Route 66 and the Million Dollar Wedding Dress: Part 1

Zaron Burnett III
Apr 28 · 28 min read

This is Part 1 of a cross-country adventure featuring a mother, a daughter, and the man they hire to drive them across America. Oh, and there’s a rather expensive wedding dress traveling with them, too.

(photo by the author)

he church sits glumly in the sun, looking like some sullen old pensioner, the kind who’s fully convinced all of the nursing home staff is trying to kill him. The building offers a grey and paranoid stone quiescence. Not at all inviting. But that’s not why Cal Jacobs approaches the church so warily. He moves like someone who knows exactly what waits for him inside and he’s steeled himself in preparation for the occasion. There is no rush to get there.

His feet plod as he slowly eases up the stone steps, headed for the tall old wooden mission-style church doors. But his right hand is over-eager. As if it wants to get on with things so it can be done and go home. This may also be why his right hand does its part with too much energy as it yanks the church door open. It whines with age. The hinges scream for oil and attention.

Caught, standing in the shaft of interrupting sunlight, Cal is silhouetted against the sky, framed by the open church door. A few mourners in the darkened church turn around to see who’s disturbing the funeral that’s already underway. Cal nods at them and uses small apologetic waves of his hands to let the appalled mourners know that he’s appropriately ashamed of himself for showing up late to his grandfather’s funeral.

He finds an empty pew, one close to the back of the church and slides across the freshly-waxed wooden bench. Up at the altar, a wizened and cold-faced priest with a churlish shock of black hair, Father Coffy, reads a prepared and rather impersonal eulogy.

“…As much as I’ve said, or can be said about Theodor Rheinhardt, I must be honest with you. I must confess: I barely knew the man. He was not what anyone would call a church-going man. He’d attended this church precisely three times, by my count. The last time was two years ago, when he wanted penance for all his sins because he’d learned that he was dying. Guilt drove him back to the waiting arms of the church. It is after all a hospital for sinners. And we are all sinners. He asked me if I would hear his confession. Nearly an hour later, he was done. I offered him the Lord’s blessings and a reminder of the forgiveness God offers to a wayward son like him. He told me, and I quote, ‘Yeah, well, I guess we’ll see if this works once I’m dead, maybe Kant had a point.’ This is my best memory of him. But perhaps, it would be better to hear from someone who knew him as well as anyone could. I see a man out there who I also met that day. Glad he was able to finally make it here.”

The heads of mourners swivel around to catch sight of Cal, sitting alone, slouching in the second-to-last pew. He nods to the silver-heads he recognizes.

“Perhaps his grandson could shed some light on the man we lay to rest today,” Father Coffy says, hoping he can draw Cal up to the altar, “Cal, would you please come up, say a few words. If you don’t mind. Cal.”

Cal stares at the priest, as he mutters to himself, “…you had to remember me, huh?”

He stands, rises from the pew, but takes his time down the center aisle of the church. Various silver heads turn to watch him pass. Some whisper, “That’s his grandson.” Cal tries to ignore them as he makes his way to the altar. His only intention is to honor the memory of his grandfather.

The priest clears the lectern podium to make room for Cal, and takes his seat to the side of the altar. Cal nods at the priest. Standing at the podium, there before the microphone, he realizes he has absolutely no idea what to say or do next. Cal stares back at the smattering of faces gazing back and up at him. They look like the white and silver crowd you find at most city council meetings. Some just look happy they aren’t the one in the casket. They all wait for him to say or do something, anything to break the awkward silence. But Cal provides them nothing. He just stares back at them, wordlessly, as he takes his moment. Hoping like hell he thinks of something to say.

Cal knows, bone-deep, this is his one and only chance to get it right. To do that, he needs to gather his thoughts, because he also knows once he starts speaking his mind will want to run. There’s no telling what he’ll say. It’ll start racing and whatever he says will be as much of a surprise to him as it will be for the gathered and waiting silver heads. As more nothing comes to mind, he silently prays that somehow he can keep his forthcoming remarks appropriate for a church.

He clears his throat. As Cal begins to speak, still wholly unsure what he’ll say next, he decides to wing it and place his fortune in God’s hands. The irony of this choice is a small amusement.

Cal leans toward the microphone and says, “My grandfather…was a real one. He was possibly the only real man I’ve ever known. Not that the rest of you are fake, or artificial, or anything like that, you’re real, but you know what I mean. He was real as steel. A real one. After my father split town, left me with my Moms…but you know, what? That doesn’t matter. The point is… He… You know how when you think back to all the times… I don’t know, maybe it was William Shakespeare who said it best… and I’m paraphrasing here… In this life, we have but one go ‘round. You punch your ticket and you take the ride. So you gotta make sure you ride all the horses on the merry-go-round you can. Even take a turn on the unicorn. That was my Grandpa…he was a unicorn rider.”

Cal pauses, completely lost in his thoughts, his memories jumbling forward and bubbling up, feeling both his heart and his head vying for control of his mouth. So far, his words have been coming out in fits and starts. For now, he’s stopped himself to regather his steam. Suddenly sure of what he means to say, Cal begins again.

“Here was a man who ran away from the farm at seventeen to join the merchant marines. He lied about his age to get on that ship. He was always braver than most and more stubborn than two mules. He was a merchant marine for what you might call his whole career… I doubt he’d use that word. He’d say he spent his life at sea. There’s more romance in that view of his life. He was a fan of romance. He’d never say that, but it was obvious if you knew him at all. He spent his golden years restoring those handcrafted wooden sailboats he loved… A life at sea… a throwback, to be sure. When I… When I… When I think of him lying there…”

Cal steps away from the podium lectern, he walks on uneasy legs and approaches the open casket. The crowd leans forward, unsure what he’s about to do next, but half-certain it will be something. Cal stops at the foot of the casket, he stares down at his embalmed grandfather and speaks only to him.

“You… You wouldn’t want any of this. In here. Like this. I’m sorry,” Cal says, so quiet only the dead might hear him.

Cal turns to look back at the gathered mourners, that sea of silver-headed strangers, and he decides he doesn’t need the mic, most of everyone in in the church is seated in the first three rows. It’s not a big turnout. Cal speaks directly to them, an emotional urgency pushing his words, and yet teasing the crowd with the possibility he’s about to really act a fool and fall out.

“My Grandpa said…a boat is a hole you pour money into. He should know. He poured all his money into them. He loved the sea for she gave him shape — how she polished him. He loved his family. And he loved Latin women. No, he did. That’s real. He said thank God for women and boats because most of life’s just boring crap when it’s not bringing you a new sadness. He was a wise man. Bit of a cynic. But skeptical as he was, he taught me to stay open enough to enjoy life in spite of it all. Or at least he showed he what that looks like. To close, I’d like to quote him. He always told me, ‘You are who you are when nobody is watching.’ But now, I hope he’ll always be watching me and I hope to make him proud. Well, I hope he’s not always watching, like if I’m having sex, or jerking off, that would be hella weird, like, having your dead grandfather watch you fuck -Jesus, that would be grim. You never think of it like that when you talk about them looking down at us from Heaven…. But yeah, I think you know what I mean. He was a real one. And that’s all I have to say about that.”

Cal turns back to his grandfather lying in the casket, “Thanks, big guy.”

After he spends a long moment, rushing with raw emotion, he shuts the valve off, then Cal turns and nods at the priest, like it’s his turn again. The priest looks back at him, aghast at the eulogy Cal just delivered in his church. Still in mute shock that Cal made all the gathered mourners imagine his dead grandfather up in Heaven watching him have sex. The mourners remain quiet, as well.

Cal looks at them all and he realizes what he’s said. He quickly makes a secret prayer that his grandfather can forgive him for making a pig’s breakfast of his funeral. But he tried to be honest. Lord knows that didn’t always go well. Cal secretly hoped that if indeed his grandfather is up in Heaven, watching it all, he’s enjoying a small laugh. Maybe. Who knows? You never exactly knew with him.

Feeling certain he has nothing left to add, Cal nods a couple more times to Father Coffy, as if to say it’s your show, again, man, and then he looks to the crowd and says, “So that’s done.”

Cal walks down the stairs of the altar, away from the casket, but he doesn’t return to his pew. Instead, he walks down the center aisle and right out of the church. The heavy church door whines again as Cal shoves it open, sunlight streams in, and then disappears as it bangs shut after he’s gone.

the tiny office of a semi-retired lawyer named Arturo Dunwitty, Cal sits slouched in a torn leather chair. He faces the round and satchel-faced lawyer, waiting for him to say something.

Joining Cal in the cramped office are two others. An older woman, in her late 50s. His Aunt Helena. Seated next to her is her brother, also in his late 50s, his Uncle Horatio. Both wear ill-fitting clothing and cash-hungry smiles. Aunt Helena absentmindedly entertains herself with a bag of microwave popcorn, while her brother, Horatio, looks over his notepad, checking to see that he’s receiving enough of his dead brother’s stuff. The round and life-worn lawyer, Dunwitty, looks up from his estate paperwork as Horatio asks clumsy questions about the reading of his brother’s last will and testament.

“Stipulations? We’re next of kin! What’s to stipulate?” Horatio says, with a notably dim thickness in his voice, “As long as Helena and I agree how we split what he left us — and of course, we give Cal some keepsakes of his grandfather… some heirlooms and such… I don’t see where the goddamn problem is! What the hell is there to stipulate?”

“What have we each gotten so far? Read it back to me,” Helena orders, rather than requests, it’s all in her tone of voice.

“So far? I get the Aerostar van. You keep the baby grand piano mama left him,” Horatio answers, reading from his notes. “They’re of approximately equal value. I get the timeshare in Reno…this year. You get it next year. We split his rental triplex if we rent it, or Airbnb it, or sell it, we can decide all that later.”

“But, wait…what if I wanna upgrade the triplex, like I wanna do interior design and paint the outside and such, but you don’t want to do it at the same time, can I update my half and charge more rent, or get more if we sell it?” Helena asks, not doing the mental math that it’s hard to evenly split a triplex.

Trouble is: three connected homes don’t split easily into two equal assets. They’ll have to share, or work together, since they’re now bound by their inherited architecture, this much Horatio understands.

“We’re gonna have to talk about any — Look, I say, we split all costs, and we split all profits. Keeps it simple,” Horatio offers.

Their dead brother’s lawyer, Dunwitty, offers his legal assessment, “Yes, yes, your brother makes all of that quite clearly a matter for the two of you to resolve. But his one stipulation is, and I quote, ‘Not to be split or sold, and free of all shared claims of ownership, I solely bequeath my pride and joy to my grandson, Cal. I think he can and will give her a good home. The Velveteen Sunrise is yours, my boy. Let her teach you love, the way she taught me.’ And this is a clear and present stipulation, that requires no interpretation. The line is explicit. And so, that would make the Velveteen Sunrise solely belong to–”

This exclusion provokes Horatio, who’s now passionate to know what he’s missing out on, “Wait a second, what the hell is–”

“-the Velveteen Sunrise?” his sister, Helena finishes his thought, equally curious what’s at stake and she’s missing out on as well.

Cal turns his attention from his Aunt and Uncle and looks to the lawyer Dunwitty for an easy answer.

“He left me…his boat?” Cal asks, knowing exactly what the Velveteen Sunrise is and what it means for his grandfather to have left it to him. “Do you have a picture of it?”

omewhere off to the side of the parking lot of a busy car service, Cal finishes his phone call. It’s a day later, and now, he’s back at work.

He’s removed his black chauffeur’s suit jacket, peeled off the accompanying tie. In his rolled-up sleeves he’s busy finishing-up hand washing a dusty, road-sullied black limousine. And washing it at the worst time, under the midday sun. He dunks a yellow sponge into a bucket of sudsy soapy foam and continues washing the side of the limo. Dreaming of his new-to-him sailboat.

When his cellphone rings, he’d normally never answer it, just let it go to voicemail, which he keeps full so no one can leave a message, but he has a sneaking suspicion it might be his grandfather’s lawyer with more news of his boat. He checks the number, doesn’t recognize it, but answers it anyway on the fourth ring.

“This is Cal.”

He listens as the familiar voice of the lawyer Dunwitty explains the situation and gives him a clear rundown on the boat he’s just inherited. After he listens awhile, Cal grows impatient.

“Okay, okay, okay. Is it in good shape? Because I’m still over here, like…wow! I own a sailboat… That’s so cool… But what do we do now? What comes next? How do I take possession of my boat?”

Cal listens again, as he squats down to hide behind the limo he’s hand-washing, so his boss won’t catch him not working.

“Yeah…That’s expensive to take over. Like, how could there be that much in storage fees-”

The lawyer Dunwitty explains, but Cal is already wondering how he’s gonna raise all this money he’s just learned he now needs. He’s only owned it for a day and he’s already pouring money into it. Fucking boats. Cal laughs to himself, sure his grandfather must be amused. But try as he might, as he listens to Dunwitty outline the total cost, so far the only answer he’s come up with to pay for his new boat is: crime. No specific crime, just the idea. Crime.

“No, I don’t want to sell it. I don’t care how much it’s worth. That was my grandfather’s boat. I’m going out there to get it. You can tell them to expect me, and to hold it until I get there. They’ll at least do that right? Like, tell them I’m grieving and shit, and I need some time to get my affairs in order. They’ll go for that, right?”

Cal listens. He stares at his funhouse reflection in the newly-cleaned hubcaps. He looks ridiculous to himself. A boat owner.

“No, I was going to say tell them I need at least a week… maybe more.”

His funhouse mirror reflection changes as he hears the lawyer Dunwitty explain how little time he has to act. None of his answers sound good.

“Okay. Then that’s what I’ll have to do. I’ll be there. Appreciate it, Dunwitty. I’ll be in touch,” Cal hangs up the phone.

He exhales a long heavy thoughtful sigh. Being a boat owner is not easy. Nor is it easy to be a real one like his grandfather. One simple thought rattles around in his mind: How the fuck am I gonna find that kinda money?

But then he hears himself mumble the answer, “Oh wait. Of course. He’ll do it. He’ll totally do it, if I ask. But will he loan me that much?”

sailboat sits at anchor in the blue bay of a tiny island. The dancing notes of a bossa nova song compete with the tropical breeze. On the deck of the sailboat, a young woman wrapped in a sarong and wearing a flowy loosely tied blouse dances along with the song. At this moment, moving in time with the song, she is in her own world. She is the song.

It’s a familiar romantic number, a classic song. Antônio Carlos Jobim’s track “The Girl From Ipanema” bops through the light breeze. The voice of Astrud Gilberto curls around the lyrics. She purrs them, a happy cat who’s found her favorite sunspot. The young woman sways with the music as gentle waves lap at the side of the sailboat. Her dancing joy silhouettes against the orange and purple morning sky. Far beyond her, where ocean meets sky, the sun rises, its light dances across the sun-dappled tops of the soft waves of the teal Caribbean sea. To some, it would be a perfect morning.

Her silhouetted hips slow their sway, she turns, still dancing in time with the music, moving with the waves, delighting herself with the kiss of the breeze. Just as she turns, there it is — the sun. A white hot spot, blindingly bright, searing light.

A sharp sunbeam glints off the town car’s side-view mirror, it cuts into the eyes of the young man, seated behind the steering wheel.

Eyes pop open.

Daydream gone.

Daytime blinded. Damn.

Cal squints, rubs his eyes. He’s over-tired from another long night chauffeuring around the wealthy and intoxicated and opinionated of LA’s Westside. His eyes burn not just from sunlight but from being held open far too long. They ache from being insufficiently rested. The best he could remember was sleeping for a few hours of legitimate sleep the day before, and then two hours that night. Sleep had not been around much, lately. He blamed himself. He needs money, so he’s been saying yes to every shift and ride he can grab. But there’s no way it’ll be enough. He knows it.

Cal stretches, twists kinks out of his neck and back, re-adjusts his body from his nap

After another long yawn, Cal reaches into the back pocket of his dress slacks. He finger-wriggles out his wallet. He filters past a few receipts but no cash. Fingers stop, tweeze together, he lifts out a folded picture.

He unfolds it with the careful reverence of an archaeology grad student. Slow, precise movements. Cal’s eyes soften. They focus on the photograph. It’s an old hand-crafted wooden sailboat with faded green sides, outfitted with broad billowing white and orange sails — the Velveteen Sunrise. He stares his way into the old faded photo of his new-to-him fifty-year-old Dutch live-aboard.

Knock, knock, knock!

A pair of hairy knuckles rap against the passenger side window. It surprises him, but too tired to be very startled, Cal looks up from the faded green Dutch live-aboard. He sees the retreating hand and the short sleeve button-up shirt of his boss at it retreats from the window in a steady streak of motion.

Cal folds the photo back up. He neatly slides it back into his wallet, which he returns to his back pocket. Carefully. He pushes open the driver’s side door and unfolds his limbs, he steps out. Slowly.

The car service’s parking lot is calm, still, like an elementary school on a weekend morning. It’s early enough that most of the other drivers are at home, most likely in bed. But not Cal. Neither stout nor lanky, Cal’s average height and average build, at least in a country other than America. As he catwalks across the parking lot, Cal doesn’t come off as terribly imposing. Instead, he has the light movements of a former athlete, but maybe one who just finished smoking a joint.

Cal’s boss is a bored man, unable to invest enthusiasm into his life. He is the worst kind of boss to have. He gives Cal a withering look, his eyes are bloodshot, colored red the same as the broken veins spidering across his still rather young cheeks and nose. His face is a roadmap of his blood circulation. He jerks his porky thumb into the sky. But he means to indicate his office. Satisfied that Cal saw his hand gesture, his boss waddles away like a whiskey drunk penguin, one who’s late to work. And hates his job.

Daniel Ponte Verde is not a pleasant man. The hardest part of Cal’s job is convincing himself to listen to and follow him. With great effort and constant economic reminders why he should, for months upon months, he’s been able to do exactly that. But it grinds down on his soul. It wears on his spirit. And it’s begun to erode any small sense of hope he’s able to hold onto and call his own.

The sound of Cal’s “business casual” Doc Marten boots crushing the gravel into the blacktop of the parking lot sounds both meditative to his ears and acts as a perfect reminder of what it feels like for him to work for Daniel Ponte Verde.

ver since his grandfather first introduced him to them as his preferred flower he’d send to surprise his lady admirers, Cal has always been a fan of stargazer lilies — those white flowers with the pink drops of color and thin dark filaments of accent that give the white blossoms a sense of artistic structure. Cal stands and gazes at the blossoms. Lost in their symmetrical and coherent design, enjoying their unexpected ruffles of texture. His eyes glide along the lips of the curling edges of the petals. Like sheets flapping in a Midwestern wind.

The flower shop around him stays busy with the early morning weekend rush, mostly women, which gives the air a softer fullness of sound than if the tiny shop was packed with the same number of men, all trying to get their tasks accomplished so they can get on with their weekend mornings.

Cal didn’t mind spending time in the flower shop, as he waited for Uncle Musso. The air was fragrant, he liked the chorus of women’s voice as they shopped, it was kinda melodic, mostly. There was the odd off-key snort of laughter, or a gasp of empathy from a conversational partner. Cal let his overly-tired mind stayed unwound, as he stared thoughtlessly, appreciating the curled edges of the petals and wondering how Nature had decided that would be a good idea. But he already knew the answer — Nature hadn’t decided. It was pure dumb luck, and chance, and it proved that sometimes doing whatever the hell you can think of is the best possible response. Or maybe that’s just the best that his tired mind could think of at the moment.

An attractive blue-haired young Cuban woman, college-aged and confident, stares at Cal from across the shop. She waits until he looks up. When he does, he catches her friendly eyes. She doesn’t look away, or break eye contact. She is neither a shy one nor a busybody because she has a job to do, she’s at work. She mouths the words, “Uncle Musso is waiting for you.”

This is not good news. Thus far, Cal has done very well with his life by ensuring one thing always happens — he never ever makes Uncle Musso wait for him. Not ever. After he decodes the mouth-read words, Cal spins on his heels and hustles through the flower shop. He pushes past an anxious school teacher armed with an impatient face. She sneers at him as he breezes by. He misses it entirely.

Out past the back door of the shop sits an enclosed patio. But that’s not an apt description. In all truth, it’s a gangster’s den. And that’s not the most impressive part. The impressive part is that it’s a den that was designed by a man who loves the sun and all its health benefits so much, yet due to the nature of his work he can’t get outside often enough to enjoy the sunlight, so, this man did what any intelligent and reasonable man with his sort of money and power would or could do: he took the roof off of a house. And he left the walls. He brought the sun to him. Tear the roof off this mother, indeed. George Clinton would be so proud.

As Cal walks through the house he passes through alternating shade and shafts of sunlight that streak through the anti-helicopter netting stretched across the top of the roof-less house. At various intervals in the netting, where corners of interior walls meet, sitting atop the corner junctions there are decorative plants, which create the shade and disallow sunlight to pass. The rest of the sunlight is broken-up only by the thin arms of the netting.

When he reaches the central plaza of the roofless house, it’s the area most bathed in sunlight. It bounces up from the tile mosaic floor, and scatters around the plaza, washing the walls with a soft dance of light like liquid stained glass. But not quite.

When he draws close enough, Cal hears the ice cubes cracking menacingly as they collide in a tall glass, one grasped tightly by the hand of Uncle Musso. Cal turns past a colonnade pillar, spiral-wrapped with climbing ivy. Apparently, the choking plant likes all the light.

As he does most days, Uncle Musso sits dressed like a banana republic dictator on a vacation in the Bahamas. His high and tight white socks are paired with white shorts, which looks a lot like British resort wear from the Fifties. But his airbrushed shirt, boasting a multi-color portrait of Rihanna and Nipsey Hussle, keeps his fit in the here-and-now.

Everyone who knows Uncle Musso, appreciates that he has a truly distinctive fashion sense. If they don’t appreciate it, they keep it to themselves. His fashion sense makes him colorful. It also makes seem less frightening. Without his wild outfits, any person who knows him might instead think of all the whispered hits and the decades of violent crimes attributed to him. That picture of him isn’t nearly as fashionable or as fun. But both are accurate.

Surrounded by his abundance of well-manicured ferns, buffeted by an array of wide fan leaves, if one were being honest, Uncle Musso most closely resembles a banana republic dictator who just spent the day at the Slauson swap meet getting ready for his island vacation. Seated on a highback wicker chair, Uncle Musso looks up from his lemonade. Like a well-fed cat, he smiles at the sight of Cal approaching him.

Of course, Uncle Musso is the first to speak. He starts before Cal can get seated and balanced on the round leather platform chair Cal’s picked as a good place for his ass. Uncle Musso’s voice is deep, strangely melodic, but coarse like a cement mixer, mellifluous gravel is the most apt description of his rocky and honey-thick syllables, “My Daniel says you need me. Cal, I’ve always liked that you have never needed anything from me. Why must this change?”

He says it like a challenge. But Cal hears it like what it more closely resembles: a threat. He opts not to answer, instead he asks, “Is the lemonade fresh-squeezed?”

“Are you a lemonade appreciator?” Uncle Musso asks, as if anyone ever talks like that. A lemonade appreciator. Who says that?

In his case, the answer is: a foreigner who learned English from textbooks, who also happens to be a man powerful enough to amuse himself, constantly and subtly, a man who likes to make the world play his games. His odd verbiage is a power game. One Cal has no interest in playing.

“I am, Uncle Musso. I am an earnest appreciator of lemonade, especially fresh-squeezed,” Cal says, with a bit of a teasing tone in his voice, a sure sign of the two men’s comfort and history.

“Are you in trouble, Cal?” Uncle Musso asks, cutting all the way to the chase.

He doesn’t even roll credits. Just lights out. Show the chase. All Cal focuses is on is the fact Uncle Musso just asked about what trouble he may be in but without even pausing to offer him any of his cool, refreshing lemonade. Which anyone would expect you’d offer to a fellow lemonade appreciator.

Cal takes the moment to think about how he wants to answer Uncle Musso’s question. He shakes his head, no. Then, he quickly changes course, and nods yes.

“You owe money to anybody I know, or I do business with?” Uncle Musso asks.

Another shake of his head, only this time there’s no change of mind. It’s a solid no.

“My boy Daniel says he vouches for you, that you’d be good for this loan.”

“I appreciate that he has such faith in me to pay you back in a timely-”

“But…my nephew is an idiot,” Uncle Musso says with all of the drama of a telenovela veteran actress. He lets his words hang in the air like an indictment.

“My nephew believes that a man to whom you give fifty thousand dollars to buy a sailboat has any intention of ever paying you back. Who would think such a thing? You know who. Only a fool like my nephew.”

“Yeah, but, I’m not. I promise-” Cal says, trying not to sound like he’s interrupting.

“I’d feel better…” Uncle Musso says, ignoring the interruption, apparently not upset by it, “if you could give me some guarantees, other than your word.”

“Well, I only need forty thousand,” Cal says, not answering the request.

This makes Uncle Musso laugh. Cal didn’t expect that. At this point in his life, the only things that still make Uncle Musso laugh is when he’s genuinely surprised. Cal still surprises him. It’s probably why he likes him, well, that and he’s never cost him money.

“Only need forty thousand. Practically a steal.” Uncle Musso’s gaze glances past Cal, as he shouts, “Daniel, you’re as useless as your ass-pimple of a father — Pay attention to this!”

Uncle Musso returns his attention to their conversation, “Cal, you want me to loan you forty thousand dollars…but you’re not in trouble. You don’t owe anyone. You’re not trying to become some fool investor. And…this is the best part…you want me to take your word that you’ll come and pay me back after you buy a boat. Did I get all that right?”

“Yes.” Cal says, and apparently doesn’t feel like his answer requires any more syllables than that.

“Oh! You got brass balls…” Uncle Musso says with an approving laugh. And then adds with a chuckle still in his voice, “You remind me of a young…me. Fucking brass ones. Ya see this, Daniel?! This is a man! I’ll tell you what. This is a man.”

Hovering off to the side, Cal’s boss, Daniel, Uncle’s Musso’s nephew, stands there and takes it. To him it’s verbal abuse, a constant belittling — but he takes it. And he takes it with the hopes that one day, some day, it will make a man out of him. Just like Uncle Musso wants him to be.

Their plan, as any psychologist or elementary school kid can tell you, will never work. You can never shout masculinity into a man. At least, not anymore than you can shout abundance into an apple tree. You have to tend what you want to grow and garden what you want to produce. It always felt ironic to Cal that the proprietor of a flower shop had such an abysmal sense of how to tend life. None of the available analogies seem to connect for him. Uncle Musso always forced things, one way or another. But he did know how to garden profits. That means he has a green thumb for money and that’s why his office is a house with no roof.

Uncle Musso turns his attention back to Cal, “Now, I like that you came to me for this. That’s smart. You’ve always been smart, Cal. And I like that when you choose to come to me, I may be able to help you. I want to be able to do something for you and you can do something for me. We each have each other best interest’s well at heart.”

Cal begins to worry that he has no idea what Uncle Musso is talking about. What he’s forcing on him.

“But before you go, what about the Tiki Torch?” Uncle Musso asks, “I can’t have this unresolved business hanging over my head. I don’t know. It makes me look like a–”

“No…I worked that all out,” his nephew Daniel says, again interrupting, “Phat Sam forgave me. The owner, Stan, he said we were cool with him, as far as–”

Daniel is hoping to help his Uncle, to make him be proud of him for handling something without being asked, but, of course, it’s the wrong move.

“Stan said… Stan said… if he didn’t say it to me, to my face, I don’t care what Stan said…to you,” Uncle Musso barks, unwilling to hide any of his disdain. It hits his nephew like a brick.

“Cal, you’re my nephew’s friend. Well, let’s not pretend. You are his employee. I have to protect him because he’s my family. Which means, I also protected you, too. But Phat Sam he has forgiven no one. I paid him to forget about that whole ugly business you two did in his place. Do you know what it cost me to pay for everything you and my dumb-shit nephew broke and/or burned that night? Do you know how much that bill was? Don’t you say a fucking word, Daniel. I want to hear it from Cal.”

There’s an edge that’s sharpening in Uncle Musso’s voice. Cal notices it as it cuts through the air like vowels could be honed with a wet stone. Cal tries to think of a good safe number, something he can say and be wrong and Uncle Musso will take back the floor.

“I don’t know. A few hundred bucks? No, wait, we burned up a good section of that place. I’d say…a couple grand. Honestly, I have no idea. How much was it?”

“Six thousand for the drapes, the bar stools, the mirrors, and liquor that had to be replaced–”

“But I figured those are all things that their insurance pays for — like isn’t that why a business has insurance–” Cal says, making the mistake of talking over Uncle Musso.

“Not always!” Uncle Musso shouts back over Cal, who immediately falls silent, as he also wishes he could become invisible. Or suddenly grow wings.

“This is why I’m glad you came to me. If I came to you…” Uncle Musso says, his voice already calming back down, but still holding a sinister threat in his tone, “How would that look?”

For reasons that only make sense to him, nephew Dan feels this is a good time for him to add his two cents to the conversation. He’s wrong, of course; it’s not.

“It’s like you say — what do you always say? Keep family business within the–”

“You- You shut up!” Uncle Musso yells at his idiot nephew. “Cal, I want to have this tiki bar business taken care of, I can’t have it hanging over my head.”

“Okay. Let me adjust my previous number. I’m going to need to borrow forty-three grand. But that’s fine…I can pay that back…just the same as–”

“That’s not necessary,” Uncle Musso says, a kindness has returned to his words. There is a suspicious softness. “Daniel, we still have that problem with Executive?”

“Yeah, Uncle Musso. I told DeAngelo that–”

“It was a yes or no type of question.”

“Then, yes.”

“Okay. Problem solved. Cal.”

“How can I solve your problem?” Cal asks.

“Dan tells me that you need to be in New York by Friday. It just so happens I can put you in New York on Friday.”

“No, that’s okay. I’m fine. I borrowed a buddy’s truck, I’m gonna drive out, I just need the money, so when I get there I can–”

“Cal, you’re gonna do me this favor. Why? Because I’m doing you a favor. That’s how the world works. Never know whose help you’ll need. So just say thank you, and be glad to do my little favor.”

“I don’t want to get mixed up transporting any illegal–”

His boss Daniel, grows righteously incensed at such an implication, “Hey! It’s not like that. My Uncle would never ask you to do family-”

“You, you shut up!” Uncle Musso snaps, with the speed only family can reach.

Then he turns, and makes his gravelly voice soft as a kitten dragged through a sandbox, he looks back to Cal, “You know we got the cars, the town cars, the limos — when times are tough fewer people need our limos. Right now I got Daniel’s father running the car service. He’s a certified moron. Killing the business — my business. People are beginning to talk. Daniel tells me you drive real good; you could be a getaway man. That’s how good a driver you are, he says. This true? Are you fucking Steve McQueen?”

He knows precisely what the old man means, but still he has to shake off the unsettling image of him having sex with Steve McQueen before he can answer the question. “Yeah, I drive… I drive like Steve McQueen.”

“Tomorrow, I got an important gig. Thanks to his father’s mismanagement I got no one reliable to do it. Last guy they fired, a week ago, was selling every powder you can name out the back of my limos — he even went and got himself arrested and one of my vehicles impounded. I don’t need this. My doctor says I can’t have this type of aggravation in my life.”

Once again, not recognizing the value of his opinion, idiot nephew Daniel speaks up, “Well. That one — that one was partially my fault–”

“You, you shut up!” Uncle Musso barks again. He’s clearly not in a suffering-fools-gladly kinda mood.

But yet again, a sudden softness returns to his voice as he turns back to Cal, “I can’t lose my laundry. I need this gig to go well. To go smoothly. If this goes badly, I could lose my contracts with the Hollywood talent agencies, if I lose their business, this business is done. I’m vulnerable here, Cal. I need good word of mouth. I need this to be a good story around town. You know what I mean. People talk. This is a big deal in a small town like Hollywood. I’m getting killed by Uber and Lyft and these rental car tricks. I can’t lose my laundry, Cal.”

“Sure. Sure. Can’t lose that. You need a place to wash your — Never mind. So you want me to drive–”

“You do me this favor- I forget all about the Tiki Torch unpleasantness…when you get to New York, your forty five thousand will be waiting for you.”

“But I only need forty. Well, forty three.”

“I’m giving you five grand to do the gig,” Uncle Musso stirs the ice cubes in his glass of lemonade, the sound breaks-up the silence that’s fallen over the conversation.

Cal searches desperately for any way to slip out of this gig, but no options are popping up. And it is the money he needs. Why fight it? He asked for the money, these are the conditions.

“If it’s not drugs or something illegal — what am I transporting?”

“A woman.”

“Whoa, Uncle Musso.” Cal says, “I won’t coyote migrants across the–”

“Not like that. It’s legitimate. It’s two women. A mother and daughter. What do ya know about high fashion?”

“You want me to drive a mother and daughter across America? You have got to be kidding me. Tell me you’re kidding me. That does not sound chill. Not to be all sexist, but…. That’ll be something. What do you know about this mother and daughter situation?” Cal asks, already imagining the thousands of awkward and uncomfortable miles between him and his grandfather’s boat.

Well, that’s Part 1 of our cross-country adventure. Next, we meet Ava and Mona –– one of them is the daughter, the other’s her mother.

Stay tuned and check back for more!

Zaron Burnett III

Written by

writer at MEL magazine, essay & short stories at Medium, and always in the mood for donuts