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I'm leaning on the wall out in front of the Cherry on a smoke break, minding my own business, when this black Jaguar XJ pulls up out front. There isn't a lot of scenery, so I'm watching the car while I finish up my cigarette. I've kind of got a thing for Jags, and this one looks custom, so it's piqued my interest.
Chico's taken off for Baja to drink cocktails with little umbrellas in them or some shit, and I'm coming by the club a couple times a week after school to keep up my end of the deal. They weren't too happy at my old video store job when I didn't give them the two weeks they were owed, but Big Nick was in a hurry to get me started, and I wasn't really in a position to argue.
I'm not too thrilled about the situation, though. The video store was a cool little mom and pop place, and I liked my boss. Here, I'm too young to work behind the bar, so I'm mopping floors and cleaning up jizz and vomit and, well, yeah those are kind of the highlights. If I ever see that fuck-up brother of mine again, I think I'm gonna sock him right in the mouth.
Plus, the girls kind of scare me, which I think they can sense because they seem particularly mean around me. When I mention this to Big Nick, he says that it's because I got no status with them, and they aren't going to be nice to me until they have a reason to respect me. What the hell do I know about making grown women respect me? I liked free movie rentals way better than this fuckery, I'll tell you that much.
I'm feeling sore over this last thought when I see him, the owner of the car I'm ogling and Johnny Hollywood both. I mean, it's just one guy because they're the same guy.
Anyway, Johnny's getting out of the driver's side, and he's staring down at his pager like it just told him to go fuck himself.
Even with that sour expression, I can see where he gets the Hollywood part of his name because, no shit, he looks a bit like James Dean, with his all American good looks and slightly wolfish, angular face. He even has his sandy blond hair teased up into a loose kind of pompadour. He really does look like some 1950s style movie star. You know, if it wasn't for the cut of his suit and the fact that he's standing outside a shady strip joint.
Then, this big guy—big, but not Big Nick Big, let's not go crazy—gets out of the passenger side right after Johnny. The guy's looking around at everything like he's security, which is probably exactly what he is now that I think about it. Me and Conan's eyes meet for a split second, and I let mine drop instinctually. My stomach is doing flip-flops as I realize for all the mental whining I've been doing about what's been going on, I haven't thought of a single thing to say when I'm face to face with Johnny.
It seems like "hi, Big Nick says to fuck you" might be a bit too on the nose for the situation, but the truth is I don't know the first thing about being sexy towards someone. The few experiences I've had have all been guys close to my own age, and it wasn't love if you know what I mean. A teenage quickie in the backseat of someone's car or the bathroom at a party has never taken too much planning or finesse on my part. I just show up. And maybe that's all this is essentially going to be, too. I just don't know. Jesus, could I get any more stupid?
The two men walk past me and into the club while I bite my lip until I taste copper. I can smell expensive cologne, and I'm guessing that it's Johnny's and not the other guy. I like it okay. I'm not really much for smelly stuff, but this isn't too bad. I wonder if he wears it a lot. Johnny slips the pager into his pocket. I notice his slim hand is covered in all kinds of rings, which is kind of unexpected I guess. Do they mean anything, or they're just shit he thinks looks cool?
Johnny doesn't look my way once as he passes by, although his man gives me a once over again. I wait for the door to shut behind them, then I count to fifteen before I follow. I have this real bad feeling in the pit of my stomach that Big Nick might be overestimating his abilities as a matchmaker, and I'm not sure how I want to feel about that yet.
It is early enough that the club isn't super full. George Michael's way cheesy "I Want Your Sex" is playing while one of the girls wraps herself around a pole unenthusiastically. She looks bored. Which, I swear to God, seems to be a turn on for some guys.
"Hey Eddie," Big Nick calls me over to their table with a gesture. I've been sort of hovering around waiting for this, but I still jump. I put down the broom I was pretending to sweep with and approach the table.
"Yeah?" I say softly. Big Nick gives me a sort of exasperated look, which I return in equal measure. What the fuck does he expect me to do? Sashay over here and sit down in Johnny's lap? Jesus Christ.
"Johnny," Nick says impatiently, "this is Alejandro's youngest boy, Eddie. He's been helping out around the club until we can find a good replacement for Chico. Eddie, this here is Johnny, and that's Newman." He thumbs in the big gorilla's direction.
I asked earlier, so I know that Johnny is thirty-three, which is un-fucking-believable considering the kind of money and action the man is seeing, but it is still an intimidating age gap for a kid like me. It helps that he has a young kind of face and you can only see the age lines around the eyes and mouth when you are really close up.
Big Nick clears his throat and glares at me like I am the stupidest person he has ever met. "Uh...it's nice to meet you?" I stammer out and feel my face flush a little.
"El gusto es mio, Eddie." Johnny flashes me a crocodile smile with teeth as big as tombstones. I really blush then. I can feel the tips of my ears burn. "I haven't seen you around before. ¿Cuántos años tienes?"
"Um." I swallow hard. "Eighteen, sir."
"Eighteen, my, my, my." He shakes his head. "That age looks younger every year. Don't corrupt the poor kid too much, huh Nicky?"
"Nah," Big Nick says, meeting my eyes in a cold stare. "Eddie's a good boy. He's going to college in the fall."
"Oh yeah? Where?" Johnny asks me.
"Well, sir, I got into a few places," I say quietly, "but I'm leaning towards SF State. They'll pretty much pay me to go and they offer the classes I want." I try to keep my answer short but not too vague.
"That's great. Good for you." Johnny nods in approval. "Hey, Eddie, Nick and I have to talk business. Would you go ask Misty to send over a bottle of Patron?"
"Sure, I'll do that," I say, silently grateful for an easy exit. I walk away with my knees a little shaky and my palms sweating.
It's a Saturday night, and the regular busboy called in sick, so Big Nick has me working the shift. It's basically hell and almost as hot. We're slammed, and on top of busing all the tables, I'm doing most of barbacking, too, just to keep things going, even though it's not like the chicks behind the bar are sharing any of their tips.
I'm trying to hurry because the clubs specialty act is about to go on, and everything should slow down enough during that for me to take a much needed smoke break. Also, this particular daily performance references the club's name in a way that has left me a little scarred from the first time I saw it.
It is this thought that's running through my mind as I swing around with a whole tray of used glasses and almost run head-on into Johnny. I freeze mid-motion, startled mute. "Hola, Eddie. Dónde está Big Nick? Have you seen him?"
"Uhh. " My throat feels suddenly all dried out and scratchy. Johnny raises an eyebrow at me, like he thinks I might be slow or something. I try to gather what's left of my nerve-rattled wits and come up with a cohesive answer. Somehow, the dual language options are making this harder. I start to piece together an answer in English, but it goes Spanish halfway through, so I have to start over.
Then the unthinkable happens. The tray tilts in my sweat slicked hands, and glasses, cigarette butts, and dirty half drunk drinks splatter across the floor. Johnny steps back with a look of disgust on his face, but his suit doesn't completely avoid the splashback.
"Oh shit," I yelp. "I'm sooo sorry." This is bad, really really bad. I'm down on my knees picking up glass and other crap as quickly as I can, my hands shaking.
Johnny goes rigid and cold, his face blank. "Clean it up," he snaps before walking away stiffly.
After I do a couple more shifts at the club, it becomes pretty clear that Johnny didn't tell Big Nick about my stupid clumsiness on Saturday. That's a good thing, I guess, but it does mean I have a lot of doubts about the success of Big Nick's plan, and Big Nick doesn't know anything about that. Not that Mr. Hollywood and I were exactly on a path to romance before I went and splattered him with bar juice. Outside of remembering my name, I'm not getting a lot of acknowledgement from the guy.
The "don't worry he'll go for it" idea Nick was floating around seems more and more like a load a bullshit everyday. Don't get me wrong, I'm not anxious for it to change or anything. It just makes this shitty club lackey position seem less like a temporary thing and more like a purgatory from which I'm never going to escape. I've never wanted to be fired more in my life.
I feel really bad about what happened, though, because Johnny seems like the kind of guy you show respect. The man could have a lot more swagger, and no one would blame him for it, but he's been nothing but cool with me. My fucking up like that was just plain not cool, and I want to make it right. So when I come in one afternoon and Johnny's reading the paper at the bar, one ring covered hand resting on a drink, I see it as an opportunity to set things straight.
"Um, sir?" I say after I've dropped my backpack off in the office. He glances up at me, his expression relaxed. Even so, I can feel myself start to tremble, "I wanted to apologize for what happened on Saturday. I—I…if you give me the dry cleaning bill…"
"No te preocupes." He gives a small wave of his hand and goes back to reading. "Forget it, Eddie."
I stand there awkwardly and stare at him. I want to say something more, something that expresses my gratitude for the fact that he doesn't feel a need to jam me up about this—that he can save his hard ass self for someone who actually needs it. You don't know how many guys I know who will kick you around just to show that they can and it's clear Johnny is the kind of guy that's above all that.
"I own half this club, you know," he drawls without looking up from his paper.
I blink, not following his point. "Cómo?"
"Aren't you on the clock right now? Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think that means I'm paying you to do something other than stand there and stare at me. Es verdad?"
My face goes hot, and I nod. "Si, lo siento," I apologize as I scurry away as quickly as I possibly can. Johnny doesn't look up, but just before I turn I think I catch the slightest twitch at the corners of his mouth.
When I come in a few days later, Big Nick is waiting for me at one of the tables near the door. "Hey," he says real low when he sees me, "sit down." I sit down.
"So?" he says expectantly.
"So, what?" I ask.
"Don't be smart with me. How are things going with Johnny?"
I sigh. "They're not actually. I don't think he really likes me." I give a shrug.
Big Nick treats me to a nasty glare. "He's in the office looking over the finances. Go ask him if he's had lunch. Be nice," he says, pointing an accusatory finger at me like I've had some kind of attitude problem so far, like his being fucking out of touch with reality is my fault.
"Yeah, okay, boss…" I mumble, hauling myself up from the table and trudging across the bar towards the office to the sound of Vanity 6's "Nasty Girl." This music is slowly killing me inside. Johnny looks up when he hears me open the door. He has his jacket folded over the back of the chair, and his sleeves are rolled to his elbows. I think it's the first time I've ever seen him without a tie. I drop my backpack on the couch and give him a slight smile. "Hola," I try to say cheerfully and then bite my lip in hesitation. "Um, I think Big Nick is sending me out for some food. Can I get you anything, sir?"
"No, thanks, I'm fine." His head drops back down to the folder of receipts he's been scrutinizing, a clear indication that our conversation is over.
"Okay," I say, "well if you change your mind, just let me know. If you need anything at all you just let me know, and I can do that."
"Um-hm," he says with an air of disinterest, "thanks."
"Well?" Big Nick asks me when I come back, impatiently, grabbing my arm and steering us to a corner where we can talk without putting on a show for the rest of the club.
"He said he's not hungry," I deadpan, "for anything."
Big Nick cuffs me hard on the side of the head for that—or hard for me, probably down right kittenish for Big Nick. "You need to take this more seriously," he hisses.
"Ow, Jesus, I am taking this seriously," I say rubbing my bruised skull. "You know we're a couple of fags, not rabbits right? You can't just stick us in the same cage and expect humping, man."
"Don't call Johnny a fag," Big Nick warns darkly. "He is not a fag."
"Yeah, you're right. I don't know nothing about that, actually. The guy is as straight as an arrow as far as I can tell." I'm ready this time, so I'm able to dodge when his ugly mitt comes for my head a second time. "Would you please stop hitting me? I can't think when you do that."
"Then watch your fucking mouth," he snaps.
"Look," I tell him. "I'm really sorry, but the man doesn't like me. What I think you're looking for in this situation is a pro. I'm not going to embarrass myself by trying to do that. I got no technique. If he asks, I told you I wouldn't say no, but he's not asking…so I'm not your guy."
Big Nick gives me a look like I just spit in his soup. "Goddamn it kid," he snarls. "I give you the chance to make life a hell of a lot easier for you and yours and all I ask in return is one little thing from you, and you can't keep your fucking end of the deal? What am I supposed to do now?"
"I don't know," I grind out. "Maybe you can fuck him." My dad was a hitter, and my brother has been doing a pretty good job of filling in since he left, so I have a little experience in that department, but Big Nick gives a backhand like it was a sucker punch. There is the familiar sick slap of wet flesh then a lightning flash of pain that drops me to my knees instantly. In the back of my mind it occurs to me that maybe I should have watched my mouth a little better.
I observe the pink swirls running down the drain as I try to staunch the bleeding of my nose with a paper towel in the men's bathroom. What a fucking mess this whole thing is turning out to be. First my brother, then this terrible job at the titty club, and now all this madness with Big Nick over Johnny. At least the pain in my face is transitioning from that initial loud variety to something more like a dull ache. Still very uncomfortable, but not quite as bad as before.
"God, Eddie, que paso?" I stiffen at the sound of Johnny's sudden alarmed voice somewhere behind me. Shit. This just keeps getting better doesn't?
"Did somebody hit you?" he asks.
"It's nothing, sir," I say, willing him to just drop it and go away. "Estoy bien."
"Really? You don't look fine to me. Here let me take a look at it." There are hands on my shoulders turning me around insistently until I am gazing up into concerned blue eyes.
"It's really nothing," I say, my voice going a little unsteady.
"Let me see," he insists as he reaches up so that he can gently draw down the hand holding the bloody paper towel and examine the damage. We've never been this physically close to each other before. "It's not broken or anything," he tells me, "but you probably knew that already. If you ice it right away, you can maybe avoid a black eye. Are you going to tell me what happened?"
"It's stupid." I sigh. "I got a little too mouthy with Big Nick. It was my fault. I shouldn't have pushed him like that." I shrug, a little embarrassed.
"You?" His eyebrows shoot up in surprise. "Mouthy? I really can't imagine it."
For a second, I assume Johnny's being sarcastic, but then I realize he's serious. This makes me smile, which hurts my face, but I can't help it. "You don't know me so well, I guess."
He's smiling now, too, and it is gorgeous. It seems unfair somehow that a man who's done so many terrible things can still have a face like that. "I guess not," he says. "Do you want me to talk to Big Nick?"
"No!" I shake my head. "I mean, please don't. We can work it out amongst ourselves," I assure him.
"Okay, but you come sit in the office while I get you some ice. No arguing. Come on." He catches my elbow and leads me towards the door. Johnny guides me through the club efficiently with his hand on the small of my back. When we get to the office, I see, to my great disappointment, that Big Nick is sitting behind the desk. The expression on his face makes clear his feelings for me have not improved in my absence.
"Eddie, go sit on the couch," Johnny says in a cool, no arguments kind of tone as he removes his hand from its resting place against my spine. "Go on, date prisa." I do as I'm told, giving Big Nick a wary glance as I move across the room.
Johnny shoots his business partner a scathing glare. "Jesus, Nicky, he's just a kid. Why did you have to go and knock him around like that?"
"He's eighteen. You weren't exactly playing with dolls at his age if you recall."
Johnny gives a near silent "hah" at this and crosses his arms over his chest. "Well, I don't think I'm the best role model for these modern youths. I'm going to go get some ice from the bar. You leave him alone," he orders sharply. He's probably the only person on the planet that can get away with pointing a finger in Nick's face.
"What the fuck did you say to him?" Big Nick demands the moment the door shuts behind Johnny.
"I didn't say shit, man," I reply petulantly, slumping lower on the sagging couch and frowning.
"Like hell you didn't," he snaps. "If you think I'm going to play these manipulative little games with you, you have another thing coming, kid."
"Oh I'm the manipulative one in this? Whatever. Look, all I said was you hit me and that it was my fault. End of story."
"I don't buy that for a second." He shakes his head. "You're going to tell me everything that happened with Johnny. Right now. Spill it."
"Paranoid much? Look, you can't beat on people and then yell at them when they go off and bleed quietly in the bathroom. Well, I guess you can, because that's what you're doing right now, but it doesn't make any kind of sense. Johnny just walked in. I was kind of thinking you might have sent him in there, for Christ sake. "
"I didn't," Big Nick states darkly.
"Yeah, I figured that out. Look, you should be happy. He's, like, my hero or something now. You could have smacked me a lot sooner, and saved us all a lot of time."
"Just shut up."
"First you want me to tell you everything, now it's shut up. Make up your mind," I snap back. It's probably a good thing that Johnny walks in just then because Big Nick looks like he might like to go another round with my face right about now.
"Here." Johnny hands me a towel wrapped around some ice. "Hold that on your face for fifteen minutes and then ten off, then another fifteen on. Tu entiendes? I'll tell you when you can stop."
I nod obediently. "Si, gracias."
Satisfied, Johnny's attention turns back to Big Nick. "Those receipts all looked fine to me. I mean, send it to the accountant for this month, but in reality it just isn't enough, Nick." Johnny pours himself a drink and settles onto the couch next to me. "Cash business or not, the club shit is just a drop in the bucket compared to what we're pulling in and I can only push so much through the import business. We're still sitting on way too many bills. I kid you not, the drop house reeks like money. You walk out with your clothes smelling like ink."
"I know, I know." Big Nick sighs. "We're going through some growing pains right now. We knew that once we got our connections at the Port of Oakland running smoothly that this would happen."
"Yeah." Johnny runs fingers through his hair, flattening his hairdo a little. "I can't help but feel like we could have prepared a little better for that. We look like fucking amateur hour right now, you know? I mean, the way we did things when all we needed was the club, was fine, but now it's like we're running this thing as a small business with the assets of a corporation. We need to get a handle on this shit before it gets away from us."
"Yeah, okay, Johnny." Big Nick nods. "I'll start looking around for some better financial advice."
"Great. Thank you." Johnny takes one more gulp of his drink. "Unless there's anything else, I'm going to head out. Is it cool if I take Eddie home?"
Big Nick shrugs. "Sure. We're slow today and he's driving me crazy. Get him out of here." Smooth. Even I almost believe his appearance of apathy.
Johnny smiles and pats my leg. "Okay, come on, chamaco, let's go."
He leans real close to my ear when we step out of the office so that his breath tickles my hair, making me shiver. "You know what you hear at the club stays at the club, right?"
"Yeah, sure." I nod. "Always."
"Good boy." He gives my shoulder a light pat. "I knew you weren't going to give me anything to worry about."
I trot behind him, the ice pack still wet and dripping in my hand. We are making our way towards the front door, but it takes awhile because the girls and even some of the patrons want to talk to Johnny, and he is all charming smiles, flirtatious winks and handshakes as we move through the room. I wait for him to make the rounds, just kind of cooling my heels until he finishes.
Newman joins us when we step outside, but Johnny waves him off. "Are you hungry?" he asks me, acknowledging my presence for the first time since he told me to keep my mouth shut.
"Orale." I smile shyly. "I can always eat."
"Good." He takes the wet towel from my hands and gives it to Newman. "Meet me at home in a couple of hours," he tells his bodyguard. "Eddie and I are going to go have a late lunch and then I'm going to take him home. Come on, kid, I'm parked right up the street." His hand is on my back again, a constant, confident pressure as we make our way towards that beautiful Jag of his.
"So what is your story anyway, Eduardo Santiago? Por qué está tu aquí?" Johnny asks me as he drives, those rings glinting in the late afternoon light from where they are perched on the steering wheel.
"Como? What do you mean by that, sir?" I say, feeling my jitters returning.
"Yeah, the sir thing has to stop, Eddie," he tells me with a heavy sigh. "It makes a man feel old. It's fine in the club, but not in my car, when it's just us, bien?"
"Okay," I say, "but what did you mean when you asked why I'm here? Like why am I working at the club?"
"Yeah, the club for starters. You're not in the game and never have been from what I've heard. Are you looking to use your brother leaving to make your start or something?"
"No, no. It's nothing like that," I tell him shaking my head. "I'm not looking to get started in anything." I am a terrible liar, so I stick to a partial truth. "My aunt is having money trouble. You know, I stay with her most of the time, and Big Nick offered to help out if I worked for him for a bit, as a favor on account of knowing my dad. My kid sister lives in that house and she's real happy there. I don't want them to lose it."
"Nick doesn't have you handling any of the drugs or money or anything like that does he?" Johnny asks, giving me a look that makes me squirm a little.
"No, nothing that exciting," I say quickly. "Not that I want to do anything like that, sir—I mean, Johnny. I don't want in. I'm a civilian. I want it to stay that way. I really do, lo juro por Dios."
"That's good to hear. You seem like a nice kid. Look, I'm sorry about what happened with Nick today. The man has a temper, always has."
"It's fine. We'll work it out," I say. "He just pushes real hard sometimes and it's my nature to fight back. I know I gotta respect him more than that, it just isn't my natural inclination,not the respecting part, the showing it, but I don't mean anything by it. I can run my mouth a lot faster than I can think sometimes."
"Really? Every time I've seen you, you've been doing a lot less talking and a lot more standing around thinking about something in my general direction," Johnny points out with the kind of lopsided grin that makes me blush. God is he fucking with me?
"I guess you make me nervous," I whisper, my mouth going a little dry.
"I make a lot of people nervous for a lot of different reasons," he points out flatly.
"Yeah, that makes sense."
"So, dime Eddie, what reasons do you have?"
"To be nervous?" I ask. "Of you? No mames! Are you shitting me, Johnny Hollywood?"
"Ha! There's that mouth I keep hearing about!" Johnny laughs slapping at the steering wheel. "You kiss your mother with that?"
"No," I grumble. "I don't. And don't talk about my mom. That's just plain mean."
"Ah, lo siento, Eddie," he says. "I'm not trying to be a pinche pendejo. It's just a little teasing. Are you always wound this tight?"
I'm silent for a while, not exactly because I'm pissed off, just a little confused by Johnny and if anything will shut my mouth, it's feeling like I don't have a very good read of a situation.
"I'll take that as a yes. You're a tough kid, Eddie, but nothing I haven't seen before. I grew up with you Mission boys, remember? I have the tattoos to prove it."
"Yeah, I've heard a few stories about that," I admit. He slows down and pulls the car into a parking place.
"I bet you have. Okay, we're here. It's just a little café I like to go to. It's nothing too fancy, but I end up here a couple times a week so they know me. Newman hates it," Johnny adds. "He hates anything I do that's habitual. It's dangerous to be predictable, you know? But I am a man built on habits, all kinds. Take that away and I've got nothing left. I'm just a husk."
"Oh," I say, frowning, and he laughs.
"Little eighteen year old Eddie, ay Dios mio, you make me feel so old. Okay, vamos, let's go sit down, so you can tell me all the nasty rumors you've heard about me," he says, giving me a wide grin and a wink that chills me to the bone.