Fiction Saturday – “Haight Street” Part Twenty
STARTING FROM OPPOSITE ENDS OF HAIGHT STREET, Marlee and Luco began to move toward their first meeting on neutral territory. Marlee stopped to look at the lizards in the shop window. She didn’t want to get there first. Let him stand there for a few minutes and wonder if he’d been stood up. She smiled at the thought of the ever-confident Luco standing on the sidewalk, pacing back and forth, impatient and frustrated. Sure, it was a bit cruel, but if he was like every other man, she thought, it would do him some good to cool his heels.
Luco closed his front door and turned left, away from Haight Street. He was so anxious that he was leaving much too early. As he walked around the block to kill some time he talked out loud to himself.
“I’m leaving too early. What’s with me? I don’t want to get there early and have to cool my heels. I hate that. Women never show up early. They always run late. If I was paranoid I’d think they did it on purpose, just to play with our minds.”
Marlee walked past the People’s Cafe. She saw that there was someone new behind the counter – a short strawberry blonde with a figure that proved there is a God. Even through the window Marlee could see that young Paolo, the busboy, was already in love.
Across the street, Mom’s Body Shop was lit up like a Christmas tree. A newly satisfied customer was standing out in front showing off his new tattoos to some other young men. He seemed very happy, but his knees were wobbly and his eyes were shiny. Perhaps getting the “USMC” on his arm would have been enough, Marlee surmised. The screaming eagle was just too many needle pricks for one sitting, even for a new Marine.
Marlee’s smile melted as she looked past the young man who was in need of a few beers to numb the pain. Just coming out of the shop was a familiar face. Looking very serious and buttoning his shirt cuffs, was Dennis Thayer. He looked to his right and left, but never saw Marlee on the far side of the street. He started down Haight in the same direction as Marlee. She lagged a bit to let him get ahead of her. She was still unnerved a bit about his behavior during her brunch. She didn’t want to have to deal with him. Not tonight and not on the street. Tonight was for positive thoughts and warm feelings. He could wait for another day.
Luco stalled as long as he could. Two times around the block and a stop for a quick espresso at a new place over on Waller Street and he was still there early. Marlee was not in sight. The jolt of caffeine from the espresso was adding to his nervousness. He patted his handkerchief at his upper lip.
He poked his head inside the door of Martin Macks.
“Hey, Mary Margaret, has anyone come in here looking for me?” A quartet of slender feminine hands went up into the air, just hoping.
“Hi, Luco,” answered the bartender. “Nobody tonight, unless you want to count the four furies here.”
One of the women at the bar leaned back on her stool, blew him a kiss and licked her lips.
“Evening, Susie. Say hello to Michael and the kids for me.”
He went back to the sidewalk and looked once again for his tardy dinner companion. Instead of Marlee he saw a man walking up the street toward him with a purposeful stride. As he approached the bar the man saw Luco and glared at him.
“Good Evening, Dennis.” Luco put on a cordial smile that wasn’t fooling anybody. He didn’t care.
“Kiss my ass, Reyes.”
“No thanks, Dennis. I’m cutting back on candy.”
Dennis Thayer never stopped walking, but turned his face to Luco. “Some day, Reyes…some day.”
“Yeah, right. Some day your prince will come.”
Dennis kept walking and at the next corner, turned and slowly headed down the hill toward the Panhandle of Golden Gate Park.
“You know him, Luco?” It was Marlee. She had crossed the street when she saw Dennis turn the corner.
“Marlee. Hi, there. I was beginning to think you weren’t going to show up.”
“I wouldn’t stand you up. Do you know that man with the curly blonde hair?”
“Oh, yeah. We’ve met.”
“He’s my neighbor. His name is Dennis Thayer.”
“Your neighbor? I know its none of my business, but he’s a bad egg. Nuts, if you ask me. Be careful.”
“I can handle him. How do you know him?”
“He came into the cafe once, stinking drunk and got physical with a tourist. I had to throw him out. He’s 86’d from the place and he holds me responsible.
“Look, enough about him. Miss, would you allow me to escort you inside this fine establishment for some dinner, a beverage or two and some scintillating conversation?”
“Oh, Lord, the man is charming. Sweaty, but charming,” she thought.
“Why, thank you kind stranger. I’d love to join you for dinner.”
“Oh, my she is enchanting,” he thought. “A bit overdressed for the occasion, but enchanting.”
He pulled open the large wooden door and ushered her through, into a place filled with twinkling lights, twinkling people and an irreverent attitude toward all things non-Irish.
At the corner, Dennis Thayer peeked around the edge of the dress shop. He watched Luco hold open the door for Marlee as they went inside.
To get to the dining room they had to run the gauntlet past the bar. The bar was filled, as usual, with people who knew Luco.
“Hi, Luco. Michael says ‘Hi’ and the kids want to know when their Daddy is coming home.”
“Hey, Luco. I see the restraining orders have been lifted.”
“Luco, my love. Rest easy. The test came back negative.”
Throughout this thousand mile walk, Luco kept his eyes focused forward and used his handkerchief to keep the sweat under control. Marlee had a slight smile on her face the entire time.
At long last they reached the end of the bar and Marlee turned to look at Luco. “I’d hate to think what they’d say if they didn’t like you.”
The hostess picked up two menus and turned to escort them to one of the old wooden banquettes along the wall. As they entered the Dining room Luco turned and looked back over his shoulder. Everyone at the bar had their glasses raised in salute. He smiled and turned back to catch up to the two women. They went to the back booth, the most private.
A waitress took their drink order to the bar and quickly returned with a white wine for Marlee and a Guinness for Luco. The Guinness was as black as night with a thick, sand colored head of foam. Her wine was a California White Zinfandel, grown and pressed not an hours drive away from the lips where now it rested. They exchanged pleasantries about their days activities while they perused the Dinner menu.
“Where’s your infamous ‘Toad In The Hole’, Luco? I don’t see it on the menu.”
A second waitress walked by just as Marlee asked her question and tossed out an answer.
“The pond dried up. Try the lamb.”
“They have a friendly staff.” Luco smiled, things were going… so far, so adequate.
Marlee took the advice of the waitress and ordered the Roast Lamb with Vegetables. Luco settled on the Fish and Chips.
Taking a sip of her wine, Marlee looked at him over the rim of the glass.
“Luco, Why did you ask me out? You don’t know me and I don’t know you.”
“That’s true, but I could tell right away that you were an interesting, intelligent person. As for you not knowing me? Why did you say ‘yes’?”
“Honestly? I said yes because, when you asked me, you did it so badly that I thought you were terribly inept.”
“What? Well, I…”
“And, you were so cute. That’s it, honest.”
“So, this is a ‘Mercy Date’? You’re here because you feel sorry for me?”
“No! No, I didn’t mean that at all. I’m sorry if I gave you that impression. Oh, Dear Lord. Luco I said ‘yes’ because you are a charming man, obviously well liked by both men and women, and…you’re the first man who has asked me out on a date in about 6 years.”
“Six years? You haven’t been in prison, have you?”
“No, of course not. Prison?” She saw that he was smiling and it made her smile in return.
“Why don’t you tell me about it?”
The waitress came to the booth holding two steaming plates. The lamb was tender and well done, not pink and covered with a cloying mint jelly. It was anointed with a light vinaigrette sauce where bruised mint leaves provided just a suggestion of welcome sweetness. The vegetables, new red potatoes and carrots were seasoned with thyme and rosemary. They also benefited from the tangy sauce. The Fish and Chips overflowed the plate with three large pieces of cod in a beer batter that puffed up and offered a crunchy bite on the way down to the white and flaky fillets. The chips were fresh cut and fried slices of Yukon Gold potatoes. It doesn’t get any better.
For the next five minutes the only sounds were words of praise to the chef for his work and prayers to God asking His grace upon the man in the kitchen.
After the initial stunned reaction to the food had subsided, Luco set down his fork and took a long drink from the pint glass.
“So, Marlee, why am I the first man to ask you out in six years? We can eliminate prison, right?”
She nodded as she dabbed her napkin at the corner of her mouth.
“Yes, we can eliminate prison. I’m a widow. I haven’t said that out loud very often.”
“Oh, Marlee, I’m so sorry. I should not have asked.”
“Well, I came here to San Francisco to start a new life and today, not two hours ago, it finally dawned on me that the time was truly right for me to get on with it. Luco, you are witness to my rebirth, as it were.”
“How long ago…?”
“Just about two years.”
The waitress came over to check on her station and got them refills on the wine and Guinness.
For the next forty-five minutes Luco listened as Marlee recounted the story of life and death that brought her to this booth in an Irish pub on Haight Street. She told him details she thought that she had forgotten. Little things, both loving and horrifying.
Several times in the telling she broke down and cried. Luco reached out and held her hand, not knowing what else to do. When she told him of her dream of walking on the beach Luco lowered his eyes as a tear ran down his cheek. His face reddened as he fought for control.
Marlee could see that his tears were not for her, but came from inside his own deep, personal wounds. She reached out and cradled his hands in hers.
The waitresses could see all of this and left them alone. This was a private mourning. The other booths were long empty, the diners having moved on to other, gayer pursuits. There was no rush.
“Luco, what are you carrying inside you? What is it?”
She gently massaged his large, masculine hands. Her touch helped him to lower the flame under the boiling pot of his emotions.
“Marlee, I’m sorry. Please forgive me. That’s never happened before. I’m not the kind of man who gets emotional in public. Your story was so… horrible is the only word I can think of.”
“No need to apologize for being human, Luco. But your tears had nothing to do with me or my story. They came from inside of you. You’re being eaten up from inside.”
“You must think I’m crazy.”
“No, but you’re headed that way.”
He lowered his head and rubbed his eyelids with his fingertips and sighed. He was trying to regain control of his emotions. She recognized what he was doing. She had done it many times herself and wasn’t going to let him shut her out.
“Luco, you sat there for 45 minutes and held my hand while I cried and told you about the worst part of my life. That was the act of a good man and a good friend. Please, let me be a friend to you. Luco, tell me what it is that has you in this prison.
She looked at him, his face still composing itself into a mask of passivity and control. His eyes betrayed him. They were locked on the tabletop. He was reluctant to make eye contact, afraid that…afraid of what? She had opened her life to him She had the courage to let him see her blood soaked memories.
She held his hands firmly, yet with a gentleness that let him know that she cared, could handle whatever he revealed to her and that she could and would understand.
He slowly lifted his eyes and looked at her. Marlee’s eyes were red and still shiny from her own tears. Pale blonde hair spilled forward and framed her face, shutting out everything except what was directly in front of her. Luco could see that he was the total focus of her world at that moment. Nothing else was important. Nothing else mattered. He looked into her eyes and took a deep breath.
“I lost my wife and child a little over six years ago, just before Christmas.”