I first saw George Peru on a Thursday morning. I was driving down Sunset Boulevard in Silver Lake, on my way to get my morning espresso at the Tropical Bakery on the corner of Parkman and Sunset. I was stopped at the red light at Maltman. I was listening to a book on my iPhone, Stephen King, and I'd momentarily lost focus at a moment of great suspense. So, bad driver that I am, I reached down in the mess of newspapers and junk mail on the passenger seat while keeping one eye barely on the road, and I managed to knock the phone onto the floor in front of the passenger's seat, where the newspapers were older and the junk mail already crumpled and damp with the melted ice from a week-old McDonald's Coke.
I was bending down to retrieve the phone and braking at the same time. I was vaguely aware of the large vehicle in front of me. It felt like a bus, something that big, but when I sat up without the phone and brought my foot down sharply on the brakes to avoid rear-ending the bus, I saw that it was not a bus at all, but a large white truck.
The truck belonged to a plumbing company. "George Peru -- Plumber" was written across one of the rear doors in bold letters. On the other door was George Peru himself, that is, his startlingly realistic painted likeness. A good looking man in his early thirties, dressed in a one piece belted jumpsuit that shone with clean whiteness, George Peru carried his tool box in his left hand and moved forward confidently, a wrench grasped firmly in his right.
There was something immediately disturbing in this image. George Peru, his smile so fucking confident, seemed ready to step right off the rear door of that truck and into the real world. Take care of any problem. "Sewer trouble, hell, I've seen worse. Probably just a little root damage. Let's get down in there and take a look." More than anything, what struck me about George Peru was the ridiculous whiteness of his jumpsuit. This guy could suck a stopped-up sewer clean and not get any on him. There was something wrong with that.
I didn't hit George Peru's truck. My brakes squealed and complained, but my car stopped, and then, once I was sure that I was not about to cause an accident, my bad driver confidence returned and I swung my car out into the left lane, meaning to pass the truck. It was not just that I was in a hurry for my morning caffeine fix; I wanted to see if George himself were driving the truck. I wanted to get a look at his squeaky clean features behind the wheel. No job too dirty for George Peru, white man redux.
But I could see no one behind the driver's seat of the truck. The cab was too high. All that I saw were gloved hands gripping a steering wheel. I can say with confidence that the gloves were white, but that is all that I can say.
I swung past the truck, made a screeching right onto Parkman, parked in the alley behind the Tropical Bakery, and went in to have my morning jolt.
The drive from my home to Tropical took less than five minutes. It was a drive that I made every morning. I left my wife sleeping soundly, the two girls watching cartoons on their iPads and getting ready for school. I left the paper folded neatly on bricks in front of the house. I bought my own copy of the paper at the liquor store across Sunset from the bakery. A waste of paper, I know, but my wife had her own morning ritual too, and part of that consisted of the opening and refolding of a fresh, unspoiled newspaper that had not been demolished by an impatient reader, and then refolded pathetically in an attempt to hide the grease and coffee stains and the croissant crumbs that were a part of my own quick perusal of the morning news. And reading the news electronically is a feature of the modern world that I find singularly depressing.
I am, like many newspaper readers, an avid consumer of other people's tragedies. I skirt world news; I skim the sports section. I don't care what the newspaper thinks of this week's movies or how new home sales are doing. I want the pain and suffering of my fellow Angelinos. I want senseless violence. I want to know that there are other people whose lives make much less sense than mine. If I were to take my wife's paper with me in the morning and then bring it home, refolded, the vast majority of my crumbs would come falling out of the second section, where rapists compete for space with sociopaths and gangbangers for column inches. A couple of times, when there's not enough bad local news, I've had to read the editorials, but thankfully, I'm not yet in need of seeing my fellow man in that bad a light.
For the past few months, the local news had been almost exclusively devoted to accounts of L.A.'s newest serial killer. The Times had dubbed this maniac "Bimbo." Bimbo had already killed fifteen people. He killed in broad daylight and he disemboweled his victims. Although certain details of the disembowelings were being kept secret by the police, the rumors involved some sort of home-made apparatus made from what the police speculated might be a powerful vacuum cleaner that was used in what the Times crime reporter, in some truly Gothic prose, referred to as "an absolutely unspeakable manner." Having used his little device, Bimbo drew pictures of a happy clown on his victims' walls. Hence the clever nickname. He finger-painted these clown pictures, Gacy-style, but he finger-painted with the products of his disemboweling. All the victims had been young, upwardly mobile families, wives and children, left alone by busy husbands. Left alone in the middle of bright California days to open their doors to friendly strangers.
As I said, it was a five minute drive from my house to the Tropical Bakery on Sunset where I had my morning espresso and croissant and got grease and crumbs all over the newspaper, but even that five minutes had to be filled with something, and that is why I'd been listening to the book on my phone when I nearly rear-ended George Peru. Quite simply, I could no longer be left alone with my thoughts.
I'm a researcher, that's what I do. A writer calls me, let's say he's doing a movie set in the Florida Keys and the hero works part time at a dolphin show. What can I find out for him about Florida, about the Keys, about dolphins, about dolphin shows? I go on-line, I make phone calls, I even go to the library, and occasionally I take a short trip. Then I prepare a paper for my client on his chosen subject. I fell into this job shortly after I dropped out of college, in 1986. I may have dropped out, but I never stopped being a student. It's just that now someone else chooses my classes and I get paid, well paid, for turning in my term papers.
Recently, I have found myself more and more dissatisfied with my life. Doing other people's research is like doing other people's laundry; once you get over the initial fascination with all the shit you find in their pockets, you just get tired of all the shit in their dirty underwear. Call it mid-life crisis, or, if you can, for God's sake give it a better name. The truth is, I had become more and more convinced that life was passing me by, that I had made a wrong turn and was stuck on some stretch of freeway that had no off-ramps, nowhere where I could turn around and retrace my steps. I lived with the constant feeling that there was a black cloud just out of my line of sight, creeping up behind me. A black, disastrous cloud that I would disappear into the moment that it did catch up with me.
They tell you that having children gives you a reason to live, but my two kids only made me feel more desperate. What would happen to them, once that black cloud had swallowed me whole? Diane was a wonderful mother, and she certainly wouldn't need me and my neuroses to keep her family together, but I couldn't find comfort in that. Something bad was going to happen. It was going to happen at least in part because my increasingly pessimistic view of the world compelled it to happen, and when it did happen, it would suck me and everyone close to me down into the vortex of despair and hopelessness that I had created out of my own frustrations and disappointments.
I didn't like to think these thoughts. I didn't like to give them time to find purchase in my head. To sit there and fester and burn. When I'd left home that morning to get my espresso, my nine year old, Katy, had been watching, at my suggestion, the Rocky and Bullwinkle show on her iPad. Rocky was depressed. Bullwinkle asked him what was wrong. Rock says, "I'm alone in my mind, Bullwinkle," and Bullwinkle replies, "Oh, say not so, Rocket." I couldn't have agreed more. The last place I wanted to be was alone in my mind and so I filled up my thoughts with words, with talk radio, books read out loud, podcasts; all the Babel I could find, a constant Musak of words. Anything to keep my own words from breaking through.
The fact that I still went every morning to something like a cafe to drink espresso and eat greasy Cuban croissants was a sad comment in itself. A last holdover from a youth full of romantic dreams of writing in Parisian cafes. It was the one affectation I still held onto, and I held onto it with my own brand of quiet desperation. I might be working late hours to pay off a mortgage, I might be paying off two cars and the incumbent insurance, I might have two children in private school, but God damn it, I still had a Bohemian morning in a smoky cafe. It was just the kind of gesture that turned pathetic if you spent any time at all thinking about it. But if you hit that Stephen King on Audible, lost yourself in some story about all that child molesting that went on during a solar eclipse in Maine in the early 1960s, well then you didn't have to think about yourself and your pathetically desperate clutchings at your lost artistic youth. You could ignore your own self-molestation. But a moment of silence, and you were risking collisions with George Peru while trying to lose yourself in anything that would take you away from the deadly wanderings of your unhappy mind.
The next time I saw George was several days after our near collision. I was on my way to a meeting with one of my writers. He was working on a screenplay about an eccentric trio of New York losers who decide to rob the Federal Gold Reserve in Manhattan. I had done some preliminary research for him and we were going to discuss it over lunch. I pulled into the parking lot behind the Waffle on Argyle in Hollywood. And there, blocking the driveway, was a George Peru truck. Peru's gleaming white presence smiled down at me. I say smiled. I hadn't noticed the smile the first time. The gleaming white teeth, leering out from a far too happy grin. The teeth made George Peru look hungry, ready to hunker down and take care of whatever dirty business you had at hand, excited to do it. Lusting to get into your dirty pipes. I did not care at all for George Peru's smile.
I honked my horn. I wanted to get into the parking lot. I waited. No one came to move the truck. George smiled at me. It was phenomenal, the detail of that painting. The motion in the figure. It really did feel as if George Peru could at any moment step right down out of that painted door and into your life. There was something, I don't know, the whiteness, the smile, something that made me very certain that I didn't want to be there when he took that step.
No one came to move the truck. I waited. I honked. George Peru loomed down at me. I gave up waiting and parked on the street, feeding the meter an hour's worth of quarters, and went to my meeting.
The writer was pleased with my research, but he wanted more. The Federal Reserve offered a tour and he wanted me to go there, to New York. He wanted me to take the tour. When I hesitated, he said, "I would think you'd want to get out of town now. There's no telling where Bimbo will strike next."
"A man wouldn't want to leave his family," I said.
"Bimbo wants my family, he can have them. Just call first so I can arrange to be out of town." And this young film school graduate smiled at me as if he understood death.
When Diane and I had discussed Bimbo it was only as one more proof that our home town was turning into a black hole and that we had better find some way to escape its gravitational pull. We both agreed that thinking that a serial killer will single you out in a city of almost ten million is like thinking that you will be epicenter when the Big One sends Los Angeles sliding off into the Pacific Ocean or that you are sure to be shot by the next sniper to take his frustrations up to a roof. It is quite simply a deeply masochistic form of egomania. You need only to consider the odds to realize that it is that extra slice of cheese on your second hamburger or the guy chain-smoking next to you while you wait in line at the post office who is likely to be your own personal reaper.
Bimbo didn't scare me. My life scared me, my own ability to chip away at the lives of those I loved, to kill them much more slowly than any Bimbo ever could, these things terrified me, but the random psychosis personified by some guy who drew pictures of clowns with his victims' fecal matter, it made a lovely symbol of all that was going so irrevocably wrong with the world I lived in, but I was just not conceited enough to think that this particular disaster was headed for me.
I saw three more George Peru trucks on my drive home from the Waffle. Even allowing for the fact that one of them might have been the same truck that had blocked my entrance to the parking lot, this was quite a coincidence. A week earlier, I couldn't have told you who George Peru was, now the man threatened to walk off the side of his truck and into my life every time I turned a corner.
The last truck was parked two doors down from my house. I got Diane and I brought her out to see it. It was gone when we got outside. I described it to her. I tried to make it a joke. I had been so distant lately, so unpleasant, that a joke about anything seemed odd, like a forced conversation. "He's everywhere," I said. "What does he want from me?"
"Our kitchen faucet's dripping," Diane said. "Maybe he wants to fit us with some new washers."
"Joe Randall wants me to go to New York," I told her. "He wants me to tour the Federal Reserve Bank."
"When do you leave?" Diane asked me, and when she asked me, I could sense both the frustration and the relief in her voice.
It was a Friday and the Federal Reserve only offered tours on weekdays, with a one week advance notice for reservations. Even assuming that I could get them to wave the one week wait, I would not be able to leave for New York until the following Monday. I made my arrangements, booking myself into Manhattan on a Monday night flight.
I saw George Peru at least a dozen times that weekend. In the mornings on Sunset, as I drove to get coffee. On Saturday afternoon, coming back from the Glendale library. Sunday at the truck farmers' market on Ivar in Hollywood. I would turn down a side street. George Peru would be smiling his confidant smile down on me from the back of a truck.
Sunday night I drove to the beach. No reason. Sometimes, I just drive to different parts of the city.
I had driven out San Vicente and was turning on Seventh, heading down to the Coast Highway. And there he was, parked outside a Santa Monica Canyon remodel, smiling, his toolbox ready in the one hand, his wrench in the other.
Later that night, I drove up the coast to Decker Canyon, then back over the mountains to the Ventura Freeway, and then home through the San Fernando Valley. My phone was dead and so I filled the space with the radio. Bimbo had killed a woman and her four-year-old son early that night. It had happened close to where I'd seen the George Peru truck.
The moment I got home, I went on line. I found the George Peru web page and called the number listed. I got a tape-recorded message. If I left my name and address at the tone, A "Peruvian" would be out to see me as soon as possible. I didn't leave a message.
On Monday morning, I drove to the Tropical Bakery without seeing George. I drank my coffee quickly and I came home. I drove my daughters to school. I loved my children. I know I've filled most of these pages whining about myself, describing my feelings of failure, but I did love my children. And that day, leaving them at school, I loved them more than I ever had. As I watched them disappear into the building, I had a moment where I understood that it was somehow all right for me to be who I was, where I was right then, because of them.
I stopped for a third espresso on the way home and then that good feeling that I'd had when I dropped the kids off left me as quickly as it had come. My life seemed to slip away right there in front of me and no matter how I tried, I could find no way to bring back even the smallest part of that feeling that I had felt so strongly just moments before. I was a sad, unimportant man. There were no great works left for me. I was finished. I was just a guy who dropped his kids off at school and went off to do his absolutely worthless job. I was a thoroughly ordinary man. A man whose kitchen sink leaked. A man who needed his washers tightened.
I took a last sip of espresso and I looked out the window of the Tropical Bakery at the liquor store across the street on the northwest corner of Sunset and Parkman. I was not at all surprised to see a George Peru truck pull past the window, turning right onto Parkman. There he was, white and clean and smiling and just ready to walk right off of that truck and into my life, if I would only give the word. If I hadn't already given it.
"What does he want with me?" I asked the woman who made my espresso every day. Her name was Reina and she was from Guatemala. She smiled at me, but she had no idea who I was talking about.
That night, I caught the red eye to New York. I'd managed to make all the right phone calls and I was going to be able to take the tour of the Federal Reserve early the next morning. I took the tour. I saw huge, impossible piles of gold. I saw men in thick shoes moving the gold by forklift from pile to pile. France had just bought two hundred thousand miles of copper pipe from Israel. Someone made a call. A guy on a forklift moved some gold bricks from France's pile to Israel's. That was how it was done.
When I got back to my hotel room, I called Diane. I tried to tell her about the impossibility of all that gold.
"Everything is fine here," she said. "The girls are staying home from school tomorrow. They're working on a project for history class and they got permission to do it together."
"Great," I said.
"Oh, and we're having that drip in the kitchen faucet fixed. The man is here right now. He says it's more than just the washers. Our drains are pretty badly blocked. He's going to clean them out. He's coming back tomorrow with the machine."
"Diane," I said.
"What's wrong with you?" she asked.
"Nothing," I said after a moment. "I'll be home tomorrow."
They found them, my wife and both of the girls. They'd been disemboweled like the others. There were the drawings of the smiling clown on the wall in their shit. None of the neighbors had heard any screams, which, the detective who took me in pointed out, didn't look good for me. Neither did the fact that, my job being what it was, my time, over the last year, couldn't all be accounted for.
He didn't want to hear about any of it. And I told him, in great detail, about George Peru. I pointed out that his job involved shit, that a sewer rooter was similar to a vacuum cleaner, and that just because his uniform was white, that didn't mean his thoughts were, but, as I said, he didn't want to hear about it at all.
About the Author
Les Bohem is a writer. He has never worked in plumbing or roto-rooting. ΚΚ"George Peru" is a story. Les wants you to know that it's only a story. Really.