Thursday, July 28, 2011

Anything that you want me to

Hyde and Bush

At any street corner the feeling of absurdity can strike any man in the face. – Albert Camus


Around the first of May I found an apartment of my own, an eighth-floor walkup that was somewhat on the ratty side, but one I could pay for all by myself, in the Tenderloin.  It was still on Hyde Street, which was the reason I chose it, but on a radically different part of Hyde, just around the corner from the emergency entrance of St. Francis Hospital, and nestled in the residential neighborhood for the city’s best streetwalkers.  About half the apartments in my building housed prostitutes, since we were about two blocks up and three over from the stretches of sidewalk they frequented each night they were on duty. 

The other half of the apartments were populated mostly with gay men - some prostitutes, but most not - who were into the Polk Street scene two blocks down.  There were two significant gay scenes in the city:  the older Polk Street neighborhood, and the newer, more mainstream Castro district, where most of the gay population was in process of moving, and taking their business with them.  Castro was becoming a new political and economic center, emphasizing the power of gay businesses patronized by gays, and had an informal “mayor” in one of its own, a puppyish, engaging, yet hard-ball character named Harvey Milk, who owned a camera shop right on the block. 

Castro was where you lived and played if you were affluent, employed, and/or politically active.  Established gay couples were now frequenting the newer Castro Street, albeit to share in the cruising scene that characterized the onslaught of bars that had sprung up in many of the old businesses there, most notably Toad Hall.  Still, in those days, Castro was a place you could take your children or your mother in the daytime and have a shot at them making it down the street without too much explicit unfolding before their eyes, yet still participate in the transforming vibrance of the gay Mecca that was becoming San Francisco.

Polk Street, however, was still to most mainly a nighttime sex destination, steamy and implicitly dangerous, and drew an S & M community that made the easy come, easy go sexual lifestyle of one of the world’s largest gay communities a gamble at best, and potentially deadly at worst.  There was only one reason to be on Polk Street late at night if you were a gay man or a lesbian in those days, and that was to get laid.  The wild-eyed annual gay Halloween celebration was still in Polk Gulch back then, and mingled up the hill into the Tenderloin, inviting the whole illicit sex-for-dollars scene to come out and play, including my little building.  Even in the daytime, Polk Street denizens knew exactly what they were there to do, and they looked it.  And it was Polk Street that shaped the milieu in my new neighborhood.

I had a neighbor across the street whom I never actually got to meet in person, but I knew a whole lot about him, probably mostly things even his own mother didn’t know.  His window was directly in my sightline, directly across and very slightly below, so I could see clear to the back, as well as down and in.   Both of our apartments were studios, which meant that all of the living went on in a single room, with the exception of the hall-closet sized kitchens and the cubicles we called bathrooms.  In reality, I could see everything there was to see that was visible in almost every apartment in the building across from me, but the one I noticed the most was my friend at eye level.  That’s because he was the male version of Blondie, with some very notable differences.  I called him Puppet Man.

Puppet Man had two principal activities: making passionate love to a rubber blowup woman on a giant bed that occupied most of the space in his studio; and standing in the window, stark naked, each wrist tied with a ribbon, or something, to its corresponding ankle, making stiff, popping, bobbing movements like a marionette without a master.  When the curtains were open in the evening, there was no escaping him.  Rain, shine, hot or cold, Puppet Man came out like clockwork as soon as it was dark enough for him to illuminate his small flat like a stage set.  Sometimes he wore a derby hat and nothing else.  Thankfully, he seemed unaware of which lighting schemes caused him to be backlit so that you could only see his silhouette, which meant that about half the time he only appeared in shadow form.  The rest of the time, though, every inch of him was visible in all its glory, or lack thereof.

People didn’t like coming to my apartment because of Puppet Man, unless they didn’t mind a live naked marionette displayed there in full view, which, with very few exceptions, wasn’t anyone I would invite to my apartment.  My parents, who were so glad I had moved away from Graham that they were speaking to me again and had bought me a sofa bed for my new pad, cancelled their first date to come to dinner when I warned them about Puppet Man, and never agreed to another dinner date after that. 

After my parents, I didn’t warn people about Puppet Man any more when I invited them over.  Still, no one ever came to visit more than once the entire time I lived there, except Bob, who practically lived there until he left for Paris, which was soon after I moved there, and Bruno.  Bruno came twice.

The first time Bruno came was to help me move in.  He and Ray helped me gather up an old vacuum tube TV with a coat hanger for an antenna, a cast-off stereo record player from Jean’s house with mismatched speakers, and a swatch of dusty blue dumpster carpet, all of which they brought over in the two little red grocery pickups.  Bruno threw in a laminate drop-leaf table with two lemon yellow vinyl revolving chairs that he had bought just for me.  In the middle of the comings and goings, the sofa bed my parents had ordered arrived, and together with my paintings and photographs that covered the walls everywhere you turned, my hooker’s special began to feel like home.

After I had finished unpacking the kitchen things I had split with Graham, Ray left, and it started to get dark.  Bruno was still putting together the dining table, so I ran down the street to the Cala Foods at Hyde and California and picked up a few things for dinner, some spaghetti and hamburger for meatballs, fresh tomatoes and olive oil and garlic, a big head of broccoli, a crusty loaf and a bottle of Chianti.  When I got back, after hauling myself and the groceries up eight flights of stairs, Bruno was sitting in the window at the table on one of the lemon yellow chairs, looking out across the street, lost in thought.

“The table looks great!” I called out as I came through the door. “I passed a laundromat on the way back.  What are you looking at?” I asked, curious.

“Well,” he started, “I got done about ten minutes ago, and what I’m watching here is a little bit of a mystery to me.  But it reminds me of a song I’ll sing for you, Tranquilla.  Here we go – meep meep!  ‘Pull my string, and I’ll wink for you, I’m your puppet.  I’ll do anything that you want me to, I’m your puppet – meep-meep!’” 

He swept me around the room in his arms one turn before planting me in front of the window, laughing.

“You’re nuts!” I said, putting the groceries down on my new table.  

“Look!” he replied, pointing, just like Graham had done when Bob and I had first come out of the kitchen to see Blondie.

As soon as I started to focus on the vague figure in the window across from me, I walked closer to the glass, and there he was, unmistakable.  He had the light just right that night, so you could see everything he had, including his wiry, muscled limbs and the blank expression on his chiseled face.  He was wearing his derby cocked to one side, his straw-like blonde hair sticking out straight and shaggy from underneath it, and had one hand high in the air, wrist dropped, with a ribbon, or something, tied around it and pulled taut all the way to his ankle. His other arm was bent at the elbow, hand out to one side like a tap dancer, another ribbon tied around and falling slack down to the floor.  Suddenly he tipped his head to the left and his arms traded positions, while one knee buckled and the other locked.  Within minutes he had shifted again, jiggling each time, a live animated X-rated marionette show right in my own living room.

“Again?” I groaned.

“Whattaya mean, again?  Did you have a stripper before?”  Bruno cracked, somewhere between captivated and appalled.

“I decline to state.  You know too many people on the block,” I replied.  “But this is, I don’t know, what do I say?  This is, madone, non so, non capisco.  ‘E’s oobatz!”

“Eh, you’ve definitely got the hang of it, and so does he, if you know what I mean.  I’d agree ‘e’s oobatz, but definitely not stugatz.  I’d shut the curtains, but it’s kinda warm in here.  Do you mind him?” he asked, raising one eyebrow.

“I can live with him if you can, and I guess I’ll have to,” I answered back, laughing at his observation, stugatz meaning big cajones, if you know what I mean.

So Bruno and I put a Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra 33 1/3 lp on the record player and crowded into the tiny kitchen together, chopping and boiling and mashing and feeding each other bits of sourdough dipped in sauce.  We settled into our little dining room/living room/bedroom-for-a-day like two old folks, and watched Puppet Man instead of TV.  “Salut,” said Bruno.  “Here’s to Tranquilla’s new freedom and her brand new home.  May she use them wisely.”

“Amen,” I said, clinking Bruno’s glass with mine, as we wrapped our ankles together under the table in my new nest, proud of what we’d made.

*  *  *

Excerpt from Jacki’s Diary

May 29, 1975

We’re heading into summer pretty soon, which means that Moscone’s campaign is going to heat up and us with it.  Barbagelata has a big following, all the conservatives who want to see the homeless pull up their own bootstraps even though they don’t have any boots.  These are the same people who’d like to see gays back in the closet and never had a Black person in their house except to clean it.  So this one’s going to be war, actually a holy war.  I’d be surprised if we didn’t have to use some special tactics to pull it off, because I think it’s going to be a squeaker.

We’ve got enough jungle cleared now and buildings up that we’re going to be able to move about fifteen people into Jonestown to live permanently, besides the workers.  Isn’t that far out, that we named a town after Jim, even if it is in the jungle half a world away?  By the time we’re done with it, it’ll be paradise. 

Ray is trying to line up a shipment of arms to go straight to Port Kaituma from Miami by chartered plane without even passing through the city this time, but we don’t know if that’s going to work yet.  We think someone is sniffing around Ray’s place, a nosy TV reporter, and we’re not going to take any chances with that, so I don’t know how that’s going to work out.  Funny thing is, Shelley works in his market right in the middle of everything and I doubt if she’s ever noticed a thing.  But that’s how she is.

It’s really hard to get guns into Guyana through customs from anywhere unless they’re legal, because every gun has to be licensed.  This is really a shame, because we have so many guns in the states we don’t know what to do with them.  Nice ones, too.  This is a problem we’re going to need to keep working on.  Mark and Ray are getting together on this again next week.  Jim has put out an all call for guns people already have, both registered and not, in case that winds up being the only way we can do it – just smuggling them in one by one.

We need to ramp up the supply of meds down there, too, especially now that we have a couple of families with babies and elderly ready to move in.  Once we start getting a real population, we’re going to need emergency meds on hand in case we need to keep things in hand.  You can’t be too careful when you have a large number of people in a confined space like that, trying to live in harmony. Sometimes harmony isn’t in human nature, so we need to give it a boost.  You can’t just ship in truckloads at a time, either, so we’re having to bring it in little by little, very carefully. 

We had to get a jewelers license so we can buy Jim’s cyanide - since cyanide is used to clean gold, that’s one way to get it.  I can’t imagine him ever really using it – my God.  If it ever comes to that, that might just be where I stop short.  Last time I placed an order for it, it was all I could do not to open my mouth to whoever would listen.  Some days I wish I had the guts.

But the settlement is looking really good.  The clinic is going up, the school, and the day care center.  The dining hall and the kitchen are going to be big enough to hold a small town, which is what we hope to see in there someday.  The fruit and vegetable crops are going to be a little sparser and harder to grow than we thought, so we’re probably going to have to ship in decent food if it’s going to be attractive enough to get people to move there.  If I know Jim, he’ll just tell people the fruit is falling off the trees and the place is a stinkin’ paradise.  But once we get the people all the way down there, they’ll be a lot easier to hold, especially if we have their passports.

Angela Davis and Cesar Chavez came to Temple services in SF within two weeks of each other this month.  You can’t buy cachet like that.  That will serve us well if things get tough with the press again.

June 10, 1975

I’ve been in Paris today making a deposit before I head over to the project in Guyana tomorrow with cash.  We’re starting to build up a good cash supply out there to meet the daily supply needs, but it’s been hard because we have to bring it in a little at a time, no more than $5,000 through customs, or you have to explain.  Jim likes having cash on hand in case of emergency, and so we can buy whatever we need when we need it.  We’ve been able to pick up a few guns in Georgetown that way, little by little.

But you’ll never guess who I saw tonight at Chez Denis – right here in Paris - eating escargot and drinking Chateau Lafite with Lorenzo Damiani.  Bob Bertrand, that’s who.  He’s Damiani’s chauffeur!  Damiani is the president of the Banco di Roma – it’s probably a good thing we don’t have anything in that bank, now that I see Bob here.  I knew he was going to work for the Banco before he left Berkeley, but it was something else to actually see him over here.  It was his 22nd birthday, too.  I missed his 21st, which was the day of Barb’s wedding, which I also missed because I was doing something or other for Jim, which is most of my life any more.  I don‘t even remember what I was working on that day, but I remember that I missed Barb’s wedding, and Bob’s birthday.  I think I was even in the US that day, but I still had to miss it. 

Sometimes I think I’m just too young for all this crap.  Sometimes I wonder if it’s worth it.  But then I think about everything we’ve started together, the risks we’ve taken, and the criticism, with people not trusting our motivations.  Even then I still have to remind myself how much good we’re doing.  At 21, I don’t have years to burn any more, and I want to make sure they count.

Anyway, there was Bob when I came in with my UBS banker, Henri.  Chez Denis is kind of off the map but has amazing food, so it winds up being a place for people in the know.  And of course Henri knew Lorenzo Damiani, although I had not met him in person.  So this year I got to say happy birthday, and he and I got to catch up while my banker and his boss chatted. 

Of course, he wondered what I was doing there - sometimes I wonder myself - but I just told it like it is, the simple truth.  I work for the pastor of the biggest church in San Francisco – the state, really - and we have a lot going on, including an overseas project, which I work on all the time.  That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.  It’s even accurate, when it’s all said and done.  I’m just not sure it’s quite completely true, at least not any more, not the whole truth anyway. 

Still, it was so good to see him, a face from the real world out there having fun, and being free.  But I wouldn’t trade my life for anything, not anything in this world.  No matter what happens, I am in it till the work is done.  That’s how I do it. 

*  *  *


By summertime, Bob had graduated cum laude from Berkeley with a Bachelor of Arts in Romance Languages, and departed for his new life as a Parisian, to become the right hand man of Lorenzo Damiani, the president of the Banco di Roma.  We surprised him before he left with a dinner at Le Bouc, his favorite French restaurant out by Ocean Beach, which had the desired effect of making him cry shamelessly.  Before he left, Barb prayed over him, and had a vision that he would one day become a healer, and be a blessing to many. 

So Bob was setting up housekeeping in Paris by the time his 22nd birthday came around.  He had called me as soon as he had a telephone in his Montparnasse flat, so I already had his number, and Graham and I got together around the phone at the Hyde and Vallejo apartment and called Paris to sing to Bob, 9:00 am his time, 12 midnight our time.

 “Oh, man, I miss you guys,” he moaned.  “What am I supposed to do out here all by myself?  The only date I have for my birthday is the old man, Damiani.  I guess at least I know he’ll take me someplace nice.  But I’ve got to tell you, it’s pretty lonely over here being brand new and knowing I’m not coming home any time soon.  I don’t suppose you guys could grab a quick flight?” he asked, half serious.

“Are you kidding?  Whoever said two can live more cheaply than one knew what they were talking about,” I said.  “We can both hardly afford to pay our rent, let alone eat and pay the power bill.  But I wish we could, I really do.  Maybe after I graduate, if you’re still there,” I answered sadly.

“Well, don’t ask me today if I will be, because right now I feel like I’m shipwrecked on a desert island.  But we’ll see how I feel in a month.”

Considering the cost of international long distance, we said goodbye, and then Graham and I looked at each other, amazed at how much had changed again in just a few short weeks.  He threw his arms around me, somewhat to my discomfort.

“Any regrets?” Graham asked, hanging on a little too long.

“What, me?  Of course not, I’m having fun being my own woman.  You’d really like my neighbors.  I’ve got one for you even better than Blondie,” I quipped, pushing him away and resisting the urge to say “meep-meep.”

“Don’t be cruel,” he said flatly. “But I can guess what you probably see from the window where you live.  Don’t look too close if you know what’s good for you.”

“It didn’t take me long to figure that out,” I said. 

“You call me any time you need me, you hear?” he said, softening.  “I haven’t stopped being your brother, you know.  In fact, you can come back any time you want, really.  Why don’t you spend the night?  It’s after midnight.”  He looked down at the floor sadly.

“No, the last cable car is going to be out front in five minutes, and I can walk from there.  I’m good for now, but thanks for thinking of me,” I answered, kissing him on the cheek and rushing off to do homework before 3:00 am.  That would give me just enough time to finish the last few sketches in the collection I’d been working on for Drawing IV, and a half hour of decompression before I squeezed in four hours sleep in time for my 10:00 am class.

When I got home, the streetwalkers had already left for work, leaving the floor dark and dead quiet.  The constant hum of the cables under the cable car tracks that had lulled me to sleep for the past two-and-a-half years was gone in my new digs.  The only sounds that broke the night, and only when you went into the bathroom and opened the window, were the moans and howls of kinky sex wafting up the shared airshaft, mostly from gay men who had picked up a short-term lover at Kimo’s bar.

I fumbled for my key, finally finding it and reaching to put it in the lock, only slightly unnerved by my surroundings.  To my surprise, the door drifted open easily, and the shock of that caused a cool, dead calm to fall over me, a deliberateness that I only ever possessed when I was presented with a threat.

Instead of going in, I shoved the door open and watched it swing all the way back, then reached my arm inside and flipped on the entry light, illuminating the entire studio front to back.  Nothing.  I took one step inside and pushed the bathroom door open with my foot, looking straight into the bathtub with its shower curtain pulled all the way back – nothing.  No one.

The only place left was the kitchen, at the far end of the apartment.  I hesitated for only a moment, and then reached over to grab a long umbrella with a spear tip out of a canister in the entry.  I held it out in front of me like a bayonet, and crab-walked fast on tiptoe across the hardwood floor like a fencer, or a scorpion.  My killer instinct, adrenalin laced with stupidity, was in full overdrive, and I believed, somewhere in the animal part of my brain, that I could impale the intruder on my little umbrella, rendering him incapable of ever scaring anyone again.

I arrived at the kitchen and jumped straight up in the air, umbrella pointed straight out in front of me, and landed with both feet planted apart in the doorway.  The whole kitchen was lit up in the phosphorescent green of the neon light coming from the emergency room entrance outside.  Nothing.

Wielding the umbrella, I scuttled back to recheck the bathroom before eyeing the deadbolt on the front door.  The door was the only way in other than to scale the front of the building, up eight floors of fire escape, to enter through the kitchen window, an unlikely prospect.  The bolt was retracted into the door, unharmed, where I had forgotten to lock it with my second key.  The doorjamb was also without a scratch, no damage.  Whoever came in had probably done it with a credit card.

I slammed the door and turned the deadbolt into place, leaning against the door before I allowed myself to start trembling.  I stood there, taking deep, dizzying breaths, finally coming into the awareness that whoever it was, was gone.

Turning to look around the apartment, I saw that everything was there – my table and chairs, my dumpster carpet, the sofa bed, my record player and coat hanger TV.  That was all I had, other than a plant my neighbor, a 19-year-old hooker named Ruby Sunset, had given me, a full grown coleus plant with delicate fuzzy pink-centered leaves that she had grown from a cutting.  It was gone from its spot on top of the TV.  And suddenly I was mad again.

I marched through the apartment looking for it – first the bathroom, then looking under the sofa bed, the only hiding place big enough, and finally in the kitchen.  I stepped into the phosphorescent green light and snapped the switch on the wall beside the door.  And there it was, in the sink, it’s tall proud head snapped off, the leaves crushed, all of the soil and its thick juicy branches crammed into the garbage disposal.  Almost as if it had been murdered.

A sick feeling came over me.  Who would do such a thing?  I turned off the light and looked out the window over the fire escape.  Had anyone been watching me hippity-hopping through my apartment like a female version of Inspector Closeau?

The only window lit up across the street was Puppet Man.  He was standing there, stock still, arms straight out and slightly up, legs slightly apart, almost like the Vitruvian Man.  Very uncharacteristic for him, since he was usually in motion.

And then I remembered.  Just a few nights ago my friend Lorraine from high school had been in town.  She was my church friend from high school, the one who had taken me with her to meet God just when I needed him most.  She had been in town after a mission trip to Washington DC and was sitting at my dinner table when Puppet Man came out last.  While she was not obviously offended by him, I admit that right then, sitting across from Lorraine, I felt some resentment toward Puppet Man, resentment that I could not have a respectable guest in my home without him wagging every part of himself in our faces.  That night, I took him personally. 

After Lorraine had left, I called the police.  When their car pulled up, Puppet Man immediately turned off his lights and shut his curtains.  So when the police arrived in my apartment, all I could do was point to the window where he used to be standing and describe him. 

I watched them cross the street, the lights going on behind the curtains right about the time they would have arrived at his apartment.  In five minutes they were gone, and as soon as they pulled away, Puppet Man ripped his curtains open and stood there, looking, so it seemed, straight at me for a good five minutes, hands at his sides, just long enough to be disturbing.  But then, from that distance, it was hard to be sure what he was looking at.  Then he ripped the curtains shut again.  I had not seen him in the window since, two or three days before.

And now he was back, still and spread-eagled and proud.  As if he were making a statement.

Watching him stand there, I came to terms with the fact that I had walked into a new world, a world I didn’t understand, but one I intended to live in until I didn’t need to any more.  I would not go back to Graham.  I refused.  This was my life now, my world.  And Puppet Man was in it.  OK.

I turned the light back on in the kitchen, opened the window, and stepped out on the fire escape.  I looked right across at Puppet Man, lifted my arm, and waved.  “Hi,” I yelled.  “Hi.  I’m sorry.  I’m sorry.”

“Shaddup, bitch!  People have to work tomorrow,” somebody screamed.  “I’m sorry,” I yelled one last time, and stepped inside.  Puppet Man dropped his arms and stood a moment, shut his curtains, and turned out the light.  Since his window was shut, I doubted he had heard me, but at least he might have seen me.  I turned back to the sink, and went about the business of digging out as much of the soil and plant carnage as I could from the drain.  The next day, the building super came with his handyman and got the rest of it, warning me to be careful about locking my deadbolt. 

The next night, Puppet Man was back again, bouncy and snappy as ever.  As I sat at Bruno’s table finishing a paper on the similarities and differences between Friedrich Murnau and Alfred Hitchcock for History of Film, I raised my arm and waved.  I could have sworn that for just a second, Puppet’s left hand broke rhythm and waved slightly, almost imperceptibly.  And although it could have been my imagination, I believe the wave was for me. I never had another break-in while I lived there, clear until Christmas.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

You can talk to the animals, and they can talk to you

The day of the big birthday party came, a clear Sunday right before spring, and we could already tell the food was going to be a smashing success.  To get it across the street undetected, Val and I had to carry it together in batches at five am before any snoops were out of bed.  She waited on the stoop while I brought her one armload after another; then I went back up for the ones I would carry.  I had told Graham that I was catering a job under the table, but I sure hadn’t told him it was for Blondie.  He had never met Val, and I wasn’t about to have him meet her now.  I had enough on my plate without him hovering in the deli waiting for a glimpse of her up close.  But it seemed he was just happy to have the tax free income coming in, so he didn’t ask too many questions.

As the guests rolled in, they were an interesting mix of ages and types, culled from among Spencer’s friends (Spencer was Val’s dad) and blood relations.  Spencer was no taller than Val, blond and freckled, and had a neatly trimmed greying beard and brilliant green eyes.  He was slim and a natty dresser, wearing a well-fitted tweed blazer with suede elbow patches and Oxford loafers, and covering his bald spot with an Ivy cap, which he hung on the hat rack when he came in.

Val’s mom, on the other hand, looked sad and harried, extremely thin and wrinkling at what seemed like an early age.  She dressed in mouse grey, like a little nun, and in a style designed to conceal her figure, mostly sticking beside Val’s sister, Margaret.  Margaret was a rambunctious, chestnut haired teen with a loud, contagious laugh and deep hazel eyes flecked with gold, and looked like a younger, joyful version of her mother.  Val most closely resembled her dad.

I was doing double duty on kitchen prep and guest service, and was doing a magnificent job, if I may say so myself.  Val had actually asked me to be a guest at this party in addition to catering, I remembered, but neither one of us had anticipated how elaborate the menu would turn out to be.  I was only able to come out of the kitchen long enough to replenish platters or clear and wash stacks of used plates, carefully hand washing each one since they came from Grandma’s special Limoges.

Just as I was putting the finishing touches on the hand-whipped cream for the apple tarts and was thinking about how to arrange the candles on top, I heard the sickening pop of delicate glass hitting hardwood from the living room.  I put down my whisk and grabbed a big towel, running out to see what had happened.

Val was standing over a stretch of hardwood floor with a saucer in her hand, tipped slightly forward, and her mom was glaring at her with an intensity that I didn’t like the looks of.  Val and her dad were staring down at the floor sadly, both of them looking as if they wished that what was broken could be unbroken.

“I can’t believe you could be so clumsy,” Val’s mom said between clenched teeth.  “Those cups are the same ones your grandmother had when your father was a little boy.  How could you?”

“For God’s sake, Matty, leave the poor girl alone.  It’s just a cup.  She didn’t do it on purpose,” Spencer snapped, reaching over to touch Val’s hair.  She pulled back.

“It’s OK, Dad, I just need a minute.  I’ll be right back.”  Val headed around the corner up the hall to her bedroom, tears beginning to stream down her face as soon as she hit the hallway.  After I had swept up the broken bits, I went in to check on her.  The party seemed to re-gather steam on its own, Spencer taking the wheel, Val’s mom retreating into herself and stepping around behind Margaret.

When I got back to Val’s bedroom, she was sitting on the all too familiar bed, intermittently sniffling and pulling herself together.

“Your Dad’s right, Val,” I said, putting an arm around her.  “It’s just a cup.  Can I get you some water?  Your Mom sure flipped out, though.  You can’t let that get to you.”

“It’s not her fault, Shel. She has a right to feel that way.  There’s a whole lot more that’s broken than that cup.”  The tears started streaming again, with Val struggling against them to the best of her ability.

“What does that mean, sweetie?  Do you want to tell me?”  I looked at her, waiting.

She looked up at me, suddenly calmer. “You know, I have just one, really two girlfriends, and they both know about me, because what I have to carry is too much for me by myself.  I’m not proud of it.  It’s something I’ve been fighting as long as I can remember.  I thought it would end as soon as I was old enough to walk out.  But it hasn’t.  It hasn’t.”  She paused, closing her eyes.

“My Dad and I have been sleeping together since I was 12, for the last 14 years.”

I knew there was no room here for me to cry or yell, although I wanted to do both.  She looked so resolved, so strong, as if this were an immoveable object that she had no will against, no control over.  This was obviously not a new confession for her, and she had the demeanor of someone who wanted to take a step, change her life, but was somehow caught in a web she didn’t know how to untangle.

“Are you getting any help for this?” I asked lamely.

“Oh, yeah, I go to therapy, except we don’t talk about the part when I was a kid.  But just when I seem to be making progress, everything goes back the way it was.  Nothing has happened between us for almost eight months now.  But after what just happened – that’s the kind of thing that usually causes us – him - a setback.”

I looked at her a minute longer.  “I don’t think therapy helps unless you tell everything.  I’m no expert, believe me.  But it might be better after all this time if you just started over, without your family.  Has he ever bothered your sister?”

“No, but I’m afraid if I leave, he’ll try.  She’s almost nineteen, and pretty soon I’ll feel good about her standing up for herself with me gone.  In fact, she might almost be someone who could cold-cock him, even if he is Dad, if he ever tried a thing like that.  She’s a lot like my mom that way.  But not yet.”  She blew her nose and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand.  “Come on, I’m sorry I laid my trip on you, but we’d better get back out there.  I’ll be OK.”

I hugged her, and we went back out together, now seemingly sharing most of the major secrets of the twentieth century.  But oddly, there was something about her that still held me at a distance, inexplicably, making it impossible to feel as if we had actually become friends, even after what she had shared with me.  I wondered if that was the case with her other two friends, and whether she found it easier to be close that way with Ray – or if it was me who held her at a distance. 

The whole situation with Ray suddenly fell into place for me, and although I still felt broken hearted for Nannette, who I hoped would never find out, I understood why Val couldn’t see what she had done with Ray the way I did.  I resolved then that I would act like her friend, whether I felt like I was close to her or not.

When we got back out to the party, people were moving toward the dining room.  Val’s mom and Margaret had gone into the kitchen and gotten the whipped cream and put out the apple tarts, and everyone was gathering around the big table to sing happy birthday.  A friend of Spencer’s was lighting the candles with a lighter.  Val got there just in time to start the chorus, nothing left of her tears but a little red around her blonde lashes. “Happy birthday to you . . .” 

After he’d blown out the candles, Spencer gave Val a big hug and then planted a kiss right on her ear.  I wanted nothing more than to grab a meat fork and jam it into his neck.  But I figured that was probably illegal, so I suppressed the thought.  Suddenly I wondered what Ray would do to old Spencer if he knew, but I figured I’d better put that idea away too. “Yay,” I said instead, along with all the others.  “Happy birthday.”
It was hard not to think about all the people I’d known who were willing to pay a huge price just to be loved.  Barb and I had both been there. So had all those Moonie kids who sold flowers under the freeway to earn their fake Father’s approval and a peanut butter sandwich.  I thought about how hard Jacki worked for a guy she called Father, how she ran herself ragged for him, and hoped for her sake it was worth it.  None of us was any different from Val. 

After the guests had left, we cleaned up the party mess together, Val and I, wrapped up all the leftovers for her to keep, and washed and put away every piece of Limoges in the china cabinet, with only one saucer missing its cup.

“You know what?” I said, as she was drying the last soup bowl.  “My grandma Daisy broke a china plate from her set once, and she found a replacement that was so good you couldn’t tell which one was the new one.  You want me to ask my mom about how to get a new cup?  She and I haven’t spoken in about two years, and this might be a good time to try.”

Val turned and looked at me.  “You should talk to your mother whether you ask her about the cup or not.  Two years?  What’s the matter with you?  But if you want to ask her about the cup too, I’d really like that.”

“Consider it done,” I said, and felt all at once that somehow that afternoon, at some moment I could not put my finger on, Val and I had become friends after all.

And two years.  What WAS the matter with me?  But that was a question for another day.


My portfolio, my professor told me, had a special quality, good enough that pieces from it would be featured in the Spring Show that the Institute put on each year close to graduation.  To have your work shown at the Institute was an honor that not everyone was selected for, let alone a sophomore, an honor that one had to show significant promise to achieve. 

I had Bruno to thank for that.  Bruno had taken me to the zoo one afternoon as promised, having acquired the day off for me from Ray, with pay.  The guilt of planning to cater under the table behind Ray’s back, combined with what Valerie had told me that Sunday morning at her apartment, weighed heavy on me that day when I met Bruno, but it didn’t take too many meep-meeps and “Why so sad, Tranquilla”s before I was my old self again, settling into the warm, quiet place of trust and family that I always felt when I was under Bruno’s protection.

And that’s how I always felt when I was with Bruno – protected.  I had never felt that way with anyone before, not with my parents, and certainly not with Bob and Graham, as much as I cherished their bright spirits and their elegant minds.  Bruno’s very presence, his self-confident, gentlemanly demeanor, and that of his friends, made me feel as if no harm could ever come to me, as if the world could crash down around me and he would order it put back together for my pleasure, and it would be so.

So the pictures I took that day reflected my eye and my sensibility at their best, my mind unruffled by fear or uncertainty.  Among them was a herd of camels, lined up with their long, powerful teeth enmeshed in the chain link fence that held them captive.  A massive boar pinned to earth by his own weight, with a sparrow dancing lightly on his back.  Two elephants side by side, one smaller, the trunk of the larger one slung around the shoulders of his petite companion as if they were old sweethearts on a date. 

When I had spent all my film, Bruno bought a brick of pink popcorn for us to share, and took me over to the swings.  We sat in one leather sling seat together, feet on the ground, rocking back and forth as the few weekday visitors frolicked and slid and dug in the coarse, rocky sand around us, their mothers watching cautiously.  Late afternoon fog was beginning to fall, and the damp, bone-penetrating waterfront chill that haunted Sloat Boulevard in the springtime threatened to send us home soon.

“Tranquilla,” he began.  “You know you’re my special girl, what you mean to me.  Do you know?”  He looked straight ahead as I glanced over at him, the damp sea air bringing a fresh color into his cheeks and making his breath form little clouds as he spoke.  His body was warm against me, reminding me of how safe he made me feel.  He hadn’t had a father to lean on himself growing up, and yet he had somehow figured out how to project a paternal strength like no other man I’d known.

“I do know, sweetie.  And you are special to me.  More than you know, I think.”  As I spoke, he turned to look at me, and his ice blue eyes, usually charged with energy and a hint of bravado, were somehow soft and vulnerable.

“I don’t want you to live with Graham any more, Tranquilla.  I’ll help you, if you need me.  If it’s the rent, I can take care of that.  But I need to know, for sure, that you are just for me.  Will you let me help you find a place of your own?  Please?”

My heart went out to him, and right then as I looked back at him I longed to show him that he was the only one.  Right in that moment, an old familiar book finally slammed shut for me and a new one opened, a new book with a story inside that allowed me to be a woman of worth, someone who mattered, someone who was loved.  My worry for his safety, after what Valerie had told me about Ray, only enhanced my protectiveness of him, and increased my loyalty.  I longed to talk these feelings over with someone, with another woman, someone like Jacki.  I missed her so much, and wanted desperately to reach her.  Still, something made me stop short of calling the Temple.

I answered, “Really, I don’t know why I haven’t done it sooner.  Graham and I have been just roommates for a while, and you mean more to me than to leave you wondering like that.  I am just for you, Bruno, and nobody else.  So I’ll start looking right away.  And it’s not the rent.  I can handle the rent on my own.  I want to handle it on my own.  This is something I want to do for me, and for us.”

We wrapped our arms around each other and he buried his face in my collar, his warm breath filling me up with comfort and sweet companionship.  We drifted there for a few more minutes, until finally the bone-chilling air coming in off the beach was too much for us.

“Let’s get outta here, mia.  But first I wanna ride the elephant train.  I have just enough tickets left after the merry-go-round.  Can we?  Just once around.”  He sounded so much like a little boy asking his mommy I had to laugh.

“Ok, Brunino, just once around, but we have to be home in time for dinner,” I jabbed, and he fake punched at me, smiling.  Holding hands, we jumped up into the car with the blue elephant, his favorite, and nestled down into the seat, wiggling with cold and anticipation.  And for that day, that precious day and a few more, we believed we had a lot to anticipate, all of it good. 

Sunday, July 24, 2011

If you want me I'll be in the bar

Excerpt from Jacki’s Diary

February 14, 1975

I’m not usually the romantic type, but if I were going to be, I guess Mark Stokes would be somebody I could feel that way about.  He and I are both on the Planning Commission for the Temple, the PC.  He’s a security guy, a bodyguard, and he has the body to prove it.  But he’s strong inside, too, like me, and he gets where I’m coming from, in a lot of ways.  He actually asked me out for a date tonight – Mark Stokes, a date – which was kind of unbelievable to me.  Because most of the time he’s either being cynical, or a smart ass, or doesn’t say a word, which is strange, because he used to be a reporter.  He really first came to the Temple to do an exposé on Jim, but then he fell in love with us.  Imagine that.

So anyway, we went on a date.  We went to Alioto’s down on the wharf, right next to that little bar The Tide.  We like Alioto’s because Jim has lots of friends there and he takes us out to eat there all the time, so the waiters know us and treat us really well.  The same guy, Oriano, owns half that block, and when Jim comes in, he treats him like royalty.  So we get a little overflow from that at Alioto’s whenever we go in.

Real late, about 11:00, George Moscone came in, the State Senator.  He came through the side door from The Tide with Oriano.  He worked the room first, and then he sat with us, just to ask about Jim and letting me know that he hoped we’d be there for him now that he was going to announce for mayor.  I told him I was pretty sure that’s what Jim had in mind, but that was for Jim to say.

Bonnie, that girl I told you about before that stays close to Moscone and feeds us information on him, has our man Milk locked down, too.  He’s even openly on our team, my good buddy Harvey.  He helps me get stuff on people to assist in bringing them over to our side.  There’s a few of our guys and girls he and his secret government pals have taken a special liking to.   Harvey likes the guys best.

Bonnie says Moscone seems like a solid guy, someone we can depend on because he’s one of those rare people who’s actually good, and probably a little naive.  He tells her how he loves what we’re doing with foster kids and the elderly and the homeless, and how he’ll support our projects with them.  And in public, in daylight, that doesn’t change.  Moscone tells us he likes the way Jim works, negotiating and listening instead of just opening his mouth when he’s working to make a deal.  So I know we’ll be there for him when he runs, full force.  Harvey, too, a good man, for the people.  He loves us because we make no distinctions between gay and straight.  That’s rare in a church.

So Stokes and I had abalone and split a bottle of Bolla Soave, plus a glass of port each.  We were feeling pretty good by the time we were done.   Then we smoked a doob in the pickup.  We have to be careful the membership doesn’t see us do that, because they’re not supposed to do those things, since it’s that kind of stuff that led to them being down and out in the first place.

Anyway, he drove us up to Twin Peaks afterward, and we looked at the view a little while.  That’s when I started thinking that if I was going to have feelings about anybody, it would be Stokes.  So we did it in the cab of the pickup.  Even though Jim matches us up with people all the time that way, in my case usually with himself, it’s hard to be jaded when you’re with somebody like Mark.  He’s memorable.

Next week I’m flying out to the project in Guyana to take a look and visit Burnham’s aide in Georgetown.  I think I’ll take Stokes with me.  He was one of the first guys on the ground when they started clearing jungle out there, and I know he’ll wind up back there when we start moving people in any kind of numbers.  Maybe he and I can clear some jungle together.

February 19, 1975

It looks like it’s going to be just me and Stokes on the Guyana trip Friday.  For a minute, Jim was thinking he wanted to go too, just to take a look at how things are going and do some promotional filming.  He wanted to bring the new guy, Roger, with him, but Roger’s parole officer said it was too soon for him to travel out of the country.  Jim kind of has a crush on Roger and has already made a mascot out of him, so he doesn’t want to leave him behind.  That, and his “kidneys” have been acting up again.  Maybe if he didn’t take so many meds his kidneys would be better off.

Roger was at Berkeley the year before I started there – small world.  He was a zoology major.  But then he got arrested right near the end of school. Dope charge.  Almost blew my mind when I found out he was living with Barb right up until he got busted!  Amazing.  What a small world.

Once we get Moscone in office, getting people out of the country should be easier.  We’re going to have a lot of parolees we need to get out, and George will help us expedite that, because he knows what we’re trying to do.  And it’ll be even easier after Jim gets Tim, our attorney, appointed to the DA’s office.  At least that’s the plan right now, that and a commission appointment for Jim.  Kind of a similar plan to what we did in Ukiah.
Roger’s been with the Temple since the middle of January, not too long, since a few months after they let him out.  Him getting busted for dope was totally bogus if you ask me because he was even a Rastafarian at the time. 

Apparently he was a Moonie for a while, back in ’71 before Moon came to America.  But he dropped out pretty early on – Barb wasn’t willing to take the whole ride with him, and he just wouldn’t let her go.  Things I never knew and wouldn’t have guessed about Barb, huh?  Living with a guy and everything.  Roger has a lot of potential, though –smart and intense, and super good looking.  We’ve just got to make sure he’s got a girl nearby if we want to keep him.  We’ll see how he does with Jim.

So even though Jim is the only “real heterosexual” in the whole congregation (at least that’s what he tells us – ha) and everybody else is supposed to be homosexual when it comes down to the bottom of it (he says all people are homosexual, except him), Jim swings that way himself from time to time.  Like the time he got arrested in the public restroom in ’73 for propositioning a male police officer.  That made a mess in the paper for a little while, but we survived it.  We are good survivors.

March 1, 1975

Moscone spoke to the congregation and met with the PC today, and we talked about strategy.  The election’s in December, with him in office by January if everything goes right. 

We just need to be sure we keep people on track when they’re chit-chatting amongst themselves.  Just watch what happens if one person disagrees with where we’re headed.  If you have the group well-trained, it will manage itself, and they’ll put down the one who’s disagreeing.  But if you start getting two or three more, the whole thing topples like a house of cards.  So we do whatever it takes to keep things stable.  That’s our responsibility.  And if that means we have to get tough, so be it.  That’s why we have catharsis.

The revolutionary suicide thing is picking up speed in Jim’s head.  It can’t be just him that dies, he says.  It has to be everybody, or our message becomes no message at all.  Right now his succession plan for himself is his wife, but we’ll have to see about that.  Sometimes he doesn’t know his own mind and he needs me to give it back to him.  Thank God he listens to me. 

I have to admit, I don’t know if I could do it myself.  I’m just glad I always know what’s in the punch.  People drink that stuff straight down when we have the drills, and they really aren’t a hundred percent sure what’s in it.  Jim even has it made so it tastes bad, so people aren’t sure, and then he knows they’re loyal.

But why everybody?  Why does everybody have to die?  I’ll have to keep working with him on this one.  Some days, I’m the only mind he’s got.  He may be the Father, but I’m the Mother.  Not Marceline.

Staying out in the mainstream seems to help Jim stay saner.  To have people around like the mayor, the Assemblyman, the DA’s office, the Lieutenant Governor (Dymally - he loves Jim) -  I’m hoping that will keep Jim grounded.  

Some days, I even pray for him.  But I wish I could pray like Barb.  I will never forget her as long as I live.  Nobody prays like Barb, so that it makes a difference.  She would tell you, though, it isn’t her, it’s Him.  The Him I can’t find most days, especially where Jim is concerned.  In the Temple, it’s Jim that calls the shots, not Him, and that’s never going to change.

Anyway, there’s going to be a need for lots of busloads to go to rallies for Moscone, and lots of canvassing, phone-banking, and door-to-door, and if things get too close toward the end, Jim and I will sit down with George and come up with something more creative.  But whatever happens, make no mistake, we will win.

*  *  *


7:00 am sharp that Sunday I punched the doorbell next to “Lawson, V.,” at the doorstep I had known until recently as Blondie’s, and only from a distance.   There were three doorbells side by side, each above a brass-plated mailbox with a tiny keyhole, and a microphone covered by a brass plate at the top, just high enough that I had to stand on my tiptoes to get my mouth near it.  The three granite steps leading up to the stoop had two paths worn into them by more than three-quarters of a century of feet, one path up and one down.  The massive oak-framed front door was mostly a leaded clear glass window that filled most of the center of it, backed by a sheer white curtain stretched from top to bottom and gathered on two brass rods.  Vaguely through the glass you could see the ornate Victorian patterned carpet in maroon and gold and dark green, harking back to the pre-earthquake time when the building was first born.  My 1950’s style rehabbed Victorian across the street was clearly outclassed by a mile.

Valerie’s voice came amplified out through the little brass plate.  “Shel, is that you?”

“It’s me,” I replied, and the door buzzed, letting me pass as I pressed on the tab above the handle.  I climbed two flights of bordello-carpeted stairs, hugging the heavy mahogany handrail, up to the third floor flat.  Val was waiting for me at the top with the door open.

“I forgot to tell you how to get here, but then later I remembered that you already knew,” she joked.

“Yeah, it has been a little like ‘Rear Window,’ I must say, except no dead body,” I poked back, grinning.  I felt vaguely hollow inside, wishing I had been able to get through to Jacki.  Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.

“No dead body - at least not yet,” she winked, as she led me inside over to a maroon velvet Regency sofa, just one of ten or twelve period pieces that filled out the décor of her main room, including a claw footed coffee table where crockery, flatware, and a plate of toast and fruit were laid out on a bamboo tray. 

The small living area overlooked the garden behind her building and the garden of the building on Larkin which backed up to hers.  The window frames and sills were the original dark wood and highly polished, with half-moon shaped clear leaded glass windows above each panel in the large bay.  A dark wood fireplace almost filled one wall of the room, with a brass grate shaped like a peacock tail covering the opening.  I felt like I had stepped back in time, or onto a page of Architectural Digest.

“This is beautiful, Val.  I don’t mean to be flip, but TV producers must do really well,” I said, admiring the gardens outside the window as Val took the cups into the kitchen and filled them with coffee.  No Cost Plus batik room dividers in here, that was for sure.  I put a piece of toast and a slice of cantaloupe on my plate as Val returned from the kitchen.

“I do OK,” she said, sitting down.  “Actually, my Dad helps me out a lot.  He has a huge inheritance, old money you might say.”  She seemed almost a little embarrassed.

“Well, it’s beautiful.  It’s kind of like a vacation just being in here.  You must love it.”

“Most of the time.  Anyway,” she said, changing the subject, “I have some ideas for my Dad’s party.  But why don’t you tell me what you’re thinking first, and I might change my mind.” She set her coffee cup on the bamboo tray.   The morning Chronicle and the Rolling Stone were on the seat between us, and she picked them up and set them aside on an end table before leaning back into the cushion to listen.

Now that she was ready, I plunged in headfirst. “It came over me later that I had forgotten to ask you how many people were coming. And is it sit-down, or buffet?”  I asked, feeling out my new role as independent businesswoman.

“Hey, you’re good at this already! I forgot to mention any of that, you’re right,” she laughed.  It’s going to be about fifteen people, mostly in their fifties except my teenaged sister, lunch, semi-casual but elegant, and buffet.  I’ll have people start showing up around 11:00.  We could use this table over here.”  She popped up and went through an open archway behind her to a formal dining room, in which there was a spindle legged mahogany table to seat eight, covered with a white cotton tablecloth bordered with petit point lilacs.  There was a china cabinet behind it, and behind its leaded glass doors, a collection of Limoges that I had to stop and look at before I could go any further.

“They were my Grandma’s,” she said, opening one of the doors and taking out a seashell patterned charger.  “Dad would probably love it if we used Grandma’s china.”

“Is this the type of group that won’t drop it?”  I asked.  “I only ask because I don’t think I’ve ever had anyone over to my place that I would trust handling that plate you’re holding, not on a buffet.”

She looked a little far away. “Like my Dad always says, you can’t take it with you.  Let’s use it.”

“Whatever the boss wants,” I grinned.  “OK, so how about we start with their choice of mimosas or Champagne when they come in the door, and I’ll have out an assortment of hors d’oeuvres.  You know, watercress and sweet butter on cocktail white, hardboiled egg rounds on pumpernickel topped with Osetra, pastry puffs stuffed with crab salad.  Stuff like that.   If you want, we could have oysters on the half shell, too.”

“You’re making my mouth water.  I guess that’s a good sign.  Keep going.”

“Then lunch could be a fresh mushroom soup, followed by an herbed chicken ravioli topped with sage butter and hand grated Pecorino Romano, roasted green beans with fresh lemon and garlic, a Bibb lettuce salad with toasted slivered almonds and mandarin orange vinaigrette, and an apple tart for dessert.  Home-made whipped cream, of course, with orange zest.”

“That’ll knock their socks off.  Just come up with a budget and I’ll give you cash to shop, OK?  But don’t shop at Lighthouse,” she said, putting the charger back, and moving back toward the living room.  “Now, there’s just one more thing I want to talk about.”

Oh, crap, I thought.  Last time she said that I had to give her a basketball card.  Now what?  I followed her back to the sofa, and we both sat down.  As she turned to face me, she looked more than a little uncomfortable, but she still held eye contact, and cleared her throat.

“I’ve been doing some investigating for a story on organized crime.  As I was doing research with some of my sources, I came across Lighthouse.”  

Crap.  I knew it.

“How do you know your source knows what he, or she, is talking about?” I asked dully.

“I can’t tell you that, Shel.  But I can tell you this.  One of my sources is me.”  She waited for me to say something. 

“What do you mean, one of your sources is you?”  I looked at her hard, wondering how far she would go for a story.

She paused only for a second.  “I can’t tell you everything I know.  But I’ll tell you how I know.  I’m having an affair with Ray.”

Aw, jeez, don’t tell me that.  That can’t be.  Not Ray.  Ray has Nannette.  Ray and Nannette rule.  They have two kids and Pong and Pac-Man, and parties at their house.  They have matching bowling shirts.  He wouldn’t do that to Nannette, not with a customer, not with Val.

“I don’t believe it,” I said.  “I just don’t.  You’re mistaken.”  I balled my hands into fists so hard the nails bit into the palms.

“I can’t tell you details about what I know, but there is definitely something there, and it will only be a matter of time before we prove it,” she said matter-of-factly.

“Have you gone to the police with this?  If you know something specific and it’s as serious as you make it sound, you need to go to the police instead of wasting time on a news story.”  I was starting to get irritated now, wondering what she really knew, or if she was just fishing for the big one.  Anyway, I had never felt really suspicious of Ray before, not as suspicious as I felt of Valerie right then.  That much I knew.

She went on. “Shel, I know this is a shock, but my information is first hand, and there’s no mistake.  I just want to know if you’ve seen anything that confirms it, that’s all.  I’m already working with the police.  They know everything I know, and they know all of the people who work at Lighthouse, including you.  And it’s not you they’re interested in, not at all, believe me.  You’re just a bystander.”

Even though I knew I ought to be glad to be nothing but a bystander, I still felt belittled and hurt.  “What about Bruno?” I asked, afraid to hear the answer.

“We don’t know anything specific about Bruno, but he might be a bystander, too.  Or he might not.  We just don’t know, so you can assume the best for now, but still be very cautious.  Just please tell me, have you seen anything?”  She took my hand into both of hers now, and held it.

In that moment, feeling trapped like a rat, I decided to talk to her; so I just gritted my teeth, and did it. 

“Well, besides the cards, which are obviously something, instead of the nothing I told myself they were . . .”

 I stopped, tears welling up in my eyes.  Val patted my hand, and I continued.  

“Other than the cards, I’ve only seen one thing that looked funny.  One night I saw Ray with two men, both Chinese I think, about 12:30, that’s after midnight, a couple of months ago on the loading dock.  They were standing over two stacks of long wooden crates.  The crates had Chinese characters on them, and there was excelsior sticking out.  Ray looked really nervous that I was there, and shooed me home.  The other guys didn’t say much.  Ray said he was considering adding lychee fruit and stuff like that to the inventory, and bird’s nest soup.  I was supposed to think that’s what was in the crates.  But I’ve never seen him add anything like that to the inventory since then.”

Her eyes got very bright.  “I know exactly who those guys are.  I have a reporter working on them, too.  Did Ray say anything to you about who they were?”

“Yeah, he said they were from a Chinese market, I think up Vallejo, but I can’t remember the name.  Sun something.”

“Well, that probably wasn’t lychee fruit.  We think Ray is brokering guns right here in the city, but there’s one group he’s close to that we’re really worried about.  We think they’re moving weapons out of the country, someplace in South America.  But we haven’t proved it yet.  I can’t tell you any more than that.  It’s possible you may get called as a witness, but I doubt it.  From what you’re telling me, you really haven’t seen anything that it hasn’t been possible to explain away.  Ray is a very smart man.  But if you do see something that obviously isn’t good, will you tell me?  If you see something like that, you won’t have any doubts, not in this case.”

“I will definitely tell someone, I promise you that,” I replied curtly.  “Either you or the police.  But if I don’t see anything that’s obviously not good, I’m not going to let my imagination run away with me, either.  Understand?” 

“I do,” she answered emphatically.  “That’s as it should be.  You just go on with your life, and don’t worry about anything, unless you see something.  I’ll get you the business card for the detective I’m working with and you can call him directly.”

Suddenly I felt very tired.  And as much as I felt tired, I was scared, for me and for Bruno.  I did not believe for a minute that there was anything wrong with Bruno.  He was just a kid like me.  What could he possibly be into?  He still lived with his mother, for Pete’s sake, although the way he thought about it, his mother lived with him.  I just prayed that Ray wouldn’t get him sucked into anything that would ruin his life.

So here it was, only 8:30 in the morning, and my whole world had already been turned inside out.  And there wasn’t a soul in the world I could tell, not even my sweetheart, whose life might be in my hands.  Who knew? 

I sighed, and said, “I’ll take care of the shopping list tonight.  But I need to ask you one thing before I go.  Are you having an affair with Ray because you want to, or because you’re trying to get a story?”

Val looked down at her hands.  “Probably a little of both,” she said quietly.  Suddenly I wondered what voices she heard in her head when she was alone at night. 

After I got home, I lay down on the velveteen dumpster-dive sectional and slept like a rock till 10:00. 

Thankfully, I didn’t have to work at all that day, and since it was Sunday, I didn’t have class.  As it turned out, I needed the whole day to decompress, so I begged off seeing Bruno that afternoon and just walked down Hyde Street, all the way to the pier, and then sat in the Buena Vista nursing an Irish coffee until the demons had moved out, and a whiskey-hazed faith in human nature had taken its place.