SEE FINAL INSTALLMENT, June 7, 2010
So there's this old guy at our party, and no one knows who he is or where he came from. He just kind of appeared. Now that's not a problem or anything. This is San Francisco in the summer of 1976 and hey, everybody's welcome. It's two in the morning and The Abbey Tavern, the bar downstairs from our railroad flat, has just emptied out and naturally one of my roommates, Bruce from Buzzard's Bay, has invited everyone upstairs. That's pretty typical for a Friday-night-into-Saturday-morning here, and we're used to having all kinds of crazies, eccentrics and barflys come up. Again, this is Baghdad by the Bay. If they're sober enough to climb the two flights of stairs to the apartment, we figure they're under control. There are five of us living in the flat and we're all in our twenties and in good shape, so we can handle anybody and anything short of a psycho with a gun. But we keep an eye on our guests and this guy really stood out. First of all, it was his hair — it was silver and hung in thick, coiled ringlets to his black-caped shoulders. That's right, he was wearing a black cape. A black shirt, black pants and black boots, too. All that black seemed to make those silvery coils light up like they were electrified, especially if you'd had a toke or two and couldn't help staring. You couldn't miss his mustache, either. It was one of those showy Salvador Dali jobs, all waxed and nasty like an insect's antennae. And then there were his black eyes. They seemed to be all pupil — which around here isn't all that unusual. But he didn't seem stoned on dope or alcohol — and that's suspicious. On the contrary, he was very lucid and in the moment, and those damned, unblinking black eyes burned into you when he spoke, and he listened closely to everything you said. The old guy was kind of handsome, too, in a weird overly perfect way; he had this elegant Gallic nose and ... well, I don't want to sound like I'm gay, here, 'cause I'm not, but everything about him was too perfect, too symmetrical, too unreal and his skin was strangely smooth and glowing, like he was a young man wearing too much makeup. But he was definitely an "old soul" — and that's what he was telling everyone. Which, along with his freaky appearance, was worrisome.
"Why don't you go have a chat with him, " Bruce whispered to me through his own overgrown mustache as I was pulling a can of Green Death — that's what we called Rainier Ale — out of the fridge in the kitchen. "Make sure he's okay."
That's how our first-alert policy works; we have a nice quiet chat, and if the guest doesn't pass the test, he could soon have five guys gently but firmly suggesting it was time to go. We're pretty tolerant, though; just being different isn't enough to get you ejected. Case in point is a hapless regular Bruce dubbed, rather insensitively, "It." The poor guy ran out of money halfway through his gender transformation, and the cute dresses and nascent breasts did nothing to hide his five o'clock shadow and silky baritone. Then there's "The Screamer." Five minutes into what can start out as a quiet, reasonable conversation, and he's screaming and spitting at the top of his lungs and generally upsetting the other partygoers. It usually takes an entire joint to get the guy calmed down.
So I make my way across the living room floor, past the guitar amps and Ray "The Poetman" Vincent's keyboards, and all the yakking, happily unsteady guests, to where the old wizardly looking dude is standing sipping a Guinness in a pint glass probably purloined from the Abbey, and burning holes in anyone that will look at him. Tucked up under his left arm is a beat up, leather-bound book with flaking gold letters on its spine.
"Hey, I'm Brendan," I say extending a hand. "Nice to meet you."
He looks down at my hand a second, shifts his brew into his left hand, all the while keeping the book under his arm in place, and shakes. I can't help but notice his long, beautiful fingers, like a musician's — like my band-mates and me. But once again, there was a certain unsettling perfection about those pale digits, as though they were idealized musician's fingers — if that makes any sense.
"Nice to make your acquaintance, Brendan," he said with a pleasant old-fashioned courtliness and a slight bow. "I am Sir Francis Bacon the Third, and I just arrived."
"Really? Where you coming from?"
"From across the universe, Brendan," he said, jiggling his drink. "What you call the Pinwheel Galaxy, I believe. I only just materialized here a few minutes ago, and there's nothing quite so refreshing as a good pint after traveling a few hundred light years."
Okay, whoa, we've got a live one here, I thought. Either he's goofing on me, or he's a certified whack-job.The real question, though— was he dangerous? I needed to chat with him a bit more before I made that evaluation.
"Uh, yeah, Francis, right? Can I call you Frank?"
"I'd rather you stuck with Francis."
"That's cool, that's cool," I said, not wanting to offend him right out of the box. " So, how are things going in that part of the galaxy?"
"It's another galaxy. You're in The Milky Way, Brendan."
"I'll take your word for it, thanks for the education. Another galaxy? Wow."
"To answer your question, though, things are going well. Unlike here."
I stopped and squinted at him a couple of beats, and then cut right to the chase.
"Seriously now, Francis, you're kidding me, right?"
He just returned my stare, upping the wattage in those obsidian eyes. I've got to say, though, he was good: he delivered his lines with a real game face. No wiseguy smirk curling at the corners of his mouth, no arrogant glint in the eye. He said these things like he meant them. But I was sure he was yanking my chain. There was a lot of that going on in the 60s and 70s. If you looked even a little straight, stoned-out freaks would get all creative and outrageous on you just to poke a hole in your smug little middle class, middle-of-the-road world. But he'd misjudged us. Maybe we weren't the hippest people in San Francisco, but we weren't completely out of it.
I took a nice, long drink of my beer, keeping an eye on Francis. Van Morrison's "Into the Mystic" was on the stereo, and it never sounded so appropriate because I was quickly running into the fog with this guy. Sir Francis' antennae mustachio was twitching to the tune's big, fuzzy bass line.
Just then Bruce's buddy, Ernie, lurched over and swung an arm around me without spilling the beer he had in his other hand. "Hey, introduce me to your friend," he said, nodding at Sir Francis. Ernie was a big guy, maybe six-foot three, and when I said he lurched, I wasn't trying to indicate he was drunk, although there was a good chance. And I wasn't trying to be cruel, either. Ernie was two years out of 'Nam, where he'd had his right leg essentially blown off at the knee by a shotgun blast. The field surgeons did a good job of sewing what was left of the limb back on, but his leg was never going to be the same. So Ernie was always throwing his arm around people's shoulders, basically to hold himself up.
Francis Bacon beat me to the introduction.
"Really nice to meet you, Ernie," he said, presenting him with his strangely elongated hand, and I could tell Ernie noticed it right away. "I'm Francis Bacon the Third."
Now, I hadn't mentioned Ernie's name yet, but I figured maybe Francis had overheard someone talking to him or something. That seemed plausible, anyway. Francis was in no mood for small talk, though, and immediately took the conversation to another level.
"You had a bad time of it in Vietnam, didn't you?" he said, his black eyes somehow radiating sympathy.
"I don't know anybody that had good time," Ernie came back.
"Yes, of course. It's all a vast horror."
"You could say that again."
Francis leaned back a bit and peered down at Ernie's damaged leg, slightly twisted in his khaki's. I was feeling uneasy again; I wasn't enjoying the repartee, if that's what it was. Ernie didn't like talking about his leg or his time in Vietnam. It always made him angry and potentially violent. Even with a gimpy leg, a drunken, riled-up ex-Green Beret is a fearsome fighting machine. I'd seen him in action in a couple of bar brawls, including one right downstairs at the Abbey when he took apart Tiny, their oversized and overzealous bouncer. The black-bearded Tiny, who had a rep for giving random and unmerciful beatings to whomever he felt like, had picked on the wrong guy and it was months before he got out of the hospital. Ernie, however, was welcomed back in the bar after a couple of weeks. Like I said, he was a nice guy unless you tripped his wire.
"You've served your time in hell," Francis said.
"That's what it says on the back of my jacket," Ernie answered. He was wearing one of those black silk souvenir jackets with a map of North and South Vietnam embroidered on it in brilliant greens, reds and oranges. A fantastic depiction of a dragon with bulging eyes and red claws seemed to tear at the black fabric — and the countries.
"Well, when you die — and it will be at the age of ninety-six — you will certainly go to heaven, if such a place exists."
Now Ernie's eyes, like the dragon's were starting from their sockets. I'd seen that look before, and it wasn't good. He was getting mad; really, really pissed. Intoxicated, fighting pissed.
"How in fuck you know how old I'm gonna be when I kick off?" This wasn't a question, it was a demand. And he'd dropped his arm from my shoulder and drawn himself up to his full, somewhat shaky height, his knuckles whitening as he gripped the neck of his beer bottle.
Thankfully, Bruce — who'd been watching from the other side of the room where all the band equipment was stacked — had picked up on his friend's state of mind. He had turned off Van on the stereo, strapped on his '61 Les Paul gold top, and was strumming some martial chords through his amp. A few partygoers gathered around.
"Ernie, check this out," he called across the room. "I figured out how to play "Ballad of the Green Beret." Then he stepped up to the mic and in his best John Wayne vocal, gave it a go. This cracked Ernie up, and he gave Sir Francis one more glare before heading over to listen to Bruce.
"Nice going there, Francis," I said. "You ticked off one of the few people here capable of instantly killing somebody."
"Yes, I can see he is in a lot of turmoil. But he will defeat his demons one day, and his pain will ease."
Which was of course a crazy thing to say — but what did I expect? Anyway, it was spoken with kindness and I hoped the nutty bastard was right. Meanwhile, I realized I had to stick close to Francis to keep him out of trouble, at least until everybody got used to him. However, he continued to attract attention just by, well, standing there.
"That's a beautiful old book," a woman said behind me, and in a moment Jean and Garth had swirled up to us, Jean with a glass of silvery Chablis, Garth with a cigarette drooping rakishly from his lips. "What is it?"
Now Jean and Garth were two of our more literary habitues, and earlier in the evening I had listened in a semi-mesmerized state as Garth held forth on an intricate and entertaining explication of — believe it or not — Dostoevsky's "Notes From The Underground." While this sounds pretentious, Garth tackled the subject with such passion and offbeat erudition, that you couldn't help but be intrigued. He wasn't bullshitting; he cared about and loved the book. His descriptions were further animated by his honey-thick southern accent — both he and Jean had met and then dropped out of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. It didn't hurt that he was the handsomest guy in the room with his little Errol Flynn mustache and wavy russet hair.
Then there was Jean, always at his elbow or somehow draped around him. Every man that set eyes on her had to immediately fall in love and it is truly impossible to sum up the beauty and grace of this dark-haired, nymphean woman in mere sentences (so, okay, I'd obviously fallen in love with her, too). However, she was entirely devoted to Garth and there was no way anyone else could get even a flicker of interest out of her. Garth for his part casually accepted her love as though it was his due — and I could have killed him for that. But Garth was killing himself, anyway, and probably taking his perfect lover with him. You see, he was a heroin addict of the most seductive, charming and dangerous variety. He was also a devilishly talented, professional-level guitarist who could blow you away with his lyrical playing. In short, he seemed to have already won life's lottery, and even his willingness to throw it all away on drugs and debauchery had a certain tragic allure.
Sir Francis held the book out to them like an offering in both his preternatural hands.
Garth took it and scrutinized its flaking, ancient leather cover.
"Jesus, how old is this?" he asked and then without waiting for an answer, read the gold-lettered title aloud: " 'The New, Improved Atlantis.' " He laughed. "What is this? Some kind of joke?"
"Not at all," came the answer from our inscrutable visitor. "It's my book; I've been writing it for years, decades even."
Garth frowned, and opened its pages. They were made of thick, homemade-looking paper and were covered in a flowing script in a language that was definitely not English, and frankly looked more like an otherworldly symphony. The title was vaguely familiar, though, and a fuzzy memory surfaced from one of my college classes; I realized it was a riff on the original — that is, the "real" Francis Bacon's book on Atlantis. I was becoming ever more convinced that our guest was a '60s acid burnout from the nearby Haight.
"It's about my distant travels and the future that awaits us all," Francis said without prompting. "A utopia far better than this dysfunctional time and place."
As he was speaking, someone bumped me from behind, spilling beer on the back of my shirt. I turned quickly to find Mark Summers standing there and mumbling apologies. He was already hammered and was bobbing and weaving where he stood, the whites of his eyes gone pink with corpuscular hemorrhaging. I always hated to see young Mark so wasted, I mean he wasn't even 21 yet. He was a runaway who'd spent his first couple of weeks in Frisco sleeping in Golden Gate Park until he'd run into Ray, who let him stay in his one-room dive at the Elite Hotel over on Clement. The hotel was anything but elite, of course, and Ray had filled the room with sour-smelling laundry and wall-to-wall piles of arcane poetry books. I'd heard him complaining earlier that Mark, who he said slept on the floor, had kicked over a pile and ruined the covers on a couple of early City Lights numbers. He'd almost thrown Mark back on the street, but couldn't bring himself to banish the kid to sleeping outdoors. Mark was a real hard luck story; he left home after an ugly face-off with his stepfather, an insurance exec up in Seattle. They could not get along, and his stepdad picked on him so much, Mark said he had to leave because he might kill the man. Mark was a big boy, fullback size, and when he drank you could see glints of anger gathering like ice splinters in his slanty blue eyes.
He wasn't angry right now, though, just dazed. "Sorry, man, sorry," he said, and promptly spilled more beer on me.
"Don't worry about it, Marko, " I said. "I consider it a baptism by beer. Thanks for saving me."
I could see he wasn't sure if I was kidding or what, and his eyes were going in and out of focus. I was going to tell him there was a seat open on one of the couches and he should just kick back and I'd get him another brew, when Francis piped up.
"You should drink a lot less young man. It's going to catch up with you faster than you realize — you want to make your next birthday?"
Mark's eyes snapped back into focus and fixed on Francis; I could almost see the ice crystallizing in his blue-gray irises.
"Who's this guy?" he asked. "Governor Moonbeam? Listen mister, my birthday's tomorrow, all right,but you don't know me from Adam. So why don't you just shut up and mind your own business, all right? All right?"
"Take it easy, Mark -- hey, there's a seat open on the couch, grab it, man." I gave him friendly nudge in that direction. I could see he was having trouble standing and wanted to sit down, and he went for it.
Garth was now in front of Francis and he had the "Atlantis" book open in his hand.
"Hey, this doesn't look like any language I've ever seen," he said. "Looks more like musical notation, but I don't recognize any of these notes, or whatever they are. What is this stuff?" He was genuinely puzzled — and curious.
"You're quite correct, it is a kind of music, a universal language. I see you're a musician yourself, which means you probably already know how to read this notation; you just need a refresher course, and I'm willing to teach you."
"Huh? I don't know about that," Garth said glancing up from the book. "But it does seem to have a certain rhythm going on."
"It's beautiful," said Jean. "Like one of those illuminated manuscripts created by Irish monks."
"Thank you," Francis responded. "But religion has nothing to do with my treatise."
"So what's it about then, what's the theme?" Garth asked.
"Everything," Francis said.
"Oh c'mon, everything?"
Our visitor smiled and took another drink from his black pint of ale.
"Everything, young man. You and your lovely companion are both part of my book."
"You mean you're going to include us in your next chapter?" Jean said with a playful smile that I wished she'd turn on me every night for the rest of my life.
"No. You're in there now. That's the way it works."
"What? How's that possible, dude?" said Garth. "You're screwing with us."
The idea of already being in the book excited Jean, though — or maybe she was just tipsy and humoring the guy.
"We're characters in your book? What are we doing, what's our role?" she asked in her breathy, Dixie accent.
Garth was staring at him now, too, not sure where this was going. Behind them, a few partygoers were swaying to the beat as Roxy Music's "Love is the Drug" came pounding out of the stereo speakers. I saw that Bruce had put down his guitar and was now pulling albums from the rack in front of the bay windows, which were crowded with shadows in the apartment's dimly reflected half-light. The sweet smell of cannabis drifted across the room and the evening seemed to visibly shift into another gear, as though a tiny earthquake had just ever so gently rippled through the building ... Oh, wait — it was an earthquake; a low-grade temblor that built in intensity for a few moments, shaking and bowing the windows and rattling the bones of the old building. Several guests, including Garth and Jean, looked around in panic, and scaredy cat Ray even managed to plant himself firmly in the doorway to the hallway, as advised in all the quake emergency guides. A number of the guests were unfazed; either because they'd been through it before or they were too zonked to notice the earth had moved. Mark never even opened his eyes as he nodded on the couch. Throughout it all, Francis stood fast, calmly surveying the scene. Then the building stopped groaning and a few sirens started up in the distance. Somebody asked to turn on the TV so we could find out what magnitude it was, and somebody else turned it on to a NewsCenter 4 update, where the anchor said a minor 5.5 quake had just rumbled through — not a real big deal in the Bay Area. The TV was off again, Boz Skaggs was suddenly on the turntable, and everybody went back to what they were doing: drinking, smoking, bullshitting and trying to pick somebody else up. The world was restored at least for another day.
Mark woke up on the couch startled, and jumped up. The quake was long gone, but he was just now registering that something weird had happened. "What was that?" he slurred. "Was I dreaming? Felt like everything was moving, like I was floating around the couch."
"It was a quake, Mark," I told him. "Don't worry — it's run its course."
"Oh, man, I'll never get used to those things. Don't like it when the ground turns to Jello."
"You're okay, young man," Francis said. "For now."
I didn't like the way that sounded and thought to myself it was time to get our strange visitor out of there.
Mark was staring at him hard again. "Hey!" he said with a dawning surprise. "I know where I seen you! Down at Powell and Market, at the cable car turntable with the tourists and all the other crazy-ass street preachers. You were reading your raggedy old book and shouting at the poor rubes. What a freakin' circus."
Francis was silent. And then in a spooky, sibilant voice barely audible over Boz, he said, "I saw you there, too, Mark. You caught my attention."
He said it like it wasn't a good idea to catch his attention, like Clint Eastwood speaking to the psychopath in "Dirty Harry."
Mark was too far gone to pick up the message.
Francis smiled, showing tiny little white teeth. I only got a quick glimpse, but there sure seemed to be a lot more teeth than normal. He had now switched to a mood of slight amusement.
"The Powell Street cable car is my main means of transportation. That line goes a lot further than most people realize. You ever notice how, as it crests the California Street hill at twilight, it's silhouetted against the sky for a split-second? And then whoosh — it disappears? Where'd it go? Did it just drop down the other side of the hill — or is it just gone?"
"Gone?" Mark repeated, his hard-bitten baby face a mask of incredulity. "Whoa! You are on some serious drugs, man — I want some."
"You don't need any stimulants," Francis said. "Not anymore."
"What? You're sounding like my old man now," Mark said, getting his back up again.
Just in time, Garth and Jean appeared from wherever they'd skittered off to when the temblor hit. Garth still had the ancient book in his hand.
"This stuff is amazing, man," he said, pointing at the Druid-like scribblings. "I have no idea how to read it, but it looks great. I mean, it's art, man. You've created a work of art here."
"You said we're in your book, " Jean said. "What's it say about us? Good things I hope?"
Francis took the book away, opened it and thumbed through a few pages. When he stopped, a barely perceptible grimace flitted across his face and then changed into his usual tight little smile.
"It's not all bad," he said, raising his eyes from the text. "But hedonism has its price, and it will be paid."
Garth frowned. "What the hell's that mean?"
"We're going to be okay, aren't we?" Jean asked, pulling Garth closer.
"It's only this guy's book," Garth said to Jean, sensing her unease. "Some rambling impressions he's jotted down in his own obscure secret language. It's not real, honey."
"Why don't you tell us what's real, then Garth?" Francis said. "Heroin isn't real; or at least where it takes you and your beautiful friend isn't very real, is it?"
Garth took a step back, as though he'd been struck with a fist.
"What the fuck are you talking about? You don't know me, man. What gives you the right, or even the balls to say something like that to somebody?"
That was it; I had to get Francis out of there fast. The party was over, at least for him.
"Come on, Francis, we've got to go," I said, taking him by the elbow. He was a skinny bastard and he had the boniest damned elbow I'd ever touched, so I loosened my grip for fear of hurting him. "Follow me outside where we can talk."
He came along without further discussion, leaving a wake of sharp, accusatory glances behind. We started down the hallway steps, which were covered in a cheap red paint the color of overcooked tomato sauce — or dried blood. The paint, heavily scuffed in the center of the stairs, had never really bothered me until that moment. Now the color, once merely tacky, seemed somehow ominous, even grotesque.
“Don’t you want to know if you’re in my book?” Francis asked as I swung the door open onto the Fifth Avenue sidewalk. A 38 Geary bus bore down on the corner shooting strings of oily black smoke from its tailpipe, its diesel engines screaming like an F-15 about to crash on the tarmac.
I pretended not to hear Francis as I ushered him toward the corner streetlight and the bus.
“Where you live, Francis?” I said, digging into my pocket for the fifty-cent fare.
“The ocean, “ he said.
“Well then, you should jump on the bus, it’s headed that way.”
But Francis wasn’t in any hurry and the driver stopped only long enough for a couple of teenagers to hop up the 38’s steps. The bus' rubber-lipped doors slammed shut behind them with a pneumatic gasp, like an elderly asthmatic, and it roared off, shaking and shuddering toward the beach.
“We’ll wait for the next one,” I said. "It’ll be along in a few minutes.”
We were now at the corner of Geary and Sixth, in front of a garishly lit red-and-white striped fried chicken joint that was closed for the night, but still reeking of superheated grease. When I looked to the west, up the avenue toward the ocean, I saw a thick mattress of fog sliding toward us, swallowing streetlamps and buildings as it came. The mist moved surprisingly fast, almost at jogging speed, and we were soon inside the clammy, spritzing cloud. It was so dense that even the fluorescent light in the restaurant windows seemed smudged and dimmed. A slight breeze, like a tickling, chilly breath, accompanied the cloud and I found myself wishing I’d thrown a jacket on. Searching for a bus, I peered toward the downtown, which was already dissolving in the swirling gray mass. When I turned back to Francis, I found him wordlessly staring at me from the depths of those uncanny eyes.
“What?” I said, although he hadn’t spoken. There was a sudden chill in the air that had nothing to do with the temperature, and I shivered. The usual city noises were noticeably damped down, smothered in the enshrouding fog.
“Dammit, I should have put a jacket on,” I muttered just to break the uneasy silence.
“Do you see how obscure it all is?” Francis said in a quiet rasp, motioning up and down the street with his pale, peculiar hand. A foghorn sounded out by the Golden Gate, sending its baleful reverb echoing through the night.
"You want to know your future, don't you, Brendan? I can help you. All you have to do is ask."
"You're getting freaking weirder by the minute, Francis," I said looking around again for the 38 Geary. "Where's that bus? They're supposed to run every fifteen minutes."
"Minutes are not important," he said. "We're talking about a lifetime."
"I'm not talking about anything except getting you on that bus and out of here, back to wherever you came from," I said feeling angry — and also inexplicably alarmed, like a small creature that senses a predator is near.
He wasn't listening to me.
"Come with me, Brendan. Come with me on the bus to the ocean. There's so much to see."
I didn’t know what to say. But I definitely wanted nothing to do with his version of my future. For one thing, I wasn’t so sure I even had one — and I certainly didn’t want my fears confirmed. So, no way was I getting on that bus with him; God only knows where that would lead me. Buried out at Ocean Beach, in a shallow sea-soaked grave? At the moment, that didn’t seem so farfetched, and the tingle of alarm I’d felt building was reaching a crescendo in my head.
When I'd first hitchhiked to San Francisco five years earlier, my ride dropped me off on Market Street sometime around 9 p.m. The street was dead, there was hardly anyone around, and I'd tried repeatedly to call a friend from a phone booth on the corner without getting through. I'd neglected to tell him I was coming to town,so I wasn't surprised, but I had nowhere to go. As I loitered in front of a closed up discount shoe store, a tall, good-looking man in his 30s came over and politely asked me if I needed a ride anywhere. He seemed genuinely concerned about my safety. "You shouldn't be hanging in this part of town all alone," he said. "I've got a cottage in Berkeley, come on over. You can stay the night. My car's parked a block away. Come on ... Come on, it's all right. Really."
I was tempted. Mark Twain once said that the coldest winter he'd ever spent was a summer in San Francisco. The fog was rolling down from Twin Peaks on one end, and up from the bay and the Ferry Building on the other — and it was getting chillier by the minute. But something about the guy bothered me. Maybe it was his persistence; maybe it was the jaunty, jagged scar over his left eye. Whatever it was, I told him I didn't need his help, to leave me the fuck alone. He got the message and left, but not before he gave me a creepy head-to-toe once-over, and told me it was my loss.
Two days later I was walking past a newsstand on California Street when I spied a Chronicle headline: "Suspected Serial Killer Nabbed in East Bay" it screamed in one-inch type. And right there on Page One was a black and white photo of the guy who offered to take me to his place in Berkeley. What a world, huh?
"Make up your mind, Brendan. Your future's at stake. Come with me and everything changes for the better. Trust me."
Now if there's one thing I've learned in life, it's be wary of anyone who asks for your trust; particularly if you only met them that day. And I was about to tell Francis just that — when out of the fog came a roaring Cerberus on wheels, the 38 Geary. Except it said "Oceanic Express" in the narrow destination window on the roof above the driver. I'd never heard of the Oceanic Express, but it pulled up to the curb, its airbrakes shrieking, its headlights shredding the fog. The bus’s interior lights flared off and on, bathing the scene in a dirty, brownish glow that intermittently revealed the faces of the passengers watching us from the windows. I could only stare back at them, unable to move, as if time itself had seized up and frozen me in place. And there, smiling out the windows from their red Naugahyde seats were several freaks I recognized from down on Market and Powell. In fact, the bus was filled with all the crazy, muttering, outrageously exhibitionist street people that greet tourists at the cable car turntable every day. The Polka Dot Man, a contortionist, was nearest, and he was indeed painted black with large pink polka dots decorating his bald skull, face, and naked, knotted torso. Behind him sat the blind swami with his turban and raw, empty eye sockets that he’d gouged out to better read the palms of desperate pilgrims. Next to him, stark and rigid, sat the red-faced, street preacher best known for raining brimstone rants down on the heads of anyone unfortunate enough to cross his path.
And there were others, in almost all the seats, tortured, pathetic and shuddering souls all bound for Land's End. For what? A seaside convention for the mad? Again, this was San Francisco, so maybe that’s exactly where they were going. Why not? Maybe it was an annual event, with bonfires and booths by the shore or along the rocky cliffs where they all sat behind card tables hawking their wares, talking shop and catching up on the latest innovations of the insane while moonlight twinkled on the Pacific. And I was invited!
But there was no conference, of course. This peculiar gathering was something far more sinister, something I wanted nothing to do with, something to run away from ... And then I felt Francis’ spindly hand sliding into mine, as cool and smooth and hard as ivory. It wasn’t until his stick-like fingers started tightening around my own that I was jolted out of my stupor and able to jerk my hand free. I stood there gape-mouthed for a second as Francis' placid face turned sullen. Then he bared his tiny teeth in a malevolent grin and lunged for me ...
But he wasn’t quick enough for the 26-year-old I was then, and I practically leaped from his grasp, scampering crablike and backwards and falling to the pavement where I heaved myself to my feet again and ran, throwing a glance only once over my shoulder at the bus and the fog-swept, fluorescent-lit corner. What I saw will stay with me forever, although no one believes me when I tell them; they just blame it on drugs. Well, hell, I hardly believe it myself.
But just before the bus folded its rubber-lipped doors there was a loud exhalation and a sound like a huge intake of breath. I watched transfixed as Francis dissolved into shreds of smoke or fog or some filthy acidic smog that stripped him right down to the bone, reducing him finally to a fine psychedelic dust that was suddenly sucked into the bus, dimming its still-stuttering lights. Then the 38 went supersonic and careened away in its headlong plunge toward the ocean.
That was all I saw, for I was quickly around the corner and running for home, all the while thinking it was time to leave San Fran. I’d been wasting my life on this extended adolescence for too long; it was time for a change, time to get out of La-La Land, as my parents liked to call it. Time to get real, whatever that was — and suddenly, for the first time in years, I really felt motivated and I hoped it wasn’t too late to accomplish something, anything, somewhere else.
Like many before me, I did leave my heart in San Francisco. But at least it’s not buried out at Land’s End — and for that I’m glad.
Young, drunk Mark was not so lucky. He got behind the wheel of Ray’s beat up Mustang convertible on his 21st birthday and rammed it into one of those beautifully bizarre streetlamps in Chinatown. He struck the thing with such force that one of the cast iron lamp’s gold-gilded dragons flew free and met him head-on as he went through the windshield, shattering his skull.
Ray “The Poetman” did not come to a poetic end, either. He was noodling around one stagnant afternoon on his Farfisa organ, midway into The Doors’ “Riders on the Storm,” when he stopped playing.
“What’s the matter?” Bruce asked from the sofa where he was stretched out with his guitar. “That’s the best part.”
“I don’t understand,” Ray said, his round shoulders slumping more than usual. “I can’t remember the rest of the song, the chords, the melody — nothing.”
“It’s in E minor, it’s easy.”
“What’s an E minor?” Ray asked. He meant it; he couldn’t remember. The tumor that had been secretly flowering deep in his brain had instantly erased all the music in his head. He never played another tune, and three months later he died in his parents’ home in the suburbs of Toledo, Ohio.
Bruce? Bruce was a sweet natured guy but a congenital sluggard. Besides his guitar playing, his one intellectual pleasure was reading “Moby Dick” once a year, no matter what. He said it always reminded him of home, of Buzzard’s Bay, Massachusetts.
About a decade after Sir Francis showed up at our party I heard that Bruce had gone home. While swimming offshore that first summer back in the Bay State a riptide had borne him out to sea. His body was never found, but Melville’s book was on his sand-spattered Red Sox beach towel where he'd left it.
Garth and Ellen? Still alive and shooting heroin in L.A., waiting for their turn.
Me? Don't ask. I don't want Francis to find me.