‘You are going to rue this, officer.’ Vernon’s voice was getting the reedy edge, a sign he was about to explode.
‘It’s my job to put aliens and saboteurs across the Bridge of Sighs. Never repented that,’ the policeman chewed out, leading them to a patrol car.
‘Please be respectful to Lieutenant Brown, sir.’ Amar protested.
‘Not to worry, ape.’ He said with disdain. ‘We’ll pay enough respect to papa in the interrogation room.’ The car turned left at Kearny Street and soon reached the Hall of Justice.
Charlie was rushing to Stockton and Union for the dinner he had fixed with his old flame at Riviera when he saw the clique Cassidy was pushing up the stairs of the Hall and he froze. A very agitated man on crutches, along with a distinctly Indian male, were clearly the evening’s prize catch. Charlie had put in barely a month at the Hall but he could already see the rest of the drill in his mind. Officer Cassidy had a penchant for theatrics and third degree, not to mention the misuse of official capacity. He relished playing the big, muscled cat to people with skin other than white. If it was not possible to have them jailed, interned, deported, or shot, he would have them roughed up, shaken and scarred. What perturbed Charlie was the fact that the two men he saw were none other than Vernon Brown and Amar Singh of the Dragon Fang Detachment.
Charlie had taken the police examination and was put at the top of the list of eligible candidates before he reported to Barksdale Field for basic air force training. His inclusion in San Francisco Police Department was a forgone conclusion, provided he survived the war. As it happened, the war proved mightier of the two, surging past his brief tenor as a co-pilot. He returned home discharged on medical grounds when he lost an eye to an exploding aircraft in Dinjan. At the time, the department was facing a drought of officers due to the war. Since he was otherwise physically fit, an exception was made in his case and he was inducted into the force despite the handicap. It helped that he was related to the Inspector who had a word with the police chief with a soft spot for war veterans.
A week in the job and Charlie had uncovered a ring of drug dealers, albeit by sheer accident, when he was investigating a thievery in The Tenderloin. A large portion of the racket surfaced in Chinatown. There were hints that Cassidy, the district beat officer, was being paid to look away but they couldn’t pin down the charge. It earned him as much fame as enmity of Cassidy and his cronies.
He found out Inspector Manion over telephone and relayed what he had seen, divulging the identities of Vernon and Amar, and adding he suspected serious foul play. Manion had had enough of Cassidy and he had already made up his mind when he marched straight to the interrogation room. What he ran into was exactly as Charlie had said and feared. Vernon and Amar were handcuffed and their faces bore signs of injuries. Vernon was foaming at the mouth with rage and yelling uncontrollably. Amar too was squirming like a caged panther. Cassidy was mouthing obscenities and slapping Vernon hard when Manion appeared. Both Cassidy and his sidekick were suspended forthwith.
Charlie didn’t stop to meet them and went ahead with the dinner as planned. But he remained preoccupied the whole time, upsetting the girl. In the end, he confided in her how he had slunk away from his old colleagues who seemed to be in trouble, although he had taken care of that by calling a very senior officer. He told her he didn’t have the balls to face them, especially Vernon, who had lost his leg, and probably his mind too, in that fatal crash for which he held himself partly responsible. He had replayed those moments in the cockpit over and over in his mind, deciding each time that he should have countered Mark. It was foolhardy to have flown into that boiling storm. It was nothing less than multiple manslaughter.
He wondered though what Amar was doing in San Francisco.
Vernon was in a foul mood for weeks after that, confining himself to his room, smoking and drinking, or vanishing inexplicably for hours. He accompanied Amar to the Presidio sometimes and went to the hospital. He would often fidget through the nights and walk past Amar with that familiar shuffling on his crutches. How well Amar knew that sound, foot by crutches and then foot by crutches, out of the back porch into the great greyness beyond.
Vernon refused to meet his old friends, stepping out only to meet Min Chai Liu, his boxing second. Amar found him under the lemon bottlebrush tree one afternoon after that, punching a sandbag harder and harder with one hand, leading stiffly against a single crutch. Amar was not there when it was installed by Liu.
Amar’s days were full with working in the railway till afternoon and then spending time with the twins. He had gone through their story books so many times he could recite the tales even in his sleep: ‘Once upon a time there were four little Rabbits, and their names were— Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton-tail, and Peter…’ And, ‘Cats here, cats there, Cats and kittens, everywhere, Hundreds of cats, Thousands of cats, Millions and billions and trillions of cats…’
The twins became his friends as Vernon withdrew, but they turned many times into his masters too, issuing decrees. Amar had stumbled upon a set of carpentry tools and assembled neat little wooden chairs, dining tables and wardrobes for the rabbit and cat families. When Carrie pressed for trillions of chairs, Amar laughed, saying he would die making chairs and still would not reach that figure. ‘Oh, I thought only papas died,’ Carrie said, thinking hard. ‘Amis, will that Walter die too?’ Ron asked him, hope shining in his eyes. Before he could answer, he had a whiff of the faint honeydew scent that he had come to associate with Hazel. She had quietly come to stand behind them. Amar felt his blood drain to his calves. He apologised to her saying it was his fault.
Hazel recovered the colour of her face and nodded, saying that it was all a part of growing up and he need not feel sorry for that. She also said she didn’t care what happened to Walter, although just under her breath. Then she asked Amar if he could come over to Market and wait for her outside the Wells Fargo building at O’Farrell and Grant at about six in the evening. She described to him ways to arrive at Market other than on F-Stockton line streetcars from the neighbourhood and also from other points in the city, like the Presidio and the Ferry Building. Most cable cars were white-fronted, she said, and didn’t have trolley poles skimming the overhead cables. They also charged two cents more than streetcars. One could take transfers for other lines and keep on going. The conductors were helpful men.
Amar had switched to wearing the olive drab uniform every time he went out now. Sergeant Hull had arranged for a pair of them, along with documents of his temporary assignment at Belt Railways, after he learnt about his brief arrest by the errant policeman. He told Amar his resemblance to Mexicans was uncanny and it was not the best of times to look like them. He advised Amar to be discreet when travelling alone and to avoid moving about at nights.
Amar returned early from the Presidio the next day. He trimmed his copstash moustache with care, shaved himself twice and instead of the usual flat-topped style, he parted his hair on the side, fixing it with Vaseline before donning the service hat. Vernon had woken from his drunken stupor and was watching him obliquely, but thought better than saying something.
He boarded a whitefront cable car at Bay Street and stood on the footrest looking towards the piers. The evening was merry as the tinkling bells that signalled the cable car to stop or move. The sky was an azure shade of cyan, the air fresh and crisp, reminiscent of the sea. The road rose steeply and seemed to end into the sky in the distance, along with the houses at the far end. The faster traffic clambered up the slope and vanished as if toppling off a promontory. Cars coming towards him were appearing out of nowhere at the top. Looking back, he could see the Alcatraz and Angel Island in the Bay, little boats sailing about and a freighter passing beyond the piers of the Golden Gate Bridge. He drank in the view hungrily with the cool, crisp air. The car started rolling down gently past the crest of Russian Hill; he waited for Pine. He took the whitefront to Market Street from there and got off at the last stop, realising he was half an hour early.
He roamed about the towering buildings with rows and stacks of windows, some many stories large, columnar facades, cast iron cornices and carved balustrades at the tops. Arcaded storefronts were buzzing with shoppers and streams of men and women went in and out of the wide, lofty entrances. Cars moved about busily, criss-crossing their paths with cable cars and streetcars that clanged and rang as they moved and halted. The world seemed happy with its own affairs but yet, some of its walkers found it odd enough that he existed in that air, and duly cast questioning looks at him. A tall unkempt man banged against him purposely and then glared hard, his eyes screaming murder. ‘Are you lost, Mister?’ His mind echoed.
He had met countless British eyes swimming in contempt in Rangoon and Calcutta too. He had always thought it was more their problem than his, a malady that scorched them more than him, except for the time he was physically prosecuted. There were the kind ones too, the nurses and the doctors, the padre and Mr Allison. And Vernon and Hazel and the twins. Mr Hull.
He found his way before the magnificent Wells Fargo building sharp at six – he had already marked the spot in his map with a red dot. Hazel appeared a few minutes past six, her hair bouncing as she walked smiling towards him. He stepped towards her but failed to wish her a good evening as he had planned.
They took a streetcar to Market and Eighth and entered Crystal Palace Market, a huge cavernous hall with a glass-latticed dome, packed with stands of grocery, vegetables, dairy products, fish, eggs, flowers, housewares, magazines, canned goods and imported goods. However, butter, sugar, coffee and many more items were rationed, Amar learned, and could be bought only against ration stamps in a limited quantity.
Hazel was a methodical shopper and took her time picking up fruits, vegetables and household wares, picking up cookies and toys for Carrie and Ron in the end, and some beer for Vernon as an afterthought. Amar shook his head vigorously when she asked if he wanted anything. He would have loved to have some tea though. She had her pump shoes repaired and they took bagels and coffee in an eatery. They picked up focaccia bread that Amar had come to like on their way back from a bakery. Hazel wanted to carry some of the bags but Amar insisted on lugging all of it alone. He wanted to thank Hazel for asking him to come over and be with her while she shopped, and taking bagels and coffee with him and travelling home together. He wanted to thank her for her grace and being sweet and beautiful. He wanted to thank her for being her. And that was all that mattered. And that was all that he wanted to say but would not say.
Vernon walked away quickly when he saw Hazel and Amar coming home together, side by side, the purpose of Amar’s detailed dressing up in the afternoon dawning upon him. He was missing when it was time for dinner too. Amar found him walking without his crutches next afternoon. Even though he was issued the artificial limb last month, all he would do was to strap it and try to stand and then pull it off in disgust almost immediately. It had been long since he and Vernon had been together like the friends that they were. Then he had to tell him about Charlie who had come to see him in the railway shed at Embarcadero.
Charlie found out Amar’s whereabouts when he was summoned by Inspector Manion later, and was waiting for him as the train rolled into Embarcadero for loading up that day. Charlie was full of remorse for Vernon and others who never returned from that ill-fated mission. Amar recounted his fortuitous visit to the City as Vernon’s escort. They talked about Paul Barker too, the only other guy who had survived the crash. Charlie said he can’t muster enough courage to stand before Vernon any time soon. He would always remind him of his fatal failure to check the arrogance of Mark. He gave his Bernal Heights address and home and office telephone numbers to Amar, however.
‘I am not sure whose face I want to see, Amar,’ Vernon said when told about Charlie. ‘What he did was probably beyond his control, or even of that haughty son of a whore Mark. I have a feeling that somewhere, somehow, it was destined to happen. And so it was with Joe. And so it is with Hazel, whom I just can’t understand.’
Suddenly Amar felt guilty for leaving Vernon out in the cold and taking sides with Hazel. ‘You and Hazel seem to be avoiding each other a lot.’ He said, feeling sheepish.
‘Not me, Amar. Not me. It’s she who would rather stay away from me. I am afraid and it hurts me so to say, she has lost her virtues a bit sooner –or maybe she never had that. Don’t mistake me though, I am not grudging you your pleasures!’ He shuffled out briskly onto the street, tilting mildly on his false leg.
Amar sat stunned for an hour or so till Carrie came running to him breathlessly, about to burst in tears. ‘Amis, don’t you go to the Golden Gate Bridge! Ron says they want to throw you into the Bay from up there.’
Ron came in too, looking equally mournful.
‘Who told you that, Ron?’ Amar asked.
‘They told Jerry. Many people told Jerry. Because Jerry says you are brown and you live with us.’ Ron confided.
‘Never mind, my dear, darling friends!’ Amar smiled.
‘Tomorrow, too!’ Ron said slowly.