Chapter 33

“When caught between converging 
forces, it is seldom easy or thinkable 
to split the difference.” 

             “Sydney’s roost…speak or be spoken at.”

          “Uh, Syd?”

          Kenneth, fantabulous,” she cooed, “I’ve been waiting all alone here for you to call…”

          “Syd, we’ve got to talk…”

          “I know, I know. How did it go? I blew my parents away, but after some mega- hassle, I think Faith is behind us. That means Daddo will fall in line by tomorrow at the latest. After 20 some years, she can still work her overnight miracles. So, what about Moon?”

          “That’s what we’ve got to talk about…”

          “And I want to hear all about it, love…say, over dinner?”

          “No, uh—let’s make it soon as possible, okay? Like, right now…”

          “What’s wrong, Kenneth,” she asked edgily. “Where are you calling from? Sounds like there’s a blade at your throat, or something.”

          “Please, Syd,” I gasped, “could we do this right away?!”

          “Hmph, I guess,” she said, reading what she could into my persistence, though not nearly enough. “It’s just that I was about to do my stretching. Oh, what’s the harm, can’t stay away from me, huh?”

          “Be there in a…flash.”

           I slid back into the squareback as if it were rigged with C-4 explosives. The closest pay phone we could find was beside Golden Gate Park’s Conservatory, and Melissa had a splendid view of the baiting. She looked bewildered there in the car, a basically gentle, caring creature suddenly driven to a two-bit ambush. I at once pitied, hated and needed her desperately. Christ, at least maybe my head would soon clear, like this afternoon’s unseemly skies.                           Conservatory of Flowers

          “Was she there?”

          “Yes,” I sighed, nearly flooding a fouled, very cranky engine, pulling away sharply from the stunning white Victorian Conservatory of Flowers, fairly tousling its colorful beds and full, lofty palms in a cloud of fuelly dust.

          I begged for every red light in sight, for a blow-out, a molten generator, disengaging differential—anything seriously disabling—something AAA could run a major tab on. I’d have circled the park and Presidio until Labor Day if I could have coped with the glacial silence, if my attention span wasn’t shorter than a Van Ness Avenue yellow light. My mindless click of the radio brought up some new Paul Davis single, ‘I Go Crazy’. Potting that down, my only immediate salvation was the inevitable dearth of parking around Sydney’s apartment building. “Hopeless, as usual. We’d probably been better off taking MUNI…maybe we should just forget this whole thing… ”

          “There, Kenny,” Melissa pointed down Franklin. “That van’s pulling out at the corner. Well, is that close enough or…”

          Oh, right. I was looking to wear tire grooves into the pavement three blocks in every direction, and this Econoline camper gets generous four doors from Verdun. “Shall we,” I muttered, helping her out in a rush of downhill traffic. She apparently felt no urge to reply.          Franklin Street

          “There it is,” I nodded, as we approached Sydney’s Victorian. “Pretty nice, huh? That amazing goldish gingerbread trim…”

          Again, silence. Melissa fussed with a creamy garlic smudge on her muslin peasant blouse, then fluffed her full-length whortleberry print skirt. She was facing off with her spiritual sister, her femme ideal; the place might as well have been all but ablaze.

          “This is wrong, Moon. You know that deep down,” I moaned as we crossed Coastal Avenue and angled beneath the sidewalk awning.

          “Which floor,” she countered, approaching the brass-trimmed front door.

          “We’d better take the elevator…” I waved and smiled weakly at Ivar, who opened the door for us, then quizzically eyed Melissa all the way up to floor number three. We were otherwise dead still, stepping out onto deep pile green carpeting. I led the way over to 316, like two battle casualties at a VA hospital, the brown jumpsuited manager rheo-levering his birdcage back down to the lobby.

          “Who is it,” Sydney sang, soon after I banged her polished door knocker.

          “Syd, it’s me, Ken,” I blurted, inserting myself between Melissa and the off-white door. Moon slipped stiffly to the right, several steps down the hall.

          “Kenneth,” Sydney flipped the deadbolts and opened with a flourish, peekhole covered with Edie’s Mt. Hood poster. “I didn’t know who was knocking! How did you get in here soooo…”

          Before she could move nearer me, Melissa cut between us, quicker than a point guard, hair and hemline flying with caped rage. I was stunned by her lightning aggression—so totally unlike her—as instinctive and territorial as a litter-protecting cheetah.

          “Moon, what,” Sydney gasped, pushing at her door reflexively, as though holding back some serial rapist. “What’s going on here?! Kenneth…” she snugged her white robe sash at the collar.

          “How could you, Sydney,” Melissa cried, salesman-wedging into the closing portal. “You knew where things stood…”

          “Wait a minute here, Moon,” she searched, gathering herself. “Pardon me, but the trip out here was your idea in the first place, and I thought I was bringing us all closer together… Kenneth?”

          I stood there, alright, two steps from the crash site, but nowhere to be found. What else could I do but hand her the belated gift of Josh’s box, having recalled it being under the VW’s rear seat?

          “I sent you off with trust, you spoiled little witch,” Melissa screamed, in a voice six times her size. “Just had to do it, didn’t you…couldn’t let it be, wouldn’t just leave me be!”

          “Witch,” Sydney countered, snatching the package, otherwise yielding slightly her press against the gold-colored door moulding. “May I remind you where you are, toots? I think you’d best leave my home this instant!”

          Huh? What did Moon mean, leave her be? What was with this jumping so many steps? They now met toe-to-toe in the doorway. I could do little but plaster myself back to the foyer, bracing for a blindfold and hostile fire.

          “Don’t I mean anything to you anymore,” Moon shrieked, tears streaking the rouge traces on her chipmunk cheeks. “Haven’t you the slightest shred of decency, for godsakes? You’re worse than your brother. Just let me move on with my life, will you please? I’m only trying to move on!”

          “Decency, to you? What about me,” Sydney shouted coldly. “And what about Kenneth. It’s got to do with us now, not you…”

          “No, wait a,” I sputtered.

          “Shut up, Kenny,” Melissa snapped. “This is between Sydney and me! I can’t believe you said that, you miserable bit…”

          “Oh, kiss off, Moon,” Syd recoiled. “If you were 100% there for him, this wouldn’t have happened—just like with Lester. Shit, sneaking out here, little Miss Gumdrop. Well, grow up. I know better and so does he!” She shot a venomous glance at me, nostrils flaring—sizing me up, probing my frozen face frantically for support. “Tell her, Kenneth. Tell her you can do so much better than the likes of…”

          “Oh, and that would be you, I suppose,” Melissa replied, shaken to the spine by the depth of Sydney’s vitriol. “Yyyou…the princess who couldn’t change a panty shield without Faith’s help!!”

          “Leave my mother—that’s right, my mother—out of this,” Syd volleyed. “Hmph, wouldn’t you love to know she’s behind our decision all the way. That’s how much you mean to her, toots. Blood’s thicker than charity, even with Faith—no matter the milk of human kindness BS, no matter who all’s involved. So you’d better stop with the bad-mouthing my brother, and haul your dumpy tush out of here before I brain you one.”

          “Oh, Sydney, dear God,” Melissa wept madly, somewhat bedazed by what she had just heard. “And you make it sound like Kenny was really a willing part of this…”

          “I beg your pardon…” Sydney explored Moon’s draining face, then glanced once more my way. I was still standing there, speechless, mummified, the last man along the Maginot line.

          “That’s right. Kenny, tell her how ‘together’ you two really are,” Melissa sobbed. “Go ahead, tell her what you just told me. You tell her, you…you…”

          “Kenneth?”

          They both turned to me—two spent shells begging sustenance from the sole surviving source. But that source was far more depleted than either of them could have imagined. “I-I-I just don’t know what to tell you, really,” I despaired, shaking my head as though a cutting, distant coma had muscled in—I didn’t want this, dammit, did I really make for this? “I mean, what do you want me to say?”

          “Kenneth, come on,” Sydney urged, snapping her fingers thrice. “Our plans, our common goals…how the little clinger here is holding you back. Our future together, dammit! Kenneth…Ken…”

          “By all means, Kenny, let’s talk about the future,” Melissa rallied. A quiver borne of restirred panic pierced the firmness of her intent. It was as if, for the first time, she couldn’t read my mind before I spoke it. And what did Sydney mean, ‘human kindness, no matter who all’s involved’?

          “Hold it now, just hold it,” I exploded, flailing my arms like a traffic bobby in Trafalgar Square. A lightening throb split my cranium, fore to aft, wider than the rift between Beijing and Taipei. For the first time, I couldn’t read my own mind before I spoke it. Best to say nothing; but at the moment, my best wasn’t good enough. With a henchman’s misgivings, I set my tongue free for all to witness, however terrified that the three of us would swing from every word.

          “Sydney,” I sighed, “whew, Sydney—I’ve never met anybody like you. Anyone so strong and determined, so totally gifted. Several months ago, somebody like you could only be a dream goddess with golden wings and brushes, that I could only read about in the magazines or something. Christ on a crutch, how could I not respond…”

          “You said I was the best thing that ever happened to you,” Syd cried, somewhat gilding the lily. “You told me that, Kenneth, in the park…”

          “Kenny? What park?!”

          “No, uh, maybe that’s what you inferred, but,” I groped, both beautiful faces fixed on me, fawns in the headlamps. “Figuratively…what I’m trying to say is…well…you’re way up here…”

          I motioned above my head, then below my waist, with leavened palms. My face contorted slowly as I spoke, from reasoned control to turgid apostasy to dark, wrenching resignation—a sinking barometer indicative of the low pressure deep within. “And I’m like, down here, you know? Face it, you’re outta my league, so stop rattling my cage, alright? You can’t just descend and flash all your damn freedom and resources at me, pumping me up with hot air. It’s not fair. I’ll accept that I’m some regular slob who’s gotta get out and grunt now. I know my place, for Christsake! And all your potential and possibilities aren’t gonna change that one iota.”

          “Kenneth,” Syd gasped, slipping a bit more behind her door. “I’ve not once wanted anything but the best for you, believe me.”

          “Well, just don’t. Don’t want anything for me, okay? I’m just lucky to have a great woman like Moon willing to take it with me—as it comes—all the crap and any good that slips through. You’re not real; she’s real! She’s been there, keeping me glued together, not bending me all outta shape like you!”

          I gazed fearfully upon them, burning to hold both, incapable of touching either. Their images blurred together, then poles apart—in and out—transposing like fluid cells under a molecular microscope to the tabour pounding of my brain. Sleek and earthy, blonde and henna brunie, blue eyes and brown—mystifyingly exotic, if not Ashki and Seph.

          “Leave me be, I’m telling you! Just leave me the hell alone!!” The more I released, the more the throbbing took hold: a quickening heartbeat in a loudspeaker stethoscope. Suddenly, SNAPPPPPPP…like a lightning strike to the noggin.

          “I didn’t want this,” I wailed, eyes sinking to the floral hall runner, “you think I wanted any of this?!” Think I’m getting some kind of buzz here? You’ve no right to rip me apart this way—divvying me up like a casino pot. What do you two want from me?! No, stop it—stop it right now. I want out, outta here where you can’t claw at me. Mother of God get me outta here…they’re brutal, mom, emotionally brutal, hurting me real bad…don’t wanna stay no more…wanna rest, a little nap…maybe some tea and cinnamon toast, like before, momma, put on some of that singer you love—Vaughn Monroe, that Mario Lanza guy…on our Silvertone radio…gotta, what’s that song they…that song…switch on Julius LaRosa, where’s ol’ Redhead Arthur Godfrey and his hula-hula uke…yah I Remember McNeil’s Breakfast Club, Hello America Paul Harveys ‘Page Two Good Day!…no, bullshit, turn that godblasted radio down!!!

          “Kenny,” Melissa shook me, “Kenny, listen, settle down. It’s all right, everything’s going to be all right now.” She hugged me and shot a menacing glance at Sydney. “Look, just look what you’ve done to him!”

          Sydney reeled, thoroughly shocked by the cave-in. She clutched her own terror-stricken face at what came of this game, turned and fled crying into her room.

          “Hey, what’s all the racket,” Ivar shouted, his elevator meeting floor three. “My other tenants—I won’t have this! You quiet down or I’ll call the police…”

          “Begging your pardon,” Melissa said crisply, doors flapping up and down the hall. “But I think it’s all over here.” Ivar stood firm nonetheless, his loudly colored macaw stunned squawkless on his shoulder, ball bat at his patch-pocketed side. “Come on, Kenny.”

          “Air…cool out,” I mumbled, “gotta have fresh air now…”

          “That’s it, why don’t you go on down to the car,” she soothed, easing me warily into the elevator.

          “He okay,” Ivar asked, quickly giving ground.

          “Of course he is,” Moon replied firmly. “I’ll meet you out front, Kenny.”

          “Now, downstairs, out front,” I rambled, heaving against the black birdcage metalwork.

          “Yes, Kenny…in a minute. I’ll be there soon as I take care of some things with her.”

          She waited until the barred door scissored closed, and marched into Sydney’s, leaving me with a warm, encouraging smile only marginally contrived. Ivar stared through me until the elevator began its descent—a gruff, contemptuous look that seemed one finger removed from 911. If Sydney hadn’t banked all her charm and…chutzpah, the SWAT teams might have already arrived.

          Rather, once past the lobby’s crystalline chandeliers, its full gold-framed mirror and cornices, I was greeted by a brisk late-day gale, the kind that carried rain squalls in from the Farallons on afternoons less brilliant than today. It braced me like cold creekwater across morning growth—those wonderfully clear, tranquil mornings along the Continental Divide that now seemed so many meridians away.

          I tugged my plaid Woolrich collar up at the ears, then headed along Coastal Avenue on miscalibrated instruments. Pausing before a storybook next door Victorian, I inhaled the red fuchsia, the scarlet begonias vining through its wrought iron picket gate and fencing. An elegant blue/white-on-gray Italianate style townhouse, it was one of the few 1860s-era homes on this block that survived the 1906 earthquake, as well as the resulting firestorm that was stopped cold at Van Ness. Today, the Tolbert-Dolan House’s tiny front yard was lush with ferns and dwarf trees; still its enduring street corner splendor did little to stem my inner flare-up right about now.

           By the time I reached Franklin Street, ecdemic, screaming voices crossfired my skull so intensely as to physically rock me backward and cauterize the slingshot throbbing, left and right. Tell me, Kenneth…yes, tell her, Kenny…the truth, Kenny, lay it on the line…which is it going to be, Kenneth…decision time, Kenny…stand up, stay here, come home…you can do it all here…what in blue blazes are you doing here…you’ve got what it takes, Kenneth…you can’t cut it without me, Kenny…I want…I need…you…no, I…you—focus, fool , if you’re chosen by the chosen people, what choice do you have but to choose between the chosen, and choose choicely as you do…just don’t blow it again this time like you always do…gotta look out for number one for once, asshole… “Stop!!!!”

          Everybody kept pulling, prying, cracking open my cranium yanking at my whirling hemispheres with a gear greasy crowbar, splitting them like a stone chisel through modeling clay, a jackhammer blow from the inside out. Trauma, triage, Callosum compromised, drowning in cortisol, self-inflicted wound. Static synapses seared my pre-frontal cortex, crackled through my parietal lobes and limpic system like a plague of august fireflies and cicadas. Keep walking, go back, leave town, settle down—take Melissa, leave Sydney…dump Moon, hate…hug Syd, escape…go for…look out, that car…hell with that car…think, feel, flow with…drop it all for good…

          “Our Father, who art in heaven…Hail Mary, full of grace…”

          Those voices, where are those damn voices?! Kids, school prayer, church—that’s it, the courtyard, those blue Catholic uniforms…the nuns—black robes, the scapularies, catechism, CCD—ugly…chains, free, get free!! Honk, hoooonnnkkk…  Pacific Heights block

         “Hey, dildo, get off the damn street!”

          Honk you, car…kick your ass. Outta my way, man! Wanta get out but the skin wouldn’t give. Fight or flight, rewire into emergency mode. Kick that Plymouth’s ass…to the water down there, to the hills. What’re those kids… basketball! In the gym…gym!! Center School gym, Coach Tyner, passing drills…homework to do…yeah, ma, I…walkin’ the dog…Laddie? Get…dribble…this block…stuff the goddamn trucks, smokin’ down Broadway…garbage scows, filthy damn buses. Walking Seamus in the mountains, the Divide…church organ, Sunday mass, communion, blue suit confirmation—no, ma…headache, stomachache. Damned Kanizsa Triangle, eyes rollin’ back in my optical chiasmas to the searing Occipital Lobe, everything starting to look like a Braque Cubist-collagist refraction. Quit it…the pounding jackhammers, chainsaw log trucks, stinkin’ up Van Ness…smelly ass dopers in the donut shop…outta here, yeah, you! No, turn the corner, turn the page…too many buildings, cars…the Transamerica Pyramid rising behind lower Russian Hill like a tire spike to my pounding steel-belting skull…there, palm tree…in the mountains… get back to that cool and clear…can’t loosen teeth…outta the way before I swallow my tongue kill somebody!!!

          “Kenny! Kenny, over here,” Melissa waved, a bit more disheveled, at least so it appeared.

          The sight of her stanched the rapids momentarily, a makeshift dam on a wind-whipped reservoir. She jumped up from Sydney’s front stoop and ran to me, cloaking me to ease the quite visible vise grip across my brow. “Are you all right? Oh, you look like…come on, let’s get out of here, Kenny…let’s go right this minute.”

          “Flatirons, Seam…”

          “Huh? Sure, let’s go home to Seamus and Pags,” she said, stroking my neck. “We’ll get us all together again. Tsk, I must have been mad to let you come out to this. We’re going back to Boulder, Kenny…California isn’t for you, San Francisco isn’t your speed, at all…”

          I marshalled the base clarity to drive us over to Denise’s, such was the quick, ValioBenzoHalcion balm of Melissa’s presence. No labels, nothing said: I had trouble enough interpreting the gyroscopic tremors in my eyes—those pinwheel green and kaleidoscopic signs. Seemed she’d already resolved to leave me be until Colorado, if necessary.

          Lord, she’d never even seen me like this. But then, none of us had seen any of us like this. For her, it looked to be megatonnage, and no telling what all was rotting in my crisper. Yet she hinted she had seen shades of that Sydney before: the night Lester announced their engagement, the night Syd played leary shadchan and devil’s advocate at the Mendel family Seder.

          Weaving across Fulton Street into Golden Gate Park, I suddenly honked and cut toward a passing Fiat, swapping obligatory gestures, cursing through locked jaws, so as not to re-release those torrents, but just one lucid, tenacious thought. “So, what did you settle with her…”

          “Beg your pardon,” Moon replied, as if somewhat startled that I could remember back that far. She flipped on the radio, the Little River band singing, ‘…You’re there when I need you, lady. Let me take a look at you now…’.

          “With Syd,” I muttered, rushing to turn that AM volume down, neither blinking nor shifting my stare until we re-passed Rainbow Falls. “You said you had to take care of some things…”

          “Nothing,” she sighed, “absolutely nothing.”

          “I’ve got to know, Moon…”

          “Kenny, please don’t…it was just between her and me.”

          “That so,” I fumed, as we curved around Stow Lake to Park Presidio. “Well, nothing’s just between you and her anymore, it’s all glopped together in one big, swirling sinkhole!”

          “Okay, okay…just relax,” she squealed, unsure at this point to what no-man’s land any more outbursts might take me. She stared through her side window, picking baby redwoods out of patchy fir and pine, seemingly fighting one emotion that never figured into her relationships: mild panic bordering on fear. “One thing I suppose you should know about dear, sweet Sydney is her first thought after you left the hallway. Did she worry about your condition, where you were going? No, she just came out, shot daggers through me and said, ‘If he’s not mine, he’s not yours…he won’t be anybody’s now…’ God knows I’m sorry, Kenny, but that’s the kind of ‘goddess’ you’ve been dealing with.”

          “I can’t believe she…she’d never…”

          “I know her, Kenny. You don’t know her at all…”

          “Oh, shit, Moon, why can’t everything just be like before,” I grimaced, accelerating up Crossover Drive along the vast Marx Meadow, veering toward merging traffic from Transverse Drive. I dreaded the notion that nothing really got settled in my mind, after all. Did Sydney actually feel that strongly about it, about me? Me? Somebody that dynamite, that strong—somebody that talented and loaded for bare? Felt like the top of my brain was thinking ahead in overdrive, while the bottom scrambled and struggled to catch up.

          “It will, I’m telling you,” she soothed, leaning over to me as we rounded the 25th Avenue curve. “Soon as we get ourselves back to Boulder…”

Care for more?

Chapter 33.5  A sly, side diversion to the
inner reaches finds any clannish refuge
pulled up short and shaken by the roots…