Fiction: As The World Burned Somewhere Far Away
By William Taylor Jr.
Frank lay on the motel bed watching the woman dress. She was forty years old, moderately attractive, with a habit of talking to herself in quick, hushed tones when she was nervous. She was doing so now, as she struggled to decide what shirt to wear. She was an academic from the East Coast, visiting San Francisco for a conference, the nature of which Frank had no interest in, and promptly forgot every time she told him. They'd been flirting online for four and a half months, and Frank had already grown weary of it when she told him of her plans to visit. Even so, he didn't put much energy into dissuading her, and so ended up in a hotel room with her and wishing he were elsewhere. He poured another glass of red wine into a plastic hotel room cup.
“So,” the woman said, “do you maybe wanna walk around a bit, get something to eat?”
“I'd like to,” Frank lied, “but I have to work early tomorrow. I should go home and crash.”
“You could stay here,” she said, in a voice holding little hope.
“I can't sleep in hotel beds,” Frank said, “the pillows hurt my neck.”
“Yeah,” the woman said, pretending to laugh. “Well, do you wanna meet tomorrow, after the conference? Drinks? You can show me that one place you were telling me about.”
“Sure,” Frank lied again, “I'll call you after work.”
“Okay,” the woman said.
Frank downed another cup of wine as they dressed. “Okay,” he said, gathering his things, “I'll see you tomorrow.” He spoke the words with the certainty of never seeing her again.
“Okay,” said the woman, “I had fun.” She hugged him and kissed him quickly on the mouth.
He rode the elevator down to the lobby and walked out of the hotel onto Market Street, feeling like Lazarus rising up from his tomb, given another chance at the world. Did Lazarus have a tomb? Frank wasn't sure. Jesus had a tomb, but he didn't feel much like Jesus.
The late afternoon sunlight immediately had him feeling better about things, but he didn't know what he felt like doing. He'd lied about having to work in the morning, having actually requested the day off, in the unlikely event that he'd truly want to spend more time with the woman. As things were, he was at a loss. The thought of going home to his little apartment and being alone with himself was unappealing. He imagined he'd like to call up someone he was truly fond of and share a drink with them, compare sorrows and talk and laugh about the absurdity of their time upon the earth. But in truth he couldn't think of anyone within a hundred miles who he'd really want to drink with. A few contenders flitted through his mind, but he immediately assumed he was probably romanticizing them, as one does with old lovers, and had these people been actually available, their appeal would have immediately dissipated. He thought of Dostoevsky's line, the one about hell being the inability to love. Frank had always sensed a truth in the words, but felt he never truly understood them until now. A whole fucking city full of beautiful people, and not one he wanted to have a beer with.
By default he decided on North Beach. It had energy, and was stumbling distance from home. He headed that way. He stopped at a bar on Bush Street, one of those dives that lonely men frequent, the ones who can't afford massage parlors or strip clubs. It was one of those places run by pretty Korean girls who smile and laugh and joke, who wear low cut blouses as they lean over the bar to speak. As long as you order drinks, they'll chat and flirt and let you buy them the occasional whiskey. They give good hugs and remember your name and your favorite drink. For some of the regulars it was the closest thing they had to belonging anywhere.
Frank sat down on a stool in the middle of the place. To his left, two older men huddled together and talked. To his right, one of the regulars, a large balding man who always wore a suit, was playing a game of liars dice with the proprietor. The girl behind the bar looked up from the glass she was cleaning and smiled. “Hi!” she said, “ Anchor Steam?”
“Yes ma'am,” Frank said.
She poured the beer and set it in front of him. “Long time no see,” she said, “where you been?”
“Nowhere special,” Frank said.
The bartender smiled and set a plastic bowl filled with popcorn in front of him. She hovered over him a bit, and when he made no further attempts at conversation, drifted to the other men. He knew all of them by sight, most of them by name, fixtures that seemingly had nowhere else they ever had to be, and no need to exist outside the bar. Frank envied them a bit, part of him wishing to be among them, enveloped in the soft, slow death of the place for the rest of his days. There were certainly fates of a more heinous nature being handed down on a continual basis. He had a second beer and finished his popcorn. He said goodbye to the pretty Korean girls and they smiled and waved, and the old men sat and drank and never knew he was there.
Outside an old man sat on a milk crate, nodding as he lit a cigarette. He sang in a cracked voice, It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood, and it sounded to Frank as if he meant it. He put a dollar in the man's outstretched hand and moved on. He turned onto Geary Street to find a group of people gathered on the sidewalk in front of the social services building. He crossed the street and positioned himself at the edge of the crowd. At the center of things, two women were engaged in an intense vocal disagreement. A thin white woman was yelling at a larger Mexican girl, who stood glaring back with folded arms. Frank stood with the rest of the crowd, all of them waiting to see if the affair would escalate into something more interesting. Every few seconds the larger woman would start to walk away, but as she did the other would grab a piece of garbage from a nearby receptacle and chuck it at her, and the standoff continued. It went this way for some minutes, the larger woman assaulted with a new piece of garbage each time she moved to leave. She eventually reached her breaking point and slammed the smaller one into the hood of a Ford Escort, pounding her face with her heavily ringed fist. The smaller woman clawed and flailed, eventually shredding the Mexican woman's t-shirt until she was grappling in her brassiere. The smaller woman was having a bad time of it now that the other had given herself over to rage. The crowd watched without much commentary, a spectacle of this magnitude being common enough in the neighborhood; it may as well have been a one legged pigeon or a bum with his pants around his ankles.
Frank figured the cops would be making an appearance very soon, and considered suggesting to the women that they leave off before they ended up in the back of a police car, hauled off to somewhere they'd rather not go. But it wasn't his fight, and he'd most likely get the worst of it should he try and intervene. At some point during his time upon the earth, Frank had concluded that trying to save people from themselves was most always a fruitless endeavor, and particularly presumptuous when you lacked the ability to save even yourself. He went on his way, the half naked woman pounding the other's head against the hood of the car, sirens in the distance growing louder. An older gentleman wearing a tattered blazer and drinking a Coors tallboy from a paper bag caught Frank's eye as they both edged away from the crowd. “Shit's crazy,” the man said as they parted ways at a corner.
“Yessir,” Frank agreed.
He trudged through Chinatown, glancing in a few of the little bars on Grant Street as he went, eventually stopping at the Buddha to drink a beer in silence with a handful of old Chinese men. He ordered a second, downed it quickly and headed back out into the street, feeling better now with a few more beers in him. Then Frank remembered it was Wednesday. Wednesday meant Kate was at the Condor Club. He walked in that direction.
The Condor Club was a generic sports bar by day, but when the sun went down it reclaimed its identity as historical topless joint - the world's first when it opened in 1964, according to the plaque on the wall. A local band were finishing their set on the little stage near the bar. The singer, a leather-clad woman in her forties, worked her way through uninspired versions of blues rock standards, trying for Janis Joplin and failing. The tourists sucked it up nonetheless, dancing and filling the tip bucket with dollar bills.
Frank took the only empty stool at the bar. The bartender was a small, pale girl named Astrid. She danced for the club in addition to serving drinks. Her friendliness felt genuine, and Frank was fond of her. “Hi, Franky!” she said, setting an unsolicited beer in front of him. Most of the girls at the club knew Frank by name, and after a few drinks he'd let himself imagine this fact made him worldly and important. As the band packed their equipment away, pretty young women in lingerie filed down a stairwell in the middle of the room and pulled heavy red curtains over the big windows that looked out on Columbus and Broadway. The majority of the tourists moved to leave, some reluctantly so, herded by their girlfriends and wives, while a few of the more adventurous stuck around for whatever was going to happen next. With the light of day shut out, the place took on the ambiance of an opium den. It had the feel of that moment in a David Lynch film when the spooky music starts, when everything goes weird and the deep red curtains appear, letting you know the world as you understood it was giving way to darker things. Frank welcomed it.
Now that most of the tourists were gone, the lingeried girls flitting about the room outnumbered the sad lonely men three to one. Frank spotted Kate at the other end of the bar with her usual glass of red wine. Kate was the best thing the Condor Club had going for it, possessing a beauty and grace Frank had rarely found in his encounters with the people of the earth. In addition to her Condor gig, she played the ukulele and sang in a retro-lounge band. Frank would marry her if he could.
Kate smiled and waved him over. She gave him a hug and exaggerated kisses on both cheeks. “Hiya, handsome,” she said, patting the empty stool next to hers. Frank sat down, Kate's proximity immediately making him feel awkward and ugly.
“Hey beautiful,” he said, “How's thing's?'
“Aw, you know, babe, the usual. Trying to squeak by. The bosses here, they're about ready to put me out to pasture, I can feel it. I'm getting old. They want new meat. Haven't seen you in a few weeks, where you been?”
“Nowhere fast,” Frank said.
“I've missed you. Wednesday night is squaresville when you're not here, a buncha jerks.”
Frank bought a round of wine just as Kate's name boomed out of the speaker system, signaling her time to take the stage. Kate sighed, rose from her stool and adjusted what there was of her outfit. “The cattle call,” she said. “Meet me on the other side, babe.” Frank took their drinks over to the main room to watch, finding a small table near the stage. The audience consisted only of himself and a handful of others, but Kate was up there, shining, like she were Carol Doda working a full house on a Saturday night in 1964. Kate owned the stage like no other girl Frank had ever seen. She was all style and grace; something left over from better times. She was an artist, a poet, a natural extension of the world, possessing energy and purpose. She was everything Frank was not. The light she radiated made him feel both grateful and ashamed. Frank's sense of his own uselessness became more acute and complete while illuminated in her glow, and the only thing he ever knew to do about it was drink. With enough drink he could dissolve himself in the midst of everything and forget that he existed apart from the smell of her sweat and perfume, the heavy music pounding through the speakers.
When Kate's three songs were done the slight crowd clapped and whistled and the speaker system announced the next performer. Kate smiled, blew kisses and collected her dollars from the stage. She sat next to Frank at the little table. She pressed herself against him, and he wanted to lose himself in the feel and smell and sound of her forever. There was nothing else the world had to offer him. He desired only money enough to pay her to mother him for the rest of his days, to cradle his head in her chest and stroke his hair as the world burned somewhere far away. Kate's fingers softly stroked the back of his hand. Frank wondered if it was the same with other people, if most of life was just stumbling through the general garbage of things to arrive at fleeting perfect moments that had to somehow nourish you enough to keep you going until the next one arrived. He figured it was.
He bought another round of drinks and was broke. A few of Kate's regulars who had money to spend showed up and she drifted over to their tables, disappearing with them into the curtained booths. Frank just drank and let the world fall away from him, the beauty and the terror of it dissolving into noise and color and shapes. A few of the other girls approached his table, offering their company. He declined as best he could, but as he was one of their few available options to make their night profitable, they were unrelenting. He eventually found himself in one of the curtained booths with the both of them. Then they were arguing. The girls were asking him for four hundred dollars, and he was telling them he didn't have four hundred dollars, and they were telling him it didn't matter, that was what he owed. He said he never agreed to four hundred dollars, and they told him he was too drunk to remember, but that wasn't their problem. Frank said some angry things and moved to leave.
Frank made his way out of the booth and found himself surrounded by three of the club's bouncers. In the past he found them to be large, generally jovial men, with dark suits and wide smiles who knew him by name. But now their faces were hard, and they looked at him as all the Wednesday nights they'd shared drinks and jokes had never happened. Frank tried to smile and push past them, to no avail. They were parroting the things that the girls were saying about the four hundred dollars. Frank looked around the room in a vain attempt to find Kate, as if she could somehow put things right. He felt ashamed and betrayed and made another attempt to push past the bouncers, feeling their large hands restraining him. He threw a punch full of sorrow and rage at one of the faces and got it square in the nose. Then the collective weight of the men pushed him to the floor. All the breath left his body and he fell into darkness like the arms of a waiting mother.
William Taylor Jr. lives and writes in San Francisco. He is the author of numerous books of poetry, and a volume of fiction. His work has been published widely in journals across the globe, including Rattle, The New York Quarterly, andThe Chiron Review. He was a recipient of the 2013 Kathy Acker Award, and edited Cocky Moon: Selected Poems of Jack Micheline (Zeitgeist Press, 2014). Pretty Things to Say (Six Ft. Swells Press, 2020) is his latest collection of poetry. A new collection is also forthcoming from Roadside Press.