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TALES OF THE TOWN: Part 35

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Cindy’s Visit Home

The first thing Cindy and Danny had to turn their attention to, when they arrived back home after their honeymoon, was the impending birth of their child. Cindy bought books on childbirth and rearing; she made Danny read them. They went out and bought a crib, a stroller, baby clothes, toys and other accoutrements. No parents are fully prepared for the birth of their first child, but Danny and Cindy were as ready as most; and if Danny was not quite as enthusiastic as Cindy, he at least acknowledged that his life would now be changed in major—and, he hoped, positive—ways.

There remained the problem of Cindy’s estrangement from her parents—indeed, from her greater family. The intensely clannish Wu and Chin families (Gladys’s maiden name was Chin) stood by the doctor and his wife; it was a shame, the elders gossiped amongst themselves, that Cindy had become so westernized, and had turned her back on the ancient traditions; and even the younger generation, Cindy’s cousins, who might have been expected to side with her, didn’t.

Cindy felt their shunning. One night, shortly after she’d left her parents’ home, she’d phoned her cousin, Lily, with whom she’d grown up; the two were close in age. Lily was abrupt and cruel. “Why are you doing this to your parents?” she asked a startled Cindy. “What am I doing?” “You’re hurting them. They raised you; you have an obligation to them.” Cindy had hung up in anger.

It was a situation she did not wish to continue. She was willing to take the first step to end it; obviously, she would have to swallow her pride, but that was okay. But her parents would have to meet her halfway: accept Danny, and accept the coming baby. One night, a Thursday, after finishing her Lyft stint, she stopped by their house. She had no appointment; driving past, she’d seen the lights on, and their two cars parked in the garage. Knowing they were home, she made a spot decision.

Mrs. Wu answered the door. When she saw he daughter, her face registered nothing; except for the slightest of nods, she might have been a mannequin. “Who’s there?” Cindy heard her father inquire, from the unseen living room, where the T.V. was on. “Our daughter,” Mrs. Wu replied. Cindy heard the familiar sound of her father arising from his easy chair, the small groan of oak planks as the floor received his weight, the flap-flap of his slippered footfall. Then he rounded the corner that separated the living room from the front hallway.

Mrs. Wu seemed to vaporize into the shadows, as she always did in the presence of her husband. There the three of them stood, frozen in a three-sided tableau: the doctor in his slippers on the Persian rug, Mrs. Wu wringing her hands, and Cindy, still at the top of the front steps, her black hair glinting yellow in the harsh front-door light.

Dr. Wu said, “Well, at least come in.”

There were no pineapple buns this time. Cindy got straight to the point. She was sorry, she told her parents, for any grief she had inadvertently caused. She wished to reconcile; her coming child would need its grandparents, and indeed the greater family. For her part, Cindy added, she had done nothing wrong, except to fall in love with a white man.

“And get pregnant out of wedlock,” Dr. Wu sneered.

“Yes, papa, I did,” Cindy retorted, “but we’re married now. It’s not the worst thing in the world.”

“It shamed us,” he went on. “It shamed your grandmothers.” Both Mrs. Wu’s mother and the doctor’s mother were alive, the former living in San Francisco, the latter in a retirement home in Hayward. “At Kaiser, people ask me how my daughter is doing, and I don’t know what to say.”

“Tell them, papa, that your daughter is expecting your first grandchild, and how pleased you and Mrs. Wu are.” Dr. Wu just grunted.

There was no resolution—no happy, hugging moment of reconciliation and closure. Cindy stayed for twenty minutes, Mrs. Wu barely opening her mouth the whole time. Finally, there was no more to be said, by anyone, on the topic. Cindy reached into her purse, took something, and held it out in her mother’s direction. “These are pictures of our wedding, mama, and a few from our honeymoon.” It was a small silver-embossed album. “I thought you might enjoy them.” On her drive back to Castro Valley, she found herself weeping. She could not know that her mother also was shedding tears. Only Dr. Wu remained stubbornly defiant.

* * *

Meanwhile, Devon Camber’s star was rapidly rising. He formed a sort of alliance with the more moderate members of the City Council, and also with the second-term Mayor, who saw in him a political ally and, truth be told, possible successor. He marched with Oakland Unified School District teachers when they went on strike, and received widespread publicity, all of it positive. When a tragic fire broke out in the district, in a crowded bar, Devon was there as firefighters battled the blaze; interviewed live on T.V., he demanded better inspections on the part of authorities. He drove his own Prius convertible in the city’s Pride Day parade, and when the Warriors won another N.B.A. championship, he rode on a float in that victory celebration. He weighed in on national issues; Trump, he declared on May Day, was a hateful racist, who had to be turned out of office. He seemed to be everywhere at once, delivering messages that resonated, elevating his profile. Now, when he walked the streets, he no longer was anonymous. “Devon!” people cried out: he had become another one-name celebrity, like Beyoncé and—yes–Obama. He enjoyed this new status tremendously. But it did require re-evaluating his relationship with Flambé.


TALES OF THE TOWN: Part 34

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Rosey Learns Something About Devon Camber

It was a warm Spring Sunday: baseball weather. Rosey’s plan was to catch the A’s, who were playing the Yankees, on T.V. Ceci, also an A’s fan, had bought the food: Buffalo wings, chips, cheese dip, beer. It had been a long week; all of Rosey’s weeks were long. A few of his friends were going to join them. A nice day was shaping up: Rosey needed this Sunday to relax and recoup.

He and Ceci were watching the pre-game show and chatting. “It’s the weirdest thing,” Rosey told his wife. “I’m absolutely nowhere in this case. But at the same time, I feel like I’m close to something.”

“Like with the Dobson murder?” Rosey remembered that case: a Catholic priest had been found brutally murdered in the Hills. The City was aroused; the public demanded the killer be found. Rosey, who was working the case, had interviewed the priest’s brother twice. The man was a quiet, hard-working plumber who lived in Union City. He seemed profoundly aggrieved by his brother’s death. There was no reason whatever to suspect him, yet there was a feeling Rosey simply couldn’t shake—an intuition he trusted. He did a little snooping. It turned out that both men had had an uncle who had recently died, in Brazil. The uncle owned a vast tract of valuable land in Brasilia. In his will, he had left it to the priest and his brother. That was all Rosey needed. The brother eventually confessed; case closed.

Rosey was opening bags of chips and putting them into bowls when the doorbell rang. Their friends were arriving. In addition to a couple cops, there was a guy Rosey knew from the Rotary Club, Amooz, who owned a little Afghani restaurant on 15th, just off Webster, just a block from Devon Camber’s apartment. Rosey and Ceci occasionally dined there. Afghani wasn’t his favorite food, but he liked Amooz. During a commercial break in the baseball game, one of the cops, a guy named Dudley, mentioned something about that new city councilmember, what’s his name, Camber, making a speech someplace that was critical of the police.

“What’d he say?” Rosey asked.

“The usual crap,” Dudley said. “We’re a good-old-boys club. We protect each other. We’re too quick to shoot.”

“I am tired of that bullshit,” Rosey said. “What’s up with that Camber? What’s he got up his butt?”

Amooz chimed in. “I see him with this flamer all the time at night, one of those, how they say? Trans?”

“Transsexual?” Rosey offered.

“Yeah. Big, black guy, wears a wig, women’s clothing, you know, high heels.”

Rosey and Dudley both whistled. One thing cops know is that everybody, including public figures, has a private life, aspects of which they prefer to keep well-hidden. “You figure that’s his squeeze?” Dudley asked Amooz.

“I see them kissing one time. I see her—the black lady—grab his butt.” Then the game resumed; the Yankees were beating the A’s 4-1 in the sixth inning. Rosey found the information about Camber interesting. He stored it, as he always did with such tidbits, into a mental filing cabinet in the back of his mind. Information like that might come in handy; you never know.


TALES OF THE TOWN: Part 33

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Flambé Discovers GoFundMe

Nick and Danny weren’t particularly enamored of Flambé’s request for money to pay for bigger breasts. She asked Nick one night when the two of them were home watching “Friends” reruns on T.V.

“Wow, Flambé, you know I’d do anything for you,” Danny replied. “But that’s a lot of money.” The best he could do under his current situation, he explained, was $500.

She didn’t fare much better with Danny. Cindy’s Lyft income, he told Flambé, was down, and he himself hadn’t gotten the cost-of-living increase he’d expected at Creava. “And this new cottage is costing us a bundle,” he added; Cindy was redecorating, and the PG&E and water bills were unexpected additional expenses. Like Nick (had they rehearsed this, Flambé wondered?), the best Danny could come up with was $500. Then Danny asked his friend, “Have you thought about a GoFundMe account?”

Flambé hadn’t. She didn’t even know what GoFundMe was. She went to the website and opened some of the links to “top fundraisers” and was astonished at what she found.  Here was a midwestern family that had raised nearly $250,000 to establish a memorial fund for a Dad who’d perished fighting a fire. Another fund had raised $90,000 for a pet adoption center. True, Flambé couldn’t find an instance of someone raising money for breast enhancement surgery, but she did find a campaign in which more than $100,000 had been raised for surgery to repair the cleft palate on a Burmese baby. It was easy enough to establish a GoFundMe account; Flambé set up a Facebook page and wrote her summary page this way:

Dear community,

Hi, I’m Flambé, a transgender woman living in Oakland. As part of my transition, I’d like to enhance my breasts, but the cost right now is prohibitive. This is very important to me, and with trans people under attack in this country by a repressive, rightwing Trump administration, it’s important for trans people and our supporters to band together to help one another. Won’t you help me fight back against LGBTQ oppression? Please consider contributing whatever you can afford, and know that your precious dollars will go to a good cause. God bless.

Yes, it was a little phony and manipulative, Flambé realized; the language about being part of the pro-LGBTQ movement was an exaggeration, to say the least, and the claim that paying for Flambé’s breasts was an anti-Trump move made her giggle to herself. As for the God bless part? Well, Flambé meant it, even though she herself didn’t particularly believe in a Deity. But Flambé, who had good instincts at communication, had learned from Devon that the best politics is based on stirring metaphors that touched people’s hearts, even if these were often hyperbolic. Besides, what had she to lose? So she published her GoFundMe appeal and waited to see what would happen.

* * *

Anticipating an influx of cash, Flambé emailed a Mexican clinic she found online: La Casa de Pechos was in Cuernavaca, in the mountainous foothills south of Mexico City. It was an old, colonial city, with museums and good restaurants and even some nightlife (not that Flambé anticipated any of that, but it was good to know).

The clinic was run by a Dr. Lopez; the website had testimonials from clients, most of whom seemed to be highly satisfied by the results. Dr. Lopez claimed to have a medical degree from Tulane University; his clinic, he said, catered especially to non-Spanish-speaking Americans. The cost for a two-breast enhancement was $9,500, an amount that could be higher if complications set in. La Casa de Pechos was accepting appointments for the coming Spring, three months hence. Patients’ medical and financial records would first have to be submitted for review. Flambé’s email to Dr. Lopez simply inquired what her next steps ought to be.

Perhaps the doctor had been monitoring his emails at that moment, for his reply immediately came in. He thanked her for her interest and attached a questionnaire for Flambé to fill out. She promptly did. Later that day, Flambé walked her dogs (four this time, around Lake Merritt), and under the warming May sun, she took particular delight in feeling the Spring heat, after a cold winter. When she got back home, she checked her new GoFundMe account, and was flabbergasted to find that $3,250 had come in, in its first three hours of existence.


TALES OF THE TOWN: Part 32

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Flambé Figures out a Breast Plan; Nick Gets a Crush

If you Google “sex reassignment surgery” you’ll find nearly three million results, each with links within links. Flambé must have gone through them all; or so it seemed to her. Even after—especially after—Esther’s tutelage, Flambé’s brain was filled with questions. Supposing she could come up with the money (a huge supposition, but a necessary one; everything depended on that), where should she go for the surgery? Which doctor? Would she be alone? What if there were complications? She’d never been particularly good at handling pain. With all this talk of opioid abuse, it was possible she’d return from the operation with a neo-vagina and a drug addiction.

Well, in the meanwhile, there were things Flambé could do without the surgery: breast augmentation was something she’d thought of for years. So was voice feminization. She’d long mastered registering her speaking voice a bit higher than her normal baritone, and she often accompanied this with a breathiness she’d learned from old Marilyn Monroe films. When Flambé had been Franklin, she considered herself lucky to have a naturally slim waist, broad shoulders and a tight, hard butt, physical attributes inherited no doubt from her father, whom her mother, JoAnne, had said was an athlete. But when Franklin eased into Flambé, those masculine features—once so attractive—no longer were plusses. Flambé didn’t want to be the type of woman often described as Rubensesque. But she did want curves!

Somehow, the relationship with Devon was giving her more courage and ambition than she’d ever had. He, himself, was so assured, so adroit in seizing opportunities and moving forward to achieve them. She watched him, at a distance, adroitly handle people: like a violinist playing a rare Stradivarius, she thought at one point, or, at another, like a gambler playing his cards with utmost skill, reading every weakness in his opponents and turning it to his advantage. When two people are close (and Flambé and Devon at that point were very close), each borrows usable, admirable traits from the other. Flambé borrowed Devon’s vaunting fearlessness. What Devon obtained from her (besides her body and her love), she wasn’t sure. If she had asked him what he got from her, he would have replied, “Your devotion,” because there was nothing Devon was devoted to, except himself and the ideal of political power. But she didn’t ask him, and so did not know.

So she plowed ahead with her research. But always the same hindrance hung over her: the lack of money. Even a double breast enhancement was expensive: at least $4,000 per breast, and likely more than that, when all the long-term costs were factored in. Call it ten grand, Flambé thought—not an impossible amount, all things considered. But where could she get it? Not from JoAnne, who’d been broke all her life and probably (unless she’d won the lottery) still was. From her friends? Nick did all right at Pandora; Danny was making money at Creava. Flambé didn’t like the thought of borrowing money from them, but at the very least it was an option not to be despised. And then there was Devon. A City Councilmember’s yearly salary, she learned online, was $76,000. It was more than Flambé ever had made in her life, but it was, she knew, a paltry amount. Devon was forever scrambling to pay his bills (she’d watch him sometimes at night, groaning over them), and he was constantly complaining that he had to pick up so many of his political expenses on his own dime: taking a constituent to lunch, hiring an Uber to get to a meeting, or his clothing—why, did Flambé have any idea how much a damn tie cost?

Still, she reasoned, ten thousand bucks was not impossible if she could raise it in increments spread among the base of her friends. So she developed this plan:

$2,500 from Danny

$2,500 from Nick

$1,500 from Devon

And then there was Esther. Hadn’t she mentioned something about the East Bay Transgender Alliance having a charity fund that could help pre-ops with expenses? Yes, she had; Flambé remembered it quite well. In fact, Esther had told her she—Esther—had been given a $2,500 grant for her own procedures; the Alliance benefitted from contributions from liberal-minded corporations. Flambé went to their website, clicked on the link called “Our Benefactors” and found, along with Apple Computer and Wells Fargo, “Creava Software Inc.,” of Oakland: Danny’s employer. Flambé smiled: funny how it happens that, when something seems impossible, once you really start looking into it, a way opens up.

* * *

And what of Nick? So far in this narrative he’s been a relatively minor character. Things had long since cooled between him and Flambé, a development both were comfortable with. Flambé continued, on a formal basis, to be Nick’s tenant on Perkins, but she was staying more and more at Devon’s place, and had actually moved much of her clothing and other personal possessions there.

Nick was still smarting over the breakup with Angel. He was in no rush to find another boyfriend, that was for sure. Devon, now City Councilmember Camber, grew increasingly impressed with the young man’s intelligence and personal skills, and had elevated him from website development and social media to a more active role, involving scheduling and issues research. Nick thrived on it. Many days, he would leave work at Pandora and walk the six blocks to City Hall, to put in another two or three hours of work.

He and Camber grew close. There were times, after darkness fell and only the two of them were in the office, that Nick became intensely aware of Devon’s presence: this comely, handsome Black man, with his air of mystery. Nick could hear him breathe; sometimes, he would glance up from his paperwork or computer screen and secretly watch Devon, just feet away at his desk, head inclined in thought, working out the phrasing of a speech. Such a noble head, Nick thought: the sharp line of the jaw, the integrity of the brow, authority and an almost regal aura surrounding his body, the long legs stretched out, the way his pants fit so deftly around his muscled quads.

Whenever this happened, Nick had to force himself to look away. It was dangerous. His friend, Flambé, was involved with this man. Besides, Devon was Nick’s boss, and a public figure. There were a million reasons not to go too far down that path, Nick realized. And yet, he did. He couldn’t help himself. Devon had the same pull on Nick as he’d had on Flambé, on almost everyone he’d ever met. Nick, who’d been without sex (aside from beating off) for weeks, had to admit the obvious: he was hot for Devon Camber.


TALES OF THE TOWN: Part 31

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Mrs. Wu and the Little Gun

Mrs. Wu, who knew nothing of her husband’s nocturnal proclivities, led a very social life, with her bridge games, volunteering and entertaining, but Gladys Wu was fundamentally a lonely woman. Like her own daughter, Cindy, she’d been an only child. Fantasy and imagination were her playmates, not real children. Her parents had been Catholic, but Gladys exceeded even them in piety; at one point in her teens, she’d convinced herself to become a Nun. Her parents had talked her out of that, but Mrs. Wu still took refuge in her Bible; and there were many times when, sad and depressed, she walked the three blocks to St. Leo’s Church, on Ridgeway, to find a quiet pew, pray, and stare admiringly at the great bedizened statue of the Madonna, who loomed just below the great rose window.

She identified with the Mother of Jesus. Gladys too had suffered much. She had subjugated her will to that of, first, her father and then to her husband, to the extent that her will barely existed, except as a quiet seething within her. Sometimes, she felt close to exploding, but she had learned to hold it deep inside. Like the Holy Madonna, Gladys Wu looked out over a world of pain and suffering with infinite compassion. It was not always easy for her to express this compassion in tangible ways, of course; but she felt it, and wished that, with the flick of a finger, she could heal cripples, restore sight to the blind, raise up the feeble.

* * *

Edwin had shown her his gun. It was a Smith & Wesson .22 Mag, small enough to keep handy in a drawer or even a pocket, yet powerful enough to take down a menacing mugger or home invader. The doctor had taken a National Rifle Association course in gun safety. Mrs. Wu hadn’t, but her husband demonstrated the rudiments. They had practiced target shooting in the back yard, using a coffee can on a tree stump, until the neighbors complained, resulting in a visit by the police, who informed the Wu’s that their behavior was illegal. No charges eventually were filed. But Mrs. Wu had never forgotten the sensation of holding a gun, pointing it, squeezing the trigger, and the violent pleasure she felt when the bullet smashed into its target.

Rosey discovered the record of that backyard incident after he had already interviewed both Dr. Wu and Mrs. Wu. He decided on a second round. Partly this was because his investigation into the homeless murders was getting nowhere; and while no new victims had been found in six weeks, the public still clamored for an arrest. Chief Kirkpatrick told him to send her at least two reports a week on his progress, if any, and just the other day, the East Bay Times newspaper had run a scathing editorial critical of the Mayor, the Police Chief and, by extension, Rosey himself. He had to come up with something; no stone must be left unturned.

Dr. Wu put him off for a few days, citing the pressures of work at Kaiser. Rosey visited Mrs. Wu in their home on an afternoon when Dr. Wu was away. The first thing he inquired about, after she offered him coffee which he declined, was the backyard shooting incident. Mrs. Wu seemed embarrassed. “Oh, that?” she laughed nervously. “It was nothing, really, Detective Brown. The doctor was teaching me to shoot. Yes, we have a little gun, for safety reasons. I didn’t like it.” She added, “I am a person who abhors violence.”

“So did you have occasion to shoot the gun again after that?”

“No, never.”

“Or any other gun?”

“Certainly not.”

“And your husband—does he use the gun frequently?”

“Well, you’d have to ask him about that, but no, I don’t believe he does. I’d certainly know if he was running around shooting things.”

Rosey had a thought. “Would you mind, Mrs. Wu, if I took a look at the gun? I’m assuming you know where it is.”

There was something in Mrs. Wu’s face that seemed to twitch. After the briefest pause, she replied, “Of course,” and led him to a small wall safe, hidden behind a painting of a Parisian boulevard at night in the rain. Rosey turned his back while Mrs. Wu jiggered the combination lock. She was about to reach for the weapon when the Detective stopped her. “Better not, Mrs. Wu—fingerprints, you know. Let me.” And he removed it himself using a handkerchief.

Rosey sniffed the gun; it had not recently been fired. “Would you mind if I took this downtown to have it dusted for prints? If you’d like to ask your husband first, by all means…” She did. She called him on his mobile phone and had a few brief words. Then: “Of course, Detective Brown. My husband asks only that you return it in a reasonable amount of time. Both of us feel so much safer knowing that it’s in the house.”

Rosey tucked the gun, still wrapped in the handkerchief, into his suit pocket. “Will do, Mrs. Wu. Thank you very much for letting me come.”

“Oh, it’s my pleasure. The doctor and I are most anxious that this perpetrator be caught.”

Rosey looked forward to having the gun fingerprinted. What he had not told Mrs. Wu, or the public for that matter, was that the gun that had killed the fourteen homeless men had fired .22 caliber bullets.


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