Chapter 68

“Take barbs or brickbats 
in stride, but be mindful 
of foreign objects.”

            “Hope you are feeling better—enough to be planning marriage, are you? A traditional wedding at the Swedenborgian?”

          “Marriage? No, not that I’m aware of…”

          “Odd, I’d just heard the word, proposal.”

          “Uh, oh no, that’s…something else…”

          The dizziness returned as I trudged back up the Fillmore Street hill, basically to hit the PBT branch and check on the status of my check. Somewhere between Vallejo Street and Broadway, I sat down on the concrete steps, dithered and wheezing from another cold, damp night in and out of the Volvo, watching a silt barge tugging out through the Golden Gate below. No check, mate, not yet anyway, but here I was, back in Pacific Heights after tossing and turning once again in the depths of Aquatic Park.

          More specifically, I’d taken that gut punch and made it as far as California Street, into the laundromat side line of a Mecca Java corner Café. Quick jolt of coffee, the redolent melding of morning pastries and reheated hummus with fabric softener and detergent—had to be better than the public men’s room odor that had gotten so far under my skin. Mecca JavaSoon caffeine steeled for a pivotal follow-up call, I found the nearest pay phone along a dividing wall between Mecca’s coffee grounds and its chlorine-bleached suds.

          “You are referring to the grow up, get a place and phone part?”

          “Huh? Where,” I asked over rumbling tumblers, chagrined at recalling Syd’s answering machine message. “Oh no, that was just a little inside joke…”

          “I see,” said Mrs. Caprow, as if she were on the verge of emergency calling her husband at the clinic again. “At any rate, your friend sounded a bit strident for my tastes, and hasn’t returned my call anyway.”

          “She’s been so busy, being so successful and all—out of town, and everything.”

          “No matter, for we just don’t believe our little place is for you.”

          “Not for me? No, but it is for me, Mrs. Caprow,” I blurted, cold sweat raining down my back, head in synch with the coin-operated spin cycles. “It’s just got to be for me. Who else could it possibly be better for?!”

          “An aspiring cellist, actually. The little dear is studying at the Conservatory. Her parents hail from Atherton. They’re very nice and amply prepared.”

          “Y-y-you don’t understand,” I stammered, images of the Hotel Y, impaling gear-shit knobs and Eric’s open showers rising forth. “I really need…and the photography part—photography’s art, you know, very non-flighty. And if you want to examine my work, I…”

          “Our sincerest apologies, Mr. Herbert, I’m certain you are a splendid photographer,” her voice dropped like Presidio Avenue’s gate from the Broadway ridge. “We simply hope you can handle this modest setback with a healthy dose of good spirit and…equanimity. By the way, you may want to get some help with that. All best to you in your search…” CLICK.

          Splendid, strident? What was that all about? What the hell was it that Syd said in her machine shtick again? I reactively brought a dozen bulging aneurisms to bear on one more dime-fed phone call, expecting to dissect her loopy recording for causal markers of stridency and the resulting third-party recoil. Damned if I could figure out what one woman read into another’s signal/noise ratio—particularly two women like these.

sr dingbats

          “You’re there, when did you get back?”

          “Late last night, why?”

          “I was just calling to see what she said in her message.”

          “Who? I’m swamped with messages. I ran out of tape so some stuff even got cut off.”

          “The one from a Mrs. Caprow…”

          “As in Mrs. and Dr. Jonah Caprow? I sure didn’t hear that one.”

          I figured that machine message would hold the answer, within it a social code that might help me decipher the Sydney-Alice discord. Syd would hold the key, she’d been up here in the Heights already, she ran in those circles, knew the ropes and nooses, the buttons to push and punches to pull, right? So she would have fashioned her taped greeting for all to hear in proper context, whatever their social decibel level: calculated manner by manner, nuance by nuance, word by recorded word. Front-loaded dryers aside, I couldn’t wait to clinically deconstruct her Code-a-Phone tidings. Except the tape was gone, hopefully by way of erasure, and I found myself answering to the real Mendel.

          “Yeah, I was trying to land their little apartment,” I said gingerly, “gave you as a reference.”

          “You linked me with the Caprows over something like that?!”

          “Who else did I have? And the studio was so perfect, I really wanted it. I even fainted over the place, nearly knocked over an heirloom credenza she’d just stored in there…”

          “Let me get this straight. You fainted in front of Mrs. Alice Caprow and dragged me into it, yet failed to get the apartment anyhow?!”

          “Hadn’t really eaten, maybe dehydration from walking around too much. But see, you never called her back. Besides, she said your tape sounded strident for her tastes.”

          “Strident, me? Do you have any idea how Great Family the Caprows are,” she fumed, static entering in, likely as she wound and twisted her Princess cord. “Blunder, Kenneth, total faux pas…”

          “I was just trying to get settled, so we…” My ambient noise was that bank of overheated Speed Queens.

          “No, we—you, remember? Honestly, what were you thinking? What kind of man are you anymore?!”

          “Fair question—good, fair question,” I muttered. That’s what I’d like to know…wouldn’t you like to know. “Give me a little time to think that one through.”

          “I mean, there you go again, with the us business,” she said, with shards of exasperation. “You’re not house-hunting for anybody but yourself—for your space, your life, get that once and for all. How in god’s name do you expect me to help you when you can’t even help yourself?!”

          “R-r-right, forgot about all that,” I replied, the nearest washer rattling with an unbalanced heavy load. “Guess I’ve been preoccupied with…”

          “With my proposal, I hope. In the meantime, that’s something you can help me with.”

          “Yeah…your proposal, we should get together and hammer it out, huh?”

          “Look, I don’t have time for that right now. Momentum, Kenneth—things are rolling for me, wheels are turning, wheels within wheels, you don’t know, so much interesting stuff is happening. I’ve scads of things on my plate, and I’ve got to have that proposal ASAP!”

          “Which is why we should brainstorm the ideas I’ve jotted down, face to face, two minds better than one and all…”

          “Shape up, will you,” she chided, easing slightly off the bash pedal. “You’re the word person, so get something down wherever you are, I’ll go over it. If you value my friendship one iota, you’ll have it to me within the week—and make it legible, preferably double-spaced…”

          “Typed? But…”

          “And it had better be a masterpiece—Shakespearean, in fact. And Kenneth, deliver it with Josh Grabek’s package, will you do that for me please?”

          “C’mon, Syd, don’t you think we’d work better together from the start?”

          “Got to go, Kenneth. Check in when you’re ready,” she speed shifted to a bum’s rush. “Meantime, get a place to live, just leave me off your reference list, for godsakes. And what’s with the noisy pay phones again? Ciao…” CLICK.

          “Sorry about…” All right then, I slammed the receiver into its chrome cradle, turning every which way, unsure what to do next. Slipping between a young woman hauling out a white plastic basket load of folded laundry and a night watchman lugging in an army issue bag full of dirty skivvies, I beat it for the door onto Fillmore Street. What was with the hard-ass act, Syd, where do you get off?! Pissing all over us, when I was just trying to set us up…only needed you to back me up to get started, not laying it all on me like that. We’ve got to talk this out, clear everything away. To square things with us, make it all right again, goddammit…

          Needed a little fresher air, had to have some time to think: I blew out of Mecca Wash with a head full of fuzzball lint. Could have drifted further down Fillmore, but instead I headed up to higher ground. Fighting a knee-jerk nostalgic urge to hit Lafayette Park, I rather steered hard past the stately row Victorians on Clay Street, retreating up to safer, still saner Alta Plaza. Micro gardeners tended the shrubbery, giraffe sprinklers watered the drought-stricken rest: Pacific Heights’ premier park afforded a quieting measure of breathing room au natural. Yet I sucked wind up the four trim, steeply tapering tiers in criss-crossed confusion, at once rebelling and relenting, chain coughing my way, one staggered concrete staircase after another.  Alta Plaza Park

          There, breezes, open space, trees: I drew a deep throated breath upon reaching tier three, glancing about with panoramic relief, westward to an undulate pastel cityscape, over to a dramatic bay vista of brilliantly colored spinnakers sailing in from the Golden Gate and vast blue sea. Yeah, that feels better, clear out those lungs, lie down and cool it on the grass awhile, think this whole thing through. Right, everything’s here waiting—it’s your life, you’re responsible, go for it, goddammit, like she said. Except face reality, nudnik, it’s so far out of reach. No, just reach a little bit further. This is above me, that is so below…gotta write my ticket out of this…naw, gotta go write her commission deal down now…

          Thwok, thwok, thwok. But before long, the sprinkler-dampened grass began to seep through;mythical statuary seemed to be mocking me from behind the sculpted shrubs. Thwok, thwok—suddenly the au pairs were shouting at their chapped and screaming little charges, as if ready to let the damn prams free roll down to Steiner Street. While off-leash schnauzers and Airedales were Alpo crapping all over the lawns. Thwok, thwok, thwok—unsettling me even more were the tennis courts just up over my shoulder. This dull slap of Penn 1s against the nylon strings of Dunlop and Head rackets seared my skull with Wimbledon force and velocity, incessant grunts and volleys begat bouncing scenarios back and forth.

           So decision time washed over me with the latest spin of a nearby giraffe. High time to knuckle under, come down off the hilltop, stop smiting the hand that’s freed you. Got to get out of this blasted sun, this gusting wind, gotta go somewhere and write now, jot her proposal down—that’d make everything right. Sure, see? Syd would be happy and still be your…friend. Yeah, she’d land that big bank job, make beaucoup bucks out of it and then see what a team we could really be. That way, everything would change, we’d be rolling in it and buy some big spread out from under the likes of the Tymans and Caprows. We’ll be the dynamic duo from the Midwest who took over San Francisco…sky’s the limit, no looking back—we’re talking about getting over big time in California!  Go for it, dammit, all you got to do is go write that proposal—just a two or three pager, a crummy little piece of cake…

          Trouble was, where? I couldn’t stomach any more Apothecary ice cream, much less signing onto another dotted line over at Kendall’s Korner. So back to Fillmore Street, it was—maybe one of those wobbly coffee shop tables at Mecca Java. Decision tentatively made, albeit in spin-cycle mode. I descended to Clay and Steiner Streets, where a right-turning Beemer almost took me out in the crosswalk.

          “Slow down, mister,” I spouted, slapping his beryl-blue hood, ground level reality snapping me to.

          Honk, honk—the driver smiled grudgingly, shooting one of those half-assed casual waves, as if that made a near miss with vehicular manslaughter excusably A-OK.

          “Yah, yah,” I shouted back, crossing Clay Street with a measure of renewed clarity. I roamed lamely down Steiner, past a shady stretch of landmark-quality Victorian row houses, had I the street-smart cognizance of mind to so notice. Instead, came a headstream of dissonance: Don’t get it at all, do you?! The whole seedy plot. She’s got you right where she wants you—by the family jewels, sucker. Stuck and strung out here without a dime in your drawers. Torn apart from anything that mattered and she’s rippin’ you for all to see. That’s right, keep suckin’ up, write her a million-dollar proposal. Then watch her run with it, leave you snortin’ paint fumes while she laughs all the way to PBT bank. Christ almighty, what a sap

          No, stop it! That’s not it one bit. She cares, she’s good for me, is pushing me, only trying to help. This proposal’s for me, too—got to make your breaks out here, gonna write this thing for the both of us. Gonna show your kvetchin ass, once and for all…

sr dingbats

          “On the term?”

          “’Course. It’s twelve-to-one on the year.”

          “Naw, think I’ll stick with the nags—better steamer payday there…”

          What I needed was working space, a bit of room for to gather my thoughts, better compose myself—in a manner of speaking, spread my ink-stained wings. Back down Fillmore Street, however, Mecca Java was filled to the brim with slow sippers and two-bit launderers. Little else immediately in sight but a vitamin store and yogurt bar, I resorted to Your Asia Grill, nothing if not a world apart from the corner Donut Hole right next door. Plenty of sugar there, vats of it, non-dairy, too—but nowhere to sit, given all the sweet talking buzz heads munching crusty crullers, otherwise standing room only.

          “Tulungan mo, ginoo? Help you, sul?”

          “Just one of your coffees,” I said, trying to negotiate the Grill’s apparent language barrier. “Okay if I get a little work done in here?”

          “Mas mahusay para sa iyo sa counter?”

          “Huh, actually, I could go for one of these booths…” It occurred to me that he spoke more English than he let on, his cross-cultural way of glaringly minimizing our transaction.

          “Ang iyong kasiyahan,” the waiter narrowly smiled, bowing ever so slightly.

          Pick a booth, any booth. I had my choice of seven, number eight back there being occupied by three senior Filipino gentlemen folding linen napkins like the diaper brigade at Children’s Hospital. Otherwise, this appeared to be empty hour at Your Asia, save for two neighborhood pensioned dockhands at the marble counter. They’d a penchant for early bird Filipino cuisine—say, saucy lechon, puchero or mechado—said to be rehashed from what remained of the lunchtime rush. Still, with number four now taken by the two guys who were laying numbers as I wandered in, booth one looked awfully good to me.

          “Sugar, ginoo, gatas,” said the waiter, bamboo thin, bearing a china cup and saucer on a small round Tanduay Primiero tray, along with a plain metal creamer. His white jacket looked sweat sallow around the cuffs and collar, stained with Adobos past. “Refill dagdag…”

          As it happened, their house coffee was water weak, saltshakers clogged, the place mat and napkin having seen better decades. Yellowed and frayed about the edges were they, the seat cushion being no less discolored and tactily worn. Still, the booth itself was suitably secluded, to where my imagination ran immediately wild with goings on in here since bootleggers spoke easy, carved up their Tommy gun defensible borders.

          Lessee, that letter of hers, jacket pocket right where I’d left it. I kept stirring the coffee, spooning out greasy skin, studying her outline notes like auditors over cooked books. Okay, the commission was for PBT’s main lobby, basic concept was global interdependence. Trade, capital outflow, all that multinational, Rockefeller Trilateral jive: best to hit up one of those torpid waiters for another cup, free refill or no. What were they folding and reading over there, anyway?

           Time had done in Your Asia and its linen—counter mats, table clothes—as had years of sunlight through the Grill’s tile windowed storefront and chipped, gold foil lettering. Intense shafts of sunshine from two large ceiling light wells scorched larger center place-set table coverings like neglected steam iron marks, its skylights otherwise shining on this dingy bank of diner booths.

          Which was precisely why I had hunkered down in booth number one…deep into its darker corner, with the overflowing ashtray and Your Asia Grillyesterday’s late five-star Examiner. I drew the watermarked grosgrain curtains in behind me, so as not to stir up the joint. From this angle, through this slit of daylight, the Your Asia Grill appeared stalled in pre-war Mindanao. Still, the entire dated décor did make me wonder what it may have been like to have been there, kickin’ it in a jinrikisha, either yesteryear or yesterday.

          Guess Syd’s general idea was to abstract that out, symbolize global networking in one universal theme—couple of figures, maybe exchanging goods for currency. Yeah, write that down: ships, intertwining channels of commerce, coalescing at some strategic coordinate in a web of counter-centrifugal polarities—cartographic plot points, longitudinal plots…plots…there, finally some space to think about…plots. How they fit into the pattern…plots, yeah, like the beauty she’s concocted. Christ, what d’ya think happened back there? Oh, right, that Caprow dame figured to be ready to give me her place—she makes one phone call then, wham, forget it, son! No way, somehow Syd torpedoed the deal, made me out to be some crazed lowlife. Forget what she says she wants, she really wants you out on the street where she can squeeze you even more…

          Freeze framed through the curtain slit, one waiter sly-eyeing the counter customers, especially the Grill’s tainted house silverware. Another stacked and restacked water glasses, waxed paper between layers, chipped rims facing inward should they on occasion actually be used. A third appeared to be keeping a watchful eye on booth number one.

          Right, she’s been gunning for you ever since that time you split back east, sure as shit. How she ignored Caprow’s ‘strident’ remark—raced right on by it. Maybe that’s because she knew it, planned it that way. Same thing as if she was throwing your ass out all over again…must be maneuvering, hate you something fierce…

          The split between booth one’s brown curtains narrowed as I shifted and fidgeted on the matching vinyl cushion. Still, I could set sight on one of the remaining waiters, leaning stiffly against the Grill’s front counter and chrome crank register, glancing about, periodically my way.

          He must have been the manager—cashier, at the least, wearing the same yellowed restaurant whites and peplum-like apron, only with a regal blue emblemed band on his jacket sleeve. It set the front man off, made him seem magisterially rigid, cinder-eyed with straight back oily hair behind lofting billows of French-inhaled Black Cat cigarette smoke out the corner of his sneering mouth.

          He seemed to be half listening to Giants’ announcers Lon Simmons railing at another blown LeMaster-to-Madlock-to-McCovey double turn on KSFO’s play-by-play. Among the wait staff overall, they must have chain-smoked and coughed up the equivalent of a third-stage alert, rotating coffin nails nervously between their jittery, jaundiced fingers.

          Okay, now concentrate—global transactions, how bank networking facilities… c’mon, currency conversions, letters of credit—abstraction, graphic symbolism, boil the whole goddamn thing down. God, even FBC deadline pressure was nothing like this. But gotta keep the faith, this goes way beyond commissions, places to live…remember, Sausalito, that sunrise service, spiritual bond… Syd’s in her own way just trying to help…improve you, just like Mom said…push you more than Melissa ever did. But Moon’s always there…or was, back there before, before…oh, shit she’s good as history, too…Okay then, start at the beginning—global commerce, interdependent multinational trade…now, how do you put that in a single image. Give it visual impact, make it abundantly clear…Christ, how much clearer can it get? Syd’s turning you into a Play Dough loser more and more…

          I peered up from my scribbled notepad out the curtains’ gap. Yet so cumulatively thick was the second-hand smoke that I struggled to see Your Asia’s menuboard over the counter, lots of chop suey and chow mein for the slavering locals. It snaked and button hooked over the walnut booth partitions from above, below, eventually even from behind. In this now dwindling sunlight, the nicotine spirals contrailed to the hanging lanterns and light wells, tarring cut mirrors and walnut paneling, tinging tablecloths and brass railings, tawny as a sepia print.

          But you don’t understand, this is all going to work out; everything’s going to come together in time. It’s bigger than Moon, than mom, even—one humongous passion play. Big, all right, just one huge pile of horseshit. What mom said, remember? Maybe neither one was the one for you, but, no, can’t cop to that. Think about it, one after another, working class to walking class…but, dammit, I paid Moon back in full…no, staying was the easy way, going for this was the hard choice…lessee, global economics in one visual abstraction …independence, my ass, you just jumped and bolted with your tail between your legs, only this run’s got you suckin’ dust…this one’s gonna squeeze your gonads ’til you scream…

          No way, these things take time…there is no more time…got no job, no house, no dog…that’s in the past, make the big decision, remember? Like Syd said, everything else will fall in line…come on, she’ll just grind you…no, make you amount to somebody… yeah a silly eunich boy toy. If mom could only see you now…for guilt, for shame, for sure…No, stop it now, you bastard, leave me the hell alone. I’ll kill you with my bare hands, I swear it!  When the booth began to close in on me, I decided to break out and make a clarifying phone call.

          “That term business you were discussing,” I cleared my throat, making a little side conversation, lining up second behind one of the booth-four duo for a suddenly busy pay phone near the front door. “Have to do with Jimmy Carter?”

          “Naw, Danny White,” said the Afro-goateed lower Fillmore player, green corduroy leisure suit, Racing Form and scratch sheets in hand. “Flunky’s in way over his head. He’s takin’ on water, lost at sea.”

          “Know the feeling, on both counts,” I replied as he moved in on the wall phone once a walk-in caller hung up and cleared out of the Grill.

          “So you down for a little side action,” whispered the mulleted bet-runner over his shoulder as he rotary dialed. “Quinella, exacta. Pick ‘em, I only skim 5% vig …shit, line’s busy again…”

          “Thanks, already done more than enough gambling,” I muttered, as he handed me the receiver, heading back to his partner in parleys holding down booth number four. Like he really needed this pay phone, when who knew how many boiler-room phone lines they had running down stairs? Popping a coin, I got a familiar message.

             HSST, POP… “This is Sydney. I’m off to L.A. right now, then to Chicago…”

          “Damn her, hasn’t changed that tape yet,” I shouted, slamming the receiver, stomping back toward booth one. ”How’m I supposed to help her with this thing if I can’t even get through?!”

          Suddenly the smoke tore into my hyperventilating lungs. I coughed, hacked phlegm incessantly, forehead sweat beading into both eyes. Enough, already—my head seized along with tight-fisted rage, throbbed with the rapid crossfire of swelling axons and dendrites. I tossed my notepad onto the booth table and pulled the curtains closed behind me. Then I pushed my coffee cup aside, spilling sugary residue over Syd’s papers, sending the cup and saucer crashing onto Your Asia’s cracked tile floor. With that, a crook-nailed, nicotine-stained finger slit through the drawn curtains like an old linoleum knife. The waiter slid them open, then stood squarely against table’s end, a small transistor radio pressed firmly to his ear.

          “Ikaw, out!” He glowered at me, smoke streaming from both nostrils. His eyes were as much terror filled as tough, as though uncertain whether to flee or serve up a little mano-mano or yaw-yan.

          “Leave me be,” I shrieked, shoulder blades pressed against the booth back like a cornered coon, tossing my notepad his way. All I could hear was what sounded like the home stretch call of a handicap purser from Golden Gate Fields. “Get the hell away from me!”

          “Out, out!!” The waiter’s cigarette bobbed fiercely at the corner of his mouth, a half-inch ash flickering down onto the tabletop. He reached down for my pad, tossing it back at me, this rabid mongrel he’d cornered in the darkest corner of his premier booth, another waiter rushing to his side. “Mag babayad ka at pumunta—you pay, go…”

          “Back off,” I said, the pad catching me squarely in the ribcage. I reached for my small spiral notebook, instead coming up with a coffee-splattered butter knife. You?!  Who the hell else, Dudley? Got to protect yourself, get into self-defense mode. How coldly reassuring it felt in my hand. “Y-y-you just back ass away…”

          “Yuji, tawagan ang pulis,” the waiter shouted to one of his counterparts to call the police, pounding the tabletop like a desk sergeant at Northern Station. “Tumawag siya ng pulis ngayon!”

          We stood off, eyeball to bloody eyeball across a four foot DMZ. The waiter widened that gap some, soon as I commenced slashing about. He stumbled backward against a center table’s cane-back chair, dropping his radio. Shatter proof the Hitachi wasn’t; still, the now disjoined components kept pace with a 16-to-1 dog player that was breaking through to a blanket finish.

          “T-t-try me,” I stammered, flipping the knife to my left hand, blade out, holding it shoulder high. My noggin throbbed, neurons and synapses misfiring, sweat gradually blurring my vision. “Just keep your damn distance…what the…”

          The waiter took on a flurry of bizarrely dissolving qualities: his thin, oily hair turned flowing auburn to curly sandstone blonde. His tight, tar-stained mouth morphed in full—puffy roseate red over perfect pearly teeth—smiling, taunting me with perfect orthodontic scorn. His narrow frame shed its splotchy white jacket, morphing into a bright wildflower sundress, strappy espadrilles, star sapphire rings on her fingers and toes. Moon, wait, whered she go? Sad, those tangerine Danskins, leg warmers of apricot and blue…stand still a minute, stop dancing around, to where a body can see, feel you again… That citrus apparition transposed to a motherly housecoat of violet and gray, then a shackled Aunt Eleanor, evaporating entirely into the smoky air, quickly disappearing from me…my eyes flashing half-dollar wide, as the booth walls seemed to tighten in on me like a boa around a boar.

          “Out—I-lock mo ang mga ito up!” The waiter came into sharper focus now, standing firm, threatening to have me locked up, with nary a clue what else to do as I sliced the butter knife back and forth through Your Asia’s haze. By now, that front counter manager was racing across the Grill to his staffer’s side; all the waiters were smoking like dragoons.

          “Problem here,” he asked firmly, then beckoned toward Yuji. “I-hold sa isang segundo…”

          “Mabaliw siya! Tawagan ang pulis,” the waiter rattled, still pointing at me like I was a cornered animal carrying Swine Flu or Ebola Zaire.

          “Just lay off,” I smoldered, thrusting the butter knife down into booth one’s table top, disoriented as all get out, dismayed that I felt so thoroughly deserted.

          Your Asia’s smoke thickened, rising through the seven overhead fans like swirling taffy, clinging to revolving wooden blades, billowing up into the light wells, then recirculating malignantly into the booths and counter aisles. This fat-fried oily squall further dulled the walnut paneling, brass handles and coat hooks, those etched counter-long mirrors. That pari mutuel duo split from booth four in the face of this odds-on action, while the kare-kare/kaldereta lunching pensioners on those spoked-back stools barely batted an eye. Outside, passersby had gathered, peering in, pointing through the Grill’s cobweb cracked front windows. Yet amid the commotion came some semblance of clarity, that major-domo motioning his waiters away from the pay phone, toward the rear kitchen’s swinging doors.

          “No call…walang tawag, pumunta ka pabilik sa kusina,” he ordered, then turned toward me again. “What up with you?”

          “No help here when I need it…blast these curtains, need some air,” I muttered, pressing a long-dead service bell, my face in the mirrors flush and twisted like linen in a napkin ring. Better, time to go, time to see somebody, talk this all out—can’t let them see me like this. Stop looking, you vultures, treating me like some kind of committable runaway. I could hear their whispers out there, their freak-on tittering and trash talk—it kept me fearful and frozen in booth one’s threshold.

          “…Closing on the outside, it’s Baby’s Breath. And at the wire, it’s Baby’s Breath by a nose, Transom places second, Momma’s Darling comes in show…” Still, that shattered radio kept squawking: 22 to 1 long-shot quinella at Bay Meadows paying off in juicy nickels and dimes. A glance toward the kitchen found Grill waiters puffing their Tareytons, crumpling wager slips and Tagalog tout sheets.

          “Just this time—I call no cops, no crime, cut you break—lucky day, okay,” snapped the cashier, motioning me toward Your Asia’s front doors. “Now you go…”

          Break, lucky dayfair enough—I braced, straining to regather whatever composure I had left. Grabbing papers, laying down half a buck, I bailed with little more than a beholden nod, grasping for any dangling threads of cooler-calm. But all I could hear through ringing ears on my way out was Lon Simmons’ ‘Tell it bye-bye baby’ radio call of a game-winning homer by Jack the Ripper, Sadek and Herndon aboard.

          Once outside, I sidestepped bemused onlooker stares along Fillmore, muttering to myself past the corner Donut Hole, nursing either a case of hypoglycemia or hyperglycemia all the way across California Street. No, couldnt keep this in, cram it down anymore. Gotta sit down with somebody, talk this whole thing out… So I lumbered up Sacramento Street to the medical complex I’d spotted before this cranial brainstorm blew in. Any hospital worth its oath had to have somebody to listen—nurses or something–better yet a walk-in shrink. Soon, emergency room interns steered me over to the Psycho-Evaluation wing, no questions asked. Thereupon, I dutifully followed the yellow line somewhere south and west of the ICU.

          That was where I’d get a handle on this head business again, where they could help me iron this whole sucker out. I began humming ‘Brain Damage’ over and over in my popcorn mind, set it to Pink Floyd’s rink organ accompaniment, waltzed those laughing little voices down corridor after disinfected corridor, just about ready to check on in, all but fixing to make myself to home.

          Maybe this action was way overdue. But somebody was fixin’ to pay…

Care for more?

Chapter 69. Checking out, breaking 
free, a call to the riled beckons 
eventfully north, scenically south, 
before reblazing a familiar trail…