Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Street Cred, Chapters 16 - 19...

Chapter 16

November 25, 1970
            Nick sat at a long, wooden table and finished his lunch, aware of the conversations around him, paying little attention. Near the wall on the south side of the building, a group was involved in pitching quarters: closest to the wall kept ’em all. Joe Jacoby was cleaning up, winning almost every toss, maintaining a steady stream of comments designed to keep the suckers pitching. At another table, a four-handed game of casino was underway at full volume. The stakes were modest, the passions high.

The Street Department had taken over this warehouse, situated near the waterfront, sometime in the late fifties. The former owner, Levi Strauss, had used it to store raw material. It provided a warm, dry place for the crew to get in out of the weather, eat lunch, play cards, kill time before hitting the bricks. Work on the streets was slow during late fall and winter, especially when the rains came. Major repair projects were on hold. The typical assignments were patching potholes or working with the Parks Department to prune the bare trees that lined neighborhood streets.

It was the day before Thanksgiving and the men were looking forward to a long weekend. Thursday and Friday were paid holidays, one of the perks afforded city workers. Nick would spend the holiday weekend in San Francisco with his mom, sister and brother-in-law. Good food, good wine, lively debates around the dinner table. He had hoped to spend it with Donna, but she’d opted at the last minute to stay in L.A., citing work on a class project that was due. It seemed the distance between them was growing like a foreign weed.

Gus Cordeiro slid onto the bench across the table from Nick.

“So, Joe College…How’s it goin’? Fill me in on the latest.”

Nick laughed. He hadn’t heard the Joe College label in a while. “I think it’s coming together, Gus. I signed the letter of intent early this month, right after I got back from Charlottesville. I start school in August of next year. Turns out the guys at the house where I stayed back there have an empty room. The rent is really cheap, mainly because it’s like a cell in the basement, barely big enough for a bed and desk. But really cheap. And I met somebody who can possibly hook me up with a part-time job tending bar.”

“What?” Gus laughed out loud. “You don’t know anything about tending bar.”

“No big deal. I’ve got a book, I'll do my homework. Besides, it’s a college town. How hard is it to open a bottle of beer?” Nick was serious. He’d already borrowed a book from a friend: The Bartenders Guide—Pour Your Path to Success.

“What do you think of the coaches?”

“I like ’em. And they say the guys that will be back for the ’72 season are a good group. They think they’ll be competitive in the ACC, maybe get a bid for the NCAA tournament. That would be a first for the program. I don’t know, Gus, it all looks good.”

“Good for you, Nick. Just stick with the plan. I want you gone come August of ’71. Got it?” Gus looked around at his crew while Joe Jacoby collected another pocketful of quarters. “You’re gonna be working with the guys on the pier this afternoon. The weather is breaking up. We can get a good start on the job.”

“Question, Gus. Why are we working of the Ryder Street pier? Is that Street Department stuff?”

“It’s a contract thing, kid. Besides, they’re thinking about running the car ferries again, Ryder Street to the shipyard, so the pier is an extension of the street.”

Gus got up and called for attention. “Okay, guys. Break’s over. Let’s get back out there.”

The men wrapped up their fun and games, gathered their lunch pails and headed for the door. Nick hadn’t been to Ryder Street in years. The old pier, built during the World War II boom, ended in a slip where car ferries could dock to unload and load vehicles. Nick and his friends fished there when they were kids.

The sun was beginning to sink in the west, 4:00 p.m. now, dark by 5:15 or thereabouts. The afternoon task had been to rip out and replace cross beam supports under the pier. Old rotted timbers floated in the shallow water while new beams, heavy with creosote, were bolted into place. To aid this task, two flat-bottom skiffs had been rented from the Lemon Street Resort, just up the channel from Ryder Street.

Nick’s job was simple. He was stationed in one of the skiffs, holding it close to a massive piling, passing the necessary tools to the men working under the pier. Old Mike Bouchka sat in the second skiff, about ten feet away, wrapped in a heavy jacket, a black watch cap pulled down over his ears. He was sound asleep.

Nick heard laughter from the deck of the pier, some eight feet above. He looked up to see Norm Runyon and several other men looking down at Mike and laughing. He heard Norm say, “Watch this.” Runyon leaned over the railing holding an eight-pound sledgehammer in his right hand. The hammer would hit the deck of the skiff with a bang and give Mike a good scare. A little harmless fun with the old man. Norm released the hammer and Nick watched in shock as it crashed through the rotted hull of the old boat and disappeared.

Norm got the reaction he was looking for. Mike jolted awake and hollered, “You rotten sonofabitch!” They all watched, frozen, as water started to rush through the hole left by the hammer, the skiff sinking in the muddy Mare Island Strait with Mike aboard.

Nick pushed off the piling, sliding his skiff toward Mike's. He grabbed an oar and jammed it into the shallow water against the muddy bottom, leaning hard until the boats came together. Mike was attempting to stand, the water up to his shins now. Nick reached out and grabbed Mike's jacket with both hands and pulled him in, stumbling, falling into Nick's skiff. For a few seconds, they were face to face, the smell of coffee and onions on Mike's breath, a look of fear and bewilderment in his eyes. Nick struggled to get the old man seated, secure, and then he had the overwhelming urge to punch Norm Runyon in the mouth. He wasn't alone. Voices were raised all over the pier. 

“Goddamn it, Norm!”

“Are you nuts?”

“You trying to kill the old guy?”

It came like thunder from the west end of the pier. Gus Cordeiro had been with a group working on the ferry slip. Now he was running toward Norm Runyon, raging at the top of his lungs. All voices fell silent, in awe of Gus’s fury.

“Runyon! Goddamnit! What in the hell were you thinking? Use your frickin’ head! For God’s sake, man! You’re damn lucky the water is shallow there…”

The tirade went on and on. Nick had never seen Gus so angry. He felt sorry for Norm Runyon, but only for a moment. Norm stood with his head down, hat in hand, mumbling apologies. He had it coming.

Nick rowed the skiff toward the shore, thirty yards away. Several guys came down the bank to help secure the boat and get Mike safely to dry land.

Meanwhile, Gus had regained composure. He directed his men to secure the worksite for the day and then took Mike by the arm, leading him toward a truck parked out on Ryder Street. He would drive Mike home.

Gus’s explosion would become part of department lore, growing louder and longer with each retelling. They would all learn to laugh at Norm’s prank-gone-bad, but it would take a long time.

Chapter 17

December 31, 1970
            Nick and Donna sat on the steps outside Morgan’s apartment, away for the moment from the New Year’s party. The crowd inside swung between raucous laughter and the steady buzz of conversation. The December night air felt good, refreshing. Donna wrapped her coat tightly about her against the chill. She’d be leaving soon to return to L.A., ready to begin a new semester at UCLA. Nick shared his news about Virginia. They paused to listen to the commotion from within the apartment.

“Nick, I’m glad we got to spend time together while I’ve been home. It really was a wonderful Christmas.”

“Yeah, it was. Good times with your family. And mine.” He took her hand in his. “I’m happy for you, Donna…that it’s going so well for you. If anybody deserves it, it’s you.”

She was quiet for a moment. When she spoke, there was a thickness in her voice. “Look, Nick…I know it’s been hard for you. I mean…we’re not a couple like we were before, and I know that’s sad for you. For me too. But it’s the right thing, for both of us.” She looked at him, pleading her case.

It was another dagger to Nick’s heart. Donna was moving on, trying to let him down easy, to soften the blow. The pain got to him and stirred a little anger. His words came without much thought, dripping with sarcasm.

“Donna, this long-distance thing isn’t working. For either of us. I really think we should see other people. I’ll always care for you. My God, you were my first…” And there his voice broke. He couldn’t continue.

The words stung. “Don’t be mean, Nick. That’s not like you. Don’t make what we had cheap. I loved you, and I know you loved me. Can’t we keep that?”

All Nick heard was loved. Past tense.

A loud POP sounded inside the apartment as a Champagne cork flew. Zeke’s voice rose above the noise. “Come on, everybody, fill your glasses.”

Nick stood up. “Should we go back in? It’s almost midnight.”

Donna stood next to him, just as the countdown began.

“Five…four…three…two…one…Happy New Year!”

“Auld Lang Syne” blared from the television set inside, the party singing along.

Donna threw her arms around Nick’s neck and kissed him, long and deep, with a passion he hadn’t felt in months. When she stepped back, her eyes were filled with tears. She took his hand and led him up the stairs, back to the party.

He didn’t know it then, but it was the last time he’d kiss Donna Foxworth.

Chapter 18

January 13, 1971
            The parking lot at Scotty’s was nearly empty on this mid-week evening. Through the plate glass windows of the cafe, Nick saw a handful of customers enjoying the best coffee and doughnuts in town. Grady sat at the far end of the counter on the left side. The bell above the front door rang brightly as Nick entered and made his way to the stool next to his friend.

“Hey, buddy. How’s it goin’?” The waitress approached and Nick ordered a glazed doughnut and a cup of coffee.

“It goes, Nickie, it goes. How’s by you?”

They chatted for a while about life in general—work, the 49ers, the Warriors—then Grady got to the point of their meeting.

“Your message said you had something for me, Nick. What’s up?”

“I got a letter from Jeff, from Vietnam, addressed to both of us. I knew you’d want to read it.” Nick pulled the envelope from the pocket of his jacket and handed it to Grady.

“Wow.” Grady took a few seconds, turning the envelope in his hands, amazed at the cluster of stamps and the detailed return address. He removed the letter and unfolded it. A smile crossed his face as he recognized Jeff’s neat handwriting. He glanced at Nick, then read silently.

Dear Nick and Grady (one letter for two buddies – how efficient),

             Well, here I am, though I’m not supposed to say exactly where. I think this would be a beautiful country if we weren’t blowing it up. Picture a rice paddy the size of several football fields, a lone figure in a broad straw hat plowing the field behind a water buffalo, great blue mountains in the background? Now picture the buffalo dead and bloated, feet in the air, the rice paddy pocked by bomb craters, that lone figure long gone.

Hey, we’re just doing our job. Right?

Our job is called ‘search and destroy,’ though it should be ‘bait and switch.’ We go out on patrol, trying to find the VC or the ARVN, we get our asses caught in an ambush, then we call in air strikes to blow the shit out of ’em. Our kill ratio is great. We get ten of them for every one of us. The problem is, I knew that one. We shared a tent, we shared rations this morning. I knew his parents’ names and he knew mine. Now he’s in a pine box, heading home. Bait and switch.

I don’t know what they’re telling you at home, but we’ve got a term over here that sums it up. FUBAR. Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition. If they send me home in a box, I want you to promise to scatter my ashes at Timber Cove. Pinky-swear, okay?

Take care, guys. Say a prayer for me.

Your buddy, Jeff

“Ah shit, Nick. Holy freakin’ shit.” Grady dropped the letter on the counter and blinked back tears. “We should never have let him go. Not in a million years. We should have thrown him in your car and driven his ass to Canada.”

“I know…I know, man. Look, all we can do is pray and hope for the best—”

“It should be me over there. You know that, don’t you? I’m the one that was ready to go. Goddamn it, Nick, just goddamn it.”

The waitress started toward them, a full pot of coffee in hand, ready to refill their cups She read the situation and turned away. Now was not the time for more coffee.

Chapter 19

February 8, 1971
            Wind and rain whipped through the North Bay in February. Nick didn’t mind. His new assignment had him working indoors, for the time being.

Gus Cordeiro had taken on a new task for his crew, partnering with the Vallejo Fire Department on a weed abatement program. The plan was to spray open fields and vacant lots with a combination herbicide and sterilant and thereby eliminate potential grass fires in the dry months. A four-wheel drive truck had been outfitted with a spray system. A large tank in the truck bed fed a spray bar mounted on the front bumper. The spray bar covered a path fifteen feet wide over open ground; it folded in for travel on the streets. A hose-and-nozzle attachment provided for places the bar couldn’t reach.

Through January and February, Nick and his partner worked with the VFD Captain in charge of the project, preparing plat maps that marked the lots and fields to be sprayed. It was good to be warm and dry, working upstairs in Station 21 on Marin Street. But it was too good to last. The plan was to begin spraying as soon as the rains subsided, likely to be early in March.

Marty Nyland was Nick’s partner. A shade under six feet tall, Marty was built like a two-hundred-pound block of granite. In his early thirties now, he was the youngest man in the Street Department, until Nick came along. Marty could charm you with a smile, the twinkle in his eye, and the sense that he was always up to some mischief. Nick liked him immediately.

“Okay, guys. That’s enough for today.” Captain Ferris patted Nick on the back. “We’ll pick up from here tomorrow. We’re almost done with the maps.”

Nick and Marty closed the map books, stored their marking pens, and headed downstairs.

“Hey, Nick. I’ve gotta make a couple of quick stops on the way home. Okay?”

“Sure. No problem, Marty.” Nick’s old Ford was being serviced. Marty had given him a ride to work. “Where are we going?”

“My girlfriend left her wallet at home. I’m gonna pick it up and take it to her at work. The house isn’t far from here.”

“Where does she work?”

Marty smiled. “Remember the bar on Sonoma Boulevard called Shorty’s?”

“Yeah. Topless place, right?”

“Yeah, well now it’s bottomless. Shorty changed the name to Bottoms Up. She works there.”

“Oh…what does she do? Waitress? Tend bar?”

“No. She’s a dancer.”

Nick let that answer hang in the air. He turned to look at his partner, trying to judge the grin on Marty’s face.

Nick followed Marty into Bottoms Up and stood near the door waiting for his eyes to adjust to the dim light. It didn’t take long. The stage for the dancers was built above and behind the backbar and it was well-lit. The club was crowded with guys stopping after work to drink and gawk at the nude dancers. Nick looked up to the stage and his jaw dropped. The girl on stage, a beautiful brunette wearing black stilettos, danced sensuously around a bent-wood chair, using a heart-shaped pillow as a prop. He’d never seen a woman so perfect. Could she be real? Was she a hologram? He felt a hard slap on his arm and turned to see Marty glaring at him.

“You’re drooling, man. Cool your jets.” Marty smiled. Or was it a sneer?

Nick mumbled something in response and turned back to the stage as the song ended. The crowd erupted in applause as the dancer took a quick bow, then slipped on a shirt that had been draped over the chair. She bowed again, picked up a pair of black panties from the chair, and exited to the rear of the stage. Marty gripped Nick’s elbow and led him to the bar. They took stools vacated by customers now heading for the door. Marty signaled the bartender and two bottles of beer quickly appeared.

“Hi, sweetie. Did you bring my wallet?”

Nick turned to see the girl who’d just left the stage. She reached up to plant a quick kiss on Marty’s lips.

“Yeah, babe. Here ya go.” Marty handed the wallet to her. “Sibley, this is my partner Nick. Nick, this is my girl Sibley.”

Nick got up from the stool quickly. “Hi, Sibley. Nicetomeetya.” His tongue felt fat, words ran together. He motioned for the girl to take his stool.

“Thank you, kind sir.” She was even prettier up close than on the stage. “Marty, would you get me a 7-UP, sweetie?” She turned to Nick.  “I’m new here. Just started this week. I’m still trying to get my routine worked out.”

She smiled and Nick felt his knees wobble. If she was fishing for a compliment, Nick was hooked. “Oh, you were great.” His cheeks flushed. “I mean really great.”

She wore a dark blue men’s shirt with a button-down collar and it flashed through Nick’s mind that she was naked under that neatly pressed garment. He reached for his beer and nearly knocked the bottle over. Marty and Sibley laughed.

They chatted for a while, finished their drinks, and said goodbye to Sibley. She headed for a back room to get ready for her next set while Nick and Marty made their way to the door.

“So, what do you think, buddy?” Marty grinned at Nick as they came to the car.

Nick looked at Marty with new appreciation. “Wow!” he said. It was the only word that fit.

1 comment:

  1. Chuck,
    I can't wait to begin this novel! (I'm a bit late on the scene, I see.) As you know, I'm struggling to get "If Not for War" written, so I understand what an incredible undertaking writing a novel is. Your work reflects a time forgotten and a sweetness and innocence that readers will want to recapture in their own lives. I'm so glad you took both approaches, the individual essay form as in "Yeah, What Else?" and this novel form. I only read the last paragraph just now and I love it! I promise I'll start from the beginning when I get out of the fog of finishing my attempt to follow your publishing lead!