It was just past six, and the clubs along Sunset Boulevard, a mile or two east of The Strip, had been closed for hours. Bums huddled up to the steel-grilled doorways and stretched out on the blue bus benches, wrapped in newspaper against the January chill. An orange cat darted into the street, froze in the flashing headlight of a big Harley, and skittered back to the safety of its dumpster nest. Here and there leftover Christmas lights still flickered in a window. A wind-whipped cardboard candy cane slapped against a lamp post, in tatters.
The mini-mall at the northwest corner of Poinsettia was closed; the beauty shop’s blinds were shut tight against the streetlights, the doors of the Sushi Carousel were bolted and chained. Lights flashed in the glass front of the video store, but it was dark behind the lights. When the manager opened later that morning, he’d find that the steel mail slot screwed into the plate glass had been wrenched open, the heap of returned tapes fished out and carried away.
When Cal turned off Hollywood Boulevard, Poinsettia was still dark and silent. A thick-bodied woman-man perched on red spike heels by the pay phone in front of the Carousel; she had a stiff, greasy mane of orange hair that hung in a sheet to her shoulder, and a tight black vinyl skirt strained to cover her broad thighs. The Mexican family that delivered newspapers had come and gone; Cal had only been early enough to spot them once or twice. The bottle and can scavengers hadn’t made their rounds yet; wet-lipped paper bags littered the asphalt parking lot, and Cal felt a bottle crunch beneath his tires as he guided his old Chevy Malibu to the curb.
Sunset Boulevard stretched awake. The street lights that weren’t sheltered by the tangled branches of Jacarandas snapped off one by one, and here and there a car rushed toward the freeway. Cal got out of the Malibu and unlocked the chain across the lot. Shook a couple of bums awake and pulled the big car into its reserved slot. He bolted the door behind him and went into the back to wash up. Turned on the grill and heaved trays of set-ups out of the massive Sub-Zero—butter, jelly, jam and syrup, catsup, salt and pepper. Wiped down the already pristine work table and set out knives and spatulas.
The coffee was set to drip—two big carafes of the house brew, a harsh Jamaica blend, two of a mellower Kenya that Cal had been wanting to try, and an orange-handled pot of decaf. By the time he’d popped a tray of croissants into the oven, the little back room was dense and steamy with the odor of strong coffee.
The Russian dentist from across the street was waiting when Cal flipped over the sign and unlocked the door. A couple of hookers saw him, waved, and crossed against the light, ready for a cup of brew and a sugary doughnut before bed. Cal checked his fingernails, his apron front, his watch. Pulled the blue drapes in the bay window and felt a stab of pleasure as sunshine splashed over the rose-colored walls and sparkled against the polished table tops.
It hadn’t been Cal’s intention to run a breakfast place, and sometimes Blue’s front room hurt his eyes, it was that bright and sunny, immaculately scrubbed and smelling of fresh coffee and Pine Sol, despite ashtrays everywhere and a SMOKING ALLOWED sign hung illegally but prominently over the register. He’d pictured long, lazy evenings that would ramble into the quiet hours of the morning, a candlelit room and rickety tables, good mellow sounds and maybe spoken word or some performance art, something like that. But evenings had been slow to begin with, and when Cal had tried opening early a couple of times, receipts had been triple what he could pull in at night. So now he was open nights only sporadically, when he felt like hanging, if he didn’t have a date or something else he wanted to do.
Morning was when the buying customers came, and then in spurts all day, some sitting in the front window or on the sofa in back for hours with a magazine, absently munching sandwiches or sucking down yogurt shakes, others rushing in for to-go orders that Cal slapped down, one after another, throughout the long mornings. Sometimes the girl who ran the talent agency’s offices across Sunset would come in with her little Tandy computer and sit for hours, banging away as if she’d brought a typewriter to the café with her. It amused Cal to try to peek over her shoulder; he suspected she was working on a book. But she’d shoo him away with one hand, pushing her glasses up with the other, whenever he tried to get a look.
By eight o’clock Cal had served up three dozen bagels, forty doughnuts, and a couple of scrambled-egg burritos. He’d rinsed and filled the coffee pots twice—eighty cups, plus refills—and damp-mopped the floor where some kid had dropped a smoothie. The stream of customers became a trickle, and by nine Blue was empty again. Cal shut off the grill and stuck his set-ups back in the refrigerator, meaning to sit down with the newspaper before the lunch crowd rolled in.
A blonde hottie crossed the lot, switching her tail. Eighteen, Cal thought. Twenty if you squinted. Packed into tight white jeans cuffed at the knee and a white cotton shirt. Despite the chill she was spooning up soft-serve from a styrofoam cup, and as he watched she made a face and dropped the dish onto the asphalt. Cal cursed under his breath. Thought about going after her. Pictured himself holding her arm, pointing at the spilled dessert. Relenting, inviting her in for a café au lait or an herbal tea.
The girl moved out of Cal’s field of vision, and he settled back down with the paper, sipping the last of the morning’s pulpy orange juice. An engine turned over, and a red pick-up roared through the lot. Brakes screeched. Cal jumped up, backed away from the window. Outside, a hard heavy thud: steel smacking something solid, but less solid than steel. The blare of a horn, a girl’s shrill cry.
Cal ran out the door and stopped, sickened by blood.
The dog had been white; the crown of her head and the sparse plume of her tail were still white, but muzzle to shoulders she was crimson, and her hindquarters were black with dirt or oil from the big Eldorado that had run her down. Her eyes were rolled back in her head, but she was still alive. Her feet moved aimlessly, as if she were dreaming.
The blonde bent over the dog, crying. She looked up at Cal and gestured toward the open tailgate of the beat-up truck. “She fell out,” the girl cried. “I had to stop sudden.”
Cal looked around the little parking lot. Her pickup must have been flying, he thought, to stop suddenly enough to send the dog tumbling out. And the Caddie must have been right up on them, not to have had time to stop.
“You were going too fast,” Cal said mildly. He bent over the dog, wary of the red wet muzzle. “She’s bad,” he told the girl. “If you’ve got a blanket, we can slide her up on it, and you can get her to a vet. But she’s bad off.”
The dog moaned, shivered, and fell silent. The girl answered with her own shiver and stared up at Cal, her face stricken but her eyes sliding away from his.
“I din’ mean to hit your dog, honey,” a man said, coming around the front of the Eldorado. He was overweight and pink-cheeked, with a curiously feminine face and red, wet lips like a woman’s. His shining bald head was mottled with age. He touched the fender delicately. Looked down at the huddle of reddened fur, pursed his woman lips.
“Oh, no,” muttered a voice behind Cal. He turned. The manicurist from the beauty shop, Lily, just arriving to open. “Thank God it wasn’t a kid.”
A little crowd had gathered.
The blonde touched the dog’s matted fur. “I couldn’t help it, Snowball,” she whispered. “Poor Snowball.”
Cal nudged the dog’s big body with his foot. No movement. He bent over, worked his fingers through the thick fur soaked with blood. “She’s dead,” he told the girl bluntly. He looked at the fat man, jerked his thumb toward the dumpsters. “Take her with you, or put her in there.”
“Hey, Cal.” Lily touched his arm, pointed. “You got a customer.”
Cal turned around fast, thinking of the busy morning, the full register. The mid-morning sun glinted against the clean glass storefront, and he hurried for the door.
The kid met him in the doorway, tried a smile but couldn’t pull it off. He was sweating, itching to get past, and Cal read the guilty look, grabbed for him, caught his shirt. Skinny kid, but he struggled in Cal’s arms like a big, bony fish. Cloth tore, and the kid took off fast, sneakers slapping asphalt. Cal swore, hesitating. Chase the kid, leave the store unguarded? Maybe he’d only swiped a cold drink. He thought about it for only a moment, but that was enough; the boy rounded the corner and was gone.
Cal crossed the sunny room wearily, knowing what he’d find. Behind the counter the register stood open. Empty. He pulled out the plastic bill separator and checked under it. The twenties were history, as well as the fifty he’d broken as a favor to Lily.
“Shit.” Cal slammed the cash drawer and went to the door. The pick-up was gone, the blonde was gone, the Caddie was gone. Only the blood-soaked body of the dog remained.
He’d pulled the curtains and waited patiently for the last of the lunch customers to finish their coffees, check their watches, hurry away. Lunch had been light, and with the breakfast receipts stolen there wasn’t much point to making a bank run. Cal stuffed a wad of bills, fives and singles, in his front pocket and slammed the cash drawer.
A tap at the front door.
“Closed,” Cal called. “Sorry.”
“Please, mister. I need a drink of water.”
It was a man’s voice, but high-pitched and strained, as if disguised, though it was also muffled by the bolted door. The figure silhouetted against the glass was as tall as Cal, even broader across the chest.
Cal cursed under his breath. “Look, buddy,” he called, coming around the front of the counter. He kicked aside a stack of freebie newspapers, and a spider scuttled across the wood floor. “I told you, dude—”
The figure tapped again, then seemed to fall against the door. The top of his head was pressed against the glass, and through the thin curtain Cal could see that he wore a suit, that he had short clipped hair, and that he was white. He despised the twinge of relief this gave him, but he unbolted the door anyway, pushing against the man’s sagging weight on the glass.
“Hey, man. You all right?”
As Cal bent to touch his shoulder the man suddenly straightened and sprang toward him, grabbing Cal in a headlock, pounding his chest with a balled up fist. “You meat, suckah!”
Cal shoved him away hard, grinning despite the quick twist of anger in his gut. “Eric. You asshole.”
He stared into a face like his own. Thinner, the eyes a deep, clear blue, while his own were a faded gray. Hair blonder, and cut shorter. More carefully. The suit was double-breasted, built up at the shoulders and tapered at the waist, with a little triangle of silk peeking out at the breast, green like the swirls of color against the dark background of the narrow silk tie. Cal raised his open hand and slapped his brother’s flat palm, but Eric caught his hand and pulled him close. He felt oddly comforted by Eric’s sharp cologne and the light fragrance of spray starch and wool from his clothes.
“Okay, don’t get all fruity on me,” Cal said suddenly, pushing Eric away.
Eric laughed and picked up the leather barrel bag at his feet. “Didn’t know if it’d be safe to leave this in the car.” He glanced around the parking lot at the shadows puddling in the late sun.
Cal jerked his thumb toward a sleek, low, two-door coupé parked carelessly across two spots. It was a silvery red, with smooth flattened lines and flush wheels and lights, and through the open window he could see the dull gleam of polished black leather within. “Yours?”
Eric pushed a hank of sun-bleached hair off his forehead and grinned like a kid. “Maya’s, technically. Like it? It’s the new Testarossa.” He touched the front pocket of his slacks, jangling the keys. “Five speed, rear-wheel drive. It’s ferocious. You want to take it out for a spin?”
Cal hesitated. “I was just locking up. Unless you want a drink? I’ve got beer, and a half bottle of Inglenook. That’s about it.”
Eric shook his head. “Maybe later. Listen, got your board? Let’s catch a few.”
Cal looked out at the rush of traffic. The late sun glinted off the windshield of the Mercedes, making him squint, but the wind was cool on his bare arms. “It’ll be cold at the beach,” he pointed out. “Shoot, I was snowboarding this time last week.”
Eric was already shrugging out of his jacket, unknotting his tie. “Bawk bawk bawk,” he clucked, flapping his folded arms like wings. He tossed his suit jacket to Cal and bent over his bag. “I’ve got trunks in here somewhere.” He stood up, waving a knot of black fabric. “Dude, motivate.” He pushed by Cal into the front room and stepped out of his pants. “Got shorts? Got your board?”
Cal stepped out of his jeans, got a butcher knife from the sideboard, and hacked them off at mid-thigh.
Eric laughed. He caught the cans of juice Cal pitched from the cooler, and they were out the door.
The lifeguard stations were closed, and a swift breeze clipped across the beach, stinging Cal’s calves with sand. A couple of girls lay face down on a blanket close to the water, their brown-basted flesh raised into goose pimples by the wind and the spray of sand. Mexican kids were running from the waves that lapped at the shore, and far down the beach Cal could see older boys on boards.
“It’s dirty. Look at all that crap.” Eric shielded his eyes with the flat of his hand and kicked at a bread wrapper that had washed up in the surf.
Cal shrugged as they waded out thigh-deep, swaying with the rhythmic push of the tide. “Cold, too. Maybe we ought to get a blanket and lie out with those girls.”
Eric gave him a sharp look, then smiled. “Heads up, man. Big one.” Cal turned to catch the wave, and Eric tackled him, knocking him onto the rough moving floor of the ocean. The shock of icy water made him gasp and swallow a mouthful of rank, salty spray. He caught Eric’s ankle, pulled him down, and then rose on the next swell and kicked out into the sea.
The waves were short but choppy and quick, and Cal had to fight to get past the break. He felt the sand shifting beneath him and a cold cross-current moving over his thighs. His arms and shoulders where he breasted the water were stung by the sharp air, but beneath the waves he felt warm now. A big swell rolled toward him, and he dove under it and came up fast, trying to catch the last of the set. Cal grinned. Eric was still fighting to get past the breakers. Another wave rolled up behind him, and he scrabbled for footing on the shifting floor. Pushed off hard, making his body a long hard stretch of muscle as the wave moved around him, under him, and carried him away in its smooth center. Then Cal was flying toward the shore. He was nearly up on the sand before he rolled off the wave and into the roil of water. He got up and felt the abraded skin above his knee. Dove under a stiff slap of whitewash.
Eric was out there now, and a rough set was moving toward him. He waved to Cal and called out something that was lost in the wind. A gull cried out, and Cal pushed back into deeper water.
When they finally came slogging out of the water, the girls were still on the sand, sitting up with their knees drawn to their chests, smoking and laughing, their eyes fixed on Eric. Cal nodded as he passed, and the big one, a sun-streaked blonde in a pink bikini, smiled up at him. He would have gone on, but Eric dropped down onto the sand, half on their blanket.
“Thanks for waiting,” he told the little dark one. “I wasn’t sure you would.”
She stared at him, then at her friend, and began to laugh.
“Well, we were hungry,” the girl said, playing along. “We thought you might get us something to eat.”
“Marcy,” the bigger girl said sharply, signaling in some vaguely irritating female code. She touched her hair and looked at Cal again as the wind whipped it back along her face.
The little one got up, brushing sand from her brown stomach, from her small, hard thighs. “Seriously, we were going up to the Sunstroke. Get a hamburger or something. You can meet us there if you want.” She looked at Cal, then at Eric. “I’m Marcy, and this is Kim.”
Kim stubbed out her cigarette in the dry sand, then primly tucked it into a plastic bag and sealed it shut. As she got up, Eric rolled over onto their blanket and folded his arms under his head. “Eric Arthur. My brother, Cal.”
Kim smiled at Cal, and he studied her smooth, tanned face, bare of makeup. Her teeth were wonderfully white against the golden beige of her skin, and her body was good—long and full. Big breasts, big legs, a little soft. He thought she was better-looking than her friend, and he wondered that she’d picked him and not Eric. Or had Eric done the choosing?
Marcy touched Kim’s shoulder, then folded her arms over her thin chest. “Come on, I’m freezing.” She looked down at Eric again. “You can bring the blanket when you come.”
“Marcy,” Kim said again. Just the one word was an argument. But she turned, relenting, and the girls picked their way across the sand toward the parking lot, moving their hips more than they had to, holding their shoulders stiff beneath the weight of the men’s eyes.
The restroom was dark, stinking of piss and backed-up sewage. Cal scrubbed his hands and wet his hair under the tap, rinsing away the salt and fish odor of the sea. There were showers outside, but the sun had nearly set now and he hated to get wet again. He pulled off his cutoffs and got into the wrinkled black jeans Eric had unpacked for him.
He waited until they had turned off Ocean Avenue onto the shining black ribbon of the Coast Highway. Traffic was thick against them, but traveling north it was all right. Eric kept the car reined in tight, as if he knew Cal wanted to talk.
“So,” Cal said at last. “I thought you and Maya were working things out.”
Eric’s face went blank as he guided the Ferrari around a curve. The last of the sun was gathering in golden pools along the slick navy surface of the sea. “Sure,” he said easily. “We got it worked out before I left for Portland.” He waited, but Cal kept silent. “That’s where I’ve been, Oregon. Getting wined and dined by every desperate sawmill in the Pacific Northwest. Cal, they’ve got seafood up there you wouldn’t believe—makes San Francisco look like dog meat. Nice people, too.”
Cal gave him a look. “Nice women, you mean.”
Eric turned off the highway without signaling. The big parking lot was nearly empty; the crowd wouldn’t move in until the band came on after nine. “What do you think the females are driving,” he said, scanning the lot. “The baby-blue GTI? Or the convertible bug?”
“Who gives a shit,” Cal said irritably. The car was still moving, but he opened the door, and Eric put the brake to the floor.
“What’s the matter with you, Cal? I haven’t seen you in what, a month? Two? And already you’re harshin’ on me about Maya. What’s it to you? I take care of my wife. I take care of my business. Okay?” He took a deep breath, checked the rear-view mirror. Backed into a spot and turned off the engine. “So I had a good time. Why not? I was there on company business. Don’t forget who sent me.”
It was true, Cal thought. Eric managed the export firm his wife’s father had set up a few years earlier, just after they were married. Maybe the old man would have gone into the business anyway, maybe not. He had the money to play with, Cal knew that much. So he made sure his son-in-law had a job, made sure his little girl had plenty to eat and clothes to wear. Together, Cal figured, they were taking pretty good care of her.
He got out of the car. Smelled salt air. Thought about the girls waiting inside and felt the tight band of muscles beneath his collar relax.
“Listen, Eric. Some kid ripped me off today. Got into the register while my back was turned.”
Eric locked the car, slicked his hand through his hair. “D’he get much?”
“The morning take.” Cal kicked at the asphalt. “Couple presidents, that’s all. But damn it, I could’ve chased him and gotten it back. I was kind of out of it, I guess. Let him get away.”
He told Eric about the accident. The girl, the big Caddie, the white dog. “My fault, I guess. Kid saw his chance and went for it. Maybe I should’ve called the heat, I don’t know—looked at some pictures.”
Eric laughed. “Mug shots. Sure, waste another morning. At least another morning, and for what? They catch the kid, your money’s spent, bro. Don’t you have insurance?”
“Sure,” Cal said sourly. “I could claim for two, three hundred bucks. Make a case for four if I wanted to get cute. And then pay twice that when my rates go up.”
Eric pulled open the heavy door, held it for Cal.
Cal smelled beer, sweat, disinfectant, some flowery citrus perfume a lot of women were wearing lately. Looked around at the palm tree, the tanks of tropical fish, the mannequin suspended from the ceiling with her green metal tail. Kim was at a table near the stage, applying lipstick, concentrating on her reflection in a tiny white compact as she leaned toward Marcy, listening and nodding absently. She’d brushed her hair and squeezed into a scarlet knit dress that rode up her brown thighs when she crossed her legs.
Eric followed Cal’s eyes, punched his arm. “Don’t say I never did nothing for you.”
Cal was up before the sun. He thought about waking Kim, getting her to give him a lift home. But she was huddled up in one corner of the big bed, arms and legs around a white pillow, snoring.
He dressed quietly, rinsed his mouth in the white-tiled bathroom, used Kim’s hairbrush. He needed a shower but figured it could wait. When he’d set the lock and pulled the door shut behind him, Cal realized that he hadn’t called a cab and that he hadn’t gotten Kim’s number, or even her last name. He tried to remember if she’d told it to him. Checked her apartment number in case the name was on the mailbox in the lobby, but the box was blank.
Westwood was still dark. The streets were closed to traffic, and here and there a restaurant stirred, readying for dawn. Cal walked down to Wilshire and tried to flag a cab. One approached, looked him over, and took a pass. Another flew by with a customer, a white-faced man staring glumly from the back window. Finally a bus wheezed up the hill past the Veterans’ Building. The big structure looked feathery and soft in the pale light filtered through the tree tops. Cal felt his pockets for change and ran for the bus.
L.A. Winter is old-fashioned, gritty noir set in the early eighties in Los Angeles. Cal runs a Sunset Strip diner frequented by prostitutes, teenage runaways, and film extras. His brother, Eric, lives a flashier lifestyle, driving a Testarossa and spending most nights away from the canyon home he shares with the woman Cal once planned to marry. Set in the decade before laptops, cell phones, safe sex, and sober living, L.A. Winter careens around the Los Angeles of chaotic movie sets, steamy nightclubs, and sultry beaches—a time that, despite heavy partying and casual sex, seems curiously innocent in retrospect. The brutal killing of a dog in the early pages foreshadows murders—and twisted motives—to come. As the brothers pursue two women they picked up on the beach—Kim and Marcy—family secrets are exposed and Cal’s loyalty to his brother is tested by suspicion and fear. When Kim dies horrifically in an arson fire, the only brightness left in Cal’s life is his burgeoning—and somewhat disturbing—relationship with a teenage girl who desperately needs his protection.
Despite a complex plot, L.A. Winter is written in simple, straightforward language. The primary literary device used is the sentence fragment, intended to reflect the choppy, abruptly changing lives of the main characters. My intention is that the dialogue be strong and evocative of the time. It was fun to research language, fashion, music, and other cultural aspects to make the novel true to the decade famous for greed and partying, popped collars and cocaine. But the characters in L.A. Winter are, for the most part, removed from that “decade of excess” lifestyle. Eric drives a Ferrari, but it belongs to his wife and they really can’t afford it. Cal runs a diner that caters to wannabes and “nearly theres.” Ultimately, the novel is about aspirations and disappointment—the universal need for love and how it defines every one of us. I hope that the choices the characters make are both surprising in context and, upon reflection, true to their personalities and realistic.
My favorite part of L.A. Winter—writing it, and reading it—is the death of Kim. Marcy’s death is a surprise, of course—and the hows and whys are not revealed until close to the end of the book. But it’s noir, after all, so somebody has to die, and Marcy dies early on, before we know her well. Kim is a different matter. My goal is for the reader to fall in love as effortlessly as Cal does. I want the reader to realize, slowly, that Kim could possibly be the mender of Cal’s broken heart. She’s straightforward and seems easy to understand—though in fact she is complex, as all people turn out to be, given enough time and understanding. I want the reader to be genuinely shocked when Kim dies, and I want them to grieve right along with Cal.
L.A. Winter is a completed novel, running about 78,000 words.
Anna Scotti lives in Los Angeles. Best known as a poet, she has had work recently published, with more forthcoming, in The New Yorker, was twice a Pushcart nominee, and has been the recipient of the Orlando Prize for Short Fiction, the Pocataligo Prize for Poetry, and the Mark Fischer Prize for Poetry. Scotti will have a short story published in an upcoming issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Much of her published work can be found at www.annakscotti.com.
Embark, Issue 3, January 2018