“I’d better be a poet or lay down dead”
Jerry insisted on driving him to the North Berkeley station. Earlier, before they left, he had given Wendt two white pills.
“What are these?”
“And you want I should call you in the morning?”
“Sure, why not. Not too early. I like to sleep in.” Jerry could not resist the urge to nudge and remind Wendt that he was probably eligible for Social Services and should see a real doctor. “You probably qualify. After all, you have no visible means of support.”
“Ah, No Visible Means Of Support, the title of my next book!”
Sierra had poked her head into the den. “I thought I heard a broken muffler.” She had always wanted to look like the women in the yoga accessories catalogues, lithe and tan, and with a relaxed, even enlightened worldliness. She wasn’t Sheila Norberg anymore, all baby fat and anxious energy. In her presence Wendt felt awkward, like something had been left unfinished. Even if she barely resembled the woman he had married.
They had gone to couples therapy. One of the ways they were made to communicate with each other was by using hand puppets. The therapist had an assortment of stuffed animal puppets that the clients would fit on their hands like gloves and allow their inner selves to speak. Cuddly koalas, fuzzy puppies, plush frogs, colorful toucans, furry teddy bears. Not unpredictably, women picked the dreadlocked porcupine, and men, the wooly gorilla.
Jerry had helped Sheila realize her potential as an artist. “In a good marriage, one must become the loving guardian of the other’s solitude,” he’d told Wendt when the subject had come up at their tenth anniversary celebration. She had stopped painting for the most part, producing tapestries, quilts, pillow covers based on her earlier work, and exclusively for interior decorators. It could be disconcerting to be at a function in someone’s Pacific Heights home and sit on a couch whose throw pillows were replicas of paintings she had done during one of their more idyllic times together, a time when he would awaken mornings to one of those paintings on the easel at the foot of the bed that shared their tiny studio space with her paints, brushes and canvases, and his typewriter and books. Or even worse, have sex with someone whose bedspread was a quilt based on a painting done during the period they were breaking up, an original canvas he remembered putting his fist through. The chances were good that he would, in his travels, encounter a Sierra North Creation in some pretentious parlor, especially in Berkeley.
Had Sheila stayed with Wendt, they would have destroyed each other. She never started anything but could leave nothing unresolved, and there were always so many loose ends, in more ways than one. He was just the opposite. And opposites attract. Until they tire of each other or become too much alike, until they are no longer opposite.
They’d exchanged the usual pleasantries and then she’d leaned over to say something in her husband’s ear. Jerry, nodding, looked up at her as she planted an affectionate peck on his lips. Then she was gone. Jerry had waited until he heard her car pull out of the driveway. The bad news was that the cancer had come back. Wendt felt the hurt as a kind of despair.
Jerry slipped him a twenty getting out at the station. They’d been talking about poetry, of all things. Jerry had a knack for seeing past the words. What he’d read of poetry recently had him worried. The amount of repression evident in the semiotic fabric of current literature was an indication of classic denial and anal retentive behavior. Except for what he’d seen of Wendt’s.
“You read my poems?”
“Of course. You know my fascination with the deviant id.”
Wendt lit up as soon as he stepped out at the Powell Street station. Going by the hospital and looking in on Dorian was next on his list. Go home, shower, change, and then find out what hospital he was in. Last time it was UCSF. And maybe look in on Val, she had a place in the neighborhood. It was a thought.
A cable car and a small compact with an Asian man standing stiffly by the open door had crossed paths. The ambulance lights were flashing but the EMTs were just there in case someone had been hurt. It was a bright, sun filled scene, nonetheless, after what had been nearly a month of fog and cloud bluster, and he relished the hearty slog up Powell, the underground cable’s rumble and clank accompanying him. The Buddha Pagoda Palace Lounge on the corner of California, not to be mistaken for the Buddha Lounge over on Grant, was known to its habitué’s as “Bud’s.” Bud’s was a cabbie, courier, messenger, limo, tour bus driver hang-out. Everyone knew Wendt as Mr. Clean Pee, or just Mr. Clean, for having urine free of any drug residue which he would provide for a fee or consideration.
The way it usually worked was a guy comes up to you, offers to buy you a beer. You suck it up and come time to recycle, you’re provided with a little plastic bottle into which you donate your sample. Simple.
The bartender’s name was Su, a dark ethnic Chinese with a massive pimp konk and a red Hawaiian shirt. It seemed like he was always on the phone, jabbering in something that Wendt was sure was not Chinese. Jimmy Chan was sitting at the bar, too. Or, as usual. He drove for Eternity Courier which had its offices on Anza over by the cop shop on Sixth Ave. If Jimmy was leaving anytime soon, he’d cadge a ride back to the neighborhood with him. Otherwise he’d find a cabbie he could deadhead with. He’d never had any problem. It was a symbiotic relationship he had with the drivers. He sold them his piss so they could keep on using their shit.
“What’s he saying now?”
Jimmy shrugged. “Who know. Some Chinese redneck talk. Hill people, nobody talk like dat. Backwood gangster maybe. FBI, SFPD, dey doan have translator for dat shit. He could be say ‘hit dat motherfucker!’ Nobody know.”
Jimmy was quitting early. It was Friday and he was going down to Woodside to visit his cousin who was 101 years old. “Jade Dragon,” he said cryptically. He gave Wendt a lift back to his office and Wendt hoofed the remaining distance in stark Mediterranean blue sunshine whose radiant heat countered the brisk breeze off the Bay. By the time he got to Balboa he was starting to air a sweat. He stood at the base of the peeling white paint stairs, smoked another cigarette and cooled down, reveling in the glorious light. Some of the trees had started to flower, young tips pierced by the full spectrum highlighting a delicate halo around their shapely contours. Even the traffic noise from the parkway a block over seemed muted in deference to the lightness of the day, and the prevalent exhaust fumes mixed with an ephemeral perfume.
He had a pile of mail waiting for him on the table in the foyer where Angie had also thoughtfully placed the telephone answering machine so he could receive his snail mail and voice mail at the same location. A couple of large manila envelopes, the usual postcards announcing gallery openings or other cultural events, and a few ‘hey I’m still alive, how about you?’ cards from old friends. He set the collection agency envelopes off to the side. They would be filed, unopened, with his collection of collection agency letters, in the round file. The long legal envelope with the Sanderson Estate Library logo made him smile. “The eagle flies on Friday,” he muttered to himself.
Angie had come to stand in the doorway to her office and he held up the envelope with a big grin. “Pennies from heaven! Open the champagne, break out the Beluga!” He had pressed the button on the answering machine and navigated to his mail box. “Carl. Wendt. You have. One. New. Message,” it said. Wendt read Angie’s body language, though her expression spoke the urgent headline.
“What? You got hay fever? You look like you’ve been crying.”
The voice on the answering machine was Nora’s. “Wendt, why the fuck can’t you ever be home when I call?”
“It’s Val, Carl, she’s dead,” Angie said quietly, the emotion whelming up and making her mouth tremble.
“I hate to break it to you over the phone like this but you have to be told,” Nora’s voice continued. “I’ve already called Angie and talked to her. Maybe she’s already given you the news. Val Richards died at 4 am this morning in the emergency room at San Francisco General. I know you’re going to take this hard. Give me a call when you get this message.” There was a pause. “Please.” Nora never said please.
Something grabbed him by the throat so hard it brought a tear to his eye. The sigh he heaved weighed a ton. His face melted, not in a dripping ooze, but with a softness, what the French would call moue.
He found himself on his back on his bed in his room, the journey up the stairs accomplished in slow ponderous steps as if suddenly the weight of all his demons had come to roost on his shoulders. Angie had offered him a consoling hug, tears streaming down her cheeks. She suggested that maybe he needed to be alone for now when, rigid with grief, he could barely respond. She had known Val too, had been her friend when she could.
The news opened a gap in his obsessive self-narration. As if words could salve the loss. That stopping of being, so sudden, so irreversible, so inevitable. But before long the narrative reasserted itself.
He tried to remember things about her but nothing came into focus. She liked to bite. And pinch. Their sex always seemed perfunctory as if it was only the prelude to a shared intimacy of the word, the baring of the soul. She liked The Story of O. He didn’t know why, but that had always bothered him.
He had met Valerie Richards on the roof of the Art Institute during the break in a literary event at which he and a gaggle of other up-and-coming young and not-so-young scribblers and wannabes had been featured. A full July moon hung over the Bay Bridge in a purpling sky with a spot-lighted Coit Tower in the foreground like an erotic depiction on a suggestive French post card. Willowy, with a continental manner, dark haired, blue eyed, alabaster skinned, and a perpetually bemused expression. His ears had been titillated by something frighteningly French that had bubbled giddily from her crimson painted lips.
Val translated American pop fiction into French under the name Valentina Renard, then. They had worked on some French poets together, Rigot, Balthazar, Simone Vitrine, eventually translating and publishing a small volume of her work entitled Leche-Vitrine.
Valentina Fox was the name she used in her performances. After she had passed on the poetry scene as being too staid no matter how avant-garde they thought they were. Web collectors, she’d called them, inhabiting niches, dusty corners where there was only room for one spider, everyone else devoured or scurrying off to find a corner to weave their own scene. She stopped wanting to defend the written word, she’d said. She didn’t want to read what others had written or write what others would read. He heard her voice. “I don’t want to write any more. I just want to be able to stand up and start talking. I’ll say what comes to mind and if I’m any good you’ll be enthralled by how mundane life can be.”
She was a smarty ass, wise and tragic. She’d had a nervous little laugh that belied its supposed joyousness the last time he had talked to her on the phone. How, another time over the phone, she had raged at him about a typo that appeared in one of his columns. But it wasn’t really about the typo, the typo was just an excuse to talk to him. That had gone completely over his head.
He remembered the shuddering intensity of their first kiss. She’d exclaimed, surprised, “You’re shaking.” He bit his lower lip and gnawed the upper as if the memory of hers against his could be so easily recalled. Or erased. Staring blankly at the ceiling, he brought some clichés out of retirement. Today was the day the two women he could actually say he had loved unconditionally had visited him, one with pain, the other with sorrow. His eyes burned. Maybe the headaches had been in anticipation of bad news.
End Of Week. Next Time: At the beginning of Month, the murder police show up at Wendt’s front door. To review what has transpired so far, reference the episodes listed in the sidebar, or click The Complete DAY to read the pdf file.