“Fame is a form of incomprehension, perhaps the worst”
—Jorge Luis Borges
Wendt saw that he would never make the Number 5 turning onto Fulton. Instead he committed himself to the slog up to Balboa on the chance of connecting with transit there. Beautiful day, my ass, he muttered, but having to grudgingly admit that it was a gorgeous specimen despite the much stiffened breeze.
If he was going to make lemonade then he might as well settle into a positive headspace. He would practice walking meditation his Zen buddy, Mal Fein, had told him about, gyudo, also known as kaiho gyo. He was pretty sure it began with one foot in front of the other and let the body do the rest. The idea was to empty the mind and concentrate on each step as unique in itself. The problem with Wendt was that clearing out the clutter only made room for more clutter. Clutter and dust. Dust the clutter. And what old, dead, and forgotten fragments of memory did those microscopic motes represent?
Looking on the bright side, despite the absolute strangeness of the last hour, the trudge back to Balboa was an opportunity to organize his ideas for the April Wendt-athon.
Once a year, in April, for the past five years, Wendt had devoted his four, sometimes five April columns to National Poetry Month. And once a year, the weekly allowed him a feature arts article on poets and poetry. The feature paid triple his weekly column rate. He’d decided on a tribute to Val, a eulogy of sorts. He still had to collect all his thoughts but he knew where they were filed, physically in the file cabinets in the garage, and mentally, in the still unspoken memories in his brain case.
Her family had her cremated and her ashes were returned to New Hampshire. She always said that there was never anything ‘new’ in New Hampshire. Just that thought disturbed his concentration. He lit another smoke pulling himself out of his head for a moment.
Lower in the avenues he would cut over to Geary and look in on some long neglected watering holes like Flo’s Tonic Room and La Salambo. And cruise into the Red Hen before the final leg back to Balboa. He had plenty to think about.
Why had the police come to see him about Jeremy? The lady cop had been just about to tell him when the murder police showed up. A serial killer of poets. That had possibilities as a column. Who is Killing Our Poets? What had once been merely speculation, a question, was now a title, a headline, a subhead if nothing else. And on the front cover of the weekly, a real grabber. Maybe he’d write a little piece on Jeremy as well, give notice to his poet regeneration theory.
One column entirely of payback was a given. As he did each year, he would praise all the contributors to his lifestyle, such as it was, for keeping his particular poetry flame alive though always on the verge of guttering into extinction, a wizened black wick in a pool of red candle wax. De rigueur as well was a column on the best of and worst of poetry books published in the last year. Predictably, as it had every year, the list raised howls of laughter as well as indignation.
He was still deliberating into which category to place Shula Raven’s revised edition of Your Sex My Sex Bisect with the added section of poems entitled Clit Oration, her lesbian feminist poems. When he had expressed surprise that she was a lesbian, she admitted that she had once played for the other team, back in the 90’s when it was the thing to do.
But Reg, poor Reg. He never thought he’d think that. Dead, murdered? That seemed so farfetched. But then, maybe not. Reg was nothing if not prickly. So he pissed off the wrong guy. Poet? That was almost too silly to contemplate. But he wasn’t exaggerating when he’d told the detective that Reg was pissed at him for fucking his girlfriend.
Reg’s girlfriend was a narrow neurotic Latina, Octavia Vigillòn, also known as “Garbo” because someone had punned on her last name, “I vant to vigillòn” though she liked to be called “Tavi.” They had met at a literary evening at Gale Stringer’s, the hearsay columnist for the daily. It could have been the particularly potent rum punch as Tavi suddenly developed very friendly hands in a secluded corner of the kitchen which was how they ended up in the closet in the bedroom where it was even more secluded and she could do what she wanted to do. One thing led to another and when he showed up at her apartment a couple of days later, she practically tackled him on the couch. Wendt had not objected to skipping the prelims but it was often nice to start with a drink, even a “hello.” She was all over him like a rubber sheet. She had pulled a pink tee-shirt off over her head to reveal her tiny pointy mounds. Unbuckled, she had his pants off as if she were competing in time trials. Wendt had been in a little of a shock by how quickly things had progressed and was in need of inflating. Tavi quickly set to work on the hand pump. After she had shed her own loose fitting pajama bottoms and straddled him it was only a matter of time, a very short time, and she was done. Wendt was left wondering what had happened. It may have been an all time record for a quickie. But it was far from over. Phase two included more rubbing and snuggling as well as purring and licking and occasional tonguing, all of which for some reason had made him very uncomfortable. He reminded himself of an appointment he didn’t have. She tried to hide her distress by burying her head in his lap for a bit of snorkel diving. To no avail as the snorkel had other places to be which was anywhere but there. She’d asked for it. She’d demanded to know. He told her. She was a lousy fuck. It was going to be the only way he was going to extricate himself from her emotional quicksand. Again he momentarily pitied Reg, but then some people get what they deserve, and Reg deserved some kind of Hell.
There was another reason, actually the real reason why Reg was so berserk with him. Not that he had fucked his girlfriend and told her she was a lousy fuck, but that, in one of his columns, Wendt had pointed out the cozy relationship Reg, who at the time was still book editor for the daily, had with a certain East Bay publisher and always gave that publisher preferential treatment. Wendt’s comment had been to the effect of “It is truly a shame that not one of the dogs recently published by Sand Candle Press has been nominated for the Mongrel of the Year award considering the personal grooming Reg Meyer has lavished on them.” He had also connected Reg to the Transbay Poetry mafia, a group of mainly Berkeley intellectuals cum poets, and suggested that Reg, as the book editor for the daily, had picked a reviewer publicly hostile to the poet she was reviewing to curry favor with that particular in-group. Wendt had pointed to Reg’s collusion on the hit piece of a venerable old poet who had, after many years in obscurity, published his collected works. Wendt was not a fan of the poet’s old school style but felt that the criticism was totally gratuitous and had said so in print. “This trashing of a venerable and acclaimed poet only serves to illustrate the reviewer’s ignorance and the editor’s own complicity in a cheap shot.” Not long after his column appeared, the daily phased out the book editor position and relegated the literary reviews to the rosy back pages of the Sunday puzzle supplement.
Bright day glare glanced off the pastel flat surfaces of boxy buildings and squat apartment blocks. It had been a while since he’d wandered the west end of the Richmond District. Business signs and names in the calligraphy of another language echoed in adequate English. The lack of pedestrian traffic, eerie, and accenting the De Chirico angles and planes. He stopped to let a red, late century Nissan make a right at 40th. Across the avenue, a Chinese grocer shuffled the produce in the wooden bins. Wendt took a big drag and then let the smoke out, slowly.
But why was he a person of interest, who had fingered him? Numerous people had been at Twohy’s when he had grabbed Reg by the shirt. The police had also talked to Lynel and Dottie. Dottie, at any rate. Another instance of his bad behavior had made the rounds. It might have been anyone, even someone who hadn’t even been at the salon. “Yeah, that Wendt, he’s an animal.” It wasn’t something he was going to talk about except in passing admission. Nora? Well, Picasso had ratted out Apollinaire.
Wendt came up the steps with a full head of steam. It was early evening and he had made the requisite stops in his meander back through the avenues. And he had to get ready. He paused by the answering machine in the foyer, the pulse of the tiny green light announcing a new message. He deliberated pressing the play button. The last message had been from Julie, Dorian’s assistant, threatening that if he did not return the copy of that rare edition she was going to report it stolen to the police. She knew he had it because Henry Croft had called inquiring if Dorian would be interested in acquiring the Lucian Graff. He would return it. There was no question of that. Maybe he was just holding on to it while Dorian was still in the hospital. And Julie’s insistent badgering got his back up.
Besides Dorian hadn’t mentioned it when he’d gone by to visit him at the hospital, but then they had him mostly sedated, hooked up to a machine that assisted his breathing. And since he was in the neighborhood, he’d gone by Val’s apartment on Parnassus, someplace he should have visited more often, though it would have been painful, and he was a coward. Val had started at the top, literally, a bay windowed two bedroom apartment on the third floor and slowly worked her way down to her last apartment, a converted boiler room at the back of the building.
Old Mrs. Yu was the mother-in-law of young Mrs. Yu who owned the apartment building Val had lived in practically all her years in the city. Young Mrs. Yu walked around like she had an egg beater up her ass. Old Mrs. Yu was more down to earth.
“Is that you?”
Old Mrs. Yu sniffed. The skin on her face was mottled and freckled yet smooth even at her advanced age and her teeth protruded slightly over her lower lip. She had her hair tied up in a white rag, large yellow rubber gloves on her hands. A blue bucket and sponge mop were propped near the small kitchen sink, the brawny tang of disinfectant crowding the already small space. There were boxes in the walkway filled with the debris of Val’s life. She pointed to the empty sitting room off the open kitchenette. “You not come.”
“No, I had to.”
At his obvious misunderstanding, she repeated her words in a different tone. Then Wendt got it. “Yes, it’s been a while.” He stepped over a few boxes to the center of the room. Someone was packing up Val’s possessions. There didn’t seem to be anyone else but Mrs. Yu. Wendt pointed at the boxes, “Family, relatives? Who?”
Mrs. Yu indicated that whoever it was had gone “café coffee” and pointed, arching her arm to indicate distance. Wendt guessed the Starbucks a few blocks over. He looked around the room not knowing what he was looking for, poking, lifting, rummaging. Anything that had been written on, notebooks, journals drew his attention. What was likely a diary he slipped under his jacket and into the ripped lining.
The flyer tacked to the fridge with a Seurat magnet announced Marva Kleinwood reading with Gelma Znear at the Vivisection Lounge, a bike messenger and diesel vampire hangout south of Market. The date was circled. Lillian Belfry, MC. He folded it and put it in his pocket.
On his way out he ran into an older woman, thatch of auburn and gray distractedly coifed. A navy blue sweatshirt advertised Martha’s Vineyard and she held a large signature coffee in a collared paper cup with a plastic lid. She resembled her daughter in such a striking way that it made his heart skip.
She had been startled by him, too, flustered. He introduced himself and offered his condolences. He could tell she was confused, overwhelmed by her daughter’s death but wearing a brave face. Then another woman appeared behind her, a younger woman. It was Val’s sister, Vivian. He’d seen pictures, a younger, 20 pounds heavier, three kid, junior executive version of Val. The lively one as her name suggested.
“Honey, this is a friend of Valerie’s,” Mother spoke, and then searching her recent memory, “Charles. . .Charles Wright?”
Vivian smiled as Wendt extended his hand.
“Carl. . .Carl Wendt.”
Her smile crumbled and she shrank back with an intake of breath. Her eyes narrowed as her mouth grew taut. “I hate you!”
Wendt depressed the play button on the answering machine and listened to Dorian rasp, “I’m out of the hospital. Come by and see me. And bring that book back if you’re finished reading it. Also, Tjantor has withdrawn the manuscript from consideration. You may as well return that, too.”
Sam had run down the hallway from the kitchen at the sound of the machine and stopped at the edge of the foyer. She stayed in the shadows, her mother coming to stand behind her.
Angie pointed to the gray bundle on the floor by the telephone table. “The woman, the police woman left that for you.”
Wendt prodded it with his toe and then lifted it. It was an old paper boy’s canvas bag. Creased, faded, barely legible words read Detroit Free Press. It was stuffed with rolled and folded spiral notebooks.
“She left her card. That’s it there next to the machine.”
Wendt picked up the business card with the SFPD logo and read the name. G. Grace Niklia, Inspector, Special Operations Task Force, and an office and cell number.
“She said to give her a call if you had any questions.”
Next Time: Having dinner with Charlie Reyes and family, Wendt outlines his taxonomy of poets much to the horror of Clarissa and the twins. Later, an encounter with Michel Brezon at the Café Trieste reveals that the word around town is that Wendt offed Reg Meyer. To review what has transpired so far, reference the episodes listed in the sidebar, or click The Complete DAY & WEEK to read the pdf file.