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Force of Flesh
by Linda Tieber

UNDERBELLY

           It was the Marina Diner in Hollis off Highway 10. From where Richard sat, he could see the yellow mountains through the foggy morning. He dragged on a cigarette.
           Round and stunning on the highway here, this diner, in turquoise blue, built in the Fifties. Some of the waitresses were the same as years back. God, did they go back. Sherry, Maryann, Denise. Sherry was pouring coffee into his saucer right at this moment. He’d hardly noticed John at the end.
           Richard knew the menu by heart: steak, chops, seafood, grilled cheese, bacon-lettuce-tomato, ham. And more. Coffee, the best. Nice place to go. Tourists passed by on the weekends and the business was usually pretty good, it being on the main highway, but not as good as it had been fifteen or twenty years back he'd been told. This morning Richard had nothing to do except look through the help wanted section and, within a few minutes and one cup of coffee with sugar, he found something. The new donut shop in town needed a donut maker.
           At one time Richard had worked as a pastry chef at a big city hotel. That was a little over two years ago. He became tired of city life, lost all his youthful ambition. His attempt to start up a baked goods franchise failed. He was dragging. Then a friend in the kitchen of The Farley, Benjamin, the maitre’d and Philanthropist (his nickname -- in his younger years he’d been fired from another big league hotel for dumping leftover tarts in the alleyway behind the kitchen to stray dogs and cats), gave him the name of a cousin in Hollis who might be able to help get him a job at the Hollis Country Club. He quit and moved south.
           Richard found an apartment on Dale Avenue. From his window he was able to watch people waiting for the bus under the shade of a bus shelter the hot afternoons, the thing closest to foot traffic the town had. Past the bus shelter he was able to see the valley and hills stretching south for many miles. It was a dry and barren scene most of the year.
           He worked at the Hollis Country Club for six months as a cook in the Bagatelle Continental till they laid him off. The country club was closing down. It appeared there was not enough white upper class in Hollis and the surrounding areas to keep the place going. Evidently the owner had made no profits for three years in row. A new club was being built seventeen miles south but it wouldn’t be finished till early in the winter of the following year.
           Well, donuts . . . this is related experience, he thought. He called up for an interview.

* * *

Now he was manager of Prime Time Donuts.
           What was all the hurry about in this donut shop today anyway? All those people lined up, to the sidewalk. This wasn't good. Certainly good for business but we aren’t staffed for this, he thought. He told Ann to hurry up even though he saw how much pressure was on her as it was.
           “I’m so tired. This is my twelfth hour,” she whispered.
           He said, “I’ll go to the employment agency to see if they’ve found someone yet.”
           He’d been caught short. Now he had to deal with this agency. Over the period of the week and a half that he’d dealt with Super Resources, he’d rarely been able to reach them by phone. The line was always busy, and whenever he did reach them, he was put on hold for longer and longer periods of time. He didn’t have the patience for that. It left him fuming. He said “Forget it, I’ll drive there.”
           These people were eager without stop. High school kids, tired housewives. The line looked him up and down as he walked out in his pastry-maker’s whites. He hopped into the owner’s station wagon which he used for errands, and hoped he could get to the agency before they closed for the day. It was five o’clock.
           He hurried through traffic lights and stop signs. He overtook a tomato truck with blaring ranchero music. An eighteen-wheeler side-swiped him on a residential side street. He felt everyone had it out for him that day, pedestrians and drivers both, not to mention the trouble at work. The streets threatened to ignite.
           He glanced in the Marina Diner as he drove by. It was hopping with the early dinner crowd. He still went there when he could but most of the time he went straight to work in the mornings and in the afternoons, Ann picked up his lunch from Lucy’s mom and pop cafe next door to the donut shop. Richard didn’t have the time to go out except to stop by the grocery store or the post office and he was so tired after work -- Bud Bob, the owner, kept Richard late cleaning up sugar dust. He'd just plunk himself in front of the t.v. when he got in and fell asleep. There’d be a time when he’d go back again regularly; he needed people around him from time to time.
           Pulling into the parking lot, he saw a herd of people pushing their way out. They were closed for the day. Lord, what would he do now? He’d virtually have to pull someone off the street. And so he did. He drove right up to the bus stop by his apartment and appraised the crowd. A couple of nurses, a slob of a lady with two devilish kids, and a delinquent-looking Chicano. He walked up to the Chicano and asked him to step over to the side for a moment. No doubt the young man was suspicious, thought he was a narcotics agent or a strange white guy peddler.
           “Habla usted ingles?” Richard asked.
           “Yeh.”
           Richard went straight to the point: “I’m looking for someone to hire for a job just down the street. Would you be interested?” He felt very awkward. These were the only words that could come out of his mouth.
           “Whaaat?” Scorn was on the young man’s face.
Richard decided to forget it. He may have made a poor choice. Maybe the kid had a knife.
           “Uh, okay, sorry. Nothing thanks.”
           He drove back to work.
           But later that night, when Richard headed home, the guy was waiting for him with his hot tart girlfriend on his arm, two storefronts down from Prime Time. He said he’d be interested.
           As the manager of the donut shop, Richard brought in enough money to keep his apartment above Eagle Insurance offices but not much more for anything else. What he earned always went somewhere – bills, food, rent, liquor. There was no room for saving but he felt he was here to just make ends meet. He needed that daily grind. And he was comfortable at the shop.
           The building Richard lived in had the lucky feel. It had once been a saloon, way years ago in the Old West. He’d stare sometimes at the rickety wood floors scarred up by numerous brawls and shootings. His landlord had told him cowboys had kicked off their boots for the night at this place. Oh cowboys, oh cowboys, oh. Late nights, when Richard lay on his olive-green velveteen couch, his eyes were sleepy slits as he watched old Westerns. This was when his mind went to wandering lands, prices to pay, flight into night, cowboy songs by campfires. He adored the barren deserts and mammoth boulders and stark cliffs between which a lovely hero walked with horse, fleeing sheriff’s cavalcades, fleeing to fresh-water springs and boxes of gold coins. The wafting mirages and swirls of heat exhilarated him. He felt as if he were transposed down in the dust, crawling on a subterranean floor, like a scuttling crab, clever and pathetic. The characters of these sagas were of a breed with a venture, of a breed with a sense of adventure. So brave, so reckless . . .he, who was he to venture, adventure . . .
           One morning he woke to find he’d accidentally bitten his tongue in his sleep, portent of a bad day to come. The clock on his mantelpiece read six a.m. The shout of come and go outside unnerved him for a whole five minutes of confusion. He dressed for the day.
           Later that morning Richard was fired as manager of Prime Time. Bud Bob told him he wasn’t capable of handling his responsibilities, period. He gave no other reason. The Chicano kid took his job. What Bud Bob didn’t know was how easily the Chicano kid was with pulling knives. One odd Saturday Richard saw Bud Bob sharing a shaggy stall at a local flea market, standing beside a lonely cowboy. He was staring off as in a dream, gnawing on his knuckles, beer at his side. Richard was angry as hell but his former boss said no more.
           Richard talked to some guys at the diner that morning. The whole following month he bummed around. Then one happy afternoon he got lucky playing the lottery. He won $2,500 and went for a vacation, some island in the Caribbean.
           The place turned out to be a trick. It was dismal. The food was barely edible. He had dysentery for the first week out of the two he was there. The cabbies short-changed him over and over. The hotel was pretty nice, a member of the Sheraton chain, but the people he met in the lounges and on the beach were either loud and silly or jumping all over themselves to help a lonely-looking man feel better, which turned out to be silly just as well. He’d wondered if people were sometimes repulsed by his horribly tobacco-stained teeth. He was not the tropical island type.
           Back in Hollis, he put the remaining money away in a bank. The Tuesday after the Monday he’d flown home, he was in the Marina Diner, looking through the newspaper. The next thing he knew, he had made some phone calls for interviews. Another cup of coffee and he had time to kill.
           He walked through town, eventually found himself on Rale Road, a country road of black tar shot through yellow grass. Dusty haze hung between the thorned bushes; leaves on the trees of an abandoned orchard hung gray and shriveled in the geometrically precise lines. He passed a handful of ramshackle homes, built when the first farmers settled in the valley, now lived in by their grandson’s workers. He sat down for a while in the shade of an old walnut tree. Nearby, beaten-up, stained chairs and a couch sat neatly spaced, as if someone's living room had been moved here among the trees and weeds, beer cans and empty cigarette cartons scattered nearby.
           Time passed so quickly that before he knew it it was dusk. He was alarmed. He’d missed an interview for a job in the town’s gourmet delicatessen, Nadia Mediterranean. He’d figured it’d be an up-and-coming place; the owner had set out some chairs and cafe tables with red and white striped parasols and some nice potted ferns. Problem was no one walked in this town -- everyone had cars. Still, you never know what business the owner could create, especially since it was next door to Hollis’ shopping center, Sunshine Plaza, Richard thought. Local people loved the community art shows that were set up on the sidewalks every few weeks. But he was disgusted with himself. What sort of shape was he in to present himself for a job interview? His shirt was soaked with sweat and his back was covered with tree bark. He brushed ants off his pants and they weren’t right either, this shirt, these trousers. What had gotten into him? He looked like he’d groveled in dirt. He’d have to go back to Square One and call them up again tomorrow.
           Later that night, bored and restless, he walked into the Gazebo Disco, the only place in town for young singles. He was an anomaly, and when he was let in, he sat --
           “Come here often?”
           “They’re good.”
           “Hmm mm . . . She’s . . . “
           “Saw you down at the grocery store. Maria’s. That place past . . . “
           “I live right around the corner.”
           -- at a bar with a couple of other older men like himself. He smiled at the bright and energetic young men and women dancing feverishly. His head nodded to the beat as a couple showed off a series of dance moves that pulled most of the others off the floor. Cha-cha, merengue, tango, they were mesmerizing and kept the crowd in awe for most of the night.
           After the place closed, Richard followed the star couple outside. They walked toward the railroad tracks. From behind a tree several yards away, he saw them make love under a peeling billboard, “M . r. . ights”. He recalled it had been a man lighting a woman’s cigarette in an elegant restaurant. These two who he’d seen dancing so skillfully on the dance floor were as accomplished lovers.
           And as they lay there and the minutes ticked by, he slowly began to turn his body toward the ground and made himself flush and began to crawl and and he crawled on the yellowed ground, summer's dead grass as brittle as hay, pausing sometime to look towards the lights of passing traffic. It was chilly now; he watched as the couple rose to depart, watched their silhouettes move under the moonless sky, holding hands momentarily on the tracks, then continuing on slightly apart. He lingered, counted the stars, all of them.
           The next morning when he woke, his gloom was a sticky covering on his arms and legs. The bedclothes were tangled around him and his limbs were heavy and sore. He felt he might be coming down with a cold from the previous night’s foray. He left the limp butts of his cigarette all over his bedside dresser.
           At the Marina Diner, he tried to remove the tenacious flow of his dreams from his immediate thoughts. Nadia Mediterranean, here I come. Terry and Russell were here today. He had one bite of a chicken salad sandwich and before he could even start up a friendly conversation with either of them, he felt weak, as if he had no substance in him. He ran outside and down the road and thought in his panic he might be suffering a heart attack. At Fruitvale, he slowed to a walk. The lines of olive-colored trees blurred. He headed toward Highway 10 and walked past the small airport everywhere surrounded by the open fields of the Hollis outskirts. Gray and dusty. He spat. He asked an idle attendant at a gas station oasis how far to the reservoir? Coyote Reservoir? The wind was ferocious; he could barely hear the teenager’s instructions.
           Coyote was a huge body of mud-colored water though always he’d remembered it blue. Perhaps it was too shallow, this time of year. He went down the swerving road that seemed almost recklessly gouged into the hills, the yawning bellow and full bloom of the succinctly turning road -- it snapped back, curved out, there, and there, and there. He was hungry for sun, to languish at the rainbowed water’s edge. His shoes sunk in the mud when he arrived; two Mexican men stood fishing slight farther off to the right, taking an afternoon off. Where were the fish? Where the fish? He lay back on the ground, closed his eyes and peeled his face open for the sun to bake on this 100-degree day. Behind, scatterings of oak, their ornate branches twined among each other.
           Belly-up on the shore, he melted as the sun melted of its own intensity. Fantastical hopes covered his head -- a man in chaps and suede coat roping a calf, vagaries and spinning tales. He’d hoped to capture the evasive appaloosa.
           “Mother.” He was softening in the oven.
           All I ever wanted to do was ride among the walnut trees. Ride and ride and ride. Ride, de ride, deride, deride.
           Richard had been hired to prevent an assassination. He was a gun for hire. He stayed in Holiday Inns. His career as pastry-chef was only a front. He was really a private gun who’d found no more assignments, now pleased to remain the shadows. The motion of flinging his sweater over the back of car seats and driving helter-skelter on city streets kept coming to him. His riding eyes. Outboard motor.
           Outboard. Zoom.
           A blue boat skimmed silently by. One man and a boy. His eyes, level with the shore, were barely open, the faint laps of water tickling his lull.
           A melted mass of old boots and dirty clothes, a derelict washed ashore.

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