"As I Was Up Above Paradise" -- An Urban Crime Story.Nov 11, 2003 Write an essay on this topic.
Popular Products in BooksThe Bottom Line Here's a story written for Frisco's Edinburgh Castle Writers Bloc, gathered by General Manager Alan Black, co-founder of the annual City Litquake. In town? Attend the December 19th Reading.
"As I Was Up Above Paradise"
"Who said gnats could talk?" Malena said, naked, peering about, wiping the sweat from her nose. "Dumb motherf*ckas for asking. Beats the f*ck out of me!"
I watched her from the bed. This abscess in my leg wasn't getting any better.
She hummed to herself as she pranced around the room like an insane kangaroo, swiping right and left, with a folded newspaper held over from breakfast. The place was thick with fruit flies.
"Have you . . . been-in . . . my-closet?" she asked, her head nodding, as it did, at times, when she had been out all night.
"No-o-o!" I snapped; I wanted to get out of this apartment; I tried to sit up. "Who the hell -- Oh-h-h! -- would want to go into that garbage heap?"
"Well, somebody put a million gnats in my closet. Now, how am I goin' to sleep in there?"
"Try stop leaving banana peels all over the place," I said, hauling myself up by the brass bedpost. "Try coming home in the evening before the bloody bugs can breed."
My feet found my slip-ons.
"When did Danny call?"
"I need something sweet, you know, at night?" She threw herself onto the warmth of the mattress where I had just been and, shivering, pulled the blankets up to her chin. "Your precious Danny called just after you hauled your a*s out of here for that union meeting last night. Just like he always does. Five minutes after you leave to go somewhere, the sh*tty-a*s little queer telephones -- Where are you going?"
"Down to Paradise. They tell me it's open again," I said, pulling on my old leather jacket. " See if I can raise him. Danny likes to hang out there. And maybe, if he's working, I can bleed out of Bazz that twenty bucks he owes me."
"He's a narc, you know?"
"Who? Who is?"
From the hanging pot of Fuschias, I snatched my keys, where she had left them this morning.
"Danny is, you dumb pus-sey."
"I'm a better man than you are a woman," I muttered, limping for the half-open door. That reminded me, and I turned back. "Let me have the paper. I was asleep when you brought it in."
"Don't I know it, n*gger?" she said, suddenly weepy, turning her back to me, throwing the paper over her shoulder at my feet. "Bring me, bring me back one of them mocha-latte things from Starbucks, then."
I looked down on her. I could have killed her just then, but I realized she was even more depressed and confused than usual. More than me even. I bent over and picked up the paper. "Who said Danny is a narc?"
"Flo-anne, Darleen, Leticia -- lotta my friends," she mumbled. "As soon as he walked in with you the other night. They knew!"
She burrowed her face deeper into the pillow. "Leticia says he works out of the Northern Station with that b*tch of his, Miriam."
"Malena, that's the same old bullsh*t they talk when they meet any man with a pair of balls," I snarled, starting to turn away. "I hope you left some gas in the truck!"
"You rotten pus-sey! How would you know?" Suddenly, she was out of the bed, in my face, her head twitching, her eyes blinking, sending out clouds of spit. "How you sitting up here, telling me what my friends know? You'll find out. Probly, when it's too late . . . Bastard! Leticia has more jailtime than either of us!"
"What does --" I almost laughed in her face. "What does that have to do with anything?"
I tried to edge past her, but she wouldn't let me, thrusting her breasts into me.
"Come on, Malena," I said, putting my hands on her shoulders. "I just mean, your friends can't know Danny. He spends most of his time with Miriam, buying her all them angora sweaters she likes. When he has two nickels to rub together. Hell, he can't even hold a grunt's job. How are the Police gonna hire him?"
Her face suddenly softened.
"He's smarter than you think," she whispered, shaking, going through some kind of spasm, tears running down her cheeks. "That's what I hear. That's f*ckin' what I hear. Danny -- always standing on the side when it goes down, with his dearest Miriam."
Malena stood a moment, one hand over her eyes, as if trying to remember something.
"I'm so wasted," she said.
Then, she grabbed me by the ear.
"Your precious Danny."
I winced in pain.
She gave me a wet kiss on the lips. "Don't bring him up here while my closet's full of that sh*t for Arnie, understand?"
"Ah-h, Malena . . . . "
"Abso-lutely not, n*gger." She patted me on the cheek, jangling the deadbolt keys to her closet, which she kept, naked or dressed, day and night, on a steel link chain around her neck. "Not a taste!"
"But I'm --"
"I know you are! But that's your DUMB-A*S fault. Get us some money and you can knock yourself out."
"And don't forget my mocha," she said, kicking my bad leg, and rolled back on the bed. "Lotsa sugar!"
I stumbled out almost whimpering, and down the hallway, to the old elevator.
Leaning there against the jamb, waiting for the creaking car, in that dim hallway which smelled of bacon grease, I thought: Eighteen years a carpenter in Frisco, f*cked over by two wives, three sons who hated me -- well, I got along all right with Mickey. Christ, I'd built two houses for them all! Ungrateful little bastards.
I heard Malena lock and double-lock the door behind me.
The elevator cage arrived and began its little dance, to let me in.
Now I was running errands for this harpy. Malena -- Ariadne, she called herself, then -- looked so good that night six months past, at The Top. I didn't know it at the time, but she was just out of rehab. I tipped the DJ to play "She's a Man-eater," over and over, as we moved on that little floor, under the whirling lights. How little I knew! And how many good jobs I'd lost since then. The goddamn sh*t! And then I let her open a vein in behind my knee with a GODDAMN ball-point pen refill! I must be a little nuts.
I slid back the gate and eased my left foot into the cage.
Maybe Danny had heard of some work. His name was just two above mine on the list down at the Hall.
Malena was cranking up some outfit called Troublemakers on our old Hitachi. She played the group all the time now. I felt their vibrations in the metal of the elevator's grating. She must be expecting the call soon.
My leg hurt like a sonovab*tch.
The Paradise Lounge had been closed for a couple of months, ostensibly for repairs. I pushed through the familiar side door, noting the changes as I climbed the stairs to Above Paradise. Everything looked cleaner, painted, spiffed up, but it still had the feel of an old loft.
Sure enough, Bazz was wrestling a beer keg at the back of the little bar. No Danny though.
Julie, the tall brunette, who helped design sets at the Curran, was the only customer in the place.
"Hello, stranger," she said. "Danny was just asking me about you here, the other night."
"Have you seen him?" I asked, limping away from her to the big windows that looked down on 11th Street.
"Not today, Jim." She walked over behind me, carrying her drink. "He'll probably turn up. He often does."
In the pale noon sunshine, the two guys that Malena -- paranoid that she was -- had marked, outside our apartment house, were sitting in a truck. I had seen them pull up as I walked to the sidedoor of Paradise. At the corner opposite, on Folsom, I thought. Where they can watch the door.
"Tell him I want to see him."
"You know, I still have that swan you carved for me for my birthday. You're very talented. You should be doing things creative." Julie wore a checkered Italian jockey's cap pulled low on one side of her face so that her head appeared to grow out of it. She leaned close to me, playing with ringlets of dark hair around her ear, the rim of her cap touching my forehead, providing a stage for her pretty oval features. "What do you know about Danny?" she whispered.
"They've really fixed up the Paradise Lounge," I remarked. I turned and retraced my steps, glass in one hand, tossing my keys restlessly. "Nothing much. As far as I can tell, Danny's just a dumb bastard who used to have a problem with dope."
"He says he's some kind of official now," Julie said, rejoining me.
"Never heard that." A second job for Danny I didn't know about, I mused. "But he's only been around here a few months."
"Union, maybe," she suggested. "Do you know, your eyes are bloodshot?"
I reached over the bar, snatched up a bit of ice, and threw it at the back of Bazz's bald head. He turned around, laughed, set down the keg he was carrying, and wiped his hands on a towel hanging from his hip pocket. "Jim, you old pervert," he chortled, coming toward us. "Sorry, I figured you were occupied. What can I do you for?"
"Let me have a Sierra Pale," I said, easing down beside Julie. "Give Julie what she wants."
She pointed to her near empty glass. Buzz splashed his hands in the water, and in almost one motion filled her a glass with Campari over rocks, a dash of soda and a squeeze of lime. Then he stood with a smile on his half open mouth as he drew my pint, his eyes peering over my shoulder.
"Have you seen Danny?" I asked.
"Funny you should ask," he replied, putting the ale carefully in front of me. "Here the devil is now!"
We sat by one of the little tables in front of the window.
"Sure you don't want a beer?" I asked.
"Naw," Danny said. "I'm on duty."
"Duty!" I laughed, and took a big swallow.
"Yeah, Jim, didn't I tell you?"
"Tell me what?"
Danny was a runty little guy, a few years older than me, maybe late 40's, with a jaundiced skin and thin chapped lips which turned down. He had a light sweat on, as if after a jog, and when Bazz pointed to him in the doorway a few moments before, he had bolted in as if the bartender had fired a starter's pistol. It vaguely occurred to me, in my pain and need for something stronger than booze, that he was acting oddly, that he had made an entrance.
"Yeah, man," he said, sitting back nervously, stretching out his legs, a smug smile on his drawn face. "Them Chinese bastards way out on 17th Street? When they laid me off that condo project you and me were on, I put in a grievance, the way you shoulda. An' guess what? The Local made me a steward."
"A steward?" I said, mildly astonished. My leg was beginning to throb. I took the newspaper out of my pocket and laid it on the table beside my keys.
"Yeah-h-h. I tried to call you, but you were always out." He stared out the window. "Always got your black chick instead."
"Why didn't you tell me the good news when I came across you the other night?" Trying to deflect attention that I was massaging my leg through my coat pocket, I scanned the headline in the Chronicle: "SHOOTOUT AT AIRPORT."
Danny looked flustered for a second, as he often did.
Down the street, I could see from the corner of my eye, the two guys were still watching the front door of the Paradise.
"Well, them b*tches you and Malena were with, they p*ss me off," he said. "I didn't expect to see them there. I've had trouble with them before."
Danny crossed his arms over his chest and stared at me.
"Sorry," he continued, "guess I just forgot to pass on my good fortune about my new job, the Union scam, as you would put it." He sat forward earnestly, took the paper out of my hand, and tapped my glass. "So, say, how are you doing, Jimmy?"
As he asked the question, and I began to tell him how broke I was, and how I needed a job, Julie came over and stood with her glass in her hand at his shoulder, looking at me.
"Mind if I join you?" she asked.
The red liquid jiggled at her breast.
"Julie," Danny said, looking up, glancing at the clock over her shoulder, a slight edge of irritation in his voice. "Be a good gal, for a moment. I got to catch up with my bro here."
She gazed at me a moment longer. I nodded.
"Okay," she said, setting her glass on the table. "I'm going downstairs for a smoke."
When she had started down the stairs, I leaned toward Danny, like a conspirator.
"I'm all right," I said, "I just need a job, Danny, but my calf, an' especially my knee, is hurting me like a sonovab*tch. That's why I can't get work."
"What'd you do to it?" he asked, tilting his head to stare at my out-thrust leg. "You seemed fine at the Expansion the other night."
"I cut it," I said, taking another mouthful of ale. "Then -- yesterday morning, it was -- the wound turned all green. I could hardly walk when I went along to the Union meeting last night."
He looked up at me quizzically.
"I'll show you." I leaned down, twisted my leg over, pulled up the cuff of my jeans, and showed him the large Band-Aid, soaked through with something yellowish-green on the back of my calf, like an ooze of battery corrosion. A thin red line I hadn't observed this morning was running from the upper edge of the bandage out of sight, behind my knee. "I think it's . . . blood poisoning, maybe."
"You ought to have someone look at that," Danny said. "Is Malena helping you out?"
"What you think?"
"I think you oughta get rid of her. Why you still with Maya?"
"Maya? Who's Maya?"
Danny waved hand in front of his nose, as if to disperse a bad odor.
"Maya, Malena, Evie." He paused, and pointed a forefinger and cocked thumb at me. "When I first saw her, years ago, Malena called herself Mirabelle, then Ariadne. She's had a lotta names . . . Whatever -- Why you still with the b*tch? She's bad news."
"I'm sorry for her. The baby she lost," I said. "Guilt, I guess."
"Black b*tch," he snapped, crossing his legs. "Always full of sh*t. I hear she still deals, that right?"
I sat back and took a tiny sip of ale.
"Not to my knowledge," I lied.
Julie came tripping back in, then, and Danny dragged a chair over for her. As she sat down, she bent from him and toward me, reaching out for my shoulder. She pulled the silver and turquoise bracelets back on her bare arm.
"You okay?" she asked, her blue eyes sending a balm of concern.
For an instant, it was magic.
"No, he's not okay, sweethearts," Danny broke in. He drew a worn brown morocco wallet from his pocket. "Julie, want you to do me a favor for Jim here. You busy?"
"No, guess not. All done with our Long Day's Journey into Night set," she said, her eyes still on me. "At Noon, today."
She turned to Danny. "Sure. What?"
"Take Jim in his truck -- he's in no shape to drive that junker -- over to the Kaiser Medical on Geary." He handed her a card. "He's got a septic leg. I saw 'em in 'Nam, when I was eighteen. Lotsa legs lost. Give that to Dr. Barganzo's advice nurse, 4th Floor, Northeast, General Meds. She'll take care of him. Otherwise, he might lose it."
"No, no," I protested, suddenly in a panic. "I'm goin' to make like a spaceman, pals, and blast out of here. There ain't nothing really wrong with me."
"The hell there ain't!" Danny said. "Is Malena home?"
I lurched to my feet and tried to make for the door, but the room started going round and round. Julie . . . Danny . . . all the bottles . . . Danny . . . Bazz . . . the ceiling fan . . . Julie's arm under my shoulder . . . Bazz coming from behind the bar, his eyes open wide.
I came crashing down on the table. The glasses falling all around my head.
"Easy, Jimmy, easy!" When I came to, Bazz was pulling me to my feet in a bear hug. "This is like when we were on the wrestling team at Riordan, or was it when we were in rehab?"
He sat me in the one chair remaining upright.
Julie was wiping the beer and Campari off the side of my face.
"A glass was broken," she said. "I think it's cut your ear! You ARE a poor dear astronaut."
Danny leaned in. "Here, Julie, here's his keys. I've got to make a phone call, and then we'll help him down to his truck. Kaiser, Divisadero and Geary, you know the way."
While Bazz swept up the floor around me, Julie stood, one hand on the back of my neck, the other holding my Chronicle, watching Danny go toward the pay phone in the other room. I could feel her trembling.
When Julie drove me back from the hospital three hours later, there was an ambulance and two cop cars outside my apartment house.
"Someone must be sick," I said, a little stiff from the fall, and groggy from the medication for my leg. "Why the cop cars, I wonder?"
"If I'd brought you back here first, the way you wanted," Julie laughed, as she pulled to a stop, "you could have had a comfy ambulance and a police escort to Kaiser!"
I wanted to tell her to drive on, but then, I saw two attendants wheeling a gurney out the front door. Malena was on it, all strapped down.
Jumping from the cab, hopping with the crutch they gave me, I reached her side.
"They busted us, you stupid c*nt," Malena croaked through something they had stuck in her throat. "Had the warrant and everything. Told you, your motherf*cking friend was a narc!"
"Better not talk, ma'am," one of the attendants said.
"Look in your paper, the n*gger who shot hisself."
The attendants hooked the gurney into the track at the back of the ambulance.
"Next to last page," she persisted, her eyes bursting from her head, her voice rising in a wheeze, reaching silver ringed fingers toward me. "I tried to tell you. Kept forgetin' it. I was so . . . TIRED! I tried to tell you, you MOTHERFA-a-a!"
Her voice gave out, and the other attendant stepped in front of me, shaking his head. They loaded Malena, who was making keening sounds, into the back of the ambulance. The last I saw of her before they closed the doors, a few fruit flies were gathering over her hair.
I pulled the Chronicle out of my pocket.
I didn't see what she meant, not right away. It was the front-page story about the shootout at the Airport, continued on page A14. I scanned the paragraphs about some guy who had shot somebody and then hid out with a woman, or held a woman hostage -- everyday stuff like that -- in a motel.
"Are you James Alexander Black?" a voice said.
I looked up from the paper. A Sergeant of the SFPD was standing in front of me.
"Yeah, I'm Jim Black."
"The super says you live in . . . " He consulted his notebook. "Apartment 206, with a Miss Malena Ariadne Hunter. That right?"
I lowered my eyes back toward the newspaper, trying to think of something innocent to say, and that's when, simply by chance, I really looked at the photographs, which ran down the right side of the page. In the second one, standing beside a police sharpshooter on the motel balcony, was Danny, his arms folded. Beside him in one of her white angora sweaters was Miriam.
"Ah-yeah . . . that's right," I said, dropping the newspaper.
"Would you mind coming with us?" He pointed to the cruiser. "We'd like to ask you some questions."
"Okay-y-y," I said, gazing over his shoulder, to where Julie was standing, her hand over her mouth, by my truck. "You'll have to give me a fix first though."
"Julie!" I waved my hand at her. She gave a tentative wave back. "Would you drive my truck back to Paradise?"
"You want a what?"
"Leave the keys with Bazz!"
She nodded, very slowly.
"Sorry, Sergeant," I said, holding out the packet of pills in my hand. "I meant I need a little water for this . . . Na-bum-atone they gave me for my leg and back, at the hospital."
"You'll get all the water you want downtown, sir."
I watched Julie drive my battered truck down the hill and out of sight. God knew when I'd see her or the truck again. Julie might just be the woman I'd looked for my whole bastardly life. And now she was lost to me. I had no idea what they had on Malena, but what they had on her, they must have on me.
It came to my rattling brain -- from a morphing in my mind's eye of the picture in the newspaper -- that I might see Danny before I saw either Malena or Julie. Maybe, he would still be my pal, but I could never abandon Malena, and I would never be able to embrace Julie. I was f*cked again, possibly for the last time.
The police ducked my head into their Black and White.
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