This laptop’s busting at the seams, and I’ve barely got enough change left to do one load of laundry. The damn TV only plays what it wants: mostly shopping channels and soaps. Dogs bark all the morning long in the lobby, keeping me from sleep. Outside my window some guy’s banging an acoustic guitar like a bucket drum, and there’s a block-long line of the needy and the strung-out stretching from a catholic church where they’re giving away canned food. I’m not as tough as any of them, but I make out alright. No coffee maker. No microwave. I heat up water on the stove and pour it over some used grounds. The shower only rains down cold, and the toilet doesn’t flush all the way. I contemplate going insane in this small tidy room, but don’t know exactly how to start the process. Or maybe I’m just too far gone to know that I’m already there. Scary thought, really. So I stop thinking it. Though, if I think about it, I’m sure my insides could take the beating they deserve after all I’ve done and never paid for now. Sometimes I’m jealous of the mice who live in my oven: at least they’ve got a good hiding place to stay put in.
The works. Glistening stretches of contentment, sometimes lasting for a good 20 minutes. That’s about all I get. But I take it as it comes. What else can I do? The cigarette and chocolate factories have all closed down, and my family has all split for smaller parts and bigger plans. No more cigars. No more bouquets left to catch. The choices we get, well, sometimes they get to be the ones you’d never think of opting for in the crowded fishbowl of your life’s duties. Who am I to question the acoustics of the thing? Perhaps I’ll just walk around and partake in this overcast scenery the city seems to be shrouded in lately. Nothing stays like it should. All rejected and out-of-place and quitting sleep and booze for a bit too. Nothing here that doesn’t add up to all the same old nothing again.
Another down-on-his-luck chump in search of the next watering hole that’ll do to support my musical aspirations for the time being. Maybe that’s what I’ve become at last. Not so bad, really. It could be worse. I could be a senator or a CEO or a plea-bargain lawyer or a priest. Superstition’s never suited me very well. I look better in solid facts. Like William Faulkner in sunglasses and Bermudas with his shirt buttons undone, I have my glaring moments of valor too.
I get on with it, of course. Stop playing the part of a sap with his heart gushing good scotch all over his terrible wherewithal. I make my amends with the deepest and lightest places and greet the outside world with a video-poker player’s vigor and stamina. I am of this, all of it, but never completely in it. I have always considered this a blessing.
So, to the piano I go. Again. As always. Finding my way back. All the way back to when these fingers shimmied and trotted on the keys like some delirious whipsaw jack on a bender. There’s not much more lift or touch left in them now, these hands of mine all gnarled with age’s treason and dissonance. Still, I get what I can out of it all, pounding out these creased and insolent rhythms of ebony fury. I’ve left the ivory on other shores, ones that I can’t quite count on anymore. I guess this here tilting upright will do until the real piano man shows up and kicks my out-to-pasture ass out to the proverbial curb.
Ah, hell. There’s that son-of-a-bitch joker who keeps coming around to stuff my ears with his idea of small talk. The wallpaper’s more entertaining. I’d rather be perusing Men’s Grooming magazines in a dirty cafeteria, but, of course, there’s no way out of all this mess I keep finding myself upended in.
“Don’t mind me. I’m just taking a load off, Cary.”
“That’s fine. Just don’t lean on this upright, alright? It can’t take much. It’s old and rotted, sort of like me. And don’t call me lady names.”
“Nah. What? That’s after Cary Grant. But I guess that wasn’t his real name. He was born Archibald Alec Leach.”
“Jesus. No wonder he changed it. Anything’s better than Archibald Leach.”
“Absolutely, my good pal and better chum.”
“More like chump.”
That radiator-cool bastard finally sat down at the bar and started schmoozing with the regulars. I wiped my brow of all strangers and awkward situations and settled in for some somewhat-serious noodling.
And then I completely lost my mind.
You smelled like Meyer’s honeysuckle soap, and we made up to the sound of herded antelope.
You said, “I want to move to Marseille.”
I said, “That’s what you always say.”
Sign up for danger, here. That’s a push without much of a kick, or a punch.
“It’s raining somewhere.”
“Let’s have a bourbon there.”
So, it’s black beer and bourbon, and a ruined unknown raincoat, and now me here doing nothing except missing you, keeping a bachelor’s quarters still.
The chapter begins like this: “And Frank, sold the house, too. Topcoat weather for all the Rembrandts. Classy anatomy and a face that never matches. Pure essence, never taken for anything but a clingy bastard. Demolition complete. Another walk to pace. Run! Stop. Okay. Four bucks and a Band-Aid in my wallet. Thousands of tulips in crates. Mornings of inexplicable hair.”
Dropped to a forged state of listing along, of being out of love, of surrender and resignation. It’s never enough to bring you back anyway.
Shadowy requirements of the sappiest nature plunge and winnow along. So go right on ahead and lose those earrings again. We’ll be broken up before lunch just so we can get back together for dinner. Two can fight at this war.
That side yard we use to litter with found objects: crank cases and jellybean machines and Rolling Stone magazines and forgotten hats and pet toys and paper-towel holders and AA manuals and AAA map books and colored-in coloring books and rusted golf trophies and stems of wine glasses and discarded baby grands and ripped-up sheet music and bowling socks and the marvelous careless choices we kept not getting around to un-making.
“I wish it were seven all night.”
“That’s just something you heard in a song.”
“So chew me out about it, why don’t you?”
“Maybe I will. Maybe, just maybe.”
The cat hair all over my pants. The pesky horror of daytime TV. You’re scratching ever so slightly at the sugar jar, Armoire. Get your hands in the air. We’re flying to Greece with just one change of pajamas. Intrepid and baring it all in the handiest of pours from that silver-handled ketchup bottle. The slamming of kitchen doors. The banging of mailboxes in the lobby. A blip in the plumbing. An ambulance stuck in traffic, lights flashing without a sound. A harbinger of nobody’s take on what meaning we’ll pull from the wreck of all this. Shambled and putout and rowed too much. Here we aren’t. Have at it.
Suddenly it started raining, hard — really pouring, I mean; and she was standing next to me on the street corner with no umbrella to speak of. I unfurled mine and put it over both of us as the light changed. Her smile had a timid streak in it, and she passed it to me with an assertive slink that told me not to get any ideas. Before I could try some lines out on her, there she went, not even a thanks or a bye, vanished into the swinging doors of an office building. Who was I to think that I could press my dangerous and tortured life into the fold of hers? Something hiding, maybe, in the sunken gray whorls of her eyes, somewhere, at a desk surrounded by computer screens and picture frames, maybe thinking of me, too. But I doubt it.
Chances are that none will return, to have back or at them, again. Chances. It’s just a minus’s plus to add to all your subtractions. Basically unarmed. Proofed backwards while the motor tries to turn over and over and over, and it’s all over, finally. Everything always happens when I’m not around to notice.
Looser morals and a trap that never catches a thing. Tickets for the last showing of what’s never playing at a decent hour. The whole dine-and-dash of civilization. And then, before you get a chance to order one last vanilla sarsaparilla from that ultimate bartender in the sky, you’re back to where you’ve always been, just a space taking up time between starting to breathe and never breathing again.
I’m through. You can go back to your conversations, your meaningful interactions and lives. Barkeep. Hey. I’ll take that drink now.