"That's IT?" Curtis asked, not quite believing.
He was standing on a grassy hill behind Berkeley, looking up at a moonless sky. It was five o'clock on a Saturday morning.
"Not much, is it?" said the only other person on the hill-a stranger with a telescope and a friendly voice. "But at least we see SOMETHING!"
Low on the southeastern horizon-over near Arkansas, Curtis thought-there was a faint smudge visible among the speckles. If Curtis looked directly at the smudge it disappeared, but when he focussed his gaze off to one side he could just make it out.
"Have a look?" The man stepped back from his telescope. Curtis squinted into the peephole and saw a normal looking star, slightly brighter than most, with a fuzzy glow along one side. Not really a glow, he thought, but a mere suggestion of grayness, nothing to inspire a new painting.
"I'm not sure it's worth a seventy-five-year wait," the man said.
"And I'm not sure it's worth eighteen hundred dollars," Curtis said.
"I paid eighteen hundred dollars to get here." Curtis gulped a laugh.
"Where are you from?"
"You shoulda called me," the man snorted. "I'da brought you over the bridge for an even thou. Thrown in the telescope, too."
"Well, I did get a van out of it," Curtis said, in a voice that he thought sounded overly defensive.
"'BERKELEY COMET TOUR--$1800. VAN INCLUDED.' Was that it?" The darkness obscured the man's face, but Curtis knew he was being teased.
"Yeah, that was it."
"Hey, don't mind me. I'm just kidding. Come on-tell me about it."
Now Curtis snorted. "Well, it's kind of complicated. For months I've been wanting to see Haley's Comet, but I could never get any of my friends with cars interested in driving over here. So yesterday I'm taking the trash out, and there's a VW van with a FOR SALE sign sitting in front of the little room I rent. Three thousand bucks-new engine, transmission, brakes. Looks good. There's a guy waxing it and he says hi and we start talking. Real nice guy, told me some great travel stories-he's on his way to India and was desperate to sell. I wasn't even interested-what starving artist has three thousand bucks?-but we're having a good talk, drinking some tea he made on the stove in the van, and after about an hour I say if he's really that desperate I'll give him a thousand, and, well… in the end I gave him eighteen hundred. I know this sounds stupid, but maybe the biggest reason I finally bought it was so I could drive myself over here tonight. This is the last good night to see this thing, right?"
"Right." The stranger's head bobbed. "Tomorrow the moon'll be too bright to see even this."
"Yeah, I thought so. Anyway, I just I had a feeling about the van. You ever get feelings?"
"Sometimes," the man said.
"For years I've had this credit card with a $2,000 limit and I've been afraid to touch it. But yesterday I went to the bank and got cash, and, well, I drove the guy to the airport last night and he flew off to Bombay, and now I've got a van. It's in great shape. Really, it's worth at least $3,000. He gave me all the papers. I could sell it tomorrow and make a few hundred bucks. Easy."
"You ever owned a car before?" the stranger asked.
"Yeah, another Volkswagen bus-that's how I know this one's so good. But I broke up with my girlfriend six months ago and now she's got it. She'd paid our rent for a while, so I just gave it to her. Now I've got a better one. The other one was named Bernard, but I'm thinking of naming this one Hal. Hal E. You get it?"
A LAVENDER STAIN was soaking into the eastern skyline as Curtis and Hal wound down out of the hills, crept through napping Berkeley and rolled up onto the freeway. Curtis pushed the needle to 65 and then eased off. He thought of roads trips he and his ex had taken with Bernard: Yosemite, Crater Lake, the Rainbow Gathering up in Idaho. Before they'd split up, they talked about going to Utah-Curtis had heard there were shades of brown and red in Bryce and Zion National Parks that weren't seen anywhere else in the world. "We're gonna do just fine, fella, just fine," he said aloud to Hal E. "I'm not a loser-just had a run of bad luck. Coulda happened to anyone."
I'm a survivor. Curtis had bravely mouthed those words for years without really believing them. Now he had proof. More than a car, Hal was direction and purpose, a return ticket to society. All it took was wheels, Curtis thought. In America ya gotta have wheels. He wouldn't sell Hal tomorrow, not for four thousand, not even for five. He'd get a job or try harder to sell his painting. He would pay off the credit card; someday he would buy car insurance. With a reason to work, life would be easy again. "Hal, baby! I'm gonna introduce you to someone special." They would go to Andrea's this morning. She'd be impressed, would abandon her grudge. What was it she had to hold against him, anyway? One tiny unimportant affair six months ago. It hadn't meant ANYthing, Curtis thought. It certainly wasn't a valid reason to break up a six-year relationship. He really loved Andrea, had loved no one else since the afternoon they had met and he had convinced her on the spur of the moment to leave her job-gas station cashier, Ely, Nevada-and climb into Bernard. A month earlier Curtis had left his native Maine and headed for San Francisco, where he sensed his artistic side would blossom. When he saw Andrea he realized how much he was dreading arriving by the Bay, just six hours distant now, all by himself.
Before she climbed into Curtis's van Andrea had never been further west than Reno-and she hadn't been east at all. The two new friends had driven to Andrea's parents' house (Curtis was not disappointed to find that they weren't home just then), Andrea had packed one bag, and by the time they reached Lake Tahoe Andrea told Curtis she had a feeling that she would be with him forever.
And still she loved him, Curtis knew. Friends told him that Andrea hadn't gone out with anyone since the split up, didn't have a new boyfriend, spent most of her time alone, feeling sad. She had loved Curtis so much and was so hurt by his little fling that she was still in hibernation, licking her wounds. It didn't matter that it had only been once. She had been so good to him, had paid the rent, supported him while he painted, praised his questionable talent, bought his expensive supplies, and she had loved every moment but the last moment, that hideous afternoon when she'd come home early, sick with the flu, just as the mail carrier was pulling her blue-gray shorts back on. Oh, God… Curtis still flushed at the memory.
"But that's behind us now, Hal. The statue of limitations on affairs is six months or a new car-we're covered!"
There were no vehicles behind Hal at the Bay Bridge toll booth. "I just bought this yesterday," Curtis volunteered to the attendant.
Curtis turned down the radio volume. "I just bought this."
"It's nice." The woman's hands were resting in the money drawer, unconsciously stroking the dollars.
"His names' Hal. We're in love. My girlfriend's gonna be awfully jealous. Surprised, too."
"She doesn't know?
"She will in about half an hour. I'm going to wake her up and take her over to Stinson Beach for breakfast."
"Oh, she'll like that."
THIS IS LIKE that first morning we arrived in San Francisco, Curtis thought, as Hal roared up the grade to Treasure Island. Warm night, no traffic, one huge ship gliding through the purple water. It was his favorite time of day-the magical hour when absolutely nothing challenged his dreams.
Hal buzzed through the tunnel and swooped down toward the City. The windows of buildings in the financial district, yellowing in the morning light, looked like patches on a hippie's blue jeans. One thin boomerang of fog was snagged on the south tower of the Golden Gate Bridge. This had been the first picture Curtis painted when they reached San Francisco-Andrea had loved it. She had loved everything about Curtis back then, and she would again-thanks to Hal. Curtis congratulated himself that he was/t like some people-afraid to take a chance when a good one came along. No, he wasn't the timid type. Life had goosed him and now he'd goosed it right back.
Hal rode the spine of freeway over the warehouse roofs of the industrial district, followed the northward curve and the signs for the Golden Gate. Curtis sneered at the billboards-young professionals touting unpronounceable liquors-and guided Hal down the Fell-Laguna exit ramp. He pressed the brake pedal for the stop light, heard a thump, felt a lurch and a horrible shuddering, and saw Hal's right rear wheel bounding away down Laguna Street like a berserk kangaroo.
The van lurched out of Curtis's control, slid howling through the red light, jumped the curb and headed for the front door of a travel agency. Curtis grabbed at the steering wheel and Hal went into a sideways skid past the agency's plate glass window-Waikiki from $329-Mazatlan $285-bounced off two parked cars, sheered a sapling from its trunk and came to a smoking lopsided rest on the sidewalk.
For several moments Curtis slumped behind the wheel and waited. No one came. His door was jammed, but he pushed the passenger door open. He climbed down to witness the damage. Hal, the lousy son-of-a-bitch, was gashed and twisted, and sapling branches were stuffed where the rear wheel used to be. The two parked cars had crumpled sides and shattered windows. Glass shards covered the asphalt like a layer of fresh snow.
Curtis looked away. Something in his shoulder was stinging. He wanted to go home. But where was home? His little room? There was nothing home-like about it.
Curtis walked back up Laguna to the corner and turned up Fell Street toward the Haight. He had the feeling that his personal history had been erased and that these were the first few moments of a new life. His eyes sought solace and significance in the brightening cityscape: oatmeal sidewalks, licorice streets, an elfish black man in a Fillmore Street doorway nodding… "All right…". The taxi driver gassing up at the Divisadero Arco; the sun's first rays spotlighting the tallest eucalyptus in the Panhandle; the park's grass, extra green from the rains.
Curtis was finally grounded by a sweet aroma coming from Dish Restaurant at Haight and Masonic: someone inside baking muffins. Stinson Beach was out now, but maybe he could bring Andrea here for breakfast. He wasn't the least bit hungry, but she might be.
He limped up the hill on Masonic. Past Waller to Frederick. Right on Frederick. Past Ashbury to Clayton and the big orange apartment building on the corner. Curtis crossed the street, stepped around the red sports car blocking the sidewalk, climbed the eleven steps and pressed the buzzer. A moment later he heard feet scuffing the floor. A shadow darkened the curtain on the door, and then it opened. A tall disheveled blond man appeared, stuffing his shirttail into his pants. "Yeah, I'm in your driveway. Sorry. Didn't plan to stay so long."
He brushed past Curtis, yawning, and ambled down the steps. Andrea's door eased shut, locking with a click. Curtis slumped against the wall by the mailboxes. The red car rumbled and then screamed away. All was quiet again. Curtis walked noiselessly down the steps and turned toward the park. His shoulder was really starting to bother him.