Going to California

Life by the Valley — 9.1

During one of Jim’s short stays back in California between extended trips away — he wanted to use all his vacation time before leaving Yahoo to work full-time on his startup, Mojo Nation — there was time to get back to our preferred rib place, only to be confronted with a terrible reality. They were closing.

“They raise my rent,” said the restaurant’s proprietor, a massive, middle-aged Caribbean man. He was maybe a head taller and more than twice as wide as I was from any angle. We’d become “hey”-level friends after Jim and I had eaten enough ribs there that we didn’t strictly speaking need to order after sitting down — and it wasn’t because we stood out as the only two gringo dudes in the place, but because we were some of the only-ever dudes in the place. Once, I saw diners at as many as four other tables while we were there. Usually, the place was empty, or nearly so. This in itself should’ve been strange, just blocks from Stanford University and high-class downtown Palo Alto. Why was there never anyone else there? Never mind: we’ll have the ribs again, please.

“That sucks,” Jim said.

The big man gripped his heart and lowered his head, grimacing as if speared. “Closing party, end of the month,” he said. “Fifty dollars gets you in that night, and anything, everything. All the drink —” He waved his hand over the bar, and it was finely stocked. “—whatever you want.”

Jim knew what he wanted. “Aw, I can’t make it,” he said. “I’ll be out of town.” Africa, I think it was, actually, on safari with his father. “Can I get some of those ribs?”

The guy paused for a moment. “It will be a buffet, for all the food we have left. Will be much, but no ribs.”

Jim pulled out his wallet. “What if I paid you now for two orders of ribs? Could you wrap them up for me that night?” He pointed at me. “He can pick it up.”

The guy was a big man, like I said, but not so big as to avoid taking Jim’s money. I had enough love for the place that sure, I’d be there for its final night.

There’d been a lot of sketchy people working there, a revolving door of folk who didn’t seem interested in eye contact and who I may have never seen again, but there had been this one waiter who’d seemed like a decent guy, the kind of person who looked back at you honestly when you looked at him. I thought of him as the cool dude.

As I walked in the door that early Saturday evening for the rib-joint’s final party, with a friend who’d probably prefer to remain nameless, I immediately took it as a bad sign when the cool dude held the door open for me but wouldn’t look at me. Okay, I thought, maybe he’s preoccupied. He’s basically losing his job with no notice. It’s his last day of work, and it’s a party where everyone’s paid $50 a head to consume as much of what remains of the place before the doors close forever. He might not expect to rake in the tips. So I figured maybe that would explain it.

There were a surprisingly large number of people there. About two-thirds were white couples in their 60s, oddly, with a couple of black guys flanked by outrageously over-proportioned blondes and a small crowd of somber, younger Hispanic guys, with the occasional young woman darting in and around between them.

Huh, I thought. My friend had never been there before, so he didn’t sense anything out of sorts. Then one of the older guys approached our table, gripping a larger, old-style camera with a massive flash mounted on top.

“Do you mind,” he asked us, “if you, ah, end up showing up in the background of some of the pictures from tonight?”

My friend and I looked at each other.

“No,” we said. He smiled, mopping his brow, breathing more quickly, and walked off. An older woman at the table to which he retreated saluted us with a shaky thumbs-up.

“You have to admit that was weird,” I said.

“I’ll gladly admit it. When is the food coming out?”

“In just a bit, I’d guess. The kitchen looks busy as hell.”

“Will someone come by to take our drink order or what?”

I looked around. Cool dude was working the bar.

“I’ll be right back,” I said, and moseyed on over.

He smiled thinly as I approached.
“What are you having?” he asked, lips pursed.

“I don’t know. What do you recommend?”

“I make something,” he said, turning away, rustling through a three-deep shelf of half-empty bottles. Over his shoulder, without looking at me, he asked, “Are you planning on staying…for the whole night?”

“Sure,” I said, and it echoed in my head like the voice of the naive farm boy in the horror movie who doesn’t know what he’s getting into. “And you?” I asked, trying to shake the feeling.

He shook his head, cheeks creasing with a forced smile. “Oh, no, no, no,” he said. “I’m here for an hour, then that’s all.” He held up the drink he’d poured into a plastic, 64-ounce cup. “I’m gone.”

I stared at the drink. “Would you mind making another one? For my friend?”

He nodded, and much more quickly poured equal amounts of Coke and rum together into another equally large cup.

“Good luck,” he said, and turned to the next person approaching the bar. I left him a giant tip, and time seemed to slow as I walked back to the table. I rewound the conversation in my head as I walked.

I played back what I’d heard again for my friend.

“What?” he said. “Come on. You’re fine, dude. You’re making a big deal about nothing.”

“I don’t know, man. What about that camera guy? Wasn’t that a little strange?”

“He’s an old dude, dude. They act weird.”

Some food came out. They gave us little paper plates just big enough to fit in our palms, which we greedily piled with shredded chicken and fried plantains and grilled carrots. The lights dimmed. The Caribbean music grew louder. A lot more people must have shown up when I wasn’t looking.

Then another guy from the same table as camera guy came over to us.

“I haven’t seen you boys around here before,” he said, raising his voice over the music.

“It’s my first time,” my friend half-shouted. The guy’s eyes grew wide.

“I’ve been here a bunch,” I said quickly. “Made a few friends.” I waved at the massive proprietor, who’d taken up a position near the front door to welcome new arrivals. He wasn’t receiving anyone at the moment, so he waved back, a smile nearly as wide as my actual head.

“Oh!” the man said, shoulders relaxing visibly. “Oh. Well that’s fine, then.” He laughed. “How silly,” he said.

We smiled, nodding.

“So, are you boys staying…for the whole night?”

I avoided looking at my friend directly, but all the energy seemed to go out of his posture.

“Sure!” I said. “Sure, why not?”

The old guy laughed. “Why not?” he repeated back to me, striking a dance pose before shuffling off across the room. Three people back at his table waved at us, thumbs up.

“Okay,” my friend said, face down low against the table. “I did not like that.”

“There’s something going on here.”

“Oh, you think? You think? What the fuck, man?” He picked at a plantain. “They haven’t even brought out the good stuff, yet.” He took a sip of his drink and nearly spat it out. “What is this?”

“I think it’s all the rum they can’t sell after tonight.”

“Jesus Christ! Someone actually made this drink for you?” He leaned over to peer into my cup. “Did you really already drink half of that shit? Who made that?”

“The guy who also asked if were were staying for the whole night. Besides, my drink didn’t have nearly as much booze as yours.”

“Really?” he asked.

I glanced around. It had gotten dark in there while we were talking. A crushing paranoia descended upon me which in retrospect I’ll call the distant scream of good sense.

“Let’s get out of here,” I said.

My friend stood. “I gotta go to the bathroom,” he said.

“Cool.” I slapped my forehead. “Shit! Shit. Jim’s ribs.”

“What?”

“Nothing. Bathroom’s that way. I’ll see you over there.”

We split up. Walking over to the kitchen was like swimming through syrup. This was not the effect of alcohol. What the hell?

The guys in the kitchen did not speak English. I got it into my head that I could speak Spanish, and they didn’t understand that, either. I’d have to appeal to higher powers.

Massive man was still standing by the front door, though now he seemed to be greeting people who were leaving, not arriving. I was confused. He had his back to me, so I moved to tap him on his fat shoulder when suddenly a young, dark-haired woman, her face the portrait of fear, leapt in my way to wave me off. Then she stuck a smile to her face and spun around, facing the increasingly long line of dudes who were exit-greeting massive man. She discretely waved me over to one side, holding up a finger in the universal symbol of “please hang on” while helping attend the dudes. One by one they stepped forward to greet massive man, strongly shaking his massive hand. From my vantage point, I could see the swollen rolls of twenties and hundreds that each young Hispanic guy in turn pressing into his palm with each handshake, quickly passed off to the young lady, which she in turn was stuffing in a paper bag just as smoothly as she could.

Once the ritual line emptied out, she went up on her tip-toes and tapped him on the shoulder, pointing him over at me. For a moment, a frightened look passed across his face.

“My friend had paid for some ribs,” I said, pointing at the kitchen, “but the guys back there—“

He swept in, gripping me in a fierce hug. “You like-a my ribs!” he shouted, clapping me repeatedly on the back, pointing over to the kitchen and yelling something that was not exactly Spanish but which threw the cooks into a commotion. He slapped me once more on the back and like a partially tranquilized elephant turned away, lumbering back into the restaurant. I never saw him again.

The cooks passed over a pair of to-go containers, nodding fearfully, smiling hesitantly.

“Dude,” said my friend, returning from the bathroom. “I was wondering if maybe we should give it another—“

“Drug front,” I muttered, like a cough. “We’re gone.”

“What?!” he said, following me out the back door of the place. It was dark out, with rain coming down surprisingly hard. We bolted toward my car; I tossed him the keys — “You drive!” — and in minutes we were back at my apartment wondering what the hell had happened.

I don’t remember what time it was when it occurred to me that I should do something with the two boxes of ribs. My friend had only stayed for a little while before heading home — I think he only partly believed what I’d said I witnessed while he was in the bathroom — and the same album was playing that I’d put on when we’d come in. To be fair, though, it was the same music I’d been playing when we’d left originally, so it could just as easily have been on repeat.

Ah, crap: and, of course, there were the cats. Jim had been gone two days already, and I hadn’t stopped by to check on his cats. For whatever reason, it felt important to do it right then, slipping the ribs into Jim’s freezer at the same time. I still had no idea what had been in that drink — I wasn’t much of a drinker, but it didn’t feel much like the effects of alcohol — but I felt fine to drive. I probably wasn’t. I was probably doing something stupid. Jim didn’t live more than a quarter mile away, accessible through small suburban roads, so it felt low risk if my perception of my driving skill turned out to be skewed.

Jim lived on Rich Street, humorously enough. For a Silicon Valley multi-millionaire, he’d kept his humble digs: a one-bedroom rental in a two-story complex that probably hadn’t seen much maintenance since the late 1980s. That was the weird thing about Silicon Valley at the turn of the Twenty-First Century. The fastest computers in the world? Check. The greatest storage density available to mankind? Check. Buildings less than ten years old? Hardly anywhere. The whole place seemed build in the mid-80s and left to fend for itself against an annual brushing of light rain. I reckoned it was smart because it probably made him less of a target, in any case.

I got there just fine, walking up to the back door through his apartment’s rear parking space. Unlocking and swinging the door open, though, my paranoia flared up again, like a black bird on my shoulder, cawing madly.

That’s when I realized I was looking into Jim’s small apartment, but I was also looking out at the night sky beyond. Across the living room from the back door, the front door was half open.

A backed out, closing the rear entry in front of me. Again, suffocating in what I thought at the time was my own paranoia but which now sounds a lot more like good common sense, my flight instinct was strong.

Naturally, I walked around to the front of the apartment to the open door. After all, I’d signed up to watch Jim’s apartment. This was my responsibility.

I pulled out my cell phone. “Yeah,” I said to no one. “Hello? Hey. Yeah. Me? Nothing. Stupid evening. Feeding your cats now.” With a soft toe press, I swung the door fully open before stepping inside.

“Uh, huh,” I said, scanning the apartment. It didn’t look like it had been ransacked though, meaning no disrespect to Jim, it could be hard to tell. When you’re the guy who picks up all the toys, it can be a hassle figuring out where to pile it all neatly. But I easily counted six things that I’d have taken if I were robbing the place. Maybe Jim had been in one of his usual hurries to the airport and didn’t swing the door fully shut? When did he use the front door, anyway?

I walked slowly toward the bedroom. My jaw began to jitter, teeth chattering.

“There’s this guy named Doug,” I said. “Oh, you know him. Yeah, well, he’s got a new girlfriend. Official photographer of some Indian cult guru. No, come on, I’m not kidding.” There was no one in his bedroom. The closets were closed. I wasn’t going to open them. If someone walked in on you robbing a place, and your first reaction was not to run out one of the two available exits when you had a chance but instead tucked yourself away in a closet packed tightly with startup t-shirts and tech toys, then you’re dedicated enough to get away with it.

I fed the cats. “Sure,” I said, “he seems happy. Of course that’s all that’s important. I agree, he certainly deserves to be happy after all the crap he’s been through.” I tucked the ribs in the freezer. “Oh, what’s that? You’re coming back tomorrow morning early? Ah, cool. So I’ll just lock up then.”

I drove back to my place, still holding the phone to my head.

“No, I can’t explain what happened at the rib joint. But I think we were the only people going there for the ribs. No wonder he loved having us. Cocaine, I’ll guess. And there had to be some sex angle. No, I’m not driving back over there.” I walked into my place, checking the clock. “I know it’s not even eleven. Sure, they’re probably still going at it. Yes, I know I’m just sitting here talking on the phone.” I pulled the phone away from my head. “And there’s not actually anyone on the phone, so I’m not sure who I’m arguing with. Yes, I know I sound like a paranoid delusional. You say that like it’s a new thing.”

I set the phone down on my dining room table and made sure the window blinds were shut tight. “Yes,” I said, “I know I’m still talking to the air. It’s because for weeks now, I haven’t been able to shake the feeling that someone’s watching me, somewhere. And days like this do not help me, not at all.”

Wherever Jim was, he probably wasn’t paying attention to Yahoo’s stock price. For five days at the end of March, it had reached and then slightly exceeded it’s value at the time of early February’s denial of service attacks. It would never be that high ever again. After cresting 100, in three weeks it dropped to 57.

Still, that was the least frightening thing I heard all month. Only a few days later, I found out who was spying on me — on all of us — and why.

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