Sangfroid in San Francisco

Alexander Slotnick

Winter 2018

Mack and Jean met in the Reno amateur community orchestra. Mack played the violin, Jean the trumpet.

Their conductor was transsexual; Maestra X was her handle. Angular in the face, sort of Persian, Jean thought, in her color and lines, but scarred, too, from acne when she was a teen. Now Maestra only left home for rehearsals and infrequent seasonal gigs. She spent evenings reading Mahler scores while an MC5 or Bowie LP played down the hall, scanning the pages with simple private delectation, as if browsing a cookbook. She wore her hair in a loose bun; her top lip was waxed raw. The Reno orchestra, she liked to say, sounded like a speaker submerged in a toilet bowl. Maestra was talented enough to have had a career in Florence, Vienna, or the Berkshires in the summer if she’d remained “biologically unmarred,” as the symphony board member in Boston had put it the one time Maestra had auditioned outside of Nevada. After the last concert they performed before they moved, Night on Bald Mountain, Jean and Mack each kissed Maestra on the cheek. Champagne backstage in Dixie cups.

Mack had a residency in obstetrics at UCSF, and Jean, her RN certification completed, six shifts a week lined up in the Veterans’ ICU. “So what?” the Maestra asked. “The far side of the Sierras is better?”

They never played music together again.

Mack and Jean married in April and then decamped, circled Lake Tahoe twice before bearing west to San Francisco, down the mountain: Grass Valley, Folsom, Mendocino, a stop in Santa Rosa. By June, they’d found a place in the city, in rimy Noe Valley. Their flat was on the long slope of a hill. The architecture seemed improbable.

Jean sometimes thought she smelled gas in the kitchen. She pictured the knotted pipes underground, imagined them siphoning methane into their home. But the stove’s plastic knobs were always snug in the off position when she checked. Turning away, she felt an almost physical itch of doubt, and checked once more, counting them, until she reasoned she couldn’t be hallucinating: safety was real.

On weekends she walked the city. Mack preferred to lounge in bed, recovering from call, and wanted her there too. Lying atop the duvet, he’d strip off his T-shirt with his pants and toss them against the wall. The fabric limbs, ivory and indigo, grasped out in mid-flight. The piles were visible from down the hall when Jean entered the flat. She was always a little hesitant to undress. Though svelte from the waist up, Jean had stretch marks on her ass. They were ruby colored and they zagged. Mack called her Zebra. At certain posterior angles, in adequate light, she was an exquisite new breed, and he, the Naturalist of San Francisco.

“I’ve found the fauna,” he said. “Now where’s the flora?” Jean turned from hands and knees to lie on her back. She rolled her eyes, but she laughed.

It was 1982: Latter-day LSD, and Haight Street gutter punks sold oregano joints in the lobbies of financial district law firms for a quarter each, a dollar per deal max, ripping off recent graduates from Boalt Hall. In the city parks there was sex of all stripes, spent needles in the grass, microclimates that varied from hood to hood. Swamp weather in Noe might turn to Honolulu by the time you got to Hayes, Alamo Square, the Painted Ladies, and then Divisadero would be the Pacific itself, or, by the next block, the moon.

Alexander Slotnick lives in Washington, DC. He holds an MFA in fiction from the University of Virginia. His work has appeared in the White Review, Literary Hub, Meridian, and elsewhere.

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