Kevin O’Rourke had been a fixture in the bookstore for longer than anyone in the neighborhood could remember. At one time, the famous poet and owner of Left Bank Books had stood behind the counter, mostly chatting with up-and-coming writers, but occasionally working the register. When the store closed at ten o’clock, or even later on nights there had been a reading in the dark cramped space at the back, O’Rourke climbed the stairs to his spacious flat, where he’d lived going on five decades.
O’Rourke had never married. He was rumored to have been involved with many women, some famous and some not. On the list of his lovers were writers, as well as artists, actresses, and even a handful of models. As a younger man, O’Rourke’s hair had been thick, wavy and black. He wore it stylishly long. His blue eyes were the first thing women noticed, and then his smile.
He no longer stood behind the counter, but some days could be found in a worn upholstered green chair, situated in a quiet corner of the shop. The chair rested in front of a scratched oak coffee table, with other once-comfortable seats that had long ago lost their support. The chairs were meant to encourage customers to linger.
Everyone of a certain age had read O’Rourke’s poems in high school, which put the bookstore on a list of places to visit when in San Francisco. Since Left Bank Books was located in an area far from tourist attractions like Pier 39, Fisherman’s Wharf, and the cable car line, a trip to the bookstore was considered daring, even a step on the wild side. Usually referred to as Upper Market, the neighborhood sat halfway between the predominantly gay Castro and the once mostly Latino, but changing, Mission District, filled with low-rise apartment buildings and some scattered Victorians, restaurants, and a few small stores.
As far as most people knew, O’Rourke didn’t write much anymore. He had taken up painting sometime after turning sixty. Every so often, he exhibited his paintings, all acrylics, in shows. Past eighty now, he didn’t have the energy to do a lot, other than come downstairs and walk around the store. At some point during the day, though, he usually stepped outside for a walk.
In recent years, his six-foot-two frame had shrunk. Miraculously, his hair remained thick, but had turned white. The eyes were still a deep, almost unsettling, blue, even though the skin surrounding them had become wrinkled and dry.
The neighborhood had changed in O’Rourke’s time living above the bookstore. When the shop first opened, working-class Irish-Americans and their families filled the flats and Victorians, including in the neighboring Castro. Gay men started moving in, painting the outsides of the homes’ elaborately carved facades scores of bright colors. Longtime residents decided it was time to head for the suburbs.
Inexpensive places for working-class families to live had vanished over the decades O’Rourke lived and worked in the neighborhood. Even when young people crowded into flats, turning dining and living rooms into bedrooms for more ways to split the rent, it still took high-tech salaries to live there. O’Rourke used to run across an occasional panhandler sitting with a sign alongside the sidewalk, asking for spare change. Now, entire tent cities existed, sheltering people who had nowhere else to live.
On his walk this day, O’Rourke found himself writing verses in his mind, about the unjust nature of life. Feet from the encampments, people were sitting in restaurants, sipping ten-dollar glasses of wine and eating dishes ordinary folks couldn’t pronounce. O’Rourke mentally scribbled words, tapping out a rhythm with the cane he’d started to use.
Instead of continuing to walk at least thirty minutes, which would mean he’d gone over a mile, O’Rourke was tempted to stop into a café down the street, where the Mission District started. He hadn’t been there for years, he realized. No, the more he thought about it, decades had passed since he’d been inside. Now that a vision of the place, La Roca, had come into his mind, O’Rourke pictured the air smoky and dark. Yes, at that time, the poets, artists and musicians, and the political activists, would still puff away in there, something the city banned ages ago.
O’Rourke was in his forties then, younger, though he’d felt old. There were all those poets and painters from Latin America, their hair long, smoking and talking, arguing about politics and writing and life. Some of them seemed to live in the café, each in his special seat. The memory brought tears to O’Rourke’s eyes.
In that moment, O’Rourke almost forgot his way, as he debated with himself whether or not to stop into the place. Was the cafe even there, after all these years? If it was, who might possibly still be sitting inside? No one he knew, he felt sure. With all that smoking, many of them had probably died.
O’Rourke spotted the sign, a white background with red lettering, after he passed the corner. “The alley,” he muttered quietly, spotting the dark narrow passageway to the left and recalling how the café appeared outside. As he got closer, he could see that someone had painted a brightly-colored mural on the alley wall. Unconsciously, he quickened his steps.
“Well, what do you know?” he said, his gaze fixed on the mural as he smiled.
It was, he could see, a picture of the café’s interior, with some of the regular crowd seated at their usual spots. Before this moment, he’d forgotten some of their names. But seeing the perfect likenesses, the names came back now. Daniel, the poet from El Salvador, sitting in the back corner by himself. And there was Alejandro, the singer with the sweet voice, holding his guitar.
O’Rourke was not expecting to find himself on the wall. Instead, he searched for patrons he hadn’t seen or thought about in decades. As he stood there picking out one after the other, recalling their names and certain qualities, he began to feel as if he’d stepped right back into the past, enjoying the feeling washing over him, a quiet contentment, being with the familiar crowd, but never sure what might happen. Yes, Rodrigo could suddenly climb atop his table and recite a verse he’d just scribbled there in the dark corner and everyone in the place would applaud. Or Alejandro would strum a new song and sing the words in that sweet tenor voice.
Or, and this only happened once in a while, a beautiful woman O’Rourke had never seen until that moment could walk in the door. She would stand there, waiting for her eyes to adjust, after the bright sunlight outside. O’Rourke would will her to come and sit at his table, close to the front door. Sure enough, a minute after he turned away, she would be standing there saying, “Is anyone sitting here,” her fingers resting on the back of a chair across from him.
As he faced the mural, O’Rourke lost all sense of time. By now, he’d forgotten about going into the café. Instead, the old poet returned to the years when so much seemed possible.
He was writing early in the morning then, before leaving the flat for the bookstore. If a woman was in his bed, he slipped out while she slept, brewed a cup of espresso in the small silver pot on the stove, and sipped it black, while sitting in the living room with the door closed. Words formed so quickly in his mind, he had trouble keeping up with his pen.
Of course, he wanted to know what had happened to the whole La Roca crowd. He moved his gaze from the mural to the café’s front door, debating again whether to go inside or not. What if none of the old crowd was there? What if the place was all spiffed up, as so much in the city had become? Wouldn’t that ruin the memories he’d unearthed, looking at the mural and its depiction of all the regulars?
The woman had come to stand next to O’Rourke at least ten minutes before. She hadn’t said a word, as she didn’t want to startle him or interrupt. She often came by the café, checking on the mural’s condition, to make sure none of the neighborhood kids had tagged it with graffiti. Interestingly, the taggers seemed to respect the art, even though they probably knew nothing about the café’s history or the people depicted on the wall.
Sometimes when Miranda, the artist who’d painted the mural, came by here, she ran into tourists admiring the wall. More often than not, they were foreigners, usually young, and often European, though she’d met Australians and occasionally visitors from Brazil or Argentina.
This old man did not look like a tourist. He must live nearby, she thought, probably out for a walk. It suddenly occurred to her that he might have been part of the crowd that hung out in the café, in the old days when the neighborhood was filled with writers and artists, and revolutionaries, whose lives weren’t dedicated to making gobs of money, because they didn’t need much to get by.
Miranda cleared her throat, to let the old man know she was standing there and avoid startling him. Lately, there had been attacks on the elderly, robbing them of anything valuable – a watch, a cell phone, a purse or wallet. The man suddenly turned to her. She could tell by the look on his face that he was a bit confused.
At the moment O’Rourke heard a sound that caused him to turn his head, he was sitting in his usual spot by the café’s front door, and a woman he’d never met had taken a seat across from him. She had long, straight dark brown hair, with a trace of red. Her eyes were green and he wondered if she might be Irish. O’Rourke enjoyed looking at her, and in his imagination now, he thought how much he would enjoy painting her. Maybe if things went well, he could make a suggestion for her to come back to his flat. Right before he turned his head, that thought had made him smile.
“Do you like the mural?” Miranda asked, a question she usually reserved for tourists.
“Oh,” O’Rourke said, surprised, as he hadn’t considered whether he liked it or not.
He didn’t answer at first, but instead thought about what he wanted to say. The pretty woman with the long dark hair was looking at him, waiting for a response.
O’Rourke wanted to say that he’d like to paint her. He would capture the light in her eyes, the shadows below her high cheekbones, and the slight space between her two top front teeth. Before inviting her to his flat, though, he knew he ought to ask something about her.
So, rather than respond to the woman’s question, O’Rourke posed a question of his own.
“Do you come here often?” he asked.
On hearing the question, Miranda realized the man seemed a bit senile, perhaps suffering from dementia. He might have wandered away from a caregiver. Someone could be frantically searching for him now. She wanted to help, so, instead of answering his question, she asked, “Do you live around here?”
Hearing the question, O’Rourke smiled.
“Yes. Just up the street and around the corner. Would you like to see my place?”
Miranda smiled now too.
“Yes, I would,” she said.
So, threading her right arm through the old man’s left, she let him take the lead, as O’Rourke began to fantasize the wonderful time he and this woman were soon going to have.
Patty Somlo’s most recent book, Hairway to Heaven Stories, was published by Cherry Castle Publishing, a Black-owned press committed to literary activism. Hairway was a Finalist in the American Fiction Awards and Best Book Awards. Two of Somlo’s previous books, The First to Disappear (Spuyten Duyvil) and Even When Trapped Behind Clouds: A Memoir of Quiet Grace (WiDo Publishing), were Finalists in several book contests. Her work has appeared in Guernica, Gravel, Sheepshead Review, Under the Sun, the Los Angeles Review, and The Nassau Review, among others, and in over 30 anthologies. She received Honorable Mention for Fiction in the Women’s National Book Association Contest, was a Finalist in the Parks and Points Essay Contest, had an essay selected as Notable for Best American Essays, and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize multiple times, as well as to Best of the Net.