Note: For prompt 4 of Covid Metamorphosis, we were to retell a friend’s story, making it into something new. I used a story my former pre-school teacher told me, long after I was legal. I started writing this without picking names for the characters, and decided to keep it that way.
Saturday, San Francisco, ’73
They exited the restaurant, laughing. She was still wearing her server’s penny around her waist. He is jeans (and part of his shirt) were covered with spaghetti sauce. They both had long hair and both their jeans ended in bell-bottoms.
“I have a washer in my apartment,” she told him. “No dryer, but there’s a line on the balcony, and the coffee’s free. Or I could just give you quarters… ?”
“How far’s your place.?”
“Not far. Half a mile.”
“Just the curb. You’ll have to move it in the morning, though. Street cleaning.”
“You’re assuming I’ll be there in the morning.” It wasn’t a question. He was teasing her. Flirting.
“Mmm. Maybe. If you like my coffee.” She was teasing too.
They got in his old red beater, the perfect representation of the word “jalopy,” even though no one used that word anymore.
Her apartment was a flat carved out of what was once a single-family home. The balcony was really a broad landing on a fire-escape out the back, but the bathroom had a clawfoot tub and a Victorian shower, and the kitchen was bright and airy.
The bedroom… the bedroom was small, but neat. Colored scarves were pinned to the walls to hide the cracked plaster. They were hung over the windows, too, to filter the light. The living room had one of those famous San Francisco bay windows that everyone took pictures of.
“Strip,” she told him, directing him to the bathroom. “There’s a bathroom on the back of the door.”
Her robe, he realized putting it on. It ended a few inches above his knees. The arms came to a stop midway between his elbows and wrists. He walked out of the room on bare feet and handed her his balled-up clothes. Sheepishly, he told her, “My, uh, shorts are in there, too.”
She laughed. “So, you’re naked under my robe.”
She pulled off the penny and kicked off her shoes, both at once, then stepped out of her jeans in front of him. “We’re a little more even now.” All the discarded clothing joined his in the small washer tucked into the kitchen. She added soap and started the machine. “65 minutes, and don’t be alarmed if you hear thudding. It’s off balance… and really old. Coffee?”
She brewed it in one of those stove-top espresso machines that he’d only seen in art films – French and Italian, mostly – and it came out thick and strong. “There’s milk in the fridge.”
He found it, doctored his own coffee, and after a nod from her, splashed some into the other mug as well.
She brought out a box of Stella D’oro anisette toast. “I know… only old people eat these, right? But my grandmother loved them, and they taste like home.” He followed her into the living room, and they sat on her couch (it was covered with Mexican cotton blankets) and got to know each other.
“So, you’re not from the City?”
“Is anyone? No. From New Jersey.”
“I’m from Philly!”
He learned that she wanted to be a writer, and he could tell from the books piled everywhere that she was also a reader. He shared that he played the guitar, but really wanted to open his own café someday. “The kind of place that’s like a pub, but with coffee, you know? The neighborhood hangout.”
She told him about the “penny universities” from 18th and 19th century England and Europe, where scholars and writers and philosophers would often hold court all day, and people could come in and listen for the price of a cup of coffee – a penny – and a story.
He grinned. “That’s what I’m talkin’ about.”
“I’ve always wanted to have a table in a place like that, where I could sit all day and write and just let the sounds of the rest of the customers’ conversations wash over me,” she said.
The rain started just as the washer stopped.
“No problem,” he said. “Your oven work?”
It did, and he’d learned that if you bake jeans at 200(F) for 45 minutes, they were dry enough to wear. T-shirts, socks and shorts didn’t take as long, but they were using all the racks, so they set a timer for an hour.
She was standing behind him when he stood up, and it seemed only natural that they should kiss at that point.
Coffee and anise flooded his senses. Coffee and anise and sunshine, because her strawberry-blonde hair was bright like the sun and smelled like summer.
They kissed until they were out of breath.
“I want to make love with you,” he said.
“With? Not to?” She seemed amused.
“Sex should be equal, don’t you think? So, yeah, with.”
“Your clothes will burn.”
“Read me something you wrote then?”
They went back to the couch and she read to him from a well-worn moleskine notebook filled with penciled lines. Her poetry was raw and real, and her voice was strong as she read. As if she was used to it.
“You read to all the guys you spill spaghetti on?” he asked, teasing.
“No… only the ones who let me wash their shorts,” she shot back.
They laughed together, her warm alto and his lower base blending together.
The timer went off.
The clothing was still damp.
“I’ll turn it off,” she said. “Let them finish on their own heat.” She clicked off the oven, and they stared at each other for a long moment. “Bedroom’s this way,” she reminded him, and led the way.
* * *
They woke up hours later to find that the rain was still falling, and his clothes were dry. “I should go,” he said, more to give her an ‘out’ than because he truly wished to leave.
“Why?” she asked.
He didn’t have an answer.
In the morning, they showered (separately) and brushed their teeth (together) – she had a spare toothbrush. “Mom always sends one in every package,” she told him. “Yes, it’s true: my mother’s a dental hygienist.”
“My mom teaches Sunday school.”
“You know it.”
She didn’t work that day, so they got back in his car and went to find bagels and coffee. They ended up at a café in the Haight, not far from the diner where she worked. It was a busy morning. But then, all Saturday mornings were busy in that neighborhood, unless the Dead were in town. You could always tell if the Grateful Dead were playing nearby because the Haight would be empty.
They inherited a section of the daily paper from the previous occupant of their table – the obituaries – and had fun reading them aloud to each other and making up background stories for the people they’d read about.
“Vic Johnson, 79, leaves behind a wife, and three Puli dogs. Donate to the local Humane Society in lieu of flowers,” he read.
“Ohh, that’s sad. They tried to have children for years, and never managed. They adopted dogs instead and doted on them, except for the one time the oldest dog urinated on the wife’s heirloom quilt. They were His Dogs after that.”
“You’re better at this than I am,” he said.
“Well, I am a writer,” she pointed out.
They exited the café holding hands, only to find someone – tanned skin, dark brown hair and beard, paisley shirt draped carelessly over faded, ratty bell-bottom jeans – leaning against the car. He recognized him as the guy who lived down the hall from his apartment. They bummed weed from each other from time to time.
His neighbor started laughing. “Man, I saw your car and had to wait for you. I have this freaking fantastic story… I’ll tell it for a toke.”
He didn’t have anything, but she stepped forward. “A story for a joint?” And she pulled one out of the macramé bag she was carrying. “Do tell?”
The neighbor turned and pointed. “See that blue bug over there?” They looked at the car he was indicating. “So, I was walking by and I saw a fur coat in the back of that car. And I thought… that coat would buy a shit-ton of grass, right? So, I was gonna break into the car and steal the coat… and I put my hands up like this – “and he cupped his hands around his face – “to see in better, and I tapped on the back window to see if it was gonna be easy…”
“Seriously?” she was incredulous and turned to him. “How do you know this guy.”
“Neighbor,” he answered.
The neighbor kept going. “Anyway, I tapped on the window and all of a sudden the coat jumped up and started barking. Three heads. Gnashing teeth and curly black fur. Crazy, man. It was crazy. And then I saw your car and I thought, “Man, I gotta tell Barney.”
“It’s a good story,” he said, trying to ease out of the conversation. “But… I’m not Barney.”
“You’re not?” The neighbor peered into his face. “Man… you’re not. You’re… wait I know this… you live in 2 B.” He glanced at the woman with the strawberry-blonde hair. “Wait, then… you’re not Sheryl, are you?”
“Nope,” she said smoothly.
“You look familiar though… like… I’ve seen you before. With a plate. Dude! You’re the chick from the diner. Wow. Congrats, 2-B. Nice score!”
“And with that remark,” she said. “You’ve lost your chance for a joint.”
“Man, I didn’t mean… I’m sorry…” the neighbor turned around and pinned his gaze on someone else, up the street. “Hey… I see Barney. Actual Barney. He has to hear this story…” and the neighbor unpeeled himself from the car and walked off, still laughing.
They watched him go, then got in the red beater. It was, as far as they could tell, unharmed. “It’s a nice day,” she said. “Wanna go to Ocean Beach? Share this joint. Watch the waves?”
“Clam chowder after is on me.”
They drove through the city, enjoying the freedom of a sunny Saturday morning, when suddenly he slammed the breaks. “Damn!” he said. “I bet those dogs were poor Vic’s Pulis!”
Photo by Jeppe Hove Jensen on Unsplash
Wonderful. Excellently atmospheric. The details are spot-on. And I love the car.