Illustrations by Malin Bergström
Regular readers will know Sam McPheeters as the author of some of VICE’s most gratifyingly exhaustive features. Topics have included: the Jerusalem syndrome, Brooks Headley’s transformation from ferocious drummer to world-class pastry chef, DIY cryonics, arachnophobia therapy, former Crucifucks singer and self-proclaimed Messiah Doc Dart, Glenn Danzig, and a cornucopia of other subjects. He also guest-edited our 2010 Anti-Music Issue, and earlier this year began writing The Brutality Report, a weekly column for VICE.com. Listeners of quality tunes will also recognize Sam as the singer for Born Against, Men’s Recovery Project, and Wrangler Brutes.
In addition to Sam’s exemplary nonfiction work, VICE has had the pleasure of publishing a few of his short stories. So last year, when Sam told us that he was in the midst of hammering out his first novel, we became excitedly impatient and demanded to know more. Then, when he told us that the plot concerned “Trang Yang, a gas-station franchise owner with a flair for earnings and a fondness for violence who roams Los Angeles seeking out the corporate spies who beset his stations,” we began harassing him on a weekly basis for more details. So it is with great relief and pride that we can now present to you three chapters from The Loom of Ruin, which will be released in paper and e-reader formats on April 1 from Mugger Books (muggerbooks.com) and is now available for preorder.
1. THE NOSES
Trang was angry. He rested against his white cargo van on the periphery of the Hoover Street Chevrex lot, the outer boundary of his domain, scanning the faces of each incoming customer. It was the first morning of October, bright but not yet sweltering. As he squinted into the distance beyond the lot, an overhead gust rustled the buoyant palms hovering over the office park next door. He tensed his jaw in irritation at the distraction, then sniffed at the breeze to reaffirm a suspicion. Someone was coming, was almost here.
As the owner of nine Chevrex gas stations in Los Angeles, he had plenty to be upset about. Insurers gouged him. Employees disobeyed commands. Customers disrespected his property. People—strangers—dishonored his restrooms. Then there were those who were neither employees nor customers. Vandals. Saboteurs. Hostiles. He saw each of his stations as an isolated outpost in a vast wasteland.
This morning, Trang was angry about the noses. The noses came to his stations to spy. He had caught them before: snoops, agents, secret shoppers trying to administer covert psychological tests. They nosed around his properties like wraiths, interested not in the sundries of his stores or the three grades of gas at his pumps, but in creeping into his head and extracting his secrets. He’d spent the last four hours in motionless vigilance, leaning perfectly straight against the cool metal of the van door, alert in animosity.
His anger had many irritants, but its source was indivisible; Trang had felt no emotion but continual rage for the past ten years, ever since the autumn day in 2001 when an off-duty LAPD detective accidentally shot him in the face. The bullet entered Trang’s head from a low angle, piercing his cheek and shattering his right second bicuspid at the root before slicing up through his anterior frontal cortex and exiting just above the hairline, leaving a fontanel the size and shape of a cigar burn. When Trang woke from a three-day coma, he found himself reborn. He saw the world clearly for the first time. The vast clutter of his life had been swept away, and all that remained was hatred.
A stooped figure approached from the Chevrex’s Food Mart. It was Rupert Bhatnagar, the morning’s sole employee. Rupert had been beaten by the world long before he’d washed up at the Chevrex on West 20th and South Hoover streets. Everything about this man—the terminal slowness, the sloping paunch, the pockmarked, flaccid face—enraged Trang. Rupert worked his multiple shifts at different stations, a Trang-arranged schedule that avoided overtime pay. Sometimes he pulled 16-hour days for a week straight. Large bruises hung beneath both eyes. It was difficult for Trang to resist the urge to thrash him savagely every day.
“Mister Trang,” he said without emotion. A breeze ruffled Rupert’s oily comb-over. Trang’s full focus narrowed to this one pathetic employee.
“Mister Trang. It is ten. It is time for my ten-minute break.”
Too angry to speak, Trang merely waved him away. Rupert shambled off with unhurried baby steps.
A Latino man in an oversize sports shirt stepped down from a pickup truck at pump 12. As Trang watched, the man glanced around the lot and then headed toward the now-unmanned Food Mart. The jersey flapped about his torso. Trang speed-walked to the opposite entrance, reaching the building at the same moment as the man. With a spark of anger, he registered that the huge shirt featured the airbrushed face of Kobe Bryant.
“You work here?” the man asked.
To answer, Trang stepped behind the counter, saying nothing.
“Hey, can you tell me how to get to the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles?”
Trang stood motionless, immobilized by fury. The man laughed.
“Fair enough, chief. The last station didn’t know where it was either.” He retreated a half aisle away to browse, whistling, through the stacks of candy bars. He selected two and placed them on the counter. Trang did not look down but remained perfectly still, glaring into the stranger’s face.
“She’ll like these. My niece.”
Trang said nothing.
“Kids are real troopers,” the man continued. “They can deal with all kinds of procedures and needles and what-have-you.” He tapped his fingers nervously on the countertop.
“Don’t know if you have any kids, but man… I’m glad I don’t. I don’t know where my brother gets the strength. You know? Thank God they have insurance. Anyway, just the candy.”
“You have asshole face on shirt,” Trang said.
For the first time, the man made eye contact. “What?”
“You tell them.”
Trang’s English was imperfect. He only spoke long sentences in this boxy, confining tongue when absolutely necessary.
“You tell them. No one take my gas away.”
The man blinked helplessly, his mouth an oval of confusion. With one fluid movement, Trang reached below the register and produced the machete that was never more than a few seconds from his side, placing it with a flat clank on the counter, just next to the candy bars, as if tendering a counteroffer.
“You leave,” Trang Yang said with unwavering rage.
“I see you again, I cut head off.”