Daniel A. Olivas
The King of Lighting Fixtures
David Rey liked the word, the way it rolled off his tongue, filled his mind with images of Alexander the Great and shields and armor and conquered lands.
True, the Los Angeles Times article misstated a few basic facts, such as David’s age, making him two years younger than his true age of forty. And the writer misquoted him ever so slightly. When asked how it felt to oversee a business empire, one of the most successful chains of lighting fixture stores in California, David Rey had answered: “All it takes is a lot of hard work and a little luck.” The reporter mistakenly wrote it as: “All it takes is a little hard work and a lot of luck.”
No matter. In fact, the error made David seem a bit humble, as if his great empire arose from God’s good graces rather than the sweat of his brow. That’s humility. That’s good press. That’s what makes America great. But the word used by the reporter—empire—transformed the article into something extraordinary. What a perfect, muscular word. Empire. Yes. The Empire Strikes Back! A Hollywood dream. That’s what David Rey was doing: living a dream with stores spanning California, from San Diego to Sacramento, a baker’s dozen in all. Pretty good for not finishing college. Now these young, eager graduates from Stanford and USC and Loyola Marymount and virtually all of the UC campuses worked for him—David wanted only the best and the brightest as his managers and accountants and lawyers.
The woman, no…girl, really, she was not a fully developed woman yet, at least not by David’s view of things—snored a bit and turned ever so slightly. David brought the Los Angeles Times down from his face so he could admire her, asleep and almost swallowed up by his rumpled sheets, the sign of a good night of fun. David shifted in the loveseat, admired this girl across the bedroom, about half his age (a college student for God’s sake!) who wanted to go home with him rather than with any of those impoverished, embryonic boys who might have him on youth, but not on class, not on money, and certainly not on manhood. Those punks had no pinche empire, that’s for goddamn sure. ¡Pendejos!
He had seen that face before last night but couldn’t remember where. At a restaurant or the CVS or Albertsons. He shook his head. It’d come to him. But more importantly, what was her name? He took a sip of coffee, blinked, and gathered his thoughts. Think, think. Why did female names slip from his mind so easily? Think. Yes! Bat. Bat Blanco. Call me Batty, she’d said as she accepted David’s offer to buy her another Red Bull Passion Slush at the TGI Friday’s on Canoga Avenue. Patrons crowded around the boisterous bar cheering as the Lakers opened up a little lead. As David sipped his Heineken with one eye on the flat screen and one on Bat, she said that her real name was Bertha but that sounded like an old, worn out name. Not a good fit for this petite, young woman. She promised to tell David how she came to that new name, but he’d have to wait, be a patient chico. Unfortunately, patience was not one of David Rey’s attributes. And he had no intention of allowing this pleasant diversion to last more than a week, maybe two, at most. He’d been married once, long ago, but ended it when it became clear that she—Ramona—didn’t really believe in David and his dreams for something better, beyond what most people could imagine, and would have been happy with a nine-to-five husband who was there for dinner each night, fathering three, four or maybe five babies, mowing the lawn each Saturday, attending Mass on Sunday, a belly growing larger by the year. Forget about building an empire, hombre. Settle down, make a home, produce children. That’s what Ramona dreamed of, nothing less, and certainly nothing more.
No. David Rey figured that he’d never know why Bertha renamed herself Bat due to the consistency of his internal dating calendar. But such is life. Bat brought some delight to David’s workaday existence, made him feel young for a short while, and that was that. As David hardened his heart, Bat started to stir. She turned this way and that, her thin, brown arms tossing above her head like those of a rag doll being swung by a reckless toddler—beautiful arms seemingly animated by the power of another.
“Batty?” said David.
Bat blinked once, twice, three times and sat up quickly, too fast for one who had just been asleep—or so it seemed. The sheet fell to her waist. David took in a deep breath, remembering suddenly that he’d been inside this stunning young woman just a few hours ago, her thin but strong legs trapping him tight and secure, a delightful prison.
Bat focused on David’s face for a few seconds. She smiled and turned to the clock on the nightstand. Then her smile fell away.
“¡Chingao!” Bat yelped as she scrambled out of bed almost falling face first onto the thick, wall-to-wall carpet.
David stood, his robe falling open but he didn’t care because he knew he looked lean.
“What?” said David.
“It’s Saturday,” he said before remembering that many people, of course, worked on the weekend including his own salespeople and staff.
Bat ran to the bathroom but didn’t close the door. David could hear her pee, loud and clear. Flush. More mad scrambling, and then the shower started with a wet whoosh! David marveled at how Bat made herself at home so quickly.
Saturday. David had worked many a Saturday but no longer. Sure, he might drop in on one of his stores, maybe the one closest to home in Woodland Hills or a bit farther east in Encino or maybe a longish drive on the freeway out to Koreatown or Glendale or Simi Valley. He liked to see his managers hop to, their eyes almost popping out of their skulls at the surprise visit by El Jefe. They were a conscientious lot, that’s for sure. David handpicked his managers, always offering the top salaries and most comprehensive health packages in the lighting business, easily outbidding his competitors. He wanted the best, nothing less, because David knew that money spent in the right places on the right people would lead to success. He didn’t need no pinche MBA to know this. If David had anything, he had common sense. He used it to great advantage in starting his first lighting fixture store in Koreatown not more than a mile from the house he had shared with his mother and four younger sisters. David’s father would have been proud, no doubt, with the opening of that one shop. But sometimes he wondered what Osvaldo would have thought of the ribbon cutting at the thirteenth store, this one way up in Sacramento. David’s father had worked his whole life with his hands, first in the fields when he and his young bride, Elisa, had left Mexico and settled in Oxnard. After David was born, they moved to Los Angeles and Osvaldo immediately started his manic routine of juggling two city jobs—as a janitor in a high rise, a valet parking attendant wearing a red vest at yet another—just so his wife could be home with baby David and the eventual succession of daughters. Elisa had warned her husband that he’d work himself into an early grave. And she was right: thirty pounds too heavy and suffering from hypertension, one of the other parking attendants grew worried after Osvaldo had been away too long from their station and went searching for him on level two of the vast, underground parking garage. He finally found Osvaldo sitting in a Jaguar XKR-S convertible coupe, behind the wheel after parking it in space number 243, not ten yards from the elevator, looking as if he decided to close his eyes for but a moment, head nestled in the soft, black leather headrest. The only thing missing was elegant music, perhaps a little Vivaldi or maybe a bit of Chopin, emanating from the Jaguar’s speakers. Osvaldo’s life ended in elegance even though it was not his own. But if he could see his son’s success now, what would he think? Would he swell with pride? Would he call his family in Mexico to brag about David living the American Dream? Yes, of course he would, all of that, and more. His only son had made the family wealthy and treated his mother to a four-bedroom, two-and-a-half bath, newly-remodeled home in Sherman Oaks, with two of his four sisters coming back to the nest—one from a nasty, childless marriage and the other from a failed suicide attempt but doing much better. Elisa could mother these two daughters in great comfort. Osvaldo would have patted David on his back, speechless. That’s how a man takes care of his family.
“Can I use your deodorant?”
David jumped. He’d been so lost in thought he hadn’t realized that Bat had finished her shower and was scuttling about the bedroom in blue panties and black bra. The mismatch made him smile.
“Oh, sure, it’s in the medicine cabinet.”
Bat scampered back to the bathroom. David listened as Bat rummaged through the cabinet’s contents. She let out a little chuckle. What was so funny? She finally emitted a dramatic aha! David approached and watched as Bat pulled the top off his Right Guard Sports Stick and sniffed.
“A manly-man scent,” she said and applied it quickly under each arm. “Muy macho.”
“No one could confuse you for a man, mija,” said David.
The moment “mija” left his lips, he cringed. Rule number one: never call a new, younger lover “my daughter.”
Bat smiled, ran to the side of the bed, and found her black skirt. She held it up and shrugged. “A few wrinkles never hurt anyone, right, papi?”
David cringed again. Why had he called her mija? God. And now she teased him by calling him “papi.”
Bat found her short boots, slipped into them and deftly zipped each one. She poked around the crumpled sheets for a few seconds and then found her black, Calvin Klein, V-neck sweater. Bat pulled it over her head held, pushed up both sleeves to the elbow, then posed with hands on hips, chin tucked down, looking very much like a model on a Macy’s catalogue.
“Good as new!” she finally chirped.
David walked up to Bat but didn’t touch her.
“Much better, yes,” he said. “But I didn’t mind you without the clothes.”
She curtsied and said: “Mil gracias, papi.”
“Don’t call me ‘papi,’” said David.
“No time for small talk, papi, gotta’ pay the bills.” She suddenly stopped moving and looked up to the ceiling as if a memory took over her thoughts. “I need to wash my hands.”
Before David could say anything, Bat ran back to the bathroom and shut the door behind her. Odd. She didn’t mind peeing and showering with the door wide open, but she had to wash her hands in private. What a peculiar girl. The water shut off, and Bat emerged, grinning at some private joke. She jogged to the dresser, grabbed her purse, allowed David to give her a peck on the cheek, and trotted toward the bedroom door.
“Need a ride?”
Bat kept moving forward. “No, it’s close by, just a few blocks away on Ventura. There’s a bus stop at the corner. And I have a bus pass, all bought and paid for!”
“Where do you work?”
Bat was already down the stairs making her way toward the front door. David followed helplessly, pulling his robe closed.
A few blocks away, I told you!”
Bat opened the front door and looked up toward David who stood at the top of the stairs.
“See you, papi,” she said as she slammed the door behind her.
David slowly took three steps down not quite knowing what had just happened. Usually there was small talk with these women he brought home, maybe a little breakfast, some gentle whisperings acknowledging the intimacy shared, but a firm, unspoken acceptance of the transitory nature of the previous night’s romance.
But this woman—this girl—this Bat, was an unknowable whirlwind. ¡Ay! David never had such an encounter, such an odd good bye. Then David’s mind started to whir: a few blocks away someplace on Ventura Boulevard. But where exactly? What was open this early on Saturday? The Ralphs supermarket? No, David couldn’t see Bat stocking shelves, arranging tomatoes, bananas, blueberries and grapes, or working the cashier. Jerry’s Famous Deli? Maybe. But not quite right. No, not for Bat, but maybe. Ah! That coffee house, what was it called? Not Starbucks, but some independent place where Pierce College students liked to nurse a cup of coffee for hours while doing school work. David didn’t mind the place. In fact, he had more than his share of coffees there with Nate Klayman, his manager of the Woodland Hills store. Is that where he’d seen Bat before? Maybe. That coffee house would be a perfect place for an unusually beautiful and clever college student to work. But how did she get to the bar last night? Did she really take the bus? Did she live in one of those new but small apartments in Woodland Hills? Did Bat share rent with another cute college student? College student. God, he was old enough to be Bat’s papi. No matter. Maybe after a long, hot shower, David would drop by and order a latte and a blueberry scone. Would Bat register any level of surprise? She’d have to ask him his name, write it on the side of the cup. Would she remember? Or would Bat write “Papi” with a little happy face added to make a point? What point?
David walked back to his bedroom and surveyed the battle field. He could feel still Bat’s presence, her energy. And he could sniff out her scent. David slowly strolled around the room, neatening up after this young, wild thing. He then moved to the bathroom and shook his head. Bat had simply dropped her wet towel on the floor, just like that, without a worry. Is this how young people act in someone else’s home? He picked it up and observed several strands of her long, black hair matted and coiled in the towel’s folds. David dropped it dramatically into the wicker hamper shaking his head like a disappointed parent. Then he remembered that Bat had laughed when she opened his medicine cabinet. David opened it and peered in—nothing odd, not an embarrassing thing in sight. He closed it and chalked it up to Bat’s clearly eccentric personality.
But then he saw it: Bat had written four words on the steamed mirror of the medicine cabinet. When did she do that? Ah, that’s why she washed her hands in private. Sneaky little one, that’s for sure. He read the words: EYES OF A BLUE DOG. They made no sense, none at all. Bat had written them quickly. Some kind of weird joke. A young joke on an old man. She mocked him, no doubt. But so what? He’d made no commitment to her, just had a little fun for the night. David reached up with his right hand, palm out, and reread the words one more time before wiping them away with a flurry of irritated squeaks.
Interview with Ramona
Q: How long were you and David married?
A: Oh, not long. (Sighs.) Not even two years.
Q: I’m sorry, is this difficult for you? We could do it another time if you wish.
A: No, that’s okay. It’s been about twenty years since the divorce so the pain isn’t so bad. It’s just sometimes I get sad about what could have been. You know how that is, don’t you?
Q: Well …
A: Probably not. You’re still young and pretty.
Q: No, that’s not it …
A: I was young once, and beautiful if that doesn’t sound all conceited.
Q: No, you’re still beautiful.
A: Gracias. But not so young, right? Though I have kept my figure, even after three babies. I married again, after David, you know. Russell. Not such a bad guy. Works at the Honda dealership on Topanga. One of their best salesmen.
Q: Yes, all that is in my notes here someplace …
A: Ni modo. Anyway, David couldn’t get enough of me. It was like he was so thirsty and all he wanted was to drink from me, from my body.
Q: How did you meet?
A: (Laughs.) I worked in the bookstore at Pierce College, you know, that community college in Woodland Hills. A cashier. My first real job where I could keep most of my paycheck since I moved out on my own, when my parents said it was time for me to be an adult. I was seventeen.
Q: David was a student, right?
A: Yes. He was eighteen. And you think he’s handsome now, you should have seen him then! Want to see a picture of us? I keep one in my wallet.
Q: After all these years?
A: Some things you have to keep.
Q: I suppose.
A; Russell would be pissed if he knew I had this. Ah, here it is! Look at us. Just babies, really.
A: Look at that hair I had!
Q: May I borrow this? I’d love to make a copy.
A: No, this is private.
Q: But you agreed to the interview.
A: Only the interview. This picture is private. It’s a little bit of me. I don’t mind if you see it. But I don’t want all the readers to see it, okay?
Q: (Hands back photograph.) Fair enough. I understand.
A: I don’t think you do. But that’s okay. You’re young. You don’t have regrets. Yet.
Q: (Coughs.) So, you met David when he was buying books for his classes?
A: No, actually, it was when I took a smoke break. Outside the bookstore, by the side of the building. That’s where we always took our breaks, me the people who worked at the bookstore and the little coffee shop nearby. A couple of us were able to take our fifteen minutes at the same time. I’d seen him in the bookstore before that, browsing but not buying which was kind of funny because classes had already started. I don’t know if he ever bought his books. We noticed each other, but never spoke. But that one day when I was taking my break, I’m talking with my friend Carla who worked in the coffee shop and we see David walking toward the bookstore. Carla says something like she wouldn’t mind having a little bit of him and I laugh because she could just speak her mind and not be ashamed or anything the way I would if I did that. I heard she died a couple of years ago. Boyfriend went off on her. It was in the news, on TV. He killed himself after. But I hadn’t seen Carla in something like twenty years. She’s still young in my mind. Young, chubby, cute. So, David is walking in our direction and sees me and Carla. He slows down just before the stairs up to the bookstore, turns in our direction. Carla and me just giggle, you know, because we’re kids, really, and David was so handsome and looked older than eighteen, more like three or four years older because he lifted weights and was filled out like a man, not like the other guys on campus. So, he slowly walks up to us, shields his eyes from the sun with his right hand, and his muscles on his arm kind of flex in a special way, like soft, brown waves, and he smiles and says: “What’s your name?” That was it. I knew we’d be together after that.
Q: Love at first sight?
A: (Laughs.) Love? I never said anything about love. Love doesn’t exist. At least, not for people like me.
Q: People like you?
A: You know, ordinary people.
Q: (Looks at watch.) Oh, could we meet again? I have more questions, but I have to call Olivas.
A: The guy writing this story?
Q: Yes. A real pendejo.
A: (Laughs.) No worries. Just call when you want to talk some more. It feels good to talk to someone about David.
Q: You’re a doll, thanks.
A: Tell that to my husband.
Bat leapt off the bus, almost stumbling onto the pavement, but she quickly regained her balance. She let out a little snort, then broke into a trot keeping her eyes trained on the coffee house’s large, hanging sign that had bold, brown lettering on an orange background: LOT 49. Bat pushed the glass door, entered the shop, took three steps, and stopped before moving deeper into the long room. She quickly scanned the place: from behind one of the two cashiers, Serge smiled and exchanged inane and insincere pleasantries with a customer, Dean wiped a table in the back near the restrooms, and Leonard scooped dark, shiny coffee beans into the Bunn grinder. Only three patrons stood in line. Not so bad. But where was Miles, the manager? Bat moved her eyes back and forth, keeping her head still so that no one would notice her panic. Miles, where are you? He was always here, even when nursing a cold. Maybe he’s in the restroom.
“Looking for someone?”
Bat tried not to jumped, attempted to stay cool, as she slowly turned to her left. She almost succeeded in conveying the insouciance of an innocent woman.
“Miles,” she cooed. “Mi jefe. ¿Qué onda, hombre?”
Miles stared at Bat as he stood frozen, stooped over the newspaper holder—a V-shaped container made of shiny, metal mesh sold by IKEA—hands full of newsprint, midway through taking care one of his pet peeves: messy newspapers and magazines dropped into the holder by patrons who didn’t mind sharing their discards with other customers, but who had less of a sense of order than Lot 49’s morning shift manager. “Mr. OCD” his staff called him behind his back, something he’d have trouble denying. But it made him a better manager, in many ways, a neurosis he channeled into making the coffee house hum along with by-the-book barista training and regular refresher courses, not to mention mandatory clockwork emptying of waste containers, floor swabbing, tabletop wiping and restroom disinfecting. Bat believed Miles was not bad looking, sort of a young, thin, blond Alec Baldwin, and he’d majored in philosophy at CSUN so he had a brain, actually quite a good one, and could discuss Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Camus, Sartre, and Heidegger with the kind of ease most men his age could chat about tattoos, PlayStation 3, getting fucked up, and the Dodgers. Bat’s growing desire to minor in philosophy was fanned when Miles went on about metaphysics, the nature of the mind and freedom, existential psychoanalysis. She’d read The Stranger three times, because Miles told her—in his rather convincing way—that it was a book that went deeper to what it means “to be” than any other book, even The Bible. Bat wondered if Miles were straight or gay, which annoyed her since she usually could figure it out within a minute of meeting a man. But at this moment, Bat’s existence depended on smoothing over her tardiness with Mr. OCD.
“So, our UCLA student has been enjoying her nightlife passions just a bit too much to make it to her—what is this?—oh, yes, job—on time?”
Oh, oh. Whenever Miles referred to Bat’s university, he was really pissed. She knew that he could not afford to attend UCLA, despite getting in, and that despite really liking Bat, he felt that she was not taking full advantage of all that UCLA had to offer especially since she was a Chicano Studies major. “What is this, the 1970s?” he’d mocked when first learning of Bat’s area of study. “Should I yell, ‘Attica, Attica, Attica!’ whenever you come into Lot 49?” Bat had to go to Wikipedia to understand what Miles meant. She first ended up in the article that explained that Attica was a historical region of Greece, which included Athens, that country’s current capital. This made no sense. But she clicked around a bit and found the article on the Attica Correctional Facility in Attica, New York. Okay, a prison riot ignited by the death of a black radical activist. Political radicalism. Got it. Point made.
Bat took two steps toward Miles, stopped, shrugged, and offered an almost inaudible, “Sorry.” She tried to make her eyes moisten, did her best to look pathetic, but failed.
Miles turned back to arranging the newspapers and magazines. He shook his head in barely hidden disgust. This was not going to be a good day at Lot 49, at least not for Bat. She went to the back room, put on her brown apron and matching cap, grabbed a damp wash cloth, and trotted back to start wiping down the already clean tables. She approached a table near the entryway, where she could see pedestrians strolling along the sunny but cool sidewalks of Ventura Boulevard, envying their idleness, wishing she could enjoy her Saturdays without having to work as many hours as could be offered by Miles to pay for tuition and books and rent. She took the bus whenever she could to save on gas and prolong the life of her 1999 Honda Civic. Bat kept her small, low-rent apartment in Canoga Park (Woodland Hills adjacent! proclaimed the ad) rather than search for an even smaller place at four times the rent near UCLA. That way she could be close to her mother and two little brothers who lived in a little, wood framed house on Victory Boulevard about six blocks from Bat’s apartment. Her mother sometimes needed help with the boys, especially when she had to work the nightshift at Target. Bat even scrimped by keeping a prehistoric Motorola RAZR flip phone that made her classmates laugh as they whipped out their latest iPhones. She didn’t even own a TV. So, Bat resented feeling guilty over having a fun night of drinks and sex. She was human after all. What’s wrong with a little “passion” every now and then, even if her private life were a little bit complicated? Certainly an existentialist such as Miles could understand that, right?
Bat finished wiping the table and turned to do another, and almost ran her forehead into Miles’ narrow chest. She looked up and noticed that his face was smooth with a clean shave. Bat admired the dimple on his chin that must have been difficult to keep clear of whiskers it was so deep.
“Yes, mi jefe?”
“Can we talk, Bat?”
“Sure, of course, anything for you, Miles.”
“In the managers’ office.”
Miles never said “my office” because he shared it with the night manager, Kavita Lankesh-Williams. Bat assumed that Miles was incapable of ignoring the fact that someone else had the right to use this space. This was particularly appropriate since Kavita was not only ten years his senior, but also had been only the second manager hired by the owners of Lot 49 when it opened seven years ago. True, Miles now had three solid years’ experience as manager—after being a star barista for two—but he very openly respected seniority. Soon he’d have enough money to buy a small townhouse or condo, maybe find a more intellectually gratifying job, and perhaps even consider applying graduate school. But for now, he followed the rules, worked hard, and honored the pecking order.
Miles entered the managers’ office first and quickly took a seat behind an elegant Danish-styled teak desk. As Bat started to lower herself into one of the two guest chairs, Miles said, “Please close the door.”
Chingao. This is not good.
Bat complied and then sat. She figured the best thing to do was to let Miles take the lead, let him begin with a little speech about how lucky Bat was to have a job in this economy, that when Miles hired her last year, forty-two people had submitted applications ahead of hers, and almost all were overqualified. Miles had given this lecture before, but he seemed particularly angry this morning. The air conditioner blew hard and cold right above Bat’s head, so she sat on her hands and tried not to shiver as if shivering were a sign of weakness she could not afford to exhibit. Behind Miles hung a large Lot 49 framed poster that consisted of an extreme close up of a single, shiny, deep-brown coffee bean with the coffee house’s motto No Better Coffee…We Mean It! in white lettering along the bottom border. Very little else decorated the office. The shelves held some generic books on coffee as well as several Lot 49 manager manuals, a new one issued each year. Only one item stood out: on the desk sat a small, blue ceramic dog with shiny black eyes. This made Bat smile and feel safe. She let out a little chuckle.
“I like your dog.”
“It’s not mine, it belongs to Kavita,” said Miles as he scratched at his chin. He added: “It’s rather silly if you ask me.”
The blue dog stared at Bat with its black eyes. It was like the one in her strange, vague dream of last night—though she and David slept very little—the inspiration for the four words she wrote on David’s bathroom mirror this morning. She still couldn’t figure out the significance of it particularly since she had no belief in the magic of dreams the way her grandmother Isabel did.
“It’s new?” she asked.
“Yes,” said Miles who now closed his eyes as if staving off a migraine. “Feel free to take it if you wish.”
“Just joking,” Miles quickly added when he realized Bat might actually snatch up the ceramic dog. “It’s obviously not mine to give.”
Miles opened his eyes and focused on Bat’s forehead which annoyed her each time he did this, usually when Bat had upset him. It reminded Bat of how she felt on Ash Wednesday when non-Catholics would stare at the smudge of flaking, black ash just above her brow. On those days, she felt like saying: “Do you want to lick it off?”
Miles sat back, steepled his fingers and began: “You know how lucky you are to have this job?”
Bat sighed and wondered if Miles would stop his little speech if she went around his desk, put her hand on his crotch, and rubbed until he came. Instead, she kept her eyes locked on the blue dog and answered: “Yes, Miles.”
“You are my best worker.”
Oh, this is a little different, thought Bat. Miles never jumped right into the inevitable compliment this early in his speech.
Miles waved her off. “No need to kiss ass.”
“But I’m not.”
“Let me finish.”
Bat lifted her eyes from the blue dog and looked at Miles who was now staring not at Bat’s forehead, but at her nose. Baby step progress. Bat immediately made it her goal to will Miles to look directly into her eyes.
Miles sighed and continued: “I need to take a leave of absence.” His eyes now met Bat’s which widened into mini-Frisbees with this announcement.
Miles shifted in his chair and moved his eyes to the blue dog. He smiled.
“However long it takes.”
Bat cleared her throat, not certain how to react, what to say, not really wanting to know the whys, what fors, and becauses. In movies, it was always cancer or some other disease just as horrible.
“I’ve met a wonderful woman.” His eyes shift up back to Bat, this time making eye contact. “She lives in Kansas City. Er, the one in Missouri.”
Something about this news made Bat tingle. And she now knew Miles liked women. Well, at least one woman.
“When did you go to Kansas City?”
“Catherine is completing her doctorate in art history at UMKC,” Miles continued as if Bat had not asked a question. “She’s trying to decide where she wants to apply for teaching jobs. Her ultimate goal is to be a museum curator.”
“When did you go to Kansas City?”
“Her focus is Meso-American and Native American Arts, so you see, California would be a perfect fit for her, right?”
Ah, he’s trying out arguments that he hoped to use on this Catherine of Kansas City, Missouri.
“Yes,” said Bat. “Especially Southern California. You know, the Chumash, Tongva. And all of the Southwest did belong to Mexico, once.”
Miles jumped to his feet, arms raised above his head as if he were about to catch a football. His short sleeves rode up on his biceps which were better defined than Bat had expected.
“Yes, Bat! That’s what I said to Catherine!”
“But when did you go to Kansas City?”
Miles relented, his arms fell to his sides, and he admitted: “We met online about six months ago. I haven’t met Catherine in the flesh yet.”
But you’ve seen her naked, for sure, thought Bat. Thank God for Skype.
“So, my plan is to take a couple weeks off of work and visit Catherine. But if I need more time to convince her to consider jobs out here, it might stretch out a bit.” And then Miles added, almost as a threat: “I have a lot of vacation time saved up.”
Bat didn’t like the direction this was headed. She was already stretched thin by school and work and helping her mother with the boys.
“But I can’t…,” she began.
“I know, I know.” Miles waved off Bat’s objections. “You’re not fulltime and all that. But I need you, Bat. Could we work something out where you’re managing but with the help of…”
“Serge or Dean?”
“Yes, Serge or Dean,” said Miles a bit relieved. “But not Leonard. Maybe both Serge and Dean could assist you while I’m gone. Like a tag team, but with you in charge. And there would be extra money for you, too, of course.”
Bat sat up, her inner mechanism readjusting—click, click, click—like the workings of a large, antique clock. He needs me—this is not the usual lecture where he makes me feel like a little girl. I am now his equal. She cocked her head a bit to the right, pretending to roll his proposal around in her mind.
“May I think about it?” she finally said after counting three beats.
Miles allowed a small smile to creep onto his lips. Love will find a way, that smile said. Miles walked to the door and opened it. Bat stood and took a step.
“Yes, of course,” he said while keeping his hand on the door handle. “But if you could let me know relatively soon, that would make my life much easier, okay? Talk to you boyfriend about it, if you have to.”
Bat stopped. “What?”
“Uri. Talk to him if you need to.”
“Why would I do that?”
Miles blinked. “Oh, sorry. I thought you two were still together.”
“We are,” said Bat. “But he’s in Israel visiting his family. Starting a new job when he gets back. I don’t want to bother him.”
“I can make this decision alone.”
“I’ll do it,” she said after a moment. “You got a deal.”
Miles tried to control his face but couldn’t. His mouth formed into a wide grin.
“I’ll do it,” Bat said again as she walked out of the office. “I’ll do it.”
Interview with Catherine
Q: So, a doctorate in art history at the University of Missouri, Kansas City?
A: Yes, with an emphasis is in Meso-American and Native American Arts.
Q: Almost done?
A: Almost. The dean has issued the certificate of acceptance of my dissertation and I’m working with the supervisory committee chair to arrange for the defense.
A: Of my dissertation.
Q: Sorry. I never went on to graduate school.
A: No worries. It’s a different world.
Q: So, basically you’re almost done.
A: Yes! Knock on wood. Six years of my life.
Q: Six years? My goodness. I wouldn’t have the patience.
A: But I’m almost done and finally ready to find a real job.
A: (Laughs.) Ah, your sneaky way to ask about Miles.
Q: Well, yes. If you don’t mind.
A: No, not all. He’s a sweetheart. Coming out soon to see me.
Q: In the flesh.
A: Yes, in the flesh. I don’t know how people dated before the Internet.
Q: You make me feel like a dinosaur.
Q: I met my husband in college, before the Internet. We were both English majors. Met in a seminar on Blake.
A: Oh! You look great for your age!
Q: Thanks, I think. Anyway, tell me about Miles.
A: Underemployed. He’s so incredibly intelligent. He just needs to get back on track. Graduate school. That’s where he should be.
Q: Are you nervous about seeing him?
A: Of course! But this really feels right. We’ll have some time to get to know each other. And we’ll finally have real sex.
Q: A lot of pressure.
A: No, it’s going to be fun.
Q: What about defending your dissertation?
A: He’ll be back on the plane to L.A. just when I need to focus. Not to worry.
Q: And so your job search will include L.A.?
Q: Don’t you want to end up in L.A. with Miles?
A: I’d rather die than live in L.A. My ideal job would be with a museum in New Mexico or maybe Arizona. But I know I’ll probably have to teach for a while at a college to build up my resume.
Q: Does Miles know that? You know, about you hating L.A.?
A: Of course! That’s what I love about him. We can talk and talk and talk.
Q: But I think he wants to convince you to expand your job search to include southern California.
A: I know. It’ll be tough sledding for him, at least for a bit. But I’ll convince him. L.A. hasn’t been that kind to him, right? He needs to expand his horizons. If not, his own personal civilization will go into decline.
A: You know that the Maya population centers of the southern lowlands went into decline during the 8th and 9th centuries and were eventually abandoned altogether. There’s no universally accepted theory to explain this. Some say it was precipitated by civil war, of sorts, or perhaps an invasion by another people. Even overpopulation has been posited as a reason. Climate change, disease, overhunting. A lot of theories. But you know what I think?
Q: This sounds like a defense of your dissertation.
A: (Laughs.) Yes, it does. So, what I theorize is that the Maya failed to adapt, as a people, to whatever changes came upon them. It was almost as if they collectively forgot how to adjust to change regardless of the cause.
Q: And how does this relate to Miles?
A: If he doesn’t see that L.A. is killing him—sucking the life out of his dreams—if he doesn’t do something about that, then he will enter a decline, if he hasn’t already.
A: But true.
Q: And what happens if you can’t convince him to follow you to wherever you land a job? Do you think he’d relocate to New Mexico or Arizona or wherever?
A: If I were a betting woman, yes. But I’m not a betting woman.
Ventura Boulevard runs east–west beginning at Valley Circle Boulevard, across seventeen concrete and asphalt miles through Woodland Hills, Tarzana, Encino, Sherman Oaks, and ending in Studio City where it transmutes magically into Cahuenga Boulevard which snakes its way through the pass into Hollywood. David remembered what the nuns had taught him about the San Fernando Valley’s history where Ventura Boulevard had played a starring role because it had been part of the legendary El Camino Real, the well-trodden trail connecting the Spanish missions in the late 1700s and early 1800s, religious outposts established by the Franciscan Order to spread Roman Catholicism to the local native people. Now you could buy virtually anything on Ventura Boulevard, from pet supplies to fat deli sandwiches, medical marijuana to imported granite, soccer shoes to garden supplies. Oh, those Franciscans would just shit if they were here today to see what their holy trail had wrought! David eased his BMW into a spot just past Le Frite Café. He waited for the traffic to clear up before hopping out of his car and slid his Visa card into the meter. He knew this was stupid, but David wanted to see if he could find Bat in her work environment. Before she ran off, she’d said that there was a bus stop on the corner that would take her to her job. Just a few blocks on Ventura, she had explained.
David had misjudged where that coffee house was. He thought it was on the same block as Le Frite, but apparently not. His manager Nate had always driven them there, the few blocks from the Woodland Hills store, and so the coffee house’s precise location never fully imprinted itself on David’s memory. He walked east on Ventura, searching the signs on the storefronts. Aha! That’s it! Lot 49! What a stupid name. He jogged a bit, but then stopped, slowed down, tried to be cool. His heart started to beat in his throat. What the hell was happening? ¡Pendejo! She’s just another woman. That’s all. Just another night of sex.
David entered Lot 49 and let his eyes adjust. The espresso machines hissed, the calming aroma of coffee filled his lungs. Unseen speakers softly emitted a Beatles song. David looked around the room. Ah, there she was. Bat chatted with an elderly gentleman as she handed him a steaming mug emblazoned with a golden trumpet above the words Lot 49. The old man smiled, clearly enchanted by this kind, radiant young woman. The man dropped a coin into the tip jar, nodded, and walked to a table which was directly in front of where David stood. Bat’s eyes widened, as did her smile, and she offered a little wave to the man she had been with all night.
David realized at that moment that this little affair was going to be different from all the rest. How, he didn’t know. He took a step forward and stopped. Yes, he thought, this was going to be different from all the rest.
Nate Klayman’s parents never fully understood their son’s decision to accept David Rey’s offer to manage the Woodland Hills lighting fixture store. But in the end, they figured it wasn’t the end of the world. Nate would make some money, learn how to be on his own, get it out of his system, maybe tamp down that desire not to be a lawyer just like his father, or a trial court judge like his mother. Almost all of their friends were suffering through the same phase: children who didn’t want follow in their parents’ footsteps or at least to make more logical, practical career decisions. But Ben Klayman and Ruth Rosten-Klayman knew early on that Nate, their only child, did things his way from the moment he could talk. His first full sentence: “I do it!” Stubborn, smart, a hell of an athlete, Nate Klayman followed his heart, listened to himself, as he played soccer first in the Maccabi League and then at El Camino Real High School, majored in English literature at Stanford, and then on to the Anderson School of Management at UCLA. He could have earned his law degree, as well, but he liked the idea of becoming a literate businessman who left the legal intricacies to, well, lawyers.
But why wasn’t he a young executive at a major corporation? What was so enticing about working at a chain of lighting fixture stores for a man who never finished college (but who obviously had an innate talent for business, no doubt) while their friends’ children made less exotic professional choices? Was there something Hemingwayesque about it? That’s what Ruth thought . . . working for a man of the people, a handsome, charismatic man, a man who came from very little, who made quite an impression in the commercials that blanketed the late night hours on cable and radio spots on AM talk and news stations. All very adventurous and literary. Well, at least Nate worked within walking distance of his parents’ lovingly kept up two-story home south of Ventura Boulevard, and but a mile from Temple Aliyah on Valley Circle where he became a bar mitzvah at age thirteen. He was a good boy even if they didn’t fully understand his life decisions.
Next issue: Nate needed to get more serious about his girlfriend, Adina, or else he was going to lose her. They’d known each other in high school and Temple, both got into Stanford where they finally started dating their junior year (she majored in political science . . . smart move), and should have been engaged long ago, right? The families had known each other for years and Nate’s parents had secretly hoped—ever since Nate and Adina were just teenagers—that a romance would bloom and lead to marriage some day. Their minds had filled with dreams of success and beautiful grandchildren when Nate and Adina walked hand-in-hand before and after the Stanford graduation ceremony. And now that both were back home, Adina landing an exciting job being the field representative for their local Congresswoman where she handled local policy issues and served as the principal liaison between the Congressional office and local businesses, organizations, and citizens. And she was thinking about applying to law school! At least that’s what Ben had heard at the Temple Men’s Club meeting two weeks ago. Adina’s father, Eli, was bragging a bit, and he had a tendency to exaggerate, so who knows. But the point remains the same: Adina was moving on with her life. Beautiful, smart, practical Adina. Nate better get moving with his.
As Nate walked through the Woodland Hills store just before opening, chatting with his sales team, sipping a fresh cup of French roast in his favorite (but slightly cracked) Stanford mug, he knew nothing of his parents’ angst. In fact, as far as he could tell, they had backed each of his decisions without a hint of hesitation or concern. And that’s because Ben and Ruth loved their only son with all their hearts, with their entire beings. He was their gift from God. Ruth had gone through six miscarriages before she could carry a baby to term. Ruth was a stubborn woman (so she wasn’t too surprised that Nate had inherited that trait) and she would not give up on having her own baby. So, when Nate told them that he wanted to major in English during winter break of his sophomore year, Ruth had yelped: “Wonderful!” Ben exclaimed: “You were always a big reader!” In fact, after their initial, elated reactions, the rest of the conversation went like this:
BEN: So, English, huh?
NATE: Yes! They have an amazing department!
RUTH: Honey, of course they do. It’s one of the top universities in the country.
BEN: In the world, actually.
RUTH: Yes, in the world! I’m sure every department is top notch.
BEN: We’re very proud of you, Nate.
NATE: Thank you.
RUTH: And you know we love you to pieces.
BEN: Yes, we do.
NATE: I love you guys, too.
And that same night, as Nate met up with friends from his old high school class, Ben and Ruth huddled on their living room couch wondering what Nate would ever be able to do with a degree in English. Teach? But he’d need to get a masters and then a Ph.D. if he wanted to be a college professor. And there were so few jobs in academia, at least if you wanted to stay in Los Angeles. The market was flooded with gifted and brilliant graduates of the best schools all scrambling for the same limited slots. And most of the openings were non-tenure track “lecturer” part-time positions without health insurance let alone job security. Highly educated slaves. They’d both read that in a Los Angeles Times article just two months ago. Maybe law school was still on the table. In fact, Ben said that one of the best young associates at his firm had double majored at USC in English and economics, then went on to law school at Yale, for goodness sake! Yep, that young woman (Debra Lee, that was her name) could write a damn good brief, in plain English, no legalese. And her first language was Korean! She understood the business side of being a lawyer, too. Definitely partnership material. So, it all could work out once Nate’s little lark was out of his system. Okay, Ben and Ruth agreed, no more worries. He’ll be fine. But they each continued to lose sleep in secret thinking that the other had moved on.
Nate loved Saturday mornings at the store. Inevitably, Adina would spend the night so when he woke at 6:00 a.m. without the help of an alarm clock, he’d slip out of bed, get into workout clothes, and go for a run. By the time he got back, she’d be awake at the kitchen table, clutching a cup of coffee, looking slightly rumpled in one of Nate’s T-shirts, beautiful with a sleepy smile. Oh, that smile! That smile made him fall for her back in college despite years of denying any attraction. This was the woman he wanted to marry, to have children with. But Adina wasn’t ready just yet. No rush, she always said whenever he broached the subject. We’re still young. Why not live together? No, no, she said. Her father would just die. Besides, they lived close to each other so why rock the boat? In the end, Nate had to accept his circumstances and was content to have Adina stay over Friday and Saturday nights making his weekend mornings blessed.
And this morning followed his usual weekend pattern. After a hot shower and downing a Zone cashew pretzel bar with a large glass of water, Nate filled his thermos with coffee, accepted a delicious, deep kiss from Adina, and drove his seven-year-old Subaru Outback to the store. Very little could improve his life as far as he was concerned. He loved Adina, he loved his job, and he was healthy. What more could a person want?
As this particular Saturday began, Nate strode to and fro, Stanford mug in hand, talking to his sales team before the store opened and customers would wander in looking for that perfect lamp for the den or pondering track lighting for a son or daughter. There he was, learning a real business that welcomed real customers with real and practical needs. Not major finance. Not Apple or Exxon Mobil or General Electric or Archer Daniels Midland, but a healthy, thirteen-store chain that sold lighting fixtures to parents and young adults and senior citizens. Bringing light to the world! Ain’t nothin’ wrong with that.
Nate heard a rap on the plate glass door and turned away from Michele, his assistant sales manager who had been explaining why a shipment of Possini plug-in swing arm wall lamps had been delayed by storm back east. There stood David Rey holding a cup of Lot 49 coffee in his right hand, his left frozen in place after knocking on the glass. Nate told Michele to hang on, the boss was here, and then went to let David into the store.
“Sorry, forgot my key,” said David as he entered.
Nate stood back to let David pass. He couldn’t remember the last time his boss apologized for anything.
“No problem,” said Nate.
The two men stood facing one another, each holding their coffee, the elder three inches taller than the younger. Nate looked into David’s eyes and saw something in them he’d never seen before. Fear. Embarrassment. Giddiness. All mixed together.
“Let’s look at the inventory,” David finally said.
“It’s under control.”
David frowned. “I want to look at the inventory. With you.”
Nate smiled, nodded, knew that David wanted to talk in private. Checking inventory was David’s way of avoiding a tough issue like firing one of his managers or relocating a store. When they entered the large, back room that held a menagerie of lighting fixtures, lampshades and bulbs not to mention various accoutrement of the home—end tables, mirrors, decorative nicknacks, gewgaws and tchotchkes—David asked a lone employee with a clipboard and Sharpie to please leave for a few minutes and close the door behind him, thanks. Nate suddenly felt sick. This was serious. What was wrong? Had Nate screwed something up really badly? Was someone stealing from the store, maybe emptying a bank account during the night? David looked about the room, examined the well-stocked shelves, his mind clearly roiling with something. Nate wanted to ask what was up, but he knew better.
“How is your girlfriend?” David finally asked before taking a self-conscience sip from his coffee.
“You have another girlfriend I don’t know about?” David smiled. “Yes, Adina. How is she?”
It was Nate’s turn to take a sip of coffee. What should he say?
“I hope she’s well,” said David.
“Oh, yes,” Nate said and then coughed. “She’s great. We’re great.”
Nate glanced at the large clock that hung on the far wall, just above David’s head. David turned around and snorted.
“Not to worry, Nate, the store will open just fine without you.”
“Yes, right . . .”
David sighed. “Sorry, Nate.”
“No, it’s okay.”
“Something’s happened, that’s all.”
Nate caught his breath. “Everything okay? You’re okay?”
Every possible nightmare scenario paraded through Nate’s mind. David was bankrupt. David was dying. David was . . . who knows? Nate felt as if he couldn’t breathe.
“I met a girl,” said David as he stared at his coffee cup. “I mean, a young woman. Last night. We spent the night together.”
Nate’s entire body relaxed. David normally did not share much about his dating life other than to brag just a bit every so often. This was different. Nate finally asked: “That’s a good thing, right?”
David shook his head, not in disagreement, but in confusion.
“What’s wrong with her?”
David stifled a laugh. “Wrong? Nothing. She’s perfect.”
David nodded. “Perfect to me.”
Nate offered a big grin. “That’s fantastic!”
David searched for a trashcan. When he found one right behind his left leg, he let his half-full coffee cup fall into it. The Lot 49 cup made a louder sound than either David or Nate expected. A small geyser of coffee shot up from the small hole at the top of the plastic lid and splashed onto David’s grey, wool slacks.
“Shit,” he muttered as bent down to wipe away the coffee from his left pant leg. “Is it fantastic that I can’t stop thinking of her?”
“It’s only been one night.”
“That’s the problem,” said David as he straightened up and locked onto Nate’s eyes. “I want more than one night.”
Nate sipped his coffee not knowing what to say.
David continued: “I tracked her down this morning, to Lot 49, just to see her face again. We have plans for tonight. Dinner.”
“Haven’t you felt this before?”
“Of course. With my first wife. And that didn’t end well.”
Nate finally understood. “A great man said: ‘The one good thing about repeating your mistakes is that you know when to cringe.’”
David’s face softened. He smiled. “Sounds like a dicho.”
“A Mexican saying.”
Nate thought about it. Then said: “I think Solzhenitsyn said it. Definitely not Mexican.”
“Well,” said David, “Russians can be as wise as Mexicans … sometimes.”
Both men jumped just a bit as a clerk pushed the door open and marched straight to a shelf at the back wall, squinted at the boxes of bulbs, then quickly grabbed a box of what she had been searching for. When she left, Nate looked up at the wall clock again.“Go,” said David. “Your customers await you.”
Interview with Adina
Q: Looking forward to anything?
A: Third season of Downton Abbey. Sixty-six days and counting.
Q: Anything else?
A: Oh, Obama’s second term.
Q: You think there’ll be one?
A: It’s in the bag. I’d trust Nate Silver with my life.
Q: Speaking of men named Nate, what about you and your Nate?
A: Oh, we’re great.
Q: What’s next for you two?
A: I don’t know. What do you have in mind?
A: Definitely not.
Q: Really? But, he’s head over heels for you.
A: And he makes me so happy, too. But that doesn’t mean marriage, does it? What about my plans?
Q: What kind of plans?
A: I kicked butt at Stanford. Phi Beta Kappa. My resume is filled with things most people would kill for. I want to go to Harvard or Yale for law school. And then D.C. That’s where I want to settle. How does Nate fit in that picture? I would never ask him to follow me across the country, get some shit job for three years while I’m getting my law degree, and then sniff after my heels like a dog when I move to D.C. for a job with the federal government. That wouldn’t be fair, would it? He’s made a nice life out here for himself. He loves his parents and likes spending time with them. I don’t want to be responsible for messing up all that.
Q: I’m sure he thinks you two will marry.
A: I think deep down he knows I’m not staying around forever. That we’re not going to grow old together.
Q: You haven’t discussed it yet? You know . . . your plans?
A: The time will come. It always does.
“When were you going to tell me?” said David in a low sputter.
Bat turned to look at the couple two tables over. They appeared to be not more than three or four years older than she, probably just started their first real jobs, falling in love during a company holiday party or softball game. Nice and uncomplicated. Not like her life. When Bat was a little girl, she sometimes wished that she were her Siamese cat, Susie, who slept most the day away in the sun-warmed rug in the living room. No worries beyond being comfortable. Bat turned away from the couple and focused on her food, a plate filled with a beautiful piece of grilled salmon, crisp broccoli, a steaming baked potato. Untouched. She finally looked up.
“We’re not married, you know.”
David blinked. “You and me?”
“No,” she said with a shake of her head. “Me and Uri. Yes, we’re dating, but we don’t live together. And I’m sure he’s gone out on me.”
“Oh, so this—you and me—was a revenge thing?”
“No, of course not.”
Bat reached for her fork and then picked slowly at the salmon.
“So, it’s simple,” said David. “You can break up with him as easily as you jumped into bed with me.”
That was it. Bat stood and threw her fork onto the tabletop. It caromed off the side of her plate with a loud CLACK! and then bounced once onto the carpeted floor. Most of the Red Lobster patrons looked up from their meals and conversations. A waiter made a move as if to intervene, but then froze to see what was going to happen next.
“Fuck you,” she whispered.
Fallbrook Avenue was humming with traffic as Bat made her way toward the bus stop. She purposely chose a restaurant in the West Valley just in case this kind of scene happened. David had complained about her choice of the Red Lobster, but she prevailed. Now her stomach lurched and growled and she castigated herself for not waiting until after dinner, after they went back to his place for one last night in bed, to tell David of Uri’s existence. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Now, she’d get home and heat up a Healthy Choice frozen dinner and drink half a bottle of wine in her little kitchen.
When Bat sat at the bus stop, she pulled out her phone to check her e-mail and text messages. Two texts from Uri. One saying that he couldn’t wait to get home at the end of the week. And the other saying that he loved her. Shit. Bat had lied to David about Uri probably cheating on her. She had no reason to think that, no evidence whatsoever. But she needed to rationalize herself to David, to prove she was not an asshole.
“This is silly.”
Bat looked up. David stood in front of her holding two to-go containers.
“Yes, it is,” she said.
“Let’s go to my house,” said David. “We can salvage our evening.”
David coughed, looked around, and then back down to Bat’s expectant face. He smiled.
Bat returned the smile.
“The food should heat up pretty well, right?” she said without moving from the bench.
“Yes,” said David extending his free hand to Bat. “It will all be fine.”
And so they worked out a truce, an understanding. They would enjoy themselves until Uri came back from Israel, then they would stop, cold turkey, no more affair. Nada más. She didn’t want to know anything about David’s life, and David couldn’t inquire into hers. Actually, Bat was the one who came up with the proposal, and David had little choice but to accept. She had asked him three times: Can you live with this deal? Deal? he had asked, a little surprised by how cold the word sounded. Yes, she’d responded. Deal. Can you live with it? Yes, he’d said. I must.
Interview with Uri
Q: Finally, a man.
A: Excuse me?
Q: Sorry. He’s had me interview only women so far. I was wondering if he were trying to make some kind of point.
A: Who’s he?
A: Actually, he’s quite nice. Very polite. But much shorter than I expected.
Q: You’ve met him? In the flesh?
A: Well, yes. You haven’t?
Q: No. He insists on e-mail and phone calls. He says he’s too busy for meetings.
A: We had a very nice lunch, actually. In downtown where he works.
Q: I’m getting jealous.
A: (Laughs.) No need for jealousy. It just turns out we have a lot in common. His wife has relatives in Tel Aviv, where I was born. My parents still live there.
Q: So, you just got back from visiting them?
A: Yes. Oh, it was so wonderful. I think of moving back there sometime. But I doubt Bat would do that. She’s busy with school and Lot 49. Plus her family is here, too. And I’m starting a new job next week, anyway.
Q: Oh? Where?
A: Rey’s Lighting Fixtures in Encino.
A: I’m replacing the last manager who’s moving back up to San Francisco with her boyfriend. Elise. Nice person. But she has a chance to begin a new life. Who can blame her? Anyway, she’s training me and then off she goes.
Q: What does Bat think of your new job?
A: She’s funny in that way. I tried to tell her about it but she just wanted to know that I had a job and that I was happy about it. She didn’t want to know what kind of job it was.
Q: Maybe you should tell her.
A: But why does it matter? She’s fine not knowing, at least for now. Eventually she’ll have to find out because the intricacies of our lives will lead to an occasion when she needs to visit me at work and so then she’ll know.
Q: I suppose so, though it is an odd way of living one’s life with another.
A: You don’t know Bat. She operates differently than you and I.
Q: You could say that.
A: (Laughs.) I just did.
“Is Uri a common name?”
Nate looked up from his desk. “Yes, I guess.”
David stood in the middle of Nate’s office. He clutched the employment application of Uri Har-Paz.
“So, there are a lot of Uris running around the Valley, you think?”
Nate stared at David wondering where this was going. He nodded.
“What does ‘Har-Paz’ mean?”
Nate closed his laptop and sat back in his chair. “Well, that’s actually kind of interesting.”
“Yes,” Nate said with a little chuckle. “It literally means ‘Goldberg.’”
David took a seat in the chair in front of Nate’s desk and got ready for one of Nate’s famous Jewish history lessons.
“So, after World War II, when Jews could return to the new State of Israel, there was this movement for the Hebraization of surnames.”
David knew that this was where he asked: “Which means?”
“Basically, immigrants to Israel translated their surnames to Hebrew so as to remove the remnants of being an exiled people. Because, you see, a lot of Jews in places like Germany were forced to take non-Jewish names. Kind of like a slave name, you know, with African-Americans.” Nate crossed his arms. “And it’s still happening today. Many of the thousands of Israelis who apply for legal name changes each year do it to adopt Hebrew names.”
David nodded. He understood.
“So, a last name like Weingarten became Kerem which means vineyard in Hebrew. Lerner became Lamdan. And Goldberg was changed to Har-Paz.”
“Ah. Uri Har-Paz would have been Uri Goldberg if his grandparents had not changed it.”
“Right. Pretty interesting stuff, right?”
“Tell me,” said David. “When did I hire Mr. Uri Har-Paz to manage my Encino store?”
Nate reopened his laptop and tapped a few keys.
“You gave the okay last month, Tuesday the 15th to be exact.”
“E-mails don’t lie,” said Nate. “At least, not usually. You really don’t remember?”
“You said that you were too busy and that you trusted me to make the final decision.”
“Well, his application looks good. I see why I approved your recommendation.”
“Hire hard, supervise easy, a great man once told me.”
“Who was that?”
Nate laughed. “You did, mi jefe. You did.”
“I have no doubt he will work out just fine.”
“Yes,” said Nate. “You’ll like Uri. He’s a straight shooter. And he has a very cute girlfriend. I’m sure you’d approve.”
David tried not to react. “You’ve met his girlfriend?”
“Yes, a few times, actually. She works at Lot 49. You might have seen her, too.”
David stood. “I will pay the Encino store a visit this weekend.”
“Want me to join you?”
“No need, I can introduce myself without help,” said David with a little snort as he walked away from the desk and toward the showroom. “It’s important for me to keep up with my managers.”
David made several visits to the Encino store, meeting with Uri, checking the sales figures, spending time with the staff. He came to this conclusion: Uri was a good man. He was smart, hardworking, loyal. He had a way with the customers, and the staff respected him. Nate had made a good choice. Hire hard, supervise easy.
But as the weeks passed, David’s desire to be with Bat grew stronger, less susceptible to will power. And as he spoke with Uri about inventory and customer service and payroll, David couldn’t stop his imagination from taking him to unpleasant places . . . places where Uri touched Bat’s naked body, kissed her plump lips, put himself into her. As Uri’s mouth moved and said things having to do with lighting fixtures, David could hear Bat moan and moan and moan until she came. No! This was too much! David had to do something. But what? He had to see Bat again and then he’d—they’d—figure out what to do.
David needed to talk to Nate. Before going to Bat. Before doing something very, very stupid. So, one Thursday at the end of the workday, David invited Nate out for a drink. Nate happily accepted particularly since Adina was in D.C. with her Congresswoman to get ready for a hearing on Benghazi. When Nate suggested TGI Friday’s, David said no, he wanted something a little different . . . but what about BJ’s not far from there? They “handcrafted” beer right on the premises. Yes! That sounds great. And on they went to have a beer or two or maybe three, these two men of the world who could get whatever they wanted.
And there they sat in a booth across from each other, the elder caressing a glass of Harvest Hefeweizen, the younger sipping a Tatonka Stout. Refreshing! The men were separated by plates of crispy fried artichokes and spinach stuffed mushrooms. But it took a full beer before David could share his secret with Nate. So, on their second glass, David leaned forward, elbows on the tabletop, fingertips softly tapping the cold, perspiring glass of beer. And he told Nate everything about Bat and Uri, slowly at first, then speeding up once he knew there was no turning back. Nate listened, carefully, stoically withholding comment until his boss finished his tale. When David was done, he sat back, spent. He lifted his tired eyes up to Nate, and waited. Nate blinked, let out a loud breath of air, then took a sip of beer. His mouth opened slightly, ready to say something, offer advice, or comment of some sort. Then his mouth closed slowly. Nate furrowed his brow.
“Walk away,” he finally said.
“What?” said David, looking as if Nate had slapped him hard.
“This is a lawsuit waiting to happen.”
“What do you mean?” said David as he sat straight in his seat. “We’re talking about a woman, not a car crash.”
“It might as well be a car crash if you fire Uri.”
“Who said fire? I never said that.”
“Let’s think this through,” said Nate. “If you somehow get between Uri and Bat—and based on everything Uri tells me, they’re doing just fine in the romance department—how could you keep Uri on? That would give a new meaning to the word ‘awkward.’”
“I can deal with awkward, as long as I have Bat.”
“But could Uri?”
“So, if he can’t, he can quit.”
Nate sighed. “In business school, we learned about this thing called ‘constructive discharge.’ It basically means that you’ve made things so uncomfortable for an employee, he quits. Then he can turn around and sue you. And that wouldn’t look very nice in the Times, would it? Headline: THE KING OF LIGHTING FIXTURES SUED IN LOVE TRIANGLE. Not good.”
David knew Nate was right.
“Is she really that special?”
David nodded. He looked like a little boy whose favorite toy had been stolen.
“Is there another way?” asked David. “Could I offer Uri something?”
“You mean, buy Bat from him?”
“No!” said David. “And just because we’re having beer and talking about personal things, don’t forget who pays your very nice salary.”
Nate’s mouth snapped shut. He turned away. David knew he’d gone too far.
“I shouldn’t have said that.”
Nate took a sip of beer. “Don’t worry about it.”
They sat without speaking for almost two minutes.
“What if I offer him a manager’s position in one of my other stores,” said David with a little smile. “You know, up in Sacramento.”
“Why would he move up there?”
“I could offer him a big fat bonus on top of his current salary.”
Nate shook his head. “Why the hell would you do that? That doesn’t make sense!”
“Sure it does,” said David. “I could say that he’s doing such a great job in Encino, we could really use his talents in Sacramento where a person with his qualifications is harder to find.”
“And what if he accepts and Bat follows him up there?”
“She won’t,” said David as he held his palms toward his young, inexperienced employee.
“She’s at a top university and her family is here.”
“So, you apparently don’t know how Mexicans think.”
Nate’s lips started to move into place, ready to respond, but then his mouth froze, and he remained silent.
“Don’t worry,” said David as he returned his hands to the glass of beer. “It will all work out.”
“If you say so,” said Nate. “You’re always right.”
“Not always,” laughed David. “Only when I really want something.”
Interview with Bat
Q: How are you holding up?
A: What do you mean?
Q: You know, with Uri breaking up with you and moving to Sacramento?
A: Oh, well, he’s been gone almost three months now. And here I am, still alive.
Q: Of course. I wasn’t implying that he was the be-all-and-end-all.
A: No offense taken. I understand what you’re getting at. It was kind of obvious that I sometimes saw him as the man I’d eventually make a life with . . . have children with, make a home together. That scared me. I’ve always been independent. I guess that’s why I had that fling with David. I needed to prove something to myself. But when I realized that I was going to throw away a good thing, I imposed the moratorium on the cheating. But I guess the irony gods had their laugh. Turns out Uri needed to prove himself as a professional more than he needed me.
Q: That’s very big of you, considering.
A: Considering what?
Q: The circumstances.
A: (Rubs tummy.) You mean this?
Q: That’s part of it. When are you due?
A: Five more months. (Grins.) The timing will work out. I’ll take some time off from school. Already worked it out with UCLA. They’re very supportive. I’m not the first undergraduate to get pregnant.
Q: What about Lot 49? Miles?
A: Oh, Miles has been so wonderful. He’s not mad, he understands. And the thing with Catherine didn’t go anywhere, so he’s back full time. Everyone’s been very supportive.
Q: It’s great that you’re being so positive about this.
A: Oh, don’t get me wrong. I totally freaked out after the third pregnancy test confirmed what the first two had. But when I made the decision to keep it, I found peace. As my mother says: Donde una puerta se cierra, otra se abre.
Q: Is David a door that opened and Uri the one that closed?
A: I was wondering when you were going to ask. He’s been great ever since Uri left. He let me cry and all the stuff most men hate seeing. He acts tough, at least in business, but he’s all marshmallow inside.
Q: Don’t you think it’s odd that Uri works for David?
A: Actually, when I finally put two and two together and told David that his Uri was also my Uri—this was after Uri told me he was moving to Sacramento—we both laughed. I mean, it was so fucking weird. David kept saying that he couldn’t believe it, that he hadn’t realized it until I told him.
Q: That’s what he said? He couldn’t believe it?
A: Life is full of coincidences. One time I was in line at Target and I started talking to this guy in front of me. One thing led to another . . . you know how random conversations go . . . and we eventually figured out that he was the brother of my cousin Alma’s landlord. How weird is that?
Q: But this is a stranger coincidence, don’t you think?
A: Well, maybe. Six degrees of separation, right?
Q: It’s more like two degrees. And now you’re back with David since Uri is out of the picture.
A: Well, when you put it that way, it all sounds kind of gothic. Like a Dickens novel.
A: David and I never really talked about Uri, except that David said good things about him and his value to the company and all that. And when he asked for a transfer to the Sacramento store, David said that he didn’t want to lose him so he okayed it.
Q: That’s what David said?
A: Yes. Why are you acting so weird?
Q: No, sorry. I’m out of line. Forgive me.
Q: Tell me about the baby.
A: (Smiles.) Well, at first I thought it was the end of the world. I’m prochoice and all, but for me, personally, I just couldn’t wrap my head around it—you know—getting an abortion.
Q: And what does David think?
A: Oh, he’s been wonderful.
Q: Is it his?
A: You don’t fuck around, do you?
Q: Sorry, again. But I think that’s a question our readers would want asked, don’t you think?
A: Yep. You’re right. I’m not certain if it’s his. Deep down, I think it is. But David said that he’d be a good papá regardless of the truth. He said that if Uri found out about it, we could say David was the father. Like I said, he’s been great. He’s helping with the finances. And we’re sort of dating, if you can call it that. Very low key. We’re a thing, I guess.
Q: Do you feel odd about that?
A: At first, yes. But, you know, it’s not about me at this point. And besides, I think I love David.
A: Yes. I know he’s older than I am, but he’s tender and he always tells me what’s on his mind. That kind of honesty is hard to find in a man, don’t you think?
Q: (Coughs.) Yes, of course. You’re just a lucky girl.
A: Yes I am. The luckiest. Oh, wait, listen . . . .
A: This song. I love it. It’s by the Brazilian Girls. My new favorite group.
Q: I like it. Are they new?
A: Nah. They’ve been around for about seven or eight years or so but they never were on my radar until recently. It’s kind of funny because they blend electronica with chanson, house, tango, reggae, lounge. But no Brazilian rhythms at all. And no one is from Brazil. And there’s only one female in the group.
Q: Lie upon lie.
A: (Laughs.) It’s art. Art doesn’t lie.
Q: Oh, one more thing. Why do people call you Bat? Why not Birdie if you don’t like Bertha? That would make more sense.
A: You know, there was this nice older gentleman who used to come into Lot 49. His name was Herman. He passed away last year. Anyway, he had tattooed numbers on his right forearm that peeked out from his long sleeve shirt when he paid me. He always wore long sleeves even when it was the middle of summer. Anyway, I knew what the numbers were.
Q: Holocaust survivor?
A: Yes, and I asked him about it. He didn’t want to say too much about it. Herman had the sweetest smile. He’s the one who first called me Bat.
A: He said it meant “daughter.” Pretty special, right?
Q: Yes. Pretty special. Want another herbal tea?
A: Sure, why not. If you’re buying.
Q: Of course. My treat.
A: You’re the best.
Q: Thanks. It’s nice to hear it every so often.
Daniel A. Olivas is the author of seven books including, most recently, Things We Do Not Talk About: Exploring Latino/a Literature through Essays and Interviews (San Diego State University Press, 2014). He is also co-editor of The Coiled Serpent: Poets Arising from the Cultural Quakes and Shifts of Los Angeles (Tía Chucha Press, 2016). Widely anthologized, Olivas’s fiction is featured in LA Fiction Anthology: Southland Stories by Southland Writers (Red Hen Press, 2016). “The King of Lighting Fixtures” is the title story of his forthcoming collection that will be published by the University of Arizona Press in fall of 2017. Twitter: @olivasdan.