Sunday, August 14, 2005

Magic and Memory (an excerpt from Undercover Angel)

Larry was impressed, and halfway to Las Vegas he was still checking his rear view mirror every ten minutes. Sometimes he’d see Cousin Louie with his hand inside Amber’s blouse. Amber, who an hour after meeting Louie had become his fiancee. Sometimes Larry would catch a glimpse of one of Amber’s nipples, or get a whiff of her perfume.

“She’s a hot number, yeah, don’t you think, Buddy?” Louie shouted to Larry. Then Louie began to sing, “Still the one. Who can scratch my i-itch. Still the one... you son of a bi-itch...”

Louie took a swig from a fifth of Jack Daniels, then turned towards the closed window and inhaled, as if he were taking in a deep breath of desert air.

“This country of yours,” Louie said, still facing the window, “is like nowhere else in the world. I come here as a rich man. Others from my country, they come here, thinking that here they’ll become rich. But they just get fucked.”

Even though Louie was gazing out at the desert he could tell, by the way Amber shifted her head away from his outstretched arm, that she was giving Larry a puzzled look.

“That’s the way of the world, Baby,” Louie said. “You plant your flower, you grow your pearl.” He handed her the bottle of Jack Daniels.

“What the hell is this shit?” Amber suddenly yelled, but neither Cousin Louie, whose mind was lost in some old song again, nor Larry, who'd turned around from the driver's seat to get another look at her, bothered to answer. For a moment Amber was about to scream, then she stopped herself, pulled out her compact and studied her face in the mirror.

Amber was a true California girl. Born in Fresno, she grew up to be taller than anyone else in her family. Shy and quiet child in Catholic grade school, in high school she transformed herself into the nastiest girl on the cheerleading squad. She was the party girl who smoked menthol cigarettes, drank whiskey every night and went all the way on a first date. She was smart too—smart enough to know that brains were what helped you survive but not what helped you get ahead. And, like a lot of true California girls, she was a total asshole.

Amber had ended up at the O'Farrell Theater two years earlier—that's where luck, or rather her lack of it, took her. Becoming Amber after spending the first twenty-two years of her life as Karen Ann Johannson didn't take much thought. It was a way out of doing the nine to five office routine, but after these two years she was ready for a way out of this too. And at the end of a day shift full of half-hearted lap dances and watered down drinks she didn't need much convincing. Louie, as bizarre and impenetrable as he was, was the best ride she'd been offered in years.

They drove on for another hour, silently winding their way through the desert. Every now and then Louie would take a bite out of a bar of Kraft American Cheese he’d bought at a rest stop outside of Bakersfield. To Louie, it was best cheese you could buy, better than anything that came from France or the Netherlands or anywhere else in the world. It was the best because it was American cheese, made in America’s heartland. “Wis-con-sin Cheese,” Louie would say to himself. They were magical words, like “California Condor”, “Florida Orange,” and "Rocky Mountain Oyster." In those words was the force that created the “purple mountain majesties” Louie had dreamed of back in the Philippines, the “amber waves of grain” he’d seen pictures of in Life magazine. America, his greatest dream, was now something that was passing right before his eyes.

“You know, Babe,” he suddenly said to Amber. “I’ve been through the desert, on a horse with no name. You know what that’s fucking like?”

“No, Louie. What’s it like?”

Louie turned toward the window. He wasn’t about to explain. Explanations weren't what helped him get this far. They weren't what saved his ass when he found himself surrounded by enemies who, at the time, were more powerful than him. They weren't what made him learn that you needed a lot more than luck if you wanted to be in charge of the game. Explanations just took time away from getting things done, from growing what had to be grown and killing what had to be killed. "Explanations," he would later say, in one of those strange instances when his accent, for some reason, disappeared, "are for fuck-ups."

Louie suddenly closed his eyes. He did that from time to time, taking a moment to remember some horrible thing that had happened to him. And then another moment to remember some horrible thing he'd done in turn. It always helped to lighten his mood.

"Oh oh oh, it's MY DICK!" he started to sing. "You know oh oh. Never believe it's not SO."

Pressing the button to roll down the window, Louie caught the eye of a passing motorist in a minivan and smiled at him.

"Never been a wake. Never seen a day break!" Louie continued to sing. "Leaning on my pillow in the morrrr-ning. Lazy day in bed. Music in my head. Crazy music playing in the morrrr-ning laiyyyyt!"

He smiled at the motorist's wife, at his kids in the back seat. It was his pray-I-don’t-waste-you-motherfucker smile.

Louie then looked out toward the landscape, his face caught in a grin, and smiled at all of America.

From a novel in progress

No comments: