CHAPTER 1: JAKE
The road stretches before me vast and empty as the sun begins to set above the San Gabriel Mountains. The sky is in a fiery mood; bursting into orange, pink and yellow hues at the mountain’s tips. I flip the kill switch on my motorcycle and blend into the gathering dark. Cesar does the same and we sit in silence at the edge of the scenic overlook, lost in our own thoughts.
“I needed today, amigo,” Cesar says. “Didn’t know how much.”
I nod, picking up my helmet. “Same here. Can’t believe pops let me take the weekend with the deal we’re trying to close right now still in flux.”
Cesar turns, his darker features barely discernable now as the sun sinks lower and lower but I can sense the grin spreading across his face. “No rest when you’re at the top.”
I sigh, the frustrations of the last few weeks washing over me for a moment. “I’m ready for a change, Cesar.”
“I think we should continue this conversation over a pack of cold beers and sub-par tacos.”
“Or, we could not talk about it and just drink those beers,” I say.
Cesar flips the switch on his bike, revs the engine. “Whatever you want, boss. Meet you back at Judd’s.”
Cesar’s bike roars to life before I can put on my helmet and gloves. He salutes me, leans into his bike and takes off down the highway as though we’re in a race back to the motel. We’ve done these trips so many times I know I have an additional ten minutes to rest before heading to our favorite taco truck just down the street from our motel. Cesar would finish at the grocery store, beers and whatever ingredients he wanted to add to our tacos in hand by the time I got our food order filled. Cesar did not just ‘do’ takeout. Of course, I wouldn’t expect anything less from a chef at one of my father’s hotels.
I flip the switch on the ignition and rev my bike twice just to hear her throaty call into nature. I take one more look up toward the mountain tops, admire the nubby silhouettes of Joshua Trees back-lit by the now faded sunset and then I take off, leaning into my bike as my headlight creates a tunnel to drive into. For another couple of minutes, I am alone on the interstate and my thoughts flow back to the space that is void of anything but the feel of my motorcycle beneath my body, the hum of machine and wind in my ears, and nothing but the path laid before me filling my mind.
“I thought your granddad must have finally locked you inside one of his boardrooms.”
I grin at the older man leaning against the front of the manager’s building. He looks like a rancher straight out of a western, with his dusty blue jeans, cowboy boots, and plaid shirt. I hop off my bike, unhook the straps of my backpack and head toward room 2B, already fishing for my keys. “That was last month,” I say. “Want to join me and Cesar for a few beers?”
The older man shakes his head. “I’ve still gotta clean-up the gear from today’s ride and then take my woman out to dinner. Heading back to LA tomorrow?”
“I’ll need to first thing if I want to avoid sitting in traffic all morning.”
“I’ll stop by before dinner then. There’s something I want to run by you.”
“No problem,” I say, thinking I know what Judd wants to talk about. Last winter, I’d given the motel owner some business advice. He was struggling to make Judd’s Motel profitable enough to carry out the renovations he needed to keep it open and was facing some hard choices about the motel’s future. I’d given him a few pointers. From the look of the semi-full parking lot, I thought Judd must be doing better.
I turn my key in the lock, flip the light switch near the door and set my backpack down on the dresser near the small flat screen while I kick off my cowboy boots. If I were at my suite back at the hotel, I’d get a quick rinse in before dinner, but this room didn’t call for any such formality. I sling my riding gear onto one of the mossy green tub chairs near my bed and sink into another.
2B had been my room since senior year of high school and ten years later, not much about it had changed. My eyes rest on the cheap veneer bedside table nearest me, then at the bright orange plastic phone with the dial that spins over digits. The room is stuck in the sixties, which makes the semi-poor condition of everything more vintage-cool, than run-down. A buzz from my cell phone tells me I have a new text, but I ignore it. Unless the phone in my room rang, there was nothing anyone in the world could need until tomorrow morning.
I hear Cesar’s motorcycle rumble into the parking lot and then Judd’s greeting as the engine cuts out, Cesar extending the same invite I had. “Honey, I’m home,” Cesar says, bursting through the door, bags of groceries and a box of beer under his arm.
I stand and retrieve the bag of tacos I’d slid into my backpack, help him take everything over to the small round table off the tiny bachelor style kitchen while Cesar starts chopping from half a head of red cabbage. I unpack the rest of the groceries which includes adobo peppers, mayo, yogurt, corn, and other produce. My stomach growls. We’d stopped our ride mid-afternoon to inhale burritos but that had been nearly five hours ago. I grab the bag of tortilla chips and groan when I realize that Cesar purchased no salsa.
“You’re killing me, man!” I say, stuffing a few chips into my mouth.
Cesar’s dimples appear, making him look like the twelve-year-old I’d fast become friends with when his mom Eva began working for my family as a live-in housekeeper and part-time nanny. “You’re telling me you would rather eat cheap shit from a jar than my muy delicioso mango-lime salsa?”
I groan. “Of course not! But just once, can’t we eat what’s provided for us by these nice local…”
Cesar shakes his head and resumes his preparations. “I have clearly taught you nothing. Nothing out here is local. Everything is from…”
“Ventura and Dole and Nestle…” I’m already grabbing my boots and two sets of motorcycle keys. “I’ll be loading our bikes onto the trailer while you wage your war against the corporate giants you buy hundreds of thousands worth of supplies from every week.” I hear Cesar grumble at me in Spanish before the door closes behind me. I’d need to load the bikes soon anyway if I wanted to avoid disturbing the other guests with the window shaking roar of engines at five a.m. tomorrow.
When I walk back into the room twenty minutes later, I’m surprised to see Cesar dropping the bright orange handle of the phone back into the cradle, one hand still armed with the chopping knife he’d brought from home.
I hold up my hand. “I don’t want to hear it until I have at least half a bowl of salsa and one beer in my system.”
“You got it, boss.”
I’m relieved to see that Cesar has nearly finished doctoring up the tacos which now in no way resemble the dollar-ninety shredded pork items I’d picked up from the taco truck. I throw myself into the seat by the table and scoop Cesar’s salsa onto a chip, feeling my mood improve as soon as the spicy-sweet mixture hits my tongue. “You should consider getting into the salsa production business.”
Cesar pops open two beers and sets them on the table, waits until I’ve taken a few good swigs before sliding my cell phone toward me. I sigh. Better now than after I have a full stomach. “Hit me.”
“El anciano needs you to call-in tonight, smooth some feathers ahead of your dinner tomorrow.”
I nod and click the messages on my phone (only twenty or so, not too disappointing for a day where everyone at the hotel knew I was not to be disturbed), read the most recent from my pops. The steel supplier we were in negotiations with wasn’t budging on the price, and if he didn’t bend, we’d need to cut corners elsewhere; a challenge I didn’t mind taking on, but one I wanted to avoid, since the current hardship might have a little to do with my recent breakup with the supplier’s daughter.
“Why can’t people be professional?” I say to Cesar. “Why does everything end-up personal?”
“You don’t think you made it personal when you started dating the man’s daughter?”
I throw a chip at Cesar that lands on top of his decadent taco. “He made it personal when he told me he would give me a good rate on the materials.”
“You couldn’t wait a week to break-up with her?”
“Then I would have felt like I was using her.”
“The Jake I know would let the ink dry on the dotted line first.”
I run my hand through my hair, tug the ends in frustration. “Yeah, well, this time was different. I got swept-up…maybe said things to her to get her hopes up…”
Cesar’s eyebrows shoot up over his food. “As in…talked about marriage and shit?”
I grimace. “Something like that.”
“You dated her for what, three months? You’ve never been good at moving slowly into anything.”
“You should know,” I say. “You’re usually right there with me, egging me on.”
“Do you want to make the call before, or after our walk down memory lane?”
“Added an extra scoop of jalapenos to your tacos tonight, did we?”
I get around to making the call after dinner, stepping outside to get better cell phone reception. Cesar heads to his room for a shower, promising to be back with some scotch and a tin of cookies his mom had made for us.
I lean my body back in the stiff dining room chair I’d pulled out onto the narrow space between the parking lot and my front door, review what I should say as the phone rings, the familiar rush of adrenaline piping through my veins. Stepping in to save deals was what I did on a daily basis as the chief operations officer for Hurst Hotels. When my personal life didn’t interfere, these were the kinds of tasks I relished.
But tonight, it was personal, and I would need to toe the line between a humble ex-boyfriend and an unyielding COO of a multi-million-dollar company. Tough to do when sharing after work cigars and scotch at the Buena Vista Cigar Club with the man had become a ritual.
By the time I’ve made the call- it had lasted less than five minutes- and texted my father, he says he’ll play ball, Cesar is pouring our scotch into coffee mugs and opening the tin of homemade caramel swirl cookies.
“Doesn’t always feel good to win,” I say, “especially this time. It’s like I’ve killed my favorite uncle and pillaged his house.”
Cesar shakes his head, passes me the tin. “You did what you had to do.”
I frown. “Sometimes I think all I do is manipulate people into doing what I need.”
The high-pitch hum of desert insects and old motel TVs settle around us, the cool desert air raising goosebumps beneath my long-sleeved shirt.
From the single parking lot light dangling from a wooden lamppost, I can see Cesar’s brows furrow. “What’s going on?”
I stretch my legs, wondering how much to tell him. I knew he’d understand me better than anyone else, but I wasn’t sure if I was ready to face the consequences of him knowing. The truth had already cost me one relationship.
The sound of a door opening across the lot alerts us to Judd’s presence. “Come on in here boys,” he calls. “And bring Eva’s cookies with you. She wouldn’t let you come out here for a boy’s night without them.”
Cesar and I grin at each other, stuffing another cookie into our mouths before sauntering over to Judd’s office. Once Judd got his hands on them, we’d be lucky to have crumbs.
Judd’s office is littered with knickknacks and decorated with 1960’s inspired art and old movie posters. My favorite is the poster for “El Dorado”, starring John Wayne that hangs above Judd’s desk. The image of the lone cowboy riding through the rusty red desert stirs something inside me.
“Thank you,” Judd says, happily taking the scotch and cookies Cesar offers. “Have a seat, men. I won’t take up too much of your time.”
I settle into the office chair, which, like everything else in the small room is a nod to 1960's shapes and finishes. If Judd had more vision, he could turn this motel into a destination, rather than the pit stop it was, but I never offered advice unless asked. I’d learned early in my career that not every business owner wanted more than they had. It still baffled me, and I didn’t understand the logic or the fun of maintaining rather than growing and risking, but after offending one too many people with my unsolicited advice, I now knew better.
“Thank you for the ideas you shared with me last winter, Jake,” Judd says. “Offering guided dirt bike and off-road adventures to the motel package really increased what we’re earning here and we’re doing so well, I’ll be able to make improvements to the buildings by the end of the year.”
“Glad to hear it, man,” I say, wondering why Judd sounded so formal.
The man clears his throat. “Ever thought about working outside of Hurst, Jake? Do your own thing?”
I must have looked as startled as I feel because Judd laughs, maybe in an attempt to wipe away the tension now on my face. Where had that come from? Had he heard something? But only one person at the hotel knew…
I glance at Cesar, see the question spark in his eyes. I train my eyes on Judd, shrug my shoulders, will him not to go there in front of Cesar. “What son of a hotel fortune hasn’t? But I’ve got it pretty good where I am.”
But the old man isn’t likely to let it go. He’s gleaned what he needs to know from my reaction. Judd chews another bite of cookie, the crumbs falling onto his desk. He leans over his mug of scotch, gives me a sharp look. “You’ve always liked to do things on your own. And you like to be challenged, to take risks. You must be pretty comfortable where you are now. In there (he pauses to point melodramatically to my chest), you crave adventure and risk more than anything. If you partner with me, we could…”
But I’ve already stopped listening because I know what Judd is offering isn’t big enough. Establish a chain of motels like this one? There wasn’t any money in it. Judd may start making a profit now with the existing location, but it would never become a lucrative chain up and down the coast.
I lean back in my chair and ignore the question Cesar is attempting to burn through the side of my head with the heat of his stare. I had a lot of explaining to do.