Phyl was pacing nervously back and forth in her tiny Tenderloin apartment, every now and then glaring at the telephone. After her talk with Violet, she had put in a call to her boss, Blair Brockman, Founding Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of The Bay Weekly.
Brockman never answered his home phone, although he lived alone. He would let the phone ring the requisite three rings, wait for the answering machine to pick it up, and then play back the message a few minutes afterward. If he liked what he heard, he might even return the call.
He had been paranoid about answering the phone since that SLA business in the 70’s. He had made the mistake of writing an editorial on the nobility of the Symbionese Liberation Army and the justness of its cause, going on at great length to defend their ideological right to kidnap newspaper heiress Patty Hearst, who he termed a “prisoner of war.”
The SLA had liked his piece so much, that only a few hours after that particular issue of the Weekly hit the stands, he received a phone call from them, inviting him to join their cause. When he had demurred, the noble revolutionaries had told him in no uncertain terms to put up or shut up, as they had his home address and would be right over to convince him in person.
Brockman had panicked and called the police who, hot for any leads in the SLA kidnapping case, obligingly sent four police cars containing sixteen heavily-armed policemen, a paddy wagon, and a SWAT team to Brockman’s quiet Noe Valley apartment at about eleven that night, making him so unpopular with his neighbors that he moved out of the building a few months later. The SLA never showed up, but Brockman installed the answering machine immediately upon moving into his new apartment about six blocks away, and declined to answer his phone thereafter.
Phyl’s phone rang suddenly. As she snatched up the receiver and quickly put it to her ear, she heard a voice say, “Brockman here. What’s the story?” (“What’s the story?” was one of his favorite newspaper phrases. He thought it made him sound like a hard-bitten, underpaid reporter instead of a fat-cat publisher, which was closer to the truth.)
“Um, sir, I, uh, need to talk to you about that PG&E assignment.”
“Great!” boomed Brockman. “What have you got? We’ll nail their asses to the wall this time!”
Phyl summoned her courage. “I just got a hot tip, Chief, that’s unrelated to the PG&E story. But it could prove to be a lot bigger.”
“Bigger than getting the dirt on those PG&E rate gougers? I don’t think so! I have it on good authority from one of my unimpeachable sources that the Chairman of the Public Utilities Commission accepted a bribe from the CEO of PG&E to approve an illegal rate increase. All you have to do is to verify that story. You know, use your feminine wiles or whatever and get something good on tape, something we can use!”
“But Chief!” Phyl plowed ahead. “This tip I got is hot—really hot! It seems that there was a top-secret hush-hush meeting at Lawrence Livermore the other day…”
“Yeah, so what?” broke in Brockman. “Those bigwigs over there are always having top-secret meetings about one thing or another. And stop calling me Chief!”
“But the subject of this meeting, sir, was about some kind of scientific proof of alien activity in the Bay Area.”
“What do you mean ‘alien activity’? There’s swarms of them all over the Bay Area, in case you haven’t noticed. Probably most of them illegal. Those guys up there in the Berkeley Hills would be better off calling Immigration rather than having secret meetings about it.”
When Phyl could get a word in she explained, “No, I mean space aliens. Beings from another planet, that sort of thing.”
“What stupidity! You’ve got aliens on the brain, Dean! Didn’t we go through all this last week? You almost made us miss deadline! Although,” he said in a softer tone, “I must say you got us a pretty good story anyway. Devil worshippers, now that the public will buy. But space aliens? I don’t know if you’re aware of this, Dean, but our paper isn’t sold at the Safeway checkout counter.”
“Please, sir!” begged Phyl in desperation. “Look, starting tomorrow morning I’ve still got two days left. Let me spend just half a day on this alien story. If I can’t get anything juicy, I promise I’ll go jump into bed with PG&E!”
“All right, all right!” he replied. “I can see your mind’s made up. Go do what you have to do. Just two things!” A note of menace creeped into his voice. “One, come up with a front-page story. Something that’ll knock my socks off. And two, I want this terrific story filed with Lyle, in its entirety, by Friday night. Got that?”
“I got it, Chief!” Phyl exclaimed, hanging up the phone. As she did so she could faintly hear Brockman screaming, “And don’t call me Chief!”
She pumped her fist in the air with excitement, almost destroying the light fixture on the low ceiling in the process.
“Yes!” she exulted.
* * *
That same evening there was a knock at the door of Simona’s room at The Madhouse. “Phone for you, Simona,” said a voice.
“I’m drying my hair,” she snapped. “Take a message.”
“It’s some guy named Tim,” persisted the voice, “he says it’s urgent.”
“Tim! Gangway!” She flung open the door, almost flattening a surprised Bear. He watched in amusement as she ran barefoot down the hall, wet hair and robe billowing out behind her.
When she reached the phone, she grabbed up the receiver. “This better be good,” she panted into the mouthpiece.
“Simona?” said a contrite voice. “I’m calling to apologize for yesterday. I didn’t mean anything by what I said. Can I come over and talk?”
Make him suffer, she thought to herself. Into the phone she said in a haughty manner, “I’m not dressed, Tim. And besides, I think it would be better if we didn’t see each other for a while.”
“Aw, Simona,” he pleaded. “Don’t talk like that. I really need to see you. Maybe you could get dressed and come over here? Whenever you get ready is OK.”
“Me, come over there? To your place? I’m surprised it hasn’t been condemned by the Health Department!”
“I know, I know, I’m not much of a housekeeper. But I spent all day today cleaning up. I even put fresh sheets on the bed. So what do you say? Please, please come over here tonight? Just for a little while. I don’t expect anything from you.”
He sounded so dejected that Simona could scarcely keep from breaking her resolve. When she spoke her voice was icy. “You mean you didn’t go to work again today? They’re going to fire you, and then where will you be?”
“That’s one of the things I want to talk to you about,” he replied. There was a brief silence.
“Oh, all right! See you in an hour!” She hung up the phone before he could say anything further and dashed back to her room. Bear was leaning against the wall near the staircase, humming “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do.”
“Oh, shut up,” she told him, slamming her door shut with a vengeance.
“Temper, temper.” Bear grinned and went down the stairs, still humming.
Simona quickly dried her hair with one hand, while with the other she rummaged through her closet, looking for a flattering, but non-professional, outfit. She finally settled on a lacy, low-cut red blouse and a tight, mid-thigh length black skirt, black sheer pantyhose and red heels.
Then she hurried downstairs and banged on Rick and Wanda’s door. When Wanda opened the door she was dressed in robe and slippers.
“Oh hi, Simona,” she said, yawning. “I was just watching a TV movie and I guess I must have nodded out. I think it’s over now.” Her eyes focused and she finally noticed Simona’s attire. “Hey, you look great! You going somewhere?”
“Where’s Rick?” Simona asked, looking around the room. “I need him to drive me over to Tim’s place.”
“Oh, he’s probably still down in the workshop, working on that stupid yuppie sculpture stuff. He’s been down there most of the time ever since he and Al pulled that scam at the bar. But you’re going to Tim’s place?” She brightened. “You two made it up then?”
“We’ll see about that!” answered Simona, scowling. “I just don’t know what’s going on with him lately. He’s been so moody.”
“Oh, honey, you know what men are like,” Wanda sighed.
“Do I ever! Sometimes I wonder why I bother.”
They looked at each other and said in unison, “Men! Can’t live with ‘em and can’t live without ‘em!” Then they both laughed.
“OK, then, good luck!” Wanda yawned again and closed the door.
Simona went downstairs to the basement and opened the workshop door. “Rick! You down here?” she called out, squinting in the dim and dusty light.
“That you, Simona?” answered a muffled voice. “Just putting my tools away.” He emerged from the tool closet. “I was just about to knock off for the day. What time is it, anyway?” He was standing beside a long table littered with several half-finished plaster busts. Under the light of the bare ceiling bulb he almost appeared to be a plaster figure himself, covered as he was from head to foot with fine, white dust. He self-consciously began to brush himself off. “Wow,” he remarked. “I’d forgotten how much this stuff sticks to you. I better go upstairs and clean up.”
“No time for that,” Simona told him briskly. “It’s after ten now, and I told Tim I’d see him in an hour. Please drive me there?”
“Aw, Simona, I can’t go out looking like this,” he protested.
“Sure you can. You’ll be in the van all the time. Fifteen minutes to take me there, five minutes to wait for me to see what he wants, and fifteen minutes for us to get back. In no time at all you’ll be taking a nice hot shower. Remember where the place is?”
“Over on South Van Ness, right?” he replied, scratching his head and sending a shower of plaster dust into the air. “I guess you two made it up, then.”
“That’s what I’m going to find out. He called me about half an hour ago sounding very apologetic. But you know Tim,” she shook her head sadly, “he could be drunk again by the time I get there.”
“I hope not, for your sake,” he said as they began climbing the stairs together. “Yeah, sure, I’ll drive you,” he muttered. “Anything for love, I guess. But you better sit in the back. You don’t want plaster dust on your nice clothes. Damn,” he said to himself. “Now I’m gonna have to vacuum out the front seat when I get back. Work, work, work!”
“Poor baby,” cooed Simona. “Cheer up, it could be worse. You could have a real job.”
“Yeah,” he said, brightening up a bit as they went out the rear entrance to where the van was parked. “Anything but that nine-to-five stuff.”
In less than fifteen minutes Simona was knocking on the door of Tim’s cottage on South Van Ness. In a few seconds he opened the door, resplendent in a dark business suit, complete with white dress shirt with button-down collar and conservative necktie. He had shaved closely, eliminating all traces of his usual careless stubble. A neatly-trimmed mustache and hair recently cut to a more conventional length completed the picture.
“Well,” he said, grinning and opening his arms wide. “What do you think?” He turned slowly around in a circle like a fashion model.
Simona gasped and said, “Who are you and what have you done with Tim Stuckey?” She pushed past him and looked around at the recently-cleaned living room. “This can’t even be the right place. What’s the address here?”
“Oh, come off it, Simona,” laughed Tim. “It can’t be that much of a shock to see me looking respectable for once. But seriously, what do you think?”
She sat down in an overstuffed chair. “What do I think? I think I want to know what’s going on with you. I’ve never seen you in a suit and tie except at weddings and funerals. And what’s with the corporate haircut?”
Tim removed his jacket and sat down on the couch across from her chair. “I’ve been doing a lot of thinking in the past twenty-four hours. Stuff about you and me, and where I’m going, and where we’re going. I mean look at me.” He stood up and walked to the kitchen, returning shortly with two Calistogas. He gave one to Simona. “Oh, by the way, this is my new drink from now on. On weekends, I’ll celebrate with the citrus flavors. Really go wild. But as I was saying,” he sat down on the couch again. “Look at me. I’m thirty-two years old and what am I? An alcoholic, part-time messenger boy and a half-assed lighting designer who only gets jobs because I know everybody in the theater community. And half the time, as you’ve pointed out on many occasions, I don’t even get paid, except for being invited to opening and closing night parties where I end up drinking too much cheap wine and making lots of useless ‘contacts’. So, in conclusion,” he said as if he had been making a formal speech, “I have decided to change my life. I did get a BA, you know, back there somewhere in the mists of time. Tomorrow I’m going to fake up a resume and hit every corporation in town. Someone’s bound to hire me, and I’ll take whatever they offer. Even support staff. Even mail room. And in my spare time, evenings and weekends, I can still do theater, and I’ll be more relaxed about it, because I won’t be depending on the miserable few bucks they deign to pay me. Or don’t. Either way, I figured out that the main reason I drink too much is because of financial anxiety, and I’m finally going to eliminate that. And so,” he rose and went down on his knees in front of Simona’s chair, “if things go well for me,” he took her hand, “maybe we could talk about the future. Our future.” As he said this he got up again, went back to the couch and sat down with the air of a man who has said all there is to say.
Simona silently considered all that he had said. “Well,” she said after a time, shaking her head. “I’m obviously going to have to think about all this, long and hard. But for now, let’s just see how it goes. You know, like they say on that TV show, ‘One day at a time’.” She stood up and started pacing around the room. “If you can get a real job, and if you can work in enough time for the theater (because I know you’d never be really happy without it), then we’ll just take it from there.” She stopped in front of him and took his face in her hands. “Mmm,” she purred. “Smooth!” She released him but continued to stand over him, looking at him intently. “I guess I forgive you.” Her stern voice belied her words. “Look, Tim, thank you for the fine speech and everything. I know you mean well, but I also know you’re really just doing this for me, and it makes me feel kind of guilty. But there is,” she held up a forefinger, “an alternative.”
She sat down beside him on the couch and squeezed his hand. “Don’t sell yourself short. You’re a pretty damn decent lighting designer, one of the best in the Bay Area.” She gave a rueful laugh. “At least, you are when you’re sober. If all this,” she pulled on his necktie and ruffled his hair, “doesn’t work out. And I’m not doubting your ability or your resolve, but things happen.” She shrugged her shoulders. “Look, you and I both know that the Bay Area theater scene these days is shit. The money’s not there and the productions, for the most part, are pretty boring. Too much PC and not enough courage and creativity, if you ask me. The days of a new Sam Shepard play at the Magic every season are long gone. But, and I repeat, if for any reason your straight job doesn’t work out, we can always,” she hesitated a bit, “go to New York.”
Tim had been listening to her attentively. Now he exclaimed, “New York! I don’t know about that. They say it’s really tough to break into the scene there.”
“Sure,” she told him, “anything worth doing is tough in the beginning. But getting a straight job and keeping it, for a man of your temperament, won’t be any easier. I took a trip to New York a few months ago, and it’s great! Good theater, lots of work, even designers and technicians are treated like human beings, not just flunkies. And the pay is really good, too, especially compared to here. And if you design and run your own shows, you get the flat fee up front and a weekly salary for as long as the show runs. Which is usually much longer than the four-to-six week runs you get here. You might not even need a part-time job.”
“Hey,” said Tim suspiciously, “how come you know so much about the New York theater scene? I thought you were just a ‘naïve little girl from Minneapolis’.”
“Yeah, and my father runs a Chinese restaurant there,” she shot back, “but that doesn’t mean I don’t know anything about the big city. I’m not provincial, or ignorant, and don’t you forget it!”
He held out his arms to her. “Aw, you know I was just kidding about that Minneapolis stuff.”
“Sure, I know,” she replied, relaxing. “But you of all people should know I’m sensitive about it.”
“Yeah, I know. My father was a used-car salesman in Des Moines, and I don’t go out of my way to spread that around either. But seriously, how do you know all this?”
“Silly, I’ve got some friends who happen to be in the New York theater scene. I stayed with them when I went out there last summer. They’re cabaret performers, a husband-and-wife team, so don’t get jealous, OK? Anyway, the husband’s gay. But I believe them when they say that compared to the West Coast, New York is a theater workers paradise.”
“Well,” he considered this. “I guess, like you said, let’s see how it goes. But I must admit, it does sound great. And you’d come with me?”
“Sure, why not? The stuff I do, I can do in any big city. And since I wouldn’t be half-supporting you and we could live together and pay one rent, I wouldn’t have to work so much anyway.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Tim agreed. “But maybe in the spring when it gets warmer there. I’ve heard that New York winters are as cold as a bitch.”
“That reminds me,” said Simona, unbuttoning the top button on her already low-cut blouse. “You haven’t even commented on my new outfit. And I wore it just for you.” She pouted and turned her head away.
‘Oh, Simona, you know you always look good enough to eat. Which reminds me.” He went over to a small desk and took out his billfold. He extracted a single bill and said, “African-American Rep came through with that twenty-buck consulting fee they’ve owed me since September. So I’ve got just enough to order a large pizza and some Häagen Daz. How about it? I’ll let you choose the ice cream. And I think Casablanca’s on the Late Show tonight.”
She kicked off her heels and curled up on the couch. “Sounds like a plan,” she echoed him. “Play it, Sam!”
Tim went over to the sofa and stood behind her, crooning, “ ‘You must remember this’…”
“ ‘A kiss is still a kiss’…” she sang softly back.
And then all was silence as they put their theory into practice.
Chapter 24 >>
© Cantara Christopher 2001, 2022
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