“A Bottle of Mezcal”

CHAPTER TEN

Remembering a time when life was so life-like.

 

“We have been waiting for this since the echo from Brautigan’s .44 Magnum faded over his final view of the Pacific Ocean surf crashing on the beach outside his home,” writes The New York Times Book Review. Or something like that. That is the start, really.

Overnight success has taken years. That includes the year between when the publisher buys the book, and the editing, the selection of point size for the type, the creation of a cover concept, the development of a marketing plan and the publication-night cocktail party in a terrace bar with a white-wine view of New York City. Oh my God, is that Patti Smith…?

It is.

Rather than embracing this sudden and unexpected legitimacy, out of fear of it, I quickly retreat into reclusive behavior, inadvertently fueling the mystique. I ignore my phone, choosing less-urgent ways of communication. My social media accounts go unattended. I quit the toy factory. And Dirty Streets, as well. The New Yorker now wants the byline of this “visionary mix of Arthur C. Clarke and Carlos Castaneda, holed up in his second-floor Portland apartment like J.D. Salinger in his rural New Hampshire house.”

They’d find me easily enough, if they checked The Driftwood. That’s what the actor Johnny Depp does, although I’m sure he had the same look on his face as he would if he were flipping over a rotten log in the forest. I hide in the bathroom the entire time and refuse to look at the film treatment for From Wondrous to Strange that he shoves under the toilet stall door before finally leaving. Harry and his self-absorbed cliental, clinging territorially to their bar stools, have no idea what is the deal, or who is Terry Gross, and they’ve never listened to National Public Radio. But I fear I will soon have to give up The Driftwood.

I hire a publicist and instruct her that I will do interviews only with obscure bloggers.

She asks me to sit for a professional photographer. I decline, as there is a perfectly fine portrait of me available on my driver’s license. It projects the correct air of surprise and irritation, like the mug shot on one of the white trash vs. cops TV shows. Entertainment Weekly and a couple of other publications use it with their reviews of From Wondrous to Strange. Reader’s Digest, of course, uses an artist’s rendering. But mostly, all that the curious have to go on is what they read in publications like The Times: “A tall, slim man with long hair and a way of always tilting his head to one side or the other, never holding it square on his shoulders. It seems as though he is eavesdropping on the entire world without considering his own thoughts as perhaps being something of value.”

Who do they think I am, Jonathan Franzen? I avoid eye contact, own no clothes that aren’t a variation on darkness, and walk with the slight, deferential angle of a yacht heeling to the wind.

My introverted nature is growing increasingly intense, because I am a fraud, and only I know it, yet. It is another writer’s work the world is clamoring for, and I have chained myself to it. Perhaps if I make it into autumn, as the trees are dying and the adulation wanes, I’ll be free once again. Probably not. I’d been sleeping for only five hours a night for a few years now, nurturing the edgy buzz that prompted the words I wrote in search of my own satisfaction, sentences no one read. Now I sleep only half that and fear I am beginning to hallucinate. Monkeys stare at me from the muted television screen hanging over The Driftwood Inn bar, mocking me, speaking in a mechanical, industrial theatricality, one moment menacing, the next startlingly beautiful. When I do sleep, the scattered dreams I can remember are actually nightmares, darkened trains hurtling down the tracks toward a seaside cliff. I have what I wanted, yet…

Anything worth holding always slips through your fingers.

And what about that poor woman I had left behind in the rusting Cadillac? Wasn’t the last person seen with the murder victim usually a suspect? How long before the cops figure out that it was me? I’ve probably left something behind to tip them off. Maybe I had set my wallet on the car’s fender.

No, it’s in my pants pocket. I’ve had the same wallet for years, I know what it feels like.

It should have been no surprise, then, that late one evening, just a month into my entry on the best-seller lists, with an ex-agent and a new agent and a couple of lawyers siphoning away the money I never saw, I sit in my car as the streetlights cast shadows that translate into elegant art on the sidewalks. There is a reason spooky rhymes with beauty. At this point in my career, I could drive into the Willamette River, where these new friends of mine can meet me at the bottom, and the mystique would be complete. But, no. My mortal coil is wound too tightly. I have my old suitcase, my computer, a United States map stained by burger grease and a half-dozen used books that have been sitting at my bedside for the past year. The books mock me as relentlessly as the television monkeys, for I had never touched them as their previous owners have, underlining passages, filling the margins with scribbled notes. Here is one such well-caressed copy of Sartre’s Nausea, with this passage marked:

 

 I have never before had such a strong feeling that I was devoid of secret dimensions, confined within the limits of my body, from which airy thoughts float up like bubbles.

 

These words are like eavesdropping on a conversation between strangers.

Nausea. Here it is again. That sense of stepping into a revolving door and coming out in a strange place. Two people approach the car, talking – “Life used to be so life-like,” a woman is telling a man, “now it feels like TV…” – and then they pass. Two more men approach from the other direction. “If I had your money,” one is saying, “I’d burn mine.” They too pass.

If there was one word to describe these people, it would be: Furtive. If they have jobs, it is as Kafka clerks, afraid to look up from their desks.

This is a worn-out neighborhood of old factories and warehouses, a weariness that’s been passed on to the people who survive here. Brown-brick carcasses strangled by vines until they collapse into themselves. The windows broken out, staring like the empty eye sockets in a skull. Who remembered now what valuable resources were once manufactured behind those walls? These people are like that. They’ve lost who they once were. They are crumbing, broken, staring. If you look close enough at an old city, it’s like examining the many layers of strata in a canyon wall. To a geologist, a layer of ash is all that remains of a once-thriving culture of Native Americans. A couple of streets away from where I’m parked now, blow the dust and trash from the yards and you’ll see that those tired brick apartment buildings with screaming kids overturning dead potted plants on the rotting wood porches were once beautiful homes.

I turn on the car radio, searching for music drifting through this rain. I find a talk show and pause. Perhaps it is a narcotic dream, but some guy is explaining how the self-absorbed urban style of bling and low-slung trousers has given way to its obvious antithesis, the studious, serious Malcolm X look. Dark suits, white shirts, skinny ties and eyeglasses, even for the guys with 20/20 vision. Black guys speaking in the precise, aloof phrasing of the British Royal Family and gathering on street corners beneath solitary street lights, like images from an old album cover, to sing the music of Grandmaster Flash, The Coasters and Sammy Davis, Jr. Doo-hop. The rural white guys go right along with it. “There’s this other thing,” the guy on the radio tells me, and he sounds like he knows what he’s talking about, “where white kids venture alone into black neighborhoods and say something stupid to a street gang, so that they get pounded good and show up at school or work with a couple of strips of white medical tape holding a broken nose in place. ‘He went into the city last night and got his ass kicked,’ his peers say admiringly. Head lacerations and superficial stab wounds in the shoulder, a badge of honor, a James Dean mystique. And now the white guys are wearing dark suits, skinny ties and eyeglasses as well. And speaking in complete sentences, free of contractions or serious grammatical lapses, but with anti-materialistic hipsterism. It’s called the Allen Ginsberg look.”

In what world? A cycle of cultural appropriation. I turn off the radio.

A group of black guys walk past. It is as if I am invisible.

I have a six pack of cold Olympia on the passenger seat next to me. A package of Dominicans on the dashboard. Next to them, a few sticks of beef jerky. I pull out the choke, turn the key, the engine rumbles to life. I reach for a cigar, feeling around for the little tab on the cigar ring, find it and tug until the cellophane falls away. My lighter’s in the inside pocket of my sports coat, next to a cocktail napkin on which I’ve written a note to myself that the end of Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, where the local thugs have murdered the alcoholic Consul Geoffrey Firmin and throw the carcass of a dead dog into the ravine after him, is the finest closing to a novel I’ve ever read. The click and scratch of flint. The sweet odor of the tightly rolled dead leaves is like walking in a mossy forest. I hold the lighter to the cigar and carefully turn it as I draw on it, pulling the first of the smoke into my lungs, to ensure that the end is evenly lit. I replace the lighter and roll down the window about half way. The smoke reaches for the opening. It floats like airy thoughts.

I jump at a sharp knock by my ear, and see a dark shoulder at the window, silhouetted against The Driftwood’s neon beer lights. An unshaven face tilts down toward me. “Spare $18?” the man says. Then something about a bus, and a hospital, and baby diapers. These guys always have elaborate stories. They walk past lawyers in expensive suits and head straight to me, because I look like a long-haired, bleeding-heart liberal. And they are right. He figures I’ll give him a twenty and say, “Keep the change.”

I reach over to the passenger seat, feel around for a bottle, and hand it through the open window to the man.

“Still cold,” I say. “That’s what you want.”

“Save me a seat when you get to the top,” the guy says, and disappears into the darkness behind the car.

The car idles. And idles well. The money hadn’t exactly rolled in after From Wondrous to Strange – it never does for guys like me – but I did lay out some cash to get the Volkswagen in better running order. Rebuilt engine, new transmission, real floorboards and running boards. Even a passible sound system, although the mechanic at the oil-soaked repair shop apologizes that he really couldn’t do anything about the bad paint job. He says he can get me a nice chrome skull to strew onto the top of the floor-mounted stick shift, but after thinking about it for a day, I turn down the offer. Some juvenile delinquent would just smash a window and still it. Some people don’t like other people to have nice things. “How the fuck did this ever pass inspection?” he says in the middle of the week-long overhaul. I just shrug. Either the guy who inspected it didn’t care, or he’s been doing me a favor. That’s OK. It may be a 1972 Volkswagen Bug with 237,024 miles on it, but now it runs like 180,000.

The ash trays are full once again.

One more thing. I bought all of the furniture in my apartment from Mrs. DuPless. She can use someone else’s place as a showroom.

From Wondrous to Strange. What do I do for my next act? Hang around train stations, hoping to find a manuscript by the next Hemingway in an unguarded valise?

Rain mists in through the window. I tuck my sunglasses a little more securely into the sun visor. I don’t use them much in Portland, but I will need them where I am going. I plug my device into the cigarette lighter and set it for the download I’ve made of a new album, Three Shits to the Wind: The Vivisection Winos Live at The Belly of the Whale. I hear the sinuous saxophone, ethereal cello and crazy, disjointed piano.

I follow it all of the way to Laredo.