July 25, 2009
I sat out and watched the weather systems pass, ordinarily there were four or five of these like accelerated photography each day. It was an island about four miles off the coast of Maine; and I’d gone there to write in a big house with rotted ceilings and newspaper lampshades. The house was situated in the apex of a cove on the northwestern end of the island about two hundred feet from the shoreline. Presently, a fat cloud, and grey, was sagging in over the house of the grocer. She was a striking woman in her late thirties with a deep tan and blue eyes. I hated her. Earlier in the week, with a borrowed golf cart, I had broken the leg off a cabinet grand piano she had left out for large item trash. She had accused me of buying beer for some young kids not two hours after I had established my tab.
It was true, one of my drinking companions was nineteen, but I’d known him fifteen of those years and she couldn’t prove a thing. She was trying to leverage two hours’ patronage against fifteen years of friendship. On a hunch. The constable’s home was directly adjacent to hers, and that fat, grey cloud brought an aspect of soot over them both. A tandem wind pounded their storm windows.
But there is a patch of blue over the cove where I am seated, sucking on a cheroot, drinking syrah. It is the recessed portion of a balding man’s head. The blue pate is a continuous reverberation between sky and sea. There is a streak of iridescent steel grey, which extends the entire horizon and stays just above the bluff to my right. The grey and red rocks read clean and are not pedestalized or deadened. The trees on the bluff are poking their heads into the heavy, cobalt, and sagging thing.
Young girls had been coming by often to visit. I have always been disinclined toward young girls. They do not always lack intelligence or maturity, but almost always wisdom and humor; those two have a partnership. When a wise old bum talks about police, or the railroad authority, it is always with the wisdom and humor of experience. Young girls do not have it. But I would drink with them, and having drunk, occasionally condescend to dance with them. Libidinous little waltzes recorded in the seventies on Rhodes organs with rasping balladeers. An old lover had been by the previous week to visit, but she had a boyfriend somewhere in the southwest and I had a girlfriend in California, so we limited our congress to spankings and a lot of tawdry talk. I’d been on that island for months and was going insane.
It was still grey overhead. Back over my shoulders, past the grocer’s house, which was too large and had a red chimney, past a green manicured ball field, too, was another cove. There was a decadent red burning there. The sunset was a sizzling hot wafer entering the brine, and I could hear a rumbling Triumph motorcycle out on the lawn. Theresa cut the engine and walked up the stairs to the porch.
“Good evening Chaucer.” Theresa was a droll woman of forty-seven. I hadn’t expected her. She had never come to visit with me before. She had a handle of spiced rum.
“Been drinking since noon. Couldn’t think of anybody but old Chauce’ would spill one with a drunk old bitch.” She peeled two plastic tumblers out of an unnecessarily tall stack of twenty or more. She waved the bottle over the two cups which were lip to lip, paused and squinted, and leveled another three ounces into each. I swallowed my glass of syrah, knocked back the rum and poured another glass of wine.
“You sure I ain’t bothering you?”
“It’s all right.” I lit another cheroot. The wrap was flaking off a bit. I eased it into my mouth, but for the young pink ember and rolled it clockwise against my cheek. A damned pity mission, her blazing in on her Triumph for a shoulder by lamplight and whatever other unsavory shit.
“Let’s have another rum, Theresa. They’ve gone over the twilight with boot polish.”
We talked about the cabinet grand. She tumbled and sang, discordant, like Satie in his middle period before all the carousel music. It was a shame about that piano. A menacing robotic thing with municipal plates came and swallowed her up like it was her natural predator. All I had done was to lame the poor thing.
“Do you get lonely out here, Chaucer?”
“No, not really. I found the face of Jimi Hendrix in a map of the bay, denoting soundings in feet. Whale Back Island marks the arc of his nostril, and Bell Isle is the pupil. It’s here, do you see it?”
“No, Chaucer, maybe some day alone I’ll look at it. That’s not what you said the other night. At the beach party. You said you get awful lonesome.” She had a way with the word lonesome. It was wry and subliminal.
“You said you wanted sometimes just to climb up on the Triumph and disappear.”
“Christ. That could be. But it would take a pretty free interpretation to think I was trying to bed you.”
“Then after that, when you kissed me?”
“Do you mean the night I split a fifth of vodka with your son, or the night I spent with my hand down Sera’s pants?”
“You must have been drunk, Chauce’, people say things they don’t mean when they’re drunk.”
“I didn’t say a fucking thing, Theresa. I hate to say it but I simply don’t believe you.” Theresa was a tearful grin, she had an awful grip on her thighs.
“Don’t you get the littlest bit lonely?”
“No, you are stellar company. I feel altogether just fine.”
“Listen, Chaucer, will you just hold me through the night? I get frightfully lonesome.”
“No.” The syrah went down, the last of it.
“Will you have another rum with me?”
“Yes.” We had both managed rather more than a pint of rum, and were going at it pathetically. She seemed unembarrassed and simply weighted with self-pity.
“If you won’t have me, you know, completely. Isn’t there anything you’d like me to do?” She put her hand on my thigh. It grasped and climbed. Grasped again. She was crying now.
“That was the end of our proud little two-stroke golf cart. It died twenty feet from the grocer’s door. She was screaming after me on the porch in her robe. Right up on the balls of her feet like she was in orgasm. Finally the golf cart fired up in reverse and twenty minutes later the constable found me swerving around rubber-necked in reverse and popped me for a busted headlight. One more infraction and he’ll call the real law ashore.”
We drank on that way till dawn, my insurgent little hard-on mad for her pathos. Here the wafer rose from the brine, and Theresa took her cue to depart. There were four remaining ounces of seventy-two and a half per cent grain neutral spirits in the bottle. I sat studying the label. I pried out the drizzle spout and throated them. Christ. Theresa farted away on her Triumph.
“It has been brought to my attention that I could become a fireman.” Chaucer told it like a vaudeville set-up, the punch being that it was true. The comedy of his life had been thus advanced. And the man on the lawn, though some twenty years Chaucer’s senior, was as a babe watching a Henny Youngman reel. Both men were drinking again.
Chaucer knew the man on the lawn, who was called Mulvey, and was occasionally handsome at forty-eight. The bridge of his nose was a fashionable forty-five degree excursion from an otherwise flattish profile. Weak chin, but he couldn’t help that. Blonde hair with a very few grey sprigs being cultivated throughout. Blue, blue, bloodshot eyes. He’d discovered Christian Slater in the eighties. Now he was not quite a bloated pomegranate, though he could be at times, and was petitioning Chaucer’s couch.
“I think you could make a good fireman Chauce’.” The end of Mulvey’s Marlboro was not so much its end as its entirety. It looked like an electric stove coil had been snapped off and jammed in his mouth. It was cold out. He was anxious to get inside. Chaucer had been smoking inside his apartment for weeks, having relapsed, but wanted to make a show of not doing so now because he didn’t want his guest to overdo it. They stamped out their butts and went inside.
“I’m a very small man,” Chaucer offered.
“They might appreciate having someone to squeeze into tight spots.”
“I’m not thinking of auditioning to become a fucking chimney sweep, Mulvaney.”
“What’s with the pink door drapes?”
“They were left by the previous tenants.” Chaucer opened the door to a large closet, which had a window depicting something aquamarine you could reach out and touch if the window were not painted shut. He gestured for Mulvaney to set his things here.
Mulvey’s bags were two sporty duffels, and each had its own trademark assembly of pointless shapes and bad colors making it sporty. They sagged in the places the fifths of Smirnoff had been covertly stashed, and otherwise contained clothes that were not meant to be worn publicly. He was going to taper off and dry out. The younger man went to the fridge, leaned in, and snapped the caps off a couple bottles of ale.
Chaucer’s place was almost completely unfurnished. His apartments had always had an off-off Broadway and down a staircase feel to them. Bedside lamps on the floor with no shades on them. Stepladders leaned against unadorned walls. An empty case of Bombay gin with a bible on it. Sometimes he would decorate for a character he wanted to write a short piece about.
“I don’t like the idea of being in the fraternal order of anything.”
“You and me both, brother.”
“I once had a dream that a high school basketball team castrated me dispassionately. I was alarmed, but acted kind of blasé because they knew and I knew that it was coming all along. Plus I wanted to avoid any verbal hazing.”
“Jesus endless Christ is right. I wasn’t even trying to join up. The restaurant I was working at then adjoined their gymnasium. My boss shouted at me to bring him a fifty- pound bag of high gluten flour. I stood up to comply but the blood-loss was tremendous so I screamed at him to get it his fucking self. I felt bad in the dream for yelling at my boss. He was way too swamped to be aware of my castration.”
“You gotta lose these Venetian blinds, Chaucer. Get you some nice heavy curtains. Like a nice warm yellow, or like a burnt umber.”
“Those were also left by the previous tenant.”
“And what about this light-switch cover thing?”
“Oh, the fucking flamingo glows in the dark.”
“You pick that out?”
“Nah. I just don’t want to make a lot of homo jokes with the fraternal order of firemen. I’d like a pension, and some exercise. I’m a good cook, and firehouses need good cooks in them. A few days on, a few days off to write. I like to play cribbage.”
“Sounds pretty good to me, Chauce’.”
“The only fraternity I belong to, really though, and always have, is the fraternal order of the vaguely wicked and perpetually regretful.” Chaucer and Mulvaney finished their ales.
“A good Irish boy.”
“Not a drop in me.” Chaucer yanked a small quarter pint of whiskey out of his waistband, gave the cap a little torque to break the seal and leaned a finger or two into his mouth. “Of course I’ll have to stop drinking before I interview.”
“Goes without saying. Let me have a taste there, Chaucer.” Chaucer handed over the bottle. He took off his green cap, sniffed the inside of it and set it awkwardly back atop his skull. His face had begun to redden a bit, and he was resolutely not actually wearing his hat. He looked stupid.
“I’ve been a drunk since I was a kid, Mulvey.”
“Yeah. I know. We’ve got pretty much the same life story. I mean, I staved off collapse for a while. Started a family, and made some money in the markets. But I know.”
“I’m concerned that not ever having wanted to be anything, now that I’m relatively sober, my aspirations have become regressive. Little boys want to be a fire-man. I don’t want to be a fire-man.”
Mulvaney let out a peal of incredulous laughter. He handed back the whiskey. Chaucer swallowed another finger. Mulvey had no real imitative ability, but he deepened his voice, made his eyes look childish and said, “I don’t want to be a fire-man.”
LUKAS CHAMPAGNE was born in Portland, Maine. He was educated in the Berkeley Unified School District and graduated unspectacularly from high school after three and a half years. Following a ten-year period of prolonged and morbid alcoholism, he has begun to publish his fiction and read it publicly upon occasion. A selection of his work can be found in the Lifelong Press anthology, associated with the BackRoom Live reading series. He lives and writes in Oakland. He works as a cook.