Eternal Mystery

By Martin J. Luz

Why that day? I'll never know. She had never given me one before. But that day when she put the check on the table, it was laid out on a little dish with a ginger candy sitting on top, wrapped in a red foil wrapper. She didn't look at me and didn't say anything. That was normal. But she put it down wrong...placed it, more like. And then she kept walking, flipping the page on her note pad as she stopped at the table behind mine.

It was all wrong. She never placed anything. It was dropped, or put down, or slid at you across the table. I looked at the little red-wrapped candy and tried to make nothing of it. But it bugged me. When I walked in she'd nodded at me, which meant "any table." That was normal too. The expressionless face. The droopy posture. The slow-motion reflex. All as normal as could be. I picked a small table because they looked busy. Sometimes on slow mornings I'd take up a whole booth and spread out whatever I'd brought with me. Newspapers. Books. Notebooks. Not this morning. She nodded, I obliged. One person. One table.

Before I knew it she'd put a Diet Coke in front of me. She knew what I wanted to drink, and knew I varied my food order. Sometimes the omelet had cheese, sometimes it didn't. We were intimate enough now that the only words she needed were, "Cheese, or no cheese?" Today it was no cheese. With that she grabbed the extra set of silverware off the table and shuffled over to the open kitchen, maybe ten fifteen steps away at the end of the gray linoleum lunch counter.

It was a normal crowd, too. A bunch of half-crazies and quarter-crazies. A couple of old folks with the wobbly wrinklies, unsteady types who had conversations with their pets in public. There was a table of loud beatniky Goth types, the kind who had pierced faces and ugly tattoos and were forever incensed at the world for undermining their dreams. A single fat guy in a booth, with holes in his sweater; he chewed with his mouth open.

Up this far on Polk Street the shops start to get a little fancier, the restaurants a little cleaner. But I liked Bob's Diner because it skirted the edges of propriety, one of the last scales on the underbelly of the Tenderloin before the street turned into a proper "neighborhood."

The sign out front was old-style, in pink neon script. It looked authentic, like it came right out of the 1950's, like there really had been a Bob way back when the sign was made. The most likely scenario being that he sold the place decades ago, probably moved to a split-level ranch in the South Bay. And then the diner got passed along, eventually to a Chinese lady who must have figured, like all the previous owners, that keeping the name would mean keeping the customers. Either that, or each new owner along the way was just too lazy to change it. Or maybe after all these years it was just too big a job to rip Bob's old life out of the place, and not just the sign either, but the sliver-edged tables, the long lunch counter, and the pearlescent naugahyde upholstery. Or maybe this lady just didn't give a crap. That would be my guess. She pretty much looked like she didn't give a crap. Bob left. So did the others. And then one day it was her turn to open the doors. Life at Bob's Diner just went on pretty much as it had for decades. Homefries, toast, stale coffee, pancakes, waffles, watery syrup, and omelets — with and without cheese. Day in and day out. The plates were still chipped. The bathroom still filthy. And the customers' leftover newspapers just kept piling up in the back.

Or maybe it was her lifelong dream to own a rundown 1950s-style greasy spoon right on the knife-edge between the Tenderloin and yuppie-ville. Maybe. But I couldn't see it. Although, she was the reason I kept coming back. She was so damn incongruous. Just looking at her standing in the middle of all that gritty Americana made you wonder: Why?

I never saw her eat anything off the menu, couldn't imagine she even liked the stuff, never mind about knowing how to cook any of it. But there she was, every day, at least every time I went there. She'd walk up to the table and mumble something, then take your order without looking at you, bring you your drink without looking at you, and eventually slide your food onto the table while she kept on walking. She was about as friendly as a brick. But there was something comforting in it. She was always just...there. She never sped up or slowed down. Her flat expression never changed. Her mood never wavered. She was so impossibly monotonous that it was mesmerizing, bordering on the miraculous. Because as indifferent as she seemed on the outside, you knew she was taking it all in. She recognized me when I walked in, knew my order, knew I ate alone. And though every bit of it was unspoken, you knew you could count on her. But then came that damn red-wrapped ginger candy to throw the whole thing out of whack. When I saw it sitting on top of the check, it was repulsive: a wrench in the smoothness of the whole beautiful system I'd worked out. And I knew right then and there I wouldn't be coming back to Bob's for a while. When you're on the run you can't get attached. Not to any place, or anyone. It was the first rule of the road. Unfortunately I let my guard down with this place, because it felt different, like it was leading me to a discovery.

After 18 months of ducking and hiding I'd sunk about as low as I ever thought I'd go: washed up in San Francisco, in a flophouse on Turk Street about half a block off Polk, the most dismal, wretched depressing place I'd ever been. But if you wanted to get lost there were few better places. Very few "normal" people — good or bad — ever wandered into this part of town, though it was right smack dab in the heart of a major city. The place was crawling with shrivel-faced addicts and freaked-out, wild-eyed nut jobs. They wobbled and stumbled along Turk Street at all hours, cursing imaginary demons, punching street signs with their bare hands, congregating in small groups to plot some new mischief, or divvy up the spoils of the last caper.

I'd been in bad neighborhoods before, but those all at least had some sense of order — even if that order was laced with menace. Other "bad" neighborhoods still had their own rules and their own enforcers. It wasn't easy to get lost in those kinds of places because, bad as they were, they were somebody's turf. Somebody somewhere was always watching. A stranger stood out. A stranger was questioned. And an unwelcome stranger was run off.

But this place was marinated in stench, in a shrieking, insane kind of frothing-at-the-mouth anarchy. Not even the baddest of the bad guys bothered with it. They left it to us lunatics in our shredded clothes and caked-on dirt. That's where I got lost, in a fifth-floor studio with a hot plate and no heat. And I stayed lost for six months.

But then I discovered Bob's, and it soon became my habit. A bad one I now recognize. But I needed it. When I didn't have it, I jonesed for it. I'd slowly walk over to Polk Street, with my head down, and hang a right. After a few blocks I'd take off my dirty sweatshirt and change it for a clean one. A few blocks later I'd slip off the grungy sweatpants to reveal clean ones underneath. Somewhere between Geary and O'Farrell I'd take the garbage bag off my shoulder and pull out a backpack. The dirty clothes went into the backpack, along with the garbage bag. Off came the crusty old army cap. And suddenly I looked more like an aging hippie than a rabid escapee from the Tenderloin.

I never went further up Polk Street than Bob's Diner; once I ventured as far as the Marina District, to sit by the water and look at the Golden Gate Bridge, but there were too many cops, way too much money, and too much normality. That life was lost to me, and anyway it was all fake. It was all just empty routine. And that was why Bob's was my Heaven on Earth. I could finally see how fraudulent life was. When it was all over, the lady in charge threw out an empty indifferent "thank you" and "bye bye." It had zero effort, and wasn't gussied up with a lot of insincerity. For nearly two years I'd been on the run, and that kind of numbness was finally beginning to feel comfortable, finally starting to make sense. The cold facts of life laid bare: Thank you. Bye Bye.

I peeled off the red-foil wrapper and popped the ginger candy into my mouth, and then started back down Polk Street. I got dressed along the way. The crusty smelly sweatshirt was back on. The grimy sweatpants pulled up over the clean ones. Then the stinking cap. Good clothes stuffed into the backpack, and the backpack stuffed into the garbage bag. As I turned onto Turk Street, the usual band of troublemakers was hanging out on the corner, passing a bottle and cackling, showing off about eleven teeth among the among four of them.

I'd miss it. But I'd have to find a new place to sit and be numb. I certainly wasn't going to jail for a crime I didn't commit. And wasn't about to get whacked by the guys who really did it, or a bunch of dirty cops. Except that I was. The knife in the back came just as I stepped off the elevator, a searing pain in my right side, just below my ribs. My vision went blurry as someone jumped in front of me. Two hands flashed in front of my face and I suddenly felt the rough steel of piano wire cutting into my throat. "Get him inside! Get him inside!" They dragged me through the door, into my apartment. I felt the knife shove further into my kidney, then twist up toward my lung. I grabbed furiously at my neck. My lungs ached for air, but the wire had choked off my throat. I couldn't breathe, never mind scream. Then the knife pulled out and then plunged deep into my left side. My mind was racing. She fingered me! But how did she know? How could she have known? "Get him into the bathroom!" They dragged me into the bathroom and pushed me down into the tub. I could feel the life flowing from my body, gushing out my back and running in a bright red torrent toward the drain. I was suddenly very cold. It made no sense. Did they follow me? How did they figure out my routine? How did they even find me? "No! Put that damn gun away. No guns. I'll finish him. We gotta do this quiet." I felt them wrapping me in the clear plastic shower curtain. Did she intuitively know? Instinctively know? But she was my kindred spirit in a foggy, empty world! It couldn't be her. I wouldn't believe it. But she placed it! She placed the damn candy on the table. Like she was saying goodbye. Or apologizing.

I couldn't see. I could barely feel anything, and I wasn't breathing. The darkness was swallowing me. But then as the spasms began to ebb, the pain began to fade. Was that telltale piece of candy not even her doing? Was the world just saying goodbye in one final, random act of kindness? Or was it a totally empty gesture that meant nothing? A coincidence, connected to nothing and leading nowhere. They were wrapping my body tighter and tighter, the shower curtain filling with blood. It made no sense! But it did.

The deep unanswerable emptiness. It was the first time that the randomness of life itself actually started making sense. Irresistibly. I couldn't fight it. I barely felt the knife entering my heart the first time, didn't feel anything the second time. Why that day? Why that day of all days? I'll never know now. Because I'm going quickly into the light, losing my grip on the questions. Leaving them behind with my battered body, wrapped in a shower curtain that was filling with crimson...and the faint taste of ginger fading on my lips.

"Eternal Mystery" is the first story in a collection of noir stories set in San Francisco, by Martin J. Luz called "From the Bottom of the Bay."

Copyright 2011 Martin J. Luz. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!

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