by Joe Beine

The twins danced into Vesuvio

where they sat on the second floor, drinking wine and watching the North Beach night drift by outside like nervous fog. Inside, the air smelled fizzy, a mixture of dark beer and misty perfume. A man and a woman, beautifully young, were giggling and murmuring quietly at a small table nearby, drinks hovering between them like chess pieces. Beyond a railing, the twins could see the bar below. It was crowded with people, some haggard, some lively. Beat sprites danced everywhere, leaving invisible clouds of word dust behind. Tiffany lamps dangled from the ceiling, creating a warm rusty glow that Elsie called Vesuvio light. Elsie’s eyes seemed cat-like in this light, Jessi’s flashed a deeper brown. Vesuvio was ancient and alluring, Elsie’s favorite place to play.

Book Covers: Adventures on the Isle of Adolescence by La Loca, The Seventh Horse by Leonora Carrington and the Portable Beat ReaderThey said goodbye to the sprites and went across the alley to City Lights Bookstore where Jessi wanted to buy a thousand books but settled on three: The Portable Beat Reader, which Elsie said was filled with mad magical noise, Leonora Carrington’s surreal The Seventh Horse, and a pocket book by the poet La Loca, whose words hovered precariously over the pages. Elsie bought a book about Caravaggio and one about Italian Baroque sculpture and a new dictionary. The twins’ backpacks, once light, were suddenly heavy with fresh smelling tomes. But even this extra weight failed to muffle their quiet energy.

The twins had first met on a windy afternoon at the Palace of the Legion of Honor where they had gone separately to sketch the statue of Joan of Arc on the grounds outside. They were sitting a few feet apart, both in dark clothes for hiding and thick boots for protection, sketchbooks propped in their laps, wondering about Joan. The statue showed the armored saint riding a stallion, her sword raised skyward, leading the charge for France against the English invaders.

Jessi and Elsie occasionally glanced at each other, sometimes with shy smiles, as if they instinctively and instantly knew they were somehow connected. Spiritual sisters perhaps. Twins even. They shared similar thick dark hair and even darker eyes, but Elsie had a splash of freckles across her pale face that Jessi lacked. Elsie also had a slight, barely perceptible Asian look about her as though there had been a Chinese or Japanese ancestor somewhere in her lineage. Otherwise they were two smallish young women with childlike gazes and creative instincts. And the same quiet features and inquisitive stares.

And then they had found themselves sitting close together, comparing sketches of Joan, and smiling at the wind, but only talking when they needed to communicate something tangible or practical. They seemed to just know they shared the same spiritual essence, the same core, although they had been born in different worlds. A few days later, Jessi, a new arrival to the city, had wanted Elsie to show her San Francisco, the special parts Elsie loved the most. So Elsie took her to the heart of North Beach with its archaic clatter and scruffy vitality.

After leaving City Lights, the twins danced up to Caffe Trieste where they fell into the words of Jessi’s books and the art of Elsie’s, while Caruso sang to them from the jukebox. Elsie told Jessi that she had once been riding on the 83-Pacific when City Lights proprietor Lawrence Ferlinghetti had gotten on the bus. He was thin and wore light clothes, the opposite of Elsie’s dark attire. He sat just two rows in front of her across the aisle, invisible word dust gathering around him. While the bus lurched down California Street, he gazed out the window as if everything was new, not like he’d seen the view a thousand times. He got off at Stockton Street, and Elsie watched him fade into the gray clutter of Chinatown. She thought he was a god or certainly an angel, ageless and beautiful.

In the warm glow of Caffe Trieste, the twins drank coffee, gazed at Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro, and wished they were Italian. They looked up words in Elsie’s new dictionary, and giggled and marveled at them. Then they put aside their City Lights treasure, got out their sketchbooks, and drew each other.

Jessi’s sketch highlighted Elsie’s quiet eyes and unruly dark hair. Elsie was looking off to one side, watching the world with an artist’s gaze. Elsie’s sketch showed Jessi in her ash colored blouse covered by a leather jacket, her hands clasped together in her lap, looking almost impish. Behind her Elsie had drawn barely perceptible wings that faded into the indistinct background. A viewer, even the kind who adored details, would have to look close to see them. When the twins were finished, they put the sketches side by side and smiled at the similarities. Neither spoke.

They glanced at each other, then began to draw the smoky denizens of the cafe around them. Outside, the night shuffled by in shifting rhythms, a perfect blend of Monk and Bird and Kerouac. Inside, the air smelled of long simmering coffee and ancient Italian cafes. The twins left their sketches behind so that people could see a few fleeting North Beach irregulars—tourists and poets and romantic brooders—forever captured on a page like word dust.

Joe Beine’s latest book, Made Out of Trees, is now available from Amazon.

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