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tamale | 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.”

After Hours

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About Seven Months Earlier

At one in the morning it’s about as dark as it gets in LA. As Rhea was cruised down Hollywood Boulevard, she slowed her LeBaron as she passed the 24-hour Tommy’s Burgers on the corner of Hollywood and Bronson. A few young men were hanging out in the parking lot. They watched her as she turned up a side street, her car disappearing from view.

On the residential block, Rhea cruised slowly, looking for a rare parking place. Spotting one outside a faded ‘70’s apartment building, she inched into it. She turned off her car and waited.

Ten minutes later, one of the guys from Tommy’s walked up the street, looking around. He looked about twenty, wearing a T-shirt and jeans. He spotted Rhea’s car and approached. He tapped lightly on the passenger side window. She leaned over and rolled it down a crack.

“You got something?” he asked.

“Yeah.” she nodded. She tried not to smile too much; he was beautiful.
She waited while he pulled his vax card out of a back pocket and put it against the window. She checked it then flashed her card at him, a common formality these days. He nodded, “Cool.”

She unlocked the passenger door. He looked around, opened it and got in.
She looked him over. She could clearly see the black motorcycle logo on his dark gray T-Shirt.

“It’s too light here.” She realized.

“Yeah.” He agreed, thinking, “The alley behind the IHOP is kinda dark–”

She shook her head, “They closed it off. Construction.”

“The streets around Echo Park?” he suggested.

“There’s zero parking there.” She reminded him.

“How about your place…” He asked, casually; he’d heard from a co-worker she lived nearby.

“No.” she told him. That wasn’t going to happen. She’d made that mistake before. She started the car, “Let’s keep looking.” She maneuvered out of the spot and onto the street. She turned left on the Boulevard.

They rode for a while in silence as she drove east, into Hollywood. Both were thinking of dark places to park. They looked past straggly hipsters leaving clubs without a score; past late-shift workers waiting for a bus; past the homeless sleeping on the sidewalks. They peered up side streets and between buildings. A dog wrestled with an empty Cheetos bag. Two bus boys took a smoking break outside a Thai restaurant.

“Hey…” he said after a minute, “You know the reservoir?”

“Silverlake?” she asked.

“No.” He shook his head, “The Hollywood one.”

She thought for a second then smiled at him, “Yeah…”

She took Franklin west to Cahuenga then cruised up into the Hollywood Hills. She took a few side streets, easing up a twisty road past million-dollar houses crammed against each other like gilded sardines. The road dead-ended in a little dirt parking lot outside the chained gate of the Hollywood reservoir.

Rhea parked up against a dusty chaparral bush. It was quiet. The city lights spread out below like a blanket of stars. The sky above had none. She looked around. And though it wasn’t dark-dark – it never was in LA – they were alone. She reached onto the back seat and grabbed a small paper bag. She opened it and looked inside.

“What did you get?” he asked.

“Two chili cheese, a carne asada and a chicken.” She handed him the bag, “You pick.”

He pulled out a paper-wrapped tamale, the parchment was shiny with grease. He unwrapped it. As he broke open the pliant masa and revealed an ooze of cheese, Rhea leaned over and looked, eager for a taste. He snatched it away, teasing.

“Lean back.” He told her.

She did, watching as he slid a finger down the inside of the paper, gathering the red ancho-tinged oil. He turned to her and wiped it across her lips. She licked them.

“Good?” he asked.

She laughed, “Definitely.”

He unbuckled his seat belt. He broke a big piece off the end of the tamale then leaned over her. She opened her mouth; he eased it inside. It was good – thick and warm and flecked with smoky heat. But it was a little dry.

“It needs some sauce–” she told him, trying to swallow.

He took a Styrofoam cup out of the bag. He pried off the lid, the cup was full of a dense red chili sauce. He plunged two fingers deep into it, scooping some up. He put his fingers in her mouth. She sucked the sauce off and swallowed it.

“Better?” he asked. She nodded. Then he kissed her, tasting the sauce still on her lips. “That is good.”

“Lupita’s.” she told him, kissing him back, “On Chavez.”

“Oh yeah, I know that place, they have those fried jalapeno brownies.” He added as he broke off another hunk of tamale.

“You’re thinking of Estrella’s” She corrected him, watching him dip the hunk into the thick liquid. She opened her mouth, ready for it.

“Estrella’s is on York.” He corrected her back as he dipped again, coating the tamale.

“No that’s on Yucca. And they do Serrano brownies– Hey!” She freaked as he popped the piece in his own mouth.

“Oh wow…” The full taste of it hit him. He dipped another bit of the tamale, forgetting about her. She snatched it from him and ate it, letting some sauce dribble down her chin, down her neck. He remembered why he was there. He leaned in and began to nibble it off her skin, those soft young lips of his following a little drizzle that slid down toward her breast. He pushed her skirt up with his left hand and reached back with his right, dipping the tamale end, letting the sauce drip on her thighs. She leaned back as he kissed that sauce off too. She closed her eyes and slipped into a groove, her slow rocking moves inviting his kiss. Suddenly, she jerked up, whacking his head into the steering wheel.

“Ouch!” He yelped.

“Sorry. Some sauce just went down my–” She squirmed a little; adjusting her behind. “It’s OK now.”

He rubbed his head, a little annoyed. He shook it off and nestled his face back between her thighs. She held his head and closed her eyes, trying to lose herself; trying to fill the night. Fill time. Fill the void.

She tried hard. Too hard. She just couldn’t get there. She forced her mind to go to her happy place, to a December night when she was sixteen, sitting on her boyfriend’s lap in the front seat of his truck, sharing a bag of cinnamon sugar dusted sweet potato fries, so hungry for each other.

“Wait–!” she jerked away again, flush with an idea.

“What now?”

“Sit here. Under me.” She told him, “In the driver’s seat.”

“Why?”

“Just do it.” She added a “Please.” as she lifted herself up.

He slipped underneath her, holding her ass as he eased her down onto his lap. He slid a hand under her skirt and fed her another bite. She swallowed and grooved and tried. Man oh man she tried.

“You gotta relax.” he told her.

“Just do your job.” She snapped, losing her groove.

“I’m trying to. Relax.” He said like a mantra, “Relax…”

She breathed deep. She leaned back, leaned into it. Deeper. Deeper, then–

THWUMP! the whole car shook with a sudden impact, freaking them out.

“Jesus!” It was a coyote who’d jumped onto the hood of the car, using it as a booster to then jump over the reservoir fence and saunter away.

“This isn’t working.” Rhea concluded.

“No kidding.” he agreed. Rhea lifted herself up. He moved back to the passenger seat and zipped up.

“I can drop you off on Vine.” Rhea offered.

“That’s OK. I’ll Uber.” he said as he opened the car door. He turned back to her and held out his hand.

“What?” she asked, knowing what he wanted.

“It’s forty.”

“I don’t think so.”

He kept his hand out. She found twenty bucks in a pocket and offered it to him. “Here. Totally not worth it but–”

As he took the money, he reached over and grabbed the bag of tamales.

“Those are mine—!” she tried to grab them back but he held on. The bag tore, three tamales spilled out. They both scrambled for them. Rhea got one. He got two. And the cup of sauce.

She grabbed his hand, “At least give me the sauce.”

“No way.”

“Wait–!” she pleaded. Man she wanted that sauce. “I got the carne asada one. That sauce goes best with the carne–”

He shut the door and walked away. She started the car. As she drove out of there, she rolled down her window wanting to say something to him, wanting one more try to get that sauce. She rounded a corner, sure he’d be there but just like that coyote, he was already gone.

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