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The Oceanic Express

by Jack Alcott


That was it; I had to get Francis out of there fast. The party was over, at least for him.

“Come on, Francis, we’ve got to go,” I said, taking him by the elbow. He was a skinny bastard and he had the boniest damned elbow I’d ever touched, so I loosened my grip for fear of hurting him. “Follow me outside where we can talk.”

He came along without further discussion, leaving a wake of sharp, accusatory glances behind. We started down the hallway steps, which were covered in a cheap, red paint the color of overcooked tomato sauce — or dried blood. The paint, heavily scuffed in the center of the stairs, had never really bothered me until that moment. Now the color, once merely tacky, seemed somehow ominous, even grotesque.

“Don’t you want to know if you’re in my book?” Francis asked as I swung the door open onto the Fifth Avenue sidewalk. A 38 Geary bus bore down on the corner shooting strings of oily black smoke from its tailpipe, its diesel engines screaming like an F-15 about to crash on the tarmac.

I pretended not to hear Francis as I ushered him toward the corner streetlight and the bus.

“Where you live, Francis?” I said, digging into my pocket for the fifty-cent fare.

“The ocean,” he said.

“Well then, you should jump on the bus, it’s headed that way.”

But Francis wasn’t in any hurry and the driver stopped only long enough for a couple of teenagers to hop up the 38’s steps. The bus’s rubber-lipped doors slammed shut behind them with a pneumatic gasp like an elderly asthmatic, and it roared off, shaking and shuddering toward the beach.

“We’ll wait for the next one,” I said. ”It’ll be along in a few minutes.”

We were now at the corner of Geary and Sixth, in front of a garishly lit red-and-white striped fried chicken joint that was closed for the night, but still reeking of superheated grease. When I looked to the west, up the avenue toward the ocean, I saw a thick mattress of fog sliding toward us, swallowing streetlamps and buildings as it came.

The mist moved surprisingly fast, almost at jogging speed, and we were soon inside the clammy, spritzing cloud. It was so dense that even the fluorescent light in the restaurant windows seemed smudged and dimmed. A slight breeze like a tickling, chilly breath accompanied the cloud, and I found myself wishing I’d thrown a jacket on.

Searching for a bus, I peered toward the downtown, which was already dissolving in the swirling gray mass. When I turned back to Francis, I found him wordlessly staring at me from the depths of those uncanny eyes.

“What?” I said, although he hadn’t spoken. There was a sudden chill in the air that had nothing to do with the temperature, and I shivered. The usual city noises were noticeably damped down, smothered in the enshrouding fog.

“Dammit, I should have put a jacket on,” I muttered just to break the uneasy silence.

“Do you see how obscure it all is?” Francis said in a quiet rasp, motioning up and down the street with his pale, peculiar hand. A foghorn sounded out by the Golden Gate, sending its baleful reverb echoing through the night. “You want to know your future, don’t you, Brendan? I can help you. All you have to do is ask.”

“You’re getting freaking weirder by the minute, Francis,” I said looking around again for the 38 Geary. “Where’s that bus? They’re supposed to run every fifteen minutes.”

“Minutes are not important,” he said. “We’re talking about a lifetime.”

“I’m not talking about anything except getting you on that bus and out of here, back to wherever you came from,” I said feeling angry — and also inexplicably alarmed, like a small creature that senses a predator is near.

He wasn’t listening to me. “Come with me, Brendan. Come with me on the bus to the ocean. There’s so much to see.”

I didn’t know what to say. But I definitely wanted nothing to do with his version of my future. For one thing, I wasn’t so sure I even had one — and I certainly didn’t want my fears confirmed. So, no way was I getting on that bus with him; God only knows where that would lead me. Buried out at Ocean Beach, in a shallow sea-soaked grave? At the moment, that didn’t seem so farfetched, and the tingle of alarm I’d felt building was reaching a crescendo in my head.

When I’d first hitchhiked to San Francisco five years earlier, my ride dropped me off on Market Street sometime around 9 p.m. The street was dead, there was hardly anyone around, and I’d tried repeatedly to call a friend from a phone booth on the corner without getting through. I’d neglected to tell him I was coming to town, so I wasn’t surprised, but I had nowhere to go.

As I loitered in front of a closed-up discount shoe store, a tall, good-looking man in his 30’s came over and politely asked me if I needed a ride anywhere. He seemed genuinely concerned about my safety. “You shouldn’t be hanging in this part of town all alone,” he said. “I’ve got a cottage in Berkeley. Come on over, you can stay the night. My car’s parked a block away. Come on... Come on, it’s all right. Really.”

I was tempted. Mark Twain once said that the coldest winter he’d ever spent was a summer in San Francisco. The fog was rolling down from Twin Peaks on one end, and up from the bay and the Ferry Building on the other — and it was getting chillier by the minute.

But something about the guy bothered me. Maybe it was his persistence; maybe it was the jaunty, jagged scar over his left eye. Whatever it was, I told him I didn’t need his help, to go to hell and leave me alone. He got the message and left, but not before he gave me a creepy head-to-toe once-over, and told me it was my loss.

Two days later I was walking past a newsstand on California Street when I spied a Chronicle headline: “Suspected Serial Killer Nabbed in East Bay” it screamed in one-inch type. And right there on Page One was a black and white photo of the guy who offered to take me to his place in Berkeley. What a world, huh?

“Make up your mind, Brendan,” Francis said. “Your future’s at stake. Come with me and everything changes for the better. Trust me.”

Now if there’s one thing I’ve learned in life, it’s be wary of anyone who asks for your trust; particularly if you only met them that day. And I was about to tell Francis just that when out of the fog came a roaring Cerberus on wheels, the 38 Geary. Except it said “Oceanic Express” in the narrow destination window on the roof above the driver.

I’d never heard of the Oceanic Express, but it pulled up to the curb, its airbrakes shrieking, its headlights shredding the fog. The bus’s interior lights flared off and on, bathing the scene in a dirty, brownish glow that intermittently revealed the faces of the passengers watching us from the windows.

I could only stare back at them, unable to move, as if time itself had seized up and frozen me in place. And there, smiling out the windows from their red Naugahyde seats were several characters I recognized from down on Market and Powell. In fact, the bus was filled with all the crazy, muttering, outrageously exhibitionist street people that greet tourists at the cable car turntable every day.

The Polka Dot Man, a contortionist, was nearest, and he was indeed painted black with large pink polka dots decorating his bald skull, face, and naked knotted torso. Behind him sat the blind swami with his turban and raw, empty eye sockets that he’d gouged out to better read the palms of desperate pilgrims. Next to him, stark and rigid, sat the red-faced, street preacher best known for raining brimstone rants down on the heads of anyone unfortunate enough to cross his path.

And there were others, in almost all the seats, tortured, pathetic and shuddering souls all bound for Land’s End. For what? A seaside convention for the mad? Again, this was San Francisco, so maybe that’s exactly where they were going. Why not? Maybe it was an annual event, with bonfires and booths by the shore or along the rocky cliffs where they all sat behind card tables hawking their wares, talking shop and catching up on the latest innovations of the insane while moonlight twinkled on the Pacific. And I was invited!

But there was no conference, of course. This gathering was something far more sinister, something I wanted nothing to do with, something to run away from... And then I felt Francis’ spindly hand sliding into mine, as cool and smooth and hard as ivory. It wasn’t until his stick-like fingers started tightening around my own that I was jolted out of my stupor and able to jerk my hand free. I stood there gape-mouthed for a second as Francis’ placid face turned sullen. Then he bared his tiny teeth in a malevolent grin and lunged for me...

But he wasn’t quick enough for the 26-year-old I was then, and I practically leaped from his grasp, scampering crablike and backwards and falling to the pavement where I heaved myself to my feet again and ran, throwing a glance only once over my shoulder at the bus and the fog swept, fluorescent-lit corner. What I saw will stay with me forever, although no one believes me when I tell them; they just blame it on drugs. Well, hell, I hardly believe it myself.

But just before the bus folded its doors closed there was a loud exhalation and then what sounded like a huge intake of breath. Then I saw Francis dissolve into shreds of smoke or fog or some filthy smog, stripped right down to the bone — and then the whole mess was sucked up into the bus, dimming the still-stuttering lights on board as the 38 went supersonic and careened away in its headlong plunge toward the ocean.

That was all I saw, for I was quickly around the corner and running for home, all the while thinking it was time to leave San Fran. I’d been wasting my life on this extended adolescence for too long; it was time for a change, time to get out of La-La Land, as my parents liked to call it. Time to get real, whatever that was — and suddenly, for the first time in years, I really felt motivated and I hoped it wasn’t too late to accomplish something, anything, somewhere else.

* * *

Like many before me, I did leave my heart in San Francisco. But at least it’s not buried out at Land’s End — and for that I’m glad.

Young, drunk Mark was not so lucky. He got behind the wheel of Ray’s beat-up Mustang convertible on his 21st birthday and rammed it into one of those beautifully bizarre streetlamps in Chinatown. He struck the thing with such force that one of the cast-iron lamp’s gold-gilded dragons flew free and met him head-on as he went through the windshield, splintering his skull.

Ray “The Poetman” did not come to a poetic end, either. He was noodling around one stagnant afternoon on his Farfisa organ, midway into The Doors’ “Riders on the Storm,” when he stopped playing.

“What’s the matter?” Bruce asked from the sofa where he was stretched out with his guitar. “That’s the best part.”

“I don’t understand,” Ray said. “I can’t remember the rest of the song, the chords, the melody — nothing.”

“It’s in E minor, it’s easy.”

“What’s an E minor?” Ray asked. He meant it; he couldn’t remember. The tumor that had been secretly flowering deep in his brain had instantly erased all the music in his head. He never played another tune and three months later he died in his parents’ home in the suburbs of Toledo, Ohio.

Bruce? Bruce was a sweet-natured guy, but a congenital sluggard. Besides his guitar playing, his one intellectual pleasure was reading Moby Dick once a year, no matter what. He said it always reminded him of home, of Buzzard’s Bay, Massachusetts.

About a decade after Sir Francis showed up at our party, I heard that Bruce had gone home. While swimming offshore that first summer back in the Bay State, a riptide had borne him out to sea. His body was never found, but Melville’s book was on his sand-spattered Red Sox beach towel where he’d left it.

Garth and Ellen? Still alive and shooting heroin in L.A., waiting for their turn.

Me? Don’t ask; I don’t want Francis to find me.

Copyright © 2010 by Jack Alcott

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