Where the Motes Dance and the Atoms collide, and the Bones are Wet Chalk.
Our mamas weren’t the same. But our friendship to Jackie might’ve been in the same ballpark. But it still felt as if Big Willie Winsboro could see the floor, and I still had lumber under my ass. I still didn’t know how she ended up with that opal. And I still didn’t know for sure who cut her throat. Some way, or some time, I’d knew I’d figure it all out.
We took the barrel up to a house in Westwood. The thing had thirty million dollars in it, Willie finally confessed. And we just rolled up into some dude’s garage on Thayer Ave.
It wasn’t just some dude, though. It was Jasper Hosseini’s house. It was this church-like thing up on a small green hill, but still nestled in the neighborhood. The house was a bonanza of A-frames, with tan stucco walls and redwood shingles. The garage was built on the low part of the small hill. Two, heavy wooden doors that swung up. We put the blue barrel in the back corner of the garage that housed two Mercedes.
Hosseini didn’t come out to greet us. Or thank us for recovering his money. I wasn’t sure whether we’d recovered it or stole it. Either way, it was above my pay grade. But speaking of getting paid.
“Flores promised us four-hundred grand.” I reminded Willie as he lowered the garage door. It made a horrible wrenching noise and the big man looked around to see if any neighbors were disturbed.
“It ain’t Flores’ to give anymore.” Willie looked uncomfortable in this hood. His steps looked like they were on borrowed time.
“What’s your boss gonna do with thirty million?”
Big man rankled at that. “You just got a way about you. Thinking we got to a place, but we really didn’t, did we?”
“What place did we get to? You still holding on to cards. Playing me out. Tell me what kind of place is that, Willie?” I looked at Hosseini’s house. “Some place where you’re just the help, huh. You only allowed in the garage.”
I thought he might thump me again; put me to sleep, his jaw was rippled and tight. But his nostrils flaring was only a meditative release. “I owe the man something.” Was all he said. He footed the garage door shut.
“Jackie owe him too?” I asked.
He looked at me and then glanced across the street at another two-million-dollar home. “Ever see yourself living in a place like that?”
“If so, she paid in full.”
Big Willie nodded. “She did.”
Some brakes toiled to a stop and we both looked out to the street. A dark Crown-Vic came to a stop in front of the house. Johnson and Johnson got out and adjusted their ties and lingered around their government vehicle. Tall Johnson cleared his throat, and some belligerent crow in a eucalyptus tree yelled back at him. Short Johnson had his hands in his pockets, chin tucked to his chest like he was waiting on some paperwork to be filled out.
“Fuck they want?” Willie asked.
“They ain’t here to see us.” I told him.
His head turned towards me and his eyes were crinkled in question. “What?”
The front door to the A-Frame-a-thon opened and Mr. Hosseini stepped out and waved a hand at the agents, like they were two family members come to visit for Thanksgiving. Short Johnson kept his hands in his pockets, but Tall Johnson smiled a dumb smile and waved back.
“What the fuck?” Willie was dumbfounded.
Tall Johnson started walking up to the front door as his partner kind of hung back and pursed his lips at me. “A business man needs partners, I guess.”
“You didn’t know?”
“Fuck you.” Willie was staring at Hosseini.
The old Persian didn’t bother to look our way. Maybe his neck was too stiff from the fall he took last night. He looked like he was sucking on a Werthers, waiting for his grandchildren to get here. Hands in the nice pockets of his nice, charcoal slacks.
“Hey!” Willie raised his voice.
The agents kept walking up the cement walkway towards Hosseini; who still hadn’t acknowledged the delivery of thirty million dollars. We’d just cut the lawn and needed to go on to the next house.
“Hey, motherfucker!” Willie bellowed, and that crow in the eucalyptus squawked and took flight.
The whole neighborhood was tinged in goose-pimples. Every blade of grass in all the front lawns stood straight as light poles. Johnson and Johnson stopped a few feet away from Hosseini, who sucked his caramel and finally looked our way.
“You working with these two crackers!” Willie accused the man.
A few more birds took off, not wanting to see a man of means get yelled at in his own neighborhood like that. It was shameful. The FBI agents were thinking the same thing. Looking from us to Hosseini, like, you gonna take that kind of lip from the help. Mr. Hosseini took his right hand out of his custom pocket and held it up. Like that was all he had to do to silence the plebian.
“You motherfucker.” Willie said it so only he and I could hear it.
“What’s it for?” I yelled at the Johnsons.
They both were still looking over at us. Aviator sunglasses on in the bright morning light. The sky was a brilliant, pale blue. “What?” The tall one asked.
“The thirty million in the barrel we put in the garage.” I yelled.
Hosseini was looking around for neighbors who might be snooping. Hands back in his pockets. Tall Johnson looked at him. Hosseini shook his head.
“What kind of land deal you guys in on?” I yelled some more.
“Motherfucker.” Willie said.
I looked at him. “I hope you got more to say than that. You having a seizure?”
Willie looked at me. “It’s the fucking V.A.”
“That land is up for sale.” He spit on the ground. “Where Veteran’s Hospital is. All that shit’s for sale.”
“How you know that?” I asked.
“It’s all anybody talks about over there.”
Over there. “You at Veteran’s Affairs much?”
He shook his head. “7-Eleven.”
All the loopy-headed, sideways-walking people that come and go from the convenience store, looking for malt-liquor and hot dogs. The things that come out of their mouths are to be ignored. Just put your head down and you won’t see them. I looked from Big Willie to the Johnsons. The short one had his head down. The tall one was saying something to Hosseini.
“They’re just middlemen.” I told Willie. “What’s this got to do with Jackie?”
Hosseini and the agents were up there on top of the hill. We were down there by the garage. They were talking, doing their best to ignore us. Just make sure you pick up the grass clippings.
“Jackie figured out who her neighbors were.” Willie said, out of nowhere.
Willie turned towards me. “She figured Hosseini was keeping a stable.” He looked up the hill. “Ain’t that right!” He yelled.
They looked down at us again. This time Hosseini looked nonplussed, shaking his head. Tall Johnson looked annoyed, with his hands on his hips, he nodded at us. “LAPD’s got a warrant out for your arrest. You might wanna break camp and get out of town, I was you.”
“You was me, huh.” Willie spat in TJ’s general direction.
“I know, it’s a big stretch, putting myself in your shoes, imagining myself living in a tent in an alley.” Tall Johnson sucked his teeth and shook his head, with this stupid smirk on his face. “But life’s all about what kind of imagination you got. Like can you imagine yourself not living in a tent in an alley. Some people just see the ten feet in front of them. That’s how they get lost.”
I laughed. Some more crows took flight. “Federal government pays you to sound like a dumbass white man. That’s what’s beyond anyone’s imagination. How you can be out in the world saying and doing the stupidest shit, playing with people’s lives and get a paycheck for it? Cause you’re really bad at what you do.”
Willie laughed now.
Tall Johnson’s lips disappeared and he turned towards us. Short Johnson put a palm up, like hold on now.
“You think I’m bad at what I do.” Tall Johnson managed a forced chuckle. “What is it you’re doing with your life, Elam Mangham? Currently out of work, Elam Mangham.” He took his hands off his waist, getting loose. “Same for Big Willie Winsboro. Wanted for murder.” He looked like he might come down the hill to our level. “Of your own friend. Looks like you’re both doing an amazing job.”
Short Johnson shook his head. Hosseini looked like he wanted to go back inside. Neighbors were starting to stick their heads out.
“Again, you’re getting paid to not know a damn thing.” I told TJ. “Shit’s supposedly in your purview, but maybe talk to your partner every once in a while.”
That stopped him. The tall one looked at the short one. Short Johnson was staring hard at me. “What’s that?” Tall Johnson asked.
Hosseini said something we couldn’t hear. Johnson and Johnson seemed to listen to him and back off. Hosseini had the front door open and the agents went inside with him. Willie and I stood there and let it happen.
“Just when I thought we were getting somewhere.” I lamented.
“Let’s go.” Willie said.
I was a bit shocked. “What? We’re right here. The end of the line. That fucker can answer for Jackie.” I pointed at the house.
Willie stepped around me. “He ain’t got nothing to say. But you right, it is the end of the line.” He walked towards my truck.
Watching him step long and weary towards the stolen Mustang, thoughts of whatever blanched my brain. What now was pushing back. The nexus in the road. It doesn’t matter which road you take. Does it? They both end up in same place.
Hosseini’s house was quiet. The neighborhood went back to its own business. Willie was getting in the car. His place was known now. Or so he thought. I still didn’t know who killed Jackie Meaux.
We left Westwood. It was a nice place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there. Unless you were a millionaire with government friends. So, back down Wilshire we went. Through that beautiful gauntlet of planned palm trees and vast green lawns. Manicured for the dead. Must have been a thousand graves for dead soldiers in that cemetery across from the Fed building. A nice spread to come home to in death. It stretched up towards Bel-Air. A long field of shamrock with hardly a stone to be seen. They were all recessed markers.
“Pretty place to rest.” Big Willie mused, as we passed.
Couldn’t argue against that, so I didn’t. We cruised on under the freeway and drove through the Veteran’s center. There was a white church on a hill that was dilapidated and had a chain-linked fence around it.
“You said the place was up for sale?” I asked.
“That’s the word around the campfire.”
“Word on the street.”
Willie sighed. “Whatever you wanna call it.”
“Hosseini’s buying it?”
“He’s buying the land for what? The fed land. The Veteran’s center and all them dead people back there. What’s he gonna do with it all?”
Big Willie Winsboro looked at me. “What’s it matter?” He spit out of the window.
The flow of traffic came to a standstill. No one ever knows why this happens. A wreck, people trying to get to the beach, or just too many damn people with cars in a city indentured to rubber and cement.
“It cost a couple people their lives.” I reminded him. “That matters, motherfucker.”
That motherfucker snapped Willie out of whatever gloom he had blanketed himself in. He looked over at me, again. “I know it matters.” Was all he had to say.
“Back there at Hosseini’s, you said something about Jackie figuring out who was living next to her. What’d you mean?”
“Think about it. She’s working that building downtown. It wasn’t the only thing Hosseini had her on. You know what I mean?”
I didn’t, and let it ride through my silence, like I was thinking about it. Which I was. Jackie was working other angles for her boss. Okay. What angles?
Willie was telepathic all of sudden, nodding with my unseen mental tasks. “Assholes coming and going, carrying shit in briefcases. Shit like diamonds and opals.”
“She knew about the robberies.” I said.
“Well, she had too, if she was working security in that building.”
“But she knew the Salvadoreans were ripping certain people off.”
“She was good, she would know that.”
“She say anything to you about it?”
Big Willie made a face, like, what’d you think. We inched along Wilshire. The old, rundown, church stood vigil off to our right. It was something out of an old Western. A sanctuary on a hill. Maybe it was some old set miles away from Gower Gulch.
“Pretty sure she knew what Erik and Beebe were about.” Willie looked out at the church and seemed transfixed by it. “That Erik had to be the one that brought that stone to Ed’s attention.”
“What?” I hit the brakes, barely avoiding rear-ending an Audi. “Why would he wanna get rid of the thing?”
Willie shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe he was in a tight spot and needed two-grand.”
I shook my head. “I don’t think so.” Working it out in my head. “Dude was obsessed with the thing. He wouldn’t wanna get rid of it.”
Willie and I ruminated. Sitting in traffic, not really knowing where we were going. Back to the Jackie’s building. Back to his alley. All of it Hosseini’s anyway. Even that church was Hosseini’s soon.
“Beebe.” Willie finally said.
Cars finally started rolling and things opened up to more than a crawl. I pulled the Mustang into the 7-Eleven parking lot. It was packed with cars at this time of the morning. Ten o’clock. The only spot open was a perpendicular place out near the sidewalk. Big Willie was out of the truck and stretching before I could turn the key. He was smiling too. The sun hitting him in the face.
I got out of the car, giving him a wary look. “You alright?”
He took a deep, long breath of piss and vagrancy. “Yeah.” Was all he said.
“Good to be home, I guess.”
We hadn’t been away all that long. But in L.A. your neighborhood is your neighborhood. Even a convenience store can have the smells of home. And it was definitely a happening spot. Every spot filled in front of the place. People walking in out and Willie’s people loitering outside. Veterans and all sorts of folks living in the outdoors, in the sunshine.
We walked toward the entrance and I eyed the cars lined up in front. One of the cars looked familiar. A Crown Vic. Not the Feds though. We knew where they were. No, it had to be Merchant and Larsen. Hanging around, knowing where the man lay his head.
“Hold up.” I blurted, standing in the middle of the parking lot.
Willie looked over his shoulder at me, but kept walking.
My eyes went towards the store. There was a lot of people inside and it was hard to tell if the detectives were in there, buying donuts and coffee.
“Willie.” Trying to stop him, just for a second.
“What?” He finally stopped.
I nodded towards the Crown Vic.
Big Willie gave it a gander. Then immediately looked inside the store. He didn’t see them in there either. He shrugged and kept walking.
I went in after him.
Merchant and Larsen were not in the 7-Eleven. Maybe it was some other plain clothes cops buying coffee and donuts, or whatever mystery-meat they slap on a bun at ten o’clock in the morning. Which a bunch of construction workers were going to town on. The store was filled with yellow hardhats and orange work vests. Men with hard looks working a site across the street, on the corner of Wilshire and Barrington. A new apartment high-rise. An all-glass thing, reflecting blue sky to the multitudes.
They all looked at Willie like they knew him. All giving him knowing nods and the big man giving them back. He moved through them, towards the back of the store, opening one of the cooler doors and grabbed a big fruit-punch Gatorade. I stood near the front door, not really wanting anything in there. I stepped outside and a wrinkled, old-prune of a man asked me for a dollar. He was hanging out by the trash can. His fingers were black, like he’d plunged his hands in million cans just like it. He had a greyish-yellow beard and lines on his face that went all the way back to the Sumerians. There were no dollars to give him. Just a card to be swiped that one guards with their life. I just shrugged and mumbled at the guy and moved on past him, like a had some better station in life pulling me away.
When, in fact, I didn’t. Not much separated me from that man. There are a million hairline cracks in the trillions of miles of concrete we’ve built. It’s a miracle if you stay top-side and…
A LAPD patrol car had pulled up right in front of the mustang. Okay, lots of cops stop at 7-Elevens. But the two cops that got out of that car were familiar to me.
Martinez and Matos.
The two patrolmen that cuffed Willie and I on the curb and eventually hauled us downtown. A squirming in my gut made me think of the man’s black fingertips back there, rummaging through what I had left of any intestinal feelings.
Coincidence is just a word. And this area of West LA is no doubt their beat. But the timing is conspicuous. And that Crown Vic was still there and no plain clothes cops in sight. Martinez and Matos were both looking sheepish. Like they were there for someone specific, but didn’t want them to know that.
They ambled towards me, or the store; couldn’t quite tell. I moved to my left, where I young man was selling flowers. He had a nice set up, selling to the all the young white people, fresh out of UCLA and USC, living in the neighborhood.
Martinez and Matos eyed me and entered the store.
Strange. There’s a stolen car right there. They parked right in front of it. Not to mention they had us on the curb just yesterday morning.
I stepped past the shimmer of red and purple and yellow and orange of the flower set-up and walked towards the alley that led back to Jackie’s building and where Big Willie Winsboro lived. The way was silty with loose pebbles. An alley that hadn’t been re-paved in years. Potholes everywhere. It sloped down towards Texas Ave and even further down to Santa Monica Blvd.
The crunch underfoot was deafening. So quiet.
Down near Jackie’s building, I stopped. Willie’s tent wasn’t where it was supposed to be. A few more steps and, you could see why. Someone had ransacked it and left it in shambles. The tent and all of his possessions strewn across, and down the alley. It looked like good police work. Or so, those ham sandwiches would tell you. If they have a piece of paper in hand from a judge, they can litter as much as they want. Societal rules don’t apply.
Being a good human being is out of the door as well. You cease to be one when they think you’ve committed a crime. Especially murder.
I stood there, looking at the man’s entire life, carelessly thrown across a concrete gully in West Los Angeles, and wanted more for the man. Wondered if someone like me was doing enough.
“Your boy could use a house cleaner?” A voice to my right said.
Could tell it was fucking Merchant, right away. He was standing in the walkway of Jackie’s building, with Larsen, a crutch in his right armpit. Motherfucker was still coughing up bits of his lungs. Good for him.
“You gonna give him a ticket for littering?” I turned towards the two dicks. “Tough job you got here, throwing trash around in alleys.”
Larsen spit brown phlegm in my direction. Merchant had that stupid mustached-smirk on his face. “Unfortunately, that’s most of what this job is, sifting through trash, looking for more trash. The steamier the better.”
“Glad you’ve accepted your lot in life.”
“Have you?” Larsen asked, with a wet, popping sound in his throat.
“I don’t know. Tell me what that lot is. You motherfuckers are the life coaches.”
Larsen’s mouth tightened and he looked over at his partner. Merchant liked the life-coach line, you could see it in his smirk. Feeling loose because they had the upper hand, and pretty damn sure their prey was near. He limped closer, using the crutch.
“Surprised your up and about.” I told him.
Merchant gave a slight shrug. “Just a flesh wound and I got a big ass.” He paused for laughs. There were one. Then he proceeded to be a cop again. “Good start would be to keep walking, let your boy take the fall for all this.” Merchant said. “We like him for your friends murder.”
I looked at Merchant long and hard. Avoiding looking at the wretch Larsen. “What kind of motive you putting on him for it? What’s he get out of killing his best friend?”
Merchant finally glanced at his partner. “Look at this fucker, talking about motive, like everybody who’s ever watched a fucking Law & Order.” He shook his head.
Larsen agreed with a muffled cough. “Lay of the fucking land, these days, motive don’t amount to much, when you’re making a case.”
“These days?” I looked at Larsen like he was a dog with worms under a carport. “It’s always been that way for a black man.” Merchant was inching closer. “When have you ever needed a fucking motive to shoot us.”
“Us?” Merchant was surprised.
I shot him a hard look.
Gunshots went off somewhere.
Three, four, five shots. Then six and seven. Sounding like they were coming from up near Wilshire. Merchant and Larsen started moving in that direction. Larsen pulled his piece and shuffled up the alley. Merchant doing his best with the crutch. I went ahead.
The 7-Eleven parking lot was swarming with folks. Construction dudes and nine-to-fivers all breathing heavy and looking back towards the store. An electric lilt quivered through everyone. Merchant and Larsen pushed through and I followed, through the double doors, inside the store, the clerk leaning over the counter looking down an aisle, towards the back of the place.
Martinez and Matos had their guns drawn, two hands on metal, arms straight as arrows, standing in back aisle where all the coolers were. Their gats weren’t smoking but you could smell charcoal and sulphur. An odor that ate away at your nose hairs.
Big Willie Winsboro was up against one of the glass cooler doors. Slumped but sitting up, kinda. He had four bullet holes in him. Three more had shattered glass behind him. A golden energy drink was all over the floor, mixed with red.
Nobody said anything for a long time. We just listened to Willie breath. A rattle, they call it. Death rattle. It’s more like a crinkling sound. Like a piece of paper being scrunched up and opened back up and flattened out on a table.
A man’s life. A white piece of paper on a table.
“What the fuck?!” Merchant finally yelled.
Martinez and Matos looked around and lowered their guns.
“Why’d you shoot him?” Merchant asked.
The patrol officers just looked at each other, spooked.
“Huh?” Merchant pushed. “What’d you shoot him for?” He moved in between them, closer to Willie. “He have a weapon?”
Martinez raised a hand in Willie’s direction. There was a Gatorade bottle near his right hand. “He wasn’t complying.”
Matos backed him up. “We asked him to get down on his knees.” She looked at me. “He wouldn’t listen.”
“So, you shot him five times.” I pointed out.
They all looked at me.
“Fuck!” Merchant yelled.
The patrol officers didn’t even flinch. They holstered their guns and stood there.
“He wasn’t complying.” Larsen cut in. “Didn’t he threaten you in anyway?”
Martinez and Matos exchanged a furtive glance. “He said some things…” Matos started. “Talking shit.”
“Talking shit?!” Merchant’s mind was blown.
Matos shook her head and looked down at her feet. “He wasn’t backing down.”
“Sir, we had no other choice.” Martinez implored.
“Cause your job depended on it?” The patrol officers both shot quick looks my way. “Or your life?”
“Fuck does that mean?” Larsen hacked out the words through a grumbling cough.
“I don’t know, ask Hosseini.”
Both Martinez and Matos’ flared and the skin on their faces tightened. Bingo. Bought and paid for. You could feel their heartbeats from where they stood. The money wasn’t enough. It’s all just a trick.
“Ask who?” Larsen looked at Merchant.
But he was kneeling down in front of Willie, with his back to us. I stepped over and did the same. Merchant stood up and backed away. Big Willie wasn’t really present. Barely breathing, looking off somewhere above us into the ether. Where the motes dance and atoms collide, bringing about the white light. A different white light than that of the Southland.
“Who the fuck is Hosseini?” Larsen chirped.
“Shut the fuck up.” Merchant told him.
“What?” Larsen again.
I put my hand on his leg, like, hey man, I’m here. Someone is here with you. His eyes trickled down to me. What was I to him? Some stranger who drove him around one last time until his death.
Or drove him to it.
“I’m sorry.” Was all I could say.
Big Willie Winsboro blinked and shuttered. Merchant cursed again. Larsen was still trying to find out who Hosseini was. I stayed, crouched in front of Willie until I couldn’t feel my legs any longer. Ambulances came and more cops. Merchant and Larsen became busy with directing traffic in out of the 7-Eleven. Cops upon cops upon cops. Internal Affairs bigwigs came down the cop pipe. But no sign of the feds. Probably too busy counting their money. Hosseini hoping his place in the middle passage would still keep him unseen.
I wandered out of the store and through the parking lot and down the alley again and found myself picking up the detritus of Willie’s life. A person cleaning up and alleyway wasn’t something you would see every day. Other than those looking for aluminum cans to recycle, most of the time alleys in L.A. are defacto dumps. Need a second-hand couch or mattress, just cruise the alleys on the Westside and you’ll find the choicest hand-me-downs. You need a tent for a family of six? What about a sweet Coleman cooler? A black futon? Or a braided rug, or some Japanese lanterns? I did my best to gather everything and lay them on the fallen tent. The futon I just left off to the side, near a dumpster, for someone fresh out of one of the midwestern or southern states to fill their bachelor or studio with. The mattress too. It was a pile of someone’s life. Sitting in and alley in West LA. That’s all that was left of Big Willie Winsboro. All he had to show for his life. My eyes were wet and started dripping. It came then. Every word and puzzle in my mind dissolved into a loose flowing of letting go. Muscles were loose sinews and bones were wet chalk.
Let it all go, man. Just let it all go.
So, the mantra goes.
Say it a million times a day and maybe a notch of change in you will happen. Maybe a cool breeze will come along in your favor, to cool the brow. A little less worry and little more thankfulness.
But why let go now? Why when people have died and you’ve done nothing for them but gather their belongings? There were still questions to be answered and people to be fucked with.