WEDNESDAY: In a Fog

BY CHAD GREENE

Copyright is held by the author.

AS I trudged downhill, almost to the block where Bush roofs Stockton, I lost sight of the man in the brown fedora and the tan trench coat for the first time since I started tailing him near the old library on Larkin.

Damaged in an earthquake years earlier, the sprawling space inside that noble Beaux Arts building was in the last stages of the renovation that would transform it into the Asian Art Museum — a piece of evidence, as if I had needed another, that things change.

In an attempt to take my mind off the fact that my marital status was one of those things — it had already changed from married to separated and was probably about to change again, from separated to divorced — I had temporarily traded in the smog of Los Angeles for the fog of San Francisco. Although accustomed to traveling freeways on flatlands by car, not one-ways up and down hills by foot, I had managed to somehow shadow the man in the brown fedora and the tan trench coat through the Tenderloin — where he had lingered awhile near the entrance of a four-story brick building at the corner of Post and Hyde — toward Chinatown.

But then, in a fog, on a hill, I lost sight of him momentarily. Panicked, I picked up my pace. As I hustled downhill, I almost missed the blind alley.

I was smart enough to read the black letters on the white street sign, which spelled out Burritt. But I was dumb enough to tail a mysterious man up a blind alley. I was surprised when I saw him standing there, pointing a pistol at the pump in my chest, but I shouldn’t have been.

Because I had been reading — and writing — stories so long, what I expected, as much as death, was epiphany. Surely, all the moments of my life had led me to this moment; all the scenes, to this scene. In this moment, in this scene, I would see some meaning in them all. And it would all happen in a flash — in this case, the muzzle flash of a pistol pointed at my heart.

But there was no flash.

Because the pistol wasn’t made of metal; it was made of plastic. Because the projectile it shot toward my heart wasn’t a bullet; it was a dart — tipped with a suction cup. But the dart didn’t stick to my sweat-slicked shirt.

Without thinking, I caught it in my hand.

“Well, that’s the end of the Dashiell Hammett Tour,” the man said as he first folded his tan trench coat and then placed his brown fedora atop the pile of fabric. Although he still stood 6’3”, without them on, he looked a lot less like a burly bruiser. Everyone else who had taken his tour had already left, and he seemed to wonder why I had not. “If you haven’t had your fill of Maltese Falcon trivia yet, you might want to head down to John’s Grill on Ellis — the only restaurant mentioned by name in a Sam Spade story that’s still open. I suggest Sam Spade’s Lamb Chops, served with baked potato and sliced tomato, and washed down with a Bloody Brigid — named after the infamous femme fatale Brigid O’Shaughnessy, of course.”

“Of course,” I muttered.

With that, he headed down the alley. But, then, right before he turned back onto Bush, he suddenly spun on his heel.

“Oh,” he exclaimed, “one last thing!”

“Yes?” I asked expectantly. Perhaps this was the epiphany?

“The dart?” he asked. “Can I have it back, please?”

“Of course,” I muttered.

***

Because I had re-read The Maltese Falcon before taking the Dashiell Hammett Tour, I remembered that Sam Spade himself had had to ask the waiter at John’s Grill to hurry his order of lamb chops, baked potato, and sliced tomato. After consulting the timetable for the BART train that I had to take back to SFO, however, it was clear that I didn’t have time to eat Sam Spade’s Lamb Chops. I did have time, though, to drink a Bloody Brigid.

Under the green awning stitched with the white words Home of the Maltese Falcon, I stopped at the hostess stand.

“How many?” she asked.

“Just one,” I answered.

“Just one?” The hostess shook her head, as if she was sad for me. “You want a booth? A table?”

“Just a seat at the bar.”

“Jose!” she shouted over her shoulder. “One Bloody Brigid!” She turned back to me. “Right?”

“Right.”

It took most of my walk to the bar for my eyes to adjust to the dimness. I managed to register booths of dark wood, real ferns.

On the bar was a pink cocktail in a commemorative highball glass with the black bird emblazoned on it. On the wall, next to my stool was a framed photograph of the silver-haired Hammett.

“One Bloody Brigid,” the bartender sighed.

“Looks like a vodka cranberry,” I said.

“It is a vodka cranberry.”

Now it was my turn to sigh. “That’s not what I was expecting.”

“Used to be a Bloody Mary, but made with mescal instead of vodka.”

“That makes more sense.”

“Doesn’t it? But most people wanted something sweeter.”

I stared at my Bloody Brigid without much enthusiasm.

“You even a fan of The Maltese Falcon?” I pointed to the black bird on the side of the glass.

“The movie? Only watched it once in my life. You?”

“The movie’s good, but not as good as the book.”

“That,” the bored bartender observed, “is what everyone says about every movie based on every book.”

“True,” I admitted. “But the movie version of The Maltese Falcon, the one with Humphrey Bogart, leaves out the best part of the book.”

“Oh?” he asked with at least a little interest. “What’s that?”   

“The detective, Spade, tells —” I nodded toward my untouched cocktail “— Bloody Brigid a story about an old missing-person case. A man named Flitcraft, who had established an orderly life — had a job, had a house, had a wife — had suddenly disappeared. When Spade finally found him five years later, Flitcraft told him that — on his way to lunch one day — he had been almost killed by a beam falling from a construction site. Just missed him. And he had a sudden understanding —”

“An epiphany.”

I raised my eyebrow.

“What?” the bartender protested. “A bartender can’t take an English class at the local community college?”

“Fair enough. So, he had an epiphany: an orderly life meant nothing if it could randomly end. So, he had decided to shake it up and leave his job, his house, and his wife. But the best part of the story is that, when Spade found Flitcraft, he had re-established an orderly life — had a new job, had a new house, had a new wife. So, Spade ends his story with this sentence: ‘He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling.’”

“Cool line. What is it supposed to mean?”

Honestly, no one had ever asked me that before. So, for the first time, I thought it through.

“That epiphanies are, in real life, often fleeting,” I realized. “That most things change, but most people stay the same.”

With that, I stood and started toward the door.

“Why didn’t you drink your Bloody Brigid?” the bartender asked.

“I don’t have time. I have to catch a flight back to Los Angeles,” I said, “to not re-establish an orderly life.”

One comment

  1. Doug Hawley

    I remember that part from the book. I think that a safe or something has almost killed Flitcraft before he left for Spokane.

    Story makes a good point.

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