“A Bottle of Mezcal”

CHAPTER FIVE

The warehouse of souls, found in the trunk of an abandoned car.

 

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. I have visited many of these shrines, often dropping to my knees on the sidewalk beneath the apocalyptic neon to consider the message before me:

CLOSED

Damn.

Your troubles are sometimes of interest to me, but I don’t have time for everyone’s life story. I have my own. Troubles, and life story, I mean. My heart is an abandoned fireplace. Cold ashes and spiders. The liquor store is closed. There will be others along the way. I put the car in gear and move on. Away from The Driftwood, where the souls take solace in their alcohol. Hiding from that which inconveniences them, the memories of wrecked cars, careers and relationships. I am not like them. Or so I tell myself. For me, alcohol is as clear and sharp a lens as can be manufactured. It is a professional tool. I control it, it does not control me. The well-considered drink demands I step back, focus the chapter, see how it fits the meandering plot.

Yes, back to the plot. And a week on the road, the American journey of denial and escape. All of the acclaimed American novels are a road trip. On the Road. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Lolita. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Twelve more beers in the cooler on the seat beside me. Gotta keep moving, like a shark, or you die. Find the right words. Change the scenery. That’s the Florida Keys, appearing in the bug-carcass encrusted windshield. A loose thread in my story. I did not immediately recognize this.

Certainly not now.

I hear strange birds.

Uncomfortably sprawled on my stomach on a beach, eyes closed, my ears open to the labored breathing of the waves. My face is nestled in the crook of one arm to escape the sun’s glare. I massage my throbbing temples with the other hand. I can smell the sea and the fish.

Why do I do this to myself?

The sun has moved too high overhead, I cannot hide from its intensity. Rolling over onto my back, my arms are numb from supporting the weight of my body. I have slept uneasily on the beach for hours. Opening my eyes, I see that the sky, despite the brightness of the sun, is gray.

Minutes pass, perhaps 15 or even 30, before I sit up and examine where my night ended and the day begins. A long bridge curves 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 bleeding rust. It is a clean break, the rest of the bridge swept away by the murderous hurricane of 1935. Just a few feet beneath that calm, blue, translucent water is a confused pile of half-century-old bridge debris, softened by silt and green aquatic plants.

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

I slowly roll to my side and push myself to my knees, and then my feet, brushing sand and tiny shells from my jacket. I walk behind the car to pee, a man of discretion. Had I glanced over my shoulder, I would have seen that my soul cast no shadow. Perhaps it was the direct angle of the sun.

I feel as though I know this place. Nearly five centuries ago, a distant relation had been set down somewhere along these shores to evaluate the attitude of the natives. The man’s shipmates watched from the safety of their vessel as a naked gang ran up and down the beach for the next two days with his head jammed onto the sharpened end of a long tree limb.

The Europeans did not heed the warning. So here we are.

Now an unfamiliar noise. A group of spindly-legged, white seabirds are walking on the sand toward me. Their beaks are open, but their calls are not short and bird-like. The notes are low and long and soothing. The lead birds stop and the trailing ones swing around, holding formation like a marching band, until all are in line. The language is foreign, but they are singing to me.

I look 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 – obscures that line. Some old guy in a bar last night explained it to me: We have cracked open the world, thousands of feet below, and fire is pouring forth. The gulf is on fire.

I walk back to my car. A 1972 Volkswagen Beetle, uncommitted to its red paint job, with Oregon license plates. Oregon, and Mexico City, are the last places on Earth where a Beetle can still be taken seriously as a working-man’s vehicle or statement of counterculture defiance, rather than a classic-car dalliance. This one is rusting away. Two-by-six planks fill the slots on long-gone running boards. Plywood covers holes in the floorboards, otherwise the asphalt of the road would be seen passing beneath the passengers’ feet.

The VW had once belonged to my father. A self-informed handyman. Every spring he’d buy a gallon of house paint and a wide brush and paint the car. It had been years since the last coat, and what little remained of the paint was a palette of peeling shards of different shades of red, tucked away in crevices or pinned in place by chrome trim.

My tiny plastic cooler is on the sand, by the driver’s-side rear wheel. I kneel before it and knock back the lid, reaching in with both hands between two cans of Budweiser, splashing my face with ice water. I grab one of the beers, stand and snap it open. It is cold. This will all end soon, I figure, 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. He had just opened a Falstaff while staring at Graham Kerr, then dropped dead from massive internal hemorrhaging. And, as inevitable, the pile in the warehouse of souls grew one deeper. Kerouac is now lost in its dark recesses, more corpses stacked in front of him, shutting out the light. Chinaski is among them.

I drink again and take a step back. Someone is in the passenger side of my car. A woman.

Who is she? Where has she come from? I reach through the open window and touch her arm. I am 42 years old and have never before seen a dead person, but I know this woman is not alive.

Damn, it is so bright this afternoon. The beers. It is always one drink too many. Or two too many. I take another long drink. At last call, I had bought a six pack on my way out of the bar, the last bar in the night’s long trail of bars. I don’t remember their names. Is that where we met? Her name was?

I just can’t remember.

I walk in circles around the car, three, four, five times, stopping at the passenger door. I open it. I see her feet. They are bare. Where are her shoes? Her purse? Reaching from behind, I lock my hands under the woman’s arms, lift her from the seat and set her on the sand. I run my hands through the pockets of her black jeans and find only a $5 bill. I keep it.

She is small. Her eyes are closed, and for that I am thankful. Walking backward, I drag her toward the water. And stop, as a wave of dizziness hits me. These bouts have plagued me for several years, like stepping into a revolving door and emerging in the wrong place to a moment of confusion, surroundings that are ever-so-slightly askew. Perhaps it is from the exertion, my body weakened from the heavy drinking. More likely I have a brain tumor, forming around the foreign object in my head. A steel plate supporting my skull, shattered when my brother shot me in the head.

We were kids. It was an accident.

A fine, undefinable madness lives in the small white room inside my head. I fear it. I close my eyes and hear chattering and a great thrumming, like bats whirling up and out of an abandoned factory smokestack.

After a few moments the strangeness subsides. The clouds have cleared, the air smells sweetly musty. The leaves of the trees and vegetation shimmer with a vibrant green. I continue dragging the woman. Into the cover of ugly reeds and scrubby trees. Their roots lie exposed in the shallow water like human rib cages, where bleached, bony pieces of driftwood and a skeletal washing machine meet 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 is gone, the glass in the door windows gone, the chrome pried off, the rubber tires little more than spidery fiber on the wheel rims, the interior is mud and seat springs. A tree, its trunk as round and sturdy as a sewer pipe, has grown through the engine compartment, pushing aside the hood as it reaches for the sun. An ancient Cadillac, I think, 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 know immediately what I will do. She, whoever she is, will go into the car.

Perhaps in there, I think. The trunk. It is closed tight. I push my fingers beneath the lid. Can’t move it. I slide a big stick into the gap between the lid and fender. The lid groans and yields as I lever it open, until I can use my hands to further push it.

This will do. Virtually empty, not even a spare tire. Two or three tools, including a hacksaw rusted to the deep red-brown shades of blood. Some rubbish…? No, this is a box, taped shut. As I pick it up, it begins falling apart in my hands. I set it on the edge of a fender, my fingers pushing away the dry, crumbling cardboard, as you might shuck an old ear of corn. The box gives way and I see that inside are sheets of paper. Hundreds and hundreds of pages. The top pages are water stained and unreadable. But three or four pages in, I see typewritten words. This is a manuscript. A novel, I am sure. It has characters speaking. They are in a spacecraft, watching from a great distance the planet Earth. They call it No. 3.

And her? No, not the trunk. The rust, the mud, the tools of unknown purpose, it is a vile place. I wouldn’t want anyone to do that to me. The car’s passenger-side door has fallen off its hinges a bit, and I push it aside and set her on the remains of the seat and shards of broken glass. I am sweating, and push the sunglasses back in place on my nose several times. She is in her late 20s. Long, blonde hair. I brush it away from her face and arrange her arms in her lap, then tilt the head back just a bit, so that she is looking out to the sea. Whoever you are, whatever happened to you, I am sorry. I set the door back into place as best I can and carefully pick up the box. This is someone’s hard work. It is to be respected. I would want someone to do that for me.

When confronted by my conscious, I will generally back down.

I walk back to my car as the first breeze of the day whips in from the water, a dead tree’s bare branches overhead clattering like the dry fingers of long-deceased men applauding. I stop and turn my face into the wind, lean on the Volkswagen’s fender, close my eyes and feel refreshed.

When I open my eyes, the clouds have returned. The air smells of dead things brought up from the sea floor.

I set the manuscript on the Volkswagen’s passenger seat. An uneaten hamburger is on the dashboard. I do not remember where it came from. I peel away the paper wrapper and examine it. The hamburger is probably only six or seven hours old, and warmed by the morning sun. I eat it, and throw the Volkswagen into gear.