The Underbelly by Gary Phillips
art: Spartacous Cacao
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Installment 12

Magrady’s leg iron clanked as he walked from the bathroom back to his bed. Before he could climb back in, the lock turned and in walked two Sheriff’s deputies. One was what you’d expect of a sumabitch that had to corral the Southland’s often querulous inmate population. He was big, muscularly wide in the upper body and at least six-five. The eyes in that flat bronze Olmec face turned this way and that, partially lit by the pale fluorescents in the hallway behind him. He absorbed data, assessing the bullshit quotient and possible threat the hospitalized prisoners in the room posed—if the rest had been awake. The sun wouldn’t be up for another twenty minutes or so but a man closer to 60 than he liked to admit had a prostate operating on its own clock.

“Davilla,” the considerable one said over the sounds of slumber. He didn’t wait for an answer and then announced, “Magrady.” He again seemed disinterested in a response as he stepped back and his more normal proportioned companion came forward.

This one had red hair going gray at the sides and freckles along his forearms. “This ain’t American Idol, ladies. No sense being coy, it won’t earn you more points. Let’s go. You’re keeping me from my breakfast burrito,” he jibed.

“Magrady, Davilla, up and ready.” The ancient-faced one turned on the lights amid throat clearing and farting. His partner tossed a folded up jailhouse orange overall to Magrady, who’d held up his hand.

“Lemme see your tag,” the redhead demanded, indicating with his fingers for the vet to come toward him. He did and showed him the plastic ID bracelet around his wrist. He then unshackled Magrady, tossing the ankle collar onto the older man’s hospital bed. The chain attached to the collar had its other end fastened to a welded ring in the floor, the length of which allowed the wearer movement about the room.

“We going to Central?” The Singing Vato asked, sitting up, blinking and yawning.

“You Flores?”


The deputy pitched the crooner the other coverall and checked to make sure he was the intended. He got into his get-up after getting free of his leg chain as Magrady fastened his coveralls. Then the two were handcuffed with a thinner chain reattached to both ankles and their wrists, then linked to each other. In this way Magrady and the Singing Vato were marched out in line, the red-haired deputy in front and the larger one behind them, his knobby-veined hand resting casually on the butt of his pistol. All through this preparation, the other prisoners had watched them go, save the one who’d been doing his multiplication tables. He remained in bed, seemingly asleep and oblivious.

The two were taken down in an elevator to a prisoner transport van at a loading dock, and driven out onto Mission Road.

Magrady and Davilla exchanged a look. The van wasn’t heading south toward downtown and the central jail. The van took the ramp onto the 10 freeway, west.

“Where we headed, chief?” Davilla asked the back of the deputies’ heads through the heavy wire mesh between them and the front of the van. There was no answer, and no other prisoners were in the back.

“Motherfuck,” Davilla swore, impotently jerking his chains in frustration. The two were now sitting opposite one another, secured to steel loops bolted to the floor.

Magrady sat back and tried not to fixate on all this. Stover was having him buried in the system. Their paperwork would go missing, purposely misfiled and not in the computers. So friends or relatives searching for them among the arrestees at Central or the Twin Towers wouldn’t find them.

“Who’d you piss off?” Magrady asked Davilla.

“This punk ass over at Rampart. A real prick sergeant who’s been bangin’ my cousin.”

“I’m guessing you’ve made your displeasure known to him.’

“Indeed,” the other man sad, sighing. “They’re gonna stick us somewhere out in the boonies where no one can find us.” He jerked on his chains again. “Man, I had an audition to get to tomorrow. This is really fucked up.”

It turned out that Davilla was part of a talent agency geared toward helping ex-gangbangers get roles in TV shows and movies. He’d been up for a part in a cable three-parter in which the criminals and cops sang pop tunes and social commentary numbers a la Brecht and Weill, reflecting on their deeds. He was looking forward to playing the part of a mercurial character nicknamed The Chairman, hence his getting the Sinatra imitation down. But he had a run-in with the sergeant at a neighborhood eatery in Boyle Heights. The cop was off duty and, according to Flores, had goaded him about banging the shit out of his favorite aunt’s youngest daughter.

Such unflattering coments led to fists flying and Davilla wound up getting pounded several times in the kidney by the officer’s shoe. With blood in his urine, he’d earned an overnight stay in the jail ward. In hindsight this was less about seeing to his injuries, but a way to disappear the struggling song man.

The van made good time on the freeway, as this was before the morning crush. From the 10 they segued onto the 405 north and hit a pocket of resistance past the Getty Center before the dropping down through the Sepulveda Pass. The reason for the delay was a camouflaged Army Humvee that had been rear-ended by a civilian Hummer in the middle lane. Several servicemen and a woman had exited the Army vehicle and were discussing matters with a middle-aged woman in a fur coat, the driver of the Hummer. This Magrady took in as they rolled past. The large deputy, who drove, said something to his partner and the other one snickered. He took a look back at the prisoners, a leer fading on his face. “Just relax, fellas. I can almost taste that burrito.”

“Good for you,” Magrady said.

“Careful, pops, you might want to save your strength.” Redhead pointed a finger at him and turned back around. “You got a long day ahead of you.”

“That right?” Magrady challenged.

Davilla made a disapproving frown at him.

Eventually the prisoners were deposited at the Van Nuys county jail facility, part of a sprawling complex that included an LAPD division and nearby courthouse. They were placed in a holding cell with other arrestees, including the atypical white, tanned, suburban-looking man in tasseled loafers and suede sport coat. He did his best to remain in a corner, seemingly trying to will himself invisible to the rest. Naturally this had the opposite result.

“The fuck, man,” a beer gut hanging, bearded individual said as he gazed mercilessly at the casually dressed inmate. “They bust you for trying to pick up a prostitute, something like that?” he demanded. No response. “What? You deaf, bitch? I got something to open your ears up.”

The object of his twisted desire tried to get smaller.

“They didn’t treat Britney like this,” a Marilyn Manson copycat said to a deputy who walked by the bars, reading something on a clipboard. The pop singer had had to report to this jail for whatever infraction she had committed that week. She’d come in a bright red wig and miniskirt as countless paparazzi took photos in hopes she’d do something weird in the continuing headline drama of her public meltdown. Instead she’d filled out her paperwork and was able to leave.

Yeah, Magrady lamented, they sure didn’t treat Britney Spears like this.

Every minute that elapsed brought him no relief, since he had no idea as to a time certain for release. He’d asked at one point to make a phone call but, lacking money, couldn’t use the pay phone. Magrady considered hitting up the surburbanite for some quarters but, given he hadn’t said anything to defend him, he felt he didn’t deserve to ask for the loan. But he got his chance after they’d been brought a lunch of grilled cheese sandwiches piled on a treay, just out of the microwave.

“Hey, my doctor says I can’t let my blood sugar get too low,” the one with the stomach said to the loafer wearer. He held out his hand for the other one to hand over his food.

“Look, just let me be.”

Jelly Belly jiggled his hand, waiting, like he was entitled to receive his tribute.

Magrady orbited closer. “You’re not that stupid, are you?”

He put squints on the vet. “Fuck off.”

“Fuck you,” Magrady said quietly. It got quiet in the holding tank.

“Step off.”

“Now you know damn well these fine deputies like to run an orderly jail. You want to cause a ruckus, that’s one more charge laid on your head. Me,” he hunched his shoulders,” I don’t mind.” He figured that two or three blows from those meaty fists and he’d be back in the hospital ward. “I like the taste of ears,” making a reference he’d go all Mike Tyson on him.

Gut Man took a step closer to Magrady, who didn’t blink nor back up. Though he was ready to plant his elbow in the bully’s Adam’s apple.

Several beats then, “My fine old lady’s comin’ to spring me. I don’t have time for this shit.”

That earned him a round of disappointed guffaws as the combatants separated—which in their tight, crowded space meant several inches. The middle-class man continued to unwrap his sandwich and began eating. He glanced once at Magrady, wary to know what his intercessor wanted with him. “I didn’t ask for your help and I’m damn sure not giving you anything,” he said over a mouthful.

“Sucker,” Davilla said to Magrady, smiling thinly.

Magrady ate slowly and tried to remember the parts of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. It was the first book he picked on his own as a kid to read from the school library. Trying to conjure up those passages, and that thrill of those word pictures in his head at that time, gave him something to do. For a while, but that got boring. At twenty past four he was imaging how his shoes had been made when a deputy called for Davilla.

The Singing Vato stuck out a fist to Magrady. “Stay up, home.”

“You too, man,” he said, giving the other one some pound. “I’ll look for you in the movies.”

“That’s right.”

The cell door was unlocked and he left, flanked by the pair that had brought them there. Magrady’s stomach fluttered. Like him, Davilla hadn’t made a call to let anyone know where he was and there wasn’t going to be a court hearing this late in the day. And he doubted a friend had found him.

Davilla didn’t look back, but hesitated as he was led through a doorway, as those questions must have occurred to him as well. Forty minutes later, Margady was called and he too was taken through the doorway by the happiness boys. The room they stood in contained two chairs and a mop leaning against the wall. Another door, with a electronic lock, was at the far end.

“Take that off,” the red haired one said, handing Magrady a grocery bag containing his smushed clothes.

Magrady removed the overalls and put on his pants and shirt. He put a hand on his back pocket. “Where’s my wallet?”

The two looked blankly at each other. “Wallet, you say,” the heavyweight said. “We don’t know nothin’ about that. It must have been taken at the hospital.”

“Shitty security they got there,” his tag team buddy said, clucking his tongue.

“This ain’t right.” The key to Bonilla’s place was missing too. “How the hell am I supposed to get home?”

“You’re a free man, sir.” The walloper moved to the security door and punched in a combination. The door clicked open a sliver and he pushed it further out. “Best get going.” His Olmec face was set like ancient stone.

The other one gave Magrady a glazed look, and for the briefest of moments he wanted to smash that face, if only to get arrested and have a place to sleep tonight. No matter how uncomfortable the holding tank was and having to deal with the blowhard with the beer belly. But he knew better and walked out the door that they’d put Davilla through less than an hour ago. He was let out onto the side of the building and a passageway along a parking structure. The door closed behind him.

Fuckin’ Stover. No money and no coat and it was getting chilly. Magrady walked over to Van Nuys Boulevard and went south. He begged a quarter at a gas station off a youngster riding a sweet Yamaha motorcycle. At a supermarket, he was awarded a dollar from helping an aging woman load her church van with various boxes of outdated, but still eatable food donated to their pantry.

“You sure you don’t want me to help you get a bed tonight?” she asked Magrady. “I know several shelter operators in the area.”

“That’s okay, thanks. I’ll be okay. I appreciate this.” He waved at her and walked off. It was nighttime and he was frigid. Hustling money was one thing, but staying at a shelter would depress him even more as to how precarious his situation was. Nearing Burbank Boulevard he came upon a funky coffee shop and entered. An open mic session was happening. A chunky young woman with flame orange highlights in her hair was humorously recounting her time chained to an old oak to prevent it being bulldozed while desperately having to pee.

Magrady warmed up and managed not to spend his money. There were numerous people in the place and when a couple left, he sat in one of their chairs and pretended the half full cup before him had been his. There was a working pay phone near the bathroom and he tried to collect call Janis Bonilla. But the operator couldn’t put it through since he only got her recording.

Back in his seat he noticed one of those canvas bag type purses on a nearby ledge. Whoever it belonged to wasn’t around at the moment. Magrady zoomed in on several bills haphazardly stuffed into it. A couple of bucks more and he could catch a bus back to his side of town. Just two lousy dollars. He was hungry as hell but wanted to get home worse. He looked around and the storyteller with the bright hair who’d been rockin’ the mic earlier glanced up from the text she was editing. They exchanged half smiles and she resumed her work.

But Magrady knew she’d checked off the petty thief box in her head and would be aware if he reached for the money. His taking a risk for the ducats became moot as the owner, a curvaceous mixed race young woman in hip huggers, returned.

A little past eleven the open mic session were over, and the coffee house was closing up. He tried a collect call again to Bonilla, but again no luck. As Magrady started to leave, he noticed a color flyer sticking out from underneath a saucer with a partially eaten piece of marble cake on it. Magrady ate the cake and grinned at the image on the leaflet as he pulled it loose. The slick advertised a local gallery that had a show up about early California. The graphic was a photo of the floating mummified head identified as Tamock.

Magrady had expected the mystic to have his lips and eyelids sewn together and spiders crawling along straggly hair like some apparition out of an old EC eight-pager. His lips were closed and the reptilian skin drawn tight across his protruding cheekbones. But the eye sockets were open and gems of some sort had replaced the orbs. Was this why Floyd and his sister wanted the head? For the jewels? But how much could they be worth? A few thousand at most. That didn’t make any sense. If Tamock had been buried with the jewels in his eye sockets, whoever unearthed the head would have snatched them. Down in the lower left in small letters the credits included a thank you to the Cyrus Langston Foundation. That had to be a connection to the Professor Langston on the cassette tape. He took the flyer with him.

Energized by this information, Magrady went in search of another pay phone, but couldn’t find one that worked. He had to take a dump and did his business in an alcove beside a nail salon set on a tiny strip mall. He used some thrown away fast food wrappers to clean himself. He wasn’t embarrassed. This was a necessity and like any other bereft person, he did his best to adapt to conditions.

He wanted to at least reach Ventura Boulevard because he knew how to get back downtown that way. For this was the Valley and even more about mobility via vehicle than where he normally hung.  So he walked. He soldiered up into the dark and the cold, putting one foot in front of the other.

Fuck Stover.

Fuck Boo-Boo and Elmore.

Fuck ’em all.

Each step brought him closer and closer ...


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


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