Thursday, July 2, 2009
Tell You What--a story
Not a true story, but pieced together from bits and pieces heard over the years. Some who have overcome a seemingly hopeless state of mind and body don't acquire the humility or hard won wisdom dreamier narratives would lead us to believe. -tb
“I'm gonna say this one more time" Karl was saying, "I mean how many times you want me to say this? Or do wanna see me turn myself turn inside out?"
It was the stupidest thing he'd said so far on a hot night of post-meeting bluster, but the point was to keep his prospects' attention on him, unnerved, eyes big and sleepless. He dropped the match book to the diner table and fingered the unlit cigarette he wedged between two clubby knuckles. It was creased and mashed in the center. Loose tobacco spilled from the tip. He scratched the back of his neck with a fingernail he hadn't chewed, and studied the twirling fan over them, rotating like helicopter blades. Shadows chased each other across the drop ceiling. The prospect stared back, motionless, massaging his knuckles, watching Karl who glared in turn at fan blades whose rotation only stirred the muggy air into listless currents. His mouth hung open as he considered the useless air-conditioning. He looked dumber than a pile of ashes.
"What are you looking at?" he barked, feeling the burn of his table partners' stare, "drink your coffee." Across from him a man who absently fingered a spoon. He tapped it against the cup so that it made a dead, thudding noise, not a clear pinging, but a thump, Karl thought, like a sock full of other socks being slammed against the side of one of the houses he used to break into when he need drinking money. He threw the cigarette at his prospect. The prospect turned his head to t he side, and the twisted smoke bounced off the padded booth cushion.
'9Knock that shit off' Karl said, He wiped a sleeve under his under his vein-gorged nose. He pulled another cigarette from his pack. The other man lifted his chin as though to speak.
"Now, I..." he managed to say.
Jack cut him off; the flat of his hand shot up and he waved like he was wiping a car window with a grimy rag.
"Don't say anything". Karl was almost pleading. He stroked the length of the Camel studied the pack, wished he were sucking in a
lung flail smoke, he wanted to choke on the fumes of something burning.
Recent California elections contained a state wide proposition that would ban smoking in all public facilities, including bars and restaurants, and unconstitutional travesty authored he felt by fascists and Commie punks This riled Karl considerably, if only because he once swore that elections were a fake as a climax in a porn video whose results would never come to bear on his life style The proposition passed handily, evidence that non-smokers considered themselves an ignored political force who needed to stick it to a group that most of the electorate was out of sympathy with, that, with the death of Communism as universal bogeymen and the rise of causes based on a collectively perceived sense of being slighted and stomped down , smokers had to bend over and take what was columnists and Sunday talk show gadflies assured us, a decision that would be good for the soul, good for the lungs, something that would clear the air and have us be civil to one another in a smoke less public sphere. Karl wanted to smoke, and his sense of duty to his querying prospect, this man who wanted to know how to stay sober, was waning, frayed by rules, chipped at by police, eroded by the current that ran from his brain to his lungs that demanded the aroma of the sulfur, the sting of the first smoke hitting lungs and caroming over the tongue, the glory of the choke the bum, the proud suppression of a cough. He should have voted.
His career as a political forecaster was over, and all he was left to do in diners and meetings halls was fidget reshape one cigarette after another, and think variations on a theme even he was tired of thinking, revs given up everything else, even sex isn’t coming in like it used to, Mi that A left A coffee and smokes, and flow; he though4 these Goddamn those goons wanna get there again, a man gives something up that almost kills him and sons of bitches say I can't smoke with my coffee.
The cigarette he'd been tapping through his reverie was between his clubby knuckles again stroked, stained, creased with worry. He tried staring into the eyes of the man sitting across from him and to start his sermon on getting sober, but the lights distracted him, his mind was
five miles away where he wanted to be, sitting at another table with friends who could make their. own beds. Something glistened in the prospects' eyes, tears held back. Karl wanted to comb his hair, to make this duck tail ride high and mighty in the back like fins of a car he owned years ago in Modes t6, a city full of dust and drinking.
His prospect was named Doug, fifths from appearance, with hair tat was a swirl of brown and white strands woven inseparably together The tines of his face deepened into middle aged ravines that sagged, a gathered sadness. He dressed in a way tat didn't advertise position or hidden money, just cast -off rags, a work shirt, jeans, tennis shoes. He might have been homeless, ambling from a church service center, or a Mercedes dealer doing his own yard work, puttering around the hillside of a Del Mar estate whose ocean view only God and bank accounts could give you. He had a sleepless shiver, nerves that would rattle a train from its rail.
"Well" Doug said, clearing his throat to forestall a stammer he knew would rattle his words, "Well, I mean, could you tell me again, I mean, what you mean, that is, there's something I missed at the meeting and I thought you could tell me the actual method, the way you stay stopped..."
A woman's voice broke in.
"How you guy's doing over here?"
Their waitress Tina , as it read on a her name tag embossed in flaking gold leaf; hovered over them with both arms flail of plates and a fist full of meal tickets tucked in an over sized pocket in her apron. She gave off the feeling that everything about her was precarious and that she might drop everything she held, finally standing in a pile of shattered restaurant china and half eaten chicken fried steak. But Tina seemed like a seasoned server who negotiated the chaos of coffee pots, antsy kids tossing ketchup soaked French fries over the bunkered dining booths, and special requests for Nutra-Sweet instead of sugar, decaf, not coffee with a gliding, frictionless grace. Arms of dirty plates or no, she would stop and ask if there as anything one of her tables desired. Doug desired to go home, stopping at the liquor store for something that would turn off the noise. Karl ran a finger around his coffee cup and hoped Doug had money.
"You need anything else-- more water, or coffee, or maybe some desert?'
Her voice had bleached traces of an Arkansas drawl that had rubbed against the toneless inflections of California malls. The uniform was a cool pink, and looked like it had come right off the laundry truck; the pleats were crisp and curt.
Karl straightened up instinctively, his knee bumping the underside of the table, knocking over a water glass. Water and lumps of melting ice spilled right down the middle of the table, and rushed toward Doug, and splattering in his lap. Doug's face turned sour, the lines in his face becoming became a map of a growing bad mood.
"Goddamn it" he said, "goddamn mother- of -god" Flustered, tried to stand from where he sat, and banged the table even upsetting the coffee he hadn't touched He fell back into his seat coffee, not yet cool. He dropped the spoon.
Greasy punks tell me jackshit I have a motherfucking cigarette with my goddamned piece o fshit coffee; thought Jack Stuben. He shoved the cigarette, newly squeezed and indented in the middle, behind his ear.
The waitress set the plates on the table next to them, where a young man and woman swam dreamily in the inexpressible vastness of the others' eyes. They traded, shared and exchanged gut reactions and insights and feelings about an edgy experimental avant-garde independent firm they’d just seen. They stopped talking and looked up the waitress at once, seemingly rehearsed for this precise cue. Both mouths opened wide as doors, wordless in minor catastrophes. They were in their twenties, and wore wire frame glasses, and were looking forward to sitting together after a movie and talking to one another like the adults they wanted to think they were.
"God fucking damn it" Doug mumbled. His arms blurred trying to cool the burn in his crotch by waving a menu over the seared inseam, looking like he were trying to keep somebody under the table who'd tired of their heaven of pressed wood and gum wads.
"Could you get us some towels, Tina?" asked Karl.
"Tell you what" she said, " my name isn't really Tina it's Cheryl, but I forgot my name tag at home, so I put on this one in back by the time clock, because you have to wear something tat has a name and the restaurant name on it--1'
Cheryl already bad towels in her hand, had piled dishes and removed cups, professional and almost without noise, and spread the towels over the spills and padded the towels and turned them over knowingly, a professional press of the hands
"--so I just decided to where this one, even though there's no one here named Tina, I thought it would be all right for one day, because you know, a waitress without a name tag is probably holding the place up, you know, how are you doing, mister, do you need first aid, are you hurt..."
Doug held up his bands and smiled widely to reveal two rows of teeth, white as an over-painted fence. He shook his head, his attempts at laughter resulting in a snorts and grunts.
'No thanks', he said, half sobbing, gulping hard.
"Could we have our check?" asked the man from the booth next
to them. Cheryl looked around and glanced at the table, the dishes she set there, the ice cream deserts they had ordered. He was dejected, severely bummed out, out of sync with the night as he planned it to happen. All that film analysis they would not get to, it was too early to walk her to her car, oh stir; he thought. The woman was digging through her purse. The chat about the cross- cutting between the grin fire and the hero's dad undergoing heart surgery was so close to epiphany and then Pd touch her hand, and then I woulda asked for the check oh damn it. He sighed, a slow hiss gushing between his teeth, which were as perfect as dullness itself.
"Coming' right up" Cheryl said, "just let me clear that stuff for
"It's alright" the young man said, "just the check, please..."
"Sorry about that, Doug" Karl said," man oh, man, I sorta start talking some stuff here,” I get a little clumsy... glad you're not hurt... ".Now, you were asking me about how one stops drinking, and I was gonna just add that it’s not a matter of stopping, it’s a matter of staying stop, and we in the program say that if you do what’s asked of you, if you work the steps, if you go to meetings, then you can find a way to live a life that's happy joyous and free..."
Doug squirmed in his seat. He glowered at Karl as he shred the paper napkin he used to pat his scorched crotch. Shredded layers of the napkin lay on the table in front of him. His jaw was clenched, and his eyes glistened even more than they had before, but k was not sadness this time.
"First you treat me like I'm a moron, "he began," I mean, I come to tile meeting because I cannot stop drinking and my life is full of shit and tragedy and everything I ever work for is about to go away because I am a drunk, and I listen, and I hear nothing but complaints and whining about nothing at all and I ask you afterwards to talk to me and you tell me to take the cotton out of my ears and in into my mouth because I don't know anything, and you tell me to come to coffee here with you, and you’re going to elaborate on how you stay sober, and I get spilled on and burned and then listen to you jabber on like nothing happened about nothing I can use..."
Doug took the cigarette from his behind his ear Goddamn motherfucker, he thought.
"You sound mad, Doug. Real mad, I think you ought to turn this resentment over to God."
Fuck it, thought Karl, I'm going to fire up right here and blow a flicking goddamn smoke ring where all the assholes can see. Kiss my ass, motherfuckers.
"Anger is not a luxury an alcoholic can afford" he said.
"Ma'am, can we have our check?" the man next to them pleaded with Cheryl, who raced past them. The diner had gotten busy. It was near midnight, and people wanted coffee and a meal before a drive home, to the end of the day.
"Right there, sir" Cheryl said. She had a hand full of menus and was taking people to tables that hadn't even been cleared off yet.
"Our busboy and dishwasher decided to get drunk? On Friday night? Christ."
The night manager rubbed the top of his sweaty bald head and went back to ringing up customers at the register after another waitress told him why there was an unexpected backlog.
'No clean tables, no silverware, no pots and pans, no monkey dishes, nothing... "he rang up a customer, made change for a twenty and thanked the man and the women who'd had their film discourse intervened upon.
"Fuck you" said Doug, "l mean, seriously, fuck you. You are a high and mighty little punk I wouldn't hire you to sweep my sidewalk."
"Well, look you, all high and mighty all of a sudden. You forget you approached me about this. I 'vex been sober ten years...
"I made a mistake, and lam gone away from you..."
Doug stood up and tossed a five dollar bill on the table.
"You are gonna get drunk.” Jack Stuben thought, Christ on a crutch this guy is mad.
"Maybe" said Doug, "maybe..." he turned and walked to the exit, into a thick clutch of customers lined to up to pay their checks, while others huddled, waiting for tables to be cleared.
In front of the restaurant, the young man was holding his date's hand, pausing for a second before he walked to her car in the parking lot where, he hoped, there would be a pause in the light talk, a drift in the lilt of her voice as it trailed off looking for another image to describe a fun evening, where he would lean over and kiss her, touch her lips, put a hand on her shoulder and then lightly, gently, trace the tines of her back, and then walk away, a promise of phone calls on his lips, a skip to his own car, his favorite CD in the player, fresh senses to inspire his bed time. He was about to say something, after staring into her eyes when
"Fucking goddamn asshole, drunken hypocrite jerk, FUCK!!"
The restaurant door blew open with a bang, and Doug stormed out, yelling under his breath, passing the forlorn lovers, arms flying fists balled together, walking up the street to where there was a stretch of bars and liquor stores whose signs lit the night with a smeared amnesia that was as dark as the night could ever be if there were no city to get lost in.
"GODDAMNIT!!" They heard him yell. They stared at him until he turned a comer at the light, and there was nothing but gaudy signs that seared the evening sky like it were black paper. Car horns insults, car horns. Doug was gone, around the comer, and through a door into the bean of something where the sun could not reach.
The couple was still on the comer as Doug vanished around the corner, and looked at each other as the street sounds overwhelmed their awkwardness. They were aware of themselves standing outside the Denny's with all their small talk and smart chatter unheard, only themselves and their breathing.
"Maybe I should walk you to your car" he said.
"Maybe you should" she said, and took his arm.
tamable you should come to my apartment1 she said, puffing him closer after she hooked arm through his, ' I think you should..."
They stopped."I want you to" she said. He smiled at her, and was going to lean over and kiss her before going to her car , anticipating the night and the way it night yet undue itself, when there was a speech, god, he thought, another screaming bum of tires, more screaming, tires hitting the asphalt, car horns and curse words tearing the night apart, rage under hoods delivering what is the fact for intersections and neighborhoods where the century stopped two decades ago, he caught the screech and the words before he could plant the kiss and the suggestion of how, maybe, perhaps, please god, that the rest of the night would go, he held her close, he heard the squeal of the wheels, the words
"FAGGOT, FUCK HER NOW!"
A Chevy, a car frill of guys, a beer can flying from the back seat,
a siren, a chase maybe, more lights and car horns and signs for booze and strip
tease, she pulls back from her date.
"Can we just go?"
The night manager had his sleeves rolled up and a plastic apron on, pushing another tray of dishes and silverware into the washing machine. His glasses were steamed up. The dishwasher and the busboy were out by the trash bin, and he could hear them swearing in words he'd never heard in Spanish before. Next the pots, then the pans, and then the rush from midnight until three, when the bars start to empty and there is never enough monkey dishes or water glasses and all the forks from the last load through the machine are caked with egg yoke. He pulled a hose coming from the top of the dish washing machine, and aimed it at dish rack he just filled with plates to be run through. He pulled down on the handle, and jets hot water shot forth, pelting the caked food from the plates, filled the station full of steam. The night manager let the hose shoot water For some reason the steam, the billowing vapors that
surrounded him, felt pleasant as it soaked into his clothes and warmed his skin. He couldn't explain why even to himself It just felt good.
Karl put the five dollar bill in his shirt pocket after folding into an origami of his own invention. Fuck it, he thought. Sober ten years for what. Ungrateful newcomer. Christ He stood and walked to the cashier stand by the front door, walked sideways between opposing camps waiting to pay and waiting to be seated. His check was still on the table.
"That dirty dog" said Cheryl, coming to clear the table and finding the unpaid check. Not even a dollar tip, cheap asshole. A man's voice intruded. "Excuse me) Tina, but could we get some water here?"
She turned and saw another couple seated at the adjacent booth, a man and a woman, in their forties. Cheryl smiled. Nice hungry people who have to be set right in their manner of ordering meals at one of her stations.
She tapped her name tag. "Tell you what'1 she said, "my name isn't really Tina, but I forgot my own name tag when I came to work today---"