Chapter Twelve (Clayton Street)
Kennedy got shot in November of 1963. Then came my Christmas with the Mafia girl. My Christmas with the Mafia girl lasted until March of 1964. I don’t remember her name. I always just think of her as the Mafia girl. She wasn’t even Italian; she was tall and thin and droll and Irish, with lots of freckles everywhere, even on her lips. She had short red hair I could mess up whenever I felt like messing it up. I liked that about her. Apropos of nothing, I’d just reach over and mess up her hair. Ha! Sometimes I messed it up with both hands, as hard as I could. She liked it — the harder I messed up her hair the better she liked it, but the funny thing was that her hair never really got very messed up at all, no matter what we did.
She had green eyes…bony thighs…narrow feet. She licked her lips before she kissed me…and kept her eyes open. There was a smell about her, too, a smell I still conjur up unexpectedly sometimes: baby powder and diapers and her sister’s expensive perfume, all mixed together with the taste of tangerine lipstick — Marnie! Ha! Marnie McCracken!
Marnie came into Kay-Bee’s to buy presents for her sister’s kids with a fistful of fifty-dollar bills her brother-in-law had given her. I carried the boxes out to her car for her. That was my job. One of the presents was a tricycle. We came into some slight contact while we were trying to get the tricycle box jammed into the back seat. She was driving her brother-in-law’s black two-door ’62 Chrysler Imperial. He hadn’t gotten around to trading it in on a new one yet.
Minuscule sparks of static electricity crackled between the hairs on our arms. We caught each other’s eye and smiled. One of her breasts brushed my cheek. My elbow pressed against her bony ribcage. She didn’t move away. I said something about the weather. She looked bored for a second, then her expression softened. She shrugged her shoulders and looked right into my eyes like she was trying to tell me to shut the fuck up and stick my hand up her dress. It was a compelling expression. She might have used it a time or two before back in New Jersey — or maybe she practiced in front of a mirror.
“Hey,” she said. “What’s this mean? ‘Some assembly required?’”
“You have to put the thing together,” I said. “Screw in some screws.”
“Fuck,” she said. “They probably don’t even have a screwdriver.” She shaded her eyes from the setting sun and wet her tangerine lipstick with her slightly quivering tongue.
“Oh, my sister and her husband. He thinks he’s Johnny Potatoes. If a light bulb burns out, he calls in an electrician.”
“I might have a screwdriver.”
“No, I do. Definitely. There’s one in the stock room. I could bring it over.”
“When are you off work?”
“Right around now.” I looked at my watch. “I’d have to go punch out.”
“Go punch out,” she said. Then she shot me that same shut-the-fuck-up-and-stick-your-hand-up-my-dress look and lowered herself sort of sideways into the driver’s seat with her bare, freckled legs spread apart and waited there with the door wide open.
Marnie was staying in a big house up in the hills, around where Elliot used to live, with her older sister and her sister’s husband and their two kids. They were all originally from New Jersey, but Marnie had only been in California for a couple of weeks. She had a little bit of a Joisey accent; I made fun of it, but only very gently. She complained that there wasn’t any snow and liked it that I was from Michigan. That was what we had in common — the lack of snow. She was looking for a job as a cosmetologist, but in the meantime, she helped take care of her sister’s two sons.
After we got the tricycle put together out in the garage, I stayed for dinner. The four of us played Monopoly. Her sister’s husband was the Mafia guy. I didn’t know he was even Italian. I thought he was Jewish. I had hotels on Connecticut, Oriental and Vermont before anyone else had anything on anything. He was pissed off that I was kicking his ass.
“You from here?” he asked.
“Near there, yeah — a place you probably never heard of.”
“Try me.” He flexed the muscles under his eyes.
“Huntington Woods,” I said. I knew a lot Jews lived in Huntington Woods.
“Never heard of it.” He rolled the dice.
“Seven,” I said. “Connecticut. Ha! Pay me.”
I found out later that it was more than just that I was kicking his ass in Monopoly that was pissing the guy off; I found out later that he was trying to fix Marnie up with a guy he knew back in Jersey, some other Mafia guy. I never seem to know it when people hate my guts. I think we’re getting along great, and the fact is, it’s all they can do to keep from popping me in the mouth.
But the only really pertinent thing about my Christmas with the Mafia girl was that it coincided with Ginny’s Christmas with her Negro poet. His name was Jim Moss. All I really know about him is what Ginny told me, but that was plenty. She told me everything.
Sometime in October, she moved out of her place on 45th Avenue and into Jim Moss’s apartment up by U.C. Hospital. They lived together until she got too nuts around the end of January of 1964. Ginny always went increasingly crazy around the holidays. It had something to do with her father taking off the day before Christmas when she was five. Well, either that or the influence of the planet Neptune in her astrological chart — and getting drunk a lot didn’t help. From November until March, Virginia Good drank too much and when she drank too much she went completely crazy.
The Christmas of her Negro poet was no exception. They fought; physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually — you name it. They fought about her being rich and him being poor, about him being black and her being white. His grandmother had been born a slave. Her grandfather had owned slaves. She called him every nigger name in the book; he called her every kind of honky slut cunt bitch he could think of. They fought about poetry and music and art and what to have for dinner. Then there was all that making up to do. They wore each other out.
She broke his windows. He threw the contents of her shrine through the broken window — Virginia Woolf, Gurjieff, DuChamp, the whole works. She tried to kill herself by turning on the oven and all the gas jets on the top of the stove, playing Bach’s “Mass in B-Minor” on the record player and reading The Confessions of Saint Augustine at the kitchen table. That really pissed Jim Moss off — the last thing he wanted was some dead-ass white chick reading St. Augustine when a couple of Irish cops came around to see what all the shouting had been about.
He kicked her out in increments, beginning in the middle of January. She stayed with her sister Sandy for awhile, then moved into a flat on Clayton, four or five blocks up from Haight Street. She and Jim Moss continued to see one another and continued to like each other despite their irreconcilable differences. It lasted until March of 1964. I was there when it finally ended — well, almost finally ended, I guess would be more accutate. I’ll get to that.
Ginny called me up. She was hiding out. She was sick. She needed to be rescued. Her voice was low and mysterious. I told her I’d bring her things to make her feel better. It wasn’t a date. I brought her tea. I changed out of the shirt that smelled like the Mafia girl, put some Lipton tea bags and one of my mother’s fancy tea cups into a paper bag, walked up to the El Camino, caught a Greyhound bus to Seventh and Market, hopped on a Haight Street bus and got off at Clayton.
Haight-Ashbury was like downtown San Bruno — there may even have been a Kinney’s nestled among the Asian and Palestinian mom-and-pop grocery stores. There was a bowling alley and a movie theater and plenty of parking everywhere. The streets were clean. The only stoplight was at the corner of Haight and Masonic. Usually no more than two or three cars at a time ever had to wait for the light to change.
Clayton Street was crowded with tall, skinny Victorian flats, going ever more steeply up toward the address Ginny had given me. In the valley by Frederick Street, I stopped to pick some wild flowers, daisies and bachelor buttons and whatever else was growing there. I remembered I’d said I wasn’t ever going to get a girl any god damn flowers again, but that had been a long time ago.
Across the valley and up toward Parnassus Heights, lighted houses glittered through wisps of fog among dark hills. A dog barked. Telephone wires crackled. Golden Gate Park was a rectangle of black. The panhandle was bordered by streams of headlights from the traffic going up Fell and down Oak. The spires of Saint Ignatius Church were lit up in the background. It was peaceful and serene and unreal, like a picture on one of those big glossy San Francisco calendars.
Another block or so up the hill, I came to a huge brown-shingled house with ivy growing all over it. The porch light was on. The address I’d written on a scrap of newspaper was nailed in brass numbers into the shingles. I combed my hair looking at my reflection in one of the windows by the door before I rang the bell.
A guy named Bud answered the door. He was from Madison, Wisconsin and had a spindly goatee. Lots of people lived there. Ginny had found the place in an ad on a bulletin board at San Francisco State. The people who lived there were communists. It was a co-op. None of the cups or saucers or plates or knives or spoons matched any of the other cups or saucers or plates or knives or spoons. Nobody seemed to know who, if anyone, had actually rented the place.
Ginny was sitting on a rug in the middle of the floor in her room, wearing a plain white flannel nightgown — no little blue flowers. There were lit votive candles in a semicircle and books scattered around — open books, closed books, fiction, nonfiction, kid’s books, school books, books of all kinds. Her room had a bay window balcony that looked out over the front porch. I worried that she might have seen me combing my hair, but the shades were pulled down. I gave her the flowers. She laid them on her new shrine, which was made up all of Vedanta stuff this time: sticks of incense and a fat Vivekananda book, surrounded by pictures of Jesus, Buddha, Sri Ramakrishna and the Reverend Mother. I made us tea in the community kitchen. We talked and talked — primarily about her Negro poet.
She was trying to ditch him. He was stalking her. She showed me pictures of the guy. He didn’t look full of shit. That’s the first thing I notice about a person. Even in pictures you can tell whether somebody’s full of shit or not. He had on a cap in one of the pictures, but it wasn’t a full of shit cap. It was a cap like my grandfather used to wear, the kind of cap Henry Miller used to wear. I liked the look of the guy. He was all twinkly and smart looking. You could tell he and Ginny had liked each other when they hadn’t been fighting.
Ginny got out an old green Webcor tape recorder with “Property of Sarah Lawrence College” stenciled in black letters on the cover and played me a tape she and Jim Moss had made. It was a conversation they’d had when they were first getting to know one another. He did most of the talking, but it was pretty palpable that Virginia was there, hanging on his every word. His vocal cords seemed to get thicker and thicker as the tape wound slowly from one reel to the other. My own vocal cords swelled some, just listening to the way Ginny had been listening to the guy.
The tape was pretty much a monologue. Ginny didn’t have much to say. It was mostly him talking about jazz, about how jazz and sex and seduction are all the same thing. He interspersed the monologue with nuances of different musical instruments he had the uncanny knack of reproducing with his voice, like a scat singer: clarinets, a saxophone, brushes on a snare drum. Of course it was all just sweet talk to get into her pants, but it was good sweet talk, really sweet sweet talk, and it sure was working. You could tell that too.
“Jazz means fuck,” I heard Ginny’s voice say.
“Yeah? Where’d you hear that, sugar?”
“In music history.”
“You’re pretty educated, ain’t you, baby?”
I could almost see them. They were in her apartment on 45th Avenue. She would have been in one of her flannel nightgowns; he would have been sitting across from her. There would have been a bottle of Beefeater Gin on the floor between them. The tape recorder would have been off to one side. She would have had nothing on under her nightgown but a pair of white cotton panties. Her hair would have been hiding her face. I could almost hear it in the tape when his thick black index finger brushed the inside of her upper thigh. I could almost feel her squirm, could almost see his hand moving slowly, deliberately, up toward her pretty face, touching the tiny, erect little nipples of her breasts, pushing her hair out of her eyes, touching her cheek, holding his hand under her chin, touching her mouth, leaning toward her, kissing her forehead.
“How about we turn this off now?” Jim Moss said.
“Uh-huh,” I heard Ginny say.
Sure, I was jealous. What do you think? You’d be jealous too. The guy’s voice was mesmerizing, mellifluous. He was saying things I wish to this day I could say. He was a poet. And, yeah, absolutely, of course I knew he fucked her brains out the minute I heard the tape recorder click off. Hell yes, I was jealous — but it was still that delicious kind of jealousy where nothing’s any skin off anyone’s nose yet. It wasn’t a date. I was her buddy. We’d been hanging out. Going to movies. Talking on the phone. Writing letters. I had brought her tea and flowers.
I heard the whole story, how she moved in with him, how it deteriorated, how they fought, how she got drunk and blacked out and broke his windows…that it had been Christmas, that she’d tried to kill herself, that they were too much for each other, that they’d worn each other out, that it had been the same with all the men she’d ever known.
We kept talking. I told her about the Mafia girl. She was jealous. I liked that. She thanked me for things. The tea. The flowers. She was fragile and tough and spoiled and endlessly entertaining. Her hair fell in her face. Her eyes peeked out from under her bangs. I touched the inside of her thigh. She squirmed. I unbuttoned her nightgown and touched her little nipples and held her hands and ran my finger across the scars on her wrists. We laughed and got tears in our eyes, but mainly we just talked…talked and talked. We talked until the sun came up and kept on talking.
Around nine, I got us coffee. Some of the communists were in the kitchen. One of them was hunched over a brown spiral notebook, writing down the particulars of that morning’s bowel movement. He’d been recording his bowel movements every day since he graduated from the University of Washington a few years back — color, shape, consistency, etc. I don’t know why. I thought about asking, but didn’t.
The rest of the communists had some idiosyncracies of their own, but for the most part they all seemed pretty normal. They were just kids going to school, letting their whiskers grow, reading Karl Marx…and Lenin and Trotksy and Paul Goodman, wearing clothes that didn’t quite fit right due to the recent absence of mothers in their lives. They made coffee by pouring boiling water through folded chemistry paper stuck inside a glass beaker. I thought that was slick.
What they all seemed to have in common was Bob Dylan. They listened to Bob Dylan all the time, morning, noon and night. They had the same two albums everywhere — Bob Dylan in a sheepskin coat holding his guitar and Bob Dylan in the same sheepskin coat with his girlfriend’s head on his shoulder. It was a hard rain that was ‘a gonna fall. They all seemed to know that. They were expecting it, counting on it, waiting for it, hoping. I may have had a vague inkling that there was a shower or two on the way, myself.
“Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son?
Where have you been, my darling young one?”
When I got back to her room, Ginny was on the phone with Jim Moss.
“Well, no, actually. It’s not a good time. I have a friend over.” She looked up at me, then held the receiver out so I could hear what Jim Moss was saying.
“Tell him get stepping. Say I’m coming by.”
“He says I should tell you to leave,” Ginny said, without covering the receiver.
“Do you want me to leave?” I asked.
“Say I’ll kick his motherfuckin’ ass!”
“I don’t want to do that,” Ginny said. Her voice was sad and emphatic, like a cello, and somehow, from that point on, in the space of about a tenth of a second, she was my girlfriend, and I was her boyfriend. One minute I was the Mafia girl’s boyfriend and she was my girlfriend and the next minute she wasn’t my girlfriend, Ginny was. It was like getting run over by a truck.
“It ain’t no use to sit and wonder why, babe
It don’t matter anyhow.
And it ain’t no use to sit and wonder why, babe
If you don’t know by now.”