Piaget, the man who owned, with his prisoner brother, the San Clemente Hotel, was a font of information and assistance, although arcane in attire, language usage, and personal style.
“Do you have a first name?” was one of the first things I asked him when we got a chance to sit down and talk about my wife, Julie, and I finding a more permanent place to live in the community.
“I don’t use it,” was all he said.
When I queried him on where he’d come from all he would say was “Montecito,” which I knew to be a small township outside of Santa Barbara but that was it. He gave me no details about anything personal, but he did give me the name of a set of apartment multiplex units only one block away on Cabrillo Avenue. A guy named Stedman owned the units and Piaget assured me we could get in with one month’s rent and a hundred-dollar security deposit. Blocks from the main beach, close enough to walk to the very center of town; the description of the place seemed ideal. It would take half the money we had but it would give us a permanent residence not that far from where I was going to be working at Camp Pendleton. Piaget had called the man right from his office and we could go right over and check it out.
When I got back to the room I was immediately filled in about the ‘Bart guy’ living above his furniture store and working out in questionable attire visible through the upper window of his place. Mary was not offended herself but complained on behalf of all the other women who might be staying in rooms that faced the furniture store’s sidewall. I changed the subject by mentioning the potential of our getting a new apartment only a block away.
The walk to the apartment’s location was shorter than I thought, as the back of the hotel jutted right up to a parking lot that faced out on Cabrillo. Mary carried Julie, as my hip wouldn’t properly support her extra weight for any distance.
Mr. Stedman, a gaunt older gentleman, met us at the steps up into the structure. The apartment for rent was the third and last one back. It took only moments to see that it was perfect. The unit included two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a washer, and dryer plus a small patio in the back that was fenced in for Julie to play.
Mr. Stedman filled out the lease in front of us on the only piece of furniture left in the apartment by the former tenant. One ratty table and two equally ratty chairs. However, that was one more table and two more chairs than we owned, so I hoped Stedman would include them in the deal, but I didn’t make any comment about them. Furniture was going to be a problem I would have to consider before we moved in, so I asked for the lease to be effective on the first of June, which was five days away.
“You can move in right away, regardless of the date on the lease, if you want to do a little cleanup,” Stedman said, signing the short document as he said the words.
“Cleaning crews are almost impossible to find at a reasonable cost here.”
I took out my envelope of cash and counted out four hundred dollars. I knew I didn’t have anywhere near enough money to furnish the place so I was thinking in terms of a bed, some lights, and possibly a used couch to set against the wall in the living room.
“Cash,” Stedman intoned, holding the wad of money in his left hand like he was going to put it up to the light to see if the bills were any good. “Pay by check when you get an account here, so you can prove you’d paid every month. I’m getting old and sometimes forget. You’re a Marine. My son was a Marine, but don’t get the idea that that means you can be late on the rent.” He handed me two keys to the only door the place had, other than the sliding glass one to the patio. “Water, electricity, and gas are covered by the lease, but you’re on your own for telephone service.”
I determined to spend part of our money to purchase civilian clothing that had no identifiers of any kind on it. My haircut couldn’t be modified, and that gave me away no matter what. In spite of that, I wanted as little identification with the military as I could get when I wasn’t actually on the base or traveling to or from it. The war had changed everything and in only a very few years. When I’d gone into the Corps the war had been acceptable, if not popular, everywhere, but only two years later America’s participation in it wasn’t popular at all, not even with most other Marines.
We walked back to the hotel, my wife smiling all the way and talking to Julie while she walked. I limped along, understanding that getting a place of our own, even a small apartment, was having a home, as opposed to staying in a hotel. We would be able to cook again, do the laundry, and have a real-life if I could figure out the furniture problem, buy a phone, and get phone service.
Once back at the hotel I decided to go next door and attempt to deal with Bart Abrate, the window show guy. In truth, I knew I was brush-blocking aside some of the very necessary chores I had to do. I didn’t want to eat up any more of our money by staying in the hotel, although Piaget hadn’t asked for even the first night’s payment yet. My paycheck coming into the regiment at the base would have money deducted from it now, as well as quite possibly not be there at all if the paperwork hadn’t transferred. Orders of transfer had little to do with payroll in the Marine Corps, other than that dealing with combat pay or allotments (of which I had a large one to the Navy Credit Union coming out monthly to pay for the required tailoring of my uniforms), and geography. Payday in OCS, and then at the Basic School in Quantico had been in cash, paid out from a card table set up inside the barracks. The Marine Corps was changing fast, however, and with the changing times, cash was becoming less and less important.
I walked out of the San Clemente Hotel lobby, through the small courtyard, and onto Del Mar Avenue where the GTO remained parked and waiting. The street was fairly deserted, although not empty, as it usually was in the early morning or later evening hours. I moved down the sidewalk, passing the empty lot that sat between the hotel and the furniture store. I stopped in front of the two big windows of the store that were filled with beautiful furniture and other decorator items. I had to admit that the store owner, Mr. Bart Abrate, his name emblazoned across the top of both windows, had good taste.
The store was open, so I walked through the single glass-paned French window-style door. There was a counter but nobody was behind it, in fact, there was nobody else in the store at all that I could see. The counter was bare, except for a cash register and a ridiculously large bell button on its polished surface. A small sign next to the button read “push for service.” I pushed the button but nothing happened. I pushed again.
“Hold your horses, I’m coming,” a voice yelled from a distance.
I looked around. I guessed that the voice had come from a stairwell that ended not far from the counter. I waited.
A figure seemed to spring from the bottom of the well, turning as he exited. He stopped just beyond the end of the counter ‘landing’ right next to me.
I pulled back a bit, instinctively. The man was attired in more of a costume than a set of regular clothing. His jacket was made of some expensive cashmere but adorned with pins of all kinds, and he wore a small-cap, like the beanies Freshman at St. Norberts had worn when I was new to that college.
“Well, well, well", the short man said, a great smile plastered across his face, “What interest might the United States Marine Corps have in entering my august abode?”
I was taken aback even more, to the point where I moved a few feet further from him, realizing that although I knew what the words ‘august abode’ meant I’d never heard them spoken before, much less to me.
“We need to talk,” I finally got out, knowing I sounded like some sort of idiot but not being able to help it.
“Well then,” Mr. Abrate, purred out, “Then we must repair to my quarters in order to enjoy complete privacy.”
He turned and headed up the steps he’d rushed down only seconds before.
I sighed, and then, having no choice, followed him. The stairs were steep, and the climb was difficult on my left hip. Once at the top I stepped through a heavy wood door and entered the man’s quarters, as he’d termed them. I stopped and looked around. Mr. Abrate had somehow disappeared inside the giant single room, not decorated at all like the man’s showroom downstairs. There was a desk in one far corner next to a big open window with two hard-backed chairs in front of it. There was a bed, more chairs, and a small table located about the area in the opposing corner. Other than oriental rugs strewn about, and a big rubber exercise pad next to the window that faced the hotel, there was almost nothing more.
“I’m Bart Abrate, the owner,” a voice said, as the door closed behind me.
I realized Abrate had been waiting behind the door for me to enter. Unaccountably, he swung the door around and then locked the deadbolt before moving to the desk. Once there he seated himself and then canted back in the swivel to the point where, although I couldn’t see his legs, it seemed like his feet had to be dangling off the floor.
“You limp, have a Purple Heart and are a Marine Officer, no doubt serving at Camp Pendleton,” Abrate intoned as if he was reading the words off of some list or chart.
“Yes, sir,” I replied standing before the desk.
"What is it, before I make my request?’ Abrate asked.
“Request?” I blurted out, but Abrate didn’t go on, just continuing to smile up at me as his chair slowly bobbed up and down.
“I’m here to talk to you about the display you’ve been putting on every day when you work out naked before that window over there,” I said, growing ever more uncomfortable playing out the role I’d somehow allowed to be assigned to me. “My wife sees that from our room. Women don’t find it pleasing to see the naked bodies of men they don’t know.”
“That’s funny,” Abrate suddenly replied, laughing out loud. “I don’t care what women might think. I’m gay.”
I turned my head to look at the door I’d just come through, then back into Abrate’s smiling eyes, and then over to the open window against the nearby wall.
“Probably about a twenty-two-foot distance, or so, from the edge of that window down to the ground,” I said, my words coming out slow and low as I turned my attention back to looking into the Bart Abrate’s eyes. Eyes that instantly stopped smiling.
“I’d unlock that door if I was in your current position,” I followed up since Abrate didn’t seem like he was going to say anything.
Abrate leaped from the chair, causing it to swing back and forth before it slowly moved in small circles behind him as he made his way quickly to the door. He unlocked the deadbolt.
“See,” he said, heading back for his chair, “it wasn’t locked on the inside. I meant no harm or disrespect.”
“You’ve got to cover the window when you work out or there’s going to be trouble,” I replied, ignoring whatever it was that might have motivated Abrate to act so strangely. “And I need some furniture. We’ve got a brand-new apartment on Cabrillo and all we’ve got is a table and two chairs.”
I didn’t like telling the man our problems when I’d just chastised him for the nude workout thing.
“I presume there’s more than your wife?” Abrate asked, his voice changing to one of straight business as if I’d never brought up the other issue.
“My infant daughter, although we have a crib for her,” I said.
“Cabrillo,” Abrate murmured, “that’s just across the street from the back of my place. Where on Cabrillo?”
“Less than half a block down toward the ocean,” I replied, wondering where the strange man’s mind was going.
“Let’s take a look,” Abrate said, getting up and coming around the desk. “Nobody here at this hour anyway.”
I was amazed that the man made no effort to lock his store up at all. We walked out the back, through a small empty parking lot, and over to the apartment complex. I didn't realize until we were almost at the door that the keys to the place were back in our room at the hotel.
“No problem,” Abrate said, walking up to the chest-high fence surrounding the back patio, vaulting the thing in a single steadied leap, and disappearing from my view. I was left standing near the front door. Seconds later the door opened. I was surprised again.
“Sliding glass door,” Abrate said. “You lift up, then pull out, and voila!”
“You’ve been in the furniture business for a while, I assume,” I said dryly, stepping inside and closing the door behind me.
Abrate walked through the first floor without saying a word, then went to the stairs leading up to the two bedrooms and disappeared. I stayed where I was, figuring I would have nothing to add to whatever the man was looking for.
A minute later Abrate reappeared.
“Okay, let’s go,” he said, opening the door and stepping out onto the narrow sidewalk.
“What do we do now?” I asked, mystified, trying to quickly lock the door, close it and catch up with Abrate, who was almost at the stairs leading down to the street. I rushed, since I still couldn’t run, to catch up with him.
“We do nothing,” Abrate said, putting extra stress on the word ‘we,’ before heading back toward the rear of his shop. “You go get your wife, send her over to me, and watch the baby. This isn’t your kind of work.”
“I can’t afford your furniture,” I said uncomfortably. It was hard having to tell just about everyone that we had no real money.
“You didn’t ask what I was requesting when you walked into my office,” Abrate shot back, opening his back door with one hand while turning to face me.
I frowned, shook my head, and waited.
“I want to be your guest at the O’Club on base,” he said. I’ve been on the base but never gotten into the club. I love Marines and I want to circulate among the officers.”
“I’ll bet you do,” I said, not being able to keep myself from commenting.
“Well?” Abrate asked. “You do your part, maybe get me into the club every once and a while, and I get you furniture for fifty bucks a month. You can work the fifty off by clerking in the store when you’re not playing at being a Marine. Your limp won’t hurt a thing. I have people to move stuff and do the hauling.”
“How much furniture are we talking about?” I asked, not liking the sound of anything about the deal, especially the part where I got sent home to watch the baby while my wife made key decisions about our new life.
“Beds, nightstands, couch, chairs, real kitchen table, bar stools for the bar, outdoor patio stuff, and some decorator items,” Abrate said.
“What would you pay an hour, not that I’m sure I can work for anybody while I’m still in the Corps?” I asked, finding the whole arrangement strange but if it meant we could move into the apartment soon it would be worth putting up with.
“Five bucks an hour plus three percent of whatever gets sold when you’re on,” Abrate said, counting the issues he was discussing by sticking a finger out for each on the hand that wasn’t still on the back doorknob. “I cover the offending window, and you come through with the visits to the Officer’s Club. That’s four parts to the deal.”
“I’ll talk it over with my wife,” I replied.
“Take your time, as long as it’s less than an hour,” Abrate said but laughed when he said it.
Abrate went inside and I walked back to the front entrance to the hotel.
Piaget was in the lobby when I came through the entrance, sitting in his usual place, a glass of wine in his left hand and a cigarette extending out from a holder in his right. He looked like he was a lost English aristocrat somehow come to be stuck in a run-down palace far from the halls of England, although he didn’t sound English at all.
“We got the apartment and I can’t thank you enough,” I said, holding out my right hand for a few seconds until I realized he had no place to put either the cigarette or the wine without appearing to slip from his formal role. I put my hand down, as he smiled one of his genuine friendly smiles. He took a deep inhalation from the cigarette, and then followed that by sipping some wine. I was about to sit down when he looked beyond me toward the big double doors that led into the small courtyard near the street, and his smile faded.
“You have company,” he said, jutting his chin toward the doors ever so slightly.
I turned to see a Marine officer walking into the lobby. He was a First Lieutenant and properly attired in Class “C” greens, which meant he was wearing the short sleeves shirt instead of my own long sleeves. Camp Pendleton, as I’d learned, was a Class “C” base, due to its ‘tropical’ location in Southern California.
The officer walked straight toward us and I noted that he wore a mustache that wasn’t real long on the ends but those ends were formed into neat little points. He took his cover off and held it in his hand.
“Joseph Beard, at your service,” he said with a great grin on his face.
“And…” Piaget replied, not going on.
“And I’m here for this man, as he’s probably guessed by now.”
My mind raced. How could anybody on the base know where I was. I’d told no one where we were staying, not even the pay clerk at Mainside. I wanted my week of recuperation but it looked for all the world that that wasn’t going to happen.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Can we talk outside for a second?” he replied, before nodding to Piaget and going on, “no offense…”
“None was taken,” Piaget replied, rising to his feet quickly, removing the cigarette from his mouth, and being careful not to spill his glass of wine. “I’ve got a bit of business in the back so you can stay right here. Nobody around at this hour.”
Both Joseph Beard and I waited. I examined his ribbons, which showed that he’d served in-country, but there were no indications, such as combat decorations, that he’d done anything but that. I noted that he wore the Explosive Ordinance Disposal gold badge which was so uncommon that it was the first I’d seen on a living Marine. It was larger than it appeared in the literature I’d read. I wondered what a man wearing the ‘crab,’ as the strange device was called, had been doing in Vietnam.
“You from the regiment?” I asked, knowing he had to be. I was dying to know how he’d found me but I wasn't going to ask.
“No, I’m from San Onofre, the nuclear plant there, but Colonel Fennessey is a great officer and friend. He mentioned that they were looking for you.”
I waited, not knowing what to say. Looking for me for what? I was nobody. I was a Second Lieutenant serving at the very bottom of a disability chart while awaiting a hearing before a medical board.
“The GTO,” Beard said, pointing back out to the street. “I drive a Camaro Super Sport, which sure as hell would give that thing a run. I saw it on Del Mar. I live in San Clemente where the Colonel said that you’d no doubt take up residence. He loves your car, so you weren't hard to find.”
I was amazed. It would have been hard to find for most people, but not for this man.
“Okay, so you found me,” I said with no enthusiasm in the tone of my words at all. “What, exactly does Colonel Fennessey want?”
“I came to apologize on his behalf,” the lieutenant said formally, standing at what was close to the position of attention. “You were treated badly when you reported in.
The Colonel wants to make that up to you.”
I was more than surprised. I was shocked. “The Colonel is apologizing to me?” I said, not quite believing Beard’s comments.
“He’s appointed you Executive Officer of Headquarters Battery, serving under Captain Johns, a fabulous guy who’s coming to the end of his service,” Beard said with a smile. “Play your cards right and you’ll have your own command, no matter what comes after that.”
I realized once again that neither Beard nor anyone else, apparently, had a record of my performance while I’d been in the A Shau, and the more I thought about it the more I liked that idea. Becoming Junior near the end of my stay at Oaknoll Naval Hospital hadn’t done me a bit of good. I’d already been a commander of Marines, and, in fact, had been nothing else while I’d been in-country, but nobody back in the states needed to know that.
“When do I have to report?” I asked.
“After your recuperation, of course,” Beard replied, smiling this time. “I told you that Fennessey’s a great Marine, but maybe you’ll have to find that out for yourself.”
I was instantly relieved. I had high hopes of being able to take a week off and maybe not have to show up wearing Saran Wrap, limping along, or any of that. A week wasn’t much but it seemed like a lifetime to me.
“What do you do at San Onofre?” I asked, liking the lieutenant more and more.
“Classified,” Beard replied. “I graduated from Caltech with a degree in nuclear research. I had no idea that the Marine Corps might want anybody with that kind of background, but I was wrong.”
“Maybe we can get together sometime here since the town’s pretty small,” I offered.
“It’s a city, technically,” Beard replied. “Sure, I’ll tell my wife. You find a place yet?”
I looked into Beard’s eyes and didn’t reply.
“Classified,” he said, laughing openly. “I won’t tell a soul, certainly nobody with the regiment you’re assigned to.”
“Cabrillo, a block from where we stand,” I said, deciding I had to trust somebody other than my wife. “Little apartment. Just got it.”
“Okay, I’ll find you again, just leave the GTO in the driveway or on the street,” he laughed, before going on. “Does this mean that when I report back this afternoon that you are accepting the Colonel’s apology? If you accept then you’re expected to have a social lunch with the Colonel and regimental staff at the O’Club at noon tomorrow.”
I was surprised again. Like what was the Colonel going to do if I said no? High Noon. I thought of the Gary Cooper movie. “Do not forsake me oh my darling, not on this our wedding day…” played through my mind. I was long married so the lyrics didn't apply, but the feelings sure did. Everything I was running into back in the ‘world of the round eyes,’ as we’d called it down in the A Shau, seemed so high threat in so many ways. And then, like a bolt of light, an idea came to me.
“It’s a deal,” I said to Lieutenant Beard, wondering if I’d ever see him again once he was done being the messenger pigeon for Colonel Fennessey. For some reason, Beard saluted me, even though we were both inside and uncovered, but he smiled with the salute.
Beard did an about-face and walked out through the wide-open front doors of the lobby. I waited a few seconds, and then followed.
Beard’s Camaro SS rumbled and then roared smoothly, as Beard got the car going. It was a convertible, beautiful with the top down, but convertibles were about four hundred pounds heavier than sedans in the GM line. My GTO was a sedan but the weight alone wouldn’t make the real devastating difference if the two vehicles we owned ever sat side by side to drag race. Mickey Thompson would be the difference.
I didn’t need to talk to my wife. The deal Abrate was offering, in spite of his sexual orientation, was a gift from God, and there was no sense not taking it.
I walked the short distance down Del Mar and into his store, once again. This time he was behind the counter. He looked up.
I took my cover off, tucked it under my left arm, and stuck my right hand across the top of the counter. “You’ve got a deal,” I said, “and I hope you’re free to have lunch at the O’Club tomorrow.
We shook, he smiled, and I left the way I’d come, replacing the ‘piss cutter’ hat back on my head as I walked out.
“Hey,” Abrate yelled from behind me.
I stopped and turned to face him.
“What time is the lunch?” he asked.
“High noon,” I said, trying to keep a smile from appearing on my face.