Deeper into the bar, past the slanted and disenchanted characters, I settled into a small corner booth. At a couple of tables pulled together nearby, a circle of weathered women guffawed among themselves like a hard-drinking gang of Phyllis Dillers. Elbows rested on tables so that the smoldering Virginia Slims never moved farther than two inches from their mouths. Their old men shuffled back and forth to the bathroom, leaning as though they were about to pitch forward onto their faces. The men’s mouths gaped like the corner pocket of a pool table.
Everything in The Driftwood was the same deathly shade of jaundiced yellow. The whiskey labels, the light bulbs, the wallpaper, the teeth, the fingertips, the skin, the eyeballs. These were the decaying misanthropes who inspired the dark writing of Flannery O’Connor. And the old man, now dead, as well. The world was sagging beneath the weight of physical misfits with club feet and eyeballs that didn’t align correctly, if they even enjoyed a complete pair at all. Goiters as shockingly colored as Eastern European root vegetables peeked from behind loose collars. I furtively scribbled the details of these misshapen features on cocktail napkins. After a few weeks, I would unload this unsavory cast from my wallet, spread them across my desk and type them into my dismal, directionless novel.
I call this work in progress Dylan Thomas Died Here. And Over There.
What was I doing here? When would this make sense? Did I drink in these dives so I could marvel at the spectacle of people who were actually worse off than me?
When I was 8, 9 years old, I remember sitting outside of weary taverns just like this one, for hours at a time, while my father was inside, drinking.
The beer was a dank woodiness. I drank and peered in the dim light again at the old writer’s obituary. It was a straightforward story by The Associated Press:
LOS ANGELES – Henry Chinaski, a street poet, novelist and screenwriter who lived the life of alcohol and degradation he portrayed in his works, has died at 73.
I felt myself sag. Were I were fortunate enough to be living Chinaski’s life, I would be more than halfway through it now. And the old man had been startlingly brilliant, a brilliance I feared measuring myself against: Who else could dare see the sexual implications behind a delicatessen meat slicer? The back-and-forth, back-and-fourth. I continued reading:
Chinaski’s works came over a lifetime of drinking and menial labor. He wrote short stories, novels, screenplays and more than 1,000 poems. They were gritty, hard-edged and frequently pornographic – much like his own life.
Staggering output for a drunk, I thought. Me? I couldn’t even remember what happened two days ago. That woman in my car…. What happened there?
I finished the story:
“He didn’t like people,” a friend said. “He was kind of solitary. But he had the biggest heart and the biggest brain in the world and the rest of it was just trying to cope.”
Now I heard a couple of the old boys roaring at the front of the bar, and chairs scraping across the wood floor. The guy in the old sportscoat and the faded actress were dancing. It was a stiff-legged tango and she was leading, her purse strap dangling from the crook of her elbow. “I can’t stop loving you,” Ray Charles was insisting, his voice full of heartache and hope.
Yeah, this old crowd had plenty of both. Heartache and hope. I carefully tore the obituary from the newspaper, leaving a small, rectangular hole just above an item about a man who was viciously beaten at a biker bar. I folded the old writer’s story into a small square and slipped it into my wallet.
Although I rarely go out of my way to talk to them, I don’t dislike people. But I like dogs better.