6270 words (25 minute read)

The Squirrels Are Not What They Seem

Camden Swanson was sipping a beer on his back porch and gazing at the acrobatic squirrels leaping from tree to tree. He heard the front door open, and through the screen door he watched a stranger wearing a short skirt walk into his living room. At first glance he couldn’t tell if she was tallest woman he had ever seen or the prettiest. When she lit a cigarette with a Zippo and put it up to her full lips, he was sure she was one of the sexiest.

“Your door was open,” the woman said.

“And you just walk into strangers’ homes if they leave the door open?” Camden asked.

“I do when I want to see the person inside.”

“I’m sure you’re here for Georgia,” he said. “She’s out. And I’m not authorized to sell any of my girlfriend’s work.”

“Georgia Léveque is quite an artist, but I’m actually here to see you, Mr. Swanson.”

From the wooden porch just outside his apartment, Camden looked through the mesh wire at his towering visitor. Her slightly tousled ink black hair fell just off her shoulders, and she had bangs that covered most of her forehead. He was sure he had never seen her before.

“Are you a reporter? If so, I’m done talking about what happened to me in LA.”

“I’m familiar with your fiasco in Los Angeles,” the stranger responded and then took a long drag of her cigarette. “But I’m not a reporter and that’s not why I’m here. However there’s actually quite a bit I know about you.”

“Such as?”

“Write any poems today?” she asked.

“Not even with my girlfriend knows I do that.”

“I’ve been watching you for about a week,” she said.

Camden had been on the back porch for the last two hours. With the creek gurgling below him he had eaten seven pieces of string cheese, drank five beers and had written three haiku. He wrote better when he was working inside the galleries at the museum, but there was one with promise he had scribbled earlier in his tiny notebook:

Cracking branches!

San Carlos Dusk.

Vanishing squirrel.

“We have important business to discuss,” she said. “Should I join you on the porch or would you like to sit in the living room?”

Camden had been looking forward to watching dusk bleed into darkness and he enjoyed studying the squirrels, but this was a welcome distraction. He rose from his frayed camping chair and finished his beer. After sucking in his belly that his girlfriend complained was turning oafish, Camden entered the apartment and tried his best to look cool. He ruined it when he belched.

“Excuse me,” he said. “Must have been that soda water with cranberry juice.”

“Or maybe all the Lagunitas you’ve had,” the woman said. “You usually get a six pack, but then go back to the supermarket for more. You switch to a less expensive option, I imagine, due to the size of your bank account.”

“Are you going to guess my weight next?”

“You don’t want that,” she said with a smile.

“My parents raised me well, so I’ll offer you a drink. But let’s cut to the chase.”

“I’ll take a glass of wine if you have it.”

Camden grabbed a bottle of Two Buck Chuck from the top cupboard. It was what his girlfriend used to make Sangria. Camden poured his visitor a glass, slopping a bit on the Formica counter, and motioned for her to take a seat.

The woman accepted the wine, sipped, and winced. She left a trace of lipstick on the glass when she set it down on the wooden end table. The stranger then looked up at an Impressionist influenced watercolor on the wall, painted by Georgia when she was nineteen, of Parisians crossing Pont Neuf.

“Was your girlfriend named after Georgia O’Keeffe?” she asked after sitting on the suede sofa, “or something more prosaic like the state?”

“If I’m ever asked to write her biography I’ll find that out. Her dad owns a few O’Keeffes, but I’ve never heard him talk about them.”

“I’m quite familiar with Georgia’s father as well. Mr. Léveque is an impressive collector and from all accounts a true gentleman. Are they why you took your current job as a museum security guard? A way of getting into the family business?”

“It was actually more prosaic reasons. Money.”

“Money, Mr. Swanson, is actually the main reason why I’m here.”

“Swanson makes me think of frozen dinners. Call me Camden.”

“Camden, I’m here because you used to have a promising career as a journalist. But now you’re a thirty-five-year-old who punches a clock at a museum for minimum wage.”

“It’s actually fifty cents higher,” he said. “Got a raise.”

“I can’t imagine you find any satisfaction with your current job,” the woman said.

“Job satisfaction as a museum gallery attendant? I get paid to stand. I stand with my arms behind my back for eight hours a day and tell kids not to touch the art and old folks not to lean against walls. Occasionally a teenager gets a backpack through, and I ask them to check it. That happens infrequently, but when it does, it goes right in my diary.”

Camden went to the fridge, reaching past Georgia’s vanilla soy milk, for another beer.

“Okay, I’ll play along,” he said after popping the top and taking a swig. “Are you a Student Loan Officer? I know I haven’t repaid them, but that extra fifty cents an hour might get me on the right path.”

The woman swirled the purple liquid in her glass, smelled it, and then put it back down without taking a sip. She crossed her long tanned legs and studied Camden. Her look was the mixture of curiosity and disgust, akin to a seventh grader’s gaze at a formaldehyde imbued frog.

“Camden, I’m here because I think you can help my clients.”


“You work at a museum. They want to rob it.”


A few days earlier Camden Swanson had stood on the elevated San Carlos commuter train platform, gazing north up the tracks which led to the city. The train was late, which of itself hadn’t bothered Camden, except he had hustled down the street so he wouldn’t miss it. Sweat now ran down his ears, neck and beaded in his hair. He just wanted to be back in his bed, or else on a Hawaiian island.

With a whoosh of air and the screech of metal, the train disrupted the stillness of the San Carlos dawn. The doors clanked open and Camden took his usual top seat in the second to the last car. He recognized most of the faces, as the commuters of the Peninsula all seemed to enjoy the same spots to place their asses. Tired and hung over from a night of drinking wine with Georgia and her pompous art friend Miles, he could only stare slack jawed at the lavender and pink clouds which appeared to be crashing like waves over to the East Bay sky.

Camden couldn’t get it out of his mind that he was a yo-yo. Slung up the Peninsula to San Francisco in the morning, he was suspended there in a “walk the dog” move for the day. As the sun began to set the giant wrist flicked and he returned to his home thirty-five miles south of the city. When he told Georgia this she replied, “Be thankful you have a job.”

At the Caltrain Depot in San Francisco Camden exited with the mass of commuters and began his usual walk up Fourth Avenue. After crossing over to Ellis and passing under the unlit neon sign beckoning diners inside John’s Grill, he was just around the corner from the Matisse Hotel, his place of employment. But Camden would circle around the block over the hill to the loading dock, what he referred to as his “sneaky back-way”. The striking employees were in their usual places.

Jingle Bells was the melody, but the lyrics remained a mystery. A megaphone helped deliver the message, but the tiny Asian woman held it too close to her mouth to be decipherable. However, even if she had been more adept with the contraption, Camden still wouldn’t have understood because the words were in Mandarin. But the next scream out of her mouth did not need a translation.


The comment had been directed at an elderly woman who had just entered the six-month-old Matisse Hotel. It was true that a labor dispute raged at several of San Francisco’s most popular hotels, including the Matisse. And the woman in question had crossed the picket line of union workers. But if the octogenarian wearing the Chanel suit and carrying a Tiffany bag was a replacement worker serving food or cleaning rooms, Camden was prepared to strip down to his underwear and board a cable car singing Randy Newman’s I Love L.A.

The Matisse Hotel, housed in a restored early 20th Century bank, drew visitors not just because it was the newest luxury property in San Francisco. The hotel had also become a destination for its touted Museum of the Twentieth Century, which was located on the top floor. Included in the collection were works by Pollock, Hopper, O’Keeffe, Rothko, and Picasso. But the jewels of it all were the three eponymous Henri Matisse odalisque wax sculptures, worth a reputed three-hundred million dollars.

As a museum gallery attendant Camden’s position was nonunion, and thus was not directly involved in the labor dispute. Except he had to cross the picket line every day or choose to work elsewhere. With the dismal San Francisco job market and his inability to work in his chosen profession of journalism, Camden wasn’t quitting despite its paltry pay.

Camden accessed the hotel’s side entrance from the loading dock, which couldn’t legally be blocked, and entered through the revolving glass doors without being bothered. He would catch glimpses of the faux 1920’s Paris lobby with copies of Matisse paintings under chandeliers. After getting downstairs to the employee area he would grab his uniform from the community closet, which was recently dry-cleaned and reeking of chemicals.

Harry Hipple stood next to Camden’s locker dressed in the security guard uniform of blue blazer, striped tie, and black slacks. Hard-Case Harry, as the twenty-five-year-old was known to his co-workers, piqued Camden’s interest only because the guy could somehow remove his pants without taking off his shoes.

“Fucking assholes,” Harry said. “And it ain’t the democrats this time, Camden. The fucking assholes I’m talking about are the fucking assholes who are holding the picket signs and calling a good, God-fearing American like myself a scab. We’re not in the goddamned union. If we don’t cross the picket line, which liberal smart ass group is gonna support us?”

“They don’t know who you are,” a young guard named Timmy responded. “They’re just human beings who have rent to pay and have kids to support. Overnight a group of strangers took their job. They’re angry and have a right to be.”

“Then why in the holy hell did they vote to go on strike?”

“If you’re going to criticize unions, Harry, least you forget that the concept of not working Saturday and Sunday and the forty hour work week was also established by unions.”

Camden’s head was beginning to hurt and he wanted to move as far away from Timmy and Harry as possible. There were pieces of art that needed guarding, but he kept fumbling with his tie. Over and over he made it either too long or too short.

“Why don’t you come from the top of the hill?” Camden finally asked, hoping to shut his colleagues up.

“And walk next to a filthy sex shop?” Hipple replied.


Ryan Crimsone stepped one of his size fourteen shoes out of his office, while the other held his bulbous body behind the doorframe. The Human Resources Director’s preferred mode of communication was to yell from his desk, but the email he just read from the Director of Security propelled him out of his chair. His perpetually reddened and puffy face had a quizzical look on it.

“Veronica, can you pull the file on Harry Hipple?”

A staffing agency had sent Veronica Zarcarsky, or the Temp as she was known by in the Human Resources office, to work three days at the hotel. That was three weeks ago. Due to the labor dispute and the quality of her work, Veronica kept being asked to return. Thus every day the twenty-four-year-old with the short, curly auburn hair descended into the basement of the hotel to the HR Office. Wearing her outlet mall purchased business suits over her body kept lean from biking, the young woman faxed, filed, collated, and ran errands.

Veronica dashed to a metal cabinet, thumbed through the H’s, and extracted the Hipple file. Ryan lumbered over, snatched the folder, and squinted as he read through the pages. Veronica twice counted the number of hairs sticking out of her boss’s veiny, bald skull. She tried not to think of what size his pants were.

“I knew that name rang a bad bell. Why do they want to nominate that guy for employee of the month? He’s been written up for violating our anti-harassment code.”

Carmine, the HR Coordinator, took a piece of lint off his designer sweater vest and said, “When I took his ID picture he asked if I was a Jew.”

Bonnie Tiath, the HR manager who was a couple of years shy of fifty and several pounds below thin, stepped out of her office and said, “I interviewed him.”

As Ryan rifled through the papers in the file he asked, “How did it go?”

“When I asked the ‘Explain a situation where you had to make a critical decision when your supervisor was not present’, Harry Hipple went on a five minute diatribe about how he tried to make a citizen’s arrest at the jewelry store he once worked at. An African American gentleman came in to buy an engagement ring. Mr. Hipple swore he had seen him on America’s Most Wanted the night before. Turns out the gentleman was an investment banker.”

“How the hell did he get hired?” Ryan asked.

“Three guards had quit during orientation before we were opening and our Director of Security was desperate,” Bonnie answered. “Hipple had a lot of security experience. Larry Aberlour said he would keep him in line.”


Larry Aberlour coughed, scratched his ass, and then continued with his pre-shift security meeting. This was the one where he expounded on the dangers of terrorism. We could be a target. It could happen to you. If a security guard leaves his post for one minute people will die.

“Should you wander over to your gallery neighbor and begin talking, you’re inviting chaos,” Larry shouted. Then he lowered his voice a few octaves to mimic a dunce. “Hey, look at me. I don’t care if that guy is leaving a backpack full of explosions next to the Picasso. I’ll just go talk to Sally Sue over here.”

Larry walked away from the podium and moved up to the front row of the auditorium. “Well you will care,” he yelled, “when you’re dead. Boom! C’mon, people, I can’t stress this enough. While you’re off gabbing or looking at a piece of art, that gives the bad guys the opportunity they’re waiting for. Whether it’s ripping a painting off the wall or leaving a swath of carnage and destruction. You have to stay alert, team.”

The majority of Larry’s “team” consisted of frail art students and seventy-year-old men. And maybe three of them were listening. Cell phones were used to surf the web and send text messages, and hearing aids were switched off. But in the security manager’s mind he had a captive audience.

“Yes, there is a full time security force that works inside the hotel. And yes, there are cameras in every nook and cranny inside this museum. But you are the first line of defense. You’re not just for show.”

A loud “ha” sounded from the back of the room. It came from the general direction of Camden Swanson and caused a wave of giggling. Larry glared at Camden.

“I’m glad many of you find protecting priceless art work and people’s lives funny.”

“There’s nothing funny about it, sir,” Harry Hipple responded.

“Thank God we have you, Hipple.”

Camden had a burst of laughter welling inside of him. He slouched into his chair, turned his face, and gritted his teeth to avoid releasing it. Camden thought there was a chance his kidneys would rupture.

“And remember what I’ve pre-shifted this entire week. The hotel’s owner, Mr. David Bouchon, is supposed to visit the museum. So you must be on extra special vigilance. I don’t want you to embarrass me. Now get your keys and radios and be at your posts five minutes before we open.”

As his team filed out of the room, Larry remained at the podium and scowled at the empty seats. He expected insolence from the college kids, but now he was getting it from one of the adults. If Larry hadn’t other issues to concern himself with, he might have fired Swanson just to make an example out of him.

But today Larry’s mind was preoccupied, its gears and levers conjuring up images of a certain tall woman and her promise to deliver lots of money for his help in robbing the museum. His stomach felt queasy, because he couldn’t ignore the ethics questions of what he had agreed to do or the apprehension of getting caught. Larry was so pensive that he failed to notice Jan Myers standing right next to him.

“Mr. Aberlour, I started off in Post A yesterday.”

Larry swung to his right to look at the lanky art student. He grimaced at her stringy hair, acne, and granny-style glasses.

“And that’s where you are today.”

“I’m going to fall asleep if I have to look at all those boring pictures of mountains and fields. Though technically 20th Century pieces, they’re by lame ass 19th Century artists.”

“If I put you in Post A, then you’re there for a reason. And if you keep up this kind of attitude, you can expect to be written-up.”

Jan sulked away. Larry, his spirits bolstered by berating one of his underlings, decided right then to oust any negative thoughts. The plan was so perfect getting caught was impossible. And Larry trusted his instincts. If those same instincts kept him from getting shot in the first Gulf War, they would protect his spotless twenty year career in the private security field.

Besides, Larry thought, although my involvement is crucial, it is tangential at best. And done correctly, my duties will not arouse any suspicion. When the robbery is over, I continue working. One year later I take a vacation and have a boating accident in the Bahamas. Then it’s early retirement to open some sort of business. Larry hadn’t figured out what product he would sell, probably something to do with taxidermy, but he was certain his life would be perfect.


Veronica knew her life was far from perfect, but she enjoyed working in the hotel. There were plenty of mundane administrative tasks, but the young woman’s role in the office expanded each day. Her duties now included taking photo ID’s for the scores of replacement workers they were hiring every day, giving out and keeping track of locker assignments, and maintaining an updated list of all the replacement workers who were continually being “termed”, which stood for terminated. Veronica had even been given her own office.

The office was a laptop computer on a metal table inside the dank walk-in closet that served as the Human Resources records room. The HR Team referred to it as “the Scary Room” because it was constantly in disarray with various detritus and nobody had liked going inside it. However, despite the fact the dim lighting always caused Veronica to squint her hazel eyes to read anything, she was proud to have her own office.

Veronica wiped a bead of sweat off her forehead just as Carmine entered and tossed two file folders on her desk.

“Two more terms,” he said. “One they caught naked as a jaybird taking a shower in one of the guest rooms. Claimed he was cleaning it and got too wet with his clothes on. Term number two is another theft case. Man, is your job really worth a couple of beers?”

Without waiting for a reply, Carmine exited the Scary Room. His musky cologne lingered as Veronica placed the files into her in-box. She returned to her spreadsheet and her fingers danced across the keyboard at seventy words per minute.

Although Veronica displayed a Zen attitude to the rest of her Human Resources Team, the Temp did keep a few secrets from her coworkers. She had a Master’s Degree in Journalism and her goal in life was to be an award winning investigative reporter. Veronica was also working on writing an insider’s expose on the labor dispute.


At that exact moment, a man who had a degree from NYU and twelve years’ experience as a journalist told a woman not to touch the chest of a statue. It was a Pop Art marble slab of a woman with enormous breasts and a tiny waist. Camden had lost count on how many times patrons of the museum had touched it.

This was the 1960’s Gallery, which featured works by the usual suspects of Warhol, Johns, and Lichtenstein. Before taking the position as museum security guard, Camden had never given Pop Artists a second thought. But six months of staring at their work had forced him into an opinion: much of their revolutionary art of the hippie days had not aged well. Camden believed other than Jasper Johns and a handful of others, the pieces seemed gimmicky.

It’s not that he disliked modern art. There were many artists of the 20th Century, such as Hopper, Braque, Modigliani, Clee, and Pollock to name a few, who interested him. And so did Henri Matisse, the deceased man who lent his name to the hotel. Camden especially liked the early paintings, like the woman in the variegated hat displayed at a rival museum.

Except the Matisse sculptures didn’t do it for Camden, regardless that people had ventured across the world to gawk at objects that cost an unfathomable amount of money. With plenty of time to study the pieces when the gallery was empty, Camden could only see the three foot tall black wax pieces as billowy shapes that resembled women in Arabic costumes.

Before dating Georgia, Camden had only known the names of four artists: Picasso, Rembrandt, Michelangelo, and Raphael. And the latter two were due to animated, crime fighting turtles. Up to that point he had been inside two museums; the Cordovan in Boston because of a story, and the Guggenheim in New York on a date with a girl. But from his romantic relationship with an accomplished painter and sculptress and his job as a gallery attendant, Camden had absorbed a speck of art appreciation through osmosis.

But right now, all he truly cared about was three dollar Irish Coffees at the Gold Dust. So Camden retreated to an innocuous corner and stood and guarded and tried not think about the concept of time. Looking at your watch was an occupational hazard for security guards everywhere, and Camden had sold his at a pawn shift a few days after he took the job.


Harry Hipple stood erect, hands clasped behind his back in the center of the gallery. His eyes swept the entire room to the limits of his peripheral vision. After repeating this lighthouse approach a few times he would turn around and do the same thing.

Whenever Hipple happened to notice an attractive woman, like the 18-year-old in tight jeans and a belly baring shirt, he’d imagine dead dogs covered with flies. Thinking of sex, or God forbid, getting a hard-on, was the surest way to lose focus of his important duties. Hipple was so concerned with keeping his mind pure that he even went so far as to buy saltpeter. But to his dismay, it turned out to be nothing more than a filed down Flintstones Chewable. Hipple had punched his cousin in the nose several times for selling it to him.

“Lighten-up, Dude,” a twelve-year-old kid with a pot belly said to him.

“I don’t get paid to ‘lighten-up’. Just enjoy the artwork while keeping a safe distance from it, young man, and don’t worry about me”.

The kid laughed, put his headphones back on, and flipped him off as he walked away. Harry spotted an elderly woman leaning on the wall and moved toward her. But before he could chastise the white haired lady, the silence of the gallery was broken by the high powered hum of indecipherable chatter. And then the room filled with twelve-year-old kids. It was now Hipple’s time to shine.

Lower your voices. You’re too close. If you touch that sculpture again you’ll be sitting on the bus for the rest of the day. Harry moved about the gallery and kept order, informing nine children that they were in direct violation of museum policy. When the last kid left Harry sighed in contentment, as if he had eaten a satisfying meal.

It was time for Harry’s break, and Timmy arrived to relieve him of his post. Timmy was tall and soft spoken, a junior at Berkeley who had been working at the museum for only a month. He had never before been in the same rotation as Hipple, but after the morning’s confrontation tried to make conversation.

“Man, don’t you just hate school busses. I mean, I think it’s terrific that they’re getting kids interested in art, but this isn’t Disneyworld. In such large groups they’re just gonna socialize. And besides, it makes us work twice as hard.”

Harry’s blank expression had not changed from the second Timmy had approached him. He thrust his radio at the college student and left without saying a word.

On the way to the break room a woman bumped into Harry. She was of average height and possessed common looks and wore a gray dress. The woman slipped something into Harry’s pocket and whispered, “That’s from you know who.”

Harry was expecting to receive the key, but not in such a hostile manner. The woman had hit him flush on his bum shoulder. But after the atavistic irritation subsided, Hipple could only grin. Good things were on the way, he believed. Very good things.


Veronica finished processing her last termination file and powered down the laptop. After being stuck all day in the basement the temp looked forward to getting outside for a walk. That’s when Bonnie called.

“We need more women’s lockers,” she said. “Think you can stay an extra hour and help me tag and bag?”

Dim fluorescent lighting, concrete floors and walls, and the odor of dirty clothes mixed with perfume, it was not a place to spend five minutes. But Bonnie was her favorite person at the Matisse Hotel, and Veronica didn’t hesitate in agreeing to the task. So she locked the door to the Scary Room and met her manager at Ladies Locker Room C.

Bonnie was in the process of holding a pair of shoes by the laces and dropping them into a plastic bag. She turned her head away in disgust as a female security officer stood there expressionless with a clipboard. Veronica was already familiar with the process. Because the workers were not allowed to enter the hotel after they went on strike, and their replacements needed lockers, the hotel had a space issue.

The personal belongings of the union employees needed to be extracted from their lockers and placed into plastic bags. All bags were numbered so they could be returned into the appropriate lockers once the labor dispute ended. Illegal items, such as pornography and weapons, were destroyed. Uniforms were sent for cleaning and equipment put back to its proper place. Security was always there as a witness.

“Kind of makes you feel like a, I don’t want to say Nazi cause that’s too hyperbolic, but a real jerk,” Bonnie said once Veronica began to help. “I know we’re not confiscating any of their stuff and they’ll get it back, but it just feels weird.”

“It does,” Veronica agreed. “But the workers here now need lockers to change into their uniforms.”

“You’re always so positive, Veronica. And you’re really good with people. You’d make a good front desk agent, or even concierge if you know the city well. Are you from San Francisco?”

“Santa Rosa, but I went to school at Berkeley.”

“You may have bigger ambitions, but this hotel would look good on your resume.”

Manager, assistant, and taciturn security guard cleared out fourteen lockers over the next hour. The bagged items were dumped into a bin in the Scary Room. The Temp exited the hotel through the employee entrance, and although she was screamed at by several strangers, she kept her head down with a blank expression and moved quickly through the placard wielding mob.

The frosty air cooled Veronica’s face as she headed down O’Farrell Street and then up Grant. After the gloominess of the lockers and the overtime she had earned for doing it, she wanted to treat herself to a book. Usually Veronica would go to Green Apple out in her neighborhood, but she decided on City Lights in North Beach as a change to her routine.

She wanted to buy something that would help her write her article on the strike, and figured there had to be plenty of books on unions and the labor movement. But after browsing several that made her eyes heavy, Veronica ascended the creaky wooden steps to the top floor and selected a Gary Snyder off the shelf. The City Lights Poetry Room was one of her favorite nooks in the city.

After reading several poems on the second floor of Vesuvio’s with a glass of house white wine, she walked down to Sacramento Street and boarded a #1 Bus to the Richmond District of the city. Less than half an hour later Veronica arrived at the recently restored, white, bow fronted Edwardian on 20th Avenue where her basement apartment was located. She did not work on her strike article.


Camden’s shift rotation, after his stint with Pop Art, moved to the Art of the Freedom Movement and ended with the Beat Culture. He had become fond of the Beat room, which featured framed handwritten poems by Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Gregory Corso, because he could read them when pedestrian traffic slowed down. Although at first Camden read the free verse to battle time, he now looked forward to it. It was the inspiration that got him writing his own poems, which were also done to make the day go by faster. In his tiny notebook Camden had just scribbled:

Char-broiled soul on a wingtip bun/ Monkeyfaced Monets sleeping on the run/ Give me two dollars for some nickels/ Extra plutonium but hold the pickles/ X-Ray murals now on the moon/ With Ruby slippers, minus the cartoon/ A harem of raindrops frozen into glue/ Climate controlled whiskey, at a theater near you.

Camden had been engrossed with his poem and failed to notice his boss walking into the gallery with Mr. David Bouchon, the owner of the Matisse Hotel. Wearing a charcoal custom suit and walking with an ivory cane, Bouchon was in his late fifties with short brown hair flecked with gray. He was fit and looked ten years younger than his age. Bouchon approached Camden with furrowed brows and spoke in a slight French accent.

“May I ask what you’re writing, young man?” he asked.

Without a word Camden handed over his notebook. Larry Aberlour looked as if his face were going to melt and burst into flames. The Frenchman read the poem with a roguish grin and gave it back to Camden.

“Influenced by Bob Dylan, no?”

I’m not sure where that one came from,” Camden responded. “When the muse hits, you gotta listen to her.”

“Please do not write when patrons are in the galleries. But if you are alone, I am happy to see you indulge in some artistic expression. Standing here must get pretty tedious at times, no? Au revoir.”

When his shift ended Camden changed into his usual civilian outfit of jeans, Red Sox T-shirt, and black pea coat. He did it so fast he left no time for either Harry Hipple or his boss to speak to him. When Camden reached Powell Street he almost started to skip into the Gold Dust Lounge. Dickie, Sal, and Rubbish, the three other members of what Camden had dubbed the Unsuccessful Men’s Club, were already in a booth.

“The protector of antiquities,” Dickie said after Camden had ordered a drink.

“Good to see you were able to pry your thumb outta your butt to make it,” Sal added.

Camden’s three friends had all gone to San Francisco State together and were co-owners of a sports memorabilia shop. They were each of five foot nine inch stature and dressed in the same manner of cargo pants with hooded sweatshirts. They never wore any clothing with logos because they refused to be walking advertisements for fashion designers, sports teams, or products.

Though the three were of the same height and body-type, they were never confused as being triplets. Dickie had long greasy hair, wore spectacles with enormous rims, and his fleshy skin was a few hues past a corpse. Sal’s pockmarked face was mostly covered with a bushy beard and muttonchops, and a tweed Scally Cap shielded his bald head.

Rubbish was the quietest of the three. He hadn’t said one word or even noticed Camden’s entrance, but instead stared at a tall, gorgeous woman in a tan skirt and black blouse. The woman did not look at Rubbish, a reoccurring phenomenon in his thirty-seven-year-old life.

“Hey, Rubbish, the peep shows are in the Tenderloin,” Dickie said.

“She’s gotta be six-foot-seven. And super fucking hot,” Rubbish responded. “The peep show girls are all skanks.”

“Fine, but if her boyfriend wants to kick your ass, I’m holding you down.”

“If she’s got one, he ain’t here,” Rubbish said. “She’s been at that table all by herself since we walked in. Three guys approached her, all shot down.”

The waitress brought Camden the warm beverage laced with whiskey. He savored the Irish Coffee and let the other members of the Unsuccessful Men’s Club continue their banter. After ordering another drink, Camden studied the cherubs on the ceiling mural and then his eyes locked on at the painting of a reclining nude. He had eaten nothing all day but half a bag of barbeque chips, and the Irish part of the coffee was beginning to create a fine haze in his mind.

“Written any new poems?” Sal asked Camden.

“Several,” he answered, pulling out his notebook form his pocket. “Here’s a crowd pleaser:

I’m a free range chicken, with FDA approval and honey mustard dressing/ Standing all day with tie and blazer I keep nobody guessing/ So I look at a Matisse portrait with no oil, or canvas, or even genius/ Too bored with words and ideas I don’t even want to rhyme this with penis/ I’m a hundred years too old, or a hundred and one years too young/ Just a dishrag mopping up the mung/ So pelt my organs, my molecules, with heavily salted nuts of corn/ I’ll just keep on babbling and babbling and babbling, wishing I was never born.”

“Let’s get onto business,” Dickie says while shaking his head in disapproval. “Who wants to start the discussion?”

Although Camden had deemed it the Unsuccessful Men’s Club, the four guys met under the auspices of a movie group. Like some do with books, once a week Sal, Dickie, Rubbish, and Camden met to discuss a film. Sometimes a new release, but often the movie was at least a decade old. They prided themselves on choosing obscure titles. Tonight’s topic was to be an experimental Korean film made in 1974.

Nobody had been able to find it.

Next Chapter: Buddha on Broadway