The Grateful Dead Society
My apartment was quiet and felt almost as if it was expecting something to happen when I returned to it. I had left the curtains drawn and the television on, trying to fill up the emptiness with sound and softened light in my absence. In the end life is a series of holes that we all try to fill in whatever way we find easiest. Some fill their holes with seeking the love and warmth of other people, others fill their empty spaces with stuff and money and material success, but money and gold and solid oak furniture never did keep anyone warm at night. Some try alcohol and cocaine, or heroin and lsd or whatever combination of psychotropics and dampeners work to make it all seem fuller and less void. Still others use religion and philosophy to make sense of all the emptiness. There are infinite ways to paint over the blankness of existence and the fear of the great eternal unknown. There are worse ways than drawing curtains and playing inane banal chatter from the TV screen when absent, and music and words when present. It is strange how much Georgia O’Keefe’s poppies look like pussies with their deep reds and dark black empty spaces, I thought to myself as I settled on the couch and considered my options. I had filled my walls with Alice in Wonderland, O’Keefe’s flower paintings and shelves of books. My bed was covered in a busy pretty feminine pattern and my tea cup was always full, even if the tea inside it was cold.
I know I am living a life full of other people’s spaces and voids, deaths and absences, and there is nothing I can do about it, except embrace it. I padded over to the kitchen in my fuzzy socked feet, running a hand through my short ugly hair. It was a wonder anyone could bear to look at me any longer. I wondered if I made people as uncomfortable as they made me feel, or if it was a wholly one sided thing. Not living wholly with the alive, nor totally in the land and society of the dead was not the ideal state of affairs. A ghostly hand semi materialized and patted my own, and as it did I dropped my mug on the floor, sending a splatter of cold tea across the kitchen tiles and my koala socks. The rest of the body materialized. It was Her. Her thin open goofy face looking into mine from only an inch away, quizzical and sad, her waif-like cold body huddled into a blanket, her soft faded out brown hair hanging around her face. My heart gave a lurch. She moved her other hand to my face and sent icicles spearing my nerve endings, kissing my cheek with parched blue lips. “Go,” she said, and with that disappeared as fast as she turned up.
It was simultaneously comforting and horrifying to see the child there right in front of me. She had no business turning up and breaking my heart again, yet she knew better than my own shadow, that I should dress for the evening and head out towards Bridge Span and The Grateful Dead Society.
There is something about that walk downhill towards North Beach. This time there was no Maria, no dog walker and their snappy canine. There was a wholly different crowd to the daylight fussers, walkers, workers and light-time spirits. There were the sleeping bag and cardboard shelter crowd, unhoused and forgotten in the daylight, but coming to life in the dark hours, taking over doorways and side streets, eating sandwiches and granola bars, sipping at energy drinks and sodas, participating in their own sub economy of food deals and all kinds of exchanges involving the necessities of survival. There was a whole sub-community after dark, after hours, after the housed and privileged world took their places inside their houses watching Netflix and eating whole foods salads and frozen trader joe’s suppers. The street women and the corner boys stood like twin phalanxes holding up both ends of the San Franciscan dark economy. Uber drivers zipped up and down California delivering people and packages, McDonalds hamburgers and boba teas around the city. I didn’t want to explain to anyone why I was headed down into North Beach so late at night, nor be clocked as breaking into a bookstore, even if it was not to steal, but to talk.
I could feel it as soon as I walked past the cheap Japanese restaurant just before the turn onto Grant. Photographs on the side of the building advertised everything from pizza to teriyaki and spring rolls, tired looking dangerous sushi and yesterday’s old news pinned up at the grimy windows. It’s peeling blue paint announced it was ‘The Finest in Japanese Cuisine’, but the entire ambience was beyond shabby and shifted into being some kind of extreme sport, the price for failure being food poisoning of some vaguely exotic and painful kind. A single wispy figure stood outside Takashi’s, as a almost unseen nail in the coffin of the desirability of the place as somewhere anyone would actually want to eat. His thick black spikey hair had a life of its own, moving in an invisible breeze independently from the still midsummer dry warmth. Around him a rain storm rained just on his shoulders and damped down that magnificent hair, his eyes glowed purple and alone. He pulled his torn dark blue raincoat around his shoulders a little tighter and shifted the memory of a bag from one hand to another, waiting for a bus that had been and gone a few thousand times over since those open toed sandals and flared pants were in fashion. I felt the urge to go over and ask him what was wrong, but this was not the day to go adding to my complications and besides perhaps he himself was a memory rather than a fully realized consciousness.
Dragon Gate stood there inviolable, rooted, permanent, anchored into the ground on that warm summer’s night, as the clock struck 1.30pm. Twisting around it were small creatures, little dragons, the faces of small and beautiful air spirits with the bodies of dogs and serpents, various serious faced practitioners of long forgotten arts, and the ghosts of half of North Beach’s cats, their eyes glowing like amber and jade in the ancient street light haze. A yellow smoke wrapped itself around the upper portion like a banner or a promise. Faces pressed up against windows from the outside, their legs hanging in mid-air. Faces peered out of windows out at scenes which had long since passed, I suspect. Hands pulled interestedly at my jacket and curled bony long-dead fingers round my hair and grasping on my ankles. I stopped a moment and stared down at the curious fingers and peering faces. “No!” I barked loudly. “Just no! You guys know better!” And with that, amid much scowling and grouching the fingers and faces backed off slightly and allowed me to pass.
Just past a small souvenir shop, open till late, but not this late, that sells postcards and prints, fridge magnets and various Chinese themed San Franciscan tourist trap knickknacks and somehow stays afloat year after year despite seemingly selling very little, is the entrance to the Chinatown end of Jack Kerouac Alley. It used to be called Adler Alley, or Adler Place back in the day. Kerouac used to hang out at Bridge Span on one side of the North Beach end of the alley, and the venerable and permanent Café Vesuvio on the other. This was his old stomping ground, his old home, and marked the transition between the twilight zone of Chinatown, and the scuzzy but fertile artistic lands of the North Beach writing scene. It seems so long ago now, before I was born, certainly, that this was the center of the artistic universe, but still the creativity soaked into the bones of North Beach and it felt warm and alive.
Alive is a relative matter in my world, and the edges blur between living and dead. Somehow the lost souls of the city are mostly less defined than the stubborn souls of North Beach.
The Lights were all off at Bridge Span, at least the ones that those outside could see. I walked up to the side door that leads out into the alley and knocked softly against the metal door at stood between a mural of Bruce Lee and a psychedelic scene in blues and oranges. The door stayed shut, but Telluride’s bony old head poked through the metal door and peered left and right down the alleyway, only slightly dislodging his fedora, and blurring his chalky features. I stepped back slightly, determined not to show fear, and he grinned wildly, pulling his head back through the door, and opening it so my rather more fleshy body could enter the bookstore.
The upper floor was empty and deathly quiet, but a small glow emanated from the downstairs section. Someone had pinned a small scrawled sign above the staircase, just where ‘mind your head’ should be. It read ‘Post Mortem Vita’. After Death, Life. Various other pages were pinned up, with bon mots, interesting quotes and stained sheets of typewriter paper, trailing spools of still useful typewriter ink cartridges. Candles flickered softly. It had the atmosphere, not of a tomb, but of a rather hip and exclusive meeting of minds. The final sign, wrought in a perfect stylish flourish read “The Grateful Dead Society: Speak Easy, All Who Enter Here!” The soft hum of conspiring artists came from the lower basement room. I stood there, almost unable to continue, when at least half a dozen faces peered around the staircase corner and smiled at me widely.
The man with the hammer, introducing himself as Darth Vader, then switching to King Richard, before finally settling on Brando, came and took my arm, charmingly leading me into the room with a sparkle and a glint in his eye.
The room was moving with shadows, semi-formed manifestations, and not a small number of fully realized physically present spirits. Brando’s hammer was tucked into his belt, his hands looked strong and supple. He held them in front of him like a man with something to defend or else everything to lose. It takes guts or at least a measure of recklessness to be the only living girl in the basement of a bookstore, and I don’t consider myself to have either. What I do have is curiousness and a desire to function in a life that has thrown me curveballs. I intend to bat them right back and keep on truckin’ and the Grateful Dead Society looked like my best option.
The shy faced hider-behind-pillars stood to the left of Brando, and nodded towards me silently. Various bearded gentlemen mingled with long stockinged women. A tall woman in overalls, a headscarf and men’s boots, a tool belt slung about her waist and an unearthly cigarette between her lips strode over, flickering in and out of visibility, proffering one long elegant hand and waiting for me to reach out and touch her presence with my own. “Rosie,” she said abruptly, in a voice that didn’t sound as if it had been used in many years. Standing behind her a tall dark gentleman wearing a smart black suit, brushed and neatly placed top hat and starched bib, but his shoeless feet dripping river water onto the basement floor, that puddled and formed rivulets, but failed to spread beyond the borders of his existence. In his hand he held a letter, sodden and eternally falling apart. He stood there looking stoically solid, a sheer force of will, that would not allow him to dissipate. He clearly was very attached to Rosie.
There are some times in life that the only possible choice is to go with the flow, anything else shows weakness, and that can be very disturbing and dangerous, if not fatal. A little like running past a perceived threat can draw its prehistoric mind towards you and your existence. Show no fear is my motto. Don’t make myself an attractive victim, pass by unnoticed. Despite the shivers up my spine and my subconscious brain demanding that I stop and run right now, I made muscle and sinew and flesh obey and reached towards Rosie’s offered hand. As my hand touched the electricity of her being those familiar electroshocking icicles shot up my arm. She held on grinning. I grinned back through gritted teeth. Much like any feral animal, it is unwise to show fear in the face of an aggressive spirit.
“Put her down, Rose,” the man with the water flowing from his mouth and ears and nose, demanded assertively. “She has done nothing to you. Yet. Play nice.” Rosie’s smile stopped abruptly, and her hand dropped soon after.
Telluride appeared with a flourish that I suspect was mostly for my benefit more than anything more realistic, waving his hand, phantom of the opera style, in front of his face, and using his oversized trench coat as a cape or a shield, sweeping to the center of the room in a gesture of high drama. “Post Mortem, Vita!” After death, life! He declared to the assembled dead masses. “Mortui post vitam velocitate colligentes!” the crowd returned with guts and a flourish of their own. “After life, the dead gather speed!” The room was awash with electricity, strength and sadness. After life, death. After death, life. The serpent eats its tail, and time keeps on turning despite the mundane demands of a society that fails to see what is right under its communal nose.
Telluride called order, banging on the case of his Underwood making the insectoid inhabitants of the keys and ribbons hiss and squeal in indignation. “We have a visitor,” Telluride started.
“Stating the bloody obvious again, are we Telluride?” A reedy British voice clipped and carefully curated, cut through the air like a knife. Telluride raised one ivory eyebrow. A spirit with dull brutal features, as if not so much hewn or carved out of rock, but rather smashed by one, laughed and waved an Italian glass-barreled hypodermic syringe in the air jeering loudly. This set of paroxysm of delight amongst the collected 19th century fur traders, opium den denizens, beat era box car riders and 1960s hippy flower children. I pointed towards a curly haired young Rimbaud type, and moving closer to the relatively easy company of Brando, whispered at him, “hey, Brando..babes…isn’t HE still alive?” Brando smiled back at me like a sycophantic wine waiter congratulating me on my expensive and refined taste and choice of bottle.
“I see you picked him out,” Brando replied with the same creepy smile. “He is an odd one. Might be the key to Everything, Missy. Indeed, he is alive still, but that part of him that you see here is not alive. That is his soul, we think. The soul is not aware that his body is alive.” A hell hound whimpered at the ankles of the young man with the wild hair and the high necked flouncy shirt with his severe collarless gallic jacket and striped black and white vaudeville pants. The inkwell he hauled around stained his fingers, and the fountain pen trailed words as he stood alone and isolated. Even the ghosts of North Beach were scared of him. There was something off and creepy about his predicament.
Everything was a performance, everything was art down there in the basement. Even the door had graffiti which declared both its affiliations and intentions. It was the way it had to be. Art was the entire reason for the Grateful Dead Society’s existence. The night’s business moved on quickly. There were disputes over territory, who was haunting who and why, a couple of complaints of plagiarism and one nasty spat over ownership of the title ‘Head Honcho’ of the treasury. It seems that even ghosts have uses for money. Finally, after a few poetry readings of mixed quality, and an update on progress in the matter of manipulating the physical work and experiments in communication, the curiosity got too much for the Society to bear.
“Look”, said the quiet man with the road curling above his shoulder, “I don’t know about you all, but I am wondering if Miss-‘I-See-Dead-Things’ there has any interest in being a conduit for literary explorations, and post mortem material, because if she is, I am claiming first dibs on her time.” Uproar ensued. Painters waved brushes, notebooks flew across the room, sending the President of the Department of Moving Shit into rounds of applause and happy whooping. Telluride observed the mini riot with a blankly unhappy countenance. It appeared to be his previous concerns were not unjustified.
“Well?” Telluride motioned to me from the lectern, his skeleton clicking and clacking disturbingly. I do not know what possessed me at the time, but somehow these words escaped from my mouth:
“I need some help from you all. There is a nasty situation up near my apartment off Van Ness. A ghost, name of Maria, seems unaware she is dead, and is haunting her ex boyfriend. She is escalating and I fear for both her and him if something is not done. If you can help me help Maria and Joey, I will take a small number of requests of the kind that I feel able to do. I am not much of a painter. Sorry. I can type, though.”
“What kind of problem?” asked Telluride.
I explained Maria and the replay of her death,
It was entirely the right and the wrong thing to say. The atmosphere changed from charged and unruly, to serious and contemplative. It was then that the lights went out and the earth started to shake.
There have been better times for an earthquake I am sure, but feeling the ground itself buck and shake and rebel in that basement, and the absolute failure of most of the Society to react with anything like usual fear, was certainly disconcerting, if not immediately dangerous.
“The Gods don’t like it!” Yelled a small man in a prayer shawl and thumbing beads between two fingers. “Buddha be damned! There must be a sacrifice of at least three unblemished virgins into the volcano!” “Shut up, Brian,” snapped a tall thing woman with severely bobbed hair, wielding a cigarette holder and opium pipe. Her beaded dress jingled and jangled faintly in the silence of the North Beach night. “There are no virgins anymore, let alone unblemished ones, you know that. “Worms shall try that long preserved virginity!” shouted a tax collector from the back rows. “Marlowe?” asked Rosie. “Marvell” replied the second-rate Rimbaud with the live body and the dead soul. Everyone became silent as soon as he spoke. It was all his fault.
“Hey,” he carried on. “Groovy. I will swap you an hour of your time for three hours of mine. I can move around the City easy enough. Some of our friends here might not like to admit it, but they are anchored to this district, they can’t leave. Ain’t that right, Telluride?” I took one look at Faux-Rimbaud’s 26 year old countenance and wondered just how safe it was to hang around with the living dead. “Groovy.” I replied almost unironically. Highway Man, Brando, Rosie and her protector, plus a small faintly balding young man-spirit with a Kodachrome camera tethered around his neck, all determined to see if they could make it out that far and see what was going on. The natives were getting unruly. It was clearly time to split.
Stepping out into the cold 3am night air, San Francisco either sleeping or dealing, with a gaggle of Ultra Alive at my back, trailing a ghostly hell hound, drooling lava with a mean look in his eyes, a nervous but attentive photographer, Revenant Rosie and her ghostly beau, and the errant New York beat-drawling Faux Rimbaud I did wonder about my sanity. It was not only dark, but eerie. Even the homeless were in their tents and under their blankets. No one with half a mind wants to look at what happens outside without the safety of four walls and a roof at 3am.
We lost Rosie and her lover half way up California. The atmosphere started to pull and twist at her features, and she became less and less solid the further away from North Beach we got. Her top hatted suitor, dripping unholy ghostly water as he stepped alongside her, finally stopped. “This is as far as we can go,” he stated, removing his hat and dipping his head slightly. Rosie shuffled her feet, and smoothed her hair behind her ears. “Sorry, Wendy. I’m losing integrity, I feel as if I am a long piece of gum being stretched, a bubble being blown, I am going to snap back any second now. I guess I can’t go that far away from The Place.” The Place was talked about in hush tones at the Grateful Dead Society. It was where they were attached to, where the person died, or where they were happiest, or where they were buried, or where their loved ones were and used to be. It was a point of almost embarrassment. The Place was what it was: a physically mandated area of operation. Some said Buddha would not allow free rein of the dead. Others said it was Yahweh. No one really knew, since none of the Gods ever turned up and said anything the moment of death or at any point in the Hereafter that any of the Ghosts of North Beach had experienced. Occasionally a bright light would appear and a little second death occur, the departing spirit heading into a golden circle of brightness. No one ever reappeared to report back on what happened to the soul after that. The afterlife appeared to be either a punishment or a waiting room, perhaps even an alternative solution to death, but no higher power ever came to lead the way. The ghosts were on their own.
The prevailing view of the Grateful Dead Society was that humanity had been deserted and left to their own devices. It was determined to carry on without waiting or expecting, and whilst a few spirits kept on their earthly worship past death, irritating everybody in the process, most simply accepted the reality of the situation without worrying too much about the ‘why’. It was only on Halloween that the dead could move away from their Place and wander freely. Some took trips as far away from The Place as they could get in 24 hours. Others contented themselves with walking up a hill and watching the sun set, poking their heads into houses and playing pranks on the living. It was far away from Halloween, and the situation with Maria simply could not wait.
Faux Rimbaud had very little struggle leaving North Beach, and I didn’t doubt if he wanted he could get on a plane anywhere in the world and remain intact. Telluride, Kodachrome and Brando held up just fine. Tagging behind was Highway Man, complaining about the lack of a vehicle. Bickering ensued about the feasibility of stealing a car. I pointed out that I was not going to hotwire a corvette, and car alarms were a thing nowadays. Kodachrome, slightly built and intent on taking ghostly images on his phantom camera, trotted behind. “He died in Vietnam,” Brando explained. “War journalist. His name is Tom. He was sitting in The Continental Palace in Saigon, when some guy called Roland bet him that he would not go out on a mission with a small squadron. Called him a phony and a pussy. Roughed him up a bit. So, New York Tom here got himself a helmet and a flak jacket and a printed press pass and headed out into the jungle with a group of hard hittin’ ear collectin’ , village burnin’, grandma rapin’, shotgun surfin’ acid freaks aka as the __th Division. The “Kill Me Collective” they called themselves. Roland set it up. Tom had no idea what he was getting into. One of them put a bullet in his head when he refused to join in with their shenanigans, threw him into a hut and torched his body. Of course, the powers that be wrote it off as enemy action, gave his mother a flag and a posthumous medal, hushed it all up.
“Terrible,” I murmured..”But I fail to see how New York Tom ended up having free rein of San Francisco.” Tom caught up, jogging nervously. “I had a date here with this girl. We said we would meet up in San Francisco when I got home. Never did specify where in San Francisco we would meet up.” Yeah,” said Brando, “the kid got lucky.”
“Hardly!” I snapped back. Tom looked at me appreciatively: “It would appear that I can go anywhere within the boundaries of the City. If I try and get to Daly City, or go over the bridge, I fade out fast.” Tom looked at me wistfully. “Tom is very good at moving shit as well as moving around shit, as long as it is in the City. Handy at communication, and hardly ever goes into replay mode,” Brando continued, while Telluride glared at him, eyes burning red in the dark and drizzle. “He might not look like much, but he is very useful.” Brando was spinning and throwing the hammer up into the air and catching it on the downward stroke without missing a beat, so skillfully he could have drummed up an audience and collected spare change from the gawkers.
North Beach at night was an atmospheric proposition. A drunk man lurched around an alleyway, peering on the floor as if looking for something he had lost, scuffling around in the trash and the dirt and the dark. It is a strange feeling to be walking alone down a street, to all intents and purposes isolated and unprotected, a single woman in the middle of the nighttime hours, yet accompanied by a gaggle of tough and partially armed street scrabbling men…who just happened to have lost their bodies. Broadway is the gateway to North Beach, the merchant and entertainment center of the center of the world. It’s small alleyways and wide streets lined on either side by cafes and bars, underground head shops and hipster emporiums of various kinds. All of this was closed and dark. Some windows were boarded up, others had grills pulled over hoping to avoid the stealers and snatchers, taggers and smashers. The TransAmerica pyramid presides over the skyline, silently waiting for a Pharaoh to turn up and claim eternal ownership, a secular object of obsession, a capitalist esoteric statement of intent. This City was going to live forever, and to hell with the rest of the world. North Beach felt like the center of the universe back then, on that night, for the time I swept down the street with my friends. All my friends are dead. Plus ca change…the more it stays the same.
The Sentinel building, mossy with verdigris straddles Chinatown, North Beach and the Financial District. It stands there, copper covered and aging gracefully, containing secrets and success. Brando turned to me, “There used to be a club there back in ’49 or ’50, I forget now. The Hungry i. They were gonna call it The Hungry Intellectual, but they ran outta paint. A strip club stole the name, operated a little way down Broadway.” Brando started to wander towards The Sentinel, with a look of desire on his hollow-man face. He drifted towards an open window, rose into the air like steam and disappeared. I stood there, horrified. I don’t know what disturbed me. I know spirits can sneak through the cracks of time and life and mortar and bricks and even copper. I know keeping them out is like fighting an infestation, but the thought that Brando could simply will himself inside a building, surprising some poor living soul with that icy chill and creep up the spine, while rapping and tapping his foot and remembering some comedy show or jazz room glory, or else later pleasures of Grateful Dead and Grace Slick and all that rock star 60s jive, making the dogs bark and the cats scowl, made me distinctly uncomfortable. No one likes to think that privacy is impossible, that anyone, even if that anyone is dead and yet not quite gone, can just invade your peace and privacy and space and assert their presence against the will of the dweller. For a moment I hated my new crew, my affliction and the fact that I could not make any of it stop. I walked a little faster, slightly ahead of the ghostly herd.
I always mark the boundaries of North Beach by its churches, not out of some religious affiliation, nor the hope that a big ole divine ghost could drive out the swarms of ungrateful, feisty and troublesome dead, no. St Francis of Assisi sits there pristine and inviolable, alone on the street surrounded by the detritus of sin: the strip bars and the drinking houses and pleasure places of North Beach; sits there and observes the scuttling and the dealing, the chasing and the pain and the wild crazy pleasures of a Beat Life that has seeped into the bones, and concrete, and the bricks and blood of North Beach. Up on North Beach everyone is a beatnik when they walk the streets around Broadway.
Everything moves too fast, and the only places to turn are the places that there have always been there to turn to. The Saloon and the cafes, the holes in the wall serving booze, once playing Coltrane and Bill Hailey, but now blasting out the Stones and wondering if there is any sympathy left for the devils that walk amongst the people of this place so out of time, so stuck in history, that there is a permanent drag towards what used to be, once upon a time, when everything was brighter. We a made a big left on the corner by Trieste and heading uphill towards Washington Square and the more modest and still-standing twin towers of Peter and Paul. The towers preside over all the happiness of pretty people that sit on the grass in front and love and get stoned and drop acid and watch the San Francisco sky through tangerine spectacles and a psychedelic filter, while big dogs run around begging for morsels of attention and scraps of picnics that sit, picked through and ruminated over, on grassy blankets.
“Why are we going this way?” Tom asked, the stars reflecting back in his black hole soul eyes. Highway Man sighed deep and heavy and shrugged his shoulders, Brando looked towards me expectantly. “I don’t want to walk back through China Town. The Ultra Alive get a bit grabby there.” Tom jumped up, “Ya just hav’ta grab ‘em by the sensitives an’ tell ‘em what’s what, that’s all. They are lonely and fell for their own propaganda an’ hype. They think they are ravenous spirits that need sating via human rituals, ‘cept not many keep to the old ways. I play chess with Mr Ming every Monday afternoon. We are 130/152, to him. He never lets me forget it either.” Faux Rimbaud walked ahead, alone, staring at the moon and talking to the street cats.
Part of me wanted to recklessly walk down the Filbert Steps in the dark, tripping through the gardens, past the cute little wooden houses that sit nestled into the slope along the side of the cliff face, and eventually tip out to the rickety steps that crawl that sheer vegetation covered wall of rock and soil, and takes the walker down to Levi Plaza, and the sight of the clocktower on Pier 1 of the docks. Time means nothing to me anymore. It all seems meaningless. A continuation of what was to the nth degree. A life without a sense of finality is a tiring proposition.
Tom and Brando moved close to me. “Come on. Let’s just get up to Van Ness and see if we can find Maria. Maybe we can talk to her, persuade her to cool it with that Joey character,” theorized the sensitive and sweet Tom. I thought to myself how sweet he must have been in real life, and what a crying shame it was that he was murdered by those war junkies out east. Brando put his hands in his back pockets, and pouted. “Everyone loves Tom,” he announced to the night air and any one who could hear him. A flock of pigeons flew away in mock horror.
With Tom on one side, and Brando on the other. Faux Rimbaud trailing behind, we swept back uphill, climbing into Chinatown and turned onto the steep and stately California Street.
Halfway up California Street and wishing we had walked a few more blocks south and gone up a less steep slope, my human form gasping for breath, while their phantom forms struggled with the changes in climate, area and electricity. Polk Street crossed California and we all stopped. Despite the late hour, there were still a few civilians wandering around Polk, tipping out of all night drinking holes, bars and other people’s houses, drifting back from clubs and dancing and movies and the 24 hour detritus of life in a major American metropolis. A couple of Castro-night-strutters and movers were shivering in the night air and leather and boy shorts good naturedly drifted towards someone else’s apartment for good times. Brando looked at their lithe slender bodies and friendly uncloseted happy faces, and the affection they bestowed so openly upon each other, and looked towards the sidewalk for a moment. I believe I saw a tear fall from his eye.
“Ever wish you were from another time?” Brando asked Telluride, raising his voice so unnaturally loud and booming with emotion that the fast food wrappers and paper trash on the street moved with the unseen force of his breath. A dog barked and the pigeons scattered. “Are you trying to pretend you never got yourself some fine ass, my handsome friend?” Telluride was almost human for a moment, and it unnerved me. Flesh flickered over bone and then dissipated into bone and fire. I wondered how much effort it took for Telluride to present himself as he did, a skeletal figure, no flesh covering his frame, nothing to hide behind, nothing to soften the blow of his bony hard reality. “Come on man, it is not like you didn’t live!” Telluride was in cheerleader mode, and it was a disturbing sight to see. “Yes, but none of us lived free or open. Apart from Joe, I suppose. Joey G pretty much blew the lid off.” Faux Rimbaud, dragged his hand across his face, as if to wipe the smile off it. “Joe was a friend of mine,” he carried on with a faraway look in his eyes, the look of a man who fails to make sense of time or loss, who is stuck between worlds, and with neither side of the barrier knowing quite what to make of him. “Joe passed on, he visited for a day, and then walked into that light-hole. He always was an enlightened one. Lucky bastard.” Telluride hardened and reformed back into bone and the glow of unrepentant afterlife.
“Living the life you want to live, despite society, despite other people, not for them or because of them, and paying the price for your individuality was always the way it worked, yet the price was always high. They threw Joe in jail more than once.” Brando was looking hungrily after life as it passed him by, the cool wave of living world pleasures just out of his reach. “I would have liked to live, really live in this time, I think. I hear they get great mileage….” And the man with the highway that stretched above his shoulder and curled off into infinity looked longingly at Brando and shook his head sadly.
“You can only do what you are gonna do, Brando. You can only do what is open to you, or else run away from it like you did. I wish we could go to Mexico again.” Highway Man started to fade out and blinking a few times, the highway curling about his shoulder, thumbed a ghostly ride with a thin blonde girl-ghost at the wheel and headed off into the night sky and the eternal distance…or at least as far as his afterlife would let him go.
Of course, I would hardly stand out particularly, talking to myself on Polk. It was not like Polk had not seen a self-talker or three, cracked out and speaking to the rain and the moon. However, it was hardly a reputation I wanted to cultivate. This was way too close to home.
It was then that Maria started to peddle towards us in the distance. She was fiddling with the bunch of flowers in her basket. The chicken was missing, and there was no wine yet. Her hair flowing free in the ghost of a wind, the memory of sunlight playing off her glasses, her hands trembling as the vibrations of the road transferred themselves to her fingertips. She was singing an old song about preachers liking the cold and dreams of California, and her front wheel was wobbling alarmingly, as if there was something wrong with her bike. Brando and the Highway Man started to move unnaturally fast towards her. Tom stood by my side. “Macho bullshit. It won’t work,” said Tom quietly and pulled a ghostly cigarette out of a tin in his top pocket. Maria simply peddled right through them, unseeing and therefore lacking a reaction. “You gotta get into her world. You need to break through into that day she is reliving time and time again an’ see if there is a real person in there still.” Maria headed towards us, Tom started to wave to her, and stepped slightly into her path. She swerved slightly and rode right on past us.
“I see….” Said Tom with a sigh, as Brando and Lee walked back over to us, laughing and smiling about things that happened a long time ago. “I don’t think it is impossible to get through to her, but we might need to get her in angry and vengeful mode. A point where she is aware she is dead and that Joey was a dick, and is angry about it to not be in replay mode. You saw her like that, right?” I nodded, not wanting to talk to thin air. It was getting early, rather than late, and the City was starting to shift around. “Come and see us any time, we will make a plan….if Joey survives that long, anyway,” Brando smirked with an unnerving lack of sympathy.
The very real and plausible possibility that Maria could actually kill Joey in her ghostly rage was not something I wanted to think about too deeply, but it had been said, and could not be unsaid. Joey was in mortal danger. Rimbaud turned around, walking backwards, his hair floating around his head like a halo or a wreath, and pulling his coat closer around himself, yelled back, “She is definitely gonna kill that boy. I can smell it in the air!”