-Strange – 12 Pages –
Kim trudged the stairs of her four-story walk-up, groceries in hand, and cursed her stupidity for choosing an apartment with such an obvious drawback. Her previously romanticized notion of living in such an historic neighborhood known as Haight Ashbury, or more familiarly “the Haight”, was quickly forgotten during her first week of residing there. This was largely due to the tedium of walking past all the endless head shops, deadheads, ex-hippies, hippy-wannabes, homeless teenagers, teenage drug dealers, adult drug dealers, and every kind of freak to be found in the City by the Bay.
Oh sure, from the outside her new home looked rather lovely: a pale yellow and blue, stately Victorian, with it’s gingerbread trimmings and narrow front yard, overflowing with all sorts of exotic foliage that she couldn’t even begin to name, save for the wall of deep-red bougainvillea that drew her to the house in the first place. But upon entering, she knew right away that it was all a façade. The rickety stairs, coated with a layer of dust, the windows that hadn’t been cleaned in who knew how long, and that endless climb up, up, up to what was to be her apartment, all filled her with a keen sense of dread.
There were, however, two deciding factors that cinched the deal, despite all the obvious drawbacks: one, and this was really all she needed to hear before signing the lease, was the rent, which was easily two hundred dollars cheaper than any of the other apartments she looked at; and two, the fact that the apartment was once the home of Jimi Hendrix’s girlfriend; which surely must have meant that the legendary entertainer spent at least some time there. Kim wasn’t usually so easily impressed by such things, but the idea that she’d be living in an apartment with a past like that did sort of blur the rest of the place’s many faults. But that had been a week earlier, and her mind was now focused on all the things wrong with the place.
Huffing and puffing as she entered her apartment, she was greeted to the chill that seemed to permeate her new home. The fog that rolled in from the ocean, and across Golden Gate Park, had this insane habit of finishing it’s journey in the Haight and staying put for most of the day, thereby preventing the sun from even attempting to warm the place up. Kim shivered and dropped her groceries on the hardwood floor to the side of her refrigerator.
She could wait to put the groceries away. The room was already ice cold. Nothing would start to melt until later in the summer, she figured. Instead, she plopped herself down on the couch and caught her breath. She spotted the bong beneath the coffee table almost immediately. Not much else had been unpacked yet. Yes, Kim knew her priorities.
“What the heck,” she said. “It’s Friday and I need to relax a bit.” Pot, like coffee and over-priced t-shirts, could be found on almost every corner of the Haight. A definite plus of the neighborhood. One of few, she was finding.
Within minutes she felt significantly more relaxed. That is, until the doorbell downstairs rang. “Who the hell can that be?” she said, as she walked over to the intercom.
“Hello?” she yelled into the box.
“Police,” came the reply.
“Fuck,” she whispered before answering. “Be right down.”
Now, normally, Kim wouldn’t have been so rattled by learning that the police where downstairs. Inquisitive, yes. Scared, no way. But normally she wasn’t stoned when greeting the long arm of the law. “What if they want to come up here for something?” she said to herself, as she stared at the still fuming bong. “Fuck,” she reiterated, and then opened all the windows in the living room. Then she looked for a place to hide the bong. A place they wouldn’t think of looking, just in case the odor lingered. But most of what she saw was still unopened boxes. And that’s when she spotted it: a slight hole in between two of the floorboards. A gap just big enough for a finger. In desperation, she fit her index finger in and gave a quick yank. Lo and behold, the slat came up and off. With little time to think how strange that was, she placed the bong beneath the floor and ran downstairs.
One floor, two floors, three floors, four. Out of breath, she opened the door to the building and greeted the policeman waiting at the gate.
“Yes? Something wrong, Officer?” she said, trying to look neither stoned nor alarmed, both of which she was certain she appeared.
“These your keys, ma’am,” he asked, holding up a set of keys in his hand.
“Oh, yes. We’re did you find them?” Kim answered, opening the gate so that the officer could return them.
“In the gate’s lock, ma’am. You must have left them there,” he said, handing them to her.
“How’d you know they were mine?”
“Didn’t. Tried all four apartments. You were the only person that answered. Next time, try to be more careful.”
“Yes sir, Officer. And thanks,” she said, closing the gate and rushing back inside before he could spot her dilated pupils. She ran back up the four flights and leapt for the couch, out of breath and laughing hysterically at the situation.
“Well, that was interesting,” she said, as she stood up and walked over to the fridge to put her groceries away. It wasn’t until she had finished and was back on her couch looking at the space beneath the coffee table that was once bong-occupied that she remembered where said bong was now in hiding.
She crouched down on the floor and once again lifted the slat. The bong was then retrieved and a quick cavity check ensued. The space was empty save for a package wrapped in brown paper and tied with a string. Written in pen on it was: Property of Miss Laura Alexis and Kim’s current address.
She sat down on the floor, put the bong to her right, and placed the package in her lap. Her heart started to race a bit at finding the unexpected object. She then carefully untied the string and removed the brown paper. Inside, she found a tape. One of those old-fashioned kinds from the seventies that she’d seen in documentaries on PBS. “Now what do I do?” she said to herself, knowing full well that no one she knew could possibly have a machine to play the damn thing.
“Maybe Mrs. Hempstead will know of a way,” she said, referring to her landlady that lived on the first floor. Once again she ran down the stairs, this time two at a time, and knocked on Mrs. Hempstead’s door.
“Well hello, Kim, how nice to see you. Is everything alright up on the fourth floor?” she asked.
“Fine. And my calves are already showing a marked improvement,” she responded, with a sly grin.
“What’s that dear?”
“Oh, never mind. I was just wonde
ring what you could tell me about one of the previous tenants. Did you know Laura Alexis?”
“Now that’s a name I haven’t heard in nearly thirty years, but yes, yes I did. Why do you ask?” Mrs. Hempstead said, motioning for Kim to come inside out of the cold. Only, much like her own apartment, it was more like out of the refrigerator and into the freezer. Apparently, none of the fireplaces in the building were in working order and Mrs. Hempstead was either too cheap to turn her thermostat up or too old to notice the icicles forming on the inside of her windows.
Kim sat down on the ancient sofa and waited for her landlady to join her. “She left this in my apartment,” Kim said, handing Mrs. Hempstead the tape. “Any idea what it is?”
Mrs. Hempstead stared at her with a strange expression on her face before answering, “A tape of some kind, I believe. An old one at that. But where on earth did you find it, dear?”
Kim blushed, but answered semi-truthfully, “I happened to notice a loose floorboard and this was hidden underneath. Do you think it could have anything to do with Jimi Hendrix?” Again her heart started to race. She should have taken another hit off the bong before coming down there, she thought, but one close encounter with an authority figure a day was enough.
“Maybe. They were dating when she lived here. Back when my husband was alive and I was a good deal younger. That Jimi was a card. Very pleasant young man. Always had a smile for me. And a brownie.” Now it was Mrs. Hempstead’s turn to blush. “Tragic what happened to him. To her too, though by then they were already broken up. Still, she took it hard. That’s why she left here. The Haight and San Francisco. Last I heard she was living in Montana somewhere. Anyway, I guess that tape was hers, as you say, but I haven’t a clue what’s on it or if it relates to Jimi. Or how we can even play it to find out. Maybe you should just put it back in the floor and forget about it.”
To which Kim replied, “Yeah, maybe I will.” Though she had no intention of doing just that.
Kim thanked her and once again climbed her stairway to heaven. This time she headed for her PC and did a people search for anyone living in Montana who was named Laura Alexis. “Bingo,” she said, as the screen revealed the one and only person in the state with that name. Nervously, she dialed the number.
“Hello?” a female voice answered, pleasantly.
“Hello. Um, is this Laura Alexis?”
“Who wants to know?” The response was no longer pleasant.
“Oh, sorry, my name is Kim Donovan and I’m looking for a Laura Alexis who used to live in San Francisco. I have a tape of hers and…”
“That’s not me. Never been there. Goodbye.” Click.
“Well, she was sweet,” Kim said, and hung up the phone. Still, she thought something about the conversation, or lack thereof, wasn’t quite right. Her gut feeling told her that she indeed was speaking to the Laura Alexis who used to have to climb those same miserable stairs all those years ago. “Now what?”
With little else left to do, she returned the tape to it’s former resting place and tried her hardest to forget the whole thing, which was easier said than done. Still, with each passing day, the thought of the tape below the floorboard waned until she had almost completely forgotten about it.
That is until the following Saturday, when she returned home to find an old woman sitting on her front stoop, dressed in the traditional garb of the neighborhood: long, multi-colored peasant dress, frilly white top, massive amounts of heavy jewelry, and two-toned hair flowing down her back. The gypsy look, apparently, was making a comeback. Kim assumed she was one of the many homeless or near-homeless vagabonds that frequented the area. So she was surprised when the woman asked the question, “You Kim Donovan?”
Kim was too stunned to think of anything to say but the truth. “Yes. Yes I am. Why?”
“You got my tape,” came the surprising answer.
“You’re Laura Alexis?” Kim’s mouth gaped.
“Don’t look so surprised. Just give me back the tape so I can get out of this hell hole.”
“Oh, um, sure. Come on up and I’ll give it to you.”
Kim unlocked the gate and Laura followed her inside.
“Sorry about the climb,” Kim said.
“Yeah, I remember it all too well. And I have the shin splints to prove it.”
The two entered the apartment and Kim watched as Laura looked around. “Hasn’t changed a bit,” Laura grimaced. She looked kind of shell-shocked at seeing the place again, Kim thought. “Forgot how cold it is here, though. Christ, it’s warmer back in Montana.”
“Glad to hear it. I thought it was just me,” Kim laughed.
“Yeah. Whatever. Where’s the tape. The sooner you give it back, the sooner I can get home.”
“So much for the small talk,” Kim thought, but just as she retrieved the tape, there was a knock on her door. Surprisingly, Mrs. Hempstead was waiting on the other side, clearly out of breath.
“Hello, Mrs. Hempstead. Everything okay?” Kim asked.
“Everything’s fine and dandy, dear. I thought I heard a voice I recog…” Mrs. Hempstead stood frozen in place as she stared at the guest standing in Kim’s living room. “Laura,” she hissed, after what seemed like an eternity.
“Beatrice,” Laura replied, curtly, with a nod of her head. “You look…the same. Old and tired.”
Kim felt trapped between these two women who clearly had no love lost between them. She tried to break the ice with, “Well, I guess no introductions need to be made then.” But the two women just stood their ground, staring coldly at each other.
“What’s she doing here?” Mrs. Hempstead finally asked.
“She came to get the tape. I found her in Montana and she just showed up here to get it,” Kim responded.
“I might have known it was that. Ain’t hers, though,” Mrs. Hempstead said, and walked into the apartment.
Kim stood there flabbergasted and said, “But it had her name on it and I found it here in her old apartment.”
“Yeah, Bea, the girl’s right. It’s mine,” Laura barked, moving in closer to her apparent enemy.
“You wish,” Mrs. Hempstead snapped back, and the two were now facing each other. “That tape was sent here after Jimi died and you was already gone. Fred and I moved up here because no one else wanted the apartment, what with the climb and all.” Kim grimaced at hearing that. “I buried the tape in the floorboard.”
“See,” Laura replied, “as you say, the tape was sent to me. It’s mine.
And she buried it because she’s a mean, old, shrew. Jimi told me about it, but I’d never seen it before.”
“Jimi’s wife assumed it was yours and sent it here. But we both know it was for me,” Mrs. Hempstead said, crossing her arms in front of her bony chest.
“Your still the same old bitch, ain’t you Bea?” Laura said, also crossing her arms.
“Takes one to know one, Laura.”
Kim stood there staring in amazement at the brouhaha. It was like watching two hawks battling in mid air, their talons intertwined and their wings flapping madly at their sides. Still, she had to do something. They weren’t getting anywhere with this. “What’s on the tape, anyway?” she asked. The two women looked at each other with deadly glares and then turned to face Kim.
Laura spoke first. “It was a love song to me from Jimi. He wrote it and recorded it for me. I suppose his wife didn’t want it after he died, so she sent it to me, assuming I still lived here.”
To which Mrs. Hempstead replied, “Bullshit, Laura. Jimi was in love with me.” Kim gasped at that one. “Yes, that’s right. He snuck away every chance he got from up here to come down and see me. My husband was always at work and this bitch was always too high to notice or to care. Anyway, he wrote that song and recorded it for me. His wife was obviously wrong in her assumptions about who the tape ultimately belonged to. I buried it so my husband wouldn’t find it, and by the time he passed away I completely forgot about it. That is, until you brought it down to me last week. I told you to forget about it because, as far as I’m concerned, it’s water under the bridge. “
“That’s cause it doesn’t concern you at all,” Laura said.
Kim broke it up. “Okay, enough. This is getting us nowhere. The only way to solve this mess is to listen to the tape. Perhaps, since neither of you have ever heard it before, we’ll find out the answer that way.”
“Good idea, Einstein,” Laura said, “but where do you suggest we listen to it. They haven’t made a machine to play that thing in well over two decades.”
“This is the Haight,” she responded. “Someone on this street must have a way to play it. C’mon, let’s go looking.”
“Together?” Mrs. Hempstead shrieked?
“No way. Not with her,” Laura added.
“Fine, then I’ll just toss the tape away and we can be done with it.”
The two old crones looked at each other and then silently nodded their heads in agreement. The three then walked down the stairs and out into the crisp air. Kim headed left and the other two women followed close behind.
There was silence until, “Geez, what the hell happened to this place?” It was Laura, shaking her head in disbelief. “This street was always dumpy, but now it’s a sell-out and dumpy. Who needs all these t-shirts, coffee, and drug paraphernalia? Back in my day it was all homey and original. Sure, we did drugs, but we made our own bongs or, more often then not, rolled our own joints. This is too much.”
Mrs. Hempstead agreed. “Yeah, once the Summer of Love ended, it fast became the Winter of Our Discontent. The hippies left for their communes and were replaced by wannabes and miscreants. Twenty years later, everyone decided to cash in on the history of the place and we were left with all this mess. Janis, and Jimi, and poor Jim Morrison all died so young, but their memories live on, plastered on t-shirts, mugs, posters, mouse pads, and anything you can stick a decal to. Tragic.”
Laura agreed and Kim smiled to herself. “Complain, complain, complain. But At least they stopped fighting,” Kim thought.
Moments later, they were standing in front of a used record store. The three women stared at each other and then towards the store. Kim entered first and prayed. The other two filed in behind her.
“Excuse me,” Kim said to the gray haired gentleman behind the desk, “any chance you have a device to play this thing?” She handed him the tape.
“Yikes, that is an old one. I know how it feels. And actually, I do have something that can play it, but it’s upstairs in my apartment. Would you ladies like to come up and have a look?” All three eagerly nodded their heads and said they most definitely would.
The man, whose name was Ted, closed up his shop and escorted everyone upstairs. Thankfully, he only lived one story up. His apartment, it turned out, was like stepping back in time, specifically to 1969, or thereabouts. Everything was original 60’s kitsch. Laura and Mrs. Hempstead walked around in awe.
“Man,” Laura said, “this place takes me back. Makes me feel twenty years old again.”
“Makes me feel sixty,” Mrs. Hempstead said, and everyone laughed.
“Now, here’s what you were asking about,” Ted said, and pointed to a playback device nestled in a corner. “Haven’t used it in some time, but I think it should do the trick. Just hand me the tape and let’s have a listen.”
Kim looked at her companions and they nodded that it was all right to hand him the tape. They stared at him anxiously as he fed it into the machine. And then, instantly they all heard the familiar electric guitar licks of the late, great Jimi Hendrix. But no vocals, just guitar.
“Hey,” Ted yelled over the music after about a minute, “that’s Jimi. What song is this? Never heard it before.”
All three women shrugged and turned to the machine for a hopeful answer. The song continued for a few more minutes that way, with Jimi strumming his ever-loving fingers to the bone, until just before the very end, when he shouted out, in repetition, “No more stairs”.
Ted looked at the ladies in bewilderment. “Jimi doesn’t have a song called ‘No More Stairs’. What gives?”
Kim replied, “Well, I guess he does, now.” Then she looked to the two women and asked, “Well?”
Laura spoke up first. “He’s talking about me. No more stairs is an obvious reference to climbing up to that freezer box up there.”
To which Mrs. Hempstead added, “Or he’s talking about climbing from up there down to me and then back up to you.”
“Or,” Kim interjected, “the song is for both of you.”
Laura and Mrs. Hempstead looked at each other and then nodded their heads. The only one who knew for sure was long gone; and Kim’s deduction not only made sense, but also made everyone happy…In more ways than one.
Almost one year to the day from that fateful meeting, the song “No More Stairs” went platinum. Two generations of listeners eagerly bought the once-lost song, making a certain few people very much richer than they had previously been.
To be certain, the estate of Jimi Hendrix made out the best, but gladly shared the royalties. After all, without the three women, there would be no song.
Laura took her share and moved back to San Francisco. As she put it, “Someone’s got to get the Haight going right again. It’s what Jimi would have wanted.”
Mrs. Hempstead moved as well, but only just down the street. More specifically, in with Ted; who she felt more like twenty and less like sixty with everyday. The two of them and Laura frequently got together to rehash old times, but they never, ever talked about Jimi.
And Kim left too. She took a nice two bedroom flat a mere three blocks away. More and more with each passing week, she grew to love the Haight and all that it once stood for. This time she picked a place that Grace Slick was rumored to have lived in at one time. This, however, was only a rumor. There were, upon many inspections, no hidden spaces under the floor. There was, however, only a three-stair walk up to the apartment. Kim, for one, liked that just fine.