Review dated September 8, 2004
To get right to the point, I feel that your most recent book “Life Could Be a Dream, Sweetheart” was sensational. I am a slow reader, but I got through it in a matter of hours because I simply could not put it down.
Review dated September 8, 2004
To get right to the point, I feel that your most recent book “Life Could Be a Dream, Sweetheart” was sensational. I am a slow reader, but I got through it in a matter of hours because I simply could not put it down.
Thank you for the book, which I found upon my return to Santa Cruz from Cambridge. For some reason I thought you had left Santa Cruz long ago (perhaps the confusion was related to another barber named Jerry). Anyway, I’m glad to see that you’re still turning out books and cutting local hair.
I’m flattered to have been given a chapter in the book, along with the other greats. I appreciate the compliments. Some of the references in the book brought back memories of the Santa Cruz that was when I arrived in 1972.. Who remembers Leask’s, for example?
Anyway, thanks again and good luck to you.
First Chapter, Antoine Farot and Swede, Second Edition
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Its colder’n a well diggers ass in the Klondike. Me and Swede hopped this freight car about an hour ago in Minneapolis. We think its goin’ to Milwaukee. At least we hope it is. With any kinda luck, we could be in New Orleans by the end a next week. I told Swede that since we were gonna be hungry and homeless, we didnt have to be cold, too. So that’s when we both figured on goin’ south, which is where we’re headin now. Yesterday afternoon at the Thanksgiving dinner table, I took a Louisville Slugger to that Polack son of a bitch my mother married about two years after she packed us up and moved away from Pop, which was when he walked out the door on his way to a pool game in some joint down on Lyndale Avenue. I remember how good a player he was. I guess I inherited it from im. I’m a pretty good shot myself. Once I peaked through the window of some joint, and it was at that exact moment that he was runnin the table in a game of straight pool. God he was swell!
He was off to a pool game the day Ma left im. He was leavin the house, and she told im that her, my sister and me wouldnt be there when he got home, but I guess he didnt believe her cuz he went to the pool hall anyway. I cant hardly remember the event; its only the shadow of a memory from my childhood now, kept there by my sister who repeated the story over and over again. This was actually one a the more colorful stories she told about Pop, not one designed to make me feel guilty, which, I think, was her purpose most of the time when she talked about im to me. But when she told this story, a flicker of pride crossed her face as she described his swagger, sayin it made im appear a lot bigger’n he actually was. She said he looked dashing with his derby hat cocked to one side, struttin down the alley that last time, disappearin around the corner as soon as he reached the street. At that same time Sis says Ma was tellin her to start gettin our stuff together. We were movin to a different place and wouldnt be seein too much of my father anymore.
Two years later, my mother met and married this little Polish tight wad. I guess she had a thing for little guys, but size was the only thing that fuckin moron had in common with my father. Pop was a happy-go-lucky kinda guy who could talk to anybody. Just get a couple belts in im, and he was right at home in any company. If he had a couple bucks, he’d lose em or give em away in a minute. That was another reason why my mother left im. She thought he should take care of his family first. She was right. He used to always bring me and my sister little presents and things, and he was always kind to my mother, but he was real irresponsible. He was probly the last person in the world to ever have a wife and kids and responsibilities, but somehow he was dealt that hand, and I guess you could say in the end he had to fold.
So, my mother married this hard-ass little Polack, who’s so goddamn tight he squeaks. And he’s got this little-man complex, so he’s always kinda belligerent. He’s toughest on me, and then my ma. He never lays a hand on my sis. He dont physically beat my ma either; its more a mental thing. But he’s always got an excuse to hit me and beat me up. I guess he thinks it aint right to hit women, but men are okay, no matter how young or old they are. Well, somethin happened as the years passed. I started gettin bigger and stronger and I was learnin how to fight back. We’re both about the same size now, but I’m gettin to be a better fighter than him. I guess I really didnt need to use the baseball bat. I’m already strong enough and big enough and wiry enough to go to fist city with im and take im, too, but I just got so goddamn pissed off at the little asshole that I went nuts, just for a minute, and put im down for the count with the bat.
The scariest part is I dont know if I killed the son of a bitch or not. Not scary cuz I might be guilty of murder or manslaughter, but scary cuz it would break my ma’s heart if I did, and scary just the thought of killin another person. I mean, I killed plenty a squirrels with a slingshot before, but I dont know about killin a man. That’s different. All I could think of was how tired I was of him beatin on us all the damn time. His relationship with my sister Megan seemed kinda twisted to me. He always treated her like I think he shoulda been treatin my ma. I dont know for sure, but I dont think there’s anything queer goin’ on between em. Well, if there is and I killed im, there wont be from now on.
Last night in the jungle down near the train yard, we met James, and he took a likin to us right away and told us about this train goin’ to Milwaukee. He told us to stick with im and he’d show us how to hop onto a movin boxcar. We joined im at a campfire with two other fellas. None of us had much for food. When I ran outa the house leavin Megan and Ma cryin over that old cheap skate, I grabbed a bag a the doughnuts Ma makes every day. She makes em and I roam the streets sellin em. Well, I grabbed a bag before I ran outa the house, and Swede managed to get a hold of a half a loaf of bread when he left his house. One a the other men had stolen a can of Campbells tomato soup he heated in an old coffee can over the open campfire. With the soup and doughnuts and bread, the five of us managed to have a pretty good meal. After we ate, James played his mouth organ, and its strains were ever so comforting in a forlorn and melancholy way. Right now I’m kinda sad and lonely and I’m not alone. By no later than nine oclock we was huddled together in the cold Minneapolis night, sleepin around the well-stoked fire. It was freezin cold, and I was glad we was gonna be headin south, and for the first time in my life, I was gonna be someplace in the winter and there wouldnt be any snow on the ground.
A few minutes before dawn James was stirrin the hot coals of the fire and throwin the last pieces of wood on so we could have a fire to warm up some water for coffee when the sun came up. He said a Chicago bound freight would be leavin at nine oclock. We wanted to be on it, but we had to keep a keen eye out to make sure we didnt get pinched by the railroad dicks who are always tryin throw guys off the trains. By the time the sun broke over the horizon, all of us who slept by our campfire were awake and gatherin our stuff together.
There was still four doughnuts left in the bag. Before I left the house, I took the wool army blanket off my bed and rolled an extra pair of trousers and a shirt up in it and tied it with an old piece of clothes line. This was my travelin baggage. I split two of the doughnuts five ways and rolled the other two in their bag into the bedroll with my other things. I gave one piece each to Swede, James and the other two fellas at our campfire, and had the last piece for myself. We ate em with hot coffee in old tin soup cans which also warmed our hands on this freezin November mornin. Its a good thing the sun came out. Its actually turned out to be a fairly warm day. It was full above the eastern horizon by eight oclock, and by nine oclock we were hoppin this freight headin for Chicago. It’ll probly be stoppin in Milwaukee first.
The last sign I saw on a station was Winona. So far we’ve been lucky not to get rousted by any railroad bulls. The most uncomfortable part has been the freezin cold in this boxcar. Everybody in here is afraid to build a fire cuz the smoke will only bring the bulls down on us. Me and Swede are wrapped up in our blankets and we’ve got James in between us. Its better’n nothin, but its still cold. Its a good thing James is with us cuz some a these other fellas look like theyd try takin our blankets if all they had to deal with to get em was a couple teenage boys. They see James with us and they keep their distance.
I guess we’ll be stickin with James for quite a while. He’s goin’ where we’re goin’, and for the same reasonhe wants to get warm, too, plus he wants to find his ex-wife, and she’s out on the west coast. He was married and im and his wife were pretty well off until the Crash when he lost his job and couldnt keep her in the style she was used to, so she left im and ran off to Hollywood with some big shot producer. He said she got a couple roles in B movies that didnt go nowhere in the theaters, but the last he heard, she was still out there and doin pretty good. He even has it half way in his head that he’s gonna go all the way out there and look her up. If he does, I guess we’ll be stickin with im all the way. Our goal is to get to a place called Seal Beach, which is someplace out in Southern California; I’m still not sure where. Swede knows. He’s got an aunt livin there. If she’ll have us, we plan to stay with er until we get jobs and then we’ll get our own place. James says when we get to Milwaukee, we’re probly gonna have to get off before we get to town and walk ahead and catch it at the other end goin’ out. The word is that this train’s gonna lay over in Milwaukee for a couple hours. That should give us time to make it to the other end and catch it to Chicago.
I guess I’ll be ridin these rails for who knows how long, not knowin whether the Polack is dead or whether I only put im on queer street for a while. Its probly not such a swell idea that it happened on Thanksgiving, but goddamn it, I was tired of the abuse. You can only go so long always gettin the fat and gristle, and we were dirt poorI guess you could say we were asphalt and concrete poor since we were livin in the city. My stepdad was outa work since the stock market crashed two years ago. My ma made swell doughnuts, so she’d make up ten dozen or so, and then I’d peddle em around town, gettin around by sneaking on the back of streetcars, gettin a dime a dozen. That was always worth a buck or so a day, which was more’n we were gettin from Wiktor. Megan took in washin and ironin and made a couple bucks a day that way. It was hard times, and we were lucky to be gettin that much.
So the three of us are bustin our asses tryin to make some dough, and when we do and Ma buys some meat, the old man takes the lean and gives us the gristle. Well, Thanksgiving rolled around, and we got an early chill outa the north, and we had to get extra coal before the end a the month cuz it was so goddamn cold, and there’s just generally bad times all around. We was even cuttin the milk with water so that it would go further. Ma got this small ham for Thanksgiving dinner, and there wasnt much lean on it. There was quite a bit a fat, but it was all we could afford. Wiktor takes and cuts the fat off the ham, and divides it up three ways for Ma, Megan and me. Then he takes all the lean pork and starts carving it for himself. Not that we didnt expect somethin like that to happen. He done it before. I ate it before (I poured syrup over it so it would at least taste sweet) cuz if I didnt, I wouldnt have anything to eat, and I’m a growin boy, and sometimes we’d go for a whole week without any meat at all. Doin it to us on Thanksgiving was the last straw. I had enough; I couldnt take anymore, so I got up and went over and took his plate and set it in the middle a the table and began to cut what was on it into four portions. He got up from his chair and cuffed me up side the head, and started takin his plate back. That was when I got the baseball bat and just clubbed that fuckin jerk as hard as I could. He went down to the floor and didnt move. It scared the shit outa me.
I went over to my chest a drawers in one corner of the room (it was basically a two room bungalow with a kitchen), got some a my things out, wrapped em up in my army blanket, and hit the road. My first thought was to head south cuz I wanted to get warm. As cold as it is right now, I know its gonna be freezin, or even colder, soon. I went over to Swede’s house. He’s been my best pal ever since we were walkin home from school together one day, and four other fellas jumped us and the two of us kicked their asses. We were best friends after that, and we been constant pals ever since. He helped me sell the doughnuts. When we worked together, we got business up to twenty-five dozen doughnuts a day, and Sis helped Ma with the cooking.
So, havin my mind made up that I was leavin town, I walked over to Swede’s to say goodbye or see if he wanted to come with me. He’s been gettin the same shit at his house as I’ve been gettin at mine, but his comes from his real dad. I wonder if things woulda been any different if my Pop was livin with us instead a Wiktor. Times are tough. There’s a depression on. People are outa work, and that seems to make em irritable and in a bad mood all the time. Me and Swede aint the only ones neither; I know some other kids who’re gettin beat up by their dads, too. Must be a sign of the times.
I went over to Swede’s house with my bedroll tucked under my arm. I was wearin a pretty heavy, red and black, plaid, wool jacket. Its probly the only good-quality thing I have to my name. I kept my head warm with a brown checked, eight panel, wool Donegal Newsboy.
Swede’s family Thanksgiving ended in a fight, too. By the time I got there, he’d already left the house, and nobody knew where he was. I knew where to find im. I went over to the playground where we hung around on warm summer days, tryin to get the girls to go off in the bushes with us. He was there, by himself, sittin in the bleachers next to the ball diamond. I climbed up and sat down next to im and told im I was runnin away. I didnt even have to finish tellin im about it before he was on his feet and ready to go back to his house and get his stuff so we could get outa there together as quick as possible. It wasnt as easy for him to get away from his house as it was for me. My stepdad, if he was still alive, was probly glad to be rid of me, but I think Swede’s dad wanted to keep im around so he could beat on im some more. He had to go back home, get his stuff, and sneak out without gettin caught.
He left me in the park and walked back home. It took im about an hour, but he finally came back. He was wearin a heavy, black, wool jacket, and a knitted, navy-blue watch cap. He had his things wrapped in a heavy wool blanket. We’d be glad real soon that we had those blankets. He pulled a letter outa the breast pocket of his jacket and showed it to me. It was actually an empty envelope with a canceled two cent stamp on it. It was addressed to his mother, and the return address was Ingrid Johnson with a post office box in Seal Beach, California. He told me that Ingrid Johnson was his aunt, his mother’s sister, and we should try to get to her place. He said his aunts always writin to his mother how warm and sunny it is where she lives. He stuffed the envelope back inside his coat, and we started walkin to the switichin yard over between Washington Avenue North and the river where Plymouth Avenue crosses, and hung around a while tryin to figure out what to do. My idea was to try and get to Chicago. I figured it was probly the train hub of the country, and most likely there’d be a lota traffic goin’ outa there, specially traffic headin south. If we could get to Texas, maybe we could get work on a ranch somewhere, or as rough necks in the oil fields. To me the most important thing is to get into the warm weather.
So we were hangin around the switichin yard tryin to figure which train to hop to get to Chicago. I walked by there a lota times before, and had seen men gettin on and off the freight trains. They all seemed to hang around this one spot which was at the edge of the switichin yard where the trains were still goin’ slow enough for em to jump on. We were standin behind this group where a few stragglers walked up and down. It was startin to get dark, which is the best time to evade the bulls who seem to appear from nowhere to roust bums and hobos travelin aimlessly through this depression, lookin for work at every stop, lookin for somethin to eat when theyre too hungry to go on. Me and Swede joined their ranks. Its scary as hell, but its also an adventure, and it aint no scarier than goin’ back to face murder or manslaughter charges, or worse yet, to face Wiktor Sadlo.
When we realized that it wasnt such a smart idea to travel at night cuz of the cold, we wandered over to one a the campfires, and that’s when we met James. We hit it off with im right away, and he told us to stick with im and he’d show us which train was the one we wanted. The first thing we learned from im was that we wouldnt be goin’ straight to Chicago, but to Milwaukee first and then south to Chicago, where, he promised us, we’d be able to catch a freight to just about any place in the country we wanted to go. He said the last steady job he had was in Kansas City in twenty-nine at the time of the Crash. Since bein on the bum, he picked up odd jobs here and there, which mostly just paid im with a free meal. As we sat around the fire with the other two bums, James pulled out his mouth organ and started playin some mournful music. The music and the train whistles gave me this lonesome, melancholy feelin, and the ragged men I saw scramblin up and down the rails lookin for trains to catch only made me more lonesome.
I dont think I ever felt that lonely before in my life. This was it. We were on our own. We were gonna have to fend for ourselvesno more mother to go home to for comfort in time of trouble. Course our mothers couldnt be much comfort to us anyway; theyre tryin to keep their husbands happy and dont have time for our problems. I love my mother, and I’m already beginnin to miss her. The terror in her scream and in the look on her face when I left the house is already hauntin me. I wanna reach out to her, to reassure her that I’ll be all right, and that this is gonna pass, too, but I cant do that. Now I’m a fugitive, like the wind, and I have no idea how far I will have to run, or how long I’ll be runnin.
If you like the first chapter, use the
link above to buy the book online.
If you liked the first chapter, click on the link above to buy the paperback on line.
For thirteen of the first fifteen years of my life I was confused about my cultural identity. I met George Nieto when I was two and a half years old, and I got it into my head that I was a Mexican, not the American-Franco/German that I, in fact, was. My fair complexion, and brown hair and eyes betrayed me throughout life. I wasn’t ashamed of my heritage, and I did indeed love my parents and grandparents. In fact, the French part was actually pretty cool because I saw it as my hereditary link to Latin culture, and the same goes for the Catholic religion I’d been baptized into, but those two things didn’t alter the genetic reality of my situation. And the fact that my childhood screen heroes were guys like Leo Carrillo, Anthony Quinn and Jay Silverheals didn’t make me either a Mexican or a native north American, no matter how much I wanted it to be so. My problem was that I lived in a light beige skin, surrounded by family, friends and neighbors of a similar shade, but mentally, I was a Mexicano, or at the very least, an American-Mexican.
I was lucky to be born in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Lucky, that is, because Minneapolis was then and still is a town that’s steeped in Native American culture and myth. The birth took place in the front room of my grandparents’ house seven and a half months before Japanese warplanes made their attack on Pearl Harbor. I’ve always felt fortunate to have been born in the house because it stood on land that was farmed and hunted on by tribesmen of the Sioux nation long before my European ancestors even knew it existed.
It was an auspicious and interesting beginning. According to my mother, my actual birth had been an easy one. It was just a long time coming; I was a month overdue. It happened on a Monday afternoon as the springtime bloomed. Grandma was waiting at the bus stop as my mom and my big brother, Frank, got off the bus. Grandma pulled Frank and her youngest daughter, my Aunt Jessie, back to her house in a red wagon. My mom walked the one block down to her doctor’s office on the corner of Queen Avenue and Lowry Avenue.
I’ve always carried a picture in my mind’s eye of Francesca on that day, bracing her lower back, palms flat on her high rump, elbows akimbo, toes pointing slightly outward, as she waddled off down the street. I don’t doubt she felt bad about her dumpy appearance that afternoon, but I’m sure she also had a strong sense of the bloom that pregnancy bestows on a woman. When she wasn’t pregnant, which is the only way I ever saw her, she was really beautiful—an absolute knockout. She was five feet four inches tall, and she weighed around a hundred and ten pounds. Her light brown hair, medium-length with a permanent wave, soft brown eyes, and creamy-smooth skin all highlighted her Judy Garland smile.
After the exam and the doctor’s reassurance that everything was fine, even though she was in her tenth month, she left his office, cut through the Cleveland school playground, and walked the other half block to my grandma’s house. I must’ve heard this story a half dozen times from as many points of view when I was a little kid. Mom told it to me first, having experienced it from beginning to end. Grandma, Antoine (that’s my dad), and Grandpa each added his or her own twist to the tale. They were there too.
“When I got to the top of the steps, I pulled open the screen door, and my water broke right when I turned the doorknob,” Francesca said in her Minnesota/Great Lakes accent. “I pushed the door open and called out to Ma. She was fixin’ dinner. Frank and Jessie were out in the back yard with Pa and all my brothers and sisters, except Helen and Danny. They were all there, you know? Ma came out of the kitchen on the run to help me get to the couch. Then she hurried out to the front porch and called out to Missus Rungren, next door. She had a telephone, so she called the doctor.”
Grandma came back into the house just in time to be my mom’s midwife. By the time Missus Rungren arrived on the scene, I was already born. She also had an anecdote about that day. When I was eight years old, we were back in Minneapolis for my Uncle Danny’s ordination into the priesthood. At a party at Grandma’s house, Missus Rungren told a gathering in the living room all about it.
“We were lucky the doctor didn’t leave his office yet,” Missus Rungren said. “When I phoned him, he said he’d get an ambulance out here, and he’d come right over for an emergency house call. I hung up and rushed over here, but I was too late because you were already born. You gave me a bit of a scare. When I first saw you, it looked like your umbilical cord was around your neck, but it wasn’t, and you were fine. Such a big baby. You were crying. You wanted to be fed.”
“Jeekers!” Grandma said. “You were a fat little baby, and you were hungry from the start. I was in the kitchen gettin’ dinner ready. Danny was right there at the dining room table doing his homework. All the other kids were in the back yard with Conrad. Just as soon as I got Frannie settled on the davenport, your little head popped out, and the next thing I knew, I was holdin’ you in my arms.”
Since it was a late Monday afternoon, so close to the dinner hour, all but one of my mom’s siblings were around the house. Helen, the next in age to Francesca, missed it because she was a University of Minnesota coed and lived on campus. Danny, who was graduating from high school in June and going to seminary in September, was the second person after Grandma to see me. Maddy (short for Madeleine), Luke, Casey and Edith, tenth grade, eighth grade, fifth grade and second grade respectively all came in to stare in wonder and awe at the goings-on on the living room davenport.
The doctor showed up ten minutes later. He immediately cut and tied off my umbilical cord. Then he did all of his checking with the stethoscope, and Grandma and Missus Rungren cleaned up the afterbirth with the water Grandma had heated on the stove while she was waiting for him to show.
I wasn’t fifteen minutes old and already suckling when Dad showed up. He was a pressman’s feeder at a big printing company in downtown Minneapolis named Brown and Bigelow, trying, without much success, to break into the lithographers union. Minneapolis was a union town, and the only way you could get anywhere in the printer’s union in those days was if you were related to someone in the hierarchy. Needless to say, Antoine didn’t have relatives, or friends for that matter, anywhere in the hierarchy, but he did know a couple of guys in the rank and file.
He knew how to run a press and he should have been an apprentice pressman like his buddies in the union, but since he couldn’t gain membership, he was stuck as a feeder. The feeder was the guy who oiled the press first thing in the morning, and then he kept paper-loaded skids fed into it for an eight hour shift. When the paper came out all printed up at the other end, the feeder then unloaded it and muscled it over to the bindery. When I was in high school, I got a job as a feeder in one of the print shops where Antoine worked, so I know, first hand, how hard the work is. For him it was back-breaking labor that barely paid a subsistence wage, but he considered himself lucky to even have a job, because, as far as he was concerned, the Depression was still going on, and he had no idea then that it would end in just seven and a half months.
The first time I heard the story of my father’s arrival at my birth, I tried to imagine how he looked that day. Antoine was a wiry little guy who bore a strong resemblance to James Cagney in facial features, stature and attitude. His thinning, black hair was parted on the left and combed straight back on the sides and top, and it was such a contrast to his white skin that it made his cobalt-blue eyes really stand out. I’m sure he was hunched and hobbled that afternoon after eight hours on the job. I picture him straightening up and coming alive at the sight of his newborn son as he came into a house that hummed with women, children and childbirth.
“I got there before the ambulance,” Antoine said at the ordination gathering in Grandma’s living room. “What a little roly poly you was! Prit’near tipped the scales at twelve pounds!” My dad always liked to exaggerate. “The cord just barely cut, and already you was suckin’ on your ma’s tit. Your curled-up little fingers were on each side of your head, tryin’ to get a-hold of that tit. I stuck my baby finger into one of your hands, and you just grabbed onto it and squeezed to beat hell. Then you pulled your face away from that tit and hauled off and gave me a big grin, and not a tooth in your head.”
Grandpa—his name was Conrad Konig—had been home from work since three-thirty. He was out in the back yard with the kids when all the excitement started. He was also a little guy, but he was stockier than my dad and he had a pot belly. He had about an inch and a half of wispy, gray hair that wrapped around the back of his head from one temple to the other. He and Grandma both had soft brown eyes, framed by rimless wire bifocals. They both also had false teeth from a young age. Grandpa and Grandma—her name was Gretchen—were both a couple of inches taller than Mom, and Grandma probably weighed more than Grandpa. He looked like a cross between Elmer Fudd and Mister Magoo. Grandma, on the other hand, could’ve doubled for Marjorie Main in her role as Ma Kettle.
“I be jiggered if you wasn’t a picture of contentment, nursin’ the way you was,” Grandpa said. “And so alert too. Seemed like you knew what was goin’ on around you from the first day on.”
At ten to six an ambulance pulled up at the curb. The attendants wheeled Mom and me out to it on a gurney. The doctor walked alongside the gurney and got in the back of the ambulance with us. After he made arrangements with Grandma and Grandpa to leave Frank with them, Dad followed us to the hospital in the car. Mom got settled in her room, and I was taken to the nursery where I was weighed (eleven pounds two ounces) and measured (twenty-two inches). Dad took care of the paperwork for the birth certificate. I was named after him: Jerôme Antoine Farot (his name was Antoine Georges Farot, and he was proud of his French heritage, thus the caret over the O in my name).
I was the healthiest of the three babies my mom had. My older brother Frank was born five weeks premature, spent a month an a half in the incubator, and, according to Antoine, was still small enough to fit into a shoe box when they brought him home from the hospital. My younger brother Jean (the French pronunciation) was born with one lung and died when he was only six months old. Mom was in hard labor for hours with my two brothers and only a few minutes with me.
Frank’s full name was Franklin Paul Farot. He was named after President Roosevelt, who was Antoine’s idol. Dad rode the rails from Minneapolis to Seal Beach, California when he was fifteen years old. He left Seal Beach a year later and went up into the Owens Valley to work in a CCC camp. He told the story many times over the years of how he once shook hands with Roosevelt when he came touring the camp. He thought the guy was great, or as he put it himself countless times through the years, “Franklin Delano Roosevelt was one hell of a swell fella’.” Frank’s middle name came from Paul Konig, who was Mom’s cousin and Dad’s best friend.
I don’t remember too much about those early years in Minneapolis. Because I’ve always been such a warm-weather person, I find it ironic that the only two memories that remain are snow memories. It was probably our last winter living there. I was freezing, and I didn’t like it one bit. My Latin blood was rebelling. One night right after a fresh snowfall a pregnant Francesca with Frank and me in tow got off of a city bus. As it pulled away from the corner, the reek of acrid diesel wafted in the air and clashed with the crisp, fresh smell of the new fallen snow. Every time I’ve ever been in the snow and smelled its fresh scent, I’m reminded of that night those many years ago.
The only other memory I have from that time is of one snow-covered day when we were at Grandma’s house. As Mom and Grandma sat over steaming coffee mugs at the dining room table, Frank, Jessie and I wrestled Uncle Casey’s skis up the basement steps. The coal furnace roared on that cold winter day, emitting the smell of coal gas, heating the dank, musty basement as well as the house above. That day must have been a coal delivery day because the stuff was piled almost to the lip of the coal chute. When we got the skis out the back door at the top of the basement steps, the freezing cold took my breath away. It didn’t even seem to faze Jessie and Frank. We took the skis around front and tried to use them like toboggans to go down the five foot embankment from Grandma’s front yard to the sidewalk. We weren’t too successful as the skis were probably at least six feet long. Frank and Jessie were having a great time, but I was miserable from the cold. I yearned for the desert, yet I knew nothing about it.
I don’t remember a thing about my little brother Jean. He was named after our other grandpa Jean Farot. His middle name was Georges, after Dad, and he was born twenty-two months after me. He only lived for six months. One night Mom went in to check on him in his crib, and he lay dead, the result of complications from having just one lung. That was a defining moment in my mother’s life and the event that finally convinced her and my dad to leave Minneapolis and head for southern California. America was fully engaged in the wars in Europe and the Pacific, and Antoine had heard that there were good job opportunities at the naval ship yard in Long Beach. His job at Brown and Bigelow was more than ever a dead end, and Mom just wanted to get out of Minneapolis and get shut of the reminders of her late infant son.
So they packed as much as they could get into the thirty-six Packard Dad was driving at the time, tied a loaded steamer trunk to the rear bumper, and one morning in late September the four of us headed west and south. I don’t remember anything about that trip, but Mom later told me that when we crossed over the Rocky Mountains, I was getting some pretty bad nose bleeds which scared her a couple of times. We were otherwise lucky, driving away from winter, and actually winning the race with the weather, making it to warm and sunny Long Beach by the middle of the first week of October with no car trouble, not even a flat tire.
If you like the first chapter, use the link above to buy the paperback online!
If you liked the first chapter, click on the link above to buy the paperback on line.
“Rock ’n’ roll is here to stay!” What I always say. I said it back then, and it’s still true today, a quarter of a century down the road. Oh yeah, things have gotten kind of slow from time to time (early sixties twist, mid seventies disco), and sometimes they’ve even come to a stop—Elvis Presley three years ago and John Lennon just last night. I’ll always remember where I was and what I was doing the night John died. I was in my room listening to the Beatles for Sale album, and I was reminded once again what cool cats those guys were. They covered Chuck Berry, Leiber and Stoller, Little Richard, Buddy Holly and Carl Perkins on the album, and the sounds they made took me back to the time when those tunes were at the top of the hit parade.
Rock ’n’ roll was in its first golden age on that warm summer afternoon twenty-four years ago. I was filling out a job application at the Rexall drugstore on the corner of Sixth and Broadway in downtown Los Angeles. “Don’t be Cruel” was playing on the P. A. System, and I was pleasantly surprised to hear Elvis rockin’ ’n’ rollin’, even at low volume, in such a place. Rexall was about as mainstream as it got in American society at that time, and “Don’t be Cruel,” because it was some of Elvis’ best stuff, seemed a bit sophisticated for that venue. It usually comes down to the best stuff in the end anyway, the best stuff being that which is complex and involved, but still primitive, simple and rudimentary. In the time it took me to finish the application, I heard Fats Domino doing “Blue Monday,” and Jesse Belvin, “Goodnight my Love.” And that’s when the thought first occurred to me: “rock ’n’ roll is here to stay!”
I ran into Michelle Bergerac when I got back out on the sidewalk. She’d gotten off a southbound Five bus coming from Eagle Rock, the neighborhood where we both lived. I hadn’t really known her at Saint Dominic’s elementary school because she’d been one year ahead of me all the way through, but we knew each other by name and sight. Hers was the first familiar face I’d seen all day.
“Hey, Michelle, how ya’ doin’?” I said.
“Jerôme! What’re you doing here?”
She was a pretty girl, strawberry blond hair and emerald green eyes. Her green dress (a paler shade than her eyes) looked like a waitress’ uniform. A clean, pressed apron of like-color was folded neatly and protruded from her woven shoulder bag.
“I just applied for a job here at Rexall, but it doesn’t look too promising. I’m havin’ a hell of a time tryin’ to find something.”
“I’m on my way to work right now. I’m a traygirl at Clifton’s cafeteria. Why don’t you come with me and fill out an application? They might even be looking for a busboy right now.”
I walked the two and a half blocks with her to the cafeteria on Olive just off Sixth. She introduced me to her boss, Dan Weems, and he gave me an application which I filled out on the spot. When I finished, I said goodbye to Michelle (she was already on the clock), and went back down to Broadway and caught the bus home.
That was Wednesday, August first. The following Monday morning, Dan phoned me, and I went to work that same afternoon. It was the first real job I ever had; I’d never thought of the paper route and newsstands I’d had when I was a kid as real jobs. Clifton’s opened up a whole new world to me. I felt like my life was just beginning. Dan’s call ended a two month funk that Lana Guerrero had put me in when she two-timed me in June. More important, the job provided me with the means to escape Eagle Rock once and for all. I’d been trying to do that since last fall when I started my freshman year at Cathedral High School.
I also started to take on a new cultural identity at Cathedral, moving away from my American-European roots and into the Chicano culture I’d been longing for since I was two years old. My first day on campus, I looked around at my classmates, eighty percent of whom were Chicanos, and I told myself that I’d finally come home, found my true brothers. By the time I got to Clifton’s, it was impossible for me to see myself as a light-skinned, brown-haired, brown-eyed American-Franco/German, born Jerôme Farot in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I was convinced that God had made a mistake; I was born into the wrong culture; in my mind I was a Chicano.
I was learning Spanish in the classroom at Cathedral, and also in the barrio hanging around with my five tightest partners from school, Carlos Williams, François Rojas, Wolfgang Benavides, Marc Pérez and Craig Cubangbang. The process moved forward when I went to work at Clifton’s, and the Mexicano dishwashers in the basement, who called me Pelón because I’d bought some barber tools and shaved my head after Lana broke my heart, helped me take my Spanish to the next level.
At Clifton’s my cultural education was enhanced in ways other than simply learning a second language. I was going into downtown every day and being exposed to all kinds of people—panhandlers and prostitutes on Main Street, soapbox preachers in Pershing Square, winos and rail bums down on Fifth Street. Within a month I was getting to know the ropes, and I was beginning to think I was a pretty shrewd operator, not just a naïve kid. In some respects, I was following in my dad’s footsteps. These were the same people Antoine was meeting and hanging around with when he was fifteen.
Dan had told me to meet him on the front mezzanine of the cafeteria at three o’clock, well past the lunch hour rush, and to wear a white shirt and tie. As I waited, I walked over to the railing and looked down on the main floor. Only a few of the tables were occupied, and a lone busboy in a short sleeve white shirt and clip-on bow tie was clearing dishes from one recently vacated.
Dan appeared from the rear of the cafeteria and walked in my direction. He stopped briefly to say something to the busboy. Then he continued on his way and came up to where I was waiting. After we shook hands, he walked me to the time clock in the kitchen at the rear of the restaurant. It was near the back door that let out on the alley where skid row winos lined up for a free soy meal called “MPF,” multi-purpose food. Feeding the down-and-out was one of Cliftons’ charitable contributions to the neighborhood.
Dan showed me my time card and how to use the clock. I’d be paid seventy-five cents an hour or six bucks for an eight hour shift. Meals were included. That was how they got away with paying sub-minimum wage. The legal minimum at the time was a dollar an hour.
We went back through the hot supply (that was the area where the steam tables were) to the trays and silverware. He walked me through the line and got me past the checker without paying. I went to the rear mezzanine and sat at a table near the back stairwell where Michelle was taking a ten minute break. The house photographer, a beautiful blond girl named Robyn, was sitting at the table with her. She wore a Hawaiian print skirt. A professional’s camera with a flash attachment was on the table in front of her.
“Well, I guess I should go punch in,” she said with a sigh as she picked up her camera and headed for the stairs.
Michelle followed her five minutes later.
When I finished eating, I took my dirty dishes to the escalator room and sent them down to the basement. Then I went to the main floor and met Dan. He introduced me to the busboy I’d seen earlier. His name was Pierre Duval, and he showed me how to bus a table. Then he took me on a tour of the whole restaurant.
On the south wall above the main floor, there was a rock terrace with a pool that caught a six-foot-high waterfall in its basin. On the right between it and the front mezzanine was a copse of imitation palm trees. A Polynesian mural was painted on the wall to the left. A row of thatched huts made of blond bamboo lined the wall directly under the waterfall. Robyn was taking a picture of a party of four sitting at a table inside one of the huts.
There were basement rooms in the front and rear of the building. The one in the back was where the Mexicanos washed the dishes, and there was also an employee locker room in that area. There were a couple of rooms in the front basement. They contained what the management called a chapel. In one was a Garden-of-Gethsemane scene (a spotlight shone on a life-size statue of Jesus Christ kneeling in the dark in front of a huge papier-mâché boulder, eyes gazing heavenward, hands clasped in prayer) with women guides dressed in floor-length robes, heads covered with shawls, conducting “spiritual tours.”
To the left of the main entrance, opposite the stairwell to the basement chapel and front mezzanine, was the entrance tunnel that led back to the hot supply. A grand stairway, leading up to the rear mezzanine, split and wound around a landing where an organist played diners’ requests during the rush hours. The stairs and landing were located almost dead center in the middle of the building.
Pierre showed me the escalator rooms on the main floor and rear mezz, and the tour ended there. When the two other busboys who worked the rear mezz came back from their lunch breaks, the three of us worked together until the end of the shift. Business had picked up since I’d punched in. A few tables were occupied and some needed busing. The dinner rush began at five o’clock and went on until after eight o’clock when business started to taper off, and I got a half-hour break for dinner. I punched out at nine-thirty, and rode home with Michelle and few other Clifton’s employees on the Five-Eagle Rock.
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Before Jack-in-the-Box came to town, Belmont Shore was a quaint little Southern California coastal village, or at least that’s how its inhabitants saw it. They still saw it that way even after Jack-in-the-Box. Rickety shacks on pilings, built long ago, were scattered on the beach along Ocean Boulevard. They were gradually coming down to make room for parking lots for the tourists and “flatlanders” who came to the beach on weekends and during the summer. Across the street, two and three story apartment buildings crowded one another for beach frontage. The apartments were a mixture of seasonal rentals for summer tourists and temporary homes for the year-round residents who moved into the neighborhood from such disparate places as Avon, Illinois and Obi, New York. The apartments were the dividing line between the beach cottages and the stucco and wood frame houses that lined the one-way streets streaming to and from Ocean Boulevard and Second Street.
The streets themselves were barely wide enough for parking on both sides with one lane for traffic. The parking spaces were occupied day and night by the Volkswagens of school teachers, the Mustangs and Rivieras of Talk-of-the-Town hustlers, the Cadillacs and Lincolns of middle class working people, who really should have been driving Chevies and Fords but had the bigger cars because they were trying to keep up with the Joneses. There were the Alfa Romeos and Austin Healeys of playboy types who came to the Shore because they’d heard somewhere down the line that there were attractive young women everywhere and parties that lasted for days. There was indeed a grain of truth to some of that talk. As the war in Vietnam raged and college campuses across the country were rockin’ ’n’ rollin’ between protests, the Shore, like the rest of America, was having a party.
Second Street, the main business district, was where the action was. From Quincy to Bay Shore, Second Street bustled with grocery stores and drug stores, bakeries and banks, and in this thirteen block stretch, bars, liquor stores and real estate offices flourished on virtually every corner. There were coffee shops and pizza parlors, Mexican restaurants and Chinese cuisine, and four barber shops.
Second Street started coming alive every day at nine when the morning manager at Jack-in-the-Box started hosing down his parking lot and the adjoining sidewalk. Asa swept in front of his liquor store, and Al stood in the entryway to his jewelry store greeting early shoppers. The breakfast crowd at Sut’s Hut was breaking up and going out into the morning. The air was charged with the ocean’s briny aroma. Sun poured down on the avenue like drawn butter. Bernie Honig unlocked the door to his barber shop at nine on the nose.
At a time when crew cut was king and the fraternity boys were wearing ivy league styles, Bernie’s was one of the first “hair styling” barber shops around. Campus radicalism and revolt against “the establishment” were taking hold, and long hair styles were coming in. Bernie, knowing where the dollar was, began attending workshops and seminars to learn how to deal with the longer styles. He was ten years ahead of his time. He’d tell his customers, “I could see it coming.” His appointment book was filled, and he stayed busy even after the barbers in the other shops on the avenue were playing checkers with each other in the front windows of their shops.
Bernie’s shop was on a block that included a coin operated laundry called Norge Village and Mc Coy’s market on one side, and Asa’s liquor store and a cafe on the other. The red and white plastic cylinder of his barber pole, a symbol of so many years of blood letting and tooth pulling, revolved during business hours. A red-white-and-blue neon sign hung in the window. Its tubes were shaped to spell out the words “Bernie’s Barber Shop.” The vertical lines of both Bs looked like twin barber pole.
The shop had two medium-size maroon leather-upholstered iron chairs, spaced six feet apart, not huge and heavy like the old porcelain barber chairs, but also not tiny and light-weight like the styling chairs that appeared later. They were smooth and cold, and they never seemed to break down or lose their luster, as though they were oblivious to the passage of time. Behind each chair were cabinets and shampoo bowls above which hung mirrors. Other mirrors were positioned on the opposite wall facing the chairs. They lined up so that when the customer in the chair was looking into either mirror, he saw his own reflection front-back, front-back until the tunnel curved upward and out of sight. A ’forties vintage cash register sat on a raised podium in the middle of a table midway between the two chairs on the opposite wall. Magazines littered the lower surface of the table, and six waiting chairs lined the wall, three on each side of the register.
Noticeable, simply by the absence of any other wall hangings, except mirrors, were two eight by ten black and white photographs, toward the back of the shop, of a much younger Bernie when he was an apprentice jockey in Chicago. One pictured him riding a horse to victory at Arlington Park; the other showed him on the same horse in the winner’s circle, wreathed with roses.
At age forty-four, Bernie was as steady and hard-working as the chair he toiled behind. His favorite expression was, “Ain’t no use walkin’ around if yuh ain’t makin’ money.” He’d walked off the ship at Terminal Island at the end of the war and gone to work at the Iowa Barber Shop in downtown Long Beach. It didn’t take him long to realize that he wanted his own shop. When he bought the lease on the one in Belmont Shore, it was a one-chair operation. In the twenty years that followed, he added another chair.
Jerôme Farot, the barber in the second chair, at twenty-five, was young enough to be Bernie’s son. Three months after he’d graduated from high school, he was enrolled in the American Barber College at Fifth and San Julian in the heart of downtown Los Angeles’ Skid Row. He went on active duty with the Naval Reserve immediately after he passed the state board. He got lucky and got to serve his tour of duty at Los Alamitos Naval Air Station. That’s how he found his way to Bernie’s front door. When he got an early-out to go to Long Beach City College, he went to work afternoons and Saturdays in the second chair.
When they were both in the shop and cutting hair, it was as busy-sounding as a beehive. Voices overlapped, and if either of the two barbers wanted some privacy in his conversation, he’d have to lower his voice. But this was not often, as Jerôme’s schedule was only half of Bernie’s.
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Carlos Rangel had been a barber since his late teens, and now twenty-four years later, he was still cutting hair. He had a two chair setup that fronted on Cypress Avenue in Cypress Park. The shop was located in what used to be the garage for the house on the hill behind it. He’d bought the house and shop on the G. I. bill when he got out of the Navy at the end of the war nine years ago. The barber he’d bought it from had moved out to Glendale because he wanted to get out of the city. When he left the neighborhood, he also left a clientele that Carlos kept for about five years, but, through attrition and the usual neighborhood turnover, had disappeared for the most part.
When Carlos bought the shop, a barber named Bob Jones worked the second chair. Jonesy, at that point, hadn’t yet gone completely to hell from drinking, and he had a pretty good clientele. As the troops came home after the war, the shop got busy and stayed that way for quite a few years. Eventually, the bottle caught up with Jonesy and he started missing work and leaving customers, and Carlos, hanging. Finally, one day he didn’t show up at all, but by then business had tapered off for both of them, so it was no problem for Carlos to take Jonesy’s customers. Carlos had been working the shop alone ever since.
Now Carlos was spending a lot of his time sitting on a stool at the back of the shop playing his tenor saxophone. About two years ago, when he first realized that business was slowing down, he decided to use his newfound spare time to learn how to play the instrument. It was something he’d always wanted to do. He didn’t quite understand why business was so slow. He didn’t want to admit that the shop decor was stark and in need of remodeling, and he also didn’t want to quit playing his horn and get up to do a haircut when someone walked through the door. That’s how lost in his music he got sometimes.
He knew there were things he could do to improve the situation, but somehow he just couldn’t bring himself to do them. He could see that the shop looked worn and run down, and that he should get in there and paint and fix it up, but then he wearied of such thoughts quickly, rather retreating to the back of the shop with his saxophone. He also never learned how to cut a good flat top, a style that was popular among the younger crowd of the time. He couldn’t square the corners and flatten out the top. He could do butches and crew cuts, but not flat tops. Thus, over the last few years, he watched as his business dwindled away.
Carlos lived with his wife, Teresa, and nineteen-year-old daughter, Carmela, in the house on the hill above the shop. His widowed mother-in-law, Señora Guevara, who spoke no English, lived in a bungalow a few blocks down the street. He was thirty-five when his own parents died seven years ago. They were both heavy smokers, and they died of smoking related ailments within a year of each other. It was long before that that Carlos himself decided not to smoke. And he never did. From his earliest days he could remember not liking the smell of burned tobacco. The house he grew up in was permeated with it.
Carmela was probably paying the heaviest price for Carlos’ slowdown. He barely stayed busy enough to afford a Catholic education for her. The first years after he got home from the war weren’t too bad because the shop was busy. It was her high school years, the early ’fifties, that were the roughest. She’d started grammar school at Santa Teresita in the old neighborhood eight months after Carlos joined the Navy and went off to war in the Pacific. She finished grade school at Divine Saviour in Cypress Park and went to high school at Sacred Heart in Lincoln Heights. Business started slowing down for Carlos when Carmela was a sophomore at Sacred Heart, and that was when Teresa got a job as a checker at the Gateway market down on Avenue Twenty-six, one block off Figueroa.
It was really because of Teresa’s job that Carmela was able to complete four years at Sacred Heart. Carlos’ business was fading rapidly, and Jonesy was spending more and more time in the beer joint down on San Fernando Road, across the street from the train yard. So Teresa worked hard at the market because she wanted Carmela to go to college, but when the time came, there wasn’t yet enough money to send her, so Carmela got a job as a typist at Occidental Insurance Company downtown not two months after she graduated from Sacred Heart. Her first semester out of high school, she took evening classes at Los Angeles City College.
On the slow days when he knew it wasn’t going to get any better and he needed a break from his sax, Carlos would cross the street to the little corner grocery store and hang out with his friend Enríque Contreras who wasn’t very busy, either. Carlos could see his own shop from the grocery store, and he kept an eye on it as he wiled away the midday with his friend. Standing at a certain angle near the front door, he could see John’s barber shop two blocks down the street. John had recently put a new sign over his front door. It was a foot high and it stuck out over the sidewalk three feet. It said FLAT TOPS on both sides in bright red letters about eight inches high against a white field. Just when Carlos got relaxed and started enjoying his visit, Señora Guevara came into the store. The minute she laid eyes on him, she said in her perfect idiomatic Spanish,
“Why are you not working, mijito?”
She’d been calling him that since he was fourteen years old. Señora Guevara had always treated him with respect and affection, and had loved him as if he were her own son. Plus, she really didn’t mean to imply anything by the question.
Nevertheless, questions like that, especially when they came from her, always made him feel the pressure.
“’Cause there ain’t no business right now, suegra,” he replied in his own brand of Spanish.
She was a slight little woman, but her size didn’t suggest weakness in any way. Carlos had always been impressed by her strong personality. Her gray hair lent her an air of authority. She wandered off through the narrow aisles of the tiny grocery store, and Carlos and Enríque picked up their conversation as soon as she was gone. She bought a pound bag of pinto beans, a can of Ortega chiles and a half dozen flour tortillas. Then the two men watched as she walked off, back toward Divine Saviour. She made an afternoon visit to the church every day to light a votive candle in memory of her late husband.
Carlos looked over at his shop and saw his wife coming down the stairs from the house on her way to work. Like her mother, Teresa was not a big woman. Señora Guevara wasn’t overweight, but she was a little heavier than her daughter. Teresa still looked quite young with her long, dark hair and petite figure. Carlos went back across the street. They met in front of his shop. Standing together they were a study in opposites when it came to complexion. Carlos was the lightest, Teresa the darkest. Carmela and her grandmother were somewhere between the two. All three women were beauties.
“See you at dinner, Carlitos,” Teresa said.
They kissed and parted. He went up the stairs to the house. From inside he kept an eye on the front door of the shop, although he wasn’t sure why he needed to, since nobody went in during the whole time he was up there.
He went to the kitchen and heated some refried beans in a sauce pan and made himself a salsa of diced Ortega green chiles, tomatoes and onions. Then he heated two flour tortillas over the open flame of the burner on the gas stove. He sat at the dining room table and looked down at the shop while he ate his burritos with whole jalapeño chiles on the side. Two customers had gone into Contreras’ place, and they both came out carrying medium size bags of groceries. Carlos was glad to see that at least Contreras was doing some business.
When he stepped back onto the sidewalk, Jaime, the old retired hod carrier whose wife had died from cancer just last year, approached. Jaime had lived in the neighborhood for thirty years, up the hill on Isabel Street, and he was one of Señor Guevara’s (Carlos’ late father-in-law) cronies. As far as Carlos knew, he’d never gone to any other barber shop as long as he’d lived there.
“You got time for a haircut?” he asked as Carlos came face to face with him.
“Sure. Go ’head on in.”
He stood aside allowing Jaime to enter ahead of him. Customers like Jaime would always come to Carlos no matter what. His shop, with its worn twenty-year-old barber chairs, waiting chairs with cracked vinyl upholstery taped one time too many, and the mirrors spattered with water, was familiar and comfortable territory for the likes of Jaime, and he would go there even when he didn’t need a haircut to hang out in much the same way Carlos had gone across the street before lunch to hang around with Contreras. He’d tell Carlos all about his wife, how wonderful she’d been, how she’d died a slow, painful death. Carlos was getting a little tired of the story, but he listened politely, nevertheless, because he realized that Jaime needed to tell someone. Contreras was a good listener too, and Jaime would sometimes go across the street when he left the barber shop. He’d tell Enríque the same story.
Carlos cut his hair in about twenty minutes and collected a dollar and a quarter for the job. When Jaime left and headed across the street, Carlos swept the floor, picked up a National Geographic from the dusty stack on the end table at the rear of the shop, walked back up front, and sat down in his chair in the front window.
At three-thirty after school got out, Rudy, a fifth grader from Divine Saviour sat down in the chair and asked for a butch. Now, that was one Carlos could do. Fifteen minutes later the boy walked out of the shop running his hand over his newly butched head.
As Carlos was sweeping the floor, he saw the guy from the Herald Express deliver the Eight Star edition to Contreras’ store. He put the broom away in the back and crossed the street. He pulled one of the papers out of the metal rack as he entered the store.
Contreras sat like Buddha behind his counter. Carlos grabbed the extra stool and sat down, handing Contreras the front page as he kept the sports section. For the next half hour they read, exchanging sections as they finished reading them. Carlos glanced at his front door from time to time, but no one entered. The OPEN sign in the window glared in the afternoon sun.
“¡Híjola!” Carlos said. “Art Aragón wants to get in the ring with Carmine Basilio.”
“Really? Pinchi Metsican’s go’n’a get his ass kicked, eh. Ain’t no way Golden Boy’s go’n’a beat Basilio.”
“Es verdad, eh. What the hell, if he thinks he can beat ’im, why not just go ’head on and fight ’im?”
“I guess, but what’s in it for Basilio? Ain’t no title on the line. How big could the purse be?”
When they finished reading the paper, Contreras put it back together and Carlos walked it outside and put it in the rack. As he re-entered the store, a fifty-three Chevy convertible with four teenagers in it passed by.
“Look at that, eh. Kids, and they got a new car! I ain’t got a car. You got a car?” asked the portly grocer, rhetorically.
“Yuh know I ain’t got one,” Carlos replied. “Can’t afford it, eh.”
“I can’t believe it. Me and you got’a take the streetcar, and they got their own car. Ain’t no justice.”
“Rich gavachos from Eagle Rock. Prob’ly their father’s car.”
Carlos stayed and talked with Enríque until almost five o’clock when a young man he’d never seen around the neighborhood before approached his front door. He said so long to the grocer and crossed the street. The stranger had entered on his own, and Carlos arrived at the door right after it closed. He opened it and went in to find the stranger standing in the middle of the shop looking around.
“Hi, need a haircut?”
“Have a seat right here.”
Carlos picked up the haircloth and indicated with his open right hand for the young man to sit.
“How yuh want it?” he asked.
“Longer in back so I can have a duck tail. Square it on the neck?”
“How yuh want the sideburns?”
“Leave ’em long. And just trim the top.”
“You live around here?” Carlos asked as he began cutting the hair. “Ain’t never seen yuh before.”
“I live up in Glassell Park near Saint Bernard’s. I go by here every day on the streetcar on my way to work and back home.”
“Really? Where yuh work?”
“Clifton’s cafeteria on Broadway. I see your shop all the time from the streetcar. Wanted to stop for a haircut, but never had time.”
“What’s your name?”
“Peter. You Carlos?”
“That’s right. How long yuh been working at Clifton’s?”
“Couple years but it’s only temporary. I’m lookin’ for somethin’ better.”
“Pay pretty good?”
“Nah. Best parta’ the job, y’r meals’er included, and the food’s good.”
And so the conversation went for twenty minutes. Barber shop small talk, Carlos called it. When he finished the haircut and got his dollar and a quarter, he did his last clean-up for the day, and got ready to close up.
He fooled around with his horn till a quarter to six. That was when Carmela got off the streetcar and poked her head in the front door. She was a younger version of her mother and grandmother small, dark (but not quite as dark as Teresa), and beautiful. Carlos thought his daughter looked a little like Rita Moreno. On those nights when she didn’t have a class at City, her arrival home was Carlos’ signal to turn the sign around, lock the front door and count the money in the till. He only made seven dollars and twenty-five cents that day. Five haircuts for a dollar and a quarter, and one, the boy because he was under twelve, for a dollar. No tips.
He stood over the sink and splashed warm water on his face. As he blotted himself dry with the hand towel, he looked in the mirror. His dark brown eyes looked weary, incipient crow’s feet at the corners. He’d always thought the slow days made him more tired than the busy ones. His black hair was still thick and full on top, but it was getting gray at the temples. His mustache was getting gray, too.
He took his saxophone upstairs. As he entered the living room, he could see Carmela through the kitchen door starting dinner. After he got his slippers on, he sat at the dining room table, and talked to his daughter.
“How was your day?” he asked.
“Pretty hectic, but not boring for that reason. I typed correspondence all day. I bet I’m typing sixty to eighty words a minute.”
“’Sounds like you’re gettin’ good.”
He felt guilty when he heard how hard she worked. It made him feel like he wasn’t holding up his end. But it also motivated him temporarily. Once again, he thought briefly about remodeling the shop.
Teresa arrived at six-fifteen. She went to the bathroom and cleaned up for dinner. When she came out, the shrimp salad Carmela had been fixing was ready.
As they ate dinner, Carlos said to Teresa, “Store busy?”
“Real busy. How ’bout your shop?”
“Just the opposite. Real slow.”
“I did pick up a new customer at the end of the day. A young kid from over in Glassell Park. Says he’s go’n’a come back next time. Who knows? Maybe my luck’s changing, and I’m go’n’a start getting busy again. Oh, by the way, I saw your mother over Enríque’s store earlier, just before you left for work.”
“Oh, how is Grandma?” Carmela asked. “I haven’t seen her since Sunday Mass.”
“She’s doing good.”
“She came by the Gateway after her church visit,” Teresa said. “I was too busy to talk to her. She left when she saw I couldn’t talk. You comeen to walk home with me tonight?”
It was October, and the days were getting shorter, the time of year when Carlos began taking his late night walks to the Gateway to meet Teresa and walk her home.
“I’ll be there. Wan’a go, Carmela?”
They finished eating in silence, and then Teresa headed back to work. As Carmela studied in her room, Carlos sat next to his radio in the living room and tuned in to his favorite jazz station out of South Central. After a while he turned the radio off and practiced on his horn. At nine-thirty he and Carmela were out the door.
Teresa’s night had been just as busy as her afternoon, and she was talking a mile a minute, telling them about it on the walk home.
“I’m so tiredt,” she said. “Better to be busy ’cause it goes by quick.”
“Always said that about my job.”
“The big news today was we’re getteen a new manager. They’re transferreen Mister Delbert to another store. It’s been a rumor for a while, but they made it official today. I hope the new manager is as goodt as Mister Delbert.”
They got back home at ten-fifteen. They listened to the last few minutes (mostly sports and weather) of the late news on the radio. Teresa and Carmela turned in at ten-thirty. Carlos wasn’t sleepy, so he decided to go out for a walk before going to bed.
He headed down Cypress, and when he got to John’s shop, he stopped and looked in. It was clean as a pin. John had recently painted and put down a new floor. His sinks and chairs were old, but cleaned-up and in good shape, and they looked good in the re-decorated setting. His and Bob’s licenses hung above their backbars in glass frames with their names engraved on them in old English lettering. His magazines were stacked neatly on the table next to his waiting chairs. Carlos stepped back and looked at the new sign hanging over John’s door.
“Got’a learn how to do flat tops,”he mumbled to himself.
He turned and headed back home. It was eleven-thirty when he re-entered the quiet house. He went into the bathroom, washed his face and brushed his teeth. Then he went into the bedroom and stood in the darkness, listening to Teresa’s even sleep-breathing for a couple of minutes before climbing into the bed next to her. As he did so, he disturbed her into consciousness, and she said,
“Where didt you go?”
“Took a walk. Went down and looked at John’s shop. He’s fixed it up. Looks real nice. Got’a start thinking about redecorating.”
“Yes, you shouldt, and I couldt halp.”
“Only problem is where’m I go’n’a get the cash? Ain’t got it. Damn sure ain’t making it.”
“I can halp,” Teresa said.
“Don’t wan’a spend your money. You’re a real sweetheart for offering, but you should use your money for yourself and for Carmela.”
“Listen, we been together too long to start divideen our money up now. It’s not my money; it’s our money.”
“But it would make me too dependent on you.”
“We’re dependent on each other. We’re in this together, and right now I think we got’a get your barber shop goeen again. Only way to do it is together. After we fix it up, you’ll be busy again.”
“Makes sense. I still don’t like the idea of not doin’ it all myself. Guess I ain’t got a choice. Right?”
“Carlitos, mi querido, we got’a get you busy again, and this is the only way.”
He knew she was right, but he still resisted in his heart. He couldn’t resist out loud anymore, so he was silent, and after a little while they both drifted off to sleep.
The Journeyman and the Apprentice
If you liked the first chapter, click on the link above to buy the paperback on line.
Holdorff knew when he got to the Santa Cruz campus of the University of California that time was running out. In the sixteen years since he’d been discharged from the Navy, he’d been enrolled at four colleges. It had only taken him four years to get his B. A. degree. He graduated at the midterm from Long Beach State College and signed a contract for the spring semester teaching English at a Long Beach high school. Midway through that semester, he was accepted as a candidate in the M. A. program in American literature at the Southern Division of the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, his first venture into graduate school. He started the program in the fall.
The summer after his first year at S. D. U. N., he got a job dealing blackjack at the Pioneer Club on Fremont Street in downtown Las Vegas. One night at the start of his third semester, as he was dealing cards, a small-town school administrator sat down at his table and played till Holdorff’s shift ended. Then after filling him up with beer, he signed him to a teaching contract in the small desert town of Needles, California.
The Needles job was short-lived. He started it the second week of the fall semester and stayed till the end of the school year. About two days after he arrived, he sobered up enough to realize his mistake, and made up his mind to get out of there at the end of his contract. He left Needles in June and headed back to Long Beach and his old job in the produce department of the A & P in Belmont Shore. In the fall he got a teaching assistantship in the M. A. program at State. By the end of that school year, he’d been accepted in the Ph. D. program at the University of Southern California. Holdorff never truly understood why he even applied for this program, and he most certainly did not know how he ever got accepted. After all, his original goal was to get a master’s degree so that he could get a job teaching junior college English.
The next, and last, stop in his academic odyssey was Santa Cruz. Once again, he wasn’t sure why he made this move. His main interest was the university. He hadn’t lived more than a mile or two from a college campus since he got out of the Navy, and he’d never had much trouble getting into any of them. But things were different at Santa Cruz. He couldn’t get in.
“You can’t hesitate,” he’d said many times over the years. “Just walk in like you belong, act like you’re a member of the club, and nobody’ll question you. Hesitate just once, and they’ll peg you for a fraud, and you’re done.”
Whenever he thought he was on the road to achieving his objectives, something would get in the way. At Southern Nevada, he alienated his committee when he hooked his wagon to Roget’s star. Roget was his faculty adviser there. The return to Long Beach was only a stop gap, although it shouldn’t have been. If he’d stuck it out and gotten his M. A. degree, he might have had a good chance of getting a job at City, Compton College, or any number of other junior colleges in the Los Angeles basin and Orange County. The U. S. C. experience took the biggest toll on his psyche. He put in the most years there and still came away empty handed. No one was more surprised than he was that he even got in the school. He really didn’t expect to get accepted there, and even he realized after a couple of semesters that he probably shouldn’t have been.
The treatment he got at Santa Cruz didn’t come as a surprise to him. He couldn’t even register as an undergraduate, much less be accepted in the graduate program or get a teaching assistantship. The best he could do was unofficially audit classes in subjects he’d already taken, some of them more than once. But he kept at it, attempting at the start of each new quarter (so far he’d been trying for over two years) to get enrolled.
He liked the innovative atmosphere at the school, but this only added to his problem. Because of its innovations, it was a popular college, so enrollments flourished. Thus, it was virtually impossible for a well-traveled scholar like Holdorff to receive preferred treatment over promising young graduates from some of the most prestigious universities in the country. He still clung to the distant hope that he might some day be accepted as a graduate student or even better yet as a lecturer because of all the different teaching assistantships. Also, he thought the publication of two of his poems in a little magazine called Moondog should count for something. Not to mention the thousands of other poems he’d written as well as the lyrics to hundreds of popular songs that he’d tried to peddle unsuccessfully to various agents in Hollywood whose addresses he’d found in Literary Marketplace.
His writing was perhaps the biggest impediment to his getting an advanced degree. If he got the urge to sit down and write, he would relinquish all other obligations and immerse himself in whatever idea he was developing at the time. He once tried to write a paper entitled “the linguistic significance of lower case letters in the poetry of e. e. cummings,” and as usual, he got sidetracked and wound up writing a satirical poem about the subject. He thought of himself as a genuine poet and lyricist. No slick hype or phony intellectual scam for him. Just honest-to-god poetry and song lyrics. He wrote for the love of writing, storing the originals of reams of unpublished, but finished and highly polished verse in his refrigerator.
“If my house ever burns down,” he’d say, “all my poems and songs’ll be saved. I may die in the blaze, but my writing will live on after I’m gone.”
That’s how he talked when he was young, but the older he got, the more cynical he became, and in later years he had the feeling that his words would never be read or sung by anybody. He made carbon copies of everything, and he would put those in a wooden out-box that he kept next the ancient Underwood typewriter that sat on the kitchen table of whatever apartment he was living in. He usually waited till he had at least a hundred poems (enough for a book) in the stack before he submitted them. He did the songs a little differently. In the late ’fifties when the long playing album became the standard in the recording industry, Holdorff noticed that most albums had about ten cuts total, five on each side. So he’d send off ten songs at a time to different Hollywood and New York agents. Most of this came back to him, sometimes opened, but most of the time not. Whenever they did come back, he’d put them in a new nine-by-twelve manila envelope and send them to another name on his list. Some of the carbons of the verse he wrote went to the few people to whom he dedicated them.
Over the years he had a recurring dream, nightmare would be a more appropriate word for it, in which he died in a blaze in his apartment, and from somewhere overlooking it, he saw fire investigators sifting through the debris until they stumbled upon the refrigerator, emptied its contents and swept them away.
When he failed his comprehensive exams at U. S. C., he wrote a poem to the graduate dean expressing his outrage at the treatment he was getting. There were five professors on his graduate committee, and only one of them knew anything about T. S. Eliot, which was his specialty. The other committee members were linguistics and romantics and Renaissance scholars.
He’d been asked to explicate the first seventeen lines from the second section of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” (“right up my alley”). He considered himself to be an Eliot expert. The point of his explication was that the passage is a parody of the scene from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra in which Enobarbus describes Cleopatra sailing her sumptuous and lavish barge. He thought he’d argued persuasively in his paper that Eliot’s language clearly showed that he was poking fun at Shakespeare’s elevated verse style. After all, Holdorff pointed out, wasn’t Eliot really describing a twentieth century call girl with “her strange synthetic perfumes,/Unguent, powdered, or liquid troubled, confused/And drowned the sense in odours”? What else could Eliot be doing but satirizing the elegant, tragic, elevated, dramatic picture that Shakespeare had painted? Holdorff took the satire angle one step further and wrote that Cleopatra herself was merely a high class whore, a woman “O’erpicturing that Venus where we see/The fancy out-work nature.”
That explication was Holdorff’s undoing at U. S. C. He was failed outright by the committee and told that he would not be permitted to petition to take the comprehensives again. But that didn’t stop him. He got possession of the exam, and with his adviser’s blessing, he went to each member of the committee and questioned him/her on specific points of his essay. There were three men and two women on the committee. One of the women had taken off to Europe on sabbatical leave, so, mercifully, Holdorff didn’t talk to her, but he made the rounds of all the others.
The first one he spoke to was a Wordsworth/Coleridge scholar, who, when Holdorff questioned him, admitted not having read “The Waste Land.” The second committee member he spoke to, Amsterdam, taught courses in freshman composition only. He hadn’t taught a literature course in five years. The only reason he was even on the committee was because he was the coordinator of the graduate program in literature. He pleaded innocence to failing Holdorff. In fact, he suggested to the committee that they pass him because he knew Holdorff would protest the failing grade. Amsterdam told Holdorff that he didn’t stand a chance of getting the committee’s unanimous decision reversed.
The third committee member he approached was a linguist, and her only comment to him was, “I’m a linguist, and I don’t even understand literary interpretation. I merely went along with the other members of the committee.” There was such finality, such intransigence in her tone that Holdorff felt like his balls had been cut off. He began to think he was lucky that the other woman on the committee, a short, overweight English Renaissance scholar with bulbous varicose veins popping out at her knee joints, had gone to Europe, thus relieving him of having to deal with her.
The only member who could have known what Holdorff was doing, and therefore could have defended his thesis before the committee, had his own reasons for failing him. He was an American lit. scholar whose doctoral dissertation had been on the Latinate words in Wallace Stevens’ poetry. He failed him because he believed Stevens was a better poet than Eliot and he resented Eliot’s popularity in academic circles. He rejected anything that was done by anybody about T. S. Eliot. Once again Holdorff had been in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Thus outraged and injured, he wrote a poem. He always wrote a poem or a song when he got desperate, when there was no further recourse, when all avenues were exhausted. Poetry was his vent. After all, if Ab Snopes could burn a man’s barn down over a lousy hundred dollar rug, why couldn’t Holdorff write a poem to express his own indignation. So, he grabbed a couple of the cancelled postal envelopes he carried around in the breast pocket of his corduroy sports jacket and dashed off “Holdorff’s Reply.” Then he slipped a clean sheet of white paper and a carbon copy into his Underwood and transcribed the poem:
Dear Dr. Amsterdam (and other ships at sea)
I hope you haven’t figured
That you got the best of me
By keeping me from ending
(You knew I wanted to pass my test
And that I gave it my level best,
So you played the game called “cats and mouse.”
Still I don’t feel that you’re a louse.)
No, my kind sir, contrary
To that, I feel you’ve made me free:
This mouse has left; now all you’ll see
Are frightened mice, led by Mickey.
And when they cry and try to plea
I know that you will think of me
And pass them all with accolades
Giving degrees despite the grades.
And so I’ll know (henceforth it’s true)
That I’ve passed more Ph. D.s than you.
He felt so inspired by this burst that he wrote an afterword:
There is no greater Humanity
In all of U. S. C.
Than that existing just for me
In the department of humanities.
For that’s where Amsterdam resides
Who neither compliments nor
Anything I give to him:
He considers me a minor whim.
If you liked the first chapter, click on the link above to buy the paperback on line.
The low tide would be a minus zero point seven at five to six that Saturday morning in April, and if he was going surfing, Soc Smith wanted to be in the water by a quarter to six, so he was up at five o’clock. He had checked the surf the morning before on his way to work, and there had been a decent swell with a few sets coming through, so he was hoping for the same today. He’d loaded his board and wetsuit into the Woody the night before, so all he had to do in the morning was drive down to the beach, and if it looked good, put his suit on and throw his stick in the water. Since he didn’t have to go to work that day, he could stay in the water for as long as the sets kept coming through. Friday night he’d told his wife, Jayne, that he’d help her in the yard in the afternoon. However, if he surfed till noon, he’d be too tired for any yard work. Soc didn’t have the pep he’d had as a teenager and young man.
There had been a gentle sprinkle the night before, so the lawns and streets were glistening as he drove to the beach. There was only a scattering of clouds, and they were moving slowly east, leaving the sky clear. Day was just barely breaking, and his headlights cast two narrow, shiny funnels onto the pavement in front of him. When he got to the cliff, Jesse Vaca was pulling his Chevy truck into a parking space just ahead of him. Jesse’s board was in its bag in the pickup bed. Soc pulled in beside him, and they got out of their cars together and walked over to the edge of the cliff to look at the waves. As early and damp as it was, it was quite warm.
“So, wha’da ya’ think?” Soc asked as they stood gazing out at the surf under the dawning sky. Nobody was in the water, but a few other surfers were standing on the cliff checking it out, too.
“Not lookin’ too bad,” Jesse said. “I’m go’n’a go out.”
“Yeah? Doesn’t look that good to me,” Soc said. “Wasn’t too bad yesterday. Better’n this. That’s for sure.”
“Look at this set. Some nice little ankle snappers there.”
The mountain ridge across the bay to the east was beginning to show some color. The sun peaked over the horizon at the slot where the river flowed into the bay. Tiny, one-foot waves creamed into the beach below. The tide was so low that there was sand fifty yards out from the stairs. One surfer was making his way down the steps. At the bottom he attached his leash to his ankle and walked on the sand along the cliff until he was knee-deep in the water. He slid onto his board when it got to his upper thighs. Soc and Jesse watched as he paddled to the outside.
“That’s it. I’m goin’ out,” said Jesse.
“Think I’m go’n’a pass.”
“I’m go’n’a give it a try. Nothin’ else, I can just go out and paddle around.”
“Hey, go for it. See ya’ later.”
It wasn’t worth it for Jesse to drive all the way into town and not get in the water. He lived nine miles up the mountain at the upper end of the Valley. Even when it was completely flat, Jesse would get in and, as he put it, “paddle around.”
Backing out of his parking space, Soc saw him take his board out of the back of his pickup and remove the bag. He headed out to the point to see what it looked like out there. The waves at Indicators were a little bigger than they were at Cowell’s. He’d tried to surf there once, but it was way too big for his liking. He went over the falls on the first wave he’d tried to catch. It was only a chest-high wave, and he’d caught many that size at the other break, but they weren’t nearly as fast as the one he’d caught here. He wiped out good. He was under water a long time and going through the spin cycle, and when he got out, he started throwing up. It scared him, and he hadn’t gotten back in the water for another couple weeks after that.
After he rounded the point at Indicators, he could see that the waves at First Peak and Middle Peak were shoulder high and looking glassy. He’d never surfed these waves. They were too big and too fast for him, and the guys who surfed them were young, aggressive kids. Too competitive, no fun. Many’s the time when he’d stood on the cliff at the point and heard some young guy in the water hollering an obscenity at some other young guy for some silly infraction the latter didn’t even know he’d committed. And on the nicest of days, too. He rounded the point and was on his way back home.
He pulled the car into the garage. An old rusty hamster cage sat on top of a case of motor oil on the floor against the back wall. He inched in slowly until the rubber ball that hung from the rafters touched his windshield. He got his board and wetsuit out and stored them on the rack and in the cabinet he’d made especially for them.
It was almost six-thirty, and Jayne was just getting out of bed. He went into the bedroom through the sliding glass door off the patio. He took his shoes off, put on his fleece-lined slippers, and went through the living room out the front door to pick up the morning newspaper. He tossed the paper onto the dining room table as he went into the kitchen and started boiling water for a cup of hot spiced cider. He warmed up a couple of bran muffins in the microwave and used the left-over spiced cider water to make a cup of instant oatmeal. After he got everything set up on the dining room table, he sat down and spread out the front page of the newspaper, and, as he ate, he skimmed that section.
By now Jayne was bustling around the kitchen brewing a pot of coffee. She kissed Soc’s bald spot as she went to Caroline’s bedroom to turn her computer on. She communicated by email every morning with their daughter, Caroline, on the east coast and her cousin in Portland, Oregon.
“No surf?” She asked.
“Nothing worth getting wet for.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. I know how antsie you get when there’s no surf.”
When she returned to the kitchen, she put some food out for the cats, filled her coffee cup and went back to her computer. The cats were all that was left at home. Caroline was a college junior in Massachusetts.
Soc didn’t really read the newspaper. He only skimmed the headlines of the first section. If he saw a story that interested him, or if he knew the person the story was about, he’d read a paragraph or two to get the gist. The only kinds of stories that he read all the way through were stories about local surfing. Every year when the Cold Water Classic was held, Soc read all the stories that were written about it to see how well they matched up with the actual event, the last day of which he always attended. Then he’d move on to the last two pages for the political cartoon, letters to the editor, again looking for familiar names at the end of each one, and the vital statistics. He skimmed these religiously every day looking for familiar names among the births and divorces. When he’d go to the obituaries, he only read the ones of the people who were younger than he was, curious to know what killed them. Soc looked at the first obituary in the upper left hand corner of the page, and to his astonishment he read:
No services will be held for Socrates Smith who died Friday after a brief illness. He was 53.
A native of Los Angeles, he lived in Santa Cruz for twenty years. He was employed by a Scotts Valley electronics firm.
He is survived by his wife Jayne Smith and his daughter Caroline Smith.
Contributions are preferred to The Surfrider Foundation.
He couldn’t believe his eyes. At first there was the surge of excitement at seeing his name in the newspaper, but the delight was immediately tempered by the awareness that where he was seeing it was in the obit’s. He was so shocked that he couldn’t tell Jayne what he was reading. All he could do was stare at it and chuckle. He wanted to call out to her, but couldn’t. He was stuck somewhere between laughter and a heart-sinking feeling that something was very wrong, and he might not be able to fix it. Finally, he caught his breath and said,
“Hey, Babe. You might wan’a take a look at this.”
She must have heard some urgency in his voice because when she got to the dining room table, the casual Saturday morning look on her face had changed to panic.
“What’s wrong, Honey?”
“Check out my obituary.”
She quickly read through the item in the paper.
“My God, Soc,” she said. “What do you suppose it means? It’s got’a be a mistake. Let’s get that newspaper on the phone and find out what the big idea is.”
Just such innocent statements from Jayne were what endeared her to him. Whenever there was something that was seriously wrong, she was going to make it right, and she’d take on a determined little-girl we-can-conquer-the-world attitude, and by God it’ll get straightened out, or else!
“Have to wait till Monday,” Soc said. He was talking a lot calmer than he actually felt. “Probably nobody there today. I don’t believe this. Who do you suppose wrote that little blurb? Must be a practical joke. Someone’s messin’ with me. And then maybe not. Maybe it’s for real. But how could it be?”
That’s what he said, but he wasn’t sure he believed any of it. When he stopped talking, he realized that he’d been rambling, and he knew it was only because he was confused and unsure of what was going on. Then he began to wonder if Jayne detected his uncertainty, but he couldn’t tell, so he just kept to himself as he got into the comics.
If you liked the first chapter, click on the link above to buy the paperback on line.
“What a day!” I said to Betty as we went down the mountain on our way home. “I’ve got this one mother who just keeps trying to run my classroom, and she’s been doing it all year. She keeps making suggestions on what I should teach and how I should be teaching it. You know how I adapted Tikki Tikki Tembo to put on this Friday for my classroom play?”
“Well, she suggested I adapt Winnie the Pooh, and use it instead of the other one.”
“And that isn’t the first time she’s tried to tell me how to teach a class. I want to ask her exactly where she got her teaching credential, but I never do.”
We’d just come around the bend and saw the panoramic view of the ocean that we got every time we made that drive. That was about a year ago, and a lot’s happened since then. Betty and I are still making the drive, but the town’s in trouble, and it looks like it’s going to last for quite a while. In October we had the Loma Prieta earthquake. It was a seven on the Richter scale, and it shook the foundations of our little town. Our house made it okay, but most of downtown was wiped out. Buildings that weren’t demolished in the quake later met their fate at the hands of the wrecking ball. We still don’t have full access to downtown. But that disaster was nothing compared to the one I met just four months earlier.
When we got down to the highway, I made a left turn and went south into town. The neighborhood was quiet as it usually was on Monday afternoon. I pulled up next to Betty’s car. She got into it and drove away. Then I pulled into the driveway, got out of the car and opened the garage door. I noticed Soc’s car wasn’t there, so I just assumed he’d gone surfing again. I pulled my car into the garage and closed the door. Then I went out the side door and across the patio to the back door of the house. I set my tote down on the dining room table, and while unpacking it, I noticed the note. Soc’s handwriting. I picked it up and read:
I’ll be gone by the time you get home today. I love you. Remember that always. I just can’t stay here any longer. I don’t know what to do to get my life back. I guess, nothing, so I’ll just be on my way. I must be dead. I love you.
My first reaction was anger, but it quickly turned to hurt feelings. Tears welled up in my eyes. What was going on? Was Soc really gone? Was this a suicide note? I went into our bedroom and checked the closet. All of his dress clothes were still hanging on the rod. His casual clothes, pants and sport shirts, were all missing. The same for the drawers where he kept his shorts, T-shirts and underwear. They were empty. So was the cup that held his toothbrushes, and the drawer with the toothpaste and dental floss. When I saw all that, I knew it wasn’t suicide.
Back in the dining room, I looked at the note again. I didn’t know what I expected to find in those few words of farewell, but I was looking for a clue, any clue, that would tell me where Soc had gone. I wanted to go and look for him. I wanted to kill him. Not literally. It was kind of like when Caroline was little, and I would say something like, “I could kill you,” when she did something I told her not to do.
A very ominous thought occurred to me at that moment. What if he really was dead as he had said in the note? I didn’t actually believe it was a suicide note. I wasn’t ready to believe that Soc could do something like that. What if it was a prophesy rather than a simple statement? What if he’d been killed by some other means? What if he’d had a blowout along the coast and was down in one of those ravines that go under the highway and the railroad tracks to the beach between Gaviota and Santa Barbara? The thought lingered, and then I wondered if it was possible to live without him, which would be the case if he was dead. Scary thought. I didn’t want him to be dead. I wanted to get him back, and I’d make sure his voice was a little higher when I got him here. Of course, I’m only speaking metaphorically. I was really more interested in getting our lives back to normal. But right in that moment, I really did want to kill him. How could he do this?
I went into the living room and sat down on the couch to think. Our problems started when that obituary was published in the newspaper the Saturday before last. The whole week that followed, our lives were hell. Soc was moody, and he acted disoriented all week long. And when I got home that Monday afternoon, my husband was gone. Disappeared. He was certainly suffering more than I was, and that made complete sense. After all, his life was affected more than mine.
I had to decide what to do to find him, how to track him down. Who did he talk to in the last week before he left? I thought of following that path, and I could start doing it the very next day. I’d take a personal leave day and go to all the places Soc told me he’d gone to the Monday before. Talk to those people. See if he mentioned to any of them what his plans were.
As it turned out, my actual search would wait a couple of months for school to get out. That would be the soonest I’d be able to do it, the soonest I’d be able to find someone to help me. And I knew who that person would be, a good friend of mine from school, Danielle Bourdain. She’d been my aide a few years back. When she left, she took a job teaching in a nursery school downtown. She and her husband, Jason, didn’t have any kids. He worked for a start-up company in Silicon Valley. We remained friends over the years. We’d probably gone out to lunch at least once a month since she’d been working downtown. Danielle was always a lot of fun to be around. Both of us had the same kind of sick sense of humor.
I went to the front door to get the mail. There were no clues among the assorted bills due and junk mail ads. I went into the bedroom, sat down on the bed and sobbed uncontrollably. After about five minutes of crying and then laughing, I finally pulled myself together and started thinking about a plan. When I thought about it, this was all really quite humorous. Then I suddenly remembered the money we kept in the file cabinet. The last time we both looked together, there were twenty-five thousand dollars in there. I took out my key and unlocked the bottom drawer. In the back there were three envelopes, each with five thousand dollars in hundreds. We’d just checked it the week before when the trouble started, and there were five envelopes. That thieving sack of shit! Well, at least he left me more than he took. I was prepared to spend it all looking for him.
I got up and went back to the kitchen. As I was passing the full-length mirror on the wall in the hallway, I stopped. I turned on the light and looked at myself. Even with my eyes red from crying, overall I saw a handsome woman in the looking glass. In fact, the crying eyes made me look kinda’ cute. Younger even. Although, cute wasn’t really the word I’d have used to describe myself. That’s mostly because of my height. It’s hardly petit. I’ve been five-eight since sixth grade, and I’ve weighed about a hundred and forty-five pounds since sophomore year in high school. As I looked at myself in that mirror I thought what a good-looking woman I was with my gray streaked auburn hair and blue eyes. I wasn’t a classic beauty by any means, but I was very attractive, and, with my sense of humor, it was the full package. I went into the dining room and took another look at Soc’s note.
How could he have done what he did and think he’d get away with it? My mind was made up. I’d find him and make him pay. When all was said and done, we’d had a good life together, and I really couldn’t see any reason why it couldn’t continue. I was going to make myself something to eat, and then I’d sit down and make up my list of things to do. One thing I’m really good at is organizing my thoughts, writing them down, and formulating a plan. So that’s what I started to do.
I went into the kitchen and made a salad, another one of my specialties. When Soc and I were first married, he was always complimenting me on my salads. He would tell me how good they tasted, and they did, but I like salads more because they’re good for my health, and good for my figure. Now, just for plain good taste, I’d rather have a medium rare steak and baked potato dripping sour cream and chives. That might be the best tasting thing on earth. I like mine bloody. But I could only eat that kind of a meal every once in a while. If I did it even once a week, I’d gain weight, and I didn’t want to do that.
After I finished eating, I washed the dishes and cleaned up in the kitchen. I took the phone and my address book into the dining room. I looked up Danielle’s phone number and dialed. She picked up on the third ring.
“Hi, Danielle,” I said.
“Jayne, hi, how are you?”
“Oh? What happened?”
“Remember what we talked about on Saturday at lunch?”
“Yes, Soc’s obit? What about it?”
“I’ll read the note he left this morning after I went to work,” I said and read the note to her.
“Noo!” she said in that incredulous way she had of saying it. “What happened?”
“I honestly don’t know. This whole situation has obviously been bothering him a lot. It’s bothered me too, but I’ve thought from the beginning that we’d get it straightened out. Apparently, he didn’t. Well, he’s not getting out that easily. I wan’a find him and bring him home. You wan’a help?”
“Tell me what you want and I’ll do it.”
“First thing I’ll do is take the day off tomorrow and trace his footsteps from last Monday. See if he left any clues to where he might’ve gone. If I find out anything, I’ll think seriously about hiring a private investigator. To be honest with you, I think he might’ve gone to Baja California. Over the years, he’s talked about Baja with a certain wanderlust gleam in his eye. I know my man.”
“Boy, you sure are easy to forgive.”
“I wouldn’t go that far. I haven’t found him, yet. When I do, I may be singing a different tune.”
“Have you thought that he might be dead? Suicide comes to mind.”
“I’ve definitely considered that possibility, but I just don’t think so. It’s completely out of character for him. I guess it’s possible that he might die before we get to him. Like maybe he could run off the road before he gets to where he’s going, or if he’s heading for México, I suppose he could be held up and killed by banditos. But I’m not worried about suicide. I’m going looking for him, and the search starts tomorrow.”
“You want me to go with you? I can take the day off, too.”
“Actually, no. Tomorrow’s just the beginning. I was thinking more like summer when school’s out. Think Jason’ll let you get away for a while?”
“It’s not a question of him ‘letting’ me do anything. If I want to, I’ll go. How long do you think we’ll be gone?”
“I have no idea. I may know more after I find out where he is. I just can’t say for sure.”
“Okay. Just let me know. The earlier the better, so I can arrange for a couple days in our timeshare in Las Vegas. If we’re going to Baja, Vegas is kinda’ on the way. We may as well stop there. Do a little gambling. Have some fun. You deserve a treat after what that man is putting you through.”
“Absolutely, and a couple of days in Las Vegas sounds like fun. You’ve just made my day a lot better than it was a little while ago.”
We hung up. I made one more call to Margot, my regular sub. She said she could cover for me, and I briefly told her what my lesson plan was. After we hung up, I sat down and had another good cry at the dining room table. Then I started making plans.
Danielle Bourdain was sitting at my desk going over the report I had put together on her niece. She’d contacted me a few days earlier, recommended by Jayne Smith, a client whose missing husband I’d located in Baja California the previous April. My office was in a little California bungalow that was also my home on Center Street in Downtown Santa Cruz. The place was tiny, about 600 square feet. It had three small rooms, a kitchen and a bathroom. The smallest room, which was my office, was only big enough to hold a small desk, a two-drawer file cabinet and two armless chairs, one for me and one for the client. She had put the report back on the desk. As we stood up, I tucked it into a manila envelope and handed it to her.
“Well, Jack,” she said. “Right now, I’m going home, and I’m gonna watch the ball game with Jason. Not even gonna think about this tonight.”
As we headed to the front door, all hell broke loose. The house started rocking violently back and forth. This was really a big earthquake. Danielle and I had just passed through the door separating my office from the living room. I grasped her around the shoulder and backed up so that she was standing in the doorway, then only one step for me over to the doorway of the room at the front of the house, my bedroom. My bookcase with the C.D. player and receiver on top was next to that door, so I held it steady with my left arm while hugging the doorjamb with my right. Out the front window, the power lines were swinging like jump ropes. Aside from the noise of everything falling out of the refrigerator and a cabinet crashing against the hot water tank in the service porch, the sound that pervaded was a low roar coming from who knows where? Danielle and I were both speechless. She held tight to the envelope with the report in it. The movement continued for what seemed like minutes, but in real time was only seventeen seconds. When it ended, we stepped out of the two doorways into the middle of the living room.
“Wow! What a ride that was!” I said.
The electricity was off and there was a slight smell of gas in the air. Some books had tumbled out of the bookcase and were scattered on the floor. I stepped over them to the kitchen counter and saw the open refrigerator. The mayonnaise and mustard jars were broken on the floor in front of it. Mixed in with that mess was the almost full half-gallon carton of chocolate milk, which broke wide open on impact.
“I’ve gotta go.” This was Danielle. I’d almost forgotten her in all the chaos.
Saying no more, she turned and went out the front door. Her car was parked in front, so she went right to it, got in and drove away. Not five minutes after she left, the street was impacted with traffic. It was a slow moving parking lot.
As soon as she was gone, I went to the service porch, got my crescent wrench, went out to the gas meter by the front porch, and shut the gas off. Then I went next door to see how Lil was and to shut her gas off, too. Lil ran a barber shop out of her house. We had a kind of little home business row on our block. There were only two of us, so I guess that counts as a row. Maybe it was more like we were twins. Her house, like mine, was still on its foundation. It was a Spanish stucco, red tile roof, hacienda style house about the same size as mine. She was pacing on her front porch. Her gas meter was in front of the house just like mine.
“I’ll shut your gas off here, Lil,” I said as I did the job. “You okay?”
“…think so…little shook up is all…just finished my last haircut for the day…worried about his own place…shot out of here without paying… everything’s okay here, I think….”
She was shook up. Babbling and fretting. Probably in shock for the second time in three days. Her house was broken into early Sunday morning and she got knocked around. She still had traces of a black eye, and the cut on her forehead hadn’t healed yet.
“Go back inside. Lie down.”
I set the crescent wrench down by her front door and followed her in. She went straight to her bedroom.
“Right behind you, babe.”
“Oh, good.” Her voice was barely audible.
Her shop was in the front room. There was still hair on the floor around her chair. I walked through it and into her bedroom. She was lying on top of the covers shivering. Lil was in her fifties, still a very beautiful woman for her age at about five-four and a hundred forty pounds. She wore a medium length tinted blond hairstyle that set off her blue eyes. Her skin was velvety smooth and she always dressed to the nines. She was still wearing the orthopedic shoes and the smock she wore behind the barber chair. She liked to wear skirts to show off her shapely legs and low-cut blouses that highlighted her equally shapely bosoms.
“Okay, Lil, you’re gonna have to sit up here for a minute. Take your shoes and smock off and get under the covers.”
After she was tucked in, I went to the kitchen and got her a glass of water. I held the glass and helped her drink, and then she lay back down and said she wanted to rest. She had a mess in front of her refrigerator too, so I cleaned it up as best I could, and went back in and checked on her. She seemed to be resting peacefully. It was time for me to go back to my place.
I surveyed my property for the next fifteen minutes, putting things back in place and generally restoring order. Nothing happened to the garage, which was just a shed with a dirt floor and no foundation. Go figure. The rest of the property seemed to be in fairly good shape for the age of the structure. No major damage. I was thankful that the redwood tree on the rear property line didn’t fall into the house. Redwood trees are no doubt used to earthquakes. After all, they do live along the fault line in the northern part of the state. The mess on my kitchen floor was going to have to wait because I wanted to go over and check out the Mall before they closed it off, which would be soon.
After making sure my house was okay, I locked the place up, and took a walk over to the Pacific Garden Mall, the main drag in downtown Santa Cruz, two blocks behind my property. This was a bustling six block stretch of hundred-year-old commercial buildings along a one-way street with wide sidewalks and bench-high planter boxes and shade trees. It had been converted from a two-way street with narrow sidewalks and traffic signals into a mall twenty years ago. It was like walking in a well-manicured garden when you strolled from one end to the other, and what a shock it was to see it now. Trees had fallen into storefronts and the street. It was so obliterated, you had to climb over trees and rubble to get through. There was red dust in the air everywhere, all from the many unreinforced brick buildings that had been built after the fire in the late 1800s.
Four guys inside the Ford’s store were moving bricks and other debris away from the adjoining wall with an old building called Hotel Metropole, which housed Plaza Books/Paper Vision. The front plate glass window was blown out, so I stepped over more debris to see what they were doing. One of the guys saw me coming.
“Give us a hand here! There’re people underneath all of this!”
So, I went in through the window and started to help.
I can’t believe I got involved in such a sordid affair with a woman whose sexual exploits were legendary. At least the way she talked, they were legendary. She was married; I was engaged.
It started one Friday in October when we had our first lunch date. That was when it started in earnest. It really started in January the year before that. I’d just finished my course of study in Administration of Justice at Cabrillo College and opened my own detective agency, Jack Lefevre Investigations. I ran the business out of my California bungalow on Center Street in downtown Santa Cruz.
I thought it might be a good idea to hone my craft by taking some Legal Studies classes at U.C. Santa Cruz. I wasn’t very busy yet in my new trade, so I had plenty of time to spend taking the classes. Just for the fun of it, I also took a European Novel class. My interest in literature was sparked when I’d taken some lit. classes at San José State when I was working on my B.A. degree in Spanish. I had this crazy idea that I was going to be a high school Spanish teacher, but by the time I graduated, there were no teaching jobs on the horizon, so I got a job as a checker at Safeway and joined the retail clerk’s union. I did that for ten years, saving enough money to buy the bungalow and get my A.J. certification from Cabrillo.
Renata Lowell was in the European Novel class. I didn’t actually meet her in the class. The face-to-face meeting, in fact, happened on the bus going into town the first day of class.
“I think you’re in my European Novel class,” she said as she sat next to me on the bus. It was more of a question than a statement.
I looked at her and saw a plain looking woman, no classic beauty, but definitely attractive. Her long brown hair was tied back. There was one streak of natural gray in front on the left, starting at the hairline on her forehead. Her eyes were two colors, one green and one brown, but the color wasn’t the distinguishing feature. They had a hard edge. They sparked when she smiled as though the pupils were flints being struck by metal. She had a beautiful overbite that made her smile dazzle, and her body was slim and shapely.
“That’s right,” I said. How’d yuh know?”
“You were sitting next to me in the class, and I saw the book you’re reading. It can’t have anything to do with that class, can it?”
The book was John Gardner’s The Resurrection.
“Are you reading it for another class?”
“No. This guy’s a good writer. First one of his I’ve read. Think I’m gonna try to read ’em all.”
“Really! I’m impressed.”
And the conversation went on from there, and it’s pretty amazing how much we talked about and how well we got to know each other on such a short bus ride. She was a twenty-nine year old re-entry student who had started college straight out of high school, and then dropped out half way through her sophomore year. She was ten years younger than I was and a Spanish lit. major, which was the one common denominator we shared. When we got to Metro center, the bus terminal downtown, we went our separate ways.
Back at my bungalow, there was a message on my answering device from Debra, my fiancé.
“Hi, honey,” she said. “Wan’a go out to dinner tonight? It’s three-thirty now. I’m just leaving school and should be getting home pretty soon. Can probably be at your place by five. Call me back. Let me know if you’re up for it.”
Debra taught a fifth grade class at an elementary school in the Santa Cruz mountains. She lived in a two bedroom condo up in University Terrace on the westside. The plan was for me to move in with her after we got married, and I’d continue to run my business out of the bungalow on Center Street. She and I had gotten engaged just as I was starting the program at Cabrillo a couple years ago. We’d been dating for about five years before that, so we were pretty serious about each other for some seven years.
It was Monday afternoon, twenty to four. I must’ve just missed her call. I called her house.
“Hey, Babe,” I said into the telephone after her voicemail greeting message ran. “Your plan for the evening sounds great. See yuh when yuh get here.”
All those years together, we were as good as married, and being faithful to Debra, a classic beauty (blue eyes, long dark hair and a beautiful smile) with brains, was easy. Not once in that time did I ever think about getting intimate with another woman. That was of absolutely no interest to me, completely absent from my thoughts, and then, from out of nowhere, Renata tossed out her proposition. It was all the more surprising because things like that never happened to me.
It started out innocently enough. We’d see each other when the class met, and we’d catch the bus together on those days for the rest of that winter quarter. She told me later that she was sending out signals on those bus rides, but I wasn’t picking up on them. I could only remember one theme she repeated a couple times that I thought could have been a signal, and that was when she complained about the lack of sex in her marriage.
I sat out the spring quarter, and didn’t take any classes until fall. It would be six months before I saw her again. That was one day as I waited for a bus to campus. Just as it approached and I stepped to the curb, I heard someone calling my name. When I looked up the street to see who it was, a very pregnant Renata waddled down the sidewalk in my direction.
“Are you catching this bus?” I asked when she got closer.
“Yes,” she replied.
“Hold on,” I told the driver as I put my foot on the first step. Then I waited for her to get there.
When we got to our seats, we got reacquainted. She was going up to campus to find out what classes she needed to graduate. She was sitting out this quarter because her baby was due in November, and she planned to start back up in January. She hoped she’d only have five more quarters to go. I told her I was still a private eye, and was taking another Legal Studies class that quarter.
We went our separate ways when we got to campus, and I didn’t see her again for another nine months or so. It was one day in late spring as I was riding my bike on Beach Street. She approached from the opposite direction on the sidewalk. It had been so long since I’d seen her that I didn’t recognize her at first.
“Hey, how’re you doin’?” I asked when our eyes finally met. I pulled up to the curb.
“Fine. How are you? It’s been a long time.”
“Yes, it has been a long time. How’ve you been? How’s your baby doin’?”
She looked like she’d gotten her body back in shape after her pregnancy and childbirth.
“The answer to both questions is fine. She’s getting to be quite the little person. Six months old. Yuh ought’a see her.”
“So, what’re yuh doin’ down in this neck of the woods?”
From all the many conversations we’d had on bus rides, I knew she lived in Boulder Creek, nine miles away up Highway Nine. This seemed to me a little faraway to be just out walking.
“I’ve got this part-time job over here around the corner, and I was just taking a little break to walk along the beach.”
“You work out on the wharf, or in one of these shops here?”
I gestured at the little row of shops across the street.
“It’s a little more low key than that. I work for a woman who lives up on Third Street. Kinda’ like a personal assistant. Open her mail, pay her bills, balance her checkbook, get her stuff ready for the accountant at tax time. I got the job from an ad posted on the bulletin board in the placement office up on campus. It’s a nice little part-time thing. Flexible schedule and it pays five bucks an hour.”
“’Sounds like a pretty good deal.”
“Yes it is. Say, has anyone ever told you that you look a lot like James Garner? You know, the actor?”
“Many times. He’s a bit older’n I am, but yeah, a lot of people tell me that.”
We chatted for about ten minutes, and for some reason, I decided I had to be getting along. I gave her my card, and encouraged her to come over and check out my little detective agency. I even suggested that we have lunch together sometime.
“You know, I’ve driven up and down your street several times looking for your place and never could find it. You have a sign in the window or something?”
“Not really. I do have a very small plaque on my front door, but you got’a be on the porch to read it. Yuh know, I’m not even supposed to be doing business in the house. It’s zoned residential. I’m kind of practicing as a home business. Check out the address on the card there, and then just come on by, but it’s best to call first. Make sure I’m there. I come and go as I please. One of the nice things about workin’ for yourself. Give me a call. If I’m not there, you can leave your name and number on my answering service, and I’ll get back to you within a couple hours.”
“All right,” she said. “I’ll probably take you up on the lunch.”
And we parted, but not before I said to her impulsively,
“Here, give me a hug,” and she did.
It wasn’t two minutes after she had disappeared into the crowd before I realized that I should have asked her what she was doing for lunch right then. I wasn’t doing anything, just hanging around. It was only one o’clock, and I didn’t have appointments scheduled that afternoon. I turned around to look for her, but she was gone.
I peddled down to the river levee and on up to downtown and back home. I went into the kitchen and fixed myself a hot dog for lunch. When I finished eating, I went into my office and looked to see if there were any phone messages. I was hoping that Renata had left a message. Unfortunately, she hadn’t.
The next time I saw her, I was taken completely by surprise. It was almost noon on a busy Friday in August. I was in my office talking to my future father-in-law, Charles Morris. He and Debra’s mom, Frances, lived in a condo development for retirees in San José. You had to be a Mason to live there. He was asking me to look into one of his neighbors, who, he thought, wasn’t a Mason. The guy was violating some of the association rules, and Charles wanted to get him out of there. The guy’s father, who was a Mason, was the owner of record of the condo, and Charles was sure that the kid wasn’t a Mason.
Besides coming over to throw some business my way, the Morrises were taking Debra and me out to lunch. Her mother was already up at her place waiting for her to get home from school. She was teaching a half day and was coming with her mother to meet us at Lily Marlene on the Mall.
It was a good thing we weren’t meeting at my place because, before I knew it was happening, Renata walked through the door with a baby on her hip. She sat down in the waiting chair closest to the front door. Her baby immediately squirmed off her lap and onto the floor. She crawled over to the bookcase along the wall and started pulling books off the shelves. Renata picked her up and sat down again with her on her lap. I went over and took her small hand and held it in mine.
“I remember you when you were inside your mother,” I said to her. “How old is she now?” This to Renata.
“Ten months. She’ll be a year old in November.”
“So, what are you up to?” I asked.
“We were just driving by when I saw your little place here and decided to stop and pay you a visit.”
“All right! I’m glad you did, although I’m kinda’ tied up right now and really can’t visit.”
“I can see you’re busy. No problem. I really can’t stay anyway. The kid’s getting a little antsie here, which means I need to take her out and let her run. How would you like to go to lunch next Friday?”
I was so startled by the suggestion with Charles right there that I could feel myself tense up. Of course Renata had no way of knowing who he was, so she didn’t know that Charles and Frances came over quite often on Fridays to visit and take us out to lunch.
“I don’t know,” I said to her, then to Charles, “You guys coming over here or are we going over there next Friday? ’R are we even getting together next week?”
“I don’t know,” he said. He was still sitting in the client chair next to my desk. “You know how these women always work things out without informing us of what the plans are. I’m sure my wife has the rest of our week planned for us already.”
“Friday wouldn’t be good for me, but another time might be fine.”
“Okay, I’ll call you,” she said, standing up and chasing down her daughter who had squirmed off her lap again. She picked up the little girl and opened the front door. “Bye.”
“Bye,” I said.
She closed the door behind her. Charles stood up and came into the living room.
“You ready to go?” he said, breaking the silence that had come over the place since the door closed.
“Yeah, sure, ’ts get outa’ here,” I replied, shifting uneasily on my feet.
Later that day she called and asked if she’d made anybody nervous earlier.
“No,” I lied, for I knew how nervous I was when she’d asked me to lunch, “but we do have to get together and we will, another time.”
“All right,” she said.
About two months later, after returning from one of my walks on the Mall, there was a message from her on my answering device. She wanted to set up a time and day to go out to lunch, and would I call her back, let her know what was convenient for me? I dialed the number she left, and she picked up after two rings.
I instantly recognized her husky, Lauren Bacall sounding voice and my heart skipped a beat.
“Hi, Renata, this is Jack.”
“Oh, hi, Jack. I’m so glad you called me back.”
“So, yuh wan’a have lunch some time?” I was feeling really nervous. The question sounded dumb.
“I only need a couple day’s notice so I can get a babysitter for Tess.”
“How ’bout Friday. Debra and I aren’t getting together with her folks this week. Wan’a do it then?”
“Yes. That sounds perfect. Want me to meet you at your office?”
“That’ll be fine. Wha’da yuh say to twelve noon?”
“I’ll be there,” she said and broke the connection. It still hadn’t sunk in that she might be interested in something other than just a lunch date, so I wrote her name down in my appointment book, not expecting anything or anticipating anything.
When I got the idea for this book, I only had four profiles in mind, the first four listed in the table of contents on the previous page. Then I started talking to some of my clients in the barber shop, and they convinced me that I should include the fifth and sixth names on the list. I listen to my clients. Its where I get my news. I have a lot in common with most of them. I’d say that probably ninety percent of my clientele is on my side (the left) of the political spectrum, some more liberal than others. So, when they tell me to do something, I listen to them.
I’ve been telling some of these stories in the shop for years, so I decided, what the hell, why not write ’em down? I’ve got some disclaimers. The first is: when I quote any of the subjects of this book, those quotes may not be verbatim, but they will accurately convey the substance of the conversation. I have a good memory, but not that good.
These are not the kinds of profiles that one would find in magazines like People or Us. They are not meant to be “celebrity” profiles. They are simple vignettes that show where my path crossed the person’s in the profile, and how my life was affected by the encounter. If these stories are about anybody, they are about me. And here’s another disclaimer: I wouldn’t, by any stretch of the imagination, claim to know any of my subjects. This is simply a tale of “six degrees of separation.”
I’m not likely to attain even a scintilla of the fame in my lifetime that the subjects of my profiles have achieved; therefore, I’m writing about them and how my association, however small, with them has had an effect on my life. I think I learned something from all of them. Maybe I didn’t learn how to be famous like they are, but that’s all right, because I’m not really looking for fame. I’d rather have the fortune.
I finally had a chance to sit down and read through Brushes with Fame. Truthfully, I had to look up some of the names, such as Tom, Michael and Nina. The minute I saw Parks’ face, however, I recognized him. The others, no. I enjoyed everyone of them, mostly because of your style of writing. I felt as though I was sitting next to you and you were retelling these stories to me. The one about Spielberg captured my interest the most, not only because of the fame he has achieved, but your comments that you knew you were in the presence of someone who was going to make things happen. Best of all, this book wasn’t an adulation of these celebrities, but rather how they have affected you. Well done, and keep writing.
I just finished Got no, Secrets to Conceal. I liked it, especially the twist at the end…. I loved how you captured how obsessive one can get when newly in (forbidden) love, and I did have to put the book down occasionally because of Jack’s cringe-worthy actions. The suspense of waiting for him to be caught was a bit nerve wracking. Great job!
You must have been saving the sexy stuff from your previous books to put it all into Got No Secrets to Conceal. However, that being said, it’s interesting to read a story about a middle aged person so hung up on a sexual relationship. You did a masterful job in carrying off the various adventures in this story.
You described Renata in such a way that the reader would be suspicious if she’d not have an interest in other guys. Debra’s character, on the other hand, is not so clearly defined. She’s kind of a blah character.
Once again you use your practical knowledge of the Santa Cruz area, streets and businesses; the U.C. and Cabrillo scene; the little towns around like Boulder Creek; the surfing scene; your office; all used as elements of your story.
I enjoyed reading the book.
I finished reading Got No Secrets to Conceal last night. I was slow to get to sleep after. The ending really did me in. I was struck by how Jack would check the surf before he suited up, but never did an analytical on Renata before diving in. It kind of felt to me like both Renata and Jack were “living the dream” and not ever really fully in touch with their lives. I guess I was so sad after the read because I felt that Jack would never be able to fully relate to anyone. Poor Renata is doomed, doomed, doomed.
You write about the small details of your characters, and the environment they inhabit makes them pop. The twist of having Bill show up was splendid. I loved how Debra, who appeared quite healthy except for her waiting on Jack for so long, just fluttered about on the edges of the story.
Thanks for this read, Jerome Arthur. It stirred me up.
“Yes, the Surf City Barber Shop and Social Club is, as advertised, a place to go for a haircut. But it’s also a kind of literary salon devoted to one particular writer.”
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Just finished your book Oh, Hard Tuesday and wanted to tell you it was quick and fun to read. I particularly enjoyed reading all the local names of places, businesses and familiar vibes—the story you wove through them made for an interesting afternoon escape.
By the way, the other books I read were Antoine Farot and Swede and The Journeyman and the Apprentice. They were a little more involved, and I took my time with them, enjoying each turn of the plot. Your descriptions of eras, areas, and people’s thought patterns make the stories so interesting. Thanks for the books,