The Saturday Morning Post #14, Finale

Here is the final installment of the novella. You can catch up to last week’s installment here or start at the top with excerpts from the short stories here.

TAKING HOPE

The crowd started to thin out after A-Pop left, mostly because it was getting late, but DJGomes and VJBDJ didn’t let that deter them, and the place was flooded with pumping EDM from the end of A-Pop until the end of the party, at four o’clock Monday morning. Toby and Adrian had stayed until the end of that show, at which point both of them looked at each other, and both of them felt some kind of dread that the other wanted to leave.

But Adrian broke the silence. “So… we don’t have to hang out together, boss,” he said, “But if we’re either off tomorrow or you have a business call in a couple of hours — ”

“Off tomorrow,” Toby cut him off to answer. “So hang around as long as you want.”

“It’s totally innocent,” Adrian replied. “I mean, whether I’m on the clock or not.”

“I don’t care,” Toby said. “Do what or whom you want to, whenever you want to.”

“I would,” Adrian finally replied nervously, “But that’s okay. It’s all ace.”

“Ooh. You feel like ice cream?” Toby suddenly said excitedly.

Adrian just smiled. “Sure. But what’s open at this hour?”

“Follow me,” Toby nodded, and led him to the top of the middle of the park,where they went to the station to wait for whichever train came first, the B or the D line. Their routes overlapped briefly so either would get them to where they were going. The D line won, so they hopped on and headed back up two stations, past Pershing Square and then getting off at the 7th Street Metro. Once above ground, they walked a block down 7th from Flower to Hope and came to a Walgreens. Toby still remembered that infamous night there at about this time of day on the early morning before the earthquake, and he noticed by Adrian’s expression that he probably remembered the story, too.

“Is this…?” he trailed off and glanced up.

“Yep,” Toby replied, and they walked in.

There wasn’t a crowd this morning. The place was practically deserted. They went back to the freezer case and were confronted by what Toby knew as The Paradox of Choice. There were so many flavors that it would be hard to decide for someone who didn’t have a favorite, but Toby didn’t have that problem. He used to be a fan of rocky road, but after the quake he had drifted toward butter pecan. While it had similar qualities when it came to “mouth feel,” the flavors and aromas were far more relaxing and sophisticated.

As for Adrian, he kept wavering back and forth between all of the varieties that only involved chocolate —chocolate chip, chocolate chip cookie dough, chocolate fudge brownie, chocolate fudge swirl, chocolate peanut butter, chocolate peppermint, chocolate trio, chocolate vanilla swirl, chocolate with OREO bits, chocolate with ‘Smores, mint chocolate chip, red velvet, and, of course, rocky road.

And then there were the brands, each of which had most of those flavors, or their own variations: Ben & Jerry’s, Breyers, Dreyer’s, Häagen-Dazs, Halo Top, Nice (the Walgreens house brand), and Tillamook.

That all worked out to 91 possible predominantly chocolate-based variations.. Never mind all of the other main flavor bases — vanilla and all of the fruits. And don’t forget to give some room for sorbet and frozen yogurt and non-dairy. Or sizes. Pint, quart, half gallon, gallon? “Fun cup?”

Have you ever wondered why the ice-cream aisle in a store’s frozen section takes up so much room? Well, there’s your answer. And don’t forget all of the “frozen novelties” — ice cream sandwiches and bars, popsicles, fudgesicles, Otter Pops, Klondike Bars, ice bombs, and even Frosty Paws dog “ice cream.”

This was one crowded department. Now, Walgreens did tone it down by including only the brands that gave them the best margins and least complicated ordering process, so… Ben & Jerry’s, Dreyer’s, and Tillamook. If the manager had had her druthers, she wouldn’t have carried Nice, but she had no choice, for reasons that should be obvious from three paragraphs back. In order to cram it all into the space she had, she only stocked pints and quarts, and allowed in Häagen-Dazs pints of the three most popular flavors in the area, but those were only available in a so-called “coffin cooler” near the front of the store.

If you’re not getting that term… it’s a top-loading freezer with, usually, glass doors on top that either slide or lift, and all of the product is displayed stacked underneath. Retailers since time immemorial took to calling it a “coffin cooler” because you had to lift the lid to get to the cold, hard stuff.

But, Adrian and Toby don’t know any of this, and by this point it’s about a quarter past four in the morning. They’d made good time hiking up Grand Park and also lucked out in hitting the station right as a train arrived, so overall it had only taken them about ten minutes to get here.

Toby could see Adrian’s brain practically melting over the options and he really felt sorry for him, so he finally just said, matter-off-factly, “By the way, I gave you another bonus after we convinced the mayor to screw with Wendy, and it should be in your account by now. Buy yourself something nice, but the docking or hangar fees are all going to be on you.”

Adrian just turned to Toby, gawked for an instant, then opened the cooler and quietly pulled out two pints: Tillamook chocolate peanut butter, and Ben & Jerry’s chocolate fudge brownie.

“Good man,” Toby said, and they headed for the checkout, where the manager that Toby had once thought of as a tiny transwoman had now become a person in his mind, because he’d gotten to know her over the last couple of months. Her name was Ramona, and she was working her way through law school at Loyola downtown. Yes, she was transgender, but Toby had long since stopped thinking of her as anything other than her preferred pronouns and gender. Or, as he liked to think of them, her real ones. She’d taught him a lot.

He also knew that most people of his class would find it very weird that he loved walking down here, often in the middle of the night, to buy things that he could have (in their minds, should have) ordered from the best names in the world: toiletries from Bolin Webb, Clinique, DIOR, Erno Lazlo, Foreo, Kiehl’s, Tom Ford, Truefitt & Hill, and on and on. “Prove your worth by having them sent next day a.m. from Harrods. Don’t cheap out by ordering American!”

“Or, for god’s sake, order your ice cream from the Langham Hotel in Chicago, Maubossin in Manhattan, or Serendipity 3 in New York, so you can at least say that you’ve paid a respectable $1,000 for a pint, minus express shipping by private jet on dry ice. Otherwise, you’re embarrassing your class!”

God, Toby hated rich people, himself most of all. He noticed that Adrian hadn’t checked yet, but this latest bonus to him would probably also be the last one — not because Toby would be inclined to cut them off, but because he had finally realized that Adrian was worthy of elevation, since he wasn’t like the others who would insist on dropping a grand into another billionaire’s pocket for ice cream just to brag about it. The last one Adrian had gotten was six digits. This one is eight. In fact, Toby had looked it up. Adrian is 27, so he made it for a gross of $27,000,000, but then structured it as a dividend payout, rather than income, so he wouldn’t get fucked on the taxes like the little people do. He’d net about $23,000,000, and Toby knew that Adrian would know what to do with that kind of money and not become an asshole.

They got into line with their ice cream in hand behind four other people, and Toby noted that two of them were “Karens.” Great. And those two were followed by a bathtub. And then Toby looked at the guy ahead of him in line and thought, “Oh, holy fuck. What are the odds of this?”

He couldn’t forget the face he’d studied so intently just over five months ago, the man he’d spoken to, and the literal shitshow that had happened. Although something seemed different about him today. He wasn’t buying toilet paper, and he didn’t have the same hollow-eyed desperation. Instead, he had a couple of greeting cards in his hand, which seemed totally anachronistic in this day and age, although medical science was getting better at keeping centenarians around, so who knew?

The transformation Toby saw was amazing. This man seemed totally together. And it was definitely the same guy, so Toby leaned forward and said, “Perdóneme… ¿nos hemos conocidos anteriormente?”

The man turned, took one look at Toby, and just stared in amazement.

“Oh my god,” he muttered. “I remember you.”

“You speak English?” Toby asked.

“Of course I speak English.”

“But that night…”

“I speak both. Oh… I guess you do too. Yeah, I just tend to go to my native language when I’m feeling distressed, which I obviously was. But here’s the thing I never forgot. You were the one person who didn’t look at me with disgust or hate when… well… you know. ‘It’ happened. And I’ve always felt like you would have helped if I hadn’t run because I felt so goddamn ashamed.”

“Wait,” Toby said. “What? Oh my god… you have just forgiven me such a huge sin… Oh. My name’s Toby. Toby Arnott. And you are…?”

“Winford,” the man replies. “Well, to friends. Dr. Quintana to my patients.”

“You’re an MD?” Toby asks, seeming flustered.

“Yes,” Dr. Winford Quintana replies, “And that was why what you saw happen happen.”

“My god, I totally misread you,” Toby said.

“Yeah, I guessed that.”

“Holy crap,” Adrian suddenly piped up. Is he…”

“Yes, and shut up,” Toby shot back tersely.

“Oh, it’s okay,” Winford said.

“How did all of that happen, though?” Toby asked, feeling very awkward, but the doctor seemed very inclined to explain.

“Pardon my French, but goddamn dumbass anti-vax parents. Our ER was jammed about a week before with tons of kids having symptoms, and tons of idiot parents trying to get the staff to only use homeopathic or “holistic” treatments, and god, I wish that I could ban people like that from the campus in a heartbeat. But… no.

“Now, I’m not working ER that night, but I am working intake with the actual urgent non-measles cases getting passed through. The problem is, the volume in ER is so high that people are getting sloppy, especially with hygiene, and somewhere along the way, somebody with giardia comes in dirty, but I don’t know it. Hospital intake isn’t a sterile environment because it’s just assumed that all precautions have been taken on the way. So… I’m not absolutely sure who, but pretty sure that the intake exam I did on this fourteen-year-old soccer player from City of Angels High School blasted me with the parasite and I didn’t know it.

“Why would I? He presented with a broken leg, compound fracture. What I didn’t know is that he’d just come back from a team trip to Guatemala. Also, he had a minor case of diarrhea, and didn’t mention (until much later to his mother when the hospital asked) that he’d basically had an aerosol shart on the way from ER to my exam. And, since I’d assumed procedures had happened, well, kind of my fault, too, for not dipping the entire room in alcohol.

“By the time I was almost home and this shit, pardon the expression, caught up with me a week later, I realized that I’d need some heavy-lifting, and, how do the kids say it? An attempt was made. And you saw it fail.”

“Anyway, since that night, I’ve always imagined that I’ve turned into a case of ‘The Fortunate Fart’ around here.”

“Oh my god, you know that?” Adrian suddenly spoke up. Toby was about to rebuke him, but Winford smiled back and said, “Yes. You’re a fan of folklore?”

“For sure, doc. Did you know Abraham Lincoln used to love to tell a version of that story, mostly as a way of figuring out whether — ”

“—whether to trust politicians or lobbyists?” they finished together, and Winford gushed. “Yes!”

“Oh, wow,” Adrian added.

“Okay,” Toby said. “So… Oh what’s that old line from the movie? I have a feeling that — ”

“— this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship,” Adrian and Winford chimed in in unison.

“Fuck this ice cream,” Toby announced. “You, buy your cards, but I have a fantastic idea.”

“What’s that?” Adrian asked.

“Breakfast?” Toby said. “The Pantry isn’t that far away, and I feel like that place fits the theme of now.”

“What?” Winford asked. “Hungry people?”

“No,” Toby replied. “Forgiveness. You don’t know the story, do you?”

Winford and Adrian both shrugged, and Adrian sighed, then went on. “It’s a total bullshit legend, of course,” he said. “But the rumor is that this place used to only hire ex-convicts and felons in order to rehabilitate them.”

“Is that true?” Adrian asked.

Winford and Toby looked at each other, smiled, and said, “Nah.”

“But who cares?” Toby added. “Sometimes, the sentiment is far more important than the truth.”

And so the three of them walked out of Walgreens, ice cream put back into the coolers but Winford’s greeting cards safely in his suit-coat pocket, and they turned the corner and walked from 7th to 9th, taking Hope all the way.

* * *

The Saturday Morning Post #14, Part 7

Here is the penultimate installment of the L.A. social event of 2029. You can catch up to last week’s installment here or start at the top here.

TAKING HOPE

Fumiko had wanted to leave after the reception, but her nephew Haru had convinced her to stay and come down to the concert, and they’d been there ever since Maná and Natalia Jiménez had taken the stage at 6:30. Haru was a little pissed that they’d missed OK Go’s full show. On the other hand he did get to see their private number after the wedding, and he had made his aunt hang back so that he even got to high-five the quartet, especially his favorite, Andy, who also signed his program and took the time to have a short, friendly conversation.

Even though she didn’t understand Spanish much when it didn’t have to do with sizes and colors of cloth, Fumiko still seemed to enjoy the first act, and she seemed absolutely beside herself when Bette, Cher, and Barbra took the stage.

When A-Pop came on, she seemed a bit… confused.

Meanwhile, Alice and Edna had stayed, and Edna commented to Alice when the kids came on, “Damn. They’re hot. Probably all gay, too, but so what?”

“I… don’t know about this,” Alice muttered.

“What? They’re pretty good dancers and singers. Enjoy the show.”

“The one on the right, okay. He’s fine. And the one on the left. But…”

“But? Oh, damn. Is this one of those cultural things that my privileged white ass is missing?”

Alice just nodded, and then she noticed Fumiko, standing just to the other side of Haru. Of course, she didn’t know their names. All she knew was that Fumiko was giving her the same hateful look that she was shooting back, while the boy looked completely neutral, if not a little startled by Alice.

“Care to explain?” Edna asked. “Sincere question.”

“Thai boy on the right, everybody likes them. Chinese boy on the left, my home team. In between? Japan, Korea.”

“Sigh. So, in Western terms?”

“Think… World War Two, and you’re American. The Thai boy on the right? Canada. Everybody likes them. Chinese boy on the right? G.I. Joe. Your home team hero. In between? Germany, then Italy, in that order.”

“Okay,” Edna replied, “Except that nowadays, Americans don’t hold any particular grudges against Germans or Italians, although we still like Canadians. And the Thai. And now I know what you’re talking about, and it has to do with Nanking, doesn’t it?”

Alice just sighed and nodded. “It has everything to do with it.”

Edna took a deep breath, then threw up her hands. “I understand. I mean, I don’t agree with it, but I have absolutely no place to try to explain. Obviously. All I can say is just try to enjoy the concert, and how those four boys are working together so well.”

“I know,” Alice said, “But… it can be so hard with a reminder.” She nodded toward Fumiko.

“Or so easy if you just say ‘Hello?’” Edna asked. “No, sorry… sorry. I’m just going to shut up and maybe move over there to watch the show. You enjoy the rest of the evening.”

Edna moved off to the side, and she felt really conflicted. Honestly, she had no place saying anything about whatever deep-seated ethnic tensions existed between Chinese, Japanese, and Korean people, even several generations removed. That would be like the Sultan of Brunei telling her how to feel about that whole British/Irish thing, given her ancestry.

On the other hand, it had really taken her aback to see clear racism in a person who wasn’t white. She didn’t think that such a thing was possible. She still didn’t. This had to be something other than that. Or maybe not. Maybe it was just another example of her actually being racist. Either way, it made her preconceptions spin, so she had to step away and just enjoy the music.

This didn’t keep her from watching as Alice and Fumiko gave each other the side-eye. Of course, Edna had no idea who Fumiko was, nor did she know who the young man with her was. She assumed that he was her son.

Toward the end of the concert, the young man finally walked right up to Alice, despite Fumiko trying to stop him, but he was insistent, and they exchanged a few brief words, Alice finally suddenly looking at him, incredulous, then at Fumiko, who glanced away proudly. Alice nodded to the young man, touched his shoulder, then walked over to Fumiko and got her attention, at which point she bowed deeply. Fumiko seemed legitimately shocked, throwing her hand over her face and leaning back but, after a moment, she stepped away from Alice backwards, and bowed even more deeply.

Edna had no idea what was going on, but it seemed to be progress, and the young man was beaming. In that moment, A-Pop were singing their finale, a song in English with the lyrics:

We know no borders and no countries

Religions don’t exist at all

Age and race and lies like these

Should never build a wall

All our genders are social fiction

All our sex is just some friction

Out with the old, and hey there newbies…

Let’s go have a ball!

The two women looked at each other, seeming to acknowledge the lyrics, then stood upright, paused for a moment, and walked away, leaving the young man to stand there looking very confused and sad. Edna wanted to run over and hug him, but didn’t, not knowing what was appropriate to do.

What she hadn’t heard was what had been said. Haru went to Alice and said, “My aunt knows of you, because she met that white woman you helped, and after she heard that story, she told me, ‘Haru, I don’t care if she’s Chinese. She has a charitable heart. I truly admire her.”

Alice said nothing, but just looked at Haru, incredulous, then past him at Fumiko, who glanced away and Alice knew that it was in embarrassment and shame. She nodded to Haru, touched his shoulder in a gesture of thanks, then went to Fumiko and did the only thing she knew to mitigate the woman’s shame because, truth to tell, Alice was suddenly feeling a lot of shame herself for having hated someone on sight who, clearly, admired her actions. Once Fumiko glanced her way, Alice bowed deeply, as she knew that this was a sign of respect among the Japanese.

Unfortunately, Fumiko seemed taken aback by this gesture, covering her mouth, eyes wide, gasping audibly and stepping back. She bowed even more deeply, and Alice understood that they really weren’t communicating as equals, because now they were in a struggle over who could say “sorry” the hardest, even though Alice knew that she was clearly in the wrong.

They stepped apart, regarded each other sadly, and then walked away. Haru couldn’t help but take the last lyrics of the song to heart…

Out with the old, and hey there newbies…

Let’s go have a ball!

As the line repeated, Haru looked up toward the stage, and realized that Li-Wei seemed to be singing it right to him, then noticed that the boys were marching down the steps, repeating the last lines alternately in unison in each of their own languages in turn — and Li-Wei was practically eye-fucking Haru. The only thing Haru knew to do was make strong eye contact, smile, and then do his best demure school-girl by tossing his hands in front of his face, giggling, and looking away.

Of course, there was no way that Li-Wei heard the giggle, and Haru wasn’t even sure that he’d understand that the move was a gigantic come-on. He didn’t even know whether Anime, or its successor Simume, had even made it to China. Or was Li-Wei just a Chinese boy from the west?

And then the Thai boy on the end announced, “Who wants to have a ball with us?” and Haru felt someone grab his hand. It was Li-Wei, and the other three were grabbing people from the crowd as well. Hiroji and Seojun grabbed two very pretty girls their own age. Hiroji’s was black and Sojun’s was most likely Eurasian. Haru wasn’t sure, but he suspected Vietnamese with at least one if not two American grandfathers courtesy of the tail end of that failed war. As for Kiet, he found a man who was probably old enough to be his grandfather, or at least his father, and one that Haru could not find subjectively attractive in any way, shape, or form. Then again, who was he to judge? And he tried as hard as he could to block his grandmother’s words about Thai men from his mind. She hadn’t been kind.

Well, hell. She hadn’t been kind about any kind of Asian other than Japanese, or anyone who wasn’t Asian at all. Haru had always found this odd, since his grandmother was sansei. Her parents were the first generation born in America. She was the third. She was as American as George Washington.

Of course, her big criticism of Thai men was, “Oh, they’re all just fags,” which had really hurt Haru, although he was afraid to say anything about it. That changed when he told it to his favorite auntie, Fumiko and, upon hearing the news, she went off on a tirade against Gran Shizuka, who was her mother, in front of the rest of the family.

That made for one tense and awkward birthday party for Fumiko’s sister Fukumi, who was Haru’s mother. But once Fumiko began berating Shizuka for basically tossing hatred on her own uncle, Masakatsu, now deceased, but who had always been openly gay, she won the argument, and Shizuka fled the party. It was only the intervention of Fukumi that kept the woman from going full-on drama gramma by pretending to perform an ancient suicide ritual.

“Really, mom?” everyone heard Fukumi say from the hall. “We’re in America. We’ve been in America for damn near 75 years now. Nobody does this shit anymore. Not this homophobia, and not this gutting yourself because you got embarrassed. Now grow the fuck up and come back to the goddamn party.”

From that day forward, Haru seemed to be Gran Shizuka’s favorite, so he had high hopes that people could change. And if that was whom Kiet loved, more power to him. Haru was absolutely loving the fact that he was being dragged by the hand back up to the top of the steps — one of the chosen few — by this hot Chinese-American boy who was probably at least half a dozen years older than him, but that was okay. At nineteen, Haru was tired of being a virgin, and he had a feeling that tonight he was going to lose his V-Card to an international superstar.

After a few choruses of wild dancing at the top, the song suddenly turned slow and the lights became muted and colorful, and Li-Wei pulled Haru in close, leading as they did a slow and sensual fox trot.

Haru really hoped that Li-Wei wouldn’t feel the raging boner in his pants, but then Li-Wei pulled Haru in by the small of his back, which was when they pretty much realized that they were both hard as hell.

“What are you doing after our show?” Li-Wei asked him, staring deeply into his eyes.

“You…?” Haru muttered, a breathless question.

Li-Wei pulled him closer. “Oh. I’m Li-Wei. And you?”

“I know,” Haru replied, feeling immediately stupid, then adding “Haru” after an awkward pause during which he couldn’t remember his own name.

“Well then… when this song ends, the exit is right across to City Hall doors, and then we get our own private elevators down to the limo, and to our hotel suites. But once we get there, I think I know where the entrance is.”

Li-Wei moved his hand and grabbed Haru’s ass, hard, one finger slipping as far up his crack as Haru’s trousers would allow. Haru just moaned a little and looked up at Li-Wei with hungry eyes.

“Oh… Senpai,” he sighed, not knowing what else to say.

“I’m getting to like you more and more by the second.” Li-Wei smiled back down before adding, “Kōhai.” Haru’s knees went weak and he almost turned into a manga character right there. He was equally bowled over by a Chinese boy knowing something that he thought only Japanese people and white American weeabos knew. Then the song ended, and the band and their insta-dates marched off towards the doors to city hall, but the evening and rest of the next day were only just beginning

* * *

The Saturday Morning Post #14, Part 6

More of the L.A. social event of 2029. You can catch up to last week’s installment here or start at the top here.

TAKING HOPE

Adam and Tony had finished getting dressed and exited by the time the crowd went wild, and there was a sudden very bizarre opening medley of greatest hits. Both of them knew that their parents had liked this music, and their grandparents more so, and while they didn’t have a lot of experience, the women in question were still iconic enough that they knew their names, at least.

“We should watch this, dude,” Tony commented and Adam just nodded agreement and took his arm and they wandered across the street to the bottom of City Hall steps to try to find a good viewpoint.

“Oh my god, did I just cum so hard I died?” Tycho announced to his group. They had managed to snag a spot center stage, at the bottom of City Hall steps, so they essentially had front row seats, and Tycho had been a big fan of two of these women since forever, thanks to his favorite gay uncle having exposed him to their music.

Finley had no idea who any of them were except Cher, and he was kind of a fan, but more of her movies than her music. James couldn’t care less about Bette or Cher, but had been a Barbra queen since forever. Adam and Tony only knew their names, but Bette seemed to be the funniest one with the best jokes, and even if the music was way too last century for them, they still dug the personalities. It was like three naughty grandmas just letting loose and having fun.

Jackson and Cindy were huddled together against one of the multi-lingual steles declaring the place “The park for everyone,” really enjoying what to them was a nostalgic trip back to elementary school when each of these women had first started to become popular. When he was nine, Jackson’s parents started to watch Sonny and Cher on TV, and they didn’t go off the air until he was fifteen, so he thought it was just one show that had been on a long time. What he never realized back then is that The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour ran from 1971 to 1974, and then The Sonny and Cher Show came on in 1976, but only lasted a year.

He vaguely remembered some Bette Midler song from around sixth grade that sounded like it was from WW II and was very up-tempo and fun, but was never really into Barbra because most of her stuff was just too slow.

Cindy mostly remembered Cher for her song Dark Lady, which was all over the radio starting from when she was about nine. She’d been a little too young to remember Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves, but Jackson certainly did. And two of Cindy’s favorite films, which came out during and just after her junior year of college, starred Bette Midler — oddly enough playing two different characters named “Barbara,” in Down and Out in Beverly Hills and Ruthless People. Now that woman was funny. When the icons were finished, Jackson gave Cindy “that” look, and she just smiled back. They walked out of the park hand-in-hand and rode the A Line back out to where they had parked somewhere with a lot more space and much cheaper, as in free. Sure, Jackson could have easily afforded to drive all the way downtown, or even rented a self-driver for the day, but neither Cindy nor he wanted to appear to be part of the upper-crust, preferring to hang with the real people at the bottom of the Park for Everyone.

After this part of the concert was over, Tycho and Finley decided to wander off and James followed. Tony wanted to go, too, but Adam insisted that they stay.

“It’s late, babes,” Tony replied.

“I know, but come on. Next up is Shakira, Maluma, Pit Bull, and some secret special guest. No way are we leaving now.”

“Really? Tony protested.

“If you stay,” Adam told him in a sing-song, “I will fuck you to within an inch of your life once we get home.”

“Can the other guys watch?” Tony asked.

“Duh,” Adam teased back.

“Okay, then!” Tony smiled and they held hands and wandered around the crowd until the next performance started at 10:30. Along the way, they ran into Rafael and Vince, who were there for the same reasons. No way in hell was Rafael going to miss this one, and he dragged his bromantic partner along.

A half hour into that show, the reception in upper Grand Park for the rich people came to an end, and the staff began ushering them out, with Park staff guiding them up the hill to 2 Grand Avenue, which was the designated loading area for their various limos. People this rich simply did not “park” anywhere, and god forbid they drove themselves, although a good number of them arrived in their self-driving cars and then sent them off to wait until summoned at one of the special “robo-park” garages around the area. These were basically giant car filing cabinets that used vertical space.

The typical configuration comprised six lifts next to each other with thirty stacked spaces, and what was essentially an elevator shaft going up and down thirty floors above and below street level. They would load from the top down, first come, first served, and self-driving cars only. A car would drive in, payment would be authorized wirelessly, and the preferred charging method would be instigated, whether via plug-in or battery swap. Some of them even offered brushless washing. After each car, the lift would rise to make the next space available, and so on,

This meant that one of these garages could pack 180 cars into the parking footprint of six spaces and, since the part going up, but especially the part going down, was essentially just an elevator shaft with no cables — the whole thing was driven by ratcheted motors — construction was fairly cheap.

As for the guests, the park employees had herded all of them to the top level of the park above the fountain within twenty minutes, and the main reception area was vacant of all but staff. They had already gotten the message to assemble in the Mosk Courthouse lobby after the party shut down, and the people giving the message had acted sufficiently anxious, so everyone was a bit nervous and on edge, most of them wondering, “Damn. What did we fuck up?”

Alejandra finally entered, and went into her best actress mode to appear pissed as hell. She paced back and forth in tense silence a few times, shooting an occasional look at the staff, none of whom made eye-contact. Finally, she stopped and said, in her best sarcastic tone, “Yeah, I want to thank you all so much for your ‘help’ with my only daughter’s wedding.”

“I noticed that none of you had anything at all to do with convincing our various guests to open their wallets and donate tonight.” She knew that this would get an angry but hidden reaction, because she had never said that was part of the job. She let it rest for a moment, then decided to give the big reveal. She had tortured them enough.

“Of course, that’s because no one asked you to. That was my job, and they sure as hell donated to charity tonight. Thanks to them, we took in over a hundred million dollars for my favorite charity.”

This was met with a lot of nonplussed looks, as in, “Okay, so?”

“Oh, silly me. I forgot to mention my favorite charity. And that each beneficiary of that charity is going to get about two hundred grand.” She took a dramatic pause, then gestured toward the staff. “Um… that’d be you. All of you. You’ve done a fantastic job making this event a success, and your bonuses are going to net out to just what I said.”

She had brought the crowd from confusion to disbelief, but then members of her accounting staff began to pass out the checks. Archaic, she knew, but this would have more impact, and she watched as people quickly ripped open the envelopes, looked at the amounts, and most of them suddenly started crying tears of absolute and sincere joy.

“See, if you hadn’t made things run so smoothly, nobody would have been inclined to donate anything. So, no, I never asked you to make our guests open their wallets tonight because I didn’t have to. You did it all on your own, and on top of that, you made this one of the best nights of my life, along with my family. On behalf of my daughter, son-in-law, his parents, my husband, and the City and County of Los Angeles, I thank you all from the bottom of my heart. Now head on down to City Hall and enjoy the rest of the People’s Concert. You’ve earned it!”

She blew them a kiss and exited, and the room erupted into chatter, cheers, hysterically happy tears, group hugs, and general jubilation.

It actually wasn’t until Alejandra left her bonus ceremony that Adrian finally managed to buttonhole her and introduce himself to her. As soon as he said the words “Toby Arnot,” though, she started to pull away, but Adrian went into full-on schmooze mode and told her, “He’s actually very anti-gentrification, and if you just give him five minutes, I’m sure you’ll want to help him.”

“He has two,” she snapped. “Starting now.”

Adrian hustled her to where Toby had been waiting, not ten seconds away, and he wasted no time launching into his spiel. He explained how he wanted to maintain a former motel with affordable housing, as well as support an arts group and Alejandra seemed interested but indifferent. But then he uttered what were apparently the magic words. “Wendy Rue is trying to eminent domain both properties and — ”

And that was as far as he got. “— and turn the places into unaffordable housing for foreign billionaires who really shouldn’t own shit here. Right?” Adian and Toby nodded. “I’ve heard enough,” she said. “I’ll make a note, and first thing Tuesday, I’m going to file the RAI on her. Just send me the property addresses. Actually, do you know of anything else in the area she’s trying to pull the ED on?”

“No,” Toby said, “But I can find out.”

“Well, so can I. On second thought, I’m just going to put out a general RAI on anything in her district.”

“Thank you so much,” Toby told her.

“No,” she replied. “Thank you. And you,” she added, nodding to Adrian. “Without people like you to point out how the elected are trying to abuse the city, we don’t really know. We’ll be in touch.”

“Do you need my — ”

“No, Toby,” she replied. “Everyone downtown knows who you are!”

She walked away and Toby turned to Adrian with the biggest grin Adrian had ever seen on his boss. “Wow,” Toby muttered. “Beyond amazing!”

Adrian’s knees went a little weak on that one, wondering what kind of bonus was going to come from the superlative version of the magic six-digit bonus phrase.

Mission accomplished, the two of them finally wandered down to the People’s Concert, arriving just before the start of the portion featuring A-Pop, a boy band from Asia with members from China, Japan, Korea, and Thailand — Li-Wei, Hiroji, Seojun, and Kiet. They were known all around the world, so didn’t require family names, and the crowd went nuts when they took the stage.

* * *

 

The Saturday Morning Post #14, Part 4

Last week brought us to the last first-person short story. Now comes the closing novella, told in third-person, in which everyone comes together. Since a lot of us are still locked up, I think I’m going to share a bit more of this one in a few installments, since this part is 20,000 words or so. You can catch up to last week’s installment here or start at the top here. Here, we continue with the post wedding activities of the main characters.

TAKING HOPE

Cindy and Jackson had glued themselves to each other the second they’d sat down. The connection they had forged was beyond amazing, especially because neither of them ever thought that they could have found true love at their ages, which were well into their 60s. She was 64, he was 67. But they did, and they also found out that they were still interested in and able to have sex, and it was loud, passionate, and crazy, especially because they did not have to worry at all about unwanted pregnancy. Cindy’s eggs had long since fled the coop, and Jackson’s sperm count was lower than the DJIA in the last year of the Trump presidency a decade ago.

And being at such an amazing and festive wedding, and sitting very near the loving… well, Jackson dubbed it the “love cluster” comprising his assistant, his boyfriend, their third, and the other couple they all seemed to be fucking — just put him in a mood to finally ask. He’d bought the ring a couple of weeks earlier, but figured that this would be the perfect event to spring it at, probably during the reception. Once the ceremony actually started, he and Cindy just leaned into each other and held on tight, and found themselves giving each other loving glances at every super romantic moment.

“Yeah,” Jackson thought. “This is definitely the day to pop the question. I just hope I can figure out the perfect time.”

Rafael and Vince certainly noticed, especially because of that whole “Want to get straight married” question in light of the quake, but sitting here now among the contingent that Madame Alice managed to bring in just put them more in mind of it. In fact, during the ceremony, Rafael casually tossed his arm around Vince’s shoulders, and Vince returned the favor, and they shared a bro look at least several times. And then, at the reception after the reception — i.e. the part where the middle class and below were told to go to the better party down the hill, Raf and Vince hit the bottom of Grand Park right before the end of the Maná and Natalia Jiménez show. At the end of it, he grabbed his Bro’s hand and said, “So… I know we joked about that getting married thing earlier, but — ”

“Oh, fuck yes, dude,” Rafael replied before Vince could even finish asking, and so it was going to happen.

Tycho hadn’t noticed because he was too wrapped up in his own group, but his request through the mayor’s office had been accepted, and so Rebekah wheeled Matt in, although they took up a position near the back of the nave, in a spot with a short row of pews meant for the handicapped. If Tycho had looked back, he might have wondered why the House of Jesus wouldn’t have accommodated putting the lame at the front, but since they rolled in just before the flutes started up, he never saw them.

Matt did, though. He spotted Tycho almost immediately, and all he could do was just stare forlornly in his direction, hoping that his wife didn’t notice. Maybe, one day, he’d actually get the chance to tell Tycho how he really felt — although, at the moment, he seemed really happy with at least two of the boys sitting next to him, if not several others.

Hell, maybe one day Matt’s legs and his dick would work again and he could get divorced and play daddy for Tycho and all of his hot little friends. And he had to admit that he was impressed when he realized that Tyty was, in fact, pulling tail with at least four other hot, young guys.

If only he could walk, and not depend on… her. And still have his government job. Fuck the earthquake. Fuck the earth. All that Matt could do was stare at true beauty at the far end of the room and feel the complete sense of loss and regret and anger.

Rebekah had never told Matt that the only reason they were there was because of Tycho’s largesse. She let him think that she’d pulled the strings. She constantly reminded him of how much she loved him, which she did. Every time she did so, he cringed inside.

From his spot house right (stage left) Toby sat and watched, and recognized several familiar and friendly faces he’d met thanks to Adrian’s amazing work. Note to self: Another bonus due, probably in the mid-five figure range. He also noticed that he didn’t see the pain in the ass councilor whom he had sicced his lawyers on the second she tried to take away Edna’s property, not to mention screw with Alice’s easements and permits. Well… good. There had been a reason he’d bought his way into this wedding, and this was that. He’d gotten to know people all around the neighborhood bordered north and south by Wilshire and San Marino, and east and west by Irolo and Western, gotten to like them, and was going to make it rain for them. What else could he do? After all, as Adrian had wisely surmised, the only thing he’d been feeling since the morning before the quake was incredible guilt. And he still hadn’t been able to explain it to anyone. But he was damn well going to do something about it.

When the recessional music started up, he heard the words “I won’t let you down” right after the first twelve bars, and thought, “Wow. That fits perfectly what I want to do for Alice and Edna and everyone. Maybe this is a sign.” He had actually never head of OK Go or heard the song before, but that was probably because since a very early age, he had been a huge Asian language nerd, and so only listened to K-Pop, as well as Cantonese and Mandarin music and podcasts, all in an effort to learn the languages. By the time he was out of college, he was fairly fluent in all three and just starting on Korean, and it had led directly to his success in business. Sure, it did leave him a little lacking in American pop culture, but only slightly, since up until the infamous Chinese lockout that didn’t end until January 21, 2021, he could see his fill of American blockbuster movies dubbed in any of those languages and understand them.

Toby wasn’t the only one moved by the words. Jackson and Cindy gave each other a smile and a hand squeeze, and so did Adam and Tony, Rafael and Vince, and Tycho and Finley. James just settled for trying to give them a smile, not wanting to incur Tycho’s wrath again. But it was that kind of a feel-good song that sent everyone out in a fantastic mood.

On the repeated line, “Lights out in Babylon,” Alice and Edna gave each other a knowing look that said, “Been there, done that, too many times.”

At the back of the room, Rebekah touched Matt’s shoulder, trying to be reassuring, but Matt was just watching as Tycho and company got up and exited the sanctuary via the façade exits into the cathedral proper on the south transept — which was actually pointed east by south east due to a fluke of church terminology. The wall behind the altar was always called the east wall, which in this case was aimed slightly off of north, so that all of the compass directions in the place, if referred to in doctrinal terms, were shifted just under 90º counterclockwise. It was a leftover from the whole looking toward Jerusalem to pray thing, also related to bowing toward Mecca, or finding qibla, the relative direction to Mecca from anywhere on Earth. This had caused much debate over twenty years earlier, right before Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor became the first Muslim astronaut to visit the ISS.

And it was a legitimate question. Properly, a Muslim had to pray five times per day, and bow toward Mecca while doing it, as well as face the ground. Easy to do on Earth. On space, in a machine that orbited sixteen times in a single earth day and without gravity, not so much.

If you measured a day by sunrise and sunset, then it would mean a Muslim astronaut had to pray 80 times per Earth day. At about five minutes per prayer session, that would be six hours and forty minutes per day doing nothing but praying — not something that Roscosmos or NASA would be too happy about. Also, given the speed and altitude of the ISS, the relative position of Mecca could shift by up to 180 degrees in those five minute chunks — that is from looking to the left to looking to the right or vice versa every time.

One early school of thought had dealt with this problem with the advent of trains and then planes, which also moved. Their solution was to determine qibla at the point you were at when you started praying, and then to keep looking that way no matter how much the train or plane moved.

But this brought up another question. The ISS orbited at an altitude of 254 miles, or 408 kilometers, so how to measure the relative distance to Mecca? Straight line down to Earth and go from there, or straight line up from Mecca, and go from there? The big problem with the latter is that it might have someone not face the Earth at all and, in fact, possibly do the worst possible and most blasphemous thing — praying while facing the moon or sun.

Eventually, an 18 page booklet came out that was a guide to how Muslims could follow all of their rules and rituals in space, and it boiled down, basically, to this: “Do the best you can, but Allah isn’t going to judge you if you can’t under the circumstances.”

Most of the Muslim astronauts silently made the same choice: Facing the entire Earth was de facto facing Mecca, and that was where the twenty-four hours counted — not moonrise and moonset. So they followed the clock based on wherever they had launched from and the only thing they had to be careful about was to not be looking in a direction that would put the rising sun or moon in what would be their line of sight if they weren’t looking at the “floor.”

It had turned out to not be as complicated as the scholars had made it out to be. The difficult part was not launching yourself into a back flip if you brought your head down to the prayer mat too hard.

Oddly enough, Jews and Catholics had come up with similar workarounds themselves many times before. In fact, it was a long-standing rule even among the most Orthodox of Jews that if it were a choice between following the Kosher laws and sacrificing a life, then life won out. That vital drug that will save our child’s life is haram because it only comes in gel-caps made out of pig’s hooves? God says “Okay.”

For some reason, in the west, only certain Protestant cults hadn’t figured this out, in particular a lot of evangelical sects, but especially the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Well, at least their leadership, who still wouldn’t even allow a blood transfusion to save a life because… reasons only they understood. A lot of their members didn’t, though, and since accepting a transfusion was seen officially as them renouncing the church and responded to via shunning, membership had been declining rapidly, especially since the leaders decided that vaccines, and stem-cell and DNA treatments were also sinful. There were fewer than twenty-thousand official members left — definitely far shy of the 144,000 who would be the only saved ones.

Nobody outside of that group cared. Especially not when, hell, even the Mormons finally relented and decided via a “special revelation” that the gay thing was okay because of David and Jonathan, and even started doing marriages and sealing same-sex couples in the temple. Real reason: they were seeing their membership numbers decline as well, and got pragmatic. And what better way to recruit missionaries than to give young male couples the chance to get away from their parents, who might not be approving, and spend a year living and working together? The church even got rid of the whole idea of missionary housing not having any bedroom or bathroom doors to prevent any personal “soiling” of the soul. And yes, that’s a euphemism for exactly what it sounds like.

Tycho was always fascinated to see that the religions that happened to accept that evolution was a thing also actually evolved. The ones that didn’t died out in exactly the way that Darwin’s theory predicted. But he had always known that the Church accepted scientific advancements and did so by racking them up as parts of “god’s mysterious ways.” Hell, it was a Jesuit priest who came up with the Big Bang Theory.

And the whole Galileo thing had been misinterpreted for centuries, with people still somehow believing that he was executed for believing that the Earth revolved around the Sun. Far from it. He basically received the equivalent of mild house arrest and supervised probation and, although the heliocentric theory is clearly the right one now, at the time it wasn’t so clear-cut given the evidence at hand, and the Church doubted Galileo’s scientific methods. He did write a dialogue debating the two theories; Earth-centered and Sun-centered; although he did stack the deck in favor of the former.

The Church’s execution of Giordano Bruno had been a travesty of justice but, to be fair, that happened a generation before Galileo’s trial and while Bruno did put forth the hypothesis that the universe was infinite, without a boundary and with the center basically everywhere, it was more his open dabbling in the occult, denials of various strictly held Church beliefs (read: The Trinity, Transubstantiation, and Mary’s virginity), and belief in reincarnation that transcended species that really irked the church and got him burnt at the stake.

But Darwinism pretty much indicated that modern Jews and Catholics would survive, and modern Muslims could be added to the list. Fundamentalist Muslims — or fundamentalist anyone — not so much. They were on the way out, too, along with all of the other inflexible, hardcore religious nuts.

And Tycho knew about all of this because he’d grown up “sort of ” Catholic, then learned about the whole ISS questioning thing once he’d taken over Rebekah’s position with the county. That and forty million other stupid religious rules and customs, and he sometimes wondered why the modern world bothered trying to accommodate them all when there were so many religious folk who did know how to make exceptions and not bend the world to their own rules. Of course, he was an even bigger atheist than Rebekah, salthough when he looked at his paycheck, he’d realize that he worshipped a god, too, but it was called money. Well, okay. He had two gods. Money and sex. But that was totally fine with him.

Neither Matt nor Rebekah knew anything about the naming of walls, although Rebekah really should have learned it when she had had Tycho’s job. And all that Matt knew was that he watched as Tycho and company quickly walked out of the church to his right and through a door far enough away that there would be no chance for them to catch up and make casual conversation at the reception. They were also apparently in the VIP section, while he and Rebekah probably were not, so they would be halfway through dinner before he and his wife even got in the door.

As she turned him around to wheel him out, the full force of his depression hit him and he told her, “Honey, I’m really tired now and not up to this. Do you mind if we skip the reception?”

“Not at all,” she said, way too cheerfully, and her loving attitude just made him resent her even more.

Image “Grand Park at Night,” © 2018 Jon Bastian, all rights reserved

To be continued…

* * *

The Saturday Morning Post #14, Part 3

Today brings us to the third part of the closing novella, which takes place at the wedding of the daughter of the mayor of Los Angeles and brings all of the main characters together at one event.  You can catch up to last week’s installment here or start at the top here. Last week, we saw the wedding ceremony and the plans for the post-wedding receptions, public and private. Now, we catch up with our main characters as they celebrate.

TAKING HOPE

Toby’s reason for getting to the wedding and bringing Adrian along had a single purpose. His attempts to rebuild Edna’s property had hit a brick wall, and it was called Wendy Rue, the City Council representative for the 10th District, although Toby thought of her more as the big developer’s rep for herself. Less than two weeks after the quake, she was making pronouncements about rebuilding her district, but she was so far in the back pockets of the developers that what this really meant was eminent-domaining the shit out of any red-tagged property slated for demolition, and then tossing out the building permits for luxury condos like they were, well, birdseed at a wedding.

She had set her sights on Edna’s property early on, with dreams of putting up a fifty story mixed-use commercial property and luxury hotel, and Toby had sicced his lawyers on her almost immediately. Luckily, he didn’t live in the 10th. He lived and did business in the 13th, and that council member, Jay Beeber, hated the gentrification of the city with a passion. Toby knew him personally — he was a major campaign donor — and Jay was trying to talk sense into Wendy on Toby’s behalf, but she was having none of it.

At least Toby had managed to get an injunction against the imminent domain attempt back in July, but it was only for 90 days, so there wasn’t a lot of time left.

So his quest at the wedding was to get some face time with Alejandra, explain what was going on, and asking her to intercede. Fortunately, because of the various scandals back in ‘23 that had seen half of the Council Members recalled and half of the rest lose their re-elections, the replacements had actually passed laws giving the Mayor a lot more power over them, akin to what governors and the president had in terms of veto power, something that had long been lacking. This also included a very California innovation, borrowed from San Francisco, and it was called the Right of Absolute Intervention or, as the public had dubbed it, giving the mayor teeth.

In short, any government contract that a single council member or the entire council chose to enter into could be voided, without penalty, by the mayor, and without appeal short of a two-thirds majority referendum vote by either the district in question or the city at large, whichever applied.

And that was what Toby was banking on, since he knew Alejandra’s leanings, and once he’d gotten the chance to explain to her that he was determined to create what would truly be low income housing for people in need, he had no doubt that she would bare her teeth and bite Wendy Rue off at the knees.

He just needed to actually get that time with her and, honestly, the only person busier than the happy couple at a wedding were the mothers of both of them. That was why he brought Adrian. The kid was amazing and brilliant, and if Toby couldn’t get to her, Adrian would.

Alice and Edna couldn’t have been happier when they walked the green carpet and entered the cathedral, which was awe-inspiring inside. They were even more blown away when they were shown their seats, to the left of the altar and in the front row. Then again, this was well after their wedding outfits and shoes had been delivered to them, “Courtesy of the Bride and Groom,” although those weren’t quite a surprise, since a nice young man named Finley had come out to measure them.

They hadn’t known each other before now, but when they’d been introduced in line by the kid named Adrian they’d both met, they formed an immediate connection. After all, they were property owners on the 3400 block of West 8th Street in Koreatown, Adrian and Toby were trying to help out both of them, and while only Edna had been directly threatened by that City Council woman whose name she refused to remember, Alice had known of and hated her for years, because she did not understand the value of the arts, and had constantly lobbied Alice with ineffective bribes to try to get her to move out in order to raze the building and put up a boutique hotel on top of a bunch of upscale shops.

When that woman had visited her in person to try to push her agenda, it was the one and only time in her life that Alice said the words, “Fuck you” to another person. This managed to make the City Councilor stalk off in high dudgeon, as well as get a round of applause from her students, who had been standing behind her at the time. That applause was the only thing that made her not feel utterly ashamed for having been so rude to a government official. In fact, it made her feel more American than she ever had in her life.

And, at this wedding, Alice and Edna feel young and important, and look beautiful, and could not believe where they were sitting and, more importantly, which famous people they spotted as the room filled up. They kept quietly whispering to each other.

Edna: “Oh my god, is that Brad Pitt? He’s still hot as hell and he’s what? Sixty-five?”

Alice: “Yeah, but damn. Tarantino just looks… old.”

Edna: “I didn’t even know that Angelyne was still alive.” Of course, she was seated way in the back.

Alice: “Please tell me that Justin Bieber is crashing this and they’re going to kick him… Oh. Great. No.”

Edna: “All right, that’s it. Betty White is a vampire or something. How old is she now?”

Alice: “She looks amazing. I think she’s like… 107 or something?”

Edna: “Wow. I should only look so good in 25 years.”

Alice: “That’d be 2054. Wow. And I’d only be 98.”

Edna: “You know, with science nowadays — ”

Alice: “Yeah, but only if I get to look like I’m thirty.”

Edna turns to her and they fist bump.

At that same moment, James was quietly trying to figure out whether he could casually finger-bang Finley behind Tycho’s back without anyone noticing it, but Tycho noticed, grabbed James’ arm, and moved it back to his right side.

“We are at work, dude. We do not fuck at work. Got it?”

“Not even a little?” James pleaded, giving his best puppy-dog eyes.

“Not even at all, you horny whore-bag. But if you manage to keep it in your pants until we get home, I promise that Fin and I are going to DP you until your face explodes. And if you’re really well behaved, we might even invite Adam and Tony along to see how many dicks we can get up your ass at once.”

“Behaving!” James replied, and then he shut up and kept his hands to himself.

The whole complicated sex thing between Tycho, Finley, James, Adam, and Tony had finally settled into a pattern once Tycho actually moved into his government condo, but that had taken a bit longer than until the middle of May, mainly because there were two groups that hadn’t gotten moved into new permanent headquarters, and it was all due to a single city council member who Tycho had taken to referring to (privately to Finley and James) as “that Goddamn Shit-cunt Wendy.”

She was trying to take over their properties when both orgs had sufficient endowments to rebuild. He had had to work through the County Board of Supervisors to get the Mayor of L.A. to basically tell Wendy to fuck off, which she immediately did as soon as she got the scoop — it did help that one group was a Catholic org, and the RAI order was fired off so fast and hard that, Tycho hoped, it singed away half of Wendy’s Karen haircut.

He had managed to fast-track it, so that by June 1st the properties were secured, plans were being submitted for approval and permitting, and temporary quarters were placed on the sites, ending his need to stay down there. Although he’d found it laughable that this was even a requirement at all, because of how it worked out.

In theory, everyone should have been lodged as close to their area as could be, in this case Koreatown. In practice, that wasn’t possible. But the great irony was that Tycho’s condo downtown was actually closer, and on the same B Line that brought him down from the Valley in the opposite direction.

The only upside was that hotel sex was totally awesome, and their whirlpool tubs and showerheads could do amazing things in the right hand and aimed at or up the right parts. Otherwise, though, it was absolutely stupid, but he wasn’t going to waste his breath complaining about that to any of his superiors, because it would never change.

He guessed that at least a couple of the members of the Board of Supervisors owned stock in the various hotels people were being lodged at, so had a vested interest in keeping business booming at taxpayer expense. Yeah, one thing he’d really learned on the job was that the Supervisors’ level of corruption made the shit that had finally destroyed and rebuilt the City Council look as trivial as a fourth-grader charging other kids a dollar to copy from their homework.

It had been going on for a lot longer, and nobody ever did anything about it. It almost made him angry enough to want to run for the Board and change things from inside, but he knew that this wasn’t possible and feared that he’d become just as corrupt.

The City Council has fifteen members and the County Board of Supervisors has five. At the wedding, as Tycho scans the crowd, he spots all five of the Supes, but only fourteen of the Council, and secretly does a little internal dance of joy when it’s still only fourteen right before show time.

He leans over to Finley and whispers, “Shit-Cunt’s not here.”

“You think she was invited?” he asks.

“Inevitably,” Tycho explains. “The invitations went out months ago, and all the council and department managers and other top levels would have gotten one. It’s protocol.”

“So she decided not to show up?” Finley wonders.

“Most likely,” Tycho replies. “She’s known for being petty and vindictive.”

Adam leans over to whisper to the two of them. “Cindy told me that she’s trying to take over her old landlady’s property and turn it into more luxury condos for rich people.”

“What does the landlady think of that?” Finley asks.

“Of course she hates the idea, but Rue’s been going around doing eminent domain.”

“What a bitch,” Tony adds.

“I am definitely going to chat up the Supes today to see what they can do to cut that shit-cunt off at the knees,” Tycho tells them all as the lights change and a sudden plaintive flute starts up at the back of the nave. It’s followed by drums and then, to their total shock, a bunch of accordions playing a polka kick in from the other side of the house.

The rest of it is the most awesome thing any of them have even seen in a church.

Image: US Bank Tower, Downtown Los Angeles, © 2018 Jon Bastian. All rights reserved.

The Saturday Morning Post #14, Part 1

Last week brought us to the last first-person short story. Now comes the closing novella, told in third-person, in which everyone comes together. Since a lot of us are still locked up, I think I’m going to share a bit more of this one in a few installments, since this part is 20,000 words or so. You can catch up to last week’s installment here or start at the top here.

TAKING HOPE

September 23, 2029, was the high point of the Los Angeles social calendar of the year, possibly even the decade, and it all began early on that Sunday morning at Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral, at Grand and Temple downtown or, as locals knew it, DTLA. The wedding was going to be presided over by Archbishop Cacciapuoti, successor to Archbishop Gomez, with the actual celebrant being Father O’Malley, who had been the bride’s first confessor.

Apparently, it had taken some finagling on the part of the bride’s parents to make it happen, since the groom was the son of a Lutheran mother and a father of no particular faith, but since his father was a prominent real estate developer in the county, enough wheels were greased that it was not a problem at all at all and he didn’t need to go through the motions of converting, and that the ceremony would still be a full Mass, which was very unusual in the case of “mixed” marriages. But, nowadays, the Church really needed the money, and the cathedral did need some repairs after the earthquake, the groom’s father knew people, and the work was agreed to be donated by the middle of August, ahead of the wedding.

There were half a dozen media vans parked outside the Cathedral, antennas extended and reporters deployed to harass arrivals by six a.m., although the arrivals for the pre-ceremony luncheon weren’t set to start until ten a.m. Say what you want, but only in L.A. would you find a green carpet and a step and repeat in front of a place of worship early on a Sunday morning. (Yes, the green carpet was in keeping with the chosen wedding theme.)

The schedule of events had gone out in advance to all of the invited guests who had RSVP’d, as well as to the media, planned out to the minute as follows:

11:00........Arrivals Begin, 2 North Grand Avenue
11:00 to 13:00.....Pre-Luncheon, The Plaza at CTG
13:30......Ceremony, Our Lady of Angels Cathedral
15:00.................Reception, Upper Grand Park
18:00 to 20:00.............................Dinner
20:00 to 23:00;............Cake, Dancing, Karaoke
23:01....... Departures from 2 North Grand Avenue

The luncheon and dinner menus were elaborately detailed, with guests instructed to choose up to three entrees per meal, with options to pick the same for both meals or different ones for each meal. There were ten choices here, covering all the bases through the five most common meat food groups (beef, chicken, pork, fish, lamb) and specialized options (vegetarian, pescatarian, keto, ovo-lacto vegan, and vegan). Any or all of these could also be requested as gluten- or lactose-free, kosher, or halal.

The mayor’s planning team had missed nothing, so there were also heart-healthy/low-sodium options and diets catered to diabetics, with an email and link on the wedding website set up to take even more specific requests, and there were going to be multiple wedding cakes to cover all possible options — yes, even a vegan, gluten-, dairy- and nut-free version that was both kosher and halal. It was also sugar-free and made without salt, baking soda, or baking powder.

The entertainment during the reception included a bunch of A-listers, mostly local talent: music from Tudor, The Valet, and Tom Goss, with comedy from Lauren Pritchard, Bill Chott, and the dynamic duo of Rebekah Kochan and Ryan Kelly, better known to fans of “A Little Late with Lilly Singh” as Ryko Rebkel. Rounding out the bill were Gandalf the Magician, some aerial work from Kennedy Kabasares, and a ComedySportz improv show with eight performers and a referee who were well-known from the hit Amazon Prime interactive series that was now in its fifth season.

Of course, none of the people who stayed inside the “snooty party,” as Alejandra had taken to calling it in private, would probably ever figure out to wander down to what was being billed — quite separately and in channels the rich would never see — as The People’s Concert in the Park. She had planned it that way intentionally, and the County was footing the bill for that one.

She could plan it that way, after all, since she was Alejandra Peréz, the mayor of Los Angeles, and mother of the bride. To her, there was something symbolic about Grand Park anyway that she didn’t think a lot of people picked up on. The bottom end of it — literally. Since it was the lowest elevation — faced the steps of City Hall. The second division, the same size as the first, was flanked by the L.A. County Hall of Records and the Law Library. The L.A. Metro Station was located at the top end of the second division — rather appropriate in the scheme of things, as will become apparent shortly.

The upper level, which was as big as the other two combined and much higher up, was flanked by the Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration Building and the L.A. County Sheriff’s headquarters. Opposite the top end of that part of the park was the L.A. Music Center. It was also the part with the huge fountain and elevators.

Alejandra always thought of it as a very subtle topological representation of the politics of failed capitalism. City Hall was a reminder that all government should derive its power from the People, and no one else. It stood at the lowest end of the park as a reminder that even the lowest citizen had equal rights and standing in the eyes of the government — and the steps leading up to its portico across Spring Street were a visual reminder and invitation: Anyone in our system is welcome to climb. Well, in a true Democracy, sure. In capitalism? Not so much.

The second level represented citizens who were a bit more well-off, but still in view of City Hall, with two public resources of information on either side. These were the folk who benefited (or should) from society’s most successful implementations of socialism: public education, and public libraries. Alejandra wondered whether the placement of the Metro station at the top of the hill above this part of the park was intentional or not. In reality, the station long pre-dated the creation of the park, but really turned out as a fitting marker, because the L.A. Metro station had turned out to be a great equalizer and method for helping the poor to have greater access to their own city, in effect, pulling them up the metaphorical hill of Grand Park.

As for the upper part — it was a bigger piece of the pie, had the better stuff, and was surrounded by the halls of power. If you started at City Hall and walked up, it took real effort, and if you were handicapped or unable to walk uphill in any way, forget it. You weren’t making that journey. But if you did wind up in that rarefied atmosphere of those on top, you would emerge from the park to find yourself at the bottom of a set of steps that almost seemed designed to say, “Stay out,” because you really couldn’t see what was at the top of them.

What was at the top was one of the premier theater companies in the city — the two thirds on the right for the people — and the snooty, old-money ballet and opera company on the left for the old and rich. It was sort of a microcosm of Grand Park repeated and turned on its side, with the plaza between an analog of the Metro Station — the place for all wedged between the place for common folk and the place for the overlords.

Kind of ironic that from the POV coming up from Grand Park, the former was on the right and the latter on the left, but that was probably something way out of the hands of city planners. After all, the Music Center complex up top had been built in the 1960s, while Grand Park didn’t open until 2012. (What Alejandra had no way of knowing was that the Music Center was one of the reasons that Cindy’s mom had convinced her father to relocate the family to Los Angeles, even if Cindy’s mom did wind up at Universal instead of Center Theater Group.)

Still… because Alejandra had always had this take on Grand Park, she had requested of the wedding planner that the wedding party start there, and basically follow the route of Los Pobladores, who were the (mythical) original 44 settlers who founded Los Angeles in 1781, when it was known as El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles del Río Porciúncula. This was another reason that she had insisted that her daughter made as much as possible in the wedding green, because everything else that didn’t involve the couples’ clothes was either red or white, and la alcaldesa, Alejandra, had also arranged for there to be live eagles trained to snatch (but not kill) non-venomous snakes from among the crowd outside and then tow them to conveniently placed rocks around the area, one of the largest in the middle of the Grand Park fountain.

Those who needed to get it would. Those who didn’t, well… they would probably inadvertently wind up donating a ton of money to the city because of all of the souvenir stands that appeared to be set up by locals, but which, again, were all the mayor’s doing. That, and stuff that would be happening here later, during the reception.

To be honest, Alejandra was tired of this shit, but since she had found an actual non-corrupt way to soak the hell out of the rich upper classes in this city of vast income inequality, she was going to milk it for all it was worth, and then let it actually trickle down.

Every single person on the work staff was going to split at least 10% of the total sales take in tips, which would probably be enormous, and there were going to be at least five opportunities during the reception for the stupidly wealthy to get into a dick-measuring contest over who could donate the most or bid the most or whatever, all of which would (unbeknownst to them) be divided up equally among the reception serving staff. All they would hear is that they were donating to a worthy cause, so they could feel good about themselves, never suspecting that the people they were helping were actually the people around them that they ignored or insulted or patronized every single day. If anybody pressed her or her staff on it, they would only respond, “Your donation is going towards fighting poverty in the city.”

Well, it wasn’t a lie, was it?

Alejandra really didn’t care about the mechanics. She only cared that the really big bucks sucked out of rich assholes in this way would get divided among all of the non-management workers and would probably cover all those stupid things like oh, who knew… rent, food, insurance, utilities, student loan debt? Possibly for several months. You know… those “luxury” items the rich don’t think that the working class need.

It was her version of backdoor socialism, or an arrogance tax. Make the superrich feel like they were stroking their egos by wasting money on shit, then smile and say thanks while that money actually did some good.

She had been open and transparent about her plans within the government itself, and while not made public, the plan was vetted and approved by her own legal counsel, the City Attorney, the City Council, and the County Commissioner and Board of Supervisors for good measure. If word ever did leak out, the paper trail — well, electron trail — would be incontrovertible proof of her honorable motives and, if anything, it would really boost her popularity. Who knew what she could accomplish in similar fashion as Governor?

The best part, though, was that not a peep about it leaked to the entire wedding staff, and she would have word sent out about halfway through the reception that there was a mandatory meeting at the end of the event, with her direct staff instructed to act like it was a bad thing, but say nothing. Then, when they’d gathered everybody into the lobby of the Mosk Courthouse, which was serving as a staging area, she was going to come in looking royally pissed, let them all shake for a moment, and then break into a broad smile and say, “I bet none of you expected that this job came with a nice bonus,” and then explain what had happened and end it all with the per-dollar figure per person.

Hey, she had been a stand-up comic back in college, which is what led to her becoming an inspirational speaker, which is what led to her becoming mayor in the first place. And she loved nothing more than making people happy but knew the power of hills and valleys when it came to emotions. (She’d spent some time as an actress, too.) Make them feel bad for a moment, then give them amazing good news, and they’ll shoot even higher into sheer joy, and that was the emotion she wanted them to feel.

Meanwhile, the people who had helped make the whole thing happen got the VIP express transport to and preferred seating in the Cathedral long before any of the celebs or politicos who thought that they were special did.

Alejandra moved her tailor and all of his staff and guests and SOs front of line, so that Jackson and his date Cindy, and Finley and his dates Tycho and James, just get to waltz right in and take up the pews to the left of the altar, closest to the action. In gratitude and at the bride’s request, Alejandra also lets the vendors and contractors in, so that Jackson was able to bring Fumiko Miyade, Jackon’s fabric provider, and Haru Toyama, her nephew and assistant. Jackson even finagled it so that Adam and Tony got to sit with Finley and company, since they all apparently had some sort of complicated multiple relationship going on.

As for Toby Arnot, he bought his way in, because of course he did, but after his ridiculous donation, he’s allowed to bring in his assistant, Adrian, to the latter’s extreme gratitude. They both also, although it’s not clear at whose behest, bring along an older Chinese woman, Wei-Tso Yung, and an even older American woman, Edna Ferris, and only a few of the much older conservatives in attendance recognize her from her film work, but ashamedly say nothing. Toby is also able to grease the wheels to be able to bring along all of Wei-Tso’s tenants, of which there are 44 at the time.

Thanks to some advance notice via Alejandra to Jackson (and her largesse), all of the early seated, non-wedding party VIP guests to the left of the altar got their own matching wedding garb — nothing as fancy as the wedding party, but the men got tailored evening suits in corresponding colors, and the women got gowns and shoes. She had also personally paid Jackson to outfit every last server, usher, cook, bartender, and bar-back in similar fashion and, just for shits and giggles, she had him outfit the photographer, videographer, and planner to boot. Again, they were all outfits that could be worn at places that weren’t weddings.

She had paid for all of the non-wedding party outfits herself although, ironically, while she could have easily afforded it, Toby’s little admission “bribe” (which wasn’t really one) more than reimbursed her the expense. Luckily, in her mind, there was no way in hell she would approve any of the crazy gentrifying projects of his that had been in the pipeline to date.

Eventually all of the guests were seated, with the press awkwardly stationed on top of the part of the narthex that technically jutted into the nave at the back of the sanctuary. Well, okay, technically not the narthex, because the layout of this cathedral was very non-traditional, but it served that purpose, being the atrium outside of the entrance down the center of the nave. Above it, they were on a platform about thirty feet up, with a perfect view of everything from here to the back of the ambulatory and the bema and altar dead center.

Just before things began, Alejandra looked around and thought, “I wonder how many people in this room realize that this part means absolutely nothing, and that my daughter and son-in-law are already married because they signed the paper in my office yesterday afternoon?” Maybe it was just because she’d been involved in the law for so long but, despite having grown up Catholic and still appreciating the trappings, Alejandra also knew that a church ceremony didn’t mean squat when it came to actually, you know… marrying two people. For that, only a license from the government and two witnesses were required. She’d known this for years, and it was one of the things that most frustrated her as she’d fought against Prop 8 in what seemed like the dark ages. No matter how many times she’d told the religiously recalcitrant, “No, nothing about this will force your church to perform gay weddings,” they turned a deaf ear.

Then again, as an elected official, Alejandra had learned what everyone else in a skilled and trained profession also knew: Everybody who doesn’t do what you do thinks that they know everything about it and could do it better, and every one of them is dead wrong.

Something something Dunning–Kruger effect… but then she heard the opening notes of the procession from the back of the nave.

What nobody expected, but which Alejandra and the groom’s mother, Brenda, had planned for months, was how much of a pageant this would be and, for a lot of people, probably a mind-bender because it would account for the background of both partners.

To be continued…

The Saturday Morning Post #13

This brings us to the last of the short stories before the novella that brings everything together and to a close. Our narrator this time is Matt Clement, husband of Rebekah Clement, who we met back in chapter 6. Here, we essentially see his story of Rebekah and her assistant Tycho coming to find Matt post-quake in a hospital in Riverside, only this time from his point of view. If you want to catch up from the beginning before we dive into the finale next week, you can do so here, or you can read the previous chapter here.

NO CLEMENCY

It took forever after the fact to remember all the details of that day. It was like a chunk of time went missing What I did remember was our morning meeting, and that I’d forgotten to tell my wife that we were coptering out to Riverside for a day of meetings with our counterparts in that county. I contemplated texting her a reminder, but then figured that we’d all be home long before the end of the work day, so maybe at lunch I could send a “Guess where I am” photo.

I remember heading up to the helipad and the chopper, which the county had borrowed from the California Air National Guard, and it was a nice one — big enough to seat all 24 of us. “Just like the governor rides around in,” the pilot announced as we came up the stairs. It was one of those two rotor jobs, and the inside looked more like a private jet.

Oh, wait. Come to think of it, this helicopter did have a turbo jet in the back, so once we’d lifted into the air, we took off fast, and some of the younger folk on the team whooped and hollered at the acceleration. I know we had some meetings in the morning, although I have no idea what they were about, and then we wound up at a really nice restaurant where I think I ordered… no, I don’t remember anything still except the Thai iced tea, and then everything started to shift, there was shouting, people running and ducking, then I was flat on my back, staring at bright lights and screaming in pain for a moment before I felt someone grab my arm — which hurt — and look into my eyes. They were just eyes, between a paper mask and a cap over their hair and I remember the maroon of their scrubs, and then just drifting.

Drifting in and out, feeling like I’m floating all over the place, sometimes seeing disjointed things, hearing words that don’t register as any language, and then I hear my name whispered and I open my eyes. I’m kind of surprised to see the face of my wife’s assistant, Tycho, looking at me hopefully, and I can’t help but break out in the biggest grin. She’s sent him to help, and I can’t even begin to describe how happy that makes me.

And then I feel pressure on my chest and it’s like someone has planted an axe in me, but I’m too drugged out to make much noise. It’s Rebekah, my wife. I know she’s not trying to hurt me as she kneels to put her arm around me, but it fucking does. Pardon my French.

I try to move my arms to push her away, but they barely budge. That’s when one of my nurses, Herrick, comes over and saves the day, escorting her away. He was one of the first people I remember meeting here, and at least his name and face have stuck in my Swiss cheese mind for now.

As Herrick is talking to Rebekah, Tycho looks down at me, and it’s obvious that he’s been crying his eyes out. The look he gives me in that moment makes it more than obvious that he’s been crying for me, not her, We make eye contact and I sort of give a half-hearted attempt at a nod, which is more like turning my head slightly to him, which sends blazing razor of pain down my neck and into my upper back. All I can do is grunt.

I really am still drugged out of my mind, so all I can manage is to raise an index finger to point at Tycho, but I don’t think he notices.

Then Herrick is escorting them both out of the room before returning with an orderly. He had explained earlier that I wasn’t in an actual hospital bed yet. I was in a transport bed. That’s because transferring me from one to the other to move me around was too risky. “You have too many broken bones,” he explained. “Well… broken is an understatement, I suppose. But picking you up and sliding you over is absolutely out of the question.”

“Great,” I thought. But it was fun being rolled down hospital hallways under the overhead OLED panels, which swept by. It really felt like the VIP treatment, although this trip was a particularly long one, down several hallways in different wings, then to a large, staff only elevator, and down, down, down. It felt like we were in a sub-basement.

A thought came to mind during all this that hadn’t hit me before. How was this hospital still intact and functioning after such a huge earthquake? I hadn’t heard anything about the magnitude or epicenter, but it must have been a monster.

They eventually rolled me into a cool, dim room and a white-coated tech leaned over me and smiled. “Mr. Clement,” she said. “We’re just going to do a scan and figure out our priorities on fixing things up for you.”

In my mind, I thought that this meant MRI, and became suddenly terrified at the realization that I was pretty sure there was metal in this bed. I’d heard stories about bad things happening when metal got too close to one of these machines. I’d also never had an MRI, I’d only ever seen them on old doctor shows on TV from the ‘00s and ‘10s. To me, it looked like being shoved into a giant pencil sharpener.

I try to protest, indicating the bed I’m on as best I can, but Herrick is there, and he shushes me. “It’s okay, Matt,” he says. “First of all, every bit of metal on this thing is titanium, which wouldn’t react to a magnet anyway. Second, this isn’t an MRI. It’s HPMRV.”

“What?”

“Hyperpolarized Magnetic Resonance Visualization.”

“It still has ‘magnet’ in it.”

“Yes,” Herrick smiled. “And that magnet is the Earth.”

As we spoke, the tech was preparing to attach an IV bag to the line that was in my left arm when I’d woken up. The other one was on the back of my right hand. I was very surprised to realize that they didn’t bother me like I’d always thought an IV would. Then again — heavy painkillers, apparently.

She checks my chart on her tablet then checks the bag, does a calculation, and nods.

“No worries,” she tells me. “This is just a solution that will hyperpolarize any hydrogen atoms in your body that it gets to, and that’s what allows us to ‘see’ the images when we pulse radio waves through you. The technology has gotten a lot smaller, cheaper, and better in the last few years.”

“Where’s the machine?” I ask.

“We’re standing in it,” she replies. The detectors are in the walls, floor, and ceiling, so we’re going to get a real-time, 3D view of you once we start the process.”

She looks at her tablet, then steps aside with Herrick, although I can still hear them. “That drip will take about thirty minutes to finish, and then we give it another twenty to completely perfuse. You know the rest from there.”

“Thanks,” Herrick replies, and I hear the tech leave the room.

“Is this thing really safe?” I ask him.

“Oh, yeah,” he explains. “A lot safer than the old ones, but same idea. Basically, we get nearly all of the hydrogen atoms in your body to all start spinning the same way, and then pop that radio wave through them and they plop back to however they were before. That’s how we get the picture. Apparently, the old machines only saw like one out of 200,000 water molecules. This one can see something like 75% of the hydrogen atoms. It’s like going from a silent movie in black and white to 16K.”

“Now what?”

Herrick pulled a stool over to sit where I could see him, sat, and smiled. “It’ll take about fifty minutes for the drip to do its thing, and I’m monitoring to make sure you don’t have any adverse reactions. So you’re stuck with me.”

“Okay. Hey — how come this place is in such great shape right after that earthquake?”

“Right after?” he looks at me. “The quake was almost a week ago. Last Tuesday. This is Monday, the 23rd.”

“Damn. Still… I don’t see any major damage.”

“We kind of learned about the importance of hospitals during that little adventure about a decade ago, remember?” he sighed. “By the way, I know we’ve got some work to do on your face, but from the outside, the damage doesn’t look that bad. I mean, you can talk, right?”

“My face is my second prettiest feature,” I joke with him. “But we’re really safe from big aftershocks here?”

“It was designed by a Japanese company, and they know their quakes,” Herrick explains. “Plus everything in it and around it was designed to be pretty immune to the shaking up to an 8. We’re also completely self-sustaining if we get knocked off of the grid in all areas — power, water, sewage, heating, cooling, communications — and we have enough of everything on hand to support a full staff and every bed occupied for three weeks, with a possible supply chain from the Nevada National Guard via convoy or helicopter if necessary.”

“Wow,” I mutter. “Can’t wait to see this bill.”

“Lucky thing we all have MediCal now, isn’t it?” he laughs. Then, “Now it’s your turn. Since we’ve got almost an hour, I like to get to know my patients better. Especially the ones who might be around for a while. So… tell me your story.”

“What’s to tell? I was born in 1990, so I’m a total Millennial, fourth of six kids, three older sisters, two younger brothers. We all grew up in Scranton, which got really interesting when I was 15, since that old TV show The Office made us all famous. Remember it?”

“Oh yeah,” Herrick says. “I’m only seven years younger than you, and we had all the American TV when I was growing up in Cebu.” I think he notices my look and adds, “That’s in the Philippines. About a million people. I jumped a couple of grades, finished nursing school ten years ago, and came here in ’21 after… well, you know. Things settled down. But enough about me. Go on.”

“Yeah, so, I finished high school. Go Scranton Knights! Swim team, Poli Sci club, and band geek. AP in U.S. History, Government and Politics, and Environmental Science. I came out here to go to college at UCLA for a lot of reasons, but a big one was that my grandma — my mom’s mom — lived in Santa Monica and had a guest house. My mom had moved back east after she got her Masters because she couldn’t afford L.A. Oh. That’s why I was born there. She wound up with a nice teaching gig, although she taught at West Scranton High, our rivals. Their mascot was The Invader.”

“Did they not let you go to the school where she taught?” he asked.

“Actually, we lived in the zone for that, but she got a waiver from the district and explained to me, ‘Dear, Scranton High is the much better school. Trust me.’” He laughed and I started to, but then it felt like my ribs were doing arpeggios on my lungs so I stopped myself.

“Anyway, because of all the AP credit, I actually started college two quarters ahead, so I majored in Urban Planning, minored in Poli Sci, and graduated at the end of 2011 instead of spring of 2012. Well, got my degree. I still walked with everyone else the next year. And then I applied to work for the City and the County of Los Angeles.”

“And you’ve been there ever since?”

“Actually, not quite. See, they both work on an exam system. You pick a job you’re interested in and then take a test for it, which they only give every couple of months. The tests are scored, and then you don’t hear anything else until you come up for an open position that you qualified for by taking that test. And, to keep it fair, the only criteria they use are the test scores, ranked from highest to “no thanks,” and nothing else. Well, that, and which positions that test qualifies for.”

“Ooh. Harsh.”

“Yeah, not really. I guess it’s fair. I mean, come on. It’s Civil Service. It’s the one job it’s virtually impossible to get fired from outside of doing something criminal. No, strike that. Something criminal that actually costs your employer real money in a lawsuit. Otherwise, you pretty much just get transferred elsewhere to bury the scandal. You know. Like the Catholic Church used to do until they had to sell off so much shit to finally pay up about five years ago.”

“Ooh. Cynical much?” he asks, but with a joking tone.

“Totally,” I reply. “Hey, you can’t get within a hundred yards of a government job without becoming completely jaded.”

“Ah. So, how long did it take you to finally get the job that ruined you?”

“Three and a half years, but it only took three weeks to find out that I sucked as a waiter. Luckily, a friend of mine hooked me up with… well, I don’t even want to mention it, but it more than paid the bills in the gap.”

“OMG,” Herrick said. “You did porn?”

“Not quite,” I replied, laughing. “Okay, I did do some nude modeling and a couple of solo wank videos, but I actually wound up working as a dancer and stripper in a club in WeHo. One of my college buds hooked me up with all of the above.”

“Really?” Herrick replied.

“Really,” I went on. “Apparently, ‘hot nerd’ is a very popular type, so I’d take the stage with the glasses on and the hair slicked back, pocket protector and white dress shirt, sometimes a bowtie, and always the flood pants and white socks with dress shoes, and the audience would go nuts once the shirt came off. Once I got down to the G-string, the last thing to go would be the glasses, and I swear that was when the place really started to rumble. And I made so damn much in tips doing it that it was ridiculous. I mean, on a good night, I’d earn enough to cover utilities, internet, groceries for a month, and two trips to the movies a week for Granny Sims and I. And even though I insisted, she never let me pay rent. ‘Honey, I own this place free and clear, so paying the bills is more than enough. But you just being here with me is enough without you paying the bills.’”

“That’s so sweet,” Herrick gushed.

“Yeah, although the best part was when she’d add, ‘And you really don’t need to pay a damn cent, because I go down to Morongo once a month and clean up at Black Jack.’”

“Damn. Your granny is a playa. Literally!”

“Yeah, but at least she never loses when she goes to the casinos… shit. Never lost.”

“I’m sorry,” he says.

“Don’t be, she lived a long time. But, seriously. I remember many a Friday night when I’d be coming home at about 2:30 and would run into her pulling into the driveway, and she would pull a huge wad of cash out of her purse, wave it at me, and say, ‘You are grilling us some damn fine steaks tomorrow, Mattie!’”

“Wow. Now you’re making me wonder why you ever accepted the county job in the first place.”

“Well, it was twofold. First, a lot less strenuous, and a guaranteed income with benefits. Stripping had no benefits because we never worked anywhere near 40 hours a week. Second, by the time the county finally called me in, I was 24, and in the world of gay strip clubs, that’s just past the sell-by date.”

“Really?” Herrick asked, incredulous.

“Well, yes and no. I mean, I know guys who are close to my age now who still pass off being a twink, but I had the disadvantage of having jet-black hair.”

“How is that a bad thing?”

“The first gray ones stick out like compound fractures,” I say.

“Ooh… I don’t know whether to applaud that reference or smack you and say ‘Too soon.’”

“But I don’t have any compounds, right?” I ask.

“You don’t now,” he says. “But you probably don’t want to know what it was like when they brought you in.”

“What was it like?” I ask.

“Um… let’s just say… you are one tough motherfucker.”

“Uh… thanks?” I reply.

“Okay, so… you start working for the county and, I assume, give up your stripping career, so… now what?”

“Now, I wind up working for the Inter County Development Planning Commission, or ICDPC as we call it, and it is all kinds of awesome. First of all, the offices are in Van Nuys, and so eventually, it’s a City Bike hop to the station and then a ride up the Q Line to get there from Santa Monica every day, so a short and easy commute. Next, I’m working with an amazing team, and our goal is to basically make sure that plans for developing and improving L.A. County mesh in the most optimal ways with our surrounding counties, as well as work with the incorporated cities within the county. You know — Malibu, Culver City, WeHo, Burbank, Glendale, NoHo, Westwood, and so on.”

“Of course, since we’re a planning commission, we are forward-looking, so although I start in 2014, I’m on Team 2034, so everything I’ve been working on isn’t even going to start happening for another five years from now.”

“What about five years from when you started?” he asks me.

“Essential employment, and trust me, we all worked from home for months. And people died or decided to return to medicine — we did have a lot of doctors — or get out of government work all together, so, I move up the hierarchy.

“Then, one day in late summer ‘22, after it’s finally calmed down, we’re at a week-long multi-department team-building sleep-away camp up in Angeles National Forest that’s being facilitated by some improv theater based in the soon-to-be incorporated city of NoHo of all things, and it’s just amazing. They keep the campers segregated by gender in two different buildings, except that they allow married couples to stay together in a third building, and while they seem to match co-workers as roommates, the working groups are, apparently, matched up the opposite. I don’t know anyone in my group and, as I ask around later, this seems to be the thing.

“Yeah, definitely planned. But not a bad thing. And in the group I’m in, I notice this woman. Probably a little younger than me, and shorter. Well, hell, okay, most everyone is shorter than me, although she’s tall for a woman. A blaze of long, curly red hair tumbles from her head, and she’s got that catnip combo of porcelain skin, triangular face, and jade green eyes, and I just stare. And when we get to our first split-off exercise, we wind up paired together, and it’s this weird thing where one person is an actor who is going to play the other person, so they are interviewing for information for the role, but they are asking as the other person in first person while that person is answering in third… shit. Does that make any sense?”

“No,” Herrick replies.

“Okay, cool. It didn’t to me when it was explained either, but when we did it, it worked. So, let’s say that I’m the actor who is playing you. I might say, ‘So, where was I born?’ and you would reply with factual information about yourself, but in second person. ‘You were born in Cebu in the Phillipines…’ and so on.”

“Damn!” Herrick exclaimed. “That is a total mindfuck.”

“Isn’t it?” I said. “But, at the same time, once you get the rhythm, it really gets you telling all the nasty truth about yourself to a stranger without any insecurity, and the second half had us reversing the roles, and by the end of it we had just bonded, and by the end of the first day, we started hanging out together all the time. And, I’m going to be totally honest here, even though it broke all the camp rules, on the fourth day, we snuck into the woods after ‘lights out,’ found a secluded spot, and… well, you fill in the blanks.”

“Oh, you naughty dog, you,” Herrick said, laughing and clapping.

“I mean, wouldn’t you?”

“Oh, been there, done that. Go on.”

“Okay, so… we definitely exchanged info, were relieved to find out that we worked for two different divisions, but within easy access, and started dating not long after.”

“And what were the divisions?”

“Told you mine,” I explained. “She’s with the Ecumenical Council, meaning coordinating all of the religious groups, especially during a crisis, like now.”

“Oh. So you’re both religious, then?”

I just laughed. “Oh, fuck no,” I said. “We are both total atheists. She’s only on that council because she majored in Religious Studies. But, beyond the government thing, we wound up having so damn much in common that we eventually married, and here we are.”

“And… anything else?” he asks.

“No,” I reply. “And you?”

“Well, I’m also married,” he says.

“Great. Kids?”

“No,” he answers. “You?”

“No.”

“Necessity or need?”

“What do you mean?” I ask.

“Didn’t want or couldn’t have?”

“Ah,” I say. “Didn’t want.”

“Us, couldn’t have.”

“Oh, that is so sad. Why not?” I ask.

“Because I’m gay as hell and only married her for citizenship, since we still weren’t sure whether the H1-B visa thing would get restored, but we both knew that going in. And… you?”

And that’s when the tech returns and announces time, and I can’t tell you how goddamn relieved I am in that moment. Herrick smiles at me and exits, the tech places the transit bed precisely, then tells me, “Okay. I have to exit the room, but you’re going to hear some strange sounds for about the next twelve minutes. Relax. Those are just the radio signals being sent through you in various directions. And it’s just radio. Nothing radioactive or dangerous or anything else. Understand?”

“Yes,” I mumble, turning my hand to raise a thumb, but I don’t think she sees it.

“Great,” she says. “Then, away we go…”

She leaves the room and I’m left all alone to listen to nothing but the hissing silence in my ears (probably tinnitus) and the occasional “whump” that seems to come from my sides, above, or below. And then I realize I’m left alone with myself, and most thankful of all for the question Herrick never tried to make me answer. But before I can decide whether to complain about him over that, the whumping stops, the tech is back, all smiles, and the orderly is wheeling me out and back up to my room.

It seems like forever before I get back to 602, although almost immediately I feel the prick of another painkiller injection and don’t have the energy to slap the fucking nurse who did it without asking, and then a new doctor appears bedside, with his tablet.

“Mr. Clement?” he says.

“Call me Matt,” I insist.

“Okay, Matt. I’m Dr. Polvo, but you can call me Jaime. I’m here to show you what we saw in the latest scan.”

“My guts, I guess?”

“Yes, and those are fine, but… well, honestly… your legs took it really badly. I think they were hit full force when the roof of that restaurant fell. Six inches higher, and we would have lost you to a tamponade. Don’t ask. Anyway… there’s no easy way to say this, I’m sorry, but… every bone in your body below the middle of your femurs — er, thigh bones — is pretty much, well, shattered. We may not need to amputate, but it would take implantable prosthesis that aren’t quite developed yet. So a few years in a wheelchair, maybe. At the least.”

“Fuck…”

“But, hang on, because I do have good news. You don’t have any major organ damage, so from the colon up, you’re good. You did suffer some stress fractures in your spine and have eight broken ribs, there was a compound fracture to your left radius, and a minor dislocation in your C4 vertebrae. And we are going to have to fix your jaw and replace about six teeth on the left side of your face, although the bruising trauma to your left orbit should heal on its own.”

“Thanks, doc,” I reply, “But what do most of those words mean?”

“You’re going to live,” he says, and then he breezes out. And I wonder… Okay, what does living like this mean, really?

I’ve been pretty much told that, short of a medical miracle or major tech development, I’m probably not going to walk again. On the upside, I haven’t been told, “Your dick don’t work,” but, on the other hand, since that pile-driver needs some hips and legs behind it, I’m probably stuck with hand and blow-jobs from here on out. That, or just jerking off, because it sounds like my face is kind of fucked up, too, despite what Herrick said, and now I’m understanding the logic of there being no mirrors in this place.

But after Dr. Bad News, I can’t find Herrick because, apparently, his shift ended, and now I’m with Maryam who, while she’s nice, hasn’t heard any of the story of my life I’d told while waiting to be perfused enough to be scanned.

Oh, well.

And then… Rebekah comes in, but she’s very careful not to touch me, since I guess she’s been warned: “Broken China.” Instead, she says, “Oh, babe, they just told me. And I am so going to be here for you for as long as you need.”

And god, I’m kicking myself now because I’m back to the big lonely room, and Herrick really revealed a lot of himself, and I had been about to, but… the trouble was that I couldn’t say anything now, because Rebekah had made it so goddamn clear. But, in my head, and as soon as Herrick came back and moved her out… I couldn’t scream it loudly enough, despite my shattered legs…

I only married Rebekah out of convenience, and because of what my parents would have thought. Yeah, I know that it was the 21st Century, but they had voted for He Who Shall Not Be Named, to their great detriment. And my ever-lasting shame. But I’d told her ages ago about the bisexual cover-up deal we’d agree to, and it was fine right up until the day I joined her in Grand Park for some Summer Fun festival and I met her assistant, Tycho. And I fell head over heels for that hot little fucker and, truth be told, I got the feeling that he was giving me the eye, too…

Image source, JMarchn, “X-ray of lumbar hyperlordosis.” Used unchanged via creative commons  (CC BY-SA 3.0) license.