Down the Hall on Your Left

This site is a blog about what has been coasting through my consciousness lately. The things I post will be reflections that I see of the world around me. You may not agree with me or like what I say. In either case – you’ll get over it and I can live with it if it makes you unhappy. Please feel free to leave comments if you wish . All postings are: copyright 2014 – 2019

Archive for the category “Fear”

Fiction Saturday – “Mistakes Were Made” – The Conclusion

Fiction Saturday – “Mistakes Were Made” – The Conclusion

“Where is everybody?”

That was a good question. Ten minutes ago it looked like “Pops” Mulroy held all the cards, but now…? Now it looked like he was “all-in” and holding a dead hand. His two gigantic thugs certainly were. His eyes darted around looking for help. There wasn’t any. It was time for me to show him what I had in my pocket. Now Charlie and I were holding all the Aces.

When “Pops” saw the pistol in my hand it was if all the air went out of him.

“Timmy, is that necessary?”

“I hope not, but I don’t know what’s going on here either and you might be our ticket out of here.” The man I had trusted slowly shook his head.

“That gun won’t get you – or me – out of here if things have fallen apart. We are all expendable.”

“Then let’s keep walking and find out,” I told him.

I looked over at Charlie who had put away his knife and was holding two Russian semi-automatic pistols, one in each hand. He had a deadly serious look on his face.

“Those big boys don’t need these pieces anymore and they might come in handy if things get nasty.”

I was coming to really like and trust that boy.

It was me, “Pops,” and Charlie standing there all alone. No one else was visible and the plant was dead silent, but that sure didn’t mean that everyone was gone. You can’t hide that many Russians quickly – and what about my men, my Security Team? I knew from the FBI that at least two of them were moles.

And where was Van Swearingin?

If I was going to get any answers we had to get moving to Van Swearingin’s office.

“Ok, let’s keep moving…and one more thing. “Pops,” if you try to call out to your Comrades or get stupid on me – I. Will. Shoot. You.

We moved on through the plant. I was hoping that the Boss would be there in his office – in handcuffs, but I was also hoping that he and everybody else was gone. I didn’t care where. I was one man with a snub-nosed five shot .38 caliber handgun. That’s not much. Not much at all.

There were only two places in the plant where you get everybody together at one time: the Loading Docks or outside. The Loading Dock area would be crowded unless they opened the large bay doors – and then you were outdoors. I wanted to avoid either place until I knew more.

When we got close to Van Swearingin’s office I could see that the door was wide open. I’d never seen it like that before. I had Charlie and “Pops” stay out of the office while I slipped through the door. The Receptionist’s area was empty. The door to Van Swearingin’s private office was ajar. I looked into his office. Van Swearingin was sitting at his desk, his back to me, looking out of his window, the only window in the entire building, onto the desolate landscape of the Salt Flats. I walked in.

“Hello, Tim.” He didn’t turn around.

“Boss? What’s going on? Where is everybody?”

“You weren’t supposed to be here today.” He turned his chair around. He looked like he’d seen a ghost. He was pale and his eyes were lifeless. His hands were empty, but there was a shiny chromed .45 caliber pistol in his lap. I didn’t like that. “Why don’t you give me that weapon, Boss?”

“No.”

I couldn’t reach it and I didn’t want him to start shooting that cannon. We just looked at each other for a few moments. If he was going to say anything I’d have to start the conversation.

“What’s going on, Mr. Van Swearingin? One minute this place is crawling with…” He cut me off.

“What’s going on, Tim? A lifetime of mistakes coming back at me is what’s going on. I trusted people I shouldn’t have. I let them stay even when I knew I should have gotten rid of them. They took my son as a hostage. I didn’t have the courage to fight them. I let my own personal weakness and greed allow me to betray my country. What’s going on you ask me?”

“Where are the Russians?” I insisted. His self-pity didn’t interest me at this moment.

“The Russians? I think some of them are dead by now. I hope so. The FBI stormed in here twenty minutes ago. They must have taken out the guard post before they could warn them here at the plant. A couple of your Security Detail opened fire when the Russians started to fire at the FBI raiders. You trained them well, Tim.”

“Those men were FBI from the get-go,” I corrected him. “I didn’t even know which of my men they were. I have one more question for you.”

“What’s that, Tim?”

I hollered back out of the office.

“Charlie, bring him in here.”

Charlie came into the office walking behind “Pops” Mulroy. He had one of the Russian’s pistols up against the back of “Pops” head. I had no doubt that he would have pulled the trigger if the old traitor had attempted to run or resist.

“Hi, Dad, What’s new?” His voice was as cold as the desert at night.

Van Swearingin looked up at his youngest son like he had never seen him before. “Charlie? Put down that gun!”

“Sorry, Dad, no can do. I had to kill two of your Russian flunkies to get it and this other big one too. Besides, if I put it down your friend here might do something stupid.” He rapped his prisoner’s head with the gun barrel. “Ain’t that right, Grandpa?”

“Easy, Charlie, the FBI has taken control of the plant and I think they’ll want Mr. Mulroy with his head intact. I’m sure they’ll have a lot of questions for him.” I turned back to Van Swearingin. He couldn’t take his eyes off of his son. “I imagine they will have a few questions for you too. But I have just one.” He looked at me and closed his eyes. He was on the verge of collapse.

“Mr. Van Swearingin, You trusted me with your son, why didn’t you trust me enough to call in the FBI, or the Army or whoever, to end all of this before people had to die?

“I had no Trust left. Everyone I trusted ended up betraying me.” He picked up the pistol from his lap. I reached out hoping he would hand it to me.

“Mr. Van Swearingin – don’t! Give me the gun. Please.”

“No. Hear me out. I’ve made some terrible mistakes, horrible mistakes. I’ve caused a lot of pain to people who didn’t deserve it. It’s too late for me to make amends to some of them. I hope that someday they will be able to forgive me.” He closed his eyes as a tear ran down his cheek.

I thought we were out of the woods, but he opened his eyes before I could reach for his gun. He raised his hand and fired one shot across the room and into the chest of his lifelong friend, employee, and ultimate destroyer “Pops” Mulroy.

XXX

I deposited my last pay envelope and then closed my bank account. I bought a train ticket to Maine. I’d never been there, but it was as far from the west coast as I could go and full of green trees. I’d had enough of the desert Salt Flats.

I read in a newspaper that they put Van Swearingin on trial, but he had caved in on himself and ended up in the crazy house for the criminally insane. I don’t know how long he survived. I never read another word about him.

The End

Fiction Saturday – “Mistakes Were Made” – Part Fifteen

Fiction Saturday – “Mistakes Were Made” – Part Fifteen

I didn’t know what to say, so I said nothing. The one man I felt that I could trust – “Pops” and his two big thugs walked me back to my little office. One of the big guys stayed outside the door. I guess “Pops” didn’t want any interruptions. They didn’t tie me up or anything. What was I going to do? Where could I go? I was trapped and I was alone. The only person within 700 miles or so that I felt I could even come close to trusting was a kid who had once tried to stab me. I was as alone as anyone could be.

“Timmy, I’m sorry you decided to show up here a day early. By tomorrow we would have been long gone and this place would have been a smoking pile of ashes – a black stain on the white salt flats. But, you did come early and I’m afraid you’re going to be a tragic victim of the fire. That’s too bad, I kind of liked you.”

I didn’t like being referred to in the past tense while I was still around. I had to speak up. I knew my goose was cooked, but I had to know…why?

“Can I ask you something, or is this a one-way street?

“Pops” chuckled like a grandfather talking to his little grandson.

“Sure, Timmy, we’re not going anywhere for a few hours. Shoot.”

I could have asked him a thousand questions, but the big one was – Why? Why are you betraying your country? What about Van Swearingin? You’ve known him for almost thirty years. You’ve been friends. Why?”

He pulled over one of the side chairs and sat across from me. He moved the big Russian over into the corner like he was a piece of ugly furniture.

“Let me give you a bit of a history lesson, young man, and then maybe you’ll understand who I am and what I’m doing.

“That is true that I’ve known Van Swearingin for a long time. We were both in the army during the first war. When the Armistice was signed he came home – the young hero. I stayed behind. The Army and the politicians weren’t done with me.

“The ink wasn’t dry on the Armistice papers in Versailles before the U.S. Army shipped me and more than ten thousand other men into Russia. We were there taking sides in their civil war. We were there to back the so-called ‘White Russians’ against the ‘Reds’ who had overthrown the Czar and taken power. We had no right to be there. It wasn’t our fight. It was strictly a Russian affair. I spent more than two years there fighting and killing people I didn’t have anything against.

“Like any war there is a lot of idle time. I got to know some of the Russians I picked up the lingo and I learned how the Russians felt having us and troops from other western nations, there tearing up their country. I came home in 1920 and I was a changed man.”

“But, what about your family and friends, “Pops?”

“They were still my family and friends. It was me who’d changed, not them. I was still the same man on the outside, but inside I was changed. I had been betrayed. Inside I became a Russian, an angry Russian.”

“But for thirty years? For thirty years you were what – a spy? A Saboteur?”

“No, Timmy, for almost thirty years I wanted there to be a payback for what we – what I – had done to the Russian people.”

He stopped talking and looked at me with a sad expression on his face.

“’Pops,’ if you were a part of all of this why did you tell me to call the FBI? I don’t get it.”

“Because my naïve young friend, you tell them what you see – or what I wanted you to see – then they tell you what they are going to do, and then you call and tell me everything. You were my spy inside the FBI.”

I stopped trying to ask him anything else. There was no point. He had been stewing over this for decades and I wasn’t going to change his mind sitting here in the middle of nowhere. I looked at “Pops’ and he looked at me. We both knew that any further explanations were useless. Neither of us was going to change at this point.

For about a half hour we just sat there, me, “Pops”, and the side of beef by the door. We could hear plant noises as people passed by my office or equipment was being moved.

A little before noon the big Russian said something. “Pops” answered him in Russian and the big man opened the door and left us alone.

“He has to go ‘Make a Russian River.” He’ll be back in a minute. One thing I can say about them – they are very loyal.”

I bit my tongue. I wanted to answer him with, “Not like you,” but what would be the point?

After another twenty minutes “Pops” began to look concerned. His large pet and bodyguard hadn’t come back. He opened my office door – the other man was gone too. It was just the two of us now – and my small personal revolver that I had taken to carrying again. “Pops” had been overconfident and never had his gorillas pat me down. I hadn’t seen any weapons on “Pops” so I kept mine where it was. I’d bring it out when it would do the most good.

“Pops” closed the office door. He was not happy. For the first time he looked a little scared.

“Stand up, Tim. Something is wrong. We’re going for a little walk-around. Come on.”

He still showed no weapons, just the threat of one. I came from behind my desk and together the two of us walked out into the plant floor.

We turned right. We were both nervous as we headed toward Van Swearingin’s office. We hadn’t gone five yards before we both saw a pair of shoes sticking out from behind a line of lathes. Two shoes – big shoes and they were attached to the Russian bodyguard who had been standing outside of my office. The big man’s brown suit coat was wet with blood. His throat had been slit and there was another damp area in the middle of his broad chest. I hadn’t seen anything like that since we crossed into Germany near the end of the war.

“Pops” stepped back and quickly looked around. There was no one else in sight. The plant had fallen silent. All of the machinery was stopped. It seemed like we were the only two people in the building – no longer counting the dead Russian.

“What’s going on here, Tim? Who? What is this?”

“The ‘Who’ is me.” It was Charlie. He stepped out from behind a large tool cabinet. He was holding his knife – the one I had told him to stop carrying on duty. There was blood dripping from the blade.

“And ‘What this is” – is the end. Your other playmate is back here. He won’t be joining us.” “Pops” was in a stunned silence. I wasn’t.

Next Week, The Conclusion –

Fiction Saturday – “Mistakes Were Made” – Part Fourteen

 

Fiction Saturday – “Mistakes Were Made” – Part Fourteen

 

Daily life at the Salt Lake Plant was much like the Salt Flats – the same no matter in which direction you looked. Any changes were hard to detect and if you weren’t careful you could find yourself hopelessly lost and looking Death in the eye. Out on The Flats you could die of thirst. Inside the Plant the biggest danger came from the steely-eyed Russians who were running the show even though Van Swearingin had his name on the pay envelopes.

Men came and went. The men who had been there all during the war were disappearing one by one. That old crew was being replaced with thick-necked men who never smiled and who never left the Plant. They had set up a barebones dormitory in a far corner of the building. Little by little a small part of Utah was being turned into a corner of the Ukraine.

Why I was still there and breathing mystified me. It also scared the daylights out of me. I was afraid to go there and mix it up with any of those Russians, and I was afraid to leave because of those FBI guys. Aside from their haircuts and dental work I didn’t see much difference between them.

It had gotten to the point that the only person I felt I could trust was Charlie, Mr. Van Swearingin’s younger son, who had once tried to knife me. I couldn’t really count on his Old Man even though he was the man who hired me for this job. I may have had a nice job title and a hefty salary, but I was really there to be his stooge. I didn’t appreciate that. I didn’t fight my way across North Africa and Europe to be under anybody’s thumb – American or Russian.

I was reaching my limit. I needed to confront Van Swearingin regardless of the danger. I had questions and I was going to demand some straight answers. When I would do that remained to be seen.

Damn it all.

XXX

 

I guess my idea of what constitutes “Soon” and how the FBI defined it went in two different directions.

It was two weeks later when I got back to Salt Lake. I went in a day early because of some possibly iffy weather and flying in that DC-3 was scary enough in good when flying over the mountains was just like the worst roller coaster on earth.

It was when I came into the Plant a day earlier than expected that I saw something new – and I wasn’t sure what it was that I was seeing.

Even though I had flown in alone Van Swearingin was already there. His office door was closed, but I could hear him and someone else talking – arguing really, with the other voice doing most of the talking. I couldn’t make out much of what was being said, but it was obvious that neither of them were very happy. I didn’t need any of the Russians seeing me outside the office door eavesdropping. I had enough trouble and I was there to stir the pot with the Boss.

I’d promised myself that I was going to confront Van Swearingin. I wanted some answers from him about why he didn’t stand up and be a man – instead of a traitor which is how he was looking to me – more so every day. I understood that his oldest son was missing and that maybe the Russians were holding him, but…

Sometimes you have to risk everything or you’ll be sure to end up with nothing.

It’s called courage.

I’ve seen it a number of times and there were those times when it cost a man everything, except the respect and honor of the men who lived to go home to their families.

Charlie was in my office when I got there. He still didn’t like being stuck in Salt Lake, but he was learning to do his job and to become a man. 

Against everything that the FBI had warned me about keeping my trap shut I felt that it was time to take Charlie into my confidence. He had as big a stake in all of this as I did – bigger even.

Aware that the office was being monitored I dug out the notepad again for our real conversation. Out loud we went over the daily log reports. On paper my words were right to the point.

“Charlie, do you have any idea what’s going on around here?”

“You mean with all those Russian gorillas around here? Yeah, I ain’t blind.”

“And why your father is allowing them to…to, let’s face it, Charlie, to steal whatever it is they are really making here?”

“It all looks like some Buck Rogers top secret gizmos of some sort,” wrote Charlie. I had to agree with him on that. The stuff they were making was unlike anything I had ever seen before.

“Has your father said anything to you, Charlie, about why he is letting them run the show?” I didn’t add my other question: “Why, for crying out loud, am I still here?”

Charlie grabbed the tablet and wrote quickly. “Boss, I don’t know anything about all of that. I know that I’m stuck here just like you I figure, and whatever they’re making must be something special or the Russians wouldn’t have their fat noses into everybody’s business. But there ain’t nothing I can do about any of it.”

I was getting angrier by the minute. I signed on to be here, but Charlie was little more than a prisoner. I kicked my wastebasket across the room. I picked up my pen again. “Charlie, I’m going to let you in on something, but you have to keep it to yourself or people will end up dead.”

Charlie’s eyes grew wide.

I ripped off the paper we’d written on. “Take care of this like last time. Got it?” He nodded. “You do that and I going to go talk to your Dad.

Charlie went one way to burn the evidence of our back and forth. I went in the opposite direction. I pretended that I was doing a plant floor walk-through, for all that was worth. I came around a corner near the machine shop and bumped into a familiar face – “Pops” Mulroy. I couldn’t tell you who was more surprised, him or me.

“Pops, what are you doing here?” I stammered, “You’re the last person I’d ever expect to see here again.”

He didn’t say a word. His surprised look melted away into one that told me we weren’t going to have a picnic in the park. It dawned on me that “Pops” was the other voice I’d heard coming through Van Swearingin’s office door.

“Tim, what are you doing here?”

“I might ask you the same question.”

Standing behind “Pops” were two large Russians. They were always easy to pick out of a crowd. They wore cheap suits and faces that looked like they smelled something bad. These two looked more like bodyguards – “Pops’” bodyguards. When he and I came around that corner and bumped into each other both of those sides of beef behind him reached into their suits. They were there to protect “Pops.’

“Расслабься, парни.”

That came out of “Pops’” mouth. His two shadows stepped back and pulled empty hands from their coats. “Pops” looked at me with a smile on his face.

“I just told these two boys to relax. I suggest you do the same, Timmy-Boy.”

 To Be Continued –

Fiction Saturday – “Mistakes Were Made” – Part Thirteen

Fiction Saturday – “Mistakes Were Made” – Part Thirteen

 

For all of the care that the Government took to keep that Atom Bomb thing a secret I couldn’t believe that they didn’t know about all of those Russians in Salt Lake before I did. Did they trust Van Swearingin so much that they didn’t keep a closer eye on it all?

When I called into my contact at the FBI a couple of weeks ago I told them that the Russians were getting pretty cocky. They weren’t even trying to stay off the factory floor anymore. They were interfering in everything. More and more of the American workers were disappearing. The Reds had brought in some Muscle and whoever was left of the men I trusted were being intimidated and threatened. It was never a big plant to begin with, but now the number of Americans on the inside was shrinking. I didn’t know how much longer I was going to be able to hang on.

I contacted a couple of the Americans who had been fired or quit and they weren’t too eager to talk to me. They were scared. I don’t know if it was of the Russians or of me. They probably thought I was a plant – one of “them” – a traitor. None of them, not one, felt safe around me. One of the older men hinted to me that he knew a couple of the men who “quit” had actually disappeared. “Disappeared” – he meant killed and dumped out in the desert or up in the mountains. He wasn’t there when I went to his home a week later.

When I got back to San Francisco I walked over to Larkin Street, to the Federal Building. I didn’t think I was followed, but I couldn’t be sure. I had reached the point where I didn’t care anymore. I wanted out.

“You can’t leave now, Tim. Things are getting to a critical stage. We need your eyes in there.”

Getting critical?” I just shook my head. These FBI mugs were killing me. “Men are dying out there. The Russians have completely taken over and I don’t know why I’m still alive.”

“Van Swearingin is protecting you, Tim.”

“Van Swearingin? He can’t protect himself or his own kids. You told me that they’d snatched one of his kids and I’ve got the other one working with me. No – I’m done. I don’t care. If you don’t do something now, today, I’ll walk out of here and then you’ll have to look for me too.” I got up to leave.

The G-Man got up from behind his desk and got nose to nose with me. He was as old as my father, but he was still solid muscle. He stuck his finger in my face like I was a ten year old.

“Listen to me, kid. Don’t you even try to quit now,” He growled at me. “Too many good and brave men have already died out there, more than you know. We are just about ready to come down on that whole operation. Do you think we are stupid? Do you think that we don’t already have that place and everyone there under a microscope?” His face was turning red. I was getting pale.

“I promise you this, Tim, if you foul this up because you’re scared I’ll make sure – me, personally – I’ll make sure that you disappear out there on the Salt Flats too.”

Without another word he grabbed me by my throat, kicked my ankle and dropped me to the floor. The business end of his pistol was on my forehead before I even saw him reach for it. His eyes burned into me.

“Do I make myself clear, soldier?”

I know that I was followed when I left Larkin Street. I don’t know by whom, but he sure didn’t look friendly.

XXX

The sun was coming up over the mountains as the plane dropped down to Salt Lake. The DC-3 flew in with just two passengers – me and Van Swearingin. Neither of us said much. I felt like I was the first prize in a turkey shoot. Win, lose, or draw I was going to end up dead. He looked like what was left of last year’s turkey shoot. That plane felt like it was a hearse.

The usual Lincoln limo met us at the airport and drove us out to the plant. The driver was new. He gave us a fake smile and said, “Good morning, Gentlemen.” He had an accent that sure wasn’t from Georgia – at least not our Georgia.

When we got to the Black box out in the middle of nowhere the shifts were changing. The few Americans left were checking in and the men who were leaving were all climbing on to a bus. That was new. The Russians didn’t even trust their own workers.

When I opened the door to my little office I saw that Charlie Van Swearingin was sitting at my desk. I’d made him my foreman for whenever I was away. He was young, but at least I knew him. He had once pulled a knife on me, but he was the only one I felt that I could trust.

“What’s up, Charlie? Anything new?”

He nodded slowly and held a finger up to his lips, saying nothing until the door was closed. When I sat down next to the desk he started to scribble on a note pad as he finally started to talk.

“No, Boss, same old, same old,” he said as if everything was hunky-dory. On the note pad it was a different story. His pencil scratched out, “This office is bugged. There is a microphone in the ceiling light, I think.” I looked up at the light fixture. I don’t know what I expected to see. Charlie started talking again.

“It’s been pretty quiet. We had one man quit though – Martin, that machinist, the old guy.” He wrote at the same time. “Martin is dead. He got into it with a Russian and backed into a couple of knives out behind the building. They don’t think I saw him get it. It was murder.”

“That’s too bad, Charlie. I liked him,” I said for whoever was listening. “He was a decent guy.” I took the pencil from Charlie and wrote while I asked him about the weather.

“Keep your eyes open. It’s all about to hit the fan. Don’t take any chances.” I underlined the word “any.” Charlie nodded. I kept writing while he ran down the personnel schedule. “Burn this paper and three sheets underneath it. Don’t give them any excuses to take us out back. I’m going to talk to your father.”

 To Be Continued –

“Chopper”

 

I DON’T HAVE A GOOD MEMORY FOR NAMES. I just don’t. My mother wore a name tag until I was twelve – just so I‘d know who that woman was. And then there are some people I won’t ever forget.

His name was “Chopper.”

“Chopper” wasn’t his real name of course. It was a name that he earned in the Military. I knew him after his Army days, but I heard the stories – a few from him directly, but most from his brother. “Chopper” himself was somewhat reticent to talk about his time in Southeast Asia.

“Chopper” was a young Irish boy from Cleveland. He came from a family of Firefighters who lived life like it was a nonstop wedding reception. If something was worth doing – it was worth doing at full speed.

Read more…

Fiction Saturday – “Haight Street” Part Twenty – Eight

Fiction Saturday – “Haight Street” Part Twenty – Eight

At least the sun was shining and the winds were warm, out of the East, down from the Sierras. The fog was pushed out to sea hiding the offshore Farralon Islands from view. It made San Francisco seem like it was a part of the popular image of a Sunny California.

Luco wasn’t scheduled for release from the hospital for another three days, but he was raising such Holy Hell and threatening to crawl out of the place on his hands and knees that the medical staff voted to give him an early trip home.

“Mr. Reyes, as your doctor I must advise you to give us a couple more days to make sure that your internal injuries are on a healing track. But… as a member of the human race and someone who has to be around you all day I’d just as soon kick you down the stairs. Of course, I’d have to take a number and wait in line for the privilege.”

“Doc, I don’t mean to be trouble, but I hate it here. I’m feeling OK and I want to go home.”

The young doctor, who looked like he was there earning a merit badge, drummed his fingers on the side rail of Luco’s bed.

“Mr. Reyes, you may feel alright, but you’re not. Frankly, you’re lucky to be alive. If I sent you home alone you might end up dead on your bathroom floor before sundown. Of course, if I don’t let you leave, you might succumb to the night nursing staff.”

“I’ve been that much of a pain?” said Luco. He winced as he shifted his weight trying to get comfortable. Looking in the doctor’s eyes, Luco saw a mixture of professional concern and a weighing of the odds with a jury of his peers.

“Pain?”said the young man in the white lab coat. “Mr. Reyes, there was talk of starting a pool to predict which shift would report your sudden and unfortunate death. I’ve been here six years and I’ve never seen a grown man behave in such an immature and irritating manner.”

Luco blushed. He had never been a “good patient.” Even as a child being home sick from school could drive his mother to tears.

“Doc, I’m really sorry if I’ve been difficult. Do you think I should go and apologize to everyone?”

“No, Mr. Reyes, I couldn’t guarantee your safety. I think it best if I just sign your release and get you out of here. Who can tend to you when you get home?”

“I’ll take care of him, Doctor.”

Both men turned their gaze toward the doorway. There stood Marlee, dressed in tan shorts and a striped tank top. A large straw hat and matching bag completed the look.

***

“Oh, Jesus God, why didn’t you just leave me there to die?”

“I told you those steps would be rough, Luco.”

Marlee helped Luco ease himself down onto the sofa.

“Rough I could handle, but those last few steps…. I thought I was going to split open like a ripe watermelon.”

That’s why the doctors wanted to keep you a few more days.” Marlee spread a light throw over his legs. He had his head back, with his arm crossed over his eyes. “Inside, you’re still hamburger according to one of the Interns.”

“I feel like hamburger.” His eyes were closed.

The short ride home and the climb up the 18 steps from Stanyan Street had exhausted Luco’s body and drained his reserve of mental toughness. He fell asleep within seconds.

Luco had maintained that the vehicle that cracked and crushed his body had been steered with malicious intent. There had been no eyewitnesses. The people in the coffeehouse had nothing helpful to add.

The official police report concluded that it could come to no conclusion. There were no unusual skidmarks on the pavement. The intersection of Cole and Waller was busy during the day with diesel buses and tourist’s rental cars. Collisions and skidmarks were not uncommon. When the investigators looked at the scene they just shook their heads. The intersection looked like every other intersection in the city, except for the broken glass and the blood.

Marlee sat down at Luco’s desk and stared out the window. The grassy slopes of Golden Gate Park were still damp from the morning fog as it retreated offshore. The sunlight sparkled off the grass and made the world look clean and inviting.

She turned away from the window and looked at Luco’s sleeping form on the old hotel sofa. With his short hair and relaxed features he looked like a small boy napping. One part of her wanted to take him in her arms and rock him, nurturing, caring, protecting. Another part was coming to accept that she wanted to be held in his arms.

***

Marlee walked down Haight Street after getting Luco settled in and safe. The bright morning sun was shadowed by conflicting emotions. She and Pete from the cafe had arranged for a home healthcare staff to tend to Luco until he was farther along in his recovery.

She was comforted just knowing that he was alive and going to survive his injuries, but she was still scared for him. Luco was so sure that the driver of the van had hit him intentionally. The blend of relief and fear was exhausting. She hadn’t been able to sleep the night before. It was catching up with her now. A good solid week’s worth of deep, comforting, sleep would be good, but she needed to be back at Luco’s apartment. Five hours would have to do.

She made a short detour into the Haight-Central Market to get a couple of onions, some canned tomatoes and a green pepper. Tonight Luco was going to eat her Swiss Steak, whether he was hungry or not. He needed some red meat.

Standing at the counter, Mike, the young Lebanese owner rang up her purchases. He liked Marlee. She never gave him any grief and she never asked for credit.

“Hi, Marlee. How you doing? Don’t take this wrong, but you look terrible. Can’t sleep? Haight Street can get noisy at night.”

“It’s not the noise, Mike. I just haven’t had the chance to get any rest. Hopefully I can grab some this morning.”

As he listened, Mike let his eyes dart up to the large parabolic mirror in the corner. Shoplifting was an ongoing problem on the street and the mirror let him see clearly down both aisles of his small market.

Anyone who tried shoplifting from Mike had to be incredibly stupid. There was only one way out of the store and that was right past Mike and the 9mm pistol he kept tucked in his waistband. It was usually covered by his shirt, but not always. His eyes quickly scanned the store.

“I heard about Luco. Too bad.”

“It was horrible, Mike. He is a very lucky man, just to be alive.”

“A real shame. My brother got killed crossing Stanyan Street a few years ago. They never caught the guy who hit him. My Mother still cries about that.”

“My sympathies, Mike. At least Luco will survive.” She saw Mike’s eyes move up to the mirror. “He was released from the hospital yesterday afternoon. He’s not getting around too well yet. He needs time to recuperate.”

“Good thing he has a friend like you to help him out.” His gaze was fixed on the mirror. “Son of a bitch.”

“What?” Marlee turned and looked up at the mirror.

Crouched down in front of the beer cooler was Dennis Thayer. Marlee and Mike watched him slipping cans of beer into the pockets of his coat.

“Look at that. I finally let him back in here and the first thing he does is try to rip me off again. Marlee, here, take your groceries and get home. Me and this clown are going to have a talk and I don’t want you to be in the middle.”

“Oh, good Lord, Mike, be careful. Do you want me to call the police?”

“No. You go home and get some rest.” He smiled at Marlee, but his eyes stayed glued on the image of Dennis in the mirror. “It’ll be fine. Don’t worry.”

He unfastened the bottom two buttons of his shirt. Marlee could see the textured black grip on the pistol and the polished chrome of the barrel as Mike shifted it and flipped the safety to “off.”

“Marlee, please leave. Now.”

She picked up her plastic carrier bag and, taking one last peek at the mirror, left the store.

“Please be careful, Mike.”

Mike could see that Dennis was heading toward the front of the store.

Marlee hurried across the intersection, her keys out. Opening the front gate to the building, she glanced back and saw the front door at the market swinging shut.

There was little doubt that Mike could take care of himself, but it still made her uneasy. She knew, all too well, how quickly things could go sour and become deadly. Heartbeats are fragile.

“Sleep, girl. Get some rest,” she said out loud as she opened her front door.

Within three minutes the groceries were on the kitchen counter, the blinds were closed, alarm set and Marlee was underneath the soft blankets. Her breathing was slowing and sleep was only seconds in coming. Fives hours would come soon.

“Just a loaf of bread today, Mike.”

“Sure, Dennis. That’ll be $8.87.”

“$8.87? For a loaf of bread?”

“For the bread and for the three beers you have in your pockets.”

“What beer?”

Dennis smiled. He knew that Mike had seen him hide the cans. This was the fun part, the sport of it all. He saw that the front door was closed. It was just the two of them, alone in the store.

“Mike, I’m not trying to rip you off.”

“Thayer, I’ve had it with you. I take pity on you and let you back in my store and you thank me by trying to steal from me again.” He let his hand rest on the butt of the pistol so Dennis would get the message. “Either put the beers on the counter or pay for them. Either way, I don’t want you in here anymore.”

Dennis grinned and fondled the butterfly knife in his left pants pocket. He was enjoying this. The sight of Mike’s 9mm was an added treat.

“Are you threatening me, Mike?”

“Yes, I am you stupid junkie. You think this is a game show we’re playing here?”

Dennis’ smile vanished. Name-calling was out of line. This was just a game. There was no need to get personally nasty.

He pulled the cans of beer from his pockets and, one by one, slammed them down on the counter. They would be undrinkable for hours.

“Don’t call me names, Mike…ever. I don’t like being insulted. You understand me, you stinking camel jockey? There’s your beer. Why don’t you pop one open, Osama?”

“Get out of my store. Don’t come back. No more games with you. Go!”

Dennis pushed open the door. A bright orange Municipal Railway bus was stopped at the corner. He looked back at Mike.

“You’re right about one thing, Mike. No more games.”

Dennis quickly crossed Haight Street and headed down Central toward the Panhandle. He looked up at the 1298 Haight building. He saw the blinds snap shut in the windows of apartment number six.

“So, Miss Marlee, your macho stud is still alive. Don’t get too into playing nursemaid for him. It’s going to be a temporary job.”

It was a dry cleaner, working off $750 in traffic fines by picking up trash in the Park, who found the body of the sixteen-year-old runaway, stuffed into the trash bin behind the playground in the Panhandle.

Rolling Away

 

OH, GOD, IS THIS ANOTHER MONDAY?

I’m retired and I don’t have to get up and go to work anywhere, but my body and soul are reacting like I do. It’s not fair.

I should relate to Mondays like I do to Wednesdays or Saturdays – I think I’ll just roll over and catch a few more winks.

What’s the point of being retired if I respond to Monday mornings by having my stomach clench up like a fist and my brain trying to come up with some good excuses to stay home? Something needs to be done about this – something short of going out, getting a job, and then quitting the job all over again.

Read more…

Fiction Saturday – “Haight Street” Part Twenty – Seven

Fiction Saturday – “Haight Street” Part Twenty – Seven

The fifth floor of St. Mary’s hospital was indistinguishable from the fourth or the sixth. All of them had the same aqua and “seafoam green” colored walls, recessed lighting and the smell of disinfectant.

Using the hint offered by the helpful nurse in the Emergency Room, Marlee learned that Luco had been moved from “post-op” to room 534. With her heart in her throat Marlee took the large and spotless elevator up to the fifth floor.

Forcing herself not to run madly down the corridor Marlee walked along the painted line on the floor, gazing into each room as she passed the open doors. It was a slide show of semi-private tragedy. She was ashamed of herself for peeking into other people’s lives. Looking ahead she saw several empty gurneys parked along the walls and a large laundry cart filling up half of the hallway.

A man came out of the room just beyond the cart, and as he walked past her, Marlee could see that he was a priest. Doing some quick counting, she guessed that he had come from room 534. She picked up her pace. To Hell with decorum.

“Oh, dear God. Oh, dear God. Please, not Luco, not Luco.”

Another flicker of shame burned her cheeks as she realized that she was wishing the Last Rites onto someone else.

The door to 534 was partially closed. From inside Marlee could hear the sound of someone crying. Slowly, she opened the door, fighting back tears, and entered into the room. All of the lights were off, putting the room into shadowy darkness. The curtain was drawn around bed. Behind the thin green fabric there was sobbing and praying in Spanish. Marlee felt her knees buckle and she had to grab the back of a chair to keep from falling to the floor. A nurse, wearing a stethoscope, pushed the curtain back and saw the reeling Marlee. Over the nurse’s shoulder Marlee saw a gray-haired man on the bed, his eyes and mouth open in death. Gently stroking his papery cheek was the sobbing woman, a look of despair and unbelieving sorrow on her face.

The nurse pulled the curtain closed behind her and looked at Marlee.

“Can I help you? Are you all right?”

“Luco Reyes? I was told he was in this room. I’m his wife.” Marlee moved her left hand behind her back.

“Let’s go out in the hall for a moment,” she said and, taking Marlee by the elbow, led her into the corridor. Once there, she told Marlee the details of what had happened and about the treatment he had received so far. Marlee blanched, hearing how they had cut Luco open to repair his torn lung. His condition was still listed as “Serious”, but barring unforeseen complications, he would survive. Marlee shed tears of joy at this news and asked if she could see him.

“Of course, Mrs. Reyes.”

Silently the nurse took Marlee by the arm again and led her to a second bed sitting by the far window.

There was Luco. Marlee stood and looked at him. He was unconscious with a sheet pulled up high on his chest. He had an intravenous drip line going into his right arm. “He looks so small,” was her first thought.

Marlee took a side chair and sat down next to the bed. The rails were up and he looked like he was sleeping in an aluminum crib.

For the next ten minutes she just sat and looked at Luco. His face was scraped and there were small bandages on his chin and forehead. He was still under the lingering effects of the anesthesia. Lowering the rail, Marlee reached out and smoothed his hair.

“Oh, Luco. My poor, sweet Luco.”

Thoughts of their talk at Martin Macks the previous evening went through her head. “Was that only last night?” She remembered how they had both cried as they told each other the stories of their lives. She recalled the feel of his hand in hers as they walked down Haight Street and how very much she wanted to hold him, but didn’t.

Marlee looked at him and wondered about “unforeseen complications.” Was she going to lose this man from her life? Unconsciously she took his hand. His skin was warm and soft, just like last night.

“Marlee?”

She looked at his battered face. His eyes were slits. “Luco.” Her voice leapt from her throat. She lifted his hand and kissed it.

“Where am I? What happened?” His voice was hoarse. He struggled to focus his eyes, with only marginal success.

Even though his vision was blurred, he could feel her hand on his and turned his palm up, closing his fingers around hers. “Where am I?” She squeezed his hand gently and he squeezed back with a strength that surprised her.

“You’re in the hospital, Luco. You were hit by a car.”

“It must have been a tank.”

“You had surgery last night to fix some damage to your lungs, but you’re going to be fine.” Luco just nodded as he began to lose consciousness again. As the anesthesia wore off the pain medication mixed into his glucose drip would smooth the rough edges, but he would sleep for most of the day.

Marlee got up to lower the blind to keep the glare off of Luco’s serene and regal face. He looked like a king in Marlee’s eyes. Somewhere lost in his lineage, generations ago, there must have been royalty in his family. Even now the bearing and grace shone through.

It wasn’t long before hospital protocol geared up and a tall man in a crisp white linen coat escorted the new widow from her station at her husband’s bedside. As soon as she left the room two muscular men tenderly, respectfully, moved the lifeless body onto a gurney. They covered him with a fresh white sheet and took him away. Marlee could hear the squeaking wheels on the gurney as it rolled slowly down the hallway.

While Luco slept Marlee stayed by his side, watching him, willing him protection from “unseen complications.” Occasionally Luco would stir or moan softly and she would sit up straight and take his hand until he quieted again.

Seeing Luco so helpless and seemingly small in that large metal bed, with tubes running into and out of his limp and injured body, sent her back in time. Back to the night when she cradled the body of her husband in her arms, feeling his life escape, a modern Pieta.

Marlee wanted to crawl into the hospital bed next to Luco and hold him, to come between him and any harm. In her heart she had failed to save Phillip, but she would not fail again. Not this time, not today. Not with this beautiful, scarred soul.

The night before they had laid bare their deepest wounds to each other. It was then that she learned about the real Luco Reyes. It didn’t matter if no one else ever saw past the facade of the flirting, glib barista who traded unanswered invitations with the women who drank in his special brews. Marlee Owens would know the real Luco.

She saw that that cavalier behavior was Luco’s way of staying alive. Get close enough to smell the perfume, but not so close as to inhale the explosive aroma of the woman herself. That he would not, could not, allow himself to do.

Luco was stopped by the idea that to caress too gently, to hold too closely, to care too deeply, would be a betrayal to a Love who was gone and beyond return. All that he had left was the memory and if he let that go he would be lost. That memory was his anchor and he was afraid to search for another.

Marlee knew that she was battling a similar enemy. Despite her dreams of Phillip releasing her, she still held a tangible guilt about her feelings for Luco. In the years since Phillip there had been no one else in her mind or her heart. Now, however, this frail looking man the hospital bed had gently invaded both.

Luco moved his head and Marlee leaned forward. “Luco?” His eyes fluttered and opened. He looked into Marlee’s eyes.

“Te amo,” he whispered. Marlee understood the phrase and searched for the right words with which to answer. She found them deep in her heart. “I love you too, Luco.” She laid her cheek on his hand. He reached over and stroked her hair.

“Te amo, Alicia. Te amo.”

Marlee couldn’t move. Luco continued to run his fingers across her pale blond hair as he spoke in slurred Spanish to his deceased wife. Marlee’s knowledge of Spanish did not allow her to follow all of his words, but he said Alicia’s name several times. As he spoke silent tears spilled from her eyes. Each touch of his hand tore at her heart. How could she ever hope to find love with a man so married to a memory?

When Luco fell silent, Marlee moved his hand and sat back in the chair, looking at him as he slept once again.

Marlee wondered about what was going to happen now. In her mind it was clear that Luco was not ready to love her, or anyone. But she had spoken out loud the words “I love you” to him, even though he had not heard them, she had.

Deep within the hemispheres and ridges of his brain, Luco Reyes was moving from dreamless unconsciousness into a dream-hungry sleep. A mad projector in his brain was flashing images, sounds and people before his mind’s eye. Events raced by at an incoherent rate. Nothing made sense, but he understood that he was subconsciously reviewing and evaluating his life, judging himself in preparation for…for what he did not know.

He was seeing every moment of his marriage and as, in his haunting memory, he sat again at the horrible funerals in the chapel at Mission Dolores. He heard someone call his name.

“Luco?”

He knew the voice.

“Te amo.”

“I love you too, Luco.”

“Te amo, Alicia. Te amo.”

Not knowing how long he would have, he poured out his thoughts to his wife.

“Alicia, I need to tell you that I realize you told me the truth. I have been wrong to cling to you the way I have. It’s been unhealthy and unfair to your memory.

“Alicia, I have met a woman, a beautiful and good woman. She makes me feel like I did when I first saw you. We have talked and she has suffered a great loss in her life too. She understands even though I can’t explain it all to her.

“Alicia, I love this woman. I need this woman. I hunger for this woman.

“Know that I will always love you and Regalito, but this woman makes me want to live again.”

An unheard voice spoke to Luco from the depths of his life.

“Go to her, Luco. Love her.”

In the silence and dim light of the hospital room Marlee sat with her head in her hands, feeling lost in her California exile and thinking that she had lost again to Death. First it was Phillip’s life and now it was her own, to the memory of a dead woman.

She had come almost 3000 miles to get away from a lost love only to have it happen again, but this time it was far more cruel. The man with whom she loved and could not have, was in love with a ghost.

Her thoughts drifted to her cello and she wondered if it was to be her only source of loving sounds in her ear, responsive and giving in her arms and solid and sinuous against her skin.

Fiction Saturday – “Haight Street” Part Twenty – Six

Fiction Saturday – “Haight Street” Part Twenty – Six

 

 

Dennis heard Marlee close her front door and a quick peek out of his window confirmed it. He pushed aside the stalks of his large red and white hibiscus to follow her with his eyes as she crossed the street and headed up Haight Street. He needed a few minutes. As he watched her pass the corner market he idly plucked a leaf from the hibiscus and stuffed it into his pants pocket.

Grabbing his keys, Dennis went down the steps two at a time. He stopped outside of number six. Using the key that he had stolen from the previous tenant he silently let himself into Marlee’s apartment.

J.P. Cat was sound asleep inside his cardboard box bed. He never stirred when Dennis walked past him and into the bedroom.

Knowing that he was wasting time and risking discovery, Dennis opted to push his luck. “This is what makes it fun,” he said out loud.

He opened the closet and looked at the clothes. He took the sleeve of a white cotton blouse and put it next to his face, inhaling deeply. He closed his eyes, imagining Marlee in the blouse and then bit off the button from the cuff, swallowing it.

Dennis took a step back from the closet and appraised what he saw. “Cheap, frumpy, knockoff, knockoff, Gap, for God’s sake. My mother had one of these. Oh, Miss Marlee, you need a fashion consultant.”

He took a quick trip through her dresser drawers, running his fingers across the fabric and noting her preference for red.

A glance at her clock radio warned him to curtail his pleasure trip and get down to business.

Dennis walked into the kitchen and pulled a four-inch butterfly knife from his back pocket and the hibiscus leaf from the front. He grabbed Marlee’s cutting board from the shelf over the sink as he flipped open the scalpel sharp knife.

He worked rapidly, cutting the leaf into pieces, chopping and dicing the bits smaller and smaller. Using the flat blade he scraped the wooden board clean of every atom of green. He dropped the green slivers on top of the mound of cat food in the blue plastic bowl. He mixed them into the chicken and tuna until they disappeared.

“Let’s see whose door she knocks on when little ‘Just Plain Cat’ starts to vomit his cute yellow head off tonight. ‘Help me, Dennis. Oh, help me’.”

While Marlee was hearing about Luco being hit by a mysterious “hit and run” driver, Dennis was cleaning up after himself. He replaced the cutting board, walked past the still sleeping cat and plucked a CD of Yo Yo Ma playing the cello from the top of the stack. “Now, where did I set that CD?”

Still laughing, he quickly relocked Marlee’s front door and walked slowly back up the steps to the third floor. The morning sun was streaming through the large window on the landing. Dennis could see the Buena Vista Park steps. There was a drug deal going down. He turned around and ran down the stairs and out of the front door.

Dodging a bus and a motor scooter, Dennis ran across Haight Street.

“Hey, you two animals! What do you think you’re doing?”

“Get out of here mister, unless you want hurt. Do you?” The dealer lifted his shirttail to show Dennis the hilt of a large knife.

“Is that supposed to scare me, you subhuman filth?” The teenaged buyer started to back away, wanting no part of what looked about to erupt. Dennis glared at the boy. “Get out of my neighborhood and don’t come back or your ass is mine.” The kid took off running up the hill, scared and anxious to get back to his suburban home.

Just the two angry men were left, facing each other. The dealer pushed his floppy hat back on his head. He stroked his straggly beard as he took the measure of the blonde haired do-gooder.

“You just cost me a hundred bucks, partner. I think you should reimburse me.” He smiled a gap toothed smile at Dennis and casually reached for his knife.

Dennis whipped his butterfly knife from his pocket and had the blade pointed at the dealer before the buck knife had cleared its leather sheath. Dennis stepped closer, backing the longhaired drug pusher up the steps.

“You know what, you damned piece of garbage?”

“What’s that, Batman?”

“I could kill you right here and probably get a medal from the Mayor.”

“Yeah? If you think you’re such a John Wayne, try me. Right here, right now.” He lifted the silvery knife and waved it at Dennis. Before the street dealer could react, Dennis’ hand flew out and sliced his left nostril.

The dealer let out a soft scream and lashed out with his own knife. Dennis sidestepped it and punched the dealer on the side of his head, knocking him to the ground. A small audience of pedestrians, other would-be drug customers and the passengers on a bus parked in the stop zone twenty-five feet away, watched the lopsided fight. The bus driver picked up his radio and summoned the police.

Dennis stood over the prone, bleeding and frightened dealer. The butterfly knife was digging into the eyelid of the man on the ground. Dennis tossed the buck knife into the bank of zinnias and pansies that lined the sidewalk.

“Pay attention to me. I’m only going to say this once. I could kill you right now, but I won’t. It wouldn’t be any fun and if it’s not fun, why do it. Right? Right, Idiot?”

“Right. Fun.”

“So…I’m letting you go…for now.”

He lifted the bloody faced criminal to his feet and, careful to not get any blood on himself, ran the razor sharp edge of his knife in a swift race down the bridge of the dealer’s nose, peeling the flesh away, down to the cartilage. Another scream and more blood were released onto the stone steps. “Now, run for your life.”

The wounded and humiliated drug merchant ran up the grassy hill, into the Park, disappearing and leaving a red trail on the lawn.

Dennis turned around and saw the small assembly that had witnessed it all. His face was red from the anger and the stress of the encounter. He had a headache and an erection.

“What? What are you looking at? Get out of here and don’t come back.” He waved the knife in the air and started down the steps. The people moved out of his way. Nobody wanted anything to do with him.

The police squad car arrived ten minutes later and found nothing but a smear of red on the steps and a trail of more red on the grass leading up “Hippie Hill” deeper into Buena Vista Park.

Dennis stared at his door. He looked around the hallway and rechecked the brass numbers. “This is number eight? She lives in number six.”

He looked at his wristwatch. Twenty minutes had passed, but he had no memory of going into Marlee’s apartment, no memory of going through her clothes, no memory of poisoning the cat food. Dennis sniffed at his fingers. He could smell the hibiscus leaf. “Why am I sweating?”

There was only one beer left in the refrigerator. Dennis took it and plopped down on his sofa. It was hard to tell if the garish ruby lips were spitting him out or about to swallow him whole. He knew the beer was a mistake in light of the Percodan he had just taken dry. He pulled the tab and heard the welcoming rush of air into the can. He wanted it. He needed it and there was a third reason, but it was too faded to make out.

As he drank and the painkiller roared through his bloodstream, the present was disappearing behind a resurgent past. Morning was being painted over by Midnight and San Francisco was becoming the Boston of seven years previous.

 His desire had always been to be a man of Science, but, as a 21 year-old, middle of his class graduate in chemistry, his superiors at the University Hospital kept demanding that he stick to his duties as a lab technician. He hated doing the same tests, over and over again, day after day.

“Let somebody else do this. I’m a researcher. I’m out on that cutting edge of discovery. Or I would be if you’d stop demanding that I waste my time doing tox screens on rent-a-cops. Give me the tools and I can cure the world.”

Dennis moved from job to job, sliding from the prestigious and endowed to the threadbare and under-funded, downward to the fraud-ridden Medicare mills. He always had the same complaints and always ended up on the sidewalk ranting at a closed and locked door.

It’s a small world and it didn’t take long for him to gain a reputation as a troublemaker and an all-around pain in the ass. Even the pet hospitals turned him away.

Dennis was a good-sized young man and he was never late for work. That was a ringing endorsement for the Manager at Novicky Moving and Storage.

It wasn’t science, but it paid enough to cover his expenses and there were the unofficial perks: almost unlimited opportunities for petty theft from the customers and very limited dealings with bosses.

Dennis refurnished his apartment with items “lost in transit” from the moving van. The customers had little recourse. They rarely bought the overpriced and worthless insurance coverage.

His prize piece of booty was the sofa stolen from another recent Harvard grad. Somehow, the sofa, shaped like a pair of bright red lips was “lost” during the short drive from Cambridge, across the Charles River, into Boston and to a new condo near the Massachusetts General Hospital complex.

Even though it wasn’t his dream job and there were no likely cures to be discovered in the back of a truck, Dennis did the work and was surprised to find that he enjoyed the companionship of the men in the crew.

Some were ex-cons and drifters who stayed only long enough to get rearrested or scrape up a stake to get to the West Coast. There were others who came from failed academic backgrounds, either alcoholic professors on the skids or men like Dennis – perpetual square pegs.

It was during a job on Gainesborough Street, near Symphony Hall, that Dennis’ life was changed. They were moving a stereo cabinet from a fourth-floor walkup. Coming down off a narrow landing, Dennis slipped. He felt and heard something tear in his back.

Rest didn’t help much. When he tried to lift anything over 25 pounds it felt like someone was driving white hot nails into his lower back.

The other men in the crew liked Dennis. He pulled his weight and bought a round now and then. They decided to help him.

One of the guys, a wiry man known as “Zigzag”, fresh out of Walpole State Prison, gave Dennis a handful of pills. “It’s called ‘O.C’ and it’ll fix you up good, Dude.”

Dennis had been in enough labs to know that “O.C.” was an opium derivative called “Oxycontin”, and addictive as hell, but the pain was keeping him from working. No work, no money…no money, and he’d end up working for guys like Zigzag. He took the pills and kept working.

Dennis thought he could deal with the danger of addiction, but he couldn’t get around the side effects. His growing paranoia made him hard to work with. He thought that the other men were dumping the heavy loads on him, slacking off while he did their work.

Things got worse when Zigzag was arrested for setting up a drug lab in the basement of his apartment building. Dennis had to get his pills off the street and his brain told him that Zigzag was going to implicate him in the lab fiasco. Dennis ran. He left Boston and headed west

It took two years of day labor and five doomed attempts at kicking his addiction before Dennis rode a bus across the Golden Gate Bridge. It was as far as he could run without getting wet.

Still paranoid about Zigzag, he avoided going back to work as a mover. He was living in the sordid “Fogtown Hotel” in the Tenderloin when he saw the ad for “Manly Maids.”

After a year of working 60 hour weeks, saving every spare penny and being mugged six times on the street, Dennis found an apartment in The Haight. Far from being an improvement as he had hoped, the move to 1298 Haight punched his ticket on the express train to Insanity.

The first time…Dennis laid his head down on the sofa as he tried to recall the first time, the first murder. He remembered doing it, but not in any reproducible imagery. It was the feel of his fists hitting soft flesh. It was the sound of his own heavy breathing and the final gasps and silence from the other person. It was the sweaty stench of the man’s crusty jacket and the sweet piquancy of the blood. It was the roaring headache beforehand and the soft tones of restful sleep afterward.

The man Dennis beat to death that first night in the Panhandle was a street dealer who had sold him placebos instead of actual Vicodin. When the pain didn’t go away his rage was triggered and ignited a headache that threatened to “split me open and let the universe see my degradation.” 

Dennis went hunting.

After the first, it became easier, and more importantly to Dennis, it became a mission. He was a drug user, yet he saw the path to his salvation lined with dead drug dealers. Save the soul of the user by eliminating the occasion of sin.

When the pain was not relieved and the rage was too much to bear, Dennis would cruise through the streets looking for the young, vulnerable and dealing. He was known to the people on the street as a regular customer, so going into the shadows with him was not considered a risk.

Dennis would lull his targets into the Panhandle, a driveway or a hidden spot in the bushes. When the drugs were presented his knife would appear and, with the surety of the saved, he would plunge the blade into the throat of his prey. Swift, sure and fatal, but not enough to make his message understood. There had to be something more, a warning to the other dealers.

That is why Dennis started his mutilations. To make his point, his final cut was a paring down the bridge of the nose. Destroy the face, he reasoned, and make the world see them as all alike, creating the agony that would drive a decent man like himself to such necessary extremes.

Dennis was sure that, if it were not for the drugs, his life would be pain free and filled with joy and the love of a faithful woman. But the drugs did exist and his life wasn’t pain free and filled with joy and the women weren’t faithful, even Marlee. Didn’t he see her first? Didn’t he bring her gifts? Didn’t he show her that he found her desirable? She, however, had shown her favor for that lowlife coffee puller who thought of her as just another notch on his bedpost. Well, as of last night, Luco Reyes was out of the picture and now he could get back on track to woo and take Marlee for his own.

Fiction Saturday – “Haight Street” Part Twenty – Five

Fiction Saturday – “Haight Street” Part Twenty – Five

She spent the next hour following the kitten around the apartment. When he climbed into the litter tray he let out a high-pitched meow to let her know that a little privacy was in order. She was learning about cats.

In the kitchen she set up his food and water. She loved his matching blue plastic bowls. With the supplies that Dennis had given her, J.P. was taken care of for at least a week.

Marlee was happy to have something to take care of, to help her exercise her nurturing side.

“Luco,” she said out loud. “I’ve got to tell him about this and that Dennis and I have worked things out.”

Better than nothing at all, she took a “bird bath”: a quick washing of strategic, sweaty pits. Another shower would have been best after her cello workout and the frenzy with Dennis and the new cat, but she was anxious to see Luco.

From the moment she walked through the door of the People’s Cafe, Marlee could see that something was wrong. Luco was not behind the counter. Instead, the strawberry blonde, looking angry and exhausted was there pulling Lattes. She had worked until closing last night and here she was early the next morning.

The owner, Pete, was busy spreading cream cheese, too much of it, on a sesame bagel. He rarely came into the cafe before noon.

“Good morning, Pete. I didn’t expect to see you here this early in the day. Where’s Luco?”

Pete looked up from his chore. There were tears in his eyes. Marlee’s heart stopped.

“Pete? Where’s Luco?”

“Miss,” he said in his lightly accented English that hinted at his Middle Eastern roots. “Luco is in the hospital.”

“Oh, dear God, what happened? Is he sick? Has he been hurt?”

“He was run over by a car last night, a hit and run.”

Marlee grabbed the edge of the counter to steady herself. She felt her legs turning to rubber. Her hands were ice cold. “No, not again” raced through her brain.

Pete had stopped working on the bagel. “He is like my own boy. According to the newspaper, it was very bad.”

“Where is he? I’ve got to go to him.”

In the moments following his discovery by the Paramedics, Luco was deemed the most seriously injured survivor. He was in shock and broken ribs had collapsed a lung. That much they could diagnose there on the sidewalk, in the dark, amid the crying and moaning of the other victims.

A second and then a third Emergency unit arrived. St Mary’s Hospital was notified that multiple casualties were 5 minutes out.

Luco was the first person transported to the nearby hospital on Stanyan Street, on the far side of the Panhandle of Golden Gate Park. He had numerous cuts and abrasions, but the life-threatening injuries were internal. The broken ribvoices had done more than just puncture his lung. It had nicked the pulmonary artery and he was in danger of drowning in his own blood.

While the medical team worked to save Luco’s life, a clerical aide went through Luco’s wallet searching for identification and contact information. If things went badly, decisions would have to be made.

The bored aide looked at everything and sorted it all into small piles. There was a driver’s license, a plastic library card, an ATM card from Wells Fargo Bank and a Blue Cross card. In another neat stack he put fourteen dollars in cash. Tucked away in the center section of the wallet, he dug out two more items: a dog-eared business card for a band called “Besame” and a color photograph of a pretty young woman in a nurse’s uniform.

Behind the glass doors down the hall seven people in green scrubs hovered over the unmoving form of a man with jet-black hair and the muscular body of a fighter.

The noise level in the room went down noticeably when the medical team stabilized Luco’s vital signs. They then passed him onto the OR people who would deal with the internal bleeding and broken bones.

From the moment Luco was wheeled through the ER’s automatic doors until he rolled into surgery was only seven minutes. The paper traces of his life were left behind and overlooked in the mayhem.

At the Nurse’s station, amid the usual furor of a Friday night, a man’s life sat in untidy piles. People hurried by, intent on one task or another. An intern set her coffee cup down on top of a picture of the pretty young nurse. No one noticed.

On the fourth floor the surgical team, led by a doctor from Malaysia who looked fourteen, but who had more time in an operating theater than anyone on staff, smiled and told someone to turn up the music. Tonight he wanted John Coltrane to assist.

The damage from the broken ribs was not as bad as it first looked in the initial X-rays. There was bleeding and there were tears in the lung tissue, but it would heal after some needlework from the surgeon. The dislocated hip was an orthopedic matter. The “bone people” fixed that in short order and two hours after entering St. Mary’s, Luco was in Post-Op, alive and sleeping the dark, dreamless sleep of anesthesia.

Marlee ran, not sped, not flew, not raced, but ran toward St. Mary’s Hospital. She ran, filled with fear of what she might find when she got there.

Her heart pounded as she crossed the Panhandle. It would have been pounding just as hard even if she had hailed a taxi. The few blocks to the hospital were a congested area, always filled with traffic. Tourists, local residents, hospital visitors and students from the nearby University of San Francisco combined to create a nonstop gridlock in the area. Marlee would get to the hospital quicker on foot and it let her burn off some of the undertow of emotion that was threatening to pull her down.

The morning fog was still hanging in the trees. It looked like it might be one of those San Francisco days when it never completely burned off. The red lettering on the hospital signs were blurred at the edges. The letters were almost illegible in the mixture of fog, tears and sweat that burned in Marlee’s eyes.

The automatic doors opened and Marlee, out of breath and in a near panic, paused a bare moment to collect her thoughts, then walked into the whirlwind of the Emergency Room. There were people moving in every direction. Injured men and women walked around, in too much pain to just sit and wait quietly. The staff, dressed in various colored coats and uniforms moved around in an educated frenzy.

Looking around for someone, anyone who could tell her what had happened, who could take her to Luco, Marlee walked up to the receiving desk.

She tried to ask a tired looking doctor, but he turned and walked away, not even hearing her. A rumpled young resident did the same. He had been on duty for eighteen hours. She moved down the counter to a man who was sorting through some papers. Frustrated, she reached over the counter top and put her hand on his papers.

“Sir, sir, please help me.” He looked up at her. His eyes said that it had been a difficult shift.

“What can I do for you, Miss?”

“I’m trying to locate Luco Reyes. He was brought in here last night. He was hit by a car.”

“Reyes? Are you family?”

“No. I’m a friend. Please where is he? How is he? Can I see him?”

“I’m very sorry.” Her heart froze. “I’m sorry, but unless you’re family, I can’t give out any information on patients.” He looked down again at his papers, hoping that she would just go away and bother someone else.

“Please don’t do this,” she begged. The clerk refused to look up. In her frustration and rage Marlee reached out and swept his papers off the painted veneer and onto the floor. He looked up.

“Don’t ignore me. Please, where is Luco Reyes?” He glared up at her, silently cursing her for complicating the last few minutes of his workday.

Marlee felt as if she was going to explode. Her head was throbbing. Not knowing what else to do, she stepped back from the receiving desk, looked around, closed her eyes and let loose a blood-curdling scream. Even the people who were along the far wall sleeping off last night’s drugs opened their eyes and looked at her. Security guards came running. Two doctors poked their heads out from behind drawn curtains, expecting another trauma. They got one.

“Luco Reyes,” Marlee yelled to the whole room. “Please, all I need to know is…is he alive. Someone, anyone, tell me that much or I’m going to die right here.” She believed that it was true.

A middle-aged nurse walked up to the counter and picked up a black binder that was sitting next to the clerk who had been sorting papers. She turned several pages, paused to read a moment, and then looked up into Marlee’s fearful face.

“He was admitted. Go to the Lobby desk and they can help you see him and, Honey, tell them that you’re his wife.”

“Oh, God. Thank you. Thank you for telling me. The Lobby desk? How do I get there?”

Pointing over Marlee’s quivering shoulders, the nurse said, “Take that elevator to the Main floor and follow the green stripe on the floor.” Marlee turned and rushed across the crowded room to the elevator.

The nurse bent over to pick up the papers that Marlee had knocked to the floor.

“You know,” said the clerk, “That was a violation of hospital policy. I should report this.”

The exhausted nurse looked at the small picture of the pretty young woman in a nurse’s uniform. She dropped it on the desktop.

“Marty?” she said with the night’s weariness in her voice.

“Yes?”

“Screw you.”

Fiction Saturday – “Haight Street” Part Twenty – Four

 

Fiction Saturday – “Haight Street” Part Twenty – Four

 

It was already 65 degrees at 7 A.M. With a high-pressure system out in the Pacific and a warm wind coming down from the High Sierras, it promised that things would be heating up in San Francisco. This Sunday would be a day for shorts and a tank top.

Marlee was up and feeling invigorated by a restful night’s sleep and a hot shower. She had already started her wash in the basement laundry room and had a few minutes to kill until it was ready for the dryers. The vague memory of last night’s dreams led her into the bedroom. She got down on her knees, reached under the bed and slid out the black, hard plastic cello case protecting, at one time, the most important thing in her life.

Marlee carried it onto the sunny living room. It never seemed heavy to her. She had been toting around her cello since high school and she liked its heft. It had a substantial quality that carried over into her playing.

Over the years audiences and critics alike, upon seeing this slim young woman take the stage, had dismissed her off hand as an ornament. It was when she played, coaxed and cajoled the music from the strings and wood that they fell under her powerful spell. Many reviews commented that she handled the cello with the tenderness of a lover and the brute strength of a longshoreman.

When Marlee was onstage people believed that the music came from her and that the cello was merely an instrument of transmission. She was in total control and never wavered or hesitated.

She got one of her dining room chairs and set by the bay window so that the sun would wash over her as she played. Seated in the chair she stared at the case, sizing it up like a boxer waiting for the bell to ring.

The sun played off the varnished wood and it flared into her eyes. She slid the bow from its place and the small tuning fork as well.

She lifted the cello out of the case and adjusted the tail spike. The neck felt hard and strange in her hand. She had not played in months and both she and the cello were out of tune.

Marlee opened her thighs and welcomed home her first love. The varnished curves of the fire-blasted Maplewood felt warm and clinging against the skin on her legs and she wondered why more women didn’t take up the cello.

She tapped the tuning fork on the windowsill and checked to see how much tuning would be necessary.

“Not bad,” she said with a smile and made some adjustments to the tuning pegs and left the fine tuners alone.

She picked up the bow again, tightened the hair and began to do some simple scales and arpeggios. It felt good and sounded comfortable and “at home.”

Tonic, Dominant, Sub-dominant. Triads. Yampulsky’s Exercises: scales in four octaves, chords and harmonics. Faster. Louder. She heard the overtones as her fingers danced up and down the carved wooden neck of the 80 year-old French instrument.

She also heard a scraping sound and then a loud thump from the apartment above. Her fingers froze in mid-arpeggio. Dennis was home.

In her hunger to play again, she had forgotten that it was still only a little past 8:00 A.M. on Sunday morning. She would have to find a practice space.

Marlee waited, and hearing nothing more from up above, resumed her exercises, but softly. She fought the urge to tear into some Baroque Period piece by J.S. Bach, just to feel it in her hands. She resisted because it would have gotten raucous and also because she was out of practice and would not have done it justice. Another time. Today was a day for getting reacquainted with the instrument and for it to do the same with her.

As they age, fine musical instruments take on a patina. The highly buffed varnish on hers had an almost 3-dimensional quality and glowed as if there was a fire inside the F-holes, shining through and heating every note.

Such quality does not come cheaply. Marlee’s cello cost her over $32,000, the bow was over $3,000 and a decent set of four strings was at least $100. Someday she hoped to step up to a first-class kit. At the top there were those made by Stradivarius. The genius from Cremona made more than just violins, but those were very rare and far beyond Marlee’s credit line.

It felt so natural and right to be playing again, even if it was so muted that she could barely hear it, but the vibrations were there.

Leaning in close to the strings, embracing the cello, Marlee poured out her emotions, hopes and fears through the silver tipped bow. Bach, Vivaldi and Mozart responded to her touch across the centuries.

She had worked up a sweat, but it was the sweat of sweet accomplishment. A quick wipe with a towel and a glass of juice would get her ready for another round of exercises. She could already feel the burn in the muscles of her arms.

With the refrigerator door wide open, she stood there drinking straight from the carton. Nobody else was there to scold her. The cold air felt good on her skin. She shivered.

As she put the half empty carton back on the shelf next to some white grapes that were getting too ripe, the doorbell rang, quickly followed by several short raps on her apartment door.

“Oh, get real. It was so low I couldn’t even hear it myself.”

At the door she looked through the security peephole, but couldn’t see anyone.

“Who is it?”

“Marlee, it’s me, Dennis Thayer.”

“Go away.”

“Please, I need to talk with you. I have to apologize.”

“Apology accepted. Now, go away.”

“Marlee, please. I have behaved badly.”

“Behaved badly? You attacked me.”

“You’re right.” He had his face up against the door. “I was way out of line, but I have to explain.” Marlee stood silently, glaring at her side of the door. “I have a medical condition and I’d rather not discuss standing out here in the hallway, if you know what I mean.”

“I don’t know, Dennis. I’m still very angry.”

“I know and that’s why I need to talk with you face to face. Please, let me in and I can explain everything.” He lowered his voice, forcing her to move closer to the door.

“I’m really a nice guy, a pussycat even. Meow.” Unseen by Marlee, he rubbed up against the door and licked the wood. “Meow.”

Marlee smiled at his cat impression and leaned against the door, thinking. Dennis had gotten out of line, but she had been able to handle him easily. He was a strange one, but also charming and witty.

“Marlee? Are you still there?” His voice was soft and pleading. “Meow.”

“OK, Dennis, but know this: any funny business and I’ll toss you out the window in front of a bus.”

“No funny business, I swear.”

Despite the hard bits of foreboding in her stomach, she turned the deadbolt and opened the door to a smiling Dennis Thayer.

He stood there in her doorway, dressed in chinos and a bright green Polo shirt. With his blonde curls just touching his eyebrows, he looked like a Preppie leprechaun.

The man had a twinkle in his eyes that made people want to invite him into their lives. In one hand he was holding a pot of steaming coffee and in the other, a rose colored plate piled high with croissants.

He gave Marlee a nod. “I hope you have some cream and some jam.”

He walked past her, into the dining room. “I hope you like croissants. They are so melt in your mouth delicious. And these are still warm. Honey, they are to die for.”

She followed him into the room. “Dennis, I don’t want breakfast. You said you wanted to explain why you attacked me when I was trying to help you. Get on with it. What should I know about the man living above me?”

He set down the coffee and reached for the cups and saucers on the built-in buffet next to the table.

“What should you know? Well, let’s see. Oh…you should know that I usually like to sleep late on Saturday mornings.”

Marlee took a deep breath as he reprimanded her.

“I’m sorry about that, Dennis. I forgot about the thin walls and floors in this old building. I’m sorry I woke you.”

“That’s OK, but it makes a lousy alarm clock. Some of the people in this building might complain, but not me. I’m in a good mood this morning.”

She caught his non-complaining complaint about her music, but since she felt that it was deserved, she let it go. His cheerful mood relaxed her. Her agitation and anger ebbed as she went into the kitchen for some utensils, plates, butter and the half pint carton of half ‘n half she had picked up across the street the night before.

“I don’t have any jam. Do you like sugar for you coffee?”

“Yes, please.”

“It’s in the kitchen. I couldn’t carry it all. On the shelf next to the microwave.”

“I’ll get it.” He went into the kitchen as Marlee arranged the place settings. He picked up the sugar bowl and a few paper napkins from the top of the refrigerator. Marlee moved a small vase filled with Sweet Williams in from the living room.

“A centerpiece. How elegant, Miss Marlee.”

Marlee tensed a bit when she realized that he was standing behind her. He had a habit of silently entering the room. It unnerved her.

He pulled out her chair and, even though a bit uneasy, she allowed him to play the gentleman.

“Shall I pour,” he asked.

Over the clink of knives, plates, cups and saucers, Dennis carried on a nonstop monologue about how happy he was, the weather, anything, but the reason he said that he needed to be there.

“Dennis, stop it!”

“Stop what?” he said as he paused to take a big bite of his buttered croissant.

“You said you needed to talk with me. You begged to be let in. I don’t think it was to give me a weather report.”

“I’m just making sociable chitchat.”

“Dennis, you said you came here to apologize for pawing me in your apartment. Let’s hear it.”

He looked at her, unblinking. He wasn’t used to being spoken to with such directness, especially by women. From women he expected reverential doting, like from his mother, polite helpfulness, like the girls who bagged his groceries at the Safeway, or eventual, fearful surrender to his will. Marlee’s controlled quiet was unfamiliar. One side of him found her strength arousing, while another part of him thought it was too masculine and unattractive.

When he didn’t speak, she went on.

“Let me show you how it’s done. ‘I apologize for playing my cello this early and waking you up.’ There, now it’s your turn.”

“Oh, Miss Marlee, there’s no need to apologize again about the music. It was really quite lovely.”

“Get out.”

“What? Why?”

“Get out of my apartment.” She stood up and looked down at him.

“I’m sorry. You’re right. How stupid of me. Please sit down. You’re making me feel so small, like a boy being scolded by his mother. That hurts and you’re not a hurtful person. Are you, Marlee?”

She sat down.

“You have five seconds to start this apology business or I’ll throw you out of here.” She looked him in the eyes, hoping her nervousness didn’t show. It did.

“Five…four…”

“Marlee, you’re right, as always. Please allow me to sincerely and deeply apologize for my behavior. You offered me nothing but kindness and hospitality and I acted like a boorish jerk.

“I have a chemical imbalance in my brain and it can throw me for a real loop. On top of that and the pain killers, about which you already know, the night before your beautiful and delicious brunch, at which, incidentally, you served some of the best hollandaise I’ve ever had. I’d love to get the recipe from you. Do you use fresh lemon juice? I think that’s the key, don’t you.”

“Three…two…”

“Oh, sorry. The night before your brunch I couldn’t sleep from the pain and I took a couple of Vicodin. One used to do the trick, but not any more. And, when I drank that champagne, well it just hit me like a moving van.

“I needed your help getting home, obviously, and I guess that my barbaric and uncivilized nature came out and I…Oh, Marlee. I am so sorry. I am not that kind of man at all.

“From what I recall, you put me on my ass. I don’t remember the details, but I’ll always have the pictures. What did you do to me? I could barely walk for two days.

“I know that what I did was wrong and it was stupid and I swear that I will never, ever, do anything like that again. Please forgive me.  I feel like I should be doing an act of contrition. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.” He tapped his heart three times as he chanted.

He looked at her, not knowing what else to say to convince her of his regret.

“Am I forgiven?”

Marlee didn’t say a word. She took a sip of coffee and stared at him over the lip of the cup.

“Marlee? I apologize. Please forgive me.”

“I forgive you, Dennis, but you have a problem with those pills that needs addressing.”

“I know. I’m going to the Free Clinic about that. They’ve assigned me a counselor.”

“There’s one more thing I need to bring up before I can feel comfortable with you again.”

“What’s that?”

“The pictures. All those photographs on the walls of your bedroom.”

“Its ‘The Haight.’ I take pictures of the neighborhood. It’s my Art.”

“You told me you were a sculptor.”

“I am. I take the photographs and mold them onto forms. ‘Photographic Sculpture’ I call it.”

“You had a picture of me on your wall. A shot of me and Luco Reyes.”

“Well, aren’t you part of The Haight now?”

He waved his hands in the air as if to say, “I thought that was self-evident.”

“I’m sorry. I never meant to offend you.”

“I took it down, Dennis, and ripped it up. I’m sorry too. I was just so shook up by what had just happened. I saw that picture and I felt…”

“Violated?”

“Yes, violated by that picture.”

He nodded. “It will never happen again. I promise you.”

Marlee refilled both their cups.

“You know, Luco warned me about you. He said that you were trouble. He called you a ‘bad egg.’”

“He and I have had our problems. It was all my fault, but I bumped into him last night and I think that my problems with him are a thing of the past.”

“Oh, I’m glad to hear that. I know only two men in San Francisco and I don’t want them hating each other.”

Dennis wiped his hands with his napkin and extended his hand across the wooden table. “Friends again?”

Marlee looked at him, her head tilted and her eyes, slits. Just as his smile began to fade a big grin appeared on her face. “Friends again, and I hope forever.” She took his offered hand and they made an exaggerated shake.

“Oh, this is silly,” bubbled Dennis as he got up and came around the table. “Give us a hug.” They gave each other a big bear hug and exchanged “Hollywood Kisses.”

“Miss Marlee, I am so glad we are friends again because I already got you a little gift to celebrate.”

“Dennis, no. I don’t want you spending your money on gifts for me.”

“Don’t worry. It’s nothing. Let me go get it. I’ll be right back.” He hurried out of the door and took the stairs two at a time. Marlee moved over to the door and listened as he quickly came back down from the third floor. He was carrying a large cardboard box. She had to move so he could get it through the door. He set it down on the living room floor.

“Dennis, you crazy nut, what in the world is it?”

He grinned like a circus clown and with a flourish, lifted off the lid.

“Ta DA!”

“Oh, my God, Dennis. What have you done?”

Dennis squatted down, reached into the box a held up a small, yellow kitten.

Marlee put her hand over her mouth to stifle a scream of delight.

“Good Lord. It’s a kitty cat.”

“I know that, girl. I brought him here, remember?”

They were both laughing. The past was seemingly forgotten.

“Miss Marlee Owens, I’d like you to meet Mr. J.P. Cat. Marlee, J.P., J.P., Marlee.” She reached out and shook the kitten’s tiny paw.

“J.P.? What does that stand for?”

“I think it stands for ‘Just Plain’. He is ‘Just Plain Cat’,” said Dennis as he put the cat down.

Marlee got down on the floor and petted the animal as he hopped around inside the box.

“He is just the cutest little thing, but I can’t accept him. I love him already, but I’ve never had a cat before. I don’t know anything about cats.”

“There’s nothing to it.”

“Is he housebroken?”

“Already done. Momma cat teaches them the proper etiquette. Wait here, I’ll be right back.” Again he bounded up the stairs. She could hear him running around his apartment.

Marlee lifted J.P. Cat high overhead as he mewed and pawed at the air. She was definitely smitten with the tiny, yellow ball of fuzz.

Inside the box was a red foam rubber ball the size of a small peach. She set J.P. on the floor and then rolled the ball toward him. He watched it roll by and scampered after the bright red toy, losing traction and sliding into the side of the steamer trunk coffee table. Marlee was fascinated by this furry little bounce of life.

“Isn’t he sweet?” Dennis was back and holding another cardboard box. “I’ve got a few of the necessities here.” He set it down and J.P. scurried over to investigate.

“All right, here are a few things that you and J.P. will need. It’s not much.”

“Dennis, I have to tell you, I am so in love with this little guy. J.P. is so precious.”

“Ain’t he though? I got him from a friend who just got transferred to Terre Haute, Indiana of all places.

“Anyway, here we have the most important item – the litter tray. I’ll set it up for you.”

For the next ten minutes Dennis and Marlee sat on the floor like two kids on Christmas morning going through their toys. They held each item out for the little kitten to sniff. He was learning about his new home.

“Dennis, I am just flabbergasted. I’ve never thought about getting a cat, but now, after just a few minutes, I can’t imagine life without him, Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

“You’re welcome. I thought you two would make a ‘Love Connection’.”

“More coffee? I think it’s still hot.”

“No, thanks. I have to go. You know, places to go, people to see. Maybe later.”

Marlee walked him to the door.

“Dennis, I am so glad that we have things worked out between us.”

“Me too.”

“And J.P. will be here whenever you want to come down and play.”

She gave him a hug and kissed him on the cheek. Dennis smiled from ear to ear. His smile didn’t disappear until he closed the door to his apartment, leaving Marlee behind.

Fiction Saturday – “Haight Street” Part Nineteen

 

Fiction Saturday – “Haight Street” Part Nineteen

 

In The Haight it is only the early morning hours that belong to the Locals. After 10 AM it is the Tourists who fuel life on the street.

Throughout the day, tour buses pull up and disgorge the packaged groups that move like vacuum cleaners up and down from Central Street to Stanyan, sucking up T-shirts, jewelry and pizza slices, seeing all of the people as a tableau. The tourists stay until the clock dictates a mass migration to Chinatown, North Beach, or Fisherman’s Wharf, where it all begins again.

After the sun goes down the whole vibration of the street changes. The young music-seeking crowd hikes, bikes or drives up the hill and gathers at the clubs and bars. They come also to see and be seen, all the while actively pretending not to care about either.

The Locals and the ambulatory drug slaves also appear after dark. The Locals come out for a nice dinner and to toss back a few drinks. The druggies come out because they think it’s safer. They’re wrong.

It is also in the chilly evening that the costume party begins. After sundown, the hair gel and steel-studded wardrobes make an entrance. On a Saturday night on Haight there will be legions of “Blade Runner” fashion extras on the move. You might also meet several reincarnations of “Marilyn” and even a “Travis Bickel” or two.

In San Francisco the under 30 population is divided, roughly, into two groups. There are those who sashay through the city screaming, “Look at me! Look at me!” while the other half struts around snarling, “What are you looking at?”

The folks over 30 tend to just go on with their lives, occasionally snickering to themselves. They already understood that, “If you dress up like a monkey, please don’t pretend to be surprised when people throw peanuts at you.”

Clothes are very important on Haight Street. Going all the way back to the blood and guts days of the late 1960s how you dressed determined who you were, your philosophy and how you were expected to behave. The Haight has always followed along with an “Us vs. Them” school of fashion.

Still today the younger visitors to the area feel obligated to dress up in a way designed, they think, to piss off the Old Man and reduce Momma to tears. Of course, at the end of their evening of being “Us” they will safely return to the fashionable bosom of an Old Navy focused “Them.”

There is, and always has been, a sliver of the Society that is actively outside the widespread embrace of both “Us” and “Them.”

Weaving in and out between the bulk of the population are the true Outlaws. In The Haight these people are the drug suppliers and their customers. It is a very short and brutish food chain. One feeds upon the other without mercy, on a strict cash and carry basis.

The dealers tend to costume themselves like the club crowd. The users rapidly get to the point where their wardrobe selection gives way to the more basic choices of life or death. With rare exceptions, they choose death, by their own hand or by the actions of someone else.

Set in the middle of the hectic bustle of Haight Street, leafy shadows played upon the dark green exterior of Martin Macks Irish Bar and Restaurant. It seemed out of place. It was not there to attract the young hipster crowd or the tourist throngs. It welcomed whoever grabbed the sturdy brass door pulls and ventured into the dimly lit space beyond. One’s social group was never a matter of concern at Martin Macks.

The long bar was always crowded. Some were there for a taste of their favorite brew. Others, intent upon the several European soccer matches being played out on the large televisions placed high on the walls around the pub.

There is a special bar menu that allows a hungry patron to sit on a barstool and select a variety of fried and crunchy items, barbequed spare ribs or a traditional Irish breakfast of Irish bacon, two types of sausage, eggs, tomatoes and Irish soda Bread.

 The breakfast is served until 3:30 in the afternoon in deference to late risers and the survivors of last night.

Luco, along with a fair number of people who work on the street, often dropped into Martin Macks for a quick lunch or a midafternoon pick-me-up.

At the far end of the bar, through a small latticework arch is the dining area. It holds a half dozen semicircular wooden booths and a handful of intimate tables.

The clever chef working in the open kitchen always offers an eclectic menu of Irish, English and American favorites. At night, when the bar is crowded to overflowing, diners in the back can escape the noise and enjoy quiet conversation and some of the best food in San Francisco.

Martin Macks was a popular place for dinner dates. They had good food, generous drinks and waitresses who let couples linger over coffee.

Luco was not used to shaving twice in one day. The skin on his neck was complaining loudly. In the six years he had worked at the People’s Cafe he had gone out with very few women. Some were co-workers, most were customers. All of them felt that he was “the stuff that dreams are made of.” They were right, at least for a night or two. Most of them were looking for “Mr. Right,” but he was only interested in being their “Mr. Right Now.” Their fantasies dried faster than the sheets.

While they were wanting more, Luco was unable to give it to them. Fleeting pleasure was all he could offer or accept. The depth of his ability to commit could be measured in their throaty prayers to a temporary heaven.

Most of the women could live with that. Some could not and so there were mornings when the corner tables at the cafe were taken by women whose eyes followed Luco from across the room and in whose hearts they nursed a barren hope.

This night, however, it was Luco who was feeling the gnawing of lost love. There was, as well, a fresh anticipation. He was nervous about a simple dinner date.

He wondered out loud why tonight felt different. What was it that was making him feel on edge? Was it the word “date” that set off the warning flares?

“I haven’t felt like this in years. For crying out loud, why am I sweating like this?” He took a towel and wiped his forehead and hands again.

What was it about this woman? Attractive? That she was, pretty even, very pretty in her own way. But there had been prettier.

Sexy? She was that, in a relaxed way. It was like she knew that she had the goods, but didn’t feel the need to hang it out like an ad. She had the indefinable “It” that sent out the message. The man in her bed would be in no hurry to roll over and go to sleep.

Smart? No doubt. Spend five minutes with her and you knew that she was educated and as sharp as they come.

Marlee had all of these things, he recognized, but there was also something else that set her apart. A something that was making him sweat.

When he was with her he felt a resonance, a faint emotional echo. There was something about her that played a responsive string in him. Time with her had an almost musical quality.

A quick glance at his wristwatch told him that it was time to stop daydreaming and get moving.

He used the straight razor to deftly finish shaving the hilly contours of his face and cut the few whiskers that always hid out in the cleft on his chin. A few quick strokes and he wiped the last few bits of foam from his face. With a sour look he bit the bullet and splashed on a few drops of Lagerfeld lemon scented aftershave lotion. “Something this expensive shouldn’t hurt so much,” he thought, as every nerve on his face swore revenge.

He riffed through his small closet and decided that basic black was always good. He chose a black ribbed mock turtleneck sweater and black slacks. It would be comfortable and, while complimenting his complexion and eyes, it would not compete with whatever Marlee would be wearing. He knew that the man is really just background for the woman. He trimmed a wayward eyebrow hair.

Less than a mile away Marlee was standing in front of her closet weighing the pros and cons of each item. The silk from Nordstrom was too dressy, the black suit was too “widow.” She decided that the double-breasted blazer made her look like a prison guard at Disneyland. It was hopeless she concluded.

“What does he really mean by “casual” anyway?” “Casual” in Cleveland was apparently different from “casual” in California. If she was to judge by what she had seen walking down Haight Street, “casual” might mean a tie-dye halter top and chrome plated tool belt.

She sat down on her bed and stared at the closet. “I have nothing to wear.”

After 10 minutes of mental mixing and matching she selected a turquoise knit top, a matching linen jacket and white slacks. “This is my idea of ‘casual’ for a dinner date. Let’s hope for the best.”

There was that word again: date. It was a date, no matter what else she called it. She was looking forward to it, but underneath there was a faint shadow of guilt.

It had been almost exactly two years since she became a widow and more than six since she had been on any kind of date. She still saw herself, emotionally, as a married woman and there was a nagging voice saying that she was cheating on her husband. It was her own voice she knew, and that she was wrong. It was time, coldly put, to get over it.

Intellectually as well, she knew that it was time. Her family had told her so. Her friends had also told her the same thing. Hadn’t she uprooted herself and moved across the continent to begin again? She also believed that her dream of the mirror on the beach was Phillip’s way of telling her to throw off her widow’s weeds and get on with her life.

“This is stupid. I’m young, talented, not hard on the eyes, and a very nice and very handsome man has asked me out to dinner. Screw the guilt.”

She opened the closet door again, took the black suit off the hanger, brushed a bit of lint from the lapel, walked into the kitchen and stuffed it into the trash container under the sink. There would be no more funerals.

”Now, let’s just see what ‘casual’ means to this man.”

Fiction Saturday – “Haight Street” Part Eighteen

Fiction Saturday – “Haight Street” Part Eighteen

Moving is an exhausting exercise, no matter how little you have and boxes of books always seem to be the last things put away. Now the books were on the shelves. For Marlee, there was only one more thing that needed seeing to: her music.

Music had always been her special, personal refuge. As a child it hid the sound of her parents arguing. As a teen it allowed her to wallow in the lush angst of adolescence. Later it was a way to express her loves and losses. The fact that she had a gift for it made it a pleasure for everyone around her.

When she was a child she had first studied the piano, but it seemed rigid and dwarfed her at the bench. Then came the violin, clarinet and for a few months in Middle School, the alto saxophone. She was taken with its quality, so much like the human voice.

It wasn’t until “band camp” in the summer before 10th grade that she was introduced to the cello. The first time she embraced the honey-colored wood and inhaled the aroma of the sweat and tears left there by those who had held it before, she knew that she was in love and ready to commit.

It was during high school that the extent of her talent became apparent and the encouragement and excitement of her teacher lit the fire in her belly, Music grew from a private hideaway into a transmitter for her creative thought. Her hopes, fears, loves and hates radiated from her fingertips in a melodic frenzy.

The sophomore year flew by in a blur of overheated practice rooms, rehearsals and string quartets. Her talent had found a home and she, a faithful lover who never disappointed. She soon left the quartets behind, as her skills demanded the soloist’s chair.

It wasn’t long before magazines and newspapers discovered the pretty young demon that seemed to wrestle the music from wood and string. They ran stories calling her a “Genius” and “The next Pablo Casals.”

One piece in a Sunday supplement magazine dubbed her the “Concert Hall Barbie.” That offensive diminutive earned a letter demanding an apology. It never came.

Marlee understood the flattering hyperbole and the nonsense of publicity. With the ego-bubble bursting help of her family and her teacher, she learned to keep her perspective and her focus. At her age, that focus was on honing her skills and on selecting the right college.

Universities and colleges around the country always send out small armies of talent scouts, crisscrossing the map. They are looking for more than Quarterbacks and Power Forwards. They also try to uncover and woo young actors, computer whizzes, and promising musicians.

She was recruited by a number of large and prestigious schools, known for producing successful concert musicians. Scholarships were dangled like golden carrots in front of her eyes. The lures of bright lights and faraway places pulled at her.

In the end, she opted to stay in Cleveland, at home, and she accepted the offer of a small Methodist college in the city’s western suburbs.

The school was well respected nationally for its academic standards as well as for the vitality of the under-funded, but first-rate Conservatory of Music.

For all her abilities, drive and onstage self-assurance, she was still a seventeen year old girl who never found the time to develop adolescent crushes and who performed brilliantly at her senior prom, but went home alone when the dancing began.

She had heard an ancient Chinese proverb from her High School band teacher. He was aware that he was passing a real talent on to other teachers at the college level. He knew that there was more for her to learn than he could teach her. Marlee was sad to be leaving his tutelage, but she was feeling the hunger for the next step and was comforted by the relevance of the proverb.

“When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”

Life at the small college was comfortable, yet challenging. She was thrown together with the best of the best and a scintillating mixture of people from around the country and from overseas. She learned to make friends with people so different from herself that she sometimes felt like she was spending her days on another planet. New social expectations, languages, and points of view were in her face everyday. She quickly got past the culture shock of it all and realized that her new teacher had, indeed, appeared, in the form of the college experience.

This new spice in her life made itself known in her music as well. The other students were her equals, or betters and the Instructors made no allowance for pretty blonde teenagers. She was forced to work hard to keep up. The Music had become difficult.

New techniques, new music and new demands on her time and body made her think of quitting, but the thought of leaving her cello behind ended that afternoon of self-pity.

There was a growing sense of domination in her playing. She no longer forced the music from the cello. Instead she commanded it to, “Arise and walk!” It took her took another level, where she was again moving toward center stage.

Her parents noticed the growth in their daughter. They could see her becoming more confident, daring even, in the pursuit of her goals. In High School she had led an insulated life, buffered by her music. In college, that buffer didn’t work and she had to learn about real life and people. Dead composers and musicians could no longer be her only friends.

Her mother and father also saw their only child becoming a grown woman with a delicate beauty and an effortless sensuality. It was a part of life that Marlee had yet to discover.

Marlee’s allure may have been transparent to her, but there were a lot of testosterone fueled college boys who had watched her walking across campus, moving to the music in her head. The tall, quiet blonde was high on the list of favorite topics among the junior varsity football squad, and a staple in the fantasy life of more than a few of the boys in the brass section.

During her junior year, the same year that she was named to “Who’s Who In America’s Universities And Colleges”, Marlee was attacked, just short of rape, by a boy who played the English Horn. He had seen Marlee working late in the practice rooms in the basement of the Student Union building.

The only thing that saved her from more serious harm was the intervention of several boys from the football team who were on their way to a basement screening room to watch a video of their last game. They saw what was happening and stopped the attack. In doing so they may have saved Marlee’s life. An Exacto knife was found in the horn player’s pocket.

Though traumatized and bruised, she was saved. Her attacker was brutally beaten. His hopes of a musical career were shattered, along with almost every bone in both hands and several others throughout his body.

In the aftermath, Marlee received counseling and signed up for a self-defense course. She was determined to not let this take away her dreams. The English Horn player was expelled from the school and involuntarily committed by his parents. Marlee was advised poorly by the family attorney and did not press charges. The basement practice rooms were put under video surveillance.

In the following academic quarter, one of the rescuing football players enrolled for a class in Music Appreciation in an effort to help his drooping Grade Point Average. At a mandatory recital he saw Marlee onstage and was enchanted, not only by her virtuosity.

After the recital he introduced himself and offered to escort her to her car. In the wake of Marlee’s assault, dozens of school athletes organized an informal escort program, protecting both male and female students at night.

“I appreciate this. I am still a bit nervous walking on campus after dark.”

“Well, people need to feel safe. I’m glad I can help.

“If…if you’re not in a rush or anything, would you like to stop by the Rathskeller for a Coke or something?” He blushed.

Over Coca-Cola and French fries in the campus snack bar Marlee and a young man named Phillip took the first tenuous steps toward a shared fate. He thought that she was the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen and she thought that he was big…and cute, especially when he blushed and fumbled as he asked her out on a real date.

Her parents approved of Marlee’s beau. He was polite, thoughtful, hardworking to a fault, and it was evident, from the start, that he adored their daughter. At 6’5” tall and 270 pounds, he was the gentle giant who had saved their baby’s life.

Marlee’s senior year was another defining time. The other seniors were sending out audition tapes to orchestras around the world. Marlee was not. She was conflicted.

The thought of going off to Boston, Lisbon or Sydney to play the cello was exciting, but it would mean leaving behind her home, family and the strapping young man with whom she felt safe and truly loved. That she could not do.

So, she sent out one resume and tape to a local Post Office box in reply to an ad in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

An enthusiastic letter in response to her tape and a perfunctory audition won her the lead chair position with a new organization: The Cleveland Chamber Music Orchestra. There was no assurance that there would ever be a second season for the group, but while it was there, she was their Star and she was able to be with Phillip.

It was no secret that the Less than Dean’s List accounting majors didn’t enjoy the mobility and caché of a cello virtuoso.

Phillip sent out more than 300 resumes. Four drew hopeful responses. He blushed and sputtered his way through the interviews. The lone job offer came from a Cleveland company owned by an alumnus of the college and a football fan. Phillip, desperate to not look desperate accepted the offer and became the new “Junior Assistant Accounts Payable Clerk” at the Borkovic Tool And Die Company.

They had waited until after graduation to talk marriage. He tried to bring it up, but he couldn’t locate the words. Sensing his discomfort, Marlee did it for him.

It was an early autumn afternoon, while her parents were at a Harvest Festival by the Lakeshore, that Marlee discovered something else for which she possessed center stage talent.

Marlee unleashed the erotic desires that made her thank the gods for the elastic thighs of a cellist.

They both knew the importance of practice and lost no opportunity. She brought home Ravel and, on the living room floor, Phillip finally learned the true meaning of Music Appreciation.

Their wedding was small, money was an issue, and they honeymooned at a Bed and Breakfast on Catawba Island in the middle of Lake Erie. It was enough.

Things went well for the young couple. She had her music and a microscopic salary from the Orchestra. Her husband was becoming a competent number cruncher and it looked like he might have an actual future at Borkovic Tool And Die.

She took on a few students to perk up the ledger page. She actually enjoyed tutoring young musicians. It made her appreciate the precision and reliability of a great composition.

Marlee and Phillip knew that they would never be rich, but that was all right, as long as they had each other. They held each other at night and dreamed the same dreams.

Life in Cleveland was happy. They made the plans of young people in love. Their families and friends said that they were a “perfect couple.” Imperfection seeks out perfection.

It was hot and muggy on the night of August the third, but the recital would be in an air-conditioned hall. One of Marlee’s students was doing his first solo and she had to be there. Phillip always accompanied her to her musical events and she went with him to the Browns games. They each shared in what was important to the other. On the night of August the third it all ended on a shady street in a “very good neighborhood” when a young lost and bewildered addict stepped out of the darkness and tore the world apart.

Fiction Saturday – “Haight Street” Part Seventeen

Fiction Saturday – “Haight Street” Part Seventeen

It was becoming a morning ritual for Marlee. She started off with a hot shower and dawdling through her ablutions, followed by the San Francisco Chronicle and coffee at The People’s Cafe. She was now a “regular.”

“Good morning, Marlee. Coffee?”

“Please, Luco and I think a scone this morning.”

Since that first day when Luco Reyes had flirted with her, they had developed a comfort zone. He still flirted a bit, but with more gentility and she let him. They both knew the unmarked boundaries.

If things weren’t busy in the cafe he would come and sit with her. She enjoyed his company and he found her both beautiful and interesting. Most of the women in his world were one or the other, but rarely both.

Marlee felt the same about him. Here was a man of obvious education and facility with people, yet he was spending fourteen hours a day pulling espressos in a neighborhood cafe. A cafe that he could run with his eyes shut, but where he was just another employee. There was more behind those gray eyes, a story worth telling. She was intrigued by this mysteriously secretive man. It had been a long time since she had felt anything for any man and now she found herself daydreaming about the man who made her coffee.

Marlee liked to leaf through the morning paper. She wanted to be informed and the crossword puzzle helped her get her brain in gear for the day.

On page two she saw an article that grabbed her eye.

“Serial Killer Stalks The Haight”

The story was that, over the last three months, six brutal murders had occurred in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. The victims were all young male addicts living, and now dying on the streets.

She read the list of the dead young men, boys really. They were mostly 18 or 19 years old. The youngest was a 14-year-old runaway from Michigan.

“It’s a sad ending to lives unlived.”

“Yes it is.” He had her coffee and scone. “Do you have a minute, Luco?”

He sat down at the table. Let someone else make the coffee for a few minutes.

She looked very serious. This was not a time for flirtation. She waved her hand at the newspaper spread out in front of her.

“Who would do such a thing? It’s horrible. Doesn’t he know what something like this does to the families, the parents?” There were tears in the corners of her eyes.

“I don’t think the killer cares about the families of these kids. As to who would do this…?” His voice faded with a shrug of his shoulders.

Marlee took a sip of her coffee. Its steamy heat flushed her cheeks. “No matter what they do, the drugs, they don’t deserve to die like this – like animals on the street.”

“I have some friends who are cops, at the Park Station, just up the way. They’ve told me that this killer, this beast, did more than just kill these kids. He mutilated them, their faces.”

“Oh good Lord, they didn’t say anything about that in this article.”

“There is a lot that never makes it into the paper and I’m sure that some of the details from the other night won’t be made public either.”

“The other night?” She set down her cup.

“There was another one, number seven, right across the street from my place up on Stanyan, just inside the Park.”

“Can’t they catch this monster?”

“Good question. I hear that they really don’t have much to go on. He’s careful, quick and nobody can give them a description.”

“This is very scary. I guess there really is no such thing as a safe place.” She picked at the scone, but her appetite had been shoved aside.

“By and large, The Haight is pretty safe. The real residents don’t have too much serious trouble. Most of the bad stuff falls on the people wrapped up in the drug scene.

“Like any city, we have our share of hardcore drug users. They and the dealers seem to like this area. They tend to prey on each other and leave the bodies in the gutter. Then there are the ‘Narco-tourists’.”

“Narco-tourists?”

“That’s just my word for them – the people who come to The Haight looking for the drugs.

“The media keeps running quasi-fictional stories about the 1960’s and the ‘Summer of Love’. Some unhappy kid in Iowa watches his TV and sees a pretty girl dancing with flowers in her hair. He picks up and comes here looking for her and some adventure. It’s the kids from Iowa you see on the sidewalks looking like zombies. They’re also the people who end up surrounded by crime scene tape outside my window.”

Marlee nodded. The morning sun bounced off of her hair.

“My upstairs neighbor was saying pretty much the same thing to me. It’s so sad.”

One of the counter help, a tall girl with henna colored dreadlocks, called for Luco to pull two lattes and a Mocha Jolt. Someone needed extra caffeine this morning. She also wanted her morning whiff of Luco. She had her own needs.

He patted Marlee’s hand with an understanding affection and got up to leave her to think about what he had said and about the face behind the mask on Haight Street.

The carnage among the street kids was bringing back all of the stomach-wrenching memories of Phillip’s murder and how for two years she went through the motions of a normal life before making the move West.

The newspaper and Luco’s words made her feel that the horror had followed her from the elm tree lined streets of Cleveland all the way to the aromatic eucalyptus groves of San Francisco. She didn’t know if she could survive that again. She clutched her coffee cup with both hands and drank. The hot liquid warmed her chilled heart.

“You OK, Marlee?”

She looked up into Luco’s lovely eyes.

“No, Luco, I’m not. This whole thing has me very upset. I’m wondering if I made a mistake coming here to San Francisco.”

He sat down again and leaned forward across the table to hear her soft, sad voice.

“I’m wondering if my coming here was just running away from things you can’t outrun.” She closed her eyes and turned her face away from Luco’s eyes.

“I don’t think so. You don’t strike me as the type to run away from things.

“Marlee, You and I don’t know each other very well. You’re new here and I’m looked upon as a superficial sort of man. I know that you’ve heard the gossip.”

She looked at him, her eyes widening.

“Luco, are you hitting on me? You tell me a grisly story and then move in to comfort me?” There was a hint of anger growing in her voice. She was on the verge of slapping his face, right there in front of everyone in the cafe.

“No. No, Marlee. I’m not ‘hitting on you’, I swear.” He was alarmed at her reaction. “I’m just trying to talk with you, one person to another, but I’d like to do it for more than two minutes at a time.

“Maybe my timing does stink here, but…I’d just like to talk with you, over dinner perhaps, on neutral ground and get to know you better. That’s all.” He wiped his hand over his face. He was sweating he noticed. She noticed it too.

She listened and looked at him. He was serious. He wasn’t playing the “Coffee House Romeo.”

“Luco, I’m sorry I snapped at you. Yes, I’ve heard the gossip and it bothers me a bit.”

“The truth be told, Marlee, I start most of the gossip myself. It gives me a bit of a mystique. I’m local color for the tourists to talk about when they go home.” He paused and took a deep breath.

“Let me do this over again.” He was actually close to stammering like a schoolboy. “Marlee, what about dinner? Have you been to ‘Martin Macks’ up the street? It’s an Irish pub, but they serve good food there. It’s not fancy, but where else can you get ‘Toad In The Hole’ in San Francisco?”

“‘Toad In The Hole?’ I don’t even know what that is. It sounds disgusting.”

“Its just meat in a crusty sort of batter, English, I think. They also have other things. What do you think?”

She was smiling again. This man had that effect on her, she realized, and that couldn’t be a bad thing.

“Alright, I’ll have dinner with you Luco and if you want to have ‘Toad In The Hole’, I won’t object.”

“Wonderful, and thank you. Would Friday night be good for you? I get off at six o’clock. I could come by your place at 7:30.”

I’ll tell you what, Luco. Let’s meet at the restaurant. I’d feel more comfortable and it wouldn’t seem so much like a date. At least until I can sort out which bits of gossip about you might be just your attempts to please the tourists.” She was only half teasing him.

“Of course, whatever you need.”

Feeling proud of himself for following through, Luco went back to the counter and pulled the lever on the espresso machine with a little extra fervor. The redhead who was slicing bagels noticed the slight smile on his face and put two and two together.

Marlee sat and zipped through the crossword puzzle in ten minutes. She got a refill on her coffee from the redhead and wondered why her saucer was now filled with hot coffee as well. The redhead was usually neater.

Sitting and just musing on the day and its possibilities, Marlee looked across the street. A young, heavily tattooed man was pulling back the security gate in front of “Mom’s Body Shop”, a tattoo and piercing parlor.

He had barely gotten the front door unlocked and the “open” sign turned on when the first customer walked in.

The business day was starting on Haight Street.

Marlee finished her coffee and bussed her table. She turned to wave to Luco as she headed toward the door.

“Oh, Marlee, one more thing about Friday night.”

“What’s that, Luco?”

“Martin Macks…its casual dress.”

“I’ll leave the mink at home.”

Fiction Saturday – “Haight Street” Part Sixteen

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.”

Mike roared.

“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.

Fiction Saturday – “Haight Street” Part Fifteen

Fiction Saturday – “Haight Street” Part Fifteen

There was a lot of Fair yet to see and if the first few minutes were any indicator, Marlee thought, it was going to be a day she would never forget.

Falafel, enchiladas, kielbasa, satay, crepes, sauerbraten, they all called out to her senses, begging her to stop and sample the exotic flavors – sharp, subtle, sweet and biting. Aromas blossomed and vied for her attention as the street filled to overflowing with smiling people. Banners and flags lolled in the quiet air.

Marlee made a point to stop and peruse the goods at each booth, not wanting to miss anything as she worked her way up Haight Street.

Out in front of Mom’s Body Shop she got a washable tattoo to adorn her neck: a small black swan. For today, at least, Marlee could feel like a rebel.

At the mythical intersection of Haight and Ashbury a neighborhood garage band had set up their speakers, amps and mike stand. They didn’t have any permits and weren’t an official part of the Fair, but nobody really cared. They kicked that part of the street into high gear. The charismatic lead singer quickly gathered a gaggle of new young fans moving to the beat.

Just beyond this unofficial concert was a large flag adorned with a painting of a flying baby. It caught Marlee’s eye. The baby had wings and blue hair. She worked slowly across the intersection, trying to get close enough to see what the booth could possibly be selling.

While she was still “Pardon me”-ing and “Excuse me”-ing her way, she heard a loud female voice from up ahead.

“Yo! Marlee, Babe!”

Marlee was a bit taken aback at the familiarity of the greeting. She didn’t think she knew anyone that well yet, here in San Francisco.

“Marlee! Straight ahead, Sweetheart!”

Marlee plowed on, her pace a bit faster. She was uncomfortable hearing her name being yelled in the street by an unknown voice. Finally, she broke through the moving river of humanity and stood in front of the woman who was yelling for her.

“Marlee, Honey!”

It was Scar, the tattooed and pierced Madonna from Spider’s party. Perched high on Scar’s back, peeking out at Marlee was little Lucifer, smiling and drooling. His baby fine hair was worked into a bright blue Mohawk.

“Hi, Scar. How are you and how is this cutie pie?”

She wiggled her fingers at Lucifer. He grinned and two teeth were almost visible. He was teething on a piece of fabric.

“How ya likin’ the Fair, Toots? Havin’ fun?”

“Oh, it’s marvelous, Scar. What are you selling here?”

Scar leaned forward and pointed to the sign right above Marlee’s head.

“Robin’s Nest Baby Carriers. That’s what Lucifer is riding in. Cool, huh? I designed it myself. My real name is Robin.”

The baby carrier was more of a sling. A swath of fabric, at least nine feet long by Marlee’s estimation, draped and looped around Scar’s short frame. At the junction of three passes of cloth sat Lucifer, snug, secure and blowing saliva bubbles.

“They come in various lengths depending on the size of the Mother and of the little pisser.”

Marlee reached out and tickled Lucifer’s chin. He gurgled.

“Hello, Lucifer. How’s my little friend today?”

Scar looked back at her baby, her sky blue lips arched in a big smile.

“He is a cute one, ain’t he? I don’t know where he gets it. I’m really kind of plain under this rig and his father fell out of the ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down.”

“Well, Scar, I think you and Lucifer are just darling.”

“Yeah, real Norman Rockwell, ain’t we? So, tell me, girl – you havin’ a good time here in S.F.?”

Marlee’s eyes widened.

“Oh, wow, yes. I just danced in the street with a perfect stranger and it was….” She groped for the right word.

“The word is ‘Fun’, Marlee, and you need more of it. Kick your heels up and your knickers off a little more often, if you catch my drift.”

Marlee reddened.

Marlee never thought of herself as a prude. Not even close, but by the standards of some of the people she’d met recently, she was feeling like a cloistered nun.

She was a product of the Midwest. She had standards and a strong sense of right and wrong. Maybe it was acceptable for Scar to “kick off her knickers”, but it was still something special, sacred even, in Marlee’s heart.

It was close to two years since Marlee had buried her husband. Two years since she had felt a man in her arms and tasted a man’s skin.

She was still mourning her loss and still felt a “loyalty” to his memory. It was how she was raised, but it didn’t mean that there weren’t the yearnings. She had the primal desires to touch and be touched, to hold and be held, to possess and be completely possessed.

She missed the look in a lover’s eyes, urgent and intent. She ached for the feel of hands holding her in the dark, pulling her close. She lusted after the sound of a deep voice whispering in her ear, “I love you, Marlee.”

That was all missing from her life, but she knew that “kicking off her knickers” wouldn’t supply it.

Marlee was aware of her senses calling out for the raw ecstasy of uninhibited sexual love, but she also knew that what she really needed to fill was the hollowness in her heart.

This time, however, Marlee wanted a different kind of love than she had experienced with Phillip. Her mind had generated a checklist of what she needed and required of any man who would be considered for admission into her heart. She was a different woman than the one who had said ‘Yes” to a blushing and stammering Phillip years earlier and a continent away. She had loved Phillip, but it was an immature love – the love of a pair of 20 year-olds.

Now, after all she had been through and almost a decade, the first thing on her list for a new love was Maturity. When she was a girl, a boy had been right for her, but she was a Woman now and she needed – no, insisted, upon a Man.

Marlee had not come to San Francisco looking for that Man, or any Man, but, once there, her mind opened to the possibility and The List was born.

Creating “The List” was the kind of thing that Marlee did on Sunday mornings while lying in bed, half awake and her mind randomly flipping through the file drawer of her brain. It started as a romantic musing, but as time passed and her hopes and needs for the future crystallized; The List became a practical, no-nonsense set of criteria. Any man who wanted to reside in her heart and soul would have to withstand serious scrutiny and measurement against The List.

Marlee sipped at her tea and walked off to the side of the intersection at Haight Street and Cole. Ad hoc entertainment was everywhere. An old man sat in a folding chair playing a banjo. The Mother-Of-Pearl inlay on the neck sparkled in the light.

Setting her plastic cup on top of a newspaper vending machine, Marlee let her eyes focus on the smiling musician as his fingers flew and “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” caromed off the brick walls nearby. She looked at him, but her heart retrieved The List from its file in her mind.

#1 on The List of qualifications for any future Love was “He must understand my passion for my music.”

Phillip never really did. He was impressed by her skill, but never understood how and why it fulfilled something in her.

At #2 on The List Marlee had placed “A great sense of humor.”

She wanted to laugh. There had been too many tears.

#3 – “Romantic.” Flowers, dancing, old movies and whispers in the dark.

#4 – “Not younger than me.” She had married a Boy. Now she wanted a Man.

#5 – “Dark hair. Maybe with a beard” Marlee found the physical contrast exciting.

#6 – “Intelligent,” which folded neatly into numbers 7, 8 and 9.

#7 – “Creative”.

#8 – “Enjoys the Arts.”

#9 – “Curiosity about…everything.

These four were very closely tied together. Possessing one almost presupposed the existence of the others. Marlee wanted a Man she could look at and regard as her equal and as a fascinating human being.

#10 – “Someone who likes to dance, but doesn’t have to ‘go dancing.’ A Man who will take me for a spin around the kitchen while singing a love song from the 1940s.”

One early morning, while listening to the parrots squawking outside her bedroom window, Marlee added several items to The List that were important to her and, maybe, to no one else on earth.

#14 – “Likes liver and onions.”

#15 – “Likes peach pie above all others.”

#16 – “Doesn’t mind if I eat snacks in bed and will even fetch me the salt shaker if I ask sweetly.”

Some things on The List reflected her growing power as a self-reliant individual.

#23 – “A Man who accepts me exactly as I am.”

#24 – “A Man who will not expect me to subjugate myself in any way for the sake of his ego.”

Her recognition of a basic human need was put forth as conjoined triplets in # 11, #12 and #13, then again as #17, #18 and #19 – “He must be GREAT in the sack.”

#20 followed up quickly on this thought with – “He will hug and kiss at any time, not just when in the mood for sex. Love does not always mean sex.”

Marlee was concerned that she may have gone too far with The List when she noticed that #57 was, “He knows how to use a vacuum cleaner” and she still had more items in mind.

“Jeez, I’m getting awful picky…but why shouldn’t I? After all, I’ll have to stand up against his List too.”

She ended her musing on the make-up of her “Perfect Man” and the likelihood of ever meeting him with, “Well, not in this world.”

“The rent is coming due on the planet. Do you have your share ready?

Shaken from her introspection by a softly insistent voice by her shoulder, Marlee looked down into the dark and fiery eyes of a Haight Street institution: The Kozmic Lady.”

“The planets are all aligned with the signs of water and fire. It means that steamy times are ahead and we may all be in hot water if we’re not careful. I hope you’ve got a fresh teabag.”

“Excuse me?” asked Marlee. “What are you talking about? Planets and teabags?” Marlee was totally confused. Who was this gnomish woman with gray hair and the sparkling eyes of a zealot?

Standing barely five feet tall in her worn sandals, The Kozmic Lady had been spreading her warnings of impending galactic cataclysms for more than three decades. The fact that she had never been right didn’t deter her from continuing her alarms.

“I’ve not been proven wrong yet either, have I?”

Marlee felt that she was looking at someone’s grandmother, who had slipped off course years ago and now traveled a different, yet comfortable, road through life. Everyone in The Haight knew The Kozmic Lady and protected her from serious earthly harm.

“We’ve all been here a very long time, even you, Blondie, and it won’t be much longer until you and I will have to pack up and be ready to run for our many lives.”

“Are you all right, Ma’am? Do you need help?”

“We all need help! I need new sandals. You need a new lover and we all need a new planet!”

Marlee was amused, concerned and a bit unnerved by this tiny apostle for an unknown prophet.

“I need a new what? A new lover? I don’t know who you are ma’am, but MYOB, as Ann Landers would say.”

“MYOB? Sweetie, you are my business and I’m yours. MYOB? No, girl, MYEB! Mind everybody’s business! It’s the only way we can all get off the planet with our socks intact.”

“Our socks?”

The Kozmic Lady reached into her canvas satchel and pulled out a sheet of paper. She thrust it into Marlee’s hand.

“Look, I gotta scoot. Read this paper and you’ll get all the latest news on all the latest news. Carpe Diem and hold the mayo! Andale!”

With that confusing homily The Kozmic Lady darted off into the crowd and left Marlee dazed and holding a paper covered with tiny printing and complex diagrams. Across the bottom was a handwritten message.

“The future is just ahead of you. Keep your peepers open!”

Stuffing the paper in her pocket, Marlee discarded her empty drink cup in a dumpster and wandered away from the corner and headed up Haight Street. The Fair had several more blocks of surprising temptations to offer to visitors and residents alike.

“People! Please give us a little room here so nobody gets hurt. Oh, hi, Luco. How’s it goin’?”

“Not bad, Mike.” Luco’s eyes went back up to the man in the sky.

“Every year some fool does the same dumb thing, don’t they?”

“Yeah. Well, whatcha gonna do, ‘eh, Luco? People! Everybody move back. Now!”

Luco, along with the still growing crowd on the corner, inched back, complying, but not really. New people were coming over to gawk and the crowd control efforts were becoming futile.

Not wanting to see what looked to be the inevitable outcome, Luco tried to extricate himself from the crush of people. He wanted to see the rest of the Fair.

He turned to leave, stepping around two women with toddlers on their shoulders. He got past them and stopped short as he found himself, nose to nose, looking into a pair of green eyes the color of the ocean at the Big Sur coastline.

“Marlee! Good to see you.”

The crowd pushed them closer together.

Marlee was startled to see Luco’s gray eyes this close up. She gasped and said to herself that there was fire in his eyes, a very controlled fire. For just a split second, her mind wondered what it would take to unleash it.

Fiction Saturday – “Haight Street” Part Fourteen

Fiction Saturday – “Haight Street” Part Fourteen

 

“Oh, come on, John. I kind of feel sorry for him. He has his troubles. I admit that he is a bit weird but…”

Dawn took up where John left off.

“Marlee, Hon, he’s a real head case. Half the stores on Haight won’t let him through the door.”

Marlee saw their sincerity, along with the dash of fear in Dawn’s eyes. Looking back across the Haight Street she could see Dennis waving his arms, arguing with the tattooed clerk. A small cloud of doubt drifted into Marlee’s mind.

The clerk was getting tired of the same nonsensical routine. Her growing flush of anger was giving her tattoo snake an unreal ruddiness.

“Man, every time you come in here it’s the same crap. I’ll tell you one more time and if you don’t like it you can take your freaky business elsewhere. The price for the ‘tat’ is $65 – a one inch skull. There is no freaking ‘frequent flier’ discount. And one more thing…”

“What’s that, Sideshow?”

“Why do you always get the same tattoo every time, you Creep?”

“None of your business. Do you want it to be your business? I can arrange that for you, you little junkie.”

“Do you want the damned tattoo or not, Cretin?”

“Yes, I want the tattoo. Why else would I ever come in here, Skank?”

“To flirt with the help, maybe?” She smiled and flicked out her pierced tongue. “Paper or plastic, Twitch?”

“Plastic today.” He handed over a Visa card and she swiped it into the register. “Let’s get to work, Tiger.”

They disappeared behind the counter, out of sight from Marlee’s view in the People’s Cafe.

Read more…

Fiction Saturday “Haight Street” Continued – Part Thirteen

Fiction Saturday “Haight Street” Continued – Part Thirteen

Haight Street

by

John Kraft

The icy wind coming through the streets whistled, shaking the Eucalyptus trees to their shallow roots. The parrots found snug sanctuaries under the eaves of the Painted Ladies. The lonely young and homeless drug tourists huddled in doorways along Haight Street shivering and regretting leaving their warm homes back in Iowa or wherever. The night held no adventure for them.

There weren’t many people walking on the street. Whenever someone did pass by a shaking voice would call out from the doorway, “Spare Change?” Most people ignored the plea. It would be better for one young man if everyone had. But not tonight.

A little after midnight and the fog filled the streets. Visibility was measured in yards not miles and sounds were muffled by the thickness of the air. A lone figure walked down Haight Street toward the Park. He wore a warm coat and gloves. A woolen scarf obscured his face. He walked slowly. He was in no hurry. There was no need.

The sound of footsteps thudded through the fog and as they approached the doorway the words, “Spare change?” reached out to the man with the scarf.

“Spare change? I think I might have something for you.” He reached into his pocket. “Yes, can you come a little closer? I can’t quite reach you”

The teen from the Midwest moved out of his sheltering doorway, reaching out.

“I don’t have much change, but I do have this,” He pressed a five dollar bill into the outstretched hand. “I hope it helps.”

“Thank you, Mister. Thanks a lot. I really mean it.”

The man put his hand back in his pocket.

“You must be cold out here tonight. Where are you staying?

“Yeah it’s cold, but I don’t have a place for tonight. I couldn’t connect with anybody to let me crash. I’ll be OK.” His teeth were chattering.

The man moved closer. “Nonsense. Let me help you. I live in the neighborhood and I can let you crash there tonight.”

“No, Mister. I’m OK, and I’m not into that. I don’t swing that way.”

The man took another step closer. “No, no, you don’t have to worry. I’m serious. I’m just trying to help. No funny business. I promise. A place to sleep and a hot meal.”

The freezing young addict had heard the stories about men who offered “help” to Street Kids. He’d also heard about the other Street Kids who ended up dead, butchered in Golden Gate Park. He was so cold and hungry. “No funny business, Mister?”

“No funny business. I promise you.”

Five minutes later, as the two figures walked through the swirling fog down the side street toward the Panhandle of Golden Gate Park, the younger man said just two words, “Hey, what’s….” That was all he could say as a black ceramic knife plunged into his throat. He was pushed into the space between two houses, a space where the trash cans were stored. The man with the scarf worked rapidly as a dog in one of the houses began to bark. Cuts, slashes, and incisions left the face of the soon to be dead young addict unrecognizable. It was quick, savage, and merciless. His eyes were wide with terror, while he still had them. One final rip across the throat ended his fright. The dog continued to bark as the camera emitted a single flash of light

“Just like I promised – no funny business.”

***

Marlee woke up with a rip-roaring headache and her throat felt like she had been eating broken glass. Even through the lingering fog she could tell that the sun was high in the sky. A bleary-eyed peek at the clock told her it was 11:18.

She crawled out of bed and shuffled to the bathroom. One look in the mirror told her that last night’s party at Spider’s must have been fun.

“Why do I feel so hung over? I had a couple of beers, but…Christ on a crutch.”

Two Tylenol would help the headache, but nothing else would get better until she ate something. It had been almost 24 hours since her last real meal. She couldn’t count the bagel she’d split with Scar while they watched Dawn and John slow dance to Mitch Ryder And The Detroit Wheels. Marlee had opted for a nap before the party, assuming that there would be food at the party. If there was she’d never found it, at least nothing beyond peach pie and bagels on a wire.

She moved slowly to the kitchen and checked to see what she could fix quickly and easily. Cold cereal…puffed rice would be good. No milk. Oatmeal…no oatmeal. Marlee made a mental note to get to the supermarket before she starved to death.

Eggs. She had eggs, but the thought of breaking the shells and watching them ooze yellow and runny made her stomach gurgle in protest. Food was out for the moment.

A long hot shower and the Tylenol helped Marlee pull herself into human form. It also made the idea of the eggs more palatable, but she had no bread for toast.

“Welcome to Marlee Hubbard’s empty cupboard.”

Slipping into her sneakers and wearing a sweatshirt, jeans and sunglasses, Marlee trudged up the block toward The People’s Cafe.

“Let somebody else do the cooking this morning.”

Marlee could see that getting a table was going to be difficult. It was lunchtime and tourist season was here. She considered going across the street to the “Squat and Gobble” or up the block to “The Pork Store.” They made a decent plate of eggs and she could see that there were some empty tables.

A rap on the window pulled her attention back to the cafe. Grinning through the glass was a familiar face. John, the bearded novelist and peach pie philosopher was waving at Marlee, inviting her in.

She pulled open the heavy green door and saw at once that John was not alone. Across the table sat Dawn. Marlee noticed that Dawn was wearing the same clothes she’d had on at the party the night before.

“Marlee, we saw you out there, your nose pressed up against the glass like a lost puppy. Please join us, Darlin’.”

John scooped up an empty chair from a neighboring party of three.

Marlee looked around the cafe.

“I don’t see Luco here this morning.”

“Nobody expected to,” John said. “He’s good at starting parties, but he’s lousy at finishing them. He was being poured into a cab when we left about an hour ago.”

Marlee shook her head sadly.

“He has a drinking problem, doesn’t he? I had to hold his head last night. He was just plastered.”

Dawn set down her fork.

“He has a problem, but it isn’t his drinking. He uses the booze to try to solve his problem. The poor sweetie doesn’t realize that the alcohol won’t do it.”

“He does seem to be so unhappy beneath the surface. His eyes were so sad.”

“His eyes? I know, Honey. I’ve looked at those gorgeous grays and it’s like staring at a closed door.”

John put down his own fork and laid his hand over Dawn’s.

“I’ve known him for a few years and we’ve gotten drunk together a few times. He never talks about himself or his past and after a few too many he starts muttering in Spanish. At that point he becomes no fun to be with.”

“You aren’t a lot of laughs either when you’re drunk, Darlin’.” Dawn leaned over and kissed him on the cheek.

Marlee was trying to decide if she should get up and order something to eat. Her head was starting to pound again.

“Darlin’,” said Dawn. “You look like you been rode hard and put away wet.”

“I feel like it, Dawn. I don’t get it. You two look fresh as a daisy.”

“You went home and slept, didn’t you, Marlee? Big mistake,” John said as he got up to go fetch Marlee a cup of coffee. “Don’t go to bed until you are prepared to stay there until Spring. Those short sleeps will kill you.”

Dawn and John were finishing up their own plates of eggs and potatoes and the sight of the greasy plates made Marlee cancel her lunch plans. The coffee was enough for now.

Letting the heat of the inky brew warm her, Marlee started to feel more alert and the warmth was helping her headache a bit. She looked out of the window at the busy people rushing by along Haight Street, all intent on their own personal missions. Her eyes were drawn to the red neon shining from “Mom’s Body Shop” across the street.

A young woman with a tattoo of a green and blue snake coiling around her neck was standing in front of the open door, a cigarette dangling from her lips. She looked relaxed, almost bored…until she looked down the block.

Her body tensed, she swore out loud and threw her cigarette into the gutter. Still muttering, she stormed back into the shop. Ten seconds later a customer scurried through the front door of the tattoo parlor. It was Dennis Thayer.

John saw him as well, and saw Marlee watching Dennis.

“You know him,” John asked?

“He lives in my building, in the apartment right above me. He’s a real strange duck for sure, but I just didn’t take him for the tattoo type.”

John’s eyed widened.

“He’s your neighbor? Move.”

Fiction Saturday – “Haight Street” -Continued – Part Twelve

Fiction Saturday – “Haight Street” -Continued

Haight Street

by

John Kraft

Even though it had been only a few short hours, he looked surprised to see her. The three women looked annoyed.

“Hi, Luco,” said Marlee. She nodded to the women, waiting for Luco to make the introductions. His eyes said that the idea of doing so had yet to make an appearance.

After a short, but awkward silence with nothing forthcoming from Luco, Marlee took matters into her own hands.

“Hi, my name is Marlee.” She extended her hand, but none of the women moved. Marlee got the message.

“OK. Well, I guess I’ll see you all later at the cat show.”

Feeling the chill, she started to leave.

“No, Marlee, wait,” said Luco. “I’m sorry. Where are my manners? Has anybody seen them?” He giggled at his own joke.

Luco was drunk. That much was now quite obvious to Marlee.

“Marlee…yes. Tina, Shaniqua and Millie, this is Marlee. Marlee, these three ladies are…Sheena, Monique and…Tillie.” He was groping in the dark for the names.

All of the women looked at Luco as if he had completely lost his mind. He hadn’t. He’d just mislaid it at the bottom of a tequila bottle.

“What? Did I say something wrong?”

The women looked at each other.

“Hi, Marlee. I’m Mindy. She’s Tashika and this is Sylvie.”

“Oh, really?” said Luco. “I’m sorry.” He seemed embarrassed, but it was hard to tell. He had riveted his eyes on Marlee, like he had never seen her before.

Luco leaned forward toward Marlee. “Are you having a good time?

“Yes I am, Luco. I’ve met some very interesting people.”

She looked at Luco, taking inventory of this man.

His eyes, she noticed, had an undefined sadness in them. He was in isolation behind his eyes. Here he was at this party, surrounded by women, yet standing in the foggy air very apart and alone. Marlee wondered why.

She peered past his long lashes and through his soft gray eyes in an attempt to use them as those oft-quoted windows into his soul. All she saw was a dark, forbidding barrier. Nothing could get past it. Luco was a divided man. Marlee wondered what had happened to him to make him so apart from himself.

Mindy, or maybe it was Tashika, saw the intensity of Marlee’s gaze and the way she was assessing Luco and put her face right up to Marlee’s. “Jesus, honey, leave something for the rest of us.”

Inside Luco’s mind he was considering Marlee in a new light. She was no longer just the next customer in line, but a woman, a very attractive woman. In the misty, diffused light, an aura seemed to shine around her. Had he been sober he would have realized that it was just a trick of optics. He was not sober and her image reminded him of the pictures he had seen as a child, paintings of the saints floating in a beatific corona.

Seeing Marlee appear so suddenly, her hair glowing and the turquoise teardrop pendant so brightly perched by her heart, Luco was attracted and unnerved.

“Marlee, you look like Santa Maria de Merida. Your hair, your turquoise, your halo.”

“My what? My halo? Luco… you’re drunk as a skunk.”

“No. No. Listen to me. Can’t you see it, Tamisha? Doesn’t Marlee look like Santa Maria? You’re beautiful. You’re sagrada.”

“Luco, I’m not any saint and you need to stop drinking for tonight.” She looked at the other women who all had their arms crossed, not amused by Luco’s fixation. Mindy’s eyes were just slits aimed at Marlee.

“You want him sobered up, Your Holiness, you do it alone. I came here to get laid.” Tashika picked up the thought.

“Yes, Little Missy, we came here to get this man drunk, horizontal and naked. Now, you butt in and he’s talking about your ‘halo’…Damn. Girls, let’s leave these two alone so they can pray.”

They all pushed past Marlee, giving her steely looks. Sylvie stopped and spoke, not caring that Luco was standing right there.

“Girl, you bring him up to the second floor and maybe we can all get a taste of each other.”

“What?” Marlee was incredulous. The fog swirled as the girls walked away.

Marlee and Luco were alone and her mouth was open in amazement. His eyes were half closed in a stupor. He was ready to pass out.

“Luco? Are you alright? You don’t look so hot.”

“Hi, Marlee.” A silly grin stumbled its way across his face. “Marlee, I’d like you to meet three of my closest friends. Tanya, Slovakia…hey. Where’d they all go?”

He looked around at the empty air. The motion disoriented him and he started to reel. Marlee reached out and grabbed him before he fell over. She tried to get her shoulder under his for support. Luco smiled at her then turned his head toward the street and vomited.

“Oh, Luco,” said Marlee. Luco’s place in her unconscious ratings dropped several spots. She held him until his session ended.

“C’mon, Luco. Let’s get you inside.”

She put her arm around his waist and draped his arm over her shoulder and began to maneuver Luco’s bulk toward the house. All she wanted to do was get him inside and then let him sleep it off.

Climbing the steps up from the walk was a big job. Marlee half pushed Luco ahead of her. It wasn’t so much walking with him, as it was controlled falling.

When they reached the top step, Marlee was out of breath.

“Let’s stop here for a second.”

She leaned up against the wall and Luco carefully sat on the rim of a large planter box filled with geraniums. Marlee held onto his hand, just in case he started to teeter backward. Marlee took a few deep breaths.

“I need to get in shape, Luco. Luco? Are you with me?”

He looked up at her and smiled.

“Hi, Marlee.”

Marlee looked at him and laughed. She couldn’t help herself.

“Luco, I’d hate to be your head in the morning. C’mon, big fellow. Let’s go.”

She gave his arm a tug to pull him to his feet. It worked and Luco rose onto two very shaky legs. He tried to steady himself, but lurched forward, bumping into Marlee.

The force of his body in motion pinned her to the white siding by the door. His muscled chest pressed against her. Marlee gave him a shove, but he was dead weight. His face was flush against hers.

“Luco, let’s get you inside. Where is everybody now that I need some help?”

“Hi, Marlee.” He smiled and without warning he turned his head and kissed Marlee full on the lips.

The force of the kiss surprised Marlee even more than the kiss itself. After all, drunken men often do stupid things.

One summer she had to deal with the pawings and sloppy kisses of a gangly oboist. When Luco’s body crushed against her and his mouth clamped on hers, the first words that entered Marlee’s mind were, “Band Camp.”

“Luco,” she managed to mumble when he slipped off her face and shifted his amorous moves to Marlee’s neck.

“Oh, mi corazon. Te amo.” At least that’s what it sounded like to Marlee.

She wasn’t angry. She knew that it was the alcohol and gravity that had Luco acting this way. Marlee wasn’t mad, but she sure as hell wanted him off of her.

Marlee gave him another good shove and he rocked backward onto his heels. Afraid he might fall and hurt himself she grabbed his shirt to steady him. Luco’s marinated endocrine system took that gesture as a call to action and Luco, once again tried to kiss Marlee. This time his right hand found her breast.

“Damn it, Luco,” said Marlee, her patience gone. She pushed him off and pulled her hand back to hit him. The force of her shove made the slap moot. Luco staggered back. His feet tried to move fast enough to stay under him, but failed. He reeled and fell, luckily backside first, into the planter box. He landed with a thud, crushing the season’s first blossoming of the geraniums.

Marlee, her hand still ready to slap Luco if he tried again, was breathing heavily from the surprise and the exertion. She could see her breath misting as she exhaled.

She looked down at Luco, sitting on the flowers, looking dejected and mumbling to himself. A lone surviving geranium poked up from Luco’s crotch. Life goes on.

Seeing Luco in such a sorry state upset Marlee. Luco had always seemed so “in control,” so above the crass and mundane. And now, here he was, sloppy drunk, sitting in a flower box.

“Oh, Luco. I’m so… disappointed in you, and that’s my fault, not yours. I believed in the image and forgot that there was a real person behind it.”

Luco stirred and looked up at Marlee.

“Mi paloma. Te amo. Besa Regalito por mi.”

He blinked and for a moment his fog lifted.

“Hi, Marlee.”

Fiction Saturday – “Haight Street” -Continued – Part Eleven

Fiction Saturday – “Haight Street” -Continued

Haight Street

by

John Kraft

Wandering her way back into the dining room, Marlee saw John, the bearded writer from the cafe. He was sitting on the window seat engaged in an animated conversation with a woman who wore her chestnut brown hair in a ponytail. They were both eating pie. John spotted Marlee and beckoned her to join them. He stood and offered his spot next to the woman. She accepted.

“Marlee, I’d like you to meet Dawn. Dawn, Marlee. Marlee, Dawn.” Pleasantries exchanged, John mounted his invisible soapbox.

“Marlee, Dawn and I were just discussing the finer points of pie.”

“Pie” said Marlee, one eyebrow arching? “I would have guessed that you would be debating James Joyce or Shakespeare. Pie surprises me.”

“Writers talk about other writers over coffee or whiskey,” said Dawn, a sly smile creeping across her face. “Over pie, however, the only topic for discussion can be pie.” There was a trace of Texas in her voice.

“You see, Marlee,” bubbled John, “Dawn here thinks that it is the crust that makes or breaks the pie experience.”

Dawn picked up on his thought.

“Yes. A great crust can carry even a mediocre filling to a higher plane, but, John, misguided Sweetheart that he is, thinks that it is the filling, be it fruit, custard or even chiffon, that elevates it from a mere dessert, to that of a world shaking ‘whoopee’.”

“World shaking ‘whoopee’” said Marlee?

“Dawn and I have this same argument at every party: Crust versus Filling, Filling versus Crust.

“Marlee, please play Solomon for us. What is the answer? What makes this pie so good?”

Marlee looked at the two of them with their paper plates sagging under the weight of the still warm pie.

“I’ll have to taste the pie,” said Marlee, “To be able to give you a reasoned answer.”

Dawn and John held out their plates to her.

“This might require more than one bite.”

Both plates moved closer.

Marlee used Dawn’s fork to cut a bite from the moist wedge of pie.

“First, I will taste for the quality of the crust.”

Dawn smiled.

Marlee made a great show of tasting the pie. It was peach. Warm and juicy, not long from the oven, this was very good pie and was making for a delicious midnight snack. She rolled her tongue over, around and through the crust, juice, and slices of soft fruit, as if she were assessing a fine wine.

“This is excellent pie,” said Marlee. “It’s still warm. Who made it?”

Dawn held up her hand, wiggling her fingers.

“Guilty,” said Dawn. “I made it. I live right next door and it’s as fresh as can be. Is that a great crust, or what?”

“It’s wonderful, maybe the best I’ve ever had,” said Marlee in true appreciation.

John jumped in.

“Sure it is. It’s a marvelous crust. I’ll stipulate that, but take another bite and, Marlee, this time, focus on the peaches.”

Fighting back the urge to giggle, Marlee took the fork from John’s plate and repeated the tasting ritual. Dawn and John watched every move of her jaw, every smack of her lips.

“You watch, Dawn. Marlee is going to say it’s the filling.”

“John, you just hush up now and let the woman do her job. It’s the crust, isn’t it, Darlin’?”

Marlee continued her taste test while watching these two people who obviously enjoyed each other’s company and their ongoing debate.

“Alright,” said Marlee as she licked her lips. “I’ve come to a conclusion.” She handed the plate back to John, and stood up. John sat down next to Dawn and they looked up at Marlee with excitement and anticipation in their eyes.

“In this debate about crust over filling.” Marlee paused and slowly flicked a couple of crumbs from her jacket. “I have decided that what makes this peach pie so wonderful is: the high quality of the affection of the two people sharing the pie.”

Both Dawn and John looked at Marlee quizzically and then at each other and then back at Marlee once again. Marlee dabbed at the corners of her mouth with John’s paper napkin.

“That’s my judgment, folks. I’m going to go mingle a bit. You two enjoy your pie,” Marlee said as she walked off toward the front room. As she left she heard them speaking.

“I still say it’s the filling.”

“Oh, John…”

***

Like all house parties there is always a refuge from the noise and the crowd. After the pie debate Marlee went looking for it. A place to get some fresh air and to have a moment to herself. Several hours of bone-jarring music, out-front questionable behavior and a jaw-dropping assortment from the human zoo, had put a light glaze over Marlee’s eyes. A deep breath that wouldn’t give her a contact high was her objective.

Marlee went down the back stairs. They were crowded with people on the move and on the make. As she passed the second floor she got two offers she could easily refuse. The one from the man was just crude.

On the street level were two doors, the one on the left opened into the kitchen, the one on the right was ajar. Marlee pushed it open and felt a rush of cool air.

Stepping onto the small porch, Marlee joined three partygoers who were talking and sharing a joint. As soon as she came through the door one of the men offered her a hit. She declined with a smile and walked down the five wooden steps to a red brick walk.

The backyard was large by San Francisco standards. Along the eastern edge was a tangle of white and yellow rose bushes. A large Weber kettle barbeque had been fired up and two more guests were warming their hands. The fog had sifted its way through the trees and the air was biting and crisp.

Marlee could see in the spill of light from the house that there were a few people engaged in conversation or quiet romance along the fence by the garage. She didn’t want to intrude, so she followed the brick pathway until it reached the sidewalk. The street was quiet. Just the occasional car drove past. The other houses were dark. High shrubs shielded the yard from passersby and the normal tumult of the street.

Marlee heard voices from the other side of the hedge, three women’s voices. They were talking about the party and they all seemed to be trying to talk at once. This trio of voices piqued her curiosity.

Just as Marlee turned the corner around the hedges, she heard a fourth voice. It was a quartet.

“Ladies, please. The night is still very young.”

It was Luco. “There are three of you and only one of….”

He saw Marlee appear out of the dark.

“Marlee, where have you been?”

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