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Encouraging 'a sign from above'
"Money Walks," a serial novel by 16 Los Angeles writers who will be appearing at this year's Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, runs Monday through Saturday until April 24. The festival takes place at UCLA on April 25 and 26.
Rudy's girlfriend, Angie, was sitting with her long legs up on the dining room table, skirt around her waist, portable fan whirring. She was reading John Fante's "Ask the Dust" aloud.
When Rudy told her to shut up, she quoted Arturo Bandini: "When I say Greaser to you, it is not my heart that speaks."
"It's the priest, for chrissakes," he whispered, gesturing at the phone.
She sighed and turned off the radio. Franco. He was kind of hot for a holy man.
"Tell the right reverend hello," she said. "He should come by L.A. Swill and have a cup of coffee on me."
Rudy had to put a finger in his cauliflower ear to hear what Franco was saying.
"How are you, Rudy?"
"Heard about this mess?"
"It's all anybody's talking about."
"We need a sign. A sign from above."
Rudy looked over at his girl. "What kind of sign?"
"What kind of sign do you think?"
Rudy had known this day would come. "OK," he said. "If you're sure."
Franco told him about the old woman, about the value of real property. Rudy had been thinking about this even before the money disappeared, but when he tried to get specific, the priest said he didn't want to know.
"I have faith in you," he told Rudy. It wasn't until after he hung up that Rudy realized the rarefied company this put him in.
Rudy looked at Angie. Today her hair was red. Screaming red. Not the best hair for his plan. "Hey, babe. I need your help."
"I gotta work."
"There is no work. Nobody has any money."
"People have money. Maybe not a lot. But people always have $11.39 for a very important cup of coffee."
"Not this time. Credit cards, debit cards, everything . . . gone."
"So they'll pay cash. Remember that?"
Rudy felt in the pocket of his carwash overalls. There was some paper there, but when he pulled it out, it was just coupons and advertisements, carefully sized and decorated to look sort of like money.
"You have cash?" he asked.
"I'm a barista. I get my tips in cash."
Then she stopped. Actually, she couldn't remember the last time someone had given her a real dollar bill or even a quarter. The customers wrote her tip on their credit card slip and the boss added it into her paycheck. Direct deposit. She had not touched money for six months. No, longer. Over a year.
She pulled up the cushions on the couch. She checked her wallet, the bottom of her old purse, every pocket. Not even a copper-filled dime to be found.
She turned to Rudy. He sat on the bed with his head down, face in his hands. His missing thumbs looked normal to her now. She ran her fingers through his oiled black hair, stroked the permanent dent in the back of his skull from the accident. "Babe," she said. "The cold, hard cash is all gone."
There was a noise from outside, a musical tinkling and a distorted voice through a loudspeaker. Angie and Rudy went to the window. A green pickup passed slowly. In the back, a woman played an upright piano while a man shouted into a microphone: "Money doesn't grow on trees!"
"Maybe it does," Angie said. "Maybe money grows on trees. Maybe pennies fall from heaven."
"That's where you come in," Rudy said and smiled at her. "I need you to be blond again."
Wagman is the author of the novels "Skin Deep," "Spontaneous" and "Bump." She will be moderating the "Page & Screen" panel at 3 p.m. April 26 in Young Hall CS 50 at UCLA at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books.