Episode Seventeen



          October's first week snaked in at the crest of a mean, slowly-uncoiling autumnal frenzy of ominous portents bitterly exhumed and argued over... gay marriage and bankruptcy, crackling drought and gas prices jumping as the plague receded and humiliating defeats on diamond and gridiron.  The Padres, having been duly eliminated, again (after teasing their fans by staying in playoff contention through most of September), another season for the pathetic Chargers was at hand.  (The hefty Big Buckets, when emptied and turned upside-down with two eyeholes gouged out to create weirdly medieval anonymity helmets, had been... for the entirety of the Third Millennium, save the plague year of 2020... a staple at Qualcomm Stadium, which abuse caused the clueless Mr. C. to rub his orthopteric wrists, gushing "...any publicity is good publicity."  The boisterous youth from San Cristobal had flattened Scottie Fales' teammates at Alta Mesa, 38 to 15, repairing to the Dog Pound to cavort, gloat and pelt each other with sausages under the gaze of pensioners who’d financed their own Good Dogs with dimes and pennies pulled from pockets blue with lint.  And, moreover, it was a week of black helicopters overhead, spraying clouds of blue mosquito dust against the insidious infiltration of the returning West Nile virus; clouds that swirled and spiraled and danced with the red clouds that the other helicopters were dropping to put out the stubborn fires still burning up in the hills.  A bleak week of missing flu shots and ambered children, volcanoes and crime, funerals and fire warnings.

          And Walter Fales, through it all, had sliced tomatoes, swabbed floors and shouldered Mr. C's heavy garbage canisters to the dumpster, avoiding his wife and neighbors, dreading another call from the G-men (and worrying whether another day would pass without news) and grinding his teeth at the chronic carping... sometimes justified, sometimes not... of the dayboss.

          Eleven days into his tenure at the Dog Pound... nine-thirty on the morning of Monday, October eleventh, to be precise... he started from a brief daydream (or daymare) of trial and incarceration to find himself standing stupidly in an empty parking lot at the chic, meticulously groomed Borrago Office Park, two miles from the DP, staring at a neatly printed sign on the door of the North County Outplacement Counseling offices.  Glyniece Jones had summoned him on Thursday morning... in his dealings with the bureaucracy Walt hadn't known many who'd taken such an interest in the faceless masses that sloughed through their offices and he'd suspected she'd thought to throw this bone in his direction so he'd mention her to Mr. Z when the overboss dropped by on one of his weekly inspections. 

          Unfortunately, she… or he… had made one mistake.

          Rather than observe the anniversary of discovery... and 516, to Walt's ever-mathematical mind, was no mean number, it was divisible, divisible and divisible, it was, in fact, the square root, no, what was that opposite, of two to some power, the seventh, or eighth?... the lazy, titillation-seeking Americans who still had jobs with days off and money to spend had had the anniversary of racist white Colombo's sailing the ocean blue moved back to the nearest Monday, the better to enjoy a three-day weekend of gluttony, lust (for the fortunate few) and sacking out in front of the TV.

          So, now, Walter Fales blinked, turned away from the shuttered window and the door with the "CLOSED FOR COLUMBUS DAY OBSERVATION" placard, and smoldered in the Town Car, smoking one of those cheap, no-name cigars from the Driveaway gas station, where he'd only been able to budget five gallons to see him through the week.

(He'd even found himself in agreement with Barry Cullery, who, in fact, expressed nothing but ridicule for "burons"... admitting, pridefully, that he'd borrowed said particular term from Donald Trump who, Walt figured, was the nearest thing to a mentor that the day manager had.  Walt wouldn't have watched "Celebrity Apprentice III", even if he'd had the time, the girls at the register told him more than he needed to know about the President and his rug, his dollies and sinister Russian advisors, and, now and again, he'd espied Mr. C. practicing the so-called "cobra strike" that Trump had used to fire hapless subordinates.)

 The two Sundays he'd worked so far... Barry's day off; Mr. C. was replaced by Z's floater, Kenny Coleman, a hapless, clueless dropout from State who also filled in for Louie on Monday nights and bounced round a couple other Interplanetary establishments, too... had been painless, but Saturday, the ninth, had, truth be told, been a back-breaker.  "At least, on Labor Day, the sheep are motivated enough to go outside, fire up their grills, and roast their mutton," Liberal Davy had pronounced from his station as oily fry vapors swirled round, making a corona of bad cholesterol for his indignant, bearded countenance. "By Columbus Day, they don't give a shit, and they just go out."

          But, evidently, most American ruminants had flocked to Domino's or an Olive Garden because, to Mister C, the workload hadn't justified adding a couple of part-timers to the dayshift.  "I told Mister Z," he'd addressed the crew, balling his fists in rage and impotence, "I told him just adding mushrooms to the usual sauce on a Roman Dog wouldn't be taking full advantage of the holiday.  We could've used pizza bread for the buns, charged an extra fifty cents... put screwy and bow tie pasta in the salad bar.  Does he listen to me?  No!"

          If he'd been Rodney Dangerfield, Barry might've summed up his elegy with something pithy like "I don't get no respect!" but Dangerfield was dead.  It had been that sort of week.

          DP pay was crap, Walt admitted, behind his stogie, but he'd still looked forward towards Friday, even after Barry pulled the same old shit on the boys, hiding out in his office and coming out after five, so they couldn't cash their checks at a bank and had to go to the check cashing place at another crummy mall, half a mile down 271st.

          "How much they charge to cash a check?" he'd wondered.

          "Nine bucks between two and five hundred dollars," Achmed had replied, emerging from wherever he spent most of his days to collect his reward. 

          "That's a lot of money down the drain," said Walter, his appreciation for pitifully small sums having grown, exponentially, for his all-too-frequent lack of funds since the corporate debacle.  "Why don't you open an account at a bank with an ATM, that way you just take the money you need out of the machine and drop your deposit in the slot.  They do it all for you and you save your nine dollars up for, I don't know..."

          "Ain't nothing around but FFT," Achmed shot back.  "Bought out all the competition."

          "So what?"  Walter shrugged, appalled at the young man's financial naiveté.  No wonder these minorities remained in holes they'd dug themselves and spent so much time grousing about how history had treated them so unfairly.  "I've been with Forceright Financial Trust lemme see... five years, almost, since they took over Bank of the Sea."

          "Yeah, well maybe you got a different arrangement you made back then, or the special plan they have for white people, but now they take twelve dollars out of your account every month that you don't maintain a thousand-dollar balance.  How the hell can I keep a thousand dollars when I've got my wheels (Achmed's ancient Cadillac did look like it burned money almost as eagerly as oil), my threads and my bitches?"

          "Thought you had all kinds of women on a string," Walter reminded him, "keeping you in the fast lane."  And Achmed had stormed off, swearing in Palestinian, or Pomeranian… or something… while Walt did some rapid mental math, coming to the inescapable conclusion that next month’s utility bills would sink him below the thousand dollar tide.

          When he'd come back a week ago Sunday... poison Salty Dog and all (Eunice informed him that maybe twenty percent, sometimes a quarter of the new hires didn't survive day one)... Achmed had intimated that, if he wanted to use his forthcoming wealth for satisfaction: to blow his mind or obtain, as the boy had put it, companionship, he, Achmed Saleh Suvari, was the man with the jive.

          Walt had considered the prospect of Achmed as an actual player almost more revolting than as a wannabe... so he'd just held up his left fist, tapped his wedding band and shrugged.

          "Married don't mean nothing."  At least the kid was indomitable; if his parents hadn't brought him over from wherever... Jordan, Egypt... he would've fit right in with some gang of unlicensed "guides", hustlers and urchins selling souvenirs and fake artifacts in the shadow of the Pyramids.  "Married people need the freaky stuff, sometimes, that wives can't give them."

          "Yeah, but they don't need that other stuff the freaks give 'em that comes with the deal."  Achmed's hangdog hunger was almost enough to make a guy swear off the strange... the companionship he'd chosen in those high-flying BCM days was, at least, clean, dammit.  For what he'd paid, it better well have been.

          "I'll be around," Achmed had flipped him off, then, a statement that was true, sometimes, sometimes not.  But his own ATM card, and worldly wisdom hadn't gained Walt a dime, because when Barry finally came out of that office, Friday afternoon, he gone down the fuckin' roster alphabetically... Eunice Clay, Crake (that pale conspiracy geek sweatin' the night shift), a couple of temps, then Charlie "Tex" Davis, then Pepe Gonzales.  Alright, Walt figured, the prick likes to make the new guy wait, kick him to the bottom of the list, maybe until the end of the absurd "probationary" two months, when he'd get his extra dime.  But Mister C had handed the rest of the envelopes to Louie, to pay the night shifters who'd come by, later, and had started walking back towards his office.

          Walter was on him like he hoped Donnie Edwards might be covering enemy receivers, this season.  Or maybe not - losing his sinecure at BCM had meant, among other losses, that his season ticket to Bolts' games on Braxton's dime was history.

          "What," Barry squealed, sweaty and cowering as Walter turned him round bodily. Fuckin' cockroach... whoever the fuck ol' Kafka was, he'd had something on the ball.

          "My money," Walt said, "you didn't give me my check."

          "I explained that to you," Barry shook his head, "...I hope you're not one of those cases that starts getting their Alzheimer's early.  And, I am sure, Mister Z did, too."

          "Well, humor me," Walt said.  "Pretend that you didn't and he didn't or... if you like... that I didn't remember.  Just tell me where the hell is my check."

          "The company holds back every first check," Barry said, slowly, as though addressing a retarded child, "because, if they didn't, we'd have people coming in left and right, working and taking their money.  Quitting the moment they made enough to gas up the truck to move on, or score some rock.  I don't make the policy, not even Mr. Z makes the policy... take it up with Dog Pound headquarters in St. Louis if you want; the address is on your checkstub..."

          "I don't have a checkstub..."

          "Oh... right... well just wait out here and I'll write it down in my office..."

          "I don't want the address of the fuckin' company, I want my money!"

          Barry folded his arms, but set his jaw pre-emptively, as if anticipating another angry Boy taking a swing at him.  "You're not getting paid, and that's company policy.  Ask Mister Z if you want, he'll tell you the same thing.  Besides..." Barry unfolded his arms, giving a sales pitch, now, "...think about how big that first check will look next Friday.  Bigger than mine, probably," he winked, a ghastly spectacle in and of itself.  "You might almost think you were rich.  But," sighed Mister C, "if you want to quit over this, we'll just tell St. Louis to mail it out to you next week, then you'll probably get it Tuesday.  A week from Tuesday.  Or Wednesday..."

          "Fat lot of good it does me now..."

          "Listen," Barry cajoled, "I think you can make it here.  You've got some rough edges, some attitude that needs adjusting, but you could fit in.  How about, if you're hungry... I know that you've got a family... you can just put a few dogs on the account, and I won't charge them against your pay till the week after next.  No interest, either.  Deal?"

          He extended a hand, showing about an inch of monstrously hairy wrist.  Is this guy from another planet? Walt asked himself.

          "Forget it.  Just don't try pulling anything like this next week, I'm serious..."

          "I'm not pulling anything, Mister Fales.  Ask any of the boys or girls, the policy is fairly and equitably enforced.  Everybody goes through this, it's..." and the manager brightened, "'s a sort of initiation, that's what it is!  An initiation into the fraternity of… of…" he hesitated, “…of fries.”

          So Walt sat in the fuckin' parking lot of that closed, fuckin' Outplacement Counseling Center... which was probably just some sort of circle-fuck with guys who weren't necessary anymore sitting around in uncomfortable chairs, whining about their prospects.  Smoking fuckin' El Ropo in his car.  And, although tomorrow, Tuesday... the real Columbus Day... was supposed to be his day off, he'd committed himself.  Not to Barry... fuck no!... but to the boss, to Mr. lots-on-fuckin'-Mars Z.  For the overtime, he'd been promised... God! He needed the money.  He'd received cutoff notices from the cable company, which he figured he could do without, and the phone company.  And the car insurance was due on the fifteenth.

          Maybe it was all for the better.  His day off, last Tuesday, had been just a step up from a root canal day, a proctology day.  (And the doc with the rubber glove had told him, in June, that there was a swelling he'd like to keep an eye on, and could Walt come in again 'round Christmas instead of waiting a year?  Fat chance now... without BCM insurance.)

          He'd worked lots of weekends for Braxton, of course, but that was different.  Working in the securities field meant driving, or flying, to his appointments a day or so early to rest up for his presentations (so he told himself, and Bill Braxton, the bastard, gave him just enough rope).  They did a lot of business in Arizona and Nevada, so he could find action, if he wanted it, and if the morning's tee-off time wasn't too early.  He'd lose graciously, patiently explaining the merits of the week's wonder drug or Malaysian derivative fund, get the pension manager's name down on paper that night... often when the guy was babbling in an extreme state of inebriation or, more than a few times, cocaine intoxication.  More often than not, Walt closed the sale in some lap dance joint... the choice of venue was always up to the customer, but when it was BCM's credit card picking up the tab, a lot of these guys went both high and low as they could go.

          Seeing how the counties and unions managed their pension funds could've turned Walt into a sour, hygienically-challenged Commie like Davy, the fry-guy, but Walter was old and cynical, and the money had just been there for the taking.  His downfall had been in his strategic planning; taking his bonuses, even a fat slice of his commissions, in BCM Preferred... not doing what it turned out Braxton himself had been doing, all along, in dumping the worthless securities while he could, converting them into tidy, secured accounts in the Caribbean.  And that damn well didn't mean Havana, fry-boy.

          Thinking about Commies led him to a natural counting-off of the canon, starting with the ex-Presidents… the white and black... he'd already dismissed the incumbent he’d voted for as incompetent and, probably, diseased... the terrorists, the media, that sick old man who’d bumbled and fumbled his way to defeat like that witch, Hillary, the fuck who played that fake terrorist on TV, those other fucks three doors down with their goddam liberal lawn signs and, of course, Hanoi Jane Fonda.  One of her old movies, in fact, had been on the soon-to-be-history cable, an old one from the days when she had a body worth the using, and used it, to excess, to the effect that the villain with big eyebrows had said something to the effect that he shuddered to contemplate that "...other people might do, to me, what I do to them."  Yeah, he'd been blind, totally blind, to any suggestion that Braxton might be ripping him off, too, although... come to think of it... there had been warnings.  Both his grown sons... the successful one in the middle, Herman, who managed a bank in Nebraska and his no-good firstborn John, up in Alaska (or was it the Canadian Yukon, by now?)... had shown a distinct paucity of appreciation for his strategic planning on behalf of his putative grandchildren, when they'd arrive.  "Life's short," Herman had even talked back to him... Herman!... who had practically been born in a business suit, with a number two red pencil in his mouth, and he'd had the insolence to advise his own father to take more hard cash up front, less on the backside.

          That he'd been right only potentiated Walt's self-loathing.  That phonecall to Omaha he'd had to make last month had been one of the bitterest of many bitter pills lined up like bullets on his plate.  John, at least, was off leading an expedition of tenderfeet, he took his messages at this bar in the Iliamna Volcano country which, for all Walt knew, were stuffed into a pouch every month or so and passed over to some Eskimo on a dogsled.  He hadn't heard shit from John, of course... God! maybe his firstborn would let him share the igloo, whatever... if he couldn't meet the mortgage at the end of the month – at least he probably could count on help from Herman until the end of the year.

          So long as he didn't find out about the baseball.

          Otherwise... well, there was this one old guy who came in late (after the breakfast rush so even Barry seldom showed the inclination to kick him out after an hour or so).  Just another poor fuck with nowhere else to go, nursing a coffee and refills... one of those cheap but filling bran and pecan muffins that were on the menu as a sop to health nuts, maybe... reading greasy newspaper sections that other patrons had left behind.  He dressed neatly, wasn't a bum like the car-sleepers Louie had pointed out, some of whom trekked in, early mornings, for coffee or maybe an Early Dog eggwich if they'd raised a few bucks panhandling or picking avocados, out in the desert.  Barry served them, but always had some part-timer on the breakfast shift shuffle by their tables around nine, nine fifteen at the latest... when the decent people and their kids had finished and gone off to their jobs and schools... pushing a mop and bucket filled with half-strength ammonia as a message to get on with their lives, somewhere else.  It was a game, just another fuckin' game.

          This old guy, who seemed to have both premonitions about, and respect for, ammonia fumes, would come in around ten, that dead, witching hour when the DP was serving breakfast and lunch menus (and not too many of either).  Eunice, who could talk to people when Barry was hiding in his office, said the fellow was an old Professor... his beef against life was that Cal State was more interested in fundraising than proper, classical education.  And he'd saved up a little bit of money, somehow, so when Walt clocked in and Barry sent him out with mop and bucket, he'd sort of shimmy around the dining area while the old guy read his papers and sipped his coffee, and when there was nowhere else to clean, he'd hint that the Old Professor could move across the way, and the guy would pick up his coffee... in less than a week, he'd timed Walt's approach, so the cup was always nearly full with the last half-price refill, nod courteously and saunter down 271st, on his way to where it is where the people people didn't need, anymore, went.

          Walt's first Tuesday off had been a dizzying glance through the wrong end of a telescope into uselessness.  Missy needed money for her hair, she needed money for lunch for the girls and wanted more for an outfit to go with the shoes she’d just bought.  Rung up a hundred eighty on plastic for some fuckin' vase (as if they didn't have enough already) and the MasterCard winked out, like a dead star, or busted red on a string of Christmas lights... OVERDRAWN!  They'd fallen into the habit of going to one of the decent restaurants in the mall...  the Olive Garden, Fuddpucker's, maybe El Capitan, for Mexican... twice a week, or so, as well as to one of the very good places in San Diego or La Jolla every other week, but Walt had nixed that practice.

          "I'm on commission now," he'd lied.  "It's going to take time for the money to start rolling in again; meanwhile we've got to economize."  He asked her to return the vase and the shoes and she locked herself in the bedroom, so he rummaged through the cupboards, dug out a can of beef stew, and cut his finger opening it.  There didn't seem to be any rubbing alcohol in the house, so he soaked it in Absolut, wrapped a few squares of toilet paper around the gash, and secured the bandage with a rubber band, wondering if there was any chance of his getting an infection.  The stew was house brand, what poor people ate, and poor people who pick up and put down generic cans at Safeway host germs.  Not to mention the plague,

          Missy wouldn't let up on the prying.  What kind of job is it?  Sales.  What kind of sales?  Hospitality.  "Inquiring minds will want to know?" she'd warned him.

          "Your nosy, tea-sipping, so-called friends can all go to hell.  I'm working," he'd stormed, "none of those bitches are, and plenty of their husbands aren't either."

          "If you mean Fran and Gary Liberatore, he's taken early retirement.  And the Nunnallys are investors."

          Once Missy had gone out, shopping, he'd started combing the house for stuff they didn't need, stuff that he could sell.  In Herman's room, he'd discovered the dated, autographed Tony Gwynn baseball, from '84... the year that the Padres had won it all.  It was a genuine stadium autograph back from the days when kids could get such things, not some crap five or ten dollar signature from a card show.  He'd checked its worth against a couple of Internet sites... forty, maybe fifty dollars, but there wasn't time to sell it on E-Bay, so he'd brought the damn thing to a card shop in another crappy mall on the way to the DP where this kid offered him fifteen bucks... fifteen!  He'd asked for twenty, settled for seventeen... a five and twelve singles, the bills ragged and dirty as if already resigned to being swapped for generic smokes and a bottle of cheap wine.  He'd blown the wad on a stack of Safeway's microwave dinners... the better kind, at least... and told Missy "...don't ever say I'm not carrying my weight around here."

          At least the calls from nosy reporters had all but disappeared.  BCM's woes had been a three-day wonder in October's media hothouse of war, terrorism, the Boston Red Sox and the upcoming elections.  But, though media ripples from the initial incident calmed, the telephone calls from wounded, outraged investors persisted.  One Dog Pound perk, consequently, was that Missy had to field the daytime calls, which tended to be sober, rational... therefore, dangerous... she could scream back that she was only a wife who knew nothing about BCM and that Braxton was a rat bastard, sounding so dangerous and deranged, herself, that few of these called back.  This left Walt with the head-cases... the ones who'd call late at night, mostly, alcohol-fueled and weeping.  Some of these were people Walt even knew, socially, would once have called him a friend, even.

          "I'm a victim, too," he'd shouted back at these and, if the hour was late (or if there wasn't anybody worth watching on one of the Jimmies… the other guy, the Catholic, was too cheerfully depressing), the conversation would tilt like a badminton-buffoon-battleground of sob stories and ratcheted-up tragedies that left Walt drained, looking ahead to the long nights in his empty bed... and bad dreams that some sanitation worker who'd lost his pension might come gunning for him early next morning.

          So he was glad to have work to go back to on Wednesday, even though Wednesday was the day when Mister Z dropped by to inspect and motivate the crew and Barry was hopped up like a bug on crack.  "Need I remind you," the small, round Walter Zweiss charged the comrades, one and all, giving a wink and nod to Davy, "that Oceanside is our Stalingrad... the field of battle on which Zweiss Interplanetary shall fail, or prevail, paving the way for further expansions, for carrying the message forward, for opportunities... and promotions..."

          "All the way to fuckin' Mars," Walt said, to himself.

          "How about raises?" Davy had had the impudence to ask, aloud, "if we testify?"

          "In time," Zweiss had punted, "all in good, good time.  Although compensation, as well as free transport, will be given those who, on their own time and of their own accord, accompany me to the Permit Appeals hearing to testify on behalf of the virtues of free enterprise, and the admirably qualities of that wholesome, nutritious and inexpensive marvel that is the simple tube sausage, with tasty condiments.  So, on the first of these two grounds, I regret to have to decline your kind offer of paid fealty, Davy," Mister Z headed off the obvious embarrassment.  "Besides, somebody has to hold down the fort."

          He glanced at his clipboard.  "Barry, I'm expecting you to be my right hand man at this trial and Kenny will fill in for you after one, he'll take the beginning of Louie's shift, too.  So... you'll be bringing Achmed and Fermeley... they'll come up in a group with Lev and Weng Shih..."

          "Is this some racial thing?" Fermeley had asked.

          "Damn straight it is, pardon the Martian," Mister Z grinned.  "That so-called community group in Oceanside - it's just a lying rat pack of rich, white mother-fuckers who've got theirs and want to make sure that nobody else does, just so they can uphold their property values.  Well, that ain't entirely true, one of those two bastards leading these Concerned Citizens did step off the boat from Iran with a fistful of drachmas or whatever back in the day, I'll leave it to you... and to the Judge... to draw conclusions about where he got all that money in the first place.  Hell, they'd get rid of the Marines, if they could.  Zone Pendleton for twelve-acre parcels, maybe toss in a couple of blocks of million-dollar townhouses to get around the State affordability guidelines.  So we're gonna fight back hard, and dirty.  I know your boys'll be in school, but the little one, Carina... she's how old?"

          "Four," Fermeley said.

          "Bring her along," Mister Z made a mark on his clipboard.  "Let her work on the Judge Evans... a little bird told me that he's touched with a spot of the jungle fever, know what I mean?  Be sure to whiten your teeth, and smile.  Then, just to send up that lie that fast food servers are just kids and drifters, I want Ed and Eunice displaying the mature face of the Pound..."

          "You're cutting the heart out of my staff," Barry objected.  "Bad enough Kenny is going to have to handle a lunch... he doesn't know his ass from his elbow..."

          "Then let me... Walter," the franchise manager suggested, "I know Tuesday is your day off, but if you'd care to make a few extra dollars, how about you come down to Oceanside with us?”  Davy muttered an audible oath, but the Man from Mars continued, undeterred… “Ed can stay behind.  Wear something... wait, you're a veteran, aren't you?"

          "Yes, sir," Walt replied, which was true, sort of... he'd served stateside, except for eight months in Germany.

          "Do you still have your uniform?" Zweiss lunged, "...does it fit?"


          "Well... how about medals, a couple of decorations at least?"

          "Those I can handle."

          It was emblematic of just how his private life had deteriorated that Walter Fales agreed to join the dog and pony show trekking down to Oceanside to sit in on the hearing.  He'd have done it for nothing - it was that bad between himself and Missy.

          He'd have paid Zweiss for the excuse to get out of the house.