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Author Bio: Bart Schneider, a San Francisco native, is the founding editor of The Hungry Mind Review. His debut novel, Blue Bossa, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award in First Fiction and a San Francisco Chronicle best-seller.
THE HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMP
DESPITE THE FEBRUARY CHILL, JAKE ROSEMAN, BRIEFCASE IN HAND, STEPS OUT of his house in a pair of crisp linen shorts from Cable Car Clothiers. More bracing than his aftershave. This is the first time since Inez's death that he's wearing shorts to work. Isn't a year and a half a suitable period of mourning for his wife? A proper Jew gives it a year, and then is supposed to resume his life. But given his lapsed status—Jake can't remember the last time he murmured the Kaddish—the extra half year seems appropriate. A time to cast away stones and a time to gather 'em up, or however the hell the bit from Ecclesiastes goes. Anyway, it's gotta be time—the sun's shining out in the Avenues, and the world has a cocky new heavyweight champ.
Last night, he and Joey paced either side of the breakfast room table, taking in the crackling blow-by-blow from the kitchen radio. Joey chewed on a thick knot of bubble gum, but only allowed himself to blow bubbles between rounds. Jake pictured the speedy Clay dancing around the ring in his satin Everlasts. He and Joey did a jig of their own when the nasal announcer hollered, "Wait a minute! Wait a minute! Sonny Liston is not coming out from his corner! He is not getting off his stool. I cannot believe this! Sonny Liston is done! Clay is the champ, Cassius Marcellus Clay is the new heavyweight champion of the world!"
Alone at the corner of 36th and Geary, Jake skips an imaginary rope. A guy driving by in a Ford Fairlane honks his horn and shouts, Looking good, champ! Across the street, a2Clement heading toward the ocean sports one of the sly new ads for Mayor Christian's family dairy. A woman in a sparkling turquoise kitchen holds up a tall glass of Christian Milk. "It's true," she says, in white letters. "San Franciscans love Christian Milk." It's just February, but Mayor Christian's reelection campaign is already in full swing. "Here's to you, Gene Christian," Jake says, toasting the mayor with an imaginary glass of milk.
Jake turns his back on the street to consider his reflection in the window of the Arab grocery. Superimposed over a tin tray of philo bird's nests and baklava, Jake sees himself. Not bad for forty-five. The walloping nose is still there. The florid complexion. Not a wrinkle on his forehead. The thick mustache—black as a Turk's—has grown a little shaggy. Time to trim it. And then there are the eyes. Large, brown, even liquid. A client with whom he once had an affair told him that his eyes were compassionate. So she needed to believe. Jake smiles at himself—the shipwrecked rogue—then shadowboxes a moment, stumping with a series of jabs, hurling a few roundhouse hooks, until he spots the bus chugging his way.
The festive mood survives a few hours longer, even as Jake shuffles through a couple of files of divorce papers. At eleven-thirty, Grania buzzes him with the mail call. "Something you should see, Jake. Smell is more like it, if you know what I mean."
He doesn't know, and is barely curious, as he steps into the anteroom. Grania, her lacquered blond hair stacked in a bouffant, is chewing two or three bright orange chiclets of Aspergum and smoking a Parliament. There is a sweet, not unpleasant odor in the anteroom. Jake knows the smell, knows it well, but cannot identify it. He watches Grania tap her pink nails on her desk and on the edge of a glass ashtray the size of a luncheon plate. He follows her glance to a sheet of paper, smeared, it appears, with excrement, secured to a clipboard, and propped against her old Underwood.
"It's not exactly a love letter," Grania says.
Jake sniffs the air.
"I was afraid of that at first, but it's peanut butter."
Jake looks at the letter. "How'd you get the damn thing unfolded?"
Grania holds up a hand of spiky pink fingernails.
He crouches to read the note.
LEAVE OFF WITH THE COLORED, YOUNG MR. ROSEMAN,
OR YOU'LL FIND YOURSELF IN THE
MIDDLE OF A RACE RIOT.
"Who wrote this, Father Time?"
Grania shrugs. "There's plenty of kooks out there."
"Must be about the protest at Mel's Drive-In."
"You had your picture in the paper. I've noticed anytime you get your picture, the real wizards come out."
"So what's with the peanut butter?"
"The guy's squeamish, is what I figure. He wanted you to have the first impression that you had. Maybe he's the type who prefers not to be in contact with the genuine article. You know, the kind of guy who's always washing his hands, who carries a miniature bar of soap in a plastic case. I bet he put on a pair of gloves before he spread the peanut butter."
"You've really worked this out, Grania."
"I couldn't stop myself." She smiles at Jake in his shorts. "Nice to see you in your old uniform."
"I'm wearing them in honor of our new heavyweight champ."
His secretary shrugs and drops a chiclet of Aspergum into her mouth. "It's nice to see you looking dandy again."
The shorts had been a joke at first. They were an easy way to thumb his nose at the whole lawyering business. He'd wear a pair on decent days when he wasn't going to court and had no conferences. But once Saul Rose latched on to Jake a few years back, after he'd led a sit-in at the Federal Building in a pair of Bermudas, Jake had a trademark. The clever scribe, who'd coined the word beatnik, dubbed Jake the "Beatnik from Bermuda." One Monday, Saul went so far as to print Jake's waist size in his column, and by the end of the week he received a dozen pairs of shorts from old clients and anonymous admirers. Everybody loves a clown.
Grania rolls her desk chair to the typing table and studies the peanut butter letter for a moment.
"Looks like Skippy," she says.
"How can you tell?"
"Just has that soft copper cast to it. Don't your kids eat peanut butter, Jake?"
"Sure, but I don't keep track of the brands. Hey, that reminds me, I got something for you." He rummages through the pockets of his sport coat until he finds the envelope filled with S&H Green Stamps. "I've been saving them for you. Whenever they give them to me I stuff 'em in my pockets. I finally consolidated."
Grania is delighted. He's seen her licking Green Stamps into booklets during her lunch hour. Someday she'll get herself a blender or some damn thing. But it will feel like it's free.
"Don't you want them, Jake?"
"No, ever since Inez ... I haven't had a whole lot of use for Green Stamps." Ahhh, Inez. He'd just as soon not think of her now. Certainly not in the car. Inez in her beige Valiant, that is, smashing into a girder on a foggy stretch of the Bayshore, twenty miles from home.
Jake turns toward the window to collect himself. Her intention was clear. Why else would she be racing on an open road at midnight, so far from home? Jake's been careful to maintain another story for his children and the rest of the world, and will be forever grateful to the highway patrol for filling in its blanks with Fog rather than Despair.
"Thank you," Grania says, sticking the Green Stamps in a drawer.
"I'll probably find more. I stuff them everywhere. So, what are you saving for?"
"One of those toaster ovens you can cook a meat loaf in."
Jake walks over to the letter and reads aloud: "'LEAVE OFF WITH THE COLORED, YOUNG MR. ROSEMAN.' That's so quaint a message, Grania, it puts a little scare in me."