Chapter Nine (San Bruno)

— — —

Downtown San Bruno was a picture post card of early sixties suburban America. The main street was crowded on either side with bars and restaurants and smoke shops and delis and stores — Lullaby Lane, Pet World, Rolling Pin Donuts, Woolworth’s, you name it. Starting at the El Camino and going clear down to Artichoke Joe’s, San Mateo Avenue was crammed with businesses all competing with each other — trying to get whatever they could get of the two bucks an hour I made selling shoes.

San Bruno Mountain loomed behind Artichoke Joe’s. That’s the hill you see when you take off from San Francisco International Airport — the one with the concrete letters poured into the amber waves of tall grass saying:

“SOUTH SAN FRANCISCO THE INDUSTRIAL CITY.”

I fit right in. I sold shoes at Kinney’s. I liked it. I was good at it. Chicks dug the way I handled a shoehorn. I remember this one little high school chick, in particular. Norma Arce. She was really tiny — a few inches shy of five feet tall, but with wiry black hair sprayed into stiff, briary patches that made her look taller. She had bright black eyes and a small flat nose, with nostrils like a porcelain Bambi. Her forehead wrinkled up like hand-drawn seagulls when she raised her bushy eyebrows.

She had already taken off her sandals and was sitting expectantly in the imitation leather chair when I came back with a stack of shoes for her to try on. I sat down on the padded shoe stool and walked it up closer to her. She inched one of her size four-and-a-half feet toward the gold pump I had poised between my legs. The skin below her knee creased into dark smiles. She wiggled her toes and giggled like it was going to tickle. I held the back of her heel, slipped her foot into the shoe and felt that snug little puff of warm air explode up the inside of my wrist.

“Do you paint your toenails yourself?” I asked, pointing to her other foot.

“Yeah.” She smiled a shy, proud little gap-toothed smile. Then a frantic expression crept across her cute face. She bent over. Her disproportionately large, dark-skinned breasts plumped up inside her black lace bra. “Why? Did I mess one up?”

“No, no. They’re perfect. How do you do it, though?”

“Do what?”

“Paint your toenails,” I said. “Do you do it standing up?”

“Yeah.” The muscles in her forehead relaxed. “With my foot on the top of the toilet seat, usually. Sometimes I do it sitting on the floor, too, but my legs get all cramped up on me when I do it like that.”

“Do you put cotton between your toes?”

“You have to. Otherwise you mess it up.” She reached inside the scoop neck of her lilac-colored blouse and straightened one of the straps of her bra.

“Have you ever had anyone paint your toenails?”

“Like did I ever get a pedicure? No. They cost too much.”

“Did you ever want one?” I brushed my thumb along the edge of nail of her big toe — which really wasn’t all that big.

“Sure. Are you kidding? I could just lay back and relax.”

“Yeah, like eat pistachio nuts or Hershey’s Kisses,” I said.

“Did you ever paint a girl’s toes?” She looked at me carefully, right into my eyes, and squinted like she was trying to make sure I was going to tell her the truth.

“No,” I said. “But I never saw a girl’s toes like yours before.” I touched my fingernail against the hot pink nail of her cute little pinky toe.

“For real?” she asked.

“For really real,” I said, staring directly at the bridge of her nose. “You want to know the cool thing, though?”

“What?” She wet her lips with her tongue.

“I have a car the exact same color as your toenail polish.”

“For real?” Her black eyes flashed. Her nostrils flared. Her bushy eyebrows came together. Her thick, liver-colored lips came apart. I could see her wet pink tongue glistening between rows of crooked white teeth.

“Yep,” I said. “A ’53 Ford convertible.”

Exactly the same? Are you serious?”

“I am so serious. Why? You think I’m pulling your leg?” I tugged playfully at her Achilles tendon and smiled. Her skirt was short. Her legs were bare. She was wearing black lace panties that matched her bra. “Would I do that?”

She smiled back, even though she had to have seen through my slacks that my dick had gotten noticeably engorged during the course of our innocent conversation.

“I’d have to see it to believe it,” she said.

“My mother calls it hot pink. What color do they call that nail polish?”

“Passionate, Raspberry, Parfait Au Lait.” She splayed her tiny hand across her face and laughed and bent over again, farther this time, so far I thought I got a fleeting glimpse of the nipple of one of her breasts.

“Wow. That’s kind of a mouthful.” I imagined what it would feel like to have the thick, liver-colored nipples of her breasts come alive when I touched them with my tongue, when I held them and kissed them and sucked them into my mouth.

“The J. C. Penney lady said it was her favorite name of all the nail polish.”

“It’s the prettiest nail polish I’ve ever seen,” I said. “What’s your name?”

“Norma.”

“Norma what?”

“Arce,” she said. “Like the cola, but spelled all the way out.”

We drove up to the Chinese cemetery behind South City. She wanted the top down. That was fine with me. It was one of those warm, misty, tropical nights that happen once in a blue moon because of monsoons in Malaysia…but, wait. What about my date with Ginny?

— — —

It was Saturday night. I stopped off at Grossenbacher’s to get Ginny a bouquet of flowers. Grossenbacher’s was the florist shop down the street from Kinney’s. According to an arc of Old English letters stenciled across the front window, it was officially Grossenbacher & Sons, but everyone just called it Grossenbacher’s, and there was only one son — a guy named Pete. I used to get a kick out of acting like Pete was my buddy. I’d wave to him on his way into Carlo and Jimmy’s, the Mexican coffee shop across the street where you sat at the counter on chrome and maroon Naugahyde bar stools.

“Hey, Pete!” I’d yell. “What’s going on, buddy?” Then I’d watch him pretend like he was in a different dimension. Pete didn’t want any buddies. Well, he did and he didn’t; that was what I used to get a kick out of — watching him trying to make up his mind whether he wanted a buddy or not.

Pete wore thick reading glasses from Woolworth’s, the kind he could peer out over the tops of when he was lost in thought, which was almost always, or when he had something to say, which was nearly never. I was probably the only person in town he ever really sat down and shot the shit with on any kind of a regular basis, and even I had ulterior motives.

Pete was close to sixty and bald as an egg but for a swath of close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair around the sides of his head and a thick, salt-and-pepper mustache he kept trimmed the same shape as Stalin’s mustache — probably just to piss off his father. His father was Mr. Grossenbacher. Nobody called Pete anything but Pete. He resented that. He resented it almost as much as he resented the sign on the front window. Sons? What sons? There was only Pete.

His father was in his late eighties and was still fiercely loyal to the royal family of Imperial Russia. It should have pissed him off that his only son had a mustache like Stalin’s, but it didn’t. His father was senile. He’d never even heard of Stalin. He lived in a world of his own, a world of caviar and lorgnettes and fringed epaulets and Faberge Eggs — but if his father had ever heard of Stalin, it would have pissed him off no end that his only son had a mustache like the mustache of such a man, and that seemed to give Pete all the satisfaction a person could reasonably get out of the mere trimming of a mustache into a certain shape.

Pete could tell you the best way to get anywhere in a fifty mile radius of downtown San Bruno, taking into consideration not just distance, but commute patterns, highway construction and the likelihood of dead animals in the road. Giving directions was Pete’s favorite thing to do. You couldn’t help but get the feeling that the minute his father finally died Pete was going to turn the place into a Texaco station, get himself a star-shaped patch saying “Mr. Grossenbacher” stitched onto a pair of pinstriped coveralls and sit around giving directions to lost tourists all day.

I used to stop by and pick up flowers for Bonnie every once in awhile. Bonnie looked like Brigitte Bardot and had been my girlfriend on and off for a year or so. She used to go nuts when I brought her flowers. Which is what I mean about ulterior motives. Pete used to give me flowers for free, see — just things he was going to have to throw in the garbage anyway — and I’d maybe buy him a coffee over at Carlo and Jimmy’s every now and then.

— — —

The store was closed, but I tapped on the window with my car keys and Pete let me in. I told him I was thinking about maybe picking up some flowers. He didn’t say anything but just gathered up some left over snapdragons and freesia and chrysanthemums and baby’s-breath, wrapped them in a sheet of green paper, snapped a few red rubber bands around the end and laid them on the counter.

I took out my money, like I always did. Pete said forget about it, I could buy him a coffee. Then I made the mistake of telling him that they smelled good. The last thing Pete ever wanted to hear about was flowers.

“It’s the freesia,” he said. “The purple stuff.”

“They’re pretty.”

“Flowers is flowers.”

“I like how they all sort of go together.”

“It ain’t a professional job.”

“Thanks, I guess.”

“What do you mean, ‘you guess?’ You don’t want ‘em?”

“No, no. They’re fine.”

“So, what’s that mean, ‘You guess?’”

“It’s a quote.”

“Some quote. Who said this quote?”

“A guy named Beckett.”

“Never heard of him.”

“He’s Irish. He wrote stuff in French then translated it back into English. Did you ever hear of “Waiting for Godot?” It’s a play.”

“I seen a play once,” Pete said with a little nod and kind of a half frown which wrinkled his bald head. “At the Curran Theater…on Geary, between Mason and Taylor. A boat wrecks on a island and a old man lives there. Everybody works for him like a slave. If they don’t do like he says, he hurts them with magic. It was a long time ago. Before they built the Bayshore. We went up El Camino. We could of gone Skyline. Skyline would have been quicker, but my father, he only knew just that one way how to get there.” Pete stroked his mustache contentedly.

“I’ll let you know how she liked these.”

“You going to marry this girl?”

“I just met her.”

“It’s a new one? What happened to the other one?”

“Bonnie? She’s still around.”

“Why you want a new one, then?” Pete frowned again.

“I can’t help it. I’m in love.”

That stopped him. I don’t think Pete had ever been in love.

“So, this new one, where does she live?” he asked.

“In San Francisco. Out in the Avenues…45th Avenue.”

“Yeah?” he said and looked over the tops of his glasses and came suddenly alert. “You know the best way how to get there?”

Then, without waiting for an answer, he started telling me. I wrote the directions on a piece of paper. Pete adored it when a person wrote what he said down on a piece of paper. He beamed. He sparkled. He was beside himself with glee.

Note:

The multimedia version has music by Dean Martin, The Marcels, Little Richard and Elvis Presley, but this voice only version ain’t bad all on its own. Watch it and see: