Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
Subscribe and Save up to 45%
I open my eyes and an ex-stripper tells me to fuck off. Then it must be a couple hours later and I’m upstairs and it’s dark and I’m thinking of quicker ways to kill myself. A far-off foghorn is warning ships away from the cliffs. It’s a sad sound, long and low. I can taste on my teeth what I drank all night. Darling Nikki is asleep on her back on the mattress next to me — I call her that after the Prince song. She’s snoring and her store-bought tits rise and fall and her breath fills the room. It’s not a bad smell; she smokes clove cigarettes, chews cinnamon-flavored gum. Her face is still pretty. The window that overlooks Green Street is open and there’s a chill and I put the white sheet over her white legs; I want to protect her, keep her safe and warm. She moves a little and turns onto her side, facing away, and I close my eyes.
Other drunks downstairs at Gino & Carlo’s are playing pool and laughing and I can hear them, smell the pizza at Golden Boy’s as well as our eager but empty sex from earlier. I get out of bed. Feel around the floor for my pants and shirt and put them on. Step into my shoes. I can make last call, if Frankie Junior is not too pissed at me. Nikki will be afraid if she wakes up alone, because she needs to refill her prescription, but that simply isn’t something I can worry about anymore. I need to find my own balance again.
Frankie Junior sees me and shakes his head slowly but nonetheless gets down the dusty bottle of Old Crow. Pours a stiff one over dirty ice cubes. Sets it in front of me. He doesn’t say a word and he doesn’t have to and neither do I because his dad and me go way back. A fruit fly lands on the lip of my glass. The Giants are on the television and Barry Bonds pops one into McCovey Cove. I put the drink where it belongs and my throat warms. Tom Linehan rubs my shoulders like a cornerman at a professional bout. When I see my face in the mirror I barely recognize it — it isn’t even me anymore. Pete Crudo is belting out Sinatra tunes. He used to have a gig in Vegas. He keeps a condo in Boca and refers to Sammy Davis as “the muthafucka of muthafuckas.” He sits next to me and buys me drinks until I’m thirsty again. He sees himself as a father figure. Then Tony Machi shows up with a flashlight and a plastic Safeway bag heavy with snails he found on the trail to Coit Tower. After keeping them in a cardboard box for a week he’ll roll them in cornmeal and brown them in sweet butter. He tells me the recipe twice — he says everything twice. This town is full of characters and I am the king of the misfits.
Then there’s a problem near the bathroom and Frankie Senior wants me to take care of it because that’s what I do. He’ll give me a free refill. Some college kid punched a hole in the sheetrock after he scratched on the eight ball. He’s built like a linebacker. I place a cocktail napkin over my glass and get up. The college boy tries to defend himself but it’s no use since he hesitates and that is the worst mistake you can make against a guy like me; Darling Nikki says I have a mean streak a mile wide and maybe she’s right about that. I take him into the alley and hit him until he stops moving but I don’t feel mean about it. I don’t feel anything at all.
There’s a drizzle and the faded yellow curb is chipped and slick and I sit on it and roll a fat one to catch my breath. My lungs burn in that good way. A clean-cut young couple leaving the new bistro is looking sideways at the mess I have made. I smile and wave, blow smoke rings. It must be a scene. That wouldn’t be a bad way to go — facedown in the street. But the kid isn’t dead; he just needs some stitches and to give his ribs a rest. Fog rounds the corner like a gang of hooligan ghosts and a rat slips up from the sewer looking for food. I haven’t had a meal in four days; Nikki cooks but I don’t eat in hopes that I’ll simply disappear. A skinny sapling with tiny red flowers pushes up from a crack in the sidewalk.
Frankie Junior mops the floor with poison while Frankie Senior counts the cash. It was a profitable night. He gives me a little for my trouble and also puts some aside to get the wall patched tomorrow. I finish my drink and say good night. Frankie Senior kisses my cheeks European style, bolts the door behind me.
My key sticks in the lock to the apartment as usual. Then Darling Nikki is squatting in a corner of the room, pulling her knees up against her chest. So she woke up and got scared and now I feel like shit about it. I settle in next to her and put my arm around her and tell her that everything is all right. I hold tight and rock back and forth. It’s all right, baby, I say.
After a while she believes me and stops shivering and puts her head on my shoulder. Her heart flutters like butterfly wings. It’s raining outside and coming sideways through the open window. I feel it on my face and neck and knuckles that are bleeding. Then she gets up and burns incense while I use my library card to chop up some gack on the glass-top coffee table. She partakes and then does her version of a striptease. More for her than for me at this point; she needs to feel beautiful and desired. I clap my hands. She smiles, kneels naked in front of me, and puts her face in my lap. I stare at her flaking scalp, the dark roots of her bleached hair. She cries softly as she unzips me. Candles on the ledge, a siren in Chinatown. She puts me in her mouth. I close my eyes.
My brother the Queer rubs his eyes with his thumbs when Mom tells us that he has a different father. It isn’t so much the news as the cocaine he’s just hoovered up his nose. My other brother, Jake, calls my mother a whore. He’s the oldest, retired navy. We’re sitting in the kitchen, wrapping up a family meeting. I’m drinking all the cooking sherry and everything else in sight. Earlier in the week we learned that a bridge worker on the Golden Gate had found Dad’s wallet on the handrail and alerted the authorities. They checked the tides and the current and found him washed up on Baker Beach a couple days later — the salt water had done a number on him. I hadn’t seen the old man in years and don’t recall what our rift was over; it was always something. And, truth be told, I always figured him for a jumper.
It’s a good thing Dad is dead, Jake says.
He’s referring, of course, to my mother’s news flash regarding her ancient act of infidelity.
He makes a sign of the cross, ends at his lips.
But on the other hand this does explain a lot, he says.
I try to respond but it seems that I no longer have the capacity for language.
Mom won’t tell us who the Queer’s father is. She says it’s none of our goddamn business. I’m in no position to judge, especially since Darling Nikki gave me the boot again and I’m living in a broke-down RV in my mother’s one-car garage — the same RV we used to take on road trips to Yosemite back when we were at least pretending to be normal. It’s just a temporary arrangement. I don’t expect to live much longer. Darling Nikki doesn’t need me anymore because her goofball shrink can get her better drugs. I always knew it was just a matter of time but that doesn’t lessen the sting. She put all my things in a trash bag on the stoop with a note.
But we’ve been through this routine before.
My mother is playing a Bing Crosby album that skips when Jake and the Queer start throwing hands over the estate — Dad wasn’t rich by any definition but there’s property up north and a retirement fund. She tries to break them up with her metal cane and falls. Just like old times, I manage to say. She rolls over and gets stuck like a turtle under the card table. The boys keep slugging, ignoring her hopeless flailing. It is a sight. So fucking funny and pathetic and sad that I laugh. Eventually I help her up and then Jake puts the Queer through the kitchen window. Mom grabs her chest. Neighbors call the cops in Spanish. Officer Lopez radios an ambulance for the Queer’s concussion and my mother’s bad ticker. Then they ride together to SF General, where they’ll stay twenty-four hours for observation. Alabama Street to César Chávez to Potrero Avenue. Mission District cops are Latino-tough and Jake gets pepper-sprayed and tasered and hogtied and he’ll spend the night at 850 Bryant. He’s a real fighter, that one. I’ll pick him up in the morning but it’s nice to have the house to myself for a change. I try my mother’s bed and it smells like the worst parts of her.
I smoke one of Darling Nikki’s skinny cigarettes in the dark alley between Jesus Loves You and Adult Video. We’re back together again, back on that fucking merry-go-round. It’s past midnight. I hear what sounds like a cat dying about halfway down, where a new fence has been erected, and I go closer to investigate. The poor stray took a busted chain link right through the eyeball. Maybe she got chased by a dog or a raccoon or maybe she’d been hunting a rat. She’s stuck and really thrashing about, hissing at me like I put her there, looking at me with that one crazy angry eye spinning around in its socket. I let her get used to me for a minute and then I move behind and try to calm her with my voice. I put both hands around her ribs and count, one, two, three, and in one smooth motion slide her off clean, letting her go over my hip. Then the cat is gone so fast it’s like she was never even there. A few scratches on my arm but not bad.
They say cats get nine lives and I wonder if that’s a blessing or a curse.
Then Darling Nikki is comatose, which is normal for a Sunday. She danced Saturday at the Hungry I until two in the morning and then pulled a private party afterward. I know all about those private parties but it’s good money, especially considering that her best years are far behind her. Last rainy season she told me that young girls with big tits were making the serious dough and she’d heard about a doctor in Redwood City; the Vietnamese woman who does her nails said he was the best and cheapest in northern California. So I gave her all the money I’d just won on a fast horse at Bay Meadows. She had the procedure done the following month.
She’s snoring now. I wash the cat off my hands and make a nightcap of Southern Comfort and warm milk and watch Nikki sleep from a metal folding chair. Her hair is wet, water staining the pillow, because she likes to shower after being groped by strangers all night long; I can’t even imagine what that is like. There is an empty bottle of pills on the floor alongside a glass that is also empty except for a few melting ice cubes. She’s wearing one of my old wife-beaters and a pair of cotton shorts. I wonder what she’s dreaming. I hope it’s about having nice things. I hope I’m not in it. She’s a good and decent girl and deserves more than I can ever give her.
Then they stick my father in the ground and I’m wearing a monkey suit borrowed from my old friend Mike Shannon. There are nip bottles in the back of the limo and when empty they make music in my coat pocket. I’m riding with my mother and her friend Florence and my brothers. I close my eyes and wake up at Tony Nick’s and the Giants have lost to the fucking Dodgers. A guy in an LA T-shirt says something smart to me and I put him on the floor and crouch over him and rain my fists on the parts he leaves unprotected. I’m not angry, there’s no emotion, it’s just a thing I do. The violence allows me to focus, to slow down the world so I can function in it. Everybody wants me to stop but there’s no stopping me now. The jukebox is playing my favorite Johnny Cash song. Somebody grabs the old rotary phone to call for help. Fog from outside slips in the front door slow. A wood chair breaks and a door comes off its hinges and more fresh air wafts in off the bay. Broken glass. A flawless white tooth is lodged in the flat middle knuckle of my right hand. With my left I have somebody by the ankle.
It takes four rookie cops to subdue me in the middle of Green Street while Sergeant O’Barry directs traffic around us and laughs and smokes a cheap cigar and tells them to cut off my circulation with the plastic straps they use now instead of metal handcuffs. He’s been arresting me for years. I curse his mother and cat-hiss whiskey at him. He uses his boots on my face until one eye swells shut and then he eats a slice of pepperoni-and-mushroom from next door while his boys tuck in their crisp shirts and clean up with napkins; fast learners. O’Barry’s chin is shiny with cheese drippings. Then they shove me in the back of his wagon and at North Station use a hose on me that splotches my skin red. They give me a jumper that is too small and I stand freezing in a corner of the cell. Then Sergeant O’Barry sticks his head in and says, Sorry about your fucking pop. He knew my father from CYO.
My head hurts and I wake up in a soft bed and look at the sun outside. My eyes water so I pull the curtain closed. I don’t remember being released but my memory isn’t what it used to be. There’s a radio playing softly from the bathroom and somebody is banging a hammer in perfect rhythm next door. I get my bearings: I’m in Lorraine’s studio on Market Street. She lets me crash here sometimes. Mornings she waits tables at a twelve-seat cafe on California and Polk. I look at the clock on the wall over the stove; her shift has already started. The small kitchen smells like oatmeal. There is a bowl that she has prepared for me on the counter and I get a spoon and scoop it all into the trash — the brown mush and the raisins and the walnuts. The thought of eating makes my stomach turn. I sit on a chair and smoke a cigarette and then another. Then I stand up and get sick in the sink. The hammer next door. I count my ribs in the shower and lead pipes complain and steam rises to the ceiling.
Lorraine shakes me awake by the shoulders. I open my eyes. She’s wearing a big T-shirt that goes down to her knees. It’s old and yellow and advertises Baby Watson cheesecake. I sit up and rub my face with my hands and she touches the top of my head. We stay like that for a while. The day is almost gone and I have the shakes. She smiles. Jesus Christ. Her smile always fills me with something new.
Boy, you gone to kill yourself.
Well, don’t do it here then.
I get up and she puts her arms around me and gives me a squeeze. I can smell the lotion she uses to keep her skin as smooth as polished wood. She’s a beautiful girl. I let her hug me for a while and then I don’t and she shakes her head and avoids my eyes. I find my clothes and get dressed and she goes about her business — putting some groceries in the refrigerator, hanging up the wet towel I left on the floor near the bathtub, checking her answering machine. There’s a nasty message from a credit-card company. She owes them a bit of money it seems. I owe her more than money so when she’s not looking I leave the remains of the cash that Frankie Senior gave me next to the lamp on the end table. With any luck that will hold her over. I’m out of cigarettes too.
See you, I say.
You don’t have to go.
Yeah, I do.
I can fix us a drink.
I shake my head. I’m tempted but I need to be out on the street for a while. That’s part of my sickness too: uncomfortable indoors, near people, uncomfortable in my skin.
I turn to the door and she follows me. I undo the deadbolt and open it, take a step so that I’m straddling the threshold. She puts a hand on my shoulder and I stop.
Call me later, she says.
I probably won’t call her later. I won’t even remember that we had this conversation. But I don’t say that. I don’t say anything else and she shuts the door. I hear the lock go into place and I dig my fists into my pockets to steady them. It’s five flights down and the elevator is busted. The stairwell smells like piss. A crackhead is curled up at the bottom and I step over him. I open the door and the sky is bright and pigeons scatter into the street and shit on the pavement. A dented taxicab jumps the curb and almost runs me down and then rights itself and disappears. I don’t even flinch. That could’ve been it right there. Then John P. the bartender is complaining about washing dishes. I’m at Mario’s on Grant and Green. It’s mostly a bar but they serve paninis and salads and soft potatoes fried in recycled olive oil. I used to play ball with John when we were kids. He was a hell of an athlete. You wouldn’t know it to look at him now. I can hardly remember what I was like back then.
It’s just crap is what I’m saying, he says.
He keeps on about the dishes and I tune him out as best I can. Like I give two shits. I drink until I feel normal again. John wants Mario to hire some Mexicans but the old man is too cheap and he admits it. And besides, he thinks they’ll rob him blind. He’s racist against non-Italians. He hates some Italians too but mostly he reserves it for the others. I nod my head as long as John keeps pouring. There is some crap playing on the juke in the corner. I’m going to smash it to pieces. I close my eyes and try to get my mind straight. Then I’m sitting on a bench in Washington Square. A tall tree casts a long shadow on a faded brick wall. The smell of fresh-baked focaccia. Children running down the steps of Saint Paul’s. A line around the block for Mama’s. Cars and graffiti-scrawled buses and messengers on beat-up bikes. And fumes.
Kevin Moretti stops his white pickup on Columbus and taps the horn. He waves me over. He has work for me if I need some scratch. He runs a paint crew. Mostly residential. I get in and we’re going to a house in the Sunset District. It’s an interior job. He’ll give me twenty bucks an hour. We take Kearny to California to Presidio. After the park it turns into Nineteenth Avenue and we follow that to Taraval Street. There is fog and I get a chill and we double-park and get out for coffees at Tennessee Grill. It’s mostly Asians in this part of town now. Then Kevin drops me off and gives me the keys and the house is empty except for buckets and brushes and heavy sheets to protect the hardwood floors and I paint the kitchen eggshell and the dining room a shade of purple and the hallway some sort of tan color. The walls were already prepped, which is perfect. It’s a good day’s work. The backyard is overgrown with weeds and orange wildflowers that cling to a green vine. I sit on a stump and smoke a cigarette from the pack Kevin gave me as part of an advance. I hear the L train sliding down the hill on its copper-colored rails toward Ocean Beach, where whales go to die sometimes. The birds get to them and the dogs and the flies do too and the stink of it carries for miles and miles.
Kevin comes back with a sixer of tall boys. He tells me about his golf game. He has a time share in Palm Springs. He did time at Lompoc and his neck displays the crude ink to prove it. We smoke cigarettes and drink beer and then we lock up the house and his truck and walk to the Dragon Lounge. It used to be Fahey’s. Kevin runs a tab and we go into the shitter a couple of times for a toot. Then the place fills up with off-duty cops from Taraval Station and some of them are all right with me and others are not. Kevin gets nervous. The Giants are on the television. Santiago hits a dinger. The girl behind the bar is Chinese and is wearing a short skirt and a tank top and silver earrings that dangle. The cops are all over her and I don’t blame them for trying.
Then Darling Nikki won’t come to the door. My old key doesn’t work. I don’t know what I’m doing anymore. Why I’m bothering. But there’s a man in there with her and she knows that I will mess him up bad. She’s going to phone the police. I don’t care about that. I call her a whore even though I know it’s not true, not the way I mean it. She begs me to leave and she’s crying. It seems she has forgotten how she used to need me and I say as much. How soon we forget and all that nonsense. I just want to talk — that’s what I say and it was true at first but now I want to fuck her also. Funny how that works. Whoever is in there with her isn’t making a peep so I probably know him from the neighborhood. Or he knows me and what I’m likely to do when I see him. Then my brother the Queer comes to get me. Nikki reached him at our mother’s house. His eyes are big. He’s scared of me. Everybody is scared of me when I get like this.
Come on, he says. Let’s go.
He takes my arm and I let him because he’s my brother and he is soft.
You’re lucky she didn’t call the cops, he says.
I tell him that he’s the lucky one. He looks at me.
That I don’t fuck you up, I say.
Oh, that. I thought you meant lucky I have you as a role model.
Yeah that too, I say, trying not to smile.
But I laugh and he does too. The Queer can always make me laugh. Even when we were coming up he always had that ability. He tells me that Jake is still pissed about the other night. Mostly at our mother but also at him. I tell him not to worry about it. Jake will stay away for a few weeks, maybe go shoot some ducks at his camp near the Russian River, and then he’ll forgive and forget. The guy can’t hold a grudge. It isn’t in his chemistry. The Queer agrees and feels better now — except for the bruised skull Jake gave him Sunday. He’s supposed to meet a guy at Kimo’s. We take a cab to Pine Street and I pay for it. It’s all pole smokers but I don’t care. My brother orders a gay drink that is some kind of martini. I buy a couple of rounds for him and his buddy Nick, who seems like good people, which puts me more at ease; the Queer deserves to be happy. Then the trolley comes shoving down California lugging tourists to the financial district. I smell Greek pizza and Swan’s oysters and the flower shop.
John P. tells me Mike Shannon is banging Nikki behind my back. I don’t say anything. Apparently it’s been going on for months and I’m the last to know. My head starts to hurt. I look around for somebody to hit but the joint is empty. He pours me a shot of Jack Daniel’s. The front of his shirt is dry because Mario finally hired a Mexican. Then I soak the suit I borrowed from Mike in gasoline and burn it on the sidewalk. Mrs. DiMartini yells from her second-story sublet that she’s going to call the fire marshal. Then Lorraine invites me to dinner. She slow-cooked a corned beef for her godson’s baptism and has leftovers. Garlic mashed potatoes. Cherry-tomato salad with goat cheese. She puts it on a plate for me. I can’t stand the thought of eating. I look at it for a few minutes and she sits there watching me. Then I tell her about Darling Nikki. At first she looks dejected, moves her chair closer to mine, takes my hands in hers and cries. My narrow wrists, blue-rope veins. Then she smiles. Jesus. There it is again. I almost smile too.
You’re wasting away, she says. A fucking skeleton.
Well, now it’s just you and me then.
She’s glad Nikki’s out of the picture, even though she’d never admit it. She wants to mend me. She likes projects. Lorraine gets up and lets me take her pants off. Then I’m standing behind her and she puts me deep inside and we bump against each other like that for a while. That’s how I fix things, make them right at least for the time being. Besides the various substances and the fights, that’s the only way I know how. She wants me to finish but I can’t and she gets upset and cries and so we keep trying until we’re too tired. Finishing isn’t critical to me — it’s the trying. Once I’m there it’s always disappointing; I end up empty and alone.
She falls asleep and I go into the bathroom until my hands are sticky with the mess I finally make. I clean up. The meal is still on the table and I stab a piece of cold meat with a thin layer of fat on the edge and take a bite. Chewing is unfamiliar and I go slow but the food is fine and I only gag a little. I use a stale heel of buttered sourdough to soak up the last of the gravy. Then the sun comes up over rooftops among white clouds and a bony brown bird sits on a buzzing telephone wire. Startled, it flaps madly and disappears from sight but returns within seconds. There are others too, gray with yellow eyes and bigger wings, but this one stands out in its persistence. I watch it forever. Then my head hurts and I get in bed and rest it against her. She whispers bullshit in my ear until I nearly believe it and I slowly close my eyes.