of missing pieces. Just when I thought I had it all figured.
Big Willie looked at the four Armenian goons getting their bearings. “The Agassi’s do, anyway.” He pulled a gun from his jorts pocket. That Smith & Wesson MP9.
Curious. Where had that been this whole time? In the glove box? How do you lose track of such a thing?
Winsboro raised the gun and fired four shots. Quick. Bam. Bam. Bam. Bam. Four shots to the head. The goons go back to being sacks of potatoes, but with neat little holes in their foreheads and gruesome blowouts in the back.
The seagulls overhead bolted.
I was half-crouched over and flinching, backing up. Willie put the gun down and had an indifferent look on his face. “That’s money’s Mr. Hosseini’s.” He pointed the gun at the barrel in the back of the truck. “Armenians owe that for them land deals.” He looked at me. “Them Salvis can’t have that.”
“So why clip the goons?” I pointed at the muck of organs and bones already in decay at the back of my truck.
Big man gave his patented shrug. “Said clean it all out.” He looked over at the goons. “Guess they don’t want no loose lips.”
Or sinking ships. It went back to Beebe and Erik. Family emulsions. Entanglements. Untie the knots that you can and just murder the rest. The big man winked and pointed his finger like a gun at me. Then he put the real gun in the waistband at the small of his back.
“Hosseini’s the real gangster.” I said, to anybody that would listen.
Big Willie was nodding, like, yeah man, now you know. But he could’ve told me from the very beginning. But he didn’t. “We should get out of here.” He told me. “There’s dudes here that’ll take care of this.” He pointed to the dead men on the ground.
“This whole thing’s about property.” I told him.
“Same as it ever was.” Willie held the truck door open. “You trying to drive, or what?”
“How’d Jackie get that opal?”
The big man’s shoulders sort of slumped and he shook his head. He was tired of me. I thought we were friends. It was all just a means to an end. The culmination always having dollars in the hand.
“We gotta go.”
Willie would tell me on the road. That big, blue plastic barrel went in the trunk of the Mustang. With two million dollars of cash in it. Or so, I imagined. I never took a look inside, did I.
“There’s more than two million dollars in that barrel, isn’t there?”
Big Willie didn’t say anything for a while. He just watched the webbing of industry go by. I steered the car north, taking the 710 freeway to the 405. Willie said he’d lost track of Jackie at some point. Somewhere in Louisiana. Where we were all from. But I didn’t know them back then. Only Jackie, at the tail end. When I was leaving the damnable place. When she was leaving it too.
But Willie and Jackie had another history.
“Told you we was down there during Katrina.” He started.
“But you met Hosseini in Israel.” I cut in, getting ahead of myself.
“Bosnia. But that ain’t got nothing to with this. That was before.”
“Jackie met him back then too?”
Big Willie nodded slightly. “New Orleans was something else.” He looked sad. Palm trees passed and a brilliant blue morning started setting in. Who could be sad in a place like this? The answer, is plenty of people, Jake.
“I heard.” My memories went back. “I lived up north. Lot of folks came up there. It was tough.”
“You were in Bastrop.” Willie stated.
I looked over at him in surprise. “Did I tell you that?”
Another slight shake of the head. “Jackie mentioned it. She went up there after the flood to see about her dead wife’s grave.”
The blood stopped pumping in my heart. Or so it seemed. At the same time, my stomach plunged downward and my testicles wailed. The freeway was a white line and that’s all I could concentrate on. A white line in the white light of morning. I tried to swallow but my throat was a broken piston.
“She never told you that?” Willie asked.
I just shook my head and gripped the steering wheel and hoped he didn’t see the moisture in my eyes, welling up.
“She was a soldier too.” Willie kept going. “Well, a merc anyway. From your town. Bastrop.” Willie eyed a sign. “Take Manchester.” He told me.
Manchester was an exit. I took it, pretty sure I knew where he wanted to go. For once. Roscoe’s. We pulled into the lot. It was eight-thirty by my phone. Willie hopped out of the bed of the truck, all spry, like he was done with the third shift, heading into the weekend. I got out and eyed the trunk.
For some reason, at that moment, I didn’t think there was any money in it. The idea of storing money in a barrel in a storage unit in the Southbay seemed a ridiculous heap of missed opportunity. Washed money didn’t seem to be a gangster’s problem. Banks weren’t that exclusive.
I wanted to hear more about Jackie. We sat down in a booth by a window and watched the cars on Manchester. Inglewood was alive and moving. What day was it? I looked at my phone, again. It was Sunday, and no one had bothered me yet.
“You hear from your girl?”
We were waiting for our food, sipping coffee and water. “Beebe?”
“You still thinking I killed Jackie?”
The waitress came with our food. Waffles and fried chicken and brown gravy. The smell of it wiped our minds for a split second. The waitress didn’t smile or say anything, knowing it was the food that mattered.
“Merchant thinks so.”
“What’d you think?”
“Why would Merchant think so?”
“That’s what you think?”
I drenched the waffle in syrup and cut into it and forked a big bit into my mouth and started chewing, looking at Willie, across from me. He’d done the same thing, but had skewered some chicken and gravy as well with his waffle.
“Me thinking has got me in this place and this time.” I held up a forked piece of chicken. “Not much to show for it.”
“You too hard on yourself.” Willie told me.
I scoffed up waffle and had to wipe my nose with a napkin. “I was thinking I hadn’t been that hard on myself these last few years. Thinking maybe I hadn’t pushed myself enough.” I looked Willie in the eyes. “You ever get that feeling?”
“You can get to feeling complacent. Everyday being the same and all, out here.” He took a long sip of water. “You miss the weather in Louisiana?”
He caught me off guard. I hadn’t thought about weather in a long time. Much less Louisiana. “Sometimes. Sometimes I miss sweating.” I smirked.
Big Willie smiled too. “Just stepping outside is all it can take sometimes.”
And like that, a warmth started spreading in my chest. Thinking of beads of sweat on the forehead. Cloying t-shirts and the feeling of being underwater. “Swamp-ass. I do not miss swamp-ass.”
Laughter came rumbling out of the big man. He even showed some teeth. “I know that’s right.” He chuckled. “Give me that dry heat, any day.”
In this tiny moment, we were friends again. All of the future moments were still up in the air. But this moment was good. “I miss the trees, though.” I pondered.
Willie nodded and chewed his food, no doubt thinking of tall pines and moss-covered cypress trees.
“Winsboro.” I stated, flatly.
He looked up from his mess of gravy and waffles and fried chicken, but didn’t say anything, letting me play it out. “I been to that town. We played them in basketball.”
“I’m from Epps.” Willie started. “I-20 goes through there. Take the exit, go south to Winsboro, north to Epps.”
“Yeah. Them Indian mounds.” He slurped some coffee. “Grew up, right down the road from em’.”
Dirt mounds built four thousand years ago by Native Americans in that region. The Mound Builders. Some of them built in the shape of animals. One shaped like a massive bird. It was eroded now, covered in manicured grass. Awe-inspiring all the same.
“We used to go there when I was kid.” I mused.
“Who?” Willie asked. “You and your parents?”
Me and my parents. Guess you could say that. “My grandparents used to take me.”
“Your grandparents white?” Willie asked.
Strange question. But maybe if you were wondering. Wondering about the shade of another man’s skin. It’s a thing on planet Earth. As long as we can see in color. We’ll know what sets us apart. Always.
“They were.” Was all I felt I needed to say.
Big Willie caught the drift. People passed away, eventually. Especially old people.
“What about your parents?”
“What about them?”
“It’s like that, huh.” Willie produced a toothpick from somewhere and started poking his teeth.
“We trying to get to know each other, now.” Thinking ploys can only get you so far. “Little late for that shit.”
“I forgot.” Willie was on to me. “You got an aversion to friends.”
“That what this is?” I took a long sip of water. “Me and you trying to be friends. Maybe you’re right, I don’t know much about it, but you ain’t been all that forthcoming when it comes to the openness of friendship.”
“Guess you can hold on to hope that somebody’ll be there when you taking your last breath.”
“Never given it much thought.”
A car honked at another car out on Manchester. Inside, Roscoe’s was getting crowded. Arteries calling out for stoppage. “I hadn’t either, for a long time. Living one job to the next. Walking tightropes. Not really caring about shit, cause you think you bad as shit. Not really noticing how you getting through it all is because you got people next to you. Helping you through it.”
“That’s a nice letter home to mama.”
“Ain’t it.” Willie smirked at me, not buying the cynicism I was selling. “But my mama’s long, gone and sounds like yours is too.”
“What’re you saying? We’re stuck with each other?”
Big Willie chuckled and turned the toothpick over in his mouth. “You can pick your nose and you can pick your friends…” He stopped, looking at me to finish.
“Just don’t wipe your friends on the couch.”
“We had the same mama.” Willie held his water cup up for a toast.