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weekly humor and satire - g. xavier robillard
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Behind the Bowl

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I'm in the bathroom of my parents' new house, just behind the Hollywood Bowl. The house isn't new any more, but it isn't the old house. I came by to have dinner with them, and tell them that I have to leave the country tomorrow morning because I'm wanted for drug trafficking. The problem is, there are Federales outside the house, and I can't think of how to leave without getting arrested.

I wash my hands. I could stand here, running water until the LA water authority came for me, and this soap would not lather. My mom has the fanciest collection of non-lathering French soaps in the world. It's not that French people don't bathe, it's that their soaps are impenetrable. If I had been in a different frame of mind, I would have remembered to bring my own soap. But I'm not exactly a Boy Scout anymore, and I'm not prepared.

I sold a lot of product in this town. Too much. In some cartel office in Medellin Colombia, my picture is hanging up above the words "Chris Barnes, Los Angeles - Employee of the Month". And when you sell enough cocaine, your government knows who you are. That was what Meredith told me. I should have kept under the radar, but I didn't.

Meredith was my mentor/friend/first love. She was a senior in Berkeley when I was a freshman. Saw her on Shattuck Avenue, getting into her convertible. I noticed that her license plate frame was from the same dealership as mine. Introduced myself. She had short choppy died black hair, and a strong grip. Wore a black leather jacket, in Berkeley, on sixty-five-degree days. Her hands were cold, and too dry, like she worked in construction. She looked at me with the senior's learned mix of disdain and pity. "You want to buy some weed?" she asked. She made Berkeley tolerable. Meredith got me started out in LA after I came back from Aspen, where I spent a year as a ski bum.

After my four-year reeducation on white man's guilt at the People's Republic of Berkeley, I couldn't wait to get back home. And my parents still moved, out of their beautiful house. Convenience. My brother and sister, Doctor and Lawyer, were already gone, pursuing their insane careers.

And why did you sell that house? That great house? That we all grew up in?

"We wanted to upgrade."

Had it ever occurred to them that I'd return to the City of Smog? No. Did they for real raise three children thinking that none of us would remain in LA? Come back to the old homestead? No. Children grow up and move away, even those brought up in the Greatest Show on Earth. And now that I'm settled, made contacts, built a business, I have to leave again.

Even if I make it to Mexico, I'm not safe. Europe is also out of the question. Meredith's the only one who knows I'm in trouble. After giving me a fierce parental-sized lecture, she suggested I go somewhere without an extradition treaty to the US. I don't actually know what that means. At the time, I smiled and nodded, of course. I didn't ask her what she was talking about. I wanted to seem knowing, like I'd grown up. Why don't these countries advertise? I can't be the only one in this situation.

I cannot imagine living anywhere else. Aside from college and Aspen, I've been in Southern California my whole life. And I'll spend the rest of it in this bathroom. The rents will start to notice soon.

The bathroom window is mostly frosted glass, so no one can see in while you take a shit. Which is fine, except nobody ever comes to this backyard uninvited, and if there is anyone there, they're prowlers, which means you have bigger problems than voyeurism. But the top pane is normal glass, so I stand on my tiptoes to get a look around. Definitely DEA agents on property. Do they know I'm here, or are they casing just because they expect me? Do they recognize the Piece Of Shit? Not likely. Drug dealers don't drive 1987 Honda Quaaludes. Maybe they're looking for a way to bug the house.

Since I arrived this evening, I had several chances to tell my parents. Took a few deep breaths. Had their attention, then blew it. I was going to fess up. They'd love you no matter what, right, that's what they always say. Or my father would call the cops on me right here and now. I can hear the "We're so disappointed," which is what he said when I didn't get into Stanford. My mom was not at all disappointed, she knew how close I was to skipping college altogether, but my father thinks it sounds better when he uses the royal 'we'.

The evening starts fine. It doesn't seem like the kind of night when I'll lock myself panicked in the bathroom. I arrive, chat with my father. We're in his study, and he wears an old sweatshirt and jeans. Since I was a little boy, he always changes out of the shirt and tie outfit he wears at the hospital, first thing after he comes home. More comfortable, loosened up, from wingtips to docksiders. "You'll have a scotch, right?"

"Sure." Very chummy. We both nip on a scotch, neat. I can't stand the taste, but he doesn't know that.

A toast to the Lakers, as we've been doing since I was fourteen, when he first let me have beer at the dinner table. We joke about our pagers, or what he insists on calling a 'beeper'. He could never imagine why my work would want to page me, and he assumes that I have one because it's cool, for the same reason he decided I faked bad vision to get glasses in ninth grade. Nothing is remotely cool about a pager. When we talk about it, he asks me about all of the features, and then whether I got a deal for it. Mine are always more costly, and his always have better features. As I watch his face, the laser clean shave, the boyish fat that gathers around his collar when his tie is still on, I can't imagine that he doesn't know what I do for a living. Dad, knock it off, the only people with pagers are drug dealers and doctors. Why else would you walk around with that stupid piece of plastic clipped to your belt?

"How's the catering business?" He thinks I work for some big caterer. In a way, that's entirely true. Dad's tone underscores the word 'business', because he'd like me to run my own. Mom knows better, I suspect. But she never says anything.

"Fine, Dad."

"Any thought about when you're going to law school? There is a chance to graduate before you go gray," it's not the first time he makes this joke. My father's a surgeon, and he would never in a million years accuse me of being bright enough to follow that family tradition, so he suggests law school. I could tell him right now. "I think that since I'm wanted for dealing coke, I probably wouldn't pass the bar." Instead I say: "And I could start suing doctors."

A look of contentment settles over his face. He's not happy unless somebody is trying to sue him for malpractice. Dad rocks back in his chair, and I remember our first serious talk in this room.

Thanksgiving break, sophomore year. "Son," my father started out, in his office, reclining in the huge leather chair that I used to pretend was Captain Kirk's on the bridge, "You're going to have to get a job."

"Excuse me what?"

And then he proceeded to explain. Because of the inflated down payment on the new house, higher mortgage, Mom getting her license, etcetera, I swear my dad is the only living being under one hundred who actually says 'etcetera', they would have to scale back. Of course tuition was paid for, but they both felt, I'm so sure my mother had nothing to do with this, that it would be good for me to find work, that I should be able to pay rent and food and whatever else without their help. Dad smiled, and then excused himself to play golf.

I went upstairs to the guest room. In the new house, there was only one spare bedroom. All of my posters were gone, trashed in the move. I tried to work on a paper, but I couldn't concentrate. There was nothing here to remind me of me.

There were no jobs out there. Most of the jobs available at Berkeley were for the work-study kids. The other jobs available around campus usually involved cleaning some form of shit. I became desperate. I called Meredith. She had a connection, this organic farmer down in Santa Cruz who grew 'shrooms. The Berkeley crowd paid extra since my product was organic. I made rent pretty quickly. That was the first step in my illustrious career.

Dad has been prattling about his law school connections. All you have to do is take the LSAT, and you'll get in. "Chris, come in here," my mother calls for my help, so I leave my dad to do whatever it is he does alone in his study, photocopying medical charts to share with his friends at the insurance company.

Mom is too skinny. Her hair is dyed jet black, and she's got a small, angular face. She loves displaying the gold rings my father buys her, she in fact, looks like she has broken her finger and uses the rings as a cast.

Dad's got the typical been-to-I-don't-know-how-many-reunions paunch. I think he's a good looking guy, sandy blond hair. Just enough fat on his face so when he smiles you know you can trust him. It disgusts my mother. Talk about yin and yang, I think I sympathize more with my father. Who wants an anorexic fifty-something mother, even in LA?

"Honey, do you want to make the salad?" she dots around the room like a snowy plover. Mom hates salad, she won't eat it, but she feels that she is a neglectful homemaker if it isn't on the table. Fine by me, it's the only thing she'll let me do in her kitchen.

I grab the salad spinner, and take the pre-washed greens for a ride. The salad spinner is the single best invention in the modern kitchen. Cooking with centripetal force. Aside from the salad shooter, which my parents would never allow into their home.

The new house belonged to somebody famous. Nobody particularly famous, but a lighting director or something. Went into bankruptcy. My mom knows all of these things, and when to pounce. It's is too big, and feels like being on a movie set. A couple hundred grand and several streets separate this from a McMansion. The lighting is perfect, like you walked onto the set of a talk show in Heaven.

The old house was a big Spanish-style ranch, the siblings' rooms on one end of the long hall, the rents at the other. A huge backyard with a swing set and a great xeroscape garden that my mom slaved over. Sure, the decor was choice; they bought it in the early seventies, so it wasn't their fault. They never redecorated. In the end, stucco was coming off on the outside, and our steady procession of poorly-behaved dogs trashed the carpeting. So they upgraded.

Mom's very proud of this house, and I don't blame her. She closed the deal when they got it, and now brags to me that she pays the mortgage all by herself. Commissions, she's been doing a great job in realty.

She got her license when I left for college. In fact, I've occasionally seen her at some of the same parties; her clients love to show her off, especially when she's just sold them a two point two million dollar house that will become part of an acrimonious divorce next year.

We'll spot each other, both a little buzzed, and we'll awkwardly air-kiss like total acquaintances. She never asks why I'm not in a catering uniform. I'm surprised and relieved that I've never been introduced as the House Dealer. Mom is as embarrassed as I am, so we back away slowly, our hands at our sides, and we both turn as quickly as possible to find another glass of Pinot Noir. I'll leave the party within the next five minutes, Mom will stay all night. She knows how to schmooze all of these people. And she's smart. Good with the stock market, although who isn't, these days?

Causality. If they hadn't upgraded to the house behind the Hollywood Bowl, this slice of nature where my dad claims you can still see mountain lions, I wouldn't be stuck in this bathroom, washing my hands until I think of a plan. If I get arrested, how long will I be in jail? Will I cooperate? Will they stick me in the witness protection program in Iowa? Will the Colombians find me anyway?

Dinner falls in line: salad done, mashed potatoes creamy and garlicky, and the steaks come off the grill pan. I haven't eaten this well in a while. Dad pours the red wine, and chides me for neglecting my preprandial scotch.

We sit down, the three of us. Our dining room windows look out on the front porch, and I'm facing it. My parents face each other, so neither notices when the Federales appear traipsing around the lawn. Surprised they didn't bring the dogs. A shadow moves against the window. Two agents, right on the front lawn. I feel the blood drain out of my face. Must be an evening trick, a live oak branch in the breeze. Are they really out there? I take a Weight Watchers bite of the meat, and put my fork down.

"What's wrong?" Dad looks at my steak. "Friend of yours?" My father is convinced that I've been a closet vegetarian ever since I graduated from Berkeley. Nothing I can do will convince him otherwise, even though I usually devour thick, bloody steaks with great relish. How could agents come here? To my parents' home?

"You mind if I start the coffee?" It's not an odd request. We've always been big coffee drinkers.

"Go ahead."

I go out into the kitchen. It's a huge observation tank of a room that opens out into the living room. Windows everywhere. I don't see anyone. Lean up against the island. The Feds wouldn't pinch me at my parent's, right? The dog's water dish is empty. I open up the fridge, and pull out the Britta to give him some. My mother enters the room.

"Everything okay?" Mom asks. I grimace, shake my head. If I say nothing, she'll chalk it up to girl trouble. Easy that way. I could tell her. Right now. Mom, I have to leave the country or I'll go to jail. "Can't find the coffee filters."

She reaches up behind me, grabs the filters and a pound of decaf out of the freezer, even though I've been telling her not to store it there for who knows how long.

I sit back down with my coffee. They both look at me, expecting. It's like they know. Somehow, like when I was in high school, and I'd come home tripping my balls off, and I'd watch football with my father for the colors and the crunching shoulder pad sounds and for some reason he'd know, he'd look into my raccoon eyes and it would be obvious. Is it this obvious now? My nose is running, I wipe it with my napkin. Is this a cold? I never get colds in the summer time.

"More carrots?" Mom offers me the dish, "Steak?"

"He hasn't touched what's on his plate."

I could bump a line in the bathroom. Not that my heart isn't already pounding. But coke is fortifying. Pot? Too obvious, too much paranoia. But that will bring back my appetite. I wonder if Mom's got some Valium in the bathroom?

"More bread?" she continues. This woman is desperate to get me to eat.

"Potatoes?" She's frantic.

I don't want anything, I don't want anything, I don't want anything.

"Enough!" snaps Dad.

I push my chair back. "I've got to go. To the bathroom. Excuse me."

Which is where I've held up since, as if this one room is the Casablanca of the house. No one can hurt me in the bathroom.

They recently remodeled. New, new fixtures, everything's new, It smells like it's fresh out of the shrink wrap. No Valium. I can't think of where my mother's stash would be. A glass jar with Q-tips sits alone on the tile sink. Are these for company? Is there any point in my life when I will no longer hoard them, when I'll have Q-tips on display in my bathroom, offered for everyone, free for all? This must be one of those "you're a grown up when..." metrics. I grab several and shove them in my pocket. But they'll never survive in this environment.

I check my watch. Only been in here for a few minutes, some indigestion, nothing to worry about. If I stay in here much longer, Mom will show concern, there must be something wrong. "Can't you give him anything?" she'll ask, and Dad will ignore her. My father is the kind of doctor who never worries that I'm sick, he never asks about symptoms, unless it's the heart. He'll worry if I tell him my PQRST waves feel irregular.

My head is full of useless information. Good grip of the metric system, which you need if you handle pharmaceuticals. There are vast amounts of practical information which I did not learn in school, college or before. I know that the longest river in South America is the Amazon. I don't know what country it's in, maybe it's in more than one country. River that big, it must be in every country. But I don't know what a 401k is. I do not know what countries don't have extradition treaties with the United States, and I cannot change the oil in the Piece of Shit.

Rogue states. They pop in the news once in a while. I'm sure they do not have extradition treaties. When you download a piece of software, a rogue state is a place you agree not to ship it to. As if somebody's going to compromise national security by mailing a copy of Netscape to Cuba. I could go there, but I don't see myself riding a bicycle everywhere. Iran, Iraq, Libya. Sure. Myanmar. I think that whole country is run by drug dealers. All I can say is, I'm going somewhere with a beach.

This bathroom is like what I imagine a jail cell to be. I'm frozen. If I move forward in time and space, bad things will happen. But this is home base. I stand back up on the toilet seat and stare outside. It's getting dark. Maybe the agents left. They've staked out the property, and now they're on dinner break. I could run out right now. But there they are. Two agents. DEA emblazoned across the back of their junior high school letter jackets.

They need names. Freddie and Betty. Betty's the big one, he doesn't say anything, but sure as shit he'll make it hurt when they interrogate me. Freddie's small, wily, talks far too much, he'll be sympathetic.

They have guns. Do they? Of course. Why the fuck have I brought people with guns into the rents' neighborhood? I've never had a gun, but Freddie and Betty wouldn't know that. Guns make me sick, but I'm another criminal, another rapist drug-dealing gang banging criminal.

My cell rings, and I nearly piss myself. It's my mother, calling to make sure I'm all right. I hit the mute. "Coming!" I shout, then duck out of the bathroom and into the garage.

Unlike the old house, there is zero garage personality here. It's more of a carport. No remnants of old junk, just new junk. My father considers himself something of a carpenter. He's bought himself a few lathes, and the sawdust sweetens the air. He has, to date, produced nothing, except lower air quality.

The old garage smelled like a garage. There was the occasional oil leak that made an indelible mark in the cement, and we kept our garbage cans there. There are a few tools here, a new workbench. No rakes or shovels. With the exception of a leaf blower, he's thinned out his outside tools. My mother made him contract out all the landscaping.

A plan formulates in my mind, a way to get outside, to the Piece of Shit that I never should have parked anywhere nearby. I would have taken the bus, if there were a stop within a zip code of my parents' place. I'm sure one of the neighbors in the Neighborhood Watch called to complain about the presence of a car from the eighties parked on their street.

I light a cigarette. I don't frequently smoke, but it's one of my cool guy habits from college that refuses to die. It's amazing the Federales don't pounce on me for smoking. Only a few traces of my childhood here. Some lesser board games grow dusty on a shelf. All my childhood shit was boxed up, broken, like someone with a chainsaw was coming after the movers. There was a sweet setup in our old basement - a pool table, and a train set that my father and the Doctor built. I was too young, but they let me watch. I would clap like a maniac when the train came out of the tunnel under the mountain. The model trains are gone.

Footsteps, and Freddie and Betty's voices outside. Will they come knocking, or will they barge in? Better here than the can, but it would be pathetic for me to get arrested in my parent's garage. I don't know where anything is. I knew the old house better than anyone else.

Doctor, or Lawyer, depending on who lost at Rochambeau, was forced to baby sit for me. They're between eight and twelve years older, an entirely different generation. But I would roam around the house, discovering secrets, and parading my knowledge to my sibling-in-charge.

"Did you know about Dad's dirty magazines?" I asked Doctor excitedly. He did not.

"Have you ever seen Mom's wigs?" Lawyer had seen them, but never tried them on. I had.

I'm getting out of here. My cell gets a living burial behind the front wheel of my mother's Lexus. This is the plan. Coveralls, headphones that dampen engine sound, and a baseball cap. Mom won't let Dad's baseball hats in the house, so there are plenty to chose from. Has to be plastic mesh. John Deere, perfect. Sunglasses on. Then I grab my father's leaf blower and click open the garage door. Leaf blower on, I walk outside.

It's getting late, but still bright out. I like the way the sun filters through the California bay leaves, they jump and quiver when there's a slight breeze, like the quaking aspens I used to see in Colorado, like a group of drunk and delirious little men huddled around a barrel fire.

Sound blasts out of the motor. Not as quiet as any of the neighbors' - "that's how they know we're lower class," Dad scoffed when he bought it. I look around. This is a bad idea. There isn't a single leaf to blow. It's summer, there's nothing for me to do. The grass is dead. They'll know, and I'll get pinched.

Both DEA agents wander to the front of the property to investigate the noise, but they stare straight past me. Freddie squints, he cannot believe some spic handyman is interrupting his investigation. I put my head down to the ground, aim the blower at a few stray eucalyptus leaves. How come they didn't notice the yard guy before? They weren't looking for him.

Maybe they want to bring me in for questioning, that's all. Betty looks like a reasonable guy. We could cut a deal, I could get out in eighteen months. Might not even be a felony.

Then I think of the intense weasel-face expression on Freddie. They want to make an example. White college-educated kids go to jail too. There was that guy I saw once on the news, he'd been selling LSD at Phish shows, and they gave him twenty years in a maximum security prison. He was a lanky hippie, in fact, I remember the DEA set up the entire thing. Total entrapment. He won't be out on the other side until he's forty-five, if he survives.

Both agents have disappeared to the backyard. I walk to the outer edge of the property and switch off the engine. Or is it a motor, I can't keep them straight. Open up the hatchback of the Piece of Shit, and heave the leaf blower into the back. It crushes several jewel cases of CDs I've been meaning to sell. I hear a loud knocking at my parent's front door, but I don't look back. I close the car door, buckle the seatbelt, and drive away, calm, below the speed limit. Check the rear view mirror - the Federales are talking to my dad. So he knows now. Will he tell Mom? I doubt it.

Off my parent's street, then passing McMansions, then broad, palm-lined streets, then gas stations, fast food and chop shops, then I'm on the Santa Monica freeway, heading toward the supposedly safe couch I'm sleeping on tonight. For once, there is no traffic.

When was I going to tell them? Steak is great Dad, I'm leaving the country to avoid drug charges. I can't tell them. Post card, no way. Phone call, no, I don't want to talk to either of them. A letter? I don't write. If my mom used e-mail, I'd email her. My father has it for work, but the last time I emailed him, he responded to me as if he had me confused with one of the penis enlargement emails. Sir, please stop using this address. I could get Meredith to tell them, but this strikes me as the heart of cowardice. Mom will contact the FBI. How long before the FBI talks to the DEA, and then they realize that I've skipped town? Will they even notify my folks, or will they ignore them, just use this as evidence?

"Exhibit A: Defendant did not tell his parents that he was fleeing the country. Subject should have told his parents of his plans. Evidence of obvious moral corruption."

And then Mom will get upset enough to put my mug on a milk carton. Chris Barnes, have you seen me? The only twenty-seven-year-old male on a milk carton. God, that's pathetic. If I saw me on the two percent milk, I'd never eat cereal again. What kind of Mamma's boy adult gets listed on the milk carton, anyway? The coke dons of Central America and Colombia would get a kick out of that, one of America's sacrificial lambs on the breakfast milk. They would stir some milk into their scalding hot, too-bitter coffee, and laugh, laugh, laugh that they have a constant supply of idiots like me to take the fall. Ceramic mugs clink. Pass us a scone, this drug war is wonderful!

The sunset is always beautiful on this freeway. You feel like you're higher here than anywhere else, closer to the fuzzy tangerines.

They didn't catch me tonight, and I realize they probably won't. The Feds are idiots. I sit bolt upright, like I've bumped a line. I'm optimistic. I have a lot to do, and I like that. The whole world is my playground. I make a list. Call my folks. Need a new passport, for sure. Canadian. Less conspicuous. I promise myself I'll call my parents before I leave.

Leaving the country will be good. I've never really traveled abroad, not enough. As long as I can work. I can't sit on a beach somewhere smoking Thai stick for the rest of my life. Not that it sounds bad, at all. Twenty-seven and unemployed. Half my friends are in grad school, the other half are engaged. And me without any job skills, no prospects. But I've got an entrepreneurial spirit, that's what my mom always said when I would trade inferior toys with my friends. You don't want that baseball card. It's creased. Besides, Reggie Jackson doesn't play for the Yankees anymore.

The ultimate fashion crime: my Dad's headphones are still on. After I pull them off, I turn on the radio. FM radio ads kill me, they're so depressing. It's the setup between the man and the woman, having a typical conversation, then one of them introduces the product. They're out-of-work actors, that desperation to feel excited about the double value special at Vons. You can hear it in their voices, as if they were having a nice normal, conversation, even as they were recording, the pair did multiple takes, they got to know each other, they were exchanging photos of each other's kids, maybe this would lead to flirting, or something more later, and then they had to talk about the product. Intimacy had gone, their pleasant, phony conversation became a commercial. That's how it is here, we talk about product. The product in your hair, how much product someone snorted this week.

All of a sudden, I want to turn the clock forward. Get out of LA, down to Mexico, then wherever else. It's so corrupt down there, I continue to ply my current trade. So long as I bribed the right people, and I wouldn't even be that far from home.

I'm never going to see my country again.

Jesus, it's not the end of the world. Then why is it so hard? Because I'll never see my family again.

The dinner scene plays in my head, I watch it from every angle. When could I have told them? There must have been a moment, Dad in his study, with Mom in the kitchen. If I had any cojones I'd have told them. Right at the dining room table. Sorry folks, I'm much more of the entrepreneurial go-getter than you suspected.

Dad would have put his arm around me, he would have shaken his head, not been too impressed with my decision. He'd joke that he did just the same kind of thing when he was in college. But he would have known a fantastic lawyer, or, in Dad's own words, the right lawyer, or at least someone with a private plane or a crash pad in Dubai, somewhere I could get lost in the thick of it. But I didn't tell them. I had to walk out without saying goodbye, without thinking it all through.

It never would have happened if they hadn't sold the old house. Or if I had ambition, or I were smarter, or Doctor and Lawyer weren't so goddamn successful. I would have gone to business school. But what the fuck is so different? If I worked for some company that manufactured carcinogens?

I'm a fuckup. Their fuckup. I can't imagine they'll ever come see me. Too risky. I hope they don't get in trouble, the Feds would have a field day tearing apart their house, looking for evidence, parading everything they own in front of the neighbors. Then they'll never forgive me. It'll be the Doctor and Lawyer coming home for the holidays, and Dad will forbid them to speak my name, because that's the kind of thing he's been doing lately, and Doctor and Lawyer will only be too happy to do his bidding. My eyes get watery, and I fish a tissue out of the glove box that I'm sure my mother put there. Mom could be crying too, right now, thinking about her baby. I'm the baby, I want to be the baby.

My mind's eye admires the film canister in the glove compartment, but I think I'll wait, check out the safe house, see if it's all good. Tonight I don't want to share.


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