BLEEDING GUT BLUES: EXCERPTS

 CHAPTER ONE   CHAPTER THREE    CHAPTER FIVE

 

After a couple hours of walking, town arrived, greeted me like an old acquaintance. I knew where the bus station was; I’d been there before. The ticket booth was out front.

“Cincinnati.”

“Twenty dollars, please.”

I pulled out the blond girl’s money. Thanks, lady. I couldn’t remember her name, but we’d taken a couple shots together, and she’d babbled at me for a while, couldn’t recall what about. She was drunker than I was, and I must have been pretty well off, because my memory of her was clipped, seconds missing, minutes, possibly hours. Hard to tell. Still don’t know how I ended up outside.

I called Danny from a payphone and boarded a mostly empty bus. I sat near the back, ducked behind the seat in front of me, and took a long pull off the bottle of Jim. Eyes closed, settling in for the ride, it took me a minute to hear the man behind me saying, “Hey, excuse me, hey…”

He asked if I had any pot. I told him I had a roach, but that was it. He pulled a crumpled piece of foil out of his pocket, unwrapped it, and revealed a small black ball of hashish in his outstretched palm.

Okay. “Wait just a minute, until we start rolling.”

Five minutes on the road, we slipped into the tiny bathroom at the back of the bus. Over a plate of condensed THC, both of us shoved at either end of the façade of a john, he told me about his quest.

“I rode from Raleigh to British Colombia, and when I made it to the border, they asked me why I was there. I told ‘em I was there for medicinal marijuana, and they turned me away. Can you believe that?”

I could. I shook my head anyway. I didn’t ask him why he took the long way to Canada. He never told me what was wrong with him, but I kind of assumed it was AIDS. He was Auschwitz thin, early-forties, into Jesus. Most often, the stereotype rings true. We talked about everything from the Iraq war, the new one, only a few months in, to the meaning of life. I passed him the bottle a few times. He witnessed to me about Christ.

We were mostly in agreement. That’s the thing that kills me about Christianity, Jesus in particular. Dude had some good ideas: be nice to people, don’t be a judgmental bastard. Share what you have with those less fortunate. All reasonable arguments. It was the commitment that bothered me, the infringement on personal freedom. The way belief in God can be a weapon that turns people away from those good ideas in the wrong hands.

I couldn’t help myself, the hash was hitting me well. “Here’s the thing – if God is supposed to be this moral epitome, the example of everything we should strive to be as human beings, why does he give a shit if we believe in him or not? Isn’t fear of rejection a little beneath him? And conversely, if we truly are made in God’s image, and he’s as fallible as DaVinci or Van Gogh or any number of human creators, then why should we take his advice? Just to avoid Hell? Is that the sad, meaningless conclusion to human life, that God’s some kind of metaphysical despot?”

He shrugged. “See, I don’t look at it that way. You make it sound like we’re appeasing God by following His rules, like the afterlife is all there is. There’s the here and now, too, you know. I’m just thankful for the ride, whatever it looks like, and I feel like He deserves my gratitude. That’s all. I get to take part in this work of art we call the world, and I owe its creator a lifelong debt.”

I looked down for a minute, and then took another pull off the bottle. “I’m not so sure I do. I think if anything, I’m somebody’s free show, and for all the twists and turns I’ve given him, the least he could do is set me up with a good after-party.”

He laughed. “Well, that’s between you and St. Peter, my friend. Good luck with the negotiations.”

I half-smiled.  

He changed the subject. “So, let me know if this question’s out of line. I’m pretty sure it is, but I’m curious, so I’m gonna ask anyway…”

“Shoot.”

“Where’d you get that scar?” He was referring to the clean line on the left side of my face that started at the top of my lower lip, snaked down around my chin, and followed my jaw line to the bottom of my ear. There’s another one dividing my forehead vertically from my left brow, but he couldn’t see that one, my hair was in the way.

“Bar fight,” I said.

He waved his hand, turned his eyes down, and then back, apologetic. “Alright, out of line, fair enough.”

I pretended to balk, but I was working against a smile. “What, you don’t believe I was in a bar fight?” I weighed in at one-twenty, at the most, five foot, nine inches tall. My T-shirt hung off me like it was on a hanger in the closet.

“It’s okay. If you don’t want to talk about it, that’s fine, I was just askin’.”

I conceded the deceit. “It’s a long story. I’d rather not get into it.”

He nodded, slapped his thigh with his open palm. “Well, we should free up the crapper anyway, kiddo.”

We walked back to our seats. I put on some music and fell into hashish half-dreams. He woke me up to say goodbye some time later. We shook hands, and he clapped me on the shoulder. I wished him luck.


- - -


When I made it to the station, Danny was waiting. I saw him from the bus: grim expression, arms crossed, smoking a cigarette. Looked thicker than I remembered. Hair was shorter, but that didn’t make him look any more clean-cut, probably less, actually.

“You’re starting to look like a redneck, Daniel.”

That made him smile. “You look like you just crawled your way out of a meth lab, and you’re giving me shit. I love it.”

We got in his car, and he pointed to a folded piece of notebook paper on the dashboard. “Got that in the mail a couple weeks ago.” He paused. “Go ahead.”

I picked it up and opened it.

 

Danny,

Sorry it took so long for me to write this, things have been kind of crazy. I’m fine. I got a job waitressing at a bar. I’ve been staying at a hostel near Venice Beach while I get settled. It’s really beautiful out here, you should come visit sometime if you get the chance. That’s pretty much it, I just wanted you to know I was alright, didn’t want you to worry. Take care.

Love,

Angie


On the back was a ballpoint pen drawing of an owl caught in a thicket of roses. The detail was incredible: delicate cross-hatching, thousands of tiny lines created depth and shadow. The owl’s eyes were open wide with terror. How she could draw this shit and always give it away, I’ll never know.

I set it back down on the dash.  

“I was surprised to hear from her at all. I kind of took your side on things a little more than she wanted to hear. Maybe she was just taking it out on me, I don’t know. Chris saw her a while back, but other than that, no one’s heard from her in months.”

I stared at the letter, said nothing.

“Familiar story?”

I crossed my arms.

“Hey,” he said, “let’s go have a beer. We’ll leave in the morning.”


- - -


It was still daylight when we got to the bar. Ten feet away, the bartender yelled, “Dan-o!”

They shook hands. “Tom, how’s it going, buddy?”

“Not bad, man, long time no see.”

He nodded. He pointed to me with a hitchhiker’s thumb. “This is an old friend of mine, Ellis. Ellis, this is Tom, best day bartender in Cincinnati.”

I shook his hand awkwardly. Throughout our adult life, I couldn’t remember meeting a single friend of Danny’s who wasn’t on the other side of a bar wearing a black apron. Okay, exaggeration, but really, he loved bartenders. He called them “God’s people,” typically at the end of the night, shouted into the purveyor’s ear along with a twenty, an arm around the neck, and a face full of spit and whiskey breath. This is for you, man, thank you. You people, you’re god’s people, his favorite pharmacists, all that ails ya, you’ve got the elixir, cause and solution, right? Right? He didn’t believe in God either, but I knew what he meant.

We sat down near the end of the bar, in front of the TV. An old rerun of Quantum Leap was on. While Danny secured the beer, I watched Dr. Sam Beckett on the screen, bickering with his holographic co-pilot, Al, that was his name, always slapping his handheld computer, searching for clues from the outside. As hairy as things got, you always knew everything was going to be okay in the end because if it wasn’t, he couldn’t leap, and if he didn’t leap, the series would be over. Then why haven’t I leaped, Al? He used to say that all the time, about fifteen minutes before the end. It was a comforting little framing device. I was still high from the bus.

Danny broke the silence. “So, you don’t call, you don’t write, what’s a girl to think?”

I pulled myself out of the TV and cleared my throat. “I’m sorry. I know I kind of called you out of the blue, thank you. I just haven’t felt like being social.”

“What?”

“I said I haven’t felt like being social.”

He laughed. “No kidding.” He shook his head.

Danny pulled out two cigarettes, handed me one, lit the other.

“I’m glad you finally did call. Been thinking about you ever since I got that letter. I had a feeling you’d both re-materialize about the same time.”

“You’re sure you want to do this? This isn’t fucking things up with your job or anything, is it?”

He held up his bottle to toast. There was a soft clank of glass. “Naw, they’re cutting hours anyway, fuck ‘em. I could go for a road trip right now. It’s been too long.” He took a sip of beer. “I hope she doesn’t get the wrong idea. I just want to make sure she’s handling everything okay.”

“She’s going to be mad at both of us. I mean, she’s gonna be mad at you on principle, because she’s always mad at you, but she’s gonna be mad at me, too.”

“Eh, I don’t know. Been a while, hard to tell what her reaction’s gonna be.” He took another sip off the bottle in his hand. “So, what’s been going on with you? What happened to your face? What’re you doing?”

“Nothing, really. I’m not doing anything.”

“That’s okay, we’ve got about three days in the car together. You can tell me when you’re ready. God, you look terrible.”

Couldn’t dispute that. I tucked the hair on my right side behind my ear. “I’ve just been floating around, I guess. I was working at a diner for a little while, till they caught me sleeping in the storage room. The college towns on the weekends were easiest. Just find a party and pretend you belong there, get drunk, and sleep on a couch. Try to wake up and book it out of there before everyone else wakes up. Half of them won’t even remember you were ever there.”

“So, you’re a bum.”

I smiled. “I’ve always been a bum. I’m just getting better at it.”

“That’s not what this says.” He pointed to his chin. “You pissed off the wrong person, didn’t you? Some psychopath find you napping in his geraniums?”

“Not exactly.”

“What, you were stealing from him, too?”

“Yeah, I was hot-wiring his Benz when he caught me. He did a nice job, don’t you think?” I held the left side of my hair back and turned my head.

“Holy shit. You don’t get something like that by accident. You did piss somebody off.”

I let my hair fall and put out my cigarette.

“You’re really not gonna tell me. You’re gonna leave me hanging on this, looking at it and wondering.”

I smirked out of the other side of my face.

“You suck.”

I grinned.

Danny ordered cheeseburgers. I don’t know if he realized how long it’d been since I’d sat down to a real meal on a plate, but I felt like a guest at a king’s banquet. We ate, had a couple more beers, a couple shots, and went back to his place. Danny wasn’t living too far out of Cincinnati, in one of those boxy apartment complexes that so often turn into dorms for twenty and thirty-somethings. You always know what the neighbors are doing, they always know what you’re doing, and sometimes they knock on the door at six in the morning looking for pot for their coked-up boyfriend. Maybe that’s just my experience.

Inside was small. His dog was big and greeted me enthusiastically. Danny grabbed a bag and a glass piece and turned on the TV. I circled the room a bit, checking out the décor: a combination of closed cardboard boxes, chipboard, and milk crates. The walls were institution white, and the appliances were probably the same color and model throughout the building – cheap, off-brand fridge and stove multiplied twenty times and shoved into twenty identical closet-sized kitchens. A bobble head Yoda was stuck to the top of the TV. I smiled, tapped the top of its head, and watched it bounce. I started to flop next to him on the couch.

“Nuh-uh, no way, you’re showering before you crash on my nice, clean furniture. I don’t know where the fuck you’ve been.”

Didn’t look nice or clean, but I scooted onto the floor anyway, opened my bag, and set the last of the bottle of Jim on the coffee table. “Night cap?” His golden retriever leapt behind me onto the couch, nearly clipping me with his paw.

“Yeah, what the hell. In the sake of friendship.” He unscrewed the top. The original cap was lost and replaced with the top to a forty of High Life. He held it in front of his face, snickered, and tossed it against the tabletop.

I got an idea. “Hey, can I see your guitar?”

He twisted his mouth. “Can’t. I sold it a while ago. Needed to put down a deposit on this shitbox.”

“Aw. Fuck. That sucks.”

We smoked a bowl and watched Jon Stewart. I missed TV, hadn’t sat down and watched it in a while. I looked at Danny, eyes red, laughing at the screen. It was all so fucking comfortable. Normal. Danny, normal. I laughed at that one. He didn’t think anything of it; he thought I was reacting to the TV.

Before Colbert came on, I got up in the direction of the shower. Danny followed and stopped me at the door.

“I’m gonna hit the sack, Ellis. Wake you up about eight.” 

I nodded. “Goodnight, Danny. Thank you.”

“Naw, don’t mention it. Good to see you again, buddy.” He smiled and clapped me on the shoulder.

He disappeared into the bedroom, I stepped into the bathroom. Had to clean myself up before I saw Angie, last thing I wanted to do was scare her. I found some mustache scissors in the medicine cabinet and cut the matted bits out of the back of my hair so I could brush it. I threw the clippings in the trash and looked in the mirror. The bulk of it was still longer than it’d ever been, probably six or eight inches past my shoulder. I considered cutting it all off; she’d always liked it short, used to cut it herself when we were kids. I held it back and tried to imagine what it would look like. I winced.

I sniffed my shirt. Gnarly. I washed it in the tub and hung it to dry on the towel rack. Shame there wouldn’t be time for my jeans to dry, they’d have to stay crusty. I had some clean underwear at least, still in the package, knew that would come in handy. I pulled out the knob, switching the flow from the faucet to the showerhead, and stepped into the first proper shower I’d had in weeks.

I caught myself in the mirror again as I was getting out. She was going to be shocked; there was no way around that. I hadn’t been eating right, barely at all, and I’d nearly exhausted my body’s reserves. My wet hair sticking to my shoulders made me look like a skinny cat after a bath. You could chart an anatomical diagram on my ribs. Each one protruded independently, like a wire frame under plaster gauze, and my face was drawn, cheeks hollow, eyes bigger than they’d ever been. They made me seem alarmed under the most benign of circumstances, always on alert, like they’d forgotten how to blink. I looked like complete shit. Only two things distinguished me from your average homeless crack head: I had all my teeth, the visible ones anyway, and I couldn’t grow a beard. Give it five years. Maybe seven. Before you’re thirty, for sure, if you’re still upright by then. I sighed and grabbed a towel.

Clean, in brand new boxers fresh out of the plastic, I threw myself onto the couch. I flipped until I found Adult Swim, turned the volume down, and crashed.

 

-- Bleeding Gut Blues copyright S Fitts, 2010.