“A Bottle of Mezcal”


A smattering of around-town espresso erudites regularly read my entertainment column in the weekly alternative newspaper, Dirty Streets. I am a minor celebrity, although I know most people in town wouldn’t even read the paper if it couldn’t be had for free at most of the downtown bars, sprawled like a drunken hooker on the seat in a back booth.

I sat in the back of The Driftwood, in the yellow cannibal twilight, and pretended to read Dirty Streets, camouflaging my eavesdropping, listening to the couple at the table to my left. “It’s the universal language of beef fat,” the guy was telling the woman. He was evidently a cook at one of the local delicatessens, and was describing a corned beef sandwich. They must not have known each other well. I reached into the inside pocket of my jacket and began scribbling their conversation on a cocktail napkin while staring at the newspaper, as though I were searching the want ads for a used car. I did secret character studies in bars. In the dark, mere moonlight can look like gold.

“I got this dream restaurant in mind,” the cook said. “I’m gonna call it ‘Johnny Pork Fat.’ Pork sandwiches and french fries cooked in lard. You don’t think the people who built this country – the skyscrapers, the bridges, the tunnels – ate salads, do you?”

I wrote that on my napkin. The cook was trying to impress his young companion. It was an easy job. She had the same look in her eyes that you would see in a deer while trying to explain to it how a piece of heavy machinery operated.

Now the cook seemed to be talking about the nuclear-reactor meltdown at Three Mile Island. “You wouldn’t believe the number of neck bones you can get out of a two-headed cow. Amazing.”

Would any sensible chef use cataclysmically irradiated, two-headed cow’s neck bones to make soup stock? A writer had to be careful when using real people. They could be wondrous and strange, or irredeemably stupid. I stopped writing, slipped the cocktail napkin back into my pocket. A hand-lettered, attitudinal sign on the wall in front of me read SMOKING PERMITTED. That had to be Harry’s work.
I pulled a folded sheet of paper from the other inside pocket of my coat. This was my review of The Vivisection Winos CD that Harry had handed me the other day. I proofread what I had written:

“Just owning a Vivisection Winos album is guaranteed to make you the hippest person on your street (I’ve seen your street, so that’s not saying much). The avant-garde jazz outfit’s latest, Three Shits to the Wind, is weird and distant, like finding David Lynch’s brain wrapped in plastic and hidden in your freezer. Robots make love to this. Three Shits to the Wind is the summer-evening soundtrack for serving cocktails to women wearing strapless gowns and high heels. True, it has moments during which your dentist could dislocate your jaw and remove your teeth, and you wouldn’t feel a thing. Yet the beauty of it eventually overwhelms, like standing in a forest amid trees so tall that they disappear into the mist. Every track sounds as though it were recorded while it was raining. The Vivisection Winos tell stories not as a writer would, but as a painter does.”

I was born to do this kind of work. It’s carried in a weird filament in the head of all writers.