August 1993, Sheila called me from San Jose, from the airport.
She was already gone. I set down the phone and cried. I ate fast food
and drank whiskey, I didn’t see my friends. I took a leave of absence
from my job—or at least I called them up and told them if they
wouldn’t expect me to come in, I wouldn’t expect a paycheck. They
kept sending the paychecks anyway.
February, I woke up and brushed my teeth. I shaved and went to the mall
and got my hair cut at one of those “walk-ins welcome” places. I
called the office and told them I was ready to come back to work. They
And my season
of mourning was over. I felt light and trim and ready to work. My first
week back I knocked out a feature about a former pro basketball player
turned car dealer—he’d found out his used car manager had been
running a scam on him so he cracked the guy’s skull with a five-iron.
I made the basketball player sound sympathetic, because he was, he
wasn’t any kind of businessman and the used car manager was a sleaze.
It was clean, quick and uncomplicated. I did a couple of interviews,
typed it up and I was back in the game.
The next week I
churned out another feature—about how the Indian Reservation was
soaking the government on a freeway right-of-way deal. The next week, I
was in the magazine with an exclusive interview with our married
governor’s girlfriend, an aide by the name of Annette Chavez. Annette
had accompanied the gov on a goodwill trip to Japan and during a
stopover in Hawaii, she’d charged a seven hundred dollar party dress
to her state Diner’s Club card.
tipped off to this, and when I called her—at home, late at night—she
invited me to come over and talk about it. It seems that the governor
had just that afternoon sent her an e-mail—an e-mail!—indicating
that maybe they had better cool things for awhile. Like until after his
wife dropped dead of cancer. I made poor hustling Annette—a girl from
the streets of South Tucson—sound sympathetic too. Because she was.
office, they started whispering about another Journalist of the Year
plaque. I just shrugged, and said I would be honored if the magazine
nominated me again, but that I’d be just as happy if one of the other
staffers won it. Besides it was still early in the year, way too early
to even be thinking about awards. The truth is I knew I was having a good run. I had that sort of manic
fever, that buzz you know can’t last and so it makes you worry.
I heard from
her lawyer in late April and I still didn’t feel a pang. All she
wanted was a check. I scratched one out and sent it along with a note:
“Sorry. Love, Will.”
Maybe you know
what I’m talking about—maybe we all go through times when we want to
burn down hospitals, to stalk the halls hosing lead. When we look across
the table at someone we love and learn some hard dumb truth; when the
phone buzzes and a stranger says she’s sorry.
The heart is a
numb muscle; a knot of blood and gristle at the center of a man. How
dare it hurt so? And how dare that pain simply evaporate?
All I can tell
you is that suddenly I felt no anger toward Sheila, only wistfulness. I
knew she was right to leave me, that it really was the best thing—the
only thing—she could have done. That it wasn’t treachery, it
wasn’t evil, it was just that we were drowning people, dragging each
other down. I was OK with that. I could be stoic and brave and let it
all go. And in a few years, I might even be able to hear her voice. I
might be able to look at her across a room, I might be able to call her
over, to introduce her to someone as “my ex—wife.”
I guess I kind
of fell in love with this idea of myself as a good person, a mature man
who could forgive and take responsibility for his own mistakes. I said
nothing bad about her, when her name came up in conversation I said that
the divorce was proceeding, that there were no issues, that we were
I went out on a
couple of set-up dates in May, but nothing took. One of the women
wasn’t pretty enough, the other wasn’t smart enough. Besides, I was
working. Hard. I was still running, things were moving. Sources were
calling me. I made my year’s quota of cover stories in June, and in
July I started corresponding with Seymour Largent, the motorcycle
chieftain who was doing a stretch in the federal penitentiary near Rock
things happen. The son of a white collar S&L type who was serving a
sentence there sent me a file box full of documents he told me could
clear his father. “There’s a Pulitzer in that box,” he told me.
was, but I couldn’t find it. I didn’t really understand the charges
against the old guy, much less how those balance sheets and canceled
checks and copies of memoranda were supposed to set him free. But I
drove up to the prison to do an exploratory interview anyway.
As it turned
out, I hit off with him. He was courteous and intelligent and guilty and
he knew it. I would guess he had some cash stashed somewhere offshore.
He was making the best of his stint in prison; he had let his gray hair
grow long and he lifted weights in the sunshine every day. He had
transformed himself into a hardchested, flatbellied old surfer dude. He
wasn’t ever going back to the office. And he had made friends with Sy
I knew about
Largent, I’d read both his book and the book the gonzo journalist had
written about him thirty years before. I knew they believed he was a
killer and a genius at manufacturing and distributing methamphetamine
yet, like Al Capone, the feds had only been able to nail him for income
tax evasion. I told the white collar thief this and he smiled and said
he’d say hello to Sy for me. He wrote down my address, and told me
he’d tell his son we’d had a good talk. I said I’d see what I
could do about writing a story.
don’t do it for me,” he said. “I’ll be out in seventeen months
A few days
later I got a letter from Largent. In a small, precise printed hand he
asked if I could send him some clips, some copies of the magazine. I
filled up a thick envelope for him and set him up with a comp
subscription. I wrote a note saying I had followed his career, that as a
boy I had spent summers in the Bay Area and more than once had seen him
and his crew rumble past my uncle’s antique shop on their big Harleys.
I had said I considered him a part of Americana and that I would be
interested in talking to him if he had anything at all he wanted to say.
He wrote back
almost immediately, commenting on some of the stories I’d written. His
critique was sharp but favorable, he noticed how things were put
together. He said he enjoyed my voice. He said he might call me—it
would be collect, so be prepared. He told me nothing at all about
I wrote back,
enclosing a list of questions. I didn’t expect him to answer them, I
just wanted to demonstrate that I was familiar with his career, and that
if I were ever to write about him he would have to confront some of
these questions. Basically I set out to show him I wasn’t a pussy, and
the story, if it were ever to be told, would be my story. I was guessing
that Largent would want to hear this; even if he figured he could
manipulate me, he’d want to hear me protest my independence.
He wrote back,
a long and seemingly expansive letter, that described how the prison
operated. It wasn’t a country club—no prison really is—but there
was a mutual respect between the guards and the inmates, Some inmates,
especially Largent, had a great deal of say in the day-to-day
administration of the facility.
“Usually the warden visits me, in my ‘office,’“ Largent wrote. “He is a good man, not much concerned with the petty bureaucracies and orthodoxies of the American penal system. We talk, mano á mano, and the communication is good. We cooperate. I understand I am his prisoner, but he understands who I am. I understand that he did not put me here, and has no wish to make my daily existence any tougher than it must be. Neither of us wants trouble. Most of the men here are reasonable people—they are older than most inmates, many of them have done time in harder and more deadly joints. Most of them understand that this is, under the circumstances, not the worst place they could be.”
He went on like
that for a couple of pages, telling me nothing except what I already
knew—he was a powerful and dangerous man. He was smarter and richer
than me. If I were to write a story about him, he would allow me a
certain latitude but he would control which members of his family and
motorcycle club talked to me, and what they said. He didn’t care what
the government said about him. He would allow me to be tough, expect me
to be tough, but in the end, the piece would serve his ends.
addressed only one of the questions I had asked him.
mentioned a certain English singer in your letter and I want to set
you—and the world—straight on that. If I wanted that homosexual
dead, if I had, as he claims, ‘put out a contract’ on him, then he
would certainly be dead now. We have affiliate clubs in London and a
chapter in New York and some of the members would be more than happy to
snuff his punk ass if they thought for an instant that it would please
me. My general feeling is that English queers aren’t worth my
attention, and that it is unfortunate that people like him make up
stories in order to bolster their flagging careers. I accept this sort
of thing as part of the price of fame or, if you will, celebrity.
“We hired him
and his band for a party once. There was a problem, which I contend was
their fault. We paid them anyway. I don’t think I have said more than
six words to him in my life. I might not recognize him if he walked up
to me on the street.”
I wrote him
back and said I would save any questions until we could meet face to
face. He did not answer and I thought he had decided not to talk. I
wasn’t surprised. I had done some research—no one had interviewed Sy
Largent since the gonzo journalist had gotten stomped in 1969. I assumed
he had decided he had nothing to gain by talking to me. We had had a
brief flirtation, never consummated. I did not take it personally.
anniversary of Sheila’s leaving me, the line in my office rang. A
Phoenix lawyer whose name was familiar to me but whom I’d never met
told me Sy Largent was being released from prison in a few weeks. He was
being paroled for medical reasons. He had pancreatic cancer. He would
likely die within the year. He had decided he would talk to me.
“He wants you
to visit him in Oakland, at his house,” the lawyer says. “He wants
to show you some things. Do you think you can arrange that?”
Sure, I said, I
could fly to Oakland. I could spend a couple of days, a week, whatever.
I knew the magazine I worked for wasn’t cheap, and they wouldn’t
hesitate to send me. It was good I hadn’t told anyone I was working on
a Largent interview; I could drop a bomb on the editors at our weekly
staff meeting. It was turning out to be a very good year.
The lawyer said
he would fax me the details. I hung up, switched the line over and
I felt odd. I
cannot say I wasn’t excited about the story, but as soon as it was
removed from the hypothetical, as soon as it became an assignment,
something I would do, my concentration faltered. Gradually I begin to
realize that there was some blind white loathsome worm crawling through
my guts. I was giddy, then anxious, then suddenly ringing like crystal.
It was all fucked up, and then it wasn’t. Somehow I convinced myself
the trip wasn’t about Largent at all, it wasn’t about work, it was a
shot at redemption, a chance for me to see Sheila—who I hadn’t
thought much about in months—and to make her understand that while she
had been right to leave, it was all different now. I had changed. I had
evolved and she would see it.
I know how that
sounds—I knew how it sounded even as I was thinking it. My story
became an excuse to get nearer to her, a pretext I could use to pursue
some vague reconciliation fantasy. I knew it was crazy, that it was not
the way life worked, that I was thinking the way pathetic and criminal
people think. Intellectually I understood exactly how stupid and sad it
was, how unlike the person I was trying to become it was, how fucking
dangerous it was, but in the end I convinced myself that human beings
simply have these charged, feverish conversations with themselves, that
what I was thinking—and feeling—wasn’t unusual and that I was
ahead of the game for understanding that.
There is a
difference between thought and action; between murder and
Not that murder
was what I was thinking about. No, I was thinking about getting back
together, tearful reunions, sweet forgiveness and make-up sex. I was
thinking about rekindling one of the century’s great loves. I was
thinking messy thoughts as I lay in bed, the room gray and grainy and my
soft lead slug brain spinning dull electric clock red.
Over the next
weeks, while Largent’s paperwork was being processed, I worked
fitfully on a couple of long—term projects. Mainly I drove around the
Valley. I went to a lot of movies. I was just barely responsible—I
knew that I had capital to burn, that no one really expected me to turn
any stories before I flew to Oakland. I checked in at the office, but I
rarely stayed longer than fifteen minutes or so. I returned some phone
calls, let others languish in my voice mail.
shopping, bought a couple of shirts. I got my hair cut again—this time
I went to the girl at the salon who used to do Shelia’s hair. I told
her a friend had recommended her.
Then it was
time to go.
hadn’t been very detailed in his instructions. He stipulated only that
I not fly out on the same plane, and that I give him “some
space”—a day alone in Oakland with his family before we conducted
the interview. After that, I could call and we’d set it up. He
didn’t know exactly when or how long he could talk. or if there would
be more than one session. We’d just have to see how things went.
manager handled the arrangements. She booked me into a Ramada on Jack
London Square. I was to fly out on the flight ahead of Largent’s, I
planned to wait in the airport to check out what kind of press coverage
his homecoming generated. I understood there would be television news,
that the Examiner and the Chronicle and probably the Mercury-News would
send photographers and reporters to record the moment. I was more
worried that the alternatives, the Guardian or SF Weekly, might be
planning bigger stories. One of them might even intend to make Largent a
cover story. But they didn’t have an invitation, or his unlisted phone
number. Whatever they wrote, I felt certain, would be based on clippings
and maybe a few brusque airport words from the man himself.
something else. Sheila might be among the TV reporters waiting to stick
a microphone in Largent’s face. And even if she wasn’t, I would have
almost two entire days to kill before I’d even call Largent about our
interview. I knew where she worked, I even had her home address. I could
visit her if I wanted, she wouldn’t mind if I looked her up. Nothing
that bad had happened between us, no violence, no restraining orders. We
could have a cup of coffee, we could part friends.
Now that we
weren’t married she would probably come back with me to my hotel. We
would make love. We would get back together. There were any number of
newspapers and magazines in the Bay Area, I could free-lance. Hell, who
wouldn’t jump at the chance to add a two-time Arizona Journalist of
the Year, a Pulitzer finalist, to their city room?
I knew this was
crazy thinking. And I could stop it anytime I wanted. But I didn’t.
airport is so neutral as to be nonexistent; I felt at home there. I came
up the jetway and emerged into a shadowless cool mall world of beige and
light, of metal and plastic. I went to a fast food stand, bought a
cheeseburger and turned to check the monitor to see what gate
Largent’s flight was coming into. I didn’t need to; not more than
fifty yards away I could see a few nervous television types milling
around, touching their hair and avoiding eye contact with each other
while their camera people slumped together in the gate area, their heavy
equipment littering the floor. I caught a flash of white as someone
unflapped one of those skinny reporters’ notebooks. The print guys
weren’t so obvious, but they were there too.
Sheila was, of
course, not there. She was an anchor, a news reader. She didn’t cover
spot news stories. I knew that.
I wandered over
toward a uniformed policeman, a black guy I took to be about my age,
rocking on his heels a respectful distance away. There were a few cops
scattered about, I noticed, low-key security. Largent had enemies, but
they weren’t likely to show up to meet him at the airport. The airport
was probably more concerned about Largent’s friends. One of the terms
of his parole was that he couldn’t associate with any known felons,
which meant he couldn’t legally see any of the members of his
believed he wouldn’t violate that provision.
I walked up to
the fuss about? I asked.
drug dealer’s getting out of prison and they’re here to welcome him
home,” he said through a tight smile. I could tell he was pleased to
be there, though that wasn’t the impression he was trying to convey.
One of the print reporters overheard, and shuffled over.
He was a kid
really, a wan twentysome with lank pale hair and eyes like water. He
wore jeans and a leather jacket over a chocolate T-shirt.
Clark Neeson, I’m with the Examiner,” he offered his hand to the
policeman, who shook it. He looked at me with an open, inquisitive face
and I lifted my hands to mid-chest and took a bemused step back. He got
the joke and smiled as he took out his notebook. I wanted to overhear
the conversation, but I wasn’t inclined to part of it.
The kid seemed
like a good reporter, probably a year or two out of Missouri or
Northwestern. He had a master’s degree and probably some real doubt
about whether he’d chosen the right career. In a year or two he’d
probably be back in school, at a writing program in the Midwest, or
maybe earning a Ph.D. so he could teach journalism at a land grant
college. But right now he was doing a job, looking for just a little
something extra to make his story better than the competition’s. Maybe
the cop would tell him something, maybe the guy was colorful. I admired
the kid a little, I was touched by his earnestness.
Turned out the
cop was just a cop, though he wasn’t one of those cops who was afraid
to get his name in the papers. He didn’t refer the kid to the public
information officer, or shine him on like he had more important things
to worry about. He pretty much gave him the cop line, about being there
for Mr. Largent’s safety, about it being a routine detail.
you’re asking me personally, personally I think this Largent guy is
trash,” he told Clark Neeson. “I mean, I am sorry he got cancer and
all, but he is really just a dope—dealing piece of trash. And
they’re letting him out of prison on humanitarian grounds. I don’t
get it, he’s ruined hundreds of lives.”
wasn’t convicted of drug trafficking,” Neeson said, “all he was
convicted of was cheating on his taxes.”
accept that,” the cop said. “But the truth is, he’s a very
powerful criminal and everybody knows it. Even Largent himself
acknowledges that he has broken the law many many times in the past.
They couldn’t convict him of cooking or dealing methamphetamine, they
couldn’t convict him of murder, but that doesn’t make him a hero.
Just because they find you not guilty doesn’t make you innocent.”
Neeson’s light eyes jump and I knew he had his quote. He scribbled a
bit. Then he looked up and smiled at the cop. The cop smiled back. Both
of them were pleased with the exchange.
“And I need
your name,” Clark Neeson said. “That is, if you don’t mind. I
suppose I don’t have to attribute it.”
“No problem,” the cop said. “You’ve been talking to Sergeant Will Gray.”
this sometimes happen, I assign no particular significance to them. Type
your own name into an internet search engine sometime, you’ll likely
be surprised at the number of hits. My own name is a fairly common name.
There are thousands of William Grays in the country, and quite a few go
by “Will” rather than “Bill” or “Billy.” There is a Will
Gray who provides commentary for the National Public Radio affiliate in
Boston. There is a Los Angeles—based movie critic named Will Gray. So
there was a policeman in Oakland named Will Gray. So I was standing next
to him. It was not an impossible thing to have happen, it was not magic
realism, it was not some kind of sign. It was just one of those
unforeseeable convergences of everyday life.
It was not the
sort of thing I would put in my story. It would distract the readers,
call attention to me. Sergeant Gray’s thoughts were banal, obvious,
superfluous. I didn’t need them. Besides, they didn’t know I was
eavesdropping. They didn’t know I was a journalist working on a story.
I walked away, to a bank of phones, punched in a few numbers and
listened to a mechanical voice read my checking account balance. I
decided I would watch Largent disembark from a safe distance.
It was an
awkward thing, as airport events often are. The gate was crowded with
people waiting to board, and the media was taking up too much space.
Largent and a thin blonde woman I took to be his daughter—no, his
wife—were the fourth and fifth people off the plane, followed by the
Phoenix lawyer who had contacted me. A tall slender man with wispy gray
hair and thick glasses stepped up to meet them just before the TV crews
drew in tight. Largent, a short, powerfully built man whose chest
strained against his faded black T-shirt, blinked in the bleaching light
and kept moving down the corridor. Reporters shouted questions after
him, cameramen stumbled backwards to keep his face in the shot. Largent
tried to smile, but it came off as a grimace, like a face a professional
wrestler would make while standing over his fallen opponent in the ring.
That night in
my hotel room I turned on Sheila’s station to watch the news. She was
suddenly there in my room with me, at once startling and reassuring in
her small-town, black-haired, blue-eyed prettiness. But she didn’t
look like anyone I knew exactly and somehow she didn’t elicit any
feeling at all from me. For some reason, her image— recognizable as it
was—didn’t alarm or upset or even predicate a lapping of yearning
within me. It was a clinical experience. I sat and watched and wondered
at my lack of emotion.
I saw videotape
of Largent, rhino-shouldered, thin-lipped, with a face that looked like
a sheet draped over a crop of boulders, and hard shiny eyes. They
followed him to the parking lot where he got into a waiting limo and
coasted away, with a half dozen Harleys—bearing long-bodied
middle-aged men in biker drag—sputtering and ripping the air behind
I took my
rented Ford Probe—tomato red—out for a while, drifting through
Oakland and Berkeley and El Cerrito and Richmond and finally back onto
the Alameda Naval Air Station, with the public radio station playing
cool jazz I did not understand. I was thinking about Sheila more than I
should have been, not about the creature I’d just seen on TV, but
about the girl I’d treated badly. I was hoping she would forgive me,
for what I had done, for what I had failed to do, for what was still
within my power and potential to do.
I parked the
car back at the hotel and wandered down to a yuppie bar and drank
bourbon while looking across the bay at the lights of San Francisco. I
thought about how I hadn’t been there since I was a kid. I thought
about what I could do to kill the time before hooking up with Largent—I
hated eating in restaurants by myself, I even hated going to movies
alone. I had a job to do. But, other than that, I didn’t know what to
do with myself.
I made the call
the next morning It is always the hardest part of the process, the thing
some people can never bring themselves to do. I heard a woman’s voice,
nicely nicotined, with a vestigal Southern drawl, most likely the blonde
I’d seen with Largent at the airport. “Hel—lo?”
Hey, I said,
alarmed that my voice suddenly echoed her Southerness. This is Will
Gray, from the magazine down in Phoenix? I think Sy’s expecting me to
call him sometime today?
honey”—she’d been briefed—”Sy said you was going to call, he
had to run up to Petaluma on business, sorry, but he’ll be back
tomorrow and there’s going to be a party for him out at the old
raceway near Livermore tomorrow night. He’ll send a couple of the guys
over to fetch you if you want, or I can just give you the directions?”
I said I’d
take the directions and she read them to me, slowly. They had it down to
the eighth of a mile. I was just to say who I was, the guys watching the
gate would know to look for me.
She wanted to
know what I’d be driving. I told her about the red Ford Probe. She
know to look for you.”
So I had a full
day of freedom and no heart for trying to interject myself back into my
ex—wife’s new life. I took the rented Probe across the Bay, into the
I used to spend
part of every summer there, during those years my father was playing
baseball, with my namesake uncle.
My Uncle Will
lived in a white, spidery Victorian house in one of the rich suburbs
south of the city, a place called Burlingame. He owned a string of
antique shops in and around the city—for a time he also owned stores
in Houston and Los Angeles—and he lived stylishly, like a celebrity,
with an attorney wife who’d once been married to a movie star, and
famous friends like Rod McKuen and various television comedians.
During the few
weeks I spent with him each year, he seemed hardly to work at all.
Occasionally he would breeze through one of his stores, smiling
beneficently on the not-quite-hippie San Francisco State students he’d
put to work as clerks. I have a vague memory of him scratching up an old
table with a nail and once going over some ledgers with my aunt but
around his businesses he seemed largely decorative.
tell people he was handsome but “handsome” is not quite precise;
“dashing” is an adjective that comes to mind, but it’s not the
word I want to use. I want something that conveys something of his sense
of his own absurdity. Even the simplest clothes hung like a costume on
He was of
average proportions, remarkable for his jet hair and icy blue eyes—the
eyes of a mentalist. He wore a mustache, a bushy encroachment on his
upper lip, and his hair fashionably shaggy, not unlike the pushers Jack
Webb was always lecturing on Dragnet. His jackets clung to him and he
wore bell bottoms and belts with big silver buckles. He had come a long
way from Asheville; his voice was drained of the gentle tobacco country
accent that afflicted his younger brother, my father (and, thirty years
later, surfaces from time to time in my voice); Uncle Will spoke in the
crisp, cool tones of one who had learned to curb his tendencies, and
cover his tracks. He had been in the Navy and had traveled the world and
he had come to light in San Francisco because, he said, the weather and
the city suited him.
Now he seems a
perfect specimen of the Sixties, the punch line to an unfunny joke. He
was a shabby genteel Southern boy gone California crunchy; he was the
only person in my family who was ever anything like me.
It was said
that when “Uncle Will” decided it was time to marry, he drew up a
list of all the women he knew, listed their attributes and ranked them
in order of preferability. He intended to propose to the top-ranked
woman, and if she turned him down, to proceed down the list.
candidate, who did become my aunt, was a lovely green—eyed woman with
soft brown hair she wore long down her back. She was a lawyer who
specialized in real estate and corporate work; her practice carried her
away to Los Angeles so often she kept an apartment in that city. She was
never around too much during my summer visits, though I saw her once or
twice. She seemed as much a guest in his house—did he ever say
“ours”?—as I did.
There was a
tangled garden out back and Scotch light slanted through his shutters in
the evening. In what I liked to think of as my room the bookcase held
dog—eared copies of Two Years Before the Mast, and Barbary Coast and
dozens of other titles that reside on the fuzzy periphery of recall. One
summer I scared myself badly reading In Cold Blood beneath the covers
with a flashlight.
Uncle Will kept
a copy of the Kama Sutra and stacks of the Berkeley Barb in the kitchen.
For breakfast he would hop fruit and ice and milk into a blender and
pour out a kind of shake. He allowed me tastes of the sweet cordials he
kept in his bar—the downstairs of his house had once been a saloon and
the bar was a long magnificent thing of nineteenth-century redwood.
“Do you know
what a whorehouse is?” I recall him asking.
I think so.
house used to be a whorehouse. And some people think it is haunted.”
Willie. Houses aren’t haunted. People are haunted, but places never
“In a way,
you call them ghosts. But ghosts aren’t out there, they’re in
here”—he tapped his chest lightly—”do you understand what I’m
trying to tell you?”
I think so.
ever have to be scared of anything, Willie.”
that’s not what I mean. You don’t have to try. It’s not like
you’re going to let me down or anything. I mean I’m sorry. What I
want you to know is that some people think this house is haunted because
bad things are supposed to have happened here. And I don’t know if
they happened here or not, but even if they did it doesn’t matter. Am
I confusing you?”
All right, just forget it. This used to be a whorehouse but there
shouldn’t be anything spooky about that. You might hear stories about
a murder that was committed here, but that was a long long time ago and
it doesn’t mean anything to you or me? OK?”
liked to be mentioned in the society columns of the Chronicle or in Herb
Caen’s column. Once the paper ran a photograph of him wearing an
actual velvet smoking jacket at some benefit for the San Francisco
Opera. He tore it out and taped it to his refrigerator. I wish I could
remember the caption he wrote—I’m sure it was urbane and ironic.
He taught me
about irony—he said it was when you used words to mean the opposite of
what they say. I said that that sounded like lying and he said it
wasn’t, that when you’re being ironic people know exactly what you
mean. (Actually he said the people who matter would know exactly what
He said it was
good to be ironic; that ironic people were the most interesting people.
He said it was not only good, but important, to be interesting.
He saw, I am
now sure, my education as one of his chief responsibilities. He was, I
think, trying to broaden my horizons; to shape and sharpen my tastes, to
turn me into what we used to call “a well-rounded young man.” He
would let me mind the counter in his store and he taught me the
difference between art deco and art nouveau. He took me to museums and
to the symphony and more often than he probably would have liked, he
bundled me up for a trip to cold Candlestick Park to watch Willie Mays
and the Giants. After the A’s moved to Oakland, he preferred
them—more than once he took me to watch games in which my father
played against them.
It was always a
bit unreal when my father’s schedule coincided with mine and we ended
up in the same ballpark. We never lived in the city where he played, and
we’d make that trip only once or twice a season. I envied the kids who
lived in Cleveland, who could come out and watch their dads take batting
practice anytime. Though a part of me even then understood why my father
had to compartmentalize his life and leave us down South during the
season, at times I felt I wasn’t quite his son, that I was more a
“ward,” an orphaned Dick Grayson to his generous though somehow
damaged Bruce Wayne. That was how I liked to think of it.
But when my
father came to Oakland during those few weeks I spent with my uncle each
summer, we were a genuine family, the three of us. Those games never
meant much back then, that was before Oakland became good and while
Cleveland was still terrible. No one came to the games except Baseball
Annies and old men in styrofoam boaters and families filling out their
vacation obligations. There was no pressure on the players and my father
always seemed to play well when I was in the stands; he’d scoot and
glide over the infield, hold the ball, then fire across the infield.
He’d hot dog a little for me, or so I thought.
three of us would go to flea markets and estate sales where my uncle
bought much of his stock or drive through the green hills of Northern
California or walk through Chinatown and along the Embarcadero. We
visited tourist spots like Seal Rock and once we took a ferry out to
Alcatraz and stamped around the penitentiary grounds. My uncle pointed
out the Haight—Ashbury house where Grace Slick lived.
Yet I was never
reluctant to see my father go. Three or four days during the season,
that was all I ever expected, all I ever needed. He was working, he had
worries beyond his somber little boy. I was brave. I always understood.
The last summer
I spent any time with my uncle was 1971. I was about to enter high
school, my summers were more precious to me. I begin spending them on
ballfields and golf courses, at basketball camps. Though we exchanged
letters more or less faithfully—a couple a year back and forth, cards
and birthday and Christmas presents—it was more than ten years before
I saw my uncle again.
He came when he
learned my father was dying.
father was still at home, it was evident the chemo wasn’t working. The
doctors stopped the treatments. Two days before he was to enter the
hospital for the last time, my uncle and aunt arrived from San
Francisco. I drove out to the airport and met them.
My uncle looked
much the same, though his clothes were fuller cut and lower key and his
hair was veined with gray. He had lived through a financial
disaster—an employee had embezzled many thousands of dollars,
requiring him to close all but a single store. That night we all went
out to dinner and he fiddled with a fried catfish fillet, claiming he
was unfamiliar with the dish. When we got home we all sat up very late,
drinking wine and talking. He made my father laugh, telling stories
about the old days in Asheville.
And he never
let on that he too was dying. The last time I saw him alive was the day
of my father’s funeral.
Uncle Will died
a year and two days after my father. Somehow I knew what it was that
killed him before my mother told me. It was AIDS, though before I heard
that he was dead I never considered the possibility of such a thing. I
suddenly and unequivocally understood he had always been homosexual. I
wondered at myself, why I had never before formed the thought in my
mind. It was as if I had been lifted to the quiet moment at the top of
an arc the moment where it is possible to believe you can hang in the
sky forever then pitched down into the inevitability of gravity. It all
made a kind of furious headlong logic.
I could not go
to San Francisco for the funeral, there wasn’t time. He died, and my
heartbroken, understanding aunt had the body cremated. His friends
carried his ashes out onto the Bay and scattered them.
Now I was back.
I was here to reconcile with my ex—wife or kill her or simply leave
her in peace. I was here to interview a famous motorcycle outlaw. Life
was odd and lacking in credibility. I didn’t believe any of it.
So on a Sunday
morning in October 1994, I drove a tomato-red rented Ford Probe across
the Bay. I got off on the Embarcadero and cruised down to Fisherman
Wharf. I parked and walked on up to Ghiradelli Square, where my uncle
had once taken me to eat crepes in a restaurant that is no longer there.
I stood there for a second, amid the tourists and the homeless. I
thought about buying a souvenir or lunch, but the noise and the light
and the stinging wind were just too much.
I got back in
the car and drove, south along the western edge of the peninsula, and
cut back over across the hills into Burlingame. I found his old store
easily enough—it now sells jewelry—but I could not find the house my
aunt had sold soon after my uncle died.
Finally, I went
to the worn-bricked library. I asked for old city directories and after
a few moments scanning up and down the names I found the address—the
address I had written on so many envelopes over the years. I found it on
I sat in my car
a long time looking at the house—the haunted whorehouse — hardly so
large and grand as I had remembered it, but big enough. A young family
lived there now, and it looked as though the mess that had been the
garden was tamed. There was a scent of honeysuckle mingling with
fresh-mown grass and the sun roared through a sky clear and cold as
I sat there for
a while, until the young woman who lived there walked over to me. I was
embarrassed; she might have thought I was watching her children.
“Sir, can I
help you?” Her voice was full of polite authority.
No. I mean,
I’m sorry—my uncle used to live in this house.
He died, I
guess, almost ten years ago.
“Uh huh. We
just bought the house a few months ago. That was a few owners back.
Would you like to come inside?”
No, no thank
you. Can I ask you a question?
might not answer.” She had me pegged—sweet, safe, a little shy. Not
a killer. Not yet. Maybe never.
Have you ever
heard any stories about the house?
say that in the twenties, a girl—a prostitute—was strangled on the
second floor. I mean, my husband even went down and looked it up on
microfilm. He made a photocopy, put it in his ‘house’ file.”
I heard that
story, I never knew that it was true.
I think that’s one reason—one very macabre reason—we ended up
buying it. My husband has a thing for haunted houses. He writes
mysteries, ghost stories.”
interesting, I said. For a moment we stood together in a comfortable
silence. I broke it.
Look, I know
this is awkward, maybe, but can you tell if you got a better deal
because this is a murder house? I know that sometimes that happens with
newer houses, I just wonder if there’s a statute of limitations on it
think we paid a premium for it. Old murders enhance property values;
it’s only the recent sticky ones that cause the seller problems.”
Well, the place
looks much better than I remember. My uncle just let the garden snarl
up; he didn’t believe in moving lawns or edging.
“We have a
lawn service come by each week.”
down, she was ready for me to leave. But she was polite.
“ Are you
sure you don’t want to come in and look around? Really, I could get
you a drink of water, or some sun tea? No trouble.”
Really. I’ve got to turn this car in, I’ve got to catch a plane.
sorry if I sounded abrupt earlier, but these days you can’t be too
careful. Even nice-looking men can turn out to be perverts.”
around, took a couple of steps toward the Probe and stopped. I fumbled
with my wallet and pulled out a business card.
Look, I said,
if it’s not too much trouble, could you ask your husband to send me a
copy of that story about the house. I’d really like to read it.
said, taking the card. She glanced at it and smiled. “What, another
writer? I can’t get away from writers.”
We infest the
earth. I’m a journalist, not a real writer. I write for a magazine in
you can write the trip off your taxes anyway. It’s all research.
Everything is material, isn’t it?”
I guess it is.
Goodbye. You were good to talk to me.
I can tell you’re not a pervert. You didn’t even ask about the
That night I
absently flipped on the TV in my room. A tense, thin-lipped Sheila
introduced a special breaking report. They went live to a little blonde
girl, a poor kid who was biting her lower lip and looking hard into the
eyes of her viewers at home. Serious breaking news. Three dead in a
shootout with police. A meth lab. Near Petaluma. Details at eleven.
(photo by Donna Daughtery)