“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, nosey. Faith was my very first.”
“You should see her, flash. 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 the 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 wondered if it could have been 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 simplicity and grace. If it was in Chicago, they’d have done it in 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-Towner 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?”
“He did the Marin Civic Center—amazing, too,” Syd huffed, diverted momentarily but undeterred, steering us eastward, toward central Sausalito. “But moving right along…”
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, flash, 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, as I always say, I see 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, in a state of constant climax…eww, my panties get sticky all over again just thinking about it.”
“I wouldn’t know about that,” 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?”
“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.”
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.
“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. And 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, 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,” 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 example.”
“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 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 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. 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? 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 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. 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 a second thought, instead casting about the deck for some avenue of escape. “No, on second thought, 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,” 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 in tow, 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 down in Guyana, deadline showdowns looming, details at 7—then dialed on mid sentence. Meanwhile, I fixed on the bridge’s north tower, glowing in the bi-way headlamps like a gilded stepladder to the stars.
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. Syd waxed like a groupie as how San Francisco’s Journey was formed several years back by former Santana band mates. 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 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 Nug…”
“Make that Golden State, and step on it,” she peered like a longhaired pointer, tracking the Red and White ferry.
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…”
So I had slept in, closet-wise, then tried to call, no answer. Tried again after coffee, nothing but questions. Was Moon walking the dog? Straying off the trail? Even with the time difference, this early on a Sunday meant it couldn’t have been due to work back there. Nevertheless, here, first things first: Syd fired up her Fox, two parking slots down the block. She drove us over to my squareback, good to go so far, whereupon we transferred her Samsonite road show into the Audi.
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, what with the buzzing of his lobby call button—but not before reading 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, now being particularly careful with the small brown-wrapped package she’d been so insouciantly carrying for Josh Gravanek—wondering aloud why he’d asked her to hold it in safe keeping until hearing from him or one of his…crew.
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 with 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 gaped at 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 as though they were Eiffel and the Flatirons, one after the other.
This epic sea and skyline view kept fixing our over-the-shoulder gazes all the way up El Camino Real’s Waldo Grade, catching 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, a parlay neither Colorado nor Chicago could rival: 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, fleered the funkiness of Fairfax, rhapsodized 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.
“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, yeah, it belongs to her.”
“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 wonder why she was taking me on these side trips anyway, why I was 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 regrets this inconvenience, and appreciates your cooperation. So you folks have a good day.”
“Thank you, officer,” she waved affably. “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,” 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 Manana’, 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. This, while I still had mariachis and Abraxas maracas dancing in my head.
Manana’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 brilliant blue 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 Manana 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 Manana’ 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 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. 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 asked back, munching 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 Manana 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.
“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, flash. 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.”
“Venturing into alien lands can land you in a heap of troubling sideshows.”
“You’re here, you’ve made it…isn’t that miraculous…”
“Yeah, a miracle, all right.”
“Folks, give Mr. Herbert a big, 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. I kept calling out traffic signs; she kept wheeling around Market, Otis, Gough and McCoppin Streets like a tipsy gyroscope in search of a way onto the teeming gas station apron.
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, reaching over for more grapes as though they were green Quaaludes. 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 into the teener numbered streets. Syd chose Mission Street, the longest, perhaps most variegated thoroughfare within The City limits—Embarcadero down to at least 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.
“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—likely 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.
“There you go, how are you feeling about yourself?”
“Feelin’ just fine, thanks very much, so…” Actually, I felt more like Billy Carter at an AA orientation.
“Come on, 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.
“That’s right, Mr. Herbert, to us from here, you seem to be whistling in the dark.”
“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…”
“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? Don’t get you…” 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 Herbert?”
“Yes, Mr. Herbert, 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 indictmentment.
“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.
“Tell us, Mr. Herbert. Are you satisfied in the present? Is where you are where you want to be, or only where you are?”
“Huh, sure,” I stammered, fielding another woman’s riddle from the port side, at the very moment I’d turned starboard. “Say what?!”
“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?”
“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?!”
“What? 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 be, 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…”
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.
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 and ’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 black 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, senor,” 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. 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…”
“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 lost in the process.”
“Better that than you getting tossed in the hoosegow.” I revved the Audi gently, adjusting its rear-view mirrors.
“Just stay away from that circus on Mission Street. Agh, no coupons or discounts here…no nothing.”
“What’s it say,” I pulled out into traffic before the marchers reached us mid-block.
“Some kind of political propaganda about property taxes,” she balled up the sheet, tossing it over her shoulder into the Fox’s back seat. “Some silly Proposition 13…”
“School scenes or slapdash sightseeing may harbor visuals that can be far too penetrating for words.”
“Just remember—downhill, turn them in…”
“Uphill, turn them out…”
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 still 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-walled 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 on curbing the Audi Fox.
“That’s parking in San Francisco, flash,” 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.”
“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, checked it again in Salt Lake.” 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 chuckled, toting several blank canvasses and a pair of fresh smocks. “And 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. All streets let up and downhill from here, vehicles large and small struggling accordingly. Homes and condo/apartment buildings wedged into the Russian Hillside—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 Diego Rivera in here.”
“Nice courtyard,” I squinted into a concentrated patch of sunlight.
“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 get 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. 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 expression, 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 folly for the sun and deep blue sea? How could those so frivolous fancy themselves so germane?
Glimpsing Berkeley across the bay, I quickly checked my academic bias, wondering whether a social science graduate really had any stronger claims to pertinence. Round and round, probe and probe again: Did any of this convolution stack up to a reheated cheeseburger to go? 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, you should talk. I’ll write that remark off to ignorance, toots. You’ve much to learn, no matter how many sheepskins they’ve plastered to your keister.”
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 that’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. 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.
“So much for the nickel tour,” she beckoned, “humor me a bit further.” 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 the padlocked door, back of which was triple thick with years of paint splatter. But that blanched in comparison with the floor and walls beyond. “My studio, the whole baby’s mine! 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?” No need to flick on ceiling lights, as the room was sunnier than a New Age solarium in Santa Fe.
“I dunno, this place 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, maybe, 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…”
“Wow…” 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’.”
“Shucks,” she bowed and winked, slugging at her to-go coffee cup. “Can’t hold back 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, toots—organization and discipline are just as important as talent.”
“That so…” Could have fooled me, for 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. They were the media, after all; they would bear their hues in due time.
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 that? 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 OK,” 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? When imagination is the route to God. 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.”
“Uh, let’s see some of your stuff,” I diverted, unable at the moment to conjure up any empirical evidence to the contrary.
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 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…”
“Ever give one a go?”
“Sorry, not my speed.”
“Looks like a gas of a ride to me…”
“That’s for them, not us.”
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— high lean carbo, low glycemic overall. Strapped back in, she gunned up Russian Hill, instructing me to get pickin’—which I did, knees pressed firmly against the Audi’s dashboard. Plan was, we were headed for some perfunctory sightseeing, one grape at a time.
“But I’m them, kinda,” I said, “aren’t I?”
“Not with me you’re not…”
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—a great white wave that seemed more poster than real—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 munched a couple of table grapes I fed her and instead hung a hard right onto Hyde Street, meeting up with Rice-a-Roni placards affixed to the ass end of an outbound cable car.
“Damn,” 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. “The shlubs, they’re bulging with tourists, and creep along like they own the place.”
“Uh-huh,” 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, a Hupmobile on a freeway. That it still existed at all was miraculous; that it still actually functioned absurd. “Well, I for one could climb aboard. I mean, how can you get pissed at a museum piece like this?”
“Antique, shmantique, hold on tight.” 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?”
“Say what?” 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. “Just try to get anywhere in a hurry around this town. Forget it. These blasted cable cars may be great for touristas, but half the people who live here would just as soon send every last one of the little buggers to L.A..”
“Hell, ship them to Boulder, we’ll run them to Denver and back.” 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’re home free. You must be a lucky charm, flash. Unbelievable.”
“Ever think of moonlighting as an ambulance driver?” I pried my fingers from the handgrip, fruit bag trapped between my feet.
“Can’t stand blood and gore, you know,” she said, killing Rose Royce’s ‘Car Wash’ on the radio, motioning us to lock up. “Oh, remind me to explain the color curbs when we return here to Foxy.”
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.
“Stuff’s not bad, but they all look like they’re from the same roll of film,” I allowed, stop-starting along the display stands like a housedog on a tree-lined thoroughfare.
“That’s what sells around here,” Syd said. “Strictly business with these hacks. Sad part is, some of them are really very talented. But all they want to do is sit in the sun and gouge people.”
“It’s a living, I guess.”
“If that’s the plan,” she nodded, toward an array of colorful depictions of Victorians on Alamo Square, downtown skyline in the background. “But think what you could do, flash. Just blow them away. I mean, you could be a real photographer here, not like these parasites.”
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. But I quickly attributed her behavior to grateful hospitality. On the other hand, after that Lovelock grab bag, who knew what was up? In any case, 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 quarterback.
“Universe Players,” Syd read aloud. “Says they’re putting on a performance session tonight, free admission. You game?”
“I dunno, got my stuff to get together, and this sounds like one of those…” Maybe I should have been catching one of those cable cars back to my Volks about then.
“Aww, let’s do 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 be good for you. We’ll even hit El Menudo for some knockout tostadas and salsa.”
“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 say it’s a go. I’m ready for a new memory, how ’bout you?”
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 god forbid, we were gonna do it in the Mission.
“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…”
Easy listening? Not so as I could tell. 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. What was this: an ‘Our Father’ here? I could have grudgingly drawn a bead on that confessional gruel anywhere…
“…and lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil, amen.”
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 overviewed the whole Gothic-style Catholic complex, perched as I was in this rear window-well on floor number three.
“Okay, everyone, let’s firm up our rows more smartly now, shall we,” prodded the more diminutive, red-faced nun, with her wire-marm eyeglasses and first sergeant firmness. “Time for catechism classes to begin. Christopher, no tarrying now, please!”
The emblem-sweatered elementary students faced toward a six-story west-side wing, tightening ranks as a team of darker blue habited nuns herded them like underfed shelties, fussily prepping the class for Saturday bible lessons. Between their charges and the nearest school doors was a gauntlet of basketball hoops, volleyball nets, footballs, tetherballs, bats, gloves, rackets, soccer shoes, skip ropes and roller skates—scattered recessories to be dutifully gathered up after another session of doctrinal browbeating. I reflected on my parents’ spiritual bargain as the sisters girded to lead their pupils out of the yard: Church on Sunday, but regular public school during the week—still sounded about right about now.
“Children, we are not proceeding indoors until our little formation is perfectly straight, do you hear? Terrance, Angela—pull in closer, will you please.”
Reflective as well were the school building’s details in the mid-morning sun. 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. Thematically lording over it all was a wraparound entablature, scripturally adorned friezes and architraves, gilt-dentiled, lancet arched cornices up top that looked like the embroidery on a priestly robe. En total, these were pious, studied offerings to the higher power above, nearly sanctified enough to bring us stray mortals to our sacrilegious knees.
“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, I wondered why she had to hang that car door-lock rap around my neck. Me, of all people…why me?
“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. Setting 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. “Sooo, 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.”
“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 ass-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 last night.”
“Edie’s a big honcho downtown at B of A,” Syd offered abruptly, between sips of Crystal Geyser, then handing me the glass.
“An admin assistant, actually—in the Best Practices Department,” she looked askance at Sydney, then turned my way. “And you…”
“Uh, just finished grad school, master’s program in…”
“He’s a good friend of my dear friend, Melissa Saversohn,” Syd blurted, grabbing the glass for a refill. Good enough to drive me all the way back to The City.”
“Friend,” Edie said flatly. “How friendly?”
“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 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 baked 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 a look-out for that grisly killer 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. In the meantime, you didn’t happen to leave your spare keys lying around, did you?”
“No, no way, not that I can remember, anyway,” Syd squeezed Diana’s chilly shoulder, Edie fixing on my fleeting eye. There we left them, co-stirring the oatmeal, one curious duad, indivisible.
“Pretty heavy chick,” I sighed, 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…”
“Can’t say as I’d blame him. I mean, how does Diana put up with that crap?” I tried to remain conversationally cool in the face of this nubile, flawless flesh, avoiding her key quest altogether, circumspectly so—even though I recalled spotting them on a front hall stand.
“You kidding me? Dear Diana gets off on that domination crap,” Syd asserted, with a shady little smile. “She’d never admit that to herself, the submissive sack—and here she’s wanting to become a lawyer. I’ve never heard her raise her voice above a whimper.”
“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. ”With her instruments, all that…”
“Makes me no nevermind.” 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. “I buzz in and out of here and leave them be. Just mind my own toothbrush, pay the rent months in advance. A little pit stop, and we’ll fly…”
“Roger that,” I said, snatching up Syd’s pearly Princess phone the moment she hit the bathroom, for a quick cash call 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 Sydney returned for her bag. Who the hell was that guy?
“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.
I breathed 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 diagnostic tune Maseratis and they bringing me questo cheesebox Fiats and Lancia Y’s 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.
“Scope 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 sports car, on which a young Team Mario mechanic was busy adjusting valve 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, you’re bleeding me dry!!!”
“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. “A steal, really. 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 shaving kit and the paper plate I’d stuffed into it with the other.
“Save it for the pigeons. 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. Hold tight, flash, we’ve got to get cookin’ while they’re still warm.”
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.
“Kinda pushin’ it a bit, don’t you think? I mean, with your license situation…”
“Not to worry, flash. 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 last Thanksgiving break. “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, hooking a left turn off Columbus just short of Fisherman’s Wharf, making 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?”
“Upon rising to the Heights, be ever heedful on your way back down.”
“But we need to replace them for sure, pronto—like, ASAP
“Yep, cards, licenses, the whole shebang…gone…could have happened anywhere…
“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 my flights got cancelled—Colorado blizzards, and everything…
“So I rode out with Melissa’s friend—yes, boyfriend. No, nothing’s going on!”
Wait, was this a crypt? 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 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 remembered was strolling the upper reaches of some place called Lafayette Park.
Sydney had suggested we walk off last night’s gratis Hippo’s carbo loads by trudging up past the non-descript pastel apartment boxes along Jackson Street, then by the hallowed Haas-Lilienthal House, grey on gray and sprawling—a 24-room Queen Anne Victorian 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 panelled spread dating back to 1886, monument to grocery money, built on a spacious lot beyond all neighborhood scale, long and outlandedly before the wall-to-wall surrounding apartment buildings. It was an architectural heritage museum once rimmed by other Victorian mansions, now a lone yawning, anachronistic manor house and grounds amid crowding 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, 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, flash,” 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, trying to re-coordinate my breathing with my gait, pressure mounting about the eyes. “And been spending more time hitting the books than the rec center.”
“Poor overstuffed baby,” she mocked, casting her gaze 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 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 boats 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 think this is sublimely Greco-Roman,” she trumped, leading us further up the 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.
“What do you think…”
This landscape 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 20’s 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. But all that seemed pedestrian compared to their neighbor one Washington Street address west.
“Ahhh, the good life, picture perfect…”
“Yeah,” I blurted, somewhat surprising myself. “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 the challenge.”
“Who says I’m gonna be a serious photographer?”
“Come on, you’ve got to think visually,” she mimicked the aiming and snapping of a camera shutter. “This place stokes the creative fires without even trying. A person like you could be so productive here.”
“Oh, I could, could I,” I scoffed, staring out over the ridge view, soaking it in as if this were a long last gaze at a Neckar Valley I might never visit again—the way Melissa dwelled upon her moonglow ‘Waif and Grain’ portrait in unguarded moments.
“That’s up to you, if you want to be who you really could be.”
Just the other side of 2006’s fountained circular courtyard and meticulously trimmed gardens sat a solid black fleet of Rolls, Jags, Lams, Testas 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. “Mmmm…yummy.”
“More like a sugar plantation,” I said, not without awe.
“Before Alma latched on to Adolph Spreckels and became his chatelaine, know what she was? A common artist’s model, that’s what.”
“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?”
“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.”
“Silly, that’s just some friendly neighborhood raccoons.”
So 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 down inside them tonight, not even with the Wylies’ New Years evening coming freshly and referentially to mind.
Yet curiouser than the Spreckels floor shows was rustling that crept up on us from the rear—shadowy shuffling about and wicked laughter in the bushes and shrubs above.
Lafayette Park 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 darker side.
“Ever see Pal Joey? I have, three times.”
“Can’t picture it, but have you ever checked out ‘King of Hearts’,” I asked, glancing behind us uphill. “Moon drags me to it at least once a semester.”
“Allan Bates, of course. Who do you think you’re talking to, mister,” she asserted, 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 sights got better, but the sounds got weirder. Thrashing among the dark groves and bushes, solitary forms lurked, with no apparent reason or resolve, fondling the fauna, themselves, one another. “What the hell’s going on up there?!”
A bit scruffier and overgrow, the lofty park had by day become sun and bareskin worshipper territory all year round. Come nightfall, 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. Best to turn the other cheek and move along this triple-junction, geo-shifted asphalt path in guarded, forward-looking denial, whatever the consequences.
“Them? They’re just your friendly neighborhood…raconteurs.”
“But it sounds like all guys again—strange suckers, at that,” I said, growing more flustered and disoriented. “This an all-guys scene, or what?”
“Oh, don’t be so melodramatic. This is San Francisco,” she drew closer. “Some things are just different here. Live and let love, that’s what makes it so great…”
“Yeah, well, how about live and let’s leave…” It was enough having ‘Afternoon Delight’ re-ringing in my ears.
Once we heard the shrieking, time had come to 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 just doesn’t dare roam by herself after dark—even with another galfriend. There are too many crazies skulking around,” 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 cut loose and dig The City with, you know?”
“Don’t ask me, I’m just passing through…”
“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 gonads 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, 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 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? Bastards blew town just before the war broke out.”
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 Spreckel’s 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 Spreckel’s 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, what with all this storybook opulence—buffeted only by the siren and emergency flashers of an S.F.P.D. squad car rushing up Octavia in the direction of Lafayette Park.
“So you really think I could make it with my cameras?”
“Sure. I saw the prints on your cabin walls,” she said, as we paused at the Gough Street stoplight. “You can do whatever you want here.”
“I don’t know about that. They’re pretty much dwarfed by your Hippo ‘Hipster’ painting down there and portrait of Moon.”
“Waif? That’s nothing. You should see my studio…”
“It’s a long story, Daddo. I’ve explained it all to Faith, she can fill you in…
“Now, about re-issuing my 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—one I put quickly and squarely behind me. 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.
The further I ventured, the meaner the morning light—particularly upon entering a curved, baby 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 here and clear, already. 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, flash. 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…”
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 replacing my cards.”
“Aww, maybe your purse will turn up,” I said, unable to shield my eyes against the brutal morning, disinclined to tip how much I’d overheard. My eyes instead roosted in a sickly lemon tree outside her windows.
“Don’t hold your breath, toots,” 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 embalmed,” I rubbed an overnight growth, 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. Good thing I still had my extra key stashed under the front steps. Besides, 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…”
“We’ll see about that,” she tapped my leg. “So, you noticed my roomie on the way out?”
“Kinda on the stout side, muttering in the kitchen?”
“That’s one of them, Edie. Oh, know what? She said she heard on the KSFD news this morning that there was a stabbing 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 embalmed?”
“Venturing into areas previously unknown can be a raw challenge to the senses.”
“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, he’s…with me…”
“Nice to…” At that point, I could have been a mail storage box, 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 was 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, exactly, 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 attitudes—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 for you.”
“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 classrooms, 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.
“Mucho action, huh,” Syd continued, leading me along—pushing, prodding, testing my tolerance, or limits thereof. “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 for. So get in the groove—that’s the way it flows here on rainbow lane.”
“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, Farmer John, and you’ll get yourself plowed under here for sure.”
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, flash? 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, pardner, 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. “Where are we headed now?”
“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 sordidly festive 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 all over again, even more so this timearound. “What say we hit it back to the car…”
“Relax, flash, and stretch some—a little shock therapy will 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.
“Oy, think of it as putting your egghead theories to the test, professor. You afraid of challenging your ivory tower bigotry head on?”
“Hey, don’t you worry. Like you said, I’m into the social sciences…no bigotry here, OK? I know who and what I am…”
“Then you should have no problem in here, am I 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 preverts 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 grossitivity; 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, 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 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 your hurry, 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 bumper car steering wheel. “Feeling threatened again…coming to grips, are you—a little male panic setting in?”
“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.”
“Some porn does happen to be art, I’m telling you, sex it 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, Mister Hung-up, the human body is a beautiful thing, whatever it’s doing. And a sociologist worth his sheepskin should know such things… one who fancies himself a photographer, yet.”
“Beautiful, even in the barnyard sense, I suppose,” I snapped, shrinking from their images on one of Rue’s fish-eye security mirrors. “OK, 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 Republican sometimes!”
“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.
“Where’ve I heard that before…”
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 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 nowadays,” said the other uniform, palm slapping his nightstick. “What the hell good’s gonna come of that…”
“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, professor. 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 the amazing Liberation—avocado-bacon-pomegranate—medium rare. 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, most everywhere in between. That breezy resistance and a modest incline left little breathing room for further debate on the ‘sex is art’ score, much less a sidewalk tutorial on the comparative virtue of the biblical Madonna vis-à-vis Marilyn Chambers—or Jack Wrangler, 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, 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 cracks about eating a horse. Not when we could trot across heavy avenue traffic and feast on what was better known to be Hippo.
“All right, then—what say the Stroganoffburger,” I relented, going global, figuring she figured it a due over hauling her demanding ass all the way out here. “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 (i.e., with jack cheese, cranberries and tapioca), was scribbling and Hippo-gliding back 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 fresh-faced 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 ‘Hipstert’ 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, 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 the football TV gig.” 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 prating crowd. “Or jumping over rental cars…”
“I read where they’ve just wrapped up shooting a sci-fi conspiracy flick called ‘Capricorn One’. Now…right over there—kicking back, chowing down just like everybody else…only in San Francisco.”
“Yeah, but what I really can’t believe is that Hippopotamus logo everyplace, so ass-end smiley with the red bandana and bow-tie on her tail,” I glanced about the sprawling room as our 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 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?! You must be joking…”
“It’s often harder to take a pounding when you’re in stranger surroundings.”
“Could have been worse, they might have grabbed my 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 one 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 thick 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, to balk 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, and they filched my new mooie creamer, too.”
“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 first bank of slot machines on the way to the head. She had to have slipped it into her Pony Express-size purse while I waited on a couple of over-the-road Peterbilt warriors locked in the men’s room, and counted 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 beads.
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. 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 look that closely.”
We had left the squareback locked and luggage loaded, bucking the odds, hoping for the best against any further break-ins. Although 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 that she often strolled Pacific Heights arteries like Clay Street on nights like this without 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 led me along by the elbow, proclaiming 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 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 the 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 Jewish 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 she had selected was down near Sacramento Street, its bamboo-framed neon signage reading, ‘The Balmy Palm’.
“Come and gone—but 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.
“Real, eligible men. They’re all just the boys.”
“I’m talking about he-men, flash, not she-men,” she said, sipping her banana daiquiri through a long green plastic straw. “I love ’em to death, 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 distasteful 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 den of…sordidity. 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, ‘night vision, night vision—if you wanna get your swingin’ dicks outta’ basic, best hit them targets whetha’ you see ’em or not!’ 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, one 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…shit, 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, the onset, presumably, of some indiscreet disagreement. 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—to 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.
“Looking at the bright side, 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, 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.”
“Sounds serious to me…”
“Serious? Bernard is slow death by suffocation. He’s short and stocky and I’m like, his object d’ art. He’s never been anywhere. The only thing he’s sure of is that he’ll take over the gallery some day. He’s the perfect Jewish 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.”
“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 thought I was nuts. 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, and on 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 on to the man she wanted, can’t shake those who won’t let go.
“Sooo, you might say I’m in between men 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 home.
With little immediate hope of conversational detente, my 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 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 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 blond 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 draining 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 blond 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, expediently out of my wafer-thin billfold.
“I knew this place would blow you way,” Syd boasted. “I mean, did you ever…”
“Never, 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.
“Well, take your medicine, Farmer John, see how another half lives.”
“Not exactly 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.”
“What, you expected farmhands? Come on, flash, get your head out of the boonies.”
“Just a little stuffy in here,” I coughed, “maybe we should be moving on…”
“Stuffy? I call it real. The midwest, WASPy Colorado, now that’s stuffy. Wait, you’ve got to check this out…”
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 12 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. 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 he 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, at least a half-dozen years.”
“Looks like she’s been everywhere a little too long,” I said, waving more smoke away. “Ready to set sail?”
“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 doing it, though.”
“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,” I said dismissively, eyeing the bouncer-I.D. clamor at Palm’s swinging doors. “Just stay the course, right? No reason to freak…”
“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 hit parade. “Can’t you?”
“Me? 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 as Syd led us through a maze of tables and the Palm’s latecomer-jammed doorway. Curiously, I thought oh, to have my cameras and some Tri-X film for the ASA pushing once she medleyed into ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’.
“So, how’d that shake your tree, flash,” Sydney poked my shoulder as we hit the doors.
“Pretty strong stuff,” I wheezed, catching a snootful of Maui Wowie just outside.
“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, he had 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 as 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 the 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. Sydney countered that two-thirds of the women survived, only one-third of the men. I mentioned as how they’d neatly butchered their cannibalized kin; she said that one Sarah Fosdick had watched her husband die, 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 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! I’ll bet,” 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 spin.
Sydney had pointed me onto one of the pretzeled upper peninsula freeways, 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, aping scattered couples, the surf-and-sand pasted children, I steadied myself against a seawall in the bracing wind, silently whisking 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 slacks as onshore winds whipped more powerfully across Sunset District avenues.
“Kind of a downer, huh?”
“No, still an upper,”she said, suddenly putting on a happy face, wrapping the arm of my sheepskin coat in the deepening darkness. “San Francisco is always an upper, and don’t you forget it. So let’s go, flash, I’ll really show you what’s up…”
“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 scattered 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 MGM Grand canyon of downtown casinos—even though it displayed signage 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 land anymore.”
“Well, I know one thing.” The squareback merged 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 routine,” 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 stand 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.”
“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 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.”
“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 screaming 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 maneuvering 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, but a kind of…neighbor who’s gravitated around of late— 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 earlier on. 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 Studios.
“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. 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”
“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, how romantic…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 ahead of 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 Chanel No.5 and leaking fuel oil, 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.
“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 involved white-frosted tumbleweed careening off range fences, or huge coiled copperheads dead eyeing ground hogs, squeezing out the last bit of sun to warm 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 discarded 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.
“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…I…anyway, I can’t see how that’s any of your business.”
“I’ll give you a hundred and forty-three reasons why.”
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 Moon’s misrouted message. 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.”
“Yeah, 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, first hand,” 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. “I could have called him a…”
“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 somehow, 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?”
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…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? “I’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…”
“Even if you gain a seat at the table, you may find that the tables are turned.”
“Tell her I’m broke in Willup…”
“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 heading 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 part…”
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 with 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 money gram 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…”
“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…”
“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 cut-throat 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 here, 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, 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, the 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, 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 guy stuck 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…”
“Sure, Pattern on the Trestleboard.” She stooped to round off a descender on the word she was fashioning in stones. “A sociologist should know these things.”
“Yeah, gotcha,” I spelled and counted letters under my breath. “Anyway, right then 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, with twisting prisms, crystals and rainbow arches overhead. 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 sat down on her lumpy ottoman and listened 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—that’s only three times in a person’s life. She said it also takes that long to pass through all the signs of the Zodiac. Which means it takes 29 years or so to return to exactly 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, “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—just follow the news. She carries on about how Saturn forces you to reflect and challenges all your assumptions. Then she has the gall to soak 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 the hell 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 when I think of you.”
“Uh, right. 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 blurred out 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…”
“Making for the open road, differing doors can creak open, manifesting a much heavier load.”
“Dope? You’re telling me your Mr. Rock Solid was dealing his way through law school?”
“Lawson was a tight end at UCLA with a blown-out knee, all right? His undergrad scholarship had gone up in smoke, and he wasn’t going back to Nebraska for anything. So now he’s up in Center Creek, busting cokeheads all over Lassiter County…and he’s still a good friend. Damn, I’ve gotta free up these pedals…”
“Tight end, my tush—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 this positive spin of mine 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 for one happens to think 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’ll just bet that’s what Moon 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 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. Better yet, how did sister superior here wheedle Moon into getting me into this?
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 the 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…” 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.
Faced with her pink underlids and bloodshot sclera, 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 his-and-her 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, cross winds pushing us lane to lane. Before I know it, some semis are roaring by, hemming us in. Soon as the last one blows past, I check my mirrors, and she’s 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…she 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 want to be, Kenneth—her full-time 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, make this be Tahoe…”
“Crossing a higher rubicon may bring saints in creeps’ clothing…”
“Listen, guys do things with guys. Women do things with women…know what I’m sayin’?”
“S-sure, I think so…but what’s your point?”
“That women might do things with the guys sometimes. But I’m telling you, guys just don’t do 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 haggled 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, shmearing bagels at The Sink, 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 be 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 will do you some good. And call me the minute you get to San Francisco.’’ 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, for shitsake—scrape something together around here like everybody else. Think about it, Herbert. A guy has to build his nest first, and then the birds’ll always come flocking. 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 Plygville, yet.”
“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. Now I’m down to basic gas money, and Moon’s tapped out ‘til mid-month. Something else goes, I’ll be planting 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 passed 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. Guy can’t do a thing like that, right?”
“Yeah, you’re regular 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 backup, just in case. 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. 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 us 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 get 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, they’re all just a bunch of sour Scots,” 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. “And I know all about sour Scots…the single malt, gaudy tartans and sour, lumpy haggis.”
“This whole scene is so pretentious, and with the proselytizing—not even the true biblical faith, don’t you think?”
“Me? I couldn’t (even) say. Religion doesn’t do much for me nowadays,” I dodged.
“You mean you’re a faith heel agnostic, or what…”
“No, just a little suspension of misbelief,” I said, peering over to 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 can’t see the forest for the family trees, 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 and Colorado City 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.”
(Know more/know less. Ditto to the preceding chapter. Again, read now or need later.) ____________________
“Saturn comes a callin’, bearing take and give, its re-entry aiming to hit you where you live.”
“What was that you were saying, Moon?”
“I said, 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 answered, 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 that astrologer who did your charts. So I told him, go to San Francisco or someplace, and see a psychic about it, or something—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 go do it?”
“Wouldn’t say, even if he did,” 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. “Really, 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 shlub’s my brother…but he is my brother, 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. “Much as I miss you and your parents, 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 dwelled for a spell on the cluttered fertility of the kitchen—inventive yet organically practical— much like her mother’s at home (so Moon always told me, anyway), 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 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.
“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…”
“Hmph, sounds pretty saccharine 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 still 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 the 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 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 sofa, 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, cramming 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, anyway. “Moon, Moon, I don’t mean to intervene, but when did you get off on this tangent, exactly—nice little Chicago Jewish girl like yourself?”
“Truth is, I’ve had enough nice Jewish boys to last me a lifetime,” Melissa said, while no doubt trying to sort through some alien stirrings she felt at the bar mitzvah readings, not being a religious person, not in the least. “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 Lester.”
“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…”
“Do tell,” Syd leered, nimbly loosening the top buttons of her sweater. “Now that, I want to hear about…god almighty, what is banging 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 blasted 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.
“Tsk, it was just some harmless rough-housing. 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, 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 gay boy?”
“Don’t be silly! He just happens to have a scattershot kind of sex drive, 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?”
“Ah-hah, 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, as damn well the painting should be. “And as for Bernard, that one 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 it 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. “You know the weatherman says a real monster is headed our way…”
“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, before securing the flap clasp of her tooled leather purse. “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…”
“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.”
“He’ll run you over, anytime you’re ready,” Melissa donned her pea coat, 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.”
Know more/know less. (While what follows could be construed as hearsay, there is more to this account than that. For now, no point going into how what was said here can be recounted. Suffice to say it rings transcript true. Otherwise, much of the filled-in backdrop is easily surmised.So, Saturn these pages now, or you’ll surely Return to them later…)
“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 weed…”
“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 clicking the snap buttons of her embroidered pink alpine sweater and hand-pressing her side pockets, then 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 this 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 manic, 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 like it had sliced it right through…”
“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.”
Back then, (pardon my interruption) holiday excesses were evidently coming home to roost. With the le’chayims and mazel tovs behind them, and the shnecken almost gone, 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-Hanukkah 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 recalled 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 face,” 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 Jilters—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 Contusions 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, gesticulating our 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,” 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 turkey and 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—‘Dreidel, driedel, I made it out of clay’—and the Menorah lightings? Christmas…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 Years,” 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’. “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 place. 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? Little go along, get along Moon?” Sydney cupped and blew the steam from a heavy, hand-spun tea mug, noticing some makeshift Tupperware planters on the windowsills.
“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.”
“Oy, 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…”
“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…”
“Blessed oh Lord, our God…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, 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 last 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, it being Melissa’s car.
“I’m still trying to figure out what’s that black thing all strapped around the kid’s head and arms,” I muttered, shifting bun to bun on the polished wooden bench. “Let alone looking around for the Stations of the Cross in here.”
“Tsk, crucifix?! What rock have you been living under, professor,” Sydney replied. “And that thing’s his prayer tefillin. Wearing it and reading from the Torah’s all part of how he officially becomes a man…”
“Hey, sorry…but it’s not like I’ve ever been in one of these places before. I mean it’s not exactly my area of expertise.”
Sydney’s special surprise had taken us to Boulder’s then southeastern fringe at the time, just a trifle downlimb on the local ecclesiastical tree, quantitatively speaking, from bead-crunching Catholics like me. 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, El-Bethel 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 ‘AvodatHakodesh’. Once Rabbi Hirshhorn had handed Aaron his kiddush 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. “That’s 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 leather tefillin straps and prayer boxes as his eyes repeatedly searched the synagogue, row by row.
“If the bastard had any decency, he’d be by his kid’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. But the creep never took responsibility for his son 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 shawl 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 removing the tefillin…”Syd grabbed my shoulder sternly, as though she had known me 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 parchment-bearing phlylacteries from his left bicep and forehead, then their gently replacement into a plum velvet pouch.
By the time Aaron shed his tallis and gold-laced yarmulke, I was likening Syd’s shoulder grab to divine intervention, wisdom and insight imparted through a 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?”
“I don’t know, on a certain level, I suppose,” Melissa allowed, muffling her response. “If that’s your spiritual bag…but it’s been a while…”
“Can we start the kiddush now,” young Kavalla grinned, leading the rabbi down El-Bethel’s center aisle. With that, his mother and the small congregation rushed to congratulate him.
“Kiddush,” I asked, holding 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 these things…”
“Inspirational, positively inspirational,” 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 straight, 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 kiddush 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,” 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. “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 kashenvarnishkes; a sweet finish of Lokshenkugel, rugalach, plus assorted blintzes and varenikehs. I knew not what to make of any of this. Then again, 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 a 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 smiled, 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…”
“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 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 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 putz 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. “It’s Saturday.”
“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 eminently more 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 hitch 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 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.”
“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 head locked the face-licking Setter, twisting Seamus’s neck, biting the dog’s crusted left ear, drawing a blood spray 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, 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 press schedule-wise 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 myself.
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, the Setter 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 toweled Seamus off some, but didn’t have enough time to take him home. Thus I was forced to leave him stew in the student parking lot, vent windows cracked. Still, a couple of hours really fried everything, with that sun-broiled little McKyle’s’ pit stop only magnifying 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, disjointedly blurted that sorry diagnosis between Spearman’s rho and Kendall’s tau. So now I shuddered, slapping fiercely at my 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 beneath a drafty door. From there up, 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 upper- most 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.
While this climb cleared my sinuses, the ringing wouldn’t cease, my whole head blowing up like Jiffy Pop. 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 rushing neighborhood 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.
Sure as shit they were all richer, could they have been smarter, too? Much as I loved Boulder, I couldn’t shake the painful synapses up here, atop The Hill, 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 is this? This isn’t me, at least the me that’s supposed to be…
I slid to a stop in front of 519 Cliff, splashing slush and gravel toward a peak-roofed former miner’s cabin with a lazy 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.
“Sorry about the…ouch!” I tossed the Setter some 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 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 reallycookin’…” 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! I could have killed him…”
“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 kvetched, catching another whiff, up close and personal, as if downwind of a Porta-Potty dumper 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.”
“Hmm, come to think of it, I think he was kindacomin’on to me a little,” she fled back into oven-warmed kitchen, waft with the natural sweetness of scratch baking. “Sorta over-the-line strange 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…”
“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. Now, how about a little celebration for once…let’s just flow with it.”
“I suppose,” 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 known, 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 was 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 him with the bakery tray. “She won’t be staying here, anyway. She’s got other people in Boulder, you know. In fact, 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. “Best go out and hose everything down…”
“Even Saturn’s Virtues
are dreary. And its vices are
particularly unpleasant. Because they
operate through the emotion we call fear.”
“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.”
“Big-time hassles. I was 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. “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.”
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 back a major slug of Lucky Lager. “It seemed so worldly and incredibly alive. I mean sometimes Boulder makes me a little stir crazy.”
“Listen, San Francisco can make you certifiably crazy these days…I’m dead serious,” he spoke through another, more modest splash of Grenache, wringing the stem of his glass. “One man’s scenic romper room is another man’s rubber room with a view, 49 miles square. Trust me, it can really bite you, can suck you into situations way beyond your control.”
“Bite…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. I forgot…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 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.”
“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…terrific…”
“Yessir, fresh new intellectual horizons—besides, gotta stay here in mountopia, nested with all the adoring young chickadoos, right? Honestly, if Roman Polanski can jake it and skate,” 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 compared my timing to 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, or…you know. 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 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 ranch-hand 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-globed 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…”
“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 ThorniaDeWilde
Boulder, Colorado: 1978
A Parallel Re-universe.
I didn’t see this coming, even though she said it would.
But oh, no—not here, not yet: I’d ventured downtown to bemoan, bemingle, lose it like some stress-tested lab rat in the crowd—just not this way, at all.
“C’mon, you’re not that busy, Herbert. Haul it on over here…”
“Yeah…all right. In a sec…” With that, I pulled a clumsy Ford and Chevy move over a thigh-high railing.
Back then, seeing a guy like him right now was giving the lye to tired eyes. 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: The 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 Boulder had grown to hate Denver for the unwanted attention—the singer, that is. Tried-and-true Boulderites 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. 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 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 Berzerkely was now a univerCity being Morked and Mindified in network primetime, coast to coast, and trending toward irretrievably, commercially cutesy. 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 place 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.
“Well, today’s the big day, am I right?” The latter was what Paul R. Verniere was 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 and all…”
“Don’t wanna talk about it…” I vaulted the patio wall, grabbing a seat, averting to survey the scene. Some people said I looked less like a grade grunt than a 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.
“C’mon, how did it go?” 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. “I could see jumping her bones, all right, latch onto those flotation devices…”
“Yeah well, I’m not really much for the water.”
“Anyway, word’s had it in the faculty lounge that today is orals day,” 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 wanna know,” I erupted, “you really wanna know?!”
McKyle’s tucked narrowly between a crystal/fossils bookstore gallery and a brand new Falafel Phil’s, its SRO patio positioned favorably for a 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. “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, though guarding, filtering out the 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?”
“Who is, 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 busting out of the chamber altogether.
“C’mon, 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?”
“What about Terrent?”
“Ol’ Uncle Emlen? Forget about it…” Even Blanchard Professor of Applied Sociology, EmlenTerrent, 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 Starsky, he , but no Jeff Goldblum either. “Everybody’s a smart ass there. I know, was a Cal undergrad myself.”
“I don’t care where she’s from. No snotty skirt’s gonna…wait a minute, you’re from Berkeley? I thought…”
“Crazier yet, San Francisco,” he toasted, “why do you think I came out here?”