Ask Nick the place for Saturday night culture, and he’d tell you it was Clune’s Theater before you completed the question. The best grocery: Nash Brothers. Books and photography supplies? No contest: Vroman’s. But if you were ravaged with hunger, and pork-and-parsnip stew served on starched linens at the Maryland Hotel didn’t tantalize your palate, there was a single gastronomical name to memorize: Buford L. McKenzie, wizard of meat.
Buford, fifty-one, was blond, balding, with a gut that pooched out over a normal frame as if it were forever gestating a food baby. He’d been a long- suffering civilian chef at a humid naval base outside New Orleans until a year ago, when his bosses ordered him to stop serving his homemade recipes—lamb stews, gumbos—for Sunday suppers, which deckhands scarfed with gusto. Stick to the Navy menu, they insisted.
The soft-spoken dean of the mess hall refused. Seamen defending their country, in a world about to introduce battlefield chemical weapons, deserved better than bland fare, he argued. Superiors huffed that was insubordination and presented him an ultimatum: he could revert to protocol or resign. Well, the chef quit the Big Easy in style, dumping a pot of jambalaya on the shoes of an imperious lieutenant commander.
Out in dry-air California, Buford toted with him a genius for marinades and a yearning to be his own master. With savings he concealed in an empty Crisco jar, he opened a food stand cobbled from pine and tar on Fair Oaks Avenue. Damn Buford McKenzie. Cows must’ve felt honored appearing between his bread.
For Nick, Buford’s Special, a mouthwatering, grilled-meat sandwich layered with sautéed onions, garlic-mayo, special herbs, and fixings, was as much addiction as sustenance. Throw in his vinegar-drizzled coleslaw and “Poor Man’s Banana Pudding” and you knew why the noontime crowd could run twenty deep. Rival lunch counters would’ve gladly paid his train fare back to the Bayou—the gator-infested part.
That would’ve devastated one of his best customers. On arduous days at Cawston, when he couldn’t slip away for a ride, Nick would either snack on saltines and salami he brown-bagged from home or scrounged for leftovers from the farm’s teahouse.
This Friday was different. Cecil Jenks, Cawston’s mild-mannered general manager, insisted that Nick take the afternoon off and to skip his normal Saturday shift, too. He fretted his star underling was burning the candle toward exhaustion. The company couldn’t afford to lose him ahead of the holiday rush for feathers. “You’re not welcome here until Monday,” Cecil said. “Go eat a full meal.”
Nick intended to do that and then some with the eighteen cents jingling in his palm. At Buford’s scuffed counter, he attempted a risky maneuver: he ordered two belly busting plates: one to eat at one of the tables behind the shack, the other to nosh in Busch Gardens watching bridge-workers’ acrobatics.
Buford, the soft-spoken roly-poly, grinned hearing Nick’s request. He then shoved nine cents back.
“What?” Nick asked. “You out of grease?”
“No,” Buford said with a diluted Cajun twang. “I don’t condone ambulatory dining.”
Nick blinked. “You know there’s food trucks on Colorado Street, right?”
“There’s also venereal diseases, but you don’t line up for them.”
“Can’t you make an exception, Buford? I see ostriches in my sleep. Catch me?”
“I can. And as much as I like you, soggy bread and cold meat ruin the soul of my sandwiches. What do you have then?”
“An appreciative patron?”
“No, you have mush.”
Back and forth their good-natured tiff went. As it dragged on, customers behind Nick started grumbling for him to hurry along; they could smell the aromatic smoke coiling from Buford’s grill. “You’re not the only one famished,” a trench-digger bitched at Nick. Buford finally mopped his sweaty brow and proposed a compromise. Grudgingly, he’d bundle Nick’s to-go sandwich in a white paper bag, provided Nick consumed it no later than two o’clock to ensure the meat’s integrity.
Nick agreed and got busy, dispatching his first sandwich under a shaded table in three minutes flat. He took his time with the slaw and pudding.
These were working-class grounds: this stretch of Fair Oaks Avenue near Pasadena’s border with smaller South Pasadena. Sure, it was no longer a barren patchwork of clapboard Victorians, brown lots, and mom-and-pop stores. But it was a world away from cosmopolitan downtown Pasadena. Up there, the button-down dealmakers and motivated civic groups, the awning-fronted stores and Saturday night crowds telegraphed unstoppable ambition.
Nick, ready for lunch-part-two, brushed the crumbs off his dye-blotched trousers and strolled north on the new, concrete sidewalk. From here it was a fifteen-minute walk to Busch Gardens. Not once did he fear being stalked by a criminal. But he was—by a thief whose nose smelled opportunities in parts-per-million.
The malnourished crook survived by begging for handouts or scavenging in restaurant alleyways. Judging by his distended ribcage, his nutritional intake wasn’t working. His head was poking around inside Buford’s side trashcan when the scent of Nick’s juicy, to-go sandwich wafted to him. That changed that: he forgot all about digging out day-old biscuits and gravy and set his sights on a snatch-and-run feast.The thief tailed Nick for a block, plotting his timing.
The thief tailed Nick for a block, plotting his timing. He needed to grab the bag just as his mark’s hand dropped to its nadir in the stride. The stakes were high. If that wrong person apprehended him, he might not be long for Pasadena, or anywhere.
The dog, whose fur was a shade lighter than caramel, had this shtick down today. His black muzzle snatched the bag out of Nick’s oblivious hand with one yank, and his paws took it from there. He was twenty yards away before Nick saw the leaking, white bag in the dog’s teeth. Nick didn’t deliberate a moment before giving chase. He earned that second sandwich. There was ostrich stink on him to prove it.
He’s nimble, but he’s no Mrs. C, Nick thought after ten steps. The mutt had a jackrabbit lope, which disadvantaged Nick in clodhopper work boots. But he pumped his arms hard, dashing south on Fair Oaks toward the ornate Raymond Hotel. Had he looked back, he figured he would’ve seen Buford’s customers slapping their knees at the spontaneous pursuit, and probably cheering for the canine.
Farther down the block were the enormous, open doors of a yellow-brick, Pacific Electric railcar maintenance“barn,”which was set back from a Red Car stop. If the four-legged hoodlum were shrewd, Nick, thought, he’d haul butt inside, cut through a service rack, and race out the other side to the open field. The meat-sniffing dog adopted that very tactic, too. If he kept sprinting, he’d have been inside the maintenance barn’s cavernous doors in seconds.
But then he pulled a fast one. He skidded to a stop on his overgrown nails in front of the shop. Was it the pungent reek of oil that gave him reservations, the noisy machines? It couldn’t have been criminal etiquette. I’m getting my sandwich, so help me. That seemed more probable after the animal released the slobbery bag from his jaws. From the rail-barn’s concrete apron, he now stared into the depths of the building, floppy ears pointed up, furry brow wrinkled.
No human, Nick or otherwise, could appreciate what his instinct did.
Inside there, a boxy transformer next to a gasoline drum was hissing. From it, a shower of white sparks began arcing like a Roman candle toward the open rafters. Nick’s outstretched hands almost reached the bag holding his Buford’s Special when a grease monkey inside the barn yelled: “I’ve tried—I can’t stop it! Run.”
A hard shaking that rattled the floor spread to an interior wall holding tools on a pegboard and a time clock. The noise that followed was more portentous: the shrill whistle of an overheating machine and the snap of metal rivets popping.
The malfunctioning transformer exploded with the ferocity of an artillery burst. A hellish, vermillion fireball punched a gaping hole through the open, V-shaped roof. Flames crackled inside. Angry boils of black smoke spit out from the barn’s doors halfway across Fair Oaks Avenue.
Rather than incinerating Nick and the opportunistic hound where they were, the shock wave, for some inexplicable reason, launched them skyward, up possibly ten feet. Nick’s organs felt whipped inside out, inverted by the sudden pressure-changes. How he even was conscious to register that spearing, dagger-esque pain, never mind the furnace-hot temperature up there, wasn’t even the most bizarre aspect, either.
During the seconds he was airborne, time became a trickster that slowed everything to molasses. Fragmented chunks of brick, steel, rubber, and wood fluttered and rotated lazily past his eyes. A second debris field floated next presenting wires and hinges, as well as a severed human arm and, possibly, some of that grilled-meat sandwich. Also in Nick’s sightline was the dog. His legs were pedaling cartoonishly, as if to outrun what would assuredly be a fatal landing.
Nick’s last two thoughts, before his own presumed demise, were more practical than metaphysical: why did death sting so fucking badly, and; why was the cloud of sparkly amethyst enveloping him going to be the final thing his mind recorded?
He came to flat on the sidewalk, gazing into the faces of bickering strangers. Over him, a man and a woman were quarreling in hushed voices about what hospital he needed to be rushed to: the one that admitted only whites, or the colorblind one specializing in emergencies?
The post-blast pandemonium, where folks were running every which way to extinguish the oily fire and check for the dead, danced on the edge of his awareness.
Nick passed out again, and when he cracked his eyes his head was propped up on somebody’s itchy needlepoint purse. Best he could tell from his fuzzy inventory, he’d retained all four limbs. But the back of his skull ached, probably from thumping into the ground, and a sprained right wrist throbbed in rhythm with his pulse.
He remembered nothing of his airborne journey. Not the excruciating pain or leg-pedaling dog, not the detached arm or the purple fog around him before going lights out. Nothing. Even so, this wasn’t how a well- earned lunch was supposed to go.
“Hello, kiddo. Good to have you back among the living,” said a bushy-browed man in a merchant’s apron bending down at his side. He was the one arguing with the lady about which hospital should treat him.
Nick, at that moment, didn’t know good fortune from duck soup. “How long,” he asked groggily, “was I out?”
“Can’t tell ya. I ran over after the street shook something hellacious, and here you were.”
Nick couldn’t stay roused in that brume of smoke and clatter of footfalls. His world spun, and he slipped out of it with the kindly merchant watching over him. When he awoke an indeterminate time later, Buford was crouched where the merchant was, inspecting Nick’s puffy wrist.
Nick squirmed seeing him.
“What gives? I can’t stay awake. It’s surreal.” “What’s gives is that Pacific Electric building is no more,” Buford said. “Help’s coming.”
The former Navy chef and his avid customer were about thirty yards from where people were lobbing pails of water at an inferno reducing the bricks-and-mortar structure into a roofless shell of slag and debris. Inside were the remains of railway mechanic Joey Grimble. The fireball he was unable to escape, the fireball ignited by that faulty transformer, lopped off his arm and mutilated the rest of him. The flames were too intense for anybody to venture in to see if there were other victims.
The last thing Nick recalled was observing the shower of white sparks inside the darkened building. But he sensed how close he came to buying it, and a tear leaked and his face bunched. “Buford,” he said, sniffling. “My head, it’s blank. Are other people hurt?”
Buford stroked Nick’s hair, which still had its cowlick, and wiped a blob of oil from Nick’s cheek. “Don’t fret about that. Stay here.”
Nick exhaled hard, trying to gather himself. “What choice do I have?”
“Feisty. Good sign.” He ran toward his shack in his filthy smock.”
Lying there, Nick tried punching through his brain fog by listening to the commotion: the fire department bell clanging in the distance, the tinny sound of water pails being filled by a measly hose. Harsh smoke and the whiff of flesh swirled.
Buford returned shortly, bandaging ice to Nick’s wrist with a soapy dishrag.
“Ouch,” Nick said. “Busted?”
Buford shook his head. “Nope. Seen worse after shore-leave brawls.”
Nick flexed his legs in trial movement. Though his body felt rag-dolled, he wanted out of the turmoil. It wasn’t like he was seeing stars. “Help me up,” he said. “I’m okay. Just sore.”
Buford scowled disapprovingly. “Don’t be proud. How ’bout if I tilt you up until you get your bearings.”
Nick agreed, so Buford knee-crawled behind him and curled his arms under Nick’s armpits, folding him into a sitting position with his legs outstretched. Nick smelled marinade on his helper’s palms.
“In your prayers tonight,” Buford said, “say one for that cur that swiped your lunch.”
Nick swiveled his head side to side to loosen it up, the movement didn’t feel great. “I forgot all about that scalawag, he said. “Why waste a thought on him?”
“Because without him,” Buford said, with his palm supporting Nick’s back, “they might be shoveling pieces of you into a wheelbarrow.”
Nick yanked down on his earlobes, checking his hearing. He tested his jaw. “Without him? He got me into this. He must be dead, anyway.”
“Not exactly,” Buford said. He pointed to the side, where two people were caressing the wounded animal’s head. He lay on his side, eyes closed. “Your wrist any better?”
“Peachy. But what do you mean he saved me? Providence did.”
“Not if you ask the trench-digger behind you in line earlier. He claimed watching that varmint drag you away from the building not ten seconds before the second explosion hit. It knocked me into my grill.”
“Sure he did,” Nick said, fantasizing about getting into bed. A banging headache was starting.
“I’m only telling you what I heard,” said Buford, standing up. “Someone’s fixin’ to take you to the hospital. I’ll circle back. Gotta make sure my livelihood isn’t on fire.”
“Go,” Nick said. “I’m intact.”
“Next time, no double-orders.”
Nick wasn’t ready for catastrophe humor yet. And he doubted what the trench-digger said about the supposedly heroic dog. In the murky aftermath, he only trusted his eyes. He twisted around on his butt in the direction of the former rail-barn. The flames bounding out of the demolished roof and charred sides were making him sweat.
The ding-ding-ding of an arriving trolley on Fair Oaks prompted folks to turn their heads, surprised to see it. Four-alarm disaster or not, the northbound Red Car had a schedule to maintain. Its next stop was Green Street, Nick’s home street. When its bell clanged again, it reminded him of a buoy in pea-soup fog.
The only passenger to disembark was a rangy man with mutton- chop sideburns and a notebook. He began machine-gunning questions to any passerby who stopped to listen. “You here when this blew? Know about casualties?”
Nobody answered the reporter. A moment later, a florid man, whose belly strained against his uniform, hopped off a spit-shine Seagrave fire engine and blocked him. “And you are?” asked Fire Chief Dewey Morgantheau, whom gossips long compared to Pasadena’s Ulysses S. Grant in manner, girth, and predilection for alcohol.
“Frank Yochum, Pasadena Star. “I heard the explosion a mile away, chief. What do we know?”
“We? Tell you what, Mr. Yochum. You let us execute our job, and I’ll refrain from flinging you and your premature questions into the gutter.”
“I’ll stand where I want,” the hack said, shaking his notepad. “I’m the public’s eyes and ears.”
“Right now, you’re being their jackass. Remove yourself until we douse this.”
Nick felt his mood shift hearing the confrontation. He wasn’t going to any hospital for bumps and bruises. He was going home on that Red Car before it departed. Up on his feet he went.
He went over to the larcenous dog, why he didn’t know. A twenty-ish pickle-cart salesman was the only one still kneeling by him. The mutt remained on his side, panting, though his eyes were now open. His observable injuries were worse than Nick’s: a laceration over an ear, a gash on a hind leg, and an oblong scorch mark on his black- splotched tail.
Nick tapped the man on the shoulder. “Mind if I step in? I’ll ferry him to a doctor.”
The pickle vendor with a birthmark near one ear looked up in confusion. “Mister, weren’t you conked out fifteen minutes ago? You should be on a stretcher.”
“Nah, I got my wits,” Nick said. “The best thing is not to dawdle with the little guy. Do me a favor and lift him up?”
Against his better judgment, the pickle-cart man went along. When he deposited the skinny, thirty-pound stray into Nick arms, the dog whimpered and Nick’s bad wrist javelined pain into his shoulder.
The Red Car conductor, a graying man in vest and straw hat, dinged the final bell, eager to separate his trolley from this fiery, if required, stop. Nick hurried over, still unsteady, walking around the fire department ladders and hoses to board it. He sat in the front with the dog sideways in his arms, feeling as brittle as glass. There were only four other people onboard.