“A Bottle of Mezcal”

CHAPTER TWO

Bad fashion at The Driftwood Inn. You’ve got a hole in your soul where the wind blows through.

 

The old man is 73 years old when he dies. Old age under any circumstances, but particularly so in this case when the coroner takes into consideration the long list of contributing factors to his long-anticipated death. Beer and whiskey. Cigars and cigarettes. Bad food or no food at all. And associations with a long line of women from the nine circles of hell who gnawed at the old man’s internal organs until it became a ritual every morning for him to cough up blood into the toilet.

Yet, over much time and late-night baring of the soul over barstools, the old man converted this personal turmoil into literature that was highly praised – by men and women who had never been there – for its accurate measure of the stink of the street.

I am standing in a misting afternoon rain on a downtown sidewalk, reading the small newspaper headline reporting the old man’s death. This first glimpse of the sad news seems appropriate, because writers see rain as a metaphor for death, and sidewalks as one for moving on. And writers know fucking everything.

Take my word for it.

OK, so another old writer is dead. The graveyards are full of them. I glance at the headline at the top of the page. Today is the 15th anniversary of the Portland Murder Mansion. Unsolved. I hear a siren and look up from the newspaper. The police vehicles rushing down the streets, slicing through puddles and splashing citizens on the sidewalk, are brand-new 2015 four-wheel drive SUVs. The box of donut holes on the passenger side seat is optional. The Remington 870 shotgun, 9mm Glock 19 handgun, pepper spray, ASP expandable baton and Taser are not. Secured in the back of the vehicles are H&K MP5A3 submachine guns and M4A1 rifles with EOTech holographic sights. It is the 21st century, these cops must be as well armed as the general population.

A bus heaves to a stop, the doors swing open for a man standing on the curb. He stoops to the pavement, gently pushes his cigarette into a shallow puddle, then slips the cigarette into his pocket. For later. Because times are tough. He climbs on the bus. Two men in raincoats walk past, their heads tucked into their shoulders against the mist. “I was introduced to weightlifting by a teacher,” one is saying. “I was 16, 17. The perfect age. Hormones are raging. I got into a lot of street fights. We didn’t meet a lot of women, but a young kid can always find another set of fists…” And they turn a corner.

All up and down the sidewalk heads are down, men and women muttering or shouting into their devices, checking messages, sending messages, typing addresses, trying to figure out exactly where they are standing on the planet at this exact moment. A cacophony of irrelevance.

The rain picks up. Raindrops shatter against my eyeglasses. They’ve come a long way for the privilege. I tuck the newspaper under my arm and walk. Ahead I see the blurry neon lights of The Driftwood Inn.

These buildings were called inns years ago so liquor could be sold on Sundays. To be designated an inn, the business had to have rooms with beds. So the hookers showed up. The Driftwood’s cramped front lobby is where Virginia, certainly nearing her death, as we all are, sells newspapers. I already have one. She also has cigars, cigarettes, pornography and lottery tickets. No thank you, Virginia. This is the purgatory where the sidewalks of the damned dawdle for a few moments, bitching to Virginia about the weather. Then they pick up their smokes and lottery tickets from the counter in a fumbling, numb-fingered way, and descend into the bar itself.

A fine arrangement of collectible porcelain whiskey decanters lines the top of the back bar, sharing a dust-laden weariness and glassy-eyed demeanor with the more- battered collection of two-legged whiskey decanters slouched on stools at the front bar. The front-bar decanters order drinks and examine their reflections in the mirror. They are wrecked statues, staring up from their own debris.

Seeing a crack between two ruins, I slide to the bar, inadvertently catching sight of myself in the mirror. I wish they wouldn’t do that. Mirrors, I mean. I see Andrew Shroud. Forty-two years old. Long, straight hair hanging to my shoulders. Round, rimless eyeglasses. The narrow, aquiline nose of Roman coins. Nothing worth remembering.

I struggle to hear the music above the bar clatter, after a few moments collecting enough of its primal elements – the rhythm, the voice – to recognize Ray Charles.

The bartender is Harry, with the skinny, nervous frame and the deep-set eyes of a heroin addict. How many bartenders are named Harry? All of the ones I know. His favorite line is, “Every day here gets me one day closer to hell.”

It’s damn near check-in time.

“Is that a bottle of Beefeater?”

“Several, actually.”

“Martini.”

“Up?”

“Yes.”

“Dry?”

“There’s not much difference between being in a rut and being in a groove.”

An old man lights a cigarette. “No smoking,” Harry says, not sounding like he means it. “Fuck you,” the old man growls, blue smoke erupting from his head. Harry – whose last name I do not know – shovels ice into the glass, adds water, waits as the glass chills, dumps the contents into the sink. Then three parts gin to one dry vermouth. A splash of liquid from the jar of olives. Three olives skewered on a toothpick. This man is a superb bartender.

Nothing much happens for a few minutes. Or maybe an hour. Until a hand reaches over my shoulder and sets something on the bar in front of me. “You’ll be interested in this,” a voice behind me says. I look. Music. A compact disc. “Thanks,” I say, picking it up, feigning interest. This happens often. I look back at where the guy should be, prepared to hear all about his marvelous band. But no one’s standing behind me. I glance toward the door, then to the back of the bar. Is that him, that tall guy in the dark suit walking away? Must be.

Maybe not.

I look at the CD. The Vivisection Winos. The Big Bong Theory. I slip it into the inside-breast pocket of my black, Romanian-made sports coat, next to a cocktail napkin with a note scribbled on it: JESUS CHRIST DIED FOR SOMEBODY’S SINS, BUT NOT MINE. It is Patti Smith. I’ve been thinking about that line all week. If I ever wrote something that good, I’d stop right there.

So I keep going.

“Yeah, I met Johnny Cash,” one of the old guys is saying. “I shook his hand. He was a big sonofabitch.” He is talking to one of the regulars, a strange customer standing at the bar. The guy is wearing a very old polyester suit. Harry once told me, “They like to say he just got out of prison and he just hasn’t caught up with the times.”

I never learned any of their names. Except Harry.

The old men turn and look over their shoulders as a woman walks past the bar and back out to the street. She has run inside to use the bathroom, and now she is leaving. That’s all this place is to her, a shithole. They see the long hair, the tight blouse, the short skirt and churning butt and each one of them sighs. They know it is over for them.

The other day I heard a Robert Earl Keen song, how did it go? “You got a hole in your soul where the wind blows through?” Man, if I could write a line like that…

“Harry, I hope you never run outta beer,” one of the old guys says, sliding his mug across the bar. “I’d hate for this glass to be as empty as my life.”

“There’s always enough beer to keep you from hitting bottom,” Harry says. A bartender with the soul of a poet. When you find one, keep it. They’re good luck. It’s these counselors to the beaten and bruised men and women of the world, benevolent creatures separated from the rest of us by a dark, heavily-lacquered bar, who utter the most-profound observations.

This martini truly is perfect.

A guy wearing the weary tweed jacket of a failed Bohemian novelist sits at a table talking to a woman blanketed in the too-heavy makeup of a declining actress. Yeah, she had been a star of the community players stage, once. They stare idly at the television mounted on the wall over the bar. It’s a hockey game. “We live in a violent world,” he is saying. “Even vegetarians kill plants.”

She nods, her eyes trailing off to stare down at the pimento-stuffed olive at the bottom of her glass. It looks up at her like a disapproving eye.

Ray Charles sings, and the old guys at the bar grunt with approval. Some of them have only one good arm, and the blood vessels in their noses have bloomed into bright-red gin blossoms. I watch them lean forward into their pints of beer, seemingly in unison; they are red-assed mandrills now, crouching on the river bank, sipping the water. But years ago they built this country. They can tell you how to mix the mortar that keeps every brick in this city in place. If you ride the trains with them, they point out the window, to the lines strung on the poles outside, and tell you those wires are made of copper because they have turned green in the weather. They can start a car with a screwdriver without killing themselves. They know stuff like that. Even that old guy in the polyester suit has stories. He worked fishing boats in Alaska and logged somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. That was in the days when men used horses to drag the trees down the hillside. Those horses would work until their hearts burst, and the crews piled the carcasses against the wall of the bunk house. In their youthful exuberance, the loggers slid down the corrugated tin roof and landed on the dead horses, laughing. Polyester Suit says he once cannonballed onto a horse that exploded on impact. “His guts blew out his mouth and his asshole,” Polyester Suit says. “Musta been exactly ripe.”

These old guys shot real people in wars and dropped bombs on historic cities without a second thought, but Johnny Cash rumbling “Sunday Morning Coming Down’’ makes them cry.

Their lives are arcs of random experience. What they don’t know either helps them survive or it kills them. Like that mouse behind the bar, furtively nibbling at a box of poison labeled HARMFUL in red lettering. The damn thing can’t read, and it dies.

Harry sets another full beer in front of the drunk who worries that his life might be an empty glass. The bartender’s sleeves are down, the cuffs tightly buttoned as always. He has needle tracks to hide. Two more old guys order another round.

Ray Charles moans, “Unchain my heart.”