Following is an excerpt from the new novel, Gomez, by Bill Pieper. Join the author at The Book Collector, (1008 24th St., near J) in mid-town Sacramento, 4 p.m. on Sunday, November 13, 2005, for a reading, signing and party to send his new novel GOMEZ (Pacific Slope Press) out to meet the literary public. Future events for the book in the Sacramento and Bay Areas are planned and will be announced when final dates be-come known.

After its launch Gomez will be available in stores and on-line starting November 15, 2005. "The book playfully reincarnates Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller for an update of their legendary love af-fair, this time in 1978 San Francisco at the highwater mark of the sexual revolution. Beyond that, it offers a penetrating look at the manifold issues of how we define personal identity, to ourselves and through our interactions with others." You can purchase his novels on-line at http://stores.ebay.com/bpbooks


CHAPTER 1

When Gomez was in his Henry Miller period he lived off Valencia Street near 22nd in a one-room, back-alley apartment. It was San Francisco, of course, not Paris, but the Mission District of 1978 seemed gritty enough to suggest Place de Clichy in the 1930s, especially if you hadn’t been to Paris, which Gomez hadn’t.

He was no writer, either, but he owned all of Miller’s books—the two Tropics, Sexus, Nexus and so on, plus obscure ones like Air Conditioned Nightmare. He even had his version of Anaïs Nin, an artsy banker’s wife from Piedmont named Madeline Klein, who for a while there couldn’t get enough of him. She was my age, 33, while Gomez said he was 38. In fact, like Miller, Gomez had a June in his past, but he was the only one of us who knew it then.

Mad and Gomez always denied a resemblance to the famous literary pair, so I finally stopped bringing it up. But if they didn’t want people making the connection, why were copies of Plexus or Nin’s Diary always lying around while Gomez’s other books, of which he had a lot, were lined up on his wall of sagging board-and-brick shelves? The strangest part, though, is that Gomez was an alias, and that he’d looked far more Hispanic the year before, when I met him in Berkeley under a different name.

In both cases he was brash, brown-eyed and swarthy, but as Gomez he’d buzz-cut his unruly mane to quarter-inch length, shaved off his Zapata-style mustache, and gone from contact lenses to a pair of round, silver, wire-rim glasses. He’d also Europeanized his wardrobe and changed the way he walked, although I couldn’t swear to the last of those details. Talking to him, you knew he’d been through other transitions, but I somehow expected the Gomez one, because I’d witnessed it, to be the last.

As for Madeline, I thought she was a major babe: strawberry blonde, with long, slightly wavy hair, which she liked to tie up or accent with scarves. No one would dispute that her hair and her wide-gauge mouth were her best features or that she knew how to play them for maximum effect. Given Mad’s coloring, she’d have freckles if she were Irish, but as a Pole she was blessed with clear, wrinkle-free skin, hazel eyes, breasts not so large that they sagged at all, and everything from there down was just right as well. Her face bones were maybe a little pinched, and she’d had a nose-job she assumed people noticed, but the braces her family paid for when she was a kid had given her a memorable smile.

Still, it would have remained another example of the unfulfilled longing I was used to if Gomez hadn’t so pointedly drawn Mad and me together. I was shocked to be made his proxy, but with Mad corroborating his intent, that seemed the only logical explanation. It went with the Henry Miller thing, and never before had a woman pursued me. Nor am I such a moralist that I think bad consequences were inevitable.

There are always multiple turning points in life, and a key one for me was what happened at Mad's that May. I don’t mean the sex. I mean afterward, which I certainly hadn’t planned. How much of it she planned I’ve never known, but obviously some, since I was told in advance where and when to appear. Had I been less nervous and less consumed with carnal thoughts while driving across the bay and while Mad’s maid, Graciela, was letting me in, I might have wondered if I was following a script.


_ _ _


"Geez," I mumbled disorientedly, "what time is it?" Something had made my eyes flutter open, and I rotated my head in Mad’s direction, stretching myself under the light blanket she’d pulled over us.
Like an odalisque, she was propped on one elbow, with her hair cascading along her arm and her teeth visible in an amused smile. "Well, we’re making progress," she said. "This time you even let yourself conk out. You were so skittish when you arrived, I didn’t know what to expect."

It came to me where I was—in the guest cottage, behind Mad and her husband’s house, on the bare wooden floor on a mattress surrounded by the glow of a half-dozen paper bags, each containing a few inches of sand and a lit candle. They were a means of illumination learned from Graciela, and they had a Spanish name Mad told me and I’d forgotten. The room was otherwise sparsely furnished, with the few chairs and the desk lost in shadows against the walls. We had left the French doors onto the small patio ajar, and the sweet odor of lemon blossom drifted in whenever the air moved.

I had my watch on, so checking the time was easy, but while leaning toward one of the lighted bags for visibility I nearly knocked over our bottle of cabernet and the wineglass we’d been sharing. "Quarter to twelve," I said, relieved. "Not too bad."

"You can stay, you know. Clark is in Borneo the rest of the week."

"Yeah, but it’s a workday and I don’t want to hassle the commute…not to mention trying to dodge your neighbors on my way out."

Mad gave a languorous laugh. "The driveway has tons of privacy, Paul, and you could be one of Graciela’s friends for all anybody cares."

"I still ought to leave." Actually, I was still seared from a prior cycle of approach and avoidance on her part and didn’t want to risk morning-after awkwardness.

"Fine," she nodded, rolling toward me, "if that’s what you want." We kissed with real intimacy, as though it was the most natural thing in the world. Gently, she pulled back. "Now, I’ve got abluting to do while you get dressed. My new lover had DSB."

"I need vocabulary help with that one."

She laughed again. "Deep sperm buildup."

"Oh," I said, embarrassed, as she had probably intended.

Mad quietly retrieved the camisole she’d been wearing beforehand and wadded it into a makeshift towel, which she pressed against herself under the blanket when she sat up. Letting the blanket fall away, she turned and stood, holding the camisole in place. I saw her graceful back and the twin mounds of her rear, their whiteness exaggerated in the candle-glow, move toward the dark rectangle of the bathroom door. She closed it, I heard the switch click, and a crack of light showed at floor level.

I became aware, too, that my groin was radiating a form of satiated pleasure I had barely realized it was capable of. I was supposed to get dressed, but all I did was lie there. Until Mad it had never been my experience that there were women who would pantingly say while they were wrapped around you that they wanted all you had and wouldn’t stop until they got it. Even if your genital endowments were modest, these same women also seemed to enjoy performing oral sex.

Like a teenager after a heavy date, I smelled my fingers to verify that what I was remembering had been real. You’d think that having gone to college in the Sixties and the eight years of my former marriage would have taught me those things, but that’s not how it ever was for me, or for me and Jenny either.

Discomfiting as this is to admit, Mad was rewriting my sexual profile, leaving me to cope with the idea that a rewrite was what Gomez had in mind. No one wants to be a charity case, but resisting was impossible when she was the alm and my other options were so few. To salvage a vestige of pride, however, I was happy to pretend—outwardly, and inwardly as best I could—that having his permission wasn’t really unusual, or of great importance, which appeared to suit all of our purposes.

I talked as little as possible to either of them about the other, and Gomez, who typically loved the big-brother role, showed decreased interest in talking to me about Mad. It mirrored his strategy regarding her husband, whose existence Gomez assiduously minimized. Since Gomez himself seemed to need—or prefer—the illusion in order to play, he would realize that I did too. And to whatever extent he and Mad talked about me, a thought I truly hated, I was counting on it to be minor.

Sigmund, Mad’s cat, a fluffy gray tabby, nosed in through the French doors and padded over to sniff the roach-clip and stubbed-out leavings in the ashtray on her side of the mattress. He then stepped onto it opposite me and flopped down. I heard water running, and knew I needed to rouse myself. Time to file the barely believable mental images of the past hour-and-a-half, which were like starring in my own porn film without the bother of lights, camera or retakes.

I poured more wine, slid the bottle to a safer place, gathered my clothes and sat on what had been my pillow. Mad’s tape deck, whose click must have awakened me when it automatically rewound, clicked again to launch a low-volume repeat of our earlier music, a dreamy flute album called Midnight at the Taj Mahal. I had worn only underwear, khakis, socks, running shoes, an Alligator shirt, and a velour sweatsuit jacket, but putting them on amounted to an IQ test.

The bathroom door swung open and Mad emerged wearing a short, jade-green satin robe. She left the light on behind her so we could see as she went around extinguishing the…the…luminaria… that was the word.

"I’ll have more, too," she said, pointing at the wine bottle. With a contrived pout in her voice, she added, "But you were mean not to smoke with me before."

"Something for the future," I answered. "You say I did OK without it." I had been too concerned about how I would behave my first time on her turf, and I’m not really a doper. I also wanted to think she and I had a future, if only nights like this. Taking another small swallow of wine, I handed her the glass.

She sat between Sigmund and me, idly petting him, her legs folded beneath her. "What if I’d had cocaine?" she teased.

"I’m not really into that." The fact was, I’d never done it, which she probably knew, but I didn’t want to confess.

She gave a sweetly skeptical smile. "Gomez says cocaine is for dancing and grass is for sex. Maybe he’s right, maybe not."

OK, there he was. You never knew when he would pop up, and in this setting my least-favorite topic. "Freely asserted, freely denied, my ex-wife likes to say."

"Oh, yeah, the scientist," Mad replied, drinking some wine. Mad is also the type who lightly touches or grasps your forearm off and on while she talks, which she now did to mine with her free hand. "I’m blanking on her name," she continued. "Sorry."

"Jenny," I replied, having blundered into my other least-favorite topic. It was usually easy to divert Mad onto her childhood or the inner workings of her job. Why hadn't I done that? Even discussing her husband would be preferable to Gomez or Jenny.

"She’s a Brit, you said?" Mad asked.

"Uh-huh," I answered reluctantly.

"Well," Mad shrugged, returning to her earlier thought, "Gomez is a fantastic character, but he can sure be dogmatic about things."

If Gomez was the only way to avoid Jenny, so be it. I’d blown the chance for a more benign segue, and didn’t want Mad probing how my marriage had ended. Whatever she already knew was bad enough. "He can," I agreed. "That’s a lot of what makes him fantastic. His lack of self doubt."

"Ever wonder if he’s too fantastic?" With or without the arm-touching, Mad is big on eye contact, and she accompanied her question with an extra dose of both.

"What do you mean?"

"His whole bio," she laughed. "The Henry Miller business is an open charade, but Buenos Aires? Yale? The Black Panther Party…? Dubious at best. Of course, Miller was quite a fabulist concerning himself, too, you know."

My expression remained casual, but a chill down the backs of my arms said that she was right; and those implausibilities were just a partial list. Not only did Gomez’s alleged persona strain belief, I wondered where my blind acceptance of it had come from. "He makes the pieces all fit," I said. "Or always has."

"Till now." She coyly rolled her eyes. "But I caught him in something."

"What?"

"Graciela. I only took her in because of Gomez. She’s the niece of somebody he works with at the Centro, some big cheese it sounds like. I’ve gotten very close with her these last months, and she wanted to clear her conscience."

Gomez was a language teacher at something called the Centro Social de los Obreros, a labor-union funded training and job development agency, but I still didn’t see what Mad was driving at. "Why is that catching him?"

"I wasn’t looking for a maid. I had a biweekly cleaning service, all I needed. Clark didn’t want to pay for more. I put up the money out of my trust fund when Gomez said she was a political refugee from Guatemala…that she’d be deported to face the death squads."

"And she wouldn’t?"

"She’s Mexican. A standard illegal from Puebla. She’s a lovely person, and I’m glad to have her, but he didn’t level with me."

"Probably for a good cause." Defending him had become virtually a reflex for me.

"The cause of Gomez doing her uncle a favor. I asked Graciela another thing, too. What country she thought Gomez’s Spanish came from."

"Oooh…she didn’t pick Argentina?" This was beginning to get serious.

"She says he's an odd mix, but not Mexican, or from Spain itself…and not Guatemalan or Salvadoran."

"But it could be Argentine. Did you and Gomez have some kind of fight?"

"No, I haven’t told him a thing. And like you say, he might still be from Buenos Aires. It’s not that big a deal. I just don’t like being manipulated."

"Wait a minute. He told you he was from Argentina? He only told me he’d lived there a while."
"Maybe he didn’t say born, but he sure gives that impression, the way he talks about the place. Remember that first night we had dinner at his apartment, he and I were doing the tango? Gomez is the only guy I’ve ever known who actually can."

"He’s the only guy I’ve met who would try."

"You must’ve noticed other things that don’t add up." One of Mad’s hands rested briefly on my wrist for emphasis. "You’ve been around him longer than I."

It was a remark that I should have and could have deflected, but my response was, "You know Gomez isn’t his real name, don’t you?"

"What!" The wineglass stopped midway to her mouth.

"He’s from the US, same as we are, and his name is Andrew Steentofter." The rush with which the words came out hid how appalled I was at speaking them. And driven by what? Mindless coveting of Mad? Or misguided revenge against Gomez for holding so much power over me? I’ve dissected it many times. "He used to do house painting and repair work in Berkeley. That’s how I met him."

"No!"

The genuineness of her surprise gave me guilty pleasure. "Come on," I said. "He has to have told you."

"Paul, really, you’re kidding!"

"I’m not. Check at the Centro. Unless he’s done a legal change, he’ll be on the payroll as Steentofter."

"I can’t believe it."

"You’re the one who’s doubting everything."

"But his name? I never doubted that. With his coloring, the Steen one is more of a stretch. And to me, family names are sacred …they’re your heritage. Why do you think I didn’t change mine to Clark’s, or Anaïs kept hers through two marriages?"

Marriages, I subsequently learned, which had involved bigamy on Nin’s part, but that didn’t entirely alter Mad’s point. "So this means you’ve caught him twice. Isn’t unpredictability his big attraction? I thought you two got together because he lives in the moment and is nothing like Clark. Ditto for me. He’s been a personal turbocharger." Then, perhaps to punish myself for betraying a secret I’d committed to keep, I resignedly added, "Why else are you and I even sitting here?"

"You’re right…to an extent." Her mouth softened into a smile that became rueful before disappearing. "But it still makes me want to hire a detective."

"Why? To throw things in his face? What harm has any of this done?" Without thinking, I was defending him again.

"No, not that. Just to know. Like a treasure hunt. If…if whoever he is…is half as cool as we give him credit for, he’ll appreciate the chase."

"In a way, he might." I let the idea settle in. "Do you really see yourself visiting Sam Spade in some seedy office and having him follow Gomez around?"

"Guess not. More a wild thought. I don’t know any detectives, and I’m already paying for Graciela."

"You’re keeping her?"

"I promised when she told me. It’s what Anaïs would do. Besides, Clark loves her cooking."

I began to envision a less tenuous future for Mad and me, still based on Gomez, but with a different center of gravity. "Some things about him we could check on our own."

"We?" She cocked her head.

"Yeah. I like the game aspect, too." Or was it mainly the psychological plus I knew I’d get from debunking him a bit?

Mad finally raised the wine to her lips, finished it, and put the glass aside.

"The easiest place to start is Yale," I continued. "The guy in the condo next to mine went there. He’s older, but he’s an active alum. What makes you think Gomez is faking? He couldn’t have gotten so many smarts, from science to opera, by hanging around on Telegraph Avenue."

"I have cousins and high school friends who were Yalies," Mad responded. "They all came back with mugs, sweatshirts, you name it. Or their diplomas are on the wall, like Clark’s from Stanford. Have you ever seen a Yale magazine or any mail from there at Gomez’s place? Or his office? I haven’t, and that’s fishy. After I learned about Graciela, it kind of jumped out at me."

"Hard to say. I don’t own a college sweatshirt, and my diploma’s in storage."

"So’s mine. But I get mail and quarterly magazines that end up in the living room whether I read them or not."

"Right. Magazines and solicitations I do get, piles of them. My neighbor has Yale stuff in his kitchen, which is how the subject came up."

"So you’ll ask him?" Mad pressed. "About Gomez?"

"No," I laughed, feeling almost cocky. "About Steentofter. I’ll pass along what I find."

She seemed uncertain. "When will that be?"

"Who knows? Why?" It registered on me that another of the recorded flute ragas was playing in the background. I’d been so absorbed by the evolution of what Mad had discovered from Graciela, the music had temporarily ceased to exist.

"Better that you not phone here while Clark’s home. Let me handle the keeping in touch."

"Fine. But I’ll leave a call-back message at your office if something pops." But she had offered to stay in contact, which itself broke new ground.

Mad dropped her gaze to the purring Sigmund. "Will you be seeing Gomez?" she asked.

"Sure. For a movie, or racquetball and a few beers. I can’t start avoiding him for no reason." In fact, I didn’t want to avoid him. He was too much fun, and mining the details of his life would now be more interesting than ever. "I’m also not giving up on the math puzzle. He bet us a free dinner, remember?"

"Oh yeah, that." Her eyebrows flitted up, then down. "But it could play into our new plan. You know…keep him on the line till we make progress."

"What about you? You’ll be seeing him too, right?" I knew her answer would be yes, but for the first time, didn’t care.

"We’re dancing to Viva Brazil this Thursday," Mad replied. "Just don’t say anything to him, OK? About us…what we’re doing?"

"Of course not. You won’t, either, I hope."

"Don’t worry. I never tell Gomez what’s not his business. He’s a great dancer, we like what we have together, but he knows he’s not my whole life and I’m not his." Back she came with the eye contact and arm-touching. "I like what you and I are starting to have, too."


© Bill Pieper