“So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.”
– Revelation 3:16
I got to the bookstore about 20 minutes after opening.
Nestled comfortably among the vermin runs at the base of the obelisks to the slaves of capitalism and the gods of cultural production we attract the bare minimum of customers to our rare and used books. But more than our fair share of dust. Which suits me just fine. I get around to cleaning (moving the filth around with the best of intentions anyway) from time to time out of some sense of pride in my work or because I’m told to on one of the rare occasions the boss shows his wasted carcass during the week. Mostly I just sit and pass the time as best I can. I’m not too good at it yet.
I unlocked the door, flipped the sign, made a pot of supremely sub par coffee tried to forget the morning. Drunken ramen and a hangover is no way to start a day. At least not a work day with alarum bells blaring and a schedule that must needs be kept. I could still feel a fragment of burst fire siren lodged like a splinter in my brain, forever reminding me that I’m not the one making the rules. Coffee in my system, I got down to the business of the day: reading the free Post I had been handed coming out of the subway and making sure nobody stole anything. Like the world still has book thieves. At least it was quiet.
After skimming the lurid headlines and trying to interest myself in the inane trivialities of Page Six (I thought celebrity lives were supposed to be better than normal lives: sunnier, sparkier, more sure of themselves), I flipped on the 13”. The boss must have been watching over the weekend. The box was still glibly relating the ever rising body count, still questioning why half the world hates freedom in shiny images and inset talking heads smiling and relating death, taxes, and “news”. It was Tuesday and already the world was burning. I don’t know how they handle it. How they look out into the misery of the world, the futility of all, the vast abyss of existence and still go home carefree and fuck their wives (once a week and on special occasions, missionary mostly but he’ll let her be on top every once in a while if she asks nicely or he’s tired and just wants to lie back and take it before she makes him his sandwich) like there is nothing wrong, like this was the way it was meant to be.
I had considered joining the military, the establishment. I had considered buying in, for the stories and the experience; for fitting in and finally being one of the guys, a brotherhood that will last forever. Or, I guess for the discipline and the general ease of living life without the burden of responsibility. And an officially sanctioned license to kill à la James Bond or Jack Bauer never hurt anyone (except 006 in Goldeneye). Learning how to fire an M16 (this is my rifle, this is my gun) or maybe even an M110 (to peer through the reticule and wink at the bastard before the pink mist carries his soul off to the hereafter) is a strong draw, but a vague tendency towards televised ultraviolence and a career of uniformed service don’t really add up to the same thing (not that you need sanction to swing a sledgehammer in a clean crushing arc to kiss the comparably soft flesh and bone of the pleasantly shaped human skull – all you have to do is get them to lie still). I didn’t even bother seeing what else was on. I just let it fade to black and forced myself to get up head over to poetry. Maybe Bukowski could cheer me up.
The first customer was a hoarder. I was still flipping through Sifting through Madness when Rick chimed his way through the door. We nodded amicably and he started his usual shuffling circuit. He was in almost daily checking over everything in the recent acquisitions pile, anything I decided to feature as a book that aroused my interest, and always asking if we got in any new first editions. Every time he came in he bought something. Random shit. Fantasy paperbacks, classic works of high modernist fiction, obscure theory texts, big full color art books as long as they had naked ladies in them, but never a first edition. I don’t know why he kept asking after those because despite the selection he never seemed interested in any of the titles. Maybe he just needed something to talk about, someone to talk to and he didn’t know what else to say, how else to break open the silence and let loose one meaningful word. I would probably really like the bastard if he didn’t scare the shit out of me. I can’t understand why people want to know what the future holds (not that fortune tellers and psychics and frauds of all stripes aren’t just selling platitudes and cold reads, but still). Because if this is how I am going to end up (Bojangling along in ragged clothes, sad desperate eyes, alone in the world save the piles of books that I will never read but buy anyway to fill up the empty spaces), I’d rather the misery of realization came on slowly and preferably after the Alzheimer’s hit.
Rick bought a yellowing paperback copy of The Stand and a nearly untouched Discipline and Punish. He was the only company I had all morning.
Suffering from an extreme case of boredom after waking from my noontime nap, I rubbed one out in the well stocked porn and erotica section to lurid tales of young boys seducing their mothers with fifteen inch cocks or the ease with which a surprisingly attractive and well proportioned woman can convince another surprisingly attractive and well proportioned woman to taste her forbidden fruits until the sweet nectar flows. They came illustrated.
Carly called me as I was finishing up and chatted all light and breezy as if last night had never happened. I tried to keep the edge off my voice. It wasn’t that I didn’t forgive her. Well, it probably wasn’t. I hadn’t really gotten around to processing it. It couldn’t have been an accident. She knew I was going to be at Nocturne’s Alley. Every Monday night, without fail. But … I don’t even know.
I conceded to meet for a late lunch. Most of the customers would show up during their regular lunch breaks and the after work “rush,” so I figured it wouldn’t much matter if I ducked out for an hour or two.
I can’t believe I agreed to J’aime. We went there once before on some anniversary or another. An early milestone that I impressed myself by reaching and wanted to do something special for her. She was always about the fancy shit, nothing quite like being in love in a movie. I don’t know what could have prompted her to suggest it. If she wanted to apologize…
It’s not that I can’t handle the elegant life or know which fork to use and not to wipe my face on my sleeve in public but I have a general aversion to the wealthy and even more so to the hangers on of the wealthy. Sure the diners at the joint were going to be the kind of people that would exchange mutual sneers of disgust with me on principle alone (I’ve made a general effort to set myself against their bourgeois pretensions and taboos) but they generally mind their own damn business. There is nothing worse than having a waiter look down on you, a maître d scoff because your salary is only slightly higher than his and you couldn’t buy and sell his family from your penthouse in view of the park or your office at the top of the private elevator in the building named after your grandfather (plus this guy was ugly, damn dirt lip mustache and tight useless lips and squinty little rodent eyes). I can understand how a trust fund and a life soaked in luxury can give a man an inordinate sense of self-worth and entitlement but why the toad who spends his day ass kissing and refilling water glasses feels equally privileged is beyond me (good thing I’m a pacifist, else I’d tear this temple to empty finery down like Sampson).
Carly broke up with me before entrées showed. I had just started nibbling on table bread when she dropped all the usual one liners. Communication breakdown, growing apart, knew this was coming, staying friends, etc. But I didn’t see how clichés had anything to do with her blowing strangers in dive bar men’s rooms (maybe she’s to classy to bring it up in public, maybe that’s why she picked this joint). Or maybe she had finally met the right stranger. Finally found the guy who wouldn’t be an utter disappointment when she hooked her cunt and claws onto his gravy train. The one who would actually live up to the promise he had all those years ago. I don’t know why she made me come all the way out here for this. Staying at work would have been better for both of us. I downed my scotch, her martini and left.
Back at the store I grabbed a beer from the mini fridge and tore up the note some douche had left on the door about being closed during the afternoon. I’m sure he had waited salivating, pounding on the door, begging for just one page, just to smell the spine, the binding glue for twenty minutes. And then another twenty after writing the note just so he could see me read it and then really tell me off. Fucking losers. Like the world is going to end if some bibliophile can’t get his fix. I tried to get back to my reading. I flipped through the channels trying to concentrate. I gave up. Unless one of the two dozen or so customers that showed up before closing actually needed me to sell them something or point in the general direction one of the clearly marked shelves I just sipped my beer and stared at my shoes. When I locked up I had to kick out a couple of fourteen year olds trying to discover their sexuality in public. I miss being a kid.
Normally after closing up I shuffle my way down the street to Chinaski’s, this cozy little bar where they know my name and Lily smiles at me enough that I almost believe that she likes me more than my tips. She even remembers my drinks of choice. The music on the juke is usually solid if slightly skewed to a campy revival of classic rock, songs best left in the coffins they earned in the eighties, and at least one Cash or Springsteen tune every 20 minutes. The clientele is mostly regulars: guys that will leave you alone if you want to be left alone, but an ear to fill when you need to speak your piece. A few nights a week Chux and Ronnie and Sam (when he can be convinced he’s not as busy as he thinks) will drop by and from there we will tear out into the shadows throw back beers at any number of the questionable establishments of the area. Drinking and laughing about the good old days that we probably never had and definitely can’t remember. Or I would go out with Carly to a nice dinner, or the theater or an art show or maybe just – what does it matter anymore?
Tonight I just wanted to dig a hole and pull the dirt back in over myself. I just wanted to hide away where I could never be found. I just wanted to let my guard down for once.
Heading back towards the subway, a liquor store caught my eye and I figured what the fuck. I hit up the ATM outside taking out a hundred and not even caring about the fiver I was paying for the pleasure. Whatever, I was shopping for one again. And I always feel at home around all that booze. Like an empty cathedral, sacral fonts lining the walls, but no one around to take your confession.
But if I was in the mood for confessing I would have gone to my bar and cried in my beer trying not to realize that Lily was only pretending to listen to me, to all of us. I circled sanctum, noting the details as only a connoisseur of the fermented can. I stood so long in front of the whiskey bottles that the clerk started giving me and the counter equally suspicious glances. Probably hoping he wouldn’t have to use the shotgun that Law & Order had convinced me was under there. Bad days all around. Finally settling on a twelve year old bourbon, I paid up and started thinking about where I could go to sample the little girl. Then I remembered the cemetery. Why not? It was on the way home.
If you are looking for isolation and solitude there is nothing quite like a graveyard at night. Not for the faint of heart or those afraid of running into demons of the deep, spirits from the ether, ghosts roaming the earth unsated, and teenagers smoking pot. Little more than a small closed park with a more than average stock of bones in the ground, I use the place as an escape, a refuge.
I have my favorite places. One has two massive sixteen foot angels with each with a harsh almost menacing aspect guarding over the grave of six year old twins. Another is a really out of the way marker, a small square foot of marble half covered with weeds and set under a spreading chestnut tree with no names, just the Orwell clip and dates. Here in the darkness are monuments to life and its frailty fairly yelling their stories to the world if anyone took the time to happen by. But no one has time to slow down anymore and so their graves mark their death, cold and alone, in far more poignant ways than likely ever intended.
I picked a desolate tree in a slight depression near the center of the grounds, as far away from the streets and the car horns and the sirens and the barking dogs and the screaming children as you can get in a city this big, this full. I made sure I wasn’t standing on anyone and drew the bourbon from my bag, uncorked it; took a pull of the smooth amber goodness: white oak casks, silky, but with just enough bite to remind you that the proof is up around a hundred and it will kick if you aren’t careful.
He had probably been following me for a while. Since the cashbox or maybe he noted my wallet in the liquor store. There wasn’t much else for an explanation. I was dressed decent, almost stylish, but not like I had money. If he was looking for a whale he should have gone elsewhere. I figure he was looking for a sure thing. And if he hadn’t stepped on the twig and showed his hand before I got good and drunk, well …
He told me not to fucking move and flashed a knife that showed a chipped edge in the whisper of moonlight peeking through the clouds. I nearly dropped the bottle. I nearly fell. I nearly shit myself. I nearly screamed like a small child with a skinned knee and no hope of being whole again without a comforting kiss from Mom. But I didn’t. I didn’t do anything. I just told him no. What the fuck is with today today?
He was already twitchy; throwing looks all around as if he figured he had been followed too. There are sleeper agents everywhere. Someone is always watching the watchers. Unlikely that anyone else was going to be around though. Not on a school night. The kids were all tucked away in their beds, bags of oregano and pencil shavings tucked in their underwear drawers until the weekend. You could tell he wasn’t practiced at this, but even less practiced at someone not tossing over their valuables and crying don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me, I’m not ready to die, I have so much reason to live, please please let me live. It wasn’t that I was thinking that I could take him. Or that I figured he wasn’t going to go through with it. It was just that I was sick of this shit.
I asked God if this was it, if this was the end (my sweetest friend, the end). My thoughts started to stray towards my family. This was going to be hard for them. But instead of an answer from on high, all I got was a blur – a vanished instant of eternity. Something must have spooked him. A stray noise drifting in from the outside, a carrion bird settling into the tree, the gentle murmurs of fate, some other hidden secret of an empty boneyard. But he lunged with his blade and before I had time to think my left arm was bleeding and my bourbon was all over both of us, the shattered bottle blanketing the soft grass. I was panting, heart pounding, adrenaline coursing through my veins. Senses sharper, more fully alive than I have ever been. He wasn’t moving.
I stood staring into the darkness, looking anywhere but his face with its twisted snarl of pain, anger, innocence, and confusion. He was only a kid, probably no more than 17, probably less. I closed my eyes and he was still there, begging. But he wasn’t after my money anymore. I leaned against the tree, slid to the cold earth, dialed 911, and waited for the thunder.
I had never killed a man.
It was emptier than I expected. Cold, hollow. Boring, almost. The silence rang in my ears. Exhaustion washed over me. The Abyss was staring back. No one told me when to run.