They entered The Presidio through Marina Gate and strolled down the road fragrant with eucalyptus trees, mixed with whiffs of fresh sea foam. The breeze blew soft, laced with salt, whispering moistly in the tall tree tops. The Letterman General Hospital stood primly on Lincoln Boulevard, with a quiet urgency under its red-tiled roof. Vernon was entitled to limb rehabilitation from the bustling medical facility of the US Army.
Further down the boulevard and across the Fire Department Building, Amar presented himself to the office of Major Russell in Building 35. He waited restlessly for over an hour before being called to his unnerving presence. He was a tall man with an impassive face and deep set eyes, looming behind a large desk. He cast a long, piercing look at the Indian standing at attention before he turned to the letters spread on the table. Abruptly, he moved his enormous hand to the telephone and demanded to be linked to ‘Bermuda’. Minutes followed during which Amar could hear himself breathing; a huge clock marked off the seconds on the rear wall. The receiver crackled eventually and Major Russell read out Amar’s service number, and kept nodding and grunting for the most part of a protracted session. ‘Bizarre, and yet more bizarre!’ He muttered aloud in the end.
‘Look, Singh,’ he looked straight at Amar, ‘I don’t know when we will ship stuff or staff to Bombay next. It could be the next month or the next year, but ship we will. Japs must be stopped and neutered at all costs. Meanwhile, you need to be very clear about a few of things here:
‘One, San Francisco is a dynamite of a place to be stranded in, welcome aboard!
‘Two, report to Sergeant Hull at the Belt Railways in the Presidio. Last I heard he was looking for a section hand, and if he happens to like you countenance -’ he stopped to smile for the first time, ‘you get a job that keeps you shipshape and those trolleys oiled.
‘Three, don’t even breathe about the feast they are cooking in that godforsaken patch of land, or whatever crosses your path around here in Presidio, even to a rock. And in case you choose to speak the unspeakable,-’ he slowed down till his tone had a steely timbre, ‘we are experts at making people vanish.
‘Four, You will explain this last bit to that demented veteran too.’
‘Yes, sir!’ Amar realised he had been sweating profusely.
Major Russell dialled the telephone again. ‘Hull, we’ve got some help from the Orient… A private. Yeah -you can collect him right away.’
Vernon waited sullenly with a swarm of men in bulging plaster casts, some in slings and collars and some with crutches. A boyish man sat on a wheelchair in his field jacket, both of his legs missing. A man in grizzled beard and sideburns had no arms. Vernon was dispirited by the time he was called to the examination room, where he was pored over and poked like a dissected frog. The prognosis was read to him by a bald, clean shaved man, his pate gleaming under the roof light. There was every chance that Vernon could start walking by the end of the summer with the help of an artificial foot, nearly as well as he used to, provided he cooperated.
A messenger came looking for him in the hospital to inform that Pvt Singh had been detained till the evening at Presidio. Back at home, he found his mother engrossed in a newspaper, reading the bits about war, over and over. They sat together, the mother and son, and talked about the old days, reminiscing about his father and his friends, both boys and girls, and people, living and dead. His boxing adventures were raked up once more and how they all had wanted to stop it. She remembered the time when Vernon had nearly drowned in Stow Lake, but for Joe.
He noticed how she spoke of Joe as if he were a living man and felt a bit miffed by the alternate versions of many events that his mother insisted upon, wondering whose pain she was trying to quell. For, he distinctly remembered his uncle saving him from that watery burial in Stow Lake. And for god’s sake, the ‘chirpy brunette’ Augusta was his girlfriend, not Joe’s. He had had a hundred dances with her, and had tons of ice cream sundaes and sodas. And she loved to sing ‘Red Sails in the Sunset’ in a false Neil Armstrong voice, he wanted to add, before she inexplicably married a boy from the east coast and moved. His mother seemed to be living on a cusp of reveries and denials. Or her mind was turning into a sieve. Maybe both.
Vernon had been so overtaken by being again in San Francisco, the city as it shone under the sun and the sky, its many hills and markets sandwiched between the ocean and the Bay and its people flitting about in fedoras in trolleys and cable cars, that he needed second glances to register the subtle shifts in hues. After sitting with his mother in the living room for long, he began noticing the newfound affluence, a sharp change from the days when he had left for the army. Wine red brocade drapes with silky beige flowers, held in place with ropes and tassels about the doors and windows, matched with the new cream and mauve wallpaper. A fine woven, Oriental rug, the colour of rich cranberry, held ground between the almond coloured carved leather sofas. Neat arrays of china sparkled in the oak cabinet. And they all stared back in a combined radiance that made him feel like a tramp. What had changed in this home with a couple of widows and a pair of kids?
‘The sons are dying and turning to grass under foreign skies and folks here can’t stand a chink in their china.’ His mother said icily, realising he had finally taken stock of the silent upheaval. ‘In the heyday of rationing and scrimping when sugar and butter are being weighed by ounces, and the lads are crouching in trenches in sackcloth and eating grass, we have had the luxury of feasts and velvet. Yeah, son, we’ve had great times.’
‘Was it Hazel who got all this?’ Vernon asked.
‘Of course. And it all happened last summer, when that Lothario came to live with us.’
‘Yeah, him. Said he was Julius Walter, and knew our Joe. And I knew our Joe would have had none of him. Said he had come from San Jose on business and hated wasting money on fancy hotels. Met our dumb Dora who knows where but he made her quit the job at the store for some bank at Market and Grant –Wells Fargo.’
He tried hard to stomach the cuds getting acrid by the second. ‘Stop tossing riddles at me, mom. Tell me what happened.’
Vernon’s mother and Hazel could never quite take to each other. Not before her marriage to Joe, nor after that. The studied chill turned into permafrost with Joe’s departure. Yet, the news about Julius Walter was nothing short of a napalm bomb.
Amar returned to the Browns by evening, helped by a private who lived in the neighbourhood close by. The twins had learned from Vernon that while ‘Amis’ would not sing, he was a jolly good whistler. Amar was flooded with requests to whistle this song or that song straight away, none of which he knew. Not to be fazed, they asked him to whistle the best ones of the tunes he could. Amar’s repertoire of western music was limited to three pieces, of which, Chattanooga Choo Choo was his mainstay. He whistled the song with gusto as Ron and Carrie sat with gleaming eyes and rapt. Hazel stopped and smiled as she moved about in the house. Then for no reason, he remembered the song of the grieving lover from his childhood. The strains were so faithfully summoned into the whistling, a wisp of melancholy lingered in the room long after that.
Amar was to report for duty everyday sharp at 0600 hours except on Wednesdays and could leave by the afternoon. The sergeant had given him a map of the city that he and Vernon sat poring over. Vernon chalked out a plan for visiting parts of the city on different days, beginning with the Market. That night as Amar slept in the back porch converted to a small room, he heard sounds that he had missed out earlier due to the fatigue of the long voyage. Falling in and out of sleep, he was sure he could hear the Bay whispering to him, softer but clearer than the hissing and raging of the ocean from his bunk in the liner. He heard the never ending ballads of the crickets and katydids, pausing for the mournful mooing of two-toned fog horns, much closer. Come summer and he would hear more of the latter, he was told. He wondered if it all would mean home.
They walked down to the Fisherman Wharf next evening, weaving their way through the stalls laden with fish and seafood. Piles of the catch languished here and there, heaped on mounds of ice. Crabs moved their pincers feebly, waiting to be boiled in huge sidewalk cauldrons, smelling of sea and moss, or to be packed off to unknown kitchens, dazed. Down on the pier, bright coloured fishing boats were lining up for rest as their sailors moved about loudly, spreading or folding their nets and fishing gear. They walked back to a restaurant called Fishermen’s Grotto and Vernon called for Crab Louie for both. Amar kept staring at his plate with trepidations. Vernon shot him a look and snapped, ‘Eat! It is a sin to be in San Francisco and to not eat this.’ Amar held his breath, trying not to inhale as he took a small bite. It had been a hard day for him at the railway and he was hungry. He had an urge to vomit but he was surprised when he finished the plate almost as fast as Vernon. For a few minutes though he was sure the crab would wriggle in his bowels or scrape his flesh with its talons.
They ran into a swarthy man with a head bursting with pale brown hair on their way out. He jumped and held Vernon by the shoulders and began shaking him with a whining laugh. He froze when one of Vernon’s crutches fell down, ‘Oh dear! Vernon, oh dear!’ Vernon introduced him as Antonio who went to the same gym as he. ‘Next time you feel the itch, Antonio,’ Vernon tod him, ‘we will set you up against my dark friend. But do reserve a bed at some hospital before that.’ Vernon didn’t stop for a reply from Antonio, who was speechless anyway.
They boarded an F-Line streetcar for Market Street packed with a talkative crowd. It moved straight ahead and up and down the sloping roads, slower than the cars and trucks but steadily, stopping at blocks. People about the streets were generally well dressed and many wore trim, dark suits. And nearly all wore hats. Women too were well-dressed, many in short skirts and tops with padded shoulders and smart hats. Equally large number of men moved in uniforms and formal headgear, hinting at the services they were in, and reminding of the war that raged on still. Many eyes lingered quizzically at Amar in his plaid grey shirt and high-waist striped trousers that he had picked up in Melbourne. A woman in a floral dress smiled at him.
They got down at The Fourth and Stockton and headed to the Union Square. They loitered in the spacious park with the Dewey Monument in its middle, surrounded by flowerbeds and palms and streetlights along the the pathways. Vernon pointed at the buildings looming over the roads on all sides, naming their businesses or past. Huge neon lit signs seemed to agree with Vernon’s account. ‘You can’t go to City of Paris unless you have a fat wallet,’ Vernon told him, pointing at the store. Even as he said this he could hear his mother talking of Hazel’s ‘screaming rich’ wardrobe and a chill enveloped his heart again.
For some time, Vernon moved briskly, intently looking at the pavement, hurling the crutches longer and harder, till he reached the gate of Chinatown at the intersection of Bush Street and Grant Avenue. ‘Amar, don’t we know these people?’ He dabbed his face with a handkerchief.
Amar absorbed the delightful view of the street twinkling with neons tall and small and of exotic shapes and colours, screaming of food and goods for sale in dagger-like fonts. Rows of layered, conical roofs with upturned corners sat on housetops like curled moustaches. Carved, decorated façades, filigreed windows and balconies seemed fused with magic of some far east kingdom. Wind chimes and paper lanterns hung in the windows of the shops, beckoning the throngs into their pulsating hearts.
‘In there somewhere is the Forbidden City, with their local incarnations of Sophie Tucker and Fred Astaire. The girls there bare much more than their legs at times.’ Vernon bought a box of Phillies Perfecto cigars and lit one up, standing under a blade sign that said ‘Chop Suey.’ ‘I am not offering you because you are still the prize-fighter. Keep it that way, my friend. You want to try that?’ Vernon jerked his thumb at the sign.
‘Thank you, Vernon,’ Amar said, realising it was the first time he had addressed him by his first name. ‘The Crab Louie is still at work here.’ He patted his belly and grinned.
‘And one night in Forbidden City, I got drunk and knocked a few faces out of shape. They were trying to get too friendly with the dancer.’ Vernon smiled, as he remembered. ‘I was a hot-headed man then.’
‘Are you lost, Mister?’ A gruff voice addressed Amar. They turned to find a policeman glaring menacingly at Amar.
‘Excuse me, officer, is there a problem?’ Vernon was taken aback by the broadside. He noticed the seven peaked star of San Francisco Police on his breast, its number said 112.
‘You know this Mexican gangster? Wrong time for aliens to be in the states.’ He was dripping with contempt.
‘Not only he is not a Mexican, he serves the US army too.’ Vernon said angrily.
The policeman thought for a moment. ‘Move towards the Hall of Justice. Now, quick. We can sort it out there. I can put you both in handcuffs if needed.’