The Oceanic Express
by Jack Alcott
|part 1 of 3|
So there was this old guy at our party, and no one knew who he was or where he came from. He just kind of appeared. Now that was not a problem or anything. This was San Francisco in the fall of 1976 and hey, everybody’s welcome. It was two in the morning and The Abbey Tavern, the bar downstairs from our railroad flat, had just emptied out and naturally one of my roommates, Bruce from Buzzard’s Bay, had invited everyone upstairs.
That was pretty typical for a Friday-night-into-Saturday-morning here, and we were used to having all kinds of crazies, eccentrics and barflys come up. Again, this was Baghdad by the Bay. If they were sober enough to climb the two flights of stairs to the apartment, we figured they were under control.
There were five of us living in the flat and we were all in our twenties and in good shape, so we could handle anybody and anything short of a psycho with a gun. But we kept an eye on our guests, and this guy really stood out. First of all, it was his hair — it was silver and hung in thick, coiled ringlets to his black-caped shoulders.
That’s right, he was wearing a black cape. A black shirt, black pants and black boots, too. All that black seemed to make those silvery coils light up like they were electrified, especially if you’d had a toke or two and couldn’t help staring.
You couldn’t miss his mustache, either. It was one of those showy Salvador Dali jobs, all waxed and nasty like an insect’s antennae. And then there were his black eyes. They seemed to be all pupil — which around here isn’t all that unusual. But he didn’t seem stoned on dope or alcohol — and that’s suspicious. On the contrary, he was very lucid and in the moment, and those damned, unblinking black eyes burned into you when he spoke, and he listened closely to everything you said.
The old guy was kind of handsome, too, in a weird overly perfect way; he had this elegant Gallic nose and... well, I don’t want to sound like I’m gay, here, ’cause I’m not, but everything about him was too perfect, too symmetrical, too unreal, and his skin was strangely smooth and glowing, like a young man wearing too much makeup. But he was definitely an “old soul” — and that’s what he was telling everyone. Which, along with his freaky appearance, was worrisome.
“Why don’t you go have a chat with the guy, “ Bruce whispered to me as I was pulling a can of Green Death — that’s what we called Rainier Ale — out of the fridge in the kitchen. “Make sure he’s okay.”
That’s how our first-alert policy works; we have a nice quiet chat, and if the guest doesn’t pass the test, he could soon have five guys gently but firmly suggesting it was time to go. We’re pretty tolerant, though; just being different isn’t enough to get you ejected.
Case in point was a hapless regular Bruce dubbed, rather insensitively, “It.” The poor guy had run out of money halfway through his gender transformation, and the cute dresses and nascent breasts did nothing to hide his five o’clock shadow and silky baritone.
Then there was “The Screamer.” Five minutes into what could start out as a quiet, reasonable conversation he’d be screaming and spitting at the top of his lungs and generally upsetting the other partygoers. It usually took an entire joint to get the guy calmed down.
So I made my way across the living room floor, past the guitar amps and Ray “The Poetman” Vincent’s keyboards, and all the yakking, happily unsteady guests, to where the old wizardly-looking dude was standing sipping a Guinness in a pint glass probably purloined from the Abbey, and burning holes in anyone that would look at him. Tucked up under his left arm was a beat-up, leather-bound book with flaking gold letters on its spine.
“Hey, I’m Brendan,” I said, extending a hand. “Nice to meet you.”
He looked down at my hand a second, shifted his brew into his left hand, all the while keeping the book under his arm in place, and shook hands. I couldn’t help noticing his long, beautiful fingers, like a musician’s — like my band-mates and me. But once again, there was a certain unsettling perfection about those pale digits, as though they were idealized musician’s fingers — if that makes any sense.
“Nice to make your acquaintance, Brendan,” he said with a pleasant, old-fashioned courtliness and a slight bow. “I am Sir Francis Bacon the Third, and I’ve just arrived.”
“Really? Where you coming from?”
“From across the universe, Brendan,” he said, jiggling his drink. ”What you call the Pinwheel Galaxy, I believe. I only just materialized here a few minutes ago, and there’s nothing quite so refreshing as a good pint after traveling a few hundred light years.”
Okay, whoa, we’ve got a live one here, I thought. Either he’s goofing on me or he’s a certified whack job. The real question, though— was he dangerous? I needed to chat with him a bit more before I made that evaluation.
“Uh, yeah, Francis, right? Can I call you Frank?”
“I’d rather you stuck with Francis.”
“That’s cool, that’s cool,” I said, not wanting to offend him right out of the box. “So, how are things going in that part of the galaxy?”
“It’s another galaxy. You’re in The Milky Way, Brendan.”
“I’ll take your word for it, thanks for the education. Another galaxy? Wow.”
“To answer your question, though, things are going well. Unlike here.”
I stopped and squinted at him a couple of beats, and then cut right to the chase. “Seriously now, Francis, you’re kidding me, right?”
He just returned my stare, upping the wattage in those obsidian eyes. I’ve got to say, though, he was good: he delivered his lines with a real game face. No wiseguy smirk curling at the corners of his mouth, no arrogant glint in the eye. He said these things like he meant them.
But I was sure he was yanking my chain. There was a lot of that going on in the 60s and 70s. If you looked even a little straight, stoned-out freaks would get all creative and outrageous on you just to poke a hole in your smug little middle-class, middle-of-the-road world. But he’d misjudged us. Maybe we weren’t the hippest people in San Francisco, but we weren’t completely out of it.
I took a nice, long drink of my beer, keeping an eye on Francis. Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic” was on the stereo, and it never sounded so appropriate, because I was quickly running into the fog with this guy.
Sir Francis’ antennae mustachio was twitching to the tune’s big, fuzzy bass line. Just then, Bruce’s buddy, Ernie, lurched over and swung an arm around me without spilling the beer he had in his other hand. “Hey, introduce me to your friend,” he said, nodding at Sir Francis.
Ernie was a big guy, maybe six foot three, and when I said he lurched, I wasn’t trying to indicate he was drunk, although there was a good chance. And I wasn’t trying to be cruel, either. Ernie was two years out of ’Nam, where he’d had his right leg essentially blown off at the knee by a shotgun blast. The field surgeons did a good job of sewing what was left of the limb back on, but his leg was never going to be the same. So Ernie was always throwing his arm around people’s shoulders, basically to hold himself up.
Francis Bacon beat me to the introduction. “Really nice to meet you, Ernie,” he said, presenting him with his strangely elongated hand, and I could tell Ernie noticed it right away. “I’m Francis Bacon the Third.”
Now, I hadn’t mentioned Ernie’s name yet, but I figured maybe Francis had overheard someone talking to him or something. That seemed plausible, anyway. Francis was in no mood for small talk, though, and immediately took the conversation to another level.
“You had a bad time of it in Vietnam, didn’t you?” he said, his black eyes somehow radiating sympathy.
“I don’t know anybody that had a good time,” Ernie came back.
“Yes, of course. It’s all a vast horror.”
“You could say that again.”
Francis leaned back a bit and peered down at Ernie’s damaged leg, slightly twisted in his khakis. I was feeling uneasy again; I wasn’t enjoying the repartee, if that’s what it was. Ernie didn’t like talking about his leg or his time in Vietnam. It always made him angry and potentially violent.
Even with a gimpy leg, a drunken, riled-up ex-Green Beret is a fearsome fighting machine. I’d seen him in action in a couple of bar fights, including one right downstairs at the Abbey when he took apart Tiny, their oversized and overzealous bouncer.
The black-bearded Tiny, who had a rep for giving random and unmerciful beatings to whomever he felt like, had picked on the wrong guy, and it was months before he got out of the hospital. Ernie, however, was welcomed back in the bar after a couple of weeks. Like I said, he was a nice guy unless you tripped his wire.
“You’ve served your time in hell,” Francis said.
“That’s what it says on the back of my jacket,” Ernie answered. He was wearing one of those black silk souvenir jackets with a map of North and South Vietnam embroidered on it in brilliant greens, reds and oranges. A fantastic depiction of a dragon with bulging eyes and red claws seemed to tear at the black fabric — and the countries.
“Well, when you die — and it will be at the age of ninety-six — you will certainly go to heaven, if such a place exists.”
Now Ernie’s eyes, like the dragon’s, were starting from their sockets. I’d seen that look before, and it wasn’t good. He was getting mad; really, really pissed. Intoxicated, fighting pissed.
“How the hell you know how old I’m gonna be when I kick off?” This wasn’t a question; it was a demand. And he’d dropped his arm from my shoulder and drawn himself up to his full, somewhat shaky height, his knuckles whitening as he gripped the neck of his beer bottle.
Thankfully, Bruce — who’d been watching from the other side of the room where all the band equipment was stacked — had picked up on his friend’s state of mind. He had turned off Van on the stereo, strapped on his ’61 Les Paul gold top, and was strumming some martial chords through his amp. A few partygoers gathered around.
“Ernie, check this out,” he called across the room. “I figured out how to play “Ballad of the Green Berets.” Then he stepped up to the mic and in his best John Wayne vocal, gave it a go. This cracked Ernie up, and he gave Sir Francis one more glare before heading over to listen to Bruce.
“Nice going there, Francis,” I said. “You ticked off one of the few people here capable of instantly killing somebody.”
“Yes, I can see he is in a lot of turmoil. But he will defeat his demons one day, and his pain will ease.”
Which was of course a crazy thing to say — but what did I expect? Anyway, it was spoken with kindness and I hoped the nutty bastard was right. Meanwhile, I realized I had to stick close to Francis to keep him out of trouble, at least until everybody got used to him. However, he continued to attract attention just by, well, standing there.
“That’s a beautiful old book,” a woman said behind me, and in a moment Jean and Garth had swirled up to us, Jean with a glass of silvery Chablis, Garth with a cigarette drooping rakishly from his lips. “What is it?”
Now Jean and Garth were two of our more literary habitués, and earlier in the evening I had listened in a semi-mesmerized state as Garth held forth on an intricate and entertaining explication of — believe it or not — Dostoevsky’s Notes From the Underground.
While this sounds pretentious, Garth tackled the subject with such passion and offbeat erudition that you couldn’t help but be intrigued. He wasn’t bullshitting; he cared about and loved the book. His descriptions were further animated by his honey-thick southern accent — both he and Jean had met and then dropped out of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. It didn’t hurt that he was the handsomest guy in the room with his little Errol Flynn mustache and wavy russet hair.
Then there was Jean, always at his elbow or somehow draped around him. Every man that set eyes on her had to immediately fall in love and it’s truly impossible to sum up the beauty and grace of this dark-haired nymphean woman in mere sentences (so, okay, I’d obviously fallen in love with her, too). However, she was entirely devoted to Garth and there was no way anyone else could get even a flicker of interest out of her.
Copyright © 2010 by Jack Alcott