(Semper Fi Jordan...Tôi yêu con gái KaSandra...Anh yêu em Tuyet)
a novel by nicholas sheridan stanton
San Pedro, California, November 29, 2004…12:15pm
Several gulls circled about a hundred feet above him while he lay on the small strip of green grass outside the air-conditioned trailer housing the company’s administrative offices. It a fancy skyscraper, just a plain old trailer, but damn, it was a triple wide! So the company had that going for them. Sandy had spent the last fifteen minutes waiting on me to drive us to lunch. He had stretched out on the lawn to enjoy the sunshine and ignored the cool fall breeze. He'd finished off the last of the fresh Bing cherries that Laura had packed in his lunchbox, spitting the seeds for distance while he waited for me to get off the goddamn telephone! It was getting late and he wanted to get at them beans before it was time to start the next job.
Sandy hated overtime, the extra money wasn’t worth the personal time lost. He’d rather be swilling beer at Jake’s Tavern then donate his hard earned cash to the IRS. It was criminal how much the fish-faced feds stole from his paycheck each week. Holding up a person like that, taking a huge chunk of money earned with his blood, sweat, and tears, that was no way to treat a veteran! He tired with amusing himself by picking out shapes in the slow rolling clouds overhead. They were getting pretty wispy anyways. Actually, he was getting pissed! It was Monday and that meant Mexican food in our lunchtime rotation. And not just any Mexican food mind you; but food of the God’s! It had become our ritual pilgrimage. He and I spent each Monday at our pal Roman’s place, without fail. Sandy would pull himself off of life support if he had to in order to keep this date! Roman called the joint “Tres Amigo’s” after us, the three friends.
Sandy and I had helped bankroll Roman’s dream. I know what you're thinking, restaurants are risky businesses and going into business with family or friends is even riskier. So why did we do it? Because he asked us to, that's why. If you knew Roman, you'd understand that asking for help for anything from anyone was way out of character. A more proud and stubborn man has never walked the planet! But to be honest our motives weren't totally magnanimous, we were as greedy as the next fool. Another key factor in the decision was our buddy Roman could cook like nobody’s business! Roman Luis Gonzalez was a true master when it came to whipping up chow, or more specifically, when creating culinary works of art, it was his calling from God. We all have at least one, his was feeding the masses. The man worked with seasonings the way Rembrandt worked with oils, bold strokes to catch your eye and subtle highlights to keep you coming back. Sandy must have been daydreaming of his meal because he was beginning to drool a little. He wiped the spittle from the corner of his mouth and rolled onto his stomach to look back at the trailer and see if I was on my way.
“YO, PAT!” he bellowed. Sandy got to his feet and brushed the damp blades of grass from his jeans.
“HEY PATRICK, come on man, I’m starving out here!”
“Just tell her ya love her and let’s get the flock outta here!” he shouted in frustration.
He was about to shout once more when I burst through the door and leaped from the top of the stairs to the landing below. I jogged instead of strolled over to my agitated friend to keep the peace and avoid a nickel lecture.
“NAG, NAG, NAG,” I said, shaking my head in mock disgust.
“I swear Sandy you’re beginning to sound like my old granny!”
“Up yours Pat, let’s roll, I’m starving here!” Sandy replied, hopping into the truck.
“Hold your water bud; you’ll be knee deep in rice and beans in no time.”
“Just step on it dude, I'm going through chimichunga withdrawals!”
“What was taking you so long anyways?” Sandy asked, placing the shoulder strap part of his seatbelt behind him and opting on the lap belt to save his ass in a wreck.
“I was talking to Roman actually,” I replied matter-of-factly.
“What for, we’re going there anyways?”
“I needed him to dig up some old phone numbers for me.”
There was a moment of silence while Sandy waited for the rest of the explanation. He waited exactly 30 seconds, a new record for the square jawed man in the passenger seat before he pressed me for the rest of it.
“Can’t you wait until we get to Roman’s place? What I need to talk about will be a lot easier to explain after you get some beans in you,” I said, shooting him my best ‘gemme a break’ look.
“How long have you known me?” Sandy asked sarcastically.
"Too long," I replied.
“Look at me, what face do you see?”
“Your WTF face,” I said rolling my eyes.
“You're goddamn right you do!”
“So, tell me now, what gives Frenchie?”
There would be no peace on the ride over Roman’s unless I started filling him in on what I had been up since he and Laura had brought me home from the cemetery. I would have rather waited until he was fed and had at least three beers in him, but clearly that wasn’t in the cards. I could feel him staring me down, drilling into my brain through my temple as he waited impatiently. I glanced over at Sandy and scowled at him in a weak attempt to show him that I was serious.
“Alright, I’ll talk, but only if you promise to LISTEN, and not jump all over the first thing that comes out of my face, okay?” I began.
“Spare me the drama Pat; I may not even hear you over my growling stomach!”
“Alright, alright, do you remember when you, me, and Roman worked that salvage job in back 2000, the one down in Mexico?”
Honoring the ground rules for a change, Sandy kept silent for the moment, a gift for which I was truly grateful, and waited for me to continue. I studied his face for an answer to my question, nothing! His mouth may have been shut but his eyes were throwing "F" bombs in my direction! Clearly I needed to do a better job of explaining here.
“You remember, the converted mine sweeper outta Pedro, the weekend pleasure craft that went down in a squall off the coast near San Felipe?” I said, providing clues until he got on the same page. A second later his expression softened making him look like a ten year-old who just figured out a word problem in front of the class.
“Oh yeah, I remember, we almost bought it that day! What about it?” he asked.
“You remember the circumstances surrounding that vessel's sinking?”
“Yeah, yeah I do. It had been trying to out run the Coast Guard when it nicked a harbor buoy and started taking on water. The skipper headed out to sea and scuttled it about ten miles off shore, so what?”
“That’s right. They were running drugs lamely disguised as a charter fishing boat. Actually they had a pretty sweet operation. They'd anchor just off shore with their paying customers working heavy rock cod rigs starboard and port, while the crew took deliveries aft from a zodiac, stowing the real catch of the day in the bait tanks.”
“And, I was thinking,” I said, smiling as I the shared the plan I'd been hatching.
Tres Amigos Cantina, Los Angeles, California November 29, 2004...1:30pm
Roman’s place was crazy busy, as usual. The pretty girls he tended to hire may have brought in the ogling masses, but it was the food that kept them coming back. Listen, there are Mexican restaurants on every corner in California, and fine pieces of tail are as common as sunshine in LA, but food like this, primo enchiladas, made from scratch tamales, and homemade tortillas (courtesy Roman’s mother Irma) were rare finds indeed. Roman was a firm believer in the old restaurant axiom that presentation was crucial. I’m not talking about how one plates a dish, but how one serves it up (wink wink, nudge nudge). Competition for high end regulars was fierce; this was Los Angeles after all. It took more than great food to keep the place packed like this, especially at 15 to 25 dollars a plate. To guarantee Joe businessman chose your establishment over all the others you needed an angle. And, since Roman’s younger brother had died pitifully of alcoholism, serving booze wasn’t an option, at least not for him, not if he wanted his mother’s recipes anyway.
So, capitalizing on his keen eye for the female form he built his cantina on the firm (pun intended) foundation of tastefully displayed T&A. Now mind you, he didn’t hire strippers or street walkers, or anyone that could remotely be mistaken as one. He hired nice girls, nice girls with fine figures and killer smiles. Then in a stroke of genius, borrowing from a concept we'd been exposed to while overseas on R&R in Japan, he dressed them all alike in clean white blouses, tartan skirts, and bobby sox, just like parochial school girls. God help him he’d probably burn for that, that is if Carmen, his wife, didn’t kill him first. Word of mouth advertising was the only way to go, especially if the words were ‘wowie-wow-wow-wow!’
We arrived starving, and skipped exchanging pleasantries with the cute hostess, opting instead to make our way quickly through the crowd to our usual table. Fortunately, being regulars as well as not-so-silent partners, we were guaranteed a seat anytime, any day, anyway. Our modest investment bought us lifetime reservations at a grungy old booth in back near the kitchen. It came complete with fire engine red tuck & roll vinyl upholstery (a little silver duct tape here and there for contrast) and one of those ageless 1960’s Formica tabletops with shiny chrome siding. It was the sort of durable surface that stood up to any spill or she + he carvings, as well as the occasional head banging that followed a hot headed disagreement. The table location was Sandy’s doing, as the chowhound needed to be as near the kitchen as possible. As long as he could smell the food and hear the chatter he was a happy camper. Well, also if the chips and salsa arrived within nanoseconds of his butt settling into the booth.
“Slow down man, you’re gonna lose a finger!” I said, marveling at the eating machine across from me. Sandy looked up while he chewed and daintily dabbed at the corners of his mouth with a cloth napkin.
“That better Miss Manners?” he quipped with his mouth full.
“Perfect, you’re a prince,” I replied sarcastically.
“And you’re an assho--,” Sandy began, suddenly interrupted by a plate of hot food placed in front of him, hand delivered by the proprietor himself, our buddy and business partner, Roman Gonzalez.
“Hey, Filthy McNasty! This is a family place, ya dig?” Roman said in a harsh whisper.
“Now stuff that foul mouth of yours with some rice and beans before I fill it with knuckles!” he added, forcing Sandy to scoot over as he joined us.
Sandy scowled and gave Roman the stink-eye as he tore a tortilla in half. He dragged the warm tortilla across his plate and scooped a mixture of rice, beans, and carnitas, stuffing it all into his mouth as instructed. His attitude changed instantly and a peaceful grin spread across his face from ear to ear. I guess it’s true what they say about mad dogs and bones. If you see one, toss one! Roman wiped his brow with the sleeve of his shirt as he watched Sandy chow down.
“I guess I should be flattered, but dude, slow down before you choke! Our insurance doesn't cover gagging pigs Gordo!”
“Aye Dios, I’m getting too old for this day to day bullshit man!” he exclaimed. Reaching in front of me he grabbed my water glass and drained it; then ran the ice cold tumbler across his forehead.
“Ahhhh, that’s better,” he said sighing.
“No shit dudes, I need to hire me a hard ass to run this place before I stroke out!”
“You mean WE need to hire someone,” Sandy mumbled through a mouthful of food.
“Oh, yeah, I forgot, WE need to hire a hard ass,” Roman replied sarcastically, giving Sandy the finger.
“Man, you scarfed down your investment years ago ese. I think I’m gonna start charging you from now on!”
“What do you think of that, partner?”
“OK, OK, that’s enough you two,” I said, putting myself between them as usual.
“You finish your meal,” I said pointing at Sandy.
“And you shut up and relax,” I added, gently pushing Roman back into the tattered booth’s squeaky vinyl upholstery.
He exhaled deeply and capitulated, folding his arms in a huff, and glaring at Sandy. It was the classic cemetery scene from The Good the Bad and the Ugly, right there at our table, three pairs of steely eyes darting from one to the other in silence as we sized each other up. Just like Tucco, Angel Eyes and Blondie. All that was missing was the spaghetti western music. Roman broke the silence first.
“WELL?” he said in a slightly pissy tone.
“Someone better say something or I’m going back to work,” he said, taking his icy gaze off of Sandy, and turning it my way.
“Well what?” Sandy replied, taking a long pull on his second glass of ice water.
“Well why are you guys so late huh?”
“It was Patrick dude. Numb-nuts was on the phone for an hour man!”
Before I could offer up an explanation, Roman’s daughter Raquel came through the swinging kitchen doors with my usual, plate of chicken enchiladas and pitcher of root beer. Leaning across her Dad, she set it all down in front of me expertly, not spilling a drop.
“There you go Uncle Pat, just the way you like it,” Raquel said with a flirtatious grin. I winked at her, “Thanks honey.” She boldly winked back right in front of her father, playing with his mind, and blew me a kiss, then walked away slowly, making sure we had time to admire her warm little form. Roman snapped his fingers loudly in front of me and Sandy.
“Hey, pervs, you do remember that’s my daughter, right?” he said louder than he meant to. Of course, she was also drawing attention from all the other red blooded fellas around the joint, and that didn’t go un-noticed by Roman either.
“HEY! All you fools better put your eyes back in your heads and show some respect!” he threatened.
They gall must have all had families they loved dearly, because they sucked down what was left of their meals, overpaid the check with a pile of cash, and left in an all fired hurry! Sandy and I giggled and turned our attention back to the food in front of us.
“Sorry Ray, we haven’t seen her in a while, and well hell, she’s grown up some,” Sandy said sheepishly defending us.
“Dude, she’s hot! I mean nice hot, not slutty hot. I mean, oh hell, you know what I mean!” Sandy added, digging the hole deeper for both of us.
“Ah shut up man! Just eat your damn enchiladas and shut up!” Roman said, letting us off the hook for now.
“I got my eye on you Sandy, you better remember that,” he added; point a finger at him for emphasis.
“And you, you should know better,” he snapped at me, redirecting the same pointy, crooked finger my way.
“You were a Dad too ese, you should be on my side man!”
Roman suddenly realized what he said, and he quickly added, “Look Pat, I’m cutting you a little slack cause you been through the shit and all,” he said apologizing sort of.
“Losing Gabby really sucked man, I’m sorry, I didn’t think,” Roman said softly.
“Me and Carmen been praying for you guys since the day your Niño passed, for reals carnal,” he said earnestly, grabbing my shoulder and giving me it fatherly squeeze.
“We were really worried about you Pat after you checked out of everyone’s life afterwards, you know that?”
He waited for me to reply, but I couldn’t think of anything to say that could explain where I went or why. I just kept shoveling food into my face and hoped someone else would speak. Roman obliged before a tear dropped, laughing out loud and messing up my hair, “What the hell, it’s just good to have you back again ese!”
Sandy cleared his throat loudly, “If you two homos are through feeling each other up, I could go for a little dessert over here!”
“Raqui, bring your Uncle Sandy some flan honey, OK?” Roman shouted, kicking Sandy under the table.
“OK Poppi,” Raquel shouted back over the rattle and hum of the busy restaurant.
“That’s what I’m talking bout!” Sandy said rubbing his hands together vigorously.
“You’re a real piece of work Lucci!” I quipped.
Sandy blew me an air kiss and leaned back in the booth. I picked at my food as he and Roman studied me. After a minute or two of that Sandy’s impatience got the better of him.
“Food’s that good is it?” he asked sarcastically, watching me play with my meal. I dropped my fork onto my plate and nodded affirmatively, “Just like it always is,” I replied pushing the plate away.
“Alright, enough with the Secret Squirrel act. Why don't you tell us this big secret you’ve been dying to share?” he said dryly, his patience wearing as thin as Roman’s moustache.
"What secret?" Roman asked, puzzled.
“Man, Pat’s been trying hatch whatever he’s been sitting on for days now. Driving me nuts with all the 'tell ya later’ brush offs.”
“You’re right, I have been pretty out of it ever since my pity party at the cemetery,” I admitted apologetically.
“ALTO! What did I miss?” Roman asked, his curiosity peaking.
“Homeboy lost his mind a while back during that thunderstorm last week, you remember, rained for a five days straight,” Sandy explained rhetorically.
“Anyways, me and the Mrs. found him perched on his Gabriel’s grave contemplating Lord knows what. Ain’t that right Pat?” continued Sandy, offering an abbreviated Reader’s Digest version of the events leading to this moment. Roman just kept staring at me, his eyes probing my every feature as if he were making sure I was me and not a pod-person or something.
“That true Pat?”
I folded my arms defensively, “Yeah, it’s true, but I’m past that, seriously!”
“Really, you sure bout that?” Roman asked, not looking convinced.
“Ancient history dude, honest, ancient history,” I replied reassuringly.
“For reals?” he pressed staring me down like a father to a son.
“For reals!” I lied.
“I’ve done a lot of thinking about a lot of things since then. And I think I finally have it all sorted out in my head. That’s why I wanted to talk to guys today. My two best friends,” I added smiling devilishly.
“Uh oh,” Roman said under his breath.
“Do tell,” Sandy added, his gaze narrowing into two beady rat eyes.
Instinctively I lowered my voice knowing that what I was about to say next shouldn’t be overheard and I scanned the room before I continued.
“Look dudes, I can’t accept what happened to Gabriel. I’m convinced it didn’t need to end that way, it never should have ended like that!” I said, the words seasoned with more emotion then intended. Some of the nearby tables became silent and I glanced over apologetically, smiling at several people in an effort to help them ignore us. After a few seconds I leaned in toward the center of the table and invited my friends to join me there with the look on my face.
“Sorry bout that,” I said sheepishly.
“No problem homey, but no mas, you dig?” he said with a nervous grin, his eyes darting around the room, making sure everything was cool with the clientele.
“Alright Pat, what’s on your twisted little mind?” Sandy asked impatiently. I ignored his jibe and answered, “Ever since that day in the cemetery I’ve been wrestling with my conscience. And well, we, my conscience and me, decided to settle on sort of a trial separation.” I watched my friends chew on this for a minute. Roman was about to say something, his face a giant question mark when I continued, cutting him off.
“Like I said, I started putting it all together on that rainy day. I decided someone had to pay for what shouldn't have happened to Gabby!”
“Who ese, who has to pay?” Roman whispered, reminding with a look to keep my voice down.
“ALL of them damn it! The pimps in Brooks Brothers suits playing God in the boardroom, administering policies that controlling who lives and who doesn't! But it all begins and ends with Sanford Peck, President and CEO of the illustrious Global Shield Medical Association, GSMA Incorporated, the rat bastard!”
“Don’t sugarcoat it like that Pat, tell it to us straight.” Sandy jibed trying to keep me off the ceiling with sarcasm. Roman attempted to support that effort with a laugh but I cut him off before the two of them could gang up on me.
“No foolin dudes, I’m serious as a heart attack!” I replied loud enough to turn some more heads our way. Roman kicked me under the table to hush me up, and Sandy took the opportunity to counter attack.
“Ain’t you never heard the saying, “you can’t fight city hall?” he asked sarcastically.
“Yeah Pat, this Sanford dude sounds big-time, those guys have mucho power ese, mucho!” Roman said, adding his two cents.
“What can you do, sue em?” Sandy asked sighing, dismissing me with a tired wave of his hand.
“YEAH, let’s sue the beans outta the asshole!” Roman interjected supportively.
“I thought about that,” I replied.
“Really, I did. But Roman's right, the dude has too much power, too much money. All he has to do is tie me up in court and wait until my funds run out. And believe me it would be a very short wait!”
“I want these people, especially Sanford Peck to suffer the way Monica and I did. I want them to know what it feels like to lose what they love most in this life.”
“Are you thinking about murder ese? That's just crazy talk man! ” Roman whispered, checking over his shoulder for eavesdroppers.
I snickered and replied, “No, that would be too easy man. Cash is what they love and I plan to make them bleed green for as long as possible.”
“You’ve developed a mean streak Pat, I think I love you!” teased Sandy.
“You have no idea!” I replied, staring him down until he realized that I was serious. Closing my eyes I drew in a deep cleansing breath and let it out slowly. A couple of seconds passed before anyone spoke again, each of us choosing our next words carefully.
“These HMO organizations are slugs feasting on an endless supply of bottom lines.” I said finally.
“I don’t get it,” Roman said, his eyes crossing in confusion.
“Profit amigo, profit,” I answered.
“Gabby just wasn’t a good investment for the firm. He was terminal and would have material and resources that could be put to better use, a more profitable use on someone with a greater survivability quotient, someone requiring long term treatments, expensive treatments.”
“Once Gabriel made the terminal list, our insurance coverage became limited to hospice care and end of life support. His care was pretty much reduced to pain management, eliminating hope and leaving us to wait for him to just slip away.”
“Are you saying they just let him suffer when they might have helped him?” Roman asked his tone suddenly angry.
“That’s exactly what I’m saying, and it goes on all the time.”
“CHINGASOS!” he exclaimed, swatting the tabletop with his open palm.
“I thought doctors took an oath man?” Sandy retorted.
“Yeah, they do, but doctors don’t run the show anymore Sandy.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means we had HMO insurance, a health management organization.”
“So that means that doctors have a board of directors tell them what they can and can’t do, understand?” I said in a harsher tone than I meant to. Sandy looked a little hurt when he replied.
“You sure about that Pat? I mean, what do the suits know about anything anyways?”
“I’m absolutely sure Sandy, ask around and you’ll see. Ask Roman, he has employees, I’m sure he’s heard things.”
“Nah, I don’t know nothin bout nothin ese. Besides, you know I take the family across the border for doctor and dentist visits. We can’t afford no gringo specialists!”
“EXACTLY, that is exactly why there ARE HMOs dude. They’re like the unions sort of, they convince you that you need them until you do and then they busy you with red tape and forms until y9u don't. It's a racket my friend.”
“Hold on a minute Pat, you and me belong to a union man!” Sandy chimed in angrily.
“I know, and what’s happening with that huh? The Naval Shipyard's closed forever, and our livelihood is being chased to right to work States or overseas. It’s not just us, look at the automotive industry, the steel industry, the textile industries. It’s all about cash Sandy, don’t you get it?” I watched my friends digest my tirade for a couple of minutes.
“Look, HMOs are just the latest innovation to come along. The General Practitioners, the family physicians, old Doc So & So have been forced to either go rural or join an HMO. Only the really talented and well connected specialists have avoided the trend so far. And that’s only because the wealthy and privileged will pay anything to avoid mixing with the masses.”
“Like any good drug dealer will tell you, the first taste is free, that's how they hook you. Over time these so-called altruistic groups of professionals morph into businesses like any other. It's cash over cures every time," explained, laying it on a little thick.
“Altur…?” Roman started, struggling with the word.
“Alturistic, you know the greater good sort of people.” I offered up quickly.
“Oh, you mean like when Spock told Kirk ‘the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few’ right?” Sandy said, chiming in with a smile.
“Yeah, something like that,” I replied.
“Yeah man, I loved that flick! You remember when the Klingons were…” Roman started. I cut him off quickly, “HEY, Heckle and Jeckle, forget the movie will ya, try and keep up!”
“Listen, simply put, I don’t blame the docs for Gabriel’s death, it was inevitable. But I do blame the suits on that HMO’s board for robbing him of some extra time with the people who loved him!” I said in a harsh whisper.
“So what are you thinking Pat? I can feel the gears turning in your head.” Sandy asked between bites.
“I got an idea alright, but we’ll need you and a couple others to turn it into a plan.” I answered.
“But, you should know straight up though, it ain’t gonna be legal.” I added. I waited a few seconds while the words hung in the air and the meaning appeared on their faces. They remained silent for what seemed like minutes, studying me and then each other.
“I know I'm asking a lot, and I’ll understand if you tell me to pound sand.” I said anxiously. The two of them exchanged shrugs and leaned back to reply, the old vinyl seats squeaking under the weight of their bodies.
“What the hell, you guys ain’t never let me or my family down, and I ain’t about to do any different. Count me Holmes!” Roman replied.
“In for a penny in for a pound my old man always said,” Sandy said.
“OK then, “I said lowering my voice and leaning across the table toward them.
“Here’s the thing…"