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Authors: Marc Laidlaw

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BOOK: The Orchid Eater
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He looked
around casually, expecting nothing more than sand and birds. The lonely calm
fed him as little else could. But far south down the beach, a yellow jeep
appeared around a sandstone point, bouncing past cliffside apartments, high
houses and hotels. An official-looking vehicle. Fluorescent orange floats strapped
to the roll-bar startled him with their brightness. Lupe turned away, looking
for a refuge, and was amazed to see a perfect circle of darkness awaiting him.

The pipe
emerged from the sand beneath the boardwalk, taller than a man and infinitely
deeper. From its lower lip a shallow pool of water drooled, flecked with
bilious brown foam, fringed with rotting seaweed like a tramp’s beard, and
swirling with flies. He could see the sheen of liquid stretching back like a
tongue in the black throat. He almost gasped with anticipation, feeling himself
on the verge of some critical event or revelation. But his life was always like
that: fraught with tension, always
about
to happen. Change was in the air, but for Lupe it never came.

Before the
mouth could call his name, he hurried into it.

The storm
drain swallowed him. Broken glass snapped under his boot soles as he sloshed
through muddy water. He knew that if he kept going he would end up in the
aqueduct behind the bus station. Sudden thunder filled the tunnel. At first he
thought it was cars on the Coast Highway above; then he recognized the sound of
surf, echoing and amplified.

A short
distance into the pipe, speckled light filtered down from holes in a manhole
cover. The passage divided here, changing from a circular tube into two broad,
squared-off, low-ceilinged corridors, each with its flotsam of Styrofoam and
low banks of mud. Choices. Forward, to right or left? Or back, to wait for the
jeep to pass? He brought his knife out and held it in the faint light. He tried
to make his mind a bright, hard, sharp thing, like the knife, to cut through
this problem.

Behind him,
a presence announced itself with silence. The crashing of waves snuffed out,
and he knew they had caught up with him.

Lupe turned
slowly, keeping his knife in plain sight.

The entrance
to the drain looked no bigger or brighter than a dime held out at the end of
his arm. What little light it gave was eclipsed by his boys.

Seven of
them. Same as last time. They stood in their usual poses, some looking tough
and defiant, others pretending not to notice him. The Hopi and the Virginian
leaned against the curved walls of the tunnel, sharing a cigarette that smelled
like burning meat. The Musician, a lean and sullen black boy, carried a silent
battered guitar slung over his shoulder on a homemade strap. The one he called
the Marine had been shaved nearly to the scalp, and his blank face was rigid
beneath stubble that never grew. The Cherokee had hair to his shoulders, hair
that fell across his dark eyes like a veil of mourning. The Junkie picked at
his chancred lips and ragged fingernails, refusing to meet Lupe’s eyes. The
littlest one, Miguel, always looked as though he’d been caught crying.

Seeing them,
he sheathed the switchblade and slipped it back into his pocket.

“I missed
you,” he said. “I been lonely.”

They didn’t
say a thing. A few didn’t even look up, though he knew they heard him. He
didn’t expect affection, didn’t ask for their respect, though he had won it
long ago. It was good to know they were still with him. He had spent too many
nights in bright bus terminals, in fluorescent stations, in the homes of people
he barely knew. His boys were shy. He feared they might have gone away.
Sometimes he thought he saw them, but he was almost never sure. Once he had
been able to summon or send them away at will, but that ability had weakened
with time, as the gang grew in number. At first they had shown themselves only
when he willed it, calling them up as an act of concentrated need; but things
had gone beyond that point. He couldn’t help but see them when they chose to
appear; and if they decided to leave, it was their decision and not his own.

Not that
they had anywhere to go. They needed him for guidance, that was why they hung
around and clung to him, waiting with bored infinite patience. They were his
forever, never to change—no more than he would change.

“I’m glad
you’re back,” he told them, as if they needed reassurance. “There’s something
we have to do together. Someone to find.”

That caught
their interest. The Virginian’s cigarette fell to the tunnel floor, drowning
without a sizzle. He still couldn’t hear the surf. The boys closed in around
him, cutting off all light from the beach. Even the rays from the manhole cover
dimmed, though that might have been a car idling overhead. For a moment he
felt suffocating panic. He was in the dark again, in the First Cave, surrounded.

He shook it
off.

No. They’re
mine this time. I’ve got my gang. I never have to be alone again.

When he felt
calm, he dried his palms on his jacket and reached into his pocket for the torn
phone book page.

“Did I ever
tell you about my brother?”

2

 

“This
morning I’m going to talk about the life of the Fightin’ Jesus,” Hawk told his
congregation.

“Any
relation to the Rootin’-Tootin’ Jesus?” someone said. There was scattered
coarse laughter.

Hawk shut
the Bible and looked down at his boys. They sat in a semicircle on log stumps
he’d arranged on a flattened part of the hill behind his trailer. He stood
above them on the slope, behind a crude-hewn pulpit, so they had to look up at
him. Most of the boys he knew fairly well, but they were encouraged to bring
friends along to the Saturday Sermons, and today there were a few he didn’t
recognize. The one who’d spoken was a tall, muscular kid with downy jaws and
the fixed expression of a born smartass. Hawk held him with his eyes until the
kid looked down.

“As a matter
of fact,” Hawk said, “they are one and the same. Our Savior goes by many names.
Some of you might even laugh at some of them.”

That
silenced the other boys.

“Now, the
thing is, this Fightin’ Jesus, he had a reputation as the Fastest Gun in the Middle East. Carried a pair of silver six-shooters, he did, though these guns of his didn’t
shoot real bullets. They fired something much more powerful.”

“Hollow-point
parables!” the fuzz-face said.

Hawk stamped
down the hillside, raising swirls of dust. He walked right up to the smartass,
grabbed him by the collar of his T-shirt, and hauled him to his feet.

“What is
your name, son?” he said through clenched teeth.

“Scott.”

“Scott? Who
brought you here today, Scott?”

The kid
seemed unwilling to say, as if it would have been a betrayal. Hawk looked
around at the other boys until finally Edgar Goncourt raised his hand. “I did,
Hawk.”

“Why?”

Edgar,
long-faced and bony-nosed, with shoulder-length thin brown hair, shrugged. “He’s
cool.”

“Did you
force him to come here, Edgar?” Hawk looked at Scott. “Did Edgar force you?”

Scott shook
his head.

“You came of
your own free will? So you’re really a guest here, aren’t you? We didn’t abduct
you, nobody forced you to listen to me, nobody even asked your opinion. So why
are you making such a pain of yourself?”

“Sorry,”
Scott said.

“Do you want
to leave or listen?”

“I’ll
listen.”

“Maybe you
have something you want to say before you listen? Any important information I
might not have heard about the Fightin’ Jesus? Anything me and my friends can’t
live without?”

Scott shook
his head.

“Okay,
then.” Hawk let go of him, and the boy sank back down.

Hawk hiked
back to his stump, wondering what the hell he’d been meaning to say. A good
preacher should be able to hold on to his thoughts even in the face of
interruptions. He should be able to reach out to these boys on their own terms,
which included plenty of insecure backtalk disguising legitimate questions.
But somehow he couldn’t stand the feeling of things getting out of control.
There had to be something in his fucking life he could keep a grip on. These
boys were his project. He couldn’t fail them.

They were
watching Hawk with fading interest, picking their teeth, scuffing at the dirt,
whispering. He had wanted to improvise something they could relate to around
the Fightin’ Jesus image he was so proud of, but the thoughts were no longer
flowing.

He cracked
open the Bible at random.
“Thou shalt
by no means come out hence until thou hast paid the uttermost farthing.”
Now, what the hell did that mean? A farthing was some kind of
old-fashioned English coin, wasn’t it? How could they have farthings in the
Bible lands? The kids wouldn’t understand that kind of time travel.

He looked at
the sky, blazing blue between the shifting eucalyptus leaves, and allowed his
mind to wander. They wouldn’t know the difference.

“The
Fightin’Jesus . . . he used to say . . .
‘You can’t
get out of jail, until you’ve paid your bail.’ ”

That’s more
like it, Hawk thought. See, you hang in there, take a chance, it comes to you.
Lord’s work, Lord’s words.

“Now, a few
of us have been there, haven’t we? We know what Jesus was talking about. You
have just that one phone call to make—and who’s it gonna be? Your parents? You
expect them to come pick you up? Hell, it’s ’cause of your parents you’re in
jail in the first place. If they’d loved you, let you be yourself, everything
mighta turned out better. No, you can’t call your parents. What about a lawyer,
then? A gold-toothed, shiny-suited, briefcase-carrying lawyer. Hell, you’d
have to rob a bank just to pay his fees. Forget about lawyers. You got one
call, now. You gonna waste it? You think you can scrape up bail all by
yourself? Think your friends can get it for you, when they’re just as lost and
unlucky as you? Man, they’d just end up in the cell next to yours, tossed in
for robbing a gas station trying to get your bail. Nope. The best call you can
make right then, your best bondsman, the guy who’s gonna pay up and get you back
on the street, back on your feet—is Jesus. Jesus said, ‘Dial my number and I
shall
pick up the phone. Call and
I will answer.’ When you call Jesus, you won’t get a secretary saying, ‘I’m
sorry, Mr. Christ is out to lunch right now, you’ll have to leave a message.’”

They were
laughing now, even Scott.

“And I’ll
tell you this. Jesus will not only pay up your bail, right to the last penny,
but he’ll also represent you in court. He will file the necessary papers,
bargain with the cops who busted you, and stand at your side on the Judgment
Day. He’ll do everything he can to save your ass. He will not forsake you. He
may reduce your sentence, or get it commuted completely, or maybe even get your
whole case thrown out of court. You might have to do some community service,
but that’s okay. For Jesus is the Great Public Defender.”

“Is he the
Great Parole Officer, too?” Scott said daringly, though without such a smartass
tone this time, making it easy for Hawk to smile.

“That he is.
I see you do understand.”

“Sure. I
watch ‘Perry Mason’ like everybody else.”

***

Afterward,
most of the boys scattered, but a core remained in Hawk’s gravel yard alongside
Old Creek Road, working on their bikes among the heavy black crosses he had
mounted at the edges of the lot. They’d had to learn not to dangle greasy rags
or chains from the arms of the crucifixes, but otherwise Hawk let them do what
they wanted. Sometimes they asked his advice and he gave a few pointers, though
he refrained from actually working on the bikes. He didn’t ride them anymore,
so repairing them was out of the question. Once he started, did a bit of work,
he’d just have to sit astride the hog and kick the starter, listen to the roar
and feel the throb; and then he’d just have to take off for a spin, only a
little test drive to make sure everything was running smooth . . . and the next
thing you knew, he’d be back in some sweaty lodge, snorting rails, picking
fights, grabbing the first heavy tool that came to hand and wailing down on somebody’s
skull or kneecaps, caught up in a drugged and drunken battle over meaningless
bullshit like whose bike was a piece of shit, whose colors were allowed in that
particular bar.

No . . . no,
he’d never get caught in those gears again. And the best way he knew to avoid
the trap was to swear off bikes forever. Two-homed steeds of the Devil, that’s
what they were. Of course, not everyone saw them that way, and they made a nice
contrast, parked in his lot. What was right for him, was right for him; he
couldn’t speak for others. And the constant temptation of bikes around the
place was good for his soul; it made him strong in his struggle, forever
vigilant.

The Saturday
traffic was up to its afternoon peak, a steady
whoosh
of cars heading toward the
beach. Occasionally the revving of motorcycle engines drowned out everything.

Hawk sat on
the trailer hook in a narrow band of shade and leafed through the Saturday
paper, holding its edges down with the toes of his boots while sipping a
Mountain Dew. He had just reached a troubling headline when a shadow fell over
the paper.

“Hey, Hawk,”
Edgar said. “I didn’t get a chance to introduce him before. This is Scott
Gillette.”

Hawk glanced
up, holding out a hand dyed dark with grease and oil, which Scott clasped
firmly after a moment’s hesitation. “You’re all right, Scott.”

“Thanks. You
make those Old Testaments sparkle like new.”

Hawk wasn’t
sure if Scott was ridiculing him specifically, or simply in the grip of an
unfocused, uncontrollable sarcasm. He decided on the latter. There didn’t seem
to be much malice in him; his face betrayed the usual stew of adolescent
gripes.

Edgar, on
the other hand, looked decidedly nervous about something. His eyes kept
flickering toward the ground and away again. Hawk picked up the paper and held
it out to him.

“You in the
news again, Edgar?” he said. “Is this you?”

“‘Rash of
break-ins . . .’” Edgar started to recite. Then he backed off, shaking his head
without looking any further at the page.

“Shangri-La,”
Hawk said. “That’s your neighborhood.”

“Lots of shady
people live up there, Hawk,” Edgar said edgily. “Hell, Sal and his buttboys
are right down the street from
me.

Hawk stared
at Edgar, hoping to unnerve the truth out of him, but Edgar, sadly, had learned
some new defenses. Scrutiny merely toughened him, made his excuses more casual.

“I don’t
know anybody doing that shit,” he said. “Not anymore.”

It’s him,
Hawk thought.

“I hope
you’re not that stupid, Edgar.”

“I’m smart,
Hawk. I’m smart!”

“Well, I
wouldn’t go that far,” Scott said.

“Keep an eye
on him for me, would you, Scott? See he stays out of trouble?”

A look
flickered between the boys. Scott’s smirk returned.

“You ever
been to jail, Scott?” Hawk said.

Slowly the
smirk vanished. Hawk spied an involuntary surge of surprise and fear, but it
was quickly shrugged off.

“You think
that was all just poetry, what I said about posting bail, that one phone call?
I speak from experience, friend. I’ve been in jail more than once, and so has
Edgar here. Now, sometimes when your friends go places, it can be pretty hard
not to follow. You understand me?”

Scott
nodded, his Adam’s apple bobbing, no comeback at the ready. But he didn’t look
fearful anymore; he looked exquisitely bored.

“And you,
Edgar. Keep your nose clean.”

Edgar
sniffed and toed the dirt, fingering the flexible gold band of a wristwatch
Hawk had never seen him wear before. One that was several sizes too big
.

BOOK: The Orchid Eater
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