San Clemente, CA
Orange Country School of the Arts
Do you believe in God? he asks.
I swat away a horsefly but it keeps trying to fly through my ear. A pause, a realization that the question is too big for the park. Looking for an answer in the grass, I uproot blades and the smell is sharp.
Not in singularity, I say, but like in the sense that I am God and there is God.
That sounds narcissistic, he smiles. You’re a Beat now or something? The fly doesn’t return this time but the buzz remains, a quiet ringing that is both the aftermath and the traffic below us. It doesn’t stop until I start humming, not consciously, of course, but a slow song in my throat that I don’t notice until we are standing and swaying our bodies to my music.
Do you notice how everyone seems to be dancing? he laughs, then starts singing too.
He’s right: the girl on the swing, an Italian couple with a picnic blanket, an old woman and her cane — all of us moving to the same rhythm. What an ugly painting this would be; Seurat would have to embellish it, or maybe, when he painted Parisians strolling on La Grande Jatte, the figures were like these and the image was created from nothing.
My father taught me that there are many uses for the newspaper. During the war, we'd salvage them for the victory campaign, or turn them into fighter planes just to watch them nosedive. Anything but read them. It was because of rationing; not only the lack of resources, but the making of everything into some kind of war, mobilizing paper planes and their paper political climate.
This is the reason I walk down Montgomery St. folding my San Francisco Chronicle into a Curtis P-40, my fingers dexterous, my eyes on an unknown target. I crease SF POLICE DEPARTMENT STRIKES DOWN ON THE BLACK CAT CAFE HOMOSEXUALS into POLICE DEPARTMENT STRIKES DOWN into STRIKES DOWN, so that the words are on the wing. So that there is no headline, just syllables and their semantics, words constructed by their most rudimentary unit.
The day is windy enough that I can let it go without throwing it, and I watch it fly into the battlefield of the street. It does not make it far. A red Cadillac approaches, tentatively at first, then roaring its engine so my P-40 becomes a wad of paper in the street. As if to call it litter. As if to strike down on the Black Cat homosexuals once more.
I’m starting to look like the other boys and they know it.
It isn’t just the way my face is becoming slimmer, or how I’m developing that crease between my eyebrows that everybody seems to have nowadays (impossible not to, with today’s headlines). No—it’s not just that, but the way I bat my eyelashes when the other patrons look at me, or smile when the waiter brings a drink.
Before the music starts I turn to a vaguely familiar Irishman. I remember his hollow cheekbones and dusty eyes, but everything else about him evades me.
Bad things keep happening everywhere, I say.
Not in here, he smiles. It is a cheap way of saying we are acutely safe.
Along with the other forty men gathered quietly under this decaying roof, our minds turn to martinis, cocktail snacks, communism. Black Cat is a place of lukewarm corruption, we laugh, then let our throats turn to fire. The lack of ventilation makes everything smell distilled.
Tonight Madame Butterfly is performing, singing on top of tables pushed together as we stand shoulder to shoulder. This is the illegal act we perpetrate tonight: not debauchery, or disorderly conduct, but touching one another. It is as if the knowledge of this makes us cheer louder, feeling the fire in our throats grow as we sing along to parodies of torch songs. And we know that outside these walls, the blue-collar men are wiring the city, working mechanically so that North Beach becomes a series of lines and boxes. We know this and so we cheer even louder, looking towards the concave ceiling and the contours of the walls: how this boxed room cannot even contain us.
It can be beautiful here depending on where you look. Here, in the International Settlement, where one block between Montgomery and Kearney was turned into an entertainment district. Where they erected stucco facades and neon signs, painting everything blonde. Where if you visit the Arabian Nights cocktail lounge you will find trouble, and if you visit the Barbary Coast club you will find even more.
Somewhere the sun is setting, which, in a vertical city where buildings block horizons, means a gradual reddening of everything until darkness. Yes, it is beautiful here, with its raspy jazz babbling into the streets every night, moving up up up into the sky with our vaporous breath, liberated from the Settlement.
People used to think of this as the grime of San Francisco. When folks thought of this entertainment district they’d think of chorus girls and prostitution, gambling and lawlessness. Now, everyone has turned their attention to the strip clubs of Broadway and North Beach, abandoning International Settlement so that it slowly runs its course. It is funny, how quickly our attention moves from one pole to another.
I don’t know when my mind shifts from this thought to the next, the next being Montgomery Street destroyed by a bombing. I simply find my mind there, thinking about the pedestrians becoming carnage, the streets becoming a calcified wasteland. It is a vision I sometimes have, my Curtis P-40 newspaper plane returning but this time life-size, this time falling towards the ground at cosmic velocity, typed print turned kamikaze. Looking around, I wonder if anyone else is having the same thought.
I wonder why everything picturesque must end with its destruction.
Jazz is the anthem of our generation.
We find it tucked under our tongues, a Charlie Parker melody turning our own mouths into radios. We find it in our muffled cries, the larynx an untuned saxophone running on blues scales. We find it in the sway of our feet, the snap of our fingers, the crack of a gunshot, the constant pulse that swings us together. We find it coursing through our bloodstream, along with other things, oscillating in our synapses until we laugh in delirium.
This is how I find him: a man from the Black Cat, humming some indiscernible tune as he laughs and laughs and laughs. He’s feeling benzedrine euphoria, stumbling across the Fisherman’s Wharf so that even the bread-hungry birds fly away. It’s as if his corduroys and the misaligned buttons on his shirt can’t even contain him, the wind blowing his body naked.
We look at each other, thinking to nod but deciding otherwise, going our separate ways, saying peace, brother without all the trouble. We know better than to talk out here. Instead, we each turn our gaze towards the ocean as we pass the other. It smells of rotting fish and seaweed, and with the August fog we see nothing but a greyish mass. Still, it is liberating to look at.
I wonder what is on the other side. The death of a monarchy, sure, but what now? Perhaps it is the Zen Buddhists looking out across the Pacific, seeing not the San Francisco fog but an all-knowing blue sky. Perhaps it is the Japanese girls looking Eastward, dancing in hula-hoops or other American products that make this ocean feel even wider.
The Black-Cat-benzedrine man is gone when I look for him, hidden somewhere in the dense vapor of the wharf. But I swear I still hear the jazz clicking from his tongue, a song lingering in the air: Here is the fruit for crows to pluck, for the rain to gather, for the wind to suck, for the sun to rot, for the trees to drop.
People are still dancing below us, but now a cold air has settled. The Italian couple folds their picnic blanket, moving languidly across the dying grass. A new crowd starts to file in — this one with less of a rhythm in their step and more of a punch.
He takes another drag of his cigarette: Tell me your biggest fear.
I look around me. I think of the radio, hear its crunchy static and the news of nuclear warfare. I think of plutonium and police strike downs and purgatory. I think of our quaint little cafe, our four-walled haven where people walk past and don’t stop. I think of my paper plane and the real ones, the kamikazes bound to hit us any moment. I think of the Reds, how we’re all driven mad until electrified by stimulants, walking just to weep at yesterday.
Mediocracy, I say.
Such beautiful prose, this fiction piece is driven by setting. Every vignette is cohesively tied into the narrator’s growth as well as the changes and epiphanies they undergo.
Jonathan Truong is a senior at Orange County School of the Arts, where he studies creative writing. He is a 2020 Foyle Commended Poet, and an alumnus of the Adroit Summer Mentorship for fiction. Outside of writing, he teaches vinyasa yoga.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR