“A Bottle of Mezcal”


Saturday morning. I made coffee before wrestling with Dylan Thomas Died Here. And Over There. My characters stared up from the pages, waiting for me to give them something to do. I assigned them useless tasks that would lead them to the woods and their deaths.

“You don’t think the people who built this country – the skyscrapers, the bridges, the tunnels – ate salads, do you?” one of them told a waitress this morning.

By noon, the whiskey and vermouth bottles were open on the kitchen counter and I was drinking Manhattans, on ice with little red cherries. I dragged my old suitcase out of the closet and flopped it open on the bed. A copy of Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums fell out. I’d been reading Kerouac on the advice of one of the ad layout guys at Dirty Streets.

“I can’t believe you’ve never read Kerouac,” he said. The tone was dismay, as though my negligence was a threat to Portland’s Nihilistic underground. I had begun with The Subterraneans, because it was the skinniest of Kerouac’s books. A mistake. Incomprehensible. I moved on to On the Road. That was the idea. I was feeling less enthusiastic about The Dharma Bums, with its characters wrapped up in so much psycho-Zen babble, like eavesdropping on art students at the coffee shop. But it was early in the story.

Nick Drake was on the stereo. Another young Englishman with the true soul of a poet who at age 26 had killed himself, or perhaps died accidentally, of a drug overdose. When there’s no note left behind, which is usually the case with suicides, how can you know for sure?  The only certainty was Drake left behind four albums of stark, delicate beauty. He was, of course, now far more famous than he had been when he was alive. One of his songs, “Pink Moon,” had been featured on a Volkswagen commercial. Now I was listening to “Black Eyed Dog,” from a collection of songs released after Drake’s death. The black-eyed dog calling at Drake’s door, who knows Drake’s name, is death. “I’m growing old and I wanna go home…. I’m growing old and I don’t wanna know….”

Yeah, I still have a turntable. The planet is bloated with abandoned vinyl records. Music loving crafted by someone, then quickly forgotten. It was up to archaeologists such as myself to re-discover them. There were weeks I’d invested half of my paycheck in that collection. Drake was 26, and he was already thinking about death. I’m 42, and my thoughts about death, life or even lunch made no sense, and mattered to no one. Only a drunken cartographer navigates such twisted landscapes.

I peered at the face in the mirror on my medicine cabinet door. It was the same face I’d seen in the mirrors of my favorite bars. I looked like John Lennon. People heard Beatles songs when they saw me. It’s one of those unaccountable synchronicities that works, like the theme song to Gilligan’s Island played to the tune of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” Have you heard it? It’s called “Stairway to Gilligan’s Island.”

The face turned away as I opened the cabinet. It was nearly empty.

I found a half-joint behind the toothpaste and smoked it. The door in the apartment next door closed with a hollow echo. The locks snapped shut crisply, with authority. That was Ellen the biker chick, leaving for the day, getting on with her life. A similar, wasted-looking, bloodless blonde had lived in the place for a few months a couple of years ago. She was usually alone, but sometimes there were men around. Rough looking, truck-stop types in grimy jackets. One night I was lying in bed with the lights off, listening to the blonde and one of her grimy boys shouting. I couldn’t make it out. I could sort of tell by his tone, then a BOOM BOOM BOOM, on the other side of the wall, just inches from my head, that the guy was either slamming her head against the wall, or it was some kind of wild-animal sex. I lay on my bed and listened for a minute, then the pounding stopped. I heard her through the wall, crying. I fell asleep. She moved out a week later. I hadn’t had to act.

It was quiet here, now. I dozed on the couch as a light, misting rain gently pushed aside the curtains and drifted into the front window of my apartment. I dreamed, but couldn’t remember what I’d dreamt of when I awoke in the early evening.
The suitcase was open on the bed, a snarl of sheets and blankets that exhaled the funk of unspeakable acts, like a dying man. The package from the trunk of the abandoned car was tucked inside the suitcase, next to my dirty laundry. I picked up the manuscript, carried it to my desk, used my forearm to clear away Dylan Thomas Died Here. And Over There, and set the musty stack next to the keyboard. I pushed aside the first few water-stained pages, like the dry husks on an ear of corn, until I found the first readable typewritten words. I sat, and began typing them:

We live in a basement of reflective melancholy. The stars are gods dancing in the rooms overhead, stomping their feet, breaking furniture, the clatter of empty wine bottles rolling across the floor.

I stayed up all night, typing this stuff. I typed for three days and nights, making coffee, re-heating week-old chicken, listening to records. I re-discovered my collection of 1960s-era LPs by the French pop chanteuse, Francoise Hardy, the Ye-Ye Girl. “Dans Le Monde Entier,” all the world over. It makes you long for a transistor radio to hold to your ear. I danced for the first time in years. I called in sick on Monday and kept typing someone else’s shambling, dark, uneasy words. Incredible phrases that kicked out the windows in my stifled brain. I changed names, massaged some language that didn’t seem right, tried to preserve a sense of timelessness that had run out of time. I called in sick again on Tuesday. Near the end, I settled on a name.

From Wondrous to Strange. By Andrew Shroud.

The book was accepted by the first publishing house to see it, Tinker, Evers & Chance, Etc. And that changed everything.