Saturday, August 29, 2009

Rebar For Tootsie Rolls: Double Cross in Triplicate!

The lukewarm Everclear and Orange Soda deadened my throbbing face from a fist fight with my stock broker over a dispute from the Crash of ‘29. I drank the highball incredulously, soothing the sharp tang of defeat at the fury of the tiny fists of a small, surprised bald man named Tibbets. He resurfaced barking up a Market Street girlie show- the one with Dockside Betty and her infamous cuttlefish act- still recognizable from his trademark polka dot red bow tie, over-twirled moustache and expression pinched from years of giving terrible, terrible investment advice, like “one word, my good man: Gyrocopters.”

Seeking distraction from World War II I’d confronted him last night, striking in cold vengeance by suddenly grabbing his collar and dislodging his boater, which fell into the street wobbling like a top. Recognizing me his eyes went from buttons to saucers and he shrieked like a porcupine. An amorous porcupine. They shriek a lot. Long story.

Anyway, I went in for a straight punch to the gut, but he fought like a girl, one with bricks in her gloves, his sissy slaps landing like a hailstorm of ball bearings, and I’d found myself nose cloudward, writhing on the sidewalk, brain reeling, watching my 1000 shares of Skymaster Gyrocopter Messaging sputter, spin, crash and explode, just like Skymaster’s real gyrocopters, all over again. The only message these crazy bamboo whirling gizmos ever really carried was “never buy stock in Skymaster Gyrocopter Messaging, particularly in October, 1929.”

So I’d retreated to the Rusty Hobnail for some tender hating care from Crumples the Bartender: the icy comfort of a familiar glower from the oyster-faced stare of a man who once served Ulysses S. Grant his morning quart of whiskey: bare-knuckle boxer in the 1880s, who’d played dirty. He’d kicked, bitten and snacked on opponents with fists like hard cheese, and was about as smelly. Old man now. People said that on seeing the newborn Crumples, Andrew Jackson promptly spit on him. He made the Sphinx look coltish. His mother once did unspeakable things for Napoleon the II involving a three-legged horse.

Never got along with anyone, which made bartending an interesting choice. He got on the wrong side of everyone. Mark Twain cuffed him in the ear. Teddy Roosevelt pulled a gun on him. Gentleman Jim once screamed endless, inventive and obscene insults at him for an entire week.

For Crumples, seeing me beaten, bruised and bleeding was like opening a Christmas present. He clapped his veiny hands and laughed out loud, a dry, joyless squeaking sound like repeatedly opening an ammunition box from The Crimean War.

I was looking at Crumples through the bottom of the glass to improve the view when a noise rose like a freight train slowly crushing an ice cream truck. I looked back to the stage to see a man in a kilt apparently strangling a vacuum cleaner: a desperate Okie folk musician with a defective Waziristani bagpipe who knew about as much about Scotland as your average African lungfish. The music was excruciating, the Okie’s fingers about as light as anvils, the lamps shaking in a ceaseless blast of celtic cacophony that put an odd smile on Crumples’ face, like a parenthesis had jumped off Mt. Shasta and died.

I could only grimace. I took what solace could be had in the familiar shambles of the bar; walls caked black with whale oil smoke and a couple of tab-skipping customer's skulls nailed on those walls, it was the last upside-down ship used as bar from back in the Forty-Niner days.

The Rusty Hobnail was not the kind of joint where you put folk musicians- unless you planned to put them in traction. It was a real San Francisco dive, tied fast on the wrong side of the tracks by a nickel-a-view villain in cape and top hat and with us all trapped in his moustache-brushed penny arcade plot. Too many four-flushing, thrice-boiled, two-bit half-lifes on the make, cops on the take and girls on the fake drooled on variously by fools, chumps and Nob Hill hobos raking it all in; and me amongst: Mack Brain, a once-solvent $10 a day ($15 on Saturdays) Detective and aspiring back-alley Doctor, hiding away from the War and the girls and the bad memories of fifteen or twenty friends I’d accidentally gotten killed, sending them out on hopeless attack hot-air balloon missions against Goering, selling them out to the Mob for beer money, stabbing them myself for some good reason I’m sure but which I couldn’t remember now, or poisoning them with a hastily-written prescription for poison. And that was just the people I liked.

So you go to the Rusty Hobnail to pickle all the hopes and dreams in your head until your brain is indistinguishable from the eggs in the big glass jar on the end of the greasy slab of oak bar- with 19th century barnacles still stuck to it, which Crumples absurdly polished with glee when he wasn’t fantasizing about beating your head in with far greater glee.

I was pickled good but not plenty. Life hurt like a sack of glass shards was giving you a Belgian massage. I’d even talked my girl- the wolf-whistlable Wobbly welder girl Petunia Mathelby- into going underground with a cover as a fascist-sympathizing cigarette girl to track down the notorious pro-Nazi pastry chef and traitorous ball player Stingy Wheels - my nemesis, a man so nemisiotic I could hardly turn a corner without feeling the beady stare of his malevolence on the hairs on my neck. It felt like a bunch of Nazi aphids crawling around, thinking my neck was Czechoslovakia. But now Petunia, my pretty little raven-haired Red - I hadn’t heard a peep out of her in weeks. And Stingy tended to leave bodies around more often than notes about his whereabouts. So I drank, and I brooded, and drank again, and listened to a country version of “Scotland Wha Hae” that made a hot air balloon assault against Schweinfurt sound like a turn around Lake Pleasant in a peddle-boat.

I praised all-Merciful Zoroaster when the pipe music ended as the piper passed out in a heap of plaid, falling face first into the beer-soaked sawdust on the floor. Maybe someone stabbed him. No one checked. I drained my Everclear and Orange, and Crumples just refilled the glass with a pinkish fluid that might have been Finnish Sloe Aquavit, or maybe freshly siphoned gas. I drained that too.

Then there was the sound of a washboard and fiddle tuning up. Crumples actually booked a whole band that didn't feature the hornpipe.

I looked them over. Wasn't much of band. Guitar, fiddle, washboard, and what appeared to be a steam-powered auto-harp, with a wooden pick arm and a tiny little engine. These guys staggered on in clothes that once were blue, or striped, or mattress covers, and had clearly steeped in so much mary-jane that they were just now remembering that their dreams were crushed. They picked up their instruments with the kind of enthusiasm you pick up a pick-ax in an chain gang, and warmed up their assault.

And then I saw The Blond, a real cool canary purposing to sing while backed by these Hobo Mozarts, a downtown dame in smart red silk number tighter than Winston Churchill during the Blitz, the kind of frail more dangerous than an overturned flaming railcar of hydrogen peroxide in an explosives showroom. She had steel blue eyes like a cold, clear day you see looking up from a glacial crevasse you'd just fallen into while distracted by a bombshell blond in a red silk number walking around a glacier. Long torso, long legs, looking softer than a pillow in a pudding bed, clear skin like a painting of a girl with clear skin, and lips bright red like a neon sign that read "Yes, and Yet No." Admittedly, there weren't a lot of signs like that. And not a lot of men up to handling a cherry tomato like that. Takes a light touch, like removing a bra with one hand that's wrapped around a gallon of nitroglycerin. But dangerous tomatoes were my kind of vegetable, or maybe fruit, if you're agriculturally pedantic joker who just got a job pissing me off. I grabbed my hat, drink, a semi-crushed pack of Luckys, the .38 with the Breughel engraving , and prepared to pour on the charm like cream on a strawberry shortcake.

"So where's the jug player, Toots?" I asked, offering a Lucky.

"Wallow here often?" she said in a sleek, stiletto voice that made you want to thank her for sliding in the blade between your ribs.

"You’re planning to sing in front of the Dust Bowl Philharmonic here?" I said, tossing a thumb their way.

Her nose wrinkled in such a way that it showed her displeasure and sucked my brain dry in one go.

But she took the Lucky, and looked at me sideways a little, expecting me to light it. I took an extra half-second taking in her angel face before I lit the cig, using the commemorative Red Star Zippo General Krushchev had given me when I located the captured Nazi plans that detailed the part in a Panzer's carburetor a small six-year old could sneak in and snap off in their hands. That lead to some guilt later when 8,000 six-year olds were sent in at the battle of Kursk.

"So, I hear you snoop around?" she asked.

"Come again?"

"You're a private dick, right Mister? They told me I could find you here. "


"Your girl. The high class dame at your office. I told her to buzz off or I'd cut her," she said. Hmm. That stiletto wasn't metaphorical.

"Wow. Thanks, Missy. Saves me a lot of trouble. Which girl are we talking about?”

If this conversation got anymore hard-boiled we could make egg-salad sandwiches for everyone at the wedding.

She stretched now, her long arms nearly touching the grimy ceiling, giving me a full blast of that dame-based weapon that breaks hearts, fells empires, and gets people looking through the Sears catalog for matching drapes. Stretching that soft, wriggly femininity to the high heavens was enough to make Jesus all mushy- and that wasn't Cricket.

“Some lady Psychiatrist, pretty girl, smart, stuck-up, you know, going through your case files.

“Lillian Gruber?”

“Beats me. She just had her Freudian Analysis Society Badge on.”

The Blond tossed her long hair back, shiny golden waves breaking over an unmitigated bare shoulder, her big ice blues a little sleepy, her mouth moist and lips just a little open. "I got a little proposition for ya, Mack," she said moving her flawless face towards my ear, so close to my cheek I could feel the heat off her smooth light skin, smell her scent – Victory in the Pacific, I think, going by the sweet coconut musk.

"Goahusdunafopgadsidafum?" I said.

"My name is Veronica D'Atlantique," she whispered in a voice sweet, soft, and low, like a cotton candy mattress. “Like the famous ocean,” she explained.

”My Name’s Mack Brain. Dr. Mack Brain.”

We were interrupted in this repartee by the truly incomparable sound of a steam-driven autoharp failing to be tuned. I looked over, and got a glimpse of two green eyes launching at me like marbles in a slingshot.

"Don't mind Shanky, he's kinda sweet on me," she said, curling herself around weightlessly so that I found my hand lightly on her waist. =

I looked at Shanky in his grubby coveralls working over the knobs to adjust the pressure to tune the steam-autoharp. He glared hot coals over the autoharp’s soundbox as slow swirls of steam rose from the tiny brass boiler.

I’d been in here fifteen minutes and someone else had joined the Kill Mack Brain Society, which was fast becoming the biggest organization in the Bay Area, short of the Brotherly Order of Free Beer and Cash Lovers.

“But you see,” she said with her finger walking up my arm, “I know something about you, Dr. Brain. “

I perked up, as much a tadpole in a pond full of Everclear can perk up. Babycakes had done her homework.

“Mack, right? Of the Chicago Brains?”

“And what’s it to you, Sugar? Maybe and maybe not. Hasn’t everyone got a family name they’re ashamed of?”

“Not just any schlub’s family, Doc… Take a look at this. City Directory: Brain Life Insurance,” she said, perking me up out of the pond, and she kept going: Brain Coal of California. Brain Cold Meat Packers. Brain Bronze Fittings. Brain Drug. Brain Financial. You want me to keep going through the rest of the Alphabet?

“I thought it was a coincidence.” I looked at her funny, through a greenish fog caused by enormous dollar signs floating before my eyes.

“Listen, Brain, I’m married to your brother, Cain Brain. Well, not really married, not proper. We hitched up in a cloudy week in Nevada, cloudy from jazz and gin and a hot streak on the bones. But then on our honeymoon…well, an old pal of his came by with a basket of pears, roses and a pile of cocaine like Mt. Shasta, and he and Cain left the next day, ably stealing a bulldozer, wearing a gorilla costume and riding off into the desert singing “Old man River.’ Never did see him since.”

“That’s a tough break, Sugar Loaf. Wait, I got a brother named Cain?”

“You don’t know your own brother?”

“Fresh out of family since my Mom dropped me off at a Chicago hospital with the meter on the carriage running. ” I felt something in my stomach. A churning, buzzing sensation: maybe misguided bees. More likely a result of an empty glass. If the same thing happened in a regular joker’s stomach they’d call it an emotion.

“Listen, why do you think I’m one of the rich Brains?

And here was the kicker:

“I got a copy of Cain’s birth certificate right here. Take a look for yourself,” she said, somehow emphasizing her cleavage. She had black gloves on and pulled the paper out of her purse like an obituary.

“See, right here ‘Cain Brain. Mother: Matilda Achmedenejad Brain, age 19, of Peoria, Illinois. Race: Scots-Persian, of Peoria. Father: Stanley Jerimiah Brain, Race: Caucasio-Beige. Age 59, residence: Lake, Illinois. Brothers: Augustus, age 1. Maximilian , age 2. (Deceased), she said, with emphasis.


“I figure she listed you as dead to make it easier for the family, giving you up and all. Never met a dead man, before, Brain!”, she said brightly. “See, Mack, whether Mr. Brain is your father or not, you ain’t dead, and we gotta case for the inheritance, and I got the key to that case,” waving the paper in the air. She wriggled her hips just a little, enough so that the idea drained right through Smart Thinky Brain, down through the Dumkoff pipe and dripped right into my next sentence:

“Alright, Babycakes, I’m listening.”

She put her lips so close to my ear I could hear her lipstick.

“They got Millions, Brain. MILLIONS. ” She whispered. “Think of it.”

I was thinking all right. Thinking about paying off the bills, like the grocers, and Crumples, and a half-dozen ice men all after me on various contracts with the mob, angry husbands, the Nazis of course, Mickey Rooney for some reason, oh yes, and Stalin, and also my hobby railroad dealer. I was thinking about the ponies. I was thinking about naked cheap girls in baths of expensive champagne. Thinking about retiring early to a swell estate in Marin, buying a couple of stock llamas and a fortified wine vineyeard and setting myself up with a dance-hall princess that looked pretty much like Babycakes here and scandalizing the respectable types with rowdy parties and random pistol fire. And I thinking about Veronica. Thinking all wrong.

Meanwhile, Shanky the steam auto-harp player was boiling over.

“Veronica! You gonna sing or what?” He said, glaring at me. It was starting to get irritating.

“Your boyfriend there better be admiring my hat,” I said.

“Not now, Shanky. Cool your heels,” she said. He’d walked over now, his face turning white with rage and general whiteness.

Shanky was in that special place where you think about striking out a meaty paw and all your personality disorders magically disappear. And so his fist flew. But he might as well have sent the Western Union yesterday. I caught his hand mid-flight, spun round fast, and accidently on purpose broke his finger. You could hear the snap.

Shanky shrieked, rolling around on the floor.

“Jeeze, why’d ya have to mess up Shanky’s hand? That’s his livelihood!, said Veronica, but after a glance she was still looking at me.

“Think of it as a gift to the Nine Muses.”

“What? Do you know how hard it is to find a decent steam autoharp player?,” she asked.

I just looked at her.

“How can you make less dough than what Crumples isn’t going to pay you?” I said.

“Barkeep’s a dirty old welcher, huh?,” she said, raising an eyebrow so perfectly parenthetical I’d have to describe it as an aside.

“Crumples? A dirty old welcher? Look in up the Encylopedia Britannica, Kitten. You could fill the U.S. Mint with his I.O.U.s. I suspect he personally got the Depression started.”

“Mebbe if you’d paid your consarned bar tab, Brain!” Crumples said.

“Show’s over, old man!,” she said, storming out, and I followed her. We stood out in the dark and the fog, the lights from the neon nightclubs playing off her creamy skin like cream pored over cream-colored satin spread tight over creamy mounds of delicious ice-cream. After a while gazing at each and lighting each other’s Luckys, our heads swimming with love-sick ditties and god-damned Christmas jingles, I looked at her: flowing blond locks, the little smile on her lips as she parted them just slightly. I landed a palm like a coyote on her swan neck and kissed her like it was the last stamp on my ration card.

We caught a cab back to my office on Sutter street, which was also where I appeared to live going by the hotplate under the typewriter and the pot smeared with Cream of Mushroom Soup filed under “M,” or “C,” and where, after I’d fumbled with the key while practicing for her bra, she passed out on the couch, and I also passed out on the couch. Except we weren’t passed out.

The real thing was the morning. Somehow everywhere I looked it was Veronica. It was Veronica at all angles: tidying up, kindly explaining divestiture of family assets, will executors, our life together, the will to execute, and all the while standing there remorselessly, and then there, filing something on the lowest drawer with kinetic verve, looking like Veronica the whole time. I didn’t just fall off the turnip truck, but with Veronica there radiating bodacious relativism like a Nietzschean lighthouse on my rocky sucker coast of a life, I was more rutabaga than Porterhouse.

I told myself I was just using her, just curious about my family, joking around about millions, goofing about a golden silver spoon set that had been denied me, the rightful eldest, that had been dumped as a loveless wee bairn in a flop hotel in Chi-town. All a big joke, right? Such is the power of a Veronica. I gotta hand it to her- this was an avalanche of a snow job. Sweet nothings and little jokes turned around like salt-water taffy sticking on the taffy-stretching machine of my heart. I was laughing myself into a tannery of fear and desperation and possibly skinning.

So I found myself deep in fist-waving, eye-pounding research at the Hall of Records, good cabbage gone on telexes and phone calls to Chicago, looking up a buddy at the Chronicle to go through their morgue. I went through all the press on Brain Sr. - he was loaded all right, but in those early years in Chicago it was all foggy and hazy and and yet it hit hard, like someone dropped a crate of gauze on your head. Stan Brain, President of Brain Industries Limited, into coal, meat, metal, markets and machines, might be Big Daddy Warbucks, or might not.

The week drifted on, the research deepening, an incomplete family tree developed. The money beckoned like a warm Winnipeg brothel in an Arctic blizzard, driving my work. It got crazy. At one point, I seemed to be related to Goering. Meanwhile, like all the greats, Veronica played on my greed. And on my couch, which was getting more action that the Mediterranean Theater, and in the meantime, I was building a case for my part in this family and counting their money at the same time.

I found myself asking her bad, bad questions:

“Babycakes, where’s the file on inheritance taxes?”

“Babycakes, say, what about a beautiful broad like you and me getting hitched some day?”

“Babycakes, why do you think Stanley might have a heart condition?”

I was an actor in dinner theater, knowing that the terrible production was going to close the place, but saying my lines right on cue. =

Then on a Thursday at City Hall, rain and wind poring gray outside, and the little room smelling like damp newsprint, mildew and whiskey, I found the police report for my brother, Cain Brain: dead in the mountains, found near Lake Tahoe, holding a gun, dressed in a white tie and tails and a sash and formal snowshoes. The gun had been fired, four times, the body had been there since…, since….


Friday, April 18, 2008

Rebar for Tootsie Rolls: Backscrub at the Bloodbath

Petunia Mathelby stood backlit in the pale green light of a greasy window, wearing an ivory white dress so thin it made cheesecloth look Calvinist. She made the kind of silhouette that sears your mind like someone dropped your brain on a barbeque grill – that kind of sauce-slathered slattern that smokes out more trouble than Mrs O’Leary’s cow. Petunia was a proud member of the Wobblies All Girl-Local 636, Foregirl in her metal shop, and I was welded on Petunia like a 40,000 psi braising rod on 3/4" steel plate. Her long black hair draped over one eye, and then one sculptured shoulder, and kept going like a midnight waterfall bubbling merrily through the snow-covered buttes of Western Girlsylvania. My eyes buttered her toned arms, her calves like upside-down bowling pins, which having been buttered, might drop easy. I watched her now, like I'd once watched a bus driving off the Bay bridge and crashing into a passenger ferry which then hit an oil tanker which drifted into the former carnival on Treasure Island where the burning Ferris Wheel skipped its mounts and rolled into the ocean, flicking flaming fun-seeking suckers into the sea at intervals with a splash and a long “ hiss.” When that or Petunia happens, you watch close, and the fact that the grubby little room we’d staked out now was full of swastikas, commemorative Goering ballet figurines, radioactive pastry and half-eaten Ripple mit Schinkenkraut was a minor distraction. The view, that sultry, slinky, splitter-Trotskyist view of Petunia was just a perq I’d have to declare on my love taxes. We were on the job now and Petunia and I made up the spear-point of the Allies, the X you cut in the lead tip of bullet to make it explode and dig a hole in your target the size of a road-kill gopher.

Now it’s true Petunia was a communist, but she was also an anarchist, so she hated Stalin like cherry and anchovy pie. She was more the kind of ravishing Red frail who made coil pottery and resurrected folk songs from the dead and gathered crowberries in the Sierras - the Reds on the side of the angels and the Marines, and all together we were going to take down Hitler like an evil clown circus tent. (Which I'd done in some detail in the case of the Red Nose Honking; to this day the sound of deflating clown shoes sends a chill up my spine, like I’ll never smile again.)

But it wasn’t lust in the air, unless you counted the rats we’d caught in flagrant delicto under the Fleischkase in the icebox. We’d tracked down Stingy Wheels’s flop; the American Nazi relief pitcher for the San Francisco Seals, pastry chef and Uranium smuggler still stalked California like a life insurance salesman at vampire family reunion. (Get it, Pal? They’re immortal.) No one west of Wyoming was safe, including Utah, and even though I wasn't keen on Utah after that incident where I'd tracked down a book of Golden Plates in an old opium den that had been embossed with a screwdriver and everyone suddenly caught a bad case of the crazies and chased me out of town with actual pitchforks they apparently kept around for that purpose, it was still America and I'd die for my country as long as I could keep convincingly stalling on my bar tab, and without actually dying. Never returning to Salt Lake City was a very small price to pay for freedom.

Through an old contact, Bill, the Viscount Phillerph Von Van Der Pforffen the Fourth's former cobbler, we'd got a hot tip from a radioactive old shoelace and using a truck-mounted Gieger counter found Stingy Wheels' latest hideout rotting above a dive bar in the Mission district called V.P. Tango's Mortuary and Travel. A folk-music hootenanny was scheduled later that night. Petunia knew the place, sang "John Brown's Body" there just last week. I missed it, having gotten a case of the Earnest Contralto Flu.

Now we were crouched in the room, ready to strike like union Tigers. Old green and gold wallpaper peeled from the walls, vacuum tubes and electrical parts were scattered everywhere but all carefully labeled. There were piles of papers in 3 languages, all of them German. There was a big pot of cold bratwurst and cabbage on the stove, a souvenir bobble-head of Kaiser Wilhelm from the '36 Olympics; in the corner sat a music stand with Brahams concerto and a cello with a swastika. It was the Room of the Enemy. Rent weekly, daily or hourly. However long evil takes. Rent to kill!

Petunia’s expression changed, her eyebrows rising, her eyes narrowing. She partly closed the blinds in the dank hotel room and cocked her machine pistol, holding it close to her face, where a little dribble of fresh gun oil dripped down into her suprasternal notch and drained slowly down to bouncy, billowy places. The sunlight cast shadows through the blinds that wrapped around that doll like chocolate drizzles on an éclair.

A car engine came close and shut off, the engine pinging as it cooled. "He's here," Petunia said, and looked at me, her darks eyes smoldering with, what was it? Girl-lust? The prospect of icing a a for-real Nazi for keepsies? I had a horrible feeling she was already dreaming up a folk song about it. But Petunia Mathelby was a work-toned fascist-vexing vixen, fierce for the fight, and in her heart, the big gushy one right behind those awesome tits, she knew the absence of God was on our side.

"He" could only mean Stingy Wheels. The very name caused chills and discomfort and a slight stinging sensation. I slammed back a good slug of bad giggle-juice, and peeked through the blinds. The big doors on the Blue Buick slammed in succession. Three slams. One Stingy, two goons, I figured. A chance for target practice.

After three years, a dozen corpses, and a hundred dead ends, Danger had arrived, Danger German-style, accompanied by a couple of gummy-looking greasers like something you'd scrape off your shoes, their faces like pressed hams with zits instead of cloves. Maybe they were more like the gelatinous glop between the ham and the can that slopped down on the plate with a sucking sound that begged the word oleaginous. Flash!, Dumbkoff: they were a bunch of big Nazi jerks.

Violence was about to condense out of the still, hot air, like the way they distill Barney’s ‘Violent O’Paddy Whiskey in East Botswanna in the rainy season, which I polished off from the flask. It tasted like chrome tanning solution and distilled sheep.

I pulled out my new .38, the one with Brughel the Elder's 99 Netherlandish Proverbs engraved on the handle, and then my old Navy Colt, then a couple of hand grenades and set up the mortar behind the couch and readied an old rusty knife, and hid a crossbow behind the door, fitted the brass knuckles and noted where the nearest board with a nail in it was.

"Petunia, quick, get in the closet, crack the door, and keep that gun right between Stingy's beady little eyes." She went. I had to think. First thing to do would be scrape those two glops off that ham Stingy Wheels with a .38 caliber meat scraper.

The room was overheated, moldy, dark. You could see the tip of Petunia's gun barrel pointing through the crack toward the front door. I stood next to the wall on the inside of the main door. We waited for the three pairs of fascist feet to thunder up the long wooden stairs. After three years and a trail of bodies longer than my bar tab at the Rusty Hobnail, I was about to drop the boom on Stingy Wheels like a piano from a fifth story jazz club. The tension was thicker than ham gel in cold pea soup.

Then there was a light little knock, and the door, unlocked, open meekly.

"Helloooooooooo??"' said a friendly female voice. "It's Ms. Lillydale, I'm just here with the Census Bureau! Hellooooooooooo?!! Anyone home?" A pleasantly plump old bird in gingham and lace and an enormous purple hat with an arrangement of Daisies walked in, clutching a large green binder with "U.S. Government Survey, 1942" stamped on it. "Helloooooooooooo?!!" She came in the room as I tried to shrink into the wall behind the door.

The heavy sound of three Krauts storming up the stairs began to shake the hall.

Standing right next to me on the other side of the door, this Lily-Dale suddenly turned the other direction and stepped back into the hall.

"Why Jeffrey, you old dear, I haven't seen you since you worked the taffy booth at the Crystal Market ! It's your old Aunt Linda!

"Oh...Oh...Aunt Linda! I'm so...." said the voice, the menacing, hissy voice of the dreaded Jeff "Stingy" Wheels . Only a 1/2 inch of oak stood between him and the voice of St. Peter telling him to try the other door.

I caught a glimpse of Petunia peeking through the nearly closed door of the closet. Her face liplessly begged for an explanation. All I could do was shrug.

"Well, Jeffrey Dear, I was out making my little effort here for the War, you know, and I saw your name down at the Post Office, you know, where Mr. Henley started working after the accident with the combine, and I thought, well My Goodness, but I haven't seen Little Jeffrey in years - years it must be! - 5 or 6, I'm certain, and perhaps as many as seven, and since I was down here interviewing citizens for the Census I thought I should come by - and Oh! how nice you look all grown up Jeffrey! - oh but you look tired, darling, perhaps you have some tea I could make you in here."

It was hell in there, watching Stingy Wheels breathe the free air of America, with me standing a foot away, ready to plug him if he twitched an eyebrow, or thought about twitching an eyebrow, or looked at anyone in such a way that indicated that he might at some point in the future think about twitching an eyebrow, and unable to do much more than shoot him a dirty look, and barely that, because Mrs. Lily-Dale seemed like both an extremely nice person and potential witness..

She came in and waddled straight to the closet and opened it to find Petunia.

"Oh hello Dearie! Jeffrey, I didn't know you had company. I'm Mrs. Lily-Dale" She thrust out her hand to Petunia, who had to shift the pistol into the other hand quickly to greet Mrs. Lily-Dale, who simply didn't seem to register that it was odd for a girl to be in the closet. "Miss...Miss Mathelby," said Petunia. Then Mrs. Lily-Dale spied me.

"I had no idea you were so popular, Jeffery, and who is this fine-looking young man?" she said, walking right to me behind the door. Stingy looked at me, turned white as a sheet, and stiffened into total uncertainty. He knew me since the incident in Barcelona with the exploding tomato shipment for Franco. But now he was a rat staring at a rat-trap with a both a big hunk of cheese and a Pan-Am ticket to Paraguay sitting on the trigger.

To greet this Aunt Lily-Dale, I had to scramble to shift hands too, but I fumbled it, and the .38 dropped on the wooden floor with a thud that seemed to echo to Twin Peaks.

"Is this your pistol, Dear? why you must be in a very exciting line of work! And you are?," she asked, handing my gun back." I could see Stingy motioning for his goons to ice it down.

"Mack, Ma'am. I'm an old business associate of Stingy's -we go way back. "

"Yes," said Stingy, giving me a worried, desperately searching look, like I was the dinner bill at the Cotton Club that he couldn't pay.

The only sound other than Mrs. Lily-Dale capering sweetly about the room and talking about a new breed of lovely Petunias - the name had set her off - was the sound of gun safeties being clicked off, muffled slightly by gabardine pockets.

The violence yet simmered, and Mrs. Lily Dale was the lid. Ironically, she was now making tea. Soon she came out with a tray, little china cups and a teapot in decorative rose-covered cozy. She dawdled like America standing by Britain in a World War. It was irritating, like trying to cash a check to get the ransom money at the bank and waiting behind some old coot trying to roll his nickels. Beads of frustration sweat rolled down my brow. The pressed cardboard faces of Stingy’s goons tried to glower, but just pinched themselves up like they were constipated. Petunia’s eyes rolled like a locomotive down an embankment. Now everyone in the room had something unusual in common: we were impatiently waiting to be shot.

"....Now I don't want to keep you boys from your fun, but have it while it’s nice and hot" she was saying now, handing out hot tea in little cups, which of course we had to take our hands off the guns to grab. It was about the time I’d raised the tea to my mouth that I realized that Stingy Wheels would not likely have a tea cozy in his kitchen and I looked up to see Mrs. Lily-Dale holding a big ugly black drum barrel.45 Thompson Submachine gun, waving it airly in our direction, and wearing a wry look.

“Keep your paws on the teacup, Suckers,” she said.

The next sound in the room was her clicking off the safety, chambering a round and the clattering of cups of Earl Grey on half a dozen sets of teeth. .

Then she lifted the gun and blasted the ceiling, the gun spitting smoke, fire and a noise like a jackhammer in a cathedral chasing a lost sewer main. Lily-Dale stood bronzly like the Stature of Liberty, except with a Thompson instead of a torch. Plaster and dust snowed on her head and shoulders, smoke curling from the barrel, the casings still rolling around the hardwood floor.

“That explains the hat. Army, OSS or Other?,” I asked her.

“Other. I’m all about the dough, Gumball. Uranium ore. Stingy may be slippery as eel butter but he’s about as sharp as a tea-towel. Now,” she gestured with the Thompson,” The uranium ore, if you please. It’s in the pastries, right, dearies? Baked goods, right, Stingy’s precious little smuggling habit?” She looked to the kitchen. “You,” she said to the lumpier of Stingy’s goons, “Get me those Apfelkuchens, or I’ll ventilate your livers.”

“Aunt Linda!” Stingy said – he seemed genuinely hurt.

“Button your pie-hole, Jeffrey. What a whiny little twerp you are. Your mother always said you were a burden.”

At this Stingy actually slumped to the floor, wounded to the core. I was about to feel sorry for him, but I decided instead to use that broken heart to sight my .38 when I had to shoot him later.

“Charming family, Wheels,” I said to Stingy. “Is your sister by any chance busy drowning kittens?”

At that Stingy buried his head in his hands and started sobbing.

“Mittens!” he wailed. “Why did Mary drop you in the well? Aaaaa!”

Aunt Lily-Dale scowled like Fagin at the fifteenth extra bowl of gruel request. She looked like she was deciding whether it was worth cleaning up the mess to murder everyone where we stood.

Then there was a knock at the door. “Answer it!” She said, doing that little twitch with the gun they do at the flicks to indicate stage right. Petunia, always a practical girl, went.

“Who is it?”said Petunia.

“San Francisco Police.”

“I’ll get it!,” said Lily-Dale, brightening. And opened the door.

An old, barrel-assed ginger-haired cop with a moustache the size and shape of Crete walked in, took one look, and gave Lily-Dale a big hug.

“Darling!” he said.

“Schookums!” she said. “ Can you cover this brain trust while I get the Apfelkuchens ?" And she handed him the Thompson.

“Son of a bitch,” Stingy and Petunia and me all said at the same time. A crooked cop in San Francisco: Who would have not thought? About this point, their spirits gone, the two greasers simply relieved themselves in their pants.

“Ha!” Said Schnookums. “Now are all you boys gonna cry to your mommas now, then?” Schnookums was a walking cliché of a copper gone rotten– had a rolling Irish accent as thick as oatmeal in a cement mixer.

“I aint’ crying, O'Schnookums.” I said.

“I aint’ crying, neither, Mister.” Petunia said. Her fake bad grammar wasn’t that convincing; it sounded sort of like the Ladies’ People’s Theater Club at Vassar.

“Shut yer lip, Missy. You too, Bub.

“Mack.” I said.

”Mack?” He said.

“Mack, Bub,” I said.

Then there was a knock at the door.

Petunia answered out of sudden politeness, brushing past the field of leveled gun barrels like a turnstile.

The second the latch clicked a tall, shadowed man was in the door, and his thin lips flapped and his teeth emitted things: ”Now you look like an intelligent young woman – and a charming one at that - and I can tell you that you must know that a busy household – oh I see you have company, hi there folks! - like this can only function at the peak of it’s cleanliness and modern efficiency with a set of that apex of domestic modernity: a complete set Fuller Brushes. Now I can see by your expression that I might have intruded a bit, but I think that once you see these top-quality…”

She swung a teapot at the back of his neck, dropping him to the floor like a sack of narcoleptic bricks. I don’t think he ever knew the she saved his life, whatever joy that might bring to the world – cleaner rugs, nice suede, and well-groomed hair, I guess. At least the brushes, now scattered on the rug, would come in handy getting the blood stains out.

Then there was a knock at the door.

“You’re real popular today, Stingy. Reminds me of this girl I knew at Bennington. We called her Fast Chesty Trustfund.” Stingy stopped sobbing a bit as a flash of recognition crossed his reddened face, then he started crying again. “Aaaaaa! Aaah! Aaah!”

"Everyone stay right where you be," said O'Schnookums, painting the room slowly with the Thompson's menace. The only sound in the room was Stingy Wheels softly sobbing. The knock repeated gently and the door swung shyly open.

A scrawny tall young fellow with a huge suit and enormous overalls and a banjo walked in with smile.

“Say, fellas, I’m Pete Seeger, and I’m a-playing tonight, and is this where the ‘Send Hitler to Hell Hootnenany and Rag-Time Jambo-rie rehersal…? oh, HELLO, guns out I see, well, this here is quite a situation! And I got just the thing…” And he raised his banjo and stretched his fingers and lifted his neck in such a way that it was almost certain one of two things was coming through it: “This Land is Your Land” or a rapid series of .45 caliber bullets.

What happened now could only have taken half a second.

You could say a lot of things about Pete Seeger, but he was nobody’s fool in a room clearly full of Nazis, matronly crooks, unconscious Fuller Brush men and girls like Petunia. He’d seemed about to have launched into an unmitigated series of Spanish Civil War songs, but I’ve never seen a banjo move that fast, with righteous anger, an unstoppable round hickory slap of justice, and a sharp sting of guilt over the Hitler-Stalin Pact that drove that banjo right across Schnookums fat head and gave Petunia the opening to trip up Lily-dale with the old kitten-pump behind the door jamb trick just as the plump old battleship came back in the room with a huge tray of Apfelkuchens with uranium-ore filling. Lily-Dale fell like a deflating airship and the Apfelkuchens scattered, glowing slightly as they flew through the darkening room. By that point I had the drop on Stingy’s goons: ‘picked up my .45 Colt and the .38 and had one each massaging the back of the Nazis’ necks.

"Ain't no Irving Berlin ever tried THAT,” said Seeger, again, an overprecise Harvard tone coloring the “ain’t.” It was just a little irritating. On reflection, I was being too sensitive.

But that was a pet peeve. The Blitzkrieg of Peeves, the still-blubbering, emotionally vulnerable Nazi collaborator Stingy Wheels – (sheesh, what a galoot) was making a break for it, stepping on top of fat, prone Lily-Dale in such a way that she squeeked, and trying to evade the scrawny but determined folk singer at the door.

I fired a round from the old Navy Colt in my left hand to make a statement. The Powder and Ball Civil War veteran spoke. It said: “Stop crying!” The enormous lead ball slapped into his shoulder. So, he started crying again.

“What is the square of the chanteuse?” He shrieked, or perhaps, being a Kraut-lover, schreiked.


“I’m making applebutter with ox gravy!” he delineated.

“What?” said everyone but me.

“There is no revolution but da-da-dada-daddadada!” He grabbed his shoulder, breathed hard, struggled to free associate.

Too bad, Stingy. He blew it here, tipping his hand. He was clearly spouting off Dadaist poetry. That was Stingy’s plan: escape in the confusion. The Nazis, having shut down the Bauhaus, studied the techniques. It had worked in Stuggart, and once in Pasadena. He escaped the FBI at the Smithsonian by pouring chocolate on a portrait of Teddy Roosevelt. But I’d known enough artist types to recognize a desperate, self-aggrandizing, insincere attempt at Dadaism, enough to wonder if there was any other kind. I made a note to ask André Bréton after the war. But now I lifted the Colt and put the sights smack on Stingy’s broken, shriveled excuse for a heart, if I could find it. No better cure for it. I pulled the lever back.

“So beg, Wheels, beg for your pathetic, fascist, murdering, weasely, .137 lifetime batting average with the Seals before I drill into that beef jerky ball you call a heart.”

“O, Mittens!, Mittens! ” he said, and went for something in his pocket.

So I fired, pity overtaking justice. And the ball hit his chest with a loud clank.

“Clank?” said Petunia.

“Ha! Hah! Ha!,” said Stingy, his tears transforming into a sick laughter. “That’s just it! I don’t have one! Ha! Ha – Look!” He tore off his shirt to reveal his chest, or what was supposed to be a chest, but instead looked more like a dashboard, maybe nine dials, and a bunch a blinking lights. You could hear a soft clunking noise.”

“By Jing! He’s some kind of Mechanical Man!” said Seeger, helpfully.

“Ewww,” said Petunia. “Mister, you are some kind of messed up.”

“Well now that doesn’t surprise me one little bit,” said Lily-Dale, her face still on the floor. "Such a disappointment to the family."

“My heart, my heat was broken, literally. After the 1938 season with the San Francisco Seals...."

“And your .097 batting average that year, you mole-eyed bum,” I added

“My country would not see the new way which Herr Hittler,- Heil Hitler! -”

“Oh, cripes,” I said with bitter internality. “Such a Hitlerheimer sob sister.” Crack that queer Nazi marble and they usually blubbered like an 8 year old girl.

“...the fuhrer was to lead us, out of poverty, out of misery, into the glory the Reich, and it should happen in America, and then I learned my heart—my heart, so broken by the loss of Mittens, as a child, all because I threw out Mary’s Pookie Dolly! Why?! Why!? ...But....well, Well I learned in Vienna that my heart would stop in a three weeks.”

“That’s the least convincing argument since Napoleon offered to let Wellington be the Emperor of Antarctica if he took a dive at Waterloo. ” I said.

“Did that really happen?” whispered Petunia to Seeger, who looked thoughtful.

Stingy kept going. “I remember Dr. Krapsenpanzer – he says to me, he says:
‘Jeffery. You will not see the liberation of Poland by either side. You’re heart- it is kaput.‘

"And then Dr. Krapsenpanzer says to me, he says:

‘..but zere is one way, although you may not like it. And Dr. Krapsenpanzer, he is at the famous Vienna Blintzenpuffer Clinic, you know, he looked at me like love for all mankind had filled his heart. But he says to me, he says: 'we will remove your heart and replace it with a new radium powered vacuum pump! It is a miracle of Science!” And so, you see, here it is: I am a man with a mechanical heart. “

It just looked to me like he'd dived for a foul ball at full speed into the back of someone’s gas range.

"And I thought he was only a disappointment,” said Aunt Lily-Dale, into the rug, as we’d place the equally larger, unconscious Schookums on top of her. "Now I see he has disgraced us all with his worship of Science."

"You ain't drinkin' this balloon juice?" I said.

"Thanks to Dr. Krapsenpanzer....I can continue to serve the Reich!" said Stingy Wheels.

"He got a robot that can hit a slider?" I said.

“…..Wait,” said Petunia, looking at something on Stingy’s back – she walked right over to him and started undoing something. Petunia was no shrinking violet. I got a little jealous.

She undid a leather strap of some kind off Stingy, who looked aggrieved but didn’t resist, and she pulled off the mechanical chest unit.

“My heart!” said Stingy. "Mein..."

“It’s a cheap prop. See? Steel case, cardboard and a battery. You got a cape and a funny hat to go with this, Mister?”

“Well, you’ve all seen through my little disguise, but that was only to infiltrate the real robots, like Roosevelt, and Churchill. And the Air Force! And here, it is you! You are the robot!” screamed Stingy, pointing a finger at O'Schnookums.

“I’m aboot as much a roo-but as I am a stool softener, ya pig’s tit.” said O’Schnookums.

“Are we speaking metaphorically, or..?” asked Petunia.

“Robot!” Stingy emphatically emphasized.

This really wasn’t the conversation I’d been looking forward to. I preffered the “Beg for death, you slime-licking Nazi traitor!,” followed by a brief burst of gunfire where his part of the conversation was supposed to be “Aaaaagggghhh!” But instead, we were arguing about who was or wasn’t a robot.

“I once wrote a song about a robot man…how did it go?,” said Pete Seeger, tuning his banjo.

“Back off that A string, Seeger. I don’t want to have to shoot you too,” I said. “Petunia, get on the blower and call downtown.”

“Ok, where downtown?” she asked, brushing back her long black hair to get the receiver next to her ear.

“The cops, the army, the works. The FBI.”

“Oh, not the FBI, friend, they’re a-gunning for me,” said Seeger.

”Me, too, said Petunia.”

“Robot!” said Stingy.

"Alright, but it can't be just the local heat. Who knows what favors the flatties owe O'Schnookums here? "

"Call me O'Schnookums again, and I'll pull off your leg and stick it up your behind. "

"Only a Robot could do that!" said Stingy.

"I'm calling downstairs, then," said Petunia, and hollered out loud to the gathering Hootenanny below, where we could hear guitars and fiddles and washboards being improperly tuned.

"Hey Fellas! It's Petunia! Free Beer Upstairs!" She hollered just like the metal shop foregirl she was, and having seen her before, about 50 hungry folk musicians pounded up the stairs, carrying their gitfiddles, dulcimers, lutes and penny-whistles, random notes getting plucked in the rush, making a sound not unlike what they were planning to do on stage in twenty minutes anyway.

"Welcome Everybody!," piped up Seeger. " And I got a little ditty for ya."

"Grab a Nazi,
Tie Him A-tight!
And then we'll drink
into the night.

Ol' Mister Hitler,
Ain't got no soul
And Folks Aplenty
will smoke a bowl.

For Freedom, Men!
Freedom, A-Ahoy!
We'll stuff them Nutzis
Into Bok Choy

And then Freedom, Men
Freedom, A-Hoy!
A World of Love
For Girls and Boys!

It was a German hideout, so there really was free beer, courtesy of the Third Reich. We tied up the bad guys good and drank long and hard like it was coming out of Hitler's wallet. The two greasers were wrapped like butterflies, and about as dangerous, and were hanging from the shower curtain rod. The Fuller Brush man woke up, but he then he started eating some of the uranium-filling Appflekuchens and after a while he seemed to light up the room. A few girls showed up from the factory shift, and Petunia rang up a few more, and then someone inflicted a square dance, and there formed a happy swirl of steel workers, Reds and ethnomusicologists. A good time. Too good.

O'Schnookums and Aunt Lily-Dale seemed to have forgotten their nefarious scheme and and sang lustily along with "Captain John's gone Slobberin'" and "The Fishwife's All A-Wormy" and "If I had a Nine-Iron" and "Four Kings in Mary-Belle's Hollow", and the six people actually there for the show came up for the party and about the time I was pitching woo with Petunia on the Swastika-themed red comforter, and one of the folk-boys had started wearing an brown mop on his upper lip and goosestepping around to everyone's amusement, Stingy Wheels, having slipped his binds only to wander around in emotional distress and accuse the autoharpists of being robots, slithered away in the black night.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Rebar for Tootsie Rolls: Get Stingy Wheels

August 6, 1942. Prelude.

Waiting: 3AM. Quiet, like a dead goat. Waiting by the streetlight. I am still, like death, like another dead goat. Watching: Up. The street: puddles. The Sky: a drizzle. The Flask: a torrent, rotgut whiskey like a half- distilled Douglas Fir. The window I watch: dark. In my guts: a colon. The building’s very bricks are made of sandy secrets, pulverized dreams, and angry straw. Somewhere in the distance, a failed contralto mangles Carmen. I flip the collar on my overcoat against the chill. A gum wrapper paper boat I made to kill time sinks into a puddle, its foil flashing in the streetlight like a little sailor flashing "Help.” Waiting - and watching - and waiting. Spent Lucky butts pile up by my right leg like a campfire of gnomes. And they are also singing “Carmen.” I guzzle another slug of Chuckley Canuck’s Birch Whiskey from a Calvin Coolidge flask an ungrateful Senator once tried to pay me with. Later, based on a anonymous tip I barely had the nickel for, the papers caught him with a 14 year-old girl in a Senate telephone booth. Unfortunately for him, she was Irish. Big Scandal. Now he rents out paddleboats in Omaha. And me, I'm watching now, watching and waiting some more, tensed to strike like a cottonmouth with a hangover, ready to bring in a dangerous Nazi pastry chef and former San Francisco Seals relief-pitcher, the deadly” Stingy” Wheels. "Stingy," because, being a fascist relief pitcher, he'd bean you when you weren’t looking-like when you were in the dugout, or getting a hot dog, or several hours after the game was over. And it stung, when it wasn’t fatal. When Stingy wasn’t on the kill.

Stingy Wheels: he’d beaned a Red Sox hitter into a coma in December ’35, inducing a popular novel. Stingy Wheels: he'd left a cigarette girl for dead in a Seattle match factory, and took her cigarettes. Stingy Wheels: He shot a kid on Ferris Wheel for his secret decoder ring. Stingy Wheels: once, he was Henry Ford's blintz chef. Stingy Wheels: about 6 feet, greasy dark hair, no distinctive marks, except maybe the murder in his heart and the port wine stain on his back in the shape of Western Poland. Stingy Wheels left a bloody trail down Market Street – even bloodier than you usually find walking down Market Street. Stingy Wheels: A traitor. A lousy Kraut killer. And not the good kind. And sometimes, he let the cream in the Bavarian donuts go off....

I'm waiting. I’m waiting to Get Stingy Wheels. America - I feel America herself beside me, her soft breath of liberty on my neck, her dainty fingers of freedom dancing along my upper thighs, yes, America is waiting with me, and I'm looking up at the filthy window in the dingy brick building, the one made of desperate secrets, my finger feeling the little grooves on the cold metal trigger of the .38 in my Harris tweed holster, tapping out a cadence, a cadence sung in America’s feather light soprano: Get Stingy Wheels. Get Stingy Wheels.

August 5, 1942. Steak and Eggs – With Revolution on the Side

The Case of the Lugubrious Celery Stalker wound down when I tracked the culprit to the La Conga nightclub and got him to sign a confession over six or seven Bloody Marys. He snapped like a celery stalk, admitting through a pathetic dribble of tears that on the morning of July 3 he destroyed 27 vegetable stands with a large wooden mallet as a political statement. At least it wasn’t a comedy act. I last saw the joker getting dragged by away couple of lumpy flatfoots, blubbering something about cream cheese.

But the evening wasn’t a total waste- the joint was jumpin’, as the kids say, and I somehow attached myself like a vegetarian limpet to a sweet slice of a dancing tomato named Polly or Pansy or something. Something about her – the way she looked at me like a starving gypsy at a seafood bisque. The way she smelled – it was astonishing, a sweet, refined musk, the mountain flowers of the Urals, a faint trace of tractor oil, and a delicate after-scent of “get over here, Stupid.” Polly or Pansy or something was a tomato with an angel face and devil expression, thick black hair, toned arms- she was built like the Eiffel Tower, but the soft, fluffy kind of Eiffel Tower with impressive sweater knobs and no rude Frenchies stuffing you into the elevator. We danced for hours to Smallie Vast’s Bum’s Rush Band, until hunger stalked us like a Siberian tiger that was also really hungry.

We made a short, juicy dash from Sutter Street to Barnacle Bim's House of Hash for eats. Barnacle Jim was too cheap to fix the sign. I followed her – a chance to take in her well-formed caboose, which moved like Astaire and Rodgers dancing in a silk bag.

Barnacle Jim was also unscrupulous, and a week's worth of meat rations on one plate would be sizzling on the grill. Where he got the meat I don’t know, but the zoo was missing a second giraffe.

That Polly or Pansy girl, well she looked fine sitting across from me, gobbling up the pancakes with whipped cream and the little banana happy faces on them that Jim had put there, grinning stupidly through the kitchen window. For the moment I settled on calling her “Kissy Lips.” I crammed toast and marmalade and eggs and stuffed it all in my face with little thought for anything but the giraffe steak on the way.

Someone left the San Francisco Call Bulletin on the table. Kissy Lips picked it up.

“You want me to read to you, Mack?” Damn, she knew my name already- although frankly I think Kissy Lips was guessing.

“Read on, Kissy Lips.”

She scanned a bit: “Which story, ‘Milton Deadd, Dead at 34’, or ‘Mystery Grows as Third Giraffe Missing from San Francisco Zoo’?”

“Deadd is Dead?,” I said, surprised as a family of deer mice unexpectedly offered free medical insurance.

”Milton Deadd, Dead at 34, of a Hammering…” she started.

“You got a swell voice to go with those lips,” I said. A trace of a smile passed those soft, dark red, classically poofy lips, with the kind of little overbite that makes a man willingly hold her purse while shopping, and she tossed her head a little to one side, where a cascade of black hair flowed darkly like the Amazon river at night. What could a man do but paddle upstream, spurning the many signs of piranhas and angry river otters?

She read, her voice lilting like a Celtic harp. If a unicorn had walked in then I would have just patted in on the head and fed it pie.

“Police report a body of what appeared to city experts to be a white man in his early 30's was found Thursday morning in a Potrero area metal shop, beaten repeatedly with an automatic 80 horsepower metal-forming hammer into, according to the coroner, “a gruesome paste.” The hammering took place in "Grimeshaven's Steel and Wire Fabrication" on the 1800 block of Mariposa street. The man's wallet, which police noted was somewhat improved in suppleness by the hammering, contained papers from the White Eagle insurance company which identified the bearer as Mr. Milford Deadd, 34, of the Nob Hill Deadds. The Call-Bulletin's society columnist, Mrs. Dennis Westfield-Porter , noted that Mr. Deadd had just announced an engagement to Miss Anne-Marie Hawthorne, 17, of the famous Los Angeles Hawthorne Publishing firm, while Mr. Grimeshaven, the owner of the metal fabrication ship in question, has suspicions of wrongful activities by Red organizers who have plagued the shop with unceasing demands to raise wages and allow the hire of girls and negros to work on the plant's sensitive War Department contracts. Based on these facts, Police Lietuentant Mr. Don Pockles' feared "Pockeler Squads" have been raiding numerous Red Labor halls in fearsome dragnet regarding the certainly illegal flattening of Mr. Milton Deadd.”

“Typical bourgeois bird-feed,” she said, shaking her head.

Reading the Call-Bulletin is a great way to get the news if you're avoiding facts that day. And facts are my bread. Facts are my lunch and snack. Facts are my brunch when brunch isn't a hailstorm of bullets and knives. Facts are my pancakes, and context is the butter, and the real story is three tablespoons of rich maple truth, and in working my way now through the great breakfast of Justice, I realized, both figuratively and literally, that the waitress hadn't brought my fork.

“They got it wrong. Deadd wrong,” I said, realizing I sounded a little too self-consciously tough guy. Not that I wasn’t tough, mind you, tough as a tarred canvas apple turnover, and I’ll kill anyone who says different, but you know, it was coming on a bit thick.

“The dead guy's name was Milford. Milford Deadd. Even when Deadd was alive, it wasn't the kind of living you think of as living. He was the biggest knob on the hill. I saw him once at La Conga, the band bopping with a beat that would get Eleanor Roosevelt jitterbugging, girls swinging from the rafters, prop rockets flying through the air, gin pouring so fast it was making alcoholic steam, and there was Deadd, balancing his checkbook, with an expression like someone had just read him the Federal Register. ”

"One less Deadd isn’t much of a loss,” she said, her black eyes cool, distracted, distant even, like she was recalling a fond memory of putting some evil joker’s head in a vice, like I did once in Barcelona. “That’s one less bullet we’ll have to buy for the Revolution.”

Though the icing may have been buttery soft, this cookie was harder than a granite eviction notice.

The fact was the Deadds were rich. The Deadds had dough like Iowa’s got wheat. They made the Astors look like Okies. I thought about it a moment. Kill Deadd. Why? Cabbage. It’s always the cabbage: with Deadd dead, he was reborn as a big sauerkraut barrel of cash, and everyone would be circling around, carrying a naked bratwurst.

”Petunia!” I yelled – her name discovered by the old "let's look at each other's wallets" ruse. I'd been dating a Red with long brown hair and a Wobbly card called Petunia Mathleby- turned out she was a machinist and shop steward for the IWW All-Girl Local 673.

She was barely 24, according to her license. 5’ 8”. Long legs. Big black eyes. Believed in free love, hot jazz, D.H. Lawrence, gymnastics, and was still steamed over the Second International excluding the anarcho-syndicalists. That wasn’t on the license. Her father was sent up for a dime in WWI for entering the White House in protest over the imprisonment of Eugene Debs by placing an empty banana peel right where Woodrow Wilson could walk right over it. She was born the day Wilson got out of the hospital.

She also had a bad habit of calling people "the Masses," as in "The Masses will reject Errol Flynn as a genuine auteur, " or "in the syndicalist worker state, the Masses will not caper to orders for more coffee." The comment got a look from Maybelle, the old French waitress at Bim's, so old she made Crumples the bartender over at the Rusty Hobnail look sprightly, and he’d claimed to have beaten Gentleman Jim down with a brick in his glove. But that look seemed to say “comme cela,” because every French look seemed to say “Comme cela.”

This opened a turn so unexpected my teeth stretched.

“Petunia, mon ami jolie, all work is ze prayer,” Maybelle said. As she turned toward Petunia, her tiny skeleton rattled around in her loose, dry skin like a cat lost in a grocery sack.

"I have been watching you both,” she said, pointing a crooked finger to Petunia's gorgeous oval face, Maybelle’s watery blue eyes bugging like a beached grouper. “It is not ze coincidence that I have arranged for you Monsieur Mack and Petunia to meet at La Conga – last night, no?”

Petunia looked aghast. Then confused. Then aghast again. “You! You were the old woman at Macy’s – who sold me the perfume!"

“The Soviets’ finest secret of spycraft: Female Worker’s Seductive Initiative Scent, No. 5.”

“How’d ya manage that, Gramms?” I asked, stupidly.

Maybelle was no ordinary diner waitress. First, she’d killed a lot more people. Second, she was a genuine revolutionary. 'Turned out the Lugubrious Celery Stalker was working for her, luring me to La Conga. She worked through Petunia’s Wobbly Girls to get her there, proposing through Petunina’s friend Missy Sailorwelcome that uninhibited jazz dancing would subtly destabilize the State. Maybelle fired up her particular form of business during the Paris Commune 70 years ago, from when she was known “as La Femme Croissant Fatale,” a spy for the revolutionary committee, known for her buttery softness and flakiness. And Third, she enjoyed her job.

“Ah, Petunia, you remind me of moi. I was beautiful in those days, I had ze fire of ze revolution, the winds of ze change, the waters of ze fall of ze bourgeoisie. And I was deadly, too, yes. I was ze finest sniper for the Central Committee. Ze beasts of ze traitor army fell like ze lap dogs from ze lap.” She said this, miniscule in her yellow and white waitress outfit, looking like a garden gnome, holding the coffee pot steady as a rock, giving us a creepy eye.

“But I know you, Monsier Mack, you find ze Nazis for the U.S.” she said. “ And I know Petunia, and as she searches her heart, she will come to know what I have done.”

Petunia was no daisy. “You put Milford Deadd’s head in that RD-417 Power hammer, ” she said, coolly, as if she were announcing a train arrival. Real riverter, that one. Knew her machinery. I was a bit put out, figuring that Maybelle just cheated me out of a fat paycheck from the Deadds for solving the murder.

"But I didn’t kill him, although I would have – how do you say - relished it.” She leaned in to Petunia, who was both repelled and fascinated. “Deadd was a traitor. To America, to France, to ze free peoples of the world everywheres. And Deadd was hiding ze most….

"Hey, where the hell is my cheeseburger,?’ demanded a man with a striped shirt and yellow bow tie.

“Put a corncob in it, Meatball!” I said. Stiped shirt slumped in his booth until his eyes were just under the lip of the table.

“Deadd was hiding a man so dangerous, so notorious, ze most heinous Heinie in the California. Ze man who repaid the kindness of the Deadd with ze death.”

"STINGY WHEELS!” I gasped!

Twenty minutes later, full of breakfast and briefed by Maybelle with what she called “Committee Orders”, Petunia and I ran through the gathering rain and mist to catch a streetcar downtown. We plopped down inside, the rain pelting the roof in the warm electric bulb gloom, steam rising from everyone’s hats. Petunia’s hands, hid discretely under the afternoon Call-Bulletin- and it’s LIES!- were handling the new .22 Trajoe Mexican Machine pistol Maybelle had picked up from Trotsky’s place the night he was axed to death. Her hands, delicate but strong, shook slightly.

"Need a little courage, Baby?” I said, offering her the flask of Chuckley Canuck’s Birch whiskey.

“Sure,” she said, gamely drinking it back. “Like Whitehorse on fire,” she coughed. Petunia’s searching black eyes took me in for a second longer than she need to. She rested her cheek on my shoulder. Nice cheek, that one.

The streetcar screeched and wobbled and rattled on. All we had was an address, a cold lead on a fat chance. But I was bleary and addle-headed, rinsed out like a kitchen rag. Some organ I didn’t know the name or function of ached. Even my gun throbbed from overuse. I was taking a crowded street car to find and maybe kill a man, or die, or both, and there wasn’t any juice in it, no money, no glory, no ration card, no vacation upstate, no mimosas on a Baja beach, and all I could think of was unpaid bar tabs and a seersucker suit I left at Wu Ho’s cleaners in June, 1937. The only thing was Victory. For other people. For all the people that weren’t in with Stingy Wheels and all the goons in the world with fancy suits and dead hearts. For Petunia.

We got close, hoofed up the steep hill in the rain until we found the dingy Victorian brick box under an overhanging hill off Jones Street, above the Art Institute. Only sailors, Italians and art students would put up with such a sketchy neighborhood. View was nice, though.

“914 Jones. That’s it.” We were quiet. Maybelle’s dope had it that Stingy was coming here tonight. When, we didn’t know. I jimmied the handle on a old Cadillac parked there, the sitting room on wheels model, on the same side as the street level door to Stingy’s flop. A red door. Like a maraschino cherry, or fresh blood.

“You wait in here, Petunia, and keep that tenderizer ready- with the safety off.” She nodded. As she got in her body brushed mine. Female Worker’s Seductive Initiative Scent, No. 5 was doing its work, convincing me of the inevitability of socialism. She kissed me, eyes open, drinking me in like cheap Canadian whiskey.

“Dead heroes don’t stop the Nazis. Stay alive, Mack.”

“I’ll consider it, Kissy Lips.”

She got in, nestling under a quilt. I closed the door, and went to stand on the opposite corner, in the tiny wind shelter of the streetlight. I pulled up my collar, and fiddled with my .38, noting again the engraving of Brughel’s 99 Netherlandish Proverbs on the handle. Cost me a pretty penny, that one. Might have time to figure out a couple now.

The hours went by, rain and fog came in waves. My feet were soaked. My cardboard belt disintegrated, threatening to unburden my waist of pants. I burned through the first pack of Luckys. No signs of Stingy. No way to know whether our tip was good or a complimentary ticket to Chumptown, which I believe is in Indiana.

August 6th, 1942.

I'm waiting. I’m waiting to Get Stingy Wheels. I'm looking up at the filthy window in the dingy brick building, the one made of desperate secrets, my finger feeling the little grooves on the cold metal trigger of the .38 in my Harris tweed holster, tapping out a cadence sung in America’s feather light soprano: Get Stingy Wheels. Get Stingy Wheels..."

Finally a noise, a rustling, an indefinable sound, sort of like a horse at trot but all wrong, lopier, slower. A car engine roared in low gear, climbing. Then, a shot rang out, a small caliber, a pea-shooter, a girl-gun.

Petunia started, got up, still covered in the quilt. “Mack, what is it?,” she whispered across the street.

“Get down, you adorable comforter!” The quilt deflated.

The sounds grew louder, and on up Jones street they came, first a girl, a pretty little blond waif of a woman in a white silk dress, riding a large caliber giraffe with a concerned expression, its orange fur wet in the drizzle, the girl hanging on to its neck with one hand and firing the small revolver with the other at something behind.

Now, this was an entrance. Or a hallucination. I was transfixed, dopey as they came up the hill, but I grabbed the .38 and held it up, ready for something even slightly more surprising.

A big blue Buick crested the intersection at speed, and I saw it’s undercarriage before it’s hood.

As the speeding giraffe passed, the girl looked right at me, her blue eyes big as commemorative plates. “Mister! Help me!,” she pleaded.

Before I could react, I saw a flash and a heard bigger report – a Luger - and saw a splash of blood and the girl on the giraffe fall to the ground right in front of me like a pile of uptown laundry. The giraffe hung a right and ran down the street, looking sad, bleeding on it’s right hind quarters from a glancing wound. And the Buick roared past, taking a potshot at me for good measure so I had to dive for cover into the gutter next to the girl. I fired a couple rounds lying down, not much chance, but I heard the tinny slap of lead against the steel of the Buick’s trunk.

In a moment, Petunia was standing above the girl and me. Nice view. She bent down and hugged me, her exotic squishyness in full bloom.

“You okay?”

“Yeah, fine, girl’s just passed out.”

“Who is she?,” said Petunia, glancing at the little blond angel in white sprawled on the wet black road.

“Milton Deadd’s fiancée, Anne-Marie Hawthorne. Saw her when I was stealing shrimp from the reception.”

“The Buick?”

“That…that was Stingy Wheels…the Nazi of North Beach, the Baker of Prague. Now you know what he’s capable of. And if we’re going to smash that squarehead’s soufflé, we gotta amscray, and tout de suite. ”

“What about her?” said Petunia, her chin toward Anne-Marie.

“Bring her. She’s alright, and she’s gotta know something, like where a joker goes after he shoots a giraffe. "

I took Petunia by the waist and looked out into the dark, early morning city. The streetlight cut the mist in a sick yellow shaft. A few dim lights twinkled on bridge. Somewhere on Russian Hill, a bleeding ungulate was going to surprise a milkman. And Stingy Wheels was still rolling.

The Rebar for Tootsie Rolls Stories, which are missing most of the important chapters, are first posted at Isengard.Gov.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Rebar for Tootsie Rolls: I Wandered Lonely As a Corpse

The dripping dank dark danced with the dreary dawn drizzle, and the cold cut in like Fred Astaire on Ginger Rogers. I  woke up on a park bench with my face and back aching, flopped down near the Ferry Terminal with a damp suit and a cut on the cheekbone from a fusillade of dungeoness crabs tossed by my untimely but accurate aspersions on a wharf fisherman's sister, who I'd been seeing until she showed up with a Vichy French sailor at a Russian Hill fête, pom-pom in pom-pom.   
I was still picking crab meat out of my lapel when my watch- a fancy moon-phase Bulova I’d grabbed off the wrist of a dying SS officer whom I'd shot with a spear gun in Venice over a curvy Venezuelan tomato and part time B girl named Imeldine- informed me I was late for a meeting at the Rusty Hobnail, an original 1849 overturned whale ship bar,  a place so old that on a hot day the ceiling dripped whale oil in your beer.
I gathered myself among myself and walked toward the Rusty Hobnail to the songs of the waterfront: a ship’s bell, the creak of a wooden mast, the gruff, siren call of a fairly convincing transvestite.  Someone started practicing a saxophone with a riff from St. James Infirmary- practicing to discredit the saxophone as a musical instrument by producing a sound like a rutting walrus with asthma.
Finally, the Rusty Hobnail. Home away from home if home smelled like barfly sweat and rancid whale oil. "I'd rather have a bottle in front of me than have a frontal lobotomy" said the sign behind the black oak timber bar that took up exactly the same place in Crumples the bartender's brain Wordsworth might have plugged up in a Stanford co-eds'; only when Dorothy Parker said it she was in the Algonquin Hotel, which was swank and beautiful, while the dingy, dusty dregs of this ill-kempt, upturned Forty-Niner ship, the last of old San Francisco's waterfront bars, where I tended to store my liver when I wasn't walking around with it, utterly wasn't.
My memory wasn't what it was after the Case of the Omega Three Affair, when “Moose” Fritters the Novelty-Item Jeweler (he’d invented the moose-dropping swizzle-stick) dropped a crate of cod-liver oil fell on my head; now the only Wordsworth poem I knew:

I wander'd lonely as a corpse/
That floats on white o'er lakes and hills
When all at once I saw a crowd:
a host, of collectors of bills

This wasn’t quite right- I made a mental note to ask that Stanford co-ed. 

Contaminated by history, the Rusty Hobnail would make a good tourist trap if the sawdust on the floor was changed more than once a decade.  Over the years, I'd found four guns, dozens of casings, several sets of teeth, a skeleton with a two-by-four through the thorax and a whalebone corset - all while absent-mindedly kicking through the dust.  
I hadn't seen Crumples in a couple of months, which is like saying I hadn't been down to the slaughterhouse for the view recently.   The antebellum bare-knuckle boxer was getting the crud off the glasses the same way you clean a trout - with a knife - and his square skull covered in loose skin looked just like a plaster bust of Caesar covered in a sheet in an art-school still life.  His stained white hair grew thick like an old mattress dumped on a trash-can.   A smell: boot socks and formaldehyde.  He didn't look any older because that wasn't physically possible, it would be like wrinkling a coelacanth.   He was so old when he looked my way I heard his eyeballs creaked with menace, and so cranky, surly, belligerent and uncivil, yet not especially grumpy, I wondered just what had sucked the pixie-dust of joy back into the vacuum bag of his heart.
"Well, you ain't been around, has you?" he explained, before throwing the nearly black dish towel to the slop bucket in such a way as he let me now that he held both objects in much higher regard than me.  "It's like a god-damned Christmas dinner with a Gibson girl in here every night you get scarce."
“Nice to see you too, Crumples.  A Lower-East Side Manhattan for me.  With less Slovakian vermouth.”
“Yearghaaah,” he said, with a sound only a former pirate who boxed for thirty years in Brooklyn could make.
The Rusty Hobnail made your average rendering plant look like the Top of the Mark, and Buddy, you might ask why I came here.   I asked myself this frequently.   Crumples asked me frequently.  The girls and the clients and the exiled European diplomats and the Mayor I met here asked me frequently.   Just another mystery I didn’t have time to solve.
One of those girls was Belinda Wheels – the girl I was here to meet.  She worked the hotels, the nice ones, like the Mark Hopkins and the St. Francis, did Belinda, "specialty work," no hoy-toy-toy or mattress mambo, but with a surprising amount of equipment.  She got her past the hotel cops with nothing but a wink- no one suspected that a girl with four steamer trunks was whipping, racking, and bossing around City fathers for a substantial consideration.  She had beautiful, cruel silver eyes, a high but savage brow and a pair of abusive nostrils.   Her fierce black hair, shellacked into a angry shiny wave, dropped almost to her tiny but harsh waist.  She had precise red cruel lips, and a cruel but winning smile, and adorable yet ineffably sadistic dimples.  She wore a white mink and silk number that was somewhere in between a coat, a dress and satiny citation for public indecency, with shoulderpads Knute Rockne would envy.  She sat across from me on the upturned barrel, drinking a Red Russian manipulatively, stroking my arm with the barest brush of a cherry red fingernail in a way that suggested my carotid artery was vulnerable.

Problem was, she wanted her husband.   She wanted him dead.

She said: “Mack. You're going to do it for me."

"No can do, Sugar Nostrils, I don't kill for hire." I wasn't a violent man, except when circumstances called, like when the nation was at war, or my girl was in danger, or I was out of money, donuts or whiskey, or when the sun rose in the morning just to cheese me off, or when some jackass in a blue ’39 Caddy parked so close to me I couldn't get in my car and then had the gall to send me the hospital bill when I explained the emergency with my fists.  

She did have nice nostrils.

"What would make it worth your while?" She fluttered her eyelids – which on her was like being winked at by the Gestapo.

"Listen, Belinda, I don’t kill people.  Scratch that, I kill a lot of people.   But only for justice, for America and things.  And last I looked, you ain’t America.

“But I can do things,” she said, her voice cool and boozy with the classiest gin Crumples had, which was an old barrel of Nebraska corn vodka he’d stuffed with a dried up juniper bush he found while ginned up on Bush street.

“Forget it, Baby, my insurance doesn’t cover the things you do.”
She pierced me with her eyes, hard and silver grey like fine German number 8H pencils, the kind that almost never need sharpening, the ones that leave more of a gouge than a line.
“C’mon, Mack, you’re Aces! Just For me?” she said. 
“I told you Belinda, I don’t just walk out and kill husbands. Unless they’re Nazis. Is he a Nazi?”
“He could be,” she said, flicking a comb on the table to make a loud crack. “Can you wait a week?”
“Why don’t you just divorce him?”
“He won’t give me one.  Maybe you could rough him up a little.  Break a thumb or two. ” A little smile crossed her marble face.
“You’re a tough woman, Belinda, tough like rebar for Tootsie Rolls. I’ve seen nicer girls decking Teamsters.   Gotta wonder what made you spill your ice cream cone on the hot sidewalk of cynicism. “
Hollywood. You know- it’s an old story these days.” Belinda looked dreamily away. “Mom was big in the silents, she called herself Myrtle Clarion.  She was beautiful but so mean - once, when I was 9, I borrowed a dress from a movie she was making, and she sent me to a cannery in Vladivostok for a year." Belinda's eyes narrowed and she dug her sharp nails into her cruel knee. "When I was 16, I told her I wanted to act. Without a word, she called her agent and for three years I was the target in an off-Vaudeville knife throwing act in Saskatchewan. That’s where I learned what men are: Canadian apes with needs.  And then it was bit parts, the casting couch, a tickle and a tease for "Girl at Counter #2," $7 pay and a baloney sandwich for lunch.  And Dad, Dad was a Professor of Industrial Hygiene at UCLA and vers libre poet.   Never home except to bring home a hairball tweed-wearing literary type, reeking of Irish whiskey, like Lillian Hellman."
“Nice story, Sister, but why are you whipping federal judges and dressing them like the Gerber Baby? Moolah? ”
“Girl’s gotta have a hobby.”  She gave me a look that said not only was I about to receive a serious and quite possibly physical rebuke, but I'd have to pay cash for it.
She wasn't quite my type.  First, I get enough abuse for free.  Second, I like my coffee black, my women sweet and my Nazis dead. I also like my women black and my coffee sweet and my Nazis dead.  Or my women Asian and my coffee Irish and my Nazis dead.   And Eskimo girls, my coffee solid, and my Nazis dead.  I did date a Kurdish frailonce who was a total peach who served coffee with hemp oil, and my Nazis dead.  Also, any woman that inconveniences some Nazis, or is breathing, smells nice, is a little tipsy and lacks self-restraint, and my Nazis dead . That last part is the important bit.  I really hate Nazis. 

To be clear, one more Lower East Side Manhattan and Belinda'd be my type. But knowing her, I figured I'd better humor her before she pulled a gun or something leather and pointy with spikes all over it.   It was best to avoid bloodshed here, especially because Crumples put the damage on my tab, unless of course the blood was mine and then he’d let the other party drink free.

"Look Belinda, I'll go talk to your husband - but if you can't persuade him I don't hold out a lotta hope for me."
"O.K. Just talk. Here's the address.” She looked me up and down, and leaned forward a little. “ And Mack, I’ll be very happy if this works. "
“Why did you just say ‘Kickapoo?” She asked, arching a precisely painted eyebrow.
“'Cause I like the way that sounds.”

The address was some semi-swanky dump near Cole Valley called Casa Madrona- a Spanish-style apartment bloc, complete with bell and fountain, that looked like it was sitting about 400 miles too far north.   Supposedly built for MGM - the place reeked of Hollywood. Every time I smelled film stock,  French perfume and cocaine someone was about to close on opening night, forever, usually with a bullet in the heart and a knife in the back, an empty wallet and a look of perpetual disappointment.
Past the fountain, I climbed a short flight of stairs.  Third floor: that frog Mr. Wheels' lilypad. Something was wrong.  It was all too straightforward, too peaceful. The scent of set-up hung like an old Wharf whore around the waist of paid-off sailor.  I took a swig of Alzheimer’s All-Tuber Vodka, which kicked like the Rockettes at Christmas and tended to eradicate unpleasant memories, like the time an actual Rockette kicked me for practically no reason.
I knocked, but the door just swung open.  Time to try out the new gun - a .38 police special with a couple of the new radium tracer rounds, and a special oosik bone grip.  I’d had the grip engraved with an exact copy of Brueghel's 99 Netherlandish Proverbs- ordered it while blotto, in 1934, from an engraver in Chinatown and he’d finally finished just about the time he became legally blind.  A pal at O.S.S. had asked me to test the radioactive ammunition: if it didn’t kill you right off and not removed, it would do you in over the next four or five years, unpleasantly.  Seemed a little vindictive, but he asked nicely.
I opened the door and called out:
"Wheels? You here?"  Nothing . Quieter than a dead frog.
There was a bit of a smell: nutmeg, penetrating oil, rancid potato chips, maybe a hint of drying seafood and illegal Belgian massage oil – the cheap kind.   I was in the living room, the place mauve and yellow and touched with quasi-Egyptian decorations.   On the wall hung a 7-foot stuffed Manta Ray, a cheap print of Dogs Playing Poker and an expensive print of Afghans playing Baccarat. The sign under the Manta Ray said “To Stingy.” Belinda mentioned his nickname was Stingy, a name he picked up working first base with the San Francisco Seals by tagging hitters with spikes in his glove.
I also couldn’t help notice the plaster bust of Hitler on the mantle.  This created a problem.  It was new, so fresh the plaster was still warm from curing.  Obviously Belinda put it there to convince me that Stingy Wheels was a Nazi.  But she also must have known I would figure that set up.  So why did she want to get me to think that I thought she was trying to set me up by setting Stingy up as a Nazi?  I knew most of the Krauty Von Weisenheimers on the FBI's questionable loyalty list– and the name Stingy Wheels never came up.   Sure he was a small-time fence, but just for day-old baked goods to get around rationing – his real line was cupcakes, with delicious cream cheese frosting. Didn’t seem the type.
Suddenly a there was a loud pop.  I fired back.  I christened the new gun “Larry.”
I turned a corner to the dining room and there was Stingy Wheels on a chair, slumped about as quiet as a dead frog slumps, a .38 sized hole drilled in him.  One still hand held his gut where he’d been shot.   The other held a fully frosted cupcake. But it wasn’t my doing. The angle was all wrong. He hadn’t said a peep.   I wasn’t even hungry.  He sure as hell hadn’t fired a gun.  I figured Stingy Wheels had already spun his last before I walked in.  But the killer was near. T he killer was here. Now I went through the place, my heart pounding, my face sweating, my calves itching, my sudden desire for lemonade unquenchable, gun drawn, ready to kill, preparing to die.
Nothing.  No one.  I relaxed for a second.
The place was pretty clean, tidied, but it felt unused.  I lifted the two-piece phone - the line was working.
“Operator, get me 1119.” A couple of clicks.

“Get me the Police.”
“This is the Police.”
“I mean get them here.  It’s Mack Brain. Me…uh.. Private Eye – license 4342. Casa Madrona…right.  Bring a meat wagon, and get that snapper Kamala from the Examiner.  I need photos.“
I stood there for a moment, looking around.   Trying to think.  Not much came to mind.  A few naughty dreams, kited checks, a Doan's little liver pills jingle.  Bupkissarooni.  I was being set up like an Erector set with no candy to distract the little kid with the screwdriver.   Sure, I had Belinda Wheel's $300 wrapped up like a tidy little walnut in my pocket – but it had just been so much bait in the rodent trap, and I was the squirrel in question.  The only question: was I cover, or was it personal?
I turned to open the bedroom door and there stood a bird, the kind of bird you want to buy dinner and tequila and get all googly-eyed under the Moon and start looking for a nice place in Marin with. Hardly Belinda.  It was Imeldine Marquez-Marqueza, the Venezuelan B-Girl I shot an SS officer over in Venice.  I hadn’t seen her in months, and she was dark and fierce and soft and kind of squishy in the right places and she had an elegant but business-dealing Beretta pointed at particularly important things located right on me.  Her big black eyes were narrowed in determination, and her face was a fetching, high-cheek-boned mask of cool anger with a touch of rouge, but she smelled like a host of golden daffodils, and that scent brought me the image of Klaus the SS officers’s expression as I, disguised as a gondlier, unloaded the spear gun (disguised as the oar) into his sorry S.S. self , and then I watched that expression, frozen forever, sinking into the canal, his now watchless hand above the water dropping his final cannoli to give a last Hitler salute to Imeldine, a gesture I considered superfluous at the time.
“Nice watch, Mister Mack.” I glanced at Rutger’s Bulova. I noticed the moon was waning. Then the pieces came together like a Swiss watch.
“Imeldine! You killed Stingy Wheels!
“Oh, Mack, Sure I did, Mack, I killed Mister Stingy Wheels, and you’re going to the death chambers for it. The policemens will see the Mister Hitler and figured you killed up Mister Stingy just for being a Nazis.”
“Fair enough. I’ve got a lot of dead Kraut notches on my belt. ‘Smithsonian’s already called me about it for an exhibit after the war- Gum on the Streets: The Private Detective’s Private War Against Fascism. But why frame me for a one-bit two-timing four-stroke joker like Stingy Wheels?”
“I liked my SS Boy, Mister Mack. And you killed hims over me, and that watch. Normally, such a thing seems nice…
“Which must be why we did the box spring foxtrot all that week…”
“But he was so very blond, and so very tidy. I miss him so very much, Mister Mack.” Her expression changed, a fabric of determination dropped down her face like the safety curtain on amateur ventriloquist night. “Much, much more than I’ll miss you. ” Her gloved finger played coyly with the trigger.
“So why not just plug me?”
The question stayed unanswered when Imeldine glanced over to mortal remains of Stingy Wheels and noticed he didn’t remain remains. He was gone. Stingy Wheels wasn’t dead. He’d ducked out the back door when the Reaper came for the rent, and he’d left- bleeding his way quietly out while we were chatting over old times. A trail of Stingy Wheels’ gore stained the carpet.
“Where’s Stingy!? Where’s Mister Stingy!?”
“So you’re acquainted with Belinda Wheels, I take it,” I said, changing the subject.
The Beretta insisted we take up the subject at hand, and the light in the dining room shattered with the impact. It missed me deliberately. I played the warning shot cool, and looked in her shining black almond-shaped eyes – I saw the memories, the soft heart of a woman, her long brown hair cascading around her perfect café-au-lait skin, the love we had shared in the most romantic city on this tired, rotten, check-kiting planet, and as I reached out to stroke her cheek, I knew she would never really hurt me.
Then she shot me and left.
“Owww!” I said, collapsing to the floor just as the door closed behind her. The cute little round from the Italian gun hit in the meaty part of my left leg, and it felt like I’d been harpooned by a whaler named Queegqueegosconi. I passed out for a moment.
I woke up to a buzz on the intercom. They buzzed like cops: insistent, like they’d be disappointed if you answered and cheated them out of the fun of breaking down the door and beating you like a beet into borscht. You could tell a lot from a buzz.
I hobbled over and hit the button. “Come on in, bring a tourniquet, and tell your Sawbones his stiff is still walking around.”
They barged in guns drawn with Lt. Whitey in his trademark bowler, green plaid suit and corn pipe, and the photo-snapper from the Examiner, a plucky, increasingly busty blond and sometime college student named Kamala Fresher-Greens I knew from The Case of the Developing Coed. She immediately started snapping away at the various blood stains. Stingy Wheels might live, but his carpet was a goner.
The Lieutenant, a short, alphabet cube-like man, took a look at Stingy’s stains. He guessed what happened. “Send a man after that blood trail,” said Whitey. A cop ran out the door, toting a huge magnifying glass.
Kamala the photographer went to work. She had on her trademark short skirt and striped angora sweater, and kept bending into different interesting positions for a better camera angle, and I completely forgot that I’d been shot until Vick the medic pulled the slug out of my leg with a huge forceps you could’ve plucked Zeus’ nasal hair with. Vick stuck me with a morphine shot and started stitching up the wound right there.
“So the Wheels are still turning,” Whitey said in a low chuckle. He had a large head. Watery blue eyes. Sad-sack kind of face. Cheerful sort, a little clueless. I’ll never forget the time the President visited town for a city gala and he kept insisting Franklin and Eleanor both join the Conga line.
Whitey sat down at the table and took out his notepad. While Vick the doc tried to bandage me, I tried not to bleed on Whitey’s notes.
“Alright – Klaus, the SS officer – you iced him in Venice.. that one’s okay, I would imagine. Imeldina hosed you – just now? Yes? Ok, then she told you she shot Stingy, but only to ‘set you up,’ and now she’s skidoodled, but then there’s the Pensacoola Mamba with Belinda, who actually tried to hire you to bump him off, but it was at this intersection of time that you agreed to just persuade him to give her a divorce, rightey-o? You hep to that , daddy-o, old bean?”
“Where’d you learn your gab, Whitey, the Harvard Jazz Society?”
In the awkward silence after this crack we heard the click of women’s heels on the wooden stairs.
“You expecting anyone?” Whitey whispered.

”I’ll lay a dime to a Bavarian Blintz that’s Belinda Wheels,” I said, and everyone in the room suddenly decided to hide. Why wasn’t clear. Whitey ducked behind the window curtain, Vick the medic fled to the closet, two of the cops hid behind a kitchen counter, and Kamala leapt behind the couch where I was, covering us both a comforter.
“Calm down.” I said.
“Shh!” She said. She smelled sweet and a little chemical, like cherry blossoms, bubble gum and photo fixer.
The clicks stopped. There was a rattle of keys. The door began to creak open. I peeked through a fold in the comforter just in time to see a fat black gun barrel appear behind the door, along with a shapely leg in a fishnet stocking. It was Belinda, holding a Sten submachine gun. This was unexpected. A fear gripped me, like a cold, slimy herring head chomping on my wind-pipe from the inside, a fierce, fearsomely fearsome fear.
She arced the gun around with a cruel, professional air - someone who knew exactly how to swing the kind of gun so lethal that if you cheesed her off enough it could reduce the nation’s unemployment rate.
She didn’t even look around- I watched her cruel but winsome feet click their way straight over to where Kamala Fresher-Greens and I were busily cowering under the sea-creature themed comforter.
“Get up, Worm.” She said. She kicked off our comforter. “Oh, Hiya, Mack. Who’s the little Blondie?
“Her?” I pointed.
“No, Amelia Earhart. The cutie-pie you’re gripping like a lost kitten.”
“Please don’t shoot us.” Said Kamala.
“Nice to meet you too, Honey,” said Belinda. “ Cower here often?”
Too bad the cops weren’t here. Oh, right, they were. They were just too busy hiding.
“This is Kamala – Kamala Fresher-Greens, photographer with Examiner. What’s with the heavy artillery, Belinda?’
“I find it helps situations where boys are involved.” With the gun’s butt propped on a shapely hip, she was viciously beautiful, still pretty cruel, and a bit arch. Then she lowered the gun. “Look Mack, I’m on our side… I was expecting someone else – and we need to talk in private..” she helpfully dismissed Kamala with the gun barrel. Kamala went off to the living room.
“Stingy is still alive.” I said.
“Goddamn, that slippery little Nazi.”
“Stingy Wheels is a Nazi? But you were married! “
“Put your clutch in, dad, I married him on orders. He finally crossed a line, and I had to stay clean. When O.S.S. found out that Imeldine was in America, I gave her a little info about you and a fresh Beretta, I hoped she’d shoot him. Sorry about your leg. Don’t give me that look. I can tell you this much about Stingy– it’s the cupcakes.
“It’s always the cupcakes.”
“No, dumkoff, the actual cupcakes. “
“Cupcakes?” The Medic’s morphine blast got me feeling like a baked snack myself, a little spongy with my head covered in frosting with a cherry on top. But Belinda’s contacts went much higher than I thought: The O.S.S. The War Department. She was a spook and a dominatrix, sort of a spookinatrix. Thank God she was our spookinatrix.
“Cupcakes filled with smuggled uranium! Stingy like a lot of pasty chefs was more than a Nazi sympathizer– he was a part of the German-food based spy network, the Kriegsbäckerei. But it’s more than baked goods - Strings of bratwurst, liverwursts, wursts of all worlds. Königsberger Klopse, Schwarzbrot, Spanferkel: Radio-transmitters. Microfilm. Counterfeit bonds, respectively. I tell you this: check your Hochzeitssuppe HocH – last time I got a bowl I found the blueprints for the P-51 concealed in a sliced pancake. “ It was hard to imagine Belinda eating soup. It would be cruel.
“But …cupcakes… are an American invention.” I protested.
“So we have been conditioned to believe,” she said. “But if Stingy’s alive, he’s more dangerous now. He got the uranium by bribing a security guard on a Candian ore shipment who was really, really hungry with illegal Lukschen Kugel. His radioactive cupcakes – I can’t go into it – are the cute little snack cakes of the Apocalypse” Belinda said, with cruel conviction. “
“I suppose we could track him – maybe a…a.. Geiger counter,” the morphine was working its way in my brain like an troupe of tu-tu’ed ballet dancers into a junkyard- I was beside the lake, beneath the trees, cupcakes dancing in the breeze. Things were happening- Noises, cries like ghosts, people moved like clown shadows in the background. I was higher than a rocket junkie. “I hear the 1942 model can locate the little pink people that live in your lost socks.”
Belinda started shaking me. “Mack, the Medic, he juiced you way up – and he’s gone! And if we don’t get Stingy Wheels and those cupcakes, America might not have a 1943.”

I was drifting off again. Get Stingy Wheels. Get Stingy Wheels.