Nils looked around the room. It was small as were most he’d seen in Bristol, and elsewhere in England. Perhaps, probably, there were large, extravagant homes in the high-class neighborhoods (neighbourhoods, he thinks), on the golden crescents, maybe even royal residences. But this one was small. There was a bed – he didn’t know what to call the size of the bed – wider than a single but not as wide as any other kind he’d known in the past. There was a miniscule table with chair to match. There was a stove (cooker, he’d learned to say), and next to it an icebox – each with dimensions similar to those exaggerated dollhouses he remembered seeing at Christmastime back in Wisconsin. Add two tiny cabinets for kitchen things, and two over-stuffed bookshelves, and the room was complete.
He’d come for the books but surprised himself, and Charlotte, by staying for the bed. They had met in a café in the part of Bristol called Clifton Village, as far from his barracks as he could safely manage. He’d even become a tea drinker, which continued to surprise his mom (mum) when it came up in their weekly correspondence, soon after he discovered the inexpensive tea and sandwiches on offer. The café tables and shelves were covered with newspapers and books, the books lovely Penguin paperbacks. The “Queen’s Other Tea Shoppe” was rarely busy but always welcoming. For a Wisconsin boy in England in 1940, a Wisconsin boy wearing a Canadian uniform, it was the best thing he had.
Charlotte was behind the counter almost every time he came in. The café, as with most things he’d found here, was a short walk from the river, and his free time not spent at one of the little tables was generally spent within viewing distance of the River Avon. He had asked but it was not Shakespeare’s Avon. One local person claimed that Avon was actually the Welsh word for river, which explained why the island was awash in rivers named River. It could be true – so many things were.
It was her room they were in now, not the café. She lived at the top of a narrow stairway a few blocks from the café in a room she lovingly referred to as The Garret. From the tiny chair she reached with intention into a pile of books beside the bed. There was no shortage of reading material within these four walls.
“Have you seen this? American chap, of course, so you must have.”
Nils looked up from his cup. Charlotte handed him a copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.
“This particular one is from your side of the pond. Look, it’s a United States edition.”
Nils held the offering lightly. He was familiar with it, especially the “Song of Myself” section. Whitman, and other poets too, drove his imagination in ways that continually surprised him. He’d long since filled the remaining pages of his late father’s journal, sometimes with his own writings but more often with those he’d simply copied, with full credit: poems and words of real writers.
And Whitman, my goodness, Whitman was the most real of the real. He inspired, he goaded, he granted permission, and he preached without preaching, if that were a possible thing:
I and mine do not convince by arguments, similes, rhymes,
We convince by our presence
He had vowed that upon his return to the States he would visit the streets of Brooklyn, New York, to walk the cobblestones Whitman had walked. Charlotte traced a finger along the spine of the book.
“Nils, I know we’ll probably never do this again” – her eyes took in the straightened but still rumpled bed – “and I understand. If we can’t be ourselves, why go on?”
He squeezed her hand. What he had done that night in her bed, he’d never done with any woman, and he was confident it wasn’t going to become a habit.
She continued: “But we are friends, love, and nothing can change that. Not even this, which if you must know, I rather enjoyed. You could make a girl happy, you know. In fact, you did.”
He was pleased that he’d pleased her. He was relieved, too.
“ ‘When I give, I give myself,’ as the man says,” he said.
“And is there a special man out there?”
“I have to believe there is, but I haven’t found him.”
“You will,” she said. “You will. Now I must dash to open up, but stay as long as you like.” She kissed him twice more, once on the cheek and once quickly on his lips, and then she was out the door and he was listening to her footfall.
He put the book down and looked out the single window. He took in the treetops of Brandon Hill and above them the very apex of the John Cabot Tower, a tower he had circumambulated often as he strolled the lovely green space. As he rubbed the last of the sleep from his eyes, he realized he wasn’t really looking at what was in front of him. Instead, he was seeing the oak trees that lined the bank of his favorite Rock River swimming hole a few years earlier, on an early summer day in 1938, back home.
The gang had been there – the sudden heat wave had demanded it – and Nils was frolicking with the best of them. It was all boys and girls at that time, but there were two new kids, a sister and brother who’d just moved to Beloit from Chicago, who had newly joined the fun.
Her name was Elvia and his Bradley, and each was beautiful with dancing blonde hair, and tall, too, as Nils was. They had enrolled at Beloit Memorial only a month before, just before the end of the semester, but already were in the full social mix. They had come from Chicago.
They were splashing in the river shallows, playing their newest version of “river otters and bears.” Girls – the otters – rushed from the shore to the little rock spit frantically “trying” to avoid the boy bears lurking in the water. Again and again Nils caught Elvia and gave her the requisite squeeze about the mid-section, but toward the end, when caught on the “last run,” she took his chin and kissed him, mouth open, tongue dancing, and he kissed her back. As he did, his eyes widened as he saw Bradley, sitting on a rock, looking at him.
Bradley and Elvia moved again, two days after the river, as quickly and quietly as they had arrived, heading for Minnesota or South Dakota someone thought, and he never saw Bradley again. In his very first encounters with men, however, in Chicago and then in Canada, afterwards he thought about Bradley.
He shook himself. What manner of day was this? Memories of Bradley enmeshed with the very recent and unique event of sexual intercourse with a woman. Charlotte was wise and kind and lovely, and were she a man … ah, but that was a fool’s errand. Charlotte was, as she said, his friend, his good friend, and nothing in this world could change that.
He exited, trod those dark stairs, and began the long walk back to his real reason for being in England, working for the Royal Air Force of Canada. The RAF had gotten him out of Beloit, delivered him here, fed and clothed him, and made him believe he was a cog, or a peg, in a great bulwark for democracy. He had provided, via his own trip to Chicago, the realistic-looking birth certificate that made him appear old enough to serve and the rest had fallen into place. It was only fair that he do his small part as well as he could. He would be off-duty again in ninety-six hours and he had no doubt he would see Charlotte, but not in her bed. He walked along the Avon Avon with Whitman in his hand, walked west, knowing that if he were to follow the river as far as he could, he’d reach what they called Avonmouth, and the Atlantic. Across the Atlantic, of course, was home, if and when the war ended.
It was only October but it was the fifth raid of the year and his third separate overnight in the ever-accommodating San Francisco jail, but when Nils walked out at six o’clock sharp, no breakfast provided, one of the deputies said to him, “Look, I’m sorry about this. This isn’t right.”
“That’s true,” Nils said. “It’s a long way from right.”
“Do you want to have coffee in a little while? I’m off at seven. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not like you. I’m not, I mean, I’m not … homo … .”
“Not homosexual, you mean?”
“Yeah, that’s it. But we’re just people, who cares about all that?”
“Thank you for that, but no thanks on the coffee.”
Nils walked toward the Embarcadero and the comfort of the sunrise over the Oakland hills.
He’d lived in the City for ten years since his arrival in ’45 after his medical discharge in ’44. The triggering event had been a brief but powerful encounter with an out-of-control lorry in Bristol, at the odd angle where Hensman’s Hill curved into Cornwallis Terrace. Nils had been walking for hours that night but he didn’t walk again for four months.
The fractured leg slowed him but it was the onset of severe asthma at the base hospital, which was something he’d never experienced before and rarely did again, that hastened his separation from military service. The “homo” thing would have done it, too, and much quicker, but he’d kept that hidden from those who didn’t want to know.
The good thing about the raids was that he’d reconnected with his affinity for early morning walks along the bay. Recently he’d even done it a few times not after a jail stay. Most of the city was still quiet but the dockworkers were already busy and the earliest ferries were arriving. He veered from beneath the Bay Bridge and headed for breakfast at the Java House. He was not unaware that sailors and longshoremen frequented the place but his priority was the poached egg plate. It was a good place to visit and even better after standing for five hours in a holding cell.
Rodney was working the counter.
“Nils, my man, you look less sheveled than your customary self. Were you a guest of the good City and County of San Francisco again?”
“Coffee, please, and quickly. Yes, they came again. Good to know crime is sufficiently down that they can afford to send six or eight cops and a wagon to round up a bunch of fairies.”
“A comfort, that. Your usual?” The coffee was placed in front of him.
“Absolutely. And extra toast, please.”
“Coming right up.”
Nils reached across two empty stools for a Chronicle. It was an early edition so it would have no coverage of last night’s police action at The Drinkwater. Even the later editions would have little, if anything at all, maybe a few paragraphs buried on page six. He wasn’t a public figure and barely a private figure: he wasn’t a member of any organizations, not the Mattachines, not the Communists, not the Chamber of Commerce. He was a man with a tavern, a handful of good friends, an on-again off-again partner – with the promise of on-again taking the lead — and a decent apartment. That was the sum of the present. The past was Wisconsin and England. That was all.
His club on Fillmore was not the classiest place but neither was it a dive. It was a place for men to meet men, to drink and to dance with them, and for the first few years the police had let them be, asking no more in donations to the Police Athletic League than they did from any bar in the neighborhood.
The raids had taken a seasonal pattern: First January, then March, then twice in August, and now October. Yesterday, on the other side of the country, the Brooklyn Dodgers had won their first World Series. Nils still followed baseball and frequently spent afternoons in the sun at Seals Stadium to watch the local boys play, and he’d always remember the two times he’d gone to Chicago’s Wrigley Field to see the real major leaguers, the Cubs against the Cardinals.
As a teenager in Beloit he was batboy for two seasons for the semi-pro Beloit Fairies, a ball club named not for gossamer wings, magical properties, nor anything else of interest, but because they were sponsored by the Fairbanks-Morse Engine Company. They could have been the Morsies, but they weren’t.
Times do change. The Dodgers were finally World Champions. And times don’t change. If you were a Fairy in the City of St. Francis, you risked arrest. If you ran The Drinkwater, you were a known jailbird. Anything goes, Mr. Cole Porter had written, but it didn’t always.
“I’m closing up for a week or so,” Nils told himself and, because he’d spoken out loud, Rodney.
“You look like you could use a vacation.”
Nils grunted. “The word ‘vacation’ smacks of the tropics to me. Are we in the tropics?”
“There’s the bay, so we’ve got the water-part, but that’s about it,” Rodney said.
“They do like locking you up, don’t they?”
“I’m surprised they don’t have a striped suit waiting for me by now. ‘Course I never did look good in stripes.”
“Don’t be speaking unkindly of yourself. I’m sure you’d be the belle of the ball.”
Nils smiled, his first of the day. “Thank you, my friend. Is anything happening this weekend? As I so boldly announced, I’m going to be footloose and fancy-free.”
“Yeah, that reminds me. I meant to tell you before. There’s a deal down the street from you, at The Six, some fierce wordsmiths are gonna be there. Friday night.”
“Anybody I know? God, I haven’t written anything new in, Jesus, Mother and Mary, months. Months.”
“Rexroth for sure,” said Rodney, “and maybe this cat Allen Ginsberg. I’m working my other job, otherwise I’d be there. You going?”
“Sounds good to me. Words can heal, no doubt about that.”
Friday evening arrived and Nils walked to the gallery. He wasn’t drinking much but tonight might be an exception. He’d spent a day or two on a bench in North Beach outside the big Catholic Church, moving his pencil across the page and damn if real words hadn’t appeared. He didn’t know if they were worth keeping but he felt a spirit in the new lines that was both fresh and familiar. Ten years ago he wrote every day, and five years ago, too, but after that, including this year, not so much. He had seen a select few of his poems printed but the publishing world was not begging for more. That was okay. Sometimes his words answered questions he hadn’t known to ask.
The gallery wasn’t full when he arrived but it was far from empty. He sidled in, nodding to and touching the shoulders of a few people he knew, found a seat in the back as McClure was going on about whales, and realized he was sitting next to Jack Kerouac himself. Damn! Double-damn, the author of The Town and the City, a novel Nils liked – and would have liked to have written – and at Kerouac’s feet were two boxes packed with bottles of burgundy. Good seat selection, no question about that.
“Have some,” Kerouac said, pouring into three paper cups. It looked like he was working two for himself.
“Thanks, man. Here’s to the Dodgers.”
“Damn, how about that? I’m Jack, by the way. Call me John.”
“You got it. I’m Nils. You can call me that.”
“Cool. It’s a big year, Nils, and not just the Dodgers. I’m as old as Jesus was when they got him, so if I make it through this year, well, then … .”
“Dig it. Same for me, the big thirty-three.”
“Synchronicity. Nothing better. Okay, let’s see what Whalen’s brought tonight.”
They leaned back in their chairs, sipping, as Philip Whalen ambled to the front. Nils bolted up straight with the realization that it wasn’t Kerouac’s novel, but Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar, that he’d been thinking about. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, that would have been a faux pas of the first order, had he starting chatting up the wrong novel. Boys and girls in the one, boys and boys in the other. Kerouac: Town; Vidal: City.
He had read Kerouac’s novel and had retained one lovely line, something about:
September rain, September rain, so dark and soft
He remembered thinking Kerouac might be more poet than novelist. He remembered thinking that one day he, Nils Drinkwater, might be a poet. He poured the next rounds, one for him, two for John, and looked around. Now people were pouring in and every other person was a poet, and he was here, too; so, so maybe he was back on track. Perhaps running the bar wasn’t the best road toward inspiration, and it was time to adjust his days and nights. More scribbling, less pouring, but tonight was for pouring and listening, and oh, my, wasn’t Whalen pouring out some fine lines!
Then came Ginsberg, a forest fire in human form, burning the place down. Nils, and everyone in the room, he was sure, would never be the same. Each, and all, individually and together, had been seared, singed, engulfed. Yes, only for a while, but that piece of time would surely live within him, within them, to be tapped when needed. Or when least expected.
In the closing rush Nils separated from Kerouac and stumbled out into the cool evening. The wine, words, and the by-the-end-of-the-night jammed house had left him dazed and sweating. Dazed and sweating and thrilled. He sat on the sidewalk with his back against a brick wall. His eyes worked double-time pelting his brain with images in color and in black-and-white, images from inside, especially Ginsberg’s time on stage, and also from what was in front of him now but offered to him in an entirely new way.
He saw the Chevrolets and Pontiacs nosing their way down the street. He saw faces of all stripes and colors. He saw hands in hands, hugging, kissing, burning, yearning, and he saw indifference and ignorance and innocence. He saw men and women and a romping white mutt he instantly named Blackie, and he knew it was a night for walking.
His apartment, tattered and comfortable and one floor above his now-dark club, waited for him up the street near the corner of Fillmore and Eddy, but he went the other way. “Solvitur ambulando” – it is solved by walking, had been his mantra since his England days, when he’d come upon the Diogenes instruction in his favorite café.
He didn’t feel the need to solve anything just now but perhaps that was even better; instead, he could just ride the high as far as it would take him. In a literal sense, it was taking him back to the bay, toward Fisherman’s Wharf. He liked to look at both the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate, even in the middle of the night, and he wondered whether he could spot the new bridge, still under construction, that stretched from Marin County toward Richmond. He couldn’t remember if they’d strung its lights yet. And there was always Alcatraz, the island, the prison. If there were a God of Loneliness, he or she would live there.
It had been a warm week, typical for the first official days of fall, the equinox just two weeks past, but the chill that had come with the darkness was a welcome antidote to the heat of the gallery. Man, that had been something. He’d tell his kids or grandkids about that one, if he ever had them.
Shit. He did have a kid. He wasn’t a dad but he was the father. Charlotte, his best friend for three years and his sometimes intimate friend during the first of those years, had decided it would be best if he stayed a stranger to the little girl, figuring that Wisconsin life for a child of a single mother – a war bride from England, to be exact — was strange and difficult enough. A homosexual father would be too much for the poor kid to handle. He had agreed. He’d been shocked when they had added sex to their strong friendship, doubly so when Charlotte discovered she was pregnant. Next was the confusing pleasure when she said she wanted to have the baby. They laughed in those days and Charlotte teased that he could impregnate a small village without half-trying, so potent he was. But flukes happen. Had McClure said something about flukes? Sexual relations with a woman could lead to childbirth. That was another mantra.
No one in San Francisco knew about ten-year-old Carolyn. He had friends who had children, and some who were still married, but his past – the Charlotte/Carolyn part – was his alone. He’d had only one parent for most of his childhood as his father, a memory who faded and clarified at the oddest moments, had died when Nils was six. And he’d turned out okay. What wasn’t to like about an often lonely thrice-arrested-for-depraved-dancing, bar-owning (and living above same) baseball fan who sometimes wrote poems?
Out on the bay, the Alcatraz searchlight traced its shiny circuit but gave no response. It had been, after all, a rhetorical question.
First there were only six, than a few more, arrived for the noon funeral. He wasn’t shocked at the low turnout but he was disappointed and that surprised him. He had attended so many funerals in the past year and until two months ago always with Tommy at his side. At the last funeral, he had come alone because Tommy was too weak. Today was his lover’s turn.
His nurse friends had instructed him well regarding the morphine. He knew what Tommy had wanted and what he didn’t want, and the last couple of days the only gift he could offer was the morphine, drip by drip by drip.
Tommy had been the one to declare, sometime in the last twelve or twenty-four months, that the smart money was in death and that if only he had some money to invest, he’d put it all in the mortuary market. “Or maybe caskets.” He had suggested, late one night, that they walk together the next morning to the high school where Tommy taught English, to propose to his principal that the school form a teenage pallbearer drill-team. Think of it, decked in bright high school colors, marching in step, another dead man on their shoulders, good for school spirit, no? Well, no, probably, it wouldn’t be, and they never did approach the principal. Tommy had loved his classroom since starting teaching in the early sixties but as his strength slipped and then slipped beyond that, he’d been on an extended “district medical leave” that looked a lot like retirement-just-in-time-for-death. It was not the retirement he had imagined, Nils knew, and it certainly wasn’t what Nils had foreseen, either.
Nils and Tommy had been together since 1968. They had almost reached their platinum anniversary, but “almost,” as Tommy had often told his students, and repeated to Nils, “almost” was worth less than an empty album jacket, even if the album cover proclaimed Bob Dylan or Freddie Mercury and Queen. Close to twenty years, but no cigar, no platinum. And in England, where once he had lived, it took seventy years to reach platinum. How often did that happen?
There were no rock and roll churches in San Francisco so Tommy had chosen the next best thing, the Church of John Coltrane, at the corner of Fillmore and Eddy. The church was primarily African-American and Tommy was even whiter than Wisconsin-born Nils, but it was a welcoming place, and had been for their Sunday sanctuary for several years. Tommy did have jazz albums but their number paled when compared to his rock collection. He had it all, from the early days of Bo Diddley and Buddy Holly to the British Invasion, through the San Francisco scene of the Airplane and the Dead, and on to the mellow eighties of Fleetwood Mac and Van Morrison. Van Morrison dominated their stereo these days.
Irony was an important word in those English classes and at home, and Nils often heard, had heard, he knew he must begin to say, about the oddity of the remarkable lack of anger in the modern music scene. This at a time when people were dying left, right and center to this plague that had befallen homosexual men in San Francisco and New York and plenty of heartland points in between. Where were the angry young men? Oh.
The preacher spoke well-worn words and then Nils took the unnecessary microphone. Funeral fatigue, he’d seen it written, and that was a fair phrase.
“I turned fifty-five last week and Tommy was barely fifty. I’ve been poring through my books for guidance, for comfort, for anything that might help get me, get us, through this hell. Auden. Keats. Ferlinghetti. Plath.Whitman. I don’t really know what I was hoping to find but I know I didn’t find it. And I know that I’ve come to detest the word ‘hope.’
Forgive me, Father, but there’s a Spanish word I keep seeing over in the Mission District, precita – such a lovely-sounding word and yet only recently did I learn that precita means damned, it means condemned to Hell. That’s what it feels like in this city. Tommy’s last six months was a hell realm for both of us and I know we’re not the first to experience it.
This is the best I can do. It didn’t come from the bookshelf. It didn’t even come from one of Tommy’s albums. It’s from one of my notebooks:
Every breath an anniversary
Each breath a marker
His smile in the morning
All the way to the end
Thank you for being here. Be well.”
One sleep-deprived week later, Nils sat at the dining room table. The apartment, once so cozily cramped, was large and empty, a shell of itself. Yes, the furniture had not changed, and yes, all Tommy’s albums remained; in fact, the only material difference was that his clothes had been donated and his bathroom items and the stunning array of medicines had been tossed in the trash. What did “larger than life” mean, Nils wondered. He had always thought it a trite expression, but the absence of Tommy was so much grander than his recent dissipating presence had been. What was this lack-of-presence, this palpable vacuum? He didn’t like that term anymore than he did “larger than life.”
Language. Life. Shit.
He looked out the big window to the bay and the island that was no longer a prison. He reached for Tommy’s Pendleton shirt, one of the few pieces he had kept, and draped it around his shoulders. He could do that. And walk. He could walk.
Tony Press tries to pay attention and sometimes he does. His short story collection, Crossing the Lines, was published in January, 2016 by Big Table Publishing. About 100 of stories and poems can be found in many fine journals. He lives near San Francisco but has no website.