for Sara Sherman
Jackie was nineteen, a cocktail waitress in Niagara Falls, New York. She worked in a bar on the other side of town and would come into our place with the other waitresses after her shift was up. Jackie was something else, the way she shook her hair. She had a face that you immediately liked and wanted to examine closely and maybe figure out what it was that made it so nice. I’d invariably flub her order, come up a drink short, forget to put amaretto in her slammer, grenadine in her sunrise. I failed her because I wanted to please her. She tipped me anyway — she made her living on tips, couldn’t not tip me — but tipped me with disdain, as if I were a leper on a pleasure cruise hanging out by the shuffleboard courts selling fake Hawaiian jewelry.
One night Jackie got together with Timmy the Handsome Bartender, who was her age and came from a wealthy family and was a severe, chemically dependent alcoholic (whereas I was simply trying to keep myself in the darkness for long periods of time so I couldn’t see the crystallization of ruin all around). They had some psychedelic mushrooms and were going out to Grand Island, the river bar that stayed open till 4 a.m., but they were too drunk to drive and wanted me to be their chauffeur. I was in good shape — only twelve or thirteen mixed drinks and a few shots under my belt — and was a practiced and accomplished drunk driver. They gave me a few of the mushrooms, mushrooms for the chauffeur. They were some type of Brazilian mushrooms. Orange-colored, powerful mushrooms. I hadn’t had anything like them since the early seventies, when the last of the Clearlight and Orange Barrel and Yellow Sunshine had faded into the tie-dyed sunset. These mushrooms went straight up into my pituitary gland, then down into my cerebrospinal fluid, then back up through the lateral geniculate nucleus of my hypothalamus, then into the area where giggling and the smell of violets are controlled.
We all sat in the front seat, and, as I drove like an arrow down the black highway, my glamorous young companions climbed over one another like golden-retriever puppies rolling in a field of clover. I was in charge of the radio and other nonsexual, butler duties, but I had my thoughts. I thought, Is my shirt on inside out? while an old Spinners song made its way around in my head. But I drove dead on down the broken white line.
Until finally, Jackie, in the middle of frolicking with Timmy the Handsome Bartender, gave me a glance of recognition, or perhaps even appreciation, like an eight-year-old might give to her benevolent new millionaire stepfather — a pouting, soft, forgiving glance. I couldn’t get a drink order right, but what was that compared to having good hand-eye coordination while on hallucinogens and after drinking all night? And I thought, I hope the hood doesn’t come flying off this car.
At the river bar I was feeling so good and strange and wild that I tried to call my girl, who was like Venus — not the goddess of love and beauty, but the planet: nine hundred degrees in the shade, with poisonous clouds and no life. But I loved her or needed her or was trying to change her or was paying dues for a crime in a past life, or she was like the alcohol, just another drug called self-destruction. I leaned into the phone at 2 a.m., finger pressed in one ear, barely hearing the ringing on the other end; then someone answered. The bar was so loud and rollicking I couldn’t hear who it was. Was it a man’s voice? I said a few things, happy loving Brazilian things, but the conversation was like it always was with her: broken in the dark, like a mad mistreated dog. And I wasn’t even sure it was her. And then, because I couldn’t hear and didn’t know who I was talking to anyway, and because she did cruel things as a rule to teach me the horrors of romance (yet I kept going back), I simply hung up. Maybe she was saying, I love you and I miss you, or perhaps, Fester in the hell of my affection. Or maybe it was the guy in her bed, Frank the bartender or Eddie the old lover, telling me to stuff an onion roll. Whoever it was, I hung up the phone and wandered around for a while in a slump, the ceiling shadows drooping like crepe at a funeral, the patio lights leaving warped white neon tracks down the tar black river that flowed all around outside the windows of the magic island bar.
Jackie and Timmy were out on the floor, dancing to the extended dance remix, music thumping so loud you could not perceive yourself hallucinating, the kind of music Jack Kerouac longed to hear in a bar in the fifties. Well, here it is, Jack. I cannot perceive myself hallucinating. Is my life improved? And so I shot some pool with a woman named Michelle, who liked me right away. I grazed her neck with my cheek and spoke rough cat whispers in her ear while we described the attitude of two shipwrecked passengers on the Indian Ocean with a single stick of wood between us. She had a kid at home and big hollow violet eyes, and the board was slipping out from under her and she was grabbing hard, giving me her neck. Maybe I could save her. And I was thinking, Maybe she could save me. We could give each other something anyway: vodka and tonic, shot of cinnamon schnapps, wink of eyelid, brush of cheek, warm kindness of empty words in the mayfly glimmer before last call. Six ball in the corner pocket.
When the bar closed at ten minutes of four, I said good night to Michelle and drove Jackie and Timmy out into the wilderness. We parked in the darkness among the trees. There was a long fingery lake, the trees around it shaggy and hulking as giants. It was so dark we stumbled and laughed and Timmy cried, Werewolves! and Jackie shrieked and we all laughed again. We found a little dip in the landscape where we could sit along the lake, and passed slow luxurious cigarettes and a bottle of cherry aquavit among us. The water shone as orange as a glacier of frozen tangerine mix, and there were caps and gleams and frosts of tangerine on the leaves and on the backs of my hands and chips of it in Timmy’s handsome hair, and the clouds were slightly orange, like the breath of Siamese dragons. How did these trees get so tall? I wondered. Trees of the monster forest along Tangerine Lagoon. This was certainly better than being in a bar.
Then the clouds rolled in, huge and luminiferous, moving the wrong speed and in the wrong direction, and I said, Those are stratocumulus. . . . No, they’re altocumulus. . . . No, they’re nimbus, and Jackie laughed. Her eyes glittered at me. What was so funny about clouds, I didn’t know. But I finally remembered the last line of that Spinners song, and we all saw a UFO, the only UFO — or, to be more accurate, the only object definitely not terrestrial — that I have ever witnessed. It was orange and crystal-tiny and moved with impossible courteous playful quickness. We held our breaths. We could not all have hallucinated a UFO, but if you are a UFO and want to keep yourself a secret, appear before people on orange Brazilian mushrooms.
We escaped from the wilderness and drove around, and the world was Alice and Wonderful and I was exceptional in my driving abilities, as mushrooms or acid will sometimes do to you, sharpening your nerves like pencil tips and allowing you to absorb a broader spectrum of wave frequency and translating extradimensional phenomena, like Einstein as a young boy running behind a ray of light with a butterfly net. We went to Moonatchies, an after-hours club, and Jackie was now my friend. She had seen that part of me that was really me, even if it was bathed in a tangerine glow. We leaned down and sang the songs right out of the jukebox and tossed back shots of ouzo and sambuca and lemon gin, consuming the devil’s food of our lovely alcoholic youth.
Soon we were back downtown in the rooming-house bars that opened at six, where you could play darts and smell the ancient rotting linoleum and the pink dissolving urinal cakes and the burnt beer sausages while the old men stared at you through yellow hound-dog eyes and the swindled memory of the thing not done. Then the sun was melting and spreading upward, and I specifically did not mention the clouds, which were altostratus, I recall, or lenticular, to be more exact, and as dark as the cap on a sad day before it’s lifted to reveal a single vision that says life is worth living; but you cannot know this, because hardship is the key ingredient in the formula that makes life worth living, which seems impossible but is nevertheless a fact, and is the reason why rich boys become drunks and nice girls find themselves with mean boys and people whose bright futures are entirely in order come down with chronic insomnia or incurable hiccups or merciless diseases of the mucous membranes or rare and undiagnosable conditions of the blood or the nervous system, or they quit med school altogether and move to New York City and become porno addicts.
We had coffee in the pale brown dawn of a plastic breakfast house, then went to my third-floor apartment on Pine Avenue, across from the elementary school. We finished the beer in the fridge while Jackie looked curiously at my books and studied me out of all four corners of her eyes. The sun was a wavering cellophane disk, like harmless artificial firelight, and the schoolchildren were sprinting to class in a euphoric roar at the sound of the eight o’clock bell. I left my glamorous young friends alone in my living room, where I kept a futon rolled up for guests, and went to bed wondering about that voice on the other end of the phone, and about the magic act of alcohol: how it can make all your problems disappear, except when they reappear there are twice as many, but then voilà! a few drinks and they are vanished again until one day you wake up trapped like the victim of an elaborate outhouse prank.
I did not hear my guests, only the shouting of the children across the street. Later Timmy told me Jackie had whipped off her blouse and they had ravished each other in the wavering cellophane light, amid the euphoric babble of the schoolchildren, and I laughed and was appreciative, as if they were my grandchildren come down to visit me from the golden lakes of Saskatchewan and had stolen all the animal cookies out of the cupboard while my dentures foamed in a pickle jar full of apple vinegar.
From then on, Jackie was my friend in the way that one becomes a friend only through the special filter of South American tree fungi and arcane knowledge of clouds and orange-medium observation of UFOs. And I didn’t screw up her drink orders anymore, either. She always came with a smile to my end of the bar. She sparkled at me, melted and lifted and discombobulated me. We could talk about anything. But she and Timmy were an item, dazzling and inseparable, the Barbie and Ken of the rust belt, with white teeth and sexy kitten livers.
Meanwhile, I continued my gloomy appointments with Venus, like lessons in how to become fully cynical about love. I quit my lessons time and again but kept going back. Venus always took me back. She wanted me to learn as well as she had learned. I had about two days with her that were actually pleasant, and I couldn’t forget those two days any more than someone playing a slot machine for two straight years could forget finally lining up the lemons and hitting a single jackpot for forty-two dollars: I was sitting on the balcony of her apartment by myself, under the shade of the great elm, and she put her head out the door and asked if I wanted lunch. The tilt of her head and the softness of her voice and the gentleness in her eyes were enough altogether for me to say, Yes, I’d love lunch. And all the time she was making those salami sandwiches I was happy in the way that those who are loved and taken care of by those who love them are happy, even if she didn’t put onions or enough mustard on the sandwich, and even if two days later she didn’t come home from the bar until the next morning and then told me lies so that I had to find out the long and hard way what I already knew. Frank the bartender. Eddie the old lover.
Then my mother separated from my father, and I realized there was no point in staying around there pouring drinks into my brain and arguing with death and trying to please death and make death wear a pretty hat — she never wore hats. I said, So long, death. She was surprised to see me go. I think she thought I would come running back, as I had so many times before.
I went home to San Diego and found my father sitting on the big gold couch in a forest-fire darkness. He had lost not only his wife but about thirty pounds. He had given up hope. He was watching Gilligan’s Island. I wasn’t much good for anything myself, but I took my old room and we kept each other company. We watched the hummingbirds and cut the grass. We commiserated philosophically in the darkness and had coffee and bacon for breakfast and drank blue glow-in-the-dark martinis at the corner lounge like old cricket players in pre-electric war-torn Africa. He was quiet and full of hard work and wonder; I was cynical and lethargic and charcoal-hearted. My father was a simple man. It wasn’t hard to figure out his equation for happiness. He had been happy for twenty-eight years and now she was gone.
It was at this point that the pattern of my life became clear: Love was desire followed by foolishness, then the sound of my heart breaking like a stained-glass window. Love, for whatever bizarre and backward reason, would always be the cause of suffering. Venus was only one more in a long line of mathematical proofs of this. It was time to give it up. So I did.
And then Jackie called. She was in town. She knew I was living with my father, so she had gone through the phone book and dialed all the listings with my last name until she found me. Can we get together? she said.
This was a little hard for me to comprehend: Jackie had come three thousand miles to the desert to visit me? I couldn’t help but ponder the implications.
When? I said.
Right now, she said. Can you? I’m just here for a week.
And so I showered and dressed in a daze, put on my red bartender’s shirt, and drove out to the Radisson Hotel in Mission Valley. I met her coming out the door in the sunshine and bent spontaneously to kiss her. She went up on her toes to meet me and I touched her waist and little green tendrils sprouted from the charcoal lump of my heart. Come meet my father, she said.
Her father was Joe, the iron-haired businessman with Mafia ties. Joe drove a big new silver Continental, knew where Jimmy Hoffa was buried, did card tricks, played seven-handicap golf, and bullied the room-service waiters. His motto was: “Act second-class and you get treated second-class.” He had a sharp business acumen and looked down upon the unsuccessful. A bundle of hundred-dollar bills appeared out of his front pocket and he stripped them off and bought admission wherever he was not invited. Joe didn’t think much of me, did not trust me with his cocktail-waitress daughter. He was dressing for a golf game. He gave me the narrow eyes, the stiff questions, boy-taking-out-daughter questions.
Then off he went golfing, and off his daughter and I went drinking, though she was still nineteen and not old enough to drink legally in California. I had a new truck, no radio, but a Walkman and two headsets. I showed her the city, my city, my beautiful city. We had a drink along the shore. I explained the breaking of the waves. We watched the sun set, then went to a Japanese restaurant, where we had octopus and hot little jars of sake. Then more sake. Then a little more sake. The sake lit the candles in our eyes, filled us with a giggling hot octopus heat. She was soft and radiant like the luck of the sun. I asked about Timmy the Handsome Bartender, and it was Oh, well and Say-la-vee and a little flourish of the palm and a yawn and a neat slice of the eye.
We drove along the golden-barred harbor, then out to Ballast Point, where we were wrapped and subdued in a pork-chop-and-pineapple-smelling fog. I brought her back dutifully to the hotel at ten, had a stiff drink with Joe, who was a drinker, too, a too-much drinker, like all the boys his daughter liked, a hearty flames-in-the-cheeks pirate of a drinker. I asked him questions about golf. He guessed what number I would pick between one and five and won two dollars off me. Then he told me all about the eleventh and fourteenth holes at Torrey Pines. We stayed up late with a bottle of Crown Royal Canadian, shrinking under time-compressed and chrome-reflected light. Joe took a liking to me: Daughter home by ten and sympathy for golf, even if I didn’t play. Not afraid to lose a few bucks in a friendly game of cards either. I didn’t leave the hotel until four that morning.
Jackie and I went to Sea World the next day. Sea World is thirty dollars to see fish jumping into the air to the whistled commands of dictatorial ethologists, but I could have sat in a bus depot with her and been happy. We bought draft beer as soon as the first window opened and sang that pop-silly song that was all over the radio at the time, “Wake Me Up before You Go-Go,” and wandered among the white-legged tourists, who clapped ecstatically whenever the fish jumped into the air. We caught the killer-whale show at two, and as we watched Shamu leap, she took my arm. Oh, Lord, maybe it’s not just my knowledge of clouds and good hand-eye coordination, I thought. Then Shamu plunged and sent a wave of water splashing over the glass retaining wall, soaking everyone in the first three rows.
We went across the border to Mexico the next day, but the Jai Alai Palace was closed, so we got drunk at the Long Bar instead. Then we took a cab to the dog races, where Jackie won a trifecta without even knowing what a trifecta was. We found two more bars, then she bought me dinner at an outdoor broiler and made me promise to take her to Disneyland. I had never stayed in Tijuana past 2 a.m. before. We walked the two miles back to the border drinking a narrow pint of Cuervo Gold and singing “Feliz Navidad” with our arms around each other. The customs agents took us into a little briefing room, perhaps because appearing to have so much fun could only be a cover for a drug-smuggling operation. Or maybe they hated us because we were singing Mexican Christmas songs in January. But when they got a good look at Jackie and the kitten green sparkle of her eyes and the metal glow of her sexy cocktail innocence, they let us go. She was my passport in more ways than one. I honestly don’t remember how we got home.
Then came the whirlwind of being with her and simply wanting to be with her and not understanding it in any way and not wanting to understand it. In the day we trampled over the worn-out sights, and at night we drove around the city in my new truck with our headsets on, singing the songs on the radio and stopping now and then at a liquor store.
On the fourth day it was raining and we’d been drinking and playing blackjack with Joe all afternoon in the hotel room, Joe’s golf game and our trip to the zoo having been canceled. I was sixteen dollars down. Jackie sat barefoot on the bed, serene as a queen lacquering her toenails. Joe stopped shuffling the cards, slapped the deck down on the table, and said, Take us to the best restaurant in town; I’m buying. So we drove in the rain down to Pacific Beach to the best restaurant in town, without any reservations. We sat in the bar and waited for a table and drank Gibsons and ate oysters on the half shell. My left eye swelled shut from the oysters and I couldn’t help but talk like a pirate, a linen napkin pressed against half my face. Joe talked like a pirate, too. The wait was long. The rainwater slid in rippled fans down the windows. We had several more Beefeater Gibsons before we were finally seated, still talking like pirates. Joe sent the abalone back. The waiter was wounded and apologetic, but there was nothing wrong with the abalone. Then Joe decided he wouldn’t pay the bill. He slipped it under his dinner plate and directed us to walk out. We were proving something. His daughter was chagrined. There was no worse type of customer than the stiff, the cheater. But I was the boy under the power of the man, dazzled by the daughter of the man. (Gutless is a shorter word for it.) And my eye was swollen shut. We got out of there, but Joe had left his glasses behind and we had to return for them, with some trepidation, a few minutes later. No mention of the unpaid bill.
Joe was too drunk to drive, but he drove nonetheless, crossing lines, running over curbs, shouting at me for directions. We stopped at a bar in La Jolla, where he challenged the table at pool, spoke of his prowess (you know, he earned his way through college with a pool cue), cut ahead of a player, made enemies of all. But Jackie worked the crowd behind him, softening and sweetening the air. She was the anti-Joe, the giver, the tipper, the laugher, the pleaser, his traveling companion, his opposite charge. She talked him into letting me drive home. Everyone has a talent. Mine was driving under the influence. The cops waved to me as they went by. We survived the trip. Jackie made everything worthwhile.
Then it was three days before she would leave. Joe was restless and moved them down to the Catamaran Hotel, right across the street from the Pacific Ocean. Jackie and I bought a bottle of Grand Marnier and built a fire on the beach. She had fallen in love with San Diego. We set the bottle at the edge of the fire to warm. It was clear and cold that night, the stars flickering from blue to green and the flames leaping up like trained fish to touch them. We drank the hot orange liqueur out of styrofoam cups and kept throwing wood on the fire. I had no thought of spoiling everything by trying for intimacy. We had not kissed since the first day, had not touched each other in any way other than how children or drunks might touch when they play. We had no intention of staying up late, staying out all night, staying up till all the wood on earth was burned and the dinosaurs were rising once again out of the sea. There was only the pure joy of being with her. Nothing more natural had ever happened to me. It was undoubtedly some kind of accident or dream of God. Her father came down and stood with us for a while, but he did not belong in the dream. No one but us belonged in that orange-liqueur-and-firelight dream. It was ours, yet not made by us. He took me aside as if to give me a fatherly speech, but then he saw the folly of it, like giving a speech to the ocean, a speech to a dream, and he laughed. He asked if I would go into business with him. I told him I would think about it, though it was the furthest thing from my mind. He told me to take good care of her, and then he smiled weakly and patted me on the shoulder and walked out of the firelight and out of the dream.
The sun came up as if launched from a catapult. We got about three hours’ sleep and drove to the zoo. For once, I did not feel sorry for the kangaroos. I did not buy any fish for the seals. The sun dropped in a streak back down through the trees. We had hot dogs and cocoa by the peacock cage. It was twilight by five, the time now roaring up through the blue hole in the circus-tent sky. She would be gone in two days. In the hotel room that evening, her father was out, and she poured us both a drink and we were suddenly stage-lit like Adam and Eve in the beam of the serpent’s eye. We lay on the bed and watched Vice President George Bush deliver a speech about the state of the nation, one of the funniest, most delightfully innocent speeches ever, and we howled and had another drink and then we were on the floor and I was looking into the secret niceness of her face and she was putting out heat and we were about to wreck this Peter Pan season, have a baby and get a silver ice bucket and a big dark gloomy painting to go over the fireplace and eventually a divorce.
I said, You sure are giving out a lot of heat.
And she said, I didn’t know you felt that way about me.
And I didn’t know how to take this exactly, although the attitude of our bodies and the silver cosmic dust in her eyes made it obvious what she meant. But her father would be back soon, so we got up and smoothed our hair and had one more drink before the old man burst through the door to dazzle us with war stories of the American Business Frontier and card tricks that would shorten me by about four dollars.
The following night we were grave and economical as ducks before winter. We got away from the old man with an unspoken contract. We stayed out late, drove the Pacific Coast Highway to Moonlight Beach, sat on a blanket on a cliff and drank a bottle of wine. We saw an ocean liner far out on the horizon, glittering like the tiny jewels on a gold watch. It moved almost imperceptibly south, then it was gone, like everything one day is gone. Even the stillness cannot stand still.
Let’s go to my house, I said.
Yes, let’s go, she said.
We sat on the big gold couch in the living room with the mantel clock scratching off the minutes and my father snoring gloriously down the hall. Finally I got up and turned off the lights and we kissed for real for the first time, a tender touching of the lips, like cousins in a small town with a six-pack of 3.2 beer and the car for the night. I kissed her again and then we kissed until our sweaters became one, and she was not like she was that night with Timmy the handsome chemically dependent bartender, whipping off her shirt in the Mardi Gras of union, but rather awkward and gentle, as if it had not happened to her like this before, the same as it had never happened to me, the same as it would never happen to me again.
Then we were having lunch by the pool of the Catamaran Hotel. She was in her bathing suit and I kept looking at her and thinking, My goodness, she is something. How could I be so lucky? Where did this gift come from? And her father was dealing poker and bluffing every hand, and if I’d had enough money I would’ve raised him and called and beaten the old bully for a going-away present, but he got eight bucks off me that day. Then the lunch was over. The swimming was over. The drinks were over. And I was standing under the stone arch in the parking lot, kissing a girl I would never see again. In the distance the sunbeams scattered and flashed over the surface of the pool. Joe sat under the tilted metal umbrella playing cards by himself. What is happiness, I thought, but another word for luck? Then Jackie walked away under the pale blue curve of the dreary California sky.