Fiction Saturday – “Haight Street” Part Sixteen
“Luco. Hi. What a nice surprise. What’s that man doing up on that pole?”
Without taking his eyes from hers, he answered.
“I’d say he’s about to do a half-gainer into the sidewalk.”
“I don’t think I want to see that.”
“No. Let’s not watch. Let me buy you a cool drink. It’s hot out here.”
Marlee had just finished an iced tea, but she didn’t decline his offer.
As they walked they alternated between long minutes of silence and moments when they talked on top of each other.
“Marlee, have you enjoyed the street fair, so far?”
“Yes, I have. I’m not sure that I quite understand it all, but it has been… fun.”
“Good. It can be a bit daunting the first time you experience it. Actually, this year’s fair is rather calm.”
“A man hanging from a light pole, ready to fall into the street, is calm?”
“Well…he hasn’t fallen yet.”
“That’s the standard measurement? If he doesn’t fall to his death, things are calm?”
“Pretty much, but this is The Haight, so the calibration may be a bit screwed to the weird side of the scale.”
“I’m picking up on that.”
Sensing that Marlee wasn’t sharing his blasé acceptance of The Haight’s laissez-faire attitude toward life and death, Luco changed the subject.
“Tell me, Marlee. Just about everyone in San Francisco is into the Arts: Music, Acting, Painting, and so on. What is your Art?”
“I’m a musician. I play the cello.”
“Really? Professionally or just for the beauty of it?”
“Both. I was with the Cleveland Chamber Music Orchestra. I haven’t really played since my move here. I miss it.”
“Have you auditioned anywhere yet? There must be someplace that can use a talented cellist?”
“I need to get back in shape before I audition for anything. The cello can sound really awful if you’re not in top form. I need a place to practice.”
“Hmmm…I know that there are spaces over here on Page Street, at the old Gumption Theater space. I know that they have practice rooms. A lot of rock and rollers use them.”
I wasn’t aware of that, thank you. It would be convenient.”
“I’m a good man to know in The Haight.”
“So I gather.”
“And, I know that Pete, the owner of the People’s Café wants to put on some live music a couple nights a week. Interested?”
“Sure. Why not? It might be fun. Thanks, Luco.”
They shared a relaxed smile.
“Marlee, have you had anything to eat yet?”
“No. Any recommendations for a newcomer like me?”
Actually Yes, Mike Koberski’s ‘Flame Kielbasa’ is the stuff that dreams are made of.”
“Dreams or heartburn nightmares?”
“He’s right over there.”
Luco lifted his hand, using the book of poetry as a pointer. Marlee recognized the cover.
“‘Sonnets From The Portuguese?’ I would never have guessed you to be a fan of Browning.”
“What? Oh, this? I bought this for a friend. It’s not really my style.”
“A friend? I’m sure she is.”
“Actually…,” started Luco, but a sharply accented voice cut him off.
“Luco, my old friend!”
Through a thick pall of white smoke arising from the collection of barbeque grills, Marlee could make out the portly figure of a man, red-faced and sweating.
“Luco, come here,” called out the smoky-eyed chef.
Cutting through the frenetic crowd, Luco, taking Marlee by the hand, guided them over to the busy food stand. They went around to the side, close to where Mike Koberski was keeping tabs on dozens of spicy sausages as they popped and hissed in the flames. Mike waved a large stainless steel barbecue fork in greeting.
“Hiya, Mike. How’s business?”
“Today will be a great day, nice and warm.” He eyed Marlee through the smoke. “How’s your day, Luco?”
“Just fine. Mike, This is Marlee Owens, a newcomer to the street and to the Fair.”
Mike smiled and nodded. A large drop of sweat fell from his chin and sizzled on the grill.
“Welcome, Marlee. I see you’ve already met the most eligible bachelor in The Haight.”
Marlee smiled back and shot a quick glance at Luco, who looked a bit embarrassed, even though he was laughing.
“Nice to meet you, Mike and I don’t think that Luco is all that eligible. I hear he’s going steady with himself.”
“You’re OK, girl. Have a ‘basa, on me.”
One bite of Mike Koberski’s ‘Flame Kielbasa’ and Marlee felt homesick for Cleveland. Both Mike and Luco were taken aback watching Marlee down the sausage without blinking an eye. Most people had a cold beer on the side to douse the fiery spices.
“Mike,” said Marlee, wiping her mouth daintily, enjoying the astonished looks on the men’s faces. “That was great, but Luco said you had a ‘Flaming’ kielbasa that is supposed to be really hot.”
“That was it,” stammered Mike.
“Oh? Well…it was very nice. I’m from Cleveland and we’d call that a ‘mild’ kielbasa. Very nice. I’m sure the little kids love them.”
Mike and Luco looked at each other, not quite knowing what to say. Marlee stood there, smiling sweetly at them, enjoying their confusion.
“One more thing, Mike. Give me a beer. My mouth is on fire.”
He handed her a cup of Bud Light and she poured it down her throat, not stopping to breathe. Both men started to laugh. After finishing the beer Marlee coughed and wiped her eyes.
“I had you two guys going there for a minute, didn’t I? Jesus H., Mike. What do you put in those things, napalm?”
“Yep,” said Mike. “Not far from it. Old family recipe. A fine mix of spices that will make the kielbasa nice and hot or take the rust off of any chrome surface.”
Marlee took a paper napkin from the counter and wiped at her eyes.
“Well, Mike, if I can’t sleep tonight I’ll know who to blame.”
“No matter how chilly it gets tonight when the fog comes in, you’ll be warm and comfortable,” added Luco.
Mike reached out and grabbed Luco’s arm.
“Christ, I almost forgot. Luco, I was hoping I’d see you today. I need your help.”
“You got it. What can I do, Mike?”
Mike turned to Marlee who was beginning to lose the flush from her cheeks as the fiery spices subsided.
“Marlee, you like sports? Baseball?”
“Sure. Baseball is life. The rest is details.”
“Great. Luco, I got two tickets to the Giants game next Saturday. I can’t go. Some family thing my wife forgot to tell me about until last night, but maybe you and Marlee might like to go?”
He looked at Luco and then at Marlee, and back again at Luco. Feeling a bit cornered, Luco finally spoke.
“Well…it sounds good to me. What about it, Marlee? Care to see our beautiful ballpark?”
Her initial reaction was negative. She didn’t relish the idea of spending a whole afternoon with a man she perceived as a depressed lothario, but it was a public place and it had been quite a while since she had been to a big league game.
“Who are they playing?”
“The Cardinals. It’ll be a great game,” said Mike, reaching into his shirt pocket for the tickets.
Marlee let a smile out for some fresh air.
“All right, Luco. If you promise to be a gentleman, I’ll go with you to the game.”
Luco bowed to Marlee. “I will be such a gentleman that you won’t even recognize me.”
Mike handed a slim white envelope to Luco as he winked flirtatiously at Marlee.
“Here you go. Enjoy the game for me. I’ll be sitting in a lawn chair in San Jose, sweating like a pig and eating birthday cake.”
“Thank you, Mike,” said Luco, “And I promise to behave myself, Marlee. I won’t climb any light poles while we’re together.”
“You better not, Bucko, because I won’t catch you if you fall.”
“’Bucko?’” Luco looked at Mike who was trying to not laugh as he turned a grill full of sausages.
Despite all of her misgivings and alarm bells, Marlee had to admit that she was attracted to the dark-haired barista. There was something about him. Several somethings, in fact, that had her emotions caught in a small tug-of-war between her mind and her heart. She was drawn to him on a very basic, physical level, while at the same time there were things about him that told her to walk the other way.
That book of sonnets in his hand was obviously for some other woman. His glibness with female customers and their intimations of breathless, passionate liaisons bothered her.
But, she thought, nothing could be safer and noncommittal than a few hours inside a stadium filled with 40,000 screaming baseball fans. Any smooth moves there would be easily deflected amid the chaos and Cracker Jack.
After a Day to Remember, one filled with music, colors and new friends Marlee walked with the flow of people heading home. Her trek was thankfully only one block. The sensory indulgence was exhausting and she was grateful that her apartment was so close.
She checked her mailbox and slowly climbed the stairs up to her door…which was standing wide open. Her heart skipped a beat as she hurried up from the landing. There was no sound coming from inside the apartment. She moved slowly through the open door straining to hear anything or anyone. She had her keys bristling in her clenched fist. There was no one in her bathroom. A quick glance said the same for the kitchen. She could see that the living room was empty. That left just her bedroom and its closed door. The only sound she could hear were those rising up from the street just outside her windows. She rested her hand on the doorknob. On Haight Street a Diesel bus roared away from the bus stop as Marlee turned the knob and pushed open the door.
The bedroom was empty. There was nobody in her apartment, but she was cringing with the sensation that someone had been there. Nothing seemed to be missing. Everything was as she had left it just a few hours ago. It was all the same, but there was a difference. It wasn’t until two days later that she noticed that her copy of “Leaves of Grass,” the one she thought was missing, was in its place on her bookshelf.