“A Bottle of Mezcal”

CHAPTER FOUR

Dylan Thomas Died Here. And Over There.

 

Deeper into The Driftwood Inn, past alcoholics with deeply slanted souls, following the stranger’s path in a manner that would appear to be nothing more than happenstance should I find him, I pause and settle into a small booth in the back. Nearby, at a couple of tables pulled together, a circle of weathered women guffaw among themselves like a hard-drinking gang of Phyllis Dillers. They don’t give a damn about health regulations or anyone else’s concerns about second-hand smoke. Elbows rest on tables so that the smoldering Virginia Slims never move farther than two inches from their mouths. Their old men shuffle back and forth to the bathroom, leaning as though they are about to pitch forward onto their faces. The men’s mouths gape like the corner pocket of a pool table.

All things in The Driftwood are the same deathly shade of jaundiced yellow. The whiskey labels, the light bulbs, the wallpaper, the teeth, the fingertips, the skin, the eyeballs. A population of decaying misanthropes that could darken a Flannery O’Connor story. But they are my characters. I see them, in a world sagging beneath the weight of physical misfits with club feet and eyeballs that don’t align correctly, if they even enjoy a complete pair at all. Goiters as shockingly colored as Eastern European root vegetables peek from behind loose collars. I furtively scribble the details of these misshapen features on cocktail napkins. After a few weeks, I 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. If my story follows the same path as Ray Milland staggering his way through The Lost Weekend, then so be it. It is the story of millions of men and women anyway.

What am I doing here? This can’t simply be research. Am I here to marvel at the spectacle of people who are actually worse off than me?

It is learned behavior. As a kid 8, maybe 9 years old, I sat outside of weary taverns just like this one, hours at a time, while my father was inside. Drinking.

So I drink.

I unfold my newspaper, the weekly alternative Dirty Streets, searching, finding, tipping the page to best catch the dim light, once again reading the obituary of the old writer. It is a straightforward story by The Associated Press:

 

LOS ANGELES – Henry Chinaski, the acclaimed street poet and novelist who lived the life of alcohol, debauchery and artistic struggle he depicted in his works, has died at 73.

 

I feel myself sag, as though the connecting cartilage of my bones is giving way. Were I fortunate enough to be living Chinaski’s life, I would be more than halfway through it now. The old man had been startlingly brilliant, a black incandescence I fear measuring myself against: Who else could see the sexual implications behind a delicatessen meat slicer? The back-and-forth, back-and-fourth.

I set aside the newspaper and walk the rest of the way to the back of the bar. The bathrooms. I push open the door to the men’s room and peer inside. It is a small room, it is clear no one is here. A woman, the actress in decline, and up close looking even older, staggers out of the women’s room and slides past me as if I don’t exist.

Where is that man? There is no rear exit in The Driftwood, no other way out. Has the fire marshal been in here? If a blaze broke out at the front of this bar, we’d all be toast.

Back at my booth, I continue reading:

 

Chinaski’s words were inspired by his own lifetime of drinking, gambling and menial jobs. The words tumbled from his typewriter in the form of short stories, novels, screenplays and more than 1,000 poems. They were gritty, rough and frequently pornographic – much like his own life.

 

Staggering output for a drunk, I think. Me? I can’t even remember what happened two days ago. A quotidian existence, not worth recording.

I finish reading the story:

 

“He didn’t like people,” said a bartender where Chinaski had been a regular patron in his final years. “He was kind of solitary. He was smart and tough but, when he saw you needed a hand, he’d reach out. He’d probably have a drink in that hand. That’s the only way he really knew how to cope.”

 

Sitting in the yellow cannibal twilight, half-watching for the stranger, I pretend to read Dirty Streets. I have to, the editors are gracious enough to run my entertainment column. A smattering of around-town espresso erudites claim to read me as well. It is an exceedingly minor level of celebrity, most of these people wouldn’t even know about Dirty Streets if it couldn’t be had for free at most of the downtown bars, sprawled like a drunken hooker on the seat in a back booth.

To be truthful, Dirty Streets serves as camouflage for eavesdropping, listening to the couple at the table to my left. “It’s the universal language of beef fat,” the guy is telling the woman. He is evidently a cook at one of the local delicatessens, and is describing a corned beef sandwich. They must not know each other well. I reach into the inside pocket of my jacket for a pen and scribble their conversation on a cocktail napkin while staring at the newspaper, as though I am searching the want ads for a used car. These two will do well for Dylan Thomas Died Here. And Over There. In the dark, moonlight looks like gold.

“I got this dream restaurant in mind,” the cook says. “I’m gonna call it Johnny Pork Fat. Pork sandwiches and French fries cooked in lard. You don’t think the people who built this country – the skyscrapers, the bridges, the tunnels – you don’t think they ate salads, do you?”

I write that on my napkin. The cook is trying to impress his young companion. It is an easy job. She has the same look in her eyes that you see in a deer as you try to explain to it how a piece of heavy machinery operates.

Now the cook seems to be talking about the Hanford nuclear-reactor meltdown. “You wouldn’t believe the number of neck bones you can get out of a two-headed cow. Amazing.”

Would any sensible chef use cataclysmically irradiated, two-headed cow’s neck bones to make soup stock? A writer has to be careful when using real people. Yes, they can be wondrous and strange. But more often, simply unbelievable. I stop writing and slip the cocktail napkin into my pocket. A hand-lettered, attitudinal sign on the wall in front of me reads SMOKING PERMITTED. It has to be the work of the old ladies sitting at that table. No one’s in charge of something important, like the world. But those women, they run this place.

Now I hear 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 sports coat and the faded actress are dancing. It is a stiff-legged tango and she is leading, her purse strap dangling from the crook of her elbow. “I can’t stop loving you,” Ray Charles is insisting, his voice full of heartache and hope.

Yeah, this old crowd had plenty of both. Heartache and hope. I carefully tear the obituary from the newspaper, leaving a small, rectangular hole just below the story about the 15th anniversary of the Portland Murder Mansion. I fold the old writer’s story into a small square and slip it into my wallet.

I’m giving myself a week to think about that old man. And the old men and women in this bar.

Although I rarely go out of my way to talk to them, I don’t dislike people. But I like dogs better.