STRAIGHT PEPPER DIET, A MEMOIR

by Joseph W. Naus

ONE (PROLOGUE)

I’m sitting in my office at Yi & Naus, the two-man law firm, my partner Will and I started last year. I have no less than twenty phone calls to return, a dozen letters to write, and several motions to draft, but I’ve been staring out the window at the traffic passing by, several stories below, for nearly an hour. In my chest is a feeling of dread. This feeling varies in strength, but it never completely disappears. Today it’s strong. Today, it took every bit of self-discipline I could muster just to drive into the office. As I stare downward, I keep thinking, do other people feel this shitty?

I can’t let anyone know the way I feel. They’d think I was insane, or at best, clinically depressed. I’d be committed to an insane asylum like my grandma was, or I’d have to spend the rest of my life in a shrink’s office zonked out on Valium talking about my feelings and walking around with a mannequin’s smile. I’d lose everything. It’s much better to conquer this on my own, just as I’ve done with everything else in my life. I’ll try harder. I’ll pull myself up by my bootstraps. I’m tough.

I hear Will’s wingtips tapping on the hallway floor. He’s heading toward my office.

“Hey, Champ,” Will says.

I take a deep breath, force a smile, and swivel around in my chair.

“How was court? Did we win?” I ask.

“Kind of …” Will replies.

“You know, Will, at Yi & Naus, victory is the only acceptable result,” I kid.

Will chuckles but doesn’t comment. The crease between his eyes reveals that he has something on his mind—I presume a warning or a reminder or something along those lines.

“Joseph, remember—tomorrow at 7:00 a.m., Brookside, Course Number One. Dr. Lee, could not be more important.

“I got it. I totally got it.” I hold up my mobile phone. “It’s even in here.”

“Do you need a wake-up call?” Will asks.

“No, I’m good, Dude. Really,” I say reassuringly.

“Okay. I’ll see you there.” Will seems satisfied with my commitment to the gravity of tomorrow’s meeting and breaks a smile. “Get there a little early and warm up that hor-rific swing of yours.”

Will and I are a good team. He is extremely practical, and knows how to run a law office. I’m not, and I don’t. Will likes to stay in the office doing transactional work. I’d rather be trying cases in front of a judge and jury every day. Law is business to Will. I practice law, because it’s who I am. Will couldn’t care less about being in the newspaper. I love seeing my name in print. It’s proof of my success.

Last month I landed two cases from a friend I used to work with at Thomas & Colbert, who now works as in-house counsel at a Fortune 500 company. Among a dozen other cases, I represent a couple real estate investment trusts that are a constant source of business. Will has a few good clients, too, including two financial conglomerates who pay us a retainer that covers our entire monthly overhead. If things continue this way, we’ll move to a bigger office, hire an associate attorney, and soon I’ll be the rainmaking trial lawyer I’ve always wanted to be. Surely then my dread will finally go away.

The guy we’re meeting tomorrow, Dr. Lee, a retired surgeon, is our biggest individual client. He owns a ton of property in Los Angeles, and he’s rich, not first-class-plane-seat-rich but private jet-rich. He’s flying in from Singapore to visit his business interests and to meet me, the new litigation wunderkind who is handling most of his cases. I’ve dreamt of client meetings like this since I was first at Pepperdine Law, ten years ago. It’s incredible: I’m meeting at a golf course with a client that pays me hundreds of dollars an hour to do what I love to do. I know how to handle this meeting. After I shank my tee shot into the water hazard, I’ll refrain from throwing my golf bag in the lake, and, instead, brush it off and charm Dr. Lee with the story about how last week I showed up with the Los Angeles County Sheriff and a locksmith and evicted his tenants from the largest Chinese restaurant in Chinatown, and how I didn’t know what to do with the lobsters in the tank, and how I had to turn off all the gas, because the sheriff threw out the kitchen staff while the burners were still going. Then I’ll tell him about the deposition I took on one of his cases in San Francisco, and how I crucified the cross-defendant. Charming Dr. Lee will be easy. All I have to do is suit up and show up.

It’s just past 8:00 p.m.; I’ve gotten nothing done at the office, and I’m driving back home to Santa Monica. It’s been nearly two years since my drunk driving accident in Riverside, when I was working for Thomas & Colbert, and I still feel a little sketchy driving. I look over my shoulder and check the rearview and side mirrors over and over before changing lanes like I’m OCD. Sometimes I have to simply abort the mission and stay in my lane, even if it means missing an off-ramp or two. It doesn’t make sense. There were no other vehicles involved in my accident. It happened, because I was drunk out of my mind and tried to take a turn in an SUV at eighty-five miles per hour. But this fact doesn’t stop me from breaking into a cold sweat every time I see a cop, or from panicking every time I’m approaching a yellow light at an intersection.

It isn’t only fear of cops, Vehicular OCD, and a criminal record that I acquired after my drunk driving accident. Something far more disturbing has been with me since. It’s the knowledge that there are two of me. There is the Joseph that lives life and does things, and then there is this other Joseph that constantly narrates my dread. The dread is shot-out nerves, reaching out, anticipating things going wrong, terribly wrong. It lives in my chest, and on full blast it radiates from the back of my eyes through my forehead and pulsates down my shoulders to my fingertips. I used to feel the dread, but now it comes with a narrator. No matter the subject of its diatribe, its basic message is the same: You Are Fucked. Sometimes there is a reason, and sometimes there isn’t. The only time the narration stops is when I really lose myself in work, which has become exceedingly rare, or, when I’m fucking or drinking, preferably in combination. That’s when the real relief comes. I used to mistake the relief as bliss, but now I know it’s just a lack of pain—a temporary muzzle on the dread’s narrator. When I’m done drinking and fucking, when I wake up, it comes right back at full volume, as if it’s been saving up, waiting for me to wake up so it can lay into me. I so badly want it to stop. Sometimes, when I’m by myself at home or in the office, or sometimes even in the car, I shout out loud, Shut the fuck up, and leave me alone! And then I wonder if that makes me crazy.

Tonight, as with every other weeknight, I pull into the Chevron on Pico and buy a pack of Marlboro Red 100s and a lighter. I’ve wanted to quit smoking since I started. Smoking doesn’t stop the dread, but it feels good and lowers the volume, and, even if it didn’t, I’d still smoke, because I’m completely addicted. I can’t go a night without smoking. Nevertheless, I throw away a lighter every night just after I declare that I will never smoke again, and that I’m serious this time. The clerk at the Chevron, a middle-aged Indian man with a kind smile, who I presume owns the station, pretends he doesn’t notice the oddity of my buying a new lighter every night, yet he no longer asks me what color lighter I want. He knows I want the crayon-red Bic. If he doesn’t have that color, I have to go somewhere else.

I drive through the Taco Bell on Pico, as I do nearly every night. The dread’s narrator is clear and loud. Even my Snoop Dogg CD can’t drown him out.

You’re such a loser. You shouldn’t even be eating fast food.

A half-hour later, I’m post-tacos, standing on my lanai, still in my suit. I’m chain-smoking and thinking. My neighbor passes by for the second time. I’m embarrassed. I avoid eye contact.

She thinks you’re a maniac, a freak, standing out here chain-smoking all night. What’s the matter with you?

I know. I feel like shit. This is the last night. As soon as I’m done with this pack, I’ll never smoke again. I’ll even throw away the lighter. I mean it this time.

Uh-huh. Yeah right.

Look, I graduated from law school and passed the California Bar Exam on the first try. I can fucking quit smoking if I want to. Tonight is the last night. Period.

Uh-huh. Yeah right.

Fuck you, if you don’t believe me.

The sincerity of my declaration brings the sobering memory of what it feels like when I crave a cigarette and try not to smoke. I’m usually able to hold out for about an hour before I find myself standing on the lanai with a Marlboro Red 100 in my hand, hating myself … again.

God, I wish I could just feel good.

You know what? I want to go to the Liquid Kitty and drink Jack and Cokes at the end of the bar. That’s what I want to do. I can stop and get another pack of cigarettes on my way. I haven’t even thrown away my lighter yet.

That’s a terrible idea. It’s almost ten, and I have to be up at the crack of dawn to meet Will and Dr. Lee at Brookside Golf Course. Even if I go to bed now, I won’t get eight hours of sleep.

But, it’d be a nice little walk. I’ll just have a couple … a few, Jack and Cokes, and I’ll be in bed by midnight.

I remember the last time I was going to try and only drink a few, a month ago at Ryan’s bachelor party in Las Vegas. I ended up disappearing for nearly two days, and then I woke up, and I couldn’t remember where I’d been. I had a pocket full of bank withdrawal receipts, adding up to nearly five grand, and a half-smudged telephone number written in lipstick across my back. I’m not even supposed to be drinking. That was part of the plea bargain on my DUI. I’m supposed to start AA and drunk driving school by the end of next week.

Yeah, that’s right. I can drink tomorrow. I just need to finish this pack of cigarettes and go to bed. Just get to bed. Tomorrow, I can drive straight home from the golf course and go to a bar to celebrate my first day smoke free. I only have one cigarette left. I wish I had four or five. I’m going to make this last one count. I go in the kitchen, full of pricey unused stainless steel appliances, and mix myself a strong Jack and Coke.

 

The Liquid Kitty is dark, hiply curated, and the bartenders serve uniformly eye-watering strong drinks. I’ve only been here for an hour, and I am four Jack and Cokes in, and I’m not close to where I need to be. M-something, but not Mary, has ropy brown curly hair that is making me want to touch it. She’s talking to me and sitting next to me at the end of the bar waiting for her drink. She works at an architectural firm in Century City, Something & Something. That’s about all I hear over the music. She takes her soup bowl-sized chocolate martini and returns back to her gaggle of girlfriends. I drink another and tip five dollars. The gaggle leaves, and M-something leaves with them. She looks back at me and smiles, and then she’s gone. She’s a nice one, a sleeper, like Larisa, the twenty-one-year-old I just broke up with.

That tip was my last five bucks. Thank God I accidentally brought my ATM card in my summer jacket, even though I’d thought I’d only brought forty dollars to make sure I didn’t stay too long. Forty dollars is not enough. I drink another. Now I’m where I want to be—in the warm, gooey, alcohol-induced, sweet spot. I smoke another. I drink, smoke, drink, and smoke. It’s just me in here now, the sexy bartender, and a couple extras. She’s nice to me but doesn’t—does not—want to fuck me. I checked to make sure the last …whatever day it was I was here last … the day before yesterday? I could be such a great boyfriend to her. She’s so hot. I drink, smoke, drink, and smoke. I could do this forever. She’ssuch a good bartender. I totally love her. I can’t remember her name. I knew it two drinks ago. Nick Cave or maybe Tom Waits plays on the jukebox, or maybe one of those other guys you have to be cooler than I am to appreciate. The guy she’ll sleep with tonight, he’ll be skinny with dark, perfectly disheveled hair, and he’ll have tattoos up his arms. He probably has the entire Nick Cave and Tom Waits collection. Fuck that guy.

Things are going fuzzy and black and loud and jagged. I’ve been cut off from here before, maybe not the last time, but two times before that. I’m trying to stay mellow so she’ll keep serving me. I order another and another. How many? Maybe nine or something like that, not a dozen. I’ve always been good with numbers, although things get a little fuzzy in the neighborhood of geometry. I think I just said that out loud, but I’m not sure.

Everything goes black.

 

Black pavement, street lights, cars, the neon Taco Bell sign, the liquor store, the 10 Freeway underpass at Pico, the red neon of the porn shop. Visions streak by, and my feet thud numbly under me. I’m running wild. The cool summer night. My heart beats hard, and my lungs groan from inhaling two packs of cigarettes in a few hours.

I stopped somewhere on the way, and now I’m pounding on the door to the Oriental massage parlor. There’s no back door; bad configuration. My vision is blurred. I can see if I close one eye. Things are not real. It’s like a dream, but I can feel the warm summer air. Colors are snapping in my peripheral. Light and sound dart in an out of silence and shadows.

Again, everything goes black.

And then I’m back in the dream world. Now, I’m in a small dark motel room. It’s factory-loud. It has to do with the Oriental massage parlor. A man is yelling. Jesus Christ! Whoa!I’m fighting, but it’s as if I’m watching myself. I try to shut him down. I try to contain an angry screaming man. I’m naked, and my cock is hard. Whoa! I’m in trouble, and I need to get out of here. I was in the massage parlor bathroom. Now an Asian man swings wildly at me. He rocks me, and I see stars, flashing colors. I grab him and put him in a choke hold. Elbow –V to Adam’s apple; cinch it in tight. He tries to scream, but he’s losing air.

Shut the fuck up! I hear. It’s me. I yelled that.

We are interlocked, flying around the little room. He’s half my size. It’s dark, and there is an industrial fan sounding like a prop plane. He won’t shut up, but if I keep squeezing, I’ll accidentally kill him on purpose.

Shut the fuck up, or I’m going to kill you! I yell again.

I let go. He gasps for air and wrestles with the front door.

I grab my clothes and back away from him into the bathroom. I lunge and fall out the bathroom window. I’m in a little alleyway between the building and a cinderblock wall. I climb clumsily, all angles. I’m out on the street, hopping, trying to get my pants on. I’m shirtless. I have no shoes. I’m on 32nd and Pico. I was in the massage parlor. There is Der Wienerschnitzel with its bright yellow lights.

Here comes the Asian man, and now he has a friend. They’re pissed. One has a skateboard. One has a bat. I’m standing in the front lawn of a tidy little house across the street. They’ve cornered me.

They’re yelling at me. I’m trying to get away. Screaming words are going back and forth. I can’t understand what they are saying, and they don’t seem to understand what I’m saying. This is not a dream and is getting more real every moment. I just want to get away. They won’t let me go. I’m spinning; red and blue spots are floating in my vision. I think some of the lights are real, some aren’t. I’m not sure which. My arms and legs are moving so slowly. My brain is telling my arms to move. It doesn’t listen until a few moments later.

Thwack! Asian Man slams the deck of his skateboard right down on my head like I’m a giant tent stake he’s trying to drive into the turf.

There are stars again. I concuss to blackness and then come back. I can’t move. Like a cartoon character, he just hit me as hard as he can with a skateboard that is almost as big as he is, but I don’t feel it, not at all.

Thud. Asian Man’s friend hits me with the bat in my right arm. I heard it, but the feeling was as if my arm was wrapped by a giant pillow. I turn to the Asian Man, and he’s yelling at me, something about Hawaii.

I try to reason with them, because I can’t really see, and I can’t really feel, and I can’t really speak. I’m telling them about Hawaii and Volkswagens and fraternal brotherhood. They don’t understand. I know what I’m saying, but it doesn’t make sense.

Please just let me go! I yell.

I watch from somewhere just outside of me as they continue to beat me.

Thwack! with the bat.

Crack! with the skateboard.

The fifth or sixth strike to my head with the skateboard makes a new sound. Something gave way. All three of us react. The little Asian man looks concerned and backs off a bit, skateboard cocked above his head.

I want to go home now. I should have never left. I need to go home and sleep. I’m going to die if he doesn’t stop. I try to move toward the street so I can run away, but they won’t let me.

Asian Man does a little bullfighter parry. I’m the bull. Then again with the chopping motion.

Crack!

I’m gonna die.

I don’t know if I just said that, but I know he realizes it and is thinking about whether he wants to kill me.

Thud! This one lands on my shoulder. Did he break my arm?

I gather all my will and decide to throw a kick. The thought passes my brain and travels down to my hapless limb, and the Asian man casually steps back as I fall. I’m a tranquilized bear. He’s laughing, and his friend says something, something about stopping my beating.

Thwack!

Seriously man, you better stop.

I lunge toward the street while pulling up my jeans. I fall and drag my leg against the asphalt. It bleeds like a broken catsup bottle. I rise and hear sirens coming from all around, helicopter, chop-chop-chop-chop. I look back. People are gathering toward Pico. I’m running, barefoot and shirtless. I dive into a bush near the porch of someone’s sweet little home.

Police show in force. They shine their spotlight. I don’t want to get shot.

I’m here, I yell.

I stand and raise my hands in the air. They go berserk. Guns drawn, screaming. Get down, turn around! Handcuffs and pats and yelling and loud radios and spinning colors, as in my head when I was just in that dark room with the angry Asian man, spinning around like a fat palsied ballerina. The radios—loud and squawking: crackle, static, pop.

Stretcher, ambulance, and then blackness.

 

My contacts feel as if they’ve been transformed into miniature potato chips, fused to my corneas. My whole body buzzes from massive quantities of nicotine. My kidneys are pulsating, trying to escape through my back. My mouth is gummy from dehydration, and I am desperately thirsty. This is the all-too-familiar physical sensation I feel upon waking from a night of drinking. I know from experience that this is just the starting point. The real pain comes when my brain begins functioning. I want to go back to sleep before this happens.

Too late.

The realization that I’ve probably blown an appointment vacuums out my lungs. I try to regain my breath, and I’m hit with it. I was supposed to meet Will and Dr. Lee at Brookside. We have a 7:00 a.m. tee time. Fuck! Dr. Lee flew in from Singapore the night before last. Jesus Christ! I brace myself to open my aching eyes so I can see the alarm clock. Maybe things are okay. Maybe it’s still early. I haven’t heard my cell phone or my alarm clock. I take a deep breath and swing my legs around, while I pry open my eyes. My right leg slams into something hard. My ankle blurts out with pain. My wrist is held back, and I hear metal slide on metal. My vision is fuzzy, but I can tell it’s dark outside and the lights are on in this room, very on. A firm hand presses down on my shoulder, easing me back into bed.

“Take it easy.”

My eyes focus. There is a young uniformed police officer standing over me.

“Take it easy,” he repeats. “There is nothing you can do right now.”

Fuck. This is not my room and not my bed. It’s a hospital bed. There is a cop standing over me, and I have an IV in my arm. Very Fuck.

I sit up, mouth agape, searching my memory for an explanation. It pours in like a horror montage: The Liquid Kitty; the front door of the massage parlor on Pico; a dark room with a loud industrial hum; swinging fists, struggling with someone in the dark, angry yelling; flashing red, green, and blue lights; sirens, cops, black handguns, Get down!, handcuffs; ambulance. It all had something to do with the Oriental massage parlor by my house.

I don’t remember being with one of the girls. I remember the girl at the bar with the shiny hair, but she left with her friends. Nothing makes any sense. It wouldn’t have been open after the Liquid Kitty closed. I know better than to go to a massage parlor at night. I’ve been to dozens of massage parlors, hundreds of times. I’ve never been late at night. But I must have.

The young cop says something, but I can’t hear what he says through the blaring in my head. He has kind eyes. He leaves for just a moment and returns with a tall thin lady doctor, like one from a medical soap opera. She has a shiny instrument with a trigger. I’m sorry she has had to wake up to deal with me. She’s probably married and has kids and lives in Beverly Hills. I picture her in bed with her husband when her pager sounds. He stirs and she kisses him, and she gets up and checks the number. It’s a medical emergency, sure enough. She tells him, “Go back to sleep, Honey; I’ll be back soon.”

She applies alcohol to my head with an oversized Q-tip. She has the fingers of a pianist. She holds the gun to my head.

“This is going to hurt, so brace yourself.”

I grip the bed railings tightly and clench my jaw.

Chikew! The brassy sound echoes off the hard-lit sterile white walls. She stands back and observes me. She looks bewildered at my lack of reaction.

A memory pops. It was the two Asian guys in the front yard across from the massage parlor. They were yelling at me and taking turns whacking me. I remember thinking to myself that I should be feeling something; that if he kept hitting me he would kill me.

“That didn’t hurt?” the doctor asks, rhetorically.

It didn’t. She does it again and again. Each time the loud, brassy sound ricochets off the walls offending what should be the quietest time of the night. She is stapling my scalp back together, but the procedure is no more painful than a haircut. I open my eyes. She looks at me again. She’s puzzled at my lack of pain, and she is disgusted by me. She is disgusted by me, because I’m disgusting. You’re right, Lady Doctor, and I’m sorry.

It turns out I’m not in a hospital, just a medical room in the police station. The doctor finishes, and the cop takes me to use the phone. After my drunk driving accident, I never thought I’d have another “one phone call”, but here I am, in the Santa Monica Police Station, in the same building where I’d had my first law school moot court competition ten years earlier. I’ve handled several cases in this building; I even know a couple of the judges.

I call Keri, my ex-girlfriend/criminal defense attorney, and after a disheartening number of rings, she finally picks up.

“Keri, Oh, you picked up,” I say, relieved. “Thank God. Uh ... I’m in trouble, and I need you to come bail me out.”

“Joseph ... serious? Are you drunk?”

“Yes, I’m drunk and no, I mean yes, I’m serious.”

“Where are you?”

“Santa Monica jail.”

Keri sighs deeply into the receiver. It’s the sound of exasperated disappointment that I became so familiar with during our tumultuous relationship and during her handling of my felony DUI case.

“What are you being charged with?”

“I uh ... I ... well, don’t know exactly ... probably … uh ... solicitation?”

Solicitation of what?”

“Uh …” I realize there is no good way to say it, so I just say it, “prostitution.”

Prostitution”—She sighs again, louder this time. “Joseph, really?”

“Well, I don’t know, really. It could be anything. I was really wasted. Actually, I still am. I don’t remember much. You’ll find out when you get here. Just hurry up, and bail me out, okay?”

I’m taken to a holding cell. I’m by myself. There is a big steel door, and I stare at it wondering who will come through it. It’s been at least two hours, and still no Keri. I shiver as cold alcohol and nicotine-laced sweat leaches out of my pores. A merciful lady cop brings me an itchy, gray, wool blanket and gives me a tight smile, as if she’s looking at a rabid dog that used to be a cute family pet but now must be put down. The blanket doesn’t stop me from shivering. As I sober up I begin to feel the gravity of my predicament. I’m in jail, and I’m probably in trouble again. How embarrassing. Pain radiates through to my back. I squeeze my arms tightly against my stomach to contain the pain. I wait and wait, but still no Keri. Maybe she’s decided to let me sit in here a while to teach me a lesson. I should have told her that I need to get out as soon as possible so I can call Will and tell him I’m sick and can’t make it to meet him and Dr. Lee—if it’s not already too late.

I recall some mental snapshots of the night but nothing new. I’m starting to feel crawly. This is what happens after I binge drink. I need another drink so I can come down easy. I wish Keri would come get me out of here. I need a cold beer right away. I just want to shut my eyes and wake up in my bed. I shut my eyes, but I start to see a kaleidoscope of ants in red, and blue flashes of light. God, I just want to be in my bed. I wish I’d not gone out drinking. Just this once, I wish I’d done the right thing.

Keri finally arrives. The lady cop takes me to a visiting booth. Plexiglas separates Keri and me. She looks scared. Her full lips are white, and her eucalyptus-colored eyes washed gray. She holds her mouth tight.

“Goddamn, Keri, what took you so long?” I ask through the telephone receiver.

“I was meeting with the detectives. You wouldn’t believe what I had to do to see you. They didn’t want to let me see you.”

“What? Why? I figured you were dealing with bail.”

Keri is acting odd, even for this situation. She should be mad at me for waking her up, not to mention for getting arrested again after she finally settled my drunk driving case. There is something else, something grave; she looks like she used to look when we lived together in law school, and I’d hold her in the middle of the night after she’d woken up from a nightmare.

“What’s the deal Keri? When do I get out of here?”

She stares right at me, then down, then into my eyes again. I know that move. She’s about to cry, but this time she doesn’t. Instead, she shuts her eyes for a long moment. When she opens her eyes, she has her lawyer mask on.

“You don’t understand,” Keri says. “Don’t say anything to anyone.” She speaks with a slow solemnity that makes me realize that she must be right. Suddenly, things have become terribly serious.

“Keri, what am I being charged with?”

She takes a deep breath in through her teeth and then blows it out hard.

“You are being charged with Attempted Murder.”

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