Chapter 11

Lather, Rinse, Repent

The Animals were humming the wedding march when Tommy walked in the store. Tommy was rattled from the cab ride from Telegraph Hill. Evidently the cabdriver, who had a nervous tic and the habit of screaming, "The fuckers!" at indeterminate intervals and for no particular reason, felt that if you weren't going to top a hill without all four wheels leaving the ground and land in a shower of sparks, you might as well not top it at all, and, in fact, should avoid it by taking a corner on two wheels and crushing your passengers against the doors. Tommy was sweat-soaked and a little nauseated.

"Here comes the bride," Troy Lee said.

"Fearless Leader," Simon said, "you look like you just left a three-toweler." Simon measured the success of any social event by the number of towels it took to clean up afterward. "Was a time in my life," Simon would say, "when I only owned one towel and I never had any fun."

"You're not still pissed at me?" Tommy asked.

"Hell, no," Simon said. "I had me a three-toweler myself tonight. Took two choir girls from Our Lady of Perpetual Guilt out in the truck and taught them the fine art of slurping tadpoles."

"That's disgusting."

"No, it ain't. I didn't kiss 'em afterward."

Tommy shook his head. "Is the truck in?"

"Only fourteen hundred cases," Drew said. "You'll have plenty of time to plan the wedding." He held out a stack of bride magazines to Tommy.

"No, thanks," Tommy said.

Drew chucked the magazines behind him and held out a can of whipped cream with his other hand. "Take the edge off?"

"No, thanks. Can you guys stack the truck? I've got some stuff I want to do."

"Sure enough," Simon said. "Let's go do it."

The crew headed to the stockroom. Clint stayed behind.

"Hey, Tommy," he said, his head down, looking embarrassed.

"Yeah?"

"A pallet of kosher food came in tonight. You know, getting ready for Hanukkah and everything. And it's supposed to be blessed by a rabbi."

"Yeah. So?"

"Well, I was wondering if I could say a few words over it. I mean, they're not washed in the Blood or anything, but Christ was Jewish. So..."

"Knock yourself out, Clint."

"Thanks," Clint said. Taken with the Spirit, he scurried off to the stockroom.

Tommy went to the news racks by the registers and gathered up an armload of women's magazines. Then, glancing over his shoulder to make sure that none of the Animals was watching, he took them into the office, locked the door, then sat down at the desk and began his research.

He was about to move in with a woman for the first time, and he didn't know a thing about women. Maybe Jody wasn't crazy. Maybe they were all that way and he was just ignorant. He flipped quickly through the tables of contents to get an overview of the female mind.

There was a pattern here. Cellulite, PMS, and men who don't commit were the enemies. Delightfully light desserts, marriage, and multiple orgasms were the allies.

Tommy felt like a spy, as if he should be microfilming the pages under a gooseneck lamp in some back room of a Bavarian castle stronghold, and any minute some woman in SS gear would burst in on him and tell him that she had ways of making him talk. Actually, that last part wouldn't be too bad.

Women seemed to have some collective plan, and most of it seemed to involve getting men to do stuff that they didn't want to do. He skimmed an article entitled: "Tan Lines: Sexy Contrast or Panda Bear Shame?  -  A Psychologist's View," then flipped to one entitled: "Men's Love for Sports Analogies: How to Use Vince Lombardi to Make Him Put the Seat Down." ("When one player falls in, the whole team gets a wet butt.") He read on: "When it's fourth and ten and Joe Montana decides to go for it, would his linemen tell him that they won't go to the store to get him tampons? I don't think so." And: "Of course Richard Petty doesn't want to wear a helmet, but he can't drive without protection either." By the time Tommy got to the warnings about never using Wilt Chamberlain or Martina Navratilova as examples, he was completely disenchanted. How could you deal with a creature as devious as woman?

He turned the page and his heart sank even further. "Can You Tell Him He's a Lousy Lay?: A Quiz."

Tommy thought, This is exactly the kind of thing that made me stay a virgin until I was eighteen.

1. It's the third date and you're about to have an intimate moment, but when he drops his shorts you notice he's less blessed than you expected. Do you:

A: Point and laugh.

B: Say, "Wow! A real man at last." Then turn and snicker to yourself.

C: Say, "Is that what they mean by microbiology?"

D: Just go ahead with it. He might be shamed into making a commitment. And what do you care if all your sons are nicknamed Peewee?

2. You decide to do the dread deed, and just as things are starting to get hot he comes, rolls over, and asks, "Was it good for you?" You:

A: Say, "God, yes! That was the best seventeen seconds of my life!"

B: Say, "Sure, as good as it gets for me with a man."

C: Put a Certs in your navel and say, "That's for you, Mr. Bunnyman. You can have it on your way back up, after the job is finished."

D: Smile and throw his car keys out the window.

3. After fumbling in the dark, he thinks he's found the spot. When you tell him that's not it, he forges ahead anyway. You:

A: Grab the lamp off the nightstand and beat him with it until he gets off you.

B: Grab the lamp off the nightstand and beat him to death with it.

C: Grab the lamp off the nightstand, turn it on, and say, "Would you look where you're at?"

D: Wait patiently until he finishes, wishing the whole time that you had a lamp on your nightstand.

The phone in the office rang. Tommy closed the magazine.

"Marina Safeway."

"Tommy, is that you?" Jody asked.

"Yeah, I have on my phone voice."

"Look, you're registered into room two-twelve at the Van Ness Motel  -  the corner of Chestnut and Van Ness. There's a key waiting for you in the office. The papers and keys for my car are on the bed. I left some papers for you to take to Transamerica and some money too. I'll meet you at the motel office a little after sunset."

"What room are you in?"

"I don't think I should say."

"Why? I'm not going to come in and jump you or anything."

"It's not that. I just want things to be right."

He took a deep breath. "Jody?"

"Yes."

"Is there a lamp on the nightstand in your room?"

"Sure, it's bolted down. Why?"

"No reason," Tommy said.

Suddenly, from the back of the store, the Stones belted out «Satisfaction» from a boom box cranked to distorted fuzz level. Tommy could hear the Animals chanting, "Kill the pig!" in the background.

"I've got to go," he said. "I'll see you tomorrow night."

"Okay. Tommy, I had a nice time tonight."

"Me too," he said. He hung up and thought: She's evil. Evil, evil, evil. I want to see her naked.

Jeff, the failed power forward, burst into the office. "The truck is stacked, dude. The ski boat is charged! We're talking luau in the produce aisle."

The Clark 250, self-propelled, professional floor-maintenance machine, is a miracle of janitorial design. Approximately the size of a small desk, the Clark 250 sports two rotating scrub disks at the front of the machine, as well as an onboard reservoir that distributes soap and water, and a squeegeed vacuum that sucks it up. It is propelled by two overpowered electric motors that will drive its gum-rubber tires over any flat surface, wet or dry. A single operator, walking behind the Clark 250, can, in less than an hour, scrub four thousand square feet of floor, and buff it to a shine in which he can see his soul, or so the brochure claims. What the brochure neglects to mention is that if the squeegee is retracted and the vacuum turned off, a single operator can slide along behind the Clark 250 on a river of soapy froth. The Animals called the machine the ski boat.

When Tommy came around the corner of aisle 14, he saw Simon, shirtless, wearing his cowboy hat, cooking weenies over thirty cans of Sterno on a stainless-steel rack that normally was used to display potato chips.

"I love the smell of napalm in the morning," Simon said, waving a barbecue fork. "It smells like victory."

"Cowabunga!" Drew screamed. He was sliding through two inches of soapsuds behind the ski boat, towing Lash toward a makeshift ramp by a length of clothesline. Lash hit the ramp, went airborne, and flipped in the air with a battle cry of "Workman's Comp!"

Tommy stepped aside as Lash landed on his chest and plowed a drift of suds with his face. Drew powered down the boat. "Eight-two," Barry shouted. "Nine-one," said Clint. "Nine-six," said Drew. "Quatro-uno," said Gustavo.

"A four-one from the Mexican judge," Simon said into his barbecue-fork microphone. "That's got to hurt his chances for getting into the finals, Bob."

Lash spit out a mouthful of soap and coughed. "The Mexican judges are always tough," he said. He wore a beard of suds that made him look like a thin, wet version of Uncle Remus.

Tommy helped Lash to his feet. "Are you okay?"

"He's fine," Simon said. "His personal trainer is here." Simon grabbed a coconut off the shelf and lopped the top off with a huge knife from the meat department. "Dr. Drew," he said, holding the coconut out to Drew, who took a pint of rum from his hip pocket and splashed some in the shell.

"Down this," Simon said, handing the coconut to Lash. "Kill the pig, partner."

The Animals chanted "Kill the pig" until Lash had downed the whole drink, coconut milk and rum washing streams though his beard of suds at the corners of his mouth. He stopped to breathe and threw up.

"Nine-two!" Barry shouted.

"Nine-four," Drew said.

"Six-one," Simon drawled. "Penalty points for chunks."

"Fuego," Gustavo said.

Simon jumped in Gustavo's face. "Fuego? What fucking number is Fuego? You can be disqualified as a judge, you know?"

"Fuego," Gustavo said, pointing over Simon's shoulder to the chip rack, where three dozen weenies had burst into flames and were spewing black smoke.

The smoke alarm went off with a Klaxon scream, drowning out the Rolling Stones.

"It rings into the fire department," Drew shouted in Tommy's ear. "They'll be at the door in a minute. It's your job to head them off, Fearless Leader."

"Me? Why me?"

"That's why you make the big bucks."

"Kill that stereo and put out the fire," Tommy yelled. He turned and was heading for the front door just as Clint came out of the stockroom.

"The kosher stuff is all blessed, and I prayed over some of the gentile food for good measure. You know, Tom, the guys said that you might be getting married, and I'm getting my minister card in the mail soon, so if you need  - "

"Clint," Tommy interrupted, "clean-up in the produce aisle." He went to the front door, unlocked it, and went outside to wait for the fire department. The bay was socked in with fog and the beam from the lighthouse on Alcatraz cut a swath across Fort Mason and the Safeway parking lot. Tommy thought he could make out the figure of someone standing under one of the mercury lights. Someone thin, dressed in dark clothing.

A fire truck pulled into the parking lot, siren off, its flashing red lights cutting the fog. As the fire truck's headlights swept across the lot, the dark figure dodged and ran, staying just ahead of the lights. Tommy had never seen anyone run that fast. The thin guy seemed to cover a hundred yards in only a few seconds. A trick of the fog, Tommy thought.

Chapter 12

Fashionably Doomed

There were five police cars parked at the Van Ness Motel when Tommy got off the bus across the street. He thought: They've come to get me for turning in a false alarm to the fire department. Then he realized that only Jody knew that he was coming to the motel. Pity, he thought, I would have gotten a lot of writing done in prison.

He crossed the street and was met at the office door by a uniformed police woman.

"Crime scene, sir. Move along unless registered."

"Am registered. Need shower," Tommy said. He'd learned his lesson about saying too much when he had talked to the angry fireman at the store. They didn't want to hear why it happened, they just wanted to be sure that it didn't happen again.

"Name?" the cop said.

"C. Thomas Flood."

"ID?"

Tommy handed her his Indiana driver's license.

"Says 'Thomas Flood, Junior. No 'C. »

" 'C' is pen name. Thomas is writer," Tommy said.

The cop adjusted her baton. "Are you trying to give me a hard time?"

"No, I just thought you wanted to talk that way. What's going on?" Tommy looked over the cop's shoulder at the motel manager, a tall, balding guy in his forties who was wiping fingerprints off his bulletproof window with a towel, looking as if he was going to start crying any minute.

"Were you in the motel last night, Mr. Flood?"

"No, I just got off work at the Marina Safeway. I'm night-crew leader there."

"You live in the City then?" The cop raised an eyebrow.

"I've just been here a few days. I'm still looking for a place."

"Where can we reach you if the detectives need to talk to you?"

"At the store from midnight to eight. But I'm off tonight. I guess I'll be here. What's going on?"

The cop turned to the motel manager. "You have a C. Thomas Flood registered?"

The manager nodded and held up a key. "Room two-twelve," he said.

The cop gave Tommy back his license. "Get that changed if you're going to stay in the City. You can go to your room, but don't cross any of the yellow tape."

The cop walked out of the office. Tommy turned to the manager. "What's going on here?"

The manager motioned for Tommy to come closer to the window. The manager bent over and whispered through his talk hole: "The maids found a woman's body in the dumpster this morning  -  a woman from the neighborhood, not a guest."

"Murdered?" Tommy whispered.

"Her and her poodle. This looks horrible for the motel. The police are talking to all of the guests as they check out. They knocked on your friend's door, but she didn't answer." The manager passed Tommy's key through the slot, along with a business card.

"They want her to call the detective at that number when she gets in. Would you give it to her?"

"Sure," Tommy said. He took the key and stood there trying to think of something to say to relieve the manager's anxiety. "Uh, sorry about your dumpster," he said.

It didn't work. The manager burst into tears. "That poor little dog," he sobbed.

On the bed were a stack of official-looking papers, a map of San Francisco, and a thick envelope filled with cash. There was a note clipped to the papers. It said:

Dear Tommy,

Here's the stuff to get my Honda out of impound. Use some of this cash to pay the fines. I don't know where the impound lot is, but you can ask any policeman.

You will have to go to the Transamerica Building to get my last check. (I marked it on the map.) I've left a message on the personnel department's voice mail that you are coming.

Good luck finding an apartment. I forgot to mention that you want to avoid getting a place in the Tenderloin (also on map).

Sorry I'm being so mysterious. I'll explain everything tonight.

Love,

Jody

Why in the hell was she being so mysterious? He opened the envelope and took out a stack of hundred-dollar bills, counted them, then put them back in the envelope. Four thousand dollars. He had never seen that much money in one place. Where did she get that kind of money? Certainly not filling out claims at an insurance company. Maybe she was a drug dealer. A smuggler. Maybe she embezzled it. Maybe it was all a trap. Maybe when he got to the impound lot to pick up her car, the police would arrest him. She had a lot of nerve signing her note "Love." What would the next one say? "Sorry you have to do hard time in the big house for me. Love, Jody." But she did sign it that way: "Love." What did that mean? Did she mean it, or was it habit? She probably signed all of her letters with "Love."

Dear Insured, We are sorry but your policy will not pay for your barium enema as it was done for recreational purposes. Love, Jody. Claims Dept..."

Maybe not.

Maybe she did love him. She must trust him, she had given him four grand.

He shoved the money in his back pocket, picked up the papers, and left the room. He ran down the steps to the ground level and tripped over a large black plastic bag full of dead woman. A coroner's deputy caught him by the arm before he fell.

"Easy there, fella," the deputy said. He was a big, hairy guy in his thirties.

"I'm sorry."

"It's okay, kid. She's sealed for freshness. My partner went to get the gurney."

Tommy stared at the black bag. He'd only seen one dead person in his life, his grandfather. He hadn't liked it.

"How did it... I mean, was it murder?"

"I'm betting creative suicide. She broke her own neck, drained out her blood, then killed the dog and jumped into the dumpster. The ME's betting murder, though. You pick."

Tommy was horrified. "Her blood was drained?"

"Are you a reporter?"

"Nope."

"Yeah, she was about a gallon low, and no visible wounds. The ME had to go into the heart for a blood sample. He was not pleased. He likes things simple  -  decapitation by cable car, massive gunshot trauma  -  you know."

Tommy shuddered. "I'm from Indiana. Stuff like this doesn't happen there."

"Stuff like this doesn't happen here either, kid."

A tall, thin guy in coroner blues came around the corner pushing a gurney with a small, gray, dead dog on it. He picked up the dog by a rhinestone leash. "What do I do with this?" he asked the big hairy guy. The dog spun slowly at the end of the leash like a fuzzy Christmas ornament.

"Bag and tag it?" said Big Hairy.

"A dog? That's a new one on me."

"I don't give a shit. Do what you want."

"Well," Tommy interrupted, "you guys have a good day." He hurried away to the bus stop. As the bus pulled up he looked back and saw the two coroners tucking the little dog into the woman's body bag.

Tommy got off the bus at a coffeehouse near Chinatown where he had seen guys in berets scribbling in notebooks and smoking French cigarettes. If you were looking for a place to sit and stare into the abyss for a while, always look for guys in berets smoking French cigarettes. They were like road signs: "Existential Crisis, Next Right." And the incident with the body bag had put Tommy in the mood to contemplate the meaninglessness of life for a few minutes before he started hunting for an apartment. They had treated that poor woman like a piece of meat. People should have been crying and fainting and fighting over her will. It must be some sort of protection mechanism, more of that ability that city people had for ignoring suffering.

He ordered a double mocha at the counter. A girl with magenta hair and three nose rings frothed it up while Tommy searched though a stack of used newspapers on the counter, separating the classified sections. When he paid the girl she caught him staring at her nose rings and smiled. "Thought is death," she said, handing him the mocha.

"Have a nice day," Tommy said.

He sat down and began flipping though the classifieds. As he read through the apartments for rent, the money in his pocket seemed to shrink. Here was the reason why people seemed so distracted. They were all worrying about making rent.

An ad for a furnished loft caught his eye. He was a loft kind of guy. He imagined himself saying, "No, I can't hang around, I've got to get back to the loft and write." And, "Sorry, I left my wallet in the loft." And writing, "Dear Mom, I've moved into a spacious loft in fashionable SOMA."

Tommy put the paper down and turned to a beret guy at the next table who was reading a volume of Baudelaire and building up a drift of Disc Bleu butts in the ashtray. "Excuse me," Tommy said, "but I'm new in town. Where would I find fashionable SOMA?"

The beret guy looked irritated. "South of Market," he said. Then he picked up his book and cigarettes and walked out of the cafe.

"Sorry," Tommy called after him. Maybe if I had asked him in French...

Tommy unfolded the map Jody had left him and found Market Street, then a neighborhood marked "SOMA." It wasn't far from where Jody had marked the Transamerica Pyramid. He folded up the map and tore the loft ad out of the classifieds. This was going to be easy.

As he prepared to leave, he looked up to see an enormously fat man in a purple velvet robe enter the cafe carrying a leather sample case decorated with silver moons and stars. He sat at a table near Tommy, his bulk spilling over either side of the cane chair, and began removing things from the sample case. Tommy was captivated.

The fat man's head was shaved and there was a pentagram tattooed on his scalp. He covered his table with a piece of black satin, then placed a crystal ball on a pedestal of brass dragons in the center. Next he unwrapped a deck of tarot cards from a purple silk scarf and placed them by the crystal ball. Last he removed a sign from the sample case and set it up on the table. It read: "Madame Natasha. Palmistry, Tarot, Divination. Psychic Readings $5.00. All proceeds go to AIDS research."

Madame Natasha was sitting with his back to Tommy. As Tommy stared at the pentagram tattoo, Madame Natasha turned to him. Tommy looked away quickly.

"I think you need a reading, young man," Madame Natasha said, his voice high and feminine.

Tommy cleared his throat. "I don't believe in that stuff. Thanks, though."

Madame Natasha closed his eyes as if he were listening to a particularly moving passage of music. When he opened them again he said, "You're new to the City. A little confused and a little scared. You're an artist of some kind, but you don't make your living that way. And you've recently turned down a proposal of marriage. Am I right?"

Tommy dug into his pocket, "Five dollars?"

"Have a seat," Madame Natasha said, waving him to a seat at his table.

Tommy moved to the seat across from Madame and handed him a five-dollar bill. Madame Natasha picked up his tarot cards and began shuffling. His hands were tiny and delicate; his nails painted black. "What shall we ask the cards today?" Madame said.

"I've met this girl. I want to know more about her."

Madame Natasha nodded solemnly and began laying the cards out on the table. "I don't see a woman in your near future."

"Really?"

Madame pointed to a card on the right of the pattern he had laid out. "No. You see the position of this card? This card rules your relationships."

"It says 'Death. »

"That does not necessarily mean physical death. The Death card can be a card of renewal, signifying a change. I would say that you recently broke up with someone."

"Nope," Tommy said. He stared at the stylized picture of the skeleton with the scythe. It seemed to be laughing at him.

"Let's try again," Madame Natasha said. He gathered the cards, shuffled them, and began laying them out again.

Tommy watched the spot where his relationship card would fall. Madame paused, then turned the card. Death.

"Well, well, what a co-in-kee-dink," Madame Natasha said.

"Try again," Tommy said.

Again Madame shuffled, and again, when he laid down the relationship card, it was Death.

"What does it mean?" Tommy asked.

"It could mean a lot of things, depending on your other suits." Madame waved to the other cards in the pattern.

"Then what does it mean with the other cards?"

"Honestly?"

"Of course. I want to know."

"You're fucked."

"What?"

"As far as relationships?"

"Yes."

"You're fucked."

"What about my writing career?"

Madame Natasha consulted the cards again, then, without looking up, said, "Fucked."

"I am not. I'm not fucked."

"Yep. Fucked. It's in the cards. Sorry."

"I don't believe in this stuff," Tommy said.

"Nevertheless," Madame Natasha said.

Tommy stood up. "I have to go find an apartment."

"Do you want to consult the cards about your new home?"

"No. I don't believe the cards."

"I could read your palm."

"Will it cost extra?"

"No, it's included."

"Okay." Tommy held out his hand and Madame Natasha cradled it delicately. Tommy looked around to see if anyone was looking, tapped his foot as if he was in a hurry.

"Goodness, you masturbate a lot, don't you?"

A guy at a nearby table spit coffee all over his paperback Sartre and looked over.

Tommy pulled his hand away. "No!"

"Now, now, don't lie. Madame Natasha knows."

"What's that got to do with an apartment?"

"Just checking my accuracy. It's like zeroing out a polygraph."

"Not a lot," Tommy said.

"Then I'll have to adjust my reading. I would have rated you a wankmaster of the first degree. It's nothing to be ashamed of. Considering your relationship card, I'd say it's your only option."

"Well, you're wrong."

"As you wish. Let me see your palm again."

Tommy surrendered his palm reluctantly.

"Oh, good news at last," Madame Natasha said. "You will find an apartment."

"Good," Tommy said, pulling his hand back again. "I've got to go."

"Don't you want to know about the rats?"

"No." Tommy turned and headed toward the door. As he reached it he turned and said, "I'm not fucked."

The Sartre reader looked up from his book and said, "We all are. We all are."

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