Robin Nickels had stayed Joel’s friend for fifteen years. They had grown up together in that town, both trying to rise in the Hollywood caste system. Well, Robin rose in it, and Joel didn’t, so Joel killed people for a living. He was an assassin, either for the infamously unknown Slava Grigorov or for social etiquette. Whomever, Joel always shot them in the forehead. That meant less blood to clean up.
Together, Joel and Robin would sit on Robin’s patio in Hollywood, get high, and describe how their premieres would turn out. Yet, Joel could never reach his standard of perfection. He had never produced, directed, nor starred in anything except the movies in his imagination, which outdid the ones in reality. He had only written several drafts of several scripts which he kept from everyone.
Robin wouldn’t succeed until he moved back to New York and found those who would help him and fund his first feature-length film (which he produced, directed, and starred in), The Last Gunman. What had the world come to with only one gunman left?
Joel never watched the previews before watching a film. He preferred to watch movies in the dark, so to speak. He approached movies in the same way that he approached his scripts, such as one he had finished a year ago: an untitled project about a serial killer who loved waffles.
Whether The Last Gunman would disgrace Robin, he had fulfilled one of his dreams. Joel wished he could’ve said the same for himself.
Slava called Joel about his newest assignment: Hollywood starlet, Eva Santos-Pedagago. Joel assisted her at her home in the Hollywood hills.
“I’m in her kitchen,” Joel said.
“And where is she?”
“Gone shopping at the Beverly Center.”
“You do this, and you plug Robin Nickels at his premiere.”
Mr. Grigorov didn’t know about Joel’s friendship with Robin. After seven years under Slava Grigorov, Joel had never believed he would ever have to assassinate a friend. But Slava had entrained Joel from the ground up, turning his blood to oil. In the end, either Robin got it, or Joel got it.
Robin called him on the other line.
“That’s him on the other line,” Joel told Slava.
“I will check in next Wednesday.”
Slava hung up. Joel answered the other line.
“I’m in the middle of work,” Joel said.
“’I’ll keep it short,” Robin said. “I’m flying in on Wednesday. JetBlue to LAX.”
“What’s the flight number?”
“That doesn’t matter. I’ll take an Uber straight to your place.”
“You’re staying at my place?”
“At least for a night if you don’t mind.”
“Of course not. You can stay here anytime. You know I’d kill you. I mean, I’d kill for you.”
“Good. So I had booked a whole week at The Safari Inn, but things got fucked.”
“And why’re you staying there? What about The W?”
“It’s a small budget. Too much money, friend. Anyway, The Safari Inn is out of the question now. There was a murder. There’s blood all over the room. It must be a real bitch to clean up. So I’ll need another place.”
“Then you could stay with me all week.”
“Not a chance, Pal. Just get me some Cheetos and some Neosporin, and some condoms, would ya?”
“Yeah, the ultra-thin Trojans. They cause less chaffing. And the other ones are like fucking boa constrictors on my junk.”
“I’ll get them after work,” Joel said.
“So where you working now?” Robin asked.
“Just freelance stuff. I’m hoping to make a killing.”
“What exactly is the freelance?”
“It’s confidential. Let’s just say it involves a major Hollywood star.”
“You still writing?”
“Of course. I just pitched you something the last time I talked to you.”
“Sorry, what’s it about?”
“It’s a crime drama about a serial killer who loves waffles.”
“Waffles make people laugh, no doubt. You know, comic relief. They look like pancakes that are squashed by tennis racquets. Squash? Tennis? Get it?”
“I like it,” Robin had told him. “Put that in the script.”
Joel looked out the window at Eva’s driveway. Her white BMW pulled in. The rear bumper had a sticker that said ANIMALS FIRST, PEOPLE LAST. The car knocked over a few potted plants.
“Why are people with stickers on their cars always shitty drivers?” he asked Robin.
“I never thought of that before, but yes, it’s true.”
Joel stuffed his Ruger with a silencer farther down his pants and made sure that it wouldn’t poke through his shirt.
“Anyway, I have to go. Just text me the details.”
He hung up on Robin before Eva could step through the front door with her Dolce Gabbana bags.
“What the fuck are you doing in my kitchen?” she yelled. “You’re supposed to be sweeping the patio.”
“It started raining.”
“Were you on a personal call?”
“Of course not. So how was the Beverly Center?”
“Crowded with all those black people. Did you make those phone calls?”
“Yeah, you’re meeting with the Feminists Against Cruelty to Minorities this Thursday, and I called the producer about the set catering.”
“And he said he’ll do what he can do about no animal meat.”
“He better. Or else how can I fucking eat?”
Eva sifted through a bag-load of postal mail. One of the maids sat on a couch in the living room, watching TV. Eva caught her and yelled at her in Spanish. Joel couldn’t understand the language, but Esmeralda sounded as though her feet hurt.
“Mama, oh Mama, oh Mama…!”
Eva dragged her across the marble floor of the hallway into a closet and locked the door. From all the way in the kitchen, Joel could hear Esmeralda weeping in the closet.
“Don’t let her out until I leave,” she told him.
“Oh, I will.”
“You better. I’m serious when I tell you that you will never work in this town again.”
“I know, Mrs. Santos-Pedagago.”
“Now did you fire the other assistant like I told you to do?”
“Yes, Mrs. Santos-Pedagago.”
“And did you tell her what I told you to tell her?”
“I said ‘good luck waiting tables in Connecticut, you fat bitch.’”
“It was ‘blubbery bitch,’ but that’s fine.”
“‘And you were a shitty actress with no talent anyway. You wasted your whole twenties.”
“Word for word. I am impressed. Now, get my phone and dial Natasa.”
So he dialed the number and handed Eva the phone.
“Go to the living room and rewrite my speech,” she said.
Joel worked on something that Eva would give at the annual coyote preservation banquet in Utah.
“So, yes, tell them that a woman should choose what she does with her body. Tell them I deserve the same pay if not more than Howard gets…I produce, too….Actually, yes, I do make more money than he does, but what about Matt? He’s younger than Howard and better looking. You tell Variety that he makes more money than I do, and women should never have to put up with such discrimination. Do it now while sexism is still hot!”
Between Eva’s demands and Esmeralda’s screams, Joel kept mistyping the words.
“What?… Anyway, hurry. My premiere is next Friday. Godspeed! Get this in by Monday…. What?… Fuck you, Natasa, you’re fired.”
She threw her cell to the table and went to Joel in the living room.
“OK, so I just fired Natasa. I need you up to your neck in calls this weekend. Come back on Sunday.”
“It’s my day off.”
“I know it’s your day off, but you’re working for me.”
“My friend’s premiere is on Sunday.”
“Fuck your friend’s premiere. I have to go to Skid Row and feed those smelly bums. You have the nerve to go to some fucking premiere? Just pass me my Xanax and cigarettes.”
Her phone rang again. Joel didn’t know which of them should answer the phone. Was he supposed to grab the Xanax and cigarettes first? He froze up. She just let her jaw drop at him, glaring astonished. He reached for the phone.
“No, forget it. I’ll answer it, you just get the cigarette, you retard.”
She answered the call to the Dolphin Preservation Society. Joel took a cigarette from the pack and handed it to her, but she couldn’t light the cigarette herself. He triggered the flame right in front of her face. The tip of the cigarette burned and crackled.
The Dolphin Preservation Society was holding a meeting that same week. When she wasn’t producing shows for women, she spoke for causes such as air pollution, gentrification or, lately, cultural appropriation and sexism in eastern advertising.
“I can’t make it. Sorry…Because it’s just not hot right now. The big thing is gentrification and cultural appropriation, and especially sexism. Pardon my French, but nobody gives any fucks about dolphins right now.”
Joel was supposed to be rewriting her speech. He was too flummoxed about Sunday. How would he get to the premiere with his balls stapled to her demands? Murder, but where?In the living room? No. Not on that white carpet. After 60 hours a week with her, at least he had grown feelings for something. And what would he do without his longtime friend, Robin Nickels? Besides, who else would read his script? Eva had already said, “absolutely not.”
She pulled the speaker from her mouth.
“Why aren’t you rewriting?” she asked Joel. “You’re supposed to finish it today. You said you were a writer.”
“My brain froze up.”
Eva hung up on the dolphin society.
“Not today, pea-brain. You know, why the fuck did I hire you in the first place? I’m losing my mind as it is. The parking at the mall was hard enough.”
Joel listened for the silence cracking through Esmeralda’s cries.
“That’s it,” Eva said. “You’re done, too. I’m constructing a major overhaul in staff. You’re so done. Where’s my Xanax?”
“No, you’re done,” Joel replied.
“What did you just say?”
“You shouldn’t take Xanax.”
“All right. Get off my property this second. You’re never going to work in this town—”
She fell back, right to the counter. Her hands couldn’t support her body, so she fell back a little more and dropped to the kitchen tiles like a wooden puppet. She died with her eyes open. The blood ran down her forehead, down the sides of her nose. It streamed through the conduits of the tiles. Those poor tiles, Joel thought. They would be fine, though, with enough ammonia.
The maids rushed in. He held a finger to his lips.
They both nodded and smiled. Joel may not have known five words of Spanish, but he could direct them with his finger to Eva’s purse on the dining room table. The older one grabbed it and handed it to him. Eva always carried wads of cash to pay her servants. Joel contributed for her, her most serious contribution. They ransacked mostly everything in the purse, such as a thousand dollar bottle of perfume, along with her cosmetics and jewelry. She kept her personality in that purse, all those materials made from chemicals, and Joel gave it away.
He let them out the front door.
“Remember,” he said, “shhhh.”
With Eva’s keys, he unlocked the closet door for Esmeralda. She looked up to the light, and he picked her up by the hands and gave her the purse with whatever the other maids had left behind.
“Keep it,” he said in English. “You’re free.”
Esmeralda did a Holy Mary and thanked God.
He always went to a 7-Eleven on Sunset and Gardner between Tuesday and Saturday after midnight. He would buy Marlboros, domestic tallboys, and chocolate chip protein cookies. The cashiers knew him as the guy whose chip never worked on his debit card. This time he had to buy the Cheetos and Neosporin for Robin, along with condoms, toilet paper, and air fresheners.
The 7-Eleven offered handbaskets. He stood out as the only one in that crowded store who carried one. After the hundreds of times he had gone there, he knew the quirks to convenience stores. For instance, one should’ve never ended up behind someone who ordered Backwoods or Swisher Sweets, or one who played either the state lottery or scratch ‘ems or both.
All generalizations aside, the man ahead of him mentioned that he ran the Russian Studies program at UCLA. He hunched over the display case of scratch ‘ems, running his finger down the glass for the right tickets. Day-drunk, he turned to Joel and said:
“It’s a hot 200-million this weekend, my man. You best to play.”
He wore a dusty Dodgers cap that had suffered enough downpours and car tires and had buttons that said I LOVE LA and CLINTON/GORE 1996. He smelled like the city; it had rolled him into a 170-pound burrito of sweat, tobacco, and dysentery.
“It smells like bear in here,” a customer uttered from the back of the line.
“Haven’t you ever been to the woods? They rub themselves on the trees.”
“Two-hundred million,” the player said to Joel.
He looked at Joel as if Joel should’ve hummed along with the suggestion, but Joel stared at the cans of chewing tobacco next to the American Spirits. His hand reached for the Ruger, but he caught himself in time.
“I’m buying a hundred of these things,” the director of Russian Studies said.
“The lottery tickets, you dum-dum.”
So exceptionally dumb, Joel thought. Why let his chances diminish? He and Joel both had less of a chance of winning the lottery than they had of ever meeting someone who actually won the lottery. Actually, back in 2003, when Joel was brooming the front of a pizza shop, the King of Ireland pedaled up on his ten-speed and said he had won the lottery.
“I’m buying the San Diego Padres,” he said.
It turned out that somebody else had bought the team.
Anyway, the Russian Studies director bought 100 lotto tickets and a dozen scratch ’ems, and he wouldn’t leave the front of the line. He just scratched the silver latex off the scratch ‘ems with a corroded penny.
At his turn, Joel set the protein cookies, the three pack of tallboys, the Cheetos, the Neosporin and air fresheners all on the counter with care, like a cowboy with his holster about to put his hands up. He spotted the specific rubbers next to the batteries and eye drops.
“I want the light blue ultra-thin Trojans.”
But the cashier kept reaching for the wrong ones.
“Left. No, more left. Your left. Just a little bit right.”
The cashier may as well have worn a blindfold and swung at a piñata.
“Yes, that one. No, not that one. No. More left. Even more left.”
“Why so picky, Boss?” the scratcher asked.
“And a pack of Marlboros, too.”
“Shorts or 100’s?”
The total came to over $40. Joel’s heels dug out of both shoes. Forty dollars could’ve bought him a new pair of Chuck Taylors at a Ross a mile down Sunset.
Once he went outside, the head of the Russian Studies program caught up to him, already begging for change.
“Nah,” Joel said.
The man followed him.
“Hey, all right. I’m a win big, the big one this weekend.”
“There’s always hope.”
“Meh, hope? Man, hope is for the pope.”
The man followed him, so Joel led him to an alley behind the store.
“What kind of job you got,” the man asked him. “You can’t spare a guy a few dollars?”
“I’m a writer and an assassin.”
“Assassin? Assassin for who?”
“For Slava Girigorov.”
“That’s good and all, but my dog is in the hospital. I don’t want to put Shimmy down. And I got this damn rash on my leg that keeps growing and…look, buddy, he’s my best friend…and, yo, you listening?”
“If I could’ve played all the characters, I would’ve,” Robin told Joel over the phone.
“You really think you’re Jonathan Winters.”
“At least I got some of my wishes. But after twenty years of struggling, I’m still not impressed,” he said. “Anyway, change of plans. I ain’t flying in till Sunday.”
“But I got your Cheetos and Neosporin, and your condoms.”
“I’ll make it up to you.”
“I even washed the sheets.”
“Please don’t kill me.”
“I mean, I’ll see you Sunday. I’ll buy you a nice dinner. You better show up. You’ll be my only friend there.”
“I wouldn’t miss it for anything.”
“It’s finally here,” he said. “To think that other people have made films before I have and they didn’t even deserve to make them. They just lucked out. My work is better than theirs, you’ll see. People have their heads too far up their asses to see for themselves. It’s my premiere. It’s fucking happening.”
“I’m proud of you.”
But seriously,” Robin said, “After the show, tell me the truth.”
“What do you mean?”
“Whether I did a good job. I sure as hell can’t tell by the finished product.”
“Hey, just don’t overlook the fact that most movies are shit; even the ones that win the Oscars. Some companies market their films as having Oscar potential when really the more you avoid a specific appearance, the more you wear it. Basically, movies are for children and old people.”
“You sound bitter,” Robin said.
“Maybe I am.”
“Meh, whatever. At least I’ll see all that pussy at the afterparty. Rose is going to be there.”
“Yeah. Rose Angelina Portilla, the lead. How do you live in Hollywood and not know who Rose Angelina Portilla is?”
“I’ve been busy.”
“You got the condoms, right?”
“Ultra-thin, light blue.”
“Good. I’ll send you details once I touch down.”
By Sunday, the details never showed up; not in a text, not in an email, not in his mailbox, not even in a phone call. Robin announced on his Facebook page that the premiere would show at the North Hollywood 6 on Victory Boulevard. Nothing about the boulevard looked victorious. Joel stuck the Ruger from the glove box to his waist.
A red carpet led to the box office. Beautiful B-actresses posed out front in shimmering gowns that looked like bubbly glasses of Chardonnay, flashing their white teeth at cameras in front of a backdrop with the names of fashion designers.
Besides the sleight of glamor at the entrance, the inside of the North Hollywood 6 had popcorn all over the floor. His shoes picked up kernels at each step like a pair of footlong vacuums. Little boys ran into him with plastic guns in a game of Cowboys and Indians. Who knew if their parents had even shown up?
A cashier with a loosely-crooked bowtie asked him which seat. Now, Joel hadn’t gone to a movie theater since Natalie Portman had shaved her head.
He showed Joel a digitized layout of the theater on an iPad.
“Which seat would you like?
“’Which seat?’ I’m here for my friend’s premiere.”
“OK, but you still need to pick a seat.”
“This isn’t a Dodgers game,” Joel said. “Just let me sit where I can. First come, first serve.”
“The ones in yellow are taken.”
“But I’m early.”
“They called ahead of time.”
“What if they’re late?”
“Then they’ll miss some of the movie, Sir.”
“Have you seen the director?” Joel asked.
“Director of what?”
“You got to be kidding.”
“Oh, I don’t kid, Sir.”
“I don’t mean the director of sanitation. The director of the film, The Last Gunman, he was supposed to save my ticket. It’s Robin Nickel’s premiere. Look outside.”
“What am I supposed to see outside?”
“Forget it,” Joel said. “I’ll take G-5.”
He paid $14 for one adult ticket, and he brought it downstairs to an usher. The usher yawned and put down his crossword puzzle. He ripped the ticket.
Joel’s vigilance was spreading to every part of his body. He could live with killing everybody in that theater, but not his good friend. If only he could find a recourse…. He could tell him to disappear for good. Tupac did it, so did Elvis, and Bozo the Clown. They all shared an island off Australia, a continent which wasn’t a continent but a hologram. Joel believed in a flat earth, and he learned from other flat-earthers that the denizens of Australia were actors who were hired by NASA. The notion that Australia was an actual continent sounded as ridiculous as the logic that the same people who had reserved their seats ahead of time at the North Hollywood 6 would expect to still have them if they showed up after Joel did. How did they deserve those seats? Whoever arrived the first should’ve taken what he wanted. Simple capitalism.
The theater had a typical bathroom stall for handicapped people. It could fit his bed, even with a steel railing for the disabled person; even with a diaper changer that had the logo of a koala bear in diapers. Someone had taken the much tighter stall next to him, which reminded him of a phone booth he once used in Las Vegas—but that was a different story for a later time. If he couldn’t find the right recourse, he could’ve plugged Robin in the handicap stall.
The theater went back seven rows from A to G. Nobody had sat in G-5—his seat—next to the one handicap seat in the theater, a space inside a railing for the one lucky person in a wheelchair. All the other people in wheelchairs must’ve hoped for vacancies at other showtimes, perhaps at different theaters.
“They should build theaters just for people like you,” Joel said. “Whole bathrooms, too; even handicap planes and buses. At least they grant you the best seat in the house.”
The man in the wheelchair wouldn’t respond. How rude, Joel thought, until he noticed a hearing aid in the man’s left ear.
Row G had a white G painted on the aisle. The seats, though, had no numbers. Joel counted them with his trigger finger until he counted to five. Row G actually had a row behind it, a secret Row H that hadn’t appeared on the digitized layout.
A group of thugs filled that entire row. Before and after the lights faded, they talked throughout five previews, all of which featured The Rock. They yelled out fragments, not complete thoughts. Who let them in? Who gave them an RSVP? How come only 20 people attended the premiere? Where were the actresses from outside? And where was Robin? If his friend had appeared, he would’ve kicked those thugs out.
The movie screen could fit nothing larger than a two-car garage. Either way, he still preferred a ratty theater over some gaudy cineplex, especially for an assassination.
The lighting dropped out for the opening credits. A family showed up. They brought their toddlers to Row G. The theater granted access to toddlers as well. Kids who could barely walk or couldn’t walk at all had their own seats. They better have kept their tickets though, in case they stepped outside for cigarettes or phone calls. Otherwise, the usher might not have graciously let them back in.
The mother said to him, “you’re in our seat.”
Joel looked around him at all of the vast space.
“Your seat? You’re doing this now?”
She stared at him, trying not to raise her voice in front of her children. He had to control his urges as well, so he gave up his seat for the family. Just to get away from the rest of the people, he sat in the front row where no one would bother him.
The movie screen devoured him yet floated away. The closer it appeared, the more it seemingly shrank, except for an actor in the picture, an older man with thin legs and even thinner gray hair, whose head only expanded on an extreme close-up. In a scene at a Catholic church, he breathed in so deeply through his de Bergeracian nose that Joel felt a suction. At first, it could’ve been his nerves attacking him. But it lifted him from his seat and sucked him right into his nostril.
Joel couldn’t see anything, he couldn’t hear anything, or touch anything, but he could feel himself running until he appeared back in that red hallway.
Straight ahead, the same one who had ripped his ticket leaned against the side of a concession stand. Joel was afraid to do anything, but he went to him for help. An explanation, at least. The usher backed away from Joel as if he were about to hold the place up.
“Please don’t,” the usher said.
No one else stood around. The usher pinned himself as far back to the wall as he could. Joel looked down and saw that he had his Ruger pointed at him, so he backed away and stuffed the Ruger back in his waist.
“I won’t shoot you. I didn’t even realize I had it pointed at you. Can you tell me where I am?”
“W-what do you want me to say, Sir? I’ll say anything.”
Joel pulled out his ticket and handed it to the usher.
“Tell me where I’m going.”
The usher who took it with care. His hands shook to where he couldn’t read it. Having exposed his gun, Joel looked at the usher as a witness.
“G-5, Theater 6. F-follow me.”
And Joel followed him, pointing the Ruger at his back. Somehow, Joel had gone to the wrong theater.
The people had filled Theater 6 to its capacity, except for G-5, and the handicap seat next to it. The usher led him there. The theater itself matched that of the first theater he had entered. He counted, and Joel noticed three seats to the left wall and eight seats to the right wall. They had juggled G-5 into the row.
Joel whispered in his ear, “you sit in the next seat. Don’t fucking leave.”
Robin’s movie had gone well into the first act. At that point, Joel had already missed the premise. The scene took place at a kids’ soccer game. Robin’s character backed down from a fistfight with another parent in front of his date—something he wouldn’t have done in real life.
Joel kept the silencer’s nose pressed against the side of the usher’s belly. The usher’s heavy breathing expanded his belly and pressed it harder against the nose of the silencer.
“DAT FOOL,” someone yelled from behind him. At every swift action the main character made, he said “DAT FOOL”….“DAT FOOL JUMPED ON THE CAR” or “DAT FOOL PULLED OUT HIS GAT” or “DAT FOOL THREW DAT OTHER FOOL OUT THE WINDOW.”
He tensed Joel up even more. He put his arm around the usher, with his Ruger still pressed against his belly and watched the film.
Robin played a special agent in his forties, so the punk in the back row essentially called a special agent a fool; in other words, a dumb person; someone who didn’t think before he acted. The term itself could’ve offended anyone, even in lower cultures which Joel suspected this thug came from. Then again, he may have endeared the character as well, calling him a fool.
Either way, he tested more and more of Joel’s vigilance.
“DAT FOOL JUST CALLED DAT OTHER FOOL A FOOL.”
He disturbed the crowd, too, yet everyone let him continue: the actors, the actresses, the editors, the producers, both the online and newspaper critics and the families of those in the film.
Now, Joel once murdered someone in a food court for chewing with his mouth open. In Joel’s mind, the thug behind him committed a more egregious offense.
In the movie, a bomb went off in the movie, and a building exploded. The theater had THX sound quality. Joel plugged the usher and pulled him in for a hug. Nobody noticed. Nobody heard the shot. He let the usher rest forward to his knees before leaving the theater.
He went back to that cold red hall, in what felt like the Overlook Hotel in The Shining, without the phantom bartenders or creepy little boys on Big Wheels. Joel just waited on a bench. He covered the usher’s blood on his pants with his shirt.
He even went out for a cigarette to cope with his vigilance, came back and waited some more.
The movie ended, and the crowd departed the theater. Joel still couldn’t find Robin. Whoever and whatever the thug looked like, Joel recalled a white t-shirt of Tweety Bird, with a Tweety Bird hat to match—a real doofus.
They came out last. The rest of the crowd had all but gone outside, the critics, the actors, actresses, the editors, the families. That left the 300-pound doofus in a Tweety Bird shirt. He broke from his friends, and Joel shadowed him to the bathroom.
The doofus took a shit in the tiny stall; a smooth, hairy shit; one of those relaxed shits that would only come out of a doofus like him. Some people believed their shit didn’t stink. Well, this doofus knew his shit stunk worse than most, and he made the world breathe it in. Joel’s heartbeat slowed down to an alarming rate. His eyes teared up as if the doofus were shitting ammonia. Rolling on the silencer, his hands shook, with his shirt over his nose. He stood right in front of the doofus’s door. He kicked it in.
The doofus lunged at him with a blade, swung at him. Joel jumped back, pulled out his Ruger.
PEW PEW PEW.
Robin hated Los Angeles so much that he held the afterparty in Palm Springs. Both cities ran tough bargains. Los Angeles offered chaos and shade; Palm Springs, peace, and no shade. On a better day, Palm Springs was under 110 degrees. So much for peace. It pitted war against him. At least war built civilizations.
Robin threw the afterparty at a restaurant/bar called The Pacific. October weather in Palm Springs pleased him enough. But 85-degrees still made Joel sweat with or without shade, whether in Palm Springs or in the San Fernando Valley. When Joel sweat, he thought of murder. He fanned himself with the small book of crosswords that belonged to the usher.
He sat at a table next to an old Italian man by himself who ate clam chowder and cheesecake at once.
“Where are you from?” he asked Joel.
“Oh, so you’re not used to the heat. This is real heat. What is it in Los Angeles? 72?”
The old man said he was from New York. New Yorkers and Canadians would return to the desert that time of year when the weather suited them, overpopulating places like The Pacific. Get yourself stuck on the 405 in this weather, Old Man, then we’ll talk about heat. He opened the book to a new crossword. In an entry with six boxes, he wrote OLD MAN.
The afterparty had crowded the patio. Joel couldn’t find Robin among the guests. He sat inside and watched them drink and eat under those baking canopies. They wiped sweat from their foreheads; they swatted flies off their iceberg wedge salads. How could they enjoy themselves?
The host showed up at his table.
“Get me a vodka-soda with the well.”
“I’m sorry, but somebody else has already reserved this table.”
“Why didn’t you tell me this before?”
“I would’ve, but it was an honest mishap. Again, I’m so so sorry.”
“Somebody else always takes my seat,” Joel muttered.
Joel wrote HOST in the crossword. The O so-happened to intersect with the O in OLD MAN.
“Nothing,” he said. “I’ll move.”
Of course, everybody in the dining room had already taken all the seats; the barstools, too. Joel moved to the patio and ordered the same drink. Typically he would’ve asked for Tito’s vodka, but he had just met the bartender. He needed several months of knowing a bartender if she were to kick back any drinks. Besides, Slava hadn’t given him a company card for business expenses. A well vodka cost him $12. And she used a tumbler: a sure giveaway of a lame bartender. BARTENDER, he wrote in the crossword.
After two drinks, he still couldn’t find Robin. He had two days left to complete the mission. Mr. Grigorov would check on him in less than 48 hours.
Robin didn’t answer the phone either. Joel just stared at himself in a mirror behind the bartender. He couldn’t stand to see himself sweat. He hadn’t eaten in a day; he needed food. The bartender took food orders, so he ordered an herb-encrusted snapper with almond sauce, brown rice, and asparagus.
He drank his inhibitions away, which eased him into his job and his vigilance. His vigilant tendencies felt less burdensome. The faces in the crowd seemed more familiar after every drink as if each following sip cleared his vision. He saw characters, not actors. He remembered, they wore the same garments and acted the same way as in the movie.
A Cars cover band played “Nightlife Baby.” Characters from the movie danced in the middle of the patio. The bartender took his plate away. She aroused him with her eye contact; her bone structure; even the way she took his plate away. She bartended in the movie, too, behind the counter in a cellar where the drug kingpin played Craps–that old man with the nose that had sucked him in.
“Would you like dessert?” she asked him.
“The bill would be fine,” he said.
She slipped him his bill with a note on the back. HE’S GONE TO VEGAS, it read. He looked back up at her, and she glanced back at him and back down at the next drink she poured. He drew a line through BARTENDER in the crossword.
“Make me one more,” he said. “This time make it a double.”
So people had watched him from all over. One could’ve stood in line at the store; another could’ve sat near him in the theater. Now this bartender, if only she could’ve poured a decent drink…
A group of women from the movie surrounded him at the bar. They had escorted some of the men from the theater to the restaurant. One of the women swayed back and forth from her stool to the bathroom; from the bathroom and back. She kept sniffling. Her wristband said I LOVE BOOKIES. Strange, he thought. Bookies deserved love, too. Why not?
On closer inspection, he recognized her face from the film. She had been shot in the leg by the drug kingpin in the movie. Her wristband really said I LOVE BOOBIES. October was Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
He looked up from her and saw something unreal. In a moment when his eyes deceived him, he saw himself–the same face, the same hair, but with thin legs and thinner hair–approach the group. This imposter of his bought drinks for the group. Geographically, Joel belonged with them, but he never bought him one for himself. Enough drinks, of course, could fog any man’s brain. The man’s breath flowed in through Joel’s nostrils. The putridity of dry breath from Martinis and cigar smoke reminded Joel of the movie theater in North Hollywood, how those nostrils had sucked him in. Joel wrote down NOSTRILS in another entry of the crossword.
They teased the imposter about his thin legs and his thinner air.
“Back at the hotel, I got this big, long….jacuzzi. It gets chilly in October. What do you girls say you keep warm?”
“Gee, thanks, but we’ll just stick with the drinks, Dad.”
The ladies laughed at him.
Rejection nauseated Joel, even without his involvement (although it did sort of involve him; after all, he looked exactly like him. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath in. The inhaling wouldn’t stop. He pictured himself inhaling the table aprons, the knives, and forks, the salt shakers, the packets of artificial sweetener, the small tree in the middle of the patio.
“Hey, what just happened?” the ladies said. “Where did he go?”
Joel opened his eyes. The imposter had disappeared. He felt as if another person were crawling inside of him, so he stuck a napkin over his drink and ran to the bathroom with his Ruger before he would vomit in the patio. He washed his face in the sink. He looked at the mirror and saw a man who wasn’t him. Wrinkles had spread across his face. His hair had entered the larval stage of grayness.
Joel just laughed at the mirror. “You’re drunk, you idiot.”
He splashed another handful of water on his face and went back out to that patio.
A blond had taken his seat. She ignored his existence. In western culture, he couldn’t punt a beautiful blond from his seat. Two businessmen, the goons from the movie, bought her drinks and crowded around her, leaving Joel outside of their triangle. Joel pulled out his Ruger, but he had a right enough mind to hold it under his shirt. When she turned down their offers, they turned to Joel.
“There you are,” one of them said.
“Where was I?” he answered.
The two of them looked puzzled at each other.
“Good question,” the other one said.
Joel felt that same body crawling inside him. He fidgeted, and he scratched himself.
The taller one pretended to scratch his nose. “Were you doing a little bit of this in the bathroom?” he asked Joel.
“Yes, maybe, that’s it.”
“Well, good luck with this one. She’s ice cold.”
They walked away, and he stepped up to her. She sipped her icy martini.
“Sorry, but you’re in my seat.”
“Oh, I am? Too bad I don’t see your name.”
“Fine, but that drink belongs to me.”
She handed it to him by her fingerprints, this plastic bag of dog shit that Joel knew as his vodka-soda. It almost had as much alcohol as dog shit at least.
“Have a nice night,” she said.
She was the lead female character, or Robin’s love interest who murdered him in the end, a real bitch in the movie and a damn good actress.
“Do I look like his publicist?”
“I just spoke to his publicist the other day,” Joel said.
She turned her back to him on her barstool. Joel drank the rest of his vodka down until the ice cubes slid to his nose. He wanted to feel her coldness. Joel set it back on the counter in front of Rose Angelina Portilla. Yes, he remembered the name, that famous actress. Another entry could fit precisely all of those letters, 25-across. He wiped his lips dry, straightened his shirt, stuffed his Ruger back at his waist and said, in her ear, “I’ll see you in a little while.”
“No, you won’t.”
Once the photographers took their pictures and the guests went home, Joel set out on his missions. The alcohol detached him, and this person squirmed inside him. He couldn’t control this rampage.
He couldn’t find the old Italian, but he could follow the host into the kitchen. With no one else around, he shoved him into a meat locker.
PEW, right in the forehead. He left him to freeze.
Rose parted from her entourage to the parking lot where she waited for her limo. Joel, so drunk and possessed, tripped over his feet, but he still kept enough motor skills. He grabbed her from behind, covered her mouth.
“You ever been to Joshua Tree?” he asked. “The stars look really big tonight.”
She weighed all of 98 pounds.
Alone with her in the parking lot, he tossed her into the trunk of Eva Santos-Pedagago’s BMW.
“Please let me go,” she said, but he slammed the trunk shut before another sentence.
A mile down the 111 in an empty parking lot for a trucking company, he opened the trunk again and this time pulled out the Ruger.
“Just let me go,” she said.
PEW PEW PEW PEW.
Afterward, he dumped her body in the Salton Sea.
Robin called him the next morning.
“I flew to Vegas the last minute.”
“What’re you doing out there?”
“I had this meeting with other producers.”
“How is it?”
“Hey, you sound a little different,” he said.
“Like you’re older. I don’t know, I’m just tired.”
“Anyway, I checked into the Riviera. Where can we meet?”
“Ah, we just missed each other. I caught a red-eye to JFK.”
“Robin, I’m running out of time.”
“Time for what, pal?”
Joel couldn’t say.
“Believe me, I don’t have time either, not since this whole movie took off.”
“I’ll kill you,” Joel said.
“Yeah, yeah, I know. I totally get how upset you are, pal, but like I said, we’ll talk soon about your script. Just let me get back to New York. By the way, how was the premiere?”
“It was that bad?”
“Not the movie. The premiere itself.”
“I heard about a couple murders.”
“Yeah, they found an usher and some fatfuck dead. Now I’m getting all this bad press as if my movie had anything to do with it.”
“This happens when you allow a general audience, I suppose.”
“Shit, I’m sorry. Did you get to watch the movie at all?”
“Yeah, I feel like I was immersed in it.”
“That sounds like a good thing.”
“We can talk about that later. And the afterparty?”
“Did you see Rose? How hot was she?”
“Hot and cold, and she ended up being very salty.”
“I could see that.”
So Robin had eluded him once again. The wrong people were famous; someone was always sitting in his seat, and his assignment kept slipping away. Slava would call him the next morning. Not to mention, grayness was cropping more of his hair, and those damn wrinkles were growing everywhere.
With a night at the Riviera, he gambled with only a few thousand dollars. Since the last time he went there, the whole strip had raised its prices by over 100 percent. A soda cost him $3.
As always, he fell in love with a cocktail waitress, this animated mannequin in fishnets; fishnets, always the fishnet stockings. Before the horizon, sex dolls would populate the market, whether Joel would or wouldn’t die too soon. Until then, he desired this waitress, Cami.
“Drinks?” she said, passing by. “Drinks? Drinks?”
“Vodka-soda over here.”
She wrote it down on a pad.
Joel placed a $5 bill on her tray.
“Hurry back,” he said.
She ignored him and walked away with the tray.
“Beautiful, isn’t she,” this Australian said from the next slot over.
“You staying here?”
“Just for a night. I can’t stay any longer.”
“Hey Mate, either you’ll miss Vegas and never want to come back, or you won’t miss it and want to go right back. Make sense?”
“I’m not sure. All I know is I can’t enjoy it here unless I spend about $5,000 a night.”
“I hear that. I was just at a bloody craps table and threw down $50 at the first deal. I checked my watch. It was 9:31pm. I fell $200. I rechecked my watch. 9:35pm. Four minutes, Mate.”
“I play slots,” Joel said. “Humans are in on something.”
“But so are the machines.”
“Either way, the players go home at a loss. These guys who deal craps or blackjack or poker are selective. It’s human nature.”
“Ah, but who makes the machines?”
“The machines can’t tell whether you called them idiots or that you’re gay or…”
He laughed through his dome-shaped belly.
“Could be that, too.”
“I like you, Mate. There’s something about you that just breathes luck, isn’t there?”
“Not really at all.”
On the contrary, Joel didn’t see any luck in the Australian, so he moved onto the next machine. Whatever the Aussie’s method to gambling was, Joel knew better than to share his. He knew better than the director of Russian Studies not to tell anyone about his methodologies. He tried to play each slot in the Riviera, from right to left, starting with a machine nearest to the gift shop, giving each one after that three chances before moving onto the next one, until he found jackpot. His uncle, who had raised Joel and was assassinated by Slava’s goons, taught him that after three attempts to move to its neighbor on the left. If it hit at or before the third attempt, he started over on that machine, like a first down in football, until he lost in three straight tries.
One machine kept him through a whole vodka-soda and two cigarettes. He kept tabs on Cami, the object of his desire, the one he could pay for after the jackpot. She tended to a craps table far ahead of him. Once that machine crapped out on him, he moved on. And he kept moving on.
The drunk Australian stepped in front of him and sniffed something from his pen cap.
“How’s the winning, Mate?”
“I’m down $500.”
“Then play this,” he said of a mysterious machine of no name. It had a frog riding a motorcycle. The frog wore a black leather jacket and a slick pompadour, like a greaser.
But why the sudden generosity? Joel looked around himself for cameras. In a Vegas casino, with all the ringing and chiming and random strangers passing by, anyone who approached him without the need for money or cigarettes may have pulled a gun or a blade. One could shank another and easily walk on with the rest of the herd.
“OK, I’ll try,” Joel said, “but just once.”
The Australian let him have a seat.
“But I can’t have you watch.”
“I’m sorry. It’s this thing I have. I don’t like to have people watch me gamble.”
“One of your bloody superstitions, I see?”
“Yes, but again, thank you.”
The Australian patted his shoulder with one of those giant red hands of his and stepped away.
Joel had played Max Bet at every machine. If he skipped one, he would’ve crushed his juju. He once watched an episode of The Twilight Zone where a man relied on superstition over his confidence. But who except a fool believed in confidence in a casino? Either he struck jackpot or he didn’t.
He found a $100 bill between that machine and the one to its left. From a glance, the bill appeared genuine, but on further inspection, it said FOR MOTION PICTURE USE ONLY.
Joel looked up for cameras again. The Australian had vanished. He stretched his neck over to the craps tables. The Aussie stood next to Cami, the only two people he had spoken to in that whole casino. With superstition brought paranoia.
He pressed the MAX BET button and, without a pause, digital coins poured through the speakers. They rained inside his head. The number rose to a sky of an endless amount, putting him in a trance.
Mother of God, he thought of all the painful times he had endured up to that moment—from his near-death experience at a hospital in Cairo to an attempted hit on him by an ex-lover; to the rejections of his screenplays; now this (the attempted hit on his good friend, and the phone call from Slava tomorrow)—and the jackpot had come too late. It rang with generic funk music for players nearby. They had missed the prize by a few feet. If only they had known….The numbers sped up; so did the music, and his heart rate. The waitresses noticed especially, even though he had needed a drink a half hour ago. The object of his desire raced past them all to his machine.
“Congratulations,” she said. With the green lights of the machine glowing on her face, Joel’s object didn’t look as sweet.
“Would you like another drink?”
“For the past hour.”
“Sorry, Sweetie, I was serving a craps table. I’ll bring you two.”
“You didn’t happen to see a chubby Australian guy with red hair, did you?”
“Um, I didn’t see anyone who looked like that. What did you win?”
So she had changed the subject.
“I’m not sure. I think I broke it.”
“Oh, at some point it’ll stop, and it still won’t be enough, at least not for me.”
“A top-shelf vodka with lime.”
“Don’t go anywhere,” she said.
He watched her body go all the way to the bar.
The machine stopped once she left. $45,583. Joel ripped the ticket from the slot and made his way to the casino bar. The people watched him go—the ones from other machines and craps tables. The room fell silent behind all the movements and energy. Anyone in the casino could’ve been working for Slava. That involved Cami. He never could really tell, not anymore. Slava might’ve rigged the machine.
“I’m using the boys’ room,” he told Cami.
“Your drink is coming right up, Baby.”
“Just leave it there on the table.”
He checked behind himself at a urinal. He washed his face in the sink, pulled it back up to the mirror.
He had become the old man entirely, with the thin legs and even thinner hair.
“What the hell is this?”
He pressed his fingers into the skin on his face. He pinched it, he spread it apart and stretched it as if it might change shape, but it wasn’t putty, this was permanence.
“I can’t go back out there. How the hell do I go out there? How long have I looked like this? God, somebody help me.”
Someone else stepped in. He whipped out his Ruger.
He dropped like clothes to the floor.
What had Joel become? He had never shot someone out of blind rage. That young man had done nothing to set back humanity. Joel dragged him to one of the stalls, pulled his pants to his ankles and set him on the toilet.
He came back out to the casino as that thin old man, the kingpin.
Cami had never left the drink on the table, as he suspected. The table wouldn’t tip her itself. Such a typical move for a cocktail waitress in Vegas, Joel thought, but was she colluding? He sat down among his fear, his anger, and his confusion. She approached with the drink. Her incredible allure distracted him about his changed identity: he had forgotten already about that wrinkled face in the mirror. He kept his hand on the Ruger at his waist.
“There you are,” she said, but he didn’t respond. She bent down with the drink on the tray. By this time, it had lost its fizz. Letting her tits spill out her corset, she placed a cocktail napkin on the table as if it were a satin sheet and patted out the wrinkles, and she set the cocktail right in the middle, smiling. She waited. Or, she seemed to wait behind the smile.
“Sit down,” he said.
She did as he pleased, right next to him, edging her left breast against his arm.
“Tell me,” he said, “do I look different from the last time you saw me?”
“What do you mean?”
“Tell me what you see.”
She played with a clump of gray hairs on his head.
“I see a handsome silver fox.”
“So it is true.”
“What’s true, Baby?”
He looked over at the machine that won him all that money. A technician had already opened it with a key. The Australian sat at the one to the left, grinning behind a Cuban cigar. Joel pulled out a $100 bill, about to give it to her, but when she reached for it, he pulled it back to him.
“You’re coming up to the room with me.”
“You’ll need more than that,” she said.
He pulled the vodka to his nose, sniffed it, dipped the edge of his tongue right below its surface.
“This tastes rotten. Either it’s the lime or something else.”
“Why’re you acting scary?”
“You see these people? You see them looking at me? You see that fat Aussie over there who I was talking about? Now tell me you don’t know him.”
“I don’t know him, I swear.”
Joel swung his arm around her and poked the nose of his silencer against her tight stomach.
“Shut up. Now I have a Ruger at my waist that has seen a lot on this trip. I won’t get into the details, but I can give you what you want if you just do me this favor.”
“You cash my voucher.”
“Why would I do that?”
He pressed the nose farther against her.
“They would ask for my driver’s license, but I don’t look like my picture. Now, I’m going to follow you to the cashier. You can’t run from me. I’ll have this stuck to you the whole way, and it’s more silent than a rabbit scratching its ear. So let’s go.”
So he did as he said to the cashier booth, holding her hand with his other hand on the Ruger.
When they came to the booth, he whispered:
“Here’s the voucher. I’ll stand behind you like everything is perky. You do what I tell you, and we can split the earnings.”
“Now, smile wide, bitch. You just won $45,000.”
The cashier stood just over five feet, a redheaded Korean woman. Cami put on a different smile that she had been accustomed to: from jadedly seductive to forcefully elated.
“Driver’s license, please?”
Joel looked left, then right through the transaction.
“Crikey, it was you,” he heard, the accent of the bloke, right behind him. “Get this man some bottle service,” he yelled to the cashier, but the Korean woman focused on the transaction.
Joel whispered to him, with his Ruger still pointed at Cami. “Keep it low profile. We’ll party up in my room. Plenty of space and privacy for blow and any whores you want up there. Got it?”
“Got it,” the Australian said at a smaller volume, but apparently Australians didn’t know how to whisper.
“But first I got to show you this poker machine. It’s even more bloody good than the slot machine.”
“Tomorrow. For now, let’s go up and party: you, me, and Cami.”
The cashier handed the check to Cami through an open space under protection glass.
“You ready, Honey?” he said to Cami.
Joel kissed her cheek and gripped her hand, making sure she wouldn’t break away with the check. The Australian walked by Joel’s other side, never shutting up all the way to the elevators, which the casino had made hard to find. The Riviera did so on purpose, trapping him in this maze of noisy slot machines. Success dripped from his body. People noticed his aura as if an Egyptian prince had strolled through with his entourage. Ladies smiled. Texans nodded at him with their cowboy hats.
They found an empty elevator as the doors were about to shut. Joel shoved her into the car, and he followed her in. He let the doors try to swipe the Australian right out, but he got in just in time.
Joel reached at Cami and started kissing her neck, with the Ruger still out, and the Australian couldn’t shut himself off.
“We’ll do some of that coke, we’ll hit this bloody good buffet, 24 hours, Mate, right next to the titty bar on Tropicana. They do more than just strip. They have the best ladies to rent, and…”
Joel poked him in the eyes, blinding him, and he strangled him, with his thumbs pressing his Adam’s apple to the back of this throat.
Cami panicked. “You’re going to kill him.”
The Australian’s eyes bulge out to his nose. He plopped to the floor on his back with his tongue out; red, purple, and bloated in the face.
“Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God,” Cami said behind her hand.
Joel pushed her against the wall.
“Shut up. Now you see what I can do.”
The car reached the thirty-second floor.
The doors opened back up. Cami put her straight face back on.
A nuclear family that looked packaged and shipped from Wisconsin stared in disbelief at this 250-pound Australian on the floor; especially the parents; the boy and girl looked thrilled.
Joel held onto Cami like they were newlyweds.
“That’s what free drinks will do to ya, Kids.”
He pulled her out and scratched the son’s blond head, passing the family.
Within a day in Vegas, Joel had both gambled and murdered, and he won at both. All the while, he couldn’t complete his sole mission.
In the hotel room, He threw Cami to the bed.
“Please don’t rape me.”
He sat next to her, with his Ruger pointed, and kissed her neck, her lips, all over her face, reining her at her extensions.
“Never,” he said. “I’m falling apart, Cami…This isn’t me….I’m not old and gray….I’m young….I’m Meditteranean….I’m an international assassin…Let’s leave the country…I can find the right people…We’ll get rich….I’ll pay the right doctor…He’ll fix me back….”
She cried deeper at every pause of his voice. She wouldn’t answer.
“Say it,” he yelled.
“What am I supposed to say?”
“Say you’ll marry me.”
“OK, I’ll marry you.”
“Liar,” he wept, “liar, liar…”
She kissed his lips, his neck, and she pulled him down with her to the mattress.
“Let’s be together…we’ll fall in love…I always wanted to live in Prague.”
“Take me now.”
His Ruger slipped from his hand to the floor. Thud. She scratched his wrinkly face with her orange fingernails. He fell off the bed; she ran for the door. Joel grabbed his Ruger beside the bed, rolled over to his back.
PEW to her back.
Cami fell short. Her right hand slid down the door, weaker and slower the farther it slid down to the bottom.
Her body spasmed until it finally let itself die. Joel dragged her back and rolled her underneath the bed.
For the rest of the night, he sat on the bed with the Ruger pointed at the door, with the $45,000 check tucked in the pages of the Holy Bible.
The sun rose to the wail of police sirens in Vegas.
To answer the question of that Aussie: he wouldn’t miss Vegas, but he would come back in a second.
Someone knocked on the door. Joel checked through the peephole. He remained there until his eyes could register what they saw.
Two men stood on the other side in painter smocks, wearing those white painter hats—both with scattering streaks of red and blue paint on their chests.
“Who’s this?” Joel asked.
“We paint,” the Japanese one said.
The other one looked Indian.
Joel couldn’t awaken from this haze, in this room that appeared as half the Riviera and half his apartment in Hollywood.
“Who sent you?”
So that woke him up. He seemed to have dumped Cami’s body and driven back to Hollywood in a somnambulic state.
His Russian landlord had given orders. They banged the door again. Joel chased down his clothes before he would open the door. His plain black shirt blended with the plain black comforter. He wrestled for its front side. The armholes kept escaping his arms, with the painters waiting…
“Hold on, just hold on!”
But they must not have understood enough English. He stuffed the Ruger in his back waist and pulled the door away from the Japanese one’s knuckles.
“So, you got together and figured when was the worst time to come bother me, and this was it. At 8am.”
They didn’t say a word. Instead, they watched him like forest creatures, holding their buckets and paint rollers.
“We paint kitchen and bathroom,” the Japanese one said.
“Over my dead body. Not until I take a shower and leave.”
They didn’t answer that.
“Does this one talk,” he asked of the Indian one.
“Yes, Sir,” the Indian said.
“Both of you come back later after I leave. I’m taking a shower.”
“Yes, Sir,” they both said near the same time as each other.
He watched them lug their paint buckets back down the hallway until they reached the corner.
In the shower, Joel placed the Ruger on a soap dish.
The ceiling had been peeling over the shower for a year, with this spongy material falling out next to a window. Nowhere else in the apartment would’ve left Joel at his most vulnerable than the shower, so he left the bathroom door unlocked, waiting, and he dialed the water temperature to produce a shroud of steam.
How did he sleepwalk from the Riviera to his apartment? The last place he should’ve woken up in. Just leave it behind for good. No one could see him in his new identity anyway.
Rather than clean himself, he waited for one of those painters. The shadow of the door shifted across the shower curtain. Joel reached for the Ruger, and it slipped through his hands like a bar of soap. He dropped to the tub beneath that steam. BAM. Shower tiles broke off and flew in shards.
He grabbed the Ruger and—
Joel peeked through the bullet hole in the curtain. Through the mist, the Indian one squirmed like a dying caterpillar on the floor, with the bullet in his neck. Joel stood over him.
PEW PEW PEW PEW PEW.
With the side of his right fist, he wiped the mirror in circles until his face showed.
“You tired old man,” he said.
He put his clothes back on, leaving the shower water running. He had evicted himself from the Casita Terrace on Bronson. The Safari Inn would have a vacancy for sure. He opened the door to the rest of the apartment. There, on the other side, stood the Japanese one.
PEW PEW PEW PEW PEW PEW PEW.
Joel didn’t clean up the mess either. With what time? He gathered his last friends: the Ruger, a few shirts and pants, and his toothbrush in a duffel bag. (He always carried his toothbrush no matter where he went.)
He drove to a Norm’s on Sunset and sat at a table by a window that showed the parking lot. From thereon he had to sit by a window. The coffee tasted fresh. The eggs bled their yolk, and the yolk tasted sweet on the toast.
His cell phone rang. Only two people he knew would call him with private numbers. After five vibrations, he answered.
Robin had settled back in New York.
“I’m still sorry we missed each other,” he said. “I said I’d make it up. You know I’ve always been a man of my word.”
Joel knew he wasn’t.
“I finally have time to look at your script. I can pass it on.”
“I’ve been waiting for a year, Robin; I’m only getting older.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know, but there’s someone who’s looking for your type of material.”
“Maybe someday he and I will meet.”
“He is a she.”
“No, she is. Anyway, enough Abbott Costello shit. What’s it about?”
“I already told you. It’s about a serial killer who loves waffles.”
“Right, right. There’s plenty of chances to market that, I’m sure.”
“Waffles are basically pancakes that are smashed by tennis racquets.”
“I never thought of them that way, but you’re right.”
“Tell her waffles can soften even the darkest story.”
“Yeah, but make sure it’s done right. The world has changed since we first met, my friend, and not for the better either. You can’t write about sex or violence in the same ways as when we grew up. Pretty soon we’ll be writing about stick figures. You can’t offend stick figures, can you?”
“They’ll have a fringe group for that, too.”
“And they need some moral conclusion to them; the stories, that is. You have to set specific limits, you know? You can’t offend this group or that group. The problem is, more and more groups are popping up. Before you know it, there’ll be some activist group for people who eat peanut M&M’s. Know what I mean?”
Joel looked down at a napkin dispenser between the salt and pepper and the sugars. His reflection on the metal didn’t show gray hair, nor wrinkles. It showed a young man, a virile Meditteranean.
He glanced out the window at two men, facing him in a big black GMC Suburban that was parked backward in a space.
“What do you think?”
“I think I’m moving to New York.”
“New York? Heh. It’s cold out here, and no one is your friend.”
They could’ve been two Uber drivers, these two heavy Russian guys in black suits who wouldn’t leave the car.
They just waited.
“I don’t have friends here either. So I’ll leave now. I’ll get there in a week.”