I met Kathy over a year ago at a focus group. I hadn't wanted to go, but being the one in my department with the least seniority earned me a seat in a room with folks from other departments who all tried to act as if they didn't mind having their evenings stolen. One member of our group, an attractive blonde in expensive designer clothes, spoke often. And while many of the other males in the group tried to impress her with their responses full of insight, I just chuckled every time she spoke. The more she spoke, the more I laughed, until I became an uncontrolled quivering mass of snickers. With her and all the other members quiet and staring at me, I fought to catch my breath and asked in an affected drawl, Where you from, darlin'? I'm from Amarillo. Only I didn't say Amarillo. I said Amarilla. Her blue eyes lit up, I received stern jealousy ridden looks from a few of the other fellows, and I don't recall anything else said during the remainder of the meeting. That's how Kathy and I met, and it, our state of origin, remained the commonality in our relationship.
I flip the menu open and shut, but Kathy has lost interest in eating, and I'm not sure I ever had any appetite. Still, I ask her if she ever ate at The County Line while she lived in Lubbock. I have asked her this question before, and she has answered before, but still she sits straight up and gestures big as she praises the best barbecue around, barbecue to die for as she says. We have lost interest in eating, but we don't stay in the wine bar to get sloshed. I hold Kathy's coat, and she slips her arms into the sleeves. We step out onto the sidewalk.
The fog engulfs us. It's summer, the time of year when fog flows in from Ocean Beach a few miles west. Summer ain't like this back in the Panhandle. And here in San Francisco in winter when there is no fog in air that's not much cooler than this fog-laden summer air, the difference from a Panhandle winter is wide. Kathy grasps my left arm with both hands and leans against me as we walk up the sidewalk, and I think about summers and winters, mostly winters. While here it will be high forties or maybe fifties on what we feel as a cold winter night, the nights in the Panhandle are different. Maybe it is clear and cold. Maybe sleet falls and turns the High Plains white. Maybe a slow rain descends and makes black ice. Hell, maybe it's a blizzard. I don't know what exactly the weather is doing over the Panhandle, but I know for sure the night ain't like this one or any of the nights during the year in this City.
I side-step toward the entrance of a pub, but Kathy resists. She digs into her purse and produces a pack of Benson & Hedges cigarettes. While she laments the prohibition of smoking in California bars, I listen, and while she draws on her light cigarette with a mile-long filter I reach into my pockets for my pouch of rolling papers and tobacco. While I light my hand-rolled I see a puddle of water at the edge of the curb, and the swirling rainbow reflection from the surface of the dark water reminds me of some verse by a favorite Texan poet:
His street crumbled into gutter,
Those lines, especially the first few, remind me of my hometown. The latter ones remind me of things closer and more recent. I watch Kathy draw on her long cigarette and exhale through her full soft supple lips, and I recall how only recently have I begun to claim as my hometown a small place north of Amarillo. Back in Texas, I listed Amarillo itself as my place of origin. Somehow Borger, an often mispronounced town name, seemed too rustic, too hayseed. Perhaps past Kathys made me lie about my hometown. Perhaps it had been those gorgeous rich girls, first high school cheerleaders and later members of sororities, that led me to believe being from a small city with a population less than 200,000 made me more worldly than being from a little oilfield town of fourteen thousand. But out here in San Francisco where there are two worlds, The City and the hinterlands, the difference in Amarillo and Borger seems slight, so I just say that I'm from a little place north of Amarillo.
Kathy, finished with her cigarette, tosses it and steps toward the tavern door. I'm not finished with mine, but I throw it into the puddle and hold the door open for Kathy.
This pub is a calm quaint sort of place, a place with a long wooden bar and tables with chairs, a place more for conversation than loud music, dancing, pool shooting, or singles pick-ups. Not far away on Haight Street stand all manner of drinking establishments: The Knock-Knock Club, a dark twenty-somethings place with an interior that looks like the set of a Tim Burton film; Traxx, a so-called gay bar that seems to welcome all types; and The Gold Cane, a nondescript bar memorable only in that there I first kissed a special woman, the one that got away, the one I still think about almost daily. All manner of bars, pubs, taverns, and clubs sit within a stone's throw, but Kathy and I are in one called Finnegan's Wake. Not being a Joyce fan I don't think too much about the name beyond noticing that the bars out here seem to lack the creativity of the names of bars back home. Maybe in a city saturated in creativity and artistic beauty, the names of the bars just don't stand out, but it seems to me that back home, back in Texas, proprietors put a little more effort into naming their establishments. In Borger I frequented Sud Suckers, Hangover's Haven, and The Jolly Pig. And in Amarillo I spent much time at Boondocks, a downtown gathering place for motorcycle enthusiasts. Even the liquor stores had memorable names. I used to buy most of mine at a place halfway between Amarillo and Canyon called The Buffalo Chip. But Kathy and I are in San Francisco at Finnegan's Wake. Maybe back home we'd order a couple of Budweiser longnecks or perhaps Shiner Bock. We're not back home. So Kathy orders a zinfandel, and I order a pint of Sierra Nevada beer and a shot of tequila, Herradura.
I take my beer and tequila and head over toward a table, and Kathy follows with her wine. We sit to one side of the table, close enough for her to place her hand on mine but still far enough apart to be sort of facing each other. Kathy says I am quiet tonight. I try to think of something to say but manage a smile only. Kathy too smiles, and she squeezes my hand. I look at Kathy's beautiful face and let my gaze fall down across her immaculate manner of dress and her shapely chest, and I remember the Kathys back home. They dated the rich good-looking guys, the ones that drove Mustangs, Corvettes, or Porsches and went to places like Cancun for Spring Break. If those Kathys ever took notice of the bookish types that never missed a class and spent their Spring Breaks in the library in order to catch up and get ahead in studies, they certainly never gave any indication of knowing us or even remembering our names. Somehow those qualities that made me an incorrigible nerd have now made me desirable. Somehow the new Kathys are attracted to the success my diligence produced. I could resent this new Kathy for not noticing me earlier, but my present is smitten with her beauty, and rising to return to the bar my melancholy eases and lifts.
I return to our table with two tequilas, two lemon wedges, and a shaker of salt. Kathy is not a regular tequila drinker, so getting her to join in my favorite libation requires some coaxing. We drink. After she swallows Kathy bites into a wedge of lemon then fans her open mouth with her hand. She smiles. She giggles. She leans over and kisses me. She is warm and wet and tastes of salt and lemon. We like this activity, and we repeat it several times, though sometimes we forget the shots of tequila and focus on the kissing. After several cycles we are moving up a sidewalk leaning on and grasping each other. Despite myself I find I am laughing too.
We stagger up the stairs toward my apartment, alternately laughing and shushing each other lest our raucous behavior wake my neighbors. I open the door to my place, and while closing it and hanging my suit coat Kathy walks inside.
Kathy sits absentmindedly in the kitchen. Perhaps she came in looking for wine and then forgot her purpose. I ask if she would like some more wine. She smiles and says sure. In affected accent, Darlin', I got all kinds of wine, a trainload of wine, and you're so purty you can have any kind you want. You want some PIE-not-NO-ear or some MUR-lot or some of that purty pink stuff you was havin' at the bar? Kathy laughs, and I say that if she doesn't speak up I'll pick for her. I stretch out my hand, take hers, and pull her toward me. With my arms around her waist I say all right then we're havin' Mexican wine. Only I don't say Mexican. I say Meskin.
I lead Kathy into the living room, and on the way to the old wooden cabinet that serves as my bar we stop at the stereo entertainment center, look through the compact disks skipping over an eclectic collection of jazz, and go straight to the back of the drawer selecting Willie Nelson's Stardust. From the cabinet I take two shot glasses and a bottle of Herradura. Our cycle of drinking then kissing begins anew, and we tumble onto the couch.
I wake, and light, white light from mist shrouded street lamps, streams in through the window and reflects off the bed's white comforter. Kathy sleeps beside me. She rests partially on her back, partially on her side facing me. I watch Kathy sleep. One of her breasts is partially exposed, and a soft white glow emanates from her smooth fair skin.
Through the window fog hangs thick blocking the southward view over the rooftops of the Victorian houses up the hill toward Sutro Tower. Fog wraiths snake past the street lamps below. In all my years as a child, teen, and young adult in the Panhandle I don't recall fog, certainly not fog like this wet chalk air. Fog to me was something from the movies or ghost stories I read as a child. Nighttime produced a few hours of relief from the searing summer High Plains sun. Summer nights in the Panhandle had no fog. Summer nights in the Panhandle had crickets and stars and exhilarating night air, especially after the heat-spawned thunderstorms soaked the ground and released the pungent aroma of sage. Stars. Those stars were so many and so bright and so close. As a child on overnight trail rides near Dixon Creek I marveled at those stars while my Paint horse stood tethered nearby. As a teen at the Canadian River or Lake Meredith with a bunch of other guys and a bunch of beer we bragged about exploits past and future and gave no thought to sleeping before school or work the next morning. As a young adult, a student with little money, I camped in Palo Duro Canyon, often with a romantic interest, under a summer sky where Scorpio and his red heart dominated the heavens. I spent countless nights under those stars, and always I dreamed of leaving the Panhandle.
My eyelids sag, and I hear the cars, taxicabs, and late night busses pass up and down Haight Street a couple blocks away. I don't recall stars after arriving in The City. I do recall many nights, many remarkable nights: concerts at the Fillmore and The Great American Music Hall, New Year's Eve at the Embarcadero, nights of dancing, and quieter nights while walking up Haight Street shopping for take-out food and a rented video. I recall many nights with new women and the new City that so quickly overwhelmed and seduced.
Though the farmer in him thought of topsoil
I think of another woman who came and went. I think of the cafe au lait colored West Indian Jacqueline who came after the woman from The Gold Cane. Jacqueline told me of the wonders of her tropical home, and I remember how, with affection, she often said she wanted to take me to her home. I can feel her hugging me and asking about visiting my home. And I remember how I always said someday and how I lied. I never had the courage to tell her the truth about my home. My shame never let me tell her that the blacks in my hometown live in a neighborhood lacking paved streets, a portion of the locale still called Niggertown.
I look at Kathy's serene face and try to flee from thoughts of intolerance, Christian Fundamentalism, and ignorance based conservatism.
The bed shakes, and I open my eyes. Despite the lingering fog, early morning daylight illuminates the room. Kathy, nearly dressed at the foot of the bed, buttons her blouse. She is in a hurry. She says she won't have time to go home before going to work. I tell her she can take a shower. I offer to iron her blouse. She says no, she is in a hurry. She walks around the corner of the bed, bends, and kisses me. She says I should telephone her later, and then the door opens and shuts, and she is gone.
Halfway up the escalator sunlight spills down into the underground Muni station at the Embarcadero, and I know the fog has already cleared from the Financial District. I touch the knot of my necktie and wonder why I have worn it. The suit alone, navy with subtle burgundy pinstripes, makes me overdressed for a typical day at work, but perhaps the clothes conceal my dark mood. I think about the previous night with Kathy and how now, the day after, the momentary diversion is over, and now I am on my way to work. I don't dislike my job, not any more than most other jobs. I ought to be able to seek refuge from gloom in my work, but that would require an effort that I just don't care to muster this morning.
I step off the escalator and into a world bathed in blue light, blue light from the sky and the bay, blue light streaming past the Bay Bridge and the tall buildings so close together.
The receptionist sits behind her oval shaped marble desk and smiles a greeting, but a phone call diverts her attention and relieves me from the duty of returning her smile. I catch an empty elevator and feel glad to ride up alone. In my cubicle with the high walls for an editor in deep concentration, I look for something to concentrate upon and see the stack of papers with red-penned marks and stare unfocused at the stack until the black type of the manuscript, the white of the paper, and the red ink revisions blend and swirl. This project has a due date so far in advance that no specific date has been set. I push the manuscript aside and move the mouse to my desktop computer deactivating the screensaver. First I open my work email and look at a list of unanswered transmissions. Then I look into a personal email account and leave these too unanswered. Aimlessly moving from one website to another reading headlines of news stories my head nods forward, and I ought to get more coffee, but I place my elbow on the desk and rest my head in my hand.
A voice speaks, and I look up from the computer and see Steve grinning standing at the open segment of the cubicle. He says, asks, BREE-tow? I think for a moment and then remember that Steve, too, is from Texas. He asks about lunch, and BREE-tow is not some California concoction of cheese and tofu, but rather BREE-tow is Texan for burrito. I say, yeah, it is Friday. Steve makes some quip about me sleeping on the job, and I stand and follow him.
Out of the building away from work I tell Steve that I met Kathy again last night. Steve finds this interesting because Steve is from Ft. Worth, a neighbor of Kathy's native Dallas. He now understands why he found me sleeping at my desk.
We make our way into our favorite taqueria, and Steve orders a veggie burrito. I order a super burrito with carnitas, roasted pork. We take our goliath tortilla wrapped lunches to a table, and, like we always do, we observe that while good stuff this is nothing like the Mexican food, the Tex-Mex, we know. As I have on many such Fridays I tell Steve about Ruby Tequila's in Amarillo and how I always ordered a platter the size of a Buick and how the platter had a chile relleno and two enchiladas and a soft taco and a tamale and refried beans and rice. I also mention the Carta Blanca beer. Steve observes that the hot sauce in California isn't nearly as hot as that back home. I tell Steve I miss Whataburger. Steve says something about Angelo's Barbecue in Fort Worth.
Our lunch long finished and our conversation dormant Steve suggests that maybe I ought to take the rest of the day off. I agree that I don't have much time sensitive material to attend to, and Steve observes that I've not been doing much thus far today. We part outside the taqueria, and I find myself in downtown San Francisco with a free afternoon.
I have no idea why I am sitting on the Sausalito Ferry, nor do I recall having walked over to the Ferry Building. I sip my Bloody Mary as the engines rev and the boat shakes. While the boat eases away from the dock, I rise to get another drink. With my little plastic cup of tomato juice and vodka I walk outside to the front of the boat, the bow I guess it's called. The Port of San Francisco sign and the clock tower atop the Ferry Building recede as the ferry pulls away out into the bay. Above and around I see the postcard sights: the Bay Bridge, the TransAmerica Pyramid, Telegraph Hill and Coit Tower, and I know that what I see is beautiful, but I can't seem to break free from the previous day's fog. The ferry turns and begins to transition to forward motion, and the wind picks up as I look west to Alcatraz Island.
Papa, my great grandfather, was stationed at Alcatraz while in the Army during the time between world wars. He wrote long letters back home to Nanny, my great grandmother, telling her about the cold and the fog and the city he called Frisco. Papa was a happy man all his life. After the Army he went back home, married Nanny, and as far as I know never left home again. Alcatraz passes close off the right, the starboard, and I think about my great grandfather, a happy man, happy to live the rest of his life back home. Even when the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl took the family farm and Papa had to go to work in the oil industry he remained a happy man.
Up ahead the Golden Gate Bridge spans the narrow gap of water between Ft. Point on the San Francisco side and Marin on the north, but the Pacific Ocean hides behind a white wall, and already mean tallow tentacles reach out to grasp the bridge's red towers and cables.
The boat docks in Sausalito, and I consider stepping off to roll a cigarette but go back inside and stop at the bar before finding a seat away from the windows.
Two drinks later and once again on the ferry docks in San Francisco, I must think of something to do. I have left the fog besieging the Golden Gate, and Downtown remains sunny and blue. I have ample time. I can do just about anything The City offers. I must think of something to do. I walk down into the Embarcadero station and catch the N-Judah outbound.
The train shakes as it emerges from the tunnel and jars me from sleep in time to step off at Cole and Carl. Overhead the alabaster wisps float from west to east and soften the ambient light muting the multicolored buildings and cars and even people and beginning the transition back to a narrow band of gray tones.
I still have thought of nothing to do, and each step away from the Muni stop takes me closer to my apartment. Once I reach Frederick Street and turn right, east, I walk another couple of blocks and stop in front of a dry cleaners. Inside I explain that, as always, I have lost my claim ticket. While the Asian woman behind the counter smiles, she has already begun rotating the metal rack of clothing, and she looks for the items I have dropped off days ago. I leave with a heavy load of suits, shirts, pants, and sweaters all on metal hangers and covered in plastic. Now, having failed to think of something to do and having picked up my dry cleaning, I have to return to the apartment, so I continue east on Frederick. My arm aches under the weight of the clothes, so I shift, sling, them over my shoulder. This position eases the pain in my arm, but the hangers still bite into my fingers. When did my wardrobe become so complex? I remember how while deep in my sadness after the woman from The Gold Cane left I bought a two thousand dollar suit, and I remember thinking at the time that I must be insane because I was not a two thousand dollar suit kind of guy. I also remember that back home virtually all of my clothes, boots, jeans, and white Panhandle Slim shirts, came from Lusky's Western Wear. Lusky's didn't have any two thousand dollar suits.
On the stairs to the apartment I fumble for the door key, hang the clothes in the closet, massage the grooves in my hand left by the hangers, and walk into the living room. Through the bay windows the gray has returned thick as ever. I turn on the lamp next to the couch. A cone of soft gold light spreads over one end of the couch and floor, and as I sink into the couch cushions I know that I must think of something to do. I stand and walk over to the wooden cabinet and remove the bottle of tequila. I really must think of something to do. Perhaps some exercise will help. I'll go for a run, come home, change clothes, and go out again. I drink another shot and change into my running gear.
Walking west toward Buena Vista Park I pledge to begin running once in the park. The fog has again captured the western part of the city, and it obscures the tops of the trees while even thicker patches move through the chill wet air. In the park, in the grassy area parallel to Haight Street, I'm still not running. An immense dog, a long-haired jet black dog, drops a tennis ball at my feet and dances from side to side. The dog's owner, a woman--a girl really--stands farther away in the grassy area. I've seen her and the dog in the park before. It seems she's in the park always. I can't tell anything about her as she is bundled under a puffy parka with a hood. She's recognizable only in that she accompanies the big black dog. I pretend not to notice the dog and walk away. The dog takes his ball to the girl and she throws it. It's a feeble girly throw, but the dog dashes across the lush green grass. I remember throwing baseballs. I remember standing at second base on a field of red dirt and brown grass, and I remember the smell of the sulfur from the petroleum refinery behind the baseball field. I remember seeing my great grandparents, my Nanny and my Papa, sitting in the bleachers. I remember throwing baseballs. I'm not going to run today.
Back in the apartment I take a beer from the refrigerator and stand before the kitchen's bay window. While the white army of occupation flows past the window I think that I have lived in gloomier, wetter, places like Seattle or Northern Europe, but always then I had known, felt, it as temporary. West Texas had always been home. I retreat from the window to the wooden cabinet in the living room.
I must think of something to do, but the drink is taking hold. Perhaps if I eat something I might be able to shake free of the sullen weight. I open a drawer underneath the telephone and shuffle through a stack of menus. Not hungry for pizza or for Chinese food, perhaps I might be hungry for Indian food once it arrives. After placing the call I go to the living room and put Willie Nelson's Red Headed Stranger into the CD player. And I go to the wooden cabinet.
The doorbell jars me to consciousness, and I rise from the couch, grab my wallet, and make my way through the front door and down the stairs. The leaden pull of the alcohol still burdens me, and I grasp the stairs' handrail. Once at the building's main door I meet the delivery person but don't understand the amount he shouts at me in his sharp hurried tone, nor do I understand him any of the many times he repeats his message. I dig into my wallet and give the man a couple of twenties, take the bag of food, and turn to climb the stairs. The delivery person says something, and his tone has changed, but I don't understand. I don't understand anything he has said, but I suspect he has gotten an unusually large tip.
The climb up the stairs is made even longer by zigzagging diagonally from one side to another, but I manage to reach my apartment door. I take the food and set it on the kitchen table. Through the window the light fades. Night comes. After I eat something I will think of something to do. I leave the food on the table, and go to the wooden cabinet.
My eyes open wide and see a lamp suspended from the white ceiling, and on either side a rug stretches under me to walls. Light, gold and blue hued light, streams through the bay windows. It's morning, late morning. I've somehow misplaced an evening and a night and most of a morning. I struggle to my feet, and an empty bottle of Herradura Tequila lies sideways on the rug. Light penetrates the breaking fog and pools in the living room.
Standing with my arm on the couch to steady myself my head throbs and a hollow feeling in my stomach makes me feel as if I will implode, but aside from the physical discomfort I feel something different, something different about the light, the way things look, brighter, more color. I stagger into the kitchen and see a bag on the kitchen table and remember something about Indian food. I recall something about Indian food, but I do not remember what I ordered. I open the bag to find nan bread, a container of rice, and a container of some orange colored sauce, probably vindaloo, probably lamb vindaloo. What a waste of good food. I should be annoyed, angry with myself, but something makes me smile, something about the light.
I don't want to waste any more time, any more of the light. As soon as I step outside the apartment I start to run, and I'm still running when I reach the park. In the grassy area parallel to Haight Street I have to squint because, though the sun is almost directly overhead, light bombards from all directions: from the wet grass, from the windows of multicolored Victorian homes, and from the parked and passing automobiles. The girl and the dog are here again. The dog chases after me so I stop running. He drops his ball at my feet. The ball sails from my hand, and he pursues. At his jubilant lope his tail rotates full circle counterclockwise and swipes the ground on each downward turn. The contact from his paws and swirling tail turns the wet grass from frosted jade to deep emerald. He seizes the ball, reverses direction, and runs to me. His whirling tail catches the grass's dew and flings jeweled light into the air. The girl approaches. She's no longer shielded under a parka. She wears tight jeans and a thin short sleeved top revealing a lithe fit frame. Short chestnut hair borders a face flushed healthy after long hours in the fresh air. A few freckles dot the bridge of her nose and her cheeks. While she smiles I see gorgeous sparkling hazel eyes. I take leave of the gamine and her immense black dog and resume running deeper into the park.
I know I was here the evening before, just hours before, but I don't recognize this place, this place of dazzling light. I run up a path that opens to a clear area overlooking The City. Something here makes me pause, and I look north the see the panorama with the Golden Gate on the left and City Hall with its gilded dome in the middle and the Financial District with sharp up-reaching fingers directly ahead and the azure Bay all around. Overhead the thin scattered remnants of the fog magnify the gold and sapphire.
In his reborn city, morning gave him mesquite
I feel the same intoxication I felt the first time I saw this City. I run farther up the path, upward toward the top of the park, until out of breath I stop at another clearing and again through a tree framed verdant window I see again The City, My City, my home. And now it is all so clear and bright and understandable. This is indeed home. Here I have desire and opportunity, and here I, a man of Texan origins, see and feel and appreciate and deserve this Eden. Back in Texas, where Texans are a dime a dozen, I am merely one who has read too many books and vainly seeks the intangible, the unknowable. Here I am home. I see that now. Here I can be happy. Here is all that I need and perhaps all that I want, the world re-molded nearer to the heart's desire.
Still, one of those big plates from Ruby Tequila's would be good right about now.
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