Comfort Alert: The following story presents a
fictional give and take on what remain several of the
most pressing and persistent issues today. It employs a
rigorously full and ultimately fair approach:
in essence a didactic treatise within a dramatic tale.
Tough, touchy stuff, all right—but somebody has to
try meeting minds on all this. So buckle up…
SATURN RENDEZVOUS II
What Goes Around, Storms Around.
“…Bemoan Saturn’s supersonic, devil wind-driven
lightening storms, cloud zone blasts and strange wavelike formations, hounded by over 35 moons with names like Titan, Phoebe and Pandora. Hence, all the arbitrary crankiness and ire: That’s Saturn, for ya, bub.
Now, what planet are you on?”
Dame Thornia de Wilde
San Francisco: 2008
Robin Williams (Ed.)
Shots were fired, the race was on. But before they could even hit the first mark, change came like a breakaway header and serious, on-goal kicking of some balls.
Zaaap, a full-sail regatta gave way to soccer warm-ups on the house plasma TV, sort of an America’s Cup for World Cup, with an accompanying volume burst until a shot puller behind the counter clicked the sound way down. More sudden, jolting change, I thought, returning to the envelope at hand. Just like I should have seen this coming all along.
With a little luck, the off-white #10 would have had a tripwire and traces of toxic white powder. But no, not a chance, meaning better that we should have ended this reconnect right then, before something got started that couldn’t be settled so easily. Christ, it could not have been good news, anyway—not today—no cold-bloody way.
Hey Hee-bert, you ol’ scumbag. Good thing my ol’ lady can do some Googlin’ on her lunch time—thought I’d never track your sorry ass down…
Here in my sweating palms was no quick, dirty e-mail, no one-off text message on the fly, but real hard-copy, dead-letter history, a full former lifetime of old-school needling echoed via postage-due snail mail —generations, many iterations removed. The short, snarky note had come yesterday, a wise-ass, hand-scribbled communiqué from Chicago of all frickin’ places, a blindsiding backslide from the torn, faded edges of what I had once called home.
Not that I didn’t still have some residual luv for Chitown. Just don’t be coming back at me with all that, Nathan, not when it’s taken me so long to slink away from all that—bailing lamely as I had back then in the earliest of morns. Like, there hadn’t been enough bad-cop rumblings out of Big Shoulders lately as it was, without dredging up the debris I had left there—things that had gone wrong, and now were just gone.
I rechecked the return address: hmm…P.O. Box. Don’t tell me Notorious Nate Grimaldi—Natorious, for short—is living back in the ’burbs, or on the bloody Southside or something, Chicago Lawn-Obamaville, right around the edges. No, he must still be cleaning up on the near Northside.
Whatever, I had bigger lawns to mow. Glancing up at the long, antsy customer line, I hastily refolded the letter, along with what appeared to be some sort of crumpled press clipping, then crammed it all back into its twice-forwarded mailer, which I stuffed partially between the arts and business sections of my morning newspaper.
From this wobbly window-side table, I could see a queue now swelling out the café’s doors, so many plodding stiffs on the down-low side of their caffeine cycles. I knew all about it, having just been there myself—java here being priced about right, Mecca’s patrons being occasionally of particular interest.
One strong styrofoam cup later, I was little more than a bundle of resurgent Garuda-charged nerves—biding my time, waiting out, waiting on the inevitable storm. There I was, tabling the paper, last gasp gripping the armrests way deep into the second act, calender clocking my waning Returnal days, when Saturn just had to transit in stage left all over again.
Or maybe it was just those musical crosscurrents. Christ, Nathan, ol’ turfer bud, why the hell go writing me now?! OK, man up—altogether now…Head over heartstrings, remember? So let’s see, where was I? Oh, right…don’t worry, baby—focus, focus hard—cocked and loaded, don’t back down…I should have known I’d get flushed out after all these years.
That aside, Mecca Java was a neighborly corner coffee joint with a loyal stream of leftoid regulars, and spillover from the loftier addresses on up Fillmore Street. Among them now, past the stacked poetry throwaways and Capiero flyers, around a pair of pay-as-you-scroll Internet terminals, stood idling paramedics, spackled Russo-Irish sheet-rock hangers, flexing hairy-back gym junkies and speed-reading S&L teller trainees.
Toward the front of the line, sandwiched between a barrel-waisted East Village exile in a floral quilted frou-frou, and a sight-impaired afro-harmonicat impatiently tapping his cane, an archly famous favorite son sidled about, quietly hunting for some hot joe and maybe just a little good will.
Yeah, these stellar Robin sightings were becoming increasingly du jour around then. Off camera, this iconic comic seemed oddly furtive, at once bracing and insecurely vamping for recognition, counting on the ‘don’t ask, don’t leer’ policy San Franciscans resolutely have toward the celebrities in their midst, hip as they were to the reality that the glitterati only actually interfaced with fans these days when they were hawking their memoirs and compilated DVDs.
Apparently just back from some barnstorm trooping through Baghdad’s Green Zone, or forward operating bases, his incognito look was fashionable camo and faux fatigues—hiding behind a BlackWatch beret and orange tinted titanium shades, eyes visibly averted, fixed on the colorfully calligraphed overhead menu boards. God forbid anybody should notice; god help anybody who didn’t.
Radio City for the celebrity fundraiser, Hollywood for the Golden Globes, Broadway bound, non-stop filming and late-night flakking his star-turned flicks, critically panned though they increasingly were: A double macchiato was definitely in order amid the latest scene and be-seen world tour by this impulsive, indomitably compulsive jokester—beloved everywhere as he was.
A person ahead of the outwardly nonplused woman pedicurist whom Williams immediately followed was one Reese Paulen, Ph.D., who had pegged me on his way in the door, and was now paying for his Masala Chai Tea. A tall, full figure in corduroy and chinos, he turned away from the pastry cluttered counter, nodding, lowering his gaze as he passed this shorter, stouter, world-renowned riffmeister, who himself was now digging deliberately into his guerilla pants pockets for a billfold of platinum plastic. Their near miss by the cream and sugar table, besides rattling the soy milk canisters and honey jars, held all the look-don’t look de-magnetism of a solar eclipse.
Paulen handled the pas de deux capably enough, betraying nary a wink or nod, yet acknowledging that say, aren’t you…look, I know who you are, but I’m not letting you catch me knowing dynamic, because that is so uncool; while Robin’s vacant stare suggested I know you know who I am, but don’t let me catch you knowing, because that’s a total drag. But you still sure as hell better know who I am, ’cause why else would I be out here –and you’d better damn well let me not know it, too. Just don’t come too close while you do so. Something like that, clear and simple enough: This little exercise in San Francisco celebratory civility seemed to preoccupy, mildly amuse the revisiting university professor all the way over to my table.
“Honestly, Herbert, how intriguing that I should be bumping into you here after all this time,” he said, sitting down cross table, lifting the black snap lid of his take-out cup. “Talk about probabilistic serendipity…and seeing Mork himself in the flesh, yet…”
“Really, small world, small town—still and all, what are the chances,” I pushed that letter further between the newspaper sections. This looked to be not a little friendly face time. but strap-on-the-game face time. Of all the joe joints in all the world—kinda like that. Except, as it happened, the Fillmore Fosdick’s intel was pretty much spot on; as for this front window seat: just my luck. Except it didn’t account for doc’s surfacing so soon…so right here and now, when he was said to rather recently bend elbows over at the Elite across the street. Besides, he appeared a little pudgier and paunchire than I remembered; then again I probably looked smaller and railier than he recalled. So be it, enough with the diddlin’. Let’s do this and be done with it. “Yeah, Mork and Mindy are hot in reruns again. Nanu, nanu anew.”
“Robin Williams put Boulder, Colorado on the map, all right. Sweet rock candy mountain, in his rainbow red space suit and silver boots,” Paulen loosed his brown wide-whale sports jacket, then began stirring some nutmeg into his Chai. “Trouble is, the town’s never been the same since.”
“Yeah, he and JonBenet,” I stared up, quantifying the overhead lights and grinding ceiling fans, demonstrating my grasp of tabloid topicality. How did he come across me here, anyway? And what was up with the new personal handle? But I wasn’t going there, not yet—in for a dime, in for a time: toes dipped, hang ten, let’s pace things a bit, see where this ungainly little mashup might lead. Like the bossman said, take it wherever it has to go to get him flapping, so let’s see what blows. “These days, you can often spot Mork carousing around The City with Bono and Whoopi Goldberg. Such a positive energy source—wonder how old a guy he is by now…”
“Must be around our age—late 50s, or so,” he cleared his throat, then peered, probed clear through my burning eyes, as if for a hint, some trace evidence of who and what lay inside.” In any event, Boulderites prefer not to talk about the dreadful Ramsey tabloid circus any more unless we absolutely must. Myself, in particular.”
“Why’s that?” Haughty smokescreen, stony denial: Hmph, we’ll just have to see about that. “I mean, the case does keep coming back around. Kinda like the Zodiac saga here—becomes something of a cartoon strip after a while.”
“Because, among other things, those Ramsey people never belonged in the first place—they’re the sort who are ruining Boulder as we speak—all that tax money wasted on a grand jury. Such ignominy has no place in a mellow place like that. Alas, nasty business all around, what say we just change the subject,” Paulen said in muffled tones, pausing for didactic effect. “In any case, my guess is you won’t see ol’ Robin waltzing into this place with Billy Crystal any time soon…”
“How do you mean?” Intriguing that the professor seemed to take the Ramsey case almost personally—why so quick to dismiss—gotta mine that vein, all right. But first I glanced counter-wise to spot Mork peeling off his field jacket to reveal a black Rainforest T-shirt and the same old rainbow suspenders he sported when Orsen was calling down from Ork—peering anywhere but straight ahead. Everybody else seemingly waited for him to go off somehow on the tabletops, just for grins. “You talkin’ about all the snow he’s blown, or what?”
“I mean, this isn’t exactly Beverly Hills or South Beach in here, now is it…”
“Oh, that…glam-wise—yeah, not even close,” I nodded, struggling to grokk the reference, noodling way back for some grasp of a once common clinical lexicon. “You’re saying, as in, like, demographically…”
“No, as in ethnographically,” Paulen’s voice rose over some thrumming and trilling, quite exotically thrilling ambient music overhead. “Let alone theographically.”
“Whatever…” Unclear on that concept, dismissing it as arcane sociological argot I’d begged off ages ago: I instead noted the metallic protuberance barring across his right ear. These devices I’d come to deride, long annoyed with the slow pedestrian wandering, the disjointed monologues in a polyglut of tongues—the overheated airs and wireless pretentiousness of them all—ultimately leading to little more than radiation burn and a bad case of celliflower ear. “Loud enough for you…with the hearing aid there…I mean, what’s with the ear armor?”
“It’s Bluetooth, voice activated,” Paulen pressed the green call button blinking near his starboard lobe, a brown and chrome Jabra v2.0 headset, not that much smaller than a 9-volt radio battery, hooked tightly to his ear. Mildly distracted, he released the button, then reached for his jacket pocket. “I’m just getting accustomed to it—you know, the driving, and all. Plus I’ll confess to having become something of a gadget freak, as it were.”
“Oh, right, cell phone-free…look, ma, no hands…”
“In a manner of speaking. Although under the current circumstances, ma is an unfortunate choice of words.”
“Wouldn’t know about that, don’t drive much anymore,” I relented, pursing my lips, at pains to lighten the mood. “Bluetooth, huh? I just know my grill is getting more on the yellow side.”
“Non-stop coffee will do that to you, Herbert,” Paulen leaned forward, folding his arms.
“Yeah, coffee—kind of makes a person hide his smile…” I backed off in turn.
“Perhaps that’s why god created whitening strips. What’s more, it can make you hide yourself. Is that what you’ve been doing here all these years, Herbert? Hiding out from something, in this…place? Hiding from somebody or another?”
“Me? Hell, no, I’ve got plenty on my plate, don’t you worry,” I grimaced, pursing my lips “But I’ll take that strips thing under advisement…”
“Precisely, chew on it…because you look a bit thinner than I remember.”
“Well, guess I’ve shed a little poundage around the edges,” I replied guardedly, noting his tight, streaking curls. “You look a bit saltier…”
“Goes with the gray matter, I suppose…”
“Tell me about it, doc…”
“All in good time, my friend. All in good time…”
Care for more?
Chapter Two. Cracks appear quickly, as
long-lost and founds compare and contrast vaguely
familiar grounds. Gaps widen as the local café
more fully reveals its more distant worldly nature,
to where this pair of reacquaintances need take leave.