This has been a bit of a weird week. Okay, well, the last couple of weeks have been a bit weird. And I have been lousy about posting, or even writing something to post. I didn’t even take my iPod to the Farmers Market to follow up on the places I wanted to write about because it has been raining and the Farmers Market is a bit of a ghost town in bad weather, even though the farmers are marketing. Anywho, I am going to cheat and post a short story I wrote in the 90s. It was published in the Spring 1994 edition of the Santa Clara Review (I am looking at a copy right now). The name of the story is Carwash. I hope you like it. Or at least not hate it.
“Never said I was a angel,” Shane replied. He spoke fast and breathy. He turned his head so that with effort he could see over his right shoulder. He looked askance with big, yellowed eyes at the man crouched behind him and winked. Then he wiped away the last streak of wax that had dried upon the expensive car. They stood together and he stretched his arms out to his sides, arched his back and drew a great, deep breath. He put his hand over his heart and smiled. He exhaled, “I’ve done some pretty tough things. I know what that’s all about. Now I’m a honest business man, a proud, independent brother. And I done it on my own, my own sweat ‘n work.”
He tucked the rag in the back pocket of his jeans and adjusted his baseball cap back to its perch just above the brow of his triangular head. He looked up at the pale afternoon sky as the man unfolded some bills from his pocket.
“Well, Carwash,” the man said, “I have no complaints.” He was a tall, trim man, a professional black man with smooth skin, short-cropped hair and khaki trousers. As he handed over ten dollars, he smiled a kind, genuine smile.
“And you won’t either.” Shane leaned back upon one leg, tilted his head back as he counted the bills in his outstretched arms. He slid them into his jeans, tipped his cap to his customer. “I’m a honest business man. Never going back to my past. No sir. Think I’d ruther die. Now I got…position…and respect,” he boasted. He spread a hand on his chest and stretched the other out to display the parking lot. “That beat cop don’t chase me out, the other business men don’t chase me out. Long as I’m here nobody goin’ ’round with a spray bottle but no rags lookin’ into cars. Know what I mean?” He winked and smiled and pumped the customer’s hand.
The man got in to his car. The door closed with soft precision and the engine ran quietly. Shane watched the car dip into the curb and cruise away up Howe Street. He wiped his hand on his T-shirt as his smile slowly faded, then lifted his can of wax from the asphalt and sighed and searched the parking lot for the next customer.
Shane was a short man and a body solid with hard, tight muscles. . His forty-four years settled into the angles and the lines in dark skin that had the shine of oil upon it. He walked with legs bowed and feet toed out. It was an erect, chin-high strut that peaked with pride. Large teeth stood and straight and squared like blocks. The palms of his hands were dry and callused from labor. And he looked distracted, as if thoughts or entities danced in front of his eyes and vied for his attention. And to his smile, the wide, soft eyes of his smile, came always a hint of regret, of the memory of a great loss.
The parking lot was a great square of asphalt and cement, rows parking meters and herring-boned white lines. Around three sides, a wall of new brick rose waist high. The cars of people who came to buy things from the Avenue merchants crowed the spaces and filled it. Five cars circled through the aisles in a fruitless search for space. Howe Street bounded the back end. The front butted up to a block of back entrances of stores and restaurants. In their center an alley opened it to Piedmont Avenue. On the corner near J. Hamburger & Such, 41st Street met Piedmont Avenue. Lines of newspaper racks fenced the corner in, but under the eaves of J. Hamburger & Such, Big Tony Mendez and Augie Strip set up their stand every morning.
Shane strode over to where he kept shop behind J. Hamburger & Such. He settled down upon his empty milk crate. Before him, on the patio of new red brick, sat a row of twelve bottles and cans. It was his line, waxes and car washes, window and upholstery cleaners, and a special six month finish protector. He pulled a small ball of bills from his pocket, unrolled them, stacked them and counted them out on his knee, his nervous eyes flitting to the parking lot and back. When he finished, he set his cap high up his forehead and drew a sigh from the dry indian summer. “Man I’m tire’!” He shook his head. “Jesus but I’m tire’.” He straightened his bottles and cans, made them come to attention, and put his rags into a neat pile beside the milk crate. He waited for the next customer.
When the light at the corner of 41st and Piedmont went green, Steve Sorensen walked with the crowd of day customers down the Avenue. He stood medium height, skinny with a firm, angular jaw. The round front of his head shined from under his receding blonde hair line. He wore clothes of plain colors, his cotton shirt and brown trousers and penny loafers, and walked with a friendly confidence. He removed his aviator glasses and slid them into his shirt pocket. He did not raise his voice, his words coming clear with determination. “Car Wash.”
Shane bolted upright, eager for another customer. “S’appenin’ Steven?” he asked. Steve shrugged his thin shoulders. “Well I’ve been better. You hear what I’m sayin’?” He put a hand to his chest. “I-have-been-better. You know? No one wants nothing today. Nothing. And I’m on a mighty thin string as it is.” He cut the air with his hands.
Steve wiped a vapor of sweat from his forehead. Behind him the light turned again. The traffic and the customers coursed along the Avenue. “I’m sure some of the people at Peet’s would have something for you. If you mentioned it.” Steve thought a moment, his eyes rolled upward. “I have a fence to paint,” he offered.
“That’s a pretty big job.”
“Hell, yes I’m interested!” Shane declared.
Shane leaned his weight on one leg, bent an elbow into the palm of one hand to cradle his head in the other as he thought. He winced an eye and said, “We’ll just have ta see the fence and how big and all that. “
Steve combed his thin, flat hair with his fingers. “I have an errand, but I’ll meet you back here after.”
“Straight!” Shame beamed and they shook on it. His smile and his eyes stretched wide with enthusiasm when Steve Sorensen left. Shane put his waxes and treatments and all but two rags and his little spray bottle into his box. He still had some time and who could tell how luck changes. He glanced nervously around over the parked cars before he set his box behind the dumpster. He would not be gone too long, and they were safe in there. Then he carried his rags and his spray bottle out into the parking lot.
“Wash your windows,” he cried many times. “I don’t disappoint.” But it was a poor day for hustling. When Steve returned, Shane felt relieved to be going. He put his spray bottle into the crate and they disappeared up and over 41st Avenue.
Steve Sorensen’s house sat five blocks up 41st on Terrace Street. It was a little bungalow with bay windows in the two front corners whose sashes and eaves cracked and peeled to wood stained grey from years of changing seasons. White siding slowly turned to powder. Grey slate underneath made the house look old and tired, but slate siding endures. Under the bay windows two stunted camellias strived from the dry earth and a little beige and green lawn struggled behind a small fence. The white pickets and the posts and the rails were bubbled and dirty. A dusting of smog had settled down upon the tops of the pickets and the runners.
Steve Sorensen flourished his hand to the little fence. “How much?”
Shane pulled at his chin and slid his baseball cap up his forehead. He paced along the fence, inspecting the pickets as if they were his troops. He rubbed the angle of his jaw with the snuff box of his hand, raising an eyebrow and nodding with great significance. Finally he said, “Ten bucks ought to do it. Yes sir. And it’ll be first class.” He nodded to end the sentence.
Steve Sorensen slid his sunglasses off. He looked deeply into Shane’s eyes. ” Deal.”
Shane smiled broadly, took Steve Sorensen’s hand. “Deal.”
Steve Sorensen disappeared around the corner of the house and returned with an old, splattered can of white paint and a paint brush whose bristles were matted and worn short, the handle more paint than wood. He set the can and a small pile of newspapers upon the sidewalk and opened the can with a key. Shane stirred it with a stick he found under the bay windows.
When Steve Sorensen left, Shane pulled off his t-shirt and set it aside. He fussed with the bill of his cap as he looked up at the high, sweeping cirrus clouds. Next to the house, a group of sparrows argued and shouted to one another among the branches of a tall cottonwood. The heat grew strong. Shane set the newspaper on the sidewalk and sat cross-legged upon it and scanned the low row of pickets. Then as he began, he could not help his great smile. Things were better now. He felt hope once again. The idea of standing on his own brought a sense of pride to him. He sat straighter. He was independent, an honest businessman. He did not think these things outright, but he knew them just the same.
As Shane painted, the sun rose up behind the cirrus clouds and began to move towards the apartment complexes across 41st street. The heat was dry. The sparrows skirmished for space. A fat, grey cat with a bent tail sauntered across the street. From the shade under a parked car, she blinked sleepily as she watched the painting. When she had seen enough, she sauntered back and lay down like a lion upon a lawn of clover.
Shane worked quickly and with great energy. The sweat began to bead at his temples and the small of his dark back. A small, jagged band of a water mark grew across the front of his cap. He painted eagerly, scooting along the sidewalk when he had painted the span of his outstretched arms, squishing the fat brush into corners and between pickets as he spread and jabbed and wiped the paint onto the wood. Paint accumulated on his hands and upon his jeans and his forearms.
He finished when the sun had passed the flat rooftops of the apartment houses and their shadows slid up Terrace Street. He stood and stretched his arms high into the air above him. Then he walked out into the street in front of the little house. With his cap slid down his forehead and hooked his thumbs into his belt loops and inspected the fence, feeling proud and responsible. “Damned good,” he said and wiped his hands on his thighs.
Across the street the cat sat up. She watched Shane with the careful indifference cats reserve for strangers. Then she stood and stretched and walked under the fence behind where she had been sitting. The show was over.
Shane put on his dirty t-shirt before he walked with professional poise onto the porch of Steve Sorensen’s house.
Steve stepped up and down the sidewalk and the tired lawn, his book of tenant law tucked under his arm. He inspected the pickets and the runners, the sagging bulges of tacky white paint. Under each picket white dots had dropped onto the concrete, onto the dry lawn. A white spray dotted the sidewalk and the grass. Steve Sorensen rubbed the back of his neck and scratched his thin blonde hair. He looked puzzled. “Carwash…,” he began, but he did not finish.
Shane stood tall by the little gate, set his feet firm and sturdy to his sides. His big smile, his yellowed eyes with their brown pupils and their distraction turned eager with pride.
“It looks good. It looks real good,” Steve said. He dug into the pocket of his trousers then unfolded a ten dollar bill for Shane.
“I don’t disappoint,” Shane said as he pushed the bill deep into a front pocket. “That’s why I’m still in the neighborhood. That’s why I don’t got just a spray bottle no more,” he boasted with a hand held out before him and the other placed over his breast.
Steve smiled. “Yes. I see,” he said. He looked at his little picket fence. When he nodded, a streak of hair slid down onto his forehead. He admired Shane as they shook hands.
Shane backed a couple of steps away. “Yeah,” he said, “I got plans, you know? I’m a honest businessman. Car washin’ I know about, no problem. This here’s a new thing to me. Maybe it’s a new beginning. You know what I’m sayin’? Maybe things ‘ll get bigger…and better! But don’ worry, none of this’ll go to m’ head.” Shane put his cap back onto the perch of his brow. He pouted his lower lip and nodded as he spoke low to himself. “Yep. New possibilities okay. Work hard for possibilities.” Backing a few more jerky steps, he put his hand out before him, his fingers spread out in the air. He called, “See ya aroun’.”.
“See ya,” Steve Sorensen replied.
Shane walked happily in the shadows of the tall square apartment buildings that lined the west side of 41st Street. The heat began to lay off, but not much. Indian summer is stubborn. He passed Gilbert Street and Montgomery, where 41st Street dipped downhill, past the post office. He crossed Howe Street after four cars decided who came first to the four way stop. At the opposite corner he picked the flower from a telegraph weed growing from a crack in the curb. At the next block Piedmont Avenue was dark in its own shadows. The light turned green and the flow of traffic, of customers deepened. He strolled the length of the block, but he did not turn in to the parking lot. He hesitated upon the corner, pedestrians weaving around him..
It’s been a good day, Shane thought, a day to celebrate new beginnings. He looked up and down the canyon of Piedmont Avenue, deciding where to begin. From Piedmont Liquors he bought cookies and cigarettes and little circles of beef jerky. Two doors down he rolled the top of his bag up in his hand and entered the Kerry House. It was dim and long and narrow. A few old-timers hunched over the bar. Their hair was white with age, their lips dry and purple. They talked among each other and laughed, but a sadness hung about them them and patient waiting. In the rear, a couple played a quiet game of pool. A pale haze of smoke undulated in air dense with beer and breath and a juke box loud and deep pounding.
Tim the bartender meandered over toward Shane’s end of the bar. He was a short, swarthy fellow with a long Irish face, a thin man in his late fifties losing his brown hair to worries over the changing neighborhood. “What do you say, Carwash,” he shouted.
“All right,” Shane replied. He glanced nervously around and put his bag up under his arm.
Tim the bartender slid a double shot of bourbon and a draft toward Shane, who lifted it and quickly drank half of it off, then sipped at his beer. Shane carefully laid out his ten dollar bill. Tim picked it up and meandered to the cash register, rang it up and walked to the other end of the bar. When he had finished his three shots of bourbon and his three beer chasers Shane left. He crossed slowly towards the parking lot, behind J. Hamburger & Such to the enclosure in which his line waited. He opened the door and went in. It smelled sweetly of crowded garbage. Behind the dumpster lay only dirty bricks and Styrofoam cups with brown stains, wadded paper and crumbs of bread.
It did not register quickly. Reality and expectation did not balance. His box, his line, was not there. He absently leaned against the stippled wall. He tilted his cap back and rubbed his forehead. His eyes widened with fear and questioning and his mouth hung open. The absence of loss surged through him. But when the shock of surprise faded, he realized that his livelihood had been stolen. He grew terrified and alone. His heart bounded.
Shane walked out. He searched over the rounded tops of cars, tiptoeing and craning his neck to see onto Howe Street. Then he set down upon his heels. “Hell,” he muttered, “Guy’s long gone from this place. Waxing cars with my stuff.” He sunk down onto the patio, cradled his head in his arms and closed his eyes, but he could not think. Shane rocked his head back and forth. “What am I gone do,” he sputtered. “For god’s sakes what am I gone do. I got to find m’stuff.” He rose up. In his eyes his fear and his grief joined with his distraction. “I got to find the motherfucker,” he muttered.
Two women hustled uncomfortably by him.
He searched hard around him, as if deciding which way to go first. “I’m a honest business man. It ain’t right. It ain’t right,” cried Shane. Fear in his voice sounded as if he did not believe himself.
He ran out onto Piedmont Avenue, disappeared into the crowd, into the hot evening as the sun set the San Bruno hills across the bay into silhouettes. He hustled through the neighborhoods of Adams Point, along the round hills and broken sidewalks above the Avenue. Green sycamores stretching full into the sky lined the streets. He searched up into the brick driveways and the parking lots of apartment buildings, behind the hedges of regal brown shingle houses. From Kingston he crossed to Linda, and from Linda into the neighborhoods off of Rose Street, close, curving streets. The great redwood trees appeared nearly black against the coming night. They felt as if they waited a patient vigil. And the sun set. A band of purple, then of darkness crossed the sky and then the night spattered with stars. A little breeze jogged eastward, but a warm breeze, a weak one.
In the darkness, Shane crossed back over Piedmont Avenue to search the neighborhoods on the other side. He hurried from the terror and fear and distraction. And even though he knew that he would not find his line, he had to search. Down along Terrace Street and Gilbert and Ridgeway he walked. No trees rose along these streets. The neighborhoods looked dry and course. He walked down to Broadway, a wide artery that ran the width of the city, its lights arched out over four lanes. But he did not cross. The neighborhoods grew progressively worse, dangerous. If his crate was in there, it was truly lost.
Shane took the bill of his cap in his hands, lifted it and set it high upon his forehead. His dark eyes watered. He stood hunch-shouldered on the curb, facing north into the flats of Oakland. Shane put his arms akimbo. He slumped his weight upon one leg. Looking down to the sidewalk, he shook his head in resignation. The light from the streets and the stores and the used car lot behind him made shadows on the sidewalk that radiated out all around him. “Ain’t that the truth,” he said. He turned back.
The parking lot stood hollow. A few cars sat scattered beneath the vague, jagged light of sodium vapor fixtures. A little haze of condensation had grown into the night. Emptiness made the Avenue a quiet, empty canyon of two story buildings. In a window above A Laundromat, an arm reached out from behind white curtains and switched off the palm reader’s sign.
Across the street, Tweed Rivera shouted obscenities. He was an old man, short and thin, with a great, grey beard to his sternum. He wore a dirty and worn sports coat and trousers that smelled of sweat and sleep, of unwashed living. As Shane crossed, Tweed stopped shouting. He focused his sharp little eyes upon Shane. “Oh! Oh! My friend!” he cried, “How are you tonight?”
Shane stopped, but he could not keep still. He glanced nervously up and down the street as he spoke. “I been ripped off.” He held his hand to his chest and rocked back and forth as his eyes began once again to waver.
Tweed Rivera’s eyebrows arched with surprise. “Son of a bitch! What has been stolen my frien'”
“Everythin’ is gone. M’ wax, m’ wash, m’ window treatment.”
“Son of a bitch! These are evil times I say!” Tweed shouted, skewering the air with an upraised finger. “What will you do?”
“I don’t know,” Shane replied. He looked up and down Piedmont Avenue as if he had been the thief. “I spent all my money on…things.”
“You must steal your things back!” Tweed Rivera snatched some invisible goods from the air.
Shane jerked around. His big eyes locked upon Tweed Rivera for the first time. His face became big with fear. “No,” he cried, “I’m a honest businessman. I’m never gonna steal again.”
Tweed Rivera raised an eyebrow. “Then what will you do my frien’?” he asked quietly, a challenge, a dark and prodding tone to his voice.
Shane shook his head again and again. He made his way around Tweed Rivera, started up 41st Street. He passed into the spreading light under a street light.
“And what will you do for money, my frien’,” Tweed Rivera shouted. But Shane did not answer. A car swooshed past and a train whistled in the Embarcadero. Shane became a vague figure, a shadow of jeans and t-shirt and dark skin. The figure stopped on the corner and hesitated. It turned right up Howe Street and vanished.
The stars could not compete with the neon and streetlight, the lights of a city. Shane opened the rear door to his little station wagon, a shoe box of royal blue faded nearly white. The rear panel windows were painted black and drawn curtains covered the rear window and the space above the front seat. They sealed back of the little car against curiosity. Inside, clothes and papers cluttered the space. It was thick with the smell of unwashed bedding and clothing, of sleep and old fast food. Streetlight sieved through the curtains. Shadowed leaves and branches shimmied against them.
Shane slid into his sleeping bag. He pulled a flashlight out from under his pillow, and a pint of gin. He nervously ate his cookies and his circles of beef jerky, sipped at his bottle and pulled his sleeping bag close up to him. He drew again from the bottle and settled down into his pillows. He lifted an old newspaper up from beside him, set it upon his bent knees. He read for a moment, but it was no good. He turned out his light and curled sideways. “I’m a honest businessman. I can’t never go back. P…proud,” he muttered in the darkness, his voice slurred and choked. His eyes began to water up and his lips trembled. Outside a little breeze picked up. It carried the sound of gun fire from a neighborhood north and it made the silhouettes dance against the drawn curtains, the faded flower prints.
The inversion layer clung stubbornly to the dry hills and made the bay area a great hot house. It made for many complaints and huge draws upon the power supplies. But in the following week it grew enfeebled. Its grip became tenuous and irresolute. Soon it was driven inland off the bay, weakened, died and disappeared.
For these two weeks, Shane did not come in the mornings in his stained jeans and his baseball cap. He did not sit with his legs spread wide, nor did he hustle washes and waxes, treatments of the window. Tony, the beat cop along Piedmont Avenue, wondered at Shane’s disappearance, for the crime rate in the parking lot stayed low when Shane hustled customers there. Tony made inquiries to the regulars along the Avenue, but nobody knew anything. Tweed Rivera did not know. With a raised grey eyebrow he answered with dramatic surprise “Maybe he is gone to Mexico, where it is fair to be honest.”
In its turn, Tony’s questioning created a wave of curiosity among the regulars. For two days they stood on the corner in front of Peet’s Coffee, huddled about the cement garbage receptacle and wondered and speculated on where Shane had gone, and what he must be doing. “Maybe he’s in jail,” considered one. “Can’t blame someone to move away when his livelihood is ripped off,” declared another. And a vague sense of loss entered into their thoughts and into their conversations. But at the beginning of the third day the inversion layer began to move away. The moving and the cool relief changed the importance of the topic of Shane down a peg or two. When he did appear, some of the regulars felt relieved and glad, thinking, “It’s kind of like a foot has grown back.”
Shane returned on a morning cool morning with overcast. A fair breeze poured through the Golden Gate. The parking lot stood empty, but for a few seagulls strutting along the white lines. On the corner of 41 and Piedmont Avenue, Big Tony Mendez and Augie Strip set their racks. They cut the bands from around their papers and arranged them as they smoked foul smelling cigarettes. Peet’s opened its doors and the crowd of commuters and regulars stood in a slow line for a cup of coffee. The old-timers sat in Golden Fluff donuts and argued politics and change. And Shane walked quietly in from Howe Street, holding a new milk crate in one hand and a new plastic bag full of rags in the other.
He walked a slow, subdued stride. His baseball cap sat level with his strong brow. His searching eyes looked uneasy with the discomfort of returning to the scene of a crime. He put his crate and his plastic bag down in front of the enclosure. He wiped his hands upon his t-shirt as he looked around the parking lot. Then he rubbed the spotty three day growth on his sharp chin as he pulled his spray bottle from his back pocket and set it down in front of his crate. And he set down with his head cradled in his hands, his elbows propped upon his legs spread wide.
As the commute began to trickle onto the Avenue, a few cars remained parked in the parking lot. Shane had no luck with his hustle. A hustle is no good without enthusiasm. As the trickle became a rush and the parking lot slowly accumulated cars, he picked up two customers. When they were done, Shane walked back to his milk crate and set his spray bottle down.
Steven Sorensen appeared from up the alley and walked over, holding a paper cup of coffee. He slid his sunglasses from his head and smiled. His blue eyes admired Shane a moment. “Carwash, I was sorry to hear about your stuff.”
Shane suppressed a wince. He put his hands to his hips and lowered his head. “I done it, now its been done ‘a me.” He looked up frightened a moment. “That’s all I got to say about it.” He picked up his spray bottle. He cocked his head to one side and smiled a false smile.
Steve Sorensen nodded. He slid his sunglasses back on and started away.
“You need your windows cleaned,” Shane asked to the back of Steve Sorensen. He held his spray bottle aloft in one hand, a rag in the other.
Steve Sorensen scratched his unshaven neck as he thought. “I think so,” he replied. “I’ll bring the car around in a little bit.” He grinned at Shane.
As Shane hesitated, the traffic along the Avenue went noisily by, a great machine of a river. “Can I tell you somethin’?” He cocked his head and squinted an eye.
“I was… scairt…ashamed to come back. But I was thinking, couldn’t jus’ split. You know…And I was thinkin’, it ain’t just me. You know what I’m sayin’? You become part of a place. Something that’s a good enough thing in itself. And you’re bigger than on your own.” Shane lowered his arms. He looked down to the herringbone of new red bricks. And when he knew that he could face the words, he looked at Steve. His smile came small and trembling, but it was a true smile, not the smile reserved for customers. “And maybe a new beginning don’t always look like the way you wan’ it to. But you’re a fool to run by it.”
Steve Sorensen stayed silent, pensive. A little breeze drew across the parking lot and brushed the loose hair away from his forehead. “You know, my house windows could stand a cleaning. No rush. Whenever you want, Carw…”
“Shane,” he interrupted.
Steve Sorensen hesitated, then nodded, grinning.
Shane smiled, tipped his hat up his forehead and leaned back upon one leg. “I’ll do it jus’ fine. I don’t disappoint.” He cocked his head and winked.
“I know it,” Steve Sorensen replied, then turned and walked away.
Shane hiked up his jeans before sitting upon his milk crate and cradling his head in his hands. The sun began to break apart the overcast and the struggling breeze became a cool, cleansing wind. Along Piedmont Avenue the cars and the customers crowded the sidewalk and the asphalt. The Peet’s’ regulars argued politics standing around the cement trash receptacle and sat upon the stoops of Glen View Avenue. Tony the Beat cop chased a panhandler off the Avenue. The cars rolled in and out of the parking lot, but Shane did not hustle them. He sat and thought about what he had said, the truth of it. Then he lifted his head as an expensive grey car bumped up into the parking lot. Rising, he grabbed his rags and his spray bottle and went out to meet his customer.