Editor's Note. You can buy both of Lee's novel's online
FAREWELL THE DRAGON
DIGGING UP NEW BUSINESS:THE SWIFTPAD TAKEOVER
Jim finally meets Kip again after Years of Separation
After he left the Easy Girl Bakery, Jim rode the downtown streetcar toward Powell’s Bookstore, and realized that the principal reason he moved back to Oregon was because he had no real friends in California, just acquaintances. Life was passing him by and he felt as though he had no connection to it. He didn’t know what else to do, so he went home – or the closest thing he had to it. Portland was as close as he wanted to get to Benton County. Looking around Northwest Portland made him realize it was going to take a long time, but at least there were enough potential friends in the neighborhood – and of course there was Chubby.
He had driven up the 101 to SFO at 4 A.M. almost every Monday for the last two years, when he could just as easily have flown out of San Jose, but they had bigger planes at SFO and he was more likely to get a first class seat (based on his airline mileage) by spending an extra 30, 40 minutes driving. Besides, there was no traffic that early in the morning, and doing 70 on that stretch of 101 was almost like flying on a magic carpet, because in daylight you could skateboard as fast as drive, and the morning after he got the letter from Chubby, Jim needed a reason to do something and he realized that even though everything he had ever done with Chubby had always backfired in the most bizarre manner, he had never had more fun, before or since.
Jim Hunt had been the first to call Kip “Chubby Welles.” As teenage stoners they had watched Rodney Dangerfield allow Bill Murray (his “talent agent” in the SNL skit) to change Rodney’s name to “Chubby Welles,” and Jim started calling Kip “Chubby” after that and they extended the persona at school with Jim acting the Impresario introducing the great “Chubby” Welles, who would straighten a nonexistent tie and deliver no-respect jokes.
“I told my Dad to take me to the zoo, he said if they want you, they’ll come and get you.” Baboom.
In any event, it seemed that everything Jim and Chubby did turned out wrong at first, but then ended up OK, often because Kip’s dad owned half the land in rural Benton County and was able to pull them out of their messes. The old man’s Christmas tree farm made millions, and he had other businesses, solid waste collection and a landfill, long-term leases for logging rights on some of the best timber still standing in Western Oregon, and he had between five and fifteen loyal Mexican workers who lived and worked on his property during the winter months, ready to take advantage of any quick and profitable project that came up. Kip’s father was one of the richest men in Oregon. He wasn’t too popular with his neighbors though.
Kip’s mother left when Kip was 10, and remarried. She called Kip on his birthday and at Christmas but otherwise was gone for good, with minimal remorse or regret. Kip’s dad brooded alone on his compound with only his housekeeper and her husband Enrique as company. He didn’t speak Spanish and their English was muy mal.
Kip’s father liked Jim, especially when he heard he enlisted back in 1987 right out of high school. He often said it was what Kip needed, but that line of reasoning never went very far. Kip used to tease Jim that he was the son his father had never had. And of course, there was that week when ol’ man Rehain and Jim’s mom took off together and returned separately.
So Jim decided it was time to get out of the permanent gridlock in the Bay Area and get back to the Emerald Empire. He had never had so much fun in his life as when he and Chubby roamed the rural outback of Benton County, Oregon, in spite of their bizarre parents. He realized that moving back to Portland and finding Chubby would probably be career suicide, but he didn’t care, at least it would be different, and different was what he knew he needed, not the slow death he was experiencing now.
So he flew to Portland, found an apartment that overlooked the city and had a view of the mountains. It didn’t matter where he lived, as long as an airport was handy. And now that he was going back to work for the KEG, that settled the matter.
He was thinking all of this and about the letter he received from “Chubby Welles,” sitting on the streetcar at 23rd and Lovejoy, across the aisle from a pretty girl carrying a violin case. He thought about the body they found near Blue Lake outside Gresham buried near a pumping station vault. He had just got hired at the KEG fifteen years ago, when the young intern disappeared. The cops had interviewed him and were not nice about it either. A single guy, new at the company, and suddenly a pretty girl disappeared? Made sense to talk to him. But it all got dropped when they found her car in Palo Alto. He knew who was buried out there. Elizabeth, the Easy Girl, said it was probably a homeless guy…no, she was wrong about that.
He looked at the girl with the violin case. Who was she, he thought, was she a student, a privileged daughter, or a vagabond with most of her belongings in the old faded black violin case? It wasn’t easy to tell because the line between a vagabond youth on a voyage of self-discovery and a destitute homeless waif was not always well defined. Jim had read somewhere that there were more homeless in Portland than almost any other city in the country.
They turned south on 11th, passed Jamison Square, and the upscale Pearl District condos. It appeared to be a community of café sitters, reading Willamette Week, or for the edgy ones, The Mercury. Around the square’s fountain on this unseasonably warm winter day were urban dog walkers, shirtless and sunbathing body builders, women with severely trimmed hair, wearing cut-off black Lycra jogging tights, some managing kids with toddler tethers while others, childless yuppie poseurs or young immigrants from places that no longer seemed like home, sipped coffee and looked on with anxiety disguised as stylized contempt.
As the streetcar passed some high-end condos, Jim eyes landed on Stan, the young guy from the plane, shaking out his dreadlocks, arm around a young woman who’s perfectly spheroidal glutes and rock hard tits were painted over with torn and faded $500 jeans and a size-too-small gray “Lewis and Clark” hoodie. She was looking at a newspaper and then up, in front of some very high end property. There goes law school, thought Jim. Good for Stan. Love conquers all.
Jim had been born in Oregon and he knew he didn’t fit in, but then he didn’t need to, he didn’t need to belong to anything other than the silent society of all those other unconnected, untethered loners. A lot of us out there, he thought. It sucks sometimes too. He should have listened more closely to Stan on the plane. He seemed to have figured it out better.
Jim got off the streetcar at Powell’s and walked up to the Burnside door and immediately noticed it was different from what he remembered. The Burnside entrance he remembered used to be seedier and grittier and was almost always staked out by several sad people, who had written out stories on cardboard, sometimes with a punch line, a story with pathos, perhaps a lost wallet, a dying sibling, needed medical procedures, sick children, a thrown rod in an old car. But they fixed up the door and windows around the entrance since Jim’s last visit, put in more glass and now it feels a tiny bit more corporate, and streamlined, with more cashier stations. And maybe it is a little less inviting to all of the out-of-luck people who used to camp out there. Jim felt a little strange about it, like he did all gentrification.
Jim came through the Burnside entrance to Powell’s and turned left into the door toward the literature stacks passed the novels and the poetry, row after row of Classical Greek and Latin literature, Aeschylus, Euripides, Sophocles, Virgil, the two Plinys, etc., up the short steps into the detective and science fiction section. Jim stopped and found a copy of the sequel to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Honorable Schoolboy, then put it back, he wanted something with more grit and maybe more…American, something easier to read too, he thought…Chandler! There must be something Chandler wrote that he hadn’t read…oh yeah, Chubby, he was here to meet Chubby. He pulled himself away from the Noir fiction and went into the coffee shop.
Kip was sitting at a table by himself even though it was pretty crowded. He was wearing a water-stained fringed Buffalo Bill leather jacket and had a couple books about old films scattered in front of him. His serrated single blade pocket knife was opened and laid on a sketch book that displayed Chubby’s almost finished dark pencil drawing of Vlad the Impaler, whose burning, recessed sinister eyes seemed more medieval and dark than any Hollywood vision ever made. Jim could sense Chubby was making some of the other patrons nervous.
“Why did we meet here?” Jim asked, as he walked over to Kip and looked down at Vlad.
“Remember the library back in school, detentions for talking during study hall? Come here, man…” Kip got up and hugged Jim. “It has been…I was just thinking about this. It has been 18 years since we last saw each other.”
“I know, I was just trying to remember, it was here in Portland, I met you at that Chinese dive…” said Jim.
“Hung Far Low, just down the street,” Chubby said. “And that’s not even there anymore. I think it moved out to Hillsboro or maybe 82nd – some place out past the buoys.”
Kip stood up and stretched. He began shoving the books into his grease-stained leather bag.
“They used to kidnap sailors to Shanghai there,” said Jim.
They continued to look at each other. “Chubby, it is good to see ya.” Kip got a little twinkle in his eye. No one had called him Chubby in years. And now, well, it began to fit, even if it didn’t when he got the nickname. “Remember when we came up here as kids? This place was like heaven. Did you look at the SciFi sections?”
“Clans of the Alphane Moon,” said Kip, holding up the PK Dick novella, laughing, “The paranoids and the depressives ran the place, just like Philomath High. Principal Smith, he should have been institutionalized. The English teachers were the schizos, the coaches, and gym teachers were manics, and then there were the Heebs, the hebephrenics.”
“We were the Heebs, weren’t we?” Jim looked at Kip with awe.
“Yeah, I guess we were. The disorganized schizophrenics, major issues in the house! It is amazing we ever escaped. Powell’s saved us,” said Kip. “I am here all the time now. It is my office away from my office.”
“We met some characters hitching up to Portland.”
“Nothing we couldn’t handle though.” Chubby made a fist and a knowing look.
“When I worked at the KEG, I walked up here half the time on my lunch hour, just wandering through the stacks looking at titles and covers, and dreaming about reading it all, but you can’t live long enough, so you have to choose.”
“It the same with women,” said Kip.
“Yeah, more so. So what are you doing now?”
Kip had always looked a bit like Orson Welles, the other reason that “Chubby” Welles had stuck as a nickname. He had the same eyes, the swept back brown hair, the cleft chin and wide cherub cheeks that still seemed boyish even at 44. Chubby did what he could to accent the resemblance. He copied his mannerisms, at least those of the young, buoyant Charles Foster from the first reel of Citizen Kane. He was big, about 6’1” at least 220 lb. But the voice, the melodious voice that once you heard would stick with you, it was one of a kind; you could never get it out of your head. It was made for radio, bold, unapologetically rich and deep, like Orson Welles.
“It’s a long story,” said Kip. “For both of us I am sure. Let’s go somewhere that we can talk without whispering. I want a beer or something…”
“OK. Lead the way.”
“Fresh start, huh? I have been staying down across Nicolai, crashing in my office, it’s cool, I got it fixed up. You got my letter? I stay with this woman sometimes, I got to tell you about her, she is…too much for me by a mile. But, SwiftPad, baby! It’s in an old warehouse, I have a little corner of it, not too private, but everybody in that building is, well we have too many people. I had a great place downtown, but it got robbed, and…Anyway, last week we hired eight or nine. There will be more soon, many more, we got money flowing! Maybe I should move out, how big is your place? Come on, my truck is outside…”
Chubby had a canvas duffel bag where he kept his stuff, books, an orange iPad, his first computer, with a black Skull & Crossbones stenciled on the back, dirty clothes. When they got to the counter he opened the duffel bag, releasing the aroma of mildew and something else…he quickly pulled out the books and closed the duffel bag for the duration of the transaction. It flat-out stank when he opened it.
“I have to buy these,” he said. He had copies of R. Crumb: The Complete Record Cover Collection, the first book of The Illuminatus! Trilogy, and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Tantric Sex.
They got into Chubby’s truck, a 1951 Chevy pickup, and he threw his stinky duffel bag in the back.
“In your letter, you said no email. You mean, internet email?? What is that about?”
Kip looked sternly at Jim, who was smiling.
“It’s not a joke, Jimmy,” Kip said.
“I guess if you have reason to be paranoid…”
“You work for GIP for Christ’s sake!” Chubby looked ahead, working the gears on the hilly stop, and headed up toward Northwest Portland, where Jim had just come from. They ended up on 23rd, across the street from the Easy Girl Bakery, found a parking spot and Kip led Jim into the Nob Hill Bar. Jim paid for a couple of beers and they sat in the back away from the other customers.
“You ever eat over there?” asked Jim.
“Easy Girl? You kidding? Lizzy and I go way back. I met her at the Sturgis Rally ten years ago. I’m in there more than I should be; the pie is too good, gotta watch my figure.”
“She seems nice. I stopped in this morning…” They ordered beer at the bar, found a table and sat down. “So how about you? Tell me about your girlfriend.”
“It’s not just her. But yeah, we’re business partners, which is probably not a good idea.”
“What’s not a good idea, fucking or business?”
Chubby thought about that for a few seconds. “Which brings me to what I want to talk to you about.”
Jim shook his head and rolled his eyes.
“I have finally hit the mother lode! I am helping to run a software start-up, like I told you.”
“Well, I have a job. I am not looking for another one right now.”
“I am not talking about a job! First, I need to vet you. GIP? How can you work for them? Jesus, I have to say that concerns me. You are like some demon coming up to Heaven and saying, “Yeah, I’ve been working for Satan, but I think it would be cool to hang out with you guys now.” Kip lowered his head to sip his beer and looked at Jim through half closed eye slits, suddenly morphing into Sheriff Hank Quinlan from Touch of Evil.
“Fuck you, you fat fuck.”
“That doesn’t matter. You would be working with me,” said Kip.
“When you say working…you mean you pay people…”
“Soon, yeah, but now we have some subsidies, we are always having open dinners for everyone and we have some contingency funds…but that is changing fast. We just signed up with some investors and…”
“Kip, I need to make money. Anyway, I am going back to the power company. I start next week.”
“But you can still quit that. Or do both! This is going to be big. We will be rich! Richer than my Dad, within a year. What are your expenses? Are you supporting anyone? Any kids you know about?”
“No, but still…”
“OK. Can you keep an open mind? If I take you over there, can I say you are thinking about it?”
Jim smiled and for about 30 seconds stared at Kip, who never cracked a smile or broke eye contact.
“Yeah, I’ll think about it. What is your position in all this?”
“I told you, I am one of the founders and I squeezed some seed money from out of my trust, anyway, it is all on the up and up. Investment, depreciation, tax stuff. You know what I mean? Now we have real investors. I am designing the overall…ya see, it is GG and I who kind of came up with the concept. There are about three of us, four…no five of us running it…But if you came on board…we just formed a board of directors and like I said, money is about to flow ,my friend! And with your experience and my recommendation…”
“OK, OK, don’t get ahead of yourself. Alright. This is software, right? I mean your product?”
“Well in part. Yes. It is a…it started as a Facebook rip-off. But it is taking off…!” said Kip.
“You mean you are going to sell advertising like…”
“No. Well, yes, but…” Kip shook his head like he was tired of talking to idiots. “You still don’t get it,” said Kip. “But that’s OK. We don’t have all the answers yet either, so you can help us answer those questions.”
Jim made a face and looked away, then back at Kip.
“It’s good to see you, buddy.” said Kip. “We’ll figure something out.”