“Women can be a drag,
draining the brain pan—
setting it all afire.”
“We gave our power away—placed it on a silver serving tray…”
“How do you mean that, Corrine, figuratively or…”
“Oh, no—most literally. First we pass it through our father-daughter bond. Then to our teachers. We juggle it like a hot rock until we can no longer bear the pressure. Then, bingo, we toss it to the men in our lives, for better or worse…too often, the latter.”
“Fascinating, really fascinating, Corrine. Now…”
“Frank, what I’m telling the women of America in my new book is this: Hey, we’re closing in on the 80s, and here you are still shackled to your Betty Crocker myths and delusions. That you must remain submissive, that you have no personal identity or worth. That domestic slavery, stifling relationships—yes, even hard physical abuse are better than facing yourselves and your aspirations on your own two feet. Wake up, sisters, that glass slipper is cutting off your circulation. The time to chuck it is now—smash it right against those walls around your soul and potential. Cast off the glass slippers for wings on your beautiful feet!”
“You know it, Corrine!” Women in crowd applauded.
“Power to sheople, sister, right on!!!”
“Naw, make that a leather boot up your butt, sister!”
Not so lucky charm-wise: I’d come up frightfully empty once more—amid shadowy figures with mad intentions—hence back here again I was. A few more days had passed, and I was still in some kind of a fog—then there was the long holiday weekend. By default, I had gradually retreated to the Volvo and Aquatic Park for a spell—in and out, ’round and about, late wanderings still in play—fault lines spreading like stress cracks across window glass. Thankfully, re-parking remained tenable, skies had cleared here some, the sun warming me head to toe—at least until late day, July the 4th. Gray-white soup began snaking through the Golden Gate toward sunset, cold cocking the Bay from Raccoon Strait to the Meiggs Wharf breakwaters directly before us. The untimely fog never touched Sausalito, steered clear of The City itself until just past dusk, but slyly blanketed the Bay about a quarter hour before show time. So anti-American, in a micro-climatological sort of way…
This was when the fireworks began, not that it made much difference to the waterfront’s gathered masses. Because downtown movers and shakers had moved the rocket and pinwheel launchers out by Alcatraz Island in an effort to allay those short-fused switchboards at the Noise Pollution Resistance Task Force. How were they to know that mid-bay fog would squelch everything: the noise, the toxins, the fire—the works? It only happened most July 4th holidays, shivering locals were heard to complain. Nonetheless, easily half the city poured out to Bay’s edge for politico declarations and a pyro-extravaganza.
It was clearly a brilliant tactical move, this night sky celebration of independence radiating from a prison turned Indian stronghold turned tourist trap out there. The whole day was just sunny enough for the hordes lugging beer coolers without working up a sweat. Eric had even sponge washed his red, white and metallic blue German imports. Then that fog crashed the party, dousing the rocket’s red glare. Booming explosions were buffeted to earmuffled belches; splashy Comet Palms, flashy blue Salutes, tubular Fancakes, Horsetail Waterfalls and split-star Crossettes reduced to smoke screened fizzles of color, the gathered faithful reacting in kind, giving themselves a celebratory listen to the fireworks show. But that only led to the muddled here and now.
“See folks? That’s exactly…talk about male chauvinist oppression!”
“Yeah, well sit on this and spin, you dyke slut!”
“Shhh, hey cool it, will you,” I mumbled. “This is going out live…”
“Psst, Wes—bring up the band, fast,” said the onstage host, cue cards in one hand, Corrine’s hardcover book in the other, before turning back to the cameras and assembled audience. “So there you are, ladies, and all you modern thinking gents tuning in. We’re going to take a short break for these important messages. But we’ll be right back from trend-setting San Francisco with Ms. Corrine Comstock, and more of her runaway best-seller, ‘Conquering the Cinderella Complex’. Don’t touch that dial… ”
“Right on, drown that feminag flat out!”
“So sorry about this, Corrine. Like they always say, beware the hazards of a live remote,” Frank wheedled, trying to calm her, off camera and mike. “Wes, usher that lunatic away from the stage, will you please?!”
They appeared to have it all covered, this network bunch: The San Francisco remote broadcast, direct from Aquatic Park with Alcatraz as a backdrop, and the most provocative, screen-cool personalities The City had to offer. Local marquee heavies from Patty to Getty to Magnin to Moscone and Milk, Willie Mac to Willie Brown, not to mention Werner Erhard and a videotaped feed by an ascending spirit from Guyana, a sanctimonious, though slurring Reverend Jones. One by one, these Bay Area A-listers toasted show mugs of libations unknown and otherwise kissed up to Frank Monahan—he of NBS-TV’s popular ‘Mugging with Monahan’ afternoon program—who so adroitly put them at on-camera ease over the course of two days, three million celeb-starved housewives tuning in.
Beachfront rayniacs said this raree show was generating more Aquatic Park hubbub than Goldie Hawn’s ‘Foul Play’ movie shoot or when that Bicentennial Freedom Train rolled in along the old Belt Line tracks two years back.
Team-jacketed grips and gaffers up from L.A. had beached their porta-stage on the park’s promenade. Frank’s set was something of a makeshift shmoozer bar, facing the Maritime Museum’s concrete bleachers, so that over every padded raglan shoulder was a picture perfect Bay backdrop of heeling sailboats, renovated keel haulers and far-out fancy enclave, Belvedere. Mw/M’s video mages had spent full mornings positioning enough skrim reflectors, wind deflectors and metal detectors to forestall any potential disruption known to televised man.
They fenced off host Monahan and his studio band, cordoned off camera and sound men, diverted Aquatic Cove swimmers and bought off a goodly portion of the assorted faithful ‘Muggers’ with apple cider samplers and middlin’ finger sandwiches. But when it came to the larger bleachers crowd, well this was tolerant, inclusive San Francisco—and who in Ft. Wayne or White Plains would know that Monahan’s vast studio audience was packed with groupies, shills, comps, plants and trade-outs, much less Aquatic Park’s lowest common denominator?
Yet everything was jake so long as the swag and provisions held out. Moreover, the production crew had two truckloads of catered spread parked behind the bleachers on Beach Street, tucked between the humming power units and dressing/wardrobe vans. Applause signs and stage monitors kept all the glom-on audience lemmings pacified, along with free autographed copies of ‘Speaking Frankly With Monahan’, the host’s own memoirish monograph, each bearing a standard release form as bookmark, to be signed as needed. Show runners and stage managers even appeared to edit out any early-forming summer fog.
It appeared that after nearly two days of fusty hacks, New Left headhunters and celebrated cigar-soaked hobnobs, a ballsy, bioenergetic feminist and her Cinderella complexes would level out the genderal waves like Aquatic Park’s curving Municipal Pier. So why was Frank Monahan excoriating his make-up man, striking up his band; why were his director and stagehands pacing furiously about the set, cueing the audience to begin a ‘Let’s Get Frank’ chant as this live remote sent it to commercial break? The same reason staff security swooped down on the narrow blind crease we had just snuck in through with such idle, star-struck curiosity: edge of the bleachers, stage right—wherein Eric felt it necessary to reveal himself in no understated terms.
“OK, pal—show’s over, let’s go…”
“No man, not with that ranting dyke still up there on the stage hawking her stupid-ass book,” he shouted, as the security drovers cowpoked us away.
“For you two mutts, it’s over, get it?” The larger of two crew herders reached past me, grabbing him more firmly by the shoulder while the other jammed a hardcover copy into his thorax. “Here, take Frank’s autographed book for your trouble…before we take you for a little swim.”
“Uh, Eric, maybe we’d better…” I reached for his elbow to pull us out of this waxing cameo.
“What a pile, man,” he shook me off, yet followed along toward the Maritime Museum, still calling out the unmoved security guards. “These stinkin’ fascists can’t…”
Yet they did—ushered us right out of the picture, 86ed us clear away from the bleachers due west to the foredeck of the senior center. That was when the show band suddenly hit a crescendo and Frank Monahan took his last cigar puffs and fake-bake layer of Sun Glaze Matte #3 before grinning into camera number one. And Corrine resumed liberating the Cinderellas of America with a flourish of her pink-to-red covered book.
“Hell with it, Eric, we can still catch most of the show from here,” I paused to tune back in my own self.
“Think I wanna listen to any more of that feminazi crap?!”
“C’mon, it’s just another half hour or so,” I sensed some of my latent huckster instincts setting in. “What’s with the spinning dyke stuff, anyway?”
“She’s just another castrating bitch with her horny whore bullshit,” Eric spouted, instead stepping further down the promenade, chucking Frank’s book into a garbage can. “She’s just beggin’ for it, no lie. What she’s really after is the big hose, man—cryin’ out for the ol’ nozzle, up either end. That’s what her jive’s really about.”
“Yeah, well,” I begged off, creating space, though mindful of his auto mechanical expertise in a pinch. “You go on ahead, okay? Gonna hang a bit, sort of check your theory out…”
“Suit yourself, I’m truckin’ back to my cars,” he shrugged, then headed across Aquatic Park’s flower beds for his Porsche parade. “Get Bruno to hike a leg all over it…”
I stayed deckside, marginally within earshot of Frank and Corrine, near enough to catch her loudspeakered railings against submissive domestic bondage and stifled sexuality. Whatever Eric’s misgivings about her Comstock load, they couldn’t have been my sentiments—not by a long shot, right? After all, weren’t these my mother’s laments, didn’t ambitious interruptus plague her until the moment she soared with the angels? And that ‘Fear of Flying’ thing—wasn’t that what kept Moon in her holding pattern all this time, no matter how much lint I picked? But even if so, how would that anti-Cinderella there explain the likes of Sydney Mendel?
I sure as hell didn’t have any answers, and wasn’t buying Eric’s. It was enough just trying to keep up with Syd, let alone endeavoring to psyche that one out. In any case, Corrine had pretty much shilled her complex to death up there, and Frank Monahan was kissing her off, waving bye-bye to the women and househusbands of America, diaper and deodorant spots hot on his heels. His parting guest was being whisked off stage by her lady guardivas, Frank and his network honchos hustling around the emptying east bleachers to idling limousines.
Before those black-windowed Lincolns could take leave, show roadies were shooing Aquatic Park rabble away from the leftover spread tables. Roadies were striking the set, packing up floods and rims; keys, dimmers and shiny boards, vanloads of video and sound gear. Gofers hosed the cider-sticky bleachers down with industrial grade Rinso. Through it all, Frank’s house band continued playing ‘San Francisco, Open Your Golden Gate’ like tape-looped Muzak to the bitter finale.
The Gate itself was opening up to early evening as I finally went the way of Eric and our motorcars. Aquatic Park’s lagoon had turned lotion smooth behind the Municipal Pier breakwater, a hyperkinetic squadron of orange-capped swimmers resuming their laps across the cove with Dolphin Club territorial chips on their shoulders.
I curved around the promenade past napping, old-man nude sunbathers and backbench romantics, reconvening winos fighting seagulls for their turf. Alcatraz was Midas now, its ‘main street’ cell block blazing like Athens’ acropolis before the golden age of hydrocarbons and particulates. A reddening sky refracted off outer Bay whitecaps, back up here to Fort Mason’s cliffside colonels’ quarters. Below them, Aquatic Park’s snack bar glowed with a checkerberry glaze; shame it has closed up so early, as Corrine’s pitch and Frank’s skimpy whets had stirred up a powerful hunger.
“I knew it,” Sherry crowed, pulling in behind my Volvo just as I crossed over to unlock its driver door. “I knew by the time we got back to town you’d be crashing here again.”
“Didn’t plan it exactly,” I opened the Volvo and rolled down its window to air out a staggeringly stale interior—one which had yet to yield a missing Josh in the box, no matter how deep I dove. “But I’m kinda beat…”
“All leavin’ us in your dust for North Beach,” she grinned her way out of their Econoline. “You look plenty beat, all right, so what happened?”
“Uh, maybe another time…” Just what I wanted to hear. My stomach was bilious as it was, and my head was revolting even more. How could I talk about it all? Would I even dare?! Inbound fishing boats signaled the onset of another chilblained night in a car that. Then there was Eric over there, sitting side-saddle in the runt of his German litter, Oly in hand, gagging like a maggot over his metallic blue Porsche’s dysfunction.
“Oh, I get it—nowhere else to go, so you end up watching TV live,” she cracked, as I held my breath and squirmed in the driver’s seat, fishing about in my door pocket. “Daytime TV, no less!”
“Sorry,” I nodded, reaching for that screwdriver, a quick carburetor tweak in mind. “Captive audience.”
“Uh-huh, women’s daytime TV, yet.” She badgered, over a cup of Coleman stove heated noodles, poking her fork toward me as I jumped out to pop the Volvo’s hood.
“Couldn’t beat the price of admission,” I muttered and reached in to tap the twin SU cowlings, jimmy jiggle the throttle linkage, like that would spring the four-banger to sustainable life. “I mean, that Comstock chick was almost…interesting—something about complex Cinderellas.”
“Oh I get it, Corrine’s cashing in on the enslavement theory,” Sherry sighed, leaning in against my fender. She had a rugged, no-nonsense self-assurance about her; maybe it was the fullness of her frame in that XL Cornell sweatshirt and denim. “Won’t catch me in crystal slippers, who needs the self-help crutch? Except maybe guys like you and Crash Caravan over there.”
“No, she was saying how women can be afraid to reach out, go for it on their own,” I recalled. “Guess a lot of what she said was pretty heavy on the sisterhood line, but some of it, well…I’ve known women like that, don’t even allow themselves a decent sneeze…”
“Bought in, huh? Listen, lots of women do have their heads in a sling, and drag their men along for the roller-coaster ride,” Sherry said dismissively in her full sandblasted voice, leaning in against the front fender. She had a rugged, no-nonsense self-assurance about her. Maybe it was the fullness of her frame in that XL Cornell sweatshirt and denim. But not me, that’s not my trip—just ask Clifford.”
“Wouldn’t want to impinge on his trance time.” I straightened up from the front fender, wiping my screwdriver with a red tool rag reduced to plugging one of the sedan’s firewall holes.
Glancing over past Eric, I spotted Frank Monahan’s crew packing cameras, light stands, mixing consoles and nautical miles of audio/video cable into massive blue equipment cases. Even the band had folded their instruments and sheet music, roadies were loading up the set and stage, section by pre-fab section, returning Aquatic Park’s trashed bleachers and promenade to the muckers, pigeons and gulls.
“Anyhow, dunno about Clifford,” I straightened up from the front fender, wiping my screwdriver with a red tool, then door pocketing the tool. “But she sure triggered something in Eric. He wigged out, almost heckled her off the stage, like Mr. Pig Personified.”
“Eric’s not man enough to be a male chauvinist pig,” Sherry snapped, looking over at his ailing Porsches as though they were carnival bumper cars, trying to shoo Bruno off the sunroof of his white rig, fumbling with a full key ring as he pulled a perimeter sweep of his fleet.
“Couldn’t say either way…” This, as Eric took to letting Bruno lick his three days’ growth from the roof of the white 912.
“Hmph, I’ve had him pegged all along,” she twisted and turned her long pony tail. “My father’s a circuit court judge back in upstate New York, so I know a cheap felon when I see one. But the SF cops did too, sniffing around the Porsches earlier this morning, leaving him be…heard them saying they were already too busy looking into a string of park killings, even one the other night.”
“They said that straight out did they?” I asked warily, having instead pegged her as a farm girl, recalling that even with Seamus, face licking was beyond the pale, especially after the Setter worked over his undercarriage. Yet here Eric came.
“I just blew it off,” she sized my mind drift up and down. “But Clifford freaked out over all the cops and commotion, so we headed up to Point Reyes for a bit.”
Screeeeech…“Up yours, Charlie,” Eric yelled, crossing right in front of a brake slamming station wagon. The pier-bound Japanese crab catcher’s eyes lit up like rising suns. Eric just squared off and waved a 24mm open end at him, while his dog hopped up all over the Datsun’s honking front end.
“That’s exactly how he was at the TV show,” I gasped at the sight of him staring down the stunned driver, as Bruno growled like a rabid coyote. “Screaming at that Corrine person, a million people tuned in.”
“With a little luck, that fisherman will run him over,” Sherry said, otherwise ignoring Eric’s harangue.
“So just slow your ass down,” Eric eased off the driver with a wave of his Snap-On wrench, motioning Bruno over to the park shrubbery to take care of some business, steaming our way. “I heard you two talking about me, sure as shit…”
“You’d know all about shoveling it, now wouldn’t you,” she delivered a killer stare as Eric rested against my curbside fender. “You and your petty theft autos.”
“Anytime you want to see my pink slips,” he grinned at her. “Damn sight better than yours.”
“You’ve got nothing I care to see, believe me.” She looked like she was cocking to throw her noodle bowl upside his sun-peeled forehead.
“Yeah? Well, up yours, your fat ass bitch…”
“Uh, guys…” Darkness may have been setting in, but things weren’t getting any cooler. Sherry, I couldn’t quite figure, fem or foe. But damned if she didn’t tear after Eric like Bruno after some ground squirrels over by the Fort Mason wall. And damned even more if I hadn’t gotten myself directly between them, fender to fender.
“Besides, I have seen you, Eric,” she screamed, arching back, breathing fire across my opened hood. “You and Bruno in your stupid cars—the way you molest that hound of yours.”
“I’m gonna stuff her dog-ass grill!” But Eric wanted physical, wild-eyed physical.
“Eric, wait,” I said, trying to stall them off without getting physical. “She’s a chick, for chrissake…”
“Clifford, get out here and defend my honor before I kick the hell out of you both!”
“Eric, brother,” Clifford said, from up through the pop-top, before pulling on his tunic as he vaulted from the van. “Mellow out, okay—let’s work on that tension, relax it right out of your spine.”
“Come any closer, wimpo, and I’ll break your spine,” Eric spat back, twice pounding my fender.
“Uh, guys, please, easy on the car—it’s not much, but all I have,” I said. “And gotta go…”
With that, I dropped hood, locked up, leaving the three of them and Bruno scowling and growling, but ultimately little else. Clifford in fact looked to be making some headway with his neo-Ghandian approach, seeming otherwise harmless. Indeed, from safe distance, namely from across the drive by a pair of public phone booths near the snack stand, their whole showdown smelled of Kabuki guerilla theater. Or that might just have been the odor of heads and entrails from this morning’s gutted longjaw mudsuckers and brown rockfish, rotting away atop a plastic milk crate around the bend.
In any case, I needed an out from all the sniping, reason enough to make that follow-up call, couldn’t put it off any longer.
Hsssssst, pop… “This is Sydney. I’m off to L.A. right now on a sudden trip heap big business. At the sound of the tone, leave me a message of any length, I’ll get back to you soon as I can. Oh, and if this is Kenneth Herbert, pick up a long note I left for you in a parcel box below my mail slot, would you please? Didn’t know how to reach you, where are you this time? Get a real place and phone—find my box and get to work on that proposal…” Crackle, beeep… CLICK.
Actually, calling them phone booths was being generous to a falsehood. Out here, Ma Bell didn’t provide truly respectable wood-clad, pebble-paneled chambers for discreet personal exchanges. No, she offered bogus open-air aluminum listening posts, which left coin poppers like me shouting their intimacies into the wind, fighting to get a word in with the next-phone caller spitting invectives mere inches away. Fortunately, I couldn’t think of anything of consequence to say.
Hung up: No message, no Josh box recovery, no place, no phone—the neighborhood was turning hostile and my car had gone dead. And this proposal deal was so important she left it in her goddamn postal bin? L.A.?! Here I was stuck again, under a sputtering streetlight, when by all rights I could have been there. Dusted by her, who was down there, when common decency said she shoulda been here. And what was that…person doing up there, anyway?
I slammed the receiver and panned about a darkened Aquatic Park. Appeared that the antagonists had retreated to their respective vehicles, with no visible signs of bloodshed or further damage, even though all that likely wasn’t over. Across Van Ness Drive, Fort Mason’s promontory dropped sharply to that khaki tan basewall, to shadowy thickets of shrubbery, ficus and wild, if not poisonous vines.
Still, I could make out a sagging lean-to eyesore one third of the way up to an officers’ club’s loftier grounds. By day, the hillside’s untended tendril tangle lent a barbed wire DMZ resistance to the entire fortification; come nightfall it was downright forbidding. Things were stirring up there about the abandoned shed; I could hear them as I shambled back to the Volvo. Creatures were skulking about the shadowy greens. What, I didn’t care to explore, despite conjuring up grotesque iguanodons and gila monsters from the discomfort of my front seat.
But now the whole scurrilous lot was coming to the surface, and the subspecies wasn’t reptilian; it was Carnivora Felidae. I could scarcely make them out: small, low-crawling felines emerging from the leafy underbrush. Timid cats, aggressive cats, scrawny cats, fatted cats—scraggly mongrel Persians and kinky tailed Siamese: feral, feculent, here they were, slinking down the hillside to a missing chainlink or two in Fort Mason’s retaining fence. Abyssinians, Prussian Blues, gray Certosinos, fierce Egyptian Maus, Scottish Folds, longhaired Balinese seemed to clot at the fence holes, pouncing down the park’s low basewall toward the sidewalk.
There a large wooden platform sat on the hood of a paint-spackled ’73 Ford, cats marching to it in cordons like Treasure Island recruits. It belonged to a jute-shawled harridan who sat inside the Fairlane, spooning out cans of Puss ‘n’ Boots under a dim dome light. Must have been four cardboard cases, BBQ Chicken Parts to Liver ‘n’ Onions, stacked in the back seat. Her car radio spun big-band Artie Shaw, and the jumping cats just ate it all up. Fels Sylvestris, Pallas’ cats, margays, black-footed Sebalas, tiger-striped tabbies and coonies: They swarmed over scores of heaped bakery tins atop the plywood platform, purring something awful under the gauzy glow of a flittering streetlight.
The old woman must have been some sort of pie-pan piper, dishing out cat food to every nick-eared feline stray in town. Rex, Manx—all kinds of slinking, snarling, half-starving lionines and grimalkin chowing down. Their numbers swelled to where it looked like they were closing in on me with toxic cat piss and spray at the ready. I double-checked my windows and door locks, cramming into my sleeping bag, their caterwauls threading through the Alex DeGrassi guitar tape and sourdine bickering from Sherry’s battened down Econoline van.
I clicked on my Blaupunkt to drown all that out, catching KYA’s moldy replay of the Eagles’ ‘One of These Nights, one of these crazy ol’ nights’. Enough of that, all the way out here for meager cat scraps, like an answering machine message and plain brown letter. That and all the cats got me to thinking of Pags, of racing back to those payphones to give Moon a dose of where is and why for’s…dream on—too little, too late, lamebrain. Lag time, clocked out—what a hokey joke of a heartland homecoming that would be, the way things were today…
Instead, I stirred about to peek up over the Volvo’s crack-padded dashboard until its gearshift lever stabbed my scrawnier ribs, chewing over the potential protein and carbohydrate content of those liver ’n’ onions cans, for the cats were eating better than I was. Some dark, smoking figures argued in passing—about what, I didn’t even want to know, instead peering over at the bright lights of Ghirardelli Square shimmering off Aquatic Park’s lagoon, the penetrating mid-bay sweep of that Alcatraz beacon. Dousing KSAN’s new Springsteen cuts with icy fingers, I picked up on harbor seals jumping, tides slapping against the distant breakwaters as the fog and plodding crude-oil tankers rolled in toward East Bay refineries.
All and any calm was broken by that battered Dodge panel truck backfiring down the drive once again. So I burrowed deep into the Frostline, both bucket seats pushed way back, curling up loosely around the floorshift knob to take the heat off my ribs. My head propped up against the driver’s door armrest, I tried to tune out the sputtering panel van, fighting feline hisses and howls, arguing parkside drunkards, slamming car doors and foghorns reverb echoing from bridge to bridge—mull over when the cat lady might sing and leave her stand—or whether I instead might take myself another little corrective walk.
A long KSAN airplay of ‘Darkness On the Edge of Town’ finally did me in. I dozed off, however fitfully, wondering whether I’d stay put the whole night through—what with everybody handling their 3 a.m. leak in their own peculiar ways. At least until I heard another engine firing up, real racecar-like, an alarm clock from Acheron. Had to be one of the Porsches there across the drive. Made me wonder between REM waves whether it was Eric, and what he could be up to. Which rusty 912 was he thrashing in and about tonight? And what was he doing with that dog…
Care for more?
Chapter 63. Hunger for substance
meets the patients of a Saint,
while a foray for liquidity finds
down payment overdue…