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  • Chapter 1

    Before my old man would ditch out on my mom courtesy of the D.O.C., he left me with a few words of wisdom that have been rattling around my skull for all of these years:

    “Son, life has a way of jumping up and sticking it to some people more than others. If you’re ever feeling full of yourself and one of God’s chosen, remember that you had it better than some folks.”

    Most of the time when he was home from work, the clubhouse or the bar, he didn’t say much, but when he did it meant something, and I knew to take it to heart. I had been somewhat of a natural born introvert, and from my old man I learned to listen more than I spoke and not be overtly judgmental in the process. This has a duel edge of people mistaken me for a dime-store psychologist that they can dump on for cheaper than a bartender or at the very least me being a weirdo magnet for any nitwit wanting to download their boring life story at a moment’s notice. When I was in the service and in country, I had some folks thinking I was some secret shot caller because every borderline psycho with PTSD who had allegedly gone off the reservation or had a girlfriend back home banging Sancho would lay their grief on me, whether I wanted it or not, because they somehow knew I’d keep my trap shut while they flushed their sorrows into my head. I don’t know why I couldn’t fight against my nature to let these people allow me into their private hells, imagined or otherwise. Keeping everything on the down-lo and not judging somebody for being a complete shit-heel seemed to be the height of some Taoist monk I wanted to be – a twisted Kung Fu fantasy of my youth. Maybe I thought I would learn something new or just miss another thing I didn’t have figured out already, or I just thought that my half-drunk dad was right, and these poor bastards had it worse than me.

    Regardless of any youthful fantasies I had, partial imprinting from my father or some kind of genetic predisposition, my old ways of being the soft shoulder to cry on or the rock some people tried to desperately tie off to had reached its breaking point. After I was through with my West Coast adventures last year, I had given up on catering to the lost; I wanted everything to fall into place and crawl into a normal state where things seemed to make sense, were regimented and moving along predictably like an atomic clock. I could give a shit less about another crazy party or being involved in the petty drama/trauma surrounding the voluntary mayhem people put themselves into. This notion held true for everybody except Ron, who was just as screwed up as the rest of us and maybe even more, but has become the focus of this story. It’s been said that if people put on a mask enough and pretend to be something they’re not, eventually they become the creature of that illusion; they become one with the mask but controlled by that illusion. Ron was more than that. He wasn’t just playing a part. Sure, he believed in the role, like a good character actor gone completely overboard, but he believed in the soul of the story behind the part. It wasn’t just a temporary fantasy to be thrown on like a disguise; it was a new reality waiting for him, a dream come true with all of the heroic possibilities to play out like no other actor before him. That made him a special kind of strange light that you only come upon once in a lifetime, if you’re lucky, but the brighter the light, the darker the shadows that lie in the background: waiting, ancient, still and patient. Those shadows are dream killers that shatter proud men and scatter others who feign indifference into the wind.

    I was moved around quite a few times as a child, but it was mostly in the desert Southwest region which is the homeland for me and the scattered remnants of my family. My mom grew up kind of churchy and had professional skills as an executive secretary and a bookkeeper, but like many “good girls” she had bad taste in men, my father included. This led to the cyclical whiplash level of good times and bad times, of living high on the hog one year in a decent area like Prescott and back to the grandparents’ double wide in Yuma or Uncle Bill’s flophouse in Albuquerque the next. A couple of black eyes for mom and a scene from COPS played out on our front lawn usually precipitated these errant migrations.

    By the time I hit my eighteenth birthday, I couldn’t sign the Army recruiter’s paperwork fast enough to get me the hell out of the broken record of booze, drugs, busted relationships and violence set to a backdrop of desert sage, sand dunes and rocky hills and mountains. Of course, when the promise of me passing the tests guaranteeing me an MOS in signals intelligence in Germany or England got shuffled and shifted to being just another dust eating ground pounder in Iraq and Afghanistan, the irony of my situation wasn’t lost on me. The only difference between the topography and the people I was surrounded by was the clothing and a greatly increased level of fire power. After four straight tours without a scratch, and with no hopes of ever landing that promised job in SIGINT, I was graced with the get out of jail ticket in the form of a random air burst from an RPG over my position. After a couple of medi-vacs, a titanium hip joint, rod and pins in my leg, and several months laid up and learning to walk again, I was back in the world with a slight limp, a partial disability check for life, VA benes for school and a powerful taste for opioid painkillers.

    My leg still had a few months of retooling, and as mom was living large with some old Parrot Head of a sugar daddy on the Gulf Coast, I headed over to Arizona to my grandma’s place; grandpa had died from the big C a couple years earlier courtesy of several decades of huffing asbestos while on the job. After a few months of limping around Yuma, the brutal heat, dust storms, general terrain and distant echo of bombing runs at the Army’s giant proving grounds were too traumatically reminiscent of the reality I thought I had left behind. Even with a good supply of pain meds and whiskey, grandma’s quiet love and good country cooking could only take me so far, and a cabin fever of sorts that hits most people in their early to mid-twenties was festering in me. With the stack of cash I had saved in my over six years of deployment, severance and disability checks, I had purchased a slightly used midlife crisis Harley from a local lawyer who only laid it down once at a low speed and discovered that being a bad mofo comes with scars. I spent a couple of weeks stripping the garbage off the full dress clown bike while applying for schools. I was accepted into the writing department at the University of California Riverside, loaded up my few belongings on the bike, kissed Granny and Yuma goodbye for what I thought would be forever and hit the road west.

    For some reason that isn’t apparent, rents in Riverside, both around the college and in the rest of the city, were much higher than the zip code should demand. Using the school’s resources for a search, I tried the college roommate thing near campus for a couple of weeks. Even though I was only a few years removed from my housemates, they were just snot-nosed kids to me. One more night of trying to sleep through loud coughing bong rips, insipid laughter and the endless gun fire and explosions of violent first person shooter games, and I was going to go out in the living room and put a real .45 round through their giant flat screen TV. Through the miracle of the internet, I found an ideal situation out in the weeds off an old rural highway that bisected the edge of the hinterlands of the county. A new bar/cantina/roadhouse was being built, and the owner/operator needed security in the form of a night watchman to live on the premises in a trailer to keep the copper thieves and other undesirables away: a place to live rent free and with a few other off the book amenities. I met up with the on-sight manager/ramrod, an overly tanned brick of a 50 something working man with a full head of snow white hair named Dutch. He checked out my Hog, we shot the shit, compared Ranger tattoos, and he handed me the keys to my new place, a somewhat vintage Airstream still in great shape under the only old foliage on the lot, a dozen large walnut trees from some failed grove in the distant past that didn’t get torn down to make room for the new business. This small grove separated the business from a turn of the century, seemingly abandoned and permanently ready for Halloween Victorian home at the most southern edge of the property. Dutch also gave me my limited list of duties, the first of which was to sit next to the trailer, drink the plentiful beer samples left by various wholesalers and tell the other potential half a dozen sorry SOBs that the job/vacancy had been filled.

    For the next couple of hours, I kicked it in a lawn chair tipping back suds from the trailer’s fridge, and telling the couple of rather ragged and sketchy looking wretches that they got there too late.

    “Aw man. I used my last twenty bucks to put gas in my car to get out here,” the first of the two said to me nearly crying.

    I took pity on him, peeled a Jackson from my roll, gave it to him along with a random twelver of some brew company I’d never heard of before from the pile in my new digs and sent him packing with half a smile on his face. The second one was an epic asshole who looked like he’d been up for a couple of years gacked out his head on shit, and as tweekers do, he took it personally. He got loud, I told him to kick rocks, he came at me, and I quickly put him on the ground. Dutch and two other burley WWF looking workers came quickly out of the building. Dutch smiled at me. It was obvious that I was a welcome part of the team, and they could go home and not worry about the building that night.

    The slow burn of a beer buzz came on, and with the somnolent drone of random cars on the highway as my soundtrack, I watched the tri-toned yellow, orange and reddish purple hues of a fall sunset cutting through the LA smog in the distance; the lights of the newer upscale subdivision turned on like a flattened Christmas tree in the valley slightly below; a cool breeze funneled in from the ocean through the nearby hills and canyons and washed over me, almost shocking me as if had been the first time I had known what it was like to not be broiling in the desert sun, choking on dust and waiting for a quick death.

    While my nights would be spent at a quiet trailer far removed from the city, my days were filled with the same rapid schedule as any full time student at a university. In the years before, through the wonders of online education, I had previously knocked out much of the boring core level classes while waiting to be anonymously murdered by jihadists. Now, finally at a brick and mortar school, I carried a full load of upper division classes including a few English and writing courses. The amount of books any one English professor intends for a student to read in one ten week quarter is stupefying. When you have two of these ivory tower trolls along with two writing profs who want pages of new text almost daily, it’s amazing there isn’t a line of student riflemen taking a number to see who ascends to the top of the clock tower next. I jumped into the fray with the gung-ho and nearly suicidal verve that kept me going for the previous six years. Luckily, my need to make the fifty miles on a bike back to the trailer every afternoon probably saved my GPA in the first two quarters as I couldn’t get hammered at the local watering holes and safely stumble back to my room. Virtually alone out in the boondocks with few distractions for the next few months, I got a good amount of reading and writing done as Dutch and company put the finishing touches on the several out buildings in the compound and the giant barn like monolith to working class alcoholism.

    My new to me dwelling and the brand new roadhouse sat on the outer tip of a darker, sporadically peppered track of OG horse country filled with a mix of local, old timey founder families, pensioners and savvy, hustling blue collar types with various businesses sprouting from their homes and properties: a collection of junkyards, small garage grease monkeys, fruit stands, and even an ironworker with a small foundry that banged out horse shoes for the locals. This older, established area worked its way from the low hills and sagebrush canyons to the highway in a downward triangular wedge pointing towards my new home. To the other side of the highway sat a monument to shiny new money filling out a reverse triangular series of rolling hills continuing into a lush slide of verdant green golf courses, miniature blue-black lakes, pristine white sand traps and lavish, custom homes lit up both at night by colored lights and by day by the sheer contrast of the unnatural and overwatered terrain. The two areas, new and old, pointed to each other like inverse pyramids where the roadhouse sat. And down in that Christmas tree valley happened to be my cousin Flora and her husband Todd Hunt.

    Many of the folks in the west today are directly descended from the ragged but unbroken people who had jettisoned themselves from their more eastern located ancestral homes for reasons that don’t lend themselves to close ties to those few if any left behind in the ashes and dust of the past. Not everybody was at the level of a FBI fleeing Dillinger during the Dustbowl years, but the kind of wrath of God, government, and corporation trials and tribulations that beset the average Okie types during that day and age have a tendency to reinforce rabid individualism and somewhat loosen the ties to what family you have made even in the newest world of the new world. This tradition still held somewhat within my intermittently connected family members, the most western tentacles reaching the area I found myself in during the time of this story. My cousin Flora was the stunning Amerasian bell of the ball in this normally boring and white bread inland area of SoCal. The mixed race product of my Uncle Bob’s tour in Vietnam and the bride he was able to heroically smuggle back, Flora was both a seemingly fragile waif of an off white and yellow paper flower with the unique blend of the old world values of her war bride mother combined with the step and pep of her devil dog old man who raised her to be the son he never had. She had just begun dating Todd when I stayed on R&R at my Uncle Bob’s house while on a cross-training desert exercise out at Twenty-Palms before I rotated in country for the first time. Todd came to pick her up for a date in a bright red, brand new, Ferrari 360 Modena: his high school graduation present. I was shocked that a kid near my age would be driving around a car that cost much more than double the average person’s home.

    While I was dodging bullets, rockets and IEDs, Flora had married extremely well for the region. Todd’s family had the kind of wealth and power that was staggering to the imaginations of the local area residents. His near idiot of a grandfather had unsuccessfully tried to pound gold out of a giant tower of hard rock that turned out to be worth enough of its weight in gold to make him a very rich man when roads, sidewalks, buildings, highways and bridges needed the right kind of aggregate to build them, and he had the materials to do it at the right place and time. With his fast track earnings, Old Man Hunt would buy several more stone mountains and other land holdings in the region that would guarantee that even when his alcoholic son followed by his ne’er-do-well grandson would take over the business, it could survive on the water tight trust and fool-proof management system he had set up with the help of some very talented lawyers. While the grandfather turned all of his energies into making a local dynasty out of cheap stone that would stand the test of time monetarily that it had already proven geologically, his progeny would try to idle their time away, but that didn’t stop grandpa Hunt from making his son Michael a United States’ congressman, the most ineffectual one of his day, or stop him from getting his grandson Todd into Stanford right before he died, even though Todd’s grades in high school barely warranted a trip to the local community colleges. His grandfather’s patronage, father’s political influence and his own above average abilities on the golf team (something he couldn’t take pro no matter how much money he had) bought him a solid C+ grade average, which was a grade well above what he would have earned on his own but gave him intellectual bragging rights in a hometown that viewed the BA in Communications on his wall at face value. He might as well have invented the wheel or discovered the secrets to making fire as far as the locals were concerned, and he was the type to never let them forget it, even if he knew the truth himself somewhere buried beneath the wealth of lies, fabrications, half-truths and continuous revision that make up many people’s personality, especially the idle rich.

    After learning of my proximity to her through the tattered daisy chain of the family, Flora got my number and invited me over for a late Sunday brunch near the first weekend of spring. The work crew was banging out doubles and weekends to get the bar finished for its imminent opening, so my usual Sunday post up wasn’t needed until well after nightfall. Dawning my nicest button up shirt, cleanest pair of jeans and least scuffed boots I owned, I keyed my Hog for the quick trip into the upscale golf and country club community actually in pissing distance from the back of the property, which I had proven on several occasions in the middle of the night. Following a quick grilling from a couple of uniformed and armed toughs at the guard shack at the front gates, and a call to my destination, I was cleared and drove through the winding, tree lined parkways with large custom homes and McMansions set on various, large sized tracks. When I got to the Hunt’s Palace of Versailles sized home, I knew they had to have the largest place in the swankest inland area outside of Palm Springs. The home itself would outclass many in Palm Springs and wouldn’t look out of place anywhere in Bell Air or Beverly Hills, at least as far as the size. In all honesty, it was some kind of replica of a fairy tale castle that looked like it belonged in Disneyland with a rollercoaster shooting in and out of it. As instructed, I pulled my scooter around the far left side of the house, down a short road and parked it in a giant aircraft hangar of a building that was full of various high end luxury cars, sports cars, SUVs and enough motorcycles to outfit a full bike gang; although, no real outlaw biker would be seen riding any of those frosted, wedding cakes on two wheels, unless he was stealing it.

    As I made my way up the road to the front of the house, quickly pulling up behind it and between a tennis court, full sized basketball court and volley ball court to one side and a rock grotto surrounded pool on the other, I could see Todd driving a bright colored golf cart that looked like an inflated child’s toy. I would later find out this was a top of the line “Garia LSV,” which is street legal and for people that for some reason need to go ripping across a golf course at 30MPH. He waved to me, and I walked over to him as he parked the cart in a small, color matching custom shed with a charger outlet built into it. He forcefully jammed the large plug into the cart, took off his ostrich skin gloves and shook my hand with the classic hand over dominant position taught to dicks in MBA courses but with more vigor than was necessary to maybe make the point that he was a real man, a man who obviously spent several hours several times a week at an upper end sport’s club juiced up on steroids. His weight gain in muscle mass over the years was proof enough. Gone with the post collegiate dreams of being a PGA ranked pro, he opted for the kind of everyman excellence of a muscular and tanned physique but took it a bit overboard to the near levels of professional bodybuilding, but he didn’t have the right physique for that either and would only get so big before being left with just the slight acne and roid rage but zero trophies for flexing in front of like-minded people while looking like a bear trying to pass a canned ham sized tappen (turd) after hibernation.

    Along with this brutal gym and chemically enhanced body came a voice that completely clashed with it. It was reminiscent of Mike Tyson but with just a hint more bass and condescension in it. Being third generation filthy rich gets some men to talking to everybody, friend or foe, like they’re “the help,” and when you got a rock hard, free weights hammered body, obvious wealth and the slight glint of anabolic wrath socketed in your eyes, you can mostly get away with it.

    “Don’t think that just because I graduated from Stanford that I think I’m the expert in this,” started off many of his pontifical rants on any subject, even those well outside of his area of study. Even though we barely knew each other and were only distantly related by marriage, I got the feeling that my status as a wounded war vet somehow put him off kilter around me. I felt like telling him to relax about it, and if I had his family’s money, I would have went straight to college and not into combat. I was no hero; I was just a kid that did a brutal job that I got pulled into, and I was sorry if some sort of unrequited Rambozo fantasy of his will forever be unfulfilled from him being too much of a pussy and/or having too much to live for.

    He began giving me the tour of his spread as we walked toward the house.

    “Does that pool look familiar to you?” he asked and then answered before I could respond, “It should. It’s an exact replica of Hugh Heffner’s pool and grotto. It cost a shitload to have built.” He walked me up a series of terraced, old growth, redwood decks outfitted with planters full of flowers and herbs, a series of palapas and similar Tiki themed patio furniture, a huge outdoor BBQ island that was essentially a professional grade, outdoor kitchen complete with multiple beer taps, a full bar area, several giant, all-weather flat screens that popped up from stations with a touch of a switch, a hidden pro level sound system and a giant, recessed hot tub the size of small pool that overlooked the long back yard that was a couple hundred yards off of the green and almost completely obscured by fully grown trees that must have cost a fortune to have brought in, re-planted and resuscitated back to full life by a team of top notch arborists.

    “You like that hot tub? That’s just for there for an everyday dip, but the real good times happen in the grotto down in the pool,” he said with a wink and the universal symbol for intercourse by putting his index finger though his other index finger and thumb making a circle. He kicked a metal plate on the lower wall next to a giant sliding glass door which began opening like an elevator complete with a rush of cooler air and some distant trance like Musac coming out. “Come on in, bro.”

    The glass door led into what could be described as a dance hall sized man cave with the roof chopped down a bit and built for a continual college party of every teenager’s dream. A full sized bar set off to the left with a log that could easily seat twenty people and was stocked with every type of both top shelf and middle shelf booze and mixer imaginable. Along the wall on the bar side were various pinball and old school video games along with alcoves that had other gaming consoles, screens and sturdy leather chairs in front of them. Several pool tables, a ping pong table, a foosball table and full sized vintage air hockey table lined the wall opposite the bar and video games. There were also doors to both men’s and women’s bathrooms on that wall and large flat screens over every area of wall space not taken up already. A small stage for a band complete with a backline of equipment was at one side of the rear, a DJ booth was on the other side with a stripper pole and stage between them, all of which sat in front of dance floor covered in collapsible poker tables for a regular home tournament Todd had every week. In front of the dance floor was a half-circle chrome rail and posts that overlooked a large recessed, sitting area full of a circle of puffy, black leather couches surrounding a large circular table that was also a custom built fish tank.

    When the glare of outside had been completely blocked out by the tinted glass door closing behind us, the faces of two attractive women covered in black robes could be seen nearly melting into view in the shimmering, blue-green light coming from the fish tank. They both looked kind of wet and paralyzed, tired from some so far unknown reason. The fish slowly moving about the tank had more life to them. The faces belonged to Flora and another young woman who seemed vaguely familiar to me, but I couldn’t place where I’d seen her before.

    Flora saw me and started to lean forward but then fell back into the couch. The other woman seemed similarly stuck in position. Without saying a word, Todd made his way quickly out of the room to some hidden door behind the DJ booth. After a minute of watching these women fight in vain against the couch, I thought maybe I was going to have to call the paramedics, and then Flora began giggling which led to me to smile at least out of relief.

    “I’m sorry, but this blow has got me too fucked up to get up and give you a hug.” She began laughing hard, while the other young lady looked her way, and then I noticed the large mountain of powder with several huge lines cut up next to it along with several alabaster straws on top of the fish tank/table’s thick glass top. She gestured that should I come down into the “dugout” with them; I took the little staircase on the side and dropped down on the couch next to her. She brought me in close enough to almost kiss her. In the bluish, flickering light, Flora’s dilated eyes almost looked as wide and open as an anime character. The wet hair and blood rushing through her lips and cheeks also helped out the animated illusion. It was as though both of us were seeing each other through the looking glass of a demented cartoon. She whispered in my ear that the lovely woman sitting next to her was named “Madison” and looked at me like that admission should have popped open the floodgates on some dam bordering on collapse. Flora always had a flair for the melodramatic, but in stops and starts that made it kind of manic depressive but still quite fun and thrilling, when she was on an upswing.

    Madison made a motion to move her body forward, I went to offer my hand, but she was then pulled back into the couch by an unseen gravity well. It was almost a noble effort on her part. I smiled as I looked over at them and the pile of unknown powdery substance on the tank.

    While Flora’s body was stuck to the furniture as if it was constructed from flypaper, her mouth worked just fine and begin rapping off a list of questions like a marketing rep who had somehow been held into traction, but it didn’t stop the fantastic nature of everything we were going discuss. She drew me close again with a gesture and then wanted to know everything that had happened since our last meeting but didn’t wait for me to answer them: was I okay, did my leg hurt, did I have PTSD, did I kill somebody I shouldn’t have and regretted it, was it horrible where I was in those Arab places, how was my mom and Granny Rose doing and does Granny miss her?

    When I could get in a word edgewise, I leaned back and simply answered the last question and told her that Granny Rose misses her dearly, and she and Todd should visit the next time they happen to be passing through, which was only half of a lie; no matter how much money he had, Granny despised Todd, and nobody had to worry about them just passing through Yuma, ever.

    “Granny Rose wants me to go see her?” she almost sighed.

    “Of course. She hasn’t seen you since Grandpa’s funeral. You’re her favorite grandchild, and she would love to spend some time with you,” I sort of lied again.

    Todd had walked back into the room with a wet head and in a similar black robe but with his initials boldly embroidered in gold thread on it and came down into the pit with us.

    “Todd we have to go see Granny Rose the next time we go to party at the house in Lake Havasu,” she cried out. “It’s kind of on the way.”

    Todd picked up one of the soft stone straws, took a big pull off one of the lines, pinched his nostrils, snorted and said, “It’s far from on the way. It’s in the lower part of the state in injun’ country next to the fucking Mexican border. You know how I hate those dirty, border towns. I can’t see how you stand them even to go shopping for that cheap silver jewelry you love.” Todd held the stone tube my way, and said, “Don’t worry bro; it’s a nice blend of Norco with a bit of coke to ramp it up.”

    “When in Rome,” I said as took a huge pull of a narcotic that fit right into my schedule, minus the blow which turned out to be real pure.

    As the blend hit me, Todd took my initial confusion of bodily states to ask me, “So, Bob, I hear you’re going to school in the area. Are you out at the Claremont Colleges?”

    “No, I’m over at UCR.”

    “Oh, a state school,” he said like my words had covered his alligator loafers in dog shit.

    “Yeah, they got a good writing department, and it was within my VA budget.”

    “When it’s free, you got to take what you can get, I guess,” he said while going down for another line, and I considered pushing his head into that pile until he passed out or died.

    “It’s only a stepping stone,” I said as the weird mix of both the highs and lows hit my system. “No matter what I do, I like living in Southern California and want to stay here for as long as I can.”

    Todd pulled his head up and slammed his muscular mitt down onto the fish tank table with such force that it slightly bounced up the powder mountain with a slight puff and made the fish scurry to some unseen depths out of view. “That’s God dammed right! I’ve been all over this shithole planet, and So Cal fucking rocks baby!”

    “Fuckin’ A,” said Madison which turned all of the attention in the room towards the thus far immovable couch corpse. She bolted up, took the straw from Todd’s hand and took a big pull straight from the pile while standing up before the drugs took too much of a hold again. Her black robe fell open, exposing a petite, borderline athletic body covered in tattoos and a tiny two piece bathing suit. “We got to get out of this place before we die of overdoses or boredom.”

    “Oh, don’t be a bitch,” Flora blurted out. “We hit Venice, Melrose, Rodeo and Hollywood all day yesterday. Relax. We’re having brunch with my cousin.”

    “Who the fuck is your cousin?” she asked while looking around the room but above my head where I was sitting. I raised my hand in her line of sight, she cocked her head down and gave me a perfunctory look before asking Todd, “Can we get some cocktails? I totally got a cotton plantation growing in my throat.” Without thinking too hard, all four of us silently agreed, got up, and worked our way out of the pit towards the bar.

    Todd turned to me and asked, “How are your bartending skills, bro?”

    “What, you don’t have any help for that?” I asked only half joking.

    “Fuck yeah, I do,” he snapped. “They’re cooking the food that’s going to be served up in the main part of the house; The Cave is off limits unless there’s a big party going down.”

    “Chill out,” I said as I walked around the side door of the bar. “I spent six years in the shit; I can make a few cocktails with a lot less to work with.” The girls wanted something fruity, gave me a strange name, I found the bar book and cranked them out for all of us. I took down a Bud and a shot of tequila as well, and Todd motioned over to me for a shot and brew as well. I then made a pitcher of drinks for the ladies, grabbed a bottle of some exotic tequila I had never heard of before that was amazingly smooth and an iced bucket of beers, and we headed out to the porch.

    As the sun kicked up a notch, everyone ditched their robes, and with the touch of a button on a strange looking remote, Todd turned on the misters. I took off my nice shirt so as not to get it wet. We sat in the sun, the blow coursing through our systems tempered by the booze, and with the cool mists blowing over us, we made some small talk. My entire body was a rush of sensations of a hot and cold mix of a thrill ride. I was trying not to make it look like I was staring too hard at Madison, but everything about her screamed sex, dark nasty sex: her black, Betty Page hair, bedroom/heroin eyes, the tattoos, and obvious piercings poking through her bikini top. Her voice had mellowed out to a reedy purr, and I had to stop myself from losing my cool and asking her where I had seen her before with the ever cliché, “Where do I know you from?”

    “So, you’re working at that new biker bar being built next to The Estates,” said Madison like the bar was built on a septic lagoon. “Then you must know Rowdy Ron Travers.”

    “Yeah, technically I do work for him, but I’ve never met him,” I answered honestly.

    “Ron Travers?” asked Flora while almost doing a spit take.

    An intercom on the wall went off with a very official voice announcing that the meal was ready to be served on the north veranda. Todd practically snatched both women up to get them on their feet and motioned for me to follow them. Grabbing my shirt and quickly putting it on, I followed them through the connected series of porches that led to a full covered porch on the northern side that overlooked a precision trimmed Japanese garden complete with a koi pond, various bamboo wind chimes and a bamboo water bucket under a small stream that had a clockwork hollow pop to it every time it filled up and emptied itself into the pond. If not for the company, it would be a very tranquil place to relax.

    One of the fish made a good jump out of the water and came down with a hard splash that was startling in the near silence. Todd pointed toward the fish and said, “You like those useless fish, bro? Some of those damn koi cost thousands of dollars each. I wanted to have piranhas put in there, but there was a whole issue of liability if one of my guests drunkenly fell in and got eaten or just tore the fuck up.” He took a piece of bread off the table and disdainfully threw it into the water. The koi certainly attacked it as if they were piranha.

    The service for the four of us was set up buffet style and was enough food to feed twenty or more people. I was half expecting some kind of overdone elegance with uniformed butlers and women in French maid outfits, but in all of my few trips out to the Hunt’s castle like home, I never saw one servant. They were like ninjas that did all of the cooking and cleaning, but, save for a distant voice on an intercom, kept their physical presence hidden. Food appeared and trash disappeared like magic. My own take on this was that Todd had grown to so scorn the lower classes that he couldn’t even take to seeing them doing their wretched jobs even while on his dime.

    “Bleh! I hate the way these mosquito torches smell. It totally screws up the smell of the food,” protested Flora to Todd as she pointed to the row of tiki torches that were burning off to the side of the patio.

    “It’s either that or getting eaten alive, princess,” he retorted while stacking a pile of steaming sliced prime roast beef on his plate.

    “With the kind of money we’ve spent on this house and the property, you think the home owners’ association would guarantee no mosquitos,” said Flora while poking at some kind of brightly colored, steamed vegetable combo. “What’s the use of being rich if you can just get eaten alive by bugs like everyone else?”

    “Are we going to do anything today or just sit around the place, swimming, drinking and doing blow?” asked Madison while she lazily threatened a mixed salad of baby greens and arugula with her eyes.

    “What else is there to do on a Sunday afternoon?” asked Flora rhetorically, as this is probably what they would do on given day. She turned to me and asked, “What do normal people do on a Sunday?”

    I was going to answer, “Church,” but she shot up from the table and brought my attention to a discoloration on her outer thigh.

    “You see what Todd did to me? I know we were playing around, but he’s marked me so bad, I can’t even leave the house unless I’m covered head to toe like one of those crazed terrorist bitches,” Flora said like she had just made the greatest joke in the world.

    Todd leaned over, put his hand on the bruise, so it almost matched up and said, “That’s my ass, and I’ll do what I want with it.” He gave her another slap on the spot while laughing as she jumped away and got back in her seat.

    Unlike most buffets where people attempt to shovel as much food in their faces before hitting the wall, and fleeing the restaurant as quickly as possible to get home to sit in front of the tube filling their couches with farts for the rest of the night, the rest of the meal moved on in a slow, relaxed fashion. The women starred at vegetables that were very rare and as pricy as prime cuts of meat per pound while Todd and I slowly consumed as much top shelf surf and turf as the drugs in our system would allow. As a consequence, the conversation was primarily tilted to the women’s court as they covered a variety of subjects ranging from their previous day’s shopping excursion and “that bleach blond bitch working in the Gucci store” to what new songs, singers and reality stars they loved and hated. Todd was obviously used to tuning himself out to this kind of banter while I was mildly fascinated as it was a view into a world mostly unknown to me and also coming from two very beautiful women. I felt like a cultural anthropologist discovering some new tribe as I listened and thoughtfully chewed my food until the meal was finished, and we made our way back to the back party patio and man cave complex to continue the get-together’s other accoutrements.

    After taking another small line off of a mirror on the patio table we were sitting at, I got my bearings and interrupted an awkward silence with a comment to the ladies, “Listening to the two of you talk, it’s funny, but there’s so much information, music, and TV shows out there that, even though we’re all from the same country and culture, I’ve no clue what either of you are talking about. It’s totally foreign to me.”

    Now, I meant that in a good way, and even laughed a bit, but somehow Todd picked it up as some kind of intellectual challenge to his worldview.

    “This country’s totally going to shit, bro,” he interjected before I could continue speaking. “It’s totally got me bummed out when I watch anything on the TV like the news and shit. Have you ever read ‘Atlas Shrugged’ by Ayn Rand?”

    “There were a bunch of copies that came in with these corporate care packages,” I answered, kind of taken aback by his sudden, dire mood change. “I read a little bit of it, but it didn’t catch my attention.”

    “You should get it and read the whole thing, twice bro,” he said while looking wistfully off into the foothills and canyons that are north beyond the gated community’s grounds. “It’ll open up your mind to how things really work in the world.”

    “Todd’s always reading that book,” said Flora as she bent down to take another toot. “A whole two story library full of expensive, old leather books, and that ratty paperback he’s had forever is the only one he reads.”

    “It’s the only one you need for today’s world,” said Todd as he turned around and looked at her like he was about to pass a verdict. “Way back in the day, Ayn Rand figured out that this world is kept alive by the few that have the talent and the intellect, the doers, and they have to fight against the rest of the world that’s just a bunch brainless takers that don’t want to do shit for what they got. History has totally proven the book to be right.”

    “They’ll totally take over one day,” said Flora flatly as if on cue, and she began to scan the horizon to try to see what Todd was looking towards.

    “Why don’t you have any more ink than that one tattoo …” Madison said to me, but was cut off by Todd spinning around to the three of us.

    “‘Atlas Shrugged’ is the most important message to this country since the founding fathers wrote the Constitution. People like us make this world function and move: the owners of businesses . . . writers like you (he said pointing to me) and artists and actresses (he said pointing to Madison)…” He paused for a second to collect his thought. From behind his back, Flora batted her eyes up at me and Madison. “…We are the few who make, and the rest of the world is just full of those who do nothing but take from it,” he said and turned around to continue his survey of the hillsides. I couldn’t tell if it was for dramatic effect, or if he’d just ran out of ideas from the
    massive 1000 plus page book.

    In the army, I’d seen a couple of grunts similarly moved by this book before. It’s kind of like watching a drunk after a moment of clarity finding solace in the Bible and the Lord, without all of the stitches and a pending court date, but with the addition of a horridly misplaced sense of sudden, unearned self-entitlement. Of course, unlike Todd, they never had the kind of deep pocketed, family funding that put them in the financial running with the heroic lead characters of the novel. I think I’d be more comfortable being around him if he was just at peace with his wealth and the ease and opportunity it provided instead of digging around in the commie witch-hunt dustbin of stale ideas to lend some kind of intellectual justification and credence to his genetic lottery win of a life.

    Todd’s cell phone rang out with some chorus from a hip-hop song I’d heard in passing at the college, and he stifled it quickly and began texting back. Flora looked over to him typing furiously, and started up a rather distracted story my way: “The land we’re sitting on is supposed to be part of an old reservation. Have you ever heard how the man who got this land we’re on right now was cursed and died horribly?”

    “No, but if you’re going to talk about Indian burial grounds and curses, you got my undying attention,” I said and leaned forward her way in anticipation.

    “So, in this area used to be a whole bunch of Indians living here forever and were killed, died off over the years or left, and those that didn’t leave the area were sitting on this big patch of dirt with a tiny stream running through it. They were able to do some farming, but one of the guys whose son ended up owning this land, bought a piece of land up stream in the hills, and he damned up the stream to just starve them out, so they would sell it to him. They still wouldn’t sell it to him and decided to do a dance against him because …”

    “They were getting their gods to curse him,” continued Madison before taking another drink of her big fruity cocktail in a cored out pineapple from the brunch.

    “Right. He wouldn’t give them any water, so they danced for a week until his whole body broke out in boils and sores. He died, and his son broke down the dam so as not end up with a bunch of boils too.”

    As she was speaking, the last direct rays of the sun dropped down behind the tops of the trees. A diffused halo cut around her as she sat like a strange saint in some medieval painting growing darker and more difficult to make out with each strained and divided word: the static echo of some broadcast made far in the past growing more distant with each second in time.

    As Todd finished up his text, the intercom broke in with the unseen ninja butler announcing that he had a “business” call on the home’s main line. Pocketing his cell phone, he made his way into the house through the man cave. Flora intently watched Todd leave the table but tried to strike up a happy conversation to deflect her obvious concern.

    “It’s so good to finally have you here at the house. It’s like we are having a big rock star come over for lunch. Right?” she said to Madison who looked completely blank over the comparison. “He’s such a rock star.”

    With a blown out leg, scarred but muscular body and still sporting a modified pomp of a high and tight, I was pretty much the opposite of any rock star I had ever seen, Country and Western maybe, but I didn’t even play an instrument. She was trying to keep the mood up in her lovely manic way, but her mind was obviously wandering somewhere else, through space maybe. She quickly put her drink down, slipped out of her chair and made her way into the party cave before the slow rolling door could completely close.

    I looked over to Madison who was watching Flora walk through the door. She raised her hand up authoritatively like a traffic cop as I began to speak and tilted her head toward the still open window next to the glass door. Somewhere buried in the distant hum of A/C units, hissing misters, random birds and the trance-musac playing lightly on the speakers, some semblance of a human voice could be heard but almost tinny and electronic, buried in the background noise. It came in and out of the white-noise almost like moving the radio dial on an older analog radio.

    “So, this Ron Travers, what do you know about …” I said before she raised her hand again to silence me.

    “Shhh, I want to see what goes down.”

    “Is there something going down right now?” I asked while still being in the dark?

    “Oh, you’re not in on the latest episode of The Jerry Springer Show?” she asked like I should have already known. “Everybody around here seems to know, and you’re family, so I figured you’d know more than us.”

    “We don’t talk much.”

    “Well . . . Todd’s got him a side piece that he keeps in a party pad out in Palm Springs.”

    “What, like an actual mistress?”

    “Sort of,” she said with a slight laugh and a sly smile at my complete bumpkin like ignorance. “Officially, a ‘business partner,’” she continued while making the universal sign for quote marks when she said “business partner.”

    As I tried to digest everything I just heard and put it into a new context of a couple to a trio, the door opened and Flora came through carrying a small bowl of cut up limes. Todd was almost on top of her as she exited the door.

    “I got you guys the limes you asked for to do some shots,” she lied in an almost explosive game show host like manner.

    She came up to the table looking at us with eyebrows raised almost pleading for us to help her continue the charade. I accepted the bowl and was about to say “thanks” when she suddenly blurted out, “Oh, fuck me. I forgot the tequila and salt! What kind of tequila do we want? Oh, wait, there’s like that bottle we left out here before brunch. That’s good tequila for shots. Excellent tequila for shots . . . right Todd?”

    “Excellent for shots or even just sipping,” he replied back almost mechanically. He then turned to me, his voice went up a bit and he stated, “If it’s not an issue with some kind of combat trauma thing with you, bro, I’ve got a shooting range in the basement, and we can go down and burn through a few boxes of ammo later.”

    Right as he finished his sentence, his cell phone went off again loudly and Flora almost jumped away from him. She then laughed a little and sat down. As Todd quickly mumbled that he had some business to deal with, he began texting back. The tequila bottle was brought to the table, but shots were never poured. A slight wind came in and blew the cut lines on the large mirror out of their rows and then some of it into the wind, a strange narcotic offering to whatever ancient animist native gods controlled them. Drinks were slowly nursed instead of the near chugging contest level at the beginning. Suddenly gone was the almost urgent desperation to maintain the high octane buzz of the early afternoon, and it wasn’t from the sun’s rays clinging to the tops of the mountains while in retreat. An electronic interloper had hacked in from afar and changed the tone of the whole day. All animation had left the women, who went from chatty gossips on a daytime talk-show to almost morose Russian novelists in a gulag staring at the setting sun over the tops of their drinks. I had to stop myself from grabbing that pricy bottle of booze and the big bag of powder while slipping out, hitting my scooter and heading home to be alone by myself instead of alone in a group of people.

    Burning through a few mags in his subterranean pistol range never came to pass or even brought up that night. Todd, still stuck in text mode, took his phone into the cave and down into the dugout. Carrying the tequila bottle, Madison followed him into the dugout where the main drug supply was still sitting out. As Flora meandered about and down the wooden stares towards the pool area/grotto, she looked at me like she needed to hash out some problems, so I tagged along to at least be a sounding board and try to remain objective and not give her some advice that would make Granny jump for joy. We came to the pool area and in a carved out rock recess sat on the stone bench in the shadows of the last fleeting rays of sunlight fading out.

    In the advancing shade of dusk, the mix of shadows made Flora look almost Native American, a cartoon beauty of a Pocahontas watching the dark come over us. Her black mood matched the fast approaching night, and in the short eternity waiting for her to speak, I thought of ways to crack the silence and asked her if she and Todd had any long term plans to start a family?

    “Kids? Now?” she said. “Oh, gawd no! We can’t bring kids into this fucked up world. Not yet. There’s like too much craziness out there,” she said pointing to the far off borders of the gated community.

    “You guys have the kind of money to keep them safe.”

    “Oh, the world isn’t safe for anyone, especially for people who have money” she shot back. “There are too many takers out there waiting for us to slip up.”

    I couldn’t hold in a bit of a laugh, and told her, “I spent half a dozen years in actual areas of the world that had plenty of kidnappings; I can tell you that you guys are safe here.”

    “We are now, but what about the future?” she said with actual terror in her eyes. “We don’t know how things are going to be tomorrow. Some communist could take over the White House and come after us.” Todd’s words came out of her mouth, and not just in stale agreement. “Our money won’t mean shit. It will be stolen from us or just made worthless. They’ll come in through those gates, kill us all or worse yet …” her words went down to almost a hiss, “I’ll wind up a prostitute in some government camp, like my mother was, and hoping for some GI with a heart to love me and take me out of there. No. I can’t have that for me or my children.” She sat up straight almost like a child standing to say the pledge, “I like being able to go where ever we want and do whatever we want to do. I gave up love and happiness for that, and I’m not going back. I earned this life and won’t give it up.”

    I was almost astounded at this strange combination of privilege and negativity. They lived in this castle spun out of gold from their dreams, had traveled around the world, the nicer parts of it at least, while I and many other members of the poverty draft had actually given life and limbs in the greater hot and sandy assholes of the planet, and I think my brethren and I, even with the PTSD and other trauma, had come out of our hell much more balanced on the whole. We had been pawned one move at time on the worst chessboard that modern man could conjure, while the Hunt’s had been everywhere else and seen nothing, but it couldn’t be told to them otherwise. We just weren’t in their club and couldn’t understand them even if we thought we did.

    Down in the dugout, the area flowed with a heavy blue green of the fish-tank’s glow and a couple of the flat screen TVs overhead.

    Madison and Todd were splayed out on the black couches, the alcohol and drugs once complete hold on their person loosening to a lukewarm embrace. Madison looked up to the flat screen above their heads and told of the news coming in from abroad; like a ticker tape of old, she gave him the rundown of the day’s events. Her soft yet almost mechanical words flowed across a profile of a statue from ancient ruins, while her hand pushed back her hair that was far from set in stone.

    As Flora and I passed though the sliding door, Madison spoke her last news report.

    “Investing in the long term S&P is better returns than you’ll get anywhere else on the globe,” she said while checking the other indices, and laughed. “And, I didn’t understand a damn word of any of that shit I just read to you.”

    She began the hero’s climb against the drugs and made it to her small, tattooed and ring bearing feet.

    “Well, we pretty much fucked this day off,” she stated bluntly while looking at the diminished pile of powder and empty tequila bottle on the table. “I’m going to call it a night before I get too stupid to deal with a bunch of money hungry Jews tomorrow.”

    “Madison has a meet with some big time producers tomorrow,” Flora gave me the 411, “out in The Valley.”

    “So, you’re thee Madison.”

    I finally figured out where I’d seen her before. Some of the guys had her DVDs or downloads of her movies and stills in their locker boxes and laptops; her sneering face and obvious yelps of phony pleasure an almost artistic mockery of not only the porn she was in at the moment, but at the business as a whole. She didn’t even try to fake it well, but that was part of her charm, that and her girl next door gone biker bitch bad kind of beauty.

    “Night, night,” she said carefully making her way up the small stairs. “If my alarm doesn’t get me up, could you have one of your staff knock on my door at around noon?”

    “Noon?” Todd said to her kind of shocked tone.

    “Everybody in the business doesn’t get started until the afternoon,” she stated as a matter of fact. “It was nice to meet you Robert. See you around the campfire here.”

    “Oh, you can count on that,” Flora said almost marking it in a date book. “I’ll drag him away from his dreary school life just to throw you two together in the grotto one of these nights or send you off to Vegas for a quickie marriage.”

    “Marriage isn’t for everyone, honey,” she said as she made her way to the back of The Cave, “The grotto’s not out of the question though.”

    “Such a great looking girl,” said Todd after she had taken the hidden door into the main part of the house. “I don’t know how she can do that business and still go back to see her family. Her dad must be totally horrified.”

    “Well, he’s not in the picture anymore, and she paid for the trailer her mother lives in out in Hemet, so I think she’s just grateful to not be on the streets. She’s wild and just needs a good man in her life to square her up, like our Bobby here.”

    Flora looked over to Todd’s cold indifference on the matter.

    “She has an accent I can’t place,” I said to break the silence.

    “She’s from back East somewhere, but she moved out here and finished out at my high school. She was a senior and the head of the cheer and dance teams when I was a sophomore. We really started doing good in competitions when she was in charge and went to finals by the time I was ...”

    “How was your little gossip session out by the pool?” Todd broke in.

    “Oh, we just talked about the good old days and even Ann Rand and how the country is coming apart from the ….”

    “Talk is cheap, and just that bro, talk” he informed me.

    As I usually did, I played dumb as if I heard nothing, and told them I had to get rolling to get up early for school the next day, which was a lie. My first class didn’t start until noon. They got up out of the pit and followed me to the back of the patio. Seeing the remnants of a nice line still on the glass patio table top, I bent over, hit it and washed it down with the last of my beer: a one two punch for the short drive home. I thanked the both of them for their hospitality and began making my way down the steps to go fetch my bike.

    Flora called out to me, “Hold on for a second! I heard that you had a wife in Afghanistan.”

    “That was the rumor we heard,” continued Todd with the merest glint of what could be considered kindness in his voice.

    “It was Iraq, and she wasn’t my wife.”

    “It was on some internet news thing that we saw,” claimed Flora all the sudden all cheery and abloom. “Everybody was talking about it.”

    The army regulars knew about this story, and Granny did, but I didn’t realize it had made it out this far. She wasn’t my wife or even my girlfriend. She was an interpreter working for us in her small town, and we began to vibe on each other. She was traditional, and when I sought to take it further by talking to the father, he freaked out in the way that only Muslim men can. The threat of a possible honor killing became a reality and made me take extraordinary steps with her family to show that she had not shamed them. Stars and Stripes picked up on the story and made it into a real “hearts and minds” puff-piece of impossible love, nobility, and sacrifice for honor and duty, and the rest is revisionist history. In the end, I was an infidel and that was that.

    Their focus on this story only seemed strange to me that it could come from people living in this modern Shangri-La, while obviously being involved in their own mishaps and an early arriving seven year itch. Even with the colored track lights shining on it, their mansion seemed less grand for a moment, and I could feel a bit of revulsion toward them. If they both started banging on the lawn in front of me to show their deep commitment to one another, it wouldn’t have surprised me. She had the castle of her childhood dreams, so he of course could have his side piece in Palm Springs and this demented obsession for the only Russian born novelist whose work isn’t worth the read and whose tedious prose has become a moral defense for abject greed and selfishness – all of which just to fill the chasm of some lost youthful dream of golf claps and the constant need for unconditional respect.

    As I kicked my hog into high gear, I decided to take a little longer of a drive than straight home. The booze was mostly gone from my blood, but the blow made the night air sizzle across any section of exposed flesh. I tore ass through the outskirts of the area taking in the deep shades of grey and black of the old homes and businesses set back from the highway, occasionally broken up by orange sodium lamp spotlights on the road and empty parking lots, the newest lights in the area shining from the ads on billboards telling the locals their lives would be more complete with a new car, new home, a trip to the strip club, the right booze and of course Jesus in several different mega church venues. I could agree with two of the five that night.

    A short time later, I pulled into the roadhouse lot. Several work trucks lined the drive and the sounds of drills, saws and hammers could be heard from the inside. Dutch and crew were obviously dancing with demon speed to get this thing ready on time. Away from the trucks and closer to the Halloween house, a chopped and fully raked custom pan head with chrome shining like silver fire even under the shadow of the walnut trees sat next to it. For the first time since I had taken up residence, lights were on in the house. I parked my bike next to my trailer, stepped inside, grabbed a couple of beers and headed back out to take a seat and feel the calming cool of the night air. While observing the stars, my peripheral vision caught movement from the house. Calmly bringing up and popping open his Zippo with a metallic cling as familiar to everyone as a shotgun being racked, the flame temporarily lit up the shadows of a face for a second but not long enough to get a bead on any recognizable features save the pomp and burns of an Elvis man. The light left quick and in its absence a burning cherry on a cig. It was my thus far absent and notorious boss, Rowdy Ron Travers himself.

    Stepping off the porch, he appeared to be looking over into the colored lights of The Estates. He seemed to be studying them like a surveyor sizing up his next acquisition. I wanted to finally make his acquaintance, but this didn’t seem to be the right time. While smoking his cigarette with his left hand, he reached out his right hand, pointing it toward The Estates like The King himself pointing toward a fan in the audience. He almost seemed to be shaking like voodoo priest concentrating with a single focus on a point in The Estates. I looked away toward his point of interest which seemed to be a red warning light for the local planes in the area and maybe on the top spire of one of the larger homes. Trying to find the spot, I looked back and Ron had slipped away in a flash leaving me to the glittered black sky and irregular rhythm and beat of midnight construction work.
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