DF Bailey: Exit From America

§ A crash landing.

He would have preferred a more elegant arrival, something resembling the controlled descent of a sky diver or a paraglider. But after Iris’s funeral, after renting out his house and obtaining a passport, after ensuring his monthly checks would be deposited into his new bank account, and then clutching the twin boys in a final embrace — following all that he’d endured and concocted — Doyle Mere was robbed twice in one day.

He felt as though he’d fallen from an errant satellite.

For the moment Doyle is preoccupied with directional issues. Where next, and how do you get there? Or more precisely, how do you begin the next phase of your life? These persistent questions have led him to the spot where he now stands: on a lip of dry grass next to the asphalt pathway curling along the edge of an elaborately clipped-and-pruned space within the broad expanse of Golden Gate Park. He takes a moment to re-examine the San Francisco Recreation & Parks map, double-checking that this green stretch of land within the park is actually named Hippie Hill.

“Yeah, that’s what they call it,” he says aloud and laughs with a sense of disbelief. He refolds the map and tucks it behind his wallet in his back pocket and examines the open space before him. Perhaps twenty people are in transit, most of them entering the area from the east side of the park known as the Panhandle. A grey-haired couple decked out in matching T-shirts jogs along the sidewalk that scrolls into the distance. Behind them a lone woman pushes a baby pram down the walkway toward the Pacific Ocean, her legs canted at an angle to propel the weight of her rig forward.

From the opposite direction a teenager with waist-length dreadlocks drags a skateboard on its hind wheels as he approaches the patch of grass where Doyle stands. After a moment Doyle can make out the letters written on the skater’s shirt — ¡Ouch! — a hand-painted script rendered with considerable care. In his free hand he twirls a foot-long lanyard around his fist. When he reaches the stretch of pavement next to Doyle the boy sets his board on the asphalt and then slides the cord into a patch pocket on his jeans. He tugs a yard of his hair over one shoulder and with a push from his right leg he sets off toward town.

“It’s a breeze, dude!” He smiles as he zooms along the path and for a moment Doyle feels a bond with this kid.

The wave of affection surprises him. Apart from Louis Laporte, the apartment building manager he met yesterday after his arrival, Doyle doesn’t know a soul here. Piqued with a sense of longing, he imagines that anyone reaching out to him could be a potential comrade. He failed to anticipate this yearning for companionship, the isolation in the midst of humanity that is now the pulse of his daily life. Selling most of his life-long possessions is one thing, but settling into Haight-Ashbury with nothing more than a duffle bag of clothes, a few books and his second-hand laptop has inserted a melancholy note into his melody of renewal.

But if loneliness is to be his new companion, he’s committed to exploring its dimensions in new and open places. That’s why he chose San Francisco for his destination after he settled his affairs back home. And because it was Iris’s playground, the magical backdrop of her youth and the inspiration of her personal generosity and her unlimited faith in humanity. Indeed, San Francisco was once a place of joy, of unfettered public elation. At least it used to be in the 1960s. Or more precisely, in the summer of 1967, most likely on a Saturday afternoon early that summer — but definitely in this very place, in Golden Gate Park where the celebration of existence itself blossomed into a global carnival of indulgent pleasure and innocence — a carnival that he missed by more than four decades. By his reckoning, following the Gay Nineties and the Roaring Twenties, the Summer of Love marked the last flowering of spontaneous public joy in the world. And while he failed to attend that unique intersection of time and place, Doyle is now determined to seize any remnants of bliss even though the best-before-date is long past due and the good vibrations have faded into the black hole of a declining republic and cascading economic collapse.

“Hey, mister, you want a bracelet?”

Doyle turns in surprise. In his reverie he failed to notice the girl approaching him from the crest of the hill. He adjusts the strap of his shoulder pack and examines her. A pall of onyx-black hair hangs limply over her shoulders and accentuates the bleached wash of her face. Her lips are thin, unsmiling.

“Here, let me get you started,” she continues before he can decline her offer.

“What’s this?” Doyle flinches as she winds a leather band around his right wrist and spins a few loops about his fingers. She cinches them lightly and before he can say more she tightens the long strand and pulls his arm next to her own.

“My craft,” she explains and holds her left hand aloft to display two intricately woven leather bracelets, one on her wrist, the other above her elbow. Doyle studies the Celtic patterns as she continues to tie a series of knots into the bracelet she’s making for him. He convinces himself that the girl is innocent enough, that this is her trade and if she wants a few dollars for her labors he’ll gladly pay her and in the meantime they’ll share this brief moment of friendship, the warm, but usually forgettable bond that links buyers and sellers of home-made trinkets and charms.

“I like Celtic designs,” he offers as she pulls the length of leather cord from a shoulder bag and weaves it into his bracelet.

“Are you Irish?” She briefly pauses her handiwork to offer a smile and he notices that one of her eyeteeth is missing. In the gap-toothed cavern of her mouth he detects impending exhaustion, perhaps an early death. She appears to be about twenty-five, but Doyle figures she’s probably closer to eighteen and has recently succumbed to the habit of smoking heroin or crack or some eerie cocktail of drugs she purchased on Market Street. Be kind to this one, he tells himself.

“Well, my name is Doyle. From a clan that goes back twelve centuries,” he adds in his best brogue accent so that she imagines he’s a refugee from the latest version of potato famine, the death of the Celtic Tiger, otherwise known as the Irish economy. The truth is his father was half French and legally he’s no more Irish than Ronald Reagan. But if it’s blarney she wants, he’ll be happy to dish up a few dollops to get her started.

“I’m Kandy.” She glances over her shoulder as if she’s expecting someone. “With a ‘K,’ like in Kansas. There. We’re almost done.” Although he’s still firmly attached to the web she’s cast over his wrist, she tightens a few more knots into place. “If you want, we can stop here and it’s seven dollars. Or if you want a matching bracelet, it’ll be ten for both.”

“Ten for both?” Doyle narrows his eyes. He decides not to haggle. If seven bucks is the price of this late-edition piece of the 1960s, so be it; he knows it’s as close to hippie authenticity as he’ll likely find. “I’ll take just the one,” he says.

“You sure? I can do the second one pretty fast. Make it just nine bucks for both.”

“Dead certain.” He presses his lips together and gazes across the lawn. “One’s plenty,” he says evenly, as he examines the compounding mess of knotted leather bound around his wrist. With every embellishment the seven-dollar deal is looking more and more like a rip-off. Doyle’s left hand dips awkwardly into his right rear pocket as he tries to fish his wallet from his jeans. The sooner he can free himself from this budding entrepreneur, the better. “Cut me loose from this thing now and I’ll give you seven bucks, but that’s it.”

Kandy shrugs and glances over her shoulder again. She quickly weaves another strand of leather across Doyle’s hand.

As a burst of adrenaline courses through his arms Doyle breaks into a light sweat. “All right! Look, Kandy, we’re done with this. Now cut this thing off and I’ll give you your seven bucks.” Twisting his hips to the left he finally extracts his wallet from his pocket and holds it aloft along with the tourist map. But in the light breeze and the slick of perspiration on his hand the map slips from his fingers and flutters to the ground. He scrambles to snag it in mid-air and in this instant — in the juncture that his wallet and the map and his sense of balance collide — everything changes.

Before he can hear the tight spin of polyurethane wheels racing along the path, before he can see the flash of golden dreadlocks, Doyle’s wallet is snatched from his hand. Breezing into the near distance ¡Ouch! passes Doyle’s wallet from one hand to the other then tucks it into his pocket and jets down the asphalt path without looking back, his blond dreadlocks flagging in the wind.

“Hey!” Doyle jogs a few steps after him and then stumbles as he tries to untangle the cord from his hand. In the same moment Kandy drops the long strand of leather at her feet and runs in the opposite direction. Doyle watches her dart across the lawn toward the Panhandle. Part of him is inwardly shrieking Irish profanities. Another part is admiring Kandy’s athletic form: long-legged, arms pumping, head level, shoulders squared. There was a time, he figures, before she decided to redeploy from Kansas to San Francisco to begin a career as a drug addict and grifter, that Kandy probably qualified for the final heat of the hundred-yard dash in the Kansas State senior high school track meet. And judging by the way she races over the hill and disappears on the far side, she may well have won it, too.


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