First thing I did this morning was shine my shoes. It set the tone for the entire day. I remembered an old tin of Kiwi that had been sitting under the sink since forever and pulled a tattered poplin shirt off a hanger and went to town rubbing and buffing my black leather Birkenstocks.
Next I attacked my mop of hair with a tiny curved pair of grooming scissors. I lopped off several erratic patches and stared down at the salt and pepper mess in the sink. The pattern of hair in the bowl framed around the drain gave me an idea. I dug around in the drawer and found a tube of makeup glue. Dabbing a bit on my upper lip I fashioned a thin pastiche of a mustache. It took a while to get all the hairs going in the same direction but it still ended up looking more like the frayed ends of the toothbrush I used to buff my shoes.
I pulled on a pair of baggy dress slacks and an oddly iridescent blue and gold sport coat picked up from a vintage shop that I’d never managed to wear–primarily because it looked ridiculous on me. For good measure I knotted up a bright red bow tie and tossed on a gray fedora. I slung my Nikon over my shoulder and slipped out of the house without saying goodbye to Egoyan–my temperamental tabby cat. We were still feuding over a salisbury steak incident and I wasn’t ready to forgive her just yet.
February in Austin is as mercurial as a teenager. You could get pelted with hail one day and later in the week temperatures could hit triple digits. On this morning, a whispering fog settled over the green belt, red-breasted robins bobbed along the ground pecking for worms, a pair of cardinals belted out a persistent high pitched syncopated trill–a plaintive melody against the distant rumble of a freight train carrying goods from Laredo all the way up through Missouri.
I took the back way, through Mary Moore Searight park and made my way north towards downtown through the funky neighborhoods between Stassney and Ben White. The neighborhoods in this part of town deserve to be walked through with their chaotic landscaping, funky yard art, huge arthritic live oaks and mailboxes with character.
After a solid hour and a half of walking, I stopped in at Hill’s Café on south congress for breakfast. Although I recognized no one in the cafe, I took delight in travelling in-cognito. I was just somebody. Anybody. An awkwardly dressed freak with a ratty mustache. Those furtive glances and bemused looks rolled off me as I reveled in the fearlessness of anonymity.
“Can I take your um…” the waitress frowned and looked at my upper lip, “…order.”
I tilted my head like the Victrola dog and raised my eyebrows expectantly.
“It’s kind of obvious,” she continued, “your….” she pointed at her lip. “Are you an actor?”
That’s it. I’m an actor. Studying for a part.
“I’m a Private Detective. I mean, you know, that’s my role. “ Dammit. I never could think straight around beautiful women. “I’d like some coffee, a short stack of buttermilk pancakes and an order of home fries.”
She giggled. “Ok. But I don’t believe you.”
I winked at her. My first real wink as far as I can remember. Winking belongs to the 50’s and 60’s, when white males had all the power. A wink was a power play, a subtle acknowledgement of benevolent superiority between the winker and the winkee, a gesture of intimacy, wisdom and sardonic wit. I decided I was going to wink at everyone today.
By the time I made my way down to Magnolia Café on SoCo, the fog had burned off and traffic was fairly heavy on the wide asphalt with a postcard view of the Capitol. Four beverages flashed through my mind in quick succession: Coffee, Iced Coffee, White Russian, straight tequila. This day was not going anywhere. I’d been walking for 3 hours and only taken a handful of pictures, none of which had anything to do with the case. My upper lip itched like a disease. I felt uncomfortable in my clothing and I hadn’t had nearly enough human contact to justify the disguise.
The bar in Magnolia Cafe is terrible. Only 3 uncomfortable stools so close together you have to read the paper with your elbows tight against your ribs. If you sit one way you’re looking into the kitchen. Face the other way and you’re just in the way of the very busy wait staff. I chose one of the “aisle” seats and swiveled half way around to look out across the pond of bobbing heads and made direct eye contact with Kristy The Screamer McGuffin.
Kristy and I’d had sex one time about 11 years ago. Her face was rounder and her blond dreadlocks were gone. But there she was sitting alone, arms folded over an army green file folder looking right back at me.
Kristy was a screamer. And you never forget a screamer. “OHFUCKMEFUCKMEFUCKMEYOUBASTARDYOUCOCKBOYSUCKMYTITSYOUTITSUCKER..YES…YES…YES!” For about 15 minutes at full volume. Surprised the hell out of me really. I laughed all the way through it and I guess the convulsions gave her the idea that I was into it and it spurred her on to greater heights: “YOUKNOWYOUWANTTHISPUSSYYOUTITSUCKERFUCKMEFUCKMEFUCKMEDEEPERHARDERFASTERWHATSWRONGWITHYOUFUCKMEHARDERHARDERHARDER!” It was like being strapped to a mechanical bull with turrets syndrome.
We locked eyes, then her brows did a little dance and panic set in. I imagine this sort of thing happened to her all the time. Running into old one night stands. Enduring the confused stares, shifting to recognition followed by that light bulb moment—eyes widening, grin spreading like wildfire and immediately the breaking of eye contact as the victim relived the vivid details in stereophonic memory surround sound.
So what I did was this. I jumped off my stool, walked straight over to her table and began writhing and rubbing myself and screaming: “OHFUCKMEFUCKMEFUCKMESUCKMYCOCKSUCKMYCOCKYOUCOCKSUCKINGCOCKSUCKERDEEPERSWALLOWMESWALLOWME…YES…YES…YES!” When I had the full attention of everyone in the bar I tipped my fedora, winked at Kristy McGuffin and bolted for the door like I had the 20 second shits. I hit the parking lot so fast I lost my hat. But I didn’t care–I was on an adrenaline high–free and wild– leather soles slapping the pavement, laughing so hard I couldn’t breathe, winding through the backstreets of SOCO residential area, slowing down now, holding on to a street sign, bending over catching my breath, heartbeat pounding in my ears.
I found a nice patch of grass and laid out flat in someone’s front yard snow angel style, looking up through the twisted fingers of a live oak at patches of blue sky and wondered why on this day when I chose to conceal my identity to the world, I had touched some raw nerve and discovered a bizarre and profound truth: I belong here. This is my life. This is my town.
But the epiphany burst just as quickly as it appeared. My thigh began to vibrate and the theme from the twilight zone hummed in my pants. I squirmed onto my side and dug the phone out of my trousers.
“Where are you?” A woman’s voice.
Where am I? Where am I? What a great question.
“I’m right here.”
“No. I’m here.“ She let that sit for a moment. “You’re late.”
“Where are you?”
“I’m at the designated meeting place. Waiting for you.” She sucked in a small breath. “Something really weird just happened in the restaurant.”
“No. Magnolia Café.”
A pinprick of fear shot up from my taint.
“Magnolia? We were supposed to meet at Fran’s.”
“I can’t stand the coffee at Fran’s. I stopped at Magnolia first.”
“You went to Magnolia before going to Frans?”
“What difference does it make?”
“What are you wearing?
“Never mind. I…I can’t make the meeting.” I struggled to my feet and brushed the grass off of my coat. ”Why would you go to a restaurant before going to a meeting at a restaurant?”
“I do it all the time. What the fuck difference does it make? “
“I’m just saying…”
“Where are you?”
“I’m not dressed. Did you bring the paperwork?”
“I thought you said you couldn’t make the meeting?”
“Then why do you care if I brought the papers?”
“Were they in a file folder?”
“Mr. Prince, I’m starting to have second thoughts about our contract.”
“Hold on. It’s part of the job. I’m just being cautious. Give me thirty minutes.“
“I’ll order another milkshake.”
There was some commotion on the roof of Lucy in Disguise. A rope was looped under the arm of the giant Carmen Miranda Zebra and some day-laborers were grunting and cursing in Spanish as they jostled it into position. I wondered if they were replacing the zebra. It was such on icon on SoCo. Cleaning it maybe. What do you do with a thing like that when a store goes out of business?
The costume shop was quiet and I knew exactly what I wanted.
“What’s going on with the Zebra?” I asked the raven-haired pincushion behind the counter as I was checking out.
“Some idiots tried to steal it. All they did was cut it off the base and knock it over. Probably didn’t think the whole thing through.”
Five minutes later I was hoofing it back up SoCo to Frans, decked out in a sky blue tuxedo and a pair of large white plastic sunglasses. My reflection splintered into streaking blue tracers as I walked past the giant storefront windows. Wait…wait… wait a second. I stopped in front of Big Top Candy Store and pressed my face close to the window. This mustache thingy had to go. I began frantically plucking the stiff bristles from my upper lip. A small child with big brown eyes inside the shop pointed up at me and tugged on her mom’s skirt. Her mother swatted her hand away and mouthed: “No!”
“Well this is awkward.” Kristin Brondelbond somehow looked straight through the shades into my eyes and loudly finished off her strawberry milkshake with three slurps. “You still have some mustache on your upper lip.”
I picked up a spoon and stared at my inverted and elongated reflection. Shit! I flashed her my best hand caught in the cookie jar face.
“I hope your detective work is better than your…” She waggled her hand in my direction. “…art of disguise.”
“I had no idea you were that Kristy. We’d only ever talked on the phone.”
“I married the National Director of PETA. Changed my last name. You haven’t changed.” No hint of sarcasm.
“I could use a drink.”
Kristy or Kirstin reached into a shaggy hemp purse and pulled out the tiniest envelope I had ever seen. With a long shiny blue fingernail she slid the envelope across the table. Someone pounded twice with both hands on the jukebox near the front and Beck’s Que Honda Guero started up. A ceiling fan flickered in the reflection of her fingernail. Funny I hadn’t noticed the fan outside of the fingernail.
“You’re going to need this where you’re going,” She smiled and I saw the same seductive sparkle that attracted a decade ago. Just as quickly I remembered the audio track that went with that date and looked down at the miniature envelope with a stern expression.
I had a hard time opening the damn thing. I squeezed the sides gingerly between my thumb and index finger, turned it upside down and shook it several times. A tiny square of paper fluttered to the table and landed picture side up. There staring at me with his red sweater and dark glasses was Snoopy as Joe Cool.
I licked my finger, stabbed Snoopy and stuck him on the end of my tongue.
“Where exactly am I going?”
(To be continued)