The Underbelly by Gary Phillips
art: Spartacous Cacao
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Installment 07

“This is him, isn’t it? This the big bastard you’re schtupping these days?”

Angie Baine giggled and Magrady took a step back. The clown with the bad rug might not be a candidate for an AARP sanctioned boxing match, but Magrady wasn’t inclined to take another punch, no matter how anemic, to his stomach.

“Be cool, Jeremy,” she said to the senior citizen. “You don’t want to stroke out.”

“Who is this chump?” Magrady asked, eyebrow raised.

“He adds yet another insult to his affronts.” His arms shook his walker. “Who am I,” he mocked.

“Jeremy was the director-producer of Brain Invaders among other such efforts,” Baine illuminated, touching the octogenarian’s shoulder. This instantly put a calming effect on him, and he seemed to relax.

“Then how come you weren’t at the screening, Coppola?”

“I was getting my pole waxed,” he groused at Magrady.

“Look here, dad,” Magrady started, thumping Jeremy’s medallion with the back of two fingers. It depicted in bas relief a nude couple doing it 69 style. Classy. “Shouldn’t you be more concerned with how many times a day you need to take your blood pressure pills?” He couldn’t help it. Ever since he was a teenager, when a guy tried to make time with a girl he was with, he’d have to show he wasn’t a punk. Bad old habits died awfully hard.

Baine twinkled a smile at him. “Stop.”

Jeremy whatever the hell his last name was said, “Baby, let’s let the past stay where it belongs. You know I’ll do right by you. Fact, I’ve got a movie in mind that I want you for as the lead.”

“Get real, Jair, those days are long gone,” Baine advised.

He smiled with new dentures. “I’m serious, Angie. Some youngsters over at SC film school had me over there for a double bill at the Norris Theater on campus, and we got to talking after the Q & A.” He clomped his body closer so as to insert himself between Baine and Magrady.

“You know those rich little shits over there. A couple of these kids got parents in the Industry. One of them has called me since and wants to talk about me doing some direct-to-video pictures.”

It was Baine’s turn to arch a brow. “With an old broad as the star?” She laughed heartily. “I don’t do MILF porn, Jeremy.” She winked at Magrady. “At least not for the public.”

The crusty director made a sound in his throat. “I’m not that hard up to get back behind the camera. This is legit. Hell, I’ll give Magic Mandingo here a role if that’s what it’ll take.”

“I got your Magic Mandingo for your sister, Jair.”

The object of his derision turned slightly, wearing a lopsided smile. “Yes, I’m sure you do.”

“Boys,” Baine said to forestall another go-round. “It was good seeing you again, Jeremy.” She put her arm back in the crook of Magrady’s.

The ancient filmmaker repositioned himself on his walker as the couple started to depart. “I’m serious about this, Ange. I’m not deluded enough to believe this is some sort of comeback, but wouldn’t it be nice to go out on a high note?”

She squeezed Magrady’s tricep to halt. “The moonlight stopped shining on us a long time ago, Jeremy.”

He pointed a gnarled finger upward. “There might be just one more in the firmament for us.”

Baine gave Magrady a resigned look and wrote down a contact number on the back of a discarded parking lot ticket and handed it to Jeremy. Outside they walked along, the night cooler than expected. She snuggled closer.

“You gonna spend the night?”

“If you like,” he said warmly.

She kissed him. “I do.” They walked deeper into the Nickel like kids out on Lover’s Lane. They passed a skeleton-thin man in a derby defecating in an alleyway and a woman with very few teeth padded in clothes of mismatched styles pushing a shopping cart. Leaning in the cart was a three-foot tall plaster statue of a brightly painted Ann-Margaret circa the 1970s.

Magrady put an arm around her shoulders just as an LAPD cruiser drifting past. They put the spotlight on them to make sure the burly black man wasn’t manhandling the nice white lady. Or maybe Stover was keeping close watch on him, Magrady reflected. Was that being paranoid or precautious?

“You okay ma’am?” one of the cops asked, putting the wolf’s gleam on Magrady.

“I’m fine,” Baine smiled, waving them off. They kept the light on them for a few more beats, then drove off. They walked further and she said, “Say, I called you because Floyd got in touch.”

“He wants that magnetic card back, doesn’t he?”

“You’re a regular Nick Carter.”

“Ain’t I? You tell him I had it?

“Of course not. I’m your Velda, right?”

They both chuckled. “He’s coming by?”

“Said for me to meet him ’round one tomorrow at that farmer’s market they have up at the VA.”

Magrady regarded her.

Her shoulders lifted and fell. “Don’t ask me. Maybe he wanted to avoid Asher.” She referred to the one-armed desk clerk at her SRO. “They don’t get along.”

“More likely he’s staying out that way.”

“See, you are a clever dick.”

“I hope you mean that in a good way. And you know for a woman your age you sure talk dirty.”

“It doesn’t bother you.”

“This is so.”

To be polite he called Janis Bonilla from a phone at the Midnight Mission. A case worker Magrady had done a favor for let him do so.

After some chit-chat, Bonilla cracked, “You got all the dames worried about you, huh, Magrady?”

“Good night, Janis.”

“Good night, Gracie.”

Magrady was relieved that Asher wasn’t on the desk at the Chesapeake, though he’d encountered him there during nighttimes in the past. Getting into a hassle now when he was hankering to direct his energies elsewhere would just be a drag. Concentration was everything.

Sure the rules were no guests after 8 pm but plenty of clerks, unlike the anal Asher, let you violate that rule—particularly if you offered money or booze or a hit of something stronger as thanks. In this case, El Cid, Sid Ramos, was just a cool motherfuckah.

“Em,” he said in that rasp of his, knocking a fist with the other Vietnam veteran. He’d been over there before Magrady, a homeboy from El Serreno who wound up being a Lerp, that is an LRRP, a long range reconnaissance patrol maniac. Men who operated in small teams, going deep in country to scout positions for air strikes and do recon or gather intel as they called it now. It took a certain type who liked being alone with your doubts and fears for days on end yet still be on point. El Cid had done a lot too when he got back to the world, including a jolt in the pen.

Magrady retorted, “It bees like that.” He and Baine walked past. El Cid returned to reading his book, The Last Cavalier, by Alexandre Dumas. As Magrady understood it, while Dumas was in bad shape and his work out of favor with the critics, but not the masses, he couldn’t help but do his thing and churned out a daily serial in a newspaper. Now some pipe-smoking academic had come along and put the chapters together and edited them as the last novel by the cat who created the Three Musketeers. Which Magrady hoped these knot-head, pants-saggin’ kids today knew wasn’t just a candy bar or knew that Dumas was part black.

In the morning, he in his boxers and she in a slip, they lay together in bed listening to a Bartók CD. Her head on his torso, Baine asked him, “You think abut your kids?”

He rubbed her butt. Considering her seven-plus decades, it was quite a lovely sensation. But at his age, Magrady could squeeze fresh bread and get a thrill. “Yeah, a lot recently.” It probably would break the mood to tell her partly because he had his gun at his oldest’s house out in Sun Village.

“You?” She had a grown son she hadn’t seen for some time. A lying, cheatin’ ass doper he recalled from bitter experience.

“Chad got word to me. Says he’s clean and lean.”

“Who says?”

“His chick who came by.”

“That you lent a twenty to I bet.”

She kissed his chest. “Thirty, darling.”

“Sheeee.”

“He was at work. She showed me a picture on her cell phone. He’s a security guard at the Emerald Shoals site.”

“Then he should be able to come by and see you.”

“He will.”

Magrady didn’t want to cause static. We all needed something to hang onto.

As several strings and drums went wild on the record, Baine let her hand go south on his body and damned if he wasn’t able to soldier up. This was also why he didn’t argue with her about her son. He figured she might be feeling frisky and why mess with that? Cialis? Viagra? Heh. He was Kong, son of Kong, baby.

Afterward he promised to call Baine this coming weekend, if only to prevent her taking up with that bastard Jeremy again he half-joked. Magrady then got out and about. He bought some tepid coffee from the Shell gas station quick mart and didn’t give in to the lust to have a muffin. He walked over to the Urban Advocacy offices but Bonilla was in the field and the intern that had helped him, Fjeldstrom, wasn’t around either. He was able to check his mail box and was surprised to find a letter in it.

“You must have strong ju-ju,” he mumbled, meaning Angie Baine talking about her family had conjured up his. Magrady went back to the waiting area in front and sat heavily in one of the plastic chairs. Cold in his throat, he started at the envelope. The letter was from his ex-wife, Claudelia. She’d long ago remarried and was now living in Tulsa, being an Oklahoma girl originally. He tapped it against his fingertips. He just knew this couldn’t be good news.

He debated reading the message now or later while a woman who’d been there before him was now talking to one of the organizers about her unfair eviction. Magrady folded the letter and tucked it in his back pocket. One goddamn problem at a time, he reasoned. He went to the bus stop on Wilshire and after two other buses came and went, got the one he needed to take him far enough west.

The Westwood Farmers Market was a once a week fresh food bash held in the 14-acre garden on the expansive VA facility off of Wilshire near the 405 Freeway. The garden, that also included rows of rose bushes, gave recuperating vets an opportunity to do some head healing through the symbolic and practical act of growing fruits and vegetables. Magrady wasn’t much on sod busting, but he appreciated what this plot of tended ground did for the vets.

He nodded at a twenty-some-year-old man in cargo shorts with one of those space age curved metal legs attached below his real knee. He watched the Iraqi vet offload some red potatoes from a van and continued walking about, searching for Floyd Chambers. He bought some strawberries from a vendor because weren’t they a natural way to keep your pencil sharp? Seems his dad used to say that. Stacked under the table’s stall were several crates etched Shishido Farm in the soft wood.

Munching on his delicious snack, he came rounded another stall where a heavyset woman undid the plastic straps sealing a cardboard box with a screwdriver. He spotted Chambers. He had on a floppy hat and was wheeling about, having just talked with some young woman holding a clipboard. Magrady was about to call to him but something clicked in his skull like those times treading through jungle overgrowth. Damn if his Spidey Sense hadn’t kicked in. Must be the way Floyd was looking around trying to seem casual but not. He followed his sideways glance to Boo-Boo, he of the sunset eyes. His Yogi fortunately didn’t seem to be about.

The thug was hefting a couple of husks of corn but he too was on alert. What had they intended to do to Angie, Magady roiled moodily. Channeling his anger, he moved toward Boo-Boo, having picked up the screwdriver from the vendor’s table.

 

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Gary Phillips' latest is Treacherous: Grifters, Ruffians and Killers, a collection of his short stories.

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