My friend, Bart, tells me that he’s found the love of his life.
This is the fourth time he’s found the love of his life.
I’ve taken in more than a bit of THC, and I‘ve been drinking my best friend Tito’s homemade vodka since 1 p.m., so allow me to make a correction. Not about the loves, but about Bart.
To be accurate: I have an acquaintance, Bart, who informs me about his new, and allegedly everlasting love.
“Everlasting” is obvious to folks like Bart, revealing itself upon first glance or introduction. I am puzzled: in my experience love is something that changes and develops, with setbacks and surges, with work, over time. But, what do I know?
Bart has found another love of his life.
Bart is a goof of the highest order, a tall fellow packing some serious weight, supremely self-confident, loud. He is one of those fellows who mistakes his bulk and an impressive dental array for signs of greatness. It’s as if Einstein indulged a daily diet of Carl’s Junior El Diablo Thickburgers, with several orders of onion rings, and one day woke at 250-plus with crippling heart disease and the gift of diabetes, and thought, “Goddamn, I wonder if gravity distorts space and time,” or something like that.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Bart champions the ludicrous link of poor diet to genius, since I once watched him down two triple cheeseburgers with bacon and two orders of waffle fries before he loudly proclaimed himself the world’s greatest businessman and slot player, tried to hustle a wizened Bellagio cocktail waitress with the promise of sure-fire stock tips, and wondered aloud what he might have for dessert. I didn’t say anything since, an hour before, he fronted me a grand to help me compensate for some misguided blackjack bets. I have a history of placing misguided blackjack bets.
We were in Vegas and, as usual, I wasn’t in my right mind (presuming I have one), and my tendencies had me by the scruff of the neck. There was a mortgage payment due in a few days, and it wasn’t getting paid without Bart’s help. I had to pretend I liked him.
Bart immediately followed his donation of a life raft with a reminder that I owed him the first installment of the repayment in two weeks’ time, with a remittance thereafter on a bi-monthly schedule, to include 15-percent interest on each new balance.
Bart is an asshole by birth, and by training. He is big, flabby, and loves fast food.
He reminds me of someone.
Bart made an unearned, rewarding way in the world by having a wealthy father who invested in his education, gaining the lad admission to a prestigious university with a sizable donation, and financed his business endeavor — luring competent mid and high-level executives away from their current employers with the promise of enormous salary increases, then pimping them to major corporations and companies. He took a fee for his effort, and a percentage of a successful placement’s salary for a year.
He was, and is, a self-aggrandizing parasite.
He reminds me of someone.
He made a fortune before the Internet gutted his enterprise, and he added a hefty sum to that by cooking the books, and selling the business before anyone but him knew it was doomed.
He didn’t care about the crash or the consequences for the buyers; he’d accumulated a stash of incredible size, and knew he was a gift to the world, a remarkably attractive, knowledgeable, and exciting guy.
Which, of course, he isn’t.
He rips though three marriages in fairly short order. The first one, I don’t experience; it lasts five years in another part of the country. The second (one year, one kid), and third (eight years, one kid), I’m forced to endure, in that Bart has moved to Siberia with a View, and requires assistance each time his arrangement collapses. He needs “friends” to help him relocate his assets before his one-time but now lapsed love of his life can capture them. He’s not about to surrender anything without a fight. He’s an alpha male, after all, his father’s son.
He reminds me of someone.
The phone rings, I answer. It’s Bart. He’s in a dither: Carmina (numero tres) has ordered him to give her everything she desires or she will file charges against him for domestic violence, debit card fraud, animal abuse, crimes against humanity, etc.
Bart is objectionable in so many ways, but he is not violent, and he is not given to committing fraud with debit cards that draw on his own accounts. True, he detests Carmina’s cat, Button, and is no paragon of social grace. Also true: Carmina suffered genuine distress due to the fact she married the goof, bore his child, and lived with Bart for eight miserable years, but she, too, has her dark side. We all do. Theirs is not an unusual union in this way; when a relationship goes in the shitter, everyone needs to wipe.
As noted, what Bart is, besides a goof, is a jerkoff determined not to give Carmina more than the minimum in the upcoming battle. It’s bad enough she’s trying to get money, he says, “but my freedom is not up for grabs.” Bart is from Texas. Freedom is important in Texas.
He could just as easily be from Queens.
“Nobly put, big boy,” I reply, following the freedom remark. “But you need to stop whimpering, and remember you’re the one who adopted the pooch, then proceeded to screw it. Don’t make a fuss when the puppy starts to bark and bite.”
“I need you and the guys to help me move my important stuff from the house before the Queen of Hell gets some kind of court order to prevent me from doing it,” he says. “She’s out for blood. She’s raging. I called Toby, but he told me to fuck off, then ordered me to tell you to call him, ASAP.”
With this, it’s clear assistance will come with a price. This seems right.
I phone my pal, Toby.
“Silly motherfucker’d start an argument with a dead man,” says Toby. “Doesn’t know that none of us could give a shit about him and his woman problems. Goddamn.” I hear ice cubes tinkling against the side of a glass. My bet is Irish whiskey, probably Jameson. He doesn’t switch to wine until dinner. After dinner it’s cognac.
Toby is a Cajun, a speaker of 17th Century French, born close enough to the Gulf that his boyhood home should have been on stilts. Moreover, he is as far from naïve as one can be. The guy learned to fly a Steerman when he was 11, grew up in a family renowned for three generations as race horse trainers, drove tanks in the Marine Corps, joined the New Orleans police department after he was discharged, rose to a leadership position on the vice squad.
Think about this for a moment: the New Orleans Vice Squad. A leadership position.
If that kind of history doesn’t erase naivety and any capacity for delivering unearned sympathy, then the bullet Toby took in the thigh while scaling a tall fence in pursuit of a perp does the trick. Also, consider that the man transferred to the Louisiana State Police, became a major league investigator, ascended to the heights in the chain of command. Saw Jayne Mansfield’s body at the crash site. Knew Earl Long and Edwin Edwards, and was privy to all their goings-on. Discussed the Kennedy assassination with Clay Shaw. Met Carlos Marcello, but wisely avoided a discussion of the assassination with him. Caroused with Strother Martin. Was on a first-name basis with Fats Domino. Got blitzed one night with Tennessee Williams. Taught at the French Police Academy in Lyon.
He retires at 60, moves to Siberia With a View to raise horses and, in a year’s time, he’s bored out of his mind. He accepts a job as the county undersheriff, in charge of everything but the politics required of the otherwise disinterested sheriff. He also functions as the chief investigator, dealing with the most serious crimes — murders, assaults, devastation of all kinds.
Tobe is no one to mess with.
For many years, whenever disaster blooms, my phone at the newspaper rings; it’s Toby, and a moment later, he pulls up at the front door, I jump in his patrol vehicle, and we’re off to the races — or the murder scene, the shooting, the stabbing, the bar brawl, the explosion, the fire, the plane crash, etc.
He and I share a love of odd doings and ideas, intoxicants, good food and cooking. We periodically place orders with various importers and high-end suppliers of meats, illegal unpasteurized cheeses, wines, etc., and indulge in what Toby terms our “grande boeuf,” with reference to an Italian film in which friends decide to eat themselves to death.
We come close to the goal on several occasions.
And, if anyone has the ability to turn an unwanted or unpleasant situation to the pursuit of good eats, it is my man Toby.
I drive to his house for a consult following my chat with Bart.
“The cocksucker is not skatin’ on this,” says Tobe as he lights another Marlboro, and pours three fingers of Jamison’s for each of us. “Bart’s gonna pay for the help…before he gets it. Don’t trust the sniveling little fucker.”
“He’s not little,” I respond. “Sniveling, yes. Fucker, yes. But, not little.”
“Son of bitch is soft,” says Toby. “He’s a braggart, and a glutton with no finesse. The asshole wouldn’t know the difference between Tete de Moine and Velveeta. Hell, he’s got more money than anyone needs, and he eats at fucking McDonald’s.”
Bart reminds me of someone.
“No goddamned backbone, of any kind. But,” Toby pauses and gazes out the window of his front room, pondering a scheme, “he does have that pig roaster.”
“A pig roast,” I say. “Yes! It’s the perfect time of the year to slaughter, roast, and consume a young hog. Of course, any time of year is fine, but why not now?”
“On his fucking dime, and his fucking time,” replies Toby. “And the sniveling cocksucker does it before he gets our help. Or anyone’s help. We need to get the word out to Ricky and Miguel and Joaquin, and tell them not to fall for any of his bullshit.”
“Pig’s gotta be a big one.”
Toby takes charge, and we walk the quarter mile from his house to Bart’s place, soon not to be Bart’s place. It’s four in the afternoon. We bang on the door and, eventually, Bart appears, dressed in his pajamas. A TV is on in the background, the sound turned to ear damaging levels. Dr. Phil is dumping the criticism du jour on someone fool enough to be on his show.
“Goddamn,” says Toby as Bart opens the door, “you’re a fucking piece of nasty, cheap work.” He’s found his contempt for Bart impossible to hide since the Great Pepper Incident.
A year before, Toby determines that he will grow Capsicum frutescens var. Tabasco in Siberia With a View, at altitude — something he claims has never been done. Far be it from me to discourage or disagree.
The pepper will stand as a symbol of Toby’s bayou heritage, and of his mastery of all things plant and/or animal. He purchases seed stock from growers on Avery Island, and creates the perfect indoor environment to produce starters. He waits until the weather outdoors in our sub-alpine area might be conducive to the growth of a plant that normally flourishes in sub-tropical climes. He creates a special garden space on the south side of his house next to the dark exterior wall of the structure, the wall absorbing the heat of the sun then radiating it at night.
Toby checks the plants several times each day. He constructs a fence to prevent deer from doing their nasty work, and strings a web of netting to keep other potential pepper predators at a distance.
Of the twenty plants he places in the soil, only two survive to flower and — miracle of miracles — to produce peppers.
Again, due to my state, I exaggerate. Please, excuse me.
To be accurate: one pepper.
Toby calls me every two days or so, urging me to join him for whisky and a pepper inspection. We stand before the garden, glasses in hand, Tobe sucking on a lit Marlboro, and we marvel at nature’s wonder, and Toby’s expertise. The pepper grows red. I have reason to believe Toby talks to the pepper when he is alone with it. I suspect he gives it a name.
The pepper thrives, and is more than two inches in length, upright and beautiful, obviously packing a full 30,000 to 50,000 Scoville unit punch.
Toby makes plans for an elaborate dinner — grilled and oven-finished prime porterhouse, rare, with a morel- and shallot-blessed sauce, the meaty, fungal, buttery, glace de viand-kissed wonder bearing tiny rings of…
I get a phone call at 3 p.m.
Toby left his office early, to check on the pepper and, presumably, to talk to it.
“The fucking pepper is gone,” he yells. “Somebody took the fucking pepper. I can’t fucking believe it. Some rotten asshole stole my pepper.” He begins to hyperventilate.
“Maybe it was a chipmunk, or a deer,” I say, sensing rage rising in my friend. Rage is something I do not want Toby to experience; when he does, things get very dark, very quickly. Very Acadian. Very New Orleans Vice Squad. Very bullet in the thigh. Very kill them all and let god sort them out.
“Goddammit, mon ami, this is no rodent; non, ce n’est pas possible. Not at 50,000 Scovilles. No chipmunk’s goin’ for that kinda burn. This was a man. I have his footprint. I’m going to make a plaster cast of it, and I will identify this connard. And, when I do … merde!” I see Tobe in my mind’s eye: his Gallic nose is as red as the lost pepper.
I speed to Toby’s house to console him, and to convince him we needn’t abandon our latest scheme to eat and drink well. I am fixed on a prime Porterhouse, with morels. I plan to open a bottle of Vieux Telegraphe to accompany the flesh.
I find him kneeling, a supplicant before his garden and the now pepperless plant, a puddle of plaster drying next to his knee.
He doesn’t look up right away. He growls. “It was Bart, that demented piece of shit. It all fits: access, knowledge of my routine, orientation of the footprints here in the dirt and mud. The asshole waddled from the back of his house when I was at work, and the motherfucker took my pepper. He’s got everything anyone could need, but he couldn’t stand it that I grew the pepper, and he didn’t. The envious little worm had to have it”
Bart reminds me of someone.
Toby is wearing his sidearm and has a pair of cuffs hanging from his duty belt. He stands, authoritative, and puts his gray cowboy hat on his head. “Come on. As one of the world’s great boulevardiers, you’re gonna like this.”
He is correct: I am one of the world’s great boulevardiers. And he is correct: I enjoy mayhem. I follow him to Bart’s house, taking care not to spill my Jameson.
Toby pounds on the front door and I spot Bart peeking from behind the curtain on the living room window. A minute later, after more forceful pounding, Bart opens the door. He’s wearing pajamas and a pair of fuzzy slippers. He has a can of diet Sprite clutched in his paw.
“Where’s the pepper, you no-good son of a bitch?”
Bart denies any knowledge of the prize, or the theft.
Toby demands to enter the house and conduct a thorough search.
Bart refuses entry, claiming a violation of his constitutional rights, and mentioning his attorney.
Toby’s beak reddens.
Toby tells Bart he’ll soon have a dry plaster cast of a boot print.
Bart says, “So?”
Toby tells Bart to get all his boots ready for inspection. If a boot fits the print, the plaster cast goes up Bart’s ass.
Bart says no, it’s a violation of his constitutional rights. He asks if Toby would like the attorney’s phone number.
Toby puts his hand on the butt of his sidearm, tenses, then thinks better, whirls around, and strides back to his house, beak red, a head shot avoided. It would have been an easy shot, given the enormous size of Bart’s head.
Toby becomes more convinced with the passage of a few minutes that Bart is a “fucking liar of a fucking pepper thief.”
Now, with Bart’s latest plea for the help of “friends,” Toby senses an opening, a chance to gain the upper hand. We march back to Bart’s house and Toby gives Bart an ultimatum as the burly, pajama-clad clown slouches in the doorway. I observe, I sip, I am entertained.
“Pig roast. Here, at your place, next Sunday evening. You brag that you’re an expert, so you set up your shed, you put up the spit, you start and manage the fire and coals, you roast the pig. You buy the fucking pig. Figure on at least twenty people, so the pig has to be 70 pounds or more. That means tending the beast for at least eight hours. And no goddamned pine for the coals; you use pine, the deal is off. Oak at the worst, pinon or mesquite preferred. We’ll bring the sides, you furnish plenty of cold beer. Real cold beer, and none of that Lite shit, either. The pig is done perfectly or the deal is off, and you get to reckon with your tormentor all by your fucking self. No law enforcement oversight. Yes, or no?”
“OK, I’ll do it,” says Bart. “But, you promise to help if I do? You can take her to jail if she shows up and does anything crazy, right?”
“We’ll talk after we eat.”
Bart’s desperate, stupid, barely coherent.
Which puts me in mind of someone else.
Toby is focused, unmovable, fearsome.
The roast is on.
I drive past Bart’s house the day before the scheduled event and see that he’s hired a clutch of workers of suspect citizenship to build a large fire and coal pit, erect the sheet-metal-clad, three-sided shed around and above the pit, and install the motorized spit. This is real work, thus Bart is not prepared to do it.
I also spot Toby standing on his back deck, holding a glass of Jameson and a pair of binoculars.
Bart later tells me that the hired crew motors 40 miles west to Hogs Are Beautiful, returns with the freshly butchered carcass, cleans, stuffs, sews and mounts the beast, and stays overnight to tend the fire at one end of the pit and move the coals to the other end when ready. The pig is placed over the coals shortly after daybreak, and left to turn slowly over the heat for eight hours, Bart putting on his slippers and walking to the yard during commercial breaks on Dr. Phil to check the process and bark orders. The crew members are sent on their way come early afternoon. Bart is not about to invite them to share his pork.
He reminds me of someone.
My phone rings, I answer. It’s Toby. He’s been using his binoculars.
“Motherfucker ain’t watchin’ that pork, mon ami. Nobody is. Asshole knows nothing about it. Figures he’d lie about that, since he lies about everything. Probably stiffed that bunch of poor Mexicans, too. Wouldn’t be surprised if the asshole called immigration and turned ‘em in so he didn’t have to pay. Meet me at Bart’s, and we’ll make sure the last couple hours go right. Can’t let that animal die in vain. I love animals, you know — live and cooked.”
Toby and I sit in Wal Mart lawn chairs a safe distance from the shed and the heat, and drink a quart of whiskey while we watch the hog go from golden brown to a deep mahogany in color, Toby occasionally walking to the rotating protein to tap the skin on the hog’s flanks.
“Gittin’ there,” he says as we close in on an hour’s time at the watch. “It’s hard, startin’ to sound hollow, fat’ meltin’, gittin’ deep in the meat.” He pours more Jameson.
An hour later, we’re both DUI-mandatory-blood-test-lose-your-license drunk. The other feast participants have arrived and are setting the sides on the counters in Bart’s kitchen: buns and barbecue sauces; slaws, potato salad, beans; fresh tortillas, bowls of pickled jalapenos, diced white onion, and chopped cilantro; homemade salsas red and green; guacamole, shredded asadero and cheddar. The fixin’s are fixed.
“Goddamn,” says Toby dropping his glass next to the chair. He stands, walks unsteadily to the hog as it turns on the spit, pauses, then jams his hand through the dark crackly skin near the spine of the pig, and pulls out a fistful of meat.
“Lets eat this shit right now. No sense fightin’ for the good parts.”
When drunk, and when in Rome…
By the time Bart brings several of the guests out to tote the pig to his kitchen, there is a gaping hole in the carcass, and two grease drenched drunkards with toasted fingers teetering at the pit’s edge.
The next day, Bart calls.
“I tried to get hold of Toby,” he says, “but his wife says he’s not doing well, and can’t help today. I have to get this finished today, because Carmina’s coming to the house tomorrow. What time can you be here?”
“No can do,” I reply. “I’m feeling a bit under the weather myself. Probably one of those 24-hour viruses. Gotta wait until tomorrow.”
Helping Bart is pain enough. Doing so with a monumental hangover and scorched digits is unthinkable. I’m forced to mitigate my misery with twice-hourly doses of my friend Tito’s handmade vodka and several droppers full of my pal Joe’s special THC elixir.
“Don’t worry,” I say, “we’ll do it tomorrow. If she gives you too much trouble, Toby’ll cuff her and put her in the back of his patrol vehicle. Probably drive her to the county line, boot her out, and warn her to keep going all the way to Albuquerque. No es problemo.”
We arrive at Bart’s place the next morning — eight guys, six pickup trucks, one somewhat disoriented law enforcement official.
Carmina’s car is parked sideways across the driveway and we hear shouting coming from inside the house.
“I’ll take care of this,” says Toby. “You guys wait here.”
A couple minutes later, the door opens, Tobe steps out and, with a dramatic sweep of the arm and a finger pointing toward the porch swing, he yells, “Git!”
Carmina emerges, sullen, head down, and she stops just outside the door.
She shuffles to the swing and sits.
Toby turns to the open door and yells at Bart.
“And you keep your goddamned mouth closed, and show us what to load into those damned trucks. You say one goddamned word to her…”
We load boxes of crap on the trucks, along with an unused elliptical trainer, a load of framed diplomas from online universities, two big screen TVs, the stuffed heads of three moose that Bart bagged on what he calls an “exclusive, controlled safari,” a stuffed cougar, and a large, similarly stuffed marlin.
I break the back right leg off the cougar when I drop my end of the onetime animal, and I knock the fin off the marlin when I make a tight turn around a corner. Barts rushes over.
Toby is ready. “Not a goddamned word, Bart.”
With most of the work complete, Bart takes me by the elbow and leads me up stairs to what he calls his “domain.”
“Remember,” he whispers, “that I told you I’ve found the love of my life?”
“Which time?” I ask.
“A couple weeks ago.”
“Oh, yeah. Love of your life.”
He leans in and puts his large, soft arm around my shoulders. “ We gotta move her. Wanna meet her first?”
“She’s here? I didn’t see or hear anyone up here.”
“Heh heh, nope, you sure didn’t. She’s perfect that way.”
“Where is she?”
Bart grabs my elbow and steers me to a closet door. As he grabs the door handle and opens the door he says, “She’s right here. Meet Anastasia. She’s Russian.”
A chain extends from a ringbolt in the ceiling to eye height where it ends in a large hook.
A second, similar but smaller chain with hook hangs next to it.
On the hook of the first chain dangles a headless, life-size, unusually buxom female body.
On the second hook is affixed a remarkably lifelike female head.
Toby has come upstairs and stands behind me.
“Well, fuck, don’t this take all.”
“She comes with a sanitizer system,” says Bart as he removes the body from the hook and hands it me, “with a free, six-month supply of chemicals.”
He removes the head from the hook and hands it to Toby. This is the first time I have seen Toby taken aback by a situation. This is a man who saw Jayne Mansfield’s head, post mortem.
“You guys hold her while I take out the packing carton,” says Bart. “You look at this carton, you’d never guess what was in it. Pretty neat, huh?”
“Well fuck,” says Toby, “don’t this take all.”
“She looks real, doesn’t she?” asks Bart as he places the body in its compartment in the carton.
“Well, not exactly,” I say. “But I gotta tell you, this is light years from the blow-up rubber dolls Jim and I advertised in The Oyster back in the 70s.”
“Oh yeah,” says Tobe, “back when you and your partner were reprehensible criminals.”
“We weren’t criminals,” I reply. “Reprehensible, perhaps, but not criminal. “We were cutting-edge entrepreneurs who operated at the far reaches of legality. There’s a horizon line, you know, and we stayed mere inches inside it. If anyone should know about the line, it’s you.”
“Huh,” says Bart as he places the head in its proper place, caresses the cheek with his chubby fingers, and closes the lid of the carton.
“Nothin’ you’d understand,” says Toby. “Pick up the end of the box and let’s get moving. It’s gittin’ near the cocktail hour. The boulevardier and I got a date with an Irishman on my porch.”
“I had my choice from a group of gals,” says Bart, “but Anastasia was the one. Her bio says she was a champion figure skater, and she loves to go to the disco and parties. She studied math in college.”
I respond as best I can: “Hmmm.”
“She’s just the right height —five and a half feet — and she weighs 73 pounds. Her skin feels almost like real skin. In a few years, the manufacturers say they’ll provide a component that let’s her moan, and tell me how much she loves me.”
“There were other girls who were pretty darned beautiful: Irina, Blake, Scarlett. It was a tough decision. Scarlett is a schoolgirl, so I figured that was just a bit too weird, but I really liked her.”
“Then there was Kasandra, and Lara.”
“A lot of the names end with an ‘a,’ I reply. “Any chance there was a Melania?”
“Nope,” says Bart, as we negotiate the stairs. “But, the great thing about Anastasia…”
“Beside the fact she can’t talk, or take you to court,” interjects Toby.
“… is I got to choose her hair color (blonde), and I ordered her without the belly button ornament. That’s a bit much, a bit cheap don’t you think? ”
“She’s really durable,” says Bart. “She has a steel skeleton and movable joints, and a hole depth of nearly seven inches. All three holes.”
“Well, fuck, don’t this take all,” says Toby. “But, then, seven inches gives you plenty of extra room, don’t it?”
“Plus, says Randy as we near the front door of the house with the carton, “Anastasia only cost me twenty-five hundred dollars. Carmina spends twice that much each year just to board her horse.”
We put silicon-Russian-in-a-carton in the back of Miguel’s pickup.
“Don’t take any corners fast, and don’t hit potholes,” says Randy.
We fail to notice that Carmina crept back into the house and is in a room on the second floor, taking inventory and growing increasingly enraged. Apparently, several of the diplomas are hers. As we approach the house, she darts downstairs, locks the door before we can enter, then zips back up the stairs, comes out on the deck, and starts screaming at Bart.
“Where’s my diplomas and my Jimmy Choos, you lousy son of a bitch. You stole my Choos. And you kicked my cat, Button.”
“The shoes fit Anastasia perfectly,” mutters Randy, under his breath.
“That’s the last straw, you evil prick,” screams Carmina. “I want that stuff back, or else you’ll never see your son, Devin, again.”
Bart turns to Toby.
“I don’t really care if I see the kid again,” says Bart, “but you said you’d do something if she acted like this. Remember?” He puts his hands on his fleshy hips for emphasis. I notice that one of his eyes fails to focus, the pupil dilated.
Toby remembers his promise, but he also remembers the pepper.
“Hey darlin’, stop screamin’ or I’ll kick down the door and come up there to git you. If you resist, I’ll tase you. If you cooperate, though, I’ll give you something for you and your lawyer.”
Toby points at the bed of Miguel’s truck. “You wanna see what’s in this here box?”
The pepper wins.