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Sunday, February 11, 2024


Excerpt from the novel Cantina Psalms, a San Francisco noir by Thomas Shess

Taking his last bite of toast after a plateful of scrambled eggs, Max saw “handy” Xandy, who danced the 6:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. shift alone, hurrying from her cab toward the diner. 

Her daily routine began with breakfast at Leon’s before checking into the strip joint. Xandy closed her red umbrella, shook the rain off, and dropped it into the bin next to the front door. Her grand entrance was a sight few had witnessed along San Francisco’s Barbary Coast, the ancient name for that stripper stretch of Broadway. 

The 35-year-old kept alive a garish tradition on the street: be gaudy or be gone. The lime-green robe she had on under her raincoat was loud enough to require sunglasses. The shiny faux satin garment was something a prize fighter would wear entering the ring. 

“Flaunt it, baby,” Max said way too loud and embarrassed waitress Lyn. 

 Xandy waved to her admirers. “It’s so me,” she gave Max a hug. 

 “We gotta talk,” he whispered. 

 “Not now, honey, I’m starved.” 

Max had been quick to bond with the black stripper, who he’d met when she danced at the Condor Club a few years back. Max shared coffee and street gossip with her when he could. She let him fondle her thighs at those dark back booths up and down Broadway. 

If there was a song that would follow her around, it would be, “I Don’t Want Anything to Change” by songwriters Maia Sharp/ Stephanie Chapman/Elisabeth Wagner Rose. Like the song says, I like it lonely, I like it strange. I don’t want anything to change. 

 Everybody loved her. Nothing did change. 

 Xandy swooped on to the counter stool nearest to the front door. Max slipped in next to her. “Let’s go to a back table. I have a business deal for you,” he said. 

 First, she ordered and paid for a cup of coffee and a bowl of clam chowder. “You good?” 

 “Coffee, black,” he said. “I just ate. I’ll bring it over to you.” He watched Xandy move to a table in the back. 

 At the counter, Lyn scribbled his order on her small pad. “Anything else?” 

 “Nothing else other than I really want to fuck Xandy.” 

 Lyn looked up from her pad. “Have the decency to keep your baser thoughts to yourself. I don’t want to hear it.” 

 “So much for freedom of speech.” 

 “It is crude. You’re nicer than that. You’re coming off like a teenage goon with no manners or sophistication.” 

 “Is it sexist to speak the truth? I can’t help myself. I know what’s underneath that robe.” 

 “You might do yourself some good hearing how you sound from a woman’s viewpoint. How would you feel having someone who gives you the creeps constantly drool over you? Why do that? It’s stupid, annoying, and crass. I’m trying to be your friend, but if you talk like that in front of me again, I’ll stop trying.” 

 “I didn’t think it was offensive to say she turns me on. Can’t friends be honest with each other?” 

 “Max, let’s drop it.” 

 “I’m sorry you were offended. I’m sorry I can’t be frank with you and speak what’s on my mind.” 

 “It’s not my place to filter your thoughts. I simply don’t want to hear what gives you an erection.” 

 Max spun around on the worn red vinyl stool and walked over to Xandy. The brunette pointed a finger within an inch of his nose. “I heard what you said to Lyn. You’re a jerk. I don’t want to hear any crap from you. In fact, I don’t want you sitting next to me.” 

 “I’m sorry, X. I’ve already apologized to Lyn. I’m in trouble. I need a favor.” 

 “You have an asshole way of asking. Don’t call me X.” 

 Max looked at her. “What, what?” 

She could see it in his eyes that he was serious. “I completed a writing assignment for a friend who is starting a PR firm in town, but the problem is he paid me in coke. I need the money, not the powder. Is there any way I can sell you some, so I can make expenses? You know I got fired from the Daily News. I’m tapped out.” 

 As offended as Xandy’s face appeared, the demon started whispering in her ears. 

“How much you got? Better make it cheap, honey."

Max did not blink. He was now into his bullshit wheeler-dealer mode. “I got five grams. I’m keeping one and hoping to sell the rest.” 

She reached into her robe pocket and pulled out a wad of bills. “Here’s three hundred. That’s all I got on me.” 

“OK, it’s all yours,” he pulled out the saltshaker he’d lifted from the counter earlier. “Careful, remember the lid has holes.” 

 X-woman handed over the money. Max sat back and sighed. “You’re a lifesaver. And don’t tell anyone, especially at Clementine’s or DeLuca’s, that you got it from me. Tell ‘em you got this from a cabbie.” 

 “Relax, Max. I’m on your side.” 

The conversation took a pause. She took it up again. “You stole this coke, didn’t you?” 

 “It wasn’t me, beautiful.” 

 “Where have I heard that tune before?” 

 “I gotta get cash to get out of this town. If I stay here, I’m a dead man.” 

 “Pulling a stunt like that will get you killed in any city.” 

 “I got to get to LA. I got something lined up there.” 

 “Like what?” 

 “Writing jobs. I got some pals down there that are into screenplays. I can do that.” 

 “Are you serious about leaving Frisco?” 

 “Now I am. Thanks to this cash.” 

 “That won’t take you far.” 

 Lyn waved from the counter. The stripper’s order was up. 

 Max retrieved it. 

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