THE PTOMAINE KID
A Hamburger Western
The business venture that fell through in San Diego marked yet another effort on Hoby’s part to raise the necessary capital to finance his own hamburger parlor. He had picked the location in downtown Indio; years of working as a cook in hamburger joints all over the Coachella Valley had endowed him with legendary skills. All he needed to realize his dream—a modest shop with a half-dozen tables, a counter with six or eight stools, quality service, fabulous burgers—was $25,000 down on the property plus a little more for the grill, a refrigerator, a dishwasher, say, $20,000 additional. But nobody was willing to take a risk—not the bank, not the savings and loan, not the jerk in San Diego who turned him down because the deal was too small.
The problem was collateral, or lack of it. With no tangible assets other than a creaky old Buick Skylark and a few securities totaling less than $20,000, Hoby didn’t stand a chance of getting the loan he wanted. He was forty-one years old, divorced, with no children. He had deliberately avoided owning anything of real value during his life, preferring mobility and independence from financial entanglements. For fifteen years his father had called him a fool to his face, and now, when Hoby needed the money, he couldn’t squeeze a nickel out of the old man. Randolph Tibbs had more than enough, but his principles would not permit him to loan anything to anyone who had so persistently and defiantly flaunted the rules of the American money-grubbing game. For twenty years, ever since he graduated from San Diego State University, Hoby had lived the life of an itinerant laborer—waiting tables, tending bar, picking grapes, frying hamburgers, caddying for rich golfers. Now that he finally wanted to open a business of his own, he would have to suffer. Randolph Tibbs was a great believer in dues paying as a prelude to financial solvency.
The wheel stayed on all the way to Indio. As the car chugged down the narrow lane into the date orchard, Hoby relaxed his grip. The clapboard duplex with the shake-shingle roof was located at the back of the orchard, screened off from busy Miles Avenue by a dense row of tamarisk pines. Elevated on concrete blocks to permit the air to circulate, the flaky green walls of the duplex merged with the darker green of the pines so that from the entrance on Oasis Street it was difficult to distinguish the two.
The orchard, located a few blocks from downtown Indio, was one of the few left inside the city limits. The others had been leveled to make room for developments, especially to accommodate the expanding Mexican American population. The orchard was owned by a wealthy forty-year-old widow named Amanda Rodriguez. In addition to owning property in the Coachella Valley, she was an internationally known vocalist. She had appeared in operas in San Diego, Caracas, and Guadalajara, although she was best known for her renditions of Latin American folksongs. A woman of beauty and power, she was a celebrated personality in the Mexican end of the valley.
Inside his half of the duplex, Hoby unraveled his shirt and propped the creature up on the bureau in his bedroom. During the journey down the mountain, the creature hadn’t stirred or blinked or uttered a sound. Hoby pressed his thumb against its chest. A subtle vibration coursed along his wrist and jangled against his shoulder joint. Under the vibration, at the point of his finger, he could detect the steady thunk of a heartbeat.
After opening a beer and dumping a can of soup into a pot, Hoby telephoned his father. The old man sounded drunk but cordial. He agreed to see Hoby the next afternoon at 2:00, before Hoby had to report for work at the WhammyBurger franchise in Palm Desert. Hoby devoured the soup and drank another beer. Then he took some lettuce from the fridge and held it up to the creature’s face. The creature didn’t stir.
Tulio knocked on the door and shouted Hoby’s name. Hoby didn’t want Tulio to see the creature, so he tucked it inside his bedroom closet and stepped outside. On the grassy plot surrounding the duplex, they sat down on a pair of flimsy lawn chairs.
“How did it go, man?”
“Not so good.”
Tulio, his wife, and daughter lived in the other half of the unit. Tulio tended the orchard, nurturing the date crop that sprouted in grape-like clusters under the wiry palm fronds. For this he earned a paltry wage and no medical benefits.
“No money forthcoming, eh?”
“Not from that source.”
Tulio clasped his long dark fingers together. “What you gonna do, man?”
“I’m gonna speak to my father tomorrow. If that doesn’t work . . . I don’t know.”
“We got a problem here too, man.”
“The widow. She thinking about selling this place to a developer from San Bernardino.”
A ball of ice formed in Hoby’s throat.
“It’s true. I heard it last night in Patencio’s. Where we go live then, man, if she squeezes us out?”
“I don’t know. Rent in this valley is outrageous.”
“I can always go in with Fiona’s parents in Coachella. But shit, I don’t care to do that. This orchard is my home, man. It has been for four years, ever since we got married. I don’t ever want to move from this place.”
Hoby settled his chin in his hands. Under the canopy of date palms, the light from the fading sun lit up the tight crosshatch pattern of the squat, thick trunks. Grapefruit and lemon shrubs grew in the irrigation troughs between the fig trees. Aligned in straight rows spaced fifteen feet apart, with citrus bushes filling the gaps between, the orchard formed a self-contained unit, an oasis of order and repose.
“You like to smoke a joint, man?”
“Nah. I’m too depressed, Tulio.”
“Me too. What will I do if I can’t harvest the dates, man?”
“You can go someplace else and harvest them.”
“But this place, even though it isn’t mine, it feels like it. I know every one of these trees. I love to climb them and look around. I belong in these trees, man. They make me feel good. I push my head up through the leaves and look out on the whole world. I know what they are feeling. When they ripen, I ripen.”
Hoby was bushed. He said goodnight and went inside. He tried to read, but the words made no sense. He watched television for a few minutes, then switched it off. He drew the creature out of the bedroom closet and held it to the light from the bedside lamp. The body was covered with a dark, downy pelt that felt more like fur than feathers. There were no wings. The feet were shaped like a pigeon’s—three talons in front and one in back.
Hoby held the creature up to his nose. A strong, gamy smell tickled his nostrils. He turned it on its side and searched the underneath parts for a hint of its sexual identity. The humming sensation from its body flowed up and down his arms. Despite fairly detailed probing, he couldn’t find any sign of genitalia.
“I think I’ll call you Otis,” he said, placing the creature on the window sill so it could gaze through a gap in the tamarisk pines at the Little San Bernardino Mountains north of Indio.
“Goodnight, Otis,” he called a few minutes later as he slipped under the covers. The yellow eyes were clearly visible in the darkness of the shabby room, but Hoby was not discomforted by them.
He might have been puzzled, however, had he peeked under the blanket and seen how his fingers glowed in the dark, as if they had been dipped in a solution of liquid gold.