Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Winter's Sleep

She looked like a reader, the girl who came in one blizzardblown night last week. She had that look. And - as she sat down and tiredly ordered a gin and tonic she clearly didn't want or need - it was a lifestyle she was trying to get out of. I didn't have the heart to tell her it was no use so I made her drink, heavy on the tonic, and handed it to her on a paper coaster.


Her voice was deliberately low, a library voice. Before each sip she swirled the drink so bubbles rose to the top.

I said, "You don't mind me sayin', but you're a bit early for the salon."

"A salon, here?" she said, and laughed. "Rich."

"Common reaction."

She looked around, her eyes behind what I could now see were modern glasses taking in the bottles and books and books and bottles. The Greek was way in the back, scribbling furiously in a notebook and giving off the smell of bad prose.

"What brings you in here tonight?" I said.

"Just getting out of the snow," she said. "Thought I'd wait it out in here. And I thought I smelled books. I see I was right. How do you do it?"

"I'm still not sure. Inside the restaurant, and through the side doors, it's seventy years ago. Through the front it's now."

She swirled, sipped. Her lids were heavy, as if darkly made-up, but she didn't seem the type to wield a heavy hand with the brush and pan. I wondered if it was the cosmetics of grief or ennui or something else.

I said, "We don't get many dames here. Or many Mexicans, 'scuse my presumption."

"No need," she said, "I'm not. Indian."

"You look Mexican."

"Common reaction."

My eyes fell on her hand around the small glass, as there was nothing else to look at, and I saw the scars. Thick and yellow on her olive skin, shaped like swords, tapering at both ends. She felt the gaze and pulled my eyes back up with her own.

"We get all types here," I said.

"I'm sure you do."

"And I'm givin' you a chance to say it was your cat," I said, "or a car accident from a few years back, or a lab accident."

She smiled. "Lab accident is good. I actually did have a lab accident right around the time I did this. It made for a good cover story. You can't date scars to within a couple of weeks."

"Why'd you do it?"

"It seemed like a good idea at the time."

"Things do."

She pushed the glass back to me and laid her hands palm-up on the zinc bar. "I hate them more and more every year. Every summer. Why did I do it? No book has told me more than I've figured out myself."

"Villains have scars," I said, "from battles with heroes. But heroes are unmarked and pure."

"Maybe I'm an anti-hero," she said. "Isn't that how you know people are bad and evil and wrong? Because they have scars? Like Steerpike."

"Of course," I said. "There would be no other way to know."

She flipped her hands back over and shook her head when I tilted the gin bottle her way. "Scars are deserved, in books," she said. "Nobody gets a scar from tripping over a scythe in the driveway."

"Has to be an evil ex-wife with a straight-razor," I agreed.

"Spurned lover with a beaker of vitriol."

"Attacking the cruel knight who killed your brother in battle."

"Fighting to expel the invaders from your home country."

"Defending yourself from a dragon."

"Yes, and why not?" she said. "You need literary tension, you need a scar to have a purpose. Otherwise it just means you weren't paying attention."

"Do yours have a purpose?"

"Yes," she said softly. "They remind me to do it with pills next time. Then no one can see the marks of my shame."

"I hope there won't be a next time."

"You're just saying that to be polite," she sighed.

"No," I said. "I like to keep my customers alive."

She laughed and I saw more scars, deep in her eyes. And I saw that the scars spelled out something, saying I DON'T WANT TO LIVE, whispering in their tiny all-caps, and I knew she would never come back to the salon.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Dog

Mase came in looking like a plateful of slow-fallen molasses, and sat at the bar instead of his usual table. He looked bookish and blank, as if he'd recently awoken from a nap at the library.

"Maserati," I said, "get out of my bar. What time do you think it is? The salon doesn't start for six hours, you oughta be at home eatin' spaghetti out of a blue-and-white china plate with a big carafe of red wine at your elbow, arguing basketball with the old man. Out. Begone with ye."

"Liam," he said, "it will not do. Not today. It will not do."

I had to raise my eyebrows at that. Then I headed out quickly to the dining room, where our usual temporal glitch appeared to have developed a supernumerary glitch, setting things seventy years and four hours off. "I got a man in there with a problem," I murmured to the bartender, who nodded understandingly. Half a minute later she handed me a faintly bubbling glass filled with what resembled moonrocks and distilled X-rays. "What's in this, kid?"

"Happy memories," she said.

The drink went ploop as I pushed back through the swinging doors, shielding it from sudden impacts. I gave it to Mase and waited patiently, stacking glasses, writing the specials up on the chalkboard, shining the glass behind the bar, puttering, pondering.

"Now me I don't know Churchill as well as I know some other people," he began suddenly. "So I wonder sometimes about the way he used 'the Black Dog.' It is so apt."

"He meant clinical depression."

"That much I know," he said quietly. "Keep 'em coming."

"Finish what you've got. Do you mean did he come up with it? Was it maybe a Plato-ism, a Tacitus-ism, inspired by his extensive readings in ye olde antiquity? You ask yourself: did Genghis Khan ride with a Black Dog? I think it's a pretty common British folklore term, if you want to know. Used to be associated with witches or something."

"It doesn't matter," he said. "I'm just curious. Not curious enough to look it up though. No, I do not wish to acknowledge it overmuch."

Not women trouble. I watched the shivering liquid in his glass down to the final quarter-inch, and finally turned and got down my own shaker and a fresh glass. I knew there was a cocktail called a Black Dog but since I couldn't remember what was in it, I made him a Thor's Hammer instead.

"But it's a perfect analogy," he said, accepting the new drink. "I have been custodian of a Black Dog at a handful of points in my short life, Andrews, not owner - how do you own one? - and the analogy, it is perfect, I tell you."

Behind him, another surprise: Cal slinking in, snaking in, and sitting at the bar one seat over from Mase. They glanced at each other once, professionally, like union men passing each other on shift-change at the bottlecap factory. I knew them to be friends of old, had passed many Duck Hunt and Tron days in dank basements, the advent of Virtua Fighter they had overcome together, and the rise and fall of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Almost at once I knew what he would say.

"Depression is the Black Dog, Mase," he began, "of whose company you swiftly weary, so you drive it deep into the woods, pull over and guide it out of the car. 'Sit,' you tell it, 'stay,' and you slam the door and leap back behind the wheel and race off. But it is a dog, its loyalty is unbounded, and you lie awake every night for a month in the dread that you will hear it one night pawing at the back door. Depression is the Black Dog that will follow you home no matter where you leave it, no matter where home is. Depression is the Black Dog that does not love you any more than the killer Dobie at the junkyard loves its employer. Loyalty does not require love. Often, yes, for a dog that is a pet or a companion, you will find both love and loyalty. For a working dog, you may not. The Black Dog, of course, is a working dog."

"I have known a small handful of dogs in my time," Mase said, tranced, into his drink. "Matt down the street had that sweet, brainless cocker spaniel. You remember that dog?"

"Gizmo. Sure."

"My uncle's hyperactive lapdog, a study in contradictions," he went on, unhearing. "But one of my favourites was this dog owned by a woman I worked with when I went to Upland for that research job."

"Remember that."

"I say owned," he said. "For the sake of convention - really, she and her family, they lived with him in what would otherwise have been a roomy bungalow in the suburbs."

"What was he?" I said, pouring Cal a house beer.

"Some kind of Siberian-Husky-Sumatran-Rhino cross," he said, "about the size of a young apatosaur, and it was not uncommon, you understand, to come over and see the nine year-old sprawled across his back while he pulled the seven year-old across the lawn on a Flying Saucer, at a stately trot. Like one of them Tennessee horses. You could come pat him, burdened as he was, and he would crane his huge head to your touch - 'Hello hello boyo, how's tricks?' like how Ron says it - even as his eyes would be squeezed shut with pain from the kids' endless tugging and gnawing."

"A good dog," I said.

"He was the gentlest monster alive. If he stooped to pick up a puzzle-piece or dropped ring from the floor, you could pry his jaws open and fish it out completely without fear. He'd stand and wait there patiently, mouth ajar, just incapable of biting down on human fingers."

"But an owned dog," I said. "A pet."

"This was no mere slavish pack obedience," Mase insisted. "It was love. Every hair on his body, every sharklike tooth, every ashamed grin spoke of love. Once he chewed the leg off their oak kitchen table - collapsed it like a deckchair. It was done with love."

"No," I said. "Every dog used to be a wolf. He's got instincts to obey."

"You never met him," he said. "I tell you this story so you know what I mean when I say the Black Dog would bite down. That if a child approached the Dog too suddenly there would be a whirl of dark fur and a bloodcurdling shriek."

"You said it," Cal agreed. "Andrews, what I can see is that you have lived free of this animal. This is a creature who will maim you, then lie at your feet, loyal to the last. Day in and day out he will pace beside you, ready to snap if you should forget your place in the pack. When you despair of ridding yourself of him, he will know, and press ever closer, and jump up on the bed with you even with the No Animals on the Furniture. What does he care for house rules?"

"Churchill said something similar," I said. "How bad is it? How loyal is he?"

"I will tell you," said Mase. "My Black Dog was successfully dropped off in the woods two years ago; and again four years ago; and again seven years ago; and again twelve years ago; and again sixteen years ago, when I wasn't old enough to even understand the nature of my tormentor. Each time, I swept up the dog hair and threw out his accoutrements and went around telling everybody he had died. But he has never died. It has always taken him a long time to sniff his way back."

He fell silent then, rolling the glass in his palms. I took it away and replaced it with an Allan-a-dale, heavy on the ice. Cal finished his beer and asked for a water under his breath. Behind me, in the kitchen, Julio started up the gasfired deep-fryer; Mase's next words were spoken over its ghostly roar.

"I feel it, you guys, I feel it. Every day now I worry about his return. I panic. I feel like I can hear him breathing outside my third-storey window and I don't want to get out of bed. As if staying under the covers would fool him into thinking I wasn't here, and he would move on. We custodians, we are accomplished dreamers indeed."

"Did you talk to your doctor?" asked Cal.
"It is not a malady of the clay, I feel," said Mase. "It is of the spirit that lives in the vessel. It must be."

I wanted to tell him he was right, if by spirits he meant neurotransmitters and vessel he meant prefrontal cortex. I knew he had a gun hidden under his mattress. But what can a man do, when another man suffers? For an hour we had spoken of it in abstract terms. Now, to hear the dog pacing outside his door, my own reaction was rawest panic - but there was nothing to say, nothing to do except keep the booze coming. I cursed my inadequacy and wondered what Churchill would have done.

Thursday, August 21, 2008


The salon had been shut down a couple weeks from the big flood they had after that frigging incident with the idiot private eye and his voodoo friend, but we were back up and running now and the smell of spilled highballs was thankfully beginning to overpower the faint stench of mould. Wallace hadn’t bought flood insurance, the old cheapskate, so a small army of street kids had been assembled by one of our bartenders to scrub the walls and floors with watered-down bleach. It seemed to be working OK. And anyway it didn’t faze the salon fellows, who don’t get fazed by much except chick lit and twist endings.

Percy sidled up to the bar and said, “Tinker wants to know,” jerking his head at the trembling figure by the half-open door, “whether he can have a bottle of whiskey. And a couple of candles.”

“What?” I said. “Is he going to make fireworks? Tell him to take it outside. Secondly, why’d he send you?”

“Says he wants to keep his back to the wall tonight.”

I dried my hands and pulled up a chair at ‘Tinker’ Taylor’s table. “All right, pal,” I said as kindly as I could manage. “What’d you read?”

“It’s... he’s... an evil vision!” he gulped, hands twisting in his tie. “From out of time! Secret knowledge vouchsafed to no other man!”

Nearby, someone said, “You know, that’s the first time I ever heard ‘vouchsafed’ used in conversation?”

“Me too,” someone else said. “You see it wrote down alla time, you never hear folks use it.”

Tinker barely appeared to hear them. I looked down at his clenched fists and sallow face and said, “H.P. Lovecraft, right?”

He howled at the name and tried to get under the table.

“What’s that stand for, anyway?” said Percy, who had helped himself to a bottle of Star and pulled up a chair of his own. “Horribly Paranoid?”

Spencer, listening in, called out, “Howard Phillips.”

“I know a hooker,” said Amon very solemnly, “named Talented Lovecraft.”

“I’ve met her,” I said. “She ain’t so talented.”

“Maybe not, but she’s well-read.”

“You know, I like his stuff,” the Greek put in. “I do. He’s an inventive guy. Cats on the moon. Races of beetle people. The crawling chaos Nyarlahotep.”

“Dream cities,” sighed Sony. “Sunset Celephais.”

“Journeys and exorcisms.”

“The great Antarctic.”

“Secrets of the northern lights.”

“The other gods. Aliens. The darkness between stars.”>

“Pirates and priests.”

“I read that stuff to my kids,” said handsome Jacob, looking up from his beer. “I know, I know, it’s the future, kids are harder to scare. They love it. Me I find it kinda repetitive. But they tell me: Dad, nightmares repeat too. That’s why his stuff is so repulsively familiar.”

“Must be fun to read, though,” said Spencer. “Zoogs and gugs and ghasts and shoggoths and whatnot. Do you do sound effects?”


“Y’hear that, Tink?” Percy said, nudging the table. “Sixty years from now, you can read that shit to an eight year-old.”

“His mind will be warped and he will mature in the grip of a terrible madness!” the table shrieked. “Pass me a drink!”

I handed down a glass and said, over the frantic slurping, “Terrible madness. Now there’s a signature phrase.”

“You gotta have signature phrases!” protested the Greek. “He uses cyclopean a lot too.”





“Does anyone here even know what cyclopean means?”

“Big, I think,” I said vaguely. “Oh, and Amon, ‘titan’ has a long ‘i.’ You’re thinking of Teton, that French hooker on Twenty-Second street.”

“So I am.”

“I heard he was some kinda racist,” said Percy thoughtfully.

“You see that sometimes,” said Jacob. “I never did ‘The Horror at Red Hook,’ but it keeps popping up when you least expect it. My daughter is particularly horrified by ‘blackfellows’ in that story where they go to Australia. Plus all the talk about those jolly, fat, retarded, doomed black men from Parg. She’s got one friend in each of those categories ‘cept from Parg.”

“Including doomed?” I said. “Isn’t she five years old?”

“Her buddy Chris has a chromosome disorder,” he muttered.

“He named his dog Nigger, didn’t he?” someone said in the back.

“I like this guy,” announced Brightman, whacking his cane on the floor for emphasis. “Ain’t no such thing as racism anyway. Down with the black man! What’d he ever accomplish, eh? Send him back where he came from.”

There was a general murmur of demurral. How’re you supposed to tell a blind bigot that he’s black? Man rode a bus twelve hours last year to apply at the KKK, came back in a towering rage: “Didn’t accept me just ‘cos I’m from the north!”

“Look, Taylor,” I said, putting my head reassuringly under the table. “What you got to understand with Lovecraft is that the standard of horror is going to shift after he’s gone. The ancient evils won’t be so evil. They won’t even be ancient. It’ll be men and pain and torture. Lovecraft is out to disgust you into fear. He’ll only frighten you if you happen to have a basalt phobia. Later they’ll be trying to really scare you. Much later.”

Percy said, “For now, read him as wonderful science fiction; let the waves of madness wash right over you. His ancient evils won’t go bump in the night. You have to seek them out.”

“Hear hear,” said the Greek, raising his Manhattan.

“Tink?” I said, reaching out. “Come on, man. I’ll get you another drink.” My hand swept through the air and hit the chair legs. “Tink?”

But when we crawled under the table he was gone; only his glass remained, lightly coated in phosphorescent blue slime.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Mark Inside

A sick, long lull got into the salon tonight. You couldn't even call it a lull with a straight face. It'd be like calling a blackout a swoon. The silence held and held while the instigator stared stubbornly down at the sticky table and drank his beer. He sounded like my dog tryin' to get the last scraps of peanut butter out of the jar. You could tell he was used to beer from his own era.

That was the feel of the night after he made his little speech and I made mine - every man to himself, studying the grain of the table in front of him. It seemed once or twice that the lights even dimmed in shame. And there wasn't a damn thing I could do about it.

It started with poetry, of all things. Talking about our favourite American poets and Clancy going, "Well, Whitman never wrote no novel," and Lamb going, "No, because poets shouldn't ought to write novels. Poetry is poetry and prose is prose and if you try to mix 'em up you just get bad poetry."

"Don't you get better prose if you put some poetry in it?" someone in the back said, hopefully.

"Like Michael Ondaatje," I said. "Sure. I can see that. Some of his prose reads a lot like his poetry set to verse. And some of his poems are, in fact, prose. They enrich and colour each other."

"Like Robert Graves!" said Spencer.

The room erupted into boos and hisses. Spencer drummed his empty pint glass on the counter until I snatched it from his hand and put it in the sink.

"Why not? Why not Graves?" he yelled.

"Graves separated them," said Mase coolly, gesturing at the usual bartender who had swanned swiftly past him holding seven bottles of coloured liqueurs by their necks. "Hey, honey. How about a Beesting?"

"She's got customers in the dining room, you dope," I said, seeing her hesitate. "Get back to the outside bar, kid. I'll make you your drink, Mase."

"If you're talking poetry, you gotta be well-lubed," he put forth. "Double. Anyway, Graves' novels are well-written - no one's disputing that, Graham - but his prose doesn't echo his poetry one bit. Well, I mean, except in like general tone. And of course the prophecies in the Claudian novels. But otherwise, it's pretty unpoetic stuff, you know?"

"Then there's the other guys," said Cal. "Hey, you ever read 'Naked Lunch'? By that wacko junky whatsisname? That's some awesome shit that almost reads like poetry, by someone who probably never wrote a poem in his life."

"I read that," I said diplomatically.

"I started reading that," said someone I'd seen a few times before. Even as he opened his mouth - pale and patterned like a whitewall tire - I knew there was going to be trouble in the salon. His voice was high with hysterical loathing. Stewart something. Almost albino, twitchy sort, never had anything to contribute.

"You didn't finish it?" said Cal.

"No," said Stewart. "No. Now look. I'm not one to say there's anything wrong with you know like homosexuality. It's not something you're supposed to say. So like nobody says it."

"I say it constantly," said Father Crutchfield, eagerly.

"In sixty years you're not supposed to say it ever," Stewart snapped at him. "So I'm not saying there's anything wrong with it. It's just like... it's not even a book. Everyone says you're supposed to read it like a long funny poem but I don't think it's funny and it's not a poem, it's not a book, it's just a lot of homosexuals doing shit to each other that you wouldn't even imagine."

It was about then that faces and eyes began their long descent to the table. Who could speak up and defend such a thing? Actually, I knew just the dame to do it, but she wasn't in that night. She would have shut him up pretty quick. If her legendary wit didn't do it, I mused grimly, her lead-lined handbag probably would.

Stewart went on, his face contorted with hate. "It's just a bunch of disgusting shit happening one after another. There's no... morals. There's no ethics. You don't get anything out of it except for sick to your stomach. Fucking drugs all the time, that's fine, that's Coleridge for Christ's sake. But all that sex with men. And women! The women in this book, they all fuck all the other women. And it's just described in the most revolting detail. Squirt by squirt. Grind by grind."

"Hey," Cal began, weakly.

"You finished it?" Stewart said, turning on his chair and draping his arms contemptuously over the back. "You? You like that kind of thing?"

And it had been said.

The lull began to settle just about then, dimming the bulbs of the dusty chandelier, crushing the heads on beerglasses. Even hats seemed to deflate under the pressure of that question.

I said, "You're an ignorant moron, Stewart, and you oughta be ashamed bringin' that kind of talk to a literary salon."

He snorted at me, erasing me with the flat of his hand, and surveyed the room full of embarrassed men with some small satisfaction as if to cancel out my interjection. I felt the blood rise out of my shirtcollar.

I added angrily, "And for what it's worth, I feel certain you pulled the Coleridge comparison out of your ass because your English teacher in grade nine told you he'd been high when he wrote Kubla Khan. You ever actually read that poem? Or anything else in your worthless life? Lemme guess. You started on 'Naked Lunch' because someone who actually understood the Beat movement passed it onto you. They overestimated your intellect, pal."

"I like the sound of the Beat movement," said Crutchfield. "What did they use?"

"Hard drugs, Father," I said briefly. "Stewart, hey. I got one for ya. So I read 'In Cold Blood.' What's that mean in your peanut-sized brain, that I like murders? That I ain't reading it because Capote writes like a motherfucker, but because I like to read about death, is that what you think?"

I waited in vain for somebody else to pipe up with, "Yeah, and you think I read 'Lord of the Flies' because I like little boys?" or "So you think I liked 'The Gulag Archipelago' because torture makes me hot?"

No one said anything. Stewart's thin face bloated with satisfaction like a spring toad. What could I do with someone who read books for their subject? How to kill that lull without stating the obvious - that all fiction was an irrefutable amalgam of subject, tone, soul, place, character, subtext, plot, and style, and anyone who read for a single element was too dense to float in the Dead Sea? How could shut this smug toad up without launching into an English 343 (The Modern American Novel, 8 - 9:30 Tues/Thurs) lecture about the cut-up technique, Allan Ginsberg, noir spoofs, travel writing, and the delightful American propensity for self-mockery?

People began to trickle out alone, even folks who had come in twos or threes. That's what the fucking redneck had done. He'd taken the value out of an important and intense flagship book and turned it into queer porn. Cal shot me a look of pure misery as he left, his thick beer half-finished beside a pile of coins. As the doors swung open and shut for the exodus I caught blips of sound from the band - one second of trumpet, one drumbeat, one word in a song. I was so mad I had to turn around and start stacking glasses in the sink. Piece of shit comes into my salon, sits at my table, drinks my beer, shames my friends.

Piece of shit.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Not So

Ron paid me back for the glasses on Friday, as sweet as pie, then snapped one meaty hand over the counter and grabbed my shirt not hard but so sudden I could hear stitches rip. "You fucked up, Andrews," he goes, "with 'Paradise Lost.' Pretend to update it and kill the verse? You fucked up."

"I hear you, Ron."
"Oh you hear me. You hear me. I like that."

He lets me go and stomps off, and I start putting his money in the till and reminding myself to breathe. Jesus Christ, the states people get into about literature here. He didn't even come to the salon Thursday night, he musta been at home hating on me and writing his little speech for today. Anyway, the lesson's been learned. I'll do better with book two. And now he owes me for a shirt, but I ain't saying anything about it, stress I got already.

Last night we had a fine crowd. Two-for-one pulled-pork sandwiches on the chalkboard outside means everybody brings a pal and picks up the cheque; and that salty, evil cajun sauce Julio ladles all over everything sure sells a lot of beers. Mase (short for Maserati - his old man was a car nut) came in with a small Oriental type who turned out to be a Japanese exchange student on loan while his host family was doing some kinda cheese festival in Wisconsin.

"Weren't up for the cheese festival, eh?" I said as I put down his orange juice, hoping to cheer him up. He just shook his head. His eyes were like golfballs under the dim blue chandelier, watching everybody argue and pontificate and define and redefine and lecture and drink and fight.

"Quiet type?" I said to Mase.
"Stepped onna tooth as we came in," said Mase, patting the Japanese kid kindly on the shoulder. "He thinks we all come here to bust each other's heads open and slug beer.
"Not so," I said to the kid. "It's a literary salon, pal. Hey, what's your handle anyway?"
"Kobayashi Haruto," he said.
Mase said, "His family's just been callin' him Sony 'cos they can't remember the whole long thing. Ain't that right?"
Sony nodded. He looked miserable, kept his head down, and sipped at his orange juice. I thought to myself, That there kid is going to have a hell of a long night.

But Spencer Graham had just read Neil Gaiman's 'American Gods,' which won a bunch of awards in the now-time, and we got on the topic of fantasy and postmodernism.
"Charles de Lint," Spencer says, "is a master of postmodern fantasy because he has made it urban rather than rural, open rather than secret, and he nods to the origins in British literature. As does Gaiman."
"Gaiman nods to Pratchett," Sony said suddenly, looking up from his nibbled sandwich.
"Sure," Spencer snapped, annoyed. "They worked together on 'Good Omens.' They nod to each other."
"Pratchett has seniority, he is the better-read elder," Sony said. "He is the master parodist."
"'American Gods' wasn't parody," someone said loudly at the back.
"Very true."
Sony said, "'American Gods' is no more nor less than 'Small Gods' set in a true place rather than a child's silly fantasy world. But 'American Gods' is the more important work because it does not let the prose carry away the story."
"Borges wrote the really important stuff about gods of any size," Mase said, hotly, "small or big."
Sony said, "They both owe a debt to Borges, but so does any writer in any language since the great Borges published his first word."

I listened in astonishment to the general susurrus of approval inside the room, barely stepping aside as one of the waitresses brushed past me with another plateful of sandwiches. Dripping sauce smoked in her wake.

Sony said, "Pratchett is a great author also, because he knows as Borges knows that you cannot write even one line of a book without having read one hundred books before putting pen to paper."
"So that's the golden ratio?" said the Greek sadly. He's a failed novelist with I swear to God fifty books under his belt, about one every six months. I always thought he came to the salons to kick-start some kinda new muse, since his current one inspires such shit. "A hundred books per line?"
"The number does not matter," Sony said impatiently. "But you must read first quality to create quality. The foolish J.K. Rowling reads one book on medieval alchemy, written for high school students, and one book on common British baby names, and she writes a foolish fantasy in circle-dotted prose. But Pratchett writes for instance 'Eric.'"
"His shortest book!" I said.
"'Eric,'" continued Sony, "for which you must have read 'Paradise Lost' and also 'Faust' and also 'The Malleus Maleficarum' and also 'Inferno' to find any jokes funny."
"Don't forget the management manuals," chuckled Cal. "Hey Mase, where'd you find this guy?"
"You can't deny that Gaiman's pretty fuckin' well read too," Spencer cut in.
"Who denies?" said Sony, and he went beet-red under his shiny cap of fake-looking hair. "I do not deny that. He is also a genius."

I quickly glanced over my shoulder to see if Ron had heard the dastardly words 'Paradise Lost,' but he and the anonymous priest had apparently been at the Sambuca in a back booth and both had passed out in a ring of pale-blue flames. I scuttled over with a wet dishcloth and one of our bartenders helped me beat out the sticky fire.

"You get back out to the 'forties, kid," I told her, handing her the burnt dishcloths. "Put these in the hamper. How's the crowd out there?"
"Loud as a freight train and high as a kite," she sighed. "And that P.I. is in stirring up trouble again."
"Kick him out," I said. "He's bad for business. And I got to get back to the salon now. Put a move on."

When I got back to the discussion, there was a tight circle around Mase and Sony's table, and everybody magically had a new bottle of beer.
Sony said, "The Mabinogion."
"Yes!" said the Greek. "Lloyd Alexander read that for the Prydain chronicles."
"And Philip Pullman read 'Paradise Lost," said Mase. "'His Dark Materials.' 'The Golden Compass.'"
"That's from Milton?" someone said, a buddy I didn't know. He sounded about three beers over the line, and he also sounded like he was enjoying it. "I thought he was like a fuckin'... anarchist."
"Atheist?" I suggested politely.
"Yeah, one of them things," said the drunk stranger. "Wow. And he read the fuckin' like... Milton."
"An author who claims to write for children should know that children grow up and get library cards," said Sony. "Rowling does not seem to realize this. She seems to believe that books exist in isolation."
"So Prydain's better than Hogwarts."
"Certainly it is better than Hogwarts," Sony said.
"I agree with the Jap," said the Greek, reaching over to finish off the kid's sandwich. "Every book owes a debt to every other book."
"I think you mean every author owes a debt to every other author."
"No, books have a life of their own outside of the man who writes them," said Mase firmly. "That's from Pratchett too."
"That's from Borges."
"Even Borges cites his sources," said the drunk, who was halfway under the table by now, only his hand and the green glass bottle visible. "Sandborg. Mac... Maced... Muh... Macaroni Fernandez. Both inspiration and hope."
"So you're saying that any book that is truly original is worthless, because it doesn't acknowledge a debt to any other books?" said Cal.
"No book is truly original."

I had to kick everybody out around three a.m., reluctantly, and only because the shouting was starting to filter through to the dining room, sixty years away. Mase and Sony graciously stuck around to help me pick up the empties, which we had about ten bucks worth, to my surprise.
"Your English is pretty good," I said to Sony as he brought me another full tray. "How long have you been studying it?"
"Three years," he said, shy and soft again without an audience, hiding behind his hair. "A good friend of mine, Yoshiko, translated 'Smoke and Mirrors' for me. And I began to learn English so to read without translation."
I hesitated. Throughout history I thought there must have been dozens of books named 'Smoke and Mirrors.' Then I said, "Gaiman. Right. The short story collection. Doesn't hold a candle to 'American Gods,' o' course."
"It is a very valuable book," he agreed quietly. "It makes me sad that it is not real."
"It was real," I said.
"No, you joke with me," he said. "It is a fantasy."
"It was real," I said. "That was the whole point of the book. It was all real."
"No, no," he said more vehemently now. "Some things are real and some things are not real."
"OK," I said. "Give me an example."
"Horses are real," he said. "Unicorns are not real."
"Iguanas are real, Godzilla is not real."
"You didn't really get the book," I said as gently as I could. "You loved it, but I can tell you didn't really get it. Unicorns are exactly as real as horses. And gods are real, leprechauns are real, golems are real, thunderbirds are real. Those of us not privileged enough to sense them - to see them, hear them, smell them - have no right to deem them unreal."
He nodded slowly, and smiled. "Now I understand it."
"OK. So tell me."
"Everything is real."
"Hot damn, Mase," I called over the kid's shoulder. "I think this one's a keeper."

Thursday, May 1, 2008


Anyway, that guy never did come back to claim his self-help book from the other day. I'm guessing he's beyond help now, self or otherwise. Which is a real shame because one of our bartenders invented this cocktail this morning that'll cure what ails ya in ten seconds flat, whether it be syphilis or claustrophobia. It does give you hallucinations, exploding head syndrome, and spasming sphincter disorder, but hey, nobody ever said a panacea wouldn't have side effects. And SSD is a hoot at parties.

We had a priest sit in on the salon last night. He didn't wear his collar but we all knew; some priests keep an invisible collar you can see from across the room. "Anybody here ever read 'Paradise Lost'?" he asked around midnight, which had the effect of breaking up a fistfight Ron and Cal were having over 'Synthetic Men of Mars.'

"'Paradise Lost'?" pants Ron. "I'll kill any man here ever read that hoity-toity down-from-Oxford fancy-pantsy swanky-pinky-cocked university shit."

There was a general silence while I was sweeping up the broken glasses and doing a running total in my head for the damage. Now me, I've read 'Paradise Lost.' And enjoyed the hell out of it, thanks, and spent fifty pages of Books VII and IIX in a cold sweat of inevitability with a bullet casing clenched between my back teeth so's I could deal with the tension.

Ron's one of those guys who'd probably appreciate Milton's little ditty if it wasn't for the language, let's face it. He's got an 'I (heart) Satan' t-shirt for Christ's sake. What he needs is a fresh and untainted view, free from the old stones of ancient learning. Lucky for him I got all this free time.



Book I:
John Milton: There was a war in Heaven, and it was ugly, and the losers got thrown into a pit deeper than Rockefeller's pockets.
Beelzebub: Are you all right?
Satan: I do believe I have broken everything except my pride. Let us fuck up our enemy.
Beelzebub: Fuck yeah.
(They look around. Pandaemonium is like the aftermath of a frat party, except on a lake of liquid fire instead of somebody's basement.)
Satan: Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav'n.
(He goes to wake everybody up. Everybody wakes up and complains about their backs. A bigger bunch of lowlives you have never met, including lewd spirits and sea-monsters.)
Satan: OK. So we lost. But there's always time for one more war. Somebody get me a chair and put on a fucking light. We need to talk.

See? Twenty pages of tightly-scrolled bug-up-his-ass iambic boils down, once you take out all the flowery stuff, to a couple of lines tense with broken dreams and damaged honour. What's not to like? Maybe I'll bring it up next time. If Ron pays for the broken glasses, that is: can't get something for nothing these days, and the Strip ain't a charity.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Dirty Laundry

A bar like this collects the lowest life of the city like we were a dip in the pavement. They flow down here, seeking the lowest point - seeking also large cheap drinks, buxom girls, seeking talent for their next job, seeking a friendly ear for the last job.

Shrinks we don't got. And the bartenders have a strict 'no sympathizing' policy after that idiot went home last year and jumped off the eighteenth floor. What we got basically is each other - a thug for a thug, a rat for a rat - and me. I get so much dirty laundry I sometimes feel like I could open a drycleaner's. Wash and fold service, fifty cents.

But it's the guys who don't talk that carry the most laundry, and whose laundry is the most soiled. The other day a guy left a self-help book here, six hundred pages of positive thinking and how to quit being a loser and fish the bullets out of the gun. (Or, in some cases, to tie the balcony door shut.) I flipped through it to find a name, maybe hang onto it in case this sad sack came back.

He hadn't written his name in it. But he'd filled out the worksheets in the book, and I took it in back to read by the pilot light of the big industrial range. It should have felt like dirty laundry - I should have felt like that nosey-parker private eye who hangs out here. It should have felt like I had both my hands down the poor bastard's Y-fronts. It wasn't like that.

I read about how his wife had quit sleeping with him. On the couch, it said he slept. One worksheet was about how he hadn't got the scholarship he wanted and now the bill collectors were banging on his door. A marginal note indicated that he'd started looking up noose knots. "How to tie a noose?" he had written, and underlined it twice. The self-help book hadn't been helpful enough, it seemed; the bookmark had been slipped between pages 118 and 119. Was that enough time to fix a man with problems like that? Christ. He was like the lost tribes of Israel. Tribulations this man had.

It was dirty laundry and the thing about laundry is how filthily intimate it is. I got a new respect now for the housewives who rinse out pukestains and skidmarks from our patrons' cheap shirts every week. What they unload on themselves is no worse than what they unload on their listeners. The guys you got to pity are the ones with no one to do their laundry.

I still have the book. Is it yours? Do you want it back? What will you do about your wife? Do you want to borrow some money? I'll lend it to you. I'll lend it to you.