Vodka W/ The Devil; Gettin' Grandma from the Nursing Home; Literary Conversations W/ Strangers
"We have need for strong hands, for spirits who are willing to give up the ghost and put on flesh..." -- Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer
It's Friday night. And the drums are rolling, rollicking in the windward sounds of the northbound jet-stream. I'm listening to the sounds of Shostakovich, two days later. It's nighttime and I've been drinking for more than a few hours. Polishing off cans of beer, bottles too. Writing in a novel manuscript I've been working on since November 2016. Re-reading Henry Miller. Reading myriad books, in fact. Like bouncing a ping pong ball against a clown's face. What?
I'd planned on working, writing and reading all night. After working all day, or at least most of the day, on copywriting. On top of the manuscript I'm writing, I'd printed out another 72 pages of another script -- one of a trip to the Dominican Republic with my father. Climbed the tallest mountain in the Caribbean with 70-plus Dominican kids. Can I finish it off in the next ten days?
I like the pressure of being a writer. An unknown writer. I like being unknown and invisible. Sometimes. I can do my work, and nobody bothers me. Except this time. When the Devil called. I answered the son of a bitch.
"Hello," said I. "What the fuck do you want?"
"Oh, come on," he said in a cringy accent. "You know I'm just having fun. What are you gonna do all night? Read and write like some pansy? Why don't you come on over with a few beers and we'll throw darts at the wall."
"You stupid dingbat. You pretentious pap smear. I'll be right over. First, I'm gonna cook me some tilapia and vegetables. Then, I'll get the beer." I timed myself in my head. How long before the liquor store closes? Maybe I'll get that tattooed on my body.
I cooked, after washing the dirty dishes in the sink. While wearing headphones, I shadowboxed, cooking some asparagus and carrots, then tossing in the tilapia. Also, I was drinking beer. Out of a bottle. The best. It was Friday.
Finishing the meal, putting away the bottles of beer, I headed out the door into the dark Philadelphia nighttime air of February on a Friday. It was an easy walk to the subway. I got on there, after purchasing two six packs -- one of German/Kraut beer for Diablo, and another of New Jersey born-and-bred IPA.
Outside the gates of hell, I'm paging Diablo.
Two black women are standing there, smoking cigarettes.
"Flying Fish!" one of them says, her eyes protruding, lit as fuck. As they say.
"Don't go jumping outta no windows!"
I laugh and tell her. "No, no. None of that. I haven't seen my friend in a while. I'm just here to get fucked up."
He buzzes me into the apartment building. Philadelphia shines like a beacon of liberty, freedom and egalitarian bliss.
I get to the Third Level of Hell. The door opens and smoke evaporates from the eminent domain of cats, baby toys, dirty dishes, cigarette smoke, and Budweiser. Diablo is on the phone, talking to his lawyer. I put the beers down on the counter, shaking my fist at his sullen, somber countenance.
"You son of a bitch! Who's gonna wash these dishes? Who'se gonna change your dirty diapers? Why, I should spit on the ground and leave right now."
He gives me the finger, while holding his Bluetooth receiver between his thighs.
"These are my exercises," he says to me, through gritted teeth.
"I've been eating too much ice cream..." he drags on the cigarette dangling from his lips. I crack open one of the Kraut beers with a bottle opener.
"This bottle opener," I tell him, tossing it on the counter, "is the only useful thing in this apartment."
"Hold on," he tells his lawyer on the phone. "Some asshole just walked in. I gotta go..."
He hangs up the phone. Right away, his phone buzzes again. It's an angel.
"Eh," he remarks, dropping the Bluetooth on the couch. "I'll call her back."
"By the way," I tell him, "I brought these beers strictly for my own consumption. Meaning, you're shit outta luck."
"Get the fuck outta here," he tells me. Right back, unabashed.
"You and your stupid mustache..."
Now I'm listening to Tchaikovsky.
Back at Diablo's Third Circle of Hell. A girl comes over, after we talk a bit, with a bottle of vodka. The cheap kind.
"Let's have some shots."
Three glasses are poured out, and we each take the shots. 100 proof. Vile stuff.
Not long after that, we do another round. And then another.
"Who wants tacos?"
Diablo starts to cook.
"I gave up meat for Lent."
"I'm just going to ask her..."
"I know what you're going to ask her."
"Why do you go to..."
"See, I knew you were going to say that."
"Here comes the writer, asking the deep questions..."
"I'm not going to ask any deep questions. I just was making conversation."
Every time Diablo calls me a writer, I cringe. Nobody wants to be called a writer. If they do, they're lying. Writers are the scum of the Earth. Underpaid. Misrepresented. Callous spazzes. The cats live better lives than writers...
Suddenly, the vodka descends unto us ... just as the tacos are being served. I eat one while thinking about how I'm going to get home.
Then I wake up. Hours later. I've got a blanket covering me, my shoes are still on.
"Shit," I mumble aloud, sick as Grease lightning.
I get up for some water, and ibuprofen. Then I go back to the couch, with my shoes off, thinking about making it to the nursing home on time. A few hours pass. We're up and talking, then. I go to Diablo and ask him for the angel's number. After he gives me the number, I pick up one of the cats and throw her onto his crotch. He groans like a wounded manatee. I race down the hallway.
"Nice meeting you!"
"Yeah, you too!"
"I'm leaving this shithole!" I yell aloud. Then I grab a cigarette from Diablo's pack on the kitchen table. I light up and walk out the door, down the hallway and apartment steps, blowing out smoke rings, feeling like a writer. Yeah. I'm David Duchovny. I'm John Fante. Dostoevsky without the beard. A schmuck. A dingbat. A harried cockroach with invisible feelers.
"What, you never heard of Kafka?" I'd asked Diablo, the night before. We were talking about feeling alone in a world with so many people. "That was his leitmotif," I said. "He wrote about isolation after the Industrial Revolution."
Oh, well. I was out again in the sunlight. I had sunglasses covering my irises, walking south to the subway. I stood there, mind you, smoking the rest of the cigarette, while holding a knife wrapped in a white towel in a plastic bag, and two Flying Fish IPAs. I looked up. There was a "9-11 Was An Inside Job" sign on the street post. I thought about taking a picture. Instead, I flicked the cigarette butt and climbed down the subway steps.
I was fucking hungover, as fuck.
A shower saved my life. As did two eggs and sauteed spinach.
I made my way to the subway, fresh as a dead daffodil in the wintertime. It had taken me ten minutes to decide on which book to bring with me on the trip across the Delaware River into New Jersey to get my grandma out of the nursing home she'd been in for a few weeks after her pneumonia in the hospital.
I'd decided on Tropic of Cancer.
On the subway platform, a guy said something to me.
I was startled.
"Is that the first time you read him?"
"No," I said, trying to collect my thoughts. "I read this, maybe..." I paused, thinking in vibratory patterns of leftover vodka on the walls of the subway station, "five or six years ago. But I love Henry Miller. Read most of his stuff."
"Yeah? He's pretty good."
We got into a literary conversation. He had gray streaks in his hair, and he was dressed like a normal, everyday person. I felt like hell on roller skates, without the wheels. We kept on talking. He mentioned Black Spring. And I told him about the book I'd just purchased, Letters to Emil. Then he asked me about Celine. I nodded. Yes, Celine. Cynical as fuck.
The train came.
"I'm Rosencrantz," he said.
"Guildenstern," I replied.
We got on the train. He told me about another French author, modern. I made a mental note.
We both got off at Walnut-Locust.
"Nice talking to you..."
"Sure," said I.
I got to the PATCO station. On the train, I tried to read. Waves of heat engulfed my cortex and flooded my cerebellum. Ha ha. I'm just making shit up now.
A nursing home is a bleak fucking place. I was with my cousin, another angel.
"By the way, my dad's here." She meant he was at the house, my aunt's house, helping her get ready for my grandmother to live with her. It was three years in-the-making. I didn't know him, he was one of a handful of uncles in my family whom I didn't really know or have much contact with after I was old enough to know that I had uncles...
Anyway, the nursing home. She wanted out, my grandma. The face she gave my cousin and me when we finally arrived, it was grim and desolate.
"You're late," she said, from her wheelchair. Her roommate had just died, recently, and she hated the food, my grandma. She felt deserted and forgotten. And I couldn't blame her. No, in fact. I loved her. She was brave, courageous, impossible, insufferable, never satisfied. Only in her eighties had she finally learned to laugh at herself, when she was wrong. Her? Wrong? IMPOSSIBLE.
My aunt was an angel and my cousin was an angel. And I was there, helping them. Hungover as a lynx lost in the desert. I held onto the wheels of my grandmother's wheelchair, finally, as my cousin and I lifted her into my aunt's house. She was home to roost. There was a hospital bed in the living room, and her soon-to-be bedroom had a big picture of Frank Sinatra on the wall. Also, there was a picture of my mother and my aunt, from when they were my age. It was strange and funny to see my mother like that. She was a person before she had me. That got stuck in my bean. O, I loved them all, so much.
Then we sat down to dinner together, including a live-in aide that would be there for my grandmother. My grandma. The youngest of seven children, her parents had come over from Italy in the 1920s. She had four sisters and two brothers, my grandma. Her eldest brother was seventeen years her senior when she'd been born. In 1935!
Soon, my cousin's one-year-old daughter came into the house, carried by one of my cousin's angel friends.
I couldn't believe how lucky I was.
In her little portable playpen -- my cousin's beautiful daughter smashed at a toy that contained multicolored marbles.
"She loves that thing," I said.
"Yeah, she'll enjoy it for like five minutes. Then she'll get bored. But at least it gives me enough time to eat."
I sat there, eating. Drinking a beer that had been in the fridge.
O, sweet Jesus Almighty. That beer saved my life.
The angels around me made up a shopping list, very precise and exact. The little baby pounded on the plastic, trying to eat the marbles inside of it.
I made my way home in the chilly snowfall. Got some beer and drank it, gratefully, full of sentimental love.
For once in my stupid life!