Kelly Christensen:
An Introduction
Part Two

Ginny Good, A Mostly True Story:

Read and/or Watch

Chapter Three

Slick Solutions, Inc.
(Part Five)

Alan Dunstan balanced a carryout cup of coffee on his briefcase, pulled open one of the front doors of his office building and didn't recognize himself for a second. Who was that guy? A small, sort of nondescript older fellow with lines wrinkling up like bird's nests around the corners of his eyes? The door was heavy glass. His reflection moved with him. An orange and white Number 38 Geary bus roared away from beside the St. Francis. Bright, dreamlike cars followed in its wake. Sun glinted off chrome. Stars of light moved across the glass and disappeared into the dim lobby.

Alan juggled the coffee from one hand to the other and twisted through the door. His suit smelled fresh from the cleaners. Inside it was quiet. His tie patted him like a fern. The tie was blue silk with flecks of white and stopped exactly at his belt. Sheer black socks went up to his knees. His shoes fit like pigskin. The belt, shoes and briefcase were all of the same soft crackled black leather. The suit was grey; Italian. It cost five hundred bucks—and the guy had given him a deal. The only thing wrong, really, was the shirt. It sagged across his chest and felt tight at the waist. A fitted shirt somehow didn't quite fit right anymore.

"You might care to try our Gentleman's Cut," an immaculate homosexual clerk with blue-rimmed, blue-tinted glasses had told him at the shirt shop on Post Street. The clerk's beard was brown and red, neatly-sculpted as a brush. Out of boredom, he pared the cuticle on his middle finger with white, even teeth. There was remarkably no hair anywhere but where it belonged and his suit looked better on him than it did on one of the silver mannequins hidden among a clump of fake palm trees. "You might care to stick your Gentleman's Cut up your ass," Alan had thought.

"Prissy prick motherfucker," he thought again that morning as he avoided the elevator and headed for the stairs in the back of the lobby. It was because of all the fags and all their chrome-plated health clubs and fitness centers and bath houses and wine and cheese and fashion and all the rest of all that homosexual bullshit that some New York Jew bastard had gone and changed the way they cut a god damn shirt in the first place. It wasn't for the sake of trying to get his shirts to fit again that he used the stairs, however. He started up the back stairs with the vague notion that some kind of physical exercise might take his mind off Felice.

By the third floor, his calves were tightening up on him. Muscles throbbed in his shins. He held on to the banister and pulled himself up one step at a time. Coffee sloshed in the cup and he was more than just out of breath when he got to his office, his heart thumped, he was dizzy.

Climbing the stairs hadn't helped but also it was the thought this might be the morning he'd find a note slipped under the door—a smug, friendly announcement from Felice, a scent of her soap still fresh in the hallway. Something. Anything. But there was only the same sign screwed into the door; SLICK SOLUTIONS, INC. What a fucking stupid ass name for a business. The curly-cues around his name made him cringe. Who had he thought he was?

It appeared that the sign hadn't been tampered with but Alan refused to accept things as they appeared. He searched for the most minuscule clue. She could have scratched something on the plastic with the tip of a barrette. A strand of her hair could have caught in a screw—it could be there, dark and reddish, trembling in a draft. Or, hell, she might just have planted a big, pouty kiss on the sign; a sadistic, meaningless whim to taunt him. That would have been something. As it was, there was nothing.

But, wait a minute! He couldn't get the door open. Something had been slipped in—and Alan's heart started up again. He felt like an archeologist. If it was from Felice he didn't want to disturb the way it lay. The way it lay could help in the reconstruction of how and when and why she finally broke down and came crawling back. It would be something they could laugh about. She'd lean her head against his chest. He smelled her hair again. Then she'd look up, kind of sheepishly, waiting to be forgiven. Of course she knew what coming back would entail. They both knew. It would have to be on the floor. There wouldn't be time to go anywhere fancy.

What impeded the door, however, was one of Karen Stanhope's overdue rent notices. Nothing had changed. The office was the way he had left it the night before, the way he and Felice had fixed it up at the end of January. Except the bird cage was empty. Alan felt himself start to cry. The feeling stopped. It always did. He wished it wouldn't stop more than he wished it wouldn't start.

He looked out the window. He was sweating. There weren't many people out yet; a bum asleep in a far corner of the park, a few tourists, the flute player. There wasn't much traffic. A cable car stopped, rang its bell, started up again. Nobody got off or on. Union Square was quiet; green hedges, grey cement—pigeons on the statue, sparrows in the palm trees.

Then Alan noticed a woman; a pretty young woman in an orange dress with long blond hair. The dress stood out against the green of the grass. She was barefoot. The dress was tight, slit up one side. She was kneeling. There were birds in front of her. She held out her hand. She was facing toward him but didn't look up. He steadied himself against the window frame. The glass was spattered and dirty again. What remained of the dove was almost indistinguishable between the cable car tracks; a few oily feathers and some blackened white bones. He opened the window. Fresh air from the ocean dried the sweat, made him shiver. Far away there were sirens starting up.

The blond woman was still as a tree. She had pieces of bread in her hands. The birds were sparrows and a few starlings not paying much attention. One of the birds hopped closer. The woman didn't move. Her dress covered her knees. Her breasts touched her arms. One of the sparrows then, one of the ones from farthest away, flew toward her and came to a fluttering stop on the back of her wrist. The woman seemed to have expected it. The bird pecked at a piece of bread then looked up, looked sideways and, as suddenly as it had arrived, took off again leaving a line of sunlight in the air.

The woman got to her feet. She brushed her hands together and shook the crumbs from her lap and looked up—right at Alan, directly into his eyes as if she'd known he had been there all along. He felt ashamed. Caught. Found out. Discovered. Like she could see into his poor, stupid mind and knew what a liar he was, how useless and selfish and deluded he'd always been, how it would have been better if he hadn't been born. Then she waved. It couldn't have been at anyone else. And it was a friendly enough wave, like what she'd found out in that one brief, penetrating glance would remain just their little secret.

Berries growing at the tops of the palm trees were the same burnt orange color as her dress. The grey sleeves of his suit went with the cement. Different colors of green went with each other and the buildings were at odd, sharp, geometrical angles to one another so that the whole scene looked as if it might have shaken into place at the end of a kaleidoscope.

The sirens were fire-engines. They had come closer, tearing up O'Farrell, careening around corners, blowing their tremendous horns. The woman walked away without looking back. Her legs moved under the dress. Her hair was the only blond in sight. It didn't go with anything. It seemed to be leaving all by itself. Alan wanted to call to her. He wanted to say something. He wanted to yell. But what? Stay there? Wait? Stop. Don't go. Come back. What?

It wouldn't have mattered. One of the bright, speeding fire-trucks roared past under the window just then anyway; blaring its siren, blasting its horn. He could have said anything. No one could have heard. He could have screamed his guts out. No one would have known. Maybe he did. It was really impossible to tell. He didn't know himself.

He had work he could have done, of course, but he didn't do it. He could have checked with the answering service for the first time all week, but he didn't do that either. He closed the window and pulled the shade and turned around and faced his small suite of offices and pushed his aching vertebrae into he window frame and relaxed the muscles in his throat and leaned back until his head bounced against the wood with a nice solid thump. That felt good. He did it again and saw bright starry specks in quick blackness. He did it once more. Harder. It hurt. He quit.

The rooms were a mess. It was spring. The calendar still said May. But it didn't feel like spring. Maybe if he straightened things up, got rid of some of the crap on the floor. He could borrow a vacuum cleaner from the hair salon down the hall. Spring cleaning! Hell, yes. Just what the doctor ordered.

He took a sip of cold coffee and sat the cup on the edge of Felice's desk, then pulled out her top drawer like it was contaminated. There was an orange emery board with long, sweeping scrapes of her fingernails still engraved in it. He opened the drawer wider. The check he'd written was still there. He took it out, unfolded it, looked at her name, tore it in two, tore it in four, tore it in eight and put the pieces back into the drawer. There were a few bobby pins toward the back of the drawer. A tube of clear Vaseline Lip Balm. The pencil she'd chewed on as she twisted the ends of her hair while she talked on the phone. Getting rid of the stupid fucking bird had only been the beginning.

Alan stood up resolutely and maneuvered the bird cage off its hook. It was light. It fell into his arms like an empty bushel basket. That gave him another idea. He filled the cage with unopened mail and old newspapers, then cleaned out Felice's desk. The emery board, the pieces of her check, the pencil, loose, left over strands of her hair, a schedule of classes from City College, everything.

He filled the cage so full it was about to burst. Paper bulged out between the wires like the way, where was it? In China? The Wild West? Where they wrapped wet slitted rawhide around guys and left them to dry in the sun? And the leather shriveled up? And the skin that bulged out from the slits in the rawhide was sliced off with razor sharp knives and when the leather was removed so was the skin and veiny blue and pink sexless people screamed off in no particular direction without any eyelids? He couldn't remember where he heard about it, all he knew was the cage reminded him. He hugged his arms around it and backed out the door and left it by the elevator and cleaned up everything else that could reasonably be cleaned up. It was spring.

Alan's answering service was called Phone Mates. It was run out of a dingy storefront in the Tenderloin by Manny Griggs and Maury Wacholder, a couple gay guys in their fifties who'd come up with the name long before some big company had stolen it off them as the name for an answering machine. That was a point of some pride with them. They made sure their customers were aware that initially the name Phone Mates had been theirs and theirs alone.

On Sundays Manny and Maury went fishing out at Ocean Beach. Maury was the one who fished. Manny sat in a beach chair and did the Jumble from the Sunday Chronicle. Back home, Maury cleaned the fish. Manny cooked it in a new and more elegant way each time, prepared elaborate sauces, served it with rosettes of radishes and bouquets of cauliflower, then Maury came along and ate the whole thing like a fucking pig. He belched and dipped his sleeves in the soup and talked with his mouth full and mopped up his plate with Wonder Bread, and no matter what kind of fancy pineapple upside down cake Manny had gone to all kinds of trouble to serve for dessert, Maury always had a peanut butter sandwich dunked in a glass of milk instead. Sometimes it made Manny want to cry. Sometimes he did cry. They'd been together for years. They were meant for each other.

"Phone Mates, how may I help you, please?" Manny answered alluringly.

"So, how was the day at the beach?" Alan asked. His voice cracked.

"You're among the living! We were beginning to wonder." Karen Stanhope had called. And a guy Alan didn't know—some Asian name. And John Larson. "Sales brochure? Big question mark. Urgent," Manny whispered. "Some of your clients haven't been sounding too happy lately."

"It's not a happy world, Manny. So, how was Sunday dinner?"

"Oh, splendid!" He brightened. "Maury caught us a great big granddaddy of a sea bass. It battled him and battled him to the last sinews of its strength. But. Shit. Hold on, will you? Oh, hell. Call back later. Can you do that?"

"Sure," Alan said. It felt nice having someone who wanted to talk to him—even if it was just some whispery old fag.

He'd written the messages on the back of an envelope but, except for the Asian guy, already knew who they were and what they wanted. Karen Stanhope wanted the rent and a copy of his proof of liability insurance. It was a provision of the lease. Alan didn't have liability insurance. What the hell was he supposed to show her? And John Larson wanted the sales brochure which was supposed to have been finished a week ago. What the hell was he supposed to show him?

Alan crumpled the envelope and tossed it toward the trash bag hanging from a freestanding crochet hoop Felice had found down at the Goodwill on Howard Street. It used to be fun, trying to make baskets. Now that she was gone, Alan tried to make a basket or two now and then himself but it wasn't the same. It wasn't that much fun anymore. It wasn't much fun at all.

The paper made a lazy parabola through dust in the air. He didn't see it land. He'd warned her not to go down there. There were crippled-up old black guys on crutches in the alleys on the way to Howard Street and tough, mean young black guys with posts in their ears and heroin in their veins. She was asking for it—striding the way she did in her white high-heels and that blue knit dress—she was going to get it, too. Raped. Beat up. He should have just raped her himself. Tied her up. Gagged her. Drugged her. Better him than black guys in an alley. They'd find her between two garbage cans—dress around her neck, the crotch ripped out of her panties, one of the high-heels broken off inside her, pieces of shattered sunglasses, unexplainable lacerations, a pretty brown knee turned inside out, a patch of torn blue...

Chapter Three

Slick Solutions, Inc.
(Part Six)

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."

"Who's Tanaka?"

"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 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 done—finish 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 closed—and 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, rational—but 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 rabbit—and nobody had ever called him Bozo-the-Clown. It made him feel almost like giggling. It gave him a whole new image—suddenly 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 it—lying, 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 thought—you'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 home—set 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 going—toward 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 do—there 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 couple—Alan 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 depressed—then 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 now—red 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.

Chapter Three

Slick Solutions, Inc.
(Part Seven)

Mitchell Brothers' is a big blue building with tropical fish and dolphins and killer whales and seaweed and sprigs of coral painted on the outside walls like a huge aquarium. It was on Alan's way home. He went in. There was more to it than that.

He was hoping maybe one of the women there might take his mind off Felice for awhile; some cute little black chick, maybe, with popping white eyes in the darkness and thick, slurpy lips and a broken tooth who would sit on his lap for a few bucks and talk to him like they were old friends from somewhere neither of them had ever been before. Someone real. Felice had become all that ever went on in him anymore. She wasn't real. He'd never seen her again. She could have been dead.

The woman behind the cash register wanted twenty bucks. Alan gave it to her. She gave him a ticket. He went down a mirrored hallway. Either way he looked, to his right or to his left, he saw himself reflected over and over, getting smaller and smaller off into infinity. He was a parade of shrinking, graying blond men in the same grey suit and black briefcase, marching toward a den of iniquity.

They tell you it's a den of iniquity all the way there. They don't make any bones about it. There are warnings not to be offended by any conceivable form of explicit sex or pornography or perversion. The signs lead you on. You think it's going to be Sodom and Gomorra. You expect midgets and Great Danes. There are grainy newspaper blowups of Marilyn Chambers being carted off by vice cops. She's looking smug. The cops are looking like they don't give a shit.

Past the mirrors there's a red curtain. A guy looks at your ticket. Through the curtain there are red velvet chairs. They rock. The stage has a runway jutting out among red velvet rocking chairs. It's disappointing. The only thing that happens is women take off their skimpy clothes and dance down the runway and take off their shoes and perform gynecological feats on the bare floor. Men put money in front of them. The women pick it up in ingenious ways. When they're done, they put their skimpy clothes back on and show up in the audience and sit on the laps of men and men give them more money. It works out to around a dollar a minute. They get paid minimum-wage. Everything's strictly on the up and up. They make three or four hundred dollars a day. Some work harder than others.

The girl on stage was no cute little black girl but a good sized Scandinavian blond. Some reggae guy was singing about electricity. Alan couldn't make out the words. He sat in one of the back rows. There was a ceiling fan and a mirrored ball which moved spots of light across the stage, and the curtain, and the chairs, and the walls, and into his eyes like an occasional flashbulb. He picked out one of the spots and followed it as it moved faster and slower, changed shapes, grew into ovals, shrank into to dots—then disappeared altogether and, when it showed back up again, he couldn't tell which one it had been. Twenty bucks seemed like a lot of money.

The music stopped. The big blond was done. She dragged her clothes off the stage behind her. The curtain closed. A voice over the loud speaker wanted to hear it for Joy. Men clapped. Snatches of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony came on. The curtain opened again. The loud speaker asked everyone to welcome Betina from Brazil. The same men clapped. Punk rock music started up. B-52's? He didn't know. Felice would have known. She could have told him. She loved it when she knew stuff he didn't know. He had even pretended to be stupider than he actually was, just to give her extra opportunities.

Betina sauntered into the spotlight in a pink prom dress. Alan heard footsteps through the wall behind where he was sitting—and pretty soon Joy showed up through the red velvet curtain. She took a deep breath and began making her rounds between the backs of chairs and the laps of men.

Alan's eyes became accustomed to the dark. The aisles were crawling with the bodies of women. The men stayed in their chairs. You could hardly see them. They didn't move. Ovals of light floated over them and the bodies of women sidled up to them like so many fiddler crabs sidling up to so many clumps of seaweed on a moonlit beach, fiddling at them with bare arms and legs, plucking dollar bills from secret crevices, and sidling on down to the next dark, motionless clump. It was macabre, primordial—made his bones feel cold inside.

Felice had turned him into someone he didn't like. The women were eighteen, nineteen year-old kids. The men could have been their fathers. But it was a way to make money. And dancing pumped their hearts and shot blood into their brains. Sitting on a few laps never killed anyone; the job had its ups and downs. And as for the men, they got to get touched, aroused; flattered, patted, petted, perspired upon. Surreptitious fondling took place. There were condom machines in the men's room in case you wanted to accidentally come in your pants without making a mess.

The curtain closed. The intermission music was Jazz. A new announcement was made. The curtain opened. The spotlight shot on. It was Felice. The loud speaker called her Kim. The loud speaker said she was from Korea. Alan knew better. Electricity poured through him. Each little hole in his skin was riddled with hot fiery pricks of light. Waves of surprise and guilt and jealousy rolled over him. He was burning up.

She was different. Her mouth glistened, still without lipstick, and her lips still curled into a churlish snarl. Her hair was redder, more messed up than ever. It had been three months. She was older. The bleeding man earring Dick Cherry had given her still dangled in her ear. She had on a black, wide-shouldered business suit with a white scarf around her neck and sequined shoes that picked up the spotlight. Her legs were bare. At first she didn't dance but just strode her long confident strides down the runway. The music was the Beatles song about here come old flattop.

She looked into the eyes of men—riveted them to their chairs. She hiked up her skirt. Her panties were prim white cotton. Then she started dancing. Her legs were strong. She knew what the music was about. She unbuttoned the jacket and left it on. He couldn't see her breasts. Every hair on his body stood up like quills. She unzipped the skirt and left it on. The song ended.

She went behind the curtain, seemed to relax, caught her breath, ran her hand through her hair, messed it up, made it stick out in sharp spikes catching the light. Then she took off the jacket, tossed behind the curtain, arranged the scarf across her bare chest and came back out into the spotlight again. Alan picked up his briefcase and moved down behind two young guys in the front row. He didn't want Felice to see him. The next song was a woman singing in a strange voice about a radio. Alan couldn't pay attention. Felice kicked the skirt off the end of a sequined shoe and was down to nothing but panties and the scarf. She was so pretty.

She slipped off the shoes. She looked so young and fresh and nice, like she'd just stepped out of a hot bath, and sat on the stage like she was getting ready to paint the little slivers of her toenails; one knee up to her chin, thighs and breasts brushing. If she looked up, she'd be glad to see him. Alan just knew it. She would have missed him. She would have wanted to talk to him. She'd want to have a drink after work.

The guys in front of Alan were drunk. One whispered hoarsely, either to himself or to the other guy, it was hard to tell. "Jesus. Look at the nipples on them tits, man! Damn. Can't you just taste her clit between your teeth? Mmm." Felice could hear him. She pulled the crotch of her panties to one side. The tendon inside her thigh stretched like a bowstring. The drunk guy squirmed. The other guy put a dollar on the stage. Felice brushed it back into the runway and smiled with her thick, sneering lips smeared with a new tube of Vaseline Lip Balm.

Then she saw Alan. Her jaw popped open. He saw her back teeth. She stood up. Her third tune had started, Mick Jagger doing the one about the bleeding man--like Felice's earring, Alan thought. She still had her panties on, but she was done, she was through, she was out of there. She picked up her money quickly, without thanking anyone, and turned and the muscles in her calves tightened and her ass plumped out in strong, perfect semicircles as she walked away.

Alan waited in the corridor leading from the stage. No one had seen him slip back there. There was a paint spattered tarpaulin draped over sections of scaffolding. He hid. She had to walk past him. Sweat from his hand made the handle of the briefcase smell like new leather. He balanced it over his shoulder like a club and could almost feel himself swinging it. She wouldn't know what hit her. He could kill her, physically, not leave her alive. The canvass made a kind of tent. He could drag her back there. It was dark. The music was loud. No one would hear. He could strangle her with her scarf. Then what? Touch her. So he would know in his flesh forever what it had been like to touch her, to feel inside her mouth, to touch her tongue, to pinch her pouty lips between his thumb and finger and take off her shoes and hold her feet until her toes turned cold.

Felice's spike-heels nailed into the hollow floor like her legs were hammers. She was so sure of herself. She carried the jacket and skirt in front of her like she was on the way to the dry cleaners. Alan stepped in front of her, startled her. He smiled, tried to look cute.

"What are you doing here?" she whispered.

"I want to talk to you."

"We're not supposed to meet customers."

"I'm not a customer, Felice. Jesus. When do you get off?"

"Wait for me up the block. We can have a drink, if you want."

"I do," he said.

She walked past him and the end of the white scarf dragged on the floor.

They had daiquiris. A peach daiquiri and a strawberry daiquiri. The peach daiquiri was hers. It had a slice of peach on the edge of the glass. She ate it between her teeth and licked her lips with her tongue. Alan gave her his strawberry. She was still seeing Dick Cherry. On and off. Off and on. Alan wadded the cocktail napkin into a ball and straightened it out again and wadded it up once more and bent the little red straw from his drink back and forth.

"So, have you hired a new secretary?" Felice asked.

"No. You're irreplaceable."

"Yeah," she said sadly. "Isn't that always the awful thing about unrequited love. Don't you just want to kill me?"

He threw the napkin at her.

She ducked, laughed. It made him feel good when he made her laugh. "I should kill you," he said. "I really should. Except it wouldn't do any good."

"Sure it would. I'd be dead."

"No you wouldn't."

"I wish you'd get over that. I don't have anyone to talk to anymore," she shook her head. "I miss that."

"I'm not going to get over it."

"That's too bad."

"Tell me about it," he said. "But, what are you doing working there?" He pointed back down the street. "What's it like?"

"Working there? What does it look like it's like?" she asked—deadpan, droll, irritated, pained. "The money's good."

"I really am sorry, you know."

"It's not your fault."

"I was the one who fired you."

"Oh, yeah. I forgot. You fucking asshole." She threw the napkin back at him. "I liked my little job. We were fun together."

"I had good reason, Felice."

"No you didn't."

"Yeah, actually, I did. Which brings me to why I wanted to talk to you." He bent the straw again. It broke. "There's something I need to know. This is hard." He held his palms open across the table. "In my life..."

"In your long, long life," she interrupted.

"There's been one thing that's been really important to me."

"Jumping my bones." Her eyes looked up into her forehead.

"No. I just adore you. That was always the whole trouble since about two minutes after I met you. I've never been able to be myself around you. Not even for a second. And all I want to know. You have to understand this. I'll do anything."

"Like what?"

"How about if I let you pull out all my grey hairs with a pair of rusty pliers?"

"It's not your grey hair, Alan."

"That's not very encouraging."

"I've never been very encouraging. Have I?"

"No. You never were. I don't know how this happened."

"It's not something I haven't heard before, though. Men get infatuated with me all the time. Don't ask me why."

"Let me just get this over with, then," he interrupted. "I'm not talking about right now or next week or next month or even in a year. But do you think. Ever. Under any possible set of unforeseen circumstances you could like me?"

"I like you right now."

"Equally. Physically. We could like each other?"

Felice thought for a minute and wrinkled up the corner of her mouth and shrugged and said, "Posthumously?"

"Other than posthumously?"

"Mistaken identity?" She laughed.

"Other than mistaken identity."

"I don't think so."

"Why not?" He practically wailed.

"You're too hairy."

"That's it?"

"Not entirely. God, Alan. Come on. How can I explain it? You're either attracted to someone or you're not."

"And you're not attracted to me."

"Right. Do you enjoy this?"

"Yeah. I love it. Just answer the question."

"I don't see how." She shook her head.

"What if I gave you money?"

She looked at him sideways, lowered her voice and said, "I do that once in awhile. If the guy's not too repulsive and it's enough money."

"You mean with guys you meet there?" Alan pointed back toward Mitchell Brothers' and felt powerful drugs twitching his nerves, making him sweat.

"It's not much more than what I do anyway. Lap dancing isn't exactly sitting on grandpa's knee."

"I'll give you money, Felice."

"You don't trick with your friends," she said casually.

"How can you want to be friends if you don't want to even get to know me?"

"Sex has a tendency to screw things up."

"How much more screwed up can they get?"

"I'm not going to let myself be manipulated."

"That makes me feel terrible."


"There's nothing I could ever do?"

"Nothing I can think of."

"Felice," he said and paused. "I absolutely adore you."

"I know," she said.

Things got quiet. The drinks were gone. Alan looked into his glass and said, "I guess we're about through talking, then," and looked up expectantly.

"Haven't we about exhausted the subject?"

"He looked into her eyes. They were clear, direct, bored; hadn't changed, never would. "Well, you know what?" he asked.

"No." She smirked. "What?"

"I don't believe you," he said.

Felice shook her head and turned her lips slightly inside out and said, "I'd love to know what it's like to have a man's ego for about a fraction of a second."

"You want to know something else?" Alan asked. "This is going to sound stupid, but it's totally true. If you liked me you'd like me."

"Hey, goddamn." She snapped her fingers. "Why didn't I ever think of that?"

They waited for her bus at the corner of Polk and Post. The fog was sprays of water like dew clinging to her lip cream. Alan sat his briefcase on a cement trash can. They sat next to each other on the bench.

Twice Alan asked, "Never?"

Felice didn't answer. She wrote out her new address and phone number and gave it to him. Their fingers touched. "I don't have many friends," she said.

The bus pulled up. She got on, moved toward the back door, waved. There were empty seats. She could have sat in one. She stayed standing. Maybe so he could see her wave to him, Alan thought. So he could see her standing there. Looking so cute. Maybe she was still trying to tell him something.

The bus started to roar away from the curb, but the light turned red. The driver had to stop. Alan crossed Polk Street in front of the bus. The driver was pissed. He'd been ready to go. Alan didn't look back. He wondered now what? How do you ignore a direct statement of uncompromising fact? How do you get around it? What kind of lie can you come up with? It's like death. It's more final. You can kid yourself about the dead.

He looked at the paper Felice had written her number on and crumpled it up and threw it away. Anything that had been in her presence he had to crumple up and throw away. He'd never be able to get on another Number 19 Polk Street Bus; couldn't ever eat another peach. He missed her already. Besides, he'd memorized the address anyway. He knew where she worked. He could always find her. He kept walking and thought to himself that, shit, it had to be at least a little reciprocal. There just wasn't any way around that.

But, then again, fuck, maybe there was. He tried to talk himself into a new idea. Maybe just to have the feelings was enough. The sadness. The tenderness. Maybe that was the only way they could ever last, grow more intense, not go away—what did it matter how stupid whatever caused them was, the feelings were all that was important anyway. He could writhe in childish agony over the impossibility of love for as long as he lived. Felice was perfect. Never, never, never. She was someone he could remain doubled over in delicious agony about forever. She didn't even seem to mind. She seemed to sort of like it, in fact. It was going to be hard to find someone like that again.

But still, there has to be at least a spark of the possibility of some unforeseen hope. If there's not at least that you're just stupid. So, what about posthumously? She did say maybe posthumously. How could that work? He could fake his death—have her invited to the funeral, grab her into the casket with him and close the lid. No one would hear her above the sound of dirt being shoveled in. Or mistaken identity? Hell, yes. He could dress up like an Old English Sheepdog and follow her home with its big mournful eyes. How could she resist? Logic overwhelms sex eventually. It must. It has to. You can't hang on to nothing. To never. Your ego won't let you. That's all there is to it.

Felice was right again. It was nothing but ego; big, fat, stupid, male ego. Try it sometime. Assign an indomitable ego some enchantingly insurmountable task, then sit back and watch it's fucking ball bearings burn out. The son of a bitch just won't stop; smoke shooting out the poor fucker's ears—something has to give, nothing will. You've got to forget it. But how? It wasn't just ego. It wasn't just sex. He utterly and absolutely adored every little molecule of her intelligence and wit and spirit and soul. Yeah, it probably was just sex. No it wasn't. Sure, it was. No. Yes. No. Woe, oh woe. He went on. On and on. It got boring. There wasn't any room left in his mind for anything else.

Chapter Three

Slick Solutions, Inc.
(Part Eight)

When he got home, Alan checked through the slits in his mailbox. It looked empty. He opened it anyway. It was empty. He continued down the hallway and unlocked the door to their apartment. The chain was hooked. The door wouldn't open. Maybe Melanie was trying to tell him something. She should have been trying to tell him something. In fact, she probably should have just flat out told him plenty. But she had a few quirks of her own. Nobody's perfect. Except Felice. He knocked.

Melanie peeked out the crack. She had round explosions of baby powder around her eyes like a raccoon. The baby powder kept leftover mascara from stinging her eyes in the middle of the night. She needed her sleep. She fought for it. She drank Sleepytime Tea laced with tryptophan and put ear plugs in her ears and wore a white silk mask that made her look like the Lone Ranger's girlfriend.

She had all kinds of tricks. Not just for sleeping. Tricks for all occasions: cucumber slices to relax her eyelids, mayonnaise to make her hair shine, eating egg shells to get her teeth cleaner than just by flossing three times a day—she could have written a book of odd ways to get yourself more comfortably through the agonies of everyday life. She found them in magazines or heard about them from women at work. She'd try anything. The odder the better.

Melanie slid back the chain and asked, "Where've you been?"

Alan ignored the question. Her hair was on top of her head in a pink towel. That made her eyes look even more huge and solemn than usual. She looked scared.

"What's the matter?" he asked, frowning.

"Nothing. I've been hearing noises...coming from the patio."

They went into the kitchen. Alan leaned over the side of the table and cupped his hands to get a better look through white reflections of the stove and refrigerator. It was pitch black out in back. He couldn't see anything. Alan felt brave, protective. Like a cave man. Like the king of the castle.

"I'll go down and check it out."

Down in the basement, Alan wasn't in much of a rush. He took off his coat and pants and hung them on the back of the closet door and hung the tie on the doorknob and put on jeans and a red sweatshirt. Then he got his little black Beretta out from a dresser drawer, checked that the clip was full and a cartridge was in the chamber, clipped the holster to the back of his jeans, pulled the sweatshirt down over it and went out on the patio.

Wind rustled the ivy. Fog sprayed his face. It was cold. Windy. Felice was probably still on the bus. Nothing stirred. Lights were on in the upstairs apartments. Melanie had her head out the window. It was dark, damp, eerie. There was nothing there. Nobody. But it was still sort of creepy, nonetheless.

"Well?" Melanie called down from the kitchen window.

"Okay, you dirty rat, come on out of there," Alan said. "Come out, come out, wherever you are."

"Don't be funny. Are you still planning on doing the laundry?"

"How about I do it tomorrow?"

"I've got my bed all torn apart."

Back inside, in a sudden frenzy of mindless activity, Alan gathered up his dirty clothes and stuffed them into a sheet, slipped on his fur lined flight jacket, slid a pocketful of change off the dresser and into his pants' pocket, dragged the sheet upstairs, stuffed in Melanie's things, got the box of detergent from beside the refrigerator, slung the sheet over his shoulder and limped across the street with the headlights of a newspaper truck honing in on him like a laser guided tank.

One thing he'd learned from living there was you never wanted to do the laundry without a pocketful of change and your own detergent. The change machines at the Laundromat didn't work and the detergent dispenser was even worse. Not only did it not give you any soap, it stuck your dimes halfway and halfway out. It wasn't the money, it was the effrontery of the things.

Inside, under the fluorescent lights, a gaunt old Vietnamese guy paddled up to the change machine in a pair of worn out rubber thongs. The straps weren't broken, the soles had worn through. Alan couldn't keep his eyes off the guy's feet; gnarled-up old toe joints, calluses halfway up his instep. He'd never seen anybody go all the way through the thick blue soles of a pair of those thongs they sell out of barrels at Safeway before—and, God, did the guy ever have a way with vending machines. He slipped in a quarter and out popped two dimes and a nickel; bam, just like that. Then he jammed two dimes into the soap machine and there was the gentle, muffled clunk of a small box of Tide falling into the tray and the guy shuffled over to a washer and, using a few bent brown teeth to bite the box open on the way, dumped in the soap, shut the lid and paddled out the door with the a sweet trickle of water dousing his raggedy clothes before Alan had even decided which washer to use yet—Jesus, he said to himself, no wonder they won the fucking war.

Alan got his own laundry going and sat on top of the warm, sloshing machine until he heard a disturbance outside; shouting, laughing, a bottle spinning on gritty cement—probably just transvestite hookers up to no good again. Alan didn't even look anymore. He and Melanie lived near a whole nest of transitive hookers—like you wouldn't want to be around if an earthquake sent them all scurrying out from their cheap hotel and into the street like a bunch of albino newts from under a rotting log; running in circles, clutching their crotches, frantically grooming their Clairoled hair, torn between the embarrassment of being caught with a hairy dick hanging out and not wanting to waste such a once in a lifetime opportunity to flaunt the cute little estrogen induced tits they'd worked so hard to sprout.

Standing in line at the grocery store, Alan and Melanie used to see one or another of them buying cigarettes in men's clothes—still unshaved and it was hard to tell smudged mascara from a black eye. The transvestites didn't like Melanie. She was everything they wanted to be. They called her names. Snooty twat. La dee dah. It made her feel bad. They seemed to like Alan all right.

There was one he kind of liked himself. He always wanted to talk to her. She had long black hair and a tiny little boy-like butt she couldn't find pants to fit right. She was always on the lookout. The slightest toot of a horn got her heart all aflutter. He had no idea what he would have said, but he thought he would have liked to talk to her all the same. They could have gone for coffee. Her girlfriends would have positively died. He was a hell of a lot cuter than the guys she usually hung out with—guys with crescent moon tattoos and cigarette burns on their arms and corn silk whiskers growing out from between festered zits—speed freak urban guerrillas out having their way with the native girls. The black-haired transvestite let them have it, too. Alan figured he wasn't her type. He always made a big splash with her girlfriends, though—they whistled and clucked their cheeks—but the black-haired one just rested her wrist on her hip and shook the kinks out of her hair with her nose in the air whenever he walked by. Which was no doubt why she was the one he wanted to talk to in the first place.

The machine clicked off. The spin cycle slowed. Alan dragged over one of the baskets with their wheels perpetually clogged with string, threw in the wet clothes, dragged them to a dryer, put four or five dimes into the slot, and, when the clothes got going good, added six or seven additional dines. You didn't get a lot of time for a dime. Melanie's frilly bras and blouses chased his ugly underpants around like wraiths. Alan hoisted himself back up onto a washer. Melanie would be happy. She liked clean sheets hot out of the dryer. He was looking forward to clean socks in the morning—then—shit! The briefcase! Again! Son of a fucking bitch!

He actually physically hit himself in the head with the heel of his hand as he remembered it still at the bus stop, balanced on the edge of that goddamn trash can. Felice had been the cause of that too. She was the cause of everything, the slut. The bitch. The slut fucking bitch. She fucking fucked guys for money. What a cunt. And the urge came over him just to go over to her new address and shoot her full of all the bullets in his little black gun—but it would have taken too long. The bus ride. Finding her house. Seeing her light on, so soft and dim and yellow and alone. Hell. Plus, by the time he got there he knew he would have just ended up drooling all over anywhere her feet might have walked anyway.

There was no way the briefcase could still be there. John Larson's face loomed into his consciousness. Alan had to go see. Just to know for sure.

It was the time of night that the transvestites started congregating as flat-out women in front of the Laundromat. They sauntered up one or two at a time in their slinky outfits, and pretty soon it was a dozen or so; useless bras falling off broad shoulders, hairy armpits doused with the imitation Opium and Shalimar they sell over loud speakers at Woolworth's. A bony redhead in a white fringed flapper dress was adding a few finishing touches to her makeup in one of the dark next door windows. Her girlfriends stood guard, fidgeting, veins full of fresh methamphetamine, hearts full of hope. It was a formidable group.

Alan made his way through them on his tiptoes, not looking too closely, hardly breathing. Past the transvestites the street was empty, lit up only by the liquor store window. Occasional headlights slowed down and speeded up again going past the stop sign at the cross street.

Then there was a woman heading slowly toward him with her head down. Probably just another transvestite hooker on her way to join her buddies. But as he and the woman came closer and closer to each other it started looking more and more like the black-haired one. She was holding her hands at her sides, thumbs and fingers touching, making ovals, like a dancer in a ballet. She had on black, spiky, high-heels and a short black skirt with fishnet stockings. He stopped. Her heels made them the same height.

Her mouth was fresh red lipstick, a shy smile, eyes batting.

"Are you looking for me?" she asked.

"Not really," he said.

"Could you just give me five dollars then, please?"

"Sure," he said. He reached in his pocket and gave her a five dollar bill.

"Thanks." She smiled. Her teeth were crooked.

"Are you going to be around here for awhile?"

"Yeah? I mean, maybe. I mean, I hope not."

"Could you keep an eye on my laundry? Don't let anyone steal it?"

"I could try." It was like the first real job she'd ever had in her life. Alan felt worthwhile.

"It's in the third dryer down. Thanks," he said and took off around the corner, down Post Street heading toward Polk. When he got to the trash can where he'd left his briefcase, he'd been right. It wasn't there.

There was a woman leaning against a brick building by the trash can. Alan couldn't tell whether she was a transvestite or not, but he presumed she was a hooker of some sort. All he could tell for sure was she looked like she was freezing to death. There were a couple guys waiting for the bus. Alan was glad he'd had sense enough to have put on the old Army Air Corps flight jacket he won off his father pitching horseshoes. His father had won it shooting pool off a guy in the army in 1942. It had brown stuffed animal fur for a collar and tar on the sleeves and torn cuffs and a broken zipper and Alan wouldn't have traded it for any other jacket in the world.

There were old movie posters in the window of the building against which the woman was leaning; Jean Peters, John Hodiak—people nobody knew who they even were anymore. The woman leaning against the building was a tiny little thing all bundled up in a long wool coat down to her ankles and low-heeled boots up to the knee. There was no way of telling what she might have looked like under all that.

A bronze Pinto pulled into the bus stop. The driver leaned across the seat and rolled down the passenger window. The tiny hooker stuck her head inside. Negotiations broke down. The car drove off. She returned to the corner. A man came up and asked where she was from. She said Hawaii. He wanted to know if she was Filipino. He went away. She looked over at Alan, smiled, took a few steps toward him. He took a few steps toward her. They met in the middle of the sidewalk.

"You look like Nanook of the North," Alan told her.

"Pardon me?" she said.

"Forget it." He waved.

"No, I'm sorry. What did you say? I didn't hear." She wasn't pretty. She'd had bad skin in high school. Her lips were thin. She had hair on her cheeks. She wasn't ugly. Her eyes were nice. She looked part Indian. Eskimo, maybe. Dark. Cagey. Curious.

"What'd that guy want?" Alan asked protectively.

"He thought I was Filipino." She shrugged.

"What'd you tell him?"

"I told him I was Spanish and Hawaiian.

"I would have said Eskimo, but maybe it's just the weather."

"Actually, I think Eskimos and Hawaiians came from the same place. I was born in Oakland but live on Maui."

"What are you, visiting relatives?"

"Not exactly, no," she shook her head sadly.

"So, what are you doing?"

"I'm working. Did you have something in mind?"

"Yeah. I left my briefcase here about an hour ago. Right on top of this trash can. You didn't see anyone pick it up, did you?"

"Not that I noticed, no. That's it?" she asked disappointedly.

"I don't know. You should probably be a little more downtown, actually, around the big hotels. This is kind of a weirdo area."

"I don't work in San Francisco very often."

"I've got an office downtown. Right across from the St. Francis."

"You want to take me there?"

He thought about it a minute. She looked so lost. So forlorn. "You know, actually, I should probably go down there anyway. I need to get some stuff that was in my briefcase. Sure. Why not. We'll just hop in a cab. You'll be way better off."

"I don't even know the going rate around here."

"Around here it's not that much. Like around forty bucks. Up around the St. Francis it's like a hundred, minimum. You shouldn't sell yourself short."

Then all of a sudden there was a gigantic commotion. One of the guys who'd been nonchalantly waiting at the bus stop barged in between Alan and the woman and announced triumphantly, "You're under arrest."

He held up a badge. Alan felt sorry for her. She probably hadn't even had a single customer all night. He told the cop she wasn't doing anything. The cop looked puzzled. Another cop showed Alan a badge and said, "She's undercover vice. We've got the whole thing on tape."

"You mean me?" Alan pointed at his chest. "I'm under arrest?"

The next thing Alan thought about was the gun clipped to the back of his pants. He wasn't worried about what they had on the tape. He was worried about the little Beretta clipped to the back of his pants, however. A third cop came over; obviously the boss—trench coat, snap-brim hat, the works.

He asked Alan if he had any weapons, "Knives? Grenades?" He thought that was cute. He patted his pockets, the pockets of the flight jacket. But he didn't pat the back of his pants. Alan worried that he was going to have to go to jail. What about the laundry? What about John Larson and his fucking brochure? And then, of course, there was what Melanie would say when she had to come get him out of jail for trying to pick up a hooker while he was out doing the laundry. Talk about pissed.

"Are you taking me to jail?" Alan asked the main cop.

"Nah. You can be up on the next corner in no time."

"What did I do, though? Can you tell me that?"

"Solicitation for prostitution."

"Don't you have to mention sex or money or something?"

"I'm not going to argue about it. We've got the tape."

"What if the tape doesn't say anything?"

"The DA drops it. Nine times out of ten they drop these anyway. I don't know why we fucking bother."

The tiny bundled up vice cop kept on working while the second cop wrote Alan out a notice to appear. She was a real go-getter. The city was getting its money's worth. As he was leaving she caught his eye and said, "Sorry," with a nice, cute, sheepish, sympathetic little gloat.

"That's okay," Alan told her.

Back at the Laundromat, the black-haired transvestite was still standing guard. His clothes had finished drying.

"I just got fucking busted!" Alan told her. "For soliciting!"

"I get fucking busted all the time," she said.

"Well, I don't. I felt sorry for the chick. She was freezing her ass off. What do they do, anyway? You have to go to court?"

"I don't know," she shrugged. "I don't get busted for being a John. I just say I did it. They give me a free lawyer. I say I won't do it any more."

"Hey, can I ask you about some other things?" Alan blurted out.

"Sure, hon. You got another couple bucks?"

"Yeah. I got all kinds of money." He took out some more money, gave it to her. "I just want to ask you something sort of personal."


"What I want to know is, like, you're a guy, right? So how do you get rid of all your hair? Like on your arms and chest and everything?"

"Nair," she said flatly. "That's it? That's all you want to know? I'd have told you that for free."

"How does it work, though?"

"You just slap it on and let it sit there and wipe it off."

"Does it like hurt or anything?"

"Burns a little if you leave it on too long. Why? You planning on working the neighborhood?"

"No. Christ. I've been with the same woman for twenty years."

"I know. I've seen you. You and your wife. Down at the U-Save on Geary. You two seem nice together. She's a beautiful woman."

"She's not really my wife. We're not actually married."

"What-ev-er," she said. "I got an extra bottle. If you want to try it."


"Sure. I'll get go get it. That's really all you wanted?"

"Yeah. That's all I wanted. Weird, huh?"

"Not to me it's not."

"Go get me a bottle. I'll give you twenty bucks."

"You can buy it at Wallgreen's for three ninety-five."

"I don't care. I want some. Can you meet me back here in five minutes?"

"Twenty bucks. Sure. You want two bottles?"

Alan brought the laundry inside. Melanie was waiting to make her bed. The pretext he used to go out again was that he'd left his briefcase at the Laundromat. She rolled her eyes. She didn't trust him. He didn't trust her. But they'd learned to cross bridges when they came to them.

He didn't mention he'd just been arrested for soliciting a vice cop, either. You want to keep the bridges you have to cross to a minimum. Nor did he mention the transvestite hooker waiting for him. That was no bridge. And as for getting busted, he hadn't done anything, had he? So that wasn't a bridge. Felice, on the other hand. Well, they never actually did anything, either, but he presumed it could reasonably be construed as a bridge of some sort, nonetheless.

Back out on the street again, the black-haired transvestite was waiting for him with a bottle of Nair. Alan gave her a twenty dollar bill. She thanked him. That was that. He had no clear idea what he was even going to do with it. He just wanted to have it. Just in case. In case of what, he didn't know.


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Gerard Jones
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