“I’d better be a poet or lay down dead”
Wendt cut across Golden Gate Park on his way back to Balboa. A man was seated in the shrubs bordering the path. He could have been a gargoyle had he not been made of flesh, shoulders slumped with the droop of destitution. Wendt instinctively touched all that was of value in his possession just then, a hard bound first edition of Richard Granahan’s Remotely Normal, freshly signed, in his jacket pocket. He had come upon it a few weeks earlier at a garage sale in the neighborhood at the bottom of a box of giveaways that included textbooks, technical manuals, and old issues of Sunset magazine. It had caught his attention as it was the only book that looked like it had never been opened. It would bring a tidy sum from Hank at Croft Enterprise, the bookseller over on Blake. With the few signed editions, comps and review copies of books he’d received in the mail in the last week or so, he might just make enough mad money to go slightly insane.
At Fulton and Tenth, he had to cross diagonally because of the two patrol units, the ambulance, and the unmarked car with two plainclothes cops emerging. One of the uniforms was reeling out the yellow crime scene tape. Wendt stepped to the curb and looked across. Some onlookers had gathered at the periphery on the opposite side. A middle aged Vietnamese man, a recent immigrant by the ruddiness of his skin, and his young daughter kept their distance as well.
“What’s going on?” Wendt queried.
The man frowned and looked down at his daughter and gave it his best. “Somebody him stab,” not really sure they were the right sounds.
“He stabbed somebody?” Wendt craned his neck but it didn’t make him any taller and he couldn’t see much except the medics standing around like they’d done all they could do.
The Vietnamese man tried again. “Somebody.” He paused to confirm what he was thinking and then “Stab. Him.”
“Oh, ok, somebody stabbed somebody.”
“Him,” the Vietnamese man insisted.
Carl ascended the outside back stairs to his room. It was a stiff climb, two and a half stories accessed through a little side gate into the small yard crowded with Angie’s raised beds. He was avoiding Angie by sneaking in the back. He had some of the money he owed her, but he was betting on getting more cash in the coming days, especially if young wannabe Kerouac came through. He would be able to cover the entire amount and have enough to get by for the week. On the other hand, he had to amass some serious funds if he was going to rent his own apartment or get into another roommate situation. Dick had suggested that he go after Stoddard’s position at NAIF. Why even give a thought to teaching? He turned on the cold water tap in the bathroom. Fat chance, besides. He splashed his face and rubbed a washcloth across it. That brought the blood to the surface. His eyes looked tired, though. He needed more sleep. And his shoulders and upper back felt heavy, on the verge of ache.
“You know what’s killing the independent book stores, don’t you,” Hank intoned, “it’s this damn e-publishing books on demand crap. Quantity goes up, quality goes down. The big chain bookstores can shunt all that obscure stuff off onto the limbo of their virtual shelves. But bricks and mortar, especially independents, are expected to eat these dust collectors because we support the arts or some such bullshit.” Harry Croft was a poisonous pinch penny, a fact somehow made obvious by his lantern jaw, who dealt in ephemera and erotica. Literature fell into the former category. His face was weighed down with wrinkles, folds and fissures, and probably not because he didn’t smile. Henry, no one called him Harry or Hank, to his face at least, thought of himself as a British bulldog, a stick figure bulldog, but a bulldog all the same. “I’d like to see the arts support the bookstores for once. Instead I get pilot fish like you trading on their name and inflated reputation pawning the hopes of some dumb shit from Bum Fuck Arkansas with delusions of grandeur. I know you don’t give a shit, Wendt, because you’re a worthless, uncaring prick, and you only think about numero uno.” Croft loved books. He just didn’t like authors.
Wendt stared at the spine of the book in his hand. He had no idea who the author was. He set it down and picked up another.
“Who the fuck is Meredith Vanedom? And why has she written a book called Far Be It From Me?” Henry made a show of flipping through the pages. “And it’s not even prose! It’s poetry!” And then with a tone of withering disgust, ‘and it’s xerography.”
“How about Marissa Twillwell and Floor Sample?”
“Marissa Till who? Tillwell?”
“Uh, no, Twillwill. No, well.”
“Noel Twellwell? I thought you said her name was Marissa.”
“I didn’t say Noel. I said Marissa. Twillwell. She’s a professor at the University of Oklahoma or Missouri. Somewhere back there. I met her years ago when she came to read at State. Ever since then she sends me a copy of her latest poetry book. Signed.”
Henry took the book from Wendt’s grasp and opened to a random page. “Was she impressed by your iambic pentameter?”
“As I with her caesura.”
Henry set the book aside. “Any more signed copies?”
Wendt pulled a handful from the paper shopping bag.
Henry flipped to the title page of the first one on the stack. “These aren’t signed like that Richard Nixon autobiography you tried to sell me once, are they?”
“What are you talking about? The signature was there when I picked it up at the thrift store. How was I supposed to know it wasn’t his?”
“Do you really think Nixon would sign it ‘Best wishes, Tricky Dick’?”
Wendt shrugged. “Speaking of Dicks, I have a Dick Granahan. Signed.”
Henry arched his eyebrows, little blond grey almost invisible commas. “A death bed signature?”
“Yep, the hand is still warm.” Wendt chortled at his private joke. It was one of those yahaddabethere moments.
“Ok, put that one in the cash stack. He’s going to kick any day, right?”
“Yeah, he’s in a holding pattern, but it won’t be long now.”
“Alright, I’ll take the signed ones cash, no questions, and the others, the shredder fodder, book credit or twenty five percent.”
“Wait, last time it was thirty five.”
“I’m not making any money off this, Wendt. Twenty five. That has to be it.”
“How about a Nostalgia For The Infinite? Signed.”
“By Lucian Graff?” Henry shook his head and made a mocking mouth. “That’s out of your league, Wendt. Where would you get something like that?”
“Oh, I don’t have it,” Wendt lied, “but I know someone who does and they might be willing to part with it if the price is right.”
“I don’t believe you. But just in case, I might have a buyer.”
“There’ll be a finder’s fee. Fifteen percent.”
“I can’t do more than ten percent.”
“Tell you what, ten percent and buy the books at thirty.”
Wendt had his usual post book sale lunch at the Hawaiian Italian pub on the corner of Masonic, a meatball sandwich with a pineapple chipotle glaze, and didn’t think too much of how easily his negotiations with Croft had gone, compared to the usual haggle fest. He liked to sit at the bar and watch the foot traffic waiting to cross at the intersection or for the municipal transportation. He himself avoided the bus, the You Suck Bus, as he sometimes called it, or more accurately, the Suck You Bus. If he couldn’t cadge a ride from a friend or acquaintance, he walked. In spite of all his bad habits, it contributed to his relatively good health, both physical and mental. He allowed himself to take it all in stride. Sometimes giant steps were needed.
She was a brunette and had basically spilled her little black dress torso across the bar while a few moments before she had been cackling wildly over something very funny she had apparently told herself. She raised her head a notch above her outstretched arms and fixed him with one gleaming eye and corner of her mouth taut with a mischievous smile.
“What drug are you on?” Wendt didn’t really want to know, but it seemed like a polite thing to ask.
With both eyes crazed, she returned, “You wouldn’t guess in a million years.”
“I don’t think I have that long.”
“You’re right, I would have never guessed. “
She straightened up, arching her back like a steel spring. Now the smile was downright scary. “Hello Kali” or maybe “Holy Kali” Wendt instinctively thought.
“Don’t I know you from somewhere?”
Alarm bells sounded as Wendt’s homunculus raced down memory lanes looking for a link to this particular person or personality. He didn’t have much to go on. “A lecture? Book party? Poetry reading?” he offered unconvincingly.
She threw her head back in a fit of exaggerated hilarity. “Poetry reading!” she said bringing her face close to his. Her breath had an odd synthetic sweetness to it, maybe it was the Ambien. “A poetry reading? You gotta be kidding.” Then she appraised him with one eye closed. “Naw, you’re not who I thought you were.”
An older balding man, perhaps in his sixties, had come into the pub and was casting about with someone in mind. He strode toward them and positioned himself at the woman’s elbow. “Hey Tanya, there you are!” He tried to smile and glower at the same time. He fixed Wendt with an anxious hostility. She was young enough to be his daughter and they both knew it.
“And there you are! Wendell!” she said turning to him, a sexual wraith poised like a ribbon of smoke.
Emboldened by the favor of her attention, he tried on a mean scowl and asked, “This guy bothering you?”
The shriek turned every head at the bar. “Him? Bothering me?” Another shriek. “Quite the contrary. He’s deathly afraid of me!” She gave a smile that showed the fine even teeth of a bone grinder.
The man chuckled hesitantly not quite sure what to make of the comment. “Um, you? Ready? To? Go?” He ticked his head in the direction of the door.
She snatched her little black handbag off the bar. “I’m ready to go if you’re ready to go!” she declared with sardonic enthusiasm. “Maybe some other time,” she winked at Wendt and turned her back on him as if he had never existed.
Wendt paid for the twelve-pack he’d pulled from the cooler at the bodega on the corner of Geary and Collins. He cradled the beer in the crook of one arm as if it were a baby wrapped in brown paper swaddle. The whine and rattle of a pneumatic tool sounded from the auto repair shop down the street. He crossed the apron to the open bay of the garage. A couple of the Hispanic mechanics glanced his way. They knew what he was holding.
Wendt made a left at the access drive between the two buildings. At the back of the space was a chain link enclosure with automobiles in various states of construction and deconstruction. Bordering the causeway, a wooden gate reinforced with metal straps was set into a large wooden fence itself reinforced with large metal straps. If that wasn’t forbidding enough, there was an eight foot sculpture of Fudo, the gate guardian, made entirely out of old wheel rims.
Wendt pushed open the gate and stepped into the concrete courtyard, the achingly bright sparks of an arc welder sputtering in a far corner.
Cleve Comstock, the large man in grimy grey-blue coveralls addressed Wendt with his big belly. “Things went well with the book fairy I’ll assume.” Wendt handed him the goods and they walked to the little outdoor sculpture pavilion complete with antique refrigerator known as the Ale-yinator. Cleve’s bright red cheekbones were shiny with grease and grime. There was something slightly Vulcanish about him in a Falstaffian way. Tufts of copper colored hair seemed to spout in discrete clusters on his head and from his jowls as long wooly sideburns. He did not, however, walk with a limp.
A rail thin young woman in similar coveralls and an arc helmet tilted back to reveal the severe contours of a tough face removed a glove and plucked a can from the end of the box. Ronnie, her embroidered name patch said, was one of Cleve’s long time students at Iron Hat Works, the classroom/studio of Comstock’s business. He claimed that he only taught welding, but in actuality he taught the ancient art of working iron. In exchange for lessons, he had his students work on his commercial products, wrought gates and fences among them, for customers from around the world.
“Sold some books this week, huh?” Ronnie stated with a cheery squeak. They popped their tops almost in unison.
“I could have won the lottery.”
“If you had won the lottery I would expect some specialty brew. But since it’s the same old watered down piss you Americans call beer, I’d say you sold a few books.” Cleve Comstock was a Canadian. He’d grown up in Toronto where the difference between Americans and Canadians was barely noticeable, but out in the more westerly longitudes his cosmopolitan sense insisted that there had to be a difference.
Ronnie had ended up with one of Wendt’s old girl friends. He had run into them at Puss ‘N Boots, the lesbian bar in the Castro. They were celebrating Ronnie’s acceptance at IHW, or as the students liked to call it, I Hate Work. He had met Cleve through them and since the studio was right around the corner from Harry Croft’s enterprise, he had made a habit of dropping by after lunch with a little liquid refreshment for the crew. In the process of consuming the brews, they would invariably trade lies. Cleve liked to tell variations on his Blue Line Road story.
Cleve had been hitching through the South, returning to the University in Toronto from spring festivities in Lauderdale. He was picked up by a meth addled Johnny Reb in a classic Duke’s of Hazard muscle car, though he called it Stonewall not Gen’l Lee, and that was because the crumpled front end had come about from literally crashing into a stone wall. JR’s travel strategy had been to stick to the back roads as he would get pulled over by the State Troopers for various infractions, including a missing headlight, on the Interstate. The back roads took them through various little burgs in Alabama or Arkansas or some State beginning with an A. Maybe it was Louisiana. No, he would have remembered if it was named after a woman. However, the back roads were fraught with their own gendarmerie pitfalls. You had to avoid the speed traps set up by the local cops and even then you weren’t safe because of the road wardens.
Road wardens were something like game wardens except that their purview was the rutted potholed macadam off the beaten path. They had no official capacity and their job was to help stranded motorist jumpstart a dead battery, change a flat, give directions, call a tow, and the like. In reality, they were a kind of back country unofficial redneck police force who weren’t supposed to be armed but were, and liked to exercise what little power they had over strangers, especially scraggly young kids in their souped-up machines. They had been stopped by one such road warden in the stark blackness of a back country night.
Cleve had been asleep when he was awakened by the screech of brakes. When he got his senses about him, he could see that someone on his side of Stonewall had a shotgun pointed at him. Framed in the driver’s side window was a hand with a pistol. The road warden commanded them to exit the vehicle, slowly. Cleve, who hadn’t shrunk in size since then, though at the time might have actually been a little more robust, hardly ever exited vehicles in a hurry. To JR’s protests, the man with the pistol, a Sasquatch sort of fellow himself in tattered overalls and a greasy baseball cap, merely repeated his demands for JR to shut up while waving the iron in his hand menacingly. Cleve realized then that the person wielding the shotgun was a young woman about his age, in her late teens, a skinny redhead with an Orphan Annie hair helmet. Then the hayseed warden demanded their drugs. He knew they had them. As far as Cleve knew the only drugs they had was the New York pin roll they had smoked down to the cockroach brown nub earlier that day. JR insisted that they didn’t have any drugs, though even Cleve didn’t think he sounded all that convincing. The old farmer made them both get down on their knees in the headlight of their car and told them to take off their clothes. He had them throw their jackets and shirts in a pile by his pick-up truck. He made them take off their undershirts. This made Cleve very uncomfortable as he was one of those people who believed clothes made the man and if you were naked then you were just like everyone else. The old redneck ordered the young girl to search through their clothes for the drugs he suspected they were holding. Cleve finally got enough of his wits about him to realize that the redhead was shaking like a dog shitting razorblades. And she was pointing a shotgun in his direction. After fumbling through the pockets of the jackets and shirts, she reported that there were no drugs that she could find. Then Jeeter made them take off their pants. Again JR howled his objections but to no avail. Now they were kneeling on the gritty hard roadway which dug into the soft flesh around Cleve’s kneecaps, quite painfully. To make matters worse, perhaps it was the cool night air, but he had developed an erection. The skinny girl giggled as she emptied their pants pockets of mostly change, gum wrappers and pocket lint. The old redneck said nothing for a while, staring at the protrusion in Cleve’s shorts. Cleve was certain that this was going to end up like one of those shaggy farmer’s daughter stories with the shot-gunning of the traveling salesman. Then the old guy made them both stand up and had Daisy Mae yank down their skivvies. Now it was JR’s turn to get an erection. Maybe it took longer for him to get aroused because he wasn’t as sensitive to the night air as Cleve was or maybe it was the proximity of the young woman’s face to his loins when she pulled down his underwear. There they stood like two large pasty white grubs in the headlights of the Dodge and the pick-up, their sexual equipment at the ready. Farmer John looked grim while his daughter giggled nervously now. To Cleve’s amazement, he ordered her to take her clothes off as well. She pouted and shook her head and said she didn’t want to take off her clothes again and besides she didn’t even know these boys, they weren’t from around there. The salty old cracker swore back at her, insisting that she had to take off her clothes to search the car otherwise she would contaminate the evidence.
For Cleve this was the moment when it all went a little beyond strange. Jethro took the shotgun from her and she began to pull her top over her head. Just then there was a crackle of static and the voice of an angry god seemed to erupt from the road warden’s back pocket. It said “Billy Goat this is Nanny Goat where the hell are you over?” The warden swore and pulled the two-way radio from his back pocket. “Nanny this is Billy, I’m in the middle of a traffic stop, can this wait, over?” There was a pause as the night rushed back in silence. Finally the voice asked if he were making Raylene take her clothes off. Again. Raylene had stopped with her hands over her head, top covering her face and exposing rather large moon shaped breasts whose nipples, exposed to the cool night air, had popped out like plastic turkey timers. “If you’re not back here in five minutes,” the voice continued angrily, “I’m gonna take a hammer to every damn one of the little clay figurines you got down at Disneyworld, do you read me, over?”
Cleve remembered the old hick sputtering like a tractor out of gas before jumping into his pick-up and roaring off, Raylene having to leap onto the running board and into the cab as it was rolling. They quickly stuffed themselves back into their clothes, Johnny Reb in a boiling rage, his eyes like saucers, spinning, crazed. Or better yet, like Duchampian rotoscopes. As soon as they drove off, they headed for the Interstate. In his self-righteous outrage, he was going to report the incident to the troopers. It didn’t take long to find them as there was a cruiser at the next Interstate rest stop just down the road. When he explained to the troopers what had happened with that son of a bitch road warden down on Blue Line Road, they laughed till tears rolled down their cheeks. Fit to be tied, Johnny Reb insisted they do something about it. One of the troopers, after catching his breath and wheezing out a few more guffaws, shrugged, thumbs hooked in his belt, and consoled that at least the old guy wasn’t wearing women’s underwear. In a moment of indignant perversity, Cleve spoke up. As a matter of fact the old guy was wearing women’s underwear, frilly pink things. The shock and consternation on their faces was priceless as they looked at each other, the one saying “Oh shit, Euless is off his medication again!”
Next Time: Meagan Twohy holds her salon on Tuesdays and Wendt is always welcome except when he’s not. To review what has transpired so far, reference the episodes listed in the sidebar, or click The Complete DAY to read the pdf file.