The Popcorn Girl
a novel by Michael J. Vaughn
Copyright 2012 by Michael J. Vaughn
For Michelle Sutton
with special thanks to Wayne Rogers, Nina Koepcke and Akire Tiduj Csavok
jersey said to the popcorn girl
add two letters to your name and I will
make you a streetcorner
the popcorn girl swooned
jersey woke to the sound of
pecking on the shower stall door.
I want you to say it like this: Yazz-mee-nuh Kawn-treh-vitch. Very good. You’ve noticed already: I don’t talk like a Jasmina Contrevic. I talk like a Betty Smith, a Shirley Martin, a Heather Warner.
Not all of the Serbs were guilty. But bombs are indiscriminate. I was five, living on the outskirts of Sarajevo. The night was cold. My parents left me home, for safety. I stood at the window to watch them drive away. I felt the rush of air. They were vaporized.
I ended up in Bergen County, New Jersey with my second cousin. The trees were bursting with color, and Laszlo’s backyard felt like a country estate. He bought me a swingset, and we spent the afternoon putting it together.
Laszlo was so affectionate, for such a long time, that I did not recognize when it was that the line was crossed. Looking back, it was the introduction of the penis, but at the time I suppose I thought of it as a new toy. At twelve, after much painful effort, Laszlo put his penis inside of me, and it was then that the triggers finally went off.
I went to the library and scoured the biology section until I discovered the word intercourse. If Laszlo continued, I would have a child in my belly. I didn’t want that. Over the years, Laszlo gave me little cash gifts. I took all that I had saved, plus the diamond engagement ring that he kept in his dresser, and bought a ticket for Minneapolis.
I ended up in Mill Valley, California, a dollhouse town guarded over by redwoods. I work at the old moviehouse, where I take tickets, clean the theater after screenings, and work the box office. But I think of myself as the popcorn girl.
It’s been raining for weeks. The hillsiders are walking their perimeters, looking for signs of mudslides. Down here in the village, with our asphalt and storm drains, we feel pretty safe. Although the corner by the Depot is beginning to resemble a koi pond.
It’s January, so I don’t expect shoppers, but the gray desolation is getting to me. I hang the Back in 15 sign and walk a cigarette to the bridge.
Not so much a bridge; the creek crosses under the road through a concrete tunnel. I’ve seen kids hiking the tunnel in summer, and I’m a little curious about where it ends up. Some of the bigger mysteries are right beneath us. I lean over the railing and watch the water as it roils into civilization. It’s downright river-like.
“Isn’t it magnificent?”
To my right is a white hood.
“Do you ever picture a single raindrop falling into the water like a tiny kayak, and the wild ride it must take before it reaches the Bay?”
I take a drag and let it go – a stall tactic.
“Oddly enough, I do. Only, for me it’s a raft. Like Huckleberry Finn.”
The hood angles away, revealing a remarkable pair of eyes. Round as marbles, black irises, glimmering in the faint light. She smiles.
“I love Huckleberry Finn.”
I can’t speak. She glances at her cell phone.
“Oh shit! Gotta go.”
She crosses the street to the moviehouse. She takes off her jacket, revealing thick black hair, falling to her shoulders in sidewinder waves. Egyptian princess. Russian czarina. My cigarette burns down to my fingers. I flinch, and it falls to the water.
Why do people find it so difficult to be nice? There are certain (blonde, lazy) employees who expend large amounts of energy being surly, acting like each customer through the door is another one-ton weight upon her oh-so-frail back. People often tell me how pleasant I am, but really I’m just taking the logical path. I am being paid cash money to engage people, to be nice to them, so I embrace my role, and the day goes by much faster. And here’s the key to the whole thing: I ask people how they’re doing, and then I listen. You’d be amazed at how many people are desperate to talk to someone.
The owner, Fosh, is a Persian man with a jowelly brown face. He reminds me of a cinnamon roll. The rest of the staff is a little scared of him, but I just treat him like another customer: I ask him how he’s doing. Sometimes the answer is very long, and I have to remind him that I need to get to work. Fosh is long-married, to a woman who looks like an ambassador’s wife. I’m betting it was an arranged match. I’m betting he hasn’t had sex for years, and I’m betting she does not ask him how he’s doing.
Tuesday evening – very slow. An older couple. The man has silver hair, but retains a bit of youth in his face: sharp features, blue-gray eyes. The woman is well-preserved, but much of it is artificial: the $200 frost-blonde hairdo, the tight, expressionless face. She looks bored. Most of the terrible stuff in the world is perpetrated by those who are bored.
Fifteen minutes into the movie, Mr. Silver returns, armed with a soda. He wears a gray suede jacket, knit collar, very nice. He breathes a sigh and hands me the soda.
“I’m sorry. Could I get a Diet Coke? I could have sworn she said regular.”
“Happens all the time. How’s the movie?”
He rolls his eyes. “Chick-flick. But I’m tough; I can take it. How are you doing today?”
Ambushed by my own trick.
“Slow. It’s harder when it’s slow.”
“I know precisely what you mean.” He eyes my name tag. “Jasmina. Gorgeous name.”
“And you pronounce it so well!” I snap a lid on his Coke and hand it to him.
“Lucky guess. What’s the damage?”
I smile (this being just the right time to smile). “Let’s just pretend that the whole thing was my mistake.”
He smiles back – a small smile, a little controlled. “You are a gem. It does an old man good to be served by a young beauty.”
“Enjoy your chick-flick. Take notes.”
“Oh I will.” He laughs and turns to go. Ten feet away, he stops, comes back and hands me a business card.
“Jasmina, could you email me sometime? I have some business I’d like to discuss with you.”
I slip the card into my jeans pocket. “You’d better get back to your wife.”
“Yes I’d better. ‘Bye.”
Mr. Silver lopes away. An hour later, I take a bathroom break and give the card a scan: Anthony Francis, attorney, tax specialist. I envision my most recent trip to the ATM, the drop in my stomach when I saw my balance. The Minneapolis cushion is gone.
I have what you would call an ineffectual smile. When I manage to get it to make an appearance, it is inevitably off-kilter – too small, listing to the left, a square of gritted teeth. I have landed only one natural-looking smile on a photograph, at my sister’s wedding, when my uncle made a fart joke.
For the girl in the white hood, this is not a problem. The counter of my shop is positioned in such a way that my gaze falls on the box office of the moviehouse. A customer approaches. She flashes that smile as if it were hooked up to a light switch, and it is always perfect. I am terribly envious.
I have found the secret to those dark eyes. I apologize for not knowing a better word, but her face is porcelain. The contrast is alarming, a woman in black and white. And thick lips, as if she is permanently pouting. Unless she’s smiling.
I am an accidental stalker, a victim of feng shui. And it surprises me. After all that… nonsense, I thought I had lost these urges entirely, had tossed them into the creek like a useless appendage.
At the end of her shift, she counts up her cash drawer and takes a moment to gaze out at the street. Her face takes on an expression of despondency, as if someone has just told her the most awful news. For those two seconds, she is the most beautiful woman I have ever seen.
I work hard at my sunny disposition, but some days are tougher than others. Anthony has taken me to lunch twice. He is charming, genteel, but I wish he were a little more rude. I need to know what he wants. More importantly, I need to know how much he intends to pay for it. But I have learned my lessons from Minneapolis. You need to let things unfold at the customer’s pace. Even if you’re a week late on rent.
The weather’s not helping. The skies have been gray for a month, and the moviegoers are irritable. My stress buttons are out there, waiting to be pushed. When I duck my head into the box to scoop some corn, the popper spits a drop of hot oil onto my cheek.
I take time with the butter, hoping to quell my frustration. But my customer has noticed, so I’d better acknowledge it.
“Sorry. Our popper likes to spit oil on me.” I hand her the bag.
She smiles. “Maybe it’ll leave a beauty mark and you’ll look like Cindy Crawford.”
She’s a blonde lady in her fifties. Something about California baby boomers makes them cooler with stuff like this. God bless her.
“Hey Jazz. Why don’t you take your lunch?”
Javid, my savior. He always knows what I need. If he was thirty years older, I might go out with him.
“Thanks, Jav. 45 okay?”
“Go for it.”
I am thankful for the power bar I had at break, because I have something in mind that is not related to food. I head across the street to the store with the curious name. The owner is perched at his counter, applying price tags to a stack of Darwin fish magnets. I’m tempted to do the noncommittal browser thing, but I’m short on time, so I head straight for the source.
“So what does The Free Thinker mean?”
He laughs, and I realize right away that this is his calling card, his secret power. It’s a deep, manly laugh, absolutely heartfelt.
“I thought of calling it the Atheist Shoppe, but I thought that might be a little forbidding.”
“That’s funny,” I say. “I’ve been thinking of becoming an atheist.”
I feel a little rush, like I just stepped off the high dive. He makes again with the laugh; he really should hire out to comedy clubs.
“I like the way you put that. But there is a distinction. You don’t really become an atheist. It’s more like discovering you’ve been one all along.”
Behind his spectacles are small eyes that appear to be hazel, but they give off flashes of blue and green as he shifts his gaze.
“So how does one go about discovering one’s atheism?”
“Ooh. Tough one. I would say, you should start by studying some Christian history.”
“Isn’t that what I’m trying to get away from?”
“A religious upbringing is miles thick. You’ve got a lot of mythology to shed. And the best place to start is Paul.”
He pulls up an old-looking green book.
“It’s an analysis of the New Testament, and especially Paul’s epistles, written by a Talmudic scholar.”
“The Torah. The Old Testament. Paul basically created Christianity, and this…” He stops himself. “I’m sorry. Why don’t you read this without any pretext? We can always talk about it later."
“Awesome! How much?”
“I tend to find these at yard sales.”
I hand him money that should be going to my rent. When he hands me my change, I see his long fingers and I smile.
“Hey! You’re the guy with the raindrop riverraft.”
“Oh! Yes.” He gives me an awkward smile.
“I’m Jasmina. I work at the moviehouse.”
“I thought you looked familiar. I’m Paul.”
“Now that’s funny.”
He nudges his glasses. “Should I tell you the standard story?”
“By all means.”
“On the road to Tarsus, I was struck down, and I saw a bright light. Then I realized it was a BART train, I was in Berkeley, and I was very drunk.”
“That’s good. But then, shouldn’t your name be Saul?”
“I enjoy the irony.”
“Irony is good. I’d better get going so I can grab a snack. ‘Bye.”
“Thanks for coming in!”
I exit to find the sky still gray. The green book feels hot in my hand.
Exit Wonderland is playing in a meadow near a Canadian glacier. The fans go on forever, and each of them holds a single orange gladiola. A dark-haired groupie rushes the stage to throw corn flakes over my head. Billy plays the intro to “Change.” When we hit the triplet at the end of the line, the crowd claps along. The triplet gets louder each time through, until I open my eyes and it all goes away. Except for the triplet, which is sounding from the front door. I pull on some clothes and wander downstairs.
I creep to the counter and scan the window. Mill Valley’s a pretty tolerant place, but still I’ve had some pretty nasty threats from so-called Christians. A woman appears at the glass, using her hands like blinders so she can peer inside. I walk to the door and undo the latches. I have barely opened it when she flattens her face to my chest and wraps her arms around my torso. She is sobbing violently.
The sensation of touch is overwhelming; it makes me realize how deprived I have been.
“Jasmina? What’s wrong?”
There’s no way she’s going to answer. She’s shaking, and gasping for breath.
“Well. Come in.”
I take a slow step backward and pull her inside, then I reach past her shoulder to redo the latch.
She has clamped on to me like a barnacle, and I’m not sure what to do. I wrap my arms around her back, lift her off the ground and carry her down the aisle to an armchair. I turn around and sit; somehow she ends up on my lap, her face pressed to my T-shirt. I find myself with a close-up of those amazing curls, serpentines that just keep going and going. I would like to touch them, but I’m unfamiliar with the protocol.
She is not going to stop crying, so I have all the time in the world to ponder my situation. Perhaps I am being punished for wishing too hard. A father catches his son smoking a cigarette, so he buys him a pack and makes him keep smoking until he gets sick.
Jasmina smells of flowers. Gardenia, magnolia. Shampoo, perfume. Her breathing begins to slow. She lifts a hand to my collarbone. Cars roll past, sending washes of light over Voltaire and Jefferson.
I wake up in Paul’s armchair, two wise men watching over me. A third appears and nudges me on the arm.
I sneak a hand to the crotch of my jeans. The pain is still there, but nothing fluid.
“I’m all right.”
“Unfortunately, I’ve got to get going.”
“Take me with you.”
“Well, you’ll probably be…”
“Okay. I’ll be right back.”
Behind the shop, Paul’s got an old pickup truck. The bed is packed with round black objects. He hands me a violin case and drives us to the freeway.
Marin County at night has the feel of an overgrown village, round hills speckled with houselights, boats grazing on the edges of the bay. We roll into San Rafael and take an eastward jag, ending up in a neighborhood of flat, straight avenues overgrown with trees. Paul turns into a dirt driveway stacked with cars. A truck at curbside has a sign that says Roamin’ Hounds.
The backyard looks like an outdoor rec room. A large tent shelters a ring of old sofas and camp chairs. A bar juts out from the house, lined with Christmas lights. Off in the corner is an old-fashioned detached garage, a strip of light seeping under the door. Paul motions me into a chair.
“Stay here. I just want to make sure this is okay. Protocol. Here.”
He takes off his jacket and lays it over me. I pull it up to my chin. A minute later, Paul returns and leads me into a side door. The garage is a chaos of equipment. Egg crates cover the ceiling; the floor is a motley of rugs. I see a guitar and finally make the connection: the black objects in Paul’s truck are drum cases. Paul takes me to a low vinyl chair and sits me down.
“I get the feeling I don’t have to ask you to keep quiet. We’ve got a gig coming up, so we might be a little intense.”
A small brown dog jumps into my lap.
“Well! Augur likes you.”
Augur gives me a sad look – likely his permanent expression. A nice-looking blonde lady hands me a beer.
“Hi. I thought you could use this. I’m Anne. Keyboards, backing vocals.”
“Whoops! Gotta check my mic.”
Once Paul assembles his drums, they jump into a run-through. Anne calls out the songs. The band is rounded out by the lead guitarist, Billy, a thin man with long brown hair, and the bassist, Smeed, a stocky man with long black hair and chiseled features with a touch of American Indian.
The singer, Pamela, is a svelte brunette. Her voice is not showy, but it’s got a soulful edge. Her delivery is marvelously direct, blue-collar. I suspect a lot of the lyrics are political, but I’m too exhausted to piece them together. The music sweeps over me, but I can tell there’s a lot of variation in rhythm and style: funk songs, rockers, surf songs, a bit of Ray Charles, a metal song, a power ballad. And a bit of three-part a capella from Paul, Anne and Pamela that shakes me out of a nap.
Most of the entertainment, however, comes from dog number two, a reddish-chocolate dachsund who seems bent on destruction. Pamela spends much of her time chasing Jasper from hazardous areas and pulling foreign objects from his mouth. Billy is halfway through a guitar solo when Jasper decides that his wah-wah pedal is a see-saw. Billy nudges him away and says, “Dachsund slipper!”
Thinking that things are under control, Pamela delivers her next song while striking various yoga positions. Jasper saunters by and pees on her mic stand.
“That was hilarious!”
We’re taking the back way through Larkspur, dark little houses flying past. I am re-energized, filled up with music. Paul looks like he’s about to ask me a question, so I ask one first.
“How did you get into this band?”
He finishes taking us through a long curve. “I started as a fan. Saw them one night in Sausalito and fell in love. Their songs are so straightforward and self-contained. They’re songs. So I got their schedule and went to every performance. There’s something very pure about being a fan; it’s an unselfish part of your being that you really need to exercise.
“I did, however, have a chink in my armor: I could see their fatal flaw. Just about every band in the world has one. I’m convinced that the bands that make it are the ones who have the cojones to get rid of that flaw. What’s worse, it was the drummer. Guy had chops – long, impressive fills, rapid snarework. But he belonged in a metal band. Exit Wonderland needed a no-nonsense type, a drummer who could create funky beats, throw in a snappy fill, a well-timed cymbal shot. Who could play the song. And that was me. But I couldn’t say anything, because I was trying to maintain the purity of my fanhood.
“Anne came by the shop one night and handed me a CD. Their drummer had a foot infection, they were playing a picnic the next day, and my job was to play it with them. Cold. Talk about adrenaline! But I drew on all the tricks I’d learned in jam sessions: stick to the backbeat, no big fills, follow the cues, play a little laid-back so you can react. I had the luxury of a couple rehearsals before a house party the next week, and I guess I planted a seed. Three months later, I got an email inviting me to be their drummer. I finally found a band that fired somebody, and that’s why we’re so good.”
“When’s your next gig?”
“This Friday, right here in town. The Sweetwater. We’re opening for the Baby Seal Club.”
“Baby Seal Club. You gotta see the Baby Seals.”
“I am so there. By the way, what the hell is a dachsund slipper?”
“That’s what you get when you put your foot up a dachsund’s ass.”
This has the effect of taking all of my great stress and turning it inside out. I giggle and cackle till I’m out of breath. This gets Paul laughing, too. By the time we recover, I realize that we’re nearing Mill Valley. I have to decide whether to divulge my place of residence.
“So are you going to tell me?”
It takes me a second to compute the question. “I’m sorry. No. It’s too… it’s embarrassing. I don’t know you well enough.”
“But you know me well enough to come crying to my door.”
I don’t actually know why I went there – I was pretty much out of my mind. It might have been simple geography. But I think Paul deserves something better.
“I feel comfortable with you. You’re very kind. And… I hope you take that the right way.”
He laughs. “I’d have to work pretty hard to take that the wrong way.”
I’m grateful when he pulls in behind his shop, removing the other dilemma. He takes me to the sidewalk, gives me a hug and a wave. Crossing over the creek, I rediscover my pain. Tony was no gentleman, he was much too big for me, and if it weren’t for the money I would have to say it was rape.
The sun is back. I’m so relieved, I gave myself a lunch break. I head for the Depot, where they have a butternut soup that inspires fistfights. The air outside is freezing, but I will not be kept from my UVs. I don my sunglasses, baseball cap and ski jacket and take a seat on the patio.
The Depot is Mill Valley’s epicenter; all surrounding ridges are equidistant from my table. It’s like standing on the 50-yard line of a football stadium. I take a taste of my quadruple espresso (what they call The Cardiac). The substances meld and blend and I think I may be ready. I reach into my pocket and pull out an envelope. It’s a letter from Callie. It’s been surfing my desk for a week, nibbling at my skin.
It’s not that this letter contains anything dangerous. I came to my present way of thinking all on my own; therefore, I am not reprogrammable. Beyond the perfect cursive address, the lines of scripture on the flap, lies nothing much more than an irritant. If you come back, she will say, all your crimes will be forgiven.
Inevitably, though, the irritant becomes an aerial photograph of a widening chasm. I spent a large slice of my life with this woman. We created beautiful moments: delicious dinners, stunning vistas, funny jokes, luscious sex. Now, all she cares about is my soul. Or, rather, an object that she thinks is my soul.
In Callie’s world, if you join the proper Girl Scout troop, and take all the necessary pledges, then Bingo! Your soul is saved. The atheist soul is a much more complex creation, composed of the daily actions you feel compelled to take, the ideas you feel driven to pursue. We are always thinking. Sometimes it’s a pain in the ass. The paint-by-number ease of religion is tempting.
After a while, though, you step back from the easel and realize that you’ve come up with this big and grasping picture – Picasso’s Guernica, Seurat’s La Grand Jatte. You can’t quite believe all the sparks that you have set into motion, the way they streak and wave and bounce off of each other like sardines in a school. You’ll never get to heaven, but you will never ever go to hell. When you open a letter and find an illustration from Dick and Jane, it’s pretty depressing.
I take another sip. The espresso guns my engines. I run the letter under my nose. I’m surprised to smell perfume. You slut! I set it back down. A gust of wind whips it from the table. It slides under the patio fence and winds up on the sidewalk. I give myself up to a greater force: meteorology. If the wind keeps taking it, then so be it.
A woman in a red coat trots over to pick it up. She smiles, revealing her identity, then comes to my table and takes off her sunglasses.
“Paul! Your epistles are blowing all over Ephesia.”
Her gaze drifts to the blue skies. “You know any good hiking trails?”
“I know several.”
“Well let’s go then.”
I open the gate and let her pass. Once she’s ahead of me, I toss Callie into a garbage can.
Paul leads me out of town on a zig-zag of uphill streets. The last line of houses are what I call “hilltoppers” – not precisely mansions, but they do radiate money. One of them is a woodsman-style creation, its foundation buttressed by entire Douglas firs sliced in half. Just past the gated entrance we slip between two metal posts onto what looks like a fire road.
“It’s a little late for hiking,” says Paul. “But with fire roads, visibility’s not really an issue. Besides, I… Well now I’m just explaining too much. Have you gotten very far with the book?”
It takes me a moment to remember which book he means. “Yes! I swear, it feels like I’ve been carving holes in a piece of wood, and this book offers all these pegs that fit right in. Like all the transplanted Greek mysticism. And the misogyny!”
“That’s exactly the reaction I had. If Paul had gotten laid more often – or ever – we wouldn’t have all these creepy celibate priests and their pedophilia.”
A lizard zips across the sandstone. A thought lands on my radar. “You don’t suppose he was latent?”
Paul laughs and picks up a rock. “Oh believe me, hon, you’re not the first. I tend to be cautious on such matters – but yes, there are definite signs of closeted self-loathing. Also, they recently discovered a mistranslated passage in Corinthians that seems to refer to Judy Garland.”
“Oh! You are evil.”
“You’re not the first to say that, either. But isn’t it amazing how one guy can screw up sex for billions? Schmuck!”
From there, our hike gets quiet. It seems that Paul has as much on his mind as I have on mine. I suspect it was the letter; the writing looked feminine. For me it’s Tony. He’s trying to make up to me. He says he’ll be gentle. And he’s offering me twice as much. I can feel the danger, but I’m flattered that I’m considered so valuable a piece of ass.
“Are you doing better?”
Paul’s talking over his shoulder. He’s not even winded.
“Yes. Thanks. I’m much better. It was a family thing. Nothing huge, just… upsetting.”
“Don’t worry, we’re almost there.”
I’m relieved. We’re on the southern flank of Mount Tamalpais. If Paul wanted, he could take us uphill for another three days. A little later, as the sun fades behind us, we come to a clearing. Over the slopes of grass I can see Mill Valley, down to the tiny yellow loop of the moviehouse marquee. A hundred feet on, we enter a patch of live oak and bay laurel. I can see another clearing at the far end, but before we get there, Paul stops.
“Okay. Can you stay here a second?”
He smiles. “Fantastic. I’ll be right back.”
He jogs ahead for thirty yards, stands there a second, and jogs back.
“It’s perfect. Now. I am attempting to maximize your experience. So, put your hand up to your eye, like a horse blinder, and promise me that you will not look to your right.”
“Okay. I promise.”
“Just keep your eyes on the trail.”
I cover the thirty yards looking at the trail and Paul’s feet. He stops and turns.
“Okay. Now. Take my hands and close your eyes. Don’t worry – it’s a smooth path.”
My trust alarms are going off (“I’ll be gentle”), but it’s also a little exciting, like heading downstairs on Christmas morning. I can feel the calluses on Paul’s hands, probably from drumming. The path feels like moist soil, a little grass. The air is getting cold.
“Okay. Keep them closed.”
He comes behind me, takes me by the shoulders and adjusts my bearings.
“Okay. Go ahead.”
What I’m seeing is so extraordinary that it takes me a while to sort it out. It’s the city of San Francisco, miles below us, a hilly blanket of white buildings speckled with lights, fog lining the valleys like mink stoles.
“My God. It’s like a city in a snow globe.”
Paul says nothing. He is just as enchanted as I am. As I look harder I begin to pick out features. Coit Tower. The green swath of the Presidio. The TransAmerica Pyramid. The shiny necklaces of the Bay Bridge. A wink of light from Alcatraz. We find a boulder and take our seats, drinking it in as the twilight darkens and the city lights up. Paul begins to talk.
“I grew up as a Jehovah’s Witness. I loved it. I was their best salesman. The door-slam, the curt no, the hurled insult – I took them as blessings. I was doing the Lord’s work.
“I married a Witness. Callie. Not that I had a choice. But I loved her anyway. I was lucky. Soon after our first anniversary, my mind began to wander, especially during readings of scripture. I attributed this to evil forces, as I was trained to do. Then I realized that the evil force was my own mind, a powerful organ that had been held in check for too long.
“I began to raise questions, all of them unspoken. Then I took the fatal step – I brought my doubts to the elders. They were horrified. They ordered me to stand trial for heresy. I was destined to lose. My marriage was annulled – I had clearly misrepresented myself. I was declared an apostate and ordered to leave.”
I look at Paul’s profile against the lights of the city. His nose is prominent, Mediterranean, with a small notch halfway down, as though he had broken it butting up against God.
“You’re a heretic? That is so cool!”
Paul thrusts his hands in the direction of San Francisco. “I’m a heretic, motherfuckers!”
After we stop laughing, I stand and stretch my legs. He has given me quite the workout.
“So one thing I’ve been meaning to ask you, Galileo…”
“Judas of Mill Valley. You can’t possibly be supporting yourself with that shop. What’s the deal?"
“Ah.” He slaps a hand against his thigh. “Well. You can just imagine into what dire straits I had thrust myself. But news travels quickly in a family tree, and soon I received a call from a personage I had always considered to be as mythical as a Griffin. My great aunt Minnie, rumored to be a communist spy, a Wiccan priestess, founder of the Gray Panthers, original bassist for the Sex Pistols. She was, in fact, executive editor of a publishing house in Boston. When she heard that a member of her lost tribe had escaped, she flew me to her house in Cambridge and had her lawyers draw up a trust. With the proviso that I use the money to continue my spiritual evolution. And thus was born The Free Thinker.”
“Well God bless Aunt Minnie. Whoops! Sorry.”
“Never apologize for a figure of speech.”
“We better go. Lord knows, we don’t want to get caught in a rainstorm.”
“Right on. Heretic.”
“You really like that.”
“You should tell that to all the chicks.”
“I will think about it.”
A grown man shouldn’t feel so goofy because a girl holds his hand. But I am years and years out of practice. Mill Valley is not helping matters, halos around the streetlamps, Cassiopeia haunting the ridge like a fairywing.
To Jasmina, the hand-holding may not mean as much. She strikes me as the type who’s affectionate with everyone. We arrive at the shop. I start to say something and find that she’s kissing me. That she’s rolling her tongue along the inside of my mouth. I’m so shocked I almost forget to enjoy it.
She breaks off and backs away, looking like a dog who’s been caught with tomorrow’s roast. “I’m sorry, I really, thanks, I’d better…”
She makes a vague gesture and leaves. I watch her go until she’s gone.
Lexi is such a ditz it drives me nuts. She’s always punching the wrong keys on the register, and then I have to come over and void the transaction. She could learn this stuff herself – she’s been here for a year – but she’s lazy. Blondes. They spend their whole lives having stuff handed to them.
It’s Friday, opening night on two of our screens, one of them that Norwegian mystery writer who begins all of his titles with The Girl Who. I’m hovering over one of my everyday delights –a spanking clean popper, ready for the day’s first batch – when I hear the familiar two-syllable whine.
“Ja-azz! Can you help me?”
You’re beyond help you freakin’ moron.
“Sure.” I walk over, dissect the latest faux pas, and hit the usual buttons. Nothing. I try again. Shit. I smile at our customers, a young Asian couple.
“I’m sorry. I’ll be right back.”
I leave them in Lexi’s inept care and race-walk to the office, where Fosh is posting something on his Facebook page.
“Hi, boss. Did you change the security code?”
He scans the ceiling, searching his memory. “Ye-ess. Just a moment.” He burrows into his desk. His cell phone goes off.
“Fuck, Lexi! Just a…”
Lexi stands in the frame of the hall. Trailing behind her are tentacles of black smoke.
“Shit!” I run to the fire extinguisher, but I can’t work the latch.
“I’ve got it.” Fosh frees it up and runs to the lobby, where the popper is sending out smoke like the stack of a locomotive. He mumbles something in Farsi and hands me the extinguisher.
“Get everybody outside.”
His ferocity snaps me into focus. I wave a few customers into the street and prop open the doors. A river of smoke climbs the marquee. I stand to the side, holding the extinguisher in case anybody needs it. Lexi comes up to offer a few helpful insights.
“Shit, that was scary! What the hell was that?”
I feel the surge of heat but I can’t stop it. “That was the oil overheating. Which wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t have to help you every five fucking seconds because you won’t learn your fucking job!”
Lexi undergoes her own kind of surge. Her eyes crinkle, she starts to cry, and then she runs off down the street.
“Wow,” says Javid. “You’re kind of a bitch! I like that.”
I check the smoke, which seems to be lessening. “I guess I held back too long.”
“You know, less intelligent people make their way through life by developing delusions about themselves, and they fill those delusions with helium. You have to be careful about popping them, or you’ll end up with a high-pitched voice.”
“That is the weakest analogy I’ve ever heard.”
“See? There you go, popping delusions.”
“So what’s the word?”
“Boss man cut the circuit to the popper. This kind of thing has happened before – no flames, lots of smoke. We’re supposed to tell the customers that the first showings are cancelled. Oh! Here’s a few now.”
He heads for the ticket window, where a dad and two girls are studying the scene. I cradle my fire extinguisher and take a moment to feel sorry for myself.
I arrived at Tony’s boat to find that he intended to share me with three of his friends. One of them was celebrating a long-awaited divorce. I refused, but then he doubled my price. As we neared Angel Island, I actually began to enjoy it. Something about being the focus of all that energy. Now I am deeply afraid of myself.
I’m about to start our surf-punk song when I see a smile and freeze. Smeed leans over and gives me a stage aside.
“Yeah. I got it.” I kick up the beat (three tom, one snare) and we’re off. As my hands sink into auto-mode, I allow myself a sideways glance. Now she’s laughing.
“Geez. You surprised me.”
“So I noticed. Your band is wonderful.”
“We’re pretty tight without the dachsunds.”
“I’ve had such a hellish week, I totally forgot about tonight. But I saw a flyer at the Depot.”
“So you set the fire.”
“Oh God! You saw it?”
“I work across the street.”
Jasmina scans the room – the Baby Seal Club setting up, our squad of followers dominating a large table up front. “This place have an outdoor area?”
I take her hand and lead her to a small patio out back. Across the alley, the well-heeled of Mill Valley are eating Italian food.
She smacks her lips. “So how do you write these songs? Where do they come from?”
“Well, first we hook a couple of mics to a computer and keep it running. This one time, I laid down this caveman beat and Smeed came up with a chord structure – let’s see, full measures of E, G and A, followed by a little cut on D and C. I doubled up the beat and Pamela started vibing some vocal lines. Later on, when we…”
I would go on, but I’ve got Jasmina’s tongue in my mouth. This one lasts for a full minute.
“You know… if I’m talking too much, you can always just… tell me to shut up.”
“I think I prefer my way.”
“I’m not really complaining. But tell me, these little guerilla attacks – what’s that about?”
“You don’t know?”
“I am a visitor from the planet Jehovah. Your ways are strange to me.”
She looks down and rubs a spot on her pinkie. “I’m not exactly sure myself. I do it because I can’t help not doing it. I find you kissable. As for the ferocity – well, it’s been a long time. Not that I’m… What I mean is… could we just enjoy this part before we get onto… the other parts?”
I have to laugh. “Oh! Believe me. See previous comment, ‘planet Jehovah.’ But let me… Hold still a second.”
She freezes, as if she expects me to wipe away an eyelash. Instead I duck down and kiss her very softly, for a very brief time. She keeps her eyes closed, as if she’s expecting more, then opens them and smiles.
“You see,” I say, “those kind of kisses are okay, too.”
“And everything in between?”
“And everything in between.”
Smeed pokes his head through the doorway and grins. “Paul! Safety meeting, Mark’s van. Are we a plus-one this evening?”
Jasmina tilts her head. “Safety meeting?”
I take her hand. “Trust me.”
“I think I will.”
“Excellent,” says Smeed. “I’ll get you a seat next to the wheel well.”
The wheel well is, in fact, poking into my ribs, but I’m also serving as Jasmina’s pillow. I rest a hand along her waist and take in the tremors of her laughter as we pass a joint. I don’t think I’ve had a better moment in my life.
I am back in the red armchair, which I think has become my safe zone. I have become a regular visitor during my breaks, and have grown accustomed to the gazes of my uncles, Voltaire and Jefferson.
I used to think that the shop had no customers, but I have discovered the illusion. Everybody parks in the back. Perhaps The Free Thinker is like a porn shop – perfectly legal, but you don’t necessarily want to be seen entering. I doze a little to the music of the register, happy that my honey is doing well. I see him walking up through Enlightenment, carrying a small book. He kisses me and sets it on my lap.
“Now that we’ve deconstructed St. Paul, it’s time we blow up Christmas.”
I put on my best sad-face. “Oh! Poor Christmas.”
“I discovered this author when he was giving a talk on the Da Vinci Code. He’s a religious studies professor – the writing is delightfully free of hyperbole. The basic premise is this: the early Christians had this fully worked-up messiah, but they lacked a snappy birth story. So they made it up from scratch, being careful to manipulate the details to match all the prophecies. The most obvious fabrication was the tax census, which was a rather torturous way of getting the holy family to Bethlehem.”
“I hope it doesn’t destroy Christmas completely. It’s awfully fun.”
Paul gives me a calm smile. It’s a recent addition, the only smile that doesn’t shift. I’d like to think that it’s got something to do with me.
“The Christians were brilliant marketers, and they stole things from every pagan tradition they encountered. By the end of this book, I think you’ll feel like Christmas belongs more to you than the so-called believers. Ah but shit, here I go telling you the whole story again.”
“You’re my personal audio-book.”
The chime to the back door goes off.
“Oops,” he says. “I better be attentive.”
I stand and give him a kiss. “And I better get back to the popcorn. See you tomorrow?”
And I’m off, into a blinding sun. Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, I have a Valentine, and yet I’m sandwiched by dilemmas. It’s Mack, the guy whose divorce we were celebrating. I guess he liked my work. Like a good diplomat, he has received the okay from Tony to make me an offer: my own apartment and a hefty retainer in exchange for exclusive relations and two visits a week. I could easily give up the moviehouse. Not that I would. I learned that in Minneapolis: hang on to the day job.
We are tremendously busy. It seems like every couple in Mill Valley is catching a movie before the traditional dinner. Thankfully, I’m on a four-hour shift, and then I get my own dinner. Paul’s not talking, but he did ask me if I liked Indian food.
Fosh wanders into the lobby, patting his face with a handkerchief. It’s not warm in here.
“Jasmina, could I ask you to stay till closing? I’m afraid Lexi has called in sick.”
Why that little cunt. Lexi’s got a whole pack of drooling dog-boys. I’ll bet she’s got a couple of dates tonight. Fucking whore.
Fosh smiles. “Thank you, thank you. I owe you once more.”
I would do almost anything to make that man smile. Him and his horrible wife. I scoop up a large popcorn for yet another couple as I construct a disappointing text message for Paul.
But the rush continues. I don’t even have time to get to my cell phone. I’m surprised by a familiar face.
He gives a sheepish smile. “Hi.”
“You’re not, um… out tonight?”
“Please! Do not rub it in. I am here to console myself on this most horrible of holidays.”
“Not doing much better myself.”
“Lazy Blondebitch called in sick.”
“Oh! That is criminal.”
Somebody steps into line behind him. I give him an eye signal.
“Oh, umm… large popcorn and a root beer.”
A half-hour later, I still haven’t sent a text. I look at the Closed sign across the street and I feel terrible. Somebody taps me on the shoulder. It’s Javid, wearing his uniform.
“You had better get going. You don’t want to be late.”
It’s almost too much to take. I grab Javid and kiss him on the cheek. “Thank you! Thank you!”
“Call me Cupid. But do me a favor – read this.”
I take his note and tuck it into my pocket. When I turn to wave, he’s already helping a customer.
We are just outside of town, heading into the wilds. Paul takes a sudden turn into a dirt lot packed with cars. But there doesn’t seem to be anything else here. He leads me across the lot to a small wooden sign that reads Lakshmi. Next to the sign is a graveled path illuminated by a strand of light-rope. Fifty feet along we come to a covered walkway. A trio of broad stone steps leads to a landing, a slab of varnished redwood burl lit by a large red candle. After that, another three steps, another burl, another candle. After fourteen of these combinations, we cross an arched bridge over a creek and arrive at a pair of enormous red doors. Paul pulls the left-hand door, revealing a five-foot bronze statue of Ganesh – the Hindu elephant god – and the interior of an Indian restaurant. The hostess leads us to a green granite table set off by rattan screens. The centerpiece is a squat red candle framed by three white orchids. Paul seems pleased by my expression.
“It’s a fairyland,” I say. “But why are they trying so hard to hide it?”
The calm smile. “Mill Valley marketing. The more you hide something, the more people want it. But I certainly didn’t fool you, did I?”
He refers to my outfit, a sari of butter yellow and tangerine. “Well, you did ask me if I liked Indian.”
“Damn! I should have taken my chances. Regardless, you look like a Bollywood starlet.”
“I’ll play whatever ethnicity you want.”
“Not with that skin.”
“You’d be amazed at what people will believe.”
Our waitress is a light-skinned beauty with the kind of long, straightline nose that Indian women totally get away with. Paul orders Naan flatbread, which we dip into a cucumber-basil-yogurt sauce. I depend on his expertise for the rest: saffron rice, nauraton korma vegetables, mulligatawny soup, tandoori chicken, rogan josh lamb, and a dessert called kajor kheer – creamy dates with almond pudding. The spices leave a warm feeling in my stomach. He insists that I order a mango lassi to wash it down, and he’s absolutely right. I take Paul’s hand across the table.
“This is absolutely perfect.”
“It’s made with yogurt.”
“Oh the drink, yes, but I meant the evening. You are a wonderful man.”
The flattery sends a flush of red into his face. “I’ve been meaning to bring someone here for a long time.”
I take the last spoonful of kajor kheer. “Mmm. You know, this evening has an additional Indian element. We had an emergency at work, but Javid covered for me.”
Paul’s smile shifts. He raises his glass. “Thank you, Javid.”
“Poor boy. He’s very lonely.”
This reminds me of the note, which I slipped into my evening bag. “Excuse me, honey. I need to freshen up.”
The path to the ladies’ room is almost as involved as the entryway. I slip into a stall and give the note a read.
I’m enjoying the evening too much to mess with it, but my resolve gives out at the door to Paul’s shop. He’s hesitating, no doubt entertaining an invitation, and I’m feeling like I need to put everything on pause. I kiss him, and I say, “Is there something you want to tell me?”
Paul smiles. “It’s a little early for that.”
I punch him in the chest, hard.
“You don’t have any fucking aunt.”
He raises a hand, a gesture of protest, then lets it drop. “I don’t.”
“Smoking is one thing, but dealing? That’s illegal and dangerous, and why the hell didn’t you tell me?”
“Because it’s illegal and dangerous.”
I’m not really interested in his answer. I am much too worked up.
“Thanks for dinner. I’m sorry.”
I turn and walk away. I hear my name. I keep going.
Greetings, communist scum. You got a lot of fucking nerve bringing your Satan shop to our town. I know it’s Fagland Central around here, but it’s still America, goddammit. I’d love to take a knife, gut you and scream with joy as your insides spill out in front of you. However, GOD teaches us not to seek vengeance, but to pray for sorry shits like you. We will not go quietly away. If in the future that requires violence just remember you brough it on. My rifle is loaded.
Have a great fucking day.
I get a letter from this same guy about once a month. The threats get more and more creative. If I were not a small-time pot dealer, I would show them to the police.
And what of the flaming hypocrisy? Please. Imagine that you have concocted a fairy tale in which the hero is stabbed, beaten and nailed to a torture device to die an agonizing death. You celebrate this death by wearing a tiny replica of the torture device around your neck (why not an electric chair? a guillotine?). Then you invent a pit of fire, take all those who refuse to believe your fairy tale, and toss them in to burn for all eternity. So let’s get over this idea of hypocrisy. Christians are sick fucks, and this letter is entirely consistent with their death cult.
My particular hell is a table at the Depot, where my desires are at war. The butternut squash soup indicates a wounded man seeking consolation. The long stares into the rainstorm outside reveal a man snuggling up to the abyss.
Something causes me to burst across the patio. I catch him at the corner, grab the shoulder of his coat and push him against a brick wall.
He’s unable to speak. His eyes are huge. I’m sort of enjoying this.
“I’m… sorry. I thought she should know.”
“That is such a bunch of shit. You’ve got a hard-on for her.”
“Please let go of me.”
It’s a polite enough request. I release my grip. I even smooth out his coat. But I continue my narrative.
“Consider yourself cut off. And don’t even think of ratting me out, or I will go straight to your parents.”
“Yes. Okay. May I… go?”
I leave. I am proud of myself for not giving in to my useless compassion. I return to my table and stare at my soup, the adrenaline percolating in my arms. Here’s the sad part: I wasn’t threatening to tell Javid’s parents about his marijuana use. I was threatening to tell them about his rejection of Hindu.
So my first romantic venture is just the fiasco I expected, and somewhere my ex-wife is laughing. I lied about her, too. I did not go to the elders about my doubts. Callie turned me in.
The rain deepens. There’s nothing to do but laugh.
Javid’s being weird. Like he’s afraid to speak to me. I can’t figure the mixed signals. He enables me to go out with Paul, then he hands me a land mine on the way out.
If he knew what I did off-hours, he would run screaming. I have accepted Mack’s offer. How could I not? Cutting my client list to one means a lot less worry about hygiene – or getting caught. The apartment is a gorgeous little place just under the hilltoppers. Fireplace, balcony view. Enormous bed, sunken bath. I feel like a movie star. And no wife means no need for firearms.
“I hope the note didn’t cause any problems.” Javid stands at a safe distance, next to the Icee machine.
“No. Thanks. It was good to… have the information.”
He dashes back to the box office. I look across the street and feel a pang of old-fashioned religious guilt.
I don’t care. You should have known.
I am an evangelist for logic, and logic tells me that there is nothing I can do. If I stop selling, I will have to close the shop. Therefore, if she really does have a problem with this, perhaps it was best that we parted ways.
But logic does not usually meet up with an across-the-street Venus. I catch glimpses of her several times a day. She looks more forlorn than ever, which only intensifies her beauty. My nerve endings tick with her movements.
Oh shit. I am thinking and drumming at the same time. Having become accustomed to the hijinks of dachsunds, my band prides itself on finishing a song no matter what, but now I have drifted right past my drum break and we’re fucked. I flip my sticks into the air; they strike several objects on the way down. The band stops, piece by piece.
“Jesus. I’m sorry. Can we take a break?”
My bandmates have all had evenings like this, so it’s really no biggie. This is part of what I love about Exit Wonderland: our biggest argument, compared to most bands, would barely qualify as a terse discussion. I venture behind the storage shed to continue the ruination of my favorite bush. Anne is running keyboard riffs from our Doors cover. I emerge to find a half-moon dangling from the sycamore tree.
“It’s the chick, isn’t it?”
Smeeed passes me a joint.
“Thanks. Yep – the chick. Also, this.”
“Oh-hoh! So she will partake of the smoke, but she will not abide anybody selling it. Well that is pretty fucked.”
I laugh. “You make an excellent point, Senator. This is just feeling a little rough, you know, for my first time back.”
“Got yourself a looker, though. An impressive debut.”
“Okay. Ready to rock?”
“At all times.”
“Am I getting the tempo right?”
“Maybe a little faster.”
“A band that wants me to play faster. That is so cool.”
Javid’s being weird again. He keeps peeking around like he’s casing the joint. It’s time to get assertive.
“Look, Javid, can we get over the thing already?”
“The note thing. The boyfriend thing. Stop feeling guilty, and stop being weird. I would have found out about it eventually.”
He looks like he’s about to argue the point, but then he smiles.
He directs a gaze over my shoulder. Fosh is standing at the end of the lobby, looking expectantly at a customer who’s being ignored.
“Oh! Hi. I’m sorry. What would you like?”
The rain is back. God. Rain, rain, rain. The locals tell me it’s a pressure system; they call it El Niño. But it wouldn’t be the first crock of shit I’ve been sold.
In the morning, living on a hillside is terrific. Easter light in the bedroom window; a brisk downhill walk to work. Nighttime, not so hot. After hours on my feet, the trudge uphill makes my backpack feel ten pounds heavier.
I blame part of this on my first “date” with Mack. He recently got the okay to go on the Viagra program. I had to work a solid half-hour to get him off, and then he kept going. He kept yelling “It’s a miracle!” and whipping himself out to admire his adolescent rigidity. Problem is, the rest of his body couldn’t keep up, so his concubine had to do all the work. Still, it was nice to see the old guy so happy.
Most of all, I miss his voice, the even pace of his sentences. His laugh.
When I toss my pack onto the table, it lands with an unexpected thwack. I unzip the top and remove the contents: an extra sweater, my purse, a pair of jeans. A book. The cover features a detailed illustration against a black background. Vivid colors, like a bird by Audubon. A cannabis leaf. Tucked inside is a sheet of yellow notebook paper, folded in half. I open it up and find letters written in black marker. Harold Anslinger.
You’re going to hell, you know.
I’m being a bad boy, but it’s a bright Tuesday and I have no appointments. The free thinkers of Mill Valley will have to fend for themselves. I take the long trail to the snow-globe vista. The air is incredibly clear – I can see Oakland like it’s right next door. The buzz doesn’t last; these days, nothing does. I take a mental snapshot and head downhill. I realize that I am enormously hungry, so I stop by the Mill Valley Market for a bagful of dates.
I feel the need to force myself into some kind of productivity, so I decide to take stock of the science aisle. Sagan, Dawkins and Gould are doing okay, but Douglas Adams is running pretty low. Adams is a conundrum, anyway. I could just as easily put him in the humor section with George Carlin and Julia Sweeney, or use him to start a sci-fi section. None of this matters – wherever I put him, he sells.
She’s wearing a black turtleneck, which tightens the frame on those dark eyes. I pretend to study my inventory list. “What are you doing here?”
The only thing I truly have faith in is my ability to repel women, so this reappearance puzzles me. It also kind of pisses me off. I stand up and place a hand on the bookshelf.
“I actually would like to know the reason you’re here.”
She looks nervous. Good. She reaches into her bag and pulls out Martin Booth’s The History of Cannabis.
“I want to talk about Harold Anslinger.”
I’m a little surprised at Paul’s reaction, but the book seems to calm him down.
“So. You understand.”
“I hadn’t realized the level of treachery, and…”
This makes me laugh, which makes Paul laugh.
“Bullshit is the central target of my life. The most harmless drug in the world is reviled because Mexicans brought it here, negro musicians made it popular, and Harold fucking Anslinger decided he could grab a whole lot of power and money by demonizing it.”
I touch Paul on the arm to stop him. “Honey. I read the book. I know. That’s why I’m here. I… wanted to apologize for being so judgemental.”
Paul takes his arm away and walks into the next aisle. “I appreciate your apology. Does this mean you’d like to be a client?”
“Then maybe you should leave my store. That book doesn’t change the fact that cannabis is illegal. I have to be careful. I’ve already cut off your pal Javid.”
He retreats further, to his stool behind the counter.
“Vijay gave me the book.” This seems to catch his attention. “But it’s not about that. It’s about… Paul, I like you.”
He takes off his spectacles and pinches his nose. “You like me. What is this, third grade? This is a real fight I’m putting up here, and I can’t be sidetracked by some dilettante piece of ass who changes her beliefs every time someone hands her a fucking pamphlet. Now get out. Please. Leave.”
I suppose that’s the power of someone who’s so calm and even all the time. When they shout at you, you feel it. Despite all intentions, I find myself on the sidewalk, headed toward the Depot. A minute later I am staring into a window display of glass figurines – faeries, birds, unicorns, butterflies – and thinking of Tennessee Williams.
I’m a little proud of myself. In the face of great temptation, I held my ground. I sit on a crate in the philosophy section, staring at the collected works of Bertrand Russell. Someone walks in, but I hold off on a greeting. (When one is contemplating atheism, one is easily spooked.)
Jesus. I rise to my feet and there she is, holding the book to her chest like a shield. We spend fifteen seconds looking at each other. She takes a breath.
“I won’t leave.”
I am faced with the greatest threat to human reason ever created: a beautiful woman who’s about to start crying. I feel my shoulders melting.
I have stopped breathing. Finally, he rolls an arm and says, “Follow me.” He takes me to the back of a storage room, grabs a fully-loaded set of shelves and pushes it aside with surprising ease (the boxes are empty).
Behind the shelves is a door. Paul undoes a combination lock and leads me down a narrow set of stairs into a brightly lit room. When he reaches the bottom, he heads to the left of a room-wide curtain and pulls it across. Five long tables host a half-dozen buckets each. Each bucket holds a plant, three feet tall, spring green, with spiked leaves. A network of black tubes runs from plant to plant. A framework of PVC pipes holds a dozen sunlamps.
Paul stands before them like a teacher addressing a class. I stumble on the final step and catch myself on the back of his shoulders.
“Welcome to The Spa. As you know, the other thing the bullshitters hate is that we can grow our own – which keeps their filthy hands off our pocketbooks. The next question being, ‘Are you in or are you out?’
He reaches up to take my hand. “That wasn’t the question.”
“Oh! In. Yes. In.”
Modern rock marketing can be a dicey affair. For the gig at San Francisco’s El Rio, we have to draw a certain number of customers or we end up paying the sound guy out of our own pockets. Pamela’s feeling pretty tense about this, so her final web-post said exactly that: come see us or we have to pay the sound guy.
The layout of the El Rio is an inverted U. The first leg is a standard neighborhood bar. The crossbeam is a large patio, walled off by the backs of adjoining buildings. Thirty feet to the right you find a shotgun band space, high stage at the front, couches at the back, and in between a fifty-foot spread of open floor. Our opening band, Slippery People, is setting up, fine-tuning the feng shui of amps, mics and drums.
I check my gear – stashed behind the couches – and return to the bar. My city pals Joe and Carye have come to see me, despite the fact that they can’t stay for the show. Carye is a cute, radiant blonde who must have been a fairy in a previous existence. I love any excuse to see her. I met Joe when he fell into the web of my shop. He’s a high-tech idea man whose thoughts on the nature of existence are so arcane they make my brain swell. He’s also a gadget freak.
“Okay, so check this out. I go to the site, log in, and report my presence at the El Rio. The site tells me who among my fellow users is also here: in this case, a slim, exotic brunette named Lana. Holy shit.”
He holds his iPhone so the photo of Lana matches up with a woman standing five feet away.
“Oh this is too good.” I don’t know what’s gotten into me (perhaps pre-gig adrenaline). I go up to her and say, “Lana! God! I haven’t seen you in forever.”
Lana greets me with a hug, but, alas, refuses to follow the script.
“I’m sorry, but I really don’t remember you.”
Joe appears over my shoulder with a phony smile. “Lana!” Then takes her off the hook by showing her the iPhone.
We continue to chat and make friends, sounding just like a commercial for the website.
“Hey!” says I. “That guitar-drummer duo in the courtyard. Are they regulars? They seem really popular.”
“Actually,” says Lana, “Dawn used to be the drummer for Four Non-Blondes.”
I don’t know what’s gotten into me (perhaps the pint of Guinness Joe bought me), but I charge to the billiards room, where I find Dawn Richardson herself, toting a pink bass drum.
“Hi Dawn, I’m Paul. I just wanted you to know that ‘Bigger, Better, Faster, More!’ is one of my favorite albums ever, and I love your work on it. I’m a drummer, too, and I steal little bits of it all the time.”
For a rocker, Dawn is surprisingly impish, a combination of short red hair and a round face. She gives an appreciative smile, and sets down the bass to shake my hand. She also looks a little tired, so I give her a couple more compliments and let her go. I look back at the bar to see that Joe and Carye have skedaddled, so I head for the hall, where Smeeed is checking hand-stamps.
“Jesus! We have to be bouncers, too?”
“Yip.” He taps a guy in a top hat. “Can I see your wrist? Cool. Thanks.”
“Hey, I just met the drummer for Four Non-Blondes.”
“Awesome! But not as good as my story.”
“You know how I had to transport nearly every piece of equipment in the studio?”
“So what would you guess would be the one thing I forgot?”
“The bass guitar.”
“Yes. Fortunately, the Baby Seal guy is loaning me his. But how stupid is that?”
“You realize I’m going to tell this story to everyone.”
“Doh! Just for that, it’s your turn to cover the door.”
“Doh! Hi, can I see your wrist? Cool. Thanks.”
The night is like this, a continuing string of mini-adventures. Our actual performance is a blur. We’re so well-rehearsed that conscious thought is not really essential. I try to make my usual smart-ass remarks between songs (this is, in fact, one of my duties). When my hands are on automatic pilot, I check the crowd. Our stalwarts are well-toasted and shaking their parts. I love them all. My only other distraction is Pamela, who dresses pretty casually for rehearsals but shows up at gigs as a hot rocker goddess. Tonight it’s tight chocolate pants and a leather vest that exposes her midriff. She’s like a superhero with a secret identity.
At the end of “Peace Frog,” I throw a stick at my toms and duck as it flies over my head, then I charge offstage to hug all my friends. The celebrity buzz lasts for ten minutes, and I’m quickly demoted to roadie. Pamela reports that we have earned $150 per band, which is like the freakin’ Mother Lode.
I set down my hi-hat and head back to the stage, which now features a bowsprit figurehead all in red: leather pants, cardinal boots, long scarlet cardigan and a cherry satin blouse revealing generous portions of milky cleavage. Her eyes are lost in the spotlight.
“How does it feel?”
She looks down and gives me the quick-trigger smile. “I don’t know. Kiss my foot.”
I take a boot in my hand and give it the full treatment.
“Ah,” she says. “Worship.”
“Come on down and I’ll give you more.”
She kneels and rolls on to her back, dangling her head over the edge of the stage. I cup a hand behind her neck and give her a silent-movie kiss.
“We may be upsetting the regulars. Rumor has it this is a lesbian bar.”
“It’s San Francisco,” she says. “Every bar is a lesbian bar.”
“Did you catch our set?”
“Yes. I came in during the blues song. You guys fucking rock!”
“You say that just like a Californian. Can you help me with my drums?”
She half-closes her eyelids. “You sure know how to talk sexy to a gal.” She swings her legs over the edge and pulls a nifty dismount.
“Hey, you wouldn’t believe who I met tonight! You’ve heard of Four Non-Blondes?”
It’s late and I’m still cranking, propelled by forced absence and the human urge to mythologize. I go to the printer to collect my results, then I head for the moviehouse and a midnight showing of American Beauty. I pay Javid for my ticket and say, “Come by the shop sometime.”
Javid’s playing it cool. “Harold Anslinger?”
I smile. “Yeah. Thanks.”
“Enjoy the show.”
I have learned something new about Jasmina’s smile. When it’s somebody else, her lips are perfect, like a model in a photo shoot. When it’s me, her bottom lip reveals a subtle crease. Because she’s smiling harder.
“Your hugest, butteriest popcorn, young lady.”
“Certainly. Something to drink?”
“A large root beer.”
“Excellent. And where will you be sitting this evening?”
“Ah, dead center, five rows back.”
“If I wanted a small screen, I would stay home.”
“Enjoy the show.”
The boy next door is showing the girl next door his father’s creepy Nazi collection. Jasmina slides next to me and folds her hand into mine. She whispers, “I’m off for the night.” The folks in the fourth row give us dirty looks. I take the papers from my jacket and hand them to her. “For later.” More looks.
Later, as the boy next door shows the girl next door the video with the dancing bag, Jasmina pulls out her phone and punches the keys. The phone in my pocket vibrates. It’s a text.
I took off my bra. The third button of my blouse is undone.