10.29.15.GILDEDAGEBIG

In honor of the Day of the Dead, this is an excerpt of El Dia de Los Muertos, from The Gilded Age, published first by Bantam, a New York Times Notable Book and New York Public Library Recommended Book, now a print book and an ebook from Bast Books. The novel, a sequel to Summer of Love, is an exploration of San Francisco in 1895 and China of five hundred years in the future through the eyes of Zhu, a time traveler.
We’re catching up with Daniel J. Watkins, a twenty-something year old man who has serious problems in San Francisco, 1895.
El Dia de los Muertos
“To Death,” Daniel toasts Mr. Schultz, “in marvelous Californ’.”
Mira muerta, no seas inhumana, no vuelvas manana dejame vivir,” croons the singer through his grinning papier-mâchè skull mask. Ricardo, the one-eyed guitarist, dreamily strums along.
“To el Dia de los Muertos,” Schultz says, raising his shot glass. “Sehr gut, nicht wahr? Speaking of muertos, Danny, got myself in a bit of a fix.”
“A matter of life or death?”
“You might say.”
Daniel pours two more shots from a dust-furred bottle of mescal, smiling at the drowned worm at the bottom. Authentic, this splendid rotgut with the disconcerting effect of making everything appear as ominous and strange as a nightmare. A more decadent drink than the Green Fairy, if such a thing is possible. And, like absinthe, the taste is vile.
He and Schultz lounge at a table in Luna’s, finishing their fifty-cent Suppers Mexican. Frank Norris’ recommendation amply deserved. The restaurant is quaint. Bright peasant pottery, dried gourds, red-and-white checked tablecloths. The singer’s skull mask is quite a fright, though Daniel’s dyspepsia is mostly caused by the Supper Mexican. Remains of their scorching hot dinner lie scattered in the colorful crockery—spicy pork sausages, tortillas, chiles rellenos, frijoles fritas, tamales, salsa. Daniel could never have dined on such a feast in St. Louis. Or in Paris or London. Only in marvelous Californ’.
Schultz sighs and knocks the shot back, licking salt off the rim of his glass. “I’ve been given the boot.”
“Things crummy in Far East shipping?”
“Things are bang-up in Far East shipping. Not so bang-up for me.” Schultz pours another shot. Just a small one.
Daniel’s tongue has become quite numb. “Why so, old man? You seem to have been doing well. Plum position.”
“Can’t control the drink, and that’s the truth. God knows I’ve tried. You and I, we start in on the brandy at breakfast.”
“Don’t I know, sir,” Daniel says. “Not to mention Miss Malone and her accursed champagne.”
“She’s forever pouring me another and adding it to my bill.”
“Brushes her teeth with the bubbly.”
“At any rate,” Schultz says gloomily, “showed up corned at the office one time too many. Not that the old man doesn’t do it. He just manages to hold his liquor better.”
“Plus he’s the old man.”
“Guess we’ve all got an old man somewhere.”
“By blood or bad luck.”
They laugh unhappily.
“Lousy bit, Schultz.”
Schultz’s mustache stiffens. “Don’t suppose you’ve got any paying work for hire, do you, Danny? Help out a pal? I’m not asking for a handout. I’m no beggar.”
“Wish I did.”
“You just sold that property of your vater, didn’t you?”
“A patch of worthless weeds on Geary Street. Nothing going on in the Western Addition. I daresay that will be the fate of it for some time. The other lot has got no takers, and the rest of the deadbeats are giving me grief. That old fool Ekberg on Stockton Street has stalled me for weeks. As for Mr. Harvey in Sausalito, the good gentleman sent thugs as his answer to my request for payment. They followed me, Schultz, while I was taking my stroll along the Cocktail Route. Worried me up quite a bit.”
Daniel would rather not confess that his mistress, costumed in coolie’s clothes, gave Harvey’s thugs a run for their money while the thugs gave him a goose egg on the noggin, sore kidneys, and a bad scare. He’s spotted suspicious characters lurking around the boardinghouse. He’s taken to sneaking in and out of the tradesmen’s door rather than promenading out the front. It’s an unhappy way to live. He’s been screwing up his courage for weeks to go and confront that damnable Harvey.
“Perhaps you need a manager.”
“A bodyguard is more like it.”
“Can’t help you there. No good with a pistol or fisticuffs, I fear.” An ugly look of envy curdles Schultz’s large, puglike features. “You’ve got some scratch. Me, I haven’t got one thin dime. And I can’t quit the drink.” He knocks back the shot, toys with the bottle. “I’m weary to my bones. What I need is a cure.”
A cure.
They both contemplate that possibility as the singer launches into another melancholy ballad, “Esta alegre calavera hoy invita a los mortales para ir a visitar las regions infernales.
Daniel knows no Spanish, but the meaning leaps out—We invite you mortals to visit hell. Mescal, by God. Now he is comprehending Spanish. He doesn’t know Schultz well enough to confide his darkest secrets, but Daniel is no fool. He knows exactly what Schultz is talking about. A cure. He behaves like an ass when he’s stinking. Look at how he treats his mistress—his ugly words, his uglier actions. Shoving her about. Having his way with her whenever they’re alone without asking her if she wants it. He hasn’t struck her—not yet—but he cannot promise himself that will never happen. Not when he’s stinking.
He’s not sure where his cruelty comes from. Even less sure why she allows him to get away with it when she has amply demonstrated she’s no whore or dimwit. He would venture to say—only to himself, of course—that Zhu possesses more intelligence than ten gentlemen strolling along the Cocktail Route. Oh, she has her peculiarities. She claims she’s from the far future like a creature out of Mr. Wells’ novel, which only makes him angrier with her when he’s stinking. She goes temperance on him. Drinking’s going to kill you, she says, tears lingering on her lashes. Lunatic, he shouts at her. Off to the loony bin with you.
He awakens after every binge feeling soiled, stupid, and contrite.
He’s been binging every day. Brandy with breakfast, sir, to start.
Those are his scruples. What about his physical constitution? His health, which he’s always taken for granted, is no longer so vibrant. He suffers frequent nosebleeds, a sore throat. Paunch has started thickening his middle. His gut is frequently on the blink. His hands tremble. And the headaches. His head aches something fierce when he awakens. Relief only comes when he’s got his morning brandy under his belt.
And it isn’t only his scruples and his physical constitution. He is plagued by odd feelings. Melancholy and guilt. Memories of his father and mother intrude on his peace of mind. And so on and et cetera until he cannot abide this anymore. There must be something he can do.
“Know of a cure?” Daniel says cautiously.
“Heard a fellow talking about it at the Bank Exchange. Dr. Mortimer’s Miraculous Cure for dipsomania. Guaranteed, money back and all. There’s the trick for me—money. The cure costs an arm and a leg, but is well worth it. Or so the fellow said.”
Daniel tries to overlook the unfortunate fact that this hot tip was imparted in one of the busiest bars along the Cocktail Route. “This Dr. Mortimer, he’s in San Francisco?” He apportions the last finger in the bottle between himself and the worm. “To the handmaiden of Death,” he toasts the worm.
Ja, Dr. Mortimer’s got his clinic in the Monkey Block,” says Schultz, succumbing after a short struggle to the last drops of mescal. He seizes the bottle and empties the remnants, worm and all, into his mouth. Suddenly he looks green and dashes out of Luna’s to the gutter where he noisily airs his paunch. The scowling maitre d’ and a scullery maid dash outside with buckets of hot salt water and vigorously splash the pavement clean. Mr. Schultz’s antics are a terrible reflection on their establishment.
Daniel picks up the tab—a dollar for two splendid Suppers Mexican. A dollar fifty for the terrific rotgut. A penny each for the maitre d’, the waitress, the singer, the guitarist. He reluctantly counts out coins. He’s not exactly flush, himself. He strides out past Schultz on his hands and knees, heaving. What won’t a drunk do, Daniel wonders, to stiff his pal for the bill?
*   *   *
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