Home » , , , , , , » Bread to the Wise--Book I of The Libertine by Angus Brownfield

Bread to the Wise--Book I of The Libertine by Angus Brownfield

I met Jake Pritchett in May of 1972 and said goodbye to him, at his interment, in September of 1973. If he hadn’t taken the initiative, I might never have got to know him. He occupied a ground floor office at 45 Bobwhite Court. I was a one-man janitorial service and my one client was V.M. Meany, who owned everything on this cul-de-sac in La Morinda, California, just south of where California Route 24 dumps a couple of hundred thousand cars a day into Interstate 680.
Bread to the Wise--Book I of The Libertine
Bread to the Wise--Book I of The Libertine by Angus Brownfield
I walked into Jake’s office, expecting to find it empty as it had been the night before and the one before that. The man I hadn’t expected to be sitting at his desk said, “Would you like me to clear out for a few minutes?” Not a pro forma question: his body language said he was ready to leave his chair. When, in a former life, I had sat at a desk like his working late, I never cleared out for a janitor. Blue collars don’t ask white collars to accommodate them. It’s the law of the land. “I can work around you, if it won’t disturb you,” I replied. Though a humble occupation, being a janitor, even a faux janitor, a man hiding out as a janitor, actually, yields minor rewards. One is that no one is around to bother you as you dust and sweep. You can whistle, you can sing, you can swear if you spill ashes on the rug, you can cut the cheese without offending. The man sitting at his desk said, “When it’s time to vacuum, yell, I’ll make myself scarce.” “I don’t vacuum every night.” I emptied his ashtray and wastebasket and dusted his bookcase and file cabinets, sensing he was watching me. He hadn’t moved in but a few days before, so the place still had that new smell. As I aimed my cart for the door he said, “I'm liable to be in your way most every weeknight. I've begun writing a novel in my spare time, you see. My latest calling.” “You know,” I said, slightly uneasy with his admission, “I haven’t been at this janitoring business long enough to have a hard and fast routine, so I could start on the third floor and work down, do your office last, if you like.” “But then I'd feel obliged to clear out when you got here,” the gentleman said. “I'm new to this writing business, too, so I'm trying to figure out how many hours a night I'm good for. I'd sure like it if you’d just clean around me. My day job takes me out of town once in a while; you can do the heavy-duty stuff then.” He wasn’t being a sidewalk superintendent, in fact, he was really trying to be nice, so I smiled and nodded. Again I started for the door and this time he said, a hint of irony in his voice, “You haven’t asked me what my novel’s about. People seem to want to know.” I turned in the doorway and said, “Once upon a time I majored in English Lit. They taught us that novels aren’t about anything, they’re things unto themselves.” He said, “I majored in statistics and business, and I didn’t know that. My name’s Jake Pritchett, by the way.” I had not once introduced myself to a janitor when I sat behind a desk, and I wasn’t sure how to respond, but he got out of his chair with his hand offered, so I hastened to shake it. “Robert Gattling.” If I’d been a real janitor I probably would have been abashed. Jake was an inch shorter than I, a little round in the shoulders, balding. His grip was firm without being a macho statement. His eyes were sad as if from too much wisdom, and I was struck by them. “See you around,” I said, finally to escape. Pushing my cart down the hall I debated if that was too chummy for a janitor, but I'd blown my cover anyway, admitting my college major, so I shrugged it off. I thought, if a statistician can write a novel, a former academician can be a janitor. ***** That was the beginning of our very short lifelong friendship. I didn’t pursue it at first, I’d come over the hill to La Morinda to escape my former Berkeley colleagues and erstwhile friends—in other words, to find refuge. I had made one friend of a sort since then, a neighbor named Janice Lippert, who was “of a sort” because we’d become something more than friends, we wrestled each other into frantic sweats now and again, when her cokehead husband was out of town. Another friend was John Barleycorn, or rather his genever cousin, which I drank in quantity with a twist of lemon, it being the best sleeping potion I knew of (or perhaps the most forgiving sleeping potion, seldom causing more than a washed-out feeling the next morning). Janice was not the kind of friend Jake became, she was my crutch and I hers. True, we shared confidences, such as why she put up with her husband, whose cocaine habit made him regularly nasty and sometimes downright cruel, and what had gone on not in Berkeley but in the wilds of Nevada that caused me to flee into exile. She was the only person I'd confided in about that since my wife, Lana, divorced me over those same Nevada goings-on, and I think it meant a great deal to Janice that I'd let her in on it. She guarded the secret. Gin was the lubricant that allowed such confidences. That and, somewhere between the first gin-over and sloshedness, tussles in the sack that left us both panting and me cursed with mixed feelings. I was thirty-five when we met; Jake, it turned out, eight years older. It is a tricky time to become friends for life. In the sandbox tots make ad hoc alliances or enmities, a mother or a nanny encouraging the former and discouraging the latter, sharing the daily mantra, names not exchanged, often simply playing in tandem, solitary games played side by side. Beyond the sandbox—say when you’re old enough to ride a bicycle—there are friendships without any awareness of emotional investment, though there are hurt feelings and, at times, angers and jealousies. You play, you explore, you argue about trivia (“DiMaggio was better than Gehrig any day”), you begin to expose isolated tidbits of your soul, longings for things or places, dreams of the future, but without any scrutiny of the me and thee. After that comes a time when friendship is a serious pursuit, one without a road map, but quite full of emotion, the kind that will make you back up your friend in a fight, even if the odds are bleak and you know you’ll take a pounding. You share the quart of beer you were able to score, you confess your passion for Carol or Jeanne, and your friend commiserates or encourages. You go on double dates, you lend him your last five bucks because your friend needs it. Some people sustain those friendships through the fortieth class reunion and beyond. For adults—men, at least—making new friends is not so easy. It’s not that you are much more aware of the emotional investment, it’s that to invest at all takes weighing so many commitments, so much detritus: creeping inertia. Foremost for Jake it was this new career of writing serious fiction. He had clients from his old career—he was a planner of hospitals and health systems—he was not going to abandon as he eased into his new writing career, he was going to gently wean them. He had a wife with her own profession, two young children, he had, I discovered towards the end of his life, a secret lover. So little time, so many commitments. He seemed to have a premonition that his time would be short, so he put out the extra effort to keep all these commitments. And finally one to me as well. I, on the other hand, was relatively free of commitments but was not only in self-imposed exile, I was under a severe self-imposed sentence for the sins that had forced me there. A lot of self-loathing and not a little of self-pity are a twin handicap that might have made friendship impossible had Jake not been such a generous man. And too, I wasn’t sure I knew how to make friends, even if I should admit I needed one. Soon after we met I needed one but didn’t know it. two The summer of 1972 was a newsy season: the Watergate burglars were caught, the Supreme Court suspended the death penalty and, of course, there were the usual shootings. Most headline-grabbing shootings took place overseas: eleven Israeli Olympians and their handlers kidnapped and killed in Munich; twenty-six civilians massacred at the Lodi Airport in Tel Aviv. And, though it only made the local papers, my friend, Jake Pritchett, died prematurely from complications of a gunshot wound. Jake wasn’t in the wrong place, nor was it the wrong time; it was the shooter who was guilty of both blunders. Since death came not days but months after the bullet left the gun, the shooter had already pled out to a felony charge far less serious than homicide. The DA thought it impossible to get a conviction for anything more and would not retry him. Which left a number of us with the question: who’s to blame? Jake blamed himself for getting shot; Jake’s widow, Amanda, blamed me and, incidentally my true love, Mary Clare; Mary Clare insisted it was pure accident—if you can call anything an accident when gunshots are exchanged. More on accidents later. Mary Clare could have said ‘Fate’ and had as much credence. I side with Amanda but only in relation to myself. Like a quarterback who audibles a pass in the last minute of the fourth quarter, only to throw a game-losing interception, I accept the blame. You can decide who was right; I had to decide what to do with the guilt that attended the blame. ***** You can read about Watergate and the death penalty ruling in high school history books; there have been reams written on the two terrorist attacks. Only a scattering of people, besides me, remember Jake’s shooting. I talked to some of them about it—with a couple I still do. We endlessly sift the ‘what ifs,’ as people will. What if it had happened ten years later (when, presumably, cardiovascular surgery had advanced)? What if he’d been helicoptered to Moffitt Hospital in San Francisco, perhaps the best trauma center in the land? What if the bullet hadn’t shattered? What if Jake hadn’t been carrying a shotgun from his car to the garage, freaking-out the sleep-deprived prick who shot him from ambush? You can noodle around all you want. Both of Jake’s parents had bad hearts, and, not surprisingly, so did Jake. It was the kicker in the complication. Blame Mom, blame Dad for passing on bad genes? Maybe. Blame the guy who hired the prick who shot Jake? I’ll give him a piece of the action. A consummate poker player, literally and figuratively, for once in his life V.M. Meany didn’t know when to fold. He couldn’t let go of Mary Clare, whose life he’d saved a couple of years before, a woman whom he had selflessly sheltered, no strings attached, but had to fall in love with at an age when most men look back to their youth for fond memories of such feelings. You really can't blame the surgeon who opened Jake’s chest to remove a bullet fragment resting against his heart. Mary Clare will count as part of the accident that the cutter discovered something more alarming than that piece of lead, an aortic aneurism which he judged to be a ticking time bomb. If it ruptured it could cause death in minutes. Since he was in the patient’s chest already, the man felt morally bound to repair it. It was no accident that, Amanda, an anesthesiologist, was quite familiar with the usual risk-benefit analysis in situations like this. “Fix the damned thing,” she told the surgeon. I was old enough when this happened to be inured to life’s more random exigencies. So I didn’t blame God or anything like that when Jake died. It’s just that I’d got used to him in my life, a warm, kind alter ego with enough added years to be a lot wiser than I. Now I had to get used to him not being in my life. I thought, well, I’ll just do it; I’ll find my own wisdom. I told myself, you don’t get all that attached to someone in a few months. Or do you? I debated this with Mac, the bartender at Berkeley Square, as I stopped in for a quick one on the way home from work a few days after the funeral. At that time I was working in the basement of the Claremont Hotel, where the Association of Bay Area Governments, my employer, had its offices. There is more than one bar upstairs, but no Mac. Mac had known Jake, known him back when he was courting Amanda the anesthesiologist, and kept current with him. Furthermore, Mac kept under the bar a yellowing photocopy of Jake’s rules for living. The third rule read, “Remember, nobody owns tomorrow.” Just about every other time I sat at his bar, if we weren’t talking 49ers or Giants, Mac would bring out that piece of paper and we’d talk what Mac termed ‘philosophy,’ by which he meant life’s eternal verities. Jake was one of Mac’s favorite customers, though not a regular, and it grieved Mac that Jake had become an exemplar of his own third rule. The person I talked to most about Jake’s demise was Mary Clare. When he died we were sharing a cottage behind a house on Milvia Street, walking distance to the UC Berkeley campus, where she was working her way back into the academic life. The cottage was a gem, designed by Bernard Maybeck and there is a story in that, too. It became evident that I hadn’t dealt well with Jake’s death when I began waking in the middle of the night, sometimes in tears, and Mary Clare would say, “What is it, baby?” and I couldn’t say for sure: nightmares, a sensation of pressure around my heart. Accepting blame is a social norm; it’s guilt that shrivels your soul. Clare was very patient. She studied early and late, kept in shape, she did her share of the housework. She needed her sleep. But she would coo at me, there in our little Maybeck doll house in the middle of the night, and hug me. Sometimes she would make love to me, even if we’d made love earlier, because she knew it would put me back to sleep. She offered it as a solution preferable to the premixed martinis I kept in the freezer. She said, “I love you, Robert Gattling, but I swear, I’m not going to sit around watching you drink yourself shit-faced as a way of avoiding whatever’s eating at you. If you’d rather dive in the bottle than fuck me, okay, but it’s adios if you do.” That street-talking ultimatum set me straight for a while. I’d been through an ordeal in order to share a cunning cottage with the girl of my dreams, and I was not going to lose her because I couldn’t stop lambasting myself over Jake’s death. Actually, Jake’ death was a culmination, the last in a string of deaths going back to my mother dying when I was a tot, and somehow I saw myself responsible for them all. I was the Grim Reaper’s henchman. That is crazy, I know. I did not willfully kill any of these persons. But I was there, in the background, a veritable Joe Btfsplk, my own little black cloud following wherever I went. The rain that fell on my head said, “Gattling, you are a worthless prick, you can sweat and strain, you will never make up for the bad things you’ve done.” ***** This is how I got to be The Janitor of Bobwhite Court. Before I came over the hill, some entrepreneur with more vision than capital had started to develop the cul-de-sac but went belly up just about the time I stopped being an Assistant Vice-President at UC Berkeley. The project got as far as framing the first floor of what the fading sign in front advertized as condominiums. Then activity just stopped. The two-by-fours bleached in the sun and rain, the weeds returned around the foundation. I noticed the decay as I took my daily constitutional along the abandoned Southern Pacific tracks that ran behind Bobwhite Court. One day I said to myself, “Robert, those bleached bones could be something else: offices, apartments. Why don’t you use your retirement money and buy them?” Before I could overcome the amateur’s fear of the risk involved, V.M. Meany, who already owned about half of central Contra Costa County, saw the same potential as I and didn’t hesitate one bit. He bought the derelict. By the way, being an Assistant Vice-President, working for Stu Katz, the Vice-President for Medical Education for the statewide University system, became a not-such-exalted niche on the corporate ladder. From my bureaucratic desk I was tasked to ride herd on the funding of biomedical research—until the day Mario Savio got himself arrested for climbing atop a police car and speaking out against the University’s paternalistic treatment of its students. This became the revolution named The Free Speech Movement. Stu Katz, who had inherited me and didn’t much like me, nominated me as the guy to carry the University’s latest offer to the protesting students. The University’s President agreed they needed a spokesperson who wouldn’t flinch when an enraged long-hair screamed in his face. (“You were an amateur boxer, Robert? Olympic Auditorium? Golden Gloves? You wouldn’t actually strike a protester, if things got heated, would you?” “Only in self-defense, sir.”) Out on the steps of the Admin Building with the latest offer from the President, I shouted back when necessary and I didn’t flinch, though I quickly learned the therapeutic benefits of double martinis in evenings of jarred nerves. During the “institutionalization phase” of the revolution, as poli-sci profs are wont to call it, I needed to get the hell out of the middle. I asked for a leave of absence. “I’ll resign if you’d rather” I told Stu Katz, leading with my chin because I was frazzled and tuckered out from all the tension. He would have loved to fire me but his reactionary instincts had him consult the Big Boss, and away I went. You can’t believe how thankful I was to be quit of the superheated rhetoric (or, as my piled higher-and-deeper colleagues would say, the Sturm-und-Drang-Zeit). I sublet my digs and pursued a zaftig young woman named Lana up to Reno, where she had learned to deal twenty-one and was learning to be her own person. It was there, or rather, outside of Reno, up an arroyo I’m not sure I could find on the map today, where I did something that was frowned upon by academicians, was not good for a man’s soul nor for his relationship with the zaftig Lana. We married under a cloud, and the cloud rained on us throughout a trip camping out through Mexico and led to an ultimate falling out. It had to do with a sawed-off shotgun and a man who would now be called ‘homeless’ but back in those days was simply called a drifter. three Jake asked me, on his deathbed, to finish the novel he’d been working on since that night I agreed to work around him. This seemed a preposterous request at the time. I knew as much about writing as I did about driving an automobile, and asking me to finish his novel was like asking me to take his place in the cockpit of a Ferrari at Le Mans It was pure manipulation, but manipulation I unthinkingly submitted to in that solemn moment of watching his life ebb away. “Sure Jake, anything.” I promised. If this is the second Robert Gattling effort you’re reading, you know I didn’t finish the novel, which was the story of a man falling in love with a witch. I never gathered enough nerve to try. It’s true, I read the unfinished manuscript of “The Witch’s House” a half-dozen times and poured through cryptic notes Jake made to himself, going back to what he scribbled in a notebook he kept by his bed the night he had the dream upon which he based the novel. I got so worked up, unable to keep my promise, I went to see a shrink about it. Dr. Deary was Jake’s contemporary, a woman whose face bore the chiseled marks of great (I suspect physical) pain. She was recommended by a friend, wasn’t licensed by the state because she didn’t like the state’s rules, but had a full practice of persons , like me, only mildly regretted their insurance wouldn’t pay any part of her robust fee. She listened to me rant, she listened to me cry tears of frustration and regret, she listened to me try to rationalize why I couldn’t keep my promise, and this took four sessions. During the fifth session she became prescriptive, for which I’m very grateful. It saved me lots of time and money. “Look, Mr. Gattling,” (she never got around to calling me anything less formal) “I don’t need to tell you, dreams are highly personal. Your Jake didn’t try to parse his witch dream because it would have ruined what he perceived as its high drama. The only problem is, if I hear you correctly, the drama never came out in the writing. He left all the emotion inside, never got it down on paper. This doesn’t surprise me. He was like a man shadow-boxing, that is not coming to terms with whatever or whomever is the real foe. If you were really going to write a novel based on the outline of his dream, you’d have to make the witch your witch, and the psychic battle with her your battle. Then it wouldn’t be finishing Jake’s novel, it would be writing your own. And if the idea of writing your own novel about falling in love with a witch leaves you cold (your expression is telling me that’s so) then doing so is betraying yourself.” “But what about my promise?” She said, “Unless you believe Jake’s up there” (she pointed towards the ceiling without looking up) “looking down and shaking a cautionary finger at you like your fifth grade teacher, you haven’t betrayed anyone. If he’d said, ‘Look after my wife and kids’ it would have been one thing. I believe, from what you’ve told me of the man, he had a fairly complex and perhaps pixyish reason for tasking you this way. “So, by the power vested in me by my overweening self-confidence as a therapist, I absolve you of all worldly guilt. Now you need to go home and absolve yourself. Knock off the mea culpas. Write a novel with a Jake Pritchett in it.” ***** Driving home, I thought about a novel with a Jake Pritchett in it. That evening I wound down with a couple of glasses of Louis Martini’s Dry Chenin Blanc in lieu of dry martinis. I told Mary Clare about my final session with Dr. Deary and what I got from her was a broad grin. “What?” I asked, puzzled by the grin. She said, “That Jake. He told me you wouldn’t be able to keep your promise.” “Shit. Then why’d he ask me to do it?” She smiled. “He wanted you to spend so much energy getting pissed at him for sending you on a snipe hunt that you wouldn’t have time to beat yourself up about his dying.” “He said that?” I was actually starting to get pissed. “Would I lie to you?” “Not about something like that. Why didn’t you tell me this sooner, goddamnit?” “Because he made me promise.” I said, “Oh, so you got to keep your promise to him while I break mine.” She said, “But he knew you weren’t going to be able to do it.” “Why waste my time, then?” “Ah, Grasshopper, if you must ask, you would not understand the answer.” We were sitting hip to haunch on the couch. She reached up and ruffled my hair. Somehow my pique was endearing. “Try me,” I said. “Does the Buddhist monk, daily raking the gravel in the monastery’s rock garden, waste time when he makes it look exactly like the day before?” “Smarty pants. What else did Jake and you discuss that I should know about?” She said, “I told him you were the best lover a woman ever had.” I laughed. “I did.” “I bet that merited a big ‘so what.’” “Why?” Now she was playing with my hair. “Jake wouldn’t give a rat’s ass about my love-making ability. Isn’t that something you might better have shared with a female friend?” She said, “Heck no. I’m not about to stimulate some woman’s curiosity about Robert-in-the-sack.” I put my forehead against hers. “I’d like to stimulate your curiosity.” “Good. Then, after, I can catch a nap while you cook dinner. I have a long night ahead, because I have to finish this paper by morning or I’m in deep doo-doo.” “So now I’m going to put you to sleep?” “Turn about and all that.” I said, “I prefer tit for tat.” “Last one upstairs gets to be on the bottom.” And by the time I figured that out, she was in bed waiting for me. four So there was no real beginning to my post-University and post-Lana life until I saw excavators moving earth one morning as I took my constitutional along the Southern Pacific tracks. There was a spanking new sign stating the name of the construction firm and the name of the project, “Quail’s Reach.” At the bottom in named V.M. Meany as the developer. A lot of noise, dump trucks, men talking with their heads close together, hard hats, plans spread out on the hood of a pickup. I went home and looked up V.M. Meany in the yellow pages. Based on what I saw, I assumed Meany was a big frog in a small pond. Later I would go to the library and go through microfilm archives of the Diablo Valley Courier and the San Francisco Chronicle to discover that Meany moved freely among small, medium and large ponds while his relative size didn’t change much at all. He was long past the stage in his career that he needed to advertise. Investors, politicians and other movers and shakers came to him. The man was used to getting his way. Witness how he added to the footprint of the Bobwhite Court complex in order to build on every square inch of property the zoning ordinance allowed. Then he got a variance allowing a penthouse one floor higher than the zoning ordinance limit. Which was the whole point of Bobwhite Court: that penthouse and its tenant, the woman I would, in short order, dub the Penthouse Lady. In other words, although the project was an efficient use of Meany’s money, it had at its core a quixotic gesture. Efficiency was definitely in Meany’s lexicon, quixotic was a stretch. Still, the man had always done things first cabin. It was part of his larger-than-life reputation. In keeping with this quality, the grounds around Quail’s Reach were nicely landscaped, with a tasteful Moroccan fountain out front and a couple of mature shade trees moved in on the flanks. He deeded an easement to the county so that the cul-de-sac could be connected to the Southern Pacific right-of-way, which was, in the county master plan, slated to become a bicycle and pedestrian trail through the heart of central county. This, rumor had it, was a horse trade for the height variance. I walked home and mulled the sign. Before long I got the idea of playing Meany as a way of staying alive. It put me on a par with the son of a Zulu warrior working in a South African diamond mine, but when you’ve been pissing away your life and decide it’s time to reform, you figure on starting at the bottom. As an undergrad I’d been a student laboratory assistant at the University, but ended up an Assistant Vice-President, so I thought I might start out a janitor and end up—what? I had no idea. I had no idea what baronies there might be in Meany’s empire. So I cashed in my classic BMW for a cherry 1941 Chevy panel truck, plus enough cash to paint it (café au lait body, chocolate fenders) and have Janet Lippert, a sign painter by trade, decorate its panels with a fanciful Gatling gun and the motto, “We Fight Dirt.” She also added pin stripes, her own personal touch. See, the truck’s first use was as an advertising ploy. Before he moved to Bobwhite Court, Meany had offices in Martinez, the county seat. For two weeks I parked the truck in various places near his digs, intending it to stir his curiosity. When I felt he must have registered this odd vehicle, and wondered at its provenance, I made an appointment to see him. I never learned whether he even noticed the truck, let alone connected it to me. ***** Meany looked like a retired NFL offensive tackle. As he rose from the chair behind his massive mahogany desk, I had the same reaction as when I once came upon Teddy Roosevelt’s grizzly bear exhibited in the rotunda of the Smithsonian. My hackle rose. I hesitated before sticking my average sized hand into his enormous mitt. His eyes hid behind rimless optical gray specs. His extra large galluses suspended pleated trousers in a subdued gray wool worsted with stripes so fine I couldn’t make out the color. A banker’s suit. His white shirt was starched, his silk rep tie as conservative as his suiting. “I didn’t put out any invitations to bid,” he said. “What makes you think I need someone to clean Quail’s Reach?” I said, “I take my exercise walking the train tracks mornings. I’ve watched the progress, and it looks like move-in isn’t far off.” “As a matter of fact, I’m moving my own offices there the first of the month. I’ll want it to be a showcase. You have a résumé?” I said, “I have a résumé and a work proposal. The résumé was going to stretch some definitions of what I’d done in the past to make me sound like, if not a janitor, a man capable of bossing janitors. I was hoping the carefully thought out work plan would get me the gig. He went rapidly through the documents. “Are you a man of your word, Mr. Gattling?” “Yes, sir.” I reddened slightly, as if a man of the cloth had asked me, out of the blue, if I were keeping the faith. “What about the apartments?” he asked. I sensed a warming on his part, although his jowly expression, suggestive of chronic depression, changed not at all. “I'd clean the common areas, the elevators, vacuum the hallways and wash the front doors once a week, wash the windows every six months. Police the area around the dumpster—I assume you’ll have dumpster service.” He said, “Wash the windows the end of the rainy season and the end of summer. Don’t care what the calendar says.” For about a minute he sat and looked out the window behind him, Carquinez Strait stretching west to east, when he swiveled his chair about, rose again, and stuck out that enormous paw. I rose, too, not just from native politeness, but because his looming over me was intimidating. “Watch for me to move in. —I assume I can I keep these?” He gestured with the documents I’d given him. “Of course. How soon do you think you’ll be moving?” “Like I said, first of the month.” “Anyone else moving in before you?” He hesitated a moment and shook his head. “Thank you, sir,” I said. “No, thank you, son. You saved me some bother.” As I left I realized that was the first time I’d been called ‘son’ since I went to college. ***** When I started working for him, he handed me a contract to sign, the boilerplate of which looked as if it had come from a stationery store, and before I could more than glance at it, he summarized it for me. “The amount’s what we agreed to. Your work proposal is incorporated by reference. Otherwise, I want this place kept looking as good as the day I move in—simple as that. You have any day-to-day questions, talk to Meryl.” He gestured towards the formidable woman guarding his office door. “She’ll give you the keys.” In her three inch heels, Meryl Destrier’s pompadour, a blond version of Linda Darnell’s, topped me by a good two inches. If Meany reminded me of Leo Nomellini or Dan Dierdorf, Meryl reminded me Dick Butkus. She outweighed me, but to say that she was plump would be entirely misleading. Straight of back, broad of shoulders, as age added padding to her body, every part of her stayed in the same relationship to the other parts. If she had an appearance problem it wasn’t size and proportions it was latent pixie-ism—she would wear clothes better suited to a younger, slimmer woman. As Meryl and I went over door keys—she had labeled them—I said, “What about the penthouse?” “Never mind the penthouse.” (Emphatic, final, as if she’d anticipated the question.) I asked what was up there, and the answer—a frown and a repeat of her ‘never mind’—naturally piqued my interest. “Not even the elevator?” Meryl said, “Nope; not even the elevator.” “And if I wanted to rent one of the apartments myself, whom would I see?” She said, “That would be me.” “Is there a studio? Ground floor rear? Nothing fancy, mind you.” “Wait a sec.” She went into Meany’s office and conferred with him while standing on one foot and leaning across his desk, the other foot pointed at me, another pixie-ism. “Mr. Meany would prefer that you not,” she said. She added no reason, I assume because, if Meany wanted to fire me, he’d rather not have me hanging about. five The buildings Meany added to Quail’s Reach—parentheses around the original—were constructed with parking below grade. The excavating added significantly to the, but it allowed him to build more units. The original building with the penthouse had parking to the rear. Passing a second story window the first day I started work, I looked into the parking lot and watched a pale yellow Jaguar roadster—an XKE—pull into a reserved parking space. A woman in butt-hugging Levi’s and tall boots, a bomber jacket and a newsboy cap cocked over one eye, alighted and slung a messenger bag over one shoulder. She strode briskly towards the exterior elevator to the penthouse. I wanted her to look up, but she didn’t. I thought I glimpsed an elegant profile, but maybe I just wanted her to have an elegant profile. The Jag, the clothes, the walk: a woman beyond my current means. That speaks to the top of the brain, but something underneath, in the storm cellar of the mind, ignores those practicalities. God, how I wanted to see her face. Something in her motion, her carriage, in her cockiness, spoke to the old me. Married once to a woman who’d folded all too quickly in the face of adversity and cared not at all if her succumbing dragged me down, too, I longed for a woman able to stare down hard times. It didn’t occur to me then, building my fantasy of the Penthouse Lady, what she was doing up there. Neither Meany nor his bodyguard, Meryl, had said someone was moving in up there, not at the same time as Meany moved his offices. A collaborator? A colleague? A silent partner? I got the ‘hands off’ message, I just couldn’t come up with a reason why. Oh well. ***** After we got to know each other, Jake Pritchett mentioned he’d watch me on the back porch of the office building, taking a smoke break and staring up at the penthouse. He, too, had spotted the Penthouse Lady’s swagger, but more accurately parsed it as bravado. Nor was he fooled for one instant about what she was doing up there. He didn’t need her to be a mystery woman, because he didn’t need another woman in his life. He didn’t for an instant find her unattractive. He was, though, content to admire her virtues without moving close enough to probe their origins. Next door to Meany’s suite of offices were those of an outfit called the Reproduction Clinic: offset printing, copying, binding, that sort of thing. Meany used their services often and wanted them close-by. He’d made their space to their specifications. I met the owners, Jane Chen and Margot Parmedes, the day they moved in, and we came to an immediate understanding about what cleanup they did (I hadn’t reckoned on such a tenant) and what I did. It was a good omen. They could have played me—I wasn’t, after all, a seasoned operator of a janitorial service—but they did the opposite. It was as if they guessed I was new to the business. After our initial meeting Jake and I didn’t have a real conversation until one night in August. I was ferrying trash out to the dumpster and turned on the flood lamps, to discover him standing on the back porch in the dark. Suddenly illuminated, he looked like a possum fixed in headlights. Realizing instantly that he’d been looking at the stars, I turned out the lights again. I stopped beside him until my eyes could adjust to the dark. I lit a cigarette. Then I saw what he was looking at. In short order a half dozen bits of interplanetary debris died in brilliant slashes across the sky. “It reminds me of our mortality,” Jake said. “In some grand scheme we’re just streaks of light through the world’s night sky.” “Are you a poet?” I asked him. He chuckled. “Not usually. Maybe as much a poet as you are a janitor.” I said, “You won’t blow my cover, will you?” He chuckled louder. “I don’t know if Mr. Meany has figured you out, but the ladies at the Reproduction Clinic have.” I said, “It ain’t much, but it’s about what I can manage at this point in my life.” He said, “You’re too young for a mid-life crisis.” We both paused and oohed and aahed at a succession of sparklers dashing themselves out in darkness. “I was always precocious. But seriously, there are crises that alter your values—and how others value you.” “I’m not a poet, but are you a psychotherapist?” he asked. “Touché,” I said. I could see my way to the dumpster without trouble and proceeded to dump my trash. As I came back I paused a moment more and was moved to say, “The tall stars held their peace,” a quote from a poem I loved. He instantly responded, “And things were as they were.” Well, I thought, going back to my rounds, any statistician who can quote James Wright can’t be all bad. Later, up on the second floor, I wondered if he thought the same about me. ***** The next time I saw Jake was in the men’s toilet. He told me later that I walked in looking bloodhound sad. He was washing his hands and he quipped, “How do you tell a Harvard kid from a Yalie?” I gave him the required answer, how one washed his hands after he peed, the other beforehand. It was a chestnut from my undergrad days. “And what about a Berkeley grad?” he asked. I said, “The current bunch don’t wash at all.” “When I was there we did. We were the last of the guys on the World War II GI Bill, we washed before and after.” “Germophobes?” I asked. “Partly conspicuous consumers, partly hedonists—we dug warm and squishy. It went with the split-level ranch house and the new car every third year.” I said, “You were at Berkeley?” “Class of Fifty-five.” I said, “I graduated in Fifty-nine. Pardon me for saying, but there’s more than four years between us.” “Add four years in the Army.” I was just about to leave when he said, “You know, when a Berkeley grad of your years throws over his nine-to-five career and starts pushing a broom, the only thing that can make him look anything but dumb and happy is love. You look like you’ve got it bad.” I thought, boy, is he getting personal. I wondered what could prompt that much empathy. Was he queer? Was he a busybody? Or was he just lonely as hell. I didn’t feel threatened but I did feel curious. “You get done with the trash and the dust mop, stop in and drink coffee—or hooch, if that’s your preference—and tell me about it.” “I just may do that,” I said, though inwardly ambivalent. Reluctant to let someone crack my shell yet longing for someone to say ‘there-there.’ six Now I have a confession to make. No, not really a confession. It’s just that an accident of fate (neither a Divine Accident nor the Hand of God, as you shall see) changed what this piece I’m writing would have been. Dr. Deary said, “Go forth and write a novel with a Jake Pritchett in it,” and after all the angst about not fulfilling Jake’s deathbed wish, I was going to do just that, as a way of atoning, the penance that would go with her absolution. And I will write that novel. Only now the nature of the work has changed. I had one hell of a time retrieving Jake’s manuscript and notes. His wife, Amanda, blamed me for his death and she was not about to honor a deathbed wish she hadn’t had confirmed by Jake himself. I had to grovel and plead in a thoroughly unvirile way to get the manuscript and everything associated with it. I actually had to rescue it from the trash can, one step ahead of the garbage truck. In the rescued trash bag I heaved into my old panel truck that day, menaced by a strapping scavenger, I found not only the partial manuscript of “The Witch’s House” and its attendant notes, I discovered a smaller plastic bag in the bottom. From it, abracadabra, thirteen tape cassettes emerged. None was labeled as to contents, only “1,” “2,” “3,” etc., the sides labeled A and B. More visual than audial, I read the manuscript and notes first, and it was only after my last session with Dr. Deary that I rummaged around and found tape 1 and put side A into my clunky cassette player. I was jolted by the voice of Jake Pritchett talking about me. Mary Clare was up in the loft of our cottage, sprawled on the bed, her favorite studying venue save the typewriter. She came clattering down the stairs and looked over the railing and said, after she took in the scene, “Turn that off,” her voice simultaneously choked and strident. I did. I admit, I wasn’t prepared either. A voice from the grave is a dodgy cliché, yet the modulated baritone voice, known to me as well as any in the world, came across as ghostly. In one way it was no different from hearing the recently deceased Duke Ellington at the piano. In a more particular way, it was the words of a man I’d come to regard as my mentor. My urge to keep listening was tempered by the idea of listening to thirteen tapes dictated by my deceased friend. And there was a practical problem: airing Jake tapes while Mary Clare was studying. It was a subliminal irritant she didn’t need to suffer. I knew that among my unpacked rummage I had a handheld portable cassette player which, with earphones, would let me listen anywhere without disturbing my mate or anyone else. All I had heard on the tape before I shut it off was, “Like the hero of a Forties movie, Robert had it bad.” My God, I thought, when did he record that? No time signature, no context, unless it was the next thing on the tape. Upstairs Mary Clare rolled over on her scattered papers as I reached the loft and said, “What was that?” I told her. “Sorry I overreacted. I heard that voice and I swear my heart raced. What’s on the tapes?” I shrugged. “I just heard the one sentence. I have no idea if there’s anything else. They’re surely not all about me.” “All about us, you mean. We were his pet project in his last days.” I shrugged; I shuddered. “I don’t know if I can take it.” She said, “I know I can’t. It’s too soon.” “I’ll buy some earphones. —Listen, why don’t we trade places and I can get some sleep.” Alone in the loft, lights out and covers under my chin, it took forever to fall asleep. I did the arithmetic in my head: if Jake used sixty minute tapes, that’s seven hundred minutes; if they’re ninety minute tapes that’s over a thousand minutes. If Jake had spoken at an average of , say, a hundred and fifty words a minute, that was . . . novel-length. I got up and took an antihistamine, the kind that are supposed to put you to sleep, but it didn’t. I wrestled covers until, late in the night it seemed, a familiar nose nuzzled into the back of my neck and I mumbled, “Night-night.” “They’re all about you,” she said in a sleep-bound voice. “And me. And some others you can guess.” “You listened to them, you rat,” I muttered. “I couldn’t help it, Bobby. It’s good stuff. He loved you.” Her soft crying shook the bed; she took a large sip of air. I turned over and got nose to nose with her. “He loved you, too.” “He did indeed,” her voice still sleep-bound behind a sniffle. “Tomorrow I have to figure out what to do.” She said, “Take the day off and listen to the tapes.” “No, with earphones I can listen to them tomorrow night. But what do I do with what’s on the tapes?” “You’ll do right by them.” An emphatic command followed by a big yawn. ***** At work the next day I was off my game. On quick outs I dropped passes. I got faked out by stupid little incidents that should have meant nothing. At noon I ate a sandwich on the run, cruised University Avenue until I hit an electronics retailer and bought a cheap set of ear buds I was told were just right for voice recordings. I bought an eight-pack of batteries for the hand-held. The afternoon went smoother and faster than the morning. I usually stopped in the boss’s office before I went home and reviewed the day’s events, but that night I gave him a wide berth as I ducked out it just after five. Mary Clare wasn’t home when I got there, dinner had to be cooked, and I decided, as long as I was cooking it, I’d listen to Jake’s tapes instead of news. Tie off, apron on, I prepped veggies for a salad, to go with a chili verde I’d made Sunday to last till Friday. I drank wine as I prepped, only I kept stopping and listening, beginning with Jake’s opinion about why I wasn’t waltzing up to the penthouse and sweeping Mary Clare off her feet. I got the impression he was vicariously living a romance he wished he’d had in his life. And suddenly the pauses weren’t to take in Jake’s words, they were to take stock of whether I wasn’t still in the limbo of a lover who lacked unreserved commitment. Why? Luckily I was saved by my mate walking through the door, bringing fresh air and vitality with her. She ran upstairs, yelling as she went, “Pour me a vino, will you, baby?” By the time she’d changed and reached the kitchen I’d turned Jake off and turned on a new news program, “All Things Considered.” We heard righteously huffy denials of anything untoward happening at Watergate. We heard commentary about what would have happened if the timing had been different. Would the voting public, knowing the extent of Nixon’s dirty tricks, have reelected him? The commentator thought yes. And still, everything was denied. I poured myself more wine and topped off Mary Clare’s. “So what are you going to do?” “About Nixon?” “About the tapes, dummy.” I said, “For now, keep listening.” ***** At first I tried to take notes, but after stopping and starting the first tape and jotting, I decided I had to listen to all of them before making notes, or I’d lose the continuity. It was exasperating but rewarding work in one sense; in another it was as harrowing as thirteen hours on a psychoanalyst’s couch. By the time I went to bed I gathered these tapes had been recorded after Jake was shot, but covered the period since we first met. Jake couldn’t type after his surgery, and he gave up any pretense of working as a consultant. With him home, Amanda could scrub onto more surgeries while Jake took more responsibility for the children. The Pritchetts had help, he wasn’t getting the kids ready for school, he was there to make decisions, to settle squabbles, and to reassure and otherwise nurture. Which left him, must have left him, a fair amount of time to talk into his recorder. A couple of cassettes into this memoir the temptation to transcript Jake’s words and make it into a roman à clef about a fictionalized Robert Gattling. It would be finishing a work by Jake, though not the witch novel. Aren’t you supposed to write about what you know? Well, I certainly knew myself better than I knew anything else in the world. Except I began to sense that Jake knew me better than I knew myself. He may have known me better than I wanted to know myself. I kept listening and pondering. I couldn’t shake the fear that the closer I came to confronting myself the more likely I would end in fleeing myself. The Pritchett Tapes one I never go around wondering what people think about me. I never imagine conversations over coffee about my past or future. Oh, I’ve made some embarrassing missteps in my life and was sure all my friends knew about them and censored me for them. When I took the fatal misstep in the Nevada desert that ended my University career, many persons did know about it—all of Berkeley in fact. Many acquaintances were embarrassed for me. Some were judgmental enough to cross the street to avoid bumping into me. One friend, a CPA who looked more suited to boarding Spanish galleons in pirate movies, said, when I tried to explain what went on, “Robert, you don’t need to explain it to your friends and your enemies aren’t going to believe you anyway.” Amen. It’s when we’re shamed or embarrassed we wonder what others are thinking about us. Jake’s tapes went beyond shame and embarrassment, they were hours of reflection on the subject of myself. If Jake hadn’t been a friend, in the truest sense of the word, I would have felt as if I were being stalked. ***** Jake referred to me early on tape 1—I think as a rhetorical device more than a certainty—as “my friend, my boon companion.” This is what makes me date the tapes from after his wounding. He recited this, too, on tape 1: “We’ve only known each other a little while, but I know Robert better than anyone in the world. By chance we selected paths in life with uncanny synonymy—both the things we did and how we did them: boxer, janitor, bureaucrat; his marriage shattered by a single traumatic event, mine too.” He goes on to say, “Before I met Robert I never stopped to think about how we learn about ourselves. We learn about ourselves reflected in others—his triumphs compared to mine, his defeats, his catastrophe. Otherwise, how I play to the rest of the world would be a complete mystery. I watch Robert from afar and see myself, eight years younger. I see my double, and invisible fingers pluck icily at my spine.” His first curiosity—God, I must have been transparent—was my instant and thorough attraction to Mary Clare. No, not the attraction, my reluctance to do something about it. Eventually my curiosity about Jake’s nighttime occupation led me to take him up on his offer of coffee or hooch. I was straightening his office when he repeated the offer, and I said, “I have the foyer to clean after this, and putting away my gear, then I’ll be back—if you’re still going to be around.” “I will,” he said. I declined the coffee as too close to bedtime and he smiled and brought out a bottle of what at first glance looked to be scotch. “I’ve been waiting for an excuse to try this.” It wasn’t scotch, it was Irish, from a distillery I’d never heard of. He said they aged their product in Madeira casks. We sipped it from glasses shaped like Scottish thistles. “Very chi-chi,” I said. “Chi-chi Irish?” “No,” I said, “the whole set-up: the rare Irish, the uncommon glasses. It surprises me—not exactly what I expected.” “You must meet my wife, Amanda. The whole set-up was a birthday gift from her. These glasses, I discovered, would each buy you another bottle of good Irish.” “Here’s to Amanda,” I said, raising my glass. He said, “Amanda would surprise you.” “Oh?” “She’s every bit as beautiful as your Penthouse Lady. Different model altogether, a limousine compared to a sports car, but striking.” “Limousine. That’s an interesting image.” “Longer of line is what I meant—tall, angular.” I sipped and reflected. I saw a woman with legs up to here, sitting in a leather easy chair, lithe limbs demurely crossed, skirt just to the knees. Finally, I asked him how they’d met. Well, he was invited to a meeting of the Redwood Empire Medical Association, to explain a project he was doing with the county public health departments in their area. She was on the association’s board. He said, “I don’t usually have carnal notions about a woman until I’ve known her long enough to decide whether I’d want her to have my children. She was an exception. I think she felt the lust emanating from my eyeballs.” “I've had that experience,” I said. “I went up to her afterwards and asked her if she knew a good orthopedist or physiatrist.” Amanda told him she was an anesthesiologist but asked, anyway, what ailed him. Jake told her—a half-truth of opportunity—he was having ephemeral lower back pains. “If it were from muscle spasms I could shoot you up with curare and relax them.” “Wouldn’t it relax everything else?” Jake asked. “I’m quite good. I wouldn’t stop your respiration or circulation. You’d probably suffer a spontaneous erection, though.” “But I probably wouldn’t notice it, would I.” “Probably not.” Her expression purely clinical. He asked for her card and she reached in her purse and produced one, but also produced a smirk. “Mr. Pritchett, if you’re interested in me as a woman rather than a medical practitioner, I wouldn’t be put off. I’m not seeing anyone of late.” “So the attraction was mutual,” I said. “You bet.” Jake was sitting on the couch at the end opposite me and sat back and threw a jaunty arm across the top of the couch. “You know,” he went on, “it might be so with the Penthouse Lady.” “She’s out of my league,” I said. “Why, for God’s sake?” I said, “Jaguar? Penthouse? I’d have to check my credit card balance before I took her to dinner at Denny’s.” Jake said, “If the Jag and the penthouse signify great wealth, how come she isn’t off skiing in the Alps, or snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef?” “I’m not saying she doesn’t have to work for a living. She probably does market research. Meany’s got an exclusive on her output, which is why he’s rented her the very convenient penthouse. Another tenant of convenience, like the Reproduction Clinic.” I didn’t understand why Jake shook his head and grimaced. “She might also have a rich uncle or something.” While I was imagining a bachelor uncle, her father’s older brother, say, indulging his favorite niece, Jake said, “Well, you may find that she places no great value on money. Maybe it’s a millstone around her neck and she’s waiting for some handsome lad to come along and love her for herself alone and not her Jag or penthouse.” That was about all the wisdom I could take. I trusted that Jake’s intentions were good, and I knew he was right: she probably didn’t place that high a value on money or its benefits. But worshipping from afar was all I was up to just then, and the difference in economic status was as good a dodge as any. “Another?” Jake asked as I downed the last of the whiskey. “No thanks,” I said, “I wouldn’t want to get used to something this rare.” “It’ll be here the next time. Drop around.” I thanked him and walked out into an incipient valley fog, feeling needled but not mad at him. So why don’t you pull a Jake: just walk up to her and tell her you have a bad back? I really did; not a bad back, but a bad case of what got Jake wrapped up with his Amanda. I thought about missing the opportunity to buy up the abandoned Bobwhite Court development. Would it be the same with Mary Clare? Would Meany beat my time? two Here is some of what Jake recorded about me and the Penthouse Lady: It occurred to me, the Penthouse Lady’s presence on Bobwhite Court was about to make a believer out of Robert. He wanted to attribute it to fate or even Providence. He never mentioned what had sent him into exile, but he admitted that mooning over this Penthouse Lady since the last days of Indian Summer had wakened a longing to rejoin the human race. What worried me about this latter day attack of hope was how shattering the truth would likely turn out. Was it cynicism that made me see a sugar daddy real estate tycoon in a liaison with a beautiful young woman with no apparent means of support? The return of Robert’s hope was born of no great virtue. It was lust—Robert’s, it’s true, not spoken of but certainly implied. But it was also V.M. Meany’s. His was veiled, hidden by age and status. You have to ask yourself, would he have gone to the planning commission for a zoning change to add the penthouse if Mary Clare were a spoiled niece? ***** It is time, amplifying Jake’s remarks, I spoke of the Divine Accident. I truly do not believe in a Providential God, one looking down on each and every one of us six billion souls on Earth (and maybe more—maybe there are six hundred earths in the Milky Way, let alone the myriad galaxies scattered through the universe.) If there were an omnipotent God, overseeing billions or trillions of souls, it’s likely He or She would give us credit for being able to work things out. Maybe He or She could just look out for infants and fools. It’s a nice thought, but I still don’t believe it. I believe our lives are ninety-five percent more-or-less safe routines and five percent accident. Among the accidents there are a few which change our lives forever—call them twists of fate, ironic pratfalls, the demonic banana peels in our paths. I happen to call them Divine Accidents, not to attribute them to God or Vishnu or Allah, but to denote them as game changers, the event after which nothing is the same as before. One day I had such a Divine Accident on Bobwhite Court. I’d been cutting back on booze (not fancy Irish whiskey but a decent enough gin). Every time I didn’t have a drink, I deposited six bits in an institutional-sized mayonnaise jar. When it was about two-thirds full, I got some coin wrappers and started wrapping quarters, ten dollars per tube. I’d begun this before I began working on Bobwhite Court, and by the time it was almost too late in the year to bicycle over from my Walnut Creek pad, I bought myself a decent enough used road bike. Now I could have bought a new one for twenty-five hundred dollars (I had wet dreams about that bike) but I settled for a used one that I talked down to a hundred dollars. That was not the Divine Accident. I tested the bike out on the street in front of the bicycle shop, received a quick tutorial on changing gears (it had ten) and stashed it in my truck to take home, to immediately ride it over to Bobwhite Court and my nightly duties. I was headed down the driveway towards the parking lot behind the penthouse building, feeling exuberant and even cocky. I accelerated to some awesome speed, like twenty miles an hour, and just as I entered the parking lot saw the Penthouse Lady’s primrose yellow roadster heading straight for me. In my alarm I forget what bike I was on, in what decade of my life. As with the balloon-tired, chrome-fendered coaster I rode at age eleven, I reacted by tromping on the pedals to engage the coaster brakes . . . . . . spinning the pedals backwards just as I hit the speed bump crossing the driveway at the parking lot’s boundary. I might have recovered, not elegantly but intact, had it not been that my feet were trapped in steel toe clips, an accessory I wasn’t yet used to. I went airborne, nose up and then nose decidedly down, just as the Penthouse Lady realized I was a complete klutz and could not avoid her car. In my canted position, my flesh and blood nose far beyond the handlebars, I banged into her bumper, bounced back, —literally not figuratively—and flopped on my side. Jake speaks of this on the second tape. He had spies watching Mary Clare and me, Mrs. Birnbaum and Mrs. Clarke, who witnessed the whole thing. These ladies—I do not use the term loosely—had found Jake’s listing in the yellow pages, mistakenly placed, by the yellow pages folk, in the section on medical insurance. While, on first consulting Jake, they were soon disabused of his helping them find affordable insurance to supplement Medicare, they did become friends. Jake understood the value of well-brewed tea and excellent cookies. Out of their mistaken inquiry came a delicate bond. He knew enough more than they to help them understand the ins and outs of Medicare supplementals, and even took on Mrs. Clarke’s ophthalmologist when he double-billed her for a hundred dollars worth of tests. Thereafter, about once a month, he would invite the ladies to his office for tea. When Mrs. Birnbaum called to move up the date of their next get-together, he imagined some gritty question, like the odds of surviving a hip replacement operation. Nothing of the sort. Halfway through a plate of madeleines, Mrs. Clarke approached the real reason for the visit by asking Jake if he’d noticed the janitor on the premises. “As a matter of fact, we’ve become friends,” he intoned on the tape. “Oh, thank God,” said Mrs. Birnbaum, “that makes it so much easier. —Did he tell you about the accident?” “Accident?” “Vehicular accident.” Jake admits to being confused. “It’s not his body we’re worried about, Mr. Pritchett, it’s his heart. He’s met that woman.” “What woman?” Asking but already knowing. “A certain friend of the landlord,” said Mrs. Birnbaum, lifting her chin in a knowing way. “The female in the penthouse,” said Mrs. Clarke. Jake said, “I don’t understand.” Mrs. Birnbaum’s hand fluttered to her bosom. “They are about to fall in love.” Mrs. Clarke took over. “What Ruth is saying is, she is a wanton hussy and he is a very nice young man, and we wouldn’t want to see him hurt.” Jake relates that he was reminded of his college boxing coach admonishing a teammate, “If you want to keep a pretty face, don’t get in the ring.” He decided the analogy would pass them by. Instead he said, “Maybe he’ll discover for himself that they aren’t suited—if they indeed aren’t.” “He is in a precarious state of mind,” Mrs. Clarke said. “He is not a janitor and he is not used to living in a little apartment with a fold-down bed and a hotplate.” Concealing an urge to laugh, he suggested they were exaggerating, he was not a poor waif with a hotplate. “He’s just not up to an affaire d’amour with ‘that woman,’” said Mrs. Clarke. “She is wayward, Florence, but she isn’t the devil,” Mrs. Birnbaum corrected. “But that doesn’t discount his delicate condition. I tell you, Mr. Pritchett, his heart has been broken to smithereens. You can see it in his face. His wife died or she ran off, his children were taken from him; he is not with all his defenses.” “And the vehicular accident?” Ruth looked at him as if he were a dingbat. “He rode his bicycle into her runabout.” They told him in great detail what they had happened to witness. She was going an excessive speed. He bounced off her bumper, several feet in the air. “No injury, I take it,” Jake said. “Miraculously, no; but great distress, great distress. Shame, the worst injury of all.” “She wasn’t distressed,” Mrs. Clarke added. “And if she’s any kind of human being at all, she can’t help but fall for him. She helped him up and brushed him off. She touched his hand.” “Did she look at the damage to her car first?” Jake asked. The women exchanged glances. “I told Florence you would understand. She did not so much as look at her car. Can you ever?” Jake asked me about it the next night. “Did you really go several feet in the air? Were you really dying of shame?” “Just about,” I replied. “You shouldn’t have, my boy, you should be grateful to heaven for this random encounter, you should thank your guardian angel and your patron saint, not to mention your lucky star. You’ve been handed a cubic centimeter of opportunity.” I said, “Have you gone bats, Jake?” three I pitch my tent with Hamlet’s in only one respect, that “. . . Conscience does make Cowards of us all.” I bow to Shakespeare’s far superior understanding of human nature in using those words, ‘us all,’ for I can only vouch for my being enfeebled by conscience. From his dictation it’s clear Jake was on to my mountain-sized stumbling block but ignorant of its nature. Okay, Jake, I would have said, were I ready to confess, I killed a man once. I’m enough of a statistician to know that’s a pretty rare event. My father never did, my uncles, two of whom made it through WWII, were never sure they killed an enemy combatant. A neighbor who flew B-17s from England, bombing German cities, probably killed many but knew only little mushrooms of debris sprouting on the ground when looking down from twenty thousand feet. I landed on top of the man I killed, I saw and smelled him up close. I heard his death rattle. I heard his bowels move after his last breath. I might have shaken off the images of his passing had I not been reminded of the event time and time again. By officialdom first, by my former spouse, Lana, every time she looked at me with that expression that said that killers were truly of another genus. I was reminded, too, by the newspaper account in the Berkeley Bulletin, a gratuitous front page condemnation that had just enough truth in it to keep me from screaming my innocence from the Campanile’s observation platform. And then, finally, there were the righteous sons of bitches, from my erstwhile boss, Stu Katz, to the nodding acquaintances who found it expedient to cross the street when they saw me on Shattuck Avenue, rather than facing the possibility that I might make them listen to my side of the story. Booze helped. Tequila was cheap when Lana and I toured Mexico, and I liked it. I liked even more the cheaper mezcales I drank in Oaxaca, and by the time we’d traveled that far south, I’d developed a hollow leg and drank lots. —As you may notice, I rather neatly digressed from the painful subject of the drifter dead up a Washoe County arroyo, having taken much of a load of twelve gauge single-ought buckshot in his head and neck. Maybe later I’ll fill in the details of an awful event that would not quit burgeoning: the homicide itself, the police investigation, the trip through Mexico with the memory of a dead man in the truck’s cab between my Lana and me. Then there was the end of the marriage, the public castigation at the hands of a twerp of a Berkeley Bulletin reporter who happened to be in Reno vacationing when it happened, and finally the suggestion I resign from my University post. Conduct unbecoming they called it. Resigning was a bad idea for a psyche in need of healing. There were many days and especially nights, after I did resign, when I had way too much time to remember. Did I deserve it? Hadn’t I done yeoman duty on the steps of the Admin Building? Did that count for nothing? A hundred times I told myself, “Enough, Robert, just numb out some evening on double martinis and wake up the next day with a dry mouth and no memory.” Not an exaggeration, at least a hundred times. Before the hundred and first time I met Jake Pritchett and then Mary Clare Morrison. Jake noted often that he and I had had strangely parallel lives. We both went to Berkeley. I had done a stint as a boxer starting when I was just fourteen, and only gave it up when I almost had an ear torn off in the Regional Finals of the Golden Gloves by Jethro Greene. Jake boxed for the Gold and Blue, his last bout the year the NCAA discontinued sanctioning intercollegiate boxing because of a ring death during the national finals. As a student, Jake worked for the University as a janitor, cleaning now the Art Department, now the locker room in the Women’s Gymnasium. We both have troublesome backs, mine betraying me in the course of my courting Mary Clare. And that’s another parallel: two guys, neither an Adonis, ending up with mates at the upper end of the ‘oh my’ scale. Jake never killed anyone, though. We all know someone who’s had chronic bad luck in life. Some persons catch every infectious disease going around. Some break bones like adulterers break vows. Some have freak car accidents, not once but at intervals throughout their lives. My Aunt Lucy was one of the latter. Had two cars’ brakes fail at very wrong times and was damn near killed on a mountain incline by a run-away truck with failed brakes. Another aunt, a nasty drunk, accused me of killing my mother, the correlation tenuous, as my mother died when I was six. I nonetheless believed her reasoning: my mother died of a thrombosis; she delivered me after age forty; auntie claimed the blood clot had something to do with my delivery. Probably pure bullshit, but when you’re six and you overhear the accusation—in a nasty drunk’s loud voice—you take it to heart. Six year olds think everything in the world happens because of them, why not a mother’s death? Precocious conscience or pre-reasoning egoism? Then the guy in the desert, my complicity confused by too much beer and marijuana, complicated further by an illicit weapon, a sawed-off shotgun: chalk up another death. Another notch on the old conscience. Two more deaths are part of this story. I would rather be the victim of multiple failed brakes than multiple premature deaths, but there you are. ***** There’s no direct connection, mind you, between the things that had been and those that were to come. I did not go around mopping restrooms on Bobwhite Court with one hand while beating out mea culpas on my chest with the other. It was that I’d fallen into a comfortable rut, a rut of booze, which I was seriously working to get out of, as evidenced by the bicycle bought with saved booze money. It was a rut of avoidance, making sure not to know if the University community had got tired of whaling away on me. It was a rut of too much casual sex with women who had complimentary emotional needs. And when I wasn’t with them, I was watching old movies or football on TV. I couldn’t have told you, just before I met Jake, the last time I’d read anything novel more serious than a murder mystery. As long as I stayed in that petty limbo, I would have got further and further out of shape, more and more inured to poverty and its attendant lack of cultural stimulation—in other words, a high class bum. Then I ran into Mary Clare. Figuratively and literally. ***** There is a wonderful poem by Yeats, a little ditty that goes: WINE comes in at the mouth And love comes in at the eye; That's all we shall know for truth Before we grow old and die. I lift the glass to my mouth, I look at you, and I sigh. I know a tad more about wine than about love, but I assert the truth of Yeats’s poem because I met Mary Clare. Many beautiful women walk the earth. The older I get the more there are, because my prejudices keep falling away. Why did this one so bowl me over? It’s more than beauty, it has to be. It’s some message in those dark and loquacious eyes that bored through my eyes into my brain and stirred up long dormant truths. Some resemblance to my mother? A Platonic memory of the perfect face and perfect form? Was I, like the Orfeo in the film, Black Orpheus, aware I’d met a mate destined from long ago to shake the core of my emotions? It doesn’t matter; those are all words. I saw Mary Clare and I was a goner. All other women in the world retreated into the background. The only figure in the foreground was Mary Clare. Before I went into a total trance I knew I would never possess her, possession is for persons who need to dominate. I needed a Thou for my I. I needed to be the Thou to her I. Had I died a second after first seeing her, I would have gone to Heaven, and I don’t even believe in Heaven. She was my Bach, my Michelangelo, my Homer and my Eleanor of Aquitaine all wrapped into one. I told myself, reaching for my bootstraps, I had to cut off my conscience to let my soul back into the human race. I tried. The coward in me scoffed. four Jake had seen me on television, back in the days of the Free Speech demonstrations. When he’d strung together enough anecdotes from my past he said, “Oh. You were the guy who would come out on the steps of Sproul Hall and give the demonstrators the University’s latest offer, while the placards waved and the chants echoed—that was you?” I allowed as how it was. He said, “And you’re afraid of asking Miss Dream Queen out on a date? Seriously? If it’s your funky truck that’s the problem, I’ll lend you my car. Shit, I’ll lend you the money.” There was always some further excuse, though I knew that Jake knew it was more fundamental than the accidentals of time and place. ***** This is Jake’s forthright assessment of me, right from his tapes: Robert wasn’t used to taking ordinary risks. He might toy with a muscle-bound loud-mouth in Coogan’s because he knew he could rearrange the jerk’s face before the fellow got his dukes up, but Robert wasn’t used to being rejected. His paradigm for defeat, prior to his retreat to La Morinda, was that beating he took at the hands of Jethro Greene in the Golden Gloves. This was the down side of his Divine Accident theory: it left him with no sense of personal adversity. He had no goals early on and no program, no disadvantage, physical or social, to make up for. The major turning points in his life were the Divine Accidents. It was his substitute for God, an accident that reverberates as if it were wired into the central switchboard of the Universe. There had been two, actually, that outclassed all others: one launched him on a career that peaked at an assistant vice-presidency, the other the dark event he couldn’t tell me about, the awful ordeal from which all else flowed downhill. ***** Sorry Jake, I will defend my use of the theory, though the name distracts people. The first event he referred to really was like a Divine Accident. From my sophomore year I worked in the laboratory of two wizard biochemists who all but invented molecular biology. As a laboratory assistant, my job was to wash and sterilize dirty pipettes and Erlenmeyer flasks and such. One day these two geniuses got into a fight, shouting, one throwing dry ice chips around the lab to express his ire. The other lab assistants cleared out when the fight broke out, but I was fascinated. I stood by and listened for a while and realized they were arguing about who was going to write the research grant proposal that was due in sixty days. The Gold Dust Twins, as they were called, had more grant dollars than Croesus had drachmas, but it came in dribs and drabs throughout the year, a grant here a grant there. The two paused the argument long enough to catch their breaths, glaring at each other and thinking up further insults, when I cleared my throat and said, “May I make a suggestion?” They weren’t even aware someone had been eavesdropping on their fight. They simultaneously turned to me and asked, in so many words, “What the fuck do you know about it?” A sophomore, and thus unflapped by these two minor deities growling at me, I made a suggestion as startling to them as that made by the legendary stranger who told the Coca Cola people to “bottle it.” I said, “Why don’t you combine all the little grants into one big grant? Then you’d just have to go through the renewal process once a year.” “You’re so fucking smart,” said Gold Dust Twin One, “you think you could write the application for one big grant?” I did, and I said so, and then the two of them started fighting about whether they would put any eggs at all in the basket of a mere dishwasher. “Give me a week to prove myself,” I said. It wasn’t the science that was hard— for models they gave me their successful grant applications, plus every piece of paper that explained what they were studying and why. It was the logistics of phasing in the one big grant to replace eight little grants that started throughout the year. That’s where I shone. I composed a grant proposal which assumed that these two were going to be funded by the NIH if they wrote their grant applications on toilet paper. But I wrote a protocol for phasing out the little grants, complete with a budget that had the staff paid for the number of months they were to be employees on the big grant. It didn’t seem that big a deal, but the Gold Dust Twins thought it big enough they included me on a conference call with the gent at NIH who had his hands on the purse strings, a man who cherished logic and order. He immediately bought the notion, okayed it in concept after five minutes’ conversation. I had a moment of panic when Mr. Money referred to me as ‘Dr. Gattling,’ but the Gold Dust Twins had enough sense to keep mum and I wasn’t discovered to be a mere dishwasher. From then on I was the Gold Dust Twins’ grants manager. I didn’t mind being paid as a laboratory assistant while doing work far above grade, it was fun and it kept my hands out of stuff potentially pathogenic and therefore scary. After a couple of years of this I announced that, come next Commencement Day, I would be hitting the road. I’d done my time, I was getting my sheepskin. “You can’t,” said Gold Dust Twin One. “What about graduate school?” asked Gold Dust Twin Two. I reminded them that my major was English Lit, and that I wasn’t inclined to be an academic. They told me that if I got a PhD in any subject whatsoever, including English, they would make me the permanent Chairman of their department and no one would uncover the deception. “You know,” I said, “the university gets a big hunk of change, known as overhead, on every research grant. They ought to provide a service like mine to all research investigators.” “Damn right,” said Gold Dust Twin Two. And I won’t bore you with the details of how that played out. It should be noted that the Gold Dust Twins, the premiere biomedical researchers on campus, swung enough weight to shoehorn me into the university hierarchy over the objections of Stu Katz, my eventual boss. It took some years for me to metamorphose from administrative analyst to assistant vice-president, but I was from the first the de facto grants management czar for biomedical research. Some nights I couldn’t believe my luck. But if I am due any credit, it was for being smart enough to continually make Stu Katz look good while staying out of the limelight. ***** According to Jake, the only real Divine Accident in my life was getting to my thirtieth year before I had a real setback. This is Jake on tape on that subject: Since the shooting that cost Robert his confidence until Mary Clare came along, all his ordinary little accidents had negative results. He had no philosophy of coping, no notion, like Mary Clare’s theory of the Great Accountant in the Sky, which I came to know of later, that saw the ledger periodically balanced between good luck and bad, much like double entry bookkeeping. For all Robert knew, he’d had his allotment of “good” Divine Accidents, the rest of his life might be downhill. Except. Except she was so pretty. Except he had this instinct for hope, the pupa sensing the nectar out there beyond the chrysalis. Except for this latter day belief thing. He’d buy Providence if it would buy him, he wasn’t a rabid atheist. In fact, one day he acted like a True Believer, a thing like Ghost Dance Indians riding into the white man’s bullets. ***** One evening—God, what a fool I was—I bounded down the stairs from the third floor and ran into Jake’s office. “I’ve got it, Jake.” Jake looked up from his typing, not revealing whether my interruption was of a sentence of priceless prose, and scanned me with a jaundiced eye. “She’s a bean counter. She makes economic analyses for high rollers.” He said, “Where did you get that hogwash?” “If she were a neurosurgeon, your wife would know her. Amanda doesn’t know her, does she?” Jake shook his head. He told me later the thought crossed his mind that I was one dumb shit, seeing two and two and forever adding them to five. “Okay, so it’s something she can do up there, maybe in her PJs. She’s got a smart terminal and she’s hooked into a mainframe computer, maybe at Livermore, more likely Berkeley, and she keeps her fingers on the economic pulse of the community. She gets population data from the Association of Bay Area Governments, and projections from the Census Bureau, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Commerce Department and the Social Security Administration’s Division of Research, she crunches them all together, using nifty charts and graphs, and tells Meany, ‘Buy cabbage patches! Sell condominiums!” He stared at me for a moment and said at last, “Why Meany?” I told him I’d seen Meany’s Cadillac El Dorado parked behind her Jag a couple of times. It made sense, I told him. Meany didn’t have to crunch numbers in his head, he just had to be smart enough to know whose statistics to trust. “Maybe,” Jake said, “she designs jewelry, Meany goes up to her place now and then to buy trinkets for his sweetie.” “Meany with a sweetie?” I wondered aloud. It seemed all too preposterous. “Why not?” asked Jake. Because, I told him, Meany looked like the large economy sized Pat Brown, referring to the former Governor of California. Meany with a girlfriend? I said, “Look, Jake. That guy doesn’t twitch a muscle without a payoff. He goes up to see her, it’s because she’s got something he needs. He puts out a couple of pawing jabs, be sure it’s setting up the old right cross.” Damn Jake’s skepticism; I vowed I'd prove my thesis. I would wait and watch until I saw her drive off in her XKE, then I’d take my pass key and ride the elevator up to the penthouse. Surely there would be some kind of placard on her door, a name or something. A message scrawled on her letterhead, taped to the door, telling the UPS guy she had a pick-up. I would settle her occupation once and for all. The Klutz one Jake commented on my ability to put two and two together and get five. I was also guilty of putting two and two together and getting three. Was I reprising adolescence? One morning when I was getting in my walk on the Southern Pacific right of way, I spied the Jag accelerating away from its reserved spot. It wasn’t until I’d successfully opened the ground floor elevator door and pushed the button marked ‘P’ for penthouse that it occurred to me she might forget her sunglasses or check book and show up again before I came down and got away. I started puffing the way I used to, dancing in my corner, before the first round bell: adrenaline pumping, palms sweating. “Com’on,” I coaxed the elevator, “com’on.” It ignored me, ascending nonchalantly. Even before the door slid open at the top I had my finger on the Hold switch, to do a fast shuffle out the door and into the lobby to satisfy that Old Devil, Curiosity. When the door did slide open, there stood (yikes!) Mary Clare, looking like a picture out of a Land’s End catalog. No foyer, no plaque on the wall, the elevator opened directly into her apartment. I said, “Oh shit!” My intrusion was more than a raging social faux pas, it was incontrovertible evidence of great need and greater cowardice. And a childish belief in magic solutions. Where was the Jag? The folks at the service garage picked it up, dummy. Where was the plaque, the shingle, the business license, for Christ’s sake? What business, dummy? She hesitated long enough to change her expression from fear to surprise to accusation, then boarded the elevator, forcing me to step back as the door slid closed. “You think all I am is a monumental klutz, don’t you.” I said as we started down. “A second story man?” she suggested, helpfully. “I didn’t think the elevator opened right into your living room. I figured you’d have a little elevator lobby up there, a foyer. I just wanted to know your name, or the name of your company, even.” “Company?” “Look, I’ve seen Meany coming out of this elevator, I know enough about the man to know he doesn’t do anything for nothing. I figured you had to work for him. I thought maybe you did market research for him.” “Market research?” The face she turned on me was at once bemused and wistful. I noted the mixed emotions and I also saw that she had on no makeup beyond lipstick. She didn’t need more. “You thought I worked out of my home, and Meany was a customer?” I hemmed, I hawed, I tried to explain. The explanation sounded lamer than my initial idea. “I don’t see the great V.M. Meany dropping in on tenants just to pass the time of day. I mean, time’s money with him, he makes more every tick of the clock than I make in a year. I just assumed . . .” The myth crumbled. Enlightenment came on like the Black Death spreading through a medieval village. “I just assumed . . .” She said, “Well, you’re partly right,” wondering how in hell to tell a naïve klutz the facts of life. “I do work for Meany.” Down the driveway she walked, with me a step behind. “But where?” I blurted. “And when?” “Right up there,” she said, pointing towards the penthouse without looking at it. “Any time Mr. Meany wants me to.” And then, Jake, I understood what you’d been hinting at all along. And then I knew too much. ***** The tape continued: Robert strode into my office without knocking. He bristled the way some dogs will who’ve been stuffed with human anger and must carry it even though they don’t understand it. He said, “She works for Meany all right, she works directly under him.” The bristling reached me with more impact than the words, clever words he’d borrowed from somewhere. I started to snap back at him but settled for silent eyes to punish him for his surliness. “She’s a whore, Jake.” He threw himself on the couch staring ahead at my treasured Kokoschka drawing, that of a woman intently listening to an opera. He mimicked the attitude of her head but his eyes held their fury: Adam imbued with knowledge; Adam cast out of Paradise. ***** I don’t remember it quite that way, I know I was equally furious and hurt, a dream shattered, which, even if it was puerile and unrealistic, was heartfelt. It had been part of the impetus to cut back on the gin, to try to rejoin the human race. I do remember his eyes as angry as mine and my asking anyway, “What shall I do, Jake?” “Quit being so goddam righteous, quit being so naïve. You can quit calling people names that don’t fit.” “What would you call her?” “Paramour? Sweetheart? What the hell difference does it make? You had so many cockamamie ideas about her and here you go with another. You don’t know beans about their relationship.” “Oh come on. Penthouse? Jaguar? They hold hands up there do you think? How do you get to be the object of an rich old man’s largesse?” I stormed out of his office, rattled up and down the corridors banging trash cans, slinging steno chairs aside, slamming doors. I go to Jake for solace, I get salt in my wounds. ***** Jake-on-tape intoned: So Mary Clare wasn’t some Beata Maria Virgine with a halo glowing above her mantilla. So what? What was so goddam important about the past that you let it block your access to the future? Robert wasn’t so pure himself. He’d never violate a confidence, but I gleaned from casual conversation he’d not one but two affairs of convenience hanging fire while he mooned over his penthouse queen. Did that bother him? Had he foresworn the easy lay in advance of knowing for sure he would be well received by Mary Clare? His pettish tantrum had nothing to do with sexual ethics at all, it was the frustration of an unconfessed sinner, who gathers no grace while his soul is blackened by mortal sin. Naming her ‘whore’ meant he didn’t have to test whether the effects of the ‘Divine Accident’ were vincible or invincible. He’d let himself off the hook. In the end I would hear his confession—hers, too. I learned what made her take shelter with Meany. I was reminded that some persons’ concept of sin is so much more stringent than any religion’s, they’d take the whole world’s guilt on their shoulders. But this was after their mutual passion burned bright as a grain of stardust in the Perseid shower that marked my meeting Robert, two lovers fervently and unabashedly in love. He, with daring-do and dumb luck, became a minor hero while demonstrating his fervor. Never mind that it landed him in a hospital bed, he had washed away the darkness that stained his soul, erased the past—or so it seemed. And she, with the native impulse to leap before looking, had forsaken the security of Meany’s protection and pledged herself to Robert forever and ever. two I had a couple of friends left in Berkeley, and sometimes I contrived to run into them. One was a bartender: a sitting duck. So easy to run into. He poured generously and listened with a compassionate ear. The other was a librarian I’d worked for at the University before I got my lab assistant job. A genuinely sweet woman, she had a congenital hip problem and spent a good deal of time I worked for her wearing a cast that encompassed her pelvis. This sometimes invoked prurient thoughts of how a man might make love with a woman with such a c0mplication. She asked me, when I ran into her in Crushon’s (before it burned down) what I was doing in La Morinda, the implication of the question being, ‘What is there to do in La Morinda besides cleaning swimming pools and manicuring lawns?’ “I get by,” I said. She said, “Have you seen any good plays lately?” “Haven’t been to a play since I moved over there.” Despite our different ages, she and I had, one year, bought season tickets to the American Conservatory Theater, and we would take each other to dinner at San Francisco restaurants before the plays, she one time and I another. This was just before I ran off to Mexico with Lana. I might have run off with Tilde Plum, the librarian, but somehow I wanted more of a challenge. Men full of testosterone foolishly do that. If I’d formed a relationship with Tilde Plum my life would have turned out to be entirely different. She said, “How about movies?” “I watched The African Queen on TV the other night.” “It’s not the same as watching it at the cinema,” she said, a hint of suspicion in her voice, as if I might be knocking back a few drinks while I watched—which was entirely true. After the faux pas of riding the outside elevator to discover the extent of my puerile fantasizing, I went over to Berkeley to try and run into Tilde, with the cockamamie idea that making love with her would somehow cleanse me of stupidity. She was out of town, attending the American Library Association’s annual convention, which probably saved me either a new humiliation or another blot on my stained conscience. I stayed away from Jake. I couldn’t stand it that he’d chastised me—justly, I was being a fourteen carat prick—but more so that he had justification. I went back to my pre-bicycle rate of alcohol consumption, read all of Elmore Leonard’s novels, a couple for the third time, and a lot of the Robert B. Parker’s novels, Spencer and that other guy, the Police Chief in Paradise. When I picked up my paycheck at the end of May, Meryl said, “Mr. Meany has decided you can move in here.” “Really?” I had reconciled myself to the bicycle commute from Walnut Creek, my daily aerobic exercise. “And there’s a studio apartment coming available tout de suite.” So I spent the first week of June moving. I moved my bed and kitchen stuff and started sleeping in the little place—smaller than mine in Walnut Creek, and more expensive, and I asked myself, ‘Why are you doing this?’ It was still her, the Penthouse Lady. I’d been humiliated and chewed out, but I still would have cashed in my left nut to . . . to . . . not just screw her, but to know her as a person. When I realized it wasn’t just lust, I got scared. “What are you doing, Robert?” I asked myself as I wrestled my mattress into the place. “What the fuck are you doing?” I asked myself as I moved in my cooking equipment. In a way she answered that question. ***** Jake recorded thus: Mary Clare took things into her own hands, and I have her account of it, for Robert never exactly came clean with me. Whatever her faults, she saw one thing in Robert that he missed in himself. He was so hung up on Meany’s superior substance, he never saw himself as a serious competitor. Plagued with guilt, he was so modest about his own assets it never occurred to him he could compete with only what he had at hand: his cheery naïveté, intelligence, good looks. Mary Clare saw very clearly what he had that Meany didn’t. Rebounding from a couple of years of getting herself together, she discovered, as summer came on, she had a body and it had needs. It needed a Robert, and that need was enough to overcome her shame at suddenly having to tell an eligible male she was being kept. So one day she went down and borrowed his bathtub. ***** Correctamundo, as The Fonz used to say. Bobwhite Court had a swimming pool tucked behind the building closest the Southern Pacific right of way, not large, no diving board, but a place I found pleasantly suited to my lay-about lifestyle of the moment. Mary Clare told me, after the maturation of our relationship, that she would watch me swimming and sunning with “that pear-shaped broad,” meaning Janice Lippert. (In fairness to Janice, she had a classic Madonna build, small from the waist up, with a generous pelvis, but she kept in shape, had luscious skin, a perfect tan, and, despite her bottom-heavy proclivity, a very feminine appeal.) One lazy-tense day, as Mary Clare described it, she spotted me, shirtless and shoeless, washing my truck before the sun got high. It was parked over the drain in the middle of the driveway. She came out on her deck and waved at me. She was wearing a man’s ribbed undershirt and looking like a Calvin Klein ad, hair wildly correct—or correctly wild—holding what looked like a Bloody Mary. She was too far away to be sure. She told me later about the drink (it was a Bloody Mary) and her waving. She was anticipating a visit from Meany, who said he was bringing over a basket of luncheon goodies and a bottle of champagne. He didn’t know it, but, she said, the bottle of champagne was a tip-off that he wanted sex. She didn’t want sex. Not with him, anyway. At one point, seeing me glance up, she yanked off her shirt and waved it like a jubilant footballer after the winning goal, waved and pointed to the elevator. If I had understood what she was pantomiming—the penthouse, besides being far away, was backlit by the ascending sun—I probably wouldn’t have taken her up on it. A good thing, too. Meany drove up in his Cadillac, waved at me as he got the picnic basket out of the trunk, and disappeared into the outside elevator. That visit set off in Mary Clare a chain of observations about her situation. She had hoped, early June and primaries imminent, that some politician would call, needing the king-maker to step in immediately and save his campaign, and Meany would hasten to Sacramento or even Washington, leaving Meryl to make his apologies. No, he came with Piper-Heidsieck and pâté, sourdough and hothouse grapes. She stayed in her undershirt and the khaki shorts that went with it, wore no makeup, swore like a sailor, despite knowing it jarred the old bear, and drank most of a bottle of champagne, more than her usual ration. And yet, she didn’t want him to think her ungrateful. She was just not up to faking any more passion in the afternoon. She was having libidinous fantasies about me, she reported to Jake, and she couldn’t simply close her eyes and pretend. Feeling wretched, she had more booze after dark, Glen Grant, a scotch Meany brought back from Washington when he flew out of National (back then, DC liquor stores made up three bottle carry-on packages all the airlines were familiar with). She put on her recording of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony and turned it up until the whole neighborhood could hear it, including me, emptying trash and looking up at her balcony, wishing I were there with her. Probably it was good that I wasn’t. She was wrestling with her past, her tendency to be dominated by powerful men, ever since earliest recollections of her father, Zev, who strutted like a bull fighter and looked the part. Who insisted on owning his women. He would show off Mary Clare, ‘My little girl, mine,’ he would say to business associates. Bought all her clothes, vetted her dates, decided where she would go to school. She realized she couldn’t jump over Meany’s age, or his looks. Others might have ignored her kept status, were she shacked up with a young, GQ-type Montgomery Street arbitrager. And they might not have thought twice about Meany’s age and girth if she were in the condition of Deborah Kerr in An Affair to Remember, crippled and bravely helpless. Jake reports her saying, “If that’s the way people think about it, tough buns. I can give myself to whomever I want, and anyone who doesn’t like it can take a big flying fuck.” What she said to me was, in our frankest exchange about Meany, “If I can’t drive a man’s sports car and live under his roof and tell him ‘no’ whenever I want, I might as well join a convent.” I pointed out that she was paraphrasing Jesse Unruh, the Speaker of California’s Assembly, and she said, winking, “I only steal from the best.” Strangely, the music sifting down from the penthouse haunted me until the end of my shift, and I had a similar chat with myself, leaving my patio door open and sitting in the dark sipping gin and listening now to Beethoven’s Ninth, begging for absolution from the recondite universe for reviling her without knowing the whole truth, holding back the tears she said flowed copiously during the choral finale, while I pictured but a single tear, like a drop of dew on a camellia petal, descending her cheek. three Well before the mercury climbed to its Saturday record, Mary Clare woke to a phone ringing through her hangover. Henry, the maintenance man and weekend manager, said, “Miz Morrison, you need to use the facility, you best now; I gotta shut off your water.” She swore softly to herself and demanded to know why. “Leak in your bathroom pipes; neighbors down below? Their ceiling’s about to cave in.” Her clock radio read ten-ten, the local FM station was predicting a hundred and five or six as the day’s high. Her cubic centimeter of opportunity, lying dormant for some months, had just doubled in size. “This is your neighbor in the penthouse,” she said into the phone when I answered, likewise slightly hung over and thus a bit fuzzy in the head. “I want to borrow your bathtub.” “Uhhh.” “I’ll bring my own towel and I’ll scrub off any bathtub ring afterwards. They’re shutting off my water.” “Give me a few minutes to get dressed,” I said, trying not to sound flustered. I didn’t have time to analyze this brazen ploy, though later, as the tub filled, I thanked my Fates that I didn’t have an overnight guest. You’d never know by my apartment I cleaned offices for a living: crumbs swept under the rug, an incongruous bottle of furniture polish parked in the bookshelf, ashtrays emptied but not washed. At the door she said, “My God, you really did dress,” as she walked past me, towel and book clutched to her bosom, trailing a whiff of Jean Naté. She took in the apartment in a glance. “Compact,” she said, with an unaffected smile. “Cheap,” I said. My smile was nervous. Hers signified she had her universe under control. It was so winsome, the faintest hint of dimples, I wanted to kiss the perspiration off her upper lip. She held out her free hand. “Besides the lady who mows down reckless cyclists, I’m Mary Clare Morrison.” I felt hastily put together, which was not far wrong. I was toweling off from a shower when the phone rang, and when I hung up I scrubbed the tub, wiped the bathroom mirror and just had time to don boxers and Levi’s, throw on a faded Madras shirt, and step into my huaraches. I imagined I looked like someone who did his shopping at Goodwill. She denounced the plumbers in her bathroom, depriving her of a basic civil right, and how she couldn’t use the tub even if they fixed the leak in record time, because Henry wasn’t about to call in someone to reset the tile on a Saturday. She wore a tube top, hair pinned up in festoons of curls, letting me know they were all hers and not a perm from the beauty shop. Up close she was shorter than I’d remembered her from the elevator, a little chunky, but definitely not pear-shaped. The book she carried was Camus’ Rebel. As I showed her the bathroom I mentioned that I’d read it during the first People’s Park uprising. “You were rebelling in Berkeley?” “No, but there were some rebels around who thought I was pretty revolting.” She turned in the entrance to the bathroom. “Revolting?” “I was on the other side.” “Oh?” “Where were you?” I asked. She said, “First year at Brandeis. The protests didn’t get to our campus till the next year. You’re not a cop, are you? I mean it’s all right if you are, as long as your status is ex. —God, let me shut up and bathe, okay?” I stayed on the other side of the door, hearing her open my medicine chest, I had no idea why, other than curiosity. I had an almost empty bottle of very expensive after shave and a nearly full bottle of cheap Bay Rum, tooth paste, a Schick injectable razor and a can of shaving lotion, some aspirin. “Where’s the bath oil?” she called, as if sure I was standing right outside the door. I put my mouth close to the wood. “Don’t have any.” The water continued to run, she said nothing. “I’ve got baby oil under the sink,” I called out. “Gotcha.” I heard the cabinet door open. I went away. I pictured her stepping into the bathtub, gingerly if it was as hot as my shower had been. In the living room I straightened some magazines and put away the furniture polish. I went into the kitchen and emptied the dishwasher. I looked in the fridge and spotted six Heinekens. I wondered if Ms. Morrison would like a beer. I knocked on the door. “Care for a beer?” “Yes,” she called out. I popped the caps on two beers and headed for the bathroom. I knocked and opened, extending my arm through a space a millimeter wider than my bicep. “Want a glass?” “No, but I can’t reach.” I opened the door wide enough to get some shoulder through. “I’m not a gorilla with six foot arms—and I don’t bite.” I sucked in a breath and entered the bathroom. I found her eyes with mine and tried to keep them there, but that was like looking into the sun and I had to look away—right at her breasts. It was all right, I decided later, for her breasts were small and so perfectly shaped it was as if she were wearing a fancy shirt. She said, “It’s too hot for Camus—want to talk?” I took a slug of beer, sat opposite the tub with my back against the wall, and scrunched myself low enough I could only see her from the shoulders up. “Someone saw me reaching around the door might think we were a generation apart.” She shrugged and rolled her eyes. I said, “Women of my generation don’t show their bodies to men they’ve only just been introduced to.” She said, “I’d rather be built like Jane Russell, but as long as I’m weensy, I might as well take advantage of what I haven’t got.” I said, “It probably wouldn’t occur to Jane Russell to read Camus in a strange man’s bathtub.” “I wasn’t conning you, they tore out a part of my wall. These two plumbers showed me the leaky pipe—do you know about joints in copper pipe? And I do have a second bathroom with a shower, but I hate showers. And as for Camus, it was the closest book on the shelf—I’m not that kind of egghead, believe me. But it’s apropos, when I read it I decided if I had to die with a motto on my lips it would be, ‘Enough!’” “Enough what?” She said, “I’m still deciding that.” “That book really scared the shit out of me. I had to put it down every few pages.” “And what do you read in the bathtub?” she asked. “I once read Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus in the bathtub.” “Well there you are, that’s braver than anything I ever did.” “How did you get to be called Mary Clare?” I asked. “If you get us another beer I’ll tell you.” I managed to get up and out of the bathroom without leering. When I came back she was sitting across the tub with her feet hanging out. Her legs were sturdy and not going to score high in a Miss America Pageant, but I observed a flat stomach—until my eyes were drawn up to her breasts again, which were now entirely out of the water. I told her she had beautiful breasts, and then blushed. “I know,” she said, with the tiniest of smiles, as if her modest proportions allowed immodest exposure. “So—Mary Clare.” “We lived in Mexico when I was born, although I was delivered in the United States, in San Diego, and my father is a naturalized American citizen. He came to the States from Russia via Mexico. Zev is a very interesting man, though a terrible father. Anyway, I had a Mexican nanny, Lupe, who called me Mary Clare from the time I was starting to walk—Maria Clara, to be exact. It’s close, my real name is Maria Chava, but she had me baptized Mary Clare, by the priest in La Jolla. She almost got me to first communion, too. I studied the catechism. She made me a white dress and everything.” “She was really brave.” “Lupe was afraid of my father, but she was more afraid of God. Zev is an atheist, though culturally a Jew, while my mother is not religious but culturally as Jewish as they come. When she saw the white dress and the little veil with the cloth flowers sewn on it, she wanted to fire Lupe, but my father took the whole thing as an immense joke and told my mother, “I’ll scare her fat ass so bad she’ll never pull a stunt like that again.” “Was Lupe a good nurse?” Mary Clare smiled. “She was very wise. Even when we moved permanently to the states I used to go visit her at Christmas. She taught me, for example, never to be involved with two men at once, no matter how remotely. If I had a crush on my confessor, I must not have a husband; if I had a husband I must not have a lover. —Stuff like that. I thought I believed every word, but look at me now.” “Sometime,” I said, “we need to have a serious conversation.” V.M. Meany loomed in my mind like the Smithsonian’s stuffed grizzly. “But not today. Today we get acquainted and tell ghost stories. Next time I borrow your tub we can talk about heavier stuff.” Her voice teasing, knowing she had the advantage of me, perfectly comfortable while I was still ginger about a beautiful woman naked in my bathtub. We drank beer and talked weather. We drank beer and talked bicycling versus running. I told her I bicycled because my back didn’t like the impact of running, although when I was a boxer I ran every day. To convince her I really had been a boxer I knelt next to the tub and guided her finger over my nose, giving the topography of various bouts. I showed her how the basilar joint on my left hand was much larger than the right. “It took me a long time to learn how to throw a proper jab,” I said. “You have to turn your hand over as it impacts.” At our third beers—the end of my supply—I had the urge to strip off my madras shirt and Levi’s and climb in with her. She sensed this and said, “I’m turning into a prune, hand me my towel, would you?” And I knew it was time to get out of there. four Parts of Jake’s oral commentary on Bobwhite Court is difficult to quote without the urge to rebut. He is gone and I am here, and that fact alone offers me the opportunity to rebut with the way I live. So I quote him here and then show what was happening as I remember it. He, in turn, quotes Thoreau, whom I have resisted reading all my life, but I know this quote well enough and it’s worth reciting again: “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.” More of Jake-On-Tape: Lives of quiet desperation: how very true of all of us. I am writing a novel which feels doomed although I’m compelled to write it. Amanda is supporting this jaded venture while, I fear, slowly gathering the courage to break the connection between us. I’m stultifying, her stiff back and frown lines murmur to me. She worked hard to attain the simple suburban life, which, by my lights, is itself stultifying. But easy to adopt: acculturating children, partying with friends, organizing or attending charity events, nurturing professional connections, learning the latest technologies of her profession, salting away money for the kids’ college and “the golden years.” Robert I’ve already vilified, although he has become my handsome sailor. (No, I’m not gay, I don’t want sex with the lad. He is, in addition to being a sympathetic figure for his undeserved but crashing fall from grace, an esthetic pleasure, robust and sparkling in much the way Mary Clare is.) He was on his way to becoming a thoroughgoing bum—until he scared himself into exchanging his Beemer for an antique truck and hoodwinking Meany into giving him a job, one suited better to someone with fewer grey cells. Meany is the pumpkin eater in this farce, putting his protégé (if you will) in a rooftop pumpkin shell, the better to keep her . . . for himself. He ought to have welcomed the sudden collision of handsome sailor with fair maiden, but no. He is like the grizzly at the disarmament conference of forest creatures: “Give up your antlers and claws and teeth, my friends, and I will give you a great big hug.” And finally Mary Clare. It had been a long time in coming, an adventure with a handsome man without a bed the inevitable next stop. It could have happened when they had the collision but didn’t. She’d lost grace, the energy of the soul. It was swallowed by the monotony and mental decay of hiding out in a castle behind a moat. She’d lost all personal power. She’d lived a long time on reflected power, the latest Meany’s, and then, one Saturday in June, the hottest June Sixth in La Morinda history, she had an opportunity. Her Great Accountant in the Sky saw to it that a tiny imperfection in a pipe joint, aided by the corrosiveness of the summertime water supplied by the Delta Water Company, began leaking into the apartment below at eight in the morning. Which was not just her good luck. It spared the once outgoing Robert Gattling the pain of deciding to make the first move. He didn’t have to decide whether to follow his heart or his judgment. ***** Whew. On that hot June Saturday I was definitely listening to my heart. I was so jazzed by our non-sexual but still electric conversation over beer and bathwater, I would have offered to take on Meany as her champion. Fisticuffs, sabers, dueling pistols—whatever. On her way out the door, damp towel and unread Camus, she invited me up to her place for dinner: chicken and corn grilled on her deck but eaten in her air-conditioned dining ell, accompanied by a dry Provençal rosé and followed by an artichoke salad. Naturally I accepted. What could I bring? Yourself, she said. “This is really some place.” “Isn’t it? And I don’t own any of it.” “Better yet—all this stuff and you’re still free as a bird.” “On the contrary, I have to stay right here to protect it.” “Don’t you trust Meany?” (The Big Man’s name is spoken; no thunderclap.) “I trust him to use all of this to keep me right here.” “Boy,” I said, “that would get to me after a while. In fact, if it were me, I’d be out of here the first minute I figured that out.” She said, “Fundamental difference number one. Wasn’t him it would be something else tying me down. I need to feel grounded. I need it as much as the comfort.” It seemed a rehearsed statement, as if she’d been afraid someone was going to ask her when it was time to quite her dependency on Meany. “Where’s that motto: ‘Enough?’” “Meany’s as much a slave as I am—maybe you are too.” That observation prompted me to tell her what my trainer told me about using the ring: you pin a guy in a corner, you’re in the corner too. You have to make sure your opponent hasn’t got time to figure that out. He turns you, you’re the one who’s trapped. “What did your trainer say if you’re the one getting hit?” “He said, ‘Get out of there at any cost. Put everything you’ve got into one big punch and move laterally.’” No surprise, the penthouse had a great view. I shivered involuntarily when I realized she could look down on me, like when I was swimming with Janice Lippert. In fact, until ten o’clock that evening there were people hanging out at the pool, taking advantage of the warm night air: that funny visual effect in disturbed water, legs wavy black against floodlit aqua. When I left that night she showed me the back stairs and I tripped down them lightly, as in my boxing days, descending from the gym. I’d not known about the stairs before, but of course they had to be there, in case of fire. She had to push me along to make me go. “I want us to be friends,” I said. She said, “Of course we’ll be; why wouldn’t we?” Gracing me with a social smile that, as I lingered, turned into a more genuine one. Back in my own place that evening I remember her smile and her hand as I took it on parting. I thought, in spite of her superior sophistication, she was asking to be loved. And I was ready to love her. I didn’t need a nightcap. I didn’t need any lights. I brushed my teeth in the dark, by feel, not wanting to break the spell, felt for my bed and at its side dropped my clothes in a heap, imagining her on the opposite side doing the same, and I pulled a single sheet over me, smiling, sighing, and said, “Good-night, Maria Chava.” I kidded myself to sleep mulling Lupe’s rule about never being involved with two men at once. Would Mary Clare apply that to me and Meany? If she did, I’d naturally win. five God bless Jake for all the encouragement, but, truth told, I wasn’t any more prepared for Mary Clare saying ‘Take me, I’m yours’ than she was to say it. It was still in the realm of fantasy until . . . I went into the office that Monday, as usual, checking for any special instructions, and Meryl said, “He wants to see you, you know.” “Right now?” I asked, wondering how I would possibly know. She said, “Of course not.” I waited for the date and time but she just smiled at me. Meryl Destrier is the only woman in my adult life who, fully clothed, made me watch where my eyes went. I usually put my hands behind my back when I was in her presence; they wanted to form spheres that defined the curves of Meryl’s body. “When?” I asked, after it became clear she wanted me to. “Why, Wednesday at ten.” My first reaction was, how did Meany know so quickly that his sweetie and I had exchanged visits on Sunday? My second reaction was that I’d committed a boo-boo with Meryl at the Christmas party that Meany threw for all the many employees of his far-flung enterprises, a fair crowd. It was my first Meany Christmas party, and I sipped a rather potent punch and watched carefully to see if I could divine any social code operating. I didn’t discover any, so I danced with Meryl that evening, a signal experience, as the woman, as imposing as she was, danced like a featherweight covers the ring. Her husband was—maybe still is—a cook on a supertanker, and was at sea the day of the party, so Meryl, like me, was solo that evening. She offered me a ride from the office and I accepted, yet she insisted I drive both directions. Out in the parking lot as the party waned, Meryl and I, aided by Meany’s potent punch, had briefly forgotten ourselves in the front seat of her Buick. I must say, Meryl was as nimble with her lips as with her tootsies. And she was dressed in a frock that did not carefully shelter her adequacy, on the contrary. The intimacy lasted but a moment, when she slid away from me across the bench seat with the admonition, “Mr. Gattling, I’m a married woman,” as if, somehow, I’d taken advantage of her. I sighed and twisted the key in the ignition, saying, with a grin, “Well I’m glad I forgot myself.” I think that last was the boo-boo. She pushed her hair about after she buckled her seatbelt across her lap, then applied lipstick as we drove off. Ever since, it had been as if she knew my Achilles heel, as if an opponent in the ring knew that I dropped my right hand each time I threw a left jab. “You know what this is about, Meryl?” I asked of the Wednesday meeting. She shrugged and made Betty Boop eyes. “I’d dress, if I were you,” she said to my back as I walked out. Thoughts marched through my noggin as I started my rounds. Meany wasn’t stupid. I had no illusions about carrying on with Mary Clare behind his back—besides, I wouldn’t have liked myself if I did. He and I were opposites, I told myself. He did what he set out to do, I had good ideas but of late have failed to follow through. I’d prospered at the university until the uprising that took me into the breach, and then I’d marked time, expecting to pick up the beat as soon as the cacophony died down. That hiatus flowed into the debacle on the desert, then extended on and on. I watched the white elephant’s bones bleach in the inland valley sun, letting my resources dwindle, not seizing the moment and plunging on a Bobwhite Court complex. ***** I told Jake about the summons. I told him about Meryl playing with me like a well-fed cat plays with an inexperienced mouse. I told him she had fluttered her eyelashes at me and passed a hand absently over one breast, as a woman sometimes will pass a hand across the seat of her pants to smooth an imagined wrinkle. Our glances met like small swords between duelists. “Hard as I tried, Jake, I couldn’t keep my eyes off her chest. She always has one button too many opened for a person her size.” “Did you ever cross Meryl?” he asked. “Maybe.” “How?” “I’m not sure. Either I went too far or not far enough.” “You and Meryl?” “That’s as much as I’ll tell you. Meany’s Christmas party last year. Figgy pudding.” “You amaze me, Robert.” “I amaze myself sometimes.” The recollection of the Christmas party reinforced my fear that Meany had already learned the secrets of my heart. When Meany, greeting partiers at the door, saw me there in my full university uniform he said, “What do you really do, Gattling, and why the hell are you masquerading as a janitor?” I told Jake my days on Bobwhite Court were numbered. Love versus job, I vowed to let Meany have the job, I intended to press my suit with Mary Clare. “Whatever got her hooked up with him, it must have been horrendous. She needed money for her mother’s operation, her brother was going to jail if Meany didn’t bail him out.” “Goddamn it, Robert, there you go with your fantasies again. Why don’t you just ask her? And what has that got to do with your days being numbered, anyway?” “Would you let a janitor steal your girl?” ***** Meany didn’t fire me, he just wanted to arrange it so that it wasn’t a janitor stealing his girl. When I showed up Wednesday I wore my other remaining sports coat and tie combination. He was in a suit made for a large Chicago gangster. I tried to smile and read his eyes at the same time, and flopped at both. I couldn’t hate the man. I never hated a fighter I opposed, I never got angry in the ring—except a couple of times, and then I had good reason, like a thumb in the eye. I pictured Meany as the guy who refereed the oil field bare knuckle bouts, who had different shotguns for geese, ducks and upland birds. He had a hunting lodge somewhere in Northern Idaho or maybe at the foot of the Tetons in Wyoming, and had mounted on the walls of it proof he was no private preserve hunter. So I was prepared to do the honorable thing if he hadn’t figured out Clare and me, I was going to terminate our contract. Imagine my surprise, then, when the first words out of his mouth when we met were, “You got a shred of ambition, Gattling?” “Come again?” He said, “Makes no sense to me, young man like you pushing a broom. And don’t give me that cock and bull about burn-out. I don’t buy it.” “Have I acted burned-out?” I asked, genuinely puzzled where this was going. “I thought I’d been square with you, Mr. Meany.” “Aside from misrepresenting yourself at the beginning. You haven’t screwed up and you haven’t crapped out, it’s only your background you misrepresented. You’re still here, and it’s time to decide whether to renew your contract.” Here it was. This is where I got it in the neck. I sucked in my breath and held it. He said, “I don’t want to renew it, cause I’ve got another job for you, you’re interested.” Damn. The ground shifted under me. Now the dilemma was whether to take this new job and dishonor a man who obviously trusted me, or refuse the job and suffer Meany’s contempt. Short of spilling the beans about Mary Clare, nothing would make the man understand why I didn’t want a better job. “It pays twice what you’re making, give or take some tax breaks, and you wouldn’t have to swab out toilets.” “I’m not too proud to swab out toilets.” Meany dismissed my humility with a backhand wave. “I need a new man to manage the physical plant at the mall. You want the job?” The Mall was Diablo Square, the first and only real shopping mall in central county. As general partner in a limited partnership, he had developed the mall and managed it with his left pinky while doing all the other things he did. “What happened to the man who was in that job?” I asked. “Took something that belonged to me. I cannot abide a thief.” “You fired him on the spot, I bet.” “Damned right.” My heart was pumping as fast as it had when I heard Mary Clare’s voice over the phone the previous Saturday. As Meany kept talking I could feel the sweat trickling down my sides from my armpits. He was saying, I did a good job at the mall, there were other jobs waiting for me. Why does he like me? I asked myself. Aloud I said, “Can I sleep on it, Mr. Meany?” He gave me until the following Monday. He was taking the family to Lake Tahoe and would stay out of touch. On my rounds that night I kicked myself for not saying ‘no’ on the spot. But since I didn’t, I needed to come up with a rationale that Meany would understand and that I could act on. Something better than the uncle who left me a million dollars. Maybe Mary Clare could coach me. What if Mary Clare said, “Take the job.” What would that mean? Oh, oh, oh, oh. Whatever Will I Do one Jake’s take on my Meany dilemma: Meany’s offering Robert a new job called for application of sound moral principles, genius, and a minim of luck. But genius and luck failed Robert. This would-be simple hermit had opened Fibber McGee’s closet and everything was falling down on his head. People were calling up markers from the past, not giving him a chance to sort things into neat sequences. Chaos reigned. ***** Jake had already dug an elbow into my ribs about my sexual ethics, which is a reason to defend myself, as the affairs of convenience were about to be settled out of court, so to speak, though, really, I had fully intended to end them at the first opportunity. The first object to fall out of Fibber McGee’s closet and bounce off my head was a message on my answering machine from a Berkeley nymphet named Marta. I had met Marta in a dive called the Steppenwolf, shortly after separating from Lana. She was at a table surrounded by six adoring guys of varying ages. She sat sipping sour wine and goblets of adulation, smoking a little Danish cigar, a Valkurie sailing under false colors. I soon learned that she was actually what was called, at the time, a frigid woman. How did I learn? Because I lured her away from the adulating sextet and substituted my own brand of adulation. As things progressed, she exhibited an unnatural lack of libido. I thought, as men will, that my enthusiasm for her flesh would cure her of that, and it was not hard to sell her on the idea. I became just what the doctor ordered. —Except I didn’t. I was wrong, very wrong, and she was, too, but she only tried all the harder, to the point that I moved to Walnut Creek as much to get away from her as to flee all the hurts that lingered in Berkeley. I listened to her rambling message when I came back from my Meany meeting; it boiled down to her wanting to discuss certain changes in our relationship. What relationship? The last time we slept together she’d cried with frustration. She had tracked me down in Walnut Creek, claiming she now knew a method that was sure-fire, the very Tao of orgasmic sex. I wouldn’t have minded learning this method from her, except for a hunch that Marta had learned it from another man, which raised some questions. I did submit to her blandishments. Sharing a post-coital cigarette, I said, “Maybe you’re trying too hard. Maybe we should just be friends.” This is where the tears started. She accused me of abandoning her. I consoled, she fled back to Berkeley. When I returned her call, I realized I’d have an easier time explaining to her why I needed to end our so-called relationship than telling Meany why I couldn’t take his job. Even though this was a distraction, and I’d like to have told her goodbye over the telephone, I thought I owed her a face-to-face meeting. So I asked her to come to La Morinda Monday evening, and meet me on my coffee break. Then Janice Lippert called: which made one too many things happening at once. Janice had no frigidity problem, no sir. Her problem was, the sweet young man she married had become a coke head. Tom Lippert was a man born hostile and getting nastier with every line he snorted. He soon found it downright fun to abuse her. He had uncanny luck finding women who enjoyed the challenge of a rotten man. He hit on Janice’s girlfriends, he came home smelling of other women, he said things to his wife like the last tart he’d paid gave better head than Janice did at her horniest. She needed her ego repaired and that night, on the sofa, I gave her exactly what made her feel like a woman again. Afterward she said, “Next time you need your ego massaged, Robert, give me a call—I owe you one.” During a blue period I took her up on that offer. Our friendship quickly deteriorated into purloined intimacies hidden from Tom and mutual friends by canny acting. Friday evening was another matter. Tom had slapped her around. He was to be out of town Saturday, and Janice asked if I would help her think through leaving him before he strangled or shot her. I couldn’t say no, though I didn’t want to say yes, I had arranged another Saturday cook-out with Mary Clare, a couple of T-bones I’d already bought, along with a Caesar salad and crusty San Francisco sourdough, the best Chianti classico I could afford. “Wait till he leaves town,” I said. “He’s leaving Saturday after dinner.” She thought it wasn’t a regular business trip, she suspected he’d become a mule to support his drug habit. So I would have to see her Saturday after dinner with Mary Clare. Which, in a way, might be a break, although I wondered how ready I was to come clean about Janice when I explained that I had to go home at a reasonable hour. It could be, it might be, too much. And then, Saturday evening, sipping a gin and watching me cook, Mary Clare said life these days had become so good she was thinking about going back to Brandeis, at least starting the process of appeasing the powers-that-be back in Waltham. I took a big slug of my own gin and it curdled in my stomach. Were I still an assistant vice president I might handle that; being a janitor, I didn’t have the plane fare for one trip to Boston. “I quit in the middle of my first year of grad school,” she explained, “—only I didn’t formally withdraw.” “I assume you had a good reason,” I said, sure it was the same reason that propelled her into Meany’s penthouse. “It was the lousiest reason you can imagine, only I’m not ready to tell you about it yet.” So I told her about my career as a university bureaucrat, hoping it would make me sound trustworthy. I too had some things I wasn’t ready to talk about and they didn’t come up, so we ate, chatted about movies and books, our tastes defined a lot by the difference in our ages and where we went to school. After dinner I looked into eyes as candidly sensual as Salome’s after she dropped the seventh veil. I was suddenly glad there was a friend I had to help out, to exit before she dimmed the lights and the Calvados she served after dinner went to my head. Much as I wanted her, I couldn’t face getting involved to the point of sexual intimacy if she was going to leave town in the foreseeable future. It would break my heart. Too much, too much. Late Saturday night, as La Morinda began to cool down, I partially redeemed myself from accusations of moral turpitude, I foreswore the comfort of Janice’s bovine hips and told her that from now on I would go back to being a real friend. Which was, actually, what Janice was looking for. She didn’t want her marriage to end because there was an easy pair of arms to fall into. I was glad for her, but now, determined to be firm and final with Marta as well, I was celibate when sex might have mitigated the Meany-generated jitters. I needed a couple more slugs of gin to dope me into a restless sleep. By Monday I’d formulated a plan, which calmed me a good deal. I would decline Meany’s plant manager job, and later I would meet Marta and comb her out of my hair for good. Then, looking at a clean slate, I’d ask Mary Clare for an old-fashioned date, like a movie and a soda afterwards at the Superconfectionary in Walnut Creek, invite her to bed. Let us both know what I was made of. two The final item to fall out of Fibber McGee’s closet was Homer Smith, a Quail Run tenant with an office across the corridor from Jake’s. Jake thought I might be railing about Homer because he was the safest target for my frustrations. Jake dismissed him as not worthy of my anger, an inconsequential collection of protoplasm. Jake was betting on Meryl as my “last straw,” after I went into the office with no clear idea how I was going to give Meany my ‘no’ answer and she told me he wasn’t coming back to town until late that night. No explanation, just those impish eyes watching me come down from high anxiety. Jake reminded me that last straws were ipso facto inconsequential, and Homer was definitely that. He had taped a note to the utility closet door, instructing me not to touch anything in his office. “Who does he think he is?” I growled. Jake poured me a shot of Tennessee sippin’ whiskey and let me rant a while. “You don’t get paid by the office,” he said when I paused, “so what’s the difference?” “He makes more demands than any other tenant and do you think he ever says ‘thanks,’ much less invites me in for a drink? Not that I'd accept. He’s an ingrate, and shifty-eyed to boot.” Before I reached the bottom of Jake’s generous pour I was telling him about Marta and Janice and pondering how was I going to support myself when Meany gave me the boot. “And none of that would be making you irritable with Homer, I suppose.” He touched up my glass. “The job is irrelevant. Makes no difference if you’re on his payroll or under contract, you’re hung up on honor, the pure masculine kind that really boils down to regarding women as property—no, don’t interrupt me. You wouldn’t dream of treating Miss Penthouse like that, I know, except that’s what your dilemma amounts to.” I swallowed so much whiskey at a gulp that my eyes watered. I couldn’t believe Jake was saying this. “Look. The lady can do whatever she damn well pleases, Robert, with you or some other guy, maybe one without your kind of scruples. If she’s fallen in love with you, she’s already wondering what she’s doing mixed up with him, no matter how wonderful the education’s been, she’s probably got the opposite of your dilemma, feeling guilty about accepting his protection any more, feeling the way she does about you, even though he had no right to her affections in the first place—assuming what he was giving was really a gift, and I have to assume that’s what it started out being.” His eyes never left mine. Nor was he apologetic about stepping on my tender nerve endings. “On the other hand,” he continued, “if she can’t let go of the security blanket, if she’s too piss-poor of spirit to bail out, then your dilemma’s different, and I don’t even need to put it into words.” Up to my eyeballs in frustration, I set down my glass, thanked Jake for his tea and sympathy, and went out to see what mischief I could get into in Homer Smith’s office. ***** I was never mentored by a journeyman janitor. Jake admitted that, when he worked as one at the university, he snooped. He didn’t open any drawers, he didn’t open any desktop files, but if a document was lying out in plain sight, he figured it was fair game. Not very interesting stuff, usually. He found out ahead of the public who was going to paint the outgoing governor’s portrait, he knew which member of the art faculty had had a painting hung in the Museum of Modern Art, that sort of humdrum. Snooping relieved tedium. I wasn’t too proud to do menial work, but I had one brain cell too many to be content with routines repeated over and over with little variation. And, when my heart wasn’t involved, I was pretty good at calculation. Other than Jake, Homer and the Reproduction Clinic, the occupants of the offices on Bobwhite Court were mainly real estate developers or brokers. I often wondered if they’ moved into Bobwhite Court hoping that some of Meany’s shine might rub off on them. Jake and I had come up with a taxonomy of real estate developers. Like angels, there was a hierarchy—archangels, principalities, dominions, though I just called them real estate developers of the first, second and third kind. I told Jake, from my snoopings, about a developer of the first kind, who had an office on the second floor, a guy named Cooper Ivey. He came a cropper over a century oak. Got all sorts of ordinary people mad at him, had city council chambers filled to overflowing with people protesting his building condominiums that necessitated his cutting down a tree already living when Sir Francis Drake sailed up the California coast. They brought Cooper Ivey to his knees not with chain saws but with a thousand paper cuts—it took three years. I told Jake he could write a novel about Cooper Ivey. He said, “Why don’t you.” “Not me, boy—too maudlin.” “You could pepper it with biting social commentary.” “You want bite,” I said, “let me tell you about real estate developers of the third kind.” The real estate developer of the third kind had the shrewdness of the first, the hard nose of the second, but, being closer to God, like a cherub or a seraph, he had an asset the other two didn’t possess. He had vision. He didn’t get into the kind of binds a Cooper Ivey did, because he didn’t mess with the lay of the land, wasn’t an inside dopester, he sought allies. He sought allies who had the quintessential ingredient to smooth the road to success: money. “Like V.M. Meany?” Jake asked. “No,” I said, “Meany’s in a category all by himself. He’s Contra Costa County’s sole representative of the real estate developer of the fourth kind.” “Explain that.” I said, realizing I’d had more sippin’ whiskey than I needed to allay my frustration, “That is a whole other conversation, and I better get the hell out of here, Jake, my friend, while I can still handle a vacuum cleaner.” I would have told Jake that Meany had everything any real estate developer needed, but he’d started out with the most valuable of all tangible assets, he had land. He learned early that you only give up land if it brings you power. Power was getting the other person to do what you wanted him to do. Power was keeping those who wanted something different from doing what they wanted. His most brilliant ploy was giving half of the family’s ranch land to the county for a park, in return for a concession on the application of the zoning law to his biggest development, Ravenswood, a retirement enclave for the very rich. By the time he rescued Mary Clare, he was more powerful than any supervisor or councilman in the county. ***** Homer Smith did not belong with angels, was not a real estate developer of any kind. Homer Smith was an imp of personal property, a demon of chattel. He bid on the contents of abandoned storage units, on dead freight, cruised estate sales. He bought retired Postal Service vehicles by the half dozen, he had foot baths and electronic components piled in his office sometimes, once a dozen cartons of vibrators from Hong Kong. He had had crates of foot treadle sewing machines tarped in his parking space until Meryl threatened to void his rental agreement if he didn’t store them elsewhere. He had never left me notes about vibrators or foot baths, so whatever was in his office this time was illegal or dangerous, or both. My mind wasn’t on snooping when I tossed off the last nip of Jake’s whiskey and crossed the hall from his office to Homer’s. I was going to give Homer a piece of my mind. I could hear voices through the door, and that put me off for a moment, but then I recognized the modulated hype of a commercial. Homer had left a radio on, possibly to discourage my entering his office. After knocking a third time, I let myself in. Large pine crates, creamy white with rosy knots, were piled around Homer’s desk. The stenciled legends on the end pieces had been blacked out. Other crates were stacked on the desk itself, of a size to hold two automobile batteries, painted military gray. They hid the radio on the credenza behind the desk, which sang, “Datsun Saves” at me. The bigger crates reminded me of six gun shoot’em-ups I’d seen as a kid, where the skulking whiskey peddler goes beyond mere skunkhood to undiluted evil, by supplying the Comanches with repeating rifles. I was looking at what Jimmy Stewart or Randolph Scott saw when he threw back the tarp on the whiskey peddler’s wagon. Sitting atop these crates was a fat gray envelope that no doubt contained a bill of lading and invoice, describing what was inside. I had half a mind to open it. All that stood between me and knowledge was an old-fashioned figure-eight string closure. The only problem was, I was due to meet Marta in five minutes, just enough time to hoof it over to the coffee shop. I’d break my snooping rule and open that envelope as soon as I’d had my séance with Marta. It would serve Homer right. three Rye whiskey, rye whiskey, rye whiskey I cry If a tree don't fall on me, I'll live till I die Just before I left I hefted the envelope. It was heavy with mystery. There wasn’t just one document in there, or two, it was an accumulation of permits and customs declarations, translations of bills of ladings. It created more curiosity than all the memos on Cooper Ivey’s desk put together. Because they could be repeating rifles, my gut told me. I backed out of the office, singing “Whiskey, Rye Whiskey” under my breath, leaving it to the talk show host, vowing to peek in the envelope when I got back. I had a right to know what it was I wasn’t supposed to touch, didn’t I? What if it was from some quarantined dock in the Orient? I was to meet Marta at Cup O’ Java on Main Street, three blocks from Bobwhite Court. Despite its prosaic name it served the best coffee in La Morinda, always two varieties, French roast and Mocha Java, say, or Viennese and Sumatran—it varied with the day of the week. At one time I could have recited which bean went with which day, but by the time of my last rendezvous with Marta, I was pleasantly surprised to be offered Guatemala Antigua and Colombian Supremo, both friendly varieties. Marta’s Chevy Nova was parked in front of the shop. Through the window I saw her in the booth we always sat in, chatting with the waitress. Marta looked as magnificent as the coffee smelled. She was of that minority of pink-complexioned, delicate-boned blondes who keep looking beautiful long after the average blonde has faded. I suddenly wanted things to be right for her. Because of my role in her quest to conquer her lack of libido, I’d never had to face how committed I was to our relationship; in fact, deep down inside I knew I was a technician, like a physical therapist, or a mechanic even. I was no more. I prayed she’d had a breakthrough, an insight that would lead her to break the connection between us. Then why did I have that feeling you get in the ring, when your opponent hasn’t shown you his left hook yet? Why did I sense I was about to get clobbered? Something was in motion, something emanating from her besides good genes. Even as we exchanged hellos something was changing. She handed me a folded and age-worn piece of paper I recognized as a love poem I’d composed for her once and written out painfully in chancery script. She’d said, after she read it the first time and shed a tear, that she’d keep it forever. Without a word about the poem, Marta said, “You look older.” I didn’t quibble, but I didn’t accept the aging, though I did look different. I was a little thinner; I was wearing my hair a little fuller; I was tanner than when I lived in Berkeley. And surely she must see the love light in my eyes. I didn’t look older, I must look younger; I felt younger. But maybe she saw nothing in my eyes. She was on a toot of her own. When I pulled out a pack of cigarettes she said, “I’d rather you didn’t.” I put the cigarettes away. “I have a reason,” she said. “Oh I’m sure.” “But first things first. —Guess what, Robert, I’m getting married.” She sparkled like an engagement ring when she said it, and I looked for one on her left hand, but there was none. As if to punctuate her happy news there was a pop off in the background, a sound like a water heater being relit before all the unburnt gas had dissipated. What could that be? I asked myself. Marta was describing her fiancé, a man I felt some gratitude towards, but I was still parsing that pop: not a gun, not a backfire, and not a water heater either, a big sound far away rather than a little sound close by. Blown truck tire on the freeway? At a pause in her description of her future husband I had the sense to say, “He sounds like someone special.” A police siren tuned up just at the edge of hearing. I folded the sound into my recognition of what made Marta look so radiant. It wasn’t character, it was chemistry. Closer by, a fire engine whoop-whooped through an intersection and continued an obbligato to the police siren. “You’re pregnant,” I said. “How did you know?” I said, “It shows—in your face, I mean.” “That’s why I didn’t want you to smoke.” I said, “I thought it was because I used to smoke after sex and you didn’t want to be reminded.” She said, “Did you really think that?” “Yes.” She sighed. “Robert, I really think I’ve got that whipped.” I could imagine. I could imagine her survival instincts were strong enough she could reshape sex into a social event rather than a biological one, not make a lot of fuss about it, wriggle her butt some, arch her back once in a while, her partner wouldn’t be dissatisfied, she’d have spent a lot less emotional capital. And who knows? With that attitude a little pleasure might creep in around the edges, if nothing else at a charade well played. The waitress, witness to a dozen such conversations, came over and touched up our cups. She said, “The police car went into Bobwhite Court.” By then the fire engine had turned onto South Main and was soon abreast of the coffee shop, flashing and honking, soon to fall silent. From another direction, when it was quiet, came an ambulance siren, and then another police car or perhaps a Fire Battalion Chief’s. Marta was saying, “I mean, we’re living together and we’d talked about marriage, but the baby’s changed the timing.” Before the next siren blotted out my voice I said, “I’d better get over there, Marta.” To which she replied, “Is she over there?” She said it too quickly, her wheels had been turning. “My apartment’s over there, my job, everything I own.” But Marta had seen her in my eyes and that was the focus of all the energy that had brought her to La Morinda on a Monday evening to give me the kiss-off. As I rose from the booth she said, her voice rising to be heard over the passing ambulance, “I just wanted to let you know I’m having someone else’s baby, not yours. That’s all.” I pressed a five into the waitress’s hand as I passed her. She said, “Geez, I hope everything’s all right. God bless.” And I took off running towards the commotion, pleading in my mind, Don’t let it be her, don’t let it be her. four Immediately after the blast that gutted Homer Smith’s office, Jake couldn’t put together the sequence of events surrounding it. By the time he recorded his memoir of Bobwhite Court, he had a perspective that was, I suggest, cosmic. Here’s part of his recorded message: The bomb that blew up Homer Smith’s office and the gunshot wound in my chest were antipodes. The shooting liberated me from the things that make life a slow death, and yet I was conscious of Death, lying there bleeding. He wasn’t the Final Alternative nor the Dreaded End, he was the wise counselor. He was just out of my enfeebled reach and he had the answers to life’s important questions. Like, why any of us are wounded by love. I had a million questions to ask him, like why Meany had succumbed in the end to clutching at what he never really owned. Death answered my questions with silence. As a consequence of Homer’s booby-trap, my office came crashing down around me but I came away with only a cut hand and transient hearing loss. I should have been thrilled at this evidence of my invulnerability, yet I was so filled with dread and thoughts of foreshortened alternatives that it took a couple of days and Robert’s cajoling to bring me back to equilibrium. Besides my own experience and what Robert told me, there was the story in the Diablo Valley Courier, by a reporter who finagled her way into the lives of everyone on Bobwhite Court. And I also had my spies out that night, Mrs. Birnbaum and Mrs. Clarke, who hadn’t had so much excitement since V-J Day. I formed a picture myself, before the Courier article, but it rang true like the ringing in my ears from the blast, more irritating than satisfying. I saw things the way I had as a child, wracked by influenza’s high fever or dazed by a knee to the head in sandlot football. ***** A policeman had parked his cruiser across the incoming lane to Bobwhite Court. He fixed me in his flashlight beam as I came sprinting up from Cup O’ Java. I stopped. “I live there, I work there,” I said. The policeman shook his head. “I think I know what exploded, I’m the janitor there and I was in Homer Smith’s office a few minutes ago.” “Talk to Sergeant Rutledge.” He pointed to a gentleman in civvies, with slicked back hair, an expanding gut and a doubling chin. I went and stood next to a knot of assorted public safety workers. Sergeant Rutledge was in charge. He was talking to an arson investigator from Diablo Fire District Number 3. As I waited my turn two FBI agents joined the group. I looked across the lawn and saw Mary Clare with Jake’s elderly lady friends, and I ran over and threw my arms around her and she was crying and shaking and a policeman came up and motioned me back. Mary Clare wouldn’t let go of me. She kept saying, “Oh, Bobby, oh,” over and over. Mrs. Birnbaum and Mrs. Clarke echoed the ‘ohs’ and hugged each other. I said, “Maybe you should go inside now. I have to talk to the police.” She shook her head. “Give me the key to your place.” “Meany comes home tonight. He’s sure to come over here.” “Probably.” “You don’t care?” I asked. She said, “I don’t look cross-eyed at the Great Accountant in the Sky when he pays me a dividend. You go do what you have to do; just come to me soon.” ***** Jake had made his way from the EMTs’ van, where he had his hand bandaged and was being questioned, but he kept pointing to his ear and shaking his head. When I came up he said, “Ask Robert.” Someone handed Jake a windbreaker and led him over to sit in the front seat of a police cruiser while Sergeant Rutledge turned his attention to me. “Where were you when the bomb went off?” he asked. “Bomb? I didn’t see any bomb.” “And you were . . . ?” I told him. “How about before your coffee break?” I told him what I had seen in Homer’s office. I mentioned the envelope and the arson inspector came over and listened and then asked me, “Did it have some heft to it?” I told him I thought it must be chock full of papers, yes, it had heft. “Letter bomb.” Searchlights from the fire trucks illuminated the scene. Smoke hung in the air. Eerie sounds emanated from a loudspeaker on one pumper, and all of the vehicles kept their engines running. “A letter bomb?” I repeated. The policemen looked intently at the arson inspector. He was tall and sandy-haired and looked as if he’d just stepped into freshly pressed clothes. The others looked like a bunch of men standing around a pile of parts, their minds collectively making the leap from junk to apparatus as things suddenly fit together. The arson inspector said, in an uninflected tone, “You undo the closure, lift the flap and poof! there goes perspiration.” My mouth fell open. ***** When Jake could hear again he told me what happened while I was with Marta. Homer Smith drove up in his Cadillac, brakes screeching, wheels locked, leaving his car as usual at the back door. A car that looked like the all-purpose American mid-size rental, was right behind him. Homer and another man came into the building. Through his door Jake could hear them talking. Homer talked very loudly, the other man’s voice making calming sounds. In a while two other men got out of the rental and came into the building. There was an interval where Homer’s door was closed, though Jake could hear several voices anyway, making it almost impossible for him to do his own work. Someone went in and came out of the building, really shouting this time. Jake looked out his window and saw Homer waving a pistol and reached for the phone. Before he picked up the receiver, Homer jumped in his Cadillac, make a lurching U-turn, and sped off with as much noise as he came. His rear bumper clashed against the driveway as he bounded over the speed bump. Then Jake heard someone reenter the building. ***** A uniformed policeman spoke into Sergeant Rutledge’s ear. Rutledge asked me to go over my description of the crates again. I told them about the markings on the end of the big crates being obscured. Responding to a question, I said I didn’t remember any other markings than those that had been painted out. All but the uniformed officer went into the building. Like a fog lifting, it finally was clear that, had Homer and cohort not appeared, and I’d come back to the office, I would have opened the letter bomb and I would be dead. Jake saw me about to faint and he came running over and grabbed me, the way the referee did when he stopped Jethro Greene from beating me senseless. “What is it?” Jake asked. “Jake?” “Speak up.” I put my mouth close to Jake’s ear, his arms still around me, holding me upright, and said, “I was going to open that envelope, the letter bomb, when I got back from my break. I thought it was about what was in the crates.” Jake kept holding me. The policeman looked away. I said, “Then it would have been my blood splattered all over the front of you, me that got carted off to the morgue.” I started to salivate involuntarily and knew I was about to throw up. “Officer?” Jake said. The policeman took me over to the cruiser with the open door, where Jake had been sitting, and sat me down. I tried very hard not to hyperventilate and not to puke. Just then a familiar white Cadillac convertible drove into the middle of the cul-de-sac. I touched the policeman’s arm and said, “There’s Mr. Meany, the owner.” And then officialdom turned their collective attention that way. five This is the rest of Jake’s experience in the blast, as recorded after he was shot: This started sometime after eight o’clock. The noise from across the hall had subsided shortly before I started to reread the manuscript of a paper I was to deliver at the upcoming American Public Health Associations’ annual convention, convening in San Francisco. With no forewarning, I hit the floor, chair and I in the same relative position, only I was staring at the ceiling. I didn’t know if something internal or external caused the change in position, it seemed as if my muscles had jumped in response to the roar that assaulted me. I soon discovered my bladder emptied in the change of attitude, or maybe just after. Before feeling the urine turn cold, I smelled acrid smoke that reminded me of my military stint. The lamp was on the floor, shade off but bulb intact, puzzling, since there was nothing left on my desk, which had moved closer to the credenza by a couple of feet, so that I had to move sideways to get free of it. There was nothing left on the walls and half the books in the bookcase were scattered as if my office were decorated for a gangster movie trashing. The carpet had been flung back, the door was on the floor and a man lay on it as if on a stretcher; a fine immanence of plaster dust drifted and settled. I saw fire flickering across the hall; I got scared. I hoisted myself out the broken window, lowering myself with a hand across a sash only partially deglazed. I stood like a pillar of salt, looking at the blood dripping from my hand, until the American mid-size tore past, down the driveway. Then I ran straight back in the building, as my brain finally registered what I’d made of the man on the door: he had no hands at all. I dove at him, grabbing first one handless forearm then the other, trying to quench the arcing fountains of blood by squeezing, but I couldn’t do both at once, couldn’t have even if I hadn’t been shaking like a leaf and feeling unnaturally weak all over. I tore off my tie and wrapped it above one of his elbows, knowing from my MP training I could get good purchase there. Then I took off my belt and did the same to the other arm, though not with as good a result. I jumped up and tried to pull the door out of the office, but the lower hinge was still partially attached. My back endured that, as it did my straddling the man and horsing him into the hall and then out the back door. He was shorter than I but fiercely heavy. I laid him on the back stoop and went in, to look briefly into my office, trying to find something to put over the man. He looked more lifeless than the bloody stumps told me. I put my ear to his chest, which was when I realized I was deaf. Just then the lights began to flicker throughout the building, finally to go out as the first police car arrived and a policeman jumped out and, with horror in his eyes, surveyed the blood, mine and mostly the blast victim’s, soaked into my clothes. The arson inspector volunteered that I’d done as much as anyone could, I’d kept my head and tried to help a dying man. I was touched by his saying it, and if he’d said it a week on I might have wept for the dying man, but just then the comfort missed its mark—I was just another helpless human overcome by the fragility of life, too depressed to cry. Little by little I relaxed, only to begin shivering. The arson inspector, talking too loudly now, volunteered to find someone to drive me home. I told him about the paper I’d been writing and that I needed to see if it could be discovered among the debris in my office. He turned to the Battalion Chief and said something I couldn’t hear, but came back to me saying it was all right to go in the building for a couple of minutes. ***** Jake saw Meany’s car too. He said to me, “Looks like you have something to take care of.” As I approached Meany, still shaky, he said, “Gattling, where were you when it happened?” “Out having a cup of coffee,” I said. “Thank God. Why don’t you see if your place is okay—I assume it is—and we’ll talk in the morning.” He turned and walked towards the elevator to the penthouse. He stopped and patted his pockets. He’d not only left his car in the middle of the street, he’d left his keys in it. If Meany had known what he was looking at, he would have seen relief break through the daze in my expression. I felt like a man who’d drunk five cups of coffee suddenly spotting a bush to pee behind. I trotted down the driveway. When I arrived at the Caddy I reached through the window and extracted the ignition key, on the same ring as the key to the elevator, kept walking, towards the officer guarding the entrance to the cul-de-sac, waiting for it to dawn on Meany that I wasn’t acting rationally, anything but, I was almost to my truck when I heard a roar like a wounded grizzly, Meany bellowing my name. I heaved the keys with all my might towards the freeway, into an acre of iceplant growing in the landscaped right of way. I trotted over to my own vehicle, knowing Meany would be too astonished to send anyone after me. The Mad Bomber Of Bobwhite Court one Jake tells this part with more humor than I: Robed and slippered, I took sanctuary in my favorite chair, applying Rémy Martin’s version of the world’s best analgesic to my throbbing hand and sodden heart. The phone jerked me back from yet another attempt to will the dead bomb victim alive, but only fear of its waking my wife and children made me quit the recliner and pick it up. “Thank God it’s you answered, Mr. Pritchett!” Mrs. Clarke was breathless, her voice shrill. “Is it Mrs. Birnbaum?” I could see her friend clutch her bosom and keel over, all the excitement causing a heart attack. “It’s your friend, Mr. Gattling. They’ve been to his place and taken him away on a stretcher.” “Where?” “The hospital, of course.” “I guessed that: which one?” “Walnut Creek General.” “What happened?” Guns! Police! Not to mention a naked lady, which, if I understood her ‘oh dears’ and ‘my-mys,’ was as shocking as the lunatic man, down on all fours, looking like a howling dog. The policeman who interviewed Mrs. Clarke after the goings on would not tell her who the naked lady was (she’d looked away the moment she spied bare flesh from navel to ankle), but the lunatic was none other than Homer Smith. After several false starts I was to conclude the conversation and phone the hospital. The emergency room admitting clerk, answering the hospital’s main phone line after hours, told me the minimum essential facts about Robert. She was not so excited as Mrs. Clarke, and not even as informative. They might allow Mr. Gattling visitors after ten o’clock that morning I was told with finality. I poured another cognac, a double, relieved to have a live friend to worry about instead of a dead stranger to lament. I fell asleep in the chair, dreaming of naked ladies and wild-eyed bombers, only to wake to Amanda’s touch as she left for surgery the next morning. When I walked into his room at five after ten, Robert wore a winner’s look, despite ropes and pulleys that made him look like a recumbent Pinocchio. He may have been as helpless as a calf in a roping contest, he wore the look of a champion cowboy. Cheery—a natural high tempered only by morphine. As he related his tale, I sat like a Norman Rockwell tyke, toes wrapped around the legs of the chair, spellbound. Robert suffered none of the confusion of most persons who’ve had violence done to them, one of the legacies of boxing. And he’d had the opportunity to try out his tale on the police before morphine relaxed him and traction immobilized him, so he told it well. ***** Jake was prejudiced. I have no idea how well I told it, it entertained him, so I guess well enough. I drove away from Bobwhite Court and stopped at the first gas station I saw and used the pay phone to call my own number. I was hoping Mary Clare would have the sense to answer it even though we’d not made any plan for my not just showing up. I saw my reflection in the glass of the phone booth and adjusted my expression to look nonchalant as I told her (she did pick up) about throwing Meany’s keys in the ice plant. The cooler my expression—Brando in The Wild One, I thought—the more invigorated I was. She had to plead with me not to come back to Bobwhite Court before Meany left, not to tangle with him before she and I had had a chance to talk. I scoffed at her caution, but I promised I’d do it her way. I hopped into the truck, really hopped, light as a feather, happy happy, wondering how to kill time and how much to kill. —Until I looked into the rear view mirror, to see a pair of fiery eyes looking back into mine. I jumped and let out an involuntary “Huh!” For a second the eyes belonged to no one, painted on the mirror by magic, and then I heard in my head an echo of the pop that had torn asunder my evening and looked back to find a large automatic pistol in my face, held by the mad bomber himself. Later I thought of all sorts of brave and defiant things to say, but, twisted around and staring past the gun into a madman’s eyes, I recoiled so violently my shoulder hit the horn button and the sound of it hurled me forward, towards the muzzle of the pistol. “Drive,” Homer said. “Where?” “Anyplace away from Bobwhite Court.” Dry-mouthed, no longer worried about killing time, I said, “The police are expecting me back there, you know.” “Sure,” Homer said. I drove up South Main, crossing into Walnut Creek, past the high school and Kaiser Hospital, into the center of town. (Streetlights, a few pedestrians, cars in no hurry.) “Left here,” Homer said, and I turned on Olympic. Olympic runs out to Tice Valley, into a shrinking rural area. I drove among thinning traffic with the image of Mary Clare pressing against my revved-up heart. (Streetlights at intersections, no pedestrians, cars mostly going faster than the speed limit.) The space between houses grew until we’d passed the last traffic signal, to where Olympic intercepts Tice Valley Road. Homer poked me with the gun and said, “Left again.” I skirted the eastern boundary of Meany’s Ravenswood, a sprawling development, home to six thousand affluent retirees who saw Meany as their spokesman to a world of radical youngsters. There was a large central building, lighted extravagantly, and many townhouses, duplexes and cottages. Wild ideas invaded my mind. I was sure Homer was planning to take me somewhere remote, shoot me, and drive away in my truck. I drove at the speed limit, did nothing to attract attention—whose attention would I attract out there?—and when we came to Rudgear Road, Homer poked me again and didn’t have to say anything, I turned left. We crossed over the interstate, and Homer didn’t even have to poke me, I went up the on-ramp and gratefully into the company of other cars. The trip to the next exit, South Main, completed a large circle. The exit appeared all too soon and Homer said, “Get off here and cruise Bobwhite Court. I want to see what’s going on.” The cul-de-sac was empty except for a tow truck hooking up to Meany’s Cadillac, still sitting in the middle of the street, the emergency vehicles gone, no smoke visible, though the smell of it puckered the soft summer air. “Park this thing in the regular place,” Homer said. “What’s happening?” I asked. “You’re driving me to Mexico,” he said. Homer quieted my strangled protest with still another poke, hitting the now tender place of the previous prods. He said, “Now here’s what we’re going to do, son,” and it was like a set of instructions in a treasure hunt. I found myself repeating what he said but softly as we headed for the parking garage in my old and not particularly quiet truck. “Those cops still want to talk to me,” I said. “They want to be sure I wasn’t in on it with you.” Which sounded lame until I turned into the garage and almost ran over Detective Sergeant Jim Rutledge stepping from the shadows. “Get down,” I hissed. Homer did, I felt the weight of his body against the back of the bench seat. Bracketed by two armed men, I was as terrified as a cottontail in a cage full of ferrets. Linkages in my brain came undone: someone else’s sweaty hands gripped the wheel, the air I sucked in was inflating a ghost’s lungs. I expected at any second to hear a gun’s discharge ushering me into eternity. I rolled the window down. Sergeant Rutledge adjusted his fedora while he handed me a business card. “You think of anything else, this Homer Smith character comes around again, drop everything and call me.” “I surely will,” I said. “And another thing, I don’t know what’s going on between you and Meany, but throwing his keys out there makes me wonder if you have shit for brains. He wanted me to arrest you—I don’t mean tomorrow, tonight—send out a posse to look for you. I told him it wasn’t really a crime, but I gotta tell you, Gattling, you humiliated the man, he will never forget it. You mind telling me why you did it?” “There just didn’t seem any other way at the time, Sergeant.” I was leaning out the truck window so Rutledge couldn’t lean in. “What was it about?” “A woman, actually.” Rutledge said nothing, stock still, his foot on the running board. Finally he echoed, “A woman?” “I can’t tell you any more, Sergeant, but I wasn’t crazy when I did it.” “A woman.” Rutledge spoke the word as if it were new to his vocabulary. “I’ve never seen him like that. He could lose a million bucks, not bat an eyelash, you had him coming unglued there for a while.” I managed a smile. “I’ll let you go, Sergeant, I got things that can’t wait.” “Oh I’ll bet. Well, good-night, Gattling, keep away from loonies with bombs—and stay away from Meany till he gets his dander down. A week, minimum, maybe two.” “Thanks for the tip, sir.” I stopped when I got to my assigned parking space. I said, “Just take the truck, all right?” I had this image of Mary Clare in my bed, this madman seeing her. “We’re not going to have this conversation but once. I’m going to stay with you till morning rush hour, then we’re driving to Mexico. Comprendee?” The final jolt adrenaline when he said that felt more like hemlock. The only thing that kept me grounded was the dull ache that was developing in my right side, where he’d poked me repeatedly. Mary Clare was up there wondering what the hell happened to her incipient lover, I was about to introduce her to a madman. Of course he’d be as surprised to see her as she would be to see him. Maybe I could use that. Maybe. two At this point in my recital to Jake he interjected, “Had it sunk in by this time you were dealing with a genuine wacko?” “You mean wackier than selling repeating rifles and blowing up people? I think the psychopathic killer in Homer had lain dormant until he stressed out trying to keep up with whoever the sharpies were who wanted to buy his weapons on the cheap. I was the poor slob attending the psychopath’s birth.” In the early Seventies building a bomb was no longer such a big deal. Bombs were going off daily across the country: blowing up ROTC facilities, power substations, bus depot lockers. You were anti-establishment, you built a bomb to show you were serious. You were doing it for political reasons. Homer had no political motivation, no one special in mind when he built his bomb, just punishing whoever thought of ripping him off. That explosion moved Homer from the realm of terrorist to that of psychopathic killer. And the killing would continue. I saw it in my mind: a dirt road south of Campo, south of Tecate. I saw sand stained with my blood. As I neared my door, brain in overdrive, I remembered something Carl Bollinger, a former colleague, said. Back in my university spokesman days, he worried I might be ambushed by a bad-ass protester who thought he’d drop-kick me into oblivion. He urged me to learn some form of self-defense. When I told him about my days as an amateur boxer at the Olympic Auditorium, Carl said, “Well shit, it doesn’t have to be judo or karate. You punch the guy a few times, he’s lost the only advantage he thought he had, that he was more ready than you to do violence. You know any form of doing violence back, you got the sucker.” This memory lit a tiny flame of hope in my breast: Homer could be had. Homer suffered from the arrogance of guys who walk around with pistols stuck in their waistbands, never believing an ordinary guy like me would have the temerity to jump him. So, before we got to my door, I visualized what was going to happen: open the door, hit the light switch, take one step inside and stop. Mary Clare would be sitting up in bed, naked, smoking a cigarette and wondering where her lover was. I’d seen that arresting sight before; Homer hadn’t. I had a half second of awe to work with. It more or less went that way. Like a jackrabbit sniffing alfalfa, Homer stopped between me and the door jamb, transfixed. I slammed into him with my left shoulder, pinning him against the jamb while I reached with the other hand and pulled the gun out of his waistband. “Then what happened?” Jake asked. “Whap! He hit me. He hit me harder than Jethro Greene did, but I saw it coming, so he didn’t knock me out. Only the gun and I went flying in different directions.” “Did Homer get it back?” Homer tried, but I was already on my feet. I pushed him against the wall and hit him with a punch that felt like sinking an axe into green eucalyptus, it sent an electric current from my knuckles to my shoulder. Homer collapsed with a spastic jerk, going fully horizontal before he hit the deck. “Then how did you end up in this contraption?” Jake asked, gesturing to my traction apparatus. “I couldn’t leave well enough alone. I had to grab him by the collar and haul him off the floor so I could hit him again.” You have no idea the inertia of a fully unconscious man, even a scarecrow like Homer. The next thing I knew, I was lying on the floor, curled like a fetus, my back hurting way more than my jaw, even more than the ear that had to be sewn back to my scalp after the Jethro Greene fight. Mary Clare was out of bed the moment she saw me keel over. She snatched up the gun and was coming back to me when Mrs. Clarke stuck her tousled head in the door, to see three bodies, one unmistakably naked female with a gun and two men on the floor, one still as death, the other moaning as if he were on his way there. Which sent her flying for a telephone, shrieking the whole way, certain the naked woman—surely the cause of the two prostrate men—would make her the next gunshot victim. While Mary Clare was training the gun on Homer and trying to make sense of my moans, the police dispatcher deciphered Mrs. Clarke’s frantic message. Contrary to my assumption that Sergeant Rutledge was the last cop to leave Bobwhite Court, a cruiser remained parked behind the offices next door and county crime lab technicians had come to help the arson investigator collect physical evidence. The dispatcher had been in contact with Bobwhite Court all evening. So it took a scant two minutes to get an officer to my place. If Homer was wacko before, he outdid himself as awareness slowly returned. He rolled over to a four point stance and focused on Mary Clare’s crotch, locking on like a bomb sight, his eyes, my sweetie said, Siamese cat crossed. He was licking his lips and shaking his head slowly, combing out cobwebs, which, when they began to dissolve, invoked a widening grin, not looking up as far as the gun, keeping his eyes at crotch level, beginning to drag a foot under his center of gravity, searching for the will to stand. “Gimme the gun,” I told Mary Clare. “And did she?” Jake asked. “Unfortunately.” I’d never fired anything like Browning’s .45 automatic. I didn’t know a thumb safety from a grip safety. Mary Clare quickly saw this and snatched it back. Rearmed, she said, “You get up off your knees, buster, I’m gonna put one right through your eye.” Jake asked, “Did he believe her?” “It was like she’d been rehearsing, too. I sure as hell believed her, but I think Homer’s head was too fuzzy.” Which was moot. A policeman arrived like gangbusters—who no more than Mrs. Clarke had ever seen a naked woman aiming an automatic at two men down on the floor—and he believed her. He had his gun trained on her and had a split second to decide if she was going to shoot somebody or maybe already had. Mary Clare’s nakedness gave him just enough pause to give her time to lower the gun. She pointed with her finger at me and say, “He took the gun away from him”—pointing at Homer—“and that’s how he got hurt.” In a flash the policeman was in command of the situation and far less frightened. Mary Clare walked calmly over to the table and set the gun down, then to the bed to pick up my bathrobe. I would have elaborated on the scene, the efficiency of the cops as more showed up, and so on, when Jake swung his attention away from me to the doorway and I followed his gaze to see—my heart doing a somersault—the amazing, the wonderful not to say bad-assed Mary Clare Morrison, my protector. three Ouch. Ouch is what I say as I listen to certain parts of Jake’s memoir. You must realize how euphoric I might have been if I weren’t semi-whacked on the pain-killer-slash-muscle relaxant cocktail they kept me on, which replaced the morphine they gave me before stretching me on the rack. Because two things had happened—no three. First, I’d subdued a killer, a fantasy the equivalent of throwing a touchdown pass in the Rose Bowl. Second, I’d had my heart captivated by the most luscious knish in the nine Bay Area counties, a woman who seemed totally committed to a union of our souls and bodies. Third, in one potent, rash act, I’d severed my tie with the last authoritarian figure I’d ever let into my life again. (Me, the guy who had once been the mouthpiece of The Authorities.) Had I not had lead in my veins, compliments of a cheery orthopod, I’d have floated off the bed. ***** This is Jake’s take on the same scene: I imagined as I went away Mary Clare said, ‘Dearest,’ and Robert said, ‘Darling,’ and the only thing that kept them from running in slo-mo across a summer’s field of wildflowers was the apparatus strapped to Robert’s body and the absence of a Mozart piano sonata in the background. I could imagine what I liked. I was on the merry-go-round and they’d not yet stepped back on it, and what a jolt it would be when the music started and the stallions and tigers went up and down again, daring them to hop on. For almost a year the largest compass of his life had been forty thousand square feet of building he cleaned, an apartment not much bigger than my office, a gin bottle and an old coot who kept reminding him of the values he used to live by. She had accounts at all the stores in town that mattered, plus a general purpose credit card for the stores that didn’t so much, she had a trick automobile and a membership at the health club her sugar daddy’s son started and smartly sold off before it started to show a loss, she had her nails lengthened or her hair relaxed whenever painful memories of drugs invaded her bones. She had a man she loved to distraction she still hadn’t bonded with in that wild, passionate, ‘I am the end-all and be-all of my beloved’s life’ kind of mating, they were pretty sure it would be like that but how can you tell? She had lain in his bed and inhaled his scent, felt the impression his body had made on the mattress, and he hadn’t even had that. So they were almost bashful when I left them. That is the report of the nurses and the principals themselves, in a round-about way. I see that from my convalescent couch, two splendid persons of a sudden shy with each other. He said, ‘Did you happen to bring my razor?’ She said, ‘Oh my gosh, no’ and felt silly and guilty all at once and made a gesture that said she’d make it up when they were in a home of their own, because that was the assumption on both sides, they were going to be mates for . . . maybe . . . life? They set aside the shyness for a while, idolizing each other, having subdued an armed killer and all. He said it was she, the woman with breasts so glorious even a psychopath was thrown off stride long enough any red-blooded American boy could have laid him out. And she said she’d never had a man do battle for her just because he loved her exactly the way she was. He said he’d do it again, even knowing it was going to cripple him this way. And that was how it went, an interlude of antiphonal joy, until she said, “Bobby, what are we going to do?” ***** You’re right, Jake, that was the wrong thing to say. If she’d said, “Bobby, what am I going to do?” it would at least have given me the chance to sound wise and make suggestions about what she should do, but when she included me in the query I realized I was tied to a hospital bed the way a bull rider is bound to his mount by the bull rope. I had to take the ride and hope that I didn’t end up with something worse than the impinged spinal cord that was the orthopedist’s preliminary diagnosis. To Mary Clare’s plea for guidance I said, surprising myself, “I could talk to my lawyer, see if, under the circumstances, I could get the property settlement amended, pick up a few thou.” Clare shook her head, as if annoyed, probably for the same reason I felt guilty bringing that up. “Where are we going to live?” she asked. “Where do you want to live?” She said, “I don’t think that’s the point, Bobby, it’s where we can afford to live.” And we both sucked air. I managed to feel a soupçon of panic, flat on my back, my source of income pissed in the extreme (“I’d stay away from Meany till his dander’s down” the apt advice from his school chum, Sergeant Rutledge). What was in my bank account might buy us a month in a by-the-week motel. As Jake might have said, “The Er-i-e is arisin’ and the gin is gettin’ low.” ***** Jake told me later of a conversation he had with Mary Clare, how she perceived herself growing up—after she lost the loving care of her nurse, Lupe. Her father, Zev, who’d done some bad and some dangerous things in his life but eventually became wealthy and respected in San Diego, bought a status symbol that hung in the stairway of their house for as long as Mary Clare could remember. It was a French tapestry, very valuable, which as a little girl she thought just plain ugly, because she couldn’t decipher the images woven into it. But when she got a couple of years older she was able to see in it a woman on the parapet of a castle, looking down at a knight about to attack a dragon. Lupe, when she asked, told her the dragon signified the devil and the knight God’s grace. But Mary Clare saw it differently. The dragon, in the secret chambers of her mind, was Zev. The knight was a hero who would someday open the castle gates. The woman was safe from the dragon as long as she stayed in the castle. If the knight triumphed she could leave the castle, but then she wasn’t the dragon’s prisoner any longer, she’d become the knight’s prisoner. ***** She and I were linked in struggle, striving to overcome my ghosts and her dragon. A woman with a less affluent upbringing might have found a way to eke out a living for us both until I mended. Mary Clare had worked only one real job before I met her, Student Kitchen Aide as an undergrad at Brandeis—hasher, in other words. She was not about to whip out a résumé and land a job that would support even her, and definitely not in penthouse style. After an extended silence she finally said, “Do you think he’ll evict you?” I lifted a hand and dropped it. “Wouldn’t you?” “He’s not a monster. He won’t if I ask him.” “Don’t you dare.” She sat there looking intently at me, worry lines in her forehead. I sensed she couldn’t fathom me, had no notion why I’d given up a career at the university, or what could have happened in my previous life that made me a janitor. She said, “I don’t have to move right away.” “I don’t want you living under his roof, Clare.” “It’s not your choice. He won’t touch me, if I tell him not to—if that’s what you’re worried about.” “Good God, it isn’t that, you know I never meant to say . . .” “I know, Bobby.” And after a while she said, “I have some money stashed.” “His?” She shrugged. “If you want to get technical.” “Oh.” After an even more painful pause she said, “I don’t see what difference it makes. You took his money for almost a year.” “I worked my butt off for that money.” I could feel my muscles tightening despite the meds. “And all I had to do was flop on my back—is that it?” But when she saw the agony in my eyes she said, “Sorry.” After the longest pause of all she said, “There’s no deus ex machina, is there.” “No Divine Accident,” I said. “Not that, either.” She lit me a cigarette, looking around the drawn bed curtain at the patient zonked out on the other side, a man—wheeled in from post-op while I was in a morphine nod—likewise doped out of his gourd, hooked to an IV, his shoulder and the side of his face bandaged. He emanated that mildly pleasant aroma of fresh surgical dressings and adhesive, of phenol and acetate. For a while it would trump the pervading, ugly hospital smell. “We’ll think of something,” she said. “We’re two smart cookies.” “Just as long as you don’t go back up there.” She said, “What am I supposed to do? I’m not on speaking terms with my family, and I’m not independently wealthy.” We might have spiraled into helplessness and depression, trading impossible expectations, when someone whom neither of us had in mind as a deus ex machina intervened. Meany walked in. four In my field of vision was Mary Clare in her preppy disguise, a pongee blouse with puffed sleeves, a kilted skirt and tassel loafers over stockings. Meany was in a gray sharkskin suit, carrying his panama hat, revealing slicked-back hair showing the imprint of the hat band, the rimless glasses with the bifocal lenses. Meany had a style all his own. No matter what he wore he looked like the antithesis of “in,” the antithesis of “mod.” Whether “out” or “fuddy-duddy,” he looked as if he wore giant shoulder pads in his suits. He favored pleated pants with cuffs, double-breasted suits Meryl confided he had custom made. He always wore suspenders. He looked like his father’s generation, or how he imagined they’d look if they were tycoons rather than ranchers. Fingering his hat, Meany nodded to Mary Clare, ignoring me. “Clare?” “Hello.” She didn’t use his name. She wouldn’t have used a pet name in front of me, and he’d made her promise never to reveal his first name to anyone. So she just said “hello” from half-turned in the chair next to my bed, losing hold of my hand as she turned. “Have you had breakfast, Clare?” “I’m not hungry.” “I’d like to talk to you.” She turned and looked at me, her eyes pleading for understanding. “Could you excuse us?” she said at last, turning back. “I’ll be out in the hall,” Meany said. “What am I supposed to do now?” she said in a half whisper. “Go eat. Have it out with him.” “You and I haven’t even settled anything between us, Bobby.” “You said we’d think of something.” “That’s just what people say. What is there to think of? If I go with him he’ll work on me, he’s so damned practical and logical. All we’ve got on our side is love.” For once I realized what an easy ride I’d had for most of my life. Something always turned up. I had pledged myself to someone who didn’t have that jaunty attitude, for whom disaster lurked as close as the road’s next turning. It was time for more pain meds. I pushed the call button. “He isn’t ready to let go of you, but you get him mad and he’ll kick you out. You gonna wait till he does? What earthly basis is there for you to be under his roof now that you’re . . . you’re my . . .” “That’s the problem, isn’t it. You’ve got me but you don’t know what to do with me. Well, don’t worry about him touching me. For two years he never laid a finger on me, he never expected anything in return for taking care of me. All we did was talk, that’s all.” “You can’t go back to that.” “Why not?” “Stop and think. How did you stop having sex with the last man you were with? You left him—am I right?” “You want to know the truth? Meany rescued me from him. Fact.” “You mean the guy was screwing you against your will?” She held her hands to her ears and said, “Stop it!” Suddenly the nurse was there. “Need a pill, hon?” “How bout a hypo?” The nurse smiled at Mary Clare, who smiled back as best she could. “I could sell my truck,” I said. “Bobby, I’ve got a car stashed in a garage in Berkeley that’s worth more than your truck.” “That truck’s a classic.” “This is absurd. I hope you don’t expect any sympathy from me,” she said as she began to crumble, “I may only be a kept woman, but you’ve been dicking around with this janitor job like there’s no tomorrow, you’re as bad as I am.” At another point, standing with her forehead against the sliding glass door to the patio, she said, “This sounds like a fucking soap opera.” Meany came in again, shifting the hat in his hand, like a Turk with his worry beads, round and around. “At least do me the courtesy,” he said to her. “Naturally you’re free to do whatever you want, but at least do me the courtesy of a talk.” “Go,” I said. She kept standing there, paralyzed, and Meany said, “Now that the hoopla’s died down, you have to kid yourself this is the right thing to do. If you stop and think, it’s pretty foolish.” Of course he didn’t name ‘the thing.’ She started to raise her hands to her ears again, eyes closed, in deep distress, but dropped them, looked from me to him and back, any civility erased by trapped animal fear. “Why don’t you two talk to each other and leave me the fuck out of it?” She stomped into the corridor, not looking at either of us again. “You see what you’ve done?” I said. “Me!” Meany bellowed. “Let her go, for God’s sake.” “That’s her decision.” “No sir, you’ve got to push her out of the nest.” “You’re deranged, you’re goofy on those pills the nurse been giving you.” “She’s a happy dependent, Mr. Meany, you’ve let her be dependent on you way past the time it’s been good for her—” “—You got a degree in psychology, son?” “Stop the Big Daddy bullshit, will you? You helped her out. I don’t know what her problem was, but you got her through it. Now her problem is you—can’t you see that?” Meany had bent the rim of his hat and then the crown between his massive hands; he was poised as if to spring. “What I see is, you got no idea just how delicate she is.” “In a pig’s eye she’s delicate. It’s like dope: you’re the pusher, she’s an addict. Let her go—cold turkey.” “I’ll deal with you later.” “I’m sure you will,” I said to his back as he exited. “Whew,” said the nurse, sticking her head in the door. “What did you do to that one?” “Nothing. It would take an elephant gun to make an impression on him.” Not quite. It took a good deal less, when the time came. five I could make a pretty good story out of Jake’s life, in part because he and I had all these parallels. Amanda was his Lana but more refined. Lana was beautiful in a way that made fraternity boys drool, using the time-worn compliment of “built like a brick shithouse,” using adjectives like “curvaceous” and “well-developed” with frat boy winks and grins. In a way, her physique shaped her personality. She took for granted men’s heads turning as she went by, looking to see if her charms going away were as winsome as coming at them. She never took the lead during sex—wasn’t it enough that you had in your arms all that comfortable pulchritude? You do the work, lover, I’m all yours. Lana probably didn’t know what a hetaera was, but she was something like that—easy grace of an earthy variety, good with flowers, good with food, an adept with small talk that put you at ease. Men were sparkly-eyed but at ease in her presence. Amanda was more complex. She would have made the fraternity boys turn away, abashed. Cool, in her case, didn’t mean “really neat,” it meant aloof. But beautiful. Delivering two children had changed the outline of her pelvis, but it hadn’t spoiled her figure. She looked good in a bathing suit—she was lithe enough to wear a Speedo. Swimming to her wasn’t showing off, though, it was her main way of staying in shape. She also looked good in frothy summer dresses and tailored pants suits. With many women, the clothes enhance the person beneath; with Amanda it was the opposite: she enhanced the clothes. But what I’m talking about isn’t the physical being, it’s the tension that develops between spouses when the wellspring of union is neither tradition nor blinding passion. (Do I sound like Jake? Sorry, he’s rubbed off on me, and I for one am proud to sound like Jake—that Berkeley education, the years around health care and bureaucrats.) As the irritant that led to tension between Lana and me was, to say the least, dramatic, we reached the breaking point quickly. By the time our tour of Mexico ended, she could hardly look me in the eye. Making love was no longer an option. Far less dramatic was the event that punctuated Jake and Amanda’s early relationship and therefore the tension was more diffuse, chronic as opposed to acute. But it was there. That they had a social life before Mary Clare and I barged in on them always amazed me. Couldn’t friends, colleagues and neighbors sense the truce that held these two together? I found the tension palpable, even contagious. Which is a preamble to visiting Jake’s memoir of Bobwhite Court again, because of his perspective, his ability to add the context I couldn’t see at the time and only accede to now because I know he was right. ***** From the Jake tapes: Easier when Robert was just a renegade janitor, holed-up in a studio apartment. Easier, too, when he was still a dreamer, discovering, as an endless succession of dreamers before him, a fundamental truth: it is only beauty that we love. A poet’s heartfelt words turned cliché, they were engraved on his heart, alongside a sepia image of the Penthouse Lady. He carried them around and used them as insulation against the world’s wintery cold. He hadn’t made a move yet, still stood clear of the merry-go-round, avoiding attachment and commitment the way he avoided bureaucracy and dissidence these days, but owning The Truth. And owning The Truth made life hopeful. Hope was the beloved, the person one day totally unknown, the next a shimmering image in a dull winter landscape: a daffodil popping through soot-darkened snow. And this time circumstance reinforced hope and one day Robert’s heart pumped to the cadence of her name: Mary Clare Mary Clare Mary Clare. Each red corpuscle entering his brain carried her image as if reflected on a soap bubble. For some, the psychic experience of love is enough to change life completely, fire up the creative engine and drive him forward, like Dante, to works deep as hell and eternal as Heaven’s Multifoliate Rose. But I have more, Robert reflected, and he did. He had that sine qua non of human intimacy, the will, or at least the glowing desire, to give and take in equal measure, which poor Dante never had with his Beatrice, and many another lover either. Robert had discovered reciprocity on his way to achieving transcendence. Ah, sweet mystery of life, at last it had come within his grasp. This would have been incredible enough, luck as you and I can only dream about. But there’s more. There came an opportunity to prove the love, it was time to make his move and he did. His love waxed glorious in courage and daring-do, proving not only its vitality but its sanctity. Wow! A real hard-on, folks. Of course there’s a catch, there always is. In his case there were two, the minor catch a delay in the physical manifestation of true love, due to an uncanny accident. The second catch some might call a Berkeley intellectual bugaboo, but for Robert it was a lot more formidable than that: after a decade of inurement to violence of every conceivable form—more bombs exploded in the United States per year than in the century before, terrorism discussed like the weather or traffic congestion on television, assassinations and massacres—the problem, proving love through weathering violence sixteen miles east of Berkeley, is not what you do for an encore, it’s how you keep your conscience from saying, ‘Me too?’ (or in Robert’s case, though I would have been too ignorant just then to have guessed it, ‘Not again!’) Instead of blasting away with a handgun, like Dirty Harry, Robert had dealt with the violence du jour with a timber-shivering left hook, taken out the gent with the .45 jammed in his waist band, the terrorist, the mad bomber of Bobwhite Court. His Mosaic sin was striking the madman twice—or trying to. If he hadn’t violated the Marquess of Queensbury rules and tried to lay another lick on the prostrate Homer, he might have been home scot free, the ghost from his past exorcised through the imposition of symmetry to his cosmos. But Robert’s unnecessary tugging on the unconscious Homer to make sure he was really ‘out,’ even if triggered by an excess of adrenaline, induced a secondary explosion more devastating to him than Homer’s bomb. He paid. Like a Parzival in a trance of longing for his mate, he could picture her on the parapet, not just unable to get past the dragon down below, but unable to get past her knight-rescuer turned knight-captor. It drove him half out of his skull. ***** When Meany, from the doorway of my hospital room, without raising his voice, labeled her romance with me as “pretty foolish,” she made one last grab for her disappearing courage: “I may come to that conclusion myself,” she said, “when I’m used to being my own person again, but at least give me that chance.” I flashed on an image: a lioness on the kill, two shag-maned lions, one old, one young, waiting to move in and help themselves to it. The old lion claimed the carcass he’d happily devour for her was her old, pre-penthouse life, while the younger lion wanted her to believe the kill was her dependence on the old lion’s protection. Either way, she had no right to claim it for herself, she “owed” it to another. ***** Maybe it was the drugs, but I found myself, alone again, with two not necessarily compatible feelings: jealousy and self-pity. Yes, I was jealous of Meany, suddenly wishing I were well-healed enough to put up Mary Clare, if not in a penthouse, at least in comfortable quarters. Okay, I was also a tad jealous of Jake, who, without me around to bug him, could sit at his typewriter and chase his Muse all day. As if I had any such ambition. But being hospitalized makes you believe you would if you could. Whoever said jealousy was rational? I was also feeling sorry for myself, which is incredibly childish. I couldn’t jump on the merry-go-round again. What kind of bullshit is that? Now that I was on an enforced vacation, I wanted to get back to work. Janitoring? Nah. The lifting and bending would do me in. Negotiating with kiddies on behalf of the university? Let the Blue Meanies (no relation to our Meany, it’s what the student protesters took to calling the police) roust the draft card burners, the mental stress would do me in. I just wanted to be free to look in the want ads for a job. Caretaker at a Jackson Hole winter getaway, I could keep the wolves from the door, Mary Clare could serve the mulled wine and Brie. Finally, mercifully, the painkiller likewise killed negative feelings and I fell asleep, all too soon to be awakened by another gent from the last generation. He was about to tiptoe out again when I muttered, “Sergeant Rutledge. It’s okay, come on in.” six He’d had a haircut since I saw him last, which deemphasized his white sideburns. He still looked like a character actor playing plain clothes cop. “I hear we had a close call,” Sergeant Rutledge said as he approached the bed. Like Meany, he always wore a hat, and like Meany he took his off in hospital rooms, I guess part of their generation’s hat-wearing etiquette. If my father, who wore a fedora to work every day, were still around I'd ask him about it. We did a perfect macho exchange about our last encounter, you know, the “aw shucks, ‘tweren’t nothin’” routine, as if we were often that close to getting shot. Maybe he’d been. He said, “You did a good job of acting, Gattling, and then you nailed the bastard to boot. When the Feds get through with him, we’ll try him for kidnapping you.” “Christ, he’ll be locked away for good. —Have you figured out what was going on?” “It was, as you suspected, guns and ammunition in the crates. The Feds haven’t traced the arms to a source, but Treasury agents don’t think it will be hard to find it. The consensus of everyone working the case is that Homer Smith is as nutty as you suspected, a genuine paranoid, who didn’t much care who he blew up, just about everyone living deserved to die. “If one of the buyers hadn’t blown himself up, Homer would probably have taken the bomb home to use another day.” When Rutledge finished telling me what he knew about the people who were supposedly going to buy the assault rifles—the forensics team had found an intact finger of the dead man and had matched the fingerprint—I said, “I have a confession to make.” “Should I be hearing this? You want to talk to a lawyer first?” “It’s not that kind of confession. It’s just that I was going to open that envelope when I got back from my coffee break, that’s all.” Rutledge gave me a look that said, Let that be a lesson. “What stopped you from opening it before you went on break?” “An old girlfriend called, needed to see me.” “You’ve got a lot of girlfriends, don’t you, Gattling.” “Not so many.” He said, “Maybe one too many?” “What makes you say that?” I developed an itch where I couldn’t reach. I didn’t think Rutledge would want to scratch it for me. Rutledge said, “Moose Meany called me at home before I had a chance to get out of bed this morning. He’s still very pissed off. He’s Gene Krupa and you’re the bastard trying to steal his drums. You’d have been better off messing with his wife.” “Moose?” I said, “you call him Moose? And before you say anything else, I wasn’t messing with anyone. What she did she did of her own accord.” Rutledge said, “But she moved in with you.” “Which is not a matter for the penal code, so why are we having this conversation?” “I’m not leaning on you, Gattling, I just don’t like to see a lot of unhappy people around.” “It’s a thankless job you’ve got, Sergeant.” “And it’s not actually why I came.” He was suddenly all cop, asking more questions about Homer, before, during and after my kidnapping, taking notes in a notebook he took from his inside breast pocket. When Rutledge closed the notebook, I asked him, “So how’d he get to be called Moose?” “High school football.” “Why didn’t they call him ‘Bear?’ He’s a lot more like a bear.” “Cause there was already an upperclassman named Bear Tempkin on the team when Moose came along. Moose played tackle—offensive and defensive, everyone played both ways in those days—and started every single game from his freshman year on.” “Was he any good?” “Strong sonofabitch, and, naturally, big. You needed a yard for a touchdown or a first down, you hit the line behind Moose.” “Sounds like you were a running back.” “Single wing. Moose made me a star.” I said, “Small world, isn’t it?” Sergeant Rutledge said it wasn’t such a small world, lots of persons he and Meany had gone to school with were still around the valley. The Concord Chief of Police. The oldest county supervisor. The father of the youngest supervisor. Meany had lots of friends. “All as solicitous as you?” I took the recitation of friends as a subtle warning. “Not all,” he said. “And that’s the real reason I’m bothering you in the hospital.” Rutledge had a niece, a “little wiseacre,” he called her, though I could sense some solid admiration in his use of the sobriquet. She was a reporter for the Diablo Valley Courier. He’d managed to stop her from visiting me, citing my delicate condition, but she smelled a rat. “She’s bound and determined to do a story about your capture of Homer Smith, and the angle she’s gonna take is the naked lady. Gattling, I don’t care if she makes you out as the hero of the decade, bagging that bum. I do care, though, if she makes out Miss Cutie Nudie as the mistress of our mutual friend. That would create a great deal of unhappiness up and down the valley, and as I’ve said, I don’t like to see unhappy people around.” I said, “Can’t you just bark and scare her away?” “Like you, she graduated from Berkeley, and if you so much as frown at her First Amendment rights, she shrieks like a wounded eagle. Besides, she figures it’s just a matter of time before someone from the Oakland Tribune or the San Francisco Chronicle moves in and aces her.” “I promise I won’t bring up the lady if she doesn’t.” He said, “Count on her asking about Miz Morrison first crack out of the box.” “I’ll try to stonewall her,” I said. “Don’t try, Gattling—do it; it won’t do your sweetie any good either, having her name dragged through the mud.” I offered a wink and a nod as reassurance. “Be an Ethan Allen, Gattling, not a Benedict Arnold.” “I understand where you’re coming from, Sergeant.” “Good, Gattling, I had a hunch I could count on you.” “But tell me,” I said, as his body language signaled he was shoving off, “did Meany ask you to talk to me?” He gave me a look as if I’d insulted both him and Meany. All he said was, “Hell no.” “I’m sorry I rattled his cage. I’m not sorry about getting Mary Clare out of his penthouse.” He went deadpan. “Remember, Gattling, an Ethan Allen.” As he stepped into the hall he replaced his hat. La Morinda one The visit from Sergeant Rutledge was a warning. It was one of the old guard telling a newcomer not to mess with the status quo in La Morinda. Jake jokingly called La Morinda “your average white suburb,” and, as one of the bedroom communities tied to San Francisco by Bay Area Rapid Transit, it was all of that. It was actually much more. It was the East Bay seat of Reactionary Republicanism. It was also the fiefdom of V.M. Meany, who made most of his campaign contributions to Democrats but at the same time—on his La Morinda turf—practiced unadulterated Reactionary Republicanism as his philosophy of life. La Morinda had been on the map from earliest railroad days, when Martinez, now merely an old-fashioned county seat backed up against the Carquinez Strait, had been the port through which more wheat was shipped than from any other port in the United States. Only the stumps of pilings that once supported the many wharves give a hint of the extent of the shipping. Back then La Morinda was simply the name of the place where the Central Pacific trains could take on water as they returned, empty, from disgorging their loads of wheat. Some say Meany created the modern La Morinda, and what he created looks like a city designed by one large neighborhood improvement association. There is nothing to recommend La Morinda but peace and quiet. There is nothing to attract the tourist. The golf course is not actually in La Morinda but across the border, in county territory, part of one of the regional parks. The clubhouse is rented out on weekends during the rainy season for wedding receptions. On the other hand, nothing’s wrong with La Morinda. There’s no slum there. Although the average value of private dwellings is less than in Hillsboro across the Bay, there is actually a lower proportion of substandard housing—in fact, practically none. A friend who lived in both places explained that there are no guest houses over here, no chauffeur’s quarters above garages, built in the days when codes were less strict. La Morinda has no hospital, no halfway house nor trailer park. In newer residential areas the streets have sidewalks and utilities are all underground, but in older sections of town, where lots are often half an acre (to the south are plenty of five acre lots zoned for horses) it is thought to be an omen of neighborhood decline if the city put in sidewalks. It isn’t surprising that La Morinda, in its 1950s sort of blandness, would be dominated by BART, the Interstate and Mount Diablo. BART wouldn’t have touched La Morinda at all if it weren’t for Meany. He convinced the citizens to incorporate in order to get a station, while selling the BART directors on the idea of the location because he was willing to practically give away a large plot of land which BART needed for parking for the commuters from communities farther south. He also sold the directors on the idea of putting the station in the basement of an office building. This experiment did not become a model for other communities, as there are sticky problems with seismic codes, and the height of the building over the tracks shrank until it was hardly worth putting up. As it stands now, a mini mall opens off the ticket lobby, with pedestrian connections to twin towers flanking the tracks, housing in one the regional offices of a large, multiline insurance company, in the other the home offices of a medium-sized regional bank. The non-clerical staff of these companies live elsewhere and commute to La Morinda, but not on BART. They drive in early and park around the station before the scads of San Francisco-bound commuters arrive to fight over the remaining spaces. The Interstate dominates more than BART. It splits the community, La Morinda lying symmetrically along the interstate south of the junction with Highway 24, just where BART turns north towards its terminus in Concord. This makes sense to the Southern Californians who moved there to get away from the congestion and smog. They can zip right out on the freeway, Los Angeles style, with choices of north, south and westerly directions of travel. To old-timers the freeways were a source of noise, lead from exhaust pipes and coal tar-laced rubber dust scrubbed off the tires of autos whizzing by, a mixture bound to make La Morinda a future locus of lung and liver cancer, as well as Alzheimer’s syndrome. Those who say this openly to their neighbors are invited to move over the hills to Berkeley, where they can join the lunatic fringe who want to ban nuclear weapons and organophosphate insecticides. Like the golf course, La Morinda’s most imposing landmark, Mount Diablo, isn’t in La Morinda. It’s closer to Danville (south) and Clayton (east). It is not the forbidding peak the name implies, modest in size when measured against other California mountains, seeing snow only once every five years or so. Yet it fills Westerners’ need to have high ground close by. It is mentioned a lot in conversations around La Morinda. Those with the right view will, at the season that puts the rising sun on the mountain’s shoulder, remark what a pretty sight it is. Some persons drive up Mount Diablo at wildflower time, to remind themselves of the context in which they live, and once each spring a clique of serious bicyclists race up the mountain—not recommended for any but the most heart-healthy athlete. As mountains will, when caught sight of while in a certain mood, evoke feelings of eternity, the insignificance of man, and the enduring sameness of the earth. ***** Sameness and endurance were imprinted on the minds and souls of the Jim Rutledges and Moose Meanys growing up in La Morinda, and living there a short while in no way gave me a right to mess with the tranquility of their home town. And, lying helpless in the hospital, I wasn’t in a mood to try. Jake had lived down the road from La Morinda since Amanda passed her boards. He warned me of its reactionary nature and recited a lot of its recent history, but he’d never heard of V.M. Meany until he rented an office from him. Since moving into Bobwhite Court he found out a lot about Meany by asking around: the horse-trading the man did, particularly around Mount Diablo State Park, his land for park land, allowing the state to consolidate its holdings while he did the same. Then there was his betting on young, untried candidates for office, backing but not horse-trading, yet winning friends for life. An old-timer told Jake he was standing at a bar when a tired local candidate for the California Assembly walked in and ordered a whiskey and soda. Two minutes later Meany walked in, and although the candidate didn’t know Moose was a big-time donor, he struck up a conversation, commenting on how tough campaigning was on the wife and kids. As they parted company, Meany stuck a fifty dollar bill in the man’s breast pocket. “That’s not a campaign contribution, son, that’s to take your wife out to dinner. No accounting, no receipt. You tell anyone I gave it to you, I’ll deny it. And good luck.” The young man had tears in his eyes when he walked away. He won, and ever after, in a crowded room, Meany was the first man he’d greet. two In this duet on the Bobwhite Court doings, this is, of necessity, a Jake solo: Shortly after Meany visited Robert’s hospital room, I got a call from Mary Clare. I was surprised, but she said Robert had talked about me (when, pray tell, had they time to talk about me?), said I was a friend and wise to boot, and could she talk to me. “I’m sorry, but I’m tied up this week.” I explained I was giving a paper at the APHA annual meeting in San Francisco the next day and marketing in a big way all through the conference. “Could I prevail on you to have a drink with me tomorrow, after you present your paper? It would mean a lot to me.” “As a matter of fact, since it’s me I’m marketing, having a beautiful woman on my arm is only going to boost my marketability.” She laughed and demurred modestly, and we arranged to meet at the registration desk in the lobby of the convention’s headquarters hotel. Sharing a drink with Mary Clare earned me new insight into her mentor, Meany. For various reasons I believe that was part of her agenda, namely, to make him out as a human being instead of a predator. I learned, for example, that Robert’s hunch about why Meany bought the Bobwhite Court white elephant was correct. He liked to visit Mary Clare afternoons, when work slackened. He was married, had three grown children, one daughter still at home, so his evenings in La Morinda were pretty predictable. He never talked to subordinates about what was on his mind, because he wasn’t grooming any of them to take his place. He’d quit talking to his son, Bob, because Bob didn’t listen. His son figured out—so young it ruined him—how to risk his father’s capital promoting faddish enterprises and get out before the shine wore off. Everything Bob owned was for sale at all times, right down to the wine he cellared, and it disgusted his father. Mary Clare listened when Meany spoke. She realized she had a rare opportunity, learning from an authentic genius. Because she was attentive and asked intelligent questions, Meany told her he could make her a millionaire if she wanted, she was one of the persons in the world who deserved it, she knew how to value things. He wanted very badly to do something other than rescue her before they parted ways. “You’ve talked about parting ways, have you?” That surprised me. “He has.” “What did he rescue you from?” I finally had the gumption to ask. “Degradation.” I laughed. Mary Clare? The thought was as annoying as the smell of clam chowder dominating the oyster bar where we had cocktails. I wanted it to smell of oysters. I wanted Mary Clare to be as pure as her wide, clear brow, as virginal as her eyes said her soul was. “You can believe anything you want, Jake, but I’ve been bad.” “Oh Sam, I’ve been bad, you don’t know how bad,” I declaimed in a falsetto. “—Mary Astor to Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon.” “Hey, have you ever shared a woman?” making defiant eyes as she said it. “I looked around to see who might be listening. “Come again?” “Come again and again, that’s the idea. I’ve had sex every way you can imagine two men and a woman doing it. —I can get more explicit if you like.” “Not unless it has something to do with how Meany rescued you.” “He wasn’t a witness, if that’s what you mean. I wasn’t part of a live sex show. I’d just . . . I’d just gotten in over my head. I was strung out on drugs. I would do anything for a fix.” “And Meany?” “You know Geoff O’Reilly, the former Congressman?” she asked. “I know who he is.” “I went to a fundraiser, to see an old friend and try to bail myself out with a little help. Only he wasn’t the old friend I thought he was. Meany, with his deep pockets, was there. He helped me instead.” “And of course he’d never think of degrading you.” “Never!” I had ordered us oysters on the half shell and a bottle of Wente Grey Riesling. That ‘never’ reverberating in my brain, I called the waiter over and ordered a martini while Mary Clare finished the wine. She told me about the tapestry and Parzival’s wife. She told me about the men in her life, boys she used sex to dominate in high school, the ones she had to fall in love with in college, who used the same commodity to dominate her: the All-American fullback, the Rhodes Scholar, finally the son of a very prominent liberal journalist, who disappeared from Boston one day in the slushy snow of spring, ice fragments in the Charles River, ice in her heart, knowing if he called she would come, already having heard the rumor he was using her to cover a homosexual affair with a very pretty boy, a dancer from a New York chorus line, she wanting to deny it and having no way to prove the rumor a lie but recalling the immense quantity of sexual energy he lavished on her—it had become her drug of choice—how could he have any left over for anyone else? But cracking up anyway, already feeling herself coming apart, because this was a reentry into grad school after an officially sanctioned absence to get herself together back home in San Diego, her father having hush-hush bought her a post on the campaign staff of the local Assemblyman intent on reaching Congress, where she met the blue-eyed and broad-shouldered Andy Morrison, who flew the would-be congressman about in a rented Cessna and on week-ends raced sports cars: sweet sweet Andy, poor and goyishe, Lupe could screw around with holy communion and white dresses, no sonofabitch goy was going to marry Zev Panin’s daughter without his say-so (the score of other goyim she’d laid since age fourteen lurking in his nightmares like corpses rising from a quicksand of filial retribution neither father nor daughter had the courage to speak of, since then she would come back to the night sounds of her childhood, the harsh ‘Halt zich shtill!’ uttered amid the rhythmic creaks, the grunts and whimpers, in Russian, Spanish and English as well as Yiddish, as if he wanted the child to hear, indeed her mother protesting not so much the loveless use of her body but that her daughter would be frightened. (Was.) This same daddy who by day bought her everything she wanted except clothes, he bought her the clothes he wanted her to be seen in, the ones that advertised her as the daughter of a clothier to the rich and chic in La Jolla and Scottsdale, he dandled her on his knee well beyond the age it was seemly—I have to use that old-fashioned word—there was a deadly game going on, that much I understood, that much made me thirsty for another martini and another, this dread investing my heart as we worked up to Berkeley, where she said her ‘boys,’ as she called them, after a particularly long and energetic use of her body, were speculating on what sort of fourth they might introduce to their orgies, boy or girl, black or white, slim or fat (Mary Clare was edging towards fat, her life style promoting it) and when, in disgust, she suggested they get a goat, they laughed and repeated the litany: boy or girl, black or white, slim or fat? And hence, having saved up, from the money they gave her to buy drugs, enough for a basic black dress that hid her increasing weight, she sneaked off to Representative O’Reilly’s fundraiser, to see her old boss from San Diego, an advertised speaker at the event, who explained he had no position for her on his staff, not in his district nor Washington. He said it in such a way she guessed it was her father’s campaign contribution that got her the job while he was winning his seat the autumn before. The Golden Gate bridge was next, except this man with the perpetually depressed eyes behind his rimless glasses, not the featured speaker but the principal moneybags at the event, in the one spontaneous gesture of his arch-conservative life, saw a creature who touched his encastled heart and made him want to save her, which he did. three Jake’s tape continues: Meany took her to the front desk of the hotel where the fundraiser took place and told the assistant manager to give her a room and anything else she wanted and charge it to him. “Anyone else but me calls for her, shoot him.” Though she didn’t witness what happened next, her account of it was vivid enough—it meant something to her, this bear of a man going off in quiet fury to sever the ties she couldn’t. He carried a pistol to the house in the Berkeley hills where he collected her personal things. It was not the pistol he later gave her and taught her how to shoot at the Richmond Police Department’s pistol range, a gun to fit in a purse, slim-line .38 snub nose, five shot and bobbed hammer. The one he carried was a good deal more sinister but he didn’t have to use it. He towered over ‘the boys’ and informed them that there were still laws on the books in Berkeley (where he knew the mayor and chief of police) against doing what they were doing, including the drugs, and though there were many folks ignoring those laws in this burg, he could get them enforced—and would. He also told the lad Mary Clare had followed across the country that he knew his dad, even though they were politically at opposite poles, he still would drop a dime on him, who might have some financial ties to the old man and not want him to know about his filthy goings-on. I pictured the scene in living Technicolor, two young men sharing glances but keeping one eye on this giant who might just be a homicidal psychopath, they weren’t going to test him. In other words, Meany put the fear of the Lord into her boys. Then he put her in a drug rehab program, starting with inpatient detoxification in Stockton, where no one knew her or (with a couple of exceptions) him. Her graduation present was the Jag. Still not making a move to touch her, he would not even visit her uninvited. She figured that out and made the invitation nearly universal. He would knock, he would ask if he were interrupting anything important and only when informed he wasn’t would he, removing his hat, cross the threshold of the apartment he paid for, first one in Walnut Creek and then the penthouse, until at last, after she’d already noticed the younger man down at the pool who had Andy’s broad shoulders but more intense eyes, she coaxed the shy bear into her bedroom and made a small gesture of gratitude. “Which I assume you wish now you hadn’t,” I said. “Why on earth?” she said. “I meant it.” “But now there’s a shy bear who’s got you in a bear hug.” She looked into her wine as she sipped the last of it. “I’m not ready for him to let go.” “Bullshit.” “I’m not; I should know.” “I thought you loved Robert.” “Oh yes—which is why I want to leave him in peace.” “Spare me,” I said. “I have no backbone. I don’t know how to take care of myself.” “Have you gone back to the drugs?” She said, “Heavens no.” “You have backbone, lady.” “Bobby needs someone who can be a brick right now. I want you to tell him for me he’s better off without me.” She looked up from her empty glass and quickly back down again. “You want me to tell him; me?” “Will you?” I think she was trying to bat her eyelashes at me, but she hadn’t the knack. I said, “That’s what this conversation was about? Have you told him all these things? Not just about your decision to stay in the penthouse, but about the rescue and all?” “No.” “Why not?” “Why do you think?” “Don’t spar with me, young lady.” She was as many years younger than Robert as he was younger than I, so chronologically she could have been my daughter, though she was, at that moment, twice as old as my flesh and blood daughter. I said, “I’m sad but not shocked. There’s nothing in your past Robert can’t cope with—except your propensity to lie down and die when things get tough. If you’re going to give Robert the kiss-off, tell him yourself.” She looked at me with an absolutely blank face, her usually talkative eyes for once mute. Then she reached into her emotional tote and pulled out the ‘poor me’ mask and her eyes and mouth changed subtly. “Bobby said you were so sensitive.” “Sorry, I spent all that kind of sensitivity on Robert.” She said, “I’ve made a fool of myself, then, parading my dirty linen.” “No, my dear, you’ve just made yourself perfectly human and me your understanding but unswayable friend. You can ask me for anything but to do your dirty work for you.” She smiled a sad smile while I beckoned the waiter over to settle the check. “I’ll walk you to your car.” “Don’t bother.” We were across Market and just down a little from the Tenderloin. “I insist,” I said. “I’ll have Meany to answer to if you get mugged, and, one of these days, Robert as well. He won’t be bed-ridden forever, Clare. He’ll be out and you’ll have to deal with him. I suggest now.” “Would you at least tell him I’m coming and why?” “That I would consent to do,” I said, and we walked out into the tattered fog of a San Francisco summer’s dusk. four Jake said, as he came through the patio door, “Feels like earthquake weather out there.” In the last twilight he looked more flushed than merely from a successful stint before an APHA audience, and he spoke more loudly than usual. I put my finger to my lips; the gent in the next bed was sleeping, as he did, it seemed, most of the day. A wifely woman in a fringed buckskin jacket kept vigil at his side. “What’s up?” Jake asked, still a little too loudly. I told him about Rutledge’s visit. As I told it it became clear to me—and Jake, he picked up on it immediately—the sergeant had been telling me I had Meany by the short hairs and was asking me not to yank. “What a crock,” I said. Jake’s eyes came alive. “No, no, my friend: he’s right. That’s it.” “That’s what?” “That’s your leverage, your way to get Meany.” I said, “I don’t want to get Meany, I want to keep Mary Clare.” “You’ll have to fight to do it” “From flat on my back?” He said, “That’s the way the world’s choreographed it.” “And exactly what am I to do?” I got it: he was tipsy: the pink glow, the loud talk. “You tell Rutledge’s niece, when she gets here, the most interesting story you can about the capture of Homer Smith, and you make the mistress of the Great Tycoon Meany the indispensable star of the capture.” “Besides being chickenshit,” I said, “it’s too late. She’s come and gone and she’s so pissed she’ll never be back.” I told Jake about that visit, too. After lunch I chatted with one of the nurses about the man in the next bed, who had fallen asleep at the wheel the night before. There was a temporary “full moon” shortage of beds in the ICU, and this gent seemed sturdy enough to put in a semi-private room with a nice, quiet patient on a med-surg ward. “A room for two victims of ignorance about invincibility,” I quipped to the nurse, and we laughed. He was also the perfect excuse. Or so I thought. But when Suzanne Arnold arrived, I realized she was not the type to be put off, not even to speak softly. Rather, she was shrill, in part because she was angry, in part to compensate for her diminutive size. She was also, as the good sergeant had warned, smart-assed. I debated whether the smart-assedness also came from being small. Soon what had been a false reason not to talk became a real concern. I envisioned a nurse coming in to throw out the cranky Miss Arnold, whose back, clothed in a practical car coat, was stiff and whose shoulders were set to impart her annoyance at her uncle’s part in stonewalling her. She reminded me of a saw-whet or a burrowing owl awakened from her daytime sleep. After precious few pleasantries, none of which included sympathy for my injured back, she asked me, “Who was the woman in your room when you captured Homer Smith?” Though forewarned by her uncle, I was still caught off guard. I had rehearsed telling the story of the capture as it happened, minus Mary Clare. “That’s incidental,” I said. “Don’t you want to hear how Homer kidnapped me first?” “I talked to your neighbor, Mrs. Clarke. I gather this ‘naked lady’ gets a lot of credit for Smith’s capture.” “I disarmed him,” I said. “And she kept a gun trained on Mr. Smith.” “I did need a little help.” She opened and closed her reporter’s notebook and opened it again. “I won’t spar with you, Mr. Gattling. We have other ways of finding out.” “We? You just pulled that shit on the wrong person, lady,” I said. “You and whoever else makes up that ‘we’ can take a flying leap at the moon. I’ve been reamed by the press before, and I’m not going to let it happen to a friend. Back then I listened to what I thought was wise advice: ‘Just let it go, Robert, it’ll blow over.’ Not this time, no ma’am.” Her nostrils flared. “I know this much, Mr. Gattling. I know the police wouldn’t be trying to keep her identity from me if she were just the ordinary girlfriend of an ordinary janitor, who just happened to be sleeping over the night you got lucky and took out that crazy bomber. I’ll bet my professional bippy she’s no more an ordinary girlfriend than you’re an ordinary janitor.” I said, “What would you know about that?” “I was in my last semester at Cal when they reported that unfortunate incident in Reno. And yes, you got reamed. Trust me, Gattling. I’m better than that.” ***** I saw a light bulb go off over Jake’s head. He was going to let me finish my story, and he was going to explain what he meant by fighting Meany to win Mary Clare, but I’d let the mangy cat out of the bag, the one that had been pussy-footing around our relationship since Jake first asked me what I was doing pushing a broom on Bobwhite Court. Like Suzanne Arnold, he could visit the county library and go through archived newspapers until he found the article I was referring to as my reaming. ***** At Miss Arnold’s reference to my Reno Affair little pings of light flashed in the corners of my eyes. Despite my trussed-up helplessness, I hissed, “You better not use that, lady. And you better get your ass out of here.” I jabbed the call button several times. “I can see you’re not going to cooperate.” “Cooperate? I’m gonna sue your ass off if you cross the wrong T or dot the wrong I. And if that doesn’t work, I’ll think of something more suited to a smart-ass snippet.” The nurse came rushing in. She looked at me, saw the distended vein on my forehead, she looked at Miss Arnold and saw her deadpan fury, and would have politely asked her to leave, but I had to add, “Think about this as if it were a juvenile crime or a rape; think about withholding her name to keep from doing some harm you can’t imagine to someone who doesn’t deserve to be smeared.” “You’ll have to leave, miss,” the nurse said in an authoritative tone. Suzanne channeled her fury enough to say, “Why don’t you start from the top. I didn’t have my recorder on when you threatened me.” I said, “Please, Nurse?” The nurse threw Suzanne Arnold out firmly but politely. As I watched her settling the strap of her purse on her shoulder, jamming her notebook in her car coat pocket, I realized she was not a testy saw-whet at all, she was a Gila monster. ***** At the end of my account, Jake said, “Get her back.” When I saw that he was serious I said, “No way; I can’t.” “Sure you can,” he said. “—Or I can, if you want.” “After what I said to her? I don’t hate Meany—at least not that much.” “Meany’ll have the same opportunity to counter what you tell her as you had with whatever went on in Reno.” “I can explain that,” I said. “Later.” “Well, the newspaper didn’t give me any chance to counter it. Can I explain?” “I’m fresh out of ears. I just had a three martini conversation with your girlfriend.” That stopped me. I was no longer so interested in Miss Arnold. “She’s giving me the gate, isn’t she.” “She’s coming around to talk to you,” he said. “But you wouldn’t be suggesting I fink on her if she hadn’t told you she was leaving.” “You’ll have to fight to keep her. She loves you just as much as ever, it’s just she’s down right now.” I sighed. “I’m tired of fighting.” “This ain’t the gym, buddy, it’s a dark alley, you don’t get to decide if you’re going to fight, you’ve been jumped, goddammit.” “Clare’d be hurt, too.” Jake said, “She’d be hurt if you shoved a tube down her throat and pumped her stomach, but you’d do it if she’d ODed.” “You’re a cold sonofabitch when you’re lit, Jake.” “Someone has to look at this with a beady eye, and lying there feeling sorry for yourself isn’t the best vantage for casting a beady eye.” We were pushing up against the limits of our friendship; I shut my trap. He got up to go. He said, “When you’re caught between knowing you’d lose by doing nothing and not knowing the outcome if you tried to do something, the odds aren’t hard to figure. They stack up in favor of fighting. Don’t crap out, Robert. Fight.” I looked about me, trying to find a rebuttal. I looked at the bland pastel walls and the Sierra Club reproductions hanging on them. Nothing came to me. “I’ve got family I haven’t seen all day,” he said. “You think about it.” As he slid open the patio door I managed to say, “”Would you see if you can get that Suzanne Arnold lady back in here to see me?” five The third time I woke in the hospital, I woke to routine. Mornings, before any visitors, they took me out of traction long enough to minister to my body, during which time I pretended I had the same lithe frame I’d had when I fought at the Olympic Auditorium, because I had no choice about showing it to a lot of nurses, almost all of whom, at that point in history, were women. I ate prone; someone fed me. I could urinate by myself but my bowel movements were attended. My bowels cooperated with my modesty for a while but were soon overcome by modern technology. Any sense of autonomy was wrung out of me. “What’s up?” Jake asked, breezing into my room. Preoccupied with the meeting in San Francisco, he’d had no time to go by my apartment, but he put together a toilet kit from spare Father’s Day gifts. And I received lots of attention from the nursing staff. I got the impression that, even if I didn’t measure up to the cut welterweight image any more, I was in better shape than most men on the floor. I was a good patient, I add immodestly, and a minor hero to boot. When it came out that I knew something of doctors from their end of the stethoscope, being responsible for some of their education, the RNs began to gossip a little about the attending staff. Jake told me they’d also picked up on the Robert-Mary Clare-Meany triangle and were rooting for youth and beauty. One nurse, a serious Christian, suggested Providence had had a hand in laying me low. “It can’t be to test my faith,” I said, tempering an urge towards irony, “so do you think it might be punishment for my sins?” “How about,” she said, “preserving you from worse harm?” I thought about that a lot. It started a counter-melody to my hymn to the Divine Accident. The counter-melody’s dominant theme stated that, even if there were no Benign Patriarch “up there,” His beard streaming across the firmament like the Milky Way, there was a pattern. There were as many universes as there were persons, each of us at the center of his own, each motion you or I impart to the ether sending out ripples in concentric rings, mingling with those emanating from others’ universes, some creating harmonies, some discords, but it all worked out. With Mary Clare I’d been in close harmony, with Meany not at all. Jake and I made rings like contrapuntal melodies, a set, a pattern within the grand pattern. What a consolation it would be to believe that, I told myself. In the evening after visiting hours, one nurse or another would stand in the doorway of my room and interrupt my musings with questions about the doings on Bobwhite Court. If the nurses changed, the questions did not: what was a Homer Smith really like? Did he slaver and roll his eyes? Was he a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army or the Weathermen? When they heard that he wore double-knit polyester and drove a big old Cadillac convertible they would say, “You’re kidding,” and shake their heads. Several were in awe of Jake’ efforts to save the man who’d been killed by the letter bomb. Wondering, even with all their training, if they’d have tried to do what he did. All the nurses tut-tutted that I had no family nearby. They acted as if they must make up for this lack by treating me extra well. I didn’t mind at all, although I wouldn’t have minded some complete ‘down time’ either. Actually, there were more visitors than I cared to receive. Wednesday’s parade started with Meryl Destrier. She came in wearing a dress Lana Turner might have worn, fitted except for a draped bodice. She bent down and kissed me on the brow while I eyed the strain her breasts were putting on her foundation garment. Was this Meryl trying to get to me? It didn’t work. For once I had not an ounce of lust for her. As she straightened up she said, “You pulled the ultimate boner, sweetie.” “Several persons have told me that, even my doctor, but I suspect they’re all talking about different things. —Which boner were you referring to, Meryl?” “I’m talking about the one that produced this,” pulling an envelope out of her purse. I held out my hand to receive the letter. She ignored it. “Severance pay through August,” she said. “Your idea?” “Mr. Meany didn’t want to appear shabby, you being a hero and all.” She dropped the envelope on my chest. I declined to give her the satisfaction of tearing it open and reading its contents. I set it on the night stand while I composed my face. Meanwhile, still smiling, she said, “You look so sweet and helpless there.” She looked around the curtain at my slumbering roommate. Grinning, she whispered, “Tell me, what’s it like, sharing the boss’s girlfriend? A thrill? Or what?” And I thought I was a snoop. “Com’on, I won’t tell. You can talk to me in complete confidence.” Trying not to sound snotty, I said, “In the first place, I'm an independent contractor, so he wasn’t my boss—remember? In the second place, I didn’t share anybody with anybody.” “Is it like an affair with a married woman,” Meryl persisted, “or better?” “Is my check in that envelope?” She smiled her enigmatic smile, which I assume meant ‘yes.’ “So tell me,” she said in a coy, girlish voice. “Com’ere,” I said. I used a conspirator’s tone and crooked a finger at her. She bent down as if to catch my whispered words, the lights of her eyes equally conspiratorial. I slid my hand up the back of her thigh and snapped the suspender from her garter belt. After the thwack of elastic on flesh she swung back her purse, as if to smack me with it. Then, without another word, she stormed out of the room. ***** Right behind her a nurse appeared and handed me a business card. “Would you care to speak to Ms. Arnold?” This was the nurse who’d tossed her out on her first visit. When I nodded she brought me a cup of coffee (in what she like to call a ‘tippy cup’) and a cigarette, asking, “Ready?” Then she hung around after Miss Arnold came in, I’m guessing to make sure my blood pressure didn’t skyrocket. But our reporter, so pissed on first meeting, was this time mortified. Someone had got to her since her first visit, her shoulders no longer showing outrage at trampled constitutional rights. Chastened, she more than ever imitated a somnolent saw-whet. Her face showed no character lines at all: no furrows, no laugh lines, no age lines. She was a Muppet awaiting buttons and bits of cloth to fit her chosen persona. What a poker player she would make. A prurient curiosity made me wonder what her face would register during a sexual embrace. After she refused a cup of coffee I came right to the point. “Can I trust you?” “After what you said to me yesterday?” I said, “I’m sorry about that, but can I?” She said, “I have to pick up a photographer in forty minutes and go see some folks in Walnut Creek about saving an oak tree.” “Sometimes,” I said, “I think Walnut Creek must be the last stronghold of the Druids. Wouldn’t be on Orchard Lane, would it?” “How did you know?” she asked. I decided there wasn’t time to tell her about Cooper Ivey coming a cropper over the same tree. Another damned fool developer risked losing his shirt to irate citizens. “Before, when I got so upset, I was hoping the lady in question wouldn’t make me do this. I’m now ready to answer any and all of your questions. —Care for a cigarette?” She shook her head. “I need to trust you, Suzanne, because what I’m doing amounts to playing God, and that means you end up doing the same.” She said, “You give me the facts first, and then, if I have time, I’ll listen to your speech.” “Fair enough; ask away. But before I answer, satisfy my curiosity: do you want her name just because your uncle and I tried to keep it from you?” She said, “I’m writing a Saturday morning feature my city editor gave a pretty high priority. I have to evaluate what facts are important, then he evaluates me on how I interpreted the facts and wrote them down. Not naming her implies there’s a mystery here, and believe it or not, readers don’t like mysteries—unless it’s a mystery that’s bound to be solved in a few days, or, it appears insoluble. The reading public seems to know when you’re kidding them about a mystery.” “Her name is Mary Clare Morrison.” Suzanne Arnold stared at me, waiting for a punch line. “She’s the mistress of La Morinda’s largest land baron.” Her owlish eyes grew larger by a perceptible tad. “She’s V.M. Meany’s kept woman.” I involuntarily shuddered as I said it, feeling guilty as hell but certain I was doing the right thing. “I can’t use that,” Suzanne said. “A minute ago you couldn’t wait to find out.” “Meany and my publisher play poker once a month.” “And you accused me of fucking with the First Amendment. How about the public’s right to know?” “Why are you trying to use me?” “Look at it like sex, Ms. Arnold: I’m giving you something. Is it wrong that I should happen to gain something thereby?” She sat silent, placid as the pastel hues of the room, eyes changing as slowly as a cloudless sunrise on the desert. I caught a hint of language in her eyes and facial muscles. My gaze was diverted by the tapping of her ballpoint, like a metronome, on her reporter’s notebook. “Give me the straight stuff, Mr. Gattling.” “About the giving and receiving of sex?” “Many of our readers,” she said, “will already know about that, or think so.” Our eyes met; I couldn’t help but smirk. She rolled her eyes and shook her head slowly. Which was when, I reflect, I could mark the beginning of my back mending, from a sudden vision of Suzanne in bed. What a challenge she would be. I decided I trusted her. six I told Suzanne the story backwards. Mary Clare’s role in disarming Homer Smith, how she came to be in my apartment, how she was beholden to Meany and afraid, until the bomb blast, to let go of him and what I understood of why. I told the story with no embellishments, taking my cue from the metronome tick of pen on notebook. “That’s about the size of it,” I concluded. She waited a moment, her head cocked to one side. “Now tell me why you want to expose this bleak affair between the woman you say is your sweetheart and Mr. Meany.” “She needs a push.” I elaborated on the theme of the happy dependent, the conditioning, the drugs, the fear of independence. Suzanne sat looking at me, giving no clue as to what passed through the brain behind that poker face. Finally she said, “Well well well well.” “Well what?” I asked. “You’re either a scab on the chin of society, as a professor of mine used to say, or you love her enough to risk everything. I’ll vote for the latter, although I bet for you that’s a rare place to be.” “Rare?” “I didn’t mean bad by it. I’ve got to go see about a tree.” “What are you going to write?” She rose. With higher heels and a puffier hairdo, she might have measured five-two that day. She put on her most poker-ready owl’s face and said, “I haven’t decided yet.” I said, “I would kiss your feet if you could help me.” She said, “I’m sure you would.” A miniscule smirk slipped from hiding and played about her lips. I shook hands with her before she left, once again apologizing for my reckless words of the day before. Her handshake measured a good five-foot-six. “Do I have an exclusive?” she asked. “Until I see your byline I’m not to be disturbed.” “See that you aren’t, Mr. Gattling with the two tees.” Alone again, I poked around inside and felt forlorn and wicked. There was something of the sheen of tainted flesh about outing Mary Clare, something green and iridescent. I also reflected about this business of climbing back on the merry-go-round, as Jake liked to term it. It had about it the logic of the habituated yardbird committing a felony to end up behind bars again. My moment of reflection came to an end when a voice like a Nashville-bound cowboy came over the curtain from the other bed. “Of all the lowdown skunks. You’d sell your mother’s diary to the Enquirer, wouldn’t you.” It was a moment of confusion. Then I realized that my previously zonked roomie had listened to my interview with Suzanne. “You’re damned lucky, buster, I can’t get out of bed, cause I’d come over there and give you a lip you couldn’t talk through for a week.” “And you’re damned lucky I got one arm in a sling and the other hooked to this IV thing, or I’d come over and stomp you like an egg-sucking snake deserves to be stomped.” We were two dogs separated by a chain link fence, snapping and snarling with abandon. “You hadn’t been asleep before now you’d understand why I did that.” “Oh I heard the words you used on that little reporter lady,” my roommate said, adding in a mincing tone, “I’m only doing it for her own good. —My ass.” “If I could have thought of another way to do it I would have.” “How about waiting till you’re out of that bed then go over and run her old man out of town.” I guffawed. “I’d have to kill him first. He’s got a taproot that reaches China.” He said, “Then you take an axe to him.” “Thanks for the metaphor. Metaphors are what I hit ladies with instead of bricks.” “Proverbs says, ‘The righteous, like sandalwood, shall perfume the axe that fells them.’” “In a way, that’s what I just did, though my preferred metaphor would be ‘Shedding the light of day on the subject.’” “But think about what you’re doing to her in the process.” “How much of my life have you been listening in on, anyway?” “Enough to know you’re a scumbucket.” “You’re taken in by the tears, lunkhead. She’s been indulged by every man in her life, and all of us added another bar to her cage in the process. Well, no more. The best education she could get would be to end up on the street with the clothes on her back and not a single man to turn to for protection.” “Oh,” was all that came from the other side of the curtain before the nurse came in and looked at him, feigning zonkedness, for she left as quickly as she’d come. Smarting from the undiluted attack on my judgment, I searched for a final word, a devastating put-down. I was beaten to the punch by my roommate: “Well, at least I riled you enough you won’t be lying there feeling sorry for yourself.” All I could do was let out a growl like a bullmastiff. With A Vengeance one From interviewing Druids in Walnut Creek, Ms. Arnold went to Jake’s office. The APHA meeting had ended, but Jake wasn’t resting until he’d followed up all the connections he’d made during the five days. Bird-dogging he called it. He chose to endure the racket across the hall, putting Homer’s office back together, to assault Suzanne Arnold’s senses, hoping—futilely, it turned out—to keep their interview short. He came by my room for a debriefing as the sun was going down. “Keep your fingers crossed,” he said. “You don’t think she’ll go along with it?” Jake said, “Honestly, I don’t know. She’s persistent. She’s suspicious. She’s afraid of sounding like a gossip columnist if she identifies Mary Clare. She’s bouncing around, trying on various ideas, like doing the feature focusing on me instead of you. I made myself sound as dull as haggis, but she’s got a hound’s nose and a terrier’s tenacity, so, like I said, keep your fingers crossed.” Suzanne leveled with Jake more than me, and why not, given my treatment of her. She expressed her doubts: how could either of us claim Mary Clare wasn’t just a typical gold-digger? And how about Meany as an altruist. Her credulity had run out of elastic. “You know, it struck me, she might be conflicted because she likes you,” Jake said. He wasn’t smirking, even when I gave him my evil eye. “She what?” “You’re good-looking, you’re a maverick, you did a boy-scout-grade good deed—all very attractive. But you’re trying to muck up a romance for base ends—hence the conflict.” I said, “No, none of that. Her interest is strictly reportorial.” He said, “She wouldn’t be the first woman to have her maternal instincts aroused by a good man needing help.” “Get out,” I said. He laughed, “I will—but literally. I need to see if the wife and kids still remember who I am.” ***** From Jake’s cassette tapes: Sitting in the breakfast nook reading the Courier, I opened to the “Valley Life” section to see Suzanne Arnold’s byline and two pictures of the Bobwhite Court complex, one from the night of the bombing, across the crime scene tape and through the rescue vehicles, the other a daytime picture of the buildings as originally built. The headline read: “Bombing Disrupts Private Lives.” As I read the article—she’d done a rather non-gossipy version of what she called a gossip piece—my fascination was swallowed by fast-growing anxiety: V.M. Meany, back from skeet shooting or whatever tycoons do Saturday mornings—would be sitting over coffee in his breakfast nook, reading the very same piece. The lead paragraph was innocuous enough: “In the wake of the bombing that rocked offices and apartments here this week, the quiet lives of several La Morindans are being resurrected from the scattered rubble.” I got first mention: Jacob Pritchett, health care consultant, trying to forget the mutilated body of Javier Garcia. It went quickly on: a quote from me about using techniques learned in the boy scouts while trying to stop Garcia’s arterial bleed-out; transition to Homer Smith and why his attempted kidnap of Robert Gattling was sufficient to keep him in jail without bail. Then came a description of Robert’s heroics. My adrenaline production increased geometrically when I came to the actual capture: Gattling’s opportunity to capture Smith came on a diversion created by another resident of the Bobwhite Court apartments, Mary Clare Morrison. Her unexpected presence in Gattling’s apartment diverted Smith long enough for Gattling to jump him and knock him unconscious. I scanned the rest of the article, reading as quickly as possible, gulping down as much coffee as I could while standing and calling to Amanda. I checked myself in the hall mirror—I was decent enough; I just wondered if I would be in time. . . . Offices shut down the day after the explosion and fire while FBI and police sifted through the debris . . . a quote from Meany’s secretary, Meryl Destrier, about Smith being a messy though otherwise unnoteworthy tenant . . . the search for Garcia’s accomplices and the arms they’d secured from Smith, even while the rebel’s body was being claimed by relatives in exile from Guatemala. Long section about Robert’s rich life before becoming a janitor and how he would be casting about for a new career, since he could no longer push a broom. And then the sentence, “Mary Clare Morrison, of late the protégé of V.M. Meany but described by friends as a graduate student, is planning to return to school soon.” It wasn’t much, but in a place like La Morinda, calling a woman “protégé” was code for “concubine.” Mrs. Meany would understand it that way, and so would a number of judges, mayors, supervisors and police chiefs, one or more of whom were bound to be laughing up their sleeves at the idea. My swearing at lollygagging motorists in Moraga and Walnut Creek made them move no faster. At last I pulled into the emergency room parking area, closest to the patio and the sliding glass door to Robert’s room, parking opposite a familiar white Cadillac with a silver longhorn hood ornament, already running as I slammed the car door. I found the pastel curtains parted but the door locked, involuntarily snarling as I looked through the glass at Meany thrusting aside a rather substantial nurse in the doorway, crumpled newspaper in hand, moving to the foot of Robert’s bed. Watching his roommate’s eye widen, turning to me, knowing he was too encumbered to get out of bed to unlock the door— —so I tore half-way around the building to the side entrance of the outpatient tower, along the corridor, startling staff and visitors, homing on the med/surg wing, legs like mercury, nerves of glass shattering shard upon shard— —into the room where two white-smocked physicians were shouting and trying to wrestle Meany back from Robert’s bed, where he had the crumpled newspaper pinned between them, nose to nose, shaking Robert the way a terrier shakes a rat to snap its back. I was an MP again, the berserk patient, the swift stomp to the back of the knee, taking Meany down and applying a half Nelson. Only the man was stronger than any demented GI I ever tackled, this man was the bear we all joked about, and I hung on for dear life as he bellowed his rage and swung me about like an excited hound bred not to let go. two Meany kept saying, “You little bastard, you little bastard.” One of the physicians, who’d graduated from Mount Diablo High School two years after Meany, knew him well enough to shout “Moose!” “Moose,” he shouted, “for Christ’s sake, he’s a patient.” Just like that, Moose Meany, panting from exertion and anger, threw Jake off his back. Thanks to the breakaway nightie the nurses had me dressed in, he’d done me no real, physical hurt. But I had plenty of impressions of his anger to decorate my nightmares: the smell of coffee on his breath, the spray of saliva as the word ‘bastard’ exploded on his lips, the enraged gleam in his usually mute eyes. I wanted to wipe my face and straighten my gown, but instinct told me to lie perfectly still for fear I might set him off again. Strangely, I wasn’t scared. In a moment Meany had his breath. “My own daughter throws it up to me, no warning.” He spoke to the assemblage in the room—and there were more now, including the supervising nurse—but he spoke directly to me when he said, “You think you’re so goddam smart.” I said nothing and didn’t twitch a muscle. Still puffing, Meany said, “Well, can’t you say anything?” “In front of all these people?” “That’s okay,” he said, his eyes narrowing, “I don’t care who hears me say it, I can’t straighten this thing out with Clare, I’m gonna get you—understand? I’ll fix your wagon. I know what you’re up to, and it won’t work.” The little man in my head said Shut up; don’t mess. As when I was little, I imagined lying motionless and as flat as possible under the covers made me less visible. He came towards me again, making one doctor yelp, but it was only to pick up his sunglasses, which were lying on my blanket. Meany stomped out of the room and was gone. The older doctor exclaimed, “My God!” on behalf of the assemblage, while the younger one grabbed my chart, scanned it, and said, “Do you feel any pain?” I was surrounded by faces of persons who expected me to be in pain. There was something comic in the sameness of their expressions—frozen in suspense and fear. I told them, a giggle escaping me, I felt fine. The doctor with the chart said to one of the nurses, “Phone Dr. Clemens; he’d better examine Mr. Gattling right away.” Turning towards the door, Jake announced he was calling the police. The older doctor said, “Who the hell are you?” “Obviously, Mr. Gattling’s friend.” “Is it really necessary to call the police?” Several in the room spoke at once: “That was a serious threat he made;” “He was totally out of line;” “Don’t you think you’re overreacting?” Jake said, “What I saw was assault—maybe aggravated assault.” I didn’t need any more of this. “Hold it!” Now the kibitzers’ expressions reminded me of a troop of backyard raccoons looking though a French door. I pointed and laughed. The laugh told me something my body hadn’t yet, a premonition of pain, for it came out shallow, like the way some dogs bark. Faces turned sheepish. “Nurse,” I said, “do please get my doctor over here. Doctors, thanks for all the help, but I think I can take it from here. Jake, please stick around.” The older doctor said, “Are you going to call the police?” I said, “He comes back and does it again, there might not be so many of you around.” “But Mr. Meany isn’t a criminal.” Jake said, “Would you like him to beat you up like that? Don’t worry, he can get Melvin Belli to defend him if it comes to that.” “Listen to reason, Mr. Gattling . . .” the younger doctor began and I cut him off. “Jake, how do you throw doctors out of a patient’s room?” “Same way as anyone else,” he said, and started herding everyone, including a nurse who might have had legitimate business with the man in the next bed, who was swearing softly but steadily from behind his green curtain. Jake closed the door and said, “Where do you hurt?” I shook my head. “Thank God for the open air kimonos they give you around here.” It came through to me, I might have been really hurt. “Jesus!” escaped my lips. “I’ll be back,” Jake said. I lay there reflecting: I was a turd. In spite of his dog-in-a-manger act with Mary Clare, I liked Meany. What he had that I didn’t was certainty, a clear vision of what things meant to him, a belief in himself and his values that left no doubt what to do and when. It allowed him not only to grab power but to enjoy its use and benefits. My roommate finally spoke up: “He did what any man ought to, goddam it.” He was so right I had nothing to say in response. Jake found Rutledge in his office, catching up on paper work. My orthopedist was out on the Bay, sailing, but his partner would be in directly. An assistant administrator, a woman almost Meryl’s size but without her superb bearing, came in and apologized profusely. The supervising nurse came back and wanted me to know her staff were there for me. Through this Jake hung around like a guard dog among the sheep after a coyote attack. When Rutledge came in the first thing he said was, “I told you, wise guy,” which caused Jake to face him and say, “Hey, none of that shit,” fists doubled and teeth clenched. Afraid of Jake landing in jail, I shouted, “Stop!” My roomy, who was named Fred and had broken ribs and a collapsed lung, besides many lacerations and contusions, resumed his swearing, louder than before, so that I spoke in a stage whisper and Jake and Rutledge followed suit. “How long do I have to file a complaint with you?” I asked Rutledge. Jake said, “It’s a felony. There’s no choice.” Rutledge said to Jake, “Stay out of this.” Jake said, “I’ll go to the district attorney.” “Get the fuck out of here before I arrest you,” Rutledge barked. Jake went into the hall, but I’m sure he heard Rutledge say, “Talk to your doctor, find out what damage he did. I’ll have someone take your statement Monday. Meany won’t be back, I’ll guarantee it.” I shrugged in agreement and Rutledge left. Clemens’s partner ordered X-rays, but confessed he couldn’t tell for sure what damage Meany might have done my ailing spine without taking me off my meds. “Do it,” I said. I told him, Jake listening in the background, that I probably moved my back more dodging Meany’s initial attack with his fists than from his shaking me. “You’re unmarked,” the doctor observed. He came in wearing tennis shorts and shoes and a striped polo shirt. I explained I’d been a boxer and knew about slipping punches. Still, he had a portable X-ray unit brought to my room. He said he’d read the X-rays that afternoon, but still thought taking me off meds, to look for indirect evidence of neurological damage, was called for. He thought Monday morning they would be able to find such evidence. ***** I grew gradually more twitchy over the next twenty-four hours. Despite what Rutledge said, another detective came in Sunday afternoon to take my statement. He was younger than Rutledge, blonde and prematurely balding, affable. I could see him being chief of police in a city like La Morinda someday. He asked me few questions, letting me talk into a portable recorder. When I ran out of words he said, “Do you know why Mr. Meany would do a thing like this?” Embarrassed, I said, “Rutledge knows.” “I was told to ask you, to help decide if we should arrest him right away.” Jake was there. He said, “You mean you haven’t already?” The detective, whose name was Andy Bolles, said, “We have his word his attorney will surrender him Monday morning.” Jake said, “That beats all,” but I waved him off. I said, “I don’t think he’ll come back at me again, if that’s what you’re worried about.” “That would be it,” Bolles said. “If you arrested him today, couldn’t he get someone to authorize his release today?” Bolles said, “Not for a felony.” I thought a minute. “Let him turn himself in.” Jake swore and walked out into the hall. When Bolles left Jake came back in. I said, “Odds are he went right from here to Mary Clare’s. She’ll calm him down. He has to think out what to do, what to tell his family. From what he said, his daughter must have seen the article before he did and teased him about that protégé bit. He’ll weather it. And, it wasn’t such a big deal, anyway. I’m fine—I think.” Jake was still pissed. “He have to beat you with a two-by-four before it’s a big deal? He makes two of you, goddamit.” “Calm down, Jake.” He did calm down. He paced around the room once and said, “You got to him, though. He’ll have to clean up his act now.” I said, “Let’s hope he doesn’t make a bigger mess in the process.” three Late Sunday, on the second shift, they moved Fred, bed and all, to another room and replaced his bed with an empty one. As he was wheeled by he said, “Can’t say I’ll miss the racket, but I’m damned if I don’t want to know what happens.” Later the night shift nurse came in and sat with me. This was nothing new; she’d done it each night since I was admitted, talking softly in the half-light. In the second night’s conversation she told me she wished she were Mary Clare. “Huh?” “How unencumbered she is. I’m putting a husband through medical school and I have two kids. There’s nothing but tedium, not a ripple of excitement or surprise.” When she went off duty there was enough light to see she was a strawberry blond with a timid face and an incredible figure. Her name tag read “Sandy Pillsbury, R.N.” In the half light of the Sunday they were phasing out my meds, she asked me, “Why did you do it?” “You mean, give the story to the newspaper?” I tried to explain. The explanation wasn’t as convincing as when Jake and I first discussed it. She said, “You’re going to bring that girl great shame.” “She has no ties here; she’s been living like a hermit. If she moved over the hill tomorrow, no one would remember her the day after.” “You’re a tie; you’d miss her.” “You bet, Sandy,” I said, remembering her name tag, “but to her I’m like wine to an alcoholic. When push comes to shove, it doesn’t matter if I’m a Fifty-three Chateau Lafite or jug wine. If I were the main man in her life she’d do the same with me as she did with Meany. It’s time she finds out no man is the solution any more than he’s the problem.” Sandy said, “It sounds to me as if everyone’s in limbo. I mean, you’re not going anywhere, and obviously Mr. Meany has a problem with his home life, or he wouldn’t take a mistress, and that poor girl probably doesn’t know what she’ll do next.” Too much reality. I asked if I could have some aspirin. When I’d taken two extra strength I asked if she could give me a massage. She didn’t remind me I couldn’t be turned, she just stroked me the way a mother would a child, on the brow and cheek and the back of my neck. I couldn’t remember a more sensitive touch outside of a passionate embrace. I didn’t tell her that, I said, “You’ve sure got great hands.” She said, “It’s my one gift.” “It’s what nurses did in the olden days,” I said, “before all the drugs.” When she left she said, “You won’t cause that girl any more pain, will you?” In the depth of the night my own pain became harder to tolerate. I asked if adding weight on my traction device might help. Sandy consulted a physician in the emergency room. He didn’t hesitate to wake Dr. Clemens, who said it probably wouldn’t help but it wouldn’t hurt either. (So much for the placebo effect, I muttered to myself.) Sandy added a two hundred, fifty gram disc to the device and said, “There,” as if everything was taken care of. I couldn’t sleep, waiting for Clemens to come in and tell me Meany’d miraculously done no further damage. Brusque, a surgeon through and through, he did the arcane things doctors do but, I suspect, that for an orthopod they meant different things. He looked again at the X-rays his partner had ordered and asked me if I was up to a CT scan. I said, “How much certainty will a CAT scan add to your findings, doc?” He allowed as how it might increase his certainty by one to five percent. “I’m not going to sue you, Doc. Fuck the CAT scan. Something else eventuates, we’ll tackle it.” “Bless you, brother. You’ll get written up as patient of the month.” “Really?” “Hell no, I just made that up. Let’s shoot you up with something to make you sleep. You want to eat first?” “Just make the pain go away.” ***** Jake was there when I came to. “I feel bad,” I told him. “Pain?” “Dr. Clemens gave me some wonderful stuff. No, it’s deeper. I feel so bad about Mary Clare.” He said, “I recall a time you assuaged her pain. Remind her, if you get the chance. Maybe she’ll remember and not hate you.” He was talking about an anecdote I once related to him. One night, after I first met her, I was in bed reading when I heard a knock on the door. I slipped into a pair of Levi’s and, suspicious of the hour, took a pipe wrench with me to the door. Not to worry, it was a waif. It was Mary Clare in a trench coat and bare feet. She walked past me into the room. “I couldn’t be alone. Do you hate me?” “Of course not. Need a cigarette?” “I’m frightened, Bobby.” “Of what?” I asked. “Just frightened.” She was shivering, hands thrust deep in her coat pockets. Her hair was in a queue. Her face was not pretty to look at, screwed into a grimace of a child who had cried herself out. It was as if, looking past my shoulder, she felt the presence of a phantom I couldn’t see. “Tell me,” I said. “Just hold me, Bobby,” she replied, “I need to be held.” I put my arms around her and the cold coat against my skin made me shiver also. She reached between us and opened the buttons and belt, so that we could slip our arms about each other under the coat and share the warmth. She wore cotton baby dolls; she buried her nose in my chest. Her wet eyelashes brushed my skin. I had this pang, wishing I could be so direct, asking for human warmth when the whim-whams got to me. At last I said, “We can’t stand here all night.” “Let’s go to bed,” she said. She held the covers back while I lost the Levi’s and climbed in. Then she burrowed into me like a puppy or a piglet, shivering and rooting until we were plastered to each other and the shivering stopped. I could feel her muscles relax by degrees. I could smell shampoo, bath oil, lipstick; it made me want her so badly, but I knew I mustn’t. If I wasn’t to be just any warm body, if I was to be the man no man had ever been to her, I knew I mustn’t, even if I didn’t sleep for the rest of the night. I mustn’t. She could tell I was aroused and she said, “Just hold me, Bobby. I promise I’ll make it up to you someday, but right now just hold me, please. Please?” I freed the hand pinned under her and stroked her hair and then her cheek and gradually she passed into a shallow sleep. Just before I fell asleep she woke long enough to say, “It’s all right now, it’s gone.” I never did find out what demon was after her. She couldn’t describe it, it was like a terrible nightmare from the past, something she had no name for, it came from a time when the little blue light in the hall, shining through the bedroom door ajar, could be squinted into the shape of the guardian angel Lupe told her watched through the night, and as long as it was lit there was nothing to fear from the dark. Just before dawn we woke at the same time, trying to move apart to spare the other’s sleep but realizing the other was awake. What do you feel like? I don’t know. Want to sleep more? No. Want to go home? Do you want me to? No. “Want to drive the Jag up to the top of Mount Diablo?” she asked. We jumped up and turned on the light, laughing at each other. I gave her a pair of chinos and, despite our far different builds, they fit. From waist to mid-calf, every cubic millimeter of trouser was filled. They were stretched taut at the widest point of her hips, but they fit and she followed me into the kitchen while I made coffee, wearing just the pants, wearing her beautiful breasts like a fancy shirt. While we drank coffee she found a sweater and a pair of high-topped moccasins, the only footwear of mine that would stay on her, and we ran out to the car, hand in hand, put the top down and I drove along the windless, sleeping Diablo Valley to Danville, turned east and headed up the mountain, to gain the summit before the true dawn reached La Morinda, to look down the back side of the mountain at California’s Central Valley crawling out from under blankets of fog and saw the Sacramento River Delta still dark like mangrove roots upon the land, and sat on a wall of the observation tower and kicked our heels and laughed and laughed. Going Home one A day came I left the hospital. I talked turkey with Dr. Clemens, who had to admit I was a very expensive charity patient. “But,” he said, “I justified it because I considered you an experiment. If I’d been able to keep you flat on your back and stretched for six months, I bet your back would have come out A-one. Now we’ll never know. You’ve set orthopedics back twenty years.” “Listen, doc: In six months I’d have had the muscle tone of an eighty-year-old, plus pre-senile dementia. I’ll risk the backache, thank you.” I wasn’t demented, but I was nursing a broken heart. Every two or three days of my hospital stay I’d ask Jake if the Jag was still parked at the apartments. When he told me it was, I hoped and despaired in equal measure. Mary Clare hadn’t moved out so just maybe I could still make my case to her. On the other hand, she must still be under Meany’s “care.” As I was wheeled out to Jake’s car, the nursing staff said their goodbyes, one wishing me luck with “that Morrison woman.” I told them I loved them all but I was bored to the point of tears with hospital life. One laughed and said if ever there were a next time, they’d be sure to make things a little more lively. On the way home I said to Jake, “One thing lying flat on your back will do for you, you have time to figure out what a waste your life’s been. I’ve been marking time for years.” He said, executing a high speed lane change, we all had to do that sometimes. I ticked off the days in my head. My stay had lasted twenty-seven days, maybe a record for someone my age who hadn’t been totaled in a car accident. That might be a small price to pay for realizing I’d never had a plan in life, I’d stumbled on, somehow surviving childhood and adolescence, high school and college. I’d never bought into anyone else’s plan either, not succumbed to the University’s bureaucracy, for instance. I just stopped my life on a dime the first time it didn’t meander in its usual, painless way. I wondered how I was going to survive. I was fired, but Meany hadn’t sent Meryl around with an eviction notice; Jake thought it wouldn’t come until he and his lawyers had finished their dance with the DA around assault or assault and battery, depending. If he was right, I had a roof over my head until my bank account went dry. Fino’s Market still delivered and Jake promised to look in every day. “Janice Lippert will come if I call in an emergency.” “Won’t that get complicated?” Jake asked. “No, we’re cool—or we were the last time I saw her.” Before I went home I was fitted for a corset reminiscent of Scarlett O’Hara’s in Gone with the Wind. An occupational therapist came in and showed me how to do ordinary things in life, like putting on shoes, without bending from the waist. A discharge planner had also arranged for a physical therapist who would work on getting me in shape without screwing up my back any more than it already was. When the nurse was helping me into the car I stopped her long enough to take in the changes in the California hills. The sun was so bright I had to shield my eyes. The heat of summer had sucked the last of the green from the grasses. The mustard and London rockets and horseradish had shed their last blossoms and the hills had taken on that lion-rump tawny I always felt was their proper color. The only relief came from the dark, leathery green of the coyote bush and the silver of the rabbit bush, the green-black of the native oaks like hassocks scattered on the face of the hills. As we drove off I sniffed the air. “God, smell it, Jake: even exhaust fumes smell good.” On California Street I got my first look at Mount Diablo. It was turning noon and everything stood on its shadow, like bathers on a hot beach. The mountain looked like a three-D image of itself. Everything was new, the lines of buildings sharply in focus; I had no trouble identifying the different makes and models of cars and the different shades of blue and green and silver they came in. When I quit oohing and aahing Jake brought me back to practical things. “You got prescriptions to fill? You won’t have any fresh food in the house, maybe a refrigerator full of slimy lettuce and green bread.” I said I could manage, I didn’t want to be a burden. He harrumphed. “Someday you may have to do the same for me, so don’t be so noble. Remember, I’m eight years closer to senility and decrepitude.” “Oh well, if you put it that way,” I said. “Maybe I can keep you busy for an hour.” Jake told me not to worry about his time, he was in a pure marketing mode, so he had no deadlines to meet nor clients to brief. As we drove through what seemed like awfully busy traffic for a Saturday, I asked him how he marketed. “My market’s like a big vegetable garden. I go around with a wheelbarrow and spread lots of manure.” What he meant was going to meetings, like the APHA annual meeting he’d attended before I did in my back. At such gatherings he tried to sound both intelligent and approachable. “I spend a lot of time on the phone, too. I do lunches and drinks, not just with potential clients but with folks who have stuff in their heads I’d like to know.” He also scanned a Federal rag called the Commerce Business Daily, for requests for proposal that sounded juicy but seldom were. “Marketing,” he said, “is the bullshit of my business. I never think of the work as bullshit, even if somebody hands me a trivial problem. You can always find a handsome solution, even to the trivial, because health care—as you know better than most—is such a vast and ubiquitous pursuit. Think of how many babies get born every year, how many people are admitted to hospitals, how many dollars are spent.” “I know, I know,” I moaned. “Perspective is what I give people,” he said, veering away from painful reminders. “I think it’s worth a lot.” “So why aren’t the customers lined up to the parking lot?” “Because perspective isn’t your red-hot commodity these days. Your red-hot commodity du jour is the simple-pretty.” Leaving the freeway at South Main, he explained that the simple-pretty was not an original Jake Pritchett concept. He credited a colleague, Bob Berglund, with the idea. A simple-pretty, he explained, was a solution that looked nice, cost very little to realize and could not be attacked by your enemies. Simple-pretties do not exist in real life, they are the consultant’s unicorn, they exist in people’s minds because at the heart of the worst cutthroat is a child looking for a fairytale. As in most fields, the answers to management problems in medical care are complex and ugly. If you were completely honest in marketing to a client, he would never hire you. “So what do you do?” I asked. Jake said, “I hold up a mirror to the client and say, ‘See? A simple-pretty.’ Like the emperor’s new clothes, they’re afraid to call me on it.” There was no driving up to my door, but Jake parked in front of the apartments’ entrance, took my keys and unlocked that door. I exited the car, using the edge of its roof to grip and lift with my arms as well as legs. I shuffled slowly to my apartment, leaning on Jake’s arm. Inside I forgot the lovely summer day. The place smelled like it had been shut up for a month. I walked to the rear window and looked out, to see the Jag in its usual place. My bed looked as if Mary Clare had just leapt out of it. Jake made me sit in my one not-so-easy chair while he changed the sheets. Dishes in the sink were crusty. “Kind of a shock after the hospital,” he said as he opened a window to air out the old socks smell. I said, “She was here and gone so fast, she never really settled in. Besides, I don’t think cleaning up was one of her strong suits. A housekeeper came in once a week up in the penthouse.” “Well,” Jake said, “let’s get started.” He made me get in bed with pillows behind me, to read the mail while he inventoried the fridge and tackled the dishes. I had letters from my brother, Bert, and his wife, Lulu. I quoted from them to Jake while he was being domestic. “I didn’t know you had a brother.” “Oh yeah; he’s a full head taller than me, and he doesn’t appreciate what a marriage he made. If I’d met Lulu first I’d have married her, no shit. She is like a mirror image of me; it’s uncanny.” He whipped out a pen and made a list of things to get at various stores. “Beer,” I said. “Be sure and buy beer.” “I will. Anything stronger?” “I’m not going to be operating any dangerous machinery, so I would stand to have a bottle of—I don’t know—gin. So get a lemon at the grocery, please.” While he was away I made three piles on the bedspread: bills and other things that needed tending to, junk, and first class mail. I’d hoped Mary Clare would send a note, but no. Then I ran into Meany’s eviction notice, sent by regular mail but with a certificate of mailing. The reason cited was changing the number of occupants without prior notice. I told Jake when he got back and he said, “That mother-fucker,” which was the only time I remember him using that epithet. “Let him try to enforce it. Where’s the corpus delicti?” “It isn’t such a hot place anyway, Jake, now that I’m not working next door.” “Look, Robert, just get well. All this other stuff will take care of itself.” two Jake brought me a beer as he put away the groceries. He gave me a road atlas to use as a lap board while he did dishes. I tried to answer Bert’s letter but nothing came to mind. You spend twenty-seven days doing nothing and all that exciting stuff you did just before is like the champagne that didn’t get poured last night. My correspondence with Bert was pretty humdrum anyway. He likes shooting elk and antelope. Each letter he writes is chatty: ‘I got this year’s elk with the thirty-ought-six,’ that kind of thing. I wasn’t going to answer Lulu’s letter while Jake was there. I always felt a little guilty about having a letch for Lulu, although I never ever did anything about it. But it was there. Like Jimmy Carter, I lusted in my heart. I got out of bed the way the occupational therapist taught me, using gravity and every muscle except my back muscles. The meds I’d taken with the first beer were kicking in and I felt rather weightless as I shuffled to the fridge to score another. It felt good to be in boxers and a tee shirt instead of a breakaway hospital gown. As I staggered back to bed Jake suggested I move into his place: they had a spare bedroom. Just like that, standing at the sink with his back to me: move in with me. “Oh your wife would really like that,” I said. “Believe it or not, she suggested it.” “No shit?” “No shit. The nurses kept telling her how handsome you are.” “Thanks, Jake, but if I stay here I’ll get back on my feet faster.” To change the subject I told him about Bert and Lulu and their ranch in Montana (her ranch, really; her dowry, she liked to call it). Like something right out of Shane, mountains you’d swear you could reach out and touch. Soon as I told them about my little accident, she’d invite me up there to recuperate. “Only,” I said, “I wonder how cowboys in Montana would react to a guy in a corset.” Jake said, “Breaking horses might produce quite a few bad backs, maybe even a corset or two.” “See?” I said, “that’s your perspective at work. You can’t get away from it.” While Jake went out to the dumpster with all the debris from the refrigerator I scrounged a third beer and located the codeine bottle. Jake caught me at it and said, “Watch that.” “I promise, no driving or operating dangerous machinery. Besides, it’s a treat to drink ad libitum, as the nurses would say.” “Watch it anyway.” At that point I fell into a nod but not asleep. Jake came in from the kitchen drying his hands and told me about easy fixin’s in the freezer. He was shoving off. I thanked him, maybe over-thanked him, but at that point who was analyzing? ***** Jake let a brief stab of sunlight into the apartment before shutting the door softly behind him. I lay in the cool semidarkness, eyes drooping, my mind a mishmash of slow motion reverie. As the air conditioner cycled on and off I would drift into limbo between sleep and waking, confronting beer and codeine fantasies. In one fantasy I'm up in Montana, I’m riding a horse. Pine branches frame the picture, mountains form the background. Lulu comes into the picture, likewise riding a horse. I will always remember Lulu from the stop they made in San Francisco on their way to Acapulco for their honeymoon, chic not sufficient to describe her, she took my breath away. So seeing her on a horse, wearing Levi’s and the kind of shirt barrel racers wear, is novel. She smiles at me; I swear, the horse smiles at me too. Twofer smiles. Another fantasy: Meany bursts in, hoisting me off the mattress by the shirt front, to throw me out. This time I get off a left hook and a straight right—all arm, though. Pull me upright, I pray. Then I’ll back him into a wall, head under his chin to take his balance, beat him about the ribs and kidneys until he begs for mercy. Instead, good old Jake intervenes. Oh well. I fell asleep, only to wake in a thoroughly peaceful fantasy, dancing in the moonlight (supernatural delight) with Mary Clare on her deck. A very refined flirtation, each knowing we will be lovers before the sun comes up. We don’t rush things, keep the suspense going, enjoying the palpable tension until finally I stop dancing and take her face between my hands and kiss her. I fell asleep and the fantasy became a dream. In the dream Clare wore a chemise gown with a short chain of diamonds about her throat. She wore mimosa perfume and she said, “Take this love I offer or let me be.” The dream flipped to a new chapter. I was back in bed and Jake pulled up a chair next to me, handing me a beer and offering me salted peanuts. He said, “You realize, this is the perfect opportunity.” His alert expression asked for a reaction. “You mean, I can drink all the beer I want, eat peanuts by the handful, gain back the weight I’ve lost?” “Better,” he said. “This is the perfect opportunity to start over.” “Why would I want to?” I asked. “You have to ask? Because, my friend, you’re the one man in the world who can create a gosh darn genuine simple-pretty.” “How do I do it, Jake? How do I make a simple-pretty?” In the dream I was atingle, sure I was about to hear a great truth. He said, “You just believe, really believe, it’s a new start, that anything you do will be the right thing—your luck’s come back.” “But how will I know when I have made a simple-pretty?” “That’s the easy part. Since no one’s ever seen a real simple-pretty, you get to decide what is looks like.” I said, “I can’t do that, Jake, I’m not wise enough.” “You’ve got to try, Robert. The whole world needs a simple-pretty and you’re the man who can show the way. Even if at first you fail, you have to keep trying.” “Okay,” I said, “but to start me off, can you help me out of bed, please?” Jake got up and backed towards the door, slipping away like virtue and freedom and other good things. “I’m sorry, I’m not allowed to do that. But I’ll root for you.” I woke at that point, sweating, my throat dry. —Which was nothing to the ache in my heart, wanting to see Mary Clare. I swung my legs over the side of the bed and struggled to my feet. three I stepped into the midsummer evening, touching my pocket to make sure I had my keys. The air felt humid after air conditioning. Concrete and stucco gave up the day’s accumulated warmth; it was like walking into a laundromat on a chilly day. Close to my head, night fliers fluttered about the outside lights, gnats and moths and even a June beetle. I had washed my face and combed my hair. I found a loose-fitting Hawaiian shirt to hide the outlines of my girdle. My face felt tight and hot, and my back throbbed, despite the beer and codeine. It’s telling you you’re alive, I reassured myself. Around the corner was a door marked EXIT which led to the back stairs to Mary Clare’s place. This was the route I’d taken so many nights ago, no greater peril than balancing a Pyrex baking dish holding marinating steaks, getting up the stairs without spilling the marinade on myself. Full of anticipation. This time I moved slowly enough to notice things, a smudge on the wall—newspaper ink fingerprint, my janitor’s eye told me. Paper boy? Bodies of tiny gnats littered the bottom of light globes. I saw everything, going up a step at a time. After the hospital the whole world seem uncommonly soiled. Dead insects and dirt depressed me. By the time I was at the landing of the third floor I was ready to turn back. You should have called first, Gattling. But what would I say? I’m sorry? Sorry my stupid back picked this time to go out on me? It didn’t cover what had gone on between Clare and me, and my back wasn’t really the problem, it was the excuse. It was also what made the prospect of walking back downstairs more forbidding than walking up. Perspiration emerged on my upper lip and brow and between my shoulder blades, soaking into my corset. I’ll just knock, beg her pardon for presuming, and ride the elevator down. When it closed behind me that would be the signal to start my life over without Mary Clare. That’s what that dream meant, Jake urging me to start over and concoct a simple-pretty. Life without the burden of love was going to be my simple-pretty. She opened the door and refrigerated air hit my face like icy, chug-a-lugged beer hitting my stomach. I thought I’d seen her in every garb imaginable, but here she was, bundled in a fur coat over a magenta cover-up, bare feet. She looked pettish and eccentric, a spoiled little rich girl indulging herself. No doubt she took me in with the same sort of jaundiced eye. Immobile for a-one and a-two and a-three, she turned and walked into the room, leaving the door open, letting me decide whether to come in. Climbing the stairs, observing the skeletons of dead bugs, I’d imagined something different: a look of relief and happiness escaping around the edges of a stern attempt to be mad at me. Love winning out. I walked in and closed the door. She said, nodding towards the bedroom, “He’s in there, you know.” No relief, no happiness. In his taped memoir, Jake pondered why I hadn’t just turned around and gone back down the stairs. Well, Jake, my legs were shaking badly from going up them, and by the time I got to the center of the living room I decided nothing was going to happen to me. The bedroom door was closed. I sensed, from Mary Clare’s tone of voice, Meany was asleep. “Care for a drink?” she asked. The way she asked it made me think of meeting Lana on the streets of Berkeley one day after we were divorced, words sticking in both our throats. “I’m fine. I’m full of beer and codeine.” She poured herself a drink. She said from the bar, “When did you get out?” a line from a noir film, the moll to the just-released jailbird. “Today, this morning. —Look, I’m sorry, Clare, I’m goddam sorry.” She said, “I’d forgive you, but I don’t know if I could ever stop asking ‘why?’ It wouldn’t be real forgiveness.” “I thought you couldn’t break away from him without a jump start. I feel stupid now.” “You didn’t trust me.” “You said yourself you needed all this to stay grounded.” She said, “I suppose I couldn’t change, could I? You wouldn’t give it time. That’s what I needed, needed to know someone out there didn’t have to own me, who didn’t have to run me, was the other alternative to a bottle of sleeping pills or the Golden Gate Bridge. You didn’t believe in me enough to give me a chance to change on my own, you just fucked it up. Now I’ve got this crazy old man on my hands I’ve got to take time out to deal with. And most of all, where I hang my chapeau doesn’t prove anything anyway. It doesn’t prove any more than the time I married Andy or left school for Berkeley.” “In the hospital I wasn’t any alternative at all. I was just helpless.” “Oh really?” was all she said. She slipped a cigarette from a pack on the bar and lit it with a Zippo I’d never seen before. I said, “Give me a break, Clare.” “I don’t know if you deserve a break, Bobby, you haven’t been much of a friend.” I remained in the middle of the floor, talking softly, trying not to but occasionally having to glance over at the bedroom door. I wanted to sit down, but she wasn’t offering, and I was feeling too ginger to presume. She said, “It isn’t one of your neat little fight analogies, but all three of us are in the corner now, and I’m sure as hell not going to stay in it.” “Where will you go?” I asked. “Who knows?” “When?” “When he’s straightened out,” she said, jerking her head in the direction of the bedroom. It wasn’t until later I recognized the irony in that. Apprehension will do that to you. I stole another glance at the door and she saw it. “Don’t worry,” she said, “he’s so tanked up he’ll sleep till midnight.” “He’s in bad shape?” “What do you think? His wife’s having a hissy, his daughters are calling him a traitor, and his son thinks it’s an opportunity to take over the business.” After a long swallow of whiskey she said, “When he gets this bad, like tonight, he gets it in his head he wants to kill you. Now he’s beginning to say it when he’s only had a couple of drinks.” “Should I take it seriously?” She said, “I am.” I couldn’t quite imagine the two of them talking about me. What did he ask her? What did she say? “What do you think I ought to do?” I asked. “I’d get out of La Morinda for a while,” she said, “I’d get out of La Morinda. I don’t think he’s capable of doing much right now, let alone anything violent, but eventually he’ll regroup, and then I’d take it very seriously.” “And he was trying to convince me that you needed him.” She stubbed out the cigarette. “Well, everyone gets down once in a while, and you can’t always tell the form it’ll take.” She looked about the room as she said it. I said, “Can you believe I love you, Mary Clare?” She said, “I love you too, Bobby,” bringing her eyes back to mine. “Too bad we both have so much baggage to lug around. One thing this fiasco makes me realize, I want to get even. I have so much anger in me, towards daddy, towards Andy and Sandro Tate—he’s the one I left graduate school for, did Jake tell you? Sandro the degenerate, Sandro the equal opportunity satyr.” She swirled her drink, watching the diminished ice cubes. “It’s funny, though, I don’t want to get even with you. You don’t make me angry, you make me sad.” Her eyes filled with tears. She countered with a swift smile, embarrassed at her own vehemence. She said, “Too bad one of us wasn’t really up when we met, talked the other into a good belly laugh about—” Just then her bedroom door opened, to reveal Meany. He’d been sleeping in trousers from a pin-striped suit, tie loosened over a starched white dress shirt, everything badly rumpled, his feet in stockings. He wasn’t wearing his glasses and when he came out he said, “Who is it, dear?” with the inflection of a man long married speaking to his wife. He looked old and befuddled. “Get out of here,” Mary Clare hissed. “Use the elevator!” Which dissolved half of Meany’s befuddlement. When I turned and tried to shuffle quickly towards the elevator, another portion of it evaporated. He knew then to whom Mary Clare was talking. She came around the bar and moved to cut him off. He didn’t hit her or shove her, he got a shoulder past her and kept his momentum, more like a linebacker than a tackle. I was concentrating as much on diminishing space as Meany, but Clare and I overlooked one thing, the elevator was set to rest at the bottom, not top. I was just reaching for the elevator button when I heard her shout, “Vatche!” Just as it registered that I’d heard the dread secret of Meany’s given name, the tremendous force of a fist between my shoulder blades drove my face and chest into the elevator door. four I went down sideways, gasping for air, the friction between my shoulder and the polished steel facing of the elevator door just enough to keep my back straight as my knees hit the floor and I fell over on my side. Polished terra cotta covered the area in front of the bar and just across to the elevator. It cooled my face, ice against a bruise, but melted as the long-secret name invoked again, the urgency and pleading as intense as if he were about to hit her, “Vatche!” and through some primitive instinct I brought my knees towards my chest and took the kick on the knee instead of in the crotch. I opened my eyes to the floor shaking, Meany, enormous and purposeful, moving towards the bar. For one second I admired the man. Distraught? Weak? He was very powerful and entirely in character as he reached across the bar and turned, grasping a half-full liquor bottle by the neck. He crossed the intervening space, bottle raised club-like behind his ear, wearing the most frightening face I ever looked into. Admiration changed to terror as I realized what was happening. I sat up, heeding none of any therapist’s cautions, pushing my back against the elevator door, praying it would open and swallow me, get me away from impending murder. At the last second I raised my fist alongside my head, the way you’re taught to block a left hook. The bottle bounced off it and smashed on the elevator door frame, raining glass and whiskey. I knew better then to flinch at a mere fist coming at me, but the glass and whiskey shocked me and threw off my reaction to the backswing, Meany, like a troll, half squatting in front of me, his face a mixture of rage and determination, while the remnants of the bottle slashed past my eyes just as I turned my head aside . . . . . . to see Clare coming towards us, grimacing at the blood pouring out of my scalp, pointing an almost dainty .38. Meany never saw it coming. Poised, not to miss this time, but arrested a split second by the sobbed “Stop! Please!” His hand at the top of the backswing, broken bottle above my whiskey-drenched face. The flash from the barrel came fast as a right cross, the report echoing and the gun jumping in Clare’s hand, all one impression. Meany fell, flash frozen slo-mo arc of bottle about to rip my face off but never reaches me, the teetering inertia of his huge body toppling, the other hand thrown out to catch himself on the door, diverting the bottle from its path, so that the freshly made edge plowed a thin furrow through my scalp as I reached up to deflect the falling giant. The last of the arc I watched at full speed, Meany crashing on the terra cotta floor, the bottle and blood already there, drops amid the splattered whiskey and glass litter. Mary Clare stood with the gun at her side and smoke around her head, a wisp like steam from a teapot spout trailing up her arm. Everyone stone still for three beats. Meany made a sound, curse or growl. I blinked. I saw the downed bear clench his teeth behind opened lips, the eyes above them looking into a world I couldn’t see. Then he closed his eyes and moaned, breaking the spell. Clare echoed the moan with one of her own. She was at Meany’s side. Before I could warn her about the glass I saw she’d missed it all. Suddenly my head was light, arms and back shaking, I went down inside myself, hoping for the bell to save me from a KO. I couldn’t watch but I couldn’t close my eyes, either, so I stared at the ceiling, when I heard Meany’s only words, “Don’t touch me.” Clare passed back and forth, still missing glass. “How do I get an ambulance in this burg? I’ve got to get an ambulance.” One hand pulling the collar of the mink under her chin. “Dial the operator; she’ll call the police.” “Give me the police,” she said into the phone on the bar. In a moment she said, “I have a man here who’s been shot and I need an ambulance. —Did I see who did it? I suppose so, I shot him.” Then I heard her giving directions for getting up to the penthouse, but I was too out of it to follow them. The next thing I remember, Clare was giving me a drink. I wasn’t sure I should be drinking alcohol but it was something to do and I did it. She came back with a bar towel and pressed it to my head. She put my free hand on top of it and said, “Hold that.” I had been bleeding freely. The blood ran down to the top of my ear and parted, some running down the front and some going under my collar. The alcohol made me aware that what was keeping me upright was the girdle, and I thought of Kennedy in the limousine in Dallas. “Oh Jesus, don’t let him die,” I said aloud; “don’t put me back in the hospital, either.” Fear was better than any drink. The fear of going back to the hospital made me set the glass on the floor and claw my way upright before someone who knew better told me to lie perfectly still. The towel stayed on my head. I stood. Tottering. Meany didn’t move and Clare lifted his massive head and put a pillow under it and a blanket over him. I clung to the elevator. Clare had another bar towel and whisked away the glass in front of the elevator, still in her mink coat, though at some point she had put on loafers. I shivered as she whisked away the glass. She said, “Find some place out of the way and sit down.” For the first time since I climbed out of bed that evening I sat down voluntarily. It was all I could do to negotiate a bar stool. At the sound of the sirens Clare took up keys. “It’s the police,” she said, “I have to let them in.” When she came back she was followed by two policemen with hands atop their guns, then two men in the blue polo shirts of the EMTs, one with an oxygen bottle, the other with a black bag. Then another siren. One of the paramedics came over to me, lifted my hand and the towel, then replaced it, saying “You’re fine for right now,” and continued to Meany’s side. five The new janitor was shaking out his dust mop when I approached the front of the office building. He stopped shaking it and stared at me—with good reason. I was still in my Hawaiian shirt, which was sticky with drying blood fore and aft. The paramedics had their hands full with Meany, though the back-up crew that rode the pumper bandaged my head with a turban-like affair that at least soaked up the blood. So either I hitched a ride to the hospital with one of the cops or they’d call another ambulance. I opted for the former, but I didn’t tell any of the cops that, because I wasn’t going back to the hospital. No ER doc would turn me loose after he stitched me up. Freedom was the only thing I could think of other than needing to talk to Jake. I found that by taking steps half my normal stride I could fool myself about being mobile. The janitor, built like a fire plug, was about to challenge me when I said, “I’m seeing Mr. Pritchett in one-fifteen.” He just stared, no longer shaking his mop, as I made the stairs one at a time and had to put out a hand to steady myself on the door jamb as I entered the lobby. For just a second—a light rap on Jake’s door—it was back before Homer Smith went berserk, coming from the utility closet, finished work for the night, to have my nightly libation with him. It must have been the same with Jake. He said, “Come in,” in an everyday tone of voice. “Good God!” Jake bounded out of his chair and had me by the forearm, guiding me to the couch. “No, I’ll mess it up.” “Sit,” he said in his MP voice. “You want your couch messed up?” “I’ll mess you up if you don’t.” He had both my hands and he lowered me into a sitting position. “I’ll call you an ambulance.” “Didn’t you hear the one that just drove away from here? I’m not going back to the hospital.” “Don’t be an ass.” I said, “Clare shot Meany.” Jake went goggle-eyed for one heartbeat. “When?” “Two hours ago? I’ve been knee deep in cops till I lost track of time.” “And?” “Didn’t kill the sonofabitch.” He pulled his desk chair over and sat. “Is it bad?” “They took her away, that’s what’s bad. Took him away, very hastily. Yes, I’d say it’s bad.” I gave Jake the shortest resume possible of the goings on—my brief exchange with Mary Clare, Meany coming out of the bedroom where he was presumably in an alcohol daze but still bear enough to almost kill me. “From the questioning, I’d say the police like Clare and me for conspiring to kill him. We set him up, they think.” “Did they arrest her?” “The word they used is detain.” “Stay put.” Jake slid over to his desk, rotated his Rolodex, called a former classmate, now a Superior Court Judge, to get the name and number of a crack defense lawyer. I couldn’t follow what he said, I was zoning out, in fact, it was all I could do not to fall asleep. ‘Don’t put your head back,’ I told myself; then I put my head back. Another call. He was talking to a nanny or a baby-sitter, his voice assumed a cajoling tone. He went back to his man-to-man tone when he finally got the lawyer, who was at a party. I heard Meany’s name but I didn’t catch the lawyer’s. It dawned on me through the haze, Jake was a whiz-bang at what he did, because he got the man out of the party and on his way to La Morinda when half its citizens were brushing their teeth and climbing into their jammies. “Done,” he said, looking pleased. “I’ll take you home.” “I’d rather stay, thanks.” He stood and leaned over me, looking into my eyes the way a referee does when he’s thinking of stopping a fight. I knew he could smell the whiskey Meany had doused me with, and maybe even the blood and sweat. “Meany hit me with a whiskey bottle,” I said. “First he punched me in the back, and then when I was down he swung a bottle at me but I deflected it and it broke on the elevator door, and then I got this”—pointing to my scalp—“when he was going to murder me with the broken bottle. Then Clare shot him.” That didn’t deflect Jake from his purpose. He said, “Going it alone has got you a studio apartment in La Morinda, a push broom and fantasies about being through with the world. You never learned to rely on people because you spent most of your life not needing to. This time leave me to do what you’re in no shape to. I can handle this. The world won’t come to an end tonight if you don’t do it yourself.” I had tears in my eyes when I said, “Thanks, Jake. I’m so tired. I’m tired of guns, I’m tired of people coming after me.” And I was tired enough I don’t remember him walking me to my apartment or keying the door. I remember him putting a bath towel on the bed and taking my moccasins off. “Pissed me off, Jake. The police asking me why I was in her apartment. I told them I had as much right to be there as Meany. You know, he doesn’t own her. I wanted to sock the frigging cop but I was too shaky.” Jake said, “Sure. You get some sleep now.” And I did, so I must pick up from Jake’s memoir to tell what happened while I was in the land of Nod. ***** From the recordings of Jake Pritchett: Robert was out before I reached the door, chest not moving perceptibly, lips parted. I called Amanda when I got back to my office. She said if he was that exhausted it could wait until morning and she would look in on him. I sat in my office, just staring and thinking, until I heard three beeps on a car horn and let the lawyer in the back door. Much later that evening I would sit where Robert had, in rapt conversation with Tony Arcata, sipping a whisky while he talked of Masai initiation rites, how the candidate warrior went out and baited a thick-maned old lion and took his charge with only a bull hide shield as protection. Then his uncles and other sponsors converged on the lion and speared it to death. I reminded the lawyer of how the Eskimos, in the days before firearms and canned salmon, took their sons out on the ice to hunt polar bear. Sometimes the initiate died; he didn’t make it to manhood. Tony Arcata said, “I refuse to believe that men who can afford to be willful and charge about like baited lions—I refer to the Meanys of the world—should always prevail.” He smiled across his glass. “Not while I carry a spear.” I said, “I’m the one to blame. I prodded Robert into taking on the lion. I’m not sure I was right.” “Well,” Tony Arcata said, “unless he’s non compis mentis, your Robert Gattling’s past the age of initiation and I doubt you had a gun to his head. On the other hand, we’re always coming up against ravening lions in this world, and we’re no different from those Masai youths. They may have thought they had a choice of whether to take on the lion: we both know they didn’t.” My judge friend had turned me on to the man who could take care of Mary Clare. I already knew the person to take care of Robert. During a quiet drive home I reflected that tonight Robert learned something I’d learned at an earlier age. When I was an MP, working in an Army psychiatric hospital, I learned that people can take away your freedom based on what they thing is happening rather than what you know is happening. More than one GI conned his way in there thinking he’d put one over on the Army, get out of all the short order drill, the long marches in full gear, only to discover he had even less freedom than in the barracks. An inductee taking shit from a drill instructor at least knows he’s going on home leave after a certain amount of time. You get thrown in the Army’s loony bin it’s worse than the stockade, you have to wait until an Army shrink thinks you’re straight before he lets you out. Your freedom depends on what’s going on in his head—and who knows what that is? The way Robert put it, someone can take away your freedom not based on fact but on their perception of fact. He came to my office, the night Mary Clare shot Meany, more shaken by the police suspicion that the two of them had conspired to murder Meany than by Meany’s barefaced attempt to murder him. My pulling into the garage at that hour woke Amanda, who was putting on a robe as I came into the house. I told her about the night’s events: Tony’s visit to the police station, where Mary Clare was being detained while they sorted out the legality of the weapon she fired, her perception of imminent danger to Robert, the amount of force necessary to prevent Meany doing harm to him. He had come back to my office while they were waiting for Sergeant Rutledge to get to the station. In all but a few legal documents my wife is Dr. Amanda Wirth. She is an anesthesiologist who could have practiced any specialty she wanted—except maybe pathology. She does not care for cadavers or “the nasty bits,” as she calls tissue specimens. While Tony was protecting Mary Clare’s rights, my wife put on a dress and did her hair (‘I don’t want to scare the lad’) and took off for La Morinda. The Doctor Is In one Bleary, dry-mouthed, at first I didn’t connect this tall, handsome woman whose touch pestered me awake with anything that happened the night before. Then she started plugging in the lines like an operator at a switchboard, reconnecting me to the world. I hurt all over; she said I looked it. She peered in my eyes with a penlight from her black bag, took my pulse while she glanced around the room until she spotted the plastic container of codeine tablets on the kitchen counter and asked when I’d had the last. “No idea,” I answered around a thermometer she’d put in my mouth. She poured a solvent that smelled benign—and was—over the bandage, followed by a large gauze square to keep the excess from running all over me. “Where do you hurt most?” “My scalp.” “Good. Let’s have a look.” She peeled off the bandage and deftly parted my hair without moving the edges of the wound. “We’ll just slip on down to the emergency room at Walnut Creek General. That needs to be sewn up before someone has to do some cutting to close it properly. I’ll want a strong light and a magnifying lens. I’ll drive you over there—just the emergency room, mind you.” “I don’t want to spend any more time in a hospital bed.” She said, “Jake made that perfectly clear. So if you’ll stop fussing maybe we can be back to our house before Mary Clare wakes up.” Those words were music a heart could dance to. I shuffled into the bathroom and changed everything but the girdle. Through the door she said, “That brace isn’t custom made, is it?” “I don’t think so.” As I opened the door she said, “I think I can find you another today. Bienvenida—she’s our housekeeper—can wash this one. Two’s better. And you need to shower—but at our house, after I stitch you up.” “It’s chafing,” I said. “I’ll bet it is. Did they give you instructions on how to use it?” “If they did I don’t remember any.” She said, as I hobbled to her car, “I could whack Will Clemens. Surgeons simply don’t make good case managers.” In the ER she made me wear a breakaway gown, though I got to keep my boxers on. She examined me from head to foot, noting the bruises where I’d been pummeled by Meany. “That knee hurt badly?” “I’ve had worse playing sandlot football.” “You’re not a kid anymore, Mr. Gattling.” She called me Mr. Gattling until I made her stop, and then I had to call her Amanda. “Not when any staff are around, though,” I said. “My, aren’t you proper.” “When can I bathe?” “You bathe when you get to our house, sir. I’ve got things to do besides wait on you.” She spoke with a soft East Texas drawl, verbal aggressiveness from a woman brought up where being a doctor was a daring thing for a woman, where men ma’amed their womenfolk and brooked no sassing of mothers by their sons. Velvet tyranny, Jake called it. She smelled of mature woman, skin rose petal downy; being around her made me feel better. It made me feel as if I might one day be ready for sex again. It took me a while to appreciate what Jake called the tyranny of beauty, about as long as it took to come back from the trauma of the last day, when I began to realize the serious kind of beauty I was dealing with. For Amanda was in the category of ‘none of the above.’ She wasn’t beautiful in the full-bodied way of Lana, nor beautiful with the international zest of a Marta, she wasn’t the rare soul Mary Clare was. She was rare enough, though: women her own age would avoid mirrors until the image of her faded. She used her beauty the way a receptionist uses a letter opener, a handy tool she’d stopped thinking about but simply picked up and wielded. She had sized me up before even meeting me, and knew just how much of her beauty to use to enchant me. Her car went with her, a silver Saab convertible that declined to reveal its precise year. It was spotless but smelled like a mature automobile. I couldn’t stop looking at Amanda as she drove—especially her fetching legs. I reminded myself that she was Jake’s wife—each time I looked guiltily away. She wore the sheerest stockings under a yellow dress, pulled up to just above her knees, for ease of driving I’m sure. A nurse shaved around the wound while Amanda disappeared into the hospital. She came back and painted on a topical anesthetic and then gave me a local. She went off again, waiting for it to take. She came back in a smock, donned disposable gloves and ordered me to sit on a low stool while above my head she swung a circular fluorescent lamp with a magnifying lens in the center. She picked a swab on a long stick out of a cylinder of disinfectant and probed the wound. She unrolled a gray towel to reveal the tools of suturing. “You aren’t squeamish, are you?” I said, “Not around beautiful women.” She didn’t respond to that. While she was stitching she said, “I seldom get to do this kind of thing. Takes me back a few years.” I said, “You’ll forgive me, but I always thought anesthesiology was just about the dullest specialty in medicine.” She said, “I’m never bored when I have a person’s life in my hands.” I could feel her tying knots even though there was no pain. Amanda said, “I thought for a while last night I was going to have your Mr. Meany’s life in my hands, but he had other ideas. Even with a bullet through his lung he insisted on being helicoptered over to Moffitt.” “I’ll bet he got Mulholland, someone like that.” “Mulholland’s emeritus now; I believe Eisenstein’s the crack traumatologist these days.” “I remember him: a rising star.” “Only now he’s the star.” At that moment Dr. Clemens breezed into the examining room, greeting her as Mandy, saying to me, “I thought I told you to stay in bed.” “My intent was to be out of bed for just a few minutes. Visiting a friend.” “And getting in a barroom brawl in the process. You want me to put you back in traction?” “’Fraid not.” “You don’t seem to appreciate the choices. Maybe you’ll forgive the lecture if I tell you I’ve got a back just like yours. You know how good a surgeon is who can’t stand on his feet for a few hours without his legs going numb? Unless he’s lucky enough to marry a beautiful anesthesiologist, he’s up the same creek you’ll be. You keep it up, kiddo, you’re going to be a stone cripple before you’re forty.” He turned to Amanda. “Maybe you can explain it.” She simply said, driving from the hospital to their home in Orinda, “In my home, sir, you’ll follow orders and stay in bed.” two The day Jake pried Meany off me was an eon ago; here I was, walking down the hall to a door closed between me and Mary Clare—a person with no ogres lurking, no one to whom she owed anything beyond the reciprocities of friendship. I had a cup of coffee in each hand, and luckily they were saucered. From behind me Jake said, “Tell her Tony Arcata’s here in one hour.” I sloshed some coffee out of one cup, remembering the penal code still loomed. How would I find her? my shaky hand seemed to say. Had the shot heard round La Morinda changed her? Would taking her destiny in hand set her apart from the rest of us? I hadn’t taken advantage of a month’s enforced idleness to toughen up my feelings. I glanced up through the magnifying lens into Amanda’s carefully made up eyes and saw the Fates stitching my destiny. It was beyond my control. Clare had quite possibly saved my life, at least saved me from a terrific brutalizing. Now she held my heart in her hand and I was more frightened than when Meany was poised to tear my face off. Would she be like me after I shot the drifter in Nevada? Would guilt take the last vestige of her vigor? As I pushed the door open with my toe the thought flickered: she gave Meany the chance I didn’t give the drifter. He could have stopped but didn’t. (And my secret was out, I learned later. Tony Arcata knew the story from the Berkeley Bulletin and mentioned it in an offhand way to Jake and Mary Clare: “The UC official who shot some guy up in Nevada after a pot party. What’s he doing these days?”) She started to kiss me, but first took the coffee cups out of my hands and put them on the night stand. Then she kissed me, once, twice, three times. “You forgive me?” I asked, the tension in me turning to tears. “Forgive? You’re the one made me live up to my ideals.” She was crying too. “Remember my motto, ‘Enough?’ Last night I knew what I’d had enough of. Of me waiting for the knight to slay the dragon and ride off into the sunset of his own accord. This time I sent him packing. Big-time. I did it. For me, for me.” “Maybe a little for me, too?” “You idiot, of course. I chose life and you’re my life.” She grabbed a Kleenex and gave one to me and we both blew our noses and started laughing. “I don’t care if I go to jail. —Well, I do. You realize we haven’t made love yet? You can make love, I mean, your back isn’t going to make it impossible, is it? Shit, Bobby, say it won’t.” “We’ll find a way. If Kennedy could do it . . .” “You think we have time now?” “I’m not touching you before I take a shower. And I’ve got to get the blood out of my corset.” “Details. Com’ere.” She grabbed me and kissed me until I started to get dizzy. “I’m gonna fuck you silly, mister. I can’t wait.” “Hey,” I said, “first the lawyer, then me.” “I’m not crazy-mad for the lawyer, jocko. Let him get his own nookie.” “My, how you talk, lady.” She grinned and picked up a coffee cup. “I’ll behave. But I don’t know for how long.” She drank half the cup and said, “Shame on me. I shot a benefactor and I’m acting like a total hussy. I’m sorry. But I’m so glad to see you. I want to grab E. E. Cummings and recite one of his love poems—balloons and calliopes and daisies.” She was in a tee shirt that was probably Jake’s. She started to take it off as she headed for the door. “Hey wait.” “What?” “There’s kids out there. Not to mention Jake and Amanda.” “I’ve got to shower before Tony gets here. He and I know some of the same people. He was representing the draft card burners in Berkeley. My kind of lawyer.” She put the tee shirt back on. At the door she said, “You won’t ever doubt me again, will you, Bobby?” “Me?” “Believe me, I’ve changed.” “You bet. It’s like when you rub a glass rod with cat fur. You’re all charged up.” She put her arms around me very gently and said, “You mend soon. There’s another rod I want to rub with fur.” “I can’t wait.” ***** From the tapes Jake made: She had watched him for weeks before they met, so offhand about clothes (Levi’s with a torn back pocket) free to charge off on foot with a bearing that said he owned the dark alleys and pool rooms of all the tenderloins across the land, he went where he damned well pleased, under obligation to no person, ideology or neurosis, not even to a road map or schedule. He was Bobby McGee and she wanted to be Janis Joplin waiting for him with bandana and harpoon. Nothin’ left to lose. In our house she didn’t seem to notice the halting gait and stiff posture, he was still Bobby McGee. He saw himself as a prisoner of a body that couldn’t do what he told it to. He wanted to caution her, “Hey, wait-up!” but he didn’t dare deter her progress and so hoped she’d read his needs in his eyes and in the halting gait. He worked at submitting to recuperation. He slept, more than he imagined possible. Our Costa Rican housekeeper, Bienvenida, converted her humble job into an exciting new one, nursing ‘don Roberto,’ very estimable friend of ‘don Jacobo.’ She also scrubbed his corset, first with salt and then with bleach to get the blood out, teasing him, how he had a more formidable corset than she, stiffer, anyway, and when he joked back that it had to be stiff to be good, she had to consult Amanda to make sure she understood the double meaning and then brayed until tears came to her eyes. Bienvenida ironed Robert’s permanent press clothes and made his socks into balls of matching pairs. When I complained, “She doesn’t do those things for me,” Robert said all I had to do was get horizontal for some reason, anything at all, she’d mother me to death. With three women around looking after him, Robert said that for once he would resign himself to his fate and, it seemed, he did. Mary Clare, on the other hand, took her forced idleness badly, suddenly anxious to get on with life. Life, in turn, diddled her. Idleness, she said, was the Great Accountant in the Sky punishing her for two years of hiding out. Tony Arcata fought for her almost too well, and that was what she wanted. She wanted them to bring on the lions, stoke the furnace, fling their stones; she was ready. Those on the other side of the dock didn’t appreciate her convert’s zeal. They offered a deal, and the choice came down to this: Mary Clare could stand trial for assault with a deadly weapon, a charge her lawyer tried to have dismissed as unfounded on the evidence and was convinced he could easily beat if it weren’t dismissed, or she could plead guilty to a Nineteenth Century ordinance as hokey as vagrancy. In the end Mary Clare pleaded guilty on arraignment to “discharging a firearm within an incorporated place,” a misdemeanor in La Morinda, given six months in county jail, suspended, and a year’s probation, on two conditions: she would initiate no contact with Meany and promptly report any attempted contact by him to the court through her probation officer; second, that she go back to graduate school posthaste. Seemed like justice whipped up with common sense to me, but to Robert the sentence meant Mary Clare would be going away for good—back to the East Coast. He wanted to be happy for her and in a way, her vitality restored, her sense of balance in the Universe preserved through this hardly painful penance for shooting Meany, it was hard not to be. It didn’t lessen his apprehension when she went to Berkeley and looked for tutors in Mandarin, checked out the Department of Sociology. From his perspective he was being left behind—primed to get on with life and still paying for what he considered a venial sin, trying to whack Homer a second time. His forced idleness wasn’t the boon it should have been; Clare’s metamorphosis scared him too much. And worse, if I understood the signs. Hindsight tells me the signs pointed to jealousy, of one who’d killed and suffered total disruption of his life thereby, now watching a person who’d pulled the trigger without thought to the outcome yet earned her redemption. Those around him saw his distress, even if we couldn’t parse it. Our concern hatched a conspiracy as ponderous as the one that shaped Mary Clare’s sentence: a couple of weeks into his stay, Amanda, the DA (her friend of many years) and I contrived that Robert should start going to the DA’s office in Martinez, to help prepare the people’s case against Meany. Dr. Clemens readily agreed: harmony between the physical and spiritual man was more important than the risk to his mending back. three Until Meany tried to kill me, no one above ground knew what the “V.M.” of his name stood for—except Mary Clare. The night she stopped him from killing me I at least knew what the V stood for. After booking, the world knew that the man in the county jail was Vatche Mamagoosian Meany on the police blotter. What had been a shy gift and a pledge of confidence to his protégé, was now causing heads to wag all over the county and in Oakland, San Francisco and Sacramento as well. On the way to the DA’s office in Martinez the first time, Jake and I talked about Meany’s secret name. Jake had asked Clare where it came from and learned how Meany’s parents came together. His two grandfathers, Virgil Meany, the rancher, and Vatche Mamagoosian, the Armenian tavern keeper who was his rival for the most prominent figure around the pioneer crossroads that would become La Morinda, matched Virgil’s addle-brained son with the tavern keeper’s feckless baby sister from Fresno, a part of the agreement being to name the first male offspring Vatche Mamagoosian Meany. “Vatche by itself isn’t so bad, I don’t suppose.” I had a great-uncle named Shirley. Before Meany I thought that was the worst boy’s name in the world. “He’s out of the hospital, you know,” Jake said. “Being shot through the lung nets a shorter stay than a slipped disc.” Jake said, “In his case. He’s as tough as his totem.” I said, “He won’t be for long.” “You want to punish him.” I didn’t, but I didn’t know how to say so. Punish him for taking care of Mary Clare? Punish him for falling in love with her despite his noble intentions? I didn’t even want to punish him for coming after me with a broken bottle. When you’ve been in the ring you come to regard opponents as kin—except the ones that thumb your eye or try to dislocate your elbow. Under the circumstances, trying to efface me with a broken bottle didn’t make Meany the latter kind. Jake said, “You’re having a hard time with this, aren’t you.” “Mary Clare’s a heroine, I’m a Judas.” He left the Interstate at Martinez Vista Road and headed for the county offices. As he drove he said, “I thought you won and he lost. Why the angst?” “It’ll be the end of him, you know.” Jake said, “I don’t know anything of the sort.” “How do you suppose this looks to his cronies—much less his enemies? First off, he cheats on his wife of how many decades and gets caught; La Morinda’s a pretty small town when you’re talking adultery. Next he loses his honey to a janitor. And he’s so uncool as to attack the guy in the hospital—a minor hero, I say immodestly—and gets arrested for it. Scandal and shame. But the topper is, he attacks this janitor again, and this time the honey shoots him with a gun he gave her. From world-beater to Sad Sack in a matter of days,” I said, waving my arms like a soapbox orator. Jake said, “Isn’t that too damned bad. Look: he’s got enough money to buy a duck hunting club up on the Delta and retire—write his memoirs, get to know his kids better. What do you think he deserves for almost killing you, a pat on the back?” “If he’d just leave Mary Clare and me alone.” “Jesus, Gattling.” He parallel parked on the street. “The DA doesn’t validate?” Jake said, “He had to wait a year to get an assigned space. This isn’t the big city. It isn’t even La Morinda.” As we walked up the steps, Jake with a hand under my elbow, he said, “if you’d killed some guy in the ring and never fought again, I could understand that. But you act like you’re reluctant to climb back into the ring of life. Snap out of it.” “I’m working on it,” I said as we walked into the DA’s outer office. A woman too pixie-ish to fit my stereotype of a prosecutor came up to us and introduced herself as Deirdre Heck, Assistant DA. She led us back to the office of District Attorney Ted Walleke, which was the same name as one of my high school classmates, but it wasn’t he. Right from the start it was clear that in Ted Walleke’s cosmology there was no sympathy for Meany. To him the gravity of the crimes against me was compounded by Meany’s being free on bail from the first when he committed the second. “Now with his bullet wound and his money he’s free on bail once more.” Walleke, forty-some, wiry and bespectacled, almost seemed angry. “They of course want a trial while his arm’s still in a sling. And they will try to make it out that you and Ms. Morrison were trying to shoe horn him out of a scandalous love triangle the quickest way: ka-pow.” Jake said, “I would assume you will try to keep Ms. Morrison out of it.” “I can try,” Walleke said. “I’ll only call her if I have to, but don’t be surprised if she ends up on his witness list and gets a public skewering. —And how about you, Mr. Gattling, what are the skeletons in your closet?” I said, “I suspect, from your tone, you already know that.” “You two are a regular Bonny and Clyde, trigger-happy lovers, opportunist and conniving mistress to a kind old sugar daddy who was driven to attack you out of grief at losing his love.” Miss Heck’s eyes grew large, like a child being read a fairy tale. She said, “Since Ms. Morrison has already pled out, won’t it be hard to make that stick?” “If we need her to testify,” Walleke asked, “will she?” “She’ll testify,” I said. “She decided that when she pulled the trigger.” We talked for half an hour. As with anything to do with the penal code, the scenarios were many and varied. Meany hadn’t hired Melvin Belli, he’d hired a woman nearly as noted for taking high-profile cases, hair like a rock star and famous for emotional outbursts that tipped the scales of justice. There were more trips. After one, Jake and I walked down the street until the smell of hamburgers and onions frying ambushed us. We turned into a brick-faced tavern with a neon Oly sign in the semicircular window, a sprinkle of regulars at the bar, a juke box playing country music. On serving us, the bartender quipped (I still had the vestige of a bandage over my head wound) “Looks like somebody cracked you one with a whiskey bottle.” His hoary old face dissolved into a million wrinkles. He surely didn’t know who I was so I just smiled and said, “Something like that.” We ordered hamburgers and took our drinks to a table. “You suppose his name has anything to do with it?” Jake asked. “Aside from Vatche Meany not scanning very well, what could be wrong with it?” “No, I’m talking about Meany—do you suppose it made him mean?” “Maybe. I think it’s more his size,” I said. “He’s used to people jumping when he growls, probably likes it. Meryl Destrier’s the only person who seems indifferent to his snarliness.” “Meryl’s all bluff. She’s the one who uses her size to intimidate you. Meany’s real, like Napoleon or Rasputin.” Jake had been doodling on a bar napkin as we talked. I picked it up when he finished. It was a caricature of Meany as a pirate, complete with hook and peg leg, and an eye patch under his granny glasses. “Or a Blackbeard,” Jake said. “That’s damned good. You ever think of being a cartoonist?” He said, “I drew cartoons for the high school newspaper.” “Why didn’t you stick with it?” “I wanted to draw like Albrecht Dürer but it kept coming out like The Katzenjammer Kids.” I said, “You were waiting for that cubic centimeter of opportunity, something worthy of your talents. That’s how Meany did it. Wouldn’t settle for being a rancher in a place where ranching was a losing cause.” “Like Napoleon. Napoleon was just a captain of artillery until the Revolution gave him an opportunity to use his evil genius.” “You think Napoleon was a Meany?” I asked. The hamburgers came, sloppy and greasy, the onions browned around the edges—fantastic burgers. We drank cold beers with them and strolled, heavy and indolent with noon heat, back to Jake’s car, passing jurors, lawyers and civil servants. I said, “You see? That guy’s burgers are as good as Tommy’s in LA. He’s not in the right place at the right time.” “Robert, there’s more to winning the game of life than being born under the right star. There are accidents that work, yes, but the only one that counts in the end is when what you love most gives back enough rewards to keep you loving it.” four Perhaps more than any other, these words from Jake’s tapes haunt me: Oh Robert of the skewed ideas, I sit now, days, nursing enlightenment the way a wary drinker nurses a manhattan. I dip the maraschino cherry of reflection into the glass and suck a cocktail of insight from it. “Let go,” I want to tell you, that’s all there is to it. Your ordeal, Robert—all of it, from the Nevada desert on—is the Universe insisting you let go. You’ve had not one but many cubic centimeters of opportunity and yet you’ve clung as badly as Meany. That’s what I learned from Death as I lay on the garage floor, gunshots echoing in my ear, blood pooling in my chest. “Let go” was the only message in the growing awareness of mortality. Only I never learned how to make anyone understand that. I didn’t think to ask Death how. And Death never volunteers anything. I barely understand now, but I accept. I have let go of the need to know. I was in a hurry then, and now I have no time. I get on with it, even if it is only sitting in my patio, bundled against the slightest chill, listening to my children splashing in the pool, watching my wife, Amanda, come and go, angry at me for what she is certain was a senseless brush with death, handcuffed to me in a truce that’s lasted half a lifetime. If I’d known then what I know now, back when I took Robert on those carefully engineered trips to Martinez, I wouldn’t have needed, finally, to visit the Berkeley public library in search of The Truth. Now I know it wasn’t truth I was after but titillation, like a grown man unfurling the centerfold in a girlie magazine and gazing for the umpteenth time at the female anatomy. Yup, everything’s still there, still looks pretty good. I didn’t find out anything like the truth—that is, Robert’s perception of what went on, which is as close as I can come to the truth, since I can’t interview the dead man—until the day before yesterday, yet until shot I was sure I knew what made Robert Gattling tick. You don’t get wisdom chasing it. Like true art, it is a leisure pursuit. This is what I know as of now, for what it’s worth: Robert killed a man in a lonely arroyo not far (in Nevada terms) from Reno. The dead man wasn’t a local, he was an itinerant, no known address or occupation. The Reno paper gave the story six paragraphs on page three. Robert and Lana Gattling, on their way to Mexico for a honeymoon, stuck around past their announced departure while the authorized government agencies put the drifter’s body away in a legal manner. A Berkeley Bulletin reporter, breakfasting cheap in a casino coffee shop, read the six paragraphs and hit on a neat way to deduct the cost of his vacation from his income taxes. He decided to take home with him an expanded version of the story about the secret life of a minor Berkeley celebrity. What he did that his Reno counterpart didn’t feel obliged to do was interview the persons who’d partied with the Gattlings that afternoon. He discovered a fact he thought changed the complexion of the story. He learned that a great deal of pot had been smoked before the party broke up, and a couple of grams of primo bud had been left with the newlyweds. With that fact he wrote a story he hoped would advance his career but instead shattered Robert’s. Consider this guy’s audience. If they read the Bulletin at all, the Woodstock graduates went “Oh yeah?” while the rest of the population, the Woodstock kids’ parents, the Little-Old-Ladies-in-Tennis-Shoes, as Herb Caen dubbed them, the academicians, would recall Reefer Madness and Robert Mitchum doing time for smoking marijuana, knowing it was per se sinful and just possibly un-American. But a University VP sharing pot with casino dealers and change girls, then killing a man? Evilness in the first degree. For those who were cajoled into spilling the beans to the Bulletin reporter, it was as innocent as the outing they went on, a picnic on the desert, the occasion to try out a sawed-off shotgun. The gun was the product of a Reno mentality, a casino conception. If Robert and Lana had outfitted for Mexico in Berkeley they wouldn’t have known anyone with a sawed-off shotgun to sell, nor bought the idea Mexico was where men still checked pistoles on entering a restaurant or cantina and bandidos harassed gringos in remote places. Robert and Lana wanted to stay off the tourist routes and her casino friends convinced Robert, a woman that sexy with him, he needed extra protection. The camper had plenty of places to stash a sawed-off shotgun, and a croupier friend of Lana’s who collected guns felt duty-bound to arm them—if not against bandidos y ladrones, then against rattlesnakes and rabid coyotes. He talked up his collector’s item with Lana until, at least, she didn’t shiver at the idea. He not only sold it way below what he’d have asked of another collector, he was the one who suggested they make a party of trying it out. ***** One warm fall day, a week before Lana and I were to leave for Mexico, we caravanned out of Carson City with two other couples, into the sparsely vegetated, eroded tag end of the Great Basin. The wind hid, the sun strutted. Midday we were in shirtsleeves. After barbequed pot luck and plenty of beer, we lined up three empties on a ledge of silt left by the last flash flood, and the seller brought out the gun. Twenty inches of lethality, it was a cut down tournament grade side-by-side, silver inlay and curly-grained walnut butt and fore grip, smooth and shiny as a bay horse. As someone who’d never fired anything more powerful than a .22, it raised my pulse rate just thinking about a gun this big going off in my hands. I had no notion how to hold it. I knew, if I were ever to use it, I wouldn’t much care about the right way to hold it, because I’d be in dire trouble anyway. In the autumn-carved shadows of a Nevada arroyo afternoon, no civilization intruding, three men stood like boys about to test fire a Christmas BB gun, trying to look cool and nonchalant, shooing the women back even though the desert silt would surely eat the pellets and none could ricochet in any direction. Taking a macho stance, I pushed the selector over to one side, pulled back the hammer and said, “Everybody ready?” Someone said, “Go ahead —shoot!” My hackles stood up as I pulled the trigger, gun braced against the top of my thigh. It roared and a section of silt wall shattered above the near can. My thigh hurt and fine dust, from a hunk of earth the size of a garbage can lid, settled around the picnic site. One woman said, “My gosh.” Men laughed the way they will at something they don’t care to admit is awesome. I cocked the other hammer, moved the gun up, clamped between my elbow and my side, pushed the selector over and fired. The ledge beneath disintegrated as the can flew skyward; the laughs this time exultant, the giggles relieved. We all went over to inspect the damage. It was still the era of steel beer cans. This one had stayed in one piece, though it looked as if someone had put it in a vice and attacked it randomly with an odd-shaped church key. I broke open the gun, ejecting the shell casings and handed it to another man, already knowing from the metallic taste in my mouth, I would be a damned fool to take it to Mexico. After the sun dipped below the shoulder of the arroyo, we policed the area, bagging the shell casings and torn cans, along with the picnic debris. Heat left the earth as a wind came up. We built up the fire, adding split wood to the coals, made a pot of coffee and lay about in the soft sand. Somebody broke out marijuana and rolled a joint. Lana had never tried it before, so they were into a second joint before everyone had coached her on proper smoking technique. Then the coffee was gone, the beer and most of the light. Chill air urged them to leave. The other couples backed up the arroyo to the highway and left Lana and me to try out our other new purchase, our traveling home. As they left, the man who’d produced the marijuana gave me a baggie with a glob of resinous little leaves at the bottom. “I couldn’t,” I said. “It’s a going away present,” he said. “It’s a few days before we go.” He said, “I might not have any left in a few days,” and guffawed the way some do when on a marijuana high. five Crackling flames hid night’s indigenous sounds as Lana and I sat watching the fire die, faces too hot, backs too cold. Lana said she hadn’t felt the marijuana yet. So I rolled her another joint and she smoked that by herself and made the same complaint. I’d smoked as much as I dared, drinking beer, but I’m not a good judge of others’ tolerance for cannabis, so I rolled her yet another joint and said, ‘This is all, you goof.” She smoked it down, staring into the fire and blinking like an owl, complaining of a scorched throat and pinched lungs. Then she tried to stand up. I offered her a hand but she couldn’t quite find it. When she finally grasped it, she let it slip and sat down again, laughing, and laughing at her own laughing. I hauled her up by the armpits and kept her vertical while I kicked sand and pea gravel over the coals. I helped her into the camper and undressed her. I had to boost her into the cab-over bunk. I quickly undressed, shivering in the unheated camper, in a hurry to jump under the sleeping bags. Yet—I will never understand why—I took two more shells out of the box on the counter and loaded the shotgun. Maybe to hear one last time the precise click as I broke open the breach, the hollow slurp of shells sliding into the barrels, the snap of the gun returned to the ready. I laid it atop the refrigerator. As I climbed into the bunk beside Lana she said, “Is there room to make love up here?” I said, “There better be, this is going to be it for a few weeks.” “Well?” “You’re in no shape,” I said. “No? I thought pot was supposed to make you sexy.” I said, “Some say it makes them enjoy sex more, but you have to have enough coordination left to do the deed.” “Oh,” she piped and rolled over, passing out immediately. I lay on my back, trying to snatch control back from the beer and dope. Control was a reminder of the civilization just down the road, like the far off barking of a farm dog on a moonless night. I never found control before sleep found me. Later I swear someone woke me, calling my name. I open my eyes. I’d rolled over on my side, facing the back door. I saw a human shape between me and the window in the camper’s door. All the indicators of fear went off at once. An hallucination, I reckoned. If it was, though, I was more out of control than ever in my life. And if it wasn’t . . . I slipped a foot out from under the sleeping bags and hooked it over the edge of the bunk. Using the side of the bunk as a fulcrum, I launched myself into the space between me and “it,” shedding sleeping bags as I did. Just before I touched living flesh, “it” took up the shotgun, not like he recognized it as such in advance, just a club his hand lighted on in the darkness. Before he could swing it, I drove him into the camper door, holding throat and coat sleeve. Riding a surge of adrenaline, I pinned the man, taking up his collar and jamming a forearm into this throat. His head smacked the door frame, not hard enough to knock him out but hard enough I could let go of the sleeve and grab the end of the shotgun he hadn’t grasped, which turned out to be the butt. I have no recollection of the hammer going back. Under police examination and sterner self-examination, I never remembered touching the hammer, so it may have been a drawer pull or other protrusion, it wasn’t as if the gun stayed neatly in the space between us. Besides, it’s moot: in my running apology for The Divine Accident, I assert there is no such thing as counting odds, saying that in ten such adrenaline-drenched contests between men frightened and struggling in the dark in a ten foot camper, one would result in a cocked shotgun, or two or three. If it hadn’t happened that way it would have happened another, the man might have pulled out his substantial sheath knife instead of grabbing the shotgun, as he’d already used it to spring the door open. Then he might have made a substantial hole in my chest, letting in enough air to suffocate me, or catching the heart or aorta and exsanguinating me. What wasn’t likely, whether or not you endorse The Divine Accident, was what the Berkeley Bulletin reporter, writing his juicy little exposé, concluded: clear-headed I would have let the intruder disengage and run away. You’d have to have been there to conclude that, and the only survivor didn’t. But then, even that article was part of The Divine Accident. As was the slight bow in the aluminum door frame caused by the forced entry, which in turn caused the door itself, when slammed by the intruder’s body one too many times, suddenly to spring open and spill us out into the desert night. The roar and flash of the totally unexpected discharge illuminated our brief flight. Each time I described it back then, each time I recall it since, it is a clip from a film I am watching. I see bodies in gut-sucking flight and the sudden stoppage by the ground. But what is not film but reality is the flicker of the man’s eyes in the stab of muzzle flash, a human face at the instant of receiving the stigmata. In the blue pulsing after-image I savored the end of the struggle—for two heartbeats. Lana’s screaming yanked me up again. Something as frightening as the hallucination turning to flesh and blood sent me, half-blinded by the muzzle flash, groping for the open camper door. Her screaming told me there must be a second man. Only I found Lana crammed into the far corner of the bunk, alone and vocally hysterical. I tripped the light switch to grab my jacket and pants, discovering a wrenched shoulder as I dressed as fast as I could, to leap down to where, in the paltry light of the camper overhead, I saw the slow motion writhing of the man I’d shot. Which only poured more adrenaline into my overloaded system, making me shake violently, close to retching and for a second feeling for the shotgun, to make it disappear forever into the night. I jerked to a stop when I found myself explaining to my father that I hadn’t meant to, ‘I didn’t mean to, Dad,’ the mantra of a kid who cut up often and was caught often. This, I realized, was the first intrusion of Authority, because soon I was rehearsing my ‘didn’t mean to’ monologue to the uniformed men who were going to show up, I would be explaining to them and they, unlike my deceased father, would talk back. I explained the color of blood in darkness, soaking into sand. I rehearsed, during the vigil I kept through the butt end of the night, not just this monumental blunder—a mistake, officer, a damned mistake—but all the blunders I’d swept under the featureless carpet of my bland life as I knelt beside the once terrible stranger who was terrible now only as evidence of the exigencies of a man’s life, the last rattle in his throat coming in time with the miniscule flexing of one knee. I retained an indelible image of death from the viewpoint of the murderer: greasy mackinaw of aged blue plaid, perforated and beginning to show blood from the inside out; lower jaw bloody and misshapen, shattered by a load of double-0 buckshot; the smell of a dying body stronger than burnt black powder. As I told Jake, when it finally came out what I’d done that ended the old me, Lucky Ol’ Robert Gattling, it isn’t so hard to merge the real thing with what has formed your image of murder from media reports and crime novels. If you shoot a man who was close enough he’d just been holding onto the muzzle of the gun, it is not too hard to call it murder and join the ranks of the world’s Cains. six Jake-on-tape analyzes the angst: Before condemning Robert for a constitution all too weak, remember this happened after the University Administration had been under siege for weeks. Titles were forgot, bodies thrown into the breach. Robert was a good siege soldier, shouting down screaming protestors and standing his ground. Not frightened by threats of violence on his body, he could stand nose-to-nose with the best of the opposition and trade words. He was also good as a trustworthy leaker of the Administration’s position, he talked well to reporters (even the hack who would aced him in Nevada) never tried to tell them what to write, talked straight. And remember the significance to him of the shooting: not that he was stoned per se, but that he did something that kept him from hearing the indigent break in. Otherwise, he believes, he’d have had the shotgun in hand and said something corny but arresting, like, “Freeze, asshole!” as he cocked the gun. He bought the shotgun to scare away persons like the drifter, but never gave the man the opportunity to be scared. And remember too: he was still, eight years later, so worried about the opprobrium of others that he told me the root cause of his being a janitor in La Morinda instead of a “high-placed official” in Berkeley only after months of knowing me. He told Mary Clare not at all. If only he could have, as he eventually had to, sat her down and said, ‘I’ve got trouble in mind’ and explained how nothing—not boxing at the Olympic Auditorium nor standing up to hippies in Sproul Plaza and to G-Men in the privacy of his office—prepared him for the shock and the alteration of his world view that came with mortal combat. For absolute truth, nothing tops learning how fragile life is. Sure, he expected the previous generation to die. He had that scoped out since his mother went prematurely. They would all go, it was a matter of time. But time he had, that’s what youth flaunts, its time. Then a shotgun in your hand nearly rips a man’s head off, it took but a blink of time and the guy is your age and he’s extremely dead. You watched him die, you died with him, never again to doubt. Yet nothing, not even grappling with a man you had to believe, for sanity’s sake, might have done you in, could prepare you for the icy realization your ordeal was totally unreal to everyone else, you an assassin, in an age where assassination was the rear-guard skirmish against social change: a Malcolm X, an Evers, a Kennedy, a King, you one of those fiends who did that—what else would people believe of you? You looked in the mirror. No horns growing from your forehead, no syphilitic chancres eating through your cheek, yet you are the smell and sight of death itself, the persons who cross streets to avoid you letting you know your new symbolism. Penthouse Lady, he might have said, you wouldn’t believe what it was like. Worse than tripping over the ropes climbing into the ring, breaking your nose while doing a pratfall. Because the University President didn’t have to say anything, all he had to do was mention how he knew, and although it gave Robert someone to revile, learning the Berkeley newspaper had done a number on him didn’t help his despair, knowing all seven weeks he’d been in Mexico hearts were hardening against him, people getting used to the notion of Robert Gattling, the man not mellowed out on marijuana, the man turned killer by it. By the time he returned to Berkeley he was sick to death of himself, but he wanted others to comfort him, see the devastation of his soul: he could be the one to take the whip to his back and flanks, others could bind his wounds and cool his troubled brow. After I read the article, and even went down to the Bulletin office, to read the file copy of the Reno newspaper article, I visited Berkeley Square, the first bar west of campus, and sought the sympathetic ear of Mac the bartender. I said, sipping a martini, “Don’t take this wrong, Mac, but did you ever kill anyone?” Mac said, “Matter of fact I did—what of it?” “Close at hand?” Mac said, “With a trenching tool in a foxhole, I guess you’d say it was close.” I said, “How did you learn to cope with it?” Mac looked at me and shrugged, said, “I tumbled out of the foxhole. I didn’t want to stay in it with a Nazi stiff. Bang! I got hit with a machinegun slug in the elbow, it hurt so bad I passed out. Back in the hospital I could only remember hitting the Kraut like I was watching a newsreel. I guess that’s how I coped.” Blessed maiming, blessed machinegun bullet, too bad Robert wasn’t wounded by the drifter in the desert, a good cut with a Bowie knife that would have made him a hero. It just wasn’t part of The Divine Accident that night. ***** From first reading the article, grasping for a moral apprehension of Robert’s self-imposed exile, I retreated to the safety of my home and Tennessee sippin’ whiskey, glad I had known killing only as a spectator sport: bleak-faced survivors collecting dead and wounded, helicopter blades fanning rice paddies and recollections of other television screens, other deaths, Oswald by Jack Ruby, Bobby Kennedy by Sirhan Sirhan, the balcony on which Martin Luther King stood when shot by James Earl Ray. That way I could rationalize my detachment, too deep into necessity and duty—my class’s imperative—to make an ant-like attempt to stop the killing. I felt as bound as our nation was, with the magnets of many contending ideas keeping us going round and round, like particles in a cyclotron. My country and I were on a rocket-powered, computer-activated merry-go-round and didn’t know how to get off. I clung, oh how I clung. Robert was flung off by the centrifugal force of accident, had the opportunity to sit in the carnival sawdust and know that the animals were merely wood and paint, the ride, after all, a mechanical contraption. Didn’t matter how high the hi-tech, it was the same old merry-go-round. He had this magnificent opportunity and didn’t take it. If only he’d known then what I’ve learned since from my advisor, Mr. Death. But that goes for me, too. I had as good a chance to start over as Robert but without any mortal combat—the mere presence of Robert and Mary Clare in the house was one, they changed things so. I didn’t cash it in, I didn’t know about letting go of old things. Though I railed against the belief, I privately held, as Robert did, that being in the right place at the right time (in other words The Divine Accident) was the answer. It wasn’t. If it were, being in the wrong place at the wrong time would account for every major woe of mankind. They have just discovered a Stone Age tribe living in caves in the Philippines. Is all the rest of their days to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, just because we “discovered” them? Was it the right place and time for them up until then? Paris hasn’t been the right place for the most powerful country in the world to bargain itself out of a losing war with a pint-sized opponent. It isn’t being in the right place at the right time, it is the art of letting go, letting go of antiquated notions like “big nations always beat up little nations.” Robert liked the idea of The Divine Accident because he knew deep down that he had no control of what constituted right times and places. The dual in the desert destroyed the myth, and nothing worthy has come along to take its place. Moraga Shangri-La one In Moraga I led a dual life: in high anxiety, fearing the mobile, determined phenom named Mary Clare was going to leave me in the dust, but also being pampered silly: my own doctor, nurse and housekeeper and a couple of admiring kids hanging around for whom I didn’t have to take responsibility, just enjoy; the other life as a lover ardent and happy, and leisure, leisure, leisure. Afternoons Amanda had no surgery, she and I went out to the pool. I would lie on a foam pad while she took the chaise longue, and we’d talk. The kids were brown and noisy, splashing away the last of summer’s vacation, Amanda always seemed to stay a shade of tan like a creamy palomino. “What do you talk about?” Jake asked me one evening. We were on the patio, sipping summer drinks. “Are you jealous?” I asked, teasing but also curious. He chuckled in the dim landscape lighting, and though I couldn’t see his features it seemed a genuine enough response. “No, I’m glad she gets to talk to someone besides me and the kids. I assume you aren’t talking about the properties of Lidocaine or the efficacy of epidural anesthesia. I’d love to know what you do talk about, but not because I’m jealous. Fact is, I’ve rather lost contact with my wife.” Now I chuckled. “Aren’t Clare and I a topic of conversation?” “I suppose. She told me you can’t swim, by the way.” “Isn’t that silly. I almost drowned as a kid and I’ve been water-shy ever since. I faked it in the ocean, body surfing, but I’m like lead otherwise.” “Let her teach you. She taught the kids in no time flat.” Amanda would cool off in the pool periodically while we sunned and she was a regular fish in the water. Photos of her hung in the “spare room” I occupied. She was photogenic as well as beautiful, a large print of her in her lifeguard tower, whistle hung from a lanyard about her neck, nose painted with zinc oxide, hair skinned back to a single queue. She could have been a bathing suit model. She had fifteen years on Mary Clare and I noticed the differences, the wrinkles and the effects of her skin losing some of its elasticity. The wrinkles and extra folds only made her more interesting, like a vintage car or the varnish on an old violin. “What happened?” I asked Jake one day, when he made a noncommittal remark about her. “What do you mean, what happened?” I said, “You guys are leading separate lives.” He said, “Sometimes that’s the best a couple can do. Some think it’s how it’s supposed to be done.” Towards the end of the summer Dr. Clemens told me it was okay to start taking “aquatic therapy.” “In other words, kiddo, you can let Mandy teach you to swim. But go slow; no diving, no kick turns. —Do you want to know how not get a hard-on while she’s holding you?” “She’s my friend’s wife, for God’s sake.” “That’s why you shouldn’t get a hard-on, but it doesn’t mean you won’t.” “Jesus, Doc, I’ll for sure get one now. Every time she touches me I’ll think about what you just said.” He winked and said, “Might give her ideas.” I gave him the look I gave opponents when the referee called us into the center of the ring for last minute instructions. ***** Meany’s lawyer asked for a trial date in September. Mary Clare couldn’t make definite plans until the trial was over, but she and her probation officer were all for her tackling the Dean of the graduate school at Brandeis. Her approach would be to drive back there before the trial, confront the woman and grovel. One day she and I and Jake put my tool box in the back of my truck and drove to Berkeley to resurrect her powder blue Triumph TR3, which was still sitting in the garage where Meany’d stashed it when he rescued her. It had sat under a tarp for two years untouched. The battery was dead, the tires flat by half, soot, rubber scuffed off the tires of parking cars, and just plain dust had turned the tarp from tan to ash gray. “Do you think it will get me to Massachusetts?” Clare asked. “The real question is, will it get you back?” I said. Jake said, “That engine was originally built for tractors. It’s rugged and simple. Any decent mechanic can fix it.” I had the garage do the pumping up and flushing out necessary to get the car on the road again. We meanwhile drove up the hill to the Claremont for lunch. On the way we debated whether we needed to drop the oil pan and degunk it. I looked at Jake, Jake looked at me, Mary Clare looked from one to the other of us and back again. “Nah,” I said. “Nah,” Jake said. “What am I missing?” Clare asked. Jake said, “He’s not crawling under any car, for starters. Secondly, the English back when this was built used a different system of measuring nuts and bolts, and I’d have to borrow a set of Whitworth wrenches just to get the pan off.” “And there’s wisdom in letting sleeping dogs lie. Loosening gunk might be like letting loose a blood clot. Plug something up.” “I’m so glad I have such knowledgeable protectors,” she said, roguishly. In the lobby Jake suddenly stopped in his tracks. He said to Clare, “Could you give us a couple of minutes alone?” “I need to visit the ladies’ room,” she said and departed. “What?” I asked. “How’d you like a real job?” Jake asked. “Depends.” “You know Howie Manheimer?” I said, “Just enough to play tennis with him weekly for a couple of years. Right here. He’s a member of the tennis club—or used to be.” “Howie cornered me at the APHA meeting. He’s in a bind; took on a project and hired a project director who’s bombed out. No one’s been fool enough to take it on since—and I would, but I want more to write my novel so I said ‘no’ to that long a commitment. But it’s right up your alley.” I gave him my skeptical look. He said, “Look. It’s risky as hell but if you pull it off its rehabilitation, my friend. Resurrection. Clearing your name.” Clare came back and we went into lunch. “Are you guys finished telling secrets?” I explained to her what we’d been talking about. I had to explain also that Howie Manheimer was Deputy Director of the Association of Bay Area Governments, which happened to have its offices in the basement of the Claremont Hotel. I also explained that Howie was an old friend. “Go for it, lover. What are you waiting for?” “I think a martini, to cloud my judgment.” “While you drink one, I’m going downstairs and make sure Howie hasn’t found a sucker yet,” Jake said. I motioned to the waiter, needing the martini instantly. ***** Here is Jake’s taped account of his trip downstairs: In the dining room I excused myself, went downstairs and told Howie Manheimer, “If that job is still open, I know someone who can do it, and he’s available.” Howie is my age but doesn’t look it. A marathoner with a marathoner’s build, he has curly black hair silvered with white, as if done in a beauty salon, which it isn’t. He wears glasses to correct severe myopia. “His name’s Robert Gattling.” “Bob Gattling? We used to play tennis together. Whatever happened to him?” “Been gathering himself in La Morinda,” I said. “Everyone’s been wondering when he was going to come out of hiding. He could do this project, if he would. Suppose he would?” “He’s got some impetus, he’s got a new girl.” Howie said, “Bob always has a girl.” “Not like this one.” “How do I get in touch with him?” I said, “I’m having lunch with him and his girl upstairs—I’ll send him down.” “Fantastico. Send her down too.” “Howie?” “Yeah?” “Two things: I already told him the job was risky, so don’t bullshit him. And if you do hire him, give him a little time to get used to a coat and tie job again—okay?” Upstairs I said, “You want to go down and say hello to Howie while Mary Clare and I swill some wine?” He hesitated. “He really wants to see me?” I said, “Would I lie?” Robert stood, looked down at his polo shirt and Levi’s, and said, “Order me the baked turbot. I’ll be back in a flash.” two I stopped in the doorway of Howie’s office and said, “Hi, Howie,” as if I’d seen him the day before. We’d been tennis buddies until a sports doctor told me to give it up to save my back, and Howie got bitten by the running bug. “What are you up to, Bob?” “Not much. Recuperating. I hurt my back.” “I read about that. No good deed goes unpunished, only for real. What’s this janitor bullshit?” “Actually, Howie, I was pursuing the American dream. I owned a janitorial service.” “How’d you like a real job?” “Tell me about it.” He told me how he’d cajoled the University into a joint project aimed at predicting the number of doctors needed in the Bay Area ten years hence, county by county, specialty by specialty. They jointly hired someone who was as good as you’d expect, being hired by a committee. When he bombed out, the committee let Howie fire him. “You want the job?” he asked me. “You’ve got the right credentials for it, you know all the UC people involved.” “Jeez, Howie, I just came down here to say hello.” “Okay, be a janitor the rest of your life. I’d say this is an opportunity.” “Actually, I’m not a janitor any more, and I’m not lacking in appreciation of the opportunity. It’s just my life is complicated in other ways.” He said, “A woman.” “I’m serious about this woman, Howie, but timing’s the real problem.” He said, “That’s my problem, too. This thing is funded by a National Science Foundation grant and it’s a half year behind schedule already.” “How long does it run?” I asked. “Another year and a half. I can’t guarantee anything beyond that. Although, if the funds hold out, we could probably get an extension.” “What do you want me to do?” “Give me a résumé. —Where are you living?” “I’m staying with Jake Pritchett and family in Moraga while my back heals. Can you give me a little time to think about it?” He said, “Till Friday. That’s when I want the résumé.” “Shall I bring it up to date? Shall I put ‘janitor’ as my last employment?” Howie said, “If you can’t think of something to put on the résumé besides janitor, maybe you’re not ready for this job.” I changed the subject. “How’s the wife and kids?” “Kate’s taken up running too, and it suits her—she looks like a million. I wouldn’t let you around her without a steel jock on. Morrie’s now six-foot-five and playing forward for St. Ignatius. He’s going to Cal next year on an athletic scholarship.” “Time sure does fly. Has Morrie figured out if he’s a Jew or a Catholic?” “He’s a Catholic as far as St. Ignatius is concerned and a Jew as far as Kate’s concerned.” “And how’s Sara?” He said, “Sara’s meshuggah right now. She’s a cheerleader and she’s going steady with the star running back of the Berkeley High Yellow Jackets.” I said, ‘That doesn’t sound meshuggah. Sounds a little different for her, but not meshuggah. What happened to the precocious protester? Civil rights of the downtrodden fifth graders?” “Sara’s living civil rights these days. The star running back is black as the kettle’s bottom.” “Sounds about right,” I said. “Is he a nice guy?” “Jason’s great, but he can have any girl in school, so you can bet Sara’s putting out for him. I don’t want any guy screwing my little girl, but especially I don’t want a black guy.” “Why not?” “I don’t know, Bob, it just bugs the shit out of me. I guess in spite of all my high-flown ideals, I’m prejudiced.” “We’ll talk about this when there’s time. I have some folks upstairs I’m having lunch with. I’ll get back to you by Friday.” “I really need you, Bob. At a minimum I need to know whether this thing is a dead duck or if we can salvage it.” “Sounds like I could have a job for less than a year and a half.” Howie said, “That’s up to you. Take care, and call me.” I sat down with Mary Clare and Jake and said, “This is where I came in: someone’s offering me a real job.” I was referring, of course, to Meany offering me the job managing the mall. I related my conversation with Howie Manheimer. Jake, casual as a sunning cat, said, “Considering it would be like falling off a log for you, I suggest you take it.” Mary Clare said, “If you can do that you could go to work for Rand Corporation or somebody afterwards.” “I dunno,” I said. “It would mean working with my old buddies at the University.” “So?” “I’m not sure I care to. Those sonsabitches threw me to the wolves.” “Then get off the dime,” Jake said, “and make a million dollars, or write a book about the campus revolts in Berkeley, or do whatever, but get off the dime.” I said, “I’ll have another martini,” wondering what they’d been talking about while I was downstairs. It occurred to me Jake might be tired of my squatting on his manse. We sat and looked out the window from a dining room where all of us had eaten at one time or another, on Berkeley, the city I still considered my home, despite all the crap that had gone on since Sixty-four. Beyond lay The City, which Jake and I and countless others considered Mecca. An early autumn hazed the air. It festered between the Claremont and the Golden Gate Bridge, the Campanile bisecting the picture, and Alcatraz like a surfaced submarine, dead in the water. Mist rose from the Bay’s shallows. An inversion layer kept haze and mist in place, and between them lay a clear band where you could almost make out the hands on the Ferry Building clock, which tourists were told had said the same time since the earthquake of 1906. We could see the middle but not the top of the Transamerica Tower. You could see enough to know it was a pyramid. I paid for the lunch. I didn’t have a lot of cash reserves, but I still had some credit card leeway, and Jake had been treating Clare and I for three weeks now. Back at the garage the Triumph sat in a mechanics bay, idling with a slight rock to the chassis. Jake and I followed Clare home. Going up Ashby and up the grade to the Caldecott Tunnel the exhaust pipe puffed black smoke. Downhill from the tunnel the black smoke disappeared. Then there was a little puff of black each time she accelerated from a stop. “What do you think?” I asked, “a tune-up, squirt some cleaner down the carburetor?” “Could be the stuff they flushed the crankcase with,” Jake said. “She’ll make it back, Robert, don’t worry. If she has to thumb, she’ll make it back.” three Were we going to leave well enough alone? Nah. It was too tempting. So Jake borrowed the Whitworth wrenches from a neighbor who owned an MGY. We started in on the Triumph, two bad-backed amateurs dividing the work according to what wasn’t likely to hurt us. We went over it from snout to asshole, reminiscing about cars we’d known, their many odors, new car interior perfume, the leather in status cars, gasoline, motor oil, the smell of parts washed in diesel. I voted for rust-proof primer as my all-time favorite car smell; Jake voted for ethyl gasoline. It was fun: we worked well together. Jake was an advocate of charming frozen nuts and other such impediments by the way he positioned his tongue, usually with the tip showing in a corner of his mouth: right corner for the foolish object being obstreperous, left corner for conquering the silly impediment. Less couth, I advocated clever combinations of oaths, as when I skinned my knuckles and called the TR3 ‘a jack-rabbit-fucking bug collector.’ I’d been a serious hot-rodder; Jake owned a 1957 Mercedes 190SL roadster—a classic despite its relative newness— a lustrous black on black, so shiny you could see your reflection well enough to shave by. When we’d changed all the Triumph’s belts and hoses, tweaked the timing, replaced spark plugs and leads, he wanted to knock out all the dings and paint the damned thing. Amanda put reality back into our love duet by wondering aloud how soon Clare could test drive the little darling. “And I forbid you, Mr. Gattling, to spend any more time tinkering. It’s the worst thing in the world you could do for your back.” It was not said good-naturedly. That evening I took Jake aside and asked him if that outburst meant Clare and I should vamoose. He said, “Amanda thinks Mary Clare is spoiled—that is, more spoiled than she is—but actually I think she’s a little jealous. You can’t hide it, chum: love has got you both sparkling. You were her special project, now she see you as Clare’s special project. Anyway, yes, Clare should get going and you should find a place as soon as you have a paycheck. I, for one, will miss you; and so will the kids.” “And here I thought it would be Clare not liking all the attention I paid to Amanda.” I overheard the continuation of their discussion when I was washing up on the mud porch. Jake said to Amanda, “As I see it, we have ringside seats to a transformation like Saul of Tarsus getting knocked on his ass—or was it off his ass?—by lightning. Maybe I’ve reached my dotage, but I’m rather fascinated.” “She doesn’t confide in me the way she does in you,” Amanda replied. “I don’t think she likes me.” “Dear, she concedes the title of ‘fairest in the land’ to you. She wouldn’t mind having your easy graces, either.” I had to face it: Clare was a man’s woman, she preferred men for everything but shopping and what she called ‘spa-ing.’ ***** This is Jake on tape about the dilemma: In the end the two questions, Mary Clare’s tenure and Robert’s back, were interconnected, which was more important than how any one of us felt about the other. If Mary Clare left the next day it would be for a motel; she still had hoops to jump through for the court before they’d let her head east. As long as she was around, she would get Robert’s higher quality attention. Because she and Robert were going through the phase of courtship where they unfold what they think is their true self to the beloved. And that was my rationalization for Clare staying. I wasn’t about to interrupt their colloquy as long as there was the least chance he’d drop the last veil and tell her about the Nevada desert. Pitted against my rationalization was Amanda’s own set of imperatives: not just her unspoken hankering for Robert’s attentions, which a blind man could have spotted, nor the challenge to the hegemony of her beauty, which the scintillating Clare represented. There were deep caverns of jealousy (“Do I need to shoot someone to get a little attention around here?”) She had proposed that Robert come stay with us. I had invited Mary Clare the night I found her attorney, Tony Arcata. I was reluctant to send her back to an apartment where she’d just shot her benefactor. I did it without consulting Amanda, not from thoughtlessness, I just was being thoughtful towards a beautiful young woman to the exclusion of my wife. And yes, I was dazzled by her: she changed daily, learning that life could be a holiday and a celebration. She danced for a time along the edge of losing her freedom, feeling all the while freer than she ever had in her life. After years of spinning in eddies of fear and self-loathing, she could see progress: one step of atonement, one step of improvement, for her they went hand in hand and they kept the books of the Great Accountant in the Sky balanced each step of the way. She did a good job of guarding against smugness, not so good a job guarding against euphoria. And the euphoria lit up her eyes so that there was no doubt in anyone’s mind of the love it represented. It was almost painful to see, the zeal, the quest for in-othering as she had had with no other man. Not only had they been through more for each other than most couples would ever dream, they had bestowed on each other, until new kinds of reality invaded their limbo, a more mature fantasy of immortality. Nothing would die, not love, not, certainly, the persons they loved, including each other. By the time Clare began the next phase of her life, her rescuing Robert from death had become a mythic act. They couldn’t recall the smell of whiskey or burnt gunpowder, the sick fear under police questioning, Meany’s arm poised to squander her lover’s handsome face. Another thorn in Amanda’s side: our son, Jimmy, who not only looked like Amanda but had always had her love lavished on him, fell in love with Mary Clare. Everywhere she went that he could, Jimmy would follow. He sat opposite her at dinner. She flirted with him, but he was too young to get it, he just talked more to her than he ever had to his mother or father. The evening after we picked up Clare’s car we made a trip to La Morinda to start retrieving personal belongings from the two apartments. Jimmy sat at the table after his sister was excused, the adults finishing their wine. He asked Clare, his brow furrowed with seriousness, “Did you really shoot a man?” Amanda’s brow furrowed too, deeper than the question merited. “You mind your mouth, young man.” He said, those replicas of his mother’s eyes fixed on his plate, “I just wondered if she still had the gun,” to which Mary Clare replied, “Sorry, Jimmy, the police took it away from me.” After dinner we piled into Robert’s truck and Amanda’s Saab, divided by sex, to descend to the freeway and snake over two sets of hills to La Morinda. I said to Jimmy on the way, “Do you understand why your mother was upset by your question at dinner?” “No.” “Mary Clare’s shooting Mr. Meany would be like Robert shooting me. Mr. Meany wasn’t a burglar, he was a friend.” Jimmy said, “But wasn’t he about to kill Mr. Gattling?” “She had to shoot him but she didn’t want to. Your mother is assuming she wants to forget the shooting, and asking her about it makes her hang on to the memory longer.” Jimmy turned to Robert, “But wasn’t she saving you, wasn’t she?” He was struggling to understand a part of the adult world. “Maybe,” Robert said, “if there wasn’t a gun handy she’d have done something that didn’t hurt Mr. Meany so much. You know, if the bullet had been an inch to the left, he’d be dead.” I said, “That’s why you should never own a handgun.” “What kind of a gun is a hand gun?” Jimmy asked. At Bobwhite Court Jimmy lugged one suitcase down the hall to the elevator and I carried Robert’s typewriter and another bag. When we reached the parking lot the three women were already piling boxes and bags into the Saab. Robert said, “How many more trips do you have to make?” Mary Clare said, “That’s it. I’m moved out.” What she was leaving with fit into the back seat and trunk of the Saab. “That was fast,” Robert said. “I never did unpack from moving down to your place.” Which prompted Robert to say, when we went back to clean up the apartment, “One thing about being a kept woman.” “What’s that?” “You get ready to go, you just vamoose. You don’t worry about cleaning up or the security deposit, you just vamoose.” Robert had left a number of questionable things for the last load, along with his cleaning materials. He had intended to pick up his janitor’s cart next door, and drive the truck back to Moraga. I said, “What do you need it for? Talk to the DA before you pick up the cart.” “What the shit, Jake, it’s mine.” “It just isn’t worth it. Something happens, the police will assume you went to provoke Meany.” He shot me a look that said he wished he would provoke Meany, he wished he were facing him for a rematch. four In the end we made two piles: keepers, to take down to the truck, discards, to take to the dumpster. Jake did the toting and hauling while I cleaned—mindful of the tricks the occupational therapist had recommended for such tasks. I left Jake the floors and baseboards. When we got back to La Morinda I opted for leaving everything we could in the truck. Out on the patio we slugged down gin and tonic, stuff left over from my apartment. I groaned and griped about my back and Jake seconded the motion. I asked him how bad his back was. He made a ‘comme ci comme ça’ gesture. “It’s highly variable.” He told me about the time, in the army, he was on the base boxing team and pulled muscles in his back moving furniture in a day room, getting ready for inspection. The doctor taped him and it felt good enough to work out the next day. There was a meet with a visiting Marine team, and he was supposed to have an easy win. “The night of the meet I was nervous and conscious of the tape irritating my skin, so I told the trainer to peel it off.” “What happened? I asked. “Opening bell, I went out in the middle of the ring, the Marine throws a right hand lead, which I slip nicely—and my back goes out again.” “No shit.” “I couldn’t sit down between rounds. The whole fight I was reeling around like a drunk. The Marines in the audience thought he was beating the shit out of me. The judges, too.” “Patterson vs. Ali,” I said. Patterson had thrown out his back early in that fight. “About as humiliating as anything in my life—Patterson’s, too, I bet.” Earlier, when we had stashed the cleaning supplies in the truck, I said, “Why don’t you wait for me in the truck, Jake, I’ll go next door, turn in the keys and tell Meryl where to send the deposit.” “Do it by mail,” Jake said. ‘What’s wrong?” “You know damned well what’s wrong.” I said, “He won’t be there.” “You don’t know that, and even if he isn’t, it’s still provocative.” “Is it?” I turned my back and walked away. I sensed Jake behind me, which sent a twinge through my back muscles. At VMM Enterprises, Meryl was on vacation. A pretty young woman was subbing for her. She made no connection between me and why Mr. Meany wore his arm under his shirt. She smiled and said, “How can I help you?” bright and cheery, when Meany walked out of the inner office. Though one-armed, Meany’s step was firm. He weighed twenty pounds less, his neck no longer filling his collar, his jowls sagging, the lines in his face deeper. I was reminded of an angry samurai in Nineteenth Century Japanese woodcuts. “You know better than to come here,” Meany said. “I didn’t think you’d be here.” “You see me.” To Meany I must have looked in the pink, so when he said, “Now get out,” he no doubt meant it as a request, although his usual flat and oddly powerful voice said he had recuperated further than I’d imagined a man his age could. My voice quavered when I said, “I just came to turn in the keys.” I added, in a steadier tone, “I still can’t move very fast, so don’t try anything.” “Or what?” Meany asked. The sub was not bright and cheery any longer. Jake stepped between us and turned me gently but firmly towards the door. He said, “Just don’t say anything more.” His voice quavered, too. “I’ll mail your deposit,” Meany said to my back. Jake herded me through the door like a sheepdog herds an errant ram. He helped me into the cab of my truck. Through the open window I said, “Wait a minute. How is he going to know where to send the check?” Jake said, “If he hasn’t figured it out, let me handle it when Meryl gets back.” “But what if he knows where I am?” I asked. “What does that mean?” He said, “Nothing; let’s not get paranoid.” And as he climbed in the truck he said, “How old is that man, anyway?” “All I know is, he won’t see sixty again.” “Jesus.” When I inserted the key in the ignition I realized I hadn’t left the Bobwhite Court keys. ***** Jake confided that Meany scared him, but not because he was an alien species. “I see something of myself in him,” he said. “‘Not I,’ quacked the noisy duck.” “What do you think made me an MP?” I said, “Different. One half of you wants to take on the whole health care system and make it rational. The other half wants to write fantasies. And never the twain shall meet.” “Whereas,” Jake said, “Meany sails a course that requires no tacking. The wind’s always at his back.” “Which isn’t doing him much good these days. He’s lost the one person that made him realize he was human.” “And you’re responsible for that, my friend. I’d be more afraid than I am, if I were you. I’d not want to be the object of a bear-sized hate.” When Mary Clare heard about the encounter she was of the same mind. “I suggested once you get out of La Morinda. Now you’d better get out of Moraga too.” “Just supposing I went to work in Berkeley. Would that be far enough away?” “I won’t rest easy until he’s put away somewhere.” “Like jail?” I said. “The chances of him going to jail soon, or for very long, are miniscule.” “What have I got us into?” she asked. She leaned against me, asking to be held. I held her close. “If it hadn’t been for Meany, I’d never have met you.” Which was true in about four different ways. My next session with the DA I told him that the encounter with Meany had changed how I felt about him—I was afraid. Ted Walleke said, “It’s not like he’s a Mafia don, you’re just talking about an angry old man.” Yes, Mr. DA, an angry old man who never had time to be angry before, whose life had never been brought to a stop by recuperation and the threat of prison time. “What if he does anger the way he does subdivisions or shopping malls?” Walleke thought I was paranoid. His good-looking sidekick thought I was prudent. Jake had a sensible suggestion about a way out—if we could sell it to Mary Clare’s probation officer. five Jake had one of those ideas out of the blue. He and Amanda owned a mountain cabin off Route 50, near a wide place in the road called Strawberry. “Go up there,” he suggested. “Take Mary Clare.” I shook my head. “Great idea, lousy timing. I gotta work. She has to go to Boston. —Is your cabin nice?” “Literally a stone’s throw from the South Fork of the American River. Deer, owls, raccoons, trout. There used to be a kid next door, his dad was the local tow truck operator, he called me ‘Daddio.’” “You thrash him?” I asked. Jake shook his head. “He called everyone Daddio. Except his mother; he called her ‘Mummio.’” “Maybe we could borrow the place for a honeymoon.” Jake said, “You’ve asked her?” “Not yet. I’m working up to it.” “First you tell her.” I said, “Tell her what?” He said, “You know.” I didn’t hide out; I ended up doing nothing about Meany. Jake pointed out that doing nothing was one of the somethings you could do. He argued against Ted Walleke’s contention that Meany wouldn’t seek vengeance. “He’s capable of it.” I took to lifting my hood before I drove anywhere, looking for wires that hadn’t been there the last time I looked. “This is stupid,” I said, but then I found myself compulsively studying cars in the rear view mirror. The days kept coming and we reached that last gasp of summer, when the Pacific high pressure system just hangs there, blocking the fog and the breezes. To kill more time we relined the brakes on the Triumph, and then rebuilt the clutch. As the most pampered TR3 west of the Sierras, we hoped it didn’t blow a gasket or eat a piston. And while we tinkered, Mary Clare took the last hurdle in stride, she went to court. The day would hardly have been noted except that she took me along for moral support. It took fifteen minutes to scrub all the grease out of the cracks and lines of my hands. She was sentenced to what she and the DA had agreed on, assigned a probation officer, the probation period started. Her probation officer had already been clued in about the trip to Brandeis, so there was nothing left to keep Clare in Moraga. She test drove the car and said it was almost too good, both the new clutch and brakes were giving her whiplash. I went to Jake’s barber in Orinda, Bienvenida pressed a tropical worsted, and I took Mary Clare to dinner in The City, a storefront restaurant that did French haute cuisine as if they had red velvet hangings and a snooty maitre d’hôtel. We drank Kir while we ate gougères and then pâté on baguette. Never mind the rest, I told Jake. I didn’t want to make him jealous. I took her hand across the table. I told her my dream about the chemise gown and the string of diamonds. “My father would approve of your dream,” she said. “That’s exactly how he wanted me to dress.” I wanted so much that everything turn out perfectly for her I squeezed her hand too hard. When she winced I said, “I’m sorry, baby.” She saw the mist in my eyes. She squeezed back and said, “You’re one of the good ones, Bobby, one of the decent people in this world.” We were sharing a crème brûlée and a split of Sauternes to finish off the meal; we were the last persons in the restaurant. I said, “Does that mean you love me?” “Of course,” she said. “I mean really really love me.” She said, “Tonight there’s not an ounce left over for anyone else. You’ve become the sunrise and the sunset of my life.” The owner, who had waited on our table, discretely placed the bill where I might notice it and retreated to let us play out our love duet. “Let’s go home and make love, sweetheart.” “I want to go up to Coit Tower and make out first,” she said, sparkling like a teenager who suddenly realizes she’s beautiful. It was a perfectly clear night and San Francisco wore a black chemise dotted with a million sequins. She wanted to carry the memory back with her, the something (besides me, she emphasized) that would guide her back to the Bay Area. “I know a better place,” I said, and took her across the Bay and up in the Berkeley Hills, where we could see the three bridges and clear up to Twin Peaks and Sutro Tower, its red warning lights blinking. The Bay Bridge lights were a necklace reflecting on the still Bay waters in colors like Yellowstone hot springs. In the middle of the necklace were Buena Vista and Treasure Islands, where we could make out two small ships moored, frigates or destroyer escorts, and out at the end of some dock at Richmond, a lighted tanker loading fuel. The Chevron refinery was burning off gas and the tower from which the flame erupted looked like a Titan’s torch. “I wish I had binoculars,” Clare said. “You won’t be needing them,” I said, and pulled her across my lap, her back to the steering wheel, and kissed her deeply. When we drove back to Moraga everything about the Pritchett house was perfectly still except the guard crickets all around, and they sounded love calls ardently and often. We were the only clumsy creatures about: a knee hitting the wall one time, an elbow another, springs playing an obbligato to breaths sucked in and exhaled gutturally. Possibly my back had succumbed to the Kir, Bordeaux and Sauternes of dinner, or maybe it deferred to love, but it wasn’t until farmers were rising in Iowa to milk cows that I said to my sleep-bound partner, “When shall I wake you?” “Who’s going to wake you?” she mumbled. “Tell me when.” I gathered up all the clothes I’d dropped on the floor, including the suit Bienvenida would find in the closet and press again, cluck-clucking and giving me broad grins. I walked down the hall, hearing the sonorities of sleeping adults and youngsters. It was close to the waking hour right there in Moraga when I got into bed and waited to be sandbagged by the cessation of want. Only I wasn’t the only person awake in Moraga. I heard the throaty rumble of a large and powerful V-8 engine passing the house, backing off down the hill. In a while I heard the same engine climbing slowly up the hill, under minimum engine load. In a while the passage down and the passage up were repeated. The Pritchett’s house is on a street like the crossbar between goalposts. It doesn’t go anywhere except to connect the other two streets; there’s no block to go around. So if you were checking out the house you would go up and down the hill like that. When I got to the living room Jake, in a summer bathrobe, was standing at the front window, looking through the blinds. He shushed me. “Stay out of the headlights.” “What is it?” I whispered. “It’s two men in a sedan.” “What kind?” “Big Buick—Riviera, I think.” The car came down the hill once more. “Would you get me the binoculars in the left-hand corner of the hat shelf in the hall closet?” Jake asked. When I handed them to him he looked through gauze curtains, standing back from the blinds, adjusting the focus. We waited longer than it took for the car to go up to the top of the street and come down again. Then we waited that amount of time again. I said in a normal voice, “They’re not coming back.” “Probably nothing,” Jake said. “That what you really think?” Jake tried to sound offhand, though we both assumed the men were patrolling this house. “I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a lover’s quarrel, not in this neighborhood.” I said, “Good thing Clare’s going.” “Who says they’re after Clare?” “Not me,” I said. “I just don’t want her to worry.” “We should put your truck in the garage.” I said, “I suspect they can get in the garage if they want.” After a moment’s silence Jake said, “Well, I’m up for good.” “I haven’t been to sleep yet. But if I lie down, I’ll never get Clare up.” “I’ll get her up, in time to say goodbye to Amanda.” “What a pal.” ***** I woke to Clare nudging me. I would have grabbed her, but she held a cup of coffee, and there was another on the night stand. I said, “The quantity leaves something to be desired, but the quality of sleep was primo.” “Me too.” She squinched up her eyes with a smile. We ate together for the last time, all but Amanda. Mary Clare assembled her bags at the front door and Jimmy carried the biggest out to the car. He wanted to carry them all, but Jane had become enamored of Mary Clare too, and she would do her share. When everything was loaded, Clare came out of the bedroom with several packages wrapped in purple tissue and tied with white satin ribbon. She handed the one on top to Jake. He said, “I’m going to wait till Amanda comes home before I open it.” “Give her this one then.” Jane opened her package, and brought out a coral necklace, one of Clare’s that she’d admired one day when she was sitting cross-legged on Clare’s bed, taking lessons in how to be a woman. She cried for two seconds and flung her arms around Clare. “I couldn’t,” she said. “They’re too orange for me,” Clare said. “But they really go with your coloring.” “Oh dad,” Jane said. Jimmy was more reserved. Clare gave him a sterling silver money clip from Dunhill. She said, “I know you’re going to make lots of money someday, and you must keep it neat.” She gave Jake a kiss, and he said, “You remember the phone number here?” She rattled it off. “If you have the slightest problem, call from the nearest phone. If it’s too far away, reverse the charges.” “What if I’m in St. Louis?” “Call.” I leaned in under the canvas top that Jimmy and Jane had scrubbed almost white and gave her a long kiss. “You rat. You just want to make sure I come back.” “But of course.” The motor was running and she released the brake when she said, “Tell Jake about it. Tell Jake he can put it in his book about the witch, how you put a spell on me.” The TR3 purred up the hill and I watched until she turned left at the corner and was out of sight. There And Back one Bienvenida found me standing in the middle of the kitchen, not remembering why I’d come into the room. She put her arms around me and guided my head to her shoulder. “Pobretico,” she murmured, “hermanitico,” using the Costa Rican diminutive. “You are like a mama cat, they have took away your babies.” And after a moment of stroking the back of my head, she said, “I got to find some platanos, make you some proper Costa Rican beans.” She took off her apron and grabbed her purse. Before she got to the door I pointed to the purple and white package on the window sill above the sink. She gasped, her hand to her mouth. She knew instantly what it meant. She took it and sat down in the breakfast nook. She had trusted Mary Clare with secrets of her past, some sad, some sensuous; she had made a niche in her heart for Clare, like a niche for a saint’s statue, and now her idol was gone. Her lips moved, eyes closed, I suspect a prayer for Clare’s safe return, and only then did she open the package. She showed me the contents of the little white box with nothing more than a tear for comment. They were drop earrings, crescent moons of beaten gold. Like the coral necklace given to Jane, they were something of Clare’s Bienvenida had admired in passing. She immediately removed the studs from her ears and replaced them with the new earrings, making her an instant queen. She bounced up, planted a kiss on my cheek, and was out the back door, calling “Platanos,” over her shoulder. She had no sooner cleared the porch when Jake came through the door from the dining room. “How about a cappuccino?” and without waiting for a reply fired up the espresso maker. Everyone was thinking food would salve my soul. I said, to prove I wasn’t grieving, “I was thinking about Mary Clare and Amanda, why they didn’t hit it off.” “Southern belle versus Jewish princess. Bound to be a clash.” He explained that Amanda was the only daughter of Texas Supreme Court Justice Samuel Husted Wirth. “Amanda grew up believing that, beneath his judicial robes, Justice Wirth was a marble statue, and that he wore a fig leaf.” The coffee maker interrupted us with its high-pitched scream, as Jake steamed a pitcher of milk. “How come Mary Clare got along so well with Bienvenida?” He said, “I don’t know. Both Amanda and Mary Clare spoke a little Spanish with her, you know. According to Bienvenida, they both speak very bad Spanish, nothing like the pure Spanish of Costa Rica, but Bienvenida would correct Mary Clare, whereas she wouldn’t dare correct Amanda. See?” Mindful of Howie Manheimer’s deadline, I thanked Jake and took the cappuccino into the spare room and sat at my typewriter, to work on my résumé. Between sips I added my travels through Mexico, labeling them a sabbatical, and to cover the years since I left the University, I put: “Self-employed, Consultant in Environmental Sanitation.” When I had a satisfactory draft I drove over to Walnut Creek and bought a new typewriter ribbon, Wite-Out, and some of that silly putty you use to clean typewriter keys. As I walked in the back door after my errand, Jake burst into the kitchen. “Clare’s on the line,” he said. I took the call in the den. “Where are you?” She was in Placerville, at a pay phone in a truck stop. “I think I’m being followed.” “What kind of car?” “Big, an ugly iridescent green; A General Motors car.” “Two men in it?” “Yes. How did you know?” “You got enough gas to get back here?” “I just filled up.” “Turn around and come back. Don’t stop for anything.” “Oh, Bobby, you’re scaring me.” I said, “You’ll be all right. It’s probably nothing, but it might be.” “Do I really need to come back?” I said, “I would if I were you.” I looked up and Jake was in the doorway. “—Hold on a sec, Clare.” I turned to Jake. “Any other thoughts?” “Not for her,” he said. “I’m calling the Highway Patrol as soon as you get off the line, but for God’s sake don’t tell her that.” I told Clare if she wasn’t back in two hours I’d send out the Mounties to look for her. She allowed as how she could do it in two if she didn’t drop below seventy-five, but if she got a ticket it would make her way late. We settled on two and a half hours. As soon as I put down the handset, Jake picked it up and dialed information. He wrote down the number for the Highway Patrol office in Placerville and depressed the hook, then dialed them. It took him a long time, even with his precise way of speaking, to convince the dispatcher that he had a legitimate concern. He couldn’t give the Buick’s license number nor Clare’s, so it was going to be hard to identify the right pair. The third time he repeated himself—without a trace of irritation in his voice—I quit listening. He brought me back from a brown study when he jumped up and stretched. “God help us if the Russians invade,” he said. If the CHP managed to spot Clare, and if they managed to spot an ugly green Buick Riviera behind her, they would stop the Buick and delay it as long as they dared. They’d run it for outstanding warrants. They would hope for brake lights or mufflers or anything else malfunctioning. “Dandy,” I said. “That’s the best they can do. Of course, if they’re a couple of desperados, they’ll have them. And even if they aren’t, knowing somebody’s on to them, those guys won’t try to speed up to catch Mary Clare after they’re pulled over. So figure she’ll beat them here by some. I’ll put her car in the third bay, in place of my roadster.” I said, “Then there’s nothing for us to do but wait.” I finished my cappuccino and licked the sugary foam off my upper lip. “I guess I’ll go out and get my résumé copied. Need anything downtown?” “What if she calls?” “You’ll be here,” I said. I simply couldn’t imagine the Buick Twins curbing Mary Clare and spiriting her away. Jake said, “You know, you and I are a lot alike, but sometimes, brother, you’re more like Amanda.” “What does that mean?” I said, sure it was not a compliment. “Never mind; just don’t go all the way to the Reproduction Clinic for God’s sake.” “Just downtown, Jake. Trust me, nothing’s going to happen while I’m gone.” ***** Something did happen, though. I walked into the den, which was, in reality, Jake’s home office, and he was cleaning a pump action shotgun. “The fuck?” “Protection,” he said. “From geese and pheasants?” “Sorry, I know how one of these must look to you, but it’s what I have. And if I also have a vivid imagination, pardon me all to hell. In my mind I see Mary Clare tooling down the highway, back towards the Bay Area, and that’s all these guys know until they see the flashing lights in their rear view mirror and they know they’ve been made and that Mary Clare is driving away from them at ten miles an hour over the speed limit while the cops verify they are spotless citizens without outstanding warrants or broken taillights.” “So, when they drive up, you’re going to blow them away. What’s that loaded with?” I could not disguise my distaste for shotguns. He said, “I thought about why they’re after her. Correct me if I’m wrong: either they’re just providing Meany with intelligence—what she’s doing, where she’s going—or, he’s told them to kidnap her and bundle her off to someplace no one’s likely to look—Costa Rica, the Cayman Islands—where he can persuade her to start life over; or, he plans to kill her, that’s scenario three, and that’s why the gun, goddamit.” “Kill her? Kill her why?” Jake said, “Why did Othello kill Desdemona?” “Jake, you’re going paranoid on me. We don’t even know if they’re the same two as last night. Maybe there’s four of them, working in relays. Let’s call the cops.” “Didn’t I just do that?” “I mean the local cops.” He said, “You have to assume that they’re as clean locally as they are somewhere between Placerville and Sacramento.” I said, “I’ll call Rutledge, he’ll understand.” “Rutledge is a La Morinda cop, this is Moraga.” “Maybe he can get to Meany, talk some sense into him.” He said, “Moose Meany, his high school chum, the guy who made him a star running back?” “Meanwhile, put the shotgun away.” “Robert, all I intend to do is let anybody who threatens us know that I’ll bring this to a conclusion they won’t like.” “Oh Jake, we might not like it either.” He rubbed the gun with a polishing cloth from muzzle to recoil pad, closed his cleaning kit and leaned it, beautiful and lethal, against his desk. I said, “If you meant, when you said I was like Amanda, that I was one-minded, you beat me by a mile, brother.” two In the kitchen I opened the phone book and called the La Morinda police, asking for Sergeant Rutledge. The dispatcher wanted to know what I wanted him for. “It has to do with that bombing on Bobwhite Court,” I said, assuming that was still a hot topic at the La Morinda Police Department. Apparently not. The dispatcher wouldn’t track down Sergeant Rutledge for me. She took a message. I depressed the lever and dug out my wallet, to find the sergeant’s card and dial his direct line. Nada. “Kids off swimming?” I asked Jake. He moved the shotgun from the kitchen to the wall by the bay window. I couldn’t stop my brain from lopping off butt and barrel to make it the gun I briefly owned in Nevada. He said, “I sent them to spend the night with Bienvenida.” “Good idea. —Amanda?” “Committee meeting—Tissue Committee. It’s a long one, but she’ll no doubt be home before this is over.” As he was speaking he was eyeballing gin into two Old Fashioned glasses, which seemed like an excellent idea. When I tasted it I said, “Tastes like you added a twist.” He said, “I squirted the glass with lemon oil.” “No kidding; how’d you do that?” “You have this little aerosol can like Binaca, only it’s just lemon oil.” He opened the liquor cabinet and showed it to me. “—Okay, Mr. Planner, have you come up with a plan yet?” I said, “Indeed, I have come up with a plan.” ***** The plan required a drivable car the Buick Twins hadn’t seen yet, namely, the Mercedes. There was a slight hitch. On a book shelf in the spare room sat one of its two carburetors, with a rebuild kit alongside. The Mercedes was Jake’s baby. He’d painted it and repainted it, polished everything, shown it several times at Concours d’Elegance and won two ribbons, although never a best in class—yet. He was as compulsive about the things the judges couldn’t see, like the condition of carburetor floats, as the exterior. He’d found a lug nut here, a tachometer there, everything about the car was the best he could make it. Now we were sitting at the kitchen table, I with the instructions and Jake with the rebuild kit, putting the hundred and one pieces together to make a functioning carburetor. It was an ideal time to talk about things you might not want to look the other guy in the eye while saying. “The day you and Mary Clare chatted in San Francisco,” I started off, “did she want you to carry a message to me?” “How perceptive of you. Yes, she wanted me to give you the kiss-off for her. Naturally, I refused.” “Why?” “—I screw this all the way in and back off how many revolutions?” I said, “One and a half. —Tell me why.” “She said she was no good for you.” “She give a reason?” “Is she no good for you?” The ceiling lamp had a built-in reel, and Jake pulled it down, closer to his work. He looked like a little old watch maker. “I said, “She’s everything my heart could long for.” Jake said, “Then why should I repeat a bunch of bilge?” “She never told me how she met Meany—was that part of it?” He said, “She tell you about the boyfriend, the one from Boston she followed out here?” “Sandro?” “Then you know why Meany rescued her.” “But how did they meet?” “It was at a political fundraiser. She needs to tell you the rest.” “She didn’t look like his sainted mother, or an old girlfriend?” Jake said, “Nope. —I’ve got the pins in the float swivel, how do I make the initial adjustment?” “Jake.” “She looked like she might be ready to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge—which is what she had in mind. And that’s all I’m saying on that subject.” “But aren’t we friends?” I whined. “I’m her friend, too, jocko.” ***** The Bay Area was having the equivalent of Santa Ana winds that afternoon when Mary Clare pulled into the driveway. It was not a record-setting day, it was not even as hot as June 6, when she borrowed my bathtub. It was too hot to have her top up, which she did, hoping, I assume, for anonymity. I was upstairs, standing at the bay window. Jake was below, installing the rebuilt carburetor alongside its twin. When I stomped on the floor three times (meaning ‘hey, she’s here, the big, ugly Buick is not in sight’) he opened the garage door next to the Mercedes’ bay and waved her in. Mary Clare was giving Jake a hug and a kiss when I got downstairs, he holding his dirty hands away from her. Then she turned and flung herself at me with vigor. “You lost them,” I said. “I took the Green Valley Cutoff,” she said, beaming proudly. Jake and I exchanged looks. “What’s wrong?” she asked. What’s wrong was, the Green Valley Cutoff, which took fifteen minutes off the driving time between the East Bay and Sacramento, was a two lane highway that ran through acres and acres of wetlands. There are a couple of duck hunting clubs at the Bay end of the road, and a couple of houses at the other. On a busy day you might see more egrets fishing than cars the half hour you were on the Green Valley Cutoff. If a bad guy wanted to overtake you and run you off the road, there was no better place between Placerville and Moraga. “Oh it’s nothing,” Jake said. “It just gets pretty windy along there, been known to blow over big rigs at its worst.” “It was windy, but not enough to slow me down.” “Good,” I said, hiding my sense of relief. “If those guys are after me, what am I going to do?” she asked. Jake said, “While you were coming back, Robert concocted a plan.” My plan—shit, I wish to God I hadn’t thought of it—was for me to wait until nightfall and drive the Triumph, leading the Buick duo on a wild goose chase, while Jake drove Clare to South Lake Tahoe in the Mercedes. After I lost the Buick I would catch up with them. In the morning she’d be on her way again, minus the tail. “They’ve never seen the Mercedes, have they,” Clare said, buying into the plan. “Even Amanda’s forgotten what it looks like,” Jake replied. There were hitches in my plan from the start. Jake, getting the two carburetors synchronized in a closed garage bay, almost asphyxiated himself. When he came upstairs he was bleary-eyed and said, “Quick, I need oxygen.” I said, “How about some gin instead?” “Oh if you insist.” His only regret was that, if we were to keep the Mercedes hidden until I’d led off the Buick duo, he couldn’t give it a test drive. Then Amanda came home from the Tissue Committee meeting. She confronted a scene in such emotional contrast to hours of reviewing medical records, lab reports and oral presentations by the pathologist and chief of surgery that she was initially charmed by it. It was as if she’d come in to form the fourth in a joint holiday of two couples. We were a little giddy, waiting for the time to put my plan in motion. Jake was cooking scrambled eggs and sausage for four, we were drinking gin, we were three musketeers and she wasn’t sure she wanted to be the fourth. Too much fun and too much devil-may-care, getting ready to foil these thugs or operatives, Jake and I upbeat, Mary Clare running on the kind of energy a teenager produces when two rivals are vying for her affections. Amanda at first refused a drink, but after a couple of bites of egg got up and poured herself a glass of Chablis. Her anger at not being in control of the situation showed in jerky motions and in avoiding any of our eyes. I looked at Jake and the look he gave me in return said that for once he would not succumb to his wife’s Southern belle tyranny. She heard my plan and couldn’t buy it. She couldn’t accept the major premise, that Meany had hired thugs or private detectives, even, to shadow Mary Clare. And, with her East Texas Protestant upbringing, where morality seemed mostly to do with seemliness, she couldn’t quite forgive me for mixing up her husband with a kept woman. And—getting down to the nitty-gritty—she couldn’t forgive Mary Clare the sin of having used sex to attain security. It was as if she had never used her beauty to influence men while Mary Clare had. So if there was the slightest risk to Jake from getting Mary Clare out of town, mine was a flawed plan. It was flawed, all right, but it wasn’t because Mary Clare was morally wanting. Its flaw was assuming that keeping a date in Waltham, Massachusetts, was important enough to load a shotgun, hoping to ward off a couple of pros. three It isn’t pretty to watch a woman who’s used to being in control lose it. Amanda switched from wine to brandy after eating a few more bites of eggs and toast. For a couple of minutes she said nothing and wouldn’t look at us, which made we three coconspirators feel both antsy and embarrassed. She wore a look of threatened reprisal, a look that said it would serve Jake right if she drove off again and called one of the doctors who were always trying to get her into dark corners at parties, ask him to meet her to discuss ominous events shaping up at home. When she finally did address us I tried not to listen at first. But then she was too shrill to shut out. “What I don’t understand,” she was saying, “is why you’re all such sheep. If this Meany person is trying to bust things up here, he’s certainly doing a good job of it. I’d just ignore him. And if I found out some hired hooligans were following me, I’d call the police in a minute.” Jake measured her a long moment before he spoke. “Problem is, Amanda, we’ve called the police—you honestly think I wouldn’t? There’s nothing to pin on the men who followed Clare this morning, so, until Meany does what he’s planning to do, it’s futile. We know those two men didn’t just happen to be on the same highway, going the same direction as Mary Clare, turning around at the same place. But they’re as anonymous as the car they’re driving, and there’s no law against driving Buicks.” Amanda said, “Why on earth would he want to do this? It seems so childish.” Jake said, “People do childish things when they lose control. I would guess he’s still clinging to the idea that Mary Clare’s very existence depends on his rescuing her. Well, he did that, he needs to move on, but he won’t. He won’t let go, so Robert’s a threat—to Mary Clare and to Meany’s self esteem.” Amanda turned to Clare and said, “How does it feel to be the center of all this attention?” Clare shot her a look that said, ‘Sorry to steal the spotlight, Amanda.’ I prayed she wouldn’t say it aloud. Amanda said, when Clare didn’t answer, “I assume you know how risky this helping you is for everyone else.” “Amanda,” Jake said. Amanda said, her voice rising, “I’m talking about the shotgun I saw propped up in the living room.” Mary Clare looked over at Jake. “For the one in a million chance they might get violent.” Mary Clare looked at me, asking me to come up with the simple-pretty this standoff demanded. I looked away. She said, “Robert?” I shrugged. “I’m the wrong person to ask. I wouldn’t grab a shotgun in this circumstance, but that’s me.” “The Vikings,” Mary Clare said, “believed it was bad luck to leave an edged weapon on your doorstep.” “Yeah,” I said, “I know about that. Someday I’ll tell you about my personal experience with deadly weapons.” Amanda said, “We’ve watched death on television for years now, our boys and Vietnamese villagers and we’re talking about it as if it’s an abstraction. This is America in the Seventies, not the Old West.” She got up and walked away. Jake said, “Tomorrow this will all be over and we’ll think this conversation silly. Unless they come busting in here with guns blazing nothing’s going to happen, the shotgun will go back to gathering dust.” There was a hitch when we descended to the garage. Amanda saw the shotgun in Jake’s hand and said, “I thought that was to protect our home. You’re not taking that with you? Tell me you aren’t!” “Yes.” “I won’t hear of it.” Jake said, “I sense violence; I can feel it.” “Then don’t go; call the police, make them understand about Meany.” Jake said, “We’ve been through all that.” Amanda turned first to Mary Clare and then to me. “You’ve got nothing to lose, letting him jeopardize himself, but he’s got nothing to gain. Can’t you see that?” Mary Clare said, “I have to go, whether Jake takes a shotgun or not. I can’t choose for him, because I don’t know what I’d do in his shoes.” I said, “You’ll look back on this someday, Amanda, and call it a lark.” “Letting Jake die for you is a lark?” Jake said, “Why this sudden concern? It’s not like you’re sending your best friend off to battle.” “No,” she said, starting to cry, “we never got to be best friends, did we. I guess I just got my mind set on it happening someday, I don’t know why.” She turned to me—or, rather, turned on me. “What if those men don’t follow you at all? What if they wait till you’re gone and break in here?” “Because they won’t,” Jake said. “Well,” she said, “at least we have one bond left between us. You’re willing to jeopardize my welfare as cavalierly as your own.” Jake said, “I’ll call you when we get to Tahoe and I’ll call again when I’m heading back.” “Don’t bother,” she said. “I’m not a fool, I won’t be here.” four Jake stashed the shotgun behind the seat of the Mercedes while I tied on Mary Clare’s scarf and climbed into the Triumph, throwing a flight bag in the passenger seat. When I looked up Mary Clare blew me a kiss and smiled an “I’ll be seeing you” smile. Jake came up to my driver’s side window. I said, “Lights out. Soon as I clear the door, close it behind me.” He nodded, I hit the ignition switch; the engine obliged. He went to the wall switch and killed the lights while I found reverse. I did not look up from the rear view mirror again as I backed out to the street and swung the car’s tail to the right. I ground the gears slightly going from reverse to first. ***** From the tapes Jake relates his end of the getaway: The Mercedes carbs were set up just right. We headed out fifteen minutes after Robert did, over the hills into Oakland via Canyon Drive, a pleasant enough jaunt if you were on a lark, that word Robert used that caused me to flinch as much as Amanda. The Bay side of the hills was no cooler than the interior valleys, though the residents were suffering more, unused to such heat. We gassed up at a filling station on MacArthur Boulevard, part of the inner city. The attendant said, “Man, I hope you and the young lady are heading outta here. Who turned off the effing air conditioning?” We drove with the windows open, eighteen wheelers coming down from the Altamont Pass filling the hot night air with smells of burning brakes, those going up the grade geared down and spewing high-rpm diesel fumes, until we were on the new freeway and passing them in high gear, the motion at least giving a semblance of cooling us, putting Mary Clare to sleep, her lips parted, face a dream of wise innocence. I envied Robert. Yet I felt good, a knight off to the Crusades, despite the fracas with Amanda. There was the righteous sense of rescuing Mary Clare a second time. I assured myself, as we cruised through Stockton, this was different from Meany rescuing her: she’d made the choice to go, Robert and I were simply instruments of that choice, protecting her integrity, not taking it. Because I was doing something significant, tiny but significant. Who knows where these two would go? I thought about the job at ABAG. Wouldn’t it be neat, meaning ironic and just, if Robert pulled it off, made his former bosses at the University eat crow? I had no trouble at all imagining Mary Clare in China—they’d love her, so much so, they’d want her to stay, help them look at themselves doing incredible things. Surely, by the time she got there, the Paris peace talks would be concluded, we’d have found out how to exist without being the world’s policeman, because it could no longer be done. Having sound relations with China would be paramount. Could I see Mary Clare as Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs? I could. As we climbed into the Sierra foothills on the other side of Sacramento, Mary Clare woke. For a while she watched the scenery go by. We passed a motor home burning on the side of the highway, a Forest Service tanker parked behind it, too late to save the vehicle but making sure the fire didn’t spread to the brush. “We got you in some trouble,” she said at last, referring to the scene at parting with Amanda. “It was coming from a long time ago.” “How could Amanda not get along with you? What did you ever do?” I tried to tell her. I found myself comparing her and Robert with Amanda and me, not my words, Bienvenida was the one who nailed it. She said, “Roberto an’ Maria, they both know how it is to be helpless an’ come back again to be strong. They been through so much things, they doan have to talk an’ they know what the other one’s thinking.” I told Mary Clare about the incident that set it off. Amanda and I decided to marry and I had only one person I really wanted to witness it, my mother, declining in health, her heart deteriorating. She couldn’t fly anymore, so I innocently asked that the ceremony be held in Los Angeles, not appreciating the significance of ceremony to Amanda and her family—silver pattern picked out by puberty, the china pattern before college, her attendants lined up since high school, except for one Amanda didn’t talk to any more. If I’d had a sister she could have been the replacement, only I didn’t. I had a mother whose only son was about to be married and who was too frail to travel to Austin. I’d been in the army, so I was sensitive to institutions breaking individuals that don’t bend. Try being an MP in an army psychiatric hospital. But I had no idea a family could be that kind of institution, a total society, the wedding of elder daughter not an event for her alone but for her family—a Wirth wedding. Amanda would have called it off in a minute if I didn’t give in. I wrestled with calling it off myself, afraid to name her obstinacy selfishness, but didn’t have the guts to fight my desire for her. I pretended weddings were more important for the bride’s five hundred friends than for my mother and she, bless her flawed heart, went along. We had the ceremony filmed and a copy rushed to her, but that only made me bitterer. I thought I would forget, but I haven’t. I have spent twenty years knowing she never mellowed enough to admit I had a legitimate need. Knowing that Amanda at any age between our engagement and now would have been just as likely to call off the wedding. All because I didn’t know about letting go. I’ve hated living under a truce. Truces are for people who don’t trust each other. Truces make life conditional. Real life is always just around the corner, when peace is declared, but it is always getting put off. Like my writing was put off for decades. “Who knows about this besides you and Amanda?” Mary Clare asked. “Only one person who matters.” “Oh?” “Oh,” I echoed and Mary Clare had the good sense not to pursue it. I couldn’t explain to Clare about a woman totally without glamour, a nun who’d resigned her vows. She’d been a virgin at thirty-two when I met her and absolutely without preconceptions about sex. She wouldn’t have thought twice about moving a wedding ceremony. She didn’t know how to do anything but give. Ten miles closer to Tahoe, Mary Clare rolled up her window against the encroaching alpine chill. She said, “I bet you know why Bobby’s in La Morinda instead of being bursar of the Berkeley campus or some such.” “He doesn’t have the right credentials?” I said, trying to deflect. “Pooh. They could take care of that. He could be in a PhD program while he was filling the position. What’s the real reason?” I said, “You need to ask him. I found out when somebody who assumed I knew the story made reference to it. The rest involved a little research.” She said, “He’s sworn you to secrecy.” “I’ve sworn myself to secrecy.” The curves became sharper and the grades steeper. The engine labored enough I dropped into third gear. Mary Clare sat silent for perhaps a mile. “If you could, I can ferret it out.” I said, “I wouldn’t. It will mean much more if he volunteers it. And don’t be surprised if you find it’s not such a big deal it must be kept secret. To the Great Accountant in the Sky it’s no worse than sex and drugs in Berkeley.” Mary Clare reached over the back seat and retrieved her bomber jacket, slipping it around her shoulders. I turned the heater to its lowest setting. In the cozy cocoon of a car winding up a mountain road in its constricted capsule of light, we talked about Meany. She talked about the end of the engagement, the yearning for unencumbered love that Robert generated and the shock created by having to act to save his life. “If I weren’t so sure, so certain I have no hidden doubts about Robert, I might have felt guilty about ending it with Meany and especially how I did it. Robert is the only man I’ve ever known I didn’t try to make into a Zev. Zev the wolf, only he’s Zev the dragon in that tapestry. Not Robert, though.” “Is Robert the knight?” I asked. “I know I’ll never be his prisoner.” “Just a prisoner of love.” She said, “We’re all prisoners of love, Jake. It’s the fuel of our souls.” When signs of civilization began to appear along the road I said, “We’re on this cockamamie trip, you know, because Meany’s shown a side of himself we didn’t see until he decided he’d been betrayed. It’s his reliance on power to solve problems, even problems of the heart. He’s set his henchmen on Robert because Robert took away the love object of his waning years.” “Jake, you know those men in the Buick were never after Robert. And I don’t think this is a power trip. It’s not a problem he has to solve, it’s an ending that fits his personal mythology. The great man is jilted and someone must pay. But you’re right in one respect: lesser egos would have come around themselves, instead of sending a couple of goons.” And then we were in South Lake Tahoe, looking for a motel. I wondered how I was going to register us, middle-aged man with a woman almost young enough to be his daughter: would they think I was her sugar daddy? There it was, a glitzy place, half um-pah-pah alpine lodge, half casino neon: just like South Lake Tahoe. We made it,” she said and put a hand on mine as I set the parking brake. All my adrenaline charge dissipated, replaced by the sadness of a lonely heart. I was as much alone as Robert and Mary Clare had been before they met. Forget family and career and clients, I was walking around not touching anyone or anything, I might as well have been on a moon of Neptune. And now I was reaching for Dante’s Multifoliate Rose: touching, entwining, needing, giving. We risk ourselves for that contact, we risk everything. —But, as my Uncle Irish would say: so what? five I didn’t have to fake it, driving away from the Pritchett house, I was as wound up as a rookie driver at LeMans or Daytona, determined to win, to drive those suckers in the big ugly Buick into the ground. And the high didn’t diminish as I drove into Moraga and couldn’t see the Buick behind me. I was afraid I might have been too good at making a getaway and lost them. I spotted them, finally, in the rear view mirror. My high went even higher when I found them pulled up at a red light not more than forty feet away—outside lane, two car lengths back. I gave them no more than a sidelong glance, hoping they hadn’t had their eyes trained on my not too feminine face under the scarf. Hoping they were trying to be as inconspicuous as I wished I were. I brought my hairy arm, poking through the unbuttoned side curtain, inside the car. Watching my hands shake. My plan had been to cross beneath the freeway, head west, drive north on the East Bay Freeway until I could climb into the Berkeley hills—the Gilman Street exit was my target—and lose them in the maze of streets up there, the ones permanently mapped in my memory. Now I had to improvise. With just enough room—oh, about two inches clearance on each side—I squeezed the little ragtop between the car in front and the ones parked and found the side street that went by Black’s Market. Where the street forked I went left, towards the freeway entrance heading east. I contained the urge to tromp on the accelerator, drawing on my ring experience, which told me never to be ruled by emotion: don’t be angry, don’t be scared, be sharp. I swung into the butt-end of commuter traffic from San Francisco and the East Bay, controlling anger and fear, recalling the exploits of Juan Fangio at Monaco as I wove smoothly through traffic, mixing balanced portions of glee, rage and caution in the carburetor of my brain. I fell in behind a shiny double tanker hauling milk, swung out and came alongside—hubcap to hubcap—and drove that way, just at the right speed and no one impeding me, until the tanker signaled to take my lane. I looked up at the driver in the tractor cab, who was looking down at me in Clare’s kerchief, pointing and laughing. I let glee get an upper hand as I pointed and laughed, too, and gave the driver the bird. So we both laughed a lot and he swung his rig into the space I better not be occupying or be squashed. I wound the TR3’s old tractor engine to a hair-raising thirty-five hundred RPM and managed to get clear ahead of the tanker, doing all of seventy, and took off on Pleasant Hill Road, crossed under the freeway, then up again, now heading west. The traffic was lighter, early pleasure seekers heading for Baghdad-By-The-Bay or maybe The City Where There Is No There. I looked for a big ugly Buick traveling the opposite direction but saw none. I drove at just over the speed limit and steered clear of laggards until I came to Fish Ranch Road, looking for headlights behind me. The only ones I saw were those of another sports car, low slung, bouncing on stiff suspension. Then I exhaled a little glee as I opened the distance between me and the tailing headlights, drifting through tight corners, working the spunky little car to the limits of my driving skills, then slaloming down Claremont Avenue to the Claremont Hotel. As I threw him the keys the attendant said, “Hey, weren’t you here the other day in a cherry Chevy panel truck?” “Youbetchum.” “Where’d you get this doodlebug?” “Out of storage.” “That’s where it belongs,” he said. I said, “Treat it nice, cause it belongs to my true love.” Entering the hotel, I wonder how I’d lost my tail so soon. Out of my flight bag I brought an envelope with Howie Manheimer’s name on it: the résumé he’d asked for. Howie was at his desk, working late. ABAG’s front door was open but no one was there until I walked into the inner sanctum. “You must be eager for the job,” Howie said when I handed him the envelope. I said, “I’m going to wind up this project in record time and retire again.” “Glad to see you haven’t lost your swagger,” Howie said. “Look, Howie, you ought to know, if I get the job I’ll need to take time off to get ready for the Meany trial, and see about my back.” “How much time is time?” Howie asked, looking over his glasses. “A day here, a day there. The DA hasn’t decided if he even wants me in the courtroom. I’ll keep you posted, naturally.” “You really think they’ll get Mr. Big to trial?” I said, “They’ve exhausted all the pre-trial motions; it’s still on.” “I’m not going to lay odds on it. —So, you want to start on Monday?” “Why not? —Listen, Howie, I’ve got to run. Want me to lock the door as I go out?” “Did I leave it open?” “Some junkie’s probably out there right now, swiping your electric typewriters.” “In the Claremont Hotel?” “Happens every day.” As I turned to go Howie said, “Lock the fucking door.” I watched him in the reflection off the glass partition, burying his nose again in whatever he’d been reading. I thought ahead as I walked through the lobby. I’d take a leisurely drive to the mountains, stop once for gas and coffee; it would be an uneventful trip. I hoped the radio worked, otherwise it was going to be hard staying awake. I’d make a second stop, at the Red Barn for a sinful hamburger—cheese, bacon, avocado. Be in South Lake Tahoe well before midnight. Outside, all my plans changed: there was the big ugly Buick. I harkened back to a stratagem in the last Bond movie : a homing device. It would be like Meany to hire people who drove ugly cars but used the latest technology. I fished five bucks out of my pocket and went up to the parking attendant. “Where do employees park?” “Down below the tennis courts.” “Drive my car down there, would you?” I said. “I’ll pick it up in just a few minutes.” “Sure I will, but why?” “See that green Buick over there, on the edge of self-parking? That’s why. They’re after me.” The parking attendant grinned. He was a James Bond fan too. I gave him a wink and walked back into the hotel and through the door that read, “Tennis Club Members Only,” and went down the stairs through another door and passed a couple of aging jocks in tennis whites, eying me, wondering where they’d seen me before. I eyed them back. I may have played tennis with them once upon a time. The humidity increased and I could hear baritone voices echoing off tile, smell Absorbine Jr. The night air felt colder by contrast, under floodlights, peppered by the ping and bop of all the courts in full swing. The gate at the end of the walk was locked but had no barbed wire on top. I climbed it, amazed I had the strength, after all the forced leisure. I was in the employees’ parking lot when the TR3 rolled in. “What if those guys ask about it?” the attendant asked. I fished another five out of my pocket, but the attendant said, “No, we’re cool.” I said, “They think my sweetie’s been driving the car. Don’t let on, just tell them you put it away for the night.” He grinned and trotted the long way around to the upper lobby while I searched under the car for the beeper device. A magnet held a gizmo no bigger than a pack of Luckies beneath the flare of the left front fender. “Shit,” I said. I turned the gizmo around in my hand like a rare coin or an ancient relic, said “shit” again and congratulated myself for being so smart. I let the thing attach itself to a light standard not far from the car. Then I left via Claremont Avenue, while the Buick was on the Ashby Avenue side of the hotel. No way they were going to know the car wasn’t sitting idle down below. Now the mixture in my mental carburetor was rich on exhilaration. I drove uphill faster than down, braking hardly at all, down-shifting into the apex of corners, wishing I had the horsepower of my old BMW under the hood. At the crest of the hill I turned left, heading for Tilden Park. Tilden’s roads were so tightly curved I could lose the Buick even if they were still on my tail. Which they weren’t. I knew they weren’t. I turned the radio to KJAZ playing Al Hibbler singing, “Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me” in his rich baritone, which seemed to fit with my manner of fleeing baddies in a place where sheer horsepower counted for naught and knowing the lanes and byways did. I drove like a pro for twenty minutes, to arrive in Richmond with the gas gauge on empty. I allowed myself no more blithe assumptions about the Buick Twins being morons. They may not have waited for a chat with the parking attendant, they might have lit out again in five minutes. They might have made an educated guess about where I was heading—they’d followed Mary Clare east this morning hadn’t they—and even now might be cruising gas stations in Richmond. So I filled the tank, crossed the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, past Red Rock, where I used to fish, turned at the road running behind San Quentin, parked on the shoulder and dowsed the lights, but kept the engine running. No biguglyBuick. In Hindsight . . . one No biguglyBuick. It’s like having to take a leak and engaging all your wits to keep from wetting your pants while you search for a place to go. There’s nothing else on your mind. And when you do go, the relief is immense but forgotten in an instant. The Buick Twins left my mind as I left Highway 101 and drove over what I called, growing up, the Black Point Cutoff without knowing what Black Point referred to. If it was a destination it was never the destination I had in mind. Hauling ass, I hit Interstate 80 at ten-thirty and merged with Hwy 50 at eleven-oh-five. In a sports car, you believe you’re going faster than you really are, the contact with the highway more intimate, things coming at you closer to eye level. Sacramento always seems more inviting at night, for reasons I never before pondered. In my assistant vice president days I had spent a fair amount of time in Sacramento, schmoozing legislative aides, sweating appearances before legislative committees, but what I remember most about Sacramento are lunches (why do I remember the Senator Hotel’s buffet before Frank Fat’s honey walnut prawns?) and finding a parking place. —Oh, and being introduced to Jesse Unruh once and being nervous about it. Eastward my back let me know that a TR3 set up for Mary Clare gave too little support to my thighs. I was sitting on the end of my spine and my middle back was saying ‘ouch.’ To counteract the ache I hummed along with the tires on roadway and with the spunky little four-banger: “Matilda,” à la Harry Belafonte and “Flamingo,” à la Herb Jeffries. I drove with one hand and buttoned down the side curtain with the other. The highway crossed a river bottom with Nebraska-tall corn that smelled sweet and vegetative, reminding me of something from my childhood that wouldn’t come into focus, just an old feeling. The air sucked into the roadster turned decidedly colder as the road began to climb into the foothills. I had to fight an urge to curl up and go to sleep. Sleeping in a sports car would be about as dumb as making love in a sports car. Would I ever try it with Mary Clare, if, say, we were driving non-stop to Omaha or Denver? Hmm. I said to myself, “Keep thinking ridiculous things, Gattling. At least it won’t put you to sleep.” As a diversion I rehashed how Mary Clare should have been royally pissed at Amanda but stayed calm and dignified. Maybe because Mary Clare was just recently over being the faux princess, so she understood Amanda and why her own mere presence would rankle the good doctor so. They both were, or had been, poseurs. I should know, I’d been one, too. In college I had girlfriend wild and striking as a Celtic sea goddess: Sissy O’Shea, half Irish, half Greek. My buddies were certain Sissy fucked me silly every night, which was a neat pose and a great stretch of the truth, that being before The Pill and me living in an all-male student cooperative (no girls above the first floor—except for mothers and sisters). But I let the guys think it. To them, though the expression hadn’t been coined yet, Bob Gattling, in bonding with Sissy, had scored a simple-pretty. I overheard one of them telling his friends, in man-oh-man terms, about following Sissy across campus from the women’s gym to Northside, wet, wavy auburn hair hanging half way down her back, wearing a pair of skintight red bicycle shorts, barefoot and with an ass that kept on turning eyes. Truth was, with Miss Sissy Bob Gattling usually felt sweaty-palmed, like a guy holding down the lever on a hand grenade. Ninety percent of those guys thought marriage would be a simple-pretty—it was the age of the split level ranch style house with a garbage grinder under the sink and a built-in oven. My simple-pretty was that if I waited until after thirty to marry I would escape disillusionment. My brother Bert pulled that off: a week after his thirtieth birthday he married Lulu, a woman I always wished I’d met first. Are you going to drive Mary Clare crazy? Repeat after me, son, she is not the be-all and end-all of your existence. She is pretty damned neat, though. Oh God, how I love her. I think I love her like George Patton loved war. Like a Kentucky Colonel loves his rye, like . . . like . . . oh can it, Gattling. Where were my college chums now? They were of a generation of Americans who thought the simple-pretty, even if they didn’t call it that, was a God-given right. They called it, the media of the previous generation having given it currency, The American Dream. Later came seven years of biblical lean, a lying, paranoid over-achiever in the White House, about to be re-elected, and they still call it The American Dream. You take Meany. (I hadn’t thought about Meany since the Black Point Cutoff.) To the rich and avaricious of La Morinda, Meany’s life must have looked like a succession of simple-pretties—until he was brought low by a pistol-packing dolly in a penthouse. Luck? Accident? Maybe you need two theories to explain the simple-pretty, like a wave theory and a quantum theory. If you explain luck or accident the way Clare does, you would expect Meany to balance out his life by going to the hoosegow for a long stretch, during which incarceration something really bad would happen, a heart attack brought on by artery-clogging prison food, or maybe the Bloods would beat him bloody. Come out a broken man. In other words, have the Great Accountant in the Sky journal entry all the negative transactions at once. But even if that happened, it was itself a simple-pretty. Maybe Meany was a brontosaurus, not a bear, maybe Mary Clare was the meteor that did him in. Or if you don’t like the meteor theory, he didn’t adapt. Though he probably thought he was adapting when he rescued Mary Clare, she turned out to be Meany’s last and purest simple-pretty. She was the good daughter, the Cordelia to whom he’d give his kingdom in return for her eternal gratitude, because he was wiser than Lear. Put it in waves, put it in quanta, it comes out the same. Highway 50 got steadily steeper. By Placerville, even though it was still a freeway, and straighter in both planes than the Highway 50 I used to drive visiting Lana in Carson City, you could tell you were in the foothills of big mountains. A flurry of traffic joined me on the road, local traffic—a dance breaking up or the movies letting out. I drove off the freeway where a sign offered food, lodging and fuel. In the service station I relieved my bladder and filled up—gas tank and stomach—and stretched my aching back. I asked the attendant, “Any place around here I could buy a jacket?” “Only place open around here, ‘sides this station, is the Safeway—oh, and a couple of bars.” “How do I get to the Safeway from here?” “Well, you can get back on the freeway, get off at the next exit. You’ll see the Safeway from the off ramp. Or, you’d rather, you take a right outta here, left at the light, and drive through town.” The implication was, I’d really rather not drive through town. (The chamber of commerce ought to give the boy a good talking-to.) The Safeway might conceivably have something like a sweatshirt—God knows, they sold everything but Mack trucks these days—but I didn’t want to take the time finding out. I knew the car had a heater, but I couldn’t find how to turn it on, and I also wasn’t going to take the time to read the operator’s manual and learn how. So I just got back on the freeway, driving hard, hoping that by the time I cleared Placerville the Smokey Bears would be few and far between. When I was going up to see Lana I was driving a hot BMW that people said looked like it was going faster than it was, and I never got a ticket, so I just let out the TR3, hoping for the same outcome. I kept telling myself I was going to see Mary Clare. I got up a head of steam and kept up a steady sixty-five, passing big rigs already gearing down. When I ran out of big rigs I tried not to be mesmerized by the patch of light from my headlamps bouncing on the pavement nor the whoosh whoosh whoosh lane markers clicking past. The freeway became the old, familiar Highway 50, mountains looming through the dark, pines close to the road, a cabin here and there, likewise a gas station or a log-faced restaurant or tavern with a neon Oly or Pabst sign, pickups and empty log trucks parked outside, a speed zone for a quarter mile either side of them, where I went the required forty-five or thirty-five, down-shifting and preparing to accelerate, something long forgotten coming back as in a dream: the smell of trees and a wood fire somewhere off in the dark, the pickups all well-used, and finally so few cars I was driving with my high beams on, and once, in second gear on a switchback where a stream trickled down through a culvert, I spotted three sets of yellow reflectors that were the eyes of deer. I prayed to the patron saint of drivers that no deer leap in front of me and end my sprint to the finish, but one almost did. In a shallow cut with high banks of red dirt on both sides, it jumped down and ran along the road parallel to the car for an instant, but finally leapt behind me and crossed the road into the night. After that I felt an urgency like a gun at my back. I went through sleeping Meyers without slowing down and was at the junction of the road that hugs Lake Tahoe’s shoreline, carrying traffic from Reno and Northshore (of which there was plenty) at half past midnight. I thought the amount of traffic curious until I got into South Lake Tahoe, which wasn’t even a city when I came up here to visit Lana. My, had it grown. two I spotted Jake’s shiny Mercedes in the sixth motel on the main drag. It was not one of the newer, sleeker places, maybe the last of the mom and pop operations, run by people who’d fled big city hurly-burly. It was laid out with two units then a covered parking space for two vehicles, then two more units, around a U. When I pulled in Jake came out and motioned me to drive through the slot next to his car and into an alley behind the motel, where I could park out of sight. I opened the door and would have stood, but my legs were too cramped to do it until I stretched them out. “You lost them,” Jake said. “Most definitely, Ollie.” He reached in the door and squeezed my hand until it hurt, then helped me to my feet. “Isn’t this something? Not the bucolic little burg I remember from the Fifties.” The motel room had a gas heater in a faux fireplace and its sudden warmth caused me to shudder. Mary Clare bounced off the bed and grabbed me, felt my shivering. “Here, stand by the heater,” she said. “Just hold me.” I wouldn’t let her go until my brain disengaged from the motor journey, synapse by synapse. When Jake thought there’d been enough lovey-dovey stuff he said, “How’d it go?” “Fine, fine. You got any food?” Mary Clare went to the Formica table and held up a bottle of Balantine’s. “Energy food,” she said. “Two fingers?” “And ice.” I watched her pour into the plastic glass and pluck cubes from a plastic pail of melting ice. It was like seeing her again for the first time, the curve of her cheek, the arch of her eyebrow. I’d been concentrating on other things so hard the image of her I carried around day and night had hidden behind pine trees and deer and big rigs, and now it reemerged and I got tears in my eyes, wondering how I was so lucky. I paced around, sipping scotch. Jake and Mary Clare took chairs and Jake said, “Tell us about it.” “You tell me first: there’s two of you.” Jake said, “Nothing much to tell. We saw a motor home burn down on the side of the road. We had a nice chat, then we were here.” So I told them about stopping at the Claremont Hotel and the Goldfinger technology and how I got away. I told them I couldn’t find the Triumph’s heater switch. Mary Clare laughed and said it was a small stopcock under the hood. I told them about my Julio Fandango sprint through Tilden Park, Kensington and Richmond. Jake said, “You think they might have a back-up device?” “If they do,” I said, “they must have changed cars, cause thar weren’t no big ugly Buick behind me.” Clare asked, “What do you think they’ll do?” “Tell Meany they failed and fall on their swords,” I said. I added some scotch to my glass. I was warm by then, maybe a little too warm. Mary Clare got up and paced, a counter march to my pacing. She bounced the heel of her hand off her forehead and said, “God, am I stupid.” “What?” Jake and I said in unison. “I could take a plane from Reno, probably to Salt Lake City, connect to Boston from there.” “That’s not stupid,” Jake said, “That’s smart.” “But if I could think of it in South Lake Tahoe, I could have thought of it in Moraga and saved us all a bunch of sweat.” Jake said, “I would bet Meany’s operatives were checking flights out of Oakland and San Francisco.” “Given you made the plan before you knew about the Buick Twins, why’d you decide to drive in the first place?” She shrugged. “I came out here in a car: symmetry? My roadster as a security blanket? Or maybe I'm, like, a total Valley Girl.” I loved the sound of her voice, but I was thinking: was she giving herself the option not to come back? Was this a choice in the wake of her new autonomy? If so, whatever reasons, cogent or from the hip, no longer pertained. She hunted down the telephone book, rummaging through the yellow pages. “There’s a shuttle that leaves from several places downtown several times a day. Now I need to know when the airplanes leave. —Listen, guys, why don’t you go out and get us some real food while I figure out how to get to Boston.” “And back,” I said. “Do you have abandonment issues, baby? Of course, back.” She gave me the kind of smile Lady Ashley gave Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises, insincere but heartfelt. Jake and I decided to walk, so I fished my Levi jacket out of my kit. Trudging to the highway, we saw neon signs to the east that bespoke food. In a strip mall about a quarter mile beyond, we had a choice of burgers, Chinese and Mexican. It was well past midnight but they were still open. We had no trouble deciding on Chinese, the experts in take-out. While the cook cooked we drank Tsingtaos and ruminated. “You know,” Jake said, “I am a meddler.” “I never thought so. What makes you say that?” “I meddled to get you together with Mary Clare, I meddled getting you out of the hospital, I meddled getting her hooked up with a defense lawyer. I could go on. I don’t do it out of a boundless fellow-feeling, it’s pride. I want to be the knight in shining armor. That’s in some part why we’re here.” “A bunch of bull crap, Jake. Knock it off.” The woman with the dangly jade earrings and the cheongsam that fit her perfectly a decade ago came with our food in two bags. I pulled out my wallet but Jake beat me to the punch. “Meddler.” “You wait,” he said. “That which goeth around cometh around.” The woman made change and said, with a laugh, “That saying come from Confucius.” “I heard it came from Al Capone,” I said to her, but she didn’t get it. Trudging back Jake said, “I would have been a better friend if, the first time we got wind of the Buick Twins, I urged Clare to confront Meany.” “She will. If she gets her failure at Brandeis expunged and enrolls at Cal, she’ll do it from a stronger position.” “He may be in prison by then,” Jake said. “You know,” I said, “I’ll be glad when we can just get together for lunch at Spenger’s on Fridays and Amanda isn’t mad at us anymore. We’ve had a hell of a sleigh ride.” He clapped me on the shoulder as we were walking through the motel parking lot, mouths watering from the Chinese food smells. “We seldom get to do things that mean something. This means something to me—a lot, in fact.” “Me, too, Jake, me too.” And I gave him a quick hug. three The night at the Ponderosa Village Inn resides in my memory alongside a fishing trip I took with my dad when I was ten. We lived in St. Louis. My father, a quiet, distant man, had worked too hard all his life to spend much time on male bonding activities with his sons. But he took me fishing on the Lake of the Ozarks the end of my eleventh summer. It rained pretty much the whole time we were there. I tried fishing in the rain anyway, but caught nothing. My father brought along books to read and Jim Beam to sip, and we played checkers in the evening and listened to an old radio that sounded like an electric storm. We’d come to this rustic cabin on the lake’s shore via a dirt road that crossed a dry creek. On the way out—after a breakfast of balloon bread cooked into French toast—the creek had become a small river. The water was swift enough to have washed good-sized rocks into the roadway. I volunteered to wade the stream, barefoot and pants rolled up, and remove the biggest of them from our Nash’s path. In first gear and ever so slowly, dad got through. “Robert the Intrepid,” he dubbed me that day. The first place we could, we stopped for hot fudge sundaes, and I never felt closer to him. I never felt closer to Mary Clare than our night in Tahoe. She’d urged Jake get only one room, but he demurred, saying he was a light sleeper and our rustlings would keep him awake. So after the cashew pork and General Tao’s chicken, the fried wontons and extra servings of rice, he yawned and pled severe sleepiness and departed. Alone, Clare and I drank more scotch, fishing half-sized ice cubes from the pail of cold water. We sat in front of the fake gas fireplace and snuggled and drank. I grabbed a couple of fortune cookies from the scatter on the table. Mine read, “Where there is a track behind, there is a cart ahead.” I read it to Clare and she said, “You could write a novel based on that. It’s like the story of your life.” “What does yours say?” I asked. “Compassion comes with knowledge.” “Jesus,” I said, “we tapped into the philosopher’s book of wise fortune cookies.” “Give me yours. I’ll ponder these as I wing my way across the country. Expect an existential breakthrough over Nebraska or Iowa.” She put them on the table. We sipped scotch for a while and I freshened our glasses. Mary Clare said, “Let us drink to Jake Pritchett. He’s a brick, as they used to say.” “A veritable brick,” I echoed. “And to Amanda, the wimpy puss,” she said. “How so?” “We could have taken her car and she could have come with us.” I said, “You have to figure the Buick Twins have seen her car.” “Yeah, but if you were leading the SOBs the other direction, what would have been the harm?” I said, “I over-thought this whole damned thing.” “Yeah, babe, but here we are.” She said it softly, her lips a half inch from my ear. Then she put her tongue in my ear as I was lifting the glass to my lips and I sloshed a little scotch on myself. “Hey!” “I get your attention?” “You betcha.” “Gimme a lipper,” she said. I gave her one. We put down the plastic glasses and went at it, as they say in the locker room, and did one of those movie scenes with the clothes coming off on the way to the bed, strewn, not folded, to wrestle each other between the sheets and float away on a harmony of sighs and moans until we both came and she screamed and then we panted. “I probably woke Jake up anyway,” Mary Clare whispered. “Naw. You know how much sleep he’s had since the biguglyBuick showed up? He’s dead to the world.” She said, “How much sleep have you had?” “Never mind.” “I do mind. You’ve got a long drive tomorrow.” I said, “How about you?” “I sleep fine on airplanes. And if I hesitate a second, I whip out my Dramamine and that knocks me out pronto.” “You sure you wouldn’t want to wait until my red-headed friend comes looking for you again?” “How you talk, sir. No. I promise to come back from Boston and fuck you blind. It’ll be the first thing on my agenda.” “Well, I guess I’ll go to sleep, then, and dream about being fucked blind.” She said, “One more kiss.” The one more kiss almost led to more loss of sleep, but she whispered, “Your back is definitely mended.” “It’s all this good loving.” “Hush.” I jumped up and turned off the heater and dove back in bed, to spoon behind Clare and whisper night-night. I’d lost the knack of actually sleeping with someone, so I started visualizing the numbers from one hundred to one, counting backwards, having them jump over a fence like sheep. I’d reached fifty-nine when she said, “Jake knows, you know.” “Jake knows what?” “You know.” I said, heart pounding, “Did he tell you?” “Jake has this thing about staying out of other people’s shit. It is, perhaps, his most sterling quality, besides empathy.” I lay still, my mind dodging about, looking for cover. At last I said, “Now is not the time for me to tell you.” She said, “Will there ever be a time?” “Must there?” “Yes. The story’s not so important as your dealing with whatever. But I can’t help you if you won’t fess up. And I’m not going to put up with whim-whams for however long we’re together.” That stopped me. I had got used to us being together forever. Emotions don’t have a time horizon. Emotions are timeless, and I had so many dependent on Clare: love of the crazy-mad kind, love of the caring kind, admiration, curiosity, closeness. I said, “I promise. When you get back.” She reached back and grabbed my thigh. “Gonna hold you to it, buster.” I kissed the back of her neck and she pronounced the final good night. ***** In the morning three tired persons ate in a hotel coffee shop awaiting Clare’s airport shuttle. We spoke very little, and then only about topics people talk about when a loved one is going away—other goodbyes, trips when we were the departing one, a hope for a smooth flight and happy landing. They had sweet rolls and juice; I had French toast. It was much fancier than my dad’s Lake of the Ozarks French toast, not nearly as good. four Before I give you Jake’s take on events between discovering the biguglyBuick and seeing Mary Clare onto the shuttle, I have to wonder once again why he wrote, or rather recorded, his memoir. He was already engaged in writing a thing of import to him, but now lacked the facility to type, convalescing from the gunshot wound. Maybe he couldn’t dictate fiction but could history. But the big Why? I’m betting that his body was telling him the end was near, no matter the medicos’ prognoses. In his mind he was probably writing ‘for Posterity’—but who? His kids? Me? Mary Clare? Or was it Posterity writ large: his generation or the next? Maybe, and it strikes me as plausible, he wrote it to persuade a wife who was angry at him—first for risking himself and then for getting shot—that the endeavor was worth the consequences. It’s worth pondering. Why? Because it’s a record of things as they are. I do not come off as a completely mature citizen under his scrutiny, nor does Mary Clare. Meany, I think, is painted in his true colors. Jake’s treatment of Amanda is, perhaps, too severe, as is his assessment of himself—more of which later. ***** Anyway, Jake on the Lake Tahoe gambit: I’d already thrown my gear in the Mercedes’ trunk when I knocked on Robert and Clare’s door. Every corner of the room volunteered answers to Uncle Irish’s questions about what was important in life. They were navigating as if drunk on love—or at least on the most ardent manifestations of it. Never mind that the bed had been straightened to accommodate packing luggage, lights blazing—the aura was as subtle as musk. Parzival’s spouse had reached him in the snow, had taken his head in her lap and brought him back from the swoon that leveled him as no knight’s lance ever had. I behaved as if oblivious of what went on: the scene of carnal carnage, bodies penetrated and penetrating, slaughtering sleep and inhibitions and dying in each other’s arms. I said something offhand I don’t remember, I only remember it was said to ward off the feeling of being left out. Of course you were left out, nitwit, three’s a crowd in any language but especially the language of love. Breakfast was a minuet. We swapped chowing-down stories, those times it was good for the soul if not the body to pack away the food: Mary Clare at a Chinese wedding banquet with a hundred delicacies, from abalone in oyster sauce to Lobster Cantonese; Robert hiking on the John Muir trail, relishing bacon and grits; myself breakfasting at Inverness after clamming early Sunday morning in Tomales Bay. I regaled them with my fishing feats at Báhia Kino, the sierra grandes that struck viciously the livelong day at anything small enough to fit their mouths—great fish to barbeque, with just enough fat to baste themselves. And the corbina, caught on the setting moon further up the bay, warier and more delicate of mouth. I was pecking away at the wall between us, the loner trying to break into the redoubt of lovers. It passed the time until we had to say goodbye. For me the trip home was going to be short and sweet, no thoughts of a tail or evading one. In Sacramento we’d pick up I-80 and sail home in time for an early cocktail. Only, the gods were not through with us. On California Highway 50, short of Placerville, another fiery vehicle blocked the way, this time a gasoline tanker which would close the road for hours. A Highway Patrolman was walking up the line of vehicles we were stuck in, explaining the delay (the smoke was clearly visible but the truck not) and suggesting that, if our destination were the Bay Area, we could follow a CHP cruiser that would be coming by in a moment, and use the shoulder to get to Highway 49, which would take us to Auburn and I-80. I got out of the car the same time Robert did and we powwowed. “The shits,” he said. “Hobson’s choice,” I said. “Lunch in Auburn,” Robert said, “sounds like a Tom Wolfe literary diversion.” Luckily, Robert had put on his corset that morning. Driving the slower Triumph, he was to lead the way home, but on the way to Auburn speed was not of the essence. It was not a “moment” before the pilot car came by, it was twenty minutes or more, and he already had a line of baby ducks behind him. We snaked along Highway 49 at the pace of the slowest vehicle ahead, which gave me plenty of time to take in the grandeur of a very unspoiled part of California. Not someplace you’d want to have a breakdown in the middle of the night. In Auburn finally, we stopped at a restaurant that served “traditional American” food, including chicken-fried steak and a “cowboy burger,” Robert’s choice. I had an omelet. We exhausted the significance of two vehicle fires in one trip while our waitress, who called me “hon” and Robert “son,” went out and caught the chicken and wrestled the steer into the meat grinder. Over coffee Robert said, “She was right, you know.” “The waitress? Clare? Amanda?” “I was thinking Clare but sure, Amanda, too.” And after lighting a cigarette he said, “This feels like a Bogie movie, only we don’t quite know the ending.” “What else could we have done?” I asked. “Limit ourselves to the ordinary kind of worries. What were those guys really likely to do, anyway? If they were out to snatch Mary Clare, they’d have done it already. Surely they weren’t planning to rub her out.” I said, “More likely rub you out.” Robert said, “That’s crazy. We were crazy. Meany’s got no plan, he’s just like us—sure as hell isn’t any smarter, hiring those jokers.” “So we’re just a couple of saddle bums, rode into town and rescued the schoolmarm from the Wild Bunch.” “But she was right, Jake, we could just as well have put her on a plane in the first place.” “It happened so fast.” “We wanted it to happen fast. Living out a fantasy—at least I was.” “So, you gonna call Meany out when we get back?” I asked. “Would that be fair?” Robert asked. “I mean, Clare winged him on the side he wears his shootin’ iron.” “He wasn’t exactly fair with you, walloping you in the back, in your bad back.” Robert thought a moment before saying, “I’m not afraid of him anymore. I was afraid of him until I went over to turn in my keys. But that cured me. He isn’t a bear any more.” “More like a troll or an ogre.” “Like the cattle baron in a Western movie, hires the gun slingers to clean out the nesters, a man lost sight of why he succeeded.” I said, “I’m afraid of him, because he may hurt someone yet. I’m going to the police tomorrow, see if they won’t investigate his connection to those men in the Buick.” “There’s always your shotgun. We could get the drop on them, make them admit the connection.” On the way out to our cars we joked about how we could do this, what would lure them out of the Buick. What would make them do something palpably illegal so they’d get arrested. ***** Bold as brass, I left I-80 at the Green Valley Cutoff, Jake right behind me. The route was eerily deserted, no one ahead of us, no one behind. Halfway to I-680 I signaled and pulled off the road. Jake pulled in behind me. We both alit. “What?” he asked. “Don’t you feel it?” “Feel what?” I said, “No wind.” Jake wet his finger and held it up. He made a gesture of bafflement. The only trees close by were still as photographs. “It’s an omen,” I said. “Of what?” he asked. “We’ll find out when it happens. Just be ready.” Back on a major freeway again, the last of this day’s light expired and my concentration narrowed the area of my brain I could devote to omens. Silly me. I’m just giddy in love. Things going so well I’m afraid something bad will happen, à la The Great Accountant in the Sky, balance off my loving Clare. I thought about omens I’d known—none, in real life—unless you counted two vehicle fires on one trip. There were omens, though: in Macbeth, Julius Caesar, in the Greek tragedies, in the Iliad. Meteors, quirky chicken guts, eagles clutching serpents. Turning onto Hwy 24 I felt an urge to speed up and had to deliberately let off on the accelerator. Cars got between me and Jake, and I didn’t see him in my rear view mirror until I took the Moraga exit. Who would be at Jake’s house: Amanda, or was she forever estranged? Bienvenida, or had Amanda given her time off until the crisis with Jake was resolved? I pulled into their driveway and waited for Jake to pull alongside. I parked so that, if Amanda were home, she could get her car around the Triumph. Jake hit the garage door opener once, twice. The bay where he kept the Mercedes opened a tad earlier than the other, but I only saw what was in what should have been a vacant space. The nose of a Buick Riviera was staring at us. An Exchange Of Fire one The crack of a handgun came from inside the garage, I saw its muzzle flash. At almost the same time I heard the thump of the shotgun, its muzzle flash bigger but diluted by Jake’s headlights. Jake dropped the shotgun and crumpled into the shadow of the Mercedes. I froze, standing next to the Triumph, until the Buick screamed out of the garage. It wasn’t going to fit between the two sports cars. The driver swung it sharply to his right, directly into the left front fender of Clare’s car just as I dove over the hood, to almost land on Jake. Once again the corset saved my back. I was on my hands and knees, all of which hurt, staring at Jake, who was head down hill, panting. Blood and air came from a hole in his shirt in time with his panting. The Buick pushed the smaller car, tires protesting loudly, across the street before the two disengaged, then it burned rubber uphill, two wheels up on the sidewalk, and screeched around the corner at the hilltop, heading south. “Did I hit him?” Jake asked. He didn’t sound like himself, he sounded like a stereo LP played on a monaural system. I said, “You took out the windshield on the passenger side.” Jake said, “Good,” and I said, “Don’t talk:” because that’s what they say in the movies. The man from the house with the Triumph in its front yard came running over. “I called the sheriff; they’re bringing the ambulance.” How could he react so quickly? I was still on my hands and knees. He ran back and turned off the Triumph’s engine and lights. A man in pajamas and bathrobe, from one house up the hill on the far side, came running over with a black doctor’s bag. “Where’s Amanda?” he asked. “I don’t know,” I said. He knelt next to Jake and looked at him with a flashlight and said, “Help me turn him so his head’s uphill.” Before we figured out how to do that gently, another man arrived, also saying he’d called the sheriff. He got into the Mercedes and rolled it down to the street. The doctor and I could then move Jake’s legs and hips without lifting his torso. Still, he cried out in pain. I said, “Oh Jesusjesus.” The doctor said, “There’s not a lot of blood, it mustn’t have hit any major blood vessels.” I said, “Goddamn, Jake, why you?” He muttered, “Why me, indeed? I didn’t do anything to Meany.” Until I’d talked to the sheriff, I wouldn’t have time to guess why the Buick, icon of Meany’s folly, this thing we’d gone to extremes to elude, would be parked in the Pritchetts’ garage. The fucking garage. Why weren’t they out looking for Mary Clare east of Winnemucca or sitting quietly down the block from the house, staked out? Why in the garage? It was a what-the-fuck moment. Six or seven questions thrashed through the cobwebs of my mind, none sticking, because I turned back to Jake. The source of the blood was a hole maybe two inches under the center of Jake’s right collarbone. The doctor peeled the packaging off as many gauze squares as he had in his bag and applied them to the wound, keeping the flat of his hand over the hole. A woman I’d never seen before arrived with a pillow and blanket and proceeded to dispatch them to the right places. The doctor thanked her. How did all these people know what to do? I didn’t have to do anything but hold Jake’s hand. The doctor said, “You’re doing just fine, Jake.” Feeling his pulse, he said, “Good. Good.” I was glad it was dark, because I couldn’t see blood. There wasn’t any arroyo silt to soak it up. I thought Jake was unconscious—his eyes were shut—but he managed to say, “How are you in crises?” when he opened his eyes a second and then closed them. Two more Good Samaritans guided the Triumph off the lawn across the street and a third—maybe he needed to do something to quell his nerves—was telling the gathering neighbors that the doctor said ‘good’ and that sheriff and ambulance were on their way. “I can hear the sirens,” I didn’t actually hear them until a couple of seconds after I said the words, when Jake said, “me, too.” The fire company rescue pumper reached us first. When the van with the paramedics reached us, the doctor was listening to Jake’s heart and intact lung with his stethoscope. The battalion commander showed up in his Chevy Suburban, so shiny white and red it reflected all the lights of all the equipment around it, including the private ambulance that came to take Jake to the hospital and the sheriff’s patrol car that came up with lights flashing but sirens silent. I watched the cone from the oxygen bottle go over Jake’s mouth and nose as one sheriff’s deputy began taking names and addresses from milling onlookers. “Good evening; did you witness this?” I pointed to the Triumph. “I was driving it.” “But you did see the incident?” I said, “I was in the incident. Jake Pritchett, the guy they’re putting in the ambulance—can I go with him?” The deputy shook his head. “A detective will be here to interview you in just a moment.” “You need to take V.M. Meany off the street.” “I beg your pardon, sir?” “The two men in the Buick—” “The Buick?” I said, “Officer, two men and their Buick were in the garage when we pulled up, Jake in that Mercedes over there, me in the Triumph across the street, one behind the other. They shot at us and hit Jake. They took off, going that way.” I pointed up the hill and made the motion of a car turning left. “Hold that thought until a detective gets here. Just give me your name and address.” The name part was okay; when I got to where I lived, pointing to the house we were standing in front of, his face registered suspicion. “Uh, I thought Mr. Pritchett owned the house.” “I didn’t say I owned it. I’m staying here temporarily. —You know who knows about all this? Sergeant Rutledge, over at the La Morinda Police Department.” “And he has to do with this incident how?” “I tried to contact him this morning about the two men in the Buick following my girlfriend, but I couldn’t get a hold of him.” The deputy held his hand up in a way that meant ‘Stop.’ “You’re going too fast for me.” Just then a gray Chevy sedan pulled up and a man in sports coat and slacks got out and came up the driveway. “There’s Sergeant Cochran. You can tell him your story.” He intercepted Sergeant Cochran, took him by the elbow and walked him down the driveway, out of earshot, and ran down what he knew of the incident, as he kept calling it. As he was talking the detective looked up at me once, his expression giving away nothing. He nodded. He nodded again. He came up to me and introduced himself, shaking hands. A Eurasian, he was taller than I and ruggedly handsome. Up close his eye were like opponents’ I had met in the ring. “So, what’s going on?” he asked. “My friend’s been shot. In the chest. They’ve taken him to—shit, I don’t know—Walnut Creek General? I’d like to see about him if I can.” “You can go over there just as soon as I have enough information. So why don’t you start at the beginning.” I started with my working at Bobwhite Court for Mr. Meany when the bomb went off. “What does this have to do with what just went on here?” I said, “You need to find those two guys in the metallic green Buick.” He took out his notebook and a pen. “License number?” “I didn’t have time to get the license number. The thing came out of the garage straight at me. I had to jump—look, the car is a Buick Riviera, couple of years old, its left headlight will be out, the windshield on the passenger side is shot out—” “Who shot first?” “One of those men.” He said, “You know this for sure?” “If it wasn’t one of the men in the Buick, the shooter’s still in the goddam garage.” “You saw a man fire at your friend.” I said, “It was dark. I saw a flash and heard a bang. Jake was carrying the shotgun, he reacted by getting off a shot. Which hit the windshield.” “Did it hit a person, do you know?” I said, “I have no idea.” Sergeant Cochran said, “Hang tight for just a second, will you?” As he said it he clasped my elbow in a friendly way and I winced. “You all right?” “Bumps and bruises, Sergeant, bumps and bruises.” “Want someone to take a look?” I said, “I hate to be nasty, but I want to get the fuck out of here, my friend’s been shot and I’m about to have a shit-fit.” “Just hang on.” two A Sheriff’s Department cruiser pulled into the space just vacated by the rescue pumper. The deputy conferred with Sergeant Cochran in earshot. The fleeing Buick, he related, had spun out on Moraga Way and caught a telephone pole. One of the Buick Twins had been apprehended, the one with several birdshot pellets in his face. The other fled on foot. There was a brief discussion of whether the crime scene included the interior of the house. As soon as I heard ‘interior of the house’ I had visions of slaughtered children, Bienvenida and Amanda in pools of blood. I ran into the garage, illuminated now by the fluorescent tube over Jake’s work bench, and sure enough, the door to the kitchen was ajar. I tried to run in, but a deputy sheriff stepped in front of me. Sergeant Cochran yelled, “Hey! Just stand still till I decide if this is part of the crime scene.” “Jake has a wife and two kids, and there’s a housekeeper.” Cochran switched on his flashlight and walked into the house. I watched the flashlight beam disappear into the dining room. He came back after a while and said, “Com’ere,” beckoning. I followed him into the living room, where he pointed to the sideboard that held, among other things, liquor and glasses. Atop it sat a bottle of Jack Daniel’s and two Old Fashioned glasses. Cochran pointed, I shook my head. “Not there when I left. Could have been the wife; could have been the goons. Can I go to the hospital now?” Cochran shook his head. He looked more disinterested than annoyed. I wanted to annoy him. “Goddammit,” I said, more vehemently than I meant to, “why won’t you talk to Sergeant Rutledge? He’ll tell you that the guy who hired these two goons is already charged with assaulting me, he was also shot by the woman these goons were after, and he can tell you the facts in copspeak faster than I can.” ***** Rutledge came to Moraga and the facts did get clearer. Rutledge shook hands with Cochran, and I guess said all the things you say when you’re on the other guy’s turf, plus some pertinent facts. The younger man’s face light up with an ‘Oh, I get it’ look and Rutledge came over to me, saying, “How do you know it’s Meany?” Cochran stood at his shoulder. I said, “Who else could it be? I told Walleke, told him Mary Clare said I should get out of Moraga, Meany was talking about killing me.” “You gotta help me, here,” Cochran said, “were the two in the Buick after you or after your sweetheart?” “I thought I knew, but I don’t anymore.” Rutledge picked up the kitchen phone and dialed. “Pick up Meany, and let me know when you have him. Material witness, for the time being. Check.” “That motherfucker. You do not want to know what I’d like to do to him.” Two uniformed deputies hovered, looming large, with flack vests under their uniform shirts, giving me the bad eye. Rutledge took me aside and said, “They may not be as comfortable as I am with your big mouth, so could you cool it? Besides, you could have called these guys before the bullets flew, you know.” He gestured towards the men in the kitchen. “I called you and you never called me back.” Rutledge said, “I’m not your pet cop. I’ve got my own back yard to tend to, you know.” Rutledge said to Cochran, “You through with Mr. Gattling for now?” Cochran came up to me, business card in hand. “Call me tomorrow; set up an appointment. I need a coherent statement.” “Come on,” Rutledge said, “I’ll run you over to the hospital.” It had got late enough the world seemed to have packed it in: condensation on the windows of parked cars, blinking yellow lights at intersections. On the freeway Rutledge lit a cigarette and flicked ashes out his half-open window. The wind blew them back in. Finally he said, as if we’d been having a conversation and it was his turn, “Imagine who turned out to be the bad actor. His baby was drowning in the bath water and you told him to throw out the one without throwing out the other, and now he’s pissed at you, he thinks his baby walking away is all your fault.” “It’s as simple as all that,” I said. “It usually is, to the onlooker. Cops are used to this, every day you can see stuff more off-the-wall than on the soaps. If I were an insensitive bastard I’d say it was all over who was gonna get into that pretty troublemaker’s underpants.” “And if I were a red-blooded American boy, I’d take offense if you did. But I gotta tell you, there’s a lot more to it than that, Sergeant.” “I don’t know if you believe in God, Gattling, but if there is one, He’s looking down and thinking this is insignificant, right down to whether you friend lives or dies and whether my friend gets locked up for the rest of his life. You remember that.” I remembered it until we got to the hospital. It looked as settled in for the evening as the streets did, access only through the emergency entrance. One woman sat in the waiting room, and I barely noticed her, following Rutledge (after he smoozed the ER registrar) farther into the hospital. I stuck to his shoulder, apprehensive, and I knew why when I saw Amanda standing in the corridor, conferring with a colleague in scrubs. Then I became extremely apprehensive. I knew instantly, as she turned her head just enough to see me, that I’d become the Hitler of her Europe. Rutledge saved me having to speak first. He took off his fedora and nodded to the two doctors and said, “How is he?” Amanda looked straight at me, deadpan, and said, “The bullet may have saved his life—if it doesn’t kill him.” She was not the same woman who was doing her own high anxiety before we left. Part of the Southern Belle tyranny had dropped away, but what showed now was stony, not sweet. “You explain it, Bert.” And she walked away. Her back, a coat draped about her shoulders, saying she could not stand the sight of me. It seemed the bullet had hit a rib on the way in and fragmented. None of the fragments, miraculously, hit major blood vessels. The largest fragment, however, had come to rest touching the pericardium. In the process of trying to extract that fragment—it could migrate, it was lead, too toxic to leave in the body—x-rays showed that Jake had a ticking time bomb in his chest, an aneurism in the descending aorta, of such a size that it might rupture at any moment. (“Thank God none of the fragments hit that.”) With Dr. Wirth’s blessing, they were repairing the aneurism while extracting bullet fragments. “Is that what she meant,” I asked, “when she said the bullet may have saved his life?” The doctor shrugged then nodded. I took a sudden jolt of hope to counter the despair of ‘if it doesn’t kill him.’ three Jake’s side of the shooting and its consequences: When I was conscious again—no, able to speak again, because I was conscious I don’t know how long—the first words I spoke were, “What happened?” This to an ICU nurse, one who understands every squiggle, buzz and clachet of the monitoring machines. “What happened?” I asked. I had her all to myself: Theresa Flannery, chestnut hair, Playboy bosom, tennis legs. She was of African ancestry, so the chestnut hair disconcerted at first, as did her green eyes and the fine golden down on her arms. She made the appellation, Black, obsolete, she shone in various shades of gold. ‘Gold is beautiful’ replaced a time-honored slogan. It was as if God had sent me a black white woman, or a white black woman, knowing I would fall in love with the person I woke to keeping me alive. He was making it easy for me to get over it; Theresa was married, emphatically so, it would turn out, and as there was no duplicate anywhere, I quickly realized it was as quixotic a crush as my adolescent hots for the film actress, Susan Hayward. To my first words Theresa replied, “You were shot, sir.” Of course I knew that. I wanted to say, “I know, I was there,” but I saved my breath for something more important. She was reading a printout of a continuous EKG and taking my pulse. I realized my penis hurt, and that preoccupied me until I thought to feel it, only to discover that around my wrists were bands that kept me from feeling anything. “Undo me?” I begged. “Directly, Mr. Pritchett.” She finished making a notation on my chart and then undid both my hands and my ankles. “You were good, you didn’t thrash about, but restraints after delicate surgery like yours are SOP around here. You won’t start any thrashing now, will you?” I shook my head. “Many are a bit off their rockers coming off a general anesthetic, but I can see you have your wits about you. I bet you need a drink.” I nodded, she held up a slurpee-sized cup with a glass straw coming out its lid and I sipped. “Catheter?” I asked. She said, “Leave it in a while. It’s one less thing to worry about.” If Theresa had said, “Get up and tango,” I’d at least have tried. But she hadn’t satisfied my need to know. I remembered—and it was coming back to me the more I stayed awake, the surprise of being shot, the equally surprising reaction of shooting back and the ride in the ambulance. What was not coming through was what happened between leaving the ER on a gurney and waking up to see the golden Theresa. I was naked under the covers and impeded by tubes and wires, so I couldn’t go off and find someone to fill me in on the pieces. I heard Theresa on the telephone saying, “Have Dr. Backus call seven two three,” before I slid back into my long sleep. The next time I tuned in much sooner. I recognized Dr. Backus as a man with whom I’d exchanged hellos at annual staff picnic dinners. He was examining me and telling Theresa to bump up the morphine by point five ml and something about dressings. “I’m tip-top, really,” I said. “Feeling no pain.” The doctor said, “This is going to keep you tip-top.” I was wheeled into an operating room before I again zonked out completely, the IV right alongside me, dripping a large but legal dose of morphine into my vein, a delicate game, given I was breathing with but one lung at that point, third day post-op, but Backus, a traumatologist, was not going to have me coming off the table when he removed the packing from my wound and replaced it with fresh packing. I woke again, to find a nurse not nearly so prepossessing as Theresa ministering to me. I said, “Robert?” and she said, “Robert? I’m only allowed to let your wife in,” and I passed out again. Maybe I went through this before, her answer was awfully pat, but I didn’t care to see Amanda, I knew what a raft of shit I’d get from her, not directly, more likely by what she wouldn’t talk about, or by a manner at the extreme—the dry, professional anesthesiologist—or she would be wifey-poo, a persona she only brought out for public consumption. (Just then I realized the only spontaneous Amanda I ever knew was the one who was a pretty darned good mother, which did not make me want to see her so much as see the kids.) The day they moved me from the ICU—having endured Amanda in all her guises: dry, professional anesthesiologist, wifey-poo, but also Southern belle and suffering martyr—I asked Theresa Flannery, “Has Robert Gattling been around?” “Every day, morning and evening.” “I want to see him.” “You got it.” After I was settled into a private room on the med/surg ward she was as good as her word, Robert walked through the door and I said, “Fill me in.” “Where should I start?” Robert is a good talker. He is cerebral, not prolix, and sees sharing his life with a friend as natural as sharing a meal. That’s how I know so much about him. I rate myself as a good-to-excellent listener, I complement Robert in that respect, though occasionally, when he goes into an anecdotal mode, I will say, “Could you cut to the goddam chase?” or some such. But this time it being my life I was interested in, I outdid myself as a listener. I said to Robert, “Tell me as much as you know, everything, every last iota.” ***** I told Jake about Rutledge’s remonstrations riding over to the hospital. How Rutledge talked to the ER admitting clerk like an old friend while I watched a woman, who looked a lot like Mary Travers, of Peter, Paul and Mary, sitting stoically holding a handkerchief over her eye. She wore a smart skirt and blouse in complimentary shades of persimmon, and a string of pearls. She had no doubt arrived when everyone was mad-dashing about, tending my pal, Jake. Through the glass doors into the hospital proper I saw another beautiful woman, Amanda Wirth. The composure I’d maintained since the shots exchange with the Buick Twins melted. I said, under my breath, “Oh damn damn damn damn.” The lady holding the handkerchief to her eye glanced briefly at me with the eye not covered. Amanda had, like Cassandra, uttered warnings of dire consequences to which no one gave credence. I needed back-up to face her, a tough cop named Rutledge, but he was schmoozing a nurse at the closest nursing station, one who looked like his type. So I decided to face the music and went up to Amanda and her colleague in his hospital uniform, only to have her walk away. He filled me in on the inside of Jake’s chest, way more than I wanted to know, given Guilt was stalking me like he had me in a corner, and I badly wanted to go someplace private and duke it out with him . . . . . . when Suzanne Arnold walked in. four Her walking in was no surprise, except for the hour. Hospitals and the consequences of violence were Suzanne Arnold’s province. As she was walking towards me, in her standard uniform, Amanda made an about-face and headed towards me as well, her stride menacing. Suzanne got to me first, deftly wheeled and, before Dr. Wirth could unload the broadside she’d been priming, said, “I’m on deadline, may I borrow him for a few minutes—please?” Despite the ‘please,’ Suzanne would not have brooked any opposition, a stance which stopped the doctor in her tracks. When I told her whom she’d just rescued me from, she said, “Hold on a sec,” and caught up with Amanda and introduced herself with a handshake. They exchanged brief words. I could see Amanda’s face, neither open nor hostile and then Suzanne was gesturing with her head towards me and I saw yet another facet of the little piece, she was less pat and more fluid with Amanda than with me. She came back and took me by my tender elbow to guide me towards the main lobby. I winced. She said, “The old back still bothering you?” “I bashed my elbow jumping over a car.” “Ah,” she said, “another one of those things. Should you see someone about it?” I told her what I told Sergeant Cochran: it could wait. She went around to my other side and slipped an arm around my waist, to walk me towards the lobby, as if I were invalided or derelict “What happened this time?” she asked as we found an unoccupied couch. I brought her up to date, explaining how Jake and I had tried to foil the Buick Twins. “Who were they after?” she asked. I shrugged “It’s hard to tell. They definitely followed Mary Clare east, but when we lost them they came back and ambushed Jake and me from Jake’s garage.” “They were out to kill you,” she said. Her eyes registered awe before saying she was glad they hadn’t. I said, “They knew we could tie them to Meany, so killing me would have been foolish if they didn’t also kill Jake. To tell you the truth, I’m flummoxed. I think they were sleep deprived and when they saw Jake with the gun they reacted badly.” Suzanne said” “You mean, they put the car in the garage to get a nap? Didn’t expect you back so soon?” “Or they were hoping for something to turn up before they had to report back to Meany.” She said, “And you know it’s Meany because . . . ?” “He’s the only man who’s got the money to fund a couple of private detectives or whatever they are.” She said, “I don’t want to introduce a red herring, but didn’t I gather that Mary Clare’s father is also rich and overly protective?” “They’ve been out of touch since before she came to the Bay Area.” She moved on to the knowable, asking me the kind of questions reporters ask, and I answered them as straight as I could, trusting that she would report them as straight as she could—we had a mutual trust thing going. A man who looked like he’d been working the third shift all his life placed a yellow sandwich board sign in the passageway behind us and applied a wet mop to the floor methodically and quietly, so as not to break in on the waiting for death or recovery, or perhaps birth. My kind of janitor. She said, closing her notebook, “Do you realize, Mr. Gattling, you and your gang have provided more juicy press for the Courier than anyone since I’ve been there?” “That’s going to change,” I said. “Are you about to become respectable?” I saw interest in her eyes. “I’m about to rescue my old career; I have a new job.” “Were you really an ‘official?’” “I was a capital B bureaucrat,” I said. “You?” she let out a chuckle. Her eyes got a little bigger and she smiled, and the chuckle turned into a giggle. “You know,” I said to her, “you are a complex little piece.” She smirked and said, “Let’s stick to business,” but it was a theatrical smirk and she knew what I meant and liked it. “No, really, I thought you were a dry stick the first time you came to see me. Now, I realize, you’re rather sexy.” “I was royally pissed the first time I came to see you. And right now you’re completely bonkers. Shouldn’t you go home and get some sleep before you completely lapse into sleep deprivation psychosis?” “You say what?” “Tell me about what you’re going to be doing—your new job.” I said, “I’m going to run a study to estimate the need for physicians in the Bay Area for the next few years.” “And what will Mr. Pritchett do, assuming he survives?” I didn’t repeat that question to Jake. I didn’t tell him about the guilt and fear rattling around inside and how I’d been working mightily, since the Buick roared out of the garage at me, to suppress terror. Sleep deprivation psychosis sounded like a great way to combat terror, which was opening the sluice gate of hydrochloric acid in my stomach, causing it to growl loudly in the quiet lobby. “I’m sorry,” she said, “one of the nurses intimated it was no certainty.” “You thought you were being upbeat and positive.” “Yes,” she said, “so cancel that last. May your friend have a long and prosperous life.” “I’d be satisfied with a leisurely convalescence and lots of productive writing.” “Tell him for me,” she said, “I will envy him his writing—if not the excuse for it. —What’s his novel about?” “It’s about a man who falls in love with a witch. Only I’m trying to talk him out of it.” “Where’d he get the idea?” I said, “From a dream.” “Then the witch is a stand-in for someone real—his wife, do you suppose?” I laughed and scratched my head. “She is certainly bewitching.” I patted my pockets, searching for a smoke. “I seem to have lost my cigarettes.” “That’s what you get for leaping over automobiles.” She took a pack of Virginia Slims out of her purse and offered me one. “This won’t turn me into a soprano, will it?” “Cut the crap, Mr. Gattling, you’re as liberated as they get.” “Me?” She said, “I don’t know how I knew, but I got the feeling the minute I met you I couldn’t do my little girl scout routine on you; you don’t condescend.” “I don’t?” I tried to sound ingenuous. “But you’re a flirt. I can tell that, you’re a terrible flirt.” “Am I? I just thought I liked doing things with women I can’t do with men. Not with any hope of reward beyond the moment.” “Oh, for sure.” She paused a couple of beats. “You’re all right, Gattling.” “Is this part of the interview?” “No, but don’t rush off. You might even lighten up a bit.” “I ought to go talk to Amanda.” “Mrs. Pritchett.” I said, “She goes by Dr. Wirth.” Suzanne wrote the name in her notebook, spelling it back to me. “I wonder how she’s taking this.” “She’s going to rip my heart out. She will blame Mary Clare and me for what’s happened.” “That surprises you?” “Don’t let’s get into it. I feel badly enough he’s shot up.” “Look,” she said, “You can’t get it back, you can’t mend it, you better just accept it.” I stood and stretched, weary as a rag picker’s nag. She rose too, the notebook going back into the perennial car coat. “One last thing,” she said. “Is it still so serious between you and Mary Clare?” “What would change that?” She said, “Crises. Crises have a way of changing things. And I was just checking.” I knew what she was getting at. “I assumed you had a man in your life.” “I do a good imitation. It’s a pose, to hide my heart from a lot of aridity.” “So why don’t we be friends?” “I need a little more than that.” “You mean sex? Sex can be a very friendly thing, between friends.” “There’s that sleep deprivation talking again.” “I know. Every time I get that notion I forget it doesn’t work. I have to learn it all over again.” She said, “It’s a nice fantasy, though, isn’t it?” I said, “You must think I’m vile.” She rolled her eyes and chuckled. “Some might say you’re a libertine. I think you’re a man of steel. Doesn’t need any comfort. Oh brother.” She took the arm that didn’t hurt and shook it. “Thanks for understanding.” She said, “Hey, I’m giving myself forty lashes for letting you know I’m available.” “Don’t do that, Suzanne.” We were standing very close together. She leaned her head against my shoulder and I felt a spark jump between us. “Suzanne. That’s such a lovely name.” She waved without saying goodbye, a sad look on her face. ***** Jake had had his eyes closed through much of my recitation, though not sleeping, but now his eyelids fluttered and when they opened his look was lackluster. “Come back and tell me the rest tomorrow, will you?” I agreed to, forgetting that ‘the rest’ never rested, it kept coming at us. five The world wouldn’t stop the night I put my friend, Jake, in intensive care. It gave no mind to the complication of the aneurism that had skulked, silently, in his chest God knows how long. It circled the sun at some incredible speed, in turn circled by a growing number of artificial satellites put there by the United States, the USSR, Britain, even China. Enter Uncle Irish’s third question: so what? I merely mean to say I couldn’t take time out to decry my fate, it continued to evolve as the minutes ticked away and the satellites circled. I had to report to work Monday—shit, by that time Monday was tomorrow—I had to exit the Pritchett household as soon as possible, I had to connect with Mary Clare and tell her the news. But before any of that I had to confront Amanda and take what was coming to me. No, I had to take what she thought I had coming to me, and I dare not fight back. I had to throw the fight, because, time and finances being what they were, I had to spend at least one more night in Moraga, to do those mindless, mundane things like shower, shave, dress for work, dial the phone, wait for calls back. All that shit. But first I had to wait. Boxers learn to do that. Your bout is fourth on the card. Will there be four first round kayos or four decisions? So you try to warm up and maintain a level of warmth while psyching yourself up for the fight ahead. I don’t know how many jigs I’ve danced, how many times I’ve smacked my gloves together, hitched my shoulders, circled my head on the swivel of my spine, breathed out my nose in bursts. But hell, you can’t do that in a hospital. Suzanne walked Amanda back to the lobby from wherever she’d found her and they sat in an island of chairs running perpendicular to the couch I sat on, so that they could see me but I couldn’t see them without being obvious. But I could hear them if I concentrated. And I did. It sounded like it could be the beginning of their conversation, but probably Suzanne had already got the Amanda particulars and those of the kids when she asked, “How is he?” Amanda said, “Well, the gunshot wound hasn’t killed him. He’ll be okay if he stays away from all the things that can happen afterwards.” “And those are?” Suzanne asked. Amanda moved, to the island of chairs opposite Suzanne, so that her back was now to me, but she was closer, so I could still hear her, flinching at each item in her recitation. She said, “Septicemia. Pneumonia. Thrombosis. Anaphylaxis. Cardiac arrest. Those are the kinds of things we know about and try to anticipate.” Ah, but it’s the blow you don’t see coming that drops you, Amanda. Suzanne said, “Would you say he’s in guarded condition?” “That’s a judgment his surgery team wouldn’t want me to make for them,” intoned the doctor. “Of course. I’ll call the hospital before I file my story. I’m very sorry, Dr. Wirth.” I turned to watch her cross the aisle and shake Amanda’s hand. She was leaving. Time to head for the ring. There would be no referee, no judges and no audience. But I didn’t have to make the move. While I was gathering courage, Amanda came over and stood with her knee almost touching mine, looking down as she had when she first came to see about my torn scalp so long ago. “I bet you thought you were doing him a big favor, didn’t you? Poor Jake, marrying a doctor instead of a bimbo, he could never get a handle on her, so he devotes his life to explaining her profession—her milieu, as he’d say—to give her some context. “But you know about context, don’t you, Mr. Gattling. You’re one of those explainers, too. Medicine’s dull and tedious and Jake needed some diversion from his mid-life crisis, before he faded away entirely.” Take it, Robert, cover up and duck and weave. Amanda moved her left foot forward, unconsciously assuming a boxer’s stance. Arms folded, foot tapping, angry, finally, to realize how dull and tedious a twenty year truce had been, too busy or proud to change it, children always too tense to bear their parents’ having it out, the world whirling away, time passing and the circuit incomplete, the schedule forever tentative, nothing firm. “I wish to God I’d never met you,” she said between gritted teeth, “I truly mean it.” Fuck taking it . . . fuck no. I started swinging from the deck. I said, “Why don’t you go off somewhere, Amanda, and have a good cry? Drop that bullshit doctor act and cry like you have a husband in there who needs some luck or even a prayer, if you’re inclined that way. Because bum-rapping me and Mary Clare won’t change what it was. You know it was more than a diversion, that’s what bugs you so much, isn’t it? You haven’t connected—really connected—with Jake like Clare and I have for so long you can’t remember.” Too stunned to go on the offensive, Amanda waited for me to take a wild swing that left me open. So I obliged. “If he lives he won’t recant, either, you’ll never get him to regret that decision.” The first counterpunch was a probing jab. “You heartless bastard.” I was too tired to see the right cross coming. I said, “Sure, call me names.” “Murderer! How’s that, you worthless little twerp?” I whispered the word, knowing, without seeing the blood flow, she’d opened up an old wound. If there were a ref he’d be watching to stop the fight, but there was none, and, weakened, I brought my gloves up to ward off the follow-up. “I’ve been called that before, lady, you can’t hurt me any more than I’ve been hurt, calling me that.” “Then how about fool?” she said, stamping her foot. “Fools, you and Jake both, playing hero when there are police who make their living that way, and they don’t get shot in the process.” There, her glaring eyes said, take that. But she hadn’t knocked me cold, not quite. She said, “If you were the one who’d carried the shotgun into the garage and got shot, I’d have said you had it coming, I’d have been glad.” She walked away. In the corridor I heard a booming baritone but couldn’t quite make out the words. Another colleague giving the lovely Dr. Wirth further word on the husband laid out on an operating table. I walked out through the ER waiting room to take a breath of air. The woman with the handkerchief was now the woman with the bandage over her eye, standing at the admitting clerk’s station, looking amazingly fresh, considering the true dawn was imminent. Outside I patted my pockets again, with no Suzanne around to offer me a cig. I watched stringy, unkempt mockingbirds feeding offspring bigger and sleeker than they, who still knew how to hit the right buttons, with fluttery wings and piteous cries. The older birds were as testy as Amanda, swooping from tree to tree. Towhees ignored them, grazing like tiny winged cattle, and robins, hopping imperiously about listening for worms, ignored them too. A squirrel ran along an electrical wire, chased by a mockingbird couple who mistook him for a cat or a weasel. An ocean breeze blew in across the Bay from the ocean, pushing high clouds. I watched life in the urban forest until nurses started to come in for the first shift. I didn’t see any of the ones who’d tended me. Then a nondescript gray car pulled up, Sergeant Rutledge stepping out, a man who obviously never slept. He came up to me and said, “Still waiting?” He seemed to know what I needed, retrieving a pack of cigarettes from his pocket. After we lit up he remarked how any other kind of animal you shot like that, you could have the world’s best surgeons work on it, it would still die. “Why do you suppose that is?” I asked. Rutledge said, “I dunno. I’ve seen guys shot up lots worse than your Jake, even, doctors poking around in ‘em all night, and still pull through. That’s not a bad wound—you know what I mean?” “Except,” I said. “Except what?” “They found an aneurism the size of a tennis ball when they were chasing down fragments.” “No shit.” “They’re repairing it. The only nice thing his wife said to me was, ‘The bullet may have saved his life.’” “For sure an animal wouldn’t survive that kind of pruning,” Rutledge said. “Maybe,” I said, “the animal would take the surgery as just more insult. He doesn’t know it’s to make him better.” “That’s a good theory,” Rutledge said. I said, “Maybe that’s the thing we have, the understanding that the cutting and stitching is for our good. It makes up for knowing we’re going to die someday.” We smoked the cigs down to the butt and ground them out. Rutledge said, looking up at a meager sunrise, “Meany’s skipped. The guy that got away from the Buick tipped him off.” “He what? He can’t get away, goddam it.” My mind went two ways at once. Cheering him, yes, for a final burst of spunk; yet wanting to get my hands on him, to choke the fucking life out of him. six Rutledge said, “He’s not at his house, his family don’t know where he is.” I said, “Are they lying?” “I doubt it. They’re so strung out right now they’d botch it if they lied.” “Lost without Papa Bear.” “Papa Moose,” Rutledge corrected. “You know, he was a nice guy, once. He drank a lot of beer, when we were boys, and never got tight, he just got funny. You’d never know it now, but when he was a kid he’d come out with the drollest stuff. —I just came over to let you know. I don’t think he’ll try anything else, but you never know.” “Who was the guy Jake shot?” “You guessed right, a private dick. Got all his ideas watching Burt Reynolds movies. We’re gonna give him lots of time for movies.” “Got you guys riled, did he?” “My Moraga colleagues will be in touch with you. Don’t be surprised if they don’t want to do a count of aggravated assault, coming out of the garage at you with that Buick.” “What about the shooting itself?” “That’s tricky, Gattling, that’s tricky.” I said, “Jake walks towards them with a shotgun, the guy thinks he’s in danger.” “Exactly. And Jake gave him good evidence he wasn’t wide of the mark. Still, if they can prove burglary, the shooting’s kicked up to a class A or class B felony. And if your friend dies, it’s murder one for both of them. —Now now, it’s academic; don’t look so upset. “—Which reminds me,” Rutledge continued, “you have any idea where Meany might have gone?” “Your guess is as good as mine: Boston? I gather from Mary Clare he’s been as far away as Paris and Tahiti since she’s known him—both on a whim. And he has a hideaway at Lake Tahoe.” “What you’re telling me,” Rutledge said, “I could look the wide world over for him.” “I’d bet on Mary Clare,” I said. Rutledge shook his head and said, “All for a skirt.” “You said that before. Besides, ‘skirt’ dates you.” “If you were a feminist I’d say ‘piece of ass,’ get you good and riled.” “But since you know I’m in love with her, you’d watch your mouth, wouldn’t you.” “You don’t expect me to find her anything but a class A nuisance, do you? Com’on, Gattling, look at the troubles have followed her around.” “All she did was quit being a victim, Sergeant.” “Meany claims he was lifting her out of the gutter.” “For the love of Pete. Gimme another cigarette.” Rutledge shook the cigarette out until I could grasp it. “If he’s right,” he said, “ingratitude could make a fella upset.” “He saved her life. Then he tried to preserve it in liquid nitrogen. He could have let go of her long before I met her, she might have bitched and moaned, in the end she would have gone straight. He can’t cop a plea on that hogwash.” “So far as I know,” Rutledge said, “Meany never made a major mistake in business. Far as I know, he batted way over five hundred backing political candidates.” “He never fell in love with a subdivision or the Secretary of State.” Rutledge shrugged. I said, “Believe it or not, my dad opened the first supermarket in St. Louis: ‘Pritchett’s Grocomat.’ Huge success. Then he opened two more and went belly up.” “Over-extended?” Rutledge crushed his smoked cigarette. “He fell in love with his own idea. He didn’t notice that Piggly-Wiggly was putting a store around the corner from his first one.” “Shit,” Rutledge said, “like us competing with the FBI. —Well, I think I should call it a night. Can I give you a ride home?” “Not sure where that is, sergeant.” I told him about my run-in with Amanda. “You can’t blame her, can you? It’s for sure her husband wouldn’t be in there with the A-team surgeons if you hadn’t come along.” He walked in a slow circle. “Lemma talk to her, see if I can’t convince her the only way the cops can release the crime scene is if you’re on the premises.” “Hey, she’s not mentally deficient.” “I know, that’s the lamest thing I ever heard; I’ll think of something.” He walked off. I wanted to run after him and kiss him. He looked a little like Columbo with a fedora, or Jimmy Durante doing his closing TV business, walking through the receding spotlights. ***** The dawn’s long shadows preceded us into the light Sunday morning traffic. Sergeant Rutledge looked very tired. He looked like a man who’d done this so often he’d taught himself not to fall asleep at the wheel. “What did you say to her?” I asked. “Please, Gattling, leave me my dignity.” “Do I clear out the minute she walks through the door?” “You grovel. I’ve made you out to be alive because Jake took a bullet for you. You’re a vicarious victim who needs understanding. You are ‘more to be pitied than censored,’ as the song goes.” I said, “Jesus. What about my dignity?” “There’s always Motel 6.” “The Pritchetts’ the only place Clare knows to get hold of me.” Rutledge said, “So grovel. A tear or two wouldn’t hurt.” As I approached the front door, Rutledge waiting to make sure I got in before driving off, Bienvenida came running out, and threw her arms around my neck and sobbed. I turned my head and gave Rutledge the high sign and he drove off. “How did you get in?” I asked her. “The last policeman to leave was real nice, a Mejicano. I made him coffee. The children are here and they real scared. Can you talk to them?” Jane and Jimmy were in the breakfast nook. Bienvenida had made bizcochos, a “special occasion” snack, rich comfort food, but the kids had eaten only a few bites and stopped. The looks they gave me said they’d talked to their mom and had picked up her animosity. “Your dad was coming out of surgery and he’ll be a long time in post-op, the place where—” “We know what post-op is,” Jimmy said in an annoyed voice. “Your dad’s going to be all right. I’m sure your mom will be with him till he gets out of post-op. It could take a while.” “Why’d my dad have to get shot?” Jane asked. “I doubt even the man who shot him knows that.” “Why not?” Jimmy asked, challenging. I said, “Sometimes people do things without thinking. Your dad doesn’t. But others of us do. The man who shot him will probably tell the police he just reacted when he saw your dad’s shotgun, but I don’t think that’s the answer you’re looking for. Sometimes someone who didn't start out to hurt you can still mess up your dreams. Your dad didn’t start out to get hurt and the man who did it sure wasn’t after him.” “Was he after you?” Jimmy asked. “Maybe.” Jane’s head was hanging lower and lower. Finally a tear dropped onto her plate and she said, “Mary Clare’s so nice. She couldn’t have caused all this.” I said, “She didn’t. She’s got a right to live her life, and someone was trying to take away that right.” “That Meany,” Jane said. “I know how he got that name,” Jimmy said, “big meany.” “You got that right.” Jane started to cry in earnest and Jimmy put his arms around her. He was ready to cry, too. Bienvenida sat down next to Jane on the bench seat and put her arms around them both. I had to get up and walk into the other room. I saw the whiskey still sitting out on the salver that the Pritchetts never used, and I found a clean Old Fashioned glass and poured myself a slug. It burned going down. I followed it with another, which didn’t burn as much. Bienvenida, wiping away tears, came in and said, “Is for putting you to sleep?” “Yeah. If I’m not awake before you go, wake me. I have to get ready to go to work tomorrow.” “Do you need clothes pressed? Let me, please, I need something to do besides cry.” “Of course,” I said. “I’ll show you what I need. But promise not to cry on my clothes, will you?” She started to laugh and then she cried and then she put her arms around me and wept into my chest as if it were her own father who’d been shot. seven When she came through the door I expected the kids to run to Amanda with arms open, but they hung back, the expectancy in their faces saying they were waiting for word about their father. She gave them none. Rather, she turned to me and said, “Sic your cop friend on me. I won’t have it. You told me to my face you’re closer to my husband than I am, you arrogant twerp, now you want me to take you in again?” Bienvenida had been watching from the doorway to the family room. She took a step into the living room, her expression collapsing into anguish, taking up the hem of her apron and covering her face, muffling a wail that stopped Amanda’s rant. “Doan fight, for the sake of the children, please.” Still holding the apron as if ready to shield herself again. I said, “Mary Clare doesn’t know what happened and she needs to. The only place she knows to call is here.” “In other words, you want to use me, the way you used Jake.” I held my peace. “In my own home. Everything getting away from me. You don’t know what I’ve been through these last twenty-four hours.” Head down, for fear of inciting her by making eye contact, I said, “I’ll leave as soon as Mary Clare gets in touch.” “See that you do,” Amanda said. She went over to the children, who hugged her. All such fine-looking specimens, the three looked like an illustration from a fairy tale. I excused myself and went out the kitchen entrance to the garage. I looked for signs of the ‘Gunfight at the Pritchett’s Garage.’ I opened the door the Buick had gone through. Chalk circles on the cement indicated where evidence had been located. Sitting on the work bench was Jake’s cleaning kit, as if waiting for the shotgun to come home. I’d never cleaned a shotgun; mine was gone before I had a chance—if I'd been brave enough to clean it. My palms sweated. I looked for instructions on how to clean a shotgun in the cleaning kit, at which time Bienvenida appeared. “Sleep,” she said. “Mary Clare.” She said, “Doña Amanda and the children lie down on her bed. I tell you when Mary Clare calls.” She led me by the hand to the guest bedroom. “All God’s will, don Roberto, God’s will. Sleep.” I stripped down to my shorts and climbed into bed. It felt okay to be there, but I couldn’t sleep. I found myself rehashing, like an old pro might rehash his earliest fights, rehashing meeting Lana, the eternal Eve, every man’s idea of the girl next door grown to womanhood. At the end of our first date we walked into Berkeley Square for a nightcap. A regular I sometimes drank with, Buck Adams, said as I passed, “You win the Irish Sweepstakes?” I shook my head and he said, “You did something to deserve a looker like that.” As Lana grew up, her mother told her to avoid eye contact with men, advice she was constitutionally unable to act on. If Mary Clare had eyes that transmitted messages from her soul, Lana’s pale blue eyes were receivers, inviting advances from those who looked into them. If she’d been dumb it would have been one thing, but she was bright, the brightness and the trusting calm came through, the message of those eyes. After I dropped her off from our first date, I found myself humming “Them There Eyes” all the way home, thanking my good luck she hadn’t gone off to Reno before I met her. It was spring when I asked her to marry me. We were driving around the two lane roads behind Reno and stopped to take in a particularly striking vista. I said, “You had enough of being a blackjack dealer?” “Yes.” I said, “Let’s get married and take a long trip together.” That’s when I fell asleep. Just as well. Reliving the good part of my life with Lana would surely have led to reliving the nightmare parts. Still, I awoke with a pang, recalling the difference between the first impression of Lana and the last. Both had to do with eyes, frank, inviting eyes at the beginning of our romance; at the end withdrawn eyes. I said, the last time I tried to talk about the shooting, “Look at me, Lana, goddamit, look at me.” I even grabbed her lower jaw and forced her face around until she had to look at me. There was nothing but resentment in her look, underlined with fear and anger. Bienvenida woke me. “You snore a lot,” she said as I blinked at her. “I never snore.” “Like a pig.” “Do pigs snore?” She said, “A call comes from the hospital. Don Jacobo is awake. Doña Amanda goes to see him.” I started to bound out of bed but stopped short of exposing myself. “Vayas,” I said. “I hoped you forget,” she said, with a twist of her shoulders and a smile back at me. Bienvenida never flirted like this. “Why so happy?” “Don Jacobo gonna be okay.” “Go. So I can dress, so I can see him.” She was suddenly serious. “The doctor say only doña Amanda can see him.” “Did she say that, or one of the doctors at the hospital?” She shook her head, her expression still serious. “I’m afraid, Roberto.” “Afraid of what?” “I doan know. Like an earthquake is coming.” She threw herself on me, on the bed, and sobbed. “Like you said, don Jacob is going to be all right.” She looked into my eyes. She wasn’t flirting now, fear among the tears, a woman more substantial than Mary Clare, who smelled of sun-dried cotton and vanilla beans, who didn’t think twice about throwing herself on a man in his bed. “My brain say he okay, my heart tell me he not okay. So I am afraid. My uncle, Ernesto, die of a blood clot in the heart. He was muy robusto.” “In a hospital?” I asked. “He live in Cañas; no hospital.” “There you are. Jake’s in a hospital, they watch for things like that.” She said, “He has to come home sometime. And you will be gone.” “He’ll come home when he’s strong.” She wiped her eyes on her sleeve and left. I threw on last night’s clothes, splashing water on my face and slicking my hair with wet hands. If Clare hadn’t called by this time, she wouldn’t before late afternoon. I drove down the freeway in my truck, a strange vehicle after the Triumph, concentrating as hard as I could on sending out a plea through the ether, looking for Mary Clare in the clouds. “Call me,” I said in my mind over and over, “call me.” I ran into Amanda coming out of the intensive care unit. “Can I see him?” “No.” My face asked why; she said, “Look for yourself.” What I saw through the glass partition was a body with snaky wires and tubes, a portable suction unit draining the hole in his chest. A nurse hovered. I must have bored a hole in his subconscious, because Jake’s lids went back and he locked me with an unblinking stare. Talking Without Words one This is woo-woo stuff, but it happened, believe me. Jake says he remembers none of this, which is reasonable, given he was in a literal sense non compos mentis, or, to put it more crudely, off his rocker on morphine and whatever. “Meany,” came a message out of the ether, sent by Jake’s eye. Meany was the farthest thing from my mind at that moment. So was “Penthouse”—a bygone memory, a relic. But I asked anyway—asked who, asked what?—I found myself mouthing the words, “Look there?” Jake said, without twitching a facial muscle, “He will double back there. Tonight.” Jake closed his eyes. He reminded me of my father on his death bed, not just unconscious, but all his inherent culture stripped away, just this immanence half sad half humble. I shook my head, turned on my heel and headed for the pay phone in the lobby. Rutledge said, “We have someone watching Bobwhite Court, figuring he might try to get some cash from his office safe. You say Pritchett suggested the penthouse? How is he?” I didn’t try out the idea of telepathy on the sergeant, he already harbored doubts about my sanity. I said, “He was delirious, but it kinda makes sense, don’t you think?” So much for getting the police to do it. I headed back to Moraga, and, on the way through Orinda, pulled up in front of the Baskin-Robbins as someone pulled out of the parking space under the only shade tree on the block. I went in and ordered a double scoop of lime sherbet in a waffle cone. I sat in the truck eating it, dripping on the steering wheel and horn button, going in and getting more napkins, when I realized Jake had also sent a message about his novel, but I was too tuned in to the Meany message to register it. Even though it was Sunday, Meryl was at her desk. She tried to look deadpan for once, but there was a lightening-struck snag smoldering in the forest of her soul, her boss’s descent from undisputed eminence had wounded her. And she looked stout, she’d gone an ounce beyond the brink of too much. “Just wanted to tell you, I’m going into Mr. Pritchett’s office to pick up something for him.” “Don’t you need a key?” I held up a key: “His.” Only it wasn’t his, it was the passkey I didn’t turn in when Meany scared me for the last time. In Jake’s office, dyed copper by the sunlight through drawn drapes, I found myself unable to enjoy a good snoop. My only concession to innate curiosity was to pick up the mail from beneath the mail slot and sort through it. Among junk mail and bills I found only one first class letter, postmarked Berkeley, a woman’s hand. I put the others on his desk and stuck the letter in my back pocket. In the file cabinet I found a drawer labeled CURRENT WRITING, in which was the manuscript of “Death, Resurrection and Death,” as he called his witch novel. There was another folder, labeled “The Room of the Two Barbers,” which another time I would have snooped on the spot, but instead took with me. Finally, there was a folder labeled “The Role of Third Party Payers in Medical Care Cost Increases,” which I didn’t take. In spite of its being Sunday, the Reproduction Clinic was in operation as well. Mary Chin was there. She came up to me, close enough to touch, and said, “How’s your friend?” “Pretty bad.” “Where was he shot?” she asked. I showed her, by touching the place on her chest where the bullet went in. “The bullet fragmented.” “Some left inside?” I nodded. She said, “I’m doing a rush job, but I’ll do his before I leave. You can pick it up tomorrow. I’ll take good care of it.” She touch my arm and we spontaneously hugged. “Poor baby. You have a lot on your plate just now.” “I start a new job tomorrow. I’ll pick it up after work.” Back in Moraga, Jimmy and Jane were alone, watching the evening news, something they never did. I asked them if they wanted to swim; they declined with a shake of the head. I spent the time until Clare called reading “The Room of the Two Barbers.” I was at the part where the hero, rescued by the mysterious young lady in the VW van, reaches Virginia City, where the two barbers are going to show up, when Jane came in and said, “Mary Clare’s on the phone for you.” “Did you tell her about your dad?” She shook her head. Clare’s voice sounded so unlike the last twenty-four hours I delayed telling her a second, by saying, “I have something to tell you.” “What?” she said in alarm. I said, “Brace yourself. Jake’s been shot.” “Not him, too.” Then after a second’s pause she said, “It was those men. Did they kill him?” I told her everything. “Which one of us did they mean to kill?” she asked when I paused. “Maybe no one.” Suddenly I was in the Buick, hearing the cars pull up outside, realizing I’d done a stupid thing, stupid like the way I’d been trapped in the elevator going up to the penthouse to scope out Mary Clare’s “place of work.” She said, “That was no accident, but it wasn’t your fault, either. No more than mine, anyway.” Fault? Mine? She put into words what had been hiding in the purlieus of my mind since the Buick rammed the Triumph. “He’s not going to die,” I said, “so we’ll have plenty of time to sort out fault.” She said, “I have an appointment at nine. I’ll be on the first plane back after that.” “Are you sure?” “My academic career doesn’t seem too damned important right now. If tomorrow I can’t settle things, well, tough shit. I’m coming back.” I said, “No one meant this to happen, not even the dumb shit who shot him. You can’t change anything by coming back before you finish your business.” She said, “What has that got to do with my responsibility towards Jake? I’ll call right before I leave.” And she hung up. Responsibility towards Jake? Was this about atonement? I repeated what she said. I hefted it, to measure its weight. I didn’t understand. Was she, after all, the person more in tune than I with friendship and ethics and all the things that make a human being human? two This I understood, as I hung up the phone: my exile was over. Whatever ground I stood on, I was no longer in the never-never land of La Morinda, I was in Mary Clare’s land of reality. “Get out of Moraga,” she had said. Well, I was doing that, too. I wasn’t sure exactly where I’d end up, but I was going to keep my bargain with Amanda and quit the Pritchett household. To start a new job in Berkeley. Then what? The ‘then what’ would have to wait. One thing I was pretty certain of, my life wasn’t going to roll along like it had when I went from dishwasher to the Gold Dust Twins to Assistant Vice President in several giant steps. This gig with ABAG was just that. In a year and a half or so I would zip my brains into a gig bag and saunter off into the sunset. It had taken long enough. Mary Clare was in high school when I shot the drifter named Ralph Delano Renwick and ended the string of luck that I attributed to the Divine Accident. Now I was going to be a real grownup and quit relying on dodges. I had a real job, a job I got because someone thought I was good at something, not because I came up with one flashy idea. This time there were no tearful goodbyes, no gifts, just Bienvenida helping me carry my things out to the truck and giving me a smacking kiss on each cheek. I think she was relieved to see me go, given Amanda’s animosity towards me. She wasn’t one to be comfortable with divided loyalties. The Pritchetts, plus Bienvenida and Mary Clare, had been my family while I convalesced, the first time I’d felt like I was part of a family since my mother died. But then, I thought, waving back at Bienvenida, who waved one last time from the kitchen window, the pattern was all too familiar. You no sooner find a family and one of the members threatens to croak. I was glad to be going to work. I could have called Howie Manheimer and got a few days’ reprieve, his knowing Jake and I were tight, but I would have gone crazy cooling my heels. “I’m going home,” I told myself as I drove up the hill from the Pritchetts’. I entered the stream of traffic on Highway 24 and I really felt like it. Back in the day, I walked up the hill from my last class on a Friday evening and, bag already packed, Ford coupe already gassed, it was up Claremont Avenue to Fish Ranch Road, and then onto Highway 24—going the opposite way, of course—to enter the river of life as I knew it then, the highways of California, the shortcut on State 33 to Los Banos about the time the sun went down, and, merging into the bigger river, Highway 99, another five hours and I was at my father’s home in Manhattan Beach. I couldn’t see the ocean but I could hear it as I alit from my car. It was the friendly ocean of my youth, where I’d body surfed and fished, and cooled off from summer workdays as a hard hat laborer. The first morning home, after breakfast with my father, I’d walk downtown, left on Pier Street, and out to the bait shop at the end of the municipal pier. It was my pier, I loved watching dizzy waves race into crests beneath it and shiver into foam against the pilings. I loved to watch the daredevil lads, who always seemed to favor denim cutoffs, leap from the railing, three stories above the waves, to defy fear, life guards and sometimes the police. I caught a twenty-eight pound halibut off that pier. It was the only pier it was okay to play a portable radio on while I fished, cause that’s what they did when I was growing up. Not tonight, but sometime soon I was going to visit the Berkeley pier, longer than the Manhattan Beach pier, but much closer to the water. I might even buy some cheap fishing gear and make that a pastime. In Berkeley I picked the Pelican Motel. Besides being named for the University’s humor magazine, it was a cousin of the motel in South Lake Tahoe, where three amateurs felt good about outsmarting two pros. Otherwise, it supplied a firm mattress and a telephone. I called Moraga and told Jane to write down how to reach me. I likewise called Sergeant Rutledge’s line and left a message on his answering machine. I secured my truck, by backing it against the back wall of my parking bay, and walked two blocks to Berkeley Square. Mac the bartender was behind the bar. Mac knew everyone in Berkeley who stopped there for fortification on the way home. Mac knew me and he knew Jake, but he didn’t yet know Jake and I knew each other. “Hi, kid,” Mac said. He was the only one who called me kid any more. “I haven’t seen many of the old regulars lately. Where’ve you been?” “Over the hill in La Morinda.” “Well,” he said, “it’s nice to see a familiar face I actually like.” He poured a gin and ran a neatly cut piece of lemon peel around the rim of the glass. He wouldn’t let me pay for it. “How’s Louis?” I asked, referring to the owner. “Louis sold the place, you know.” “You wanted to buy him out, as I recall.” “Couldn’t swing it,” he said, shaking his head. I said, “Is the new owner anyone I know?” Mac jerked his thumb at the other man behind the bar—not someone I knew. The motion of his thumb and eyes told me Mac didn’t think I would like the man any better than he did. “You see Buck at least?” “Buck’s dead. Died not very long after the last time I saw you—three years, is it?” “About that. Liver?” “Suppose so. Buck was in the hospital a while. A bunch of us went over and took him flowers. The other Mac’s dead, too.” “No. He was way too young.” I really didn’t know either of the men that well, two men who worked at the State Department of Public Health when I was at the University. The occasional drink together, swapping bureaucratic tales. Both deaths were premature. Mac went further down the bar and drew a beer for a man with a Peterbilt insignia on his bill cap. I finished my drink and asked for another. “How’s the food here now?” Mac said, “Same as ever.” “Know any good places?” “There’s a new place called Chez Panisse, gets written up in the Sunday supplement, French food and fancy wines. You used to like that kind of stuff, as I recall.” “Yeah,” I said, “but not to eat alone.” Mac said, “You could go over to the old train station, pretty safe bet.” It was still light when I left Berkeley Square and walked up the street to the Santa Fe depot, a yellowish building, half WPA utilitarian, half California Mission. Someone had converted it into a steak house. I got a table amid flocks of kids who only seemed to be young enough to be my own. They were all pert and handsome, not a revolutionary crowd. Even my waitress perked me up, although she was in many ways the opposite of Mary Clare. She was too pendulous to go braless and too young to be so pendulous. She also didn’t shave her legs, which was a subculture thing I decided you have to acquire a tolerance for at an early age. Still, it was Berkeley. Berkeley had enacted an ordinance banning smoking in eating establishments, the first such ordinance in the land. So I didn’t smoke, I made myself a salad at the salad bar. The T-bone arrived medium rare, just the way I wanted it, the baked potato hot and fluffy, with sour cream and blue cheese. After staying with the Pritchetts, where both Amanda and Jake could whip up a salmon soufflé or an asparagus timbale in no time flat, it was nice to have meat and potatoes. I drank a green but deep-bodied cab and indulged my penchant for people watching. Berkeley at the cusp. Lots of beards, beards had become standard. The girls wore waist-length hair and granny glasses, but they looked pleasant instead of grim. None of those kids paid me any mind: I was over thirty—but then so was Ringo Starr. I sipped wine and sucked my teeth, remembering, the summer I was seventeen, the girl at the beach who didn’t shave her legs, or at least her thighs, and on that day the fact impressed itself on me because, suddenly—her thighs were particularly well shaped and inviting—I blurted out my observation, and she took umbrage. It was as if I’d called attention to a hare lip. She said, “I don’t have to shave,” and she was right: the fine golden hair of her thighs complimented the pancake brown of her summer tan, but I was too abashed to apologize. Which led me to wonder, in a place full of college kids, if anyone were abashed any more. Until the Sixties, I recall, people still got abashed. Characters became abashed in certain novels. John Steinbeck knew that; any second he’d walk in and my table would be the only one with a vacant chair. Hello, Mr. Steinbeck, I bow to your appreciation of abashedness. Eating and watching kids without that tension that came from the People’s Park days counted as a diversion from incipient panic. I could feel old in the face of all that youth and brashness about me, the lack of respect for abashedness, but I couldn’t feel panic. I paid my tab and handed my waitress a good tip and walked out into a Berkeley summer sunset with a green cast to it. three I walked away from the sunset, heading for Shattuck and Haste, a distance that would work off some of the calories I’d just consumed. The destination was the Cinema Guild, where I’d seen Chushingura three times. My corset took some of the pleasure out of walking, an activity as natural to a Berkeleyan as breathing. Walking and sex had kept me in shape in Berkeley, although the proportions changed after I met Lana. Lana didn’t walk, she strolled. She was from Southern California too, but while I had embraced Berkeley’s ways and used my feet as my main form of transportation, Lana retained the automatic assumption that a car could do it better and faster, and never walked except for recreation. She had uncanny luck finding parking places, while my luck was the opposite. Lana was a South Side person. Different kinds of persons lived north and south of campus. Partly it was a matter of major: engineers, chemists and architects lived on North Side, liberal arts majors lived on South Side. Personality came into it, too. I had a South Side major but by temperament was a North Side person, and that’s where I lived. At Shattuck and Haste I looked at the marquee in momentary puzzlement. One title implied gigantic orgasms, the other a young lady who laid everyone in sight. I’d seen a couple of porno movies in my life and I could take them or leave them, but I wasn’t going to spoil the memory of Chushingura and the forty-seven martyrs by watching massive orgasms with multiple partners. My back being tired, I looked for a taxi to take me back to the motel, but I had as much luck with taxis in Berkeley as I did with parking places. The sunset was tired now, the sky below a certain stratum the color of a big ugly Buick, while above that stratum deep purple set off with rich pinks and salmons. Other Berkeley sunsets I’d known came through the deep purple, sunset conversations, some with strangers, some with friends, like the one I had with one of the leaders of the student revolt, a woman I shouted at by day and whispered sweet nothings to at night. She and I didn’t see each other in public—her public or mine—but some evenings we took secret strolls and talked. One day at sunset we walked to the steps west of the Divinity School, where converged with Scenic and LeConte Avenues. We watched the sunset ripen while she told me about hitchhiking through Europe the summer previous. Spain was the place where, as a lone woman hitchhiking, she ran into trouble. A truck driver—the third man that day who had got more than a little lecherous—so wore her down that she cried out, “Do what you want with me, I can’t take it anymore,” and broke into sobs of frustration and resignation. It was sunset in Spain as well. Tears turned a swaggering Lothario into a don Quixote. He not only didn’t accept her surrender, he drove two hours out of his way to take her to her destination. He deposited her at a pension run by his aunt, and announced to the trajabadores in the dining room that anyone who insulted his protegida would answer to him on his return trip. My secret lover and I talked until the cricket-guarded darkness enfolded us in scents of wisteria and night-blooming jasmine, as we held hands and joined epicenters, approaching synonymy, however fleeting. I enshrined the conversation and made it into a simple-pretty. And the night my exile ended was a time to entertain the memory of a simple-pretty, however ephemeral. ***** Maybe, if I’d got out of a movie at ten o’clock I might have slept on Jake’s telepathic news of Meany’s furtive movements, or convinced myself that I had an overly-vivid imagination. I would have gone to bed hoping sleep would find me before my conscience did. I was too restless to sit still in a motel room, so it wasn’t hard to get in my truck, after the long walk into the dusk, and head back to La Morinda. But I still had to ask myself why—loyalty to Jake aside—I would go looking for Meany. I wasn’t going to turn him in, any more than I was going to forgive him. The answer that seemed to fit best was curiosity. Maybe a fugitive Meany would give up his secret, of how he had stalked and ultimately devoured his own soul, so that he could become large and fearsome, a maker of senators and governors, a demigod among real estate developers. But there was a teaspoon of adventure in the answer, for even if the telepathic conversation with Jake was a figment of my imagination, getting up there past Sergeant Rutledge’s sentinel was worth the trip. I parked at the high school and walked into Bobwhite Court on the SP right of way, feeling with shuffling feet for any unseen debris. Up ahead, the familiar shape of the complex, a familiar pattern of lights and darks. All except the penthouse, which was black against the city’s night glow. My replacement had left the front door unlocked and I walked in, expecting to run into him any second, rode the elevator to the third floor, took the stairs to the roof, where I could see the whole complex. Just at the entrance to the driveway sat a blue Plymouth two-door, a twin to Rutledge’s gray one, but no sign of Meany’s Caddy. I used my pass key to fetch the elevator, tingling with anticipation, this time I wouldn’t encounter a disillusionment, I would have a secret tryst with a ghost and be on my way. The door slid open to reveal a large blot on the light coming from the cityglow, a Meany-sized blot, standing on the spot where he’d once tried to rip my face off. This time his stance told me he was holding a much more efficient weapon. The slightest glint of nickel told me he was holding the twin to Mary Clare’s revolver. four It’s me,” I said, as if that would disarm him—in the social sense; I wasn’t fool enough to think he’d put the gun away. Once inside, I could see a finger of light leaving the bedroom, to die before it could escape the penthouse. Meany said, “How’d you know I was here?” “Let’s say it was a hunch.” I wasn’t about to talk woo-woo things with Meany. “Bring anyone?” “You mean the police?” “I thought police,” he said, “but I meant Mary Clare.” “She’s not around.” “Where is she?” I said, “East of Winnemucca.” “I assume she went to Boston,” Meany said. “If you could assume that—which is correct—why’d you hire those two cretins to follow her?” “Keep her from doing anything stupid, like marrying you.” “And those two were supposed to stop us?” “What do you think, Gattling?” “I think you didn’t have a notion of what to do. For once you didn’t have a strategy.” Meany had walked over and hauled himself up on one of the bar stools. “You mind if I make myself a drink?” I asked. I went around the bar and found the gin bottle by memory, ice cubes in the fridge under the bar, the light from the fridge suddenly making me squint. Meany said, “Make me one, too.” “I hear you drink Old Fashioneds.” “Shit, just pour some bourbon over ice and a splash of sweet vermouth.” I stayed behind the bar after mixing the drinks. We raised glasses to each other. “Why’d you come, if you didn’t bring the police?” “I don’t know, exactly.” Swirling the ice in my glass, soft sounds of a full drink tinkling in my hand. “You think it’s stupid, don’t you. My feeling for her.” “No, I think you’re in love with her. That may be foolish, it’s not stupid.” Meany said, “I’m too old to be in love.” “You put any label you want on it, then.” He said, “Being in love is being crazy.” “And you don’t fit that definition?” “It got out of hand, is all. It isn’t like business; you can’t start and stop it so easily.” “Why’d you get into it, then?” “All I wanted,” Meany said, “was for Clare to be happy. I was afraid she’d end up the way she was before. I thought if she got strong, got all that crap out of her system that made her do all those things. I thought another year—two at the outside—she’d be ready to go back to school.” I drained my glass, the ice cubes louder. “You ready for another?” He said, “Hit me.” As I poured I said, “You’re gonna have to pay the piper this time, you know.” “Is your friend in bad shape?” “About the same kind of gunshot wound as when Mary Clare shot you, only he’s got a bad heart to go with it.” Meany made a ripple in the shadows. “No one but the police said that to me, ‘Mary Clare shot you,’ since it happened. Everyone else was afraid to.” I said, “Why don’t you go away, get out of town.” “Where?” “How about Mexico?” This gave me a strange satisfaction, since one of the things he said to me, his second visit to my hospital room, was an offer to send me to a cattle ranch he owned on one of the Islas Marías—to recuperate in the tropical sun, he said. Meaning, to forget about Mary Clare. If Meany caught the irony, he ignored it. He said, “What would I do in Mexico? I hate hiding already, and I couldn’t work down there. Except for raising beef, I don’t know the system. I don’t even know enough Spanish to order anything but la comida regular—hell, I’d be drunk all the time.” “You could stop forging ahead, you could actually stop for a while and just listen to the sounds of the land.” “Shit,” Meany said, “I’m not a hippie.” “You don’t have to wear beads. Betcha dying with your boots on is no fun. So retire early.” “Retirement’s for people who never knew how to do anything but take orders.” I said, “It could also be for someone who’s done more than most men ever will—and has a good reason to get the hell out of the country.” He said, “Might as well just sit here and enjoy being alive and free until they come and get me.” I was inclined to argue a contradiction in terms, him sitting in the dark while a cop waited outside, but I let it pass. “You have any message for Garcia?” The gin was coloring things blue. Meany said nothing, but made another ripple in the shadows. “I’ve got to go, Mr. Meany.” “Stay and have another drink.” “There’s no good solution, you know. There is no good choice—” “—About you?” Meany interjected. “No, not about me, you don’t have to worry about me. I mean the rest of your life. All you’ve got left is finding the least worst choice. Why don’t you let me get your lawyer up here?” “He’ll just advise me to surrender.” “Then why don’t you?” Meany didn’t say anything for a long time. I was not inclined to walk away until an answer came. It looked like my last chance to hear it, because somebody was going to do something about the penthouse, Meany couldn’t just sit here. Knowing Clare, there wouldn’t be enough food to last a day. He didn’t even clear his throat. “I’ve got to go,” I repeated. “Just one more minute,” Meany said. “What?” I edged along the bar, a little closer to the elevator. I just realized I was in a corner again. Meany said, “I am trying. I can’t get the words together to say what I want to say.” “About Clare?” “About why I got mixed up with her.” “I know why. Anyone who knows Clare would know why.” He said, “But there’s a whole lot of people don’t know her.” “And you’re afraid they’re going to judge you?” “Not the way you mean.” Meany said, “I don’t give a shit what Joe Dokes thinks of me, I don’t even care what the Governor thinks of me, wooden-headed second-rate actor. I don’t want to leave this world known only for having made a fool of myself over some woman. It was not a penny-ante thing.” I said, ‘You’ll have plenty of time to say that.” Meany said, “I don’t have plenty of time to do anything. I haven’t had plenty of time since I figured out how important time is and how not to squander it.” “Then tell me, and let me get the hell out of here.” “You’ll laugh at me,” Meany said. “Hey, Charlie, I’m the Joe Dokes whose opinion means zilch to you, so what do you care?” He was silent for an interminable minute. He finally said, “I was never in love, except in the first grade with a buck-toothed blonde name Katy, had a silly smile. I fell in love with Mary Clare and didn’t believe it, didn’t even know it at first. I just acted peculiar, like time didn’t count so much anymore. I took care of her. I’d tell myself, ‘She’s just a girl,’ and when I got the hots I’d say, ‘She’s a dope fiend, she’s a Jew—how can you be in love with her?’ Wouldn’t even use the word, you understand. All my life I made two choices with every person I came up against: use’em or brush’em aside. “I went to cat houses for love. Love was another name for an urge—people love dogs and diamonds and oysters, for God’s sake. I thought anything beyond sex was about owning someone—exclusive rights.” He shifted on the bar stool, as if the point were well made. “I was too busy to take up ownership—until I had my own urge. And it wasn’t sex, brother, I could get that. It was children. That’s when I married. It didn’t take any great skill to find a wife, I just had to be careful, after people found out I was looking, not to get trampled. “Getting trampled is the biggest danger of money and power, Gattling, people think it rubs off. One of the reasons I liked you, you didn’t seem to care diddly-squat if you had either. But it makes things change—not you, not yourself, the world. People. All of a sudden you can’t help thinking of people as ‘others,’ ‘them.’ Only Mary Clare wasn’t them, that’s why I couldn’t let go of her. I had no experience with a person not being part of them.” He rattled the glass on the bar. “She should have been. She’s the only Jew I ever met I didn’t despise. Only woman I met I was pretty certain was smarter than me, whenever she felt like using her head. I thought dope addicts were demons from hell and I don’t know if you’d classify her as a dope fiend but I believe she was when I met her. Shit, I emptied her purse—I put her in a hotel room the first day, maybe she told you—but anyway, she had more junk in her purse that would kill you than a rock’n’roll guitarist.” He pushed his glass across the bar. This time I just sweetened it with a little more whiskey. “Feels funny, telling the man she ran off with I love her, but it’s not the same for you as for me. I bet you’ve loved a lot of women in your life, it’s just a natural thing with you, like a real estate deal is with me. “Part of it felt like buying swamp land in Florida, or a moon rock. It just wasn’t going to bring any return.” In a way I felt I was looking at someone through a telescope from a great distance, the man who’d tried to kill me shedding the last veil, confiding more than he likely had to any other human. Holed up in the refuge he’d built for a woman who should have been the “Arch-other,” she had so many things going against her, a lot he hadn’t touched on. I don’t know what loosened Meany’s tongue, but for sure he’d never opened up about things not related to real estate since the football locker room. He asked, after letting his batteries charge for a moment, “You plan to marry her?” “That’s up to her, too.” “Need money?” I said, “I start a new job tomorrow.” “Another janitoring job?” “Janitoring of another sort. I get to wear a suit and tie, but I’m cleaning up someone else’s mess.” “What does it pay?” Like a father examining a potential son-in-law. “I forgot to ask,” I said. “Jesus, Gattling, you need a keeper.” “I get the same amount whether I ask or not. I’ve been away from that kind of job long enough I wouldn’t know what to ask for, anyway.” He was a regular Gila Monster. I moved down the bar, past the revolver that was sitting close enough for me to grab, and into the foyer. I pressed the elevator call button. “Want me to bring your lawyer back? It’ll have to be tonight. They’ll follow him in the daytime.” “I could keep you here, if I wanted.” I said, “What would be the point?” The bell rang, I stepped into the elevator, which was lighted, and pressed L. Meany said, “Goodbye, Gattling” as the elevator door closed between us. five It dawned on me, half way down from the penthouse, the overhead lights, their glow stylishly hidden by a false ceiling, hadn’t been on when I rode up. I had time to say, “Oh shit oh dear” three times and I was staring at another pistol, not a compact chrome revolver, a boxy, efficient automatic. I heard a familiar voice say, “Step out with your hands up.” “Detective Bolles.” “Mr. Gattling.” Sergeant Rutledge wouldn’t have sounded so relieved. “Meany’s up there.” “Armed?” “Yes.” He produced a portable radio from his windbreaker pocket and called for backup. He pushed the elevator’s stop button and the alarm went off. “Goddam,” he muttered under his breath. “Is there another way in?” he yelled over the alarm. “Stairs. But the door at the top is locked.” “What’s his frame of mind?” Bolles asked. “Not good.” “Can you be more specific?” “Let me go up with you. I’m more afraid he’s going to shoot himself than you or me.” “V.M. Meany? Not likely.” That denial lodged in my subconscious along with images of the Titanic going down. A police cruiser pulled into the parking lot, lights flashing but siren silent. Bolles told the officer the situation and asked me to take him around to the stairs. When I got back I told Bolles the man was in place. He took a deep breath and released the stop button. The silence was deafening. “Stay here.” Bolles was never going to be a Jim Rutledge, and probably Rutledge would still be a sergeant when Bolles made lieutenant. In a moment the alarm went off again, this time at the penthouse level. Another police cruiser arrived. I told the officer what was going on and explained the elevator to him, but before he could travel up it, the alarm stopped and the elevator started down. “Dead,” Bolles said. The look on the second officer’s face was like a man watching a baseball leave the bat heading for the center field fence. “Sorry, Gattling, I have to hold you for questioning.” “I’m supposed to start my new job in a few hours.” “Sorry. Would you go with this officer? I’ll join you when we’ve secured the crime scene.” The officer placed me in the back seat of the vehicle and apologized for the plastic seat. He said nothing else, but informed dispatch that he was bringing in a witness. “I didn’t witness anything but an old man pointing a gun at me.” He didn’t respond. We reached the police station and he came around and opened the door. “Please step this way.” We went through two sets of doors, past the front desk, where the officer accompanying me asked which interview room was available. Sergeant Rutledge came out of his office as we started towards Interview Room 1 and said, “I’ll take over, Bendix.” He was in his shirt sleeves, tie askew, braces showing. He guided me into his office and I sat opposite him. He moved two stacks of papers so that I could talk to him without craning. “I thought I’d made a clean getaway to Berkeley.” Rutledge said, “No such luck. I just talked to Bolles. He may be there all night. One of the county criminalists is out sick and they’ve had another homicide and a drug overdose. Must be a full moon.” “Meany and I had a conversation man-to-man. I guess I didn’t pick up on the clues.” “I’m going to do a by-the-book interview in a minute, but before we adjourn to an interview room, give me your impressions.” “He and I had a couple of drinks together. He had more than a couple, I had two. I left him sitting at the bar. He’d set the gun down, talked about stopping me from going, but didn’t. He shot himself after I left’” “That’s part of the interview. What did you and he have to talk about?” I told him the gist of the conversation. “It gets me,” Rutledge said, shaking his head, “the guy rubbed elbows with movie stars and Nobel Prize winners, he can’t handle being smitten.” I reiterated his remark about either using or pushing aside. “With movie stars and Nobel Prize winners he was figuring out how to use them. He was analyzing and plotting. He couldn’t do that with Mary Clare. Even after she shot him.” ***** After the formal interview, which interjected logical questions that don’t account for intuition or feelings—who-what-where-when-why, opportunity-means-motive an officer dropped me off at my car parked at the high school. We didn’t talk on the way over, but at least I got to sit in the front, next to the twelve gauge that was not so sleek as Jake’s, in fact, ugly as a dead rattlesnake. I was perfectly happy not to talk, I’d talked more than I cared to, but I was talking inside, grimacing at notions such as Great Accountant in the Sky and Divine Accident, dyspeptic at the thought of a simple-pretty. A moose a bear a real estate developer of the fourth kind . . . dead. If the cop hadn’t been there, if there hadn’t been chatter on the radio, I might have cried, not for Meany per se, just for the fucking wonder of humans—divine, devilish, moral giants and immoral midgets, oh my. On the way back to Berkeley, my old-new hometown, traffic on Highway 24 was practically non-existent. A fool with a set of horns on his car that played the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth tootling from one end of the Caldecott Tunnel to the other and if I’d had a Sherman tank I’d have aimed my cannon at him and blown him to kingdom come. Not only was Berkeley Square closed, so were all the liquor stores in the world. I badly wanted a drink, but I had a meeting with Howie Manheimer at eight-thirty and with the staff I’d inherited as soon as Howie and I were finished. It was better I didn’t; I wasn’t sure I would have stopped. Instead of a drink I took a shower. It didn’t make me sleepy, but I felt shut of some of life’s uglier truths and that was like a glass of warm milk. I wished Mary Clare were there. I didn’t want her body, I wanted her simply not to hate me for not having had the insight to guess Moose Meany would use that pistol on himself. “Why, you big, ugly sonofabitch? Why’d you have to saddle me with another corpse? I swear, if anyone else in my life dies around me, I’m going to—“ There was nothing I could do but pound the pillow and cry. six Crying and pounding the pillow: the reactions of a very self-centered man. You would think, from those reactions, that Meany had shot himself just to kick my guilt up a notch. For a different viewpoint, I offer the words of Jake Pritchett, who didn’t stop being Jake because he was laid low by a bullet. From the Jake tapes: Mac the bartender is Robert’s common man. Mac runs a serious bar: no juke box, no liar’s dice. You drink, and if you’re lucky enough to be a person of Mac’s liking, you might borrow his ear. Even so, if Robert could have transported Meany, Old Fashioned and all, to Berkeley Square, Mac wouldn’t have caught on. I can hear Mac saying, “Oh yeah, that happens: guy completely in control all his life comes apart at the seams over a dame.” That’s only one part of the story, Mac. You might have guys who discover after sixty—a little late by most standards—they love to dress up in spiked heels and pantyhose, or they like curly-haired boys, you never met a guy who waited until sixty to fall in love, period. Some people learn to tango at sixty. Others, afraid of water all their lives, learn to swim at sixty. Lifelong junkies have been known to lay off the shit at sixty. At sixty, no one comes back from losing a Mary Clare. I see Robert, reaching his truck, saying to himself, “Thank God I’m Robert Gattling.” He’s driving back to Berkeley in the dark of night and from a passing car comes the sound of the Beatles singing “When I’m Sixty-four.” He wants to rewrite the words, something about how love keeps slipping into the future until it circles the globe and comes up behind you to launch a sneak attack. It happened to Meany. What you feel for a person right now isn’t love, it’s either falling in love or falling out of it. And then one day you look back on love, like happiness, and say, “I guess I really loved her.” Meany had. The morning Mary Clare was supposed to arrive but hadn’t, Robert came to the hospital to report to me on Meany’s demise but golden Theresa waved him off. So he joined the Monday morning crush of commuters on Highway 24 and made it to the Claremont and had to use the valet parking because he hadn’t asked Howie Manheimer where ABAG employees park. He sleep-walked through the meeting with Howie and the later one with a couple of demoralized employees whom he could only promise to come back and talk with at length. They loaded him up with whatever they thought might be helpful, orienting him to the project, and he told them to start creating the matrices for the tables that ought to be the appendix to a final report. He told them the only mistake they could make was trying not to make mistakes. If he hadn’t been a consummate bureaucrat he would have made things worse, but I believe Robert was a good enough bureaucrat to instill hope without promising the project would finally bear fruit. Then he went back to the Pelican and tried to make up for the sleep lost over Meany’s death. He woke with a sleep hangover, made “courtesy coffee” on the little cooker hung on the bathroom wall, the little pot taking forever to boil two cups of water but unable to boil just one, because one cup was too light to depress the built-in safety switch. Hung over, too, from the meeting with Meany and its aftermath. Like a powerful play or a movie that haunts you, he would think of Meany and shudder. If it could happen to Meany . . . if what could happen? Breakdown of clear reasoning? Nowhere to run to? All the power drained—shorted out—and nowhere to recharge? He wasn’t trying to absolve Meany. The Great Accountant in the Sky would say that his antics since Mary Clare shot him outweighed the good he’d done in rescuing her. He just didn’t want to look at Meany for what he’d become, a circus bear, declawed, muzzled and chained to a stake in the ground. Mary Clare had told him, among the interminable conversations in Moraga, about Meany’s childhood, how his fool of a father had died stupidly in the last battle of World War I, drowning in the River Meuse because he’d never learned to swim. He left his son only material things, and those inherited, not earned. His only true bequest was an early weaning—that and the opportunity to be raised by a stern, shrewd grandfather. Meany never reviled his father, he made up for him—by never doing a foolish thing until Mary Clare. He grew up the antithesis of his father, wiser, sterner and far more remote. A man like that would rather die than admit he was a fool. That was the piece Mac would miss, not a common case of flipping over a dame. The Meany sitting in the dark in the penthouse with his slap-dash Old Fashioned would never come back, because he had no place to come back to. When Sergeant Rutledge came to visit me in the hospital, he confided something which he did not tell either Robert or Mary Clare. He said that Meany had laid down on her bed with her mink coat pulled over him, and shot himself using two thicknesses of the coat as a silencer. “He turned the silk lining outwards,” Rutledge told me, “but the place still stunk of burnt hair.” ***** Thank God Bolles didn’t let me go up to the penthouse with him. I saw my mother dead in her casket in church and ever after associated death with the smell of incense and candle wax. I saw the drifter, Ralph Delano Renwick, dead in that Washoe County arroyo and associate death with the smell of unwashed bodies and sagebrush. I don’t know how many times in life I might smell burnt mink, but it’s one less smell I have to associate with death. The Simple-Pretty one What ended my wallowing in self pity was the thought of telling Mary Clare her protector had opted out. She and I had entirely different attitudes towards Meany. I saw him as a man who’d let his past due compassion blind him to what was best for his ward. She saw him as a haven from the storms of life, evoking gratitude. After he attacked me and she had to shoot him, she erected a mole across the harbor entrance, and he became the sullen sea outside. She didn’t come back as planned and her delayed arrival gave me contrary feelings: fear that she wasn’t really coming back at all; relief because the longer she stayed away the longer I didn’t have to tell her about Meany. I had no way of contacting her; she knew to call the Pritchetts, but I wasn’t there and maybe they weren’t answering. Finally she called as I was awaiting a call-back from the airline concerning her flight delay. “You must not have listened to the news. There was a bomb scare at O’Hare and they didn’t land any airplanes for four hours. So I didn’t get out of Boston until nine last night. And of course I missed my connection. I tried to phone you but no one was answering at the Pritchetts’ and I didn’t know where else to call. —So how’s Jake?” I told her what I knew. I told her about my exit to Berkeley and the Pelican Motel. “Then I did correctly hear what the man said who answered the phone.” There was a long pause. She said, “Tell me what it is, Bobby. Something’s wrong; I can hear it in your voice.” “Tell you when you get here, darling.” “If you’re calling me darling it must be something between us.” I said, “Never. I’ll come get you.” Turns out I didn’t have to. The airline, to make up for the delay, popped for a ride across the Bay on the helicopter shuttle. When I heard the rap on the door I opened it to an understandably bedraggled Mary Clare. Tossing her bags behind me, I took her in my arms and kissed her and kissed her again. “You came back.” “This is where you are, Bobby. —Now tell me.” “I bought some scotch—Ballantine’s. How about a drink?” She grabbed me. I didn’t want to tell her but she wasn’t going to be put off. “Tell me. Is Meany going to sue me or something?” “Meany’s dead.” Her mouth fell open. She sucked in air. She said, barely audibly, “Did the police shoot him?” I shook my head. “He shot himself.” “When?” She sat on the end of the bed. “Last night. Let me get some ice and I’ll fix us drinks. Then I’ll tell you the whole story.” When I finished she looked at me, waiting for more. I shrugged and she wept. “God, his poor wife, his poor daughters.” She lay across my lap. I petted her. It felt good to have contact with her. I was more human, having another person touching me. She said, straightening up, “I still can’t get over it. Jake and now Vatche.” “Did you really call him Vatche?” “I called him ‘Sugar’ sometimes. He’d give me one of his rare smiles when I called him that.” She sipped her drink. I said, “Tell me about Brandeis.” “They were nice as hell. I cried when I told them why I had to go back so soon and the dean gave me a hug and said she’d talk to Berkeley and make everything right. —I need to sleep some, Bobby. Wake me up while there’s time to eat. I’m hungry but I’m sad and I can’t process any more. Sleep.” two At ten o’clock she hadn’t even moved, so I walked up the street to a hot dog joint and got two plain dogs and two Polish sausage dogs with everything on them. When I got back Mary Clare was wearing the blue Oxford cloth shirt I was supposed to wear to work the next day. She smiled at my choice of edibles. “You’re so sweet.” “That’s twice in one evening you’ve said that to me. You’ll spoil me.” She said, “Damned right I will,” and broke down again. I had said, the day she came down and commandeered my bathtub and drank my beer, “We have to have a serious conversation.” But she knew more about timing than I did. Gloriously naked in my tub, she had the upper hand and had no trouble putting me off. “Some other time,” she said. Meany dead, Jake shot up, now she was ready for the serious conversation. “We’ll talk,” I said, “but after the hotdogs and whisky.” She suddenly lunged at me, pinned me against the bed with beleaguering kisses, hand planted on my chest. “I love you,” she said, breath sleepy-sour on my nose, then jumped up, wearing my shirt over her skimpy underwear, the custom-fitted bra and panties her father had been buying her every six months since she had a figure. “Come back,” I said. “We have all night,” she said. “Talking might spoil it.” She said, “If it does, you’ll wonder why you ever wanted me in the first place,” rummaging through her carry-on for a pair of brown cords and a matching jersey and sandals—Boston clothes. She brushed her teeth, smiling at me in the mirror. The sleep, evidently, had revived her. She sat in the uncomfortable motel chair and bit into one of the Polish sausage dogs. Her hair was a rat’s nest and it looked perfect. “Where are we going to live?” “I’m glad you asked. —Are you going to want the other Polish dog?” “No. —Where, Bobby?” “So, a guy Howie knows who teaches biostatistics in the School of Public Health, his name is Abe Melnik, has this Maybeck cottage in his back yard, only he didn’t know it was a Maybeck—” “—And Maybeck is who?” I said, “You’re not from around here, I can tell.” “He’s a famous architect?” “Not on the scale of Louis Sullivan, but he’s well respected in Berkeley.” She said, “So he didn’t know it was a Maybeck—” “—And he was going to tear it down, because it looked like it was about to fall down, but he had a housewarming party and fifteen Berkeleyans said they’d shoot him if he tore it down, so he resurrected it.” “Is it cute?” “I haven’t seen it, but it’s a Maybeck. Howie has arranged for us to see it at our convenience.” “How did you get mixed up with all these Jews?” I said, “How did I get mixed up with a Jewish princess?” She had a mouth full of food and couldn’t remonstrate with me, so she poked me in the arm and glowered. “Jake called you that. He said that was why you and Amanda didn’t get along, she being a Southern belle.” “I will take this up with the ACLU. Although definitely cute, you are clearly anti-Semitic.” “Oh yeah, me and Abe Melnik and Howie Manheimer.” “Well then, you’re a bunch of male chauvinist pigs.” “Howie says the place is plenty tiny. Sleeping is in a loft. No washer and dryer.” “Is there a Mrs. Melnik?” “Howie says she’s a slightly younger, slightly slimmer, Golda Meir.” “Oy veh.” She patted her mouth with the paper napkin from the take-out bag. She said, “I called Mrs. Meany while you were gone.” I gave her my bug-eyed look. “You know the fairy tale about the magic tinder box?” “The pertinence of which is?” She said, “Your eyes just got big as saucers.” “What did you and she talk about?” I asked. “I told her I was mailing her the pink slip to the Jag, she could have the jewelry and anything else of value from the penthouse.” “And what did she say?” “She invited me to the funeral. She understands about tying up loose ends.” “Jesus! Did she say anything about me?” “She did not invite you to the funeral.” “Thank God. Are you going?” She said, “I declined the invitation. I am really through with that part of my life.” I saw that. She was wiped out when she came through the door, and now she was back in command of her life. She poured us both another scotch and told me about school, rehearsing what she was going to tell her parole officer the following Monday. Assuming the Brandeis dean was as good as her word, she would enroll as a special student at Berkeley for the fall semester, audit something in sociology, maybe Tilsit’s seminar on total societies. she would likewise sign up for a Mandarin laboratory. “So,” she said, finished with her itinerary, “tell me about your project.” “I figure my predecessor failed because he didn’t know the University. The University wanted to co-opt ABAG and legitimize its picture of the future as the only one worth considering.” She said, “Didn’t you help invent the University’s future—doctor-wise?” “How quick of you. That’s what they’ll say, too. Sure, I invented part of it, though everything I did has Stu Katz’s name on it. I just conjured up the numbers. But the game’s changing. Irvine graduated its first M.D. in June.” She was sitting cross-legged on the bed. She said, “Is there a shortage of doctors in the Bay Area?” “I doubt it.” “Your guess.” I said, “My guess? My guess is there’s a glut of doctors, just like any place in the country that’s got a San Francisco Bay smack in the middle of it, maybe the two best medical schools in the country, and a climate that any Texan or Hoosier would die for. There are too many specialists of every kind and too few generalists. The problem is, the docs aren’t distributed the way the population is.” “Bobby,” she said, quite out of context, “I’ve got nothing to hide from you, you want to hear my life history it’s pretty shitty stuff, all the way back to about age two and a half, which is the earliest I can remember hearing my dad screwing my mother at night. You want to know my history, it’s the usual JAP bullshit with a heavy veneer of sex. You can take notes if you want, keep score, but I’ve got nothing to hide from you, and if that’s what you want . . .” I said, “Where did this come from?” “Because you’re hiding something from me. I really want to talk about the changes inside me, I want to tell you about the woman who’s leaving the damsel in distress behind, how there’s no dragon, no knight, no castle, that’s all bullshit. But that woman’s getting farther and farther away from you.” I said, palms beginning to sweat, “If we were to retire to Berkeley Square, I might, after a few serious drinks, tell you my life history, too.” “I love you, Bobby, what are you afraid of?” There were several urgent replies on the tip of my tongue, all of which my brain filtered out as trite, melodramatic, self-pitying: ‘Falling through space,’ ‘walking the edge of the abyss and having it crumble.’ I almost said, ‘If I could name it I wouldn’t be afraid of it.’ Instead I said, ‘You never told me how you got involved with Meany.” “But Jake told you.” “It’s not the same,” I said. “My getting involved with Vatche is not the same as throwing over a career, ending a marriage, holing up in the WASP nest of the Bay Area, pushing a broom.” “Because it wasn’t a penthouse?” “Vatche was up from where I was—way, way up. Do you want to know where I was? Do you really? I was twenty-five, strung out on booze, speed, coke, and cannabis in all their forms, I was fat and out of shape, getting fucked every which way you can imagine by a couple of randy bi’s, the cold cut in a human sandwich. I had my Grape-Nuts in brandy every morning, a toke while I sat on the pot. I’d do anything to stay high till I passed out at night. “I felt worthless and ashamed enough to die—and most likely would have if Vatche hadn’t come along. That’s all past. I’m still ashamed but not worthless, and I will learn to forget the shame. “But I’m afraid I’m going to leave you in the dust, Bobby. I won’t mean to, but I will.” I said, “So is this the prelude to a kiss-off?” She said, “You dumb schmuck, I’m not setting you up, I’m talking truth. I love you.” While she was talking she took up my hand and shook it. “I don’t know what it is, there’s this kind of grace in you, if you ever got it together. Not a job, or money in the bank—fuck that—if you ever got happy and liked yourself. I know it sounds like a lot of Psych 1A bilge water, but I don’t know the right words. Where you’re at is worse than playing on the edge of incest, worse than cowering in a penthouse. I could live with the Bobby McGee side of you, nothing left to lose, except I can see the other side, too, the one that wants to redeem himself by doing great deeds.” “Got me all figured out, have you.” “No I haven’t, I haven’t got you half figured out. And I’ll wait a long time until you figure yourself out.” “So gimme a clue, my wise friend, how’d you change so fast?” She looked past me for half a minute and then turned narrowed eyes on me.“I shot a man,” she said I winced like a box turtle poked with a stick. three By the time Jake got out of intensive care, I was into the ABAG project in a big way. Mary Clare was visiting Jake almost daily, after the hospital’s big morning fuss was over, sitting with him and talking, I assume, about everything but his health status. I wasn’t jealous. Though Jake was more charming and articulate than I, I was comfortable that he wasn’t beating my time, he was explicating me better than I could myself. ***** Here is what I gleaned from his tapes on the effect her shooting Meany had. That answer—“I shot a man”—may have been an intuitive thrust through the arras, trying to dispatch Robert’s inner Polonius, but it was also pat. It showed her lack of experience (to be sure, she was very experienced in many ways, but not in all ways). It was what a cocksure teenager would say. She was calling the head of the nail the answer and forgetting the point and the shaft. And the hammer. It wasn’t just shooting Meany, dear Mary Clare, it was having something worth taking a chance for, liberation not just due to a snap shot, but everything, starting with your trip down the back stairs with your bath towel and Camus. But face it, dear lady, this rescuing the beloved from mayhem or worse, while noble, can only be explained the way any heroic act is: I had no choice, there was nothing else I could do. (Which, by the way, is the oft-repeated explanation of heroes who run into burning buildings or leap into the frigid waters to rescue the flailing child.) But given Robert’s state of mind, saying “I shot a man” was the sweat lodge cure for what ailed him, the cure-or-kill approach. That’s our world, all of us bound by the glue of muzzle velocity and killing power. Bullets bullets bullets. Charles Manson convicted. Lt. Calley convicted. Attica Prison stormed. Weep for the dead, bandage the wounded. Lift your head, square your shoulders, look your own assassinations in the eye. Go forward. “Maybe I don’t deserve your love. I might never change, you know.” Words of his she related: the hot dog conversation. Then he changed the subject: “You never said anything about Suzanne Arnold, how your interview went.” “Ah,” she said, “now there’s someone who’d never expect you to change. You want to live with someone who’d worship the ground you walk on, just the way you are, you should take up with Ms. Arnold.” ***** That was the truly strange part of the hot dog conversation, as Jake refers to it. One minute she’s challenging me to change, the next she’s pointing out that I don’t have to. Is that true love, or is that the “old” Mary Clare, the Mary Clare of a few weeks ago, rising to the surface? When I gave her an incredulous stare she shrugged and rolled her eyes. “All I know is, the woman’s voice got husky when she talked about you.” Picking a stray piece of relish off her jersey. “And she’s not half bad, you know. But she knows I’d rip your cock off if you ever touched her, so forget it.” I started to get up to wash my hands. She grabbed my arm and held on until I sat down again. “I love you, Bobby, and I don’t want to wake up someday and find you’ve gone away.” I said, “I doubt we can do better than the best I’ve known, and everybody wakes up someday and it isn’t there anymore. I don’t want to be a Dante worshipping his deified Beatrice. I’d rather cope with real things.” That was that. She said, as if we’d never had this me-and-thee conversation, “Is there enough room in this Maybeck doll house for two desks?” “I’ve been thinking about that,” I said. “I could ask Abe if we can build desks under the window, ones that fold down when they’re not being used, with a gate leg, you know?” “When I study I spread out all over, you’ll never have a chance to fold it down.” “We’ll have to be very Japanese,” I said. Clare said, “I have a hard enough time being Jewish. —How will we get away from each other?” “I’ve been thinking about that,” I said. “That has to do with being Japanese, too, because, first, we have to agree where away is. Then we get one of those thingamajigs that fold three ways—hassock, chair, bed—know what I mean? It would live downstairs, with a comforter, somebody wants to get away can sleep down there.” She threw herself across me and said, “Downstairs? Thingamajig? I have got to see this place.” The bell had rung before the count of ten. ***** The next day was Saturday. I called ahead and we drove out Shattuck Avenue past Live Oak Park and turned into the Melnik’s driveway. I found the key under the mat and let us in. Mary Clare said, “Is that the penthouse up there?” and climbed the staircase-sans-rails—almost a ladder—and yelled down, “We’d be idiots not to take it.” After we’d talked a while about where things would go, Abe and his wife came over, followed by a child, young enough to be either an afterthought or an adoptee, who was followed by a Siamese cat. After we exchanged introductions, Abe said, “I hope neither of you is allergic to cats. He used to sleep out here before we fixed it up, and it’s hard to keep him out.” Clare bent down and petted the cat, who responded to her. “What’s his name?” “Just Melnik Cat.” “Well,” she said, “just as long as Melnik Cat doesn’t sharpen his claws on the Louis Quatorze love seat.” She saw the Melniks took her seriously, so she said, “Just kidding. I sold the Louis Quatorze love seat in Boston. We have to buy furniture, and it won’t be anything Melnik Cat can’t claw.” Robert hadn’t seen her like this before, a socially adept Clare with a winning smile and a hand on her hip, almost cute. Mrs. Melnik took her in and went over the place item by item, an informal inventory, and Dr. Melnik took me out to the yard, which was full of trees, including a fig tree that was bearing. I examined the figs on the closest branch, many nearly ripe, the others green. Abe said, “Tell me about this project you’re doing.” I told him about the project and a minimum about why I was taking it over. He in turn told me about being a bean counter in the Army and about the classes he taught at the School of Public Health. Could I use a graduate student or two on the project? “Gee, I don’t know. Give me a few days to figure that out. —Were there this many figs last year?” “There were so many we couldn’t eat them all.” I said, “You have to prune fig trees or they won’t bear. Figs grow on new wood.” We talked about what to do with excess figs—besides giving them to Mary Clare and me. It got Abe off the doctor-counting project. Mrs. Melnik went back in their house and I took the opportunity to ask her husband, everyone being so chummy, if he’d have any objections to my parking my truck in back. He didn’t. We finally got away. Clare said, as we drove down Milvia, “You better learn to be firm with that woman, Bobby, or she’ll be counting the polka-dots on your boxers.” four One day, visiting Jake after work, I realized the man actually thought. He was a thinker. This is a wonderment for someone like me, who thinks only when forced to. I don’t mean solving problems; that engages your brain too. For instance, it occurred to me that a means of saving money on a project where a lot of the grant had already been squandered, was to contract for services when we needed them rather than hiring full time staff. There was this great big resource two miles away, the University of California, possessing mainframe computers, key punch operators and programmers out the kazoo, and they were happy to sell their services. My two trusty data analysts and I were free to do the stuff that took more intimacy with the statistics than technical skills—how to hit upon the best averages of population usage—how many times tots under five see a doctor per year, for example—and productivity—how many patient visits the average pediatrician can conduct in a year. Imagine me perplexed when, opening the patio door to enter Jake’s room, he greeted me with, “It’s time to get down to business, laddie” (‘laddie’ was a new sobriquet). “You can’t keep doing this technical crap for the rest of your life.” I said, “What business? This technical crap is my business.” “But does is sing to your soul? Were you to die tomorrow, would what you’re doing in the ABAG catacombs today be what you want to be remembered for?” “Shit, Jake, I’m just back from exile. I’ve started my daring co-optation of the university. I’ve created an advisory committee—on paper, anyway—which is going to be the gunstock tomahawk with which I beat the pinfeathers off Stu Katz.” “Does Stu Katz know about this deadly weapon?” I smiled. “He’s going to sit on the committee.” “And do you think he really gives a shit about whether there are enough pediatricians in Sonoma County? That’s not my point. I’ve been lying here thinking about the simple-pretty. I now know what it is. And it’s not counting doctors. Tomorrow the sun will rise and the sun will set and the sun doesn’t give a flare or a spot whether Jimmy Jones of Healdsburg gets his tonsillitis diagnosed by a generalist or a specialist.” I said, “Okay, you’ve got to tell me. I thought all the time the simple-pretty was just a joke—a metaphor or a myth, like a left-handed widget or a snipe hunt.” “You mean, like a Divine Accident. No, different people may have different definitions of the phenomenon. Mine may be the same as the definition of sainthood.” I looked at him and tried to understand whether he was fucking with me or not. I’d been looking at him from the time he was shot, and he hadn’t been barbered since. His beard showed a great deal of white and it made him look much older. And, too, he’d lost weight, and the age lines in his face were more pronounced. “Can you give me a hint?” I said. “Creativity is the universal hint. In your particular case, the hint is Mary Clare.” His eyes twinkled, which was gratifying to see, for it was not mockery; he was not fucking with me. ***** Here we must consult the tape recordings for an explanation: What I was talking about, invoking the simple-pretty again, had come to me in the early morning, before anyone had to wake me to measure my vital signs and administer such goodies as stool softeners and laxatives. Besides your dignity, you are robbed of great stretches of uncluttered time in the hospital, but, as you are in bed, it is very easy to doze between assaults on your dignity. Which makes it easy to wake up at, say, four in the morning with nothing to do but think. It struck me, then, the day before I sprung it on Robert, that if there were something in this world that I could pronounce a simple-pretty, it would be leading a creative life while also creating in the sense of writing or composing or playing a Bach cello suite in Carnegie Hall. That runs counter to the common myth that, to create at the highest level, you must suffer. This simple-pretty, creating while also leading a creative life, seemed to me to be attainable. But, I decided, as the first nurse appeared that day, you ought to start early enough in life. You aren’t going to be a concert pianist or violinist starting at forty-five, not even starting at sixteen. But you could, possibly, lead a creative life. And what was that, you ask? Jake Pritchett, even if nothing more goes wrong with his cardiovascular system, may not have enough time left to figure that out. But it’s worth a try. And as I am a fairly articulate fellow who’s spent more time reading and writing than watching television, I may even turn out something literary and readable. Chances are I won’t, but there have been persons older than I who have. I can’t tell Robert, “Do as I say, not as I’ve done up till now.” He has a big brother to toss that malarkey at him. But I can keep warning him that he made it as far as that arroyo in Nevada without an error that could be attributed to him because he kept expecting to succeed again and again. But he forgot his own past, how the academic world changed around him, a revolution started, and his bosses, having no better solution, pressed him into fighting fires, the antithesis of creativity. He developed an abiding nausea, discovering that, not only was his time wasted, the whole system of higher education in California was too. He was used to bopping along saying, “Okay, what’s next?” and after 1964 he stopped being a success in his own eyes. He had a dim yearning for something more tangible and productive and responsive to his feelings and needs. Instead of taking the opportunity to find out what mattered in life, Robert allowed himself to be diverted. ***** To tell you the truth, Jake, it didn’t start with the Free Speech Movement. Women and booze were around early in my life; I stumbled into sex the way I stumbled into grants management. The girls at the beach summers, proving they were desirable. The woman who always walked into the anthropology lecture ten seconds after the professor took the podium, turning every male head as she crossed to her seat. In a sense Lana Hill was a diversion. I stumbled upon her the day she was leaving the employ of the University, and she was just too juicy to let go after one meeting. The future I envisioned with her had details only in the foreground: we would travel through Mexico, down to the Guatemalan border on the west coast, across the Isthmus of Tehuántepec and either go to Villa Hermosa and on to Merida and Cancún, or, if time ran short, up the east coast to Vera Cruz and inland to Oaxaca, Mexico City and Guadalajara. Back in Berkeley we would buy a house and start making babies. That is as far as the details went. Otherwise, I was going to adopt a new attitude towards bureaucracy, lay back and let the shit roll off me, no more incipient ulcer: let the fucking students take over all the parks they wanted, let the FBI make all the files they wanted, fuck the Blue Meanies, too. When the fuss and fury died down, I would try to remember anything I knew about medical education and biomedical research. This was not in any way a simple-pretty. Then I bought this grown-up toy which, not through any criminal intent, blew up in my face—or rather in the unsuspecting face of a sap in a grubby blue mackinaw. I tried many times to tell myself it was the moral equivalent of a man buying a motor home he really didn’t need only to drive it off a cliff the first night of his annual vacation. Problem was, it blew up in Lana’s face, too. Lana had been married once before. She left her first husband to deal blackjack in Reno because, as she blew out the twenty-eight candles on her birthday cake, she broke down and wailed, “I’m twenty-eight years old and I’ve never done anything in my life.” Fate had me waylaying her as she exited the University on her way to making up for an adulthood of placidity. I was to be part of her simple-pretty. Her simple-pretty was called “starting over again.” In a way, that’s what I was doing. I was being a bureaucrat again, but through that regrettable pulling of the trigger, I had shed the label of young hotshot. Was I about to bec0me a caricature of myself? ***** Woke up one day in Berkeley again. Mary Clare and I had laid tatamis all over the sleeping loft, bought furniture that would fit in it, including a bed consisting of an oversized hunk of foam rubber. We were both pleased with the details, the problems of tininess and modest budget solved in creative ways. Woke up with the sun coming up in the south. Our bed faced the opposite way mine had in La Morinda though only ninety degrees different from Clare’s. She said the whole problem with her life was she hadn’t had her bed facing the right way since she was thirteen. In the peak of the roof was a little window, directly over our sleeping heads, the sun shining through, which meant it was time I had to jump up and shower, etc., and get to work at an hour I was used to sleeping. We’d moved in among the usual confusion—(“Where are we going to keep the spices, darling?”)—tired but not too tired to consecrate the new home by making love so passionately I lost myself in a way I never had before. She wasn’t used to arising at this hour either, but I came out of the shower to the smells of bacon frying and coffee perking. “You’re supposed to be in bed,” I said. “I’m supposed to cook your breakfast, man.” “Are you going to be fucking domestic?” She said, bustling around in this cute shorty robe that barely covered her ass, “As long as it suits the inner woman.” “What about when you’re crotch deep in seminar papers?” “Oh well, then,” she said, “I’ll let you make my breakfast.” “I will, too,” I said, and kissed her as many places as I could while she bustled around the tiny cooking area we soon called ‘the galley,’ catching my kisses on the fly. five I learned a few things during my time away from bureaucracy. It was like the time I was away from boxing, recovering from a hyperflexed CMC joint in my thumb: my first day back in the gym I stepped into the ring to spar with a guy who should have handled me easily—more experience, fifteen pounds heavier. Instead, I handled him. What I’d learned about using the ring, and footwork, and counter-punching, had come together in a new way. An Assistant Vice-President would label the change a “synthesis.” Likewise, back in the bureaucratic environment, I realized I’d synthesized some lessons. I didn’t have to test Howie Manheimer, I didn’t make a federal project out of everything, I kept the proper balance of humor and distance with my staff. By ten o’clock each morning I was up to my knees in counting doctors, by five I was up to my armpits. —Welcome back, I told myself at the end of the first week. It didn’t take long to discover the essential dilemma of the project: my predecessor had been too polite (or masochistic) to scream when he discovered himself between a rock and a hard place. The rock was a University that was opening new medical schools and not about to tell the world they might not be needed, the hard place was a council of governments trying, as always, to make itself relevant—possibly even needed—by doing nifty studies while not rocking the boat. Of course they told my predecessor to be absolutely true and faithful to the facts (an ABAG core principal) without rocking anything. I didn’t think Howie expected me to be likewise constrained—I’d played tennis the same cutthroat way he did. To steepen my learning curve, I made phone calls to former colleagues I thought might still be friends. Many were; I got tips on data sources and also tips on analysis, such as the reminder from my ox-browed friend, Carl Bollinger, that what you put around the perimeter of a matrix is as important as what fills the cells. The calls took time. Many persons had wondered if I were dead or moved to Oregon, and I had to sketch out the history of my hegira. Many had let the incident in Nevada fade from their memories. I also learned, talking to the University Chancellor’s secretary, the lady who had introduced me to Lana, that the project was born when some loose Federal money tempted ABAG’s CEO, who in turned lured the University Chancellor into sharing the bounty, suckered into thinking good works were important to his employer’s public image. Those calls to friends were a warm-up. As soon as I felt immersed in the Berkeley landscape, I called my old boss, Stu Katz, Vice President for Medical Education. I couldn’t tell, from the way he spoke to me, whether or not the righteousness that prompted him to throw me to the wolves had dissipated with time. I was concentrating too hard on sounding in control, while in reality my heart was thumping like Gene Krupa’s tom-toms. “We need to talk, Stu,” I said. Dr. Katz said, “I’ve heard about that project; what do you think we’d have to talk about?” “Well, there’s a dilemma inherent in this project—an iatrogenic dilemma, to use a fancy doctor word—but I’m not going to make the mistake my predecessor did, and make this exclusively my dilemma. It’s yours, too.” Stu Katz sighed and asked when I’d like to meet. We met that week, Dr. Katz maintaining a resigned indulgence throughout our conversation, letting me know by his body language he didn’t believe for a moment the project had any pertinence in his world, especially since ABAG was its sponsor. He had taken to tapping the temples of his glasses against his incisors, a tic designed to irritate. Finally I said, “Let’s not beat around the bush, doctor. I know why the University’s had second thoughts about this project. California will never hurt for doctors, so the University’s blueprint for graduating MDs has more to do with academic values than population need. Persons more tuned-in than the Chancellor wanted to know why the University would lend legitimacy to something that might give ammunition to legislative opponents. I appreciate that. I also appreciate how immoral it would be, knowing the difference between academic need and population need, to let the folks up in Sacramento continue making decisions without appreciating the difference.” Katz, speaking slowly, picking his words carefully, said, “Just how are you going to convince anyone there’s a difference?” “I don’t have to. I publish a creditable report and when someone needs a basis for cutting the budget sometime, they’ll figure out how to sell it real fast.” “When push comes to shove,” Katz said speaking this time with assurance, “it’ll be who you know.” I said, “Well, I don’t exactly have carnal knowledge of him, but I think I might have enough insight into our present governor to know how to turn him on.” Katz said, “Just make sure that you can boil your report down to a two page précis. I hear that’s all he can absorb on one subject.” When Clare and I took a break from our respective homework that evening, I replayed my Katz conversation. She said, “Is that his last word on the subject?” “It wasn’t mine,” I said. “I reminded him he was author of a study showing that all the determinants of where doctors practice point to their coming to California in droves—at least until the Great Earthquake shakes Parnassus Heights. They’ll come from Omaha and Chapel Hill, and they’ll come from Poona and Karachi as well.” “You think you’ve got him?” she asked. “I’m not as smug as all that.” “But just a little smug,” she said, smiling indulgently. “The real question,” I said, “is what I’m going to do after I shut down this project.” “Shut it down? Why don’t you just finish it?” I said, “Cause, the way it’s set up, it’s a fool’s errand. I am a bit of a fool, but I’m not a great big fool.” “But if you tweaked the way it was set up and it produced a draw with Dr. Katz, you’d be my hero.” “I’d also be meretricious.” “That’s an awfully big word for a bureaucrat. And if that’s how you feel, why don’t you get on with the real business, like Jake says.” ‘The real business’ shut me up. There it was again, evidence that people talked about me when I wasn’t around. A little later she added, “You score a moral victory over Stu Katz and end up a janitor the rest of your life, that would be worse than meretricious.” I looked at her for a moment but couldn’t come up with a rejoinder. So I thanked her for the insight and went back to my homework. ***** The next Saturday, quite early in the morning, I answered the phone to hear Jake’s voice sounding strong and a little excited. I was not excited, I was sleepy. I’d been dreaming about a beautiful black cat. Jake called just when I was going to learn the relationship of the black cat to an orange and white kitten who came yowling into my subconscious. “You’re not to win,” Jake said. “Can’t?” I said, trying to make sense of his declaration. “Mustn’t.” “Why not?” He said, “Come in and see me as soon as I comb all the medical care folk out of my hair.” I showered and, though not originally planning to, shaved, but put on Levi’s and scruffy moccasins and a convict gray tee shirt that read Caution on the front and San Quentin Alumnus across the back. I walked into Jake’s room saying, “I assume you mean the fight with the University—why shouldn’t I win?” “Why do you want to?” Jake asked. I sensed he was no longer being loaded up on narcotics. Graying, craggy, an aging terrier ready to jump the bear. “Two reasons, at least. The first, exoneration.” “Naw,” he said, “you really want to beat Stu Katz. Don’t bother; it’s bad business.” “You’re talking Japanese,” I said. “On purpose. I’m about to suggest trying Aikido.” I ran that through my onboard computer. “You mean,” I said, “like anticipating the increased flow of foreign-trained physicians into California?” “Better,” Jake said. “Kick it upstairs. Make it a given that medical education is a national concern, not a California concern. Certainly not exclusively a University problem.” Mary Clare had listened to this last, having come in from the corridor after visiting the bathroom. She looked from one of us to the other, both smiling, and said, “Supply and demand. You partition them, so that you’re only talking about demand, the University’s only interested in supply. The escape from between the rock and the hard place is insisting the two are separate issue.” I said, “I’m making potato salad for ten. I need three pounds of potatoes. I don’t give a damn if they come from Safeway or Lucky Stores. I don’t care if either retailer had a warehouse full of rotting potatoes, as long as I get mine.” Clare said, “You sound like you’re John Wayne, and you got the repeating rifles just in time.” I said, “I want red potatoes. I also need celery and mayonnaise. And in terms of doctors, I might want to specify how many generalists are needed in the North Bay as opposed to the East Bay or the Peninsula. But I’m not going to say whether the University ought to graduate ten or ten thousand MDs. That is a huge bag of worms. I don’t know how many out-of-state enrollees go back to Newark or Portland and how many settle in California. I don’t know where the physicians practicing in Daly City came from. I don’t give a damn.” Mary Clare said, “Then you’ve got the problem whipped.” Jake said, “He’s got the repeating rifles, now he needs some cartridges.” It occurred to me at that point that the analogy was not apt for the hospital room of a guy with a gunshot wound. I changed the subject abruptly. “Jake, when are they going to let you out of here?” “As a matter of fact, laddie, I’m going home first thing Monday.” “Bitching,” I said. I realized Mary Clare might not know that term from my high school days. “‘Fantastic’ is a rough translation,” I said. “Is Amanda going to let us visit you?” she asked. Jake said, “It’s my house, too. My name’s on the deed.” “Bitching,” said Mary Clare. six I cajoled Howie Manheimer into meeting with me early Monday mornings. Howie was enough of a bureaucrat to dig the idea of starting the week with an eight-thirty meeting. So the next Monday we met and I asked him if the project had some kind of advisory committee. “Nominally, ABAG’s research committee,” he said. “How many folks on this research committee?” “Too many,” he said, pulling open a desk drawer and leafing through a well-thumbed file. “Seventeen.” “Shit. I need an advisory committee.” “Are you nuts?” I said, “Not if I want to co-opt some folks.” “Listen. You haven’t even told me if this thing is going to fly.” I said, “It will fly if I don’t have to explain to ABAG’s research committee how it will fly before I’ve co-opted these folks.” Howie said, “Who are the folks you have to co-opt?” “Just the deans of the medical schools from Palo Alto to Sacramento.” Howie pulled his glasses down his nose and stared at me. “You think, because my predecessor couldn’t find the men’s room, I can’t get my fly unzipped?” I asked. “I never said that.” “Let me tell you,” I said, and did. I told him about the illogic of positing a supply of physicians in an area as small as the Bay Area. “And what has that got to do with an advisory committee?” “First off—and incidentally—I’m pretty sure it will give me access to some data about physician productivity. More importantly, I’m going to get them off on a methodological nicety which will keep them licking their chops for a while. And then, when I hand them the final report, which will not say a word about how many physicians they will need to graduate, but which will clearly say that somewhere, beyond the blue horizon, someone has to set a goal; when I give them the report, some may feel impinged upon by this verity, but they will nonetheless have to sign off on it.” Howie’s eyes darted up and to the right while he digested this. “How can you lose?” Howie said at last. “I can lose right up front. If they won’t be my advisory committee I cannot co-opt them. They must not smell a rat. Rather, it must seem like a privilege, or at least an important duty.” Howie said, “How many people can I let in on this?” “Your wife; pillow talk.” “What do you want me to do?” I said, “Get our president to call their presidents or chancellors or whatever and have them pass the word down to cooperate.” He shook his head. “When you start the talk at the top of the food chain, what you do is, you alert everyone that there’s a rat to smell. I’ll have the chairman of our research committee call the deans and ask them to sit as a committee.” “They won’t do it,” I said. “Of course they won’t,” Howie said, “you’ll get an associate dean or an assistant dean or somebody like that. And we’ll need a couple of consumers.” “Consumers?” “I mean a mayor or county supervisor who sits on our research committee. And get hep: consumerism is the coming thing.” “I’ll keep that in mind,” I said, cocking an eyebrow at him. On the way to see Jake at home that evening, I explained all this to Mary Clare. When I was through she pointed to our right, going along the freeway, at the last wave of managers and technicians from San Francisco, in their summer suits, carrying their leather briefcases, disgorging from the BART train under the bright lights of the Orinda station. If you squinted, they looked like denizens of an Edward Hopper painting. She said, “How many of those would understand what you’ve just told me?” “Who knows?” I told her about my dad, who, after going broke in the supermarket business and ending up a grocery clerk, battled back to being a Federal bureaucrat and left for work every morning in his suit and tie, wearing one of his three fedoras, carrying his briefcase. In the winter he left before the sun was up, to come home after the sun was down, and my appreciation for what he did worked up from our needing money to eat to the awareness that different dads had different jobs. “Then one day I asked him what he did, and he told me the mission of his employer, the Department of Labor, and I could have, by age ten, given you the employment bulletin description of his job. But I still never knew what he did. “You know what?” I concluded. “What?” I said, “I just figured out what my father did.” “What’s that?” she asked. “He read the law and the regulations and correspondence with the companies he was auditing, he talked to his boss about sticky wickets, and he had staff meetings. Hopefully he had a friend or two to help him work through dilemmas, and then he tried to turn words into a reality more than just words. That’s what my father did.” Clare said, “Isn’t that funny. I’ve known what my father did ever since I plunked down the first dime for the first candy bar.” “Your problem is, mi mujer, you grew up after candy bars started costing a dime.” We rehashed some of this with Jake, but we spent more of our time talking about Mary Clare getting a sponsor, someone enthusiastic about snooping around China in a grand way, who would then become her enthusiastic proponent. When we finally got around to the job again it finally came out, so simply that Mary Clare and Jake wondered where it had been lurking all this time—what I really wanted (Jake said it) was redemption. “You want Stu Katz to swallow his personal prejudice and deal with you only as a competent, ethical human being. Forget it; that’s a separate battle.” Clare added, “Of course it is. Bobby can lose it by screwing up the project, but he can’t win it by doing a good job.” I couldn’t keep from smiling when she said this. I looked over at Jake, who was bobbing his head up and down slowly, as if to say, ‘Listen to the lady; she’s talking sense.’ He said, “She’s saying to let go, laddie. Let someone else swing the axe that fells the righteous. Give up any thought but predicting the need for doctors. If you do that, a whole lot of persons who’ve secretly missed you since you dropped out will come around, asking where you’ve been.” Amanda, who had been conspicuously absent the whole time we chatted, stuck her head in and said hello. It was actually a signal that we’d best depart—for the good of the patient. Before we left, Clare wanted advice on her curriculum vitae: how to label the hiatus of three years in her education. So far, at Berkeley, she’d been talking to academics, and it hadn’t come up, but one of these days she’d have to talk to administrators, and they would want to know. “Tell them it’s none of their business,” Jake said. She said, “Oh yeah. Whose business is it when I file an application for admission? Officially, I flunked out of Brandeis’s graduate school, you know.” “Then deal with what to do about the F’s, like get them turned into incompletes; just don’t get off on you.” She had a promise from the dean at Brandeis which so far had not been translated into any transaction that was reported to Mary Clare. Jake said, “They put your back to the wall, turn ‘em, like a boxer in a corner. Make the administrators at Brandeis your wedge by intimating they took you back too soon after the traumatic end of your marriage.” She said, “Good point; I never thought of that.” Jake said, “I have lots of time to think these days, which is why I did.” ***** New job (old nemesis), new abode with new cohabitant (i.e., main squeeze), new best friend I almost got killed: a lot going on inside me. I took off work a couple of hours to take said new best friend to be checked out by the medicos after a week home: an injection of a dye-contrast solution and a CT scan to check for leaks. “Like checking for leaky grease seals or manifold gaskets,” I said, cheerily. “Pretty much,” Jake said. I mentioned I thought my recent stay in the hospital was a lark compared to his. “Bushwa,” he said. “Everyone they get in their clutches gets their dignity violated. The only difference is, you were a lot more certain of being discharged alive.” “That’s not such an insignificant difference, Jake; it’s no joke.” “Was I joking?” “I’ve thought a lot about this, Jake. I worried.” “Listen,” Jake said, “different folks have different ways of jumping off the merry-go-round. Mine was a little dramatic, I admit.” “I’d have done anything to keep you from being shot; anything.” He snickered. “There is something I’d like you to do for me.” “Anything.” “I want you to really go through my stuff at work.” “What am I looking for?” I asked. “Letters.” “Letters?” He said, “I’ve been seeing someone. She likely won’t, but Amanda has every right to go through my desk. After all, she’s paying my bills these days. I don’t regret what I’m doing, I just don’t want to be a bastard about it.” Somehow it was like discovering your father is cheating on your mother. I didn’t know what to say. Jake said, “Don’t look so pained. I recall you slept with a married woman—or was it two or three?” “I’m not judging, Jake, I’m getting used to the idea. I probably would too, if I were married to Amanda.” He said, “The lady’s name is Beatrice.” “For real?” “For real: Beatrice Hennessey. She was a nun before I met her.” “Jesus.” “Her most volatile oath. Get her letters. Put them somewhere safe. Burn them if I should die.” I said, turning off the freeway, “She knows about your being shot.” “She visited me in the hospital.” “You live dangerously,” I said. “When you feel the hand of death on your shoulder, laddie, you tend to live without reprieve.” “This ain’t no Hemingway novel, Jake. Don’t you die on me.” “Hey, I will not go around being careful what I say in front of you. We all gotta die; it’s no big deal.” “It is a damn big deal. You’ve become my conscience. I need you.” His words left me numb. As I pulled up to the patient entrance I said, “How about I hang on to the letters and give them to Beatrice if she wants them—should that be necessary.” He said, “That would be a beholden kindness.” “If you’re beholden to me, then, goddamit, don’t die on me. There’ll be no way to pay me back.” Jake said, “You know, the Buddhists might be right. I might come back.” The Not-So-Simple-Pretty one After checking him for leaks, they wouldn’t let Jake go home right away. Because there was, indeed, a leak, a rather troublesome one. An hour’s visit stretched into two. The chief of surgery joined the post-exam parley. Amanda entered a half hour through, to come out fifteen minutes later, stone-faced. “They want to go back into my chest, but they don’t think I’m up to it just yet.” Jake also looked stone-faced—not resigned, exactly, and not depressed, exactly. When I asked if he had a choice in the matter, he shot me a look as if the choices were firing squad or gas chamber. We were in traffic on Highway 24, traffic mysteriously thickened before commute time. Jake closed his eyes. He didn’t speak for more than a minute. “I am in the hands of the gods, my friend. Leaking can lead to clots. Avoiding clots can lead to anemia, not the best condition for recuperating from another major operation. They wanted to put me back in the hospital. Instead they’ve paroled me to Amanda.” “How could this happen?” I asked. “Remember, repairing the aneurism was a decision made on the fly. If they were doing it electively, they’d have done a whole lot of testing before they operated. Even so, it could be something as simple as I’m allergic to the suture material they selected. Simple, yes, but they didn’t have the luxury of time to deliberate. The aneurism was big enough there was a fifty-fifty chance it would rupture within a year, meaning tomorrow or next January.” I didn’t know what to say. I wanted to urge Jake to fight on, fight for his life. But this was far removed from a fight in which grit and a sense of humor could win out over impending disaster in his chest. The grim look on Jake’s face invested mine as well. It was as though the gods whose hands he was in were smirking at me behind the clouds. As I tried to absorb an ultimate rock-slash-hard place dilemma I had slowed down (I was driving Jake’s car) and a big-rig’s air horn on my back bumper jolted me back into the world of autos and drivers. I sped up in time to glide off the freeway at the Orinda exit. “What does Amanda think?” I asked. “Other than offering to keep me in line until I’m cleared for surgery, she’s staying out of it.” When I grunted he said, “Put yourself in her place, laddie—I’m not just another patient.” “Sounds like she has an idea of the risk—do you?” “I doubt there’s a lot in the literature to date—the procedure they used to repair the aneurism is fairly new. Right now I’m not inclined to run off to the library.” I asked, “What do your organs tell you?” “They tell me to be afraid.” “Are you leaking enough the blood’s likely to squeeze something it’s not supposed to?” He said, “Just the aorta itself.” “Shit.” We were at his house by this time. “Could it possibly self-correct?” “About the same chance as cancer spontaneously remitting. And it could suddenly get worse, too. —I’m going to have one more drink tonight, before I have to give up booze for the duration. You care to join me?” “Wish I could,” I said, “but I’ve got to get back.” Getting back? A lie. Fear made me leave, and fear made me obsess. I couldn’t think of anything but Jake dying. Instead of going home, I drove to La Morinda, to find Beatrice Hennessey’s letters. It was doing something, a tiny something, for Jake. It was my first time on Bobwhite Court since my final meeting with Meany. On first glance the offices looked unchanged. The new construction smell was gone from Homer Smith’s former office, the new paint blended with the old, you’d never know staid La Morinda had had its own little terrorist incident right in there. What was different, the signage on Meany’s office was bigger, calling itself VMM Enterprises, Robert Meany, President. A logo had been added, a moose’s head. It was a sign to fool those who never knew the old man into thinking the son was a competent successor. I smiled, having once tried to fool the old man with a sign myself. Meryl had changed, too—a tad slimmer, wearing what secretaries wear in the executive offices of Kaiser Steel or Sears Roebuck. Not showing provocative flesh, she was an old picture in a new frame. “I thought I might see you at the funeral,” she said. “I felt I might be persona non grata,” I said. “That hasn’t stopped you in the past.” And she was right: that wouldn’t have stopped me were I not so involved in the death, weren’t the last person to see Meany alive. I let that remark go with a shrug. I told her why I had dropped in. She said, “You still have your keys and we haven’t had time to change the locks.” I handed her the keys and invited her, with a gesture, to let me into Jake’s office. As she opened the door she said, “It’s all yours. —By the way, how is he?” “Mending,” I lied, trying not to give anything away with my face. “Does he blame Mr. Meany for his shooting?” “He never lost his grip on reality, Meryl.” “I think my boss got the worse end of the deal.” “Deal? There was no deal, Meryl.” I wanted to slap her silly, or grab her by the shoulders and shake her till her teeth rattled. At home that evening I poured myself a premixed martini from a jug in the freezer. I told Mary Clare about the turn of events. She said, “Are you worried Jake might die?” looking up from a learned journal. “Of course.” I explained how he wasn’t physically strong enough to be operated on but he could die if they didn’t operate soon. “Sounds more likely he won’t survive if he doesn’t have the operation.” I slugged down the martini and poured another. Mary Clare went back to reading. “Sure, just go back to your journal.” This time she lay the journal aside and looked me in the eye, brows narrowing in a frown. “I’m not stewing about things that haven’t happened yet. I can’t do that and go on living—I don’t have the emotional energy. I’ve got just enough of that to handle going back to school and having a life with you.” “That’s fine,” I said, “that’s good.” Remembering how Lana refused to admit, even to me, she’d been in any way involved in killing the drifter. But that wasn’t it, either. It was Mary Clare doing what I couldn’t, seeing death from God’s point of view, Sergeant Rutledge’s mere bagatelle. But if a friend’s mortality was something you could simply pass off, what was there worth sweating in this world? Should I have just shrugged when she shot Meany? Should I have said ‘so what?’ when Meany’s hired gun cut loose on Jake? Is that what our world was teaching us? Evers Kennedy Malcolm X King Kennedy. Jake on his tape remarks that I thought Mary Clare was being casual about his condition. She wasn’t. She was watching black clouds of pain and depression descending to envelop me. “Don’t close me out,” she said, rising and catching hold of my wrist. “Never mind,” I said, breaking her grip. “Is it a sin my emotions aren’t the same as yours?” “No,” I said, not able to look her in the eye. “Let’s drop it.” I went to the fridge and poured out more martini. “I can’t drop it, Bobby. I can’t stand it when you shut me out.” In a conversation about the Nevada drifter’s death, Jake had warned me that not telling Mary Clare about it might have consequences, and now I knew he was right. I was panicking about Jake’s possible demise and she didn’t understand the etiology of guilt as it relates to the dead. She didn’t know to what I hooked that possible demise. And if I told her now, it would seem contrived. “Bobby, Jake isn’t dead.” two Behind the ice cold mercy of vermouth-tinged gin, a suspicion lurked: Mary Clare was reconsidering. In the strip mall of my mind was a shop called Paranoia, and in the shop window hung a sign: “She’s moved in with a madman.” She was getting less consideration than my ghosts, whoever they might be. They were all tied together and I was scared shitless. Psycho scared; very unpleasant to be around. I would tell myself to snap out of it and the thought of facing my ghosts head-on sent me back to the bottle. It was all poppycock, of course, but there’s nothing like fear to dunk you in a load of poppycock. Mary Clare had managed to collect from the detective agency’s insurer for the biguglyBuick crushing her Triumph. They paid her enough to replace it with an MG Midget, which had a shorter wheel base and smaller engine than the Nash Metropolitan, the subcompact of the Fifties. I cautioned her to make sure the rubber band was wound tight before she drove it. One day, not long after learning that things were not well in Jake’s chest, I came home from work to find she and her Midget had ventured out into the world. A note on the fridge asked me to start dinner and she ‘d see me when she’d see me. She’d got a call from Jake: he was back in the hospital. They had inserted a drain between the outer walls of the aneurism and the graft they’d stitched through it. They were transfusing blood and supplementing his diet intravenously, getting him ready to go back in and repair the leaking graft. There was no more leeway—it was now or never. From Jake’s memoir on tape, it was clear he was going to keep adding to the record even when he was feeling like a rat shaken by a terrier. He had something to say about Mary Clare’s visit that day. ***** From Jake’s taped record: Clare and I had become, in one way, better friends than Robert and I. There would never be the synonymy of backgrounds that made Robert and I “brothers under the skin,” but on the other hand, I didn’t have to dodge any ghosts, as I did with Robert. When she came to see me she was clearly unsettled by the recent spate of his ghost-wrestling. “What is it, Jake?” she asked me. “It’s as if I haven’t felt sufficiently guilty about shooting Meany—no, not my shooting him, about Meany shooting himself. I’m supposed to beat my breast over that. What’s he so scared of, Jake?” “Isn’t it obvious?” I asked, testing to see if he’d told her about the incident up the Washoe County arroyo. She didn’t bite but she wouldn’t be brushed off. She sat by my bed, looking into my eyes, not letting me off the hook. I squirmed until I couldn’t stand the awful, stony judgment of those eyes. “There’s more, Clare, but I’m not the one to tell you.” “Jesus,” she said. “How can I cope with what I don’t know?” I said, “Like the terror that sent you down to his place in the middle of the night not so long ago?” “I could explain that now, if you wanted to hear it.” “My only point is, Robert didn’t ask you the size and shape of your ghost, he took you in.” “He told you about that?” she said. “He tells me lots of things, none idly. And they’re his things, not yours, not anyone else’s.” She exhaled with a deep sigh. She rose and kissed me on the cheek and said, “Thanks for reminding me.” So she waited while Robert went about the business of finding out what his business was in this world, and incidentally wrestling data into statistics, creating an advisory committee, rereading everything about physicians he’d found pertinent in his old job as Assistant Vice President. ***** She came back after dark, the Midget’s little four-banger making that trademark sound like a loose tailpipe bracket. I was walking about in the backyard, on my third martini, the Melniks’ outdoor lights, on motion sensors, tracking my every step. I was crying, and if you’d asked me why, I couldn’t have given you a precise reason. I just didn’t want Clare to see it. But the lights caught a glistening on my cheek and she came up and wiped it away. I turned away from her. “Don’t be ashamed, Bobby.” “I’m sorry to burden you, but this is my only home, you’re my family now.” She held me while I sobbed against her shoulder. She made cooing sounds. At last I said, not looking at her, “I spent years trying what the Peaceniks advocate, unilateral disarmament. Only Death doesn’t play fair.” “Which death, Bobby? Did you love someone once who died young?” I shook my head. “I didn’t love him, and he didn’t just up and die, either. I blew his brains out.” She waited for more, not asking, trying patience, afraid of the terrible words I’d used, not sure if I were speaking literally: hit man, CIA assassin, member of a firing squad? I took her hand, the tears suspended, and led her into our doll house. She said, trying to reconnect with me, “Well, at least it couldn’t be like Jake.” “No, it wasn’t like Jake. In Jake’s case I didn’t pull the trigger.” “No, no: you miss my point. Jake’s wounding set him free. He’s gotten right with the Universe at last, and that’s not chopped chicken liver.” “Yeah, a lot of good liberation does you if you aren’t around to enjoy it.” “Bobby, you don’t measure the value of a life in years.” And gradually, by discussing Jake, we got beyond the near collision with the truth I wasn’t ready to share. Jake, she contended, had been a captain on the bridge of a sinking ship, wearing the flimsy life jacket of a half-written novel. The gunshot wound in the chest, she argued, had absolved him of the moral obligation of staying on the bridge while the ship sank. I suggested that, having found his Beatrice, he might have found salvation another way. “But of course that doesn’t solve the problem of Amanda.” Clare said, “That’s only if you cast Amanda as a problem. What if she’s only an element in the creation of a whole new life?” I gave out with one of those shuddering sighs people sigh after crying. She’d somehow talked me past the ghosts—at least for the moment. “Just think,” she said. “If you had to pick the moment of your death, could it be better than finding enlightenment and love in the same year?” I said, “I’ve found the love part, anyway.” “That you have, laddie,” she said, and I laughed at her calling me ‘laddie.’ three More from Jake’s tapes: I tried to explain why I loved Beatrice; Mary Clare tried to explain why she loved Robert. Both of us said it was something inside the loved one that comes shining through, something not shared by the rest of our species. That’s the best we could come up with. We concluded that love isn’t explained, it just is. So we left it at that. I wasn’t able to tell her what Robert had confided to me. Indeed, I didn’t know all of his back story. A man nearly dead from misunderstood intentions, I had my point of view. I hadn’t, until Clare came to see me, put myself in Robert’s place, a man who’d almost lost a friend because of an unnecessary lark that ended in a misunderstood gesture. I thought I knew a lot, knowing about the desert intruder, but I hadn’t added to it the impact of Moose Meany’s suicide, the destruction of an indestructible totem, exemplar of the most evolved species of real estate developer. It hadn’t dawned on me what was dawning on Robert-the-Phenomenologist: maybe there was a pattern in the Universe, maybe these events weren’t random, maybe he was the link, a mini-Angel of Death, the Samael of Berkeley. I’d read Crime and Punishment as an undergraduate and remember being moved with a sense of belonging, belonging to those who knew. Knew what? Knew Ginsberg’s “Howl” to be, somehow, the funeral dirge for 1950’s innocence. Knew why Hazel Motes, in Wise Blood, blinded himself and walked about with barbed wire wrapped around him. Funny, for me guilt was not as big a plague as shame. Guilt is attached to the heinous act; shame is getting caught in the act—others knowing. In a book that was big in my generation, that was called being “other-directed.” Robert—bad luck—was inner-directed and that tapeworm-like sentiment, guilt, chewed away at his innards. If only he’d remained a Catholic and was able to take that guilt to the confessional. Or, possibly better suited to his temperament, grown up in New Mexico in the heyday of Los Penitentes and spent Lent lashing himself. Robert slogged on, in his new role as janitor-cum-out-basket. Clare, meanwhile, eased herself back into Berkeley, defying the fear of running into Sandro or his playmate. And more, she bravely negotiated Telegraph Avenue between Sather Gate and the Mediterraneum, ready to meet the dealers from whom she’d bought coke and hash, finding, gratefully, none was there. They were, like bad dreams, banished from the new day in her life. When bravery seemed too easy, she actually tried to track down Sandro Tate, preferring an intentional confrontation to an unexpected one. He, too, was gone: back East once more? Japan? across the Bay in San Francisco? He wasn’t in Berkeley. She took to jogging the perimeter of the football practice field, liked watching the big, sweating animals go through their paces, the grunts and the clash of pads. She talked informally with the Director of Admissions about why the dean at Brandeis hadn’t yet come through for her. She was advised to be patient, nothing in the realm of changing official academic records came about quickly. She learned to be ingratiating without seeking out coattails to hide behind. She reported to her probation officer on schedule. She would not make it into graduate school this fall, but she had permission from the Chairman of the Sociology Department to audit one seminar and from the Chairman of the Department of Far Eastern Languages to use the language laboratory on a space-available basis. She wasn’t officially a scholar but she was a scholar in fact. It fit her. She was living proof that you could be beautiful and a scholar at once. Robert told me that, of an evening, he would glance up from his work and meet her eyes, to discover the granite look of someone whose brain works in ways not all of ours do, able not only to worry a problem but to solve it, a cross between a computer and an oracle. He didn’t for a moment begrudge her her brainpower. ***** Before he was shot, advancing age had transformed Jake into a solid middleweight. In the hospital a second time, he was back down to junior welterweight. He let his whiskers grow out past the unkempt to a carefully trimmed beard not unlike Sigmund Freud’s in the portrait on the cover of TIME, though with the white broken by large black parentheses framing his chin. He resembled Freud superficially. The big difference was in the eyes. There are no pictures of Freud with eyes as benevolent as Jake’s. While Mary Clare thought it was “cute,” Amanda thought the beard was a terrible addition. It was the most visible sign of change since he’d been shot, seeming to grow whiter daily, and there had been too much change in their world already to suit Amanda. He told me, the second time I visited him while he was waiting for the second operation, the beard was a pledge. “No more dallying to satisfy what others’ expect of me. I’m through with bureaucracy and with bureaucrats. Let them find their own simple-pretties.” “What if you suddenly need to bring in an income? What if you have to be the breadwinner?” “You mean if Amanda croaks before I do? Or runs off to South America with an orthopod and leaves the kids behind? I’d sell the house. Moraga has gained in cachet since we bought; I could live on the equity for many a year. And believe me, Amanda will not croak first—unless she gets run over by a garbage truck.” “The kids need a home,” I said. “Were I a single parent, I might take the kids down to Costa Rica, live off the interest.” “Would you?” He said, “That would depend.” He told me about Costa Rica. He and Amanda went there after she finished her residency. The kids were pre-school age. He said, “They spend more on education in Costa Rica than on infrastructure. Adults are expected to vote, and if you don’t, they consider you, legally, an infant. You can’t enter into a contract, including marriage. The voter turnout is astronomical, compared to ours; the literacy rate is higher than the United States. I took the kids there, they’d be well educated and they’d see how a democracy is really supposed to run.” “I’d miss you,” I said. “I’d miss you, too. You could come down and see me while Mary Clare was gallivanting around China.” He got a faraway look in his eye when he said that. As if it was not something likely to happen. A pipe dream. four I soon had reason to miss Mary Clare for real. Her language lab was ad lib, her sociology seminar met on Wednesdays, so she decided to take off on the next Thursday to visit her parents. “It’s a fact: you’re a masochist.” “No,” she said, “I’ve faced up to Vatche, I faced up to Sandro and his pal, I marched down Telegraph, ready to stare down the dope peddlers. Now I’m going to my parents’ and I’m going to drag my dad over the coals and maybe my mom, too. I may kick him in the nuts while I’m at it.” “Could you wait?” I asked. “For . . . ?” “Till Jake has his operation.” She looked off to the horizon. “Tell me when it is.” I broached the subject with Jake, being careful not to imply there was anything remotely as important. That morning Jake had had a briefing by his doctor, who drew him a diagram that looked like something out of Econ 1A, charting supply and demand. Only in the case of Jake’s insides, the lines showed the deterioration of the shunt/aorta connection and Jake’s vitality. The two lines intersected at a point after which the likelihood of survival went down sharply. “That translate into a date?” I asked. This talk of supply and demand, which I’d bandied in talking about doctors, didn’t sound so good in describing Jake’s chances. “Now.” He said. “Now?” “They want to reschedule electives to make a slot for me in the OR tomorrow.” “Aw Jake.” He said, “Only I’m not going to have a fluke of surgery which is no one’s fault run my life. Jane’s twelfth birthday is Saturday and I plan to attend.” I hesitated a minute while my emotions debated my judgment. This birthday celebration: good for Jake’s soul, bad for his body. Good for the kids—maybe the last time they’d interact with him—bad for Jake. Bad for Amanda, who would foot the bill if this was self-destructive pigheadedness. Bad for me. Please, God, I said in my head, even though I had no truck with a providential God, please keep him alive. To Jake I said, “Two things—if you don’t mind a suggestion.” “Shoot,” he said. “Have the birthday celebration tomorrow, and have it in your hospital room. Cake and ice cream, balloons, presents, the works. They can reschedule an elective for the day after. I volunteer to help set it up. I also volunteer my sweetie.” “I don’t know . . .” “Jake, if the hospital won’t allow it, I’ll use the administrator and your doctor as punching bags.” “Not my doctor, that wouldn’t do my chances of survival much good.” I said, “I’ll ask Amanda to charm them.” “You suppose she would?” I said, “She better, or I’ll use her as a punching bag.” I called up the discharge planner who had worked me up. She happened to be a psychiatric social worker by training, with a voice like Marlene Dietrich. I told her that Jake was clinging to his humanity, he would try harder to survive if he could celebrate his daughter’s birthday. I got a hitch in my voice as I talked to her. “Hey, fella, where’s the Golden Gloves contender?” I said, “He’s a cream puff. All goo inside.” She said, “Just for you, I will work my charms on his surgeon, who has a letch for me—I have the bruises on my fanny to prove it. If necessary, I will grab his ass and promise favors he has never received from an OR nurse.” “Doctors don’t do such things, do they?” She said, “Especially surgeons. Some come out of the OR randy as all heck.” I went in before they locked the patio doors and saw Jake. There was not one but two nurses standing in the doorway chatting with him. When they drifted away I said, “Who do you want at the shindig tomorrow?” He said, “Can you pick me up something for Jane?” “Sure. Maybe a locket?” “Yeah. —So, I naturally want you and Mary Clare, I want Bienvenida, the kids. Oh, and Jim Rutledge, if he’ll come. Tell him no gifts, just come in and eat some cake.” I told him of Mary Clare’s plan to go down and beard her father. “She mentioned that. She’s a world beater, ain’t she.” “She’s doing Zev a favor, giving him an opportunity. But he probably won’t see it that way.” “From what she’s said, he makes me look like not such a bad father.” “And you still have time to go from not so bad to really good.” He smiled and didn’t say anything. “Well, you do.” “I’m in the quintessential twelve step program, laddie: one day at a time.” He raised his hand and let it drop. “I’ll really be sorry if I can’t be around to goad you into creating the simple-pretty, but I gotta tell you, these last few days, I feel as if I’ve been staring Death right in the face. He’s not all that scary, Robert. You just have to let go.” “Don’t, Jake.” “Robert—I almost called you son: isn’t that funny?—Robert, I’m not going to pussy-foot around you because you’re trying like hell to avoid peeking under Death’s hood. You want to pretend you don’t know him when you know him better than most. You want to pretend he doesn’t exist until he creeps up behind you someday and sandbags you while you’re not looking. Won’t work. You’ve already seen his face and so have I—from different perspectives, admittedly.” “Don’t, Jake.” “Sorry, laddie. Talk to your old lady, she understands. If it hadn’t been for Meany, she might very well not be here, and she knows it. How do you think she can be making the strides she’s taken? But it started when she looked Death in the eye.” His voice was becoming tinny. He had to clear his throat a couple of times as he lectured me. And he just ran out of steam. He closed his eyes. “I’ll get the ball rolling, Jake. Tomorrow we’ll have a birthday party like they’ve never had in this hospital.” He smiled and nodded, his eyes still closed. I lammed it out of there as fast as I could without running. five I went into Howie’s office and told him I was dithering about Jake and the staff was hard at work but I had to get past the operation on Friday and was not much good until then. “What about your advisory committee meeting on Monday?” “I’m as ready as I can be. I could do it in my sleep.” He said, “The Chancellor’s going to be there, I’ve been informed.” I said, “So’s Stu Katz.” “What’s the most likely way to fuck it up?” I thought for a couple of heartbeats. “Chickening out. That, or Stu really comes after me before I’ve given the committee enough information to counter him.” “Go get ’em, tiger. And give my best to Jake.” Mary Clare had bought the locket for Jake and an angora beret and matching muffler from us. We were getting ready to go to the hospital when she did an unusual thing. She produced a joint and told me to take a couple of hits. “Where’d you get the weed?” “It’s been in the freezer since we moved in.” “I thought you were through with the stuff.” She said, “I am. This is for you. I don’t want you freaking out at the party. Just a couple of hits.” “What if the Melniks . . . ” She said, “They smoke. I’ve smelled it—on him at least.” I lit up and took a couple of lungfuls. Either I had been off it so long it was like smoking the first time, or it was incredibly good stuff. The freezing hadn’t reduced its potency. I said, “I’m lit. Everyone’s gonna know.” “Nah,” she said, “Only I will know.” I handed her the cigarette. She pinched off the end into the sink, put it in with the loose weed, and put it back in the fridge. “I might join you after the party, preparatory to fooling around.” The party went well, except the kids seemed like trained poodles, more intent on pleasing their father than enjoying themselves. Nurses kept dropping in and oohing and aahing over them, especially Jimmy, who held up quite well to all the female gushing. Amanda gave Jane a very grown-up shoulder bag that was of such classic design it went with the French blue hat and scarf. She modeled them all. She was, we could tell, going to be as beautiful as her mother, infused with some warmth from Jake’s genes. We left at a signal from Jake’s nurse, to give the family time to be alone before they were chased out as well. ***** The operation went well. I wasn’t allowed to see Jake the day of the operation so I spent the day priming my crew for the advisory committee meeting on Monday. They were the most enthusiastic I’d seen them since I started. They said what they were doing was now more than just a job. That evening I took Mary Clare to Oakland International Airport to catch the last PSA flight to San Diego. Before we left we shared the last of the joint and made dreamy-silly love. Afterward, still feeling no pain, I told her that this joint was the first drug, other than alcohol, I’d had since a certain event at which cannabis figured most prominently. “You wouldn’t care to tell me about it.” “It might spoil your opinion of me,” I said. “Who says it isn’t already spoiled?” “No one who just made love to me like you did could have a bad opinion of me.” She said, “I bet you tell all the girls that.” “I once smoked a lot of pot and drank a lot of alcohol and shot a man to death.” She blinked a couple of times, but the timbre of her voice didn’t change when she said, “Are you blaming it on the alcohol and pot?” I told her the circumstances. I couldn’t blame buying the gun on either alcohol or pot, that was plain foolishness. “Tell me how it happened.” I told her. I told her I would have waked up when the guy was prying the door open with his sheath knife if I hadn’t been loaded. “Did the police investigate?” “They did.” “Did you go to jail?” I said, “I was fined for not registering the sawed-off shotgun as a collector’s item.” “You didn’t have time, did you?” We were sitting on the edge of the bed, our flanks touching. She was making patterns in the hair on my thigh. “I have to get dressed,” she said. “Mind if I shower first?” We showered together, and continued the conversation. I kept wondering if it was the marijuana that had loosened my tongue. “Turn around and I’ll wash your back,” I said. While she had her back to me I told her how freaked out I was, the man’s face and neck peppered with holes, the blood and the brain matter. “Do I really need to hear about that? You didn’t mean to kill the man. Or maybe you did and you had justification.” I said, “The sheriff and the coroner thought I was justified. I didn’t.” I told her my best scenario for his trying to break in when I was in possession of my faculties. I would have turned on the light and stuck the shotgun in his face. He would have backed down. “And that’s why this has been such a big deal in your life?” She turned around and stood practically nose to nose with me, the water sending suds down her back and swirling into the drain. “It is a big deal. If I hadn’t been stupid on beer and marijuana, I would have been ready for him.” “And suppose he grabbed the gun so fast he yanked it out of your hands? Or suppose he would have been just as happy to die? I happen to know, because one of my boy friends was a detective, that most people who break into places that are occupied—they call them hot burglars or something like that—are ultimate risk junkies. The risk of getting shot is part of the thrill, and they’re the most dangerous thieves in the world. —Are you through?” “Talking?” She said, “Showering.” As we toweled dry she said, “I assumed this big deal was you’d raped a mentally retarded teenager, or you put a rock on the railroad track and derailed a passenger train, killed dozens. Shit sakes, Bobby, you’ve put yourself and me through hell for shooting a hot burglar? You motherfucker.” And she began hitting me. I grabbed her arms. “Hot burglar.” “Hot prowl burglar I think he said.” I said, “Who was this detective?” “None of your business.” “Am I gonna feel better when the buzz wears off?” I asked. “Am I going to quit being mad at you?” she asked. “Please.” She said, “This didn’t come from your shooting that dude, baby. Go see a shrink and find out what’s really bugging you.” “So, the chances are, I won’t feel better when the buzz wears off.” “Bobby, I believe you run on guilt. You have done the grown-up things you’ve done because the guilt pushes you to be this world-beater, to prove you’re really worthwhile. Someday your guilt is going to rear up and spoil something besides my disposition.” Now she was moving as if her buzz had worn off. “Hurry up and dress, please, or we’ll be late.” I didn’t want her to go. I guess I didn’t want her to be more mature than I, and she definitely was. Half dressed she grabbed me and gave me a kiss that took my breath away. “Do you still love me?” I asked. “I do not recognize your guilt as a legitimate cause not to love you. —Get your shoes on, Lucie, you’re a big girl now.” I looked down and realized I hadn’t put on shoes. I sat down on the bed and laughed. Demise Of The Divine Accident one Saturday. Waking up alone for only the second time since I moved back to Berkeley, thinking of the good things I wanted for Clare, then a huge void opened up inside, there’s no better way to describe it. I felt like the student who’d kept up with all his assignments during the semester and, came Dead Week, had no one to play with. All the grasshoppers were nose-in-books. Restless. The void inside was something to avoid at all costs, the abyss. I went to the dictionary and found very interesting things about the word, avoid, except anything about dealing with the internal variety of the word from which it mysteriously sprang. I climbed into my grubbies, eschewed the razor, hoofed it to the campus and across, the clock in the Campanile announcing nine as I passed beneath the plane trees of Sather Esplanade. I had an espresso and palm leaf at the Mediterraneum, glancing through a Berkeley Barb as I did. Replenished, I crossed the street to purchase, at California Book Co., a top-opening spiral notebook and a brace of ballpoint pens. On a quiet bench in Sproul Plaza I opened the notebook and got as far as writing the date at the top of the page when a woman in tight jeans and over-the-knee high-heeled boots passed by, leading an Irish wolfhound. She was quite tall and slender, like her dog. He was so tall, he would have stood eye to eye with a small boy, and I suddenly found myself wanting both a small boy and a big dog—maybe only a Scottish deerhound—and a backyard big enough for both. On the way to his zenith, the sun began bouncing rays off my notebook, so I moved under a plane tree on the esplanade that filtered the sun for as long as I felt like writing. It was, I recalled, the same bench I sat on as a student, eating lunch and listening to the noon serenade upon the Campanile’s Carillon. Nostalgia cranked open my internal void a millimeter wider. I uncapped a pen and wrote the words, ‘Otherness,’ ‘Squandering,’ ‘Wisdom’ and ‘Death.” I had intended to start my novel—I was convinced, now, it must be a novel—set in the Berkeley of the Free Speech Movement–People’s Park–Blue Meanies–Students for a Democratic Society–era. What the hell did ‘Otherness’ have to do with that? I wrote it in big, fat gothic letters, OTHERNESS, in the center of the page. Beneath I wrote, ‘What it was like to be one of the Others in Berkeley in 1964.’ Actually, I’d been a necessary part of the Free Speech Movement, one of those who pushed back, giving the protesters something to revile, someone to shout epithets at, including “running dog lackey,” which I particularly liked, because they never finished the epithet, so I would finish it for them, with nonsense, like, “Of the Basque Sheepherders of Idaho.” I was infinitely more ‘other’ after I shot Ralph Delano Renwick in the Nevada desert. I didn’t really think of myself as other before then. I was one of Us, us being the University apparatus, the old-timers of Berkeley. I was of the Silent Generation. When my job degenerated into that of playground monitor, I became frustrated with—for me—the wastefulness of that occupation, but also frustrated with being made into one of Them. I remembered—still 1964—a friend picketing an auto dealer in San Francisco, getting arrested. That had to do with ending sanctioned otherness, civil rights and discrimination. It was before they picketed the Democratic Convention in Atlantic City. Same year, same theme. Jesus, how time flies. Tricky Dick was running again, the convention held in Miami. Spiraling Ag-on-new was to be his running mate—Stone Tongue, as Janice Lippert called him. In 1964 Tricky Dick was in disgrace, not only robbed of the presidency by Kennedy four years earlier, but the governorship of California by lovable, bumbling Pat Brown in the meantime. Proves you can’t keep a determined sonofabitch down forever. All I remembered vividly from those times were some anecdotes about student riots, plus a conviction that everything I read about them in the daily press and weekly journals was distorted. No brilliant thesis. Students were like any persons who reminded you that your rights could be stolen if you didn’t exercise them once in a while. The world was full of persons constitutionally able—any way you meant that—to take away your rights, and perfectly willing to try too. However much I admired the students’ spirit, I decried their tactics. I didn’t like how easily radicalized were students not that much better informed than the ones who’d gone on panty raids back in the Fifties. When the University President ordered me to cooperate with the FBI, I insisted they put me at the head of their list of student radicals. I had, I told them, joined SLATE, the first radical student group on campus. Then I turned around and helped them investigate the burning of the ROTC building, and, earlier, Kung Fu Louis, a heavy-duty judoka running around beating up campus cops. Ideology was fine, but I’d had my chestnuts pulled out of the fire by the campus cops more than once. —Not that I liked their tactics much, either. Centered at the top of the next page I wrote, THE WAY IT REALLY WAS, AND MUCH MUCH MORE: reminiscences of a playground monitor of the Sixties. Too cutesy for a title. I stood and headed home for lunch, having, as I trekked, an imaginary conversation with Jake, who was never far from the front of my mind. —How do you get started? I asked him. —Why ask me? he rejoined: ask a published author. —You write damned well. —If putting words down on paper damned well were the overriding criterion, Jake said, Hemingway would be the world’s greatest author and Theodore Dreiser would never have been published. I asked him what ‘otherness’ has to do with the student uprisings of the Sixties. —Their parents, he said, made the students feel like ‘others,’ so the students banded together to prove they weren’t the Others, they were the Us. —So, their Us was bigger than our Us. —Not so, Jake said. They won because they were willing to take the chance of writing new rules. The University kept playing by rules that had been evolving since Aristotle’s time, and one of the rules allowed the faculty to think freely but not the students. When the students pointed out that the faculty hadn’t had any original ideas since graduate school, the faculty—some of them, anyway—felt guilty enough to back the students’ ideas. This made news and the liberal press made the radical students into romantic heroes. —You ought to write my book, Jake. He took my notebook and flipped it open. —‘Otherness,’ ‘Squandering,’ ‘Wisdom’ and ‘Death.’ It’s all there. Your brain is eight years less ossified than mine. —Except I don’t know what the fuck it means. —Don’t worry about it. You have to take a leap, let go of doubt. —But how? —Quit trying to lead a separate life, Robert. You don’t, you’ll end up an eternal vagabond, spiritually and emotionally. Take up Mary Clare. Sure, dabble in other things, especially after she can afford to support you. Take some time off and emulate Graham Greene, write entertainments. Have fun and don’t worry about being published, and you will be. But make Mary Clare your life, because she is a soul sent into this world to further mankind, and she would very neatly fit as your life’s ambition. ***** After lunch I was pensive. I took my notebook along, heading for Peet’s on Vine Street. Balancing the coffee of the gods on my knee, I sat at a tiny table and, after my Four Fundamentals of Smashing Fiction, I wrote: ‘Remorse’ and ‘Grief.’ Jake, the imaginary interlocutor, said, —Do you really want to go there? —Uh, why not? —Might they not be mutually exclusive? —Oh, com’on, Jake, I think I can have remorse while I’m grieving. —Like you felt for the vagabond in the desert. But is it a universal duo? I think not. You bomb peasant farmers from thirty thousand feet and you have remorse: Merry Christmas, Ho Chi Min. You grieve for the fifty thousand dead GIs and the million dead Vietnamese. It’s only when you see the victim expire, hear his death rattle, close his eyes, that you might just combine the two feelings—and remember, they’re just feelings, electrical impulses in your brain. I drank the last of the Guatemalan Antigua and walked up Shattuck Avenue. Where it crossed University Avenue, a great number of people thronged, enough I wondered if there were an event—a protest or a happening. I was just on the verge of naming a new emotion, between remorse and grief, when Johnny, the page from the Phillip Morse ads, slipped through the throng, walked up cheerily in his pillbox hat and white gloves, all the brass buttons on his little chest gleaming, and said, “Call — for — Robert — Gattling!” I rubbed my eyes and shook my head. Saluting, Johnny said, “Call the Pritchett residence, please.” I jumped a mile. Johnny disappeared into the throng. I stood to one side and tried to look around a bevy of cute, happy girls coming towards me. On the southwest corner were two phone booths. When the light changed I sprinted across the street and called the Pritchetts’ number. Nora answered. What was Nora doing there on Saturday? “Bobby?” she said. She never called me Bobby. She pronounced the O like the O in remorse. “What is it, Nora?” “There comes a call from the hospital. about don Jacobo. You better go there. ¡Vete, vete!” “Oh God,” I said. “Yes. I stay with the children and I pray. You go with God, Bobby, before it is too late.” I cradled the receiver and ran. two Sprinting up University and onto the campus, up to the eucalyptus grove with the benches hewed from felled redwoods, I passed a single drummer starting to beat his deep-throated drum, tempered beat, drumming for a proud king dying. Ten beats into the lament, a second drummer, bongos between his knees, added soft grace notes. They stared at me without missing a beat as I turned uphill, crossing Campus Drive. Their music followed me. I went through the grounds of the President’s residence, under the cabled-braced arches of the stone pines’ gigantic boughs, over the wooden foot bridge, Strawberry Creek adding its contrapuntal plash to the disappearing drum beats. At Hearst and Euclid, just beyond North Gate, I ran out of steam, stood with my hands on knees, panting audibly. An old man waiting for the light to change approached me, a hand out, as if ready to catch me if I fell. “What’s the matter, son?” “Nothing.” “You looked so frightened.” “Frightened?” “Frightened,” the man repeated. “A friend . . . hospital . . . afraid he’ll die.” His eyes, so old that white rings had formed inside the rims of his irises, showed both sternness and compassion. He said, “You friend wouldn’t like it if you died too, trying to reach his side.” “Thank you,” I said, but immediately resumed my dash, crossing before the old man could, past the drug store, the Northgate Theater, splitting cadres of coeds, stumbling across Ridge Road, unable to run any more. I remembered as I walked, how, as a child, I came down to breakfast and everyone was sitting around the kitchen table except my mother. Don’t remember who told me she had died. It meant nothing to me. What did I know then about death, except a tiny skull I found in a vacant lot, a rat or a gopher, who knew? “What’s for breakfast?” I asked. I remember nothing of the first half of the drive to the hospital. I may have sped, I don’t remember traffic or weather or the state of the hills’ grasses. A newsreel ran in my head, Jake and Robert, Robert and Mary Clare, Mary Clare and Jake, Meany and Jake and Mary Clare and Robert, a summer’s night with stars falling. Jake and I had been on separate paths that converged. Something grew between us more intimate than brothers, or father and son, a sense of the never-ending things we shared. Not just a matter of me and thee, because there was also I, the subject acting upon the object, which was what me and thee were. And thus . . . and thus there is a sort of triangle in every two person intimacy. Never exclusiveness, which is what Suzanne Arnold wanted more than sex, nothing closer than the points that marked the ends of a bigger line where it had been cut into two shorter ones. I wanted to weep. I could smell myself, the sweat of all the unaccustomed running, and my back hurt, tension and jarring. I ran into persons I knew or had been introduced to, and I made my way to a room in the ICU. Amanda was coming out of the room as I approached. I braced for scalding vituperation; none was left in her. I looked past her into the room just as golden Theresa was pulling the curtain around the bed, and I saw just his face, eyes closed, jaw slack. Amanda put a hand on my chest and stopped me from going in. “I want to see him.” “You will see him.” She unexpectedly took me by the arm and led me away, into a quiet room, the room where doctors tell families a loved one hasn’t made it. “Before he died he said, ‘I’ve called off the truce, Mandy.’ He begged me to make up with you.” “Did he say anything else?” She said, “He whispered the words of a spiritual I didn’t know he knew. He said ‘My latest sun is sinkin' fast.’ And just at the end he squeezed my hand ever so slightly and said, ‘I hear the sound of wings.’” “I don’t know that song,” I said, but it brought tears anyway. “I’m going to have someone sing it at his memorial service.” “He wasn’t a religious man,” I said, trying to put everything together in my head. “I suspect it was an echo from his childhood, when his religion was whatever his parents’ was. —How did you know to come?” “Remember Phillip Morris cigarettes? Remember the page boy, Johnny?” “Yes.” “He found me on a street corner in Berkeley.” “I don’t understand,” Amanda said. “He came up to me—I know it’s pure nonsense, but he came up to me and told me to call the house. Nora said I should come.” “He smoked them when I first met him, because of the cork tips.” She wasn’t crying. She wasn’t going to cry. As long as she didn’t, I wasn’t going to break down. “You better go home, hadn’t you?” She said, “I have some things to do here, first. Where will you be?” “I’m going to go home and call Clare.” We walked out into the hall together. “Poor girl. This is the second time this has happened.” “Amanda, I’m glad you two made peace.” I saw tears forming. She said, “Isn’t it a pity it happened so late. I was so jealous of you, being happy with him. He could have had an affair, I wouldn’t have minded it as much.” I shrugged, what else could I do? “Oh hell,” she said, “walk me to my car, will you? I can’t take any more of this.” She put a hand to her face for a moment and closed her eyes. Outside birds sang, a breeze blew, it was hot and dry. I could hear the hardware on a flagpole clanking erratically. There was some message in the click of Amanda’s heels on the pavement. “Children are so lucky,” she said at last. “How do you mean?” “They can let go. They don’t have any integrity to protect, if you know what I mean. It’s all right to go to pieces.” I said, “They’ll go to pieces if you let them know it’s all right to do that.” Just as we came to her car she said, “Theresa told me something he said before I got there. He said, ‘Tell him it’s the Divine Accident for sure.” I smiled. “What does it mean?” I told her, as best I could. “Okay, I understand the words, now what does it really mean?” “It’s God versus the random universe. Free will versus predestination. I don’t know—blind luck versus purpose?” She said, “I suppose I’ll never understand it, then.” “It was something I started. I used it to mean an event you can’t pin on anyone but it affects the hell out of your life anyway, so you blame the gods for it.” “Did he think that?” Amanda asked. I shook my head. “He believed you could incorporate every accident into your life if you supplied enough will.” She emitted a small laugh and shook her head. “In character, wouldn’t you say?” She said, “I wouldn’t know.” She turned and embraced me; I smelled the woman of her, the Southern belle and the doctor. She said, sadly, in my ear, “I hated you, oh how I hated you, but I would be spiting Jake if I kept on hating. It’s practically against the Hippocratic Oath.” She sniffled, as you do when you’re crying. She held on to me a few seconds more, to gain composure, and stepped away, saying with her tear-reddened eyes what we said as kids, ‘King’s ex?’ three Apt outtake from Jake’s recordings: You wonder what people are afraid of, they are afraid of letting go. Letting go is giving up all ties that bind, being as free as every smart, healthy, autonomous adult thinks he is as he locks himself into taxing, boring, demeaning, ritualized roles, such as planner, vice president, president or legislator. The English are frank about not wanting to fuck up or appear to fuck up. Brits accept the ties that bind. We do the same thing, we just pretend we don’t. We, too, move carefully, not making mistakes. The ultimate rap on bureaucrats: they dare not make mistakes, which means they take no chances. If you never woo the fair lady, you’ll never be rejected. —You’ll never be accepted, either. Robert hadn’t had to let go of anything in the first part of his life. You may ask if I’m forgetting that he lost his mother at six, but did he ever really let go of her? I guessing not. I’ve never really been inside his head, I’ve just pretended. From all he’s said, though, I get the idea he’s carried mama around, fresh and pure, to hold up to every woman he met, got the hots for, bedded or even loved, with the verdict that none could ever fill the place of MOTHER, even when, like all of us, he needed some mothering once in a while. The rareness of Robert’s life, its genuine Divine Accident, was its congruity. It all fit, everything matched up, end-to-end, from birth to majority to the one great trauma of his psychic life, which was not a beginning, it was a climax. That was when the baggage train plunged off the end of the track into a chasm that wasn’t even on the map. This is how I thought as I lay waiting while the body mechanics debated when they best go in and do their business, or, rather, undo whatever had been fucked up when they had to do it on the fly. I discovered, too, in the same package as the insight into Robert, the empty cocoon of my anger towards Amanda. I don’t mean the truce, I mean the hurt on which the truce was based. It had, like the hidden moth, flown the pupa. I searched in dark places and couldn’t find it. The waking clarity was so different from the first operation, when I was out to breakfast and dinner as well as lunch for days. This time I was able to speak without anger or shame to Amanda. “Don’t keep Robert away this time; he needs me.” She said, “Robert needs you, Mary Clare needs you; they’re a couple of leeches, they’re bleeding you white.” “I’ve got the energy, Amanda, trust me.” “Jake, Jake, Jake. Will you have enough left over for me and the kids? I’m worn out . . . almost twenty years of this.” “I know, I know. Poor Mandy, forgive me. And forgive me for being so cavalier with my hide. Forgive me for the stiff-arm out front since the beginning. If I survive this, let’s make a new beginning. I’ve shed enough blood for both of us, dear. Let’s make peace for the rest of our lives.” —Another observation: it is easy to let go of one’s life. With all the poking around inside my chest, and then the flat tire repair on my aorta, I felt ready to let go and just skip the pain and dementia (I was cuckoo for a while) and the requirements of healing my body. At some point in there, I realized I was more afraid of going on living than of dying. What was I to do? Robert had been right in what he told Sergeant Rutledge: I wanted to stay alive to write. I just worried about having enough time for a million word apprenticeship, having the self-discipline. The hunger for accomplishment was the hardest thing to have. I knew, as surely as I knew my name, being the best writer or the best health planner or even the best human being of my age didn’t justify my existence. There was nothing to justify. The only thing I could think to do, second time facing the knife, was to clean up loose ends. Then, if I lived, I would be maximally useful to my world, and if I didn’t, no one would accuse me of dying of unfinished business. I don’t know that much about death myself, I have never killed anyone, I have stopped at least one person, an inmate of the army psychiatric facility, from killing herself, an act more prompted from fear than compassion: it would have been more merciful in that case to let her go ahead. I know more about suffering—I’m human, I know as much as the next man—and I knew that Robert suffered more than anyone of my acquaintance for an act in the past. It was as if he had rolled into the guilt of that desert death the human responsibility for everything that happened since he was born: tanks against spears in Abyssinia, the atrocities of the Spanish Civil War, the Rape of Nanking, the Holocaust, the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. One time we talked about it he said, “Berkeley graduate, you’d think I could handle it a little better, wouldn’t you.” Handle what? Handle confession. I wanted to raise my hand in the sign of the cross and intone the proper words: “. . . te absolvat . . .” but I could no more absolve him than I could raise my hand. Mary Clare, Robert; Mary Clare will have to do it. ***** His voice had been getting fainter and fainter until the last minute, when it was almost impossible to catch. His breathing was a series of sighs. There were long gaps between the sentences. Of course I hadn’t listened to the tapes then. I listened to the darkness inside me until the darkness of the night descended, and then I called Mary Clare. A man answered, a man I could tell was Zev. He sounded like a Zev—a bull fighter or a pirate. I expected him to challenge my right to talk to his daughter. He didn’t even ask who I was. “Hello?” she said. “It’s me.” She said, “What’s up?” “Jake died today,” I said. There was a noise as if she got up and closed a door. “How could he? He made it through the operation okay.” Indignation in her voice. At me? As in, How dare you let him die? Maybe mad at her Great Accountant in the Sky? I said, “Congestive heart failure. Just not enough oomph to keep pumping. The pump broke, Clare, the pump broke down.” She said, after a long silence, “I’ve done everything I wanted to here. I’ll get on the first plane I can. —How are you holding up?” “Hasn’t sunk in yet. It’s like he faded away, blew away on the wind. Where has he gone, Clare?” She said, “He’ll come back, more real than the stars above. —Will you pick me up at the airport?” “Of course; why wouldn’t I?” “You know.” “I haven’t touched a drop. It wouldn’t seem right.” ***** I spent years being a competent social drinker—until Nevada. It was after that the booze became a problem. And it was the worst problem when I was alone. If I could do something active it was better, so, in this case, waiting for Mary Clare to call and tell me when to pick her up, I went out and, under Abe Melnick’s motion activated lights, hosed off the truck. One of these days, I told myself, you need to buy a car, a plain old car. I washed the outside and thought about the debris that was accumulating in the back of the truck, “stuff,” things we had no place for inside the cottage. Like my hand tools, like the leftover cleaning tools I was never going to use again. It struck me, as I was washing, I had plenty of time to have a couple of drinks and metabolize the alcohol before I had to go to the airport. I went in and mixed a new batch of Robert’s Martinis—mediocre gin, good vermouth, exactly four to one, with a half teaspoon of bitters per bottle. The first couple I do over ice, and it is a different drink, the ice diluting the booze, easier to get down. I told myself as I mixed, Robert, you aren’t afraid of dying. I would gladly have traded places with Jake, gladly. Except for Mary Clare. It was not that I hadn’t been matter-of-fact about death, either. I remember watching a lab tech, a microbiologist by education, exsanguinating a rhesus monkey. The monkey, that particular monkey, was valuable as a source of hyperimmune serum, I forget against what antigen. The microbiologist very gently and calmly strapped the animal down on a gurney, and the monkey watched as she inserted the needle into its vein, and kept watching, until its eyelids began to droop and it went to sleep. I remember thinking at the time it was not a bad way to go. Clean. Neat. Guaranteed painless. Further back in my life I remember going out on the desert near Palm Springs with Bert, shooting rabbits. Why? Do you really need to ask a thirteen-year-old with a .22 why he’s shooting rabbits? There’s this gun, and it needs something to shoot at, and the boy needs to feel in touch with manhood, loading, aiming, firing. It was a north coast day, not a desert day, fine mist of a rain. My brother and I. Only our contact with the ground and the brush broke the cathedral-like silence. Then the far-off cry of a hawk startled us, and there it was, silhouetted against the leaden sky, so startling my brother shot wildly after the sound and the silent wings. Prisms of moisture stood on the tips of greasewood boughs, on the tips of single leaves. And yet the ground sucked up the moisture, so that there was nary a puddle, much less a rivulet or the torrents of a flash flood. And through this magic came the swift flash, the long-legged hare running silently, flashing the deception of his white underside, changing direction. Bert whistled; the rabbit stopped; I fired. A kick, cavorting, a playful bounce. I went over to the animal and he was stretched out, his mouth open, the rodent incisors isolated, the jaw muscles taut, rictus signaling the bite of mortality. Imagine, then, the thrill engendered by a sawed-off shotgun, which is to a .22 what a golf cart is to a Corvette. The gun was smooth and curved and compact, a pet cobra. I knew I’d made a mistake committing to buying it, but secretly I wanted it. I became angry when Lana suggested it could go off accidentally. Is a clumsy move in the ring the boxing shoes’ fault? Those feather light black shoes never falter. The phone rang. One more sip. One last skip of a heartbeat. Reality returns. four She boarded the Midnight Special, although it wasn’t midnight until it landed and took off again from Los Angeles, the last PSA flight to Oakland until the morning commute. Flew with lights off and seat back, feigning sleep to forestall neighbors’ small talk, but watching lights go by below, the bedroom lights of Southern California’s megalopolis sliding in and out of the clouddark. Through the needling whine of taxiing jet engines, she saw her mate before I saw her, not yet hiding my own clouddark. She waited for the tired and expectant to pull down their shopping bags and attaché cases from the overhead. And so wasn’t the first off the plane, nor the fiftieth. I had edged up the boarding ramp, impatient now that succor was nigh, while her face asked if I would recognize her in the new clothes Zev gave her as she snipped the strings usually attached. Of course I did. Recognized her despite the tailored pea jacket and cowboy boots. Composed. Not ready to let go of stern repression. I pecked her cheek, took her carry-on, only a squeeze of the hand betraying the discomposure inside me. We ascended the ramp through knots of reunited lovers and returned warriors, up the pastel concrete tube from gate to terminal, breasting eddies of Hari Krishnas and Moonies selling flowers and Vedas, when Clare, no doubt tired of waiting for me to disburse them, intercepted a sweet young viper about to pin a carnation on my lapel and said, “Fuck off!” and the swirls of unwashed beggars parted. “How was the flight?” I asked, that hurdle passed. “Squalling babies. Were you ever on a plane at night when there weren’t squalling babies?” As we walked across the parking structure she said, “I only broke down once, in the ladies’ room at Lindbergh Field. I got mothered by a pair of blue-haired dowagers from Phoenix—they were marvelous. They never got how I was connected to Jake, but it didn’t matter. I needed mothering and they were, by God, going to mother me.” Abreast of Emeryville’s clam-reeking mud flats, the Clorox building lights reflecting off the lagoon opposite, I said, “Tell me about your folks.” She asked, “Do you want it in a nutshell, or do you want the five-ninety-five special version?” I didn’t know what to ask for, I was just breaking the silence. She said, “Did I ever tell you that my grandfather was the Harbor Master of Port Arthur, in Siberia?” “Zev’s father? Is that pertinent?” “Everything’s pertinent.” I said, Give me the TIME magazine pithy overview.” “On the off chance that you’d ask me to do that, I thought about it while we were flying over all the swimming pools in Los Angeles, waiting to land. Here’s what it boils down to: you can tell the worst things about yourself and if you tell them right, they won’t sound horrible to your listeners.—Unless they have a case of jealousy. Miriam was fascinated but pretended to be horrified. Zev didn’t do so well—he really does have a thing for me, he’s horribly jealous. But that’s his problem now. I didn’t heap one teaspoon of ashes on my head and I didn’t rend the hem of a single garment.” “Doesn’t sound too satisfying.” Clare said, “Oh but it was. I had to keep my dukes up the whole time, or Zev would have had me wrapped up for the rest of my life. So I went for it. I cleaned the slate. I must have covered every single hurt and resentment and scar—and they’re gone.” “What about the piano?” “You would think of that.” Zev bought her a piano when she was eight. The ten years she played it, it was always her piano. When she married Andy and wanted to sell the piano to help him out of a financial jam, Zev threw a tantrum, would not let anyone take it away. He wasn’t going to finance the goddam goy who violated his little girl. She said, “I gave it back. I made sure it was when I was talking to both of them—there were things I wasn’t going to say in mixed company, you know—I made him a gift of my piano.” “And how did he take that?” I asked. “He was too punchy to get it. You have to realize, the last time they saw me was Thanksgiving, four years ago. And they knew as much about me as most parents know about bratty daughters, which is highly superficial stuff. So it was sort of nonstop, heavy-duty harangue from the time Zev picked me up at the airport to the time my sister, Poppy, took me back.” “Miriam didn’t come to the airport?” “Daddy decided it would be too much for her. Truth is, he wanted me to himself long enough to sink his claws into me again. I was supposed to tell him everything and her nothing, she was still going through the change, don’t you know, and he didn’t think it would be good for her.” “You had a couple of busy days. —What’s the footnote to the bottom line?” “Footnote?” “I assume your parents survived the raking-over without expiring or having a falling-down fit.” “Ah,” Mary Clare said. “It occurred to me somewhere along the way—out walking the beach with Poppy, as a matter of fact—there’s damned few persons could have pulled off what I did. And the only reason I could was that I’d been in the castle keep long enough to know I need to be hooked into people. I need ties, I need family. So my really elegant achievement was wiping my slate clean without doing theirs. In other words, we’re still on speaking terms.” “Not the way I would have done it.” “Nope. I could no more have done it your way than I could become a nun.” “I’m only slightly changing the subject when I ask if I can change,” I said. “I have,” she said. “But you see what happens.” “What happens, Bobby?” “You get used to someone in your life and they have the bad grace to have had an aneurism when they were shot.” She shifted around in the seat, tucking a knee under her. We came to the light at Shattuck, where I stopped for a blinking red. She said, “Look at me, mister.” I looked at her. “I am going to outlive you, buster. I am going to bury you. So forget about some Divine Accident doing me in, you’re stuck with me.” I turned left and proceeded to the Melnik’s house. I parked so that we were not activating Abe’s security lights. “I’ve abandoned the Divine Accident, Clare, so you don’t need to worry.” We sat in the dark for a moment before she said, “You know, I thought I was making real progress, accepting the Divine Accident. I mean, it isn’t exactly Twentieth Century ontology, but it’s getting up there with Spinoza, maybe. Why’d you drop it?” I said, “I kept toting it up, whole damned thing was my fault—all the deaths.” “The guy Homer blew up with his booby trap?” “If Marta hadn’t called me, I would have gone in there and detonated the letter bomb myself.” “Marta?” “I told you about her. I took my break when I did because Marta asked me to meet her for coffee.” “You never told me that.” “I was one of Marta’s loose end, and she was tying up loose ends before she got married.” “And that doesn’t qualify as a Divine Accident? I’d say being tied up as a loose end while the bomb went off qualifies plenty.” “But see, if I throw over the Divine Accident, then I’m only responsible for one death. Not Meany’s, not Jake’s, not José Garcia’s.” The engine’s cooling produced a ping that was out of phase with the fiddling of a cricket slowing down as the ante meridian earth cooled. “Will you help me, Clare?” She slid across the seat and put her arms around me. “That’s what I came back for.” She held me and rocked me and slowly the tears came, and then they came faster, until I was wracked with sobs and still she rocked me, while I clung to her like a waif afraid of losing he last refuge. five My waking heart missed a beat: cricket chirrups replaced by the distant hum of Berkeley rising from sleep: subliminal lullaby for an ex-janitor. And then, the initial salvo of Monday’s wind-up alarm routing Sunday night dreams of skipping work to wallow in mourning. At nine o’clock my advisory committee would meet for the first time, and anything short of being run over by a garbage truck would not excuse me, who had, in effect, thrown down a gauntlet at Stu Katz’s feet. I lurched into the shower, to have Mary Clare step in as I exited, neither of us up to talking yet. I shaved, wiping the mirror often with pruned fingers. I hadn’t a pressed suit. Saturday’s breakfast dishes still lolled in the sink. I pressed while Mary Clare cleared and cooked, the dimensions of the cottage leaving us in earshot of each other; she talked over the gurgle of percolating coffee. In a sleepy voice she made commentary on her tale of the previous night, wondering aloud where she’d be—and whether she, Mary Clare Morrison, would even be—if the Bolsheviks hadn’t chased her grandfather out of Port Arthur. Or if Zev had been born a day the longshoremen struck instead of six months earlier. I burned my finger on the iron and said, “Shit,” louder than the burn merited. “What, dear?” Mary Clare asked, beginning to understand the language of my expletives. “I didn’t arrange for any refreshments this morning.” My dip into reality cut short her commentary. I called out, “Did you tell your dad about me?” I needed her to keep talking. She said, “After Miriam softened him up.” (At my elbow with a cup of hot coffee, her voice modulated.) “He wanted me to promise I wouldn’t marry you.” “Is that all?” “He wanted me to move to La Jolla” (returning to the stove) “and mix with their friends, so I’d bump into some nice Jewish boy and get married and have a nice life.” I asked her how she responded to that. She said, “I told him all the nice Jewish boys my age were married to fat little Jewish housewives my age and anybody left over was either queer or just checked out of Sonoma State Hospital.” “I bet that pissed him off.” I was touching up the last dress shirt I’d worn. “Didn’t it, though. He ranted and raved about how well I’d been brought up and how badly I’d turned out—all the things I needed to hear.” “And then what?” “He took me off to one of his shops and loaded me up with clothes and tried to give me money. I took the clothes but refused the money. I told him he could put it in a trust fund for his first grandson.” I went into the galley. “You aren’t pregnant, are you?” “Not even in jest.” “And then what?” “Zev and I got home in time for your call, which interrupted the visit, probably at a good stopping point, although not the one either of us was particularly aiming for.” She called the airport and dashed around, trying to pack all the new things her father bought her, as well as the old things, with Zev telling her he wouldn’t allow her to be seen in “those rags” and interfering with her progress in general, feeling her slipping out of his grasp, until she told him to go fuck himself. “That’s why Poppy had to drive me to the airport.” “Your sister still lives at home?” I asked. “No, but she and her husband live right on the other side of the coast highway. Daddy helped with the down payment.” “You mean, one daughter bought into his game.” “Right on, bunky.” “No wonder he’s pissed.” “He has to get used to the idea that the head of my household is named Bobby.” I was touched. I felt like a family man for the first time in my adult life. ***** It occurred to me, down-shifting to a crawl driving past the School for the Blind, domestic comedies always end before the dishes are done. I’d been doing them for a good long while, but this and that, like Johnny, the hallucinated page boy, and dashes across Berkeley, made me realize the sink would always be cluttered, and there’d be special moments I’d feel the way I did this morning, appreciating what Mary Clare had overcome to be with me. Happily-ever-after was dishes in the sink Monday morning. It was the screech of brakes on Claremont Avenue reminding me how the world was as unforgiving as my mate was forgiving. Of course happily-ever-after is no different from any simple-pretty. Compassionate embraces of repenting sinners (an analogue to recovering alcoholics) give way to this-ums and that’s-ums and, so, we didn’t make it to the sleeping loft before fucking each other silly. Sin washed away in a novel communion wine. I walked into the Claremont telling myself, “It’s okay, I actually felt grief last night, not remorse. Now if I can just feel grief about all the others, maybe it can banish guilt.” The truth was, last night’s grief was just as evanescent as the afterglow from last night’s love making. Sleep’s bulwarks crumbled under successive salvos of reality. I descended into ABAG’s basement offices like Don Juan into hell, kicking and screaming. Howie Manheimer calmed me enough to go on, dashing off and buying every uncommitted Danish in the bakery’s truck from the salesman calling on the hotel’s coffee shop. Howie understood how committees run on sugar. And I’d worked at the University long enough to run committee meetings in my sleep. The agenda was simple if representatives of three of the four medical schools showed up and no unanticipated fights broke out, the meeting would be over in an hour and everyone would come away from it with something positive—except maybe Stu Katz. Everyone showed, though Stu Katz was ten minutes late and I had to suspend my opening pitch to introduce him around the table (“This is Dr. Katz, University of California Vice President for Medical Education—Mrs. Greencarpe, Berkeley City Council, Mr. Kino, Bay Area Health Planning Council; I believe you know the others.”) I watched Stu shaking Mr. Kino’s hand—blond, myopic Stu affected asceticism, not frail but like a dedicated vegetarian, which he wasn’t—I had a sudden churn of my stomach contents, knowing this was the person to blame for the years of back-pedaling I’d been through. I corralled my stomach but couldn’t my cerebral cortex. Images rode the pathways of my memory to create a movie montage: bright flash across a desert night—an ex-janitor running across the Sunday campus—hospital rooms, mine and Jake’s superimposed—a mayonnaise jar full of quarters turning into a ten-speed bike. It went on and on for the rest of the meeting. I teetered on the brink, mindful of the bureaucrat’s need for balance: if I thought too much about the meeting I might clutch; if I thought too much about Katz as the author of my ills I might come unhinged and carry on like Hitler at the podium, embarrassing myself and ABAG. I tuned into a Stu Katz monologue, Stu doing what he did best, summarizing and synthesizing everything he heard, a device by which he both subtly colored the discussion and organized rebuttals. It dawned on me, as I half listened that, had Stu been following the newspaper, he would know the death on the Nevada high desert wasn’t the last of my sins. Elitist, reactionary, sarcastic, Stu would find me a white Black Panther, a sunny day Weatherman, the personification of pipe bomb fragments, napalm and massacres. I signaled I’d be back in a moment and went out in the hall to lecture myself on the priorities of the day: survive; come out of this meeting with a win; don’t go to bed without resolving that Stu Katz may be a snake but he was not in any way the primary author of my sufferings; and, don’t make a frigging fool of yourself. I paced and ticked these off on my fingers. As I returned (Howie and the others present showing concerned faces, sensing a great emotional strain) Stu was saying, rhetorically, “Let me reiterate a fact well known to you all, the state of New York has three times as many physicians per capita as Minnesota, yet New Yorkers get sick more often and die younger, on the average, than Minnesotans.” Of course not everyone on the committee knew this, although I did: you don’t need doctors to be well, you need good genes and a good life style and self-fulfillment. That was the only serious challenge to my major thesis, and it was too bad that, in the projector of my brain, I couldn’t get the personal montage reel changed for the ‘beat Stu’s argument’ reel. I believe it was simple compassion that prompted the only dean who’d come himself and not sent a delegate, Dr. Rockwell of Presbyterian, to take on my former boss. He broke into the discussion with a great clearing of throat and pumping of shaggy gray eyebrows, saying, “Dr. Katz, don’t you think we can take this a step at a time? I don’t think a whole bunch of Norwegian farmers are going to migrate to the Bay Area before 1985, so, as a first step, let’s set a number for the future based on today’s patterns of practice. Then we can start arguing about what the appropriate standards of practice should be.” Stu countered, “But one of these days we’re going to be using lasers in eye surgery—they’re already experimenting with it—and that will make certain operations more feasible and therefore more accessible. It will radically change the practice of ophthalmology.” “Radically, Dr. Katz? In the whole Bay Area will it make a difference of as many as ten ophthalmologists? I’d guess ophthalmologists are like most surgeons I know, they aren’t busy enough. But Mr. Gattling can find that out” (he turned to address me) “can’t you, Mr. Gattling?” And this was my now-or-never cue—do it or go home. I turned off the montage. Like my shaggy-browed savior, I cleared my throat. six I said, “I can at least point out differences in productivity among ophthalmologists in different settings, and use them to make some explicit assumptions about unused capacity.” Dr. Rockwell made a gesture toward Stu Katz with head and hand which said, “You see?” At which point Stu, as I later explained to Mary Clare, became a bass rising to take a grasshopper as he said, “Ah, a range of numbers but no norm.” “Almost,” I said. “A range assumed to represent the number below which are too few, above which are too many, and a hint at where supply and demand seem to be in balance.” It didn’t matter that I’d violated my own rule about keeping the inquiry aimed at demand. The grasshopper had offered itself and I baited the hook with it. Stu Katz thought he had what he came for; the numbers didn’t seem to do what I had threatened they could, namely, tip off legislators to how to block future plans of the University. The meeting entered the stage where participants sang rondos of enthusiasm. Howie caught my eye and winked. Afterwards he said, “You pulled it off, you sonofabitch.” After a mumbled thanks to Dr. Rockwell, my brain refused to analyze. It groaned and stopped like the projector at the Northgate Theater used to in my undergraduate days. “I had a bad weekend, Howie.” I sketched my weekend. “Shit, we could have postponed this thing. You look like the wrath of God. “I was up all night.” “Sitting shiva, reciting the Psalms?” I said, “Screwing. It’s a great antidote for fear and loathing.” Howie hugged me, patted me on the back, and sent me home. I kept my eyes downcast and it was no different from the day my mother died, when I went out on the porch and found three of my chums—neighbor kids—who’d heard the ambulance in the night and, with children’s uninhibited curiosity, come over to get the skinny. I told them my mother’d died. One said, “Go on. Your mother died, you’d be bawling your eyes out.” In thirty years I had learned how to look as if I were about to bawl my eyes out. I searched out my staff, who’d sat on the periphery of the meeting, and we exchanged congratulations. One asked me how I did it. I told them I turned off my brain and just let it happen. It would be words for them to live by. ***** I didn’t go straight home from the Claremont, I stopped in at Berkeley Square. The door was propped open. I heard the scrape of iron on brick, someone removing cold clinkers from the fire pit. Mac called out, “The usual, kid?” I said, spotting him among the shadows, “I’m just going to have a beer.” “Help yourself. I’ll be there in a minute.” I went behind the bar and drew a schooner of lager. The only light came through the open door—I’d walked in on Mac’s heels. “What brings you in so early?” Mac asked, as he trundled the clinkers out to the curb. When he came back in I asked, “You ever have the feeling of life repeating itself, Mac?” “It usually does.” As he washed soot from his hands in the glass sink, a man slipped through the doorway, carrying a bag of produce. He bowed and clucked to Mac as he passed through to the kitchen. “See? Mr. Lee always comes in a few minutes after I do, he’s always carrying a bag of veggies, and he always smiles.” “That’s not what I meant.” “I know,” Mac said. Mac took out from under the bar a much-handled photocopy that bore the title, “Rules for Living.” The first rule read, “There are only so many feelings. Every so often one comes along that is the same size, shape and duration as an important feeling from the past. Beware: Life is not repeating itself, because Life is not a feeling, only the world is.” “Wow, that’s heavy. Where’d you get it?” “Guy named Jake Pritchett.” This was the moment I learned that Mac knew Jake. It was like a Divine Accident, only I’d sworn off those. Reading my face, Mac said, “You know Jake.” “”Pretty well. And he just died. Saturday.” “Aw shit, what a shame. His ticker? I heard him once in here with his brother, talking about their mom dying of heart failure.” I polished off the beer. “Better make me a manhattan, Mac. —It was his heart, all right, but not the way you think. He got shot in the chest and there were complications.” “Shot?” “Don’t you read the papers, Mac? It was in all the dailies.” “I get my news on the radio in the morning and the TV at night. I skip all the stuff like that. Goddam, what bad luck.” He stirred the manhattan and poured it out into a frosted glass. “As I recall, you don’t do cherries.” I shook my head. After the first sip I said, “Funny, two places close to the campus serve liquor, he and I both came in here, I had to meet him in La Morinda. You say he has a brother. What’s he like?” “His name’s Bye and you can tell they’re brothers. Has a bit more hair than Jake, an inch or so taller, sounds like him. In fact, Jake told me he supplied the second rule, ‘You’ve only got one body. If it’s beautiful, don’t mess with it; if it’s not, don’t try to make up for it by marrying someone more beautiful than you.’ “Jake didn’t follow that one too well, did he,” Mac concluded. The rule was also incomplete, in that it didn’t cover what you do if, beautiful or not, someone else messes with your body. That’s the problem with rules: they never cover every situation. “Damn. Was he in the hospital long?” Mac asked. I nodded. I’d drunk enough Mac poured a little extra from the shaker into my glass. I brought out a bill to cover the drinks and Mac waved it off. I remember when Mac got together a group to visit Buck Adams, another regular, who died of cirrhosis. He probably would have visited Jake, too, if he’d only known. “Thing I liked about Jake, he was a gentleman. He never got plastered, and I remember once he took the other Mac home when he got pissed and was falling off his bar stool. Used to come in here with that wife of his, what a looker. Not too warm, but gorgeous.” “Amanda,” I said. “Yeah, she’s a looker.” “I saw him in here not too long ago, with a lady who by comparison was a dog—not ugly, just no style. You could tell she never read Cosmopolitan. They sat over there, by the fire. You know her?” I shook my head. “He mentioned her. Was there anything going on between them, could you tell?” Mac shrugged behind the bar. “Looked like a business thing, you know. Although she’s the type wouldn’t let on—cool in that respect. “Third rule: ‘Nobody owns tomorrow.’” “Jake lived up to that one.” “Wiry little guy like Jake, you’d think he’d live to ninety.” Two elderly women walked in and sat at the end of the bar closest the door. Mac turned on a couple of baby spots and went over to take their orders. I stood and said, “Let me pay for those, Mac.” He said, “Don’t insult me. And give my regards to the widow. Tell her she’s the best looking lady ever walked in this joint.” ***** It was like I was eleven and walking out of the Loyola Theater after Saturday matinees, out of a dark place where you were deep in fantasy, into the real world of too-bright sun, hot concrete and automobile exhaust. I’d been in there chatting, showing a cool exterior, ready to go on to the next episode of Lash LaRue, even though, in the cliff hanger, the dynamite had exploded while Lash was still tied up in the mine tunnel. At home there was a note on the fridge (did she know I would go for a martini when I got home?) that read “Borrowed your bike to the library, M.” And then, while I was dunking a couple of olives in the martini, I heard her voice and then Mrs. Melnik’s voice, and I thought, That biddy better not come in here. And, as if to make sure she didn’t, I slipped off my shirt and put it in the laundry bag hanging on the back of the bathroom door. At last I heard conversation-ending tones, and Mary Clare walked in, wearing a pleased smile. She saw my bare chest and the martini in my hand and gave me a quizzical look. “Nobody owns tomorrow,” I said. “I’ve heard that,” she said. “It was Jake’s third rule for living.” I explained about Mac and the old photocopy. She said, “The nice part about that rule, Bobby, when you don’t have another tomorrow you either won’t know or won’t care.” I said, “I wasn’t worried about me.” A tear slid down my face. “You didn’t shoot him, Bobby, and you sure as hell didn’t give him an aneurism.” “I didn’t kill my mother, either.” Clare said, “Ah,” as if she’d put two and two together. She began to change her clothes. “Don’t just say ‘Ah,’ like you suddenly understand everything.” “You never told me about your mother’s death. I thought it was just the vagabond up in Nevada.” “It’s like a booby trap. A wire stretched between the two, a tripwire.” “Why?” “Don’t ask ‘why.’ I was six. You think you make the whole world go ‘round when you’re six. I didn’t know what the fuck death meant, I just knew my mother wasn’t there and people told me she’d gone to heaven.” She was changing clothes. My eyes were drooping. Clouds were closing down on Berkeley and the ambiguity of autumn was upon the land. I said, “What were you doing at the library?” She said, her face lighting up, “I was bird watching.” “Huh?” “I was in the main reference room and I looked up to see these two pigeons flying high up, right under the vaulted ceiling. The man sitting next to me pulled out the Daily Californian and pointed out an article that said Stanford students had let them loose in there. They perched on the rods of those gigantic drapes, and after a while they flew the other way, side by side. They reminded me of us.” I drained my martini. I went for another and asked her if she’d care for one, and she shook her head. “They were totally futile up there, just surviving. Nothing they could do would please anyone more than just to fly from one end of the room to the other once in a while.” “That’s us?” I said. “I can’t explain it, but that’s us, Bobby, just a couple of birds sailing silently over all those scholars and their books.” Swing Low Sweet Chariot one The clothes Zev gave Mary Clare included enough black for a tasteful ensemble. Jim Rutledge told me later he was stunned by the sight of her. He had pictured her showing up in a poncho and peasant skirt, sandals and hairy legs. At the cemetery, when I introduced them and she exchanged with him the kind of words a genteel person would in that circumstance, I saw the prejudice melt with several brief shakes of his head, like a dog with a flea in his ear. The closest I could come to black was a charcoal gray suit, the one I’d hung onto from my assistant vice president days. It was no longer in fashion, but the differences from what Dean Acheson or Harry Belafonte were wearing just then would be lost on all but the women who read Men’s Vogue at the beauty parlor. The day itself dressed in autumn haze, a stubble burning day in the croplands of America: no wind blowing; hushed: earthquake weather. Driving to the chapel, listening to the car radio, it was hard to remember a real war continued out there, planes dropping mines in the harbors of a tiny enemy. George Wallace, shot within a week of Jake, issued a statement denouncing Nixon as a saboteur of democracy and George McGovern as the man who, despite Nixon’s unlawful assault on his campaign, would lead the country to a new morality. His impact on the election was doubtful, more doubtful since his endorsement was drowned out by Henry Kissinger’s “I believe peace is at hand.” As a footnote to history, the papers eulogized Charles Atlas, the original ninety-seven pound weakling. In my waning childhood I’d contemplated Atlas’s comic book ads and dreamt of becoming as brawny and powerful as John L. Sullivan. Somehow the word got out, as it does with funerals. There was a time when obituaries were printed so soon after death that funerals were announced in them, but by the time Jake died it was word of mouth. Amanda had Bienvenida call us, but I don’t know how Mac the bartender found out, nor the Melniks. Howie, of course, found out from me. Sergeant Rutledge had dropped in on Jake several times in the hospital. Rutledge respected Jake, for being in the military police, for standing up to him when Meany attacked me, for being my mentor. And Rutledge had his ear to the ground in Central County. Bienvenida brought her husband, José, and their children, Josecito and Maricia. She got as close as she could to funeral attire (her dress had little blue flowers on a black background) and let her husband do most of the talking, I suspect to keep from crying. Amanda’s brother was there, a man who looked so much like her they could have been twins. And Jake’s brother came, a taciturn man whose eyes held the sadness of the world but who shed not a tear. Unlike me. Rutledge saw me getting teary at the graveside and came over and put his big paw on my neck and whispered, “It’s rough, I know.” Giving me a shake that stopped the tears. When the interment was over he walked with Mary Clare and me towards the car. He took me aside and said, “I see her and I think, how many times in my life have I had the wind knocked out of my prejudices? There’s a God: I look at her and I know it. Jesus, kid, hang on to that one for dear life.” Growing up I remember how, in moments of profoundly missing my mother, I would imagine an interment for myself very different from hers or Jake’s. I would be sewn in a piece of sail cloth, like a seaman, but instead of being weighted and slipped into the sea, I would be slipped into a hole in the ground. Someone would plant a tree over me, and I would nourish it until everyone had forgot I was there. ***** This is a pertinent lump of sentiment Jake taped after he sprang his deathbed wish on me, to finish the novel he started: I looked at Robert, holding my hand, silent tears running down his cheeks, and saw myself attending my mother’s deathbed on three separate occasions, her recovering twice. Each time I became a little more inured to a world without her, until the third time I went down to the cafeteria—I had sat there hours without smoking or eating or relieving myself—and came back to a flurry of activity in the room and the nurse said, “Her doctor’s on the way.” It was too late, she was already dead. The doctor was for the bureaucracy, to pronounce and to fill out the paperwork. I had missed the event I’d steeled myself for three times. Twice the miracle of modern medicine had postponed the inevitable. The third time she just slipped away while I was out getting a roast beef sandwich and a bowl of tapioca pudding with whipped cream. Too bad Robert’s mom couldn’t have skipped death until he was old enough to get his fill of her, given him a chance to get used to the idea of a world without her. I said, to comfort Robert, “Everyone has one Divine Accident in life, the same way everyone gets one simple-pretty. Mine is moving me on to unknown things—who knows if it’s a boon or not?” two I’ll let Jake introduce this final excerpt from his tapes: This is the unexpurgated Jake—last tape—the end of the Memoir of Bobwhite Court: As if everything stops when I do. I can’t imagine stopping—too much to live for. Quote: ‘I think, therefore I am immortal,’ versus, quote: ‘I think, therefore I dread death.’ I’m a Polish Jew, clutching hope, like a siddur, to his bosom on the way to the gas chamber. I’m a smoke jumper trapped by wildfire, trying not to waste my breath. Knowing is worse than death. Ignorance and swift perishment are the profound wishes of Twentieth Century man. I know, therefore I’m paralyzed by anxiety. It isn’t the bullet or the aneurism that will get me, it’s genetics. “You gave me a bad ticker, Ma.” But that’s why we have Las Vegas, why I buy Irish Sweepstakes tickets every year. I have never won a football pool, but I entered every one that came along. Defying the odds is defying death. —Even though, in odd moments, we get used to crapping out. After the umpteenth well-wisher, saying goodbye without using the word, I even sent Beatrice away. For a sufficient time I clung to her like a baby, and then had to say, “Go, so I can finish my memoir.” Beatrice, who was to usher in my very own Vita Nuova, who understood and cherished plain old Jake, not the man who was supposed to be what every wife and child needs. It could have been worse. I could have sprung a bigger leak at home and bled out in front of the kids. I could have thrown a clot any time since the bullet became flesh of my flesh. Then there’d have been no Indian Summer for saying goodbye, no time to finish my Mylar opus. The hospital will be my spindle, keeping a distance between children’s tender sensibilities and the reality of death: it will be neat and institutional. And Amanda will know how to help them grieve. (Eighty percent of my current feelings are about them, though they aren’t the focus of this memoir.) I look at it this way: I got to give Robert a diversion, something to make him hate my guts, to make him wish I’d gone to the grave as speedily as his Nevada drifter. Because of that diversion I didn’t have to really clobber him, tell him to spare me the responsibility for ruining his life. I can accept responsibility for defying the God of Randomness, toting a gun when I shouldn’t, getting in the way of a bullet that decided not to go cleanly through soft tissue and out the other side. The ‘finish my novel’ ploy saved me the bother of yelling at him, ‘You didn’t do it, you melodramatic dickhead, I did it all by myself!’ I didn’t have to do that. Robert bought the deathbed wish with a minimum of fuss, and it will be a diversion. At first I worried about what Mary Clare would think. I imagined her saying, ‘Dammit, Jake, this is the guy who can’t let go, and you give him a relic to cling to that’s phonier than the True Cross. He’s going to add Jake Pritchett to his string of victims, noodling around with that novel and never finish it.’ She didn’t, though. She went along with it, having the healthier attitude, though in the long run I don’t think the Great Accountant in the Sky will do her any more good than the Divine Accident did Robert. Sad to say, he’s either going to leave her (before she leaves him, like his mother did) or else drive her away . . . unless he changes. And if he doesn’t change he’ll break her heart doing either. And that still leaves the God of Randomness, my personal contribution to the mythology of a Higher Power guiding our destiny—my answer to the Great Accountant in the Sky and the Divine Accident. He is the One who detonated the Big Bang and let the pieces fly off with a lot of English on them. And I don’t connect the God of Randomness with Jesus. Jesus didn’t solve anything in advance, he just said, ‘I can show you how one man did it, you have to do it yourself.’ We all do. Getting shot in the name of love or in the line of duty doesn’t exempt you from wrestling with randomness. Random friendships coming to an end. Random bullets leaving behind messes. What Robert and Sergeant Rutledge didn’t quite get, hashing out how we humans survive knowing death in advance: we do it by living in the past or the future. We tie everything Now to something Past—from comparing lovers to recalling all the times we should have got it in the neck but didn’t. We survive not one day but thousands—the freeway wrecks, the airplane crashes, the wars that always happen over there, the nervous blind date. We forget that the past is no more than electronic pathways in the brain—okay, a length of celluloid maybe, a book in the library—the mundane things not even that. Auto wrecks and airplane crashes cease to exist as such, they become scrap for future autos and planes. Poof. Never mind, one small triumph breeds a lifetime of hope. Even a Mary Clare lugs a lot of Past with her, even when she declares “Enough!” or brags about turning over a new leaf. She’s come a long way, Penthouse Lady becoming a scholar again, but she shouldn’t forget the vehicular accident Mrs. Clarke witnessed, or the gun Meany just happened to arm her with, else she might still be up in her aerie, mourning a Bobby she never got to love properly. What you’ve got to give her credit for, though, is seizing the opportunity that wandered by, for having next to her heart not a fragment of lead but a fragment of self-love. Damn, don’t we get what we deserve. Although I don’t know if she deserves a lover who’s got self-loathing encoded in his chromosomes, who has electronic pathways in his brain that make him take it on the chin every time. He’s even had to take on the world’s burdens in his women: Lana, wanting to “do something” but crapping out when first the going got tough; Marta, trying to figure out why the guys have so much fun and she just feels used. Janice, the cokehead’s oppressed wife. Even Mary Clare, the damsel in the castle keep. Could the university a better guy to send out to trade shouts with the hippie agitators? Meryl read him like a book, she just couldn’t believe it, going no holds barred in the parking lot after Meany’s party, she knew which string to jerk, she learned quickly. Funny, how the shrewd of the world have it all over the intelligent and sensitive. For a while I thought Robert was the strong one, had figured out he couldn’t hide from life forever, at least couldn’t hide and act at the same time. I thought, This time it’s not so easy, he has to use every skill he possesses to win her. I forgot to put a value on my part, how I was the one who wouldn’t let him quit. Even so, he learned enough to recognize he’d been at a crossroads back in Berkeley during the Free Speech Movement: to curse the darkness or strive ever for the light, to admit one’s destiny is not in one’s hands alone, to accept not just new fates but the reality that there is no perfection of this life, there is only the rock we push up the hill again and again and again. Mary Clare was at that crossroads, too, but appears to have chosen a path with heart, so maybe she’s got the point. —As much as anyone does who’s got a luxurious amount of time left. —I, unfortunately, have no such fund of time. I’ve learned a lot on Bobwhite Court, come a long way, who hid out behind his three piece suit and six bit words. I hid out many more years than either Robert or Clare, and I tried to keep on hiding out while I had a vicarious success through them. Just think, I might have waited until Jimmy grew up and used him as my proxy. So maybe a random bullet saved my son from a father with a mouth like Polonius. Quote, Don’t look at the world the way your mother does, don’t be a charming rascal like your Uncle Robert. For God’s sake, don’t wait for a bullet exploding in your chest to make you let go of the petty and mundane and find a worthwhile path in life. Don’t be a janitor. Jimmy, don’t spend your life cleaning up others’ messes. Don’t look for simple-pretties. And for sure don’t get yourself trapped in a corner, trying to keep someone else there. Lucky for you, Jimmy, Robert came along, a pseudo-Jake with his slate wiped clean. Only it ain’t wiped clean, which I’ve spent hours saying. Telling Robert his having a second chance can jinx him. He no more has a clean slate than Jake Pritchett or anyone else who’s reached majority. Maybe, saddling him with a deathbed wish, I’ve merely given him a chance to walk around the fork in the road, instead of choosing a path. But if he does actually write the fucking thing, and publish it, it may be the atonement he’s looking for, for the dead in his path. And he might actually do it, put in the time and the self-discipline. He has, after all, a hyperactive imagination, as he demonstrated time and again, parsing the Penthouse Lady. He might end up a better writer than I ever could have been, having skipped many a year of turning out bureaucratic bullshit. Maybe he won’t see a modern-day witch as so preposterous. To me she meant that it was still possible, by conjuring up demons from the past, to make magic that overcomes the odds. Which makes her the antithesis of letting go. Which might just appeal to a guy who clings like a Gila monster to everything he’s supposed to let go of: the easy out, self-pity, jealousy and anger and ghosts. In the dream about the witch I was a rat in a maze of conflicting desires and I chose the path of duty. Maybe in trying to get out of that maze, Robert will choose a path with heart. three Goodbyes said, we walked a slow march among the graves on the way back to the truck. Halfway there, Mary Clare said, “Wait a minute,” and ran, ever so gracefully in her high heels, towards a figure I had caught in the corner of my eye during the ceremony. She ran towards a woman in a dark blue coat and a beret that covered her hair except for a brunette braid. You could see legs from the below the knees and hands and an oval face. The terrain hid her shoes, but I guessed they would be sensible. She stood in the shade of a tree that looked like Van Gogh’s mulberry. The two conferred a moment, earnest talk, I could tell from Clare’s body language. The conference over, Clare took the woman by the hand and took a tangential path to the truck, on which I converged just as they got there. “Robert, this is Beatrice Hennessey; Beatrice, this is Robert Gattling, my sweetheart.” Beatrice held out her hand for me to shake, giving me a twenty watt smile, fortunately wearing no eye make-up, as she had puffy eyes from crying. Berkeleyward, three abreast in my funky truck, we are silent until, in the yellow-tiled echo chamber of the Caldecott Tunnel, Mary Clare says, “I asked Beatrice for coffee.” And Beatrice says, as we leave the tunnel, “Actually, you know, I’d rather have a drink.” To which I add a fervent “Amen.” I dive off the freeway at the Ashby Avenue exit, heading for the Claremont. Berkeley Square is not the place to take Mary Clare and Beatrice. I am in no mood to explain the two women to Mac. “Ah,” says Beatrice, as she sees the old Victorian edifice loom up, “This is where you two went with Jake the day you picked up your little sports car.” “Jake told you about that?” “He told me everything; we had no secrets. But we had a rule: no telling others people’s secrets.” I exchange a look with Mary Clare, which Beatrice catches. As if she suspects we think that nuns have no secrets worth sharing, Beatrice says, “The secret that predates meeting Jake is, I had a lover in the convent. That’s why I’m no longer there.” “I was kept in a penthouse by a sugar daddy—until this guy came along.” Mary Clare isn’t trying to top Beatrice’s convent lover, she’s exchanging a hostage. “Now tell us what you’ve been doing since you got out—besides loving Jake.” “I write poetry and clean houses to support my poetry habit.” “And how did you meet Jake?” I ask her. “In a bar,” she says, eyes on the floorboards, reddening a little. I’m dumfounded by this quick exchange of intimate details but Mary Clare laughs a friendly laugh. To which Beatrice responds, “I’m such a wanton hussy, aren’t I.” Now we all laugh. “Was it terrible of me to have an affair with him, do you think?” Mary Clare says without a second’s hesitation, “You saved his soul.” In the corner of my eye I see Beatrice put her hand on Mary Clare’s arm and I want to cry. I say to myself, No wonder, Jake, no wonder. And Clare’s right, it’s possible that the Jake I knew and loved didn’t exist before Beatrice. A man married for twenty years to a professional virgin meets a woman who, no matter how many lovers she may have, will forever remain a virgin in her soul. I tuck that away to ponder when I’m tempted to drink that fourth martini. And as if she’s reading my mind, Beatrice says, “Jake worried terribly about your soul, Robert.” “But not the way a former nun would,” I say, solemnly, for my heart seems to know where this thought is going. “More so,” she replies. “His greatest fear of dying was what it would do to you. He loved you very much.” The appearance of the valet at the Claremont entrance keeps the tears out of my eyes. I say as I alight, “And vice versa.” She says, “I should hope so. He was more alive than ever, just before he died. And it was because of you two. Does that sound strange?” Neither Clare nor I answer—what would we say? Beatrice starts to cry, softly, and Mary Clare puts an arm across her shoulders. It’s as if Jake is doing this, he’s writing a scenario for us to exchange words of comfort. Only it’s Clare doing it, too. In the midday quiet lounge a waiter appears and takes our order, expertly matching his mood to ours, speaking softly, not smiling. “While he’s fetching those, I’m going to powder my nose,” Clare says, and stands, as do I. Evidently convent etiquette is silent on the subject of women visiting the powder room together and Beatrice remains seated. We’re silent for a minute and then Beatrice says, “I’m not sure how intact my faith is, but I believe in heaven, I believe in the continuation of a state of grace, I believe you can only participate in the Godhead if you have the capacity to. Can you appreciate that?” “Yes,” I answer. “Jake began to have that capacity again after he met you. He said he’d been a fool most of his life. I told him he was a fool for love, like Francis was a fool for God.” I glance into her eyes and try to smile, but at least I don’t cry. Mary Clare returns just as the waiter appears at my shoulder. She motions for me not to stand. I’m the only one with a sensible drink, bourbon over ice, while Mary Clare has a Side Car and Beatrice a Whiskey Sour. “Mmm,” says Mary Clare. “Mmm,” says Beatrice. “Yuk,” I say. Mary Clare says, “Something wrong with your whiskey, sweetie?” “No, it’s for all your fruit garnishes. Lady drinks.” “That’s because we’re ladies, you see.” “Both of you copped to being hussies a few minutes ago.” Beatrice replies, trying to be solemn but with a smile playing in the corners of her mouth, “We were merely practicing humility.” Clare says, “Robert is frequently short on humility.” She smiles broadly and winks at me. The funereal mood is broken. But before we more than taste our drinks I raise my glass and say, “To Jacob Pritchett, a true friend.” “To Jake,” the women respond in unison. After that we talk about what it’s like to live in Berkeley. When the drinks are drunk I invite them to have another. Beatrice shakes her and Clare follows suit. On the descent to Berkeley’s flatlands I tell Beatrice about the letters I retrieved at Jake’s request. She is grateful and embarrassed at once and wants to keep them, so I swing by the Maybeck cottage. “I would show you around, but we left in a big hurry this morning.” “Another time,” Beatrice says. Mary Clare wants to change, so I drive into the heart of Berkeley’s flatlands, where real hippies and ex-nuns and poor folk live. The letters stay in her lap as she gives me directions. As I pull up in front of a Twenties vintage stucco bungalow she retrieves her keys from a coat pocket. I turn off the engine. Neither of us speak for what seems like a long time. “It’s very kind of you,” I say at last. “What?” puzzlement in her voice. “For putting some reverse spin on Jake’s death, how he’d changed for the better, how I was in some way a vehicle of divine grace.” She says, speaking carefully, “If I understood anything Jake said, you and he were kindred souls. ‘If I were king for a day’ I remember him saying, ‘I would send everyone over twenty on a quest—over the Himalayas or across the Sahara—take the chance of losing everything in order to win anything at all.’ And I said amen to that, because you’re as likely to lose your soul in a convent as in a brothel.” “Now I see why Jake liked you so much; you escaped, you broke out.” “Jake liked it that I wrote poetry and cleaned houses. He got to teach me a lot and he liked to teach.” She opens the door and steps out. “Would you come to dinner sometime soon?” I ask her through the open door. “To be honest, no. I hate to say so, Robert, but I haven’t learned to lie yet. You’re too much like Jake, only you have a spiritual arrogance he didn’t, and I’d want to change you, and it would drag me down.” “I understand.” And I did. Her words stung, but I did. Driving home I reflected how it could have been worse. Jake could have been shot in the head, dead on the spot or a brain dead until Amanda pulled the plug. He might have been paralyzed. He could have shot himself, like Meany. Still, it’s bad enough this way: Jake’s not here anymore. If I had the substantial faith of a failed nun I might think there was a whimsical but providential God heaping it on my old sore back. She would say God was giving me the opportunity to climb higher in heaven. Oh to be a Georgia share cropper or a péon chopping cotton somewhere around Los Mochis. Before I leave the truck I sit for a few minutes, dredging up deep thoughts, how death is life’s one solo flight. You are born only once, but it’s never a solo flight, there’s always a triad, a nice solid form at the apex of the great pyramid of life that stretches back into the unknown. To live means to learn this unity, this immersion in a stream that flows without end. To die is to leave the stream, beached forever. Alone. The essence of death is solitude. Beatrice would argue otherwise, I know. She would have me believe that that event, the source of loneliness in the night train’s whistle or the sadness of the wolf’s wilderness cry, is but the bottom of an inverted pyramid, formed by the souls of the elect, blossoming out for all eternity. Mary Clare sticks her head out the cottage door and beckons to me, and it interrupts the thoughts—no doubt a good idea—for they have moved on to the executioner’s hood, how his identity must be hidden, because it is alone the state’s right to execute, not any individual’s. Only, Beatrice, that ain’t so. Some of us executioners don’t even bother with the hood. four It takes some time before I venture to cross the campus again, the last time being the day Johnny brought me the bad news. A Saturday morning that is still autumn on the calendar but winter on the flesh, I have an urge. I put on my waffle stompers and grubby Levi’s, Pendleton overshirt and an auto cap I haven’t worn since I left Berkeley for Walnut Creek. I tiptoe about, not waking Mary Clare, who obliges by hugging her pillow and breathing sleepily. I almost reach the Campanile esplanade before I can see the tower, a Berkeley foggy day, real fog down on the carpet, not the high fog that blows across from the Golden Gate and butts against the hilltops. Everything drips condensate. Chilly, I walk down Telegraph and order the usual at the Mediterraneum, carrying a Saturday Chronicle, which has not one but three crossword puzzles. I solve the monster puzzle, refill my coffee, then read the usual Saturday features, “The Question Man,” and “Grab Bag,” I read in the “Sporting Green” about John Brodie’s sore throwing arm, and whether it makes a difference in the 49ers’ playoff chances. On the last sip of coffee the sun bursts through, as if someone threw a switch and klieg lights went on. Other customers raise their heads from newspapers and coffee cups, mildly amazed by the sudden lifting of the fog. I leave the newspaper and go out into the sunshine. On the sidewalk a girl begs. She reminds me of Janis Joplin, so I give her a buck. Feather merchants set up card tables on the sidewalk outside Cody’s, the usual assortment of drug paraphernalia, silver and semiprecious stone jewelry and petitions to sign. A crazy cuts across the street not looking at the cars that screech to a halt inches from him. Undaunted, I amble onto Sproul Plaza and, reaching the bench I last sat on there, squeegee off as much condensation as I can with my index finger and sit down. As if it were a replay, a woman in leather pants that fit like crazy saunters past, reminding me of she with the Irish Wolfhound, but juicier. I hear Jake saying, ‘Gattling, you’re going to stay alive as long as women have asses and you have balls.’ He sounds like Paul Muni. What was that film? Angel on my Shoulder. A gangster come back to life, tough talking, fearless. It’s so realistic I turn around to look for him. ‘No tricks this time, bub, I’m in your head. Just keep watching the women go by, I’ll do the talking. ‘What a fucking cop-out. It’s not that you don’t get it, you won’t let yourself get it. I not only give you something better than golf to get your mind off things, I gotta pretend to be a figment of your imagination. It’s ridiculous. ‘But while I’m being a figment, let me clue you in on some things. First, stop trying to make connections that aren’t there. Absolutely no connection between me and the Washoe County drifter except the very coincidental shotgun. You know that, but you’ve been trying to turn a genuine coincidence into something it ain’t. Truth is, I had even less reason than you did to have a shotgun with me. ‘You did not shoot the deputy, brother, you did not even shoot the sheriff, so don’t give me that Divine Accident crap. It’s a damn good thing the drifter reached for the shotgun instead of his bowie knife, or you’d be a figment of my imagination right now. ‘And while I’m at it, quit using that catchall, Divine Accident, it’s the biggest mistake of your life, inventing that gimmick. It’s kept you from seeing other options, some of which are a little less jazzy, but definitely more legit. Like that drifter could have had a head cold and not smelled reefer from a mile off. Or maybe he let an empty stomach overcome his will to live. ‘—Keep watching the women, don’t stop for a minute. ‘One more thing. You’ve been going around treating Death like it’s the cruelest accident of all—it’s not. It’s always there, like the faces hidden in the picture of flowers, the kind we used to puzzle out as kids: “How many faces can you find in this picture?” Lots of the comic books in my youth had them. ‘So relax and don’t fight it. If you stumble into it you’re going to say, “Aha, now I see the face, the last face. But it won’t be an accident, divine or profane, you’ll see. ‘The thing that led you to treat Death like a huge misfortune is your ignorance of Life. Life isn’t a commodity, it isn’t something that gets used up or worn down. Life’s a focal point, a way of concentrating energy. You can’t trade it for anything, it can’t turn a screw or patch a flat—you wake up with it one day, like you wake up with a hard-on. ‘You wake up to Death the same way. Wisdom only blossoms when it’s tested by Death. Life’s only wisdom is not keeping score, doing what I already told you, my one piece of wisdom, and that’s to live for Mary Clare. ‘What you do with life, you write it like a novel, you make it the best goddamn novel you can. ‘Is it a novel about death? No, it’s a comedy. It’s a comedy because you and Mary Clare are going to come out all right, you learn some things along the way, and if you don’t crap out the way I did, you should end up better off than before. Count the ways: first, you’ve got Mary Clare in your life; second, the worst thing that could happen to your back did, and you’re not a cripple; third, now you’ve got a purpose in life; fourth, you don’t have to be a janitor any more, but you could in a pinch. Then there’s the little things, like, Meany didn’t kill you, and you’ve got a roof over your head, and you’re getting laid regularly.’ I’ve been watching for women to go by and none have. A good thing, too, because they would have seen this guy with an idiotically dumfounded look on his face, trying to separate two deaths, making them as unrelated as possible, which is to say not unrelated at all, they are very related, but not with me as the sole agent. The drifter was responsible for fooling himself. Meany’s henchmen knew enough of their trade to know no one was home, but they gambled about breaking in because they were more scared of Meany than of facing Jake or me. Thinking: This is really the gist of the issue between the Great Accountant in the Sky and the Divine Accident. We are not responsible for every single thing that happens on our watch, we are responsible for weaving the consequences into our lives, not for being the ultimate cause. And it really is all right if you want to call really hairy accidents Divine. Just don’t get all fatalistic about it. I say out loud, “So you had to come back and kick my ass, didn’t you, Jake. Maybe I’ll even excavate that sinkhole in my mind, that place of muzzle blasts and torn flesh, and let go at last, let go of fear and dread and anguish.” I’m up and running again, running between Wheeler and California Halls, down past the Library, running out of gas by the Men’s Gym and walking through the football practice field, puffing like a guy who smokes too much. There’s someone lying in the grass in the middle of the field, a bicycle parked next to her. I walk through the fog-wet grass and recognize my own ten speed, the one that still needs its wheel trued by a bike shop after hitting the yellow Jag. The supine figure is, of course, Mary Clare. “You’ll catch your death of cold,” I tell her, standing so that she’s looking at me upside down. “No I won’t. Why so happy?” “Oh, nothing.” Knowing if it comes out at all it will take a long time in telling, this brush with a ghost, or this brush with truth. “Let’s get you home, get you out of those wet clothes. Have you lost your marbles?” She says, “I rode over and then I ran five laps of the field as fast as I could go. I’m still cooling off.” I grab the bike and mount it. “I’ll give you a ride home.” “Bet you can’t.” “Bet I can.” I open my legs to let her perch on the horizontal bar, and slowly, with wobbles and lurches, head across the grass. She’s shrieking at each wobble and I’m laughing at each shriek. Somewhere offstage Jake is saying, ‘Good luck, Robert, Godspeed. ‘And good-night, Mrs. Calabash, wherever . . . wherever . . . wherever.’ The End Bonus material, chapter 1, Río Penitente chapter 1: Crossing the River I'm just breezing along with the breeze, Trailing the rails, roamin' the seas. Like the birdies that sing in the trees, Pleasing to live, living to please. . . . Gattling singing, Robert Gattling, bass-baritone with tarnished high notes. Mostly he sang to keep himself awake. Back in Berkeley this time of day he’d be taking a cat nap, a break between tasks or to make up for nighttime revels. The Mexican countryside through which the Ruta Pacífica was passing was just undramatic enough to start him drowsing. He recognized the place from a previous Mexican excursion, motoring down through a gap in eroded hills into a valley not much wider than the river’s flood plain. Planted fields on both sides in wide places, down the center an upheaval marking periodic river rampages: twisted willows, gravel and stones strewn, a half dozen meandering, silted channels. He recognized the bridge that was really a causeway, the longest reinforced concrete bridge he remembered in Mexico. The visible waterway was the same sluggish river (bled upstream for irrigation) called the Río Penitente by locals. The last trip, twenty years earlier, was in a camper mounted on a Dodge Power Wagon. This time, intending to stay on the road a long time—more affluent, too—he drove a converted Mercedes bus. It was a serendipitous offering from the factory when he wrote to inquire after such a rig. They offered him this one, custom-made for another American who, alas, died before taking delivery. He got a price break to take it as-is, and it was a good investment. He’d driven it from Berkeley, at a sensible pace, with layovers in Báhia Kino and Mazatlán; it was barely broken in. I get along without you very well, of course I do . . . Winter still; near noon, mountain time zone. Robert drove with the window down, the hum of his sturdy German tires changing as he went from the blacktop of the Ruta Pacífica onto the old and pitted concrete of the bridge. The new pitch, at odds with the key he sang in, silenced him. He was heading south, no particular target in mind other than a stop in Tepic, which reminded him, for reasons he’d never bothered to analyze, of Berkeley, his hometown. Entering the bridge from the opposite end at the same time was a large “luxury class” bus, the kind steered by two sets of articulating front axles, known popularly as supercruceros, bigger and more powerful than Greyhound buses in the States. He paid attention to its approach, having learned up in Sonora that bus drivers always assume the right of way, traveling at speeds creating wind eddies that rocked his smaller vehicle like a reed in a gale. Before the two buses closed the distance between them, a Pemex gasoline tanker started across the bridge, also heading north. At a moment in time selected by the God of Randomness, the left front tire of Robert’s bus ruptured with a report like a shotgun. Instantly drowned in adrenaline, he let his foot off the accelerator and fought the sudden veering to the left, into the path of the bigger bus. The Mercedes pitched left but steered back right, causing the rear wheels to break loose without doing a one-eighty, for Robert corrected again, praying the supercrucero driver was as frightened as he and had slammed on the brakes. —Which he had, and quickly, too. Robert’s bus traced a path like a diminishing sine wave and was back in his lane when the other driver, almost opposite him, gave him a thumbs up. The Pemex driver, idling behind the bus, put his hands together in applause. Robert tried to smile but couldn’t. At least he hadn’t wet his pants. He shook like a drinkless sot as he limped the final half of the bridge on the shredded tire and came to rest under a looming cottonwood. In his glove compartment he carried an unopened pack of Luckies, so old the one he managed to pull out of the pack crackled. He hadn’t smoked in ten years but the pack had been in every vehicle he’d owned since—waiting for this occasion. He walked back out on the bridge to calm his jitters, the northbound rigs now insects climbing into the gap he’d come down from. He could just hear the tanker’s diesel blat as the driver downshifted. He pulled smoke into his lungs, the nicotine buzz counteracting the adrenaline. He turned, as he came to the center of the stream passing under the bridge, and rested his forearms on the rough concrete of the railing, facing downstream. Thank God the bus driver didn’t think he was Juan Fangio in the Grand Prix of Monaco. . . . thank God the Pemex driver had good brakes. . . . thank God I didn’t hit the railing and go over. He took another pull on the Lucky. The second jolt of nicotine made him dizzy and his stomach told him “Not when I’m empty, sucker,” and he closed his eyes. The world went round and round; his knees threatened to buckle. Oh my gosh . . . ain’t breezing anywhere but I can and I will . . . just as soon as . . . The river moved in a strange way. The river called to him, not like Bali Hai but in piping Spanish, some of which he could catch, though the wind blew half the words away. Then he focused on what had been ripples in the corner of his eyes, now two heads of black hair, young bodies the color of river mud entwined on a sandbar, a fist shaking at him. The wind died a moment and he caught the words for “cut” and for “liver,” he caught a universal imputation of baseness, one of the nasty words he knew in Spanish. He was too woozy to run, and to what end, anyway? Run to his caravan? He might get the shouting youth’s rage in the form of a rock through his windshield. Run the opposite direction and hide out in the thickets on the far bank of the river? The river fornicators weren’t locals, else they wouldn’t be doing it in such a conspicuous place. So they might not know the thickets any better than he. But they were teenagers and might have nothing more important to do than to harass him the rest of the day. He moved to the opposite side of the bridge and looked upstream, at clouds and hills and, far off, the blue-gray Sierra Madres, source and aimer of the river he was crossing, which held two bodies in fond embrace, one of whom would likely confront him soon. Why had the tire blown? It was new, the pressure correct, the vehicle not overloaded, the manufacturer, Continental, though known for sluggish tires (he’d had them on a BMW years before and changed them for more agile Pirellis) at least had excellent quality control. The whopping pothole in Hermosillo, he decided. In the corner of his eye he saw the river rutters emerge onto the bridge, each carrying a bundle. Let’em come. It occurred to him there might be a cosmic reason the tire blew. Just here, just now. I mean what are the chances in a Mercedes. The Universe testing . . . dredging up old scars old baggage. And here comes the kid with his knife out . . . oh shit. He turned away from the railing, remembering to modulate his breathing. Breathing in I observe the daily accident . . . breathing out I await whatever comes. The couple coming towards him—she came too, letting the boy lead but keeping pace—hadn’t the means to dry before dressing, so blotches of water showed through their clothes. Each carried a Huck Finn bundle in one hand, items in a flour sack, ears tied at the top. Her build and coloring indicated more Indian genes than European. The boy—slenderer, lighter-skinned, handsome of features—wore a scowl and walked with the businesslike gait of a boxer heading for the center of the ring to start round one. It would be useless, Robert figured just before the boy closed the last few yards, to apologize. It might make things worse. Robert had boxed in his youth, so understood violence. Though he was almost fifty—his birthday a week away—he’d kept in shape practicing Aikido, and though he hadn’t a black belt, he understood what he had to do: bring the boy back into harmony with his universe without injuring him in body or spirit. (Because there was that cosmic reason for this confrontation which would, by and by, reveal itself.) A sedan with California plates, going south, didn’t distract the boy. The driver slowed, he and his passenger gawked, but seeing the knife decided not to get involved and sped on. At ten feet the boy dropped his bundle and repeated how he was going to cut out Robert’s liver. His eyes were blazing, lips pressed tight, nostril distended. It wasn’t the liver he aimed at. At five feet he swiped the knife in a horizontal arc at the level of Robert’s eyes. The knife would have missed by a hand’s breadth even if Robert hadn’t jerked his head back. It seemed the boy meant to scare him into running, meant to humiliate this gringo who’d violated his teenage honor. The back swing was close enough it pumped up Robert’s adrenalin again, and this time he stepped in, caught the knife hand as it swung by, and closed his hand over the boy’s, pressing the boy’s finger tips into the knife handle until, with a grunt, he gave up the weapon and it clattered to the concrete. In the dojo he would have followed through and taken the boy down, but this wasn’t the dojo. He backed off. The girl let out a yip as the knife hit the concrete. The boy, frustrated now as well as dishonored, launched a kick and then another at Robert’s groin. At the third kick, the man’s back against the concrete railing, he caught the boy’s foot as it came up, lifting it higher than his waist, to a point at which the boy gave up his balance and pitched backwards, the back of his head hitting the pavement before any other part of him. The girl screamed this time. Oh shit I’ve killed him oh shit oh shit. The girl picked up the knife before Robert could. She backed away from him, eyes and gasping breaths indicating how frightened she was. “Listen, let’s get him to sit up against the railing,” Robert said in Spanish, in as soothing a voice as he could. The girl moved their bundles out of the southbound lane. A truck full of tomatoes, heading north, slowed and skirted the trio. With a poker face and an inclination of the head, Robert indicated to the young driver that he had the matter under control and waved him on. They got the boy sitting against a baluster, a person now, too, handsome if skinny, a featherweight, but unmarked on the face, nose straight and sharp, nostrils working as he breathed. The first sign of consciousness was the utterance, "That son of a whore sure bashed me," eyes opening and closing without focus. Robert said, in English, “Welcome back to the land of the living, champ.” Robert and the girl knelt on either side of him. The girl cooed at him, wet hair brushing his shoulder. She still held the knife but put down the bundles. She was tall enough she could have reached Robert if she chose to lunge at him. He’s going to live he must . . . I will make him live. “If we move him to my camioneta, yonder; I have pure water to wash the cut and a bandage to stop the bleeding.” She drew back; she stood; she stared at him through slit eyes. She said at last, "We have to go, we are on our way to the border." A gesture with the back of her hand showed the way north. Just then they noticed a group of campesinos coming towards them from the north, and the girl looked Robert in the eye for one brief instant, understanding they did not want to be in this tableau when the campesinos crossed their path. She handed him the knife. He tossed it over the railing into the river. The girl needed no further prompting: Robert showed her how they would hoist the boy, who shook his head as if to clear it, and support him between them. With Robert bearing most of the weight, they pulled him up on wobbly legs and each draped an arm around his neck. Each grabbing a bundle as they turned, they guided the boy down the bridge to the caravan. Robert was puffing when they reached the cottonwood and rested the boy against the side of the caravan while he opened the door; the girl seemed for the moment drained. Robert hoisted the boy into the caravan and sat him in the passenger side captain’s chair. The campesinos, five men of three generations, were close enough Robert could hear conversation. The girl stood at the bottom of the steps. “Come,” Robert said. The girl, her face reflecting a difficult decision, hesitated. Robert, who noticed for the first time she was barefoot, motioned towards the campesinos, who were almost upon them. “Come,” he said, and left no doubt that she must do as he said. –#–


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