Chapter 34

  “A hunger for resolution
may result in further
upset and dyspepsia.”

           “Be my guest, the more the harrier …”

          “Hi, I’m Melissa Saversohn, Denise’s friend…”

          “Sure, fine—mi casa, su casa. Bring on the tour buses, there’s plenty of room in the Hotel San Francisco.”

          “Uh, Denise’s room is back and to the right,” I motioned to Moon, bypassing Regina Tzu’s spirited hospitality.


VaporBonus: Chapter 34 prequel

Down time—cooling off period. A little situational shut-eye,
turn about. But a bloomin’ sectarian twist of faith
has him all but scurrying 
for provisions and relative refuge,
trying to unknow the hearsay unknown. 

(If) you must: Chapter 33.5, otherwise… minus key details…

          I had circled back to Denise’s place after my errand run, noggin as sodden as a Sligo peet bog. I’d blown off Dutch salads in favor of the conciliatory bagels and lemon-lime Calistogas, preoccupied with notions of what those Rectory blokes were actually cooking up, roots and all—and how I might swallow it or spill. Aww, probably was the booze talking, right? Just like it always was by my ol’ man.

           Conspiralling with that whole explosive mick trip was what I should otherwise say or do to reconcile with Moon, who had arguably transited from Mimas to Titan over the course of our heads-on collision. So well played, how she gained the upper hand with a full-blown diamond flush: Seemed I couldn’t break away, couldn’t stay away, either.

          Melissa had greeted me at the door moments before Regina Tzu returned from some of her Vedic vespers. A catnapped Moon quickly smoothed the waters with her organic, neighborly smile. She then said over our takeout bagelry snack that there was little she saw in Denise’s room that she hadn’t already painfully surmised—that Ms. Keiner didn’t belong here, either.  Moon knew her brainy grade school pal was on a recessive reel—that no assistantships, no further scholarships, no fellowships on earth could keep her from her duly appointed downs. 

          Denise had apparently chased her Wolverine gymnastic Vedonis out here to oblivion.  Naturally, he’d left her packing sand castles on some state beach north of Asilomar, before vaulting his way to Stanford’s fieldhouse.  So she was working through that, from a foam pad in the Richmond District to the retreatful shores and hillsides of Bahia, Mexico.  No big thing—even Regina Tzu, her ever-burdened and bothered silversmith roomie, aligned with Denise’s southern gravitational pull—razor sharp and sardonic as she presently was in her devotional black maxi-vest and flapping bell bottoms.  But this Thibeaux character…

          “Then what’s goin’ on here. I mean, like, where’s the scenario?” Thibeaux Cauler was clearly the oblique angle in Denise’s household triumvirate. How had she put it to Moon, the resident Rastafarian fuzzball on their woolliest of flings. “No sense gettin’ all stoked out about it, right? Han Loon’s got too much primo pork fried rice waitin’ for that…”

         Thus at Thibeaux’s invitation, we secured Moon bags in Denise’s room and piled into the squareback, bound for Chinatown, or wherever, leaving Regina Tzu to her own devices. I drew comfort from the diversion, although not nearly enough to quell the brain rage that seemed to be riding back in on that fog bank far down Fulton Street.

          “Yo, yeah—there’s somethin’ I’m supposed to be tellin’ you,” Thibeaux mused from center seat rear, elbows straddling atop both bucket seats. He was a spare, somewhat beguiling minstrel in hand-embroidered brown cords, a gold V-neck pullover and unraveling blue blazer. Slapping dramatically at his forehead, he nudged back his knit Afro scull cap, scrunching its rasty red, yellow, green and gold-layered bands to reveal a receding, close-cropped hairline. “Damn, it’ll come to me before we hit Russian Hill…”

          “Russian Hill,” Melissa balked, though not daring to look over her shoulder—hunger pangs having set in, fore and aft. “I thought we decided on Chinese.”

          “That’s where Han Loon’s is,” he replied, tugging at his tangled beard, then laying several long-fingered taps on my shoulder. “Just cut across Park Presidio toward the bridge, dig? So we can shoot up Lombard Street.” Park Presidio

          “I heard the Russians and Chinese don’t get along, keep seeing red,” she cracked, as she jabbed my knee for some jerky response to her homespun stab at comedic relief. “Yuh, uh, ahh…” This time, I glared silently, checking my rearviews, lying low on the accelerator, skimming the traffic lights, as well.

          “Just do it, mah man,” Cauler urged, “before that fog snakes in here and freezes our sorry asses.”

          “Can’t have that,” Moon smirked, glancing over to me, as if gauging my vital signs, studying my shifts. She counted one-thousand-one to one-thousand-ten under her breath, then peered off again into the streaming Park Presidio traffic, at the overcrowded bus stops on most every block. “Now, can we…”

          Those vital signs were as obscure and constrained as the MacArthur Tunnel, as convoluted as the exit ramps curving off 19th Avenue to Doyle Drive. I rode hard and heavy along Crissy Field’s bayside perimeter through the Marina, across Van Ness to the Russian Hill climb—peripherally eyeing Syd’s place, not to mention the wiles of Lafayette Park. I twitched, fretted, muttered and flushed—seemingly all at once—reactions radically out-of-synch with the overwrought trickle of conversation, not to mention the blur of beauty and bull run traffic passing by.

Presidio, Doyle Drive          “There, cut over to Union, then right on Hyde,” Thibeaux spouted, with palpable reprieve, breaking between his sing along with the second and third stanzas of ‘That’s the way of the World’ on KYA radio. He was a gritty little tenor, somewhere betwixt Richie Havens and Lionel Ritchie, but with an amphetamine timbre to his voice that paced the boomy tabula riffing on my seatbacks. “Gotta get me one of them penthouses up there on Leavenworth.”

          I throttled rashly through converging cable cars, Melissa holding fast to her seat until we rolled to relative safety down Jackson Street. “Tsk, really, Kenny—you…”

          “Like, with one of them wraparound sundecks lookin’ out over Alcatraz…hey, that’s it—on the corner—where they’re lined up out the door. Man, there’s even a spot…there’s never a spot up here,” Thibeaux shouted, nearly crawling over the seatbacks. “You folks must be real karmic…”

          “Ask her about it,” I grumbled, as I backed lamely into the parallel space along Hyde Street. I rocked six times before leveling out, nailing an orange Morris Minor behind us, then crunching the purple Ghia up ahead. “Too damn tight…”

          “Tight?! Kenny you knocked off that guy’s bumper guard,” Moon swiveled for and aft. “What’s with you?”

          “No problem,” I shut the Volks down.

          “But it’s just dangling there,” she insisted, after springing out of the wagon.

          “I said, no sweat, alright?!” Before I could lock off the ignition key, a radio news brief led with reports that beyond an IRS investigation into Peoples Temple finances, Jonestown defector accounts had recently alleged an increase in Jim Jones’ White Night’ paranoia scrambles—complete with faked deaths, punch bowl truth tests and firearmed formations—along with more toxic ‘sexual servicing’ marathons and ‘Revolutionary Suicide’ exercises. None of this had been verified, however, by either the U.S. Embassy or Guyana authorities. Details at the top of the hour…

          “Strange trippins’, ain’t that right,” Thibeaux echoed, crawling out Melissa’s door. “But everybody crunches everybody in this town. “Just sceeve’ em and leave ’em be…”

          Moon riveted me, but I stood gazing away vacantly across Hyde. Then I dawdled well behind as Thibeaux obligingly escorted her to line’s end. Han Loon was a simple won-ton and guy pan parlor of brimming local legend. A one-time corner grocery anchoring a squash yellow three-story Victorian spin off, this shoeshine stand of a storefront had sprouted into THAT secret little soy palace, which newly ordained natives suffered unbearably to hip their way into.

          “How long’s the wait,” Moon buttoned up her wool car coat, not nearly so euphoric as those now gaining on the door.

          “Hey, who knows,” Cauler grinned, tugging in on his lapels as a westerly gust tore up Jackson. “Ten, half-hour, maybe…”

          “Come on,” she groaned, “there must be a zillion Chinese restaurants here…”

          “Not this good, or this cheap,” he countered, “or stone uncomfortable.”

          CLANG, CLANG, squeesh, clang,clang… An indisputable perk to this streetcorner vigil was the clattering, whirring Hyde Street line—an irrepressible procession of tourist-thick cable cars that turned Wharfward at Jackson. Raving, arm-waving ninnies dripping off each succeeding car were enough to stem one’s gluttonous urges in short order. But the kicker was they were doomed to tourist greaseries as sure as if they had been crammed into paddy wagons, however close their brush with this neighborhood Mandarin mecca.       Russian Hill

          “Brown rice, after my bagel, that’s all I want,” Melissa muttered, a full party of three squeezing out the front doors and two self-styled New Age Asians slipping in. “Bet they don’t even have that. Honestly, it can’t be worth all the hassle. I’d never make customers wait like this at my Coach Light Inn back in Boulder.”

          But she seemed more hassled by me, and the way I’d shuffled aimlessly across the street. She spotted me circling the squareback like a smog inspector, picking up that bumper guard, setting it carefully on the Minor’s hood. I then wandered toward the third storefront up from the corner—was that a laundromat, or what…but spun back around.

          “Awww, where’s your sense of adventure, missy,” Thibeaux hooted.

          “I’ve had my adventure for today, thank you…”

          I finally legged alongside a creaking, turning cable car as if poised to jump aboard, but instead paused and tailed over to them as they matriculated to the head of Loon’s long, famished wait line.

          “What was that all about, Kenny,” she snapped as I returned. “You were sniffing around there like Seamus for a tree.”

          “Just checking out the bumpers…and stuff,” I answered, distant as that cable car climbing way up Hyde Street to the final Russian Hill ridge, then slipping otter-like down the far side toward Aquatic Park.

          “You’re the absolute limit, you know that?” Moon scowled, until Thibeaux split the different difference before him.

          “The fog,” he grinned, yanking down his cap in the breeze.

          “Beg your pardon,” she poked me in the ribs for some sort of rise.

          “It’s the fog…”

          “But there’s no fog over here! Kenny…”

          “No, man,” Thibeaux replied slyly. “The fog in the head, dig?”

          “Quick,” I said, “we’re next…”

          Han Loon’s corner table opened abruptly, a couple who’d choked on their fortune cookies finally caught the waiter’s pushy sneer. They looked to be art school émigrés with a severe tea fetish, and possibly the only reason they left at all was that Number Two Loon had sealed off the water closet with a solid stack of rice sacks.

          “Please,” the young, white-coated waiter beckoned.

          “Excellent, table one,” Thibeaux grinned. “I caught The Juice spellin’ here once.”

          “What’s excellent about spilling Juice?” Moon said, hesitating before Cauler could smoothly take her coat and seat her.

          “Not juice, Moon,” I sighed, slumping into the corner windowsill bench. “O.J. Simpson, the football player…”

          “So what’s football got to do with fog, already?” She could play that maddeningly obtuse card whenever she well pleased.

          We bellied up to a front table that looked directly out to the cable car turn, as well as that laundromat across Hyde. Once the waiter covered us with menus and tea, the cause of that lengthy wait became abundantly clear. For Han Loon’s consisted of no more than eleven bridge-size tables with red/gold vinyl chairs jigsawed into an impossibly narrow dining configuration. The only breathing room was directly overhead—rotating fans and fluorescent fixtured, smoke inverted dead space that capped off at approximately 18 feet.

          “Wrong fog again, baby,” Thibeaux clucked, while pouring Cameroon into their creamer-like china cups. “This fog settles in over the mind, affects the thinkin’. Stomps in on elephants’ feet, messes up the enephrins and receptors, if you catch my drift.”

          “Tell me about it,” Melissa scoffed, again fishing me for leers, nods, anything but brain-dead receptors.

          Nevertheless, my eyes wafted off into the cellish backroom kitchen, where three generations of Loons prepped about the hot, smoky cubicle like fire ants having at a sticky caramel bun. Then, another bell-beating cable car drew me once more to the squareback and laundromat—those Speed Queens and that battered, coin-filching pay phone. Wait a second here

          “It’s a fatal affliction,” Cauler continued, tapping his index finger against his right temple. “Hits damn near every newcomer to San Francisco—clogs up the ol’ chimney—makes you lose your balance and perspective…even self respect, if you ain’t watchful.”

          “As in Denise,” Moon muttered. She followed my eyes across Jackson, spotting the Morris Minor’s driver as he soured and tossed his mangled bumper guard, kicked the squareback, then pulled away. “Or…”

          This wasn’t right, I stewed silently, glancing one table over to a nurse leafing through the day’s Clarion. The newsrag heralded a front page City Hall probe on how, barely weeks after their swearing-in ceremony, newly elected Board Supervisors were already busy drawing divisive lines—beginning with Districts 8 and 5. Christ, gimme some news I could use

          “Denise, for sure! S’like regular normal people fall into this killer funk—just float on ’round with foghorns blarin’ in their ears. Hey, I know—happened to me soon as I got here from St. Loo. Ya’ ozone out and the days just truck on and you be hangin’ out with just you and your foghorns. Some folks never gets past it…”

          “St. Louis,” she warmed, finger ringing her tea cup.

          “Sure, that be Tara, baby,” Thibeaux grinned, between cooling sips. “The arch, Leclede’s Landing, West End Gaslight…”

          “We’re from Chicago originally, like Denise…”

          Hell with Chicago, I brooded.

          “Midwest, what it is,” he gushed, “Chi be cool, too…”

          “That’s not what Kenny thinks.” In truth, she appeared to be becoming too fretful to wonder what was tumbling through my mind. “He thinks it’s slow death.”

          It’s suffocation compared to here…

          “Well, at least there, not everybody’s shuckin’, coppin’ poses,” Cauler replied, drawing down his tea. “Either doin’ or getting’ done to. Why you think these chicks got me around? ’Cause they love my coily hairs in their bathroom sink?! Naw, I be just the handy man, unnerstand? Best to have one around. Denise got wasted one night and said I was like their liaison. Man, it’s more like three cc’s of Swine Flu vaccine or a humongous damn rubber. Me—I sees it more like their beacon in the fog bank. Those two chicks is so into chasin’ their tails, they don’t know what the hell really be goin’ down.”

          “So, what is going down?” Moon probed, however warily, as if thinking Denise couldn’t be…

          “No panic, sister. It be nothin’ like that,” Thibeaux shrugged. “They be way too flaked for my action. I just feels for ’em, that’s all, school ’em some on the R&B. And the crib’s basically copasetic, so sometimes I just crash on the couch.”

          Screw Regina Tzu, screw Denise! Gotta get out of thislessee, Heider’s Balance— if  A mugs B and B cuffs A, then C is impelled to…aww, screw that, too…

          The junior Loon soon scooted over, sieving between nearby tables, teapot and pad in hand. “Ah, you order, yes?”

          “Now, Chin,” Thibeaux winked, closing his red vinyl menu cover, passing it over to Melissa. “In the now…”

          Now, for sure…so San Fran’s not my speed? I dont belong, huh?  Then what about reaching my damn potential here?!

          “Ewww, I don’t know,” she wriggled, picking at her front teeth with her half-chewed fingernail. “Just a little sliced chicken with the rice. Kenny?”

          “Kenny, KENny,” Cauler mocked, poking my menu.

          “No matter, really…” Christsake, I couldn’t help but stare at the laundromat. Especially given Han Loon’s red-tasseled décor, the mythical Mandarin gardens framed and plastered like Maograms all over the back wall. Those gardens…get out of these gardens…I can do anything outside here—skys the limit, dildo, anything less is just settling…

          “Wow, then allow me,” Thibeaux smacked, through his bramble beard, pulling my menu away at will. “Chin, let’s do the Cauler mix, what say? Start with the Sub Gum Yee Foo Won-ton, all around. Then, how ’bout some sides of Yang Chow Fried Rice, Sam See Chow Fun, Curry Beef with bean cake, Lychee Chicken and Mushroom Chow-Yuk—all right? Oh, and some crispy fried oysters with the won-ton.”

          “Yes,” Chin Loon beamed, scribbling furiously.

          “Is that as much as it sounds,” Melissa gasped, “we…”

          “Hey, baby, no panic,” he eased, flinging the menu back toward me. “I got some col-lat-er-alll…”

          Stop calling her baby, you…aww, what the fuwait—things were all settled; now they’re not..I can do this, why else would I come back…yeah, over there

          A quick, precision kitchen drill, and the won-ton was in the now, replete with wrapped chopsticks and those stubby, flat-bottom plastic spoons. As Thibeaux ladled the steamy soup and Moon hand wrestled her sticks, I cut one last glance at the laundromat, sprang from my bench, and suddenly was the wind. “Just whatever she’s having,” I muttered, darting out the door. “Back in a sec…” Moral dilemma, moral hazard, moral failing—dissonance run wild. No choice…got to do this… got to do this now…be the best I can be, gotta make this right before it’s too late

          “Kenny?” Melissa dropped both chopsticks onto her plate in disbelief. She focused on me—as if to stop me in my tracks, remote control. She looked like a mother losing her first-born to pre-school, fearful and abandoned. “Must be feeding the meter,” she smiled awkwardly, fiddling with her sticks amid the noodles and water chestnuts.

          “What meter,” Thibeaux asked, watching her wrestle her sticks from the chicken fried rice. “Not in this ’hood, not here on lower Russian Hill  today anyway.”

          I raced broken field across the intersection, dodging the inbound cable car that lurched along Hyde Street, not to mention the Renault squeezing past its blind side. Moon watched me bereftly as I stood off the honking LeCar, kicking its front bumper before storming into the coin laundry. I watched her watch me, our eyes clashing defiantly across Hyde as Thibeaux motored on over his Chow Yuk. Then, contact lost—distance building between us as if through an extending zoom lens. It all played out before me as I reached for that pay phone. The vision became even clearer while I fumbled for nickels and dimes in my pockets. Make that call…you gotta make the call, asshole…dial the damn phone

          They seemed to shout it a cappella in my ear: the old Vietnamese woman from her second story window overlooking Jackson Street; the Chinese kids chasing one another down the block, the Turk watching his Doberman hike leg all over that scrawny curbside tree. Operator, operator…push those buttons…reach out…make that call. Palms drenched, finger trembling, I popped the coins and played my tune. The phone call of my life rang repeatedly with no audible relief. Be there, be there for me, goddammit…be there for me one more time!!!


          “Finally! Thank God…”

          “What? Who is…”

          “Sydney—oh, Christ, Syd…it’s me!”

          “Kenneth,” she replied flatly.

          “Syd, listen. That wasn’t me talking before, you know that! I just did the spiel for Moon’s sake. You know, ease her down. I mean, I owe her that before…”

          “Before what, Kenneth, before what? There is no what.”

          “Syd, honey…we’ve gotta talk this out…”

          “God, you’re really sick, you know that?!”

          “Sydney, come on!”

          “Come on, nothing,” she raged. “That wasnt how this was supposed to go, flash. You blew it royally, sold me out because you weren’t man enough to do the right thing when everything went down. And here I was, thinking you’re the one, a real tzadik, when you’re really just a little worm like Martin Kavalla. Who knows what the devil else you are capable of? Hmph, come on…if nothing else, you owe me—you owe me big time! And I’ve half a mind to bill you at the first of the month.”

          “What? Our plans, our future, we…I’ll do anything for our everlovin’ cause…”

          “Otherwise, just do me this. Get out of my life, okay?! And Kenneth? This time make it stick.”

          “Sydney,” I cried. CLICK. Bzzzzzzzz. The washers and tumble dryers rumbled in my head as I dropped the receiver. I inhaled a lint clot of clean clothes and stale detergent on my way out the door, to a cable car of laughing, waving tourists turning toward me off Jackson Street.

          “Look out, fool,” the grip man shouted, levering his car onto Hyde. The whirring and clacking cables chewed through my mind like tandem chainsaws, drowning even the steel-on-steel gnashing of the outbound car’s antiquated wheels. My gut wrenched tightly at the hot, thick odor of Chow Fun and Ginger Beef from Han Loon’s kitchen vents. How I avoided being nailed by the passing Pinto, I didn’t know.

          I glanced back past the laundromat to my Volkswagen. Might as well run, might just as well hop into that heap and split altogether. But another inbound cable car rattled around the Jackson Street curve, drawing me once again toward Han Loon’s, to the window where Melissa stared me down.

          “Kenny, what is it,” she asked anxiously, the moment I shuffled dead weight into the restaurant. “Sit here by me…”

          “Hey, man,” Thibeaux glanced up from his Chow-Yuk. “What’s shakin’?”

          “Nothing,” I grumbled, taking my place back on the window bench. “Had to call the VW dealer, make a service appointment, that’s all. But they were already closed…”

          “Tsk, here,” Moon sighed, knowing better, filling my plate with bean cake and Curry Beef. “You look like you could use some service yourself.”

          “Phone call, that’s it,” Thibeaux snapped to, as if coming out of a ganja fog, mushrooms dropping like flies into his Cameroon. “You had a phone call from your father. Regina Tzu gave me the message…”

          “Yeah, well,” I asked, watching him fingerpick them out of a much too tiny cup. Dad…calling? My dad never calls anybody

          “Uh, let’s see,” Cauler frowned, before stabbing at my beef for inspiration. “Oh, right…it’s your ol’ lady, man. Something about she’s suddenly not hittin’ on all eight, understand? I think he wants you to call him, like right away…”

          “Really,” I melted, Melissa grasping my knee. Why the hell didn’t mom tell me about this when I called the other night?!

          “Would I lie ’bout somethin’ like that,” he replied. “Say, you gonna eat those fried oysters?”

Care for more?

Chapter 35. Another dubious decampment 
beats a path laden with past remorse 
and painfully present remonstrations…

End of Stage One.



“A pause that refreshes
could serve to re-stir some
moldering green stew.”

  “Cos no foul deeds go bleedin’ unpunished, ’tis why…

  “O’ Jaysus, here’s t’ poor Dan’l McCooey—waz inn’cent as the dayz long, alrigh…

   “T’was like kin—butta mere chil’, an’ the limey eegits beat ’im to a pulp in iz own hometown. Itz bin goin’ on abou’ a year now, don’tcha know—cheeses me off  like the way the treatin’ who the’ callin’ our Irish prisoners o war.

   Shaken and stirred, I needed a break in the action/reaction, a moment’s breathing room to calm my neural commotion; if not a measure of intrapersonal conflict resolution amongst an outside deliberative body. Jet lagged and sandbagged, Melissa herself longed for some catnapping—a little emotional space and separation. It was me-time to regroup, to pause and reflect—to reconnect, and retrace tribal roots—couldn’t hurt to get more core religion, if only for a momentary spell.

  So I had quietly eased Moon into Denise’s place, hanging on to her old friend’s keys, offering to go back out and hunts us up something to nosh on. Not daring to test Regina Tzu’s hospitality with the meaty aroma of piroshkis or Macs, I fully intended to scarf up some Van Hermann’s salads on Geary Boulevard, or a couple of conciliatory cinnamon-raison smears and Calistogas from that bagel house. Instead, I diverted and reverted, fighting off more Saturn amulet research up in Lafayette Park, steering toward a little post-St. Patrick’s cheer in here.

If the inner Richmond was essentially what remained of a Mission-style Irish ghetto, the Rectory Tavern represented its sacrarium, the best blessed altar of Celtic spirits this side of Clement Street, and I couldn’t get past its hellish titian facade. For better or worse, convened along this padded railing was a low mass of devoted worshippers from the single digits of San Francisco’s numbered avenues, though the fold on hand most resembled a regular friary—playing the lottery, scribbling Racing Forms, paging through the Irish Herald, rolling the bones.

Parked along Geary, I had basically genuflected and shoehorned onto a black backed stool around the mahogany bar’s rearward bend, aside these two ruddy, shaggy, rugby-shirted hardnecks. Niall and Declan sounded as if being recently off an Aer Lingus red-eye, acclimating and commiserating over the jet lag, pint by cream heady pint. Bygone rucksack Vasques on the Ol’ Sod told me from their northern brogue that they were Ulsterites fleeing to the States, bitter Republicans backpacking their Troubles along with them. Could have been Provos, splintered OIRAs or IRSPs, over to plumb the U.S. shamrock pipeline for the Old Country cause. Although that was beginning to sound best case, at best.

Ay, speet on ’em, Niall—an suure, lik’n th’ say, revenge tis a dish served sweet an’ cold,said Declan, as they partook of their virgin mother’s milk, coming via Harp Lager and Guinness Stout. “But howayeh ’spectin’ t’ evin’em back, mate—wha’ yer plan?

 “Shi’e, tis too late t’ manky the Queen’s jubilee, alrigh’,Niall replied, with a tip of the mug. “Mebbe can’t do annythin’bout makin’ tha’ feckin’ gowl Paisley disappear from way ove’ here, either…

“So how’d yeh figure t’…

 “Not t’ fear, gobdaw. I’ve heard that oul’ baldy Callaghan himself migh be comin’ across on official blame holliers some time this year. Saw o’ the telly the stupih spanner’s aimin’ for some commem’rtive fald’ral on Battl o’ th’ Boyne Day this summer, o’ somewheb’tween tha’ an’ Poppy Day later in November. Boyne Day, boil o’ me bleedin’ arse—we’ll gi’ im somethin’ t’ r’member.

  Nunnamybizness—not me, couldnt be—eyes dead ahead: I swallowed hard on the down draft, soaking in Rectorys raging ambience. The pub remained awash in aprés St. Patricks Day revelry, Guinness pennants and Bushmills bunting all about the place, harboring a snifter of overcooked CB&C. Its backbar was a high, hatched wall of Irish whiskey, rye and Heather Wine: Wild Geese to Glendalough Malt to Midleton Rare and Jameson Gold, Baileys, Irish Mist and a wee dram of Drambuie sweetening the arch-faced, beveled shelves.

Gracing the broader barroom were large, huge Tricolor flags, a coast-to-coast team of squadron of rally towels, from USF to Notre Dame and Bostons Celtics framing centered tabernacle—from which flowed chalices of hopped-up holy water like Smithwicks Ale and Beamish Stout with a Feinian touch, and patens of mini pretzels and crisps.

My eyes skirted about mounted photos of a Cork-Kerry football showdown, hurling in Dublin’s Croke Park. Lining the walls like Stations of the Cross were landscapes of Hags Head at sunset, the Rock of Cashel, rainy Lough Leane, sun-spotty skies over MacGillycuddy’s Reeks and the Gap of Dunloe. War lording over us stood framed sepiatone portraits of Colbert, Connolly, O’Hanrahan and even Michael Collins, freedom fighting guerillas ‘Punisher’ Dan Breen and Tom Barry, with a wretched, ink-stained wink to Joyce and Padraig Pearce.

The Prime Min’ster? Comin’ t’ where?”  They sucked down their sacraments in unison.

Ay, the very same lib-lab queerhawk wha’ just ordered more Britz troops into the North, t’ help gang up the RUC and UDR agin’ us,Niall said, aiming to wash down a pretzel with another deep draw of lager. “Comin’ t’ San Francisco here, yet. So coul’ be we can whack his crook’d Cardiff arse whe’ the bollock’s bloody live.

Ou’ an’ em revoltin’ UFFer fuckers,Declan lifted for a chug of the black stuff. “Y’ mean like a’ the University of Ulster hit?

Only bigga’ an’ bett’, mate—spot on target. Wha’ say we plant in ’nothe’ garden, this time the Britz pat’et’c Counsel General’s place. Itza posh gaff i’ the P’cific H’ites, no less…” 

 “Jaysus, up there? How i’ blazes yeh fancyin’ t’ pull tha’ twister off?”  Declan whipped out and tapping firm a crumpled back of filterless smokes.

No’ me exactly, Dek, more like me an’ Ronan Corrigan, who jus’ happen’ t’ know Finnerty, who works w’ a bloke frum down Kerry way, runnin’ a storge barn here in town. Finn tis a hungry, undergrown’ chum by way o’ Armaugh, h’ is—who lost a cousin t’ the cause. Britz foot patrol plugged ’im in Derry. Yah, Ronan knows him personal…so ther’ y’are.

  “God bless ’is seethin’ soul,Declan finger scraped Stout head from his upper lip. “So I s’pose you be plannin’ t’ storm the spread or…

  “No, stupih, oney a one off, nice an deadly clean—make the Poppy Day go bloody pop, crash the garden party, thas wha.

“O’ yis smashin’im when i’ counts, eh? Wha’ a masta’ plan…

  Oh, Christ, not Armaughdon’t go dragging Armaugh into this, nothing wrong with Armaugh, ’cause dad’s kin’s from County Armaugh, bloody Scots-Irish, Jacgot that right…wait, that wasnt to say I actually cottoned to the Prods for godsakes. So where the hell did that leave me?  High corner loudspeakers blared Thin Lizzy over the Rectory’s smoky pool and foosball tables behind us, Boomtown’s ‘Rat Trap’, some upstart numbers from no-names calling themselves U2.

It all had me reliving that Crosshaven folk festival full of Mickey McConnell and Christy Moore, scoops of local poteen, waking up in a dairy barn loft outside Skibereen—hitching and hoofing it over the Gap to pastelorful Killarney, meeting up with gladsome Kerry folk, mom’s people, sure and begorrah. Yet this brogual blarney here was presently steering me back more toward the drab bombed-out, boarded-up storefronts of Newry,  RUC gunpointers chasing me out of the Europa Hotel lobby 20 minutes before Bloody Friday rocked Belfast’s City Centre. Nasty business, that; nastier still right here: these guys had me re-waking to those furtive young IRA gun runners vanning me into their Bray hidey-hole all over again.

Def’ny fair play an’ square, presheh ’em t’ smithereens,Niall grinned, toasting his Harp, side-eyeing me with a suspicious warning glance—tossing some change into a bartop NORAID offertory bucket. “Who knows, mebbe oul’  Jimmy Carter’ll be ther—tha’ banjaxed wanker preachin’bout don’ givin’ no money t’ us Northern Irish. Well, God bless Dan’l McCooey, here’s to the Cause!!” 

 “Wha’ever, ’cept tha’ sound like jus’ y’ be spoutin’ off, Niall,Declan gestured to the barkeep for two more jars, as they fired up a couple of Sweet Afton fags. “Yis talken ou yer bloody hat, alrigh…

  “Oh, ya? Try me—done already scoped ’er ou’, learnt the ropes, mate. Tis a statl’y oul’ Tudor Revival job on a big gardened lot—prime for snookerin’ an’ sabotage. Meantime, Ronan an’ his rollin’ pin manage some movin’ lorries, we ca’ hook on w’ em. So shut y cake-hole an pull yer socks up, mate, lets git o th yokes. Suure as Bloody Sunday, as God’s me witness, God save Ireland, God save all o’ it!”   

Whoa, incendiary sabotagethey couldn’t have been serious could they? Pray tell, I didn’t actually hear that, did I? Wasn’t really a party to all this? Aww, it must have been just the brew talking, or the brew taking it in. Anyhow, I wasn’t one of those blokes myself, right? Maybe I did bleed Tricolor on occasion, but rifles and bushwacking and things that go boom—no bloody way.

I for sure wasn’t running any rifles, wasn’t loading gelignite into baby buggies and blowing up bank branches or postal stations. Didnt have that in me, did I, or did I? Could have been their way of talking about Gaelic football scrums at McLaren Park and the like, with something getting lost in the transliteration. Or maybe I was just hearing things, hearing voices, disembodied voices—yeasty voices, Yeats gone terribly mad. Had to have been the pints talking, if not just the bloody North. In any case, nothing brewing, nothing tapped: I couldn’t do anything about any of it anyway; had my own wrongs to right in the sour here and now, as in wondering what else Moon and Sydney had sorted and/or shouted out loud.

Still, the grudgy guff and gee-eyed pipedreams left me sipping my Courage in silence for the moment, down for the cause in theory, but scared increasingly shitless, bious and jaundiced—proud and petrified, tugged and torn, inherently borderline—feeling so halved and quartered, game skin mottled somewhere between green and orange.

Couldn’t quite tune them out, wasn’t about to turn them in— particularly for mere beeranting about some sketchy munitions planting. Guess I could grasp their passion, just couldn’t handle their playbook. Really didn’t need this pissing match now anyhow; but I sure as hell did need to hit the throne and bricks—reconfigure an aborted lunar landing, not to mention any personal cratering that ensued…

Care for more?

Chapter 34. This reframing and nod
toward reconciliation prompts an
awkward place setting, then a
heartburning turn of the tables…




“When caught between converging 
forces, it is seldom easy or thinkable 
to split the difference.” 

             “Sydney’s roost…speak or be spoken upon .”

          “Uh, Syd?”

          Kenneth, fantabulous,” she cooed, “I’ve been waiting all alone here for you to call…”

          “Syd, we’ve got to talk…”

          “I know, I know, sweets. How did it go? I blew my parents away, but after some megahassle, I think Faith is behind us. That means Daddo will fall in line by tomorrow at the latest. After 20 some years, she can still work her overnight miracles. So, what about Moon?”

          “That’s what we’ve got to talk about…”

          “And I want to hear all about it, love…say, over dinner?”

          “No, uh—let’s make it soon as possible, okay? Like, right now…”

          “What’s wrong, Kenneth,” she asked edgily. “Where are you calling from? Sounds like there’s a blade at your throat.”

          “Please, Syd,” I gasped, “could we do this right away?!”

          “Hmph, I guess,” she said, reading what she could into my persistence, though not nearly enough. “It’s just that I was about to do my stretching. Oh, what’s the harm, can’t stay away from me, huh?”

          “Be there in a…flash.”

           I slid back into the squareback as if it were rigged with C-4 explosives. The closest pay phone we could find was beside Golden Gate Park’s Conservatory, and Melissa had a splendid view of the baiting. She looked bewildered there in the car, a basically gentle, caring creature suddenly driven to a two-bit ambush. I at once pitied, hated and needed her desperately. Christ, at least maybe my head would soon clear, like this afternoon’s unseemly skies.                           Conservatory of Flowers

          “Was she there?”

          “Yes,” I sighed, nearly flooding a fouled, very cranky engine, pulling away sharply from the stunning white Victorian Conservatory of Flowers, fairly tousling its colorful beds and full, lofty palms in a cloud of fuelly dust.

          I begged for every red light in sight, for a blow-out, a molten generator, disengaging differential—anything seriously disabling—something on which AAA could run a major tab. I’d have circled the park and Presidio until Labor Day if I could have coped with the glacial silence, if my attention span wasn’t shorter than a Van Ness Avenue yellow light. My mindless click of the radio brought up some new Paul Davis single, ‘I Go Crazy’. Potting that down, my only immediate salvation was the inevitable dearth of parking around Sydney’s apartment building. “Hopeless, as usual. We’d probably been better off taking MUNI…maybe we should just forget this whole thing… ”

          “There, Kenny,” Melissa pointed down Franklin. “That van’s pulling out at the corner. Well, is that close enough or…”

          Oh, right. I was looking to wear tire grooves into the pavement three blocks in every direction, and this Econoline camper gets generous four doors from Verdun. “Shall we,” I muttered, helping her out in a rush of downhill traffic. She apparently felt no urge to reply.          Franklin Street

          “Here’s her place,” I nodded, as we approached Sydney’s Victorian. “Pretty nice, huh? That amazing goldish gingerbread trim…”

          Again, silence. Melissa fussed with a creamy garlic smudge on her muslin peasant blouse, then fluffed her full-length whortleberry print skirt. She was facing off with her spiritual sister, her femme ideal; the place might as well have been all but ablaze.

          “This is wrong, Moon. You know that deep down,” I moaned as we crossed Coastal Avenue and angled beneath the sidewalk awning.

          “Which floor,” she countered, approaching the brass-trimmed front door.

          “We’d better take the elevator…” I waved and smiled weakly at Ivar, who opened the door for us, then quizzically eyed Melissa all the way up to floor number three. We were otherwise dead still, stepping out onto deep pile green carpeting. I led the way over to 316, like two battlefield casualties at a VA Medical Center, the brown jumpsuited manager rheo-levering his birdcage back down to the lobby.

          “Who is it,” Sydney sang, soon after I banged her polished door knocker.

          “Syd, it’s me, Ken,” I blurted, inserting myself between Melissa and the off-white door. Moon slipped stiffly to the right, several steps down the hall.

          “Kenneth,” Sydney flipped the deadbolts and opened with a flourish, peekhole covered with Edie’s sunset poster of Mt. Hood. “I didn’t know who was knocking! How did you get in here soooo…”

          Before she could move nearer me, Melissa cut between us, quicker than a point guard, hair and hemline flying with caped rage. I was stunned by her lightning aggression—so totally unlike her—as instinctive and territorial as a litter-protecting cat.

          “Moon, what,” Sydney gasped, pushing at her door reflexively, as though holding back some serial rapist. “What’s going on here?! Kenneth…” she snugged her white robe sash at the collar.

          “How could you, Sydney,” Melissa cried, peddler-wedging into the closing portal. “You knew where things stood…”

          “Wait a minute here, Moon,” she searched, gathering herself. “Pardon me, but the trip out here was your idea in the first place, and I thought I was bringing us all closer together… Kenneth?”

          I stood there, alright, two steps from the crash site, but nowhere to be found. What else could I do but hand her the belated gift of Josh’s box, having recalled it being under the VW’s rear seat?

          “I sent you off with trust, you spoiled little witch,” Melissa screamed, in a voice six times her size. “Just had to do it, didn’t you…couldn’t let it be, wouldn’t just leave me be!”

          “Witch,” Sydney countered, snatching the package, otherwise yielding slightly her press against the gold-colored door moulding. “May I remind you where you are? I think you’d best leave my home this instant!”

          Huh? What did Moon mean, leave her be? What was with this deal jumping so many steps? They now met toe-to-toe in the doorway. I could do little but plaster myself back to the foyer, bracing for a blindfold and cadre fire.

          “Don’t I mean anything to you anymore,” Moon shrieked, tears streaking the rouge traces on her chipmunk cheeks. “Haven’t you the slightest shred of decency, for godsakes? You’re worse than your brother. Just let me move on with my life, will you please? I’m only trying to move on!”

          “Decency, to you? What about me,” Sydney shouted coldly. “And what about Kenneth. It’s got to do with us now, not you…”

          “No, wait a,” I sputtered.

          “Shut up, Kenny,” Melissa snapped. “This is between Sydney and me! I can’t believe you said that, you miserable bit…”

          “Oh, kiss off, Moon,” Syd recoiled. “If you were 100% there for him, this wouldn’t have happened—just like with Lester. Shit, sneaking out here, little Miss Gumdrop. Well, grow up. I know better and so does he!” She shot a venomous glance at me, nostrils flaring—sizing me up, probing my frozen face frantically for support. “Tell her, Kenneth. Tell her you can do so much better than the likes of…”

          “Oh, and that would be you, I suppose,” Melissa replied, shaken to the spine by the depth of Sydney’s vitriol. “Yyyou…the princess who couldn’t change a panty shield without Faith’s help!!”

          “Leave my mother—that’s right, my mother—out of this,” Syd volleyed. “Hmph, wouldn’t you love to know she’s behind our decision all the way. That’s how much you mean to her, toots. Blood’s thicker than charity, even with Faith—no matter the milk of human kindness BS, no matter who all’s involved. So you’d better stop with the bad-mouthing my heartsick brother, and haul your dumpy tush out of here before I brain you one.”

          “Oh, Sydney, dear God,” Melissa wept madly, somewhat bedazed by what she had just heard. “And you make it sound like Kenny was really a willing part of this…”

          “I beg your pardon…” Sydney explored Moon’s draining face, then glanced once more my way. I was still standing there, speechless, mummified, overbite puckering, the last man standing along the Maginot line.

          “That’s right. Kenny, tell her how ‘together’ you two really are,” Melissa sobbed. “Go ahead, tell her what you just told me. You tell her, you…you…”


          They both turned to me—two spent shells begging sustenance from the sole surviving source. But that source was far more depleted than either of them could have imagined. “I-I-I just don’t know what to tell you, really,” I despaired, shaking my head as though a cutting, distant coma had muscled in—I didn’t want this, dammit, did I really make way for this? “I mean, what do you want me to say?”

          “Kenneth, come on,” Sydney urged, snapping her fingers thrice. “Our plans, our common goals…how the little clinger here is holding you back. Our future together, dammit! Kenneth…Ken…”

          “By all means, Kenny, let’s talk about the future,” Melissa rallied. A quiver borne of restirred panic pierced the firmness of her intent. It was as if, for the first time, she couldn’t read my mind before I spoke it. And what did Sydney mean, ‘human kindness, no matter who all’s involved’?

          “Hold it now, just hold it,” I exploded, flailing my arms like a traffic bobby in Trafalgar Square. A lightening throb split my cranium, fore to aft, wider than the rift between Beijing and Taipei. For the first time, I couldn’t read my own mind before I spoke it. Best to say nothing; but at the moment, my best wasn’t good enough. With a henchman’s misgivings, I set my tongue free for all to witness, however terrified that the three of us would swing from every word.

          “Sydney,” I sighed, “whew, Sydney—I’ve never met anybody like you. Anyone so strong and determined, so totally gifted. Several months ago, somebody like you could only be a dream goddess with golden wings and brushes, that I could only read about in magazines. Christ on a crutch, how could I not respond…”

          “You said I was the best thing that ever happened to you,” Syd cried, somewhat gilding the lily. “You told me that, Kenneth, in the park…”

          “Kenny? What park?!”

          “No, uh, maybe that’s what you inferred, but,” I groped, both beautiful faces fixed on me, fawns in the headlamps. “Figuratively…I don’t remem…did I actually say that?! No, I—what I’m trying to say is…well…you’re way up here…”

          I motioned above my head, then below my waist, with leavened palms. My face contorted slowly as I spoke, from reasoned control to turgid apostasy to dark, wrenching resignation—a sinking barometer indicative of the low pressure deep within. “And I’m like, down here, you know? Face it, you’re outta my league, so stop rattling my cage, alright? You can’t just descend and flash all your damn freedom and resources at me, pumping me up with hot air. It’s not fair. I’ll accept that I’m some regular slob who’s gotta get out there and scrape. I know my place, for Christsake! And all your potential and possibilities aren’t gonna change that one iota.”

          “Kenneth,” Syd gasped, slipping a bit more behind her door. “I’ve not once wanted anything but the best for you, believe me.”

          “Well, just don’t. Don’t want anything for me, okay? I’m just lucky to have a great woman like Moon willing to take it with me—as it comes—all the crap and any good that slips through. You’re not real; she’s real! She’s been there, keeping me glued together, not twisting me all outta shape like you!”

          I gazed fearfully upon them, burning to hold both, incapable of touching either. Their images blurred together, then poles apart—in and out—transposing like fluid cells under a molecular microscope to the tabour pounding of my brain. Sleek and earthy, blonde and henna brunie, blue eyes and brown—mystifyingly exotic, if not Ashki and Seph.

          “Leave me be, I’m telling you! Just leave me the hell alone!!” The more I released, the more the throbbing took hold: a quickening heartbeat in a loudspeaker stethoscope. Suddenly, SNAPPPPPPP…like a lightning strike to the noggin.

          “I didn’t want this,” I wailed, eyes sinking to the floral hall runner, “I never…you think I wanted any of this?!” Think I’m getting some kind of buzz here? You’ve no right to rip me apart this way—divvying me up like found spoils. What do you two want from me?! No, stop it—stop it right now. I want out, outta here where you can’t tear at me. Swear I didnt want this, did so…Mother of God get me outta here…they’re vicious, hurting me real bad…don’t wanna stay no more…do too…wanna rest, a little nap…maybe some tea and toast, like before, mom, put on some of that singer you love—Vaughn Monroe, that Mario Lanza guy…crooning on our Silvertone radio…gotta, what’s that song they…that song…switch on ol’ Redhead Arthur Godfrey and Julius LaRosa…yah I Remember McNeil’s Breakfast Club, Hello America Paul Harveys ‘Page Two!…no, bullshit, turn that godblasted old radio down!!!

          “Kenny,” Melissa shook me, “Kenny, listen, settle down. It’s all right, everything’s going to be all right now.” She hugged me and shot a menacing glance at Sydney. “Look, just look what you’ve done to him!”

          Sydney reeled, thoroughly shocked by the cave-in. She clutched her own terror-stricken face at what came of this game, turned and fled crying into her room.

          “Hey, what’s all the racket,” Ivar shouted, his elevator meeting floor three. “My other tenants—I won’t have this! You quiet down or I’ll call the police…”

          “Begging your pardon,” Melissa said firmly, doors flapping up and down the hall. “But I think it’s all over here.” Ivar stood firm nonetheless, his loudly colored macaw stunned squawkless on his shoulder, ball bat at his patch-pocketed side. “Come on, Kenny.”

          “Air…cool out,” I mumbled, “can’t breathe…gotta get some air now…”

          “That’s it, why don’t you go on down to the car,” she soothed, easing me warily into the elevator.

          “He okay?” Ivar asked, quickly giving ground.

          “Of course he is,” Moon replied firmly. “I’ll meet you out front, Kenny.”

          “Now, downstairs, out front,” I rambled, clawing the black birdcage metalwork.

          “Yes, Kenny…in a minute. I’ll be there soon as I take care of some things with her.”

          She waited until the barred door scissored closed, and marched into Sydney’s, leaving me with a warm, encouraging smile, albeit marginally contrived. Ivar stared through me until the elevator began its descent—a gruff, contemptuous look that seemed one finger removed from 911. If Sydney hadn’t banked all her charm and…chutzpah, the SWAT teams might have already arrived.

          Instead, once past the lobby’s crystalline chandeliers, its full gold-framed mirror and cornices, I was greeted by a brisk late-day gale, the kind that carried rain squalls in from the Farallons on afternoons less brilliant than today. It braced me like cold creekwater across morning growth—those wonderfully clear, tranquil mornings along the Continental Divide that now seemed so many meridians away.

          I tugged my plaid Woolrich collar up at the ears, then headed along Coastal Avenue on miscalibrated instruments. Pausing before a storybook next door Victorian, I inhaled the red fuchsia, the scarlet begonias vining through its wrought iron picket gate and fencing. An elegant blue/white-on-gray Italianate style townhouse, it was one of the few 1860s-era homes on this block that survived the 1906 earthquake, as well as the resulting firestorm that was stopped cold at Van Ness. Today, the Tolbert-Dolan House’s tiny front yard was lush with ferns and dwarf trees; still its enduring street corner splendor did little to stem my inner flare-up right about now.

           By the time I reached Franklin Street, ecdemic, screaming voices crossfired my skull so intensely as to physically rock me backward and cauterize the slingshot throbbing, left and right. Tell me, Kenneth…yes, tell her, Kenny…the truth, Kenny, lay it on the line…which is it going to be, Kenneth…decision time, Kenny…stand up, stay here, come home…you can do it all here…what in blue blazes are you doing here…you’ve got what it takes, Kenneth…you dont belong here, Kenny…our plans, our future, Kenneth—I want…I need…you…no, I…you—focus, fool , if you’re chosen by the chosen people, choose wisely as you do…just don’t blow it again like you always do…gotta look out for number one for once, asshole… “Stop!!!!”

          Everybody kept pulling, prying, cracking open my cranium yanking at my whirling hemispheres with a gear greasy crowbar, splitting them like a stone chisel through modeling clay, a jackhammer blow from the inside out. Trauma, triage, Callosum compromised, drowning in cortisol, self-inflicted wound. Static synapses seared my pre-frontal cortex, crackled through my parietal lobes and limpic system like a plague of august fireflies and cicadas. Keep walking, go back, leave town, settle down—take Melissa, leave Sydney…dump Moon, hate…hug Syd, escape…go for…look out, that car…hell with that car…think, feel, flow with…drop it all for good…

          “Our Father, who art in heaven…Hail Mary, full of grace…”

          Those voices, where are those damn voices?! Kids, school prayer, church—that’s it, the courtyard, those blue Catholic uniforms…the nuns—black robes, the scapularies, catechism, CCD—ugly…chains, free, get free!! Honk, hoooonnnkkk…  Pacific Heights block

         “Hey, dildo, get off the damn street!”

          Honk you, car…kick your ass. Outta my way, man! Wanta get out but the skin wouldn’t give. Fight or flight, rewire into emergency mode. Nail that Plymouth grill…knock it to the water down there, to the hills. What’re those kids… basketball! In the gym…Center School gym, Coach Tyner, hoops, passing drills…homework to do…son theres been a mishap…yeah, ma, I heard them…out walkin’ Laddie? Get…double dribble…this block…stuff the goddamn trucks, smokin’ down Broadway…funky neon Great White Way…garbage scows, filthy goddamn buses. Walking Seamus in the mountains, over the Divide…church organ, Sunday mass, communion, blue suit confirmation—no, ma…toothache, stomachache, eyes rollin’ back in my optical chiasmas to the searing Occipital Lobe, everything starting to look like a Braque Cubist-collagist refraction. Quit it…the pounding jackhammers, chainsaw log trucks, stinkin’ up Van Ness…smelly ass dopers in the donut shop…outta here, yeah, you! No, turn the corner, turn the page…too many buildings, cars…Transamerica Pyramid rising behind Russian Hill like a tire spike to my pounding steel-belting hippocortex…there, palm tree…in the mountains…get back to that cool and clear…gotta go back up and find that bloody Satalisman…outta the way before I swallow my tongue kill somebody!!!

          “Kenny! Kenny, over here,” Melissa waved, a bit more disheveled, at least so it appeared.

          The sight of her stanched the rapids momentarily, a makeshift dam on a wind-whipped reservoir. She jumped up from Sydney’s front stoop and ran to me, cloaking me to ease the visible vise grip across my brow. “Are you all right? Oh, you look like…come on, let’s get out of here, Kenny…let’s go right this minute.”

          “Flatirons, Seam…”

          “Huh? Sure, let’s go home to Seamus and Pags,” she said, stroking my neck. “We’ll get us all together again. Tsk, I must have been mad to let you come out to this. We’re going back to Boulder, Kenny…California isn’t for you, San Francisco isn’t your speed one bit…”

          I marshalled the base clarity to drive us over to Denise’s, such was the quick, ValioBenzoHalcion balm of Melissa’s presence. No labels, nothing said: I had trouble enough interpreting the gyroscopic tremors in my eyes—those pinwheel green and kaleidoscopic signs. Seemed she’d already resolved to leave me be until Colorado, if necessary.

          Lord, she’d never even seen me like this. But then, none of us had seen any of us like this. For her, it looked to be megatonnage, and no telling what all was rotting in my crisper. Yet she hinted she had seen shades of that Sydney before: the night Lester announced their engagement, the night Syd played leary shadchan and devil’s advocate at the Mendel family Seder.

          Weaving across Fulton Street into Golden Gate Park, I suddenly honked and cut toward a passing Fiat, swapping obligatory gestures, cursing through locked jaws, so as not to re-release those torrents, but just one lucid, tenacious thought. “So, what did you settle with her…”

          “Say again?” Moon replied, as if somewhat startled that I could remember back that far. She flipped on the radio, the Little River band singing, ‘…You’re there when I need you, lady. Let me take a look at you now…’.

          “With Syd,” I muttered, rushing to turn that AM volume down, neither blinking nor shifting my stare until we re-passed Rainbow Falls. “You said you had to take care of some things…”

          “Nothing,” she sighed, “absolutely nothing.”

          “I’ve got to know, Moon…”

          “Kenny, please don’t…it was just between her and me.”

          “That so,” I fumed, as we curved around Stow Lake to Park Presidio. “Well, nothing’s just between you and her anymore, it’s all glopped together in one big swirling sinkhole!”

          “Okay, okay…just relax,” she squealed, unsure at this point to what no-man’s land any more outbursts might take me. She stared through her side window, picking baby redwoods out of patchy fir and pine, seemingly fighting one emotion that never figured into her relationships: mild panic bordering on outright fear. “One thing I suppose you should know about dear, sweet Sydney is her first thought after you left the hallway. Did she worry about your condition, where you were going? No, she just came out, shot daggers through me and said, ‘If he’s not mine, he’s not yours…he won’t be anybody’s now…’ God knows I’m sorry, Kenny, but that’s the kind of ‘goddess’ you’ve been dealing with.”

          “I can’t believe she…she’d never…”

          “I know her, Kenny. You don’t know her at all…”

          “Oh, shit, Moon, why can’t everything just be like before,” I grimaced, accelerating up Crossover Drive along the vast Marx Meadow, veering toward merging traffic from Transverse Drive. I dreaded the notion that nothing really got settled in my mind, after all. Did Sydney actually feel that strongly about it, about me? Me? Somebody that dynamite, that strong—somebody that talented and loaded for bare? Felt like the top of my brain was thinking ahead in overdrive, while the bottom scrambled and struggled to catch up.

          “It will be, I’m telling you,” she soothed, leaning over to me as we rounded the 25th Avenue curve. “Soon as we get ourselves back to Boulder…”

Care for more?

 Bonus Chapter 33.5: A sly, side diversion to  
the inner reaches finds any clannish refuge
pulled up short and shaken by the roots…

Or skip directly to Chapter 34 at your peril… 

 “Saturn’s action is to condense aqueous 
vapor and to excite tempests. When Saturn 
crosses the equator, the atmosphere 
is greatly disturbed.” A.J. PEARCE

 “Saturn aspecting Saturn tends to suggest 
a combination of individuals who bring 
out each other’s insecurities.”

           “…Airlines flight number 608 from Chicago with intermediate stops in Des Moines and Salt Lake City is now arriving at the B Concourse, Gate 35…Bradley Walker, Bradley Walker, please come to the white courtesy telephone, Bradley Walker…”

          “What are you doing here…tsk, how did you even know?”

          “I was just about to ask you the same thing…”

          “Well, are you going to take my bag, or do I have to drag it all the…”

          “Sure, Moon. Uh, so how was the flight?”

          “Well as could be expected…God, Kenny, what do you think?!”

          “I don’t know, hon…this whole thing sort of catches me, you know, by surprise.”

          Circuits activated, connections routed and fully linked: the instant Sydney went public with her mate accompli, Princess touch-tones tripped crossbars, overpowered relays, sizzled phone cables like detonator fusing from San Francisco to North Shore Chicago. Once Faith Mendel grasped the implications of her daughter’s latest border incursion, she lit up the Saversohn rec-room extension faster than pro-lifers on call-in talk radio. Therewith, Melissa’s dad signal-jumped microwave towers back across the Great Plains to Boulder, his shock and dismay trunking line-of-sight, transmitter to repeater to repeater—pre-empting party lines, aluminum siding solicitations, 911 if need be to voice his unmitigated support. This was his only baby out there.

          Trouble was, I hadn’t direct dialed with comparable dispatch. According to the damage-control pact, Sydney would ring up the folks from her place, and I would more or less conference in to Melissa from Denise’s. Only somewhere between the two, red light by left-lane red light, this emancipating little proclamation began weighing on me—emotional ballast, heavier than a ton of adulterated duplicity. Who knew that halo effect could have such a ripple effect? How could asana heaven turn into this yoga hell?

          About the same time, Mountain Zone, Moon recounted, she stopped baking long enough to hear, ‘darling, the clown’ll come around’ and ‘there, there, maybe they deserve each other’ from her father, with nary a clue as to the genesis of his outrage. ‘But, Melissa dear, you haven’t heard…’ finally frosted her, stickier than her latest cookies and buns. Then, when Edie had called her out of the San Francisco blue to shoot up a warning flare, Moon flew out of Stapleton International like Dutch Reagan out of early GOP primaries. The entire turnaround consumed six hours, if that: from Syd’s call to the searing voice message Moon let at Denise’s answering machine just before Denver takeoff to her touchdown at SFO. Witness the marvel of modern communication and space available transport under fire. Witness the depletion of current accounts.

          “Oh, Kenny—you are beyond belief, you know that?!”

          “Cool down, Moon,” I urged, wrestling with her convertible overnight bag, then wrapping my other arm about her tensed, shapeless shoulders. “It’s great you came like this, really…time you check out San Fran…why so sudden, I can’t figure, but…”

          “Are you being coy,” she replied, finding scant comfort in the immediacy of my embrace. “Or are you just being incredibly dumb?”

          “No, I mean it, babe. Maybe you’re right-on with this move, you know? We can sort everything out here and now…”

             “Bradley Walker, Bradley Walker, please check with United Airlines immediately regarding your baggage claim and Airdales, thank you.”

          “God, you are being dumb,” Moon said, dragging several steps behind me along the D Concourse in her precious woody clogs. “And how may I ask did you know my flight?”

          “I…uh…happened to call Boulder,” I winced over my shoulder. “Paul Verniere answered, of all people, said you were on your way. “So, what was he doing at the house?”

          “Oh, yeah…Paul,” she hesitated, rifling through her macrame purse. “Nothing, he was just looking in after Seamus and Pags and locking up… somebody had to…I’ll explain it all later.”

          Our forced march through the rush of ticket counters, standby lines, skycaps and rose-bearing Krishna seemed nigh on interminable. I fretted, she fussed, from the crab and sourdough bread stands along conveyor walkways shuttling us to Tier 3, Section G-18, where I was certain I’d parked the squareback. Or was it Tier 2, Section B-28… whatever, she paid.

          “Locking up, huh,” I said, dismissing Verniere altogether—rather a defensive move on my part as we finally chugged out onto Airport Drive. “See, the City’s welcome sign’s a cable car…George Moscone’s on there, the mayor clanging the bell…traffic’s not too bad. Better than Denver, or O’Hare…you leave the Toyota at the airport, did you? Look up at the hills there—where the fog’s rolling over. That’s because the ocean’s right on the other side, Moon…you’ve got to see the Pacific…ocean, bay—water, water everywhere…oh, you’re gonna love San Francisco, everybody does. Yeah, I’m getting more and more psyched you came out…hungry, Moon? Sure, after the flight, you must…Denise’s place is really nice, right across from the park…tell you one thing, it’s much better flying out here…gotta be. The drive’s a…oh, beautiful and all, but Nevada…”

          We were halfway up the Bayshore Freeway to Candlestick Point before word one came from the shotgun side, over the radio crackling of ‘Love Is Thicker Than Water’ by Andy Gibb. “Eat this, Kenny. Here, open—before your tongue implodes.”

          “Hmmm, terrific cookies,” I grinned, crumbs spraying across the windshield. “The best, like always…see? The ’Stick—Giants play there, big leagues…not right now, I mean…but they’re not that good these days anyway…” Christ almighty, how much did she know and when did she know it?!!!

          “They’re ginger pear. There I was, lining cookie sheets and stirring you two around in my mind when my father called…my fa-ther, Kenny—how absolutely mortifying! So let’s have it, what am I doing here? Better yet, what are you doing here?!”

          “Uh, depends on what you mean, ‘doing’, Moon.” Hell, I didn’t know. What was to do here? This whole thing was beginning to spin my beaters, too. Was I talking to her, or to her? I was supposed to know what was happening, with all this traffic merging right to left? It was enough just to keep a bead on the freeway—on those lane-grabbing tour buses up there, the ‘High Flyers from Solvang’, no less. “I’m sort of scoping things out, testing the waters, trying to set us up.” How did her fa-ther know so soon? Jesus, Syd! Lost in the slipstream and bus fumes, trapped between cruise and passing lanes, the squareback was rapidly losing ground.

          “Set who up?! You and who…”

          “Us, Moon, us…jeesh. Hold on, I’m going around this damn bus.” I gunned the Volks into the fast lane, lurching through Hospital Curve, past Potrero Hill’s cliff-hanging cottages, fighting off a hard-shimmying pull to the shoulder as a flip to the FM dial yielded a ‘Peacemaker’ track by Loggins & Messina.                         Hospital Curve

          Downtown’s skyline unveiled around the bend, as though from behind another massive tormentor wing. Houses and highrises alike glistened under clearing skies, BofA tower to the Hilton Hotel on O’Farrell; banks of brilliant cumuli mounded above Treasure Island and the Bay Bridge towers, snowy against a clear, stunning blue.

          “Never seen anything like that, huh? I tell you, this place is as near to paradise as a city can get…” I punched and clicked off ‘Fly Like An Eagle’ on the Blaupunkt—where was that coming from? Since by now I was about as soaring and chipper as clipped shorebird.

          “So, which us is us?”

          “Come on! You see what I’m saying here, or what? Man, after Chicago and Denver, you’d think…”

          “I’ve nothing against Denver,” she said, staring toward me, yet several degrees northward, in the general vicinity of the San Francisco Mint… though she appeared to care not a Susan B. Anthony for the view. “You’re the one…the Rockies are much more to my liking. Even Chicago—I think the Lake Shore can be beautiful in the spring. Things are stable back there, solid. The important things…anyway, what do you expect me to think under the circumstances?”

          “Watch, I’ve got to cut over or we’ll end up in Oakland,” I sighed, scanning my mirrors: cluttered Buena Vista hill, the abandoned Hamm’s brewery, anything to avoid her silver dollar eyes. “Think? About what?”

          “Look, I didn’t come out here for guessing games,” Moon replied, pulling her flowered muslin collar tightly around her neck. “My father is wigging out long distance, telling me about Sydney’s edict. The phone pops off my shoulder and a whole morning’s cookie sheets ricochet all over the kitchen floor! Now you just tell me about us.”

          I followed 101 North’s lower freeway lanes as they wound past the Market-Van Ness triangle, then tailed off for the Fell Street exit. This drab double-decker stretch, no treat the first time I drove it, was hardly a breeze right now. “Believe me, Moon, it gets better. We’ll be at Denise’s in a…flash…”

          “Sure, fine—good thing Denise is out of town—you’d probably have hit on her, too…”

          “Hmph, let’s just get settled in, OK? Then we can talk all night.” That’s it, maybe buy a little time through Golden Gate Park. “Bet you’re up for seeing her place, you won’t believe her roommates—a crazed silversmith and…”

          “Kenny, you know how I get when things get weird. The airplane food was posterboard.” A bumpersticker up ahead read, ‘Don’t Get Mad, Get Even’. For Moon it could easily have gone, ‘Don’t Get Even, Get cookin’.

          “By all means, hon…I saw this unbelievable spot on Geary, near…”

          “I don’t need unbelievable, I need good, and fast.” Melissa should have been 225 lbs., but weighed in at a steady 98¼. Nerves gnawed it away. She called them her psycho-emotive tapeworms, something she conceptualized in Repressive Psychology 201, that summer she scrounged for an elective to nudge her through her BA degree.

          She didn’t exactly burn along the pre-professional track. Father was footing everything; her initial career move was a quick right to the altar with Lester Mendel. And now look where that got her—which she hinted she’d been doing mid-flight, from tea over Telluride to cocktail nuts over Livermore.

          “Trust me, at Van Hermann’s, I’ll bet we’ll get the full treatment.”

          “Trust you, huh,” she rubbed her elfin fists into her eyes. “That’s what got me into this slough in the first place.”

          “I think most of it’s in your head, really,” I said. Hell, what was I to know what was in her head? I hadn’t a clue what was in anybody’s head at this point—especially little Ms. Darling of the Phonewaves across town.

          Van Hermann’s was one of the few choice legacy eateries left standing among Geary Boulevard’s increasingly minor franchise fare, if by nothing else than the sheer force of its identity. A delicatessan—not kosher, not German—more your basic Hollander, down to wine, wooden shoes and neon windmills. Its storewide deli case disgorged smoked turkey, cheese blocks and tray upon tray of multicolored salads. Artichoke salad, celery root salad, carrot raisin salad: Salads for health, for vigor and happiness—mixed salads and Kaasplankje too rich, varied and caloric to deny.

          Dark ryes stacked neatly atop the counters, elephant salamis swayed from thick overhead hooks, leading hungry eyes to the menu board and dike-to-dike tulip garden murals, which framed the place in ersatz tradition and lore. While Melissa tiptoed past the salad case, I lost myself in the beer cooler, among the AASS BOK, Alten Munsters and Dinkel Ackers, struggling to gauge what in fact was happening here. What was she bound to accuse me of, and with whom? Although on that last point, there was little room for choice.

          I ordered Bal Gehakt with Mortadella on pumpernickel from a round, red-cheeked Hummelware maiden, and instead twisted the silver foil off a Dortmunder Ritter Brau—as I had so often in the musty stubes of Heidelberg.

          “What you having, hon,’ I asked, drifting over to pinch Moon’s waist, between modest crocheted drindle bulges.

          “Gonna dabble,” she replied, with a twinge of anorexic anxiety. “Some cole slaw, a fish cake and a little bit of Ambrosia. Oh, and maybe just a crème soda or something. Now, what did I tell you about meatballs, and those pickles, ugh…”

          “Six seventy-five, bitte,”  the cashier said, in a strept, wintergreen-lozenged Marlene Dietrich.

          “Uh, here,” I fumbled for my wallet.

          “Wait,” Melissa countered, “this’ll be Dutch…”

          “Awww, Moon, always the joker,” I gushed, sensing an opening. No joke. We each paid, and toted our respective plastic trays like strangers in a midtown Automat, over to Van Hermann’s small luncheon alcove, to a blue-checked corner table with matched Grolsch bottles, sprouting red silken tulips and crossed sandwich pick Dutch and American flags.

          “I’ll thank you to help me with my chair,” she said flatly, as she presumed a window view.

          “Great joint, huh?” I replied, settling in across from her. I bit deeply into my meatball sandwich, jaw muscles vising around the pumpernickel tighter than a metal compactor in a South City industrial park.

          Tough and getting tougher was the task of meeting Melissa eye-to-eye. So I instead browsed Van Hermann’s murals: canal-side picnics, wooden-shoed Hollanders in faux finished gardens; rotund Dutch burghers in their wein stubs, puffing long-stemmed pipes among kasks of sherry and tawny port. The sun-bleached paintings thrust me back on that overnight express to Amsterdam, with mammoth windmills sweeping the early morning sky. I wanted to share that so with Moon, but she never cared to look beyond the ‘here we be’. So anchored, so homey, so plodding and Midwestern methodical: Truth be told, it made me want to slit her bowlines but good sometimes.

          “How’d you find it?” she asked, barely tearing away from her chilled Ambrosia, save for glancing humbly at nearby patrons. “Oh, of course—you came her with her…”

          “Naw, I just passed by once.” As I gazed out Van Hermann’s front windows, images of her red Fox flashed by, Sydney waving from behind the wheel, on yesterday’s drive to the Cliff House. The slight misspeak made me wince. Our relationship had never been Harlequin, but at least it was honest. Strangely, that mere thought, those solid memories, shored my levees some in the here and now.

          “Really, you had the time, did you?” She shot a stare at me, then returned to the consumptive security of her cod.

          “Come down off it, Moon. What’s important is what’s happening…the damn potential. California’s not like Colorado, and for sure not like the Midwest. Anything’s possible here—this is the wide-open west, sky’s the limit! Hell, a person can do anything, be anything…it’s so fresh and dynamic…not cowtown or played-out rusty like back east. You know how I’ve been floundering—hey, not here, I can just feel it.”

          “So tell me, what is it you really feel, Kenny? Talk to me for once…”

          “I don’t know, maybe like breaking into something totally different,” I continued, washing down some courage with my Dortmunder. “Just because my degrees are in Sosh doesn’t mean…I’ve even been thinking of going it on my own.”

          “Doing what?! Like I told you before, there are things we need,” she pointed with her slaw-filled fork. “We’ve bills to pay…”

          “I’ll work it out, in time. Seriously, I think I could maybe clean up as a photographer or something. It’s so visual here, and all…”

          “Photography? Sweetheart, you’re confusing you career with hobbies. How are you going to cover your loans taking pictures? Now taste this cole slaw.”

          “Well maybe if you…I mean it could be a whole lot easier if you just got behind me on this thing, like…”

          “Wait a minute,” she said, pulling back the unrequited slaw. “This isn’t you talking, you wouldn’t come up with something this haywire on your own. It’s Sydney again, god!”

          “Naw, bullshit, Moon—I’m perfectly capab…”

          “You’ve already told me what an influence she’s had. Power, I think you put it. Tsk, you weren’t joking, were you…”

          “Believe me,” I said, ripping into some more Ritter Brau, as if late for the final strassenbahn to Taylor Kaserne, Mannheim for bed check. “Sydney’s got nothing to do with this.”

          “Oh, talk about ground bull,” she snapped, self-consciously stabbing at my Bal Gehakt. She was loath to raise her voice, a personal violation of her post-marital vows. She prided herself in her equanimity since the screamathons with Lester Mendel. Casual, dispassionate calm—that’s what she valued most about our relationship—keep it cool if it killed her. “Please, Kenny, I’m not nearly as dense as all that.”

          “Look, I don’t know what your father told you, or what whoever told him told him, but…”

          “Come on, you’d know better than he or I,” she hissed, pushing away her Ambrosia, the entire plastic tray. “After all, you got it first hand.”

          “Jesus,” I slumped, chugging the Dortmunder, then slamming the slender green bottle against Van Hermann’s artificial tulips. “Maybe we should get out of here.”

          “Tot ziens,” the cashier waved stiffly, muscling over to clear our florid vinyl placemats.

          “Yeah, you too.” I ushered Melissa brusquely out toward the squareback, parked two storefronts down. “Hell with it, we’ll take the scenic route.”

          We rolled stormily up Arguello Avenue, missing Denise’s by a good twenty blocks. I goosed the Volks up around Golden Gate Park’s arch, then onto Conservatory Drive to JFK—UC Medical Center and Twin Peaks mounting Parthenon upon Acropolis dead ahead. Moon stewed silently, peering down side trails, through dense park shrubbery, and out over Inner Richmond rooftops as I downshifted beyond the white Conservatory itself. I searched for signs to the Great Meadow, Stowe Lake, any refuge short of that feline pavilion.

          So entirely different, so much to absorb; yet nothing was said. Sometimes my mother would brood a whole morning away, staring holes out her kitchen window, scrubbing the oatmeal pot through to copper—particularly after dad’s all-night sieges. But then Melissa always had been more of an afternoon person. “Look there, past the Avenues. The Golden Gate Bridge, Marin…”

          “It’s not gold at all,” she said, tangling her purse strings. “It’s tomato soupy red, if you ask me.”

          “Uh, yeah. Crazy, huh…they call it International Orange.” For my part, I tussled with the curious shivers of pleasure from the attention, the odd ironies herein. Explanation, perhaps, why I’d bypassed the park’s museums, bandshell, and Japanese Tea Garden, opting for the precise spot I’d visited the day before. I could still see Sydney beside Rainbow Falls, weaving her heady dreams of power and payoff extraordinaire. Christ, was that merely 24 hours before?

          “Why are you stopping? Where’s Denise’s?”

          “We’ve got to talk, Moon,” I sighed, idling over curbside. “Got to hammer this out right now…”

          Couldn’t help myself, I parked between the very same white space markers, chalked my wheels the same degree curbward, then fought back a vicious little smile by smacking the corners of my wilding moustache. The exercise was not lost on Melissa, now more rattled than riled by a devious grin she’d never even seen from me until before.

          “So,” she said, finding little inspiration in either the Falls or large Sayerbrook Cross lording overhead. Or that small, whirling turtlepool Rainbow fed into—a baby whitewater rapids ruffling hand-fed ducks and swans—the entire tableau backframed by a Greco-columned façade. One of those dowdy drakes seemed to be telling her there was more gnarled here than some Australian Tea Trees.                          Portal Past scene

          “Soooo,” I shifted in my seat to face her, back against my door. “I just want to know what’s going on in your head about what’s going on.”

          “OOOooookay.” Much as she had forced this confrontation, she appeared to welcome the uncertainty of it all like a Brinks crew welcomed a breakdown. “No big mystery—my father just said he’d heard from Faith Mendel that Sydney had called, ecstatic because she’d finally found this perfect man. And that Mr. Perfect was none other than Mr. You.”

          “What?!” The load was dropping with my jaw, and maybe—dammit, maybe all the promise, the potential, all the sunny daydreaming just wasn’t in the cards, after all. I peeked behind me at that memorial bench, foggy images of Sydney sitting there sketching, sobbing all alone. I turned to Melissa, here beside me—so immediate and perfectly reliable. How did she put it, the difference between life and hobbies? You don’t dump a natural straight for a few wild cards, right? “She said what?”

          “You heard me,” Moon copped an indignant posture she likely prayed she could maintain. “So, what exactly did you do to become my best friend’s Mr. Right?”

          “Uh…” I drifted off to Lindley Meadow, a broad fairway of kite entrails and picnic tables across the nearby bike lane and horse trail. Several young friends or lovers sunned there, grouped blankets and goosebumps, free and easy as the Pacific westerlies–whereas I was about to blink and buckle. “Let me explain…”

          “Spare me, please—you think I really want to know the sordid details?” she asked, then reconsidered. “Okay, let’s have it.”

          “All right. I saw Sydney standing back from the serpentine tree, palette in hand, smeared canvas at her side. I burned to reach out for her, but she dissolved in dripping gray. Upon further reflection, wow, two chicks, man—over me yet. Just like that tune. Surf city, two girls for every boy…unbelievable… But then reality set in. I clenched my face into a cynical sneer, biting my words like wedges of sour saloon lemons. “It’s just a big bunch of crap about nothing. We talked—you know how she talks. I guess she got way out of joint over it, that’s all. She’s so damn headstrong…”

          “No one’s that headstrong without encouragement, Kenny.” Melissa rebuffed my stare, looking instead to the kites and running dogs, as in Boulder’s foothills, like Chautauqua on brighter days.

          “Aww, come on, Moon. She’s your sister, or whatever, not mine. But goddammit, she’s basically a spoiled little brat who pushes until she gets what she wants! I suppose I was just humoring her, going along…didn’t want to jack around your closest…”

          “What are you saying? You’d ply her for my sake,” she shouted, picking righteously at the barrette above her left ear. “You must be…I really thought you were smarter than this.”

          “No, hey—of course not. Anyway, what was I supposed to do, tell her to kiss off altogether? That would have flipped her out for sure. I mean, she’s kind of desperate, you know? All hung up on her art and making it big here. What’s worse, she’s a lousy cook, Moon. A chick like that can bring out the worst in a guy.”

          “So I see…”

          “Believe me, she wishes she had half the ability you do. Like, around the house—no lie.”

          “You expect me to buy that,” she yielded some, though still fixated on the greens.

          “Hey,” I leaned over to her, sore, wind-swollen lips flapping to beat those duckbills. “You know I need somebody strong, stable—like you. I know it, too. Remember how you handled that jackknifed trailer? Compared to you, she’s papier-mache. You’ve got real chutzpah…”

          “What do you know about chutzpah?!” she shot back, pushing me safely left of the gearshift hump.

          “Moon, really…I just heard her say it once. Hah, about me, yet…”

          “Hmph, that is a laugh,” she shrugged, seemingly wanting for the life of her to believe I was coming clean.

          “We’re the team, you and me. Nobody can split that up.” I reached over once again to hold her. She quail trembled, drawing strength from my touch. “You’re my love, Moon. You know that…you know that.” I was not so fortunate. Another quick glance at the Leptospermum branches bore somewhat the weather prognosis: fog lifting for brief afternoon sunshine, but new storm system closing in on the Portal of the Past.    Portal of the Past

          “So be it,” she said softly, nuzzling over into my shoulder. “But we’re going to settle this mess once and for all.”

          “Hey, settled it is,” I sighed squeezing her fleshy shoulder.

          “No, I mean bury it,” She pulled away sharply, facing me square. “Settle it in everybody’s mind. No misunderstandings, got it?”

          “Sure, hon…whew, what more can I say about this?”

          “Nothing to me, not one more word need you say to me.”

          “All right then. Let’s hit Denise’s, settle you in.” I fiddled with the shift lever, then fired the ignition, feeling I had just dodged a hostile round. On the radio, came some new solo Teddy Pendergrass.

          “It’s what you’re going to say to Syd,” she said, with sudden, unblinking resolve.


          “We’re going to get together, the three of us,” she replied, fighting a twisted little grin of her own. “You’re going to call her Kenny, and now.”

          “No way, Moon…” Christ, I’d know her, what…four years? Never saw a smile like that before. “I’ll just send…”

          “Oh, yes. You two concocted this stew, and you’re going to gag on it. I’ll be there to make sure you do.”

          “For godsakes, we can’t do that! You don’t really…”

          “That’s the deal,” she pressed, patting my cold, pale cheek. “Otherwise, I’m on the next plane east, and you two can go back to scheming your little buns off!”

          “Have you any idea what you’re doing, Moon? The two of you will be history, for sure—and the families. Is it worth that, for Christsake?!  She’s the nearest thing you’ll ever have to a sister.”

          “Let’s go, Kenny,” she replied, without pause. “It’s your call. And don’t you dare let on I’m in town.”

 Care for more?

Chapter 33. Collisions occur in due 
course, without any insurance to 
assure some peace of mind…

“Beware of foreign 
entanglements that may 
sow a continental divide.”

          “Not your trip, huh?”

          “Not exactly, but you can just run me over…”

          “So, what was her story?”

          “I dunno, it was like she flipped out all of a sudden—far as I could make out…”

          Drizzle soggy outerwear and inflated bladders drove us into Apartment Three with giggly dispatch. After bathroom turns, we regrouped in the kitchen for bottled Sierra waters, noting on a refrigerator Post-It that Edie and Diana were off to the DeYoung Museum for a blockbuster exhibition. Sydney wasted little time repairing to her bedroom to shed the wets and make for the shower. I had no such recourse, so lingered in the hallway, where we conversed through the bathroom door—mainly discussing my arrangement over on Fulton Street, not least last night’s Buddha fest and blow-up with Regina Tzu Fowler.                          Syd's building

          “Guess she is all caught up in that Eastern stuff…”

          “Make out, huh?” Syd purled out, freshly showered, white terry robe snugged at her waist, beckoning me into her room. “But come on, some of it’s not so bad. And better there than up in Lafayette Park, right? Heard another brutal…attack happened last night.”

          “Uh, wouldn’t know about that, but all she really seems to be getting out of her spiritualism is a bad case of misandry.” I looked away sheepishly as she toweled her hair before a white Deco vanity. “Still, she’s a friend of a friend of a friend, so the situation will work out for the time being. It’s a start…”

          “Market forces at work, flash,” she smirked, over her shoulder. “That’s what my Daddo would say—just a kasheh in supply and demand.”

          “Sorry, not my field.” I fixed on the matted pencil sketch of a voluptuous, thinly veiled middle-aged woman, akin stylistically to ‘Waif and Grain’. Beside it was a framed black and white photo of a young nude couple embracing on a secluded beach. Syd must have centered them over her mattress and bed frame since my last visit. In both, the woman’s breasts were firm and teardrop full, as if little time had passed between renderings. “Who’s that hanging over your bed there?”

          “My parents, who else…” Her robe fell like a Playland parachute to the polished hardwood floor, revealing in its wake the startling shapeliness of her compact frame.

          “They’re obviously not Catholics, huh…Syd, what’re you,” I blushed, twisting away to the family gallery, then backing toward the sun-drenched window well, stumbling into her wool and cashmere sweaters, stacked neatly on a new Bentwood rocker, Princess phone weighting them down.

          “This is my room, Kenneth,” she flashed that recondite smile—so casual, so free, toweling down to her tight button navel—oh, so very oblivious to the principle of cause and effect. “I’m changing my clothes…”

          “Uh, maybe I should wait outside,” I started for the sliding doors into the parlor, as if looking away from some subterranean screen test of Charlie’s Angels.

          “Wait…you should see this.” She began tensing, then stretching her arms. “It’s yoga, spiritual like that Eastern religion thing we were talking about, only more physical.”

          “No, really, I…” I spread the doors, freezing, squinting face forward into the sun-blazed living room, uncertain if I was relieved that Edie and Diana were outing for the day.

          “Sorry, but I don’t happen to be afraid of my body,” Syd exclaimed through the sliding doors. “What’s your problem?”

          “My problem is this doesn’t make any damn sense,” I shouted back, glancing out the bay windows, down at a gathering of nuns and uniformed children assembling row by row in St. Brenda‘s schoolyard.

          “What doesn’t, Kenneth? Changing clothes, limbering up a little,” she asked, touching her toes. “You’re the one not making any sense.”

          “Here…changing like this—now,” I sputtered, avoiding/approaching her supple, exquisitely tandem, swaying breasts. “It’s just not appropriate—think of Moon, your family…loyalties, for Christsake!”

          “Loyalties, coyalties, my tushie…lighten up, you’re just being an old-fashioned prude,” she straightened up, compact breasts bobbing like life buoys at sea. “Okay, Mr. Family Man, let’s look at this logically. “I did take an undergrad logic elective once, you know. Now, what did they call it? Like, if A is B, and B is C, then, C is A, right? So, if you’re close to Moon, and I’m close to Moon, then it follows that you and I should be close, too. Friend of a friend of a friend, like that. And as for my parents, they’re 100 percent behind everything I do.”

          “Syllogism, and that’s a pretty lame example,” I gasped. “It’s more like, if I respect Moon, and you respect her, then we both respect her…and each other.”

          “I do, toots, don’t you?”

          “Actually, Heider’s Balance Theory is more pertinent here. If two people interact with someone of mutual concern, the interpersonal and intrapersonal situation is either balanced or unbalanced, with the tension that so ensues. Well, then you’ve got Festinger’s Theory of…”

          “Ei, lighten up, professor. Everybody does touch-and-go’s these days. It’s harmless…and mighty healthy for you, mind and body, I might add.”     Passion scene

          “It’s borderline pathological, that’s what…”

          “We’re like sisters, Melissa and me…sisters share things, she would want this. Why else would she send you out here,” she pressed, arms out, flexing her fingers. “Besides, who’s to say she’s not doing the very same thing right now?”

          “Hey, don’t even think that,” I stammered in place. “Why’d you have to say…”

          “Juust joking…honestly, no man worth his shlanger isn’t jumping all over a situation like this,” she prodded, slipping into a maneuver called the Fountain Stretch. “You know,  something tells me you have a black hat side. Really, I sense a little Vesuvio in you too, and I like that in a man.  So show me some of your black hat side…c’mon, Kenneth, grow up, show me what Moon sees in you…who on earth is going to know?”

          “Christ, I swear, I wasn’t bargaining for anything like this…”

          “If you weren’t, you wouldn’t be here.” She shifted to the Chest Expander pose directly before me, then into the Half Moon, throwing her arms and shoulders over her head, feigning a backward fall. “Oops…”


This heated scene will be revealed in
editions to come. Suffice to say, it is indelibly
‘game changing’, set to Miles Davis
 and ‘Trane, bearing on all that follows.
Only to be a case of passion interruptus,
by a roommate’s  unexpected return. So
please stay tuned for this, and in the
meantime, can,  you just imagine?

          “Uh, you don’t think she’d make trouble…”

          “What…trouble? Edie and I have this understanding. She and Diana together last Valentine’s Day. I’ve got pictures…juuust joking.”

          “I’ll bet,” I shrugged, fondling about as she isometric tensed her beading breasts. “If you’ve got incriminating photos of your own parents, you might have the goods on anybody.” I found myself scanning the room for surveillance cameras.

          “Begging your pardon, toots. But Faith and Daddo are proud that their brilliant artist daughter thinks they’re worth hanging. They’re actually pretty cool for their age—and they’re aging so gracefully, as well you could. In fact, I want you should finally meet them.”

           “Feel like I already have, quite intimately,” I said, feeling part Pacino, part Harry Reems—feeling my way up to revisit the overhead visuals, that yellowing photo print of parental splendor on a white sandy dune.

          “I’m serious,”she squeezed me for emphasis. “They’re very open, accepting people. Especially Faith, she’s my very best friend. We tell each other everything. Except of course one little thing I know she doesn’t even know I know. Anyway, they’ve always taught me that if you really want something, just go for it, and everything will work out for the best.”

          “Really,” I probed idly. “So…what might that one little thing be?”

          “Hahhh! Wouldn’t you like to know…”

          “Suit yourself. The whole deal sounds like a drowning lifeboat philosophy to me, anyway. You know, every man for himself.” I continued digitally connecting her bikini tan lines, as though some deliciously insoluble puzzle. “I mean, sometimes it’s not that cut and dried. Sometimes there’s so much to assess…and reassess…”

          “Oy, what am I going to do with you, Kenneth,” she burst, nostrils flaring as she mounted me like I was a rodeo steer. “One minute, I see you as this guy to fill some empty hours. The next, you’re like the love of my life, and I’m planning things!”

          Natural inclinations toward a mutual scrub down were dashed by Edie’s determined bedroom thrashing, the vacuum force of which kept flapping the cross-hall bathroom door. Syd pulled off like a queen bee off a worker drone and scooped up her robe, imposing a decent interval between showers, flinging me a Grand Hyatt guest towel from Boca Raton.

          I bided my time restudying those family portraits, gaining a new appreciation of Faith’s youthful beauty—an ageless Esquire Petty girl, her once vestal hunger for Daddo—the mother superior Melissa had so canonized for so long. I then mused over this ungodly phallic binge, my amazement at being here at all, as if some strange sort of transgenerational kinship bonding going on. Once Syd toweled by into the kitchen, I broke for the bathroom, overhearing Edie’s phone ramblings about a disappointing exhibition all day long, feeling her eyes searing darkly through her door. A quiet, barebones shower, and I slipped back to the sunny warmth from whence I came.

          “Sooo, what’s up,” I grinned puckishly, bath towel wrapped about my waist.

          “I’ve realized something amazing just happened between us, and you can’t say it didn’t,” Sydney stood by her bedroom window, practicing arm ripples and neck rolls in her halo white robe, then moving toward the rocker and her phone. “So here we are, we’ve got this shot. And we’d better damn well go for it, because together there’s nothing we can’t do. You just need a little kick in the confidence. So I have this friend next door? She works for a big advertising agency downtown. I’ll bet Val can land you an interview with your cameras, just like that!”

          “W-what are you talking about,” I said, pores expanding, pits itching to discharge. And whom are you calling?”

          “Now quit looking at me with those bedroom eyes of yours and enjoy some scrumptious mousse,” she picked up her Princess, pointing over toward a snack tray she had quietly set aside on her nightstand, to its dark chocolate pastry and limed Perrier. “Relax, let me take care of this.”

          “Take care of what?!” My underarms reached dew point. “Dammit, what the hell’s going on here?!”

          “Daddo always tells me to make the big decision,” she dialed, smiling at her family photo. “Then everything else falls into place. And if you lead with your head, your feelings will sort themselves out soon enough.”

          “All right, quit playing around…this is absolutely nuts!”

          “Who’s playing around? We’re talking about us here,” she said, phone call connecting after some loud long-distance clicks. “I’ve never been so happy, Kenneth…gotta share this with somebody…Daddo? Oh, Daddo, tell Faith I’ve some fantabulous news about the wonderful man in my life. No, silly, I don’t mean Bernard…”

Care for more?

Chapter 32. Far-reaching consequences 
hasten the arrival of due process, 
if not suddenly diverging interests…


“Idly parking in the park is no 
substitute for an illuminating  
walk and talk in the park thereabouts.”

          “I know this here…”

          “You ought to, it wasn’t that long ago.”

          “Isn’t this where…”

          “Yes, where we landed in your rusty scow—a landmark Sir Francis Drake moment, it wasn’t, that’s for sure.  Just ask James Winslow’s purse.”

          We wound silently by the Cliff House, down onto the Great Highway, below Sutro Heights Park, past a razed midway in the ankle of the Heights, once so alive with the innocent gaiety of the Bob Sled Dipper, Dark Mystery, Topsy’s Roost and Laffing Sal. On a weekend this grand, San Franciscans once cavorted among the calliopes and midway arcades. Locals gorged on It’s-Its and Salty Dogs, tossed it all on the Parachute Drop, rickety roller coasters and Chutes At The Beach; tried their hands at Playland’s shooting galleries and Whir-lo-Ball, or cut up to Sutro’s Baths to oogle the bathing beauties on its Silver Slide.

          But the fun ended in ’72, in low-grade condos up to Fulton Street, after hungry developers leveled the amusement park for a highrise complex that city planners mercifully whittled down. Strolling lovers and swimming mongrels currently pulled my attention like undertow over the seawall to a long, sparkling Ocean Beach. The distant swells, surf riptide rinsed in, clear down to The City’s southernmost shores, yet not far enough away from the Esplanade’s median strip parking, scene of that earlier sunset car door jimmy and purse grab.                            Playland

          “Anyway, did your handbag ever surface,” I said, slowly turning her way.

          “Sad to say, that beloved purse is in never, neverland—never to brighten my day again.”

          “Still, maybe we should stop and check around. Who knows? Could be it’s washed up, or something…”

          “Washed up, alright,” Sydney said, arm out her window with a left turn motion. “Forget about my purse, already. God, you’ve got to learn how to move on from things.”

          When she veered off the highway into Golden Gate Park, the Fox’s armrest pressed more sharply into my rib cage, incidentally crushing those sweet rolls I had so hangdog pocketed. But beyond the broken down Dutch Windmill and Queen Wilhelmina’s tulip beds, I began to feel her centripetal force all around.                     Ocean Beach

          “Well, maybe whoever took it needed money that bad,” I quibbled. “I’m just trying to be helpful…”

          “Hahhh, help? How about coming clean about what you’re really doing back here? That’s what would help.”

          “I’m, like, scoping things out—for Moon and me,” I rubbernecked the broad, breaking sea left behind. “If maybe I can put something together. By the way, don’t forget your little present there. She glazed you a real nice coffee mug—kiln-fired and everything…”

          “I see,” she glowered, fanning the dashboard heater. “You called me to help set things up for you and Moon.”

          “Well, yeah, sort of…”

          “I get it, the neighborhood welcome wagon…”

          “No, hey…I don’t mean it like…”

         “Sure, and why stay out here in the Richmond,” she turned on the FM radio to ‘Got to Give It Up, Parts 1 and 2’ by Marvin Gaye. “We can pile in at my place. Don’t forget the pets while you’re at it—just like all in the family.”

          An overgrown golf course diverted us up into thickening eucalyptus groves, Ocean Beach slipping away like the other side of a zipper pull around a jogging, banked curve. Syd goosed her Fox pointedly up John F. Kennedy Drive, through a heavily wooded stretch of secluded ponds, fly-casting pools, equestrian trails and scruffy buffalo grounds that opened gradually to vast Lyndley Meadow. Kite meets and volleyball picnics had already laid claim to the softly rolling links, along with a pan-European practice field of soccer, rugby, hurling and rounders.

          “Come on…as if you didn’t know why I came back,” I groused, snared by the remote-control model boat races and side action at Spreckels Lake.

          “Oh, now I’m supposed to be some kind of mind reader.”

          “Because, I couldn’t get away from you, that’s why,” I erupted, as she steered around a rhododendron island, center drive. “It was like I never left Sausalito, okay? I mean, I wasn’t even in Colorado. Everywhere I looked, there you were—in the shaving mirror, on the Flatirons, on the bedroom ceiling with your rah-rah success trip. What the hell am I supposed to make of that?!”

          All right, then,” she smiled, a smile as inscrutably out of context as the ratty bison in that over-grazed paddock we had just passed. “Now was that so hard?”

          “Oh, sure,” I muttered, out toward a little down-meadow lacrosse—albeit with a hint of histrionics, if not shards of hyperbole. “Moon kept jabbing me just to keep me focused on anything. I had the attention span of a fever tick.”

          Halfway into the park, where Marx Meadow met Portals of the Past, she horned by a bike rallye, then pulled over to an unforeseen break in the parking lane. Cloud cover had begun to clear out, leaving a stray ray to key down upon Lloyd Lake and its singularly well-landscaped shores. The emerging sun soon lit up the whole tree-framed garden like a subdivision nativity scene. It seemed the best of many nearby niches in which to nail all this down.

          “So why didn’t you just say so in the first place, Kenneth?”

          “Because it scares me shitless,” I spouted, loosening my collar and coat. “Because I’m basically fakin’ it, we barely even know each other, and because what I do know tells me we’re such different goddamn people…”

          “Speak for yourself—I feel like I’ve known you all my life. Besides, what if we are different? What’s so godawful wrong with that?”

          “Aww, give me a break, Syd. You’ve got everything going your way, alright? Compared to you, I’ve got zip. I’m seeing this place is one big sandbox, and maybe you can pay the freight and play. But I can’t even afford a plastic shovel.”

          “That’s total horsepucky,” she dragged an old paint-splattered London Fog from the back seat and uncoiled out of the car. “In reality, you’ve got a lot going, potential-wise. I’m beginning to think I believe in you more than you do.”

          Pausing before a small rushing waterfall, we took in this suddenly warm spring-like calm, the Pomeranian lapping water upstream, a gaggle of Chinese children bolting toward them from an extended family gathering down JFK Drive. Syd prodded me to skip several slickened step stones over to the lake itself, scattering overfed geese, gulls and mallards back into the naturalized wading pool. She smoothed the waters with some leftover cottage fries she’d bagged ever so discreetly from the breakfast table.

          “Let’s just say I know my limitations, okay?” I scoured the palms, eucalyptus, gnarled cypress trunks and hidden pools, plumbed the depths for what to say. “See, I’m coming from nowhere. No juice, no bucks. My ol’ man’s no highroller—that’s reality.  Someone like you just doesn’t happen to somebody like me. It’s about time we set things straight right now…”

          “Straight, shmate—all you’ve got to do is dump the negatives, focus on the positives. Adolph Sutro didn’t start with anything and it didn’t stop him. Neither did Josh or Daddo, for that matter.”

          Lloyd Lake’s paired swans paddled along, unruffled by the commotion; blackbirds, wrentits and white-headed sparrows flew in from bordering fir trees to drill the last few potatoes she had crumbled along the walk. I trailed her around the tiny lake to a decaying Roman doorframe standing alone against a backdrop of unruly brush. Bare survivor of the 1906 earthquake, this brick and marble portal had shown little improvement in fortunes since being donated to Golden Gate Park. It now encased a slab stone bench, angled perfectly toward the sunbathed waters. There we sat, peeling and picking at the rifted columns, skimming the graffiti scratches of those who had come before us, rather than catching one another’s eye.

          “Who knows, maybe that’s why I find you interesting,” she added, draping the splotchy maincoat across our laps, somewhat taken aback her own self. “I mean, as a…project.”

          “A project…”

          “Sure, a blank slate,” she rebounded. “That’s how my parents started out. Daddo went on to build a huge contracting business with his own two hands. But he’s the first to say how Faith was the key. Frankly, I’ve always sort of envied how far they’ve gotten together…total teamwork. Now that he’s sold the company, they can kick back and enjoy. She’s got Florida and her Winnetka greenhouse; he’s got his computer and stocks. Must be really gratifying to make it that way, don’t you think?”

         “How would I know,” I flushed, pulling out two scrunchy sweet rolls, one of which she declined. “My dad was too busy taking a fifth…aww, you don’t want to know…”

          “Of course I do—I want to know everything about you,” she said, zeroing in on, gauging my responses. “The truth of the matter is, in some ways, my parents have done everything for me. But in other ways, they’ve done not so much. Like, even though I worship Daddo, he was hardly ever around either.”

          “At least he was out paving your way,” I said, sinking at the thought of what she was reading into all this. “My dad just kept throwing up roadblocks. It’s my mother who’s done everything. She’s the one who pushed me toward college, for criminy. My mother’s an angel…”

          I jumped up like a commuter on a wet bus seat out from under the lap coat and poked about the portal, settling momentarily on its memorial plaque—obscure names and a Pine Street address that meant nothing to anyone for at least three generations. Dig down deep, she says… while way down deep my vital organs were freefalling to my feet.

          I felt well beyond being a pet project, yet somehow gratified she had put me in her class. Still, barely 24 hours into town, my welcome mat had already worn through to the tack strips. Blurry shadows, body blows. Regina Tzu had resorted to chucking things; this one to shelling me like a green pistachio with that crooked little smile of hers, while so blithely pulling daffodils from her hair. What the hell was I doing back here?! 

          “So is Faith…but I know I can do even better,” she blurted, as I mucked further around the spongy green turf. “And not with some workaholic engineer.”

          “Your father’s an engineer, too?” I nibbled at a squashed, frosted roll, repocketing the other.

          “Of course, by training—worked his way through,” she sighed, sailing her flowers to the swans. “My problem is, all I’ve kept coming across are ozone warriors like James Winslow Holcomb or wusses who’ve had everything handed to them, like my brother or Bernard. Now you come along with your storybook Boulder household and European photographs and holey underwear.”          Golden Gate Park

          “I’m not exactly out of that household, you know,” I tread lightly, sending up something of a warning flare. It fizzled.

          “May I remind you you’re here now,” she rose to shepherd me back to the car, pinching and pulling on my cheek, London Fog slung over her shoulder. “Totally of your own free will, at that.”

          “Yeah, free as the wind…” We dashed across JFK Drive, between bicycle pack and charted bus, wherein I caught the bite of split decision in the air.

          “Whew, I don’t about you, but I’ve got to get out of these clothes,” she said, unlocking, piling into her Audi wagon with a rearward fling of the maincoat, and we were merging away, KYA radio recycling Neil Sedaka’s ‘Laughing In The Rain’.

          Kennedy Drive being closed thereon for the usual Sunday roller derby and hormonal zoo parade, she detoured over and round about Park Presidio. En route, we sniffed the bucolic Strybing Arboretum, glimpsed an outdoor concert on the music concourse, got a taste of the Japanese Tea Garden, caught a cat show at the Hall of Flowers. Out crossing Fulton Street, she didn’t offer to pit stop at Denise’s, while I thought better of running into Regina Tzu the morning after.

          Syd’s only diversion off Park Presidio was for a chocolate praline mousse from Fantasia on California Street, followed by a quick, albeit circuitous spin through the Presidio itself. The Arguello gate led us down through the main post’s parade grounds and adobe heritage sites, headquarters and billets taking me back to Army days—from Fort Bragg conflicts to Mannheim’s kasernes. The Lombard gate fed us out to Cow Hollow, past the impenetrable Soviet Consulate and fortified upper Broadway mllionaire mansions, eventually delivering us in heady anticipation to a Pacific Heights yellow zone after six times around the block.

          Syd curbed her tires like water balloons down Franklin Street, nostrils flaring, poised to bail out faster than a test pilot over Mojave while I dwelled upon the better outlook on this side of town. Still, before she killed her engine, a news brief boomed out of her radio on the heels of Leo Sayer’s ‘You Make Me Feel Like Dancing’, more details about that other brutal murder overnight up in nearby Lafayette Park—something about strangulation and heavy objects—damned if I could say I actually knew anything about that. But with clear bay views, even brighter skies, it was off with the radio and ignition in short order. I bit my tongue, lipped my overbite and instead mulled over our immediate differences all the way up to her apartment, checking out the lobby’s gilded mirror, shunning varied signs of apprehension as I followed her out of Ivar’s birdcage elevator, anticipating a quick change by this artist before returning me to Regina Tzu’s.

          “Bet it was another homo-cide up there—if you know what I mean,” she gasped, keying open her front door deadbolts. “But it’s just awful, isn’t it? I mean, why do the boys have to hang out up there, anyway? They’d be so much safer staying in their baths and bars.”

          “Uh, wouldn’t rightly know about that…”

          “Really…so strange how this seems to happen when you’re in town,” she ushered me into her sun splashed flat. “Out plowing the fields at night, are you?”

          “Not my area of expertise,” I blinked, parrying the vicious news,  with an eye back up toward that path and missing Satalisman…blurry shadows, body blows… “What’s your alibi, anyway—all-night disco? And spare me any more jive about being so lonely.”

          “Pardon me, Kenneth,” she ushered me in, “but I never said I was alone…”  

Care for more? 

Chapter 31. Damp wear and inhibitions
fall away in an unguarded moment,
with passions stirring far and wide…       



“A full plate and flavorable 
visions may not necessarily
be food for thought.”

          “I guess it’s gotta be better here than that sunrise service stuff, huh?”

          “Look around you, Kenneth, what do you think?”

          “Sure beats a basement breadline, especially on Easter Sunday…”

          As day followed dawn, underpass begat news radio impasse, the varied denominational tableau along church, chapel, mosque, temple-leavened Geary Boulevard had us diving a bit more deeply into comparative religion, getting down to particulars, namely ours. 

          Beyond El Camino, the drop was precipitous, the scenario increasingly liquid all around. Geary Boulevard split off to Point Lobos, a cresting avenue lined with tidy bungalows, chalky apartment houses and a spray of swaying Canary Island palms. Destiny manifested itself at Camino del Mar, where we had curved breathlessly past crumbling cliffs and stooping Monterey pines down toward a prismatic horizon, sea level rising to meet us as if we were tailspinning into the drink.

          Sydney had wedged into a white zone outside some modest halfway hillside coffee shop near Merrie Way, cracking that she’d go to the ends of the earth for a good omelet. Before I could park my stomach, she was leading me hand-in-hand along wind-chiseled coastal cavities to San Francisco’s perdurable first line of defense against any invading hordes storming the white-capped Pacific blue. Apparently, the strategy out here had long been to brunch them to death.

          “But if you want to keep harping on your holiday religion, fine by me…”

          “Who’s harping? My thing’s the social sciences—query, qualify, quantify,” I said, as we entered a low-slung, nondescript white blockhouse of a land’s end restaurant through its gift shop doors. “Blind faith, rote prayers, sacraments, transmutations, testaments, clashing denominations—that’s all a bloody morass to me now.”       Land's End

          “Bloody? Ever heard of Chaucer,” Sydney perked up. “He’s one of the guys who kept saying Jews killed children to eat their blood—Christian children, yet. Ever hear of that disgusting condition called trichinosis?”

          “Uh, sure…some kind of gum disease or…”

          “It’s what Jewish people can get from eating blood and pork because that’s against Hebrew law. Catch my drift?”

          “Whoa, I never said…”

          “Just like with the phony Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Total BS, as in bloody slander, that’s what,” she continued, rinding down on a cantaloupe crescent. “Then again, the Last Supper was a Passover meal, so mox nix.”

           “Hey, I’ve no taste for blood, haven’t taken communion in ages.” I glanced away from my tomato juice, combing for the source of some incessant outside barking. “But even if Jesus was Jewish, that doesn’t make him any less iconic…”

          “Okay, so let’s dumb things down…take somebody like John Lennon,” she dabbed Ratatouille from the corner of her mouth with a color-insigned napkin. “Here, everybody thinks he’s god. But over there, he’s just another grubbing, wise-ass Brit.”

          “He’s more Irish, actually…”

          Teetering high atop a knobby outgrowth just south of Point Lobos, the once neo-classic Cliff House was a boxy, sawed-off remnant of its former self. Framed lobby sepiagraphs chronicled the twice fire-gutted degeneration, from horse and buggy outpost torched by a stranded schooner’s dynamite explosion in 1887, to a sprawling saloon for the silver-rich carriage trade to a spire and turreted French gothic chateau all decked out with tasty gingerbread—eight stories of galleries, observation parlors and grand dining rooms. That Gingerbread Palace burned down in 1907.

          I had paused before two photo blow-ups of that second, 1896 incarnation: One with a Wagnerian lightning storm over the Neuschwanstein-like castle, another with the entire baronial landmark ablaze like a nonagenarian birthday cake. I was staring wistfully as the next guy at the shot of a stunted Cliff House III when this handlebared host with sleeve garters and isosceles sideburns called for Mendels, party of two.

          “There, see? What’s the big, bloody deal?” Syd smiled, brushing him off with the tawny linen napkin. “And if it’s no big deal to me, why does it have to be such a big deal to you?”

          “Who said it was a big deal? It’s way beyond my pay grade, I haven’t ever thought that much about it…”

          “Oy, how could you live with a Jewish girl all this time and not think about it?”

          “It’s just never come up with us, all right,” I cranked hard on a pepper grinder over my pan fries and plump Lucullan creation. “So what’s your deal, for criminy sake?”

          Inside, the place was a repository of late Victoriana. We had followed two brass strips of tiny floor lights like hospital ward lines back toward the Barnacle Bar: a rush of cut glass, brass railings, Philodendron everywhere, and wine velvet love seats overlooking some white-capped rock formations and endless, roiling deep blue sea. Syd had pulled me away from the sweet, salty essence of midday Margaritas, up a scarlet flocked-foil stairwell lined with more framed tintypes, period illustration and yellowed reproductions of yesteryear’s news—all set in motion by a player piano piped out from the bar. We digested a short course in turn-of-the-century history before reaching the dining room. There, the Cliff House menu-gazette filled in any lorical blanks.

          “Easy, Kenneth…I’m beginning to tell when you’re flustered.” She returned to her omelet of choice: extra zucchini, eggplant slightly singed, rice pilaf on the side. “You wrap your mustache down over your overbite.”

          “Yeah? Just like when you get all fired up about something, your nostrils seem to pucker,” I slammed down the grinder, pursing my lips. “Point is, I didn’t come all the way back our here to wrangle over religion or idiosyncrasies like that.”          Cliff House

          “Then what exactly did you come all the way back out here for?”

          She proceeded to read me up and down for an answer. Caught out of my current depth, I sought enlightenment from every feeding face in the main dining room, from red-vested waitresses criss-crossing the buffed oakwood floor with fresh fruit compotes, juice pitchers, corpulent omelets and steaming coffee. I searched the flocked, floral print wallpaper, the hanging planters and Tiffany lamps, the pressed copper ceiling in maddening detail. When that failed me, I plunged back into my food. “The omelets, what else?”

          “That so, “ she deftly fielded my punt, over the concerted hum of rotary ceiling fans. “Well, at least you could have ordered one a whole lot healthier than that.”

          “What, it’s a Denver-Plus,” I picked at my plate, separating the Bauernfruhstuck from the stringy cheddar from the peppers and Canadian bacon. “It’s got a little of every…”

          “Everything that will kill you. Don’t you know the lower you eat on the food chain, the higher your evolution,” she reached over to spear away my nitrates and shredded fats. “You really must learn to take better care of yourself.”

          “That’s Moon’s department…” I glanced away from her surgical stare, out the room’s floor-to-ceiling windows onto a wide-angle south coastal view.

          “Maybe, but Moon might not always be there, Kenneth.”

          “Yeah? Like when?”


          The only downside to table twelve was that someone had to sit facing away from the massive oak-framed corner windows. I finally turned a full tourist swivel toward the barking, away from this eggplant inquisition. It earned me a 130-degree pin on the Pacific coastline, from Lobos Point south along the Great Highway Esplanade, mid-tide swells sheeting over Ocean Beach like rinse water over linoleum, clear down to Fort Funston and beyond. Directly before us, a westward panorama of ocean no end laid anchored by that tri-mound, white-crowned formation, a mere melon’s throw away.

          Gulls, cormorants and wandering tattlers swarmed over the wave-worn Seal Rocks, as did the occasional glide-by pelican, to challenge sea lions and elephant seals basking among the deep crags and kelp, some weighing upwards of 600 to 2,500 pounds. A thin front of grayish clouds drifted up from the southwest, the only easement in a sky and waterscape of engulfing blue—out by where the City of Rio once shipwrecked, near where the Frank H. Buck tanker was head-oned by a sinking luxury liner christened the cool Calvin Coolidge.

          “It’s funny, there once was even a little suspension walk bridge out to Flag Rock there, until it yawed upside down,” Sydney mused, as she cleaned up her eggplant with half an English muffin. “Actually, Point Lobos means place of the sea lions. Sometimes they’ll be totally silent out on their rookery. One seal, usually a stellar cow, will start yapping. Then one by one the bulls start barging in. It’s like when they’re migrating back from Ano Nuevo and Baja with their pups, the bulls strut all they want, but the cows really run the show.”

          “If you’re such an expert, what’s with the rocks, all that white stuff those rowdy suckers are lounging around,” I turned back around toward her—the dissected omelet, bloodshot tomato juice, strong coffee and slaphappy waves stirring my intestinal jetsam.

          “Looks like snowcaps, doesn’t it—like up in the Sierra.”

          “Uh, check again,” I squinted into the cyanine blind. “I could swear that’s crusted bird shit out there.”

          “Guano. Guess it’s all in how you look at things,” she applied newly issued plastic to the check at hand. “Like my classic nostrils—they don’t pucker, they gracefully flare…”

          “Right…maybe we should go, huh,” I muttered, scrounging for the tip, pocketing a couple of sweet roll appetizers, no longer able to elude stares from the host and impatiently famished couples crowding up behind me as we cleaved past cut glass mirrors toward the doors. “Christ, we’re even more different than I remembered, you and me…”

          A stiff wind and salt spray welted up as Sydney skipped out ahead undaunted down the surf-battered rear promenade, tourists riveted to the ocean splendor, mesmerized by the swirling tides. We dashed by the camera obscura, through a Musee Mecanique filled with oddball automated antique music boxes, player pianos, peep shoes, grip testers, nickelodeons and stand-up orchestrians—not to mention a gypsy fortuneteller character from the 1915 Pan-Pacific Exposition.

          She then pulled me around an outside totem pole, limning on the run a majestic Cliff House castle, the Floods, Stanfords and Crockers of gaslit San Francisco arriving in private broughams to toast the mighty masted clipper ships and crashing waves. Syd said she could just see Mark Twain buggying his way out here on one of his storied literary forays into the cold summer fog. How fun-loving couples later steamed out on the Ferries & Cliff House Railway, later still when the Cliff Line was an electrifying streetcar ride—before landslides derailed the cliffside route for good. Merely keeping pace with her led me huffing up past the Audi Fox and fragrant hotcakes to the steep, scabrous bluffs above Point Lobos Drive.

          Hacking for breath, coming up sausage, I eventually caught her atop some decaying steps on the far side of a formidable stone wall and outcroppings, a wind-twisted copse of ancient Montereys. The view from up here sent both our heads spinning, numbing us even more than the steady, grinding updraft gale. Battening onto my arm, she mapped out the shoreline from Drake’s Bay and Bolinas southward to Point Pedro and Devil’s Slide.

         Wintergreen coastal hills were already abloom with purple lupine, yellow lizard tail, cobweb thistle, larkspur as blue as the sea beneath it and what remained of the clear sky above. A red and white tug boat hauled two Humboldt county timber barges into the Golden Gate, steering me back to the gray cloud line shearing in from the west, inevitably to the champale pink flowers pinned so securely in her hair.

          “See, what did I tell you,” she said, having already gained her second breath, barely beading a sweat. The tiny wildflowers seemed braided into her loose spiral perm with piano wire. They played beautifully with her pink turtleneck and white cable-knit sweater, positively sang with her Argentine stretch pants. “Eat light, fly right.”

          “Don’t worry about me, okay” I coughed, drawing in deeply of a cool ocean updraft. Still, I felt a slight surge of promise and accomplishment out here on the brink—or was it just the refilled coffee?

          “So let’s shake it already…” She started down the weather-rent concrete viewing deck.

          “All right, already. Christ, this air feels like lead compared to Colorado.” I locked her arm with the sleeve of my gray sport jacket and held my ground, pores venting like trout gills underneath. “Anyway, you haven’t finished showing me around here yet…”

          “And you still haven’t answered my question.”

          “Question?” Full maw or no, I remained mid-morning cranky, but was getting increasingly cranked up like a turn-of-the-century horseless carriage by the whole spectacular setting out here—the churning wide-angle seascape, the telephotogenic coastal domains. If only I hadn’t left my cameras at Regina Tzu’s.

          “Kenneth, you’re being evasive…” Syd leered at me, then continued her coastal tour. She pointed out far beyond pounding aquamarine surf to the impervious bird sanctuaries of the Farallon Islands—several puffin-filled bumps on the distant horizon, a vista so clear it might have been Kaanapali. Some fully stacked container ships lured us back to Point Lobos, to a scarred, gaping cavity, nearly three acres of crumbling foundations filled with muddy sea water where the world’s largest, most fashionable indoor natatorium used to be.

          “So what’s this all about?” Stirred and stunned, all right—even though I was playing it too diffidently cool by now to cop to that.

          “Okay then,” she sighed, pointing about the ruins, which looked more like a worked-out stone quarry. “You’re the could-be photographer, so picture this long Greek temple façade with a grand palm-lined staircase leading down to humongous stained glass-roofed arching pavilions. Inside the bathhouse were seven public tanks—pools, really, with trapezes, swinging rings, water slides and circus acts. Hoi polloi by the hundreds in black bathing suits swam and splashed around the fresh-or-saltwater tanks for two-bits a pop. Hundreds more elevatored to upper balconies filled with art, knights’ armor, Japanese swords, exotic fish, treasures from ancient Egypt, stuffed jaguars and anacondas. Or they hit the amphitheatre for live opera and plays. Then everybody strolled down the arcade all dolled up to Cliff House castle for brandy and chamber music. With zithers, no less. Now is that San Francisco, or what?”

          “Hope the water was cleaner than it is right now,” I sniffed at the murky reflection in what remained of the pools, of immediately surrounding storm-ravaged cliffs that looked more like an abandoned strip mine.

          “Very funny, but they had constantly circulating ocean tides,” she nudged. “The steam-heated baths were designed by the man who engineered the main tunnel for the Comstock Lode, Adolph Sutro. He’s the same genius who built Cliff House castle.”

          Darkening cloud cover pared away half the southern sky as we roamed the parapet, and paused to look out over the Great Highway and surfer curled waves off Ocean Beach. Syd redrew the turreted observation towers, Haunted Swing and Firth Wheel that Sutro had built up here, then a barren stretch some 200 feet down, sketching in a coupe-clogged midway of carousels, rickety roller coasters, Chutes-at-the-Beach and skee-ball stands—a Playland of sandblown funhouses and salty dogs once crammed along the Esplanade as far as the twirling Dutch windmills of Golden Gate Park. All that remained of those caramel corn, cotton candy days were the plaster imitation outcroppings strung down cliffsides below.

          “Getting the larger picture here, Kenneth?”

          “Yeah, fake snow, fake rocks, some unsightly holes in the ground…” Really, was this the right move at the right time, or the right move at a bad time, or a wrong move at a good time, or the wrong move at just the wrong time—or any and all of the above? Time for some second-guessing, a little Sunday morning quarterbacking with time running out.

          “Wrong,” she yanked at my arm on Palm Avenue, separating my blue flannel shirt from the sweaty tackiness of my skin. “What I’m saying is it was one man’s energy, one man’s imagination that made all this happen. Adolph Sutro was a Jewish immigrant from Prussia who came here peddling tobacco and ended up one of The City’s greatest landholders, 24th mayor yet. He created all this for San Francisco—brought scads of European culture here, finally gave his whole estate to the city, for godsakes. In fact, I hear his ashes are buried in an urn up here somewhere…”

          “Hmph, must have been a raging egomaniac.” I rubbed the nose of the right of two opposing stone cats greeting visitors at the Lion’s Gate into Sutro Heights Park.

          “So even if he was, look at where it got him,” she spun effusively. “Just look at what a difference he made! Charitable, too—I’ve heard he used to hand out gold coins on the streets downtown.”

          As we descended the stony terrace, circled around the cypress-swept hanging balcony, Syd recreated hydrangea-arched railings, paths lined with 200 Euro statues—Grecian deities, Mercury, Venus, Prometheus, Goddess Diana the huntress with her deer—explaining how she came out here time and again to pop a pressure cork in her early days, to draw strength from Sutro’s accomplishments, to drink in the cinemascopic beauty from Inspiration Point.

          She told how Sutro had transformed barren sand dunes into lush tapestry gardens, where he had built a modest cottage out to a grand country home caked with ornate gingerbread and classic sculpture—reputedly for his mistress. She hand painted a still life on a grassy terrace of the glass gabled white botanic conservatory greenhouse it once held, lush with exotic orchids, a hundred different rose varieties, and ceramic tiled walkways, mostly as long gone as Sutro’s chateau.

          “Okay, so it’s incredible,” I trailed her, as some light spritz showers set in. “What’s your point?”

          “My point is you can make that kind of difference,” she insisted, prideful tear welling in her eye.

          “Whoa,” I flushed, hoping it was just a raindrop. “I’m no mining engineer, and for damn sure not Prussian…or Jewish.”

          “What’s that got to do with anything? You can be as much a mentsh as he was —I mean, everybody’s got a little Jewish in them, a little chosen peopleness. I’m talking about balls-out ambition and will power. You can do this, killer, I know you can. Deep down, so do you,” she said, poking my ribs. “Why else would you have come back out here?!”

          The first wave brought the sort of thin, transparent clouds that yielded moisture far beyond their visible means. But spritz turned to dark drizzle, and it condensed in short order to send Syd and me scurrying for shelter. She ran me around spindly, wind-shorn cypress, Montereys and Northfork Island pine, through the dwarf shrubs, santolina, blue gum eucalyptus and dragon trees that framed a grassed-over arbor Sutro’s villa had called home.

          I chased after her, sport jacket over my head, past cracked birdbaths, stubs and stumps of deistic statues shipped painstakingly around Cape Horn. We paused together to weather the worst of it under a shaggy Canary Island date palm, laughing, whirling away the water, flapping around like wild ducks. Syd conjured grainy apparitions of black-clad parasoled couples hustling their bustled and high-bottom shoes into the conservatory, Sutro himself, stroking his bushy white mutton chops, signaling from his porch rocker with the smoke rings of his private label panatella.

          “I’m just saying I should probably set my sights a little lower right now, that’s all.” What the hell did she mean by that?!

          “Nonsense, look at Adolph. He was one of the first visionaries who saw how everything starts here and rolls east like the sea—winter storms, potent new ideas, the future of the world. Presidents came to visit him, great artists like Oscar Wilde partied at his soirees.”

          “Yeah, well, the what happened to this palatial spread of his, anyway?” A peered over at jutting sandstone-set parapet and Dolce Far Niete cantilevered balcony, terraced with salt-tolerant scabosia, geranium, alyssum, yellow santolina and red-hot poker, like a gun turret nobly disarmed.

          “Don’t know for sure,” she said. “I think the bathhouse turned into an ice rink, then got torched by developers, and everything else got bulldozed down—none of it Adolph’s doing, mind you. But nothing lasts forever here…”

          “Sounds like Josh Gravanek’s Das Kapital folly to me,” I breathed deeply of the bracing sea air onrushing the promontory, rustling a nearby juniper tree.

          “Oh, it’s nothing at all like Telluride. Josh is another ambitious Jewish genius who’s built himself a fabulous empire, and you can bet that Das Kapital will rise again from the ashes,” she snapped, before catching herself mid-paean. “Which does remind me, I still haven’t heard from him about what’s up with that little package of his, ’cause he instructed me not to futz with it until he gave the okay. So hang tight on that. But enough with the history lesson. Let’s focus on here and now. Your future, your destiny, the vision that brought you back.”                Sutro Heights Park

          “Uh, it’s a bit more complicated than that…” Whoa, too much, too soon? Or too little, too late to turn anything around, shipshape-wise? Blue-sky visions? Seemed more of a high-pressure storm center; a nimbostratus occlusion was somehow setting in before our very eyes.

          A tapering of the drizzle, and we dashed to the old well house, an elaborately milled egg-white gazebo that had somehow survived the estate’s overall disintegration. We shook off excess droplets and perched momentarily on the ledging as the meager shower largeky passed. Great for the rosarium, English ivy and fleabane, Syd said, bad for the flowers in her hair.

          She wrung out her spirals, then briefly distracted me with stereograph mirages of the colorful tapestries Sutro’s gardeners would bed about his grounds: intricately inlaid orchids, camellia and exotic flowers from Australia and South Africa contoured with topiary, Veronica shrubs and ornamental hedge maze. But I couldn’t take my eyes off her, snapping my own mental pictures as we dashed into now horizontal rain, through Lion’s Gate on our way down Lobos Drive to her car.

          “Sooo, talk to me,” she shivered, soaked to the skin, squeegeeing in against her vinyl bucket seat.

          “Talk? About what,” I muttered, mopping up with my coat sleeve and belting up as we backed into curving traffic and drove away. I found myself stealing off into eroded hills, where electric trams and Sutro’s private railway trains used to thrill San Franciscans strolling around this bend in their black-cloaked finery, out looking for weekend escape from their daily straits. “Except to say thanks for the great breakfast…”

          “That’s what you get for early birdin’ it with me,” she chided, wheeling around Point Lobos Avenue, downward onto the Great Highway past this present flat-topped Cliff House declension and Playland’s plaster rockslide. “Let’s just say you owe me one…”

       Care for more?

Chapter 30. A scenic spin into 
Golden Gate Park prompts a free-spoken 
mind meld on parallels and differences…


“When there’s hell to 
pay the morning after,
pray to the heavens for relief.”

          “Let us exalt together…”


          “Let us affirm together…”

          “Glory be!”

          “Let us love together. Brothers and sisters, stand up and embrace each other this morning!”

          “See? It’s not my church exactly,” she beamed. “It’s not your church exactly.”

          “Amen to that,” I said, as Sydney Mendel and I hugged ceremoniously, then released. “But I had enough religion last night, and don’t exactly feel spiritually expressive this blessed early in the day.”

          “Shush,” she said, reaching to embrace others around us in the benches. “This is more like the Church of the San Francisco spirit, Kenneth, elation that can’t be dragged down.”

          It was more like the Church of Perpetual Motion. Aisles overran with ‘family’, bright worldly banners flapped up against the sky blue cathedral rafters, from the arena decibel force of horn-loaded loudspeakers suspended high above the altar. Below them, a full-dress dancing choir stepped Motown style with electrifying gospel. Row after row of rocking pews and aisles clap danced to the guitar and organ powered soundtrack, all worshipful, mistified eyes following the roundly dashikied figure bouncing like a colorfast sing-a-long dot back and forth across Dawning Redemption’s ceremonial stage.

          “Get close to one another, nobody be coming down on you this morning. Don’t nobody be puttin’ you inna that cage out there, keepin’ you from feelin’ free, thinkin’ free, actin’ free,”  bellowed Pastor Tinus Thrall. “’Cause we gonna blow that nasty cage away this morning…gonna set all you songbirds free, yes we will…”

          “I thought you said you weren’t a morning person,” I whispered over to Syd as she shook hands demonstrably, fore and aft.

          “How could you not be on a glorious morning like this,” she beamed.

          “Ask me this afternoon…”

          Truth was, the 5 AM rollout couldn’t have come early enough. I had tossed about from midnight on, agitated by the drainpipe splatter of a passing rainstorm, by fuzzy-headed images of Denise Keiner and Melissa giggling on the porch swing when she once briefly visited Boulder, and what Latin moods Denise must have been swinging on by now.

          This, after an earlier, obligatory all’s-well call to the Chicago folks at home, then a base-touching call to Moon—the latter which found another muffled male voice seemingly answering and slamming the phone. But harder yet to sleep through were apparitions of Regina Tzu rattling arms full of sabers down the hallway, kinetic chanting, tossing beatific candles through Denise’s bedroom door. Got so I had to trouble her for a stopgap hall pass and take a hike to clear some things out headwise.  Early morning Fulton St.

          Before long, a chipper reveille call from Sydney for directions, and I was quietly whisking curly little hairs aside, scraping my face with a throwaway razor and brushing as best and quickly as I could. I crawled back into my road clothes and waited all ashiver outside in the dark to be driven away from all that, for I could barely even remember where I’d left my squareback by now. Even at this ungodly hour, it was never too late for the rowdy night riders on passing MUNI buses, never too early for the sulky, solitary dog walkers dragging their varied mutts along shadowy Golden Gate Park overgrowth across Fulton Street.

          Before I could finish nibbling at the last of Moon’s grubstake, Syd’s red Fox was honking around 25th Avenue, scooping me up at the bus stop, headed across town on Fulton.  I’d planned to deliver Josh’s box and Moon’s thank-you gift right then and there, but wasn’t about to fish them out of the squareback in the pre-dawn shadows—leaving them buried under the foldover rear seat, where the agricultural inspectors wouldn’t have spotted them on I-80 West, whatever they happened to hold. So after a sleepy hand grasp, I was resigned to simply retracing the how’s but not why’s of the long road trip back out. While I then disavowed my overnight accommodations, she recounted the high-grade disco fever at ‘Dance Your Ass Off’ on Columbus Avenue.

          Down drizzle slick Park Presidio, she began prepping me with such pre-dawn wisdom as, this wasn’t Boulder, where it wasn’t who you were but who your parents were that mattered. Here, it was where you lived and breathed, as in nowhere near the fog belt. Before I could weigh that hypothesis, she had turned east on Turk Boulevard over to O’Farrell Street, moving on to how she wanted to scope out this church we were off to, intending to paint its pastor and tableau. And how its Easter sunrise service was just unorthodox, nondenominational enough to suit a Catholic and a Jew.

          We soon settled on a parking spot outside a fenced-off former taxi garage, a pink spray of sunlight beginning to pry over East Bay hills. And here we were, covering our blind sides through the Tenderloin. Just a block or so more, she’d cautioned, amid the leering Saturday Night afterlife, and make sure we keep our hands on our pockets and bags.

          “I mean, what are we doing here this time of day, anyway,” I asked, smack in the middle of Dawning Redemption Cathedral, swivel headed as I was.

          “Actually, I probably shouldn’t be here any time of day,” she replied breathlessly, glancing about the raucous flock and rafters, taking note of perspectives. “But I’m thinking that with someone like you here, we can do these things.”

          “Lordy, you all will get your share of troubles, because your past keeps gettin’ in the way of your present, and you can’t be actin’ on your future!”

          “Right on!”

          “So you keep gnawin’ on all these negatives instead of workin’ on the positives—even though the positives are there in fronta you alla time…

          “Well, I’m tellin’ you to forget the past, disposa all those negatives. Forget where y’all comin’ from, ’cause you’re here now, yes you are!”

          Sydney had known we were closing in on the place when a block-long blight of steel-grated storefronts gave way to a brief redevelopment clearing, then Dawning Redemption’s mobile unit, as it were. Just outside the church itself, a bluegrass bible revival had gathered around this flat-bed GMC truck, the funkified jug band atop it firing the brimstone of all these stray disciples who’d crowded about the truck, luring in drunk-dry winos and sore, damp loiterers with church-sponsored coffee and pastries all around.

          Dawning Redemption’s cathedral was essentially a recommissioned vessel adrift in a polluted sea of shooting galleries, encounter parlors, sticky floored bijous and gun-controlled groceries. About the only thing keeping it afloat was its robust skipper. Reverend Thrall had painted the former Unitarian temple a heavenly blue throughout in the pre-Haight Sixties, and drawn capacity gates weekly ever since. That streetcorner mob had sung their way into a standing room service already raising the cathedral roof, Syd and me following closely behind.

          “That’s right, we gonna storm out them gates. Come down, gates! ’Cause you see, life’s too short. There ain’t no time betta than this time, ’cause you ain’t got no otha time than this time.”

          The reverend and his holy backfield had briskly herded latecomers into the three section abreast pews, which provided all the leg and kneeling room of a refugee smuggling rustbucket bound for freedom in stormy seas. Thus fully boarded, the congregation was gathered right here where Tinus wanted them: lost, hungry, ready to bare and barter their souls.

          He tucked his leopard toned dashiki into flared black double-knit slacks and prowled his pulpit as far as his mic cord would take him— treaded sandals laying rubber, jowls gilling, chromed Aviators steaming, tailings of a purple do-rag flying out from under an afro-beaded skull cap. Choir loft spotlights star crossed him from one end of the stage to the other. The DR Choir was rousing, a Redemption Jazz Combo cookin’ hot. But the Pointer-stepping ensemble singers and higher power trio or no, Tinus could have easily spread his cadent gospel without the wire.

          “People be talkin’ about the sweet bye and bye. Well brothers and sisters, you in the sweet bye and bye, in the sweet here and now!

          “See, we just got one lap on the track. So y’all betta not live you lives like you gonna come back to the starting gate, ’cause I ain’t so sure you gonna be comin’ back!

          “And even if you do, might be y’all come back worse than what you are right this minute!”

          “Hear what he’s saying?” Syd nudged me. “So sociologize this, why dontcha.”

          “How could I not hear what he’s saying,” I said, ignoring her malapropaganda.

          That sobering message had Tinus Thrall cueing his multimedia mixers on the down stroke, one console monk popping red iron pills, dimming the rafter lights; another in the rear loft projecting a large-screen slide show high over the reverend’s shoulder. Floor-to-ceiling celluloid images scrolled by, a milky, acidy Kodacolor kaleidoscope of kids, kittens and flowers, followed by grainy, overblown snaps of Malcolm, Martin and Medgar, of Selma, Stokely, Angela Davis, Harvey Milk and the Kennedy boys.

          That sunburst-robed Redemption choir eventually descended, set in motion stage right with some ‘Sweet Bye and Bye’, doing a syncopated shuffle worthy of the Famous Flames. Tinus sold the entire show with a modified Brown cape-of-faith routine, a colored pinwheel key light haloing him due left of the pulpit.

          “And don’t you be worryin’ alla time ’bout what other people do and got. Or what they don’t got. ’Cause they got theirs—you gotta get yours.

          “That’s right, you responsible, you bein’ accountable for your own self! Ain’t nobody doin’ to you, only you’re doin’ to you. So stop doin’ to you and start doin’ for you this mornin’!”

          “Ain’t that the truth,” she nudged again, repositioning the small primrose carnation in her Saksy Champagne silk headband. “Are you getting all this down, professor? But you’d be a lot better off if you had your cameras with you now, am I right?”

          “All I’m getting out of it is a morning-after headache, to go with my caffeine brain clamp,” I replied, scanning the church’s exposed oak beam ceiling, seven-bulb shaded chandeliers, wall sconces of orange, green, red and yellow flora, while groping for a connection between the sermon and the slides. “And even low-speed Agfa color isn’t up to handling this sensory overexposure. Better that I left them at Denise’s.”

          In due chorus, the cathedral lights flared up, Redemption gospel singers broke loose by virtue of some harmonic organ chords into an uptempo ‘Ain’t Gonna Lay My ’Ligion Down’. Row after row cast those shackles aside for Thrall, the flock’s odd diversity shining through—Asian, Latino, pink, black, whitey and every mix in between—at least for the moment. Aspiring Hunter’s Point congregated with denominationally slumming Pacific Heights. Brown hugged yellow, kissed black, embraced white, in an anonymous, unself-consciously innocent sort of way—shoulder to shoulder, arm in arm, the chord change setting pews blissfully asway.

          Sydney herself wrapped around a neighborhood woman-san, a spindly brother in lavender tunic and urn umber spandex, two spinsters in splashy fruitbowl bonnets and island mau-maus, and a 300 lb. soprano draped in a papaya patterned serape and crown of purple pansies. Saber-tooth combed Afro painted ladies, black jogging-suited Leroys and messianic flower children hooted and stomped, wailed, whistled, clapped and clung—bussed cheeks, rubbed necks and slapped bottoms as if they had actually departed their station, transcended this fruitless plane.

          Wild-flowered straw hats, flowing tribal scarves, Aztec-inspired serapes, Pacific Island frou-frous, lily lace shawls, buttoned-down corduroy, hemp-tied talisman robes standing room together in one celebratory freedom train to salvation. Collecting the fares were an all-pro squad of offensive linemen extending long-handled baskets up and down the aisles.

          “Stand up to youself so you can be standin’ up for youself—once and for all. Stand right up and be somebody in this big, wide world!

          “Create youself a scandal. That’s right, let’s all create a scandal together, a scandal of happiness and love.

          “But you gotta start it—right here, right now. Reach out and touch somebody’s hand, make this a better place, if you can. Let’s sing it together, people!”

          “Now that is deep. Amayyyzing, huh? No holding back,” Syd smiled, hooking my arm. “If that doesn’t put you in synch with the big guy, I don’t know what…”

          “Yeah, amazing,” I muttered, rubbing my temples. “Think we could split pretty quick or…”

          “Oy, Mr. Sociology, there’s just no inspiring some people…”

          “Guess I’m just not one for crowds this early in the morning. Plus, there’s no damn oxygen in this place.” Weak-kneed with all this intimacy, I was shaken even further by the ushers’ expressions when I stiffed their baskets.

          “If you don’t feel comfortable in this crowd,” she snapped, quickly covering my offertory shortfall. “Maybe you really only want to study people like yourself in cushy Boulder.”

          The music deafened, if only to stay a decibel ahead of the chants and foot stomping. Arms, straw, lace and fur flew in all directions, and the heat was definitely on. We tripped over several stubbly Tenderloin curb dwellers who had squeezed into their pew’s end after the starting chimes, me catching a euphoric back of the hand across my chin. An usher directed us through a side door, and there we left a throbbing Dawning Redemption service spiritually sensitized, yet somehow still mangily mortal.

          Reverend Tinus continued rocking center stage with his microphone, rolling with the furbelows and glissandos—blessing, right-on smiling at his collection team, grinning mutton chop to peppery mutton chop as the choir and flock launched into ‘…Make this world a better place, if you can’ as a tearful, delirious finale.

          “What’s that smell,” I asked, as we squeezed around a long, bedraggled line forming outside two rear cathedral doors.

          “It’s for the free lunch kitchen they open right after the service,” Syd said offhandedly, getting the picture down for later painting, jotting some notes on her DR program. “They have shelter beds down there for the real down-and-outers, too.”

          “Reminds me of how hungry I am,” I sniffed, tracking the aroma of something pullety down a crowded flight of arrow-marked stairs. “I mean, after all this strenuous… religion…”

          “Trust me,” she pulled me away by the forearm. “You never want to get that hungry.”

sr dingbats

          Our conversation maintained a religious tone well out of the rotting Tenderloin, then the full crosstown length of Geary Boulevard. Sydney questioned the reactionary nature of Roman Catholicism in the face of an ultra modern St. Mary’s Church, which lorded over Cathedral Hill highrises like an inverted washing machine.

          I noted the proprietary Red Chinese temples and Japantown pagodas on the Hill’s windward downside in rejoinder. Such discourse quickened past Peace Plaza, Syd marveling at Tinus Thrall’s charisma, his reference to scandals and the sweet-here-and-now, while I dwelled upon his mongrel flock. It began expanding to a Judeo-Christian exchange on the Jesus thing in general, and crosses bared and borne in particular. How thorny was the messiah crucifixion scenario, and how the whole Jewish carpenter miracle was so hard to swallow. This latest dose of her free-form directness left me dumbstruck at least to Fillmore Street.

          Because what turned my head was what followed closely on the heels of a presently potted down music shrine, roughly one-third of the way out the Geary Expressway into the Western Addition. There, in the shadow of, yet dwarfing the hallowed Fillmore Auditorium stood two large, grimy religious assembly halls, side by side. The first, more majestic church proved to be Korean Pentecostal. The second, an even grittier, mausoleum-like former satanic Scottish Rite of Freemasonry sanctorum—once named for a founder of the Ku Klux Klan—seemed a bit too mystical to nail down.

          “It’s sort of like Dawning Redemption, only without the Sunday sunrise service,” Syd said haltingly. She’d recently had a new in-dash cassette deck and surround sound speakers installed in her Fox, and busily loaded a Joni Mitchell tape, eyes caroming between the Pioneer player and Geary Underpass’s outbound surface lane. But not before she had speed dialed past a bottom-of-the-hour news radio headline of another brutal overnight murder up at Lafayette Park, side-eyeing my way.  “Not that again!”  No way, I winced in silence, not my thing… Fortunately the ‘Hejira’ album came up strong, a long distracting track called, ‘Coyote’.

          “Then why didn’t we go there,” I dodged, slightly turning down the volume, easing into Joni lyrically bounding between a lonely studio and some idyllic upland ranch. I then craned away to note a scattering of rather animated revelers outside the tomblike church conversion over across Geary, the one with maximum steel bar security, a strange, crooked roof cross and minimal signage, something about ‘Peoples Temple of the Disciples of Christ Denominational Brotherhood’.     Peoples Temple block

          “Sorry, wing nut. I read where most of them packed off to some South American jungle a few months ago,” she backed off and gunned ahead, rejoining the medianed Geary speedway west of the underpass, climbing Presidio Ridge past Divisadero toward the Masonic Avenue tube. “They were reportedly on the run from a slew of investigations of guns, drugs and money shenanigans.”

          “Great, we miss a service with decent hours, plus a lot more breathing and leg room…”

          “That’s not the half of it. I hear the whole sect is your basic worm farm. Believe me, there’s good charisma like Tinus’s and bad charisma, like trying to poach from Dawning Redemption’s flock. Namely Peoples Temple, which is headed by some weird hick preacher from Indiana by way of scamming through Mendocino County. Now Reverend Jim Jones has everybody in town kissing his feet, City Hall on down.

          “Typical city politics, if you ask me, he’s even got Mayor Moscone and Willie Brown in his back pocket by delivering ghetto voters on a gold collection platter,” she continued, accelerating past a fuming Asian tour bus. “But then New West Magazine ran this exposé last summer claiming that PT was a nightmare cult full of sex, drugs and mind control. That Jones was more into separating followers from their valuables than bringing the faithful together, with a lot of beatings and brutality to boot. Rumors were flying like crazy even before I left for Europe…”

          This and the album’s ‘Strange Boy’ track, which Syd shuffled to, silenced the religious debate past a Christian Science between Steiner Street and Park Presidio, not to mention the hulking ice rink-turned-rock Mecca known on countless live albums as Winterland.

          From there, we papered over our differences amid a rolling Geary Boulevard blur of neighborhood synagogues, Sikh temples and Islamic mosques, fundamentalist storefronts, heavily shrouded sacrificial sects, churches of Natural Grace, Perfect Liberty, God in Christ, Household Faith, Divine Mahi Kari, the Star of the Sea Parish, and Vineyard Christian Fellowship that seemed to be sprinkled along this broad, bleached-out commercial corridor.

          Passing the multicultural blur of drug and food chains, of mom & pop, gramps & granny ethnic bakeries, Irish bars, Russian and Asian cafés, print shops, mattress discounters and corner cleaners of inner and outer avenues, we green lighted all the way out to the breathtaking ocean sweep of Point Lobos and El Camino del Mar.

          All along, we were rolling in uplifted spirits through Richmond District clutter, across the once Pueblo Lands of San Francisco, by this time, with more ‘Hejira’ reel to reeling on the deck, strains of ‘traveling in some vehicle’ to ‘sitting in some café’.

          “You were talking about that pastor guy who was in the news,” I asked, at about the Russian Holy Virgin In Exile Cathedral—the one with the huge gilded onion bulbs on top. I nonetheless curiously ricocheted like a paddleball back to that Fillmore-Steiner Street scene. “What… rumors? He’s from the Midwest. It’s just a church, like all these other…”

          “Wrong, Peoples Temple is something else. Something pretty twisted and corrupt, way beyond your old-timey religion—not about gospel music but singing the blues. I’m serious, God knows what really goes on in there…”

          “But how’s their food?”

          “On the rubber greasy side, far as I’ve heard…”

          “Yeah, well, where we off to now?”

          “The dawn of pure creation—the end of starvation as we know it today…all so totally to die for…”

Care for more?

Chapter 29. Brunch with a view does 
wonders for the appetite and attitude, then 
a scenic stroll proves more peptic to the soul…

“Be careful that what you
might ingest is not taken
in proverbial jest

“Whose number?”

“Take your pick.”

“I’m really not much of a numbers person…”

“You’ve no choice. It’s crowded here, because everybody’s doing it. Come to San Francisco, lose your limitations, find your limitless self—the latest rage.”

That said, Regina Tzu rose with a flourish, headed for the kitchen once more. Funny, everywhere silver, yet it was either finger food or these slippery wooden sticks. I repositioned them clumsily in my left hand, cradling them between thumb and index knuckles, where they proceeded to collapse on me at first stab, brown rice and chickpeas flying like popping corn over bowl’s rim.

 I glanced fitfully away, hoping she was preoccupied with a teapot that was steeping out loud. Instead, she returned, nudging a side dish of bean curd my way, noting that she had ground in a little mugwort and tarragon to zip it some. I could but nod and feebly poke about. That’s when I noticed the crack worn, leather covered book further down table. Anything to stray off topic.

 “Sooo, what are you reading there?”

 “Meditations of Lao Tzu, if you must know,” she said, nibbling at a goat’s cheese cube with her puffy, pouty lips as she flowed about the dining room, lighting candles, stopping with the paint can-sized mortar beneath her shrine. Flames set, she lowered the light dimmer and poured two cups from a steeping silver teapot. “It’s quite spiritual. Spiritualism’s my life. I also practice dynameditation, mantras in motion.”

 “I thought silver was your life…”

 “Silver’s my other life,” she said, offering me one of two blue and yellow enameled cups. “We all have multiple lives, do we not? How about you?”

“Me? One’s plenty, believe me…”

“I see. Well, I feel Lao Tzu has a sensual quality, as well. But don’t go getting any iniquitous ideas.”                      Tzu dining room

“Amen. Not to worry about that…”

“Understood then. So finish up there, if you can,” she replied, setting aside the tea tray. “I also have some nice kheer and raita chilling for dessert.”

“That involve these chopsticks? Or can I take a rain check on that?”

Eyes rolling, Regina reached over to my right, picking up her book. What I at first dismissed as an aggravated mole or freckle turned out to be her tiny amethyst nose stud ignited in the candle glow. This alone snatched my attention away from any more chopstick jujitsu. Then she commenced reading aloud from Lao Tzu:

‘One who knows man is intelligent;
one who knows herself has insight.
One who conquers men is strong.
One who conquers herself has steadfastness.’

Why she did so, I could not decipher, simply nodding and setting the sticks neatly aside. “Amen,” I said awkwardly. “That was, uh…”

 The truth of Tzu, of course,” she said devoutly, closing, plopping her book on the table, a bit too near my forearm for existential comfort. “Now, time for divine dessert. But first, we must hug.”

 “Must what?” I shifted in the chair, jaw dropping into my Mattar Paneer. There she stood beside me, smiling tightly, bejeweled hands outstretched. “Uh, I don’t think…”

“Come,” she insisted, between bursts of throaty, tongue-on-palate chanting and solmizing, cheekbones aglow. “We understand, temporal not, iniquity not…it is spiritual, and it is written.”

“Uh, nothing personal,” I muttered, nervously folding my napkin, otherwise sitting stony pat. “It’s just that things are a little confusing now as it is, got me kinda sorting it out. You know, a friend of a friend of a friend deal. And experience tells me…”

“Friends’ friends, huh? Sounds awfully profane to me,” she continued beckoning. But now, now—you don’t have any experiences that don’t have you in them. Lao teaches us whoever you actually are is the source of your experiences.”

“Begging your pardon, but I really better not.” Begging off being the better part of chivalry, not wanting her within sniffing distance of my road aroma, much less getting jabbed by all her angles and barbs.

 “Really?! You’re not looking at reality at all. You’re looking at a picture in your unsanctified brain…just a reflection of an untrue real that you blindly choose to actualize.”

“Say what?” I pushed my chair back, rising slowly from the table, chopsticks flying like a splintered ball bat, yet another surreality setting in. “Maybe I should hit Denise’s room and clean up…”

 “What is it, then, my cuisine? My vestly aura?” She glared at me, flushed redder than the candlelight, rings and wrist and bracelets flashing like roadside detour signs.

“No, hey,” I finished my tea. “It’s been terrific—I’m just a little…”

“You come into my home, partake of my bread,” she shouted, chandelearrings fanning, nose jewel on fire. “I meant a purely innocent embrace, a universal expression of gratitude. Are you a non-believer? You’re a spiritual Pyrrhonist, that’s what you really are.”

“Whoa, believe me, I believe.” I jumped up, edging toward the hallway, toppling a smaller baby Buddha on the backslide. “You’ve got me all wrong…”

“No I haven’t, you’ve been staring through me from the moment you came in here. I feel positively violated,” she screamed, silver jewelry clanging like an early warning campanile. “You’re porcine, infemous, just like all the rest! ”

“No way, I didn’t mean to…” Infemous? I froze in place, feeling innocent as charged, with no suitable line of defense.

 “Lao says the door of the Mysterious Female is the root of heaven and earth,” she recited, over the ringing of the parlor phone. She glared once more, spinning with Versace runway poise to answer the call, albeit with a deep parting shot. “It lingers in whisps, use it without haste, you philistine, you plebian…twit!! I’m Bryn Mawr honors, I’ll have you know…”

 I knew not what to make of that, the radical spiritual turn, the inflammatory condemnation: I just wasn’t at all prepared for such a pivot. Was she talking classless or classlessness? Was it my persuasion, or was it just me? I was caught flat-footed in rank stocking feet, by a host who was holding me to some standard higher than I’d been beholden to before. It was a harmless, hospitable hug, after all—something to do with your hands. I reached dazedly for the chopsticks, tapping them against the tabletop like Charlie Watts at his drum kit —keeping a shaky snare and trap beat, a top hat solo on the rice bowl while trying to visualize her rear flat configuration—until the chantress came tolling back in.

“Seems it’s for you, one of your friends of friends,” she said coldly, pointing me toward the rear hallway. “I’d prefer you took it in Denise’s room.”

“Sure, no problem,” I said, somewhat relieved, yet feeling somehow hung-up over this disorienting little encounter, hoping she wouldn’t hang up at her end before I found my way to the extension phone. I set aside the chopsticks and pocketed Denise’s note as Regina kinetically Omed her way around the dining table to re-lid and remove her tureen and rice bowls, raising the rheostat to full amber lighting.

There I left her, shuffling down the worn hall runner past the bathroom, thick with incense and Airwick, a mix of musk and myrrh—with racked Vishnu towel sets and shiva nosegays, scatterings of Co-Evolution Quarterlies and hardbound SriT’s, lots of herbal balms, balsams, lotions and moisturizers, and a curious number of kinky, tightly curled black hairs about the sink basin. I passed on that, zeroing in on a calligraphed poster, ‘Function of the Non-Existent’ from the ‘Canon of Reason and Virtue’, framed upon the hallway wall—across from one named the ‘Path of Kalachakra Initiation’—just this side of Regina’s bedroom.

 A quick peek in there revealed a round futon covered in Tibetan comforters and a scattering of ruffled madras skirts, crocheted sweaters and brocade muslin blouses. A dressing console was awash with biorganic crèmes and polishes, gem-set silver bands, brooches, chaplets and chatelaines, enameled nickeline boxes, its mirror draped in red silk scarves, lame floral sashes and yellow boas.

Her drawn window curtains seemed almost Kabul style—red, blue, green, with gold embroidery and little dime-sized mirrors. Pillows and pouches of myriad fabrics and South Asian origins were scattered like pre-teen teddy bears all over the namda carpeted floor. Sorting out all that Hindu-Buddhism stuff carried me one door down into Denise’s rearmost month-to-month sublet bedroom, for better or worse.   Regina's room

“You can pick up any time back there,” Regina called out impatiently down the hall. “Phone’s on her nightstand…”

“Yeah, got it,” I replied, entering  Denise’s space all the more advisedly, almost as if singlehandledly approaching a petty crime scene, cold and empty handed.

“And no going on so long this time!”

“I hear you.” Closing the bedroom door behind me, I met with early evening darkness. But a flip of the overhead light switch, and Denise’s room afforded fallback breathing space beyond the call. Hers was essentially Regina’s room minus the Hindu bangles and swag, her decor leaving old cabinetry, woodwork and cinderblocks to their own devices, with a simple foam pad instead of a foot-high futon. Except for her digital clock radio atop a rickety dresser, she looked to have left the rest of her space to the imagination—save for a framed photo signed by that guy named Warren I overturned, lying as it was face down.

I stumbled across a maroon area rug covering the hardwood floor, headed for the bedside phone. Denise had left neatly stacked clean bedding and Dharma throw pillows, likely borrowed from Regina Tzu. Moon said her childhood friend had sublet the room, after finishing a Women’s Studies program at Old Blue. But from all appearances, she never quite took full physical possession, which left me to wonder whether anybody in this town slept in a regular bed. Then again, I could just picture Regina declaring that if I wanted regular beds, I should go to Vacaville or Vallejo.

 A flash skim of Denise’s note found her apologizing for the sudden departure, otherwise welcoming me to San Francisco, with her intuitive vision that I would synergize instantly, and that Melissa would join me just as fast. Oh, and that her roommate could be spiritually demonstrative, and seriously sensitive about it.

As I braced to pick up the phone, I could but wonder why Moon had steered me toward this arrangement exactly—had so easily let me talk her into deep sixing Boulder, for that matter—second thoughts, cognitive dissonance creeping in and out. Such reflection was no more comforting than my road tarred image in that closet door mirror once I sat down on the pad, but at least this wasn’t a platinum Princess phone. “Hello?”

 “Where are you?” 

 “Uh, in town, out on the Avenues,” I said, stuffing Denise’s note in my flannel shirt pocket, waiting for an extension phone click that was slow to come as a security deposit refund check. “At a really good friend of a friend of Moon’s…” CLICK.

 “What was that,” asked Sydney Mendel. “And what are you doing here, Kenneth, in the Richmond, of all places. And who is that person answering the phone?!” 

“Moon’s friend, Denise’s roommate,” I said warily, unclear whether that click was legit. “Point is, I’m here to take my shot, like we talked. With Josh Gravanek’s package no less, plus I’ve a gift for you from Boulder. I think its one of Moon’s hand-glazed mugs. I called to drop them off before, but Edie said your whereabouts were unknown…”

“Oh, great,” she spouted. “But what did you expect? This isn’t cow town Colorado, Kenneth. Don’t misread me, it’s amayyyzing that you’re back and all. But you can’t spring on a person like good neighbor Sam. See, I’m coming off a Passover Seder at my cousin’s dome up by Sebastopol. Then I had an earlier engagement, and I’m off again in five minutes or so. Timing is everything here.” 

“Nothing, I didn’t expect anything, just a little welcome wagon maybe,” I probed, glancing at Denise’s wall hangings: unframed, bearing images less of spiritualism than soul. Tacked loosely, mostly off plumb, were concert posters of the O’Jays, Village People, Earth, Wind & Fire smiling down upon me in this hour of social strife. “Just seems you had time before…”

“How’s that again?”  

“The letter, you sure had time to write the letter in you studio…” Crap, why the hell did I say something stupid like—trying to grab it, pull it back in. Little wonder I sought solace in the foxy Ohio Players pin-up with that naked chick bathed in bee manna. Always better to use honey than vinegar.

“Just a thank-you note—for Moon and you, that’s all—yeesh,” she groaned, rallying some. “Call me in the morning…5 AM, okay? We’ll go to sunrise service, then have brunch, it’ll be fantabulous.” 

“Sunrise? Uh, I was sort of hoping not to be stuck out here with Ms. Mystical here all evening.” I turned Warren back over and clicked on Denise’s clock radio to check for time settings, catching a news report: …There are signs of movement in settling some SFPD discrimination suit, amid insider tittering that a pretty young activist ‘sister’ had been spotted more than once around the mayor’s chambers, and was she party to the negotiations? Supervisor White has voice his and the POA’s counter concerns, rumors swirling that he was still chafed over his deal-breaking Youth Camp defeat after supporting Harvey Milk’s gay rights ordinance. Stay tuned, details at 11. 

“Sorry, early morning’s the best I can do…” 

“But 5 AM? I dunno, Syd, didn’t come out here figuring you’d be laying a predawner on me…”

“Kenneth, you called me, remember?” CLICK. CLICK.

Care for more?

 Chapter 28. An early wake-up call 
augurs an entirely different spiritual
awakening, and deliverence to
some hollowed-out ground…

 “Enter the realm at your pleasure 
and peril, never overestimating
the element of surprise.”

          “She’s not here, and why are you?”

          “It’s a long story…any idea where she might…”

          “Who keeps track around here? It’s Saturday night in San Francisco. She’s a social animal, what can I tell you?”

          “So pass along a message, can you? I’ll call back soon as I’m able…”

          We’d taken it one plotting, prodding step at a time. Melissa and I hashed things out over morning yokes and rashers at Dot’s Diner, its huge front picture window facing squarely toward the Flatirons’ snow-clad slabs. We sent Seamus running wild over Chautauqua Park, chasing his own paw prints, no horseshit, while we chewed on the thornier issues and Dot’s doggy-bagged buttermilk biscuits. Some of our territorial deals were struck up by Chautauqua’s lodges, amid the bustling dining hall and guest cottages, the ski duffels, puffy goose down, the waxed K2s and Rossignols of an early Texas Ski Week, while climbers shinnied up and down Front Range walls like fire ants on a sugar cone.

          Moon had helped me mail résumés out to every clinic and counseling center within snowball-throwing distance of Boulder; whereupon we fairly settled on my quick return should any other prospects arise.  Days later, we trudged past Pioneer boneyard en route to more haggling over household details, with Sinkburgers at Herbie’s Deli, wondering why they’d covered famed beatnik art and Robert Redford’s janitorial jottings with those ugly pine boards.

          Packing Gouda and Monterey Jack wedges from Don’s Cheese and Sausage Mart, we soon test drove my bucking squareback up Flagstaff Mountain, past those palatial dream aeries stilted on the hillsides like huge spaceships ready for lift-off—rich, multilevel California-style showcases, light years ahead of everybody. At the Summit, we weighed the many high-minded positives of staying put in the People’s Republic of Boulder after all—especially on an afternoon this clear, when Kansas nearly came into view.

          Nevertheless, before long, we’d walked the Pearl Street Mall delving into more specific two-way logistics while the VW fuel injection was being fine-tuned and a couple of retread tires replaced. I eventually even relented some, working a number of nights waiting tables at her Coach Light Inn, making up some car money on slim gratuities. A closing night of happy-hour Grenache in the Hotel Boulderado’s stained-glass lobby, followed by splitting lactose-free soy-asparagus-tofu quiche dinner at Nancy’s blue house Restaurant, sealed things for better or for worse.

          After a passionate Fogie’s ‘Flatlands’ album send-off, Moon awoke to help me load the squareback for the exploratory trip to the coast. Her grubstake included a goodie bag full of fruit, handfuls of diced veggies and her home-baked goods–everything from date-raisin-blueberry scones to tuppers of peach cobbler and steak-and-kidney pie.

          Provisional phone calls made, key numbers exchanged, she kissed and sent me off with a howdy and eternal thank-you gift for Denise Keiner, as well as a little sisterly give-her-my-best something for Syd.Shaking her pretty head in dismay, Moon joked that while her Lester relationship was somewhere between arranged and deranged, ours was going from harmonic to unhinged. But seriously, in the process of packing, I did discover Josh’s package, wedged beneath the folded down jumpseat. Half the size of a shoebox and considerably lighter, it could have held anything within its plain brown wrapping. Eye candy, nose candy, contraband of any other kind: was it blow, would it blow? So I didn’t dare open, much less mail it—reluctantly carrying the sucker along with all due dispatch and deliberation, packing it safely away from my camera bag.

          I then proceeded to drain a meager checking account, fill up the Volks on discount regular, wave sweet bye-byes to the homefront and ambivalently, apprehensively, put happy Boulder in my rearviews. Truth be told, I couldn’t keep from double-checking the mirror frames all the way to I-70 West, weighing the peril of disrupting things thereabouts.

          Snug in my old army parka and CU scarf, Vibram-soled hiking boots wrapped in washed out grease rags, I had clenched the steering wheel with holey black leather gloves—chugging up past the Davidson Mesa overlook, pausing for one last glance down at Boulder Valley as though seeing it for the first time, if not the last. Catching a milder break between blizzardy snow storms, I soon tunneled through the early Rockies on I-70’s center route, emerging into a stiff headwind that on some dizzying mountain canyon stretches seemed to swirl into a spanking tailwind. Clear climbing up to Frisco and Vail, virtually coasting from Eagle down through Glenwood Canyon into Rifle and Grand Junction, I tuned and retuned into Kristofferson, Emmylou Harris and Luckenbach Waylon and the Boys as they flared and faded along the AM dial.

          “I got the phone number down right, right? Is Melissa there with you?”

          “Right. No, not yet, Edie—but she’s on the way, won’t be long. Meantime, she gave me a little gift for Syd and you all. See, I’m just the delivery boy…”

          “Uh-huh. Well, soon as Melissa gets here, you bring her on by.”

          Moon’s renowned carrot cake and a Thermos of mini-marshmallow cocoa had carried me across Utah’s Green River, as did a Salt Lake City radio station that was heavy into Marshall Tucker. A lengthy set of ‘Take The Highway’ through ‘Long Hard Ride’ rode shotgun with me through Fishlake Forest and over the Wasatch Range. I soon picked up route 28 along the San Pitch Mountains and Uinta Forest’s Mt. Nebo hills, sun shining like the Temple spires over Provo and Utah Lake. ‘Fire On The Mountain’ was popping in my ears as I disquietly approached SLC to link with I-80 West, bracing for another untimely mechanical pit stop, but no such dismal misfortune recurred.

          Praising higher powers, I’d buzzed along the Great Salt Lake and through its desert once again, paying no mind to the vapid imagery, the endless ore trains, let alone Syd’s cryptic Yiddish rock garden. Hoping against hope, I whistled through Wells, gassing up again at Raley Jorgen’s, crossing Nevada in the radio-inactive dead of night. I dodged varmints, fought mental discontinuity, drafted behind semi-big rigs to save a few gallons, stiffed Elko—munching on Moon’s grubstake, washing it down with truckstop coffee, avoiding Lovelock like the grippe, with no dead-eyed, packin’ hitchhiker in sight.

          I crapped out through Reno, froze up over Donner, finally crashing down in a pink stucco motel somewhere between Auburn and Rocklin that by the raucous night and next light of day turned out to be hooker heaven by the hour. Not a problem: the room was cheap, sun was up, balmy palm trees were emerging and Denny’s dollar breakfast outside Roseville was just over-easy, bottomless cup enough to set me coasting through Sac Town and the San Joaquin Valley.

          Beyond Vallejo, I was in awe once more of the vista point’s sweep of San Pablo and San Francisco Bays. I could feel the power of that dramatic, overarching perspective all the way down in the slow lane past Hercules tank farms, Berkeley’s studiously cluttered foothills, Oakland’s worldly container shipyards.  But speed and tension began building through Yerba Buena Island’s tunnel, over Bay Bridge lanes leading to that first full-on view of The City’s stunning skyline and the trim ivory and pastel neighborhoods on green background hills, the vast blue Pacific Ocean beyond. Overtaken by an articulated Transbay Express bus, I was freaked as much as fired up, here again out on the edge, mindful of perhaps minus one sure lifeline I’d carried the time before.

          Jive 95 FM was meandering through some bootleg ‘U.S. Blues’ live and a sampling of Warren Zevon’s new ‘Excitable Boy’ album, something about ‘Werewolves of London’, as I had hit the westernmost cantilever of the gray Bay span—traffic, tempo, everything accelerating on the upper-deck feed, a toll cheater or two racing on by. Ahead, downtown highrises glistened all sleek silver and white in the clear, brilliant sun, a jet stream of cars and small vans banking around the double-deck Embarcadero Freeway, which hemmed in the bank and mercantile towers like a road-scarred front bumper on a Corniche or Silver Cloud.

          I’d checked off noontime on the Union 76 digital time tower, as Ferry Building clocks chimed in. A widely studded fleet of in-and-outbound vessels, tugs to tankers and tour boats, briskly plied the beautiful blue-green Bay, before a charm bracelet of finger docks and uniformly enclosed working piers all around the waterfront—hmmm, now what about that little lucky charm? At first, gape-mouthed glance, this was a San Francisco far more spectacular than I could have even hoped to remember across Nevada, much less while waiting dinner tables at the Coach Light Inn.         San Francisco Embarcadero

          One pushbutton down, KMEL had segued into a new Steely Dan set, beginning with ‘Home At Last’, while I snapped to and merged into the southbound 101 flow—tensing, pulse quickening all the more—lagging right, fighting lane jumpers, blaring tailgaters and muscling semis until catching the first vaguely familiar exit sign past downtown clamor.

          An elevated Central Freeway cut across Civic Center Plaza and Hayes Valley, revealing downtown’s backsides, dropping me like a depth charge onto Fell Street’s signally synchronized ups and downs. An off ramp left me facing the reductive uncertainties of the Western Addition, the Victorian-laced Panhandle, the oncoming green garden beauty of Golden Gate Park.

          Dialing in a sneak KSFX track off the Starship’s upcoming ‘Earth’ album, proved particularly timely as I’d turned up Stanyan, street map in hand, to make a quick left onto Fulton, the Richmond avenues unfurling before me, all the way to the sea. Port side, lush Golden Gate Park foliage exhaled the tribal stirrings of a Southeast Asian jungle. Shotgun side, the dark, strong-box audacity of the Jefferson Airplane mansion seemed party to some ritual groupie sacrifice behind the flat black walls of their surrealistic castle, inwards of the faux mahogany columns, gold trim and celestial blue portico fronting this weird warren house. Airplane House

          But it wasn’t the acid rock, Slick plastic fantastic atmosphere and pointed little hedges that were knotting up my stomach about now; it was the venue all around. This wasn’t stately Pacific Heights out here. Then again, I wasn’t exactly primed for a Lafayette Park rendezvous quite yet anyway—however I may have been redrawn to that Satalismanic scene.  Instead, Inner Richmond streets comprised a relatively flat grid of numbered streets—bare, cluttered avenues to my right unfurling like a gridiron flag in pastel tidy, two-flat uniformity, wall to wall—an essentially treeless, unneighborly concrete foreboding about them, despite the park unfolding across on the green side of Fulton all the way. A bleached out anonymity and alienation had set in west of Park Presidio, accumulating by the numbers.

          This Outside Land of former sand dunes, of sprawling City and Odd Fellows Cemeteries, wasn’t the San Francisco I daydreamily recalled; this was The City on the outs, nowhere in particular, only with tempting glimpses of the Golden Gate Bridge towers up north and the park’s Marx Meadow to the south as referential road markers. No amount of sunshine could elevate or enliven this low rolling terrain, or pry open its drawn window blinds to shed light on private vices, here where a race track and rousing ‘Beertown’ once raised hell and high water. Nor could the broad Pacific Ocean lapping way out there at Fulton’s end, where Sydney’s purse had ebbed as well.

sr dingbats

          “Excuse me, excuuuse, me. I am still waiting for my call…” The acute voice insisted from an anteroom.

          “Sure, sorry about that,” I said squinting at the telephone dial in the discolored foyer light. “Just be sure to give her this phone number, okay?”

          “Alone there are you? Then who’s that voice?”

          “Nobody you would know, Edie. Nobody I know, for that matter,” I muttered. “Just please be sure to give Syd this number, tell her I’m back in town…”

          “I’ll see what I can do.” CLICK.

          The numbers had been piling up, if not quite adding up. Moon said that Denise had told her to look out for a turnip-colored house, the one with the bay window, toward the end of the block. Trouble was, the shoebox walk-ups along here all pretty much looked the part, with only slight variations of hue and shading, block after block. I had hit 24th Avenue and began scoping out addresses like a December mailman until spotting the two-unit stucco job.

          Parking along this side of Fulton being full garageway monte, I instead swung a heedless U-ey in the Crossover Drive intersection to grab a bus stop-nipping spot across the street. Patchy groves of fir and Monterey Pine trees, the occasional baby redwood, lined Fulton’s southern flank, and I soaked in the balmic eucalyptus, squelching classic Airplane’s ‘Today’ on the Blaupunkt, before hop scotching traffic over to Denise Keiner’s place, lugging my camera bag for safe keeping. That’s when a tall, gangly shadow had slipped halfway through the no-man’s land between 4840’s iron bar security gate and its double dead-bolted front door.  Richmond District

          “Hi, I’m a friend of a friend of Denise’s,” I had said, after easing off the doorbell and exchanging names. “Just in town, was supposed to crash here for…”

          “I’ve heard, I’m aware, you’re the…person from Boulder, the social science Scorpio,” Regina Tzu Fowler had snipped, looking me up and down, holding fast on the landing between the doors. “Denise left a note for you. But she isn’t here…”

          “Uh, really. Well that’s OK, I can come back a bit later…”

          “No, Denise is gone, out of town. Don’t know when she’s coming back,” she’d flicked the tumblers on her black iron gate, motioning me to swing it open. “But she said if it was for Melissa Saversohn, it was fine. So entre-vous, only minus those ungoldly…shoes.”

          Regina had led me through the left of two front doors into her foyer, jangling like a dog-tagged choke chain, yet finishing school graceful as Givenchy models down a Paris runway. She was a naturally attractive former catalog deb whose current accouterments flared and flowed like the reflective, tinseled ornaments on a UNICEF Christmas tree. Billowing above her kung fu slippers and ankle bracelets were purple and gold brocaded harem pants, leading to a tangerine ribbed sweater and color-beaded black crocheted vest. Around her narrow waist was a Sahibah-engraved silver belt with trim, ornamental gold chains, coordinated with the jewels on her extremities in strange, indecipherable ways.

          She beckoned me like a devout Nepalese Sherpa toward her parlor, wherein thick sorrel window drapes obscured much of the room’s detail, save the Hindu wall hangings, etched brass platters and mandalas, the smiling ceremonial renderings of gurus unnamed. On a small Burmese wood table between two far corner satin floor pillows was this plain black extension telephone. Off kilter, essentially on impulse, I’d asked to make that quick cross-town call.

          “Just so you know, I am not in harmony with this arrangement,” she sniffed, relieving me of the receiver, laying a saffron doily over the phone.

          “Well, hey, I’m no Zodiac killer nutcase or anything, am only staying a few days to get settled,” I hobbled about the parlor’s Persian style carpet. “What about your call?”

          “Time will tell. But when it comes when it comes…something I shan’t control.”

          “R-r-right. Sooo, where’s Denise off to?”

          “Mazatlan, I believe—on Vedanta retreat somewhere near La Cruz,” Regina replied, edging back toward the hallway, strawberry hair sneaking out from under her black beret.”

          “Huh, wonder why she didn’t say anything to Melissa about…”

          “It was sort of sudden. Her I-Ching revealed it was time to clear her passages. Denise has become a virtual ascetic of late, striving to redirect her symbiotic flow. And of course she feels the need to distance herself from Warren…”

          “Really,” I followed her, obligingly so, eyeing the red and gold foil Great Secret Dakini and Shakti/Shakta posters peppering the hallway. “Who’s Warren?”

          “Some swinish sexist who tracked her down out here from Ann Arbor. A paleo disaster in pressed denim who’s been messing with her mind every hour on the hour ever since. But you’re not that type yourself, are you?”

          “Who me?” I trailed warily, caught up in the timbre of her polished metallic anklets and armwear. “Not a lick.”

          “No, you just have this preoccupation with den mothers, am I right,” she opened two French doors, India print sheets packing their small square glass panels. “I’m familiar with that type, too.”

          “Mother what?”

          To our immediate left was a small bedroom that appeared to have been converted into some sort of crafts space. Cement blocks and boards constituted work benches clutters with burners, scrap metals, cigar boxes filled with gemstones, jewelry baubles and fragments, engravings and tubular coiled settings in various stages of assembly. As far as I could tell, tools spread about like instruments in a front-line combat triage unit included soldering guns, picks, pliers, polishers, burnishers, hand drills and small propane torches. Padlocked safety deposit boxes held who knew what precious metals and molds. I could smell the residue of melted solder, the odor of borax and alcohol solutions, turning away with a slight burning in my eyes.

          “That I call my silversmithery in there, silver’s my life,” Regina brightened, pointing about the windowless, fluorescently lit room, then straightening a small rubied barette on her lower locks. “Naturally, I do the hot and magic sorcery down in my garage lab. Other than that, don’t need much, just work and replenish, work and recharge.”

          “No lie? Hey, dedication, that’s…amazing,” I said, pupils dilating upwards of Kennedy half dollars as I followed her along the dark pine paneled hallway. “So, you said Denise left a note?”

          “Here,” she ripped it from her vest pocket, drolly handing it to me. “Special delivery, just before fleeing to Mazatlan. She says she’s sorry she missed you, hopes this helps you get situated.”

          “Why Mexico?” I unfolded a quarter-creased sheet of lavender stationery, noting the slapdash pen script, holding it close, like a ticket to the last ship out. “Marin’s not good enough, Yosemite?”

          “Don’t ask me, likely not far enough—she wanted away from Warren in the worst way, or maybe she’s fighting seasonal affective disorder. She’s just a roommate; I’m not my sister’s keeper.” Regina gestured for me to sit in one of six mismatched chairs at a large oblong table as we entered the flat’s dining room. “But I think she said she saw a flier on the Tassajara Bakery bulletin board. Next morning, she was gone, off to find herself, for all I know. Have a seat, why don’t you, make yourself comfortable. I’ve some dinner going in the kitchen there.”                                  Denise's place

          “Uh, that’s all right.” I rested my palms on the wicker back of a brown Krylon-sprayed dinette special. “I’ll just hit me a Burger King…”

          “In San Francisco? You’d be lucky to even find a measly McDonald’s, and Clown Ronald had to fight neighborhood opposition to the death to get that.” She had stopped cold in her tracks, gem-crusted wristlets, anklets, belt chains and earring clusters big as chandeliers ajangle as she turned incredulously my way. “You want Burger King, head back to Vallejo. Otherwise, sit yourself down. I have something a little more microbiotic in the oven.”

          “Been there through Vallejo, thanks.” Sit I did. “So just ring the dinner bell when you’re ready, I’ll be glad to help you with the dishes and…silverware…”

          “I’m sensing gratuitous hostility in your humor, especially for a houseguest I don’t even know, much less one now dependent upon my hospitality…”

          “No, hey, just…” Before I could think up a congenial rejoinder, she spun in through the swinging doors to her kitchen. So I tried to pick up on the surrounding vibe.

          Her dining room itself was much the Delhi bazaar, at least that was how I envisioned she envisioned it to be. Regina had already set two bright straw place mats, stoneware rice bowls and small china teacups across the ochre yellow India print clothed table from one another, amid a scattering of Byzantine brass trivets, silver bell chimes and candlesticks—the two tallest of which she had already lighted. Across the room, a beryl-blue antiqued breakfront held Cost-Plus dinnerware, goblets and random volumes of Bhagavad-Gita, Canon of Reason & Virtue, Function of the Non-Existent and Tibetan Book of the Dead.

          Surrounding walls bore Krya Tantra calligraphy scrolls, mounted Shiva silkscreened fabrics, photos of Vishnu and Sri Ramakrishna, posters of Practicing Placidity and the Schematic Triad of Ternary & Trinity. A Grand Lama detailed, taffeta clad lampshade covered the amber bulb fixture, which was hanging like a blasphemer’s noose over the table.

          I soon smelled something peculiar from the kitchen doorway, bookended by a fat brass Buddha and large imari vase of dead daffodils. The tahini spicey aroma soon jabbed my nostrils like an uppercut, driving my watering eyes toward the dining room ceiling, four orgeat sheets suspended in maharaja tent-like swoops, peaking to that gold-shaded center light. Shiny animalistic silver baubles hung from red satin ribbons, a mythical menagerie that swayed like clock shop pendula as she tread twice more through the kitchen door—with brown rice, then came the ivory chopsticks.

          “Your horsemeat burger’s coming right up,” Regina sneered, setting the bowl on a ceramic-handled trivet mid table, a grilled octagon with stubby tiger paw feet. “Want fries with that?”

          “Touché, hostile humor, I get it,” I averted from the minutely graven sticks, pushing back my oily hair, trying to rub away facial stubble. “Can I help you there…”

          “Implication being I’m not up to the task?” She disappeared back through the louvered kitchen doors. “Not necessary…”

          “Just wondering about the silverware,” I looked about the table and battered, angle bracket-braced credenza against the wall beyond it.

          “Silverware?” She returned with a large, oven-scorched orange tureen, setting it on the trivet, removing its cover with mitted hands. “Very funny…”

          “Well, what’s this?” She handed me a large black plastic spoon.

          “Just some warmed-over Mattar Paneer and Navratan Sagaloo.” Her harem pants billowed like pantaloons in full sail as she sat across from me, ladle-stirring the tureen, then cranking a grinder of sweet basil over the pot. “I’ve added some curry and tamarind to revive it, a bit of miso, too. Help yourself to the rice.”

          “Uh, great,” I sneezed at the powdering, going Calcutta pushcart straight up my nose as I filled my earthenware dish. “This flat spoon’s cool, or…”

          “Cool? Try correct, heathen.” She served herself with birdly portions, easily picking at it with her chopsticks with extravagantly long fingers, skank eyeing the aversion I was exhibiting toward mine. “Conflict with your sticks there?”

          “Nope, I’m okay, got the hang of it,” I fumbled, trying to position and re-cock them without a second glance, only these tools had a manual all their own.

          I picked as best I could around the entrée’s edges, further casting about the walls, less casually than causally, not wanting to come across as mountainfolk. Corner right, a shrine of sorts: poster calendar of the Golden Gate, superimposed between the bridge towers being the benign, gold-toothed smile of Siddhara Deva Roswanu. Centered beneath that was a thick magenta novena candle, rising from another Burmese wood stand. To either side were small shadowbox sculptures of Vishnu and Shiva, silver braided garlands draped halo-like above it all. This, I gleaned from tiny parchment tags hand lettered and affixed to florid detailed silver scrolls. “That’s some devotional shrine you’ve got over there… almost like a church…”

          “Hmm, Burger King, forks and knives, churches.” She flapped her dyed cloth napkin, no masking her disdain. “What exactly is your trip here, anyway?”

          “I dunno, guess I’ve come to take my shot.” I dug as best I could into creamed vegetables, reddish brown atop my half-filled rice bowl, self-conscious as a Japanese tourist, pushing the bean curd to the side, like I did as a kid my crème corn. Over Regina’s shoulder, schematic posters of the Kama Sutra and Path of Kalachakra Initiation covered the opposing, speckled ivory wall. “You know, make a dent in this town.”

          “Well take a number, Jethro…”

Care for more?

Chapter 27. After a spiritually spicy 
dinner, things heat up over just as 
exotic Eastern desserts, until a cross- 
town phone call breaks the spell…

“Love and luck are
where you find them. So take
it all as it comes…and goes.”


          “Not Chicago…too brassy.”

          “How about Fogie, or a little Rory Stoneman…”

          “There any Joan Armatradding?”


          Chicago Transit was too horny, Minnie Ripperton too heavy-hearted, and I backed off on Joan of Arms.  So Rory, it was, side two of his breakout album, ‘On The Cusp’. Time for a few moments safely downshifting, a little whiff of the wide-open spaces, with some music to fine tone the mood. Regrets were tendered, warily accepted by Melissa under the archway threshold into our cabin’s front room, where she had withdrawn to stroke her snoozing tabby, stoke the fireplace and load up my record changer for a mid-range stereo system that dated back to USAEUR’s PX days.

          I stayed put heedfully at the kitchen table, spooning mouthfuls of vegetable and crouton thickening soup, washing it all down with marshmallow hot chocolate. Perfect—fresh carrots, tomatoes, cauliflower moistly softened by the salty consommé stock, poured through me like overheated barium, loosening the grip of besieged thought.

          That was the Moon effect, radiant warmth outwards of a thirty-foot radius around her toasty kitchen—glowing hearths, warm, disarming smiles—an overall comfort level that never failed to get me humming, with the simple flick of a range-top burner. Who wouldn’t feel positively fat, cushy and settled with gourmeta cooking like this? Licking Swiss-blend cocoa from my mustache, I pushed aside the résumés and incoming rounds of official brown envelopes, yet finding my fingers wandering over to the fragrant baby blue number that Moon had left half-folded on the table in her disconcerted haste.

          I opened the letter as if disarming an explosive device, scanning down quickly should Moon have her fill of watering our jungle of window plants. Sydney did indeed open by setting the scene of a drizzly night in her studio, expressions of gratitude for miles traveled and time spent in companionship and good cheer in the new year. She then rambled on with see-saw emotion, about glorious weather before the meager rains came, touching upon recent return trips to Hippo’s, Villa Mañana and Sausalito, particularly to the Halyard for scallops bouillabaisse and Manila clams by sunset, then painting a lonely picture of the Academy Institute after dark.

          I read and misread what I could into her tracing paper scribbling, but there was no mistaking her post script: a remittance reminder wrapped in red Valentine hearts. While the body of her letter had triggered my imaginations, her PS rather gave me the chills, not least because of a mention that she could not find that small box from Josh Gravanek, and could it still be somewhere in my car?  God forbid, check it later—I refolded the note neatly as Moon had left it, then spooned the final croutons out of my cooling, congealing consommé.

          “I also put on Seals & Crofts and Fogie’s first, for old timey sake,” she said through the wall, “but I don’t think they’re going to drop right on this player…”

          “Hang tight, I’ll take a look.” I was reminded that she always had trouble with my balky Dual turntable—maybe it was a German thing—thinking her choices could have been worse, like Carpy Gold or Joni Blue.

          “Tsk, it’s the spindle or something,” said Moon, shuffling back into the kitchen on rabbit furry slipper feet with the steeping whistle of her teapot, pouring herself a cup of Mellow Mint. She noted the movement of Syd’s letter, saying little, as if wondering whether the horse she had wagered on was coming up lame already. In short order, she headed for the bedroom. “I’m needing a little nap…”

          I slid back from the table and turned belching into the front room, shooing Pags off my stereo receiver. Avoiding the squareback driveway mess altogether, I instead jiggled with the turntable’s control levers, then re-stoked the embering fire. The sun was breaking through a winter sky, hovering over Front Range peaks like a Coleman lantern on a campsite limb, keying through upright window casings on the hearth mantel, unavoidably on the painting above.

          But better knowing the artist now, her visions and process, the creative chaos of her studio, I felt more familiar, more simpatico with ‘Waif and Grain’—somewhat separating the subject from the work itself, appreciating both, on distinctly different levels.

          I then glanced about my framed Euro photographs, noting perspective and technique, wall by wall, as though I had never viewed them before. Not bad, not for nothing, no Cartier-Bresson but plenty of rawbility to build on—did Syd really think so? Between and among them thrived shelves of Moon’s pottery, ceramics and macraméd planters, the hand-woven celestial wall hangings, prompting the nitpicker appraisal that she could craft, but she could not art.                                    Out cabin window

          Out the front windows, I could see shadows beginning to set in over the foothills and Flatiron slabs—Boulder’s Mt. Rushmore, that majestic matching set of pitched granite anvils, there to shield the Rockies from eastern advances, yet ineluctably losing that enviro-battle. Following tire tracks up Cliff Street, I could see little snowmelt as of yet, renovated cottages and other cabins still blanketed all the way to the greenline and range wall, scattered deer hoof marks dappling the ermine drifts, coyote paws hot on their trails.

          Above them, palatial, futuristic aeries stacked up Flagstaff Mountain like frosted Christmas presents in a winter wonderland, looking out over Boulder Valley and as far east as Nebraska on clearer days. Something to shoot for all right, they made me think of Marin County spreads—stature, views, bragging rights, everything but the Pacific Ocean, that magnificent deep blue sea.

          In all, the scene outside our cabin was Rocky Mountain storybook, with Rory Stoneman’s backing cut making it melodically so. His ‘Homeland’ album jacket bore a dedication to Gravanek Management, liner notes stating that it was recorded at Josh’s Das Kapital Studios. Side two, cut four was ‘Hard Road Home’, his biggest hit to date, lamenting the loss of the head of a emotionally fatherless household, with layered, moaning guitar licks. How did they put all that together? The Scrammers, the Raffters: how did the whole wise-ass Chicago bunch get that damn far? How in the world did they get up here from there? And that Josh cat’s curious little box, what did Syd actually know about it all?

          Before I could even begin to fathom that, Seamus seized my attention with a full-stand barking jag against the backyard fence gate. Message sent, the Setter flopped down once again on the rug mat of his shed-matched barnwood doghouse. As I returned to the bakery sweet kitchen to fill his bowls with Science Diet, Pags resumed curling up on the warmth of my stereo amp, Rory bridging into his plaintive refrain.

          “I’m heating up some strudel,” Moon said from the bedroom as I slipped Seamus’s food and water bowls out onto the cabin’s small kitchen porch, slamming the door shut behind me as the Setter hit them hard and fast. “Grab it out of the toaster oven, okay?”

          “Got it…damn.” I pulled her stoneware plate from the toaster oven, singeing my fingers, shaking it off in the process of delivering two steaming slices of apricot-apple strudel to our bedroom quicker than room service at the Hotel Boulderado on homecoming weekend. “Coming…hot off the presses…”

          “Yum—had a hankering…couldn’t help myself,” Moon smacked her lips and reached for a slice and napkin as I trayed up bedside. “Sooo, what about those blow-ups of yours, Kenny, what on earth were you thinking?”

          “Aww, I don’t know, it’s just this pressure all of a sudden,” I said softly, sitting on the edge of our garage sale four-poster, barely over the squeaking of bedsprings, crooning of Rory Stoneman into the groove out as the turntable changed to ‘Summer Breeze’. “Got stuff coming at me from so many different directions…”

          “Do tell,” she scooted over beneath three blankets and two comforters in a back bedroom that never warmed up to a weak central furnace, leaky windows or that faraway fireplace. “What do you mean different directions?”

          “Move over,” I chattered, sliding in and under covers beside her, setting the replica Coca-Cola tray between us, picking at strudel crust in synch with Moon. “I’m kinda wondering about prospects here in Boulder, more grad school or…whatever…”

          “Take a breath, Kenny, we’ll work it all out in short order,” she soothed, munching an apple chunk. “I mean really, where could we have it better than we have it right here?”                 Boulder foothills

          The nap after snack break was invariably Melissa’s idea, product of her inexorable linking of food and love, her weekly instance of carnal assertion after a job well done. Our cabin bedroom, western sunlit with a side window take on the Front Range and foothills, was the picture of cheeriness, softly muted by kitty cat curtains that oozed cuteness and feline fetished overkill. She maintained that slightly subdued light helped the ivy insinuating itself around the room like…Latino Christmas lights.

          I often needled her on bright afternoons that she shouldn’t be so shyly prudish about her body. By now she was dead bed center, pillow propped up by a calico throw cover she had crocheted two winters before. The unvarnished replica bed strained as I piled further in, not that she actually carried the weight of what she ate—not an ounce of truth in that.

          “I dunno,” I shivered on, the patch quilt blankets and warm pastry slowly taking effect. “Maybe that where we should be aiming for is California. I mean, like, San Francisco is this incredible center of energy…”

          “Energy? I thought you said it was whacko city. I remember you telling me you’d heard the place drives everybody crazy.”

          “When did I say that?”

          “Tsk, I don’t know…in the car or something,” she finished off her strudel, balling up the paper napkin, setting it on the tray. “Maybe your friend Paul mentioned it…”

          “Verniere?! When the hell…” ‘Summer Breeze’ not exactly taking the chill off things.

          “When he called, I guess…what’s the difference?”

          “Nothing, not one iota,” I huffed, reaching over to drop the tray to a thick oval rug buffering the cabin’s wavy, knotty wooden floor, dropping that angle for the moment, as well. “Anyway, even if it is, maybe that’s what makes The City so alive with diverse possibilities for somebody in my field. And they’ve got restaurants up the yin-yang.”

          “Oh, wonderful,” she snapped, pulling the comforters up over her head. “Thanks for thinking of me…”

          “What? You’ve told me to broaden my horizons, haven’t you?”

          “Oh, I see, so you’ve found me work in some chow mein parlor, huh? And me, with my Lit degree.”

          “Naw, c’mon…you’re missing the big picture here, Moon.”

          “Big picture, where’s that coming from?” She poked her head up from under the covers. “Wait, don’t tell me, I can hear Sydney Mendel talking a thousand miles away…”

          “Yeah, we explored it some, she mentioned some things,” I dismissed, glancing away from her glare, out the rear window view of a snowy Front Range tapering northward. Seamus had chowed down and returned to a little doghouse nap of his own. Beyond him, larger hoof tracks looked to be from a neighborly full-rack bull elk known to charge down from the foothills for scraps and varmint prey. “But the point is, what would we have to lose by checking it out?”

          “I don’t know, you tell me,” she plained, looking about the room and cabin at large, not exactly encouraging any more of this. “Only leave me out of any search party phase. I would just as soon stay put here and keep some money coming in…sooo, what else did dear Sydney…mention?”

          “Um, nothing much, just that the sky’s the limit out there, not merely getting by.”

          “Getting by? What did she mean by that? Anything more she come up with?”

          Seals and Crofts, side one, played through without much notice, the turntable dropping Fogie’s ‘Flatlands’, a debut album that always had extra sensory resonance with us, beginning with one MDA-enhanced New Year’s Eve. I rolled out of bed, stepping over her tunic and coveralls, shedding my own jeans and gray wool pullover, to tumble back under the blankets and comforters beside her. When the Dan Man sang of god-blessed cornfields, of vast, fertile golden prairies left behind, I wrapped Moon’s soft, rounded shoulder and pulled her close.

         A long orchestral cut rhapsodizing the crooner’s Rocky Mountain epiphany inspired me to peel pack the covers just far enough to reach over and cup her splayed left breast ever so softly, dwelling even in this light upon the pale, near translucence of her skin. During an acoustic interlude, I kneaded her nipple between thumb and forefinger, like a stray dab of pottery clay.

          She rolled away, then back into me, giggling like a candy-striper, that writhing, girly mischievous little gyration of hers that to this day set me asweat in dissonance before sweeping back into the fold of her good graces, causing me to release, clench my fingers and grope anxiously as a foster child once again.

          “Opportunities-wise, friendly small talk, that’s all. You know I would never even think about…” I dodged, then parried, Josh’s box, or Syd’s concern over its absence, rattling away in my mind. “Just like you must have had with Paul Verniere…”

          “It was a neighborly phone call, to coord…” She stopped herself, eyes momentarily to the plaster-cracked ceiling. “I mean, he was concerned about how you were handling your doctoral status situation. Then he stopped by once to help with a little shoveling.”

          “Hah, I’ll bet,” I searched her shifting expression. “Then what about the Lester calls, huh? How did that all go?”

          “Totally out of the blue, going nowhere, I tell you,” she countered, a smite uneasy with the carnal contact. “Sort of like when your ex, Cassie called you, okay? Is anything ever coming of that?”

          “Nada, Moon—Christ, you know full well,” I said, caught off guard. “So then who was it answering the phone when I called last Saturday? With a mouthful of food, yet—who the hell was that?”

          “Oh, must have been Aaron, a friend looking in on the animules while I was at work,” she blushed. “I do have friends here, you know. Like, at the pottery lab. There are other people in our world.”

          “Yah, all those wheels turning, all that handiwork…”

          “C’mon, Kenny, you really do have to get over that insane jealous streak of yours.”

          Cabin fever was setting in. I coursed down a blue vein under the covers, down her smooth, soup-swollen belly to a deeply recessed crescent, furry as an Angora feline. A final Fogie trilogy on the cursed lure of more distant gold tracked through my KLH speakers from the front room, an epochal dirge on the fateful chase from Columbus Circle to Lahaina Bay. Somewhere near Fogie’s Kalispell verse I re-staked claim, shearing my open hand under her baby blue lacies, between her legs like an opener slitting a love letter, lightly rimming her labia to warm, welcoming dampness, fully stretching fore digits to delicately tickle her swelling clitoris.

          Fogie’s sorrowful affair in Laguna Beach found Moon in turn finger-stepping down me to cup, then scratch my scrotum—lightly, tenderly stroking for oxytocin effect—no nut-wrenching, greedy Lovelock power grab, always more self-consciously tentative than tenacious, as though feeling her way around the shift knob on someone else’s control console. Nevertheless, I hardened fast, while his closing, mournful ballad, ‘Looking for a Lover’, served to further ease the friction.

          Fogie only knew what we were thinking, but the passion suddenly, rather unexpectedly picked up. With late sun seeping through the curtains’ cat patterns, covers flying and Danny sailing for Maui’s Pioneer Inn, all wariness and reserve were surmounted, embraces tightened, she gently guided me in. Expanding, contracting: I thrust firmly, she moaned, jostled trimly, bed springs creaking like the overhanging branches in a suddenly strengthening Chinook wind. A bit too long, but none too short this time: rounds forcefully fired, though still amid relatively modest skirmishes at best.

          I rolled off her, and she pulled the covers back over us to our chins. Fogie singing safely back to the golden prairies, Seamus barking at the kitchen door, I reached down under the bed for mop up. Therewith, we nodded off, sexually sweaty arm in arm, snuggling for pheromone scents, a stained, crusty Motel 8 towel stuffed between us, dopamine and opioids aflow. Then again, the background tune could have just as easily been ‘Afternoon Delight’, albeit a far, tamer cry from Lovelock or Polk Street, USA.

          “Nicey-spicy, huh?” That was what I always heaved at moments like this.

          “Nicey-sorey,” she sighed, scanning me more than usual for further signs of mutual gratification. “What say you?”

          “Awesome as always, Moon,” I replied, shifting my gaze toward the former bunkhouse ceiling light.

          “Still nothing like a little home cooking, huh?”

          “Absolutely, you bet! But what about, for sake of argument, I send out the mailings, do the interview here,” I sighed, stroking her stomach like fingers skipping over a soft satin throw pillow. “If it pans out, great. If not, I could maybe go out to San Fran, set us up. When things get rolling, I’ll bring you all right on out. I’d be doing the legwork, no risk, no sweat on your part whatsoever. In the meantime, just hold the fort, keep an eagle eye out for any Sosh department updates, and send me any good résumé responses. See, that way, we’d be working it from both ends.”

          “Ah well, I suppose my pal, Denise could put you up for a little while…seems like half my friends are out there now, anyway,” Moon ventured, rubbing her cheek, glancing at me ambivalently, striking a firmer deal, as if thinking safe house, walling me off as best she might under iffy circumstances such as this. “But first things first, Kenny…the interview I’ve hustled up for you at Faine Clinic. Let’s just take this one step at a time.”

          “Right, Moon, totally. One at a time…”

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          “…Or a basic caseworking position. I just want to get out there and distinguish myself.”

          “I understand completely, Mister Herbert. But what with these darn budget cuts…”

          County snow plows cleared through lanes, and nature had otherwise taken its course by morning next. Melissa negotiated the sand-coated Longmont Diagonal, minus one waiter-designate, well ahead of Coachlight’s luncheon rush. I struck driveway paydirt by mid-day, frenetically shoveling and heaping Seamus-sprayed snow in yellowed piles along a neighboring slat fence—make-work under the winter gun with more Red Zinger steeping in the kitchen at squareback’s end. Some serious rocking and wheel spinning, a steamy sponge bath, and I freely fishtailed out to that appointment, the clock counting down. Then I dialed into a haunting ‘Shame, Shame On You If You Can’t Pass Through’ of all numbers on Denver AM; Syd might as well have been singing backup, Darna Karl on the upright keys.

          Between plow drifts and snowmobiles strangling downtown side streets, blowers digging out around the Mall, I left myself little choice but to slide into a no-win parking situation halfway into Hotel Boulderado’s loading zone. I pulled a two-minute drill past county buildings, briefcase in hand, leaping over some menacing little middle schooler boarders and snow dishes, still coming up several minutes short at the buzzer. No corrugated cardboard company here; the interview took place in a plain, single-story stone satellite building just off Pearl Street, a social services/mental health clinic, at that.  Good ol’ resourceful Moon, this couldn’t have been a better local prospect.  Pearl Street Mall

          I nervously mopped away forehead sweat and smoothed tie and lapels with newfound verve all the way into the director’s office. Doctor Frederick Hilliard kindly deflected my late spiels, driver’s remorse and other raisons d’ tardiness with an empirical assessment of Melissa’s charms—as in how she smiled so beautifully and seated him unfailingly near the ladies room.

          “I just want more than anything to get out there, be the best I can at field work,  actually help people…”

          “Of course you do, Mister Herbert,” said the director, looking up and down my CV with spyglass attention to detail. “What was that topic you said your master’s thesis addressed?”

          “Uh, ‘Linear Causality in the Effect of Visual Symbology on the Group Dynamic’, sir.” I blew a whisp of hair out of my eyes, focusing on his framed sheepskins, so haphazardly unaligned on his wall.

          “Grounded in counseling, in FYC and APS, are you?”

          “Basically,” I fudged, searching my curriculum database in random memory, to little avail. “I mean, you know, the fundamentals…”

          “Yes well, Faine Memorial Clinic would be delighted to get you in here, Mister Herbert, but the funding just isn’t there at present. Fact is, Boulder County has simply worked out many of its problems lately, or weeded them out, so to speak, albeit in true economic Darwinian fashion…”

          “Yeah, attack of the rampant trust funds,” I muttered, fidgeting like a hostile witness on the prosecutorial stand. “Wonder how long that sky-high tranquility trendline will actually last…”

          “Beg your pardon?” The clinic director looked up at me with upper bifocal acuity.

          “Oh, nothing, I…”

          “Well…Ken, is it,” he asked, setting aside my résumé. “You also happen to be in that awkward over-under position, qualifications-wise. You know, in addition to an MS, your really should have your MSW—better yet, a Ph.D.”

          “Don’t I know it, sir, and I’m working on that right now, believe me…”

          “Quite frankly, you don’t strike me as the caseworker type.  Have  you considered Biz Admin for fast-track entry into HR managerial ranks?”

          “Guess I haven’t quite gotten that far in the thought process…”

          “But of course if you should really wish to clean up around here, you might try your hand at construction. I hear gas fireplaces and skylights are going through the roof these days…”

          “Got the picture, Doctor Hilliard, and I’ll certainly take that under advisement…may just give it a shot…”

Care for more?

Chapter 26. A long-haul return journey 
to the promised land finds welcome
wagons circled and firing back… 

“It’s when you fear 
you’re spinning wheels that 
things can spin out of control.”

          “I really don’t think this will do it…”

          “It’s got to…what else we…just goose it, will you? Now…”

          “Why don’t we just pull it out…”

          “Didn’t I say no more chains?!”

          Chains, but no monkeys. Much of what Melissa had wired me went for bus fare back to Colorado, but that wasn’t the half of it. When a little car storage money was factored in, plus some comparison shopping was done on the cost of commercially towing the Volks to Salt Lake City, there wasn’t much margin left for sensible moves.

          The Trailways ride proved to be an avalanche dodger, if there ever was one, beginning with the Elko station. After a buckskin brace of casino hoppers had disembarked, the only two open seats were toward rear coach, side by side, that snubbing hitchhiker highwayman proceeding to trap me tightly into the window 36A. He said little, soon spreading wide, snoring like a bearded grizzly; I clutched up, head against the cold glass, just about singing ‘…And I feel the warmth of gun, whenever you’re near’. So much for pick-me-up travelin’ tunes…

          But thankfully he piled out at Wendover, saying that with a little luck, he’d catch me somewhere between there and Reno some day—just my luck. What looked to be an LDS off-shoot polygamist then smiled devoutly into  vacated 36B, as if just back from a sect wedding weekend at some hideaway Nevada church motel. In SLC, we exchanged the pedo-prophet for a dopey snowboarder with his ballooning down ski jacket.

          Hours on, the dark, swaying bus plowed around every black ice switchback, through every Rockies’ rubble slide, felled pine tree and snowdrift between Steamboat and Idaho Springs, the boarder’s over decaled, mid-wide Burton cutting into my extremities at every winding shift and turn. The closest call seemed to be a near collision with rowdy drunken, goggled ski bums sliding, fishtailing toward us in an open bed pick-up truck outside Berthoud Pass. All along, the driver’s intercom happy talk centered on vehicles going over the guardrailed cliffs, past buses getting snow blindingly stranded up amid these peaks, passengers perishing from hypothermia and worse…‘hold on tight, folks, clutch for your life’ until lower Mt. Vernon Canyon/Idaho Springs emerged.

          Melissa had dutifully met me in downtown Denver at dawn, with more pointed questions than answers, mainly centering on routes taken, much less liberties tacitly suspected. But my ears were still popping, I stank to high dudgeon, and the immediacy of the squareback breakdown quickly aced out other, perhaps more delicate concerns. Moreover, long-range weather reports warned that a massive storm system was slowly bearing down by way of Alberta and Saskatoon.

          Midway between Westminster and Broomfield, Moon’s own turnpike conclusion was that the only practical means of pulling out of this dive came via hookchains left in our backyard shed by former tenants.

          Not that it hadn’t already occurred to me, but by Louisville, I was groggily voicing concern for her trusty little Toyota’s drivetrain—by the freshly breathtaking Boulder Valley Overlook was considering trading in my broken down Volks to Raley Jorgen altogether for the homey, snow-capped majesty before us. She wouldn’t hear of it, however, saying as we wheeled up to the cabin that the whole cursed trip was her doing in the first place, and that we still needed the second car.

          “This isn’t going to do it, Kenny…”

          “Ewwph…got a better idea?!”

          “Let me pull it out,” Melissa said back to me from out the driver’s side window. “Just like we did in Nevada—that wasn’t so…”

          “You can’t pull it out,” I shouted from behind the squareback, pointing ahead. “Look, it’s too narrow to pull it out.”

          “So we’ll lever the chain around that tree…like a sideways tow truck…”

          Let’s go make it work, she’d said earlier on, and we had better get cuttin’ at daybreak because snow was a’ comin’. So we did. Neighbors agreeing to watch over Seamus and Biggs, Melissa took the wheel, driven by her relentless optimism. We eschewed steeper mountain passes and perils in favor of the northern route, picking up I-80 at Laramie for the long haul across Wyoming. Our ride was comparatively uneventful, the little Toyota’s heater actually effective, Moon reminding me that, after a steering through the Nebraska trailer jack-knife on our initial move to Colorado, these upper Rockies crosswinds were kid’s stuff.

          Her mood remained buoyant through icy Rawlins and the tree-gnarled Red Desert, her first trip ever over the Continental Divide. I mostly picked at Tupper containers of home-baked cobbler and casseroles she’d packed for the ride, and gazed past her, grateful nevertheless for somehow missing the snowy creeked, wild deer splendor and drama of the mountains further south.

          We chatted on about my earlier journeys west, especially the most recent, about these endless stretches, all the shaley new oil rigs, what to expect come Nevada—what California was like, what I thought of San Francisco—and how I got along with her pal, Sydney. Where was I during the phone lags? Did I give our game plan some thought along the way—school, work, income-wise? More often than not, we marveled at the vast blue skies of Wyoming’s Highlands, otherwise dabbling at the unsaid edges, papering things over with single-ply Charmin by the roll.

          After coffee at Little America, we pumped breaks down Parley’s Canyon into Salt Lake City, aiming to hook up with my Volks, we had focused on strategy and tactics, namely more detailed logistics vis-à-vis hauling it back. Moon was always the better planner that way, all but ignoring the Salt Lake and Flats, as though they were merely hollow Boulder Valley spaces east of Crossroads Center. I kept checking roadmaps, highway markers, vital signs, fading Top-40 radio signals—anything but the rock gardens Sydney had littered with cryptic Yiddish lingo.

          We hit Wells, Nevada under a clouding, moonless sky, greeted by an impatient Raley Jorgen and a squareback he’d moved further into his side lot. I introduced Melissa and explained as how the eastbound Trailways bus from Elko had basically blown right through town, greasing his outstretched palm with a little extra compensatory storage cash, just grateful he hadn’t junked and compacted the heap altogether. Having hooked and chained between her trailer hitch and Volks’ forward frame, we gassed up, snacked up, joed up and pulled haltingly out of town under cover of darkness.

          I drove the automatic Toyota, she steered my neutral geared heap cautiously behind, by fits and starts, goose and brakes, over Pequop Summit and Silver Zone Pass, links and frames straining, finally getting the hang and pace of it by Utah’s welcome sign.

          From Wendover east, we had furtively crossed the Great Salt Lake Desert like a blinking, teeth-and-chain-grinding wagon train in ragged retreat—bumpers kissing, links stretching, or bucking back and forth. We limped slowly into SLC as the sun rose over Wasatch-Cache, drawing blessedly little pre-rush hour attention.

          Volkswagen dealer technicians soon detected a dead pressure sensor, blaming the minor fuel injection failure on age, roller coaster altitudes and fluky California gas formulations. Then again the dollar damage could have been worse, and we could have easily been intercepted and impounded by the Beehive Highway Patrol.

          We’d ridden that bit of relief all the way across Wyoming in tandem, Moon leading the way in bundled up, heater-fed comfort, waving back, keeping track as I nursed the sub-zero squareback several lengths behind. I fought frostbite and high country crosswinds and side-slide drifting, legs covered with an oil-stained lube blanket, feet wrapped in ragged towels and shop rags, the frigid siege lifting only in frequent coffee stops, where she coaxed me along with visions of heartwarming soup stews, fondues and hot cider by the cabin’s fireplace.

          Storm clouds gathering north over the Seminoe and Shirley Mountains pushed our sleep-deprived pedals further from there. At long last, we beeped and saluted each other’s tenacity and teamwork through Fort Collins on home. Boulder then greeted us with a 24-hour dump-a-thon, this valley-burying blizzard of almanac proportions, effacing the foothills like bottled White-Out, chapter and verse.   Snowy Cliff St.

          “Right, ruin Seamus’ favorite tree,” I gasped, back against the Volks, lifting up on its rear bumper while my rambunctious Setter barked for attention in the fenced back yard. “No way, Moon. And we’ll never get out by Friday, either.”

          “Why not? The mailman’s getting through…”

          “He’s got a four-wheeler Jeep…that’s his job!”

          “So this is our job, right?”

          We had slept through most of it, haphazardly parking our little caravan like squad cars rushing a hostage house, Melissa directly out front of the cabin, a bit on the shoulder, me backing the Volks onto a truncated grassy patch that passed for our driveway. Unloading the bare essentials, we piled into the kitchen as skies darkened menacingly and winds mowed pine and aspen down over the Front Range with roof-raising velocity. She steeped some Sleepytime tea as I scrubbed off layers of road grime, breaking out a few stale scones for the dunking.

          After a groove-worn album side of ‘Tapestry’, we made for the bedroom, diving under three blankets and two comforters, coldly going soporous for the duration. Snowdrifts up, mercury down: then we had awakened to Bemidji West.

          “Try it again, gradual traction—just don’t gun it…”

          “Tsk, and you’ve got a whole heavy motor over your wheels,” she said craning out the driver’s window, over the engine noise and spinning tires. “They just need a little…”

          “A little muscle, that’s all…now!” I spun around and pressed my shoulder hard against the tailgate. As she double clutched, I heaved, the squareback lurching forward just enough for me to slip and fall face down into a spot I’d shoveled in the snowpack.

          “Chains, Kenny,” Moon shouted, braking to keep the Volks from rolling back over me.

          “Give it a rest,” I sighed, looking up, beyond the car, that rolling mail truck—to the snow-sheathed Flatirons and buried palatial aeries rising above the foothills toward Flagstaff Summit. For a moment, I could see clear to Sausalito and the sunny green Arcady of Marin County. “Maybe wait out a little…”             Winter Flatirons

          “Why are you being so bullheaded about it,” she shut down the Volks, jumping out to help brush off my road worn sheepskin and denim.

          “Bullheaded? Who’s being bullheaded?! Not me…”

          “Whatever you say, Kenny. I’ll go fetch the mail.”

          I took to scraping more snow and ice off squareback windows, watching Melissa walk a narrow path I’d shoveled like it was a highwire or balance beam, steadying herself against her freed-up Toyota before vaulting to our tree mounted mailbox. So small, wrapped up in an oversize olive drab parka from my army days: still a bundle of purposeful energy, even after what we’d just driven through.

sr dingbats

          The sun had begun breaking out of the cloud cover, but this snow blanket stuck around, University Hill stirring ever so slightly under blinding layers of white. Greenbelts seemed beside the point, streets like ours were irrelevant, trees flocked around bushes, over fenceposts and woodpiles, spiderwebbing the entire neighborhood, if not all of Boulder Valley, into awed and/or yawning submission. Traffic froze, schools closed, even Pearl Street Mall was immobilized. Joggers and hikers went into extended hibernation; 4x4s stood buried up to their roof racks, garages up to their key locks. The primary means of travel across town was by cross-country skis.

          Upper tree limbs creaked and drooped precariously, skylit roofs sagged under the scantly liquifying load. Hapgood’s place here still looked like an early warning station on Baffin Bay. But any usual sudden thaw promised to refreeze into massy icicles and stalactites overnight, rendering this entire winter wonderland a scene out of ‘Ice Station Zebra’.

          “Not a whole lot here,” Moon said, her vinyl boots squeaking and crunching across the tiny front yard’s snowcover, barely leaving a trail. “Mostly for you.”

          “For me? I pried open the cabin’s front door for her, porch roof cricking under a flurried foothill gust. “What? From the Sosh department or…”                                                                             CU Campus/Old Main

          “No, from the finance office, and Uncle Sam…oh, and here’s one for the ‘Herberts’,” she shuffled in, handing him all pieces, save one. “It’s from Sydney.”

          “Uncle? Must be final payday,” I grabbed it, avoiding the blue envelope with the San Francisco postmark like an election campaign flyer. A dripping tuft of snow dropped into the porch entryway with my slamming of cabin’s front door. “Christ, I’m freezing here…”

          “C’mon,” she waved me back into the kitchen with the orchid-perfumed letter. “I’ve some of my special beefy-vegetable consommé going on.”

          “Again? How come you made so much of that stuff,” I racked our coats, then seated myself at the round kitchen table, kissing my final G.I. Bill check, setting aside the rest. But there was no ignoring that perfume: why the hell would she be writing to us now?

          “Cold insurance. Got to keep us healthy, Kenny. You can never get enough soup this time of year,” Moon stirred the large stainless pot she’d scarfed from work. “I’ll do some cocoa, too…”

          Her Toyota Corona remained a model of mobility, parked skillfully on the low berm between Cliff Street and our postcard-size yard—arguably too delicately to move. She was snowed in, anyway, this time on the wrong end of the Longmont Diagonal, as far as she and disposable income were concerned. Instead, it left her with a bit too much time to mix, and stir…and read.

          “What’s that about,” I sniffed, as if masking any tic of regard. Instead, I stared down, sizing up the pot, which suggested she had been cooking for more than two.

          “Sydney thanking us for all the hospitality and travel help,” she read, so at home there at the range, granny glasses perched on the tip of her precious little nose.

          “Really, how come so soon,” I asked flatly, staring down into a pile of my sandalwood colored stationery—heavy with goals sketched broadly and generally defined, light on concrete experience and accomplishments—the makings of a résumé in need of padding.

          “She always surfaces a few weeks before her birthday, just like clockwork,” Moon sniffed. “Listen how she’s writing this on a rainy night alone in her studio. She goes on, then…hmm, this is strange. She asks if Lester’s been in touch…”

          “Well, has he?” At this, I jumped to my feet, restlessly dragging a garbage bag to an outside can, pausing through the kitchen door, status checking my squareback and what little had re-emerged of the driveway. But the snowpack held ground, melting slower than appellate litigation. Slamming the screen and quad-windowed doors after me, I scooted back to the table, towel-snapping her dimpled behind.

          “Um, yes…a short time after you left,” she calmly taste-tested the veggie consommé, folding in more cloves. “Twice, actually, trying to sound interested and friendly-like, complete with holiday cheer.”

          “Oh yeah,” I studied her, from the madras tunic to the coverall jeans. “Interested in what?”

          “Don’t ask me,” she puzzled over this compounding interest. “I just wished him well and told him I had a zillion things to do.”

          “That all?”

          “Of course that’s all, Kenny,” she shot me a glare. “What do you think?”

          “No-thing, not a thing,” I dodged, “except I think it’s about time I heard something from the department…”

          “Tsk, these things take time, you said that yourself…”

          “Hmph, you can bet Paul Verniere’s heard confirmation. Christ, it’s like they’re going to wait-list me, or something.”

          “Um, I believe he has, as a matter of fact,” she stirred in a dash more oregano.

          “How the hell do you know that?!”

          “He told me when he called,” she said, turning burners down. “Like, last week… he just wanted to see how you were holding up.”

          “How I’m holding up?” I probed, folding and stuffing envelopes, proofreading addresses. “What’d you tell him?”

          “That you were on the road, biding your time, what else?” A final taste of the soup, and she was ladling two bowls. “Speaking of which, the restaurant should be back open by tomorrow or so, and I happen to know we’re short a waiter…”

          “Forget it, Moon, not a chance,” I fumed.

          “It’d just be part-time, Kenny,” she served the steaming bowls and croutons, then retreated to the range for some cocoa. “To get us over the hump.”

          “I didn’t put myself through all this to bus tables, okay?”

          “You haven’t totally put yourself through it, at all,” she caught herself, bit her tongue, two mugs of hot chocolate in hands.

          “And what exactly do you mean by that?!”

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          Crap, I fretted, where the hell was that letter from the Sosh department anyway? One way or the other, but it just can’t be the other. Not after all those grueling classes in Ketchum Hall, all the after-hours research in Norlin Library—trudging across the quad for the socio-communications electives, ducking into Packer for a quick salad and Mountain High yogurt.

          Campus images ran across my neo-cortex like a contact sheet of 35mm prints. How I would bike furiously past the Pioneer stoneyard, late for a seminar on nonviolent social movements, hooded poncho flapping in the morning rain. Sunning near Old Main between summer school proseminars on conflict management and collective behavior, studying Social Strat and Stats in the shade of breezy aspen trees.

          C’mon, the evening concerts at Macky Auditorium, noontime swimming and skating with a mountain view at the Rec Center. You’ve gotta see it my way, Dean Cross, gotta make the right call, let me stay. Send me that acceptance later, for chrissake, what’s the goddamn hang up here? I’ve made it this far down the academic career path, but you know I’m nowhere without a Ph.D. Really, dump my sorry ass now, Wallford, and I don’t know what I’ll do…aww, snap to, yo-yo, keep your damn cool…       CU Sociology

          “Meaning nothing, just our team effort,” she backed off, returning to the table with cocoa and marshmallows, her voice betraying untoward disappointment and concern. “It’s only that this school-job transition of yours costs money, you know? And it turns out that trip really hits us hard.”

          “So who’s fault is that, Ms. Traveler’s Aid?” I pounded the table, reaching for the mail once again, ripping anxiously through the envelopes. “Like I said, no waiting tables…”

          “I know, I know,” she sipped some chocolate. “But we’ve got to do something about…”

          “You want money?! Here…” I stood up and threw the government check at her, pushing the others aside, then burning my lips with a taste of some cocoa. “No damn restaurants, I’m telling you. I’ve got a master’s degree now, and too much blessed potential for that.”

          “Potential? Tsk, this is rent money, at best. It’s reality time, Kenny—we’ve got bills,” she replied firmly, slipping the endorsed check into her coverall pocket, well familiar with its amount. “Anyway, if it wasn’t for the Coach Light Inn, I couldn’t have landed your appointment. So to have and to hold, Kenny, to have and to hold…”

          I shuffled over to the rear kitchen window to stem the annoyance, catch my breath, swallow my acidic pride, feeling like a Wild West wrangler and New-Age Boulder mellow man all at once, missing the mark at both ends. Staring out beyond our barnwood shed, I could spot Seamus running about the back yard like a zoo hyena before feeding time. Beyond him, Boulder Creek and the crevices of Four-Mile and Sunshine Canyon Roads cut through a serrated Front Range line stretching well past the valley, bound for Estes Park.

          There was no forgetting long-hair summer treks up to Nederland and Ward, trout fishing outside Fraser over spring break—god, even that bizarro New Years in Wylies’ chateau—or simply ten-speeding around Pearl Street, up and down Broadway. Truth was, everything that happened since the day we first drove down into Boulder Valley couldn’t have gone a whole lot better, been cooler and more beatific—at least until 1978 rolled around and this creeping unease, this hazy squall began setting in.

          “Tell you what,” I exhaled, turning back toward Melissa, holding tight. “Let me just get my resumes out to all these companies and counseling centers, Denver even. I’ll give this interview my best shot…then we’ll talk, okay? Who knows, maybe I’ll even have heard from school by then.”

          “Deal,” Melissa parried, stabbing at her thin vegetable soup with measured relief. “And if all else fails, there’s always Chicago…”

          “Never, don’t press it, Moon—not a goddamn chance in hell of that,” I erupted again, in further chills and sweat, reaching over grab her up and shake her until her clogs flew off—inadvertently grazing her across her forehead, a slight glancing blow, fitfully so. “I mean, don’t even think it. We didn’t come out west to be crawling back east to that…pure suffocation.”

           “Stop it, Kenny! I was joking, just kidding, god,” she cried, stunned but quickly breaking loose to recompose herself, steeling to regain some control over this red-line situation. “But you must admit we’ve scrounged and sacrificed like this long enough.”

          “Naw, it’s just been you, Moon,” I snorted, annoyed that she could even think of some lame retreat to gaudy Chicago, no less alarmed at my visceral, so physical reaction.  This wasn’t me. Where was this coming from?  I stuffed my keys back into my jacket pocket, pricking my finger with the jagged stem where that cheesy little Satalisman used to be. “You’ve done it all.”

          “You should know better…”

           “Aww, c’mon, I didn’t mean that,” I sputtered, muzzy on the back foot. “You’re just missing the bigger picture…”

           “What bigger picture, Kenny? Whose bigger picture, at that?”

Care for more?

Chapter 25. Some reconciliation
and tenderizing help to thaw
foothill drifting, clearing a
fresher path…

“If you’re bound to hit 
          the road, don’t be surprised
          if it hits you back.”


  “I’m guessin’ $90 parts and labor, at least…” 

   CLICK, CRACKLE…“Your two minutes are up, please signal when…”

  “Crap, I’m outta change, operator, can we reverse the charges?”

    “I’ll accept, operator…Kenny, what in God’s name is going on? Where are you?”

    “Uh, Wells, Nevada—blew my damn…”

    “Could be maybe the pressure pump, mac…”

   “Thanks, fuel pressure…whatever. The mechanic here says he thinks it’s shot. Can’t be my fuel pump, just replaced that sucker on the way out,” I shouted over power wrenches and fill-up lane bells into a pay phone way too near this service station’s open bays. “Gonna need more money, Moon, for bus fare and the repair.”

    “Bus fare, what for…”

    “It’s a long story. Just wire it, okay, to…”

   “But we ain’t even got no import parts like that around here, mac,” said the mechanic, scribbling up a work sheet at his gasket and plug cluttered service counter. “Maybe Elko does. Mize well send it over to the Commercial Hotel there.”

  “Elko Commercial, got that, Moon? And go do it right now…”

  “Tsk, you’re asking mission impossible, you know…”

  “This wasn’t my idea, remember? And I’m freezin’ my buns off out here!”

 Come morning my squareback was rife with disco dance club flyers, two overpark/underpay SFPD tickets and a 24-hour tow-away notice of vehicle abandonment. And then there was that tire. Flat as a Salt Lake beachball, the right front Firestone, jammed up against the curb—a yellow truck zone as it turned out, hence the double citations, time stamped Monday, 8 a.m. I scissors jack changed if for a cord-bare spare and soon was on my way out, by way of four ten-dollar bills Moon had advised me last night she’d rolled up in a Coach Light Inn napkin and stuffed deep into the door pocket prior to my leaving Boulder: Just in case.

Before then, after a combo pizza and pleasantries, Sydney and I had spent the remainder of Sunday evening at her place, keeping safe, uneasy distance. She unpacked her travel bags to Heart and Patti Smith’s ‘Horses’ accompaniment on the KMEL Album Caravan. I refluxed anchovies and otherwise idled in the living room, listening to Diana do a Sondheim medley on her piano—‘West Side Story’ to ‘Pacific Overtures’ to ‘A Little Night Music’. Between numbers, I side eyed Edie as she watched ‘Rhoda’ and ‘Alice’, sandwiching in a top-of-the-hour KCBS radio news tease, ‘Cronyism and discord in the ranks: The mayor, Chief Gain, and how he was rainbowing the hell out of San Francisco’s Police Department’. Whatever the hell that meant…

Crack of dawn, I had once again crawled out of the broom closet, bid Sydney adieu and some gratitude through her liberally ajar bedroom door. She was gracious, in a sleepy, oblique sort of way—handing me a Ghirardelli souvenir bag of cold pizza and day-old sourdough, warning of cold and storm fronts, against nodding off behind the wheel, sending along her best to dear Melissa while relaxing the on-road debt for now. Thanks again, flash, she yawned, rolling off her down comforter to contort into some après-sunrise stretches, somewhere between the lotus and perfect posture. Take your sweet time, she added, think about what you’re all about—you’re the only one who can.

With that, I closed her door taking one long, last and lasting appraisal. Edie sent me off with a ‘Tell her hi, be strong’ to Melissa, whom she had be-sistered though Moon’s series of phone calls; then I beat a circumspect retreat downstairs. No dramatics, no excess of gallantry—I just felt like I had left her there, safe and comfy, like a frontier scout his squaw, just in the prick of time. Ah, but maybe it was all for the best, a couple of quick spins and it was over, nothing serious, nobody was hurt, nobody got burned. Job well done, simply doing a good friend a favor, showing a friend’s best friend a little friendly hospitality…

One last futile search for that Satalisman, hopefully minus that brutish run-in, and I was riding off into the wilds all Eastwood and Sundance, leaving with rhinestones on my saddle and lodestars in her eyes. Trouble was, tall-in-the-saddle was no match for the rust-frozen lug nuts that had left me flat sore and swearing to high heaven on that yellow truck zone curb.

St. Brenda’s steeple bells had struck high noon before I could chug through the Broadway Tunnel on my way around Embarcadero Freeway’s downtown double-decker, up to the Union 76 clock tower and Bay Bridge approach. I craned and pined all the way across the transbay span, bemoaning another gloriously spring-like day and the radiant mini Manhattan skyline so worldly rich in excitement and promise. Hang dogging halfway out my car window, I took in the cool sea breezes and svelte, stately profile of the Golden Gate Bridge, the blue Pacific beyond. I couldn’t get enough of it all, gazing over my shoulder, nearly sideswiping a cement truck while scanning North Bay hills for Sausalito’s promenade and a skyline I just couldn’t shake.

Figured, I’d brooded, sucking in a busload of diesel fumes and some granulated debris from a dump truck dead ahead: I came into San Francisco on the high road, the sunny upper deck of this silver span, with The City and bay unfolding center lane. On the way out, I got the low road, the bargain basement bottom level with all the gas tankers, garbage haulers, then an eyewash of cargo cranes and decaying, drydocked freighters, not to mention downtown Oakland. To the vanquished went the spoiled: that ate at me clear past the Carquinez Strait’s ghost ships, where I could no longer find even the faintest trace of Bay Area bounty in my rearview mirror. Radio tuning into the Dead’s ‘U.S. Blues‘ scarcely eased the separation anxiety.

  “Fine, just be sure you return to Boulder in time for the appointment, Kenny,” Melissa had said the night before, a long-distance operator re-clicking through the call. “At least it’s something solid, and I went out on a limb setting this up…”

“I know that, Moon, I know,” I’d lowered my voice, turning my back to Sydney, who was whistling ‘Go Your Own Way’ while she unfolded her designer rags. “And I really appreciate it, believe me…”

“It’s your interview, Kenny, you’ve got to take it from here. Just make it back in time to prepare, OK? It might be good for us. Besides, the cabin heater sounds terminal and Seamus is driving me batty.”   

“Doing what I can to get back soon as I can,” I’d whispered. “See you soon—yeah, me too…bye…”

Still, Berkeley’s KRE-FM signal had faded in undue course, so I gave up trying to re-dial some bootleg Tower of Power, and tuned into AM oldies, midway through ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’. I gunned the Volks up Interstate 80 toward Vallejo—yeah, like I was in a big rush to get back for some HR trainee slot at a corrugated carton scoring/folding company, direct mailer division. When maybe I could be shooting for so much more than that…

That scenario chewed my colon well beyond Fairfield and the exit for Vacaville prison; here it was so green and balmy, and Moon was hung up on burned-out furnaces. Well, best to bask in the intriguing memories and precocious moments out on ocean’s edge, for from here on, the mainland and all its speedbumps would be expeditiously closing in. A patchwork triple play, Seekers to Weavers to ‘Moondance’, provided little melodic diversion. However, another KCBS teaser spot trumpeted a second installment of the TV news series on unrest in San Francisco’s diversifying police department, and Supervisor Dan White’s heated reaction—representing as he was the auld sod neighborhoods. But case closed—what was that to me now?

Right out of the gate, this drive was breezy, fast-lane California to flat-out Sacramento; from there on, it would be hell on wheels. Good for us, for our own good, for my own good—the general good for everybody concerned? Looking out for a loved one or two: that was Moon’s role to play as she saw it. Look at it through her eyes, I tried, cruising as best I could at a sunny, San Joaquin Valley clip. Self sacrifice gave dear Melissa her sense of self. Better that than little Ms. Matisse, probably back in The City climbing her dreamy white sandbox walls this very minute, stroking up a creative storm with her pencil sketches and Grumbachers—no unfinished business there, right? Nothing but a high-speed hemorrhoid in goose down and cashmere.

An even harsher revelation had hit somewhere near Auburn Dam: The higher the climb, the deeper the dive, if it was 65-degrees and sunny at Citrus Heights, figure 35-degrees and gloomy at Clipper Gap. So I ass-ended a wind sock of filibuster velocity and volubility about 3,800 feet up I-80, which earned me a piss and coffee break at some truck stop/tourist trap tucked behind a pine-clogged outcropping on the western brink of Tahoe National Forest.

“Got chains,” asked an over-the-road driver one counter stool down. “It’s nasty up past Emigrant Gap.”                   I-80 East

“Chains? Not even snow tires,” I said, after he passed me the sugar and creamer—one I wasn’t so certain Syd had yet added to her collection.

             “Suit yourself. But I wouldn’t be caught dead heading up without ’em. The CHP might tag you, if the monkeys don’t stick it to you good.”

“Monkeys?” I stirred and sucked down some lukewarm swill. “I’ll keep an eye out…”

Besides this sage advice, the westbound trucker had picked up my raspberry twist and joe. Sad to say, it turned out to be right on the money, semi-heavy snows whipped by grizzly cross gusts that made Interstate lanes slicker than a glazed dipped in polysaturated donut oil. Then darkness befell, mercury and barometric pressure dropped over any lingering bright spots. Taken together, this was too much for a caffeinated, sun-kissed neophyte fresh out of the palm trees—even one with a pocketed Yosemite Sam creamer.

I had either dodged the manic chain monkeys or was deemed a lost cause not worth their time, also finding CHP cruisers too busy with bigger game. My tires spun and slipslid through Soda Springs, amid snow laden pine woodlands, then the full-throttle creep over Donner Summit, which is where the squareback showed first signs of misfire sputtering.

A skied-out gasrat outside Truckee wanted about $10 a running minute to rig some fuel filter bypass, a sawbuck more once he saw we were actually dealing with VW injection. Piss on it, I closed up the rear engine lid, Reno was all downhill from there, but then so were the proper authorities. Twelve miles short of the Nevada line, a highway patrolman sirened me over to the shoulder, trooper hat and badge gleaming in his flashing red lights, black calf-high boots squeaking, crunching under his every step.

“Pretty rough sledding over the summit,” he asked, as I cranked down my window with shivering hands. “Where’s your chains, son, did you see the alert?”

“No…uh, sorry, officer…from out of state…” Just the thought of that summit made me avalanche phobic, bracing for a white-out wipe-out with drifts piling up over the mileage markers, hungrier than Sarah Graves at the snowshoe party.

“They don’t have snow there in Colorado?” He sniffed around the car, then circled back to my driver’s side door. “And what about that right tail light? Let’s see your license and registration…”

“Sure…tail light, huh? Bulb musta blown…gotta get that fixed…” I cranked up my window, watching him in my rearview, cooking my heels as he radio checked me in his cruiser, then marched on back, tapping my glass.

This citation for the light and tires ought to give you some motivation,” he handed me back my paperwork and tore off a (warning) ticket from his pad. “Can’t run so slack here in California, son, better hightail it back to the Rockies.”

Roadside larceny, Golden State Gestapo: the CHP followed me from Bocal near to Verdi, sending me off with a blink of his headlights. The whole affair blinded me rage-wise on the way toward ‘the Biggest Little City’, that and snow the slushy smear of my worn out windshield wipers. There was no appreciating the pure white Tahoe hills, the crystalline flow of the Truckee River. I kept rather thinking about all the railroad wrecks in those ancient wood framed train shed roadbeds along Sierra ridges, the orderly cease and desist of California splendor where Nevada’s craggy scrub brush began. A gentle decline and clearing blacktop were little compensation for a 12-degree windchill, the squareback’s accelerating dyspepsia—something with the pipes, the heap seemed to be bucking and farting.

Those hot lights of Reno’s skyline and promise of cheap casino food had led me to Roulette Row, and a little side street Squeeze Inn hole that served up thick, thunderous chili over franks, burgers, fried chicken and minute steaks, on cottage cheese casseroles and custard cups—atop flapjacks, waffles and hash browns for the played out casino crowd. Chili everywhere, caked on the floor by the jukebox where two played out blackjack junkies had collided with their Super Bowls. I went with a ‘Mad Dog w/Velveeta’ and coffee, tapping on the counter to a Glen Campbell-cum-Vic Damone beat, all gassed up and topping off for the road, lubed right down to the crankcase and bowels, citation and Raider belt buckle-free.

sr dingbats

 So I had shot out of Reno like recooked beans, past fringe gambling houses, while-u-wait wedding chapels and divorce mills—the Volks adjusting to relatively lower, flatter elevations, humming right along. Cranked up on a big gulp cola, I coaxed what I could out of the rusty heater vents, dialed in a Reno classic rock station and hit I-80 East full throttle. An Allman Brothers blast carried me through a neon-fed Sparks tangle, leaving greater Reno’s casino hotels, motels and garish, widespread luminescence in a puff of sandy snow. Giddyup, head ’em out, like the truckers slinging road muck at my windshield as they passed on by. Less piercing, more manageable were the lodging marquees and gasmat signs casting a rosy glow over nearby Virginia Mountains, Allmans’ ‘Trouble No More’ putting it all in 60 m.p.h. perspective.

Off in the northern distance, I could spot the Trinity Mountains, Seven Through’s lava beds and Black Rock Desert under a clearing ¾ moon and shooting stars. Snow-dusted Humboldt hills and Brother Greg’s Sweet ‘Melissa’ helped me turn a blind eye through the hot sheet motels of Lovelock, not least that gripping interlude at the Rodeo Arms. Yet I couldn’t help but flash on the sweet bouquet of Syd’s cheeks and thighs, pressing my lips and nostrils like a full-bodied apertif.

Hmph, really smooth—she must be relieved to have washed her hands of me by now. A real trooper—a regular Joan of Arc the way she dealt with my distress call and quick split decision after treating me to a weekend like that. Whoa, Kenworth flatbed breakdown up near Rye Patch: I focused, eyes on the miles upon miles of flat, winding road, rearview mirroring the gaudy neon and odds-on eyesores. From there on, the surface of Mars…

Save for the cowboy country ranchland and snow fences; Syd’s motherly East Humboldt hills had soon given ground to new barbed wire, trailer courts, auto graveyards, self-serve gas marts and toxic disposal sites that lined frontage roads into Winnemucca. Everywhere grub and gaming, glittery lights like Shoshone smoke signals on the wide-open central Nevada horizon: I hastily paused at the Dirty Bird casino/grill for a warming pit stop and take-out coffee to thaw my hands.

On the edge of town, I even offered to pick up a roadside hitchhiker on the way out—if only for a little friendly relief—and he looked to be a local slots slave drained of quarters, roughly my age. Yet the longhair peered in through my steamed up windows and gave me a thumbs down with all the camaraderie of that shadow man up in Lafayette Park, as though he knew from lemons when he saw one. Pulling away, I thought I’d heard a pistol shot, a whizzing scrape across my car roof, but wrote it off as only more fuel injected backfire. So I goosed the sputtering wagon onto I-80 East once more, an interminable two-lane stretch along the Humboldt sink, stuttering up over Galconda Summit at a 40 m.p.h. clip. It coughed and bucked, gagged and wheezed through the parched, dusty ranges of Battle Mountain, long dormant gold country on the brink of a new open-pit mining rush that promised to get this barren side of The Silver State booming again, poisonous mercury waste or no.

 Rolling on and off the shoulder as semi-trailers and sedans horned by, I buttoned my sheepskin up to the collar, blowing into my hands to keep them from freezing to the steering wheel. Nevada could have used a bullion bonanza to finish off this length of Interstate—had to be the only narrow, winding bottlenecks left in 80, coast to coast. A little four-lane, a lot of two, in haphazardly contracting segments: Add punishing crosswinds over Emigrant Pass, ill-timed blasts of sagebrush and tumbleweed ripping like high, hard fastballs across my bow, nuclear mutant gophers, prairie dogs, coyotes and God knows kamikazing toward those wobbly tires. Third gear, down to second and counting, pedal to my rust pocked floorboard—the gustier the wind, the colder it got, feet numbing frigid, with no heartwarming radio beyond static C&W to be heard.

  “Hell, by the looks of it, I’da never left Frisco,” continued the aforementioned garage mechanic in the immediate here and now.

   “Who says I’m from San Francisco?” I held up my end of the engine lid.

  “Sez so on that souvenir bag in your rear seat there. Anyhow, if I was you, I’da had this thing looked at in Reno…”

 “It didn’t peter out in Reno, it petered out here…”

  “Dunno, engine back here under a station wagon floor,” asked the mechanic.  “And fuel injection on yet…how old’s this foreign heap, anyway?” 

“Uh, Sixties, late Sixties…” I checked out a fresh ding in the squareback’s roof.

“Whew, wouldn’t know where to start, mac. I mean, if you just had a fuel pump like regular people…”                                                                       Raley's Gas & Garage, on warmer days

Got so I had all but pulled over to an emergency turn-out in fuel rejected, backfiring defeat, resigned to taking a screwdriver to the butterfly valve, a ball-peen hammer to the pump and gas-fouled plugs. Flipping off an inbound trucker who had airhorned me onto the shoulder, I shielded my eyes from hi-beam headlights in  either direction for mile upon moonlight mile.  Yet downroad, just short of Dunphy and the shadowy Tuscarora Mountains, my Volks seemed to rally, fuel was feeding and firing in top-dead-center order again.

Swigging more Coke, swimming in the fumes of unspent gasoline, I re-entered the eastbound lane with new-found confidence, coasting smoothly into Carlin, tunneling through the Independence range, ready to roll the dice on a bare-bones Elko fill-up in preparation for an all-nighter to Salt Lake City.

Soon Elko’s main drag was blinking neon ablaze, from the Hotel Pequop to Buckskin Billy’s Cowpoke Poetry Bar to Stockmen’s, ‘Where Players Are Winners’. But against my fears and better judgment, I blew by the closed Volkswagen dealer, doubling down on this heap and the odds on making it to SLC, maybe shoot the wad all the way to the Pearl Street Mall. A little more gas, a lot more take-out joe, and I was blowing by the Elko County Seat like a Pony Express rider with trust deeds in his saddlebags and firewater in his veins.

Sure enough, the squareback had responded with fuel-injected horsepower the little four-banger hadn’t mustered since before its odometer turned over. I was inhaling devil’s food cupcakes, washing them down with powdered creamy coffee, tuning in to scratchy Merle Haggard and Charlie Pride on the dashbox, card counting my blessings out of town. Nothing but broccoli-top scrub, range fences and white triangular cattle guards on the comparatively straight arrow leg to Willup and beyond. At least until I-80’s next rise and the East Humboldt mountains came into view, gradiently proving to be the Deeth of me, in the silhouette of an 11,300 foot Hole In The Mountain Peak. From there on, my Volks reverted to its gagging, bucking ways, dying altogether—last gasp, fierce final throes, under a railroad viaduct on the outskirts of Wells, coasting on fumes here along Business 80 into Raley’s Gas & Garage—coming up to closing time, just around the bend.

“But I s’pose you could always go check it out directly with the VW dealer in Elko when you go get the part,” said Raley Jorgen, proprietor and mechanic in residence. “They’d probably know what’s up for sure…”

“Thanks, been there, tried that. Then again, what choice do I have now?”

 “Next bus west comes in the morning, 7:45…stops over at the Ranchero Hotel…don’t miss it, only one each way a day,” Raley said, wiping his hands with a Gunk rag. “Oh, and I’d keep a look out for the highwaymen—and I don’t mean them folkie types. It’s the Wild West out here.”

“OK leaving my car here?”

  “Fine by me, clunker ain’t goin’ nowhere, and we got wide-open spaces in these parts,” Raley moved the greasy globules between his fingers into his palms for easier wiping, nails looking to not have been cleaned out since Ethyl turned to Super Unleaded and tires blew away their tubes. “Let’s just push it over next to the Gremlin with the Illinois plates…dunno when they’re coming back for that job. Guess I can always sell it for scrap,” Raley tossed his rag into a grease bin. “And hey, we might be the boonies, but at least no Californy earthquake’s knockin’ buildings over in Wells, Nevada…” Would that it were forever so…

“Ranchero,” I filed away the scrap part. “Cheap rooms or…”

“Middlin’…decent grub in the coffee shop though…downright neighborly slots. ”

“You sure the bus stops there?”

 “Just hang tight, mac, she just sometimes runs a little behind,” said Raley, handing me his business card. “And keep in touch, real close like…”

sr dingbats

              Wells itself was a crusted skillet of a town set against the rolling, snow-peaked Humboldts and shallow nearby lakes, just another Nevada gas hop and pit stop with gambler motels up and down its old Route 40 main street. It had some lodging chains, a Western Tires, payoff country stores and casino/pharmacies—but no import car garages, much less grease gunners who gave a hoot about a broken down German job like mine.

Thus Raley’s plan, it was; I locked the squareback, buttoned up, grabbed a couple of things, then hiked it a half mile or so down strip, taking one frigid step at a time. Just beyond some modular storage sheds and a bucket slots saloon, El Ranchero stood in all its brickface, two-story glory—including Wells’ sole official bus stop: Ranchero’s casino/coffee shop.

I settled in for a cheeseburger, no fries, served up with a crooked smile by a pink-aproned cowgirl with .45 caliber eyes, carefully tallying my shriveled bankroll over a couple of machine-brewed refills. After greasing Annie Oakley’s trigger fingers, I collapsed into a cold vinyl lounge chair over in the adjacent Ranchero Hotel’s lobby and nodded off, one drowsy eye on a Peterbilt cattle truck idling out the picture window, where signs noted that bus was scheduled to load.

Train whistles, traffic noise, howling coyotes, money-losing cowboy drunks: I slept through it all, awakened only by the morning’s last Trailways call. Springing for a one-way ticket at the hotel counter, I wondered why the night clerk let me be there in the lobby Stratolounger, learning El Ranchero was already holding a full house, what with a man camp of wildcat ropers roving through town.

Water under the overpass, I thought, as the half-empty motorcoach pull away from El Ranchero’s sizzling red neon signs. The driver honked to several craggy old cowpokes bowleg shuffling past spare, saggy brickfaced storefronts into the coffee shop for over-easys and steaming decanter of joe. One long, perplexing look at my crippled Volks, and I pressed back deeply into the bus seat, nibbling at crusty sourdough with litterbox breath. Elko was in my crosshairs, nothing much else to focus on enroute besides a ribbon of two-lane tedium, 100-car coal trains and a vastly tiered, overcast winter sky.

So I just sorted and counted roadside billboards, realizing how everything was virguled in Nevada: hotel/casinos, restaurant/casinos, druggist/casinos, bakery/casinos, hardware/casinos, gun shop/casinos, pawnshop/casinos, city hall/casinos, gambling den/casinos, bailbond/casinos, jailhouse/casinos, funeral parlor/casinos…all bets covered, day-to-day life on the come.

Seemed Nevada really was a big smoke-filled seduction that way, one long fling with disaster: They welcomed you at Wendover, won you over at Wells, wowed you at Winnemucca, licked you at Lovelock, reamed you at Reno, vomited you out at Verdi. Just an idle rearview thought in passing—but a couple of quick stops, and the Elko all those ad signs had trumpeted appeared on a drab, Independence Mountain-hemmed horizon.

I coaxed the driver to drop me off at the VW dealer on the edge of town. First stop, the service desk, describing my misifiring squareback like a caller into Click and Clack: No dice, a fuel pump was one thing, but they couldn’t tell what else failed without doing an electro-diagnostic on the entire fuel injection system. ‘Try the bigger Volks outfits in Reno or Salt Lake City; pick your Mae West, fella’. Didn’t know what to make of that, so I trudged through the hoarfrost to stop number two, boxcars in my eyes.

       sr dingbats

   “Here yet?’

  “Not yeeeett…”

   “You’ll call it out when…”

  “Do a bear dump in the woods? I’ll call you, I’ll call you.”

   The Commercial Hotel was Elko’s Alladin, Sahara, Tropicana and Caeser’s Palace all rolled into one pile of plastic chips, with a monumental polar bear standing two stories tall over its red neon entrance. It also housed Trailways’ bus stop, and even more importantly a Western Union desk, within an ever clamoring, quarter slot-filled lobby. This was where I was pacing, in no mood for the clerk’s smarmy, catbird smiles. She stood reading the ticker as it ticked off some losing streaker deadbeat’s Moneygram lifeline, just not my own. Overlooking her was that backwall rogue’s gallery of western legends and rapscallions—not to mention wayward, down-cycle celebrities, fringe rat packer rejects from the Reno-Tahoe lounges.

  I’d burned some clock studying the framed wild mustang herds, and bio profile on White King, that monster polar bear out front, and how it had been bagged in Alaska, ultimately propped up all 10’4” high in a clear glass-aluminum cage, like a King-Kong albino.

 Of no less fascination was the taxidermed wolverine in a Plexiglas box over her shoulder, antler racks hanging everywhere, but I couldn’t help fixing on that telegraph clerk. I studied her moves and mannerisms as she ripped and read tickertape, pasting it sickly yellow Western Union forms. How she sighed loudly with boredom in her cleaving violet velour sweater, taking a hit of soda, a drag on her butt, oblivious to us desperate, tapped-out stiffs hanging on her every call.

When anxiety and anticipation started flushing over me, I ran for the tables—just looking, thanks. Lining the smazed casino were row upon row of Bally three-eyed bandits, all-day sucker zombies of every demographic sub stratum draining their paper jackpot cups, nursing rum colas on slot-machine elbows. Center room, cards, craps, Monte Carlo and 21 bars ruled the floor over a thick mat of played-out Keno slips.

Once burned with Sydney, I stayed away from the sinkhole wheels and bones, avoiding Commercial’s dealers, rumrunners and at-large moneychangers, yet checking out its scanty panty waitresses with the cowgirl hats and fishnets, sliding tips and numbers into their fringed, black bustier-style leather vests. Before long, the piped-in calliope Muzak got to me, as did the spasmodic bells, buzzers and sirens of spinning, flashing slots like the inside of a pinball machine; the barkers calling out 4 and 6-spot pays, house bouncers lassoing inept card counters, cottontops chewing their Keno crayolas in frustration, watching soaps on 21-inch screens until their bladders burst—the whoops of victory and howls of defeat, the entire fruit roll, green felt, Bloody Mary-stained carpet spectacle—finally drove me back empty-handed to the lobby. That’s about when Ms. Moneygram gave me the call.

Downtown Elko

From there on, it could have gone either way. Cash in hand, I rubbed my scrubby growth, mulling things over: Westward to Reno for a car-part gambol or Salt Lake City eastward with the whole damn heap. By Trailways’ measure, the first, best choice was its red-eye Denver-bound bus. Better off towing to SLC than throwing the dice with Reno, I doodled on my napkin over a refill in the Coffee Corral, but there was only one cost-effective way for the Utah choice to go off without a hitch. That was to go with a hitch, realizing full well where that led—second thinking about maybe aiming Reno way, maybe I shoulda never left…Frisco.                                                                                       

 Care for more?

Chapter 24. Digging deep, weathering 
chain reactions: matters tighten up, relationships
get more complicated, things get a little out of hand…


“The big idea, the 
longer view—don’t 
let it get the best of you.”

          “Sooo, Aimee was your first figure study, huh?”

          “At the Institute, nosy. Faith was my very first.”


          “You should see her pin-ups. The mother of all mothers.”

          Angles and configurations, I was still trying to get a handle on any homological scenarios. But further prurient curiosity and concentration escaped me altogether once we rejoined Nicasio Valley Road, then Sir Francis Drake Boulevard to Route 1 near Olema—no CHP shakedowns in sight. From there southward, we took the coastal route: Dogwood, hints of Bolinas, Stinson Beach. Barely secluded ocean strands, dizzily switchbacked turns, cliff-hanging S-curves, organic dairy farms and sprawling quarter horse spreads. Shoreline 1 was one long scenic blur of rustic and tidal beauty, expanding even more dramatically as we rose toward the Panoramic Highway hump, from which we could see clearly back north to Point Reyes and Drakes Bay from a string of narrow turnouts.

          A peripheral lightheadedness, a swivel-necked giddiness set in at the Tamalpais viewpoint, a full perspective on the entire Bay region that rendered me speechless along the winding, redwooded descent into Mill Valley and its little shake-sided, arts & crafts-style charmers, down through Tam Junction, under the 101 freeway’s Wm. T. Bagley Bridge to this jaw-dropping walk in bayfront Sausalito, parking outside a landmark produce grocery mere footsteps away.

          “It just goes to show how incredibly special the Bay Area is,” Sydney said, soon as we began strolling along the Bridgeway promenade, San Francisco’s skyline coming more fully into view. “You’ve got the most exciting city in the world over there, and, like, a rural paradise 15 minutes over the Gate. It’s even more spectacular the further up you go, like by Sebastopol, where my cousins live—they actually have a dome up there.”

          “No lie? Those meters in force today, or,” I scouted around for meter maids—so far, so good. There was no missing Sausalito’s other surroundings, clustered cabins and cottages haphazardly spilling down its hillsides in Mediterranean tiers to the village’s waterfront tourist row. Across Bridgeway, I spotted a wiped-out old salt sitting, shivering in the cool shade of a palm tree, and pondered if it could have been Villa Mañana’s Mr. Wiggs.

          “It’s Sunday, lighten up,” she pulled me along, pausing at the promenade railing. “Just look at this all, will you? There are so many possibilities, so much going on…and so mild climate-wise. There are no snow storms in these hills…a little blowing, maybe, but…”

          “Uh-huh, kinda small town, if you ask me,” I said, peering up and down the walk with a trace of defensive resistance, jacket slung over my shoulder. “I mean compared to, like, Chicago or something.”

          “Chicago? There is no comparison, class-wise,” Syd pointed beyond Sausalito’s sloping, cluttered-to-green Banana Belt ridge toward the Golden Gate towers, glowing redder with every glance. “Take that gorgeous bridge—a picture of grace and simplicity. If it was in Chicago, they’d have done it in gaudy chrome and car-lot searchlights.”

          “Oddly enough, it was built by a Chicago engineer,” said a blue-vested valet pacing in wait to dislodge a Bentley from the fused wood piling parking deck of the dockside Trireme Restaurant, packed with larger numbers: 320s, 450s, 733i’s. “Says so right on the commemorative plaque up there by its gift shop.”

          “Really? Chi-guy came up with that?” I asked the valet, who suddenly sprinted to the racing green British saloon as its graying broker-owner emerged from the dressy, showboat-themed Trireme, with a raven-haired trophy on his arm. “Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright?”

          “No, but Wright did do the Marin Civic Center—amazing, too,” Syd huffed, diverted momentarily but undeterred, steering us eastward, toward central Sausalito. “But moving right along…” Sausalito

          Not quite stateroom class, nowhere near steerage, the Halyard was a boxy, two-story converted fishery a bit east of Trireme, jutting out well into Sausalito harbor—just the sort of reborn eye-sore at which local trendies threw bundles of cash, developers on down. Diners digested a three-sided view of the bayfront; Halyard’s back bar crowd enjoyed even more. A young helmsman between crews ushered us rearward, past redwood burl tables pleny with platters of lobster, scallops, cracked crab and anchovy salads.

          Syd guided me along a spar deck of inlaid redwood paneling and bowline-hanging planters, beyond sunburst leaded glass lightboxes tucked between gargantuan ferns and cordotum, which cast a red lobster glow across the nautical dining room. A commodore suited waitress picked us up at sliding glass doors leading into The Xebec, an aft deck bar with full sailing decor, seating us a small mid-row table beside an open-windowed affray.

          “Ringside seat, no?” Sydney asked, as we pulled our stools nearer into the round, hatch-size table, knees aknocking. “What I’m saying is there are no limits to what you can accomplish here…it’s not like Chicago that way, or cowtown Colorado, for that matter.”

          “Chicago what way?” I picked up immediately on San Francisco’s skyline across the bay, a foreground sprinkle of yachtsmen, listing, heavy heeling into the lingering sunlight, jibs and mainsails reflectively ablaze.

          “C’mon, you know as well as I the Midwest is pure suffocation.” She’d ordered us a couple of café au laits, then dug into a breadstick basket. “Why do you think all the good people leave there?”

          “That’s not the Chicago I come from,” I said, getting unexpectedly defensive, taking in the broad sweep of Richardson Bay and the city front far beyond. “I just left because of the harsh winters… and the muggy summers…and the…”

          “Hey, I come from where you come from, remember…”

          Rail side, we were greeted by the light wash of a sleek 40-foot sloop gybing aimlessly before the promenade, its crew saluting in yellow foul weather gear. I actually found the spray comparatively bracing alongside deep winter images of speed skating on Nederland’s mountain reservoirs, or ice floes locking up Lake Michigan freighters. Here, sailboats cross-hatched the waters in mid-season form, a tight late-day racing pattern rounding the mark between Sausalito and the Headlands shadow, heeling in toward Marin’s Corinthian Yacht Club as if clambakes, Tanqueray Coolers, party balls and fireworks awaited them.

          Framing the promenade, yacht clubs and rest of Richardson Bay were the cloistered, villa and condo-crazed enclaves of hilly Tiburon and Belvedere, the starkly unspoiled green coves and canyons of lee side Angel Island—the outer stretches of Treasure Island, Alameda and Oakland’s cityscape peeking up behind, Bay Bridge spans and cantilevers threading it all together. An outbound container ship fog horned gnatty pleasure craft out of its channel, drawing my eye rightward to Alcatraz, which rose from center bay like steeple-less Mont-Saint-Michel at maximum tide, the island’s cell blocks and prison laundry crumbling in the salt air as though unearthed Sicilian ruins—that rotted incisor in dire need of capping in an otherwise captivating smile.

          “Just look at all that. Funny, like I said, the whole peninsula as this humongous erection,” Syd mused, stirring sugar into her coffee with a Stella d’ Oro breadstick. “With San Francisco at its head, constantly getting off. Know what I’m saying?”

          “Couldn’t tell you,” I blanched, as she stirred mine in turn, tossing her soggy breadstick over the railing to the seagulls. “Though it does seem like a great place to visit, but it’s got nothing to do with me.”

          “It’s got everything to do with you,” she snapped off another salty stick like kindling, staring me X-ray through. “Honestly, what do you want to do, be a professional student all your life—sucking up to deans and chalking blackboards?”

          “Maybe not, but first, I’ve got some holes to dig out of.” I drank a stiff jolt of sweet, milky java. “Got a career to build up…”

          “Are you telling me you don’t want to be all the best you can be? That’s what this is all about here…that’s what everybody I know is doing…”

          “Well, maybe that’s the difference between you and me,” I said, licking my lips, a bit on the salty side. “You and your pals are free to play in your sandbox, chase your dreams. I’ve got obligations …I owe people.”

          “You’re as free as you want to be, flash. And the only person you really owe is yourself,” she said, again banging her knee against mine. “C’mon, you just loaded up your head with all this ammunition, now’s the time to aim and pull the trigger. It’s the difference between getting by and getting over, don’t you understand?”

          I reconnected with that container ship this side of Angel Island. The high-riding Matson freighter’s blue-banded smokestacks of a high-riding Matson freighter conspired with low wispy fog to carry my eyes along San Francisco’s teeming waterfront across the bay. From downtown’s skyline and wharf to the cream cheese hued mansions Syd coveted, which were stacked like palleted dairy cases up and down the length of Pacific Heights, over to the craggy wooded bluffs and dense urban forest of the Presidio to the Golden Gate Bridge: All this was packed tighter, more seamlessly than the quick highlight edits of a year-end network newsreel, rolling out like an IMF bar graph of the Americas in the aggregate.

          Greeting that Asia-bound container ship just inside the gate was a band of over-the-limit fishing boats hounded by hovering swirls of hungry seagulls. As the churning trawlers gathered steam to shake them, the birds gained reinforcements—a swooping, squawking waterspout that all but enveloped the laden boats like sand flies over a freshly beached sea lion. This compelling little drama lured me all the way back to Crissy Field, the Marina Green, Fort Mason piers, ultimately to downtown San Francisco, by now popping out like a flaming matchbook against the clear twilight sky.

          “Yeah, but…”

          “But nothing, your mind is like a muscle,” Syd replied, shifting and upper body stretching in her seat. “You’ve got to keep bulking it up with new challenges, flash. California’s the big workout, and the Bay Area’s a totally mental place. If you can cut it here, you can cut it anywhere.”

          “Christ, I can’t even cover what I’ve already done back in…”

          “What? You’re saying you don’t want to reach all the absolute potential you can? You sound like some kind of prisoner out on The Rock or something.”

          “That’s easy for you to say. You seem to have plastic to burn…”

          “Hmph, it’s as easy as you want it to be. Just do what you do best and get it out there for people to see, that’s what I do,” she said, as she framed the skyline with painterly outstretched hands. “Like, if I were you, I’d stash the books and break out my cameras in a heartbeat. Create my brains out…if you’re doing what comes naturally, intuitively, people pick up on that energy like crazy. All you need is a good eye and your equipment…put Annie Liebovitz to shame. ”

          “Right, that and a blank check from Kodak …”

          “It’s all a matter of attitude, total positivity,” she scowled, breaking off more breadstick. “You’ve got to decide whether you’re gonna be an additive or subtractive personality—simple as that. Look at Josh Gravanek, for godsakes.”

          “The music promoter? What’s he…”

          “I’m up at his Telluride spread for New Year’s, flipping out over how this shlub started in the Midwest with zilch, no real talent but beaucoup energy. And he’s grabbed L.A. by the noogies, wrapped the whole record business around his little finger. Beverly Hills mansion, the whole works.”

          “Yeah, bully for him, so…”

          “So at least you’ve got some talent. Use that and your smarts, and you can forget about classrooms and a glorified little shed overlooking Boulder. You can move up here and look out over the edge of everything…all you have to do is reach out and grab it. I sense you can do this, Kenneth, you can do anything you want.”

          “Yeah, well, his ranch burned down, didn’t it—at least, that’s what I read in the Denver Post…” Not without notice was that she actually remembered my name, although too formally so for my flannel tastes.

          “Hah, if I know Josh, he’s probably already rebuilding it in spades by now…”

          “Whatever…the whole thing sounds pretty selfish to me.”

          “Selfish, my heinie—this is nothing less than self-preservation. You’re missing the big picture here, Kenneth. The trick is to decide what you want and go for it—grab on and hold tight, like Josh and Aimee have. It’s a competitive, eat or be eaten world out there, so you’ve got to do what you do best. That’s the only way to real happiness. Anything less is just settling, going through the motions, and you’ll never be truly happy doing that. Neither will anybody around you if you do—just ask my sorry schlemiel brother.”

          The bay turned slowly indigo now, downtown’s radiant white-gold towers casting high-rise reflections around the city front, a bracelet of dazzling gems, ranging from the Transamerica Pyramid’s pointy headed boldness to the square-headed prominence of Embarcadero Center and B of A headquarters, floor and flood lights glimmering alabaster in the embering daylight, red avigation/clearance lights blinking cherries on top. Coit Tower and Nob Hill hotels contained some of the rampant vertical corporate growth—stood stubborn topographical sentry over office buildings crammed side-by-side, new Manhattanized construction cranes crowding the Financial District fringes. Beyond them, San Francisco regained its free-rolling scale, this shimmering hologram of a city, this self-anointed West Coast bastion of insouciant style and grace.

          I turned away from the brilliance like bloodshot eyes from a solar eclipse, surveying Xebec’s happy hour clamor, Halyard’s early dinner horde through the smoky door glass, people far prettier and much less hungry than I, reeling in choice servings of sea bass and Shrimp Louis, their off-season tans glowing in the table-to-table candlelight. The concerted low-grade flame reflected off brass rigging and navigational devices, flickered off polished kevels, pulleys and anchors, teased highly strung rudders and mooring lines, setting each starfish and abalone shell into deep sea motion. My head was filling with ambiguous prospects, sensory overload, gut stirring like the inner harbor’s swaying topmasts, the bay wake slapping at the rocks below. I suddenly felt seasick moving and shaking, just the same.

          “For my money, that’s where all your hostility is coming from,” she continued. “You’ve got to use all that pent-up frustration as a motivator. If nothing else, you owe it to your dog…”

          “What are you talking about, hostility? And I’m not frustrated,” I snapped, homing back in on my coffee cup, something to do with my hands. I looked away, back into Halyard’s candlit tables and mounted grapnels, brass compasses, strung hawsers and martingales. “Seamus’s got nothing to do with…”

          “Pu-leeze, Kenneth, this isn’t sweet little Melissa you’re talking to here,” she cranked back my attention, mugging with her Stella like a Havana Panatela, before stuffing it in my cup. “I mean, get with the program, you’ve gotta set goals. I know about your Saturn Return meshugahss, so make that inner turmoil work for you too. Just like I’m always telling myself that if I don’t continue to evolve as an artist, I’ll end up washed up and alone like Darna Karl to keep me painting—whatever works, see what I’m saying?”

          “Now, that sounds frustrating,” I replied, not caring to give Saturn and the lost Satalisman a second thought, instead casting about the deck for some avenue of escape. “No, actually, that sounds just plain weird.”

          “Of course I know in the back of my mind that once I team up with the right person, we’ll take over that town, and move up here to Marin,” she said, brushing back her ringlets. “I mean, do you know what it’s like to not be absolutely ravishing in San Francisco. It would help if I didn’t look more like an everyday stenographer.”

          “Hey, come on, I don’t think you look like a…” I finished off my au lait, much as she already had, with breadsticks all noshed down or overboard.

          “You don’t,” she asked searchingly, as she beckoned me back through the Halyard. “Then what do you think I look like?”

          “Huh,” I squirmed, especially when facing up to the fact that this little cherry bomb across from me was paying again. “I don’t know, I’d have to think about it…”

          “You just do that,” she said, as we cleared the Xebec back into the main dining room, sniffing the baked Salmon Tartare, while I was hungering for the car. “You just think all about it…real careful like.”

          Once outside Halyard’s clattery gangway, we walked its plank onto the promenade and over to Syd’s Audi, first grabbing a couple of orange juices from that relic produce grocery. We flipped a U-ey onto Bridgeway, Syd hell bent on providing a quick motivational tour of Sausalito’s wraparound hillside showplaces, a bit of nautical slumming by the bobbing seaplanes, teredoed rustbuckets, renegade houseboat communities and rowdy claptrap clogging its estuaries.

          But about then, stomach contractions and hunger pangs overcame us, whereupon she directed me to turn back around on the median strip near the Bay Model Center warehouse, goading me on to beat the departing Red and White ferry to The City. I drove ahead like the cab hack I once so briefly was, guesstimating our chances from here across a broad, forbidding bay, blowing off Village Fair souvenir shops, peeking about Sausalito’s patchwork of picket fenced mariner cottages and stilted hillside homes as we throttled up past multi-level modern complexes spilling down outer bay view cliffs like a rockslide—never losing sight of the Fox’s rearview mirrors.

          A slow clot of traffic led us up a steep, winding road toward the Golden Gate, Syd motioning me around some dawdling out-of-state station wagons and compacts. The radio play of bluesy Mark Naftalin at New George’s dropped off in the tunnel under Waldo Grade, around weeded over old military emplacements this side of Tennessee Valley. His Butter-Bloomfield guitar riffs re-surged as we ramped full throttle onto Highway 101 south, force merging between an airporter van and Winnebago Chieftan, Chevy Vega hitched behind, across from Vista Point.

          Once KTIM’s signal faded, Syd tuned through KRE, KYA, KSFO, KSAN, KOME, KYUU, up and down the radio band. She paused at KSFD’S newsbreak—that Peoples Temple was now embroiled in a child custody tug-of-war between the defector family Stoens and Jim Jones in Guyana, deadline showdowns looming, details at 7. She then dialed on from the report. Meanwhile, I fixed on the bridge’s north tower—all 746 feet, 44,000 tons of steel plates and 600,000 rivets of it—glowing in the bi-way headlamps like a gilded Deco stepladder to the stars.  Golden Gate Bridge

          The Audi’s tires hummed over the bridge’s deck seams and grated panels when she push buttoned to KMEL’s Album Caravan, and an eerily timed Journey preview track, ‘Lights’, from their brand new album, ‘Infinity’, Steve Perry debuting as lead singer.  Then she urged me forward with an eye to the ferry boat crossing mid bay beyond Alcatraz Island, going on about how this was the future, the creative center of the universe, everyplace else being just history. I leaned into the steering wheel, lost in the gently bowed deck, the south tower, the harp string support cables—a Singapore-bound Pan Am China Clipper climbing steadily above the bridge, Carnival cruise ship steaming in below, ‘Infinity’ next tracking to ‘Wheel In The Sky’.

          “There, the right lane’s opening up,” she pointed, over the three-lane hump, on approach to the amber-lit Toll Plaza, reaching over to toss paper and coinage into the collection basket. “I’ve got it covered.”

          “Bull’s eye, Nice shot.” I punched it on the green light, wheeling through the neoned plaza. “Sign you up with the Nuggets…”

          “Make that Golden State Warriors, and step on it,” she peered like a longhaired pointer, tracking the Red and White ferry below.

          Around the 101 curve, well down Doyle Drive and through Presidio shadows, I began getting the bigger picture. Racing along the bay front, clipping pylons, gaining noticeably on the Sausalito ferry, I caught a glimpse of the incredible totality of this place. Over there to the left, God’s green paradise; over here, The City was ablaze, all ermine shoulders and white gloved open arms, Sutro Tower overlording on Twin Peaks beyond. The idea was every bit of it, the timeframe was now; this wasn’t trig or applied statistics, didn’t take some Ph.D.

          The headlong epiphany churned forth like the sandy surf undertow lapping Crissy Field, chilling me around the Marina curve, steadily surging like high tide up the full length of Lombard Street’s motel row as Journey played ‘Feelin’ That Way’. Seven futile spins around Syd’s block couldn’t shake the rush. Neither could the white loading zone two streets down we desperately settled for. Lingering starlit bay views, the Sunday night aroma of broiling sirloin, pumped me up even more all the way back to her place. The prospect of a hot seafood combo pizza hand delivered from North Beach lifted us up three full flights of stairs.

          Suddenly this all seemed so right somehow, I chased Syd’s honeydew derriere up to her apartment, dragging my sheepskin coat along. I felt somewhat San Franciscan, though didn’t really know the meaning of the word. Imagine all the people, living out their dreams—grab and hold tight. It made no logical sense whatsoever, of course, which was why it made such intuitive sense. Hell, if somebody this good and gifted figured I could cut it in San Francisco, who was I to deny or doubt her? The sheer potential of it all swelled tightly against the zipper of my jeans as she tumbled her triple-locked door.

          “We did it, flash, beat that ferry cold,” she smiled, high-fiving me to the distinctive ringing of her phone. “Probably LaDolce Pizza calling to take our order right now.”

          “Telepathy, totally mental,” I puffed, keying on her on the way to her room and Princess phone. “We’re really on a roll.”

          “Sydney here, we’ll have an extra large combo with…huh? Sure, toots…hold a sec,” she slipped from laughter to chagrin, handing me the phone, raising her fingertips to her lips.

             “Kenny? Where’ve you…tsk, I’ve been calling all day…”

 Care for more?

Chapter 23. A rapid turnaround results
in systemic breakdowns, and portents
of stalled ambitions, daydreams
hitting a bit closer to home…

“Out of town, out of 
mind, can bring encounters 
of a most peculiar kind.”



          “License and registration, please…”

          El Menudo’s Chuletas and Tostadas lying heavily on the gullet, I had over slept in, closet-wise. Scrambling out to make an overdue Moon call, I could hear that Sydney had already tied up her Princess line, and neither of her roomies had yet cracked open their bedroom doors. So no phone, no call, no such luck on the Front Range front this sunny Sunday morn. Nevertheless, second things first: Any thought, any nagging urge I had for a quick solo side trip up to Lafayette Park for another Satalisman search was quickly nixed by Syd as she fired up her Fox, two convenient parking slots down the block.

          Instead, she sped us over to my squareback—no tow-away there thus far—whereupon we transferred her Samsonite road show into the Audi. Soon helping us lug the bags and boxes from her building’s loading zone through its chandeliered lobby, resident manager Ivar Krile motioned us to pile it all into his black wrought iron elevator. Stooped and diminutive as he was, the Uzbekan émigré squeezed us all into his cramped little birdcage. Saying little on up, he hustled us out to Syd’s third floor hallway over the buzzing of his lobby call button—but not before scanning her for a belated Christmas gratuity. Later, mon ami, she winked, waving him down as she directed me to schlepp the load into her room, being particularly careful with the small brown-wrapped package she’d been so insouciantly carrying for Josh Gravanek—wondering aloud why he’d even asked her to hold it in safe keeping until hearing from him or one of his…people.

          Then Syd called Aimee Pellimore to catch up, which resulted in an offhand invitation to Marin. Delegation being the better part of valor, Syd insisted I join her, behind the wheel, of course, on a road trip to Eden on the edge. She rode shotgun like a dismounted drover, guiding me along Lombard Street’s motel row up onto Doyle Drive, calling out the bay and headlands, warning me to mind the little 19-inch tall yellow plastic tubes—four inches in diameter, manually placed at 25-foot intervals by rolling truck crews—that were the only margin of safety between us and oncoming traffic traveling at least as fast as we were.

          Squeezing through the free-direction toll-plaza slots, we soaked in the grandeur of the Golden Gate. Syd swivel-gazed upon the overpowering sweep of it all, from the Oakland Hills on out to Land’s End and beyond, as if viewing this dramatically scenic panorama for the very first time. I in fact was, and could barely keep track of other vehicles speeding by on moveable lanes, craning to follow the tanker and container ships passing beneath the arching 1.7 mile long bi-way span, hooking my neck even further to peer up at the soaring International Orange bridge towers.

          This epic sea and skyline view kept fixing our over-the-shoulder gazes all the way up El Camino Real’s Waldo Grade, grabbing us again once we breezed through Highway 101’s rainbow tunnel, adding Sausalito’s cliffside cribs and Richardson Bay houseboats to the foreground mix. But no less compelling was the Marin County landscape unfolding beyond the coastal hills to our left—from low-lying Bridgeway wetlands to the commanding heights of Mount Tamalpais. Strawberry, Mill Valley, Tam Junction, Corte Madera, Larkspur fanned sumptuously about winter green peaks and valleys—all too much to absorb while keeping a wandering eye on now Redwood Highway’s northbound flow.

          Mellow mountains and major water under clear blue skies: Even the specter of San Quentin guard posts and cellblocks couldn’t fuzz our buzz. KSFD’s AOR playlist squelched out some as we exited onto Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, a spin of the stereo dial picking up a KTIM-FM segue from Jorma Kaukonen’s ‘Hot Tuna, Double Live’ bootleg to Sweetwater Maria Muldaur. Sydney covetously pointed out the estates and manses of Kentfield, Ross and San Anselmo, waved off the funkiness of Fairfax, rhapsodized over the one-horse, west Marin lure of San Geronimo—so far, and yet so near.

          I was no less taken with yet more remote redwood beauty when she steered me onto Nicasio Valley Road—at least until we rounded a narrow curve near the Lucas Valley turn off, straight into a dense bosk of fir and pine trees, and the uniform glare of caution flares and a gumballed welcome wagon.               Marin County road

          “Colorado DL, is it? But the registration says San Francisco,” said the CHP road blocker, running a roving safety inspection like a Medellin ambush.

          “Uh, it belongs to her,” I pointed Syd’s way.

          “In accordance with California Vehicle Code, we are conducting this random inspection as a means of determining whether drivers like yourself are complying with minimum state standards regarding the safe operation of a licensed motor vehicle. Would you mind stepping out of the vehicle, please.”

          “Unreal,” I grumbled, poised to spring out of the Audi as a second highway patrolman called in my license for outstanding tickets and warrants. Couldn’t help but puzzle over why she was taking me on these side trips anyway, why I was sheepishly going along…

          “This is my doing, officer,” Sydney leaned over toward the driver’s side. “It is my car and I’ve asked my visiting friend here to take the wheel.”

          “Now, why would you do that, ma’am?”

          “You see, I’ve just had my purse stolen, including my license, so he’s generously helping me with a very important errand,” she smiled, holding back my arm. “Plus, I’m having my period, and I do get a little hot flash crampy without my Midol—which was also in my purse. So you wouldn’t want me behind the wheel that way, would you?”

          “Umm, no ma’am,” he grimaced, steaming up his chrome Aviators. His partner then returned with my clean DL. “Everything seems in working order here—we needn’t cite or impound your vehicle. The California Highway Patrol appreciates your cooperation. So you folks have a good day.”

          “Thank you, officer,” she waved affably. “And you keep an eye out for my purse, will you? Tooled leather with rainbow rays.”

          “That true?” I accelerated cautiously out of the road stop.

          “Wanna find out for yourself?” she chided, settling back into her bucket seat. “But even my mother doesn’t use Midol any more.”

          From here on, the road to Aimee Pellimore’s led along rolling green hills, scattered shady groves, Holstein grazing pastures and horse farms—two narrow lanes dotted with cheese stands, pumpkin fields and the oddball wooden sculpture. I dodged a quartet of oncoming cyclists in a roadside bike lane as we left-turned onto Rancho Road, just south of Nicasio and its bladdery Reservoir. Winding up into a more thickly forested ridgeline, we cut onto a fire road dotted with steel private driveway gates and roller cattle guards. Syd pointed to a small wood-burned sign reading, ‘Rancho Ridge’ and ‘Villa Mañana’, and a simple, rusty metal cross-bar, which she instructed me to swing open with authority as she cranked up some Jim Kweskin Jug Band on KTIM stereo. While I still had mariachis and Abraxas timbals and congas dancing in my head.

          Mañana’s trail, narrow as a double-yellow line, rutted up through ferned pine and redwood, following a shallow creekbed between two smooth, busty hills—thinly green from rainy season shortfalls, but sparkling just the same. She snickered at scores of calendar-clean Guernseys grazing, satisfied tails asway, against a brilliantly cloudless sky, then gestured toward a fir-ringed swimming hole. Framing it all was peeling white rail fencing, around the curve of which surfaced the former Rancho Ridge creamery-post office, now a crafts shack, coveralled counter artisans milling all about.

          Some forty yards beyond the lone, sagging storefront, a second Villa Mañana marker was nailed under a buckshot-pocked dairy sign, arrowing us another quarter mile up the way. Counting off brightly painted milk cans, waving off a growing litter of car-crazed golden labs, we soon steered through a single-lane split in the fence rails, ‘Villa Mañana’ and ‘Trespassers, meet your maker’ mounted to either side—sort of like a private label Bohemian Grove.

          Sydney reached over and beeped Foxy’s horn around a clump of spruce trees, filigree and ostrich ferns rising over a heavily algaed pond, from behind which emerged this maroon and marigold farmhouse. She then motioned me toward a slightly lean-to two-car barn, brown Saab wagon and pink, black polka dotted Citroen 2CV inside. Neither rundown nor fully restored, the Victorian homestead just looked lived in and inviting.

          Aimee and her matching Gordon Retrievers sauntered through the screen door of a wraparound, plant-rich porch, welcoming the familiar Audi wagon beneath a lone, largely cascading parasol palm tree. Their greeting was demonstrative, as were the photographs framing the foyer and front room—an equal-opportunity rogue’s gallery of intimacy, more profuse than El Menudo’s, baring like measures of hide, not least the nude beach foraging for mussels by a covey of young women au naturel.

          “Aimee and I shared a Telegraph Hill walk-up while we were art students,” Syd noted, having introduced me as her ‘driver’. “She was my first Institute figure study, was majoring in…”

          “Printmaking—intaglio and stone lithography,” Aimee finished her thought. “Nice meeting you…hope your meter’s not still running…”

          “Uh, no, nothing like that,” I said, toying with the dogs, whose collar tags read, ‘Id’ and ‘Ego’. “I’m just repaying a favor…”

          “I’ll bet…” She grinned, winking slyly at Syd, shaking back her dishwater blonde mane.

          “She won an award from the prestigious Legion of Honor Foundation. Didn’t you, Aim,” Syd gushed, stepping in to point out charcoal paper etchings of earth-toned figure studies mostly covering an inner parlor wall.

          “That was a while back, Sydney,” she said, of the two, more fully developed all around. “So much has happened in my life since then. How about you?”

          Syd proceeded to recount Europe, bemoan Gulf Coast Florida, avoid Chicago, shrug off Boulder and revel in Telluride and Aspen. She explained how her travels and travails had reinvigorated her creativity, reinformed her painting to where she couldn’t wait to toil away in her studio. She stretched and flexed and contorted while extolling the yoga discipline she had maintained throughout most of her journeys, sipped at a anti-oxidant juice blend Aimee had laid out in a ceramic service set on a wormwood coffee table before a woolen throw-covered, overstuffed sofa.

          I sat with them and nursed a citrus juice cup as well, sneaking peeks at more framed half-tones—mainly women who were working their way up the nude chain. Intriguing all the more was a four-color blow-up of these two by the swimming hole, strategically hugging, full-on lip kissing, nipples on point, caressing the only stitches of clothing between them: skimpy bikini bottoms in corresponding and stripes and hues.

          Tearing away from that graphic imagery, we soon toured the remainder of the farmhouse, two stories of expertly recaned and refurbished furniture, garnished with Aimee’s matted block prints and indigenous bric-a-brac from as far off as Humboldt County. A room-by-room exploration of hardwood and gingerbread trim brought us back to the rambling, wickered front porch. There, Syd and Aimee calendared and coordinated upcoming gallery openings down in The City, while I transposed Seamus and the Gordons now racing over to the mossy, algaed pond, mulling over who might have so competently staged and exposed that juicy color photograph.

          But of rather more interest was Aimee’s accounting of her migration from backyard guest house to big house, however smacking of a self-styled spin on events.

          This involved winning over a land poor, fifth generation drunken bachelor with Max Yasgur delusions, subletting a one-time bunk house-size outbuilding to use as a getaway studio space. Soon her family’s L.A. law firm dummied up a buy-out/leaseback package the strapped old man couldn’t refuse. Before long, they froze payment after she accused Mr. Roland Wiggs of rear window voyeurism and sexual harassment, which he denied, and threatened to tell the Feds about a few backyard sensimilla plants.

          Then he started an ill-funded and fated eviction proceeding. Her lawyers hit him with a cross-eviction and ongoing legal action that resulted in deputy sheriffs escorting Mr. Wiggs off the property, family belongings in tow. Meanwhile, Aimee moved from the glorified shed into the then shabby Victorian, and lured Barry, her man friend, to come up and help her with some surface restoration, Grandpa Pellimore funding the pet project from his Pasadena demesne.

          “I needed more growing space for my studio and screen printing and everything, but couldn’t totally give up The City,” she said, herself having been raised in seaside Orange County. “Then I found this deal in the Marin Sun classifieds. More visual inspiration, less wear and tear. The Tarot cards told me it was right.”

          “So, did the ol’ perv actually do it?” I asked, noticing that Aimee was a shade taller than Syd, more fetching yet. And how could she be so tan so early, or late.

          “Do what? The peeping tom routine?” she munched a kale chip. “What do you think?”

          “What do I know?” I said, allowing as how I couldn’t blame him. “I’m only along for the drive.”

          She said she saw Villa Mañana as her manifest destiny, some generational imperative—besides which, this was Marin. I just envisioned an uncanny resemblance between Aimee Pellimore’s profile and Sydney’s description of a younger, firmer, more modest Faith Mendel. But then Aimee tugged impatiently at her tight khaki safari shorts and flowery halter top, explaining her guests away with a stringently tight schedule of TM, Women’s’ Assertiveness Training and the seven schools of yoga. With that, Sydney hugged her dearly, they shared moist, marshmallow kisses and promised to stay in close touch; then she dragged me toward the car.

          “Shangri-La, huh,” Syd gushed, waving back to Aimee as I steered the Fox down trail, leaving the bounding Gordon Retrievers in the golden dust. “And excuse us, if we’re a bit demonstrative.”

          “Yeah, somethin’ else. So who took that shot of you to by the pond,” I probed, a mite voyeuristically myself. My head spun with wonder: What was with these two? The affection, all the pawing and grab-assing. Was it the nature or the nurture? The climate or the culture? The creative artsy bond or the bucks—big bucks, sudden bucks, free flowing, footloose bucks?

          “Barry took it, He’s the wuss in the picture next to ours, in the tawny sleeveless, huaraches and draw-string O.P.s…does lots of Transcendent Convening and Primal Encounter, keeps to himself back there.”

          I tried to pursue that angle or tangle, and Aimee’s motherly resemblance on the ride down, but Syd couldn’t see it. Anyhow, this was too glorious a setting for Oedipal psychobabble like that. Overflying gulls and scattered outbuildings were too white, surrounding hillsides too freshly green, drought or no. Here it was, mid January, with springtime already at hand—warm and softly breezy, that dash of sea salt in the air—life so easy and…free.      Marin County hills

          “Yah? Where’s this Barry guy now?”

          “Still living in the guest house, where he belongs,” Syd dismissed, turning on the radio to Elvin Bishop’s ‘Travelin’ Shoes’. “Point is, Aimee’s where she belongs. This delicious bite of paradise came along, she went for it. And to her credit, ended up with the whole enchilada.”

          “I thought she said he helped her rehab the Victorian and…”

          “He did, that’s why she hasn’t raised his rent all that much.”

          “Gotcha. So they still going together, or what?”

          “They’re still casual friends. She’s going with the Lagunitas hunk who leads her assertiveness program. He’s her spiritual beacon and casual paramour—he’s into the whole mind-body unity Gestalt, one mean long-boarder, too…”

          “Casual…mean…yah, well the weather’s sure cooperating, huh?”

          “This is California, flash, there is no weather here, only degrees of clear or unclear…with some patches of fog and rain.”

          “Yeah…unclear patches, all right…”

Care for more?

Chapter 22. Tête-à-tête at the water’s 
edge harbors stirring dreams and visions 
that may sound well beyond his depth…

“Venturing into alien 
lands can land you in a 
heap of troubling sideshows.”

         “You’re here, you’ve made it…isn’t that miraculous? Folks, give Mr. Herbert a roaring round of applause…bravo!” 

          “Well, I don’t think that’s necessary or…”

          One of the other crooked things Sydney had in mind was negotiating what she called the Vulvata Triangle—everything flowing through it—for a little fill-up and wipe down. Problem was, the service station/car wash basically sat arrow point in a slanted, angular then curvy convergence of several major lower downtown arteries, and a labyrinth of stunted side streets embrangling the resulting wedge. So we muddled about the one ways and dead ends of Chase, Colton, Colusa Streets, the narrow, little more than alleyways of Jessie and Plum—Syd grousing that she still hadn’t gotten the hang of Vulvata’s labia, even after all this time, but here we be.

          Heatedly humming along with some dreamy Peter Frampton on the deck, she pointed out the towering U.S. Mint, and where Mel’s drive-in used to roll in American Graffiti days, wheeling into a gas station/car wash. Eventually, the power sprays, vacuum hoses and spinning brushes of a good auto scrubbing seemed to calm her some, the chamois toweling of a half-dozen wash slaves even more so. Topped off and turned out, her sparkling red Fox was equal to the task of navigating the bends of South Van Ness and Mission, the parallel march of Valencia and Guerrero. Syd aimed for Mission Street, the longest, perhaps most variegated thoroughfare within The City limits—Embarcadero down to Daly City, an ethnical world away. We caught a well-lit spot just off Sixteenth and Capp, deep into the Mission District itself, within guarded walking distance of…this. Mission District

          “But of course you’re not really here, now are you?”

          “Huh? I…” The onstage interrogator caught me off guard.

          “No, the real Mr. Herbert is nowhere to be found, now is he? Nosiree—folks, let’s hear it. HISS, BOO, BAH!!! ”

          “Hey, wait a minute…” Whatever calm and good cheer I had brought to this encounter was dissipating, blow by blow.

          “Invisible, non-existent—how do you feel about that, Mr. Herbert?”

          “Whatdya’ mean? I’m right here,” I said, squeezing about my chest and shoulders.

          The 16th and Mission bank branch had closed long before—victim of too many armed withdrawals. A chainlink of custodial office spaces had cubicled off the nondescript four-story building’s main floor, Universe Theatre occupying a former mezzanine-level parking garage. To get there, we hiked up a long entrance ramp that smelled of residual exhaust fumes though the interior lot had been de-carmissioned for a year or more. At the landing, yellow lines still marked the broad concrete floor, oil drips staining the center of each empty slot. But a bumper swath of spaces nearest the ramp turn-in was an orb of repurposed fervor. Universe’s stage proved to be little more than a dozen loading dock risers framed by a bolide crowned, planetary-themed proscenium and dark star-studded tormentor wings that more than lived up to their name.

          “So you say, but how are you feeling about yourself?”

          “Just fine, thanks very much, so…” Actually, I felt more like Billy Carter at an AA orientation.

          “Face up, Mr. Herbert, you’re being evasive.”

          Curvilinear about the platform was a gallery of gymnasium bleachers numbering some fifteen rows, filled to the steel-girded rafters with a cheering, clapping crowd. Hosting the theater’s audience, a strike team of three Universe Players prompted and prodded like floor managers on the Tonight Show. Two cadmium orange and blue jumpsuited proctors flanked a mic-wielding woman in a full-bodied, cosmographic gown—Texas varsity cheerleader of a team down four TDs and a field goal in a driving panhandle rain.

          She commanded the spotlight in this outwardly emypreal theater; that was a given. Not so apparent at first blush was that the Universe performance would become this confrontational or combative—the first of many blushes, as it happened. I ended up top of the evening’s docket courtesy of Sydney’s eager wheedling, pointing my way during the show’s introduction, with a poke in the ribs at the call for participants, to an involuntary push of the shoulder.

          “No, really—if you’re looking for heavy problems or something,” I fidgeted at a center-gallery podium, shading against the spotlight, yet unable to take my eyes off the Saturnal sphere, center tormentor left. “You’re tapping a dry keg…”

          “We’ll be the judge of that. So you’re saying you are at peace with yourself…”

          “Peace? I suppose…peace, love and all that…”

          “Whistling in the dark, Mister Herbert—what right have you to be at peace with yourself, might we ask?”

          Whistling, darkness: that was precisely the problem. The houselights had dimmed and a hot key light caught me tripping up to a shifty little rostrum, as Ms. Universe’s greetings turned to a grilling out of sorts. By this time, I could barely see her, much less her on-stage confederates; the gallery crowd around me was little more than a murmury, tittering penumbra.

          “Right? How do you mean…” I was trying to pinpoint which voice was coming from where, as if they were toying with the balance slider on a quadraphonic P.A..

          “For instance, what do you do for a living, Mr. Herbert. What are you contributing to society?”

          “Uh, student, just graduated masters…sociology…”

          “Master’s degree, sociology…really…shall we grovel, professor?” Shall we bow before your brilliance, before the grandeur of your title so bestowed?!”

          “Whoa, hold it a sec…” I could only tell that this one came from the bleacher row above and to my left—not that I dared turn around and faced him off.

          “No, you hold it, Mr. Herbert! Would you mind telling us exactly how the world will benefit from your mighty master’s? Or how any of us might gain from your knowledge when, rather than putting it to work, you’re flitting about San Francisco, neither here nor there?”

          “Where are you coming from, Mr. Herbert?”

          “Colorado, I’m from Boulder actually…” This next volley could have sprung from any which way, this side of the stage—in the Manchurian Candidate sense of the word.

          “You mean you were born in Colorado, your parents live in Colorado?”

          “No, they’re in the Midwest. My girlf…housemate’s in Boulder, with my dog.”

          “Let’s get this straight, Mr. Herbert. You’ve got family back east—and a…housemate in Colorado.”

          “You could put it that way, I guess…” At this point, I was chewing on my answers like a hostile witness before a grand jury leaning toward an indictment.

          “Well then what in Hades are you doing here in San Francisco, Mr. Herbert? How are you helping anybody in San Francisco? How are helping yourself?”

          “No, hey, it’s not what you think, I’m just, you know, discovering your beautiful city …” That’s it, back fill, try meeting them halfway on their own terms and turf.

          But truth to tell, I didn’t know what was hitting me, still couldn’t even see from who or where. The questions and barbs were coming so quickly now I lost all sense of direction. Beyond Universe’s onstage team, the gallery was sprinkled with Theater plants, hence this surround sound of rapid-fire inquisition. Blindsided, on my heels, I swabbed sweat beads from my forehead with an Urnie’s paper napkin, the heat of that spotlight eased only by chill breezes crisscrossing through the parking mezzanine’s largely vented sidewalls. Otherwise, no relief was forthcoming from a smiling, yet stonily silent Sydney, one row up, not even close to having my back.

          “What we think is not the issue, Mr. Herbert, but what you think…and it can’t be that good for you back there if you’re shacking up out here.”

          “Yes, you’re the person you ultimately have to live with, however much you may scramble and scheme to avoid that nasty little reality.”

          “Shacking up? No, I’m just passing through, doing a favor, OK? Just between gigs…”

          “That’s not how it looks, Mr. Herbert. What it looks like is you’re running away, hiding from something.”

          “What are you running and hiding from, Mr. Herbert?”

          “From yourself, Mr. Herbert? Because you sure look that way to us.”

          “You look lost, Mr. Herbert. Lost to the world around you, lost to yourself.”

          “I’m not lost,” I huffed, anticipating more verbal onslaughts, the scattered, phantom voices pressing further from beyond and around the searing spotlight. “I’m right here, but I’ll be damned if I know why…”

          “You’re a mole, Mr. Herbert, burrowing head first into your grim little hole. Making a little mole hill when you could be making mountains.”

          “Really, burrowing all the way to oblivion, never again to see the light of day, never again to face the truth.”

          “Mole hole, mole hole, MOLE HOLE!”

          “The hell,” I growled, trying to identify the surrounding random voices forming one shrieking schoolyard razz, fixing to throw down with the shadows, gloves or no.

          “S-s-say what?” I stammered, fielding another woman’s riddle from the port side, at the very moment I’d turned starboard.

          “Who are you, Mr. Herbert, who knows what you are? Who is the real Mr. Herbert? What are you doing with your learning and credentials? What have you really accomplished in your life?”

          “Doesn’t he look lost, folks? Let’s hear it—hiss, boo, bah—HISS, BOO, BAH!!”

          “HISS, BOO, BAH! HISS, BOO, BAH!!! HISS, BOO, BAH…” The entire crowd chanted a cappella, laughing on cue.

          “I’m getting outta here,” I sputtered. It was my first notion of just how many subjects inhabited this Universe, if not how well they had me pegged.

          I pushed my way off the bleachers, down the ramp toward a spare, half-lit lobby before realizing I’d left Syd behind. So back up ramp I clambered, hearing more orchestrated laughter and applause. The Universe crowd had already served up a slender, sheepish young brunette for the spot-lit slaughter. Seemed she’d recently divorced, moved to The City by way of Texas, psychosnipers wasting no time tearing her down, haranguing her for running out on life, for choking under the simple strain of her simpleton destiny. They charged that she was the flighty, self-serving arachnid upon whom no one could ultimately depend. I could see her standing there, shuddering under the same heat and light, emotionally soldered to the podium, then rumpling into a heap of sobbing taffeta, the mental mortar fire continuing, drowning out her frail, frantic shrieks. But Syd met up with me at the ramp top, chidingly shaking her head.

          “What the hell was that,” I spouted.

          “Wasn’t it great…”

          “Great? And where the hell were you?!”

          “Relax, it’s just theater, an immersive, participatory theater piece they do…totally harmless,” she said, pulling me back down ramp toward the lockbox chamber-turned-lobby. “The idea is to test if you can deal with it, flash, to see if you can stick it out and overcome the challenge. And since here we are, fleeing down the off ramp, it looks like you can’t…”

          “Hey, I held my own, OK? Those people are certifiable…” I pulled open the heavy old bank doors.

          “This one’s pass-fail, professor, no grading on a curve around here.”

          “Damned if you didn’t set me up again…”

 sr dingbats

          Long as it was, Mission Street constituted a dipstick for San Francisco’s multi-grade crankcase. From roughly 12th Street south, it shifted from barren light industry, small family-run factories and sundry warehouses, to the giraffe palm-laced heart of ciudad Latino, to Army Street on down. The one-time Woodward’s Gardens, Mission Miracle Mile, blue collar Mickville had turned rarified barrio, Los Estados Unidos Mejicanos-North, where taco/burrito shops unseated more and more corner taverns as Irish migrated to the south bay and East Bay counties. Where agencies became agenzias and Guiness Stout thinned to cervezas fria such as Tecate and Carta Blanca. Espanol was lenguaje de la fuerza, Chicano the flavor of culture, dinero the engine of neighborhood commerce. And tonight, the Mission District’s dipstick notches read full and borderline overheated.

          Hermanos in leathers, equal parts pachuco polyester, in work-out Adidas in all stripes and colors, perfectly trimmed Latino lovers lined up for El Capitan Theater’s early evening screening of subtitled ‘Zoot Suit’. Others strolled ramrod straight in their retailored sharkskin, defying the chill breeze to jostle one hair of their razor cuts, much less their senoritas’ Spanish Sassoons, moving to the tune of canned salsa and brassy banda loudspeakered from unending produce markets and discount stores.

          Only the parade of revving low-riders could sway their killer stares—metalflaked ’53 Buick, ’62 Olds and ’73 Monte Carlo loaded to their chopped rooflines with fuzzy mirror dice and tuck ’n’ rolled naugahyde or velour. Scraping Mission Street pavement in low crawl, they leaped and bobbed on the strength of hydraulic air suspensions, of surplus Pesco pumps and valves—strutting their shocks, cut coils, dropped spindles lighting up their wheel wells. Primo rides bounced up and down, fore and aft to the in-dash stereo throb of War’s ‘Don’t Let No One Get You Down’, ‘Verao Vermelho’ by Santana, some uptempo cumbias. Sydney stiff-armed a pearl flaked ’56 Rocket 88 to get us across Mission; I myself could have watched this dual-quad, cruiser skirted, chrome-plated, pin-striped, pimpmobile parade all night. Low Rider

          Having coaxed me to her car, we were soon entangled in 16th Street traffic. Syd stewed behind another gaudy procession of Bajito y Suavecito bombs hopping side to side, feeding onto southbound Mission. She pounded the Fox’s steering wheel in frustration, I pressed my nose against her windshield, still in awe of these rolled and pleated stallions, their hand-rubbed metal oxide and gold spoke wheels. This was Saturday night showtime and no amount of honking and headlight flashes from some shrimpy little Audi was about to unmake their muscle carnaval scene, goose them unduly past the bodegas and macho taquerias of their adopted turf. Not tonight, not after forty hours plus straightening late-model bodies and fenders for the collision insurance man. I nearly headered the dashboard as Syd swerved around a boss ’48 Chevy Fleetline, then a ’62 Impala 120 VDC pancaking all four corners for an audacious left-hand turn with ceremonial blasts of its glass pack. Taken altogether, I was back to my cherry ’56 Bel-Air, another whole lifetime ago.

          Bound for Valencia, she cranked up her own stereo, Joan Armatrading style, showin’ some emotion, soon cutting and sliding into a green parking zone, pointing to a narrow, dimly cast restaurant between a credit jewelers and rent-to-own furniture store. It in fact shared wrought-iron security grillwork—draped like black Catalan lace—with the Heart of Hearts Joyeria, far more than ambience in mind. Dos Equis banners framed the restaurant’s façade, a fluttery, rojo and verde neon sign simply glowed, El Menudo. Still, I was more concerned with looking out for the flashing lights of any baby blue and white patrol cars in hot pursuit.

          “Getting a little late for the holiday decorations,” I said, as we entered the packed restaurant through a dark carved, Spanish Colonial-style front door. A bullish anfitrion in broad black chinos and 7-10 pin embroidered bowling shirt directed us to a rear corner booth.

          “It’s always like this, all year round,” Syd glanced about gleefully, handing me one of two laminated menus once we reached Booth Ocho’s curved red vinyl cushions trimmed with brass-plated centavo buttons, her cadet blue and crème varsity jacket squeaking on the slide in. “That’s what makes the place so great, best Mexican food in town…gracias.”

          “De nada, honey,” said a gold brocade-bloused camarera in stiletto bootlets, dropping off a basket of nachos. “Pollo Adobo Yucateco’s es especial. Coctels? Vino Rioja?”

          Syd opted for a penafiel; I played it safe with a Coke. El Menudo’s cantina pall stirred with the steady, low-watt blinking of mini Christmas tree lights—these red, blue, yellow and green sparks were reflected in long, swirling strands of silver brush tinsel, which snaked about the full parameters of the restaurant’s pink and black flocked walls. It clung like bayou moss to cerveza signs, laquered tortoise shells, chrome bowling trophies and musty, bronze foil pinadas. The lights coiled around menu stands and tequila decanters and day-glo crushed velvet paintings of toreadors and Aztec goddesses.

          But it stuck most tenaciously to the antlers—prized five-point racks and mounted heads of Mendocino County bucks that fed upon the environmental sensibilities of uptown patrons from every conceivable angle. Not that it bothered management: They knew San Francisco’s best little Mexican restaurant had those bleeding hearts by the venison burritos.

          After all, liberal morality was no match for El Menudo’s Chile Relleno either. Thus assured, the owner brandished his 12-guage exploits on every square inch of remaining ceiling and walls. So the flashing tinsel threaded around framed glossies of Jaime and his Roadmaster, Jaime and his Wagoneer, Jaime and his ¾ ton Ranchero—all dripping in freshly peppered carcasses, Mister Menudo and his companeros grinning against the grillwork, with Dos Equis and doe tails in hand. And he couldn’t have made the graphics more riveting with floodlamps or neon arrows.

          “You let them beat you at Universe,” Syd asserted, after taking the liberty of ordering for us both upon the waitress’s return with jalapeno salsa and drinks. “You know that, don’t you?”

          “Hell, anybody would have snapped,” I dug in, accepting her ‘trust me’ on the food, if not her review. “That was a twenty-on-one ambush up there.”

          “I didn’t,” she said, coyly chomping on a loaded-up nacho. “I wouldn’t let them take me down with something like that.”

          This and Jaime’s carnage chronicles easily sapped the pep from my palate. Even strolling neighborhood mariachis and a steady juke box blare of Iglesias, Hermanos Huerta and Edie y Los Panchos failed to reset my appetite. Sydney appeared oblivious to Jaime’s blood lust, however, having eagerly ordered us Chuletas De Puerco and Flautas, some Tostadas de Chorizo for two. Before I could translate my Boulder-cultivated indignation into conversational espanol, la camarera brought an icy round of Noche Buena Indio, courtesy of Jaime himself, with a wink toward Sydney, whom he’d evidently served before.

          “Aww, muchos gracias, señor,” she toasted the pompadored propietario, now tallying a greenback wad at his front counter register, tapping his Tony Lama’s to the tambora and tarola of a favorite Yucatanic jarana. “So what’s a few deer when you can feast like this amid non-stop Feliz Navidad, right flash?”

          “Yeah, well…” One of the booth’s centavo buttons began jabbing me in the clavicle, in effect prodding me into some major tostadas. “Anyway, when was it you didn’t snap there?”

          “Oh, about ten months ago now. James Holcomb suckered me into it, but I prevailed.”

          “So, what does that make you? Queen of the Universe?” I shifted enough so that the button now pressed in on my seven cervical vertebrae.

          “No, just somebody better adjusted than a certain sociology professor I know.” The centavos didn’t seem to be bothering her one little bit.

          I chewed on that rib and the copious platters we were splitting through three hefty, savorous courses, some bunuelos and half a cerveza before finally questioning her methodology. “OK, how did you get through the grilling?”

          “Simple, I used a little passive resistance—just agreed with everything the crowd threw at me,” she scoffed, wiping cream puff from my chin with her red and gold napkin. “Kept saying, ‘yep, you’re right’ and ‘can’t deny it’, ‘you really have me pegged’—stuff like that.”

          “What? They must have jumped all over you…”

          “No way, I kept absorbing the hits, neutralizing their attack—sucked the impact right out of it to where they just started agreeing with my agreeing, falling in line, trying to usher me away from the podium.”

          “Come on, you expect me to believe that would have worked with those maniacs?”

          “You don’t get it, do you,” she countered, preparing to wash down some flautas with a touch of the Noche Buena. “Wise up, that all’s a big goof up there. Universe Theater’s just a shtik, like gestaltic tea leaves or reading your palm. So I shtiked them right back.”

          “Well, if you ask me, one of these days, somebody’s gonna come along and not take that crap so well,” I sputtered, strikingly annoyed that she was bringing the likes of Dame Thornia into this. “They’ll get humiliated and rankled enough to burn the damn place down. You know what follows gestalt in the dictionary, don’t you? Gestapo…”

          “Takes one to know one, flash,” She smacked, taking up with more bunuelos. “But good luck, there are nasty little cells like Uni all over town, just itching to ply your mind. It’s how affairs are conducted in San Francisco…”

          “Affairs? What affairs?”

          “Matters, interactions—in some ways, it’s like backgammon…no, more like chess. Either you’re a knight or a pawn. Whiz at chess, are you?”

          “I’m not even much at checkers,” I took a bit deeper swig of the cerveza, to douse down some heartburning salsa. “Played my share of poker though…”

          “Trouble is, I’ve already seen you at cards.”

          Really, what more could I say to that? We finished up and Syd signaled for the check. With it came some kind of handbill, which she folded over and handed me to hold for later, as if it were some sort of promotional discount offer or something. After settling up and sharing flirty pleasantries with a bolero-vested Jaime at the front counter, she beckoned me out on to Valencia Street, through the negra Knotty Alder and iron doors.

          A cool, heavy mist had congealed over the Mission by now, haloing crime-stopper street lamps that betrayed dopers and hustlers and gang bangers of very prescribed colors who sought the territorial safety and anonymity of darkened doorways. Before we could reach the Audi, a small candlelight procession surfaced up the block, their frail flames flickering in the amber-gray film. Most marchers appeared to be barely older than adolescentes, yet were neatly, almost uniformly dressed. Chanting ‘Take back the streets’ and ‘God save the Mission’, they also recited Spanish gospels. As best I could read their placards, the message was, ‘Jovenzuelos Para Jesus’, so I thought it best to move on.

          “Yeesh, such a fuss over a prost Jewish carpenter. Here’s the keys, flash,” Syd tossed them my way as we reached her car. “I’m beat, why don’t you drive…” Mission March

          “You sure?” I opened the doors, letting her saw man aside ride, and gave her El Menudo’s handbill as we buckled in. “Where we off to? I still have to get hold of Moon…”

          “Fire Foxy up, we’ll take it as we go,” she unfolded the flier. “That is, if you don’t get us lost in the process. Just stay away from that circus on Mission Street.”

          “What’s it say,” I revved the Audi gently, adjusting its rear-view mirrors, then pulled out into traffic before the marchers reached us mid-block.

          “Lucky us, some kind of political propaganda about property taxes,” she jibed,  balling up the sheet, tossing it over her shoulder into the back seat. “Some silly Proposition 13…”

          “Doesn’t sound like a lucky number to me…”

 Care for more?

 Chapter 21. A day trip into God’s 
county proves to bring an eye-opening
encounter with idyllic, unbridled destiny,
then the dockside stuff of golden dreams…

“School scenes or slapdash sightseeing 
may harbor visuals that can be 
far too penetrating for words.”

          “Just remember—downhill, turn them in…”

          “Down, in…”

          “Uphill, turn them out…”

          “Up, out…gotcha…”

          Parking just off Chestnut Street was a lesson in the harsher inclinations of Russian Hill topography, in acute and obtuse challenges to the physical plane. Foreigner’s ‘Long, Long Way From Home’ reverberated out of Sydney’s dashboard stereo as we prowled Jones and Leavenworth Streets in search of a reasonably proximate parking spot. To what, I wasn’t sure, but sweeping vistas of the bay bridges, Alcatraz Island and Telegraph Hill kept me gawking like a Kansan conventioneer while she cursed her way up and down auto-crammed neighborhood arteries.

          We rocketed faster than a runaway semi up a concrete ramp into a klatch of costly apartment houses climbing further up Russian Hill. She finally landed this mid-block squeezer with a descending view of the Fisherman’s Wharf tourist ghetto—rear load shifting, small easels and canvasses tumbling from her back seat, our heads jerking forward as if we were first car on the Bobs, roller coasting to a turnstile stop. Then came this back and forth tutorial on curbing the Audi Fox.

          “That’s parking in San Francisco,” she said, key locking her steering column, yanking hard on the emergency brake. “If you don’t chock your wheels right, the meter maids will ticket you, sometimes even tow your rig away. Murder is one thing, but parking ticket income keeps The City afloat.”

          “Yeah, well, I guess I’m OK on flat ground over by your place, huh? At least until I can blow town…”

          “Never can tell. And worst case the brakes fail, your heap breaks loose, takes out some traffic and a storefront or two.”

          “Filled the master cylinder before we left Boulder.” I helped her straighten up her fallen belongings, scooping up my jacket and the Urnie’s bag. There we left things, with simultaneous slamming of her front doors. “Where we off to, anyway?”

          “Famous last words on the brake front,” she simpered, toting several blank canvasses and a pair of fresh smocks. “But prepare yourself to be…institutionalized.”

          I was just grateful to alight on solid ground, however slanted my stance and pronated my steps. Boulder had its hills, all right, but here my toes felt like they were pushing through the tips of my hiking boots. Still, I was stunned by this sloping panorama of hills, islands and wind-whipped bay around them. Streets let up and downhill from here, vehicles large and small struggling accordingly. Homes and condo/apartment buildings wedged into the Russian Hillside, all decked out—straight-roofed no matter how steep the angle—so that foundations fronting at garage level often ass-ended three stories up.

          Syd pointed out the most striking, palatial of the digs—the ones with sculpted little gardens and roof deck pools. Halfway back down Chestnut Street, a swarm of Hondas, Vespas and ten-speeds were chained up to bike racks on both sides of a grandly chiseled, Romanesque portal, violet clematis adorning its mosaic tiled spandrels: the otherwise ivy-vined entrance to the Gateway Institute of Art.

          “This is my school, professor,” Sydney boasted, as we passed through the shadowy, arching entryway. “Dates back to the 1870s, founded by leading artists of the West. Even has a major fresco by the legendary Diego Rivera in here, depicting the industrial working man, showing the building of a city. Art and labor, architects and engineers to steelworkers.”  Art Institute

          “He was a commie, right?” I squinted into a concentrated patch of sunlight.

          “What are you, an FBI plant?” she shot back, leading the way.

          “Well no, but…”

          “The don’t go flashing that kinda badge around here. It was 1931 and GIA was willing to deal with any controversy for the sake of art—of social critique and artistic rebellion. We’re talking a Deco masterpiece in a noble institution, okay?”

           “Uh, sure…nice courtyard,” I yielded, probing no further on that front.

           “It’s positively Florentine,” she pointed out a blue and yellow tiled fountain that served to focus student activity center yard. Cloistered walkways framed the gushing, carp-filled fount, lanes clogged with specious artistes, flyer-saturated bulletin boards and a running exhibit of splashy paintings—rough, abstract-at-best images of satyrs, lightning bolts and unicorns. “I’ll admit, these pieces aren’t all to my liking, but you can’t knock the 99.9% pure undergrad energy. Let’s go fuel up on some java…”

          A main hallway tunneled beneath the Institute’s central building, a red-tiled block of poured concrete busting with tall, angled windows and skylights. Suddenly, it opened to a sun-drenched terrace filled with milling students, muralled walls and rusting metal sculpture fusions of rakes, hoes, worm gears, chicken wire and ulcerated mufflers—in essence, Mister Wizard on Wowee. Beyond, a bay panorama, bridge tower to cantilever, a dead-on view of Alcatraz, the Richmond-San Rafael span and East Bay refineries, a fleet of tanker ships sprinkled all about.

          I paused to soak this all in while Syd handed me her supplies, then stole into the sprouts and granola café. They were a curious lot, these could-be Calders and Matisses, furtively debating aesthetic sensibility while bagging midday rays salted with chill ocean breezes. Content seemed not nearly so important as mode of expression—adolescent, Freudian interpretation, sophomoric rantings and purges. These were not tidy exercises in pat intellectual progression but intense, animated clashes in which histrionics held sway over the linear empiricism I’d just nominally mastered at CU.

          What was the point of logic, after all, among dabblers and dilettantes who wrapped themselves in pinks, purples, orgeats and turquoises? In bush pants, berets and bandoleros? Paisley and pompous in black humor and bright, candy-striped hose? Sassy, overweaned brooders, I thought, who pursued emotional deviation so devoutly they couldn’t see their frivolous folly for the sun and deep blue sea? But Glimpsing Berkeley across the bay, I quickly checked my academic bias, wondering whether a social science graduate really had any stronger claims to pertinence. Before I could answer that, Syd returned with a tray of take-out coffees.

          “Isn’t it so stimulating here,” she glowed, hustling me up some steps toward her studio space. “Can’t you feel the creativity?”

          “Gotta tell you,” I struggled with the smocks and canvasses, balancing the Urnie’s bag precariously on top. “I just see a bunch of flakos taking themselves way too seriously…”

          “Hah—pot, kettle, doc. It’s high time to sharpen that pointy little head of yours.”

          As we reached a second landing, I gave up any hope for a witty retort. Still, I was quick enough on my feet to notice the bare bodies baking on sundecks all about Russian Hill. “Hell of a view—for January, that is.”

          “That’s where I’ve gotten some of my best figure studies,” she sniffed, waiting for me to push open a metal fire door. “An alum bequeathed a mounted telescope to the roof. The inscription claims it’s where he gained his most valuable insights.”

          We passed several secluded exhibitions of landscape photography and watercolors before treading down a long ramp leading to the ground floor sculptorium. There, the chaos of color and raw innovation overwhelmed me—like a moiré pattern on a jumpy TV screen. Within white cinderblock walls, graffitied to pale a New York subway car, young stonecutters finessed soggy mounds of clay into their peculiar visions of life and limb. They toiled amid half-finished forms, skids of bulk casting body and random clumps of aborted plaster that stuck to the slab floor like milky cow chips on cold winter mornings.

          Shipping crate shelving stored the plastic-wrapped evidence of convictions abandoned and concepts disapproved. Still others served as work tables, coated with dried clay and spray paint—covered like everything else with a two-inch thick dusty crust. A mongrel aroma of clay and resin turned to sweet sawdust and varnish as Syd guided me through the wood studio, rotary saws singing and clamp presses bracing a multitude of unfinished forms. Cassette players crossfired nascent Blondie and aging Velvet Underground across the cluttered workbenches, but all that music died the moment we entered the metal sculpture morgue.

          Two heavy steel doors masked a dank, garage-like stall seared by fire-tipped acetylene torches dueling in white-hot creation. Goggled demons in red bandannas and army jump boots aimed their flaming nozzles at the end joins of a four-foot tubular coil, which joined other scrap metal into some abstract extrapolation of a jet-lagged time machine. Their torches reflected off welding tanks and grated benches like Vader’s death rays, and cast startling light on a scattered menagerie of twisted iron creatures—grotesque gallstones in perpetual passing.

          “Christ, where you taking me,” I yelped, over the crash of a mis-brazed coil and slamming of lockers.

          “Just hang in a bit further,” she beckoned. Another iron door sealed off the inferno and accompanying fumes, delivering us to a short, sunlit stairwell leading to the whitewashed wooden variety. “There…”

          Syd opened a padlocked door, the back of which was triple thick with years of paint splatter. But that blanched by comparison with the floor and walls beyond. “My studio, welcome to my world.”

          “Whoa,” I gasped, eyes burning. It looked like an Earl Sheib spray booth after a labor dispute. A deep breath yielded a free-floating aroma of lacquer, wood stain, shellac and enamels.

          “You’re impressed, right? The whole baby’s mine.” No need to flick on ceiling lights, as the room was sunnier than a New Age solarium in Santa Fe.

          “Hard to say, this isn’t academia, it’s more like an asylum,” I shook my head at yet another study in apparent chaos. “I’m more used to demographic tables, print-outs, nice straight desks—a little chicken scratch on the blackboard, but…”

          A Rorschach test as wall coverings: The only things orderly about her studio were the windowpanes—square-framed floor-to-ceiling panels that saturated the room with available rays. They opened to a narrow Mediterranean balcony; elsewhere, they angled up to the white broad-beamed ceiling, to yawning skylights cranked by long, swaying pull chains. The windows so prevailed that even her paintings came on second glance.

          “Careful, you’re speaking of the place I love,” Syd held up paint-caked coveralls and a frayed Castagnolo cyclist hat. “The Institute has long been a hive of Abstract Expressionism and the Figurative Movement. Harry Jacobus studied here. David Park, Mark Rothko and Diebenkorn have taught in these same classes. This isn’t Moony arts and crafts, flash—this is all about serious fine arts in all their forms. Ansel Adams and Edward Weston were photography instructors here, Dorothea Lange, too. Know who else was a student? Annie Leibovitz…”

          “In-credible…” These names barely registered, but I wasn’t letting on. “Um, so how do you manage this? You’re not even enrolled here anymore, are you?”

          “Let’s just say the head of the department is an avid admirer of my work…”

          “Must be a rabid admirer…” I downed some coffee, cream and two sugars, then helped her crank open some windows.

          “It once belonged to Athren Guildersol,” she gestured, opening the French-style balcony doors. “He was San Francisco’s leading painter in the post-earthquake days. A refugee who came over from Holland, was one of the early faculty pioneers. This was his personal studio until he croaked. Then the school boarded it up for, like, 50 years. Now undergrad assistants are even assigned to tend its memorial balcony and garden. The space has gone to honor students ever since the refurbishing, only to those showing ‘unusual promise’.”

          “Meaning you…”

          “Shucks,” she bowed and winked, slugging at her to-go coffee cup. “No denying genius…”

          The small, sun-warmed balcony overlooked a side yard garden of azaleas, tulips and peonies, not to mention soaring sunflowers and strategically scattered contraband with five-finger leaves. Center bed stood a stone seagull sculpture atop a green patinaed metal pedestal, with a commemorative plaque reading ‘Albert Tobler’ at its base. Beyond, Fisherman’s Wharf warehouses spilled to the shoreline, where a blue and white container ship steamed in, stacked to the masts with shiny new Datsuns.

          “How do you get anything done with a view like this,” I roamed back into her studio, to its nose-smack of fresh acrylics and oils, clumps of the chromatic spectrum squished like butter pats about the floor, fixtures and walls.

          “How do you get anything done in the Rocky Mountains? Discipline—organization and dedication are all just as important as native talent.”

          “That so…” To me the space looked like Galveston after hurricane season.  Finished canvasses stood lined up like LP record jackets in one corner. Walls not covered by pushpin sketches and canvasses in all stages of development was caked with inert color, while her ironstone-tiled floor was paint saturated to deep, muddy amethystine.

          Here, Jackson Pollack met early Jasper Johns. Stools and ladders alike bore a common color-crazed glaze as though they had not been cleaned since Guildersol’s wake. Work tables and sagging overstuffed furniture, folding chairs, rag bins and file cabinets: nothing escaped the variegated spray, save for the huge rolls of rice paper, Mylar and acetate under splatter sheets of plastic. Yet more scattered than color were the tools of her toils, and everything seemed to be in the cans. Ajax cans, thinner cans, turpentine cans, Pepsi cans, Krylon spray cans—Gold Classic oil pints and quarts sealed with wax paper or open and dried solid as a snowy Sierra trail. They were everywhere, hidden behind matte boards, ganged atop piles of charcoal paper and vellum sketchpads. And everywhere the cans were, they were crammed with soaking brushes.

          Syd went on to explain her system between sips: She bunched her spotters and red sable Grumbachers in Planter’s Peanut cans, her squirrel brushes and Langnickel fan blenders in 16-ounce Oly cans, her Robert Simmons acrylics and French Bristle Filberts in party-size Pringles tins. She’d scarfed restaurant supply soup cans from the school cafeteria for her Chung Kings, Morilla #595 sky washes and Goliath white sables.

          “What are those squished-up silver tubes all over the place,” I snipped, grabbing one, and a fistful of burnt sienna. I gazed as well upon unspent tubes of viridian, vermilion, cerulean blue, madder carmine and titanium white wasting away about floor and tables. “They look like played-out toothpaste, just lying around, drying up.”

          “They’re my oils, and they’re not all drying up,” she tossed me some paper towels, then danced toward a coat rack, which instead held her array of paint-smeared palettes. She grabbed one randomly and pushed it at me. “See? It may look like slop to you, but to me it’s order—the remains of a skin tone I worked three hours to get right. Maybe these tubes aren’t 100% used up, but they were there when I needed them. Whenever I need them again, I’ll get more.”

          “Christ, what a waste…” I pulled several more paper towels to dry my hands.

          “The whole process is a waste. Drawing, painting, sculpture—it’s all a waste, but that’s okay,” she asserted, setting the palette aside an easel with two unfinished, yet already identifiable figures, which looked to have been abandoned in haste. “I mean, what’s creativity? It’s bringing order to chaos, right? How can that not be wasteful? Anyway, even thinking and analyzing can be a waste of energy. What’s it solve, just confuses things even more. Actually doing is infinitely more productive.”

          “Hey, it all begins with thought, doesn’t it,” I asked defensively, drinking heavily from my lukewarm paper cup.

          “Art is spontaneity,” she maintained, pointing toward her sketches and canvasses. “It’s feeling more than reason. Once I crank up, I don’t stop—maybe for hours, maybe all night. At that point, the last thing I worry about is what’s left in a damn paint tube, even if it’s Bellini or Blockx Belgian. When it comes to inspiration, paint’s cheap.”

          “That’s why thinking, writing is so much cleaner, and exact,” I rallied, balling up the paper towels, hitting a jump shot into the trash bucket.

          “So who says verbalizing the human condition is any more effective than visualizing it? We’re both observing, interpreting. I just happen to believe that I can touch, affect more people with one painting than you can with a hundred boring dissertations. Art, vision—that’s what fires people, flash, not quotes and footnotes!”

          “An oversimplification if I’ve ever heard one,” I huffed, backpedaling toward a bluejay on the balcony railing to toss my cup in the bucket.

          “For that matter, I believe you could do so much more for mankind with your photography than with all the sociology in the world. If that’s what you really want to do—help people, help them understand—do it with your camera, not some dumb theory or study. You’d have so much more potential that way.”

           Syd led me through a process of pencil sketches, rubs, watercolors and oils that charted her advancing mastery of the human form—bold, brilliant renderings of dancers, gymnasts, still figures and mild erotica. She was even better than Melissa’s portrait, which I now shorthand thought of as ‘Moon Glow”, showed, her talent and style verging on intimidation.

          “This is what six years of study here and in Europe will get you,” she glanced over her shoulder at the large canvas-in-progress presently on her easel. “You won’t believe what’s next…”

          “Is that…” I looked more closely at the two unfinished figures, one squatter, the other tall. “Your roomies?”

          “Yep, I’m calling it ‘Muttie and Jeffrina’.” Point made. With that, she tossed her cap and coveralls onto the lumpy sofa. “Plus I’m already tissueing some ideas for my new body of work, kind of an Olympics thing. C’mon, let’s hit the lounge. We’ve still got our gyros to wolf down.”

          “Why not just eat out on the balcony,” I pointed, clutching the Urnie’s bag I’d set on her workbench. “Toss some scraps to Tobler’s memorial seagull, or the real ones squawking in that palm tree over there.”

          “Pig out in front of Athren? Have some respect.” She grabbed the bag from me, feeling it for any remaining warmth. “Besides, the lounge has a humongous deck with a beverage bar. I’ve got it covered, dinero-wise. We can check out that amazing ‘commie’ Diego Rivera mural on the way.”

          “Naw, come on, right out there, quick and easy. Then I can try calling Boulder.”

          “Try that again? Please, again with the respect.” She gestured to a small concrete planter box flush with peonies at the far corner of the balcony. After we closed the windows and all, she led me out of her studio, preparing to lock the white door behind us, then held up. “Who do you think I was sleeping with just before I left for Italy? Oops, which reminds me, I’d better water dear Athren down good before we go…”

 sr dingbats

           “Looks like a choice ride to me.”

           “That’s for them, not for us.”

           “But I’m kinda them, aren’t I?”

           “Not with me, you’re not.”

           Rivera’s Depression-Era mural laying heavy, pitas and hummus heavier yet, we soon developed a taste for something sweeter; although baklava was nowhere to be found on her Institutional grounds. So Sydney wheeled us over to Union Street, and a fresh produce grocer at the Mason Street corner. I car-sat her idling Fox while she picked through bins full of off-season fruit, chatting with the counter clerk like a lobbyist at a committee hearing. She bounded across bus and delivery van traffic with a pink plastic bag full of organic dessert: green grapes for the gastro, Gravenstein apples, their green-red spotted roughage being good for the teeth; tangerines, good for the soul. Strapped back in, she gunned up Russian Hill, my knees pressed firmly against the Audi’s dashboard. We were headed for some obligatory sightseeing, one grape at a time.

       Upon reaching the hill crest, I ventured a look at the sweep of San Francisco Bay from here, how glassy, boxed apartment buildings dipped down Union Street to North Beach then back up again toward Coit Tower and Telegraph Hill— like this was the oilcloth backdrop you took the snaps against, not a neighborhood in which people actually lived. Ahead of us, a carpet of city north rolled out from Swensens’ famed ice cream corner down all the way west to Cow Hollow, the Marina, then the Presidio treeline and the sea. But Syd instead hung a hard right onto Hyde Street, meeting up with Rice-a-Roni placards affixed to the rear end of an outbound cable car.

           “Look at that, bulging with tourists, creeping along like they own the place,” she flared, leaning on the horn, railing at a slow rolling trolley that, along with an opposing inbound streetcar, was all but blocking our way.

           “Sorta do, don’t they?” I was too taken with the anachronistic cable car itself to start complaining. Bell clanging, waving riders strap clenching and hanging off the sides: The trolley swayed and bucked slowly along. That it still existed at all was miraculous; that it still actually functioned absurd. “Well, I for one could stand a climb aboard.”

           “Hold on tight, I’ve got something more important to show you.” She shot around the trolley through a sliver of wiggle room between it and the inbounder. “We’ll hit Lombard later, there’s lots of other crooked stuff to see going on here”

           In any case, I could hardly catch a freeze frame of The World’s Crookedest Street as we darted along the stretch of Russian Hill townhouses and tennis courts past Filbert and Greenwich, glean barely a snippet of sinuous Hydrangea beds hemming a congested stream of snaking, braking autos inching downward to Leavenworth. “How…later?”

           “Blasted cable cars,” she honked and horned her way down Hyde to Bay Street, where she swerved around another of the bell-ringing jewels, into an oncoming lane of gargantuan tour buses. “I swear, half the people who live along the Hyde Line would just as soon let them roll right down into the Bay.” Hyde Street Line

           “Tell that to the straphangers on that thing.” I didn’t press it, nor could I bear to keep track of her racy maneuvering, instead fixing straight ahead on the clamoring Hyde Street Pier at the base of this brakedrum-burning hill, with ghostly Alcatraz Island structures above and beyond.

          Syd aced into a leveled off truck zone on North Point Street, then revved sharply before cutting the ignition, as if announcing our arrival. “There, that wasn’t so bad. And it’s just past delivery time, so we should be home free, parking wise. Unreal, you must be a lucky charm after all.”

           “Um, wouldn’t exactly go that far,” I pried my fingers from the handgrip, fruit bag trapped between my feet—that lost Satalisman painfully re-orbiting to mind.

            We stepped out to a row of several Hyde Street cable cars waiting to roll down to some sort of a turnaround—a Lazy Susan, Syd called it. At line’s head, we found a MUNI gripman releasing to send his trolley clacking across Beach Street, bell ringing loudly, settling onto the roundtable, where he proceeded to dismount and tug at the car’s forerail, while his conductor pushed likewise at its rear. A half-block queue of tourists encircled this revolving ritual, cheering the crew on, to the accompaniment of strolling fiddlers and banjo players. They’d play anything for a few nickels, and these pigeons seemed to be particularly fare game—perfectly captive until they could pile aboard a downtown-bound car, coughing up their cigarettes and coinage.

           Sydney led us past two blocks of sidewalk artists hawking everything from sandals to scrimshaw from clothes racks, pegboards, card tables and tailgates. The crafts were fair to mediocre, and the crafties themselves were consistently weird. Yet their freedom of spirit and expression was hardly lost on me. I envied them some, especially the photographers, even though they offered nearly stock shots of boats, bridges and foggy skylines, as if their works were stamped out at some low-rent processing plant with only token exposure and cosmetic variation.

           “See there? That’s what sells around here,” Syd said, as we stop-started along the display stands like dog walkers on a tree-lined thoroughfare. “Sad part is, some of these hacks are really talented. But all they want to do is sit in the sun and gouge people. It’s like they’re afraid of success.”

           “It’s a living, I guess…or maybe they’re just afraid of themselves…”

           “Sociospeak for yourself, doc. But visualize what you could do here,” she nodded, toward an array of colorful depictions of Victorians on Alamo Square, downtown skyline in the background. “I mean, you could be a real photographer  really clean up. That is, if you could figure out the right film to load.”

           As the display stands and tourists tapered off, she skipped down a curving, crushed stone pathway to the bay. The winter warm sun ducked over a distant hill, leaving January’s chill in the late afternoon air. We stopped at bay’s edge, the water still and glossy this side of an arcing breakwater pier thick with rollerskaters and huddled fishermen. Orange-capped swimmers breast stroked in wide concentric circles as though warding off a heat wave. The hardier among them swam laps from the pier to a Maritime Museum collection of schooners and paddle wheel ferries.

          Outside the breakwater, dying breezes stranded sailboats, and the late sun ignited Sausalito and Tiburon windows like vacuum tubes in an old Crosley floor model radio. Even the crabbers and seagulls folded up shop for dinner, along with the two-block long drag of curbside artsy-craftsies. Only the swimmers and swooners remained, as well as the odd psychopeddler hawking his latest mind-blowing revelations.

           Syd fended off some annoying orange tunic-clad Moonies—even their phony bouquets—for she seemed content with where this fresh-eyed mood was taking us. Nonetheless, it did set me to wondering what the hell she was thinking. I quickly attributed her behavior to grateful hospitality; on the other hand, after Lovelock, who knew what was up? In any event, she denied all distracters and detractors, save one: a giggly redheaded flower child with a rasher of quick-print salvation who jammed her yellow brochures into our palms with the sure-handed snap of an all-conference QB.

           “Universe Players,” Syd read aloud. “Says they’re putting on a performance session tonight, free admission. We’ve just got to go!”

           “I dunno, got my stuff to get together…” Thought being, maybe I should have been catching one of those cable cars back to my Volks about then, taking another look for Dame’s Satalisman.

           “Aww, let’s go for it,” she urged, likely sensing a revelation or two of her own—as in let’s see where the sucker might take him, or the sucker might be taken by them. “I already did once myself. It’ll do you good.”

           “Naw, think I’ll pass on…” My eyes were instead drawn to a corner SF Clarion news box, more specifically to a bulldog edition headline that read, ‘Investigative Series: How Cultish Redwood Valley Hi-jinx Portended The City’s Peoples Temple and Guyana. And where the movement was going from here’.

           “No overthinking, remember,” her eyes lit up like Tiburon’s windows. “I’m ready for a new memory, we’ll even hit El Menudo for some epic tostadas and salsa.”

           Resolved. Nix the tourista trip. It was Saturday night in San Francisco—her first one back, my first, period. For better or worse, it looked like we were gonna make a full-on local scene together, and do it in the Mission.

 Care for more?

 Chapter 20. Matters headed south, soon
comes an appointment with consequences,
 more than a theater of the absurd. Something
 else to chew on in the dark of night…

“Waylaid on the road
to salvation, best to give
it a second thought.”

           “…Who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth, as it is in Heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses…”

          Sydney having hastened to take a further ablution turn in the flat’s only full bathroom; I’d drifted back into the parlor, settling on the piano bench, tinkling the keys like a five year-old at kindergarten play break. While sifting through the Gershwin and Cole Porter sheet music heaped atop the glossy black Steinway, I found this distant recitation catching my ear—muffled invocation, a callow, discordant prayer chorus echoing through a schoolyard just below the bay windowcase at piano’s rounded edge.

          “…and lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil, amen.” 

Comatose—yeah, no, kinda remember now. I was fumbling through my key ring because its was digging into my leg again, and I was just rolling around on that cheesy cot of theirs, trying to finally wrestle down some decent sleep. That was when I felt the broken clasp and stem, and yanked the ring out of my rumpled jeans…

Rifling through the ‘humongous’sucker: I fingered past car and cabin, lab and locker keys—a nail clipper, fringy leather fob from Cheyenne Frontier Days, Moon’s crocheted anger management totem with Seamus’s tail fur woven in. Yep, everything in place save for that blessed Saturn talisman; damn, for sure it was there at Hippo’s when I was feigning a bankroll reach to cover the burgers bill—could feel its ceramic rings. But was it still fastened when I was combing blindly through my ring for the squareback’s door key as Syd harried me to unload her stuff, chilly as the night had become? Thought so anyway…

          An antsy muster of blue plaid uniformed gradeschoolers in all shades and shapes parroted late morning prayers, fidgeting, grabbing themselves, eyes wandering, feet shuffling, snickering at one another as they mangled ‘Hail Marys’ and ‘Act of Contritions’, yet maintaining five tidy rows. Their tiny, stumbling voices oversize echoed about the game-lined asphalt quadrangle, rimmed with coarse, stubby hedges, boxed in on three sides by a holy trinity of four-story school buildings, a wafer white cluster of parochial classrooms, play halls, convent quarters and devotional chambers.

          Anchoring the Broadway Street flank of this imposing, nearly one-block cloister, beyond a comparatively nondescript rectory, was a massive Romanesque cathedral, with a gabled roof and louver windowed tower, cornering at Van Ness Avenue. Crammed in along this near side was a line of secular condo and apartment buildings, not least the four-level mid-block address from which I could overview the whole Gothic-style Catholic complex, perched as I was in this rear window-well on floor number three.

Not that I’d really been taking Dame’s amulet seriously or anything, but had become a bit more attached to it since Thanksgiving—not superstitious exactly, just mindful of her ‘special need and heed’ warning, let alone any looming bad fortune from losing it. Then closer examination of the broken clasp in a sliver of hall light under the closet door got me to figuring the peculiar little enameled planet could have broken off when I was shaking out the tangled key ring up there—had to be…and it would likely be long gone by dawn. So in a panic, I guess I rolled out and grabbed Syd’s spare keys off the doorway table, then retraced steps back up to Lafayette Park. Wheezing in a sleepwalking fog, I scoured the dimly lit path we had trod, searching its cracked asphalt and bordering bushes with the hope of spotting the amulet. Pissed off no end that I’d let her drag me up there, yet somewhat drawn to the park’s kinky clamor and consummation, I blearily tried to square it as a matter of sociological duty—even Ph.D. program saving case study material, not some godforsaken sicko urge. Or if nothing else, I was just walking off more stroganoff…

          “Okay, everyone, let’s firm up our rows more smartly now, shall we,” prodded a more diminutive, stone-faced nun, with her wire-marm eyeglasses and first sergeant firmness. “Time for catechism classes to begin. Children, we are not proceeding indoors until our little formation is perfectly straight?”  

St. Brenda's yard           Across the yard, a main arched doorway the nuns were aiming for was topped with a ceramic Blessed Virgin, trimmed with Castilian brown Biblical Madonna, lamb and fowl creatured medallions and intaglios. Coordinate arcaded window arches featured baby Jesus faces and tiny stone tablet renderings of the Ten Commandments and Stations of the Cross. Between them stood deeply ribbed terra umber pilasters crowned with divinely ornate Vatican-touched capitals. Lording over it all was a wraparound entablature, scripturally adorned friezes and architraves, gilt-dentiled, lancet arched cornices up top that looked like embroidery on a priestly robe. Nothing like a little Catholic righteous discipline and decorum right about then.

In any case, no lucky charm, no little ceramic Saturn Return to be found. But there seemed to be no losing the salacious shuffling and shifty silhouettes, daredevil cries and whispers in the terrace shadows above. At least until one hellacious scream came from somewhere near what must have been the picnic tables and tennis courts. Giddy dancing and prancing turned to lurking, clashing figures panic scrambling, decamping something fierce…

I hazily recall being hunched over, feeling around the shrubbery for Dame T’s talisman about then, when a lone dark figure came out of the trees, barreling down the park path, dimly illuminated only by the amber streaks of distant Washington Street lights. Straightened up, dizzy and disoriented, I saw he was a burly load alright, no more jerkin’ around. There was a collision up there, toe to toe, face to flushed, sweaty face, the blurriest outlines anyway, hardly seeing eye to eye…

Nevertheless, I saw him, he saw me: Then after some incidental manhandling like some frenzied subway sumos, I found myself winding up ass-ended into the brambly bushes, as he tugged down on his ball cap over curly brown hair, bull rushing downpath toward Octavia Street…

           “Flash, where are you now?!” Sydney’s voice gained as she sprinted toward the parlor, towel drying her hair.

           “Just checking out all the noise,” I replied, continuing to peer down to the schoolyard, diametrically opposing her sliding dining cum bedroom doors.

           “Oh, that’s St. Brenda’s, quite the spectacle, isn’t it,” she answered quizzically, glancing back through to her bedroom, tabulating two and two without displaying her bottom line. “Funny though, my faith worships individualism, but they seem more into crowds. They do that shtick every morning, weekdays starting at 8 a.m. They’re our local roosters…”

           “Brings back some memories…” Wracking through a little Curacao Blue Moon hangover…Me, I had just up and brushed off my clothes—hearing more cries and shrieks of horror, sirens already wailing—getting the hell out of there, lucky charm or no. At least that was how I recollected it back here—lying low, zipping lips on it, comatose speaking and all.

           “Good ones?” She cinched up her white terry bathrobe. Prayers were potted down as the nuns and children crossed themselves and began filing into class. Then the church’s cherished Italian Ruffatti pipe organ rang through the yard, rattling the school’s brown, waffle-hatched windows floor upon floor.

           “Cum se cum sa,” I grunted, with a so-so rock of the hand, wondering why she had to hang that car door-lock rap around my neck. Me, of all people…why me?  Then again, I set aside my boyhood clashes with top-down priestly and parish authority, with fiery images of Sister Eleanor and fourth-grade Catechismal drills, the scene below delivered me momentarily to one wistful weekend in Torino. How European a city this was for mainland U.S.A., only with brilliant sunshine, rather than driving continental rains.

           “Beautiful buildings, that’s for sure. Look at how the sun beams off the curbstone cathedral’s stained glass windows and apostle statues. I’ve been told that art stuff was all made in Ireland. You might like to know Brenda’s school started in 1888 with the Sisters of Blessed Charity from Dublin. It’s been a center for San Francisco’s Irish community ever since. I hear Mayor Moscone went there, too.  My roommate, Diana told me the whole story when I moved in.”

           “No lie,” I said self-consciously, somewhat taken aback by her knowledge. I edged away from the window-well, as if dabbing in the holy water and crossing myself after high mass, then rounded the Steinway to brush morning dust off its ivories. “So, whose piano?”

           “Diana’s very musical, that one,” she followed me around the Steinway, brushing morning dust from its ivories. “She and Edie have lived here forever. C’mon, you can meet them, let’s cut through my space. But not a word about my stolen purse, okay? They would just freak…”

           “Gotcha…er, nice place,” I batted away the bath towel she swung in my face, only to spot a living room wall photo, apparently of the two roommates. It was a blanched double exposure of sorts, a broad-beamed figure in black lingerie and party mask ghosting over a slender seated nude blowing a long silver flute, who was playing to sheet music spread across a pink throw-covered mattress. “Bit overexposed maybe…”

           “You like it, hmmm? Found it a few months before I left for Europe,” Sydney noted, once we passed through the sliding doors back into her bedroom. “We split it three ways. I get a break ’cause my room’s smallest. Edie and Diana are real sweeties. Kinda distant sometimes, but the two of them have grown inseparable.”

           “Like you and that painting? It’s the only one hanging on your walls…about the only thing in here that isn’t white.” I took fuller notice of the oil in progress, a shapely rear-ender with an oh-so-casual flip of a shaggy blond head over her shoulder.

           “Isn’t she gorgeous? That’s my dear, dear friend, Aimee Pellimore, up in Marin. Oy, I’ve got to finish the work by spring—for her birthday,” she said, lopping her towel onto a set of porcelain hooks as we paused before through the opposing door into the hallway. “Yep, back to my studio it goes. It’s at the Art Institute, that’s where all my color is—but I’ll show you. See, my whole life is color—my work there, my tastes, my whole wardrobe behind that closet door. So I like to keep everything as white as I can here. A blank canvas—source of pure inspiration, centering, you know?”

           “I just associate it with shoveling snow drifts.” I peeked into that now vacant bathroom, still strung up and steamy, just the same. “Which I’d better be getting back to…”

           “Not in San Francisco, you won’t,” she smiled, leading me toward the kitchen. “Out here, you can leave the chains and shovels behind. Let’s see if we can grab a bite to go…”

           On closer scrutiny, the kitchen fit their spacious flat like a one-car garage on a Grosse Pointe spread. It wasn’t much wider than the adjacent utility room, or all that much brighter, yet was considerably longer, and warm. Scored pots and skillets hung from pegboards; dance club and kitten magnets held scribbled notes and recipes to the avocado panelled refrigerator door. A tall, elbowed vent duct led from and Easy-Offed Roper range, somewhat eclipsing the lone, placemat-size window. What it didn’t obscure was covered nicely by Edie, still hunched over the slowly draining sink. Diana had joined her, lanky and dripping in a rouge-red bathrobe and shower bonnet.

          Damp hand prints hinted that Edie had straightened up long enough for Diana to reach around her flowery mau-mau for some serious hug time, only to release her as we drew near. The long and short of it was, only Diana’s gangly arms could have fully reached around that housecoat, for Edie was built as stoutly as a Baltic powerlifter. Busy hands back on kitchen counters, they turned like Hummel figures to greet us.

           “Ladies, this is my dear new friend, fla—Kenneth,” Sydney smiled thinly, sliding past cooling bread loaves to tap a glass of bottled water from a corner dispenser. “He’s all the way from Boulder—that’s in Colorado. Flash, meet my fantabulous roommates…”

           “Kenneth,” they chimed, glancing at one another like sisters superior. The squatter of the two added, “so you’re what was rattling around here last night.”

           “Uh, dunno about that, but…”

           “Doors, and coughing in the middle of the night’s what I heard,” Edie said. “Speaking of which, you did hear about the murder up in Lafayette Park.”

           “Can’t say as I…”

            “Morning news said the guy was beaten with a stick or something. They say it happened around 3:30 or so, newshounds were all over the scene by dawn, calling it a rage killing in a hookup spot. Police haven’t commented yet, but mighty gruesome stuff, huh?”

           “Edie’s a big honcho downtown at BofA,” Syd offered abruptly between sips of Crystal Geyser, handing me the glass.

           “An admin assistant, actually—in the Best Practices Department,” she looked askance at Sydney, then turned my way. “And you?”

           “Impressive, I just finished grad school, a master’s program in…”

           “He’s a good friend of my dear friend, Melissa Saversohn,” Syd blurted again, grabbing the glass for a refill. Good enough to drive me all the way back to The City. You know, friend of a friend of a friend—yadda, yada, yadda.”

           “How friendly?” Edie asked flatly, as if sizing me up for an orange ensemble .

           “Live-in friendly,” Syd overrode me, gratefully so, as I drank up and handed her the glass. “But they’re not engaged, or anything—right, Kenneth?”

           “Well, no—not exactly, or anything,” I instead diverted to Diana, who was now quietly slicing her bread loaves. I couldn’t help but disrobe her mentally, that double exposure snapping like a camera shutter across my frontal lobe. “Smells great…what kind of…”

           “Diana’s our in-house baker,” Syd toasted her with a half glass of brand label…water. “Bet you’ve been baking your little buns off, hon.”

           “All day yesterday, Sydney…took some sick time,” Diana said softly, wielding her carving knife with boulangerie pride. “Did a date-nut and four 9-grains. We’ve frozen half, gets us to payday.”

           “Besides that, she’s an actuary for Pacific Life Insurance, can you believe it,” Syd added. “Next step, law school yet. Incredible…”

           “So you’re co-habbing, are you, Kenneth, getting it on the cheap,” Edie stared my way, like a heavyweight free-weight medallist at an eighth-ranked contender. “Where’s this Melissa person? Is she here with you, or…”

           “Uh, Ken’s the name, actually. And she stayed put in Boulder, work and everything,” I cleared my throat, tracking her warily as she planted her sole-worn bunny slippers before the Roper, to stir a pot of simmering oatmeal. “That’s why I’m heading back there ASAP—right after I phone her to…you know, hash out the return trip.”

           “But not too ASAP,” Sydney winked, with a nod toward Diana and all that bread. “We’ve some places to go here, things to see and do first—right, Kenneth? So we’d better get shakin’.”

           “Knock yourselves out,” Edie smiled stiffly, clearing the air but not the tension. She shot me a quick glare, then gestured Diana to her side with a case-hardened rise of the brow. “We working girls will hold down the fort, keep eyes and noses peeled for that psycho killer from up at the park.”

           “Yes, until later, Sydney,” Diana smiled blandly, offering us some 9-grain slices on a paper New Years party plate. “We still must hear all about your devil-may-care holiday travels.  Incidentally, do those happen to be your keys on the front table?”

           “Not that I can remember,” Syd squeezed Diana’s chilly shoulder, Edie fixing on my fleeting eye. “But then, I’d already popped a little ’Lude before coming in the front door—you know, after such a long road trip.” There we left them, co-stirring the oatmeal, one curious duad, indivisible.

           “Best practices, huh? Pretty heavy chick,” I sighed, playing pocket pool with my key ring as we retreated to Sydney’s room to gather up some of her carry alongs.

           “Ah, don’t let Edie rattle you,” she sneered, shedding her robe to merely tangerine bra and panties without missing a beat. “She’s just raggin’ because her lumberjack boyfriend won’t come back from Oregon and sweep her away from all this…now where did I leave those keys…”

           “Like she said, maybe on that table.” I tried to remain conversationally cool in the face of this nubile, flawless flesh, otherwise brushing aside her key quest, circumspectly so. “But can’t say as I’d blame the guy. I mean, how does Diana put up with that crap?”

           “You kidding me? Dear Diana gets off on Edie’s domination dance. She’d never admit that to herself, the submissive sack—and here she’s wanting to become a lawyer,” Syd asserted, with a searching little smile. “Sooo, you were comatose in the closet all night, right?”

           “Must let her music do the talking, huh?” Try as I might, there was no missing the small, delicate bumblebee tattooed just below her navel. My grip tightened on the 9-grain paper plate as I wondered what Diane and Edie might have seen of me. “But comatose—of course, what do you think?”

           “All right then.” She casually reached for a cranberry pullover, wriggling into creased Vanderbilt jeans—apparently knowing all too well the virtues of erotoshock therapy. A blast of her hairdryer, dab of lip gloss, grab of backup keys and a mini Gucci purse: she was ready for take-off. “See, I buzz in and out of here and leave them to their own devices—mainly the latex variety. Just mind my own toothbrush, pay the rent months in advance. A little pit stop, and we’ll fly…”

           “Roger that,” I said, now trying to figure what she really thought, what she knew, was actually making of all this—otherwise keeping mum and numb. Instead, I snatched up Syd’s pearly Princess phone the moment she hit the bathroom, for a quick cash call back to Moon—a little Western reUnion for the road. Yep, just punch in some 303 numbers and brrddt…brrddt…brrddtt…

           “Speaketh…” The gruff, muffled voice had a half-chewed mouthful, saying a mouthful.

           Speaketh? CLICK. I hung up moments before Syd returned for her bag. Who the hell was that?

 sr dingbats

           “Ciao, Mario!”

           “Bambina mio, come va…dove sei stato?”

           “Roma, Venezia, Milano,” Sydney beamed, as we reached a fully decaled and postered service counter, Gran Prix imagery and busty Snap-On Tools calendars wallpapering all around. “Ah, the Galleria Borgese, the Pinacoteca di Brera, Gallerie dell’Accademia, Mario. The marble in Carrera—cosa marmo grande!”

           Wasn’t all that far; the weather wasn’t that bad, at all. Syd had assured me she knew her way around, and my chances of getting a weekend non-metered parking ticket were next to nil. A brief stop at the squareback for my shaving kit appeared to validate her nil hypothesis. So there we left it for the time being, electing to go about some of her homecoming errands on foot. All I knew was I wanted to steer clear as possible from Lafayette Park, at least for now: never happened, nothing up there, nothing to do with it, none of my business, never wanted to see that bloody face again—deny, deny, deny.

          I rather breathed freely in the spring-like Saturday morning, a sparkling skyline over Russian Hill that seemed crowned by the pointed upper stories of Transamerica’s Pyramid beyond, tagging along as she stopped at a neighborhood bank branch to exchange traveler’s checks and tap her rainy day savings account—explaining away an expired driver’s license for required picture ID. A nearby locksmith duped a set of her emergency apartment keys; her road-soiled clothes were headed straight for the dry cleaners. Next up, a long red and gray repair garage with twin overhead doors: one emblazoned with a large Alfa-Romeo emblem, the other half-opened, with Ferrari’s black-on-yellow stallion. Straddling both, in bold drop-shadowed script, was the name, ‘Mario’s Monza Garage’.

           “Si, sicuro,” replied Mario himself, a swarthy middle-aged gumba in yellow pit crew coveralls, clomping about the service/parts compartment in leather-strapped sabots.

          Framed photos suggested his father had been a champion pioneer race driver on the Formula One circuit before opening this shop, while his son was now waist-deep in Castrol gear grease, oli per transmissioni and manifold high-performance automobili tradition. With a shake out of his curly hair, he reached over to a pegboard panel filled with tagged vehicle keys, next to a signed color shot of Giancarlo Baghetti, then handed her two spares on a fuzzy rainbow ring. “I’m bred to tune Maseratis and they bring me Fiats to de-smog. Pero, su, L’auto va bene…”

           “Bene, grazie, see you first of the month,” she smiled, turning to me, in near whispers, leading me further into Mario’s garage. “I slip him a little Italian, he gives me a little break on the day rate. That’s how it works hereabouts, flash. One hand spritzes the other—a delicate balance. You just have to tip it in your favor…”

           “Check,” I said, struck by the winner’s circle-painted cleanliness of the quartz-lit service bay, the array of Lamborghinis and GTEs alongside those cheesy mini imports. Metric tool chest consoles lined the garage’s Gran Prix muralled walls, which took me back graphically unto racing pilgrimages to Hockenheim and Nurburgring.

           “Voilà, check this out,” she countered, directing me around a green Spider Veloce to her fire red Audi Fox/Avant wagon.

           “Nice wheels…uh, about your driver’s license, want me to…” I removed a hot wax detailing flier from under her windshield wiper, setting it atop a steel brake fluid drum beside the Spider sports car, on which a young Team Mario mechanic was busy adjusting tappets.

           “You ride shotgun, I’ll take my chances.” Syd belted in, started the Fox, revving through a few seconds warm-up, then wheeling for the doors with a cheshire smile. She slowed at the front counter, rolling down her window. “Grazie, Mario, tab it, OK? But ease off the highway robbery!!!”

           “First of month, Bambina,” he shouted, wiping his mitts with Gunk hand cleaner. “We go to caffe. Sacripantina…I buy…”

           “I’m thinking Zabaglione or Zuppa Inglese with a little Marsala. We’re good, ciao…” With that, she rolled out and we were fast into traffic, cutting off an irate cabbie, swinging around an idling MUNI bus, turning out onto Polk Street, headed for her favorite Greekateria across Broadway. “It’d cost me five times as much at any other garage—for storing a German car, yet. I just kept stopping by, pencil sketching Mario behind the wheel of his favorite vintage Bugattis in full racing drag. He can’t get enough, frames them at home. Let’s get us some real eats.”

           “What about this 9-grain here?” Never one for seat belts and harnesses, I held tight to the armrest with one hand, clutching my dopp kit and the paper plate I’d stuffed into it with the other.

           “Pigeon feed. We’re doin’ gyros or something…I’m famished.”

           A parking spot, right out front Urnie’s, midway along a solid block of liquor/groceries, coffee bars and curio shops. Unbelievable, she said, stepping up to take a number for a couple of pita sandwiches, extra hummus, sprouts. I ducked into the shop’s john for a quick brush and flush; she met me at the front door with a dripping bag of Grecian delights.

           “Coulda just settled for a Big Mac or…” I juggled the pitas along with my Dopp kit as we drove off for who knew where.

           “Not around here you won’t,” she said, buzzing through a yellow light, turning left toward the Broadway tunnel. “There’s barely one McDonalds in the whole city, if that. Closest thing are the Doggy Diners out on the avenues. People actually march in protest every time some fast-food chain tries to buy their way into town. I’m talking militant, hanging Ronald the clown in effigy.”

           Syd downshifted through the long, dark tunnel to Chinatown’s edge, then left-turned illegally into the tight-knit clamor of North Beach. Broadway’s skin dives were a blinking red blur, we sped through Columbus Avenue espresso, garlic and antipasti vapors like a contraband cigarette boat out of Biscayne Bay. This could all wait, she insisted, cutting between a flower power Corolla and Westfailure Microbus as we passed a bandana of a crowded park whose sign read, ‘Washington Square’. Punching up Journey’s ‘Wheel In The Sky’ on her FM radio, she pointed out the angelic white twin steeples of St. Marilyn and Joltin’ Joe—yet another of those blessed grandiose Catholic churches.

Washington Square          “Kinda pushin’ it a bit, don’t you think? I mean, with your license situation…”

          “Not to worry. You’d have to commit hit-and-run murder for the cops to pull you over for a mover in this town. Anyway, we’ll do some sightseeing stuff later. We’ve got real places to go first,” she hugged the middle lane, reviewing her frizzing hair in the rearview mirror, then motioned left toward Graffeo coffee roastery. “Their dark roast will curl your fingernails.”

           “Later? When later?” I tightened the grip on the warm Urnie’s bag between my legs, nervously nibbling at the smashed 9-grain slices in my shaving kit. KSFR cross-faded to Heart’s ‘Barracuda’, while I was still trying to remember where that Lady Thornia astrology place was situated around here when I blew through over Thanksgiving break. Damn, still have to find Dame’s Saturn charm somehow—being it was her very last one, I shuddered, as if my luck depended on it. “I’ve got to phone Moon, get my trip back to Boulder squared away.”

           “C’mon, how could you not want to see more of this beautiful place? Besides, I thought you just tried,” she smirked wittingly, hooking a left turn off Columbus just short of Fisherman’s Wharf, aiming for a Chestnut Street climb up the lee side of Russian Hill. “If it hadn’ta been so short, I’d bill you for the long-distance call. Tell me, what was that all about?”

           “Wrong number…”

  Care for more?

 Chapter 19. Attitudes trump latitude.
A difference in outlook leads to
some brasher, blurrier visions…

“Upon rising to the Heights,
be ever heedful on your 
way back down.”

  “Yep, cards, licenses, the whole shebang…gone…could have happened anywhere. But we need to replace them, like pronto…

  “Not at O’Hare…no, not at Midway, either…

 “I’m not in Chicago! I sort of got…diverted back to San Francisco. Yes, I did give Lorraine your Mitzvah envelope. But then my flights got cancelled—Colorado blizzards, and everything…so I rode out with Melissa’s friend—yes, boyfriend. No, nothing’s going on!”

Wait, where was that voice coming from, why was it so goddamn dark?! I scraped the hair out of my face, trying to sort out where things were around here. Was this a crypt, a cell, or what? No, no respectable cell would be this dank or small. All I knew was I wasn’t back out on the road again, because my tank was too empty, head was too weary, my gut too calorically full. And the last thing I actually recalled was scouring the upper reaches of some place called Lafayette Park.

 sr dingbats

 Sydney had suggested we walk off last night’s gratis Hippo’s carbo loads, the flaming exotic burgers and celebrity table spotting. We trudged up past pastel apartment boxes along Jackson Street, then by the hallowed Haas-Lilienthal House. Grey on gray and sprawling—a 24-room Queen Anne Victorian came complete with witches-cap turrets, spired open gables, creamy white gingerbread and 13-foot ceilings. H-L’s sitting and drawing room windows overlooked a stately carriage house garage and iridal floral gardens: In all, an old-growth oak and redwood paneled spread dating back to 1886, monument to imported grocery money, built on a spacious lot beyond all neighborhood scale, long before the wall-to-wall nondescript apartment buildings crowded in. It was an architectural heritage museum once rimmed by other Victorian mansions, now a lone yawning, anachronistic manor house and grounds amid surrounding concrete and asphalt mediocrity. Still, not too shabby, she noted, for Jewish pioneers who had immigrated wholesale from Bavaria.

  We darted across Franklin Street, between barreling packs of time-sequenced traffic, then huffed up a Washington Street incline that made Boulder seem like eastern Colorado. Winded at Gough, I paused, turned to watch a company of fire engines rushing up Washington far behind us, to a flickering blaze above the Van Ness Avenue crease, emergency lights flashing like the radio antennae atop jumbled Russian Hill towers, and the downtown Transamerica Pyramid and megalithic brown Bank of America highrise just beyond them—an optical illusion/occlusion, to be sure.

But Syd instead pointed out the sumptuously dressed bay windows and gilt-edge marble tiled and planter filled lobbies that lined either side of Washington hereabouts, then the palatial Crestview Building’s bricktop apron and black canopied entryway. Breathing heavily, I could nearly taste the pine and pressed wood fragrance of myriad fireplaces.  Meanwhile she waved and whistled to the valets and doormen, pulling me though Gough Street’s uphill traffic, pointing to snippets of the indigo bay down to our north, before coaxing me up the rounded staircase of Lafayette Park itself. By then I was puffing like a two-pack-a-day smoker, as she was aerobia unbound. The middle path of a terraced park side led us along a further breathtaking vista, panavision camera tracks on a Coppola noir film set.

“Have to get you in better shape, cowboy,” she smiled, barely missing a beat as she called out the scenic high points, bridge-to-bridge. “I thought everybody in Boulder was super fit.”

“Moon’s cooking,” I coughed, playing catch-up on a curved path, trying to re-coordinate breathing with gait— Hippo and Polk Street refluxing, pressure mounting about the eyes. “And been spending more time hitting the books than the rec center.”

“Oink, poor porker baby,” she mocked, casting her gaze past some gnarly overhanging tree branches, out over the night view beyond Washington Street. “Ever seen anything so fantabulous?”

The sweep was compelling, all right. From this fissured asphalt walkway, we could look out over a dark blanket of city lights unfurling broadly to the bay and Marin County backdrop. Past Washington Street’s august wall of white, gargoyled baroque mansions and grand coral stucco mid-rises rolled lower Pacific Heights, Cow Hollow, Fort Mason and the Marina, twinkling like gemstones on a field of black satin and amber sashes.

A long, luxury cruise ship steamed in under the Golden Gate Bridge, likely back from Yucatan, the running lights of tugboats and sundry party craft swarming around it—welcome wagons in full speed and sail. Foghorning them off was an outbound oil tanker riding high and empty, bound for another Middle East payload of light, sweet crude: Boulder’s Flagstaff overlook, only with an added window on the world.

Just behind all that ship traffic, the moat-like bay churned before flickering hillside lights across the wide, open Marin Headlands—those dreamy, palatial playhouses spanning from Sausalito to Tiburon and Belvedere. We tracked the festive cruise liner as it floated like a trout fly on a Rocky stream toward Alcatraz. Container ships pressed slowly past it near Angel Island, freshly stacked from the quartz-lit docks of Oakland, on a Far East bearing for Asian ports of call—so many places I’d never even given a second wandering through, though now beginning to wonder why.

“I don’t know, Heidelberg wasn’t so bad, I mean from the castle’s parapets…” I was being a bit arbitrary at this point, although slightly distracted by some scattered rustling up over my shoulder.

“Puleeze, not even close. I think this is sublimely Greco-Roman,” she trumped unfazed, leading us further up the overgrown bush-lined path. “See, the peninsula’s like this magnificent penis, with San Francisco here as its head. And The City’s in constant climax, you know? Neverending climax—ewww, my panties get all sticky just thinking about it.”

“You mean metaphorically speaking, right?” I blushed, looked away, fracture mapping the intersecting surface cracks and stress risers in the asphalt at our feet, the path darkening further under cover of eucalyptus, pine and cypress trees.

“Metaphysically is more like it, accent on the physical…but what do you think?”

Didn’t know what to think, that rustle quickening up in the shadowy trees and shrubbery behind us, that appeared to grow thicker and more tangled, with a deep undertow of muffled moans and groans as we went. Still, this landscape straight ahead did shake loose some architectural details from Army days roaming the Continent; Syd astutely filled in the rest. Between us and the view much further east now stood a majestic salmon-colored highrise, at least by ‘Roaring 20s’ standards. Ten stories of gracefully aging elegance with dead-eye perspectives on San Francisco Bay northward to the wine country, courtesy of ornate Moorish balconies. Its crowning wraparound penthouse—topped with sculpted vases and a garden-framed rooftop pool—must have looked out arched window cases clear to the Oregon line.

I by turns stood in awe of the regal blue and silver Lincolns, Cadillacs and Mercedes sedans circling the co-ops’ red-brick driveway. Jaw-dropping even more were the uniformed doormen polishing brass handles and kickplates under crystalline carriage light, then tending to patrons such as the Schilling Spices clan, who emerged exquisitely dressed for the symphony and opera. Still, all that seemed pedestrian compared to their neighbor one Washington Street address west.

“Ahhh, the good life, picture perfect,” she beamed, her misty eyes focused out ahead.

“Yeah,” I blurted, looking her way, playing along, blinders on for the moment as well. “Just gimme a 200mm, a wide angle and bagful of Kodachrome.”

“Try Ektachrome 64T or Fuji Velvia, flash, for better print hues and saturation. If you’re going to be a serious photographer, you’ve got to be up to speed.”

“Who says I’m gonna be a serious photographer?”

“C’mon, you’ve got to think visually,” she mimicked the aiming and snapping of a camera shutter without pause. “This place stokes the creative fires without even trying. A person like you could be so productive here.”

“Oh, right,” I resisted, staring out over the panoramic ridge view, yet unable to filter out the heavy footsteps and breathless, bestial thrashing going on over our shoulders.

“That’s up to you, if you want to be who you really could be.” While she was not even blinking an eye, as if nothing peculiar were happening up there.

Just the other side of 2006’s fountained circular courtyard and meticulously trimmed gardens sat a solid black fleet of Rolls, Jags, Lams, Testies and Rovers splayed in an exotic crescent, as though delivering unto a capricious soiree or geared for a midnight scramble for the jetport and Montreaux. Apparently, this was a typical evening in and around the mansion, not unlike it had been since Adolph Spreckels built the the classical Beaux Arts landmark in 1912-13.

Son of a sugar tycoon, he dedicated this Francophilic palace to his striking wife Alma de Bretteville, a climbing ne-er-do-well beauty with French aristocratic pretensions, raised out on a Sunset District farm plot, who was barely half his age. The 55-room chateau had long hosted gatherings of the artistic and literary elite, toasting this glittering opulence and unsullied views of the bay. But Adolph eventually kicked, some said syphillis was involved, then his sweet Alma departed this elevated plane in ’68—their heirs since converting the confection of a family mansion into four full-floor luxury suites.

“I call it the Sugar Shack,” Syd beamed, licking her lips. “Before Alma latched onto Adolph Spreckels and became his chatelaine, know what she was? A common artist’s model, that’s what.”

“Figures…” I was beginning to get annoyed by all the commotion in the dark upper reaches of Lafayette Park, where those moans and murmers were increasingly spiked with flares of randy laughter.

“When ol’ Adolph croaked, she took it all over, linked the mansion up with the Palace of the Legion of Honor—Rodins, the whole hi-brow aesthetic scene. Then she boogied between here and a French villa. What a lifestyle, huh?”

“Can’t imagine…” I said, not without a measure of awe.Spreckels Mansion

“Plus a lot of the movie ‘Pal Joey’ was shot here, Frank Sinatra and everything.”

“Yeah, the Rat Pack,” I said, watching a pair of dim varmints scurrying along the mansion’s facade, then crossing Washington Street, vanishing up into the parkside above us. “Looks like all that’s left are the rats, big ones.”

“Oh, get a grip—they’re just some friendly neighborhood raccoons.”

Surely the shack had seen more decorous days. Though largely shrouded in tall, thick hedges, its scrolled iron gates were chipped and rusting. Flood lights revealed cracks and crumbling fizzures around its rinceaux, its medallion cornices and Tuscan pilasters, water discoloration up and down its Utah limestone arches and columns like tea stains and sweet tooth decay. Nevertheless, windows on all four stories of this massive sugar box shone bright and lively. I couldn’t begin to imagine what was going on inside them tonight either, much less what was going down in the woodsy wilds above.

Lafayette Park itself was nearly 12 acres of terraced green spaces first set aside in 1867 by City Attorney Samuel Holladay, who built his Italianate mansion and gardens on this robber baron ridge, which became a political and literary hive for the likes of Leland Stanford, Brete Harte and Samuel Clemens. Real estate magnate Louis Lurie bought the whole plot, and sold it to The City in 1935, which landscaped the acreage and tore down Holladay House a year later, soon adding several tiers of paved paths, picnic areas, playgrounds and a couple of park-top tennis courts. Sunny and wholesome enough in theory and civic-minded intent, but these days Lafayette was exhibiting a somewhat shadier side. For curiouser than the Spreckels’ floor shows was more rustling that crept upon us from the rear—shadowy shuffling about and more wicked laughter in the bushes and shrubs above, plumes of hash and ganja wafting down.

“So didja ever see Pal Joey? I have, three times.” Syd seemed to utterly disregard that the demonic laughter was turning into shemanic cries and hemonic shrieking about the twisted overgrowth and underbrush up there.

“Can’t picture it,” I glanced behind us uphill again, where that pitch darkness flickered with smatterings of Zippos and candlelight, set to cross thread of tribal tunes. “But have you ever checked out ‘King of Hearts’? Moon drags me to it at least once a semester.”

“Allan Bates, of course. Who do you think you’re talking to, mister,” she parried, as we passed on a dew-damp slat bench. “That one about loonies taking over the bin.”

“Right, kinda like this here,” I said. Further up the foliage, the sightlines got better, but the sounds got weirder. Thrashing among the dark groves and bushes intensified, solitary forms lurked, with no apparent reason or resolve, fondling the flora, the fauna, themselves, maybe one another—rather aberrantly, disquisitionally so. “What the hell’s up up there anyway?!”

A bit scruffier and overgrown, the lofty park had by day become sun and bareskin worshipper territory all year round. Come nightfall, more thickets of brush, clusters of pine, cypress and swaying palm trees harbored all sorts of chance encounters and resulting consummation. Hence the groaning trysts and quick trick gaiety amid dormant flower beds. Common sense said best to turn the other cheek and move along this triple-junction, geo-shifted asphalt path in guarded, forward-looking denial, however uncommon the consequences.

“You mean up by the swings and picnic tables? They’re just your friendly neighborhood…raconteurs.”

“But it sounds like all guys night out again—strange suckers, at that,” I said, growing more flustered and disoriented. “This another one of your barnyards, or what?”

“Yeesh, we’re talking San Francisco,” she said dismissively, drawing closer. “Some things are just different here. I mean isn’t it incredible, so positively progressive. See no, hear no—live and let love, that’s what makes the town so cool…”

“Yeah, well, how about live and let’s leave…” It had me checking my pants again—thanks be no rocketry, only the usual requisites, with a distant ‘Afternoon Delight’ ringing in my ears. While my wallet wasn’t exactly burning a hole in my pocket any more, keys were cutting into my thigh. So I fidgeted them around for reassurance until they became entangled in my side pocket, to where I pulled the cluttered ring out, brittly shaking its fob and bibelots back into place. I then reburied the cluster deep into my jeans—keys that they were to my getaway.

In any event, once we heard some ghastly carnal screams, time had come to skirt the unruly shrubbery and make tracks. Easing downpath to Octavia Street, we crossed Washington between the sugar mansion and a row of boxy, three-story stucco and brickface palais. Octavia here was a one-block Lombard-in-see-minor oddity of a side street, an inverse egg cup of an artery, curving gently in and outward, with three stepped concrete median islands greenery garnished, top to bottom. Full, bushy Sycamore trees lined its long middle strip, obscuring a vista that unreeled all the way down to water’s edge and beyond.

“But it can be tough on a single woman. Look at all this beauty, especially at night time. So many times I want to stroll about and enjoy spots like this.”

“Yeah, so—you’re close enough to it, aren’t you?”

“Maybe, but a woman doesn’t dare roam by herself after dark—even with another gal pal. There are just too many crazies skulking around the edges here ,” she sighed, tightly pulling closed her jacket. “Sometimes I just need a real, strong man to turn to—to do things and feel safe with—to really dig The City with, you know?”

“Don’t ask me, I’m just passing through…”. I thrust into my side pocket to paw my key ring, just to be sure.

“It’s just that I feel so penned up at night sometimes. Wary of the nutcases coming out of the woodwork.”

“I’ll bet…getting a little chilly, huh? Freezing my noogies up here…”

“Well, can’t have that now, can we? Let’s make our way down to Franklin, so we can go unload my stuff from your clunker.”

“It’s your trip, I’m just along for the drive.” I pulled back, holding tightly to my keys, for there she was, baring her breast again without a blink of the eye. Seemed she could be so brutally frank—no reserve, no self-consciousness whatsoever. It rattled me, all right; but after years of a reticent woman, also intrigued me just a skosh. “Just get me back to my car.”

“Hah, as if it’s any warmer in that heap. Speaking of cold, know what once in that mansion down the block there,” she pointed down Jackson Street toward Laguna. “Nazi Germany’s Consulate. Nazis, can you believe it? Hun bastards blew town just before the war broke out. Probably went crawling back to Heidelberg.”

Taxis and towncars gunned up and down the red brick lanes, rubber krinkling and crackling like studded snow tires on dry pavement. We skipped along Spreckels’ stone retaining side wall, noting the escutcheons and garlands on it corroded balcony balustrades, then that panorama opening wide near Jackson, past even more chateau-style mansions, a descending olio of apartment house, shop and traffic lights down to Fort Mason—that cruise ship slowly passing Alcatraz on a now glasswater bay. A turn of the corner back toward Van Ness Avenue carried us along the towering back wall of Spreckels’ square half-block estate. Even taller hedges atop the fortress-like retainer hid a rear mansion indoor pool, massive solarium, sloping gardens and grounds lording over lower Pacific Heights congestion like a master’s house over fashion slaves.

Heady, nearly giddy was our mood now, what with all this storybook opulence—buffeted only by the siren and emergency flashers of a powder blue S.F.P.D. squad car rushing up Octavia in the direction of Lafayette Park, paramedic ambulance not far behind.

“So you really think I could score with my cameras?” I glanced over my shoulder, more morbidly curious than visually mused.

“Sure. I saw the prints on your cabin walls,” she poked me back her way, as we paused at the Gough Street stoplight. “You can do whatever you want here.”

“Don’t know about that, I mean compared to your Hippo ‘Hipster’ painting and portrait of Moon.”

“Waif? That’s nothing. You should see my studio…”

 sr dingbats

 “It’s a long story, Daddo. I’ve explained it to Faith, she’ll fill you in…

  “Now, about my credit cards? Greato! And, well, a new down comforter would be nice. And I could use some new Birkies…sandals, silly—ask Faith…”

I now eyed a razor crack along the far floorboard—actual, natural…light. Mired in the sleepy funk of strange, non-sensory surrounding, I poured out of a stretcher-width aluminum cot and low crawled to blindingly rude new morn. The slit widened to a daylight inferno as I opened the door, snapping me to my feet faster than an off-key reveille. Steep lightwells ignited either end of a long white hallway, lined with fine-arts posters and unframed paintings in various stages of emergence, and several wobbly end-tables topped with not-so-fresh cut flowers.

These overnight accommodations, now an ink-blot cubicle over my shoulder, seemed a mini abyss in light of all this sunshine. A quick hit in an adjacent, sort of peculiar little loo-only lav room, and I was slowly zipping down the hall. Between the lightwells were four opposing open doorways, each a vessel of activity feeding the principal artery in this congested, neo-Victorian flat.

Spit straightening slept-in clothes, I shuffled softly along the hall’s threadbare Persian-like runner, first encountering a darksome, narrow kitchen and a broadly girthed figure softly cursing a sink full of last-night’s dishes, perfectly eclipsing a soda-cracker-sized inner window—the only light in the room. I peeked up ahead through a half-closed door into a steamy bathroom, panty hose and pink shower curtains veiling a tall, slender soprano.

Herein, a draping coppice of undergarments and housecoats dripped down into a clawfoot bathtub. Hot curlers and hairdryers tangled with cosmetics bags and pump sprays, stray dental floss winding around mouthwash bottles and maxipads, tortoise shell brushes aplenty, toothpaste tubes squeezed and uprolled dry. This all taking on the trappings of some undergrad panty raid, I licked and finger wiped a forced, cotton-mouth smile over toward Sydney’s room.Coastal Ave. Apt.

The further I ventured, the meaner the morning light—particularly upon entering a curved, Steinwayed living room saturated with the incandescence of twin bay windows. The mahogany baby grand piano broached them, beckoning me to tinker the keyboard, though I knew nary a note. Instead, I turned to peek through sliding parlor doors, spotting Syd nervously tightening a white terry bathrobe about her neck while finger twirling a coiled white Princess phone cord.

I caught a quick shot of her lotus and stretching on a faintly periwinkle futon, her loaded wardrobe valises hanging precariously behind her on suspended clotheslines, sweater bags and shoeboxes stacked neatly on the hardwood floor, a city life suspended for months at a time. So clean, already so perfectly scrubbed and clean…so bright, squeaky clean…

“Yes, I promise to be more careful—guard against the shortcomings of others like you’ve always told me…I mean, if only he’d really locked his car doors…

“You know best, Daddo. So you’ll help get me my new plastic right away? Yes, call you soon as they come. Big love and smoochies…hi to Lester, while you’re at it. Tell him I’m back here and situating. Me, too, bye-bye.”

She sprang from the lotus position like a startled Pallas cat, then darted toward me, ruffling her frazzled hair to make it fuller. It was her Linda Kelsey look, or rather, a Sandy Dennis variation on the Dyan Cannon look. But it kicked ass then, just the same. “There you are, kiddo. When did you wander out here?”

“Only a few minutes ago,” I said, through coated tongue, morning mouth run a-muck. “W-w-what’s the story?”

“What’s the story with you? Lost track of you a little after midnight…”

“Just sleeping it all off, I guess…much as I can remember.”

Her room matched the parlor’s high, plaster-cast ceiling and tall bay windows, stirring off-white walls and woodwork into a searing sunlit frenzy. She blinded me with whiteness, and I sought relief in the periwinkle, her rainbow wardrobe, an unfinished portrait of a striking semi-nude gymnast in page boy and partial Danskins facing her futon—the room’s sole wall hanging to be seen. She refolded back into lotus position on her futon, then motioned me down to her side. “Just called my parents. Daddo ragged on about how careless I was, but is already taking care of my cards.”

“Aww, maybe your purse will turn up,” I said, unable to shield my eyes against the brutal morning, trying to decipher what I’d overheard. My eyes instead roosted in a sickly lemon tree outside her windows.

“Don’t hold your breath,” she sighed, staring through the scales on my lids. “Not with the hang-loose S.F.P.D. on the case.”

“Never know, sometime do-gooders find hot stuff in the trash—months later, even.” I couldn’t stare her in the eye on this point, rather settling upon that solitary unframed canvas.

“Dream on, this isn’t cowtown Colorado,” she sniffed. “So how did you sleep in the servant’s room back there?”

“Like I was comatose,” I rubbed an overnight growth, fishing about my work shirt and pockets, keeping my breath at bay. “But so much for California dreamin’. I leave a cozy Boulder cabin for a glorified broom closet.”

“Don’t press your luck, flash. It just so happens our ‘broom closet’ is in one of San Francisco’s best neighborhoods. I mean, you could be down in the Tenderloin.”

“I’ll keep that in mind back over Donner Summit…”

“All in good time,” she tapped my leg. “So, you noticed my roomie on the way out?”

“Little on the porker side, muttering in the kitchen?”

“Hmph, that’s one of them, Edie. Oh, know what? She said she heard on the KSFD news this morning that there was a violent attack in Lafayette Park last night—some guy died up there…”

“No…way,” I said hesitantly. “Guess that explains the sirens, huh?”

“Actually, police suspect it happened a lot later, like the wee small hours,” Syd said, as if casually assessing my still-disheveled state. “What was that you said about comatose?”

 Care for more?

 Chapter 18. Confronted with memories
parochial, figures of contrasting dimensions,
their race is on to even more uncommon ground…



















“Venturing into areas 
previously unknown can be 
a raw challenge to the senses.”

          “It’s you…”

          “No, it be you—huggy hug!”

          “Been too long, Eugene—you’re looking fantabulous,” Sydney beamed, as they spun out of their embrace like ice queens sticking a 10.

          “You lookin’ simply scrumptious, honey…”

          Bearing unready witness, looking askance, otherwise standing silently aside: I hadn’t a clue what he saw in her at the time, but was certain I looked even more out of sorts my own self. Grizzled, rumpled, road tar nose to toes, yet here I was, arm-in-arm with Ms. Superlative, who had rallied from the close quarters of our Interstate-80 incarceration—black leotard and red ski jacket no less dozed in, still and all a diva at her premiere. Sydney led me like a guide dog down Polk Street from the Balmy Palm, where we came upon…Eugene. An Afro blood in tangerine and turquoise jumpsuit, he’d bounded over to us from behind a tin foil faux Kwanza tree like Ziggy stardusting Mick Ronson center stage at the Palladium.

          “Sooo, how’s every little thing at the Institute, Eugene?”

          “Oh, I’m not toolin’ with no schoolin’ no more…” A pink aegis pin shone above his left patch pocket, the name, Pinkertons in bold script just below it.

          “But your figure classes…no more modeling?”

          “Hell with school, honey child,” Eugene air-kissed her, smiling obliquely my way. “All that matters these days is that you be lookin’ good. Speakin’ of lookin’ right, how goes it with you and Mr. James Winslow…”

          “James and I are history, Eugene,” she sighed, wiping a sly, dry tear from her eye. “Europe’s been my muse lately—you know how it is…”

          “Too, too tragic,” he squeezed her shoulder, sneezing to the side, then scoping, sizing me up and down. “So it’s back into the studio for you.”

          “Isn’t it always,” she replied wistfully. “Oh, this is Kenneth, hes…with me…”

          “Nice to…” At that point, I could have been a mail storage box, rather gratefully so.

          “Puleeezed,” he hugged her once more, winking my way. “Mister straight and true now, is it?  Guess we can’t be too purrr-snickety these days, now can we…”  He then scooted off toward the honking of a lookyme Riviera’s car horn, and the makings of a driveby tryst. “Gotta run, ciao-zy!  Later for youz two…”

          By all appearances, the further down we walked, the further down Polk Street got—down, but certainly not deserted. Tops dropped, windows cracked, tape decks blaring: traffic snail cruised in both directions, a feisty parade of four-stroke motorbikes buzzing between and around trolling Fiats, Ghias, Mustangs, the odd Valiant and occasional MGBs. Nevertheless, a chill gust kicked up near Sacramento Street, tossing candy wrappers and weekend edition newspaper pages like Nevada tumbleweed, carrying along the eau de cheesy garlic from a corner souvlaki pizzeria, setting store signs swaying like tin pan metronomes. That signage ranged from gyros and liquor stores to musty second-hand shops, high-laced platform booteries and greasy bacon-and-chiliburger grilles. Clearly, here was no Main Street, USA; this be no pristine Pearly mall.

          “That’s my dear friend, Eugene. He’s a regular crosser chameleon, really gets around,” Syd said, turning us away, down Polk. “Eugene’s been an illustration student at the Art Institute…on partial scholarship. So he’s doubled as a figure model on the side, posed for me lotsa times, and I for him…”

          “You…have,” I said, noting that I hadn’t seen so many guys together since army boot camp, and even there, not so many guys like these.

          “Sure, for his whole class sometimes, too. It’s all part of the artistic process—creative vision, collaboration, liberation…know what I mean?”

          “Well, yeah—not that, precisely, but I get the gist…”

          “No gist, genuine innovation, what art is all about,” she said, with a sweep of her arm. “Seeing things differently. You’re not afraid of that, are you?”

          “Hey, no way—why would I be…”

          “You tell me,” she scanned me, head to Vibram boot heel. “Because that’s not the vibe I’m getting from you at all.”

          Across Sacramento Street, Polk’s storefronts ran more to bounteous flower shops, big hair salons, glam and leather boutiques, if not skin and leather bars. Not fringy cowboy buckskin so much as Brando-on-a-wild-Duoglide black sort of hide, along a mane drag with some heavy bends in the road. Outside Kiko’s Bar, all the young dudes were brandishing the news, passing around the doobs, crooning to deafening dance beats with defiant, devious ’tudes—all under a smiling sliver of a mild mid-winter moon over Suffragette City, a Queen’s latest ‘News of the World’ promo disk counter-tracking out of a mid-block velvet lounge.

          “So, what do you really think of PolkStrasse, flash?”

          “I don’t know, this whole scene seems kinda bizarre…”

          “Well, your bag is sociology, and here’s some big-league sosh on a platter.”

          “Sorry, not quite my area of expertise,” I said, being rattled to the bone, trying to keep clinically cool about it, putting on a straight, stoic face in the face of this movable, ritualistic sextravaganza.

          “Oh, get your head out of your manhole, professor. There’s a whole real world to scope out around here.”

          Vintage New York Dolls, Kool and Donna Summer, Lou Reed’s ‘Sweet Jane’ and Iggy’s ‘Sweet Sixteen’ amped forth from glitter meat markets to either side of Polk, reverbing off open-air cattle stalls and ubiquitous mirror balls. From each pick-up window came the furtive and flirtive catcalls, wolf whistling and hound dogging, met with chiding lines, roving winknods and lusty eyelocks, drowning in stiff waves of hair gel and spiked cologne—reefer and fruity liqueurs filling the air from there.

          “Ain’t no peace in the barnyard, huh,” Syd continued, leading me along—pushing, prodding, testing my tolerance, or limits thereof. “But PolkStrasse’s always on like this.”

          “It’s on something, all right—given the grab ass and rubbing limbs,” I said, a smoochy, hand-holding item Cadillacing past us in matching suede and chains. “Lotsa hovering around like vultures…”

          “Oh, loosen up, will you? Just showing you what’s up. So get in the groove—that’s how it flows here in farm land.”

          “Think I’ll take a pass…” I grew more perturbed at the leering, naked stares, all these joy boys on parade—like the overheated leather flame winking from the doorway of an antiquated bookstore. “Have never come across such a case of normative…variance like this.”

          “Afraid it’s contagious?” she asked. “But keep up with gobbledegook like that, and you’ll get yourself plowed under here for sure. Then again, isn’t that what friends are for?”

          A slim young blade in tight pink tanktop and gym shorts blew kisses to us, Richard Simmons-style, from atop a covered trash bin as we passed one of the last legit, old-line businesses from better times, before Polk Street took its lascivious dive. Charring Cross Coffee and Tea Shop had been importing bulk beans and leaves from the world over since the turn of the century, its display windows chock with antique scales, grinders and brew pots. This was a venerable, veritable museum of caffeine through the ages, with a roasted aroma to snap eyes open and crank brains over a block away. Little wonder we bopped in to grab a quick, resuscitative pop. Alas, this local institution was perking along against the neighborhood’s march of history. And there was no starker proof of that than the bawdy outfit right next door.

          “How does it feel to be in the minority? So out of your lily Boulder comfort zone—or are you?”

          “What do you think,” I reminded myself that I was just dropping off a load. “But no big deal, I’ll be hitting the road back soon enough.”

          “Not before we mosey down into Polk Gulch a spell,” she snuggled up to my warm sheepskin sleeve. “Saddle up for a walk on the wilder side.”

          “Christ, what’s your story, anyway?” I anxiously wanted out, yet found myself sociologically aroused by Lovelock sensations while intrigued by these peculiar tribal norms—as though morbidly surveying a crime scene fatality out the corner of my eye.

          “Oh, shush up…this is San Francisco.” Turf boosted, Syd asserted her singular territorial primacy here, but not without a faint trace of her own fear and dread. “We’re talking freedom of expression here.”

          “No, we’re talking utter deviance here,” I replied, hair and hackles raised—betwixt, befuddled, never having experienced anything like this infestive scene before. I was feeling outnumbered, overrun, unable to shake the ambient ringing, fight off the low-level anger that I shouldn’t even be here, a lower-grade fear that I clinically should—Bloody Friday Belfast cave job all over again, even more so this time around. “What say we hit it back to the car…”

          “Relax, flash, and stretch some—a little shock therapy might do you some good.”

          “Shock…or shlock?” I glanced down, avoiding the catty stares and size-ups of a couple of chatty teeny hustlers. Apparently lubed on poppers and Harvey Wallbangers, they boogied their wares out front of side-by-side hummus take-out and heady smoke shops, next door to a standing room, disco-juked gin mill.

          “Un je ne sais quoi, darlin’,” shouted down a middle-aged rascal from the bay window of one of the three-story mock Victorians lining either side of Polk Street.

          “Et je ne sais quoi encore,” yelled another vixen from the fire escape of a more plainly modern architectural mixed breed, cross-talk largely typical along this strip—the both of them looking more than old enough to know better.

          “Think of it as putting your egghead theories to the test. Or are you afraid of taking your ivory tower bigotry head on?”

          “Hey, not to worry. Like you said, I’m into the social sciences…no bigotry here, okay? I know who and what I am…”

          “Then you should have no problem, right?”

          Rue L’Amour was the Gulch’s premier adult book and flick store—consenting adult, that was, stated so on the door sign—with depth and breadth splayed graphically across its front window displays, leaving little to even the most fevered and fetished imaginations. In through the funhouse doors, bookracks were a half-dozen rows of gratuitous obscenities. And the high rear counter with the chain-smoking resident moneychanger glued to security monitors in a ‘This Bud’s For You’ visor seemed de riguer—the type of coughing barker who couldn’t cut it any longer on Broadway, and was four months arrears at the SRO hotel. Rue’s chromy two-way mirrors were as paranoiac as the next sexporium. Even the backroom bijou rumbled with a swell of typical irregulars hiking up their drawers and snorting in and out of Passion Playhouse’s heart-shaped portal.

          No, it wasn’t Le Rue’s front cover or first glance that exceeded the MDR of voyeurism; it was the inner contents. Electrically speaking, there were too many plugs and not nearly enough standard sockets. Indeed, there were barely token U/L-approved sockets, and those were largely fig-leaf garnish, pandering to any lingering shred of old-fashioned straight and narrow buried deeply in its clients’ alter libidos.

          So beyond all the conventional tricks and angles, Rue L’Amour positioned itself uniquely in the porn arena with the latest market segmentation: men only, mano-a-mano—even more precisely, pumped-up bloods or young, white, curly-haired men built either like linebackers or lead guitarists from certain British seaports—many of whom preferred ewes, Afghans, steeds and one another to any #9 dreamboat or Layla on earth. These books, mags, rags and tapes uncovered the young boy beat with stunning saturation. More specifically, the few women depicted were but incidental cheerleaders at a cockfight, pinned in the far corner like a hardware store calendar of rural New England. Le Rue’s S&M leatherette must have been scored from some big-and-tall shop. Its dildos came mostly in baby blue, surrounded by pegboard display racks of Boner Bracelets, erection creams, power pumps, crocheted cock socks and draw-string scrotum sacks.

          “Enough of this,” I steamed—provoked, though unsure whether morally or physically, hoping for the former. I’d always had a problem with emporniums of any kink or predilection. The knot of Catholic conscience would grip my cranium the moment I turned risque page one—as though Sister Theresa were flogging me with her catechism ruler and the iron cross of her rosary beads. “I’m heading out…”

          “What’s the rush, buckaroo,” she said, deep into the gala holiday issue of  ‘Adam’s Angle’, turning the four-color magazine’s fold-out around faster than a pinwheel. “A little male panic setting in, or afraid you’ve got a rocket in your pocket?”

          “Hmph, threatened nothing…I can just do without the raunchy plumbing manuals, thank you.”  My eyes veered toward an ink-bearded Anita Bryant wall poster with a red circle line sur-printing it.

          “Excuse me, but this isn’t run-of-the-mill pornography,” she said, with ‘freeze, sucker’ in her eyes. “It’s harmless, and a lot of this borders on art, you’ll see.”

          “What…art?  Why…”

          “Some porn does happen to be art, I’m telling you, sex is art. This is every bit as pure as the biblical Madonna or any Da Vinci—which is maybe why I find it so appealing…”

          “More like appalling—c’mon, you don’t really buy that, do you?”

          “Oh, don’t I? Listen, the human body is a beautiful thing, whatever it’s doing. And any sociologist worth his sheepskin should know such things…one who fancies himself a photographer, yet.”

          “Beautiful, in your barnyard sense, I suppose,” I snapped, shrinking from their images on one of Rue’s fish-eye security mirrors. “Look, you’ve made your point. Live and let live, all that jazz. But I think I’ll stick with my Colorado case studies and abstracts…it’s safer and saner that way…”

          “No, live and learn—it’s called tolerance, professor. That’s why everybody should spend at least a year in San Francisco.” She rifled through the sexcessively graphic magazine, then tossed it at me, shrugging toward the counter clerk, not above checking herself out on the chromey two-way panel. “God, you sound like such a petrified Republican!”

          “Hey this has got nothing to do with me,” I gently smoothed the mag’s cover, replacing it on the shelf of luridly revealing skin and fetish rags, face down, only to follow her out Le Rue’s blush red, S-baffled front doors. “I’m about outta here, and for goddamn good.”

          “Where’ve I heard that before,” she groaned, pulling up her jacket collar to eau de Brutish breeze. “But you’ll never make it dressed like that around here, anyway.”

          We rejoined bobbing, throbbing foot traffic, debating whether to head up PolkStrasse or down. But our attention was quickly drawn to a mid-street situation brewing two car lengths deeper into the Gulch. Apparently, the flare-up centered around a fat broker john and his baby-faced boy toy, coming to unmet terms of engagement through the open window of a sawbuck green Mercedes 450SE.

          “Nuff said,” I grumbled.  The sound of ‘Afternoon Delight’ caught my ear, theme song to a passing red-and-white checkered truck.  Manned by a crew of waving volunteers, it had CarnaVan stencilled on the side panels, as well as subhead slogans suggesting some sort of dirt-cheap stewpot food operation catering to street minions citywide.

          “So maybe PolkStrasse is getting a bit raw around the edges,” she gaped about the broader spectacle with hungry, road weary eyes.  “Guess that’s why Castro’s the new gay land of milk and honey.  That’s where their classier action is hanging out more now.”


          “Like City Hall says, hands off—just hold back and keep a lid on things,” snapped a nearby S.F.P.D. officer to his partner walking the beat. Both were standing off in observer mode, caught between copping to and copping out, not looking at all happy about it.

          “Yah, sarge, it’s like with our damn baby blue squadrols,” said the other uniform, palm slapping his nightstick. “What the hell good’s gonna come of that…”

          “Well don’t worry, it’ll be seen to—just you wait and see…”

sr dingbats

           “I think I’ll have the Nude…no, the Monte Carlo!”

          “Just make mine a regular…”

          “Aww, add a little spice, get more adventurous in your old age, doc. Try the Stripper, or the Cannibal—how about the French Connection?”

          “Thanks, but I always do the jumbo regular back at Tom’s Tavern…”

          “Jumbo? Then go for their amazing Liberation—avocado-bacon-pomegranate. C’mon, flash, on me…”

          We had fought a minor headwind back up Polk Street, cutting over to Van Ness as the Strasse turned ever friskier, but not without checking on my overloaded Volks Squareback enroute, bumper to bumper, glovebox to tailgate. That breezy resistance and a modest incline left little breathing room for further debate on the ‘sex is art’ pornography score, much less a sidewalk tutorial on the comparative virtue of the biblical Madonna vis-à-vis Marilyn Chambers—or Jack Wrangler wedged in, for that matter. The only thing Sydney and I worked up along the way on erstwhile Auto Row was a powerful appetite, carried over from a lunchtime foray into the fructose-caked orchards of Nut Tree Village this side of Sacramento, seemingly days and I-80 miles ago by now.

          Van Ness Avenue offered forth Sub sandwich franchises, pricey steakhouses and bodega-style liquor/convenience stores on both sides of its broad, bushy median-split north-south lanes. Tantalizing as the prime rib and sirloin aromas were, however—even as gassed and famished as we had found ourselves—there were no lame pangs about eating a horse. Not when we could trot across heavy avenue traffic and feast on Hippo. “All right then—what Hippo logo
say a Stroganoffburger,” I relented, going global, figuring she figured it a due over hauling her demanding ass all the way out here, with nary a clue as to how she could pay for it. “Well done, with fries, OK?”

          “With a side of your magic French Fried Mushrooms,” she nodded to me for pre-approval from around a mammoth, circus cartoonish menu, instructing a wet-combed, red-vested waiter who stroked a razor-thin moustache that made John Waters look like Dennis Hopper. “And a couple of boysenberry shakes, you game?”

          “What can I say…your call,” I shook my head toward the stagy waiter who, having vainly sung the praises of their Bippyburger Special, was scribbling and Hippo-gliding over to the huge copper-hooded kitchen counters, center room.

          “Oh, but make mine strawberry-banana, hon,” she called to the waiter, flipping through the extra wad of traveler’s cheques she’d plucked from one of her suitcases when we stopped by the car. “Oh, look over there—yeep, be cool about it. Can you believe who that is?”

          “Wait,” I wrestled the unwieldy red and white menu back to my Hippo logo-illustrated placemat. “Can’t see over this blasted thing…”

          Where once stood a Mohawk gas station and abandoned Safeway, now thrived this circus-carnival of a hamburger wonderland, which had fed the gourmet imaginations of ground-round devotees from all around the Bay since the early 1950s. Hippopotamus offered upwards of sixty burger specialties that In/Out and the Golden Arches couldn’t begin to cook up in their wildest deep-fried dreams: Huge Streakerburgers, Cannibalburgers, Grassburgers of the headiest kind filled those billboard-size menus.

          All such beefy creations were served in a fanciful bigtop mis en scene, to a delicious zoo of aficionados—ranging from opera and symphony patrons to celebrities to tourists to Hashburger hippies, suburbohemes, birthday partiers and après student types like us—basically anybody who relished where this freshly ground meat met the street. Sydney gadded me into the floodlit pink and orange palace, under Hippo’s wavy crème awnings, glad-landed us a cozy table near the front, beneath a portrait of the founder riding his favorite pachyderm.

          “There, third booth over from that Cubist-style portrait of the Hippo—which I painted, I’ll have you know…” Her eyes widened. She explained that large spotlit oil rendering had been her first San Francisco commission—brush strokes for gourmet burgers and shakes. Her ‘Hipster’ was an already beloved pachy of overlapping brown-white rectangles and circles hidebound against a flour-textured field of sandy green, crimson tophat on its head, square snout locked around a single red rose, cerise ascot overwrapping its tail. “What think you?”

          “Unreal.” I hiked myself up some for better view, denim squeaking against the pink naugahyde tucks and rolls of our window booth seats, which otherwise overlooked the teeming Pacific Avenue side parking lot. What more could I say, without betraying my aesthetic inadequacies? Better to move on… “Really cool, so what else?”

          “It’s O.J., silly,” she whispered, pointing across room with cupped finger and hand. “Holy Moses, I think he’s with Elliot Gould.”

          “Wonder if he’s still doing NFL games on TV.” But I was more taken with Hippo’s colorful cartoon décor. Posters, long wall murals, framed illustration comic strips, display panels stuffed with T-shirts, caps, bibs, balloons, keychains and assorted other souvenir bric-a-brac—all under a red/white striped canvas tent ceiling, calliope carnival music piped over the prattling crowd. “Or jumping over rental cars…”

          “I read where they’ve just wrapped up shooting a killer sci-fi conspiracy flick called ‘Capricorn One’. Now…right over there—kicking back, chowing down just like everybody else…only in San Francisco. He once starred for Galileo high school just up the street, can you believe it?”

          “Great, but what I can’t believe is that Hippopotamus logo everyplace, with the red bandana and bow-tie on her tail,” I glanced about the sprawling room as our winking, theme-humming waiter delivered our fried mushrooms and shakes. “Or those little girl Hippos muralled everywhere else, and little boy Hippos in red spotted neckerchiefs… jeesh, there’s one with a chef’s toque and everything…”

          “You should see the bathrooms here,” she straw drew some milkshake from a tall logoed glass. “Hippo head’s grinning when the toilet lid’s down, mouth’s wide open when the lid’s up. They’re over near that sign for the Monkey Inn—Hippo’s even got a hot little singles bar going back there.”

          “Naw, I’m OK, can hold it in for now,” I tried out a fried mushroom, while keeping an eye on the Hippo salt and pepper shakers, let alone the Hippo creamer.

          “Yoy, in the corner booth,” pointing with her fork as she stabbed for the appetizers. “Herb Caen and Mayor Moscone. Bet they’re doing the Bearnaise and Welsh Rarebitburgers.  I mean, you’d figure they’d be at Ernie’s or LeCentral. Can just imagine what juicy political tidbits they’re feeding each other over that sangria pitcher…”

          “Probably carving up some Republican, huh?” I flapped out my Hippo napkin, the waiter arriving with our double-grilled burger platters…whoa, humongous

          “Republicans? In San Francisco?! I wouldn’t bet on that…”

Care for more?

Chapter 17. Awakening in a closet, coming 
out to a breathless money call, he finds leaving 
San Francisco can be no mere walk in the park…

“It’s often harder to take 
a pounding when you’re in 
stranger surroundings.”

          “Could have been worse, they might have grabbed my overnight bag with the spare keys in it.”


          “And at least they didn’t get my passport and traveler’s cheques.”

          “Yeah, well—that’s for sure…”

          “Or god forbid, my new portrait brushes…or pill wheel…”

          “Your pill whe…”

          “Oy, what if those creeps had gotten the little package Josh Gravanek gave me to hold?! Don’t want to blow that connection up again…”

           Our crosstown retreat was conversationally spare, save for Sydney’s animated directions. She pushed on the squareback’s meagerly padded dashboard through San Francisco’s outer Sunset, directed me up Highway 1 to the dimly lit Crossover, around the dark shadowed curves of Golden Gate Park, which left us blinking in the face of oncoming headlights on By-Pass Drive all the way out past the Redwood Memorial Grove to Fulton Street’s residential congestion. That was where she pointed us not toward the downtown skyline, but straight ahead up Park Presidio Boulevard into a Gen. Douglas MacArthur tunnel, through the olive drab thicket of the Presidio Army base.

          I muttered concerns about getting trapped in the Golden Gate Bridge lanes as Syd guided us around the ramp on to the amber glow of Doyle Drive, the northernmost rim of San Francisco reflecting across an indigo Bay. What we were doing way up here was beyond me, but she insisted that going this extra mile or so saved us the ‘oodles’ of further time we’d lose in Civic Center traffic jams. Hence I soldiered on down Route 101, following the Richardson Avenue diagonal, scanning mirrors, red light after yellow traffic light, along Lombard Street’s neon-soaked motel row.

          There Syd paused amid her hyperactive nocturnal sightseeing narrative long enough to motion us into a right turn, back southward down Van Ness Avenue, as if to square the long, scenic circle. I was busy nudging through car jams, coaxing the gas gauge, cramming my Blaupunkt radio back into its dashboard bracket, when she spotted a parking place opening up just a quick left turn away on Clay Street, directly under a bright utility light—little more than a block from…here.

          “But the shlubs did make off with my wallet and plastic…”

          “That stinks out loud, all right…”

          “Oh they filched my new mooie creamer, too.”

          “Mooie…what mooie?”

          “The creamer I lifted in that Bucket’s Truck Stop, after I gave you a dime for the pay toity,” Sydney said, tapping my hand with her swizzle stick. “Damn, it was going to be the latest addition to my kitschen collection…”

          Come to think of it, I did recall tapping that kidney before leaving Nevada, my road-wracked bladder soggier than a carwash chamois. Syd must have scarfed the bovine-headed creamer as soon as I passed Bucket’s slot machines on the way to the head. She had to have slipped it into her Pony Express-size purse while I waited out a couple of over-the-road Peterbilt warriors in the men’s room, counting off wall shelves flush with rusty horseshoes, long-line insulators, Indian print artifacts, years old Silver State license plates, oatmeal canisters and jelly bean jars—all trimmed with chintzy orange, red and blueberry bead strips.

          Finally coming out dripping and re-zipping, I could see her still sitting there in the red metalflaked vinyl booth, all smiley and stirring her coffee something dizzy, daydreaming out tinted jalousie windows over I-80 and the snow-capped Virginia Range. Amazing as hell that our chubby, plaster-haired cowgirl waitress didn’t notice the missing creamer as she slapped her coffee bill down on our plastic gingham covered tabletop. Instead she snapped her bubble gum at me for not ordering a chicken-in-a-basket lunch special, then waddled back over to nibbling at Bucket’s wilting salad bar. Anyway, since Sydney paid, I just played pliantly along, filling the Volks’ tank with off-brand regular for the summit climb and coast down to the coast. But that was then, and this was…now.

          “I suppose I can live without Elsie the cow,” she sighed, sagging in her deck chair. “What I can’t bear is carrying on without my favorite purse.”

          “So just get another one, right?”

          “Don’t you see? There isn’t another purse like that one—anywhere, anyhow…”

          “Gotcha,” I stared into my frosted mug, centering it on a ring-stained Kahlua coaster. “Guess I didn’t study it that closely.”

          We had left the squareback locked and luggage loaded, bucking the odds, hoping for the best against any further break-ins. Having fished some of those remaining valuables out of her overnight bag, Syd claimed that this was a somewhat safer side of town—that she actually lived but a few blocks away, and often strolled Pacific Heights arteries like Clay Street on nights like this without particular fear or disfavor. Clearly, it was a beautiful Friday evening over this way, ocean winds having subsided, late-January thermometers rising, stars shimmering in vivid constellations all across the city skies.

          She’d led me along by the elbow, stressing how much she had missed the bustle of Van Ness Avenue’s theaters and showrooms, the towering skyline of Russian Hill co-ops and penthouse condos up ahead. My mind even drifted away momentarily from the quick turnaround drive back home to Boulder, from chugging through the winter wilds between spring-like California and the lee foothill side of the Continental Divide. At least until we turned a street corner, head on into the likes of all…this.

          “And there’s only one person who could craft me such a gorgeous masterpurse,” Syd continued, peeling off her down jacket, scanning about for familiar faces.

          “Who might that be?” I sat there rather more disoriented and circumspect.

          “James Winslow Holcomb—a dear, dearest friend of mine. He hand tooled the whole sunray ensemble. James is incredibly talented, I met him at a gallery opening when I first came to San Francisco.”

          “So get him to make you another set, why don’t you,” I asked, somehow relieved that she was relating about relating to some other guy.

          “Oh, he’s evolved out of his leather phase. He’s down in Big Sur now, rolphing Esalen workshops or something. See, James Holcomb is light years ahead of everybody, a real psychic adventurer—a tall, blond Adonis built like Grand Coulee Dam—from Carmel Valley, at that…”

          “He your ol’ man?”

          “Don’t I wish,” she said wistfully, casting her eyes over to a corner spot. “We came here on my birthday. He gave me the purse and wallet, all gift wrapped in Chronicle pink section pages and ski-waxed twine. Then he took me to his parent’s chalet at North Lake Tahoe for the weekend…safari-rigged Land Rover, no less.”

          “Sounds pretty storybook to me…” I bumped knees with her under our tiny cocktail table as I opened my sheepskin coat.

          “Hardly,” she sipped unfazed, though in thinly veiled regret. “Haven’t seen or heard from him since…guess I must have been his ethnic fling.”

          First thing I had noticed upon turning that corner was the curbing, not the designated zone markings evident so far, but ones painted with an indigo overcoat, stenciled SFPD emblems in lavender and amethyst. Unfathomable fluids rivered down the gutters beneath them, ground glass glistened in the sidewalk, along a block-long run of hair salons, shoe studios, resale clothing boutiques, heady smoke shops, fleshy bookstores, flower and hummus/gyros stands. But mostly came the disco throbbing clubs and bars.

          Flitting in and out, dancing about us were streams of young studs, primetime players, preening older cats, Megadeath runaways on decaled skateboards—popping, snorting, passing around the clips and buds—reefer and patchoulie in the air. Sydney had bounced back admirably by then, recommending a hard-earned cordial at the hot spot of her choice. I suspected her preference was some sort of twisted joke, but decided not to give her the satisfaction, biting my tongue when she said it would do me well to check out life ‘down on the farm’.

          Point being, we had matters to settle, acknowledgments to make, damages to assess, belongings to disgorge, accommodations and routing to ascertain. After days of close, cold steerage, it admittedly was time to find a neutral, if not simpatico corner in which to break the ice. Turned out the PolkStrasse haunt was down near Sacramento Street, its bamboo-framed neon signage reading, ‘The Balmy Palm’.

Balmy Palm
Balmy Palm

          “Come and gone—that’s San Francisco for you. There just aren’t that many good men around here.”

          “But this joint is full of guys…” I was still trying to figure out how she could even consider retracing her first steps back here of all places after months away from the Bay.

          “I’m talking about eligible he-men, flash,” she said, sipping her banana daiquiri through a long green plastic straw. “I love ’em to death, they’re my kind of people. But they don’t exactly do it for me, if you catch my drift…”

          “Uhhh, can’t say that I do…” With that, I drew deeply from my Heinekens draft, a brew a body could find about as maltly tasteful as Colorado’s Banquet Beer.

          “Either that or there are too many women around this part of town…”

          “Too many? I can’t see any women in here at all…”

          Speaking of action, the Palms—for short—was by this hour leaning toward fully potted. It was a period café languishing between two eras: an exclamation point of time when escapism and eccentricity still prevailed—albeit with a big, bushy question mark of a future, limp with lasting changes in the wind. On balance, Palm seemed to roll with those ch-ch-changes, maintaining a classic Casablanca cure-all for terminal anxiety: pure, unadulterated resignation and abandon.

          Decadence peeled off the olive green/wicker trimmed walls; ennui flickered in the cracked claret light columns at either end of a three-arch mahogany bar back. It seeped from the bottle-scarred wet bar, and dusty decanters that were jiggered vigorously into Pina Coladas, Sloe Gin Fizzes and potent Jamaican Coffees. But most of all this seamy decay rose in thick waterspouts from these tightly clustered rattan tables, sucked up into an ill-starred ceiling by eight four-blade overhead fans that sparked and shuddered in hazy asynchronous discord. A first take from the swinging plantation doorway was no less cautionary than looking into a hurricane’s bloodshot eye. No fraternal Pearl Street tavern in here, clearly more Rick’s than Rocky’s.

          Sydney had led me over to this dark corner table on a fabricated terrace railed in like the aft deck of the S.S. Paradise. She figured on escaping the turgid squall of booze-laced cigarette smoke. I looked to avoid the two gaudy blades who winked and brayed at me as we passed before a drafty open window on the way further into this sirens den of…divergency. Damned if I wanted to take the table right next to them.

          What kind of signal was that? But I settled for a fixed stare in precisely the opposite direction, bent on maintaining that this was her idea, that this Palm would not be swaying my way. Funny, army troop ships, Grafenwohr-scale target ranges shot to mind, obscure targets in the darkness with some Godzilla drill sergeant shouting, ‘wanna get your swingin’ dicks outta’ basic, hit them targets!’  Then again, what a potent socio treatise could come of …this.

          To wit, ever so slowly, liltingly, two olive-skinned panthers captured another nearby table, hunched over a hand-rolled Bugler, French inhaling its flaring smoke, the clingy duet commenced to fondling one another under the candlelight. Christ, were they actually…he roamed her black stretch jeans like everybody’s business right there, while the she of them popped the buttons on his baggy safari pants—only to grab suddenly at his rumpled madras lapel. She pulled him so sharply toward her that the flame singed his scar and bramble mustache. Though he gagged on his Amaretto, there was no denting her playful, drop-forged smile.

          Beyond them, edgy, coked-up hitters manned and spooned in far corners, mirror-eyed port of callboys gnawed swizzle sticks at the bar: a full house at the Palm was a rendezvous with deviancy at any moment’s flirty notice. The darker the table, the murkier the prospects: Blame it on the foreign beers and tropical aperitifs. In some campier cases, blame it on the Bossa Nova, as with the pair of elder studsmen prancing and grinning away on the parquet dance floor like Martha Rays at a Polident convention.  House tracks ranging from the Velvet Underground to Pearl Harbor and the Explosions to KC and the Sunshine Band: Not for the sociological faint of heart, this…not even in the abstract.

          “Bridges crossed, bridges burned—it’s been a long trip. But I’m back in town, and ready for action,” she shifted, boring in on her Daiquiri. “I mean, it could be a lot worse, I could be stuck in Chicago, fending off Bernard Zynich.”

          “He your ol’ man?”

          “Hah, doesn’t he wish,” she said, tapping her blueprint straight teeth with her swizzle straw. “I grew up with Bernie, he’s the son of my parents’ cribbage partners. They own Hirsch-Zynich Galleries in Evanston, and have been displaying my work since I was in junior high. Everybody’s been trying to get us together even longer than that…figuring we were a perfect match, dowry and all that.”

          “Sounds serious to me…”

        “Serious? Bernard is slow death by suffocation. He’s short and stocky, and I am like, his object d’art. Really, he’s never been anywhere. The only thing he’s sure of is that he’ll take over the family gallery some day. He’s the perfect boitshik. His every waking hour is geared to just that, and it still scares the hell out of him. Bet he’s waiting for me in Chicago right now, ready to propose.”

          I didn’t dare ask, instead going, “So he’s the one you’re leaving in ruins, huh—like, after the Adonis tooler?”

          “My parents thought I was on my way there from Florida,” she smiled mischievously. “Thank god Lorraine’s and Josh’s invites came in the mail my roommate here forwarded to me. So as soon as I got to the Tampa airport, I started running back and forth between the ticket counters—agents must have thought I was Goldie Hawn or somebody. Finally changed my mind and itinerary, from Chicago to Denver, connecting flights at O’Hare.”

          “Wow, drama…on the lamb and everything…”  Hell, why’d she have to be laying all this on me, particularly given what little was left of my dime?

          “Bernard’s probably calling Florida and San Francisco every fifteen minutes right now—I’m his life’s goal, his Venus d’ Milo and Guggenheim grant, all rolled into one—and he’s nothing if not persistent. But if there’s one thing I have more trouble with than death and boredom it’s suffocation. Don’t get me wrong, he means well, but he smothers me with his worship trip. I used to put up with him because he’s really kinda funny. But I can’t marry the shlemiel, he gets to driving me up the wall back there.”

          “Totally…understandable…” Mighty full of herself, I thought, as she siphoned off my relational reserve tank. Guess she figured me for a safe harbor. Poor little artist, suffers so…can’t hang onto the man she wanted, can’t shake those who won’t let go.

           “Sooo, you might say I’m in between horndogs at the moment…there, that’s what you get for poking around.”

           “Didn’t know that I was…” Seemed I was learning more than I wanted here, sooner than reasonably expected. Melissa once said that Sydney feinted and jabbed at anyone who started getting too close. Yet here she was, on the ropes and singing like yesterday’s contender. It was flattering, unnerving—I reflected on Moon telling me many cheeky anecdotes involving her former sister-in-law as we explored ‘Waif and Grain’ before the cabin’s fireplace one blizzard night. She was always so self-effacing about her portrait. Gotta call her, first thing before I hit the road back to Boulder.

          With little immediate hope of conversational detente, my smoky eyes again drifted off, trolling the undertow of this baldly queerest of cabarets. Distant, earthy—exotic looks, erotic moves, subtropical, faraway places, escapist sailing away—that I could not deny, nor that I’d ever been any place so appalling, at the same time so clinically appealing. The Balmy Palm had a tropical air that even the night’s re-stiffening, grassy breezes couldn’t shake from its limbs. Clothes horse latitudes comprised aloha shirts, safari shorts, festive draw-string beach pants and tire-soled huaraches—all brazenly loose on skin taut and tanned, hot flashes of zirconium buckles, ear gear, copious layered chains.

          Cheek to cheek, pockets swelling, fused at the hips, grunt, grope and grind: close-cropped items stretched the parameters, rustled The Palm with typhoon force, clutching buns, rubbing thighs, reading the next guy’s partner with long, naked leers, lots of flying flaps and flares. Loner idols just danced with themselves, thoroughly lost in the moment, as if the music itself didn’t matter by now, could have been Mantovani or Don Ho, Zappa or Manilow, so long as it moved them at a deafening pitch. They were stopping only by the munchie bar to hose down with Dos Equis and Mai Tais. Close those front windows, and you had St. Lucia in the spring, the Keys, Fire Island over Labor Day, Papeete all year round.

           The sweep of a waitress’s floral sarong soon carried me off across the bar’s sand-padded main floor as she filled an order for two Blue Moons. Syd’s first thought was Planter’s Punch, until she recalled Curacao being James Holcomb’s favorite. The stacked blonde waitress was a sight for smoke-strained eyes, all right—from most angles a real woman, any woman other than the Palm’s fauxmale clientele, and this suddenly moony-eyed cargo here testing what little remained of my composure. But I lost the waitress mid room, in the thick cigarette contrails rising to the club’s dark, starry ceiling.

          Whether The Palm itself was coconut, date, Royal or Canary seemed beside the point; how any tree could survive in here was anybody’s miasmic guess. What mattered were the length of its gushing trunk and fanlike leaves, the dead-on fullness of its talipot skirts. Hot on the tail of their sultry blonde token waitress, so bossy and genderally bearded, my eyes quickly jumped to a faded South Seas mural that projected an entire side wall into 1920s New Guinea. I panned to the veranda, a pink pastel sky backlighting beach huts and palmyra palms that danced like dandelions in early May.

          Stratocumulus mounds tufted the sunset, soaking up vapid contrails of an incoming steamer. The air was warm and heavy, mangoes sweetening on scattered trees. This clinking, tinkling—was it wind chimes, ships bells, coins pitched on a broiling sidewalk? No, it was nearer than that, no farther than that…no, both. This sassier of Palm’s two waitresses shoved a pair of stainless steel sherbet cups before us, gavelling one with a spoon—mine strawberry, hers tangerine.—making us pay dearly—more precisely, for the moment, already flat walleted me.

          “Doesn’t this place just grab you,” Syd boasted, with a quick payback wink. “I mean, did you ever…”

          “Not hardly, not even in my wildest…” I searched for a rejoinder, but there was so little I could muster to say. Instead, I fixed on a far side wall, above a festering shipwreck of a foredeck bordered with interlaced bamboo shoots. Off center, out of kilter, hung a sepia-tone blow-up of the gold rush steamship Central America, a sidewheeler that sank in a hurricane in 1857. Not only did it carry scores of San Franciscans, but a multi-million dollar payload of gold bricks and double eagles—the stuff of vast fortunes and those who made them, buried 8,000 feet deep off the coast of South Carolina. Beside that was a photo composite of a mushroom cloud over Bikini’s Atolls, the Enola Gay superimposed, leaning the other way.

          “I can’t decide whether its the ambience or the habitué. The overall vibe is almost therapeutic, medicinal in here, don’t you think?”

          “Not exactly that easy to swallow,” I muttered into my sherbet cup, anxiously avoiding any possible stares. The only medicine needed here was a Dramamine tab or two, what with some sea queasiness setting in. “Guess I’m not quite ready for a scene like this.”

          “C’mon, get with it and take your medicine.”

          “Yah, well, just a little stuffy in here, that’s all, ” I coughed, “maybe we should be moving on…”

          “Stuffy? I call it real. The midwest, WASPy Colorado, now that’s what’s stuffy. Wait, stay put, it’s showtime!”

           A hawkish bartender in yellow sweat pants and Kona Hawaiian shirtwaist suddenly offed the jukebox switch, clipping Bowie’s ‘Hang On To Yourself’ number faster than P.G.&E. unplugged overdue accounts. He then completely doused Palm’s house lights, so that a foil-wrapped spot haloed the club’s small stage, framed in bamboo slats and thatched, seashell-laced palmetto fronds. Dead center stood a flat black Boesendorfer upright; into that milky circle skulked Darna Karl.

          Even the alabaster-cheeked knockout and his grabby escort snapped to rapt attention from their têt-a-table next to us. Darna was a lanky clothes pole redhead with closet hanger shoulders propping up a bone-tight orchid gown, which dusted the tops of her size 13 pumps. That lone spot kindled the silverflake in her awkwardly large shoes, blowing them even further out of proportion—snowshoes on Kareem awkward—as she lurched toward her stool.

          She one-handed a cognac bottle from the bartender, never once pulling her other fingers from the alto piano keys. Her personal drumroll persisted as she spun down on the matching black stool, wedging the Courvoisier bottle between last night’s snifters. She scratched her right calf, running loose, frost-white nylons up to the kneecap, then planted those gleaming shoes on her bass pedals.

          Already in place above the keyboard were a half-carton of Reidsville-grade Pall Malls, a Kaiser-Fraser hubcap ashtray and several disposable lighters. Atop the piano were a karafe of pink carnations and five specimen bottles designated for the nickel, dime, quarter-on-up donations that kept her in smokes and cognac. Darna nodded and mumbled incoherently to the room, her Mary Kay red-tipped butt dropping another hot ash into her charred lap as it bobbed between full, cold-sore lips. But the sign above her said everything: ‘Can’t you saps read? My name is Darna. I play anything but requests’. And so there was no overlooking the notice, she’d nailed it between the melon breasts of a Gauginesque maiden muralled along the back wall: the girl with the fruit basket on her head—to match the waxed bananas, pineapples and papaya collecting dust in a piano top basket. So handsome, wholesome, and then some.

          Darna Karl had no cleavage to speak of; many of the beater gym rats seated at stage-side tables had more. But the chanteuse bared beaucoup eyeliner, rouge and mascara troweled on cheekbone deep, and could still do a scratch-throaty number on the full popular songbook. She blew three smoke rings into the spotlight haze, transforming it into a huge conical umbrella. A lusty belt of cognac, and she rasped into ‘Stormy Weather’. Ashes flickering, cognac dripping—Darna flowed like a Wurlitzer once she got rolling, from ‘Misty’ to ‘Summertime’ to ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’.

          Before long, dewey-eyed stiffs stumbled up to fill her snifters, light her smokes, line her jars—not that she’d acknowledge them with so much as a nod. If this cross between Johnny Ray and Anita O’Day had little time for requests, she had even less for lip service, whatever the pleasure or proposition, instead sneering to the room’s delight as she jammed that Courvoisier bottle between her legs.

          “Isn’t she amazing,” Syd beamed, with parts awe and halting admiration. “James told me she’s been here for like, a dozen years.”

          “Looks like she’s been everywhere a little too long,” I said, waving more smoke away. “Ready to hit it?”

          “What’s the hurry, Farmer John, itchin’ to plow the back 40?”

          “Hilarious,” I bristled, “about as funny as a hemorrhoid.”

          “Word is she used to play the Fairmont, the Top of the Mark,” Syd sat pat. “She’s a lot younger than she looks…was a Julliard prodigy or something.”

          “Must have been many cognacs ago…”

          “Guess it’s all downhill from Nob Hill,” she cracked, through a wry yet slightly nervous smile. “I’ve painted this tableau in my head so many times. Just cringe at the thought of actually going through it.”

          “Why’s that?”

          “Because she sorta freaks me out. ’Cause here’s this super talented person and she’s down the chutes, and I don’t know why…”

          “You mean why it couldn’t happen to you?”

          “Why it couldn’t happen to anybody,” she said, leaning forward.

          “Maybe it can, but only if you let it, right?” I asked dismissively, eyeing the bouncer-I.D. clamor at Palm’s swinging doors.

          “Whew, I can feel her voice right down to my clit,” she blurted, at a fleeting moment between numbers. Once Darna gained a head of steam, there were no breaks—nothing was going to Shanghai her standards songbook hit parade. “Can’t you?”

          “Me? Not quite. Question is, can…she…”

          The marvelous Ms. Karl was a quart low on Courvoisier, two butts shy of a full hubcap, and specimen jars ahead when Sydney claimed she could no longer be held accountable for her own erogenous zones; so we decamped, and pounded sand toward the shore. That parting shot of Darna, nose to the ivories, moaning ‘All Of Me’ through a half-lit Pall Mall, smoke snaking over her flaming hair, torched singer that she was, burned like a branding iron into my memory, down to my marrow, as Syd led us through a maze of tables and the Palm’s latecomer-jammed doorway. Curiously, I found myself picturing the photographic aspects once she medleyed into ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’, thinking oh, to have my cameras and some Tri-X film for the ASA pushing and printing…

          “So, gunned up your tail pretty good, now didn’t it,” Sydney poked my shoulder as we hit the doors.

          “Pretty strong stuff, alright,” I wheezed, checking my pockets, catching a snootful of Maui Wowie just outside.

          “Damn straight, it’s good for what males you.”

Care for more?

Chapter 16. A stroll through the depths 
leads them to the Heights—although there, 
matters prove to be far from pacific…

“Smooth landings 
can come with some 
rougher patches, buster.”

          “And purple…it’s got some of that in it…”


          “Yes, purple! And these amazing red and orange-like rays streaming out of a radiant sun on the horizon.”

           “Sun, got it—purple and sun.”

           “Oy, James has such an incredible way with sun rays. Never seen anything like it.”

           Back then, once Nevada had finally ended, the blinding beauty began. California conceded a little borderline spillover—the lesser third of Lake Tahoe, some lower range forested hills—but otherwise gerryrigged the topographical splendor like a Carolina Congressional seat. Before long, drab, middling mountains thrust dramatically frosted skyward. Stubborn gray overcast turned baccarat blue. Tall pine thickened and ran indelibly emerald. Dull snowpack suddenly sparkled like granulated sugar. Everything else just sped up and gained attitude.

           Snorting Trans Ams, 280-Zs and Turbo Carreras blew past my balky Volkswagen Squareback in tight formation, racing-striped lemmings with ski racks, loaded for Squaw Valley and Boreal. The Truckee River gushed quinine clear alongside, over eel-smooth boulders, under felled tree trunks and melting snow flows, meandering north and south below as Interstate-80 viaducted up with the blue jays through Tahoe National Forest.

By Truckee itself, I had surrendered to the bus lane, waving off pesky Rabbits and Pintos, struggling to keep pace with wagging U-Hauls and the freight train plowing along a far mountainside rail shaft left standing from the Gold Rush days. Relief had come momentarily at the state Agricultural Inspection Station, where we spotted that Oakland HVAC van being strip-searched while Sydney sacrificed two overripe Florida mangos to the uniformed produce guards.

           Wiser drivers than I hunkered along I-80’s narrow, stormfenced shoulders, drifts choking orange ‘dipsticks’ up to  their red reflectors, thick and slick from daily thawing then refreezing. Snow monkeys strapped on tire chains at the base of craggy, steeply canyoned Sierra walls. Cars with far better traction dodged shot patterns of rocky sediment cut loose by crosswinds and concurrently freezing and melting snows, by waterfalls pounding down green-gray rock channels to either side.

The squareback rather more faltered than fishtailed, tractor-trailers blasting relentlessly as they locked us into dead heats upwards of 5,000 feet—me double clutching and downshifting, Syd coaxing, rocking forward like a baited quail. Eventually, we rose above streaked window glass, frozen extremities and isolated cloud pockets, up to heavenly wraparound ranges and white-capped Sierra lakes.

          “So, missy, where was this?”

          “I told you, out at Ocean Beach.”

          “No, I mean, where was it…”

          “Right on the front seat. Honestly, what a perfect way to end such an exhausting trip. You getting all this down?”

          Fuel injectors sputtering, gas pedal slammed, the Volks bucked northerly alpen crosswinds above 6,000 feet as we wound around Donner Lake, its ripples reflecting the frosted peaks and alabaster crevices that sealed it off from greater turbulence. Upwards of 7k, the winds were relentless, battering twisted pines, tossing stone rubble and bull boulders across the slow lanes like so much rocksalt. I dodged the slides by bumper car veers and turns, falling into a dead heat with a three-trailer Intermountain Express, the both of us downshifting full throttle to maintain strains of forward momentum.

          I was silently cursing Syd and all her baggage when she pointed out the majestic mountaintop vistas up and downrange, to a road sign reading 7,239 feet above sea level. She marveled at the pioneers who had rope hoisted and lowered wagons and all over whatever pass they could scout out and surmount—whatever it took to make their weary way into the paradise called California. Just thinking about that, and towel wiping clear the windshield, had me working up a powerful appetite, to be sure.

          Atop Donner Summit, a historical plaque hashed up any sudden hunger pangs in short order. I noted that the stranded Donner Party had originated in Springfield, Illinois in October, 1846 to traverse the Sierra bound for the promised land, running some 30 days late out of Hastings cutoff, getting trapped in 15-foot snowdrifts, basically starving to death. Sydney countered that two-thirds of the women survived, only one-third of the men. I ventured as how the snowshoe party desperately butchered their cannibalized kin, stripping dead members of their organs and flesh—even proactively killing a couple of young Indians for their innards and hides. She said that one Sarah Fosdick had watched her harebrained husband die, eating his tongue as his heart roasted on a stick. From there, everything was a refluxed, gut-thumping downhill rush, with whitewater rapids patched into the scenario for some extra-sensory saturation. I-80’s six-percent downgrade wound us past ice streaming mountainsides, backed by dense stands of gnarled birch and wintergreen valleys, where ghostly pioneers still circled their battered Conestogas.

          A frigid yet slushy draft jetted further up through the floorboards with every snow buried milemarker and drifting curve. Sugar Bowl, Soda Springs, Emigrant Gap, Dutch Flat exits blurred into an ear-popping, wheel-grabbing brakefest goosed on by the airhorn blasts of that now stampeding Intermountain Express. It blew the squareback off altogether, left me with a snootful of diesel fumes, before plowing three trailers deep onto a designated runaway lane, hatches flapping open, cases of house paint graffiti spraying across the scattering snows.

          “Let’s see, leather with purple, front seat, Ocean Beach. Yep, think we’ve got it covered…”

          “S’cuse me?! What do you expect to find with just that,” Sydney said presently, pounding on the San Francisco Police precinct countertop. “Listen, officer, it was my absolute favorite handbag ensemble. I had all my everything in there…”

          “Do you really expect to find anything no matter what I write down,” asked a pudgy, preoccupied Sunset District station desk sergeant. “It’s probably washing out to sea in a storm drain by now.”

          “With your cheesy description,” she huffed, rolling her eyes my way, “who’d know the difference, even if it was?!”

          Still, I couldn’t have helped but warm up to Syd’s initial California enthusiasm. Her nostrils fogged the streaky windshield as she blew kisses wild-eyed to a roll call of providential sightings: the first towering redwoods of Placer County, the red ore-rich foothills above Gold Run, that first lone palm tree outside Auburn. Below 1,500 feet, skies cleared, windows and roadways thawed amidst a time-lapse seasonal shift. Bougainvillea lined the freeway, Sierra earthtones brightened to Sacramento’s soft-white and pastels, palm trees ganged Kona thick, everything not yet paved either blooming or lushly green.

          San Joaquin Valley’s furrowed black flats and Syd’s FM sing along soon delivered me unto a dreamy ether space of springtime California. Candied fruit bowl frappes at the Nut Tree primed us for a rolling feast of small label vineyards, of pear, plum and apple orchards, which enveloped I-80 well up through the verdant Holsteined hills of the Coastal Range. But the green-on-green truck farms outside Vacaville gradually gave way to the tank farms of Vallejo. I grew uneasy with quickening traffic, towering power lines and overall East Bay sprawl. By the Carquinez Bridge, there seemed no turning back at all. Sealing things was the disco taunt Sydney radio dialed and belted to: ‘Shame, shame on you if you can’t pass through…’

          “Got your phone number here in the report,” sighed the desk sergeant, lowering his reading glasses, rubbing the bridge of his blotchy red, vascularized nose. “If anything turns up, we’ll be in touch…”

          “I can’t wait for that…I’m a busy person. How do you expect me to…”

          “Look, missy—we’re doing all we can,” he said, tossing her crime report onto the In pile.

          “Hah! Tell me about it,” she squared off, glaring at him, up there behind the blue and gold-crested bench. “And just what am I supposed to do in the meantime?!”

          “This is Everybody’s Favorite City, ain’t it?  Go enjoy the hell outta the place.  Oh, and you might wanna be callin’ in your credit cards…”

          When we had finally passed down toward San Francisco Bay, the churning, windshield-flooding expanse ringed from Mount Tamalpais south to San Bruno Mountain, back around to the Diablo Range. Traffic had swirled into I-80 from all directions, Berkeley and Oakland ripped by, marginally recognizable mind-sets on some progressive third world tour. Breezing along the Eastshore Freeway, I caught a first broad view of The City—a fearfully jeweled crown bobbing atop all that water, trivializing everything that had come before.

          The Bay span cantilevered us into the Treasure Island tunnel, an amber-tiled fallopian tube from which we emerged mid bridge. San Francisco zeotroped through the suspension cables, unfurling over its storied hills, awe-inspiring far beyond its physical scale. Tightly clustered downtown highrises glowed golden against a nectarine sky, waterfront lights refracting in iridescent rays about the ferry and freighter cross-hatched Bay—all so much more dazzling than the fog town I had recalled from the previous Thanksgiving weekend’s impulsive joyride.

          Sydney had pointed me onto one of the pretzeled upper peninsula thruways, spurring me rib by rib as we raced the sunset across town, timed traffic lights ushering us up over steep, compact hills, along the colorfully Victorian-lined Panhandle. I dodged around right-turners and double-parked vans, backfired on to JFK Drive past the lush gardens, groomed meadows—the pools, palm groves and bike paths—of Golden Gate Park. She was recounting a nearby buffalo pasture as I spun out onto the Great Highway, just as a flaming beachball sun sank beyond Ocean Beach, out on the perfectly linear Pacific horizon.

          Syd shot from the Volks, coaxing me toward The Esplanade to narrate this perfect introduction from Land’s End. In breathless bursts, she celebrated our long overdue arrival, pointed out Seal Rocks, the Beach Chalet and Murphy’s Windmill, framing this fiery marine twilight as if her easel and palette were at hand. In all candor, I was momentarily entranced by the ocean, the sunset, the sudden promise of a totally foreign place: Not confining like a craggy mountain front to be scaled, but the level, cinema-scopic infinity of the sea.

          Still, gaping at scattered couples, the surf-and-sand pasted children, I steadied myself against a seawall in the bracing wind, silently brushing away the cool, salty ocean spray. Once grains dislodged Syd’s contacts, she beckoned me back to the car for her eyeglasses and boar’s bristle hairbrush, promenade street lights cutting into the settling darkness as we dashed through clotted traffic to the median parking strip. There we found the squareback’s shotgun-side door slim-jimmied open, her hand-tooled leather purse and matching wallet gone with the late, carmine embering light of day.

          “Think we should have mentioned my radio?” I now opened the steel-reinforced front door of S.F.P.D.’s Western Station, bringing up my Blaupunkt AM-FM, which was ripped halfway out from under the dashboard. Dangling by several yellow wires and a stubborn black antenna cable, it looked to have been left behind by car looters beating a hasty escape.

           “What’s the point, they didn’t get your radio,” Syd snapped, zipping up her ski jacket, straightening her wrinkled vermilion leotards as onshore winds whipped more powerfully across Sunset District avenues.

           “Kind of a downer, huh?”

           “No, still an upper,”she rallied, somewhat rattled nonetheless—suddenly putting on a happy face, wrapping the arm of my sheepskin coat in the deepening darkness. “San Francisco is always on the ups—rule numero uno, no matter what. So let’s go, cowpoke, I’ll show you some ropes…”

Care for more?
Chapter 15. Polking around across
town, a scene heretofore unseen, coming face
to face with the local ‘farming’ community… 


“A safe bet on the
surface may net myriad
hazards deeper down.”

          “I want it back.”

          “Sure, I totally understand where you’re coming from. It’s just a basic surface manifestation of what you perceive to be her impertinence and ingratitude, but…”

          “But nothing, tell that little bitch to spin on it.  I want my belt buckle!”

          Back then, this had proved to be a drab, Bloody Mary of a Lovelock morning early on, the first indication of which lay at the throwaway Bud-strewn doorstep of neighboring 5B.  Right off, Sydney had attempted to break the deafening gloom by japing that she was washing her hands of me for her own damn good.  Western Nevada’s rugged highway landscape soon degenerated into a slough of pre-fab tracts, sprawling trailer parks and auto graveyards, a sud-African township sort of wasteland a series road signs had designated Sparks.

          Shadowing all that was Reno, its high-rise hotel towers disappearing against the mountainous overcast like stacked coinage alongside some nickel slots, muting the lurid everglow of reinforced concrete strongboxes emblazoned Sahara, Circus-Circus and Sierra Sal’s. Bonanza III sized up as the fattest come-on breakfast spread in the Grand canyon of downtown casinos—even though it displayed notices warning patrons to duck under the blackjack tables, out of the line of gunfire, in the event sudden disagreements broke out.  Two-dollar Eggs Benedict hastily washed down, Sydney and I emerged from B-III’s blazing, carnival-lit foyer to find a not dissimilarly hostile wager had been placed by this rudely familiar van.

          “Knew I’d catch up with you jerk-offs before long,” raged the HVAC contractor, Raider’s cap sailing, butt crack galore. He had wedged his van behind the squareback on a nearby side street of chili parlors and pawnshops, in front of a mid-block parking lot filled with rent-a-cars, fleet loaners and San Joaquin Valley excursion buses. “My buckle…now!”

          “Hey, what about my sunglasses?”  She menaced the contractor with a plastic cow’s-head creamer she had lifted from the Bonanza buffet table, as was her compulsion. “And what about my honor?!”

          “Yah, you gonna stick up for the little lady or what?”  Bed rolled against the parking lot’s chainlink fencing were four hole cards and a queen kicker—a mere token of Reno’s discards, migrant gamblers who had thumbed in from Vegas with the odds at their backs, but stalled flat when the warm Ripple and incorrigible casino advantage slapped them down to sprinklings of tent encampments all about town.

          “No buckle, no shades,” the Raider fan sneered, twisting her Vuarnet frames to the cracking point. “Psychobabble this…”

          “Look, you’ve got your position; she’s got her position,” I sputtered, still flustered from the night before. I guided Syd briskly into the car, wherein she wasted little time downing the passenger window.  “So let’s all of us cool off and discuss this like rational human beings, shall we—find ourselves a measure of common ground?”

          “Don’t give me rational, pussy face,” the contractor lurched toward the car and me. “Just give me the goddamn buckle.”

          “Shit, let’s kick his sorry ass back to Oakland,” said the tallest, bulkiest of the brood, hurling away shared piles of heisted table clothes and hotel blankets, revealing a flush of stained double-knits and shredded shirtjacs, as he and his fellow rounders rose groggily to the occasion.

          “There you go, Sir Galahad,” Syd pounded the door with her creamer. “Now you’re talking’”

          “You bet, sweetheart,” the wildest card moved on the contractor with a gaping, tobacco-stained grin, spitting yellow phlegm and chunky wine, hotel toiletries and place settings jangling from the patch pockets of a grimy beige leisure suit.  His partners shored up his flanks in a bum’s rush of Bally’s caps and tangled, rabidly toothless glares.  The queen mother just stayed hunkered down to crop in loose change and casino chips day-touring bettors tossed into her trashed roulette wheel.

          “Awright, quit fuckin’ around and gimme my…” The contractor screamed, stopping cold as the low-rollers swarmed him.

          “My pleasure,” Syd pulled the gleaming Super Bowl XI souvenir buckle from her purse, tossing it to the rag lady, who proceeded to stash it under her gyroscoping wheel.  “There, rationalize that.”

          “OK for you, honey” the Black Holey Raider spit, cornered five feet from his open van door, snapping her sunglasses at the nose bridge.  “I’ll be measuring your asses down the road…”

          “Christ, what were you thinking,” I retreated around into the squareback altogether, cranking it over amid the dust of sudden scuffling. “First Denver just cheated his team out of the NFL playoffs with a goal-line fumble, now this.  Talk about Orange Crushed—he’ll ambush us, I just know…”

          “That’s what I’ve got you to protect me for, isn’t it,” she asked, motioning me to tail the taxi idling in front of us out into traffic. “Like, maybe you can understand him to death.”

          “It’s called conflict management, all right?  Was just trying to defuse the situation.” I sped past pink and white instant wedding chapels named Cupid’s Nest and Blushing Bride, then even quicker off-the-rack divorce dens. “Trouble is, I haven’t exactly come across anything that unmanageable in Boulder.”

          “Welcome to the real world, flash.”  Syd drifted off into long blocks of dime casinos and honeymoon motels, towered over by mega-billboards for Don Rickles, Flip Wilson, and the John Davidson Revue. “That’s the kind of people you’ll run into everywhere out here…’cause you’re not in namby-pamby academia anymore.”

          “Well, I know one thing.”  I merged the squareback fitfully onto I-80 West, paring through a dense spread of liquor shacks, truck stops, trailer courts and low-rent casinos engulfing greater Reno’s environs.  Its all-hours squalor gradually played out across westernmost Nevada’s drab gray hills, to a scattering of hermitic strongholds bedizened with longhorn skulls, mortar-crusted range rocks and skeletal metal sculpture contorted into grotesquely personal gestalten. “We don’t need to be buying off lowlifes to get you back home in one piece…”

          “Tell it to my Vuarnets,” she shook her plastic Holstein at me to press her case.  “Really…I resent the sexist implications of your sudden macho attitude. Especially when you weren’t all that macho to begin with.”

          “Maybe I resent the implications of your harum-scarum act,” I floored the wagon up I-80’s Sierra backside toward Verdi, wincing at the windshield slush from a passing Mercedes SEL, wiping non-dairy spray from my chin as a sapphire blue Jaguar saloon cut us off.  “The truth is, I can’t stomach derelicts like that.”

          “Hah!  But wait a minute, you’re a sociologist.  I thought people like you were supposed to help derelicts like that!” Syd squinted through lifting cloud cover to the promise of snow white and evergreen foothills, the Truckee River surging in alongside.  “No wonder everybody says social science is the pits of academia. But at least you should try to be good at it!”

          “What?  I can’t help it, all right? I hate their filth, their binges—their rotting goddamn mouths. Jeez, why the hell would you want to encourage them,” my voice raised, the Volks already struggling, as a platinum Turbo Carrera blew too closely by. “Believe me, I’ve got no plans to get tangled up with such lost-cause grimeballs in any way, shape or form.”

          With that, she tossed her creamer and sleeping bag against the tailgate door, then flipped the Silver State a singular goodbye. “Good lord, I’ve got to get you to San Francisco.”

Care for more?  

Chapter 14. Climbing the summit,
cruising through the valley, they
find things accelerating as they
coast clear to the coast…  

“Stray from a chosen path
at your peril, lest unforeseen
influences take hold.”

Back then, Sydney directed me along neon arrows to the largest and lowest number on Lovelock’s motel row: a roughrider nine-dollar overnight with space heater and optional soft-core porn.  I kept the squareback revving while she negotiated for what purported to be the Rodeo Arms Motor Lodge’s last available unit, a week-long cattle auction now hitting town.  Second to the end on Rodeo’s eastern wing, 6B melded that bovine essence with ethyl fumes from the Two Stiffs Selling Gas station next door.  A damp-seamed tank of furnace oil blocked most reflective fallout from the $9 sign, and everything else about 6B but the door.

          “There you go, now which room’s mine?”  I dragged her valise and heaviest suitcase into the coldly single room.

          “Which one’s yours,” she chuckled, as she hustled the storm and windowless wood doors closed behind me.  “This is it, flash.  You think I’m wasting my hard-earned gas money on two dumpy rooms?  Really, the way this trip’s been going, we’ll probably need a transmission overhaul by Sacramento.”

          “Huh?!  Nooo way…” I gazed around the oversize closet as soon as she hit a wild palomino lamp on the night stand: Plenty of vinyl and plastic phlox, a closed-circuit Motorola suspended from the ceiling—19-inch provocateur to the junior double bed jammed against the back walls, just below a framed parchment of the Rodeo’s house commandments. “I’ll be out sleeping in the car.”

          “Brrr, get your tush back in here, will you please,” she said, through the twang of ripped screening as I bolted out the doors.  “My Chanel has got to be better than seeping fuel oil.”

          “Look, nothing personal,” I shouted over the gear wail of a downshifting Bekins mover, watching her fussily open and re-zip her down jacket.  “I’d just feel more comfortable…”

          “Oh, grow up,” she squeezed halfway into the bathroom, as if wriggling into tumble-dried panty hose, combing out her tangled blond hair—long and flossy tresses compared to Melissa’s luxuriant brunette jungle.  “We’ve already spent the night together in the car, haven’t we?  Did anything uncomfortable happen in the car?!”

          “Well, no…but,” I shut the door back behind me and spotted a house phone beside the bed.  “I’d best call Moon.”

          “Wonderful, Festus the manager will be thrilled to hear we’re riding double in here.”

          “You don’t understand,” I stammered.  “Under the circumstances, I just think it…apropos.”

          “Apropos,” she scowled, means testing the bed with her tight, steel-belted radial behind.  “Well, I think it’s an insult—to Moon and me.  We’re family, get it?  Family!  Anyway, I thought you just talked to her in Willup.”

          “Uh, not exactly,” I said, shoulder blades flat against the door.  “In fact, all I got was a message that wasn’t even for me by name, but something about a party.  I’ll be damned if I know what…”

          “Can’t imagine…maybe it was a work thing.  Or maybe dear Melissa’s dabbling in local lore.”

          “Huh?!  How can you say a thing like that…”

          No telling what the Rodeo’s premium suites had to offer, but 6B gave me recall, wall to wall.  The same grainy plaster, a far-too-familiar corner heater lobbing lukewarm sprinkles against an arctic sea: All Lovelock lacked were the dirty yellow chest-high drifts.  I never anticipated that that long, sickening New Year’s haul some years before would ever repeat on me.  Yet here it was, anchovies one morning after the fact—stale, awful Cheetos and beef stew by the can in that grim New Jersey Turnpike motel.  Crash-landed in Pennsauken, suckling up to Roberta’s rolling waistlines, hurling Dinty Moore’s entrails across the bed sheets with a noggin full of snow-blunted dismay.  My head hadn’t felt this icy hot and helium light since that warped east coast drive-a-thon quite some time ago.  And I surely had no more stomach for it now.

          “Juust kidding, yeesh…” Sydney pulled back the discolored bedding, then took the pillows to task. “Well, TV anyone?”

          “C’mon, dammit!  Family or no family, this isn’t what my relationship is all about.”

          “Oh, don’t flatter yourself…” She peeled down to a blue sleeveless body sock, then line bored under the covers.  “The sooner we turn in, the sooner you get me back to California.”

          An overstocked cattle truck stampeded up Business 80, steers moaning in a crush of ribs and hooves, the Rodeo Arms trembling down to its box springs until a gasoline tanker counter-rumbled along.  On the other hand, it could have been my chilblains and high-beam glaucoma, or the increased fluttering in my lower alimentary canal.  I peered evasively about this walk-in cooler; however much it smacked of Jersey, she was clearly no Roberta.  I hedged and sighed and stroked a two-day growth, feeling raw and torn as my undershirts, refracting her curious glare.  Damn, if she didn’t know all too well I couldn’t doze upright another night.  Even more galling was that what I saw as some monumental fidelity test, she could so easily dismiss as simple rest.

          “Good god, either I’m totally repulsive…or Moon has you whipped something fierce.”

          “Hey, come on, it’s not like you’re repulsive or…”

          “Oh, that’s a relief,” she rolled over toward a framed rotogravure of Lovelock’s nightlife in a flap of Hereford brown covers and horsefeather pillows. “Well, stay in your clunker, sleep in the bathtub, for all I care.  I’m just trying to help things along.”

          “Je-sus…”  I locked the doors behind me, then cleaved into the bathroom to dispense with some sugar and caffeine.  There really was nothing to this; don’t flatter yourself, just like she said.  I could hear her humming under the scraping of the bathroom ceiling fan, which unleashed a barrage of suddenly cherished imagery in the varicose mirror.  Melissa baking banana bread, Melissa by the fire sipping Celestial tea, Moon over mountain views of July Fourth fireworks up and down the Front Range:  Where the hell was she?  What fucking party?!  A flush of the toilet, and the images swirled coriolically away.  I punched at two corroded rubber machines, then killed the light, comforted by the realization that there was nothing Sydney could possibly see in the stubbled face I’d just left in the half-cracked mirror.

          “O the Sisters of Mercy they are not departed or gone…”

          “Aww, don’t be singing that,” I edged into a room dimmed to the pink glow of a water-stained lampshade.  “Why must you be…”

          “I don’t know, just thought it apropos…”

          “The hell…” I deployed night vision as best I could to flesh out her blanketed form: an old army trick—backstabbing, home-wrecking army—duty rostering, field stripping my marriage away.  Curious how Sydney and Melissa shaped up so differently, though more or less the same size.  Moon was soft and renaissance rounded, that rose petal skin, all that succorous cushioning in a shapely compact form.  Covers aside, Sydney was firm and toned like Celeste Wylie, like a designer label marathon trainer.  With Moon’s face and a little more Faith, she might have been under contract to Paramount or MGM.

          “So tell me about Leonard Cohen,” she tracked my approach by the linoleum-dulled clunk of petrified boots. “Soon as you get out of those revolting clothes.”

          “Right,” I sighed, peeling down reluctantly from jeans and chamois shirt to a pitted CU gym top and worn-through Looms.  “After you tell me about that Utah tantrum over your sunglasses.”

          “Sisters of Mercy they are not departed or gone.  They were waiting for me when I thought that I just can’t go on…” She burrowed singing face-first toward the wall as I tumbled in, mattress caving like an aqueduct, pushing us together, center spread.  “You first…”

          “Enough, for Christsake!”  I turned away from her as though we had been carrying on like this for years.  “No big thing, OK?  It just dredges up Fayetteville, North Carolina.  I was a married draftee.  Cassie and I lived off post with two cars, yet—our place sort of became Fort Bragg’s artsy anti-war central.  Maybe it was the conflicting pressures, Maybe it was the bad pay, bad formations—but mainly my bad haircuts.  So the holidays came, and we decided to split up.  We made the surprise announcement at our New Year’s Eve bash.  She fled at midnight with this Cat Stevens-kinda gypsy to St. Augustine, Florida—went a little crazy like that sometimes… think it had to do with her being adopted or something.”

          “Hmm, fuzzy parentage?  Say no more…”

          “That and the fact that she finally got around to telling me she had had an abortion when she was a freshman in high school.  Anyway, a bunch of us headed up to New York.  Roberta played an old ‘Suzanne’ tape all the way through Virginia.  Every time ‘Sisters of Mercy’ or ‘So Long, Marianne’ came on, I cried my eyes out.  The plan was non-stop driving shifts, but we got so wasted, we had to lay over in Jersey—a hole sort of like…this.  Then a black guy, Cornelius, got everybody wrecked, and things were all over the map, sexwise.”


          “Hey, not me—I just sat there, bawlin’ and passing out.  When we finally got to Darrell’s writer friend Wilson Trescott’s loft, we all got gun-mugged by teenage junkies on his second floor landing… midmorning, 12th Street and Avenue B.  I never want to go through anything like that again—worst night of my life.  But why am I telling you this,” I flopped back over, drilling an optical hole through 6B’s plaster-cracked ceiling.  “Moon doesn’t even know.”

          “But what about your marriage?  Two people can’t end things just like that…”

          “We did.”  I sensed uneasiness, as if the room seemed somehow cheaper than it already was.  “I shipped out to Europe, did the divorce papers long distance. She had some hotshot feminist lawyer, pro bono…but I didn’t want anything from her, anyway.  Only began hearing from her again when the gypsy ran off.  That’s when she finally admitted she knew I’d never meant to lay a hand on her.”

          “Well, no kids, no harm, I guess…”

          “Not that I’ve even known of…”

          “My, sounds lovey-dovey…so much for the holy vows of matrimony.”

          Tremors from 5B portended a late-night caucus of the shorthorn and bullwhip delegation, regrouping to bid up some numbers.  What sounded to be a small posse of ranchers busted through its door with cases of clinking long necks, bouncing off walls like penned brahmas, cranking up the country and piped-in TV.

          “Sooo, what about Utah,” I asked nervously, over the crumbling of drywall and wailing of Willie and the boys.

          “Say again,” she shifted, as if searching her memory bank for men she’d ever known actually bald-face crying.  Closest she seemed to get was Martin Kavalla, or Lester when he was all of eight years old.

          “Your shades, remember?”  I felt exposed, like tainted shellfish.  “C’mon, we had a deal going here!  You’ve been digging everything out of me, and giving nothing in return…”

          “Alright, already…here’s the…deal.  It wasn’t so much the sunglasses,” she said sleepily, oblivious to the shattering of beer bottles and coughing rodeo hoots next door.  “Besides, I got his Super Bowl buckle, stuffed it in my purse while he was busy fiddling with his mirrors.  It’s what the creep did when he pulled away from your car that really burned me.  The pig bastard ran his grubby hand right down my pants.”

          “He what?!”  Figured as much, the sleazeball seemed the type.  I was unsure whether to feign territorial outrage in such unfamiliar territory, or plain and simple indignation.  “Well, he didn’t exactly force you to ride with him, you know…I mean, if you’re talking personal responsibility and all that.”

          “Oh, so you’re saying it was my fault.  He had a real heater, which is more than your junker does…”

          “Yeah, and lucky for you he didn’t use it.”

          “OK, flash,” she rolled back over quicker than a keno ball out the tumbler, plunging her small, steely hand through an ample tear in my shorts.  “Tell me whose fault this is…”

          I felt her frostbitten fingers grab directly for my scrotum with all the tactical authority of an occupying force.  She squeezed tightly, almost triumphantly, ripping my underwear to the seams, a sudden burning testicular ache compelling me to grunt for terms.  Turf seized, she slid her glaze-nailed fingertips along my coarsening scrotal sack, smooth as a spatula, then rode the blood rush up my throbbing penal artery.  Strumming her fingers, cupping her palm, Sydney tickled and teased the full length of my lightening response.

          I otherwise stiffened in flat-out adrenal shock, numb to rumbling cattle trucks, squeaking bedsprings, the vibrato-framed rotogravure.  Blinded by blinking gas signs and lip red neon arrows, I drowned in the sum fragrance of leaking fuel oil and Chanel No.5, caught here in the throes of downtown Lovelock, rather as embarrassed as aroused.

          I soon surrendered dog-tired to 5B’s roughshod Merle Haggard and crashing throwaway Buds, Syd quickening her power stroke, ‘Sisters of Mercy’ humming right along.  Nodding, fading—call Moon, stall Moon—breach of promise, if not grave alienation of affection: The only thing between me and a painfully welcome night’s rest was the meaning of all this ‘flash’ crap.

          Quite predictably, the answer came to me…just like that.

Care for more?

Chapter 13. Buckling up does not
necessarily make for a safer journey.
Instead, it augurs a tawdry face-off
in gaudy surroundings…   




“The slightest hint of
 breathing room can escape
you once personal contours 
start closing in.”

Back then, what was gained in gas money was lost in light of day.  Sydney and I picked up some apples, powdered Donettes and chocolate milk at the IGA, then chugged out of Willup ever so warily, negotiating its strip mine of chuckwagon diners, ranchero motels and low-octane service stations with high-test prices—common highwaymen lying in wait, divvying the interstate take.  Once we passed a slab cemetery of surface crypts climbing its boot hill, Willup gave way to darkening semi-desert, with dust fed winds soon kicking in. This business loop ambush merged back onto I-80 just beyond Keno Bill’s, tapering from there into twin split-lane ribbons, which tailed off into some 400 miles of time-drag topography that collided head-on with one’s pioneer urge to press westward.

          “Hell of a game, craps,” I groped for some face-saving opener that straddled clear resentment and modest appreciation for her easing the downward pressure on our travel dollars.

          “Whatever works,” Sydney sniffed, cratering the skin of her mealy McIntosh, all fingers and thumbs. “My other passion is Baccarat. It’s so fast, so continental…so chemin de fer.  Like, crystal salons overlooking the Plage de la Croisette—I just love the dynamic. But you know what I mean.  You’ve been over there…I saw your photos.”

          “Yeah, been there, but not there…not even close.”

          At best, central Nevada was an undue course of cole slaw between the sirloin tips and prime rib of western America.  Beowawe, Willup’s poor relation several miles downroad, slowly set the table for further reflection and reassessment: mine on what this venture was costing phone wise; Syd’s more than likely on how it stacked up against airfare. Trailings of the Shoshone Range fed alluvially to the basin bottom, wizened hills that pulled like undertow at this gray, spackled sky.  Beneath them, a stubborn sheet of snow daubed broccoli crown sagebrush, barren rock formations and liver-spotted plateaus. Beyond I-80, the only perceptible movement came by white-frosted tumbleweed careening off range fences, or huge coiled copperheads dead eyeing ground hogs, squeezing out the last bit of sun to warm up their outcroppings.

          Barely easing 80’s tedium was a succession of road service gambling ghettos fronting as actual towns. Valmy, Galconda, Mill City, Winnemucca: All seemed to sneak onto the horizon under cover of low-profile mountain ranges, gaudy speed bumps tipping their hands with a prop wash of soaring gas signs, junked pick-ups, storm-torn house trailers and propane tanks tossed about wind-trashed pastures like rolls of used up bar coasters. The towering neon signage even leached out the gold-baby-golden glow of Battle Mountain.

          “Such a waste,” Sydney hiked up the sleeping bag, as if envisioning the Great Basin from a shade-drawn seat at 32,000 feet.

          “Roger that…”

          “I’m serious, there must be something more you want out of life,” she began rifling through my glove box, mostly maps and greasy rags.  “You could be doing so much better than this…”

          “Better than what?”

          “Than waiting for some eggheads to determine your future. Than crapping out in Nevada and calling poor Moon flat broke, that’s what.  She deserves a damn sight more…”

          “Me?!  You’re the…anyway, I can’t see how that’s any of your business.”

          “I’ll give you a hundred and forty-three reasons how.”

           Beyond the ground rock trailer parks and abandoned Sinclair stations, a night fallen I-80 reverted to white-striped sashes across endless square miles of barb-fenced rangeland. My headlights strained through buckshot highway signs, which pointed to networks of narrow gravel turnout roads tailing off toward skillet shallow valleys and stunted background hills.  Well shy of Imlay, the void became so overwhelming one’s imagination ran wild: Mule-size jackalopes grazing the scrub brush;  frosted tumbleweed careening off white triangular cattle guards that conjured a surreptitious range war on a Sergio Leone scale; giant Cephalopods and Vampire Squid battling ancient octopi and Ichthyosaurs in a long-vanished Triassic sea, its vast bed now little more than dead space for kraken fossils and burning visions down the pike.

          “Say, how about some tunes?” I plied the dashboard radio, spooked enough already by Regina’s misrouted message from Moon’. I flipped past local country stations, continuing to track the slow lane, a natural zoo of gophers, weasels and varietal vermin playing chicken with the squareback’s front wheels from the Brillo brush lining I-80’s outer shoulder.  Midway down the dial, the Blaupunkt went clear channel, pulling in sundown static snippets of AM powerhouses on the skip from Del Rio to L.A., deep-freeze warnings from Casper and Calgary, a Boise superhits seque into ‘Blues For Baby And Me’.

          “There, a little ol’ traveling music…Gon-na go west to the sea,” Syd sang.  “It’s not George Benson, but Elton’ll do.”

          “I guess—except too bad he’s turned into a butt farmer.”

          “Beg your pardon…”

          “You know, like an official size and weight tail gunner.” I coaxed the radio’s skip signals with diminishing returns.

          “Say that where we’re going, and you’ll know from tail gunning,” she spouted, tearing back into the snack bag, stuffing a Donette in my face.

          “C’mon, it was just a figure of speech” I mumbled.

          “Really, where is this coming from?  I’ll have you know, some of my dearest friends are…tail gunners!”

          “That right,” I stiffened, crumbs, powder flaking down to my jeans.  “Not that it’s any of my business or any…”

          “What an incredibly retarded thing to say.  This—from a sociologist, yet!”  She commandeered the radio.  “Maybe we’d better tune you into one of those redneck stations, while we’re at it.”

          “Jeesh, it’s common vernacular…”  Figures, ’hag and a bitch.  “Talk about no sense of humor…”

          “Hmph, Mr. Enlightenment here,” she slapped at the radio’s fuzzy speaker, and the cold air blowing in all around it.  “Does Moon know you talk like this?”

          “Guess we’ll have to call her and find out…” I clicked the Blaupunkt off altogether.  A creamy fourth-quarter moon had somewhat brightened the vast indigo sky, betraying stray wolves and coyotes chasing wild mice through twisted fencing, behind sagging, stripped-out gold mine shacks and Rorschach rock pilings.  Dispatched just as abruptly was the roadway romanticism of Taupin and John.

          “That won’t be necessary,” Sydney said, reconsidering out of the blue.  She tracked a shooting comet on its glidepath over Star Peak, which delivered her wistfully up to the wingtip lights of a westbound 747.  This whole thing must have lifted Lester’s stock significantly, and probably even did wonders for some bozo named Bernard.  “Just spare me the homophobia, will you please?  Like Daddo says, everybody’s got a little prejudice down in us somewhere. That for most people, it lies dormant for a lifetime.  But if it’s triggered, latent bigotry can seep out real ugly like.”

          “Well, would that we could render a quantitative analysis of that…”

          “So do it, prof—but are you talking about the prejudice or the bile?”

          “Whichever, I suppose…”

          Past Rye Patch Reservoir, I-80 slimmed back down by two lanes and a median.  There had been other two-way stretches since Wendover, yet this seemed the longest, and most foreboding.  Mangled road signs and piercing yellow flashers marked the construction detours as temporary, but rust and dry rot spoke like tree rings.  Soon the squareback’s misaligned headlamps ignited marble eyes all over the sagebrush.  Oncoming high beams vectored toward us, searing our own, blinding me to my three-gauge instrument cluster.

          Exploratory passes around slower taillights met with blinking parries by opposing semi-trailers doing the same.  Before long, white line fever broke into a siege of grill-splat consumption, shadowy desert varmints of all shapes and hoof-paw configurations feeding the shoulder pathology.  I could scarcely tell whether they were nuclear permutations from a game preserve to the south of us, or walking Darwinian fossils from the dead lava beds to the north.

          “Reclining Faith,” said Sydney, apparently less intimidated by encroaching wildlife than fascinated with the contour of the hills.

          “Reclining what,” I asked, the dark roar of a Utah-bound 18-wheeler throttling past my ear.

          “That mountain over there,” she pointed toward a rolling formation road signs labeled the Trinity Range.  “It’s so perfectly elliptical and jelled, the top’s a nipple all aroused.  The way that moonlight’s hitting it makes me think of my mother’s left breast, like when she’s kicking back on the lounger.”

          “Your…mother…” I braked sharply behind a weaving horse trailer, then grabbed for the chocolate milk—still cold as everything else in this forced-air freezer. “On a lounger…”

          “Sure, she still has an incredible bosom—large, beautiful papaya—uppies, no less.  God, I could kill her that she didn’t pass them on to me.  You should have seen her when she was my age.  But then you will, once we get to San Francisco.”

          “Sorry?”  I could have sworn I had just spotted Gable out there ropin’, rustlin’ Misfits and Norma Jean.  As a diversion, I recalled reading a magazine expose piece on all the wild horses roaming across Nevada and stuff, about how this one old woman led a battle against heavy-handed BLM roundups.  Yeah, bring that up; change the subject all right…damn, too late…

          “I’ve got a full photo spread Daddo took of her when they were just dating,” she said, relieving me of the hardened milk carton.  “They’re all over my walls, along with some sketches I did in art school.  She was my first figure study.  Fact is, Faith is my best friend on earth—we tell each other absolutely everything.”

          “Christ, I can’t even imagine,” I squinted at the dimming instrument cluster, then fiddled with the radio anew—imagination, curiosity all aroused.  What on earth possessed her to bring up such a thing?  “It’d be like seeing my own mother…”

          “Aahhh, don’t think so,” she smiled, craning over her shoulder, still marveling at the mound.  “But I do happen to know your tastes run to big-breasted women.  I know scads of interesting things about you…”

          “Yeah?  For instance…”

          “That you’ve also got some sort of thing for Leonard Cohen…and that you go totally psycho sometimes, and take it out on your dog.”

          “Aww, you don’t know…squat.”  I squelched the radio static one last time, cursing Moon, rubbing my eyes, clinging to road reflectors, seeing double everything along the yellow lines.

          “I know you better than you’ll ever know, flash,” she tapped my right hand.  “Like, who else sings ‘Sisters of Mercy’?”

          “W-w-wait, Moon told you about New Year’s, too?!”

          “Course, that’s what happens when you leave us hens alone.”

          Just as the shadows and apparitions most closed in, when an increasingly clouded moon doused the desert underbrush and turned the Trinitys and Buffalo Mountain into bleak, faceless forms, some distant lights began scrolling up on the black horizon. Red blinking antennae and water towers in turn sparked a pink-orange-purple phosphorescent glow: the 24-hour neon aura of Nevada’s next gas and gambling trap.

          “Coffee…gotta do a little coffee.” My noggin bounced off the red vinyl headrest, and I bowed lead-eyed before a shrine of 100-foot oil signs.  “And thaw my feet…”

          “Coffee, nothing…we’re calling it a night.”

          “No way,” I picked up on a mileage-exit sign for Sulphur and Tungsten.  “Fifteen minutes in this rest stop, and I’m ready to roll again.”

          “My treat, already. Where in bloody blazes are we?”

          “Signs say Lovelock,” I grappled with a figure study of the hypothetical sleeping configuration. “Bet the rooms are rip-off city…”

          “Mox nix…and who said anything about rooms?”

Care for more?

Chapter 12. Road worn, psychically torn,
some overnight fireworks lead them to
an unanticipated power surge… 


“Even if you gain a seat
             at the table, you may find 
            that the tables are turned.”

“Tell her I’m broke in Willup…”

“Hit me.”

           “And that Lawson’s out busting cokeheads. That it’s $142.50 and I barely have it, and I don’t want Ms. Rembrandt here to know. And tell her I don’t like where this is going one bit…”

          “Hit me again.”

          “Sure, Randy, is it?  Oh, wait.  I have a message for you from Melissa, too.  Everything’s going according to plan. And as soon as she’s finished working this awards luncheon, she wants to talk to you about the party…”


          Back then, I had shot out of Bonneville like Challenger I, wishing that our land speed record were toppling as precipitously as my miles per gallon. Gunning up from the Salt Flats, I felt for several vicarious moments the wild abandon of Mickey Thompson, the death-wish recklessness of Ohio Art Arfons’ ‘Green Monster’ jet car, of Craig ‘Spirit of America’ Breedlove at 600 m.p.h. Sydney was not nearly so inspired, however—and the squareback wasn’t buying it at all. First, its fuel line knuckled. Soon the injector nozzles clogged up; then the fuel pump burst and froze.

          After blowing smoke so valiantly across the Nevada border, we were suddenly limping and sputtering on three fouled cylinders west of Wendover—Syd riding me the entire way to Palisade. We finally hit the wall outside Willup, shutting the Volks off altogether at a main drag gas station/casinette framed by an all-hours grain and gun shop and a boarded-over Western Tire. After a 100-mile overnight parts trip to Elko, the nearest Nevada outlet with an electric fuel pump in stock, I killed some down time here with sucker blackjack and this desperation call back to Boulder. “Ouch, you mean Ken…”

          “No, I think she specifically said Randy, I’m pretty sure.”

          “Fine, forget about it!  Damn, how can I be losing on some other guy’s hand…”  CLICK.  I had been bleeding red and white chips ever since returning on the Elko bus.  I’d stand pat hand after hand, waiting for a suede-fringed cowgirl dealer to pull a long overdue break and push. Probability theory, linear regression, law of averages, plain and simple luck of the draw: No dice, gambler’s fallacy, nothing seemed to work. Meanwhile, a hot streak of novice card-counters passed stool to stool, uncannily insuring soft hands, late surrendering hard. I just sat there with nary a clue, picking at old frayed green felt amid fan belt pulleys and tune-up kits, hitting too often on ten-value upcards, holding on fives and nines, as Wild Card Annie’s mechanic husband ran up a heavy repair tap next door. I finally resorted to betting on the stiff to my immediate left, not that it yielded any more of a pay-off.

          “Cleaned your clock, did they,” Syd soon met up with me midway between Grifter Gas’s gaming tables and the nearby public phones.

          “Yeah, yeah,” I groaned, “gotta settle up next door…”

          “Already did—all $142.50. Put it on my Gold Card.”

          “Really wish you hadn’t done that,” I returned to the table, picking up my depleted chip pile, pushing away one last losing draw.

          “Oh, like I’m supposed to wait here until a nit like you delivers?”

          For her part, Sydney’s plan had apparently been to Mastercard into a marginally decent motel room, to crease sheets and defrost her extremities through this pit stop at the Willup Motor Court. But she eventually caught fire in another casino next door—at a stingy, double-zero sort of roulette wheel geared to draining tourist drive-bys and relieving Willup’s seniors of their COLAs and disability disbursements with bankable regularity. She broke house rhythm via a silk-and-ivory panache gleaned from San Remo, doubling up on the corners, hedging by the dozens and columns. After cashing out, she rode her blazing hand down here to Grifter’s to spring the car.

          “I can’t believe you don’t carry any plastic,” she said, as we slipped between emphysemic Annie’s keno tables and a long rank of front-loaded slots.

          “Credit cards?  I don’t even have any credit—only overdue loans.” I negotiated floor displays of anti-freeze and multigrade oil, opening twin steel doors for her into the repair garage.  “But hey, that doesn’t mean I…Moon and I won’t repay you right off.  I’ve seen to it she already knows…I mean, I could probably fire off a Moneygram right this very minute.”

          “You just talked to Moon?” she asked, some quarter slots behind her firing chain-reaction whistles and sirens, making a dowdy former saddle stitcher’s day.

          “Uh, not exactly, but…” I was still wondering how even a snow brain like Regina could confuse names like Ken and…Randy.”

          “My, busy little fingers, haven’t we…”

          With that, she directed me out of Grifter’s fully gassed and lubed, back to The Busted Bronco: Willup’s largest family-style casino, billboards for which had been plastered like jumbo Burma Shave signs as far back as Silver Zone Pass. The Bronco shared a large corrugated steel shed with the business end of a Gamble’s catalog store and day-night IGA. Its coffee shop let to a roll-your-own art gallery of Doc Holliday, King Fisher, Mysterious Dave Mather and Calamity Jane—pretty as watercolor wanted posters—interhung with velvet cattle ropers from the Remington school. Trimmed in homebred horsehide and wagon wheels, the gallery opened forth to the teeming rawhide casino itself.  Therein, Syd herded me over to table number two.

          “All right, what’s your sign?”

          “Green—twenty five, can’t you read?  Press it…” Sydney said, nudging my elbow, shortly after we settled in with her fresh stack of chips.  “You going to make your point, or not…”

          “I’m trying, believe me, I’m trying…” One last shot for the road, she’d prodded, leading me from the coffee shop’s enormous stuffed white mustang to the heavier of Bronco’s action.

          “Twenty on the hard four,” shouted a retired range rider over his Early Times.

          “Back line,” Sydney shouted, adroitly slidehanding a major portion of her stack.  “Double down…”

          “Hands up, gentleman…lady…”

          Players wedged in around the craps table like porkers at the trough—riding the grinders, laying last-second hop, whirl and horn bets as if I actually knew my point from a waiting number. The boxman knew better, so did table three’s dealer and stickman. The latter slid a fresh tray of cubes toward me with a pick-any-two sneer and nod.  “OK, high-stakes, rip ’em good…”

          “Yes, roll with authority, speed,” Sydney said, thrumming her remaining chips.  “This one gets us to Treasure Island.”

          “Twenty-five bucks—totally insane,” I blew my cupped left hand unconvincingly before letting fly off the backboard.

          “It’s my money you’re betting, flash,” she said, upon release.  “And I happen to have faith in you.”

          “Seven misses,” the stickman barked instantly, his dealer cropping my bet away, plus most of the table, with the exception of Syd’s and that of one snickering old wrangler around the bend—the sort who might start shotgun sniping from the rooftops if his luck ran any worse.

          “Terrifique,” she smiled, hauling in a new load of chips.

          “Terrific?!  I just lost us twenty-five more,” I said, as the dice tray moved one shooter down amid a clockwise chorus of groans.  “And how the hell did you…”

          “By betting the backline, weren’t you paying attention?” She scooped up her two colorful stacks, motioning to the few whites I could still call my own.  “Grab those, before they take them for another half-ass bet…”

          “Backline, what’s…”

          “The don’t-pass line,” she aimed me toward the cashier.  “I bet fifty you wouldn’t make your point.”

          “You bet against me?!”

          “Pass-miss, for-against—what’s the diff?  We won, didn’t we?  Enough gas money to get us to Golden Gate Park.”

          “But how could you…”

          “After seeing you at blackjack, it seemed like better odds,” she cashed out at the window, finishing off a rum-touched Pepsi into the gallery. “I learned that little trick in Europe. Could have played it any number of ways—free odds, big eights—Daddo says that I’ve a great head for numbers—for an artist, anyway. But of course my favorite action’s the come-don’t come…”

          “Yeah, that’s just great.”  I grabbed some house mints, then fumed through The Busted Bronco’s front doors.  “You still pegged me for a loser.”

          “So what, that cowboy geezer did, too” she waxed, pulling up along side.  “Point is, you and I were a real team in there…”

Care for more?

Chapter 11. Coming up empty,
he hits the road again, but she is
decidedly steering the way…



“Be wary of a westward
trip, lest you trip over
stones far too hip.”

   Remnants of an earlier ice age began filling the squareback’s forward windows as we pressed westward along I-80, the southernmost of over 2,000 square miles of perhaps the most brackish water on earth. The Great Salt Lake swelled in short order to within inches of the well-leveed roadbed, seasonably vaporizing fresh mountain stream water into a corrosive mineral brine that left its chalky basin ring for miles around. This was all that remained of prehistoric Lake Bonneville, a vast inland sea, which once extended as far as Nevada and Idaho, reduced through post-glacial isolation to some six trillion stagnant tons of sulphur-stinking, ice watery salt. These days, it was Deseret’s Riviera.

“Tell you one thing, Moon’s the gutsiest woman I’ve ever known,” I said then, somewhat the personal epiphany—slipping this in, making it plain. “Kindest, too.”

“So put her up for a Medal of Honor, already,” Sydney replied, from the depths of her sleeping bag. “I realize full well Moon’s always been incredible, even with my brother.”

“What?!  I hear she was a total wreck with Lester…to the bitter end. She was still an emotional basket case when I met her…”

The lake’s Monte Carlo languished on a distant eastshore salt lick, an abandoned, largely gutted pleasure Palace—once a Coney Island of the West—now teetering on the end of an undulant boardwalk that long ago led to far better times. Casualty of some zealous after-hours hellfire and damnation, it was currently beset by rotted, long-listing sailboats that couldn’t have sunk in this water had they been the Bismarck or Andrea Doria. One charred, battered funhouse, ghostly remnants of its roller coaster, and a gaping slat loose pier: Save for patches of roadside service, here was the end of western civilization as Utah construed it for the next hundred miles or more.

“Now, wait a minute. I’m the first to admit Lester’s a jerk-off…I mean, now that he’s beached with my folks in Florida, they’ll probably never get him to leave.  He’s even more of a klutz than my ol’ beau, Bernard. But he didn’t do anything to Melissa, OK?  I guess, in his own dumb way, he only did what he thought he had to do for himself at the time.  Turned out to be the mistake of his life—maybe hers, too.  But whatever misery Moon’s suffered since then, she’s heaped totally upon herself…”

“That’s not her story.  She says she worked her tail off to help build Blintzberg’s.  Many’s a night she’s cried how she did all the prep and ordering while he was out schmoozing the parties. Then suddenly, he didn’t have any time for her at all.”

“It’s called networking, flash…the only way anybody makes it in the catering business.”

“You make it by making it with the customers?!  Sometimes when Moon’s down and moody, she still refers to her nemesis as sweet little Janis with the hot cross buns…”

The windshield began clouding, side windows were already fogged over in the colliding heat and cold.  Sydney wiped clean a crescent with her pink angora mitten; straining eyes right to catch specs of movement, any faint traces of wild buffalo and black-bellied plovers on the distant tip of Antelope, Salt Lake’s largest island.  She settled for flocking geese, sandpipers and brine flies until I wiped all of that away with broad, mannerless sweeps of a Wylie-monogrammed purple towel.

“Point is, dearest Melissa knew all about Lester when she married him,” Syd bristled at the distraction, more at having to defend her brother. “Besides, he says she drove him to it, kept trying to change him—like that ever works.  He says he wanted a marriage and Moon mostly wanted a partnership—probably could plug anybody into that.  She was always worried about losing the business or her home; she ended up losing both.”

“Yeah, your brother saw to that when he walked her through the divorce. But selling their business out from under her, and putting the proceeds right down on 20 acres near the Smokies. To this day, she hasn’t gotten over that one.”

“Think he has?  Janis deserted him after two months on the farm.”

Outward of Magna, the lake paled to a white on gray on tripe monochrome that defied all dimension and time.  Breaking cloud cover was to sandbars as snow banks were to shrimp-pelleted beaches and salt marshes in this rising sun-blanched continuum, which spread far beyond a spinal midlake causeway toward the surrounding Promontory and Hogup Mountains. For Syd’s part, the windows now could have iced up all around.  “Anyway, I’ve told poor Moon myself she was nuts to let Lester off so easy. I’d have nailed his skinny little keister to the barn.”

“You know she doesn’t have it in her to do anything like that,” I resented having to rehash her brother, at all.  “Lester knew it, too.  No wonder she ended up with zilch when he cashed it in…talk about irresponsible.”

“Oy, what about Moon’s responsibility…to herself?!  At some point, a person has to look after numero uno in this world. Daddo’s taught us that since we were little kids.  Anyway, how do you think they got launched in the first place?  My parents did everything they possibly could to help make that marriage work. And they’ve got the cancelled checks to prove it.”

“I wouldn’t know.  She just said it was Lester’s money.”

“Lester’s money,” Sydney scoffed. “They’ve always adored her, like another me—if not more.  The whole thing tears them up to this day. And it does Moon, too.  I don’t care what she tells you.  Given all that’s happened over the years, we’re still the only real family she’s ever had.”

“Yeah, well, it makes me no never mind.  I just know when my marriage bombed, the last people I wanted to see were her folks.”


Steam rose from the dead, shallow water like window voile, swirling with drifted snow to further peroxide the low background hills. Claw tracks along Salt Lake’s thin shoreline mudflats seemed magnified in their unchallenged isolation, as if this were one last province where the Pleistocene reigned.

“But that’s pretty sure not to happen in this case,” I continued, backfire overshooting a rusted fastback Marlin. “Moon thinks you and your parents are the greatest, too.”

“Uh-huh, but her man always comes first.  Like with this trip—I know she wants it to be for your sake as much as mine—maybe open you some new doors. Is that your thinking?”

“My thinking?  Damned if I know,” I drifted. “Especially after the ol’ Sosh faculty squeeze play—and then talking to Lawson…”

A Triassic mood-set was soon dispelled by the sobering Lakeside Mountain range and dull roar from a Wyoming-bound ore train slicing Salt Lake along the Lucin-Ogden causeway. These dismal wind-worn hills sponged in the lake’s southwestern reaches, shadowing mixed shoals of terns, herons and cormorants growing fat on a diet of brine shrimp and grub flies—the only life worth living in waters bordering on double-digit sodium chloride.

“What about him?”

“He thinks I should be up building on a piece of land or something, instead of wasting my time doing…this…”

“Oh, like just subdivide off brain-dead onto some quarter acre to breed.”

“Huh? No, he just meant, you know, settle down…”

“In good old lilywhite Boulder…”

Beyond the otherwise dead interior sea, Utah’s greatness turned to dust. If nothing else, steamy farina water masked the desert’s barren floor, hinting like a fan dancer that there at least might have been something more fruitful just below. The Lakeside Range demonstrated with the bluntness of a vice raid that this bleakness knew no bounds.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing, no-thing,” she sighed. “Maybe you just need a little more cultural diversity, that’s all.”

“Hey, I’m as diverse and liberal as the next guy.  I’m a sosh major, OK?”

“Yeesh, I can’t believe you’re still thinking like such a…student.”

Interstate 80’s unwavering westward lanes seemed to hit bottom just outside Low, a sandblown pit stop that looked out on this vast parsley sprigged chalk garden barely cloaked in a fresh skin of snow, which the salt was largely eating away upon contact. Rimming the flat, glossy sand was an acne-scarred ridge of mountains, rotting tyrannosaurus teeth, casting a Plutonic pellicle over a firing range landscape long frozen in natural neglect.  More mesmerizing yet were the closer distractions, as in counting the telegraph poles and barbed wire fence stakes hugging the shoulders.  Then came the deep, desperate skid marks, slicing and angling into bloody, feathered decay—picked over by crows big as dromedaries—my forehead soon dropping to within several oily hairs of the Volks’s steering wheel.

As we approached the Salt Flats themselves, Syd found me dozing off altogether, to where she couldn’t tell whether the squareback was balking again or my foot was slipping off the gas.  “Hey, pull over,” she said, “this is something we’ve just got to do.”

She shed the sleeping bag like so much snakeskin, rolling out the car door before I could slide to a full halt along the breakdown lane.  Head falling to horn ring, I glimpsed her bounding out onto the hoary Bonneville lakebed as if Aldrin or Armstrong on Apollo 11, her disco boots going anti-gravity as she beckoned me.  “Come on,” she shouted, “you can’t see anything in there!”

The periwinkle sun now lit up this crusty sand like Zambonied stadium ice—steaming snow patches, shadowing craters, weed pods and wheel ruts into an abraded span of wasted terrain—which only riveted drive-by attention to the rocks. Abhorring nature’s vacuum, sensory starved interstate travelers had long taken to rearranging clumped rubble and sediment into a few choice words—verbiage via stray stones—creating a debris-mail message center that spoke volumes about the boredom logged on this long psychological toll road.  I followed her, between conscious lapses, out the corner of my eye. Blond waves flouncing, red ski jacket flapping in the winter wind: She scurried from note to note, pilfering gitrock letters from ‘Busting Butt for Bakersfield’, heisting sandstone serifs from ‘Vicky Vagina from North Carolina’, barely denting the literal acres of stone drivel that defaced western Utah like graffiti in fresh cement.

“What’s to see,” I grabbed my sheepskin jacket, spun out the driver’s door into the teeth of an onrushing mail truck. Righting myself, I tread lightly onto the chalkboard, its half-frozen sand crunching like Styrofoam beneath my frigid hiking boots.

“Here, I want to have a word with you,” she beamed, side kicking surplus dolomite, directing me through dense scrawls of lewd limericks and senseless shorthand.

“Dyb,” I scraped sand out of my eyes.  “What’s this?”

“It’s, like, Yiddish,” she took pride in authorship, quickly composing more letters of piecemeal breccia and adamant.  “And you’ll want to follow along, flash. People say I’m damn near psychic about these things.”

“Really…well.  I got my fill of that nonsense over Thanksgiving.”

“So I’ve heard,” she smirked, “I want to hear all about that…”

“Oh, it was nothing, totally absurd,” I spilled unexpectedly with little prior restraint, sidearm skimming excess verbiage.  “Blew Boulder for the long weekend to clear my head, took 80 west all the way to Frisco, winding up on Broadway near those old beatnik places.  Soon as I parked, this Cara person handed me a flyer for some nearby astrology center under my windshield wiper.  It started raining like crazy, so I ducked upstairs.”

“You mean North Beach…” Syd scurried about for formative stones, slapping my hand as I cocked to throw away more.

 “I guess. Anyway, the rest was too bizarre to go into…” I juggled my car keys, fingering a blue-red ceramic charm that dangled precariously from its silver clasp.

(KNOW MORE/KNOW LESS: Here, Return to the Homepage
 for the Saturn ‘Session’ in full, or simply read on…)  

“Sure, Pattern on the Trestleboard, a sociologist should know these things.” She stooped to round off a descender on the word she was fashioning in the stones. “Incidentally, that is one humongous key ring you’re slinging there—you a janitor on the side or something?”

  “Yeah, well not quite,” I spelled and counted letters under my breath. “Anyway, right when I got up there a rocksalt voice thunders out from behind two Malaysian screens about this Richard guy’s straying from his lesson plan. I peek around the black screens, and there’s this shriveled old woman perched atop a winged wicker throne. Her unraveled wig kept creeping up her forehead as she frowned, exposing her own matted hair. She had these wire-rimmed bifocals dangling off her right ear, and her bright red lipstick smeared to the left. but when she started talking, I found myself sitting down on her lumpy ottoman to listen up…”

“That so,” Syd final kerned her word, which gradually took on the heavy dullness of lunar basalts as the sun ducked behind fleeting mélanges of blue-gray clouds. “Listened, to what?”

“Some happy horseshit about Saturn, this whole spiel about how it’s the second largest planet in the solar system, and that Galileo first discovered it has four icy rings, the two big outer ones split by a 2,200 mile gap called Cassini’s Division. She rattled on that Saturn makes one complete revolution around the sun every 29.458 years—only three times in a person’s life. She said it takes that long to pass through all the signs of the Zodiac. Which means it takes 29 years or so to return to where it was the moment you were born.  After a nasty coughing jag, she warned that Saturn Return can end up good or bad, depending on whether a person’s prepared to pass from childhood to adulthood—like in my case, whether I was ready to become a man at 29.”

“Well,” Sydney mocked, “what’s the verdict, doc, are you?”

“Give me a break…anyway, I’m laughing that off when she grabs my knee and says I’d better pay heed, because my first bout with the ringed one was layin’ for me around the bend. That it happens to everybody, and most people don’t have a clue what hit them.  And how some horrible things can happen when you get to 29, not to mention 58, or god forbid, 87.  She carried on about how Saturn forces you to reflect and challenges all your assumptions. Then she handed me this goofy…talisman she called it, and soaked me $20.  I go, what kind of scam is this?!  The whole deal weirded me out, so I paid up and got my ass right back on the road home.”

“There, that about does it,” Sydney kicked an errant comma across some free verse from Thoreau. “Check that out…”

“Dybbuk, what the hell’s de-book?”

“You could look it up sometime” she proofread carefully. “It’s a term I heard my bubbie say once, about Lester—comes to mind for some reason as I think of you.”

“Uh, great. Now, what say we just go…” Cloud cover thickened, the chilling westerlies picked up and eraser dusted the Flats. “This stoneyard is giving me eyestrain.”

“OK—but I can’t believe you didn’t stop here before,” she shivered, walking me back toward the car, stepping gingerly between multi-color rock gardens of tired Lightfoot lyrics and biblical notations, into the second and third stanzas of ‘Ode To The End Of The Earth’.

“Drove through at night, that’s why…all hopped up on Mountain Dew.” I looked back at a sand devil swirling like a dark wooden top over her creation, until she tugged at my jacket to reclimb the shoulder toward the car. “Question is, how did you see it…don’t tell me you rode a Greyhound…”

“Don’t be silly,” she said, hair brushing the rose in her cheeks, gesturing for me to open her door. “Daddo drove…”

Care for more?

Chapter 10. Breakdowns in
communication mean dealing with
some brash bucking of the odds…

Making for the open road,
differing doors can creak open,
manifesting a much heavier load.”

         “Dope? You Mr. Rock Solid dealt his way through law school?”

          “Lawson was a tight end at UCLA with a blown-out knee, all right? But he wasn’t going back to Nebraska for anything. So he lawyered himself up, and now he’s up in Center Creek, busting cokeheads all over Lassiter County…and he’s still a good friend.  Damn, I’ve got to free up these pedals…”

          “Tight end—great, just a big dumb football player.  Some friends you’ve got…and what exactly are you doing down there?”

          The wages of disinformation had begun consuming us over blueberry buckwheats and red-pepper poached eggs in some fringe anti-Christian café.  Small talk bounded from covert phone calls to my selectively recalled saga over the Divide.  Sydney answered my positive spin with a breakfast polemic that continued on out Salt Lake City’s T-square predictable side streets, well beyond its flat, tree-patchy, snow melting environs to where drive-thru liquor marts met the fairgrounds and quick-sale motels.  Little else of consequence was said back onto Interstate 80, where incoming tri-jetliners strafed over on approach to Salt Lake International’s 35-North, drawing Syd’s dissonant sighs and muttered cravings for airline food.  Thereabouts she pulled the sleeping bag back  around her ski sweater, scrunching up, bracing her knees against the dashboard for a long drive west with the conviction that whatever I was up to was not likely to generate any more heat.

          “Yeah, well, Moon thinks Lawson Bennaker is aces, too.”  I yanked back and forth on the compact’s pedal cluster, one eye on the highway, as we neared an industrial park construction site beyond the airport.  Right when it appeared, and I had freed my brake pedal, the accelerator sunk to the floor.  “Damn, now it’s stuck.”

          “Hmph, I can’t believe that’s what she really thinks…look out!!!”

          One of the site’s gravel haulers had gathered a head of steam up some makeshift access road for its ramp run onto the interstate, spitting snow, hitting the shoulder at roughly the same time my squareback stampeded that way.  The grossly mismatched vehicles converged on I-80’s breakdown lane like cornet and Sousaphone players at a Rosebowl halftime show.  I swerved sharply, sidling up parallel to the blaring dump truck for an instant, then bounding desperately toward the median strip, a gaper’s clot of startled traffic braking several car lengths behind.  The trucker peeled off nimbly rightward, powershifting down 80 West with angry horns, leaving my stalling Volks to rollerskate onto an inner shoulder, along a slushy slick backwash of leaking landfill.

          “You OK,” I heaved, clutching the steering wheel as my car ground to a halt and died, its load of Sydney’s baggage shifting, then resettling sharply back and forth.

          “Magnifique,” Sydney wriggled upright in her seat like protozoa in a Petri dish, just far enough to straighten her hair and black leotards.  “Now, I’ll thank you to get me to the airport.”

          “Well, at least my throttle cable’s loosening up,” I goosed the gas pedal while avoiding the passing stares of surging traffic. “Say what?!”

          “I said I want you to drop me back at the airport.” She twisted the rearview mirror toward the passenger seat, licking traces of cherry red lipstick off her fine front teeth.  “You don’t think I’m going another mile in this deathtrap, do you?”

          “Sure, fine,” I cranked the wagon, glancing over my shoulder, buckwheat heartburn setting in.  “That’s the way you want it, you wrestle all your crap into the terminal.  Far as I’m concerned, I can’t wait to phone Moon and get back to Boulder…”

          “Moon—yes…phone…Moon,” Syd paused.  She followed my glance aft wagon to her scattered luggage as the last standing suitcase toppled in the sidedraft of a passing Greyhound.  Then she poked my shoulder, suddenly bursting into a smile.  “Got-cha!  I was just jo-king…”

          “I don’t see what’s so damn funny.” I fuel injected the engine, pressure tested the brakes.

          “All that academia’s zapped your sense of humor or what?”  She twisted the mirror toward me once again, tapping my knee, then slithered back down into the sleep bag.  “C’mon, let’s quite spinning our wheels here and get rolling again…”

          “What say we stick with your airport plan…”  Suddenly I hated this. And I wasn’t much into her act either. That I knew—intuitively, intellectually—her thermal reactor temperament and gyroscopic ways; it roiled up like grease-fried sausage.  I even hated myself for being here with her, then hated myself more for baggin’ on her so fast—damn, where was this all headed?!  Wasatch snow peaks and Temple Square shadowed my side mirrors as I accelerated onto I-80, to the heavy horn of an onrushing Monte Carlo.  I did want to call Melissa and ask her straight out how she could get me into this shit.  Better yet, how did sister superior here wheedle Moon into getting me into it?

          I picked that sore all the way out past the low-lying Stansbury Mountains, backdrop to the dingy quarries and salt plants west of Salt Lake City, a thicket of tall, pencil-thin smokestacks coughing anthracite gray billows into an already hazy sky.  Red pepper, blueberry syrup: the whole thing left a dry, brackish taste in my mouth.  Still, I pressed ahead in silence on Melissa’s behalf, fidgeting with the squareback’s balky gas linkage, stealing an occasional glance at this bindle of headaches rustling beside me, drawing up into her fetal mode. So help me, I came this very close to reaching over and full-speed shoving her out the door.

          “Why don’t you just kick it into cruise control,” her voice muffled through alternating layers of rayon and ruffled feathers. “It’s a straight shot from here to Nevada…thing seems to have a mind of its own anyway…a whole lot more than a heater.”

          “Cruise control?  Don’t press your…” I bit hard and retreated into the rearview mirrors.  “Think it’ll be OK now…”

          “Better be. You have my precious life in your hands,” she re-braced her knees against the glove box. “Broadsiding through the Rockies was bad enough, but that last little move was too much, even for me…”

          “You knew about the spinout up by Steamboat?  But you were snoring worse than my father does about then.”

          “I can snore with my eyes open,” she said, snaking her hands up out of the Frostline bag toward her brow.  “Can even turn my eyelids inside out and bend my fingers over the tops of my knuckles.  I can do all sorts of twisted things when need be…” Whatever else, she acted as though she knew this terrain like the back of her hand.  Dead flat, runway straight: just jam a broom handle through the steering column and brick down the gas.  Strange part was she knew Melissa knew the basic terrain, as well—throw friends together, stir in the stock. Yet school had let out, and here we all were. Curiouser and curiouser: As Brigham Young’s Deseret dissolved in her door mirror, this seemed to placate yet perturb her no end.

          I hastily averted toward the sooty salt piles, the snowy, butchered hills that tapered down by steam shoveled gradients into the broad abject emptiness of Great Salt Lake Basin.  Syd responded by drawing up the strings of her sleeping bag.  With each mile marker, sniffs of acknowledgement met with nodding resignation. Things she didn’t want to talk about sideswiped things I didn’t want to hear, but something had to give, so I plowed through the impasse.  “Hey, I’ve seen worse.”

          “That some sort of compliment?”

          “No, I mean spinouts, close calls…like, with Moon.  When we first caravanned out to Boulder from Chicago, I was leading us along I-70 in this heap; she was pulling a U-Haul with her Toyota. Halfway through Kansas, we hit this hellaceous ice storm—about four inches thick, glowing in the road lights. But Moon was going along great, flashing me with her brights…”

          “What, no CB radios?” she resurfaced, from the crew neck up.

          “Right, roger that,” I snipped, resisting her resistance, then signaled to pass a laboring potash hauler with the care and deliberation due this half-thawed stretch of interstate.  “Anyway, we were crawling along, crosswinds pushing us lane to lane.  Before I knew it, some semis roared by, hemming us in. Soon as the last one blew past, I checked my mirrors, and she was jackknifing in the backdraft. All of a sudden, her left rear snow tire shoots off…whole wheel bounced across the median strip in front of an oncoming motor home. I was sure the trailer was going to flip, but she steered the whole rig under control somehow, then skated off to the side. I pulled over, chased the wheel while she dug out her tools and jacked up the Toyota—fully loaded, yet.  It was incredible, she did the whole damn pit stop herself…Moon can be amazing that way…”

          “I know better.  Melissa is more like a little nestling in this world, a precious hummingbird who needs protection above all,” she replied, surveying the littoral landscape up ahead. “That what you’re aiming to be, Kenneth—her fill-in father protector?”

          “Naw, that’s not the Moon I know.”

          “Hmph, call that great?”


          “That…lake,” she idly pointed through the wing vent, burying her nose.  “When next I open my eyes, please make this be Tahoe…”

Care for more?

Chapter 9. Lunarscape dead ahead,
with some coarser things perhaps
better left unsaid…


“Crossing a higher rubicon
may bring saints in
creeps’ clothing…”

                   “Listen, regular guys do things with guys. Women do their things with women…know what I’m sayin’?”

“S-sure, I think so…but what does that even mean?”

“That women might do things with the guys sometimes. But I’m telling you, regular guys just don’t go doing women things with women.  And what about Moon, how is she…”

“I’m doing this for Moon. A direct personal favor. She owes me big-time this time, Lawson, I’ll tell you that.”

Back then, Boulder’s bank thermometers had dropped steadily, a three-point barometric swing greasing the atmospheric slide. The midnight blizzard eventually muscled its way over the Front Range like a high hurdler chasing endorsements—erasing roads, cramming down fissures and canyons, drubbing solar collectors, ripping entire rooftops off houses far into the valley before delivering the vast unspent bulk of its arctic throw weight upon the Kansas and Nebraska plains. Boulder calcified in the space of a 3 a.m. toss and turn.  Stapleton Airport closed quicker yet, prompting Sydney to phone coldly from Lorraine’s: “Morning, shmorning…what are we going to do about this?!”, as if my groggy cognitive powers extended any farther than the cabin’s snow-caulked window panes.

 Wouldn’t fly in such weather if Her Life depended on it, she concluded. But apparently it did—and she had to get back—simple as that. We negotiated knee-deep over the details, from Chautauqua Park to the priceless split-level aeries she kept appraising upon climbing Flagstaff hill. Melissa finally had to break the deadlock via patched together conference call, marooned as she was at the Coach Light Inn, out there on the Longmont Diagonal, with mountain skies brooding anew.

  ‘’Greyhound?!  It’s Sydney,’’ Moon insisted, as if sipping cocoa, splitting omelettes at Dot’s Diner, or munching carrot sticks in the Cabin there with us.  ‘’She’s family, remember? So pack up her stuff in your car—and leave poor Seamus for me in his doghouse. You’ve got nothing better to do around here right now, anyway.  Make nice and behave yourself, Kenny—maybe some more road time and a little travelin’ music will do you some good. And call me the minute you get to San Francisco. and I’ll take care of the rest.”  Therein she left things flowing, but not before godspeeding Sydney with a qualified verbal wink and nod.

“Awww, why didn’t you stay put and get to real work—scrape something together around here like everybody else. No shit, this is where it’s happening. Think about it, Herbert—a guy has to build his nest first, and then the birds’ll come flocking.  Anyway, if you’re looking for gold, you’re a century too late, and if you’re just off truckin’ to Hashbury , it’s been done to death. I know, I’ve been out there.”  

“What, birds?  I’m giving her a lift…just a few days, max,” I said.  “Fact is, I don’t want to be doing this at all, Lawson. But it’s way beyond that, believe me.” The hour-plus it took me to load Sydney’s cargo had paid off in greatly enhanced traction down the road: none too insignificant a factor, given the refreezing turnpike plow path into Denver.  She yawned near Larimer Square that she had pulled a telephonic all-nighter with Faith across the time zones—and that if any city could put her to sleep, this be it.  She then wrapped herself in my downfill sleeping bag, leaving a wake-up call for anywhere west of the Bay Bridge toll plaza.

At first I was beside myself—humming, revving, prodding her with AM oldies, honking fraternally to the snow-laden big rigs hauling slabbed beef to Denver packing houses. Still, Sydney’s deep sleep had proved more remedial by the mile, snuffing any static when Interstate 70 headwinds blew us all but back to Rocky Flats, or when my slushy misread of the Route 40 turn-off led to the Stanley Slide Path at 11,000 feet and gusty avalanche whiteout of Berthoud Pass.

She snored brazenly away as I pressed into blinding storm columns stacked up along the Continental Divide, then broadslid around a backcountry switchback between Tabernash and Steamboat Springs.  Long ultradian down rhythms even laid her out through my free skid in Wasatch side winds below Parley’s Summit, rear view mirrors filled with the airhorn glare of a gaining Freightliner.  If only her REM waves could have carried us beyond the Wally Basom Memorial Rest Area.

 “I dunno, Herbert…don’t hear from your for aeons.  Then you call me collect like this, from Utah—Plygville, of all places.”

“Uh, sorry about the damn Tabernacle music…really, Lawson, been meaning to touch base.  Anyway, we’re not talking major bankroll, just a little friendly back up. See, I blew this pressure sensor coming through Emigration Gap. After this, I’m down to basic gas money, and Moon’s tapped out ’til mid-month.  Something else goes, I’ll be nailing up a mailbox in front of the thing.

The rest area had claimed to overlook Salt Lake basin. But with the zero pre-dawn cloud ceiling, I could scarcely tell.  I’d sputtered into Basom Memorial heavy of lids—eyes swelling, ears popping, feet freezing as I parked and collapsed over the steering wheel.  Just then, Sydney unzipped the sleeping bag to periscope steaming cars, fuming semi’s, the icy ten-foot stalactites dripping from visitor center rooflines, no suspension bridge in sight.  With that, she laid claim to the driver’s seat, but the choking Volks wouldn’t restart for anything, not even Her.

Kicking free of the patched green sleeping bag, she had lit out for aid, first pounding on the van next door.  A bearish HVAC contractor in an Oakland Raiders cap and jacket offered to push start the wagon, if only I’d come to.  Sydney saw to that with a vengeance, then vamped her way into the escort van—jouncing, clapping to stereo country all warm and cushy as the truck shoved my lurching squareback down a steep, winding grade to Salt Lake City.  She was clearly pleased with her little hustle, until the Raider fanatic motioned me with linebacker eyes to follow his snowy wake spray toward a downtown repair garage, then looked to prove handier than she had bargained for by possibly running a clammy end-around into her leotards.

 “So what about that artist you’re carting around?”

“Gold-plated pain in the ass.  Still, I can’t ask her to pay.  A regular guy can’t do a thing like that, right?”

 “Yeah, you’re real aces, Herbert. But Utah, the San Francisco Gay Area with some feminist fatale—damn, where’s it all headed?”

“C’mon, can I count on you?  A little friendly cover—like maybe a Moneygram, if need be, just in case. And we’ll cover you right back. I mean, don’t leave me beholden to this one…”

Sydney had bolted from the dented, duct-taped van as soon as we reached a foreign repair shop off State Street, screaming something awful about karmic kickbacks and paybacks. I offered the Oakland-bound contractor an obligatory fiver, but she wouldn’t hear of it, refusing to discuss the matter until after a decent breakfast, if at all. Before she could rescue her new custom Vuarnet sunglasses, the Raider faithful had fishtailed away, snow splattering us several short blocks from Temple Square.

 “Backup, Herbert…deep backup…”

“Positively last gasp, Lawson.” This ensuing phone call was pure spur-of-the-moment, a little personal AAA, long-distance reassurance that my disoriented flyer westward was cleared by ground control, which was answered with a ‘Don’t Californicate Colorado’ sneer. Lawson Bennaker had been that since the early days in immigrant landing, orienting Moon and me to Boulder even as he himself grappled with moving away—specifically to an up-country deputy sheriff’s badge after four times failing the Colorado bar exam.  “I swear, I’ll even send you a postcard.”

“Save me the quarter.”  CLICK.

“Morning, sir, may we help you find your way,”  smiled a matched set of peach fuzzy young Mormon cadets in shiny black suits, as I folded open the glass and aluminum door.  Steadfastly beaming, the baggy duo pinned me half in, half out of the phone booth.  They were but two of myriad walkie-talkie cadre patrolling the walled-in compound, skulking about sacred gardens, behind larger-than-life statues of founder Joseph Smith and the Latter-Day Saint who performed the real miracles: Brigham Young.  “Did you know Lord Jesus is thy savior?”

The booth stood alone between a visitor center and the six-spired Temple itself. It was plainly targeted for ongoing surveillance by the post-missionary god squad as they assembled tour groups near Eagle Gate, or whisked naysayers and spiritual infidels off the South Temple grounds. I averted the cadets’s probing stares by tracing this incessant choir music to the Tabernacle’s 11,000-pipe organ and sanctified silver dome.  “Please, sir, will you be joining our tour?”

“So, what’s this about,” Sydney sprang from the nearby visitor center, almost as quickly as from that van, her critical fascination with its aggrandizing Christian murals and dioramas having apparently crumbled under the cumulative weight of their biblical theme.

“Was, uh, calling a friend of mine,” I muttered, just bleary and unshaven enough to fear banishment out of hand. “Then these two…”

“What…friend,” she parted the cadets with a wave of some color brochures and reprints from ‘The Book’ and ‘Doctrine and Covenants’. “Honestly, only in a place like Utah. I’ve seen all I want to see. Now I know why I never stopped in before. Can’t even find a decent soda around here without getting a local sponsor and signing your life away. ”

“Ah, excuse us,” I said, with audible relief, following Syd along scrubbed, snow-cleared walkways out the medieval Eagle Gate, the cadets devoutly sniffing our trail. “Anyhow, Lord Jesus didn’t much save Gary Gillmore from a Utah firing squad last year, now did he?”

“I’m so used to being where people look so young,” she said over her shoulder, morning fresh from ablutions in the center’s convenience, fully reassembled and realigned. “Here, even the teenyboppers look like cretins. Must be the sacred underwear, and those loopy drop-rim eyeglasses that they wear.”

“Awww, could be the sour Scots in them. And I know a little something about sour Scots—the single malt, clannish tartans, lumpy haggis and all, ” I said, as we left Temple Square altogether, not least its pious, gray-blazered Orrins buzzing around, hatching their persecuted little plots. Two elder guides delivered us over toward the Church’s soaring steel-and-concrete monuments to Mormon abstinence and enterprise. Deacons and disciples alike had been passing the golden plates ever since Brigham Young’s tormented converts first lugged their handcarts over the mountains, to where most of downtown was now under title, with plenty more highrises and shopping malls in the divining stage. The guides eagerly ushered us out of Mormon Central—grinning, blessing, still hauling the hod—the more weary among them cursing under already liquored breath.

“This whole scene is so pompous, and with the proselytizing—not even the true biblical faith, don’t you think?”

“Me? What do I know? Religion doesn’t do much for me nowadays,” I dodged.

“So you’re one of those agnostic heathens, or what…”

“No, just have a little suspension of misbelief,” I said, peering over to a massive library-like building across Temple Square from the cathedrals. “Though I hear they’re finally admitting blacks this year. And they’re supposed to be good with the whole genealogy thing.”

“Hmph, plus they have this nasty habit of proxy baptizing Holocaust victims.  But catch this…” Sydney began reading from a reprint as we headed for the Church-owned State Street Garage. “’Men are that they might have joy.’  You know what that means: women, plenty of them. This Smith guy said God himself told him to do harems…and it still goes on around here to this day with all these plain ugly jack Mormons. No wonder they call themselves, ‘More, man’.  The whole Utah scene’s so incredibly racist and sexist.”

“Damn, my car better be ready…”

“Intriguing concept, though,” She tossed the handouts into a Tabernacle Choir-sponsored trash can. “People over a hundred years ago building this whole religion thing around that.”

“Around what?”

“Plural spiritual marriage, sister wives—you know, holy polygamy…”

Care for more?

 Chapter 8. Navigating saline Utah
 in nothing flat, lives are plumbed
more deeply, relationships reviewed…




(Know more/know less:
Ditto to the preceding chapter.

Again, read now or need later.)

“Saturn comes a callin’,
earing take and give,
its re-entry aiming to 
hit you where you live.”   

           “Anyway, you were saying, Moon?”

           “Just that he’s been such a yo-yo lately. It’s getting so it’s about all I can do to keep him in the middle of his ups and downs.  Sometimes, I think his grad school gig is the only thing that keeps him from coming unglued. And it’s only gotten worse since his birthday…”

          “Really?” Sydney asked, back at Melissa’s kitchen table, leafing through ‘The Joy of Cooking’, pulled randomly from that overhead bookshelf. “So, how old is he?”

          “Just turned 29,” Moon sighed, over the steam kettle whistle for some milder Celestial tea.  “Around that time, he was getting so hyper, said he just wanted to hit the road, drive until his head cleared. It was Thanksgiving break, and I remembered what you wrote me last year about an astrologer who did your charts. So I told him, go to San Francisco or someplace, see somebody like that—couldn’t hurt.  All I knew was he was about to drive me up the wall around here.”

          “Ah, Saturn Return—the Big 2-9.  Crossroads time—that, I’ve heard plenty about, ’cause you know, we’re not that far away from it ourselves,” Syd glanced up to a small framed color photograph of a close-cropped familiar face in civvies, leaning against the famed Abbey Road stone wall. “Anyway, good thing I was out of town.  So did he?”

          “Wouldn’t say, one way or another, even got sort of Scorpio secretive about it.” Melissa poured two fresh cups of Mellow Mint, then spun back to her chipped tile counter tops as though they were prep tables at the Hotel Boulderado.  “The sad part is, I had figured our relationship was secure enough for the New Year’s thing. I figured he figured it, too.”

          “Not to mention Celeste and Jimbo…”

          “Don’t remind me.  I mean, we were all adults, and everything. I thought Kenny and I were of like mind that trust and sharing are the most important ingredients in keeping two people together, growing stronger…as long as the relationship is built on love.” Moon momentarily diverted to putter with the kitchen branch of her domesticated jungle. “I’ve prided myself on that with him—particularly after the fiasco with Lester.”

          “Oy, Lester,” Sydney sifted through some post-holiday bakery from an old Coke tray Moon had already set out in the center of the round kitchen table  “He joined us in Florida, you know…coming down from the farm to grace us with his presence. Now there’s a real basket case for you. I’m almost ashamed to admit the schlemiel’s my brother…but he is, no matter what, so…”

          “Well, he’s not for me anymore…” Moon busily pruned a thicket of onion bulbs, avocado starters and hothouse tomatoes, rooted in a rusting kitschy collection of rusting cocoa and coffee tins.  “I’m not at all interested in double jeopardy, especially with Lester Mendel…”

          “I told him I might see you, Moon. He asked me to wish you well, and tell you that he still cares very much. Says he might even try to call you sometime, yadda, yadda, yadda…”

          “Wouldn’t want to hear it if he did,” Melissa said sharply, now making for the refrigerator on kitchen cruise control, wiping her hands on her blue daffodil-print peasant dress.  She opened the brown enameled icebox, her crocheted sleigh and Kringle decorations slipsliding on their door magnets with the sudden centrifugal force.

          “I suppose,” Sydney sighed, plucking away at some messy fruitcake with her hot pink nails.  “I just still can’t see what really happened to you two—how the hell he let you get away.  For that matter, neither can Faith—it eats her up inside, like a major loss in the family.”  She seemed to dwell for a spell on the cluttered fertility of the kitchen—inventive yet organically practical— much like her mother’s at home, domestic skillsets Faith would never let her ever-so-gifted daughter deign to pursue.

          “That’s because you never saw the shout-a-thons,” Melissa pulled out a scuffed Tupperware container and Saran-wrapped plate of chopped vegetables. “Much as I miss you and your folks, I’d never want to go through that again.”

          “You’re still family, Moon,” Sydney insisted, downing a thin sliver of prune Danish, then rising to rinse out her tea mug in the web-cracked porcelain sink. “Remember what Faith always says, ‘water seeks its own level…’”

          “I know, I know…‘and people should be so wise.’” Moon arranged a platter of pre-chopped broccoli and carrot sticks into neat concentric circles, topped with some slightly overripe cherry tomatoes.

          “Trouble is, who knows who’s on the level anymore.” Syd then moved on the refrigerator herself, reaching in for a glass of apple juice, sizing up some Pearl Lager and a cluster of tin foiled remains. “Or who’s taking on water.”

          “I just know I’ve got a nice thing going right here.” Moon dipped back into the fridge, pulling out the tin foiled wads. She peeled back their silver wrappings, revealing various trimmed swads and slices of broiled prime rib, New York cut and filet mignon. All were courtesy of the Coach Light Inn; she smuggled them home nightly, like a mother redbreast feeding her nest.  “No matter what I say, more often than not, he can be so sweet and grounded. It’s something you can get real hooked on…”

          “Yes, sounds pretty saccharine icky to me.”

          “But it’s not just me.  Kenny’s had his fill of relationship combustion, too.” Everything else on Melissa’s daily menu she either stewed, baked, or cultivated herself—not to mention her pantry stash of canned preserves. Truth be told, she’d been covering rent, holding this household together by wits and grit longer than she dared recall. “He even got into it with his ex, Cassie, when she called him Christmas Eve.”

          “His ex still calls him,” Sydney sipped her unfiltered juice, glancing out the rear kitchen window toward the northbound lay of foothills—tapering winter-worn serrations stretching to greet a mounded cumulonimbus cloud formation brooding down by way of the Arapahoe timberline. “And you put up with that?”

          “It’s not my place not to. At least he and I understand each other about these things.  He’d feel the same about anybody in my past. Besides, she’s no threat, believe me.  In fact, I answered the phone, and she’s sort of real uptight and needy, sounded like a kid crying in the background. Then Kenny got on the phone and ripped right into her—yelling to never call him again, hanging up—washed his hands of her, just like that, didn’t want to hear a word she said.  Took me a whole plate of raspberry Madeleines to settle him down.” Having diced the steak cuts and dished out a finger bowl of soy tahini, Melissa beckoned Sydney back into the front room.

          “Incredible…he’s damn lucky you’re such a great cook…” It was all Syd could do to slam shut the refrigerator door, and follow Moon and her fresh platter into a cosy, sun skimmed parlor.

          “But I’m just as lucky,” she gently set her snack plate onto the shaky legged coffee table between the fireplace and sofa, flashing the blue stone and polished pewter setting on her left ring finger. “All along, he’s been doing the same thing for me. Look, he even gave me this star sapphire beauty. Sometimes he seems to good to be true.”

          “Yeah, well—I’ll have to take your word on that,” Sydney said tartly, again floored, befuddled by that Christmas tree, but then looking beyond it out the cabin’s lee side window case, to the Setter out there barking in the yard.  “But what is with your dog?”

          “Oh, he’s always cranky the day after a bath.  Actually, Seamus is more Kenny’s than mine.  I’m still basically a cat person…me and Pags.” She shooed her big, fat tabby off the overstuffed sofa.  “I like to rag Kenny than an Irish Setter is a subconscious manifestation of the flaming Celtic beauty he lusts for in his heart of hearts…”

          “That what he is, Irish?  Sydney plopping lotus-like on the saggy couch, marveling at the platter before her, dipping a carrot stick into the tahini. “Catholic, too, I suppose…”

          “Only part way—I think his father’s, like, Scotch…” Melissa instead leaned over to the fireplace, rolling up some yellowing sections of the Daily Camera newspaper, slipping them around and under the smoldering fireplace log.

          “As in boozer hound, huh?”

          “Tsk, his dad has had a little problem in the past, but…”

          “Well, I guess that explains the whole Christmas shmear. “Moon, Moon, I don’t mean to intervene, but when did you get off on this tangent—nice little Chicago Jewish girl like yourself?”

          “Truth is, I’ve had enough with nice Lesterlings, the whole blessed arrangement,” Melissa said, while no doubt trying to sort through some alien stirrings she felt at the bar mitzvah readings, not having been a religious body for so long. “Besides, I’ve got a lot invested in Kenny now…and it’s getting a little late in the game to be nit-picking around. I’ve got to make this one work…”

          “Sure, but maybe you’ve invested too much…just like with my brother.”

          “It’s not like that, at all.”  She eased over to re-stoke the fireplace, then ignited two frankincented mantle candles. “Kenny doesn’t try to control me like your brother did.  If anything, he gives me too much leash sometimes…”

          “Do tell,” Syd leered, nimbly fiddling with the top buttons of her sweater before stuffing her icy hands in her sweater pockets. “Now that, I want to hear about…god almighty, what is banging around out there?”

          “His tail…cute, huh?”  Melissa described an 18-inch black plastic length of plumbing pipe wagging where Seamus’s tail should have been. It was a cast—more a splint—drilled full of holes like a machine gun muzzle, shielding the tail from everything a frenetic Irish Setter might whack it against, but mostly to prevent him from chomping it off.  Thin strips of mercurochromed cloth suspended the tail inside this tube like the hub of a bicycle wheel, though Seamus made a habit of contrarily biting them away.

          “The vet had to shave his feathering when he set the tail,” she added, turning her attention to a giraffe-necked sprinkler on the corner windowsill. “It’s broken in two places: cracked coccygeal vertebrae and crushed hemal arches, something like that. The pooch nearly lost 20 inches of the most beautiful flowing tail I’ve ever seen.  By the time we got to Blaine Clinic, it was drooping like a funeral hanky—gangrene had nearly set in…”

          “How bizarre, a dog with his own tailpipe…too bad it doesn’t come with a muffler.”  Sydney turned away to peer out the cabin’s front windows, taking in the foothills, caught swivel headed once again by the Flatirons’s white granite slabs, jutting out like pitched anvils from the leading edge of the range. “Moon, dogs just don’t break their tails—this much, I know…”

          “It was an accident, a couple of weeks before Christmas,” she doted momentarily over a string of tender ivy cuttings in planters she’d crafted of pottery and macramé, hanging from ceiling hooks over bricked-up bookcases and a pair of re-stuffed chairs. “Kenny called me at work, totally hysterical. He said they had been wrestling around out front. He picked Seamus up and body slammed him…guess the dog came straight down on the tail—snappo.”

          “Snappo?  Great, now you’re telling me Mr. Sweet Understanding beats up his dog.”

          This, coupled with another unavoidable reconsideration of Melissa’s Christmas tree—all-American fairytale, from the Bethlehem star topping down to the stable scene base, from the hand-made wreath and all those miniature angels to the hand painted nativity figurines amid layers of tinseled, popcorn-strung flocking: Where was it all headed, for godsakes?  She then focused on Moon, and could scarcely imagine what Faith would make of her beloved ‘daughter-in-arms’ now, much less later on.

          “It was just some harmless rough-housing, Syd.  He’s not like that at all,” Melissa proceeded to follow her standard watering route, from filigree to rubber tree to wisteria and sunflowers. “If anything, maybe I’ve used too much tenderizer on him.  Made everything a little too laid-back, for a little too long.  He might have to get out there in the world pretty soon, but he seems so skittish…Kenny’s not much of a go-getter for his age, or planner aheader.  I’m even a bit antsy about it myself—don’t know what he needs more, a doctorate or a good boot in the tuckus.  But that’s our job isn’t it?  Let them be men.”

          “Here, use my platforms…do a little disco number on him.” Sydney smirked and pointed to her well-polished deer leather boots.

          “You know what’s kinda funny,” Melissa set aside the sprinkler. She began chewing what passed for her nails, then tugged at the ash brown wavelets along her temple, revealing a not insubstantially hairy underarm. “The vet said he started the plastic pipe technique when a rancher called him out to treat one of his prized bulls.  I really shouldn’t be talking like this, but the bull somehow managed to fracture his…you know, shvontz. So Seamus’s tail has become kind of a running joke around here because Kenny is not exactly chopped liver that way himself.  I tell him, see what’ll happen if you don’t shape up?”

          “Sooo, big in the boxers, is he?  Not like my little pisher of a brother,” Sydney cackled, ruefully concluding that Melissa was even more resourceful now than when toting Lester’s load.  “That’s what this is all about…you went and got yourself a John Holmes…”

          “Tsk, no—honestly…” Moon blushed, tying back the fullness of her hair, which seemed to comprise at least half of her body weight, food fetish or no.  “Actually, he’s into Jockeys, and pretty self-conscious about it.  He once told me how Cassie was a 37DD and hated them because of the special-order bras and how they got in the way of everything. Said sometimes he knows exactly how she felt.”

          “Well, that’s certainly not my personal problem, you can ask Faith,” Syd lamented. “So he’s hung and doesn’t strut it?  What are you trying to say, dear Kenny’s going light in the Levi’s?”

          “Don’t be silly!  He just happens to have a scattershot kind of sex drive, what with the studying, and all,” Melissa spouted, caught with a fistful of tahinied cauliflower by the ringing of the phone. “And, like, lately he sometimes doesn’t last all that long, you know?”

          “Flash Gordon, huh?   Well, that’s even worse than a pisher,” Sydney stared off into some recent fleeting pleasure. Still, she kept returning to the far wall photos: mounted halftones and color aspects of Napoli’s arching Porta Capuana, the Kappelbrucke Bridge in Lucerne, pyramided wine casks in Bad Durkheim. “Mark one for the Aspen neurologist.”

          “On the other hand, when he does, I’m sore for days,” Melissa smiled, rushing for the side room study. “But e-nough about me.  I want to hear all about your jet-setter doctors and tycoons…or at least about Bernard. Be right back…”

          “Pu-lease, don’t ask…it was just another romantic flame-out. My clock’s still running, same as yours.” Syd tracked her, numerous other color photos leading her gaze about the living room like landing lights, not least the time exposures of Martigues and Montmartre. At the same time, hill-bent sunlight now skewed in upon ‘Waif and Grain’ from just above Flagstaff Summit, igniting her signed portrait of Melissa, even more starkly headstrong, brown hair unfurling Godiva-like to her waist. At any rate, Sydney’s erstwhile wedding gift was now the fulcrum to an otherwise tidy, garage sale-variety décor. Guess that’s how she saw it, giving her painting its due, as damn well it deserved. “As for Bernard, he has all the excitement of a rabbi-arranged marriage.”

          “Unbelievable,” Melissa hissed, dropping the phone, waving her Xeroxed work schedule in frustration. “That was the restaurant. Regina, our other hostess?  She called in with the downhill flu—three-day variety. I have to pull double shifts through the rest of the weekend…starting in half an hour. We’ll just have to finish catching up Monday, or so.”

          “Moon, dear, I have to be getting back to San Francisco by then.” Syd slumped against study’s doorway, gearing for her final approach to the coast. Up to her lymph nodes in poinsettia white Christmas, she glanced over her left shoulder, and there was more: a hand-held color streaking of candlelight carolers in Trafalgar Square, a night time-exposure of the Heidelberg Castle. Nothing spectacular, nothing she hadn’t seen before. She probably just didn’t expect to see them here. “Where did you get all these photographs?”

          “Oh, they’re Kenny’s,” Melissa said in passing, a magenta streak through the kitchen into the rear bedroom and back again, clock radio blaring, her mind likely racing to re-order her immediate priorities. “Took them when he was in the army over there, but he doesn’t do that much anymore…he pretty much leaves the creativity to me.  Tsk, he will really wig himself out by tomorrow night if I’m not around here. Besides, I’ve been thinking about a little attitune-up party for him, hoped you could stay…”

          “Sorry, dahling, California calls,” Sydney reassessed the varied continental shots, visibly comparing them to her portrait—no contest—ultimately returning to Trafalgar, sight straightening its regal blue-matted frame before floating her way aft cabin to the bathroom, pausing at the kitchen porch door for a read on the darkening skies. “Nature does, too.”

          “That unctuous job—the last time Regina pulled this, she was stranded up at Winter Park for a week,” Melissa shivered, palm pressing her hostess uniform on the kitchen table. “Incidentally, the weatherman says a real monster is headed our way…”

          “Brrr, no lie,” Syd flushed, returning to the kitchen door, distracted by Seamus’s latest flare-up and the station wagon backfiring its way into the cabin’s unshovelled driveway.  She smoothed out, rebuttoned her alpine sweater up around her neck, before gathering her tooled leather purse, then clicking its brass flap clasp. “I think I hear him now.”

          “No, I mean a storm,”  Melissa rushed to open the living room door, hangered green and brown uniform in hand, greeting the lone figure hulking across the front yard.  “Kenny, Regina did it again. I’ve got to get over to the restaurant right away. Help us get Syd’s luggage out of my car, then maybe you can show her around town or something…”

          “Aww, Moon, I’ve really got a lot to sift through here,” I lugged a boxful of texts and papers into the study, a manila envelope flying off the top.

          “I understand totally,” Sydney picked up the letter marked G.I. bill, handing it to me once I dumped the box onto the side room floor. “I’ve got to get over to Lorraine’s, anyway. She’s such a godsend to put me up.”

          “Really. He’ll run you over, anytime you’re ready,” Melissa donned her pea coat from a doorway hook, kissing my chin.  “Won’t you, Kenny…” Already she was being escorted off the porch by a cold, stiff wind now roller bearing down over the foothills.

          “I guess,” I turned to Sydney, though not exactly seeing her eye to eye.  “Uh, you’re flying out, right?  Might want to call and reconfirm…”

          “No need. I have this incredible travel agent in San Francisco. She cast my whole itinerary in stone. Reserved and pre-boarded all the way, on real airlines, not like that puddle jumper I got stuck on out of Aspen.”

          “You know best, Ms Worldbeater, just flow with it.” Melissa blew here a kiss. “Kenny, her bags…”

          “All I’m saying is Stapleton can freeze up in a heartbeat when the weather gets like this.” I crammed the VA envelope back into the file box.

          “Not to worry, flash,” Sydney smiled, grabbing her ski jacket, motioning out toward Melissa’s car.  “Like Moon says, let’s just flow with it.”

Care for more?

 Chapter 7. ‘Thar she flows…’ 

Know more/know less.
(No point going into how
 what was said here can be recounted. Suffice to
it rings transcript true. So, Saturn these pages
now, or you’ll surely Return to them later…) 


“Once ascendent, Saturn 
transits orbits vastly 
beyond one’s own.”

            “I mean, I’d heard about their Hollywood Hills spread, but this…”

            “God, California, Telluride—I can’t even imagine. And to think Josh used to hustle around for spare change and pot…”

            “Really, if I knew he’d be that kind of catch. I mean, he was such a zithead nebish in high school,” Sydney huffed, seated at the kitchen table, randomly straightening the snap buttons of her embroidered pink alpine sweater and hand-pressing her side pockets, after tugging at a snow-white turtleneck under that.  “Anyway, it was just too close a call altogether. And I’m getting way too old for such drek.”

           “Tsk, I saw on the news it was an inferno up there,” Melissa replied over her shoulder,  stirring a ladle there by the stove. “Did everybody finally get out alive, or…”

           “Who knows? Oh, this one little tootsie went totally psychomanic, tried to push her way out a plate glass window. Caught a chunk up the length of her arm—just missed her ulnar artery, but she bled out like it had sliced it right through…”

           “Ulnar what?”

           “Oy, don’t ask me. Luckily, Josh had invited some of his L.A. doctor pals—all these freaky orthodontists, uro-proctologists and maxillofacial reconstructionists—a stretch limo full of those.  They all kept kibitzing, ‘check out the flexor digitorum, man.’ ‘Pack off her flexor Longus Pollicis,’ like that. You know me—I finally pulled this Westwood neurologist hunk aside to translate. Ulnar and radial arteries…instant death…that’s what he said, anyway—before hitting on me to ski out the week in his Aspen condo.”

Boulder cabin entrance.

           Back then, holiday excesses were evidently coming home to roost. With the le’chayims and mazel tovs behind them,  Sydney and Melissa played catch-up all the way back to our cabin. Syd’s autumnal pilgrimage to the Jeu de Palme and Firenze, her post-Kislev ennui on Florida’s Gulf Coast sand: She painted a landscape of worldly lassitude that drove her back westward out of sheer social deprivation.

          “I even called Josh and his bimbo wife, Gret-chen to wish them happy holidays,” she explained. “He said, come up and join us New Year’s Eve for a little get-together. It was either that or shmoozing my parents’ vacation friends. How was I to know?”

          Sydney allowed as how one of those stretch limos scooped her up at the local airstrip, then caravaned to upside Telluride, a buckskin hostess dispensing cordials and four-channel demo acetates from the console bar. Gravanek’s Rockies getaway turned out to be a 1,200 acre mountaintop ranch, the little gathering a conclave of the current Midwest-to-Malibu rock music axis and its professional retinue that place set into the hundreds. Seemed that in the short time Sydney had lost touch with her geeky old school irritant, Josh had parlayed his stable of heartland mush-rock tavern acts into major record deals and a refurbished seven-building compound with working stables, luxury bunkhouses, one serious open-beamed banquet lodge and two 24-track studio barns. He’d branded it Das Kapital, and his marquee horses all recorded there now, not to mention much of L.A.’s twangy cause celebrities and some British pop-chart heavies too bloated to mention.

         She recounted ruefully how Josh had cast aside a Wharton MBA and his father’s Chicagoland paint store chain for a world of illicit music, illegal substances and nefarious associations; and how he’d double-barreled his father with the news, at his wedding reception, to that goyeh, yet. Still, here he was, cutting the checks, calling the tune: silver platters of rarebit and venison, Taittinger’s by the magnum opus to wash it down.

         “But at midnight, it all blew up in his smug, bearded little mug,” she added.  “An ammo dump or something—machine guns, the works—out behind the stables. Turns out Josh had a posse of paranoid roadies dealing coke on the side. Nothing he’d dirty his hands with, of course—he just scooped his off the top. Word went around they torched the thing over divies and back pay. All I know is the buildings went up one after another, while the Scrammers—his bad-boy hair band, no less—kept playing their greatest hits with a stage full of swirling floods and pelting strobes, timed to overhead footage of their east coast tour.

          “By this time, the lodge is total panic, tootsie’s silicone bleeding to death, mounting this grade-A tirade at the gutless producers and A&R types running right over her to get away.  Before long, Josh jumped onstage, totally crushed—like when I dumped him at the Ravinia Festival—trying to calm everybody down, while his next act, the Raffters started in on some heavy metal. Nothing you could really dance to, of course…but I kept thinking how easily this could have all been mine. That’s when the neurologist piled me and my things into one of the escaping limos with some groupies—which proceeded to spin out in the snow and nearly get broadsided by a volunteer fire truck. I glanced back, and a third of Das Kapital was like ‘Gone With The Wind.’  Took me a whole week in Aspen refusing to ski to settle down. And there was no way I was going to follow him to Newport Beach,” she sputtered, snapping pearl buttons, gesticulating out of her deep sweater pockets,  animated forearms collapsing like empty sleeves across the table. “So tell me, what did you guys do?”

          “Whew, I guess not a whole heckuva lot, I guess,” Melissa slackened.

          By comparison, what was there to tell?  Christmas had been a takeback, at best—wrong colors altogether and a few too many sizes too small. Heretofore, Moon and I had both flown to Chicago for the holidays: I went home and did Xmas as best I could; she went home and…didn’t. But this time, we stayed in Boulder, final exams and all. Melissa quipped she knew there was trouble when the tree lights kept blowing cabin fuses. Thereafter, it was a yule of cool courtesy, an emotional impasse uneasily bridging this awkward spiritual gulf neither of us had ever quite experienced before.

          Admittedly, I spent as much energy fashioning a black hole in our holiday wonderland as she did struggling to fill it.  She strung her hand-spun stoneware decorations, slaved over her plum pudding and kidney pie; I locked away in the small study with my class notes.  She’d call friends to spread holiday cheer; I’d call home, then sulk—determined to be at least as miserable as I knew I’d made my ailing mother by not coming in. Melissa hummed Christmas carols and breathed spontaneity into prearranged presents—determined to at last leap the breach between candles and crèche, which had apparently pained her every December, long as she could remember.

          “Well, our Christmas was sort of interesting…a little too much tryptophan, maybe,” she said, once again tending to her stovetop.

          “Christmas tree, decorations,” Sydney asked indignantly, pausing to take in the kitchen with a curiously smitten shake of the head, admiring the culinary arsenal on display. She then fixed again on her sorta sister, stirring honey into her freshly poured cup of Red Zinger tea.  “What about Hanukkah, Menorah lightings? Really, what about ‘Dreidel, driedel, I made it out of clay’?  Moon, we’ve just got to talk.”

           Clearly, this kitchen was Melissa’s true milieu. Tangled among the copious ivy undergrowth were wall racks of copperware, baking pans, cutlery, chopblocks and gourmet gadgets galore carried over from her Lester days. Cramped though it was, she’d made room for an ingratiating corner nook draped in cherry blossom wallpaper.  Above the round oak table where she now busily unfoiled some of her cranberry-banana bread was a clear lacquered maple bookshelf lined with Spirulina, ‘Diet For A Small Planet’ and sundry whole grain and vegetarian tomes, leaving little doubt food groups loomed largest in the personal pie chart she labeled creativity.

          Sydney lingered over the cluttered fertility of this sky-bright kitchen—so inventive yet organically practical—much like Faith’s at home.  Her mother and a long motherless Melissa had viscerally connected that way from the start, as though they were devoted homemakers-in-arms, the one thing she repined she and Faith might never be. “Sooo, you were saying about Christmas?”

          “It was nothing compared to New Year’s,” Melissa sighed. She fanned some viscid sliced bread into a neat semi-circle on the tea tray between them, then ushered Sydney into the living room.  Once there, she set the tray down on a wobbly coffee table, then embraced her guest firmly, playing her back ribs like a cithara. “But let’s not…oh, hell, you know you’re the only person I could ever really share this stuff with. You and Faith will always be my saving grace. I miss that about you, Syd…”

           “Awww, me, too.  And we’ll always be there for you through this. You know that.”  Slightly taller, firmer of form, Sydney sealed her sentiment with a caressing of her erstwhile in-law’s behind. “Love your ring, too…”

           “Whew,” Melissa said, contacts set afloat in her welling, full moon eyes. She proceeded to light some newspaper beneath a half-gone Presto-log while Sydney soaked in the front windows’ sunny, smothering Flatirons tableau. “Oh, and I got it from Kenny for Christma…for the holidays…bluish-black star sapphire in a pewter setting—very special, one of a kind.”

           “Especially for a one of a kind like you,” Sydney mused, eyes drifting to the corner fireplace, focusing on her painting,  ‘Waif and Grain’, but not straying far.  “Mounted above the mantle, yet. I’m so flattered I’m getting goosebumps. Either that, or I’m freezing to death…”

            “That was, um, Kenny’s idea,” Melissa topped off their teacups, then seated herself on the tamil throw covered sofa, undercurling her print skirt-wrapped legs.  She quickly began nibbling on some mismatched pastry scraps, heavy on the fudge.  “He even said it deserved center stage.  Here, sit down, this will warm us until the fire gets going.”

           “He said that?” Sydney sight straightened the portrait’s frame, color critiqueing the natural illumination of her acrylics and oils. ‘Waif’ cried out for more muted lighting, she seemed to chafe, joining Moon on the sofa.  As if at least her work had assumed its mantle of domination, as damn well it should. “So…you were saying about New Year’s…”

          “Where to begin,” Melissa swallowed a bakalava morsel and tapped Syd’s knee. “When we first came to Boulder from Chicago, the only place we could find that would take pets were these boxy apartment complexes east of town—‘immigrant landing’. Jim and Celeste soon moved in next door with their cocoa Lab.  Everybody became pretty good friends—even the animules.  Then, about the time Jim finished a history doctorate, his grandfather died…he’d founded some big Boston shipping company, or something. So they put part of Jim’s inheritance toward an overgrown A-frame on a dog-leg mining claim up by Ward—just before I found this cabin.  Celeste quit the law library and sailed all her Tupperware out the apartment windows. Been up there with their hippie slaves, redoing the place ever since.”

           “Wait, you found this cabin all by your lonesome?” Sydney cupped and blew the steam from a heavy, hand-spun tea mug, noticing some makeshift Tupperware planters on the windowsills. “Little go along, follow the leader Moon?”

           “Rode by one day, on the way to my crafts studio, saw this packed-up U-Haul out front,” Melissa picked at some cranberry-banana. “The landlady moved to Idaho, is just happy to have tenants she can trust. I put down a deposit, right then and there…sometimes I picture us actually buying the place from her.”

           “Finally taking charge, girl!  Just like when I found my little San Francisco place…on the way to the gym, that is.”

           “I suppose…any-hew, our first looksee at their new house was New Year’s Eve…I couldn’t wait.  Naturally, it turned cold as blazes, must have been 70 m.p.h. crosswinds blowing snow all over the roads.  But we finally got up there, going about three m.p.h., looking for an A-frame.  Only now it was an M-frame.  They’d added on this whole new space, with huge chalet windows looking upon the Peak-to-Peak Highway. Celeste and Jim greeted us in matching purple silk jumpsuits—monogrammed yet.  Inside, their place is beautiful stained wood, with all these…tetragonal and scalene triangle windows and skylights, they said.  Here, we’re in jeans and sweaters, toting potluck zucchini salad and legume-mushroom casserole, but they’re doing this elegant Scandian-style rack-of-lamb dinner—fancy wines, crystal, and everything.  I felt like I should have been serving them, not sitting there watching the deer and snowshoe hares chase by.”

           “Yeesh, stop with the selling yourself short, will you,” Sydney warmed up to the fire and flaky sweet pastry. And kiss the ground you weren’t watching scrawny adolescent rock groups wrapped in boa constrictors like I was…”

           “Well, I wouldn’t be too sure.  After dinner and some cognac, we all went into their new…cedar-lined salon, they call it…all kinds of abstract sculpture and custom-framed nature prints. Celeste fluffed a bunch of oversized floor pillows and afghans around the circular fireplace while Jim lit up this huge leaded glass ceiling mural they’d commissioned—like, recreating the sunset Gunnison meadow where he first proposed to her.  Sooo, we got into that for awhile, and Celeste started in how preppy predictable Jim is, and how oddly predictable Kenny could be. She’s from Santa Barbara, and has always been able to ride Kenny pretty good, because she’s a bit taller than he is, plus a cross between Farrah Fawcett and Elke Sommer.

           “A little wine here, little weed there, and before you know it, Jim pipes in his jazz collection. This is where it starts getting strange. Just before midnight, we all went down to see the sauna lounge. Soon as this Mel Davis music came on—Spain something—they got into a pagan dance ritual, slithering out of their satin—all of it. They’re contorting around in matching G-strings with the Wylie family crest and ermine trim. Then they beckon us with them into the sauna, on these long velvet-like cushions. Jim hugged me, and Celeste wheeled in a silver cart of Champagne and trim white lines. Tsk, I like to have died,” Melissa cringed. “I mean, they were always such button-down homey types. But, well, the setting was so loosey-goosey, and I never thought Jim was that boring…scrawny, maybe…then Celeste moved on Kenny, looping a towel around his neck.”

           “Miles Davis…Sketches of Spain will do that to you every time,” Sydney sighed, unbuttoning her sweater some, revealing more of the tight black leotards she had worn since Aspen, an après-ski variation that clashed so distinctively with her brown leather calf-high boots.  She then lost herself for a moment in a side wall photograph of Baden-Baden’s Roman baths. “And all I got was juvenile, played-out rock ’n’ roll, and some weird little package from Josh Gravanek to schlepp back to San Francisco as a special favor to an old friend…”

          “Well, for an awkward moment, everybody sort of scoped everybody else out, like we were getting ready to jump out of a plane, or something. I looked over at Kenny, his eyes were down to his chin. Honestly, compared to me, Celeste is Suzanne Somers. So Jim is massaging my shoulders, and I decide to kick off my clogs. Celeste still has Kenny lassoed with her towel, dancing him around the sauna.

          “But this time, she predicted wrong. Kenny exploded, pulled the towel away and threw it to the floor. Never seen him like that; it was all so mortifying! Then he grabbed me, knocked over the Champagne cart, mumbling like a madman, something about sisters of mercy…I don’t know to this day. Jim and Celeste absolutely freaked!  They scrambled into their purple robes…Jim sputtering on about the Bronco’s Orange Crush defense, trying to talk Kenny down. Instead, he dragged me out to the car, screaming about how perverted they were. I’m apologizing every step of the way—we were supposed to stay over, for godsakes. I’ll never forget them standing at the front door with their Lab, Spoofles, meekly waving their purple towels…still haven’t worked up the nerve to call…”

           “So what was it?  The coke…”

           “Didn’t do any,” Melissa poured more Zinger from a chunky stoneware teapot with tiny glazed Cheshire cats bounding handle to spout. “He has a hard enough time with coffee. Oh, and the wind was really blasting on the way down. I finally snapped the tension by asking him point-blank what the big problem was, and where he got off manhandling the Wylies that way…”

           “Manhandle the Wylies?! What about embarrassing you…” Sydney grabbed and shook her by the arm. “Still always exhaling more than you inhale, aren’t you…never a sliver of a thought for yourself!”

           “Tsk, whatever…he raged on about how he wasn’t free enough for this, couldn’t compete with that. I told him that was his problem, not theirs—that the whole thing was just a little horsing around among good friends. And if he couldn’t handle it after all this time, he had a lot more growing up to do than I thought. About then, the snow was kicking up real good, and he slid off a switchback into a three-foot gully. Must have been four-thirty before a Blazer came by with running lights to winch us free…I could have sworn I spotted a bobcat and some brown bears closing in. Not a word of this to anybody, swear?! He’d positively brain me…”

           “Moon—swear, already, but he’d have to go through me first,” Sydney’s eyes strayed to the side wall once more, to a long-lens compression of olive groves against the ossifying lava trails of Mt. Etna.  “What kind of putz are you tangled up with anyway?  What was his problem?!”

           “Putz—honestly. Anyhow, the next day, he was atoning like crazy, blaming it on finals burnout. I don’t totally buy that, but…”

          “Men!  Give them half a chance, they’ll ruin everything…”

Care for more?

Chapter 6. This conversation continues,
getting more personal and intimately 
revealing before Mr. Wrong(?)
stumbles in, storm clouds
looming over the hills…

“Saturn forces you to finally
cut all this childish crap
and man the boat.”  

       “When Thou sendest him away, Thou dost contend with him.”

        “This is a blessing before he reads the Haftarah, from the book of the prophets…”

        “Blessed oh Lord, our G_d…Who has relieved us of responsibility for this boy.”

        “Says right here in the program.  See, the Haftarah follows the Torah…the Torah’s the Law in our world.”

         As best I can recollect how this all went down, Sydney Mendel had blown in from Telluride via Aspen well behind schedule, the trailing wind of an abrupt change in weather that had dusted the Rockies’ Front Range with two to four more inches of overnight powder, and snarled Stapleton Airport traffic for miles and hours.  My charge—with Melissa’s backseat guidance—was to return the three of us to Boulder via U.S.36 before the morning slid away.  Syd’s excess luggage strained baggage claim.  Her mood ranged from stormy to frantic to rapt, depending upon stop-and-go progress toward her special visitational surprise: a distant cousin’s only son’s bar mitzvah, which the partially plowed turnpike delivered us unto with precious few minutes to spare.  My best hope had been to sit by with the Toyota’s motor running, these holy recitations drowned out by some old eight-track Buddy Miles.  But there would be no such salvation, Sydney being Moon’s former sister-in-law, this being Melissa’s car, if not her surprisingly uneasy reckoning.

 Flatirons in winter.

            “I’m still trying to figure out what’s that black thing all strapped around the kid’s head and arm,” I shifted bun to bun on the polished wooden bench.

            “Tsk, that thing is his prayer tefillin, professor,” Sydney replied sternly. “Those little leather boxes bound onto his head and arm contain Shema and other biblical passages, to harness his intellect, emotions and actions in service of G_d. Wearing it and reading from the Torah’s all part of how he officially becomes a man—see, donning the tefillin, the whole glorious ceremony, bestows upon Aaron the responsibilities of being a Jewish adult.”

            “Hey, sorry…but it’s not like I’ve ever been in one of these places before, I caved, “it’s not exactly my area of…expertise.”

            Sydney’s special surprise had taken us to Boulder’s then southeastern fringe at the time. At the time, El-Bethel was a small, white brick solid temple standing its relatively level ground amid a rolling mesa crop of protestant prim ranch houses and mid-rise college dorms, several blocks removed from turnpike’s end.  Inside, the temple exuded an air of solemn strength and implacable unity greatly beyond its physical dimension—a synagogue growing stronger and fuller, more resolute by the day, devoted to casting a much larger imprint on the community at large.

            Pews, window coverings, walls and woodwork were uniformly beige, shades of a junior high school auditorium or so.  Yet singularly radiant was the pulpit-crowning Ark—a broad, miter-arched, inlaid gold repository harboring the Law of Tefillin, its outer surface venerating God’s kinship and the Exodus from Egypt in colorful mosaic panels.  Before the Ark and a tall brass menorah stood El-Bethel’s teddy bearish, sparsely bearded rabbi, and a pubescently fleshy youth who had just wrestled mightily with, and read from, the Torah scroll, one arm all but tied to his side.

            “This is a happy day for me, the happiest day of my life,” Aaron Kavalla closed a hand-tooled Haftarah cover, smiling toward the  community cantor just finishing ‘Avodat Hakodesh’.  Once Rabbi Hirshhorn, who’d guided through the tefillin and prayers, handed Aaron his seudat cup, the bar mitzvah boy stepped bashfully beside the red velvet-draped bimah to unfold a yellow tablet sheet and spread it across a small podium.

             “He’s a rat,” Sydney hissed. “Thats what he is.

             “I have now passed from the world of childhood to manhood.  I can bear the holy burden of our religion,” Aaron read from scribbled notes, fussing with his black leather tefillin straps and prayer boxes as his eyes repeatedly searched the synagogue, row by row.

            “If  the shirking bastard had any decency, he’d be by his son’s side…”  She whispered her running commentary between Melissa’s and my shoulders, leaning in from one pew removed.  “Martin Kavalla could be here giving the Father’s Blessing and laying the tefillin.  But the creep never took responsibility for his kid in the first place. That’s why he doesn’t have the balls to show up now.”

             “What parents do for their children is more important than all things else,” young Aaron choked up, tugging at his Hershey brown suit and the white silk tallis tasseled about his shoulders.  He smiled toward his beaming mother—seated front row, center—then zeroed in on the motionless rear doors.  “I think the most fitting reward and token of gratitude I can offer is to fulfill this commandment: To honor thy mother and…thy…father…”

            “What makes it even worse is the putz won’t cut the cord and give Lorraine the divorce she’s been begging for since he ran out.  So he’s, like, making an agunah out of her because it’s the same as if he won’t give her a get.”

            “Gotcha,” I nodded and tsked toward Moon, as if I actually knew what this unfamiliar life force was talking about.

             “It’s tragic, that’s what it is.”  Sydney clearly was still grating over the bumper thumper that had backed us up near Broomfield.  “Here Aaron’s struggling to become a man,” she said, as the congregation rose to bestow its collective Jewish blessing.  “With such a miserable weakling excuse for a father figure.”

             “Man?  The kid’s what, thirteen,” I said out the corner of my mouth, sneaking my own peek at those temple doors, then an uneasily silent Melissa.

             “Shhh, now he’s folding up his Aliyah notes…” Syd grabbed my shoulder as though she had known me just long enough to know I should have known better.

              I didn’t know from Moses.  The entire morning had been a spiritual occlusion—a tie-knotting, tire-spinning race against the mortal plane that landed me three rows away from sacred ritual so foreign to what little I had retained of my Herbert family religion, I was still groping for missalettes and kneeling pads more than halfway through the Torah. Sydney stifled me once more when the rabbi began extricating young Kavalla from his prayer tefillin.  I sat coldly mystified throughout the unwinding of those black leather spiral wraps up his forearm, those slender coils from the teen’s left palm and middle finger, the meticulous final removal of tiny phlylacteries from his left bicep and forehead, then their gently replacement into a plum velvet pouch.

             By the time Aaron shed his blue striped tallis, I was likening Syd’s shoulder grab to divine intervention, wisdom and insight imparted through a brightly Burning Bush.  That much, I granted her, but not in so many words.

            “Aaron specifically requested to do the orthodox tefillin thing, just to prove that he could,” she smiled.  “Isn’t this a fantastically creative religion?  So sure footed and innovatively challenging—yet so simple, beautiful…simply beautiful!  Don’t you think it’s simply beautiful, Moon?”

             “On a certain level,” Melissa allowed, muffling her response.  “But it’s been awhile…”

              “Can we start the seudat mitzvah now,” young Kavalla grinned, straightening his gold laced yarmulke, leading the rabbi down El-Bethel’s center aisle.  With that, his mother and the small Shabbat congregation rushed to congratulate him.

             “Seudat?” I held pat for some direction.

             “Banquet,” Moon said discreetly.  She looped my arm as we followed Sydney closely out the synagogue doors.  “You know, the reception….”

           “What…you’ve never told me about such things…I’ve never even thought of us this way.”

           “Inspirational, positively inspirational—a 3,000-year-old ritual, I might add,” Syd zipped up her cardinal red ski jacket as we turned down a long canopied corridor, open on one side to chilling foothill winds, which led to the temple’s satellite reception hall.  “He’ll turn out good, that one—his mother’s seeing to it.  Not like his lecher old man…”

             “So, where is this Martin guy,” I pulled earlobe-length hair out of my snowblown eyes.

            “Tsk, Houston’s what I’ve heard,” Melissa cinched her sand tan wool dress-up coat tightly about her narrow waist.  “I’m sure he has his reasons…”

            “Rats don’t have reasons,” Sydney snapped, as we squeezed through the hall’s compact doorway.  Her cheeks flushed brightly under her rouge as she glanced quizzically at Moon.  “Only excuses…”

            The seudat gatherers filed in along two rows of folding metal tables, some pausing to resorb Hanukkah candles and festive bunting that still filled wide expanses of the hall’s okra-tile and acoustic paneled cinderblock walls.  Simply set, buffet style, the table stretched to a three cross-table spread of catered nosh before a modest assembly stage, centerpieced with a huge cut glass bowl of sparkling punch, small ceramic menorahs to either side.  This is to where my eyes drifted, as the casual, relatively youthful congregation pressed Aaron Kavalla’s flesh in the receiving line.

             “What I meant, Syd,” Melissa said softly, “is that a lot of time has passed…”

             “Sorry, a man just doesn’t desert his loved ones,” Sydney stepped in front of me to make her point.  “Especially not to chase some floozie half his age.  It’s beyond me how Lorraine has managed.  She had to move out here from Evanston just to get through it all.”

            “She’s got to be one tough lady, all right,” Moon led me nearer to the man of honor, within whiffing distance of the nosh, seemingly still floored, small world-wise, that the Mendels had other family living in Boulder, albeit down towards Table Mesa.  “Maybe a little too tough?”

             “Oh, on Martin—poor baby,” Sydney huffed.  “As if a woman can be too tough these days.”

             “Uh, is that stuff for anybody,” I asked, as anxious to butt out of this conversation as I was to hit those tables before everything had been spread too thin.  A forward third of the line was already poring over fat platters of Nova lox and holishkes; deep dishes of whitefish and cucumber salad; asides of shav, challah, gefilte kishka and kashen varnishkes; a sweet finish of Lokshen kugel, rugalach, plus assorted blintzes and varenikehs.  I white-bread knew not what to make of any of this.  Then again, it all looked so delish, and I hadn’t eaten anything since Stapleton’s B-Concourse vending machines.

             “I’m only saying these things are usually more complicated than they appear,” Melissa said.

             “Not when it comes to marriage,” Sydney dug into her down jacket for Aaron’s bar mitzvah cards.  “That’s where the complications end…like they should have with Lester…”

             “Now, now—let’s not start that,” Moon backstepped to let Sydney lead the way toward the Kavallas with two more silver embossed money holder, upping the ante on a small booty of gift talmuds and fountain pens.  “But you know better than anyone that I speak from experience here…”

             “Aaron, you little mensch you,” Sydney interrupted, tweaking the bar mitzvah boy’s cheek, then embracing her long-lost cousin.  “Lor-raine, you must be so proud…”

            “Sydney dear, you did make it in,” Lorraine Ridich-Kavalla smiled, a plain, rather zaftik brunette in motherly pink and pearls.  “Faith called and said you were stranded in some avalanche or….”

            “Not quite, but she and Daddo apologize to death for the no-show.  Florida’s just so ridiculously far away,” Sydney pulled out and handed them two silver embossed money holders.  “You recall Melissa, don’t you?  Turns out she’s been living right here in Boulder, too.  This is her…friend.”

             “Of course,” Lorraine’s smile tightened, Aaron tapping his foot impatiently beside her to a soundtrack of Dan Fogelberg, now crooning, ‘Part of the Plan’.  “Melissa dear, we’ve never heard from you or…”

             “Lester’s not in Colorado, Lorraine,” Sydney abruptly ushered Moon and me toward the buffet. “You know him, he’ll never cross the Mississippi…”

            “Pleased to meet you. But if you don’t mind, I’m headin’ for the eats,” I shook Aaron’s hand damply and nodded toward the platters.  I also craved a moment to digest this first full morning’s rasher of Melissa’s spiritual sister, her artsy world-beating genius role model goddess of freedom and light, this high-speed car chase in ski togs with the cinnamon midwinter tan. Fighting off some fresh-brewed acidity, I went whole hog for the spread—sampling some kreplach and knishes, piling on the more safely familiar fare: a plateful of corned beef, deviled eggs and spinach squares, a little lemon-honey cake and two shmears of prune strudel.  I loaded up on punch, then spotted Moon staking out three chairs directly across from seats reserved for Lorraine and Aaron’s bobbeh.  A few breathless swallows of sparkling loganberry, and I was already searching for the doors.

             “Just look at them,” Sydney sighed, joining Melissa, seating her to her left.  “And tell me Martin Kavalla isn’t a cubic shlub for running off.”

             “Cube…damn.”  I angled up to rejoin them, sensing an opening, my plate folded over like a pocket pita.  “Moon, that reminds me I promised the dean’s office I’d finalize class evaluations and clear out my cubicle before Monday.”

             “Kenny, we just…”

             “Really?” Sydney added, flapping her napkin.  “Sucking up on Saturday, are we?”

            “No choice, Dean Cross is busting my noogies as it is,” I figured all of us could stand a digestive break.  At least over on campus, I could rebury myself in more empirically recognizable terrain. “Besides, I’m sure you two have plenty to talk about…”

            “But the car…you’ve barely eaten,” said Melissa.  “You know how you get when…”

             “Keep it here.  I’ll hike over for my clunker, down this as I go,” I brush kissed her hair blossom-scented hair, then buttoned my gray corduroy sport coat.  “So not to worry.  I’ll see you guys later at the house, OK?   Say, how’s about I get you two some punch and stuff before…”

             “We’ll manage,” Sydney replied frostily.  “By all means, leave the gals to their hen party.”

Care for more?

Chapter 5.  A snowy trudge across campus,
and this post-holiday tête à tête is missed, as is a
sisterly meeting of the minds… 

“The influence of Saturn is 
the most lasting and malignant of 
all planets. Mars may be compared to a fever…
while Saturn resembles a temblor, a consumption” 

Degrees of effort, degrees of elevation: Seething resentment fanned into throbbing parietal rage as I tore up Broadway, ears ringing high mass over snowmelt-surging Boulder Creek, past priced-out storefronts once home to carobesque, ideologically pristine little haunts I seldom frequented yet somehow sorely missed.  Where the hell was the old Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics when a body needed it?  I turned heedlessly up Arapahoe—cranking down windows, Seamus banging rock-hard against the station wagon’s rear sidewall, then ricocheting up to the driver’s seat, what with the rear jumpseat being habitually folded under.

“Get back there, dogmeat!”  I veered suddenly curbside, before a humming realty office, smack where my favorite grainy co-op used to be.  I headlocked the face-licking Setter, twisting Seamus’s neck, biting the dog’s crusted left ear before thrusting his howling 45-pound frame rearward against the tailgate.  “Get back there,” I screamed, “go makin’ a horse’s ass out of me…”

Seamus whimpered painfully, but stayed the distance—Irish Setters being crazy, but not stupid.  This morning had started routinely enough: I’d taken him up for some sunrise exercise, past the Turnpike vista point before school—cutting it close, but with the knowledge that any resulting time/schedule press paled by comparison with a Setter 24 hours unrun.  The plan was to cruise along a gravel ridge road overlooking Boulder Valley and its full Rocky Mountain backdrop, albeit with the nagging notion that I could have stood some jogging my own self.

The dog would eat my squareback’s dust at a 25 m.p.h. clip, sprinting himself silly enough to be essentially comatose until morning next.  Except for today, of all days, Seamus strayed.  Just as I slowed, calling him in—zam, he was off into a horse pasture, rolling around in a dung heap, rubbing it in real good—ears, feathering, everywhere.  And I’d just scrubbed him down day two days before.

I had towelled Seamus off some, but didn’t have enough time to take him home.  So I was forced to leave him stew in the student parking lot, vent windows cracked wide.  Still, a couple of hours really fried things, with that sun-broiled  McKyle’s’ pit stop only intensifying the Squareback’s equine stink.  There had been no escaping it.  Even amid Cross’s questions, Seamus was this long titian blur across my field of vision, mad dog bounding over the hilltops, tail dragging sorely between his legs: Fractured coccygeal vertebrae, fifth caudal segment, crushing hemal arches, chipping the articular and mammillary processes, vet’s bill painful all the more.

I’d even shamefully, witlessly blurted that sorry diagnosis between Spearman’s rho and Kendall’s tau.  So now I shuddered, slapping fiercely at my throbbing right temple, then cut left up 7th Street, well into the foothills—this endearingly grubstake corner of old Boulder roughly mountain cradled from Chautauqua and Baseline north to the deep, damp slit into Boulder Canyon.  Tight, cottage-lined streets stuffed their way up against the greenbelt like a throw rug under a drafty door.  From there, the foothills and Front Range reigned au naturel, making these heaped together little houses precious far beyond their material worth.

Snow lingered long on University Hill’s uppermost streets, drifted into leaf-packed gullies and trail beds, tufted between wind-gnarled trees and bushes coolly shaded by the Front Range wall, thrusting abruptly skyward a short block or so away.  This near the greenbelt, small was beautiful by public decree: cabins, squatter shacks, in some cases, glorified sheds were being restored, contemporized, only modestly built out as space and City Hall permitted.  You yielded to bounds established when these odd lots were pick-ax mining claims; the pay-off was a backyard of lodgepole pine and snow-capped splendor stretching to Rifle and Durango.

University Hill, Boulder

 While this climb cleared my sinuses, the aural ringing wouldn’t cease, my whole head blowing up like a Jiffy Pop bag.  A sharp pain crackled across my forehead—cranial muscles tightening with torque wrench force, fronto-insular cortex pressure—sudden shakes and tremors I had never, ever felt before.  Plowing through jellied snowmelt, I notched each street and bell toll incrementally deeper into the steering wheel, until my thumbnails bruised and knuckles ached and the top of my head began steaming like the sun off nearby rushing creeklets.

All because I couldn’t seem to reconcile revolving grudges about the unevenness of my playing field: merit vs. moneyclip, the monetocracy always trumped—about out-of-state Porsche roadsters, ‘Happiness Is Owning The Means Of Production’ bumperstickers, and my fetid litter box of a Volkswagen misfiring badly onto Fir Drive.  Much as I loved Boulder, I couldn’t shake the painful synapses I had snapping up here, atop The Hill which was lording over the valley and beyond.  ‘Twas a privilege to live in Colorado, all right—revocable at any time.  And for some reason, I was growing more and more anxious about cooling my heels in Boulder’s academic waiting room.  His snout out the side vent, ears flapping in the breeze, Seamus’s incessant tail banging only steamed me that much more.  What the hell is this shit?  This isn’t me, at least the me that’s supposedly supposed to be by now…

I slid to a stop in front of 519 Cliff, splashing slush and gravel toward a peak-roofed former miner’s cabin with a swaying porch swing that faced the frontal peaks like third row center in an IMAX theatre.  It was Jeremiah Hapgood’splace in 1861, still said so above the door, and had taken on a tiny room or two and even tinier barn wood outbuildings over the years.  The yellow-brown shake cabin had two tall, narrow window cases looking out toward Flagstaff Summit, and a crooked brick chimney sending white smoke streams up through the overhang of a 150 year-old elm tree.  Seamus yelped and clawed out the nearest half-cranked car window, to the relief of all but a scattering of ground squirrels.

Boulder cabin entrance.

“Sorry about the…ouch!”  I tossed the Setter a few remaining stale Milk-Bones, then hit my head on an icicle cluster dripping crystalline from the low, slanted porch roof.

“Kenny?!  Oops, better go, Syd…but, oh, hearing your voice, you don’t know.  Me, too…see you tomorrow.  Be safe, byebs…Kenny, how’d we do?”

“I’m out,” I snapped, brushing off my clothes, as I stumbled through the front door, catching the plaited scent of musk and burned pine. “I’m totally blown off and sent packing…”

“Wantz to hear all about it!”  Melissa ‘Moon’ Saversohn, housemate, beamed at me and dropped the phone.  “Big thing is, you’re out.  Now we’re really cookin’, aren’t we…” She rushed toward me, small and delicate, yet strategically turned, her very presence begging preclusive embrace.  But she suddenly stopped cold to crack a parlor window.  “Oh, not again…I do hope you wiped your feet.”

“This morning yet, right before orals.”  I stomped snow and worse onto the cabin’s hardwood floor, then motioned menacingly out to the yard.  “Setters are lunatics, I tell you.  And I don’t care what the vet says, he’s not doing it to mask his scent, he does it just to spite me! So help me, I could have killed him right then and there …”

“Kenny, you didn’t,” she checked the side window for signs of life, Seamus darting and digging and banging away.  “Tsk, why do you still take him anywhere near those pastures?  He’s a hunting dog, you know he’s gonna roll in it by nature.  Whew, if you went to class like that, they probably couldn’t wait to sign you out.”

“Booted out’s more like it,” I caught another whiff, up close and personal, as if downwind of a Porta-Potty dump truck.  “They say they haven’t made any decisions about the fall, but it turns out they have made their damn decisions—courtesy of Grammersly and Verniere.

“But you’ve been doing so well.”  She angled for some safe approach, finally tiptoeing to hug and kiss me, fresh smock or no.  “You say Grammersly…and who?”

“Paul Verniere,” I  quick released her for closer scrutiny. “You know, at the graduate Christmas party.  He says he remembers you…”

“Oooh, of course…from San Francisco, nice enough guy…”

“He’s a departmental weasel—a Franco-Italian weasel!”

“Hmm, come to think of it, I think he was kinda comin’on to me a little bit,” she fled back into oven-warmed kitchen, waft with the natural sweetness of scratch baking.  “Sorta over-the-line for my tastes.  Great car, though…”

“Aww, he’s aready beat it to hell,” I ripped through the morning’s mail for anything marked university business, coming up with the first notice on my student loans.  “The latest is Cross has already handed him a doctoral slot, gift wrapped and guaranteed.”

“And how do we know this,” she asked, returning with a plate of maple-frosted squares.

“Verniere just told me so himself, over at McKyle’s.”  I devoured two corner slices as though they were iced with Demerol.  “Then he had the gall to pick my brain about orals….”

“So maybe he was just running his gums…”  This, her generic term for redlining one’s mouth with the clutch quite disengaged.  “ He is a semester behind you, isn’t he?  And you said yourself word’s not due for another month.  See, this is all in your cabanza again…it’ll all work out, just watch.”

“Yeah maybe, but I never said he was a class behind…”  I gazed out upon the still snow-strated Flatirons, spirits sinking with the sun.  My eye cast about the parlor at collages of framed pictures—a trail of distant continental images, with no avenue of escape.

“Um…guess he must have told me at that party,” she set aside the tray and moved toward the embering fireplace.  “Anyway, didn’t we say no more laying blame on other people?  New Year’s resolution?  And we’ve got to get a grip on this crazy competition thing of yours.  Everything’s been going along just fine, Kenny, we’ve got it socked here in eden.  This is just you thinking too much again—it’s all in your imagination.  Now, how about a little celebration for once…let’s just flow with it.”

“If you say so,” I heaved hard, ringing out, as though she held her nail-nubbed finger firmly on what infrequently passed for my safety valve.

  “Oh, and speaking of San Francisco, guess who you finally get to meet?”  Thus relieved, she rocked back on red wool socks and beaded moccasins.  Hill-bent sunlight skewed in from just above Flagstaff Summit, rose tinting the high dusty ceiling, torching a Circaean oil portrait of herself above the mantle, strikingly headstrong against a meadow of wild fescueand oleander, riding a magic mandarin orange comforter, thick brown hair spilling down winsomely to her waist.

‘Waif and Grain’ variously moved and embarrassed her to tears, as though it were a persona she’d never actualized, could never hope to be, a persona on loan from the heavens.  It was the undeniable fulcrum to an otherwise tidy, garage sale variety décor.  “She’s been upcountry skiing over the holidays…coming in tomorrow morning.”

 “Moon, please, no houseguests…”  To this day, I shuddered each time the painting snatched my eye.  I was loath to acknowledge it—less because of style than actual substance.  ‘Waif’ was someone else’s Melissa, earth mother as centerfold, a personal loan I wasn’t fully prepared to square away.  Still, on occasion the unfading promise of the portrait stirred me more than the earth itself.  “I’ve had enough Frisco for one day.”

“This is Sydney, remember—family,” she insisted, slide stepping toward me with the bakery tray.  “She won’t be staying here, anyway.  She’s got other people in Boulder, you know.  In fact, she says she’s already planned something special for us to go to.  Kenny, where are you…”

“Company’s coming,” I muttered, wolfing down another maple square, turning for the door.  “Better go out and hose everything down…”

Care for more?

 Chapter 4. In the service of an
entirely different kind of service,
markers of manhood are laid bare.


“Even Saturn’s Virtues
are dreary.  And its vices are
particularly unpleasant. Because they
operate through the emotion we call fear.”

         “Sticky? You left the Bay Area for…Boulder?”  I watched a regiment of long-suited joggers file down mall after a rally at Frank Shorter Sports, forerunners of the valley’s endorphin revolution. “Happened to take a little trip to Frisco myself, over Thanksgiving.  Seemed pretty big time…sort of like the mother lode of raw empirical data. Couple of people showed me some ropes, and everything. I mean, I probably wouldn’t plant a flag there or anything…”

            “Big-time hassles.  I was subbing and stuff, closing in on the big 3-0, and things were closing in on me,”  Paul Verniere pulled down his Aviators, wiping clean the chrome lenses.  He then swept his arm around toward the campus and sloping winter peaks back-dropping every artery and building in between.  “By the way, don’t call it Frisco, and don’t kid yourself.  Boulder is Walden Pond compared to there. The people and…hell, just open your eyes, man.”

Mall and mountain view

         Other than a sprinkling of grizzled Pearl Street mainstays, only the banks and brickface remained.  Frontier storefronts still bore pioneer nameplates the likes of Boettcher, 1878 and Browning, 1890—but everything else on the mall was yesterday’s news.  Walls had been sand blasted, wood beams stripped and exposed.  Designer jeans and leather basked in display cases once saddled with tack and rodeo wear, common housewares had upscaled into track-lit earthly goods.

          A Pearl Street where hot, dust-spitting Jimmies and Power Wagons once went axle to straight axle for cruising rights had by now been feasibility studied, climate compensated, traffic diverted, pedestrian engineered, cluster illuminated, environmentally integrated, energy efficiencied and assessed to the hilt—then swarmed over by come-latelys too new to know any different.

            “C’mon, Everybody’s Favorite City?”  I was taken aback by Verniere’s candor, fixing to toss down a major slug of Lucky Lager.  “It seemed so worldly and incredibly alive.  I mean sometimes Boulder does make me a little stir crazy.”

            “Listen, San Francisco can make you certifiably crazy…I’m dead serious,” he spoke through another, more modest splash of Grenache, wringing the stem of his glass.  “That City of mine’s a rubber room with a view these days, 49 miles square. Trust me, it can suck you into situations way beyond your control.”

            “Rubber…suck?  Jeez, I can see captivating maybe, but…”

            “Besides, you’ve got it socked here, right?  Great dog, righteous ol’ lady, happening little dream house up on The Hill.  Me, I’m stuck out there in flatsville valley, overlooking the picturesque Crossroads loading docks.”

            “Aw, you’ll work your way up there eventually.  Housing’s a right of passage in this town,” I swallowed, over the roar of a snowblower casting the last slushing drifts aside. “We started out by 28th Street, too…uh, how did you know about…”

            “What can I say?   Guess it’s the outgoing Franco-dago in me.  Must have been at the department’s Christmas party, remember?  You brought your…wife…Melissa, is it?  Such a nice gal, of the Hebrew persuasion?  She told me all…

            “Moon, my…housemate.  Guess I forgot she came along…and the Hebrew thing I can’t say much about.  I mean, it hardy ever comes up.”

            “Forgot?  Maybe you were too busy hitting on Grammersly…”

            “The hell…”   What…stuck, I thought, flitter glancing his way.  What hassles, what situations?  What Hebrew persuasion?  Something about this guy didn’t jibe.  He was a little too open, a little too closed–a little too needy, a little too set—a little too youthful, a little too old.  In some untoward way, I wanted to hear more about Paul Verniere, I just didn’t want to hear it from him.  Why Sosh?  Why here?  Why was this guy reading Camus and Dos Passos, when he could have been hung up on Garp and Castenada like everybody else around town?  And what was he hiding in all those damn pockets? “Anyway, nothing’s socked now that my program’s over.  Cross and Terrent were really noncommittal about my doctoral acceptance.  How did they put it?  ‘No such determinations had yet been made regarding any of our candidates.’  Just before Grammersly came up with her ‘extinguish’ crack.  This is so totally out of nowhere, I don’t even begin to know what’s next.  God forbid—downtown Denver—maybe some internship or miserable counseling center.”

            “Wow, actually go out and take on the ills of society.  What a methodology…”

            Across Broadway, long, lazy wooden benches stretched sidewalk-to-sidewalk, hedge rowing a half-block of barren flowerbeds and saplings smack down center mall, where dueling traffic used to be.  It was now prime resting ground for the over studious undergrads and understudied laggards soaking in the cabin fever-breaking mood of the day.  Kick back and explore the people exploring the gran criterion bike shop, organic bakery/smoothies bar, the sheepskin fleecers and synthetic jazz clubs.

          Everybody high and trail-mixed and colorfully down filled, spacewalking along the snowy mountain background, reaching a dreamy state of happathy, seeking out mythical Morkins behind every young Green Ash and Linden tree—as if such creatures ever actually landed east of Studio City, California.  Still, I found myself pining for old shitkicking, pool-shooting Art ’n’ Arnie’s up there on the corner—a cowboy dive any tenderfoot could get himself honorably snookered in—before some Chicago deep-dish pizza franchise booted their rowdy asses up to Nederland and Ward.

            “Anyway, without the Ph.D. program, there’s nothing much around here for me,” I added, before downing my Lucky in earnest.  “It’s like teaching…get your credentials and work construction.  I didn’t sweat out a master’s to nail tarpaper and shingles.”

            “Aww, hang in there, it’s well worth the wait.  My mother’s always told me a good education can buy you things, or freedom from things.”  An upstart breeze must have stirred my essence, prompting him to back an arm’s length from the table.  “Although I must say it makes me glad I’m locked in for this fall.”

            “Got that right…wait a minute, I thought you’re graduating this spring…”

            “Yes, finishing out the master’s I started at San Francisco State,” Verniere said, hands now free to gesticulate, boxing things neatly as he spoke.  “I’m talking about doctoral.”

            “How the hell can you have a lock on that?  Nobody…”

            “Grammersly told me so, at the Christmas party…she said she’d already discussed it with Cross.”

             “No way,” I spouted, snatching my Lucky bottle.  “Just this morning they said…”

            “Who knows,” Verniere asked, with a sweep of his arm.  “Maybe you should have been hitting on her…”

            “Oh, right.  Next you’ll be telling me they’ve already granted you an assistantship.” I nervously drained my longneck brew.

            “Don’t need it,” he smiled, shaking out his cutback curly black hair, a serpentine ring setting glistening in the sun.  “A little granny family trust is there so long as I use if for self improvement. My job’s the GPA…ready for another suds there?”

            “Uh, no thanks,” I pushed my bottle away, barely stifling the ire.  Hmph, another damn trust buster.  “Well, that’s just great for you…I really mean it…”

            “Yessir, fresh new intellectual horizons—besides, gotta stay here in mountopia, nested with all the adoring young chickadoos, right?”  Verdiere beckoned the waitress, who had patrolled their corner like a minesweeper since the opening round.  “Mellow out, Herbert, I’ll get two more going here.”

            “No, really—I’d better go…got some errands,” I correlated my timing against Boulder Bank’s pedestal clock.  Either it was striking at twenty after the hour, or this little reality check was all of a sudden compression ringing, ear to ear.

            “I hear you,” he replied quizzically, gently tapping the waitress’s hipbone as she squeezed between tables, full tray.  “Listen, we’ll do this again real soon, hey?  Maybe you can fill me in on the orals portion while it’s still fresh.  I mean, did they cover Path Analysis or Epistemological Curvilinearity, shuck and jive like that on the orals portion?  I’ve got it coming up in June, and all…and you are the teachers’ pet rock, aren’t you?”

            “In my dreams.  But I really don’t hang out much on Pearl Street anymore…”  I rose, striving to keep civil distance from the Margarita party one table down.  No such luck.  My cavalier parting wave caught that pivoting waitress squarely across her Golden Buffaloes, which sent her tray sailing, gimlets, and all.  More startled than she, I centrifugally crashed the neighboring party, specifically their refilled pitcher.

            “Hey, real smooth, jerk-off!”  A McKyle’s’ regular of rodeo proportions rose like a Trident missile launcher, glaring at me, blotting Margarita from his butterscotch leather sport coat with the overhang of a white linen tablecloth.

            “Sorry…aww Christ…”  I dabbed his shoulder with some Kahlua cocktail napkins.

            “Suit yourself, Herbert,” snapped Verniere, backing his chair further away from all the drips.  “Whew, where have you been, anyway?!”

            “My goddamn dog,” I muttered, righting stemware, helping the waitress apply more napkin compresses to the frosted party of four.

            “Dog?”  He sniffed.  “That’s horse manure, if you ask me.  And here I was, going to take you for a spin in my Targa.”

            “A long story…guess it’s the tipsy Scotcho-mick in me.”  I sponged at my own checkered plaid flannel and jeans, then vaulted over McKyle’s’ wall into the path of a custodial crew changing clustered glass-globe streetlights.  “Uh, sorry… Hey, catch you later, Paul, OK?  And thanks for the brew.”

            “Sure, Herbert, sorry about that,” Venire sneered, waving his right, jade-ringed hand—narrow, porous face nay shaking behind those cold, reflective shades.  “CU down the road…”

Care for more?


 Chapter 3. An angry acknowledgement,
then a bloody Sisyphean ride home. 



What Goes Around, Storms Around.

Saturn, gem of the universe, the Ferrari of planets:
A spongy hydrogen ball over 740 million miles out
there—large enough to hold 750 Earths, light enough
to float on water.  Behold the mathematical perfection
of its rings, the operatic static between them as they span
165,000 miles, magneto-radiating 150 feet icy thick.  And
that’s not the half of it, sonny boy…”
       Dame Thornia DeWilde             


With all due sympathy and respect:
However, this tale is from an earlier, pearlier time…

Boulder, Colorado: 1978

Should have seen this coming—damned if she didn’t say it would…and I couldn’t begin to shake it if I tried.

No, not here, not yet: I’d simply ventured downtown to bemoan, bemingle, walk off some vexations, lose myself like some stress-tested lab rat in the crowd—just not exactly this way at all.

“C’mon, you’re not that busy, Herbert.  Haul your lazy ass over here…”

“Uh, think I’d better pass,” I pulled up in a prefrontal dither, “aww, hold on a sec.” Then came one clumsy hurdle  over a thigh-high railing.

Back then, seeing a guy like him right now was giving the lye to already tired eyes, but here we collegially were. Sure, judgment day happened to fall amid one of those balmy January storm breaks, about which eastern slope Colorado had always kept so mum.  Four to six inches of fresh powder one day, mostly gone by the next, with the next storm gathering to blow over the Front Range: This latest soft snowpack had already melted across much of Boulder Valley, these lower elevations currently being strafed by warm Chinook winds.  Shallow drifts dissolved from the foothills and Chautauqua like carbonated foam, barely clinging to the Flatirons’ lower facing and lee shadows for purely seasonal effect.

Such garnishing was no match for the mile-high sun, a cerulean cellophane brilliance that radiated clear over the Continental Divide, generating the very same giddy, fissionable Rocky Mountain energy so exalted in verse and song.  By this time, everybody in beautiful Boulder had grown to hate Denver for the unwanted attention—the singer, that is.  Tried-and-true Bouldernistas never could much bear the city all along.

Still, not more than an hour or so before, though seemingly aeons ago, I had staggered out of red tile-roofed Ketchum Hall, angling across campus past Old Main, the University of Colorado’s revered brick Victorian pioneer cornerstone, sloshing through snowmelt, dodging busy ground squirrels and white tufts that fell feather light from the bare branches of birch and elms.

My earliest impression of the school was, take the Rockies away, and you had every other State.  But before long, I couldn’t have taken to the mountainside campus more if it had been Cambridge with a mountain view.  I felt especially so on days this crisp, this clean—mild mid-winter days better spent outdoors than in—best frozen forever in place and time.  Reason enough why I went woozy at any hint of budget cuts or faculty ambivalence.  Then again, it might have just been the altitude, or that I had stayed too breathlessly long in my car.

“There, sit yourself down, my man…”

“Uh, careful, Paul, you may not want to get too close…my headache might be catching.”

The only real headache of consequence in the late-70s Boulder Valley I had just steered through was rampant, problematical growth.  As Denver sprawled up the Route 36 corridor, breathing room between the two cities narrowed to where local space vigilantes had all but circled their welcome wagons at the Turnpike’s summit rim.  Precious greenbelts tightened, building permits abated, sewer and gas caps were locked down.  Federally funded research centers monitored the atmosphere from their hillside labs, environmental activists blizzarded the valley with hellish impact statements.

A bitter bumper sticker backlash pitted native against nouveau-native against newcomer—the battle cry, ‘Think Globally, Act Neighborly’ giving way to the NIMBYism, ‘Get In, Get Yours—Then Baby, Bar The Door’.  Despite everything, still they came, from every direction, settling up and down the glorious Front Range.  By now, even a sociologist on the make like myself struggled to keep up with all the changes, much less the turbo coupes and full-dress 4x4s blowing workaday pick-ups and station wagons better than mine off area roads.

For what once was the hippest little college town on the underground/counter-culture trail between Mad City and Berkeley was now a univerCity being Morked and Mindified in network primetime, coast to coast, and trending toward irretrievably, commercially cutesy cool.  Boulder’s founders turned over in their Pioneer cemetery graves as modest brick and frame cottages and bungalows burst out all over with skylights, barn wood dormers and rainbow leaded-glass lofts, turning over and over again at mile-high multiples.

With old Boulder thus engaged, most resource-rich newbies pushed new Boulder’s upper limits northward and into wild, mining-claimed, combustible mountain canyons, the rest just spread eastward across the valley, coalescing with Lafayette and Longmont.  But nowhere was Boulder’s new frontier more evident than in the dead center heart of town.

“Nonsense, don’t be so schizo…”

“No, I’m serious,” I said, having just coasted beer-bound into an alley spot off Spruce street, in the cool shadow of a simple blue frame house that had been reconfigured into this fave little feminist restaurant with by-reservation-only cuisine.  Near enough to Pearl Street, I figured, near enough to Nancy’s dumpster so that no one would pin that ungodly odor on my car.  “So, what’re you reading there?”

“Just about the cranking up of protest rallies and demonstrations in Qum, Iran now, for Godsakes. The Middle East, man, that’s important business over there,” Verniere said, dog earing a page corner, closing his Harper’s magazine. “If it weren’t for the oil, they ought to blow the whole of Arabia up.”

“Just keep gas prices down.  That’s all that really matters…”

Along with the local cowboys and common townsfolk went such quaint notions as covered wagon coffee shops and musty dry goods stores.  So the planning commission and a bandwagon of downtown boosters went high concept: Pearl Street as playground.  I had scurried up Boulder’s new kiosked, landscaped, red bricked-over main drag past Aquarian bookstores, goose down outfitters, wood-carving galleries and backcountry bookstores—some four blocks overall, short on everyday mercantile practicality, long on yogurt and Rocky Road.  Serious shoppers fled to crossroads centers; everybody else came here to juggle and gawk. I certainly hadn’t come for the shopping today, much less for veging around to talk shop.

“Well, today’s the big day, am I right?” At least that’s what Paul R. Verniere was apparently up to, having emerged from the dark recessed doorway of a hardware provisions store turned watering hole, wine glass in hand.

“How’s that,” I asked stiffly, drawing up to a low wall framing McKyle’s’ brimming sidewalk patio.  Verniere had made me uneasy since fall-term registration, when he snapped up the last late-morning Social Stratification Proseminar seat.  Even now, standing there all loose and wiry in those tailored twill bush pants and well-travelled leather bombadier jacket, he and every stitch about him begged one question or another: Like how he was a year or so older, yet a little bit baccalaureately behind even me, or why he seemed to be evading or escaping something. Which is perhaps why I thought about this curious fellow grad student rather routinely—Tuesday and Thursday mornings at 8:05.

“You know, the O.K. Corral,” he moved quickly to nail down a front corner table, overlooking a bare honey-locust sapling and some snowy flower crocks.  “Orals week and all…”

“Don’t wanna talk about it…”  I vaulted the patio wall, albeit against my better judgment, grabbing a seat safely downwind, averting to survey the scene.  Certain people said I looked less like a grade grunt than a red-shirted point guard, but you couldn’t tell it by me.

The Pearl Street Mall had been something of a spectacle right from the ceremonial ribbon cut—grand local theatre in an increasingly theatrical town.  Shakespearean fencing, storefront rappellers, tribal bellydancers, carpet skiing, flag-bearing fan dancers: today, the show went on, albeit minus the ranchero and harabe hoofers, but numbing just the same.  This Friday afternoon, the parade consisted mostly of post-holiday bargain hunters sidestepping student malingerers bagging finals, who drifted around ski helots between free lifts to Eldora or Copper Mountain.

“No really, what dya know?” Verniere beckoned a blonde pony-tailed waitress in an overstretched CU sweatshirt.  “Another Grenache, hon, and whatever for my friend here.  Just run me the tab…”

“Beer—anything but Coors,” I said, in the wake of her zero-tolerance 501s.  Sniffing about for more orders, she was already trolling back under McKyle’s’ logo-emblazoned patio awning to the bar.

“Interest you in grabbing her by the Buffalo horns, hey,” Verniere asked slyly, as he tabled his Mastercard. “Yessir, I could see jumping her bones, latch onto those flotation devices…”

“Yeah well, I’m not really much for devices these days.”

Anyway, word’s had it in the faculty lounge that today is your orals Armageddon,” Verniere pressed, rays glazing off the chest of his orange Tubes top as he set his wine glass atop a tattered Foreign Affairs Quarterly.  “So, what’s the scoop…”

“You’d really like to know, wouldn’t you,” I erupted.

“C’mon, wouldn’t you?”

McKyle’s tucked narrowly between a crystal/fossils bookstore gallery and a brand new Falafel Phil’s, its SRO patio positioned favorably for a spectacular mall-against-the-mountains scenario that made for marathon tabs.  After a wintry week of storms, a day this perfect fairly vindicated the whole controversial downtown concept.  Strolling folkies even set a melic, placidly uterine subtone to it all.

“OK, you’ve got it.”  Hardly becalmed in the least,  I grabbed my Lucky Lager from her tray as the waitress swayed by, then licked the head out of my mustache on the down draft.  “So Ketchum’s second floor was like a Star Chamber, all right?  They’re grilling me on Data Analysis for must have been two hours…”

“Really—like what,” Verniere sipped intently.

“You know, the heavy statistics and stuff,” I vented, although guardedly filtering out various specifics and details.  “Multivariate Factor Analysis, Logistic Regression—putting me through the wringer on Correlation Coefficients, Probit Analysis—everything from Pearsonian r to Kendall’s tau.  It was brutal, almost like academic mind control or something.  And I’m just not that into mind control, you know?”

“Whoa, who is anymore, right?  But I’ll wager a sawbuck you did just fine…”

“Are you kidding?”  Lucky loosening my tongue, I proceeded to describe how my grand design on academic tenure had been reduced to random purges.  Tracking error, warped disk: Frantic cramming and desperate all-nighters had only left me with a weakened beam.  The three-chair sociology faculty committee had in turn left me with the impression that they had recently examined far too many substandard deviations from the mean.  After a while, it got so I started drifting intellectually toward the lone seminar room window, fixing out on a narrow clip of the snow-veiled Flatirons, all but jailbreaking out of the chamber altogether.

“Know the feeling, but it couldn’t have been all that bad, could it?”

“Who knows?  The way Professor Cross was grilling me, clearing his throat at painful intervals…”  That would have been Wallford Cross, Ph.D., a slight, Cream-of-Wheat Skinnerian who had levered into a department chairmanship via the National Science Foundation pipeline.  “It was gradual torment…he finally suggested I ‘go forth in the world and…distinguish myself’.  Can you believe that?”

“I hear you, but what about Terrent?”

“Ol’ Uncle Emlen?  Forget about it…”  Even Blanchard Professor of Applied Sociology, Emlen Terrent, my advisor and best post-graduate hope, had sniffed and shifted in his rumpled tweed and cords, seemingly far better prepped for a mid-year Champagne luncheon at the faculty club.  “The three of them had already snapped shut their folio cases by the time I stood up.  They couldn’t get out of the room fast enough…”

“So maybe it was pro forma, probably means you’re a shoe-in,” Verniere said. “Sounds to me like your imagination is working overtime…”

“Oh, yeah?  Then when I tripped over their newly endowed chair, Helen Grammersly said, ‘that was distinguish yourself, not extinguish’.  All the way out, I’m tryin’ to figure how I’d gone in there with all the answers, and come out with a ton of questions.”

Truth was that very flood of questions haunted me down Ketchum’s hardwood hallways, as I scored each nick and telltale scar from preceding student bodies whose operose methodology yielded a similarly null hypothesis.  I’d whistled past a front lobby bulletin board as high on horizons as it was low on real-world opportunities: thumbtacked full of travel here, study there—apply now, not to worry about applying it later.  But as Dr. Terrent always said, everything came in time, degrees of effort in positive correlation with degrees of elevation.  I chewed on that and half a stale, pocketed Milk-Bone all the way across the quad.  “Extinguish, my ass—who the hell does she think she…”

“Ah, well, Grammersly’s doctorate is from Berkeley,” Verniere scoffed, tossing back a goodly portion of his second wine—not exactly Pacino he , but no Jeff Goldblum either.  “Everybody’s a smart ass there.  I know, was a Cal Bear undergrad myself.”

“I don’t care where she’s from.  No snotty skirt’s gonna…wait, you’re from Berzerkely?  I thought…”

“Crazier yet, San Francisco, why do you think I came out here?” he toasted. “Things can get real sticky there. And when they do, they stick to you.”

Care for more?


Chapter 2. This conversation continues, questions
are answered, 
more are raised—
Colorado meets California over 
the Divide…