Nobody Knows Anybody by Bill Capron
Some would call it an embarrassment of riches. Me, well it was embarrassing. I mean, how am I to deal with an airport farewell of two beautiful women, both of whom love me, but only one that I love. Still, that’s a man’s eye view of things, and it has nothing to do with reality.
They were fussing over me. “Are you comfortable?” “Do the stitches hurt?” “I’ll tell the stewardess, do they still call them that, to give you special treatment.” “Won’t the change in air pressure affect you?” “Can I get you some coffee?” “You sure you don’t want me to fly down this weekend?” It made my face feel warm. It must be a guy thing.
Now, the two of them got by it, but then, that’s because they’re women, and they understand stuff like that. The one I love, Becky Tomay, all five-one, ninety-five flat-chested pounds of her took it in stride. She’s had a few ups and downs in her life. I’m one of the ups. We don’t live together, but we share our three households like they were extra rooms in a single large meta-house. We’re in love, still in the early stages. Becky, well, she doesn’t doubt me for a minute. And I’m worthy of her trust. All the time. She knows it. She even understands Denise, which is more than I’ll ever admit to.
Denise Richards, well, she doesn’t really love me, but she has a way of putting the moves on me that goes with her equipment; like Mae West said, she’s made that way. She stands a tantalizingly shapely five-eight with hair she tells me is auburn, as if it means a thing to me. She’s courting her fourth husband. He won’t be her last. She’s not made that way.
Sometimes I think, deep down, Denise really does love me, but that’s more my fault than hers. Thinking it, that is. She’s a temptress. I’ve been tempted. But I keep a close rein on my hormones. She acts like getting by my defenses is a final exam. For what? I don’t know.
Thankfully, Denise doesn’t work for me. No, she’s the queen legal secretary for the lawyers of Whitman, Howard, Ormand, Masters and Edmonds, known affectionately as WHO-ME with a question mark in the tone. It’s a place where they practice law, but it’s got nothing to do with justice. Denise is the only one in the place that knows that. It’s one of the reasons I like her, a lot. But not the most important one.
Denise is a walking encyclopedia of Portland pop culture, and its legal profession subset. She’s only twenty-nine, but she knows everybody, and everything that’s going on. And if she doesn’t know it, she knows where to find a person who knows it. She’s a girl who lives life two levels closer to what’s really happening than I do, and I’m better at it than your normal oblivious male. It makes her pretty special. Add to that the good looks, a glib tongue, pretty ears that hear it all, eyes that miss nothing, and an eclectic group of friends sprinkled throughout the human infrastructure of Portland, and she becomes the best source this private investigator ever had.
And, Denise knows what other people think, maybe. Me, I haven’t a clue, but then, that’s what this was all about; sort of.
Chapter 1 – Friday Night
I first met Willie Lopez twenty years ago, when I hired him as the inventory manager for our maquiladora plant in Nogales, Mexico, in my pre-detective days. Willie, according to the then-current story of his life, had recently gone bankrupt in the used car business in Tucson. This followed, time-frame indeterminate, a forced bankruptcy by the IRS of three bars he’d owned in Los Angles. His checkered past was dotted with a series of manufacturing jobs like moorings at which he stabilized his life after his unsuccessful forays into the more dangerous waters of entrepreneurship. If his resume was to be believed, Willie didn’t much care for manufacturing, but it was the one thing he did well. So, ignoring the obvious red flags, I figured Willie could do what was called for. What the hell, I needed him long enough to cut through the bureaucratic red tape and get my product out the door; it was a perfect match to Willie’s bull-in-a-china-shop mentality.
Working with Willie tested my then rudimentary, and since forgotten, management skills. I was constantly smoothing the feathers of peers, his and mine. They either loved him or hated him, depending on the week, and, of course, whose ox he was goring at the time. There was no middle ground with Willie, you were either with him or against him; there were no tepid sign-ons in Willie’s world. So I spent a lot of time gluing the china back together.
While I was right about the one thing, that Willie got the product out the door, I was wrong about the other; Willie lasted four years. Looking back with the certainty of twenty-twenty hindsight, there were long stretches where I spent more time cleaning up in his wake than doing my job. I often thought that if I’d fired Willie, my life would have been easier, but that wasn’t true. Breaking the logjam of production in our facilities required an ever-present belligerence in both English and Spanish, and Willie was born with an extra supply of each.
Willie was blustery and bragging, aggressive and pugnacious, sometimes mean, sometimes fearless, but always fast and loose. He had a way of doing a hundred things at once, none of them all the way. No, Willie never dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s. It was the people behind him, the ones in total fear of imminent failure, they always finished it off for him. For their own sakes, not Willie’s. With time, I came to view this as a special talent of his, but mine was probably a singularly held point of view. Still, that was Willie’s style, blowing through life with the governor turned off, and that was the essence of his usefulness to me. The fact that he eventually left the plant on his own two feet was a testament to the forbearance of those around him.
Willie was one of those guys, we all know them, who knows more than you do about anything. He always had more courage than you did, played better tennis, and took more chances. If you had the temerity to talk about your accomplishments, Willie followed it up with another ‘you can’t top this’ story. He pushed the edges of credulity, but he stopped one step before you’d ask for proof, or call him a liar. He was good at that.
Yes, Willie was forever trying to be more than he was, a puffer fish among the sharks of big business. But poor Willie was constrained by the reality of being a low level employee in a giant corporation barely cognizant of his existence. Sure, Willie could look momentarily important as he hijacked some executive rich meeting, but such moments were more often embarrassing than influential. It wasn’t like the battle-scarred executives I worked for hadn’t seen the genre before, the smoke blowers, but Willie, well he was blinders-on oblivious.
Willie worked in a corporate class system where he was relegated to a subservient status. He couldn’t understand and wouldn’t accept that others didn’t agree with him, or that he might be wrong, or that he wasn’t in a position to do anything about it. With a little patience, Willie could have grown in the company, but he didn’t have it in him to wait. It was like a Twilight Zone storyline where Willie began at the bottom and then, as he was poised to reach a higher rung of the ladder, maybe even skip a few rungs, he angrily tossed in the towel and went elsewhere to start at the bottom again.
Outside of work Willie had no such arbitrary constraints as he indulged a rich fantasy life. Most days, after working from five to five, he would drive like hell from the Mexico plant to get to the Cove Inn in Tucson by seven. If he was going to be late, he called a friend to hold his place. The dark bar disguised the worn cuffs and the cheap bagging polyester suit as he ensconced himself at his table, geographically centered five feet off the dance floor. His demeanor changed from angry in-your-face frustrated business type to composed nothing-bothers-me mafia-boss type, waiting for his ring to be kissed. Even remembered many years later, it was a hoot.
Without asking, the waitress brought over his tall seven-and-seven with a splash and a twist, as if, after thirty plus years of smoking three packs a day, his tongue could taste the difference; but it was part of the persona. At least once a week he’d tell the girl she’d forgotten the splash. She’d return to the bar, and then probably bring it back without the change. Willie knew it. She knew he knew it. They passed knowing winks. Willie thanked her and admonished her not to do it again. And as the night wore on, Willie’s entourage grew as he held a passive court from his tiny table, dispensing favors and drinks as required by his position.
Though at the time I didn’t know it, there are lots of Willies at lots of bars, a thin royal hierarchy based on the dubious quality of presence, self-serving largess, and scrupulous attention to the needs of their subjects. From nine to five these Willies are tiny fish in the big pond of life, but a driving force pushes them like mating salmon to find the largest pond small enough for them to be the big fish. Once found, they scout the territory, making sure no one else is sitting in the sultan’s chair. They never go head to head for hegemony, it’s not that kind of position. They look for the vacant seat, take an uncontested possession, and start the long slow process of being there, making friends, doing favors.
Willie attracted an eclectic group of hangers-on and pretty girls, the kind of people that in the bright light of day without a snoot-full wouldn’t admit to knowing each other. Secretaries and exotic dancers, sheet-rockers and builders, rednecks and car salesmen, assemblers and managers, all currying the favor of the sultan. Why? Because everyone else did. He was the center of attraction by habit, with no person able to recall when he showed up the first time, or how he attained his exalted position; he was there, that was all. Many of those who hung around him for months didn’t know his last name. He was Willie. He had installed himself as their monument, their touchstone of acceptance. Willie needed these acolytes to shore up his ego; what they needed from him was less obvious, but seemingly no less necessary. Even the memory of it was sad.
Willie always finished his night the same way, blowing more obfuscating smoke down the hall of mirrors that comprised his life. While the bar was still crowded, the limo driver came to his table, talked briefly. Willie would buy him a drink before accepting the ride home. Ostensibly this was Willie’s way to avoid a DUI, but its sole purpose was to further cultivate the sultan persona, by having his next door neighbor pick him up for free at the end of his shift. Yes, being Willie was a full-time job.
Unlike the business Willie, the bar Willie was a patient guy. He whiled away his time as he became important to the ambiance of the place; more important than the bartender, more important than the good-looking guys, more important than the tipsy girls who’d let him wrap a too often pawing arm around their waists. Yes, in that dark room, for those few hours, Willie was the local big shot.
That was how he appeared to me the first time I met him there, at his invitation. He looked to be the center of attention as the waitresses fawned, and everyone called him Willie. I was young; I was impressed. He called over the pretty girls to say hi and dance with me, more than willing to take credit for any favors they might bestow upon me. Such was the largess of the sultan. So I became a too frequent member of the entourage.
But being sultan was more than giving; it was having subjects, lives to mess with, an ersatz noblesse oblige. And too often this royal Willie abused his putative friends, like the lonely divorced men, especially those who had done better than he had in life’s lottery. Willie not only felt their pain, but he often caused it. I watched him play with their lives, humorously twisting their faces into the muck with nasty asides disguised as joking banter, diddling them for his singular enjoyment. Still, Willie was careful not to be overtly and obviously mean. No, that could produce a tawdry fight that might destroy the repose of the court, when all he really wanted was to shame them, lower them, say, ‘Look, you’re no better than I am.’ It was Willie’s chance to reign supreme over his betters, by displaying the wondrousness of his life when compared to their boring existence. Since then I’ve become a lot less naive, but at the time I was in awe of the importance of Willie Lopez, a carefully constructed awe that he meant to inspire at that first meeting.
I used to wonder if Truman Capote, Willie puffed up a million times, started out the same way. I mean, you couldn’t be a guy like that and start at the top. So he too must have found that small pond to look big in, currying his perceived bigness into the biggest of ponds. Or maybe he was rich. And maybe he owned the pond. Most though, like Willie, never reach any higher status in life, nor do they desire it. They are happy as the potentates of their small tribes from which they could bestow inclusion, or cut you out. With their targeted drink buying and small time pimping, they gained your esteem instead of your money. But like all things cheaply bought, that esteem tarnished easily.
Thus began a long relationship, and sometimes friendship, with a man I barely knew. Over the years, I learned about the real Willie in unintentional dribs and drabs, viewed through the chinks in his armor left by the normal battles of daily life. I helped finance his next business, fought off his pleas to take an active role in managing it, and watched it grow from a safe distance. I was best man at his wedding, I thought his second, in Reno, to a Canadian girl half his age. I saw his business mushroom in a year to three million, then fall apart in one week when the house of cards, built on stiffed creditors, bad debts and unhappy customers, crumbled to the ground. I heard rumors of ex-wives and ex-kids, debts to the IRS, bad business judgment. If I had cared enough, or had enough influence, I might have warned Willie to a safer path through life. Then, no, Willie would be Willie; and I was a bit player in the life of Willie Lopez. We all were. It was always about Willie; he was a stereotype of the me generation; not the royal me of me and mine, but the singular me of me, myself and I. And after all those years together, the man had no idea I was color-blind. I would have been surprised if he had.
Willie was an aggressive, in-your-face kind of guy, someone I found it hard to be around more than an hour at a time. He was always testing the envelope of our relationship, and then backing off, like a wild animal trainer. Like too many people I’ve met through the years, Willie was better remembered than he was experienced, but I still liked him. Even when he stiffed me for a five-thousand-dollar loan, a lot of money at the time, I figured he’d pay it back one day when he was in the chips. But that was in the past, and, as I was to learn, in Willie’s mind you never paid for yesterday’s debts with today’s assets. He didn’t think that way.
Well, Willie was once again moving up in the world, although not exactly in a straight line. He’d landed a Sunday filler right-leaning talk show on one of the little stations in Tucson, a tiny Rush Limbaugh in an unbelievably small pond. He preached high morals and pro-family life, something he must have read about. He even had plans to run for Congress, as if the lineup of skeletons in his closet were Halloween decorations. And Willie was again mixing with higher life-forms, used-car dealers.
Willie always had great plans. He was a predecessor of the New Agers who believe that dreaming about a thing is equivalent to working for it. Willie’s dreams had that quality of twenty percent effort and eighty percent wishful thinking, but he could make you think that other eighty percent was in his grasp. And I was willing to give Willie the benefit of the doubt, to help where I could, to lend a hand. I saw a needy Willie beneath the blustery exterior, but even that was a show, one of the many faces available when the circumstances called for it. That was a time when I thought I knew him well enough to think I’d seen the real Willie, that I’d glimpsed the Willie he hid even from himself. I’ve since lost that kind of hubris.
Willie crossed a line when he started living with a mutual acquaintance, although he didn’t know we knew each other at the time. Willie was down on his luck and needed a place to crash, a woman who could take care of him, a woman to sponge off of. When, after a long Willie-less period, he called me to discuss a new business opportunity, he apologized for being out of touch for so long. He was afraid I would think less of him because he was living with an older woman, not the usual young chickadees. Willie, twelve years Carrie’s senior, was embarrassed by her wrinkles! He couldn’t reconcile Carrie with his self-centered ever-youthful view of himself. Well, I knew Carrie, though at that time not so well, but over the last four years she became the good friend as Willie and I became more estranged.
So the outwardly conservative, family values, political mover-and-shaker Willie Lopez, a week before he got married for the fourth or fifth or whatever time, charged Carrie’s MasterCard to the max to upgrade his office equipment. Sure, he’s a traditional family-values type guy like myself, all for honesty, but when push came to shove, he had to have the computers. Then he tried to stiff her with the bill. Now, more than two years later, using his debt to exact a kind of cruel vengeance, he made her come to his house every month to pick up the paltry minimum payment, even as his financial status soared again. That was Willie. Whenever his character cracked, the mean little man that showed through wasn’t very pretty.
Three years ago, Willie started a new company to provide consulting services to the Air Force and the ubiquitous defense-based businesses that dotted the Tucson landscape. He was wheeling and dealing to build another house of cards as he took one last shot at the big time. He wanted to let me buy in on his new future, but I opted out without giving him a reason. The next time I saw him, about fourteen months ago, he was in a new bar, Wilmot Station. It was a step down from The Cove, but that didn’t matter. Willie was again in the seat of power, this time with his adoring new wife, Esmerelda, and the fawning guys and gals at whose youth he lapped. But it was for me a punctured facade, badly constructed and poorly worn. Willie Lopez at sixty-seven had played out his hand in my life, and I think he saw it in my eyes. It was a short meeting. I bought my own beer, my esteem not purchased so cheaply these days.
I thought I’d learned a lot about Willie Lopez over the years, by watching him, sharing friends, sharing enemies. But his built-up artifice and reality were so intertwined, I was at a loss to know where the real Willie Lopez began, and the papier-mâché Willie Lopez ended; but that was what Willie intended. Suffice it to say, Willie was Willie, but I no longer counted him a friend.
It was almost a week since Becky and Denise sent me off. I hadn’t seen Willie; and I had no intention of calling. Over the years the things I knew about Willie Lopez had become more ephemeral, and if I touched them, they might burst or fade away. So I let him be, before he evanesced to nothing. All he had left was what I didn’t know about him.
That Friday night there was a scratching at the door, followed by a short cough and a soft thud. When I opened it there was at least one certain thing I knew about Willie Lopez. Willie Lopez was dead.