Jimmy Luntz had never been to war, but this was the sensation, he was sure of that—eighteen guys in a room, Rob, the director, sending them out—eighteen guys shoulder to shoulder, moving out on the orders of their leader to do what they’ve been training day and night to do. Waiting silently in darkness behind the heavy curtain while on the other side of it the MC tells a stale joke, and then—"The Alhambra California Beachcomer Chordsmen!"—and they were smiling at hot lights, doing their two numbers.
Luntz was one of four leads. On "Firefly" he thought they did pretty well. Their vowels matched, they went easy on the consonants, and Luntz knew he, at least, was lit up and smiling, with plenty of body language. On "If We Can’t Be the Same Old Sweethearts" they caught the wave. Uniformity, resonance, expression of pathos, everything Rob had ever asked for. They’d never done it so well. Right face, down the steps, and into the convention center’s basement, where once again they arranged themselves in ranks, this time to pose for souvenir pictures.
"Even if we come in twentieth out of twenty," Rob told them afterward, while they were changing out of their gear, the white tuxedos and checkered vests and checkered bow ties, "we’re really coming in twentieth out of a hundred, right? Because remember, guys, one hundred outfits tried to get to this competition, and only twenty made it all the way here to Bakersfield. Don’t forget that. We’re out of a hundred, not twenty. Remember that, okay?" You got a bit of an impression Rob didn’t think they’d done too well.
Almost noon. Luntz didn’t bother changing into street clothes. He grabbed his gym bag, promised to meet the others back at the Best Value Inn, and hurried upstairs still wearing the getup. He felt the itch to make a bet. Felt lucky. He had a Santa Anita sheet folded up in the pocket of his blinding white tux. They started running at twelve-thirty. Find a pay phone and give somebody a jingle.
On his way out through the lobby he saw they’d already posted the judgments. The Alhambra Chordsmen ranked seventeenth out of twenty. But, come on, that was really seventeenth out of a hundred, right?
All right—fine. They’d tanked. But Luntz still had that lucky feeling. A shave, a haircut, a tuxedo. He was practically Monte Carlo.
He headed out through the big glass doors, and there’s old Gambol standing just outside the entrance. Checking the comings and goings. A tall, sad man in expensive slacks and shoes, camel-hair sports coat, one of those white straw hats that senior-citizen golfers wear. A very large head.
"So hey," Gambol said, "you are in a barbershop chorus."
"What are you doing here?"
"I came here to see you."
"No, but really."
"Really. Believe it."
"All the way to Bakersfield?"
That lucky feeling. It had let him down before.
"I’m parked over here," Gambol said.
Gambol was driving a copper-colored Cadillac Brougham with soft white leather seats. "There’s a button on the side of the seat," he said, "to adjust it how you want."
"People will be missing me," Luntz said. "I’ve got a ride back down to LA. It’s all arranged."
"Good, sure—just find a pay phone, and I’ll hop out."
Gambol handed him a cell phone. "Nobody’s hopping anywhere."
Luntz patted his pockets, found his notebook, spread it on his knee, punched buttons with his thumb. He got Rob’s voice mail and said, "Hey, I’m all set. I got a lift, a lift back down to Alhambra." He thought a second. "This is Jimmy." What else? "Luntz." What else? Nothing. "Good deal. I’ll see you Tuesday. Practice is Tuesday, right? Yeah. Tuesday."
He handed back the phone, and Gambol put it in the pocket of his fancy Italian sports coat.
Luntz said, "Okay if I smoke?"
"Sure. In your car. But not in my car."
Gambol drove with one hand on the wheel and one long arm reaching into the back seat, going through Luntz’s gym bag. "What’s this?"
"From what? Grizzly bears?" He reached across Luntz’s lap and shoved it in the glove compartment. "That is one big gun."
Luntz opened the compartment.
"Shut that thing, goddamn it."
Luntz shut it.
"You want protection? Pay your debts. That’s the best protection."
"I agree completely," Luntz said, "and can I tell you about an uncle of mine? I have an appointment to see him this afternoon."
"A rich uncle."
"Coincidentally, yes. He just moved out from the coast. Made a pile in the garbage business. The guy gets a new Mercedes every year. Just moved to Bakersfield. Last time I saw him he was still living in La Mirada. The Garbage King of La Mirada. Told me anytime I needed money to get in touch. We had lunch at the Outback Steakhouse in La Mirada. Wow, do they deliver. Choice cuts as thick as your arm. You ever try the Outback?"
"So, in other words, let me give this guy a call before we get too far out of town."
"In other words, you can’t make a payment."
"Yes, definitely, yes," Luntz said, "I can make a payment. Just let me use your phone and work a little magic."
Gambol behaved as if he hadn’t heard.
"Come on. The guy drives a Mercedes. Let me go see him."
"Fucking bullshit. Your uncle."
"Okay. He’s Shelly’s uncle. But he’s real."
"Is Shelly real?"
"She’s—yeah. Shelly? I used to live with her."
"The uncle of some bitch you used to live with."
"Give me a chance, friend. A chance to work my magic."
"You’re working it now. It ain’t working."
"Look, man, look," Luntz said, "let’s call Juarez. Let me talk to the man himself."
"Juarez is not a talker." "Come on. Don’t we know each other? What’s the
Gambol said, "My brother just died."
"What?" "He died exactly a week ago." Luntz knew nothing about any brother. How do you reason with someone who throws something like that into the conversation?
They were heading north. Bakersfield stank of oil and natural gas. In the most unlikely places, in the middle of a shopping mall or next to one of those fancy new churches, all glass and swooping curves, you’d see oil rigs with their heads going up and down.
"Used to fish up here with my brother," Gambol said, "somewhere around here anyway. On the Feather River."
Luntz unclasped his hands from each other and looked at them. "What?"
"Once, to be exact. We went fishing one time. We should’ve done it more."
The road was a four-lane, but not an interstate. The clock on the dash said 4:00 p.m.
"Where are we?"
"We’re just driving around," Gambol said. "Why? You need to be someplace?"
Luntz placed his hands on his knees and sat up straight. "Where are we going?"
"On this kind of trip, you don’t want to ask where it ends."
Luntz closed his eyes.
When he opened them he saw a crowd of bikers on Harleys coming toward them and sweeping past.
Gambol said, "See that? Half those bikies had Oregon plates. I think there’s a convention in Oakland or someplace like that. Guess what? I’ve never been on a motorcycle."
"Shit," Luntz said.
"Nothing. Those bikers. Shit," he said, "the Feather River. Is there a Feather River Tavern or something?"
"The river’s not anywhere around here. It’s more north. Guess what? You’ll never get me on a Harley."
"Helmet or not. What good is a helmet?"
"The Feather fucking River," Luntz said.
Standing at the pay phone, Jimmy Luntz punched a nine and a one and stopped. He couldn’t hear the dial tone. His ears still rang. That old Colt revolver made a bang that slapped you silly.
He dropped the receiver and let it dangle a few seconds. He shook his head and wiped both hands across the thighs of his slacks. He jabbed at the one again as he put the phone to his head. Some woman said, "Palo County Sheriff ’s Department. What is your emergency?"
"A guy. This guy," he said. "A guy’s been shot."
"What is your name and location, sir?"
"Well, we’re at this rest stop north of the Tastee-Freez on Seventy, somewhere past Ortonville. Way past Ortonville."
"Sir. Do you mean Oroville?"
"On the nose," he said. He searched with his free hand for a cigarette.
"Do you see a milepost marker, sir?"
"No. There’s these big pines right by the road. Kind of behind there."
"The rest stop north of the Tastee-Freez and north of Oroville. What’s his condition, can you tell me?"
Luntz said, "He got shot in the leg. How do you make a tourniquet?"
"Just apply direct pressure to the wound. Is he conscious?"
"He’s fine, honey. But the blood’s just pouring."
"Apply pressure. Put a clean cloth down and press hard on the wound with the palm of your hand."
"I’ll do that, yeah, but I mean—can you get here pretty quick?"
She started talking again, and he hung up.
He found his lighter and got his Camel going. Took several deep puffs, threw it aside.
He went across the rest stop under the evergreens to where Gambol sat propped against the left rear wheel of his Cadillac, looking very pale. Very large. He’d removed his white golfing hat. What a head. A huge head. His entire right pants leg was soaked black with blood. The white hat lay beside him.
Luntz bent from his waist and unbuckled Gambol’s belt, and Gambol opened his big foreign-looking eyes.
Luntz said, "I need your belt for a tourniquet."
He put his foot between the man’s big legs and dragged the belt free through the loops around his fat middle. "Look, brother," he said to Gambol, "I hope you understand."
Gambol breathed deep a couple times but didn’t seem able to speak.
Luntz said, "Am I supposed to sit around and wait for you to break my arm? When was the last time you got a broken bone?"
Gambol huffed and puffed. He felt for his hat beside him, brought it to his chest, and held it there. "Guess what?" he managed to say. "I got a busted thigh bone right this minute."
"I called 911, so just hang on."
With surprising energy, Gambol suddenly tossed away his white hat. The wind caught it, and it sailed a dozen yards into the trees. Then he seemed to lose consciousness.
Luntz dropped the belt in Gambol’s bloody lap. He parted the lapels of Gambol’s camel-hair sports coat and reached inside for Gambol’s wallet and pocketed it.
He hiked his slacks and squatted and felt under the car where the old gun had ended up, found the thing, and stood up straight, gripping the gun with both hands. He placed the muzzle against Gambol’s forehead and rested one thumb on the hammer.
Gambol seemed oblivious. His hands lay open either side of his outstretched legs, and his belly went up and down.
Luntz took his thumb from the hammer and let out his breath and lowered the gun. "Fuck. Put that around your leg. The belt, man. Wake up, man." Gambol’s face was like a stupid child’s as he grasped an end of the belt with each hand to drag it up under his bloody leg. "Through the buckle there, the buckle," Luntz said. "It’s a tourniquet," he said as he got in the car.
He settled himself into the Caddy’s white leather. He turned the key. He lowered the window and called out, "You better move, Gambol, because this Caddy’s about to roll."
He yanked the stick into drive and floored it out of the parking lot and, at the highway’s entrance, slammed the brake hard.
They’d be coming from the south, he guessed, from the hospital in Ortonville, Oroville, wherever. He turned north.
After he passed a highway patrol car heading toward him fast, lights whirling, he simply couldn’t drive any farther and hooked into a café’s parking lot on the outskirts of a town.
He put the Caddy behind the building and wiped his face with his sleeve. Sweat soaked his shirt and vest. He touched the dials of the climate control tenderly, stupidly, couldn’t make sense of them. Got out and removed the jacket and tie and vest and stood in the breeze, grabbed the doorframe, and bent double and vomited sour green liquid between his black shoes.
In the men’s room Luntz stood at the urinal a full minute, but nothing came out of him. He flushed anyway. He put his hands on the sink and bowed his head and breathed several times in and out before raising his eyes to the mirror.
Around 11:00 a.m. Anita Desilvera went to the movies with a half pint of Popov vodka in her purse. As she approached the building she caught ...