Friday, July 24, 2015

Loretta's Condo

Loretta’s condo was on Burton Circle by the beach. She’d only lived there a few weeks and I had never been inside. Her old place was a small teenager’s mess with clothes laying everywhere, dishes in the sink, Ramones posters on the wall, and more of a crash-pad than an apartment. She opened the door to what I could see was a grown woman’s home.
  “Is there anyone else living here?”
  “Why do you ask?
  “It’s so much nicer than...” I looked past the living room to an open-concept kitchen and dining room furnished modern eclectic with oils and lithographs framed and placed perfectly. It was a good sized apartment that must have cost her a tidy sum.
  “Come in. Let’s not stand here gawking,” she laughed... probably at my wonderment. “All the other girls at the Rhino are throwing their money away on coke and worse... know what I mean?”
  “Who did the artwork?”
  “I did those two and four of the lithographs. The other two were done by a friend in my class. They’re my City College student projects,” she was proud and I was proud of her.
  “Geeze girl, I had no idea,” I gave one lithograph a good looking over. It was a small print no bigger than 20 by 10 of an odalisque that looked at first like a good Ingres knock-off but its face had been subtly changed. The come hither look of Ingres’ nude became more of a, come hither if you dare. Goya type demons filled the space Ingres left black in the background, “Man-oh-man. You... are... good.”
  “You know. One day I came home from a client’s joint. His was a nice place and I thought, I can do that. I did my last line of coke. I drink a little too much but I’m seeing a therapist for that.”
  “Oh good, hon. I was afraid for a minute that you’d gotten religion.”
  “Have a seat. You want coffee?”
  Loretta began talking like she’d never had anyone to talk to. She explained how she got a library card first and how the art museum was near-by, “I always liked pictures but it dawned on me that I could do almost as well as these masters if I knew how... you know... mix paints and, and use materials? You know? It was like learning magic or alchemy”
  “I do... I do.” I did too. That was why I was trying to get back the muse with my Remington. I knew exactly what she was trying to do and my own spirit was lifted by her enthusiasm.
The Loretta then changed the subject back to me. She asked, “Mike, you don’t still want to get back on at the cab company, do you?”
  “I need the cash. I can’t stay on your couch forever.”
  “Mike, I gotta tell you something. There’s a reason Doc let you hang,” her face turned sour, “Think, the San Ysidro Ranch back when I first told you I was turnin’ tricks... remember?”
  “You were crying.”
  “What? You still go to the Ranch sometimes though...”
  “I’m talkin’ ‘bout when I was fifteen. I’d been goin’ to client’s places like that since I was twelve.”
  “Twelve?” I was stunned. It wasn’t enough that she was jail bait at fifteen but... “How... what?”
  “I was living with foster parents then. They sent me to school in a cab because we lived in Painted Cave. The same driver picked me up. My so-called folks made like it was safer that way... a driver we could trust.
  “So-called? What do you mean?” this was beginning to sound sicker than I could’ve imagined.
  “They set me up with him and he set me up with dates.”
  “... And the money?”
  “I never saw the money. Between the driver and my folks I was given enough for lunch money. Get the picture now?”
  “Shit, like real pimps. Who was the driver? I’ll kill the fucker.” I went through a list trying to remember the cabbies in those days.
  It gets worse. Sometimes it was San Ysidro Ranch... sometimes it was the Biltmore cottages... it wasn’t always the same people and other times it was a big group with other girls. The man and his ole lady there... they was especially into little girls.
  “Surely County Welfare or the police would’ve...?”

  “I couldn’t tell who they were but that they were all very rich and wore leather masks. you know, all that S&M gear.”
  “You might have set them up some way then,” I advised, embarrassed I said anything when it was too late to do anything about it.
  “It ain’t like the movies, Mike. I was twelve years old... everyone I was supposed to trust had been screwing me over in more ways than one. How was I to know who to trust? I went along with it and tried to make the best of a bad situation. Foster kids are survivors Mike. We learn early on how to get by.”
  “I assume it was still going on when I picked you up that night.”
  “Yes and no. Something bad happened. I ran away on my thirteenth birthday... as far away as I could get. I ended up in Vegas.”
  “From the frying pan into the fire,” I said.
  Shit, I was hearing things that were incomprehensible to me... and I thought I was jaded. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know any more but she had me in the grip of anger and confusion, “What brought you back here? Was it that bad there?”
  “No, it was good. I mean... it was all I knew. I learned the trade with, and then without, a pimp in Vegas. I already knew how to handle the work but I learned the business side of it ... the salesmanship... from switch and bait to teasing up the price... how to work the tricks for more money... know what I mean?”
  Damn, I thought... she could teach a thing or two about business to MBA’s.
  “I came back to Santa Barbara to do a job and maybe get even with... I was only thinking about the money those bastards took from me... what they made me do... but not the cost of... what? My innocence? My soul?”
  “You know this is a lot for me to digest. You said something happened at the Ranch?”
  “Someone you knew was there.”
  “Who? Was it Bob? Was he the driver that set you up? Was it Doc and his ole lady that...? I’ll skin ‘em alive.”
  “Take it easy, Mike. I was too old for Doc by then...” she stopped herself as though she’s already told me more than she thought I should know. “and besides, Bob helped me.”
  “Oh no. Too old at fifteen? Then, why were you crying?”
  “It was nothin that was done to me if that’s what you’re askin’. Just say... except maybe foreign objects. I shot the guy up with a cocktail. He wanted a real cocktail... you know? I’d been around by then but I never heard of people injecting Coke in their Johnson. But, I did that and made sure he got more than enough H in his arm...”
  “The driver I knew?” I had to think... I hadn’t seen the connection, “Perry... yeah, he died of an overdose. But they found his body on Mountain Drive.”
  “I paid three grand to have him dumped.”
  “Three grand... three years ago... three years before that. You like threes girl?” I tried to lighten it up just for my sanity’s sake.
  “Just the way it turns out.”
  “Okay. Fine with me but let me put together what I figured out so far. I know that Doc is the guy in the mask... am I right?”
She didn’t need to answer.
  “I’m not sure from what you told me whether the woman was always with was his Rachelle," I thought about it some more; huge mams are regular fare in porn for S&M. " I'm thinking it was a mistress. So far so good, eh?”
  Loretta’s face told me more than anything she might have said but she finally talked, “I think Ginny just went along. She’s a Christian and if it wasn’t for her I might not be here to tell you the rest.”
  “Bob, where does he fall into this sewer?”
  “Bob knew you and I were friends. I’m sorry. I’m so very sorry.”
  “... and Bob knew about. Shit, people personalize drivers all the time. Hookers, dealers, and the middle of the night junkies trying to score... it’s the bread and gravy of the graveyard shift.”
  “For a graveyard cabbie, I can’t believe how naive you are sometimes, Mike,” she affectionately teased.
  All I knew was that I was being tutored on the intricacies of the depravity in the underbelly of Santa Barbara by a teenager and it didn’t sit well with my ego. I had to let her know that I wasn’t that dumb, “Bob dumped Perry’s body.”
  “So, now you know why they got rid of you and now you know that it will be fatal if you insist on going back. They will take you back just to keep you close.”
  “Is there a connection between this shit and the DEA busting the drug ring?”
  “Did you ever wonder why the news stopped talking about the others taken down in the bust; that a washed up drunk and alleged drug dealer gets charged with public intox. It’s puzzling how it was all over the second page of the News Suppress; implications tying you to complicity in it, isn’t it?”
  “You learning all those big words in City College? Naw, I just figured they had the wrong guy and that it was a big mix up and...”
  “Shit Mike. This is so much bigger than you’d ever dream... not in your worst nightmare.” She picked up our coffee mugs, “I’ve been up all night. You want more coffee or do you want to go to bed with me?”
  Going to bed with someone as young as Loretta, even though she was of age, was still child molestation as far as I was concerned.   “I can’t, Loretta, you know I appreciate the offer.” I knew that to her it was just a good friendly gesture and that was all it meant. I was proud of myself... “I’ll just use the couch.”
  “Come to bed with me Mike. We don’t have to do anything. I just want someone to hold.”

  Okay, I bent my few standing morals a bit but I never took advantage of her. Had I done so, I would have been no better than Doc and Bob. If people asked me whether I was sleeping with her I could honestly answer the question either way; literally but not figuratively, like the old Henny Youngman type jokes, “Did you sleep with my wife?” Say, “Not a wink.” and leave them wondering.

Thursday, July 23, 2015


Besides working on my epic novel about the Northwest I've a few short stories. The one I'm presenting here started out as a short story but may very well turn into something bigger than that. A crime novel? 

Changes (1989)

Salesmanship 101
(Selling Yourself)

  It was the beginning of the end of an era in my life when I had my cab license yanked by the City. I had been at a dead end for several years and I didn’t care. Cab driving always gave me the independence and pocket cash I needed to survive; enough for a room at The Virginia Hotel; a place to stay invisible driving at night; and, more importantly, enough to keep a bar tab. But now that was gone.
  I dumped the jar on the dresser and separated the pennies from the dimes and quarters. There was enough for a pack of generic smokes and a pint of Popov’s at Jerry’s. The pennies I might put in rolls later and take ‘em to the bank. I didn’t necessarily want a drink but I definitely needed a drink.
  I slipped out through the lobby while, Lucas, the desk clerk, sat on his fat ass behind the check-in counter reading a Hustler or Penthouse. He was a spider waiting for its prey all day without moving, the lobby was his web. When anyone touched the carpet at the bottom of the stairs he sensed the vibration at the desk. I made it all the way to the door before he called out, “Mike, you need to…”
  “Yeh, I know. I’ll come up with it… maybe this week?”
  “I’ve let you go a week already. The boss…”
  “C’mon Lucas, I’ve always paid up. The cab company told me I could dispatch and I’m waiting for a call to get a shift.”
  “Okay, but I want to see you before my shift ends tomorrow with good news or you’re out.”
  Spiderman was a good guy. He was just doing his job. He’d covered me several times in the past but he had to answer to the boss. I went back to the counter to apologize, “Lucas do you know how humiliating it is to beg another week reprieve?”
  “Humiliating? Look at me. I sit here at a dead-end job putting the squeeze on losers for the rent. I probably have a year or two left of my shitty life and you talk about humiliation?”
  “Never looked at it that way, Spiderman. I’ll pay up soon enough, okay?”
  “It’s Lucas, not Spiderman. Friday… no later than five, Mike,” he shook his head, “and that’s final.”
  I was out the door before he finished. I got my smokes and pint before it occurred to me to give the company one more try before I’d take a toke off the pint. I didn’t need liquid courage to land my ass in jail again. After being put on hold ad infinitum every time I’d called the past week I knew what to expect. I just wanted someone to squirm face to face. The company’s offices were down on East Yananoli, near South Salsipuedes, and not too far a walk if I took the tracks.

  It’s an uneasy feeling to be in a place where I was no longer a part of the business after working for the company several years. It was like we were family but I had become a ghost. Bob, the dayshift dispatcher, sat behind the glassed-in office at the dispatch desk and swiveled around to check me out. He looked at me was as though an intruder had broken through the barricades.
  Dr. Spawn, was in. I could see his door ajar when I stopped at Ginny’s desk. Dr. Spawn was one of us; an old cabby that hooked into Rachelle ten years before. He was once called #76, Larry, but now he insists we use his formal name; title and all. Drivers like Doc and Bob were the opposite breed of cab drivers from my kind. I was resigned to being a graveyard hack and harbored no ambitions other than to stay out of sight, wanting nothing to do with the wrangling of the territorial imperatives between drivers and the front office.
  There are those in every cab company, however, who thrive on pushing ahead in that kind of shark infested waters. They can haul groceries and church ladies all day without losing sight that they are fishing for a widow with enough inheritance and to glean what they can. Patient as any fly fisher, they cast and wait to reel one in. 
  Rachelle was in her late fifties when Doc sank a hook in her. He was a smooth talking thirty something then and she fell big time for his pitch. He gave her a free ride to Vegas where they got hitched by an Elvis impersonator, and that was the last time he did anything for her that came from his own pocket.
  Ginny pretended to be on the phone ignoring me. I stood there for several lifelong minutes before she acknowledged my presence.
  “Hi, Mike. What can I do for you?”There was an ice from her tenor that was unsettling. She was warmer towards me the last time I saw her.
  “I need to talk to Doc.”
  “I’m sorry, Mike, Dr. Spawn’s not in…” Ginny held the phone receiver between her ample breasts. She kept them locked up under a heavy duty bra and puritan white cotton long sleeve blouse adorned with a silver cross.
  Doc’s door shut quietly, “Don’t tell me that. Did a ghost just close it?”
  “You can come back when Dr. Spawn isn’t busy, Mike,” her tone became just a tad warmer but not enough to thaw the ice. “I’ll tell Rachelle you were here when she comes in.”
  All the drivers used to stop by the receptionist desk to chat with Ginny just to be in the presence of her larger than Dolly Parton’s Alpine rack. She was a freak of nature for sure. When Ginny became Doc’s plaything we were only allowed as far as the dispatch office by the front door into the office to make our drop. The fact that Ginny was a devout Christian made her exceptionally attractive taboo and Doc’s prohibition only slowed us down a little until after he left the office.
  I knew Doc wasn’t busy. He didn’t run the company. Rachelle and Bob did that. Doc only owned it; bought boats and Mercedes and business trips to Paris with Ginny when Rachelle was away on real business. He was in charge of PR and advertising. His wife was the money behind it all. She knew about Doc and his receptionist but looked the other way. 
  Rachelle was, like Doc, a minister that preached in one of those non-denominational charismatic churches. Divorce was not an option and, besides, Doc had some other grip on her bank account she’d signed away when the romance was hot. That was before she converted Ginny and Doc did all the laying on of hands.
  I’m really not all that into monster mammies on women but my eyes couldn’t help themselves. I alternatively gave Ginny’s breasts the once over before nailing her eye to eye. I planted both hands on her desk and demanded, “Ginny, don’t give me any shit.”
  Her magnificent bosom rose and fell with each breath, “Mike, I want you to know that Jesus loves you. He died for your...”
  Bob came out of dispatch. “Get back in there Bob,” I turned to face him, “The phone’s ringing.”
  Bob stood a minute and considered whether there was anything he could do. We went back a few years. There was a time when he could have mopped the floor with me but he’d grown soft in the office and wasn’t about to take me on now. I passed Ginny’s desk and opened Doc’s door. Doc was standing a few feet back and raised his hands palms out.
  “Mike, good to see you. I was just going to tell Ginny to let you in,” Doc backed behind his desk and sat down, “Have a seat.”
  “Cut the shit, Doc,” I was brief with him. Behind Doc, on the wall above his head where he sat, hung two certificates nicely framed. It was his PHD diploma and a doctorate of Divinity from Universal Ministries. A few of us knew about how Doc got his degree. It was a con like everything else in his life. He had somehow incorporated, formed his own college, and turned in a thesis. The fact that he was the college’s president, dean of graduate studies, and only student, made no difference on the sheepskin. Bob was the entire review board that accepted Doctor Lawrence Spawn’s thesis. It amounted to little more than a list of stats about cab drivers... marital status... military service... the average longevity... the age range... and education.
  “Doc, I need a break. I know you need a graveyard dispatch now that Pete’s in jail.”
  “Mike, you know I can’t rehire you so soon after…”
  “And you know damned well I wasn’t busted on the job like they were... it wasn’t drugs.”
  “It just doesn’t look right, Mike. Made the news… big DEA sweep.”
  “Yeh, like I’m a king pin living in the flea-bag Hotel Virginia.”
  “Drunk in public; creating a nuisance; assaulting a police officer...” Doc was flipping a pencil. He missed the catch and it rolled to the floor.
  “They dropped all the charges ‘cept drunk in public,” I picked up the pencil and handed it to him, “Beside, Hell, I was at home... not even in my cab... not even in public!”
  “The city still pulled your license,” Doc started chewing on the pencil. I couldn’t take my eyes off it wondering if he would choke on the eraser, “I can’t do anything right away.” The pencil caused him to talk through his teeth.
  “That’s an excuse Doc and you know it.” I approached his desk,     “Dispatch is for drivers that get their license yanked. Who else would want the job?”
Bob had returned to Ginny’s desk with a long cop flashlight in his hand.
  It was true. Dispatchers get paid barely above minimum wage and supplement their income by squeezing tips from drivers. No tip... no good fares.... all’s fair.
 “Look Mike, I have to clean up this place. Times are changing and Sergeant Lopez is getting on all our asses. After last week the City’s leaning on him too. Go to Schick/Shadel; to a rehab or AA. Let ‘em know you got sober... get it on paper when you graduate.”
  “Bullshit, Doc. Clean up all you want... but you know damned well you ain’t so clean yourself.”
  “So, you must know. But since I found the Lord...”
  “Don’t give me that Lord shit, Doc,” and pointing to the wall I threw his crap back at him, “You can get widows and schoolgirls to wipe your ass with that paper but it won’t work with me!”
  Doc stood from his chair to escort me out but I was on a roll and knew I must have said something that got his goat but I had no idea of the implications. His face turned from pasty white to beacon red like he’d been hit in the nuts, “Mike, if you don’t leave now I’m calling nine-one-one!”
  I hadn’t ever heard the old smooth talker con-man yell like that. Doc stood from his chair holding the phone receiver away from his ear.
  Bob opened the door, “You need help Doc?” He lifted the flashlight like he was ready to use it.
  I slammed my body against Bob and shoved him out the door so hard he landed on Ginny’s lap with one of her bullet breasts inches from his mouth. I was out of the building and never did see him rise from Ginny’s lap. I suppose I did him a favor landing him there between her Matterhorns.

  There it was. A chapter in my life had just ended. I didn’t want to but it was time to pack up everything and sneak out the hotel by the next night. I had to put my stuff somewhere. My Remington... Maybe Loretta will keep that for me. I made it out through the lobby. Lucas waved and smiled. I waved and smiled back at the old spider.
  I needed a drink. My feet took me up State Street to Pal’s. It was a sad walk that took me there. The old Kingston Trio song... Hang down your head Tom Dooly and its repeated chorus replayed... for boy you’re bound to die... over and over... a dirge. I got to the Snake Pit bar where Loretta stood outside smoking a cigarette.   “You want company, Mike?”
  “Company, sure,” I smiled. Loretta made me feel good. She was a real friend, “but I can’t pay.”
  “Well, sailor, your credit’s good.”
Loretta had been a personal, a regular customer, since she was fifteen. When I first drove her around town I thought she told me she was going home late at night from babysitting or a date. I didn’t care whether her story was a lie of not. However, home was always a different place: the Biltmore cottages; Hope Ranch or Montecito mansions; or humble tract homes in Goleta. She eventually told me she was turning tricks but I knew it.

  I'd picked her up from the San Ysidro Ranch and my curiosity got the best of me when she got in my cab crying. I wondered what had upset her so much and tried to console her, “What’s wrong. You get fired or something. It isn’t so bad getting fired. You’re young... something better will come up.”
  “I don’t know what makes people so sick,” she sobbed.
  “You gotta look past that in a job like mine,” I said, wondering how I could get to what was really going on with her. I probed,       “You must do good babysitting at places like this.”
  She stopped sobbing, “I’m not a baby sitter. I get three hundred bucks a pop for just taking my clothes off and dancing for a half-hour. I’ve gotten as much as two grand for more... you know, an overnight stay.”
  “Two thousand dollars! Whew... pretty good goin’ girl. That’s a far cry from that back pack and nowhere to go when we first met.” I thought, Shit... Real jail bait. Isn’t it illegal... or, at the least immoral, for me to know this?
  “Well, most of ‘em start out with a dance. I give ‘em a discount. But if they want more they gotta pay.” She grinned seductively, “By the time I’m done with a dance and tease, they always want more.”
  “You get that most of the time?”
  “Yep,” she teased, “If I asked that much up front I doubt if I would get it. But ya gotta hit ‘em up gradual. It’s an art. You want a taste, Mike?”
  “Naw, girl. You’re jail bait. I can’t do it. It would be like doin’ my own daughter.”
  “More like doing my daddy for me too, ha!” she had a laugh that rippled a small stream from her belly.
  “Maybe when you’re legal, eh?”
  It could be said I was aiding and abetting child abuse but I was ambivalent about it. I was certainly not one that would’ve been able to change her even if I did snitch on her Johns. That was a while ago and we’ve had a few good times since then but not that kind. We’d done a few lines, or a joint now and then, but it became a relationship of trust we both needed. By the time she was eighteen it was too much of a close friendship that I wasn’t about to ruin with my libido.

  “You look like you need a drink, Mike. What’s goin’ on?”
We were approaching De La Guerra arm in arm like lovers would. People often turned to notice this young girl with a man like me in his late forties. One guy approached her as though I wasn’t there and asked, “Is he your father?”
  She snuggled closer to me, “No, he’s my pimp.”
The creep checked me out making eye contact the way punks in jail face each other off.
  I would have decked him for that but Loretta was capable of handling it herself.
  “You couldn’t afford two minutes with me,” she blew smoke between us two stags rutting, “Shit head, make that one minute.”
  The guy backed off and walked away.
  I liked the way that, when Loretta was with me, she always acted as though we were a couple and that suited me fine. I think it was her way of telegraphing to others that she was off-duty and to be left alone.
  Searching her face for sympathy, I said, “Doc’s not going to hire me back. I’m out of a job and soon to be homeless. I’ll have to move into the van.”
  “Oh, boo-hoo. Always on the edge, Mike. You’ll come through. You need money? I can put up your rent.”
  I didn’t like owing anyone anything. It meant they owned a piece of me and I didn’t enjoy that idea at all, “Isn’t it bad enough that you’re buying my drinks today?”
  “Oh, it's okay. I’ll buy ‘em. C’mon, Mike. Cheer up. It ain’t that bad. You told me once, pride ain’t an asset.”
  “I could use you for a place to stash my crap though.” It didn’t hurt my dignity for her to do that much for me.
  “Sure, Mike. What are friends for?”
  Claire was tending bar when we took our stools. She liked Loretta but wouldn’t serve her anything stronger than a soda water. She was already crossing the line to serve her but she could take a chance on a soda water, “A soda with lime for you and a beer on tap. Right?”
  “See my new I.D. Claire... how do I look?”
  “You look eighteen... hmmm, Laura Rogers... March 21, 1969? That’s a good one. And, if you are what that I.D. says, I must be eighty five,” Clair laughed.
  “She kind of looks like you if you dye your hair.” I said.
  “Madonna must be forty Claire but you look as good as her,” Loretta was sucking up while I snuck the pint to her glass and dumped a taste into her soda, “I mean it, Claire. You’ve held your age well.”
 “I saw that, Mike. Madonna’s thirty-one... two... maybe three,” Claire corrected, poured a shot of schnapps and downed it. “But time, sweetheart, will have us all joining the ranks of old broads soon enough and you'll have to retire that body.”
  I lightly elbowed Loretta, “You’re eighteen, little woman. You think anyone over thirty’s ancient. Like we did in the sixties.”
  “Back to your stuff, Mike, old people talk is boring,” she sipped her soda water. “I can take some of it but my place doesn’t have much storage.”
  “All I need, really, is a place to keep my typewriter where I can use it.”
  “You can hide it in the ice room... Back where the boss won’t see it,” Claire offered.
  “Look, Mike, my door’s always open. Get the point. You helped me when I was a kid,” Loretta countered Claire’s offer.
  “You girls bidding for my attentions,” I was feeling a little high thinking of the possibilities. I eyed Loretta’s young abs exposed above hip-huggers with a gemstone tucked into her God’s eye of a belly button.
  “Your attention but not your intentions,” Claire said with a shrug.
  Loretta was used to leering old men but got serious with Claire... almost in tears, “Did I ever tell you about when I rode in his cab in the middle of the night with everything I owned in that ragged old backpack.”
  “Oh, c’mon, a thousand times. Where did you find her, Mike?”
  “The Snake Pit, why?”
  “She’s repeating old stories.”
  “I know… I know. Sorry.” Loretta returned to the subject, “You’re used to writing at night Mike. The bars close at two. What if you want to bang on that damned Remington and it’s locked up in the ice room?”
  That was exactly what I wanted to hear... all pride aside... but I said, “Pencil and paper worked for Poe.”
  Claire grinned, “See. Don’t let him fool you. That’s what he wanted all along, huh Mike?”
  I am a man after all and I have to admit my mind was swimming with the erotic idea of sharing an apartment with Loretta. My silence was most likely mistaken for hesitation but my sub-Mike was already introducing her to my family, marrying her, and slipping between the sheets. It’s an ego thing. Lonely men like me dream of entering a room with a fantastic young women in arm... it smells of success... I imagine the envy... he must be rich to have that! The best I usually get is another bar-fly past her prime like me.
Loretta must have read my mind because she patted my back sympathetically cooing, “Now, grand-pa, you got the couch as long as you need it. Okay?”
  “Now, all I’ve got to do is to get back with the company. I kinda blew it today.”
  Claire scowled, “What did you do now, you knucklehead.”
I laughed. It always made me laugh when Claire or Loretta called me a knucklehead. From anyone else it’s not so funny but there’s an arcane cuteness about that word coming from them. I didn’t feel like explaining it. Claire knew about the bust and everything but she didn’t know about how or why I was shut out that morning. I didn’t feel much like explaining it to her either because I had no idea what was going on with Doc and Bob.
  “It was your last chance, Mike. What are you going to do now?” Claire asked. I could tell she’d merely posed a rhetorical question so I didn’t answer.
  “C’mon,” Loretta coaxed me off the stool, “We’ve got things to do and they ain’t gonna get done sittin’ here all day.”

  Claire called out as we left, “Don’t sell yourself short, Mike. You’re better than you think you are.”

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Coldwater Hotel & Casino

Merritt, BC
 Archie paced as the women took Colleen into the plush, private, domain of men in the back of the casino. She had been in the kitchen when her water broke and helped onto the freshly felted table in the billiards room by Sarah and one of the upstairs girls, Jill. The Doc had been losing at roulette anyway. He called Sarah, Leah and Jill, to help him. The girls, Leah and Sarah, brought towels and a bucket of hot water through the sliding oak door of the men's realm that they had been prohibited from entering before. Leah set the bucket down next to where the Doc was mopping Colleen’s brow and expertly placed the towels next to Doc's left arm.

Sarah scowled at ten year old Leah. She'd caught her taking a Cuban from the humidor to whiff it. Leah found the smell of cigar smoke that lingered in the room pleasant to her and savored the aroma of rich tobacco leaves wrapped tightly in a ten-inch stick as thick as the Doc’s cane.

Sarah was the eldest and, at twelve years of age, had the air of authority that was undeniably one that helped Colleen hold the family together. One disapproving nod from Sarah automatically had the cigar back into the humidor from Leah’s hand without a word of protest.

Sarah’s full attention was on her mother after putting a sheet over her body for modesty’s sake. Colleen didn’t care a whit for modesty then and neither did Jill, who nervously tried for eye contact from the Doc. The poor girl had no idea what to do next. Sarah nodded towards the sheets over Colleen's feet and, with a knowing smile, ordered, "Take your end, Jill, and fold it to her hips."

Relieved. Jill followed Sarah's lead throughout the rest of the ordeal.

Colleen could care for only one thing and wasn’t showing anything but a determined grimace with each wave of contractions that had taken control of her body. She had done this five times before but it was always new to her. The first time she’d done this with Sarah’s birth, Colleen was fifteen... a month before her sixteenth birthday in the year 1894. That was the first. Two years later she gave birth to a son, Clyde. Four years after that she had Dwayne; ten years later, an accident, Leah; and five years later another accident, Calvin. That was eleven years before this one and Colleen had accepted the fact that, as long as she was with Archie, her belly would be filling up with one accident after another until she died of toxic shock in labor like she almost did twice before.

Sarah took over mopping Colleen’s brow while Doc moved down to the other end of the table. She told Leah, “This one going to be a girl.”

“Rrrrgh....guhhh!” Colleen pushed.

“How do you know that?” Leah asked.

“Because Mom said so. She promised.” Sarah protested.

“It don’t happen that way.” Leah was quick to point out, “God puts a thing on ‘em no matter what is promised.”

“No he doesn’t!”

“God like’s boys better than girls. I saw a picture of him in one of Dad’s books up there.”

“Rrrrgggghhhhh.... uhhhhhh!”

“Push,” the Doc comforted, adding, “The head is breaching... you’re almost there.”


Sarah counted on her fingers, asserting with authority, “It’s mathematic.”

“What do you mean, mathematic?” Leah challenged.

One, two... two girls and three boys. Gotta even it out. God likes odd numbers. Threes sevens, twenty-one... Three girls and three boys, huh Mom.”


“Waaaah.... waaaah..... whaaaaa!”

Leah looked intensely at the babe’s crotch when Doc held the crying baby up and laid it on Colleen’s heaving chest. The sound of crying muffled as its tiny lips wrapped themselves around the nipple in the midst of the soft cushion of her breast.

 Disappointment washed over Sarah’s face because she was where she could see the babe’s little package from behind.

“Is it Max or Maxine, Sarah?” Leah was eager to know. “I can’t see... I think I saw... Can you see from there? Did God put one on it?”

Sarah said nothing to Leah but, with a stern face she stomped a foot, “But Mom. You promised!”

“Yes! Yes! It’s Max, ain’t it!” Leah shouted gleefully, “I told you so.”

Archie burst into the door when he heard the babe’s cry. He stopped in his tracks and glared at the Doc, “What were you thinking, you fucking quack!”

Doc looked up from washing his hands not knowing what got Archie;s goat, “Look, I got no control over it... a buck or doe.”

“No, you idiot. It’s the felt! You ruined the felt! I just had it put on,” without thinking of what he was doing, Archie put a hand in the amniotic mess that had spread over his cherished fresh green felt at his end of the table. He pulled his hand back like he’d put it on a hot grill. “Throw me a god-damned towel!”

Colleen’s eyes were shut and she had shut off her hearing too. A mother can do that after two or three kids.

“Get her the fuck off that table!” Archie turned to leave and, on the way out to the big room shouted, “Now! Bring her up to her bed!”

Jill shrank back in terror at Archie's demands.

"Leah, take Max. C'mon Mom." Sarah motioned for Jill's help, "It's okay, Jill. The hard part's over."

The hotel was a three story one. The first floor was the lobby that opened to a larger room with a roulette wheel a half dozen blackjack and poker tables. The second floor had several rooms for patrons of the hotel and for Jill and the other upstairs girls. The girls came with the deed to the hotel that Archie had won at the poker table and he saw no reason to let these most profitable assets go in spite of Colleen's objections.

Leah protested, "He's too heavy for me. You take him Jill."

Jill was happy to be trusted to carry the baby and to have something to do. Holding Max she felt his weight, "He must weigh ten pounds!" Then she cooed, "Yes, you are a big boy, big Max."

The name stuck, Big Max would live up to this moniker magnificently.

Archie and Colleen’s suite took up the entire third floor. It had a sitting room, a master bedroom and three other small bedrooms for the children. Leah and Sarah had one bed. Dwayne and Calvin in another and Clyde had a room to himself. Now, with Max on the scene Clyde was going to have to make room for one of his other brothers.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Adrienne: The Chaos of Desire

Adrienne: The Chaos of Desire, is a historical novel in two parts. Books I and II: The lives of a Basque child, Iniga, the Maquis, Alesandro Otxoa along with the journalist Marcel Fournier, come together against the slaughter of General Ochoa’s Moroccan shock troops during the Asturias miners’ strike of '34 and into the oppression of Franco’s regime in the 1970’s. In Book II: Marcel’s daughter, Adrienne Fournier is at war with the world at the end of the millennium in the ruins of a squandered inheritance.

Adrienne picks up where Couper’s second novel, The Book of Job Revisited, leaves off. Book I: The Maquisard, speaks of an era of chaos that began with the Asturias miners’ strike of 1934 and relationships born of Revolution, the Spanish Civil War, World War II, and the Franco Regime of post-war Spain. The violence, intrigue, and betrayal of the era gave birth to the next generation. Book II: The Tyranny of Chaos, continues the story of post-war prosperity and a generation split between the values of their parents and dissipation of drug addiction and nihilism featured in the marriage between the addict, Adrienne Fournier, and Nick Baker, a borderline psychopath. Adrienne courageously struggles with abuse and alcoholism. Kidnapped by a Tijuana drug trafficker, her former lover Max McGee and his fellow cab driver, Jimbo, become involved in a climatic rescue along with her husband, Nick, and godfather, Alesandro.

Friday, December 19, 2014

1934: Asturias Miners' Strike

A group of villagers were huddled at the side of the tracks leading into a mining town nestled between steep hills. A woman patted a young girl on the head and slipped the girl behind her skirts as the Guardia Civil ordered the group to line up. The girl scurried away and down into the arroyo behind. The woman raised her fist in the air as a distraction and a last gesture of defiance with a shout, “Viva la Revolucion!”
A man joined her with raised fist, as did the others in the group. “Viva la…”
The girl scurried away down into the arroyo before some of the bodies, neighbors she had known since she was born, fell after a loud volley of Mausers. Then came a horrible silence except for a restrained moan, a few pops and cracks of pistols. She watched from her hiding place under a boulder as the refrain from an old lullaby passed softly from her lips: “Los pollitos dicen los pollitos dicen pío, pío, pío cuando tienen hambre tienen frío.” Tears clouded her vision. It would be the last time she afforded tears to wash her face for over thirty years.
In English the whole verse is: “The little chicks say, ‘pio, pio, pio,’ when they are hungry... when they are cold. The hen looks for the corn... gives them food, and gives them shelter. Under her wings sleeping chicks huddle together to hasten another day!”
Sleeping… hung-over… soothed by the lullaby rhythm of steel wheels on steel tracks… chunk-cat-clack…chunk-cat-clack… chunk-chunk… Then noise: a whistle… awake… another town… steam hissed… exploded from pistons, escalated by the chatter and clamoring of another group of volunteers boarding. Alesandro peered through half-shut lids to watch the eager new ones standing in the aisle, falling against each other whenever the train jerked to a start. He’d been crammed into a seat on the wooden bench of the car, shoulder to shoulder, with young men… young or younger than he. Their voices were, from the start in Madrid, loud and boisterous… songs of the revolution… “A Las Barricades!” Bravado smothered fear and anticipation, driven by the cheers of crowds alongside the tracks. Red and black flags on “la locomotora del destino” chugged their cars away from the station and from the safety of homes and chalkboards of classrooms. After this disruption of not-thought, his attention turned to the changing Castilian landscape that passed his window… images flashed by. The train wound its way towards Asturias; another country on the far side of Spain. Some aboard were CNT labor unionists, veterans of street fighting, but most were volunteers: metropolitan boys with pink hands. The propaganda posters depict men; masculine men with chiseled chins and muscled forearms, fists thrust skyward over the barricades... men, not boys… boys who hoped to be greeted with cheers and welcomed by the calloused hands of miners holding firm at the barricades of Gijón and Oviedo, they would be heroes; heroes alright, dead heroes.
The train that left Madrid was loaded up with untrained young and eager faces armed by little more than the enthusiasm and the naivety of youth. Only a few had seen blood from more than a scratch before and were unprepared for what awaited them in the mining towns in and above Oviedo or Gijón on the Biscay coast. From Madrid they crossed north through the heartland of Castile-Leon and into a region of rugged mountains. Towns and stations that prominently posted the red and black flags of the Revolucion flashed by Alesandro’s window like in a dream. The rails were controlled by the anarchist labor union, the CNT, most sympathetic to the cause. But, this was an irony of a civil war full of ironies that, in cooperation with the new Republic in Madrid, the same union trains, controlled by the same union, would fill its cars with experienced and hardened Moroccan troops. Regular Army troops of Colonel Yague and General Ochoa, steamed towards Basque Country under orders of the Generals of the Republic in Madrid, Francisco Franco and Manuel Goded. Sent to quell the miners’ general strike that had crippled most of the country.
Next to Alesandro snored the fledgling journalist; his brother by adoption and Euskara blood.  Euskara blood knows no nation but the Basque Country of the coastline and mountains along the Bay of Biscay and the Pyrenees Range of Southern France and Northern Spain.  Their bond, however, was stronger than the fraternity of blood. Alesandro Otxoa was orphaned at five years of age by the pistoleros of the Guardia Civil. Alesandro Otxoa had been embraced and given a home near Biarritz by Marcel’s half-Basque father out of loyalty to the Otxoa family. It happened during the general strikes at La Canadiense in 1919. One of his earliest memory was that of a door being kicked in… of his father’s shouting… his mother’s cursing… screams… both taken out the door… the sound of clap-crack pistol retorts… their bodies lifeless on the street.
Alesandro took his secondary level education at the Lycée Militaire and thus had an inkling of military experience: little more experience than to know how to load and shoot a rifle, to march in drills, and to study rudimentary military history on his own in the school’s library. Therefore he felt responsible for, and protective of, Marcel, whose military ambitions were next to nil and who wasn’t supposed to be on this train in the first place.
The storm clouds forming in the atmosphere over the Second Republic of Spain were dark with foreboding: a civil war of which the life of Alesandro (Gotson) Otxoa would be entangled, from his first taste of combat in this one week in October of 1934, until his imprisonment in Carabanchel in the mid nineteen-fifties.
Alesandro was determined, and obligated by his heritage, to leave the comfort and safety of Bayonne at twenty years of age to join the CNT of the anarchist movement rising up in Barcelona. There in Madrid, as soon as he heard the news of the strike, he tried to bid farewell to Marcel over wine in a café alongside of other boys eager to become men.
“You aren’t going without me,” Marcel protested.
“There is too much going on here, Marcel. The people need your voice. Someone has to keep an eye on the political wrangling of Euro…” Alesandro rattled off his argument staccato knowing his words were falling on deaf ears.
“I won’t have it Alesandro, the hottest story in all of Spain is in Asturias.”
Taking a sip, holding the bottle to his lips without mocking, he said sincerely, “You’re an academic, Marcel. How well would you… would you be able to kill a man?”
“Ha, I can. Just as well as anyone. Hell, we are all amateurs!” he argued.
The brothers got drunk… so very drunk that Alesandro barely remembered agreeing to board the train singing what would be the anthem of the revolution, “La Rhumba La Carmella,” and chanting “¡Unidad, Proletaria Hermanos!” with the others. His stomach sick, he came to and swore to himself that he’d never get drunk again. It was an oath that he kept except for an occasional toast or to wash down stale bread. Alesandro knew from the time he awoke aboard that train he was going to keep his vigilance guardedly; for, one afternoon, his guard was down and his drunkenness nearly cost the life of his little brother.
The miners were waiting behind the barricades by the time Alesandro and Marcel had gotten through to the hills above Oviedo.  An eagle’s aerie of a mining town nestled on the side of a precipice at the end of a snaking narrow track was fortified with makeshift catapults ready to launch crates loaded with sticks of dynamite from behind the barricades against the rails leading up to it. The steep slopes to the sides and behind left no room to be flanked or room for retreat. The engine stopped at the first barricade and backed down the three cars that were left of the train. The brothers reported for duty in an old barracks, an outpost of the Guardia Civil garrison from Oviedo. The miners had overrun it the day before with hardly a fight. The representative, from behind a desk that was made up of a plank over empty ammo boxes, wore a beret with red U.H.P. letters on the front.
Marcel stepped up first. The old gruff miner looked him over. “Ever fire a rifle?”
“I’m a journalist. I came to cover the story,” Marcel admitted.
“You’ll need to cover the story with one of these, kazetari... er, periodista.” The miner pointed to a stack of old Spanish Mausers for a second miner to pass over the desk.
Alesandro’s union papers he’d obtained before leaving Bayonne, and a certificate from a military prep school, wasn’t enough to impress the old union miner.
“A cadet from the école militaire,”
Those weren’t enough to impress the old miner. But he spied the pistol tucked in Alesandro’s belt.
“The Regulars use a Campo-Giro. How did you get that one?”
“My inheritance after…”
“Otxoa? I know of an Otxoa. An organizer, Eder Otxoa, from twenty years ago. Otxoa and Izar.”
“My father and mother.”
“Ah ha, 1919.” The miner’s face softened, “Yes, I was in Barcelona during the General Strike. You should be proud.”
Alesandro stood silent.
“Give this man a new rifle,” he called out to the second minor.
“You have command of the first rampart, comrade. They send bodies up here from
Oviedo with no experience and no ammo or guns,” he snarled. “All we have is what we seized from this outpost.”
“I haven’t seen combat either,” Alesandro confessed.
“Oh? Okay.” The miner shook his head and continued, “More than most. If you have your father’s cajones…”
“I didn’t see any artillery except for one field howitzer.” Alesandro returned to the subject.
“We do have plenty of dynamite. When that’s gone, we’re gone. When someone falls, take what you can… his rifle and ammo belt. Retreat to the second barricade, if you can, when it gets impossible to hold ‘em off.  Light these sticks underneath yours first. Have you used dynamite before?”
 “No, but is looks easy enough.”
“There are a lot of dead miners that thought so too. Get someone to brief you.”
By token of being given a command, issued this rifle, the dynamite, and blasting caps in his pack, Alesandro’s unofficial rank was that of an officer. He was no an officer, albeit, with little authority in the anarchist U.H.P. (the Union of the Brotherhood of the Proletariat). Despite the recognition granted his education, Alesandro knew his experience of warfare was little more than that of drilling on the quadrant… marching in ranks and carrying a rifle.
“It doesn’t look good.” Alesandro said to Marcel. He regretted more that he’d allowed his brother to tag along.
At the barricade, Alesandro and Marcel befriended a courier some simply called huérfana by the others. Or, it would be better said that she befriended them. She could see right away that Marcel would need instruction.
Marcel blushed, holding his antique pre-WWI Spanish Mauser. Embarrassment and confusion in his eyes betrayed his false machismo as he fumbled with the bolt of his rifle, having no idea how to even load or shoot it.
Unaware of her abilities and, thinking of her as only a child, Marcel made the mistake of showing patronizing pity for the orphan when first met her. She had brought him wine with stale bread and he warned her, “Be careful, Huérfana, don’t go poking your pretty little head over the ramparts.”
“You be careful!” she snapped. “You don’t even know how to handle that rifle…. Do you?”
“I know how well enough.” He lied.
“I can show you around in case you get scared and need to hide.” She parried.
“How old are you Huérfana?” Alesandro challenged.
“My name isn’t Huérfana,” she glowered, “It is Iniga and I’m thirteen.”
“Ten, really?” he countered, as she looked no older than that.
“Twelve and a half then.” She admitted, trying to stand taller.
Alesandro liked her attitude, “Iniga? That’s Euskara, eh?”
“Yes, it is Basque and it means desire!” before skittering away she stopped and turned, stomped her feet, threw back her head, snapped her fingers flamenco style, and proudly proclaimed, “I am Gitano too!”
They laughed at her Chaplinesque image in canvas trousers stomping her bare feet and making dust instead of the percussion of the clacking of heels.
The girl was always busy running back and forth with the latest news, sometimes extra food, and even ammo.
“I gave you my name,” she demanded, “What are yours?”
“My name is Alesandro, and this is my brother Marcel. I am also huérfano.” He looked over to Marcel to confirm the truth of what he said because her eyes gave them both the scrutiny of a prosecutor.
“Marcel? That’s French.” She sneered, still looking at them with suspicion, “and Alesandro, that isn’t Euskara,” she scowled impishly.
“Yes it is, Alesandro Otxoa…” and elbowing Marcel, he added, “Marcel Fournier is going to be a famous periodista from Bayonne.” He offered her a crusty piece of the bread she’d given him.
“A kazetari, eh. I’ve never heard of him, but, Otxoa? Ah, my father spoke of an Otxoa from Barcelona he knew when he was young.”
“Eder Otxoa?” asked Marcel.
“Yes, that’s the name. I think so.” Her expression was awestruck, her eyebrows pinched as she became serious, “But we are orphans… we have no name but one we choose.” Her expression changed from that serious tone to expectantly cheerful. “I am an orphan and my name is only one.”
“We are orphans not bastardos,” Alesandro pulled a crust of bread out of his coat pocket, “we have names to live up to. What is your family name, Iniga?”
“My family is gone, I will live up to my own name!”
Alesandro objected, “But it was your mother and father that gave you your fire.”
She countered, “But they tried to reason with murderers,” she set her face. “When I saw my mother and father fall to the ground, I knew I was alone.”
“Here, watch closely, periodista,” Iniga pulled the bolt back, put a spiral wire brush on the end of a cleaning rod in the barrel and handed it back to Marcel. He followed her instruction and proceeded to brush the rust from the barrel. She inspected it several times before she handed him a swab on the rod to oil it.  Only then did she give him a few rudimentary lessons on aiming and pulling the trigger after which she took the gun back and loaded five cartridges from a scarf bulging from her belt filled with several rounds.
Iniga was a dynamo that never stopped running off on errands. She’d be away ten minutes or an hour and always came back with news of something useful like bread with sausages. Before scurrying off again she instructed, “Look, if you hear the buzzing de abejas near your ears, that isn’t the zumbido of bees… keep your head down ‘til you see others on the line firing. Whatever you do, don’t be the first to lift your head… even just to peek.”
A woman next to them had been enjoying the lesson. After Iniga left she lit a cigarette and waved her hand towards the track bed ahead, “Iniga was orphaned the day this strike began.  Her father was a respected organizer of the miners and was shot there with his Romani wife as they were announcing the fall of the garrison at Oviedo to the miners there.”
“She witnessed this?” Marcel asked. He didn’t doubt Iniga’s word but his journalist instincts motivated him to draw facts from multiple sources.
The woman continued, “Iniga slipped away behind her mother into the arroyo. The whole town was forced to witness the execution.... The execution that began the uprising here.
“You were forced to watch?”
“We evicted the Guardia Civil,” proudly answered, “We took action from there. The Guardia Civil retreated to their barracks, afraid to face the people and hoping to be rescued by their Generals in Madrid.”
“How did you have weapons to oppose them?”
“Ha, we had nothing we didn’t take from them. We were armed with axes, shovels, a few hand guns and old rifles. Men arose from the mine shafts and the women who been widowed and children orphaned joined in too.”