'Veronica Street' is a novel of Los Angeles by Jenny Burman, serialized here at LA Observed. Read previous chapters.
Eugenio walks into Vega's, where he is not well-liked. He doesn't know yet about a woman named Ayla and her partner in crime, that they have taken= stolen = bought his property at auction, his fifteen acres of live oaks, with one particularly fine specimen that's probably 500 years old, plus walnuts, acacias, lupines, coyote dens, owl nests, and the hawk with a string around her ankle. With his dreams of developing just a small piece, and maybe selling off the rest someday, or perhaps leaving a third of it to Marisol, his niece, his favorite. This is the same day Lourdes' fat tear rolls down her cheek, but Eugenio doesn't know from Lourdes. What he knows is that Melody, his wife, has called in an order for beef and pork. Eugenio always buys the meat at Vons, but this is a special party. His niece's first birthday, the first he and his wife have ever thrown for her family, and the meat, apparently, must come from Vega's. (Besides, he never told her the real reason he avoided Vega's--he always said product was cheaper at Vons, got a bit heated over the subject, and they left it at that. It was one of the ways he shielded his wife from his past.)
And now the doorbell chimes, I'm here! Decades have passed! I'm just a dude, a customer with history, like anyone. Service, please!
And behind the counter, it was not a hired clerk or a son, it was Vince himself, in the same place he'd been twenty-three years earlier, the last time Eugenio had walked into this shop. He had thickened, just a little--he looks, actually, kind of handsome now, wearing that same apron--it could be the one he wore the last time Eugenio came in, placed an order, got it slammed down on the pink-and green flecked linoleum counter, in white paper, paid in silence, and then never returned, till now. He's been here all of this time! Wearing the apron--courtesy of the apron-supply company and its never-let-him-forget guarantee! Back then, the last time Eugenio was here, he allowed Eugenio to pay, take his purchase, and go. (Vince of course wasn't the only one in the Eugenio anti-fan club: At Carmelo's, the woman behind the counter refused to pour him coffee. She let him sit there at the horseshoe-shaped counters, pouring for the others, ignoring him, till he left. And they were Cuban, those owners of Carmelo's. In a small town, he might have moved. But this was Los Angeles. He switched and got his Cuban coffee at the Café Tropical. And the meat at Vons, new tires at Costco, motorcycle maintenance at Jaeger's. There were fifty-six different microclimates of economy here. You didn't have to move to be home.)
Vega Junior, AKA Vince, blinks twice. He's used to challenges. Every time the bell rings. This is a surprise. Eugenio Lares, the Cossack. Until now, he hasn't connected it to Melody Lares, who left a phone number and paid in advance by phone. A big order. He's asking himself what has brought the Cossack through his door. His cousin went to prison for selling for Eugenio, and what did he do for her? Less than nothing. Rode around on his motorcycle. Pretending to be. Remade himself. Showed his face as though it were something to be proud of.
His eyes ask, What do you want?
"My wife," he makes his face as blank and unreadable as he knows how, "made an order. Melody Lares. She asked me to pick it up." He was going to say, fetch it, but he decides to keep his words as blank and unreadable as he knows how, as he used to do back in the day, with people he didn't like or didn't trust.
"You have a wife?"
"She already paid, over the phone."
"She already paid."
Vince looks like he's about to say something--like he's been waiting for a chance to throw Eugenio out of his store. He regretted not doing it the last time. But another thought comes to him. He exhales ever so slightly, and the air goes out of him, and some of his anger, too, as if it had a will of its own. Betrayed by his own breath, he relents--and rationalizes. His cousin has been out of the slammer for a long time. He's been keeping his distance from her. Does he owe her the sacrifice of a customer? Does every pound of beef have to be family-therapy approved? Besides, he has already cut the flesh, wrapped it, wiped way the blood, set the beef apart from what he offered for sale. Doesn't that trascend the businessman's rights statute of limitations? He is a business man. He goes to get it. He always said he'd refuse Eugenio if he came back--but he hadn't counted on a prepaid order. This time, he does not slam the meat down. He bags it efficiently and places it on the counter with all of the indifference he can muster, he does this almost delicately. Next time he'll send him to Vons.