I drove down to the Blew Eagle cafe, knowing it was risky, wanting it to be. Traffic howled on the bridge overhead. There were freighter horns and train whistles, boxcars in abandoned yards, and transient camps tucked up under the viaducts all around. Rain was falling lightly, just a faint drift, cool, soft gray. I parked in the dirt lot among the pick-up trucks and Peterbilts, got out and walked over to the front of the cafe and pushed through the doors with their port-hole windows.
Inside, nothing had changed. It was the kind of place you go to when you want to disappear. Nets hung along the walls and ceiling with green Chinese fishing floats. Along one wall were deep, dark grotto booths with red glass candle holders with flames fluttering in them on the tables. The long mahogany bar glowed amber under recessed lights, and behind it gleamed a row of bottles and the ever mirror casting back its ancient phantom reflections of time layers with face upon face. And it seemed literally as though here no time had ever passed. Jimmy was still tending bar, the jukebox was still a sad muted and muffled speaker of background time machine music, with people like Patty Page, Merle Haggard, blues and soulful drinker’s tunes I’d heard many times as though they were drifting down a long-padded tunnel from the mouths of the ghost singers themselves. And drinkers sat hunched in the eternal crucifixion on bar stools.
I took my place. It happened to be open, as though an invisible hand had saved it for me all these years. But at first nobody noticed me, like I wasn’t even there. I looked around for familiar faces. And pretty quickly I saw one. Eddie Ferris. Little con-man, beggar, thief. He was a drifting, circling barfly slipping through the veils of space-time into any bar I would ever enter. Nobody trusted him, nobody liked him, but you could count on him to be there when you ordered a drink, tipping his empty glass your way. His presence was a strangely comforting thought. He was mildly schizophrenic. Often, I wasn’t sure what he was saying as he talked fast about some crazy deal you knew wasn’t real or the conspiracy people with their eyes looking through the electronics and listening through the plumbing and other kinds of surveillance. One time he told me that a guy who owned a florist shop was actually running a front for human trafficking, and his story turned out to be true. How he knew that I will never know, but after that he became more deeply and religiously committed to his various delusions, and everything he ever said concluded with “gimme a little cash to tide me over,” which everybody knew was just a form of charity to poor old Eddie, a charity I gave to on many occasions because Eddie hadn’t always been this way. He was a sweet kid who wanted to teach, but somewhere in his early twenties things started to slip, and he started talking about the numbers running through his head and how he believed that Zeus was on his trail and punishing him with nightmares and lightning storms at every turn. He chained himself to his girlfriend’s car to keep her from driving off into a vortex of annihilation. He was in and out of mental wards for a while after that. And that’s when people started calling him Poor Eddie. He’d sell you out for a dime, if he could. But he would also do anything for you. And he always smelled of alleyways and dirt yards, always needed a shave, always seemed one step away from the grave. Poor Eddie. I once found him sleeping in my car. He was just this side of being homeless and probably was homeless much of the time. And like a ghost he came and went, drifting in and out of our lives, but as far as I knew, for all his petty crimes, he had somehow kept himself out of prison.
When I saw Craig, there, I felt like a ghost at my own funeral. I’d known him my whole life, too. His family had money, but for whatever reasons of fate or a broken code in his brain, he drifted beyond the line and became a master of procuring anything that wasn’t legal to sell. He could get you anything, guns, drugs, you name it. And like Eddie, I had known him since grade school. I went to his twelfth birthday party, and all I remember is that some kid went home crying and then the party was over and Craig stood there in his window watching us go with a look like he was going to burn the place to the ground. I never found out just what happened, but in the inarticulate adolescent way of understanding, it became clear that something was a little off in him. The most basic, simple moral and compassionate human qualities never developed in him. And it showed most in the way he loved guns. We were in the same class at school, and one time when we went on a field trip to the museum of History and Industry, he ran straight to a display case full of old rifles and Lugers and Colts, shouting, “Outa my way—guns!” Early on, he always had them on him, could get you any kind you wanted. He was a gun historian and knew everything about the designs and designers of guns, the famous killers who had used them and every detail of their lives, who was killed by them and the different kinds of damage done by different kinds of bullets, which guns were used in every war in which guns were used and which guns were preferred by all the famous gangsters. And so he became Craig the Gunman. Yet when I saw him here now, as ever, he was still a big kid who liked to play with guns. He never told me, but I heard from others that he had killed someone. I never asked him about that.
Some other people I didn’t know were in the back playing pool. Every once in a while I heard the crack of a shot. And when at last Jimmy caught sight of me with his peripheral sensor, he slid down the bar and his face lit into a devil’s grin and he said, “Tom, you wily ghost, where the hell did you come from? What’d you do, break out? Hey! Slapper here,” and he threw out his hand. Jimmy was a broad-chested, thick-armed man in his forties, maybe early fifties, with hair still pitch black. He was handsome with eagle features and sharp, watchful eyes. A charmer of devil’s with a little devil in him, too.
“I’m a free man,” I said. “Free and clear.”
“Well just look at you. And don’t you just glow.”
“I do believe I do,” I said.
“When did you get out?”
“Couple of days.”
“Well, hey! You are just a newborn, aren’t you?”
“I just started learning to crawl.”
“Well, we’ll get you up on your feet here in no time.”
“I could use a lift.”
“Hey, I think I saw Thane—”
“Ah let it wait, let it wait,” I said. “What I’d really love to do is just sort of soak it all in for a moment, you know what I mean? And I’ll see those guys soon enough.”
“Sure. Sure. Of course. I gotcha. They’ll sniff you out here before too long anyway.”
“I’m sure they will,” I said. “In fact, it’s inevitable.”
“Life’s not a rehearsal, but it might be a simulation.”
“Let’s call it reality for now.”
“Let’s call it a dream within a dream.”
“Let’s have a drink before I wake up.”
“I think I’m trained for that. Say, what happened to your hand?”
“Ah, this?” And I held my hand up with its dirty bandage. “This is just from a little on the job injury.”
“Looks a bit raggedy, man, but, hey, you’ve got a job already. That’s good.”
“Yep. I’m a working stiff and a contributing member of society.”
“Well I’ve got the antidotes for that, here. So, what can I get you? Hey!” He snapped his fingers. “I know, I know.” He poured me a shot of whiskey and then a tall pint of beer and placed them before me and laid his towel over his arm like he was a priest administering the Eucharist. “And you’re not paying for anything, either, buddy. You hear me? Your money’s no good tonight. Everything’s on me.”
“Ah, thanks, Charlie. Thank you very much. I appreciate it.”
“Really, I mean it,” he said, his hands bouncing across the bar and fingers going like he was playing piano keys, flicking matchbooks into ashtrays, tossing a stir stick into his teeth, “But you know,” and he looked at me with squinting scrutiny, “You look pretty good. In fact, you look great. You look the same, man. So what’s the deal? Time hasn’t touched you?”
“Well… It has.”
“Naw, man. You escaped its claws, somehow. Somehow you did.” He just stood there staring at me and shaking his head. “It’s good to see you. I missed you. You’re the only person around here I ever really thought of as having any kind of moral substance.” He sneered. “Most of these guys are just a bunch of fuckin’ bozos. But not you. You’re real, man, and when I found out you were going to prison. Fuck, man. I knew something was wrong with the world. I was really depressed!”
“It’s nice of you to say that.”
He was conning me, so to speak, and I knew it, and he knew I knew which was always the basis of our relation. I wasn’t sure of the angle, but I didn’t care and we got along fine. I had known him since I was seventeen. He and my brother were close friends at one time, and on my seventeenth birthday he gave me a copy of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s book, One Hundred Years of Solitude with a big fat joint taped to the inside cover. All the members of his family were intelligent and attractive and talented. His mother was a jazz singer. His sister went to seminary and became an Episcopal priest, and his brother became an actor in Hollywood and wrote a screenplay that was made into a movie that did pretty well. Like a lot of our fathers, his father was a distant presence, a coroner who once took him to see the freshly dead body of a girl from his school who had been killed in a party-car crash. The glimpse had its affect. Charlie had all the same gifts, the looks, the talent, the intelligence. He had written a novel himself that was well received, and that was a big deal in our mostly under-achieving if far-reaching crew. But for some reason he stayed here, working in this dive bar. He bought it from the previous owner and turned it into his own underwater grotto dream and never left. You could find a thousand poems in your destitute soul here, I suppose. I could say he was a bad influence, but who knows? People have said the same about me.
I took a drink of the whiskey and sipped the beer. “All right,” I said. “This is the first real drink I’ve had in…thanks.”
“Just what the doctor ordered,” he said.
“And you. You look hyper as ever. Charged up. What’s up with you?”
He did an exaggerated karate chop with is arms. “I’m the lord of Hades, man. What can I say? I’ve got to keep them entertained.”
“Hey, you remember the rock climbing we used to do with my brother? Up there at Risky Peak? You still rock climbing?”
“Oh yeah, I do, some. When I can.”
I shook my head. “We did some crazy climbs. And those were beautiful climbs we did out at Pinnacle Peak. Do you remember that? We were just starting out, then. You guys went on to do a lot more than I ever did, those pitch climbs you guys used to tell me about.”
“Yeah. Those were some magical climbs. But I don’t do those that much anymore. And I haven’t seen your brother since he went into the Navy. What ever happened with him?”
“He’s been living up north. He got out of the navy and sort of…he’s been living up there.”
“I actually had a little climbing…incident.” He held up his hands as if to ward off a curse. “Nothing traumatic. But I was leading a little group, you know, me the wise elder, and there’s this pretty little girl just wide eyes with innocence and fear and, well, maybe a little lust? and I’m saying, ‘why, here now, you need to use a fist jam, you know, where you just jam your whole fist back into the crack, here’ as I’m attempting this problem, trying to insert this cam into a crack, and the next thing I know, whoof, I’m dangling three feet below them and upside down, knocked my head against the rock and opened myself up bleeding and looked like a super mess.”
“Naw. It was no big deal. A little embarrassing, being the expert and all, but I still climb. I love it! Rock is pure, you know, and when you get up into it, it’s pure sky, pure wind pure…life. Real. You’ve got a hold of something real, you know, like your life! It’s like flying. The closest thing to real freedom.” He looked at me askance as though he might have said something that would offend me. I didn’t mind. Then he grinned and said in mock Irish, “I kicked me heals in heaven.”
And that’s when Thane showed up. He had spotted me. He materialized out of a black vapor at my side, leering in that cool way he had, everything about him a kind of come-on, his eyes two deep red glittering ember jewels. “Tom,” he said, smiling and moving from side to side like a hypnotizing cobra. He shook his head as though he were clearing his vision. “What am I seeing? What am I seeing? Is it really you?” He reached out his hand tentatively like one of the monkeys in 2001 and touched me. “Yep, you’re real. Now, how? How? Howya doin?”
“I’m good,” I said, and I smiled.
“I bet you are, my man.”
“Now, Thane Volpone,” Jimmy said, “don’t you start messing with him.”
“Why, I’m not the bad guy!” Thane said, and he looked around like someone was going to agree with him. “Am I the bad guy? I’m not the bad guy!” And he pouted and shuffled his feet and aww-shucked it pretty good so that even Jimmy laughed. Of course, Thane was probably the most felonious person in the place, but he was always a careful, intelligent operator. Like all my friends, he was once just a kid, a little wilder than most but with this unusual, almost karmic fate to be on the wrong side of the law. He liked to skateboard, and he had some favorite spots down on the college campus near where we lived, but of course there were signs around saying No Skateboarding that he ignored because skateboarding was his meditation, his religion at the time, and nothing as humanly arbitrary and illogical as a college regulation was going to keep him from the performance of his art. He was run off more than once by the campus police. Eventually they knew him by name and by sight, and one campus officer in particular with the unlikely but true name of officer Freeman “arrested” him, even though campus security weren’t technically allowed to arrest and detain anyone. But Officer Freeman was sick of this kid flouting the rules and regulations of the campus community. To him, Thane was just a young punk who wasn’t even a student at the university, and he decided to step beyond the bounds of his authority and zip-tied Thane’s hands behind his back and took him off to the security offices and detained him without allowing him to call anybody for five hours, just to make an impression. Well, it did make an impression on Thane. And after that, he became a rebel with a singular cause, and that was to antagonize Officer Freeman in any way he could. He skated all over that campus just hoping to be seen by officer Freeman so that he could make his escape, which he usually did, and so send a message back to this man who in his mind had violated a bigger law of the university and wielded the worst kind of false authority. Thane even began breaking into buildings on the weekends and skating down the corridors and leaving definite, even scatological, signs of his trespass wherever he went, a bouquet of love for Officer Freeman. Eventually, Officer Freeman moved on from his position as campus security officer but not very far. Officer Freeman’s next job was as a city cop, and he made it his mission to keep an eye out for this young thug named Thane. And then it became almost cosmically comic. For a while, Thane had a beat-to-shit car with only one windshield wiper, and that on the passenger side. One night, we were out driving around, and it was a pretty rainy night and hard to see. Thane was pulling through an intersection and very nearly hit a woman who was walking through the crosswalk with her boyfriend. The boyfriend freaked out and started shouting and kicking his car, and who should show up at that moment? Officer Freeman. And Officer Freeman gave Thane every citation he could imagine. Not too long after that, Thane’s apartment was bombed for bugs, so he climbed into his car and headed up to the park in the hills above the city to sleep the night. And who should come along and find him there? Officer Freeman, who arrested him for vagrancy and trespassing. Officer Freeman was getting his revenge, and to Thane, it was a sign that the universe was no friend to him and did not respect his freedom. After all, it was coming after him with an avatar ironically named Freeman. I don’t know if that was any kind of a turning point for Thane. I don’t know if his life would have turned out any differently or if he would have made any different choices, but from that time on, the only law Thane respected was the law of what he wanted.
“And you’re out,” he said like a baseball umpire. He was playing it dumb, for the moment, like he was some buffoon, but he was, I knew, deep down clear minded and calculating all the time. Then he stopped and looked at me and smiled.
“That’s right,” I said. “I’m out.”
“Do they know?” he said.
“Well, welcome back to Phet, my little thanage in the wilderness. Hey!” He looked around as though scanning for spies, rubbing his hands together like Nosferatu, then turned back to me, eyes rolling and head lolling, now acting hopelessly drunk. He raised one finger and said, “Give your thoughts no tongue! Be familiar but by no means vulgar. And the friends you have…” and here he placed his hand most ceremoniously on his chest, “…by all means loved, and their loyalty tried, grapple to your soul with hoops of steel.”
“Why, Thane, I didn’t know you swing that way,” Jimmy said.
Thane merely smiled and bowed and then dropped the drunken act. “Do not dull your time with the entertainment of every new-hatched, unfledged comrade. And beware of entrance to a quarrel! But of course being in it, bear yourself so that your opponent shakes in terror! My blessing season this in thee!” Now he stared at me, stone cold sober. And he leaned in close and whispered, like he was telling me a secret, “You’re out. You’re out. Out? You looking for work? Would you like to come back into the world?”
“Nope,” I said. “Got work.”
“Really?” He sat down in a chair next to me and nodded to Jimmy who evaporated from our proximity.
“Not that kind of work,” I said.
He batted his eyes in a mawkish way and said in a funny falsetto voice, “What kinda work you doin?”
I drank, smiled, said, “Work in work. Real work. Blue color stuff.”
“Workin up there, huh?” He narrowed his gaze. “Salt of the earth.”
“Well, it’s probably not so bad, huh?” He leaned back and stretched his arms wide and then dropped his elbows onto the bar and spun out a Southern accent as he said, “Why, you probably got those family men in there with ya, the high school drop-outs doin forty to life, right? Ah….now, don’t get me wrong. They’s the salt o’ the earth like yourself, and I do love each and ev’ry one of them. World wouldn’t work without them. You know, I’ve been bound to labor jobs before, myself. Sure, and you know, it’s good for the soul and all, builds character and all that. Say, though, my friend, if you start getting bored, well there are alternatives—”
“I bet you’ve got a million plans.”
He smiled from ear to ear. “Well, now, you know I’m always thinking.”
Then Chuckie appeared, and he was lit up, swaying with a grin he couldn’t quit. He was talking but barely moving his mouth, just perpetually stone-faced, saying, “Man oh man oh man it’s good to see you.” Crazy Chuckie, and he reached out and gave me a light, bony finger insect embrace and just sort of drifted back and looked at me and said, “Man oh man oh man, you look good, you do, welcome home,” and he started to reach out to me again, but Thane slid off of his stool and guided Chuckie into it and stood there with one arm around Chuckie’s shoulder sort of holding him up.
“All your friends are here,” Thane said as he swept his arm back like P.T Barnum, displaying the fat pool players with their John Deer hats, the old men with toothless grins and red rheumy eyes, the shriveled potato crones hunched down in their booths. “These your people…” And he had the most extravagant smile on his face, I couldn’t help but laugh.
“Yes they are,” I said.
“Well, hey, my man,” Thane said abruptly, changing again, “It’s time I’ve got to go.” And he was so clear-eyed that he didn’t seem like he had been drinking at all. “But I’m glad I caught you ‘cause I’m having a little party tomorrow night and I want you to come. I think there’s someone there you’ll want to meet.”
“Intrigue,” I said. “Where?”
“Here,” he said, and he took out a business card and flipped it over and wrote down the address.
“Business card?” I said. It seemed like a joke. I half expected him to whip out a top hat and a monocle.
He smiled and handed it to me. I read the address he had written on the back, then turned the card over and read the print:
“You…you have business cards?” I laughed. “This is good. Very good.”
“Do you mock me?” he said. “I will not be mocked!”
“All right! Good enough! Genius.”
“So, see you tomorrow, then, buddy?” He glanced around at the all patrons once more and then said, “It’s good to have you back among the dead.”
“Well, you’re here, aren’t you?” I said.
“Don’t get smart.” And if he had had a cape it would have swirled and billowed as he turned and disappeared in a cloud of smoke through the double doors.
“Man oh man oh man,” Chuckie said, and I turned around as he gripped me by the shoulder with his claw fingers. “Man oh man, I swear that guy is scary.”
“Thane?” I pulled back and took a hold of his wrist and drew his hand away. “Thane’s all right, really.” I took a sip of my drink. “I’ve known him since high school. He’s a good guy. He just likes to play the devil.”
“No no no. You know, people say, ah Chuckie, he’s crazy, he’s just a drunk crazy, say crazy stuff like oh I see sound waves man, see em in the air swirlin and spinnin and rollin and sendin little streamers down to invisible antennas on cars and houses and heads, a whole sea of sound, but you believe me because I tell you it’s true, that guy is evil.”
I am pretty drunk by the time I get out of there weaving and rocking and trying to unlock my car door with both hands leaning down like a jeweler to get it open and I get in and shut the door and start the engine and pull back and stop with a lurch and look again and pull back and roll into the street nice and slow and shift up and ease forward and head through the dark under the gray stanchions of the overpass and the big graffiti scripted walls around the railroad yard with the street lights floating overhead like dandelion seeds and the river on my right glittering black reflecting all the industry lights and the hills in perfect watery forms as I pass the shipping crates towers of different colors stacked in such a way that I’m convinced that the big blueprint is in the alignment of the boxes and that lettering code would give me the key to this whole quivering charade if I just stopped and read it closely enough but I continue on up the road above the river that reflects even my own car like a blue torpedo whoa stay on the road buddy yeah and as I pass the homes I project myself in with the copper pots hanging over the stove and the blond people going in and out of rooms and wow eyes front as I head around a curve and into a tunnel of elm trees heavy arching over and then come out where I see the city across the river like glowing spires with spotlights swirling in geometric webs over some car lot or electronics store or theater and I think Chuckie’s not so crazy those might be sound waves as I drive into the dark dark dark they all go into the dark and I’m singing whooee think I’ll have a cigarette and I punch the lighter and sing bad bad bad whiskey made me lose my happy home pop and I get an electric ember to light my cigarette and I smoke ahhh wind coming in through the window as I let my arm hang out and drift bad bad bad whiskey coming from the radio and here we go along the cemetery and the reservoir tower like some alien ship from the fifties and the homes burning with people inside like gnomes and I’m peeking through your curtains to see if you see me in the night with all your reflections and there there that’s my little apartment hovel yeah I’ll just oooh glide right in and off with the engine off with their heads and I climb on outa here and oh back in I fall and then I try that again because I’ll try my luck again and pull myself up and out and slam the door and head up the stairs with heat curled paint crunching underfoot and there’s my door and that’s my number and here I come lock lock lock I say open open open and my hand fumbling damn bandage looking like filth so bad I rip it off and throw it down into the street and turn and open in and close the door and take off my jacket and go to the kitchen and turn on the water and drink from the faucet and then go to the bathroom and then go to the couch and lie down in the room room room going round round round like a helicopter blade like a whirlpool like a vortex taking me down down down the dark ladder.