Chapter 1: Don’t Nobody Own Us, Mothafucka
The CEO of Roots American Productions thumbed the remote and the projection screen went dark, leaving the room in pregnant silence.
At six foot four and 160 pounds, Thomas Washington Curry was a whippet of a man, wearing his trademark cornrows and diamond-encrusted dental grills. Other than his mother, who called him Tommy, and his banker, who called him Mr. Curry, he was known around the world as Chilly T, a shortened form of his original and somewhat controversial handle, Chilly Tom Neegrow. He’d broken into hip-hop nearly a decade earlier, a former drug dealer and convicted felon who promoted himself as a political rapper—a truth teller who made people uncomfortable, like his heroes Dick Gregory, Gil Scott Heron, Richard Pryor, and Ice Cube. Recently he’d again altered his public moniker, part of the “ongoing personal evolution,” which these days included yoga, meditation, and a strict vegan diet, according to a recent fawning profile in Jet. Henceforth he was to be known simply as Chill—the brand name he was using for his new line of household furnishings, available exclusively at Target.
He leaned back expansively in his leather chair, put his vintage Jordansneakers up on the desk, adjusted his shades, the mirrored lenses of which reflected the trio of young Mexican American rappers fidgeting on the suede sofa before him. They called themselves Los Vatos. They were decked out like original gangsters in Pendleton shirts and khaki pants; one of them wore a hair net.
The meeting was being held in a penthouse office atop a newly renovated mixed-use conversion at Sunset Boulevard andVine Street, at the heart ofHollywood. At the touch of another button, the floor-to-ceiling curtains swept open with a motorized hum, revealing a south-facing panoramic view, stretching from snowcapped mountains to shimmering sea, with forests of skyscrapers dotting the landscape between: Downtown, mid-Wilshire,CenturyCity,Santa Monica. Twenty stories below, tourists plied the Hollywood Walk of Fame, visiting Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, theHollywoodWax Museum, and Ripley’s Believe it or Not—meanwhile fending off the homeless Goths, tweakers, and other assorted mental cases who haunted the Boulevard of Broken Dreams.
Chill allowed the silence to marinate. He studied the rappers before him, taking measure of their will, meanwhile fingering the carefully sculpted moustache element of his facial hair—the outline of a beard so thin it appeared to have been drawn with mascara. To attend to his elaborate personal grooming needs, he kept a hair stylist and a barber on call 24/7. As part of his general philosophy of promoting economic self-reliance, he didn’t just employ them—he’d helped them open a high-end salon on the first floor of this building. In return, Chill claimed a 10 percent share. Under this same plan, he had interests across the globe; like a one-man NGO, he gave out micro loans wherever he met worthy people in need.
Chill raised his chin slightly, giving him the proud aspect of a king. With his eyes shielded, his dark-chocolate face seemed totally devoid of expression; you could never tell where you stood with him in negotiations. During a meeting, he was liable to read a magazine, chew paper, toss spitballs. He always had a blunt lit; his favorite strain of sativa was called Abusive Kush Private Reserve. He purchased it specially at a marijuana collective called Malibu Green’s Farmacy. There was a limited supply, a secret list of subscribers. Only the most fabulous were included.
Now Chill removed his sunglasses—the slang of the moment was Hater Blockers—a gesture of peace and interest, a move that said, I’m keepin it real.
He leaned forward, ashed the tip of his blunt in a Baccarat candy dish. Then he issued to Los Vatos what the hosts of Entertainment Tonight liked to call his “one hundred thousand dollar smile”—theater-quality, upper and lower prosthetic dentures crafted of platinum and liberally encrusted with blood-free diamonds, the two incisors cut to resemble vampire fangs. That he could spit his complicated rhymes—his verse was known as much for its humor and erudition as it was for its rawness and filth—while wearing the unwieldy accessory was probably Chill’s most undervalued talent. No one undervalued his ability to produce hit songs and make money. Whatever he did, the market followed. He seemed to know instinctively what to give the peeps, as he liked to call his audience, which by some accounts was nearly 80 percent white and Hispanic—the reason Los Vatos was in the house this afternoon.
The mogul nodded in the direction of the giant screen where they’d just watched Los Vatos’ demo. “This some cool shit,” he told them. “Who own y’all?”
“Don’t nobody own us, mothafucka.”
His name was Sleeper. Well-muscled and strikingly handsome, he spoke in an edgy, Cali-Mex sing-song. He had coal-black hair, slicked back from a widow’s peak, and wore a long, cartoonish, Pancho Villa moustache. The way he said mothafucka—you could tell he was deeply offended.
As if programmed to respond to profanity, a pair of large black men, one on either side of the room, rose simultaneously from the stools on which they’d been sitting. Clevon and Eddie had once been members of the Fruit of Islam, the paramilitary wing of the Nation of Islam. In their day, they’d guarded Minister Louis Farrakhan, Johnnie Cochran, even Michael Jackson. Now they guarded Chill. After two seasons on Chill’s reality television show, Chillin with Chill, nearly everyone in American knew Clevon and Eddie. There’d been meetings about a spinoff.
Sleeper had his own backup, Yogi and Roc, sitting on either side of him on the sofa. They’d all seen every episode of Chill’s show. Beneath the bravado, none of them could believe they were actually sitting here in this office.
We chillin wit Chill, ese!
Are those cameras in the ceiling?
I wonder if we’ll be on the show?
They’d driven here from the Oakwood section of Venice, a fifth-generation barrio of shotgun clapboards surrounded by tony rehabs, just blocks from the famous and eclectic boardwalk. The three had grown up together, part of the same cliqua of the Venice Gang, the Lil’ Locos. Since he was young, Sleeper had a reputation for being a Romeo and a hothead. If he liked it, he fucked it. If he wanted it, he charmed it out of you. He’d bullied his way through life with the gall of the beautiful—like a guy at a skate rink who has never before skated but is determined to go fast, he seemed to enjoy being dangerously out of control. When he fell down, there was always somebody willing to pick him up. Usually she was hot.
Chill waved a hand in the air, an informal signal to his bodyguards that said, I got this, no worries. This kid Sleeper was the real deal. The camera loved him. He could spit. He could flow. He could write his own dope rhymes. He could even sing, a dreamy crooner’s falsetto that made for sweet hooks.
“So who shot y’alls video?” Chill asked.
“We did,” Sleeper said, still playing hard.
Chill laughed and threw his hand dismissively. “Man, you bullshittin.” There was a little bit of hot sauce on the epithet. “This professional quality. Where you get the money?”
“Where you get you money?” Sleeper shot back.
Everyone knew the answer to that.
Chill eyeballed the Vatos appraisingly. They were perfect. They already had a look. They had rhymes and tracks, almost enough for a first album, and a unique sound—a mélange of hip-hop, old school R&B, and traditional Mexican mariachi—sort of like Reggaeton meets Usher meets Public Enemy. He would stake his conglomerate empire on it: these little beaners were gonna blow the fuck up. There was a huge crossover potential. Note to self: a vato-style line of clothing? They could push fashion in that direction—Pendletons and khakis and hairnets. They could do motherfuckin zoot suits. Latin Pride. Latina Pride—that’s where all the money was, according to a marketing study he’d commissioned. Latino females, fifteen to forty-six. In market tests the numbers on Sleeper were off the charts—Justin Timberlake numbers.
The only thing the group lacked, really, was a some polish and direction, a little more layering in their songs—something Chill could do himself in the studio in a couple of weeks, tops. He already had ideas. Like a new car he’d been hankering for, he was ready to sign them up and take them for a spin in the studio. He’d even said as much in their earlier phone conversations—the paperwork, a deal, was waiting on the credenza behind him. A check had already been cut. All that remained was the pacification. These idiots were so fresh off the street, they didn’t even know when to start playing nice.
“So you tellin me I got me some big time playas up in here?” Chill said.
“We do what we do, you know what I’m sayin?” Sleeper folded his arms across his chest, raised his own chin a notch. Yogi and Roc crossed their arms, too.
“It like dat?” Chill asked, clearly amused.
“It like dat,” Sleeper said defiantly.
There’s the album cover right there, Chill thought. He looked over at Clevon, thinking, this little motherfucker don’t know when enough is enough. He issued a huge smile; the blood-free diamonds caught the recessed lighting like a disco ball. He addressed Sleeper with all of the passivity and good will a man of his station could possibly be asked to muster.
“Listen, yo. I wanna fuck with you guys—if you’ll let me. I think you’re going places. But with the tone y’all got, I’m not sure y’all know what a good deal even look like.”
Sleeper issued his own saccharine smile; his teeth needed work. “We don’t need nobody to launch us,” he said. “We already got our own label. All we lookin for is a mothafucka who can give us some kind of distribution deal. We lookin for a partnership, ese.”
“A partnership,” Yogi repeated. He was three months younger then Sleeper. They were first cousins on his mom’s side; when they were babies, they’d often shared a crib.
“Cause we got other acts comin up behind us,” Roc explained.
“You know what I’m sayin?” Yogi said. He sounded unsure.
Sleeper: “We can deliver. We can be makin hit records, but we can also be bringin in other acts, we can be producin hit records for other artists. We got the hookup to the brownside. It’s an untouched demographic right now and we got the connect, you feel me? Maybe you can give us an umbrella deal, somethin like that. Maybe you got another office in this building—” He wheeled his finger around in the air above him like an old West wagon master, indicating his ultra-plush surroundings, a gesture of unmitigated entitlement that made Chill’s stomach cramp.
“You could write it off or whatnot,” Sleeper concluded blithely. “The suits can work out the numbers. You feel me?”
Chill issued a theatrical frown. The tips of his fang-incisors showed in the seam between his meaty lips. “Oh mannnn,” he said, shaking his head mournfully. “I don’t think nobody gonna give you no deal like that, homeboy.”
“That not what Fat Sam say,” Yogi shot back, maybe a bit prematurely.
“Es la verrrdad,” Roc added, rolling the R for emphasis.
Chill remained calm. He was worth in excess of $6 billion. He didn’t need this group or any other. “If you wanna fuck wit Fat Sam, go on across town and piss on his leg. You feelin me?”
Sleeper stood abruptly. “It like dat?”
“It however you want it to be, my brother,” Chill said evenly. “I was tryin to give you some money today. I was tryin to give you a career. Can’t nobody turn you out like I can. But obviously you have some kind of social disease or whatnot cause you don’t know what the fuck is good for you. You done thrown away your whole future in the space of five minutes.”
Sleeper’s handsome face twisted. “Why you wanna disrespect me for?”
Yogi and Roc rose in sync beside him.
“Disrespect you?” Chill said, incredulous. “You lucky even to be in this building. I got ten more just like you down in the lobby who are begging to come up here and suck my dick.”
Sleeper’s black eyes turned wild. He’d spent a few years in juvvie, where his striking good looks were not an asset. “Suck your dick?” he repeated. “Suck on this mothafucka.”
He pulled back the front of his plaid shirt to reveal a chrome-plated Beretta 9 mm pistol sticking out of the waistband of his kakis.
Without a moment’s hesitation, Clevon and Eddie opened fire—twin Glock 9 mms, stealth black, pulled from the ample folds of their own oversized clothing.
All three members of Los Vatos crumbled to the floor, dead instantly.
Their blood mingled on the ecologically sound bamboo hardwood planks, also available exclusively from Target as part of Chill’s new line of home furnishings.
Chapter 2: What if Some Wacko Has a Gun
Angelika Collette limped across the unfinished concrete floor like a streetwalker who’d lost a shoe in a sketchy getaway.
The studio was darkish and the music was blaring, a monotonous techno trance beat that made you feel spaced out whether or not you were high. The place smelled of fresh paint, hair spray, food service, and roasted coffee, the last courtesy of the authentic Italian barista stationed in the vaulted lobby.
The Robert Rothman Studio had been open for only a few months, part of a gallery conversion project that had reinvigorated Bergamot Station, a former stop on the Red Line Trolley, which ran until the early 1950s from downtownLos Angelesto the Santa Monica Pier. The sun was setting. Workers in blue uniforms streamed in twos and threes out the front gate of the recycling plant across the street, past a colorful mural, a child-like depiction of the life cycle of reclamation.
Parked at the curb in front of the studio was a Lincoln Town Car that had ferried the starlet this morning from her secret new digs inMalibu. As stipulated, it had remained on station throughout the day at the usual hourly rate. Angelika was fifteen when she’d first arrived inHollywoodwith her mom, Missy Collette. They’d lived in their car for a time, a Delta 88 appropriated from Missy’s third husband—he’d stayed behind inPortland,Oregon, in the family’s double-wide trailer. Angelika slept in the front seat of the car. Missy took the back. Every morning they’d drive to the public beach near the Santa Monica Pier to shower. They found a button somewhere that said “Working Actress” and pinned it to the sun visor. “We’d rub it for luck when I went to auditions,” Angelika would later recall in an interview.
After five years of bit parts and audition CDs, she’d broken into the public consciousness at age twenty with her first movie role, a spot-on performance as a heroin-addicted model in the much-ballyhooed indie film Skag, for which she won an Oscar. From there she’d become such a phenomenon that Time magazine featured her on the cover. With her edgy asymmetrical hairstyles and her six-pack abdomen—a trademark diamond solitaire winking out from the shallow cavern of her navel—Angelika was iconic worldwide.
Now she was twenty-five. Besides the Oscar, she had two double platinum albums waiting to be hung on the wall of her new home office. A third record was due soon, featuring duets with many of the great artists of the day, including Stevie Wonder, Maroon 5, John Mayer, and Snoop Dogg. The producer on the project was the hip-hop impresario known as Chill.
Thanks to the ruthless efforts of the celebrity press . . . the insatiable maw of twenty-four-hour-a-day cable programming . . . the dangerously codependent relationships between civilized people and their various electronic screens . . . and the apparent absence of more creative interests and methods of killing time . . . people fromDes MoinestoDubaiknew everything about Angelika’s life—or at least they thought they did.
Every day, in village squares and mall commons, over fence posts, desktops, and cups of Starbucks, Angelika’s career and personal life were discussed and analyzed and gossiped about as if she was an intimate acquaintance, a sister or a relative or a neighbor. Who she was dating, how much money she was making, where she was eating or partying or vacationing, what she was wearing, the terms of her divorce settlement and child custody arrangements . . . not to mention her occasional practice of going commando, the fleshy evidence of which had been caught on film and auctioned to a wire service for millions of dollars—all of it was open for discussion. Her entire life was an open book. Or so everyone believed.
As she sang in her popular dance hall anthem, “U Only Think U Know (Me)”:
Hashed and rehashed/fried and refried
Served up like a side/hear my side
Let me entertain/then look away
U only think u know (me)
The photos from today’s shoot were to be featured on the cover of Vanity Fair’s annual Hollywood issue. Angelika had a movie upcoming, the postapocalyptic Ozone Jungle II, a budding sci-fi action franchise showcasing her martial arts abilities, a skill set she’d developed to augment her work in more serious films. (As Missy liked to say, “Always have something to fall back on besides your keister.”)
Angelika had specifically requested this photographer, Rob Rothman. He’d worked with the superstarlet many times before. He knew her body canvas so well that he had this way of making all of her flaws totally disappear: The way her left eye was a little bit smaller and lower. The way her nose curved slightly to the right. The way her shoulder blades stuck out like chicken bones—she could go on and on about her myriad imperfections. Thanks to the digital technology, immediately after each set-up was completed, she was able to view Rothman’s photos on a huge monitor. He even let her delete the ones she didn’t like.
Rothman’s crew had worked for a solid week to build the set, a re-creation of director Peter Black’s haunting cinematic vision for Ozone Jungle II. There were huge faux I-beams and papier mache rubble, trashed appliances, car parts, oil drums, and even some scattered body parts, all of it painted and otherwise theatrically distressed to look authentic. Throughout the day, as the shoot had proceeded, the crew had been increasingly blown away by Angelika’s spontaneous routines and fluid poses—a series of balletic, gymnastic, and martial-arts-inspired splits and jumps and maneuvers that brought to mind Cirque du Soleil.
“Somebody turn up the AC!” saidTroythe publicist at one point, fanning himself with a fey hand.
At the moment, Angelika was on the move from her dressing area to the set proper for the final shots, what they hoped would be the cover. Limping on one strappy heel, she kept her arms folded across herself, holding closed a long, black cashmere robe.Troysupported her by one elbow, a willing but insufficient crutch—he was a small man with a high-and-tight marine-style haircut to match his high-and-tight little butt, which switched to and fro as he walked. Around these two hovered a trio of beautiful handmaidens—one white, one Asian, one black—the stylist, the agency rep, and the makeup artist, this third a big girl with dark skin wearing camouflage Capri pants with cargo pockets and a utility belt stocked with various cosmetic tools, giving her the appearance of a mercenary beautician marching off to battle. Following closely behind was a tall, rubbery guy holding a comb and a can of hair spray. He skated along on his stocking feet, a style of locomotion reminiscent of the cartoon character Gumby.
At the caboose of this little celebrity train was Charlie the tailor, a wizened Asian man wearing a silver thimble on his fingertip. It was his job to sew Angelika into—and to cut her out of—the assortment of sheer microfiber bodysuits that had been Rothman’s vision for this shoot. At the moment, Charlie was cradling in both hands Angelika’s defective Manolo Blahnik, having just repaired the four-inch heel with Superglue, an ample supply of which he always stocked for emergencies.
Reaching the ready area near the set proper, a sort of satellite dressing room, Angelika stopped and submitted her lips and face to the makeup artist for retouching; she seemed no more self-conscious about giving over her anatomy to someone else’s care than did a prize thoroughbred having its hoofs cleaned. From day one she’d been a natural. That first time on Friends—her inaugural experience on camera, one line as a guest star in the wildly popular weekly television sit com—she’d hit her mark and delivered her line in one fluid and perfect take . . . and completely stole the scene. At that moment, everyone else in the ensemble cast, all of them making nearly $1 million an episode, seemed to disappear from the soundstage. A hush fell over the set, a knowing silence. Everyone made a mental note. This is where I was when a star was born.
Angelika allowed the robe to fall. The graphite-colored microfiber clung to her like a second skin, revealing at once everything and nothing—a three-dimensional silhouette. She was firm where a woman was supposed to be firm, ripe where a woman was supposed to be ripe. Though she was not tall—only five-foot-four in bare feet—there was a monumental quality to her, a sculptedness, a tensile strength. She looked as if she’d just as soon fight you as fuck you, and that she’d be the one to decide which.
Rothman fitted the camera to his face and assumed a position that put one in mind of a college wrestler—feet wide, knees bent, shoulders hunched. He moved in a wary circle around his opponent/subject as she herself moved and posed and vogued across the scrim-covered floor. With each digitized click of the shutter the lights popped; there followed immediately the ascending whine of the batteries recharging. The hypnotic thump and drone of the music cast a spell.
Back walkover into handstand into forward roll.
Angelika’s heart beat faster, a thin sheen of perspiration moistened her skin. Adrenalin and natural opioids flowed through her brain; her muscles engorged with blood.
Cartwheel into round-off into split.
A sense of well-being traveled to every corner of her body; her face seemed to glow with otherworldly light. Gone were her worries about the big interview upcoming with Larry King, the lines yet unmemorized for her next movie, the fabrics yet unchosen for her clothing line. Gone for the moment were her worries about all the boxes yet unpacked, the new contract for her perfume deal yet to be vetted, the five songs for her next album yet to be recorded. Gone were her worries about Eleanor’s weekly spelling test, about watching her weight, about growing old alone, about what people were going to think when they found out she had a secret new man in her life. Already there were rumblings. How long would it take for them to discover her new address?
Spring board to I-beam. Walk, walk, walk, spin, scissor jump.
She concentrated on her physicality—the movement, the nerves firing, the muscles working together, all of it motor memory, stuff she’d been doing since gymnastics as a little girl. The constant inner monologue, the third-person self-commentary, the ever-present litany of questionings and fears and doubts and concerns that never let her rest . . . all of that began to disappear.
The flash popped. The recharger whined.
“Yes . . . Yes . . . Yes!” groaned Rothman, a lumbering man, sweating profusely.
Her mind became a still pond, a pristine beach, a humid bank of clouds. She was an Eskimo girl under a fur blanket in an igloo. She was a calla lily in an art deco vase. She was a baby born at home in a Jacuzzi tub . . . like her precious Eleanor, floating calmly upward through the warm water toward her first terrestrial breath.
Angelika jumped up onto a thrashed Viking stove and then launched herself through space—assuming as she flew a perfect arabesque, an outward physical translation of the sheer joy she was feeling inside, her neck and back arched just so, her arms and legs extended in proper academy form, her toes perfectly pointed.
And there it was: the cover shot.
The headline would write itself: “Angelika in Flight.”
She stuck the landing, careful not to break the heel again.
The whole set broke into applause.
Thirty minutes later, Angelika’s coterie of attendants—Troy the PR guy, the three handmaidens, the Gumby guy, and Charlie the tailor—reassembled itself one last time to see her out of the studio.
They surrounded the superstarlet in the vaulted lobby, sharing the giddiness well known to people in the biz, that show-is-over, too-excited-to-go-home-feeling that keeps people chasing the dream. The starlet was wearing an emerald green Juicy-brand tracksuit and flip-flops. Her ankle was wrapped with an icepack—officially diagnosed a “slight sprain” by the on-set physician, duly noted on the union paperwork.
Bowing fatuously,Troypulled open the elaborate and beautiful door, fabricated of native woods and scavenged metals by a young artist fromTijuana. With a sweeping hand, he bid Angelika to precede them outside into the night . . .
Whereupon she was ambushed by a horde of waiting press.
Microphones and sound booms with big furry covers, whining motor drives with stroboscopic flashes, phallic telephoto lenses, shoulder-mounted videocams and high-tech digital cams, handheld microcassette tape recorders, the odd pad and pen. They oozed around Angelika and her party like quicksand, like ants, like so many white blood cells attacking a foreign microorganism in the body, surging and bumping and jostling, shouting hysterically—the press was hungry and tired, they’d been waiting for hours, sitting in their cars, looking at their watches, taking calls from their stressed-out bosses, considering deadlines and air times, needing something . . . anything . . . from this young woman, who somehow continued to be one of the biggest ongoing stories of her day, even when there was nothing to report.
“Who’s the new man?” somebody shouted.
“When will you get engaged?”
“Was that a baby bump we saw at the AMFAR awards?”
“Is it true you had an abortion?”
Flashes popped. The crowd jostled.
“Could you please stand back?”Troy pleaded impotently.
Angelika stood like a statue, unblinking. What if some wacko has a gun?
Chapter 3: The Average Annual Family Income in Mali Is $380
Nathan Sulcov padded down the hallway wearing his customary morning outfit of mismatched sweatgear, the hood deployed for warmth, giving him the appearance of a tall and gawkish monk.
He opened the front door, peered out tentatively through the curtain of his thick eyelashes. Ever since he was small, women had fussed over his eyes, a genetic gift from his mother, a gorgeous woman whose only real mistake was wagering her prime on Sulcov’s father, Marv, a Brooklyn ob-gyn who was a charter key holder of the Manhattan Playboy club during the free-love seventies. On those occasions when Sulcov was standing before the bathroom mirror as a person will do, taking stock of his face—his mother’s Maybelline eyes; his father’s prominent nose and deep nostrils; his maternal Uncle Irving’s slightly receding chin, shored up nicely with a trim beard—he sometimes wondered if it was possible that his ancestors, men of the Middle East, had actually evolved from the camel. His wife had once suggested, in a not-unflattering tone, that he was more likely descended from the chameleon: wherever he went, Sulcov exhibited a talent for fitting in. Arabs assumed he was Arab. Greeks took him for Greek. Ditto Jews, Italians, and gays. How many times had a flirty male clerk at Barneys thrown in a belt or a tie for free? In Hollywood, if you aren’t going to be the richest or most famous or most powerful person in the room, it pays to be a little Zelig-like—not so strongly one thing or another, a version of yourself that reflects the prevailing sentiments held by the richest or most famous or most powerful person in the room. From these towering trees came the windfall that nourished people like Sulcov. It made sense to get along; they could always hire somebody else.
He retrieved from his stoop two copies of the Times, LA and New York, the twin suns around which his personal solar system revolved. Scanning the headlines—Dow Dives on Barrage of Bad News. Israel Raids Gaza. Lakers Continue Win Streak. Writers’ Strike Continues: Parties Appear Deadlocked. Horror Film Hostess Vampira Is Dead—he proceeded down a hallway, in a northeasterly direction, toward the great room, skirting as he went the glassed-in courtyard, designed by the noted architect Arnold Stevenson to incorporate an enormous Banyan tree planted a century ago at the exact center of the property by an eccentric railroad executive.
Entering the kitchen, he turned off the low-wattage nightlight and turned on the under-cabinet fluorescents. Owing to the glass wall that formed the rear of the house, the views carried out through the great room to the pool, to the pool house/office and then to the canyon beyond. The city had recently ordered the brush cleared from the slope. It had cost nearly fifteen grand—including the terracing, gravel, and French drains made necessary by the removal of the natural soil-erosion control system . . . the brush. The job would not be complete until fire-retardant ground cover was planted, another couple thou by the time he paid the small army of day laborers the gardener would be recruiting to assist, all of them no doubt his relatives.
Don’t forget to order the ice plant from the nursery. He walked over to the desk and found a pad and wrote it down. If he bought the ground cover in person, he’d avoid the gardener’s markup—the Westside tax, a kind of reverse noblesse oblige, where providers assumed that rich people could afford to pay more for the same goods and services. The rainy season was fast approaching. There was danger of a mudslide—and a large fine if the work was not completed by February 1, according to the pink paperwork stapled to the front door by a passive-aggressive city functionary. Who the fuck staples a notice to your front door? The estimate to fill the holes and resand and refinish the vintage oak door: two grand.
Ask Bave to borrow truck, he scribbled.
He dumped yesterday’s coffee grounds into the compactor, rinsed the plastic filter-holder and the glass carafe, opened the cupboard, removed the box of recycled paper filters, licked this thumb and forefinger, counted out four brown, flat-bottomed baskets—his secret for robust coffee.
Seven heaping scoops of Starbucks Kenya. Fill carafe with tap water. The coffee would probably taste better if I used the Pure Flo water, he told himself, as he did nearly every morning.
It’s outrageous to have to pay for drinking water.
He thought about a show he’d seen recently on the Discovery channel. The average family income in Mali is $380 a year.
Our bill for drinking water last month was $40.
Soon they’ll be selling bottled air.
Maybe you should invest?
He poured the carafe of water into the mouth of the coffee maker. The plastic grid was crusted in spots with white mineral residue, the leavings of their “heavy” Californiawater. I wonder how much mineral residue has built up inside of me? He imagined for a moment a cross section of his insides, everything crusted with powdery crystals. Every few months, the showerheads would become clogged and they’d have to pay the handyman to delime all the little holes.
It would probably be healthier to use the Pure Flo.
The coffeemaker slurped and wheezed. Sulcov went about the kitchen securing the various items necessary to breakfast. Birds twittered outside and in the courtyard. The sixties-vintage schoolroom clock set high on the wall went tick . . . tick . . . tick . . . the second hand pausing so diligently at each and every hash mark, then moving on to the next.
Already he could hear the rising din of rush hour, two blocks away on thePacific Coast Highway, a white noise that drowned out the thunder of the waves. Standing there at the kitchen counter, staring off into space with a knife in his hand, Sulcov thought about the millions of commuters across the Los Angeles area, all of them driving to work at that very moment in their various and self-defining vehicles—all of them individuals with singular and complex lives, their sensible pumps or wingtips or Adidas alternating between brake and gas pedal, or in some cases riding the clutch . . . checking the clock on the dash, worrying about today’s presentation or lesson plan, rehearsing a speech to the boss or the spouse or the client or the kid’s teacher, bargaining with themselves about their next cigarette, five more minutes.
My commute is only thirty-two steps.
For the first twelve years of his working life—how quick it had flown!—Sulcov had ridden a subway to work. In sun and rain, heat and cold, first from uptown and then from downtown and then from Brooklyn. During all that time, he’d been a slave to other people’s hours and necessities, a minion of the great editorial We at NewsSource, America’s oldest newsweekly magazine.
In his West Coast incarnation, he worked primarily from home. Aside from the usual family obligations—his wife, his son, his aging father—Sulcov served only one master: his name was M. Kelley Elizondo. Zondo had been his freshman-year roommate at Columbia. It was he who’d come up with the concept for High Tolerance; it was he who’d goaded Sulcov into camping out on his couch in Toluca Lake and “helping” to write the pilot. Sulcov was thirty-three at the time. Against character, he’d arranged a three-month leave of absence from NewsSource (meanwhile retaining his health insurance). Like his immigrant great grandfather, he’d left his wife and young child in the old country (in this case Brooklyn) and flown off to theNew World to seek his fortune.
Now he was facing forty and High Tolerance—think Law and Order meets Broadcast News—was one half-season short of eligibility for worldwide syndication, the residuals from which would leave Sulcov permanently flush.
Of course, there was no telling if the Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning show would ever again see the bright lights of production. On this Monday in mid-January, during the year 2008, the Writers Guild of America strike hung overLos Angeleslike kudzu, like Spanish moss, like a toxic algal bloom choking all life from a beloved pond. Well into the third month of the work stoppage, there was a general malaise everywhere you traveled, a sense of suspended animation. Everyone was blah and kind of semi-permanently annoyed, if not outright angry. Businesses all along theHollywoodfood chain were devastated, from dry cleaners to craft services to new car sales.
To Sulcov, the money wasn’t so much the problem. It was the uncertainty. The not knowing. The lack of control. The lack of gainful labor. The lack of a project about which to obsess. Doing a story one time for NewsSource about senior citizens, he’d interviewed a ninety-two-year-old who was still working as a columnist for a weekly newspaper. “You have to find something to be important to,” the old man had said, the dangling preposition intended—meaning that a full and happy life needed to include something that couldn’t exist without your efforts. Without a storyline to haunt him, a script to write, Sulcov had nothing to occupy his mind beyond his own foibles and needs and routines—and those of his immediate family, who actually seemed to be operating pretty well without him these days, except for the constant demand for his services as a driver and errand boy.
Not to mention the guild bylaws, which demanded four hours on the picket line every day.
Meaning he had to leave the house on a regular basis.
Upstairs a toilet flushed. The water Dopplered through the plumbing like beans in a Peruvian rainstick. The circular staircase vibrated with heavy footfalls.
Jake appeared, a thirteen-year-old wearing his own hoodie, his face a mask of sleep.
“How’s the ankle?” Sulcov sang, delivering a quartered blueberry muffin on a plate with an allergy pill, a vitamin, a calcium tab, and two strawberries on the side.
Mumbling inaudibly, eyes askance, the boy took his customary seat at the dining table, his back to the canyon view, facing the tree, and opened his laptop.
The wooshing of the traffic on the PCH grew steadily louder. The neighbor’s dog commenced howling, wanting back in. The two Sulcov males ate in convivial silence—Jake scanning his Mac, Sulcov turning the pages of the New York Times.
Another flush, slippers scuffling down the hallway from the master suite.
Leticia Harris Sulcov, known to all as Tish, had been raised in Baldwin Hills, the luxe part of south central Los Angeles, known as the Black Beverly Hills. At USC, her Alpha Phi sorority sisters had nicknamed her Mulatto Barbie—a preppy goddess cast in a darker hue, with an extra half-portion of junk in the trunk. A graduate of the Annenberg School of Communications, number two on the Trojan tennis team . . . from the moment she’d arrived at the Manhattanheadquarters of NewsSource for a summer internship, every male in the place had coveted this exotic creature.
She was wearing her usual oversized fuzzy robe, her heels crushing the backs of her expensive Ugg slippers. On their occasional weekends at her parents’Malibubeach house, her mother—a Lena Horne look-alike with perfect finishing-school diction—would give her youngest daughter endless grief about the way she “insisted on shufflin around the house like Stepin Fetchit.” That Tish persisted made Sulcov love her even more—a minor fist-in-the-air from an otherwise dutiful child, her daddy’s favorite, the jock son he never had. Sulcov liked to think of her as his Fresh Princess, though he’d dared call her that only once.
She poured herself her usual—half coffee and half hazelnut soy creamer, two Equals. Her chair at the rectangular table was across and one down from Jake’s, facing outward toward the canyon and the lightening sky. Sulcov sat to her right, at the head. She opened the LA Times and removed the Calendar section.
“Oh, look,” she said, scanning the gossip on the second page, her tone a blend of fascination and derision. “Angelika Collette has a new mystery boyfriend.”
“Anybody’s better than that what’s-his-name,” Sulcov said.
Tish looked at him archly. “You know very well what his name is.”
Sulcov raised his hands in surrender.
She gave him a look: don’t even go there.
“That guy is totally gay,” Jake said definitively.
“Don’t say gay,” Tish scolded. “Uncle Brooke would be so offended.”
Jake spidered his fingers across the keyboard of his Mac. After an interval, he turned the screen to face his parents.
An image of Angelika’s ex-husband, Christopher Stone. He was riding a white horse, his shirt open to his navel, his golden hair flying. Like its rider, the horse was large and muscular and appeared to have gone through considerable hair and makeup preparation for the photo shoot.
“Look at those moobs!” Jake howled—a righteous bay of teen vindication.
“I think they call those pecs, son.” Sulcov’s tone lampooned a teachable moment.
Tish: “They’re no worse than Angelika’s fake ones.”
“You got a problem now with fake boobs?” Jake guffawed.
Sulcov: “Her foobs?”
“Foobs!” Jake laughed uproariously, cupping an imaginary pair.
Tish’s brow furrowed. “You know I am soooo against plastic surgery,” she said, her own teachable moment. “It creates false standards for women. So many of the women I—”
Just then a humming sound, emanating from the vicinity of Jake’s person.
Like a robot drone called suddenly to service, the boy lost all focus on the present moment and reached into the pocket of his hoodie, retrieved his Blackberry, read a text . . .
“Oh my God!” he exclaimed. “There was an assassination attempt on Chill!”
“Chilly the Negro?”
“That’s his name, isn’t it?” Being the father of a half-black child, he was allowed to assume at times the sensibilities of a black person—up to a point.
“Chilly Tom Neegrow.” Jake corrected. “Tom as in Uncle Tom, with its obvious historical connotations.” The boy had assumed a scholarly tone that impressed Sulcov with its confidence. “It’s spelled “N-e-e-g-r-o-w. It’s wordplay, get it? It’s political. It refers to his desire to help African Americans evolve and ‘grow.’ ” He used his fingers like quotation marks.
“And it’s not Chilly anymore, either,” he added, by now supremely annoyed. “It’s Chill, okay? He changed his name, like, six months ago!”
“He continues to evolve,” Sulcov quipped . . .
And regretted his bon mot even as it left his mouth.
Jake stood abruptly. “Why are you even talking to me about this? What do you care what happens to Chill?”
“It’s 7:10, gentlemen,” Tish announced. “Are you planning to make it to school today?”
Buy High Tolerance on Amazon and other leading platforms in paperback or Ebook format: http://www.thesagergroup.net/?book=high-tolerance