I was frightened by my first few steps on the carpet. As I sunk so slightly into the plush I had the sensation that the building was tipping. I followed Red past a starched waiter who sneered at my attire - well, there goes dinner. There was a breathtaking panorama of the glittering city. “Lots of change since 1936,” Red said. “The Golden Gate wasn’t open but it was lit. There were a few less buildings. The Transamerica there is a new one.”
“Hey chief, two of your world famous tap beers over here,” Red said sidling up to the near-empty bar. He slipped a Winston from a pack. He nodded to me if I wanted one. Fuck it, my quitting day could be tomorrow.
“You never saw yourself in a place like this? That right, Walters?”
“Yeah, Red, sure. Make me feel bad. Thanks for the beer.”
“Thank the Clovers, it’s their nickel, my friend.”
“I suppose by Virginia’s “powder” means she’s gone back in time? I’m getting used to this, my figment.”
Red gestured to the view, “every light that twinkles down there has a reason for being, whether it’s to light the way for stevedores on the wharves, or for the luminaries of the world that love this town. Every citizen in a warm kitchen or camped on a nervous bar stool shines a flicker to the effect. What you see there is every bit of insignificance on parade. You should get your head out of your ass and quit chasing the wrong dreams.”
“That's not an answer, Red.”
“Something to be said about being in your place and “being the best you can be”. Know what I mean, Walters?”
“Where is she?”
“Drink up. I said she’ll be back. The girl had to wash all that smoke off her. You’re not going to hear what you want to hear, Walters. You are completely out of your element. Relax, take in the sights, listen to the music.” The sentimental strains of “This I Swear” eased from a classic jukebox.
I like this character. He is right. You are out of league. One can only hope that you will listen to him.
“That girl is one of those lights.”
Did I want to know how he knew about Wendy?
“Not Wendy. You're to find out about her soon. I'm talking about the girl from Maryland. The Northwest girl. The girl from Northwestern High School that let you down. So down that you came to the Golden Gate to shed tears.”
“Thanks, Red. I hadn’t thought about her in days."
“She illustrates the point, man. Totally out of your element. Had her fooled for a little while, didn’t you. Sweet promises. Pretty face. Schoolboy loyalty. This one had a kid? You look the part. But in your heart you’re like a kid, no older than hers.”
“They teach Psych 101 at the driving school?”
“How did she let you go? Note on the table? Cleaned out crib?”
“You would know. Fill me in.”
“I don’t know more than what the boss told me. And don’t get excited, it ain’t like Ginny spent a great deal of time on the subject. All I’m saying is, don’t go too far out of your experience. Enjoy the ride, guy. That’s we say around the limo yard.”
Miss Crimson bustled in from the dark wood shadows of the restaurant. “Damon, have you seen these views? Come closer.” She took me to an open area by the windows. See her? The Sleeping Lady? Look at the boats all lit up. Have you ever seen anything more marvelous?”
“You were with Clover when he fell?”
“Oh, we’ve been through that. Yes, he toppled from a cliff. I was horrified. I was helpless. What could I do? as for that painting trick, I suspect Jay Clover was up to his tricks.”
“Why are you still out here if you’re not hiding from the authorities back East?”
“Why would I be hiding?”
“Perhaps you don’t want to return to the home. The nervous hospital. The bin.”
“Where did you ever get that idea?”
“The know-it-all night man.”
“Oh, no. Don’t pay any attention to what he said. He’s, he’s...jealous.” She turned and faced away from the view her back resting on a brass rail. I clasped the rail and studied her face. Lights from the bar shone in her dark almond eyes. “Some of the staff at the home are there more for technical abilities rather than their bedside manners. The person you spoke to is one of them.” Her face softened, she peered at the floor.
She resumed, “I suppose I should let you know a little something more. The Clovers are invested in The Process. Your sister and her friend approached him to invest years ago when the operation was just getting started. They worked together to refine the process. They used the home for some of the tests. Your sister recommended you as a writer. But, as you might imagine, there wasn’t a great need for a writer until I hit on the menu idea.”
“So the work was basically a handout. You sure make a guy feel like a million bucks.”
“I am sincere about upgrading the place. Why have a moribund atmosphere. I believe it helps the curing.”
“The patients were used to test the process?”
“Only under tightly controlled circumstances. And with the client’s permission. Many of them asked for more of the same.”
“That’s what the wisenheimer told me too.”
“The whole experience of the rest home can be very desirable. There were many who returned, but not always for the dream process.”
“There were detectives after me. They sure were convinced that someone had toppled the big man off that cliff.”
“Detectives?” she asked.
“Two blond, tough guys in an Aspen of all things.”
“You and that cars of yours, so cute. Those men are from the government agency checking into the process. We’ve seen them too. Isn’t that right, Red?”
The driver who somehow had changed into clean pressed clothes answered, “sure were. Their methods are strange. Sometimes these government types let a badge run to their heads. They get confused. They probably glommed onto you after you left Jay Clover’s place.” When he spoke he was looking at Crimson.
“Red is right. They’re after that bastard. He’s a rogue, a thorn in the family’s side. In fact, he goes down to Monterey. You may want to check on that pretty girl you met down there.”
I wanted to move away from the window. Even though the night muted the distance, I was afraid of heights. My stomach pitched and I would have sworn the building swayed. I edged back to the bar area. I faced away from the large window and leaned on the supple warm walnut bar for support.
“Another cold one?” Red asked.
“Why not, and something for the lady. I’ll pay.”
“Don’t make the effort; it’s all on the Clovers. You can order something to eat, if you want.”
“I’m not hungry.” The heights and the revelations had chased any pangs I might have felt. We were near the kitchen entrance. Waitstaff floated by with trays of aromatic delights for the increasing number of patrons. Red and Crimson stood between bar and glass.
Crimson did look better in modern garb. She held a cigarette sans holder. “We are setting off soon for DC. Damon, if you make your way back, I really want you to see me. Come to the home, they will know where to find me. Our work here is almost finished. Red, be a darling, offer Damon a cigarette.”
Red flashed an open pack of Winstons. One more won’t kill me, I thought.
“May grace bring you back to me,” Virginia said.
I reached for a pack of matches in a glass bowl on the bar. Red produced a dull brushed metal lighter with a raised C. I moved to receive the light. A dull click. A red glow came from the lighter; one of those electric jobs, I thought. The lighter flamed and then the world exploded. There was a thunder clap and the the outside flashed red, blue and green in sequence. Red had zapped me with Process glow. Here we go again. The room swirled. I tightened my grip on the smooth edge of the bar.
“Sir. Sir? Wake up.” A clean pink-skinned hand was pushing my shoulder. I was sitting in a chair in a hotel lobby. “You can’t sleep here.” A blank-faced white man in a maroon jacket stood over me. I collected my thoughts. “I’m waiting for a phone. They were all taken,” I said.
Those guys hear that excuse six times a night.
“Is this the Mark Hopkins?” I asked. I swept over a newspaper on a coffee table. The cover featured Ronald Reagan flashing a victory smile.
“Yes sir. Do you have business in our hotel?” There were three maroons side-talking into hand-helds.
“I really did need a phone.”
“All right, then I’m sure you will be on your way.”
I settled into the comfortable phone booth. Hotels have the best public phones. One of the security hovered nearby as I punched the numbers for The Sandman.