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Chapter 1- Iris
“It was the name.”
“What name?” I asked?
“It was the goddamn name—Iris. That was what made me stay. I was shattered, completely disillusioned, and lonely as hell. I must have written to my mother ten times telling her I was coming back to Chicago. Anyways—Iris, a German girl I met on Haight Street. This was before all that summer of love bullshit. When headshops were mansions. Haight was very rich, very mod, very avant-garde; and Iris worked at a coffee shop on Masonic. Two cents a cup. Before coffee was a fad, when people would drink it at home. She, Iris had a boyfriend, but it didn’t matter I was going to wait it out. She was born in Frankfurt. There was this intrinsic sweetness about her. When you look at a baby photo you see that smile. That’s what it is, a smile unscarred by life.”
“There were no notable figures in my life. I didn’t have a hero, a father, a role model, a girl, not even one damn friend. Keep in mind what everyone else was like. There were no bohemians, no beatniks, no carefree lovers of life campaigning for causes and freedoms of the spirit. Rich assholes that wanted to be some fucking F. Scott Fitzgerald character. Remember I was only seventeen. No Wrigley Field, no cards, no stickball…none of it. Everyone had literary pretensions, no one could accept who they were, they couldn’t stand being average because being average was boring, everyone had to be a somebody, and of what I read what these pretentious jerks wrote horrible stuff, rubbish. Kitsch Dorothy Parker passages nothing original. Third rate trash, an eighteen year old can’t write.”
It was when I was eighteen that I first started to write seriously. I began a short novella telling the story of how my best friend’s mother seduced me. It happened like this: Jimmy and I were over at his place getting loaded. He lived in Oak Park. His mother was a busy body; she didn’t have a real job. She volunteered for this and that charity, and worked in our high school’s office doing the receptionist thing. She would be out late on this given night because she was at a dinner for the Chicago Arts Foundation downtown. Like I said she got mixed up in everything: AIDS victims, Chinese orphans, spotted elephants. Jimmy fell asleep after his seventh beer. It was around 10:30 when I picked him up and put him on his bed. Jimmy said I was allowed to spend the night, so I setup some comforters and a pillow on the couch and turned on the television. Pauline, Mrs. Kecheko came home around 11. When she entered she said, “Neil that couch is dreadful. I’ll take you home.” I agreed.
The Kecheko’s were loaded. They had a large house in affluent Oak Park, a black 98 Jaguar, 96 Cadillac Deville, and a 98 Blazer. We drove home in the Jag. Pauline gave me the rundown on the night’s dinner. She told me that she really liked Jimmy and I spending time together because of how good my grades were and stuff. She told me I could change the radio station to whatever I wanted and asked if I was hungry. I told her I was. She was treating. We stopped at a White Castle and I ate about ten of those bite-sized hamburgers; she had a milkshake. I was never one for older women, but as Pauline, Mrs. Kecheko struggled with the thickness of the shake, sucking vigorously it dawned on me. Mrs. Kecheko must have been a knockout at my age, and she looked damn good for having two kids. She always dressed very hip, usually in blacks and grays, but that was the entirety of my revelation. I was busy with my hamburgers.
I thanked her for dinner as we pulled into my cul-de-sac. She put her right arm on my leg and said “my pleasure”. As I was pressing the door-lock up she said, “Wait one minute Neil.” I waited…”Neil, I want you to do something for me.” Sure, I said. “Neil, I want you to make love to me.” What? I exclaimed. “With my husband out on business all the time I get neglected. Women have urges too you know, I’m in the midst of my sexual peak. Have you had sex before Neil?” No, I replied. “Then you’re a virgin. You don’t want to stay a virgin do you Neil?” No, I replied. And soon I was a virgin no more. I guess I performed well because Pauline, Mrs. Kecheko made a lot of noise. Midway through the act she instructed me to scoot up, bringing my legs and thighs closer to her, thereby accelerating the thrust. I came shortly after and whispered a grunt.
I lost my virginity in that very Jaguar, the very Jaguar I had dreamed of owning, of cruising Friday nights on Central, of speeding down the highway in. Strange how fantasies workout halfway. Mrs. Kecheko told me she would be happy to give me a ride home anytime. I left the Jaguar drunk, content from food and ejaculation, maiden broken. I understood.
“Now understand 1934 was a year of transition. There was no permanence in it, it was limbo. I was broke, seventeen, and here. It was up to me to make it in this home away from home. I had no one to count on, and no one I mean no one was counting on me. My friends placed bets as to how long I’d be back in Chicago. So in a sense I lived, making it for two reasons. I wanted to eat, and I wanted to prove I was capable and remember I knew everything. You did too, at seventeen at eighteen. You thought you knew everything, and it was your way, only your way. But…as you lived on your own, as you struggled you forgot. Everyday you unlearned at least one thing, until your head was empty. Until a hint of suggestion would ignite you in a given direction, that was when I started really listening to people. I came with no contacts you see, no job leads, just a letter of recommendation from my boss at The Herald. I was a copyboy there for two full years, since the day after I turned 15. I would go to school eight to three then straight to The Herald where I would work till eleven, sometimes twelve. I got paid on a per day basis, my boss said no real paper pays by the hour. It was hard work…I would leave The Herald trousers tattered, face smeared in ink. I loved the whole fucking thing. Every damn minute of it. My favorite thing in the world was a reporter finishing his write-up, slamming the typer to the right, tearing out a sheet of paper, and yelling “Copyboy! Copy! Copyboy!” I honestly can’t put my finger on it, tell what it was. The excitement of the office, the yelling, sweating, the clank of the typewriters? Maybe the feeling of importance because I knew, me Nick Fulton, I was the greatest copyboy in the world.”
Nick and I had little in common. I was twenty-two he was in his late sixties or maybe seventy something. I was a barkeep at the semi-famous Vesuvio and a struggling writer who couldn’t write any more. I pounded my head for ideas, but nothing. I typed pages of despair with things like “You are a horrible failure” repeated over and over. Nick however was the real deal. He had written and directed close to ten films. He had been nominated by the Academy for Best Director three times. He had won the Cannes Grand Jury Prize and a humanitarian award for his film Hanoi Hilton. He had an offbeat, intelligent cult following worldwide and had become a celebrity and somewhat of an American icon in France. He had traveled all over the world, lived through four major wars, enlisted and fought in two and seen Charlie Parker live in Paris.
Nick was an Italian, although whenever asked he would cry out that he was American. I was a Jew, albeit a self hating one. I kept this a guarded secret from all my friends. There were a few notable things though we did share, and this is what allowed us to form a band, almost a brotherhood. Perhaps that is the wrong word, but in time Nick became my mentor. We were both born and raised in Chicago. He strictly in the city, I first on the outskirts then on the southside, then to Phoenix, Arizona. We both had left home at an early age, Nick at 17, I a year later. We both ended up in San Francisco. I bummed around Europe for a few months before settling on the city. We both thought Jazz was the best music in the world, and Paris the best city. This is what kept Nick coming back, coming back to a sad barkeep at Vesuvio’s across the way from Jumpin Jack Kerouac St., City Lights Bookstore and all of shining North Beach. A hapless writer and a retired director drawn by a remembrance of things past. Nick came on a daily basis and we talked. He talked mostly, about life, about war, and about women. I came to love these talks and struggling in every facet of my life, with rent money, with women, and with my writing these talks fastened me hope. A hope that if I persevered, if I was life’s soldier I could one day dispense lustful tales and nuggets of grandfatherly wisdom to a struggling barkeep writer like myself, and that I would become a man, a man like Nick Fulton.
“Do you truly understand despair? The kind of loneliness you can feel lull inside, almost a hunger to an empty stomach. The kind of loneliness you can cut with a knife or fry on the sidewalk. I’m not talking about the war, I’m talking about 1934, San Francisco. It was a hard time for me for this reason. In war you struggle as a unit, the hell around you breeds a comradery. Misery isn’t so bad when all of you are suffering. San Francisco was different. All around me I saw joy, and when there is no joy in your life that joy stings. A couples embrace pierces, a child’s laughter is unbearably loud, a woman’s smile menacing.
Remember I knew no one, just my two Irish roommates who were much older and always working and Iris. I was a very social kid in Chicago, very popular, very aggressive, a born extrovert. But having no friends, and no means to obtain friends. I wasn’t in school and at The Chronicle they were either much older or of the Dorothy Parker writing variety. I tried though, especially for girls. I deemed myself the streetcar poet.”
“The streetcar poet?”
Nick began to chuckle and roughly patted his knee the way you only see old men do. “Yes the streetcar poet. I used to ride the N Judah car twice daily, to and from work. It never ceased to amaze me that on every N car I took there was at least one beautiful girl. It was hard in those days to maneuver yourself, as everyone was usually standing. Oral communication between the young lady and myself would have been too hard, so I came up with a plan. I always kept about three small pieces of paper in my wallet. The three papers had prewritten messages to try to woe the ladies. For instance one would say, “As I stand on this car today I am aware of one truth, and one truth only. Your beauty. Sincerely, Nick 1338 Post. St. Room B” or “Miracles are mere commonplace coincidence in the face of your splendor. I’m sure that you have a boyfriend, but if you would ever like to talk I live at Room B on 1338 Post St. If anything take this as a mere compliment and be flattered. Sincerely, Nick.”
“I waited for a knock, or even a note on the door. When the door would knock my heart would tremble in excitement but it was always my Asian landlord with a letter from my mother.
So having no friends, I turned into a silent introvert, a quiet reader. It was at that time I discovered the sensations of literature. I was blown away by the power of the Russian Masters: Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Gogol. It was also at that time I discovered Celine who had just completed his second novel. Eventually I made friends with a new copyboy named Simon; he was a twenty-year-old from Poland. On the weekend we would drink beers and shoot billiards. Throughout all of 1934 he was my sole companion. I think Hemingway used to say that work would cure anything, he was right. I worked nine, ten, hours a day Monday through Friday. When I got home I collapsed. Despite all the tortures my loneliness created, it did one good thing. It made a director and a screenplay writer out of me, but that would come later. Throughout the year I was very thrifty, I ate very cheaply, often skipping lunch. I ate out maybe once every two weeks. I had a plan you see I was going to live. To live not a little but a lot. Not now but soon. As soon as I had the fare I bought a one way ticket to Paris. You’ve been?”
“Yes, Yes” I replied frantically not knowing why.
“What was the one thing you remember most?” Nick asked.
“Clo Juvin” I said awkwardly yet tenderly.
“Is there a story behind this girl?’ he questioned
“Yeah.” I said. “Clo Juvin was a girl, a beautiful girl I met on the plane to Paris. She sat next to me on the plane. We talked for about five hours of the flight. Nick, it was amazing. I couldn’t believe how smart this girl was. We were contrasting Kubrick films, analyzing Camus. It was beautiful. She was nineteen, and went to University in Lyon. I was smitten Nick, overwhelmed. I would have liked to marry that girl.”
“So what happened?”
“She gave me her address and I lost it. I should have given her mine, girls are so much more responsible. But the most terrible thing is this: I didn’t lose it right away, in fact I cherished it. When I got kicked out of the house and I was bumming around Southern California I would open up my beige belt wallet look at my old Metro passes, my museum stubs, and I would gaze at that little piece of paper with her address and smile at the lovely, girlish handwriting. When finally I got situated in Arizona in my own place I kept saying Ok Neil, you’re going to write her today, but I would keep procrastinating. Finally one day I bought her a card and I bought some lined paper to write, and when I went to write the address was gone. I searched everywhere. I think I even cried over it. I swore to myself at that very moment that I would never procrastinate in such matters again.”
“Jeez kid, that’s horrible.”
“I know, but I didn’t give up. I searched through all the online directories, emailed all the Juvins that were listed, no luck. I even paid $80 to this 1-800-US-SEARCH company to try to find her. The problem was this: when I asked her what her name was I couldn’t understand the ending, nor pronounce it, so she told me to just call her Clo. I’m almost sure her name is either Clotipole or Clotilde, I couldn’t make it out on the paper either, the French write very weird. So I guess all I can do is try to find her when I’m back in France. It pains me to know that I might never see her again, and only because of my ignorance.”
“That’s one of the saddest things I’ve ever heard from someone your age. Here, let me buy you a drink.”
I poured myself a whiskey sour and downed it. I thanked Nick and smiled halfheartedly, I felt a little better.
“Speaking of lost loves what ever happened to Iris?” I asked.
“Iris is one of many that has become lost in life’s waves. I avoided her coffee shop for a few months after coming to terms with the fact that her and her boyfriend would not have a sudden breakup, and that I would never establish a meaningful relationship with her. One day I did decide to return, to see how she was doing. As I entered the shop Iris was not behind the counter in her stead was a homely plump brunette. I silently gasped. I asked the woman if Iris would be working later. She said Iris did not work there anymore, she simply quit giving them her two weeks notice and then skipping town. I asked, but there was no forwarding address.”
“Too bad.” I added.
“Yeah, I’m sure she ended up happy in life as pretty girls usually end up. I suppose she found a husband, got married, had a few kids and settled in some suburb as most do. I just hope it wasn’t with the same boyfriend. And this is not out of jealousy, but he seemed to me a chump.”
“Any women in your life Neil?”
“Naw” I said as I wiped down the bar. “I left a great girl behind in Phoenix, but things would have never worked. She was much too good for me.”
“Why is that?”
“Well she was a very talented artist, she got a full scholarship to the Art Institute of Chicago. Eventually she would have prospered, and become famous and I would still be a struggling writer.”
“Ah, artists were always my weakness. I would have liked to have a wife who painted. I also enjoy the company of writers, but I never did feel women could write. Did she paint?”
“Yeah, oil painting and charcoal drawings”
“How is your writing coming along?”
“Ah, pretty slowly and poorly. I managed to write two mediocre poems and begin a short story. But the story has no depth, very trivial, it’s not going anywhere. I’m beginning to wonder if one can acquire permanent writer’s block or if one’s time to write meaningful things is finite, and for me passed, forever gone.”
“Too bad. Here’s a hypothetical question to think about, cheer you up maybe. If you could meet one person in the world, dead or alive who would it be?”
“Hemingway. Hemingway easily. I worship the man. I have his picture in my wallet. I don’t even have my sister’s picture in my wallet. After that it would be Nat Stanoff, my father’s father who died twenty years before I was born. He was supposed to be a very cultured, educated man. My father says he would have loved me very much.”
“Then there is hope for you yet kid, remember you are still young and your answer shows me writing is of a grave importance to you, and when something is that important it will in time come around.”
At that Nick finished his drink and lit another cigar. “What you lack in your life, in your generation’s lifetime are icons, great American icons. I had them, both male and female. In the literary field the heavyweights, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dos Passos, Joyce and later Camus. Icons of beauty, Rita Hayworth, Grace Kelly, John Wayne and later James Dean and Marilyn Monroe. Who do you have? Leonardo Dicaprio is your time’s most popular actor, but he’s a weak fairy not a fixture of stern masculinity. One man I do like in the entertainment industry is Quentin Tarantino, although his work is juvenile he is a great stylist. But Tarantino isn’t unanimous. What I mean is that outside the small circle of independent cinema he is not a household name. But again, what has he said to move us, what is his purpose? To make violent movies that use the word nigger frequently? Who is your generation’s spokesperson? You have no great spokesperson, no great president, no great war or depression. We had Roosevelt and later Kennedy. You have men who stay in office for eight years, not because they are great or charismatic, enact brilliant policy, or save the country from recession but because they are the best of the worst. And do your writers guide you, tell you why or how to live? No. Michael Crichton, Stephen King sure these are good writers but they are not living characters, they are dead authors with dusty manuscripts. Yes, you have to rely on yourself but the advice and guidance of the great intellectuals of your time, of the famous can prove beneficial. I see that plainly lacking in your generation and for that I feel sorry for you.”
“I see what you mean, but a betterment, an inner change has to start from one’s own conscious. One has to move oneself.”
“I agree, I agree. Thoreau once said ‘a life left unexamined is a life unworthy of living’ and I agree with him too. Progress does not begin without reflection. Thoreau was a great writer, and while I’m not a lover of nature, there have been sometimes in my life, in war when I have despised it for in its beauty lies a hidden cruelty and I have seen that cruelty. Besides this lack of love, I think Walden is one of the most beautiful works of literature ever.”
“Nick, why did you choose to live in San Francisco permanently?” I asked.
“Well, I simply grew bored of the south of France. I lived there close to six years and while a day-trip to Paris or a few days in Corsica would relieve my boredom temporarily I would fall back into the same routine of idling. One can only drink so much, and tell so many stories. But remember kid, nothing is permanent. This life is very much temporary. So when I make decisions to move to a new country for me they are not big, because I know they are temporary and my life is transitory as well for I have always been somewhat of a traveler.”
“Did you ever consider then living in Paris?”
“I did, but it’s hard for an old man like myself to be around such vibrant beauty. At first the energy invigorates you, but realizing you can’t match it you tire of it.”
“So then why San Francisco Nick?”
“I wanted to be on American soil, being a native of this country. One feels slightly lost on foreign soil, speaking a second language. And the reason I chose San Francisco was this, it is by far the most European city in the states and being in America has it’s advantages. The city has probably the best restaurants anywhere in the country besides New York, an excellent public transportation system as I never learned how to drive, generally friendly people, each district has almost a small town feel, and the beauty. San Francisco is a beautiful city; the most beautiful city in America. It amazes me that from almost anywhere you can seem to find an excellent view fit for photographing. The city has many architectural wonders, take City Hall as an example. Good museums and beautiful parks and gardens. Also, the Victorian style of homes much appeal to me. Hell the place might even be Utopia if there weren’t so many fags and Asians. When the sky is blue and the sun is out San Francisco is probably the best city in the world to live. I can’t stand all this fucking rain.”
The war had not yet started then, and I was in love with The Sea and The City, and My Wife, and I no longer hated myself, because I was trying to be a good Catholic again, and she was healing me.
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