March 02, 2008

Today's Special

By Joe Speaker © 2008

Brad's last night on Planet Los Angeles started at El Caballo, clutching his beer like a dog eared paperback. Starched white shirt glowing red in the bloody lights of the place, same color as the naugahyde booths behind him jammed against the textured and cracked yellow walls. Still an early spring night out on Melrose, calm and clear like every other day in the city where its more generous inhabitants think of it as only slightly bigger than the universe.

"I'm an actor," Kirk said on the stool next to him and the buck-toothed blonde girl leaned in with her shoulders and parted her mouth just enough so he could see the glistening tongue stud.

"Awesome," she said, with a practiced awe and Brad almost spit out his chicken taco, retrieving it before making a scene, but he still mumbled a mouthful under his breath. Brad grabbed his Dos Equis and washed down his disbelief. "Dude, you're a waiter," he said to Kirk later as they walked the four blocks to work.

"She didn't know that."

"She will."

"Not before she takes her clothes off."

They'd known each other a few years, worked the same circuit and always caught up, even after Brad retreated to those bursts of motivation, climbing the food service ladder: steakhouses, chain joints, then up to the noveau boutique restaurants opening up everywhere. Wine bars with scant, overpriced appetizers, or the latest dischordant, harshly-lit sushi joint, standing over the tourists and massaging the industry types, spouting rote come hithers, and power verbs describing the latest Riesling or Pinot Noir and yes, the bruschetta is excellent, especially drizzled in the red pepper-infused olive oil.

"You're even dressed like a waiter," Brad said. "Might as well be wearing an apron."

"I look good."

"But you're not."

Brad shoved a garlic triangle into his mouth on the way to the kitchen. The dining room was nearly empty. Tuesday night crowd. He felt the two beers numbing him a little and leaned against the banquette in the alcove, out of sight from the sparse customers, but with a good look at the backside of Amy, the new hostess, 19, and filled with the dreamy nonchalance of someone certain life would fall at her feet. Brad felt pity for her. He thought about slipping a couple fingers of Glenlivet out the backdoor during his smoke break. Maybe take a bump. Just a little one. Fuck he was tired.

"Bonsoir monsieur, mademoiselle," Kirk said as he walked up to Table 14. He was as French as the Kaiser. His thing. All those acting classes and accents ("Dialects!" Kirk'd always correct). He had a horrible cockney one that made Brad laugh. The French one was just okay, though. At bars, he called himself Jean-Claude when he used it. Jean-Claude from Nice. Last night, he fucked some junior college girl from The Valley and she spent the night screaming "Jean-Claude!" like she had mashed potatoes stuck in her throat. The drunken gurgling kept Brad up most of the night.

He'd been sleeping on Kirk's couch for a month now, eating his dinners down at El Caballo during Happy Hour. Dos por uno cervezas and free chicken tacos. Elaine had kicked him out, finally, three years of disappointment in him, breathing down his neck, falling in love with a writer and ending up with a waiter. Kirk was letting him crash until he got enough cash for another security deposit. Probably would have had it already but for the coke. That's the thing about being a waiter, daily cash, easy to dump at the bar after work, easy to take out of his pocket if there was a lot in there. Kirk knew how it was. He didn’t seem to mind.

"Fucking Kansas motherfuckers," Kirk said as he barged through the kitchen door, which swung like a dagger behind him. "They don't have math in fucking Kansas? Fifteen percent of eighty bucks is not seven..." he counted the coins in his hand, "sixty-three." He sounded like he was from Brooklyn. Angry voice. A little Rocky Balboa in there, too. He really was a shitty actor.

"How do you know they’re from Kansas?" Brad asked, looking up from The Times sports section, flecks of garlic in the corners of his mouth.

"Wichita," Kirk said. "Out here visiting their boy at UCLA. Brought the young'un some new overalls."

"Probably should have went with something twangy instead of that bogus French shit. They probably hate you."

"Some people just have no class."

"Or the upper midwest. I can teach you to flatten your vowels."

"You have a table."

Brad mumbled his way through the specials, same as yesterday, ingredients on the verge of spoiling touted as inspiration, mixed together in slightly different ways, but still the same, like weekday traffic. The young couple (fourth date, probably the sex date, Brad guessed, from the way they reached across the table at each other) was etched out of marble, so perfect and envied, platinum card and a 5-series no doubt. He brought them two over-priced glasses of wine and a plate of olives.

He was agitated, bored. He wanted to scream, leave, go off on a three-day bender, wake up from this sunny, repetitive nightmare. He had come to L.A. ten years ago, dreamy and stupid, like Amy, and it didn't take long for him to hate everything about the city. He used that, however, avoided people and wrote, furious sharp language, holed up in that studio on Franklin. Months on end, only going out to watch, to note the frayed rituals of the locals which he turned into venomous stories and people who never got near happy Hollywood endings. And now, he was one of them.

Kirk glided by ("behind, behind") and ordered a round of drinks from the bartender in a surfer's dazed cadence. Brad laughed. Kirk was whoever he wanted to be. Brad couldn’t remember himself.

Brad stumbled out of El Caballo later, needing three reeling steps to right himself after barging through the padded door. He instinctively walked toward La Brea and the short hill to Kirk's apartment hoping against the drugs throbbing in his veins to fall asleep before Kirk got home with whichever of the three Mexican girls he had thrilled the most with his Tony Montana imitation.

Kirk had pissed him off, wanted him to wingman one of the girls, but Brad wasn't up for it. Ever. Small talk and the vacuous threads that vanished so you were left staring past each other waiting for the next drip of pretention. Kirk called him out in front of the other waiters and Brad slammed his beer on the bar, splashing something, throwing back the insult, and retreated to the corner where he switched to tequila and brooded, saw his face on the stained and plain linoleum that would never be clean again.

Outside, his mind spun him toward despair, alone again, unforgiven. From somewhere faraway, he heard kids, too young to be out this late, laughing at his uneven gait. Everyone artificially sweetened and shading their black stomachs here in Sodom, where he'd lost everything and he felt hollow, felt it acutely, like something taken from him, something important, his first bike, stolen off the porch when he was eight and back in Indiana, that little town he couldn't wait to leave, but which never left the acid taste he felt now. He quickened his pace in shame. Getting inside, away from the jackals. At the bottom of the hill, he was practically running, his exaggerated hips twisting up the sidewalk, unconsciously dodging tin cans and jacaranda branches on his way.

He crashed through the door of the apartment, ragged gasps of breath and spittle flying. He felt hot, molten, in his chest and his pulse raced past the redline. Sweating, he flopped on the couch and tried to breathe, but every attempt to pull air made his chest feel like an invisible hand had his heart in a clench, an impenetrable grip, and the pain radiated down his arms and legs. "I'm going to die," Brad thought, the idea coming from the clouds, and the emptiness rushed at him like a movie playing at the wrong speed. He struggled to his feet and lurched to the balcony, ripping the sliding glass open and jamming his head into the night. The sky glowed orange, its eternal shade, all the lights from the city mocking blackness and shrouding the stars, like some hackneyed symbolism. The stars are in Los Angeles, not the heavens. So fucking stupid. His heart skipped, little, little, thump, and the last made his arms flutter uselessly to his sides. He was looking at the end, off this balcony, and remembered things long past. Regret, sweet debilitating regret, seized him, choked him, like the heart he felt was ready stop.

Brad prayed, pleaded for relief, a litany of empty promises he'd keep for a few weeks but settle again into the familiar pattern. He knew who he was, deep down, who he’d become and would never be again and it paralyzed him, like this panic attack paralyzed him, and he briefly thought death would be preferable. He fell back into the apartment, sat and pulled his knees up to his chest, rocking back and forth. "Please, please, please," he chanted, examining every beat, thinking it was his last. He sat for an hour, his rhythm gradually slowing as he tried to block out all the guilt and gloom, fucking Kirk, that asshole, his Mom, who will be happy and disappointed at the same time. He fell asleep there on the floor listening to the sounds outside, horns, shouts and spinning rubber, all coming to him distinctly, discordant notes from a sinister song. The sweat was cold on his brow, like a sheet of ice, but he was breathing.

Brad ran his fingers through his unwashed hair, looking in the rear-view mirror at his sallow eyes, unrecognizable. It was hot already, barely 10 a.m. in the always perfect blue sky, and he chuckled to himself as he tried to remember the last time he’d been up this early.

She answered before he finished knocking.

"I saw you sitting out there," Elaine said, regarding him, her head tilted.


She led him in and offered some coffee. "Black, right?" and disappeared into the kitchen. Brad stood shifting his weight on the hardwood floor, hands jammed into his pockets.

"You look like shit, Brad," she said, offering the steaming cup. She sat on the overstuffed couch, pulling her legs underneath her and wrapping her red hair with one hand so it gathered on her right shoulder. Her face was expectant.

"I need my stuff," he said. She waved her hand. Go ahead.

She'd boxed up most of it, even labeled them in her easy script. He moved slowly through the room, their room, looking for his things and facing ghosts, the ashtray they'd bought in Ensenada and the way the moon cast a beam on the water that night they walked along the ocean’s edge and breathed the same salty air, tasted it on each other’s lips.

She came through the doorway behind him, holding a stack of legal pads, yellowed and frayed. "Don't forget these," she said. He cautiously grabbed them, five or six, he couldn't recall, and laid them atop one of the boxes. "Remember when you let me read those?" she asked. And he did, what he wrote in that studio apartment when he couldn't sleep, 4 a.m. and a spare bulb and the words ran out of him, blood from a gaping wound. He nodded.

"I read them again," she said. "They're still brilliant," and he nodded again. "I always believed in you, Brad."

"It's not your fault," he said.


"I'm leaving," Brad said. "Going home."

He started carrying boxes out to the car, heaving from the effort, the sweat rotten on his body. She watched him, impassive, from her spot on the couch. When he’d nearly finished, he stood in the doorway with the final box, looking around, finally resting his eyes on her face.

"I'm sorry, Elaine," he said.

"No," shaking her head. "No you're not." The color rose in her cheeks and she stood, crossing the room until she was inches from him. "That's just what you think you're supposed to say."

"I won't miss you," she said. "Not the way you are now." Her voice was defiant, but shaky. She pointed at the box in his hands, the one with the legal pads on top. "I'll miss that!" she spat.

"Here," he said. "Keep 'em," and he let the pads drop to the floor where they landed flat, echoing in the room, one final clap before he turned and headed down the walk. Elaine stared after him for a moment, then closed the door and left him for dead.

Joe Speaker is a writer from Southern California.

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