Sunday, July 29, 2018

Combat










Combat

I used to have two friends. Drinking buddies. My friend Horatio worked at a nuclear power plant. He was the only one of my friends who was married (at the time). He had long hair, mullet-style and a blonde mustache that he shaped into a Hitler/Chaplin toothbrush. He once said (after a death-defying bender) “I’d like to have a nervous breakdown but I don’t think I could handle the stress.”
     My old friend Dick, well, we grew up together. Our backyards touched. Dick worked at Dunkin’ Donuts and still lived with his mom. He was REALLY into fishing so we eventually drifted apart. He did this weird thing where he’d pepper his speech with the words “taken” and “tookin,”  as in, “Hey man, taken pass that tookin joint this way.” And:
     Me: “Why didn’t you ask her out?”
     Dick: “Cuz she was taken tookin taken, man.”
     Who knows where these things come from.
     One day Horatio, Dick and I journeyed into the bowels of Boston (a rare event for us) and went to a strip-joint called, Leave it to Beaver’s. It was still the 80’s and we were in our twenties. We were there primarily to get drunk and laugh. I was hungover from the night before and was drinking more beer to fix myself up.  It was working, sort of...
     Dick and I were sitting at a table above the stage. Horatio sat in the front row (so close he could’ve rested his chin on the stage). We watched him tuck a couple of bucks into the stripper’s g-string. He was having a great time. But Dick frowned at me and said, “I can’t afford this, man, I taken  tookin mean it. Places like this siphon your tookin cash.”
     And then Horatio rejoined us, accompanied by a strange man. He’d made the acquaintance of a friendly sailor on shore leave (Horatio liked to meet people; he was the talker of our group). The navy guy was wearing a white uniform with the neckerchief and hat. The whole nine yards. I felt like I was in The Last Detail (1973).
     The drinks at Leave it to Beaver’s were expensive and we quickly tired of buying ten-dollar cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon, just so we could watch semi-naked women dance listlessly under the hot lights, so the navy guy told us he knew about a cheaper “gentleman’s club” (his words) just around the corner. Horatio clapped his hands and said, “What are we waiting for?” Dick sagged. “Another taken strip joint? I can’t tookin afford this...”
     I stood up. “Just come on,” I told him and we marched out of the joint and followed Navy Guy out to a sidewalk populated with drunks and prostitutes and Chinese people (Chinatown was just next door), across the street, and down an alley to a place called, The Fuzzy Bunghole. What class.    
     We followed Navy Guy inside and it was like another world. A dank, confusing world that smelled of urine and menace. I thought we had walked into a mugging.
     Navy Guy guided us to a table at the right of the stage. A woman wearing grimy, threadbare lingerie came up to us and we ordered $8.50 bottles of Miller High Life (The Champagne of Beers).  Navy Guy raised his bottle and we toasted. Something.
     The stage was small and dimly lit and a large, glassy-eyed woman undulated for us. I thought she was covered with tattoos at first but as my eyes adjusted to the gloom I realized that her pale, flabby body was covered with bruises and scars. The stage was old and the worn floorboards creaked under her weight. Navy Guy watched her like a hyena on the Serengeti. I started to salivate, which meant I was about to throw-up. I asked Navy Guy where the men’s room was and he waved in the general direction without taking his eyes off the bored, bruised stripper (who looked older than us by twenty years).  I hastily stood up and speed-walked to the lavatory, where new horrors confronted me.
     The tile floor was one big puddle. A thin guy with a Mohawk was standing by the urinal. He smiled at me with brown little rodent teeth and said, “What’s up, bud.” I nodded and lifted my pant cuffs and waded to the toilets. The stink of urine was so strong I could taste it.
     There were two stalls and one door. I chose the open stall so I wouldn’t have to touch anything. I leaned over just in time and Pabst Blue Ribbon splashed into the toilet (a toilet that hadn’t been flushed in a long time; I’ll spare you the details).
     I didn’t flush it either. I turned and looked at the guy with the Mohawk. He was staring at me, still smiling. “Hey bud. Y’wanna wrestle?” he asked and playfully kicked at the urine/water, nearly splashing me.
   “No thanks,” I muttered.
     I left the bathroom without washing my hands.
     I heard the Mohawk guy yell something unintelligible.
     When I returned to the table I saw that Navy Guy had moved closer to the stage and the woman in the worn lingerie was sitting beside him. Navy Guy had switched from beer to some kind of mixed drink. It must have cost a fortune. The lingerie woman was drinking with him, increasing his bill to shattering proportions. I guess you can do all right in the Navy.
     I finally took the time to look around the bar. Shadowy phantoms hovered around us. The orange glow of many cigarettes. Nobody was talking. A woman was onstage gyrating to Pour Some Sugar on Me by Def Leppard. The volume was low, awash in the hiss and crackle of a bad speaker. For some reason I began to relax. Puking had revived me. I drank my beer and we ordered more (much to Dick’s tookin dismay).
     A new stripper hit the stage and I sat up straight when I saw her. She was missing most of her left arm, the stump tapered to a pointy sort of flipper.
     Dick said, “Come on guys. Let’s taken get out of here.”
     “Are you kidding?” I said. “You want to leave just when the REAL entertainment starts?” See, I have a thing for female amputees. It’s not a sexual fetish thing. I just find them striking and worth my attention.
     Horatio said to Dick, “Yeah, I think we should stay too.”
     “Big tookin surprise.”
     Navy Guy and lingerie woman were engaged in some light petting. She sat on his lap. Good for him, I thought. He could star in an educational film about how to contract syphilis.
     I finished my beer and returned my gaze to the stage.
     The one-armed woman was dancing to Rock the Casbah by the Clash. She was having difficulty following the rhythm. I decided she was dancing to another, better song in her head. Maybe something by Captain Beefheart.
    Horatio slapped my shoulder and said, “Hey let’s get closer. I wanna interact.”
     So Horatio and I moved to Pervert Row, right in front of the stage. Dick stayed at the table, looking nervous and miserable. He had always been something of a buzzkill so we ignored him. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the guy, but he frequently crushed the fun out of our modest little escapades.
     “You need ones?” Horatio said, opening his wallet.
     “No thanks, I’m good.”
     The amputee dancer put her ass right in front of my face and pulled back the g-string. I slipped a dollar bill under it. While I was there, I grazed my fingers across her buttocks.
     She hit me—slapped me hard across the face. Whoa, I thought and looked at Horatio. He was laughing his ass off. I looked up at the woman and sheepishly said, “Sorry...” She ignored me and kept dancing.
     I suddenly felt a heavy hand on the back of my neck and a huge bearded man appeared beside me. “If you touch the girls again, I will end you,” he said. I could smell garlic and onion coming out of his face like vapor.
     “Sorry,” I told him but he’d already disappeared back into the shadows. I felt shocked and assaulted and returned to the table with Dick.
     Eventually, the amputee girl finished her routine. She knelt and awkwardly collected the few crumpled bills with her only hand.
     Dick said, “Can we please taken get out of here now?”
     “Yeah. I’m ready,” I said. The side of my face was still stinging from the slap. I felt small and pathetic and humiliated.
     Dick and I collected Horatio, said “So long,” to Navy Guy and left The Fuzzy Bunghole.
    We held a brief meeting on the corner. “What do you wanna do now,” said Horatio.
     “I want to go home,” I said, discouraged.
     “Me too,” said Dick. “I’m flat tookin broke.” 
     So we left the city and I returned home to consume a case of Bud and drown my sorrows. I could still feel the slap. She had slapped away my pride. The beer made me feel self-righteous about the indignity I’d suffered. I felt less humiliated.
     And eventually I felt nothing at all.

     

Friday, July 27, 2018

On the Rocks



On the Rocks
“Most men lead lives of quiet desperation. I can’t take quiet desperation.”
--Don Birnam, Lost Weekend  (1945 Paramount)

July 28th 2018

Sven and Lola were together again after four lonely (for him) weeks apart (Lola was a model and had assignments in Italy; he had to work at the restaurant). Now that they were reunited, however, Sven felt strangely distracted, preoccupied with something. Something lurked just out of reach. He hoped Lola wouldn’t notice his odd mood.  He had no idea what was bothering him aside from the smothering heat.
     The ridiculous heat wave was in its third day. Sven had never bothered to buy an air conditioner for his small apartment and the little fan in the window wasn’t cutting it. Lola stood in front of the fan. She lifted her caramel-colored hair above her sweaty neck and held it up while she turned in the weak current of warm city air. It was a model move, Sven recognized, and why not? Lola was a model. Besides, he was looking at her. Her sexy moves were a playful little show for his benefit.
     Or so he believed.
     “God, I hate this heat,” she told him. “It’s ridiculous.”
     “It is ridiculous. I was just thinking the same thing. My exact word.”
    The heat was working for her though. She looked sexy as hell with her sweaty, tousled hair, her aristocratic neck shining with perspiration. Her face was flush, makeupless. She was a natural beauty. Sven wanted to drop to his knee and propose on the spot, but no. His proposal had to be special and specific, well-planned. He hadn’t yet formulated a plan but he was working on it. Sven, his whole life, had lacked inspired ideas. His imagination was a flat, arid, colorless void. He hadn’t even been able to think of a name for his cat. Lola had named her for him—Cranberry (a name Sven wasn’t crazy about but what could he do? he was bereft of ideas). Sometimes Lola teased him about his lack of original thought. He’d try to make a joke or speculate about something and whatever he said inevitably landed like lead. Lola would laugh and make the sad trombone sound, “Wa waaa.” It was the only time she hurt his feelings (which she didn’t mean to do, he knew). He was probably just too sensitive.
     Lola lifted her glass of Lipton ice tea and drained it, leaving the glass of ice cubes on the coffee table. Sven didn’t believe in coasters so the table was decorated with a variety of circles and half-moons from past beverages. It looked like art.
     “Well,” she said. “I can’t take it anymore. I gotta get out of this heat. No offense but you really need an air conditioner up here.” His apartment was on the top (fifth) floor, so the heat was increased by the immutable laws of physics. Up rose the hot pollution, collecting around them in a thick, stifling pocket.
     “Yeah, but then my electric bill will go high-sky.”
     “Cheapskate. And I think you mean sky-high.”
     “So, I’ll see you tonight?” He asked her, making sure they were still on for the movie. A part of him was always waiting for her to break up with him. Sven’s self-esteem crawled across the carpet with the dust mites.
     “Of course,” she said. She gave him a quick peck on the lips and then she was out the door and climbing down five tiring flights of stairs.
     Things were in motion. The events of the day would alter Sven’s life forever.
     He picked up his cool, sweaty glass of tea, took a sip, and then went to the window, swirling his glass, making the ice cubes clink. Hearing the clinks, Cranberry lifted her head and looked over but was too hot and depleted to properly investigate the sound. She resumed her nap there on the cool floor.
     Sven waited for Lola to emerge from the building. He never got tired of watching her and sometimes felt creepy and voyeuristic but hey, she was a model. She was used to being gawked at.            
     She had parked her burgundy Mercedes across the street. Sven’s car was in the fenced-in parking lot behind the building. He drove a battered, rust-covered Hyundai. He was a cheapskate, he admitted to himself. He made decent money at the restaurant; there was really no reason for him to drive a shit-box and live in this hot squalor anymore. But still...
     And then there she was coming out of the building directly below him. She’d put on sunglasses and held a cigarette in her slender fingers. He hated the fact that she smoked but what could he do? She was a model. She also drank wine when they went out to dinner. He insisted it didn’t bother him, but it did.
     What happened next seemed to occur in excruciating slow-motion.
     Lola was standing on the curb waiting for the traffic to pass. A big brown UPS truck pulled over and stopped in front of the building. There was a gap in the traffic and she started across the street.
     Then Sven noticed a speeding Chevy Malibu veer into the left lane to pass the UPS truck, heading straight for Lola who had just crossed the center line.
    Sven slapped his hand against the glass and yelled, “Look out!” as if she might hear him from five stories below. In all that traffic.
     The Malibu smashed into Lola without as much as a chirp from the brakes.
     Lola was hurled like a ragdoll up and over the Malibu, landing like an explosion on the dark pavement. She came to rest after rolling seven bone-crunching times. Her arms and legs were fractured and tangled, bending in shocking, impossible directions.
     Sven threw himself out the door and had bounded down three sets of stairs before he realized he should have called 911. His phone was up in the apartment. He almost ran back upstairs but no. Keep going.
     Someone will call. Please god someone call.
    Traffic had halted around the accident and Sven ran across the street. A crowd was beginning to accrue around the scene as Sven approached the broken body of the only woman he’d ever loved. It was bad it was so fucking bad.
     It was even worse up close.
    He lifted his gaze to the gathering crowd. “Did anyone call an ambulance?” he said, knowing it was now a pointless, ludicrous question. Part of her head was missing. He could see her exposed brain. There was so much blood. He turned away and staggered through the crowd and sat down hard on the curb just as sirens began to wail in the distance.
     Oh good, someone did call 911, he thought and felt—maniacally—like laughing. His sanity was breaking apart at the seams, it seemed. This was more than a person should have to bear and he wanted to scream.
     A fire truck was the first to arrive. It stopped in the middle of the road, blocking traffic. A police car arrived next.
     Where the fuck was the goddamn fucking ambulance? Sven thought and the urge to laugh/scream surfaced again. He knew there was no need to rush anymore. Lola was dead. It was over. He had become a man with a tragedy.
     Finally, the ambulance came.
    A tall cop approached Sven. He had a mustache and shaved head. He held a pad of paper and a pen. He seemed to be sizing him up.
     “Excuse me, sir.” he said.
     “Yeah?” said Sven, not bothering to stand. Another police car arrived on the scene. More people came to gawk. The paramedics were standing around Lola’s body, looking, talking. One of them laughed and Sven wanted to grab the cop’s gun and shoot him in the face.
     “Sir? Did you see what happened?” the cop asked Sven.
     It took him a few seconds to say, “Yes.”
    “And do you know the deceased?”
     The deceased. “Yes. She’s my girlfriend.”
     “And can you tell me her name?”
     “Lola. Lola Pittsman. She’s a model.” He turned to the left and squinted into the distance. The guy that hit Lola was standing on the sidewalk, talking to a cop. He was short and white and apparently unharmed. Sven hoped the man would go to prison for a long, long time.
    A Channel 7 news crew appeared. A female field reporter and cameraman rushed out of the van. A cop raised his hands to stop them from getting too close. Above them, a helicopter circled the scene.
     Sven’s cop said, “Excuse me sir. Are you okay?”
     “No. Definitely not.”
     “What’s wrong sir?”
     Sven looked up at the cop like he was a moron and said, “I just watched the love of my life die before my eyes. So no, I’m not okay. Okay?”
     “I’m sorry for your loss but I just have a few more questions.”
     Sven looked up at the cop’s gun and said, “Shoot.”
     He continued to answer the cop’s questions as the scene slowly morphed around him. They scraped Lola off the road after taking pictures and measurements. A second ambulance moved in. It was tan-colored and sleek, less boxy than the first ambulance.      
     The dead people’s ambulance.
     They put handcuffs on the guy in the Malibu and took him away. Drunk, probably. The female reporter questioned a couple of other witnesses and then the news unit packed up and drove away. Eventually the fire truck left, along with the first ambulance. The cop stopped asking Sven questions and he thanked him and left with the others. Traffic resumed. The helicopter flew away. Dusk began to fall.
     People continued to gather along the street. They had built a small, makeshift memorial already and were beginning to show up with flowers and candles and stuffed animals.
     What brings them here? Sven wondered. What were they looking for? Did they think they were being helpful? Offering solace? And to whom? Were they here because Lola was a model?
     No, they were here for themselves. To be part of the excitement. Mourning vicariously, safely; without all the mess and loss and trauma of a more personal tragedy. Sven saw no sincerity in their actions. They were animals.
     God, he wanted a drink.    
    He stood up on unsteady legs and headed back toward his building. The stars were coming out and he made a point of not looking at them. He entered his building and started up the stairs.
      When he entered his apartment he wondered why he wasn’t crying. He wanted to cry and was not averse to tears but nothing came. He felt emptied and wondered if he was in some kind of mild shock. He had no idea what shock felt like.
     He considered calling his sponsor but no. Not now. He didn’t want to have to think of things to say.
     He sat down on the couch and the terrible events ran through his mind and the awful words IF ONLY stabbed him like daggers. IF ONLY they had remained in the apartment a few extra minutes. IF ONLY he had walked her to her car. IF ONLY he’d gotten an air conditioner, she might still be alive in his apartment, watching television instead of going to the movies. The lunatic idea that he needed a time machine occurred to him. A time machine would fix things. He could change things with a time machine.
     His phone rang, startling him from his absurd reverie and he ignored it. He couldn’t talk now. He had been violently severed from the most important connection in his life and it left him feeling drained of some vital, important essence. He didn’t turn on the television either. The thought of seeing a news report on the accident made his chest hurt. It was hard to breathe.  He wondered why reporters weren’t banging on his door. After all, Lola was famous; a model. They were probably already talking about her death on TMZ.
     And then he noticed the ice. HER ice.
    Lola’s glass was still sitting on the table, still half-filled with ice cubes. How was that possible? Sven had been outside for almost three hours and it was a hundred fucking degrees. He stared at the strange little still-life and his chest ached. The glass and the ice were like surreal testaments to Lola’s last moments on earth. It all seemed impossible, unreal. And why hadn’t the ice melted? The ice in his own glass was long gone...
     He looked at the odd little miracle as if it might change or do something. It wouldn’t have surprised him if the ice suddenly floated out of the glass and rotated around the apartment like little orbiting planets.
     He could see Lola’s lipstick on the rim of the glass and he shivered despite the heat. The glass of ice was like another presence in the room. The thought of ghosts occurred to him but he doubted Lola would haunt him. Wherever she was she was probably busy. After all, she was a dead model...
     Fuck, why was he thinking such crazy thoughts?
     He sat there for a long time, looking at the glass, going over his last moments with Lola...
     And eventually he realized the ice was finally starting to melt.
     Panic seized him. Oh no! He stood up and approached the glass—slowly, as if it were a small animal. The ice was the only evidence that their last precious moments together had actually happened. It was proof that their time together was not a dream. Lola had existed. He existed. He had nothing else, aside from a few magazine ads. He had nothing of hers. Nothing personal anyway. Even though Lola had been a model, she’d hated having her picture taken. She’d refused to let him take photographs of or with her.  He had to curate his own mental snapshots of their time together and his poor alcoholic memory was full of holes and tatters.
     Sven realized that he was already referring to her in the past tense and felt ashamed. He stood over the glass of ice and tried to cry, scrunching up his face, trying to hyperventilate and force some tears.
     Nothing.
     And then a new urgency struck him: HE HAD TO SAVE THE ICE.
     He reached for the glass and hesitated, as if afraid to touch it. As if his hand would contaminate the glass, destroy the evidence. The absurd notion of using tongs or forceps occurred to him and he started to pull his hand back and...
     SAVE THE ICE YOU IDIOT!
     He grabbed the glass. For some stupid reason he was surprised by its cool feel. It shocked his fingers. He carried the glass into the kitchen and opened the freezer. He had gone shopping recently and it was packed. He pulled out a box of popsicles, a bag of spinach and three empty ice cube trays and dumped everything into the sink. Then he placed the glass of ice next to a box of Eggo waffles and shut the door.
     He stood and stared at the refrigerator. The ice was safe. He had rescued the ice. He felt a weird kind of relief.  He deserved a drink.
     But no...
    He went into the living room and looked out the window. People were still hanging around the scene of the accident. Another news crew was down there; a guy with a shell of hair talking to a camera.
     Sven considered calling his sponsor again and as soon as the thought hit his mind, the phone rang. He looked at the number.
     It was his sponsor, Dave. The guy was psychic.
     “Hello?”
     “Hey man. How you doing?”
     “I was gonna call you. Did you hear?”
     “Yeah. I saw it on the news. How you holding up, man?”
     “Lola is dead.” It seemed important to say it. He was stating a fact.
     Silence on the line.
     Dave said, “So what are you going to do next?”
     “Oh, please don’t launch into AA shit. Not now.” Sven just wanted to deal with the disaster, not think about recovery. He wanted to hang up and forget Dave’s name.
     “Sven, I’m your sponsor. I’m very sorry for your loss. It must be agonizing. But I have to get it out of the way. Are you gonna pick up?”
     “Not now.”
     “Not now you don’t want to talk about it or not now you’re not going to drink?”
     “I don’t know,” he said, but he did know. He suddenly knew exactly what he was going to do. “Look, I appreciate the call and everything but I don’t feel like talking. I’ll be alright. I’ll call you later.” He almost added, If I need you...
     “Okay, man. I understand. I’m not going to bug you. But I’m here for you. Stay strong. Please don’t let this tragedy ruin your sobriety. You’ve worked too hard.”
     “Bye.”
     There’s a scene in Lost Weekend when the drunk, Don Birnam (Ray Milland) says about booze: “...I’ve got to know it’s around. That I can have it if I need it. I can’t be cut off completely. That’s the devil. That’s what drives you crazy.”
     Sven had been sober for two years. He went into the bedroom.
    He opened his closet. Hidden under a pile of old clothes was an unopened bottle of Heaven Hill bourbon. His emergency bottle. He grabbed it and went to the kitchen. He grabbed the glass of Lola’s ice and went to the couch and poured the whiskey.
     He sat staring at the glass on the coffee table covered with rings.
     Another scene from Lost Weekend occurred to him: Nat the bartender moves to wipe away the ring that Birnam’s glass has created and Birnam says, “Let me have my little vicious circle. You know, the circle is the perfect geometric figure. No end, no beginning...”