A sign on a light pole was telling me to, “Jump start your career at Howard and Spear,” as I passed on the sidewalk schlepping my groceries home. My career had never really gotten off the ground in the first place. Actually, I’m not sure that I ever had a career, at least not in the usual way one was supposed to have one — you know, with the 9–5 job, supporting the family, working for the weekend, sitting around at a desk waiting for a promotion — the sort of thing that you tell people at a party that you “do” when they ask. I’d never really settled in to anything productive to do with my time here on earth. Hell, I still haven’t, if you want to know the truth of it.
The bells of Grace Cathedral were ringing as I trod on wondering who they could possibly be ringing for, only sure that it was not for me. It felt good to be sure of something; it was getting to be a rare thing.
And me? Shit. As always, I was only worried about how I was going to get my mitts on a few more lousy bucks. It was a terrible way to lope my way through the causes and corruptions of the world, but I had a hard time getting over it.
The multinational corporation that now owned the building I rented a room in was demanding I pay them more money every month for the privilege of living on their property. No matter how much money they made, they always wanted more. It was never enough. I’d resigned myself to these now habitual upticks in my rent; there was nothing to be done about it. They had the power and the riches, and really good lawyers who shaved every day. I had a few pairs of pants and a jacket to keep me warm at night, and, if I were lucky, a can of soup and a beer in the fridge. I shaved once a week, at most. It wasn’t fair, but it was life. Living a bit longer without ambition was becoming my only goal.
In the mornings I’d talk to myself. I’d lie in bed, afraid to venture out from beneath my covers and into the cold void of my room. The alarm would rail against my peace with its awful siren, and I’d try to muster the courage to leap from the bed to shut it off.
A flight of uncarpeted stairs. That’s all it came down to, the life I was leading. One damn thing over and over and over.
But, like I said, I was an inveterate talker to myself. I’d gab on all through the afternoon sometimes: “Look. Look. See? She was a champion of the morose. Who? Who else. Who’d ever would I would be gabbing on about here. Generous enough, Mr. Spade. Me? Okay. Me. I’ve never been a very careful thinker. I’ve got more of a hardwired emotive thoughtfulness. Bray and pray lady. Drinking champagne down by the train tracks again, like she’s Joan Crawford or something. Bad a spot as any. Get some damn coffee all over this proposition. I do. Sure. Why not? I say it all the time. Need me to say it once more? Shit. I mean, shoot. And I don’t even own a pistol at all. Why? Rye. Rye. Rye. Just a taste of it and I’m through. Like having a bottle of aquavit in the freezer and a brain that belongs in its own special place in hell. Rah, rah, rah, and then the most splendid article in all of Illinois just breaks and splinters all over the hardwood of my messiest moods. Humphrey Bogart ain’t got a damn thing on me, Salty. Remember something worthwhile for once in your life. Shifty and shifting. Always going from nowhere to there’s never here. Or, whatever that won’t ever mean. Keep in motion. Dangerously safer now, too. Parades gone by, and sure, all the ropes are frayed from too many circus tents taken down. Everyone’s in need of a nice and slow sip of bourbon in the afternoon, especially if it’s raining and the sink’s clogged and you don’t feel even close to wanting to pull over. She just went out to the movies and never came back. Transfer all these funds to the nearest madhouse, Lucy. I’m all out of ideas and cigarettes, and nobody’s waiting up for me.”
I am not trying to sell you anything. Do not click here. Do not get any ideas about grander schemes of getting rich quick. Besides, Rick James was an altar boy before he got famous. And me, I just about caught my death of cold in an even colder Buffalo motel room before the worst and best of times hit. Also of note: brandy doesn’t cure a cold, but it sure helps you to not care that you’ve got one.
I never knew what I was doing when I started out, and then for many years after too. I got too stingy with words. I stopped pouncing on every sentence and luxuriating over every paragraph. I became squeamish at every start, ruined before I got near a finish. Finally I decided all this scribbling was for the sane and competent, and so I drove all the way to the Ocean Park Motel. Just your garden variety mental breakdown. Nothing to get too concerned about.
Loquacity predicted at 10%. An apocryphal moment in the zest of it — but, that’s all. Anymore. And, so, then it’s, “Wash up, get your money, and get out of here.” The broken glass of opportunity’s window lies shattered all over the pavement. Ruler-flat panels with just a hint of fin, just like me, the place was an antique. Lilac and diesel got all mixed up in your nose, and then you cussed little involuntary tics and sighs until any emotion you’d ever dream up having just boiled and bubbled to the surface. Getting made was for the turkeys and the fair-weather seamstresses. Shit.
Mixers always have the right of way around here. And here is a place where the buffalo never chance to roam, and we’re just stumbling around looking for the liver of Friday night, or at least the spleen. And so. I was falling in love; unfortunately she had other plans.
The street’s whisked, shot stiff with rain, and the traffic’s insufferable as a botched pot of coffee: skipping kicks of horns, bleats and skids and rubbed-raw tires sloshing through it all. The aftermath leaving Yours Truly with the brain capacity of an elderly roach. Running those perpetual and awful tasks of Aunt Charlie, I’ve been leaving some small thing at every hotel along the way to see her. Listening to the night’s random and steady hum of highway music as I lie in strange beds with even stranger pillows. Wasting around and missing people. And this credit card of mine, well, it just might not make it back alive.
I was busy planning our wedding when I should’ve been planning our second date.
Rummaging through my drawers for cigarettes, I’d just started in on my dessert beer when my pal Henry called. He was in a mood. I didn’t care for it. Lisping like an asshole all the way through it. He was always worrying about some stupid insignificant thing, and wanted comfort.
His voice came through soft and broken: “Stormy out?”
“Sure. While there’s time for it.”
“I’m just calling to say…huh…looks like I forgot.”
“Call me back when it comes back to you.”
I poured myself a shot of whiskey and sat it down on the kitchen table. I stared it down. Hard. I looked it over. I gave it a chance. Then I took one of my own and drank it down. The scraggily sun was poking through my blinds, and all I wanted was a window with a gritty and beautiful girl in it who’d look right back at me. I gave up thinking about stupid things like that. I poured myself another. I didn’t look at the shot so much this time. I just hefted the glass and gulped it down. There was really nothing to it. Such an easy and wonderful thing to be doing just then. Things that were persisting in pestering me stopped being so annoying, and I just stood there and waited without a care as to what I was waiting for. I don’t think I’ve ever felt that good before or since.
I am not a good person. People do not smile at me. There are no peace prizes being handed out in my name. My head was put on sideways. I always see things on a slant. Nobody ever relates. The rashest person on earth stopped dead in his tracks in a bout of terrible inanition. That about sums it up.
Shit. I didn’t have the time. I never did back then. I made my own drinks and ate out too much. All of my socks had holes in the heel and the toe. The way other people treated me was the way I treated them back. It was a simple, nondescript life. And I didn’t mind it too much. The seagulls would swoop on in towards sunset, and all the people down by Aquatic Park would pack up their sunbathing apparatus and start making their way back to their indoor lives. I’d sit on the guano-stained cement bleachers facing the water, watching them, watching the bay and sailboats and Alcatraz and the piers out there that almost touched but not quite, watching the sky change from light Robitussin to deep promethazine with a dab of codeine. Soon I would be alone. It would get cold and windy. I’d just sit there with nowhere to go, rubbing my hands together, rubbing my eyes, thinking about the sorry state of my life, waiting for time to go by.
I knew this guy named Roman who felt it was always in my best interest to listen to him yap. He never talked about anything except getting laid. You’d think he invented electricity to hear him go on about his various exploits. I kept my trap shut and drank his beer while he went on and on, highlighting his sexual prowess and indomitable nature. I found it all mildly boring, but he let me drink his beer, so it worked out for me, as I could slowly ease into my evening with a good four or five beers in me. The stories were mostly about some situation involving a woman who he was trying to make, and then some one-armed piccolo playing ensued with him playing the starring role. He’d weasel his way into their pants at some point, with much charm and bravado of course, and soon he’d be strutting about, as if trying to get me to award him a medal. I rarely stayed past the fifth beer.
There were times when I’d wake up to a mouse caught in one of my peanut-butter-laced traps in the kitchen. Those were good days. I’d celebrate by purchasing some flavored cream for my coffee. I baited my afternoons with sips of terrible vodka and sardine-and-egg sandwiches while I tried not to think of all the people I’d lost touch with or that the years had culled from the clutches of my tenure here on this planet. Living without was something I’d gotten touchy about and too often too used to.
People around here, well, we don’t have very exotic dreams. Maybe we just ponder getting a bit beer-drunk in a park on a Saturday afternoon, still out from the night before, and then falling asleep on the grass in the shade of a cypress tree. The hum of the buses going by keeps us sane enough.
The paramedics were bringing another dead body down the stairs of the apartment building across the street. The flashing lights were bothering me, as I was sitting in my window trying to enjoy a glass of good scotch. The rain had let up momentarily, and I was trying to pace myself. This wasn’t helping. One of the boys in blue made eye contact with me from the curb as he was hauling the body to the ambulance. I looked away faster than I’ve ever looked away from anything before. It was a new world record. I awarded myself with another swallow of bourbon.
I fixed myself some burnt-butter crispy pancakes and thought about where all the phone booths had gone to. Torched things are so much better than those untouched.
Everyone’s gone. The music’s left too. The last person left in the place, again. Not much grace left in these legs. And to think, just when the daring few have stopped calling my name. Over the uninfluential tides that thrash me through the nights. Jesus has gone out for a smoke break. I’m going to lie down in lightness, for once, and sip instead of gulp.
The bells of Grace were ringing again. Some psalm-like thing out of the bible. Something by Solomon probably. A song so sweet and touching and holy. It wasn’t resonating with me at all. I had gone astray too long ago to rightly remember. There was a 40% chance of rain, and a 0% chance of me being saved. Saved from what? I’d given up caring what. I took my umbrella with me and chanced my way out into the muck and ruin of the world. The wretch that I was and had always been — I could live with it. I gripped my umbrella tight and tried to remember the name of every girl I’d ever been in love with. I was going to be really, really good-looking old man someday. Everything was as splendid as could be.