The Popcorn Girl
a novel by Michael J. Vaughn
FREE on Amazon Kindle, June 1 - one day only.
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.
Jesus is crying for you. You have betrayed him.
The curtains are putting on a shadowplay, a Steller’s Jay bouncing on a redwood branch like a springboard diver. I turn over and find a fold of papers on the nightstand. This is a signal sent to me by Nighttime Jasmina. The first page begins with handwriting.
For beautiful Jasmina, in case I have ruined Christmas for her. Love from Saint Paul
An Agnostic Christmas
The neighborhood that Scootie Jones grew up in was populated also by Santa Claus, and his reindeer, and the three wise men, and General Electric. Scootie’s cul-de-sac was one of those where the neighbors made of the December holidays a dazzling, block-long forest of electrical lights. Even the Applebaums, who erected a huge menorah covered in aluminum foil.
Of all the neighbors, none were more enthusiastic nor better equipped than John Sorenson. The Sorensons’ was the biggest house on the block, a sprawling two-story affair with a balcony and a barn-style garage. He wrapped the balcony railing with a zig-zag weave of colored lights. He strung the rooflines with large outdoor bulbs, dangling from the eaves like ripe fruits. A Styrofoam snowman greeted visitors at the head of the walk, and in the large front window stood a fifteen-foot Douglas fir, banked in white lights, silver balls and silk angels. The lawn hosted a nativity scene of illuminated figures, possessed of that inner glow one might expect from a holy family. Their paperboy, Markie Rodriguez, took great pleasure in placing the Chronicle in the crib so that it would appear the infant messiah was perusing the headlines.
The crowning achievement of John Sorenson’s holiday assemblage was a fully rigged sleigh – Santa, reindeer, bag of gifts, three elves – lofted on a wire from the TV antenna to the center beam of the garage. The effect was such that Santa appeared to be circling the house in preparation for a landing. Every Christmas Day at noon, the neighborhood kids gathered in the driveway as Mr. Sorenson pulled a special cable and released a shower of candies and small toys on their heads.
The other twenty-two households followed suit, and the weeks preceding Christmas attracted a steady stream of visitors. Every third year, the Chronicle sent a photographer and featured the court in its holiday supplement.
The only chink in the neighborhood’s collective armor was Scootie’s father, Harman Jones. Declaring himself a “devout agnostic,” Harman declined to take part in any activity which would seem to favor one religion over another. Thus, viewed from above, Arbor Court resembled a long electrical smile with one tooth missing. This caused no end of frustration to John Sorenson. A tense discussion of the issue worked its way into the Yuletide rituals right along with caroling and mistletoe. Harman Jones would be taking out the trash on the day after Thanksgiving, and John Sorenson would just happen to be strolling by with his poodle, Spikey.
“Hello, Mr. Jones! How are you this morning? Did you have a fine Thanksgiving?”
“Very fine, Mr. Sorenson. My wife makes a pumpkin pie that you would not believe. I must have eaten five slices all by myself.”
“Wonderful, wonderful.” John Sorenson ruffled Spikey’s head, working up courage for the battle to come. “So tell me, Mr. Jones, have you given any thought to maybe doing some decorating for the holidays?”
“Why yes, Mr. Sorenson. We are getting a tree. Fine pagan tradition, putting up an evergreen in the darkest time of the year. And I do enjoy the smell of it.”
“Well, Mr. Jones, I was thinking in terms of outdoor decorating.”
“Oh, that!” Harman Jones scratched his head in false contemplation. “Why, I can’t see why I would do that, Mr. Sorenson, seeing as how I don’t have any particularly religious feelings on the matter of Christmas.”
“Well, Harman, I certainly wouldn’t expect you to change your feelings on the subject. Not at all! I was just hoping you might perhaps put up a few lights. Nothing complicated, just something to fit in with the general spirit of things.”
“The general holy spirit of things.”
Thus, the first shot was fired, and John Sorenson was free to speak bluntly. “Now Harman, you know how beautiful the block looks all lit up every year. You know the kids come from all over to see this thing. Wouldn’t you like to take part in something that brings pleasure to the children?”
“Not if it doesn’t agree with my religious beliefs.”
“But you haven’t got any religious beliefs!” said John Sorenson. “You told me so yourself.”
“What I have told you is that I have chosen not to choose, and to put up a string of lights in celebration of the Baby Christ would be an act favoring one line of thought over all others. I won’t do it.”
“How about a reindeer, or a snowman, or some candy canes? They’re not very religious. I’ve got extras. I’ll loan you anything you need.”
“But don’t you see, John? These are all things which have become tied up in one way or another with a Christian holiday. Now, granted, that holiday was stolen from the Roman pagan holiday of Saturnalia, but still, in this country, in this context, it is a religious event. I know I’ve tried to explain this to you before, John, but I derive a certain power in leading a life in which I know that I do not need to have answers, and that is why I insist on things like this. It leaves one’s intellectual and spiritual channels so much more open than investing oneself in a specific, organized body of beliefs.”
By this time, John Sorenson was teetering from one foot to the other, like a captain on a foundering ship. He gathered himself for one last foray. “You’re a stubborn man, Harman, and half the time I have no idea what the hell you’re talking about. But just think about it. Please? It would mean so much to the neighborhood.”
For twelve years of Scootie Jones’ young life, the dialogue around the trash can remained pretty much the same, a tiresome conference between a religious man, a secular man, and a poodle who really couldn’t care less, so long as he was fed. But then, one year, something changed. John Sorenson’s wife, Felicia, took up the banner.
Thanksgiving was larger than ever, with more relatives than Scootie knew he had crammed into the Jones’ modest ranch-style home. The next day, his father had to cart six bags of garbage out to the trash cans. Felicia Sorenson came by on bag number three, poodle in tow.
“Good morning, Harman.”
“Oh! Good morning, Felicia. Hi, Spikey.” He set down his bag and fluffed the old poodle’s head. “Where’s your husband? Did he finally give up on me?”
“He did. But I didn’t. Listen, Harman Jones, this is a perfectly wonderful thing the people in this neighborhood do, and folks really seem to enjoy it. I know my husband’s a bit of a fanatic, but you know, in a life of bills and labor strikes and all the crappy little things that get you down on a regular basis, the holiday fair is one thing that really gets my hubby excited about life. And the only thing that keeps it from being perfect is you, Harman. I know about your religious sentiments and everything, but couldn’t you just once see your way to putting up a string of lights or something? Look at the Applebaums – they’re Jewish, and they don’t seem to mind taking part.”
“Ah, but the Applebaums are religion-impaired, just as you are, Felicia. Mine is the only free-minded household on the block, and God bless me but I see no reason why I should add to my electrical bill just to provide a false sense of neighborhood unity. Much as I would like to please you, I’m afraid I can’t go against my beliefs.”
That would have seemed a conclusive response, but Felicia Sorenson was no quitter, and she was well-acquainted with the ways of persuasion. So, she tried another tack.
“How about this, Harman? I make a chocolate cake that my husband refers to as Heaven’s Own. And you know how my husband feels about heaven. So here is my deal: for every strand of lights, for every illuminated figure, for every festive object you place on the front of this house, I will produce one of Heaven’s Own and deliver it to your doorstep. If you do a really fine job, I may just lend a few more personal tokens of affection as well.”
If there were any doubt as to the exact meaning of this last comment, it was erased by the sight of Felicia’s tongue stroking along the edge of her finely shaped lips. Harman gave the matter more thought than usual.
“This thing really means a lot to you, doesn’t it, Mrs. Sorenson?”
“When the lights are up, Mr. Jones, my husband is happy. When my husband is happy, I’m happy.”
“Well then,” said Harman. “I suppose I will be putting up something for the holidays this year.”
Felicia Sorenson found herself fixed squarely between shock and jubilation. She burst upon Harman and gave him a kiss on the cheek.
“Oh, Harman! I knew you would do it. Thank you. Thank you so much!”
Harman, cognizant of neighborhood gossips, held Felicia at arm’s length and wiped the lipstick from his cheek.
“It’ll be my pleasure,” he said. “Happy holidays, Mrs. Sorenson.”
“Happy holidays, Harman! Come on, Spikey, let’s go tell Daddy!” Felicia and Spikey trotted off down the street. Harman laughed and turned to fetch bag number four.
Jilly Skamadjian-Jones and her three children had no idea what force had gotten hold of Harman. He locked himself up in his workshop, ignored all televised sporting events, and refused to let anybody see what it was he was working on. Each night, he would arrive home an hour late and slip some large object into the garage before anybody could catch a glimpse. On the morning of December 5, after the rest of the neighborhood had completed its transformation to Messiahs ‘R’ Us, Harman Jones called in sick to work when he did not seem to be sick at all. The kids went off to school, Jilly went off to do some shopping, and Harman went back to his mystery cave.
Just imagine you are John Sorenson, respected banker, treasurer of the Santa Ana Presbyterian Church, grand poobah of the Arbor Court holiday bonanza. Imagine that the one holdout who has plagued your favorite time of year with his dark front porch has finally agreed to hoist up his lights for the good of the neighborhood. Every night you drive home in your Olds Cutlass, and you round the corner at Valentine Street and you drive past your home in order to check the Jones house. And then, one clear, cold evening, you round that corner and you realize right away that something is different, because the front lawn that has always been dark and plain is suddenly brilliant with color and light.
And imagine that you drive slowly to the front of the Jones house, home of Harman and Jilly and Jennifer and Steven and Leonard who they call Scootie, and you have begged this man every day-after-Thanksgiving for the past decade-plus, and finally there is something there and your heart is beating faster than a one-horse open sleigh and you will give your wife the biggest kiss when you get home… And then you take a look.
Perched in the center of Harman Jones’ lawn is a barber pole, lit up from the inside, festooned with tinsel, and on top, a single shining star. Positioned around the pole are four luau-style tiki torches with electrical orange flames. Over the garage door hangs a classic holiday snowscape interrupted by the large neon letters of a popular brand of beer. Attached to the front door, at the spot usually reserved for a wreath, is an illuminated clock from a fifties-style diner, its hands fixed at twelve-twenty-five. Near the sidewalk, next to the mailbox, stands a small billboard advertising the kind of after-shave commonly endorsed by quarterbacks and home-run hitters. The front walk plays host to a strip of bright green astroturf equipped with a putter, a dozen red and green golf balls and an automatic putt return.
Finally, spread along the front window there stand eight plastic pink flamingos, silver bells around their necks, led by a stuffed Saint Bernard with a glowing red nose. The team is reined up to the kind of vibrating electric rocket ship you might find at the front of a supermarket. Astride the rocket ship is a life-sized cardboard cutout of Gene Autrey in full cowboy gear. Gene has one hand flung back, an old guitar strung around his neck, and a red cowboy hat with a white puff on top. Over his shoulder he carries a large bag full of laundry.
Harman Jones never did receive Heaven’s Own or any other favors from Felicia Sorenson. Somewhat disappointed that he had held to the letter of their contract yet received nothing for his efforts, he took great satisfaction, nonetheless, in having made his point. He received no further post-Thanksgiving visits from the Sorensons – husband, wife or pooch – but continued to participate in the annual holiday fair, consistently drawing the largest crowds in the neighborhood to see his collection of post-modernist illuminated agnostic artworks.
Eventually there comes a night when Jasmina comes to my bed. Mostly because my room is small, and we have nowhere else to sit. We watch television, my back to the wall, Jasmina using me as her personal armchair. She continues to inch backward until her rear-end is doing a number on my crotch. My intentions might be as pure as driven snow, but my body’s intentions are abundantly clear. So I give in. I shift her hair to the side and kiss the back of her neck. This is, apparently, an ignition button. The following minutes are a maelstrom of fingers and lips and clothing.
She pushes off on my chest and tumbles to the floor. She sits on her knees, her blouse halfway off, her breath coming in chuffs.
“I’m sorry. It’s not that I don’t want to. God. I really want to. It’s just that you need to know some things. It wouldn’t be fair.”
I rub my chest; if I looked, I would probably find a pair of handprints. “Okay.”
She shakes her head, trying to regain her senses, then closes her blouse and settles back on her haunches. A car drives past, sending a square of light across the room. She gives me a long look.
I lost my parents at six. They were killed in a bombing, in Sarajevo. I saw the whole thing.
They sent me to New Jersey to live with my bachelor uncle. He seemed very nice, very affectionate, but the hugs and kisses turned sexual. By the time I was twelve, he had advanced to intercourse. Somewhere along the line I put the pieces together and I ran away. I picked Minneapolis, just because I liked the name.
I was lucky. I hung around the bus depot for so long that somebody called social services. I was eventually matched up with a foster family, the Gaylords. They seemed nice, but I had learned not to trust nice. They weren’t doing anything illegal, but they were definitely working the system. It’s really difficult to place teenagers, so the Gaylords knew they could pile up the checks by taking nothing but teenagers. They had ten of us crammed into a three-bedroom house. A lot of the boys had criminal records; I spent a lot of my time trying to keep them out of my pants.
I managed to find a guardian: Sass, a big black girl who was 17 and basically using the Gaylords’ as a way station until she came of age. She told the boys that anyone who messed with me would face the prospect of a late-night castration. Sass also seemed to have money, and clothes. When I asked her about this, she took me downtown to a large Victorian house. The owner was Georgina Salazar, a rough-looking Puerto Rican lady who gave me the sales pitch. She provided regular checkups and birth control pills. The men were required to use condoms at all times. Any incident of abuse was met with immediate blacklisting. The girls could make use of the Victorian’s many bedrooms, and were asked not to meet clients elsewhere unless the man had established a long-term relationship.
Thanks to Uncle Laszlo, I was acquainted with the equipment. Thanks to my parents, I had good genes – and thanks to Sass’s reassurances, I knew that I was good-looking. I became very popular, and I even had some celebrity clients: a congressman and a televangelist. When Sass turned 18, the two of us moved into an apartment.
I walked into Georgina’s office one evening. She was chain-smoking, and crying. I asked her what was wrong. I remember thinking that she sounded like a leaking tire.
“Sss… Sss…” She slammed her fist on the desk. “Sass. Sass is dead.”
It was one of her regulars, one of her best clients. He was an entertainment promoter; he handled all the big touring acts that came through town. Rock stars, circuses, Broadway musicals. But his company went under. When his wife found out, she left him in the middle of the night. I thought about that later. Finding out that your wife only wanted you if you were rich. That’s got to bring up a lot of anger.
But his wife wasn’t around, so he took it out on Sass. He beat her with a fireplace poker, and he kept on beating her. Georgina said she almost couldn’t identify her. She said she looked like a piece of roadkill.
That was my wake-up call. I went home, packed a couple suitcases – God it was hard, Sass’s stuff was everywhere. I caught a bus to San Francisco.
The downside of someone as stoic as Paul is that he’s awfully hard to read. All during my story, he has remained at the head of the bed. He has said nothing, and made no gesture. It’s like talking to a statue. I know that my story has room for sympathy – the orphan, the molested child – but still I feel filthy, and his silence is not helping. It goes on forever – thirty, forty seconds. He smacks his lips and shifts to a sitting position.
“I don’t think I’ve known anyone who’s had a life like that. It’s pretty… incredible.”
“I wanted to tell you before we… I’m healthy, Paul. I don’t have any diseases or anything. But I know that some men might not want to be involved with someone who did those kind of things.”
I wish it wasn’t so dark. I wish I could see his eyes.
“It doesn’t seem like… you had much choice. But it’s… You’ll have to give me a little time. This is really… different. But I mean… it came out okay, right? Not for Sass, - Jesus, I mean, horrible. But you got out okay, it kind of scared you out of the business, right?”
Oh, God. My silence hangs in the air until Paul gets his answer. He stands, picks up his shoes and stands in the doorway.
He’s gone. I hear his steps as he pads down the stairs, and then the front door. I sit there for a long time, staring into the darkness.
I stop at a bench to put on my shoes. The moon is disappearing. Miles later, it’s gone, and I remember what they said on the news. When it comes back to full, I find myself approaching Sausalito, a row of houseboats, the reborn moon painting a white line across the water. A small boat cruises across the inlet like a ghost.
What we call morals are not limited to the religious, and in this case are probably beside the point. I know men who are genetically wired to sleep with as many women as they can – and who tacitly accept that those women are sleeping with others. I am not one of those men.
I turn around and raise my hands over my head. In the distance, I see the hills of Mill Valley, slipping under a blanket of fog. I drop my hands and start to walk.
You’re a whore. No man will ever love you.
Maybe I could have lied. If I had thought it through beforehand, if I had prepared myself.
If it weren’t for Paul, I could be happy right now. Mack treats me like a princess. And the sex has gotten surprisingly good. We’re like a couple of office-mates collaborating on a project. There’s nothing emotional about it, but there’s this sense of achievement. I had my first orgasm. Ever. Electrical charges, parts of my body moving on their own. I’ve heard women talk about this, but I had no idea. Mack was thrilled. To see your penis do that to someone, that’s got to be such a buzz.
Minutes later, the two of us were sitting in the jacuzzi bath, laughing like a bridge team that has just cleaned up. But still, I think of Paul, and what I may be giving up for my self-preservation. I see him, once in a while, outside his shop, smoking a cigarette over the creek. My insides feel like metallic parts rusting over. I have heard that love, when it strikes, does not respond to analysis, or prodding, or verbal commands. Love is an ill-trained puppy, and it will do what it wants.
It’s only been two weeks. I am in for a ride.
It’s been a month, and it doesn’t go away. Each time I see her through the window, she looks sadder and more beautiful. She actually wanted me. The idea confounds me. I know I made the right decision, but it hurts that much more because the decision was mine to make. If it was Jasmina who had turned me down, the world would make a lot more sense. I have thought of finding some large poster to tape to my window, along the sightline from my front counter to the moviehouse box office. But I don’t want the clean black slate. The yearning is better. It reminds me that there is wonder in the universe.
I continue to surprise Javid. I handed him a free ounce and invited him to join me for a drive-and-lunch to Stinson Beach. We’re on a patio next to the main strip, wolfing our way through enormous burgers under slabs of provolone. Javid wipes his mouth and laughs.
“Why are you being so nice to me? I was, like, totally cock-blocking you.”
Kid cracks me up. “Yes you were, y’little shit. But you realized it. And you effectively did the hard part for me, regarding the clarification of certain agricultural issues.”
Javid looks across the street, where a quartet of high school girls are adjusting bikinis and rubbing sunscreen on each other. “So… how come it didn’t work out?”
For this I have worked out a beautifully crafted phrase. “I wish I could tell you.” (Read it again – I should be a damn lawyer.) “We are awfully fond of each other. But sometimes the real world gets in the way.”
Javid leans back and locks his hands behind his head. “Well I wish you two would work out something. The gloom just pours off of that girl, and it’s getting all over me.”
“Compared to Jasmina, you’re like Professor Sunshine.”
Javid and I have a deal: even our most evil thoughts are fair game. I mimic his locked hands, give a shameless ogle to all those tits and asses across the street, and I say, “Good!”
Javid breaks up. “Oh! You atheists are heartless.”
“Hush or I’ll sic Shiva on you.”
I am backstage at a converted warehouse in Oakland, watching a rag-tag troupe act out a poem about insects. A trio of topless spiders sit in front of me.
“Shit! Where’s the cocoon? Did you see a green bag here somewhere?” She paws the dark spaces, her tits bouncing.
“Ohmygaw! What’re we gonna do?”
“It’s all right, we’ll figure out something.”
The music rises. The topless spiders race onstage. They are met by a potato bug in assless chaps, holding a green bag. A minute later, applause, and we’re on. I scurry onstage with my stripped-down kit: snare, floor tom and crash. Some guy slaps two mics on my rims, strings up my vocal mic and locks in my levels, all within a matter of thirty seconds. When I look up, the band is ready and the emcee is finishing her intro:
“…a special song that we think you all will appreciate.”
I look to Anne. She nods into a series of eighth notes on the low keys. I match her on my tom. Sixteen of these and we’re in:
Well. At least I’m in. Pamela and Anne follow me with harmonies on “Ah-ah!” Sixteen more and we’re in again:
Nope. Just me.
And there they are. I have apparently received a field promotion to lead singer.
We’re playing a 500-person birthday party for a dude named Flash Hopkins – which explains the campy Queen song from Flash Gordon. We’re even doing the cheesy dialogue parts, after which I cue us back in with a roll on the toms.
Alas. But the brain-locks go unnoticed by our spectators, who are digging on the name-joke, the fact that it sounds reasonably like the original, and the actual Flash Gordon movie clips on the screen behind us. The birthday boy is out of his mind with glee. After our final “Flash!” (thank God, all three of us), Pamela hops offstage to give him a hug, and we get a nice rowdy applause. I give them a wave and pull my drums right back off. Tonight, we are the surgical-strike rock band.
I’ve got an intriguing case of mixed feelings. I’m a little miffed that my choirmates choked so badly, but I’m thrilled that my balls-out vocals saved the day. Not that I can verbalize any of this. I would rather my bandmates not hate me. Plus, I need to maintain their egos for future use. So I tell them that we covered everything, nobody noticed, and the acoustics were really muddy.
I wander onto the floor to watch Goat Fluffer, an all-female band with a drummer and three bass players. The lead, a brunette with Betty Page bangs and lime-green stockings, is just going off, getting so into her solo that you would swear she’s on heroin. After their set, I run into her backstage.
“Hey, that was great! It’s amazing all the sounds you can get out of that thing.”
Anne’s in the passenger seat, leaning all the way back. We’re climbing onto the Richmond Bridge.
“And she gave me this look like, Why is this person from another band giving me an entirely unsolicited compliment?”
“It’s a shame how… competitive the music scene gets.”
Anne’s words are getting mushy, which means that the hour, the beers and the road massage are having a soporific effect. (Great word, soporific.) I let her drift off as the lights of San Rafael get closer. It occurs to me that right now – two-fifteen a.m. – is the first I have thought of Jasmina for hours. I am in peril of actually getting a life.
You’re a goddamn mess. Why would a man have anything to do with you?
I am either healing myself or punishing myself. I am at the Depot, having a bowl of butternut squash soup. Paul would talk about this soup with a particular look in his eye – as if he were talking about an ex-girlfriend who went on to become a supermodel. It’s good, but I’m obviously not getting the same buzz. Perhaps I lack the emotional investment.
It’s been that kind of morning. We managed to get the latest film from Pixar – quite the coup – and the kids have been whining and screaming all morning. My favorite was the mom who apparently brought every kid in the neighborhood. She arrived at the head of a long line, five minutes until showtime, and only then turned around and said, “Okay kids, what do you want?” As if ten wound-up kids are going to give an organized response. I wanted to slap her.
And now, it gets worse. Mack and Tony have just walked in with Tony’s tight wife and a 50-year-old redhead with the surprised look of a plastic-surgery queen.
This is what I’m down to. I am jealous of the woman who is dating the man I’m being paid to have sex with. I’m pretty sure I’m breaking some prostitutional code of ethics. What’s worse is that my occasional glances are getting zero response, not even an undercover wink. Jesus. I am such a product.
I finish my soup and head for the restroom. When I come out, Mack is scanning the bulletin board, waiting for the men’s room.
He gives me a mystified look, then smiles. “Hello.”
“How’s the lunch going?”
“I’m sorry. Do I know you?”
“Don’t worry. I’m sure the redhead can’t see us.”
Now it’s a blank look, and then a laugh.
“Oh! You’re the popcorn girl, at the theater. God, you really had me going there.”
I can’t believe this. I can’t believe he’s carrying it this far.
“Asshole,” I say, and leave.
Three grinding hours later, Javid and I sit at a table in the break room.
“God!” I say. “I am so glad we don’t do a lot of kiddie movies.”
“I’m betting you got the worst of it.”
“Well that’s nice of you to…”
“Not nice at all. A simple matter of straight thinking. I’m just selling tickets. You’re dealing with the evil combination of kids and food.”
I give him a Hindu-looking bow. “I thank you, Mr. Spock, for your insight.”
“Oh, hey… I got something for you.” He pulls a bag from the shelf and hands it to me. It’s a pair of books: God is not Great by Christopher Hitchens and The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins.
“Javid! This is…”
“Once again, I must interrupt you. You should probably read the bookmark.”
The Dawkins offers a moss green marker with a Darwin fish and the logo of The Free Thinker. Halfway down is a brief note in Paul’s handwriting: It’s time for graduate studies.
I burst upon Javid and kiss him on the cheek. “This is even better! Thank you.”
I wrap the books in my jacket, stuff it into my pack and begin the uphill climb, away from all things small and whiny.
I’m working on the drying table, separating buds and stems, loading a couple of one-ounce bags for delivery. I like this kind of work. It’s tactile, it keeps my mind occupied. My brain is my greatest asset, I marvel at what it can do, but I often wish it would just shut the fuck up. I am lost in the greenery, just about at the level of zen when a knock on the door throws me right back out. In a room full of marijuana plants, a knock on the door is a loaded occurrence.
Whoever’s outside has likely heard no sound. I slip off my shoes and creep up the stairs. Part of the challenge is to fight my innate politeness. I need to be rudely quiet and wait for a signal.
“Paul? It’s Jasmina.”
Clear enough, but just to make sure, I indulge in a worst-case scenario. Jasmina has been busted for prostitution and is turning me in for a plea bargain, standing in my stock room with three sheriff’s deputies. Not likely. I open the door and there she is, alone, still in her work shirt, a black button-down with long sleeves.
“Jesus! This is really not a good idea. How did you get in?”
She scratches her arm. “I’m sorry. The back door was open.”
“I am really a lousy criminal.”
She laughs, then covers her mouth. “I finished the books.”
This isn’t how I pictured our reunion, but still I feel like kissing her. Which is a really bad idea.
“Why don’t we go to my conference room?”
I have recently outfitted the Enlightenment corner with a small sofa and a pair of café chairs. Jasmina slides into the red armchair. I take a chair and straddle it backwards, which I realize is a defensive posture, the back of the chair providing a shield for the family jewels (I have got to stop thinking).
“So. Tell me about the books.”
She lifts her legs to the seat of the chair and folds them Indian-style, then looks at me with wide eyes.
“Thrilling. Absolutely thrilling. All these things I have suspected all my life. All these things I have never spoken out loud because I didn’t want to upset people. These guys, they just say it, and make no apologies. They have roiled up so many ideas in my head that I can barely sort them out. Here’s one: I have noticed this tendency of Marin County folk, so desperate to escape their Christian childhoods that they embrace Hindu, and Buddhism, and Islam, not realizing that they have simply traded one flavor of bullshit for another. It’s all mythology, it’s all been manipulated for the cultivation of power, and the first commandment is always the same: turn off your brain and accept our fairy tales as absolute truth.”
She stops to take a breath. The look on her face borders on sexual arousal.
“It’s pretty exhiliarating to say things like this, isn’t it?”
“You know, it takes most people – notably Roman Catholics – decades to work all these toxins out of their systems. You’re making leaps.”
“And this idea of Dawkins, that we allow religion to corrupt our politics, to infect our science and to make idiots of our children simply because we have decided that religious thought merits automatic respect, and immunity from criticism. What a load of crap. If the fucked-up patriarchal torturously celibate foundations of your church lead your clergy to molest children, then we have an obligation to criticize your fucking religion!”
I have been here before. I have used Hitchens and Dawkins for years to pull budding atheists over the brink. They are my Atheists with Attitude, and they have a way of switching on so many ideational connections that the reader’s brain becomes an overamped pinball machine. My job is to keep pumping in the quarters until all of the forbidden notions are pulled into the open air, where they may be sorted and assembled into a very necessary arsenal. The rest of Jasmina’s life will be a tricky navigation through well-meaning idiots who worry over the blackness of her soul, and a depressing realization that most of the world is happy to turn off their brains and wallow in superstition.
“One time, I got the black-soul treatment from some old friends who were pagans. I wanted to shake them and say, ‘You’re fucking pagans! Millions of your forebears were tortured and exterminated by people who claimed that they were only doing it because they were concerned about the health of their victims’ souls. And you want to start the same process with me?’”
“So what did you really say?”
“‘Oh look, our pizza’s done!’”
Jasmina breaks up, then catches sight of the clock. “Oh, geez. I need to let you get some sleep.”
My gaze settles on Voltaire, the sharp nose, the narrow features.
“Absolutely not! There are times when the conversation simply must continue. Are you familiar with a fine dining establishment known as Denny’s?”
She rolls her eyes. “All too.”
“Midnight breakfast? Public discussion of heretical ideas?”
“Nothing could be finer.” She smiles and gets up from the chair, her breasts passing inches from my face.
After pancakes, eggs, bacon, several cups of coffee and enough blasphemy to inspire an Inquisition, we exit the restaurant and stand outside. The eastern sky is going baby blue.
“This is epic!” I declare. “This is the kind of night that American teenagers have after the prom. As long as they’re not Jehovah’s Witnesses.” I feel Jasmina’s fingers folding into mine and I pull away.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t…”
“No,” she says. “It’s me. I…” She falls silent, then pivots to face me. “No! Let’s not be this way. We’re atheists, let’s just damn well say it. I know that my… occupation means that you and I can’t be… involved. But I love you, and you’re my friend, and I want to feel free to express my affection. So set some rules for me. Tell me what’s okay.”
She looks at me with such frankness that I need to look away in order to consider the question. A firetruck rumbles down the freeway.
“Okay. Not the hand-holding. Hugs are fine. Touches on the arm, the back, the shoulder. And… a peck on the cheek, in moments of inspiration.”
I turn back and find myself kissing her on the lips.
“Hey!” She slaps me on the chest. “I was trying to kiss you on the cheek.”
I lean on the hood of my truck and start laughing.