“Sorry, Gunther—not buying it.”
“Need some breathing room now, do ya?!”
He hoisted the can as if to toast, but instead began pouring with a vengeance. Regular unleaded washed down like Yosemite falls, green-yellow gasoline over his padded grey wool blend shoulders, quickly soaking through pinstriped broadcloth to the bone. He slumped under the cold chemical weight of this endgame, mumbling to himself, tossing aside the empty gas can, soon crouching to feel for another five-gallon container in a barrel-size black canvas duffle bag.
Dude pinned the second red can between his legs, no simple maneuver given that he had already chained himself by the waist band to a regal blue lamp post over on the northwest corner of Union Square. He then came up firing with a disposable BIC. Few passersby even seemed to notice this volatile, most incendiary situation, what with all the cross-clotted traffic, the motherboard flow of pedestrians, the general buzz of lunch-hour banter in downtown San Francisco.
But then I had clearer perspective, having idly locked on this ruinous dervish in a three-piece suit screaming, threatening, tap dancing around his duffel and despair like an arthritic sidewalk hoofer. He appeared to be a careworn late-20s juniorcrat, a quotidian auditor or systems analyst, a resume booster ploddingly making a careers of his benefits package. Yet here he was going off on a street corner, power lunching with an anti-theft CLUB pulled from his over-parked Daihatsu Charade. His ranting had already pierced the shrill alarm of an ice-blue and black Mini Cooper, the sudden thud of caving sheet metal, the shattering and splintering of safety glass.
This Crunch-buffed figure had rammed his red steel steering lock through the Mini’s pulverized windshield, twisted its wipers with bleeding knuckles, jammed a long, spindled note under its hood seam, then proceeded to boot in Alison somebody’s doors. “Bitch flat-out lied!”
“Come on, drop it, will you,” I had urged, from behind a dripping hydrant. For this alpha maniac was now flicking his lighter to the stony, unmoved passersby, pacing aquamarine like a caged orangutan amid aquamarine heaps of powdered glass. “Don’t be doing that to her. And for chrissake don’t be doing it to yourself…”
“Piss off, I’m dealing with my woman here,” he screamed, reeking worse than an East Bay refinery, menacingly waving his BIC with fire in his gray beryllium eyes. “Grow up, she says—like I’m some kinda’ fuckin’ chump.”
“Listen, you flame out and she’s the one who wins…” Aww, give it up, I muttered, scanning an increasingly restless plaza across Powell Street—as if I had any room to talk. What’s one more hopeless son-of-a-bitch going over the edge? Still, I couldn’t deny once seething with that flamer’s anger so long ago, being no less panicked by his rage.
The direct object of his attention looked to be a trim, tied-back blond whose gleaming blue eyes and jutted chin barely met his sagging lapels. Stabbing her hands hard into the trouser pockets of her own black pin-striped suit, the young woman took to standing on her bulging Coach briefcase for emphasis, then tiptoed stood her ground. “Look at my car! You’re paying, Gunner…” She scrolled her pearly iPhone X for AAA. “Paying full sticker price with treble damages!”
“It’s here in the letter, folks,” he scowled back, pulling an embossed #10 envelope from his vest pocket, waving it like damp legal tender out of a tumble dryer. “But OK for you, if this is how you want it, huh?” He wooshed the lighter before her eyes. “Goin’ down this way…”
“Spare me the spectacle, luv. You know for a fact we’ve done this scene before…”
Tuned in, amped up, I could hear it all so clearly, as though the entire overheated affair were on speakerphone—The Conversation all over again—even over the bus roar, the cold concrete street drilling, the shifting and sliding of steel trench plates. Besides which, I had seen seen how this Gunner guy had brazenly crammed his Charade into a yellow curb delivery zone outside Saks Fifth Avenue. Bad habit, overindulged powers of observation, I had drawn a laser bead on him as he shlepped his canvas duffle through Post Street traffic over to the Square, as if methodically setting up yet another anti-one-percent petition stand. Instead, the stand increasingly appeared to be his last.
“You lied to me, lied to me,” he cried, as a clanging Powell Street cable car momentarily crowded my sight and sound lines. By the time I had refocus, the guy was reaching into his huge black bag for the second five-gallon can.
“Negative, I never once lied to you!” She shook her finger at him as a swarm of day shoppers and trollers began to circle.
“Why’d you have to bullshit me, Alison,” he resumed pouring about himself.
“For God’s sake, Gunther, get a grip—this is downright embarrassing.”
My vantage point was now the left end of a wood-slat courtesy bench line with assorted tourists, who were craning for the sight of another Powell-Hyde Street cable car. This outbound stop was function of a little friendly reconnaissance, all due diligence in the authorial sense—momentary pause while scouting out misappropriated territory pending a fulsomely trumpeted arrival. That was when this high-noon showdown grabbed me, with it the clear chemical bite of reformulated petrol and other toxic inhalants unknown, all somewhat sweetened by the pancake aromatherapy wafting down from Sear’s Fine Food.
“Come on,” she continued, “you know you won’t go through with this. You never follow through with anything!”
“See there, folks,” Gunther said, playing to the thickening circle. “That’s the bitch who flat-out played me!!”
“Oh, stop it,” she shrieked. “You’re impossible, I tell you…and are really beginning to freak me out…”
Downtown for something of a showdown hoedown myself, I had also been trying to chat up a young homeless guy when I noticed her turn of mood. He was a huddled lump wrapped in a frayed blanket—stained and yellow, much the color of his own cankered skin. He figured to have been seated on the shade-chilled concreted long enough for piles to take hold, hunched over a coverless paperback, saying nothing, seldom looking up except to mind the plastic beer cup between his tattered hiking boots, ringing up each passing drop of spare change. Then again, his small longhand sign said it all: ‘I’m living with AIDS. Any little bit goes toward food, maybe even a room. It’s hard out here, thank you very much’. He never even noticed when I dropped everything to run like greased thievery in this Alison’s general direction.
“Gather around people, it’s light up time!”
“All right, that’s it, Gunner.” She spun around toward the intersection, catching just enough of her black-on-black pump heel in an old vent grate to send her tumbling to her knees. “No more TXTs, no more calls, hear…ewwph…”
“Say, are you okay? Can I help you there?” I reached down to grasp her elbow as traffic closed in on us from both the Post and Powell Street sides.
“God knows I’ve tried to be reasonable about this,” she screamed, over a swell of revving engines and horn rage. She then swung her strawberry blond head toward me, turned on me to be more precise. “Do you mind? Get your grubby mitts off…”
“Whoa, hey…” I eased back, spotting Gunther out the corner of my eye as he prowled about with his gas can, ranting over and over to the ever-gathering gawkers and rubberneckers how he was dealing with this woman here. “I’m only trying to…”
“Don’t you dare touch me…” She rose in demonstrable anger, brushing her hair back, dusting off the knees of her Claiborne pants.
She then scooped up her briefcase, pivoting to storm between hard-pressing sedans, hush quiet hybrids, smoky diesel delivery vans and clean-air articulated buses across Powell Street, with me flummoxed but closely in tow. We nearly got pincered between a Hyde Street cable car and clocked-out airport van.
“I really must be some kind of jerk magnet or something. You guys never cease to amaze me.”
“Us guys? I’m not exactly the same dumpster fire…”
“Then that loser’s not your worry, is he,” she snapped, somewhat evasively, defensive shrapnel shredding through. “Save it for yourself, or for the Stein boys, our grabass politicians, or the stalker who just scalped his girlfriend. Or the swine who tossed his daughter off the Golden Gate Bridge. Talk about testosterone pollution—we should be calling in cropdusters to spread the Depo–Provera.”
“Now wait a minute,” I said. Once we cleared the intersection, traffic cemented the noon-hour gridlock in a snarly criss-cross weave. “I just thought you might need a little…”
“Okay, time out,” she heaved, eyeing me head to toe, from my down-market chinos to frayed blue oxford cloth to the scuff marks on my retread running shoes. She then set her wine cordovan case against the first trolly post across Powell. “Sorry about the tantrum, sir, but…”
“Me too, but hey, no problem,” I hastened, however caught short by her presumptive generational divide. “Seems you had your hands full over there.”
“Yes, well…” She refrained from looking back toward Gunner’s fiery performance art and Union Square—instead sizing me up, reaching some sort of summary judgment. “Look, I appreciate the gesture and all…”
“Don’t give it another thought. What’s that scenario all about, anyway?”
“Nada—just some old, spoiled leftovers that keep repeating on me.” The young woman looked to be a Marin bred Paltrow with a fresh, Gloria Allredy mind. She pulled and straightened the fine pinstripes of her double-breasted jacket, before stabbing firmly into an inside pocket, then handing me her business card.
“Sure…” I stuffed the new engraved eggshell card, which read, ‘Alison Paige-Warner, Attorney-at-Law’ into my shirt pocket without giving it a third glance. Hell, if she was this goddamn heartless, she had to be good in the dock. “But what about…you know…Gunther, there?”
“Listen, he won’t do anything further. Gunner’s never seen anything through in his life.” She picked up her attache, tapping her cell phone, checklisting herself for further damage. “Believe me, he’ll be TXTing, spamming my voicemail before I get back to the office…lotta good that T.R.O.s doing me.”
“R-r-right, well…” I peered back again where her eyes refused to go, still hearing him cry out, ‘Alison, lying Alison’ over the churn and grind of opposing trolly cables, the nearby thumping of asphalt whackers. “I’m Ken, Ken Herbert, nice meeting you this…way.”
“Pleased, Mister Herbert, call during business hours if you wish.” She turned to power walk her way up Powell Street toward Sutter, sneaking a glance over at Gunther with a quick wince and shudder, her pleated pinstripes flapping in the breeze. “I’ll pop for a thank-you coffee.”
“Hey, that’s not necessary, I…”
“Can you use the occasional cup, or can’t you?”
CHAPTER FIVE. Inflamed
passions take center stage,
until a hotter ticket
hits the scene…