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Back in the World: Stories


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Krystal stared at the room. In a novel she’d once read she had come upon the expression “love nest,” and after considering it for a moment imagined light-washed walls, tall pines reaching to the balcony outside. But this, she thought, this was a love nest. It was horrible, horrible.

Krystal moved over to the door and opened it a crack. Someone was lying on the front seat of the car, his bare feet sticking out the window, his boots on the ground below with yellow socks hanging from the tops. She could not see the men on the bench but one of them was saying something, the same word again and again. Krystal couldn’t make it out. Then she heard Hans repeat the word, and the men laughed.

She opened the door wider. Still standing inside, she said, “Hans, come here.”

She waited. She heard someone whisper.

“Hans,” she said.

He came to the door. There was dirt all over his face but he looked happy. “Come in,” she said.

Hans looked over his shoulder and smiled, then turned back to Krystal.

“Come, Hans,” she said.

He stood there. “Bitch,” he said.

Krystal stepped backwards. She shook her head. “No,” she said. “No no no. Don’t say that. Come, sweet boy.” She held out her arms.

“Bitch,” he said again.

“Oh!” Krystal said. Her hand went to her mouth. Then she pushed open the door and walked up to Hans and slapped him across the face, something she had never done before. She slapped him hard. He sat down and looked up at her. Krystal took a flat board from the pile of scrap and turned toward the three men on the bench. They were watching her from under their big hats. “Who did that?” she said. “Who taught him that word?” When they didn’t answer she started toward the bench, reviling them in German, using words she had never used before. They stood and backed away from her. Hans began to cry. Krystal turned on him. “Be quiet!” she said. He whimpered once and was still.

Krystal turned back to the men. “Who taught him that word?”

“It wasn’t me,” one of them said.

The other two just stood there.

“Shame,” Krystal said. She looked at them, then walked over to the car. She kicked the boots aside. Holding the board with both hands, she swung it as hard as she could across the bare feet sticking out of the window. The man inside screamed. Krystal hit his feet again and he pulled them back.

“Get out,” she said. “Out, out, out!”

The man who’d been sleeping inside, the one called Webb, scrambled out the other door and hopped from foot to foot toward the building. He had left his hat in the car. As he danced over the hot sand his hair flapped up and down like a wing. He stopped in the shade and looked back, still shifting from foot to foot. He kept his eyes on Krystal. So did Hans, sitting by the door. So did the men near the bench. They were all watching to see what she would do next.

So, Krystal thought. She flung the board away, and one of the men flinched. Krystal thought, How angry I must look, how angry I am, and then her anger left her. She tried to keep it, but it was gone the moment she knew it was there.

She shaded her eyes and looked around her. The distant mountains cast long shadows into the desert. The desert was empty and still. Nothing moved but Hope, walking toward them with the gun over her shoulder. As she drew near, Krystal waved, and Hope raised her arms. A rabbit hung from each hand, swinging by its ears.

Our Story Begins

The fog blew in early again. This was the tenth straight day of it. The waiters and waitresses gathered along the window to watch, and Charlie pushed his cart across the dining room so that he could watch with them as he filled the water glasses. Boats were beating in ahead of the fog, which loomed behind them like a tall, rolling breaker. Gulls glided from the sky to the pylons along the wharf, where they shook out their feathers and rocked from side to side and glared at the tourists passing by.

The fog covered the stanchions of the bridge. The bridge appeared to be floating free as the fog billowed into the harbor and began to overtake the boats. One by one they were swallowed up in it.

“Now that’s what I call hairy,” one of the waiters said. “You couldn’t get me out there for love or money.”

A waitress said something and the rest of them laughed.

“Nice talk,” the waiter said.

The maître d’ came out of the kitchen and snapped his fingers. “Busboy!” he called. One of the waitresses turned and looked at Charlie, who put down the pitcher he was pouring from and pushed his cart back across the dining room to its assigned place. For the next half hour, until the first customer came in, Charlie folded napkins and laid out squares of butter in little bowls filled with crushed ice, and thought of the things he would do to the maître d’ if he ever got the maître d’ in his power.

But this was a diversion; he didn’t really hate the maître d’. He hated his meaningless work and his fear of being fired from it, and most of all he hated being called a busboy because being called a busboy made it harder for him to think of himself as a man, which he was just learning to do.

Only a few tourists came into the restaurant that night. All of them were alone, and plainly disappointed. They sat by themselves, across from their shopping bags, and stared morosely in the direction of the Golden Gate though there was nothing to see but the fog pressing up against the windows and greasy drops of water running down the glass. Like most people who ate alone they ordered the bargain items, scampi or cod or the Cap’n’s Plate, and maybe a small carafe of house wine. The waiters neglected them. The tourists dawdled over their food, overtipped the waiters, and left more deeply sunk in disappointment than before.

At nine o’clock the maître d’ sent all but three of the waiters home, then went home himself. Charlie hoped he’d be given the nod too, but he was left standing by his cart, where he folded more napkins and replaced the ice as it melted in the water glasses and under the squares of butter. The three waiters kept going back to the storeroom to smoke dope. By the time the restaurant closed they were so wrecked they could hardly stand.

Charlie started home the long way, up Columbus Avenue, because Columbus Avenue had the brightest streetlights. But in this fog the lights were only a presence, a milky blotch here and there in the vapor above. Charlie walked slowly and kept to the walls. He met no one on his way; but once, as he paused to wipe the dampness from his face, he heard strange ticking steps behind him and turned to see a three-legged dog appear out of the mist. It moved past in a series of lurches and was gone. “Christ,” Charlie said. Then he laughed to himself, but the sound was unconvincing and he decided to get off the street for a while.

Just around the corner on Vallejo there was a coffeehouse where Charlie sometimes went on his nights off. Jack Kerouac had mentioned this particular coffeehouse in The Subterraneans. These days the patrons were mostly Italian people who came to listen to the jukebox, which was filled with music from Italian operas, but Charlie always looked up when someone came in the door; it might be Ginsberg or Corso, stopping by for old times’ sake. He liked sitting there with an open book on the table, listening to music that he thought of as being classical. He liked to imagine that the rude, sluggish woman who brought him his cappuccino had once been Neil Cassady’s lover. It was possible.

When Charlie came into the coffeehouse the only other customers were four old men sitting by the door. He took a table across the room. Someone had left an Italian movie magazine on the chair next to his. Charlie looked through the photographs, keeping time with his fingers to “The Anvil Chorus” while the waitress made up his cappuccino. The coffee machine hissed as she worked the handle. The room filled with the sweet smell of coffee. Charlie also caught the smell of fish and realized that it came from him, that he was reeking of it. His fingers fell still on the table.

Charlie paid the waitress when she served him. He intended to drink up and get out. While he was waiting for the coffee to cool, a woman came in the door with two men. They looked arou

nd, held a conference, and finally sat down at the table next to Charlie’s. As soon as they were seated they began to talk without regard for whether Charlie could hear them. He listened, and after a time he began to glance over at them. Either they didn’t notice or they didn’t care. They were indifferent to his presence.

Charlie gathered from the conversation that they were members of a church choir, making the rounds after choir practice. The woman’s name was Audrey. Her lipstick was smeared, making her mouth look a little crooked. She had a sharp face with thick black brows that she raised skeptically whenever her husband spoke. Audrey’s husband was tall and heavy. He shifted constantly, scraping his chair as he did so, and moved his hat back and forth from one knee to another. Big as he was, the green suit he wore fitted him perfectly. His name was Truman, and the other man’s name was George. George had a calm, reedy voice that he enjoyed using; Charlie could see him listening to it as he talked. He was a teacher of some kind, which did not surprise Charlie. George looked to him like the young professors he’d had during his three years of college: rimless spectacles, turtleneck sweater, the ghost of a smile always on his lips. But George wasn’t really young. His thick hair, parted in the middle, had begun to turn grey.

No—it seemed that only Audrey and George sang in the choir. They were telling Truman about a trip the choir had just made to Los Angeles, to a festival of choirs. Truman looked from his wife to George as each of them spoke, and shook his head as they described the sorry characters of other members of the choir and the eccentricities of the choir director.

“Of course Father Wes is nothing compared to Monsignor Strauss,” George said. “Monsignor Strauss was positively certifiable.”

“Strauss?” Truman said. “Which one is Strauss? The only Strauss I know is Johann.” Truman looked at his wife and laughed.

“Forgive me,” George said. “I was being cryptic. George sometimes forgets the basics. When you’ve met someone like Monsignor Strauss, you naturally assume that everyone else has heard of him. The monsignor was our director for five years, prior to Father Wes’s tenure. He got religion and left for the subcontinent just before Audrey joined us, so of course you wouldn’t recognize the name.”

“The subcontinent,” Truman said. “What’s that? Atlantis?”

“For God’s sake, Truman,” Audrey said. “Sometimes you embarrass me.”

“India,” George said. “Calcutta. Mother Teresa and all that.”

Audrey put her hand on George’s arm. “George,” she said, “tell Truman that marvelous story you told me about Monsignor Strauss and the Filipino.”

George smiled to himself. “Ah yes,” he said. “Miguel. That’s a long story, Audrey. Perhaps another night would be better.”

“Oh no,” Audrey said. “Tonight would be perfect.”

Truman said, “If it’s that long …”

“It’s not,” Audrey said. She knocked on the table with her knuckles. “Tell the story, George.”

George looked over at Truman and shrugged. “Don’t blame George,” he said. He drank off the last of his brandy. “All right then. Our story begins. Monsignor Strauss had some money from somewhere, and every year he made a journey to points exotic. When he came home he always had some unusual souvenir that he’d picked up on his travels. From Argentina he brought everyone seeds which grew into plants whose flowers smelled like, excuse me, merde. He got them in an Argentine joke shop, if you can imagine such a thing. When he came back from Kenya he smuggled in a lizard that could pick off flies with its tongue from a distance of six feet. The monsignor carried this lizard around on his finger and whenever a fly came within range he would say, ‘Watch this!’ and aim the lizard like a pistol, and poof—no more fly.”

Audrey pointed her finger at Truman and said, “Poof.” Truman just looked at her. “I need another drink,” Audrey said, and signaled the waitress.

George ran his finger around the rim of his snifter. “After the lizard,” he said, “there was a large Australian rodent that ended up in the zoo, and after the rodent came a nineteen-year-old human being from the Philippines. His name was Miguel Lopez de Constanza, and he was a cab driver from Manila the monsignor had hired as a chauffeur during his stay there and taken a liking to. When the monsignor got back he pulled some strings at Immigration, and a few weeks later Miguel showed up. He spoke no English, really—only a few buzz words for tourists in Manila. The first month or so he stayed with Monsignor Strauss in the rectory, then he found a room in the Hotel Overland and moved in there.”

“The Hotel Overland,” Truman said. “That’s that druggy hangout on upper Grant.”

“The Hotel Overdose,” Audrey said. When Truman looked at her she said, “That’s what they call it.”

“You seem to be up on all the nomenclature,” Truman said.

The waitress came with their drinks. When her tray was empty she stood behind Truman and began to write in a notebook she carried. Charlie hoped she wouldn’t come over to his table. He did not want the others to notice him. They might stop talking. But the waitress finally finished making her entries and moved back to the bar without a glance at Charlie.

The old men by the door were arguing in Italian. The window above them was all steamed up, and Charlie could feel the closeness of the fog outside. The jukebox glowed in the corner. The song that was playing ended abruptly, the machinery whirred, and “The Anvil Chorus” came on again.

“So why the Hotel Overland?” Truman asked.

“Truman prefers the Fairmont,” Audrey said. “Truman thinks everyone should stay at the Fairmont.”

“Miguel had no money,” George said. “Only what the monsignor gave him. The idea was that he would stay there just long enough to learn English and pick up a trade. Then he could get a job. Take care of himself.”

“Sounds reasonable,” Truman said.

Audrey laughed. “Truman, you slay me. That is exactly what I thought you would say. Now let’s just turn things around for a minute. Let’s say that for some reason you, Truman, find yourself in Manila dead broke. You don’t know anybody, you don’t understand anything anyone says, and wind up in a hotel where people are sticking needles into themselves and nodding out on the stairs and setting their rooms on fire all the time. How much Spanish are you going to learn living like that? What kind of trade are you going to pick up? Get real,” Audrey said. “That’s not a reasonable existence.”

“San Francisco isn’t Manila,” Truman said. “Believe me—I’ve been there. At least here you’ve got a chance. And it isn’t true that he didn’t know anybody. What about the monsignor?”

“Terrific,” Audrey said. “A priest who walks around with a lizard on his finger. Great friend. Or, as you would say, great connection.”

“I have never, to my knowledge, used the word connection in that way,” Truman said.

George had been staring into his brandy snifter, which he held cupped in both hands. He looked up at Audrey. “Actually,” he said, “Miguel was not entirely at a loss. In fact, he managed pretty well for a time. Monsignor Strauss got him into a training course for mechanics at the Porsche-Audi place on Van Ness, and he picked up English at a terrific rate. It’s amazing, isn’t it, what one can do if one has no choice.” George rolled the snifter back and forth between his palms. “The druggies left him completely alone, incredible as that may seem. It was as if Miguel lived in a different dimension from them, and in a way he did. He went to Mass every day, and sang in the choir. That’s where I made his acquaintance. Miguel had a gorgeous baritone, truly gorgeous. He was extremely proud of his voice. He was proud of his body, too. Ate precisely so much of this, so much of that. Did elaborate exercises every day. He even gave himself facial massages to keep from getting a double chin.”

“There you are,” Truman said to Audrey. “There is such a thing as character.” When she didn’t answer he added, “What I’m getting at is that people are not necessarily limited by their circumstances.”

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p; “I know what you’re getting at,” Audrey said. “The story isn’t over yet.”

Truman moved his hat from his knee to the table. He folded his arms across his chest. “I’ve got a full day ahead of me,” he said to Audrey. She nodded but did not look at him.

George took a sip of brandy. He closed his eyes afterwards and ran the tip of his tongue around his lips. Then he lowered his head again and stared back into the snifter. “Miguel had met a woman,” he said, “as do we all. Her name was Senga. My guess is that she had originally been called Agnes, and that she turned her name around in hopes of making herself more interesting to people of the male persuasion. Senga was older than Miguel by at least ten years, maybe more. She had a daughter in, I believe, fifth grade. Senga was a finance officer at B of A. I don’t remember how they met. They went out for a while, then Senga broke it off. I suppose it was a casual thing for her, but for Miguel it was serious. He worshiped Senga, and I use that word advisedly. He set up a little shrine to her in his room. A high school graduation picture of Senga surrounded by different objects that she had worn or used. Combs. Handkerchiefs. Empty perfume bottles. A whole pile of things. How he got them I have no idea—whether she gave them to him or whether he just took them. The odd thing is, he only went out with her a few times. I very much doubt that they ever reached the point of sleeping together.”

“They didn’t,” Truman said.

George looked up at him.

“If he’d slept with her,” Truman said, “he wouldn’t have built a shrine to her.”

“Pure Truman,” Audrey said. “Vintage Truman.”

He patted her arm. “No offense,” he told her.

“Be that as it may,” George said, “Miguel wouldn’t give up, and that’s what caused all the trouble. First he wrote her letters, long, mushy letters in broken English. He gave me one to read through for spelling and so on, but it was utterly hopeless. All fragments and run-ons. No paragraphs. I just gave it back after a few days and said it was fine. Miguel thought that the letters would bring Senga around, but she never answered and after a while he began calling her at all hours. She wouldn’t talk to him. As soon as she heard his voice she hung up. Eventually she got an unlisted number. She wouldn’t talk to Miguel, but Miguel thought that she would listen to yours truly. He wanted me to go down to B of A and plead his cause. Act as a kind of character witness. Which, after some reflection, I agreed to do.”



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