“Why do you a drive car like that here in this city? Must be a nightmare parking? And the hills.”
I didn’t want to explain the significance of the car. There were spiritual reasons that I just couldn’t go into with him. “Hadn’t thought about selling. I still have payments left.”
“Payments? You have to make payments?”
“The car was two years old when I bought it new. It’s a ’77.”
“So, the car went unsold for two years and then it was like she was waiting for you to show up?”
“Something like that. The guy said he had a great deal.”
“You know, there’s a small town in Kentucky that’s missing their cop car. You bought the last Kentucky cop car, kid.”
We were shouting over the rushing wind, traffic and pounding music.
“This one, this little red machine cost me nothing. Well, a little work and some time listening to an old woman. These old San Francisco ladies; they have their ways. I’ve worked for more than a few of them. One over on Geary Street. Her nephew lived with her. She had no other family. I see this guy all the time on the scene.”
He veered into a tiny space between a semi and a rusted giant Plymouth, knifed through the opening at 90mph and shot past the Alameda exit just over the bridge. “The guy’s a fucking wreck; he’ll take any drug, drink to oblivion and stick his dick into anything with a hole; this town, there’s like a hole in every window.”
I shut my eyes as he pulled another Flintstone move; the ‘Cedes surging breakneck.
“Finally I guess the guy had enough. He dives off The Golden Gate. She wants all his shit out her house. Hires me to do this. She says: ‘He was my sister’s problem. There are promises one regrets making.’ She got that high society way of talking these San Francisco old ladies have. What is it you writers say? Crisp diction?”
“That would work,” I gasped as he blew the stop sign at the bottom of the exit.
“I knew he had this 230 in the garage. So after I pack up his shit and paint the room, I asked her what she wanted me to do with the ride. ‘Take it’ she says. ‘That car reminds me of the devil.’ These rich people aren’t crazy and even though that car meant as much to her as another teardrop at a Barry Manilow concert, there was a twist. She goes: ‘Don’t bring it around when you come to check on me.’ In other words, she had put me on staff. Not a bad thing. I check on this and that and sit with her a bit. These old ladies suck you in like that.”
Like another teardrop at a Barry Manilow concert: I could use that someday.
“Are you mocking me, Walters?” He darted into a run-down residential street. He pulled into a yawning tucked-in garage under a Victorian on a corner lot. A barrier of juniper bushes separated the house from the others. The same bushes but cut lower were planted around the sides of the house. There were no flowers.
“I keep it clean and simple. We’re too close to the street vermin here. I keep it looking like there’s a healthy male around, but nothing for show. I hide the car and catch my real mail at the Post Office.”
We entered the house through a door in the garage that led damp cement steps.
The stairs opened to a spotless kitchen preserved in 1930s style with a porcelain topped table and painted wooden chairs. There was a large iron stove and one concession, a new stainless steel refrigerator. Behind a door, in what was usually a pantry or servant’s room, came menacing growls.
“Don’t worry, man. The dogs are totally cool. Portuguese Canarys. It’s about feeding time. They’re going to check you out, but they won’t fuck with you if I’m here. Dude, though, if I want them to, they would shred you to pieces. You got to have good guard dogs if you’re going to keep anything around here.”
He opened the door and two big mean looking dogs bounded over to me. I sat quickly in one of the chairs. There was one on either side of me. They had large heads with small ears and looked like Batman’s demented dog cousin. They nudged, sniffed and terrorized me with soulless eyes. Jay rummaged in the fridge. He pulled out two silver tipped iced Lowenbraus and a large package of ground meat in blotched butcher wrap.
The meat drew the beasts away from me. Jay slapped the hamburger into a silver dish. He put the dish and dogs back inside the pantry.
“I got it all set with these dogs. I trip a switch inside and doggy door opens. I hear something in the yard I let them out. They wear these electric collars that won’t let them out of the yard. But you don’t want to be in the yard. You can buy one of these houses for a prayer in Richmond, but Richmond is not the place for the weak hearted.”
He popped the Lowenbraus. Frightened by the dogs, I was grateful for the beer. I clutched the crinkled tin foil like the handle of a weapon. I hoped the door would hold.
Dogs know you.
“Come in here, leave your shoes by the door.” Jay called from the front room. I walked through a formal dining room that featured a deeply burnished teak table with silver candle holders, dark floor length drapes, a sidebar with a silver service tray. The hardwood floors gleamed. Lemon oil scents mixed with a century of meals and people who dined, celebrated in the room. “I have a Mexican lady come in and keep that room pretty like that. Those are original brass gaslight fixtures next to the mirror.” I ran my hand over the smooth tabletop. I felt the small dips worn by the generations.
The living room was not preserved in the gaslight era; it was preserved in that hodge-podge antique décor of the late 60s. A giant overstuffed velvet couch faced cinderblock and oil rubbed wood shelves lined with record albums and a phalanx of stereo equipment. Large JBL speakers sat on the side of the shelves. Posters of San Francisco psychedelic bands and shows were framed and hung over a faded 1940s floral pattern wallpaper. I had been in a hundred living rooms like his about a decade before. Hot Tuna played softly in the speakers.
“I jammed with those guys,” Jay said, he had doffed the beret and cape. “All the cats in the Bay been here to jam and party a little. Or a lot. I thought we’d unlax a little.”
I wasn’t sure if he knew that anything had happened to his brother. I didn’t know how to start that conversation.
“Oh, I know all right. Ginny filled me in. He's actuallya lot older than me; almost like he was from a different family. They wanted me to get you to relax, forget about what happened. This will help. Sensamilla, straight from the forests of Northern California. He slipped a couple of rolled joints from a tin decorated with bits of turquoise.
I hadn’t smoked pot in several years. Getting high made me far too nervous, but on this day it seemed like a good idea. I fought to keep the smoke down. Jay came out of the kitchen with two more Lowenbraus and a frosted bottle of Stolichnaya Vodka. The pot hit instantly. I was awash in familiar feelings, numbed.
“This is good stuff,” I said lamely. I wondered if people still said the same shit that they did back in those days. I took a grateful swallow of the cold beer. Jay poured vodka into antique cordial glasses. Iced fire was the sensation as the magic fluid rolled down my throat; its progress felt over every nodule. A blissful state ensued. Jay’s voice sounded over the music in a distant detached way as if he was speaking from the end of a stone tunnel.
“This is some shit I played with Carlos.” He said Carlos in that 60s way of talking about the stars as if they were personal friends, in your circle – Neil, Jimi, Grace, Sly. “This tape is from about ten years ago with my old band, Cloversmith Slide. We set up right in this room. It was bitchin’.” He pulled out a reel-to-reel tape. He started the tape and left the room saying something about some business he had to attend to.
The tape started with the scraping of chairs, tuning of instruments and some hacking – the sounds of the 60s. Cloversmith Slide was a pedestrian rock quartet: organ, guitar, bass, drums. They noodled some hippie dippy minor key bullshit with the organ doing church riff fills. Please don’t tell me about the secrets of flowers, I thought. Jay played a decent bass line tight with some adequate jazzy drumming. Carlos came in soft and light as if he was playing in another room. The beat slowed. The organ stayed underneath and stopped the frills. The band fell into a strong blues as the master’s solo soared over it.
Each note so clear and deep like a thousand angels dancing on the head of a needle. Time stopped and I became lost in the spirituality of his music. The music lasted in my mind far beyond the end of the tape. I was transfixed and lost track of time. Outside darkness had fallen.
Jay stood in the center of the room with wet hair. He was wrapped in a blood red towel. The room was lit by a dim Tiffany lamp and two candles. “You were out for some time there dude. I took a shower. You liked the music?”
“Very much.” I said.
“You feeling okay?”
“Very, very nice, thank you.”
“Another nip to keep it going?”
“Yeah, why not?”
He poured a couple of glasses of the Stoli. He brought one over to me. His glassy eyes, ruby from the lamp, reflected a sudden sinister note, a strange desire.
He let the towel slip.
His penis was just inches behind the sparkled glass. The three hung in front of me for a long moment: the clear liquid, the blond rimmed dick and its exaggerated snake shadow on naked thigh. I reached carefully for the glass. I didn’t know what protocol I should follow. I didn’t want to offend the man.
I did what every good boy from my upbringing would do. I slammed the Stoli and asked for the bathroom. I was careful to avoid eye contact. When I rose from the chair I felt like half of me stayed behind. My three shadows and me made one uneasy walk to the bathroom just off the kitchen next to the dog room. I locked the door behind me and without much ado forced the old window open and dove out into the night.
I landed on one of those cut back junipers. The plant scratched and gouged me. I stepped shoeless onto the lawn slipping on a serious pile of dog shit. I stumbled away from the house.
I heard the dog door rise. I guess I had violated protocol. I took off. I heard what sounded like thundering hooves at my heels. I dashed through another set of junipers at the edge of the yard. I tripped on something and landed face first on the cement sidewalk. I thought in horror that I had broken the electric fence. I scrambled to my feet. My face was bleeding. The right side of my head was scratched. The right temple of my glasses was gone. Though numb from the pot and liquor I felt a burning pain in my right ankle. But I ran; those Canarys were the fiercest beasts I had ever seen.
About a hundred feet away I stole a glance. The dogs were grinning at the end of the yard; the repeated zapping had worked. They didn’t realize they could get past with the wire down. In my altered state I thought I heard one say to the other, “Fuck him; he smells like your shit anyway.” The duo shrugged their massive shoulders and laughed back to the house. I stumbled to the ground again. I vomited; the mess splashing up from the hard cement onto my clothes.
I hobbled up a hill to the lights on Macdonald Ave. I sensed the Pacific was behind me; Jay had said something about an ocean view from the upstairs. I knew Macdonald was the main drag in this forlorn city. I would flag a cab. As a precaution I pulled the deposit from my pocket and shoved it down the front of my pants.
I didn’t have a fix on the time. There were some businesses open among the boarded storefronts, but as I passed the first two I saw they were a liquor store manned by armed clerks and a food joint with bullet-proof serving window on a swivel - cash in, wings out. As I walked by parked cars on the opposite side the air filled with pot smoke. Soul music and laughter spilled from the vehicles. If they noticed the shoeless, blood-caked white boy they said nothing.
A small woman wearing a red hooded sweatshirt materialized. “Did you see Jay plenty?” I heard her say into my pulsing scraped right ear over the hiss of traffic.
“Oh yeah, Miss Crimson, I saw plenty of Jay; more than I ever wanted to. Some joke you pulled on me.” I filled her in rapid fashion about the wild ride, the tunes and Jay’s unveiling. I blubbered on for a whole block as she walked beside head down as if she was lost in my thoughts.
We reached the light of a streetlamp. She turned to me. I was expecting the delightful visage of Virginia; instead a street-worn pale pockmarked sad-face with empty eyes stared at me in annoyance; “I said ‘get you a BJ for twenty?’”
Once again I was lost in the etiquette of the moment. I felt sorry for the prostitute; red riding hood sure wasn’t looking good, but I was having none of her wares, this evening or ever. “No, thank you. I thought you were someone else.”
You think you are better than her.
“You think you’re better than me.” she said as she faded back into the shadows.
As I stood there with vomit and blood streaked clothes, beshitted shoeless feet and broken glasses askew I wondered where that comment had come from. “No, I was trying to be nice,” I called to the retreating red hooded figure.