“Fame is a form of incomprehension, perhaps the worst”
—Jorge Luis Borges—
Wendt nursed a bowl of world famous clam chowder at Chow’s Chowder Hut conveniently situated near the entrance to the trail to Sutro Baths and Point Lobos. The menu posted on the wall behind the counter made the ‘world famous’ claim. It was a tourist trap, an old railroad car that over the years had expanded from when it was Conroy’s Clams, then Sutro Seafood to its present incarnation of brick carapace and enclosed patio area which on a day such as this, socked in by a bone chilling fog as thick as their chowder, was still packed with auslanders hunched over steaming overpriced bowls. There wasn’t much clam in the chowder but plenty of heavy cream and salt that made it the soup equivalent of French fries.
He’d been sitting there for close to twenty minutes and the buyer still hadn’t showed. The waitresses had already made a couple of passes to ask him how things were. Had he not been sitting on a stool at the counter they might have been a little more aggressive about him taking up space. Just about all the tourists were waiting for booths or tables on the patio. He could see into the kitchen through the service window and the crew was hopping, the waitresses looking at each other with weary acknowledgement that it was indeed a wickedly busy rush. Every so often a Chinese cook in a chef’s white coat would come out of the kitchen to answer the yellow wall phone on the yellow wall near the large antique double boiler coffee percolators. He would frown with the receiver to his ear and then hang up, returning to the kitchen shaking his head. This occurred several times while Wendt sat there. They certainly weren’t taking to-go orders. Perhaps an obscene phone call replete with heavy breathing. Or just a persistent wrong number. It was a repeated pattern in an otherwise seemingly chaotic atmosphere and it caught his attention. The clock on the wall above the cash register had his attention too. Now he had been sitting there twenty two minutes, waiting.
All because of a phone call. He’d been helping Angie and Sam with packing up the house to go either to storage in Daly City or set aside for the move up to Elk. So it was really happening. And he too had to think seriously about moving, getting his life in order and portable. Things were not on as solid a footing as he had assumed. His pal, Andy, was having second thoughts about his house-sitting offer while he was away in Shanghai, thanks to Andy’s girlfriend. And now fucking Lon Murphy was being hailed as a selfless hero for saving the life of his friend and literary associate, Carl Wendt. The new managing editor at the weekly likes the publicity but, per Charlie who was wrapping up his last days as the copy editor, says that the column has to become a blog if he wants to continue it, and that the column will no longer be in the print edition, gotta make room for more ads, and the worst of it, he’s supposed to do it gratis as a service to the arts community. Or something. Also he has to stop with the free plugs of various businesses for which he essentially received kickbacks, in the form of discounted or free meals at restaurants, for instance, like his favorite grease pit, KFC, Korean Fried Chicken, though after a couple of corporate lawyers marched through their doors, they changed it to MCKFC and claimed that it stood for Mo’ Crispy Korean Fried Chicken, and apparently they were getting away with it.
He’d been in his room, standing at the foot of the bed. He had to decide what was going and what was staying, what would be packed up and what he would need to carry to his next residence. How much do you pack if you’re going to be living under a bridge or in a doorway? It was becoming a little overwhelming, the boxes of books, the clothes in the closet and in the small dresser, the laptop and the Webster’s Unabridged, Val’s diary sitting in plain view on top of the record crate, ignored by his every glance. He’d paged through it enough to realize that it belonged to an earlier crazier time when their relationship had been threadbare and sadly transparent. That had been, what nine, ten years ago? He was about to pick it up again when Sam came into the room. “Someone’s on the phone for you, Wendt,” she’d intoned, pouting, still mad at her mother.
They’d had a mother and daughter throwdown in the midst of packing the boxes in the parlor. Angie had to be extra careful with the tall convex glass full length antique photo portraits of her ancestors, grandmother Giordano and great granny Vico, time capsules from the late 19th century. And she also had a collection of plush stuffed animals that were part of her office décor as well as mementos from her own childhood, like a ratty blue plush bear that doubled as a music box. They had been talking about the toucan and the porcupine as if they had a backstory, with him punning on the names, “Alan Toucant” and “Porky Pineapple” to amuse Sam who had lost interest in packing almost from the start. They were about to talk about the beaver when Sam gathered up a pile of stuffed toys and declared with the epitome of petulance, “These should all be mine!” When Angie tried to be understanding as she had been trained, Sam became abusive.
“You’re not a kid any more. These are toys, toys are for kids. You’re too old for toys! They should all belong to me!”
Angie’s insistence on reason only made Sam more intransigent until mother finally lost her cool and they both began screaming at each other. That’s when he checked out and headed up to his room with an if-that’s-what-having-kids-was-all-about-count-me-out shake of his head.
The phone call was from Harry Croft. He had a buyer for the Lucian Graff. Was it still for sale? He’d had to seriously consider it. Technically it didn’t belong to him. But Dorian routinely gave him books to resell, comp copies that arrived at his doorstep by the truck load. Of course the Graff was hardly a comp copy. “I have someone eager to buy. And cash,” Croft had insisted. He agreed to bring it by. He was going to need the money the way things were going. “I’m not in my shop. I’m calling from Palm Springs. The buyer will meet with you. But it has to be today.”
Dorian would understand. The letter from Dorian’s attorney, Hugh Klidian, was puzzling. He’d only met him once, a large panda of a man in an ill fitting suit, tie askew, hardly the image of a successful top rated attorney. Takes all kinds. He doubted that it was about the Graff, but he’d been asked to call and make an appointment. Well, here was an opportunity to ask for a loan, maybe an inside on a grant from one of the many arts foundations Klidian was connected with though they were mostly performance and music arts. He could perform if the price was right.
On the chance that house sitting for Andy fell through, and it had been temporary at best, he’d have to hunt up Aaron Shone. Aaron lived on a boat in Mission Bay. It would be cramped because Aaron was not the most organized of fellows, in fact, a borderline hoarder, subsisting on SSI and odd jobs. Aaron was a writer of sorts, poems and songs. Staying with him was also only a temporary option. And he would have to move on. It was difficult to shake the sedentary comfort of staying in one place for so long. He’d been there before so it’d be like getting back on a bicycle but not without a few wobbly initial false starts, bumps and scrapes. No doubt he was getting a little old for couch surfing.
And there was Wendy. Staying with her was not an option. In fact cutting her loose was the only sane choice left. She had become just too possessive, demanding of his time, needy, clingy, and an all around pain in the ass. Besides, the sex was not all that great to begin with. What could he say that would not totally destroy her? Well, he’d been there before. And Mac was involved in some really bad domestic business with her husband. She’d sent an email using a friend’s account saying that her husband’s cop friends were harassing her, hacking into her phone and email accounts. She was going to keep a low profile, and she’d be in touch when it all blew over. And he thought of Grace Niklia. He’d tried Grace’s phone, got her voice mail, left a message, not the second time though. He was hoping against hope there.
Plus it was the end of the month and things were already squeaky and tight in the cash flow department. Bumping the deadline on the Sanderson job, he’d already spent the advance, now he had to work up the enthusiasm to get it done. He had a tentative title, The Cartoon Effect, 19th Century Japanese Hanga, Mid-Twentieth Century Comic Books, and Contemporary American Poetry. All he had to do was fill in the blank. Yet he kept coming back to the future. Where would he be in six month’s time, besides at a de rigueur Frisco Halloween party? That weighed in for consideration. This was a steeper slope of uncertainty than he he’d encountered in a while and it was giving him gas.
He’d considered the possibility that he might have to live elsewhere, somewhere other than the city, Oakland, or the shudderburbs. But no, that was impossible, the city was his living space, and he was its flaneur, an original jazz-soaked hipster, imperturbable, the epitome of West Coast cool, in the groove, in the zone, as his home, the city, allowed him to be. He was predisposed to certain parts as anyone would in their own home, a tendency to hang out in the kitchen rather than the formal dining room. If there’s a patio, a deck that’s where he’d be, sucking down a margarita or a craft beer. The city was his domicile. Restaurants his dining rooms, libraries and bookstores his study, and though he had slept in many bedrooms, his little retreat on Balboa was his den, his safe haven, his cave. Now that was going away.
He could tell the yellow phone was ringing without really hearing it over the din of the diners. The cook was ignoring it, dismissing it with a wave of his hand. It kept ringing until one of the overworked waitresses paused long enough to stick a pencil in the knot of hair held at the nape of her neck and flick a stray grey blond strand from her forehead and put the receiver to her ear. He followed her eyes around the restaurant until they came to rest on him. She nodded and spoke into the phone before hanging up.
“You’re Carl Wendt,” she said standing at the counter, “I thought I recognized you.”
“Lemme guess, from my picture in the weekly.”
“No, I was in one of Richard Granahan’s classes at State, the one he liked to hold at the off-campus pub. You used to join us.” She shrugged, “You probably don’t remember me. There were a lot better looking women in Advanced Poetry than me.” And as an afterthought, “Sorry to hear he passed.”
Wendt took a closer look at her and drew a blank. A few pounds maybe, the haggard stoicism of someone of long experience on their feet. Her blue eyes were still lively and perhaps enjoying his discomfort. “Yeah, sorry, that was a while back. What’s your name?” And looking at her nameplate pinned to the faux corsage, “Amy?”
“Yeah, Amy Roy.” She lifted her eyes over his head. “Your friend is tired of waiting for you in the parking lot across the road. I couldn’t tell if it was a man or a woman but they sounded real upset.” She said this with a smile.
Wendt turned and looked out the wide window onto busy Point Lobos Ave. The parking lot and entrance to Sutro Heights Park on the other side was partially obscured by the drifting fog and illuminated by the vague greenish glow of light standards. Wait, he was the one who was waiting! He could have sworn Croft had said “meet at Chow’s Chowder Hut.” Maybe he should have asked for GPS coordinates. He slapped a twenty on the counter. “Yeah, Amy Roy, now I remember,” he lied. “What time do you get off? We can talk over old times.”
He waited at the curb for a pause in the traffic flow and scuttled across, particularly dangerous given the low visibility. He scanned the rows of cars from the vantage of the berm overlooking the lot, and walking down between an SUV and a BMW, looking both ways, he reassured himself of the bundle under his arm. He was still undecided as to whether he was actually going to sell it. But he was curious as to who might be interested. A rare book collector? A Lucian Graff fan? No one was signaling him with a wave or flashing headlights. He headed towards the end of a line of cars and the edge of the parkland. He heard the acceleration just as the headlights hit his back. He jumped sideways between two parked cars as the vehicle sped past him, swerving to barely miss the fender of a fat assed Chrysler.
“Asshole!” he shouted as he followed the car with his eyes to where it squeaked to a stop at the exit, the backup lights blinking white once, and then the dark two-door shooting out into traffic making a left. Crazy motherfucker gonna get himself killed. And still no sign of the prospective buyer. He was about to let himself get annoyed. He lit up and inhaled the first draw feeling the rasp in his lungs. He stared at the tip and mused, this is what is gonna kill me.
Something, maybe the squeal of tires, an angry horn blare, made him look back over his shoulder, an orphic faux pas of the first order. A dark car had turned into the entrance to the parking lot. There are a lot of dark cars out there, not so unusual, he told himself. But not all of them, as he gaped in incomprehension, were racing down the row of cars toward him. He made a run for the edge of the parking lot. In his mind beyond that was no-car land and safety. Besides, the maroon Mercedes parked there would block the oncoming car. He hadn’t run that fast in a while. Not bad for an old guy he thought and it looked like he was going to make it. But thunk as his toe snagged on the top of the concrete wheel stop, catching air, being oddly aware of the coins in his pants pocket slowly inching toward the opening, and flashing through his thoughts that morning’s horoscope: a speed bump launches you to new heights (for you) before you fall back down on your head, then thud, the flesh numbing scrape brutal shock knock of a face plant, heels over head roaring freight train of blackness rushing to overtake him. He pissed himself.
End of MONTH