The moon’s half full. The sky’s almost empty. To the west, surveillance helicopters circle in the thinning smoke above the embers of this afternoon’s explosions. Six relatively small bombs were detonated along Pico Boulevard in the middle of rush hour, followed by one enormous blast at the mall. This week’s toll: 67 dead, 381 injured. Radio says its experts are now “99 percent certain” that the violence is the work of wealthy teenagers celebrating the victories of their high school and college football teams.
But for now it’s quiet. I’m on my way to a celebration in honor of my old friend Cosco Washington’s birthday and recent return from the dead. Cosco was killed about a month ago, in the first Pavilion mall-attack, but had pulled some strings and managed to come back to life just 20 minutes prior to his scheduled cremation. And he just turned 50, so a dinner party is scheduled for 8 p.m. at the home of Chappy and Lugretta Westwicke, two married, expensive people I’ve never met or heard of.
It’s almost 8 as I ascend Smallwood Avenue into Cowbridge Hills and soon enter an ornery maze of concentric circles and poorly marked cul-de-sacs — upscale digs on thick, clean lawns; arranged just so on streets with quaintly bastardized Anglican names: Burnley Cross Hollow, Pilkington-Under-Scunthorpe and the like. I locate the Westwicke house at the top of Queen’s Marrow Ridge, park and follow the flagstones to the front door.
Knock, stand. Door opens to reveal unsmiling white guy in black apron. I hear soft voices and gooey music coming from the beyond.
“Yes?” says white guy.
“Hi,” I say. “I’m called Dave. Is this the right place for Cosco Washington’s birthday-resurrection thing?”
“This is the place,” says white guy, smiling even less. “I’m Chappy Westwicke. Come on in.”
We shake. I follow Chappy through his very large living room and around the corner to an immense kitchen. Beyond the food-preparation island stands and sits the balance of the party: five unfamiliar grown-ups. Four of them glance my way, apparently waiting for Chappy to introduce us. When Chappy does not, they shrug, turn away and resume their conversations.
Everyone’s drinking red wine from large, delicate stemware.
Everyone’s eating bread and cheese.
I look at Chappy. I look at the others.
I’ve known Cosco Washington since I was your age, but I’ve never met or seen any of these people. Soon I will, though. Because soon Chappy will make introductions. Or offer me a drink. Or tell me to help myself. Because that’s what hosts do.
But Chappy says only, “Cosco isn’t here yet,” and gets back to slicing mushrooms.
So I stand there, not knowing what to do. I try eavesdropping, but nothing sticks. After a very long five minutes, I say, “Excuse me, Chappy?” And Chappy replies, “Yes?”
“If it’s not too much trouble,” I say, “may I please have a glass of water?”
“Okay,” says Chappy. He opens a cupboard and extracts a miniature glass beer mug, such as those given away as Oktoberfest swag. Chappy half-fills the mug and hands it to me.
Let the party begin. My water and I go a-wanderin’ — a-lurchin’ here, a-dawdlin’ there, a-yawnin’ all around. The gracious hosts’ home is decorated with genteel accoutrements of arts-adjacent academia: well-preserved scholarly hardbacks, tastefully framed portraits of composers, over-lacquered replicas of exotic stringed instruments — everything placed or hung or mounted just so.
The self-guided tour takes all of 60 seconds, after which I return to what I now call my spot. I give up on the hosts hosting. I introduce myself to lovely Lucinda and her nebbishy husband, Clamnest; to kindly Marina and sultry Gina; and to Lugretta, the dread Mrs. Westwicke, who washes her hands after we shake. Clamnest offers me bread and Lucinda offers me cheese, even though it’s not their bread and cheese to offer. Have I earned that level of access? I turn to Chappy for answers.
“Chappy?” I ask from four feet away. “Dave here. We spoke earlier at the door. Lucinda and Clamnest have just offered me a piece of not only your bread but your cheese. How do you feel about that, Chappy?”
Chappy looks intensely at Clamnest, then at Lucinda, then at me.
“Okay,” says Chappy.
“Thanks, Chappy,” I say. “And, if it’s not too much trouble, may I have a second glass of that delicious water?”
Chappy says, “I’ll tell you what I’ll do.” But he does not tell; rather, he demonstrates: carries the water bottle to the far end of the table, places it there and returns. “Why don’t you pour it yourself?” he says evenly. “That way, you can have as much as you want.”
Cosco Washington finally shows up around 9. He’s brought lots of unprepared groceries, including a raw rack of pig ribs, which might be rendered edible as early as 4 a.m.
“Sorry I’m so late,” says Cosco. “I got hung up at the Venice–Sawtelle checkpoint. One of the soldiers confiscated my marinade.”
“That’s all right!” Chappy exclaims, presenting Cosco with a glass of wine. “You can get marinated with this!”
Birthday/Resurrection Boy is surrounded. Hugged and shaken and slapped on the back and dry-humped and wined and appetizered. When the crowd parts, Cosco’s eyes meet mine and register no familiarity. “Hey,” says Cosco, extending a hand to a stranger. “I’m Cosco. How’s it going?”
I’ve had three half-glasses of water, but I think I’m all right to drive. I slip out of the dinnerless party and into my car, head downhill to war-torn Pico Boulevard and pull into the driveway of the last standing structure for three blocks in either direction.
“Welcome to Kentucky Fried Chicken. Would you like seven legs and thighs for $4.99?”
They’ve run out of original recipe. The host throws in two extra pieces, for free.
As I pull back onto Pico, one of the surveillance helicopters hits me with the spotlight. Perhaps they’d like a wing.