A dense mass of tall cowboy hats bustled about the Embarcadero, just beyond the Ferry Building. The faces buried under the wide, panning brims, their hands waved towards him, many of them holding whiplashes. There were sharp hisses and cracks now and then as they whipped the air about them. An angry chattering was filling the street, rising higher and higher like a drumroll, till a shrill scream rose above the rest, ‘Down with the brown!’
‘Down with the brown!’ They echoed in a unison, rending the sky like a thunderclap.
He ran and fell and he ran, fearing he might freeze, weaving in and out of the track, past the roundhouse at Sansome and Embarcadero, past the odd-numbered piers and into the murky hole of the Fort Mason tunnel. But the mob kept closing in on him. Then he was scampering past Crissy Field in a ghoulish grey light, towards the rusty orange towers of the Golden Gate Bridge, stretching into a grim sky. But it was clear they were going to hurl him down into the cold Bay.
The deep, guttural moan of a foghorn jolted him awake and he realised he was in his bed at the Browns, his mouth dry and stuck. Sleep had eluded him for the better part of the night as he had strained to hear the squabble between Vernon and Hazel from somewhere in the house. Walter’s name was repeated many times, as was Wells Fargo. He imagined he heard his name too, coming up a couple of times.
Hazel had seemed unusually subdued the previous evening, announcing at the brief dinner that she was not needed at the bank anymore.
He finished his breakfast quickly that Hazel would always leave on the peg table, boiled eggs and focaccia for today. It was a Wednesday but he was asked to report anyway, due to the large movements scheduled at the waterfront. He wondered if the nightmare was a bad omen, and decided to visit the Golden Gate Bridge after he was done at the railway.
It was a mildly warm afternoon as he walked down Lincoln Boulevard, under the rustling leaves of eucalyptus and pine trees. Closer to the bridge, the treetops gave way to a bright, open sky. Crissy Field shone in the slanting rays of a pale sun, so unlike the dream. The Bay shimmered like an enormous, wrinkled carpet, filling the air with an endless sigh. To his left were the rocky, blue-grey bluffs, holding back the undulating roll of the hazy Pacific Ocean.
He dropped a nickel into the coin turnstile at the south gate and trod upon the much-serenaded bridge. The wind had risen to a roar in his ears, up from a persistent whisper. He tucked his hat under the armpit to save it from flying away; each strand of his hair danced with the gust. Up he craned his neck, up to the peak of the gigantic tower that sent the suspension cables below in two huge triangles filled with parallel, dangling wires of diminishing lengths. The bridge spanned north, fastened to the ends of the straight cables all along its visible length. He felt dampness licking his face as he moved past the tower. The main cables dropped to the middle and rose to meet the top of its northern twin like two inverted rainbows. The road hummed with each passing vehicle tearing across the thick air. The trucks rushed away, growling steadily. His clothes flapped with a force around him, pointing towards the piers with the wind. For a while he stood recognising the landmarks of the City, rising and dipping with the hills.
Suddenly, as if in a dream, the bridge pulled back as a churning river of fog crept over the bay like a giant, white tongue, beginning to fill the gap between the bridge and the strait below. It curled up from the bottom rails of the bridge and danced on the sidewalk, embracing him in a bear-hug. Soon the fog was swimming about the bridge like a huge shoal of fish, rushing in from the Pacific, sending a chill down his bones. He was coming to terms with the wet, cottony mass when a foghorn went off like a trumpet somewhere just under him, followed by another in a low baritone. He had heard the warning calls before but had never stood so close to the source. It seemed to vibrate in his chest, somewhat like the big bad guns in the outfields. Feeling a bit rattled, Amar turned to trace his way back when he saw them materialising out of the general whiteness.
If the couple was surprised to find Amar standing in the middle of the sidewalk, gawking at him, they checked their feelings well. The man was tall and swaggering, dressed impeccably in a dark grey suit, his blue tie taut against the sharp white collar. He was holding his dimpled felt fedora with one hand and with the other he held the woman by her wrist. He had a powerful look about his long face and prominent jaws, the jutting chin and the chiselled upper lip. His eyes were fixed snootily on Amar now. The woman next to him wore a blue and white striped shirt and a short black skirt; her blonde tresses swirled like a veil about her face. They had barely walked past him when he turned to the woman and said, ‘Holy Mackerel! Isn’t that an Arab G.I.?
She never spoke and kept looking away, trying to shield her face with her free hand raised to her face. But no wind, no fog, no curdling mist, let alone a half-drawn hand, could have hidden Hazel from Amar’s startled eyes.
Amar did not know how long he stood in the fog. The sun had folded back its glory into a velvety blackness, out in the west. The City wore a smoky shroud, with finger-chips of light jutting out here or there. The streetlamps shone like rows of cocoons, making the fog incandescent in patches. The lighthouse at Alcatraz floated in and out of vision. He was shuddering and numb when two guards patrolling the bridge approached him. He was taken to the Presidio from where the MPs dropped him home in a white car.
The air raid siren started squealing that evening as Amar sat writing a letter to his detachment in India. He could hear Carrie and Ron chirping excitedly as lights were being put off and everyone called to the kitchen at once. Hazel came rushing in and switched off his lamp. She led him to the kitchen, poking gently at his back, where everyone stood in candlelight. Carrie giggled when she saw Amar being ushered like that. Vernon’s mother waived at her in mock anger and the candle went off; no one lit it back again. In between uncomfortable shuffling, Hazel’s hand brushed off Amar’s a few times and stayed close to the back of his palm. Amar could hear himself breathe in the pregnant silence that followed, when Carrie and Ron were not whispering to each other. Vernon kept shifting his weight on the crutches needlessly at the other end of the wall. Finally, Hazel moved when the siren switched to a new tone to signal the end of the air raid alarm. It was the longest Amar had stood so close to a woman ever, one so balmy and warm.
‘I never thought the Japanese could attack San Francisco.’ He said when they returned to the living room, half-lit by a pair of brass floor lamps.
‘They can. They did rain deaths in Pearl Harbour when no one thought they could.’ Vernon’s mother said.
‘We are forgetting the Germans,’ Vernon said testily. ‘It is a big bad world we have. Anyway, it was just to remind us that life is still not a party at a beach.’
‘I wonder what they are doing at Ledo.’ Amar looked hopefully at Vernon, trying to thaw the ice between them.
‘Oh, I wonder too! And then I wonder when they are going to need their men again.’ Vernon replied.
The naked barb was lost on no one, least of all Amar. He returned to his bed in the back porch feeling increasing out of place. He had earned a compensatory leave for the next day and he kept reading ‘Grapes of Wrath’ across the night, falling asleep at the daybreak. He would still note down the words he needed to be explained but he had turned to Hazel for reference of late. Hazel came in with a cup of hot coffee in the mid-morning and woke him up gently. She slipped a piece of paper in his hand quietly before she left. ‘I am in deep trouble,’ it read. ‘Please meet me at Alta Plaza park at the corner of Jackson and Steiner at about 12:00 noon.’ She had helpfully sketched a roadmap to the park, detailing the cable cars and the transfer to be taken.
She was already there in an all-black dress and a black, veiled fedora when Amar reached there a bit shy of the agreed hour. They climbed the wide stairs in silence, turning on the terraces and then stepping up again till they were at the top. They crossed a clump of trees and a footpath, moving towards a grassy deck looking towards the Bay, where she motioned him to sit. The wind blew ever so lightly, carrying the lilt of kids, playing out of sight somewhere.
‘Did Vernon ever tell you I have a twin brother?’ She quivered as she spoke, plucking at the grass blades.
Amar tried hard to recollect if Vernon had told him about Hazel’s twin brother ever. ‘No! I think – never.’
‘Yes, that is how he is, our Vernon. Too full of himself, wallowing neck deep in self-glory, and then self-pity. I’d have been surprised if he had told you even an ounce about Daniel. And it’s not because my innocent brother has fallen from grace either.’
With a sinking heart, Amar realised how her words summed up the core of Vernon.
‘Look towards the Bay, Amar,’ she said wistfully. ‘What do you see there?’
Amar rechecked the magnificent vista of the city from that point. Peaked, grand cottages, buildings large and small, densely packed neighbourhoods easing towards the Bay. His eyes searched the watery sweep and the grey, misty hills beyond, wondering what Hazel had on her mind. He had no clue at all.
‘You can surely make out the Alcatraz there.’ She pointed a half raised finger at the island with a lighthouse in the middle of the bay. ‘Do you know what that stands for?’
Amar had been told it was a high security jail. The island had a lighthouse because they didn’t want the ships to come in crashing. ‘I understand it is a jail,’ he said.
‘Unfortunately, it’s not just a jail,’ Hazel said. A pair of tears tumbled down her cheeks into the lush green grass. Up in the cypress tree, the wind dropped to a still. He looked anew at the stiff looking structures atop the mound of land hugged by foamy waves.
‘Alcatraz is a hell hole where they make sewer rats out of fine, able men.’ Hazel was barely audible. ‘It’s a warren of dark, dank bunks of iron where they shut them off without an inch of fabric on their back or a piece of rubber on their feet. They feed them stale breads maybe thrice a week. Tattered sleeping mats given at night are taken away in the morning. They are not allowed to wash themselves for days on end. They whimper for a ray of light or a drop of water to drink. Then they get beaten with cudgels till they spew foam, for silence is the rule at Alcatraz, no matter what happened to you. None can meet them for the first few months and then they are allowed the occasional visitor, at the mercy of the warden. Some of them slip into lunacy and some of them want to die but just don’t know how to. Maybe it’s alright if you are a cold-blooded killer or a deadly gangster, hardened to the bones like Capone or Kelly.’ She nodded as she kept squinting at the Bay. ‘But when you’re a soft-spoken boy with the heart of a lamb like my brother -’ She hid her face in her knees and sobbed fitfully.
Amar wrung his hands for a while knowing not what to say or do. Then he stroked her hair and said, ‘Please, Hazel –please! ‘
‘Everyone I turned to has failed me at every step, Amar. Vernon and his mom, my own people, my own city and county. This glorious, righteous nation with the star-spangled banner o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave is fighting against the barbarous powers of the world, and maybe it will win the war too, but it cannot protect its innocent people from the reeking vultures within. It cannot give back the honour of my brother, the life of my Joe.’
She paused to calm her breath.
‘We grew up as rich kids in a mansion in the Pacific Heights down there with maids to look after us and fancy cars to move about the city. We didn’t know what money stood for and how it got whatever we willed in those days. Then they began talking about the ’Depression’ and our father started looking worried and haggard. Our world changed within a year when we saw things around us fizzle out one by one. One day our cars were taken away and we were shoved out of our house and a padlock was put on the gate. We had to move into a horsecar home in Oceanside. We started eating cheap, tasteless food but even that became scarce. Late in the evening one day a policeman appeared at our door to tell us that our father had collapsed at work and his body lay in a hospital at the Mission. It was much latter that we came to know that he had blown his head off with his shotgun. Mama fell ill soon after that and I know she tried harder and harder but she never recovered her health and never returned from her deep sleep one morning. We lived with our aunt for a few years and all those days Daniel, the humble fighter that he was, worked all day long, delivering messages for the telegraph office, waiting at the tables in the eateries, and working on fishing boats for a few dimes. I did my bit as a store girl here or there and worked as a seamstress whenever the opportunity arose. We were proud not to be standing in the queues for a bowl of soup like many others did. By the time Daniel turned nineteen, he had started working for a shipping company, scrapped a $5,000 loan from some moneylenders and bought a newly built house at the Sunset.
‘Daniel met Anna about the same time I met Joe and we were married in quick succession, one after the other. And just when we thought hard times had turned their back on us for ever, they turned back roaring and sprang upon our chests. Joe was licked out by the Japs at Pearl Harbour and Carrie and Ron were yet to see the light of the day. Before I had the chance to collect my wits, Anna was found dead with an overdose of barbital in her bourbon. Everyone thought it was a suicide but they framed Daniel all the same for first degree murder, and he was adjudged guilty as charged. They first sent him to the prison at San Quentin and he was all shattered when I met him. The next time I went there I was told he was dispatched to Alcatraz, because he was such a menace.’
They turned towards a noise at their right where a man seemed to have toppled over a child on the footpath and a woman was hurrying towards them. The man quickly pulled himself up, collecting his crutches as the kid stood bawling, and loped unsteadily into the hedges towards the west.
Hazel turned crimson and bit her lip as she watched the uneven journey of the man who was sure to have been prying on them. She was fuming when she looked back at Amar. ‘Did you tell him about our meeting then?’
‘I’d never do such a thing…’ He said, recovering from his daze and looking at her washed, clear eyes. Then he remembered how one day Vernon was flipping furtively through the pages of his classics, hoping for a cue. And yet he had placed Hazel’s message today in Steinbeck’s ‘Grapes of Wrath’. His mouth welled with the bitterness of wormwood.