A CONQUEST OF SORTS
By Jazzbo Koontz
I sip my beer and die a little. A few cells give up the ghost, drop in their tracks. Put aside their feeble work and fall into the lymph stream, victims of time. They float away to be gobbled up by big fat white killers.
My elbows threaten the Formica, burnish it to new heights of luster. Poor man's marble. A forest fire hisses in my ear; the animals flee: deer, squirrels, rabbits, groundhogs run for their lives. Overhead a hawk circles the fire and smoke, eyeing new life on the timberline, a new day, a greener home on the rim.
Stare at me, damn you. You chrome-topped glassman, full of your mysterious powders. Paper napkins press obscenely together and whisper in their airless world. The wiper cometh, lugging a leer and the juice of a burger on his lips. It is the end of time for some, Armageddon on the countertop.
I fear, and have for some years, that my sanity is going to depart all of a sudden. I suspect that one day it will simply catch the 12:03 to Yuma with bags packed, or it may skyjack a PSA 737 to God knows where and leave me with nothing but holey socks and a belt with the buckle broken. It will dance away into the night like a fool, waving my striped drawers of vanity above its pointed head, showing me up for the fool I am.
Well, what will it matter in a hundred years? Who will cry when the bones are gone, except the man to whom the bones belonged in the first place? Will they cry, the old ladies with black veils? How about the young ones with silken thighs and that timeless look in their eyes? Or will the only tears come from the stern man with the sheaf of bills in his hand? Yeah, the real loser, but it serves him right. He bought and sold too much.
"Another?" she asks.
"I can't fly on one wing."
"I don't think you have to worry about that." A smile.
"You'd be surprised."
And you would, that is true. Worries pile up before me like an evicted man's furniture on a sidewalk; a chair of dread here, a sofa of doubt there, my little trinket box of ego spilled into the gutter for all the world to see. Ugly, sordid little things, like aborted fetuses, not as good as worthless. Lizards of agony, worms that gnaw in dead flesh and pray for something live to eat. A mockery. The hand on my watch spin in reverse and Fate shoots me the bird from a passing auto.
But it is hell to be drunk and in love and in fear of death. Not physical dead, that's more common than horseshit. The poor do it every day and stay on their feet. Even the rich die, but they lie down and look solemn and proper--it's all in the breeding, you know.
No, I don't fear physical death, we have been friends far too long. He is a smug fellow who does not always enjoy his work, like the garbage man. But what the hell, somebody has to do it.
What I fear is the cessation of sanity that death brings. Death is insanity, there behind the Curtain of Bozo. Dead people are all insane. The reason should be obvious.
I look across the counter at her. I can hardly bear it, it hurts too much. She is too soft and too round and radiates too much of something that overpowers me. I want her very badly but to this point I have not had her, and this troubles me.
Perhaps I'll know her better when we're both insane in death. Perhaps our kindred spirits will bump together in some dark corner of the universe and we'll rut among starlight. No bodies, nothing to feel with but the mental connection of ultimate insanity. No need for questions or motives, no need to impress or play head games. No head, in fact, which is sad in itself.
I want it too, she once said to me in this realm. I want it, but it wouldn't be right.
Morality rears its ugly head. The sorry affliction that stifles the world, a thing far too treasured by the lumpen. A notion professed in meaningless books, shouted and gestured by those assuming greatness.
I was a moral doctor in my time. My instrument was made of steel and plastic and spat insanity at an alarming rate. People owned stock in the goddamn thing, for Christ's sake! The stock market rose and fell on children with their noses burned off, mothers with babes welded by fire to their little tits. But I was a doctor of morality and I delivered the heathen out of his ignorance with my instrument of plastic and steel, state of the art insanity-maker. Tall, blond and blue-eyed, all-American lad, a letter on my shirt don't you know, upright and moral, always doing the right thing for the Uncle come what may, or at least someone's notion of what was right. A human being myself walking in the garden of insanity, blood on my hands and brains on my trousers.
It gets to the point where you look at the top of a friend's head blow away and think only how white the bone is. That, my friend, is morality.
It's too good or too bad to be believed. It does not require belief to live, because we don't live in a world of thinkers or believers. We live in a world of doers. And much of what we do is questionable. Too bad.
I watch her move. Mercury made of peach ice cream and poured into French jeans. Bon-bon eyes. Rolling in space like an eight ball whispering across felt to the corner pocket, reflecting light in a spray. Oh, to be a child again, a wild man on the gymnasium floor, dribbling those two sweet orbs down-court! Stripping the net with a jumper from the top of the key, out now in the three-point paint.
Oh, you southern gothic asshole! I see you there in the reflection from the chrome napkin-holder. A wildman from the land of shotguns in the barn and ropes tossed over tree limbs; a strait razor across the windpipe. There are twisted genes in your genetic jello, you big ugly fool! Your head is tuned to some frequency blaring from the back side of the moon, it can only be heard by those born with a certain crystal in their brains. You dream of it, of Mighty Electrons gathering on a hillside in Tennessee, stacking themselves in neat little piles, pyramiding up and up until finally they touch the vaults of heaven itself. And then they all give forth energy in unison, a mighty orgasm of electric plasma ripping up the asshole of the universe in one humongous surge, lighting up the horizon of forever. From the outpouring of currents a large electric sign blazes across the heavens: THE TRUTH WILL MAKE YOU FREE! She knows nothing of all this and cares even less.
Hold on there, boy, don't let the guilt kill you. Others have done the same, even worse. You went to your father's funeral, didn't you? Even before he died perhaps. The tears meant more than, they were not lost in a great profusion that meant absolutely nothing. It's easy to weep at Death, requires no sheepskin from this or that exalted university. Time just winds down, look at your watch if you think I'm lying. You're dying while it spins on your wrist, boy, don't you know that? Watch it click away, second by second, it all goes down in that turning mainspring and ends up stored in some crystal. Is that Hitler staring at me out of the date window? Could be. Go thee away from me Adolph! You were a naughty motherfucker in the school yard of life! You tried to fuck the game, and we don't like that.
Well, a riff or two of hillbilly musical philosophy tears through the madman's head: If you love me let me go, if you don't then tell me so. Country music gets right to the core of things, no room for bullshit. But hell, why not, if you love me iron my shirt? Not quite so romantic maybe, but it'll work if push comes to shove.
Well hell, romance is for children. Dancing class and blushing cheeks when fingertips meet. We outgrow that--a deep look in the eyes now may mean only a search for glaucoma. Deliver me from the evil I see before me.
"We'll be closing in 20 minutes, you want another?"
And why the hell not, might I ask? We all need another and another and another. Ad infinitum. Until the cows come home. I hadn't even known they were on a journey, but then I'm not aware of everything I should be at times.
Ah, the grand barroom of life! Customers stand ten-deep and scream out orders to the barkeep, who looks sorely pissed. He got the shitty end of the stick again. He's the man whose mother-in-law became a permanent houseguest. He finds more hair in the tub drain every day. He suffers from piles and lumbago, and has fearsome little twitches deep in his colon that make him dream of a plastic shitbag taped to his belly. His only daughter dropped out of school and became a crack whore. His wife smells like fried onions and stale carp.
He fought in Korea, fer Christ's sake! Doesn't anybody give a fuck?
As Simon said, gotta keep the customer satisfied. That's what it's all about, keeping the boys content and in line, and to do that you've gotta make some concessions. Let the run a little wild sometimes, let them break the furniture and screw the pooch. Not too much though, the man will come with a big truck and repossess it all. Lawyers with gray pageboys and greasy little mustaches will come knocking, toting briefcases full of grief. They rattle papers and look important, the Great American Dream being lived out. That's what it's about here on the ragged playing field of life. Heaven must be an endless office with billions of tones of stationary; eye shades; coffee urns; trillions of yellow pencils; all the newfangled electronic gadgets. God sits in a big leather chair, tapping a pencil on a diamond desk. The pencil says "WELCOME TO HEAVEN, HAVE A GOOD DAY!" on its side. God thumbs through his documents and portfolios and then picks up a golden phone, dials his broker. Another block of General Motors, dammit, we'll show those gooks who's in charge! This is American by God and under God, nobody will sell us short! If they don't know God is American, they'll find out in a big fucking hurry!
You don't want to fuck with God when he's pissed, it ain't healthy.
Oh yes, I would love to drive you home. I would give my eyeteeth, my left thumb. One of my testicles at the very least. The Man overdid it with two anyway from what I hear, one will suffice quite well, thank you.
Did she say that? I'm not sure. Yes, I am sure. She did. No, I can't believe it, but yes, I must. He works, after all, in strange and mysterious ways. The Book tells me so--I do not believe The Book, except at moments such as this when it is beneficial to do so. Then, I would be a fool not to believe.
It's called "selective believing," sort of like selective viewing on the tube. Situational ethics without the ethics, if you will. Pick your own garbage, not let the purveyors of garbage pick it for you.
Why certainly I'd like one final beer, especially at your place. Dolphie Buckwind, my poor dead friend, always said he could "read eyes," and I can too. I wish you well, Dolphie, wherever you may be. I would give the sight of one eye to see you again.
Reading eyes saved me from murder in many a barroom fight. It's hard to hold all that murder in check, it slips out through the pupils. If you're good you can slip the punch a nanosecond before it's throw and then generate your own murder.
I can read her eyes I think. I think she knows what's coming and I know what I hope is coming. But here at her door, waiting for the final beer prize for the ride home, nothing to do but wait and see.
Oh mellow madness of leatherette and chrome! Oh sparkling gray dappled Formica and the smell of yesterday's spaghetti! I love you! I adore you! I am a patent fool and will to let the whole world know it, because I am far past pretense! Kiss me once, kiss me twice, kiss me once again. It hasn't been as long as it seems, but then nothing ever is.
Let's see, how does the scenario go? Oh yes. Slip into something more comfortable. Something thin and just slightly revealing, don't spoil the effect by showing the whole world in one shot. Just an imprint here and a little hint of knob there, shadow effects. Valleys worth walking through to get to the other side.
How strange. A man spills sour foam down his throat and things such things. Amber waves of grain, osmosis, translucent victory in the early morning airs. Small pebbles of kindness among the hops, look closely not to tramp them into the soil. Pick them up, polish them kindly, and store them away with the arrowheads and the Cracker Jack rings and all the other treasures hidden in the cigar box at the back of the sock drawer. Spend them if you must, but spend them wisely.
What do I hear of this and that? Well, let me see. Nothing is going too well really, but then again I cannot complain. What good would it do? I am past the point of complaint, because I have found it to be pointless.
No, I will not deny my madness. It is an old friend, this insanity. It sits perched on my shoulder like a sailor's parrot, a mean bird with flat eyes and a limited vocabulary. I feed it bits and pieces of my times, at my own discretion. The parrot makes no demands, it knows I would wring its neck without a second thought because birds of craziness are a dime a dozen.
Your smell is overpowering, you know. You smell of lusty cats and dark corners. The roadside by a lover's lane. A soft, gentle room in a clean whorehouse. I would breath deeper here were I not afraid of sucking away all that is you--I would not have you trapped forever in these windbags that will undoubtedly give way to the insistent urge of carcinoma one of these days. No, I shall not breathe you up.
Such times force me to thing of younger days for some reason. Eons ago, clutching for a piece of reality in dim roadhouses, washed in the owl-blink glow of neon and noise. Madman roadhouse dreams, the feel of tricot slipping down a supple thigh. The joys of speaking in silent tongues in the heathen night. One does not sample such and wonder where the oceans came from, doubt that life formed in that ancient primordial ooze. Crawled forth half-formed and licking its own salt flakes. Yes, I ate from the fruit of life and the knowledge I gained pointed only to my bottomless ignorance, all the things I don't know and will never know.
Yes, I am greedy. There is never enough, please don't ask me to share what little I have with you. It would be less than satisfying and it would leave me with less than enough.
Do you begin to understand? I thought so. Come, let us savor the moment for what it is and leaving the rest to the doers and the shakers, all those obsessed with making the world go around. The dawn will shine no brighter for all their efforts, no more than it will for you and I. They will worry as much and accomplish less--that is a good thought, one we should dwell upon to the exclusion of everything else! Except this, of course, which is everything at the moment.
God, or one of his flunkies, captured the warmth of the sun and placed it there. He no doubt wore asbestos gloves, and perhaps did not breath too deeply, coffee enemas and blind hope are useless even to God.
Let me bore you no further, my dear girl. I could not if I wished, that's all there is to it, that's the sum total. My ranting and ravings are the product of a sick vegetable garden that grows between my ears. The tomatoes are soft and mushy, in danger of succumbing to frost. Not enough straw, I suppose. I did expect a fresh load of lettuce in from Salinas any minute, but there may have been mechanical problems. You can't depend on those shipments when the chips are down, as Jim Shoulders once said.
Let me tell you why dawn makes me so sad. I know you can see the moisture in my eyes, and I feel the need to explain it to you. I hope you will understand, but if not I forgive you anyway.
Yes, it is beautiful. But it also reminds me that the sun is using itself up. Did you know that? I realize you're not as smart as I, and yes, I am a bit too chauvinistic at time. Anyway, my child, my ocean spring, my sweet tuna, let me explain the reason for my grief.
The sun is simply dying, piece by piece. Someday it will live only in the books of history, until they too reach Zero Kelvin and freeze, shattering. No, don't be sad when I tell you this, it will live on far longer than our children's children to the hundredth power. We are seeing the middle of its death throes, like the old man dying of cancer who has come to the understanding that he is leaving and so lets his muscles relax and enjoys the trip. The sun packed its bags long ago and now stands on queue with a billion trillion brothers and sisters waiting for the last grand ride, a great intake of solar wind and then a starlight glitter explosion grander that you could imagine. The real super nova express.
No, the moon will not shine then. There will be no Kansas wheat field for it to hang over, no moon over Miami. The cold orb littered with the trash of man, hasselblads, dune buggies, will evaporate along with everything else. Our graves will evaporate with all our history, everything. The slate will be wiped clean in one blinding moment.
Please, do not weep. Here, let me catch you lovely tears on my fingertips. See how much I love you, I even adore the taste of your tears. What greater compliment could one pay?
That is better. Who needs the sun while your smile still lives? Who needs laughter while your eyes still sparkle? Lesser men than I.
No, I will not leave you just yet. But I must be off soon, off alone to deal with my thoughts. They are ragged as a rooster's comb, my thoughts, not the pretty pink raggedness of your comb down there. That is the gateway to heaven.
See me to the door. How beautiful you are in the morning light! Your eyes sparkle like wet Swiss candies! Let the sunlight bathe your skin and bring your sea smell to my nose. There, let me nuzzle that soft spot on your neck one last time, that sweet place beneath your ear where I can heart the blood sing in your veins and know that you are alive and well.
I will see you again soon, barring the unexpected blare of trumpets in the night. Nothing but the cold hand of death can stop me. You know me, a machine when set into motion, a behemoth that is unstoppable. A ragtime cowboy in sheep's clothing. Mad, bad and dangerous to know. Until then...