Chapter 72

Mere admiration
turns to adoration in time,
or foiled absorption.”

“Matjes herring—god, what’s your problem?”

“Uh, if you don’t mind, think I’ll go with the carrot sticks, some of that cheese.”

“Brie-eeee! They call it Brie! Honestly, shape up, already.”

“But I’ve never really seen this stuff before, like that…”

“Goose Paté, de fois grois. Spread it on those Carr’s Table Water wafers there. Carefully now, I’m counting on you not to screw up.”

Door dings were minimal, but the damage had been done. I had awoken with breath like a tallow truck and curvature of the spine, head pounding harder than the drive pistons of a 4-6-4 steamer up a Sierra grade. Tourists and other passersby pointed in at me and snickered as they gathered to looky-loo at the ruckus nearby. What ultimately flushed me out of the Volvo to face a fog-dampened morning was the rustling official activity behind unrolled yellow caution tape. Radioed S.F.P.D. patrolmen searched the perimeter grounds beyond my car windows, while medical examiners wheeled a gurney—empty in, bag loaded out of that dank railway tunnel, sliding the zippered black Mylar sack into the back of a plain white refrigerated van.

Detectives and uniforms had combed a wide swath of Aquatic Park, from the bathhouse on up to Black Point Ridge—where Goldie Hawn had recently filmed the Chase scene in that bumbling, murderous farce. City assassination plots, indeed: on Pope Pius XIII yet, at a time when Catholic pontiffs past were actually dropping like papal decrees. Still, ‘Foul Play’ was currently packing boffo heat in movie houses coast to coast. I just knew I wanted no part of any of this scene any longer, crime spree or homicide wise. Never happened, ignore it, look away, like from so much beer barf on a Sunday morning Marina sidewalk.

The tunnel crime scene finally cleared, for the moment at least, until the forensics sleuths arrived. So I had discreetly slipped out of the 122’s cold green vinyl front seats, bound for gas station ablutions up Van Ness, pausing impulsively to make a reorienting pay phone call,hopefully a Saturnal electro-magnetic hit on my iron deficient, tired blood. Further impetus was having something to prove, the idea being only to leave a modest check-in message. Instead, she picked up and spread her good tidings like olive oil on Little Lucchio’s simmering skillets. Therefore I hustled up a 24-hour marathon scrubdown, including some One-Hour Martinizing, avoiding Sherry & company, all of whom curiously remained in lockdown mode. This, with the knowledge that Syd’s ship had gunwaled in like a Philippine typhoon, and she wanted I should be present at this luxe commission shivaree.

“I don’t know why you’ve dragged me along to…”

“For the last time, you have to be with me here. I need your help to, you know, explain things, just in case.”

“What things? It’s your baby, for godsakes.”

“Just follow me, Kenneth—and whatever you do, don’t spill anything.”

That, I hadn’t done. I’d balked and brooded and begged off, but at least I hadn’t tipped or tossed anything thus far. My petite gateau cookies, for instance, or over how untenable was this business of pressing forth in one’s behalf when one’s toils figured so marginally in the other’s calculations. Anyway, that was how I had it figured, even before I could spare my sole remaining sport jacket from the clutches of an advancing valet. Much as I may have initially seen this whole proposal thing somehow tightening personal togetherness; in actuality, it only seemed to ratchet our jaws and try what little remained of our tenderness. Syd must have ‘got’ that, all right, for she had kept me at phone’s length from the moment I reiterated the virtue of joint ventures, or how squirrelly distractions and blockages set in when I spent too much time alone.

“It’s what real art and accomplishment are all about,” she’d countered, dialing finger cocked, ever ready to pull the trigger on her white Princess phone. “Blessed inspiration and isolation.”

“But how are we supposed to implement the global interaction thing your proposal calls for if we barely interact ourselves?”

“It may take two to tango, Kenneth, but it only takes one to do the actual birth…

“Combine and conquer, remember?” I could feel her finger tapping the receiver, hear clipped blips over the uphill rumble of passing Aquatic Park traffic. “Like you said that time in the Cliff House and Sutro Heights.”

“You think Degas and Cezanne worked by committee, Goya or Cartier-Bresson? Or what about Castenetta?”

“That’s Castaneda, Syd. And you’re trying to tell me how he works?”

“Nu? What do know about writers,” she’d plained, hitting me with force majeure. “Just clean up your act and get into this celebration, will you? You’ve got 36 hours, I’ll drive us. So call me again if you have any more problems or hang-ups.” With that, she did just that.

Problems—I could shuffle them like Tarot cards about then. First up, how I had backed myself into this corner, more specifically, Upper Broadway and Fillmore. Why I’d let her talk me into writing something of substance, which no one had done since Professor Terrent and FBC: a proposal for something I had no knowledge of, attempting to yank the udders of some corporate aesthete who’d probably post-doc’d at the Guggenheim and fellowed at the Louvre. Sleepless me eye strained to make sense of her napkin notes and 4 a.m. jottings on a cold cream carton, sweating out several stilted sentences, pedantic rote and pap about multi-national networking and redirected petrodollars lifted from the pages of Barron’s and Forbes. Invariably I’d reread the raw pages and panic, crumbling them like rubbing up a fastball, then smoothing them out again for more swing-and-miss revisions.

Style and structure, that’s what I need from you, she’d said, leave the technique and terminology to me, with her sketches filling in the rest. Just get it down on paper, neat and clean—center yourself, you can do it, that’s why I picked you to write it, toots. Your job is to make them get and love my proposal to pieces, this is my career we’re talking here. The entire exercise became rather routine: Morning coffee at the snack stand or filched from unattended cups in a Cannery bookstore cafe. Scribbling under framed photos of Joyce and Hemingway, at a park picnic table or in the car until I all but collapsed over those Central Y Hotel typewriters with caffeine toxification and fatigue. All of which had landed me here tonight, ruefully slapping my head over agreeing to join her entourage, more or less tagging along.

“Really, I’m not prepared for this…”

“Oh, lighten up, Kenneth,” Syd shushed, pointing me over to an exquisitely milled bay window. “You’ve earned it. They ate up our proposal, proof positive—and it’s a good thing since I actually started on the painting itself months ago.”

“Yeah, well, this place is so perfect, it’s downright spooky.” I ever so carefully scooped up some paté with a stone wheat thin, nudging it across the Imari saucer until some nearly goosed a mahogany tabouret, all but falling to the parlor’s elegant Persian carpet. “I should have a drop cloth eating this stuff…”

“It’s all in the wrist,” she schooled me on canape technique, executing like a right proper Lilienthal or Dinkelspiel, ever so carefully so as not to stain her dark brown suede boho vest.And please, quit looking so lost while you’re doing it.”

“Christ, how did the decision go so smoothly anyway?”

“Who knows, maybe I scored with the right PBT procurement officials…”

Hopefully in the metaphysical sense, I winced, nearly choking on that prospect, if not on the crackers and paté. Her drawings had to be good, all right, and the proposal didn’t kill the deal, but it wasn’t the Magna Carta. Sooo, ball her way to this celebrity ball? The mere thought burned into my groin like drainage lye. I began sweating through my dry cleaned clothes. I knew she knew I knew, or at least suspected as much, to where I couldn’t bear to look at her, even if it wasn’t essentially true. Good thing this window view dawned on me when it did, wrapping us in about a 180-degree sweep of Upper Broadway, which got better and richer as it went westward downhill.

From such an oak-lined vantage, Pacific Heights then rollercoasted up to the Divisadero ridge, boxing in a moneyed little valley bottoming out at Steiner Street, which in turn emptied like a Japanese fountain down into upscaling Cow Hollow. Dead ahead through that pass, over and above stepped, sundecked rooftops stood the ubiquitous Golden Gate Bridge towers—heart-thumping views of which came with the territory and price tags in such a posh neighborhood. This particular pre-earthquake Victorian flaunted paramount address numerology. I could just feel it as I counted off the grandest of that solid hill of mansions climbing bullishly to Diviz, then pivoted to watch Fillmore’s amber streetlights glow down past steeply inflating apartments and condos to the darkness of San Francisco Bay. Oh yeah, great numbers on this inclined multi-colored palace, four gingerbread stories of sweeping Golden Gate views.

“Look, teddy bears,” Syd pointed animatedly. “A different one in every window. Isn’t that bizarre?”

“Two floors full of stuffed animals,” I assessed a maroon townhouse directly across Broadway. Each window colorfully showcased an oversized, overstuffed panda, panther, poodle, and such. “Like Christmas displays at Carson, Pirie or Marshall Field…”

“Pu-leeze, make that Gumps or City of Paris,” she slapped my forearm, hands of mine fortunately paté free by now. “But everybody knows it’s the Teddy Bear House, for an old fatso tranny with a doll fetish. Hear he strolls around in alternating sweatsuits for just about every major university, even though he’s too loaded and eccentric to have bothered going to any of them.”

“More like a bughouse, if you ask me…”

“Only one with satin padded rooms, that’s all that matters around here,” she countered, turning in surprise. “Laine, oh my god, I can’t believe it!”

It was like she hadn’t seen the guy since Venezia or Firenze. He happened over from the main dining room with maximillion assurance, whereupon they embraced and spun to make Marge and Gower cower. At first, I thought he might have been a friend of a friend of James Winslow’s or of the Mendel family in Chicago. Except he looked less Midwest or Monterey Peninsula than Ross/Kentfield on to the Upper East Side, a tallish young buck without so much as a blemish or bulge. Nothing to break the crisp linearity of his form—T-crossed at the shoulders as if sculpted into place. And the tailoring surely wasn’t heartland Hart, Schaffner & Marx; neither was this chap into Polo, OP or Puma by any stretch.

No, I rather caught a smart, continental drift—only not precisely from whence it came. All I knew was no college town tweed-and-plaid shops ever draped a broad male beam with such supernatural definition. So aerodynamically true, an airfoil from the lapels up, he was a stiletto from there on down. Maybe it was the hand-painted Halston tie against tapered Daniel Shagen silk. Or the European cut of his pin-striped blue Brioni—how that clean, perfectly centered crease flared to his Romano Martegani slip-ons. No mistaking, this cat was tailored and turned-out as if his sole occupational hazards were carpet static, lint balls or whisker dust on the vanity mirror.

“Oh, Laine, it is so glorious seeing you here,” Syd gushed and blushed, wrapping tightly on his arm, though not so as to dent the press of his sleeve. He simply sighed and nodded in affirmation as they flowed toward the bay window like on a runway in Milano. “I just can’t believe it!”

Judging from his urbane shrug, nor could he…or I; let alone that they were nearly on top of me with their grace and splendor. I wanted to hide behind one of those teddy bears over there, take my coin-cleaned corduroy and oxford cloth and stick them back into the ass-end of the Volvo, mainly that black hole where Josh Gravenek’s elusive package was presupposed to be. Instead, I was trapped in that window, doing a surplus store mannequin pose for the assembled fashionistas and culture vultures.

“Tsk, Laine, you devil,” she straightened his sleeve. “I never know when you’re putting me on!”

I could relate to that. I did so until the very moment she pushed Pierre Balmain or whoever this wolf in sheik’s clothing was straight into my face. More precisely, up and over my face, as her bachelor number one easily stood six foot two.

“Kenneth, I’d like you to meet this very dear friend of mine, Laine Blakely. Laine, my assistant, Kenneth Herbert…”

“Pleased to make your…” Assistant? Assistant what?

“But the pleasure is mine, I’m sure,” Laine extended his tan manicured hand, palm down. The star sapphire class ring shone better that way. “Any friend of Sydney’s must be someone quite… special.”

“Kenneth and I go back to college days,” she said cautiously, nodding to me with ‘mince your words’ in her eyes. “Old friends die hard, and all that…”

“Back east,” he asked dismissively, glancing elsewhere about the parlor, apparently for liker minds.

“Midwest,” I snapped, dying hard right there on the spot. “And Boulder…”

“Oh, Colorado,” Laine fixed on my stiff, pallid expression. “Competition skier?”

“Ahh, not quite,” I backpedalled, looking Syd’s way. “How about yourself?”

“Nothing out of the ordinary—Squaw, Aspen, Courmayeur or Cortina d’Ampezzo in the spring—usual circuit.”

“What Kenneth means is, he was so studious—inthe library,” she glowered at me, then smiled. “Grad school, you know…”

“I understand, to be sure,” he toyed with his ear lobe, an onyx link shining from his Shagen French cuff. “Your field?”

“Sort of social psychology—more sociology, really,” I stammered. “That where you went, back east?”

“Enroute to the London School of Economics,” Laine nodded, catching Sydney’s swoon out the corner of his eye.

“An economist, I took a bit of econ myself…”

“Laine’s an officer with Pacific Bank and Trust,” she sniffed, as if just knowing that bestowed upon her proprietary interest. “That’s how we met.”

“So you’re a banker then,” I struggled to pin this guy down, as fluently as she apparently already had.

“Corporate counsel, actually,” Laine said, without hesitation, no bones about it.

“Wait, are you a banker or lawyer, or…”

“More the latter,” he checked his Tudor chronograph. “I oversee the bank’s transnational transactions—arbitrage, currency in/outflows, dollar averaging, etcetera, etcetera.”

“After London, Laine stopped off at Stanford Law, didn’t you, Laine,” she asked, with a curious welling of pride, all but popping the buttonsof her pleated orchid pantsuit, every stitch the artiste.

“Finally buckled down, hey,” I joked nervously, as if poking cheap fun in the presence of Hubbell Gardiner, as it were.

“The linkage is apt—I also counsel and mediate on econometric matters,”he sighed, tossing out an afterthought. “As well as aggregate and sector analysis, all that…”

“Right, well I never got much beyond your basic macro/micro supply and demand…”

“That’s rich…”

After sector analyzing this situation, I began interfacing instead with the surroundings. The imposing Queen Anne had a randy splendipity about it, ruffled velvet draperies to an almost eerily faithful refinishing of its woodwork and veneer. Someone had taken great pains to coax every bit of old San Francisco Victoriana out of the place. As if the exotic plants and dyed Persians weren’t enough, this Pacific Heights matron boasted more Tiffany lamps and backlit stained-glass murals than Victoria and Albert’s—or Henry Africa’s, for that matter. Casa Cossala

“Laine flipped over my idea immediamente,” Sydney diverted, again lightly wrapping about his arm. “Kenneth here helped me write the proposal…”

“Wait a minute,” I replied, “don’t get the connection, econometrics and art?”

“One might make a similar case about sociology,” Laine mused, freeing his arm, tugging any further wrinkles out of his sleeve before noticeable damage set in.

“Touché,” I allowed, my eyes sinking to his Oysterdate Montecarlo for some relief, anxiety nearly propelling me back to the Mountain and Midwestern time zones.

“Of course, Laine has an art background, Kenneth,” she sniped, dabbing her slightly dampened brow. “You don’t become corporate curator by reading pie charts and bar graphs!”

“Dabbled in art history at Yale. Undergrad minored, in fact,” he spotted a wave of activity from across the spacious, high-ceilinged parlor. “Shall we?”

Oh, I got it, show me up, show me back down again. Nevertheless, I fell in line, though maintaining a respectable distance as the sitting room fully emptied—sucking up into the traffic flow, much as if merging onto the interstate, my clunker of a Volvo trailing in the shadowy dead space behind a super-turbo slipstream. Only this trip gave me gas instead of saving it. I initially attributed that to the paté and peppered cauliflower, but soon laid it off on the powerhouse spread overall.

The further we danced into the silk-papered bowels of this Vicky, the more grandiose its furnishings and woodworked details became. Jungle plants grew into huge jardineired trees, soaring two stories up to massive skylights. Ornately milled mahogany staircases wound up through four floors of airy bays, turrets and gables. But what stood out like theater marquees were those stained glass panels. Some were small finch and floral affairs roosting in stairwells and bookcases, random as leaves blown by an evening breeze. Others were wall busters, dramatic renderings of olive grove villages, torpid seaports, volcanic landscapes from Campana to Corsica to Sardinia and Catania. As if someone had taken Tosca’s drab murals and fired them up with Kleig lights.

“All right, honorable guests, the screening room is straight back, then down the stairs,” said a PBT plusherette who motioned us into an expansive chamber, central to which was a long, profusely catered tables of pilafs, stroganoffs, escargot and fresh vegetable platters, big as backyard gardens.

Everything was sterling—fondues, serving trays, decanters, chalices, beverage urns and silverware—or else museum grade china and gleaming crystal. Clearly, the pate and private label punch were but teasers, and desserts must have still been on ice. I pictured pastry and parfait trucks unloading by the cartload at some underground dock: This place did that to the imagination, plain startled the senses with its stagy opulence and other worldly extravagance. “Screening room?”

“Yes, screening room,” Syd nodded, pushing me past the clamor and spread. “What would Alberto Cossala be doing without a screening room?”

“The director?”

“Of course, this is his San Francisco house. Didn’t I tell you that? I thought I told you that.”

“He’s here,” I asked, as we followed the three-piece sartorial crowd into the evening’s main arena.

“Hardly, he’s on location somewhere in North Africa, shooting his next Oscar,” Laine scoffed, over his shoulder. “He offers his in-town home for just such events such as these.”

“He must be nuttier than he appears on camera, trusting this to a bunch of strangers,” I glanced about the theater-sized screener’s compact lobby, now filling with sated corporate dignitaries and select guests, milling about, taking their respectively assigned upholstered seats.

“Oh, but he knows us rather well,” Laine said coyly. “As it happens, PBT underwrites a goodly portion of his productions. In any case, even when Alberto is in the Bay Area, he spends most of his time at the St. Helena ranch...”

Josh, now Alberto: another showbiz heavyweight, another ranch. That what it was all about, I brooded, make a bundle in the big time, then hunker down in some tripwired zillion-acre Ponderosa?  Well, at least that explained all the film cells and autographed stills framed everywhere else on these dark paneled walls. They were from his monster combat and gangster flicks—signed by every Hollywood bankable from the Duke to the Don. It helped explain the farfalloni-shaped pool, Trieste fountains and citrus-geranium gardens through those sliding sunbursting cut glass doors. Left to question, however, was how PBT’s crew could cater this castle with no antipasti nor an anchovy to be found.

“There, to the right,” Laine gestured, with conflicting measures of dispassion and panache, leading us down a brief corridor into the private screening roomitself. Here was a surround-sound chamber covered with classic pre-Hays Code noir movie posters and collaged outtakes of an entire illustrious career—free of any false modesty or restraint, much like the film maker himself. A smoked glass wall enclosed the light and projection booth at one end. Left of us at the other, a wide Panavision-style screen backdropped the room’s small podiumed stage, a studio control console roundly anchored center floor, like a Starcruiser bridge deck, overhead stage lights aglow.

“Sydney, dearest Sydney!”

“Daryll! My god, I don’t believe it, I’m so thrilled you could come,” Syd shrieked, as she greeted a fresh arrival, before Laine escorted her toward the dais and gladhanding bankers. “But will you please excuse us a sec, we’ve got some shoulders to rub…”

“Of course, luv,” this manifestly self-styled envoy smiled broadly. “I’ll look after your…friend here.”

“Name’s Ken,” I muttered, grappling with his cold codfish hand, while tracking Syd, who was already halfway through the burgeoning crowd, arm in arm with Mister Armani. “I’m with her… assistant-wise.”

“Ah, yes, Daryll Loupan. I’m serving as PBT’s aesthetic consultant on the commission,” Daryll said, a bearded, bardish bear in a black beret and flowing Belle Epoque-themed cape. “We were all terribly impressed with her presentation, you know.”

“Oh, yeah, the proposal, well I only pitched in a little…”

“Not with the writing so much as her sketches for ‘Your Bridge’,” he loosened his neck sash, sweeping his cape with flair, so debonaire. Loupan gestured toward color slides of her conceptual drawings, carrouseling on the rear wall screen. “And of course her substantive portfolio. I suppose it was her bold brush strokes—one moment rich in coloration, the next bordering on calligraphic.”

“Well, I guess the verbal impact couldn’t hurt,” I replied, mincing as how she butchered my final drafts. “Sometimes words help get ideas across…”

“Impact? She couldn’t provide more impact if she were Pousette-Dart himself. No, there is a subconscious non-reality to her composition, far from the pedestrian photo-realism of the competing entries. The fusion, the inherent synergism of paint and line. I must say, it is indubitably beyond the contrived dissonance of most Neo-Expressionism.”

“Without a doubt,” I nodded, a gibberish bullshit expression coming to mind. No, it’s gonna be several Telstars in orbit over the Golden Gate Bridge, transponding dollar signs from satellite dishes to PBT’s currency trading desks in Zurich and Abu Dabai to avoid corporate taxes, laced with rubles and petro dinars—mighty goddamn irreverent and infantile, ac-tually. That’s what’ll be, and won’t you crooked bastards be surprised…“What you see isn’t always what you get…”

“In a manner of speaking, I suppose…” Daryll recoiled as if I had passed a squish tube of cauliflower gas. “For the record, however, I believe superimposition of spacial illusion upon neo-abstract formlessness approaches pure conceptual componential brilliance. And that’s coming from a passionate devotee of Cubism and Dada…”

“There you are,” Sydney grinned playfully upon return, Laine apparently having dashed over to an equally turned out colleague fussing about the stage like tanned Warren Beatty presenting at the Academy Awards. “I saw you two talking over here. Come on now, you’ve got to tell me what about.”

“Nothing to burn your pretty little ears, my dearest,” Daryll whispered dramatically, with a sweep of his cloak. “I was simply telling your coattail companion how superbly you are working out—in the larger picture, that is.”

“Working out,” she puzzled, punching his padded shoulder as she blew back a frizzy dangle from her blond Afro hairdo, eyes not straying far from the dais “Tsk, you’re just like Laine. Sometimes he says things that I can’t figure where he’s coming from, I swear…”

“You mean, as in whether they’re on the level,” I asked, with the ragitude of a utility infielder, a second stringer, if not third, playing back-up getting my hackles up like a pinch hitter getting squeezed low and in.

Cossala’s control center had been effectively sealed off by the thickening crowd, to where the director’s center console knobs and toggles were but faint ambient flashes reflecting on the overhead acoustic tiles. Otherwise, flash was bad form in the screening room tonight; anything beyond momentary sparks of electricity would trip the circuit breakers of this low-voltage crowd. For the full house Laine Blakely so patiently summoned forth was a representative sample of Financial District nobility, at least with regard to corporate art acquisition and sponsorship. Up front sat PBT’s senior officers and big wigs—the latter glued down good and tight—overall, a bounty of Brothers Brooks Brothers and Cable Car Clothiers, Saks and Ann Taylor by their sides. Scattered elsewhere about Alberto Cossala’s home theater were schmoozing middle management bankers with their increasingly unmanageable middles, lower rung comers with their just-so-comely escorts munching canapes. Gallery critics cracked notebooks to anoint or savage this gala intro for the pages of Art Digest, Art News, Art Week, Art Forum, Art &Garden and Art Populi.

Then came the debutants-turned-dilettantes of independent means seeing to it they were suitably seen. And the bored-to-tears terminably hip debris who missed the boat when Rolling Stone sailed out of these cultured backwaters for the Big Apple, who only crashed the bash to revisit that magic moment when Alberto screened rough cuts he’d pirated of ‘A Star Is Born’, to relive the resulting deflation and dismay. These museum eyeservants bemoaned pop culture, from Saturday Night Fever to Saturday Night Live, mavens conjecturing amongst themselves as to whether this was the place, this spread was their meal ticket, whether this Sydney Mendel person could be the answer to their gazette deadline prayers. Among them roamed tabloid groupies out for a sniff of Cossala’s celluloid catnip, to glimpse how High Hollywood really lived—chattering on about amassed treasures and tormented creative genius, as if they were Barbara Walters after too many Champagne cocktails—while scarfing any cinematic swag, and somehow keeping this starchy affair in breathless, cheeky perspective.

“Tsk, god, I wish Laine would get theshow rolling,” Syd fretted, generating enough galvanostatic for the entire room. “I just can’t handle this suspense—what if I forget my lines, what am I going to do then? I’m dying a million deaths right here!”

“C’mon, like you say, lighten up,” I urged, one step closer, and away from a crown scanning Daryll Loupon, who suddenly reached to wrap her small, shuddering frame in his cape. “No big thing…”

“I beg your pardon, Kenneth, but this is a huge thing, a Godzilla monster of a thing…it’s everything to me!”

“There, there, let us maintain our equilibrium, our vision of greatness, if you please,” said Daryll.“Yes, I am reminded of a select retrospective opening at the de Young—believe it was ’74. Similar Zeitgeist and excruciating delay, yet divinely spirited nevertheless.”

Zeitgeist?”

“Yes zeitgeist, Kenneth, listen and learn,” she said breathlessly, as if awaiting a pronouncement from the Torah itself.

“I simply coadunated with the underlying flow,” he offered, a gleaming forehead wrinkled over his arching brow, Howard Hughes eyes locked and dilated, as if he’d perfected this furl in some floating exhibition hall of mirrors. “Then I reconducted all that anticipatory energy toward my nucleus, bio-atomically, that is…”

“Oh, Daryll, you’ve done it again,” she sighed, slumping toward him within the cape. “You have this way of clarifying things. Doesn’t he cut right to the core?”

“Or the crap,” I muttered down low, feeling challenged to a game of hyperbolic primacy by this bereted egghead with the tangled fringe around his ears. I glanced over at Syd, no hiding that she hadn’t a clue.

“I hate it when you’re so negative,” she hissed, just before a break in the inaction.

“Thank you ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Casa Cossala,” Laine Blakely suddenly tapped a small spotlit podium.“May I present Pacific Bank & Trust’s truly special find. A brilliant, dazzling young artist who promises to paint our corporate headquarters lobby to pre-eminence. Sydney Mendel—Sydney, if you please.” He beckoned her upstage, cordially to his side, the gathered cutting her a diva corridor, right on cue.

“Just behave, savor me basking in the moment, Kenneth, involve yourself in my triumph here.” Whereupon she kicked my shin with her brown platform boot, unwound from Daryll’s cap and followed Laine’s call like Streisand on the red carpet, bowing and waving, savoring the applause all around her.

“You’re the stage, darling, the stage is you, the people are all yours,” Loupon blew air kisses in her wake. “Go forth and paint your canvas! Isn’t she something, so accomplished, all by her lonesome—a cosmic comet across the dark, blank universal void!”

“Something else, alright,” I muttered, watching her spin and bow, generally levitating to the spot Laine had prescribed. The patrons and posers slung applause and accolades like brown rice at a shotgun wedding. “Bags to fill, real blank and void…”

Laine bussed Syd’s cheek as she arrive at the podium, then tapped her playfully on the lips with his forefinger, handing her a plain white envelope. While not tossing roses or kisses or anything quite so banal, the conflux did press in toward the stage, either mildly applauding or toasting her with Champagne flutes raised in fastidious salute. All told, the flinty PBT fete was sufficient to quake her knees and float her contacts left of center, blue tint discs aquaplaning into the whites of her eyes.

“Please, please,” she cried, noticeably shaken by the warm, courteous reception. “Oy, this is outstanding. I mean, it’s the realizing of a dream for me. All the rainy nights in my studio, I’d dab and count paint drips to keep my sanity, you don’t know…” She choked midstream, taking the pause to turn and reposition her lenses. Then she spun back to the podium with a chutzpah only the Divine Miss M could mobilize. “Yet here we are—so I wish my parents could have made it out tonight, and want to thank everybody who’s helped me so much…and one person in particular who made this all possible.”

I perked. So this was why she schlepped me along, what she meant by ‘explaining things’. Maybe the skimmed coffee mornings weren’t a waste case, after all. That sly little sandbagger, she’d ragged me up, down and sideways, planning this little payoff moment right along. Aww, Sydney, you don’t have to…hell, it was just a little assistance with the wording, little help from a friend, heh, heh—take that, Daarryll, cram this one up your coxcomb cape…

“Without this sweetheart, I’d be back in the studio shtupping brushes and canvasses right this minute,” she continued, with a her best isotope glow, winking our way, as well. “Come to think of it, another person shines, in a very special way…”

“Two men?!.”  Which two…

“My dear Daryll Loupan,” she pointed through the lights, giggling like a middle schooler, leading the applause. “And the dearest, most special mensch of all, Mister Laine Blakely!”

I choked over my Champagne coupe as she drew closer to Blakely’s perfectly press trousers, as if to plant one on his cheek, radiating brighter than a new bride turning from the altar to her family and friends. But for his part, Laine wasn’t, instead wincing, pulling away reflexively, as though being accosted by a kissyface mother-in-law. A discomforting scowl crossed his face, then washed away in a smooth recalculation upon checking his chronograph. That left them two feet apart aside the podium, in a strictly business disaffection zone, right there for all to see. I couldn’t stand to watch Syd’s reaction, rather zeroing in on Blakely, as he whispered in her ear, then hand signaled an early exit to his…friend over at table left, an impeccably groomed financial analyst in a St. Laurent blazer and black cashmere turtleneck.

Could have driven a mental block between the spotlit couple center stage, with their fancy futzing and fabricated smiling and mutual inability to look the other’s way. Elsewise, it appeared the jolted gathering was at pains to look up to either one. So when Syd and Laine could no longer benignly neglect one another, they exchanged scant words and hugged like the Nixons in that Checkers film clip. Having thanked and koved and shmaltzed them all, assured them how strong and heartfelt ‘Your Bridge to Everywhere Good’ will be, she then blew several aimless kisses to the buzzing crowd, which parted like park pigeons as she descended beside herself.

“Get me out of here, now!”

“Who, me? I spurted, as she approached full steam, celebratory glow fading away.

“Who do you think?!” She shook her head toward Daryll in dismay, pocketing her #10 envelope.

“Are you all right, luv,” asked Loupon, refastening his Toulouse-Lautrecsque cape. “Is there anything I…”

“Thank you so much for caring,” she sniffed, air kissing his cheek, this time tightly wrapping my arm. “Please be a dear and phone me tomorrow afternoon.”

“But of course, darling. Meanwhile, I will calm the waters here, then endeavor to arrange your next downtown gallery show come morning. I’m not without pull on Sutter Street and City Hall, I’ll have you know. Mayor Moscone’s mafia owes me a consideration or two after my spirited campaigning…”

“Tomorrow then,” she said softly, sharing limp shakes and languid smiles. Their adieu might have been more heartening if Syd hadn’t seemed so plainly crestfallen. But then I might have jumped forth with aid and comfort if I wasn’t so genuinely confused. 

“What the hell’s going on here,” I asked, as she rushed me out of the screening room, up past a tantalizing post-reception spread of sorbet, parfaits, fruit fondue and flambes, toward Casa Cossala’s mahogany, brass and stained-glass foyer.

But not before grabbing some Chocolate Decadence for what promised to be one dark, sour ride down Fillmore Hill. 

Care for more?

Chapter 73. Toasting the Heights,
then it’s back to the pad, launching
into a fiery sub-orbital flameout…