Chapter Seven (North Beach)
Six months later, around Christmas of 1962, Elliot came home on leave. He’d just finished basic training and some other hush-hush CIA sponsored school at Ft. Bragg and was going to be on his way to Vietnam the morning of New Year’s Day.
His head was shaved. His ears stuck out. The leather band around the edge of his green beret made a red, painful-looking groove in his scalp. His face was tan. His nails were clipped. He had a few crisp, new ribbons above his shirt pocket and had already earned himself something of a reputation. The guys he’d been in boot camp with called him “Deacon Felton” or “The Deacon” or “Deak.” He was the only Mormon in the elite, newly created branch of the military they called “Special Forces.” None of the big Bible belt Baptist bruisers who were his comrades in arms had ever known anyone who belonged to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and Elliot talked to them fearlessly about The Book of Mormon.
He told them the whole story of how this Moroni guy, this sort of angelic fellow who glowed and walked a foot or two off the floor, told some New England dirt farmer by the name of Joseph Smith where to find some gold tablets hidden under a rock, along with a secret magic decoder device, and that the tablets explained how, shortly after the resurrection, Jesus came to North America and turned a bunch of naked savages into Christians. Elliot’s army buddies took kindly to him the way people take kindly to the incurably insane. He used to do that with the real Bible in the cafeteria at Hillsdale High School. I remember this one thing he used to go around quoting all the time, from The Song of Songs:
“Stay me with flagons,
Comfort me with apples:
For I am sick of love.”
People looked at him like he was nuts.
We had dinner at Elliot’s parents’ house. It was New Year’s Eve. I don’t think Elliot’s father knew about his wife’s infidelity with the Lebanese real estate guy on the drain board in the kitchen, per se, but he knew something. Their marriage had deteriorated beyond recognition. They spoke to each other with icy niceness.
“Could you pass the pepper, please, dear?”
“Certainly, darling. Anything else? Salt? Parmesan? More salad?”
It made you want to throw spaghetti in their faces. They wouldn’t have noticed if you had. They would have ignored it. They would have politely finished their desserts with spaghetti noodles looped around their ears and spaghetti sauce dripping off the ends of their noses.
Elliot and I finally managed to get the hell out of there around ten and took what was left of a half-gallon of Gallo Hearty Burgundy with us up to San Francisco, to Chinatown, to North Beach. I was twenty. Elliot was nineteen. His uniform was so new you could smell it. It was the same smell as the polish on his boots. The creases in his pants were sharp as knives. He had a tentative smile twitching at the corners of his mouth, like he couldn’t make up his mind whether he was proud of the way he looked or embarrassed by it. It was the same way he looked when he used to wear his quilted smoking jacket. I half expected him to whip out his meerschaum pipe.
What Elliot had learned in the Special Forces so far was that every Asian over the age of eight wanted nothing more out of life than to slit his throat while he was asleep. In Vietnam, for instance, according to what he told me he’d been told, there was a ten thousand dollar reward for every Green Beret anyone could get his or her hands on — just the hat, all by itself — ten grand for a hat.
Half the stuff Elliot told me I still have a hard time believing. They had him imagining all kinds of whacko things. It was probably part of some sort of self-esteem program — like if just your hat is worth ten thousand dollars; the rest of you has got to be pretty valuable, too. I didn’t think he would have fallen for it, though. I wasn’t sure he had fallen for it; I never could tell whether he was just acting or not. All I knew was that there we were, on Grant Avenue an hour before midnight on New Year’s Eve, with noisemakers gyrating in our faces and confetti sprinkling our shoulders and firecrackers going off like gunfire at our feet and half the Asian population of San Francisco jamming into us from all sides, and it suddenly didn’t seem unreasonable that he’d gotten sort of jittery — which is not to say it still didn’t seem pretty stupid.
I mean, what he hell did he think? That someone was going to run up, grab his hat and go cash it in somewhere? He was scared, edgy, ultra-aware; a little paranoid, probably. The color had gone out of his cheeks. His eyes darted back and forth and he backed up into some kind of karate stance, like he was maybe thinking about trying to take on all of Chinatown with his bare hands.
Then these two Caucasian guys in wingtips and three-piece suits came out of the noisy crowd, got on either side of Elliot and escorted him over into the alley behind City Lights. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but Elliot seemed to be agreeing with them. His head was bowed. His cheek twitched. He nodded and looked up at them and nodded again, and pretty soon the three of them walked up to Broadway and shook hands. The wingtip guys disappeared back into the crowd.
Elliot marched like a toy soldier over toward the intersection of Columbus and Broadway. The light turned red. There wasn’t any traffic. The streets had been roped off. But he stopped anyway. I caught up to him.
“So, did we, like…know those guys?”
“No.” He shrugged and took off across the crowded intersection.
“Hang on a second,” I said, trotting along at his elbow. “Who were they?”
He sped up.
I grabbed his sleeve.
“Knock it off.” He pulled his arm away and narrowed his eyes and bared his teeth like he was maybe going to hiss at me again. I was thinking I might have to shoot him another quick wink. I guess just the thought crossing my mind must have calmed him down some. He glanced over his shoulder and said, “They’re army intelligence.”
“They didn’t look that smart to me,” I said.
Elliot smiled one of his twitchy smiles and stopped walking quite so fast. Then he told me in a halting, carefully worded, circuitous sort of way, that the Special Forces were so new and so elite and the training he’d just been through was such top secret hush-hush stuff that whenever any of them went out into the “civilian” population, plain clothes army intelligence officers followed them around.
“To what? Make sure nobody steals their hats?”
“Something like that, yeah,” he said.
Then he clammed up on me again, like I wasn’t qualified, somehow, to be let in on what went on among men on their way to some little nowhere country on the other side of The National Geographic world.
We ended up at the Jazz Workshop. Jimmy Witherspoon was there. I was too curious about what had just happened in Chinatown to care. I mean, come on, this was me he was talking to. I knew things the army couldn’t have known. I knew all about him and Dru and about his mother and about his father. I’d seen him under his Indian blanket. We’d listened to Miles Davis. We’d listened to Yma Sumac! I’d heard him hoot like a howler monkey and growl like a jaguar. I’d seen him in his smoking jacket, I’d seen him almost wet his pants — so what was all this hush-hush army horseshit all of a sudden? What did he have up his sleeve? Maybe he’d caught Dru Davidson diddling some Vietnamese guy up by the Pulgas Water Temple. Or maybe he was a spy. But for who? Spain? Brazil? I couldn’t figure it out.
We had found seats by then. That was when I started noticing a girl in the row ahead of us — and whatever had been going on with Elliot out in the street took a back seat to the girl in the row in front of us. Her name was Virginia Good. Ginny. Ginny Good.
My eyes hadn’t adjusted to the dark. She was fidgeting in her chair. Her voice trilled and broke at the top of a giggle. She cocked her head and her hair touched her shoulder. Her hair was brown, lighter and darker brown, and curly and cute. It bounced up and down in thick, springy spirals when she tilted her head back and laughed.
She had on a tight black dress, a black lace shawl and a string of pearls, but she still managed to look disheveled, somehow — like she’d come there fresh from riding a horse bareback along the edge of an ocean somewhere. Her shawl brushed my knee. When she talked she got her whole tiny, tough little body into it. The words tinkled like she was playing them on a piano. At one point, she got so adamant she had to jump out of her chair and stamp both feet on the floor like Jerry Lee Lewis. Great Balls of Fire!
“That’s not fair!” she screamed.
Now, questions of fairness have always piqued my curiosity, I admit, but in fairness, what piqued my curiosity even more was that Virginia Good had the most perfect ass since Donna McKechnie. I was instantaneously in love forever again.
The best I could figure it, Ginny was out on a date with two different guys at the same time. One of them was wearing thick, black-rimmed glasses. The other had a crew cut. They both had on narrow suits and ties, and although I’d still only seen her from the back, I presumed she must be pretty cute from the front, too — you have to be pretty cute to get two different guys to go out with you on New Year’s Eve.
I had on a white, button-down shirt and a light green cardigan with imitation leather buttons and was feeling sort of adorable myself. I accidentally stepped on the end of Ginny’s black lace shawl. Then I kept my foot there on purpose. The next time she moved, the shawl ended up around my ankles. Ha! That got the ball rolling. We had to fumble around at my feet, trying to get it untangled. Our heads kept bumping. By the time we’d gotten everything back where it belonged, it would have been rude not to have said something to each other.
The band was tuning up. Jimmy Witherspoon was clearing his throat. Elliot was slumped in his chair. I was eloquent, charming, shameless. Elliot covered his face with his ten thousand dollar hat. At some point in the conversation it became apparent that Virginia’s dates were ticked. It was bad enough that they had each other to contend with, without some other asshole horning in. They joined forces against me and somehow got Jimmy Witherspoon on their side. I became the common enemy. Being the common enemy is a role I’ve always relished. With everyone ganged up on you, you don’t have a lot to lose and if you win, hey. Besides, the guys she was out with were just a couple of snotty college kids, and as for Jimmy Witherspoon, he could go fuck himself, I wasn’t old enough to get in there anyway. Someone should have checked my ID.
The only thing that mattered was that Virginia liked me. I could tell. I had her laughing her ass off. She thought I was cute, too. I was. I was young. My heart was young. My veins filled with blood so fast I couldn’t sit still. What did I have to gain? Plenty. What did I have to lose? Jack. I quoted long, surprisingly apt passages from Blake and Shakespeare and Allen Ginsberg — things I didn’t even know I knew, things I’d probably picked up by osmosis from Elliot.
I told her I was the smartest person in the world. I told her I knew everything there was to know. The guy with the crew cut asked me a trick question. He probably thought it was funny. “How many pinheads can dance on the head of an angel?”
“Seven,” I said.
Ginny laughed. I was on a roll.
Now, any fool knows that the last thing you want to do is encourage some twenty year-old drunk from San Mateo ten minutes before midnight at a jazz club on New Year’s Eve, but Virginia couldn’t help laughing. I was funny. The whole thing was funny. Jimmy Witherspoon was funny. The guys she was out with were funny. Her dates kept encouraging me more and more by getting more and more pissed off every time I made Ginny laugh — and by then she was laughing at just about everything. The more pissed off they got, the more eloquent I became and the more Ginny laughed. Somewhere in there, Elliot stood up, took off his hat and introduced himself.
“Charmed, I’m sure.” Virginia extended her hand.
“Your hand’s so little,” Elliot said.
“‘Not even the rain has such small hands,’” I quoted.
“That’s E. E. Cummings,” the guy with glasses chimed in.
“No shit,” I said.
Then Elliot introduced me to Ginny and she introduced us to the two guys, and finally she introduced herself. Virginia. Ginny. Ginny Good. I stepped in and shook her hand. The boyfriends watched like cobras.
“I’m going to kiss you at midnight,” I slurred into Virginia’s ear while I was holding on to her hand. I thought I was whispering, but Jimmy Witherspoon glowered down at me from the front of the stage like he thought I might have been talking to him. Virginia made her eyes big and gulped.
Midnight came. First, she had to kiss the guys she was with. It was only fair. After she’d bestowed scrupulously equal little pecks on each of their cheeks, it was my turn. Ha! A spotlight lit up her face. It was the first time I’d gotten a good look at her and, wow, was she ever cute — tiny mouth, smirky, mischievous smile, confident body, clear, tan, healthy skin, a few freckles across the bridge of her nose — whoa, was she ever pretty. Her eyes sparkled an eerie, eerie, otherworldly blue The spotlight went out. My head swirled with snatches of beatnik poetry and after-images of tables and chairs and musical instruments and echoes of whisky-drinking blues lyrics all jumbled together with Ginny Good’s pretty face and her eerie blue eyes.
At first it was just a tentative, sort of who’s going to call whose bluff kind of kiss, with me mainly worried that I wasn’t going to be able to get all the way through it without throwing up all over Jimmy Witherspoon’s shoes. But then it turned into a big kiss. We both somehow managed to maneuver ourselves out of our chairs and were standing up, face-to-face, jamming closer and closer into each other.
She was small and strong. She felt like a dancer. Her hands were under my sweater, tugging at my shirt, and I had her dress pulled up to the tops of her nylons and felt the hem of her panties under the straps of a silky garter belt.
Then she was pounding on my chest and whispering into my ear, “We have to stop. We have to stop. My panties are getting ruined!”
“So are mine,” I said.
The guys she was with were practically apoplectic by then, but what could they do? With Elliot sitting there, looking stern and menacing in his jaunty Green Beret and shiny black boots? Call the police? Get Army Intelligence over there? What?
Then Elliot stood up again, bent over in his stiff uniform, and kissed Ginny himself — barely brushed his lips across her forehead — and I think he might have been crying. I couldn’t tell. I could never tell whether he was ever crying or not.
Virginia laughed like a four year-old kid. She let her hair fall in front of her pretty face, covered her tiny mouth with her tiny hand and said, “Oh, dear!”
The next morning, Elliot was the one who remembered her name. All I remembered was barfing gobs of his mother’s spaghetti up and down Broadway the rest of the night and, vaguely, that I was in love.
I was picking him up to take him to the airport. It was late by the time I got to his house. He was out by the curb with his duffel bag, looking worried.
“Hey, remember that girl last night?” I asked him, after he’d stuffed his duffel bag into the back seat and had gotten into the car.
“Ginny?” He frowned. His mouth twitched.
“Yeah, right, Ginny what? Did she say?”
He didn’t answer.
Then, on the Bayshore Freeway, a little ways past Coyote Point, almost to the airport exit, Elliot turned toward me and said, “Good.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“That’s her last name,” he said. “Good. Virginia Good. She’s in the San Francisco phone book. On 45th Avenue. I looked her up.”
“I don’t know. To see if she was there?”
“Think I should call her?”
“I have no idea,” he said.
“She was kissing me like a son of a bitch. Wasn’t she? I had my hands all up her dress, too, didn’t I? She was sort of nuts, too. Wasn’t she? Didn’t she have scars on her wrists from trying to kill herself or some kind of weird thing?”
Elliot made a little laughing noise out his nose. The muscles in his left cheek were twitching. He was grinding his teeth. He might have tears in his eyes. He didn’t answer — just looked at me and shrugged.
When he went through the gate at the airport, he looked at me and shrugged again in exactly the same way he had shrugged in the car. I don’t remember whether we shook hands or not. We probably thought about it, but I don’t think we did.
Later that same day, at around six o’clock in the evening, I found a listing for a Virginia Good on 45th Avenue in the San Francisco phone book and gave her a call.