Heart of Muse photo by Todd
Frank was thirty and lived on a monthly check from the state: four hundred and sixty-eight dollars. His rent for a small room in a three-story boarding house in a scary neighborhood in Sacramento was three hundred and forty dollars. That left him one hundred and twenty-eight dollars a month for food and drink and not much else.
A strong athletic man with a diagnosis of clinical depression, Frank was in love with Maria Escobido but didn’t think she would ever be interested in going out with him. He assumed she wanted a partner with a good job, and Frank didn’t have any job, so he barely spoke to Maria except to say hello and thanks.
He would go into Maria’s little grocery store every day, sometimes twice a day, and buy lemonade or beer or anything just to be close to her. He wanted to ask her to have coffee with him, but he never asked because he was afraid she might say Yes and then he would have to tell her about his life, which he was ashamed of.
Frank’s recurring fantasy was that he would save a man’s life and the man would turn out to be wealthy and hire Frank to be his chauffer. Frank would move into an elegant apartment in the carriage house adjacent to the Rolls Royce and Lamborghini and Jaguar. With his ample pay, Frank would buy new clothes and go into Maria’s little grocery store and say, “Hola Maria. Would you like to go out with me?” And Maria would say Yes and they would become lovers and live happily ever after.
That was how Frank began every day, lying alone in his little bed dreaming about Maria inviting him with her eyes to kiss her. And having imagined their kiss, Frank would get out of bed, grab his towel and soap and razor, and hurry down the hall to the bathroom.
Frank and the other tenants on the second floor of the boarding house had a system for the morning use of the bathroom they shared. Frank went first because he woke first. When he was done with his ablutions, he would rap on Larry’s door, and when Larry was done he would knock on Shirley’s door, and when Shirley was finished, she would tap on Sheldon’s door.
One morning Frank was too sick to get out of bed, so Larry didn’t get up until eleven because he was waiting for Frank to knock, and Sheldon and Shirley slept in, too.
Sheldon was a cartoonist, Shirley was the resident computer wizard at the Lesbian Crisis Center, and Larry collected kitsch pottery and books about astrology and the Tarot. Sheldon and Shirley and Larry were as poor as Frank, but they were happy, or so Frank believed, whereas Frank was miserable because he considered himself a failure and didn’t believe Maria Escobido would want to be with him unless he could get a decent a job or save somebody’s life and be rewarded with a decent job. And, of course, he would have to stop smoking pot because Maria was definitely not a pot smoker. But whenever Frank stopped smoking pot for more than a few days he wanted to die.
Frank always bought something in Maria’s grocery store before he would speak to her. He did this so she wouldn’t think he was a dead beat. She was always nice to him, sometimes effusively so, and one day they had a long talk about their favorite movies and she laughed at Frank’s jokes and smiled in a way Frank took to mean I like you. I like the way you think.
He came out of her store after that movie conversation feeling elated and confident she would say Yes if he asked her to go for coffee with him. But when he got back to his little room and looked in the mirror he thought No. She only spoke to me because I bought something. Why would such a marvelous full-of-life woman want to have anything to do with a loser like me?
Frank will never forget a broiling hot day in August when he decided to splurge on a beer and went into Maria’s little store and she was on her tiptoes reaching up to get a case of Heineken from a high shelf. She was wearing a sleeveless red T-shirt and the case of Heineken started to fall and the next thing Frank knew he was beside Maria bringing down the case and Maria’s breasts brushed his arm and she blushed and said Thank you in the sweetest way, and for weeks after Frank lived in a frenzy of love for her.
Monday through Friday at seven in the morning, Frank showered and shaved, dressed in clean shirt, sports jacket, jeans, and running shoes, wrote in his notebook for an hour or so, ate a couple bananas, and jogged five blocks to Plaza Park to see if anybody wanted him to deliver drugs. Frank was trim and presentable, and he would deliver drugs in exchange for marijuana, so dealers liked using him.
One spring morning, Marcus, a colossus with a deep rumbling voice, asked Frank to deliver a large bag of cocaine to someone in the capitol building.
“Marcus,” said Frank, smiling cautiously at the enormous drug dealer. “You know I appreciate the above-average quality of your cannabis, but this amount of cocaine is a large felony. How about I make multiple deliveries of smaller amounts? Then it will not be so terribly terrible if I get caught.”
“Talkin’ hazard pay,” said Marcus, his eyes invisible behind the darkest of dark glasses. “You deliver the whole enchilada in one run, I’ll give you two hundred dollars and all the weed you need for a month. Sound good?”
“Two hundred bucks and copious weed?” said Frank, his heart pounding at the thought of Marcus keeping him in fat joints for an entire month—no need to run drugs to get dope.
So he combed his hair, secreted a Ziploc baggy of blow in a hollowed-out law book, and joined a crowd of state workers swarming into the capitol building. Nobody thought he was anything but a casually-dressed servant of the state as he strode past the Governor’s office and caught an elevator to the third floor where dozens of ambitious men and women hurried to and fro with steaming cups of coffee and armloads of documents—the perfect moment to deliver cocaine.
Frank located the appointed suite, told the receptionist he had something for her boss, and a moment later her boss emerged from his office, a boyishly handsome man with thinning gray hair, his outfit not dissimilar to Frank’s, though he happened to be one of the most powerful politicos in California.
Coming close to Frank, the handsome politico said, “Hey. How are you?”
“Fine,” said Frank, wondering how this man could be so calm with his career in the hands of some stranger off the street who might be a narc. “Here’s that volume you requested. Hope this does the trick.”
“Just in the nick of time,” said the politico, sighing with relief as he took the book from Frank.
Riding down in the elevator, Frank thought What a joke. The ultimate loser bringing blow to a guy who rules the world, both of us wanting to get high, him in his mansion and me in my hole, him with snort, me with weed.
Marcus gave Frank sixty bucks and a bag of shake for delivering the coke to a major player in state politics, and Frank did not complain about the less-than-promised pay.
Life went on. He continued to buy food and drink at Maria’s little grocery store, go to movies on half-price Wednesdays, and score his weed by running drugs to bureaucrats and lobbyists and people living in high-rise luxury condos. He bought a case of beer every month when his benefit check arrived and shared his bounty with Larry and Sheldon and Shirley.
He lived this way for another five years and saw no way out but suicide.
For Frank’s thirty-fifth birthday, Sheldon and Larry and Shirley give Frank a gift certificate for a Tarot reading from Larry’s friend Amanda. Frank thanks them profusely, and as he studies the gift certificate that resembles a diploma he decides he’ll have the reading and then kill himself.
Three days after his birthday, Frank catches a bus from his scary part of town to a neighborhood of beautiful old houses, the streets lined with majestic elms and sycamores. Amanda is waiting for Frank on the front porch of a lovely yellow house, a big gray cat in her arms, her front yard ablaze with roses. Amanda’s skin is white alabaster, her eyes are emerald green, her lustrous red hair falls to her waist, her blue silk blouse is embroidered with dozens of tiny shimmering silver fish, and her voice is deep and songful and free of doubt.
Frank and Amanda sit across from each other at a small round table in Amanda’s living room, late afternoon sunlight slanting through the windows. Amanda asks Frank to shuffle the well-worn deck of Tarot cards and to hold the cards and think about his life.
So he shuffles the deck seven times and holds the cards against his heart and closes his eyes and has a vision of Maria Escobido gazing longingly at him. And he realizes he doesn’t have to buy something from her before he can talk to her. I invented that lie to defeat myself. Maria likes me whether I buy something from her or not.
“Thank you already,” he says, handing the cards to Amanda. “Revelations coming fast and furious.”
“Yes,” she says, turning over the top card. “This is you.”
“Always wondered who I was,” says Frank, reading the words on the card—The Magician. “Nice robe. Is he a chemist?”
“Alchemist,” says Amanda, searching Frank’s face with her brilliant green eyes. “You possess great power, but your power is unavailable to you because you don’t realize who you are.”
She turns over the next card—The Lovers—starts to say something, stops herself and turns over the next card—The Tower. She frowns at the image of a burning castle, touches The Magician, touches The Lovers, and lastly touches The Tower.
“You need to take immediate action or you will lose everything,” she says urgently. “This is definite. You can’t wait another day. You must act.”
“I don’t know what you mean,” says Frank, wondering if she knows he is planning to commit suicide. “Take action. How?”
“Live your dreams,” she says, tapping The Magician. “Take a chance.”
Frank returns to his scary part of town at dusk, heavy fog cloaking the streets. Benefit checks are late this month and people are angry and desperate. He walks past a shiny new black Cadillac parked in front of a vacant lot, nothing unusual about such a car being in his neighborhood—a drug dealer’s car.
And though he knows never to look into parked cars because men with guns do bad things in cars in his neighborhood, something makes him look into the car and he sees a man in the backseat sticking a needle into the arm of a girl with her mouth taped shut, her arms tied behind her back.
“No!” shouts Frank, yanking open the car door. “Let her go!”
The man lets go of the girl and reaches for a gun. But before the man can get hold of his gun, Frank kicks him hard in the face just as the driver’s door swings open and somebody huge starts to get out to kill Frank, but Frank slams the door on the killer and runs away screaming bloody murder as dozens of people rush out of their houses and swarm the car and rescue the girl who turns out to be Maria Escobido’s sister.
That was thirty years ago. Frank lives far away from Sacramento now in a little blue house in a coastal town in British Columbia. He owns a bookstore and his wife Sierra is a chef in a vegetarian restaurant. Together they grow a hundred kinds of flowers.
Frank sometimes dreams that he and Maria Escobido became lovers after he saved her sister, but that didn’t happen.
What happened was he ran back to his room, stuffed a few precious things into his knapsack and left a note for Sheldon and Larry and Shirley thanking them for being his friends and explaining that he would surely be killed if he stayed in Sacramento. Then he caught a bus to the edge of the city and from there hitchhiked north for a thousand miles and got a job as a dishwasher in a café. The owners liked him, and when he proved reliable they gave him a job as a waiter.
One day Frank charmed a customer, a woman who turned out to be a renowned restaurateur. She asked Frank to come work in her restaurant, which Frank did, and a year later he was promoted to maître d’ and kept that job for many years until he saved enough money to open his bookstore and buy his house.
Sometimes when Frank is standing at the bookstore counter reading or writing and the bell over the door jingles, he looks up expecting to see Maria Escobido.
Maria does a double take, smiles her radiant smile and says, “Oh my God, Frank, it’s you.”
And Frank replies with the words Maria always used when he would come into her store after a long absence. “Where have you been hiding, mi amigo? I missed you.”
Only Frank says mi amiga.