Category Archives: Nearly True Tales from San Francisco
It’s not so big, I said, and yet we screamed when the room shook, a carnival-ride fun house, time dancing slow motion across the crest of room-waves.
Wow! and Oh my god! Shit! Bent knees like shock absorbers, the floor a surf board. My electric fry pan skaddadled across the floor and the row of books scattered and slid and then, the shaking eased and wave-lapping onto beach we landed, stood, laughed nervously.
Earthquake! Kate said and we laughed louder.
Damn! There was no end to expletives. But then I assured them again, it’s nothing. These happen all the time in San Francisco.
Really? Kate asked. It seemed kind of big.
No. I shook my head. Not too big….
Eva talked slowly, each word a flavor to identify, savor. I’ve never been in an earthquake, she said. Her words were a confetti cake and we laughed.
Neither have I, Kate added.
All the time, I assured.
Soon then, I was nervous, checking my watch. I have to get to work, I said.
Maybe you don’t have to work? Something subtle, chicory maybe, sprinkled in the question. Eva pulled on her long hair, then slid a band from her wrist and wrapped her hair in a pony tail.
I considered, but no. I shook my head.
I passed my key to Kate. I’ll meet you guys back here after.
Outside, chunks of stone on the sidewalk and a long thin wound on the corner of the building. People spilled onto the street and greeted each other like friends, these my neighbors I’d never seen. There were backslaps and handshakes and worried inquiries. Strangers mingled, some cracked open beer, and two boom-boxes competed at ever increasing volumes. Feels like Carnival, I thought, though I’d never been, and I swallowed the bitter taste of resentment towards work, I had to go.
Hey, a stranger waved. You OK? The sun radiated veils of light, this scene a painting, the opening of heaven. But I hurried to my car. I’d found a dream parking spot on the street and pulled out reluctantly, knowing it was lost.
I had traded the waitressing gig for a shop at Fisherman’s Wharf. The restaurant hours had been excruciating–this new job at the toy store meant I was home by midnight and more rested for the magazine.
Of course, working on the Wharf meant I had to un-park my car and fight traffic. And on this day, the drive was abnormally slow. I watched the dashboard clock and began to panic. I’ll be late, I thought, though an earthquake is a good excuse. Maybe the store would close, the electricity would be out. The traffic signals weren’t working, and the traffic crept towards me, an army of mutant insects from a 1960’s B movie, shining, metallic, ascending. People gathered on sidewalks and waved as I passed I was in a parade passing the parade the only one going opposite. And by me went a yellow bug car, a red Festiva, white and black and faded green sedans, vans and lumbering delivery trucks halting for breath, the burden of their trailers like heavy as with the snail and his shell–and who can bear the weight of the their home on their back? And I detoured and backtracked and wove my way downward toward water, cars honking people waving and now truly late, I turned on the radio for music and maybe some news on earthquakes…fire in the Marina District sections of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge collapsed Embarcadero crumbling don’t leave where you’re at the World Series cancelled and all power out! Shit! Damn! I swore, one ways and where to turn! But finally I turned, and joined the exodus, the creeping animal of cars and on the radio, the numbers, 6.8, 6.9, 7.2, 6 dead, 15 fires, 7.1, 18 dead, 17 fires, Interstate 280, 6th and Bluxome, 3rd game, 5:04, 6.7, 1906, 10/17.
It took me a good hour to get back the short distance I had traveled, and still, the party on the steps, but a different color, the light was relief, the earthquake had cracked open the day, stripping, unpeeling, plucking, and what remained beneath the layers of obligations, clocks and routine was naked and vibrant, and everyone was the same in their survival. And in the laughing, hysteria.
I buzzed my apartment and Kate buzzed me inside. The sun had arced past my window and what came through was gray, the color of the blanket descending upon the powerless city. Kate and Eva sat on pillows in the center of the room around a camping lantern. Three or four flashlights where placed upright in front of them and they were drinking wine from camping mugs. Eva poured me wine and motioned for me to sit.
You didn’t have to work? Kate asked.
It’s all so fucking surreal. We walked downtown. People were looting, Eva said. And outside the hotels, champagne! She laughed. I think she was drunk.
It was a big earthquake, I said. Kate lit the lantern and we watched our shadows flicker on the walls.
The car was long and black with darkened windows, and it kept pace behind me. I walked faster and it stayed on my heals, and when I turned a corner, the patient purr followed…. There was no one else, my feet, my breathing, the cereal-crackle of wheels on pavement. I looked for doors to dash into, but all were dark and locked. Damn-it, I thought and faster still, imagining abduction scenerios and the sidewalks all shadows, even the drunks and hookers gone. Tossed into the backseat, how how long until someone missed me? I saw my body bloated and bruised on a beach, and my friends, I hoped they’d celebrate, life. And the purr and my patter, a few more blocks. I was too slow and the car passed and turned the corner, I ran. Gone, I hoped. But then, behind me again goddamnit!
Want a ride, window down and a voice barked from the shadows, ringed fingers on the door.
I stopped and stared, murky hat over formless face, I gave the phantom my finger.
And then there was a moment, the stopping of time, heartbeats and gold rings tapping, and I, a deer in a rifle scope. I turned and walked. The car moved forward, the skin on the back of my neck, listening. And then, the acceleration, red taillights like eyes, winking shut as the car disappeared down the block.
I closed the studio door and paused, and the shaking was from exhaustion. I stepped carefully over the bodies stretched across the floor, limbs buried under blankets, deep breathing and a whistle snore. Who, I wondered then remembered, friends of friends, from Germany, three women and one man, to see the city. Claudia’s funny, I thought, effervescent, and Sven, a tree of a man, spindly, an aspen. A nearby street light tipped the smallest pool of light through my window, and it was all I needed to change. I lay down, and when I closed my eyes, the tail lights, purring, and the letting go….
You’re a dumb ass, Beth said a few hours later when I told her of my early morning walk home from the restaurant. You can’t walk. .
Yes. I said. You’re right.
Just take a cab. Women get picked up all the time. Raped. Killed. It’s not worth it. (Now at least someone would know if it happened for real.)
No. You’re right…. Coffee later?
Sure. I get a break at ten.
I sat in on the editorial meeting at the magazine, big shots around the board table talking about the response to the Castro issue, what’s happening with aids, national parks, how are the blue lines, and, what features next? There was some tossing around of ideas, Eastern Europe, Tianamen Square, Aung San Suu Kyi, aids. Some anecdotes about reporters, budgets, what Spike Lee said…. This room, these people, were the eyes of the universe, their sacred seeing, picking through the reels of all that was is, archbishops of information and their mission, holy. And me in my metal chair sucking down coffee, adjusting to keep alert and no position comfortable, desperate to join this priesthood.
The first step, of course was to come up with an article, a short piece for the section the magazine opened up to it’s interns. Something shocking and new, Seinfeld, fortune cookies, women walking alone at night.
Any ideas? Margaret asked when we met back in the closet?
No. I shook my head. Her boyfriend was coming to live with her, she was feeling distracted. Operation Rescue might have to wait.
At the restaurant that night, Jorge forked his steak, lifting to his head to gaze at the doorway and chew, while Phillip sucked down whiskey cokes two at a time.
Why don’t you kick her the fuck out. It was a statement. Phillip nodded toward the corner booth where Luna sat withering, her dried hair poking out of a chipped clip like the thin bones of Medusa’s dead snakes. Her fries had eroded over the course of the evening and what remained resembled a mash of decomposing fall leaves.
She’s all right, Sam said, fiddling with his coffee cup. He had a small stack of poems near the salt shaker and for the moment, his pen lay on the counter.
She’s crazy. Phillip turned away and now, his drink.
I set a coffee in front of him, paused to stare.
What the fucks that for?
You have to get home at some point.
He snorted and pushed it away.
Fuck that shit. He finished both whiskeys, to make a statement.
I walk, he said, and pushed forward his cups.
Ever get followed? I asked, and he gave me his look. I stood at the end of the counter and wiped down menus.
She was a dancer, Sam said. With the San Francisco ballet.
What the fuck you talking about? Phillip turned to stare at Sam.
Some tragedy. She was never the same.
You writing that story? They call it fiction. Phillip glared and Sam grabbed his pen and and twitched it in his fingers, clicked it on the counter.
I left them to their discussion, out of sight behind the beverage counter where I poured a diet coke, leaned on the counter and closed my eyes and felt a sinking, my green quilt and shutting down what the fuck two hours to go, this, the effects of the multilayered sandwich that was the magazine and restaurant, the thinnest taste of sleep spread between, and now, the bell on the door as another customer came into the restaurant. Awake! Awake! I chanted to myself as I and walked back into the dining room.
My universe was shrinking–physicists only dream but I could see the collapse of space, the walls tightening brown and outside, the darkness was a vacuum, a sucking in, and I was vibrating. I stopped to study the shake of my hand. Fuck, I couldn’t stop swearing. And who else but the Knife was pulling himself up to the counter, hard steal, a menu, water. Damn-it!
I circled around him, dashed to the beverage counter for coffee, black, and he sent me back for more creams, the tiny plastic cups.
Tapping, he’s tapping I circled closer, deep breath and yes, gold fingered hand tapping
I’ll do the burrito, he said and his fingers tapped, gold rings and I wrote on my pad tapping fingers.
You. I couldn’t stop myself. Exhaustion wiped away inhibitions. That was you! You were following me. I hissed and moved toward him. He grew hard and stared, knife eyes, but took his time. The plastic water cup looked delicate in his enormous hand when he lifted it to his mouth. For crushing, I thought, about the hand. Cups, and bowls, and heads would burst in that enormous grip, like overripe fruit and I backed away with a picture in my head.
He set his water down, and his tone was hard and he met my eyes. Now my shaking was fear.
Yes. He said and studied me. I remembered an eagle at an exhibition that had looked at me with that same unseeing stare, a looking through–I was neither prey nor predator, and thus, I was not. The scraping of plates, twirling of cups, and scribbling on paper at the counter seized.
It’s not safe to walk alone at night, the Knife finally said. He picked up his drink in his enormous club-hands.
You were rude. He continued staring at me. Someone chuckled quietly, it sounded like Phillip.
Yes. I finally said and felt my face grow red. He took me off guard. I’m sorry…. I didn’t know…
He didn’t reply.
I’ll put up your order. I waited for a response, but his eyes remained cold.
We didn’t talk again. The Knife left his usual tip of quarters and never returned to the Orange and Black. And after work, I called a cab to take me home.
There were friends. They came ragged from long road trips from the Northwest, eager to explore the Haight, it’s recent history a dried and wilted flower pinned over the Victorian archways of the coffee shops, smoke shops, book stores, and tattoo parlors. In the Haight, tie-dyes were still the rage, and occasionally, a Spinner twirled Dionysian skirts-a-whirl to a shadow song on a street corner.
But it wasn’t just the impermeable as dreadlocks hippie culture that attracted the visitors, the obsidian sky scrappers, slow motion neon nights, craggy streets and the wistful ocean breezes that cooled the city, this, the edge, the glimpse of going, the tight lips of the horizon, infinity and fish all resting on a crest of time, a circus train loading for the next show–these were the sirens that whispered in their dreams.
My friends appeared bedraggled at the restaurant, feasted on beer and burgers, and Sam showed them his notes of love and longing.
Pretty said Dan, a poet himself and his eyes were kind, then–what the fuck? He looked toward Luna.
Bad breaks, Sam said, his defense a protective arm around Luna and she glanced our way. Her eyes, it seemed, flickered over Sam.
The barflies closed in on Kate, drawn like moths by her golden hair, the lightness of her smile. They gaped and inched closer, their stools scrapping lightly on the tiles.
Back off, I warned and they laughed. Dan gazed with narrowed eyes, clasping and unclasping his bottle, the urge to protect was primitive.
These are awesome! Snake gave me a thumbs up and finished his burger.
I passed them my key and when they left, I gave the men at the counter a scolding.
You are terrible. You have no manners!
They’re not used to pretty girls. Jorge apologized.
Thanks. I said.
Present company excluded…. But they can’t afford to get on your bad side–you might not serve them.
Maybe I shouldn’t.
Hey now! Phillip held up his glass. Get me a beer.
We laughed. I did.
I returned to the studio on the pinprick of morning stepping across blankets and camping pads–Dan, Kate and Snake were one being stretched across the floor, the only sound, their deep breathing. The smell of sour beer mixed with piss and pine.
I crawled into my nest of blankets, past tired, blood pounding in my ears and the floor was hard beneath me. Sleep rushed me, a wave, lapping the edge of, diffusing, blue, sediment cells sinking, slow, silence… and then, shaking, churning, I burst to the surface and still the shaking!
What the! I scrambled to my feet and the room shivered around me. The lid on the electric frypan rattled–the turtle walking jerk-steps across the floor. The others up fuck!
Snake. He laughed.
Earthquake, he said and lit a cigarette. It’s nothing. We had them all the time when I was living in Japan.
He blew a wreath of smoke, clicked his lighter, pulled an ashtray to his side from alongside the wall.
Wow, said Kate. I’ve never been in an earthquake.
It’s small. Snake said expertly and I sat down.
Scared me, I said.
Dan took a cigarette from Snake. We settled back into half-sleep.
When’d you get home?
Five, I think. Five thirty…. I glanced at the clock, 8:06.
I need to go to work. The magazine.
Shit. Dan said. That’s not right.
That sucks, said Kate.
I have tomorrow off….
Comfy floor, Snake rubbed his back.
Have you thought of a futon? asked Kate.
I rubbed my fingers together in the universal signal for need money, then got up to search for clothes.
Do you have time to get some coffee? This from Dan.
Absolutely, I said heading with my clean clothes for the shower.
Saturday was tour day–The Haight and Golden Gate, a browse through City Lights, lunch in Japan Town, invoking those who’d walked before: Kerouac, Kesey, Wolfe, the Diggers, the Dead, Hippies, Snyder, Slick, Joplin, Baez…even those who hadn’t, to our knowledge, sat on the curb smoking joints, their ghosts converged, this city the bottle neck before the breaking loose, the believing…we felt the cool breath of the past, a mantle to cling too… We sat under a tree in the park watching rollerbladers, Snake passed a joint–it just makes her paranoid Kate explained when I refused.
I’m already paranoid, we laughed.
For the pain, Dan said. Fuck. My back. That floor is shit.
Nice place, this San Francisco, Snake mumbled, and for some reason, we all laughed.
I’m going to write an article, I told them. And that too, seemed funny.
We spent the evening in a restaurant, a dive with curry and beer and flickering red candles.
This is an amazing city, Kate said. We’ll have to come back.
Let me know, I said. Lots of people are looking for a place to crash. Floor space is limited….
We laughed about the floor.
And then the wind down, the final day. I had my internship, a couple of hours, and then the restaurant. I came home between and they were there, a bottle of wine, and against the wall behind them, a full-sized, lightly stained mattress.
We found this for you, they presented and toasted.
In an alley, Kate’s face was grim.
It’s clean. Snake defended. And then–we disinfected it with that pine shit you have–nothing could survive.
Yes, I smell it, I said.
Dan pulled a sheet of plastic from behind his back. And if there’s any doubt!
They ceremoniously laid out the mattress and we made a bed, then we all boarded it like a boat and sipped wine.
And then they left, and it was me. And then the ghosts faded, abandoned, and the air became brittle and sharp. And I sat on the boat of a bed, the high-pitched silence stabbing my ears, the walls pushing away, and the blanket, when I wrapped it around me, was unwieldy.
The receptionist leaned across the desk and I could smell the gum on her breath.
“I can’t see you,” she said, then leaning closer. “I’m very nearsighted. I’m retraining my eyes.”
She explained the technique for improving vision–no aids.
I’m Beth, by the way, she said stopping and turning. She stared at me for a moment and I self-consciously wiped at my hair, then followed her down the hallway to an office. Bill White must have heard us in the doorway but he didn’t look up. Next door, he said, then pointed.
The next room was a closet. A long table stretched across its length, piled high with binders and books and a yellowing PC in each corner. Dave, the research editor, and Margaret, the other intern, were seated at the table and they stood up to meet me.
Margaret and I were the fact checking interns. After a brief tour of the office, we talked about responsibilities and etiquette for collecting information. Dave pointed to the big binders of Facts on File, and an array of reference books. Mostly, I would be contacting contacts. Forty hours a week for three months, and for this, a $50 stipend, and, if I had an idea for a short article and the editors liked it, I could write it and get a byline, and that was gold. Experience, networking, a foot-in-the door, those went without saying. But my name in a national magazine, the thought gave me chills.
Dave gave me a stack of articles, reporters’ notes, and lists of contacts and I began reading, pausing occasionally to stare at the framed magazine cover on the wall, one with a bulky PC sporting cartoon arms and legs and the interminable question: With the advent of personal computers, what will people do with their overabundance of free time? Pain in the ass, I thought remembering floppy discs at college. I was grateful for the highlighter and hardcopies.
Dave? Do you have some paper or notepad or something so I can write notes?
Sure! He jumped up and directed me to the supply closet.
I found legal pads on a shelf below file folders and boxes of pens. I pulled one out and ran my hand across the smooth paper. I fluttered the pages and the smell was cool, clean.
Should we be concerned?
I jumped and dropped the paper. Beth was standing next to me.
I didn’t see you.
I’m stealth….It’s Karen, right?
Karin. Like a car, I corrected.
Carin… Do we need to get you some help?
I was just getting some paper…I said defensively, embarrassed.
Smells good. Doesn’t it.
I like the small of fresh paper….
We all do…just don’t let it get to be a problem…
I laughed uncertainly and returned to the research closet. I sat down and began reading a feature article, highlighting facts and on a separate sheet, connecting each fact to a source, someone to contact or a place to collaborate the information. The other intern was an overachiever. She’d completed one piece and was well into her second gossiping with Dave in a bell-tone voice. And Dave, it seemed, was delighted with her light flirtation. I wondered if she had an ideas for articles, but didn’t want to ask, didn’t want to get her thinking. I had some inspired thoughts, but unfortunately, they were from other articles, some from this very magazine. I highlighted a sentence on the typed pages and couldn’t help but notice the smell of the highlighter. I brought it to my nose…. Click and Clack, frog mutations, a pictorial trip through fortune cookie factory, global warming–though maybe that was a bit ambitious for a foot-in-the-door…
I was thinking of infiltrating Operation Rescue, Margaret said in her sugar voice to Dave.
Great idea. If you pull that off, it would be big!
Dave looked truly delighted. Maybe, I thought, I could write something on interns sucking up to editors.
Bill stopped by the closet to speak with Dave. He had an aura about him, a god among editors, his encounters with Newt legendary, even Margaret stopped her babble.
I think this is yours, Bill dropped some papers on Dave’s desk.
Beth? Dave asked.
Bill nodded. Blind as a bat.
He left a wake of silence. Then Dave turned to me–any ideas for a story?
I’ve got a few….
Good. Love to hear them if you want to run them by me….
The magazine took us to lunch. Your first day, Dave said. A getting to know….
Beth insisted on driving.
Are you sure? I asked. Dave winked.
I sat in the back and buckled my belt. Margaret beside me looking pensive. Where’d you go to school? I asked by way of making conversation, more getting to know.
Bard. And she liked the sound of the word.
Did you grow up on the east coast?
Dave guided Beth past a one way street and I relaxed when I realized the drive would be long and leisurely. Beth compensated for her lack of vision by driving at a grandmotherly pace.
Connecticut. Margaret answered. And then Beth drove slow motion through an intersection on Van Ness. The horns and a slam to the right and even slow the plunge up the curb threw me into my belt and I couldn’t breath. The car stopped on the sidewalk and horns blew as cars whisked pass.
I don’t see color, Beth said in a whisper.
I think I’ll drive, Dave said slamming the door.
We sat in a darkened booth and dumped MSG on our udon and discussed the fall of the Berlin Wall. We’re living history, Dave said, slurping his noodles. It’s one of those moments where I’m proud to be alive, to see it happening. I won’t forget.
The rest of us murmured in agreement, too young to get the full implications, and still the feeling of happening….
My second day at the office, Beth stopped me as I walked past reception.
You can’t go back there. I turned and she was staring at me, something different.
You need to check in. Do you have an appointment?
I’m just going to research, I said dumbfounded.
Who do you want to see? She reached for the phone.
She stared at me for a long moment, then laughed.
I didn’t recognize you. I can see you. She pointed to her tortoise shell glasses.
I went to the most glamorous restaurants in the financial district, the dimly lit wine bars and candlelit bistros, hideaways, places where the hostesses were giraffes in black micro dresses with scarlet lipstick cradling wine lists and clicking pens across leather reservation books. The managers looked at me in my dropped waist dress, fun, I had thought, flirty. But their looks said hippie and none were hiring.
I approached the Orange and Brown with trepidation. Something about the dingy exterior, and inside, the paper place mats, doilies under the salt shakers, faded brown carpet…I knew I was in. The manager was short and smiling and the graveyard was hiring.
My training was in the evening. The other waitresses were big and boisterous and all mispronounced my name. They showed me how to clear plates and take orders, fill the shakers and roll place settings.
“Don’t touch that plate,” Martha hissed as I went to clear a table. The customer was old and bent like the fries she was slow-motion nibbling. Luna, people called her. She wore her overcoat like a coarse, tired cape. And her eyes when they turned toward me were an impenetrable cloud, I wasn’t sure she could see. Martha pushed me aside and used a towel to whisk the dishes from the table to the bus tub.
“She sits on her hand,” she hissed as she passed–it took me a moment to register. Martha talked mostly in hisses, her communications urgent, conspiratorial.
“Over there!” she pointed for me to deliver a coke, then, “Top off the salt.” She pushed a tray of shakers in front of me with a warm towel for wiping, then stood back and watched. She tweaked my pour, re-wiped my wipe and after I set the finished shakers on a tray, she rearranged the formation, straightened the lines. “Little soldiers,” she laughed, as if at a joke. Martha showed me how to stack the plates along my arm when the food was ready.
“Now we can turn you loose,” she grinned.
My first graveyard was the next night, eleven pm until six in the morning. I tried but was unable to nap beforehand, so I arrived and pounded coffee. There was the trickle of what I soon learned were regulars, Luna dipping fries in a corner booth, cloaked with clandestine hand. She never spoke, but pointed, and I scrubbed the table with my bleach rag when she was finished.
The after-drinking crowd sat at the counter and nursed coffee, cokes, and the occasional whiskey, on the rocks. Sam penned poetry on napkins, his letters flowery and when he talked, so were his words. He folded the napkins into small squares and stacked them in towers near his ashtray.
“I’m an incurable romantic,” he smiled heavily, world-weary from the pangs of unrequited love, a leadened optimist. He motioned for a refill. “Decaf,” he mouthed when I came by with the pots. He lifted his cup to his lips and his hand was heavy.
Occasionally I had to stop him from sliding the stack of poems into the burning end of his cigarette.
“Impermanence,” he smiled and he was almost light.
Phillip sucked on a cigarette and drank mostly gin with his hamburger, entertaining the counter crew with tales of mementos escapes from gangs and cops and arrant women.
“He’s full of shit,” Sam whispered when I walked by with another gin for Phillip.
“You’re full of shit,” Phillip growled and held up his glass signally some sort of threat.
“I speak truth,” Sam smiled a wreath of flowers.
“Crazy fucking coot….” Philip spoke to his ice cubes.
“Hey, knock it off you two,” Jorge charged from the opposite side of the U-shaped counter. “Christ, you’re worse than my kids.”
Even with whiskey eyes Phillip could see Jorge was enormous. He toasted the ceiling lights and finished his drink, signaled for another.
Jorge dumped a bottle of ketchup on his plate and lapped it up with fries. Ketchup, I quickly learned, was the most sought after commodity at the Brown and Orange. The food for many night owls was just a little something to go with their ketchup. And the homeless population was known to pocket a bottle or two when the wait staff turned to retrieve coffee. Eventually the manager removed bottles from the tables and ketchup was available only through a complicated checkout system. And when this didn’t work, we went to the foil packets. But that was yet to come.
“Hey. How many kids you got?” Sam called from across the counter and Jorge stopped eating.
“Two girls.” Jorge barely stopped eating.
“Congratulations!” Sam yelled and Jorge nearly smiled.
“I have a son,” Sam yelled. “He lives in Canada with his girlfriend!”
“He’s eight feet away, you don’t need to yell,” Phillip growled through his meat.
On my third shift I was exhausted by the odd hours. The evening staff left and it was I, brown-aproned, and two others, along with several of the regulars, and we entered timelessness, when hours become irrelevant and it’s a hanging on, fading and slowing, the collapse and darkness is death and each moment is eternal, until the opening, acceleration, when seconds become blades of light.
The regulars were were in their position at the counter drinking their drinks, and the chatter was a circling, like boxers at the beginning of a fight. And Luna was in her corner booth and then a new man at the counter, he could have been handsome. I took his order and there was something, rusty metal, and when I turned away, I felt cold, my smile sliced off by a knife. The others felt it too, the banter slowed and eventually died. Except for Sam. He philosophized faster, scribbling his words and another smoke. I brought The Knife his dinner, and the plate scraped the counter. I couldn’t look up.
“Jesus Christ,” Phillip to Sam. “Go smoke some dope our something.” The Knife followed Phillips glare and Sam twitched nervously. “Maybe it’ll shut you up,” Phillips tone was apologetic now and he stared into his drink.
Two people left and I when I brought the Knife another drink, the glass loud on the counter.
Two couples came in, nicely dressed, and sat at a four-top near the counter. I took their order, and when the food was ready, I stacked the plates three along my left arm like Martha had shown me. I picked the last with my right hand and walked into the dining area.
Sam twitching, Phillip swirling and Jorge a mountain of silence. The two couples were unaware of the tension and their chatter echoed…I wanted to shush them. The plates waved and I rushed to the table and Sam’s napkins afire then SLAM The Knife on the flames a rush of water and the plates tumble. Then Luna. A bird. She unfurled, neck stretched tall and she launched, overcoat wings and a wake of fries like feathers. Her hands the only time I saw both, long-boned wrapped around two plates and I held the others and she looked at me with light through the clouds of her eyes.
“You’re trying to do too much,” she said and her voice a bell. She carried the plates to the table, almost gliding, graceful, then I thought, a towel. She set the plates on the table and the customers clapped. And sure, I cringed, for the hand. And then, Luna glanced around and she shriveled. She crept back to her booth chin tucked and she slid into the seat. She adjusted her coat, and sank slowly into its folds.
“Damn.” This from the Knife at the counter. He stared at Luna for a moment and her hand snaked out for a fry. He got up and threw some cash on the counter then left.
Sam picked through the ashes of his napkin poems. “Thanks for putting out the fire,” Sam called into the silence after the door slammed shut. He looked sad when I cleaned away the scraps and embers of his poems, some words as they went into the trash, “broken moon rising.”
The studio was the only one I could afford, the first of my own. It was in a rundown building on the corner of Bush and Leavenworth, on the edge of the Tenderloin District. The managers closed the door and left me and I languished in ten by fourteen foot space–wood floors, brick walls, windows opening to the neighbor’s wall I could touch. And of course, a bathroom with a shower. The bathroom…I sniffed. It smelled a bit like urine…. No matter, I was quite capable of cleaning.
I brought in my belongings, a large suitcase and several crates with books, bedding, an electric frypan…. Within minutes I’d set up house. The books lined the floor along one wall. I touched their edges and they spoke of blowing open and journeys through thorns. Meaning felt like a destination, a velvet dress, lavender, light. I spread blankets for sleeping, thick on the bottom then a comforter that had followed me from college. My suitcase, well, it was there on the floor, grounded…I can do this…I puffed some pillows and they were a chair.
I sat and the silence thickened, a caving in. So I put on a tape. And still, the room was empty. Money, I thought feeling restless. I have to find a job. I had several days before I began my internship. Plenty of time but first things first. The smell. The bathroom.
I left and found a store nearby and bought cleaner, sponges. I paused in the doorway upon return, my hovel, home. A beam of light on the bed at the end of the room and it looked warm. And the odd symmetry–books, an angular insect along the baseboards of one wall, the turtle frypan yellow as a yolk, opposite–well, it worked.
Three times over the bathroom, the porcelain, the floor, the walls. I knew elbow grease but it seemed the smell was worse. I squeezed out the sponge in the pine-water sink, more scrubbing then the cleaner right on the wood. Rubbing, rinsing, and as with a child’s scratch and sniff I released the oder from its oak-floor cage and it rose, an angry ghost perfumed in pine. What piss party, I thought as it stole out the door. I opened the window no larger than a photo frame, the face staring back cracked brick. More cleaning and the wood was raw.
OK. I conceded. Not a chance I was going to replace the floor. So I left the room shutting in the smell. If you can’t beat ‘em…. I sat on a pillow exhausted–twenty-three hours of driving, sleeping at rest-stops in the car, and then apartment hunting…. When did I last eat? I wondered about popcorn on the frypan. Deep breath and the smell was pine–and then beneath the camouflage, unmistakable….