Illustrations by Erik SandbergWhile we were pondering the Michael Jackson trial and its various tributaries the other day, we happened across this resonant passage in the manuscript of Jervey Tervalon’s latest novel, a completely fictional account told in the voice of the personal chef to a pop star who bears not the slightest resemblance to the bard of Santa Ynez. Still, it made us think . . . In the morning I heard a car drive up, and the sound of someone approaching
my bungalow. But before I could get myself out of bed, the door flung open, and
I saw Thug’s huge arm sweep Monster into the room. I sat up to greet them and
find out what kind of trouble I was in.
Monster smiled and waved for Thug to leave. He sat on the edge of the bed, wearing black silk pajamas, sunglasses and a bright-green fedora. He crossed his hands and waited as though he anticipated me asking a question. I didn’t say a thing. “Well, how did your conversation go with Sheriff Graves?” he asked almost in a whisper. I had the presence of mind to collect my thoughts before I responded. “We talked. He wanted to know what I knew about what goes on here. I don’t know what goes on here, so I didn’t have much to say.” “Did he ask you anything specifically? Anything about the boy?” “You mean the dead one?” I said, and watched Monster flinch. “Yes,” he said, just as softly. “He asked me about him. I said I never saw the boy before and didn’t know how he died, though I suspected he overdosed.” Monster’s mouth fell open. “You told him that?” “Yes, I did. Anybody who saw that body would have known that the boy had overdosed.” Monster shuddered, and his placid expression gave way to grief. He took a minute to compose himself, dabbing away at his eyes with a silk handkerchief. “Listen, other than that, I need to discuss another matter with you. I’m not sure how you’ll feel about this, but I think it would be good for you, for me . . . and Rita.” “What?” I asked, probably too quickly. Monster straightened his shirt and ran his hand through his mop of hair (he had an exceptional weave), then focused his sunglasses onto me. “Earlier, I talked to you about coming onboard with me, in a different capacity than as my personal chef.” “Yes, I remember.” “Well, this is it. I want you as a consultant.” “As a consultant? The only thing I know is food, that’s my business.” “Honestly, I need your advice about my wife. She trusts you, and she’s not doing well with all the craziness going on here.” “I don’t see what I could do for her.” Monster stood up and reached into a pajama pocket and came out with a checkbook and started to scribble in such a dramatic, theatrical fashion I thought it would be illegible, but when he handed the paper to me it was very clear: a check for $50,000. “Is that enough for you?” “What am I supposed to do for this money?” Monster wrote another check just as dramatically. He handed that one to me with disdain, as though touching it hurt him. Another $50,000. “My gift to you. I want you to take them now and leave, go straight to the bank and deposit them.” “I don’t know what to say.” “You don’t have to say anything. The money is yours.” “Thank you,” I said uneasily. It didn’t feel right taking the money, but I couldn’t bring myself to give the checks back. “Thug!” Monster called, and the big man appeared. “Drive him to Santa Maria so he can deposit his checks.” Thug nodded. “I’ll get the ride,” he said. I stood on the porch, waiting for Thug to return with the car. Monster stayed in my room, and though he had just given me two checks for a 100 grand, I wasn’t comfortable with him being there. I glanced back, and there he was, sitting on the edge of my bed, as if ready for an early-morning nap. I guess for the kind of money he had just dropped on me, I could forgive that — if he didn’t use my pillows. I should be able to stand the idea of that, or him getting under my sheets. No, I’d have to get rid of the bedding, burn that shit. To my relief, Monster finally wandered outside, and though it was just a short walk, Monster produced a mini-umbrella and opened it to shield himself from the morning sun. Thug arrived and hurried to open the door of the Maybach for Monster. “No, I’ll walk back. I want him at the bank when it opens so he can take care of business.” Thug nodded. We waited for Monster to meander up the path back to the Lair before I stepped into the back seat of the massive sedan. Before I could sit comfortably, Thug hit the gas. Gravel spewed in every direction. We started down the steep and narrow road until he slammed on the brakes, and I fell forward. Thug stopped to struggle with a stack of CDs. A moment later the sound of Maze’s “Happy Feeling” flooded the cavernous compartment and Thug nodded with contentment. “I love me some Maze,” he said, nodding his big head.
Maze made me feel like I had overdosed on Valium, too much happiness for me to keep down. Maybe that’s how Thug could survive Monster and even thrive; his appetite and appreciation for the insanely optimistic. The Pacific Ocean showed itself around one switchback and again when we neared the 101.
I wanted to be at that bank already. Those checks in my pocket were burning
against my leg. I couldn’t suppress it, the joy I felt. My ship had come in; I’d
be able to breathe easily and think clearly about my next move. Now that I had
gotten a taste of Monster’s money, I wanted more, wanted to drink from it, the
unlimited fountain of wealth that he wanted to bestow on me. I wanted to swim
in it, maybe even drown in it.
I felt Thug’s huge hand on my shoulder. “Didn’t I tell you that Monster is good to his word? When he says he going to do something for you, he don’t bullshit.” “I guess so. I never had somebody just give me a hundred thousand.” “You got a guess on how much Monster is worth?” I shook my head, “I don’t have a clue.” “About 400 million. What he gave you he wipes his ass on. That muthafucka sneezes 100K. See, I’m bringing in about 50 grand a month, plus bonuses. I save that shit too. I don’t waste it, ’cause I know this ain’t gonna last. One day this house will come crashing down around all our heads.” “Why?” “Somebody is gonna catch on to what goes on here. You know, if Monster wasn’t paying off everybody, he’d be richer than Oprah. Shit, sometimes when I get to adding all them numbers up it makes me sick to my stomach . . . he’s paying fools. What you got paid ain’t unusual. And you gonna keep getting paid. See, me I keep my eyes closed. I don’t want to know what he’s doing. When that famous lawyer Tommy Cocktail comes in from Beverly Hills and sets a card table up in front of the gates and the parents bring their boys and sign a release, I escort the boys into the mansion and turn around and leave. And the boys have a slumber party with a 38-year-old man. The next day, when the kids are gone and Monster calls you in to take care of something and on the nightstand you see the Polaroids of boys, you know everybody gets paid.” “Why you telling me this? I thought this was the kind of shit you were supposed to keep to yourself.” Thug smiled, showing a mouth full of beautiful teeth. “I’m a muthafucking dog.” “Yeah, well, I know that.” “That’s part of the deal when he hired me. I can’t help it. It’s part of my dog nature. I got to be true to that.” “You got to be,” I said, finding myself admiring this giant, psychotic gay black man.
Couple of sheriffs were drinking coffee outside of a Starbucks, next to
the Bank of Santa Maria. Thug didn’t even slow when he turned into the strip mall,
like he owned the world.
Monster did own the strip mall we just entered, or so Thug told me when he parked the Maybach. He gave the sheriffs the brotherman nod, and we headed into the bank. “All right, dog, you take care your bizness and I’ll take care of mine.” I nodded with a lump in my throat. I didn’t want to think about the possibility of me getting played. I wanted this to work so much it made my head hurt. The cashier, a cute blond, took a look at my check and called for the manager. He came quickly, a short man with bushy eyebrows, and asked me to sit down. “You’re working out at Monster’s Lair?” “Yes, for about a year.” “Would you like to open an account? Many of Mr. Stiles’ employees have accounts here.” He handed the checks over to me. “You’ll need to endorse these.” As I signed them, I found myself asking a question I didn’t know I had been formulating. “How long will it take for these funds to be available?” “They’re available now. Mr. Stiles has a very special relationship with us, and once we ascertain that the check is legitimate, your moneys are available.” “Oh,” I said calmly, but I felt lightheaded. Giddy even with the idea of cashing out now. Take the money, buy a car and drive away into the sunset. Be done with Monster and his cast of characters, and see what life has to offer with Elena. Really, it made no sense to stick around, but something held me back. It would be so easy if not for the promise of dipping into that river of endless wealth that ran right through Monster’s Lair. It felt like the late ’90s, when everybody with sense knew the bubble couldn’t last, but folks still threw down into the crap game because if you didn’t get in, maybe you’d miss out on what was still to be got. Who knows? Who knows what Monster might pay to guarantee my silence? Yeah, it could be astronomic. That’s what I needed. All the money I could scoop up in my hands, in a bucket, a garbage truck, a barge. Just like anybody who had the opportunity to get paid, I discovered the greedy fuck that I am. I wanted all the money. It couldn’t be a good decision, to risk whatever I had accomplished since getting out of prison, the halfway house and the wreck I had made of my life. Maybe it was curiosity, to see how it would play out, how everything would resolve. What would happen with Monster, what would happen to me? I tried to make up my mind up as I sat there in an uncomfortable, overstuffed chair, watching the bank clerk process paper.
I walked to the parking lot with $10,000, a fat wad in my pocket. The beauty
of the central coast and me disappearing into it was past me now, its allure tarnished
by the glint of gold. I stood by the Maybach, waiting for Thug to return, but
I didn’t see him creep up and hit me in the shoulder with a rolled-up magazine.
“Check it out,” he said. I unfolded it, a real estate throwaway. “I’m thinking of buying this little winery. Yeah, bet I could make bank with my own Zinfandel. You know brothers like sweet wine. ‘Thug’s Zinfandel,’ fine wine for the gangsta!” He unlocked the doors and I slid into the front seat; almost instantly my stomach churned. I tried to rush to get my head out of the window, but a half-second too late, and vomited against the door. Thug scowled in my direction. “Damn, nigga. You sick? Now, I gotta get this fucking car washed.” I tried to apologize, but not quite fast enough, and my stomach erupted all over again. This time I managed to vomit mostly out of the window, but that didn’t please Thug much. “What the fuck did you eat? Next time put your head out of the window!” I listened to Thug yell as my head swirled in waves of queasiness.
I should have regarded my stomach as some kind of gastric early-warning system
and leaped out of the car as soon as Thug slowed at a light, but no, I would see
this bit of greed-inspired insanity all the way to the end, no matter where that
might take me.
Tervalon most recently co-edited The Cocaine Chronicles, out this
month from Akashic Books. Wednesday at Velvet Margarita, Akashic hosts a launch
party for the book.