California

Human Gutterballing

 

by Pablo Harris

 

“Damn, man, you’re still here?”

“Hey.”

“Don’t you have a bed? A house? I know you do. Why don’t you try and visit it sometime? I mean, shit man, you know you’re welcome here but sometimes, I just want to open the door, come home from work, walk into my place, and not have this lazy fuck sleeping, crop-dusting on my couch. So you just been laying around, dropping ass in here all day? Open a window or something, man.”

“Yeah, uh, sorry.”

“Do you even remember last night?”

“Most I think. Not everything.”

“So, what do you remember?”

“Well, I know it was a pretty good birthday. I love it when you open the doors and step into Country Club Lanes – “

“You mean Tweaker Lanes. Get it right.”

“Right. Walking into Tweaker’s, the wafting of grease from the fryer that hasn’t been changed since the Reagan Administration, the resounding echoes of pins crashing, the “ker-chungk” of the pin sweep, and there was even a working cigarette machine stocked with soft packs of Benson & Hedges and Lucky Strike; I dig that place. And, come on, I wasn’t expecting those girls to want to celebrate Erika’s birthday there of all places.”

“Well, I’ll give you that; those girls were hot and they don’t look like the type of girls that go out bowling and shooting Jameson on a Thursday night. I know you work with your boy Tubbs at the Bar & Oven, and I met the birthday girl of course, but who were the others? And did those girls not smell like, I don’t know, vanilla and patchouli and that hippy shit? Those girls kind of smelled like some classy hippy broads, if there is such a thing, but they don’t look like no hippies.”

“Uh, yes and no, I guess. They got a New Age-y business in Midtown. Erika teaches yoga, Joslyn does massage/skin/make-up, and Ellie does holistic medicine.”

“Yeah, Ellie, I like! For a white girl, Jesus Cristo, she’s got some ass, yo! I’ll sponsor a bowling team just to watch her roll, man. And I think you had a chance there. You dropping all that ‘Frisco, restaurant, gay-ass wine and art history shit you know. She was into you there for a while, man. Until, of course, you went into the bar for a pack of smokes and we had to go get you away from some ol’ lady who had ran more tracks & field than Carl Lewis.”

“Well, shit, Eddie the barkeep got me a couple of birthday shots.”

“How many times have you been there?”

“I’d been there maybe once or twice before but never been into the lounge.”

“What the – ?”

“I got friends in low places, I guess.”

“Fuck your country music shit! Alright, that’s kind of impressive that you just met these barflies, been there twenty minutes tops and you already got this old man buying you drinks. That’s fine and all but you could’ve been getting ready to serve Ellie up a chorizo breakfast. Your priorities are all screwed up.”

“Fair enough.”

“Alright, then, what else happened?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, yes, I know what happened, but do you? ”

“I don’t know. We played one more game, drank a couple more beers, and got a taxi back here. All I know is I’m in f-ing pain. I can’t move. What is it, the quads? Hammies? I feel like I tore everything up in my legs. I can’t get up. I really can’t move. And it feels like there’s a hole in my chin. I guess maybe I fell out of the car or tripped going up the porch and cracked my jaw on the top step? I don’t know.”

“That’s what you think? That’s what you remember?”

“Yeah. Sure.”

“All right, then. I’m going to tell ya right now.”

“Hold on, then, let me get a beer.”

“Why don’t you get some coffee or something.”

“Nah, just a beer.”

“Sientate, cabron! There is no ‘just a beer’ with you. Come on, you must remember the dive of glory, que no?”

“Haha, yeah, is that what you call it?”

“I saw that look in your eye, that glassy-eyed faraway stare, I know that look. Something bad’s gonna happen. Like Dirk in Boogie Nights in that botched drug deal scene.

 

You had that look. You and Erika were talking about your birthdays, birthday wishes, drunken shit. Then you said something like, ‘You know, Erika, I’ve always wanted to run down the alley and knock over the pins’.”

“True.”

“Then she started jumping up and down, hanging all over you. Her friends started chanting ‘Pablo, Pablo’ so Tubbs and I went over to the shoe counter. Tubbs walked right up to the guy there and tried to explain, ‘Hey I just want to apologize beforehand. You see, my friend over there, he’s always wanted to do this and today is his birthday and . . . Oh, there he goes!’ and you took off down the alley.

I saw you launch yourself Pete Rose style a good ten feet from the pins. I guess you thought the lane was slick so you could slide into them head first, hands out front to knock ‘em down but you just stuck with a fucking ‘KUH-KAWH’ like thud of your chin on the deck. You didn’t move. Then you rolled over and the sound of you moaning ‘AAARRRRGGHHUUUH!’ drowned out the whole bowling alley.”

“I don’t remember the moan.”

“Then you like did this army/belly-crawl up to the 1 pin, swatted it, ‘Aaagh’, and we had to wait for your broken ass wobbling back up the lane like The Crippled March of the Penguin. Had to get you out of there.”

“I guess that’s where it all gets fuzzy.”

“Fuzzy? Shit, you might have a concussion, man. You hit the lane fucking hard. ‘KUH-KAWH’! You know, I saw this Stupid Human Trick on Letterman, back in the day. But that guy had a helmet and a skateboard. You’re lucky. You would’ve really fucked yourself up had you hit the pins.”

“And I only got a one?”

“Mark it one, Smokey.”

“Shit.”

“A world of pain. You know, those girls wanted to go to the Press Club, go dancing, but you couldn’t even f-ing walk. And Joslyn was coming around to me but . . . fuck it. I had to work today anyway. Tubbs wins. But, anyway, speaking of work; aren’t you supposed to be at work right now? It’s Friday night. Aren’t you bartending or serving tonight?”

“Yeah, I’m supposed to be on the floor tonight but that ain’t happening.”

“Do you still have a job?”

“I don’t know. It’s alright, though. I’m moving next month, anyway, after graduation.”

“Are you even graduating?”

“Eh. If not, I’ll buy a degree on Khoa San Road.”

“And what’s this shit about moving? Where? When did you decide this?”

“Last night, talking with Eddie and Fern in the lounge. It’s kind of why I had to do the dive of glory. Something I’d always wanted to do. Something I felt I had to do before I leave the country.”

“What the  . . . leaving the country? What the fuck are you talking about?

“Come on, let’s talk about it at the Raven. But first, let’s get a taco.”

 

 

 

Ulysses S. Granted

by Pablo Harris

First weekend after starting a new teaching job, just getting settled in Busan, I went out with a colleague, Bass: an east coaster, a veteran of a few tours here who had recently got promoted to his F2 status. He invited me out to the PuDae neighborhood. PuDae, as my Lonely Planet guide describes it, is the place that used to be “the place” to go. Every first of the month at a little basement bar they have an open-mic stand-up comedy night. Fell for a lithe, pasty, dark-haired Scottish girl who kept talking about her pussy going “flap, flap, flap.” Bass says, “I need a shot before I go on, you like Jack Daniels?” Internally, I’m shouting, “Not as much as I like Jameson, look at the Jameson!” But to paraphrase the tune of the English football anthem You’ll Never Walk Alone, “And you’ll never shoot alone, you will never shoot alone (clap clap clap).”

After the show, it’s around 1 a.m. Bass tries to convince me to go to the casino, to which I decline. Got enough vices, not trying to add any more, so he leaves me smoking alone out on the street. I end up meeting a drunken local, however, who does persuade me to follow him to this really great bar he knows. We proceed to circumambulate the site, like pilgrims in a procession around the Kaaba, before walking back downstairs to the exact bar we were just at. His English is terrible, my Korean is worse, but we both speak drink. So, 1 a.m. turns into 6 a.m. Last thing I remember, he asks where I live. “Suyeong jihachil, ship chil beon,” I slur. He hails a cab, shakes my hand, shoves me into the back seat, and yells something at the driver.

Next thing I know, the sun is up. I look around and I see I am outside a police station flanked by four men. I casually, vato style, look to my left. Lips pursed a bit, shake my head. There’s one cop and the cabbie. Look to my right, two cops. No words are spoken. I stick out my lips like I’m Mick fucking Jagger, more head shakin’. I know the score. I spent all my indigenous currency at the bar, there’s no Won in my wallet, and I passed out in the taxi on top of that. Then the cab driver, from the few words that I gather and his gesticulations, begins to plead to the cops that I am another deadbeat wayguk and that I should be arrested for my transgression. The cops are conferring with cryptic glances, I am still vato stoic. So, knowing the score and without saying a word, I fumble through the contents of my wallet; I find, invaginated behind the expired IDs and tapped debit cards, there is one note there, fifty U.S. dollars. I extract the bill from the leather bi-fold, slap it into the hand of the cop on my left and walk home. Without a word.

*   *   *

Later that afternoon, beat down and hung over, when given a respite from the internal replays of the night, I recall my first “date” with Jenn Zeek. I was bartending at an urbane, farm-to-fork bistro downtown and dating Mama Steph back then–a petite, olive skinned, tattooed, smokin’ younger lady with two kids and glasses I met in a contemporary philosophy class. Jenn was living with her boyfriend in Davis while she was studying viticulture and enology and had been working with us, hostessing, for about six weeks. Though she was way overqualified to be a greeter and a seater, she was biding her time waiting for an opening on the floor, and socially, wasn’t in yet. She had the restaurant version of Vietnam Syndrome working against her: got to be in country six months before we give a shit about you (like salty profs contempt for newbies). However, from the intelligence gleaned over small talk while folding napkins and buffing flatware, her boyfriend wasn’t into too much other than progressing in an online poker tournament. She was looking for some other action.

So, Friday night, we are sitting out on the patio in our penguin suits enjoying our after work beers and spliffs with a handful of freaks of the industry, discussing plans to go spend the weekend out on the Sonoma Coast–Steph and I included. It turns out on the eve of the trip, Steph breaks up with me via text message. She didn’t like the fact that I wasn’t into her kids. Fair enough, miss you Sweetheart, but you’re right. Jenn catches wind of our plans and the fallout with my girl, so she pulls me aside and explains,

“You know, I am supposed to go to Napa tomorrow but I would rather go with you all to Sonoma. I love pinot noir and the Russian River and I think you need a date, though you know I have a boyfriend. But I promise I’ll be fun. Maybe I can go with you guys?”

We end up on a Monday night in the tony hamlet of Healdsburg at the L & M motel: a faded, old-school u-shaped place anchored by a parking lot. An expensive dive just south of the railroad tracks and the town square. Two couples, Jenn, and I checked out of the beach house and decided to milk one more night of this trip. We’d just completed day three of wine tasting, beer drinking, and barbecuing. Jenn discovers a pool room at the motel. She wants to swim. I’m not much of a swimmer but I do like girls that like to swim. So we change into our bathing suits and head over to the pool house. It’s five past 11. We open the door and walk into the room. There’s a sizable, six-foot deep pool and a small, hot, bubbly spa and a man who works for the L & M standing next to the jacuzzi.

“Sorry, closing up,” he announces.

I glance at Jenn, who is standing by the door clearly eager for a dip, and walk over to him. I approach him with, “Look man, I got a girl here who wants to swim, and, I like this girl, how ‘bout lettin’ us swim?”

He bargains: “$40 and you got an hour.”

I reach into the left pocket of my trunks, there are three things: a pack of Marlboros, a lighter, and a fifty-dollar bill. Why I would feel compelled to grab the last bit of cash I have until Thursday to walk 20 feet to the pool room? I don’t know. And how often do you really have a Grant when Lincolns, Jacksons, and Franklins are so much more common? I cusp the paper note in my left hand, surreptitiously move it to my right, extend my hand to the maintenance man, grab his palm and pull him close so Jenn couldn’t hear, and offer, “Here’s a fifty and we stay as long as we want.”

A few weeks later, Jenn and I begin the Sunday Funday drinking bloodies, reading The Times. We recall the L & M. She said she didn’t know the details but she saw me shake hands and the man walked off. She didn’t know exactly what transpired but she knew it was life imitating art in front of her eyes and knew I was the one.

It was the story she loved to repeat to her friends and some days we would reminisce, usually over brunch and a newspaper. It was the story that would certainly be recited by her maid of honor at our wedding. It was the story we would . . .

It was, if not for: Busan Calling.

* * *

Now I’m convinced that after I die I’ll start out in purgatory. It’s exactly where I belong. I know the score. I have not been virtuous enough for Heaven but I also have and will not be nefarious enough for Hell. I’ll be in purgatory and one day the Lord’s Director of Highland Security will come down from his Pearly Gates to assess the situation. I imagine that at least once a year there is a day when the Great Gatekeeper condescends to the middlings, evaluates everyone there, and offers a bit of grace to a couple of lucky souls. He calls them up to the show, like a supplemental draft or making the Hall of Fame on your last ballot. Again, I won’t be chosen.                                                                                    

But, this time, I’ll be in rare form. Having casually maneuvered my way through the field of contestants to the front of the line, as Tom Waits croons a ballad from his pickled piano over the PA, while all the other purgators walk off dejectedly–on this day–I’ll be incredibly, exceptionally smooth. I’ll tap him on the forearm with the knuckles on the back of my left hand, draw his attention with a head nod and whisper to St. Pete.

“Hey, come on man, I think you got room for one more.”

And I’ll fish out of my pocket my last possession, cup it in my hand, and clandestinely pass it to Peter when we skin it. St. Peter will slip the Grant into the front pocket of his robe, shake his head from side to side with an exasperated sigh, before finally divining, “Fine, Pablo, come on up to the house.”