Helen and Francis or The Bay's Uneven Flow
By the summer of 2001 I had almost had it with the Dot Com era in Silicon Valley and as an established certifiable geek amongst the throngs of single mothers, art students, and their ilk who had come like Romulus and Remus into a new Rome expecting us all to turn our teats out for them to suckle on I had chosen to poison my milk instead. A young curmudgeon distrustful of the ignorant, the pandering, and especially the outright idiots I was self-satisfied and righteous. From the suave and svelte but vacuous and inept sales droid to the haughty and needlessly distant executives everyone but my fellow geeks I either feigned slight interest or ignored. Life for me revolved around the constant upgrade cycle of my certifications, my own personal technology toys, and any other skill someone had one time or another paid me to be proficient in. Yet, everything was moving along slowly to the realization that the whole proposition, the whole sham, everyone was faulty in and the machine like a laggard prey on the hunt poisoned hours before was about to crash to the ground without the slightest whelp.
Like paranoid 1950's fathers building bomb shelters in the backyard those that saw the fallout coming began to divest our stock portfolios and attempt to salvage enough monies to make it through the coming hard times. I myself figured I had a 10-18 month period of grace that I could use for more certifications and perhaps college. That would make me needed, that would make me useful again, and I would not have to leave silicon valley. Even with the unemployment I had scantly enough to cover 6 months I learned quickly. My crazy girlfriend at the time had finally been taken away by her parents and institutionalized and now I had an 1400 a month rent to pay all myself. So I planned to move to the cheapest college district in the state, but first chose to settle some debts and study more closely a character or two I knew I would never see again.
I broke my lease to the loft at an almost 2000 penalty and moved into a friend's family home in San Fransisco as his parents were on a second honeymoon that month. His name was Francis March, an even tempered Irish redhead who oscillated through varying states of ecstatic overwrought emotions. He was an avid biker and city walker, boy did he have the legs to show for it. I affectionately knew him as 'Digger', from the fact that he was the point man for finding needle in haystack type information and could get it to you promptly. We had met at a nameless dot com that had need of some paid Internet researchers to serve data in real time to business customers who did not have the time or brains to plod through the vast expanse of the net themselves, and no one matched Digger in speed, depth, or tenacity. A shame they lost their second round of funding. As an aside; his moniker may also of been the fact that you had to dig through his kitchen, his car, and his house to find anything as everything was hopelessly disheveled to outsiders. Francis said he had a sister living with him at the moment but she was never home, and he never quite mentioned why until one day he got a phone call while we were an hour out of town planning to laze about in Point Arena 2 hours away.
“Yes, ok. Don't freak out. Yes, I'll be right there”, Digger assured the voice on the other line. Than and there Digger revealed to me why his sister was not at home, she was dying. About a decade ago she had went out to tour with the Grateful Dead and spent 2 years following them whoring herself from show to show, than came back and mooched off her parents and brother, worked retail jobs here and there, and did the bare minimum to survive in the bay area. About 2-3 years hence she had gone down to Planned Parenthood to have her upteenth abortion and from reading brochures in the office she was convinced she had AIDS, and well she was right. Her parents had not rallied around her, preferring to keep a distance of several thousand miles and a list of excuses but were paying the copious expenses of her medicines as when she discovered she had AIDS she was uninsured. If she had lived another year on their dime it would of bankrupted them. I was about to visit his sister in one of the many hospices and mental institutions that have sprouted up to catch the windfall money from the AIDS epidemic in the Bay Area. I muffled discontent, it would have been so nice to have slept in a clean queen bed next to him instead of playing like teenagers in his boyhood room with a Star Wars bedspread.
It looked like a dot com from the outside, a glass and steel facade with a receptionist you could see through a window behind an oversize horseshoe front desk. I learned quickly that no one sleeps here, but are expected to have their own apartments that nurses, counselors, and eventually the morgue would have access to. I inquired why she did not live at his parents place and he asked me to remember the hole in the side of the kitchen, the burn mark on the carpet near where we sleep and other damages that went beyond mere mess. “Ok, what about them?” and he replied that was Helen, all Helen. She had tried to burn down the house when her parents would not give her enough money to buy a new car that she could not drive, the medication at the time having left her too weak to barely walk. The hole in the kitchen wall was an omelet pan thrown at her mother for not buying her favorite Odwalla juice. She was a cruel but needy person he said and I did not have to meet her at all. I chose to follow him into the hospice waiting room.
Francis approached the front desk and they seemed overjoyed by his presence. I perused over the periodicals they had laying about, chose one that struck my fancy and sat down to read it. Francis waved to me as he was buzzed inward to the main part of the building. Sitting there I had flashbacks of the first time my ex-girlfriend had tried to commit suicide or made a nuisance of herself in public. There is nothing that you can come to expect out of people who choose to cross that lonely distance between the suitably mad and the intractably deluded. I wished him luck, and did something I had not done in years I made the signs of the cross for the sick, injured, and damned.
If memory serves the article was about Microsoft's than very public antitrust trial whose resolution was entirely unsatisfactory to my geek brethren. A software company run by an obviously once megalomaniacal man who persevered though illusions to actually attain wealth, power, and extravagance had now become to the public eccentric and to himself an omnipotent god. I ran through the mind's eye the scene of William H Gates III being drug into a place like this under duress and laughed gently to myself. A woman nearby with a child in tow looked disgustingly at me when I laughed. I chose to make the same observation with Francis latter and now concentrate on the arcane details I could garner from the pop media magazine I had begun reading.
“I'm calling the police, motherfucker”, a hoarse womanly voice screeched through the drywall behind the front desk. The secretary turned startled towards the direction of the sound than turned to us and stared down the waiting room to show respect or shut up. Francis swung through the two stiff doors holding a Hippy woman in a sun dress under arm. Pushing the magazine down to the nearest empty seat I got up to help, when two he-men orderlies intervened. An older Hindu woman suddenly appeared on the scene explaining the damage she caused would be billed to her parents and that she had been recommended to an outreach program where she lived, I surmised she was a doctor of some sort from her prescription pad poking out of an oversized lab pocket. Helen was allowed outside with the orderlies standing at the door to prevent her reentry , I stayed with Francis as he finished off the needed paperwork by his parent's proxy.
When we were finished Francis stroked my hair and said, “Don't worry she has her own place we are not taking her back home, we'll go to Point Arena next weekend.” Well that is the way things were supposed to happen but lest we deliberate too long on the real course undertaken let me assure you it was more and more of Helen and less and less of Francis in my life and everyone that Helen met. Francis like his sister had attempted to try a little bit of everything from S&M to Scientology until unlike her he had to take care of a sister in an ever wide variety of mischief, help assume her debts, and bail her out of troubles left and right. Older siblings I have found pave the way to responsibility with the bad choices their younger siblings can watch taken to completion. Nothing admonishes like failure.
As we walked out the door we could see Helen cross legged on the top of his leased BMW smoking a cigarette. Widely beaming a smile she leaped off the car and fell to the ground, Francis handed me the loose leaf folder filled with paperwork and picked up speed to assist her. Helen almost immediately stood up the ground seamlessly fine and than slouched against the car shouting meaningless obscenities. Like a version of her brother shaved of wit she would continue raving till she throughly satisfied her temperament. A colorful character from the instant I met her to the day I departed north never to see her again.
After situating her in the back seat and putting her luggage in the trunk we proceeded to a small live sushi bar me and Francis were fond of that was curiously nearby where Helen lived. She picked vigorously at her food but consumed little of it, decimating a plate of tempura by probing, smashing, and cutting it to no certain end. After we all had taken hot sake we decided that she could get what she had not eaten wrapped up to take home and we left. My fortune's gist that night told me to keep a pensive heart, and I wish I did. She insisted she would find her way home and with Francis nodding I was not about to argue. We talked little about that event when we got back to Francis's place and instead concentrated on the ensuing day to day tribulations of lovers.
Weeks later, on one of my missions across town selling piecemeal the parts of a five thousand dollar stereo my ex had spurred me into purchasing I got a call from Helen who asked me if I would be interested in picking her up and taking her to a movie. I first asked her how she got my number and she said that she had been flipping through the numbers Francis called on his cell phone to get her parent's cell number when she stumbled upon mine and wrote it down. I conceded interest from loving Francis and after I got ripped off for a few hundred dollars pawning a HDTV receiver I journeyed on over to her part of town.
She sat huddled in at least 3 layers of clothing against the nightly fog under the fading light of an ancient incandescent lamp post. She was made recognizable by the sun dress she was wearing when we first met. I stopped the car across the street and honked the horn. She got up from the street walking gingerly forward and I pushed the door open for her. I was unprepared for her smelling the unlikely combination of curry, piss, and cigarettes. I bit my tongue and said nothing. She told me of a distant megaplex that was showing a schlock movie she thought I would I enjoy. Driving off I wondered if I would know her long enough to watch her die, she seemed pretty healthy. She already seemed partly an extension of the robust Francis in her manners about things. I would be lying to say that her reminding me of him in his face and manners did not make my heart churn a bit for her. Talking incessantly through the entirety of some sitcom's contrived and formulaic plot on the way over, and quizzing me to see if I was paying attention she would have been trying my patience had she been anyone else. Her brother did that too, and nary a question did I mind between them. The talking through forced comedy situations had palliated the trying despondent tone she had on the phone earlier and I was glad to listen.
The drive over allowed me also to be privy to the way Helen had begun accepting her fate as a 'Martyr'. I asked if she fancied herself a martyr of the catholic persuasion and she hissed at me, called me a fundamentalist, and began chain smoking cigarettes heatedly ignoring me. Francis called during the silence and asked me where I was, when I told him he was furious at me saying that she was his responsibility and I should not get her hopes up. “Hopes for what?” I harshly whispered with the stereo turned up, and soon after the realization fully took hold. This to her was a date, even if by entrapment.
The movie would be taking place in an hour or so and we were far enough way that Francis would not be able to save me from appearing as he had lost the lease on his BMW and was using the BART system until he could find a cheap Subaru. There was no hope of him coming in and rescuing me from this situation so I went through all the motions of a gentleman with heart in trepidation from loving another so close to her, flesh aghast from her disease, and mind aching from the burden this predicament imposed. I decided that we should have an appetizer and a few drinks in the overpriced quasi-Italian bistro on an adjunct retail lot to the movie house. I ended up about 4 Manhattans in as she slurped margaritas babbling about her 2 year stint with the Dead. Little did I realize you could get margaritas in a bistro, I remarked; and in such variety, she noted, as she had drank nearly every concoction on those omnipresent laminated placards theme restaurants use to entice people who do not know any better with drinks made of cheap alcohol, crushed ice, and colored sugar.
Once in the movie theater she went into the bathroom and came out smelling like someone had doused her head first in patchoulli. Perhaps someone had told her she smelled like piss and curry, did I? I was a wee drunk at this point so if the details get hazy remember the source. She bought two diet cokes and we were off to find the room the movie was playing at. Inside the theater there was row upon row empty with most people sitting in the middle, as my 'date' had not brought her glasses we sat in the very front, behind some brats off the leash. I remarked to Helen that if I was their parents I would not come back. Her face contorted and holding back tears she laid her head on my chest and cocked it up to watch the previews roll. What did I say, what had my cheap meanness alluded to in her mind?
After the previews had ended she took her head off my chest and slouched back into her seat uncomfortably. Taking my hand I tentatively perched it behind her felt jacket and with a start her entire body began gyrating till one of her legs was drapped between mine and her arms were slinking about me like hypnotized snakes. My body relented from its previous tensions as the tender clutches of a woman's desires played gently with my body in the darkened theater. She whispered something about her own children, and being a bitter bitch or butcher or something in ending them. The meanness in her mind was the children that she would never be known through as a mother, that she could of reared one of the many children she was pregnant with would of eased all her pain. I pitied her, but was utterly fascinated by the logic that seemed improbable to have come from any deep insight but instead was likely one of the tangents that she lent her depression and desperation to. Never the less, from those few moments in that theater I knew I would not want to be in such a position as to seek the succor of strangers in my last days. I could barely contain my contempt, as I knew she had a half dozen children that her parents would of raised with or without her. They will not likely be getting any from Francis.
She began to tell me about her personal revelations she was having, straight out of the Tao of Pooh. It is a rare thing for me to lend credence to people's half-baked metaphysics that they used to justify their actions and eliminate their guilt in this day and age of “ personal spirituality”. Spirituality; in my mind, cannot claim any currency without a community or it replaces the wrong aspects of religion and is just the deluded mentations of the proud. “Cheese is the king of the universe,” my old friend Mike used to arrest conversation and lead people into making an ass of themselves by mangling their theories into dairy farm humor and making his retort seem as if their petty observations and his poignant inversions posed as a double entendre, clever boy. I bit my tongue, and let her spout platitudes till I was nearly sober, filled with wanted response that I would never mention.
The movie, “ Moulan Rouge “ was unnerving with its bass laden song and dance numbers coming one after another as if from a machine gun. A musical yes, but aren't musicals supposed to be clever and not just rehashed stadium rock remixes? Pah, I knew I would regret this evening I thought to myself. Not realizing the human next to me was spellbound by my counterfeit attentiveness. She would have everything she could want of me, but only this night I told her. You must act as if I am the one to die and you must live past me if we are to be anything together. She agreed to play along.
When I got out of the movie theater I called Francis, and he was beyond pissed at his sister. People had been calling about new debts she owed and she was anything but interested, having the attitude let them try to collect it from me next year. Francis wished me well with his sister almost crying, and from than on I knew I had his blessing. I think that was just the allowance I needed to go through with it all. He knew I would be safe about it, he just wanted to know if I was sure about it. I may at times be a heartless man but rarely a headless one he knew. Since this woman mostly just wanted to regurgitate her life story to me and had no illusions of anything beyond the immediacy of our contact I was assured that everyone would benefit from this situation, even me.
The ride home was spurious cigarettes, convoluted shortcut directions, and 3 stops for a vanilla flavored liqueur that she insisted I must find at nearly midnight. The witch's hour approached and we tried one last store, a Chinese owned liquor store that I used to work near and came to in only the most desperate of situations. They had the best selection I knew of in the city that was open to two am, yet they knew their market well enough to have a 30% drunkard surcharge on everything in the store. A pack of bubblegum cost a dollar and change. She found it, and two 6 packs of strawberry beer. She relayed a story to me about when she first had a flavored beer it was made in the back of some guys VW Bus in Wisconsin. I told her this would be my first flavored beer lying to make her feel as if she could introduce me to something novel this night. Nothing new was under or above this sun dress I'm afraid.
We got to the corner where she lived, only to keep driving and park nearly a mile away in the rain to avoid a parking ticket. We walked past the place we ate the other day on the way to her apartment. The live sushi bar was closing down, health code violations. Well if that didn't portend some serious shit I don't know what could. We laughed it off, as by this time we had finished off a 4 out of a 6 pack from walking. Nothing was going to stop us now, nothing. We ascended the stairs to her apartment carrying on like sailors bustling up the back way of a whorehouse after being thrown out the front and now demanding a discount.
Well I confirmed the source of the curry smell as she opened the door to her apartment I was transported to a far away land of arranged marriages, sacred monkeys, and couples running through green fields. My immediate reaction on walking in was that I have never seen so much crap from Ikea shoved into such a small apartment, book shelves had shelves for smaller books it was turtles all the way down, up, and sideways. A 6' foot long iron chef's pot rack sundry with pots, pans, and knives hanging precariously from the ancient plaster ceiling gave the kitchen the impression that the inquisition was still on. A gourd painted as a skull from some Day of the Dead celebration long past completed the image.
Putting the vanilla liqueur in the freezer I noticed 6 half empty bottles of the same stuff, memory is the first to go I suppose. I wander if this is how many times she has had sex in this apartment, her brother said her family bought it for her 3 years ago. Opening the fridge to put the remaining beer in I noted dried out sushi rolls and liquid medication she had to refrigerate, there was not a single condiment. Half a box of baking powder spilled onto the bottom shelf was slightly off-colored by absorption. I wonder what kind of chemical history it could of told, being an aspiring Chemical Engineer back than I should of took a sample.
The languorous smell of incense perfuming the air made me take note of her disappearance and I looked over the false bar to see where my lover had gone off to. She was not lounging on one of the three white leather couch sectionals she had jammed into the tight living room. Sitting down on one of them my thoughts turned to the bedroom door thoughtlessly decorated with some garish pastiche of Van Gogh's sunflowers as Marijuana plants, the door was ajar. Getting up from the couch I passed by the bathroom door which was fully open. Helen was sitting on the side of an old claw footed washtub puking into the toilet. Lovely.
Coming in to help her she put out her hand and covered her face in shame. I was asked to close the door with the old wait for her to shower and slip into something sensuous. Going back to the freezer I pulled out one of the the half filled bottles and proceeded to find a cup to pour in. After searching through nearly every cupboard I noticed some Tiki mugs forming a line on one of her shelves and went over to select one. On the same shelf I noticed pictures of her with her parents and brother, they were badly lit with a flash but it looked like the sushi place down the street. I was wondering when was the last time she had been out of the bay area when I stopped on another picture of her beside a mint VW bug with 3 or 4 other hippies, she could not of been 20. Francis was 25 now and she had to be at least 30 now I deduced. That made this picture around or before she got infected, she may not of been heroin chic back than but her eyes held in them a sense of pride in herself that is impossible now. I grabbed a particularly grotesque looking Tiki mug and went back to the kitchen.
Wiped off the layer of condensate frost on the bottle to make sure it was the same stuff and noticed something to my horror that the liquid was frozen yellow, obviously piss. I've lived with pee drinkers and collectors before and hard liquor bottles are as likely trophies as any for them to accumulate. I screwed the cap on and settled it back into its station in the freezer, grabbing the one I knew to be wholesome. The liquor was still not quite cold but I was not about to complain or seek ice cubes here. The Tiki mug looked clean but I took no chances putting it in the microwave for 2 minutes without water. A habit that has served me well to this day, perhaps some critter will be resistant to my biologic killing regimen for drinking out of stranger's cups, but not thus far. Back to the drink though. Sweet, luscious, and with a picture of the Virgin Mary floating airingly above a field, what was there not to like about this liqueur. I made a mental note to get some more for me and Francis, which I eventually learned to be a mistake as he knew where I drew the inspiration and did not like the corollary feelings he got from it.
The sound of the shower stopped and I could hear her humming a forgettable Dead tune behind the door. She would be meeting the maker of that ditty soon enough, shame not enough famous people die like her but enough of them live like her for me to know some of them are not owning up. Perhaps the next decade will reveal some stranglers lost in all that fame, whose dying wish is to instill their persona into a foundation that will once and for all will handle the AIDS crisis like FDR held America responsible when he created the march of dimes to conquer polio, but I digress. She asked me to close my eyes as she skipped to her bedroom to find that, “something more comfortable to slip into” piece. Before I had time to react she was standing full at the door naked hair dripping wet from the shower and looked no different to me health-wise than the handful of junkies that I had so known. The whole starving artist bit was nothing new to me.
The rest about Helen that night is 3 more pages. I will give a portion of a paragraph.
Subtle scars ran up and down her body, thin self-inflicted purple lines demarcated imaginary battlefronts she had sensed taking place inside her. Nice clean scars, looked like she knew how to use a razor. Hyper aware to notice any blood I took my handkerchief out and wiped her skin up and down than carefully around her genital area and looked at the cloth carefully, but it was as white as a fresh q-tip. No problems here.
P.S. Helen is still alive and at home now. She can barely get out of bed anymore. We keep in loose contact through Francis, who is luckily married; just recently in fact, heh. I think I'm going to send him a bottle of that liqueur when I get the gumption.
I stayed awake the entirety of a San Francisco night
She had a regular pharmacopoeia of herbal remedies
I reposed amongst her soiled linens
The live sushi bar was closing down, health code violations.
She was not the first whore I had ever bedded but the sheer tenacity of her at the brink of absolution one way or the other carries with me to this day a notion of humanity that may not seem clear or lucid unless you have run similar moral gambits and won. What did I win? A cheap night of sex can be had almost anywhere for less drinks and I was not looking for much more from the walking dead. Like her brother and everyone that dealt with her as intimates she taught me through the callousness of her actions lessons in the intolerable.
I knew bath houses down the street that stood less a chance of giving me aids but I was too drunk to care.
It was gimpy like silly-putty and she moaned like a horse choking on blood.
Through the rastalogy of the bamboo shutters she had nailed to the ceiling I felt the imbalance of so many lovers who had laid next to her staring upwards into the firmaments destiny, fate, and luck splendored in the
The taste haunted me in my daily life onward. Each plastic cup become a seat of blame to lay my damnations on
Made friendship bracelets
Be my angel
Be thankful you can get oranges in December.
Watched her dial the number for her brother three times and asked her if I could program in the number so that she could more easily use the device.