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Wondering Where To Go

Three novelists tackle the city’s hard-boiled side in these new short stories about crime and grime, set across the city’s past, present and future.

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The 9 mm Glock in my backpack isn’t quite as reassuring as a hotel reservation, but it s some comfort , since I probably won’t be sleeping indoors tonight. The worst thing about sleeping in parks and doorways are the rats, straydogs, and rabid humans. That’s where a handgun comes in—the sound of just a single shot is enough to give anything with half a brain second thoughts.

After an hour standing in the gravel bordering the coast highway between Pescadero and San Gregorio trying to hitch a ride, I no longer expect anyone to stop. And night comes quickly in January, like a shroud pulled over the sky. An unrestrained wind off the ocean whistles across the artichoke fields. I cinch my Goodwill jacket closed.The zipper doesn’t work. Headlights appear in the twilight from the south. I stick out my thumb just for the hell of it. What fool picks up a stranger along a deserted road at night?

My kind of fool.
The late model Monte Carlo sedan rolls to a stop. Even in the weak light, I can see that the original blue has been reduced to islands in an ocean of rust. Approaching the passenger door, I can’t see the driver. The windows are fogged up or dirty. Maybe both.

I pull on the handle and the car door creaks open. I get in, set my backpack at my feet and take a deep breath of second-hand smoke. Nice. I’d finished my last cigarette hours ago.

“Thanks,” I say to the driver as I reach down and unzip the backpack— just to make sure I can get to the Glock.
“Where you headed?” The voice is that of a woman, though gravely and deep.
I glance over as she punches the accelerator, getting back up to highway speed as fast as the Monte Carlo allows. The heater’s going full blast. She’s wearing a sleeveless dress, and in the dim light she doesn’t look half bad.
“San Francisco.”
“Me too. Where?” she asks and drags on her cigarette.
“I’m not sure. I used to live in North Beach on Telegraph Hill—” “Pretty high rent for someone hitching rides.”
“I said used to. That was a few years ago.”
“Where do you live now?” she asks.
“Now? Nowhere.”
“What happened to North Beach and Telegraph Hill?”
I lean back in the well-cushioned upholstery of the Monte Carlo and close my eyes. “That was another lifetime.”
“What did that look like?” She sounds genuinely interested.

That life? I turn the question over in my mind, but don’t say anything. No point in any of the AA bullshit. I’d been through enough of those sessions—reciting how I had everything and now have nothing. And who cares if I’m a homeless drunk, newly unemployed after a month of harvesting artichokes at the end of the season outside Pescadero?

The car is warm and I was up before dawn, working in the fields all day before getting fired. I fall asleep thinking about how to answer the question; what did that life look like?

The answer forms as a dream—the Victorian I shared with my wife on Telegraph Hill, driving my silver Ferrari to work at the VA Hospital at Fort Miley just past the Presidio, in view of the Golden Gate. I’m dreaming about people calling me “doctor,” when the driver shakes me awake.
“We’re here.”

I crank down the window, seeing city streets filled with light, the night air cool on my face. “How long did I sleep?”
“Almost an hour. We made good time. ” “Where are we?”
“North Beach.”
I’m trying to get my bearings when she taps me on the shoulder. I turn and see she’s holding my Glock in her hand.

“Is this a gun which I see before me?” She’s not pointing it at me or anything, just holding it up for me to see. And quoting Lady Macbeth. Looking past the Glock, I see a woman’s face, formidable and beautiful with long eyelashes and the hint of a smile on her lips. I shrug. “It looks good on you—a nice accessory. Keep it.”

“I will.” She puts the gun in her purse— her movements fluid in her sleeveless dress, the definition of her deltoids and biceps remarkably muscular. She looks up and sees that I‘m looking at her. I blush. She doesn’t.

“So what did your former life look like?” Looking out the window, I see the lit sign of Original Joe’s, a restaurant I used to visit with my ex-wife. “How about we talk over dinner?”
She laughs. “Are you asking me out on a date?”
I shrug. “I got fired today. It came with a nice severance package.”

“Seriously, Napoli Market is just up the street. They’re open late. We can get sandwiches, chips, and beer, and eat in Washington Square Park.”
“Nah. Caffè Trieste. I used to go there all the time—good drinks and great pizza— and we can listen to Enrico Caruso on the jukebox.”
“Before we go anywhere, tell me about your former life.”
“I’d rather not.” “No date.”
“It’s boring.”

She takes the Glock out of her purse. “Here’s the deal—you tell me your story or I shoot you.”
“And if I tell you my story, you won’t shoot me and we have a date?”
“Yeah. But if you go on and on, I might have to shoot myself.”
“OK, I’ll keep it short. I used to be a very successful doctor—”

She laughs, slapping the steering wheel with her freehand.“You’re kidding me!”
“Three years ago the Medical Board decided I couldn’t be a practicing cardiologist and a practicing alcoholic.”
“Welcome to the club,” she says, still chuckling.
“You’re a cardiologist too?”
“No—an alcoholic, though I prefer alcohol use disorder.” She waves the Glock in my face. “Go on.”
“They gave me plenty of warnings— temporary suspensions, mandated treatments. I was in and out of 28-day programs every few months—the works. But after spending tens of thousands of dollars, I go right back to drinking.”
“Drinking what?” she asks.
“Two pints of Jameson a day while I could afford it. Later on, Thunderbird or Night Train.”
“Haven’t you heard about TSM? Big shot doctor like you?”
“What’s that?”
Another time.” She raises the pistol. “Go on.”

“You know how they say that some people need to hit bottom to change? So, after I lose my job and everything in the divorce, I start working my way down—breaking into parked cars, which is how I stay drunk. It’s also how I found the Glock—under the front seat of an Audi. But it’s noisy and the yield is low. So, I switch to this...” I pull a pink handbag out of my backpack and put it on my lap.

She looks at the purse. “Cross dressing?” “No. This is how I hit bottom. About a month ago, I took this out of the shopping cart of a distracted mother of two little boys while she was Christmas shopping at Nuko’s Toy Store on Columbus. One of the boys had Down syndrome, and she was having a hard time controlling him. I waited until the right moment and took the purse—$1,000 in cash and $1,500 in gift cards. The cards were in an envelope addressed to UCSF— the woman’s donation to help poor families with kids having heart surgery. I figured that must be bottom. So, I put the package in the mail, left town, and found work in Pescadero.
Haven’t had a drink in a month.”

“Thank you,” she says and puts the gun in her purse.
“What about you?” I ask. “What’s your ‘used to’?”
“I used to teach English Lit at UC Berkeley.”
“That explains the Shakespeare. Now what?”
“Now I teach Vinyasa and spin a block away on Stockton. What’s next for you?”
“Whad’ya think? Get back some of what I had.”
“You got a place to stay?”
“Maybe a room at the Civic Center Hotel.”
“Ooh!” I can hear her wince. “There are better SROs right here in North Beach—the Il Traglio on Columbus, the North Beach Hotel down on Kearny, or...” she looks me in the eyes, “or with me at Casa Melissa.”
“Where’s that?” I ask, trying to sound casual.
She points. “Right here on Union— between Original Joe’s and Mario’s Caffè. We could split the rent—150 a week if you don’t mind sleeping on the couch.”
“Any chance of getting off the couch someday?”
“Some day, if you stay sober.” She gives me a little smile. “For now, I’ll be sleeping with the Glock.”

A Berkeley native, Michael J. Cooper is the author of two novels of historical fiction, with a third in the works. His last foray into short fiction appeared in the anthology Jewish Noir.

 

Originally published in the February issue of San Francisco

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