(Yes, as a break from the glum seriousness of war, nuclear Iran, international terrorism and Planned Parenthood operating a chop shop for baby parts, it’s time for another adventure in Luna City, the small town in Texas where eccentricity does not just run in the streets – it stampedes through them in herds)
It was Berto Gonzales who brought the Englishman to Luna City – the year that Berto was in his freshman year at Palo Alto on San Antonio’s south side, and driving a luxury town car at night for his uncle Tony. Uncle Tony Gonzales lived in Elmendorf, but ran his business based in San Antonio, and Berto was living with Uncle Tony’s family while he attended college. Berto was one of the bookish Gonzaleses, but had no objection to driving for Uncle Tony, who was both a third-cousin once removed, and married to Berto’s Aunt Lucy.
“You get to meet all kindsa people,” Uncle Tony was fond of expounding. “I drove Bryant Gumbel, once … and Spurs players? All the time; I got Tony Parkers’ autograph, even.”
On one particular summer evening around six PM, Berto got a call in the town car from Uncle Tony’s dispatch office. “Got a pick-up at Stinson – half an hour. It’s a special – he’ll be waiting for you out in front.”
“Cool,” said Berto. “Is it a celebrity? Where’s the pick-up to go?” Stinson was the old airport on the South Side, which served mostly corporate and private aircraft; a quieter, less frenetic place. And if the pick-up was someone famous, that would give him something to brag about on Monday morning. Dropping down to Mission Road was a snap compared to fighting heavy rush-hour traffic around San Antonio International on a Friday. Stinson was nearly out into the country on the edge of Espada Park.
“He’ll tell you when you get there,” the dispatcher replied.
Berto nearly gave up in dismay, when he pulled into one of the parking spaces in front of the brand-spanking new little terminal. There was no one out on the sidewalk who looked like a passenger – and there was already another town-car pulled in. After ten minutes there still wasn’t any sign of a pick-up. Out beyond the terminal building and row of hangars and warehouses which lined that side of Mission Road was the ramp and a pair of runways. The airport was separated from Mission Road by nothing more imposing than some chain-link fences hung with any number of threatening signs. Presently, a silver and blue Gulfstream dropped low on approach and touched down with a roar. It flashed past the terminal, came around at the end, and taxied up to the terminal, being lost to sight but not hearing. Berto opened the door and got out of the car, wilting briefly in the blast of heat after the coolness of the air-conditioned car. The driver of the other car was already out, standing in front of his car with a sign in his hand – “Wilson” written in block letters in felt-tip. The other driver acknowledged him with a brief nod.
“Busy day,” he commented and Berto sighed.
“Sooner here than SA International.”
“That’s for certain,” the other driver grunted. Another small jet dropped down from the blue sky – a Learjet with a t-tail and wings which turned sharply upwards at the very tips.
“Looks like my fare,” Berto observed. No, passenger pick-up at Stinson did not usually take long. The Lear rolled down the ramp with an ear-piercing shriek from its engines, and vanished behind the terminal. Three minutes, four minutes … a single person appeared from the glass doors leading out to the apron of paving, interspersed with raised beds and patches of grass which formed the forecourt. Berto watched his pick-up approach – a young man carrying a small overnight bag in one hand and a bottle in the other.
“Oh-oh,” the other driver remarked, with considerable sympathy, as the man seemed to pause, look in their direction and focus with an effort. “You got yourself a drunk, it looks like. Sooner me than you, hijito.”
“I hope he don’t barf on Uncle Tony’s upholstery, ‘cause he will kill me.” Berto watched his fare approach; a young man, with dark straight hair cut short, as if he were going out for football this season. His clothes were wrinkled, as if he had slept in them for a week. He staggered over to the bicycle rack set out by the flagpole and the handicapped parking. On his way, he dropped the bottle into the hedge. Then, clutching the bicycle rack for support, he began throwing up.
“Looks like he got that taken care of already,” the other driver remarked. He held up the “Wilson” sign as a knot of people appeared in the terminal doorway. “Good luck, hijito … you wanna couple of plastic bags? I got some in the trunk, just for this kind of thing.”
“Yeah, sure.” Berto’s fare made one last heave, straightened himself from the bicycle rack, and approached the two town cars, walking as carefully as if he were on eggshells.
“I say, chaps,” He spoke carefully, enunciating every word – oh, yes; English. He talked like some of those characters on those PBS programs that Aunt Lucy was so fond of. “I only needed the one car … I am, as you may observe, traveling very light.”
“If you aren’t Wilson, then he’s all yours.” The other driver jerked his thumb at Berto, adding in a low tone, “I’ll get you those items I mentioned.”
“Alas, I am not Wilson,” the fare admitted, sounding rather sad about that. “But rather – Richard Astor-Hall, or what remains of him. Have you heard of me?”
“I gotta say that I haven’t,” Berto replied, disappointed. He had so been hoping for a celebrity on this pick-up. Unexpectedly this seemed to cheer Mr. Astor-Hall. Berto opened the passenger door, and asked, “Where am I supposed to take you, Mr. Hall?”
Mr. Astor-Hall drew himself up to his full height and tossed his overnight bag into the front passenger seat. He fished into his pants pocket, drew out a roll of bills the size of which Berto had never seen before, not even at Uncle Jesus’ garage, where many of the old customers preferred paying in cash and pressed it into Berto’s hand.
“As far from here as that will take me,” he said grandly and passed out cold.
Berto caught him one-handed as he sagged, and directed Mr. Astor-Hall’s unconscious body into the back seat of the town car. The other driver shook his head, in sympathy, as he helped Berto tuck Mr. Astor-Hall’s legs in and close the door.
“Turn his head sideways, so he won’t choke on it if he’s sick again. What are you gonna do with him? That’s one heck of a roll, hijito – enough to take him a good long way.”
“Three – four hundred bucks,” Beto hastily counted out the fifties and twenties, then folded them away, deep in thought. Meanwhile, the other driver’s fare gathered around, busy with getting their expensive luggage stowed away. A Friday evening, an unlimited expense account – and Uncle Tony would understand.
“We’re going home to Luna,” Berto said out loud to his unconscious passenger, as he backed out of the parking place, and turned south, towards Presa Street, and the road towards Luna City. Mr. Astor-Hall snored comfortably in the back seat – if he had no particular place in mind, than Luna City would do as well as any.
At about the time Berto was coming up to Floresville a cellphone rang, rang insistently from deep inside Mr. Astor-Hall’s little bag. Berto let it go, let it ring several times, but whoever was calling didn’t want to give up. Finally, he pulled over into the Whattaburger parking lot and fished the phone out of the bottom of the bag, underneath some clothes and two unopened bottles of Cristal; a Blackberry with a black and red plaid bandanna wrapped around it. Berto hastily untangled the phone from the bandanna. The ID of the caller said only “Morty.”
“Hello?” He said, tentatively into it.
The voice on the other end – presumably Morty exclaimed, in a burst of impatient profanity; “Oh, for f—ks sake, Rich – you finally pick up the damned phone. You gotta be in LA by now. Look, I’ve been leaving messages on your voicemail for hours … no, don’t talk, just listen, things are happening too damned fast. I’m trying to put the kibosh on the paparazzi, but you know how it is … a few dozen A-listers puking on the pavement in front of Carême on opening night no less … and you running stark-naked through the streets, with a colander on your head, screaming “I’m a little teapot short and stout” as you bang two pots together! That’s made the news on three continents, Rich – what the f—k were you thinking? Never mind, that’s why I get paid the big bucks to get ahead of PR disasters. I got you booked into that fancy place in Malibu for as long as it will take for you to deal with your personal demons – but I gotta have you promise you’ll stay there and keep your yap shut until I can get ahead of this thing. Damage control – it can be fixed, you can make a come-back, just let ol’ Morty work his magic. Don’t talk to anyone. Rich – are you listening to me?”
“Hello?” Berto said again, and Morty exploded.
“Who the f—k is this?”
“No one,” Berto said, and hung up the phone. It buzzed again almost at once. Berto turned the phone off, and carefully put it back into Mr. Astor-Hall’s bag. It was almost sundown, and he had another hour and a half on the road. Uncle Tony always said that you couldn’t and shouldn’t drive distracted.
* * *
On Saturday morning, Berto Gonzales slept in, knowing that he should have the town car back to Elmendorf to Uncle Tony’s place by mid-day. He came yawning from the tiny back bedroom at his father’s place, drawn by the smell of bacon frying, coffee brewing, and the sound of the cable Univision channel on rather loudly. His grandmother, Adeliza Gonzales, had never learned English and was slightly deaf besides – but in spite of that and being relatively homebound at the age of 89, Adeliza Gonzales didn’t miss much, even though the only English-language programs she ever watched were on the Food Network. Berto’s father had bought a wide-screen television specifically to put in the kitchen so that Abuela Adeliza could watch her cooking shows in the comfort of the room that she loved the best.
“Morning, Abuela,” Berto said, and then repeated himself slightly louder. Abuela Adeliza’s attention was riveted to the television screen, where an excited announcer was yammering on about … Berto wasn’t sure. It looked shaky cameraphone footage of a naked man with something metallic on his head, running down the street in a foreign city – a brief clip, then to steadier footage of an important-looking storefront building, with a large number of ambulances parked in front, flashing lights everywhere. Abuela Adeliza shook her head in dismay.
“Poor, poor fellow!” She exclaimed. “Such a shame … he had such a fine future before him … ‘morning, Berto; did you sleep well, then?”
“Always,” Berto dropped a brief kiss on the top of Abuela Adeliza’s head. “Abuelita … may I have some migos and bacon? No one cooks migos like you do,” he added with calculation. Just as expected, Abela Adeliza rose from her rocking chair. The bacon was already cooked; a bowl of fresh-gathered eggs sat on the counter by the stove.
“Of course, Berto,” she replied, but Berto’s attention was suddenly riveted by the television, all hunger forgotten. On the screen appeared a series of pictures – some of them intended for maximum dangerous glamor – of a youngish and rather handsome man in his thirties in a series of poses, alone or with others. In most of them, his head was covered by a black and red plaid handkerchief tied do-rag fashion; his lower face adorned by carefully cultivated designer stubble; he held a knife, a cooking fork or a mixing bowl and whisk, standing in front of a truly ferocious stainless steel restaurant stove. The handkerchief seemed oddly familiar to Berto … and come to think of it, so did the young man’s features.
“Abuelita – who is he? That man – do you know him?”
“Why, of course I do, Berto – it’s Rich Hall – they call him the Bad Boy Chef. He was coming up in the world, on television cooking shows so often… I thought he looked so much like your Abuelo Jesus when he was young – so dashing and handsome, so I always watched when he was on.”
“Well, damn,” Berto exclaimed, “so he was a celebrity, after all! That’s the guy I picked up at Stinson last night. I practically don’t recognize him when he isn’t barfing or dead to the world.”
“Oh, Berto!” Abuela Adeliza dropped the fork she had been scrambling eggs with. “Are you certain? But you must call Chief Vaughn at once, and tell him! Everyone is searching for him, pobrecito! He has disappeared!”
“No, he hasn’t, Abuelita – I dropped him off at Hippie Hollow!”
Abuela Adeliza assumed her sternest expression, commanding, “Berto – you will obey! You will call the police, at once.”
“Why?” Berto was no longer eight years old, even if Abuela Adeliza still seemed to think so, sometimes. Abuela Adeliza told him. Before she was even finished, Berto had picked up the phone and dialed Joe Vaughn’s office.
* * *
“I swear to God, Jess,” Dr. Stephen Wyler examined the sludge at the bottom of his coffee mug, “if things don’t get better around here, I might as well stay home and poison myself with my own coffee.”
“No, you old poop, you have too much fun, carrying on complaining,” Jess Abernathy replied, with a notable lack of sympathy.
“I’ll thank you to keep a civil tongue in your head, young woman,” Dr. Wyler replied, and Jess grinned at him. They were actually quite good friends, despite a distance of sixty years of age between them, Jess being a qualified CPA and Dr. Wyler one of her clients. As he was materially the wealthiest among them, Jess spent a good many hours untangling and keeping his complicated finances more or less in apple-pie order. There wasn’t much Jess didn’t know about Dr. Wyler. If no man was a hero to his valet, he most certainly isn’t to his CPA. Jess regarded him very much as a kind of honorary uncle, aside from the professional considerations. And being both Luna-ites from birth, she had known him all of her life.
“We might advertise for a replacement cook,” she suggested. “The Bee-Picayune has rather reasonable rates. I’ll call and see if they have room in next weeks’ classifieds.”
“That’s how I got whats-his-name,” Dr. Wyler scowled. “And he left without notice as soon as he got a better offer from those bastards at Mills Farm … damn, is that your phone?”
“No, it’s yours,” Jess replied. She and Dr. Wyler were sitting at one of the outside tables at the Luna Café and Coffee, enjoying the relative coolness of the morning, if not the currently dismal state of the Café’s menu selections.
“Damn fool invention …” Dr. Wyler unsnapped the catches of the ageing leather medical bag that accompanied him everywhere. He fished out the insistently buzzing cellphone from its depths and regarded it with mystification.
“Finger on the circle and slide over,” Jess hinted broadly.
“I knew that … Hello? Wyler here, what’s your major malfunction?… oh, hullo, Sefton.” Jess listened to the faint squawking emanating from Dr. Wyler’s phone. At last, he broke the connection. “Sorry, my dear – duty calls. Azúcar has developed a cyst on his neck which simply defies all of Judy’s home remedies.” Azúcar was the Grant’s pet snow-white llama, who because he had been bottle-fed since shortly after birth, had grown up to be almost two hundred pounds of bossiness with regard to humans.
“I’ll come with you,” Jess hastily stuffed her notebook, and took out some change for a tip, for the long-suffering high school girls who were tending tables during the summer. At ninety-four, Dr. Wyler was as wiry and weathered as a lifetime of riding, working cattle, and tending to the medical needs of large recalcitrant animals could have made him, but still … ninety-four, against a two-hundred pound, obnoxious llama. Jess would have never forgiven herself if Dr. Wyler came to harm. “Heads driver, tails shotgun?”
Jess deftly flipped the largest coin, caught it in her palm and slapped it down on the table.
“Heads, I drive, Dr. Wyler.”
The Age of Aquarius Campground and Goat Farm was but a short distance away; it would have been little trouble for Jess to walk, but the day was already becoming warm, and mid-summers in South Texas are merciless to the elderly, no matter how hardened by a lifetime of work in it. Dr. Wyler’s late model extended-cab pickup truck with the custom design – the brand of the Lazy-W on the front doors – bumped down the unpaved ruts between the pasture where the Grants’ goat herd spent their days, and the smaller meadow scarred with regular tracks which – if you squinted and the light were somewhat dim – did somewhat resemble a campground. The only evidence of this for most of the year was the aged Airstream trailer with long-disintegrated tires parked at the top of the slope, under a fringe of trees farthest from the riverbank, as the solstice had been last month. The last of the mid-summer nudists had been gone for weeks and the campground reverted to its usual dilapidated appearance.
As Dr. Wyler’s truck came around the last bend, they both saw the single Luna City Police Department cruiser parked by the moldering Airstream, and Joe Vaughn – every crease of his crisp tan short-sleeved summer uniform as sharp as if it had just came from the cleaners not ten minutes ago – leaning against the fender, deep in conversation with Sefton and Judy. In marked contrast, the Grants were not crisp in their attire. In point of fact, neither of them were attired, although in deference to local sensibilities and the expectation of visitors, both had donned simple hand-loomed loincloths. It has long been a truism, and one deeply appreciated by Luna-ites that in just about every case, those who proudly and defiantly forswear clothing really ought not to indulge themselves this way, as a matter of aesthetics. Judy’s long hair covered the top half of her body rather efficiently, and Sefton wore battered cowboy boots.
“What’s going on, Chief?” Dr. Wyler spoke first. Joe Vaughn tilted his white felt Stetson a little farther back on his head and nodded politely to Judy. Joe was tall, hawk-faced with a direct gaze – also like a hawk – and very, very fit. A military tattoo with the motto “Death from Above” showed below the bottom of his shirt sleeve, which barely constrained the arm that it clothed. His muscles had muscles.
“Welfare check on a guest,” Joe replied. “Berto Gonzales called me up, first thing this morning, with a tale of how he brought out a fare last night from San Antonio – and he saw him on the TV this morning. Miz Adeliza told him some cock and bull about the fare being some TV celebrity chef that went ‘round the bend. Just as soon as I put the phone down, Miz Grant calls and tells me that their guest from last night is nowhere to be found. His clothes, his bag and wallet are all here …”
“And two empty bottles of Cristal,” Judy Grant put in, her pleasant round face the picture of worry. “I think he must have drunk it all… You don’t think he’s done away with himself, do you?”
“Overpriced gnat-pee,” Dr. Wyler put in, apropos of nothing in particular. “A man with real taste wouldn’t swill anything but Krug for a last drink.”
“Young Berto says his grandma told him this runaway chef is a bad boy named Rich Hall,” Joe Vaughn answered. “But this joker’s Green Card and visa say that he is Richard Astor-Hall, and that he came in through New York two days ago. The paperwork says that he is a chef, though.”
“You don’t say,” Dr. Wyler’s expression brightened … but just then, the screaming started.