“I’ll take it! I’ll take it!” Andre shouted in excitement. Then he carefully counted out $250,000 and pushed the pile of money across the rickety kitchen table. I picked up the crisp notes and checked that they came to the right amount. Satisfied, I passed an extremely rare painting by Monet across to my cousin.
“Jammy sod.” Sue gritted her teeth. Andre already owned Van Gogh’s Sunflowers and some very valuable Rembrandts. He got the Monet painting at a very good price, because Sue and I didn’t have the funds to outbid him. I was down to my last hundred grand and things were getting desperate.
It was early evening. On the other side of our kitchen window a heavy fog lay across the streets of San Francisco. Out on the Pacific Ocean ships wailed mournfully. This was the only sound that could penetrate the blanket-like fog, the traffic on Taraval Street being barely audible. Our home on the corner of Taraval Street was one of three 1st floor apartments above a computer games shop. Taraval is a main drag; steep, with two sets of tram lines that run down the gradient in a series of roller coaster humps that are a common feature of San Francisco. From our apartment the roller coaster ran west for ten blocks until it levelled out and ended at Ocean Beach, which is pounded by the Pacific waves. Six blocks to the south of us was San Francisco Zoo and Lake Merced, a lake formed by the San Andreas fault line. To the north lay the Golden Gate Park, and to the east was Twin Peaks and Diamond Heights, the mountainous area that almost cuts San Francisco in half, separating the mostly residential districts of the city from the downtown area. Our district was called Sunset; a very apt name, because when the fog was not obscuring the view the sunsets over the Pacific could be spectacular.
“Ok Andre, you’ve won, again…” I stood up and walked over to the refrigerator.
Andre began gathering together his valuable paintings and suggested another game.
“It’s boring. You keep winning.” Sue sighed.
“Oh to hell with it, let’s have another game,” I said, “we need another television anyway.” I opened the fridge door and was confronted by a huge glass jug. It occupied most of the available space in the fridge. The golden liquid it contained shone silkily in the light. Struggling with the weight of the jug, I carried it over to the table and topped up our mugs with wine. We never had wine glasses, or any kind of glasses come to that. We used to drink the wine out of coffee mugs. I don’t think the wine minded.
One hundred miles to the north east of San Francisco is the Napa Valley, which has long been the center of the American wine industry. With its blazing days and temperate nights the grapes grow and the juice flows. There are nearly 100 wineries in the Napa Valley and some produce world class wines. Others cater to the less salubrious end of the market, with the result that in San Francisco you could buy a gallon of poor qualty wine for only four dollars. The winos loved it.
I put the four dollar gallon of wine back in the fridge and sat down at the kitchen table.
“Right, this will be the penultimate game then.” I lit-up a Winston.
“No, let’s make this the last game.” Sue took a swig of wine, grimaced, then helped herself to my cigarettes.
“That’s what I said, the penultimate game, the last game.”
“Penultimate means the last but one,” put in Andre, the king of Masterpiece, a board game we played for hours on end during those foggy San Francisco nights. The reason we played the game so much was because quite often our tv set wouldn’t be working.
Our televisions lasted about 2 weeks on average. Every weekend in Sunset there were heaps of garage sales, and there were nearly always old tv sets on offer. They were always black and white and they cost around 10 bucks. ‘My God, what a bargain’ said Andre, the first time we came across one of these tv sets, ‘we must buy it’, and so we did. These old tv sets had aerials attached to them, with spikes and prongs that caught on anything they came into contact with. They also provided very poor reception. As a result we would often hit the tv set to try and obtain a better picture; sometimes a boot would be applied as well. Thus, the tv sets had a very short life expectancy. Now and again they would die their own death after years of struggle. If our tv died on a week day we had to wait until the weekend garage sales to find a replacement. In the meantime, Masterpiece would be brought out and we’d sit round the kitchen table to play the game. The trouble was, Andre always used to win.
“No, you’re wrong,” I continued stubbornly, “it means the last one, the penultimate one.”
“It doesn’t,” said Sue, “it means the…”
The apartment began to gently shake and we all paused, holding our breath. We were only a stone’s throw away from the San Andreas fault line and the experts had predicted a big earthquake for that very summer (as it turned out, the big earthquake struck San Francisco the following year, 1989). In a matter of seconds the trembling began to die away. It was only a tram car passing down Taraval Street on its way to Ocean Beach. When the trams went by, which they did frequently, and that gentle rumble started, we were never quite sure that it wasn’t the start of the ‘big one’. Things were definitely stirring below our feet. There had already been some mild earthquake tremors since our arrival in San Francisco. Our nerves were spared, though, because thus far these tremors had occurred in the early hours of the morning, when we were anaesthetized by cheap wine.
The argument continued.
“Honestly, penultimate means the one before the last one.” Sue was a trained journalist and knew what she was talking about.
I was having none of it though.
“You’re wrong! You’re wrong! When you say something is penultimate you mean it is the last, there will be no more.”
“No! no! no!,” screamed Sue. “It means the second to last. The last one would be the ultimate one.”
Being the king of Masterpiece was thirsty work and Andre went to the fridge to pay homage to the four dollar gallon of wine.
“What does it matter?” He topped up his mug.
“You see, Andre knows I’m right. Now, let’s have the penultimate game of Masterpiece.”
Andre begged to differ.
“This will be the last game, not the penultimate game.”
“But it means the same thing!” I said.
“NO IT DOESN’T,” Sue shouted, “our last game was the penultimate game.”
“Ah ha, you see, you just admitted it, you said our last game is our penultimate game.” I ducked as Sue threw the packet of Winston at me.
“I DIDN’T SAY THAT! I said the game we had BEFORE was our penultimate game.”
Thud! Thud! Thud! It was our next door neighbour, banging his kid’s head against the wall.
The three apartments on the corner of Taraval Street were built on a flat roof. They were reached by a short flight of stairs that ran up from a wrought iron gate. The largest of the apartments was occupied by our landlady, Sue Wong, a middle-aged Chinese woman with two young children. The kids used to run around on the flat roof, but our landlady never seemed to leave her apartment, where there was the most enormous television set I’ve ever seen (it was the size of a wardrobe). Mr Wong had apparently disapeared into the night some years previously. Perhaps this was why Sue Wong always looked sad; yet she was a nice person and rented the apartment to us for $650 a month. For this we had a front room with a large window overlooking Taraval Street, a greasy kitchen, a bathroom and small back bedroom. It was somewhat cramped for three people, but good value considering that we were just twenty minutes from the center of one of the most beautiful cities in the world.
Sue Wong’s home was separate. The other two apartments adjoined each other. Our neighbours were a Hispanic family headed by a young man called Bambo. Bambo was in his early twenties. Short, stocky and muscular, he only ever wore a white t-shirt and black jeans. He had tattoos across his rippling muscles, a pierced ear and dripped with jewellery. Macho and mean, you did not mess with Bambo. His attractive wife was barely out of her teens and was always surrounded by a multitude of children, whose number we were never able to ascertain. The family lived on welfare and all of us were terrified of Bambo. A disruptive child in a man’s body, we had immediately christened him ‘the wild bambino’.
Bambo’s greatest joy in life was his car, which looked like a Batmobile that had been sprayed white. He would often cruise up and down Taraval Street in the Batmobile, his sound system pounding out latin beats as he groomed himself in the driving mirror. His wife and children were never allowed in the car and had to use public transport if they needed to go anywhere. Bambo was the boss. Bambo was the man. Bambo was too immature to handle family responsibilities and often lost his temper. Sometimes the noise from next door got so bad that we considered calling the police – a screaming wife, screaming kids, the sound of furniture being banged around, broken crockery, loud arguments in Spanish that died away as quickly as they started, doors being slammed shut. It went on at any time of the day or night.
On some days Bambo would be at peace with the world. At such times he would play his sterio at full volume, making the walls vibrate. We often complained to Sue Wong about it, but she was too terrified to say anything to the wild bambino. Apparently she had given him notice months previously. However, Bambo did not feel like moving on just yet and in the meantime we would all have to put up with him, including his wife, who always looked to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown. The quietest moments were when the authorities paid a visit: a social worker, a probation officer, a policeman making enquiries. It all became unusually quiet next door and we were glad of the rest.
Bambo and his brood did not socialise with their neighbours. Even on very hot days the kids were kept inside the apartment; probably so that we wouldn’t see the bruises. In all the months we lived there we never had a conversation with the wife. Now and again, though, you would encounter Bambo on the roof passageway. You’d press your back against the wall and smile nervously as he strutted by, his gold necklaces and chains clinking noisily. Bambo’s manners and dress made him a figure of fun, but only a very brave person would laugh openly at the wild bambino.
The thudding on the other side of the wall stopped. We heard loud voices followed by a crashing sound, then a child wailing, then the wife screaming, then the crash of a door, then silence broken only by low sobs. The wild bambino had left. We started breathing again and got back to more mundane matters.
“I tell you you’re wrong,” said Sue. “I’ll prove it! Where’s my dictionary?” She got up and walked into the front room.
While Sue was gone I got the four dollar gallon of wine from the fridge and placed it reverentially on the table. The table wobbled to and fro and Andre had to steady it with his hand. A kitchen extractor fan started up on the roof of a nearby pizza joint and made the window panes rattle. The fog looked as though you could cut out pieces of it with a knife. The sad sirens called from the ocean. Sue returned with her dictionary and we commenced battle.
“Let’s see…” she flicked through the pages. “Here we are, penultimate: the one next to the last.” Closing the book she smiled with satisfaction.
I took another hit of wine.
“No, no, you’re wrong! It doesn’t say the one before the last, it says the one next to the last. That means not before or after, but at the same time. It’s just another way of saying the last!”
For a moment there was silence, then Sue threw the heavy dictionary at me and reached for the four dollar gallon of wine.
It wasn’t the last argument we had in California, or even the penultimate one.
From When I Went Out One Summer’s Morn, Rob Godfrey’s memoir of 20 years of travels, available as both an ebook and a paperback from Amazon or Smashwords – note: Smashwords offers a wide range of ebook formats, including Kindle and PDF.