Hardly a City, or, The Bum and the MP
There was nothing for it but to drink from Ball Branch, the tributary that ran through the center of the city. Otherwise, he would have to take a bus to the shelter. That was out of the question: he could not go back there. He had warrants, or supposed he had. When Alice had the salon up Main Street he had used her bathroom. Then she gave him beer for pictures, but that time had gone, as it had come. Though it had seemed a seminal time in his life, it had been no more than a hiatus in obscurity, a couple of local shows, his sidewalk sales, his painted car, the occasional sniff of powder, a wash-up in her restroom, and in no time it was over. Alice was evicted for welching on the lease. Where she had gone he could not guess. She disappeared.
This was hardly a city, more like a village, except that there was plenty of money; and so it had hired a mayor and become a city. The football team’s winning championships several seasons running had brought publicity, support, patronage, tourists, tailgaters, bikers, celebrants and drunk revelers, better athletes and everything they needed—and much besides. A new field, sky boxes, towering stands all round the field, expensive rubber-filled turf, new locker rooms: all for them. A star quarterback came and they won more games.
The roads were widened, sidewalks added, grocery stores and car dealerships proliferated and a large health-food store moved in. The sidewalk benches were ripped up and in their stead nothing replaced them, but sculptures were installed and parking meters added.
The city directors and members of the chamber of commerce did not want people just sitting around in their city. The town became a touristy, walking-only city—nowhere for natives to sit. Locals, except for the wealthiest and the homeless, began to trickle away. Bumper to bumper traffic filled the streets. But the bus was free for everybody, subsidized by the university. And bicycle lanes had been painted in, used by the cycling clubs and the less wealthy students, who could not afford cars, and the most eco-conscious.
The cafes and restaurants, of which there was a plethora, now catered to a target clientele—call it the New Wealth, which extended like a golden thread through every clique, subculture, meme, claque and cabal, through every mind of whatever self- or mass-imagining. Even the cafe bookshop—which had been a haven because everybody had been welcome: the outcast and the artist, anyone who regarded himself or herself, or was regarded by others, as different, or difficult—had come to welcome only the monied. The cafe’s owner had set about systematically replacing the “wrong kind” of customer with the “right kind” and had taken out the books and added a wine bar in the loft.
The city wanted people who would stimulate commercial growth and ensure the continuing expansion of the university—that it should qualify by increasing its academic rankings, its programs and enrollment to move the college into a higher football bracket.
Nevertheless, in spite of or as a consequence, a new homeless shelter had been built. It was situated on the outskirts of town by a granite quarry in the bend of a river, back of a cul-de-sac, elevated in the midst of a floodplain: a drug infested trailer park to the south of it, across the road, very much in its hankering periphery. After the right turn off of Quarry Road onto River Road—which road, in turn, spilled into the vulnerable hollow where the shelter rose on its eminence—a methadone clinic, in easy hailing distance of the shelter, operated daily. For eleven dollars a pop, every morning the addict got his or her dose.
This River Road was prowled continually by police during the day and during the night. Many of the homeless folks’ cuts (outdoor niches carved out of woods or town wilderness for the purposes of recreation, and survival), were discovered by law-enforcement and systematically “slashed” and effectively destroyed. Large shrubs, voluminous trees and bushes, hiding places behind or within which the people slept or drank and caroused were eradicated, to drive the Lumpenproletariat and the déclassé out of the city’s commercial centers. These activities equaled an ultimatum, but it didn’t take. The undesirables had continued to crowd the buses and bus stops and to wander the highways and byways and the Greenway and, of course, Walmart and to sleep, or pass out, wheresoe'er they list.
The overflow “sleeping shelter” was scrapped and student lofts, above, with businesses on the street level, were erected in its place and filled with students. The rents were exorbitant. The bars were hopping, the night spots were too, what few there were, and in the summer the whole town was a big party for those who could afford it. New, higher priced restaurants moved in, and the restaurants that were there already upscaled their menus and began to charge higher prices. Some restaurants kept the same menus and charged much higher prices, which the new more wealthy students happily paid with little complaint. For the prices in the small mountain city were yet less than New York and Connecticut and Massachusetts and Maryland and Vermont prices. But prices would rise to compete, eventually, with those other states’ prices, then top them. For the small city’s locale was a coveted one; everybody wanted to be there. But space was limited.
So, there was nothing for it but for Steve to drink and wash his feet in the tributary—a brook about as wide as a man tall with arms outstretched.
The creek runs through the city, behind the Cafe Primavera, around the university, before dipping into a sluice recently gouged out parallel to the highway. There the highway is renamed H. Street to complement the college street into which it anastomoses. The creek disappears at the end of the city under the hotel behind Walgreen's, past Walmart, before resurfacing several hundred yards on, under a stand of trees—a large bend in the highway after the last intersection by the hospital and the new nursing college—to empty into the bigger river that flows under the highway where it turns west, rising in elevation to the as yet unincorporated town of Cone Orchard.
Steve—now far from the Walmart side of town, in fact right in the middle, between Queen and Commerce—did not know whether or not the water was safe here to drink, but he must drink. He had always trusted the trout river. Here in town drinking branch water seemed a dubious prospect, but he was parched. His feet needed washing, and a little TLC. They had begun to blister. He had nowhere to go, so he walked. He couldn't sit still, and he wanted a beer every couple of hours, so he must walk. He couldn’t sit still. He might have gone anywhere and sat, but he couldn’t….
He had a camp, a different, newer camp than the one on the trout stream southwest of the city, this newer one in the floodplain, opposite side of the river from the homeless shelter—but the same floodplain—at the end of River Road. He had moved there after being denied access to the shelter.
First, he had been kicked out for pissing dirty. He was eating pills, anything he could get his hands on—even picking one up from the bathroom floor and swallowing it indiscriminately —in addition to the methadone dose when he had the eleven dollars. The methadone was approved by the shelter but not the extras and not alcohol.
Then later, when he had tried to return after the requisite thirty-day ban, he had been denied. The sheriff administrator had informed the shelter that registered sex offenders were no longer allowed there if they had a conviction resulting from a crime against a minor. The shelter had a playground which prohibited his being within three-hundred feet of the building—so neither could he legally eat or shower there.
Steve was a registered sex offender because twenty years earlier he had cupped a fifteen-year-old girl’s breast at a company party while dancing with her: indecent liberties. He had been twenty at the time. He had been drunk and reckless. These many years later and across the country—his “crime” had occurred in California—he was still required to register as a sex offender. He had gone to prison twice in that time for failing to register a new address when he had gotten drunk and could not maintain a dwelling. His last time in he had been raped at knife point by the dorm janitor, an old head in for life. Steven had cut the man one afternoon soon thereafter while the man was taking a nap. Then Steve went to protective custody.
His camp had been accessible by way of a trail that led across the community garden to the farthest corner of the free-clinic lot. Passing through a small copse one arrived at a low water bridge. His camp had been a few hundred yards east above the north bank.
While he was last in jail (trespassing), a big rain had come and washed away all of his things, strewing them through broken detritus and waste litter and gobbed weeds along the riverbanks for, who knows, hundreds of yards down the tree-flattened undercut shelves of embankment either side the river. He had had a full wardrobe in his tent, dozens of cherished books, sleeping bag, cookstove, fuel, hygiene products, a few salvaged heirlooms from his father’s house, a small mahogany table, a jade plant and a geranium—gone. He never bothered to look for any of it.
God knows why he had camped there. Those at the shelter had wondered what he had been thinking. Little Steve did made sense to most of them. Some, though, understood him, more or less. When they had been told about his moving out there, these had said, “He would do, wouldn’t he… That’s Steve all over.” He might have camped there in the danger zone just exactly because he had wanted the flood to wreck him. He would want to be ruined again and again continually without end till doomsday, then build his stores again and re-engineer another coup against himself.
Steve was somewhere between disasters now. He was tooling around town with nothing obligatory. Doing nothing much. He had spent a couple nights drinking and watching TV in a hotel room paid for by a man he knew from the shelter and jail, a man named Doyle. Doyle said that he and his wife were arguing. He said rather than have her see him drink, and complain about it, when he got his veteran’s pension he liked to rent a room for a few days so she did not have to see him doing his thing—and he didn’t have to hear her lip. Then, either Doyle’s money ran out or his patience with Steve did; or he had marshaled his inner resources and determined to return to his wife, who, he had told Steve, was about to receive a big check of her own. That had been a few days ago. So after helping Doyle up the steps to the hotel office to pay his bill and down again, Steve had departed to find a place to crash under a thick hedge he’d used before to rest under. But, again, mostly, he had just walked around, day and night; so this morning his feet were tired and sore.
On his way through an alley between Queen and Commerce, en route to a small bridge under which to wash his feet, Steve decided to play a game. He would inspect the margins of the alley, backing upon which were several restaurants and apartment houses, to see what might be left there, with the idea that some college kid—or even someone like himself, easily distracted and hating to be burdened with carrying anything—might have laid something by in a bottle. There were bars on either side of the alley, and it was crawling with college kids at night. It was nothing for one of them to abandon a bottle;—they’d just buy more next night. That was one reason he liked living in this college town. He never had to buy shit to stay fucked up. Almost at the same moment that the plan was hatched in his brain, Steven espied a brown paper bag crushed into the rectangular shape of its contents, stuffed behind a drain spout that came down against the wall from the eave two stories up, through the deck of the apartment above him, to the ground, to spill onto a concrete pad into the alley. The bag had been there a while. It was covered with dust and grass clippings and webs. He had to wrench it out with a side to side waggle. But it came out right enough. He looked inside. The contents were five clean bottles of Pabst in their sleeve. What a way to start the day. He had earlier imagined that after cleaning his feet he would either walk to the other end of town or take a bus to steal a ‘40’ from Walmart. Now he could relax a while. Sit under the pedestrian bridge with his feet in the water and have himself a few drinks. The day was beginning aright.
He had downed one Pabst immediately he stood under the ped xing bridge, before sitting down. He had replaced the bottle in the carton with the lid on and taken another and screwed off the lid and swigged half down. The cap he had put in his pocket.
His blisters stuck to his socks. They were weeping a little, clear liquid. When he stepped into the creek bed he bored his feet into the sand. He wiggled his toes; he dredged through the clean sand, the water left clean below him, with his thin wolfin feet. He sat again and inspected his blisters—not too bad, yet. He swirled his feet in the ripples that the water should clean the sand out of his broken skin. He repeated the process a couple times. He sat back on the riprap and swigged the rest of the second beer, replaced the cap and put the bottle in the carton and took out the third. He opened the third and drank it, holding the cap in his hand the while and replacing it and the bottle and getting the fourth. Four was about where he wanted to be. Pabst was weak.
Someone stomped over the bridge, hitting it thrice. Runner. Then a herd of clops. Train of runners.
Steve thought of the “Three Billy Goats Gruff,” a favorite fairy tale. He had become the troll. The world is made of trolls and billy goats. He was not a goddamned troll! How could he have arrived at this place? Impossible. How many times he asked himself this question in a day—How, When?—he could not count. The question was his unceasing prayer. Its foreground fruits were expletives, poison plums building to black tumescence and continually dropping from his lips daylong. The more he drank, the more they grew—the curses. Seeping poison from some pit of poison out of sight below the root bulb of his rancor—a bilious bluegreen ball, a world all its own—dripped from its nadir into the teeming plexus below his umbilicus, rose to his heart and was carried to every cell, suffocating him. Alcohol melted the heavy poisonous exudation that choked him, to let the atomized remnant out into the air as rancorous natter, nacreous rancor.
Steve might have said it was all in fun that he poked thus, ironically, at the world, that invisible interlocutor which he loathed along with himself; though, he had no control of his clanging rancor or his drive to drink. He rationalized, rewriting as personal myth what he must do, what he could not not do, powerless to remain silent or sober either one.
He twisted the cap off of bottle number four and tossed it into the stream. When he finished the beer he dropped the bottle in the riprap and took out five and put it into his back pocket, leaving the package, and climbed from beneath the bridge into midmorning sunlight, as yet wan under a lingeringly late fog that washed over the sun making of it an innocuous flat white candy disk, so close that one could reach out and pluck it from its meringue.
The first stop Steve made was where he should not stop, a cafe whose owner had banned him forever; and when Steve had asked why, the owner had said to him, “Your past, man—I’ve got kids….” his thin eyes growing wide in frustration and perhaps something else besides, pity perhaps. He went into the bathroom and washed his face. He got down on the floor and did fifteen pushups. He urinated, then washed his hands. Without looking around he left the restroom and walked to the screen door and through.
Coming as Steve was going, a middle aged man with a short gray beard and wire rimmed glasses, a lawyer he had known for years, shook Steve’s hand and said, “Good to see you.” Then another, a therapist from across the way, whose office fronted onto the street—red awning, black dragons, yawning concrete lions—also shook his hand and said hello.
Steve left the lot and walked toward the university.
If he didn’t find an address to report to the sheriff soon, he’d be back in prison for his third bid. Else go back and rebuild his shattered camp by the shelter. That was the address the sheriff had now. He had not been there since his inspection of the wreckage after the flood. That had been a while back, at least a week. He needed to make an appearance over there, so if the police came snooping the people could tell them yes we’ve seen him, he’s around here somewhere. Steve had a feeling they had not been by. This slope was getting slipperier though; he’d have to show himself soon to be counted clear. He was not going back a third time.
Whatever he did while in his cups Steve ended up throwing it away. Invariably he made a mess. Nevertheless, he broke from his trajectory, now, to return to the cut for his knapsack containing his few art supplies. This was the beginning of the day: of some misadventure, an abortive nothing like all his drunk days, which, if he had been able to soberly reflect upon it might stop him what he was doing. But he was not capable.
He sat in the copse where he kept his few possessions and drew dicks and cunts in his drawing pad. It was a subject that never failed to stir his imagination. He never showed them to anyone. But he thought them masterpieces. He did not restrict himself to genitalia. Neither was it obvious what they were. They were disguised dicks and cunts. They might resemble anything: a turtle taking a bit of leaf from a small plant with its beak while a shimmering volcano seethed like Krakatoa in the background; a bird beating its tail feathers against the rim of a baptismal font; a lone klansman standing under a bent burning T while blackbirds peppered a tree in the background under which crouched a black feline—or something else proportionately cat sized and black. Maybe a hail of dicks and cunts, falling like fire from heaven, with Erasmus-featured faces zenfully arrayed in a seeming random field without deliberation. Maybe a fierce falcon, pinions held in tight chevrons, driving for the dispassionate kill, eight talons hieratically exhibited, to usher the dead through the Field of Reeds to edify the living.
Alice had liked them, though what she hung on the walls of her salon were his magnified paintings of ladybugs, whistling birds and butterflies painted on seasoned planks of lumber or mat board or pastel paper or rarely a proper canvas. A few private collectors had bought his photo-collages of roadkill and his “Howling Wolves” series of oil pastel drawings of wolves under the influence of lycanthropy baying the moon. After his death, examples of all of these had been collected into permanent storage by the Cone Orchard Conservancy, which did not publicly display the works. If he did not show them to any, it was not because he did not deem them worthy, but because he believed there was no worthy audience to receive them. Yes, despite their value as unique expressions—and irreproducible—he tore each with a hoarse zipping sound from its metal coil, ripped it into strips, collated these and ripped them again into square bits and threw the bits into his pack with the several pair of women’s shoes that he had stolen from the Goodwill with the intent of opening an internet boutique, growing rich thereby.
Next, he drank the final Pabst and cast the empty into the bramble.
Steven wandered into the public library from which he had not yet been banned, although he had been arrested once and another time been found floundering among the stacks with a plastic grocery sac containing nothing but a bottle of vanilla extract. Awakened at the hour of closing he had been allowed to leave unushered.
But today he was hardly buzzing. He knew soon he would want more. So he’d steal some. The more he drank the cheaper it got. With less one or two drinks it cost him dizzying precipitous anxiety with galvanic glandular reactions. With two to four drinks, it was all in a day’s work. With six under him he floated it out. More than eight, he and alcohol became one, and he could not tell whether he was stealing the stuff or it was stealing him. Over twelve he performed disembodied miracles—thinking himself invisible to all eyes.
As he made his way between the last row of Fiction and the periodical case, he noted a man head on in the chair the end of the aisle. Their eyes met. A robust gentleman to say the least, a veritable giant even sitting. He wore a bold jacket, a dashing cashmere velvet blazer of a purplish-greenish iridescence, very dark, tending more toward blue than magenta without making muddy, with a royal insignia of some sort over the left breast—perhaps Marines perhaps Rangers—goldstraw linen slacks, heavy cordovan shoes of immortal make. Socks of equal quality. Not a townie. Not a stitch of Patagonia or North Face, not even a Lowe Alpine slouch hat or waist pack.
The dignitary looked into Steven, seemed to recognize something similar, if not of spirit perhaps of another share in a world touched by a spirit of affinities: maybe, a mutual friend whom neither of them had met yet, or a common ancestor in Igboland, some primal mother whose diaspora had scattered them hither by routes surprisingly straight and narrow, belying the notion of contingency; and since nothing can be proven against destiny, or for any variant thereof, time might have wed chance in some order crystalline in its development, so that these two must meet there and then. Though both be dead now.
“Man, do you look out of place!” Steven commenced the chat, taking up the convo as it had already begun and left off somewhere time out of mind (obviously the MP had had a few belts too). “You’re not the White Duke are you? No, couldn’t be; he died, didn’t he … Wish I coulda bought into him—those bonds…. You are British, right?” Steve had, for all his many deficits, no inhibitions about speaking to a stranger, even one as magisterial as this: he had the gift of gab.
They introduced themselves. Both were bored and wanted a walk in the rain. (It had begun lightly to sprinkle.) They agreed a drink would be fine.
“Shall we dine?” the MP asked and Steve asked, “Lunch okay?” tucking the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times—he liked ferreting out the secret meanings of stock index charts—into his pack while the MP excused himself to use the restroom.
They met in the breezeway outside the first set of sliding doors, the sounds of whales emerging under a door to the right as they left, Steven remarking that “it must be bring-your-pet-to-the-lib’ry day,” (feigning britischer), and the MP quite misunderstanding remarking that, No, his mother in law had been dead these many years. “Some people have all the luck,” replied Steven, which the gentleman interpreted perfectly and agreed that his life had been one fortuitous accident after another.
“Therefore, sir,” he assured Steven, “I must assume the same in regard to my meeting you here now.”
“Where’d you learn to talk like that?” Steven kidded, “But no seriously, I think your privilege has gone to your head, Lord Wyke-Wicket (for so the gentleman had introduced himself, ‘Though you can call me Des,’ he had added. ‘All my friends do, a name given me at Eton, though my name is actually Welsh and impossible to say even by the current Welsh.’), there’s no luck and there’s no meaning. I mean it: There’s nothing new under the sun, because there’s nothing: Haven’t you noticed, the sun is made of marzipan today. Yesterday it was something else entirely. And our Earth is equally esculent.—So, where to now?”
“I should say a restaurawn,” returned the MP.
“Okay then: burritos, burgers, Papas Majadas, Bengali Buffet, Viet Now, Sushi Go to Go, kava bar, dim sum, pho, Pan Trout and Taters, Possum Sop-Up, ‘Materlicious—what? We’ve got eateries, now.”
Steven was playing travel-docent to the English Honor.
“Oh … but I quite know my way round. You see, my wife is the chancellor’s sister. This is not my first rodeo, as you Yanks like to say.”
“I’ve probably never said that myself,” Steven interposed, “but I’ve known some cowboys who never should.”
“Oh yes, yes, quite, quite. Very droll, Master Steven, very, yes….”
So they went to hob nob at a cafe near the post office whose eggless Hollandaise over the Eggless Benedict on a buttermilk biscuit instead of an English muffin the MP liked especially well and wrongly assumed, though he swore allegiance to Southern Cookin, to be de rigueur Appalachian cuisinerie.
“Chancellor’s sister, huh?”
“Oh, yes. Flossie, the chancellor, you will know her as Florence, of course——”
“I don’t know her at all,” interjected Steven.
“——Well, Flossie is struggling with her own private challenges, which I am sure that you will appreciate, as can I. My Jo is here to try to talk sense to her, but thus far she has not been able to muster the courage; she is rather playing the part of Flossie’s personal swizzle stick. I say Flo should learn to drink it neat, the only solution. And if she can’t take it dry well there it is. She must quit drinking hard beverages altogether.”
“Tell her try switching to vanilla extract, see how she likes it.”
“Oh, master Steven, you are a riot…. But I can see your point. She might try something a little cheaper, a little sweeter: It might ruin her taste for the stuff. Though, that never worked for me.”
“I was just thinking about all the money she’d save drinking vanilla; it’s saved me a bundle. In this day and age, bundling is frowned upon, but I think it’s the only way to go.”
“Sir, you’ve hit the nail on the head. Jo paid five-hundred extra for her baggage. Fares are atrocious these days, and do you know that Heathrow had not even a record of our having booked a flight—we had to fly business! I sat next to a very nice gentleman. He told me the entire history of his business career while swilling one goblet after another of Chardonnay, while I had my bourbon, then had the indiscretion to ask me if I thought that he might be an alcoholic….”
“Boy you said a mouthful, Des. I have some justification for saying that was a flatulent diatribe but you can make up for it by treating us to a couple stiff ones.”
“Oh, I quite like your style and choice of words. Don’t get me wrong, that talk about being an alcoholic, that is for no one’s benefit and to no one’s credit, and I certainly would not think to hoist my petard at you. I can see that you quite like your grog; I saw it from the first. I knew that we were kindred when I saw you among the folios: Tell me my boy, do you like jazz music?”
“I like good music—no matter the kind.”
“What of poker?”
“I don’t play cards. But I’ll forgive you for it.”
“Sir, the only things that America has produced that justify its existence are jazz and poker.”
“Oh, I see. That’s like a philosophy of yours—sort of aphorism. That’s good. What about rock and roll, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Credence, Jimi and Janis? What about the Dead man? You’re old school, I like that. I’d rather you didn’t know about those cats. Hey man, stick to your Miles and Monk.”
“I’m more a Satchmo man, myself, the early ensembles rather than the vocalizations….”
“Ok, sold. But we’re sitting here talking while we should be drinking. I don’t mind saying I have not had a drink now in something like an hour; so if you don’t mind, could you call the garçon over, maybe we could have a drip of something.”
“Oh, my boy, but I placed an order for a bottle the minute we walked in the door. Bushmills. I don’t know what is taking so long … Oh, but we’re having a tremendous time. Long-lost and all that. Besides, my blood is up! Your president and our Ms. May may be burning down the house, but we’ll fiddle my friend, we’ll fiddle an Appalachian chune and dance an outlawr jig until the cows come home to roost. Life is for gamblers—you may not like cards Stevie my boy, but you Sir are a gambler, a real gambler. You gamble for your life every day. I believe you could use some luck; I shall give you a leg up. I’ll buy you all the paint you need and everything to go with. This is a day of wish fulfillment. Let Freud have his revenge on the anti-philistines. We have our strong opinions too.”
At that moment a dreadlocked server in Patagonia pullover and flared flower skirt and Chacos put the bottle of Bushmills down on the corner of the table and said, “We had to borrow one from the bar up the street, guys; but don’t worry, it won’t cost any extra. Our owner’s brother-in-law owns the bar. He said give it to you at cost. Know what you want?”
But they had what they had been waiting for. Nevertheless, Des ordered a grass-fed beef sushi tartare appetizer, not the Eggless Benedict, and Steven a half-dozen jerk wings with extra celery and blue cheese.
“You shall have them, and thank you Master Steven——”
“Hey, Des, stop calling me master, I’m nobody’s master, man.”
“Oh but I believe that you are deserving. Do me a favor and wear the title. It suits you. Just as I call Lady my mistress back in London, but that’s a sad long story in itself. You see, she won’t speak to me. I embarrassed her.”
“Yeah? You toss her salad with the wrong fork or something?”
“Sir, you are delightful. No, my boy. She demanded I give up this.” He held the small tumbler of whiskey, tilted his head, and with a rictus engraved—a bent paperclip—between wincing parentheses and a substantial margin of jaw either side, he poured the honey-hued toxin over the back of his tongue.
“Des, I’ll tell you … We are absolutely, batshit-fucking crazy. We are sitting here, a man of the highest London society and a derelict—equals in our own eyes—two of a kind without a doubt, and we’re having our little fucking bacchanal, reveling, totally fucking reveling in killing ourselves with this poison.—We’re fucking crazy.”
“Well put, Master Steven. Your summing up is absolutely spot on, sir. In fact, here you go,” he poured Steven, who’d had two already, another, “We shall take it as our this-hour’s toast, and here’s to our eventual annihilation, my friend.”
The wings arrived and Steven made a bit of a mess with the blue cheese, but Des said, “Nevermind, you shall have a new costume. We shall walk to the general store and put you all in Patagonyer too, or whatever you prefer. And new shoes to boot, or whatever you’d prefer, hat, coat. Or if you’d prefer something more or less formal you shall have it—here’s another,” and he poured another couple of fingers into Steven’s glass and into his own.
The dreadlocks returned with the check and true to word the Bushmills was at cost.
Fresh dressed like a million bucks—not out of the general store at all but out of the consignment shop—in a second hand Armani suit (a new one was not to be found on the mountain) and Nike running shoes, black socks and black knit tie, Steven’s old clothes cast into a garbage can on the corner of Straight and Queen, though he’d kept his old boxers on and had a new pair in his pocket, the disreputable artist and the MP sat in Saloon, the half-full bottle of Bushmills in Steven’s pack, which he had worn over his silk jacket and hung over the straight rail of the chair in which he sat.
“Bartender, two Dead Guys right here.”
When they first walked in, Steven had fed a twenty given him by Des into the tip jar while whistling the barkeep’s attention, and now they were getting theirs first, or when not first, at least as-soon-as.
This time Des said to the barback, who brought the drinks round to their table, a youngish, modish girl looking to be between sixteen and thirty-two and fresh off the set of a Tim Burton movie, “We’ll be having at least six each more of these Dead Ones, so keep them handy. Warm’s fine for me, though Steven probably prefers his icy, as most Yanks do. Nevertheless, let us continue—and have a wonderful day. Here's another twenty, just for you my dear.”
“She could be your daughter, Des,” said Steven, the girl at bay before him, marveling at the MP, a girl who might have been Swedish, or Danish, or even Ukrainian, a very hipsterish chick: bangs, bent and broken-eyeleted calf-boots, torn early-Madonna stockings, tweed skirt, black T shirt, onyx makeup, pale polymer skin.
“She could be my daughter's friend—And she could be mine too if it suits her,” the barrister smiled a tombstone smile, and though she did not answer, Cara, the barback, seemed not indisposed enough, as she should be, to the overtures of the wicked old man. But with a girl like her, how could one tell?
“Des! Why seek ye the living among the dead?”
“Tis true, at my age I seek not far from the grave. I am like one of those prognathous and blind deepwater bugfish who call forth victims through the jellied blackness with phosphorescent tentacle, or something subtler which I learned in India as a youth.
“What the hell are you babbling about?”
My father was stationed there and I could not get away. At first, I hated the Indian people because they stank of curry, sandalwood and sweat; although, as for their personalities, I found them much more congenial than the English. My first real friend was a Gujarati boy named Ashish—he had a voice like a paradise bird and was as svelte as a leopard. But he stank like all of them. I will make an exception for Ashish’s mother—she did not stink, but smelled like fresh lemons and cardamom. I know this from her own lips: she never used a chemical deodorant or soap in her life. She shredded lemon rind into ghee—clarified butter—and rubbed it into her skin every morning after bathing in a river close to their house. She was a school administrator, very wise, very shrewd, very pious: a veritable tigress! A spiritual tigress, always reading the Gita. When I first laid eyes on her I thought her the ugliest woman I had ever seen, but she was the most beautiful. The holiest. She is my sacred mother.”
The MP put his hands in front of him in a prayer and nodded a secret assent to this divine mother he had known in his childhood.
“I carry her with me in my heart to this day. She revealed to me the secrets of the universe, at least what I, a spoiled child of entitled English father and Swiss mother, could understand.
Oh, she was so lovely. She knew just how to talk to a boy. Her eyes were treasure houses. To look into her eyes was to travel infinitely far. To traverse the universe.
She is the reason I could never accept the Christian faith as my own. Good and evil are not warring principles but are at one with each other. Ashish’s mother taught me about Vishnu, who is creator, preserver and destroyer all three. Ultimately, all is silence. But I won’t go into it too deeply…. I should befoul the Hindu conception by pretending to ally myself to it. It is I who stink! You know Kali, too, I shall assume: I won’t wait for reply. She is as much as the creator responsible for the beauty of the world, for destruction is not unbeautiful.”
“I can dig it Des.”
“I know you can, old boy, that’s why I allowed myself such freedom of expression—”
“You let loose because you’re drunk, but okay. Not too familiar with the whole Hindu thing, but I can dig the silence. You ever done any acid, Des?”
“I must assume that you are referring to lysergic acid diethylamide 25, am I wrong Master Steven?”
“Right again, Des. It’s like jazz. It’s a trip, to use a cliché. But you’d never know it if you hadn’t done it. I couldn't have guessed in a million years what silence is from being told. That doesn’t begin to tell it. I’ve known people who just couldn't handle it, but you know people: You can’t predict who’ll be strong when all’s said and done. When you’re slam up against it, like you get on cid, sometimes there really isn’t any telling how people are going to act. The hard ones crack and the softies shine like sunrise, to borrow another cliché. Anyhow, why am I talking about this? I haven’t touched acid in over twenty years, and I don’t know anybody who messes with the stuff anyway. But …”
“Yes, my boy, ‘But …’ say it. ‘But’ what?”
“But… if we could get some. How old are you, my man?—Not that age matters. Nevermind——”
“For all I know, you’re higher than acid already. I’ve heard of certain dudes being higher than acid. I wasn’t always like now. I was something of a scholar. I read into this stuff we’re talking about. It’s only a memory now. I’ve taken acid, but I mean years ago, before all the reading about these things, and it took me high. It took me nowhere at all and I was high above; I was everywhere all at once and nowhere, just like you were saying about the Hindu lady’s eyes.
Then it splashed me down hard. Right back into this mean old world—with telephone poles and guardrails and concrete walls and manicured lawns. It made me sick to see how ugly the world is we’ve made, this… shitty fucking world we’ve made of paradise, so I stopped tripping. That’s what you reminded me of…. Let’s skip it if you don’t mind. Fuck it. I can’t stand even to think about it—makes me sick.”
“Here she comes with more death for us, Brother. Watch your wing there so she may put them down.” Des had become consolatory for a moment, but he did not want to stay in that frame of mind. Neither did Steven, Des knew. Steven soon shook his dolor, stretched his frontlegs to the ceiling, stood for a moment, rattled his hindlegs and went to the bathroom. When he returned, he and Des finished their beers and left.
Out in the street Steven felt great again, better than ever. Though in the back of his head he knew it all must come crashing, that it could not last longer than the sauce kept flowing. But before he could get lost in these lucubrations, Des had invited Steven to ride with him to the chancellor’s house, to introduce him to Jo, his wife, promising that they would not be long, assuring him that Jo would not detain them; that he, Des, was perfectly free to come and go without matrimonial constraints; that, in fact, he and Jo were entirely detached as far as all that: he could do as he damn well pleased. Would Steven please go with him now—Des had called an Uber driver already, to return as he had come. And, oh yes, we could both stand a belt of Bushmills from the bottle en route, and we had better stop at the ABC for another on the way, or the time might get away from us and we be forced to drink in bars all evening. Oh, I say—nevermind….
The Uber Camry Hybrid rolled to a silent stop at the gate and Des keyed in the code and the gate opened. Through firlined corridors a narrow strip of drive passed under them, they upon it floating. The driver let them out at a loop in front of a modest, modish house with glass all around and a flat roof and slate pad that began at the front pavement and, wrapping around the back, resolved itself somewhere out of their sightline, parapetless and without any protective railing overhanging a void. Below, the tops of pines and middle-age poplars and maples and oaks reached upward, trying to climb aboard the chancellor’s weird, incongruous Lissitzky of a house.
When they walked in, a tweeny girl with nixyish ears and eyes and sprightly plucked brows, though rounded out withal, in a lime green mini skirt and black, patent-leather belt and go-go boots stepped up to greet them. Apparently, she had been sitting in the parlor to the left with a group of ladies who were playing whist.
Steven, who had gotten hot and removed his coat in the car on the way, tossed the coat over the girl’s outstretched arm, held forth in a plea position as she were addressing an invisible dirk, mistaken for a request to take it from him, as she drew forward with what must have been an intention to hug or accost her father.
As the coat leapt onto her arm, she let it droop and the surprised silk slid a floundering wreck onto the parquetry.
“This is my daughter, Fil. Fil, that is Steven’s new suit coat on the floor groveling at your cold, booted feet, and this is my mate Steven, himself. Please say hello Fil.”
“Hello Fil,” Fil hailed.
Now an hispanic menial—thirtyish, stout, handsome, olively marmoreal—was among them for a moment, now rehanging the declassed coat on a rack around the corner on a hall tree; now clackingly retreating into the shadowed hall, an oblique rectangle of fluctuating light—an opening, projection or mirrored reflection—upon the wall some few strides back away in the gloom.
Fil looked Steven over, ministerially thorough in her classification of him—merciless too and malicious—which was uncannily correct.
This was the chancellor’s niece, and so she had come from time to time to stay with her aunt. She remembered having seen Steven in the Mountain Picayune and had thought him a valueless slouch in the picture printed therein; although, the current impression was slightly modified by the difference of the suit and a haircut, but otherwise there was no improvement. Coupled with other intriguing qualities Fil found predation very alluring, but Steven had nothing to back it up; his was all in vain, a stalker rather than a hunter—his kind never confident to possess and subdue what he skulked after. The coitus of his insecurity and pride spelled penury. She would not have put him in her tea.
Fil turned and went back to her game and ignored the men for the duration of their intrusion on her aunt’s card party. Her mother floated forth next and fidgeted about the outlines of her husband’s being, inspecting his hems, whistling and tsking and muttering, the whistling not tuneful but a hoarse shrill of indrawn breath over large incisors. She nervously and equinishly side glanced Steven a bit while she fidgeted, once confronting him face on while he took up the skin of her fingers for a brief moment with a “How do you do,” but soon wandered distraitly, as she had come, back to the gaming table.
“That’s Jo, my wife, of course, and there is Flo, her sister the chancellor,” Des said, raising his voice to a siren alarm volume: “My wife’s lovely sister, and these other ladies are Flo’s colleagues and compatriots. Who’s winning ladies?” Des stepped for a moment into the darkened hall and withdrew the handkerchief from his breast pocket and blew his nose before stuffing the square of silk up his sleeve, leaving Steven standing to catch the signals as Flo and another lady were left with each an arm in the air but not looking at them. If the chancellor recognized him she did not show it. She had troubles of her own Des had said. Still, Steven’s paranoia about his notoriety was with him constantly; he needed a drink. Then he realized he had left his pack in the goddamn Uber car.
“Des, I left it!” he exclaimed, horrified. “Des it’s gone!—Shit, it’s gone…”
“What? Oh, yes. We’ll just call and have them return…. Fil, you’re handy with those things,” (meaning her smartphone). “Would you just ring up Uber and have them return to the house. Steven has left behind his bag. Thank you, Dear.” And it was done with a flick of the wrist.
They had repaired to a parlor opposite the darkened hallway, in which, against a rare solidly opaque wall, was a small bar set-up featuring cut-crystal decanters of gin and whiskey, scotch and vodka, and several bottles of French liqueurs and vintage glass and stainless steel spritzer bottles. Steven asked for a drink.
Des moued. Des hemmed and hawed and said they’d better not—for the moment.
“You saw how my wife was worrying me (Steven had not recognized it as such, he had thought she was just silly). She was trying to sniff out how much I might have had to drink…. You see, my boy, things are not exactly as I described them to you in a moment of slum bravado back there at Saloon. She is, after all, my wife, and though sometimes my thirst temporarily abrogates my uxoriousness, really I am very fond of her, you see. And if it’s all the same to you, let us try to behave ourselves around the ladies. We shan’t be long, Steven, I promise. Then we’ll be on our way, and we’ll be men again without women, and we may speak and do as we please. Sir, women, excuse the expression, are not to be fucked with. They have great powers of intuition—and superkeen noses! She can alway guess within a drink or two how much I have had. Oh, God, but I don’t know what to do. I cannot choose between them, Master Steven.”
Des had such a hangdog look about him that Steven could only smile indulgently and feign interest in the outlook from the great glass window which wrapped the southwest corner of the room. God, what a drag this was getting to be. He might just get into the Uber car and go back to town and get some pills and … Hell yes, that’s exactly what he would do. Fuck this shit. He had a fifth and a half of Bushmills in his bag. The whiskey would last at least a day and a half.
Okay—now—how to break the news. He had no money. He’d have to borrow some for the ride. Shit. No. He did not want any goddamn scenes, not likely anyway from this crowd—but Fuck! He had to get the fuck away from here. These weren’t his people; he didn’t have people. No people were his people. Ok. He’d fucking walk. Ok. He’d decided—it was just down the hill. That’s right it was all downhill from here.
He was in the Horseshoe Gap gated community. He had not paid attention to how they got there, but Steven knew that all he must do is keep walking downhill and eventually he’d reach the foot; from there he would know where he was. He’d never been exactly here, but he’d been every which way below here. Once at the bottom it’d be a cinch getting a bus and back to town. Then to Walmart for some triple-cees. It all sounded unremarkably familiar now.
When Steve started hurrying, run-walking, out of the drive as the Uber driver was pulling away, the driver lowered his window and said, “Hey you wanna ride man? You don’ have to walk man.”
“I’m broke dude,” Steven said.
“Hey man that shit’s paid for already, homeboy; these people have a account man. Come on get in.”
The Uber driver lit a joint and passed it back and said, “Here man,” but Steven refused. He had never liked smoking pot, though he had done it enough in his apprenticeship days at the resort. “Naw, brah, that’s all you. Hey, I appreciate it though; it’ll make me tired, and I have some things to do today. How do you get the smell out before your next fare?”
“Around here everybody smokes man. I do it all the time—nobody ever complained. I got the best kush in town homeboy. This shit is the killer.”
“Smells good. Makes me paranoid…. And tired, like I said.”
“Not my weed bro, this is the cleaness high you ever smoke man, you sure you won try? You makin me nervous man—you don’ smoke weed.”
“Listen man, I ain't police. In fact, I’m going to score some pills right now, so don’t get nervous about me—I’m your pal. Just drop me anywhere near Walmart; I’m suppose to meet my friend there.” Buying pills, real pills, was one thing, but stealing Coricidin from Walmart was ghetto-sketchy in anybody’s book. Smoking weed, shooting Opanas and Roxies: that was all kosher, but swallowing handfuls of cough medicine was definitely treyf--non distingué.
Steven took his suit coat from his bag then left the bag under a bush behind an electrical transformer. Once in the store, he went directly to hardware and took a flathead screwdriver and dropped it into his pocket, looking for cameras. He went to a pharmacy aisle and took from a floor level shelf a lexan anti-theft box containing a box of generic cold and cough medicine and took it into the bathroom. It fitted perfectly his jacket pocket (Thank God I did not leave it on the hall tree!). He had once stomped a box to open it at a pharmacy across the road, and it never opened. Defeated, Steven had stuffed the box into the trash under all the used paper towels, the product still inside. As he had emerged from the bathroom a man in shirt and tie had appeared from a door off the bathroom corridor and asked dubiously if everything was alright. He had done the same at Walmart and the echoing had made such a racket in the tiled, hard plastic and steel room, that, though he had gotten what he wanted he would never do it again.
After a bit of levering the box was open, stuffed out of sight in the trash, and the pills pressed out of their aluminum backing resting in a pocket, the first five swallowed with a mouthful of tap water. This was a typical day. In thirty or forty minutes, after having taken the remainder of the total sixteen pills, he would begin to feel the DMX kicking in—and in an hour or so he would be tripping.
He slid by the magazine rack and took a Vogue Italia and put it, folded, into the interior pocket of his blazer. He’d do some drawing later. He’d catch a bus, go to the university library, trespass despite his ban. He’d cut corners; make like a rattie-o. Go up to the PNs and PQs, NBs, NCs and NDs. He waltzed by the deli and pocketed a sub and a plastic sleeve of prosciutto-wrapped mozzarella, went out the way he’d come, found his bag, took out the bourbon and drank a slug, recapped it, careful not to drop it onto the full bottle. On second thought, he removed his jacket and rolled the full bottle in the silk and dropped in the magazine—remarking the stolen Journal and Times, something for later—and the sandwich and prosciutto and went over to the bus stop to wait the half hour for the Green Route. It was right on time.
At first there were just sounds, and he did hear them, but they meant nothing to him. He opened his eyes. He had drooled substantially on his wrist which was heavy under him, and when he unfolded himself and lifted his head he was stiff. First thing he thought was that he’d wasted his trip falling asleep—because he’d only taken five of the pills before he had. Had he taken them all, he would not have been able to sleep. He had a five dollar bill in his hand. A voice had waked him.—That meant it was near 2:00 AM. Closing.—He saw the back of the person the voice belonged to, who had jiggled him conscious, down the way. Had she recognized him? If so, he might have the library policeman waiting for him when he tried to exit. Shit. But if he wasn’t there—he did not believe he would be…. He still had the Bushmills and eleven triple-cees and Walmart was open all night. He’d drink and walk his way there: gank more pills.
When he’d arrived in the library he’d come up to the third floor unmolested. He’d made it up to the Art and Lit stacks and gone straight to Southern Lit to get a book he had thought he might like to read. He flipped over a few pages reading snippets, another book rattling bars for attention in his brain, and put it back. He went to Russian Literature; he did not need a call number. He found his title easily among the author Ns—anyway, its call number PG3476.N3 L3 1972 had it out of place. Somebody needs to organize these shelves, Steven caviled: he took a minute to do so; several other titles were out of place. He had taken his selection to a carrel by a big window, the opposite building’s frontispiece facing him, closed between sessions, darkening with dark eyes all over—sun behind the clouds, or was it so late?—and opened to the frontispiece. Abraham Lincoln all in green stared out at him with sensual, bovine stare. Lickity-split Steven pocketed the bill and looked around for a witness to the miracle. None. He was expecting maybe the devil. Already, the five earmarked for a pint. No way was he spending good money on pills. He dared not attempt lifting a bottle from the ABC—there was only the one ABC in town. God forbid he should be banned from it too. He was already forbidden at two groceries and this library. He could not smile, but inside a wide grin opened and a chuckle fell out—he needed a drink. He had taken his pack to the bathroom and had drunk down, from half- to quarterful, from the open bottle of Bushmills, then gone back to the carrel to read the generous novel and had, at some point, apparently while inspecting the enchanted Lincoln, passed out cold.
He pulled his pack on and went downstairs, exiting from the side. No problems at the circulation desk. Nobody looked at him. Nobody in the corridor leading out—nobody in the police booth. Nobody anywhere. I must have slept something like, what, six seven hours? Steven was thinking as he emerged into the warm and sultry, starless night. The parking deck was lit and would be lit all night long. The bus rondel was deserted. He decided to walk through campus rather than around. Nothing but Walmart open this time of night;—although … the bars were just now letting out, so a few summer people would still be hanging around, drunk, for an hour or so before going away. May be good for some crazy talk. He changed his mind about Walmart and headed back toward the bars—reversing course. Walmart was not going anywhere. He stopped behind a bush between two brick buildings—he could smell magnolia. He took the quarterful bottle from his bag, the other fifth as yet unopened. He took the eleven pills from his pocket and threw back five and swigged the whiskey, then threw back the remainder and took two swigs. His face contracting into a rictus, he hissed involuntarily. He replaced the bottle in the pack—now almost empty. His stomach rebelled. Quickly he undid his belt and dropping his trousers leaned against the wall and evacuated a noxious spongy dark feces. He reached his bag with his left hand and took the clean underwear from his coat. He gingerly fingered off his underwear and wiped himself clean and dropped them onto the feces. He hunched over and tipped from the wall, stepped clear of the pile and removed shoes and pants and put on the fresh underwear and slid on the pants and shoes and tucked himself in. He shouldered the bag and set off again toward the meager lights of club and tavern between Howard and Depot.
Around 3:00 AM a sober witness watched Steven fall face first on the sidewalk after taking four 1mg Xanax he’d purchased for five dollars from a man he’d met in jail. The witness—a young gay professional who’d picked Steven up once and from whom Steven had stolen money, liquor, pills, and pot and never put out—called the police, who responded to the call within minutes, and Steven was taken to jail for a twenty-four-hour hold. Steven was relieved—a hold is not an arrest. However, next day he was held rather than released after he blew .00 on the breathalyzer. A detective had come and asked him questions about his recent whereabouts. Steven refused to talk; nevertheless, he was taken to the magistrate and charged with failing to report an address change as a sex offender. His third strike. In addition, his probation officer came to the jail and served him several violations and explained that his probation was being revoked. That afternoon, Steven was moved from seg into general population and, once arrived there, dove head first from the mezzanine onto the tile below and died in hospital with a fractured skull and a broken neck several hours later.
Des stopped drinking a couple of years later—though his Lady never returned—and died, beloved husband and father and brother (his sister in law also sober and happy) in the bosom of his family, sober many years.