About Seven Months Earlier…
“Make it extra crispy.” east-LA native Panama Jones said into the drive-through squawk box at the Pioneer Chicken on the corner of Soto Street and Whittier Boulevard. Once a prime cruising spot for low-riders and lovers in the sixties, the Boulevard remained a haven for Mexican life in present day LA. The Micky D’s there puts chorizo in their breakfast burritos and still makes their tortillas with lard. But it was the buttered cloud of a biscuit and the spicy crunch of the fried batter at Pioneer that drew Panama to the fast-food window. A complicated man of marred beauty, he ordered the family meal with three large sides, and four medium drinks. “Thirty-six-forty-nine.” the squawk box squawked. As Angie in the delivery window handed him the two large bags, he gave her forty bucks, “Quédese con el cambio” he told her. The smile on her face getting a three-plus dollar tip made him feel good. A rarity.
He drove away, heading up Soto to Chavez. He turned west, cruising through Boyle Heights to Chinatown. He eased up and around Beaudry Street to a block of small stucco bungalows that overlooked downtown LA. Sweet street with a killer view. He parked in the driveway of a dusty white house, got out and knocked on the front door.
A fifty-ish woman opened it. “What’d you get?”
“Pioneer.” he told her.
“Extra crispy?” He nodded. She looked around then let him in, watching as he almost sauntered past her. Something was different.
“What’s up with you?”
Nothing got past her so he told her, “I’m sober. Two weeks.”
“Why?” She didn’t like this; didn’t like change. It scared her. But a lot of things did.
Panama headed into the living room. Faded swag curtains and a plastic palm dominated the room where three Mexican girls: six, seven and nine played with dolls on the carpeted floor. They smiled when they saw him, grinned when they saw the food. “Mira esto–” he smiled back and opened a third bag, showing them Twinkies, M&Ms and some pretty good chicharrones, “For later.” He put the chicken on the table. They all scrambled to eat. He promised he’d take them out for ice cream after they ate.
“You have time?” the woman asked.
The man nodded, “Yeah. You want some? Pistachio? Rocky Road?”
She shook her head, “It’ll melt.”
She went to a bedroom to gather the girls’ things. Panama quickly opened a sideboard drawer, took out a single key and pocketed it.
An hour later, in the long shadows of late evening, all three girls hurried out to Panama’s car and slipped into the backseat. Without being told, they ducked down, out of sight. Panama got in and drove them down the street, back to Sunset. A few blocks up, he pulled into a strip mall parking lot. Anchoring the north end was a Baskin Robbins. A Mexican kid was working. Panama gave the oldest girl twenty dollars and sent all three girls in to get, “consigue lo que quieras.”
They ran inside to try their best to decide between strawberry, lemon, fudge swirl, chocolate chip and twenty-seven other flavors. Panama stayed in the car and made a call. It was quick.
“Hey man, look– Sorry about this but it’s gonna be a few days late, Tuesdy. is Tuesday OK? No, they’re not getting any younger but it’s just the day after tomorrow.”