Chapter 7

Suitors

After enduring a reasonable amount of bitterness from the crew over using his position to make a move on the girl in the parking lot, Tommy was able to persuade them to get back to work. Simon, Drew, and Jeff performed some mechanical magic on the meat case with a hammer, some jumper cables, and a can of Bondo, and by morning everything was running as if greased by the gods. Tommy met the manager at the front door with a smile and a report that his first night had gone great. The best crew he had ever seen, he said.

He rode to Chinatown with Troy Lee. They found a parking place a few blocks from Tommy's room and walked the rest of the way. The sun was up only an hour, but already the merchants were open and the sidewalks crowded. Delivery trucks blocked the streets as they dropped off their loads of fresh fish, meat, and vegetables.

Walking through Chinatown with Troy Lee at his side, Tommy felt as if he were carrying a secret weapon.

"What's that stuff?" Tommy asked, pointing to a stack of celerylike stuff on a produce table.

"Bok choy  -  Chinese cabbage."

"And that?"

"Ginseng root. They say it's good for the wood."

Tommy stopped and pointed in the window of a herbalist. "That looks like hunks of deer antler."

"It is," Troy said. "It's used to make medicine."

As they passed the fish market Tommy pointed to the huge spiny turtles trying to escape their milk crates. "Do people eat those?"

"Sure, people who can afford them."

"This is like a foreign country."

"It is," Troy said. "Chinatown is a very closed community. I can't believe you live here. I'm Chinese and I've never even lived here."

"This is it," Tommy said, stopping at the door.

"So you want me to ask them about the flowers, and what else?"

"Well, about vampires."

"Give me a break."

"No, this guy I met, the Emperor, he said it could be vampires." Tommy led the way up the steps.

"He's bullshitting you, Tommy."

"He was the one that told me about the job at your store, and that turned out to be true."

Tommy opened the door and the five Wongs looked up from their bunks. "Bye-bye," they said.

"Bye-bye," Tommy said.

"Nice place," Troy said. "I'll bet the rent is a killer."

"Fifty bucks a week," Tommy said.

"Fifty bucks," the five Wongs said.

Troy motioned Tommy out of the room. "Give me a minute here."

Troy closed the door. Tommy waited in the hall, listening to the nasal, banjo sounds of the conversation between Troy and the five Wongs. After a few minutes Troy emerged from the room and motioned for Tommy to follow him back down to the street.

"What goes?" Tommy asked when they reached the sidewalk.

Troy turned to him; he seemed as if he was trying to keep from laughing. "These guys are just off the boat, man. It was kind of hard to understand them, they speak some regional dialect."

"So?"

"So, they're here illegally, smuggled over by pirates. They owe the pirates like thirty grand for the trip, and if they get caught and sent back to China, they still owe the money. That's like twenty years' wages in the provinces."

"So?" Tommy asked. "What's that got to do with the flowers?"

Troy snickered. "I'm getting to that. You see, they want to be citizens. If they become citizens, they can get better jobs and pay off the pirates faster. And they can't be sent back."

"And the flowers?"

"The Wongs are leaving the flowers. They're courting you."

"What!"

"They heard somewhere that in San Francisco men marry men. They figure that if they can get you to marry them, then they can be citizens and stay here. You've got secret admirers, dude."

Tommy was indignant. "They think I'm gay?"

"They don't know. I really don't think they care. They asked me to ask you for your hand in marriage." Troy finally lost control and started laughing.

"What did you tell them?"

"I told them I'd ask."

"You fucker."

"Well, I didn't want to tell them no without asking you. They said that they'd take good care of you."

"Go tell them I said no."

"You got something against Asians? Too good for us?"

"No, it's not that. I  - "

"I'll tell them that you'll think about it. Look, I've got to get home and get some sleep. I'll see you at work tonight." Troy walked away.

"You're cleaning garbage cans tonight, Troy. I'm in charge, you know? You better not tell Simon and the guys."

"Whatever you say, Fearless Leader," Troy called over his shoulder.

Tommy stood on the sidewalk trying to think of a better threat.

A half block away Troy turned and yelled, "Hey, Tommy!"

"What?"

"You'll make a lovely bride."

Tommy, murder in his eyes, broke into a run after Troy Lee.

Sunset. Consciousness hit Jody like a bucket of cold water.

She thought, I miss waking up groggy and waiting for the coffee to brew. Waking up with your worries already in full stride just sucks.

What was I thinking? Giving myself only a half hour to get ready for a date? I have nothing to wear. I can't show up in a sweatshirt and jeans and ask this guy to move in with me. I don't even know anything about him. What if he's a drunk, or a woman beater, or a psycho killer? Don't those guys always work nights in grocery stores? The neighbors always say that: "He worked nights and kept to himself. Who would have thought that he stir-fried the paperboy?" He did say I was beautiful, though, and everybody has their faults. Who am I to judge? I'm a...

She didn't want to think about what she was.

Jody had thrown on her jeans and was furiously trying to put on what little make-up she had with her.

She thought, I can read small print in the dark, I can see heat coming off a hiding rat from a hundred yards, and I still can't put on mascara without poking myself in the eye.

She stepped back from the mirror and tried to fight the self-criticism  -  tried to look at herself objectively.

I look like a late-night TV plea for the fashion-impaired, she thought. This won't work.

She broke away from the mirror, then took one last look and primped her hair, then started out the door, then took one last look, then started out the door, then paused for a last look...

"No!" she said aloud. She ran out the door, down the steps, and to the bus stop on the corner, where she bounced from foot to foot as if waiting for the bathroom at a beer-drinking contest.

Tommy had spent the day trying to avoid the five Wongs. He watched the room until he was sure they had all left, then he sneaked in and grabbed some clean clothes, showered, dressed, and sneaked out. He took a bus to Levis Plaza, where he napped on a park bench while pigeons and seagulls scavenged around him. Late afternoon brought a cold wind off the bay that chilled him awake.

He walked up Sansome toward North Beach, trying to rub the crease out of the back of his head left by the bench slats. As he passed a group of teenagers who were posturing and panhandling at the curb, one pudgy boy shouted, "Sir, can you spare a quarter for some eyeliner?"

Tommy dug in the pocket of his jeans and handed the kid all of his change. No one had ever called him «sir» before.

"Oh, thank you, sir!" the kid gushed in a high feminine voice. He held the fistful of change up to the others as if he had just been handed the cure for cancer.

Tommy smiled and walked on. He figured that panhandlers had cost him about ten dollars a day since he had come to the City  -  ten dollars that he really couldn't afford. He didn't seem to be able to look away and walk on like everyone else. Maybe it was something you developed after a while. Maybe the constant assault of despair callused your compassion. A plea for money for food always made his stomach growl, and a quarter was a small price to pay to quiet it. The plea for eyeliner appealed to the writer part of him, the part that believed that creative thought was worth something.

Yesterday he had heard a tourist tell a homeless man to get a job.

"Pushing a shopping cart up and down these hills is a fucking job," the homeless guy had said. Tommy gave him a buck.

It was still light when Tommy reached Enrico's on Broadway. He paused momentarily and looked over the few customers who were eating on the patio by the street. Jody wasn't there. He stopped at the host's station and reserved a table outside for a half hour later.

"Is there a bookstore around here?" he asked.

The host, a thin, bearded man in his forties, with perfect anchorman-gray hair, raised an eyebrow, and with that small gesture made Tommy feel like scum. "City Lights is one block up on the corner of Columbus," the host said.

"Oh, that's right," Tommy said, batting himself on the forehead as if he'd just remembered. "I'll be back."

"We are giddy with anticipation," the host said. He spun curtly on one heel and walked away.

Tommy turned and started up Broadway until he was accosted by a barker outside a strip joint, a man in a red tailcoat with a top hat.

"Tits, slits, and clits. Come on in, sir. The show starts in five minutes."

"No, thanks. I have a dinner date in a few minutes."

"Bring the little lady back with you. This show can turn a maybe into a sure thing, son. We'll have her sitting in a puddle before you leave."

Tommy squirmed. "Maybe," he said. He hurried along until the barker two doors up, this one a buxom woman wearing leather and a ring in her nose, stopped him.

"The most beautiful girls in town, sir. All nude. All hot. Come on in."

"No, thanks. I have a dinner date in a few minutes."

"Bring her  - "

"Maybe," Tommy said, walking on.

He was stopped three more times before he reached the end of the block, and each time he declined politely. He noticed that he was the only one who stopped. The other pedestrians just walked on, ignoring the barkers.

Back home, he thought, it's impolite to ignore someone who is speaking to you, especially if they call you "sir." I guess I'm going to have to learn City manners.

She had fifteen minutes before she was supposed to meet Tommy at Enrico's. Allowing for another bus ride and a short walk, she had about seven minutes to find an outfit. She walked into the Gap on the corner of Van Ness and Vallejo with a stack of hundred-dollar bills in her hand and announced, "I need help. Now!"

Ten salespeople, all young, all dressed in generic cotton casual, looked up from their conversations, spotted the money in her hand, and simultaneously stopped breathing  -  their brains shutting down bodily functions and rerouting the needed energy to calculate the projected commissions contained in Jody's cash. One by one they resumed breathing and marched toward her, a look of dazed hunger in their eyes: a pack of zombies from the perky, youthful version of The Night of the Living Dead.

"I wear a size four and I've got a date in fifteen minutes," Jody said. "Dress me."

They descended on her like an evil khaki wave.

Tommy sat at a patio table with only a low brick planter box between him and the sidewalk. To avoid the titty bar barkers, he had crossed the street eight times in the half block from City Lights Bookstore to Enrico's and he was a little jangled from dodging traffic. He ordered a cappuccino from a waiter who fawned over him like a mother hen, then stared in amazement when the waiter returned with a cup the size of a large soup bowl and a plate of brown crystalline cubes.

"These are raw sugar cubes, honey. So much better for you than that white poison."

Tommy picked up the soup spoon and reached for a sugar cube.

"No, no, no," the waiter scolded. "We use our demitasse spoon for our cappuccino." He pointed to a tiny spoon that rested in the saucer.

"Demitasse," Tommy repeated, feeling reckless. In Indiana the use of the word «demitasse» was tantamount to leaping out of the closet in scandalous flames. San Francisco was a great city! A great place to be a writer! And gay guys seemed like pretty nice people, once you got past their seeming obsession with Barbra Streisand music. Tommy smiled at the waiter. "Thanks, I may need a little help with the forks."

"Is she special?" the waiter asked.

"I think she's going to break my heart."

"How exciting!" the waiter gushed. "Then we'll make you look marvelous. Just remember, use from the outside first on the forks. The big spoon is for winding pasta. Is this your first date?"

Tommy nodded.

"Then order the raviolis  -  bite-size  -  no muss, no fuss. You'll look good eating them. And order for her, the rosemary chicken with roasted bell peppers and wild mushrooms in cream sauce  -  a beautiful dish. Tastes horrid, but on a first date she won't eat it anyway. You don't have time to run home and change, do you?"

The waiter looked at Tommy's flannel shirt as if it were a foul, dead animal.

"No, this is all I have clean."

"Oh well, it does have a certain Mr. Green Jeans charm, I guess."

Tommy caught a flash of red hair out of the corner of his eye and looked up to see Jody walking into the cafe. The waiter followed his gaze.

"Is that her?"

"Yes," Tommy said, waving to catch her attention. She spotted him, smiled, and approached the table.

Jody was dressed in a khaki skirt, a light-blue chambray blouse, light-blue leggings, and tan suede flats. She wore a woven leather belt, a green tartan scarf tied around her shoulders, silver earrings, bracelet, and necklace, and carried a suede backpack in place of her airline flight bag.

The waiter, keeping his gaze fixed on Jody, bent and whispered in Tommy's ear, "The flannel is fine, honey. I haven't seen anyone that over-accessorized since Batman." He stood and pulled the chair out for Jody. "Hi, we've been waiting for you."

Jody sat.

"My name is Frederick," the waiter said with a slight bow. "I'll be serving you this evening." He pinched the fabric of Jody's scarf. "Lovely tartan, dear. Sets off your eyes. I'll be back with some menus."

"Hi," Jody said to Tommy. "Have you been waiting long?"

"A little while, I wasn't sure of the time. I brought you something." He reached under the table and pulled a book out of a City Lights bag. "It's an almanac. You said you needed one."

"That's very sweet."

Tommy looked down and mimed an "Aw, shucks, it was nothing."

"So, do you live around here?" Jody asked.

"I'm sort of looking for a place."

"Really? Have you been in town long?"

"Less than a week. I came here to write. The grocery store is just a... just a..."

"Job," Jody finished for him.

"Right, just a job. What do you do?"

"I used to be a claims clerk at Transamerica. I'm looking for something else, now."

Frederick appeared at the table and opened two menus in front of them. "If you don't mind me saying," he said, "you two are just darling together. There's a Raggedy-Ann-and-Andy energy going between you two that is simply electric."

Frederick walked away.

Jody eyed Tommy over the menu. "Have we just been insulted?"

"I hear the rosemary chicken breast is wonderful," Tommy said.
 

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