Noe Valley Voice February 2005

The Last Page


In September 1992, writer Eric Martin arrived in San Francisco to visit a friend, and decided to stay for a while. Martin's first home was on hilly Newburg Street, and the stunning views from his porch, along with the "interesting collisions" within his Noe Valley neighborhood, have now become part of the fabric of his second novel, Winners, to be released on Valentine's Day by the San Francisco publishing house MacAdam/Cage.

Winners, a short excerpt of which appears below, is the story of chimney sweep Shane McCarthy and his wife Lou, a young couple living in Noe Valley at the height of the tech boom of the 1990s. Shane, a native San Franciscan, finds himself caught between two cultures: that of the nouveau riche who are swiftly buying up real estate, and the working-class ethos of his Sunset District youth. His wife, who works for a dot-com in Menlo Park, wants to concentrate on making money. But Shane thinks it's time they started having children.

As he watches his city change, Shane gets involved in solving a mystery: A young man with whom he plays a regular game of pickup basketball disappears, leaving behind a bag of his belongings. Shane tracks the 20-year-old to his mother's home in Hunters Point, but the mystery widens. "The story turns into something much bigger," Martin says. "It's a mystery about the city, about how these different worlds within it fit together, and about the way Shane fits in." Or doesn't.

A real pickup basketball game on the blacktop at James Lick Middle School helped plant the story's seed for the 35-year-old writer. Soon after he moved to Noe Valley, Martin began playing at the school with a group of men who were mostly in their 40s. "They just love the game," says Martin. "I went down there recently, and they're still playing. And they're in their 50s now! Those guys are my heroes."

Martin was also fascinated by what the players' attitudes told him about Noe Valley and, by extension, San Francisco. "[The neighborhood] is more complicated than it first appears. There's a part that seems homogeneous, but there are other parts that aren't homogeneous at all. The people I played basketball with were different in their backgrounds and beliefs and characters."

Noe Valley may share San Francisco's eccentricities, but "in a way, Noe Valley is far away from the rest of the city," says Martin. "It's a newer part of the city.... Other neighborhoods, like the Sunset or the Richmond, are slower to change. There are a lot of young professionals and parents who are attracted to Noe Valley as a place for the next step or the in-between, and not just people from other parts of the country, but from other parts of the city as well. For Shane and Lou, who are on this cusp and who want different things--career and kids--they want to be in the neighborhood for different reasons. They see different Noe Valleys."

Martin, a native of Portland, Maine, now lives with wife, Meredith McMonigle, in "that joint between neighborhoods" just off Mission and 30th streets. McMonigle teaches high school history at the San Francisco County Jail. "She knows a very different San Francisco, too," notes Martin.

Martin's first novel, Luck, which was published by W. W. Norton & Company in 2000 to critical acclaim, will be released in paperback the same time as Winners. He'll be reading and signing both books at Café du Nord, 2170 Market Street, on Feb. 15 at 8 p.m. The $8 event will benefit the Potrero Hill Neighborhood House.

--Olivia Boler


an excerpt from the novel by Eric B. Martin

He parks at home and walks down to his local grocery store in the vein of shops and restaurants that run through the valley, west to east. There's everything you could want down there if you have the money. They pretend they do. The people who live up there with them among the Escher-tilted streets certainly do. Slightly stinky in his dirty clothes, he browses beside fit mothers and natty fathers picking out plump tomatoes and fresh halibut and entry-level pinot noir. Lou still doesn't eat much but has fast recovered from a bout of vegetarianism, and he's been having a good time making up for lost meat: poking pork chops, squeezing chickens, massaging marbled beef.

On his way home she drives past him, angling up the street in her sleek new car. She's talking sternly to herself or holding one last communiqué via hands-free phone. The car is particularly shiny tonight, recently washed and buffed like a leather evening shoe. She doesn't see him. He stares after her and watches her pull in ahead of him and park on the ridiculous hill. She steps out of the car and he hides behind a tree like a comic book villain. She marches toward the door with her red leather bag and laptop, her hair perfect, sunglasses giving away nothing, her face serious. She looks like a real person. She looks like the word mature. She pins her possessions against the door with thighs as she unlocks and disappears inside. His pulse syncopates. He doesn't move. He is stalking his wife. He watches their living room window up above and pictures her first strides through the house alone, sunglasses coming off, her face relaxing. In the kitchen she attacks the refrigerator with niggling, fasting hunger; moves to the bedroom to pry herself free of shoes and hose; hits the living room and cranks the stereo to blast her way back to their other life. He waits. There's the music, not Bach or Mozart but good ol' rock 'n' roll. He lingers, hoping to see the glass doors slide open and his wife step out onto the little porch with a glass of cold white wine. After a few minutes he goes inside.

Lou is sitting on the couch, staring at silent images on TV while listening to her own soundtrack of three-chord din. She never watches television. She's still in her work clothes but everything is untucked and unbuttoned, her edges flapping loose as she comes undone. She looks better now, an adult halfway defrocked.

He leans over to kiss her head and she recoils slightly, like a suspicious cat. She's in a work coma, work has reared back its wooden bat and beaten her half to death.

"I get you anything?"


"Drink? Heroin?"


He comes back with two beers and puts one in front of her and the other to his lips. She leaves hers frosting smoke.

"It's Friday."

"Is it?" She tries to sigh but yawns instead, covering her face with her hands.

He takes a long pull on his beer. It's cold and perfect, the best thing he's ever tasted in his life. "Did you eat?" This is his solution. "You didn't eat."

"You know, I just got home, give me a couple minutes, all right?"

He leaves her there and shucks his clothes and takes his beer with him to shower and blast the day into the drain. He decides not to masturbate and shaves instead, nicking himself twice on the hinge between his throat and chin where he always nicks himself. He waits without hurry for the blood to stop, watching it seep and bead, blotting it dry. She likes him better when he's bloody and smooth. He changes into light cotton pants and a pale blue shirt and finds her where he left her but more upright, doing the crossword puzzle, pen flicking across the page.

"Look at you," she says. She sounds improved.

"Here I am." He tries again and this time gets her, an entirely good kiss. "I was gonna figure something out, food-wise. You must be hungry."

"No way can I be hungry. I have like lunch three times a day."

"Something light."

"All I do is lunch. God, I feel so gross. Like I'm wearing a fat suit."

"You're not wearing a fat suit."

"Maybe I'll go to the gym."

Paragon, he thinks. Sam. Stay on target. "You gym. I'll make us something."

"No. I loathe the gym. When I die, they'll send me to the gym for all eternity." She flops back against the sofa. "Man, I am such a bitch. Don't you just want to slap me? I want to slap me. I want to slap me silly." She tilts her head back and laughs wickedly, the low throaty staccato bursting out of her like ground birds startled from a bush.

"Come on." He has her by the arm, pulls gently. "Let's go out to dinner." If he can get her out in public she will change, correct herself. She always does.

"No. Gym. Plastic surgeon."

"Come on." He holds her there, half suspended off the sofa, her eyes still glued to the television, until slowly, slowly, he feels her body giving in. He lifts her to her feet and puts his arms around her and finally she looks up steeply at him.

"You like me, don't you."

"Yep. But I'll slap you if you really want."

"I would not blame you. I would not blame you at all." She puts both hands to her face and smears phantom tears back across her cheeks. "All right. I'll be out in a sec."

--Eric B. Martin

The Noe Valley Voice invites you to submit fiction, literary nonfiction, or poetry for publication on the Last Page. Please mail manuscripts, which should be no more than 1,500 words, to the Noe Valley Voice, 1021 Sanchez Street, San Francisco, CA 94114. Or e-mail Don't forget to include your name, address, and phone number, and an SASE if you want your manuscript returned. We look forward to hearing from you.