“A Bottle of Mezcal”

CHAPTER SIX

Music that rouses the masses, steers them to the doorsteps of the impotent leaders hiding beneath their bedcovers, trapped, waiting for us to climb the staircase, step by step, to their bedrooms, where we’ll slit their throats.

 

The Emanon Lounge has three doors in the front of the building. One labeled ENTRANCE, the second EXIT, the third AMBIVALENT. It is the third door that is worn from use.

At around 4 o’clock, the old boys who comb their thinning hair with animal bones are taking the same seats at the bar that they’ve had for years. They grew up on the wrong side of the tracks and as young men had tried to leave, but the damn train had brought them right back here. From left to right, the unemployed house painter and Gulf War vet who won’t talk about it, Mike Ackroyd. Retired state highway worker Ding Dong Daddy Ray Johnson, an elderly fellow who insists a few years ago he saw Bigfoot out back, foraging in the dumpster. Trucker without a truck Diesel Debbs, who lost his license after he drove his rig over his ex-wife’s car in a drunken divorce frenzy. Large-appliance salesman Ray Neelon, on disability and heavily medicated for depression, wearing a denim jacket and American-flag headband.

And a fifth man who no one has seen before, separated from the others by a few bar stools, with a shot of tequila and a glass of red wine in front of him. Tall and broad shouldered, dark suit, white shirt and narrow tie, much younger and far better groomed than anyone who walks in the door here. Eyes hidden behind stylish imported sunglasses. Even in the gloom of the Emanon, a bar so dark that the introduction of the light bulb appears to be a few decades away.

He glances at his device, examines the screen. Nothing. Totally blank.

“What’s yer name, young fella?” Ding Dong Daddy Ray Johnson shouts over to him, thinking the guy might want to feel welcome.

“Dada,” he says, darkly, not sounding welcomed.

Neelon points at the black case at Dada’s feet. “Is that a gun?”

“Saxophone.”

“Careful when you leave here with that, then. This ain’t the best neighborhood. There’s predators outside.”

“Ray, what do you make of this?’’ Ackroyd says, gesturing at the television hanging over the bar. The cable news show is broadcasting images of what looks like an astonishingly vast set of angel wings, if such things existed. Shimmering like a mirage on a desert highway, so far overhead that the clouds pass beneath it, so distant that the details cannot be discerned. The sound on the television is turned down, the newscast hosts and their guests’ breathless analysis can barely be heard. But they have been saying the same things all day, haven’t they? Uninformed speculation without the backing of objective facts. Like men and women talking about God.

Neelon shakes his gray head and sips his beer. “They say our planes can’t get near it.”

“It’s a spaceship, that’s clear,” Johnson says. “From another world. I seen one once when I was in the Navy. Over Greenland. They told us it was Northern Lights.”

Neelon snorts derisively. “They? They tell you what they’re supposed to tell you.”

Liquor has been served in The Emanon Lounge since Prohibition. It was ice-cream parlor in front, gin mill hidden in the back. “This used to be a big manufacturing neighborhood,’’ Johnson tells the stranger. “There was a time this was the tool-and-die capital of the world. In the early ’80s, they used to stand five deep at the bar at any given lunch hour. This place was the place at one time.”

It is no longer. These men’s philosopher is Merle Haggard. Heartbreak is a way of life. Debbs sets down two quarters. The bartender hands him a pair of dice, Debbs rolls them across the bar and wins a free drink. “Hard earned,” he says. “I had my ‘Goin’ Out of Marriage’ sale this morning. I even lost the beagle.”

Now the news story is about the 15th anniversary of the Portland Murder Mansion. Ten scorched bodies, seven men, three woman. Most of them musicians in a band, The Water Bowl. One of the bodies had never been identified. An unsolved crime. Retired detectives who had worked on the case dissect it with the same compassion they would a parking ticket. One of them had even been one of the first cops in Dahmer’s apartment.

Dada stares at the television. Expressionless.

Neelon tips his beer to his mouth, swallows and clears his throat. No one speaks for a few moments. Then finally, “It’s a sick world,” he says.

Dada sets down his wine glass. “The world’s full of predators. You said so yourself.”

“Barry!” a women’s voice booms from deep in the kitchen. This is Betsy Dohr, the Emanon’s owner, shouting to her bartender. “It’s Happy Hour!”

In seconds, the Emanon shifts as effortlessly as stagehands moving backdrops for the next act of a play. Debbs slides a handful of quarters into the juke box and punches in long-memorized numbers of songs. A moose head on the wall, its massive dusty antlers strung with white Christmas lights, stares balefully at the humans. If that moose could talk – and the later in the evening it is, the more likely that seems – he’d harmonize “Inka Dinka Doo” with Ding Dong Daddy Ray Johnson, who makes his way to the stage with the help of a walker. Someone finds the wall outlet and plugs in a cord trailing out of the back of the ancient sports coat that Johnson has put on. He erupts into a twinkling display of Christmas bulbs and gruffly launches into the opening lines of another old standard, this time accompanied by the waitress Helen McCaffrey on wooden spoons while she theatrically shouts, over and over, “They’re calling me the knocker girl now!”

More regulars are strolling and staggering through the door, the surrealistic scene soon accompanied by Jerry Fingers on piano. Neelon, falling somewhere on the evolutionary scale between James Cagney and Raymond Burr, is summoned to the stage with chants of “Ray! Ray! Ray!” for his enthusiastic version of “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.”

Betty Dohr herself emerges from the kitchen in her billowing blonde wig, pumping away on an accordion and pumping up the audience as if she were a cheerleader. Legend has it that she studied classical music at the Eastman School of Music. But that was many years ago. How many, she’ll never say. Now she bangs away on percussion instruments made from toilet seats.

Mikhail Baryshnikov, passing through town, came in one night after a performance many years ago and witnessed this same scene, the same people, the same eclectic clutter of ornate old chandeliers, a painting of fairly recent vintage showing a reclining, big-thighed female nude, old dolls that look eerily human and retirees wearing straw hats and singing mossy old songs. “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” “And the Band Played On.” “You Are My Sunshine.” “Who’s Sorry Now?”

Johnson, breathing heavily, sits on the stool next to Dada. “If you’re a musician,” he says, “you must be loving this.”

Dada had been sitting with is eyes closed, seeing the music as a whorl of sparkling yellows and oranges, outlined in undulating reds. What was the musty-attic aroma of this place? It is the smell of age, most likely. Or perhaps the Ferris wheel hot-dog warmer on the bar, an endlessly revolving wiener of fortune, a metaphor for this evening: the sizzling Coney Islander skins popping and screaming silently behind glass like midway riders trapped for 33 years in the carnival. The juke box shifts to Merle Haggard’s “Silver Wings.” A hush settles into the room, acknowledging greatness, but by the end of the first verse the dancing resumes.

“Silver Wings” is a majestic river of blue tones to Dada. He opens his eyes and looks at Johnson. “I create avant-garde jazz. Music of reflective melancholy. I turn accidents to just the right angle, so that they catch the best light. Art should be dangerous, subversive. Music should rouse the masses, steer them to the doorsteps of the impotent leaders hiding beneath their bedcovers, trapped, waiting for us to climb the staircase, step by step, to their bedrooms, where we’ll slit their throats. Change only comes from the bottom. The powerful won’t turn it over voluntarily. You have to take it from them.”

Johnson and Ackroyd nod.

“I’m speaking to the wrong crowd, aren’t I?”

Johnson and Ackroyd nod.

“If I could bottle this day, I’d throw it in the river,” Dada says. “We are trapped on this world, yet free to go through the motions, and be happy as we dare, or hope.” He points to the strolling and staggering dancers. “Oblivious is one way to get through the years, I suppose. When the internet goes dark, everyone stumbles like they’ve been hit by a two-by-four. Except people like them. They’re the roaches that will survive the nuclear winter.” He swirls the wine in his glass, sniffs its bouquet and takes a long drink. “I detect oak, and forest leaves, with hints of cadaver.”

Dada sets the glass on the bar. “Those predators who you fear outside the door, they can be dealt with. Life can be taken away in seconds.” He snaps his fingers, turns toward Johnson and, placing a long index finger on the top edge of his sunglasses, edges them down his nose a bit, so he look over them, as though he is examining an insect on the sidewalk. “Don’t you think,” he says slowly and slyly, “that the world would be a better place if everyone were dead?”

Johnson shakes his head dismissively. “Them sunglasses keep you in the dark,” he says. He is old, and no longer afraid of getting his ass whipped. He might have spent his working life steering an asphalt paver, but he studied the arts in college, he can use a big word or two. “If you’re such a damn smart musician, then you know no one hears your music if everyone is dead. Music transmits an invisible, epi…, epidermal…”

“Ephemeral?”

“Ephemeral experience. Yet it changes people. As does painting, a two-dimensional image, lines in space, that can seem to be three dimensions. Or a piece of sculpture that you know cannot move, but in it you see movement. These exist in another world of perception.” Johnson finishes his beer, sets down the glass with defiance and looks at Dada.

“Yes, I am tuned to frequencies best left to serious students of cultural eccentricity,” Dada says as he stands, raising the shot of tequila to his lips. He tips the liquor into his mouth and picks up his saxophone case. “Silver Wings” is over. “Which way to Laredo?” he says quietly.

Everyone sitting at the bar turns and points to the doors. Dada choses AMBIVALENT. Most do.