The old man was 73 years old when he died. Old age under any circumstances, but particularly so in this case when the coroner took 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 had 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 was standing in a misting afternoon rain on a downtown sidewalk, reading the small headline reporting the old man’s death. That first glimpse of the sad news seemed appropriate, because some writers see rain as an analogy for death, and sidewalks as one for moving on.
A bus heaved to a stop, the doors swinging open for a guy standing on the curb. He bent over to the pavement, gently pushed his cigarette into a shallow puddle, then slipped the cigarette into his pocket. For later. He climbed on the bus. Two men in raincoats, their heads tucked into their shoulders against the mist, walked past. “I was introduced to weightlifting by a teacher,” one was 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 turned a corner.
All up and down the sidewalk, people had their heads down, muttering or shouting into their devices, checking messages, sending messages, typing addresses, trying to figure out exactly where they were standing on the planet at this exact moment. A cacophony of irrelevance.
I was getting wet. But The Driftwood Inn was on this block.
They were called Inns years ago so liquor could be sold on Sundays. To be called an Inn they had to have rooms, with beds. So the hookers began showing up. The Driftwood’s cramped front lobby was where a near-dead old woman, Virginia, sold cigars, cigarettes, pornography and lottery tickets. The city’s damned dawdled in this purgatory for a few moments, then took their smokes and their lottery tickets and descended into the bar itself.
A fine collection of collectible porcelain whiskey decanters lined the top of the back bar, sharing a dust-laden weariness and glassy-eyed demeanor with the much more battered collection of two-legged whiskey decanters slouched on stools at the front bar. The front-bar decanters ordered drinks and examined their reflections in the mirror. They were wrecked statues, staring up from their own debris.
I wasn’t a nightly regular, maybe a two-nights-a-week regular. I slipped between two of the ruins at the bar and stared at myself in the mirror. Andrew Shroud. Forty-two years old. Long, straight hair hanging to my shoulders. Round, rimless eyeglasses. The kind of narrow, aquiline nose seen on Roman coins. I didn’t think about it, but I knew: “Pseudo-intellectual literary loser.”
“What’s this shit?” someone at the bar was asking. Demanding, really. “Howabout some Ray Charles?”
Above the bar chatter, I listened for the music. An avant-garde blend of mournful bass saxophone, dismembered piano and ethereal cello. The bartender reached beneath the bar and cut off in mid-note. He swapped out the music from something from the top of the pile. “Where ya been?”
“Vacation. The Keys. Except, I didn’t get all of the way to Key West.”
“I love Key West. Andrew,” the bartender said, sliding the offensive music across the bar. “The boys hate this shit.”
“What?” I leaned into a spot between a couple of the old guys, turning the disc over in my hands. “A pint of Bass. Please.”
“The Vivisection Winos,” the bartender said. His name was Harry, and he had the skinny, nervous frame and the deep-set eyes of a heroin addict. “I try to educate this crowd, and all I get is abuse. Kee-rist. Every day here gets me two days closer to hell.” Harry poured the beer. I slipped the disc into the inside-breast pocket of my black, Romanian-made sportcoat, next to a cocktail napkin with a note scribbled on it: JESUS CHRIST DIED FOR NOTHING.
“Yeah, I met Johnny Cash,” one of the old guys was saying. “I shook his hand. He was a big sonofabitch.” He was talking to one of the regulars, a strange customer standing at the bar. The guy was wearing a very old polyester suit. “They like to say he just got out of prison,” one of the waitresses had once told me, “and he just hasn’t caught up with the times.”
They all turned and looked over their shoulders as a woman walked past the bar and back out to the street. She had run inside to use the bathroom, and now she was leaving. The old men had seen the long hair, the tight blouse, the short skirt and churning butt and each one of them sighed: Shit, they knew it was over for them.
How did that Robert Earl Keen song go I heard the other day? “You got a hole in your soul where the wind blows through?”
“Harry,” another one said, “if you ran outta beer, I could go home.”
“There’s never enough beer,” Harry said, “to keep you from seeing the bottom of your glass. That’s life. Or the end of it.” He was a poetic soul of a bartender.
A guy wearing the weary sportscoat of a failed Bohemian novelist sat 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 were staring idly at the television mounted on the wall over the bar. A hockey game was on. “We live in a violent world,” he was saying. “Even vegetarians kill plants.”
She nodded, her eyes trailing off to stare down at the olive in the bottom of her glass.
Ray Charles began singing, and the old guys at the bar grunted with approval. Some of them had only one good arm now, and the blood vessels in their noses had bloomed into bright-red gin blossoms. I watched them lean forward into their beer glasses, seemingly in unison; they were red-assed mandrills now, sipping at the creekside. But years ago they had built this country. They could tell you how to mix the mortar that kept every brick in this city in place. If you rode with them on a train, they’d point out the window to the lines strung on the poles outside and tell you those wires were made of copper because they had turned green in the weather. They could start a car with a screwdriver. They knew stuff like that. Even the old polyester-suit guy had stories. He worked fishing boats up in Alaska, and logged somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. That was in the days before tractors were of much use, so they 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 slide down the corrugated tin roof and landed on the dead horses. Polyester Suit said he slid down the roof onto a horse that exploded on impact. “His guts blew out his mouth and his asshole,” Polyester Suit said. “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’’ made them cry.
Behind the bar, a mouse furtively nibbled at a box of poison labeled HARMFUL in red lettering. But the damn thing couldn’t read, and it died.
Harry slid my beer across the bar. The man’s sleeves were down, the cuffs tightly buttoned as always. He had needle tracks to hide. The old guys ordered another round.
“Unchain,” Ray Charles moaned, “my heart.”