On certain crystalline San Francisco days, perhaps two or three a winter, rare atmospheric conditions create what German-speaking peoples call a foehn, a wind which obliterates distances. The far-off Alps appear to be shrugging their snowy shoulders just beyond the flatlander’s pond. It seems a village madcap could reach out to the mountains from his table in front of the tavern, scoop a handful of white powder and knock the mayor’s hat off with a snowball.
I’m ambling down Market Street on just such a day. If I were standing on Corona Heights, at the end of the thoroughfare, I’d catch a glimpse of the snowcapped Sierras peeping through a chink in the East Bay Hills. Punchy from a red-eye flight back across the continent, I’m ambling along the broad downtown sidewalk, whistling because the early morning sky is as blue as unwashed jeans, because I have thousands of dollars in my pocket and the first empty green trolleys rolling down the middle of the street remind me of grasshoppers. A woman with eyes the color of cognac is waiting for me in a cozy flat near one of the trolley stops, and I’m whistling an old Stephen Foster tune, “Hard Times, Come Again No More”. She’ll roll over in bed at my touch, her eyelids will flutter open, her arms release the pillow she’s been hugging in my absence.
“Is that you?” she’ll say, tugging me closer.
I’ll pull the wad of bills from my pocket, shower her with money. Who cares if a few twenties or fifties disappear into the cracks of our torn mattress? I’ve been promised a cushy job in a clean, well-lit government office nestled high up in a spanking new skyscraper. After years of banging nails and picking crops, hacking dogfish out of gillnets up in the San Juan Straits, toting this bale and towing that barge, standing around with bad teeth at pre-dawn shape-ups for casuals beside the chain-link fences of shipyards, I’ll be getting a regular paycheck. I’ll have a dental plan, a health plan, vision included. Deductions will be made for a retirement account, a pension plan, a Christmas fund. I’ll have life insurance.
After the rain of greenbacks is over, we’ll make love, feverishly, the same way we got married.
You don’t need fire to set things alight. All you require is heat and oxygen. I learned that last summer, one of the driest on record, when I found myself clearing brush and setting backfires with crews of smoke jumpers around Mount Lassen. The heat from some blazes was so intense, it would ignite trees fifty yards away. Without a spark, a burning cinder, they would suddenly burst into flames like Roman candles. Their ignition temperature had been reached.
We were down to our last ten bucks when I went off to save the forests. There weren’t even mouse droppings in our cupboards. The rent on our runty little cabin in the woods was due, our kerosene lamps empty, the beater we drove coughing up clouds of blue smoke as we nursed it to the backs of supermarkets to raid the dumpsters. She had a gig with a summer stock company, but she wouldn’t get paid till the season was over. The director of one play she starred in marveled at how she was really beginning to look the part of the starving young maiden diddled out of her rightful inheritance by a weasel with a waxed handlebar mustache. He didn’t know the half of it.
She gave me a breathtaking good-bye kiss and solemnly promised to eat all the beans and rice our last ten dollars could buy outside the cabin.
“Too bad I can’t use some of the gas for the car,” she said.
She has a rich alto voice. As I tip-toed up to the cabin one morning a week later, hoping to surprise her, it came floating out the open door, sharp and bright as an obsidian arrowhead. She was crooning about pausing in life’s pleasures and counting our many tears. Her fingers hesitantly strummed out chords as she pleaded with the hard times, oh hard times, to come again no more.
At first, when I stepped out of the blinding sunlight into the cabin, all I saw was a white blur. As my eyes adjusted to the dim interior, I saw it was her, sitting yoga-style on the floor with the guitar, the flounces of a satiny, white wedding gown spread out around her frail body like the petals of an anemone. Her wealth of dark hair, twisted into one long, heavy braid and draped over a shoulder, hung down over a row of gleaming pearl buttons or snaps.
On her way to the grocery store the day I’d left for Mount Lassen, she’d stopped by the Salvation Army’s bargain outlet. The antique wedding dress, probably a hundred years old, hand-sewn in the days when women used belts and corsets to squeeze themselves into hourglass shapes, fit her perfectly. At ten bucks, it was a real bargain. How could she resist?
“Just look at the embroidery, how delicate it is,” she said. “And the pearls, even if they’re fake, or some kind of bone or shell or something. Feel the material.”
I couldn’t resist, either. In the fall we put the heirloom nuptial attire to use, in an early storm that turned the dusty mountain roads to peanut butter, and moved to San Francisco.
I veer off Market Street, headed for our home in the Mission. The racket of commuters whizzing past on the freeway overhead drowns out my whistling.
We didn’t celebrate our first New Year’s together with a big bash. We couldn’t. While most everybody else would be asleep or nursing hangovers, I had to be at the museum in Golden Gate Park before daybreak, to shove the latest blockbuster show into the trucks that would transport it to Kansas City. Under the terms of the contract, the show had to arrive within three days to avoid penalties. The head of the freight company, a big galoot the drivers called Ace, paced the loading dock, a roll of silver dollars clenched in his right fist, constantly reminding us of this fact. In his meaty hand, the roll of silver dollars looked like a roll of dimes.
“Thattaway, boys,” he’d growl to my co-worker Zoltan and me as we lugged boxes and crates into the trailers. “Keep going like that and we’ll be outta here by noon.”
When the last truck left, a little before two, there were still flats and cartons huddled in a corner, like refugees banding together for warmth and protection. Ace had miscalculated. He glared at his gold wristwatch, then at Zoltan and me.
“You boys know how to drive a truck?” he asked.
I said we’d think about it.
“Time and a half. A company credit card for your expenses, naturally, a flight back. A bonus for getting there on time. Say four grand.”
“What about double or nothing? Eight if we make it on time, no pay if we don’t.”
Ace rubbed his stubbly chin, thinking about the deal. A fierce front had moved in that morning, pelting the city with torrential rain. Rivers of water poured down the ramps to the museum’s loading dock, creating whirlpools around the clogged storm drains.
It was dark by the time we’d shaken hands with Ace, fetched a vehicle from the yard, loaded it, and the nose of the big yellow truck was pointed east on 580. It was dark and raining harder, and we were already losing time. 80 had been closed at Donner Summit, buried in snow. We’d have to detour clear down to Tehachapi to get across the Sierras. The windshield wipers couldn’t slap the rain away fast enough.
“You figure he gets his name from the trucking company,” wondered Zoltan aloud, “or the other way around? Say, that overpass up there looks kind of low.”
I peered through the windshield at the yellow clearance sign on the overpass, then glanced in my rearview mirror at the minimum clearance warning posted on the trailers of trucks. The numbers didn’t match. I slammed on the brakes. A few more feet and we would’ve been wedged into the concrete, or driving a truck with a convertible trailer.
“So that’s what the sign about no trucks east of Grand Avenue was all about.”
Backing the truck up in the breakdown lane of the busy freeway to the last exit before the overpass was no easy trick. Luckily the cops all seemed to be at home, recovering from overtime shifts stopping drunks on New Year’s Eve.
“I didn’t even know there was a truck route through Oakland,” said Zoltan as I followed the signs through an industrial area down by the Bay.
“Neither did I.”
The ten o’clock news and weather report came on the radio. We could still see the twinkle from San Francisco across the roil of storm-lashed water. The only thing receding into the distance was our bonus. I figured we now had about forty-three hours to reach Kansas City.
Though it’s already well into January, Christmas lights blink in the window of a Mexican restaurant on Valencia Street. Feliz Navidad! shouts a snowman painted on the glass, his stick arms clutching red and white striped candy canes, a bright scarf wrapped around the place where his neck would be if snowmen had necks. The snowman is there year round, lumps of coal for eyes, a carrot for a nose, smoke swirling out of the corncob pipe stuck in his grinning mouth. The restaurant has the right idea. Why not Christmas every morning instead of only one a year? The enchiladas de mole there are the best in town. And cheap.
It certainly feels like a holiday. In a few minutes I’ll be climbing the stairs to our flat. I’ll be the first thing she sees. One glance from her and a fine, holy fire will start licking at my skin. After we make love, we’ll laugh about the money scattered all over the bedroom. We’ll eat a late, lazy breakfast in our undies and I’ll tell her about the overpass, about the blizzard near Flagstaff that forced us to drive down to the Mexican border to find a route open to the east and the funny old man we picked up hitchhiking who guided us through the back roads on the Apache reservation when all the highways were closed. I’ll tell her about zooming past the scales we were supposed to stop at for a weighing, the tumbleweed blowing across the Texas panhandle and how the sun strikes sparks from all the rocking wheat of Kansas, like a flint of pure light. And maybe later we’ll dawdle on out to Land’s End and listen to the sea swallowing pebbles and spitting them back at the shore as the sun flattens out like a red-hot iron ingot melting into the horizon on this perfectly clear, luminous day.
For Zoltan and I did somehow make it to Kansas City on time. Ten minutes before the museum closed its doors for the day, we backed the mud-spattered truck into the loading dock, a pair of weary but exultant drifters. Ace was standing there, squeezing his roll of silver dollars. A stand-up guy, he insisted we take a luxury suite at the Hilton to sleep off the journey and order up whatever we wanted from room service.
“Lobster? Steak? Caviar?” he asked, reading from the plastic-coated menu next to the phone. “Anything you want. There’s a sauna just past the heated swimming pool. Women? Some good lookers in real tight skirts hang out in the bar. You can put them on the expense account, too. Call it entertainment.”
For some unfathomable tax reason, he paid us in cash. Zoltan and I had trouble stuffing all of it into the pockets of our jeans.
I climb the stairs, still whistling the same old song, the sigh of the weary, hard times lingering around the cabin door. I think about how next week at about this time I’ll be going down them, attaché case in hand, on my way to a plush office with water coolers, coffee with powdered creamer, fluorescent fixtures and secretaries cradling phones into their shoulders while they punch computer keys.
“Good morning,” I’ll say, adjusting the Windsor knot in my tie.
It most assuredly is a good morning. Sunlight is bouncing off the fat leaves of the jade plant on the landing of our flat. Like the lilies of the field, it toils not, neither does it spin.
I turn the key in the lock. I can almost smell the subtle scent of sandalwood soap on her skin, feel her hand slipping over my hips, a bit chafed from carrying those fat wads of bills in my jeans. The lock clicks. Suddenly I realize that I’ve got a call to make. I have to, unless I want to stop whistling forever. I wonder what the suits in the government office will say when I inform them that I’ve decided to turn down the position, that I can’t bear to see too many glorious mornings spoiled by a job?