Monday, March 16, 2020

Monica Being Monica

Monica Being Monica

      It's Saturday, about midnight, and the café's been closed for two hours.  I'm in the office behind the kitchen.  Mexican music is playing on the radio the cleaning crew always brings.  I have to be in at eight tomorrow, but this is my only chance to do next month's schedule.  I'm short a waitress and a chef, and one of my cashiers is so slow he's hardly worth having.  Clearly, more sixty-hour weeks are in my future.
            I have a manila envelope full of schedule requests from the staff:  eleven waitresses, five cashiers, three chefs, and four bussers.  There's also a request, which naturally is not negotiable, from the owners, Lou and Susan.  I look through the rest.  A couple make me smile; a couple tick me off.  Then I get to Monica's.  It doesn't look much like a schedule request.

                        Fri 11/4—Greg Sloan Band @ Inn of the Beginning, 8 p.m.
                        W 11/9—Naked Barbies @ Slim's in SF, 9:30 p.m.
                        F 11/11—A Place with the Pigs, Aurora Theater, Berkeley, 9 p.m.

            She's initialed it at the bottom, a huge M with sweeping curves for legs.
            That's it.
            Well, I think I know.  But the suggestion is such a bad one that I can hardly believe she's making it.
            On the other hand, this is Monica.  From the day I hired her, she's been a problem.  Boyfriends with dyed hair and tattoos and extravagantly pierced bodies have come in to hang out with her.  She's gotten in a screaming match with one of the other waitresses about tips.  Lou and Susan don't appreciate her wardrobe:  jeans with the knees and butt shredded, black tops that strongly resemble bras, T-shirts with the names of other restaurants on them.  Even in a casual place like ours—we do soups and sandwiches, some low-end California cuisine—she's not appropriate.  A couple of times, I've seen her laugh in the faces of customers who were unusually rude or clueless.
            But no one, me included, moves faster.  And no one gets customers to laugh, or leave tips, the way Monica does.  She somehow manages to spin the fantasy that this essentially hellish job is fun.  One of my biggest problems with the schedule is that half the staff wants me to put them on her shifts.
            As we're closing Sunday, I leave the register in mid-Z and walk out from behind the counter.  Monica's sweeping, working her way across the tile floor with huge strokes of the broom.
            "Monica."  I hold up the index card that has her request on it.  "This is different."
            "Well, good."  She's not looking at me.  She flicks a half-eaten cookie out from a tangle of chair legs.  "I like different.  What are you talking about?—Oh."  Her cheeks color when she sees the card.  She has smooth poreless skin that's always either too pale or too flushed.  "What's the problem—you don't get it?  I'm asking you out."
            This is a little more direct than I'm ready for.  I hesitate, and she grabs the reins.
            "You're confused?  No, wait, I get it.  It's me that was confused."
            "Maybe both," I say.
            "Never mind, Rob.  Just a thought."  She grabs a pen from my pocket, grabs the card, Xs out what she originally wrote, and scribbles New Request:  Whatever on the flip side.  "I'd probably just end up getting fired.  It's happened before."
            She makes a face at me and goes back to her sweeping.  I look at her before I turn away: low-slung jeans, a strip of skin, a tight grey T-shirt that profiles her nipples, gold nose-ring, eyes heavy with makeup, and short, ragged, copper-tinted hair.  She's every bit the hard-edged waif, which isn't a persona I like.  But coming face to face with the way I think of her—as a witchy, excessively smart little sister I never wanted to have—I wonder if I'm being fair to either of us.

            She doesn't act any differently with me after that.  When we pass in the kitchen we bitch about customers.  When I post the schedule she yells at me for putting her on a shift with the waitress she hates.  When we're out behind the delivery door (me hosing off the kitchen mats, her smoking) we talk about my plan to move to Sedona and open a brewpub, and she tells me to serve Cajun food and ban dart playing.  Half a dozen times a shift, I hear her laugh explode all the way across the dining room; when I look up, I see her blinding grin, and sometimes it shifts toward me for a second.  I'm starting to be puzzled about why Lou and Susan hate that laugh so much.
            On the day before Thanksgiving, the café closes at five, and half a dozen of us go drinking at the Manzanita Inn on Highway 12 in Santa Rosa.  There's Monica, her roommate Dede, a Guatemalan busboy named Jorge, two waitresses who'll soon be footnotes in the café's history, and me.  Jorge and I sit quietly at one end of the table while the women talk.  He has a wife and a four-year-old daughter in Tegucigalpa, and I assume he's thinking about them.  As for me, I'm thinking back two years, to the Thanksgiving Day when I told Cindy, a woman I was dating in San Diego, that I wanted to marry her, and she looked at me as if I'd suggested a suicide pact.  She's in New York now, and I'm back home in northern California.  Alcohol lets me hold the memory close enough that I can feel sorry for myself but far enough away that it doesn't really hurt.
            Monica and Dede do most of the talking.  After several pitchers Monica tells about going fishing on the Russian River and seeing a steelhead splash upstream over a gravel bar.  "He stops halfway across, and he's just lying on the rocks in a couple of inches of water.  Or maybe it's a she—how would I know?  Anyway, I walk right up to it.  It's all covered with like algae, and its fins are all cut up and scarred.  The guy I'm with is going, Jump on it, Monica, that's a seven-pound fish."
            This isn't how I've imagined her spending her free time, but I like the image:  Monica with her nose-ring and her tattoo, probably smoking a cigarette, standing in a river peering at a beached fish.  "So what did you do?" I ask.
            "What do you think I did?"
            "No clue."  This, I realize as I'm saying it, pretty well sums up my understanding of Monica.
            "Come on."  She's staring at me.  Her eyes, which are dark brown, have a preternatural sparkle.  "Guess."
            "Brained it with a rock."
            "Huh.  You would say that."  She drains her glass.  "Actually I splashed some water on it, like on its gills, so it could breathe.  And it just took off again—voom, right up the gravel until it was back in deep water."
            "Happy ending."
            Dede can't get over how cool this story is.  She's lived here in Sonoma County for five years and driven across the river countless times, but she's never actually been down to the water.  "I want to go there," she says to Monica.  "We've gotta go sometime."
            "We could go right now."  Jorge softly slaps the table.  "I know the place you talking about."
            We all know it's a stupid idea, even Jorge, but that's the attraction.  We finish our beers and sort ourselves into cars—Jorge, Dede, and the two waitresses in one, Monica and me in my Accord.
            We crest a steep hill, loop past a few suburban driveways, and park in a cul-de-sac.
            "Let's not wait for them."  Monica swings over a locked gate.  "Come on."
            A dirt road curves steeply downhill.  No river in sight, but I get a vague sense in the starlight of a broad open valley below, with dim hills like sleeping animals massed on the far side.  Only a very few lights glimmer in all that space.
            "Here."  She stops.  I bump into her, smell vanilla.  Only now does it occur to me that a flashlight would be useful.  We turn down a rough trail through scrubby trees, slide down a loose slope of dead leaves with invisible branches poking at us.  She laughs.  "Can you see for shit?  I can't."
            A few feet of level ground, then a drop-off.  She sits down, dangling her legs over the edge.  "There's a bank here.  I think we can just slide down."
            "Wait."  I can't see how high or how steep the bank is.
            "It's just a few feet."  She starts to ease her body down.  A little sound of puzzlement.  "Oh well…"  She hangs, halfway to dropping.
            I'm kneeling behind her.  Suddenly she's trying to pull back from the edge.  The mix of light and shadow resolves into a dim 3-D image, and I see that the drop-off is huge.  I catch her in an awkward version of the Heimlich maneuver and haul her back.  She thrashes out for balance, and we fall over together on the level ground.
            She cranes her neck for another look, then laughs weakly.  "O.K., you win.  Not such a good idea."
            "Bad night vision?"
            "Too drunk."  She turns around in my arms.  She's breathing peppermint into my face.
            O.K., I think, and put a hand up to the hot surface of her cheek.  I roll onto my back and she comes with me.  Our mouths find each other, her weight collapses on my chest, and we lie there with our feet dangling over the edge.
            "Hey," she says, with no clear meaning, after the kiss finally ends.
            I want to just lie there and savor the contrast between the cool air on my bare arms and Monica's warmth on my chest.  But she can't lie still for thirty seconds.  She finds the place we're looking for, where a rope dangles down a ten-foot bank to a tree-covered gravel flat.  We blunder through slapping willow branches to the water.
            The others, Dede and Jorge and the rest, of course aren't really coming.  She's brought me two miles up the river from the place Jorge's taking them, the place she saw the steelhead.  "You're so gullible," she says, and I don't tell her I guessed about half an hour ago what she was up to.
            She wants to swim.  It's a warm night for November, which means it's about fifty degrees.  She twists out of her shirt and then starts on the buttons of mine.  The river scares the shit out of me:  an opaque, seemingly bottomless mass of darkness with God-knows-what in it.  All I can see is the blackness of trees on either bank, leaning over a dim blur laced with minuscule slivers of reflected light.  Liquid slaps and hisses filter in from all sides.  A steady chattering of water on rock comes from downstream.  Monica's skin seems to be the main light source.  The tattooed bird on her shoulder is a dark blur, like one of the moon's seas.  I can see there's another tattoo on the shallow downslope of her right breast, melting into the nipple.
            Much too soon, we're out of our clothes and in the water.  The river has the sharp smell of leaf mold, and it's even colder than I expected.  Sandy gravel breaks up under my feet as I half walk and half slide from the shallows into the main channel.  My teeth are chattering already.  Monica's ahead of me.  She's breathing in gasps because of the cold, but she keeps moving out.  The water swallows her legs, laps up to her waist.  She heaves forward and disappears.
            It's just Monica being Monica, I know, but I can't help thinking that this is a little insane.  I'm chest deep now, just about to float, and for a long few seconds she's gone.  Then a pale shape surfaces near the far bank, at a gap in the trees, and moves ashore.  The current gently lifts me off my feet.  As I hang weightless, she turns to watch me.

            A week later, Monica and I hike up Mt. St. Helena, the sphinx-shaped peak at the head of the Napa Valley.  A cool hush come at dusk as we sit by the ruined entrance to the Silverado Mine.  Below us is a clearing where Robert Louis Stevenson and his wife lived for a year in a tiny cabin.
            "This is so weird for me," Monica says.  "I'm not used to being in a relationship where you like try to be nice to each other."
            I can't help laughing at her.  "Is that what we're in?  I was just thinking it was nice not to have to be nice."
            She puts a hand on my throat and pretends to squeeze.  We're sitting side by side, with her legs draped over mine, in a deep cleft between sheer rock walls.  This is the first entire day we've spent together.  The week since our night at the river has been a mosaic of frenetic, intoxicated moments in bars and autos and bedrooms and the houses of people I don't know.  My apartment smells of tobacco and vanilla and incense now.  Her vampire novels and black underwear and tubes of strangely colored lipstick are everywhere.
            "You totally remind me of my brothers."  Monica's never on the same subject long.  "Granted your hair's about a foot shorter.  But you've got the same kind of starved look, and the tan, and you're always teasing me."
            "Starved?" I say.  "I think you're confused again."
            Her cheek squishes against my shoulder as she shakes her head no.  "I idolized my brothers when I was growing up.  My dad was such a loser, and my mom was so cold.  Jeff and Rich always had time for me.  They were total hell-raising criminals, of course, so it's no surprise I'm such a fucking mess, but at least I wasn't completely on my own."  She takes my hand, turns it over to study my palm.  "I started going out drinking with them and their friends when I was thirteen.  We'd drive around to all the parties, or we'd just walk out to Ocean Beach or up by the Cliff House, build a fire, smoke, drink Seven and Sevens or Mickey's Big Mouth.  I don't know."
            "What don't you know?"  I have a feeling we're coming up to something I don't want to hear, but she seems to need to tell it.
            "I guess it wasn't good.  I was always screwing their friends.  It wasn't like Jeff and Rich wanted me doing that—I mean, they watched out for me.  One time this guy more or less tried to rape me, and they beat the holy shit out of him.  Killed him, for all I know.  But still—I did some guys I didn't really want to, just because I was loaded and someone would keep after me and I'd just think, Well, what difference does it make?  It's twenty minutes out of my life."
            I don't say anything.
            "Only somehow it gets your boundaries all screwed up."  She looks away, and there's a hard shine on her eyes.  "So I think maybe it does make a difference."
            "I think it does."
            The daylight evaporates from the cleft in the mountain, and though the trail below us is tree-covered and the only light we have is a book of matches, we stay where we are.  She sighs, and I'm almost sure it's a good sight, because she moves closer, and I feel her cheek against mine like a hot peach.  I try just to fix on that and let the story about her brothers and their friends slide off me.

            In April, Monica and Dede's landlord kicks them out to make room for his fiancée.  "We're getting off easy," Monica says.  "We only have to move.  She has to marry that asshole."
            Dede has friends in Glen Ellen looking for two people to move into their house, but at the last minute Monica decides she wants a place of her own.  She stays a few nights with me, a week in Glen Ellen with Dede, a few nights in Santa Rosa with another girlfriend.  The apartments she's looked at are either desperately expensive, desperately seedy, or both.
            "Well," she says, "I always wanted to be a Gypsy."
            "I don't think you can be one by yourself."  I grab her shoulders and rock her gently side to side.  She leans back against me.  We're in my kitchen getting in each other's way as I make salsa and she makes drinks.  "You have to have other Gypsies."
            "So I'm not a Gypsy?  I'm just homeless?"
            "You can live here," I say.  Until now, we've mostly been ignoring this possibility.
            "Maybe I should do that."
            "Maybe you should."  I'm slightly taken aback that she's showing interest.
            After a second, she says, "Only we'd drive each other crazy, huh?"
            "Not impossible."
            She turns her head back to kiss me.  "It'd probably be good."  Another pause.  "I just need to think about it."
            For a couple of weeks after that, I don't often know when I'll see her or how to reach her, other than at the café.  Sometimes she comes home with me at the end of a shift, sometimes not.  I'm not sure why I'm still thinking of her going to Sedona with me if we can't even manage simple cohabitation.
            One Monday she doesn't come to work.  I cross her off the schedule and tell Lou she's called in sick.  But then at noon she really does call, and unfortunately Lou picks up the phone.  His slabby face is pink by the time he hangs up.  He gets up from his desk and comes across the little office to stand over me.
            "That little idiot," he says, his voice scratchy with tension, "is begging to get fired."
            "Can't," I say, though just now it sounds attractive.  "We're too short."
            "Hire someone.  Hire two people if you want.  Then she's gone."
            He throws a sheaf of applications across my keyboard and walks out.  I riffle through them, then put them back on his desk.

            "I was thinking of quitting anyway."  Monica's in black—shoes, stockings, skirt, top.  She's dyed her hair to match.  "My life's too complicated right now."
            "And losing your job is going to simplify it?"  I'm having a little trouble with her casual attitude.
            She laughs.  "Maybe."  We're in her car, waiting in the drive-through lane at Jack-in-the-Box.  The side-view mirror is in the back seat, along with a jumble of clothes and books and half-eaten groceries.  One night last week, she says, she let someone else drive because she was too drunk—some friend of Dede's.  But as it turned out, he was drunker than she was, and he snapped the mirror off against the side of this very Jack-in-the-Box. 
            "Look, don't quit.  Just act like a normal waitress for a couple of weeks.  Lou won't fire you."
            "But I'm not a normal waitress.  Remember?  That's why you like me."
            "I knew there had to be a reason."  A little more bite goes into this than I intended.
            "Hey…"  Her voice is soft:  mock hurt to answer the mock insult, neither of them entirely mock.  "That wasn't nice."
            In the glow of Jack's illuminated drive-through menu, I look at her and she looks at me.  I make my hand into a gun, put the muzzle between my eyes, and pull the trigger.

            "Bear Flag?" Monica says to me one night after work as I'm locking up the day's receipts.   By this she means the brewpub around the corner.  Dede's waiting for us, hands in her coat pockets.
            I shake my head.  It's ten thirty now, and I've been in the café since noon.  "Let's just go home."  In theory, she's still looking for an apartment.  In practice, she's at my place, with a huge cube of cardboard cartons piled in my living room.
            "Home?  That sounds exciting."
            "Almost as exciting as more beer and more cigarettes."
            "I'll be home in an hour."  She turns away.  Monica isn't one for lengthy negotiations.
            Ten minutes later, halfway to my car, I change my mind.  We've played this game a lot lately.  Monica will want to check out some band at New George's or run up to Cloverdale for a party; I'll want to cook Szechwan food for us or rent Pulp Fiction one more time.  This is an easy one I can give her:  a pitcher of pale ale at the Bear Flag with Dede.
            It's cold on the patio behind the pub, but that's where they are, because that's where you can smoke.  Dede's sitting at a varnished wooden table with one of our other waitresses.  I hear Monica's ferocious chuckle.
            Dede, when she notices me, looks like she's been harpooned.  A guy in a black leather jacket, with just a quarter inch of fuzz on his skull, stands with his back to me, facing the low stone wall that encloses the patio.  On the other side of him, half hidden, is Monica, her arms linked around his waist.  He's looking down into her face from a few inches away, and his hands are on her shoulders.
            I feel hot and queasy, like I'm running a high fever.  "Monica," I say.  A little cloud of vapor comes out with the words, billows up, and disappears.
            She doesn't panic—just gently pushes the guy back, turns him to face me, keeps a hand lightly on his waist.
            "O.K., nobody be embarrassed."  She laughs much too loudly.  "What's that basketball thing—no harm, no foul?"
            The guy shakes his stubbly head and moves away from her.  "Nice going, Monica."
            I've met him—he's a guitarist, his name's something like Brent.  I've never quite gotten clear on whether he's an old friend or an old boyfriend, but that's not unusual.  He lifts a full pitcher of beer from the table with one hand, claps my shoulder with the other, and goes inside.
            Monica has the same sheepish, defiant grin on her face that she always gets when you catch her at something.  I've seen it in the family pictures she's shown me; I wonder what childhood expression she sees on my face now.
            "I think maybe we should leave," I say.  "I think we're done here."
            "Maybe."  Her voice wobbles.  "Maybe not."
            "Monica, let's just go."  I grab her by the elbow, which I know is exactly the wrong thing to do.
            She shakes me off.  "I don't think so."  She stares at me, arms crossed.
            I stand there for a moment, trying to think of something to do other than walk away.  Nothing comes.  As I leave, Monica and Dede exchange looks I couldn't decipher in a thousand years.
            I walk through the bar, past a table where Brent is sitting with two other guys in identical jackets.  I'm right at the door when Monica runs up behind me.
            "God damn it," she says when we're out on the sidewalk, facing each other.  We just look at each other, too pissed to speak yet, and she whips out her Benson & Hedges Lights.  We trail a blue ribbon of smoke as we walk around the square at the center of town.  Eventually we're outside a bookstore, looking at the vintage paperbacks in the display window.  Monica points to a copy of Gravity's Rainbow with a psychedelic cover, like we're just casually window-shopping.
            "Seriously," I say, "that wasn't good, what just happened."
            "True."  She twists one of her rings.  "But let's not act like it was a big surprise.  We both knew I was going to do something stupid eventually, didn't we?"
            "Only one of us had any control over it, though."  My voice is flat.  I'm trying to be careful.
            "I don't know if I really did have control."  She leans into me, her hand wrapped around my arm.  "Sometimes I don't believe the shit I do.  It's like part of me goes to sleep, and it wakes up and I'm diving off a bridge or shooting up or sticking my tongue in someone's mouth."
            "O.K.," I say.  "You don't have control.  Regardless, the tongue's still there."
            "It didn't even fucking happen, Rob.  Look, that's the closest I've come to messing up since we started going out.  Which is totally a record for me, all right?"
            I bite back the first couple of responses that occur to me.  It's not like she's really done anything, and I know this is where I've gone wrong with other women:  holding on too tight, expecting too much.  This is what I thought I could never be stupid enough to do with someone like Monica.  But it seems like the worse things get with us, the more she matters to me.
            "It's nice to be the record holder," I say.  I put my hands against the cold glass of the window.
            Monica slips in between me and the glass.  She slides her freezing hands under my jacket and shirt, up my back, pulls me against her, kisses me.
            Great, I think.  This is supposed to make it all OK?
            But I'm too confused to hold onto the idea.  I lay my hands lightly on her ribcage.  She kisses me again, open-mouthed.  Our legs tangle up.  A few minutes pass.
            "Well."  She steps back.  Her eyelids droop; her mouth turns down at one corner.  "You're not hard to buy off, are you?"
            But she's holding my hands, and it seems to me there's more affection than bitterness in her words.
            "Up to a point," I say.

            The next morning, she's gone when I wake up.  At work, no Monica, no call.  Again, I cover for her, but Lou, when he comes in at noon, just isn't having any.
            "Enough," he says finally.  His voice is soft.  He's past the venting stage.  "I want her out of here."
            He's right, of course.  Even if he were wrong, he'd be right, since he owns the place, but he's right.  And it's not like Monica would blame me.  Regardless, I know whose side I'm on.  I'm just not going to do this to her.  "She'll leave on her own, Lou.  She as good as gave notice."
            "That doesn't cut it."  He puts a bottle of white-out on the desk in front of me and taps a finger against the shift schedule taped to the wall.
            "I'm sorry."  I shake my head.  "You want it done, you'll have to do it yourself."
            "Jesus."  Lou looks like he's about to spit.  "The little bitch really does have you in her fan club."
            "Lou…"  My face flushes, and I think it's only now he gets the whole picture, that Monica and I are seeing each other.  I can still save this if I back down, and I know I should, but it seems to me now that I'm proving something to Monica.  "Don't be an asshole."
            "Rob," he says, "It looks like you made your choice.  I wish you luck.  With that one, you're going to need it."
            "Get fucked, Lou." I grab my jacket off its hook and head for the street.

            I'm at home, drinking, waiting for Monica.  I'm thinking that in Sedona it would still be warm at this time of night.  There'd be a crowd on the terrace of my pub:  mountain bikers with slickrock grit on their faces, their bikes leaning against the building; artists wearing Zuni silver; hard-faced Indians in denim faded almost to white; sunburned rafters; tourists from L.A. in loud shirts.  Mesquite smoke from the grills would fold over all of them.  Bats would flick over the roof of the building and then wing straight up, away from the noise.  I can see the picture as well as I ever could, but when I try to put Monica in it, I fail.  She's said she'll go with me, and I want her to; still, I can't see it.
            It's ten o'clock when she arrives.  Her down coat is sodden with rain.  Her hair bristles chaotically, but her makeup is fresh.  The edge of her lipstick is a line so sharp you could shave ice with it.
            "I know," she says, "I'm fired."
            "You pretty much are."
            "How embarrassing."  She laughs, a tired rendition of her trademark howl, and scoops up my bottle of tequila.  "Sleeping with the manager, and I still get fired."
            "You don't seem much bothered."
            "Well, I'm sorry if I left you guys short today."
            Clearly that's all the regret she's going to show.  "Guess who else is fired," I say.
            "What?"  Her eyebrows are drawn down; her lower lip goes slack, as if she's just gotten a huge hit of Novocain.
            "Lou told me to fire you, and I told him to go fuck himself."  This line, which in my head had such an impressive ring, sounds weak in the open air.
            She stares for another second before she answers.  "Wasn't that kind of stupid?"
            Not the reaction I was hoping for.  "You're welcome," I say.  "Any time."
            "Did I ever ask you to do that kind of shit for me?  I don't think so."
            I know I should have seen this coming, and I know it must make perfect sense somehow.  But as it stands, I'm baffled.  My teeth clamp down on the end of my tongue.  Finally I say, "Tell me what the problem is here."
            "The problem is, don't you think I've got enough debts in my life without you going and doing something like that?"
            "That's not a debt."
            "The fuck it's not.  Here's what I want to tell you, Rob.  I'm going to do things you don't like, I mean I'm going to do them constantly, and you just have to let me.  We're two separate people.  Don't try and act like we're not."
            "That's not the way I act.  I act like I give a shit what happens, and you act like you don't."  The knife I've been using to cut hunks off a lemon is on the table near me.  I pick it up, jab its point into the tabletop, leave it standing there.
            "Right.  You go and get yourself fired, and somehow it's my fault—like everything else.  I'm so sick of that."  She jerks the knife out of the table and slams it into the wall.  With the impact, her fingers slip off the handle and onto the blade.  As she pulls her hand back, blood is already dripping to the floor.
            She says nothing, but she looks more pissed than ever as I hold her hand under the faucet.  The cold water makes her wince in a way the knife blade didn't.  Ribbons of blood wash across the bottom of the sink.
            I want to take her to the emergency room at the county hospital, but she won't go.  Then I tell her to make a fist.  Only her forefinger and her thumb obey.  The other three fingers curl partway and then stop.  Maybe she's a little in shock, because this fascinates her.  In the car, with me swearing at the traffic, she keeps trying to fold the fingers up around the blood-soaked kitchen towel in her palm.

            It's 3 a.m. when we finally get home.  Monica's hand is a large clump of gauze, with thumb, forefinger, and just the purplish tips of the three other fingers protruding from it.  I help her undress; between the Darvon she's gotten and the size of the bandage, buttons are not in her repertoire.  She collapses into bed while I fetch her an extra pillow and a can of Orangina.
            "Well, thanks."  She takes the drink, sips, then sets it on the nightstand.  She's smiling the satisfied smile of the well-drugged.  "It's really been a lovely evening."
            I'm not quite too tired to summon a laugh.  "Absolutely."
            "Yeah.  Absolutely."  She switches on the bedside lamp, frowns, switches it off.  "Don't forget, though—we've still got an argument to finish."
            "Somehow I doubt we're ever going to finish that argument.  Continue it, maybe."
            "That's right."  She gives me a flash of her fierce pagan grin.
            I watch her gently lower the bandaged hand to the pillow.  "How does it feel?"
            "Killer."  The three protruding fingertips waggle just slightly.
            "Nice work."
            "Absolutely."  Her breath wheezes in and out, and her eyes flutter closed.  Within half a minute she's asleep.  I stand by the bed, feeling the sudden quiet, and it strikes me how perfect she is in her own way, how incomplete she'd be without even her worst faults.


Thursday, January 03, 2019

Still there?  Yes!

Sunday, March 30, 2008

A Tipping Point?

Years ago, when I worked at A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books (gone but not forgotten) in Marin County, we were amused, or bemused, by the arrival of a fax machine in our office, and the first message that came through: "Greetings Technophobes" (from the smart-aleck husband of an employee) Little did we know how ubiquitous faxes would become, or what a wonderful source of opportunities they would turn out to be. Need stock tips? Insurance? A vacation home? A fortune in South African diamonds? All available to you courtesy of your humble telecommunications device.

But there's one type of offer that is (I presume) sent only to bookstores. For years now, bookstores everywhere have been receiving, always by fax, bogus special orders for large quantities of books. I don't know exactly how the scam is supposed to work, because I don't know anyone who's ever fallen for it. I guess the idea is that you send them the books, and then somehow they cheat you out of payment--by using a stolen or otherwise invalid credit card, probably.

Of course, it's not impossible that someone might actually order books this way. But there are a few tipoffs that alert wary booksellers. One, the text of the fax tends to be illiterate: "Hello, pls do special order 30 pieces of below book title for me now..." Two, the fax usually comes from hundreds if not thousands of miles away, raising the question of why the sender couldn't find a bookseller in his hometown. And three, the book ordered is always--always--My Life by Bill Clinton. (The only explanation I can come up with for this is the fact that a copy of Bubba's tome can be increased in value a hundredfold simply by forging his signature in it.)

I've come to feel kindly toward these faxes--they're an amusing diversion, and a chance for us grizzled veterans to show up quicker-moving but more gullible newbies. They're like four-leaf clovers or shooting stars or long-necked Buds... a gentle, nostalgic reminder of the quirkiness of the universe.

But the most recent one I received breaks the pattern. I suspect it means that a new order has arrived, one that may not be welcomed by all of us.

"Upon receipts of this fax messages kindly forwarded the quotes for 30 copies of each of the two book belowed now and I do want to know if you can special order 30 copies of each within one to two business days and if yes kindly advise ASAP:

Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama
The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama"

Hillary, I think we need to talk...

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Not a Beach Read

I've been saying for years--decades, now that I think about it, ever since I first read Angels back in the 80s sometime--that Denis Johnson would win a National Book Award some day. Now, at least, he's been nominated, and if the critical babble is any indication (and I admit, it often isn't) his new novel, Tree of Smoke, is the early favorite. I haven't read it yet, it's one of those formidable books that you don't want to start until you can give it your full attention, and from readers I've talked to it's a harrowing experience. Which is good! When a writer with the original vision and poetic skill of Denis Johnson takes on a subject like the Vietnam War, arguably the Big Enchilada for writers of his generation, you should not expect a light and breezy beach read.

More on Tree of Smoke soon...

Saturday, September 01, 2007

When They Bring the Forklifts into the Fiction Section, It's Time for the Booksellers to Leave

So our bookstore is finally getting its long-awaited remodeling. We've been talking about this for YEARS, but something always came up--new stores to open, mostly. Our company president is definitely a pro at construction projects, but you can't do a lot of them at the same time. When the opportunity to open a new store comes along, as it has pretty regularly the last few years (Mountain View, Burlingame, Alameda, Disney, Opera Plaza...), the remodels just get pushed back. And pushed back... I'm not sure exactly how long it's been, but I do know we're now on our fourth manager since the subject first came up.

Anyway, it's exciting and also kind of horrifying. We've gotten some of the new fixtures already--beautiful blond wood ones to replace the horrid old grey metal things with gaps at the back where books would fall through. The tree in front of the store has come down, since we're moving the storefront out a few feet to be flush with the rest of the buildings on the block. We'll be getting non-hideous lighting, some form of ventilation, and tables and bookcases that can be rolled out of the way for author events. Should be awesome.

The preparations for the construction have been... interesting... since none of us really understands how it's going to work. (OK, maybe that's just me--my excuse is that I was on vacation.) Some of the books have been boxed up and sent away, others banished to the basement, others wrapped up in plastic like day-old sandwiches. Office shelves have been stripped bare. Huge collections of garbage have been generated--dead computers, mangled calendar racks, stripped paperback books, damaged toys. The pricey plush animals that we sell have been bundled up in plastic bags and stashed in a corner of the basement like so many murdered boarders.

On Monday morning we were there at 6:30 putting on the final touches. After a mad rush to get 50 boxes of salebooks processed and onto a truck, we wandered out onto the sales floor. Workmen who didn't speak English were trooping into the store, carrying boards and power saws and strangely shaped pieces of sheet metal. Guys who did speak English were holding clipboards and talking urgently on cell phones. Two little red forklifts rolled into the store and headed for the fiction section.

We walked out the front door and headed up the street for donuts.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Et tu, Laura?

A fascinating tidbit I found in Publishers Weekly:

HarperCollins said today that it has acquired world rights to a children's book--as yet untitled--written by First Lady Laura Bush and her daughter Jenna.

Set in a school, the book depicts a mischievous boy who likes to do everything but read.

My title suggestion: Furious George.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Harry Potter continued

Well, the book gods were kind. Out of about six hundred copies we've sold (the first printing was twelve million copies, of which nine million sold the first weekend--oy!), only nine defective copies have come back to us so far. As the books were packed ten to a carton, my guess is we just had one bad carton, and that tenth book is still out there. Slow reader, maybe.

Or maybe he or she is thinking that, like the famous upside-down postage stamp that sold at auction for millions of dollars, that defective Harry Potter is going to be worth a fortune.

Could be right.

The bidding starts at $60. Get 'em while they last.

Bad to the Bone

Every year we do a Tour de France window display at the bookstore, with a few Lance Armstrong books, a Michelin guide or two, my favorite cycling novel (more on that later), a stray Campagnolo part or two from my closet, and a whiteboard that I update every day with race results. Mainly we do it because I'm a bike geek, but it's also true that our neighborhood is big on bike racing. Even now, in the post-Lance era, people still tell us that they follow the race in our front window.

Of course, this Tour has been a rough one for cycling fans--Alexandre Vinokourov, the pre-race favorite, thrown out for doping, and his whole team for good measure; then Michael Rasmussen, the actual leader, fired by his team (for doping-related lies) just when he had all but clinched the yellow jersey; and a number of small fry ejected as well. I had to get out the red marker and cross Vino and Rasmussen ("The Chicken") off my leader board.

You hear some people saying "The Tour is dead." But that's bullshit. As rider Christian Vande Velde put it, "Cycling will always be a beautiful sport no matter how many people disgrace it." The transition to clean competition will be tough, but cycling at least is being forced to tackle the challenge while other sports are still in denial.

Now it's true, doping is a venerable tradition in cycling. The French champion Jacques Anquetil, a five-time Tour winner, when asked if he'd ever doped, replied "Only when it was absolutely necessary;" and when asked how often that was, said "Almost all the time." And when Englishman Tom Simpson died from amphetamine use on a Tour stage, a statue was erected to honor the event. Little mixed message there?

The doping thing, as I see it, fits in with a certain masochistic strain in cycling. It's just not a feel-good sport. You'll frequently hear riders talk about races, or even training rides, in terms of "suffering" and "pain." The covers of cycling magazines typically feature the hero of the day sweating and grimacing as though his limbs were being torn off. And of course, it's common to see riders crash in a race, then ride on with broken bones or with blood streaming off their body. If sports were Shakespeare plays, cycling would be King Lear or Hamlet.

It's this dark and twisted spirit that animates my favorite bike racing novel, Bad to the Bone by James Waddington. (OK, there aren't a ton of bike racing novels to choose from, but still.) Told in a cheerfully snarky voice (think Nick Hornby on exogenous testosterone), the book is laced with authentic detail--you can tell that Waddington's gotten a close-up view of cycling's underbelly. But it's also wildly imaginative, almost surreal in places, a nightmare vision of the drug-sodden lunacy of the Tour de France.

Waddington keeps the reader enjoyably off-balance: it's a farce, it's horror, it's a mystery... but whichever, absorbing fun. There's a Spanish rider who suddenly, inexplicably, has awesome form; a more than sinister team manager with a suitcase full of something very nasty; a mutilated corpse or two, riders murdered in scenes fraught with Christian symbolism; a philosophical, borderline incompetent police detective; and a gut-wrenching, mindbendingly improbable finish.

Though only a little more improbable than this year's race.