“Fame is a form of incomprehension, perhaps the worst”
—Jorge Luis Borges—
Val came out of the shadows. He took her arm. They walked up the steps. His room looked different. The bed was made. That made the room larger. And brighter. Big enough for the Laz-e Boy. He didn’t own a Laz-e Boy. He might not have noticed but it was occupied by Dorian resembling an older Mitch Tjantor. Cairo came out of the bathroom. He had a gun in his hand. A younger Reg Meyer came out of the closet. He wasn’t empty handed either.
“Did you set this up?” he asked Val who was there as Mac.
“Well, well, Mr. Wendt, this is a fine situation,” Mitch Tjantor with Harry Croft’s greenish pocked physiognomy intoned Britishly. “There’s the matter of the Lucien Graff, isn’t there? You stole from me. You are the worst kind of thief, sir. A book thief.”
Cairo snuffled like Granahan. That wasn’t a gun in his hand. “That’s worse than what I did! What kinda person does that?”
“I don’t care you fucked my girlfriend, just give me back my book!” Reg shrieked shrilly with a voice belonging to Jeremy. Actually, he was Jeremy. He wanted his manuscript back only it wasn’t his manuscript, it was Tjantor’s. The bag slung over his shoulder bulged with rolled cahirs. Or bowling pins.
Mitch Tjantor had become very large, a Dutch boy wig akilter on the wizened bald head. A helium-filled Mylar balloon was tethered to the oxygen tank. Mac as a four year old Nora bounced on the edge of the bed but as Shelia in an old black and white photo he remembered seeing.
“You murdered me, angel,” he heard himself say. “And for that, you’ll hang.”
Reg Meyer was wearing Julie’s nose. “I wrote that book! It belongs to me!”
He saw that he had turned his back to them, wearing an Augusta green sport coat. He knew there was a crest on the breast pocket but it wouldn’t come into focus. The manuscript and the book, the manuscript book in the lining of the coat, he had to get rid of it! A rush of panic overcame him. He gasped for breath.
A voice was talking low. Wendt was immediately conscious of the weight of the covers and the warmth of the body in bed next to him. He squeezed his eyes open and took in the darkness. Slowly it became grayer. The suite at the Marriot. Mac was talking. He heard her ask, “Where are you now?” And then, “Why don’t I meet you downstairs. We can have coffee, breakfast.”
Was she talking to him? He turned his head and made out the curve of her bare back.
“Ok, ok, let me just jump in the shower. I’ll be about fifteen minutes.” She listened. “Don’t be ridiculous.” She rasped a cruel laugh. “Besides, why should you care?” She turned to face Carl setting her phone aside. “You awake?”
Wendt grunted. “Sorta.”
“That was my husband. He’s on his way up.”
Angie had to consult with a real estate lawyer down on Montgomery and asked Wendt to keep an eye on Samantha while she took care of business. He needed a ride to that part of the city anyway. There was a Jolly Juice down on Sansome he liked to frequent. The staff knew him well.
That surprised Sam. “They all know you.”
The employees were dressed like clowns. That might have been why he felt so at home. “Well, besides being famous, I come in here when I’m feeling flush, and get a Wendt Special.”
“You don’t look flush.”
“Flush, meaning I got jingle in my jeans, some bank to my roll. Money, honey.”
“You talk funny.”
“I’m a poet, I get to.”
They took a little table by the window. One of the girls came from behind the counter. “Hi Carl! Who’s your young friend?” She looked straight at Sam who shied at the attention.
Wendt chuckled at Sam’s frown. “This is Samantha DeNotti, soon to be princess of Mendocino.”
“Really, where’s that? A magical kingdom?”
Sam answered, “Up near Bum Feather Egypt.”
“Oh really?” with askance amusement.
“I’ll have my usual, Kickapoo Joy Juice, extra kale. And Sam? I think Sam will have the strawberry orange creamsicle fizz.” Sam had turned to face the large window onto the busy thoroughfare. “That ok with you, kid?”
She turned, crying.
“Ok, you can get whatever you like.”
“I don’t want to live up in Elk. I want to stay on Balboa.”
“Ok, ok, I get the picture.” He beamed his most benevolent smile, one that he reserved for special people, and Samantha was one of them. “Yeah, I understand where you’re coming from. I have to move, too.” Now the tears were rolling down her cheeks like large rain drops. How small you feel when you make a little girl cry, Wendt mused. “But, change is often for the better.” Who was he kidding? “Angie is doing the right thing. You’re gonna get away from the nasty dirty city and be living near the ocean and all that fresh healthy country air, near the beach where you can ride horses.”
Sam sniffed at a tear that clung to her tiny now red nose. “Mom said I could get a pony.”
“There you go. And you’ll meet a lot of new people and make new friends. Angie’s probably going to have a big garden and grow lots of fresh vegetables. Corn, you know how much you love corn on the cob. You’ll probably see deer and raccoons and maybe even wild cats. You’ll have to get a dog. Anybody who lives in the country has to have a dog.”
“A puppy,” she said smiling. Now the tears were merely remnants of a passing shower.
“Hey, you can go boogie boarding or surfing. Those country kids know how to have fun. And you can always come back to the city for visits, to the museum, the ballet. It’s not that far.”
Sam frowned. “Five hours,” she said with a dark pout.
“Then when you do come for a visit, it’ll be extra special.”
“Will you come up to Elk and visit, Wendt?”
“Oh, yeah, I’ll come up for a couple of days to hang out, go to the beach, that kind of thing.” Wendt tried to sound convincing, but he knew that there was no way he was going to seclude himself in a country way. “And you’ll have to come and visit me when you come back down to the city.”
“Where are you going to be living? How will I find you?”
Wendt chuckled. “I’ll be staying with friends at first until I get myself a nice little apartment, maybe out in Noë Valley. I’ll be staying in touch with Angie so don’t you worry.”
Their drinks arrived. Sam eyed his vibrant green concoction curiously. “What’s that?”
“The elixir of youth, ambrosia of the gods, the staunch to the thirst of mortality.”
“Can I have a taste?”
“How old are you?”
“You know! Eight!”
“You’ll have to wait fifty years.”
“Fifty years?! You’ll be dead by then!” She giggled as if it were a really funny and at the same time a really awful thing to say.
Wendt gazed at the large plastic cup with a baleful eye. “Then why am I drinking this stuff?”
Lorna ran the Vivisection Lounge. She was a large woman with Biker Bitch tattooed in gothic script on her inner left forearm. And she was the only person Wendt knew who actually looked good in a crew cut. He remembered her from when she’d been the bartender at Puss ‘N Boots, the biker dyke bar in the Castro. He had asked if she knew Val and when was the last time she saw her.
“Yeah, shame that. Lipstick doll, a real heartbreaker with that crooked smile. Yeah, I remember her. Why you asking?”
“She’s a friend of mine, was a friend, and I’m writing a piece on her for the weekly.”
“Yeah, I thought I recognized your mug. What’re you gonna write about her?”
“Kind of a memorial and a tribute to her talents.” Wendt indicated a refill on the shot. He unfolded the flyer and pointed to the name. “Know how I can get in touch with Lillian Belfry?”
Lorna lifted the phone on the back bar and stabbed a number. She spoke into the arcane handset. “You’ll never guess who’s out here askin’ after you?” She listened with a wince. “Alright, alright. What’s his name, the guy you read in the weekly?” She motioned to Wendt with her chin, “Wendt?”and Wendt nodded back. “Yeah, that’s him.”
Lorna poured the shot as Lillian Belfry flew out of the door that read Employees Only. “Well, if it isn’t Carl Wendt, poet killer.”
“Hey, hey, I had nothing to do with Reg Meyer’s untimely, or timely, as the case may be, demise.”
“I’m not talking about Reg Meyer.” She stood at Wendt’s shoulder and he met her eyes. “Val Richards, that’s who I’m talking about. You killed her, Wendt, you killed her with indifference.”
“You don’t know what you’re saying.”
“I know you’re gutless. I’m woman enough to know you’re missing a pair. You coulda gone into that burning building and saved her.”
“I’m not a fireman.”
“You’re barely a man!”
Wendt glanced at Lorna who beamed a smile of great satisfaction. He turned back to Lillian whose head appeared to have been transformed into a giant long eye-lashed gape mouthed cartoon of a dime store goldfish. He nodded, understanding that Val intended to haunt him with memories of his churlishness and cowardice. “I’m writing a memorial as a feature article for the weekly. That’s why I’m asking around. Who did she see last, what was she doing? That sort of thing.”
“And you think that because you’re writing this memorial it’s going to absolve you of any guilt for your heartless neglect?”
Wendt nodded and stared at the shot glass in his hand and then put it back on the bar untouched. “Yeah, something like that. I feel guilty I didn’t do more even though I knew there wasn’t anything I could do, nothing anyone could do. You know that as well as me. Something got off track and that happened long after. . . .” he said with a wave of his hand to indicate what would remain unspoken. “The whole performance thing, I mean, it was spectacular, but it took its visceral toll. She should have stuck to poetry. She would have been just as miserable, more obscure, and maybe not as dead.” He shrugged and knocked the shot back. “But what the hell do I know?”
Lillian fixed him with a gaze that had lost some of its harshness. “She always loved poetry, you know, that never changed. Ever wonder why she threw that whole poetry thing over, Carl? Think about it. She was in love with you. And she was a better poet. She knew that you couldn’t take the competition.”
“That’s crazy talk.”
“Really, Carl? Didn’t she change her name to Valentina Fox soon after the publication of Book Of Pain, her first collection of poems? Which, I might add, received unprecedented critical acclaim for a first book. All of a sudden she didn’t want to be a poet anymore. You were there then, Carl. What happened?”
“It was an esthetic decision. I had nothing to do with it. In fact, I supported her.”
“We were drifting apart. I wished her well. I mean, I knew something was wrong, the pills, and the lies, the lies and the pills. You can deal with one or the other, but not both, and most of the time, they don’t come alone.” He shrugged, “And she was in the process of changing her sexual preference.”
“That hurt, didn’t it?”
Wendt screwed up an eye like he was considering the comment. “Actually I have a tendency to turn women toward lesbianism. I’m part lesbian myself.”
Some people have a sense of humor about their unorthodox proclivities, and it’s usually dark. Wendt should have been knocked off his stool lying flat on the floor for that crack. Instead Lorna poured another shot. Lillian didn’t quite put away her hostility but at least she coughed up some info. Val liked to come by and be part of the reading scene which, considering the moderator, was heavily femme.
“If she was on something, she’d be quiet, unassertive and sweet. If she were coming down, she’d be agitated and heckle the poets. But at least she was participating in the scene again. People would buy her drinks to try to get in bed with her but when she was drunk she was like a sopping wet dish rag and all she could talk about was this famous poet she knew and how she had written the best book of poems ever and how he had never said anything good about it except ‘that’s nice.’ She went ballistic if someone even said ‘that’s nice’ to her.”
Wendt was familiar with that particular flash point.
Lillian indicated that Val was writing poetry again, but it wasn’t for herself. “She was hustling this guy who wanted her to write poems that he could publish under his own name, and he was paying her. So she said. Kinda like a poetry sugar daddy. Her and the kid who I guess is the one introduced her to this patron of the arts. Well, you know, with Val, you were never sure of how firm a grasp she had on reality.”
“Ok, back up a bit there. A kid? Who was this kid?”
“Some street monkey, a crackster I’m sure.”
“Get a name?”
“Messiah?” She glanced at Lorna for confirmation.
“Yeah, something like that, Messiah. I had to boot him. He was creeping people out.”
“I think he was writing poems for this guy, too. That’s the impression I got, anyway.”
Lorna nodded. “That’s it, frickin’ freak is what I say.”
“You know him?”
Wendt sighed. “It’s a long story.”
Lillian looked at her watch. “And I’ve just run out of time.”
Next Time: Our intrepid poet follows more leads and gathers more information for his now expanded feature article, Who’s Killing Our Poets? 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.