As I’ve said, I’m a writer in process. Though, aren’t we all? If not writers then at least human beings, in process. I plugged in and opened my old laptop last week. The one with the half-broken screen. I dug through the files and opened one titled simply, “smoke” and found myself reading a story I started writing in 2007. There isn’t much to the story as it stands. I don’t remember if I had a story in mind when I typed it out. Much like the cop narrative I began last week, it is an out-of-context slice from a much larger story I have yet to imagine. What was interesting, though, was to see how my writing has changed in the last six years.
I have to admit though that I wasn’t being honest when I wrote it. I mentioned in an earlier post that when I was younger I tried to emulate the voices of my favorite authors. “Smoke” was my exercise in channeling Jack Kerouac. As it is, it is uneven and crude: my amateur-yet-true voice clashing against the Kerouac-wanna-be impostor. It is also more adult oriented then I ever remember writing. For these reasons and others I’ve been debating whether or not to post it here. But in the end I knew I would, so here it is. Albeit, with an advisory.
WARNING: what follows is of a more adult-themed nature than my previous (later?) work. I have progressed as a writer since its creation, but in the interests of exploring that progression, I post the work below.
I threw the hot butt to the ground, sparks splashing out like dying souls, sputtering once, twice, then fading. The tobacco felt heavy in my lungs. It was my first cigarette in weeks. I held that final drag in as long as I could, savoring the nicotine and the way it settled into my veins and traveled to my brain. It made no excuses for itself. I liked that. I stepped on the butt with the ball of my foot and twisted, making damn sure those lost souls were good and dead. Hell, it could have been my own soul I was putting out under that worn shoe. It might as well have been. Maybe not all souls are worth saving.
But more thoughts on that later, I told myself. There’d be plenty of time to debate the quality and market appeal of my soul when saving souls was the business of the day. This was the night, and the order of business was losing souls. That is, losing oneself to the night, that great buxom woman with too sweet French perfume kissing the curve of her neck and spilling down the gradual slope of her rising breasts with a thousand promises of romance and sweat and dance and drink shaken together with fever and ice and served with a twist of lemon and a plastic coffee stirrer that you at once remove from the glass. But you don’t throw it away, no. You hold onto that sliver of plastic because when morning comes and the great buxom lady closes her purse into which she has lain the souls of men and women lost to her that very night, you will chew on that sliver of plastic and thank God that your wretched soul survived one more weary night. Oh, wretched and weary life, soul, night, seemingly forever lost to each other like a fly trapped in a window, fruitlessly searching for that one small crack through which it had entered, There, between two panes of glass the fly buzzes and dies and no one cares and the world isn’t changed by the fly’s life or death. And so begins the night like the fly, carelessly we wander in an endless search for food, for fulfillment, until by some holy happenstance we find our way through a tiny whole into another world. And for a time we are like the pioneers, wading through the tall grasses and swamps and forests of a new land, discovery around every corner and at the bottom of every bottle and in every smile from a pretty mouth. Calling up the spirit of those early settlers, invoking the ghosts of Boon, Bowie, Crocket, and Kenton, we charge ahead, claiming everything in our path as well earned spoils, manifest destiny the parrot on our shoulder, the cricket balladeer in our ear. Ignoring the pitiful cries of squaws and little naked Injun children we whoopee and yeehaa our way westward, a wake of damnation chasing at our heels and if we stop we’ll get swept up in it ourselves so there’s no looking back, no slowing down. The night, like the west, leaves no time for regrets. Regrets are for sad, sober mornings when the sun spills in through the shades and exposes the previous night’s sins and it seems the whole world is peering through that window looking at you in all your splendid humiliation and no amount of blankets or sheets can hide you away. No, there is no time for that now. Neon lights beckon. Freedom waits in the form of a tall, frosty brew, and a brunette with heavy, caked makeup at your side. We revel in the night, shadows hiding our faces, alcohol clouding our minds. But as the darkness wanes and the taps dry up and the utter uselessness of it all becomes blindingly apparent, we writhe and die a death we die every night at 4 am. And in our death throws we are born again, not to God but to the earth, given over once more to the creation that once belonged to us but now us to it. Slaves to its vices, to instant gratification and lusts and greeds and we sing it’s whiskey praises by night and curse it by day. It is these two pendulum swings that become the transparent prison we die within each night, and oh how we long for that release.
I grabbed Ethan by the shirt collar and pulled him in close. He thought I meant to kiss him so he socked me in the gut. I was in such a frenzy I hardly even felt it and held tight to his shirt. I leaned in, so close I could smell his sweat and my nose almost touched his cheek. I looked right into his eye but said to no one in particular, “It’s only hours till we die. One more round for the downtown boys!” I let go Ian’s shirt and he took a few steps back, but I wasn’t offended because I was already ducking into the nearest bar. Joe smiled that big dumb smile of his and followed close behind, swaggering like The Duke on his way into clean up the town. Ian and Charley had heard the madness in my voice and hesitated, but only for a moment before surrendering. It was the night, and she’s a hard lady to turn down. Even more, we were hard for the lady.
Inside the bar we cavorted with every girl that let us get close enough to get hit with our sweat and spit and madness. The place was jumping before we arrived, but now all was getting out of control, and that’s right where it needed to go. We were a ship going down, and I the captain, leading the passengers and crew straight to hell with a smile on my face and drink in hand. Everyone knew it, and nobody cared. We were probably all hell-bound anyway, so what difference did it make when we got there, and we were having a damn fine time of it. This one girl, all breasts and eyes and curly hair paid me special attention. I bought her drink after drink, trying to get her drunk, not that she needed it. It wasn’t me she was attracted to, but the madness, the frenzy. She was a fine type, all class and culture, slumming it down here in “the real world” she called it. Born into a life of ease, a silver spoon in her mouth. What need did she have to drink and dance and grind in all the bars at all hours of the night? What nerve she had to assume we chose this life over hers, that we had somehow stumbled upon life as it was meant to be lived and were keeping it to ourselves in the basements and back alleys. Poor isn’t a fashion, an outfit to wear around town when you want to fit in, it’s an empty wallet when you want a meal or a drink. There’s no more reality in being broke than there is in having money to spare. And this contessa thinks by sleeping around with madmen like me that she’ll have some revelation about life and be changed forever. I grew suddenly outraged and tossed my drink at her, soaking her face and breasts in alcohol. She drew back in shock, but quickly recovered her sense of pride (as only the extremely well-off and hopelessly destitute can) and slapped me across the face, hard. Like before, my spirits were too high, and now alcohol in my blood matched and I didn’t feel a thing. I just looked at her and grinned an evil grin. I don’t even know what I meant by it – I wasn’t angry anymore, because I knew what she was, so the victory was mine, and what was more she knew it, too. She tried to hold my gaze but backed down and stormed out fast, huffing and puffing all the way. I turned to the bartender and ordered another drink. He poured it and asked about the girl. His concern was legitimate, honest. All the bartenders I had conversed with, all the bars I had leaned on, all the nights I spent slouched at the end of a long, wooden, alcohol-soaked alter, pouring my guts out to a man or woman on the other side, busying themselves cleaning glasses and attending to better customers, and I had never encountered one with more than half an ounce of sincere human care.
The glass stopped at my lips and I thought back on her. Was she really all that bad? I began to regret dowsing her with gin. I tossed back my drink and ran outside after the crazy chick. Amazing how a mood will sway once the booze hits it. One minute I’m furious at her for being such a phony, the next I think she might have a point. How real can life be holed up in some million dollar prison? Raised with a wet-nurse tit in your mouth and only hugging daddy on birthdays. I made it outside, but she was gone. Probably had a car and a chauffeur waiting around the corner, the whore. To hell with her, I said, and strode back into the bar, but the place had changed in the fifteen seconds I’d been outside. Everyone was still grinding and drinking. The lights were still hot, and the drinks were still cold, but something had changed. It was me. For just a moment I’d let myself feel regret, or was it I’d done something that I regretted? Didn’t matter, for me, the night was over before it had begun. I slumped off without telling the boys. Why ruin their night? They deserved to have a good time. I withdrew into my thoughts and let my feet make a way for themselves. They knew this town as well as anyone, and they’d never lead me astray.
But my feet were no fortune tellers, they could not see the danger I was heading into. Physical danger is one thing. I can handle myself in a fight. The years I spent growing up on the south side of Chicago were a great coach for that. No, it was a more sinister danger I was doomed for. Drunk, alone, and deep in thought are the worst combination I can ever find myself in. Long ago I learned to never drink alone so that my mind would have no shortage of distractions and entertainments. But alone, the alcohol saturates my mind and causes my thoughts to turn as black as the ends of the alleys my feet carried me past. And what was at the ends of those alleys? Garbage, sometimes piled taller than a man stands. Rats with their sharp teeth and small eyes and plagues. Bums sleeping among yesterday’s newspapers, a bottle of rotgut next to a bottle of their own urine. All the refuse of a modern city, and my mind no different, now sorting through all the refuse of a modern man. The rich girl, desperate to trade her money and name in for a single night of real passion, to taste the grit and salt of life nearer the bottom. My anger and subsequent regret. I reached into my back pocket for another cigarette, forgetting that I had bummed the last one. I cursed and looked around for a convenient store to buy myself a pack, but they were all closed, gates drawn down over barred windows, locked and secure. I cursed again and lowered my head and kept walking. I preferred all my vices at once, or none at all. I knew I would soon lose myself to my own mind, and craved liquor, tobacco, and sex to ease and quicken the passage. I never did hard drugs, a mind as fragile as mine, I didn’t need narcotics or hallucinogens to bring me up to the edge because that’s where I lived, camped out on the edge of an abyss, the temptation to peer over or even fall was always there, and nights like this I’d move my camp just a little closer. It was inevitable, I knew, that one day I would take that fall, and willfully probably. And maybe it wasn’t what was over the edge that attracted me, but the edge itself, what it represented. It is one thing to be sane, another to be insane, and still another, something far more interesting, to skirt that line between the two. It is a constant feeling of anxiousness, anxious for what is about to happen, never knowing what that’s going to be. Ever at the ready to join the fight or hide in the shadows, not knowing yourself which you might do. I think that all the great thinkers and artists must have known this and spent ample time camped on the edge, barely staving off lunacy in the hopes of achieving some form of enlightenment. In that way I guess we are no different than the rich girl, searching for enlightenment where we have no business being. But there we were, regardless of the danger, because of the danger.
Before I knew it I found myself at Lou’s tavern, a tired old place from my past life. I looked down at my feet and half smiled, half cursed at them. Damn things had an agenda all their own.