Monday, November 07, 2005

The Sidewalk Smokers Club - Chapters 48, 49, and 50

The first chapter was posted April 9 and new ones roughly every week after that.

Chapter Forty-eight

Across town in Vindaloo Baxley’s GTO, Clarisse had said she hated something or other.

“Don’t say hate,” Vindaloo scolded her. “Just the word makes negative energy. Isn’t that right Jordan?”

Jordan had to fight a tremendous urge to flatter the bona fide and certified example of ultra womanhood into whose clutches he had fallen.

“No,” he lamented saying.

“Oh really,” and she hid well the fact she was shocked by this.

“Yeah, I hate Armenians.”

He waited on the dismissive face that is privilege to ladies of Vindaloo’s range, but she just kind of looked sorry for him. “I would ask you why, but it doesn’t sound worth hearing,” she said with a sly grin.

Jordan thought Vindaloo was exactly right mostly because he did not like the role of victim to which the bloody tale invariably reduced him. There were many things he might want from the actress, her pity was not one of them.

Anyway it didn’t matter for as they bounced from bar to restaurant to poetry reading (Vindaloo’s India Balloo verse) J.’s weary shrugging off of any fantasy involving the actress had the predictable effect of increasing her desire to know him better.

At the restaurant Tuxedo Jordan went over budget because he knew Vindaloo Baxley was in an approving mood and not going to be seen not paying for a dinner with beings of lesser notoriety.

A grilled Pacific fish lightened by lime and dusty red paprika was adroitly helped into his midsection by the burgundy Vindaloo had ordered with a promise and guaranty of delight. “You were right,” Jordan said to her as he absconded with Clarisse’s second glass for the purpose of making it his third.

Vindaloo said she wanted to talk to Jordan alone in a voice that carried a distance far beyond what was necessary – to fill the restaurant, in fact. “I want to go out to the sidewalk for a smoke.”

That the girl had charms should not have been discounted by him, but it had been and this left J. vulnerable to them. Her pull was that much greater now that she had taken something of his life and turned it into a kitsch all her own.

“I can always use one,” he relented, slowly getting up, but resisting the temptation to pull Vindaloo’s chair out for her. She, however, joined him at the elbow and turned toward the door, careful to let Jordan lead the way and not the other way around.

That left Clarisse out, silent, regretting having quit puffing for the first time and having introduced Vindaloo to Jordan. Either you’re in the club or you’re out.
Either you smoke or you don’t smoke.

Outside, they were in, firing up. “Is this marijuana?” asked Vindaloo.

“Yeah, let me get you a regular,” said Jordan, who was running out of those.

“Never mind. This is great… I’m going to be frank,” Vindaloo said in the manner of people whose time is important. “And I don’t mean to hit you with all this beautiful actress and the best-things-in-life stuff, but that’s just how it is for me, so fuck it. You like me?”

“Can’t say that I don’t,” Jordan confused Vindaloo with Dumburton (yet again).
Vindaloo loved it. “Be a gentleman,” she demanded and no man cannot be chastened by this simple urging from a woman with champagne breath. “And don’t worry about being too easy. I’m in a hurry. You know what I mean?”

She had no idea just how well Jordan knew what she meant.

Vindaloo smiled and tilted her head toward the restaurant door. “I’m going to have another,” Jordan told her, not so much to savor the moment that had passed so pleasantly between them as to satisfy his addiction.

“Here’s your joint back,” she handed it over and he opened his palm to take it. “May it give you the magic I think you need.”

Jordan wondered whether everything seemed to be leaving sweeter impressions because he felt marked as a dead man. And still, there seemed to be a magic to Vindaloo Baxley (unless, of course, it was the joint she had returned and which he was now smoking).

Jordan did not get much further than this for as soon as one interesting woman went in another came out. Jordan looked at the sign above the door for the purpose of fixing future social commitments. He had seen this girl in the mirror on the wall in front of him, dining behind him, and thought he’d caught her watching his reflection, too. He was struck by her eyebrows, which where thick, but well attended so as to create a generous arch suggesting, for Jordan anyway, a vague innocence – an open query.

In the town where Jordan lives, a vague innocence is about all one can hope for with a face like that. She was an utter doll and somewhere beyond his marijuana-laced consciousness came a flash informing that he would now fight to the death before succumbing to jail time.

She pulled out a cigarette and raised those eyebrows in a pair of question marks that did not know the word “no.” He moved easily and lit her with a match.

“I feel guilty. Smoking killed my grandmother, but after a good meal...mmmmm.”

“A smoke out on the sidewalk says something about you, that is if you’ve been reading the papers lately,” Jordan suggested.

“I can’t read them,” she said sadly enough, “there’s something going on in my life right now.”

“Well you’re not going to die from a sidewalk smoke because there is too much out there for you.”

“Where?” and she tilted in a way that nearly brought him to his knees. He was puddy. There are no explanations for such reactions, but they happen. He was hers.

“I don’t know; out in the air?”

“The air is a very big place to look for love... Hey, are you smoking pot?”

Jordan confirmed her suspicion with more guilt than normal, rebounding quickly by asking if she wanted some.

“No thanks, not that I don’t, but I can’t. I’m here with my family,” and she blew out a thin formation that dipped low before chasing off gravity and climbing away.

“We’re very close,” she filled the blank space between them.
Some things can be overlooked, he reasoned convincingly to himself, and he nodded in understanding, despite the fact it was a lifestyle foreign to him.

“Armenian,” she said.

“How’s that?”

“We’re Armenian.”


“You act like you have a problem with that.”

“Of course not,”

And he wasn’t even lying.

Chapter Forty-nine

“I’ve had enough,” Yvonne said blankly as they drove through the hazy chemical evening. “I want out of this now.”

Corey turned to Randall who didn’t really know how to say that he couldn’t deliver on that request. That it was out of his hands. That there was no escape from the thing that had become their lives and that he was suffocating, too.

Nor did he have the heart to tell her about DeConcini but she knew what was going on. “I feel reverberations for everything I do; backlashes and reflections and echoes. There’s too much resonance for the person who has done what I’ve done. I don’t deserve it.”

Nor did she want it, but Yvonne was woman enough to complain about something while still seeing it through to the bitter, or sweet, end depending. And so she dropped the matter.

“Randall’s hanging out with Hat Midone.”

“How come everybody else gets an actor out of this except me?” Yvonne whined.

“What’s wrong with us?” Corey drew a circle in the air around he and his partner.

She felt so sorry for herself and so many girls wanted to be her. Randall wanted to remind Yvonne of how she was the central player in a production that was using celebrities as minor stand-ins, but then fell prey to a suspicion she already knew this, and that it wasn’t enough to elevate her impression of the situation.

Randall thought it good a time as any to lift spirits and not having a whole hell of a lot to work with, the best he could come up with was a rallying cry to friendship.

“Tomorrow,” he commanded, “at the Argentine restaurant, a general meeting of all The Sidewalk Smokers Club, and that includes Jordan.”

Yvonne suggested they find a place that would not draw attention to them, but he rejected it decisively – decisiveness being a valued political virtue in the specific epoch in which all this unfolds. “No. We show them we are not cowed, not scared or anything else we really are. We show them that to keep fighting the good fight is the sole purpose of the fight...this is our purpose.”

His fellow bums nodded in agreement.

Chapter Fifty

Thorpe and Diaz were in over their heads once again. As firefighters, their fearlessness had served them well in a business that was more physical than chatty.

Their elevated profiles had now placed them in a world where chatty and evasive were important talents, where their prior rush-through-the-door enthusiasm served them poorly. They were scrutinized now. The Smokers were scrutinized now. Scrutiny was happening.

The fire chief was both upset and obliged to the officers. Conflicted, he decided upon sending them deeper into the very same forest they had yet to see through the trees.

The police had found out about Joya’s role in the Business Improvement District and informed the fire department. In doing so the PD had deftly volleyed the whole sticky matter away from themselves and back to the FD; pointing out that it fell under the Smoke-Free Workplace Act’s purview. The FD had, in turn, directed its two lone inspectors to organize the plan for the evacuation of smokers from the stores around Joya’s Joyas. They were familiar with the territory and its players, it was rationalized, and so were thrown to the (she) wolves.

Their specific charge was getting the BID to do their bidding, as it were, and get the job done with the security team it already had assembled. This was largely because the FD budget to did not provide the inspectors with the resources necessary to do it on their lonesome.

They said they were “privatizing” the action, and it played very well.

Like their boss, Thorpe and Diaz were ambivalent about the assignment. On the one hand, each had seen enough of The Sidewalk Smokers Club to last a good while. On the other hand, things in their lives had sure heated up since meeting that crew.
The two men convened the BID in a hushed meeting hall of some municipal building serving the area. The entity was comprised exclusively of women retailers ranging between the ages of 25 and 55; birds of a feather, well-dressed, of-the-moment, worked-out, and self-confident.

The hearing was structured procedurally, and beforehand, so that moving the sidewalk smokers out was a done deal and not subject to debate.

Thorpe, opening with a stale joke that only served to thicken the tension in the room, continued by thanking the bulky BID security team, sitting stage right, for all its efforts in the area. Not that they had ever done anything in the way of helping the inspectors enforce their pet law, but this is how such rituals are initiated.

Ms. Ashragi, a sultry middle-eastern woman with a deep and weary voice said, “Wod aboud fon turee?”

Thorpe said Inspector Diaz was in charge of that, nodded to his partner in an officious way, and sat back in his chair. It was news to Diaz. He didn’t even know what a phone tree was. And so, he was grateful to hear Joya’s plaintive voice pierce the plushness before being completely muffled by the floor-to-ceiling carpeting. “Why are we talkin’ about a phone tree when we haven’t decided if we’re really going to do this or not?”

City Attorney was right. Sometimes these Smokers were quite refreshing. The answer, of course, was that they had worked it out over the phone in a series of calls she was not privy to. And somebody would have to explain this, if not in those words exactly.

The appropriately named Mrs. Stern was chairwoman of the BID Board of Executives. She sat at the middle of the long dais on stage (as it were). There she enjoyed the advantage of a microphone hooked up to the public address system, which she used to great effect. So she leaned into the apparatus. “Let the record show that Joya’s Joyas was not represented in the preliminary discussions surrounding the no-sidewalk smoking campaign.”

“Preliminary discussions!” Joya verily cried out only to have the rich upholstery erase her yet again. “Preliminary discus-”

“Joya,” the chairwoman blew into the microphone, “most of us here are business people – full-time merchants.”

“Well what the hell’s ’at supposed ta mean?”

“Vot she mean dahlink,” said Magda Nagy, Hungarian-born proprietress of Madga Nagy Spa and Salon, “is daht you are too beezy making in de newspapers yourd peekchure and don vork enuf.”

Joya could now see that she’d had the rug pulled out from under her. The BID, an important ally, was done with her. She was the source of the problem at hand, and she had become something else in the weeks since that first fateful smoke out front of the Argentine restaurant. The ladies were mostly envious, she felt, admitting she’d not played them properly of late. She was, after all, an artist by trade and experience – not a ward heeler.

Joya looked up at Thorpe. He looked down at her; euphoric at the coup he did not even believe himself sly enough to pull off. And it was true that, by way of direction, his superior (hedging his bet) suggested the Coloradoan be neutralized.

It was not the strategy of a genius, but it was gold considering the mediocrity at the chief’s disposal. A good soldier, Thorpe followed through with the few steps his simplicity seemed well suited to. He knew the ladies, the ladies knew him, and together they had formed a coalition of numbers and resources that Joya was without means to combat – directly.

She sat down.

Mrs. Stern leaned in. “Inspector Diaz, what say you relative to the phone tree?”

“It’s a good idea. Go ahead with it.”

Mrs. Stern smiled, as did the mesdames around her. Their devolution from heroic safety workers to self-serving bureaucrats was almost complete. Leadership was easy. Thorpe smiled.

“Well,” said Mrs. Stern, “I’d be more than glad to make out the lists and the call-flow.”

“Oh puhleeze,” said Rita Cooley, an African-American woman with a Mondrian-inspired scarf around her head, and long finger nails that curled inward. “Do you hafta control EVerything?”

“Reeetah,” Ms. Ashragi purred into the fabric void, “don start wid all dat about rights and ev-erything.”

Joya got up and walked out, her body language revealing nothing but the usual loosey-goosey promise.

“No, sheee eees rright,” garbled Magda Nagy into the stifling textile, “why you haf to contorol evereetheeeng? Eh, Stern?”

“Ladies,” Thorpe tried interjecting.

“Listen Magda,” Stern gripped the microphone, “I do a lot of things for you ladies without the slightest compensation. I do it because we’re neighbors.”

Hiccup laughs, sighs, shaking heads.

“What are you insinuating?” Stern got a little defensive.

“That you mek munney, Meezus Stern,” said Ms. Nagy.

“Oh Magda, what are you all doing?” Stern stuttered.

Thorpe and Diaz looked at each other like two foxes who’d come to the wrong hen house. The din began to rise. The absorptive purpose of all the carpet, curtains, and upholstery became clear to the inspectors. There was, they still felt, wisdom in government.

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