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Authors: Marc Laidlaw

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BOOK: The Orchid Eater
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Yeah, at
least death was reliable—the one experience he could count on having. For that
reason, he looked forward to it with a morbid curiosity.

“We don’t
have to stay at your place,” he said suddenly, shoving away all the assumptions
and expectations he felt piling up on him. Why was everyone so sure he was a
“good kid,” so sensible and innocent? His soul wasn’t so simple that a stranger
could read it at a glance. Mike himself didn’t know its depth.

“She’ll
never know if we sleep in our house,” he said.

“It’s no big
deal,” said Edgar. “We’ve got blankets at our place.”

“I mean,
it’s my house, too.”

“But you
don’t have any furniture,” Scott said.

“I’m just
saying, we can if we want to.” He let it go at that, slightly deflated by the
realization that they really didn’t care if they stayed in the house or not.

“What I want
right now is an avocado,” Edgar said. “Come on, these drivers are jaded. Let’s
get their attention.”

Edgar
dropped to his hands and knees. “No one can refuse the human pyramid.”

Scott
laughed and got down beside him. “Come on, Mike. Climb up.”

It was an
embarrassing stunt, but that had never stopped him before. He clambered on,
gouging them with his knees, arms wide and waving to the oncoming traffic.

It’s summer,
he thought. Anything can happen! Those beach-bunnies could still come along.

The very
next car, with a nice old lady driving, gave them a ride.

 

4

 

From the
bottom of Shoreview Road, as he turned off the Pacific Coast Highway, Sal saw
three boys hitching. By the time he got to the corner of Shoreview and Glen
Ellen, they had vanished. Bushes quaked near the roadside. He laughed, shaking
his head as he drove past.

“You see
that?” he asked Randy, who was sunk down in the passenger seat sucking at a
yellowing roach clamped in an alligator clip.

“No. What?”
Randy’s voice sounded tight and scratchy.

“Hawk’s
boys. Scared shitless of me. You can imagine what he tells them.”

“Fuck Hawk.”

Sal laughed,
stamping the pedal to the floor for the steep climb. “You wish.”

“Don’t
Bogart that thing,” said a voice from the back of the van.

“It’s
already dead,” Randy said.

“So roll another.
Humphrey Bogart, that’s your name from now on.”

“You roll
it.”

“Humphrey,”
other voices repeated. “Hump-Free!”

The van
filled with high laughter. It was dark in the windowless back, where some of
Sal’s students and workers huddled on the floor. A youth with long bleached
platinum hair climbed up between Sal and Randy, reaching for the glove box. He
dug out a pack of rolling papers and a Ziploc Baggie containing several tight
buds of gold-speckled sinsemilla.

“Don’t make
a mess, Marilyn,” Sal said. “I don’t want seeds and stems in the carpet. It’s a
bitch dragging the vacuum cleaner out to the van.”

“A bitch for
who?” Randy said. “I’m the only one who does any cleaning. If it were up to
you, this van would look like it belonged in the canyon. You know what Turtle
Wax has done to my hands?”

“Bogart and
Monroe, together for the first time,” said a voice in the back, to more
laughter. “Don’t miss that cinema classic,
The Maltese Bus Stop.


Maltese Butt-Fuck
,
you mean.”

“What is
that, a new position?”

“Mm,” said
Marilyn. “Sounds like fun.”

Sal slowed
for the hairpin turn where cars were always going off the road and smashing
into the shacky wood houses; he had to floor it again when the real climb
began. The road snaked up through bare sandstone hills, past houses under
construction and recently leveled plots where foundations had yet to be poured.
The boys in back shrieked each time the van banked around a curve and sent them
rolling. The van came out above a grove of avocado trees, the leaves all dark
and glossy, with Bohemia Bay and the Pacific Ocean stretching out below. The
boys’ laughter made Sal smile.

The van
began to lug on the next and steepest stage of the ascent; the boys shifted
around as if redistributing the weight would help. The road leveled out in a
terraced ridge community, apparently the top of the hill; but there was
another climb ahead of them, and yet another after that. So they climbed
through the long afternoon, up a long stretch of fairly level road with a huge
sage-choked gulch on one side and a single row of houses on the other. New
houses stood along the far end of the gulch, bearded by gravelly flows of
excess cement that had dripped down the slopes during construction. He followed
Shoreview Road to the easternmost edge of the Shangri-La development, a dirt
ridge topped by barbed wire. Sal’s house faced the Bohemia Greenbelt, hundreds
of acres of dry-brush hills, canyons and gulleys and meadows preserved as
wilderness, though ranchers had worked the land continuously since the early
Spanish settlement of California.

As was usual
for this hour, the neighborhood was quiet, the baking streets deserted. There
was no sea breeze to cool the houses, no trees except a few silver-dollar
eucalyptus saplings planted hopefully in the yards. Many of the houses were
still unsold, unoccupied. It was not the most desirable region in Bohemia Bay, but Sal had paid nothing for his house, and the near-isolation suited him.
Many of the places sold so far had gone to single gay men or couples; it was
turning into a bit of a colony within the larger colony of Bohemia Bay. One of the Shangri-La developers, Buddy Loomis, was an old customer who had
managed the deal in exchange for Sal’s arrangement of a permanent Colombian
connection. Buddy had probably earned back many times the value of the house by
now, tax-free. Sal didn’t mind the lost income; he never would have seen that
money anyway, not without totally changing his image, repressing some
essential part of himself. He didn’t run with businessmen. He preferred a
lifestyle that allowed him free and open expression of his character. Buddy was
almost certainly a closet-queen, judging from various neurotic quirks and the
way he eyed Sal’s students. Sal could usually tell when people were hiding
their feelings, or hiding from them.

If Buddy had
been twenty years younger, Sal might have tried to bring him out, goading him
down the tricky paths of insight and confession where he had taken many of his
students. But Buddy was timid and lacked a young man’s daring; his hopes and
ambitions lay in business, where risk was all financial and all the paths were
freshly paved. Sal had taken another, less-traveled course, struggling for
balance until the struggle became second nature, and finally a discipline. That
rugged road had led him out of a self-tormenting existence in Los Angeles,
where gangs, drugs and violence had added to the more intimate torments of his
spirit; led him to this house in quiet hills above the ocean whose very name
meant peace. He had come a long way for a Cholo from the barrio, few of whose
natives ever left; but he had been an outcast there. That world would almost
certainly have destroyed him by now if he’d remained.

Randy jumped
out of the van. The boys in back were slower, since they were hungrily watching
Marilyn light the joint he’d rolled.

“Save that
for later,” Sal said. “I don’t want you stoned when we work out, I told you
that.”

“But Randy
smoked that whole joint by himself,” Marilyn complained.

“He also did
tai chi for two hours this morning while the rest of you were goofing off or
sleeping late.”

“That’s
’cause he horned about a pound of coke while you were meditating. He couldn’t
sit still, in case you didn’t notice.” Sal climbed out of the van, unsure
whether he was angrier with Randy for taking his coke, or with Marilyn for
ratting on him.

“Randy,” he
called, “we have to talk.”

Randy stood
at the side of the house, staring at the door. He put a finger to his lips and
beckoned urgently.

Sal hissed
at the boys to be quiet. He joined Randy at the door, the others following.

Randy
pointed at the doorframe; the wood next to the knob was splintered. Someone had
worked a pry bar into it. No one inhabited the house next door, and with the
street so deserted it would have been easy to pop the lock in broad daylight.
Hell, he’d done it himself in crowded neighborhoods. Sal couldn’t tell if the
intruder had succeeded or not.

“Go around
the back,” he whispered to the others. “Watch the windows and the back door,
any way they can get out.” The boys scattered around the house. Sal slipped his
key into the deadbolt. He was just about to twist it when Randy whistled softly
from the back yard.

“They got in
here,” he whispered. “Window’s broken.”

Sal tried to
figure how much he might have lost. He’d been sitting on over forty thousand in
cash, most it owed to his suppliers. He also had large new stashes of grass and
coke yet to be sold, and fresh sheets of acid in the freezer. Everything in
quantity.

All that was
bad enough. Worse was the question of who’d hit him. If it was only a common
burglar, that wasn’t so bad; the guy had struck it lucky once, and next time
around Sal would be waiting for him. But if it was an associate, someone he did
business with, well . . . that added a whole new element of mistrust to what
was already a routine founded on suspicion. The thing was, he’d never know who
hit him. He couldn’t call the cops, couldn’t do much of anything. He was
helpless in a case like this.

He let
himself in, peering sidelong down the hall into the living room. Most of the
drugs were kept upstairs. At least, he saw, the thief hadn’t wasted time
slashing furniture. The painting on the main wall, in particular, was safe: a
cityscape of Los Angeles, its downtown skyline rendered at night against a backdrop
of bizarre splotches like hallucinated galaxies. The picture was garish and
awful, but it meant everything to Sal, who had sold its like from door to door,
in bars, motels and waiting rooms, when he was trying to start a legitimate
life away from the easy money and brutal stress of hustling. That shitty sales
job had seemed pointless for a while, selling crap art instead of his body. He
had almost given up on it when the door into money opened. A salesman—whose
face meant less to him now than the lurid streaks of color in the ugly
nightscape—had seen in Sal some of the qualities necessary to deal drugs. He
had never stopped selling the paintings, although now they were a front for his
other sales. This painting was the first he had done himself, when he was
learning the assembly line trade. It had been done by the numbers, built up in
layers, simultaneous with a dozen others almost exactly like it. But this one
had sentimental value.

He was so
intent on the painting that at first he didn’t notice the figure lying in the
dark on the couch below. A drab army-issue jacket had been thrown over one arm
of the sofa, and a knapsack sat on the floor next to a metal crowbar that could
have come from Sal’s own garage. The fruit bowl on the coffee table was almost
empty. Peels, cores and broken walnut shells were scattered on the glass.

“Hello,
Sal.”

Sal didn’t
move for a moment. He knew the voice, high as a girl’s, but the body that went
with it was all wrong.

“Guadalupe?”
he whispered.

“Caught up
with you.”

Sal flipped
on a light. He hadn’t seen his brother in more than five years, and life had
changed him in ways he never could have predicted. Lupe had always run to fat,
slouching around like a sleepwalker, a born victim, natural prey for urban
predators. But now he looked trim and strong, in need of no protector. His blue
jeans and thin T-shirt were stretched tight over lean, dense muscles. His face,
though . . . his face hadn’t changed. Fatcheeked, round
and soft, like a baby’s head on a soldier’s frame, as though none of the body’s
hardships had been able to affect that grinning moon. His hands were scarred,
his brow smooth.

“How’d you
find me?”

“Wasn’t
hard. Why? Were you hiding?”

“It’s just.
. . you’ve been out of touch so long, I didn’t know how to tell you where I
went.”

“You didn’t
tell many of your old friends either. I was in L.A. for a week, asking after
you. Aunt Theresa . . . you didn’t even tell her.”

“I
especially didn’t tell her,” Sal said, suddenly uncomfortable, as if Lupe had
reached into an old source of shame and drawn out Sal’s personal demons. He
felt attacked. Lupe’s appearance brought a flood of unwelcome memories, things
he had been glad to leave untouched for as long as possible.

Sal heard
steps in the back of the house. Realizing that his boys were coming in, he
relaxed.

“I didn’t
want any of those fools following me,” he said, wishing he didn’t sound so
defensive. “I wanted to leave all that shit behind. Like you did.”

Lupe shook
his head and laughed, a high-pitched childish sound. “I didn’t leave anything
behind. I went to meet it.”

“So what’d
you do? Join the army?”

The girlish
face looked astonished. “You think they’d take me? No, I been traveling. All
over the country.”

“No kidding?
New York?”

Lupe nodded.
“I was there a while. I like the country better.”

Sal found
himself laughing. “Who’d have thought it? We’re a long way from our roots—not
many like us. You’re a world traveler, and me . . . 

“Yeah. What
are you, anyway?”

Randy
stepped into the room.

In the
instant of silence that followed, Lupe grabbed for his coat, fingers closing on
the pocket.

He’s got a
knife, Sal thought. I wonder if it’s the same one . . . the switchblade I gave
him?

BOOK: The Orchid Eater
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