The maroon-garbed hotel dick watched me unabashedly like a hung-over sailor studying his sunny-sides while they griddle bopped on a skid row grease grill; I dialed the motel with my brain sizzling from the Process blast. Christ, please, don’t let that jerk-off answer again. To my relief a woman came on in a raspy but cheerful manner. I asked for Wendy.
“Who?” Then she answered herself, “Wendy? You must mean the girl.” Off-phone I could hear her talking to someone named Davey. “That girl, the last one. What was her name?” I pictured her, housecoat and curlers, in the office yelling back into the living quarters. Quite a contrast with the uniformed servants of The Mark that I could see swishing efficiently in the tasteful lobby as they tended to their wayfarers.
“Honey, that girl, Wendy, ain’t been seen for a couple of days now. You the law or something? Because that girl up and booked. Like these girls sometimes do. This one left her dog. They don’t usually do that.”
“I was calling to check up on her. To say hello. I stayed there last week.”
“Sure, that’s a good one. Honey, you don’t have to drum up a reason. We’ve seen a lot of living pass through here. Wish I could help you. You check around the beaches? She might have shacked with somebody she met in the dunes. Who knows?”
“Well, thanks,” I said.
“Glad to help. Stop by, if you’re around. We like visitors here.”
“I will.” Red, the limo man, had planted a seed.
The effects of Red’s flash from the lighter felt very different than the medallion. The flash was just that, a flash with little residual. I had glossed over much of the information about the process during training but I recalled there was something important about tower signal integrity. The benefactor had been very specific about the need for accuracy on the addresses for the clients. If I had caught a blast from the city the edges would be smoother, but still heavy.
I hung up the phone and with a shadowed escort to the hotel’s front door went into the warm San Franciscan night. Tracers streamed behind moving vehicles. Neon signs shuddered I tangoed through strolling pedestrians on my way to catch the trolley. A busker blew a sweet sax solo; the music curled into the coffee mist of the city and trailed me into downtown.
As I passed restaurants and bars I would hear the same tune emanating from dusty windows. I neared the stop for the streetcars. The saxman emerged from a basement entry in the sidewalk; two metal doors yawned open, he climbed the steps.
In addition to the fabled cable cars San Francisco featured one of the last remaining above ground intercity rail transportation systems in the country. The venerable streetcars cars were hardly a novelty here. The cars were an important cog in the multifaceted system.
The glare inside the creaking car that ran up Market was intense. I pretended to read a paper to avoid eye contact with other riders. I rode out the effects over the rest of the weekend staying close to the apartment.
My car was ready that Monday. I nipped at fried coffee from a dusty styrofoam that was graciously provided in the two-seater waiting area along with the Chronicle and motorhead mags. “I wouldn’t recommend driving something like that in this city, but your clutch is all fixed,” Scotty said as I left his shop with the repaired Aspen.
I worked the regular route for a half day hitting Hayward and Fremont on the way to Monterey. I pulled into gravel driveway of The Sandman Motel about mid-afternoon. I parked by the rental office. A middle-aged woman sat under an umbrella at a table. The sky was clear and it was warm. There was a congested metal ashtray on the table. She sipped a cola-looking drink through crushed ice in a flower printed tumbler.
“I’m good at reading people, hon,” she said as I approached. “You’re the fellow that called the other day, aren’t you?”
“Yeah, I called. I called about Wendy.”
“Yes, you did. You’ve been on the road a while. You’ve been traveling.” She snubbed out her smoke and lit another, B&H Lights 100s.
“You could say I’ve been traveling.”
“I love my cigarettes. At least I’m smoking lights.” She coughed and laughed. “There’s road dust in your face. I know it’s easy to say that to folks that come into a roadside motel. But I mean it different. You’re a long way from your home. I can see that.”
Or you can just read my mind and know my thoughts like everyone else I run into out here. It was hard to hold a negative opinion of the woman. A sincere aspect emanated from her weathered features. She had the smoker’s pall. Her eyes crinkled when she smiled. She wore comfortable loose clothes; shorts some sort of light blouse with a sweater over her shoulders. Her gray streaked dark curly shoulder length hair was pinned behind her ears. She had the round face, olive skin and dark eyes of the Mediterranean.
“I was a mind-reader back a ways. Me and Davey were first out here on the Bay. Young and stupid. Set up a reading room in Carmel. Madame Lou is what we used on the sign. I did readings. I’ve always had a gift, a gift for seeing.” She sipped from the tumbler. “You can learn a lot just by watching people and listening to what they say and how they say it. People wear sadness like a cloak.” A winsome, mischievous look crossed her face at the memory - I could see her, young, lovely, a scarf, gold earrings, dark shadows and warm words.
“Would you like a glass of ice? I’m going in for more. You can get something to drink from the machine over there.”
“Sure, thank you.”
“Davey?” she said simply to the man sitting in a folding lawn chair under a tree a few feet away. His head was sunk into his chest as he murmured a response.
“He had some heart problems. He’s on the pills, keeps him loopy like that.” She rolled her eyes. “He’s a good man underneath it all. Davey, you’re such a good boy. Sleepy now.”
When the woman opened the door Fritz, Wendy's black German shepherd, emerged. He sidled up to me, laid his large head on my lap. There was something in the way he carried himself that spoke to me, rising above the usual chorus of muted insults. Is this dog about to tell me to go out and shoot people in cars? “I’m not your Son of Sam,” I said aloud to the dog.
“What, hon?” the woman said through a screened window.
“Oh, nothing, just the dog.” I went to the soda machine while Fritz sat by the chair. There was a certain insistence about the animal.
“Funny she would leave him behind,” she said as she brought out me a glass of ice. “They don’t usually do that if they have a pet. Leave him behind. The pet’s protection. Especially for the young ones, especially these days.”
“Oh hon, I’ve seen a hundred girls like your Susie.”
“Wasn’t her name Wendy?”
“Oh yeah, Wendy. I get them mixed up. Susie was the one before. That one was so pretty I think she gave Davey here the fits. You were never the same after she left. Right, honey?” Davey slept.
She fired a 100 with a match, chasing the sulphur with a wave. “I see them coming down the road over the dunes. Most times on foot, alone.” She held the smoke aloft. A damp slight breeze rattled the leaves of a small walnut tree over the slumbering Davey. The RV lot was half-empty with little activity. Beyond the parked vehicles stretched the pines that lead to the Pacific.
“They come from out of the dunes. There’s been parties out on those beaches since forever. Something happens to the girl - a fight with a boyfriend or maybe the people they were staying are pulling up. Maybe the girl sees something in a sunset and wants to stay for more. Or maybe they’ve come from somewhere running from something. There’s many reasons, but the look is always the same. They have a way of walking. I can tell right off what they want. They always seem to stop in here. We’re the first open place between the dunes and the city. What they want is work, and a place to stay.”
“The funny thing is how it seems to work out. One will go off - homesick or back to school, sometimes a boy - and another will take her place. I hire them for cleaning. They get the small room in the back, maybe s few more bucks if they spot me on the desk. The last one, your Wendy, was a good one for that. I have to spend more time on Davey, the way he is. Then we have Davey’s boy, DJ, for light maintenance and the like.”
“Was DJ answering the phones Friday and Saturday?” I asked.
She leaned closer to me with a side glance at Davey who remained still. “Rude, wasn’t he. DJ’s worthless mostly. God forgive me. He’s my stepson, but nothing but trouble from day one.” She looked up. “Well, speak of the devil.”
DJ trudged around the corner holding a half-eaten hot dog and a quart bottle of cola. He scowled at and earned a rumble from Fritz. He had cleaned up from the night I had seen him at the pig roaster. He had that permanent greasy look of the carny; a look that matched his disposition. He had a round simple face with scraggly hair and beard. He wore a black tee with stained jeans. He had an Oakland Raiders cap pushed back on his head. His tilted head conveyed disdain.
“DJ, you run that girl off? Damon here is looking after her.”
The maintenance man bristled. He held the door half open and growled, “naw, ain’t seen her in a few days myself.” A dollop of bright yellow mustard rested on his dirty brown chin whiskers. He disappeared into the office.
“DJ is sometimes rough on the girls. Can’t keep his hands to himself. He hits on just about all of them. He never finished school or nothing. He’s hung around the Bay all his life. Guess he’s at the best he’ll ever be. But we manage to get along.”
I sensed the greaser’s presence just beyond sight behind the screen of the office door. No telling how these words hurt him or if it mattered - a well-placed word can sting the blackest of hearts. I knew he heard them and so did Madame Lou. The door opened.
“You know, Ma, come to think of it, last time I saw her was when Jay Clover was here a couple of days ago sniffing around her.”