Looking for Olga
Bah! Yah! Bah!
James Jones - From Here to Eternity
Tonight, that night, I went to the piano bar with a purpose and was dressed accordingly: blue sports jacket, slacks, loafers without socks, white shirt open to the third button. I arrived early and found a place at the semi-circular bar, stool and all, put a fiver on the bar for effect, ordered a Millers High Life, lit a cigarette, and looked around. The bar-stools were almost all occupied – by men. Soon they'd be three deep, it being Friday night. The piano was set back in an alcove to the left-rear of the bar. It also had bar-stools around it so you could drink there and look at the player with one elbow on the piano. Two young couples were perched on the stools, the men in suits and ties and the giggly women showing a lot of leg. The men were probably asshole officers from Fort Ord, I figured. The piano player was playing As Time Goes By, probably requested by one of the girls. That kind of girl always requested that kind of song, because they liked to think of themselves as Ingrid Bergman - romantic and teary - without realizing that it wasn't a song you could request, it had to hit you out of the blue. I lit another cigarette and nursed my beer.
The Gilded Cage wasn't really my kind of place, primarily because they only served bottled beer which cost two bits, except for Miller's High Life, which went for thirty cents. Hell, you could get a good glass of draft anywhere else for a dime. There were other things I didn't like about it, such as the yellow birdcage hanging over the bar with a live parakeet in it and the bartender wearing a tie and garters on his sleeves. I wondered what it felt like to be a caged bird in that dump. The whole place was like a phony trinket you could buy in the five-and-ten. And the customers – mostly what you’d call gay today but what we called something else them – thought they were hot shit with their sports jackets and ties and wavy hair and loud laughs. About the only thing good about the Gilded Cage was the piano player, who could play anything you asked for. You had to tip him or buy him a drink every time you made a request though, so I never requested anything because I was only a private in the United States Army and my budget didn't include tips, except to waitresses. In fact, I’d only been in the Gilded Cage once before, on a payday, when I wandered in drunk without knowing what kind of place it was. Monterey was full of cheap bars and the only reason to go to an expensive one would be on the chance of picking up a girl, which was damn hard in a town that had the Army Language School right up the hill in the Presidium and Fort Ord about five miles away. Monterey wasn't Steinbeck's Cannery Row anymore, and it hadn't yet become a snooty extension of Carmel and Pacific Grove. It wasn't much of anything, as far as I was concerned.
"Nice song," a guy said who sidled up next to me.
I nodded and looked at the guy in the mirror. In his thirties, I guessed, suntanned, casually well dressed. He was smiling at my profile. "And from a nice picture."
"Saw it three times myself," the guy said. "You?"
"About the same."
"You want your drink here, Jacky?" the bartender asked the guy.
"Yes, thank you, Sal."
The bartender went to the end of the bar and came back with a glass with an inch of whiskey and soda in it. He put a coaster in front of Jacky and placed the drink on it.
"That was hardly worth the trip, Sal," Jacky said, grinning.
Sal grinned back and went off to tend a customer.
I drank down my beer, knowing I wouldn't have to nurse it any longer. Jacky drank his down too.
"Let me buy you a drink. Wouldn't you prefer scotch?"
"No, I'll stick with Millers, thanks." A subtle answer, so Jacky wouldn't get the right idea.
"Suit yourself," he said. "Sal, another scotch for me and a Millers for...What did you say your name was?"
"For Frank," Jacky said smoothly, more to me than to the bartender, who had moved on anyway.
"Cigarette?" He held a pack of filter-tipped Parliaments, though my Marlboro's were plainly visible on the bar. What the hell, I decided, why waste them? and took a Parliament. Jacky's gold-plated lighter flicked open under my nose so I didn't even have to lean forward to reach the tiny flame. I dragged and could hardly taste the smoke. Goddam filter-tips!
"Are you from around here, Frank?"
"No, New York." Actually Brooklyn, but that always caused a laugh or some wise guy remark, so I had learned to say New York instead. Hell, most people west of New Jersey didn't even know that Brooklyn was in New York City.
"You don't sound like you're from New York."
One thing good about learning a foreign language was that you had to concentrate on your pronunciation and I had begun to watch my English as well to weed out the Brooklynese. But you could still tell I was from New York, so Jacky was snowing me.
"Well, I am."
"In the army here?"
I looked at him surprised: "Why?"
"Well, you know," Jacky said smiling, "you can at least have an intelligent conversation with a Language School student, which isn't often the case with the ones from Fort Ord. You're an officer, I suppose."
"Why do you suppose that? Officers are assholes."
He laughed loudly. "Frank, you're a man after my own heart, and you're absolutely right. Officers are assholes."
I glanced nervously at the couples at the piano, but they obviously couldn't hear. "So why did you suppose I was one?"
"Oh god, please don't be angry. I just wanted to know and I couldn't very well have said: You're a private, I suppose? I mean what if you were an officer. Where would I be then?"
"Up shit's creek?" I laughed as I said it.
"Not many officers in the Language School," I said. I liked the game of denigrating officers, but kept my voice low. "They're too dumb."
"I agree, absolutely, at least the few I've met."
I didn't say anything. I was waiting for the proposition.
"What language are you studying?" Jacky asked.
"Russian? Wow, that must be difficult."
"Yeah, but it's better than Korean or Chinese."
"Oh God, yes. I speak some French myself, but I'd never think of trying a difficult language like Russian. What ever made you pick it?"
"I didn't have much choice. They called a few of us to Classification and Assignment one day in Basic Training and said that the tests showed we had linguistic abilities and offered a choice between Swedish, Russian and Chinese Mandarin, we should write down our preference. I put Russian because I'd like to be able to read Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy in the original. So I got it – Russian I mean. The others all put down Swedish and none of them got anything. They're in Korea now.
"I love Dostoyevsky," Jacky crooned.
"Yeah, well I'm still far away from being able to read him in Russian, the way the course is going, prisoner interrogation exercises, that kind of shit."
"How long have you been here?"
"So you have ten months left?"
So Jacky knew that Russian was a year-long course. Well, why not? He was from around here.
"Wonderful!" He patted the back of my hand. "We have time to get acquainted."
"Here it comes," I thought. "Yeah, but I doubt if there's time to learn enough Russian to read Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy in the original. They're tough."
"Would you be very disappointed if you couldn't, Frank?"
"Not very, but disappointed, sure, I guess."
"I think it's a question of what one expects from life. If one has no expectations one can't be disappointed. Don't you think so?"
"Well, I think life would be pretty boring without expectations."
"But not disappointing."
"I don't know about that."
"Have you ever been disappointed, Frank," Jacky asked and laughed. "I don't know where you find room for all that beer. Sal, another round, please."
"You're keeping up with me."
"Yes, but there's less liquid involved."
"More potent liquid though…and yes, I have."
"Have what, Frank?"
"Yes, I have been disappointed."
"But you're so young to have been disappointed, unless in love." He giggled. "But then Romeo was awfully young. Have you been disappointed in love, dear Frank? I have. Often."
"Yeah, especially the last time," I said, wondering why I was about to tell this queer about Olga when I hadn't mentioned her to anyone else, not even my buddies up on the hill. I was too young to know that we are always on the lookout for a sympathetic listener. And Jacky was certainly one, while my buddies would only have shook their heads and laughed.
"Oh, do tell me." Jacky leaned to his left until our shoulders were touching and looked at me intently, ready to listen.
"Well, I went up to Fris...San Francisco." Californians don't like their pearl to be called Frisco, I remembered, and I didn't mention that it had been last weekend. I had driven up alone in my 1949 Hudson Hornet the Friday after payday, alone because I’m a loner, that's what people said about me and I suppose it was true. I had only one real friend on the hill in the Language School, Jim McCrea, but Jim was black which was a big disadvantage when girls were involved. In fact it was a disadvantage when anything was involved once you got off base. There was no Jim Crow in California like in the South, but there was a more subtle discrimination. Jim and I had driven around sightseeing and had eaten together in restaurants and went to Shorty's bar, which was just outside the base, at least once a week to drink ten cent beer and listen to jazz on the jukebox they had there and talk a lot. But whenever there were likely looking girls in the place, which wasn't often, I regretted being with Jim because it was impossible to pick up a couple of white girls – and they were always in pairs – if you were with Jim. Even if you went to town, like tonight, you might get into trouble if some townie or redneck from Fort Ord decided to pick a fight because Jim was black. Jim knew it, of course, so he never went to the bars in town, nor did he suggest we go somewhere. I had to do that. It was a rotten situation that I hated, but if you were after pussy that was how it was and if I had to choose between pussy - or the chance of it - and Jim … well, that's the way it was.
It had taken about three hours to get to Frisco because there was no good thruway yet. Once there, I checked into the YMCA for three bucks a night that I paid in advance and went cruising. I had consumed a lot of beer by the time I walked into that bar without noticing its name - an oversight I would eternally regret.
It was about midnight and the place was jumping. There was a rectangular bar, served by two bartenders on all fours sides, a crowded dance floor and booths. The first unusual thing was that there was a dance floor at all, the second that the place was well lighted instead of half dark. It was the antithesis of the Gilded Cage. I stood at the bar and ordered a Bud draft. The booths ran all along the walls and I inspected them. There were a lot of girls in the place but they were already with guys. I regretted that I hadn't found the place sooner. Now I'd have to try to cut someone out or wait for someone new to come in.
Then I spotted Olga. Although there must have been a lot of servicemen there - we were in the middle of the Korean War - none were in uniform except the sailor in a funny uniform who was sitting in the booth across from her. The sailor moved his hand brusquely and knocked over a wine bottle. The girl tried to wipe the spilled wine with a paper napkin while he laughed. He must have been drunk. I saw my opportunity and grabbed a rag from the sink below the bar and walked over to them. "You won't get it dry with that piece of paper, Miss," I said, and wiped it up. The sailor clapped me on the shoulder laughing and said something in French.
"What'd he say?" I asked her.
"He thinks you're a waiter. He asked for another bottle of wine." She smiled at me and I smiled back. She had an accent which I recognized, having heard it often enough during the past two months.
"He looks like he's had enough," I said. "But hey, I'm not a waiter, so don't ask me."
The Frenchy suddenly keeled over on his side.
"What'd I tell you?" I pushed him upright and sat down next to him across from the girl and the sailor slumped against me. "You're Russian, aren't you?"
"Does it show so much?"
I looked her over carefully as if to decide whether it showed. Her cheekbones were a little high, eyes set wide apart, full lips. Her brown hair flowed over her shoulders front and back with ragged bangs on her forehead. She was wearing a greenish print dress that looked like it came straight out of a World War II Care package. Her bosom was full though, so much so that despite the dress being buttoned up almost to her collar bones, a cleavage was apparent - to anyone who looked, and I was looking. No makeup. Pretty. She looked very young at first glance, but her eyes were older.
"No," I said, "I recognize the accent."
"Most people think I'm Polish though. How did you guess I'm Russian?"
"That's because there's so many Poles around and not many Russians," I said. "I recognized the accent because I'm around Russians all the time. I'm studying Russian at the Army Language School. Ya izuchayu russkie Yazuik f’armeskiye shkole Yizikom."
At that she clapped her hands happily and let out a stream of Russian of which I only caught a few words.
"Hey, wait a minute, I've only been at it a couple of months."
She repeated it slowly and, though I still didn't understand everything, I got the drift: "How wonderful. The only people I know here who speak Russian are Russians, and they bore me."
"Do I bore you?"
"Of course not. That's what I meant." We both smiled. The juke box started to play As Time Goes By and I tried to think of the word for dance in Russian and finally decided that I never knew it.
"Would you like to dance?"
I pushed the sailor away until he was leaning against the wall, but not until after his head bounced against it.
"Be careful!" she cried.
"Don't worry," I said as we walked to the dance floor, "he can feel no pain. “Where did you ever find that guy?"
"He's a friend of my uncle's who lives in Paris. Actually he's the son of my uncle's friend." She looked back at the sailor. "His ship sails at dawn and he has to get back somehow."
We began a bit stiffly, but she was soon snuggling up against me and I could smell the delicate perfume of her hair. I pulled my crotch back so she wouldn't feel my incipient erection - not yet anyway.
"Kak vasho imyo?" I asked, the easiest question there was.
She laughed though.
"What's so funny?"
"You're so formal. My name is Olga, but you would normally use the familiar form of the pronoun under the present circumstances: Kak tvayo imyo?"
"We haven't had the familiar form yet."
"Well, we can't very well continue as if I were your professor, so we better speak English."
"Excellent idea, Olga. I love your name."
"Oh dear, and it's such a common name in Russia."
"Not here. Here it's beautiful - to me at least."
"And your name?" she asked leaning back to look in my eyes, which caused her hips to swivel into me.
"Frank." My erection was in full bloom. I moved back so it was only touching her lightly.
"You don't have to do that," she said. "I like it."
Godamm, my dream had been answered, my ship had come in. I was on the verge of shacking up in Frisco with a beautiful Russian woman, who not only liked hard-ons and wasn't afraid to say so, but could help me learn Russian as well. I may have had a knack for languages, but I hated to study.
A Chubby Checker teenybop number blasted out of the jukebox and Olga said she didn't like it so we went to the bar instead of back to the booth, where Frenchy was still out cold. She didn't want anything more to drink though, said she already had too much wine. I ordered a beer, drank it down and ordered another. I had worked up a real thirst from dancing and the expectation of what was to come - that night and many future week ends.
Olga took a sip of my beer. "I don't think that Philippe is in any condition to get back to his ship," she said, frowning.
"He's only asleep," I said. "He'll be all right."
"I hope so." She looked at her watch. "It's almost two o'clock."
"Good. This place will be open another hour. Let's dance." The divine Sarah Vaughan was singing A Foggy Day. She meant in London town, but San Francisco town was pretty foggy too.
"I don't know how he'll get back to his ship."
"After this number we'll go back, wake him up and put him in a cab," I said, hoping that either the sailor or she had money to pay for it.
"Oh no, we couldn't do that."
"He's probably got money, sailors always do after hoarding it up at sea."
"That's just it," she protested. "You know what taxi drivers are like. A drunk sailor. He'd be robbed…"
"Rolled," I corrected her. "Not necessarily. All cabbies aren't crooks. Why are you worrying about him so much anyway?" I didn't want to sound jealous, but I was.
"Don't you see? I'm responsible for him. They gave him my name in Paris because they knew he was coming here. He called me - he's very nice when he's sober - and I took him out to see San Francisco. He had too much to drink. If anything happens to him I'd be responsible. Do you see?"
"Yeah, I guess so."
"You have a car, Frank. Could you take him?"
"Well, I don't know," though I did know: I couldn't refuse her. "Where's his ship at?"
He said it was at l'ille du tresor. Was it a joke?"
"No, that would be Treasure Island, it's a naval base under the Bay Bridge to Oakland."
"So you know it!"
"I passed it a couple of times going over the bridge, that's all. I saw the sign."
"Will you take him, Frank, please?"
"O.K., we'll all go." I tried to push her into dance mode again, but she stood still.
"No, I'm a foreigner, they wouldn't let me in. And.. well...my papers aren't completely in order yet."
Shit. Was she a spy? Were they both spies? Who cares.
"But you're in the military. They'd let you in. I'll wait here for you."
"What if this place is closed when I get back? You can't stand waiting on the corner at three o'clock in the morning."
Her eyes opened wide; they were green like her dress. "I'll give you my telephone number. If it's closed when you get back, call me." She smiled. "I'll be waiting."
My first priority had been to go to her place when the bar closed. Failing that, I wanted her phone number. I wasn't sure that she'd give it to me. After all, I was only a barroom pick up. Now, however, I was sure of getting it, and I couldn't refuse her anyway. "Okay," I said, "let's get it over with."
We went back to the booth and I shook Frenchy and slapped his cheeks. He woke up and babbled in French.
Olga took one of the paper napkins from its holder and wrote her telephone number on it. I put it in my pocket, I couldn't remember which one afterwards, although I certainly thought about it a lot.
"C'mon Robespierre, let's get you presentable." I pulled him across the booth seat and got him standing.
"What are you doing?" Olga asked.
"Taking him to the john to put some cold water on his face and get him to take a leak or he'll piss all over the car."
"Jesus, I never saw anyone so drunk from wine," I said as we maneuvered him out of the bar upon our return from the men's room. "Refused to piss, that's his problem."
"He was a little tipsy when he came to my place," Olga said, sounding as though she was defending him. "Who knows how much he had to drink."
My car was a block away and as the three of us weaved downhill the sailor started singing - in French of course.
"Christ, Just what I needed," I said. "Tell him to shut up before the MPs hear him--or SPs if that'll impress him more."
He shut up quick when Olga translated. We dumped him in the front seat of the Hudson and Olga kissed me on the lips, not passionately, but lovingly yes, I decided.
I took some wrong turns so it took longer to find the Bay Bridge than I'd expected. The fog had gotten worse so I had to drive more carefully than usual. I remembered that the sign to Treasure Island was somewhere near the middle of the bridge, so I hugged the right lane in order not to miss the turn-off, which was on the bridge itself. The fog was even thicker on the bridge and I drove slowly, for me, hunched over the steering wheel. Then I felt the car descending and had a sinking feeling in my stomach. I had missed the exit to Treasure Island. And I couldn't very well make a U-turn on a bridge when I couldn't see what might be coming from the other direction. So I had to continue into Oakland, turn and go back over the bridge. I knew there was only one turn-off and it was on the right side going towards Oakland. So I had to drive all the way back into Frisco, turn and head back to Oakland.
This time I went ten miles an hour and finally saw the sign: it was hanging over the middle of the bridge, that's why I hadn't seen it the first time across. They must have moved it. I cursed and eased the Hudson down the ramp onto Treasure Island and stopped at the guard booth.
"Where ya goin, sir," a huge SP said. The "sir" was just in case I was an officer.
"I'm trying to get this French sailor back to his ship," I said, trying to sound like one.
"Uh huh. ID, please."
I showed him my ID, which definitely established my non-officer status.
"Where ya stationed, soldier?" the SP asked.
"Army Language School, Monterey."
"What's the matter wit ya friend?"
I looked over at the sailor, who had fallen asleep again. "He had one too many, I guess." I gave him a jab in the chest with my elbow to wake him up. "He's French."
"Yeah, I had a bunch of 'em rollin in tonight. What about you?"
"No sweat, I'm okay."
"You better be. I keep your ID and you can pick it up when you leave." He noted down the Hudson's license plate number on a chart and went back into his booth.
"Hey," I yelled.
"Can you tell me where the French ship is?"
The SP checked a chart hanging in the booth and said: "Pier 21. Go straight till ya can't no more, turn right till ya can't no more, then right again and that's it. Got a French flag on it I guess."
"What's a French flag look like?"
"How the fuck should I know."
I followed the SP's instructions and found the ship. An armed guard was standing at the foot of the gangplank, or whatever you call it. I looked at my watch: three o'clock. Shit, the bar is closing. What's it called? "Hey, Frenchy," I said to the sailor, "what's the name of that bar we were in?"
He looked at me blankly.
"Comment lapel le bar?" No reaction.
"Hey," I called to the guard, "come and get this asshole." The guard didn't move. I got out, opened the door and dragged Frenchy out. Then I grabbed the hat with the red pom from the seat and placed it on his head and pushed him at the guard, who had no choice but to catch him.
I parked on a deserted street in San Francisco and looked through my pockets for the napkin. It wasn't there. I looked desperately, turning my pockets out. Then I took a flashlight from the glove compartment and searched the car--floor, seats, everywhere. No napkin.
"Can we help you, sir?" one of the two MPs behind me said.
"No, I was just looking for fomething." Damn it, I wasn't drunk anymore, why was I slurring my speech.
"You in the service?"
"Yeah. Who isn't?" Wise guys answers, just what MPs like to hear.
"Let's see your ID."
Here we go again.
Finally they let me go but made me leave my car where it was, claiming I was drunk, and told me to go right back to the Y and if they saw me again that night I'd spend the rest of it in the clink.
All day and most of the night Sunday I searched for the bar where I had found and lost Olga, but didn't find it. It was as if it had vanished into thin air or never really existed. At three o'clock in the morning I drove back to Monterey, not too drunk but enough to be picked up, so I drove carefully. I had to be in class at seven and sick calls on Monday mornings were frowned upon.
"Frank," Jacky said with a crooked smile, "I can imagine how you felt - and I'm sorry, truly I am."
My glass was empty and I called Sal without bothering to wait for Jacky to invite me to have another.
"On the other hand, I think it goes to prove my thesis."
"Oh yeah? How's that?" I didn't remember what thesis he was talking about.
"Well, if you hadn't had the expectation that you'd found the perfect shack job who would help you with Russian as well, you wouldn't have been disappointed when she didn't materialize. See what I mean?"
"Yeah, I guess so."
As Time Goes By was being played again.
"God, I'm beginning to hate that song," Jacky said.
"Me too." I hadn't mentioned the detail that that was the song Olga and I had first danced to.
"What kind of music do you like, Frank, I mean really like?"
"Oh you know, Jazz, blues. Sarah Vaughan knocks me out, but I guess she's not coming in here."
"My God, Frank, I knew we were kindred spirits," Jacky gushed. "Listen, I have an idea."
Here it comes, finally.
"Let's go to my place. I have the most fantastic jazz collection you ever heard, including plenty of Sarah Vaughan, before she went commercial."
"I like her commercial too."
"Well so do I, but the non-commercial stuff is better, believe me. How about it?"
"Sounds good. Where do you live?"
"Carmel." Exactly where I had guessed he lived.
"Oh, no then, I couldn't go there."
"Why in heaven's name not?"
Jacky laughed, obviously much relieved. "No problem my dear friend, we'll go in my car and I'll bring you back later, if you like, or tomorrow. I have plenty of room."
"Naw, I always like to have my own wheels," I intoned, smoking calmly. "Thanks anyway."
Jacky laughed again. "Frank, you're amazing. You make problems out of nothing. Come on, let's get gas for your car, silly."
I'm afraid I'm sort of broke, Jacky," I said, although there were still four dollars and seventy cents in front of me on the bar.
"I had no intention of letting you pay for it even if you had the money. When you're my guest it means in everything." He clapped me on the shoulder. "Sal, my bill, please!"
I only needed about a dollar's worth of gas to get to Carmel and back, but I told the attendant at the service station to fill it up. I looked at my watch: ten o'clock, plenty of time. Jacky had pulled his white Mercedes into the station away from the pumps and stood waiting with his arms folded and a big grin on his face. When the attendant hung up the gas hose he strolled over and paid for my gas.
"Follow me, okay Frank? Can't lose that car." He put his wallet in his pocket and started back to his Mercedes whistling As Time Goes By, realized it and stopped.
"Jacky," I called.
"Yes, Frank?" He turned around and came back. "What is it?"
"I'm not going to your place, Jacky, it was just a con. I needed the gas to get to Frisco, see? To look for Olga."
Jacky was openly crestfallen, but he didn't beg, you had to give him that. "I see," he said, looking at the ground.
I got back into the Hudson, closed the door and said through the open window as I started the engine: "You shouldn't have expectations, Jacky, and you wouldn't be disappointed."
I closed the window against the cold drizzle, turned on the windshield wipers and gunned the Hudson Hornet towards San Francisco where I, at least, still had expectations.
© Frank Thomas Smith