“Shadow of a man
between the darkness and light
fight it, though he might.”
“Guess they’re working on the stools, huh? Like in Chicago taverns…”
Vince and I had signed out of PBT, pushed down Market Street into this clear, almost balmy late TGIF. Both sides of San Francisco’s main drag glowed reddish yellow in the prismal street-lit reflections of the Cal Oil complex off the Zellerbach Building, the Shell Building off the Tishman, the Russ and Ritchie Chancery off the Hobart, the Flatiron off them all. But down New Montgomery, just south of the Slot, Financial District luster turned a bit darker. Happy-hour strollers seemed to vanish with all the brick walks, monoxide modified trees and corporate landscaped fountains. This now lifeless city artery was lined with low-rise mercantile blockbusters full of backlist book stores, custom tailors and gem dealers. We tread through the rose-green neon blaze of a valet parking garage at Stevenson Street—as fare-starved cabbies honked and hollered for position across the way, outside the venerable Sheraton Hotel.
He led me pasta cigar store that looked to have been cornerstoning a half-block office building at least since Enrico Caruso played the Palace. Its stumpy old shopkeep wheeled in his news racks for the night, afternoon editions front paging how a conspiracy minded mouthpiece named Mark Lane had been added to Jim Jones’ payroll to defend Peoples Temple in a Georgetown news conference from ‘bogus charges’ floated by the CIA. But Max’s store was far from a mere news stand. Its aged oakwood framed debit de tabac featured gold-leaf accordion glass doors festooned with Optima, La Palina, Santa Fe High Grade and Garcia y Vega Blue cigar decalcomania. The cigar man swept the bands and butts from his checkered tile floor, snap latched copper-lined wooden humidor drawers, then padlocked those cut-glass doors. Switching on his overhead Chesterfield sign, he flicked away a chewed over stub, then elbowed into the spot next door. We followed closely in his Panatella path.
“Uh, this isn’t a…
“Huh, here?” Vince said, once inside.“No way, José.”
“It’s just because they’re all…”
“Not to worry. Just follow me straight down to Coffin Corner.”
‘Coat of Arms’ was scripted in chipping gilded letters across the door glass, matching red and black heraldic neon signage above and in mural-size main front windows. I’d read and reread the gold leaf when the revolving door slapped me across the keister. Ah but, Friday night, after work: the Coat was smokin’. No, blazing—it was as though bartenders had fired up the old man’s entire inventory on cue about a half-hour before, then recycled in the prior evening’s smokefest through the overhead air vents for turbid effect. The resulting haze was so insidiously thick, popcorn tumbling out of the near corner popper seemed slo-mo suspended in mid air.
“We’re lucky to land this spot so late,” Vince said, as we squeezed between two Martell-snifting pinstripers to the long, boisterous bar. “Name your poison…”
“Uh, beer, tap,” I replied, teary eyed squinting as best I could to spot the cigar man down the far end. No luck, in fact I could barely make out the popcorn machine. But what he could see seemed odd enough to mention. “Not a whole lot of ladies, huh?”
“Only for the lunch buffet now and then, if they’re lucky,” he snapped, beckoning center bar for two Anchor Steams. “See, this isn’t one of your Chicago taverns. The Coat here’s a real saloon.”
Enough said: saloon. One of The City’s last-gasp horse troughs. A mahogany panelled, brass railed, spittoon rigged, open-and-shut kind of joint—pure standing room only save for a six-pack of leather cushioned boothlets along the Venetian blinded front windows. Not that such blinds were necessary, for tar so imbued each ply, so thoroughly stained each panel, smoked glass took on an entirely different dimension. Three quarter-century deep nicotine lacquered the wood grain, tainted the brass, black plaqued the tawny walls, effectively cut off the Coat of Arms from any chlorophyllose outside light. It browned out the saloon’s four pinada-shaped bronze chandeliers, bonded decades of bar dust and cobwebs to the nude nymphic iron maidens exalting the proceedings in compromising repose from high podia mounted liberally about the room.
“So what’s that got to do with no women,” I asked, inclined to talk about anything besides the Mendelberg file. My eyes wandered mindlessly around the waffled, parqueted ceiling, its copper inlays smoke clogged fast as wood putty, its center skylight a neutralized black hole. “Or stools, for that matter…”
“Poof, no stools, no dames,” Vince waved through the Havana squall. He yanked loose his oversized Roos drip-dry salmon collar and fudge brown tie. “See what I’m sayin’?”
That just about said it: stag, a last-stand men’s drinking club. Coat’s smoke also choked the stuffing out of deer and moose heads hung damn near anywhere the iron maidens dared not tread. Further, from Coffin Corner unclear down to Dead Man’s Curve, all I could see were suits, rumpled to razor sharp. Insurance broker double-knits tossing down Wild Turkey, commodity broker worsteds tossing the ivories for rounds. Stockbroker flannels cutting deals and splitting commissions over Cutty and water. Contingency lawyer woolens pounding out their settlements right there on the battle-scarred mahogany bar.
“Couple of mugs for a couple of mugs,” heaved a beamish, black-tied barkeep, heavy laboring up to us along a deep, time-warped groove that proceeded straight as a barrel track, corner to curve.
“Run it, will ya, Darcy?” Vince stacked his thin roll and some coin shrewdly between an Old Style beer coaster and overflowing Prima Del Rey ashtray. “And an Early Times while you’re at it. You?”
“Shots and beers? No thanks,” I replied.
“Hey, suit yourself…” Which is what Vince appeared to be doing of late—one brown double knit of his own—an everyday workhorse he stood in his corner closet every night. “But you can’t hold your liquor, huh? Got to manhandle it around here…”
In that respect, the Coat of Arms was a boilermaker of a place. Elbows up to the bar, lean into a round, padded rests and put away that Johnny Red, the occasional Boothby Cocktail and Pisco Punch. Patrons were throwing ’em back the entire length of the brass rail, chasing everything from Chivas to well fire with imports and Steams—or just plain Oly draft. French cuffs were doing it, blue blazers were doing it until they dropped, in a blur of Rolex Chronos, knock-offs and black sapphire pinkie rings. Everybody and his limited partner puffed and rolled and washed their after hours away. Some had never gotten past the liver and corned beef luncheon balcony buffet. But there was no tube, no piped-in radio, a broken-down juke—and the Belfast Soda clock had handlocked in a nicotine seizure the day Seals Stadium struck out for good. Herein, time had a way of going up in…smoke.
“How’s the ol’ man, Vince?” the bartender grumbled, wiping a sticky bar, then his forehead with a dampened towel. “Ain’t seen him in here for a coon’s age.”
“Dad? He bussed his ulcer up to the Lake with Dominic for a week of Keno and quiet.” Vince’s charted, rubicund face lighting up like a wingtip flasher. He pulled the bowlish sheepdog hair out of his eyes. “Say, this guy here’s claiming Chicago taverns are better because they’ve got stools.”
“Oh, he is, is he,” Darcy huffed through a significant underbite. He was surely carrying weight beyond his years. It showed in his red, beading face as he slicked back his comb-tracked gray hair. Looked to be the kind who might hit a Fox Theater matinee before his shift started. “Chicago, huh… what’re ya, son, a damn fool?”
“Uh, no, part Irish, actually,” I replied cautiously. “Other part, Scottish…”
“Well, I’ll drink partly to that,” the bartender’s bridged smile wrapped tightly under a veiny hawk nose.“But you can forget the stool hooey—’til my dying day, anyway.”
“Who needs them, right,” I hedged, watching Vince chug that Steam chaser like some carrot concoction at a juice bar.
“Makes you forget all about ’em, all right.” Vince prompted Darcy for another round. “Ready?”
“No, this one’s fine,” I cleared throat of some ticklish coughing. “Stools, you mean…”
“Times and tonic,” Darcy snapped, returning to lean heavily against the wet bar, so as to be heard over the discussional din. “Yeah, lotsa micks in this town. Out by the Sunset, mostly—Inner Richmond around Geary. Used to be all over the Mission, that’s a fact.”
“Thought the Mission was Latino,” I said, parting a neighborly exhale like the mane of a collie.” Murals, all that…”
“Sure—now,” Darcy muttered, wringing his bar rag, then pulling Vince’s empties. “Everybody’s sellin’. Whole neighborhoods, just like that. Well, not me, mister—no sirree. Got a nice little stucco job in West Portal. They’re gonna wheel me outta here or there. I ain’t goin’ noplace.”
My eyes strayed over toward the old cigar man, because I didn’t dare look at Vince. That last Early Times seemed to dim his lights to a dull amber tantamount to the prevailing air. I couldn’t see much through all this steamy, unfiltered soup, but there was no mistaking that Vince was fogging over fast.
“Yeah, foreigners comin’ in from everywhere,” Darcy added, straining a Martini for the blue serge suited smoothie one brass fitting away. “Think they give a rat’s behind about San Francisco, its traditions? Real estate piranhas are circling like crazy. Look at what they’re already doin’ to the Embarcadero. Whole city’s just waiting to explode.”
“Darcy, another Steam…for Mr. Chitown here, too,” Vince squeezed his drink, gesturing toward mine. “My dad used to bring me down there on weekends for fresh fruit.”
“Really, I’m good,” I said, a nod too late.
“Now look at it,” Darcy flapped his protruding chin, setting us up another round, pouring a Jameson’s straight for himself. “Damn Rockefeller Center West. Bastards wanna turn our whole classy skyline into another smoggy Manhattan. I hear them shyster developers schemin’ right here all the time with their bloomin’ highrises…”
“See, Darcy here still wants to hop a dinky over to the Music Box,” said the White Owl next slot up. It was a monster, full stoke—a foot-long smokestack crammed into the face of a dapper little underwriter in tattersall vest and tweeds. “Or take in the Chinese bubble dancers at Forbidden City.”
“Yeah, well at least then people knew their place,” Darcy said unblinking, even in the face of an Owlish coughing jag. “Whole town’s goin’ to hell in a moving van. Only people who’ll be left are the rich who don’t give a damn about anybody, and poor folks who don’t have a say about anything.”
“Come on, you make it sound like San Francisco’s fading into the sunset,” I couldn’t so easily dodge the discharge. Through all the pall, I began to pick out some of the Coat’s curious detail. Framed snapshots of old, departed mainstays, a bloke’s gallery of past fish peddlers and fire chiefs, leatherhead 49er warriors, from McElhenny to Nomellini thrilling the Kezar faithful. Cloying Call-Bulletin and Chronicle columns penned by Delaplane and McCabe, some right around here at Coffin Corner.
“Tis, tis,” Darcy said, pouring the last of Steam number three into a suddenly sullen Vince’s glass. “Spot by spot, gone—how was it Gavin Elster put it? Things that spell San Francisco to me are disappearing fast.”
“Who’s he with,” I asked, standing pat with mug number one.
“Jimmy Stewart, in Vertigo, stupe,” he wipe around my rounds. “But I’ll tell you one thing, thank god for Mayor Moscone—he at least still cares about the neighborhoods.”
“Aghh, that mush head’s the one destroying everything,” the vested White Owl sneered, his high-vein, bumpy beak bright as a ’58 Buick tail light. “Drawing in all these weirdos with his welcome wagon—turning it into homoville USA…”
“Don’t make me no never mind,” Darcy firmly pounded his bar. “George’s the only one can hold back them crooks and their skyscrapers. Board of Supervisors? Forget it, friend. Take that Feinstein dame—she’d sell the whole town out from under us. She’s in their hip pocket, that one.”
“T’hell with Moscone, Danny White’s gonna be our salvation. His head’s screwed on straight, all right.”
“Aww, don’t get me started on that flunky,” Darcy countered, paternally pulling Vince’s dead soldiers off the bar. “I’m not sayin’ ol’ George ain’t a little crackers, God knows. But we need all the home-grown characters we can keep. They’re droppin’ like barflies.”
“Come off it,” the Owl smoker replied, stirring his Rob Roy. “Town’s one bit outpatient psycho ward as it is.”
“So you say,” Darcy mopped his brow. “Well, it’s them very same kooks and eccentrics that keeps drawing everybody out here. Trouble is, all the looky-loos are forcin’ out who they came to look at. Vince, you take it easy there, don’t want your dad comin’ in givin’ me grief.” With that, he scooted toward a center bar cloud bank to rethread the tape of Coat’s creaky cash register, bar towel draped around his sweat-stained white collar.
Vince just mumbled into his mug, something about fresh mangoes and papaya, right off the boat. I watched curiously as the cigar man wove through a confluence of head hunters and ledger benders, erringly following an arrow down ‘To the Trenches’. Saloon facilities were said to consist of one spacious, marble-walled men’s room, replete with four large porcelain urinals, a couple of mahogany doored stalls—even the Chronicle and Clarion front and sports pages framed above pissers two and three. The ladies room, tighter than a mop closet, atrophied one door down. I simply stood my ground, working the clock and bladder as best I could.
“Every Saturday morning,” Vince burst, “Dad’d bring me down to the docks. Dinky clanging along California Street—damn, there’d be tons of iced fish and produce, freighters from everywhere, smell of coffee roasting over at MJB…”
“What’s dinkies,” I asked, sipping to the two-thirds point of my second Steam.
“Come on, dinkies…cable cars. But you wouldn’t know that, now would you?!”
“Little before my time, I guess…”
“Sure,” Vince snarled, “being from the Midwest, and all.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“That you’re the one Darcy’s talking about, you and Tina, the ones crowding us natives out. Coming here for 60s’ kicks, running away from your goddamn flat corn fields like San Francisco’s the answer to all your dreams. I just wish everybody discovering this place would undiscover it, real fast.”
“Ever spent a winter back there,” I replied, images of blizzard-locked, stoolie Chicago taverns like my Dad’s haunted gripping my imagination. Or was it simply overexposure to the cigars?
“Been there myself, okay?! Enough to know you don’t have anything to bring out here, only to come empty handed, hanging out in your flatland ways, turning The City into Omaha with hills.”
“Nobody’s forcing San Francisco to sell out, Vince,” I muttered. How I’d gotten lumped into co-defending Alabamans was beyond me. “Look, I’d better head out…” Just negotiating the Coat’s cracked, liquor-slick tile floor could consume the better part of a La Palina Long.
“Hey, nothing personal,” Vince sputtered, lifting his mug. “What say to another brew, for the bricks…”
“Rain check, okay? I’ve got a lot on my mind.”
“What rain? Here, we’ll split one.” With Darcy setting up some Manhattans center bar, his co-tender slid a fresh Steam down around Coffin Corner. “It’s just that she’s from the Midwest…”
“You mean Tina,” I asked, stopping cold. Felt like we had been here for hours, damned if I’d yet to see a she, except maybe those Michelangelic sweeties on the cigar boxes or the musty mounted, iron-clad maidens. “But she told me she was from the south…”
“Not that bimbo, the other redhead.”
“Oh, oh—another redhead, last thing I wanted to hear about was another redhead, especially at this late hour. Trouble was, I was second-hand toxic by now, and Vince had already poured on half the Steam.
“Janie, my ex. Janie’s from Minneapolis, by way of Duluth. She came here out of college,” Vince did grip isometrics on the mug handle. “Was an Art History major, met her in the Haight.”
“Gotcha, Summer of Love,” I fidgeted, straining to peer down along the parqueted mahogany backbar, framing a long hairline cracked mirror. “You know, it’s really getting smoky in here.”
“Was ’73, in fact, middle of the rainy season. We lived together for a year, flat on the Avenues, off Clement. She got pregnant, we made it legal.”
“Ewph, a kid, huh?” Who needed it, I thought, who is this guy unloading on a lowly temp like me?
“Two—Sanya and Isaac. Wanna see their pix?” Vince reached forlornly for his wallet. He flashed his Fotomat glossy like a badge of valor. It was a set up shot of infants on an antiquated carousel. A sinewy, straight haired…redhead…braced them on a hand carved palomino. “I took it two summers ago, in Golden Gate Park.”
“Been there, that’s for sure,” I nodded, shuffling several steps back from the bar rail. On the plus side, the White Owl hadn’t found his way back from the trenches; downside, he had been succeeded by two chain-smoking actuaries doing a number on Old Grand Dad.
“Yah, around that time, I was too shallow.” Vince stared away, up at the stag’s head over the Coat’s oxidized chrome register. “Before that, I was insensitive. No, wait—first, spoiled…then came self-centered, then insensitive.”
“Wait, what…” I looked at him suddenly, long and lean. How much of an aggregate bozo was this guy, and by whose calculation? “Which…”
“Went in streaks,” Vince continued, still dazed by it all; either that or the Early and Steams. “One period followed another—couldn’t keep up with her. Right when I figured I had ‘selfish’ under control, Janie started laying ‘spineless’ on me.”
“So maybe that was just her way of motivating you—uh, but who was I…” I eased off, stunned somewhat that Syd’s cattle prod tough love had stuck like a yellow Post-It to one of my catabating memory cells. With that, I vacated my stare to the civilized wooden phone booth, down beyond Dead Man’s Curve. A tall, D.A. looking sharpie stood midway through the booth’s folding door, screaming closing arguments into the spittled receiver.
“Motivate me? She’d drive me bananas,” Vince looked at me suspiciously, spilling the Steam he was tipping up at the corner of his mouth. “Set the kids up around the breakfast nook, then hit me with my latest flaw. Always a morning or two after her damn magazines came. Didn’t really begin losing sleep over it until she started in with the ‘spineless’ stuff…”
I bit my tongue soon as I recognized this was where the topic turned, um, sensitive. Sex life, Ms Magazine, married and two kids: I didn’t want to touch Vince’s domestic life with an all-day cigar.
“Next came ‘small minded’, that I didn’t have the ambition to be somebody. How’d she put it? I lacked the vision to integrate my work with our home life—make it totally my own. I was a credit analyst at the bank, for chrissake—bringing down a regular paycheck, that’s all. Who says you’re supposed to love your goddamn job?!”
“Hey, I’m just a temp, remember,” I replied. That lawyer at the far end had just slammed his way out of the phone booth, the whole place was steaming up.
“Before I know it, she’s into some femitivity group, meeting two nights a week. Took the kids with her lots of times. I’d be working late, you know? But at least I started bringing some of it home. I’d have my printouts spread all over the nook. Still, they’d come in and just stare at me—like I was the Great Santini in that Pat Conroy book.”
“Value judgments, spitting everything in two,” I gazed the length of the man-to-man mahogany. Syd and Moon kept appearing and dissolving in the coriolic smoke, k’vetching at me between every last liquefying soul. “Your wife’s maiden name, it’s…”
“DeSturtevant, Janie Marie DeSturtevant,” Vince answered quizzically. “What’s that…”
“Nothing. Just comparing…roots.” Then again, Syd couldn’t me k’vetching at me anymore. At least this Janie and her attitude adjustment took me fleetingly from all that.
“Those were the good times. Before she brought in the heavy artillery. Suddenly, I wasn’t challenging her enough. Then wasn’t supportive enough, giving her room to grow.”
The phone-mad prosecutor had pushed through a fat circle of football poolers to one of the leathery front wall boothlets. Take your pick; they were all small, all full. His happened to be the one nearest the popcorn machine. A sorely crocked associate tossed him their basket for refilling. The D.A. topped it off, then pitched a kernal back at him, slider down and in. He sat down and lit a 100mm cigarette before the popcorn reached its mark.
“So, grow, I told her. She said I was in no position to tell her what she could or couldn’t do. That this was just another example of my male dominance trip. How I was smothering her, stifling her personal development. Like, the first word out of Sanya’s mouth was, ‘oink’, I swear to God.”
“Kids, Vince,” I said, as the White Owl ferreted back in between me and the actuaries to a fresh Rob Roy and the same old stale cigar. “What do kids know, right?” What did I know? Guess they just say what…”
“What their mommy says, that’s what! I was playing working stiff and she was lecturing to me about roles. Did I say anything? Hell no…”
“Sounds like lots of hostility, huh? Boiling over, I bet…” Christ, thought I had left this stuff back in the Marina—that it wouldn’t actually follow me downtown.
“Hostility? Terror…I didn’t know what was coming next,” Vince groaned, mug wrung with both hands. “Just about froze up inside. I mean, I was scared to death I’d brain her, or something.”
Better no hostility, because there was already plenty of that in the air. The Coat of Arms was either getting too stifling or just too stiff. Conversations had melted with the ice cubes into disagreements and worse. Dice and gin games had rolled into straight-up threats and intimidations. The entire bar was reverting, going testosteronal primitive on a mental, polemical level.
“I figured she kept sizing me up, cold and calculating,” he continued. “I come home one Friday night—like this, only about five months ago. She announces she can’t take it anymore, she needs change, freedom, a more supportive space to evolve in. I say, Janie, it’s not that easy—the kids—she says they need space, too. That California was no place to raise children, anyway, let alone The City. I tell her we can’t just up and leave. San Francisco’s my home, where my job is, all I know. Where the hell would we go?”
“Know the feeling. Ever try leaving everything you’ve got in somebody else’s tool shed?”
“Huh? Well, that’s when she tells me we’re not going anywhere. I say, that’s better. She says, no way—because this was something she had to do on her own. But not so alone that she wouldn’t be taking Sanya and Isaac along…”
“Where were they while all this was going down,” I gasped, not wanting to hear it, not wanting to miss a word. Odd, I thought, how the Coat seemed to quicken with Vince’s angst—in a filmy, transymbiotic sort of way. Or else I myself was now feeding off the mano-a-mano veneer.
“Clinging to her mom’s goddamn jogging suit with Orphan Annie eyes. Sanya, I suspected, but Isaac?! Over the weekend, she packs them up in her Saab, just like that. Says she was taking a breather back to Minnesota to see her parents, sort things through. I say, how long? She says a couple to three weeks. I say, done…”
“Well, what did she take? I mean, furniture, or what? You can’t just get up and…uh, well, sometimes you…under certain circumstances…”
“Naw, just some clothes, kids’ toys. How much can you stuff in one of those old three-banger wagons, right? I figured I was sitting here with everything we own, soooo…a week later, I called her for going on a tenth time. Hell, the phone bill alone…”
“Wait, I’ve got to have the world indoor record on long-distance calls,” I replied, comparing…lengths.
“Awww, we’d go on for hours. Finally, she announced they’re not coming back in three weeks. She didn’t know when, but that she’d begun looking for a job, and was thinking seriously about law school. I said, hold on, Janie—you’ve got a life to deal with here, not to mention my kids. She said, keep everything, and that her family would help care for them. I said, no way, baby. That I’d be on the next plane to Minnesota. She said some single-mother support group lawyer advised her she had grounds and could make me pay dearly if I caused trouble. Can you believe that shit?!”
“Uh, Vince…no offense, but is there anything you’re leaving out here…”
“Hey, I never laid a hand on them, I swear. I love those kids, I tell you! Although you can bet she’ll try to say I did. I mean, maybe I have a few pops after work sometimes. So, what’s that? And if you figure me for a cheat, forget it. Like when that scumbag Tina said she’d sic her black studs on me if I didn’t stop making moves. Then threatened to file harassment…and I wasn’t even making any moves! Getting so every woman is a lawsuit in the making these days—talk about sextortion.”
“Sure, I was just thinking, you know. Being two places at once, in your head, I mean…”
“Give me a break, Tina was over four months later,” Vince scowled, “after the slut’s comin’ on like gangbusters while I’m teaching her how to sort. She baited me! My hand was on the file cabinet door. She pressed her leg against me, then tells me to prove it yet.”
“Tina did that? Come on, how could she think…” She misled, he misread: I really wasn’t in any position to explore such ways and means.
“Because she’s ditzy little PT, nothin’ but show. I think she’s tryin’ to goad me into a sexual harassment suit. Try to do something for a chick anymore, they start accusing you of coming on, or else crying rape. I mean, when did chivalry become chauvinism, anyway? Meanwhile, they keep sticking their business in your face. Plus she claims that I’ve got a problem with redheads—even though I’ve never harassed anybody in my life! No, women have been the kiss of death for me, except Janie—hah, that’s a good one! She turned out to be the make-out champ. When I was up to here with the long-distance crap, I flew to Minnesota. They met me at the airport; we got as far as the terminal coffee shop. It was real emotional with Isaac and Sanya, especially Isaac.”
“Christ, that must have been a bitch,” I sighed, Dammit, Vince, you’re already outgunning me as it is. It was like swapping my razor nick story for a fatal car wreck.
“But it wasn’t so emotional for Janie. She just laid out how determined she was to raise herchildren where it was best for them. By that, she meant there, of course, in Duluth, and that’s just what’s going to happen to my kids back there! I still can’t figure that one. You grew up in the Midwest, right? What’s that all about?”
“I dunno, could be she just undiscovered San Francisco.”
“Hmphh,” Vince replied, with one of those ‘San Francisco’s hillier than thou’ shrugs. “So I cut right to the bone and said they’re my kids, too. She came back with, I know, which is why we’ve to talk seriously about child support.”
“Child support—they left you, why would…”
“My words exactly. But she said the damn lawyer told her that didn’t mean a thing given what they had to work with—something about Per Quod Consortium Amisit, what the hell? At that point, I went…whoa, from here on, you can tell it to my lawyer, like that. I kissed Sanya and Isaac, then caught the red-eye on back.”
A brushfire broke out around Dead Man’s Curve, apparently over the high cost of Johnny Walker Black and the low roll of the bones. A leather dice cup pounded mahogany, the unappealing gavel of a contemptible judge. Yellow taxis honked testily outside, forsaking SFO runs, cabbies storming through the swinging doors in search of radio calls long since squelched or simply forgotten. Still, Coat’s pay phone rang in stubborn rebuke.
“By then, I was a total basket case. Couldn’t keep my job together, couldn’t keep anything down. Eventually my dad had to call in some old markers just to keep me at PBT at all. That’s how I landed in the mailroom, lucky if I can handle that…”
“But working your way back up, right?” Sure, just like me parachuting in at FBC.
“Hell, no. At PBT, you’re either a comer or a goer—it’s not a two-way street. Just trying to hang in there until I’m vested. Meanwhile, I keep hearing from Janie, little reminders that it’s better to give voluntarily than get nailed for court costs, too. But with what I’m making now, after inflation, I really can’t even afford the lawyer. The whole thing eats me up, anyway. A guy makes decisions and takes the heat for it, just because he’s the who had to make them. So he has a family, then poof, it’s suddenly pulled away from him for some weird reason. Nothing he did—the ol’ lady just flips out, dragging the kids along. While she’s out finding herself, he’s got to foot the bill. Makes no damn sense, kind of like monthly payments on a stolen car.”
The varnish in here was getting undeniably darker, ashtray amber as the Anchor Steam itself. Raspy regulars choked on their popcorn, if not their final week-long tabs. Darcy began ragging aloud about all the home phone calls he had to deflect. Not that he minded gabbing with the wives so much; it was all the bar bilge stories he’d had to come up with this far into the evening. And how well they had to jibe with what he’d told them two hours before.
“Latest scoop is she wants to make this deal permanent,” Vince added, “irreconcilable differences or some crap. She’s ready to file the papers and everything, wants total custody. I asked her if there’s somebody else. She said no, she just wants to raise Sanya and Isaac on her own, offering me supervised visitation. That it’s a better learning environment for children back there. I said, no way, that’s crazy. Last thing she said was, sorry, see you in court, treating me like I was a deadbeat dad—like I was just some measly sperm donor, or something. And I don’t know where the hell she gets this BS about messing around and abuse. Should have grabbed the kids at the airport when I had the chance—I’ve got a right to care for and protect my damned offspring, don’t I?”
“Jeeesh, how should I know? Got no dog in that fight.” Weary and congested as I was from this saga, I felt compelled to hear it through, much like a crisis hotline volunteer answering an O.D. call sixteen hours into the shift, late for a little counseling session of his own. “Uh, soooo, what’re you going to do?”
“Damn, how the hell did it ever get this far? I sit home and ask that over and over and over. A whole flat full of what we had, what we all were together—and I’ll be goddamned if I can understand what I did wrong.”
“Sounds as though you maybe just got in the way of her, you know, progress,” I tread ever so lightly. What was a guy to tell a guy in a case like this?! Ask Janie’s support group, maybe? Bet those chicks would know precisely what to say.
“Tell you one thing, it’s tearing me up. I don’t know whether to feel guilty or abused my own self. No way I can live without them, that’s for sure. What did she think I was doing all that for? Putting up with the goddamn bank—I still can’t figure out how she turned that against me…”
“All along, she wasn’t working or anything?” As in bringing home the filets and prime rib the way Melissa was? Yet my dad came to mind, what L.T. said, about making the hard calls, about why he was getting loaded any downtime he could.
“Aww, a little freelance editing, illustrating, stuff she could squeeze in at home. She kept the kids up like catalog models. And the flat—but you should see it now, rib sauce all over the fridge, hurricane season, wall to wall. Makes this place look like the Garden Court over at the Palace.”
“Yeah, well you should see my…place. Hurricane season, door to door.”
“Bad as it is without the kids, Janie’s the one I can’t make it without. Hey, I’m not ashamed to say it.”
“You tell her that?”
“Hell, no. Think I’d give her the satisfaction? She’d just turn that on me, too. Besides, she knows—knew all along—that was her leverage, how she knew I’d let her take Sanya and Isaac back east. Oh, it’s real subtle, but there’s this dip in her voice, even now. That underlying sweetness saying, ‘I know I could cash this in any second, Vince, and you’d crawl to Minnesota to get us back’. It used to carry me through day after day of bullshit credit reports, that dip. Just the thought that she’d be nibbling at my ear lobe and whispering something outrageous after the 3 a.m. feeding. Half a year it’s been—still, I wake up at 3, can still hear her at 3:25, for cryin’ out loud.”
“Uh, it’s really getting late here, I’d better…” Got my own 3 o’clock demons, without the ice box full of ribs.
“All this worry and loneliness, paying through the nose for yesterday’s dream—I mean, we’re both looking 30 in the face, we’re not kids ourselves. But I swear I’ll never get married again.”
“That’s it, Vince, get yourself free,” Darcy huffed, wiping his way back over to the Coffin Corner, cruising for rounds. “If the ol’ lady don’t chew up your paycheck, Uncle Sam will.”
“Hey, no dice over there,” the bartender soon yelled down across the Coat’s long bar to the revolving doors, where a most irregular party of two attempted to swing in with a sandy blonde legal secretary type, all her angles perfectly brief and rounded. Darcy said the two blokes had tried that once before, dressed her all up in army class A’s, hair stuffed up under her cunt cap. “No way, can’t let the dames in, would have to unstop the women’s toity, clogged up since the cease-fire.”
“Which one,” I asked him, distancing myself from Vince’s languor, for what was to keep him from crying in his Anchor Steam, or passing out in it altogether?
“The one to end all ones,” Darcy cracked, snapping Vince with his bar towel. “Before you know it, somebody’s cleaning the spittoons out, then comes the stools. Won’t stand for it, nosiree…”
Got so I could no longer stand for it, either. Vince’s darkest hours, the nascent rumble of rival conversation, punctuated with over-lubed outbursts and the crackling of fractious bones. The decomposing drunks in trenchcoats chinning deeper and deeper into their palms. The two packs-an-hour secondary smoke habit I was picking up here in Coffin Corner. And the muscle tone that must come from boilermakers, because all these stiffs were still upright, while my legs were two rum-soaked Coronas in a tropical depression.
“Goddamn redheads in their green jogging suits.” Vince muttered, suddenly pounding his fist on the scarred mahogany bar, as if all but cocking to throw his mug. “All they see is green…hey, where…”
“Really, gotta go, Vince, thanks for the beers,” I tapped his now slumping shoulder, snatching a handful of over salted bar-top popcorn for the trip. “Got a hot date with a gearshift knob. Catch you Monday night at the salt mine.” If this weekend didn’t kill me first…
“Yah, sure, we’ll see about that, Chi.” Vince then chugged the dregs of his Steam, slamming it down squarely on a Seagram’s coaster. “One more, Darcy, and a Marlboro box.”
I pressed flaccid flesh along mahogany row, feeling a mixicology of sheer relief and the nettling prospect that I’d just washed out of male forwarding 101, if not PBT. I stewed instantly over why I felt so culpable, so uneasy, why I had so little more to say. Suffused smoke and that acrid stench of stale alcohol rent my sinuses; even the stag and moose heads were bleary and migrained from it all.
Two spittoons and several dice rolls down, I finally cleared out of Vince’s signal path, the thumb of leather bones cups, clatter of box cars, tip change and booze-dulled aggression pushing me past Dead Man’s Curve on a glide approach to the revolving door. Inscrutably, the cigar man chose that precise moment to cut between a full, ash-pocked coat rack and the popcorn machine to beat me to the street, kicking the carnival-style popper in the process.
“Helluva spot,” I trailed him out into the Palace Hotel shadows, gasping for comparatively fresh breath. We shuffled toward Market Street in step with the alcoholics, workaholics, infidels and worse racing to BART’s Montgomery Street station for Friday’s final trains through the Transbay Tube.
“Used to be,” Max grumbled, over that buzzing neon crest and the catcalls of some hotel cab whistles across New Montgomery, coughing over hissing manholes and the rail thumping approach of an inbound torpedo trolley on Market Street. “Before they started dollin’ it up.”
“Yeah, hear there’s a lot of that going around…”
Care for more?
Chapter 80. Run-in with a
power player sparks a spin of
the wheels, with intersections
up and down…