The Sailor’s Wife Ch. 04: Folk Song
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This is the fourth installment of the Sailor’s Wife series. It would probably be best if you’ve read the first two stories before this one.
Please bear in mind that the timeframe of this series is the early 1970’s. There are some anachronisms here, and to judge the story by the standards of the 2010’s would be, I think, unfair.
Stephanie stood outside the Harbor House restaurant in Jack London Square, waiting for the rest of the women to arrive. For the fourth time she looked at the black and white glossy photograph, with the large, limpid eyes, reminiscent of a St. Bernard. Below it, a placard announced: “Rusty Newland—One Week Only!” Who the hell, she wondered, was Rusty Newland?
She was looking forward to the Wednesday evening out, a birthday party for one of the navy wives. It had been a long ten days, continually filled with crying jags and thoughts of what she’d done with and to Chuck, and how it had gone so terribly wrong. Even at work she’d been depressed, unable to concentrate. The first week she’d gone through a couple bottles of rum, most of it cut with Pepsi Cola, some straight. Not much sleep.
She’d gone down to Kelly’s one night. Jim, thankfully wasn’t there, but four or five guys hit on her. One in particular wouldn’t leave her alone, and when he bluntly proposed that they go to his place and screw, she told him to go to hell, threw her drink in his face and walked out. She promised herself she’d never go back.
After a very unsatisfactory phone call the previous Saturday, Joann just showed up at her front door, held her hand, and let her cry as she hugged her. She wanted to know what was wrong, but Stephanie couldn’t bear to confess to her, or anyone, about Chuck. Now Joann wouldn’t leave her alone, she’d been over every night, at least for a half-hour or so. The last three days had been much better, and Steph actually smiled every once in awhile.
The women, dressed in skirts and dresses, began arriving, and they went into the restaurant for a happy dinner, eight of them sitting around a long table. The waiter got into the mood, joking with them, and by the time the entire waitstaff came around to sing birthday greetings to the unfortunate celebrant, a rosy glow — part alcohol, mostly companionship — had descended on the flock.
As the party started breaking up, Joann quietly asked once again if Steph was okay. “Yeah, I’m fine. No, really,” she insisted, seeing the disbelief on her friend’s face. “This was really nice.” The group crossed to the exit, and they passed the lounge. The singer was just into his first set and there were only five or six people imbibing, largely ignoring the entertainment. The song was one of Steph’s favorites, ‘You’ve Got A Friend’ by James Taylor. “You want to have a drink and listen for awhile?” Steph asked.
“Okay, but you’re having a coke,” Joann commanded. Three of the others decided to join them, and they sat, mostly chatting, sometimes listening to the vocalist in the corner playing folk music on a six-string guitar. Steph liked the way he looked with long wavy brown hair, and a funny little cap perched on top of his head. For over an hour he sang, playing five or six songs in a row, stopping only to tune the guitar or replace a broken string. When he took a break, he stopped over at their table.
“Evening, ladies! You look like you’re having fun, anything special you want to hear?”
“How about ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door?” somebody suggested.
“Yeah, I can do that,” he promised.
“You’re pretty good.” Joann said. “How do you play all those chords?”
“Is it true?” one of the wives asked.
“If you want to find out,” he smiled, “I’m around.” The women all laughed at the inside joke as he left them to get a drink.
Steph wondered what was so funny. “What was all that about big hands?”
“Haven’t you ever heard that, Steph? Big hands…”
“Big Dick!” the rest of the group cried in unison, gaining amused stares from the other tables. When Rusty returned, he started with Dylan’s new song, just as he said he would, and then smoothly transitioned into ‘He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother.’ The gang sat through four more songs, then they decided they’d better go to their respective homes. As they passed Rusty, they each put a dollar in his tip jar, and he thanked each one. When it came to Stephanie’s turn, he looked deeply into her eyes, and said, “See you around!”
Joann called the next night, checking up, and then said, “Hey, remember Nancy Stevens? You know, they got transferred down to Santa Barbara? Well, I was thinking of going down there to visit this weekend, you want to come?”
Steph thought about her lack of plans for the weekend, it sounded appealing. Then she remembered she never got along that well with Nancy, changed her mind and said, “I don’t think so.”
“Well, maybe I’ll stick around, and we can do something together,” Joann offered.
“No, you go on down, have fun. I’ll be fine.”
Friday night. Steph had already made a frozen TV dinner, washed her hair, and had absolutely nothing to do. Bağdat Caddesi Travesti She didn’t want to read a book and there was nothing on TV. She sat on the patio, listening to K101 FM, watching the lights twinkle on the hillside above her, and knew she was bored. There must be something she could do. Should she go back to Kelly’s? No, definitely not. Just then on the radio, she heard the first strains of “You’ve Got A Friend,” and she thought about the musician at the Harbor House. She’d liked him and the songs he played. Maybe she should go back down there; it was a nice place, more upscale than Kelly’s, she probably wouldn’t be bothered there. Or if she was, at least it would be a better class of cretin. She put on a paisley blouse and some bell-bottoms and drove down to the square. When she entered the place, she noticed it was more crowded than two nights ago; couples or foursomes waiting for tables in the dining room, two or three groups of businessmen at the bar, and a similar number of office women at tables, winding down from the workweek. Rusty was leading the bunch in a rendition of “Joy To The World,” and the guys nodded to Steph as she chose an empty table next to the wall. She ordered a rum and coke, and intently listened to the performer. Most of the songs were covers of breezy pop and folk music, but every once in awhile he’d throw in one she’d never heard before, one of his own compositions probably. A man came over and sat down.
“Hi, how are you doing?” he began.
“Come here often?”
“Can I buy you a drink?”
She put her left hand on the table and displayed the ring finger. “Thanks, no, I’m waiting for someone,” she lied. He took the hint. For the next half-hour, no one bothered her and she was as content as she was going to get, she figured.
The set was over, and the guitarist told the crowd he’d be back in 15 minutes, stick around. He left the room, but a few minutes later he was standing next to Steph. “Hi, mind if I sit down?”
“No, be my guest,” she agreed.
He caught the waitress’s attention. “Seven-up for me, Donna. And another one for my friend here.”
“You didn’t have to do that,” she protested.
“It’s okay, the manager knows I’m never going to clear my tab anyway. You were here two nights ago, weren’t you?”
“How did you remember?”
“I couldn’t forget a face like yours, lovely and forlorn.” It didn’t seem like a pick up line. “My name’s Rusty,” and he offered his hand.
They talked for a few minutes while he drained his Seven-up. She learned that he was from Boston, out on a tour of the west, would be here through the weekend, and was moving to a place in the Piedmont District next week. “Is your husband going to meet you here?”
“No, he’s out at sea. I’m just trying to kill some time.”
“Loneliness, huh? I dig that.”
“I bet you do. How long have you been on the road?”
“Fourteen weeks now.”
“Anybody waiting for you back in Boston?”
“An old girlfriend. We’ve been seeing each other for four years now, since we were in college. Someday we might make something of ourselves, if she doesn’t get tired of waiting for me to get off the road. Ah, the manager’s getting restless, I’ve got to get back to work. Wait around for another set, okay?”
She agreed, and he returned to the platform, starting with the Eagles ‘Peaceful Easy Feeling.’ A little later, he played a song she’d never heard before, about a couple at the ocean, and she was mesmerized by the refrain:
. The surf and the sun, we’ve just begun
. The stars and skies, shining in her eyes.
When he returned, thirsty again, she asked him about the song. “I wrote it on Cape Cod, I was a lot younger then.”
“Is it about your girlfriend?”
“She’s in there, yeah. In fact, quite a bit of her.”
“She’s lucky. No one’s ever written a song about me.”
“Maybe someone will, someday,” he responded.
“Do you wish she was here?”
“Sometimes. She wouldn’t be happy, though, too much of a homebody. She hates the wanderlust in me, but loves the poet. She doesn’t understand that one comes with the other.”
It was almost midnight, time to start the last set. “I liked talking with you, thanks for the drinks,” Stephanie told him.
“Don’t go yet,” he begged. “You don’t have to work in the morning, do you?”
“Then why don’t you wait for me to get off? I heard about a great after-hours blues joint in Berkeley.”
She thought about the wanderlust in the artist, and how she often wanted to be a nomad herself. Staying up late, going to a Berkley coffee shop, that was something vagabonds did, something she could never do with Glenn. “Sure,” she decided.
“Great, I’ll be back before you know it.”
The next set was happy, full of joy, and when he finished he got a nice round of applause from the grateful audience. If he wasn’t a superstar, at least he knew how to turn a lounge full of middle aged people on.
“You mind driving?” he asked Stephanie as he packed his guitar Bostancı travesti up.
“Good. Otherwise, we’re walking!” Off they went through the early morning darkness to an address on Telegraph Road, and the bouncer let them in when Rusty dropped the name of the nightclub owner.
Through the cigarette haze they listened to the band, two saxophones, a scat singer. They’d barely sat down when a funny cigarette was passed to Steph. She’d seen and smelt marijuana before, but never tried it. Glenn was paranoid, thinking if they caught him with pot he’d lose a stripe or even get discharged, and Steph just went along with his fears. But here it was all different, so she took a long draw on the doobie. She held it in for a few seconds, then coughed it out. She tried it again on the next pass with a little more success but half an hour later, when she didn’t feel anything, she figured she was one of those people who it just didn’t affect.
Rusty pointed out people to her, Paul Kanter of the Airplane, David Freiberg of Quicksilver Messenger Service. Peter Albin, now with Country Joe and the Fish, stopped over to say ‘Hi,’ and Rusty explained he’d met him as a studio musician. The band played on, and the place got mellow. Finally, sometime long after three, Steph began to droop and asked Rusty if he wanted to go yet. He left with her, a little reluctantly, and when they passed an all night diner Stephanie insisted on stopping — all of a sudden, she was famished.
Over the meal of chili and eggs, she asked him what he did during the day. “The last two weeks, I was in San Francisco, so I went down by Fisherman’s Wharf and played for the tourists. I get to play some, and the quarters they toss keep me in weed.”
“Can I go with you tomorrow?” She wanted to see more of him.
“Sure, you’ll be bored, though.”
“If I am, I’ll find something else to do.”
When she dropped him at the nondescript motel, she wondered if he’d invite her in, but he simply said, “See you later,” and Steph drove home.
She woke sometime after 11:00, feeling good, not hung over as she expected she’d be. She lay in bed and thought about Rusty. At times he’d been very talkative, yet at other times he listened intently to her speak about her life, her self. The idea of being with him pleased her. Going into San Francisco would be fun; she’d always wondered what the life of a street artist would be like.
She yawned her way into the kitchen, put a filter and a couple of scoops of coffee into the machine, and got it going. Then she picked up the phone, and called Rusty at his motel. He sleepily answered, “Hello?”
“Hi, did I wake you?”
“God, you’re cheery in the morning. It’s still morning, isn’t it?”
“Barely. You sure you don’t mind me coming with you to your gig?” She’d started learning the patter of musicians.
“No, otherwise, I’d have to take the bus across. But I still say you’ll be bored.”
“I’ll take my chances. Pick you up in forty-five minutes?”
On the drive across the Bay Bridge, Rusty looked back to the East Bay and saw two aircraft carriers tied up at Alameda. “Those things are what your husband’s on, huh?”
“Big and ugly.”
He asked her about Glenn, what he was like. Rusty watched her eyes as she explained how they’d met in high school and married soon after he enlisted. It changed into an explanation of what she did while her husband was gone, her girlfriends, and her problems. Rusty let her talk, asked questions at the appropriate times, seemed to care. She thought about telling him about Chuck — she hadn’t bared her soul about that one to anyone — but a motorcycle cut her off on the Embarcadero freeway, and the moment passed. Soon they found a parking spot four blocks from the cable car turnaround, and they walked down.
“This is where it’s good,” he explained. “The magicians and comics don’t like to hang here, they want to go where they can get people’s attention for at least ten minutes. I don’t need that long, only two or three.” He stood up against a short wall just a few steps from where the tourists were lining up to get on the trolley, took his guitar out and opened the case onto the ground. Then he threw a bunch of change and a couple of dollar bills into it. “If you don’t start them off, nobody will throw you anything. I guess it’s sort of Pavlovian.”
Then he started his act, talking to the crowd, complimenting the women and girls and comically insulting the guys, then sang his first song — “I Left My Heart In San Francisco.” Three or four people dropped a dime or quarter into the case before they jumped on the cable car. He played another song, then played “If You’re Going To San Francisco Be Sure To Wear Flowers In Your Hair.” More money appeared on the red velvet lining. He kept it up, occasionally tossing Steph a look as she sat on a bench twenty-five feet away, and went back time and time again to the two big money makers. During a break, he came over and sat beside her.
“What’s with repeating the two songs?” she asked.
“Man, Kartal travesti am I sick of ‘Heart’ and ‘Flowers!’ But if that’s what people are going to pay for, that’s what I’ll sing.” He went back to the audience, and after she watched him play for another half-hour, she told him she was going to go for a walk, she’d be back.
When she returned two hours later, he was still at it, as pleasant as ever, but it didn’t look like he was doing very well—there only seemed to be a little more money in the case then when he started. He went on for almost another hour, and then she was ready to do something else. But how could she tell him what she wanted? Impulsively, she went to him and gave him a brief kiss. It shocked both of them. “You ready to go?” he asked.
“Sure, if you are.”
“Might as well, it’s getting a little cold now, and the folks are having problems getting their hands out of their pockets.”
On the way back, she asked him about the poor receipts. “Poor? I made almost 35 bucks today!”
“But there wasn’t anything in your case.”
“You got to clean it out every once in awhile,” he revealed. “If the tricks see too much, they think you’re rich, and they won’t pay up.”
On the way back, they stopped for dinner, and she asked him how he got into the business. “It’s all my folk’s fault. They sent me to the New England Conservatory of Music, I studied the Oboe. The third year, they told me I was pretty good. If I worked hard, got my masters, they thought I could pick up a position with the Peoria Symphony. ‘Course, they also told me I’d have to cut my hair. So I picked up the guitar, and here I am!”
“Don’t you get tired of being on the road?”
“Not really. I’m sort of a loner to begin with, and I just like seeing different places all the time.”
“Where are you going after you leave Oakland?”
“I don’t know, I’ve got nothing set up. Maybe I’ll head back East, or maybe I’ll stick around here, get a construction job or something. My agent’s got a line on a band they’re putting together, but then he’s always telling me something big is gonna happen next week.”
She took him back to the motel, and came into his room while he showered behind the closed bathroom door and changed into better clothes for the lounge. The room was dingy, but he was neat, with all his stuff put away in the drawers. “You gonna come by the lounge tonight,” he asked her as he was shaving, half dressed in his bell-bottoms, “or have you had enough?”
“I’m gonna go back to my place, do a couple things, but if you want me to, I’ll come over later.”
He smiled, “I’d like that. I like you.”
When she got back to her apartment, she found three letters from Glenn — even though he wrote one a day, the post office delivered them in batches — and read them all twice, voraciously. They were leaving the Philippines (of course, the most recent letter was five days old,) and headed for the Gulf of Tonkin. He was safe, he was healthy, and he missed her. He didn’t say much about the three days of restocking in Subic Bay. Stephanie wondered if he’d gone into town, visited a hooker.
She wrote back, telling him about her day, about Rusty, and how she’d taken him into San Francisco. She wanted to tell him about how she’d smoked pot, but figured he might start worrying if he heard that. She sealed the envelope, and then took a long, hot shower. She turned the television on, and thought some more about Rusty, how he’d talked with her, and how he looked so appealing while he stood before the mirror, bare-chested, shaving. A whiff of desire wafted over her, almost hidden, and she dozed. An hour later she woke up and headed down to Jack London Square.
The room was full, and she had to wait for someone to leave before she could get a seat at the bar. Rusty had the room jamming, singing along with him, and was taking requests. It was different, she thought, when you haven’t been sitting here all night, you’re sober, and they’re all drunk. Rusty finally spied her, waved to her, and then went on. Six songs later, he announced last call, and closed with The Beatles “Eight Days A Week.”
After most of the crowd left, stuffing the jar full of green paper, he was really turned on. “Steph, playing for a crowd like this gets you going, a real natural high.” But she was yawning, not used to the late nights, so he suggested she just drive him back to the motel and call it a night.
She realized, however, that he was way too keyed up to go to sleep, so she asked him, “Do you have anything to smoke in your room?”
“Yeah, a little Colombian. Good shit. You want some?”
She came into the room, sat on the bed and watched him as he got his stash out and rolled a joint. He lit it and offered her the first hit, then he took one. He tried to tell her what it was like to get the crowd going, to move them. She figured this was what he was all about, and she liked what she saw.
He lit the second joint, but teased her, falling back on the bed, and told her to come get it if she wanted it. By now she was a little high, so when she tried to pull it out of his hand, she stumbled and fell on top of him. Their faces were just a few inches apart, and Stephanie couldn’t help herself. She kissed him, and then she kissed him again. She put his hand on his chest, feeling it, and then opened the shirt so she could kiss it.
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