Thursday, September 4, 2008

Gino’s Law: For Every Action, There's An Overreaction

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A novel excerpt by Candace Williams

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Gino Gibaldi hated Sundays. Most evenings, Paradise Parkway was a quiet street. Most evenings, it was peaceful out here in the garden, the outer limit of his comfort zone. His prized bougainvillea vines graced the latticed walls. He was surrounded by lush tropical plants. Ferns cascaded from hanging baskets. Most evenings, he heard nothing but an occasional cricket, or the breeze tickling the cottonwood leaves overhead. He could stand here quietly, wine cooler in one hand, garden hose in the other, reverently watering and communing with the green living things of God's creation. But this was not most evenings. This was Sunday. Dammit.

The problem was that his neighbors seemed to think the Creator of Heaven and Earth was tone deaf. The godawful music emanating from the house on the left competed with the Hairy Freaknas' tambourines and chants down on the corner. Somewhere, Gino was sure, the Bible said, "Make a joyful noise unto the Lord," but this was caterwauling. He had pointed this out several times to "Bishop" John Willie Pitts, whose flock of Funda-Mentals lived in the houses on both sides, and to Baba-Rama Whatsizkarma, who operated the Temple-Restaurant-Gift Shop three houses down.

Gino loved to watch Bishop Pitts flinch every time he referred to it as "godawful music." The bishop opined that Gospel music was pleasing unto the Lord-ah. Gino wanted to know if there was a linguistics exercise at the Fundamentalist School for changing one-syllable words to two. He did not get an answer.

As for the constant chanting? Well, Baba explained that repetitive chants of the names of the Lord (one syllable) brought blessings to the community. Gino's observation that Baba must have meant "loot," not "blessings," produced Baba's pious, pursed-lip pronouncement, "We would rather talk to you when you are sober." Gino raised his wine cooler to the memory and took another sip.

"Gino! My man!"

Shit. Not the lawyer. Lord, what have I done to displease Thee?

Sam "Snake Wrangler" Simms, owner of a house up the street, extended his hand.

"Sam. As I've pointed out before, returning your handshake would require that I either lay aside the garden hose, or worse, put my drink down."

"Haw! Good one, Gino."

Why does he assume that's a joke?

"You sure take good care of them plants, watering ever night and all." Sam pushed his cowboy hat back with his thumb and hitched his Levi's up. On TV, eyes aglow with greed, he'd hook his thumbs in his belt, hands framing the enormous rattlesnake-head belt buckle, and scream into the camera, "I'm Sam Simms, champ-een snake wrangler three years in a row! If I can wrangle rattlesnakes, I can wrangle any insurance company that's trying to wriggle out of paying you ever single dollar you deserve for your injury!"

Gino threw his head back and roared with laughter just thinking about it. His ex-wife had said it was a trademark, that laugh, because it was full-bellied and full-throated. Tonight it drowned out the godawful music and the chanting.

"Uh, what's so funny, Gino?"

"Our justice system."

"What?"

"Never mind." Gino laughed again when he saw the familiar wary expression on Sam's face, the one that said, "I'd rather talk to you when you're sane."

Sam pushed his hat back even further. "Well, uh, I come over here to make you a deal you can't refuse."

This oughta be good. "Really. Do tell."

"How'd you like to sell this little piss-ant rent-house of yours for so much money you could retire?"

"Well, Sam, I'm rather attached to my little piss-ant rent-house, so it's not for sale."

"Wait, now, hear me out." Sam framed his belt buckle with his hands like he did in the TV ads. The same greedy glow was in his eyes. "I've got a bud on the Zoning Commission, and if you and me work it right, we can get this whole block zoned Commercial Business. There's a metric butt-load of money in it—so much that only a fool would hang onto this." He waved dismissively at the hundred-year-old two-story Prairie-style house where Gino lived in an upstairs apartment, renting out the other three. "You could build yourself a goddamn mansion down in Mexico with what you'd make off this! You always said you wanted to retire down there."

"Only a fool, eh?"

"What? Oh, right, right. This little, what they call it, 'transitional neighborhood' just ain't transisting at all. Am I right, or Amaretto?"

Gino rolled his eyes while Sam pointed to the gang graffiti on the garbage cans.

"Gino, my man, you need to get out more. The Parkway's going to hell on roller skates. We can capitalize on it now if we get it rezoned. And there's no problem with the City seeing it our way. I've got the architect working on it right now. This whole block could be an office tower complex." Sam spread his arms wide, hands framing an imaginary sign. "Paradise Plaza, just minutes from the downtown business district."

"Are you aware that your eyes are glowing?" Gino turned off the tap, rewound the hose in its holder by the garage, and refilled his glass from the pitcher he kept on the potting bench.

Sam's gaze grew more wary. "So ... what do you think, my man?"

"I think it's going to be another long, hot Texas summer."

"I mean about Paradise Plaza! Listen, you could invest in it, too, if you wanted. Make you even more money. What do you think?"

Gino adopted a puzzled pose, one hand on hip, head looking down at his white sneakers. They were part of his trademark ensemble, as his ex had called it, with the white shorts and white short-sleeved Oxford shirt. Then he let revelation spread over his face. "Sam," he reported, "I believe I'm underwhelmed." He nodded and turned to face Sam directly. "Yes, that's it. Positively, singularly and utterly underwhelmed."

He tipped his glass to the lawyer in dismissal and began the climb up the back staircase to his apartment. Great. First the Bible-thumpers, then the tambourine-whackers, and now the movers and shakers. Pain shot up his bad knee. Shit! Forgot about that loose step! He had meant to fix it that morning before somebody broke their damned neck. The loose board had propelled his right leg forward, catching and twisting it between the steps. He managed to grab the handrail with his left hand, preventing a backward fall. Balance regained, he eased his leg out of the narrow space, knee protesting every inch of the way. He still clutched the wine cooler, thank God for that, but it had sloshed over his hand. He put the drink down with care and pulled the sweaty bandana from his back pocket. After wiping his hand dry, he tied the cloth around the handrail.

Painfully, he reached the top of the stairs and knocked on Brandye's back door, next to his own.

When she opened the door she put the back of her wrist to forehead and said, "Oh no, it's the mean old landlord!"

Gino laughed. "How's my no-good tenant?"

She brought her arm down, revealing a dimpled smile. "Great. What's going on?"

"We've got another loose step."

"You're kidding!"

"This can't be coincidence."

"No." She thought for a moment. "This is, like, the third time, isn't it?"

Gino nodded. "The stairs aren't that old. I built them four years ago. Nails don't just pop out of good wood like that."

"This is getting weird."

"Somebody thinks they're being cute. Prob'ly one of the nutcases from next door."

She came out onto the landing they shared. "Why would they do that?"

Gino shrugged. "Probably because I don't subscribe to their religion, who knows? If you need to use the back steps, avoid that one where the bandana is on the handrail," he said, pointing.

"Yeah, I will. Thanks."

"I'm only telling you this so you won't sue my ass."

Brandye grinned. "And I'd take you for every dime you've got, mister."

"I'll get that fixed in the morning. See you later."

His own door opened to the small pantry instead of the kitchen, for now, until he finished the remodeling he started four years ago. He shrugged. Why rush into anything? He pulled the chain to the attic's access in the pantry ceiling, and while the stairs unfolded on their descent, he started filling a watering can at the kitchen sink.

He popped some Tylenol for his knee while the can filled and turned his attention back to the conversation with the lawyer. Damn con artist. He suspected that Sam, an educated man, talked like some hayseed from Bugfuck, Arkansas, on purpose, just to take advantage of what he'd heard Sam call "the good, simple folk of The Great State of Texas."

It seemed he was surrounded by hucksters. Bishop Pitts had a different trick—thumping the Bible, literally. "And it says right here (thump) in the Good Book (thump thump) that a love offering to the Lord-ah will increase unto you ten-fold-ah (thump)!" Then there were the pan-handling followers of Baba-Whatsa down the street raking in tax-free money.

Knee still hurting, he took the watering can up the attic steps to tend to the marijuana plants. There were four of them, too many for personal use, really, but they were vintage, started from seeds 'way back when. Not like the shit on the street these days that could knock you on your ass for a whole weekend. He just wanted to be mellow, not comatose. They looked good. The lights and timer were working just fine. Maybe he'd put in a skylight sometime. The exhaust fan was humming, carrying the skunk-weed odor up and out.

He'd have preferred to keep the plants outside in the garden, but it was safer this way, especially since the Fundies moved into the neighborhood. At first, he'd figured the new neighbors would at least be good for comic relief. Then they had started that caterwauling on Sundays. And now one of their nutcases might be messing with his back staircase.

He tried to favor his knee on the way back down the steps, but it still hurt like hell. Now, he thought, on top of everything else disturbing his comfort zone, Sam and some greedy bastard on the Zoning Commission could be a problem, too. It wouldn't bother them a bit to bulldoze the grand old Parkway homes just to make a buck. Could be like the song says, they want to pave Paradise to put up a parking lot, with an office building to go with it.

Like hell. He snatched the phone and dialed.

"Howard Reid's office, may I help you?" came the sultry voice.

"It's Gino, Arthur. Is Howard available?"

Arthur sighed. "Are you serious? Weekends are crazed around here."

Gino heard another phone line ring.

"Hold on," said Arthur.

Gino listened to about ten seconds of Holtz's Jupiter before Arthur returned. "I'll have to take a message. God knows when he can get back to you."

A click. "I've got it, Arthur," said Howard.

Arthur gave an exasperated sigh. "I should never have let them install Caller ID in your office. You've got a client waiting, and you're behind schedule."

"Tell her I'll be right with her. What is it, Gino?"

"We may have a problem."

"Oh?"

Gino filled him in on Sam Simms's plans, then said, "Howard, I'm not going to have my home destroyed."

"Oh, I doubt it'll come to that."

"That damned lawyer is threatening my home, and yours, too. I think we should take him very seriously." Gino was white-knuckling the receiver. It wasn't just his house that was threatened, it was his comfort zone, the one place where he felt safe. He could already feel the pounding in his ears.

Trying to keep his voice steady, he continued. "He's going to entice every Parkway homeowner with promises of wealth so they'll let him tear all this down. He's got connections down at City Hall. He could win."

Breathe. Just breathe.

Howard didn't sound at all concerned. "I think most people can see through that little fart. I really wouldn't worry too much, at least not yet."

Shit. He'd told Howard about his agoraphobia years ago, but Gino didn't want to tell him how upset he was about Simms's plan. It was embarrassing enough already. Imagine, a grown man afraid to cross his own property line!

"Okay," he said, "but Howard?"

"Yes?"

"Do you know a good lawyer?"

"I have a few clients who are attorneys."

"I may want to get one on retainer, just in case. In fact, why don't we hire one together?"

"Well, if it comes to that."

"It'll come to that. Sam's a lawyer on the scent of a money trail, so we should be thinking about getting our own damned lawyer."

"Okay," Howard said.

Gino could almost hear the shrug in Howard's voice. When he put the phone down, he didn't breathe any easier. Howard had said some of his "clients" were attorneys.

What kind of lawyer would go to an astrologer?

3 comments:

Sarah said...

This excerpt was excellent, I thought Gino was a central character you could empathise with; he comes across as witty, urbane - the type of person you could spend a long evening chatting to. I wanted to read more before I was done. If you print this anywhere, be it book, magazine, pdf, I really want to know.

Candace said...

Thanks, Sarah! This is a mystery I've been writing for some time. I'm STUCK about halfway between the midpoint and the end of Act II. :(

Candace said...

P.S. Sarah, you said you'd like to know about the future of this story - how do I contact you? There's no link with your name.