Book: Serves You Right

Jack Ewing

Serves You Right

After six years on the job, you still sweat out the first call. It often sets the tone for the day.

What's behind Door Number One?

Re-check the name and address. Yep, this is the place: a faded bungalow, identical to a dozen others along this block off La Cienega, within earshot of the Santa Monica Freeway. An overgrown banana tree in the front yard. Paint flakes away around Venetian-blinded windows. The screen door is warped, with enough holes in the mesh to admit an army of insects.

Knock with your right hand, keep the left behind your back.

After a moment, the door opens. A tiny gray-haired lady in a faded print dress and orthopedic shoes pushes the screen at you.

"Yes?" She smiles, blinking into bright sunlight.

Keep an eye out for a weapon on her, remembering the hag a couple years back that stuck you with a hatpin. "Leora Swenson?"

"Why, yes, I am." Her smile widens, reveals too-white teeth and too-pink gums.

"This is for you." Bring the folded paper forward and place it in her age-spotted hand.

She adjusts bifocals and reads her own name on the front where it says DEFENDANT. She stares at the fancy lettering, then looks up, her eyebrows coming together.

"What is it?"

"Summons and complaint, Miz Swenson." Check the copy in the breast pocket of your summer-weight suit coat. "Says here you owe the medical center 983 bucks and change. Didn't you hear from Stein & Fleisch, the collection attorneys, about this?"

"Yes, I received some letters." Her eyes fix on the paper in her hand. "But I threw them away."

Jeez, you think, some people are too dumb for words. "Why'd you do that?"

"I thought there must be some mistake. I was sure health insurance covered my operation."

Silently, you wonder what doctors took out or put in. Maybe they removed her brain. Must have--she ignored Stein & Fleisch.

Her wrinkles deepen. "How can this be?" she quavers. The summons wobbles in bony fingers that are all blue veins.

"Don't know anything about it," you say, as instructed. "I just hand out papers. Now, thing to do is call the lawyers. Number's on the back." Show her. "Call within thirty days or they can take you to court to get the dough."

"But I don't have a phone!" Her eyes beg for sympathy.

"Use a neighbor's. Or write the lawyers. But get in touch soon." Force a smile. "Believe me, lady, this is good advice."

She protests she doesn't get around so well. Her husband just died. She doesn't know where she'll get that kind of money. She barely gets by on Social Security. Her voice climbs on the Shrill-O-Meter. Before she starts crying, cut her off. You've heard it all before, hundreds of times, every excuse in the book. Even if you feel a little sorry for some of them, like this old lady, what are you gonna do? Pay their bills?

"Look, talk to the lawyers. They'll set up a payment schedule." Leave her standing there, like something carved out of soap.

Walk back to the car, around the corner. A sleek black sedan, it goes well with your expensive, steel gray suit. Together, they lend an official look that's not out of place in upscale neighborhoods, a look that gives you an edge in the low-rent districts.

Climbing in, you get the air conditioning going and fill out the required turn-in form attached to your copy of the summons. There are spaces to write in name of person served, address, date, time, and a thumbnail description: race, hair and eye color, approximate age, weight and height. This form is intended to check the process server's honesty, to discourage claiming successful service and collecting your fee-- when actually you've gone nowhere near the defendant's house and have trashed his paper to save yourself the bother.

You'd never do such a thing, of course, but you've heard about others in the trade who have cheated. A guy over in Ventura County allegedly got in trouble for putting down a "Chris Smith" he supposedly served as a white male, 40, 5'9", 150. Unfortunately, the real defendant turned out to be a twenty-something female, black, about 6'2" and 300 pounds.

Sign the completed form, swearing it's true, and put it in the glove box.

One down, twenty-nine to go. All arranged in rough geographical order--except for one you purposely put on the bottom--so you can hit each efficiently. But you'll still cover a hundred-fifty miles, easy, driving about a megalopolis crowded with double-digit millions of citizens, all sweltering in the grip of an unusually hot summer. It's going to be a busy day and, at a minimum of $25 per deadbeat, plus fifty cents per mile, a potentially profitable one.

The money's the only reason you stick with it. Wherever you go, you won't be welcome. Customers in their gated estates and penthouses, their suburban boxes, their ghetto shacks will all hate you for bringing bad news. And you'll hate them all right back with equal intensity--regardless of race, creed, color, national origin, or income--for the contempt that shows in their eyes. It's a dirty job, but somebody's got to do it. Pity the poor guy in line behind you, who has to repossess cars and couches and TVs.

Your next victim is a squat, pot-bellied, middle-aged white man in a sleeveless gray T-shirt with underarm sweat stains the size of dinner plates. Looks and smells like he was baptized in beer and has been swilling it nonstop ever since.

"Yeah?" he says, giving you the fish-eye from the doorway of his dinky rented walkup in El Segundo, spitting distance from LAX.

"Nyle Slick?" you shout over the roar of a departing plane.

"Yeah. So?" He scratches at three-day stubble and hitches up the crotch of his baggy pants.

"I'm here to give you this." Whip out the paper, stick it in his hand, and step back.

Mr. Slick stares at it stupidly before realizing what it is. He works himself into a huff in a half-minute. Purple-faced and panting curses, he tears the summons into tiny pieces and flings them after you. He slams the door, still airing his four-letter-word collection.

It all rolls off like rain sliding down a Turtle Wax shine. Long as they throw nothing but words and paper, who cares? Once you personally deliver the summons, the lucky recipient can wipe his butt with it, for all the good it will do. You'll still get paid. And the lawyers will still hound him.

Sylvia Maybon, in an apartment off Crenshaw in Inglewood, is a blowsy blonde, made up like a Kewpie doll, with lots of detailing around eyes and mouth. Her frilly robe falls open when she reaches to take the summons, as if she were doing an impromptu audition as a body double. "Oops," she says coyly, tucking back a rosy-tipped breast the size of a California grapefruit. She nibbles a corner of the paper, eyes locked on yours. "Thank you," she breathes, closing the door with both hands. Her robe parts again.

You say: "No, thank you."

When Scott J. Sklar of Lennox, a young fellow with connect-the-dot pimples on cheeks and forehead, opens the door of his cheapo duplex, you see a closet-sized room behind him. A teen-aged girl, his bride, sits in a ratty armchair, the only furniture visible, taping a disposable diaper onto a baby squirming on her lap. Mr. Sklar is foolish enough to answer when you ask where he works. This tidbit is valuable to the lawyers as a potential source of income if garnishment becomes necessary. It also earns you a bonus for providing the tip.

Joe Febus is a heavy-set, balding, weary-looking guy. He doesn't say word one when you serve him at his job, a tire store in Westmont.

Lisa Beale, an anorexic receptionist at a Torrance ad agency, glares through oversized, rhinestone-encrusted eyeglasses and calls you a bunch of bad names. Some of them might even be true, but she doesn't have to tell everybody.

There's Simon Rainey. His skinny, pinch-faced wife leads you through a huge mansion overlooking the ocean on Palos Verdes Drive. In a bedroom big as your whole apartment, Simon is plugged into a machine with tubes running under the covers. His eyes are glassy and his face seems made of wax. He barely has strength to lift his mummy's hand and take the summons.

There's one who won't admit she's who you know she is.

You ring the doorbell of a tidy frame house in Wilmington. When the door opens on a chubby, fortyish woman trying to look thirty, you ask: "Colleen Qualls?"

"What is it?"

"Are you Colleen Qualls?"

"Who wants to know?"

"Look, I've got something to give Colleen Qualls. You that person?"

"What have you got for m-- her?"

"I can only give it to Colleen."

"Can't you tell me what it is?"

"Nope. Sorry. Not unless you're Colleen."

"Why? Is it a secret or something?"

"Let's just say it's a surprise."

Her heavily shadowed eyes light up. She brushes a lacquered curl that immediately springs back into place. "I love surprises. Give me a hint."

"Okay. Maybe I've got a residual check for Colleen. Maybe I found something she lost. Maybe--"

Her face goes through a series of changes, starting with hope and ending with suspicion. "Maybe you're full of crap." She shuts the door in your face, looking as though she wants to bite you.

You break for lunch at a fast-food chain, eager to get back into action, to plow through the day's chaff and get to the kernel: the paper at the bottom of the pile. After downing a tasteless burger and bitter iced tea, you head out again.

Next target is one Oscar Dill, who works at Ace's Barbershop in Compton. You find the place sandwiched between a porn store and a bar, and walk in, feeling the comforting weight of a roll of nickels in your pocket. It's a hedge against the only real difference between the rich and the poor: people with nothing to lose are more unpredictable in the face of adversity.

To the right, four young black dudes, all wearing mirrored shades and tats and pants slung low so their underwear shows, slouch in high-backed chairs. You feel their eyes as you approach the first of two black barbers. A tall, thin, light-skinned guy, he is running electric clippers over a teen's gourd-shaped head.

"Excuse me," you say to him, "Oscar here?"

He waves the clippers towards the back.

You start that way, passing the other barber, a very dark man built like a NFL football lineman. He has a straight-edged razor and is giving side-walls to an elderly black gentleman asleep in the chair. The second barber tracks you without moving his head.

A small, chocolate-colored man with graying hair emerges from a room in the rear of the shop. He wears coveralls and carries push broom and dustpan.

Ask him: "You Oscar Dill?"

He looks at your mouth. The whites of his eyes are bloodshot and yellowish, like Tabasco-laced egg yolks. He nods.

"Mind stepping outside with me, Mr. Dill? Like to speak in private with you a sec."

Oscar's head tilts up and down. He props tools against a wall, shuffles towards the door leading outside. You follow, glad to be away from the silver-eyed customers and wooden-faced barbers. On the sidewalk ten feet from the shop the little man faces you, eyes fixed on the knot of your fifty-dollar tie.

"Mr. Dill," you say, pulling out the paper, "I'm here to deliver this sum--"

The door to the shop opens and the larger barber glides over. He still holds the open razor in a fist the size of a coconut. Sunlight glints off the foam-flecked blade. "Don't give him that." His voice is so soft you have to strain to hear. Over his breast pocket, at your eye level, is embroidered ACE.

Take a step back, your heels crunching broken glass, give him the line, the load of B.S. "Sir, I'm a duly empowered process server, legally serving this paper on Mr. Dill, and--"

"Don't give him that," Ace whispers, his breath all minty.

Take another backward step, suddenly aware of black faces pressed against the insides of shop windows and gathered along the sidewalk to watch the action.

A dark fat man with a pool cue steps out of the bar.

Beside him, a slender guy tall enough to play pro hoops for the Clippers shifts his grip on a beer bottle.

A very light-skinned young man with acne stands at the door of the porn store, his magazine open to a photo that shows an Afro-American male and a Caucasian female engaged in an act that would have been cause for lynching in the South a few decades back.

Two little girls carrying a jump rope between them, their pigtailed hair done up in dozens of bright bows, pause a yard away.

"Is whitey gone get cut?" one asks.

"Look to be," the other says matter-of-factly.

Talk fast to the barber. "Wait. You don't understand, Mr. -- Ace. This is a summons. Says Mr. Dill here owes somebody money." You feel sweat gathering in the wings of your nose and in the hollow beneath your lower lip. "I'm not here to collect the cash, don't get me wrong." You wave the paper, your other hand tight and damp about two dollars' worth of nickels. "Just delivering bills, like the mailman." Try on a grin, wondering what your lips are really doing. "You don't get mad at the mailman, do you?"

Ace leans forward from the waist, like a building about to fall.

"Don't give him that."

You look from Ace to Oscar.

The little man stares at the sidewalk as though an image of the Virgin is materializing there, in Technicolor. He doesn't say zip.

Give it one last try. "Believe me, brother," you say to the barber, "if I don't hand him this paper today, it'll be served by the sheriff. You don't want that, do you? It'll be more of a hassle. And it'll cost Oscar more in the end." Your shirt sticks to your back.

Ace flicks the razor with a quick motion. A glob of lime-scented shaving cream lands on your cheek.

The little girls laugh.

"Go away," Ace says, forming words carefully with thick lips.

You walk off, to impolite applause and catcalls. Let the law fool with them.

It goes smoother with Marta Ramirez, a fat young Hispanic woman with six or eight squalling, snot-nosed kids making a racket behind her. She lives in a rundown East L.A. apartment building that smells like it's survived a recent fire. "Que?" she says, thick eyebrows twisting as she turns the paper this way and that. "Que?"

The rest of the afternoon, weaving north through Monterey Park, Rosemead, Alhambra, Temple City, Arcadia, you meet with varying success, but catch a few welshers in Pasadena during the early evening, around dinnertime.

At last, there's only one summons unaccounted for. The one you've saved for last. The one you always save for last, like dessert, with the name on it almost as familiar as your own: Brent Wixom.

You'd been given Wixom's paper back when you first began as a process server, when you still felt bad about bringing people legal misery, when he only owed a few hundred to a loan company. You've dogged his trail ever since, following him to dozens of different ramshackle dwellings scattered around the city and surrounding suburbs. Each time, the amount of his debt grew, thanks to lawyer's fees and interest. Now, instead of hundreds, he owes thousands. You'd find his latest address. He'd be gone. You'd dig up a new lead.

From a former neighbor in Irvine, a white-haired man with a bulldog's face and an educated voice, still living beside a house Wixom once rented: "Brent? He hasn't lived next door in more than a year. If I recall correctly, he mentioned something about moving in with a friend in Pomona. Garey Avenue, perhaps?"

From the landlord of a fleabag hotel in Norwalk, a gaunt little guy with suitcases under his eyes: "S.O.B. sneaked out in the middle of the night last December. Owed two months rent. Left beer cans and pizza boxes piled two feet deep in there. Ants had a field day. Probably went to sponge off his sister, over to Tustin."

From a mail carrier with graying hair and walrus moustache:

"Here's the last address we got on him. Gimme the ten-spot."

You'd write down what you learned and turn in the paper for reprocessing. The lawyers would follow up through other channels, pin down a new number on a new street, and send you off again.

Slowly, you closed the gap. You'd started out a couple years behind him in the beginning. Over time, you narrowed it to months. Now, the trail is only weeks old.

He'd been a blank at the start, too. Now, you know what he looks like. White, about thirty, a tad over six feet tall, slender, with short, dark hair.

Sure, that description could fit thousands of guys in the city. But if you get close, you've picked up a few other things to help identify your quarry.

He smokes cigarettes. A sourpuss landlady in Pico Rivera mentions this, complaining about getting the smell out of drapes.

There's a mole at the base of his throat and a tattoo, a crude star in blue, on his right hand. These hints come from a former neighbor in a cheesy apartment building in Covina--a shapely redhead, who comes on to you while answering questions.

He drinks Corona beer and likes loud music, according to the rheumy old man with a room beneath one in Venice that Wixom used to occupy.

You want this guy. It's a matter of professional pride to nail him. You've gone after thousands of lowlife debtors and, outside of a few who croaked or a handful that fled to other states, beyond your reach, not one you went after has escaped service--not one.

Wixom won't get away, either, if you can help it. You've got your reputation to consider.

You head back downtown, drop off the bundle of served papers in the night slot at Stein & Fleisch's plush law offices at the western end of the Miracle Mile, then swing north up Fairfax.

At Hollywood Boulevard, you cruise east in no particular hurry, dodging curb-hopping skateboarders and knots of sightseers wandering the world's most famous street. You gawked along here yourself when you first arrived in town and still had big dreams.

Nowadays, your main ambition is to paper somebody on the A-list, like Harrison Ford or a big-name director, to whom you can pitch your screenplays before you're shooed off the premises. Problem is, those types never run up tabs they can't pay. So the best you can hope for is to bend the ear of the low-level production assistants, over-the-hill child stars, out-of-work character actors or broken-down stunt men who occasionally show up in the stacks of summonses.

On the boulevard, the Roosevelt Hotel, with Louis Armstrong's star embedded in the sidewalk right out front, is bustling this evening. Opposite, the Chinese Theater shines in gaudy neon splendor, illuminating tourists stepping into the footprints of dead screen legends. There's a line outside the Wax Museum, where visitors can peek up the skirt of a Marilyn Monroe figurine. Past the Egyptian's faded glory, Musso and Frank's chophouse, Frederick's purple passion palace, the staid Janes House oblivious to all the glitter, you cross the intersection of Hollywood & Vine. There's not much left to show this was once the heart of The Industry--just the Capitol Records Tower up Vine, like a stack of 45's.

Continuing east, you approach Normandie, and for a fleeting minute think of turning south to your comfy apartment below Sunset. But you've got a job to do first. Might as well get to it.

Left on Rampart. Right on Temple. Left on Alvarado and onto the Glendale Freeway. Then take the I-210 towards San Fernando. On to Lowell and Honolulu Avenue. Lots of traffic tonight.

It is after nine p.m. when you pull up to Wixom's most recent address far up Tujunga Canyon Boulevard. You coaxed the number out of a young, balding fellow who once worked part-time with the man you're after. Nice guy, if a little talkative--you wouldn't want a blabbermouth like baldy for a friend--especially with a couple of beers in him. Beers you, posing as Wixom's long-lost buddy, sprang for.

The place is on a dinky side street, where the road rises towards the bulk of the San Gabriel Mountains. It's a run-down, two-story clapboard house sitting all by itself beside a lone eucalyptus, blushed pink by the dying sun.

You wonder if you've been steered wrong again. Or set up by Wixom's chum, who maybe wasn't as loaded as he let on, and decoyed you out here to give your prey time to escape to some other hole.

Might as well check it out, long as you're already here. Park a hundred yards below the joint, behind a clump of chaparral that hides your car from the house, and walk up. The air is cooler, cleaner here than downtown. A balmy breeze, perhaps a harbinger of the Santa Anas, ruffles your hair.

A light burns in a downstairs window. The door to the screened-in front porch is locked when you try it. Heavy-metal music thumps inside. Somebody lives here. Wixom?

Cat-foot it around the side of the house. In the driveway sits an old beat-up dark Ford. Jot down the make and license plate number on the back of somebody's business card from your wallet, just in case. Might be worth extra cash to you.

At one of the side windows on the first floor is a half-inch gap between the shade and the bottom of the sill. Put an eye to it.

Living room. A detergent commercial plays on a silent TV set in one corner. In the middle of the room is a scarred coffee table piled high with newspapers, empty takeout food containers and Corona beer bottles. An arm's length away is the back of an overstuffed chair. A hand with a lit filtered cigarette stuck between the first two fingers appears on the armrest of the chair, goes away again, followed by a cloud of exhaled smoke.

Hike around back. The veneer of the door here is peeling away in strips. Knock.

After a minute, a yellow bug light comes on overhead. The door opens a few inches, letting out loud, so-called music. In the lemony glow of the bulb, the man peering out seems the right age, the right height, his hair dark and shaggy. His eyes narrow to slits, sweep you up and down. "Who're you?" There is surprise in his voice.

"Brent Wixom?"

The space between door and frame widens. He's wearing tank top and cutoffs. There's a dime-sized brown spot, like a drop of chocolate, where his neck meets the black mat of chest hair. "What if I am? How'd you find me?"

Moments like this, when you finally corner a slippery debtor, make the job worth it.

"Well, Brent," you say, voice rich with satisfaction, "I've brought you something." Reach for the paper in your breast pocket.

His star-tattooed hand comes out from behind the door. "No, you don't!" he yells, pointing a finger at you.

A finger that gleams.

A finger with a hole in the end of it.

A finger that roars and catches fire.

You jackknife away but something slams you in the gut, lets the air out, and collapses you like a punctured balloon. Drop in a heap at his feet, clutching yourself, trying to hold back thick, warm liquid seeping between your fingers.

Wixom stands over you, the gun aimed at your head. The bore looks big as a tunnel. "How you like that, jerk?" he sneers. "Thought you'd just waltz in and blast me, didn't you? Thought I wouldn't fight back, that I'd rabbit again, huh? Well, I'm through running. Gonna go to the cops, tell 'em what I know. What you think of that?"

What the hell is he yapping about? you wonder vaguely, drowning in a sea of pain.

He kicks you lightly in the thigh with the toe of a sneaker. "S'matter, big man, got nothing to say? You honchos always think you're tough. Don't look so tough now."

You want to tell him he's made a terrible mistake, that you're just a harmless process server, but you don't have the wind for it. Fumble with a bloody hand for the paper in your pocket.

"Don't try it." He jams the warm muzzle of the pistol against your temple and bends to slap your hand away. "I'll take the piece."

Feeling in your coat, Wixom finds nothing but the summons. He pats you down, then unfolds the paper with his name on the front, reads it, frowning, with frequent glances to make sure you don't pull anything.

When he lowers the document, his eyes are two bleak holes in a white mask. "This is all you came to see me about?" Doubt shreds his voice. "You're here to give me a crummy summons?" He leans, peers into your face. "You mean Andy didn't send you out to shut me up?"

You manage small nods and head shakes in response to his questions, trying not to moan in agony.

"Christ." Wixom runs shaky fingers through his hair. "I shot a damn process server. Now I'm really in trouble."

His eyes wander away and his body follows. "They put me in the lockup for this," he says to the side of the house, "I'm in deep tapioca. Be a sitting duck for Andy's boys. They'll pop me for sure." He bangs the butt of the gun against the faded clapboards and paint chips fly.

You try to say, "Help me." It comes out a ragged whisper.

Wixom walks back, the gun hanging loose in his fist. "Sorry, pal." He pats your shoulder in sympathy. "You might not think so now, but I got worse troubles than you. Got to get gone or I'm dead meat. But I'll call for an ambulance before I go. Honest." He jams the gun in the waistband of his cutoffs, gives a twisted smile. "So long, guy. Good luck. Hope you pull through. I really mean it."

Wixom stuffs the crumpled summons in his jeans and runs back into the house. A few minutes later, he charges out the back door, cheap suitcase in one hand. "I called 911," he says breathlessly. "Said they'd be right out. Hang on."

He disappears around the corner of the house. A minute later, the car starts and screeches away.

Pull yourself into sitting position, press your hanky to the wound. The slug has passed clean through at a shallow angle, giving you two new navels. It's messy. Hurts like hell. Doesn't feel fatal.

Insurance will pick up the tab on the repair job.

Worker's Comp will pay for the time you're laid up.

And Stein & Fleisch will shell out for another suit to replace the one Wixom ruined.

You'll come out okay. But Wixom's slipped away again. Damn!

"Better run, jerk, fast and far," you call feebly, raising a red-stained middle finger towards taillights receding over a distant hill.

Whoever else is after him may give up after awhile. But you won't. And the lawyers? Never!

For something to do before the medics arrive, something to take your mind off the fire in your side, fill in the form attached to your copy of Wixom's summons--he took the paper, didn't he?

The crimson fingerprints are a nice touch.

Don't forget to add the make of Wixom's car and his license plate number, too, because those are worth a bonus.

When you hear the wail of a siren, coming closer, stick the paper away, put your thoughts on hold of turning this incident into a Movie of the Week script, and tote up the day's earnings in your mind.

Counting Wixom, over four hundred bucks. Plus mileage.

All things considered, not a bad day. Not a bad day at all.

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