Wednesday, October 15, 2014

What Is This, LIFE OF OHARU?

[Black and white.  Perspective:  from the ceiling.  Japanese zither music plays mournfully.  William, dressed all in black, collapses before the candles and the statue of Buddha.]

Friday, October 10, 2014

Empty Ballroom Blues

Chandler ducked under the temporary blue awning and joined the line outside the Black Hawk at Hyde and Turk, where black and white musicians played side-by-side, where reefer smoke polluted the air.  A lot of single ladies there, even on a rainy day in the middle of November.  The patrons were mostly white, with quite a few exotic-looking folks in the mix.  He loved coming here for cheap cocktails and free conversation -- mostly, it was the latter, for work.

Chandler eyeballed the cloud-breathing crowd.  He noticed some high-tone Marina and Heights types:  some pearls -- real pearls -- and white gloves.

He turned his collar up against the chill, then reached into his pants pocket to make sure he still had a dime for coat check.

Inside the club, a haze of blue-gray smoke hovered over the patrons.  The place was well lit.  Nick Esposito and his sextet had taken the stage, surrounded by a tight knot of black-clad enthusiasts.  The band started into Empty Ballroom Blues -- who knew where they'd end up?  At the tables sat various couples on dates, or quartets of office mates.  Chandler threaded through these to Felicia, the beautiful negress who ran coat check.  She wore an aquamarine, full-length gown cut to mid-thigh, and was shaped like an hourglass.

"Hey Felicia."

"Hey Chandler -- you still running with Jorge?"

"No, but I've run up on a new case."  He surreptitiously passed her a dollar bill and kept his jacket.  "Did two men come in recently, guys who didn't check their bags?"

"Yeah.  Seems to me it was around Thursday, 10:00 PM, last week.  And they stayed for all of 20 minutes or something."

"One of 'em's a dead body -- shoot-out with the cops."

"Bad news."

"Did the other one look like this?"  Chandler held up a photograph.

"That's him.  Purveying heaters, I take it?"

"Something like that.  Guy's a meat packer.  I'd say this is his sideline."  He passed Felicia a dime.  "Call me at the Olympic, room 24.  About midnight."

"You bet.  Hope it doesn't get that hairy."

"Next time, I'll bring flowers."

"Make it a Venus Fly Trap."

They both laughed.

Down at the Ferry Building, under the tall letters that spelled out "Port of San Francisco," Chandler watched the play of lights on the water.  He heard a foghorn, and could make out the looming bank of black, moonless sky threaded with a glowing, white mist.

"Looking for mermaids, stranger?"

Chandler looked up and to his left.  Next to him stood a well-knit young dude with blond hair and the face of an angel.  The boy's fists were jammed into his pea coat pockets.

"Nah, just waiting for my ship to come in."

"I hear you."

"What's your line of work, stranger?"

"The name's Charles -- Charles Temple.  And I'm a student at Berkeley.  Just in town for the weekend.  Before this I was up in Little China.  I got a hotel room on Clay Street."

"Nice.  I'm Chandler, work as a private dick.  Heading in early tonight, expecting a call."

"I'll walk with you.  Where are you staying?"

"The Olympic, on Eddy between Taylor and Jones."

"I know a spot near there."

"Yeah, me too."  The two walked towards Market, under the new Embarcadero Freeway.  "Just so you know," Chandler confided thickly, "I haven't swung that way since the war, well over a decade ago.  You probably weren't out of diapers."

"Oh.  I thought, 'cos you were so close to the docks..."

"Well, I wasn't exactly on the market..."

"What do you normally go for?"

"Something a little more pneumatic.  Shapely trim."

"Listen, brother, you take home one of those 36-24-36 numbers, she's back at your place, she pops the girdle, and you know what you get?"


"KABOOM!  Exactly what you deserve:  the whole woman and nothing but.  Now, you can hop on that jelly roll, or we can go get a beer."


"Got a nickel?"

They'd gotten twisted around just north of Market.  The two were near Hotaling and the Financial District, where young guys used to get Shanghaied after one too many.  Through the trap door they'd go, then out to sea.  Chandler and Temple stopped about 40 feet from a rat-swarmed bin.

Temple turned to Chandler.  "You said you were a dick.  You packin'?"

Chandler offered the boy his piece, butt-first.  It was the snub-nosed .38 he'd had since Fleet Week of '41.

Young Temple cradled the weapon in his right hand.  His finger rested over the trigger guard, and he pointed the barrel away from Chandler.  One got the notion this kid could fend for himself.

"Good weight.  I'm used to rifles, really.  My dad hunts deer up in the Colusa mountains.  Anyway, I can smell the oil.  I respect a man who takes the time with what could save his life."

"Yeah, I'm better with rifles, too," said Chandler, feeling awkward and a need to impress this young buck.

There was a rustle of paper behind them.  Temple spun around, and in one eye blink, one fluid motion, cocked the hammer with his left hand and fired a round from the hip.  One of the dog-sized rats keeled over in the same instant.

They were sure never to be noticed in this neighborhood at this time of night.  It was very unlikely anyone around would report gunfire.

"Sweet shot," exclaimed Chandler.  "How'd you do that?"

Temple laughed a little.  "I used to watch the cowboy serials every week as a kid, at the cinema.  I always wanted to shoot a revolver like the hero did.  One day, I bugged my dad until he taught me.  He came out of the war an E-5, back in '39, missing a leg."

"Sounds tough.  Marine?"


"Well, you pop like that I just might have to hire you as I'm thinking I might need a tail-gunner."

"Beats the calculus."  Temple drew towards Chandler and the two kissed, spontaneously and with the full force of drunken Olympians over the body of bleeding Hyacinth.  Chandler, as he wrestled his new, decidedly lean conquest in the dark, did a quick mental calculation to make sure he could offer the boy what the boy needed should he prove useful...

The antique black phone rang abrasively.  Chandler picked it up, held the speaker to his ear and the mouthpiece to his clenched lips.  "Hello?  Chandler here."

"It's your coat-check girl, the dusky dame done come up out the South to beat the white devil and find trouble in Frisco.  Or if not trouble, at least a new way of elocutin' things."

"Thanks Felicia.  Better safe than sorry.  Quick question."


"Have I ever struck you as 'sweet' that way?"

"No, why?"

"Never mind.  I guess I never did have a reputation as a tom cat.  It's just, I ran into this kid.  Never met the like before.  He's got me going all sorts of gay!"

"Well, sir, I'll have you know I entertain fantasies of Tyrone Power, which is blatant miscegenation.  I say good night, sir!"  She hung up.

Chandler laid his head on the pomade-stained pillow.  The couple of Benzedrine he'd taken prior to going out were giving him a hard time, but he tried to allow the beer to lull him down.  Whether he slept or not, Conchita would give him a wake-up call around 6 AM.  He planned to take a cab out to Mission and 16th, where this scum bag gun dealer had a day job packing pork.

With the windows closed, Chandler couldn't even hear the theater-bound traffic coming down Eddy Street.  Most of his neighbors were families visiting the City from Humboldt, Napa, Sacramento, Chico.  The doorman and the desk clerk were ample security.  He probably didn't even need any check-ups from Felicia, though the case was a violent crime, and he could have spent some more time lingering with that Charles Temple.  He felt he had something to prove to the young man, whose Berkeley phone number he remembered as Bridge-3786.

Before finally dozing off, Chandler briefly wondered if he himself should go back to college...

Saturday, October 4, 2014

The Boy Who Could Ignore Nothing

Hideyoshi Azuma kept his manju shop open about five minutes longer than usual.  He stood outside the tenugui -- strips of fabric hanging from the entrance -- that spelled out "manju" in Japanese letters, in a perhaps vain hope another customer would come.

He sold many kinds of Japanese sweets:  fish-shaped cakes filled with red bean paste, rice gluten balls covered in kinoki powder.  He had about ten regular customers who came in on about the same days every week.  On top of that, he had a steady trickle of tourists who arrived in shorts and t-shirts (even on the foggiest and coldest of days) with cameras on straps around their necks.  They often took pictures of the rustic-looking interior, and came every afternoon, in at least twos and threes.

Azuma-san earned his craft from old man Nozaki, who died in the year 2000.  Every second Sunday at temple, Azuma-san would offer oshoko, incense, at the shotsuki hoyo service where his senpai was named among the deceased (the man's family all lived in Japan).  Learning the secrets of preparing manju, like learning most secrets, did not take much time at all.  It was a brief yet magical apprenticeship.  Nozaki-sama always reminded Azuma-san of a monkey.  The old man had a habit of scratching his brow from behind his head -- a somewhat comical tic.

Azuma-san was at the end of his Cabin cigarette (he bought a pack each day at the grocery store on Post), when who should approach but little William Way, shouting, "Chotto matte kudasai.  Mada akateiru no?"

"Hai, sou da.  Irasshai!"

"Thanks."  William was dressed in all black -- black, long-sleeve pullover, black leggings, and big ugly black shoes.  "I need to pick up some okashi and a drink."

"No problem.  I'm closing up right after, though, okay?"

William was one of Azuma-san's regulars.  He usually came earlier in the afternoon.  He was a white boy with the bluest eyes and a shaved head -- rather handsome, and not too "kusai."  He lived far away, on Larkin Street, and walked to the Japantown shop from Nob Hill.

"Do you have any koala biscuits?"

"I'll get them from the back.  I was going to shelve them tomorrow."

Azuma-san soon found himself growing nervous as he cut the tape fastening closed the cardboard box full of smaller boxes of chocolate-filled, koala-shaped cookies.  He wondered why, and in a moment realized the cause might be William himself.

He liked William a lot.  William spoke beautiful Japanese in a lovely, rich and resonant Wakayama accent, which Azuma-san, who hailed from Yokohama, somewhat envied; his own Japanese sounded almost tepid by comparison.  But rumor had it, the boy was cursed.  Many who knew of him did so because of some vast, vague shadow of evil that seemed to pursue him.  Knowing William was almost a paranormal experience in this otherwise humdrum world.

One day, a woman came into the shop with a pamphlet.  She bought one little bean paste cake, but insisted she was there to give the pamphlet to the proprietor.  All she said was, "Look out for that boy, the one with glasses who looks like an angel.  They are coming for him and he is before them."

Azuma-san was puzzled by this visitor.  The pamphlet was full of strange writing about angels, shadow people, and djinn.  Bake-mono, as some of these things were called back in Japan -- ghost stories to frighten teenage girls when out camping in the woods.  "This boy needs all our help," the woman said, "and he may still lose in the end."  Azuma-san gave her a quizzical look, took the pamphlet (and soon threw it away), and wondered if she meant William.

Back at the register, William stood patiently with a can of soy drink in one hand and his wallet in the other.

"Ne, Uiriamu-kun, dou desu ka?  Atama no koe-tachi, tte."

"Kage-no-hito no koto kai?"


"Ma-ma -- gaman shiteimasu.  Ganbatteimasu.  Chotto hidoi, toki doki."

"Naruhodo.  You know, once in a while I hear a voice in my head."

"Really?  What does it say?"

"Sell the shop and move to Hawaii."

"I hope you don't, but good luck if you do.  I'm lately always thinking of leaving San Francisco.  I just applied for a couple of jobs, though, so I won't leave right away."

"Just remember, William, there is no today after tomorrow."

"Wakarimasu."  William tendered five dollars for his snack and beverage, took his change, and left, saying, "Maido ookini," as he opened the door.

"Douitashimashite," replied Azuma-san, and turned off the register and lights soon after.  "Sokkuri tenshi mitai da na," he muttered, locked the door to the shop behind him, and walked up to Geary to catch the 38 home.