“Hot to herd her in to
get her dancing to your tune
yields a road to ruin.”
“Have something for me, do you?”
“Depends on what you have for me.”
“A load and a half, I’d say…”
“Cough it up, I’ll be the judge of that.”
Didn’t stay put for long. Had too much work piling up for a hack who couldn’t write a lick, photo film to pick up and deliver. So I pored over notes in a Chestnut Street Coffee Roastery, pumped out assorted drivel at 125 words each, then typed it all up on Marina branch library public Underwoods, clickety-clack, xeroxing the onion skin sheets into a sizable little pile. Kept everything within walking distance of the Triangle lot and daily overhead down, saving on pricier and pricier petrol, otherwise holding Eric at bay. My spirits hung in with this regimen, but my spine curved all the more toward question mark stature by the day. This, after a couple more chill nights cold sweating out the Volvo’s front seats, not to mention spooky visions of Gary’s ghost, marching arm in arm to his long-gone bread truck, in lockstep with Crabber and Eric’s dog, Bruno. Which was why I decided to look up that other UC Med Center housing postcard after all, and was doubly anxious to meet and re-greet down here.
“So, what do you think?”
“Well, I have to admit it’s more than I expected.”
“Better than Jason’s?”
“That wouldn’t wouldn’t be saying much…”
This place, this time was entirely her idea. She had said it would work best for an exchange of copy written for a short list of new clients she’d enlisted, mostly cranky, fussbudget shopkeepers in Embarcadero Center who were desperate for more late morning and mid afternoon foot traffic, given the prime square footage they were locked into at soaring market rates. In a pinch, sticking it to Prism tourists looked to be the path of least retail resistance. So near and neutral was the goal, the Hyatt Regency Embarcadero her answer. Foot of Market Street, The City’s then largest waterfront accommodations: this spacey hotel looked like a concrete NASA landing craft with a satellite saucer up top, freakily futuristic enough to have been a real setting in films from ‘Towering Inferno’ to ‘High Anxiety’. Catching up with her in its lobby. I instantly knew the feeling.
Before we had even considered swapping paper, Valerie Prentiss-Brown insisted we take an elevating ride up to that circular observation lounge to clear our heads—for old time’s sake—clearly hers, not mine. Soon enough, I’d reached my limit of 360-degree roulette waterfront views, snaking Embarcadero Freeway, downtown skyline, Telegraph Hill out to the Golden Gate. But then I faced free-falling 17 stories in this glass bubble gazebo capsule of an elevator, refluxing a gratis crab pate and mollusk lunch at a Financial District watering hole that had signed on to Prism’s restaurant section, something about Tadich—all I knew was I skittishly begged off the shark fin entree. She gazed placidly upon HRE’s cavernous innards through our descent, while I clutched the elevator’s brown cushioned armrest like a seasick lubber a cruise ship railing until the inner space capsule plunged into some frightfully narrow black shaft, then delivered us unto the hotel’s soaring lobby, where we had proceeded to settle down for a little business.
“Don’t cotton much to Jason, do you,” I said, holding back my chipboard stiff envelope of Prism photoprints: let there be one batch of critiquing at a time.
“Cotton? Never cain tell,” Valerie mocked, over the ear-popping whoosh of an express elevator in mid fall. “But I guess he’s all right, for a twit.”
“Yeah, he does seem to rag on things a bit,” I followed her around the elevator concourse out to the hotel’s skylit lobby. “Like the day before he left town, he was really coming down on his hometown, saying The City was going soft-core…”
“A lot he knows—San Francisco’s not going soft-core at all,” she said, as we spread out on a plush brown leather sectional bordering a long, brilliantly colorful planter—essentially between the concierge desk and Sweet Sisters’ Cafe. “It’s just going gay.”
The Hyatt’s soaring atrium seemed somewhat more like a Bradbury concocted cellblock, actually—17 levels of banded geometric tiers, a protractor’s puzzle palace. Exposed bays, guestrooms faced one another across an airy, impassable expanse, couples creeping indiscreetly out of single-suite afternoon delights, petroleum arbiters in from Galveston gawking over from the opposing tier, wondering where they might find that kind of mileage. Recessed doors flapped up and down the open, airy lobby like Dating Game windows, putting an entirely different spin on the concept of open relationships, but reducing hotel security to picking off gratuitously tough lovers like ducks at a carnival gallery. Planter boxes of flowing ivy draped over the length of each angled balcony, combining with suspended cylindrical lights to create a hanging gardens of Orbitron.
“All of it?”
“Enough, even up in my neighborhood.”
“Where’s that?” I pressed back into the squishy leather, squeaking like moistened Playtex, keeping a full cushion between me and this woman of discernible ways and means.
“Cow Hollow, out by St. Vincent de Paul…” She moved more smoothly, in a more lubricous way.
“Really,” I said. Whoa, laity and laity, parish the thought…
“Yeah, well, Nolan seems to think he’s the best pen in the west.”
Nautilus tentacles of red and black helium balloons floated up into the atrium, glancing off black drum lanterns, snaking into the ivy as high as the 11th floor. This greenery surrounded the lobby’s ‘al fresco’ cocktail lounge, and clusters of tête-à-tête indiscretions amid the potted palms and ficus, the cushy leather and red velour. These weren’t everyday, run of the mill balloons, illuminated as they were by shafts of late sunlight from above and aside like Grand Central Station. They were launched especially on Friday afternoons, Tea Dance Day—hence the red and pekoe black. In any case, the entire cavernous mood drifted toward Venetian mescita, with strolling violinists softly bowing their adagios and spiccatos.
An odd swing, indeed, for a hotel whose turn-of-the-century motif turned boldly ahead to 2000 and 2001. HRE chronological focal point was a massive spherical metal sculpture cosmically titled Eclipse, so tea dancing here seemed odder than a cultural curator at Graceland.
“Nolan? Listen, he’s got Jason’s ego pumped sky high for now, but you just wait. Soon as he’s wrung every word he can out of that little weasel, he’ll pop him like a birthday balloon.”
“What? Naw, not after what he said, like at breakfast…”
“Words, words, honestly, anybody can string a hundred of them together. And Nolan knows how to sling words, too,” Valerie laughed knowingly, her hazel eyes sparkling as they rolled. “Fact of the matter is, he thrives on reasonably bright and rudderless chumps like Jason.”
“But why would…” I waffled, my foundation shaken, feeling about as adequate as Stills once did with Judy Blue Eyes.
“Because that’s the way Nolan is, what do you think,” she tousled her full, wavy auburn hair, longer and more luminous than any natural woman had a right to, then rewrapped the mane of it all in her shell-blushish sash. “He’s a predator, a shamelessly greedy operator. I know what he’s all about, I was married to one.”
“How reassuring,” I sighed, glancing over at the pile I’d handed her. “But where do you suppose that leaves me?”
Nevertheless, tea dance, it was. Something on the order of Les Brown and His Cover Band of Renown, soon sounded more redolently flaccid than Montavani on Demurol. An iffy ‘I’m In the Mood For Love’ fanned through the lobby like clogged kitchen exhaust, wafting up into the cavern tier by tier, lofting those braided balloon strands with the savoir froth of Lawrence Welk’s bubble machines. In reality, the effervescent Regency Orchestra segued into ‘Sentimental Journey’ without so much as missing a string appoggiatura, as if they didn’t keep pouring out the standards, arteriosclerosis might set in throughout the lobby. This early in the proceedings, only the bandleader was stepping out—a penguin-tailed Paul Whiteman sort with a mean Sidney Greenstreak in his sideward glances and asides, particularly toward the blue-haired retirees requesting their parlor songs.
“You? Oh, you’re harmless enough,” she said crisply, filing the papers in her Coach velise. “See, Nolan is a bit on-guard with Jason, worries that the little dingbat might get just neurotic enough to screw things up back east. In your case, he figures somebody in from the flyover cornfields…”
“Colorado and Chicago,” I balked, at both the figurative and regional emasculation. “Chicago isn’t exactly the cornfields.”
“Close enough,” she said, position unmoved. “No matter what kind of scam you conjure up, everybody here or in New York is already six speeds ahead of you. Nolan gets peace of mind from that, you know, and the fact that you’re flat on your duff, moneywise.”
“Come on, give me some…”
“Don’t knock it, Steinbeck,” she smiled, tapping my hand. “Being a lightweight has its advantages. Honesty and predictability can be real assets in a town like this. San Francisco’s got a lot of everything going for it, but blind devotion isn’t one of them.”
“So you think all Midwesterners are just a bunch of plodding hayseeds, is that it?” My back and shoulders stiffened like hybrid cornstalks in the flat prairie breezes of springtime.
“That’s your hang-up,” she dismissed, snapping closed her case. “All I’m saying is you best stay poor and slavish. Just don’t go overestimating yourself. Really, this town needs more dupes like you.”
Now Pops wasn’t all tea dance, of course. His tuxom, 24-piece ensemble didn’t simply breeze through ‘Tea For Two’, ‘You Made Me Love You’ and Teagarden favorites—that was clear as the gin and tonics flowing around them. No, for all their wunnerful muzak, the soppy late-life appeal, his ever-popular Regents seemed to draw the line at one irrefutable musical law: Even union scale didn’t mean a thing if it didn’t have that swing. A bit more of the bubbly, some happy hour hep cats gliding across the dance floor, and Pops was leading his band onto the A-Train and Glenn Miller’s Choo-Choo, then off again, into a ‘One o’ Clock Jump’ that would have sent shivers up Woody Herman’s back beat and baritone sax—fancy that, mom ‘n’ dad’s rock ‘n’ roll…
“Well if you’ve got Nolan Anderle so pegged, what does that make you?”
“Me? Nolan is the least of my problems.”
“If he’s the lech you say he is, how can you be so damn sure?” Really, here’s this reasonably classy chick who looks California right, from pure white flats on her slender, curling feet to the melony peaks swaying gently beneath her dipping linen neckline, and that holy righteous cleavage, tan beachy goddess from there up. A high-brow priestess gone slumming, perhaps: I could see her in creamy, ruffled taffeta down to her perfect aquatic ankles, springing barefoot into La Fontaine Des Innocents, tossing that wedding bouquet to les gamines, streaming the chill water through her long, luscious hair. Then settling down serenely to a lawyerly life up in the Berkeley Hills with her sevres patterns and Bay-facing rear deck views. So what in blazes happened from there, what scattered that to the downdraft winds?
“Because it’s different with me,” she cooed, retying the sash in her hair. “All he wants is to get into my lavender panties, so he pours me a little extra sugar. He’s just another one of those hard-driving New Yorkers who come to California to live out their desperate midlife fantasies. The old perv won’t dare cross me until he scores.”
“Yeah,” I blurted, provoked even further by the whole ungodly prospect. I could even envision those panties. What I couldn’t see was her leaving all that for a 280Z Datsun and three-panel spread.
“And when exactly will that be?”
“Like, just between you, me and the plowboys, huh?”
That the Regents’ bandstand itself was clear over in the shadow of Mrs. Candy’s open-face cafe had little on their volume. The Big Beat medley steadily muted most everything, short of the conversation at hand—hardly a typical rising moonlight serenade. Akin to a steam locomotive in the Munich Bahnhoff, Pops overwhelmed the three glowing elevators, which were rising and falling like swiss clock counterweights, much less the clinking of Mrs. Candy’s china. The orchestra echoed through HRE’s obtusely converging atrium balconies, muffling all nearby intimacy, pitches and small talk, not to mention that peculiar clicking of three-inch heels along a test-patterned stone tile floor.
But no matter how brassy the Berigan, how shrill and thundering the Artie Shaw, there was no eclipsing the four-story spheric sculpture that dominated the atrium. At its base poured forth this low, slate flat fountain that produced a dull, slapping roar only Truckee River rafters could abide for very long. And flow, Eclipse did, perpetually juddering the sphere’s hyperbolic tubular brass circles like a gathering of the vibes. Which rattled ‘Minnie the Moocher’ and ‘You, You Darling’ all right, but really began unnerving me in the worst way, since the squishy leather sofa Valerie had selected was barely a ‘Variety Stomp’ away.
“You know what I mean.” On the other hand, I could see her pledging Stanford, maybe a year’s sabbatical at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. But a one-shot deal at the Playboy mansion? It sure didn’t stack up, but she sure did.
“Can’t say that I do,” she snapped, straightening the fine blue vertical stripes along her linen sheath. “But you sure make it sound like a matter of crude inevitability.”
“No, wait, no,” I retreated, following those pinstripes, tight and true, wrapping her freshly from her strong, shapely shoulders to halfway down her calves, fixing on how curvilinear those lines became around her margins. Not Valerie Prentiss-Brown, no way she’d do it—but maybe Rachel le Pointe would. “I’m sure you wouldn’t stoop to…”
“That’s another story, now isn’t it.”
“Jesus, Rach—er, I mean Valerie. I was only making…”
“See?” She was eager to make her point. “It’s all over your slavering little face…”
As the afternoon wore thin, Pops and his Regents flowed into the inevitable Dorsey Brothers tribute, taking off on Tommy and Jimmy renditions of ‘Sweetcakes’, ‘Stardust’ and ‘Solitaire’. Swing fever: the smooth slab dance floor had now filled with middle-aged, middle road PG&E middle managers and mid-level executive secretaries from Chevron, the latter swirling about about, crepe skirted down to mid knee.
“All right then,” I said, flustered and flushed. “Why would somebody like you…”
“What? Lay it all out there for every pervert with two dollars in his hot pocket? Why do you think? The money, genius,” she said forcefully, tucking her tanned right calf directly beneath her, as though so casually at home. “Or, like Everest maybe—because it was there.”
“Fair enough,” I sighed. Everest, twice over, to say the least—mounds too firm and bountiful for one man’s possessive urges. “But what was it like to…”
“You’ll have to ask Rachel.”
Even the blue rinsed, mid menopausal bank tellers and account supervisors swooned out there with their man-friendly escorts once Pop’s nightingale strode to the bandstand mike. A sequin ball- gowned hybrid somewhere between Kitty Kallen and Blossom Dearie, his silver-haired songstress in champagne and black snapped and swayed her way through ‘Goody-Goody’ then ‘Snug As a Bug in a Rug’. But things turned manic the moment she turned to the string section and commenced torching into ‘Love For Sale’ and ‘You Made Me Love You’.
“Okay, hell with it then,” I pulled back, strategically crossing legs to cover my lap.
“You mean,” she teased, several passing pharmaceutical reps checking out her vitals as they strutted between the elevators and Mrs. Candy’s, name tags ablaze in the spotty overhead lighting. “Did Hef ply me with MDA and personally ice down my nipples, salacious stuff like that?”
“Look you’re the one who brought this up,” I fidgeted. “A guy’s just got to be curious about what’s going on in a gal’s head when…”
“It was an interesting experience, that’s all,” she shrugged, as if exposing something heretofore untold. “A lot of attention and strobe lights–and buckets of Champagne. Hef’s a woman-hating egomaniac who’s aging horridly, so I held my nose and signed a release. The whole lark bought me a new Z and cost me a marriage, what more can I say?”
“Well, uh, that’s good, huh,” I nodded awkwardly. I could see her baring those breasts in boudoir defiance, standing tall and taut before her full-length dressing mirror, fondling and caressing those babies and tabulating her assets before committing herself to paper. “I mean, I’m sorry to hear you lost your…”
“Tsk, I didn’t lose anything, I shed a dead-end relationship. Rachel le Pointe was my ticket out of five years’ going through the household motions, overnight. I just grabbed the brass ring at the time.”
Eclipse’s fountain flowed and slapped harder than ever; upstairs ivy drooped down an extra tier, tea-ed off dancers commenced groping and hanging on one another, vodka tonics spilling over gabardine shoulders, Rob Roys trickling down the backs of perfumed lace and chiffon. HRE’s atrium went positively glassy eyed by the time Regency’s songbird broke into ‘Two Sleepy People’, though slobberying tea and sympathy wasn’t what I had in mind at the moment—drooling, maybe but…
“Real loser, or what,” I probed, sensing some sort of opening.
“Arthur’s a very successful personal injury lawyer, we used to come here sometimes, for a weekend rendezvous,” she said wistfully. “Our split-level’s on Grizzly Peak in the Berkeley Hills—or should I say, his split level.”
“Hmph, I thought the wife usually got the property,” I pictured her thumbing her narrow Anglo-Saxon nose at Mr. Esteemed Counsel and stormily signing her consent decree down beside Mansion West’s bunny-shaped pool and diving in altogether. Hef probably went ape over Rachel, too, that strong, aristocratic demeanor of hers—the whole erotic concept of her hyphenated fall from grace. Probably set her against oversize satin pillows and wall-to-wall Persians, crimson comforters and queen-size brass—an Edwardian armoire flowing with velvet and sultry plumes. Had to dig up that back issue. “Any kids, or…”
“Get serious, airbrushing is one thing, but Hef has this thing about stretch marks. “No, I just walked away. It wasn’t the property I was after, it was the freedom…”
“Sure, what else,” I nodded. As if retouchers could find a single stretch mark on that statuesque frame of hers to save their bleepin’ jobs. Just pancake that chiseled chin, arch those noble brows. Then crank up the reflectors and strobe umbrellas and probe those light meters and camera lenses over her over her at will, down that sculpted bronze torso, those pool slendered hips, between those long, aerobically toned thighs. Me too, I’m a photographer, I could do that…“So, here you be, free, white and San Franciscan…”
“Yes, indeedy,” she allowed, as though slightly chagrined by her candor. “Maxed out on my credit cars and burned out on straight San Francisco men, wherever they are hiding, if not in therapy—tsk, why am I telling you this?”
“Who knows, could be ’cause I’m such a hayseed.” Harmless, hell, I could just as easily be ramming my Nikon up her…through those…on the beach, between the silky sheets. Spread out on a fishnet hammock, back curved over a leather hassock, black as this couch here. A passionately remote up in Banff, down on the Bayou, pose her straddling fences, climbing the walls—baby in the bathwater, momma in the mood. Sure, art direct her too, those tight little buns, total creative control: tweak those garters and niplets, fluff that magnificent auburn crescent. If creepy Hef could do it, damn straight so could…smooth as silk…
“My, we do learn fast, don’t we,” she replied, brow arched, pursing her naked, glossy pouting lips.
“Really…” Ahem, treading lightly here, in plain ol’ oxford cloth and cords. Just wait’ll you get a gander at my telephoto lens—really, check it out, babycakes… “So exactly what kind of man are you, you know, longing for?”
“Sorry?” she arched, rising from the squishy leather sofa, staring me straight on down. “Oh, oh—puleeze…”
“What? I…” Oops, oh shit, wrong F-stop, shutter slamming shut. Don’t say silky, you don’t really mean silk…
“You…twerp! Taking advantage of a professional relationship. I can’t believe this, and if you want any more from me, scrounge up a back issue of Playboy, like all the other little hand jobs out there.”
With that, the atrium seemed to erupt, Paul Newman and Steve McQueen racing about to douse an inferno of electrical fires up and down the hotel’s tiers, Holden and Wagner chasing after Faye Dunaway, towering fire department choppers air lifting full elevator capsules out of harm’s way, O.J. Simpson hurdling after a getaway rent-a-car. And that had to be Mel Brooks and Harvey Korman up there, the good doctors high on anxiety, pursuing Nurse Diesel tier to tier, blessed Victoria no far behind. Hitchcock must have been turning vertiginously in his grave by then. For that matter, my head was spinning just the same.
“Valerie, please…wait,” I beseeched, as she rose, turned on her heels and clicked off toward Eclipse. “Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t…”
“It’s Rachel, to you,” she scowled, spinning sharply back around, that auburn hair flaming across her reddening flawless face.
“Come on, hold up a second, will you,” I sprang to attention, beckoning after her vapor trail, the Regency songstress crooning ‘Can’t We Talk It Over?’. “Didn’t mean anything like that, I was just playing, you know, devil’s advocate…”
“But of course you didn’t,” she smiled sardonically, “just a figment of your teeny-weeny imagination…”
“Sure—what? Let me help you with that,” I motioned toward her briefcase, catching two convening insurance brokers squarely between their portfolios.
“Don’t trouble yourself, farmhand, just do me one little favor…”
“Whatever you say,” I stammered. “Maybe we can meet again in the morning and go over more clients and sort through this Prism stuff.”
“Try not to prick your stubby little fingers on the staples.”
“Yeah, hilarious,” I wiped my forehead and clutched my photo lab envelope as she impatiently tapped her espadrilled toe, thinking what a thing to say, particularly so soon after Veterans Day. “Uh, about my payment for the store write-ups…”
“Take it up with Nolan from here on,” she again turned away, but not before handing me a slip of paper. “But I do have one thing for you. Some woman named Sydney left a message. Something about an unveiling, she wants you to contact her about it. Here, I jotted down her number. Incidentally, that phone service is strictly for Prism business, you know…”
There she left me sucking someone else’s cigarette smoke. Tough dame, tall, too—whew, they grow them tall out here, tough, too. I froze helplessly as she parted a sea of forgathered commodity brokers and habitual tea dalliers more than halfway in their cups, vanishing somewhere past Eclipse, apparently headed for the ladies’ convenience. The sculpture’s fountain flowed on, its soft, soothing rivulets strengthening against an orchestra waning toward set break, sounding more and more like torrents over the precipice, cascades over the falls.
Suddenly the Regents’ rollicking segue into ‘Goody-Goody’ went beyond sweet remembrance to syrupy revulsion, regardless of how Pops had reverently dedicated the damn ditty to Wingy Manone. Before I could sit down and more or less collect myself, a school of consulting geologists buried themselves in the squishy brown leather and began excavating side orders of guacamole and Margaritas. Once the concierges’ desk took to paging a tour group from Osaka, and Mrs. Candy’s emptied quicker than a box of Fudge Royale, HRE’s atrium became a bit too cosmopolitan for me. I fled for the escalators, two gazebo elevator capsules dropping heinously toward me as I raced past some networking systems analysts down the drum-rolling mechanical stairs to Hyatt’s valet doors, stuffing the photoprints into my camera bag like a Fed Reserve courier gilt-edge bonds, fearful of what Nolan Anderle would make of this one.
“Taxi! Double for SFO!!”
“Move that limo, will ya? We got three busloads of Japanese tourists ready to divebomb here any minute!”
The bellhops’ wailing and pipe whistles so distracted me that I nearly lost it to one of those arriving tourbuses the moment I stepped out HRE’s sliding doors into a teeming two-lane vehicle reception port. The hotel traffic stopped me cold; however it was the four-star Examiner headline that froze me on the Hyatt’s circular sidewalk. A two-deck head, black Franklin Gothic characters that hit the streets with an almost spurious Hearstian tabloid improbability: that the U.S. Embassy had completed its inspection of Jonestown, found it ‘primitive’ to say the least, ‘Father’ Jones wobbly and wearing shades and a gauze mask to protect against government invasion and jungle dangers untold—claiming nobody appreciated the great revolutionary agricultural experiment he was leading down there.
That was too weird to even think about, so I didn’t, instead lighting out between clanging in and outbound California Street cable cars that nearly rang my bell for good. I cut over to Market Street, running full stride past P.G.&E. Headquarters, camera bag slamming against my rib cage like a wrecking ball against a wall. The sweating and pounding were enough to give me pleurisy, the week’s hot spell giving way to a damp, chilling wind through downtown highrises that was turning on me as I raced across Beale.
Stiffing me like that, what was her problem?! Don’t cut your fingers on the staples—uuu-up hers. Sure, she can lay it out there for a skin rag, but all of a sudden she’s Ms. Social Propriety. Right, she only did it for the freedom, only let those cameras crawl all over her to break free from the bondage of Berkeley’s hills! So what does that make me, some porno pervert in a trench coat? Scrounge up the magazine—where the hell did she get off? Look, honey, just ’cause you’re ravishing doesn’t mean you can be so rude, or was that whole deal simply a ruse to receive without delivering in pay trade? Naw, stooge, don’t think about that one, either…
Then again, wow—I did just get blown off by a Playmate of the Month, for crissake. Yeah, that and two-bits will get you on the MUNI… Now where was that McDonald’s Bookshop again?
Care for more?
Chapter 90. Promising a quick
downtown getaway, a ride out to the
heights of Parnassus becomes a
streetcar named return fire…