the BOYS


Episode Two


          They'd closed on this municipal union in the desert, those three merry Musketeers of BCM had... an overnighter, Inyo County, way to the north, almost the Nevada line, and Matt and Ev were hot to celebrate before reporting back to the home office in Escondido.  Nevada might've been near, but the nightlife of Reno was far, far away and Vegas farther still, so, blowing into a timewarp Old Western town (generic strip of liquor store cum gas stations, drab concrete block abodes of one-armed bandits and burger joints, a Charlie D's and Budgetel) the previous evening, they'd checked into the latter before meeting this lardass Nevada High Ranger and his chattering wife for steaks and drinks on the BCM client account at what was (probably rightly) advertised as the hippest nitespot between Carson City and Area 51.  Mister and Mrs. High Ranger didn’t gamble and had an ironclad rule… in bed by ten, up by five… so they’d pitched, left their prospectii and bade farewell, then stayed behind.  By midnight, each had lost ten-odd bucks in half an hour at the slots in a weary linoleum bar (where the ladies wore sweaty, flannel shirts and dipped Skoal), then brought back a fifth of Scotch and some beer to the room to watch "Trading Spouses", "Big Brother" and the Pauly Shore/Andy Dick blockbuster "In the Army Now" on cable while playing cards (where Walt had dropped thirty-something more bucks).  Waking late, hungover, they’d filled their guts with grease and coffee, closed on the sullen, obligated High Ranger and hit the road.  Since the eighth of September was another torrid afternoon (easily ninety-seven, ninety-eight driving through the dusty, dispirited Owens Valley) and Bill Braxton had circulated memos about salesmen (and even managers) coming into the office shitfaced after a big close, celebration would have to be limited to a junk food binge, washed down with a couple of cans of Bud, each.  (Serious partying would wait 'til sundown, or the weekend, even... maybe they'd all hit a Res together, grab a suite and a couple of squaws, and Walt would make up some whopper to throw Missy off his case, the way he always did.)

So... their revelry already restricted to a gas and garbage gobble down the strip that ran parallel to the Interstate... a further, unpleasant surprise awaited when Walt pulled the Lincoln Town Car up to a Gas n'Go at the corner of two eighty-fifth only to find the pumps plastered with little yellow stickers proclaiming: "All customers must pay in advance, inside."  Steamed, he yanked the keys out of the ignition and stormed into the shack, confronting the mannish, long-nosed girl at the register with the question: "Do I look like a thief?"

", sir," she stammered, "it's com... compuh... c-company policy..."

"That all your customers are thieves?  Is it?"

"Puh...policy," she repeated.

"You're charging four sixty-eight, two cents more than the Driveaway three blocks south, and you have the fuckin' nerve to call me a thief?  That's my car out there... a Lincoln, two years old and still worth more than you probably make in a year.  So run this by me again... do I look like the sort that would risk going to jail over a few gallons of gas?"

"No... it's the com... computers... mister, I can't unlock the pumps without payment in ad... advance.  It's company..."

"Well," Walter aimed a forefinger like a pistol, "you just tell the company, young lady, that I'm taking my business down the block."  And then, because he needed a cold drink, and badly, he pulled a sixer from the fridge and lay five bucks and change on the register...

"Thought you were taking your business away," the cashier rebuked.

Cheeky rug-chewer!   "I don't mind paying for beer in advance," Walt set her straight, "when we get through with a beer, what's left ain't worth the taking back, not like gas.  If you'd had any sort of education, you'd understand the difference, but, then, you wouldn't be working at a Gas n'Go anyway, would you?"

Taking the Bud to the Driveaway and filling up, they'd eaten their way almost back to BCM, starting with tacos... Walt ordering a soft taco, which Matt had found screamingly funny, almost as crazy as “Inyo Face”, which he could not stop repeating... and then, a quarter-mile down the pike, they found some cold, messy Italian ices whose green and yellow remains still clung to his fingers.

          "Burger?" Walt had suggested, nodding towards the corner where competing franchises glowered diagonally at each other across the intersection, but Matt had shook his head in Walter's rear view mirror.

          "Keep goin' a bit... somethin' we oughta check out," he'd said.  "Past the Safeway and Costco, then hang a right on two seventy-first."

          "That's into fuckin' San Cristobal," said Ev, morosely, from the passenger seat.  Everett Crespo Dodge was ten years older than Walt.  Ready for the gold watch, almost, and thirty years older than Matt.  Ev still wore his gray suit jacket and, in the air-conditioned Lincoln, his tie remained tightly knotted, but his gray, washed-out features whispered "cancer".  He smelled, too, but that could've been the smokes - Ev went through four packs on a busy day, sometimes five, while Walter had disciplined himself down to a half a pack, never more than one. 

          (After an incompetent Governor of California had been recalled, and replaced with the manly action-movie hero with a hearty sneer for propriety and correct English, Walter had resumed his old vice of the occasional stogie, which the proprietors of The Humidor intimated, were genuine, contraband Havanas but, more probably, originated in the Dominican Republic, or even fuckin' Honduras.  Matt smoked only cigars, which was another thing that Walter held against him besides the talking incessantly and being an all-purpose butthole... something was just plain wrong about kids, thirty-something kids, smoking cigars.  But they were Americans, after all, and, to each, his own poison.)

          Ev was tall, six-two, like Walt, or three, but must've weighed a hundred-thirty, forty max and was the only Musketeer who’d deigned to wear a mask during the plague.  Ate like a teenager, though, like Walt's own Scotty or his two brothers, before him... flown, now.  Feedin' the cancer, Walt figured, turning right on Northwest Two Seventy-First.  Fuckin' name for a street, fuckin' San Cristobal... it was lower-rent here, transmission chop-shops, strip malls with payday loan windows and Oriental massage parlors (you could get a half-decent Lewinski in some of these).  Mexican bars.  And...

          "There!" Matt pointed.  Past Maple... a lot of the disnumbered streets in San Cris had tree names, tho' anything taller than greasewood that wasn't an irrigated palm stuck out like a middle finger... this same old, same old strip cutting through to Gerson, distinguished only by a big, freakin' dog head like there used to be on diners when Walt first came out to California as a refugee from Ohio's cold, bleak winters.  Different, though... plumper, and stupidly nondescript (a bland, twenty-first century pup, whereas the old Doggie had been shaped like, well, a hot dog himself, a hot-dog doctor with a long, semi-intelligent snout and discriminating glare).

          "Cheapest dogs south of LA," Matt assured them, removing his glasses to wipe them on his red, white and blue striped tie.

          "For what?..." Walt snarled, "... rat?  Anybody know what's in them things?"

          "Who gives a shit?" Matt replied, "what's in any of those places... tacos, burgers, pizza?"

          "I could go for pizza..." Ev suggested as Walt flicked on his right turn signal.

          "Guys!" Matt protested.  "They're OK.  You can get this, like Big Bucket with six dogs, fries and other... stuff... for eight ninety eight with a coupon in the weekly paper, they got this other place out in the desert, by the Res."

          "I know that place," Walt said, glancing towards Ev, who gave a sort of shrug, so he turned right on Gerson, right again into the mall, and inched up behind this lady in a yellow Pathfinder full of squalling brats.  "Had a different head..."

          "They all did," Matt enlightened his colleagues, "sort of poodle, a French thing.  Took 'em away after nine-eleven, you know..."

          "Shoulda flown their plane into San Cris, them guys!" Walt pointed.  The mall was an upside-down L-shaped thing, the Dog Pound a sort of dot or big blotch out in the middle of the parking lot.  There were some empty storefronts, a health club and a falafel joint next to the Double Dollar at the crux of the L.  A couple of swarthy men in shirtsleeves taking smokes in front of the window, partially concealing the oil portraits of imams and ayatollahs in the window, Arabic writing and all, glared at the infidels.  "How 'bout an Osama-burger in a pita?"

          "Go fuck yourself," Matt snorted.  "Really... the dogs are just dogs, but they've got all these special toppings, two kinds of chili and one has those real deal jalapeños... scorch the roof off your mouth.  Chihuahas, but you ask the boy in the box for hot chihuahuas, it's their code."

          The lady in the Pathfinder was taking a long time ordering, so Walt took out his smokes, borrowed Ev's ever-present coffin nail for a light, and watched these kids jumping and crawling around the playground every fast food dump seemed to have, these days.  The Pathfinder moved on and Walt rode the brakes up to a smaller version of the dumb, grinning pooch with a menu hanging down from its neck like a keg of brandy, white writing on black.  "Poun' dog n' fries," Ev said through a wreath of smoke, meaning he'd been to this, or some other Dog Pound, before.  Probably often, since his wife had run off.

          "What's regular?" he asked, but Ev just blew smoke rings, so Walt squinted, then said "two Good Dogs, everything but onions, no special sauce, one Pound Dog, three fries and... you sure, Matt?"

          "Dead sure," the young salesman asserted, holding up two fingers.

          "Your funeral, kid.  Two Hot Chihuahuas, two Cokes..."

          "Raspberry grape Slushie," Matt shouted from the back seat.

          The dog head responded with garble, presumably instructions to follow the Pathfinder and the Volvo in front of it in making a right turn to the pickup window where cash would be exchanged for presumable sustenance. 

          They waited... and the Lincoln swam with smoke.

          "Chili's toxic, youngman," Walt said over his shoulder, nose crinkling at the Pathfinder's exhaust.  It smoked as wickedly as Ev.  "Montezuma's revenge... s'on the menu to satisfy the greasers and their ACLU attorneys, white guy like you snarfin' down chili dogs, gut'll give out before you turn forty."

          "As if I give a shit," Matt said, rolling the window all the way down.  "We're pushin' Ex-Clon', boys, by the time I'm forty they'll have that process up and patented where you can order up a new stomach over the 'Net or like... like certain people order Big Buckets!"

          "Matt," replied Dodge in a gray, patient monotone, "we sell Ex-Clon' futures to other people.  Assholes.  Indians.  Pensioners.  We don't bite the maggoty black banana.  Now if Braxton started to dump their tech and oil and aerospace and put more Ex-Clon' in the portfolio, then I might go along with you..."

          "Only a thought," Matt defended himself, "even if it doesn't pan out… you know what they say: live fast, die broke, leave a good-lookin' corpse…"

          "Says who?" Dodge smirked.  "The funeral home lobby?"

          "The Hells' Angels.  I think…" and Walter turned around, giving the puffy, bespectacled Matt a glance of ineffable contempt.  The driver of the Volvo at the window accepted a paper bag and drove off, letting the yellow SUV advance.  Behind it, Walter massaged the brake pedal and crept forward.

          "What I meant to say, Matt, is that Ex-Clon's just a part of the mix."  Dodge glanced over towards Walt for assurance.  "A sort of cherry, top o'the vanilla fudge, right?"

          "Yeah," Walt snorted, "cherry on top a scoop a'shit."

          "It's sexy," the old salesman coaxed.  "So sexy the clients pass on the rest of the portfolio bein' boilerplate, mashed potato bland.  It's what all these friggin' small-town managers want… security, yeah, but with just a hint of danger, a veneer…"

          "A what?" Matt frowned.

          "They still teach English at business college?  No?" Walt shook his head… "what Ev meant is that we're damn lucky to be sockin' away company preferred, which goes up twenty percent a year, every year since the Coronavirus…"

          "Except fifteen percent in twenty three," Matt pointed out, "while those other funds were makin' thirty, forty percent."

          "That was counterprogramming, Bill hedging our exposure in dot coms, which were gonna tank, and getting' us into biotech, which is gonna soar.  Which is why we keep makin' double figures while all those other guys were losin' value, some of 'em…"

          "Listen to us," Dodge piped up.  "That's why Walt and I are millionaires… well, on paper… hey, move up!"

          A Dog Pound server having passed over several paper bags and a Big Bucket to the braceleted arms extended from the Pathfinder, Walter edged forward…

          "Remind me, again, why we're in line to eat this shit?" Dodge grunted.

          "Matt says it's cheap.  And, cause you can hold a hotdog in one hand while you're on the phone to a client, or whackin' off... most burgers, you need two hands..."

          "Except Krystals," said Matt.

          "True.  Tho' chili sauce sort of defeats the purpose," Walt said, between short, ragged drags on his Marlboro.  "Since we don't have any more calls, though, it'd only be your funeral, Matt, if one of those hot Chihuahuas fell off the bun and stained your pants, just as we were reportin' to Braxton..."

          Baker brushed away Walt's smoke.  "Up to me, I'd just say the Black Widow was givin' Bill a Lewinsky and ran out of throat.  Speakin' of… where is the boss, anyway; haven't seen old Billy-boy since last Thursday…"

          "Brown-nosin' bastard," Walt coughed.  "I ain't seen him since Friday…"

          "Move up!" Dodge nagged.

          "I see it.  I'm movin' the fuck up.  Forget about the Black Widow, chili shit burns through your clothes, know what'd happen to your prick?"

          "Beg pardon?"

          "Scotty eats chili dogs, kid'll eat anything.  He's a kid.  Take home a bucket of tacos from the Guatemalan place over on Drowell, sauce drips out on this shirt of his, cheap summer t-shirt from India, Bangladesh for this asshole band, burns little brown holes in it, like acid.  Crap shit, still…"

          "Sounds like one of them urban legends," Matt scoffed.

          Pulling even with the cashier's window, Walt turned.

          "You callin' my kid a liar?"

          "No, I…"

          "Cause Scotty's a good boy.  A little weird, yeah, but early decision at Brown.  That's in the Ivy League, FYI, not the color of your undergarments if I took you out behind…"

          "Here we go, again," sighed Everett Crespo Dodge.

          "I was just sayin'… hey!  Hey!  You pimple-pussed prick…" Walt swore.

          "What?" Matt recoiled.

          Walter's head swiveled, snapped back.  The little creep in the window was mostly Adam's Apple and scabby zits, he had a nametag "Jason" and a slack expression behind Coke-bottle glasses.  "I ordered two dogs, two chilis and a Big Dog, three fries, not five Chihuahuas and two fries.  Two Cokes and one of those Slutskies or whatever, not the other way around..."

          Jason squinted, reading off his screen like a politician off a teleprompter.  "Uhh... your order... said..." he trailed off.

          "Now, you're callin' me a fuckin' liar?  This place have a fuckin' manager?" Walt roared.  "Get his ass up here!"

          "Look," Matt wheedled from the back seat, "I don't want us getting into trouble..."

          "Lose your nerve, you wannabe Hell's fuckin' Angel?" Walt said, eyes ripping his pudgy salesman through the rear view mirror.  "Nobody's gettin' in trouble except the clown college runnin' this roach coach."

          "Don't pay them, we can order burgers down the street and eat on the way in," suggested Ev, holding up his Rolex.  "We're gonna be late."

          There was a cough at the window, and Walt turned back to the new arrival, a pencil-thin young man with a high forehead and sour expression behind wide, orange-tinted aviator glasses.  Like the kid, he wore a Dog Pound paper hat over his thin, frizzy hair, and a nametag: Barry Cullery, Day Manager.

          "This mental case of yours," Walter pointed, "fucked up my order."

          He honestly expected more bullshit... or dogshit, as the circumstances dictated... but the pencil-neck pursed his lips, whirled, and shrieked "That's the third time this week.  Take off your apron, Jason, and give me your hat.  You're fired!"  To the salesmen in the car, he said, "Sorry, gentlemen, I am truly, truly sorry," but, it seemed, with more gleefully determined malice than regret as he took back the bucket from Walter.  "We've installed special registers so that servers don't have to read or do math, just look at pictures, punch a key, and they still can't get orders right.  Kids, these days," Barry wheezed.  "Does this look like a Good Dog to you?" he said, holding up one of the greasy, chili-dripping Chihuahuas.

          "I... uh..." said Jason from behind the apron, pulled over his head.  When he had finished removing it, Barry flung the sausage into the kid's face, snatched the company hat away the way Walt remembered doing to the misfits in grade school, then poured out the extra Slushie over his head.  While the kid sniffled, rivulets of crimson slime washing chunks of chili and kraut down his shirt, Barry stuffed two dogs, a paper pouch of puffs and another Coke into a bag, and handed it out the window, followed by the rest of their order which had been sitting under some sort of lamp, drying out...

          "On the house, gentlemen.  Sorry for the inconvenience."

          "Yeah," Walter said, cracking a weak smile in spite of himself.  "Hey... those Slushies, they're really uh... colorful..."

          "We strive to do our best, sir.  Please return... is your name Martinez?" he snapped at the openly blubbering boy, Jason, "... do you understand English?  You're fired!"  His right hand darted out and Walter, at first, thought he'd punched the stupid kid, but he was only imitating Donald Trump from that show before he’d become President of the United States for the first time.  Walt hadn't seen it, but he'd seen pictures and clips on the news; Trump called it his "cobra" or "rattler", some kind of snake.  It stopped an inch or two short of Jason's cheek, and the manager repeated "Fired!  Get out of here, freak, before I call ICE in on you..."

          Walter wrapped his left fist around one of the Good Dogs with the works, no onions, and waved at the quarrelling couple, then steered one-handed back out onto 271st, taking a sharp left and cutting off some housewife in a rice-burner as Ev and Matt divided the remaining food.  Matt held up one of the Hot Chihuahuas that started to ooze chili, or something, but he caught the dribble with a napkin and beamed.

          "Who says there's no such thing as a free lunch?"

          "Can't pull that too often," Walter said, as the Dog Pound receded in his rear-view mirror like some bad dream.  "Couldn’t have done so last year when so few people were willing to take the crap jobs that bosses had to roll with what they had.  But I liked that geeky guy's managerial style... he could go places.  To bad he's wasted at some toilet job like fast food, he's nearer Hell's Angels material than you, Matthew."

          "Yeah," the junior admitted through a mouthful of jalapeños and mystery meat, "but would the skinny bastard leave a good-lookin' corpse?"

          "Gotcha there!" Ev chuckled, laughing at him... at him!... Walt scowled.  It was the fault of all of those business reality shows, you didn't even have to learn the ropes anymore, put in the time.  Just copy the manners and attitude of the ego-besotted bankrupt running the show and fake it.  "Heard some of those places are run by basketball players – colored guys."

          Walter stopped chewing, the Good Dog suddenly metallic in his mouth.  If he wasn't a fuckin' gentleman, he'd roll down the window and spit it out into the little rat-convertible driven by some fuckin' Hollywood gynecologist or plastic surgeon that had ratted up into the left lane, six inches from the Town Car.  Fuckin' rats, fuckin' fast-food buttboys, fuckin' coloreds...

          "Jeez!" was all that he could manage.