A FEW DAYS AFTER arriving in San Francisco, my possessions still in boxes, I called my grandfather in Illinois. As always, he dispensed with the pleasantries, and gave me a directive: “See if you can find the nightclub I took your grandmother to during the war.” I heard ice clinking in his glass. Lined up on the tray in front of him would be The Wall Street Journal, a dish of roasted peanuts, and a notepad where he scratched his thoughts. “Big place,” he said. “On a hill.”
From the roof where I sat with my cat, I looked out over the lights of the city, still new to me, and pictured a dark room with red candles on the tables, a swing band playing on a low stage, and my grandmother at 25 wearing a dove-gray hat, thick red lipstick, and open-toed suede heels, leaning toward my grandfather in his dress whites. To meet him in San Francisco for his week of shore leave, she would have flown Pan Am an unthinkable number of miles from St. Louis, stopping first at Stix, Baer, Fuller to buy the hat.
“What was it called?”
“Can’t remember. Jim Lane went there a few years back,” he said. “You’ll find it.”
Jim Lane had been dead for 20 years or more. He might have gone to San Francisco 20 years before that. Still, as I got to know my new city, I often walked around Chinatown and North Beach, eyeing doorways, stepping into the most timeworn places to ask how long the place had been there.
Pappa had said he’d know the name when he heard it. I asked around, and called again. Was it the Top of the Mark? The Sir Francis Drake? Tosca? “None of those,” he said. “Keep at it.”
I wanted to stand at a pay phone in a hallway covered with flocked wallpaper, a silver matchbook in my hand, and call to hear him say, “That’s the one!” I wanted to order a gimlet and sweep around the same dance floor he had twirled my grandmother around decades earlier but what soon became clear from our phone calls was that the search was what he loved. “I forgot to tell you there was a lion over the door,” he said. “That should help.”
So we began to hang our conversations on the quest, as if time weren’t passing, as if it didn’t matter whether I found the place today or tomorrow or next year. What mattered was that we believed it existed, that it still stood on a hill in San Francisco as it had in 1942, candles flickering, music spilling out onto the sidewalk, waiting to be found.
Melinda Clemmons lives with her husband and two daughters in Oakland. Her work has previously appeared or is forthcoming in The Cimarron Review, The Monthly, Cavalier, and Eclipse.
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