Post-Apocalyptic San Francisco Sci-Fi: Part Four
So I go up to Deska’s house. As a council member she gets to live in one of the old houses. It’s not made from scraps of cloth, driftwood, and piled stone, not like most of the city. It’s real timber with real windows, not just plastic tarp or mess. Avalon’s got a bunch o’ real houses from the Old Times, but Devil’s Teeth just has a few, maybe four, I recon. It’s a nice place ‘cept it’s up on one of the taller hills in town. By the time I get there my back is dribblin’ sweat. Got to lighten up the quiver one of these days, I swear.
She welcomes me in and we kiss. We kiss ‘bout every time it’s been a while. I’ll be gone in a couple of days and it’ll be different. She’ll hug me goodbye and have things to get to. She’s a council member. A muckity muck. And she’s got her trading business to run. She’s busy. I understand.
“I’ll see you later tonight,” she says. “I’ve got to get a proposal ready for the morning. There’s some salmon in the basement and bread on the counter if you’re hungry. But save the coffee for the morning, huh?”
I nod and she kisses my cheek and goes back to her little upstairs office. I head into her bathroom and wash up.
Lookin’ myself over in the mirror and figure I can get away with trimming the beard tomorrow. I pour water from the rare, white porcelain pitcher into the washbasin and splash my face. While rinsing the dirt and dust out of my mustache a strange mood comes over me and I wonder for a moment if life was ever easier. Was there always dust in everything? Will it always will be like this?
After washing up I head out and go to see the Seertlekimmie. He’s getting up there in age and he lives up by where they anchor the giant fishing kites that harvest the whales and sharks.
It’s also where they hoist giant squid and hog salmon, and where they trawl for kelp. When the winds are right, the kites and hooks and lines can pull a creature of almost any size from the waters.
Gunther is there, manning some lines. He tells me the Seertlekimmie is in his hut. Unfortunately, I don’t have time. The music festival at the Shamrock is on. It’s why I came. I’d like to say it was for Deska, but it’s not. If she wanted me to come for her, I wouldn’t have to, cause I’d live here instead. But our thing don’t work that way.
No, I come for the supplies. The festival offers as much steinber and kelp as players can carry – and the bar still makes a killing. The Shammie sells more grapa and brew on this weekend than half the rest of the year. The Sham-Rock, Jazz and Country Music Festival. It’s a hellova tidrick. You know: a party, a happennin’. BBQing, gamblin’, booze and music.
After telling Gunther tah ‘spect me back tomorrow, I stroll over to the Sham. It’s been months since I was here and I stand back and take a gander. Outside, there’s a couple big windows and an old, clover-shaped sign that says the joint was founded in 1893 — whatever that means. Torches light the place with an orange glow. Peerin’ inside, the beemsh is off an’ runnin’. It’s lookin’ like a right proper bum show tonight all right. Fletch is at the piano an’ Gleezy’s playin’ sax with him. A few folks are raggin’ round to the ole jazz.
I’m about to walk inside when a big square shadow moves in quick towards me. I grab my knife, but a large, oily hand grabs my arm and starts pulling me towards the alley, out of sight of the big windows. Can’t do much with my blade like this, so I toss it to my left hand just as a patch of light falls on the pocked face of Lalo, one of Blackaller’s enforcers.
“You’re late,” he says, unflinching at the point of my blade inches from his nose. He don’t smile.
“Git tah fook,” I spit. “There weren’t no wind.”
“You got it?”
“It’s in town. I’ll bring it tomorrow. Out back after my set.”
Without a word he releases my arm and walks away, fading into the darkness. What a sweet fuckin’ guy.
Sheathing the barlow, I take a moment, straighten my shirt and brush muhself off. I hold out both my hands. Right one’s shakin’ a bit but the left is stable. Good enough.
Pushin’ my way through the flapping wooden doors, I look around at the trinkets. The same shark jaws hang above the backbar, but there’s a set of giant crab claws hangin next to ‘em that I ain’t seen ‘afore. The old steinber horns hang from the rafters and painted sand dollars line the ceiling. Well-worn chairs surround wooden tables, some antiques, some just old rope spools from seertlin’ boats. Most everything is brown or green or red. Names and doggerel scratched in the darndest places.
The walls have the same old pictures from the before times that have hung there since prob’ly afore I was born. An I got a favorite picture among ‘em. It’s a black and white one where the family that ran the place — back in wheneverthefuck — they’re out afront of the bar and the granddad has the babe in his arms. He looks like a salty old sonova gun. But the way he’s beamin’, holdin’ that weese, you can see right through his big, puffy mustache into his honest self. He’s happy, even if he’s a hard man livin’ a hard life. He’s happy, despite himself.
That’s why I like this place. You still get that from kimmies here today. Folks come in, tired and mad, but you give ‘em a minute, let ‘em melt, get tah harpin’ and sooner or later you get a smile from ‘em. Not a phony smile. Not no polite smile. A damn honest smile.
Suds is behind the stick, slingin’ the hooch in his beat-up brown apron (he’ll sleep in the thing if you let him). He lives above the bar and brews and distilled l out back. He ‘most never leaves, so it don’t make much difference where he knods off. I seen him dead asleep on a bar stool, face twitchin’, with some young, krunked greenhorn harpin’ to the dusties at him, thinkin’ they’re conversing.
He spies me and calls me names: “a scotty scrounger” and a “fat fuck.” They mean the same thing so it don’t really make no difference. Then he asks how I been.
“I can’t complain,” I say. “But sometimes I still do.”
“No mames, guey!” says Suds, slappin’ me on the back hard enough to knock off a pair o’ specs. “Let’s have a shot!”
Before I can answer, he palms a brace of shot glasses and grabs a bottle o’ skee. The bottle glugs and the liquor spills across the fogged and chipped glassware. We knock ‘em back and it’s a good batch. It warms the gut while it burns the throat, saaaaaaatiating the tongue with the sweet and smokey nuance of the copper still. The boys up in Bolt have been getting’ better an better with their barley an’ hops. Their mota’s always been damn fine, but their other crops are fairly hit or miss. Prolly due to a good harvest from them.
Anyway, Suds leaves me with a steam beer and I shoot the shit with the regulars. Ruval asks me to throw some dice and Markoff’s there, working on another ancient, crumbling puzzle book from the before times.
I play music here about four times a year. It’s close enough that I can make the trip in a couple of days, but far enough away that folks come out to see me when I do. Deska and I met here, back when I traded sails full time.
One of the regulars, Engel, talks with me about old plays almost every time I’m here. He keeps a stack of old plays and reads pretty well. Tonight he’s readin’ one where some feller comes to dinner and then breaks his leg, so he’s got tah stay there till he’s all mended up. An’ he’s a rich feller, so he gets all these packages and visitors, really putting out the folks he’s visiting, you know? Get’s to the point where he gets a package full of some strange bunch o’ birds.
That part I don’t get it. Why would anyone put birds in a box? That just don’t make sense. An’ why would yah send ‘em to some guy with a broken leg? But then there’s a lot I don’t understand about some of the old-timey stuff. But some of it makes perfect sense even though I don’t even know what it means. Just feels right.
Engel told me about another play last time that was hella better. This feller’s dad gets killed and then his mom goes off an’ marries the dude that killed the old man. The son comes back and things get all weird and violent. Good shit. Darn entertainin’.
After a little while, Suds comes over and tells me it’s my turn to play, handing me the holy house guitar (an old as sin Washburn with a couple of holes scratched through it’s top). So I shuffle my mess up on stage. I’d been playin’ all these Nahlens songs lately – “House of the Rising Sun,” “St. James Infirmary,” “Good Times on the Bayou” – all this old timey shit that most people ain’t never heard. They go over pretty well, been gettin’ a good round of applause most places I play.
Deska trickles in towards the middle of the set and she struts up into her little trading corner by the window. She’s a tiny lady, Deska – and a good looker — dark, dark brown hair and freckles all over her round, heart-shaped face — big brown eyes.
The booth at the Shamrock is kind of her second office. It’s got room enough for five or so folks, set towards the front of the bar, but raised up a little bit so’s folks can see if she’s in. There’s a stained glass lamp with purple flower patterns on the table and blank papers and a jar of squid ink with a quill and a stamp for officiating documenting and such.
Gosh, she’s done up real nice, too. Her brown hair is tucked up in a little bun with curls hanging down the back and she wears a tiny top hat cocked to the left. Her dress is a nice red and black striped corset number with puffy shoulders and frills around her breasts.
I look at her as I start to sing the next tune – which she’s the inspiration for.
“She’s my curly headed baby. Used to sit on daddy’s knee. She’s my curly headed baby. She’s from sunny Tennessee.”
She starts to blush a little bit and looks away. She catches Tapper Heermann’s eye and he pops up into the booth with her just in time for the next verse.
“Well, I’d rather be in some dark hollow. Where the sun don’t ever shine. Than to see you with another. And to know you never be mine.”
They’re talking to one another and not really paying attention. I smile at the living-ness of it all and look down at the rapt audience right in front of me. There’s a youngster sitting there, staring at my left hand. I sing pretty much at him, even though he don’t really know it.
“I’m gonna tell you bout these women. I’m gonna tell you what they’ll do. Shed their teardrops on your shoulder. Mess around with another dude.”
A few more tunes and a few mas bebidas and I’m sittin’ ’round talkin’ with Deska and Suds. Old Heermann took off fer somewheres else, thank Zephros.
We’re getting’ along just fine when these two guys in weird clothes come up. They look like they ain’t never seen the dust. Shoot, I half think I’m seeing things, they’re so damn clean. The one in front has black, slicked back hair and wears sunglasses even though it’s nighttime. His long coat hangs down, black on the sides, a stripe of gray in the middle. As he takes his steps I can see these tight, black, shiny britches he’s got on.
“Hey there, Carlos – can I call you Carlos? We really like your style. Seems like you have a strong following,” he says. “We’d like to offer you transportation and a meeting with one of our executives in Yerba Buena which may result in a very lucrative arrangement.”
“No thanks,” I say, kinda knee-jerk. I’m more than half in the bag, which usually leaves me either more jovial than a toddler of as ornery as a crow. “I don’t know what you’re talkin’ about but I don’t want nothin’ to do with no folks wearin’ such fancy pants.”
He tries to lay it on thick, talkin’ ‘bout opportunity and “just compensation.” I just keep swiggin’ my beer. I’m startin’ to get pretty sauced and I’m about to let ole fancy pants have one in the kisser when Suds interrupts up and pushes me off towards Deska’s place with her. Suds’s a good guy. A bit fussy sometimes, but a good guy.
We get back to her place and she has me start a fire in the ancient brick fireplace. We sit down by it and I get my arm curled around her waist. We’re catching up and laughin’ but then she gets tah wonderin’ ‘bout who that fancy-pants feller was.
“I wish you had heard him out, Z,” she says — she always calls me Z unless she’s mad at me. “They might have been good for trade. They were so clean.”
I try not to let the clean comment get to me though it does. It don’t do no good to get angry, so help me I know. I just says: “Well, you’re prob’ly right, hon, but, I don’t know, it jes’ didn’t feel right. I mean, he didn’t introduce hisself er nuthin’ just — bam — negocios. Ain’t right.”
“That was… rude,” she says.
“Didn’t feel right.”
“Hmmm. You know what does feel right?” She leans her head back to look at me.
And the kiss feels more than right. It feels good. Damn good.