I wasn’t sure how Wendy and the pig roaster were connected, but there was a glint in his eye that encouraged me to try later - from a distance. I walked a surprisingly long ways back to town along a grainy roadside. Despite being mid-November there seemed to be a large number of tourists as I neared the center of town. The pier that once serviced fishing fleets was busy with shoppers at the variety of stores and attractions built into the cannery buildings. Gulls glided overhead on watch for dropped treats.
I located my Aspen in a city lot with a parking ticket on the window; I thought the pricks said I okay to park there.
I drove to San Francisco in time to check the post office box. Along with the usual submissions was a red letter for me; the benefactor had told me that if you upset Central Processing you could expect one. The letter informed me that I had scrambled an eight-dream transmission and to offer refunds for any clients that complained. Handling local complaints was the only part of the job that brought me into any real contact with people. I had scripted responses to what were generally predictable complaints.
I had skimmed the training material when I was hired. The lure of the tickets was that the company promised a dream cycle in a pool of eight entrants who were grouped according to an intricate set of preferences. I thought it was just another scam. If the folks believed in this process then they were rewarded. If that was good enough for them then I was okay with the deal. They were guaranteed an experience. If they ever expressed dissatisfaction to me, I simple threw them into another batch.
How The Processor disseminated these dreams with all manner of signals and wave-lenghts was of no interest to me. I didn’t want to fuck with the process though; I had my fill of dream-chasing in the 70s.
You mean your drug using days.
Since I was essentially a free agent and not an employee, I was concerned for the benefactor. Sure enough, when I arrived at the apartment there was a number of messages on the machine. Luckily there were no client complaints; all the messages were from LA where my sister and the benefactor lived. I called him. I told him I had spent the night in Monterey. He said now that I had returned to the city the odd effects would dissipate. Take a couple of days off the trail, he said. He would deal with processing. He repeated with emphasis his warning to never open a returned packet.
I tried the motel a couple of times, but growly Gus answered each time. I hung up. I had one answer anyway: the Clover entourage had stayed there. Wendy may or may not have any additional information, but she had reminded me of my birthday. I strolled over to the nearby shopping center to a small comfortable bar. I asked for a top-shelf beer. I told the friendly bartender that it was my 30th and why not the best. Mistake - never tell the star of the neighborhood bar that you’re celebrating your birthday. The bartender organized an impromptu celebration. The few patrons and the kitchen help joined in a chorus with a candle on a dinner roll as the cake. I was touched by their kindness, but left after one beer.
The Aspen was acting wacky. Driving a car with a manual clutch in San Francisco is an exercise in bravery under fire. You see the cloudy horizon in your windshield and the tops of vehicles on the cross-street. You’re back in your seat like an astronaut. The light changes and mortification sets in as your rig rolls backwards. Then grinding as the gear gnash and the rubber takes hold and lifts you up to the next diabolically placed stop sign or traffic light. After three months of these scraped metal adventures the clutch on the Dodge was shot. I brought the car to a shop in the Marina, Scotty’s Transmissions.
“You want to bring your car here,” Scotty had said on the phone. I found him in the Yellow Pages. “Why?,” he said. “Because I’m busier than hell over here. I’m waist deep in clutches and transmissions. That’s where you want to go. Don’t go to a place that’s not busy. You go to a restaurant and nobody’s eating there, they’re puttin’ water in the soup.”
The line “puttin’ water in the soup” was all I needed to hear. I brought the car over to Scotty’s and met the ebullient fellow.
I left the motor shop and joined the crowds at Fisherman’s Wharf. The sun was out at the Marina; the Bay whipped white and green. At the edge I watched some windsurfers. The sinewy athletes on the sailboards strained as they fought swells and changing wind currents. They were sleek in wetsuits, trimmed and tanned.
Moving away from the crowds at the Marina, I walked just a couple of blocks and entered the empty canyons of the financial district. The weather in San Francisco changes from one neighborhood to the next. Above the tall gray buildings was a matching sky. The streets were abandoned on this Saturday afternoon. The shops that served the office workers during the work week were shuttered.
I found the quiet streets a little more to my liking as my mind swirled like the Bay. Clearly Crimson was avoiding me. If the authorities were satisfied with the manner of Clover’s death who was I to think otherwise. On this point I was fairly confident in that I doubted that the creators of all the tricks and sham would be able to construct an ersatz city hall in the center of Monterey.
After the scare from the dream medallion, I was rethinking the job. I hadn’t made any friends. There was little holding me except for the freedom of calling my own shots at work. The pay was excellent and that meant I had been able to pay every one of my debts.
Still. I wanted to know more about Miss Crimson. How was she able to get into my head? The streets of the financial were crisply clean like the lobby of a fine hotel. Other than rushing wind there was scant movement or sound. I heard the scrape of shoe somehwere behind me. The paranoia returned. I sat on the stoop of an ornate turn-of-the-century building. The ‘06 quake had shook them, but the stalwart buildings of the district had withstood that test and some remained. Newer building were built on rollers and some of the older ones had been retrofitted with quake proofing. When I wasn’t thinking of the weird antics of the characters of my dream I was worrying about a quake.
I caught a quick movement from above. A gargoyle stared away from atop a column. Generations of grime had deepened the shades of the cement. The gargoyle’s eye oozed insolence.
The horse-faced tout was in front of me. Had he thrown something at the gargoyle? A signal?
“Greetings. Welcome back to everybody’s second favorite city,” the tout sang. “Come one, come all. Listen to my call. Enter this way and be enthralled!”
“Why didn’t you let me pick you up out in the country? I wanted to help you.”
“Mysteries abound in this seaside town.” I shot the gargoyle another glance; they did look alike, the tout and the gargoyle. They both had that thing where it seemed you had almost caught them staring at you. The stoneman probably spoke in rhymes too.
“So this is another lead-in, a gateway," I said. Let’s go to Hamelin, piper.” He always seemed to be at the edge of the dream action.
“Follow into the shade and, we seek the crimson maiden.”
I trailed the ragged man up California Street to the Mark Hopkins. He pointed to the lobby as he faded into the San Francisco night. I walked on plush carpet. A man in a maroon blazer turned away from a conversation over the desk. The man in the blazer smiled. He directed me to a reception hall. There was an easel announcing: Californians for a Better Tomorrow / Roosevelt 1936! The room was dark with candles at each table and a dimly lit stage. Clouds of cigarette and cigar smoke rose from the tables as thick as the morning fog. Most of the crowd were men in suits. There was a clutch of women near the front. From there she called; “Damon, darling, we’re here. Come.” She waved a cigarette at the end of a holder.
Election results were posted on a large blackboard on the stage. Apparently FDR had won another term. The room buzzed with victory fueled by serious alcohol intake, if the empty cocktails glasses were any indication.
Crimson glowed. She wore a straw boater cocked on her head emblazoned Roosevelt ‘36 in red and blue letters. They were all giddy with cocktails and success. She ran to me and grabbed the front of my shirt. “So glad you are here. We’ve won again! Really, isn’t it wonderful?” Nothing induces effervescence like winning on principle.
I recognized the symptoms now. The tout had brought me back to the dreamland.
“I must talk to you. now!” I said.
“Really, darling? Here?”
I viewed a sea of monocled straw boaters with that idiot cig holder grin and agreed.
“Take me to the Top, darling. The views are too marvelous. Let’s.”
I hooked arms with her. She tossed her tam on a table by the hall door. We went to the lobby.
She patted my arm with a white gloved hand, “don’t be nervous. This hotel has been here for a dozen years. You’ll forget your nerves when you see the views. The cocktails are world famous!”
The elevator doors slid open guided by an operator; a male about fifty with that pained look of the disturbed service person. He had a fish-eyed resemblance to the tout and the gargoyle - that same noisome quick look-away. “If it’s not too much trouble...” I began, but Crimson cut me off with a shoulder punch.
“To the Top of the Mark,” she trilled.
I was about to ask if he needed directions, but Crimson shamed me. Really, I thought, just how hard would it have been to drive one of theses things - was that 4?, no problem. Miss Crimson stood close and kept her arm entwined, her affect was calming.
Don’t you dare!
With an eye on the baleful button man, I peppered the pretty lady with questions. She was dressed for the evening in the timeless demure way of the high social set. Her perfume permeated the air of the cab in a discreet way, not the out-front flower and beads scent of Wendy; something rather more unobtainable, demure like her dress.
“Really, Damon, you try too hard. There is no mystery here. I came out West with the Doctor. He badly needed a vacation and I wanted to reacquaint with friends from the campaign, see the candidate. The accident was deplorable, but just that - an accident. Nothing more. These last days have been utterly draining. Tonight is a celebration. Give a girl a break. After all, I’m your...”
“TOP OF THE MARK,” Fish-eye cried in a stentorian voice. He jerked the cab to an abrupt landing and cranked the doors open. You fuck, you did that on purpose, I thought as the operator pretended to scan the floor list. Crimson tugged me out. She hesitated outside - the hesitation that reminds a fellow to tip the help. I put a five in the operator’s cold hand. He murmured something about enjoying the vittles and view as shut the doors and slid back in time. In the dazzling view I saw the Transamerica Pyramid glimmering and hovering above the rest - I was back in the present.
I looked for Miss Crimson in the tastefully lit entry to the famous restaurant. She was nowhere to be seen.
“She’s taking a powder,” said Red, the limousine driver, "she said she wants us to wait in the bar.”
photos: all DEW except for the SF street scene stolen from Google Images