Something Gets in My Eye
Five minutes before a pair of overconfident, underaged, undercooked, tweaked-out, teenage-skater-boy assassins swagger through the front door of an upscale bar in a tourist hotel just south of the Santa Monica Pier, I'm innocently killing time in the manner of all limo drivers since the invention of the wheel: wiping down my vehicle with a chamois while listening to a less car-proud driver complain about the weather. He isn't wrong to complain, considering how the two of us are being sandblasted by Santa Ana winds in the limos-wait-here alley behind the hotel.
"Fuckin' Santa Anas," he said, squinting into the grit. "White people freak the fuck out, level a black man the evil eye."
Black man referred to him; white people referred to me. Which was fair because I am, in fact, an astoundingly vanilla man: brown hair, brown eyes, five foot eleven, medium build-your average kind of white man, milquetoast invisible average-but while I admit to regarding him with interest, "leveling the evil eye" parlayed too much spin on it.
(Yet . . .)
There was something about the guy that didn't ring true.
He wore a dark-blue limo-driver's suit made for somebody maybe two inches shorter than himself unless he'd recently undergone a growth spurt, which seemed unlikely given that he was pushing thirty. His shoes were not the standard black wingtips or cap-toed oxfords; they were patent leather laceless boots, sporting flashy silver toe and heel caps (though whether gaudy-cheap or conspicuous-expensive was beyond me).
His hair was rusty colored in a way that said beach bum more than limo driver. As did his cigarillo packed with primo weed. Plus, he checked his phone with manic regularity. Normally, I'd have written him off as a moonlighting soul surfer obsessively checking an app that tracked storm waves from across the ocean. Except the Santa Anas blow out any kind of decent surfing; even junk surfers don't need an app for that.
Most likely Mr. Chelsea Boots was new to the limo business, nervous, checking for texts from a particularly demanding client-but if that was the case, then why was he getting high? To calm his jitters?
So yeah, come to think of it, maybe Chelsea Boots was right and I was leveling him the evil eye. Or maybe he was paranoid from the weed. Maybe a little of both.
My mobile buzzed. I removed my sunglasses, shaded the screen from the setting sun and gusts of grit with my body. It was my mechanic, Tinkertoy, calling. I answered in my most soothing voice.
Dead silence (not unexpected). Sonic blackouts are a quirk of Tinkertoy's post-traumatic stress paranoia, an awkward unwanted intermission as she evaluates whether or not the person on the other end of the call is for reals the person she herself just dialed.
"It's you who?" Tinkertoy asked.
"This is Michael Skellig," I answered.
In college, in addition to required math and engineering classes, I took an elective survey course in Great Thinkers in which we studied the birth of medicine, featuring protodoctors, half scientist / half magician, starting with a Greek named Hippocrates. (You've heard of his oath.)
Hippocrates set out to label and categorize human beings by separating us into four basic groups based upon (I shit you not) a personal predominance of the following: snot, black bile, yellow bile, and blood. He labeled these Humors. We all have one, a humor, like a sign of the zodiac. Hippocrates would have diagnosed Tinkertoy as a Melancholic, meaning she suffered from a surfeit of black bile.
Eventually, Tinkertoy decided that I was, in fact, who I claimed to be and, in the jerky, tumbledown telegram way she speaks once she decides it's safe, she said, "Two is ready. Fuel injector was fucked. Not like from sabotage. Nuh-uh. Just old. So I replaced it. Hundred seventy-five bucks. Secondhand. Could not. Be rebuilt."
Two referred to the second of the three limos I own. I was currently leaning on our flagship: Number One.
"Good job," I said, and waited for Tinkertoy to analyze that controversial response for hidden meaning.
You're wondering where I get the patience to deal with Tinkertoy, and the answer is that I appreciate the way she fends off her PTSD demons by immersing herself in the minutiae of all things mechanical (typewriters, binoculars, clocks and compasses, fuel injectors, air-conditioning units, cameras, whirligigs, toys, guns, stereos, computers, lawn mowers, and anything else you can think of with spinning, clicking, percolating, conducting, gyrating, or ambulatory properties).
The Veterans Health Administration psych wizards categorize Tinkertoy not as Melancholic but as Ego-syntonic suffering from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder derived from Post-Traumatic Stress with Serotonergic Imbalance Resulting in Adjustment Disorder with Anxious Features-indicating, to me at least, that shrinks could learn a thing or two from Hippocrates and his humors.
Chelsea Boots huffed noisily on his doctored Black & Mild blunt, quick, shallow, urgent puffs like trying to keep something alight that wants to go out.
The major limo companies do not sanction that kind of behavior. They maybe look the other way if a driver is obliged to take a friendly hit off a doobie (I know, but that's what I call it) to assuage the nerves of a pot-paranoid client who worries about off-duty cops moonlighting as limo drivers. But Chelsea Boots sucked back on his shit with Snoop Dogg levels of enthusiasm, the end of his cigar glowing red even through all this crashing sunlight.
Tinkertoy finally ticked the last box on her exasperating mental list and said, "Ripple says should he call in Lucky since Two is ready?"
Ripple's another employee Army vet with issues. I hired him to handle scheduling and dispatch for my company, Oasis Limo Services. The other full-time driver is named Lucky. Lucky owns a ten percent stake in the company but he has to trust me on that because he's an illegal alien coasting along on forged documents (yes, another veteran-we all have our tribes).
I named our company Oasis Limo Services on the advice of my mother, who, as a politician, knows a lot about branding. Mom said that if I called it Stars and Stripes Limo Services it would scare the limousine liberals on the west side of Los Angeles, who happen to be my target clientele. Plus, according to Mom, the word oasis works on the subliminal level to seduce prospective clients into feeling "like Bedouins eating dates in a tent near a cool water hole after crossing the Sahara."
(Like everyone else who doesn't know better, Mom views Los Angeles as both a literal and a figurative desert.)
"Ripple needs to do his job," I told Tinkertoy, which resulted in the muffle of Tinkertoy covering the phone with her grease-stained palm, ostensibly repeating to Ripple what I'd just said.
Ripple is barely nineteen years old and looks younger, a luminously pale freckled boy with crazy hair like copper wires. He draws cartoons all day, all of them horrifically violent in the way that sets off alarms for the VA wizards. Just over a year ago, Private Second Class (E-2) Ripple had a bad day in a shithole called Walakan, southwest of Kandahar, Afghanistan, when he lost his right leg from just above the knee to a sniper and his left leg at the hip when an HMMWV (which was rushing to block a second kill shot) accidentally ran him over.
Hippocrates would label Ripple Sanguine, which means his predominant humor is blood, which tells you just about everything you need to know about the kid.
I heard Ripple's voice in the background, a jumble of words followed by a clearly discernible, "Tell Skellig to go fuck himself!" followed by Tinkertoy's muffled, "Why don't you? Go fuck? Yourself?" followed by escalating classic Sanguine-versus-Melancholic insults. I hung up to let the two of them work it out.
"Famous poem about the Santa Anas," Chelsea Boots continued, as though our conversation had never been interrupted, "concerning a wife and a knife. You got a wife?"
I shook my head.
How do you answer a question like that? I'm single for all the usual reasons plus a couple of ancillary snags and detriments, for example: an eye-catching scar on my forearm left by an obstinate pit bull whose windpipe I was forced to (honest to God!) wrench out in panicked self-defense-please, no grief about the humane treatment of animals. Killing a dog is not a meet-cute anecdote on a first date (especially if the woman in question is an animal lover), and yet due to the prominence of the dimpled scars on my arm it has never not come up, unless I wear long sleeves, in which case, this being Los Angeles, the woman in question assumes I'm a junkie. I could go for Gila monster attack as an explanation, but then I'm lying on a first date, which, as any relationship expert will tell you, does not bode well for the future of the relationship.
Putting aside the dog-killer excuse, the main reason I do not have a wife is that I'm hopelessly in love with a woman who not only refuses to marry me but decided that the fact that I'd asked (and she'd refused) meant that we should take our whole relationship to a much more casual level.
Instead of admitting all that to baked Mr. Chelsea Boots, I changed the subject.
"It's not a poem."
"What's not a poem? Wife with a knife? What is it, then? Doesn't sound like no kind of joke."
"It's a story."
Which is when a speck of grit blew into my eye and burned like an ember. Santa Anas are the katabatic devil winds that blow no good from the high deserts-everybody knows that, not only wives and knives, poets and surfers and limo drivers, especially getting late in the afternoon, after twenty-eight hours of no sleep, driving around a client who obviously does not ever want to go home, the sun banging on your eyeballs from both the sky and the reflection off the ocean.
I heard a burst of calliope music from the Santa Monica Pier amusement park, blown up the alley behind the hotel on a back eddy of the Santa Anas, and my eye watered and stung and the wind spoke to me in the guttural accent of a Chechen jihadist torturer I shot through the eye in Yemen a decade ago.
What the Chechen said was Troubletroubletrouble.
Yes, yes, I know, on top of the dog story now you're going to be all freaked-out about my mental health, but those ghostly wind warnings have saved my life a dozen times, always keening in the spectral voice of somebody I'd killed. Of course I've never admitted that to the wizards. I tell them that I experience an overwhelming sense of djˆ vu and disconnection from the world. They tell me I suffer from a form of PTSD-induced protomigraine known as an aura. Why don't I tell the wizards about my whispering ghost voices? Because they will take it much too seriously and plunge a needle full of Thorazine in my ass.
. . . troubletroubletroublebadtrouble . . .
"What up?" Chelsea Boots asks, because I'm tossing the chamois onto the limo's hood, tucking my sunglasses into the breast pocket of my shirt, and turning to trot along the broken asphalt of the alley, instinctively reaching for a phantom sidearm that isn't there and hasn't been there for three years.
I slam into the dented metal door at the rear of the hotel like I'm trying to escape a burning building, then thump on it with my elbow until it opens a crack. I shove my way past the shocked Malaysian dishwasher kid wearing eyeliner and rubber gloves, moving fast and low, like I'm leading a strike team, through the coolness of the corridor, smelling cleaning fluids and raw refrigerated beef, olive oil, spilled liquor, antiseptic. I zigzag through the kitchen, scanning, scanning, ignoring the whoops and hollers of the Mexicans and Guatemalans who work there-"Hey! Choo can be dere!"-bursting from behind the bar into a cool place of wood warmth and air-conditioning and mirrors and an infinity of bottles and indirect light and people and music throbbing at 180 beats per minute (like the heart of panic).
"Jesus Christ!" grunts a barback; then there's a bouncer who plants himself in front of me, chanting, "Stop. Stop. Stop!" in the singsong, patronizing, faux-weary voice bouncers affect to hide their own anxieties in a physical confrontation.
When I outzig his zag, he tucks in behind and chases me.
This bouncer moves well but his nose has never been broken, which indicates that he's a martial arts type, which means that, unlike a boxer or a cop, he cannot take a hit and keep coming, so when he grabs my shoulder I spin, elbow him once, solar plexus, and keep going. I consider shouting my client's name, which is Bismarck Avila (that's right, the wunderkind skateboarding hip-hop mogul from the reality show), but then I see Avila rising as the culminating sound of the disturbance I'm causing roils over my head and breaks over him like a wave, so I jostle my way through the evening drinks crowd, managers and agents and call girls and tourists, muttering "'Scuse me, 'scuse me, 'scuse me . . ." in a way that really means, Get the fuck out of my way or I will hurt you.
Two three-hundred-pound bodyguards rise in front of me like darkness looming, twins, buttoning their Hugo Boss suits in the way large African American men do in order to intimidate average-size Caucasian men like me, the same monumental bookends who followed my limo in a tricked-out black Navigator as I drove their boss from club to club to sex club to hotel suite to restaurant to private party to bar-a different woman or women in the back servicing the client on each leg.
"Get him out," I advise the twins, pointing at Avila but scanning, scanning, for the threat that the Chechen had warned me about but had not yet presented itself in reality.
"I don't think so," Tweedledee says.
"Who you talkin'?" Tweedledum asks.
"That's the limo driver," says Tweedledee just before the bullet slaps his gut, right through his Hugo Boss buttonhole, the crack of a nine millimeter following a microsecond later and the awful wet-clap sound of bullet meets flesh, and for the two seconds before hysteria and panic hit, the whole place goes as silent as Antarctica.