A Bitter Taste in the Mouth
by Jervey Tervalon
Perks didn’t come easy and he wasn’t prepared to give them up. He wanted to stay in the game until he was done; retirement was close and New Year’s was closer. No reason to worry, no reason at all, he’d make it right, no choice, anyway. Already on the dark side there was no going back to what he was before … a by the book building inspector. It’s what he made off of the books was the reason he wasted time and gas stop/starting on the 405 in a city sedan to do a face-to-face with Diggings. Diggings wanted to add a ten thousand foot addition to an already sizable mini-mansion; and he wanted a variance after he’s already started construction. It was enough to make Manny want to transfer to another department, leave the City, maybe California. Maybe it was time to relocate, Baja was always beautiful in the winter. The City cell rang.
“… The fuck are you!”
“Where … you!”
”Supposed—there. Diggings—half ago,” Almonds said, signal and accent flitting in and out.
“I inspect buildings. I run errands for you when I’m done.”
“Fuck … do. You working … me,” Manny heard his boss shout as the cell’s signal faded in and out. He shut the phone off mid Almond shout and turned into the driveway.
At times like this Almonds’ accent became overwhelming and he sounded like Borat with a cold. This was L.A., anyone who could tried to keep an accent from slipping out … unless they needed it to. Almonds claimed Chicago as his hometown as though Polish sausages and Bratwurst could explain him, though maybe gangsters, kickbacks and payola could.
Diggings’ stately Tudor sat well positioned in the Hollywood Hills. Oaks and elms shade generous acreage and it seemed perfect for even the most nitpickish asshole, but It all came down to another ten thousand feet. The variance would be a bitch to get and it should be impossible, but all things were possible with the City of Los Angeles Building and Safety Commission: all hands washed, hand jobs for everybody and sooner or later the big boys get paid with present or future favors. Diggings wasn’t one of the monster developers that made Almonds do back flips, though he had persuasion. But did he deserve the hand job with the smile? Not in Manny’s opinion, but his opinion didn’t count. Almonds’ opinion counted; so he was there to present Diggings with a gift-wrapped, retroactive variance, the kind that were rare even for a big time developer.
“It’s on you!” He remembered Almonds shouting. “You gave him a variance and now I’m going to have to clean up your mess.”
“Me?” Manny stood there in Almonds’ office on the seventeen floor of the Figueroa Building and pointed a thumb at his chest. “Me?”
Sometimes Manny would forget all the Machiavellian games Almonds had going on, sometimes the subtle political schemes escaped him. Exactly what was at stake when he doubled the inspectors on one site and pulled them off another? But a variance for Diggings, he would have remembered that.
When it came to interpreting Almonds’ language, it was not about from Spanish to Albanian to English but the intuitive and interpretive language of how to turn his so called mistake into Almonds’ secret payday.
“Yeah, it’s on me.”
So much was. For a Senior Building Inspector he fucked up a lot, so much in fact he should fire himself. Conveniently, Almonds made his reports disappear into the black hole of city bureaucracy, another buried body. He knew where he stood, beholden to a fat, corrupt, ill mannered asshole for the rest of his natural career in the City. Though he’d have to be stupid to not see the writing on the wall; sooner or later a grand jury, the Feds, somebody would sink teeth into City Hall and shake it all out. He depended on Almonds natural genius for covering his shit and as long as he helped politicians receive large campaign donations and developments facilitated; he was untouchable or so he wanted to believe.
The question: how much was Almonds getting for using favors and bribes for a retroactive variance? He couldn’t imagine but he knew what he was getting, a promotion and more of the same; always more of the same.
After taking an earful of incoherent shit from Almonds, Diggings wasn’t even there. Manny rushed for no good goddamn reason. Half a dozen laborers, ditch diggers and brick layers and electricians, most paid decently, but not all, probably rounded up in front of the Home Depot on Sunset. This cast of characters looked listless to Manny as they stood about not laboring in the not so blazing sun. It was almost cool, why weren’t the peons happy as happy peons can be to have work? Wasn’t it good to paid for a hard day’s work? As usual a few panic at Manny’s city car and slipped away, but most knew he wasn’t the police or Immigration but the dick who might close down the work site and cite the contractor.
They saw his brown skin and he called to them in Spanish for help to locate the supervisor who wasn’t to be found. Waiting sucked, things to do, places to go; to meet his wife for instance and keep to their date plans. He must keep to the date plans because he doesn’t want her to question his work habits, all the mostly unpaid overtime when he sees to his girls.
“He’s here,” he heard in Spanish.
He admired the laborers because nothing would get done without them, but he knew that they have contempt for him for being a lucky pendejo. The contractor wandered up, Chester, a heavy set redneck from Ventura. He’s worked with him before and he knew the deal. Say little and let the big boys do the deals from a distance.
“Hiya Chester, How’s it going?
“No time and over budget.”
“You’re doing it for your boss? Shouldn’t he cut you slack?”
“No difference. He has no one to fuck over but me.”
“I need to talk to him.”
“He’s late. He’s meeting with Murphy.”
Manny nodded. So, Chester dropped the city councilwoman’s name. That’ll slow Almonds down. Almonds’ genius is that he makes every politician believe that he will do anything for them. He’d drop anything at any time to fully service whatever that politician needs, usually campaign contributions, hookers, coke … whatever.
“Oh. So I drove here for nothing when he asked me to meet him.”
“That’s a bitch.”
“It is. More than likely I’ll have to drive back out. This is the kind of thing that needs to be handled now.”
“You could give it to me.”
Manny knew that would be perfect for Diggings but not for Almonds. Everyone had to do due diligence to cover asses otherwise when the shit storm hits, and the shit storm will always hit, you’d be the one taking it square in the face. Everyone needed to feel that they’d get hit too, equally. As long as it was mutual shit sharing everyone had as much to lose or nearly as much.
“No, I’ll wait. I’ll get lunch and be back in an hour.”
“It’s up to you.”
Manny drove south to Los Felix. When he spent more time out this way he frequented a burger stand on Vermont. It wasn’t anything special from the décor, the same happy picnic tables with the plastic table covering and cemented into place umbrellas. Always a line around the place; with quite a few kids from the nearby high school; the only advertisement needed.
After receiving his order, he sat at a table and ate slowly, watching the girls. He knew what to look for; the fat one caught his eye, a sad faced gordita sitting alone, worrying a small drink.
“You go to school around here?”
She didn’t look up.
Undaunted, Manny crossed his legs and smiled. He had all of his lunch hour to seduce the sad faced gordita.
“The bacon burger is good,” he finally said.
They were good, but he had already lost his appetite for anything but her. “Can I buy you something?”
Again, she refused to talk to him, but that only made him more determined.
“A cheeseburger,” she said, in a sweet voice. “With fries.”
“Fries? Sure, you can have it with fries. You want a shake with that?”
“It’s yours,” Manny said, with a smile of satisfaction.
Griffith Park is one of the largest parks within the confines of a city in the United States. It’s fucking large and Manny knew many of the roads that are not frequently traveled. Surrounded by brush and sheltered oaks, he saw the city below him from over her shoulder as he fucked her from behind. Her moans made him almost want to laugh with happiness. This is what he lived for, young pussy caught on the fly, and the excitement of knowing he got away with it. He verged on coming, but he didn’t want to just yet. What would he have to live for after he did, waiting endlessly for Diggings to show while reminiscing about this very moment?
“Tell me about yourself.”
“What?” She said, dreamingly as though she had wakened from a nap.
“What are you studying in school?”
“What’s your favorite subject?”
“You have to like something.”
She started to pull up her panties.
“No, leave them down.”
She looked at him for a second and saw that he was serious and the panties stayed at her ankles.
“I like math.”
“Good. Math is an important subject,” he replied, and put his hand around her shoulders and bent her over the car again.
“How’s English?” He asks as he enters her again with new found energy.
“I … um … I don’t like English.”
She pants so hard that he imagines that she would bound away after a tennis ball. He felt so happy, so happy to be out of the office, free to have a good time, and he was having a good time. Finally, he gave in, grabbed her greasy hair and pulled it hard as he came. When he was finished he turned away, rolls the rubber from his dick, tossed it into the brush, pisses and looks again at the city and far away in the south he saw smoke rising from a number of areas.
“Fuck,” he says, “the natives are restless.”
“What?” Clara asks as she desperately tried to wipe herself. He took pity on her and handed her a pack of wipes that he kept for just this kind of moment.
This was the dangerous part, the worry that a cop with a good nose would pull them over and smell the sex. He drove her within a few blocks of the burger stand, pulls over in traffic so as to make it hard for one of her friends to get a clear view of him. He pulled sixty dollars from his wallet.
Her eyes widen as she takes the money.
“Thanks,” she said, and ran from the car as though he might grab her and drag her back inside.
“See you again, next week?”
She didn’t look back and disappears into traffic. He’d see her again. She’d be at the hamburger stand every chance she got waiting for him to show up to rock her world.
Back at the work site, Diggings still wasn’t there so Manny sat in the car and caught up on paperwork. He loves his job, and the idea that he was paid to prevent jerk-off builders from putting up crap and finding gullible suckers to plunk down hard cash for them. Honorable work that he was proud of; respect, the same respect he felt for becoming an Army Ranger, he found from working as a senior building inspector.
Now and then guilt would appear like a burning cross in his mind. Why had he allowed himself to fall into this life, to be so fucking compromised he couldn’t enrich himself to any great degree, developers and politicians had that rigged. He made enough to have what he wanted in life, nice house in Monrovia, a beautiful retirement home in Mexico, a wife who cooked wonderfully; sons who weren’t fuck ups. Life was not bad.
The more paper he processed the more he thought about girls, specially the new fat one. Her scent was still on him and it made him want to drive over and see if she wanted another go at it.
He almost finished his paperwork when he saw a Range Rover kick up dust as it drove onto the site. Diggings had a cell pressed to his ear as he almost slipped out of the driver’s seat. Chester appeared with blueprints in hand, but Diggings saw him and kept talking on the cell like Manny’s time wasn’t a consideration. Then he burst from the Range Rover and straight arms Chester away and bee-lines to Manny.
“Let’s have it,” the fat faced man demanded.
Manny handed the variance to him with a fake smile. Diggings sighed with disgust.
“Too fucking much! Your boss knows how to make a penny doesn’t he?”
“You’d be surprised how little I know.”
“Whatever. You let him know that he plays hard ball and I play hard ball, but we both need to play ball.”
“You want me to write that down?”
Diggings frowned, his bald head glinting with sweat.
“Do what you fucking need to do.”
Manny nodded before turning away. That felt good, he thought as he slipped behind the wheel of the city car. Life felt good, life was too good for words. High on the moment, more than perfect, he just wanted it to last. Last thing he wanted was the drive to Monrovia, to sit in the recliner watching shows with Martha. He didn’t want to live a life a loser lives. He knew what it took for him to be happy and he did exactly that. He takes a long detour back to Vermont where he found a place to park. The street was different from how it was earlier, when all the kids were out on the street, the burger stand was about empty, but still he had to try to get back that feeling of happiness. Again, he sat at the plastic picnic table, order of fries in front of him, eating them so slowly that he barely could taste one, waiting.
The day before New Year’s Eve Manny got her phone call while he was inspecting an adapted reuse work site; a loft conversation that was turning out to be much more of a headache for everyone involved. It was supposed to be the shining jewel of Spring Street, but the former transient hotel would need much more structural reinforcement than was planned for or budgeted. He enjoyed bringing bad news to the big boys and he particularly liked to darken the day of this particular boy wonder of the adaptive reuse crowd. Though, when he saw the name of Clara flash across the screen of his phone, he found it damn easy to put aside the clip board and the copious notes he was deep in the middle of editing. He burned to return the call.
“Hey, mija, I wondered when you’d hit me back.”
She didn’t respond other than a very silly giggle.
“How are you doing? How’s school treating you?”
“Do you want to see me?”
“When?” he asked, feeling hot in the face. He really liked this one, though she was almost fat. He wanted that sweetness; he wanted to eat her up.
“Right now doesn’t work for me.”
“In a few hours.”
“At the hamburger stand?”
“Do you want to meet at a motel?”
“No,” he said, “let’s meet at the hamburger stand at five.”
He hung up and looked at the phone. Something wasn’t right about her voice, cheerful as usual, but there’s a hint of something else. Still, though, the idea of partying with her made him hard and when that happens, he didn’t think clearly. Suddenly, he’s in the mood for a super-deluxe burger with a sunny side up egg on top and bacon and chili fries on the side, though he had lunch not that long ago. Yeah, he looked forward to the end of work, he really did, a chance to take the edge off. He needs it. He owes it to himself these opportunities even with the potential of downside, but the upside, he couldn’t pass on the upside. Yeah, he’d have a good New Year’s Eve tomorrow; he wouldn’t even have to get drunk. Yeah, he’d have that bounce in his steps and the scent of her on his fingers that he’d sniff throughout the day.
Manny wants to get to his chubby little lover soon as possible, leaning on his horn when the cars slowed for no good reason. Then the City cell rang.
“Where you are!”
Manny detested Almonds’ voice, that thick accent that never changed after being in the States for decades. Shit, he came from Jalisco as a young boy and he was speaking unaccented English by the time he was out of elementary school.
“I’m on the way home.”
“WHAT!” he shouted as though his accent interfered with his ability to hear.
“Home! I’m going home to eat dinner with my wife.”
“Do not lie to me, Manny. You never go home to eat with your wife. I need that report tomorrow morning. I don’t care if it’s New Year’s even.”
“You’ll get it. And it’s not New Year’s eve, it’s the eve of New Year’s eve,”
“I don’t care! Remember, Manny, you’d better remember. Think about it, think about it, good.”
Manny hated that Remember. A veiled threat that he was owned and that he owed. He knew all that, but he didn’t want to hear it.
“We’re behind … we’re way behind and we’ve got to work to do, deadlines to make.”
“You don’t know.”
“What? What don’t I know?”
“Big things, you know what’s coming and those big things are going to need to be handled.”
“LA Live,” Almonds says, lovingly, his accent even more thick as though he was caressing the sound of LA Live.
“I can’t wait.”
“Remember, LA Live is going to change everything for us. There’s no end of profit. Everything around there will be gold. In five years it’ll be Rodeo Drive, and we’ll be on the ground floor. When I make the move to the private sector all of this work, everything we’ve accomplished will bear fruit. Everyone will owe me, everyone already knows what I do for them, how I make this possible, how I facilitate their interests. And I will remember you and your hard work for me.”
“Yeah, I remember. I’m sure it’ll go right.”
Manny hung up the phone and tried to get the word, “remember,” out of his head. He never thought he’d hate a word as much as he hated that word, hearing it felt like getting bludgeoned with loyalty.
The drive took longer than he expected and he arrived later than usual. School was closed for the holidays and the streets around the hamburger stand were nearly deserted of foot traffic.
He didn’t see the Gordita, but he was sure she’d show. She liked the forty dollars he’d given her, or was it sixty? He ordered himself a number nine burger—the one with bacon, eggs and peppers—and settled down with the sports page.
The hamburger was better than he remembered it, and he savored the time to enjoy it properly because once the Gordita arrived his appetite for food would disappear to be replaced with hunger for her.
He finished eating with a sigh, content for the moment. The sun hung like a fat orange ball at the horizon, and the sight of it made him slightly sad. Maybe he’d stop at Sam’s Hofbrau for a beer and maybe a lap dance if he needed it, but he didn’t imagine that he would, not if things went as he expected them to.
“Manny!” he heard Clara call to him, and he turns to see her in one of those strapless blouses that made her look overripe, and tight, badly fitted jeans, but still the sight of her made him want to pounce.
He stood and waved happily to her, but she darted away to the parking lot. He shrugged, confused, though that lasted just a minute. Manny hurries after her to the rear of the hamburger stand. There, he saw two cholos sporting shaved heads and t-shirts with gray khakis cut off below the knees. Anger radiated from the tall one; he lifted his t-shirt to show, jutting from his waistband, the butt of a gun. Manny realized he’s fucked and ran, sprinting for the SUV.
He doesn’t dare look back, but before he can swing up into the cab of his vehicle, he heard “Puto, this is for my sister!”
He saw the fat faced one grit his teeth as his arm came up at a wide angle and something stuck Manny twice or three times in the side. The last time, he heard the Cholo utter a satisfied grunt as he turned away. Manny pulled himself into the seat, locked the doors and wincing, pulled on the seat belt. He looked out of the window, but the guy who stabbed him had vanished. He felt hot stickiness before he saw the blood languidly flowing along the brown leather seats like a spilled drink. He started the engine and drove away, crossing Melrose desperate to make it to Kaiser Emergency at Edgemont and Sunset. It wasn’t that far, but then the light turned red and he couldn’t make his foot work. Horns blare and tires squealed around him in the intersection, but he didn’t really care. He felt more than light-headed; it was the feeling of weightlessness, as though something was lifting him completely outside of his body. He found himself driving onto the freeway, but he couldn’t navigate the last turn to merge onto the 101. Off he went down the embankment, and the Escalade flipped. The airbag exploded, and he bounced about until the SUV slid to a rest on its passenger side. He hangs from the seat-belt, suspended, his blood smearing across the windows, the dash, coloring everything with brown red splashes. He tasted the bitterness of blood in his mouth. As he fades out, he thinks of Clara, his new year present, his delicious little Gordita. Until the end, he longed for her still.