Philip Martin



In 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.

Then, in 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 said OK.

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.

I’d been 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.

Around the 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 still friends.

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 Springs.

Funny how 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.

Maybe there 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 Largent.

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.

“Well, don’t do it for me,” he said. “I’ll be out in seventeen months anyway.”

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 himself.

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.

He directly addressed only one of the questions I had asked him.

“You 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.

On the 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 waited.

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 thought—murder.

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.

I went 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.

Largent 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.

Our office 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.

I understood 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.

Oakland’s 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 motorcycle club.

But nobody believed he wouldn’t violate that provision.

I walked up to the policeman.

What’s all the fuss about? I asked.

“Oh, some 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.

“Hi, I’m 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.

“But if 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.”

“But he wasn’t convicted of drug trafficking,” Neeson said, “all he was convicted of was cheating on his taxes.”

“Right, I 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.”

I saw 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.”

Things like 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 them.

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?

“Yeah, Will, 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 giggled mildly.

“They’ll 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 city.

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.

I routinely 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 him.

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.

The top-ranked 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.

“Well, this house used to be a whorehouse. And some people think it is haunted.”

Is it?

“No, no, Willie. Houses aren’t haunted. People are haunted, but places never are.”

By ghosts?

“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.

“You don’t ever have to be scared of anything, Willie.”

I’ll try.

“Damn it, 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?”

A little.

“Oh goddamn. 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?”


Uncle Will 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 you mean.)

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.

Sometimes, the 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.

Though my 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 a map.

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 vodka.

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.

“Really? How long ago?”

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?

“Sure. I 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?

“Well, they 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.

“It’s 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.”

Oh, that’s 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 or anything.

“Hardly. I 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.”

She looked 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.”

No thanks. Really. I’ve got to turn this car in, I’ve got to catch a plane.

“O.K., I’m 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.”

I understand. Goodbye.

I turned 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.

“Sure,” she 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 Phoenix.

“Yeah, well, 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.

“It’s O.K. I can tell you’re not a pervert. You didn’t even ask about the kids.”

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.



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(photo by Donna Daughtery)