Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Emerald and The Ghost of Kerouac (Part 2)

"You boys need another round?" Francine asked, giving us the universal pleasant but distant bartender/cocktail waitress smile.

We both nodded at her then went back into our silence. I had finished three quarters of my beer and a few cigarettes before he said anything.

"So what do you do?"

I ashed my cigarette and took another swallow of beer. I was perplexed by the question. It's one I hear frequently. Especially when meeting new people. It gives them a quick reference tag. But in the Emerald, the question sounded lewd, obscene.

"A writer." I wasn't sure why I said this. I usually only used this card when meeting pretentious classicists and beautiful girls, who are often enough pretentious classicists themselves.

"You make a living doing that."

"A living no. I barely get by."

"You read a lot then."


"Who do you read?"

"Different stuff. Recently, I read some stories by Nelson Algren."

"That sounds familiar. . . Man With a Golden Arm."

"That's him."

"He wrote about Chicago some."


"I lived up there for I guess about five or six years."

"I like it there. I was just up there last summer."

"I've been reading John Jakes. You ever hear of him?"

"Yeah, he wrote The Bastard and the Kent family stuff."

"Yep. You ever read him?"

"I read The Bastard because I like the title."

"Yep, that's something."

"I've got them all. Everything he's put out. If you want, I could leave them here for you sometime so
you could read them all."

"Well I'm not sure when I'll be by here again."

"I'll just have Francine keep them behind the counter for you."

San got up and headed towards the toilets at the other end of the bar. I finished off my beer and got another. I took a cigarette out of my pack and noticed I only had two left. I'd either have to pace myself or see if Francine had any for sale.

I was working off some of the excess weight of my glass and savoring my cigarette when I saw six or seven drunk white-haired men, including San go out the back door and off to Drake's. It must be
clientèle shift change at the Emerald, I thought to myself.

The afternoon was passing by, my head, getting closer and closer to the heavily lacquered hardwood bar; time moving by unnoticed, due to the lack of any windows or view. I'd been keeping to myself since San left, until a woman in her early sixties sat down beside me.

"Great Caesar's Ghost! It's Valentine's Day? When you get old, you forget holidays like this."

My head swung to the left, my mouth went crooked as I looked at her. "No, it was yesterday," I mumbled to her. It was the first time I realized how drunk I was. I wasn't sure how long I'd been there. I just knew I'd put down twelve or thirteen beers.

She looked over and gave me a worn out smile that barred her brown teeth. All the lines in her leathery face seemed to come out at once. I returned her smile and tipped my beer to her gin and tonic.

"Did you spend Valentine's Day with your sweetheart?"

I glanced over in her direction, but didn't say a word.

"You look pretty down. Some hussy break your heart?" She paused for a moment, studied my expression and flashed her tobacco and plaque-stained teeth at me again. I had to say, and even before I could think of anything, she drew a deep breath and began.

"Doesn't matter, you don't need love anyway. I was married for forty-one years. Turns out my husband was messing around with my sister for twenty-five of those years. She was married, too. It wasn't until her son got sick and died that the two of them told me my husband of forty-one years was the boy's father. Her husband had no idea, either. It was a big mess! Now I don't talk to any of them. That's what love's all about. Pain. Nothing but pain."

The glimpse into her life struck me in the gut. I felt a long way from everything that had been troubling me.
There was no world outside at that moment and to celebrate, I had three more beers.

The night crew began pouring in and I could barely hold a cigarette. The bitter old dame and left, still carrying her pain in her heart. I knew that, outside, the sun had long ago made its rust-colored finish. I had to leave. What I was still searching for wasn't there at the Emerald.

I'm not sure how I ended up there or why, but I found myself swaying in the front yard of Jack Kerouac's death house, tucked away in an unassuming residential area. My chest felt hollow, despair overwhelmed me, as I stutter-stepped up the front porch. I stood there, looking back into the street . . . and at the apartment building across the street, glowing in its standard, public lighting orange. The more time I spend in this city, the more I detest the glow of those lights, the way they wash out all natural color and fill the sky with browns, even during the darkest time of night.

My eyes, heavy from drink, began to tear up, as I continued to look out into the world. For a moment, I could feel ol' Kerouac's suspicious, ghost-like eyes staring out of the window, muttering to himself, "Why have you come here?"

In the distance, I swear I could hear bells tolling. The more I concentrated on the beautiful song that was playing, the fainter it got. Then, from the corner of my eye, I saw something pass by. When I turned to look, there was nothing. Now, no bells were tolling and the phantom that passed by me before was moving left, right, left, around and back again. Something was tormenting me in my drunken state.

My mind unraveled, tears poured down my cheeks, and muffled sobs escaped through my lips. I was propped up against a post, gazing through tear-filled eyes at the overgrown bushes that slightly camouflaged the front porch of a dead American poet. Looking, waiting, praying in the only words I knew for a sign. My mind was coming apart; I was in dire need of some help, some guidance. Something to get me through one more day.

The specter was still there. I couldn't see it, but I could hear it breathing, whispering in a tongue I couldn't understand. What I did know, was that it was telling me what I already knew, but was afraid to admit. I had created in my mind the false hope that the ghosts of my heroes would see me through this life. Now, I realized I was alone. My life depended on me and only me. No greater power was illuminating the way.

Deep in both my heart and alcohol-soaked mind, I knew that there was no gentle spirit to lead me by the hand. Jack Kerouac, whose house I was haunting in my own living spectral state, was not home. The Jack I was looking to find had never lived here. This house was the last refuge of a fat, worn-out, lifeless drunk. The last stop on a long journey. The tomb of a man who believed in life, but ended up drunk, disinterested and buried in his memories. I was standing on the front porch of the house where his karma meat took its final beating and ended up vomiting blood all over the floor. The specter that was here, made it obvious that what I sought was never going to be found here or perhaps anywhere.

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