Chapter 1 — Sammy and the Cheese
She had the kind of legs that kept her butt from resting on her shoes — a size eight dame in a size six dress and every mug in the joint was rooting for the two sizes to make a break for it as they watched her wiggle in the door and take a seat at the end of the bar. I raised an eyebrow at the South African merchant marine who’d been spinning out tales of his weird cargo at the other end of the bar while I polished a shot glass.
“That there’s a tasty bit of trouble,” says the sailor.
“Yep,” I says, snapping my bar towel and draping it over my arm as fancy as you please. “You know what they say though, cap’n, full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes.” So I move down the bar toward the dame, beaming a smile like a lighthouse full of charm, but trying to keep my limp on the Q.T. to discourage curiosity.
“I don’t think that’s what they were talking about, Sammy boy,” says the sailor, “but steam on.” Which is the kind of cheering a guy will give you figuring it’s no skin off his nose if you get shot down.
“What can I get you, toots?” I says to the dame. She’s a blond, the dirty kind, and her hair is pinned up on her head so it kind of shoots up dark, then fountains out yellow every-which-way in curls at the top– makes her look a little surprised. Her lips remind me of a valentine heart, shiny red and plump, but a little lopsided, like maybe she’d taken a shot to the kisser in an earlier round, or the valentine heart haa acute angina. Crooked but inviting.
Then the dame fidgets on the bar stool, as if to get a better fit on her bottom, causing a gasp to go through the bar that momentarily clears the smoke, like a truck-sized dragon has sucked it out through the back door. It’s not that a lone dame never comes into Sal’s, it’s just that one never comes in this early, while it’s still light out and the haze of hooch hasn’t settled on everyone to smooth over a doll’s rougher edges. (Light being the natural enemy of the bar broad.)
“The name’s not toots,” says the blond. “And give me something cheap, that goes down easy.”
There then commences a lot of coughing as all the guys in the joint are suddenly paying attention to draining drinks, lighting cigarettes, adjusting the angle of their hats and whatnot, as if the dame’s remark has not just floated like a welcome sign over a room full of hustlers, gamblers, day drunks, stevedores, sailors, ne’er-do-wells, and neighborhood wise guys, each and every one a hound at heart. So I looks over the shotgun bar, trying to catch every eye as I am reaching down as if I am going for my walking stick – which is my version of the indoor baseball bat most bartenders keep, and even though my cane is ten feet out of reach, they get the message. I am not a big guy, and I am known to have a slow boil, but I have quick hands and I put in an hour on a heavy bag every day — a habit I picked up due to my inability to know when to keep my trap shut, so it is known that I can handle myself. Most of these mugs have seen more than one guy poured into the gutter out front after thinking my sunny disposition and bum foot make me a pushover, so they keep it polite. Then again, I also control the flow of booze. Could be that.
“What do I call you then, miss?” I ask the blond, locking my baby blues on her cow browns, careful not to ogle her wares, as dames often do not care for that, even when it is evident that they have spent no little time and effort preparing their wares for ogling.
“It’s missus,” she says.
“Will the mister be joining you, then?”
“Not unless you want to wait while I go home and grab the folded flag they gave me instead of sending him home.” She doesn’t look away when she says it, or smile. She doesn’t look down to hide her grief or pretend she is pushing back a tear, just looks at me dead on, a tough cookie.
First I’m thinking she might be busting my chops for calling her Toots, but whether she is or isn’t, I’m thinking the best way to dodge the hit is to act like I’m taking a shot to the body.
“Awe jeeze, ma’am, I’m sorry. The war?” Had the be the war. She can’t be more than twenty three or four, just a few years younger than me, I guess.
She nods, then starts fussing with the latch on her pocketbook.
“Put that away, it’s on the house,’ I says. “Let’s start over. I’m Sammy,” I says, offering my hand to shake.
She takes it. “Sammy? That’s a kid’s name.”
“Yeah, well the neighborhood is run by a bunch of old Italian guys who think anyone under sixty is a kid, so it’s on them.”
Then she laughs, and I feel like I’ve just hit a home run. “Hi Sammy,” she says. “I’m Stilton.”
“Pardon? Mrs. Stilton?”
“First name Stilton. Like the cheese.”
“Like what cheese?”
“Stilton? You’ve never heard of it? It’s an English cheese.”
“Okay,” I says, relatively sure this daffy broad is making up cheeses.
So she pulls her hand back and fidgets on the stool again, like she’s building up steam, and all the mugs in the place stop talking to watch. I just stand there, lifting one eyebrow like I do.
“My father was a soldier in the Great War. American. My mother is English —war bride. They had their first real date after the war in the village of Stilton. So, a few years later, when I was born, that’s what pop named me. Stilton. I was supposed to be a boy.”
“Well they totally screwed the pooch on that one.” I says, and I give her a quick once-over, out of respect for her non-boyness. “If you don’t mind me sayin’.” Suddenly I wish I am wearing a hat so I can tip it, but then I realized that she and I are probably the only people in all of San Francisco not currently wearing hats. It is like we are naked together. So I grab a fedora off a mug two stools down and in a smooth motion I put it on and give it a tip. “Ma’am!” I says with a bow.
So she laughs again and says, “How about you fix me an old fashioned before you get in any deeper, smart guy.
“Anything for you, toots,” I says. So I flip the hat back to the hatless mook down the bar, thank him, then step to the well and start putting together her drink.
“Don’t call me toots.”
“C’mon, it’s better than the cheese.”
“But the cheese is my name.”
“So it is,” I says, setting the drink down in front of her and giving it a swizzle with the straw. “To the cheese. Cheers.”
Now I want to ask her what brings her into my bar, where she’s from, and does she live around the neighborhood, but there’s a fine line between being curious and being a creep, so I leave her with the drink and make my way back down the bar, refilling drinks and pulling empties until I get back to the South African merchant marine.
“Looks like you charmed her, all right,” says the sailor. “What’s she doing here, by herself, in the middle of the afternoon? Hooker?”
“Don’t think so. Widow. Lost her old man in the war.”
“Damn shame. Lot of those about. Thought I was going to leave my wife a widow a hundred times during the war. Worked a Liberty ship running supplies across the Atlantic for most of it. I still get nightmares about German U-boats —” The sailor stops himself in the middle of the tale and shoots a glance down the bar at my cane. “But I guess I was luckier than most.”
So after feeling top of the world over making the blond laugh, I’m feeling like a four-star phony all of sudden, which happens like that, but I shake it off and give the sailor a slap on the back, letting him off the hook. “Doesn’t sound that lucky,” I says, “considering your cargo.”
“Like Noah’s bloody ark,” he says. “That’s what it is. You haven’t sailed until you’ve sailed through a storm with a seasick elephant on board. Had a stall built for him in the hold. Poor bloke that has to muck it out will be at if for days. We offloaded the animal in San Diego last week, but the stink still lingers.”
“Any tigers?” I ask.
“Just African animals. Tigers are from Asia.”
“I knew that,” I says. I probably should have known that. “Never seen a tiger.”
“The big cats don’t bother me much. They’re in iron cages and you can see what you got, stay away from them. Push a bit of meat into the cage every few days with a long stick. A very long stick. It’s the bloody snakes that give me the jitters. Next week our sister ship is bringing in a cargo of every deadly bloody viper on the dark continent, going to a lab at Stanford, and snakes don’t need to eat, so they’re just in wooden crates. You can’t even see them. But if one of them was to get loose, you’d never know until it bit you.”
“Like a U-boat?”
“Exactly. There’ll be a dozen black mambas on board. Those buggers grow ten, fifteen feet long. Saw one of them go after a bloke once when I was a kid. Mambas don’t run away like a proper snake. They stand up and charge after you — faster than you can run. Poor bastard was dead in minutes. Foaming at the mouth and twitching in the dirt.”
“Sounds rough,” I says. “That settles it. I am never ever going to Africa.”
“It’s not all bad. You should come over to the dock in Oakland in the morning and see the rest of menagerie before we off-load. I’ll give you the grand tour. Ever seen an aardvark? Goofy bloody creatures. Will try to burrow through the steel hull. We got two aardvarks.”
“Aardvarks are delicious,” says Eddie Shu, because that’s the kind of thing he says, trying to shock people, because it is a well-known fact that Chinese guys eat some crazy shit. Eddie is a thin Chinese guy wearing a very shiny suit and black and white wingtips. His hair is curled up and lacquered back to look like Frank Sinatra’s. I don’t see him come in because I am trying to keep an eye on the blond, so I figure he sneaks in the back door, which no one is supposed to do, but Eddie is a friend, so what are you gonna do?
“Pay no attention to this mope,” I says to the sailor. “He lies like an Oriental rug.”
“Fine,” says Eddie. “But as the Buddha says, a man who has not tasted five-spice aardvark has never tasted joy.”
“Uh huh,” I says. “The Buddha says that, huh?”
“Far as you know.”
“Eddie Moo Shoes, this is Captain – ” and here I pause to let the sailor fill in the details.
“Bokker,” says the South African. “Not a captain, though. First mate on the Beltane, freighter out of Cape Town.”
So Moo Shoes and the Mate exchange nods, and I say, “Eddie works at Club Shanghai down the street.”
“Who’s the tomato,” Eddie asks, tossing his fake-Sinatra forelock toward the blond, and I find I am somewhat defensive that he calls her a tomato, despite the fact that she is that plus some.
“Just came in,” I says. “Name’s Stilton.”
“Like the cheese,” I explain.
Eddie looks at me, then at the sailor, then at me. “The cheese?”
“That’s what she said.”
“Have you seen her naked?” asks Moo Shoes.
Now in the mean time I have been watching various patrons circle and dive on the blond, and I see each of them limp away, trailing smoke, shot down with a regretful but coquettish smile. And meanwhile, she keeps looking up at me, like she’s saying, “Are you gonna let this go on?” Feels like that’s what she was saying, anyway. Maybe every guy in the place feels that way. This Stilton broad has something…
“Oh yeah,” I says, answering Moo Shoes. “She walked in naked, but I had to ask her to put on some clothes so as not to distress the upstanding citizens who frequent this fine establishment on their way back and forth to mass.”
“I’d like to see her naked,” says Moo Shoes. “You know, make sure she’s good enough for you.”
“Not for you, then?” the sailor asks Moo.
And Moo Shoes nearly goes weepy on us, hanging his head until his Sinatra forelock droops on the sad. “Lois Fong,” he says.
“Dancer at the club,” I explain.
“That dame wouldn’t so much as punch me in the throat if it made me cough up gold coins.”
“It’s a Chinatown thing,” I explain further. “They have customs and whatnot.”
“We are a mysterious and ancient people,” Eddie says to the sailor.
“But you have seen her naked,” I say, clapping Moo on the shoulder, a ray of fucking sunshine on his dark despair.
“On the job,” Eddie says. “So has everyone else at the club. Don’t think that makes it any easier.”
Then I notice the blonde’s drink is low and it’s time I pay her a visit, so I hold up a finger to mark the place in Moo Shoes’ sulk. “Be right back.”
“Another old fashioned, cupcake?” I says with a grin, daring her to get sore at me.
“My name’s not—” and she catches herself. “You buying, wise-ass?”
“Me? There’s a dozen guys in here already offered to buy you a drink.”
“Maybe I was waiting for a better offer,” she says, and rolls her eyes, bats her eyelashes, then sighs wistfully – well, fake wistfully, which makes me laugh.
“You know it doesn’t cost me anything if I buy you a drink, like it would one of these mooks.”
“Which means you won’t think I owe you anything in return, like one of these mooks, right?”
“No, no, no,” I says. “Perish the thought.” Then I lean in in hopes of perpetrating a little conspiracy. “Although I have told my friend Eddie back there that I have seen you naked, so if he comes over, cover my bet, would you?”
“I have a birthmark on my right hip.” She winks.
“That’s the spirit!”
“Shaped like Winston Churchill.”
“That must be a sight to behold,” I says.
“How about that drink, Gunga Din?”
I like a dame who knows her Kipling, or any poetry, for that matter, as I am a sensitive and poetic soul. My dear ma was an English teacher, and from the time I squeak out my first word she steeps me deeply in metaphor, simile, symbolism, alcoholism and all the various iambs of the poetic tradition, all of which have served me greatly over the years in pouring drinks, welding ships, bird-dogging broads, and waxing poetical on both this and that.
So I’m about the say the same about the Kipling to the Cheese, when the door flies open behind her and in walks Sally Gab, Sal Gabelli, my boss, followed closely by an Air Force general with so many campaign medals on his uniform that it looks like someone is losing a game of mahjong on his chest.
The bar is called Sal’s, after the aforementioned Sal, although there is no sign that says so, and over the years the joint has been known as Flossie’s, Danny’s, The Good Time, Grant Avenue Saloon, The Motherlode, Barbary Belle’s and a half-dozen other monikers going back to 1853 when the place first opens on the same spot. I am told that the long oak bar and beveled mirror back bar came around on the Horn on a clipper ship with sailors who dreamed of striking gold in the California hills. Currently, the sign reads only, Saloon, Sal being too cheap or too smart to put his name over the door. Sal is a well-known in the neighborhood, but also well known to be such a douche bag that no one would be surprised to see a long red hose and nozzle trailing out his pant leg. The joint might have survived the great quake of 1906, but Sal knows that having his name on the place just might be enough to bring it down.
“General,” says Sal, a rangy fifty-year old who is always in need of a shave, wears suspenders and an ill-fitting suit, and holds a cigar in his jaw at all times. “This is Sammy Two-Toes, my guy with his ear to the ground in the neighborhood. He’ll be able to help you out with your little problem.”
I cringe a little at the nick-name, which only Sal uses, and I give the General the once-over. He’s a tall fellow, pushing sixty, with a pencil-thin mustache. When he takes his hat off, he reveals a jail-house window of dark strands of hair combed over a bald pate. “Sammy,” he says, as if he wished he has a rank rather than a name to call me by. It would be a low rank, I guess from his tone, and he just nods, not offering his hand to shake, as I am clearly beneath his consideration.
“Two-Toes knows all the hustlers in town, don’t you Sammy?” Says Sal, who suddenly realizes he is talking over the shoulder of a dame and steps back from Stilton to give her a gander. “Hey, sweetheart—”
“Hold that drink, Sammy,” Stilton says, standing up and putting her finger in Sal’s face to shut him up, a red-lacquered nail a half inch from poking him in the eye. “I gotta scram.”
Before I can say anything or make a move she keeps her one finger in Sal’s mug while she threads her other hand through the strap of her pocketbook holds it up to put the halt on me, which I do. “I’ll see you later, handsome,” she says, and in a single move she drops both arms, pirouettes, and slides out the door while her skirt is still twirling, leaving me, Sal, and the general not a little dumbfounded, and me feeling like luck takes a powder on me. Lost, is what I’m saying.
“Extraordinary,” says the general, still looking at the spot Stilton has just vacated. “Now that’s exactly the type of young woman—”
“The gimp is your guy , then—” says Sal, cutting him off.
Just then Eddie Moo Shoes comes sliding behind the general along with a couple of other guys. The evening crowd tends to clear when Sal is around, as many find him revolting going back to the war when he gouges military guys for the privilege of buying watered-down hooch past off-limits hours.
“Catch you after work for a bite,” Moo Shoe’s says.
“Sure,” I says. “Meet you at the club.”
Eddie waves and is gone, but Sal says, “I told you no fucking Japs.”
“He’s Chinese,” I say.
“Same difference,” says Sal.
Now Sal knows his place is only a block out of Chinatown, and the Chinese were in San Francisco long before the Italians and that his Italian fisherman ancestors had been selling fish to Moo Shoes’ Chinese forefathers for five generations, but he chooses to ignore this in favor of showing his patriotism to the general with indiscriminate discrimination. But the douche bag is my boss, and he gives me a job after the war, when jobs are not easy to come by, and under somewhat phonus bolongnus circumstances that I would rather not have him examine, so I let it pass.
“What can I get you, General?” I says, looking past Sal.
“Scotch, neat. Single malt if you have it.” He looks around at the place and assesses it as the kind of place that won’t have a single malt. Most places don’t. The Scots had to suspend distilling it during the war and it’s not a quick process, but I remember seeing something…
“I’ll see what I can find.”
As I rummage around under the bar, Sal says, “General Remy’s just in town for a few days — meeting with some mucky-mucks, but he’s coming back next week.”
“I’m hoping to make some arrangements for some – some — social company upon my return.” For a military guy, the General seems a little uncomfortable being in a bar. Maybe it’s just Sal’s bar, and how those two end up together is mystery to me as well.
Sal says, “The General is commander of a base back east.”
“Oh really,” I say, my head still down with the spiders and the dust looking for Scotch. “Where is that?”
“Roswell, New Mexico,” says the general.
There it is. I pop up from under the bar with a dusty bottle of Glen Fiddich. “Never heard of it.”
“No reason you would,” says the General. “Nothing ever happens there.”
“Right,” I say, corking the bottle. “Double?”
“Please,” says the General.
So I pour, thinking not at all about New Mexico, but about the Cheese, and how she walks out without my getting her number, or even finding out if she lives in the neighborhood, wondering if she just jitterbugged out into the great beyond, never to be seen again. But then I think, no, she stands up, and stands up to Sal on my behalf. And even though I don’t know where she comes from, where she goes to, or how to find her, it feels like I’m going to see her again, and when I do, something is going to happen — something big and strange and hopeful, and there’s not a goddamn thing I can do about it.