By Margot Pepper
From forthcoming book, the Acrobat and Other Stories for Dark Times
I Left My Heart in San Francisco: Eviction Fiction, Street Spirit, July 2002
Delivered Vacant, Street Spirit
In Memory of Lola Mckay
Thursday morning announces itself with a blue so electric it nearly crackles. There’s no alternative but to skip the board meeting and return to Dolores Park to see her before heading to work. I pay for the most elaborate floral arrangement I can spot along Columbus Ave, pick up an espresso and paper and jump aboard a J Church at Market Street, savoring the clank-clank it makes scaling to the crest of Dolores Park, where I dismount. Across the tracks, along 20th Street, the freshly painted gold Victorian with red trim stands out like a new love affair in a crowd. Straining below her third-floor bay window, I think I see a flash of blonde hair in the gap between the drapes. I wonder if she sees me. I glance at my watch. It would be decent to wait until 9 am.
I remove the Armani jacket I reserve for special occasions, sprawl on the damp grass and stare over the swings, past the tightly packed shapes of the city jutting out like haphazard crystal formations against the bay, trying to see the panorama as she must from her window. The smell of fresh grass stirs memories of childhood, when I was content gazing at the blades interminably, imagining forests and ladybug intrigues therein.
I catch a glimpse of the Trans-America pyramid in the Financial District and my breath grows shallow. I see myself before all this began, kissing my wife Emily good-bye behind the front door of our North Beach flat and following the foot path up to Coit tower through the winding pines, a glint of sun sifting through the branches. That was the last time I remember feeling thoroughly alive.
Restlessly, I stand and smooth my pants to feel for water spots in the seat. Once across the street, I notice the small red lettering below the “For Sale” sign: “Do Not Disturb Occupants.” I grasp the cellophane-wrapped bouquet like a crucifix and start up the three flights of stairs. The bouquet smells like heaven, its sunset-streaked roses, snowy Easter lilies, oversized crimson ginger and flaming swords one of Rousseau’s naïve jungles. That should make up for some of the inconvenience. Only when I’m awaiting the response to the doorbell, do I allow myself to contemplate the woman on the other side of the door. I press my ear to the wood and discern a muted version of Billie Holiday’s Good Morning Heartache. What if I’m distracted by her beauty, a certain flick of eyelash under a cascade of hair? And here I am with flowers. Is it too early? Nine o’clock sharp.
The music stops. There is shuffling, the sound of slippers on wood. I believe I hear a sigh, but it must be my imagination. For some time, a silver eye blackens the looking glass. All she has to do is open the door, I reassure myself, and before she realizes what’s happened, I’ll have got what I came for; it’ll be done.
“Coming,” says a muted voice. Silence. Then, “Just a minute. It’ll be, ah, actually, several minutes. You can sit on the top step there. It’s not too dirty.” There is rustling beyond the door, as though she is struggling to pull on a garment. I find myself at once impatient for the door to open and hoping it will take all morning, since I suddenly feel unbearably anxious. Damn Todd!
The few minutes that transpire cause my mind to journey the light years of dream traversed in just minutes of sleep. My heart is pounding in that shaky-fingers-kind of way that confirms, Emily was wrong, it was best I didn’t go the full mile to becoming a surgeon. Had I, the for-sale sign posted on our duplex would have really sent me over the edge and she would have liked that even less. I can’t imagine being responsible for life and death decisions during those months Emily and I scrambled to get qualified, conduct the inspections on the duplex we were renting and write an offer. Not to mention the ensuing rainy month with the two-hundred looky-loos overflowing the plastic runners and muddying our carpets. Who would have guessed the twenty-year-old Arkansas twirp we assumed was just a nosy neighbor would have enough stock options from his internet company to offer our landlord triple the asking price. Naturally, Todd wants the top unit, where Emily and I live—at least until the end of next month, according to the eviction notice.
Now I can’t walk anywhere in North Beach without feeling like someone knocked the wind out of me. Every apartment reminds me of what Emily and I are losing. The riper the sky with cumulous clouds over Washington Square Park; the greener the foreground of grass; the more exuberant the pigeons descending the drip-sand castle spires of the church for their feast of crumbs; the merrier the café-goers sipping frothy cappuccinos, the more despairing I become. Who would have dreamed a physician could be outbid buying his own home? Fortunately, I didn’t choose this profession for the money; I would have had a rude awakening, what with the student loan payments and all.
I glance at my watch, debating whether I should take this as a sign and call it quits or ring the bell again. February 4th. Hinky Brokerage is accepting offers until Sunday. If we got this unit, we could close escrow by mid-March, move that week. April 1: all this house-hunting madness could actually end and Emily and my lives resume again. If the inspection reports aren’t too far off the mark, I might even start dabbling in paint again before the summer’s end. Turn that South-Facing front room into a studio—granted it is indeed identical to the vacant units the Hinky agent showed us. How long has it been since I allowed myself the luxury of sitting by the fire with the Andy Warhol art book or reading some Ezra Pound? Imagine, a fire against a backdrop of lights burning into the night like smoldering embers, the city unfurled all the way to the Bay like a labyrinth of possibilities. The view in itself might make up for our eviction. And the commute to the Financial District is really only ten additional minutes, counting the jaunt up Montgomery. First thing I’d do is pull down the drapes and let the view in. If I could just get in there—assure myself our condo would be like the three others–I could get in a bid. What kind of woman would live there with the drapes drawn? I guess the same breed that would manage to bar Hinky Brokerage from showing their own units. “We can work with your agent to deliver it vacant,” Hinky promised us. I wonder what package they’re offering her for the killing they’ll be making on the unit. You used to be able to buy a mansion in Pacific Heights for what they’re asking—
“Hello!” I call, gently rapping on the door.
“Almost, Dear. I’m coming,” says a quaking voice from within. “Who’s there?” Again, the peep hole fills with mercury.
“Flower delivery,” is the lie that foolishly issues from my lips.
“Oh.” The door yields as easily as open sesame. In a moment, I understand why it opens so willingly; why Hinkey Brokerage hasn’t shown the unit. Before me, I’m dismayed to behold a woman who’s probably grown used to flower deliveries. The long bony wing which opened the door, specked with age spots, adjusts a terrycloth robe over a flattened tear-shaped breast that calls attention to the absence of symmetry on the corresponding side, below the protruding clavicle.
The woman glances at the flowers and smiles self-consciously. Evidently she has perceived I’ve noticed she lacks eyebrows; she runs her index finger quickly along one, then the other, as though to indicate their former appearance. Her head is wrapped in a pale yellow turban. It’s a shame. She’s tall and graceful with nice angular features. In her youth, before she got sick, she might have looked like Greta Garbo. I hope she hasn’t noticed me begin to stoop over her with that look of concern I haven’t yet managed to adequately mask when something in my patients’ condition troubles me too much.
“You’ll have to excuse all that–” she says, looking over her shoulder. “I haven’t been quite up to my housekeeping.” Her voice is younger than it sounded from behind the door. It is the steady voice of an alert mind, of a woman whose life hasn’t disappeared with her children, if she’s had any. It takes some seconds for my eyes to adjust to the papers and dust balls scattered on the wood floor, the disheveled array of open books on the coffee table and sofa. There’s a piano to the left of the large bay windows.
“Really, your apartment looks just beautiful!” To my horror, I’ve actually taken a step forward and craned my neck, in an unconscious attempt at inspiring her to open the drapes. I can feel my heart pumping at a healthy sprinter’s rate.
“Who sent me the flowers?” she smiles.
I can almost feel my panicked blood cells racing for a way out of my body, forcing my arteries to expand. “They didn’t say.”
“No card or anything?”
I shake my head.
“Oh.” Her invisible eyebrows crease as her dark, clear eyes look my suit over with skepticism. Then a flash of recognition comes into her features, revealing some unfathomable inner sorrow. “Oh,” she repeats again with the resignation of one receiving flowers for her own grave. “All right then. Where do I sign?”
“Oh,” I say awkwardly, suddenly wishing I could make the bouquet disappear along with her illness, wishing I too could disappear from her view instead of being the harbinger of more grief to come. Instead I hand her the bouquet and shuffle in my briefcase for the imaginary ledger. Now would be the time to excuse myself to the delivery truck to retrieve the imaginary receipt. Instead, for Emily’s sake, I ask, “May I—Ma’am… Would you mind very much if I used your lavatory?”
Her hairless brow grows furrowed. “How’s that?” she inquires, pauses, the lines in her forehead deepening, the vein in her neck twitching.
I repeat my question at a higher volume with some difficulty.
“Oh, of course. Down the hall, to the left.”
As I’ve rehearsed, I try to record a mental inventory for Emily: walnut floors, the large living room with fire place, dining room to the right with built in glass cabinets, hall to the left with large and medium bedrooms, kitchen needs updating.
“No, no, you passed it—” she calls after me, over the sound of the water that’s filling up the flower vase. “Aren’t these just the most spectacular! I wonder— You sure the card didn’t get lost in the delivery truck?”
Downstairs, as I’m stealing a last glance at the building from the sidewalk, I back into a woman with long curly hair getting into her car.
“That’s okay,” the woman smiles after I’ve made my apologies. “Visiting Lola?”
I nod sheepishly.
“She sure is well-loved. Family?” she smiles warmly.
“Distant nephew,” I stutter, feeling like an absolute worm.
“I’m Margot. Lola’s neighbor,” the woman extends her hand. “What a relief.”
“We were afraid she didn’t have any family around. In case she lost. Not that she’ll lose. She’s been such an inspiration.”
“I’m sorry. You don’t know about the court battle? With the new owner?”
“Oh. Of course. That.” The fact that Lola’s fighting her eviction in court might explain why Hinky has chosen not to show her flat, not just the fact that she has cancer.
“Isn’t that Weasel & Greed law firm something to defend Hinky! Forty years, she’s been there. Thank goodness you’re here. Her pension sure won’t pay for Bay Area rents. We’re afraid she might wind up sleeping under some freeway overpass. And with her chemo and all–”
Just then I hear the MUNI rattling along the tracks headed for the stop at the apex of the park across the street. Fortunately, a line of people has formed to board, buying me some more time. “Sorry–” I call back as I make a run for it, glancing one more time at the apartment before disappearing into one of the last morning rush compression chambers. Perhaps it’s the lack of air that calls attention to my sudden nausea. The smell of urine hovers in the doorway behind me. Attempting to ease my stomach, I watch the San Francisco skyline descend and the buildings expand beyond the scratched window besmeared with hair grease, before we’re submerged into the darkness of the underground.
Gazing past my own hollow image and those of commuters, into the darkness of the tunnel, punctuated by an occasional neon tube or graffiti, I allow the glimpse of the living room with what I imagine is the view beyond the curtained windows to filter into my consciousness. The condo’s sexier than I imagined! The image of Lola’s eyes, childlike without their eyebrows, returns. Too bad! I shake my head. I don’t know what’s worse: the news that Lola is fighting her eviction, or her unfortunate illness. Emily will be so disappointed.
Once I’m back on Montgomery, I call our agent Ruth on the mobile. “Oh that case is ridiculous,” she says when I express my concerns. I envision the handsome woman readying herself for the Thursday realtor’s tour, smoothing the newscaster’s blonde hair Emily has always wanted. “What responsible judge is going to give her the time of day? The tenant is just trying to get a better going-away package by putting on such a show. And you can be sure she’ll get one. Meanwhile you and your wife have worked so hard for this. Not to mention there are two of you and only one tenant who, let me be frank, is expecting someone to hand her a home on a silver platter. It’s enough to, enough to—I mean, if ever there was a couple that deserved–please, Dr. Hornet–I mean, Tom—let me write an offer before someone less deserving does. You can be sure Hinky will deliver the unit vacant. It’ll be best for everyone. What choice do you have?”
True, next to none. Nevertheless it takes twenty more minutes before Ruth finds my Achilles heel: if we don’t buy the condo, Lola will likely wind up evicted by someone with less heart than Emily and myself–like the jerk who snatched our apartment. At least we’d have the decency to give her a few more months. If she’s lucky, her health will give out of its own accord beforehand.
I spend the next half hour working out the details of our offer. Among these Ruth convinces me to let her turn in a sharp bid to Hinky by Saturday: $5000 over the highest offer. The days of playing fair are over, she says, and we just can’t afford to lose the condo over a few thousand, the way we did the Noe Valley flat, nor over some repairs we can afford to make ourselves. “And least of all,” she adds, reminding me of Hinky’s promise to cooperate in delivering the condo vacant, “over the wrong outcome of Lola’s defense suit.”
Meanwhile, I decide, why not make Lola’s last months as pleasant as possible? Surprise her by having a maid show up to clean her house once, twice a week. I make two reservations to celebrate with Emily at Oui Sushi on Nob Hill, feeling more exuberant than I’ve felt since that memorable afternoon at Coit Tower.
Two months before Emily and I have to move out, my offer is accepted. I drop by after work to bring Lola some hot and sour soup and ginger crab. And to take some measurements. I’m met by the Hinky agent, a square man with a shiny chin and plugs in his scalp where the thickest grey hair is.
“Nice of you to bring lunch for us, Dr. Hornet,” he jokes as he fumbles with the lock box.
“Actually it’s for Lola.”
“Oh. I’m afraid that’s not possible. She won’t be hampering entry into the condo anymore. The depressing way she presented herself was putting some prospective buyers off. Ruth forgot to mention it?”
On the way to the North Beach flat on the MUNI, I catch sight of her head in the reflected glass of the underground, bald as a plucked chicken. I’m so relieved I don’t even mind her browless eyes boring into me like the termites on our—I still can’t believe it’s our!–roof-top patio. I wonder where she’s headed. I turn to see where she’s sitting, but too many unseated commuters obstruct my view. At Powell Street, I catch sight of her descending the train. Bald, in her seventies style psychedelic long sleeve shirt and vest, she almost looks like a young hipster, but her pained walk gives her away. I’m happy to see she’s carrying only a handbag instead of a suitcase. She must have found a hotel in the Tenderloin. I do hope it’s the last I’ll see of her.
The next day, I meet the Hinky agent for lunch to secure some contractor numbers so I can get some estimates before escrow closes. He offers to move up the closing date a few days, since Lola’s no longer on the premises.
“Yeah, I think she’ll survive,” I comment, squeezing a netted lemon wedge over my snapper.
The agent allows a tiny, strange, snorting laugh to escape. Then he looks at me curiously. “Survive?”
I tell him how capable Lola looked when I saw her on the MUNI.
“But her ashes were scattered yesterday. I personally donated some of my commission to see to it that they were dealt with properly, since there was no next of kin.”
“Oh. Of course,” I respond sadly, remembering my conversation with Lola’s neighbor. “There wouldn’t be any next of kin. Thank you for all you’ve done.”
“No need to thank me. Hinky always delivers on its promises. ‘Delivered vacant.’ Wasn’t that the sole condition you stated in your offer?”
I feel flushed. “I suppose so. Yes,” I manage, suddenly fully cognizant of the transaction. “You mean to say—I mean the measure–it seems a little more extreme than I imagined. My agent must have inserted that language.”
“Ruth let you read your offer before you signed the legal document, didn’t she?” The Hinky agent is looking at me as though I were some excrement he just discovered on his shoe. Has he really no idea of the challenges posited by dozens of pages of blurred legalistic eight point FAX type demanding scrutiny within an unreasonably abbreviated period of time?
“Certainly, I skimmed it. It’s just that. The market is so competitive, contingencies are… I really didn’t expect any conditions to be honored—“
“I don’t see why not. Eliminating obstacles is healthy for the market. Even Zephyr admits that to get that extra 100K for delivering a vacant unit, ‘owners will seek extreme measures’. Don’t look so remorseful, Dr. Hornet. Extinguishing her in accordance with Ruth’s language was best for everyone. She was put out of her misery. Really, it would have been cruel to have her suffering drag on and on. So, shall we move up the closing date so you can get going on those contractors?”
“What? Of course. So this is just how things are done these days?”
“Yes, unfortunately. More often than not nowadays.”
“I suppose it is all for the best, isn’t it.”
From the moment we move in, things keep turning up in the condo as we clean up after remodeling and housekeeping crews–it has been so impossible to find reasonable, dependable contractors. Clumps of Lola’s hair in the medicine cabinet, under the rug, behind the curtains, in the fireplace. Emily shrieks that the hair under the refrigerator had some scalp stuck to it—obviously just food remnants that fossilized around the blonde strands.
In the bathroom one evening, as I’m washing up from work, I’m shocked by an eyebrow scuttling along the sink counter. But it’s only a caterpillar. I pick it up with Kleenex and fling it down the toilet. As it whirls into the vortex, belly-side up, I notice it has no legs, or so it appears. I’m sure it’s just all the extra shifts I’ve been covering to pay for our renovations.
Then there is the smell, even though we’ve had all the floors re-sanded and stained, the heating system replaced and everything painted from top to bottom. I think it’s dog, though Hinky assures me there were none ever on the premises. It seems to get worse when it’s windy. Emily is convinced it’s Lola’s smell. “You know. Like cancer,” she keeps insisting. I try to reassure her it’s probably just more of the same human fecal matter we found in the broom closet; we’ll find it.
And I keep having accidents. First, my unbuttoned shirt sleeves keep being caught, probably just by door-knobs, sending cups of coffee flying. Then I knock over the torchier and send glass scattering all over the living room. As I’m sweeping up the pieces, I discover, tucked between the base of the fireplace and wall, an old picture of Lola just outside the Cliff House, next to Laughing Sal. She wears shoulder-length blonde hair and slacks—something not yet common in the fifties, when the photograph was taken—and she is laughing along with Sal, what looks like a robust, throaty laugh, head slightly tossed back, though all her imperfect teeth are showing, eyes smiling warmly. It’s nice: she was having a really great time. Only when I put the frame down, there was something akin to dried mucous all over my hands.
Just a couple of weeks before our housewarming is scheduled, Emily wakes me screaming that she’s seen Lola’s face in the bay window that overlooks Dolores park. “Two coal eyes, without eyebrows. Just glaring at me, right there, like you said you keep seeing!” she says, pointing to the Bay Bridge. “She kept pointing to the patio on the roof!”
I push Emily’s blonde curls out of her face and promise she’s safe with me. “Maybe it was just a dream reminding you of all the work we still have to do up there. All the bougainvillea is dying.” But Emily insists it was no dream and wants to purge the house of the ghost.
So next morning we tackle Lola’s last outpost of disorderliness with disinfectant, a broom, garden sheers and several trash bags. Lola had decorated the rotting wood walls that sealed her private patio off from the other upper floor tenant’s with greenery—now mostly brown. Emily unties the clothesline Lola must have used to dry her clothes. “But how do we get rid of that?!” Emily’s pointing to an old rotting wood shed. Inside, we find some dirt-caked planters and potting soil. Emily isn’t satisfied. “There’s still something under there!”
It turns out to be a safe, bolted to the floor of the shed. We try the numeric dial, but it’s slightly rusted and locked tight.
“How cool!” Emily beams.
“See. Lola was just trying to give us a house-warming present,” I jest, caressing Emily.
It takes a couple of weeks to have a locksmith out. Because the safe was an inexpensive and old one, the locksmith succeeds in forcing the lock fairly quickly. He collects his payment and leaves us to open the doors in privacy.
“At worst, there could be nothing,” Emily says. “At best, it could be a million dollars!”
“If it were a million dollars, Lola would have bought this condo herself. It if were nothing, she wouldn’t have locked it up. Ready?”
Already a terrible smell has seeped out, the smell we’ve been catching faint whiffs of from time to time in the condo, now so potent it is akin to that of a very dead rat.
“What is it?!” Emily wrinkles her nose. I open the door a few more slivers. “Never mind. I don’t want to know!” she yells as she escapes down the stairs.
But it’s too late for me. After some prodding of gooey tissues, I’ve determined it’s the badly-embalmed breast Lola lost.