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Center of the Universe (31)

Center of the Universe (31)

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PART II: PARTY OF THE SECOND PART

New Year’s Eve Eve in the Parallel Universe

We hadn’t been on the mountain for years — so long that we took a wrong turn and wound up on the road to Muir Beach. Which is when the walls starting closing in. The Big C.

Claustrophobia.

Funny it’s not limited to window seats on airplanes or family dinners in Florida — funnier still that it never shows up in elevators, even stuck ones, even stuck ones from 1930, like the clackety wooden crate that travels one floor, 14 to the Tip, in which I once spent 45 minutes with three clients. Still, zero claustrophobia. In fact, I was able to occupy the time quite fruitfully — comedically and, if you ask me, heroically — dispelling my guests’ anxiety.

But I knew the road to Muir was also the road back from Muir — no shortcuts, not many turnarounds, maybe none — and I knew it was 20 minutes each way and I was already hungry. We both were. And it was New Year’s Eve afternoon, and we had to get to Fairfax and festoon ourselves before the rendezvous with Alex and Lisa, and the usual familial suspects, at Sorellas, for New Year’s Eve eve. And I could see the whole thing quickly getting out of hand — emotionally, I mean.

Oh, god.

Then I spotted the Pelican.

We’d never been to the Pelican Inn, which looks like something out of the Bard. Low eaves, rough white stucco, exposed beams — Tudor-style. I think they serve food. I think Steve — Wendy’s Steve, the bassist — I say to Hoffman, used to be manager. And I also think, judging by the fit-looking bicyclists sipping beer on the lawn, they’re open New Year’s Eve afternoon. And, look, there’s a parking spot, right near the door — a most auspicious augury, speaking of the paranormal.

The Pelican sustains the theme on the interior, with small Shakespearean rooms, short ceilings and a few, stingy windows — none of which, by the way, induces claustrophobia, though the main room looks as crowded as an Elizabethan drug jail.

Two for lunch? I venture.

Not in the restaurant, the zenned-out gent behind the podium answers, gesturing with his pen, adding with more hope than may have been merited. But you can get food in the pub.

It’s New Year’s Eve day, I think, so anything’s possible. Maybe people on New Year’s Eve day are saving themselves for New Year’s Eve eve? Maybe the pub’ll be empty.

Not empty, we discover, as we round the corner. But promising. Full, but still with standing room at the bar. Surprised, I belly up and, one more time, am forced to recognize that things too good to be true always are. Just to the left of where I take my willfully blind stand is a dense and dour line of bicyclists, hikers and daytripping families clutching laminated Pelican pub menus, a queue that leads all the way from the sole barman meticulously inscribing orders in an undersized pad to the Pacific horizon, or at least the bar’s back wall.

I said to Hoffman: We can eat in Stinson.

But I hated to give up that parking spot.

It was a happy call. Overdose, he said. Yeah, overdose — as if some mofo had gotten exactly what he deserved.

Before you hit the triumphal downhill into Stinson Beach, you have to spend five minutes going up, higher. It’s a disconcerting bit of topography, a discouraging patch of navigation, if you’re starving and stressed, especially if your claustrophobia is triggered, not primarily by tight spaces, but by futility and paradox.

We passed the Tamalpais Hiking Club (if that’s what it’s called) where our old pal Joe Oh married the lovely Missy M. in a fascinating Korean ceremony.

(Didn’t she have to catch money? I said to Hoffman. Holding out her skirt?

Dates! said Roni. Signifies how many kids she’ll have.

And didn’t Joe have to carry her on his back? I continued.

To prove he can take care of her, replied Hoffman, who is not your typical Korean.)

Come to think of it, that may have been the last time we were on the mountain. Which means it’s been six or seven years, because they’ve got a couple kids, and the oldest, Henry (or is it Dante?), is at least five. And not 50 yards further along the ridge, just before Panoramic Highway (which, at one lane each direction, is not a highway at all) starts the plunge to Stinson and the tried-and-true delights of the Parkside Cafe, we passed the Mountain Home Inn.

You can see from Panoramic through the windows and across the parking deck that, on a forever-clear day like this, the Mountain Home, where we’ve also never been, has spectacular panoramic views — Tiburon, Angel Island, a slice of downtown SF and both the Richmond and Bay bridges. And you know it’s a hotel, but think they must have a restaurant and wonder if it’s open — there’s one parked car. And, after pondering for a few milliseconds too long, after you’ve actually passed the place — but just after, officer — you bootleg the Prius across the oncoming lane, executing a miraculous 240-degree U-ey into the lot across the street, and don’t actually get arrested and no one gets killed.

Not believing our luck, I say to Hoffman, Let me double-check. And run across the road.

The preggo barmaid says, Sure, we’re open, and I run back to retrieve the bride.

It does not escape me that a beautiful spot between two curves on Panoramic, high above the Mill Valley treetops, two months shy of our extraordinary round-number anniversary, at the absolute butt-end of an absolutely murderous, butt-awful annum, would be the perfect time and place for the pair of us to be summoned yonder. Which — considering the company from this year — might not be all bad. But still.

We hold hands extra tight as we step into peril.

The vista was even more spectacular — wider and more forever — inside. And when we said it was too cold for the deck, the bulging barmaid cheerfully offered a two-top one in from the view, both of the window tables being occupied. For a big slob who doesn’t mind a mess, prefers it, wallows in it for inspiration, I have a strangely sensitive smeller. And at this moment it was informing me that the Mountain Home had mildew problems and maybe, considering the small, greasy dust-bunnies that clustered at the base of the empty table opposite, a tidiness issue.

More than that, I detected a disturbance in the space-time continuum.

I didn’t mention any of this to my longtime companion, who seemed jazzed, in her diminuendo way, that we were finally about to eat and that, beyond the sun-soaked dining room, as far as her painterly eye could see, was a painterly vision of paradise. And while you might never suspect it from some of the stories here, I’m a guy who prefers to accentuate the positive. When I make a suggestion — which is, after all, what a dangerous U-turn is, symbolically — I try not to undermine it. I want to preserve its full value in the marital ledger — zero depreciation — and continue to build my cred.

But down the bench from Hoffman at one of the two window tables was a homicidal maniac.

At the other window table, next to where grease bunnies gamboled, was a Mad Hatter Tea Party.

And all that told me the barmaid had to be carrying Rosemary’s baby.

The tea party featured three sturdy, conservatively dressed middle-aged ladies, one twice as big as me (who is not little), celebrating a birthday with an infinite loop of desserts. What should we have next? they’d ask each other in near-perfect American, only a trailing curlicue of pronunciation marking them, if you paid attention, as originating from Germany or Austria. Or maybe Remulak, via France. It was trippy. But I was pretty sure they’d be gentle with the anal probe.

Not so much the homicidal maniac.

Leaning against the window, he stretched one leg out on the bench, not six feet from Hoffman, double-thumbing his phone, chuckling into texts. He was young, as young as teenage, young as a person you don’t expect to see, alone, in a romantic, mid-priced mountaintop restaurant. He was long, tall and clean-shaven, shiny, lanky, close-cropped — skinhead-style — wearing a Berkeley hoodie. But not a university sweatshirt, a city of Berkeley souvenir, if you paid attention. Tourist crap. Odd tourist crap.

Several beats too long after preggo suggested the deck and then seated us inside, the skinhead turned to us and, with a smile, urged us to reconsider: It’s nice out there.

I took it to mean he was waiting to push us off the 30-foot drop. Or drifting, stoned. In any case, entirely relaxed and at the same time alarmingly coiled, he was clearly a minute or two from something. I thought it would be a mistake to respond, beyond grunted acknowledgment.

He received a call. It was a happy call.

Overdose, he said. Yeah, overdose.

And then he said overdose several more times, with a smile, same smile — as if it was silly that this dummy was in the hospital or some mofo had gotten exactly what he deserved.

Overdose.

It didn’t seem like he was showing off.

Even as the Deutsche desserters scanned the sweets menu, talking among themselves, the killer explained to the waiter in detail what he wanted for dessert. And when the two scoops of vanilla with caramel, nuts and coconut flakes arrived, he told preggo that the waiter, after all that, had got his order wrong. He was pissed, but abruptly backed off, saying please a lot and thank you, m’am and sir. Overpolite, like psychokillers. And when the waiter came back with lemon cake, he followed him to the kitchen.

Sorry, sir, for getting you in trouble on your job. Sorry, sir! Sir?

Then, following preggo: I didn’t mean to get him in trouble on his job, m’am. Sorry about that. Sorry to get him in trouble.

Definitely stoned. But so much more.

My bratwurst arrived, to my delight, on a bun, fully loaded with sauerkraut and Euro mustard. Hoffman had a burger — no cheese, never cheese — and fries. If the brat had puckered from too long under the warming bulb, it was still a brat, and, as reported here last year, I’m a sucker for sausage. Roni said her burger, piled high with sliced onions, tomatoes and no cheese, was fine, too. Which is almost her highest praise.

As a last meal, I thought, this will more than suffice.

But right when I thought the kid was going to apologize profusely and draw the glock from the fake Berkeley hoodie and apologize some more with hollow-point, a silver-gray saucer-shaped craft descended from the big blue painting outside to the sacred mountain — what the Miwoks called Tamalpais, or Sleeping Lady — and Overdose was out and up and gone. Or, anyway, gone. And there were no bodies in his wake — except the happily burgeoning bodies of the birthday girls — and Hoffman and I, sealed into the white hybrid, with nary a claustrophobic thought in our heads, headed down and around the mountain to Stinson, Fairfax and the Center of the Universe.

And it just goes to show.

Center of the Universe (32)

Center of the Universe (32)

Center of the Universe (30)

Center of the Universe (30)