“She may be easy street, but
can you make it on your own—
meaning go it alone…”
SQUEECH, SQUEEEEECH. “The left button, push it harder, I’m loaded with luggage and everything!”
“Pushing it all the way—wait, I’m coming down…”
I set aside an Examiner front-page piece on Peoples Temple developments down in Jonestown, how the U.S. Embassy expressed concern over further defections and Guyana hotel firebombings. How State Department officials wanted no part of Jim Jones’ rants, his rumored mass suicide rehearsals, even though the latest cables from Georgetown described a ‘community of armed, primitived American citizens existing as a self-contained unit in a foreign land’. Sounded sort of like Marquette Park to me.
So I dismissed the below-the-fold report, setting aside the bulldog edition to give Syd’s front-door buzzer button one more exasperated push, before bounding down thickly carpet runnered stairs to greet her in the foyer. An airport van driver had helped her with several matching suitcases and taped cardboard cartons from Carson, Pirie and Crate & Barrel. I managed to lug most of her airfreight and carry-ons upstairs, while she tipped the Lorrie’s van man and checked her mail slot one more time. By the time she had carried a Vuitton overnight bag into 2C, I’d stacked most everything else on her foyer and kitchen floors.
“Going weak in your old age, Kenneth?” She pointed toward her bed as though we were only halfway there.
“What is with this stuff? I helped spread it all out atop the comforter-made Murphy.
“From my parents, they’re so sweet—just some more goodies to keep me moving onward and upward,” Syd glanced about her apartment. “Well, looks like you cleaned up after yourself. Nothing broken?”
“Uh, nothing in here exactly, whatd’ya expect, Syd…ney.” Damn, I just still couldn’t bring myself to call her that. But this was hardly why my eyes zagged toward the kitchen. Her galley was kosher clean, not even a water spot, the necklace and wild horse creamer hadn’t moved a speck. “Hey, missed you…”
“Me too,” she said, following my cue, from avocado enamelware to Endusted breakfast nook, with white glove deliberation, running a finger across her prized Imari pitcher. “Not bad—so, what exactly have you accomplished since I left?”
“Who, me?” I lingered near the doorway, as if to keep her focused on the alcove, surrounding appliances and countertops.
“Who else, the trashman? How often have you been watering the plants? My poor hyacinth looks a little pale…”
“I took care of it, all right. C’mon let’s sit a bit and catch up…”
Sure, not to worry, she still basically loved me—like she said. Maybe she’s had some time to reconsider and realize what we had going. Why else would she have me stay here, right—just wanted to keep me under wraps while she and her mother sorted everything out…women! She went back like I did, then came to her senses just the same. It was meant to be the two of us taking on San Francisco—an unbeatable combination, just like we’d said from the beginning. She needed me, simple as that—just taking a little time to adjust. Look at what she’s getting, said herself once how none of it meant anything without me by her side. Well, here I was, gift-wrapped and postage paid, even with a couple of clangers to smooth over. I cast a passing glance in at her mother’s cheesecake photo images for moral and immoral support.
“No, let’s hit the living room, I need to unwind and unpack—the flight was non-stop crunch time all the way out of O’Hare.” Syd pranced past me and the Murphy bed before I could pull out a chair at her kitchen table. She put the latest Karla Bonhoff album on her stereo, then plopped down on her tan sateen sofa, right next to a matching throwcover and crimson pillow. “What’s the matter, Kenneth, you’re sucking on your moustache again.”
“Uh, watch it there, Syd…”
“Here, take a seat, listen to me,” she searched, patting the seat cushions with a Poesque pulse. “It was mostly a fantabulous celebration back there, exhausting though, especially when my parents kept trying to fix me up with Bernard Zynich and his father’s Evanston gallery. Chicago was all right, but not like here. Shoulda been with—I scored some classic creamers in Bucktown and Lincoln Park.”
“Great, maybe I’ll use one as my dashboard Jesus,” I sat guardedly beside her, stretching my arm up on the sofa around her shoulders, again fretting that Moon had had a place at the Mendel table.
“You bozo,” she tossed that crimson pillow, hitting me upside the head. “Speaking of cars, how is Foxy? Clean and full, I hope…Kenneth, what is this?”
“Um, it was late, Syd,” I stammered, pulling back as she stared a hole through a nearly white spot on the seat cushion, where the pillow had just been. “I was exhausted, spilled some Pepsi. The light was dim and I guess I just rubbed too hard with some Fantastik. Didn’t want the stain to set–went too far the other way…”
“You guess,” she spouted, trying herself to comb the spot away. “You guessed my beautiful new sofa into oblivion!”
“Yeah, it sucks, I know. But that duvet there would cover it square…”
“It’s not a duvet. And trouble is, my throwcover will have to mask it square,” she simmered—there went those nostrils. “I mean, it’s a place cover now—I’ve got to make sure it stays here. I hate having to do that, Kenneth, hate not being able to just toss it, hate to make it have to hide something. Do you know how much that freaks me out?!”
“Easy, Syd…ney, sit back,” I blurted, owning up guest-wise as she readied to pace and fret. “We have to go over something about the Audi…”
“What about Foxy,” she pulled away, pushing her throwcover into the sofa corner, then kneading it down over the cola spot as if prepping and panning pizza dough.
“Well, everything was great until I went for your cleaning,” I recounted, in awe of all the baggage she’d carried along from Chicago, yet weighing that it still wasn’t as heavy as mine. “Had to park downhill on Steiner Street, and this brand new Mercedes wedged in front of me, so I had to back uphill. Ever had that happen? All the time I drove cabs, never got pinched in so damned tight.”
“Hmph, happens all the time here, for godsake. Even handicapped drivers can get out of that kind of fix. So what did you do to my baby?”
“Whew,” I sighed. If only Moon had been there to there to rub my aching head. “Well, I hit an oily slick spot backing up, and slid down into the Benz…”
“Oh my god,” she recoiled further, as if I’d Raggedy Ann flailed her first born. “You’ve gone and wrecked two cars?!”
“Naw, the Mercedes wasn’t even scratched, not even a nick in its rubber pads…”
“Oh, sure, now the bad news.” Her eyes glowed VDT green, and she heaved deeply, keeping me at arm’s length. “My Foxy’s folded up like a Japanese fan…”
“Wait, it’s only the grill and bumper—they’re a little dented, the parking light lens, that’s all.”
“That’s all? I want to see this instant…no, I can’t even bear to look right now. Oy vai, you’ve burned me, Kenneth, mortally,” she moaned, burying her face in the throwcover. “What were you thinking? How could you be such an ingrate?!”
“Burned?! Come on, Syd, I’ll bet your dad’s insurance will cover it…”
“I’ll have you know I pay my own premiums. Good thing, ’cause you probably aren’t even insured. But at least you picked up my cleaning, right?”
“Yeah, well that’s what made the whole deal such a bummer. That sow at the cleaners wouldn’t release your clothes, because I didn’t have a claim ticket. Can you believe that?”
“What? I left if for you, Kenneth, under your wild horse creamer there,” she re-emerged, pointing toward the kitchen in disbelief. “How could you miss that? Now, what do you suggest I do about my appointment?”
“I don’t know, you’ve got a closet full of clothes in there…”
“Makes me wonder what other little disasters you have for me…”
“Nothing else, Syd, swear…”
“Well, have you been doing anything productive here,” she snapped, as if rolling my show and tell around in her head like a priest confronted with the confessions of a serial rapist. “About your own life, for instance?”
“Aww, it’s only been a week,” I mumbled. “It’s all so different out here this time. Sort of been lying low, acclimating—you know, checking the want ads, sorting things out…planning my approach.”
“In other words, basically zippo,” she said, staring across her bachelorette in evident displeasure.
“No way,” I spurted, rubbing together the calluses on my palms. “I went through your place all to hell—even found some dust you missed…”
“So handy dandy of you,” she said, “but what’s your next move?”
“I’ve just realized that things are up in the air. Still can’t figure out where the advertising deal fits. Was also thinking about doing a photo shoot of that famous horse lady up in Nevada, Mustang Maggie. Guess I’m still most turned-on by what you said that time, about pooling talents, teaming up. Figured I’d wait until you got back, we could hash it out…”
“Oy, first of all, Wild Horse Annie’s the really famous one, but she died nearly a year ago,” Syd rubbed her temples with a shake of the head. Then she jumped up and turned toward the Murphy bed. She began rearranging her luggage and packages for a moment before pacing between the sofa and her wall of small-framed figure studies. “But you still don’t get it, do you. You’re living in the past, I’m telling you. You’ve got to erase that canvas and stop clinging to that one little fling we had. Look, I’ve told you exactly how I feel now—total truth. I’ve even tried to help set you up, but, zilch…”
“You set me up, all right,” I blurted, photo spread too thin, silently cursing Studs and the Billy Goat. I just exploded, didn’t know where that came from at all. But there it was, grimy and slithery and ugly—a dogfish on a 60 lb. test deep-sea line, when angling for a postcard Marlin.
“Just what do you mean by that,” she pounced, turning sharply toward me.
“Your letter, the ‘wait forever’ stuff, like that,” I said. “I got the distinct impression you really wanted that dream. Christ, I didn’t just come back here for my health!”
“Look, I dreamed that dream with a Kenneth Herbert who was strong, confident, working—ready to take life by the horns. Sorry, but that’s not the Kenneth I saw cowering behind Melissa Saversohn. That’s not the Kenneth I’m seeing right now.”
“Whose doing is that? You’ve got some responsibility here. Maybe Moon was right, all you saw in me was her man, and that I was keeping you from making her a Mendel again. I mean, she told me about the phone calls back there.”
“What?! That doesn’t even deserve a response. I’m not playing your guilt-trip game. Not when I’ve learned we all do what we have to do, and I’m concluding you have a humongous agenda of your own.”
“So, what are you saying?”
“I’m saying maybe you’d best get on with it.”
“Syd always comes first, huh,” I shouted, voice crackling with despair. “This really sucks, you know that?”
“I’ve got a million things to do, Kenneth, and we’re going nowhere. I recommend you get your act together somewhere else.”
“And do what, Syd?”
“Stop calling me that, for one thing,” she said, turning away icily, rearranging her Murphy bed. “Find a place to stay, for starters, a base of operations, whatever…go figure it out.”
“Sure, how about I just hang around like one of your little toy boys, for when her highness is getting bored…”
She suddenly darted back toward me, grabbing my jacket and pointing about the apartment. “I’ve had it with this sorry crap. Here, I’ll help you gather your things, I want you should leave!”
I pulled loose, then lamely attempted to embrace her. “Tell me about what you want, you spoiled little…”
SLAPPP. She stiff-armed away and sailed one across my cheek. “Like Daddo always advised me, I don’t back losers, Kenneth. So get out this instant!”
“Sure, whatever your pleasure, SYDney, whatever your majesty desires,” I gripped, shaken, clenched yet just prefrontal fisting against my thigh, like a demolition ball against a wall, some kitchen cabinet deliberations sorely repeating on me. Instead, I proceeded to cram my clothes and shaving kit into a Marshall Field shopping bag, shuffling toward the front door. “Oh, and thanks ever so much for all your help.”
“I can only do so much for you, Kenneth. From there on, it’s up to you…”
“Tell you what, I’ll even take care of these old papers,” I heatedly scooped up that pile of rummaged snack wrappers and newsrags, filling the shopping bag to its whorled twine handles. “At least I can do that much for you.”
“Fine, appreciate it. So, where will you go,” she asked, with a strange, sudden splash of concern.
“Who knows? What do you care,” I growled, on my way out the door.
“Just in case I have to reach you for anything, dammit,” she yelled, behind me as I headed down the hall. “Like for Foxy’s insurance claim, maybe…”
“Try the Fairmont, the St. Francis—better yet the Ambassador East and West…”
“Ambassadors, Chicago? Now don’t go doing anything rash, Kenneth. I mean, could you really go back like this, anyway?”
“I’ll get you a number somewhere. If need be, then you can have your people call.”
“People? Puleeze. But the way you’re going, the best hope is the Jack Tar Hotel or something, though you’ll probably end up feeling sorry for yourself at the Y,” she huffed, following me several steps into the hallway.
“Whatever, I’m sure you’ll be too busy—you know, busy winning and all…”
“I’ll do what I have to, Kenneth. Now I probably shouldn’t tell you this in parting, but remember the little secret I mentioned to you that once? Well, just between us, what I just found out in Winnetka confirmed it, for sure. I’ve always deep down wondered about my mother’s attachment to Melissa Saversohn—beyond Lester, that is, and our recent to-do really got my curiosity up. So I pled headache, then rummaged through Faith’s drawers one day when they were all at shul. Lo and behold, I came across an old file folder in her vanity that had a letter from Hal Saversohn back when we all lived near each other in Skokie. Here he was thanking her for surrogate suckling his baby daughter, since Mrs. Saversohn was so frail and infirm post partum.
“My mother, can you believe it? Talk about midwifing, loose, liberal Faith Mendel cross-feeding—earth mother as birth mother. Who knows how long she nursed Melissa? There was a doctor’s guideline in the folder, the whole shmeer. I mean, I always knew Moon was like, same age as me—but my buxom mother, with so much goodness to go around. No wonder my parents warmly welcomed Moon into the family, and still care so much. The whole thing freaks me out, almost as much as Lester is without her. See what you stirred up, Kenneth? I’m figuring Faith won’t know what I know now, and bet Daddo and Moon wouldn’t know about it—let alone Lester. No doubt it could really tear her to shreds. Maybe it’s something you should know, but then I’m sure you would never dare say a word…”
“Me? No way,” I said, continuing on my way toward the stairs. Oh great: truth or consequences, fair or foul? But what was I supposed to do with that? Even if it was true, why’d she have to go layin’ it on me? Was all I could do to find some way to unhear it. “Thanks for the scoop anyhow—I’ll take it under advisement. But that’s not any of my concern about now anyway, you know, us being kaput and all.”
“Advisement—you do just that,” she stepped back in through her doorway. “Ciao, Kenneth. Take care of yourself, I really mean it…”
“C’mon, you’ve got more important things to worry about,” I sulked in stride, not wanting to turn back around to give her the satisfaction of a trophy glance. Rather, I just listened to the slamming of her door.
Again, the tightening band around my head as I descended to Chestnut Street, along with the aching eyes and vising jaw. I wandered about in the early evening sun, before recalling where I had parked the Volvo. Damn, if I hadn’t wrecked her car, if only I’d played the dry cleaning card, even listened to Moon’s railing—hell, if I’d turned back at St. Louis, for that matter. Were there no better choices? Had I wagered on a long shot that collapsed at the gate? Call me mister clown car without the benefit of paper cannons and greasepaint.
Had to get out of here, out of here fast. These people were vipers, this place was a beautiful, creeping swamp—bitches gonna be ruinin’ my life. Kill the traffic speeding, stop with the fucking horns. Well, no way, ’Zay—this pigeon’s packing, this sucker’s making heavy tracks. I clawed into the sagging 122S, tossed the shopping bag toward the rear seat. Then I sealed myself off from the worst, with a carload of worldlies and head full of seeping hoses. My cheek burned, ears rang like St. Peters and wrists redlined at seven grand. Moon, Faith, Syd and the dry cleaning lady all strobed across a field of vision penned in by a wiper jam of parking tickets.
I caught my breath and finally started the fouled-out Volvo, clutching the wheel with cold, clammy palms, lurching into Chestnut Street traffic like a MUNI bus way behind schedule. A shrill, unforgiving horn ripped my ears, nearly stopped my racing heart. Some gorgeous Marin-type brunette glowered at me from behind the wheel of that same silver Mercedes 240, all but melting the plastic membrane in the safety glass of my door window. She slammed her brakes with a spiteful look in her eye, harboring something of a grudge, as if somehow recognizing me in a bad karmic way.
Before I could menace a fist in response, my reflexive cabby move, she roared around me, tapping her siren-like car alarm, revealing fresh plastic cracks in her Corte Madera license plate frame. Coasting warily up behind her toward the Van Ness Avenue red light, I fully expected her to flip me half a peace sign when she glanced back through the sedan’s rear window.
Instead, she smiled and waved, before shooting me a peace sign in full, no accounting for derision or Marin bliss. We crawled forward, fourth and fifth behind a line of cars barely moving through the green light, pedestrian crossings a lag factor in the intersection overall. Gunning into clearing traffic, the Marinite turned her Benz leftward up split-laned Van Ness with freewheeling authority in the direction of what my throwaway tourist street map showed as Bay Street and Aquatic Park.
A quick Chestnut green went yellow by the time I reached the corner, unsure whether to swing left or right onto a teeming Van Ness Avenue. The hesitation cost me another red light, and the hard, hands-on honking of several vehicles to my rear. I glanced back at them, then Syd’s apartment building, before fixing upon a corner liquor/grocery—one of those ubiquitous Bay-style ‘bodegas’—thinking how dry mouth thirsty I had become.
But slow on the trigger, at a loss for direction and resolve: was just one more out-of-town bugger hesitant to turn another corner. I braced to haul ass into the arterial ups and downs—no time for juicing, had to blow off the Steams. Yessir, fixin’ to go parkin’ it and hash things out, no damn stopping me now—‘Night Moves’ tracking up on the radio. I looked about the intersection for some sign marker that wasn’t pointing directly downhill.
Care for More?
Chapter 49. A circuitous route
ends in Tender, merciless quarters,
Y’s and wherefores prompting a
rasher of sticky, stringy calls…