Slick Solutions, Inc.
John Larson had a meeting set up with his investment group for Thursday afternoon. Tomorrow. Thursday at two-thirty p.m. in one of the meeting rooms at the Sheraton Palace. Alan called John's number and hung up. Then he closed his eyes and hit the redial button. John answered. Alan hung up. He hit the redial button a second time. John answered again.
"Look," Alan said in as menacing a voice as he could muster, "Everything's done but I still don't have Lou's and Marshall's pictures."
"Forget the fucking pictures, I told you." John sputtered. He had a hard time expressing things. He thought too far ahead of himself. He was an engineer.
"When did you tell me that?"
"I left a message with your fucking fag answering service on Wednesday! Last Wednesday! A fucking week ago. Go without the god damn pictures, I said."
"Are you serious?"
"Don't fucking bore me you didn't get the fucking message. You fucking didn't do the job. Have some fucking balls. We've moved the son of a bitch back already because of your horseshit. It's not a fucking game, Alan. People are..."
"Tomorrow morning, for sure," Alan cut him off. Waves of hot, prickly embarrassment made him feel like he was glowing.
"Tomorrow morning or you don't get fucking paid. Tomorrow morning or you get your fucking ass sued off. And what about Tanaka? He been by there yet? He wants you and him to get together."
"One of their fucking marketing guys, I don't know."
"Yeah, I think I got a message."
"Look, Alan. I don't know what's going on with you, and personally I don't fucking give a fuck, all I know is I need that brochure in my hand for the meeting tomorrow...at two fucking thirty pee fucking em in the fucking afternoon..."
"You'll have it, don't worry. Who set it up with these guys in the first place? Take my word, okay?"
"Yeah, right. But, I mean, fuck . . ."
"Tomorrow morning. By eleven. For sure."
There wasn't much left to be donefinish correcting the proofs, put in a few phoneyed up revisions to the projections. The art work had been done since last week. The print shop could get it out by tomorrow morning if he pushed them, if he paid them an exorbitant amount of money to stay late and finish the fucker, if he begged and pleaded.
Alan had it done by a little after three. He put the whole project, art work, copy, instructions, the whole ball of wax into an envelope and into his briefcase and left in plenty of time to get it to the printer before they closedand pretty soon everybody was going to be off his back for maybe like about thirty seconds or so. People had to start getting off his back pretty soon. They really did.
In the hallway by the elevator the bird cage was gone. The building crawled with thieves. Nothing was ever worth anything. The elevator door lurched open. A small Asian man in a shiny brown suit was already inside, staring at the linoleum on the floor like that was a job he'd been given to do.
"What floor, please?" the Asian man asked.
"I got it," Alan said and pushed the button, himself. Then he thought for a second the guy had asked, "What for, please?" and tried to come up with an answer.
The marble floor was slightly concave in front of the elevator in the lobby. The building had seen better days. Alan stopped in front of the directory, partly to let the little Asian guy get the hell out the door before he tried striking up some kind of god damn pidgin-English conversation about what a nice country is America.
The case was locked, but the glass was broken. Fuck Karen Stanhope, Alan thought, she can whistle for her proof of insurance until they fix the place up a little. She could whistle for her fucking rent money too. What could she do? Evict him? He looked at his jagged reflection in what was left of the broken glass just as it dawned on him, Tanaka! Motherfuck. The little Asian guy had probably been that Tanaka fucker! And he'd probably been looking for him. Son of a bitch! Now he was probably going to go back and tell his buddies what a total asshole and inconsiderate xenophobic jerk Alan was and John Larson would be the one who could whistle for his money. And it was all Alan's fault, of course. Everything was always all Alan's fault. Fuck everybody, he thought.
Then, just to top the whole shitty day all off, he heard newspapers rustling and thought the dead dove had somehow come back to haunt his ass, until he saw the back of a pink jacket bobbing around behind an unmanned security station.
Alan put his briefcase on the floor, leaned against the table and peered over the edge. It was just one of the bag ladies. She was on her hands and knees, trying to get a piece of cardboard out from the bottom of a Safeway shopping cart. The cardboard was stuck. The woman wore unmatched gloves, each with a few fingers missing. Her nails were long, unpolished, dirty. She had the good stuff in the cart and had stuffed the rest of the crap behind the security station.
His and Felice's ex-bird cage was among the stuff worth keeping. That made Alan feel proud, useful, of some value to the fabric of society as a whole. The cart tipped onto two wheels. The woman must have felt Alan standing there. She glanced up over her shoulder and said, "Why'nt you take a pitcher, Bozo-the-Clown."
She was tall and had on layers and layers of clothing; skirts, pants, jackets, you name it. She was like a walking thrift store. Frizzy red hair stuck out from under a green scarf. Her face was dirty. The jacket had white fur at the wrists. It was a child's jacket. The sleeves came up almost to her elbows. She had freckles on her forearms. Her face wasn't wrinkled. She didn't look old, she just looked nuts, and the way she talked proved it. She had two personalities, each with a distinct voice. The first was calm, sensible, rationalbut then she added comments in a second, sort of ventriloquist's voice, out of the side of her mouth. Her eyes were crazy green. She squinted at him like she was trying to shoot green daggers into his forehead.
"You want some help?" Alan asked and had to smile. Each time the bag lady tried to shoot a dagger at him her nose wrinkled up like a rabbitand nobody had ever called him Bozo-the-Clown. It made him feel almost like giggling. It gave him a whole new imagesuddenly he was this big, goofy-looking guy with huge feet, a Kabuki face and orange pompoms for buttons who made people laugh for a living.
"Save it for the army, Buster Brown." The bag lady grunted, still pulling at the cardboard. It tore loose. She stomped it flat with a pair of raggedy red hightop sneakers, kicked it behind the security station and started pulling at the cart. One of its wheels had twisted backwards. She jerked it from side to side.
"You're just making it worse."
"You should have thought of that the first time, Mr. Parmesan Cheese."
Alan took a dollar bill out of his suit pocket and laid it on top of the table.
"Keep it for yourself, Ralph," the woman said, stuffing the bill into one of her many pockets. "Go give it to all those insane motherfuckers up at Superior Court with wigs on. What we need is like a hole in the wall, Mr. Potato Head."
"Let me ask you something?"
"Take it, take it. I don't want itlying, jizzbag, prick, bastards."
"I don't want it," Alan smiled. "I just want to know if you're really nuts. Or do you just go around acting nuts to fuck with people like you think I am?"
The woman seemed taken off guard. She smiled broadly and said, "Call me Priscella. That's not my name. Please to me meet you, I'm sure." She held out her hand. Alan responded reflexively. Her bare fingers sticking out the ends of her gloves were freezing. Then she tickled the palm of his hand with one of her long fingernails. The woman let out a maniacal cackle. She slapped her skirts. Her face turned red. She drew the child's coat tighter around herself and said, "You're who's nuts, Mr. Kawasaki. I know you like the insides of a book." She pointed at him and kept laughing as she dragged the cart through the front doors. The twisted wheel left skid marks on the marble. "You're the one who's loony, Tommy Tune."
Out on the street the bag lady stamped her feet and shook her skirts like a Moulin Rouge cancan dancer and finally, with an indignant flip of the green scarf, took off down the sidewalk, pulling the overloaded, slightly musical shopping cart behind her on a long, shiny green dog leash, still imbedded with at least half of its original rhinestones.
Maybe she was right. Maybe he was nuts. The lobby was dim, greenish, like an aquarium. Waves of self-pity rolled over him. He was a torn off piece of useless seaweed floating at the edge of an ocean of self-pity. He couldn't even keep up with a whacko bag lady. She'd run circles around him. He was supposed to know how to use words, at least. That was his business. How was he supposed to make money if bag ladies made more sense than he did. Guys like John Larson would chew him up and spit him out like so much flaky fish food. No wonder Felice wouldn't fuck him. How could anyone blame her?
Then he got serious for a minute and started thinking, hey, maybe he really was nuts. He felt like his whole life he'd been living in a series of happy little fish bowls, like the ones down in Woolworth's, one of the ones they keep you in until you're old enough to get plopped into one of the bigger fish bowls. And when they plop you in the big one, it's a little weird for awhile, but you make friends. Then your friends get bought. Die. Whatever. Kids pick you out, buy you, take you home with them, throw someone else in along with you. Some chick fish. Some other chick fish. You all have babies together. Then the kids that bought you get bored, grow up, lose interest, flush you down the toilet.
Maybe that was what going nuts is, Alan thoughtyou're still alive and swimming against an impossible current through sewer pipes out to a treatment plant where they fill you full of chemicals and turn you loose into a vast indifferent ocean where you have to make your way among slack-jawed lamprey eels and pretty pink poison anemones whose job it is to suck your heart out and eat into your brain with its terrible enzymes and everything's after you all the time and you have to hide all the time and that's all you ever do.
Okay, knock it the fuck off, Alan said to himself and bit the inside of his cheek and looked around to see if anyone might have been listening. He should just move back homeset up his office back down in the basement again. Get back to the way it was. On the patio baby pigeons had been born again. They were learning to coo. He'd been happy. He had made money. People had thanked him.
Just then a flash of orange went past the glass doors, a sweep of blond hair. It was the same dull orange, the same long hair as the woman in the park. It was her. Alan hadn't thought she was real. The way the bird had flown into her hand came back to him the way dreams come back. He went outside and followed in the direction she'd been goingtoward Powell, then toward Market Street.
The sidewalk was crowded. He thought he got glimpses of the dress but people kept getting in the way. He lost her. He had to find her. He was running. Then. Son of a bitch! He'd forgotten about his briefcase. Where had he left it? Back in the lobby. On the floor. Motherfuck. Someone would steal the son of a bitch for sure. He kept on going anyway. When he got to O'Farrell he stopped. John Larson's seething face popped into his consciousness like a piece of raw meat. He tore back up the street again.
When he got back to his building, the briefcase was gone. He looked everywhere. A slow sinking frantic feeling settled over him. Chills prickled up between his shirt and skin. Now what? Start over? There wasn't time. Just the art work itself would take days to redo. He still had the proofs, but proofs wouldn't cut it. And he could just print out the rest of the stuff again. Maybe he could call John? Explain things. Yeah? Explain what? Alan bit the inside of his cheek again. Maybe he could just go prostrate himself naked in John Larson's office. John would know what to dothere must be special cattle prods made for such occasions.
Back outside again, Alan looked up and down Geary Street as if the briefcase might have been hanging from the flag pole in front of Lefty O'Doul's or sitting on top of the Plain Truth rack. It wasn't. It wasn't anywhere. The bag lady was hemmed into a brick alcove, sort of gently flexing at the knees. The wind had come up. She was resting one hand on a gold plated fire hydrant and blowing warm breath into her other hand. Alan peeked around the corner at her.
"What is this? Love Boat? If it's the complaint department tell them they've got all the god damn signs upside down again."
"Did you happen to go back into my building a minute ago?" Alan asked.
"Was I born under a rose in the snow?"
"No," Alan drew a rectangle in the air. "Did you see my briefcase?"
"Police state? Nuh-uh, not in this country we don't. How about why don't you just toddle on off about minding your own bee's wax, ball 'n Jax? Take it up with Carnegie Hall."
"What about my briefcase?"
"Did I steal it?"
"Take it up with Mrs. Gretzweiler," the bag lady said and, with her long dirty thumbnail, pointed to the jewelry store next door.
Alan went in. A tiny, gray-haired woman with wire glasses and powder in her ears had his briefcase behind the counter. She thanked him for claiming it. Back outside again, the bag lady was laughing up the sleeve of her pink snowsuit. Alan held up the briefcase and said, "Thanks."
"Don't thank me, Don Quixote, thank little blondie the bombshell, Little Miss Lemonhead in a Orange Creamsicle dress. She done it for you."
"How do you know her?"
"Hooker looking? Slit up the side? Barefooted? Everyone knows her. Ask the Rose Man."
"Where is she? I mean, where does she hang out? Do you know?"
"Sure thing, Cock Robin. Give me the five bucks you been saving up to go to the zoo and I'll take you there."
Alan pulled out a wad of bills, "All I've got's a ten."
"All the better, Bronco Billy," she snapped it out of his hand. "I'll take you there twice." She motioned for him to follow along with her as she yanked her shopping cart sideways out from the alcove and started pushing it toward Powell Street. "Right down here past Marvin's Gardens is where she's usually usually at but I ain't making no promises. Promises, promises. Keep your lying, jizzbag promises. I ain't making any. Ever. Never. Not any. None. Not ever."
They walked together down to Powell again, then turned right toward Market Street. They made a cute coupleAlan in his suit and tie and briefcase and the bag lady in patches, pulling her cart. When they got to the cable car turnaround, the bag lady sat down on one of the granite steps in front of the old Bank of America Building and patted a spot next to her. Alan brushed it off and sat beside her. There were escalators going up and down into the Powell Street BART Station. A woman in dreadlocks was reading Tarot cards. Punks and skinheads slouched against the railing, biting into cold slices of Blondie's thick-crust pepperoni pizza.
"What you usually find to eat?" Alan asked the bag lady.
"Oh, we find the artichokes in a delicate oyster sauce particularly delectable."
"Who are we?"
"Us." She pointed to her chest. "Me and my ilk, Harvey Milk."
Alan looked at her closely. Her hair was pretty. Her face could have been cute. "What's supposed to be the matter with you?" he asked.
"Nothing a little cooperation can't cure. You got any?"
"Do you know the story of this bank?" He patted one of the stone steps.
"No. What's the gory story, borey boy."
"A. P. Giannini used to work here. It was the first big main branch of the Bank of America. He sat at a desk in the middle of the floor. You could walk right up and talk to him. Try that now. It takes three days to see some dipshit secretary and she just tells you to put it in writing, which you already knew, you know?"
"Exactly!" The bag lady corkscrewed a finger into he air. "I can't tell you how many times that happens every day of the week, Mr. Meek. Mr. Thou Shalt Inherit the Earth. Mr. Thou Shalt Not Kill Spiders."
"So where's the blond girl?"
The woman pointed up. There were five bright banners flapping in strong gusts of wind on tall black poles around the cable car turnaround. Above them, higher up, in one of windows in the Woolworth's Building, the Flood Building, actually, if you wanted to get technical, Alan thought he saw a speck of orange fabric. It may just have been a coat on a coat rack. He couldn't tell.
"What's the matter, Skeezits? It ain't good enough for you? You think you're gonna find better? That's what they all think."
"I don't know," Alan said without knowing what he was saying. He got up and took off toward the entrance to the Flood Building while the bag lady stayed sitting there with a smirk on her face like she owned the place.
Up in the building Alan got fatalistic. He found the room where he thought the woman might have been but she wasn't there anymore if she'd been there in the first place. There wasn't even an orange coat on a rack. There wasn't anything orange in the whole room. The room was empty. He looked out the window. Down on the steps of the Bank of America Building, the bag lady was gone. He didn't seem to be there himself anymore either. She'd weaseled him out of ten bucks. That was it. That was all there was to it. Well, what the hell. She needed it more than he did. He needed it like he needed a hole in the wall. Ha! She was funny. Wires lay in coils on the floor. He'd never found anything he'd ever looked for, well, not by looking for it, anyway.
The main floor of Woolworth's was its usual crowds of foreigners rifling the souvenir counters and Asian girls in Catholic high school skirts and lumbering transvestites; the old, the diseased, the depressedthen he saw a fresh, tiny little blond girl about three years old and wearing a faded dress with all its bows untied, trying to get a quarter into one of the ten cent gum ball machines.
Her hair was one big sticky tangle that hadn't been combed since the day she was born; whoever got stuck with the job was going to have to shave her bald and start from scratch. The machine only took dimes. The kid didn't care. One way or other she was going to get that big fat coin into that tiny little slot no matter what. Alan knew the feeling. She worked at it and worked at it. She tried everything: frowning, squinting, cocking her head, biting her lip, sticking out her tongue. The quarter didn't fit. That was all there was to it. Her hair fell into her face. She pushed it away and started fresh and her hair slid slowly back in front of her eyes again.
Alan was on her side all the way. They both stood there expecting a miraculous, torrential outpouring of gum balls any second nowred and yellow jawbreakers popping like popcorn in the aisles and the kid dancing like a Cossack trying to grab them so all at once she couldn't hang on to even one. People would stop what they were doing and come to her aid. That withered old woman by the lingerie rack would scoot one of the jaw breakers out of a crack with the rubber tip of her cane. Everyone would get in on it. The black guy in the Giants cap would take it off and fill it up for the kid. She'd make the lap of her dress into a nest full of gum balls and walk around the rest of the day with her underpants showing.
Then what really happened was the poor kid dropped the damn quarter. The withered old woman kept getting into the black guy's way. The quarter spun under a counter. The kid started to cry. Her mother showed up. She whispered for the kid to stop crying. The kid didn't stop. Her mother shook her by the tiny bones in her shoulders and slapped at her bare, prancing legs. The kid moved like a matador. Finally her mother just yanked her up by one arm and stuffed her face into her shoulder and carried her out the front door. Alan followed them. They headed down one of escalators going into the BART Station. He was right behind them. Then. Fuck. Fucking fuck and fuck again. He had to get to the printers. What the hell had he been thinking? He turned around and ran back up the down escalator.
The big gold and black clock at Powell and Market said it wasn't quite five. Son of a bitch. The printer usually closed pretty promptly, but maybe he could still make it. He looked for a cab, then ran and hopped on a Number Thirty-one Bus. From Van Ness, he could run and maybe still make it. He got to Van Ness. He ran. He didn't make it. The printer's was closed. He banged on the window. Nobody heard. Nobody was inside. Everyone had left for the day.
Maybe if he got there early tomorrow. The meeting wasn't until two-thirty. Maybe if he was there waiting by the door when they opened. It was kind of a big job, but it couldn't have been that big a job. He relaxed. The day was over. He'd done everything he could do.