“A Bottle of Mezcal”

CHAPTER NINE

When the O punches through the paper. An occasion to listen to old records by Françoise Hardy, the Ye-Ye Girl.

 

Saturday morning. A day off. But the same routine. I make coffee and think: If I put in a good day’s work on Dylan Thomas Died Here. And Over There, at 5 o’clock I’ll reward myself by getting into that fifth of Kentucky bourbon.

I haven’t had any bourbon in, like, almost a month. Three weeks.

The first thing I do is call my landlord. When I got home last night I immediately noticed that my excellent vintage reading chair was missing. Not my chair, technically, Mrs. DuPless had sold it. She promised she’d get me another one, but it might take a couple of days.

When strangers are walking into your apartment and taking your stuff, it kinda makes a guy feel transient.

Discipline is elusive, the effort to sit at my desk is like watching an ancient biplane lumbering down a grass airstrip, struggling to get into the air. I turn on the computer and hear whispers from inside, could be ghosts. I stare out the window, beyond the pigeon-shit sill, into the alley two floors down. The same rat as always is creeping along the wall of the building across the way. Yes, this does seem like the proper setting for an artist of my stature.

I hit the first key. It is a T.

My characters stare from the pages, waiting for something to do. I assign them useless tasks that will lead them into the woods and to 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 tells a waitress this morning.

Failure. By noon, the bourbon and vermouth bottles are open on the kitchen counter and I am sitting on Dad’s old, sagging couch, a glass in hand. A Manhattan, up with a splash of bitters and a bourbon-marinated cherry. Why the hell not? I deserve a day for myself. Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums is the coaster. Mustn’t leave rings on Mrs. DuPless’ old mahogany coffee table.

One of the ad layout guys at Dirty Streets keeps pushing Kerouac on people in the office. “I can’t believe you’ve never read Kerouac,” he says. The tone is dismay, as though this negligence will bring down Portland’s Nihilistic underground. I began with The Subterraneans, the skinniest of Kerouac’s books. A mistake. Incomprehensible. I moved on to On the Road. That was the idea. But it’s not aging as well as I’d hoped. The Beats are unexpectedly shallow for supposedly enlightened guys. Women are accessories in the room, black men are allowed in if they can play the saxophone. The Dharma Bums is an uncertain proposition, with its characters wrapped up in so much psycho-Zen babble, like eavesdropping on art students at the coffee shop. But it is early in the story.

Nick Drake’s wistful, mournful voice is speaking to me. Words of stark, delicate beauty from yet another young Englishman with the soul of a poet who killed himself. There have been centuries of them. Or perhaps Drake 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 black-eyed dog who calls 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…”

I get up off the couch and flip over the record. Yeah, I have a turntable. The planet is bloated with abandoned vinyl records. Music lovingly crafted by someone, then quickly forgotten. It is up to archaeologists such as myself to re-discover them, and I invest a substantial portion of my paycheck in that collection. Drake was 26 when he died, and he was already thinking about death. At this point in my life I have 16 years on him, and my thoughts about death, life or even lunch are superficially considered. And no one hears them anyway.

I peer at the face in the mirror on my medicine-cabinet door. It is the same face I’ve seen in the mirrors of my favorite bars. In some respects, it is the face of John Lennon. Likely subconscious grooming on my part. People hear Beatles songs when they see me. So I’ve been told. 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 turns away as I open the cabinet. It is nearly empty.

A half of a joint has been lost behind the toothpaste, and I smoke it. The door in the apartment next door closes with a hollow echo. The locks snap shut crisply, with authority. It is 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 am lying in bed with the lights off, listening to the blonde and one of her grimy boys shouting. I can’t make it out. I can 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 is either slamming her head against the wall, or it is some kind of wild-animal sex. I lay on my bed and listen for a minute, then the pounding stops. I hear her through the wall, crying. I fall asleep. She moves out a week later. I hadn’t had to act.

Now it is quiet here. I doze on the couch as a light, misting rain gently pushes aside the curtains and drifts into the front window of my apartment. I dream, but can’t remember what I’ve dreamt of when I awaken in the early evening.

I keep a book of Portuguese poetry on my nightstand, to impress the women who never get there. My suitcase is open on the bed, a snarl of sheets and blankets that exhale the funk of unspeakable acts, the stench of death and fried-food flatulence. The package from the trunk of the abandoned car is tucked inside the suitcase, next to the dirty shirts. I pick up the manuscript, carry it to my desk, use my forearm to clear away Dylan Thomas Died Here. And Over There, and set the musty stack next to the keyboard. I carefully set aside the first few water-stained pages, my hands feeling an artistry lost to the technology of today that produces products of numbing sameness. The paper itself is of another era. This not computer paper, pages of the same white flawlessness, each piece exactly the same size so that the printer doesn’t choke on a man’s creativity. This paper has grain and texture. Pages have been cut where an offending paragraph has been removed and replaced by a better version, held in place by yellowed tape, creating irregular lengths. A few pages in, I find the first readable words. They are also witness to the age of this manuscript. It has been produced on a real typewriter. A manual typewriter, I suspect, not electric. The words have dimension, with a shadow on the side of each letter where the metal typeface – the reverse of what the writer intends, but it comes out all right – has pushed its way into the paper after the key is struck. The M burrows into the paper a little heavier on the left side because of some mechanical misalignment, while the O frequently threatens to punch a tiny hole clean though. I can see, feel and even smell this writer’s sweat.

The first legible page is like a random thought snatched from the air. I sit, and begin typing another writer’s words:

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 stay up all night, and on through Sunday, typing this stuff. Space ships, other worlds emerge. All of the trappings of a science-fiction novel, yet it is not. An allegory, perhaps. With flashes of magical realism. What is real, what is illusion? I make coffee, re-heat week-old take-out chicken, listen to records for inspiration. A pile of 1960s-era LPs by the French pop chanteuse, Françoise Hardy. She was called The Ye-Ye Girl. “Dans Le Monde Entier,” dance all the world over. Music that creates a longing for a transistor radio to hold to your ear. It inspires me to move, in kind of a dance, for the first time in years. Sashay to the kitchen, as I mix another drink. I call in sick on Monday and continue typing someone else’s shambling, dark, uneasy words. Incredible phrases that kick out the windows in my stifled brain. I change names, massage language that doesn’t seem right, update with cell phones, introduce the internet, yet try to preserve a sense of timelessness in a world that is running out of time. I call in sick again on Tuesday. With the end of the manuscript drawing near, I settle on a name.

From Wondrous to Strange. By Andrew Shroud.

Sometimes you get lucky. But it’s been my experience that most of us don’t.

Yet the manuscript is accepted by the first publishing house to see it, Tinker, Evers & Chance, Etc. And it changes everything.