For Tuyet, Katrina, KaSandra, and Luc
NY Style Deli, Wilshire District, Monday, Feb 16, 2009…2:00pm
The walk over to Lu and Jai’s deli was short but comfortable courtesy a cool brisk breeze brought on by a thick marine layer blowing in from Redondo Beach. It was a little after 2 o’clock in the afternoon and the lunch rush was over so there was a good chance that I would catch the two partners with time to chat. Jai caught sight of me first as I crossed the street and walked uptown toward their place. He waived at me excitedly from the big bay window in front and gestured for me to meet him at the door, wiping his hands with the dish towel draped over his shoulder. A collection of bells tinkled overhead as I entered through the heavy metal door, and I was met by Mr. Enthusiasm himself, Jai B. Lai, the softer side of this unusual pairing.
“Whitey! Oh my goodness, come in, come in,” he said greeting me cheerfully.
“Hi Paley, it’s been a long time,” I replied with equal good cheer.
He pumped my hand with both of his as if he were jacking up his car to change a flat tire, and then hollered over his shoulder to his life-partner Lu Rong, presumably still in the kitchen, “Lu Lu, get out here, our personal private dick is here,” he shouted, momentarily silencing the table chatter in the half filled room with his provocatively unusual announcement. I just rolled my eyes. I guess the 'Dick' days were just going to follow me throughout my life one way or the other. Lu burst through the kitchen doors and hurried over to where Jai and I were standing. Now, mind you, the man is well known as an insatiable hugger so I braced myself for a mauling, and he didn’t disappoint.
“Whitey Roode you son-of-a-gun, where the hell have you been keeping yourself,” he gushed as he hugged me into the next dimension. I barely managed to wheeze out a reply, “Actually I’ve been pretty busy, that’s why I stopped by.”
“Oh sure, sure,” he said releasing me finally.
“We’re just happy to see you my man,” Jai added with a wink, patting me on the rump to show his sincerity. He linked his arm through mine and guided me through the restaurant toward the small private elevator in back that led up to their penthouse on the 36th floor of the building. I did my best to avoid eye contact with the other patrons as we passed by. I mean I knew I wasn’t gay, but they didn’t. I gave the room my best Dirty Harry scowl and set the pace; leading more than following to the tiny lift in back. You know, considering the circumstances surrounding me and Rhonda, I mean Ronald, my ex whatever, this little stroll shouldn’t be such a big deal. But, let’s be honest, once a homophobe always a homophobe. Am I right?
We reached the tiny 2 man lift and squeezed in together.
“Better suck in that gut Whitey, it’s pretty cozy in here,” teased Lu.
“Terrific, just what I needed, trapped in a 4 by nothing vertical casket with two of the Marx Brothers,” I groused as the doors slowly slid shut.
Two minutes later we arrived at the boy’s spacious and stylish digs. The doors opened and we spilled out of the little lift and into the foyer like Moe, Larry, and Curly Joe. Their apartment was immaculately decorated all in white, and I mean everything! The furniture, the picture frames, the lamps, the pillows, the rugs, you name it, all white. The only place you could find traces of the rest of the spectrum was in the actual photographs stuffed inside the white frames on the walls, or in the huge gourmet kitchen among the state of the art stainless steel appliances. Of course if you happened to open the fridge or the pantry you'd be visually assaulted by rows of colorful, neatly organized name brand Madison Avenue marketing. Being an Asian household we immediately removed our shoes and traded them for a pair of comfy slippers, white of course.
These guys might sling hash during the workday, but by night they transformed themselves into their alter egos, Phat Lu and Jai-man, the queen bees of LA’s night life. The two party-time superheroes divided their time evenly between Downtown and WE-HO (that’s West Hollywood for those of you scratching your heads right now). I’m sure that you’ve heard the term “A List,” well, when you think of the crowd they run with think “A+ List!”
“Make yourself at home on the sofa Whitey,” Jai said ushering me into the living room. I sat down on the overstuffed couch and crossed my legs, ankle to knee just in case anyone was spying through the large floor to ceiling windows (homophobe, remember). I carefully scanned the building across the street for voyeurs.
“You know where the bar is Whitey, get yourself a drink and pour one for us too,” Lu said on his way down the hall to their bedroom, presumably to change.
“Alright, don’t mind if I do,” I replied, trying to hide my anxiousness, Lord knows I could use a belt before spilling the beans about his niece.
“You and Jai still take your scotch on the rocks?”
“Of course, we’re not Philistines,” Lu answered, his voice trailing off as he reached his bedroom.
“Nothing for me Whitey! OMG Lu Lu, I can’t believe you said that? You know that I’m wearing my skinny jeans to Spago’s tonight,” Jai hollered, scolding his mate in the same breath. Lu glided back into the living-room and whispered, “You’ll have to excuse him; he’s always a little bit crazy this time of the month.”
“I see,” I replied, trying not to roll my eyes. Nice guys these two, but all this gender bending was a little much for me. Oh well, who am I to judge anyone, I have a hard enough time keeping track of myself.
I walked over to the bar and filled a couple of heavy crystal tumblers with two fingers of McCallen's, the house scotch of choice. I made sure to add ice in Lu’s glass, just the way he liked. Me, I prefer my booze neat, why dilute the experience, right? Carefully making my way back to the sofa I set Lu’s glass on the coffee table and strolled over to the window to take in the view from the top. Somehow the city didn’t appear as dirty as it did from the street. I guessed that was an advantage of living closer to the heavens. Taking a sip of my scotch I turned back to survey the room, my eyes settling on the bank of photos neatly displayed on the closed baby grand piano. They formed a spiral around an ornate candelabra ala Liberace like a circle of dominos waiting to be knocked over.
I walked over to the instrument and picked up a picture of Lu and Jai in what appeared to be Hawaii. It looked like it could be a photo of the happy couple on their unofficial wedding day. They were dressed in matching tunics, white of course, with several white leis around their necks. They looked happy, way happier than the pictures from my wedding day. Our wedding was in mid-January in Buffalo, New York. If you’ve ever been there I don’t need to describe the scene. We had a white wedding as well; just all of our white was outside covering the area with four foot snow drifts. Rhonda was stunning as usual, and I was anything but. She was ten years my junior and looked like a kid. Me, I looked like a cop. I still do, when I cut my hair short. As I returned the photo to its resting place I noticed another picture at the far end of the piano. It was a little girl. She appeared to be around ten years-old. She was beautiful. She was Sally November. I recognized her right away; you just can’t hide from a smile like that, it commands your attention.
“So, what brings you to this part of town today my friend?” Lu bellowed from his bedroom.
I set Sally’s picture down quickly, all of a sudden feeling like the snoop that I was. I hot-footed it back to the sofa and sat down, taking a long pull on my drink before answering.
“Um, well the truth is I have information about Mei Li.”
Lu appeared in the room instantly and stood in front of me, studying my face and putting two and two together. He raised his hand to his lips and gasped, “What’s happened? It’s awful isn’t it? Don’t lie to me; I can see it written all over your face!”
There was an awkward silence as his words echoed off the walls. Before I could answer Jai came strolling into the room, oblivious to the tension at first. “Lu R. Rong, what is the matter with you, why did you run off and leave me hanging back there,” he whined? There was an awkward pause, as Jai took a couple of seconds to catch on.
“What’s wrong you two,” he whispered?
“Whitey’s about to tell us,” Lu answered softly, still staring through me.
Bad news is never easy to deliver and this was going to be particularly difficult. My stomach growled and I immediately wished I had poured a larger glass of scotch. I picked up my glass and swirled what was left a couple of times before draining it and setting it down, a little harder than I meant to. I stood up abruptly and walked past Lu and Jai to the baby grand. I picked up Mei Li’s photo and stared at it a second before speaking. With my back to them I said, “she was a beautiful Lu, really, she was.” I heard the two of them settle onto the sofa behind me. Turning I looked at them both. They were sitting side by side holding hands.
“I found your niece today Lu,” I said. He was staring me down with glassy eyes.
“She’s dead, I’m sorry.”
Lu lowered his head and stared at the floor. Jai rubbed his shoulders and said nothing but I could hear him start to whimper. I waited for the shock to fade and watched Lu fight the urge to weep. His shoulders heaved a couple of times and at least one tear dropped onto the coffee table in front of him.
“You are quite sure it is Mei that you found?” he asked softly.
“I’m sure,” I answered.
“How did it happen?” he pressed half heartedly.
“Do you really want details?” I asked.
“No, I suppose not, at least not right this minute anyway,” he replied bitterly.
“Why don’t you wait for the police report Lu, it would better if you get the official story,” I said folding my arms and huffing out a sigh.
“Where is she now?”
“Not far from here, she’s been nearby all this time,” I answered.
“Pretty near Lu, pretty near.”
He began to weep, softly at first. “What kind of uncle am I, she was my responsibility? What will I tell her mother and father, my brother?”
There just wasn’t anything else to say. You can tell when a conversation is over; you can feel it in your bones. I walked over to my grieving friends and placed a hand softly onto each of their shoulders, then turned to let myself out. I paused by the bar and contemplated seriously about pouring myself one for the road then thought better of it. So I walked to the elevator without looking back and pressed the button on the wall. It was 3:30pm according to the Timex on my wrist. I had about three hours to kill before I went back to Sally’s apartment building and looked up her neighbor. I was anxious to start peeling this onion. Lu had a right to know the truth and I felt an obligation to get it for him. Me, well I’m just a curious cat with a predilection toward using up all of my nine lives, which is exactly what's going to happen if Lt. Oscar Celaya catches me snooping around his crime scene!