I’d gotten kicked out of The Summer Place again, for talking too loud about Spinoza. I’m not sure how it happened, but my shirt was ripped like I was Stanley Kowalski, and one of my shoelaces was undone. It wasn’t the best of circumstances to be wading around in, but there was nothing to be done about it. I got down on a knee and tied my shoe.
Bush Street seemed hazy with clumpy shots of sun, and I reorganized the conceptions I had about balance and being upright, sort of wobbling and waltzing there on the sidewalk as the one-way traffic swindled by — purposeful, steady, and morose.
The air was cut with gasoline and pine. I needed a drink in the worst of ways: that arbitrary biding between a purgatory and hell where you’ve had too much, which, of course, is never enough too.
Bush Market was standing chivalrous across the street, its aquamarine tiles glinting back at me in that one-story majesty that is so rare in these urban blocks. I panned my gaze up and swallowed hard. The ornamental byzantine belfry atop the apartment building next door was basking in some bright streaks. It was way up there. High and dry, as they say…or would if they could…I guess. Well, I say it, damn it. And that’s that.
My brain was frazzled with misuse.
I took out a cigarette and rubbed it between a thumb and a forefinger. There was nowhere to go that seemed safe. Pigeons tiptoed and pecked and then flapped away in sudden adept darts. I envied their meaningful existence. Here I was, boozy and deliberate, 86’d from The Summer Place in the afternoon, no prospects, no significant other, no progeny left to mop up my mistakes. Just this cursed hammering that echoed inside my cracked skull until all my roaring seemed like a whisper. I craved solace and comfort, and rarely had time for either.
I lit the damn cigarette and headed west on Bush. Jasmine Café was gone along with their double hamburgers. It was now some Korean-Mexican fusion spot that always had a line out the door. I pushed past the yuppie scum and made my way towards City Chopsticks and the fancy sandwich place, and then to the former corner-bar dive that was now the sleek art-deco Stookey’s Club Moderne. It was all a blur of gentrified glory, and I didn’t want to partake in any of it just at the moment there. Something was itching at my scalp. I stood there beneath Stookey’s twitchy neon sign and scratched at my head while a cigarette dangled and smoked from my lips. The sign buzzed like an insect trap: a startling zap that made me wince with some internal recoil. It wasn’t as bad a firecrackers going off in Chinatown or garbage trucks at 6 am, but it wasn’t my favorite sound in the world either.
Before my father took the easy way out with a shotgun to the head, he was an ordinary man. Tired. Overworked. Subservient to routine and tedium. He would try to sleep in on Saturdays, but rarely was able to accomplish it. He’d get woken up by us rowdy kids, and my mother’s voice screaming, “Stop hitting your brother!” Once he was awake it was a Sisyphean struggle for him to get back to sleep. He blamed it on, “the regurgitation of stomach acids which had been interrupted in their rejuvenation.” I’d come to terms with most of my adult life being payback for all the trouble and pain I’d caused my parents growing up. So, now, of course, I get woken up too early for my taste by an assortment of noises coming from the street or inside my building: car alarms, yodelers, banging dishes, bowling balls being dropped, toilets flushing, mice scampering, knocked-over trashcans, etcetera. There is no end to the trouble and pain of my days and nights. And now there are strangers living in the house I grew up in, people who probably do not let their kids play stickball in the driveway or tackle football in the street, and who just might not beat the shit out of their kids on a regular basis. I can’t be sure of it though.
I kept the cigarette going and created as little havoc as possible, getting my pace up to brisk as I continued careering westward. I started humming to distract myself from the feverish pitch resounding in my skull, and then I was maundering on with this stuff: “All’s a take, just a take or two, and we’re through, me and you, until the red’s in the moon, get me a double on the double, and we’ll raise a little hell and back, sleep on discounted looks for all us hacks…”
It wasn’t great. My elbows were showing. I rolled down my sleeves and snubbed my cigarette out into a sidewalk tree. Nothing overly romantic. I was done with dancing around things, but dancing wasn’t done with me.
I poked my nose into the bleak dark of Bacchus Kirk, but there wasn’t much more going on than a bartender scrubbing glasses and a corrupt individual reading The Chronicle at the bar. I got dizzy just thinking about going inside, so I regrouped and continued with my westward heaving down Bush.
My rights were peeling away from the potatoes of my struggle. From the bays of concave windows lower spirits peered down at me, the wind assassinating tree leaves on drooping branches, my head a stalled motor, flooded, and the Victorian Stick remodeled itself in less grave images as I hampered my own existence with unfiltered thoughts like, “You have the right to remain loud. Anything you think can’t and will not be used against you. I build walls. I keep everyone and everything out. I stay safe inside. I don’t take chances. I don’t make friends. I don’t let other people in. I build walls. Jesus Christ is drunk in the coatroom. Jesus is not the way. Bad lord. Bad, bad lord. Where’d all my angels run on off to? Who’s going to keep me safe, guard me here, safe inside?”
I got done with all that garbage as fast as possible. There were better, more productive thoughts to have, and I needed them, desperately.
Bush was a mess of convoluted memories, things without pants or rings, and the deadpan pull was too much, and I reveled in it, past the closed-down pizza parlor and the hideous high windows of a new gym where Blockbuster Video used to reside; then I sped up to Pine for some reason, past a palm-tree courtyard of old brick, past the corner stores and the coffee shops and the harrowing shade and pigeon shit of the block up to Polk.
Something was skittering along the outskirts of my brushy head. I tried to fend it off, plowed and agitated and woozy, funded with remorse; but it was no use. I let it come as I rounded the corner onto Polk.
“You with your designer drugs, and your marble eyes, with your mother’s locket and your sea-shaped scars. Your dismal voice in the cocktail light. She’s just a preview for a movie you’ll never see, a cop-out to a promise you’ve been lying about for years now. The chorus of you never changes, just the verse. We’re swapping thoughts instead of wives. We’re letting all the sadness in for a look. You with your spellbinding hair and your prohibition neckties, with your loggerhead sense of humor and your umpteenth times. Your most inventive smiles and indistinguishable prayers. Your demolition-derby mouth keeping my cigarettes warm. An uncorked bottle of wine in the bedroom window. What a way to go, in the seeping transgressions of yesterday’s iniquity. Like some ordinary sap ordering beer in a period piece, just a carved-off chunk of a cliché sorting things out in the warped solace of today’s terrible luck.”
A very excited young man in overalls with a jacket wrapped over his head like a turban went by. He was speaking to himself out loud in two very distinct voices: a horrifyingly deep scratchy Satan impersonation and a cackling high-pitched staccato ramble. “Here’s to Elizabeth Taylor and Virginia Woolf.” “No. Hahahahah. Nope.” “Yup.” “Nah! Nanananan. Rubbing alcohol for you?” “I presume. I am not afraid.” “It’s a scream. Hahahahahah.”
Eventually I happened into The Hemlock Tavern on Polk.
The jukebox was dead. A tableful of drunk football fans were making all sorts of noise, as the TV was on their team’s playoff game.
I took my own pulse and sat down.
An extremely invigorated gentleman, with a New Orleans Saints t-shirt and hat on, ran to the high side of the bar and brayed: “I want to buy literally every person in this bar a drink. Literally everyone. I insist. Saints! Saints! ”
The bartender proceeded to put drinks in front of all the patrons…except me.
I took stock of my sorry state and told no one, “I don’t think that guy knows what ‘literally’ means.”
My mouth tasted like cheap whisky: that glue and fungus lick that rots a little more on your tongue with each dry swallow. I needed something to wash it away. I ordered a shot of the cheapest bourbon they had. Sometimes you’ve just got to stick with your past decisions, no matter how terrible they might be, or have been.
I had a solemn moment there, pursuing the delicate art of drink. My head was a droning biplane over the placid waters of my diminishing discontent. But then, for some godawful reason, clanky as a motorboat on 6th Street, I tried to gain some higher esteem from the other patrons.
A movement stirred on the surface:
“The bottle’s song is less holy in the daylight. Most human beings are basically good-natured cowards. A bean ball aimed at your guts. A sorry operator waiting around to answer the phone and call people good names. A blink for the wily insects who are always eye-bound, and they’re smug about it too, on some power trip given lightly for the birds or to the dogs. And, sure, other people have the right to live their lives the way they see fit to live them, but I don’t have to like it.”
“Tell me about your childhood.”
“I had these friends when I was a teenager. This guy and girl. They were sneaking around on their respective better halves one night, and they’d both had an underage snootful, and she was driving his father’s gray Camaro around the block and ran the thing head-on into a palm tree. There were two head-sized holes punched into the windshield. The car was wrapped around the palm. No Jaws of Life necessary to remove them, but it was still a messy situation. He’d wandered a few blocks to his parents’ house, bleeding all over the kitchen tiles as he dialed 911, and then proceeded to walk nine blocks to my parents’ house. I answered the door after an absurd amount of doorbell chimes. He was standing there, nose sliced half off his face, asking for a ride back to the scene of the accident to help the girl who was lying unconscious in driver’s seat. By the time we got there the paramedics had arrived and were carting her away. They took one look at him and told me to take him and follow them to the hospital. Neither of them remembers anything that happened that night. Selective memory? I don’t know. They were able to reattach his nose, and she ended up being alright, just walked with a limp for the rest of her days. The car was scrapped though. Too bad. I always liked that car.”
“How about you?”
“Me? I’m a different person in a lot of ways now — some better, some worse. That’s what being alive will do to you over time, I guess. There are always new ways presented to you to change and stay the same. We pick, but sometimes we don’t get to choose.”
I picked up a bar napkin and used it to blow my nose.
“We’re civilized now. We’ve invented ways to keep ourselves alive for as long as possible. Yet we still take unnecessary chances at dying all the time. It’s the ones you take that sometimes matter less than the ones you don’t, maybe. Take it from me. I’m a guy who rots in and with indifference.”
“Hell if I know. I’m just an embalmer from Millbrae.”
The floor came alive with mice. Nobody was missing their one true love who had died four or five years ago. Nobody was quite in the business of losing their mind. I went through whatever motions would pass as being astute and understanding. Some lunatic scavenger was going around with one shoe asking if anybody had seen his Arabian Nights cufflinks. I told him we were all lost in our own stories until the gist of us unraveled to reveal there was really not much there to see in the first place. He coughed up a Clydesdale and limped on.
I was tired of hectic flashes on the crust of my life’s exteriors, pushes of past careening breakneck towards an unenviable present. In the throes of crappy misunderstandings over the relative causality and juxtaposition on the concourse of my waning disposition, I desired to slowly sip and sit and not launch into any tirades but just enjoy the careless attrition of things occurring; to feel nice and calm and good about everything in my life, even if it was just for a moment. No impatience or anxiety over what’s going to happen next. No worry and indecision. Just the simple, plain, good stuff of being alive. That’s all.
As always, this was way too much to ask.
Some weathered and gummy rheumatic with a bristling cowboy mustache pulled into the stool next to mine. He elbowed the bar and ordered a Bald Beauty with Whaler’s Dark.
“You better hope that’s not too heavy on the train oil, lamplighter.” I couldn’t resist spouting off to him for some reason, though I knew ignoring him would be the wiser route.
He tipped back on his stool, turned his body towards me, raised an eyebrow and an arm, and shouted, “There was a ship!”
I knew I was done for. There was no use trying to avoid it. All was going straight to hell now, promptly, as it always and inevitably did.
“You got a name, Swiller?”
“They call me Enos.” He sipped at his blubbery drink. “I have always had problems with electricity. Permutations of joules and watts from the highest of sources to the lowest of voltage. My bulbs have all expired. Who are we to challenge such things?”
“It’s from the Old Testament. The son of Seth, who replaced the felled Abel. The bible was very popular the year I was born, so a lot of folks back then got their names from it. And to think…now. Hell, me? I was born in the bottom of an abandoned swimming pool. It was sort of a birth by misadventure, if you will. You couldn’t dream that up with a speck of truth in a water well, could you? Well, these here dreams of mine, they aren’t exactly harkening any truths in any of these here waters, Pal-O. But you know what? The moon’s got its own 4G network now. Soon it will be flashing advertisements for itself. Got to use that blank canvas, fill it up with ways to make money. A giant screen to sell products on. A vast space to be put to use.”
“All I need is a comfortable place to put the things I can’t get over. To set them down to gather dust, so as they won’t mess around with me, or me with them.”
“The ratio of real power to apparent power, dispelled notions that we never get around to having. All’s lost? Perhaps. But until then, I’ll have one more of these boys.”
He got the bartender’s attention with a sordid wave, and soon he had another of his Bald Beauties sitting in front of him. I also took this opportunity to rekindle my spirits with a beer and a belt of whisky. A few people gathered in the smoking room attached to the bar’s northeast end. I watched the smoke gather and disperse as the shrubs by the window just stared back. I wanted gentle thunder and bright darkness. And so, it followed yet again, disappointment was my only reliable destination.
Enos wiped some sudsy liquid off his lip-hiding greasy mustache and faced me sidesaddle on his stool. “Electricity is generated by the movement of a loop of wire, or disc of copper between the poles of a magnet. This? Take it from me, this is just about the worst pick-up line in the world. It’s yours if you want it.”
“Thanks. I’ll take it. I’m not in any position to turn down freebies. Anyways, I’ve used much, much worse ones.”
I depleted my cups and decided to shove off, wishing Enos the best of what yet may never come, but still might.
Outside the moonless night had drawn its black tarpaulin over the glinting shrapnel of Polk’s lights. Foot traffic was at a minimum. I decided to wander without purpose or intent. I looked through and at all the windows, seeing my image draped in the anodyne of curious objects. I walked and walked. I was done for.
I come from a broken place. And I don’t know if I’ll ever keep pace, with the way the world moves in and out of my way. I stay in a broken place. Never fixed for long and always in need of repair, I slip through the grout in the cracks of the world. Sold and bought with the smallest of change in a place that never does. A broken place, weed-choked and out of breath, smoked from the tinderbox to the flame, caught in the arms of a memory’s hold, just one last time, all the time, until fading’s all I own. Do not wish me gone for good or here to stay. I’ll always remain safe and chained here to a broken place.
an excerpt from an audio recording of this story: