“A Bottle of Mezcal”

CHAPTER FOUR

A few days after the seventh, God scattered liquor stores throughout the poor neighborhoods as a way of making amends for giving so few so much, and so many not enough. Pilgrim-like, I had visited many of these shrines, sometimes dropping to my knees on the sidewalk beneath the apocalyptic neon to consider the message before me:

CLOSED

But not on this morning, a few days ago, and the meandering trip I had mentioned to the bartender, Harry.

I remember awakening uncomfortably while sprawled on my stomach on a beach, eyes closed, hearing the labored breathing of the waves. My hands were thrown up around my head, face nestled in the crook of one arm to protect my eyes from the sun. My head rested on the other arm, the hand reaching around to the side of my face, to massage my throbbing temples. I could smell the sea and the fish.

It was too bright. I rolled over onto my back, arms numb from the weight of my body. I had been asleep on the beach all night. Opening my eyes, I saw that the sky, despite the brightness of the sun, was gray.

Minutes, perhaps 15 or even 30, passed before I could sit up and try to remember where I was. A long bridge curved gracefully from a low island in the distance, the arc sweeping closer, closer, closer on fat, graying legs of concrete and protruding bolts and iron rods that bled rust. It was a clean break, the rest of the bridge swept away by a 1935 hurricane. Just a few feet beneath that calm blue, translucent water was a confused pile of half-century old bridge debris, softened by silt and green aquatic plants.

On the other side of the tiny island was the new bridge. Clean and white and perfect, reaching gracefully from this piece of land to a distant key. I could hear cars on the road just 20 yards away from where I had pulled off the night before, although I couldn’t see them because of the steepness of the embankment.

I slowly rolled and pushed myself to my knees, and then my feet, brushed the sand and tiny shells from my jacket, and walked behind the car to pee, looking back at the road to be certain I was out of sight as I unzipped. If I had glanced over my shoulder, I would have seen that my soul cast no shadow.

This all was so familiar. In the 1600s, a distant relative of mine had been set down somewhere along these shores to ascertain the attitude of the natives. The man’s shipmates watched from the safety of the ship as a naked gang ran up and down the beach for the next two days with the unfortunate explorer’s head mounted atop a long pole.

I looked out over the water. In nature there is no straighter line than a horizon of water and sky. But not here. A low, gray haze – a smudge – obscured that line. We had cracked open the world, hundreds of feet below, and fire was pouring forth. The gulf was on fire.

I wrote part of my name in script in the sand – A… n… d… r… e… w… s…. – and walked back to the car. A red, 1972 Volkswagen beetle with Oregon license plates. Oregon, and Mexico City, were the last places on Earth where a Beetle could still be taken seriously. My plastic cooler was in the sand, by the rear driver’s-side wheel. I knelt over it and knocked back the lid and reached in with both hands, between two cans of Budweiser, and splashed my face with cold ice water. I fished one of the beers from the cooler, stood and snapped it open. It was cold. This would all end soon, I figured, much like Kerouac: The great writer, spokesman for the jazz-beat-dope generation, embittered and reduced to writing sports columns and watching The Galloping Gourmet on television, had snapped open a Falstaff while staring at Graham Kerr, then dropped dead from massive internal hemorrhaging. And the pile in the warehouse of souls grew one deeper.

Kerouac was now deep in the dark recesses of the warehouse, the corpses stacked in front of him shutting out the light. Chinaski was among them.

I drank again, and took a step back. Someone was in the passenger side of my car.

Who was she? Where had she come from? I reached through the open window and touched her arm. I was 42 years old and had never before seen a dead person, but I knew this was a dead person.

Damn, it was so bright out, I remember that. These beers. It was always one drink too many. Or two. I took another long drink. At last call, I had bought a six pack on my way out of the bar, the last bar of a long string of bars that night. I don’t remember their names. She had come with me. Her name was?

I just couldn’t remember.

I walked in circles around the car, three, four, five times, and then to the edge of the nameless, useless key, stepping into the cover of some ugly reeds and scrubby trees, their roots lying exposed in the shallow water like rib cages, where bleached, bony driftwood and a skeletal washing machine met with the water.

And an old car. Abandoned, its rounded fenders browned and blasted by the sea and the heat, obliterating what color it might have been a half-century earlier. The windshield was gone, the glass in the windows gone, the chrome pried off, the rubber tires little more than spidery fiber on the wheel rims, the interior mud and seat springs. A tree, its trunk as round and sturdy as a sewer pipe, had grown up through the engine compartment, pushing the hood aside at it reached for the sun. An ancient Cadillac, I thought, looking as though its final moments had been a mad dash to the sea, before the sand grabbed its wheels and brought it to a halt, to become overgrown and forgotten.

I knew immediately what I would do. She, whoever, she was, would go into the car.

Or there, I thought, seeing the trunk. It was closed tight. I pushed my fingers beneath the lid, couldn’t move it, then picked up a big stick and slid it into the crack and levered it open. The lid groaned, and yielded, and I used my hands to pull it up the rest of the way.

This would do. Virtually empty, not even a spare tire. Two or three tools, including a saw that had rusted to the deep red-brown shades of blood. Some rubbish…? No, this was a box, taped shut. As I picked it up, it began to fall apart in my hands, so I set it on a fender, pushing the dry, crumbing paper away with my fingers, as you might shuck an old ear of corn. The box gave way and I saw that inside were sheets of paper. Hundreds and hundreds of pages. The top pages were water stained and unreadable. But just three or four pages in, I could see typewritten words. This was a manuscript. A novel, I was sure. It had characters speaking. They were smoking, and arguing over renting a boat.

Someone’s hard work. This was to be respected. I wrapped up the pages as best I could and carried the box back to my car, setting it on the passenger-side floor, between the woman’s feet. They were bare. Where were her shoes? Her purse? Reaching from behind, I put my hands under her arms and lifted her from the seat and set her on the sand. I ran my hands through the pockets of her black jeans and found only a $5 bill. I kept that.

She was small. Her eyes were  closed. Walking backward, I dragged her back to the Cadillac. No, no. Dumping her in the trunk would have been ugly. Respect for the dead was called for here. The passenger-side door had fallen off its hinges a bit, and I pushed it aside and set her on the remains of the seat, sitting up, looking through what was left of the windshield. I was sweating, and pushed the sunglasses back in place on my nose several times. She was in her 40s. Plain, but maybe a little pleasant. Long, straw-colored hair. I brushed it away from her face and arranged her arms in her lap, then tilted the head back just a bit, so that she was looking out at the sea. She was in the warehouse of souls, now. Whoever you are, whatever happened to you, I thought, I am sorry. I set the door back into place as best I could. A dead tree’s bare branches overhead clattered like the bones of long-dead men applauding as the first breeze of the day whipped in from the water. I turned my face into it, and felt refreshed.

An uneaten hamburger was on the dashboard of my car. I did not remember where it had come from. I unwrapped it. It was probably only six or seven hours old, warmed by the morning sun. I ate it, and then drove across the country, back home.