One Deadly Cobra To Go, Please: A Short Story
by Michael Disend, September 24, 2010
“I did not come from Paris for le Wharf of Fishermen or le Tower Coit or ze Rights Gay of Homozekshools. I come to your bootiful San Francisco for les bagels de Ze San Francisco Bagelry owned by Khanh Long Ly. Yes, Khanh Long Ly — ze one, ze only KHANH. Eee who is famous twoo-out Fwanz — and all of Urrwoop — as ze greatest bagel-maker alive today! For to eat les bagels of Khanh Long Ly, perhaps with strawberry cweam cheese and cwumblets, I come to your city . . . and for no other reason at all.”
— Tourist (quoted verbatim) on #19-Polk bus
Penman was scared shitless.
He and Trooster were striding along Polk Street early one jaunty, sun-bathed morning.
“We’re going for bagels and we’re sooo glad!” shouted Penman, grinning like a stuffed chimpanzee, the kind cuddled by tots in dreamland. His plush monkey grin — full of wise looks and foolish ways, a full stretch of Penman's aging kisser — delighted Trooster.
“Me, too,” she said, and beamed one of her yard-wide smiles that evoked roses flung recklessly into traffic, unaware that her partner's simian smile was an outright lie.
Last night — in one of the worst assaults yet — Penman had been terrorized once again by that internal thug he called “Joey Chest. ” The attack began after Penman decided to have a midnight snack: two organic avocados mashed with a mound of frozen vanilla bean Rice Dream, the splendid mix topped by a lemon cupcake, three rows of organic banana slices, and a handful of tiny organic animal crackers. He devoured it quickly, and then brushed, flossed, and lay down on his futon.
His eyes weren't closed five seconds before he heard a familiar gruff voice:
“Knock, knock. ”
Who's there? asked Penman with dread . . . although he knew.
“Joey. Joey Chest. ”
Penman lay in bed with his hands over his heart, praying to Nobody In Particular. Promising that he would live out his dumb old life differently — way differently — if he made it through the night without a Ground Zero-style myocardial infarction.
Because Joey Chest was once again waging one of his Knock-Knock-Who's-There-Mister-Obituary-Mister-Obituary-Who attacks, and they made Penman — an SF hippie of near Medicare eligibility (with Trooster close behind) — realize he was rinsing down the life-drain. For no matter how much chi he mustered by doing Immortal Breathing Small Heavenly Cycle exercises in Golden Gate Park with sprightly old Chinese women, the grey hair kept sprouting, his knee joints kept stiffening, his dick didn't get hard as often, and the periodic raids by Joey Chest's band of arterial insurgents had become unrelenting.
The worst part for Penman was that he hadn't achieved his lifelong spiritual quest of Infinite-Eternal-Awareness-Love-Bliss that began when he dropped his first LSD tab in high school at age 16.
“Is something wrong? ” asked Trooster suspiciously, peering up at him.
“Then let’s not dawdle,” she barked.
So the couple walked along Polk even faster now, crossing California Street as a cable car approached from one direction and a silly yellow sports car bore down upon them from another. Perhaps it was the sight of the two loving friends that made each vehicle pause at a safe, respectful distance — or perhaps not — but pause they did. And Penman and Trooster crossed against the light but not against a flow of goodwill from each and every driver.
How happy they were — that morning.
How rare to find such a romantic success story — that morning.
With bagels on the horizon!
Because when viewed from afar — like the doorway of Good Vibrations, the acclaimed dildo outlet across Polk, beyond Walgreens — the couple seemed like charming Sixties throwbacks: they took psychedelic drugs by day, fomented magical revolution by night, got mystical as the sun rose over the Golden Gate Bridge, and then just couldn’t find their way back to the “real world.”
If you didn’t know how carefree and sweetly content the couple was, you might expect problems. Problems like eviscerating societal estrangement caused by the planet’s miseries — which would mean Penman and Trooster could hardly earn a living or enjoy their morning if they even glanced at the SF Chronicle’s endless-catastrophe headlines, the couple’s visionary youth having left them too sensitive to survive in an era of demonic globalization.
Or mental illness — like many Acid Era casualties still wandering SF in a befuddled, despairing haze because no single peyote vision had ever come true. Or maybe spiritual imbalance: their Yin-Yang barometer way out of whack from excessive idealism and unnourished realism. Or perhaps simply the traumatic biophysical onset of old age coming on strong.
Joey Chest, for instance.
And when viewed up close — the way a bitchy woman with a little white dog on a leash gets in your way and tries to stare you down — their outer shells seemed to confirm such dark apprehensions.
Take Penman: grey-thatched gym rat and “old seeker,” puncher and scribbler and Zen guy, a bit of momentary glory and then a slide back into the realm of vanished communes and resurrected Sixties ideals, with the childish face of a freeze-dried six-year-old. How could a guy like that be happy? How the fuck did he survive? And yet he did.
With Joey Chest chasing his ass, throwing long shadows from a short distance.
And look at the Trooster: veteran of a hundred acid rock concerts, cock-galloping master lover of suicidal singers and bass guitarists-gone-evangelical, hadn’t driven a car in twenty-five years although she kept her license up to date, now writing her memoir about sick building syndrome and the depredations of the Disease-Industrial Complex. But still Muir Woods beautiful, her queen-size head stuffed with a queen-size brain and adorned by an aureole of red hair.
They’d never grown up. They couldn’t. They wouldn’t.
No matter. They were secret masters, greeting each (or almost each) and every day with accolades of unleavened delight.
Other times not.
Or both together.
But always, always, always was the couple wreathed in charm when they were munching bagels from The San Francisco Bagelry and visiting with Khanh Long Ly who had turned a merely good bagel shop into a world-acclaimed Temple of Dough With A Hole In the Middle.
They quickened their pace along Polk Street even more.
Then Penman saw before him the devil’s lair: Bob’s Doughnut & Pastry Shop. Penman shuddered and turned pale, even on this jaunty, sun-bathed morning.
He knew it was coming but, as always, he was unprepared.
The distance between Bob’s Doughnut & Pastry Shop and The San Francisco Bagelry was a few blocks. Not miles: blocks. No great distance. Not like a planet’s diameter after a nuclear blast, or an undulating galaxy’s expanding spacedust even as it devours space itself. Not like the busted floodgates of interminable data written by freelance computer experts tripling their income as government surveillance spies — after which American citizenry cavort in shackles of digital bollix.
Nothing like that.
Mere blocks of a quaint SF neighborhood called Polk Gulch, once inglorious haven of deviant wizards, low rent queers, sarcastic old queens and the boy whores they knelt before, long conversations with methamphetamine gum-grinders, nights being reamed by black butch tops who changed your life forever, the whole star-spangled bazaar of toxic cravings done up in pink ribbon.
Penman's kind of people . . . where he had lost multiple cherries.
All that, however, was before the Big Money Developer Jerkoffs came along, when everything degenerated and turned into frat house bars and short-lived overpriced eateries of no merit whatsoever.
So for Penman, Polk Street was the lacuna betwixt heaven and hell. And he wasn’t keeping it to himself, either.
“From toxic yummies to bagel paradise is the lacuna betwixt heaven and hell,” he orated with desperate confusion to Trooster.
“Hurry up, Penman. I don’t have all day.”
She walked faster, pulling Penman along in her wake. The thermodynamics were changing: she could feel it. Bob’s dark magic again.
“But did you like what I just said?” asked Penman.
“I wasn’t impressed. You just wanted to use the word lacuna.”
“What?” roared Penman. “That was poetry!”
She felt him bristle and tugged the cord tighter.
“I have a full work day ahead, Penman. Let’s get the bagels and hurry home.”
He bristled more, but shut up and kept pace — for a few moments.
Because this was the Trooster, scarlet-thatched sherpa of San Francisco, the lady who walked everydamnwhere, never took a bus, a car, a train, or a trolley “if I can help it,” just hiked the city’s looming cement breasts without pause or quibble — the steeper the better — then strode even faster. An untiring mountaineer, trekking (minus caffeine) from Noe Valley to the Marina by way of Pacific Heights then back to Pine Street just above Polk (without water bottle, either) — her motorized calves dumbfounding drivers and joggers alike. Penman’s personal sphinx and much admired best friend was the Trooster — and the couple was on a morning mission for favorite foodstuffs, as they loved each other and had enjoyed breakfast side by side on the comfy blue couch for the last five years.
Prior to breakfast, manipulated by an intelligence of an order so inconceivable it made God’s grace a mere concept, the two slept upon an inch-thick futon in the bedroom. Sometimes they made love — free and tender and sassy. Other times they nosedived into slumber. But always, they drifted to sleep in anticipation of their mighty morning feast with bagels as its centerpiece.
And that breakfast never included anything from Bob’s Doughnut & Pastry Shop.
But now even the Trooster’s power was put to the test.
Penman said, “I see ahead of me bagels of diamond, bagels of lionheart, bagels of green seeds sprouted from a tree of divine parrots. I see bagels made of love, of bravery, of kindness, of carrot, of possibilities for great wealth. Bagels of tomatoes. Coconut bagels, tuna bagels, bagels that smell like newborn babes, bagels shaped from photos of your mother when she was a ten-year-old cutie, dewdrop bagels, surfing bagels that drench you like the Pacific, bagels wide as the sky. Kosher salami bagels, bagels of your father after his first and possibly only fistfight — all bagels that taste amazing . . . they really really do.”
Trooster heard the desperation in Penman’s voice. He was talking crazy, trying to hypnotize himself from yielding to temptation. She turned and noticed that he had fallen ten yards behind her.
“Penman! Let’s go!”
But he had already turned back toward Bob’s Doughnut & Pastry Shop, staggering like a homeless crazy.
She watched him stop and press his face against the glass.
Penman stared covetously at an apple fritter.
How brave the fritter looks, thought Penman. How courageous — standing akimbo in the window of the notorious beignet bordello that never closed. A crusty, riven, shvartze-colored, sugar-coated warrior with hands on hips, all set to be gobbled and slathered round an American waistline. And don’t forget the rocketing blood pressure and oozing gums.
“You just wanted to use the word lacuna,” repeated Trooster. “And we’re not stopping for a fritter. Let’s go!”
“I don’t want a fritter,” lied Penman, still staring at the confident little cake, his heart aching for a sugar rush to expunge the suffering. “I’m simply admiring it.”
Trooster grabbed his arm and dragged him from the window.
So they race-walked again — very racey this time — and soon Bob’s Doughnut & Pastry Shop was behind them.
But not the suffering.
“Come back and eat me up!” cried the fritter.
Penman heard it calling after him and his fragile heart broke.
“Come back and eat me up!”
There’s so much to be sad about, agonized Penman, his sweet tooth yet unfulfilled as well as his latent diabetes, a disease that had driven his mother to dementia. Talk about suffering. His mother had ripped off her hospital gown and flapped her withered breasts in Penman’s face, mistaking him for a tenement acrobat on Brighton Beach back in the Thirties, when Sylvia Penman née Meyerowitz had done cartwheels and backward somersaults on the sand with half the young Jewish gents in the neighborhood chasing her curvy tuchis. Yes, hardly a day went by that Penman didn’t feel oodles of suffering. Much suffering around him, around you, around all of us. Much ignorance, and nearly all of it connected with gentrification, environmental pollution, and genocide.
And that’s precisely what the Buddha teaches, reflected Penman. Unmitigated suffering from conception to unredemption.
But there's another way, thought Penman frantically, as he strode along in Trooster's wake. There's the Loving All Method and the Love Everything You See Method combined with the Love Everything You Hear Method and, of course, that includes the Love Everything You Eat Method, and I bet the Buddha had a fritter-like cake now and then . . . after his Enlightenment, of course.
“Fritters solve nothing,” said the Trooster firmly. “Bagels are the answer.”
“Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!” cried Penman aloud, frightening a yuppie-in-training blonde chick who passed from the other direction, his invective penetrating even her iPod-stuffed eardrums.
“Fritters cause heart disease, cavities, madness, and nosebleeds. It’s like eating industrial waste.” said the Trooster.
“The last two times you ate fritters, your nose bled. Am I right or wrong, Penman? And what about Joey Chest? Heard from him lately?”
“Stop it! You’re right! But stop it!”
“THEN SAY NO TO FRITTERS, PENMAN!”
Polk and Broadway. Cars screeched. Cell phones strangled their owners. A dozen black birds wheeled overhead, cawing in Latin. Lightning bolts spelling a multitude of Holy Names appeared over Alcatraz. This was the most demonstrative Trooster had ever been with Penman. The loudest. The boldest.
Perhaps the angriest.
“Alright, Trooster,” said Penman softly.
The light was dawning. The Divine Light. The real true California Light.
And right away he felt better.
Swinging from Penman’s left hand was his venerated brown canvas gym bag — an authentic antique — with a tiny rubber boxing glove that revealed Penman to be an Old School Guy Full of Boxing Tricks. Like Watch-That-Left, or Falling-Back-On-The-Ropes, the Let-Me-Take-Off-My-Jacket-So-It-Doesn’t-Get-Torn routine, and the Modified Hair Lift.
Penman’s bagel bag.
He swung it back and forth now, as chipper as a tough almost-old fart could be, despite the depredations of Joey Chest. He was still virile. Just one piss all night. The Chinese herbs were working. To hell with fritters. To hell with Joey Chest! Penman had even done zazen on his little black cushion for an hour that morning. He felt himself being spiritually tested by the secret Indweller called G-d or the Self, depending on whether Penman was identifying that moment as Jew or non-dual Advaitic practitioner seeking Awakening.
Fritter or bagel.
Which would it be?
Bagels for sure.
He hadn’t given in to the Fritter of Doom.
He hadn’t. He hadn’t.
He'd defied Joey Chest — and won.
Thanks to the Trooster.
Up ahead was the enormous sesame-seed bagel sign.
To Penman it was Jerusalem, the Temple Mount, and Benares, all in one.
Penman and Trooster breezed past the outdoor tables full of noshers and sippers and newspaper readers — those who seek not understanding but merely stuff their fat faces — and into the esteemed temple of circular ritual objects made of flour, Penman taking the lead of course, as he always did.
Khanh Long Ly was in back — they could see him talking to one of the bakers, the guy with glasses — and Penman took his usual moment to appreciate the deft feng-shui changes Khanh had made to the place. Like facing the counter in a northeast direction, presenting the holy offerings more spaciously, bringing the priests of the bagel temple close to the street. The wall designs were also fancier. And yet the bagel-display shrines were slanted at the same comforting angle, subtly suggesting the intersection of perfect bagel consumption and a perfect life.
They reached across the counter and firmly shook hands.
“I haven’t seen you,” said Khanh, with a warm smile.
Penman smiled also. He didn’t know what to say and felt guilty. But why?
“He’s been working hard, Khanh,” said Trooster. “You can blame it on me.”
Khanh kept smiling and looked from one to the other, as if he were in on a secret.
“If Penman had his way he’d eat and sleep in your store,” continued the Trooster. “You’re lucky I’m around.”
Penman could feel his face getting red. Still, he didn’t know why. It was just a bagel shop. Just Khanh. Just great human soulfulness bubbling up in a world of war and disease and deprivation and downright evil.
He looked at Khanh and wondered how the man would appear as a Buddhist monk. And at once he saw Khanh in Dharma robes seated cross-legged on a cushion, meditating deeply — deeper even than Penman himself, who’d been practicing most of his life — and then he realized that he knew Khanh from “before,” wherever that was . . . in a lifetime prior. Deep in the sea as another fish, or as Jews together in Israel, or as Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, Irish, Russian companions. That he and Khanh had shared some earlier experiences that would forever remain unknown, the treasure chest of memories from other lives kept sealed for all but the wisest yogis. But that was okay, as well. Just fine. Because it is in this life that we help each other and give love.
“The usual, Penman?”
“Sure. Just a dozen, please, Khanh. No more.”
But Khanh was already filling a huge bag with “really seedy” bagels — first twelve, then a baker's dozen, then up to eighteen. And long bread sticks, and bialys, and big flat round crusty discs speckled with garlic and onion and friendship, and Penman was grinning because he didn’t deserve them but Khanh gave them to him anyway.
And Penman said to himself, someday, somehow, I have to make it up to this man. I have to, or this will carry into another life, because this is a very good, very kind, very hard-working, truly spiritual man, this Khanh Long Ly who now runs The San Francisco Bagelry on Polk Street just beyond Broadway.
Then Khanh hoisted two huge plastic Deluxe Mayonnaise containers and placed them in a bag, and Penman blushed, because in those containers was not salad dressing but two gallons of bagel crumblets, gathered from the bottom of the “really seedy” bagel trays and stored up for Penman. This was a gift of the heart from Khanh to Penman who sprinkled the crumblets upon nearly everything he ate, ranging from cereal to salad, and sometimes eating it by the spoonful when he felt lonely, and often dipping ends of peeled bananas into the crumblets and wolfing them down while standing over the kitchen sink so the crumblets wouldn’t fall on the floor. And every day he double-toasted the bagels just right for their breakfast, buttered them perfectly with 100% vegan butter-substitute spread, and then sprinkled crumblets from The San Francisco Bagelry on top — this amazing free deliriously wonderful gift from Khanh — and they ate their breakfast together and cuddled and it was the most intimate time of their day.
None of this had to happen. But it did. Because of Khanh’s good heart.
The Buddha advised us to live our lives as if a cobra were in the room. Penman lived that way, as much as he could. But there was a time when the cobra molted into ocean and light and Khanh and bagels and the perfection that has no beginning and never an end.
“Thank you, Khanh,” said Penman.
He paid for the bagels, smiled sheepishly, packed up the canvas bag and stepped with Trooster out onto Polk Street.
“See?” said the Trooster. “Do you understand now?”
“Yes,” said Penman, although he had no idea what she was talking about. “Want to stop in Peet’s for a coffee?”
Trooster sighed. “Alright, but I only have a few minutes.”
Holding hands, they walked next door into Peet’s and stood peacefully at the end of the morning line which snaked all the way back to the coconut-sprinkled, chocolate-covered, raisin-filled scones, one of which had already caught Penman's eye.
Michael Disend is an actor and writer living in San Francisco. As an author, he achieved early success with his novel Stomping the Goyim, which was praised by William S. Burroughs. Many of his short stories and features have appeared in The Village Voice, The San Francisco Bay Guardian, Sports Illustrated, and other journals.