“A hunger for resolution
may result in further
upset and dyspepsia.”
“Be my guest, the more the harrier …”
“Hi, I’m Melissa Saversohn, Denise’s friend…”
“Sure, fine—mi casa, su casa. Bring on the tour buses, there’s plenty of room in the Hotel San Francisco.”
“Uh, Denise’s room is back and to the right,” I motioned to Moon.
I had circled back to Denise’s place, noggin as sodden as a Sligo peet bog. Had blown off the piroshki, forgotten the Calistogas altogether, preoccupied as I was with notions of what those Abbey blokes were actually cooking up, roots and all—and how I might swallow it or spill. Aww, probably was the booze talking, right? Just like it always was by my ol’ man.
Conspiralling with that whole explosive mick spectre was what I should say or do to reconcile with Moon, who had arguably transited from Mimas to Titan over the course of our heads-on collision. So well played, how she gained the upper hand with a full-blown diamond flush: Seemed I couldn’t break away, couldn’t stay away, either.
Melissa greeted me at the door moments before Regina Tzu returned from some of her Vedic vespers. A simmering Moon quickly smoothed the waters with her organic, neighborly smile. Beyond that, from what I could read into her demeanor, there was clearly little she saw at Denise’s that she hadn’t already painfully surmised.
Moon said she knew her brainy grade school pal was on a recessive reel—that no assistantships, no further scholarships, no fellowships on earth could keep her from her duly appointed downs. Denise had basically chased her Wolverine gymnastic Vedonis out here to oblivion. Naturally, he’d left her packing sand castles on some state beach north of Asilomar, before vaulting his way to Stanford’s fieldhouse for some freeweight and pommel horse training. So she was working through that, from a foam pad in the Richmond District to the retreatful shores and hillsides of Bahia Mexico. No big thing—even Regina Tzu, her ever-burdened and bothered silversmith roomie, aligned with Denise’s southern gravitational pull—spirited and sardonic as she presently was in her devotional black maxi-vest and flapping bell bottoms. But this Thibeaux character…
“Then what’s goin’ on here. I mean, like, where’s the scenario?” Thibeaux Cauler was clearly the oblique angle in Denise’s household triumvirate. How had she put it to Moon, the resident Rastafarian fuzzball on their woolliest of flings. “No sense gettin’ all stoked out about it, right? Han Loon’s got too much pork fried rice waitin’ for that…”
Once we thanked Regina Tzu for her doorway greeting and hospitality, we secured Moon’s baggage in Denise’s room, then piled into the squareback, bound for Chinatown. I drew comfort from the diversion, although not nearly enough to quell the brain rage that seemed to be riding back in on that fog bank far down Fulton Street.
“Yeah, yeah—there’s somethin’ I’m supposed to be tellin’ you,” Thibeaux mused from center seat rear, elbows straddling atop both bucket seats. He was a spare, somewhat beguiling minstrel in hand-embroidered brown cords, a gold V-neck pullover and unraveling blue blazer. Slapping dramatically at his forehead, he nudged back his knit Afro scull cap, scrunching its rasty red, yellow, green and gold-layered bands to reveal a receding, close-cropped hairline. “Damn, it’ll come to me before we hit Russian Hill…”
“Russian Hill,” Melissa balked, though not daring to look over her shoulder—hunger pangs having set in, fore and aft. “I thought we decided on Chinese.”
“That’s where Han Loon’s is,” he replied, tugging at his tangled beard, then laying several long-fingered taps on my shoulder. “Just cut across Park Presidio toward the bridge, dig? So we can shoot up Lombard Street.”
“I heard the Russians and Chinese don’t get along, keep seeing red,” she cracked, as she jabbed my knee for some jerky response to her homely stab at comedic relief. “Yuh, uh, ahh…” This time, I glared silently, checking my rearviews, lying low on the accelerator, skimming the traffic lights, as well.
“Just do it, mah man,” Cauler urged, “before that fog snakes in here and socks our sorry butts…”
“Can’t have that,” Moon smirked, glancing over to me, as if gauging my vital signs, studying my shifts. She counted one-thousand-one to one-thousand-ten under her breath, then peered off again into the streaming Park Presidio traffic, at the overcrowded bus stops on most every block. “Now, can we…”
Those vital signs were as obscure and constrained as the MacArthur Tunnel, as convoluted as the exit ramps curving off 19th Avenue to Doyle Drive. I rode hard and heavy along Crissy Field’s bayside perimeter through the Marina, across Van Ness to the Russian Hill climb. I twitched, fretted, muttered and flushed—seemingly all at once—reactions radically out-of-synch with the over-wrought trickle of conversation, not to mention the blur of beauty and bull run traffic passing by.
“There, cut over to Union, then right on Hyde,” Thibeaux spouted, with palpable reprieve, breaking between his sing along with the second and third stanzas of ‘That’s the way of the World’ on KYA radio. He was a gritty little tenor, somewhere betwixt Richie Havens and Lionel Ritchie, but with an amphetamine timbre to his voice that paced the boomy tabula riffing on my seatbacks. “Gotta get me one of them penthouses up there on Leavenworth.”
I throttled spitefully through converging cable cars, Melissa holding fast to her seat until we rolled to relative safety down Jackson Street. “Tsk, really, Kenny—you…”
“Like, with one of them wraparound sundecks lookin’ out over Alcatraz…hey, that’s it—on the corner—where they’re lined up out the door. Man, there’s even a spot…there’s never a spot up here,” Thibeaux shouted, nearly crawling over the seatbacks. “You folks must be real karmic…”
“Ask her about it,” I grumbled, as I backed lamely into the parallel space along Hyde Street. I rocked six times before leveling out, nailing an orange Morris Minor behind us, then crunching the purple Ghia up ahead. “Real tight…”
“Tight?! Kenny you knocked off that guy’s bumper guard,” Moon swiveled for and aft. “What’s with you?”
“No sweat,” I shut the Volks down.
“But it’s just dangling there,” she insisted, after springing out of the wagon.
“I said, no sweat, OK?!” Before I could lock off the ignition key, a radio news brief led with reports that beyond an IRS investigation into Peoples Temple finances, Jonestown defector accounts had recently alleged an increase in Jim Jones’ White Night’ paranoia scrambles—complete with faked deaths, punch bowl truth tests and firearmed formations—along with more toxic ‘sexual servicing’ marathons and ‘Revolutionary Suicide’ exercises. None of this had been verified, however, by either the U.S. Embassy or Guyana authorities. Details at the top of the hour…
“Strange trippins’, ain’t that right,” Thibeaux echoed, crawling out Melissa’s door. “But everybody crunches everybody in this town. “Just bump ’em and leave ’em be…”
Moon riveted me, but I stood gazing away vacantly across Hyde. Then I dawdled well behind as Thibeaux smoothly escorted her to line’s end. Han Loon was a simple won-ton and guy pan parlor of brimming local legend. A one-time corner grocery anchoring a squash yellow three-story Victorian spin off, this shoeshine stand of a storefront had sprouted into THAT secret little soy palace, which newly ordained natives suffered unbearably to discover.
“How long’s the wait,” Moon buttoned up her wool car coat, not nearly so euphoric as those now gaining on the door.
“Hey, who knows,” Cauler grinned, tugging in on his lapels as a westerly gust tore up Jackson. “Ten, half-hour, maybe…”
“Come on,” she groaned, “there must be a zillion Chinese restaurants here…”
“Not this good, or this cheap,” he countered, “or stone uncomfortable.”
CLANG, CLANG, squeesh, clang,clang… An indisputable perk to this streetcorner vigil was the clattering, whirring Hyde Street line—an irrepressible procession of tourist-thick cable cars that turned Wharfward at Jackson. Raving, arm-waving ninnies dripping off each succeeding car were enough to stem one’s guttural urges in short order. But the kicker was they were doomed to tourist greaseries as sure as if they had been crammed into paddy wagons, however close their brush with this neighborhood Mandarin mecca.
“Brown rice, that’s all I want,” Melissa muttered, a full party of three squeezing out the front doors and two New Age Maoists scurrying in. “Bet they don’t even have that. Honestly, it can’t be worth all the hassle. I’d never make customers wait like this when I’m hostessing or working tables at the Coach Light Inn back home.”
But she seemed more hassled by me, and the way I’d shuffled aimlessly across the street. She spotted me circling the squareback like a smog inspector, picking up that bumper guard, setting it carefully on the Ghia’s trunk lid. I then wandered toward the third storefront up from the corner—was that a laundromat, or what…but spun back around.
“Awww, where’s your sense of adventure, missy,” Thibeaux hooted.
“I’ve had my adventure for today, thank you…”
I finally legged alongside a creaking, turning cable car as if poised to jump aboard, but instead paused and tailed over to them as they matriculated to the head of Loon’s long, famished wait line.
“What was that all about, Kenny,” she snapped as I returned. “You were sniffing around there like Seamus trolling for a tree.”
“Huh? Just checking out the bumpers…and stuff,” I answered, distant as that cable car climbing way up Hyde Street to the final Russian Hill ridge, then slipping otter-like down the far side toward Aquatic Park.
“You’re the absolute limit, you know that?” Moon scowled, until Thibeaux split the different difference before him.
“The fog,” he grinned, yanking down his cap in the breeze.
“Beg your pardon,” she poked me in the ribs for some sort of rise.
“It’s the fog…”
“There’s no fog over here! Kenny…”
“No, man,” Thibeaux replied slyly. “The fog in the head, dig?”
“Quick,” I said, “we’re next…”
Han Loon’s corner table opened abruptly, a couple who’d choked on their fortune cookies finally caught the waiter’s pushy sneer. They looked to be art school émigrés with a severe tea fetish, and possibly the only reason they left at all was that Number Two Loon had sealed off the water closet with a solid stack of rice sacks.
“Please,” the young, white-coated waiter beckoned.
“Excellent, table one,” Thibeaux grinned. “This is the ultimate, I caught The Juice sittin’ here once.”
“Juice,” Moon said, hesitating before Cauler could gallantly take her coat and seat her. “All you can remember is spilling juice?”
“Not juice, Moon,” I sighed, slumping into the corner windowsill bench. “O.J. Simpson, the football player—you know, jumping the Hertz cars?”
“So what’s football got to do with fog, already?”
We bellied up to a front table that looked directly out to the cable car turn, as well as that laundromat across Hyde. Once the waiter covered us with menus and tea, the cause of that lengthy wait became abundantly clear. For Han Loon’s consisted of no more than eleven bridge-size tables with red/gold vinyl chairs jigsawed into an impossibly narrow dining configuration. The only breathing room was directly overhead—rotating fans and fluorescent fixtured, smoke inverted dead space that capped off at approximately 18 feet.
“Wrong fog again, baby,” Thibeaux clucked, while pouring Cameroon into their creamer-like china cups. “This fog settles in over the mind, affects the thinkin’. Stomps in on elephants’ feet, messes up the enephrins and receptors, if you catch my drift.”
“Tell me about it,” Melissa scoffed, again fishing me for leers, nods, anything but brain-dead enephrins.
Nevertheless, my eyes wafted off into the cellish backroom kitchen, where three generations of Loons prepped about the hot, smoky cubicle like fire ants having at a chocolate-covered cherry parfait. Then, another bell-beating cable car drew me once more to the squareback and laundromat—those Speed Queens and that battered, coin-filching pay phone. Wait a second here…
“It’s a fatal affliction,” Cauler continued, tapping his index finger against his right temple. “Affects damn near every newcomer to San Francisco—clogs up the ol’ chimney—makes you lose your balance and perspective…damn near self respect, if you ain’t watchful.”
“As in Denise,” Moon muttered. She followed my eyes across Jackson, spotting the Morris driver as soured and tossed his mangled bumper guard, kicked the squareback, then pulled away. “Or…”
This wasn’t right, I stewed silently, glancing one table over to a nurse leafing through the day’s Clarion. The newsrag heralded a front page City Hall probe on how, barely weeks after their swearing-in ceremony, newly elected Board Supervisors were already busy drawing divisive lines—beginning with Districts 8 and 5. Christ, gimme some news I could use…
“Denise, for sure! S’like regular normal people fall into this killer funk—just float on ’round with foghorns blarin’ in their ears. Hey, I know—happened to me soon as I got here from St. Loo. Ya’ ozone out and the days just truck on and you be hangin’ out with just you and your foghorns. Some folks never gets past it…”
“Hmmm,” she replied, “maybe that’s why everybody I see here seems so serious, so…sulky.”
“Naw, that’s just ’cause they be coppin’ poses…”
“St. Louis,” she warmed, finger ringing her tea cup.
“Sure, that be Tara, baby,” Thibeaux grinned, between cooling sips. “The arch, Leclede’s Landing, Gaslight…”
“We’re from Chicago originally, like Denise…”
Hell with Chicago, I brooded.
“What it is,” he gushed, “Chi’s cool, too…”
“That’s not what Kenny thinks.” In truth, she appeared to be becoming too fretful to wonder what was tumbling through my mind. “He thinks it’s slow death.”
It’s nowhere compared to here…
“Well, at least there, not everybody’s shuckin’,” Cauler replied, drawing down his tea. “Either doin’ or getting’ done to. Why you think these chicks got me around? ’Cause they love my coily hairs in their bathroom sink?! Naw, I be just the handy man, unnerstand? Best to have one around. Denise got wasted one night and said I was like their liaison. Man, it’s more like three cc’s of Swine Flu vaccine or a humongous damn rubber. Me—I sees it more like their beacon in the fog bank. Those two chicks is so into chasin’ tails, they don’t know what the hell’s really be goin’ down.”
“So, why,” Moon probed, however warily, as if thinking, my god, Denise couldn’t be balling this…”
“No panic, sister. It be nothin’ like that,” Thibeaux shrugged. “They be way too flaked for my action. I just feels for ’em, that’s all, school ’em some on the R&B. And the crib’s basically copasetic, so sometimes I just crash on the couch.”
Screw Regina Tzu, screw Denise! Gotta get out of this…lessee, Heider’s Balance— if A mugs B and B cuffs A, then C is impelled to…aww, screw that, too…
The junior Loon soon scooted over, sieving between nearby tables, teapot and pad in hand. “Ah, you order, yes?”
“Now, Chin,” Thibeaux winked, closing his red vinyl menu cover, passing it over to Melissa. “In the now…”
Now, for sure…so San Fran’s not my speed? I’m not its’, huh? Well then what about reaching all of my damn potential here?!”
“Ewww, I don’t know,” she wriggled, picking at her front teeth with her half-chewed fingernail. “Just some rice, a little sliced chicken on the side. Kenny?”
“Kenny, KENny,” Cauler mocked, poking my menu.
“No matter, really…” Christsake, I couldn’t help but stare at the laundromat. Especially given Han Loon’s red-tasseled décor, the mythical Mandarin gardens framed and plastered like Maograms all over the back wall. Those gardens…get out of these weird gardens…I can do anything outside here, sky’s the limit, anything less is just settling…
“Wow, then allow me,” Thibeaux smacked, through his bramble beard, pulling my menu away at will. “Chin, let’s do the Cauler mix, what say? Start with the Sub Gum Yee Foo Won-ton, all around. Then, how ’bout some sides of Yang Chow Fried Rice, Sam See Chow Fun, Curry Beef with bean cake, Lychee Chicken and Mushroom Chow-Yuk—all right? Oh, and some crispy fried oysters with the won-ton.”
“Yes,” Chin Loon beamed, scribbling furiously.
“Is that as much as it sounds,” Melissa gasped, “we…”
“Hey, baby, no panic,” he eased, flinging the menu back toward me. “I got some col-lat-er-alll…”
Stop calling her baby, you…aww, what the fu…wait—things were all settled; now they’re not..I can do this, why else would I come back…yeah, the laundromat there…
A quick, precision kitchen drill, and the won-ton was in the now, replete with wrapped chopsticks and those stubby, flat-bottom plastic spoons. As Thibeaux ladled the steamy soup and Moon hand wrestled her sticks, I cut one last glance at the laundromat, sprang from my bench, and suddenly was the wind. “Just whatever he’s having,” I muttered, darting out the door. “Back in a sec…” Moral dilemma, moral hazard, moral failing—dissonance run wild. No choice…got to do this… got to do this now…be the best I can be, gotta make this right before it’s too late…
“Kenny?” Melissa dropped both chopsticks into her won-ton in disbelief. She focused on me—as if to stop me in my tracks, remote control. She looked like a mother losing her first-born to pre-school, fearful and abandoned. “Must be feeding the meter,” she smiled awkwardly, fiddling with her sticks amid the noodles and water chestnuts.
“What meter,” Thibeaux asked, watching her fish for her sticks amid the noodles and water chestnuts. “Not in this ’hood, not on lower Russian Hill here today.”
I raced broken field across the intersection, dodging the inbound cable car that lurched along Hyde Street, not to mention the Renault squeezing past its blind side. Moon watched me sinkingly as I stood off the honking LeCar, kicking its front bumper before storming into the coin laundry. I watched her watch me, our eyes clashing defiantly across Hyde as Thibeaux motored on over his Chow Yuk. Then, contact lost—distance building between us as if through an extending zoom lens. It all played out before me as I reached for that pay phone. The vision became even clearer while I fumbled for nickels and dimes in my pockets. Make that call…you gotta make the call, asshole…dial the damn phone…
They seemed to shout it a cappella in my ear: the old Vietnamese woman from her second story window overlooking Jackson Street; the Chinese kids chasing one another down the block, the Turk watching his Doberman hike leg all over that scrawny curbside tree. Operator, operator…push those buttons…reach out…make that call. Palms drenched, finger trembling, I popped the coins and played my tune. The phone call of my life rang repeatedly with no audible relief. Be there, be there for me, goddammit…be there for me one more time!!!
“Finally! Thank God…”
“What? Who is…”
“Sydney—oh, Christ, Syd…it’s me!”
“Kenneth,” she replied flatly.
“Syd, listen. That wasn’t me talking before, you know that! I just did the spiel for Moon’s sake. You know, ease her down. I mean, I owe her that before…”
“Before what, Kenneth, before what? There is no what.”
“Syd, honey…we’ve gotta talk this out…”
“God, you’re really sick, you know that?!”
“Sydney, come on!”
“Come on, nothing,” she raged. “That wasn’t how this was supposed to go, flash. You blew it royally, sold me out because you weren’t man enough to do the right thing when everything went down. And here I was, thinking you’re the one, a real tzadik, when you’re really just a worm like Martin Kavalla. Who knows what the devil else you are capable of? Hmph, come on…if nothing else, you owe me—you owe me big time! And I’ve half a mind to bill you at the first of the month.”
“What? Our plans, our future, we…I’ll do anything for our everlovin’ cause…”
“Otherwise, just do me this. Get out of my life, okay?! And Kenneth? This time make it stick. I have a Passover Seder to deal with.”
“Sydney,” I cried. CLICK. Bzzzzzzzz. The washers and tumble dryers rumbled in my head as I dropped the receiver. I inhaled a lint clot of clean clothes and stale detergent on my way out the door, to a cable car of laughing, waving tourists turning toward me off Jackson Street.
“Look out, fool,” the grip man shouted, levering his car onto Hyde. The whirring and clacking cables chewed through my mind like tandem chainsaws, drowning even the steel-on-steel gnashing of the outbound car’s antiquated wheels. My gut wrenched tightly at the hot, thick odor of Chow Fun and Ginger Beef from Han Loon’s kitchen vents. How I avoided being nailed by the passing Pinto, I didn’t know.
I glanced back past the laundromat to my Volkswagen. Might as well run, might just as well hop into that heap and split altogether. But another inbound cable car rattled around the Jackson Street curve, drawing me once again toward Han Loon’s, to the window where Melissa stared me down.
“Kenny, what is it,” she asked anxiously, the moment I shuffled dead weight into the restaurant. “Sit here by me…”
“Hey, man,” Thibeaux glanced up from his Chow-Yuk. “What’s shakin’?”
“Nothing,” I grumbled, taking my place back on the window bench. “Had to call the VW dealer, make a service appointment, that’s all. But they were already closed…”
“Tsk, here,” Moon sighed, knowing better, filling my plate with Springs Rolls and Lychee Chicken. “You look like you could use some service yourself.”
“Phone call, that’s it,” Thibeaux snapped to, as if coming out of a ganja fog, mushrooms dropping like flies into his Cameroon. “Man, you had a phone call from your father. Regina Tzu gave me the message…”
“Yeah, well,” I asked, watching him fingerpick them out of a much too tiny cup. Dad…calling? My dad never calls anybody…
“Uh, let’s see,” Cauler frowned, before stabbing at my chicken for inspiration. “Oh, right…it’s your ol’ lady, man. Something about she’s suddenly not hittin’ on all eight, understand? I think he wants you to call him, like right away…”
“Really,” I melted, Melissa grasping my knee. Why the hell didn’t mom tell me about this when I called them before?!
“Would I lie ’bout somethin’ like that,” he replied. “Say, you gonna eat those rolls?”
Care for more?
Chapter 35. Another dubious decampment
beats a path laden with past remorse
and painfully present remonstrations…
End of Stage One.