“Enter the realm at your pleasure
and peril, never overestimating
the element of surprise.”
“She’s not here, and why are you?”
“It’s a long story…any idea where she might…”
“Who keeps track around here? It’s Saturday night in San Francisco. She’s a social animal, what can I say?”
“So pass along a message, can you? I’ll call back soon as I…”
We’d taken it one plotting, plodding, prodding step at a time. Melissa and I hashed things out over morning scrambled yokes and rashers at Dot’s Diner, its huge picture window front facing squarely toward the Flatirons’ snow-clad slabs. We sent Seamus running wild over Chautauqua Park, chasing his own paw prints, no horseshit, while we chewed on the thornier issues and Dot’s doggy bagged buttermilk biscuits. Some of our territorial deals were struck up by Chautauqua’s lodges, amid the bustling dining hall and guest cottages, the ski duffels, goose down syndromes, the waxed K2s and Rossignols of an early Texas Ski Week, while climbers shinnied up and down Front Range walls like fire ants on a sugar cone.
Moon had helped me mail resumes out to every clinic, corporation and counseling center within snowball-throwing distance of Boulder. Days later, we trudged past Pioneer boneyard enroute to more haggling over details, with Sinkburgers at Herbie’s Deli, wondering why they’d covered famed beatnik art and Robert Redford’s janitorial jottings with these plain ugly pine boards.
Packing Gouda and Monterey Jack wedges from Don’s Cheese and Sausage Mart, we soon test drove my bucking squareback up Flagstaff Mountain, past those palatial dream aeries stilted on the hillsides like huge spaceships ready for lift-off—rich, multilevel California-style showcases, light years ahead of everybody. At the Summit, we weighed the many high-minded positives of staying put in the People’s Republic of Boulder—especially on an afternoon this clear, when Kansas nearly came into view.
Yet before long, we had walked the Pearl Street Mall delving into more specific two-way logistics while the VW fuel injection was being fine-tuned and a couple of retread tires replaced. I eventually even relented some, working a number of nights waiting tables at her Coach Light Inn, making up some car money on 17% gratuities. A closing night of happy-hour wine in the Hotel Boulderado’s stained-glass mezzanined lobby, followed by splitting eggplant-spinach lasagna and lactose-free soy-asparagus-tofu quiche dinner dishes at Nancy’s blue house Restaurant, sealed things for better or worse.
After a passionate, candlelit, Fogie’s ‘Flatlands’ album send-off, Moon awoke to help me load the squareback for the exploratory trip to the coast, including a goodie bag full of fruit, handfuls of veggies and her home-baked goods–everything from date-raisin-blueberry scones to tuppers of peach cobbler and steak-and-kidney pie.
Provisional phone calls made, key numbers exchanged, she kissed and sent me off with a howdy and eternal thank-you gift for Denise Keiner, as well as a little sisterly give-her-my-best something for Syd. Along those lines, in the process of packing, I did discover Josh’s package, wedged beneath the folded down jumpseat. Half the size of a shoebox and considerably lighter, it could have held anything within its plain brown wrapping. Eye candy, nose candy, contraband of any other kind: was it blow, would it blow? So I didn’t dare open, much less mail it—reluctantly carrying the sucker along with due Pony Express dispatch and deliberation.
I then proceeded to drain a meager checking account, fill up the Volks on discount regular, wave sweet bye-byes to the homefront and ambivalently, a little apprehensively, put happy Boulder Valley in my rearviews, as though seeing it for the first time, if not the last. Truth be told, I couldn’t keep from double-checking the mirror frames all the way to I-70 West, much less weighing the prospect of disrupting things thereabouts.
Snug in my old full-length army parka and CU scarf, Vibram-soled hiking boots wrapped in washed out grease rags, I had clenched the squareback’s steering wheel with gusto and holey black leather gloves, and chugged up past the Davidson Mesa overlook, pausing for one last glance down at Boulder Valley. Catching a milder break between blizzardy snow storms, I soon tunneled through the early Rockies on I-70’s center route, emerging into a docile headwind that on some mountain canyon stretches could have been mistaken for a conducive tailwind.
Although this leg of the trip had its share of sheer ups and downs, it seemed all downhill from Dillon on. Clear climbing up to Frisco and Vail, virtually coasting from Eagle down through Glenwood Canyon into Rifle and Grand Junction, I tuned and retuned into Kristofferson, Emmylou Harris and Luckenbach Waylon and the Boys as they flared and faded along the AM dial.
“I got the phone number down right, right? Is Melissa there with you?”
“Right. No, not yet, Edie—but she’s on the way, won’t be long. Meantime, she gave me a little gift for Syd and you all. See, I’m just the delivery boy…”
“Uh-huh. Well, soon as she gets here, you bring her on by.”
Moon’s renowned carrot cake and a Thermos of her mini-marshmallow cocoa had carried me across Utah’s Green River, as did a Salt Lake City radio station that was heavy into Marshall Tucker. A lengthy set of ‘Take The Highway’ through ‘Ramblin’ and ‘Long Hard Ride’ rode shotgun with me through Fishlake Forest and over the Wasatch Range. I picked up route 28 along the San Pitch Mountains and Uinta Forest’s Mt. Nebo hills, sun shining like the Temple spires over Provo and Utah Lake. ‘Fire On The Mountain’ was popping in my ears and I was singing with ‘Heard It In a Love Song’ as I disquietly approached SLC to link with I-80 West, bracing for another untimely mechanical pit stop, but no such dismal misfortune.
Thanking the higher powers, I buzzed along the Great Salt Lake and through its desert once again, paying no mind to the ghostly imagery, the endless ore trains, let alone Syd’s cryptic rock garden. Hoping against hope, I whistled through Wells, gassing up again at Raley Jorgen’s, crossing Nevada in the radio-inactive dead of night. I dodged varmints, fought mental discontinuity, drafted behind semi-big rigs to save a few gallons, stiffed Elko—munching on Moon’s grubstake, washing it down with truckstop coffee, avoiding Lovelock like the grippe, with no sign of that deadeyed hitchhiker.
I loosened my hand-tooled wrangler belt and locked doors through Reno, freezing up over Donner, finally crashing down in a pink stucco motel somewhere between Auburn and Rocklin that by the raucous night and next light of day turned out to be hooker heaven by the hour. Not a problem: the room was cheap, sun was up, balmy palm trees were emerging and Denny’s dollar breakfast outside Roseville was just over-easy, bottomless cup enough to set me flying through Sac Town and the San Joaquin Valley as fast as my fingertips could punch up Bay Area radio.
I had paused for a bladder stop near Vallejo, amazed that the Volks had reliably delivered me this far, in awe yet again of the vista point’s sweep of San Pablo and San Francisco Bays. I could feel the power of that dramatic, overarching perspective all the way down in the slow lane past Hercules tank farms, Berkeley’s studiously cluttered foothills, while craning at Oakland’s worldly container shipyards.
Admittedly, tension began building through Yerba Buena Island’s tunnel, emerging from its mouseholes over Bay Bridge lanes leading to that first full-on view of The City’s stunning skyline and the trim ivory and pastel neighborhoods on green background hills, the vast blue Pacific Ocean beyond. Overtaken by an articulated Transbay Express bus, I was freaked as much as fired up, here once again out on the edge, mindful of perhaps being minus one sure lifeline I’d carried the time before.
Jive 95 FM was meandering through some bootleg ‘U.S. Blues’ live and a sampling of Warren Zevon’s new ‘Excitable Boy’ album, something about ‘Werewolves of London’, as I had hit the westernmost cantilever of the gray Bay span—traffic, tempo, everything accelerating on the upper-deck feed, a toll cheater or two racing on by. Ahead, downtown highrises glistened all sleek silver and white in the clear, brilliant sun, a jet stream of cars and small vans banking around the double-deck Embarcadero Freeway hemming in the bank and mercantile towers like a road pebble-blemished front bumper on a Corniche or Silver Cloud.
I checked off noontime on the Union 76 digital time tower, as Ferry Building clocks chimed in. A widely studded fleet of in-and-outbound vessels, tugs to tankers and tour boats, briskly plied the beautiful blue-green Bay, before a charm bracelet of finger docks and uniformly enclosed working piers all around the waterfront. At first, gape-mouthed glance, this was a San Francisco far more spectacular than I could have even hoped to remember across Nevada, much less while waiting dinner tables at Moon’s Coach Light Inn.
One pushbutton down, KMEL had segued into a new Steely Dan set, beginning with ‘Home At Last’, while I snapped to and merged into the southbound 101 flow—tensing, pulse quickening all the more—lagging right, fighting lane jumpers, blaring tailgaters and muscling semis until catching the first vaguely familiar exit sign past downtown clamor.
An elevated Central Freeway cut across Civic Center Plaza and Hayes Valley, revealing downtown’s backsides, dropping me like an airborne unit Jeep onto Fell Street’s signally synchronized ups and downs. An off ramp left me facing the reductive uncertainties of the Western Addition, the Victorian-laced Panhandle, the green garden beauty of Golden Gate Park.
Dialing in a sneak KSFX track off the Starship’s upcoming ‘Earth’ album, proved particularly timely as I had turned up Stanyan, street map in hand, to make a quick left onto Fulton, the Richmond avenues unfurling before me, all the way to the sea. Port side, Golden Gate Park foliage exhibited the tribal stirrings of a Southeast Asian jungle. Shotgun side, the dark, strong-box audacity of the Jefferson Airplane mansion seemed party to some ritual groupie sacrifice behind the flat black walls of their surrealistic castle, inwards of the faux mahogany columns, gold trim and celestial blue portico fronting this weird warren house at Willard corners. Even so late in the evening, or early in the day, as the case may have been.
But it wasn’t the acid rock, Slick plastic fantastic atmosphere and pointed little hedges that were knotting up my stomach about now; it was the venue all around. This wasn’t stately Pacific Heights out here. Instead, Inner Richmond streets constituted a relatively flat grid of numbered streets—bare, cluttered avenues to my right unfurling like a gridiron flag in pastel tidy, two-flat uniformity, wall to wall—an essentially treeless, unneighborly concrete foreboding about them, despite the park unfolding across on the green side of Fulton all the way. A bleached out anonymity and alienation had set in by Park Presidio, accumulating by the numbers.
This land of former sand dunes, of sprawling City and Odd Fellows Cemeteries, wasn’t the San Francisco I day dreamily recalled; this was that City on the outs, nowhere in particular, only with tempting glimpses of the Golden Gate Bridge towers up north and the park’s Marx Meadow to the south as referential road markers. No amount of sunshine could elevate or enliven this low rolling terrain, pry open drawn window blinds to shed light on private vices and lives, where a race track and rousing ‘Beertown’ once raised hell and high water. Nor could the broad Pacific Ocean lapping way, way out at Fulton’s end.
“Excuse me, excuuuse, me. I am still waiting for my call…” The acute voice insisted from an anteroom.
“Sure, sorry about that,” I said squinting at the telephone dial in the discolored foyer light. “Just be sure to give her this phone number, okay? Tell her I’m back in town…”
“Alone there are you? Then who’s that voice?”
“Nobody you would know, Edie. Nobody I know, for that matter,” I muttered. “Just be sure to give Syd this phone number, okay? Tell her I’m back in town…”
“I’ll see what I can do.” CLICK.
The numbers had been piling up, if not quite adding up. Moon said that Denise had told her to look out for a turnip-colored house, the one with the bay window, toward the end of the block. Trouble was, the shoebox walk-ups along here all pretty much looked the part, with only slight variations of hue and shading, block after block.
I had hit 24th Avenue and began scoping out addresses like a December mailman until spotting the two-unit stucco job.
Parking along this side of Fulton being a garageway and short-curb shell game, I instead swung a heedless U-ey in the Crossover Drive intersection to grab a bus stop-nipping spot across the street. Patchy groves of fir and Monterey Pine trees, as well as the occasional baby redwood, lined Fulton’s southern flank, and I soaked in the balmic eucalyptus, squelching classic Airplane’s ‘Today’ on the Blaupunkt, before hop scotching traffic over to Denise Keiner’s place. That’s when a tall, gangly shadow had slipped halfway through the no-man’s land between 4840’s iron bar security gate and its double-dead bolted front door.
“Hi, I’m a friend of a friend of Denise’s,” I had said, after laying off the doorbell and exchanging names. “Just in town, was supposed to crash here for…”
“I’ve heard, I’m aware, you’re the…person from Boulder, the social science Scorpio,” Regina Tzu Fowler had snipped, looking me up and down, holding fast on the landing between the doors. “Denise left a note for you. But she isn’t here…”
“Uh, really. Well that’s OK, I can come back a bit later…”
“No, Denise is gone, out of town. Don’t know when she’s coming back,” she’d flicked the tumblers on her black iron gate, motioning me to swing it open. “But she said if it was for Melissa Saversohn, it was cool. So entre-vous, only minus those ungoldly…shoes.”
Regina had led me through the left of two front doors into her foyer, jangling like a dog-tagged choke chain, yet finishing school graceful as Givenchy models down a Paris runway. She was a naturally attractive former catalog deb whose current accouterments flared and flowed like the reflective, tinseled ornaments on a UNICEF Christmas tree.
Billowing above her kung fu slippers and ankle bracelets were purple and gold brocaded harem pants, leading to a tangerine ribbed sweater and color-beaded black crocheted vest. Around her narrow waist was a Sahibah-engraved silver belt with trim, ornamental gold chains, coordinated with the jewels on her extremities in strange, indecipherable ways.
She beckoned me like a trippy Nepalese tour guide toward her parlor, wherein thick sorrel window drapes obscured much of the room’s detail, save the Hindu wall hangings, etched brass platters and mandalas, the smiling ceremonial renderings of gurus unnamed. On a small Burmese wood table between two far corner satin floor pillows was this plain black extension telephone. Off kilter, essentially on impulse, I’d asked to make that quick cross-town call.
“Just so you know, I am not in harmony with this arrangement in the least,” she sniffed, relieving me of the receiver, laying a saffron doily over the phone.
“Well, hey, I’m, like, no Zodiac killer nutcase or anything, only staying a few days to get settled,” I hobbled about the parlor’s Persian style carpet. “What about your call?”
“It comes when it comes…something I shan’t control.”
“R-r-right. Sooo, where’s Denise off to?”
“Mazatlan, I believe—on Vedanta retreat somewhere near La Cruz,” Regina replied, edging back toward the hallway, strawberry hair sneaking out from under her black beret.”
“Huh, wonder why she didn’t say anything to Melissa about…”
“It was kind of sudden. Her I-Ching revealed it was time to clear her passages. Denise has become a virtual ascetic of late, striving to redirect her symbiotic flow. And of course she feels the need to distance herself from Warren…”
“Really,” I followed her, obligingly so, eyeing the red and gold foil Great Secret Dakini and Shakti/Shakta posters peppering the hallway. “Who’s Warren?”
“Some swinish sexist who tracked her down out here from Ann Arbor. A paleo disaster in pressed denim who’s been messing with her mind every hour on the hour ever since. But you’re not that type yourself, are you?”
“Who me?” I trailed warily, caught up in the timbre of her polished metallic anklets and armwear. “Not a lick.”
“No, you just have this preoccupation with den mothers, am I right,” she opened two French doors, India print sheets packing their small square glass panels. “I’m familiar with that type, too.”
To our immediate left was a small bedroom that appeared to have been converted into some sort of crafts space. Cement blocks and boards constituted work benches clutters with burners, scrap metals, cigar boxes filled with gemstones, jewelry baubles and fragments, engravings and tubular coiled settings in various stages of assembly. As far as I could tell, tools spread about like instruments in a front-line combat triage unit included soldering guns, picks, pliers, polishers, burnishers, hand drills and small propane torches. Padlocked safety deposit boxes held who knew what precious metals and molds. I could smell the residue of melted solder, the odor of borax and alcohol solutions, turning away with a slight burning in my eyes.
“That I call my silversmithery in there, silver’s my life,” Regina brightened, pointing about the windowless, fluorescently lit room, then straightening a small rubied barette on her lower locks. “Naturally, I do the hot and magic sorcery down in my garage lab. Other than that, don’t need much, just work and replenish, work and recharge.”
“No lie? Hey, dedication, that’s…amazing,” I said, pupils dilating upwards of Kennedy half dollars as I followed her along the dark pine paneled hallway. “So, you said Denise left a note?”
“Here,” she ripped it from her vest pocket, drolly handing it to me. “Special delivery, just before fleeing to Mazatlan. She says she’s sorry she missed you, hopes this helps you get situated.”
“Why Mexico,” I unfolded a quarter-creased sheet of lavender stationery, noting the slapdash pen script, holding it close, like a ticket to the last ship out. “Marin’s not good enough, Yosemite?”
“Don’t ask me, likely not far enough—she wanted away from Warren in the worst way, or maybe she’s fighting seasonal affective disorder. She’s just a roommate; I’m not my sister’s keeper.” Regina gestured for me to sit in one of six mismatched chairs at a large oblong table as we entered the flat’s dining room. “But I think she said she saw a flier on the Tassajara Bakery bulletin board. Next morning, she was gone, off to find herself, for all I know. Have a seat, why don’t you, make yourself comfortable. I’ve some dinner going in the kitchen there.”
“Uh, that’s all right.” I rested my palms on the wicker back of a brown Krylon-sprayed dinette special. “I’ll just hit me a Burger King…”
“In San Francisco? You’d be lucky to even find a measly McDonald’s, and they had to fight neighborhood opposition to the death to get that.” She had stopped cold in her tracks, gem-crusted wristlets, anklets, belt chains and earring clusters big as chandeliers ajangle as she turned incredulously my way. “You want Burger King, head back to Vallejo. Otherwise, sit yourself down. I have something a little more microbiotic in the oven.”
“Been there through Vallejo, thanks.” Sit I did. “So just ring the dinner bell when you’re ready, I’ll help you with the dishes and…silverware…”
“I’m sensing gratuitous hostility in your humor, especially for a houseguest I don’t even know, much less one now dependent upon my hospitality…”
“No, hey, just…” Before I could think up a congenial rejoinder, she spun in through the swinging doors to her kitchen, pealing like some sort of Gong Show with a sacrosanct edge. So I picked up on the surrounding vibe.
Her dining room itself was much the Delhi bazaar, at least that was how I envisioned she envisioned it to be. Regina had already set two bright straw place mats, stoneware rice bowls and small china teacups across the ochre yellow India print clothed table from one another, amid a scattering of Byzantine brass trivets, silver bell chimes and candlesticks—the two tallest of which she had already lighted. Across the room, a beryl-blue antiqued breakfront held Cost-Plus dinnerware, goblets and random volumes of Bhagavad-Gita, Canon of Reason & Virtue, Function of the Non-Existent and Tibetan Book of the Dead.
Surrounding walls bore Krya Tantra calligraphy scrolls, mounted Shiva silkscreened fabrics, photos of Vishnu and Sri Ramakrishna, posters of Practicing Placidity and the Schematic Triad of Ternary & Trinity. A Grand Lama detailed, taffeta clad lampshade covered the amber bulb fixture, which was hanging like a blasphemer’s noose over the table.
I soon smelled something peculiar from the kitchen doorway, bookended by a fat brass Buddha and large imari vase of dead daffodils. The tahini spicey aroma soon jabbed my nostrils like an uppercut, driving my watering eyes toward the dining room ceiling, four orgeat sheets suspended in maharaja tent-like swoops, peaking to that gold-shaded center light. Shiny animalistic silver baubles hung from red satin ribbons, a mythical menagerie that swayed like clock shop pendula as she tread twice more through the kitchen door—with brown rice, then came the ivory chopsticks.
“Your horsemeat burger’s coming right up,” Regina sneered, setting the bowl on a ceramic-handled trivet mid table, a grilled octagon with stubby tiger paw feet. “Want fries with that?”
“Hostile humor, I get it,” I averted from the minutely graven sticks, pushing back my oily hair, trying to rub away facial stubble. “Can I help you there…”
“Implication being I’m not up to the task?” She disappeared back through the louvered kitchen doors. “Not necessary…”
“Just wondering about the silverware,” I looked about the table and battered, angle bracket-braced credenza against the wall beyond it.
“Silverware?” She returned with a large, oven-scorched orange tureen, setting it on the trivet, removing its cover with mitted hands. “Very funny…”
“Well, what’s this?” She handed me a large black plastic spoon.
“Just some warmed-over Mattar Paneer and Navratan Sagaloo.” Her harem pants billowed like pantaloons in full sail as she sat across from me, ladle-stirring the tureen, then cranking a grinder of mugwart, sweet basil and tarragon over the pot. “I’ve added some curry and tamarind to revive it, a bit of miso, too. Help yourself to the rice.”
“Uh, great,” I sneezed at the powdering, going Calcutta pushcart straight up my nose as I filled my earthenware dish. “This flat spoon’s cool, or…”
“Blessed be. And cool? Try correct, heathen.” She served herself with birdly portions, easily picking at it with her chopsticks with extravagantly long fingers, skank eyeing the aversion I was exhibiting toward mine. “Conflict with your sticks there?”
“Nope, I’m OK, got the hang of it,” I fumbled, trying to position and re-cock them without a second glance, sure as a surgeon gripping a Metzenbaum, only these tools had a manual all their own.
I picked and poked as I could around the entrée’s edges, further casting about the walls, less casually than causally, not wanting to come across as mountainfolk. Corner right, a shrine of sorts: poster calendar of the Golden Gate, superimposed between the bridge towers being the benign, gold-toothed smile of Siddhara Deva Roswanu. Centered beneath that was a thick magenta novena candle, rising from another Burmese wood stand. To either side were small shadowbox sculptures of Vishnu and Shiva, silver braided garlands draped halo-like above it all. This, I gleaned from tiny parchment tags hand lettered and affixed to florid detailed silver scrolls. “That’s some devotional you’ve got over there… almost like a church…”
“Hmm, Burger King, forks and knives, churches.” She flapped her dyed cloth napkin, no masking her disdain. “What exactly is your trip here, anyway?”
“I dunno, guess I’ve come to take my shot.” I dug as best I could into creamed vegetables, reddish brown atop my half-filled rice bowl, self-conscious as a Japanese tourist, pushing the bean curd to the side, like I did as a kid my crème corn. Over Regina’s shoulder, schematic posters of the Kama Sutra and Path of Kalachakra Initiation covered the opposing, speckled ivory wall. “You know, make a dent in this town.”
“Well, take a number, cowboy…”
Care for more?
Chapter 27. After a spiritually spicy
dinner, things heat up over just as
exotic Eastern desserts, until a cross-
town phone call breaks the spell…