The Underbelly by Gary Phillips
art: Spartacous Cacao
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Installment 13

Domingo Agudin popped the top on the Aleve bottle and shook out two tablets. He placed one in his shirt pocket and downed the other one with his morning coffee. Overhead a plane glided along its flight path into nearby LAX, the rattle rising through his shoes barely registered as he sat at the kitchenette table. Living in a two-bedroom apartment in Lennox with his wife and two fast growing daughters—did Olga really need those new shoes so soon?—the concrete overlaps of the busy 105 and 405 Freeways casting shadows across the windows, you got used to a lot. But this week, as it had been for several weeks, he had no complaints, aches and stiff fingers notwithstanding.

He was doing drywall on the rehab of yet another condo conversion. Did the gabachos never tire of their precious tiny balconies and all the just so marble counters and what did they call it? Stressed surfaces. To make it look like it had been in use for some time. Yes, the stressed wood of the fireplaces and dinner tables also had to be just so—a phrase he’d heard the heavily perfumed realtor utter often. And if that wasn’t enough, the owners of this building, given they were not exactly in a stylish neighborhood yet, were also giving away cars when you bought a condo. That is, they’d pay for your lease on a Volkswagen Beetle for the first year if you paid the incredible price it cost you to buy one of their fancy boxes.

He made a face in the half-light. These crazy shits brought work and work was always needed. No matter he couldn’t afford to move his family into the place he was fixing up.

This structure had once been a hotel for the likes of fry cooks, housekeepers and those passing through with no present and no past. Then at some point it became some kind of halfway house. It was way down on Grand, near the DMV office and Exposition Boulevard, not in the already fancy redone part of downtown L.A. Agudin knew the place had been a halfway house because some years ago he’d had a distant cousin, recently released from Corcoran, and in some sort of drug program, wind up there. His mother had called him from Sinaloa and asked him to drive over there and see if there was anything he could do for this unknown relative.

Do for him? Agudin shook his head at the memory. Here they were then with an infant and a toddler, his wife working a part-time waitress job at a sports bar keeping hands off her ass and him getting day work standing outside of the Home Depot. But it was his mother, so he went. The cousin answered to his street name Frog Boy, but damned if he can remember his actual one now. He was as he’d expected him to be, a sullen, the-world-owes-me-a-living lump who blamed everybody else for his troubles. He gave him ten dollars he could ill afford to give, got a grunt for a reply, and his good deed was done.

A couple of years after that, he got word that Frog Boy was shot in the head trying to hold up a jewelry store in Albuquerque. Turns out the retired sheriff of the county was in there that day to purchase a diamond anklet for a new firecracker of a girlfriend. From what he understood, Frog Boy amazingly managed to run away, leaking blood. Whether Frog Boy lived or died, nobody knew.

Washing out his cup, Funny what the world brings you, Agudin considered. How the wheel always turns, how the parts of your life come back around to you. Would the dream he had last night also be something coming back around? This one had stayed with him and hadn’t blown away like smoke as most of his dreams usually did. The old head he’d dug up that time about a year ago working as a laborer on the Emerald Shoals project had floated to him as he walked along a dark street, bare trees with branches like icy fingers reaching for him as a steady wind blew.

He arrived at a particular house. Names murmured on the wind but were indistinguishable to his ears. The door was nicely stressed, he’d noted. He walked in and there in what would be the living room Frog Boy was stretched out on a stone slab atop several squat cactus plants. He stood over Frog Boy, who was dressed like a pilot in that World War II movie, Twelve O’Clock High. He looked okay, no head wound he could see, only he just lay there, seemingly unable to get up. But when Frog Boy talked some kind of nonsense came out of his mouth. That’s when the head reappeared and translated Frog Boy’s words, reciting a recipe of making his abuela’s enchiladas.

Gathering his tools and lunch, Agudin still regretted turning over the head but he hadn’t had a choice. That time he was part of the crew digging trenches for piping, and there it was. Somehow it hadn’t been crushed as the grader had recently finished scraping away a layer of earth from the side of a rise. At first, the face partially sticking out of the dirt in that hillside, Agudin figured a kid must have thrown his Halloween mask into the worksite. But he went over to it and with little effort pulled the Indian head free and stared at it.

By then a few of the others had noticed and shouted around about what he found. One guy, a welder, said it must have been a drug dealer who was chopped up after a deal went south. Another pointed out the head was probably older than that. As they gathered around him, Agudin’s chance to hide his find and maybe sell it to a museum or a collector vanished. The foreman came over and took possession, thanking Agudin and telling everyone to get back to work.

A week later the big boss, Wakefield Nakano, showed up with a pretty photographer. The dirt had been brushed off and the head was in a plastic case. He and Nakano stood side by side, each having a hand under the case and smiling goofy grins while shots were taken. Nakano also had him sign some paper about making sure that Agudin knew what he found on SubbaKhan property belonged to the company. What could he do? Refuse? Run away with the head? How far could he get and what would that get him but thrown in jail? He signed the goddamn paper. He didn’t see any extra money in his check and when his part of the job was done, that was that. Though a few of the men, Latinos too, had joked with him about finding the head, calling him Tamale Raider, Indiana Mex and what have you.

So how odd was it that, after putting the head out of his so he wouldn’t be bitter like his wife had warned him, for the first time he had this dream about the head and Frog Boy. He checked his watch. Whatever it meant, he concluded, that drywall wasn’t going to install itself, his supervisor kept telling him and the others. Agudin left for work.


Wakefield Nakano rode his horse Harbinger into Galaxy Stadium in Long Beach. The freshly mown grass left a heady smell for rider and beast. Bouncing slightly in the saddle, Nakano trotted the horse around some, letting her stretch her muscles. He graduated the mare into a gallop, then seamlessly went into his check and turn with the animal. He smiled, imagining the bump he was going to deliver against Caleb Anderson in the upcoming charity match. That bastard wasn’t going to ride him off like he did in last year’s match. Damn that grin and bear it model Asian shit. Nakano had a long memory.

He practiced some swings with his stick, his mallet, on the new composition plastic ball that was going to be used on Saturday. The weight of the ball was regulated, but each time some new version was introduced, you had to get the feel of the thing; how it spun, its response to being hit and particularly how that ball rolled once it contacted the turf after flight. He struck and moved, horse and rider leaning and surging forward, pulling back and making their turns and cuts cleanly. He came to a rest and wiped sweat off his face with his sleeve.

He then rode over to inspect the ad boards on the arena wall for the Green Barrel vineyard he’d invested in last spring. The label had been started by some friends from business school, some of whom had had successes as restaurateurs. He still wasn’t too crazy about the logo. This was supposed to impart poshness, but maybe after all he was just a kid who grew up in the JA section of the Crenshaw District. The damn words were too hard to read in that froufrou script the designer had insisted on using. Still, if it sells it must be good, so he’d quit fixating on the lettering and wait for the year-end report.

His cell phone buzzed and Nakano answered it. “Yes?”

“Wake,” his assistant Alicia Sinnott began, “we’re getting complications from the mayor’s office.”

Harbinger shook his mane and Nakano patted his corded neck as he talked. “What does he want?”

“His office has forwarded different language on the Housing Trust Fund section.”

“Why is that a problem?”

She said flatly, “You should read it.”

“Come on, Alicia,” he laughed dryly, “I doubt he’s calling for the sort of set-asides and punitive measures on developers that his one-time allies Urban Advocacy are calling for.”

“You know him. He doesn’t want to be seen as, well, flitting from one thing to the next.”

“But he does,” Nakano observed. Though he was certain SubbaKhan would pony up for his re-election bid, which was looming. The mayor had his drawbacks, but once he was on point, he got results. He was a hell of a negotiator, and shared a lot of the conglomerate’s vision for remaking the city.

“He wants this to have some teeth,” she said. “I think he finally figured out the report wasn’t going to be the usual dull, academic exercise and he wants to make sure the Trust is seen as real.”

They both were aware that the mayor had created rifts among the shaky alliance of grassroots activists, organized labor and the boardroom denizens that had brought him to office. He’d been politically wounded for not having a comprehensive affordable housing strategy, with the Trust Fund being a somewhat moribund proposal he’d grasped at, though it had been inherited from the previous administration. It was the mayor’s people who shoehorned a section on the Trust Fund into the report the Central City Reclaiming Initiative that SubbaKhan underwrote was readying. The report set forth a series of recommendations regarding sustainable living conditions, using the entity’s efforts in the downtown area as a hub from which to build out.

“And the mayor needs to entice some of his detractors back to the fold,” Nakano said to her.

Harbinger was getting restless standing still and Nakano started her in a circuit around the field to cool down properly. “I’ll be in to go over the rewrite, then talk with him. I also want to schedule time to have another meting with our friends.”

“Before the report comes out?” His assistant asked. Part of SubbaKhan’s strategy was to use friendly press around the report as a way to blunt the ongoing attack from the coalition of community groups. The so-called united front was using the recent Environmental Impact Report to slow the completion of the Shoals project. SubbaKhan was not opposed to these measures, but had to balance such concerns with reasonableness and profit margins. Too bad they didn’t have the building trades’ perspective. They were all about growth because it meant their members were working, buying new pickups and making those timely house payments.

I mean, what the hell did Reagan bring down the Berlin Wall for if not the symbol of the triumph of the free market, Nakano groused inwardly.

“Just set it in motion, Alicia. It’s all about good faith, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, right,” she drawled and hung up.

Nakano headed Harbinger back to the horse trailer hitched to his Range Rover. He couldn’t help picturing himself as the laconic Gary Cooperesque cowpoke on his way to face down the owlhoots. Ha.


That Saturday Floyd Chambers wheeled up to the plate glass window and looked in on the reception. The show had been up for more than a week, but this was the first time Professor Cyrus Langston had been able to attend. Prior to that the old boy, who got around pretty well for a man in his late seventies, had been on an excavation in Kenya. Tall chicks with legs that made Chambers light-headed and dudes in black on black flitted about, laughing and talking and nibbling little cheeses off of offered trays. Some stood before paintings or pieces of old-ass pots on pedestals pointing at them and nodding their heads at each other.

His sister casually looked from the mummified head on display in the gallery, and toward her brother. She betrayed nothing in her eyes. She moved on, sipping her champagne from a plastic flute like Tyra Banks regarding the skanks at a fashion review. Chambers got set to do his part to steal Tamock’s head.


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


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