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hot sauce | An LA Crime Story

Joe’s

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At ten after eight under a dusk-blue Ensenada sky, thirty-eight-year-old Rhea Porter navigated her 
ninety-three LeBaron around the potholes on the east end of Avenida Placido. She found a space 
outside Boom Boom Carneceria, parked, popped the last warm bite of a citrus glazed papaya concho 
into her mouth and chased it with a swig of thermos coffee. She got out, locked her car and 
headed toward Joe’s café, two doors down. Between Boom Boom and Joe’s, she passed six little kids 
begging for money. She looked away.

Outside Joe’s, she took a breath, opened the door and stepped inside. It wasn’t a cafe anymore.
Gone were the little tables where a child sitting alone for a moment—near the door left ajar—could
slip outside, chasing after a bluebird. Both gone forever. Now there was a makeshift stage in the center
of the lightless room. On it, eight stone-faced half-naked women swayed to Dylan’s “Mr. Jones”.
Smelling of Bal de Versailles, lemongrass and cooze, their scent was sweeter than the stagnant breaths
haloing the dozen male customers scattered around the room, watching them.

Man she wanted to leave. She needed to calm herself down; she needed to stop thinking of that blue 
bird day long ago. She forced her mind to think of a palatable alternative, a story she could use later, 
for work – she owed an LA rag 400 words on men and food. The first few came: “Eight fat whores 
looking for cash. Twelve losers looking for love. Me, I was looking for something to eat, then I saw 
him… ”

There he was, behind the bar that spanned the back wall: a small, graceful man she had once
known. He had to be in his sixties now. He looked good, despite everything. When she was a girl, he’d
taught her about the joys of rellanos fried in chili butter, the pungence of fresh hoja santa, the particular
tang of lemons grown near the sea. He’d revealed a world to her – and though 22 years later she could
smell the soul of a good tikka masala and she knew which Kimchee could best make a summer night
burn, any other joy in life eluded her.

After awhile he looked up and saw her – the lone white American in the place. It took him a
moment, then a smile accordioned his eyes. She shoved off the wall and headed toward him. She
passed a skinny jackass who thought licking his lips at her was appealing. In her mind, she turned his
dark vibe into a lie for the alternate, usable, story: “He was young and lean – with a promise in his eyes
– of warm summer skin and juicy chili-fries.”  

She reached the bar. And the bartender. Christ she was nervous. So was he. “Hello Joe.” she stuck
out her hand. He took it, studying her almost familiar face.“Rhea.” It really was her. He held on. “You
look—

” “Tired. Yeah.” She cut him off. She knew what she looked like. 

“No…” He let go of her hand.

Yes, she was different. Worn. Troubled. But no, not tired– 

She looked around at the stale incarnation of the once charming cafe. “I hate what you’ve done with
the place.”

He laughed, “There’s more money in–” his waving gesture referenced the room – the
“booze and sex”. But there was something else. Another reason he’d given up the sunny cafe. Here
there were “No kids allowed.”

They both let it go. Too hard to talk about. He kept it safe, “Get you a beer?”

She shook her head, “I have a long drive back to LA. Just came for the day.” She stumbled on, not wanting to explain but
needing to, “I saw officer Nala; he’s still working– Detective Nala now–” She could feel his sudden
hope; couldn’t stop it fast enough before he asked,

“Is there some news–?” “About Aggie? No.”

Rhea answered fast, “I thought maybe there was, but no.” 

She hated his hope. And she hated hers, hated that it had resurfaced and sent her again back to Baja,
chasing a whisper of news of her lost sister Aggie. For nothing. That was that. Neither wanted to think
anymore of the past, even though that’s all they had. Except…

“You still cook?” she asked.

That’s all he needed. He poured her a lime soda, “Give me a few minutes.”

He slipped through a curtain to a back room. Rhea drank. It was good. She could feel the skinny
jackass oozing toward her. Man she wanted to punch him but she didn’t. She didn’t cross those lines.
She angled away from him; willed more surrogate words for the story of which only the food part 
needed to be true: “I squeezed a lime into a cold Jarritos, took a swig then noticed, in the shadow at
the  end of the bar, was the dark lanky dream. Good God he was gorgeous, in a Day-Lewis way, with a
little more hunk but less soul. He was drinking a San Miguel.”

Jackass moved a stool closer. Determined to avoid him, she stayed focused and jotted a few of the
words down on a napkin (Jarritos. San Miguel. Dream. Soul) to remember. 

Eight long minutes later, Joe emerged from the back with a small, fat hunk of sizzling halibut, 
nestled on a pillow of tomatillo salsa, drizzled with thick crema, with a side of hot fried tortilla strips. 
Full of love. He set it down. She looked at Joe, panicky, “It’s not–?”

“Yellowtail? No.” he assured her, “No.”

Relieved, she looked down at it; gave it her full attention. T’was a thing of beauty. She swirled the
crema into the tomatillo; turning it a verdant, yummy green. She cut the fish with her fork and dug in. 
It was so good it made her laugh.

“Still the best in town.”

“Here or LA?”

“Both.” No more talking. She ate. He watched her. It was good to see her like this, like back when. 

She finished; full, for now. “Thank you Joe.” She started to get up.

“Don’t go yet–” He went back through the curtain, into the back room. 

The Jackass seized the moment and made his move. He came up behind her. As he put his empty
glass on the bar, he leaned into her, pressing against her, smelling of tobacco and wet cement. She
elbowed him but not too hard – you have to be careful with sleaze. He backed away. He wasn’t happy. 

Joe came back with a take-out carton of the salsa and two bags of hot greasy tortilla strips. She
pulled out a twenty. He wouldn’t take it.

“Please, Joe, please– C’mon Joe–” She leaned over the bar, leaned into his face and kissed his cheek, “It wasn’t your fault.” she whispered, “It was mine.” She set the money on the bar. She took the salsa and strips and left.

More words formed, “… I’ve had my share of olive-skinned hunks with sweet Pad Nah and nameless Joes, a’la Diabla.

As she walked toward the door, she felt the Jackass behind her. By the time she reached it, she felt
him breathe. She opened the door and stepped outside. 

“…many a mo`le has gotten me through a dark night and I trade it’s secrets for legal tender.”

The air was sharp with the edge it gets just before a Santa Ana has been freed. It got under her skin. 

Irritated her. Man she was tired of walking away; hurrying away. She stopped, turned, faced him and 
pulled open her jacket. He looked her up and down. She knew this could go either way. He backed 
away. For now. Rhea buttoned back up and headed for her car; her mind writing on: “Ensenada Joe
had stopped doing dinner years ago but tonight he cooked after hours for me. This is what I
remember–”

She passed the young beggars, this time she looked at them: two were sisters, holding hands. She
fished in her pockets and thrust whatever money she had left into their hands. “Go home! Vete a casa!”
she snapped. The younger girl grabbed hold of the money. “Vete a casa” Rhea said again, “Ahora. Por
favor.” She gave them a bag of strips too. She walked to her car. She got in and watched them until they
walked away, hopefully to home.

She looked back at Joe’s and saw the Jackass step outside. He had two friends with him. “Here we
go–” she thought. She started her car. They spotted her. She whipped a U and headed up the street, out
of town.

As Rhea hit the outskirts, there were three roads, leading out. One was highway 3, the main paved
road heading north to Tijuana and the US border. There would probably be someone on that road she
could flag down for help, if needed. The second was a dirt road leading to a cluster of squat faded
houses. The third was a cracked blacktop heading northeast, into the open desert.

“…Lanky Dream followed me into the warm night; an easy lust tugging the edge of his smile–”

Rhea checked her rearview; a car was approaching. The three guys were in it. Fuck it. She chose
option three and headed into the desert. They followed.

“–I invited him in.”

The road got bumpy: potholes and scrub growing through the cracks and hares hopping across the 
pavement slowed her down. A coyote howled.

“– cacique cream oozed from halibut skin, blistered with butter, cooled with lime…”

The trio gained on her. Her adrenaline soared but she kept her speed steady. Her headlights revealed
a turnout a few hundred yards ahead.

“–the tomatillo teased my mouth with a sweet tang as the dream licked it’s drops off my skin–”

She sped up and as she almost passed it, she swerved into it and spun-out, so that she faced them
when they skidded to a halt, inches from her LeBaron. One had a gun drawn, the other a knife. She was
pretty sure the skinny asshole driving had zip ties.

 “The warm flake of white meat in my mouth is where I began–”

She snatched her gun from the console and shot all three, one in the hand, one in the shoulder, one
in the eye. After the screaming, they got the hell out of there.

 “…the shared love of good food is where it ends.”

She took a minute to finish her coffee and jot down a few more words. 

“It’s everything. Joe’s cafe. Avenida Placido. Get the fish.”

Rhea started the LeBaron, feeling good. Maybe even feeling a little free. As she pulled away she
heard a little “crunch”. Damn. She got out and checked the back of the car. When she’d spun out, she’d
cracked taillight into a rock, breaking the red plastic. She’d just rolled over the bit that had fallen to the 
ground. It wasn’t too bad; an easy superglue fix once she got home. The taillight, now white, shone on 
the rock she’d hit. It was a small boulder. She’d hit it enough to move it a smidgen. Sticking out from 
under it was a slip of paper. Curious, she wedged it out. It was an old, faded receipt from a surf shop in 
Redondo Beach. She turned the receipt over.

On the back was a handwritten note, also faded, “Dear Rhea Porter, I am here. Aggie.”

Hot Sauce

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The Omelette Man was Manny Valdez, an East LA native who put hot sauce on everything: eggs, donuts, french fries, ice cream – He kept little packets of the stuff in his car and his desk drawer. It’s what he first noticed about Rhea – her triple use of Tabasco, Verde and Cholula. The second thing was the way she alluded to food with sex. Valdez published a little local throwaway rag, “The Hollywood Pulse.” It was one of those freebies stacked at the grocery stores that featured blurbs on local events, local politics and food – covering stuff like the chorizo at Yucca Meats, traffic on Franklin and the craft fair at Cheramoya Elementary. His aging food reviewer was growing partial to “senior specials” which was a valid market but Valdez wanted to “tart up” the Pulse – make it more hip – to try and get in some new advertisers and more classifieds. He needed a new reviewer and he needed an angle. This Rhea chick could be it. It also looked like she was a low-rent eater. That was definitely a must.

“A cheap food writer.” He specified.

“Cheap food or cheap writer?” Rhea asked him, already let down before she even got the job.

“Both.” Valdez answered.

“How cheap?”

“Twenty five cents a word, five to seven hundred words plus thirty bucks a week for food. No single item or entree over five bucks.”

“Five bucks? Rhea challenged him, “You’re talking a short stack, or a half-side of Mee Grob or a family sized payday and a Yoo Hoo at 7-11.”

“Exactly.” Manny assured her. “And… I’m looking for an angle. I liked that sexy thing you said about the guy and the tomatillo sauce.”

“I didn’t say anything.” Rhea pulled back.

“I heard things.”

“What do you think you heard?”

“A date. A tamale. An encounter…”

Rhea’s arm shot out fast as she reached over and yanked open the right side of his jacket, “You Vice?”

“What?” he asked.

“I haven’t seen you before. Are. You. Vice?”

“No…” Valdez smiled. This was getting interesting, “A little paranoid?” he commented.

“With cause.” She acknowledged.

They were quiet for a minute. Manny spoke first, “So… are you interested?

Rhea wanted the job. It could work out to a seven hundred a month plus the 120 for food. It wasn’t much but it was something. Still, “I’m not sure I’ll be any good.” She worried.

“Me either.” Manny shrugged. “Let’s give it a try.”

“Two things…” Rhea hesitated, “There’s some food I just don’t like–”

“Oh crap–” Valdez thought hoping she wasn’t some bagel-scooping, anti-sugar, fake-allergy claiming nut. “Like what–?”

“Cantaloupe, turkey bacon, soy, kale, veal – on principal – and duck, except Peking.” She told him.

Valdez nodded, that wasn’t too bad. He hated turkey bacon too. “And the second thing?”

“You can’t tell me what to eat.”

“Let’s give it a shot.” Valdez agreed and stuck out his hand.

Rhea shook it.

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