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The star was 3/5 lit above Harry Denton’s place at the top of The Sir Francis Drake. But don’t worry about that; it’s of no concern here. Our story doesn’t take place there, though it’d be neat if it did. It doesn’t though. There’s nothing to be done about it, so there’s no use getting into a hissy fit over it. Maybe next time. But the mise-en-scène of this little ditty is The Tonga Room, which, if you really want to know about it, is the tiki bar located in the basement of the Fairmont Hotel. They’ve got a fake lagoon there; in a past life it was a swimming pool called the Terrace Plunge. These days a Don-Ho musical combo rides around on it aboard a boat playing pop standards. It’s a swell place if you like fruity drinks and a tropical atmosphere; rattan furniture, fake thunderstorms, Hawaiian shirts, and mist machines. Anyway, here you go…
The Tonga Room was rollicking with tourists and drunken work parties. Glasses were tipping over and hastily being refilled by diligent, mop-topped waiters in vintage, orange-and-white, floral-patterned Aloha pullovers. A tall, thin man wearing a black suit with a checkered, taupe necktie spotted somebody he knew across the room. It was a woman. He became certain it was who he thought it was. He decided to go over to her.
He bent down and whispered into her ear, “There are curious things occurring in the vicinity of your eyes. But I am tired of cleaning up after the sloppiness of others.”
It was a woman whom he’d once dated. It was a brief and torrid affair which seemed a lifetime away now. They’d loved each other dearly for that short span: a period of months, not even half of a year. He still cherished the time they’d had together, but that was long ago. He knew this, yet something crept upon him in the most iniquitous of ways, and a certain pestering of his conscience seemed as if it were leading him out onto the proverbial gangplank of dalliances. He was not wearing the proper shoes for the occasion.
Lights were hunting strangers on the dance floor. A hurricane sneezed. A karaoke boat circled the rough waters of the fake lagoon that took up about as much space as an Olympic-sized swimming pool in the middle of the bar. People drank daiquiris with tiny umbrellas by the light of tiki torches as the waiters — whose fluid airy movements made them almost seem to be bounding about in zero gravity — hustled from table to table in their vintage pullovers and white slacks. Everything was rattan. The air smelled like barbecue and vanilla extract. A bald man with a hulky torso and skinny legs, who was wearing khaki cargo shorts and flip-flops with white socks, and who was having a hell of a time thumping the table with his thick-fingered hand, burped. The sound it made was: “Arrumpufff…ert.” His wife scowled at him. He smiled and watched the tiny Asian man who was karaokeing Summer In Siam on the boat. The Asian man was making quite an effort. He was wearing wayfarers and had a bellowing alto voice that seemed to scrape the high ceiling with its maudlin resonance. “And the moon is full of rainbows,” sang the diminutive fellow. He had on a white suit with a blue tie. There was a heft and bulk to his effort. Tinkling and strings and a saxophone lingered in the air. Wherewithal strode through the room. Nothing happened.
The tall, thin man in the black suit winked at his former paramour.
“I haven’t seen you in ages!” she exclaimed.
“Darling,” he said.
“Nobody’s called me that in ages!” she exclaimed.
“Hadn’t noticed,” he said. “Is that a blue bow in your hair, or are you just sad to see me?”
“Both,” she said. “I’m not sweating anything. Not joy. Not this or that. Nothing. Pleased?”
He stood back up and glanced at where the moon should be, but it wasn’t there. They were indoors. The lights flickered. A sudden tropical storm passed. He moved away from the table and rubbed his hands together as if he were trying to stay warm. He thought, ‘Whatever happened to that old song? Whatever happened to…” He stopped thinking. It was pointless. He didn’t own an umbrella. And he always lost them even when he had them. It was pointless. The rain didn’t care.
She looked at him. She didn’t smile too much, but enough — mostly with her eyes. A crinkling. A squinty drop of joy squeezed out of hope’s last lap. He thought, ‘Is that enough? Can I dispel this petty annoyance and frustration with a moment’s infatuated lustful harpoon?’ She turned away and watched the karakoeing man on the boat. It was a good show, very entertaining. Everybody at the bar was enjoying their beverage.
She thought, ‘Away. Get away. Stay. Just stay away. Don’t want to know you no more, no more, not no more. Get away from me forever stay away. Oh, just let me smell your scent one last time. I miss you. Come here. Come closer. Run away with me. Steal me away. Feed me rhubarb pie. Get away. Stay away. I can’t be alone. I can’t be with you. I can’t be here when you’re so near. Away. Away from me. Stay.’
“Ass over tit!” screamed a very drunk woman sitting at a table by herself all the way in the back of the place. She’d had six Mai Tais for dinner and a Diet Roman Coke for dessert. It wasn’t a pretty sight. After exclaiming, “For ‘tis far better to part, though it’s hard to, than to rot in their prison away!” her shoulders slumped big time, her eyes rolled all the way back, and her head dropped like a dead battery to the table where it stayed, resting comfortably on her outstretched arms for a while. A waiter came by and checked her pulse, then wiped off the table with a wet rag. A mist sprayed from the misters attached to the tops of the totem poles arrayed throughout the tropical scenery. Nothing got very wet.
Outside, in the real rain, taking some shelter, nesting in the crook of redoubt under a cement balcony, a man in a moth-eaten overcoat was singing softly, “There’s something stupid about you I miss when I’m here alone by myself.” A cab went by blaring Sinatra: “You are but a dream.” The man stopped singing and wondered about rising dough and the scent of bread.
Back inside The Tonga Room a bartender had the sniffles. He wiped his nose on the shoulder of his orange-and-green Hawaiian shirt while he was shaking up a cocktail. Some salt had been spilled on the counter. He looked at it and snarled.
A plump Home Depot manager stood leaning against the west wall, his mahogany shirt blending in with the wallpaper, making him almost invisible, except for his beverage, which was a Pina Colada, and which he was holding aloft in his left hand and gently shaking around, almost the same motion he would use to shake somebody’s hand, if, by chance, there were anyone who wanted to shake it, which there wasn’t, and there hadn’t been in quite some time, which made him sad, and he thought about stone corbels and bacon omelets and the price of a plane ticket to Macau, a place where he’d always imagined he would find his one true love, a girl who smelled like almonds and had an affinity for wearing cowboy hats, and who, of course, was most certainly anxiously awaiting his long-overdue arrival. A bead of sweat rolled down his forehead and slid across his nose. He felt hopeful. He closed his eyes, leaned against the wall, shook his drink around, and smiled. He was thinking back to when he was a kid, and about how it felt to stand under a waterfall, how the pressure of the water — that clean thick sheet showering down like glass — loosened and massaged the neck and shoulders; how the water crashed on your head and made you feel free and thoughtlessly clear-headed; and swimming in lakes, lunging out on rope swings and somersaulting into the algae-green water below, lost and dizzy and safe; and the way the soft loose gravelly sand on the lake bottom would feel as you toed around in it, letting the straggly conferva brush your feet and legs, treading water or back floating with the sun warm on your face, the water cool below you. He opened his eyes.
“Shake it up baby!” howled a blond-haired Nordic creature: a man with a neck like a fire hydrant and a jutting-out jaw. His black, tight-fitting t-shirt read, “I AM NOT THE ALIEN HERE!” in bold yellow letters at nipple level. His pecs were impressive, as were his rock-hard abs and hairless arms that were thicker than most legs. He had a bad stutter, and was screaming the lyrics to The Beatles’ version of Twist And Shout, but the song playing on the karaoke machine was Little Richard’s Tutti Frutti. For some reason it seemed not to matter. The blond man was having all kinds of fun. His hips shook, his hair flopped around like palm tree fronds in a windstorm, and he eventually ended up curled in the fetal position on the ground with the microphone held between his knees as he screamed wildly into it, clicking his tortoise-shell shoes rapidly together at the heels the whole while. His voice was like Werner Herzog and Porky Pig screaming into a fan together: “Come on! Come on!” He let out a sigh. “Baby!” He held his breath and slipped out a silent fart. “Come on! And! Work it on out!” He rolled over onto his back, raised both arms and legs straight up in the air above him, and with the microphone now completely inside of his mouth he roared, “Ah! Ah! Ah! AHHHHHHHH! Ow! Ow! AHHHHH!” He continued like this until the song faded out.
A kindly gentleman in a stop-sign-red blazer over an ivory-white t-shirt with too much hairspray on his receding-hairline-almost-pompadour knelt on one knee next to a lovelorn lady with too much makeup and horn-rimmed glasses sitting with her gabbing coworkers, and told her, “Don’t forget the regret you almost gave back to the person whom you remembered to leave without thinking three times about what it would be like to just stay.” She gave him a look that meant, “Hurry up and commit suicide already, why don’t you?” The gentleman stood back up and walked away holding his head high. The karaoke boat was between songs.
The table of coworkers, who were out for an after-work drink, were having a lively conversation.
“I’m all shook up already.”
“You’re a drink away from terrible.”
“Lazy, shit-licking, cow-tipping motherfuckers! Ah. We look like nothing from outer space. All cooped up? Like this? Us? Ah. Fuck it.”
“I’m an alternative kind of girl.”
“I’m not that kind of guy.”
“Another one of these, please.”
“Waiters are just another form of obsequious companionship gone-to-pot. Move into a new house. Eat your mortgage for breakfast. Butter my eggs and fry my toast!”
“Good luck? Well, we all get the same fringe of disaster to scrape wool off of. Do you believe? Do you believe in Steve?”
“He’s a pansy. As far as I’m concerned. Hey, well, we’re all pansies though, really…right?”
“Another round. And I’m not saying please.”
“Wish up deep into your cups!”
“Was that a toast?”
“To cree or not to cree.”
“They’s alls a deads now. Huh?”
“Rupture the turmoil with silent clapping hands. It’s just the weather. Forget about it.”
“I’m already late to the party. It’s no matter. It’s not now nothing.”
“Sing. Come on. Get up there and sing. I’ll put on a song for you. Huey Lewis? The News? Come on.”
“Okay. Shit. Why not?”
“Because. A murmuration of starlings, you see, always flies in groups of sevens, always obeying a strict regimentation, an order that seems random in a group of thousands, disorganized flutters to distract predators, all at once but seven at a time. We are but fashions of mistaken architectural over-correcting. Beauty? Eye it as you see it. To them on the inside of it, well, they never do. Mona Lisa doesn’t know what her smile looks like. She might not even know that she’s smiling at all.”
Some purple Bergamot mint fell to the floor. Nobody noticed. It might have fallen from the sky, but it was more likely that it came from the ceiling. A group of out-of-work stunt doubles sat at the bar and moaned about their lack of work. The bartender tried to ignore them while pouring some Malibu Rum into a cocktail shaker and gazing at the wide, fake-rock support column at the end of the bar.
“It started out with just an itch, right around the collar area, and then it turned into a sting, and then it became desultory, leaping from place to place on my skin. Here for an instant, then gone and moved somewhere else. I could never catch up to it in my scratchings. It was always one leap ahead of me. And the stinging came and went to. I couldn’t relax. I couldn’t do anything to make it either stay or go away. Lord. I’m tired.”
“It’s the out-of-work blues. It’s hearing things differently. The touches change. The way the keys on your keypad sound when you punch at them, and the way they feel. It’s more sharp, more distinct…more real. Ring tones change. Dogs lose their bark. People’s eyebrows behave differently.”
“Life is not a drag today. We’re just dragging.”
“It’s only time going by. Can’t escape that, can we?”
“Bartender! Get this man a stiff drink, pronto!”
The bartender had let his eyes go out of focus. He saw Sal Mineo’s face in the support column’s fake rock. It improved his mood considerably.
A bunch of businessmen with their neat neckties loosened considerably sat around their martinis chatting about fantasy basketball.
Movies were showing somewhere.
“We’re just living in the cradle of uncivilized matter-of-fact notions,” groaned a bicycle thief who was nursing a Scorpion Bowl with his bike messenger buddy Jem. “I need to stop spending so much time in my own head. My head. Bilk. Balk. Bilk. My head. Nothing but ester gum and dabs of brilliance. The damned finest ruins.”
Jem slurped up some of the spiked punch with his straw. “The world is wearing wings.” He swallowed. He sat up straight, jabbed a pointed finger all around as if poking at some imaginary circling predators. “You know what? Some girls, they only sleep at night. And some girls, they hope they don’t get old. This is not a fact.”
“I’m closer than a country mile to the end of the clattering of high heels,” whined the bicycle thief.
The tall, thin man in the black suit was up on the karaoke boat. He had his eyes closed and was holding the microphone very close to his mouth. Fortunately the large foam microphone cover had been replaced after the last performer, and it seemed as if this man were about to take a bite out of it. But he didn’t. Instead he held it to his lips and sang, “Well, why don’t you love me like you used to do. How come you treat me like a worn-out shoe?” His voice was deep and rich, filled with sorrow and longing, and it cracked at times like a young man going through puberty. It was somewhere between Elvis, Jonathan Richman, and Sonny Bono, with a hint of Frank Zappa. People stopped whatever it was that they were doing and watched him intently. Nobody said a word. “I’m the same old trouble that you’ve always been through, so why don’t you love me like you used to do?” The bartender just stood still and stared, transfixed on this miserable crooner on the boat. “Well, why don’t you be just like you used to be? How come you find so many faults with me? Somebody’s changed, so let me give you a clue. Why don’t you love me like you used to do?” A waiter dropped a hurricane glass to the floor. It bounced. The karaoking man’s voice pitched down into an even tenor, and then slipped back smoothly into a hearty gale of frustrated rage. He took off his suit jacket and tossed it over his shoulder, with much savoir faire and a wink, into the lagoon. His former lover clenched her hands into fists under the table. She didn’t cry. She didn’t laugh. She just sat there, stiff, watching. The man arched his back and sang to the ceiling, “Ain’t had no lovin’ like a huggin’ and a kissin’ in a long, long while.” A floor light went out. Somebody dropped some ponzu-sauce battered sesame tempura onto their plate. “Why don’t you say the things you used to say? What makes you treat me like a piece of clay?” A piece of devil’s food cake disappeared below an online psychic-healer’s glassy gaze, as she slowly golf clapped the whole affair.
The song ended. Everybody clapped, and then stopped caring.
A laptop repair technician said to his girlfriend, “Life is just boiling water, letting it cool down, boiling it again, letting it cool down again, ad infinitum.” His girlfriend flashed him a mordacious smile and drank off a large portion of her Bay Breeze without using her straw.
“Sans straw,” she quipped. “I am a floating hybrid of plums and pearls on a cheap-shit burgundy sea. Shove your opinions up your ass.”
“The circle of love is complete, at last.” He sat back in his chair, cracked his neck, and blew her a halfhearted kiss. “I’ll be a bachelor until I die.”
A rippling stirred in the lagoon. The boat was still. Nobody was aboard. The tall, thin man in the suit had stepped back ashore. Everybody was done clapping. Conversations came and went. A tollbooth operator threw a penny at a ceiling fan. It nicked a blade and shot out into the lagoon, where it made a small splash and then sunk to the bottom. A big-nosed insurance investigator with a ponytail sipped his Bora Bora Horror and winced. Something made a noise like a skunk getting its tail chopped off with a machete.
A lonely stewardess stirred the ice around in her Hurricane and thought, ‘Why am I here and not there? The window is lights and snot streaks. Time passes.’
The lights flickered. A storm blew in. Thunder went out of style. A magician hid beneath a table and cried.
A table of jet-lagged lawyers toasted kamikaze shots.
“She was quite the tempestuous lady, and I had to hold myself back, man. She was like a sow in heat, and I was ready for some scooting, you know, or, hey, some leisure activity that required, you know, less than my full mental capacities, but for this particular situation it just wasn’t the most beneficial option. She looked really nice with a good sweat on her. You know? Though what occurs between the liner notes of life is better left, well, in the sleeve of an unplayed record, if you ask me. Damn. Ask me. I’ll learn you a few things. Ask me? That’s a different story.”
“There’s bound to be more room in the density of the thing, right?”
“Lots’a leg room, if you ask me, is the deliciousness of waiting around for the right…opportunity.”
“Big breaks. Hunches. Going on. There’s, like, a piston scurrying it all up in there.”
“I’m a blender. I blend in with whatever I’m around. The colors of others become my own. My thoughts tumble along with the crowd’s. I’m nothing but a one-night-stand of emotions, a chameleon of poses, a plastic smile plastered on a passing fancy. Getting sucked into the personality of others is what I was made for. My opinions are not my own.”
“I take what I can. Giving’s for sissies. Here, take my hand, please. I’ve got another.”
“Make a wig for the blind. Remove your pants and spend money on curtains. There’s nothing to it. But I’m a fucking space case, when it comes down to it. If you wanna come down to it, and you do, right? Well, when I come down to it, when we take a little gander under the hood of it all, well, shit, there’s more motor oil than motor about it. Life’s just a botched game of bingo, and we’ve got all the boards we could ever want, but, shit, we just can’t ever hear the numbers being called.”
“Shit. It’s like being addicted to temporary tattoos.”
“We dance. We roll up our sleeves. We make believe we matter. I don’t know. I’d go insane, but I just don’t know how.”
“The damn debris in my head is making me involved only in somebody else’s frame of reference. I don’t have a me to be anymore, just all these parts fishing around for a bite. Cancel all my appointments.”
“Do whatever the hell you want. Get drunk on bitters while reciting the answers to the NY Times crossword. Stay up all night. Do cartwheels on a float in the Veteran’s Day Parade. Miss somebody.”
A man with brown trousers, a white button-up, and bright green socks on staggered out of the bar. A waiter helped him, gave him somebody to lean on, and the man was very thankful, and the waiter was sad that he couldn’t walk the man all the way home. He thought, ‘Maybe there’s only so much room left in heaven. More and more, because is becoming my reason for doing things.” He started blinking a lot, cracked his neck, rubbed his palms together, and then went back to work.