Here’s a sneaky look at my current project. It’s a novel inspired by my favourite Ginsberg poem.
Finally the barman finishes pulling the beer and puts it down on the coaster, not failing to notice that it’s been disfigured by its nervous patron. The two men cheers and down their shots. The whiskey warms Len instantly and it’s not until he feels the brief contrasting calm that that realises he’s been shaking all afternoon. The crazed gleam in his eye hasn’t dulled yet but at least at least he can feel his extremities now.
‘I’m Dan, by the way.’ The barman reaches over to shake Len’s hand from across the bar.
‘What’s that short for, then? Allen?’
‘Aha! Why don’t they call you Leo?’
Len chokes and some Guinness trickles out of his nose. He coughs hard and wipes his lip.
‘I don’t know. Why don’t they call you Goldielocks?’ He says once he’s halfway composed again.
‘I knew a girl who called me that. I was madly in love with her. A poet I met when I was bartending in Australia. You kind of remind me her, actually. You alright then, Len? You look like you’ve had a rough day.’
The pub is almost empty. A young white couple at a table along the side wall look to be on a dead boring date, she sips at her Riesling and he nurses a local beer and they don’t say a word to each other. A chubby middle-aged Latino guy sits at the other end of the bar with baskets of fried food: ribs, onion rings, potato wedges, all in their own separate baskets lined with paper towel and embellished with little tubs of sauce. He watches the baseball game rerun on the television screen behind the bar looking far happier there with his grease, sports and beer for company than the couple look with each other.
‘Like you wouldn’t fucking believe.’ Len finally replies.
‘Go on then…’ Dan leans against the bench by the sink.
‘I’ll need a few more first, I think.’
Len drinks his Guinness and studies Dan’s face and body language while he’s pulling another beer at the other end of the bar. He sort of looks sensible, for a guy who’s obviously a compulsive backpacker. He also seems a little too refined or pleasant or something, indicating a middle-class upbringing. Of course. Only middle class kids become semi-professional backpackers. They don’t have the constant fear of impending poverty and ruin stamped into them all their lives so they don’t feel the urge to seek permanency and security in their jobs and homes. But Dan doesn’t come across as spoiled or uppity, either. He has a nice tiredness to him that adds some depth and darkness to his well practiced hospitality glow. He seems alright. Maybe he’d even understand about what Len had just been through.
Unfortunately though, if he didn’t understand, he’d likely assume Len was off his tits on drugs and kick him out of the bar, and Len has nowhere else to go at this stage. No, the clever thing to do would be to drink until close, which was probably at 4am, and then maybe let slip about the lion. Since Len has nowhere to sleep tonight he has to be clever about stalling for time.
‘Can I order some nachos, too, mate? The ones with the steak strips?’ Len asks.
Dan disappears behind the swinging wooden doors at the opposite end of the bar to place the order. He comes back and pours another shot for Len.
‘On the house.’ Dan says.
Len looks at the time again, 9.06pm. It’s probably still too early in Australia to call his old shrink back. He pulls out his phone and scrolls through the phone book until he reaches the letter P. Paula. Surely she’d understand. Or at least she’d talk him around to doing something practical like finding a new hotel room or booking a flight home. Len downs the shot and hits the call button.
After several rings, Paula’s voice is a croaky whisper answering:
‘Hello? Len is that you?’
Len gets up and walks outside.
‘It’s me. There’s a lion in my hotel room. Don’t say anything, don’t laugh, ok? I’m fucking serious. It’s a lion!’
Paula clears her throat.
‘You do know it’s 11am here and I didn’t finish work until 5am?’
‘Didn’t you hear me? I said I have a fucking lion in my room. The lion doesn’t know what time it is in Australia, Jesus!’
‘No hellos or how-are-yous anymore, then hey? Just straight onto one of your rants. Seriously, Len…’
‘I don’t think you’re hearing me, Paula.’
‘I hear you; I just don’t get the joke. It’s too early for riddles.’
‘I’m not joking! I’m not! Please! I went and got a Chinese massage up the street, I pulled something in my neck and I was going to get coffee and the massage was fucking agony and then I came back to my room and looked up and there was this lion. Like, a real lion inside my room!’
‘A real lion in your hotel room?’
‘Yes! Yes exactly!’
‘I still don’t get it. Stop fucking around and tell me what you mean.’
‘I’m telling you! A lion! Like, literally a lion!’
Paula is silent. Len can hear her even breaths and he’s never been more annoyed; such stupidly annoying calmness emanating from the receiver.
‘Ok sweetie. So it’s a lion. And what have you done about it?’
‘Don’t ok sweetie me.’
‘Sorry. Come on, what are you doing about this lion?’
‘Nothing. I went to the pub after I saw it again.’
‘Again? You’ve seen it before?’
‘No, just today.’
‘Where are you now?’
‘The pub, I just told you.’
‘You’re at the pub now? How many beers down?’
‘Just one. A couple of whiskeys.’
‘I’m hanging up Len. I’m tired. And James is here.’
‘Yes, he’s just had his wisdom teeth out so he’s on sick leave from work.’
‘Fucking hell, Len. I’m hanging up now.’
‘Don’t hang up!’
The phone goes dead. Len swears under his breath and paces back and forth in front of the empty tables and chairs outside the pub. Two bikes are tied to lamppost by the street. Len kicks the lamppost and one of the bikes fall over. He picks up the bike and leans it back against the post then walks back inside.
A steaming plate of nachos awaits him on his part of the bar. Len sits down and orders another beer from Dan. He picks a jalapeno off the top of the nachos and forms a jack cheese bridge between the plate and his mouth as he eats it. The chilli has a surprising kick and the cheese burns. He unravels the fork from its tight little napkin cocoon and eats some of the steak strips and refried beans off the corn chips. The plate is massive and he’ll struggle to finish the whole lot. If Mr Onion Rings resembled a pig sitting there surrounded by his dainty baskets of grease – Len now looks like a wild bush boar in contrast. He wonders if lions eat nachos.
The vanilla couple get up to leave, their drinks unfinished on the table between them. As soon as they walk out Len would have no recollection of what either of them actually looked like.
‘What do you say, then? Awkward first date or overdue last date?’ Dan asks Len.
‘I was just wondering that. Maybe they’re brother and sister.’
‘Ha! Another shot, Leo?’
‘Only if you have one too, Goldielocks.’
Dan pours two more.
‘To incest!’ Says Dan.
To incest.’ Says Len.
4.06am and a bottle of whiskey down, Len sits with his elbows on the bar holding his head in his hands and watching Dan put the last chair up on the table, take the broom out the back and reappear through swinging doors.
‘I feel like I should be helping.’ Len grumbles.
‘Then I’d have to share my tips with you and that ain’t happening. Another one for the road?’
‘No more shots.’
‘How ‘bout a nice glass of sherry, then?’
‘Ok, Grandma Goldilocks. Let’s have a sherry.’
Dan pours two glasses of sherry and puts them on the bar. He comes around to sit with his mad new Australian friend. Len knows this time of the night well: lockout, when the bartenders end up on the drinkers’ side of the bar and all the upturned chairs on tables make a forest of chair legs at eye-level from atop the last bar stool standing. The two men clink glasses.
‘So, about this unbelievable day of yours?’ Dan probes.
‘Fuck. I’d nearly forgotten. Ok I’ll tell you but I have to preface this story with a disclaimer. I’m not joking or lying, and I don’t have a history of hallucinations.’
‘This ought to be good.’
‘I went back to my hotel this afternoon to find a lion in my room.’
‘A big, live, moving, breathing lion. He was drinking the water off the bathroom floor. I’d forgotten to pull the curtain in the shower and flooded everything.’
‘You know the Chinese are into animal symbolism. Like, an elephant stands for astuteness, a tiglon is courage and strength—’
‘You mean a tiger?’ Len interjects.
‘That’s what I said. I wonder what ants would stand for.’
‘Right, nothing an Englishman or an Australian would know anything about! So you can’t go back there tonight, I suppose. You can crash at mine if you want.’
‘Oh I couldn’t ask you to do that… Did I even pay my check?’
‘You didn’t ask. Come on, Leo. Finish up and let’s go.’
Len is heartened. He’d be thrilled if he weren’t so tired and drunk. It’s difficult to anticipate just how alone a man can feel in such an engaging city. In a way, the city’s engagement is precisely the problem if you think of the city like a toilet stall or a lover: if they’re engaged then you’re an outsider. Everyone in big cities is engaged in things that are exclusive of you and your problems. That’s just how it is. As such, Len is amazed to have found a person who seems to sort of understand. He looks at the curly friend he’s made with a momentary tenderness that borders on lust. He’s never wanted to hug another man so much in his life but he thinks better of it and then the moment has passed.
Downing the last of his sherry, Len reaches over the bar to deposit the empty glass near the sink. Dan is already back behind the bar picking up his bag, a soccer ball and a large set of keys. He throws the ball to Len who just barely catches it without falling backwards off his stool.
‘Take that outside. I’ll lock up and meet you out there.’
Len dutifully takes the ball out onto the street. It’s dark now but the sun would be rising before long. Bouncing the ball on the sidewalk in the streetlight Len avoids thinking about facing a new day. He’s content to be in some decent company for now. Perhaps he’d even get some sleep tonight.