Unsatisfied with the material rewards and social status generated by his high-powered job as head of construction management at Beanie's, the country's second largest fast food chain, Greg Martin is on the verge of throwing it all over for the uncertain life of an artist. As a joke he decides to pick up a day laborer and bring him to the office to serve as his butler. But it turns out that the butler, Guillermo, an illegal immigrant from Mexico, carries with him two surprises: He possesses a recipe that can turn around Beanie's flagging fortunes, and he is peripherally involved in a political bombing directed at California's anti-immigrant Proposition 1. Set against the backdrop of the growing anti-immigrant movement in California, LA COMIDA is a suspenseful rags-to-riches story imbued with the flavor of Southern California.
Excerpts from LA COMIDA
All excerpts copyright©1998 by Jeff F. Westbrook
When the three men finally piled out of the car, the entire group took a collective step back and Greg pointed and nodded at the young man with the brown loafers and combed hair. He waved him over to the car, leaned across the passenger seat and said, "Habla Ingles?"
"Yes," replied the young man.
"Would you like to work in an office today? Easy work. Muy facil,"
"All right, get in."
When the laborer got in, the others began to swarm again. They approached the car holding up two fingers, pointing to themselves, trying to convince Greg that he needed two laborers, not just one.
"That's all. No mas, gracias," Greg said.
As he drove to the paved surface of the roadway, he took a last look back. In his mirror he watched the men on both sides of the road suddenly bolt and scatter in all directions as a light-green INS truck rolled up the canyon. A minute earlier and his passenger would have been caught in the sweep as well.
At eleven-thirty Guillermo took the elevator down to the sixth floor to check out the company lunch room. Along the back wall were sandwich, soda, milk, and candy machines. A green Formica counter ran the length of the left wall with a coffee machine on the left side of the sink and two microwaves on the other side. Posters, celebrating Beanie's twenty-fifth anniversary, lined the opposite wall.
A man and a woman were in rapt conversation at one of the four tables when Guillermo entered the room. When they didn't look up, he headed for the microwaves. He tried to figure how to operate the black box before him without turning his food into a molten lump.
He was chewing on a carrot as he peered through the glass door of one of the ovens when he heard a woman's voice behind him. He turned to find the most striking woman he'd seen since being in the country. She was holding a cup of instant soup and a plastic spoon.
"Excuse me," she said, in a pleasant voice with an anxious edge. "I asked if you were using both of the ovens."
Guillermo stopped chewing and froze, captivated by her flowing auburn hair and emerald-green eyes. "No," he said finally. "I am using only this one."
"Then may I . . . ," the woman said, raising her eyebrows and nodding at the microwave on the left. She wore a light beige, two piece business outfit with a sheer, paisley silk blouse. The skirt stopped just above the knee, revealing perfect calves and slim ankles.
"Oh, yes. I am sorry," Guillermo said, moving away as a bell on his oven rang.
As the woman placed her soup inside her microwave, Guillermo removed two small football-shaped objects from his. Each was about six inches long and a couple of inches in diameter. They were on a paper plate he'd found in the overhead cupboard. As he whisked them over to one of the tables, their aroma filled the lunch room.
"Excuse me," the woman said, "but that smells wonderful. I don't believe I've ever smelled anything like that before. Or ever seen anything like it either. What is it you have there?"
"It is my lunch."
"I mean, what are those things? What do you call them?"
"They are called alto plana rellenas. They are good when they are cold, but they are better when they are hot." He pushed a shock of hair away from his eye and looked at the microwave ovens. "It is okay to use the oven?"
The woman gave him a wry look. "Which department do you work in?" she asked.
"I work for Mr. Greg Martin," Guillermo said softly, beginning to feel uneasy.
"Greg Martin," the woman repeated. "Oh sure, in construction management. With so many people in this company you can go months without seeing the same person twice. In fact, I don't believe I've spoken to Greg Martin since last year's Christmas party. And I don't think I've ever seen you. My name is Marilyn Long," she said, offering her hand. "I'm in Marketing and Advertising."
"I am Guillermo Villa DePaz," he said, taking her hand, his uneasiness subsiding.
"Pleased to meet you, Guillermo."
"The pleasure is mine," Guillermo said, translating the warmth of his Latin manners into English as he sat transfixed.
"Now what did you call those things again?"
Guillermo stood up. "Alto plana rellenas. Would you like to have one? I have two, and I am not so hungry today," he lied.
"No, I couldn't. Well, maybe just a bite. Could they possibly taste as good as they smell?"
"You must have the middle, that is where the good things are. I will show you."
He dissected one and a wisp of steam rose from within as he separated it. The outside was a thin, crisp shell of golden brown that enveloped a ring of what appeared to be soft, fluffy white potato almost an inch thick, with a blue-violet core and flecks of red, black and green throughout.
"For you," Guillermo said, as he placed one of the halves on a paper plate.
Marilyn ignored the bell on the microwave and sat down next to Guillermo. She took a bite. Her eyes widened and she licked her lips as she slowly drew back from the table. "That's simply incredible," she said, stabbing another forkful. "I've never tasted anything like this. You said you made it?"
"Where did you get the recipe?"
"My father, he taught me how to prepare them. But I have added my own things, too."
"This is definitely ethnic. Where was your father from?"
"He was first from South America. But he came to Mexico as a young man."
"Is that where you're from, Mexico?"
"Yes, I am from a small village near Puerto Vallarta. Do you know Puerto Vallarta?"
"Yes. I mean no. I mean, I know where it is, but I've never been there. But this doesn't taste like any Mexican food I've ever had before. Do they eat this in Puerto Vallarta all the time?"
Marilyn sat by the door to the conference room in anticipation of Greg's arrival. As the door eased open, she pushed it wide enough for her to reach out and grab the covered platter. Greg slipped in and sat by the door. A few people noticed him, but no one seemed to care, except for Nelson Haywood, who was tracking anything that had to do with Marilyn's independent proposal.
Haywood gave Greg an odd look, but instead of acknowledging him, Greg kept his eyes on Marilyn.
She placed the platter on a tea trolley used for holding coffee and ice water during meetings. The coffee pots and water pitchers were replaced with a stack of small china plates, knives, forks, and napkins which would be used to serve the food.
Ballard Christianson looked to Marilyn at the opposite end of the conference table, and with his usual impatient manner, said, "Well, Marilyn, what have you got for us? I hope it's something good."
Greg watched as looks darted back and forth across the large conference table. Nelson Haywood only frowned.
"I think so," Marilyn said.
Ballard Christianson was the one person you didn't second guess when it came to business philosophy or strategy. It wasn't because his six-foot-four-inch figure gave the impression that he could crush a Volkswagen like a beer can, or because his salt and pepper hair, bifocals and Midwestern accent gave him a sage-like, avuncular persona. It was simply that you didn't argue with success. In the last five years, since being promoted to CEO of Beanie's, he'd brought the company from slightly more than a street corner operation to the second largest fast food chain in the nation. His goal was for Beanie's to be Number One as a result of a quality product, sold at a fair price, and served in a friendly atmosphere by hospitable people. He had the company on its way.
Nobody in the room knew quite what to expect. Marilyn had confided in no one and had developed the story boards by herself on her computer. She told Greg she had one shot at this and she was going to do it her way, one step at a time.
The cart creaked as she wheeled it to Ballard Christianson at the opposite end of the table. "When I lift the cover, please take a minute to study the contents of the platter and appreciate the wonderful aroma." She lifted the silver dome from the platter as if she were serving royalty. Four golden orbs rested on a paper doily, with a parsley garnish.
At the other end of the room Greg's olfactories felt the impact of the food's zest.
Not wishing to be melodramatic, after a moment Marilyn said, "Please, allow me," and placed one of the rellenas on a plate and sliced it across the middle. A faint trail of steam rose from the interior. She cut it again in the same fashion and placed a half inch thick slice on a plate and set the plate in front of Ballard Christianson. He picked up a fork and knife from the trolley, got half the slice on his fork, and slid it into his mouth.
His eyes narrowed and his jaw moved quickly. "What do you call this?" The tone was gruff and his expression unreadable.
Greg observed through the bodies seated around the conference table. He was accustomed to the man's style. As Christianson chewed, Greg knew his mind was working, going through what Marilyn had already gone through, visual appeal, taste, and cost versus potential market acceptance. "I call it a papalata," Marilyn said.
"What's your marketing concept?"
"It's from south of the border, within the Mexican genre, but completely apart from anything we've seen. It can be classified as a finger food - eaten like a taco or a burrito. Or it can be served on a plate and eaten with utensils, as you're doing now. That should appeal both to children and adults alike. It's different from anything the competition has, even those dealing strictly with Mexican or Latin foods. We can market it as a Beanie's original, not simply a variation on a theme. We'd have a lock on the market."
Ballard Christianson reached over to the platter and picked up one half of the rellena with his fingers and turned it over, inspecting it as if he were looking for nicks on a golf ball. As he did this, Marilyn dissected the other papalatas and distributed portions to everyone at the table.
"What do you see for an ad campaign?" Christianson asked, still wearing his poker face.
Nelson Haywood and Greg seemed to be very interested in what Marilyn was about to say.
"I've given it some thought," she said, and went into a more detailed description of what she had shared with Greg and Guillermo the week before.
She spoke directly - confident and determined. She'd put a lot of thought and effort into her scheme since the previous week. She made it sound exciting and plausible at the same time.
"So in essence," Marilyn said, winding down, "we play it as one of the treasures of the Aztec empire, found by the Spanish conquistadors, then lost for hundreds of years only for the recipe to be rediscovered deep within the ruins of an Aztec temple outside Mexico City, brought to the United States exclusively by Beanie's, for a true adventure in eating."
The bar was filled with fans and the Lakers were up by six at the end of the first half. Guillermo sat next to Greg at a tiny table with an unobstructed view of the giant screen television. They'd arrived a half hour before the start of the game to watch the Lakers battle the Bulls in what could be the final championship game of the season.
Greg had gone as far as he could on the painting by the time Marilyn left the townhouse. But his brain hummed with the weekend's events too much to relax. So he called the number of the lobby pay phone in Guillermo's apartment building, and five minutes later Guillermo came on the line. Greg invited him to watch the game at the sports bar in Laguna Beach, and Guillermo agreed to meet him there at three-thirty.
Following highlights of the first half, a newscaster with the station's local affiliate came on with a weekend update. The screen filled with footage of debris from the bombing that had occurred at the Costa Mesa elementary school two weeks earlier. The crime scene footage was replaced with the picture of a young woman on half of the screen and a familiar looking building on the other half. Greg recognized the building as the Laguna Beach Library. Over the din of the crowd, the newscaster was explaining that the police had identified the person whose fingerprints had been lifted from the note sent by El Cuerpo to the Register.
Greg glanced at Guillermo, whose eyes were riveted to the screen.
"The police had not been able to identify the woman sooner," the newscaster said, "because she'd only recently been hired by the city and her fingerprints hadn't made it into the system when they made their initial file search. But after questioning twenty year old Gena Combs, the police were satisfied she had nothing to do with either the bombing, or the note from El Cuerpo."
Guillermo didn't budge.
"According to the police," the newscaster continued, "El Cuerpo probably obtained the paper from Gena Combs, then used one of the public typewriters at the library, which explains Ms. Combs' fingerprints on the note. And although Ms. Combs remembers nothing specific about any of the people she encountered her first day on the job, the police feel she may still be valuable in helping them identify the mystery bomber. That's the Weekend Review."
"They really want this guy," Greg said to no one in particular.
"Dios mio," Guillermo said.
"What is it?" Greg said. "You know something about El Cuerpo?"
Guillermo repeatedly pressed his hands down his thighs. "I'm the one they look for," he said, breathlessly.
Greg looked around to see if anyone had heard Guillermo. The second half of the game was about to start and everyone was shuffling back to their seats. No one appeared to notice. Greg wasn't even sure he'd heard him correctly. He leaned close to Guillermo. "What do you mean, you're the one they're looking for?" he whispered.
"I'm the one who typed the note. And I was at the school when it was bombed."
Greg took another quick look around. "Let's get out of here."
There wasn't much talk in the car on the way back from the bullring. Marilyn played a tape at a volume which made conversation difficult. But as she approached the booth she lowered her window and the volume to greet the Customs Officer.
Guillermo sat behind Greg and thumbed through an issue of People he found lying on the floorboard.
"Anything to declare?"
"Uh, no," Marilyn said, wearily.
The man leaned from the booth to get a look at her passengers. Greg figured him to be in his late twenties, a bit younger than Marilyn.
"How about you, anything to declare?" he said to Greg, then looked at Guillermo in the back seat and nodded.
Guillermo shook his head. Wearing the new clothes Greg had bought him and sporting a fresh haircut, he didn't appear out of place.
"Not even a bottle of tequila," Greg said, drawing the man's attention. "Nope. We only went down for the bull fights. Last of the season, you know. But we didn't like them. So we left after the first fight." He looked at Marilyn, and added, "Didn't we."
Marilyn glared at Greg, then turned to the man in the white uniform peering through her window, and said, "Some of us are civilized."
The man had better things to do than listen to a lovers' quarrel, and he waved them through.
Guillermo's eyes glazed over and he sank back into his seat.
Greg was thinking that the next one, even though it was Immigration, would be easier. It might not even be open. When it was, he knew there were never more than a couple of guys in the middle of the road, there to slow you down, catch the obvious. At the San Clemente checkpoint they watched for panel vans and big trucks, or cars dragging their tails because of too much weight. They shouldn't give Marilyn's car a second look.
Marilyn had the volume back up on the stereo. They all settled into their seats for the long ride home.
The sky turned black and the smell of sagebrush was in the air as they drove past Camp Pendleton. The yellow caution lights of the checkpoint came into view as the car emerged from a long, gentle curve, amid traffic that had thinned considerably since leaving Oceanside.
Tonight the check point was open for business.
They were three cars back from the head of their line when the Border Patrol Agent pointed at Marilyn with his left hand, and continued to wave the cars in front of her past him with his right.
She could see the creases of the agent's forest green uniform in her headlights as he signaled her to stop. He walked to her side of the car and without looking inside, motioned for her to pull off the freeway. The agents to her right held the traffic to allow her to cross.
Marilyn had relaxed the moment she crossed the border. But now she tensed up again, like when she was driving around in that miserable excuse for a city. "I don't like this. What's going on?" she asked Greg.
"I don't know. Just stay calm and we'll find out," he said, running his hand through his hair. Then in Spanish, he said, "Guillermo, don't say anything if you don't have to."
At the side of the freeway, another agent directed Marilyn past a row of green and white INS vehicles to a spot between the Border Patrol Station and a group of portable office trailers. After she parked, two agents approached and asked everyone to step out of the vehicle.
An agent stood on each side of the car and asked to see identification. Greg and Marilyn produced drivers licenses from their wallets and the men inspected them with green military flashlights. Guillermo just stood there.
"What's this about?" Greg asked politely.
"Are you returning from Mexico?" the agent on Marilyn's side asked her.
"Yes. We went to a bull fight, but I didn't much care for it so we left." She was grubby and worn out, her body covered with dried sweat and foreign dirt, standing in this no-man's-land she'd driven by so many times. Her shoulders slouched as she rocked back and forth on her toes.
"May I see your registration?"
"It's in the glove box. I'll have to get it."
The agent on Greg's side of the car looked at Guillermo and asked to see his ID.
Guillermo shrugged, but said nothing.
Then the agent asked Guillermo his name, and before he had a chance to answer, the agent said, "Como se llama?"
Finally Guillermo said, "My name is Guillermo DePaz."
"Do you have any identification?"
The other agent was reviewing Marilyn's registration when his partner asked them to follow him into the station.
The interior of the station was generic civil service with a military slant. Marilyn and Greg were taken to a partitioned area behind the main counter and Guillermo, with a look of resignation and despair, was escorted through.
"What's going to happen to that guy?" Greg said, as he and Marilyn were seated at an old steel desk opposite the agent.
The agent pulled papers out of the desk. "We'll take his information and compare it with the data in our computers. If we find no reason to detain him further, he'll be returned to Mexican immigration in Tijuana in a few hours."
Marilyn's lips tightened as she drew a quick breath. Then with a look of reassurance she exhaled and said, "Well, what are we doing here?"
"Transporting illegal immigrants is a felony. You'll be cited and released on your own recognizance, and your vehicle will be sequestered. Now if you would both begin filling out these forms - "
"What do you mean, sequestered?" Marilyn said.
"Confiscated," the agent said bluntly.
"You mean impounded," said Greg.
"No, I mean taken away and not given back."
"For what?" Greg said. "Giving a hitchhiker a ride?"
"Is that what you did, gave a hitchhiker a ride?" the agent said, with a smug look.