RTA 17: The Lion’s Rental Den

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The models and monstrosities of Island Finster, furthest and most forgotten digit of the THUMS, greet us: brick walls painted to look like hotel fronts, plywood trees with their sawdust fruit, the looming hammer of a false oil piston, frozen forever in its disuse. Oddly, some of the palm trees are real, if bursting out of their cracked tubs; I’d forgotten about this.

I need to calm down, my heart is racing.

One palm is all the way on its side, dispirited. Perhaps it was cheaper to just let what’s natural grow, even on an artificial island designed to disguise its purpose. Burt Finster, my genius grandfather, couldn’t foresee all things. On the other hand, another idea had been forming in my brain: just how rich had Grandfather been? Was there more left than I thought? What do high-level engineers make? Not just salary, right?

A flash of playing the high stakes, just a horny glimpse of the good life appears in my mind. Limousines, girls. Does anyone really toss money in the air? Funny I never felt guilty about thoughts like this while I was high.

Grandma has all the answers I need, yet now she’s somehow Katherine Hepburn in puffy pink and has nothing but contempt for me. I should have hidden my funny bear habit better. I should have explained the money situation to her. I owe her so much, but is this what I deserve? To be tuned up and turned over to Soh Juh and Mwin?

I don’t think I handle physical pain very well. I also don’t like blood much.

So many worries now. My chest really is pounding. I’ve been wearing my denim jacket (it has a lot of pockets) all day like an asshole and I realize I’ve been burning up. I tear it off me.

I’m not liking my new, enforced sobriety.

The Island is thrown into a dramatic mood by the spotlights on the ground, or at least by those that remained. It strikes me that nothing is being cared for. It was better, back then. Now, things are broken and the fake hotel fronts, when seen up close, are just, well, embarrassing, as if the whole things is some children’s game or a circus. But, for a second, I’m ten years old again, shooting b-roll with my father. Soon I’ll be back on the boat, explaining the oil Islands of Los Angeles. The future was bright.

At the moment, I might be having a heart attack; I go through the jacket for another funny bear. It’s a short high, and withdrawal is merciful, other than headaches and cardio stuff. Xylophones, Mwin called them, back when we were on better terms – I wonder if he still has a supply. Of course, I don’t have any more because Beef Curtain Burke, my now ex-friend from the Endboss, took them all, at the direction of my treacherous grandmother.

Grandma is back in her wheelchair, being pushed by one of Burke’s ferry workers. She’s still smoking a new white long cigarette.

Maybe I should have foreseen this betrayal, what is this, my Alamo? This Benedict Arnold? I should have studied in school.

Still, my mind is clearing if fearful. My balls and what is probably my kidneys still ache from Burke’s knee.

“Grandma! Who are we meeting? Is it Mwin and Soh Juh? I left the, uh, stuff, in the car, you know. Maybe we should go back?”

I need answers but don’t know if I should refer to the money out loud. It doesn’t matter, she waves me off like smoke from her cigarette. Burke walks closer to me, fiddling with his phone.

“Burke, what is going on?” I don’t want to talk to my tormentor, but I don’t know what else to do.

Burke’s usual Bad Cop expression is surprisingly apologetic. He’s a great tub of muscle and lard, one of those ex-athletes who guide all conversations toward their incredible peak years. Yet now he says nothing. Then, he points the lens on his phone at me. I turn away. Is Grandma blackmailing me now? We’re about to stop at the main building – well, the only building. I know this place, too, not with Grandpa Burt, but my dad. Until today, I hadn’t thought about him in months, years.

Yes, I’ve been on this patch of asphalt and dirt, and yes, Astroturf, they once called it. “Chemgrass” Grandpa had insisted. Now, did he invent that, too? I look at Grandma but she won’t even notice me. Whatever the hell it is called, it’s everywhere on the island but worn out, thin and smooth. Almost everything is man-made here. That is, except the sky above us, which only a few miles from the battery generator of L.A., shows us stars again.

Beyond the building, machines and discarded materials are strewn over the surface of the artificial island. The real oil pumps, long since cannibalized for the other islands’ work, have only the poles and struts left. Around them and lining the edge of the yard, bags of unknown garbage and impossible loose ends. And then you realize, it’s not the just the boat and the men, you can smell stale, ruddy, sick sweetliness of old California crude.

Burke takes over the wheel of Grandma’s chair and turns her to us.

“It goes without saying,” she announces, “that everything in here, you did not see. No more vlogging!”

“Sorry!” Burke responds and puts away his phone in a hurry. Jesus Christ, he was getting b-roll of me? These mother fuckers.

“You know, the money is in the car,” I tell grandma, no longer caring who hears what. “Can we go back?”

“Shut up, Ian.”

She motions at the workers and the door. Burke puts in a code on the door – that number pad looks new.

The workers are staying outside, but lumbersome Burke pushes Grandma through the now open door.

I know I’m supposed to go in, but it’s all come back to me. Gramps, my dad, the smells and the fuels and oils. The friends coming over, the disappointment when he was let go. I brace for the dust and damp and stink of an old machine shop.

I push in, and instead of worn-out industry, I am greeted by cool air conditioning, the hum of fans and electricity and long rows of fluorescent lights. Modern desks create rows of computer workstations, and beyond, racks and racks of servers and electronic components stretch to the end of the warehouse. There are no walls or window, just giant LED screens, like some sort of secret Las Vegas sportsbook. I see games and numbers, and yes, even sports. Instead of oil and grease the room smells of plastic and new car.

I don’t get it. I follow Burke and Grandma down a ramp onto the floor. Young men turn their heads and stare at us.

“Forgive me, Mrs. Finster,” an Asian man in square if scholarly glasses is leaning over grandma, “but this carpet has such odor still!”

Surely it is Soh Juh, whose money I stole? Yet it’s not Soh Juh. I scan the room desperately for him or his violent minion Mwin. No Koreans here, just young Chinese and American men in polite pale dress shirts. Work, it seems, is happening here on Island Finster again.

I hear a click – it’s the door behind me. I think, strangely, like the images of money and cars that struck me moments ago, that maybe, maybe just a second ago had been my final, really final, last chance moment to run.

That I shouldn’t have really been worrying about Mwin and his boss.

Without straightening up, while holding Grandma’s hand in the most gentle and old-fashioned way, the bespectacled man’s eyes look up and lock upon me. He is wearing a suit that would make Cary Grant proud.

“Mr. Finster!” The loud and eponymous name gets the room’s attention. Grandma turns, too. I hear beeps and whirrs and clicks, and even the hum of the electronics as all conversations cease. Burke takes out his phone again, and grandma slaps his hand. I notice a number of the young men look more muscled and far more limber than necessary.

My feet move forward, resentfully.

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