Bill Pronzini: Breakdown

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Bill Pronzini Breakdown
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Bill Pronzini


Chapter 1

I was late getting to the tavern that Monday night because I let myself put in too much overtime on a routine skip-trace. Not that being late mattered much. After three barren weeks, this angle on the Lujack case had turned into a protracted waste of time. If it weren’t for the fact that all the other angles seemed to be just as dead-ended, I would have dropped it by now.

Besides, working nights kept me from brooding too much about all the bad things that had darkened Kerry’s life-and mine-during the past few months.

I parked my car near the foot of Taraval, where it ends at 48th Avenue. It was a raw late-January night, with a chill wind herding a low scudding mist in from the ocean a few hundred yards away. From where I parked, you could see no more than fifty feet beyond the Great Highway, which parallels 48th here; all of Ocean Beach was obscured behind shifting traceries of gray. The pedestrian-crossing signal at the Great Highway glowed an eerie red, like a disembodied hand caught and held in motionless warning by the mist.

At the moment there was no traffic of any kind in the vicinity, even though it was only eight thirty. There were lights in some of the squat row houses and two-unit apartment buildings along this block of Taraval, and in the scattered few business establishments in the block back across 47th, but the people were all shut away behind closed doors and drawn curtains. Life at this western edge of the city-Out There at the Beach, San Franciscans call it-is nothing like life at its teeming inner core. It has a closed-off, clannish ambiance, a different taste and texture than any other neighborhood. Part of the reason is a heterogenous mix of conservative and funky architectural styles and life-styles; of residents old and new, blue-collar and white-collar, Asian and Anglo, neo-hippies and newlyweds, and a large percentage of retirees. The other part is intangible. Maybe the salty air and the heavy fogs and cold winds have something to do with it; maybe living on the edge-of the city, of a great land mass, of earthquake country-has something to do with it too. The reshaping and landscaping of much of Ocean Beach and the Great Highway, part of an ongoing beachfront sewer project and the need to control the hazard of windblown sand, has done little to alter the strangeness. And if anything, the devastating 7.1 quake in October has increased it. You can feel it as soon as you go Out There.

I donned the cloth cap I always wore to the tavern. Or rather, that Art Canino, shop steward for a South San Francisco plumbing contractor, always wore. Then I buttoned the collar on my overcoat and got out into that freezing wind.

Quiet here, too, on a night like this. If it weren’t for the foghorns, bleating distantly like lost strays, you could imagine yourself in one of the small seacoast towns upstate. The pulse-beat of the city was faint here on clear days, and when it was muffled by the fog you couldn’t hear it at all. I went at an angle across the empty street, back toward 47th. Several blocks away, the headlight on one of the big L Taraval streetcars probed dimly through the fog; but even though those LRVs make a lot of noise, and even though I could feel the vibration from this one as I crossed the tracks, I couldn’t hear it yet-as if it were approaching through a different dimension.

The tavern’s entrance was just a narrow storefront between a dry-cleaning establishment and one of the two-unit apartment buildings. Above the door, a blue-neon cocktail glass cast a faint glow that had no particular warmth or welcome to it. The lower two-thirds of the adjacent window was covered by heavy blue cloth suspended from a horizontal pole; you couldn’t see inside through the upper third unless you happened to have a stepladder handy. The name of the place was painted on the window glass in flaky blue lettering that I couldn’t read until I was just a few feet away:


I went in. Most of the regulars were there, maybe a dozen altogether tonight, all but one comfortably arranged at the cluster of tables along the right-hand wall and in the rear booths. The man seated alone at the bar was not Nick Pendarves. The regulars all looked my way as I entered, but none of them smiled or nodded or offered words of greeting. Three weeks was not enough time to make me one of them; three months might not be enough. But they knew me now, and no longer seemed to resent my presence, and they were friendly enough on an individual basis.

At the far end of the bar, where I usually sat, I hoisted myself onto a cracked leather stool. Pendarves wasn’t anywhere in the long, narrow room. The door to the men’s john was open, which meant that he wasn’t in there either.

The bartender took his time coming my way. But that didn’t mean anything; he took his time serving everybody. His name was Max. If he had another name, nobody had spoken it within my hearing. He was a pudgy little guy in his early fifties, muscular through the chest and shoulders, with an egg-shaped head covered with spiky tufts of gray-black hair that made you think of pig bristles. He wouldn’t gossip or let you buy him a drink; he held himself aloof even from the regulars.

And he used words sparingly and grudgingly, as if he had been given a small allotment and was afraid of using it up.

“What’ll it be?”

“Usual,” I said.

“Bud Light?” He had a good memory for what people drank.

“Bud Light.”

He set me up with the beer and a frosty glass, then moved a plastic bowl my way. Well, well, I thought. I had finally reached the intermediate beer-nut level of acceptance.

“Nick been in yet tonight?” I asked him.


“Wonder how come. He’s usually here by eight.”

Max shrugged.

“Working late, maybe,” I said.

Max shrugged again and went down to the other end of the plank.

I sat nursing my beer, waiting. I would give Pendarves the better part of an hour-long enough to maintain my cover as the newest of the neighborhood barflies. Ten minutes walked away dragging their heels. I was in no mood for passive sitting tonight, and there was little enough here, other than the regulars, to absorb my attention. The Hideaway had no jukebox, and the small TV over the backbar was seldom turned on except by special request; an old-fashioned dartboard was about the only standard tavern diversion. The talk was muted, an irregular background drone that I didn’t feel like contributing to. I tried to keep my thoughts neutral but Kerry was there, Kerry and her mother, worrying at the edges of my mind. Finally I got up and went to the dartboard and began tossing darts at it, just to have something to do.

There are all sorts of neighborhood taverns in a city of neighborhoods such as San Francisco is. Straight and gay, white-collar and blue, ethnic and cosmopolitan, rough-trade and genteel, pickup joints and “family” watering holes; hangouts for the literati and holding pens for the illiterati; places dripping with authentic local atmosphere, adorned with phony atmosphere for the benefit of suckers and slumming tourists, completely lacking in atmosphere of any kind. But there aren’t many taverns like the Hideaway anymore, in San Francisco or anywhere else in the country. They’re a dying breed, soon to enter the same extinct category as black-tie supper clubs and dime-a-dance emporiums. They’ll survive only as long as circumstances permit and enough of their patrons remain above ground to make them marginally profitable.

The Hideaway was just what its name suggested: a sanctuary, a literal hideaway for the men and women who frequented it. It was as much a social club and senior-citizens center as a place for the consumption of alcohol, the drowning of sorrows, and the celebrating of small victories. Most of the clientele were over fifty and had been coming here for years, or at least had lived in the neighborhood for a long time — retirees and near-retirees, widows and widowers, loners and misfits; the disabled and the forgotten, the has-beens and the never-wases. They came for the companionship of others like themselves, and because it was a place close by where they could escape the loneliness and frustrations of their private lives. That was why outsiders, casual drop-ins, were tolerated but never encouraged: They were threats to the sanctuary’s delicate balance, reminders of the uncaring world-at-large that the regulars sought to avoid.

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