I am not well. I am a sick man — deathly ill, you might say. Not that I’ve been diagnosed by any health professional as having an actual disease. Of course, you might also say that I am merely suffering from the usual array of pains and pangs and a panoply of other plaints that growing old brings, whose plight leaves me with only the ability to alliterate my problems in wincing jabs of frustration as the voices in my head scream and shout, and scream and shout. And so, for the worse, I am left grabbing my head and scratching at the back of my neck. All I do is miss things: the way my knees used to abet my movement, the sight of fluttering hummingbirds out the bedroom window, forged silence kept between a couch and kiss, the remiss hints of worse things to come instead of those things themselves. My energy is spent in gripes and senseless errands. I wander around and watch events happen, or don’t, as they will or won’t. I do not care to own things.
This is where a staunch disregard for convention will get you.
I get up early enough to catch the homeless waking up, roll myself a cigarette, and have a look at the sunrise, oozing pomegranate jam and all yolky and blurred. Get these legs to uncoil and do some work as my calves burn down Seventh Street. There’s a scratch of a man barreling at me through the steam rising from a manhole cover. I realize as he gets close enough to spit on that it’s Merle: a Fuller-brush salesman who’s dating a topless dancer named Arlene. He’s a real marauder, that one. He greets me by removing his Oakland A’s cap, and then promptly sneezes into it.
“Do you doff your cap at me, sir?”
“I doff my cap.”
“I wouldn’t put it back on with all that snot in there.”
He gives me the wriest smile on the planet and crams the sneezed-in hat back on his scruffy head. I plod onward, kicking a few empty red Solo cups into the gutter as I pass some huddlers and loiterers misbehaving on the corner of Mission Street.
There’s this guy I know, Caldwell, with them, and he’s got his Bret Favre jersey on backwards so that it says “Favre” just below his wispy white beard. There’s a settled ease to him, a, “I’ll just have a beer and a few puffs of this stuff here, and I’ll be alright,” attitude that gives any passerby a whiff of nostalgia for less eventful days.
I nod to him that knowing nod that people do who know each other but not really well enough to gab about it. I don’t feel like talking to other people most days, and this day is definitely one of those days. Afterwards, I wander into a bar.
Here’s what happens:
It starts with a lazy misunderstanding between Sonya and the bartender.
“Those are some Cleopatra eyes you’ve got there, Missy.”
“These suckers? Hell, they’re not even close to my best feature.”
Sonya doesn’t have any arms. She asks the bartender for a straw for her beer, and when he scoffs at her she blares, “Yeah. I need a straw. In case you didn’t notice, I don’t have any fucking arms!”
She sits there and takes long sips from the straw, already a bit drunk in the later afternoon’s tingle. The bartender, curious about her condition, ventures some inappropriate queries her way.
“Why don’t you get those robotic arms they got now?”
“Arms? I can do more without arms than most people can do with them. They just get in the way. I can floss my teeth with my toes.”
“But isn’t that like, I don’t know, unsanitary?”
“You think most people who venture into your shitty crapper here even wash their hands? Shit. I keep my feet absolutely pristine. Anyway, my toenails are cleaner than my mouth, asshole.”
I leave them be, and concentrate my efforts on the drink in front of me. I spot a lady I used to know sort of well, and soon she’s sidling over to me.
Here’s how that went:
With skin like voile and breath as sweet as relish, she got hammered and told me that she’d always liked me so much. I’d always thought that she couldn’t stand the sight of me. I took no comfort in this inebriated revelation, as it was brought on by the immediacy of inhibition’s lift and would likely never be remembered by her.
“What are you doing here?”
“I’m waiting for someone I’ve never even met before.”
“Who cares? Let’s go to the beach.”
“Well, I’m not really dressed for the beach…”
She was very fond of that query.
“Ok. Let me just push around some goodbyes. But seriously, I really don’t want to get any sand in my shoes.”
“They allow you to take off your shoes there.”
I finished my drink and went outside to smoke and gape around some at the scenery.
The water tower there, cut just below the dabbed hues of daylight’s dying blues on the top of an ancient Chinatown apartment building, it just caught me at the right time I guess. It sort of camped there in my brain where my worries usually bided their time. I thought, ‘Yes. Sure. I’ll just go to the beach with this girl who’s a bit more than tippled. Who cares?’
I put my cigarette out in the rust-splattered tin can by the door and went inside where she was seated on a banquette, laughing at something someone next to her had said. Everyone was getting a bit wild and absurd in there. I didn’t like it.
I went up to where she was.
“I thought we were going to the beach?”
“Ah. We’ll get to that soon enough. Why don’t you ramble your way over to the bar and grab us another?”
I relented. Another drink sounded better than getting sand all over everything. As always, nobody gave one shit about me. I went to the bar and tried to nab the bartender’s attention. He didn’t give any shits about me either. My stupid and terrible burden.
I used to be so well read. Now I just read the ingredient lists of packaged foods and the credits of TV shows. Maybe once in a while I’ll pick up a book just to remember what one feels like in my hands, perhaps smell that particular mildew-and-dust scent of the yellowed pages, and then put it back where it goes on the shelf squashed between some other books I’ll never read again.
Now? Now I just find myself wishing I could start a Cloak, Bonnet, and Fancy Goods Establishment down by Portsmouth Square. And, also, now, I can’t even remember what I’m constantly running away from.
“Ok. Ok. What’ll it be, Dimwit.”
Finally, some service.
“Yes. I will have two double vodkas, neat.”
“Who are you, Michael J. Fox?”
“Yup. How’d you know?”
“I was throwing the bums dimes before you even knew you’d ever be alive.”
He got me the drinks, but he was not happy about any of it. I couldn’t blame him. It was shitty order from a shittier person. I thanked him, tipped a five, and tried not to loiter there for longer than I had to.
I went over to the banquette where my future beach companion was holding court with a bunch of drunk hipsters, and placed her drink in her hand.
“I once was famous for never watching TV. And I used to surf every morning, and I had a Bengal cat named Olga. Me? I was really something.”
I wasn’t sure if she’d be able to stop yapping for long enough to take a drink, but she made time for it. I drank mine too, as we mangled some toasting gesture without touching glasses, and I watched her as she sat there trying to look so cool for everybody. She was wearing a foul-pole yellow top that came down just to the waist of her pleated outfield-green skirt. As for me, I was left wishing for pinstripes and high socks, and all I was getting were road grays and pegged pants. Each and every robin was just falling and falling — it was too much to count.
I stood there and drank my drink, taking in the circumstances, dire with inhibition’s frustrated ire. I was sick of words that rhymed and matching clothes and dirty collars. The group on the banquette were posing with their drinks and taking pictures of each other. They squealed and squirmed as they canned their laughs back and forth. The whole disastrous phony tableau of it all made me nauseated something way beyond queasy. I roamed towards where I figured the bathroom would be. Everything was about to change, and that change was going to start with me vomiting up most of my breakfast.
All I can do, I’ve done. Perhaps.
Then the cops showed up and ruined everything.