“The moon sheds light when all is dark
The dog’s reaction is to bark
Is that the moon’s fault?
Tell me true.”
– The Dog’s a Vapour – Bauhaus
VIII – SECONDS
Back in the room. Half-laying on the bed. Knees draped over the edge, legs dangling. Room in slow spin. The food slowly countering the booze. Don’t feel sick. Not yet. Hopefully won’t. Head lolling side to side. A negative pendulum… ‘No, I will not drink again… no, I am not in “drinking shape” anymore… No, this is not productive or helpful…’ Tick Tock Tick Tock.
Michael drove us to the Clarkston Taco Time, just on the other side of bridge. The site of many post-drinking-post-bong-hitting escapades in our youth. While there are very few… VERY few… things I miss from the LC Valley, Taco Time is one of them. When I muse wistfully about the majesty of Taco Time to friends in LA, they ignorantly point to the Southland fast food Mexican staples of Taco Bell and Del Taco.
The poor, ignorant fools. That’s like saying canned dog food is the same thing as a good, long-simmering, homemade chili because they are somewhat similar in appearance. Caught up in the surface appearance. Never bothering to examine further. As I’ve noted many, many times… LA is full of idiots and assholes.
My lovely wife, having experienced Taco Time’s glory in Seattle… caving in to my somewhat rabid insistence that she must try the greatest Mexican fast food invented by mankind… mused that perhaps it wasn’t the food that was so good, but instead that it was the memories associated with it. The “good times” I’d had growing up with Taco Time present as a kind of sensory element. That these “fond memories” had resulted in a flawed and inaccurate objective assessment of Taco Time’s culinary merits as a fast food chain when held in direct comparison to others.
I love my wife dearly. She is the sole object of love and lust that fills my heart, and that spurs my desires to heights I had never imagined possible. She is beautiful, intelligent, witty and compassionate. She’s frankly, perfect in every way.
Except in this matter.
We all have our flaws.
(and besides, she’d only tried the crisp bean burrito, forgoing the recommended Chalupa and Mexi-fries, so really… she’s working from incomplete information at best.)
Taco Time hasn’t changed. Not significantly, in any regard. There’s new upholstery on the booth benches, but it’s still Naugahyde. The workers behind the counter have new uniforms, but they are still awkward looking, ill-fitting, and made of polyester. The menu has some new items, but the old standards are still there. Chuckling and swaying, I roll up to the counter, squinting at the kid who waits to take my order with a crooked smile. I pound the counter with my fist. Hard. Startling not only him, but the half-dozen workers behind him… freezing them all momentarily as they scurry back and forth in their efforts to fry up more heart-attack-inducing fast food mexican goodness. My face is a cartoon scowl full of menace, as I track my head left, then right, then back again, as if expecting a hired gun to come into the saloon at any moment. Ready to draw. A high noon shootout. I glare back at the kid. Staring at his face. The state of his skin reminding me of how grateful I am to be well past the age when oily skin and acne used to be a daily concern.
“Gimme a bottle of anything! And a glazed donut… TO GO!”
The kid looks back at me, nervous and weirded out. I might as well have been yelling at him in Farsi or Mandarin.
He doesn’t get the reference. He doesn’t understand. The insane, surreal majesty of David Lee Roth in his prime was well before this kid’s time… possibly even his parents. The realization instantly makes me feel very tired, and very, very old. I sag on the counter in defeat. A marionette with cut strings. Hearing Michael sigh with his best “Jack-this-is-why-we-can’t-go-anywhere-nice” sigh, I raise my head and tell the kid (who’s now leaning away from the counter and my slumped form as if I’ll explode at any minute) “OK, fine… Steamed Chalupa with a side a’ sour cream, Plate of Nachos, Mexi-fries with cheese n’a side a Ranch.” The kid is still cautious as he punches in my order from a distance as far from the cash register as the length of his arms will allow.
He swallows the billiard ball lodged in his throat and manages to squeak out “OK, will there be anything else?”.
I stand, turning unsteadily from the counter, my hand flopping in a dismissive waggle as I dig for the wallet in my jacket with the other hand. “Need a’Big Gulp too… ‘n whatever Nancy McTightass over there’s havin’.” I pull out a $50 bill and slap it on the counter, and give the trembling cashier my best Clint Eastwood (Which I’ll be the first to admit, isn’t very good) “Keep the change… punk”
Mission accomplished, food ordered, I go. Turning and swaying… a human pachinko ball clattering and rattling down the aisle between the booths. Passing teenagers who are likely as drunk as I am. A couple of families with parents staring daggers at me in disapproval. I am a Bad Influence. A Poor Role Model.
Well, no shit… I grew up here.
How could I be anything else?
I slide into a booth, hearing the cashier telling Michael in strained, not-quite-hushed tones that “Sir, this is a fifty-dollar-bill, we aren’t allowed to cash fifties!” Michael attempts to explain that the crazy drunk man is indeed serious when he said to keep the change, and that yes… both he and I understand that the order placed is well below $20, and no we really don’t want any other food to take with us to make up the difference, when I interrupt him, shouting down the aisle to the counter. “Mikey… get s’mma those cinnamon crispios things… whatever their called… if they still got ‘em”. Michael’s a patient man, even if this was not the event he planned on attending tonight. He rolls with the punches, accepts the change to the title card, and straps in for this special limited engagement tour of “Drunken Jack does his hometown”. He calms the cashier down, convinces the night manager that ‘No, really, it’s OK for this kid to keep the change, because if he doesn’t get to, Drunky McHollywood Ass will end up making the previous trauma he subjected everyone to seem pale and mild in comparison.’ A lifetime/10 minutes later, Michael slides into the booth with a tray holding our order. I hadn’t registered it until that very minute, with the cheesy goodness of mexi-fries wafting up, but I’m starving.
Michael lets me plow through the Chalupa and Mexi-fries in silence, watching with bemusement at my ravenous consumption. Three teenage boys… I’m guessing they clock in around 16, maybe 17 years old… stare at us from the booth on the other side of the wrought iron divider. More accurately… they stare at me. I start to stare back, hackles up, ready for it, but Michael stops me. “Dude… DON’T.” He’s said the same exact words to me thousands of times in the years we’ve known each other. Many of the occasions being when we were the same age as the three tittering teenagers who’ve gained my attention.
I’ve been those kids… stupid, drunk, invincible. Sure that you know everything and that the world should drop to its knees in supplication before you… that you are “bad” and “dangerous” and “edgy”.
I want to shake them and tell them how it’ll go for them. I want to shove them to the ground and beat them bloody with my fist… cracking open the skin on their faces that hasn’t even begun to think about sagging as I scream “Not so ‘bad’ now, ARE YOU?!?”
I want to hold them and pat the back of their heads and tell them that there will be times… many of them… when it feel like eating a bullet or driving as fast as you can into a concrete retaining wall is the best option, but it isn’t and never will be.
I want to cry and tell them I am sorry.
I want to make them see.
I look away. Close my eyes. Lean back. Sigh. It’s staring at myself. Staring at the sun for too long.
Staring at the son.
I hear Michael’s voice, pulling me back to the here and the now. “Jack… hey man… You OK?”
I open my eyes and look at him. Having eaten… having my blood sugar stabilize… I start to realize just how drunk I am. I lean forward and hold my head in my hands for a moment. Thinking about the last time I was drunk and in this place. In this restaurant. I wasn’t even 21. My fingers laced around my scalp, I think about the fact that… back then…my hair wasn’t thinning daily, nor chopped short by necessity. That it was long and wavy and the point of derision for many of the inhabitants of the Valley. I pinch the bridge of my nose and look up at Michael. He’s waiting patiently for me. Knowing eventually my frustration and anger will flame out and I’ll get past all the bullshit and actually talk to him. Like the drunken and/or stoned trips to taco Time, it’s a pattern established back when our daily existence was driven by little more than hormones and anger and an undying belief that no one truly “got” us. “Emotion parties”, Michael used to call them.
“Yeah… I…” I gesture, ineffectually, as if trying to pull the right words out of the air. “This is just…So… y’know… it’s just…”
“Fucked?” Michaels adds helpfully, smiling at my lack of ability to talk. The one guys he knows who can produce run-on sentences like there’s no tomorrow… that can drop $20 words into everyday conversation without giving it a split-second of thought… the guy who makes his living writing… is stumbling on even a basic level of description.
I sigh. There’s no other reaction possible. I shake my head and look up at him “Yeah… yeah, it is. There’s really no other word for it.”
Michael waits while I pick at the nachos, thinking aloud. Half talking to myself while answering his question. “I swore I’d never come back here, and now… all joking aside…” Another sigh, and I drop the chip I was using to mix guacamole and sour cream into a pale, swirly, green mess “Now, here I am.” I gesture around us at our surroundings “…and it’s the same shit. Drunk to try ignore the situation. Trying to sober up at Taco Time…” I throw him a grin “harassing the staff…” which gets a small, silent chuckle from him in return “…and emotion parties. Same shit, almost 20 years later. Just like I thought it’d be.” I bite my lip, fighting off the wave of emotion flooding up “I fucking hate this, man. I hate being here… I hate most of all that I have to be back here because of him. After everything that happened… everything that fucker put me through… put my mom through…. He’s the reason I come back here?!” My shoulders start shaking. Small, involuntary twitches. “It’s a fucking sick joke, man. It really is.”
Michael nods “I know it is. But…” he pauses, trying to find the most diplomatic way to phrase what needs to be said to me. Gives up after a moment and plunges ahead. “Y’know… you are the one all boozed up at Taco Time, man. It’s not like it has to be that way. ‘No destiny but that which we make for ourselves.’ Or whatever the phrase is from Terminator.” He puts a hand on my shoulder, gives me a sharp, short, shake. “It’s your choice, dude. He’s is the one dying here. You’re just here to witness it… an end to all the shit. Then you go home.” He leans back, taking a sip from his drink, giving me a look of mock-pity while he sucks from his straw “Home to your miserable life with two adorable kids. Home to a wife that could be a model except that she’s actually got brains and a sense of cultural history. Home to your dismal little shack in the Hollywood Hills, just around the corner from Quentin Tarantino. Home to a career where you make more on one project than your old man made in his entire, lazy-ass lifetime.”
Michael puts the drink down and looks me dead in the eyes, making sure I don’t miss this fact. “Your home is there. That is your family. Your Mom died, and let’s be realistic and blunt here… those two kids and that woman waiting for you to get back… that’s all the family you have.”
I think about what he’s said. I know he’s right.
I know it intellectually.
I know it.
When Michael drops me off at the hotel an hour later, after deeming me “too wasted” to drive, there’s something down inside… crawling and scrabbling with glittering claws and sour, rotting breath.
Something dark and hateful and bitter that’s coiling just out of the light.
It isn’t drowned out by booze.
It’s not silenced by facts and logic.
That black fetid thing softly hisses to me “No he’s not right…it’s not true”
It’s 3am. Haven’t taken ambien because I’m pretty damn sure the level of alcohol in my system is still too high for that to be a wise decision. Post-booze-and-cigarette headache is starting to come on, and I can feel my guts starting to coil up again. Now that there’s sustenance in them after a day of being empty, my intestines are reacting in their predictable way to the stress. Too exhausted to sleep. My guts feeling like the chestburster from “Alien” is going to come tearing out at any moment through my abdomen.
Too tired to crawl to the bathroom.
In too much pain to doze off.
Back and forth like this, the hours go by.
Morning crawling painfully forward, minute by minute, until finally… exhausted and aching… I fall asleep.