Hey you, the one jumping into the middle of the story! Try reading from Chapter 1!
Not long after their plane touched down at LAX, Stephen, David, Ricky, and Kelvin waited in bright sunlight for the rental car shuttle, Stephen already regretting his choice of clothing. Wool slacks and long sleeves had been a good idea in Boston, but he was already craving air conditioning here. David had shed his bomber jacket as soon as they walked outside, but he had kept the white scarf and weather-beaten fedora despite the fact that he was clearly overheating. Ricky, with his panama hat, linen pants, and massive floral print shirt, was by far the most appropriately dressed of the group. Kelvin wore the same combination of gray shirt and gray slacks that he always wore, but he seemed unperturbed by the temperature.
Two nuns walked by, soliciting donations. David turned to Kelvin. "That reminds me: I am supposed to tell you a joke about a rabbi, a priest, and two penguins. Frank suspects that my accent will make it funnier. Can we spare ourselves the embarrassment and just tell him that it did not work?"
Kelvin nodded. "Yes, though I would like to hear it anyway. I have a guest lecture coming up at Boston College, and the Jesuits love a good joke. It doesn’t involve an egg beater, does it?"
"No," now David was intrigued, "though you might have to tell me that one later, as well."
As they boarded the shuttle, Stephen and Kelvin handed their preferred membership cards to the driver, who swiped them through a handheld computer. Two receipts quickly slid out of the top with the stall numbers for their cars. Rather than having all four of them navigating the highways of Los Angeles separately, they had decided to rent just two cars on this trip so that each driver had his own navigator. Stephen had won the coin toss and chosen David, more for space considerations than anything else. Kelvin, who had already spent the flight squeezed in next to a sleeping Ricky and fending off his somnolent advances, looked less than happy about sharing a rental cat with him as well.
The shuttle dropped them off at the lot and they compared stall numbers and separated into pairs to find their rides. Stephen and David followed the signs to the far end of the row, where they saw a subcompact waiting in their slot.
"This will not do!" said David, "I cannot ride all cramped up like a sardine!"
"No kidding," agreed Stephen, "I’m not sure I can even get into one of those. I’ll have to go talk to someone at the counter." He looked across what seemed miles of shimmering asphalt and waved vaguely at a smudge on the horizon. "I think it’s over in that direction."
Just then, a loud honk from behind them made both men jump. They spun around to see Kelvin and Ricky riding in a large black SUV. "I always appreciate the free upgrade," said Kelvin. "Couldn’t you find your car?"
"This is it," replied Stephen, waving a hand at the miniature vehicle.
"Where?" asked Kelvin, unable to see it over the hood of his machine.
"Down there," pointed Ricky.
Kelvin backed the SUV up to get a better angle. "Oh. It’s somewhat small, isn’t it?"
"Yes, I know it’s small," Stephen replied testily. "Obviously, they made a mistake. Can you just give us a ride back to the customer service counter, please?"
"Sure. It’s nice and cool in here now that the air conditioning has had a few moments to work. You can throw your bags in the back, too. There’s plenty of room." They climbed in and rode off across the parking lot.
"I’m sorry, sir," replied the teenager behind the express counter after Stephen explained the problem, "we don’t have any other cars available. There’s a large technology convention in town, so all of our other vehicles have been rented. The car you have now is the biggest that we have. Oh, wait," she tapped for a few minutes on her keyboard, paused, then tapped some more, "we just had a van come in. Hmm, it was supposed to be back two days ago. It hasn’t been cleaned or refueled yet, but I can give you a discount for the fuel if you’d like."
Stephen sighed and looked at David, who shrugged. A van was better than a clown car, if barely. "I’ll take it."
Fifteen minutes later, he and David stood before a faded blue Volkswagen Vanagon. "They can’t be serious," Stephen said in dismay. "I mean, is this even street-legal?" He kicked a fender experimentally. Somewhat to his surprise, it didn’t fall off.
"Would you like to return and ask her for another vehicle?" David asked.
Stephen looked around the nearly empty lot and sighed. "No, it’s not worth it." Gingerly, he opened the door. "Let’s see if it starts up."
"Phew, what is that smell?" asked David, wrinkling his nose. "It smells like burning rubber."
"I think that’s pot. I’m surprised you didn’t recognize it."
"Marijuana, Mary Jane, dope." Stephen adjusted his seat and began searching for his seatbelt. "Don’t even try to tell me that you spent eight years at your artsy schools and never came across it, because I’ll know you’re lying."
"Ah, cannabis," said David. "Yes, I have heard of it, though I never tried it. I prefer to let my art open my senses rather than any drugs.” He paused. “Do you mind if I smoke?"
"It couldn’t smell any worse," Stephen replied. "Just let me open the windows and get moving first, OK? I prefer to get my lung cancer the old-fashioned way, by breathing smog." He stuck the key in the ignition and started the car. Reggae music blared from the speakers. He turned down the volume and began scanning the frequencies, looking for a jazz station. David, black cigarette in his mouth, lighter in hand, stared at Stephen, waiting impatiently for him to start moving. Stephen noticed his glare. "One more moment, OK? I need to get some proper music playing in here. Believe me, a little jazz will improve my mood immensely."
"I will make you a deal," David said. "I will find the music for you, if you will simply start the car moving and allow me to light this cigarette!"
"Fix the presets, too," Stephen instructed, putting the car in gear and pulling out as quickly as he could. "I need jazz on one, classical on two, rock on three, and classic rock on four. You can surprise me with five, as long as it’s not rap, hip hop, techno, or anything else that doesn’t use real instruments."
"You give me so much room to play," David muttered around his cigarette. He got to work, though, scanning the channels and occasionally locking one in. Kelvin and Ricky were waiting by the exit, so Stephen followed them out of the rental lot and onto the main airport road toward Interstate 405. Soon they were cruising north toward Santa Monica and the hotel. David, making up for lost time, followed his first cigarette immediately with a second, so Stephen opted to keep the windows down as they raced along the highway. As they neared the heart of Los Angeles, though, traffic slowed to a crawl and eventually they had to put up the windows and switch to air conditioning.
"The traffic is lighter than I was told to expect," David commented, blowing out a last cloud of clove-scented smoke before raising his window. "This is nowhere near as bad as Boston’s rush hour."
"It’s only 2 o’clock," Stephen reminded him. "I don’t know how anyone ever goes anywhere around here. What do they do at rush hour, pull barbecues out of their trunks and tailgate?"
They eventually reached the hotel, checked in, and went to their respective rooms, agreeing to meet in a couple of hours for dinner. Stephen threw his bag on the bed and immediately unpacked his clothes, unrolling them and hanging them in the closet to start unwrinkling. After this many trips, this was mindless habit, just as rolling the clothes into tight tubes to minimize the wrinkles in the first place had been. He was a busy man and he had no time for ironing. Another side benefit of working in software: as long as his clothes were relatively clean and had few holes, he would be the most dapper man in the room.
Once the clothes were unpacked, he flopped down sideways on the bed with his arm over his eyes. It was all he could do after a few minutes to lift the arm and reach for his cell phone on the bedside table, but he needed to check in before he could even consider a nap. He thumbed the speed-dial and lowered the phone to his ear, still lying half on the bed and half off.
After three rings, his mother-in-law’s voice whispered, "Hello?"
Stephen sat up so quickly he fell off the bed, then scrambled back up and sat on the edge, his back straight. Despite her respectable Protestant bloodline, there was still something about Janice that reminded Stephen of the nuns in his Catholic high school. Whenever he spoke to her directly, he reverted to the schoolboy manners that had been driven into him over 16 years of parochial schooling. It wasn’t that he was scared of her, precisely, just… respectful. "Hello ma’am, er, Mom. This is Stephen. Is Jenny home?" He smacked himself on the forehead. Man, I sound just like I’m back in high school again. She’s been my mother-in-law for six years, for Ch-- Heaven’s sake!
"Hello, Stephen. Jenny and the baby are sleeping right now. That’s why I had the ringer turned off. How was your flight?"
"Uneventful, thank you, just the way I like them." Stephen found he was whispering, as well. He continued at a normal volume. "Wait, you had the ringer off? Then how did you know I was calling?"
"Oh, I didn’t. I knew you would be calling, though, so I’ve just been answering it every minute since the time you were scheduled to land. I figured that would be the correct interval to catch you before you went to voicemail."
"Since I was scheduled to land? That was three hours ago! You’ve answered the phone 180 times to see if I was calling?" Stephen suddenly felt irrationally guilty for not calling as soon as he got off the plane.
"195, actually. I wanted to play it safe in case you arrived early."
"Well, um, I’m sorry to have put you through that. I would have called sooner if I’d known."
"That’s all right, Stephen. It was a pleasant break from cleaning." Janice replied. Her whisper took on a slightly echoing quality. "I wouldn’t go to such lengths normally of course, but little Sarah seems to have supernaturally sensitive hearing. I am certain that she heard me come in from the store this morning, even though we had one floor and two closed doors between us. By the way, would you mind speaking more quietly? She’s upstairs and I’m out in the garage now, but I don’t want to wake her."
Stephen rolled his eyes, but lowered his voice again. "Sorry. I’ll let you go back to what you were doing. Well, not exactly: you can probably put the phone down now. Just ask Jenny to call me when she has a chance, OK?" He gave her the hotel number and his room number and hung up, shaking his head. He had never seen this side of her before. "Uptight" doesn’t begin to describe it.
He set the alarm, lay back down on the bed, and was asleep before he could even kick his shoes off.
It was a longstanding tradition for Stephen and his team to gather the night before they started an engagement and make sure everyone was mentally prepared for what was to come. While some of the more cynical engineers he had worked with referred to these meetings as "pep rallies," Stephen preferred to think of them as war councils. He, the general, made sure that every member of his elite squad knew his or her role in the battle to come and that no one had any doubt that they would emerge victorious. They formed a battle plan against the forces of chaos, discussed ways that the plan could go awry, and then everyone got a good night’s sleep. Tonight, though, he found himself wishing that he could just skip to the sleep part.
Their hotel was near the Santa Monica Pier, so there were plenty of restaurants to choose from. They decided on a small Mexican place near the beach and settled in with margaritas, chips, and salsa while they waited for their food. Everyone had changed into more comfortable clothes, and Stephen was bemused as always by the sight of Kelvin in a t-shirt. David, of course, wore linen pants, a flowing white silk shirt, and a red sash, as though he expected a tango to break out at any moment. Ricky had opted for a tank top, looking more at home in this climate than he ever had in Boston.
"Ahhhh," Stephen let out a long sigh as he slumped in his chair, margarita in hand. For the first time in a week, he felt calm and relaxed, and even though there was a good chance that was mostly due to the tequila hitting his empty stomach, it was a pleasant feeling.
"I could definitely get used to this weather," Ricky agreed. "I usually have to crank my heater up to eighty degrees in my apartment if I want to wear shorts and a tank top in October, and I can’t afford to do that very often. How many times will we get to come out here?"
"Probably two or three times for you, but the length of the trip could vary. If we need to work more closely with the client, then you could stay here for a couple of weeks at a stretch if you’re willing," Stephen replied.
Ricky reached for the chips and took a huge scoop of salsa. "I want to work very closely with this client."
"Do you have any more thoughts on what we can expect tomorrow?" Kelvin asked Stephen.
"It will probably be the usual meet-and-greet, followed by more than the usual amount of tail-sniffing," replied Stephen around his own mouthful of chip. "Their technical guys won’t just be testing to see if we know our stuff; they’ll also want to start determining the pecking order on the team. I hope we can avoid any actual chest-beating."
"I see now why you didn’t bring Frank this time," Kelvin observed.
"Yeah, we’ll save that battle for another time. For now, we need to play nice with the new kids and let them know that we aren’t here to rule their world. We are, however, the experts, so let’s make sure they know that as well."
"Good." Stephen turned to Ricky and David. "You’ve already met Robert and Brad, so you have some idea of what you’re getting yourselves into. I don’t know whether this designer of theirs will be a help or a hindrance, but he at least knows them so maybe he can help translate. Be nice. I don’t want to have to break up any artistic slapfights."
"Why do you look at me when you say that?" asked David, offended. "And I resent the implication that I cannot throw a punch."
Ricky smirked, "Down here in the Lower 48, that’s what we call missing the point."
Stephen just stared at David, waiting.
Finally, David gave a small sigh of exasperation and conceded, "There will be room for all in my vision." But after a moment he added, "as long as it is my vision."
"Exactly," Stephen said. "Though let’s focus on their vision this week and make it ours once we get back to Boston, OK?" David nodded reluctantly. Ricky merely shrugged. He didn’t really care whose vision it was, as long as he could code it.
Stephen took a deep breath and another sip of margarita. This one was almost gone, he noted. He’d need another when the food arrived. "This may just be the tequila talking, but I’m getting a good feeling about this project. I think we’re going to have fun."
The rest of the meal passed in small talk as everyone discussed the things they wanted to do while they were in LA. Over the years, Stephen had found that there were two types of business travelers, which he roughly categorized into "sales guys" and "everyone else." To sales guys, every trip was a road trip of the sort that they used to take with their fraternity brothers in college: a chance to drink like Vikings in a different city and try to have sex with women who lived too far away to expect a commitment. Although -- unlike college -- they had to work during the day, they were well-compensated for that by the fact that work paid for the trip and most of the drinks, if not the women.
Sales guys were pathologically afraid that there was a better party going on somewhere else and spent enormous effort in each new city to find it. They then returned to the office with stories that convinced the other sales guys that they had missed the best party ever, which gave them the incentive to find a better one on their next trip, thus completing the cycle. Stephen theorized that this was why sales guys always seemed to know at least one other sales guy in every city: so that they could party together and expense the drinks.
Everyone else, which included Stephen and most of the people he worked with, tended to spend their rare off hours sightseeing, trying new restaurants, and sleeping. Some, like Kelvin, preferred reading over playing tourist. And while they might still wake up with hangovers occasionally, they were in more danger from food poisoning than sexually transmitted diseases, which seemed to Stephen to be playing the odds correctly.
On this trip there would be no Nordic drinking songs. Ricky planned to visit Grauman’s Chinese Theater one night and see if he could find the handprints of Woody Allen, whom he had recently discovered was a distant cousin. He talked David into going with him, but Kelvin was determined to finish his book before he did anything else. As for Stephen, he only wanted to sleep.
After dinner, as they walked back to the hotel, Stephen asked Ricky, "So, you’re cousins with Woody Allen now, huh? How exactly did that happen?"
Ricky nodded beatifically, "He’s something like my sixth cousin twice removed, but still family. Back in the 17th century, a galley full of Jewish slaves from Spain mutinied on a trip back from Mexico. They rowed the ship to our island and scuttled it so the Spaniards wouldn’t be able to find them. The few who still had any genitalia left, including two brothers, converted some island women and married them. My family came from one of the brothers, and Woody’s came from the other. I wrote to tell him about it, but he never wrote back."
Stephen nodded sympathetically, "Well, he probably gets that a lot."
"Yeah," Ricky agreed. "Oh! That reminds me: I’m going to need to take Hanukkah off."
Continue to Chapter 5