“Fame is a form of incomprehension, perhaps the worst”
—Jorge Luis Borges—
Wendt flicked his cigarette end into the gutter before stepping off the curb. That saved him. He’d made a right from Geary heading to Balboa through the neighborhood. He was stunned, brushed back by the black car, jacket sleeve caught in the wake of the close call. The brake lights flashed red and rear wheels spun in reverse toward him. He stepped back away from the curb and considered his next move should he have to duck for cover. The black car now vaguely familiar stopped even with him and the driver’s side window drifted down.
“Carl?” It was Wendy. “Carl, oh Carl, I’m so so sorry.” And burst into tears, her hands to her face, shoulders shaking.
“Wendy? Hey, what’s going on? What’s this all about?” Carl bent to look in on a distraught Wendy. Over almost running him over? He didn’t think so. The dam had burst and he just happened to be there. “You ok?” Another car turning in behind at the corner and blocked by Wendy’s gave a perfunctory beep. Wendt motioned it around and looked back in on Wendy. “Why don’t you pull over. . . .” Like there was going to be parking on the block this time of night. “. . .over there in that driveway. We can talk.”
Wendt slid into the passenger’s seat and had Wendy turn off the engine. Her usually well done coif hung disheveled down her back and across one side of her face as if she had been tearing at it. “Hey, hey, what’s going on?” She turned her face away and he touched her shaking shoulder. “You gonna be ok?” She was a casual friend, a neighbor, though he wasn’t quite sure what part of the neighborhood she lived in.
“I’m such a fool.” She sobbed and slammed the heel of her hand against the steering wheel, activating the horn echoing the sob. She turned to look at Wendt and even in the dark of the side street, he could see that her mascara had run and exaggerated the hungry desolation of her red rimmed almond eyes.
“Alright, what’s this all about?” He reached across her shoulders and gave her a little tug of a supportive hug. She didn’t resist and fell against his chest, exhausted and bereft.
“Do you think I’m good looking, Carl?”
“Yeah, of course, but what’s going on?”
“Bastard!” she spat and he felt her go rigid as she righted herself behind the steering wheel. “Men are such bastards!”
“Ok, ok, take a breath. Tell me what’s going on,” Wendt said, now relieved that he needn’t take it as a personal attack. It wouldn’t have been the first time.
“You know TJ?” She spoke the initials as if she were pounding them with a hammer.
“Uh, TJ? Lemme guess, the bartender. . . .”
“Where I work. Him. He’s a motherfucker!”
Wendt had a picture of TJ, young, handsome, self-absorbed, a hustler, a con artist, a player, possible psychopath, vocal about his likes and dislikes but chameleon in his stands. He played to the customers, especially the lonely old dames who lived up on Telegraph Hill. Wendt knew a hustle when he saw one and could understand what women might see in the kid although he was incredibly shallow. It was obviously the packaging. “I always thought he was gay.”
Wendy tittered then hissed “fool!”
“Ok, don’t beat yourself up over this. Tell me what happened. The guy break up with you?”
“I wish.” Wendy leaned on the steering wheel and stared out the windshield. “We never even. . .hooked up. He asked me to have a drink with him when I got off shift. I mean, I know he plays up to all the women who come in the bar, but I figure he’s just being a good bartender and hustling tips. I thought he felt different about me, that I wasn’t one of those. . .old women.” She threw herself back against the seat and let out a growl, “Oh, I could just kill him!”
“Hey, come on, it’s not that bad,” Wendt said leaning over and placing a hand on her shoulder, smiling into her face.
Wendy’s arm snaked around his neck and leveraged her lips to his in crushing desperation, a sensual heat palpable as she pressed herself against him. It wasn’t one of those situations he ever resisted. He responded in kind and engagement was made. The ice, thin to begin with, broken, they were ready for step two, explanations.
“So I get my things, punch my time card, count my tips and go to the bar and find him with this woman who is twice his age, dripping with jewelry, made up like a professional, and he says that he had forgotten about this other engagement with his old friend, the blonde antique, and then tells her that he thinks of me as his kid sister and all that stuff.”
Wendt nodded sympathetically. “He deserves to die.” Then they both laughed and she kissed him again.
Wendy’s place was on Funston, he now realized, right around the corner from his on Balboa. Wendt thought that she must have been doing ok for herself as a waitress to live in a high end two story duplex until he realized she was living with her parents. The most obvious indication of that was her mother meeting them at the top of the stairs in a kimono once they had entered the foyer and taken off their shoes. She had bowed and, with a finger to her lips, said in a whisper, “You father sleeping.” She gave Wendt a nice smile considering that he was there to plant his ginger root in her daughter’s hot wasabi hole. It made him a tad uncomfortable at first but taking a good look at the entryway and the space beyond, he was pleasantly distracted.
The interior had been made to resemble the entry to a traditional Japanese home, down to the polished wood floors and sliding door panels. The dark wood of the hallway gleamed in the subdued light from soji styled sconces. Growing up with a father who was a cabinet maker, he’d learned to appreciate fine wood and craftsmanship. The lines were simple yet elegant, and as they padded down the hallway to her room, a sliding door partially open to a parlor revealed the traditional tatami flooring and the tasteful simplicity of uncluttered space. He was inexplicably reassured by the elegance and pushed aside his initial reservations.
They ended up in bed as if it were fated by the stars. That’s how she put it. She had a lot to say about destiny and coincidence and serendipity. A flag had gone up but he’d ignored it. Not a real good intuitive idea of how guys work, either, but not all that uncommon, she continued to retell the story of how she had been stood up, disrespected, and basically shit on in public. Hindsight was microscopic and she’d ticked off every little indication she had missed that TJ was a real subhuman rat, and Wendt, seeing the potential for spiraling into certain mental splat, and not wanting to get splashed, continued to console and keep up a steady meaningless jibber jabber to prop up her tenuous self-esteem. It worked up to a point, but then she said, “Why couldn’t he be more like you, Carl?”
He could have said, well actually we’re very much alike, but merely made a note of it and placed it next to the first flag.
She covered him with her small body, her blouse already open to the waist to reveal a frilly white bra, and buried her tongue in his mouth with exaggerated passion. It had the desired effect, especially once she snaked her hand down into the front of his trousers and found what she was looking for. Hurriedly undoing his belt and tugging his pants down below his knees, she greeted his erection with a wicked little grin, and in a teasing mincing way got to her feet. “I’ll be right back,” she said.
A small unobtrusive Ikea lamp on the bed stand next to the futon lit the tiny bedroom space with an insubstantial light. On the wall opposite was a large poster of Kiss, the rock band, and a larger theatrical poster announcement for Cats and one for Phantom of The Opera. Cast off clothing was piled in a heap next to a half open sliding closet door where a blur of bright colors hung in disarray. Wendt perfunctorily scanned the DVDs, mostly gash and gore chillers and some animé, on a set of compact Ikea shelves that also displayed small blue figurines of a popular children’s cartoon. A stack of CDs of bands he’d never heard of, though from their names and album titles likely loud, were stacked next to a laptop on a desk, Ikea again, in one corner, open and displaying ‘cute kitten’ wallpaper. He was staring over the edge of a generation gap, maybe more than one. Just that thought had an effect on him, and an eerie prescient chill crept among the tiny hairs at the back of his neck.
His curious turn toward unraveling the original meaning and etymology of the word ‘misgivings’ was interrupted when the door to the bedroom slid open just enough to let her pass through. The reddish glow of light from the hallway cast its highlights on the shiny raven’s wing of disheveled hair that crossed obliquely across the paleness of her cheek. A brightly patterned kimono open at the front and draped across her shoulders, she fixed him with a sidelong evil eye gleam, reminding him, chillingly, of Yoshitoshi’s hungry ghosts prints, or maybe Kuniyoshi’s young woman possessed by a fox. But that passed quickly when she turned to face him and the glimpse of her sparse feathery pubes brought him to attention. Now, as she squatted to straddle him, he was reminded of one of Kunisada’s shunga prints and relaxed in anticipation of the singular pleasure of entering her.
She was as dry as a loofah. The downstroke paralyzed him, eyes snapped open to their limit, tears whelming, and a gargle of a scream forming in his throat to pass between his gritted teeth. “Urk!”
“Wait for me, baby.” And Wendy hurried the up and the down strokes in quick succession.
He arched his back to somehow ease the barbed shredding and let out an audible groan that peaked with a squeak of pain.
“Oh, baby,” she breathed in his ear and about then her natural lubricants bathed her insides and she was soft as mother of pearl silk. After that, moist, she rode him close, pitty-pat mud pies, like a derby jockey to the finish line where she shrieked a little victory cry and gave a few pleasurable grunts before tumbling off him, breathless.
Wendt bolted up and stared between his legs. His boy was an angry red. In the dim light he thought he could make out little tooth-like abrasions. “Son of a bitch.” he rasped as if to throw off the last of the stinging. He scanned the room. Something to soothe the burn. “You got a washcloth? Ice? Handiwipe?”
Puzzled, Wendy rolled on her side and reached into her handbag. Her hand came back with a couple of small packets. “Handiwipe,” she said, flipping him one.
It landed on his bare stomach and he grasped it. “Catsup? This is catsup!”
“Oops, sorry. Here. Handiwipe.”
He tore the packet open with his teeth.
“What’s wrong?” Now she looked concerned, alarmed.
“You were a little rough.”
“Oh, yeah, sorry. Guess I got excited.”
Wendt groaned, gingerly dabbing himself with the moist towelette. “Not a good idea to skip the preliminaries. That way everyone is on the same page.”
“You gonna be ok?”
“Yeah, I’ll be alright,” Wendt lied. The fissures on his shank appeared neon, but none were blood deep.
“Good, because now I’m going to lave you.”
Wendt heard ‘love you’ which did nothing to assuage his feeling of dread. When she started licking him like a cat, he understood what she meant and if anything it took his mind off the source of tingling ache. He wasn’t quite sure whether he was enjoying being tongued like an old piece of shoe leather by an obsessive pet. When she licked the environs of his naval it served to arouse him and also remind him of his recent trauma. But when she skipped the obvious target of all the lapping and went for the hollow behind his knee, he decided that this could get annoying real fast. And when she made to lick between his toes, it was downright creepy. He grasped her shoulder and pulled her back to him. She interpreted that as his desire to further osculate and planted her tongue in his mouth depositing the taste of the sum total of most of his epidermal surface area.
Wendt grasped her tightly by the shoulder and held her against his chest. “Ever hear of Johnny Coltrane?”
Wendy looked up at him, puzzled by the question. “He was an old blues guy, right?”
“Naw, this is Coltrane, John Coltrane, one of the greatest saxophone players that ever lived.”
“Oh, Coltrane, right! My friend Tina had a black cat she called Coltrane. I always thought it was like ‘coal train,’ you know, like on a railroad, but she explained who he was, her dad used to listen to him all the time when she was a kid.”
“Ok, then, listen up, I’m gonna tell you a story about John Coltrane and the blind drummer, and how Coltrane discovered his style.”
“A blind drummer?” Wendy’s expression said she wasn’t too sure she wanted to hear the story, but Wendt held her firmly.
“Just listen. The Coltrane and blind drummer story takes place in Philly when Coltrane was just starting out. He’d had a fight with his girlfriend and was out walking the street when it started to rain. He ducked into a night club he was not familiar with even though he was no stranger to this part of the neighborhood. Now as it turned out the music act at this club consisted of a bass player and a drummer who happened to be blind. Occasionally someone would sit in on the piano or sometimes a horn, trumpet or sax, but it was usually just the taciturn bass player and the blind drummer. The drummer in fact had started out as a tenor saxophonist but where he was from, Chicago, tenor sax players were crawling out of the woodwork, but drummers, good drummers, of which he was one, were hard to come by. And having played sax he knew all the tricks horn players used, all their clichés and comps and fills and trills which made up their repertoire when they weren’t feeling particularly inventive or because the club was empty or they hadn’t scored that evening and so the motivation to perform or even be playful was waiting for that rush of inspiration or the energy an audience might provide as a warped mirror of self or the blahs that accompany the bring down that leaving off, even for a short time, the momentary high of a drug could bring. So the drummer would play in such a way as to trip up the horn players and perhaps make them work and deal with the time changes, the drum rolls, cymbal splashes, bass drum bombs, snare pops he would throw at them. This could have been the contributing reason to the fact that not many horn men joined the drummer in musical exploration. Coltrane’s reputation as an inventive player even then was known to the drummer though they had never met. Coltrane on the other hand had never heard of the blind drummer. He listened distractedly to the music as he sat at the bar thinking about the fight he had had with his girlfriend. At the end of the set, the drummer made his way through the empty tables to the bar where he was greeted by a few of the regulars who chided him for not having anything to offer except that tired ass off beat drumming and why didn’t he have a regular compliment of musicians that would at least vary the thumping of the bass and the banging of the drums. The drummer of course had heard it all before and as usual issued the invitation and challenge to any of them who could play an instrument to join him on stage. Coltrane had been listening with half an ear so when he heard the challenge he turned his attention to the blind drummer whose condescending smugness irked him as well intrigued him. Someone, it might have been the bartender, spoke up and said that the reason no one played with him was because he overpowered all the other musicians with his interminable drum solos, in fact his whole act if you asked him was just one long drum solo occasionally punctuated by a bass solo but never for very long. The blind man retorted that his drum solos were no more interminable than a horn solo by all the wannabe Charlie Parkers and Dizzy Gillespies and any real musician he emphasized could work with him it was just that he was surrounded by a bunch of amateurs. That had silenced most of the critics and the drummer was drinking his beer with a haughty superiority when Coltrane spoke up and said that he would accept the challenge except that he didn’t have his axe with him. The drummer offered him the use of a horn that he was holding as collateral on a loan. When Coltrane opened the dusty battered case he saw that it was a soprano sax, an instrument he rarely played. Undaunted he took to the stage. The drummer and bass player launched into an upbeat version of My Favorite Things, and as Coltrane soon found out there were very few spaces in the dense syncopation laid down by the rhythm section. He attempted little trills and fills when a space opened up but the upper register of the soprano sax was unfamiliar to him. He was reminded of the fight and his girlfriend’s voice. He could barely get a word in edgewise in those fights and he was having the same feeling on the bandstand. The drummer and bass player were presenting him with a rhythmic argument that wasn’t allowing him his eloquent retort. But at one point a space did open up as if the drummer and bass player were taunting him, and he took advantage of it. Coltrane spoke his mind, his musical mind, in the higher register. And now the bass player and the drummer could only follow along. Every time the drummer tried to reassert himself, Coltrane beat him back with another melodic improvisation. The patrons at the club were cheering him on. The rhythm section worked themselves into a frenzy. It was an incredible jam, and when it was over the crowd was cheering for more, the drummer was smiling, the bass player was talking, and Coltrane had a grin from ear to ear. The blind drummer approached him with a canary eating smirk. ‘Two things,’ he said, ‘You alright. And. I’m glad I ain’t your girlfriend.’”
Wendt looked down into Wendy’s peaceful sleeping face, right hand tucked under her chin, a fluttering breath crossing a lank lower lip. His arm under the weight of her body was starting to fall asleep as well and he had to try to extricate it without waking her. Extricate. Now there was a word. To free from a difficult situation by stealth or ingenuity. From the Latin, meaning to remove a trifle.
Next Time: Wendt interview’s Chris Salas, Nora’s hot new literary sensation, at the fabulous Washbag on Powell. 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.