By Robert Wintner


Copyright © 2000 Robert Wintner. All rights reserved.
ISBN: 1-57962-062-0

Chapter One

Birds of a Feather

    "Charles is gone," Rhonda exhales.

    "So?" Tony Drury slides onto an empty stool with a half-nod for Pancho. He often considers things in their passing, but Charles will not be missed. Charles will return or not. Who cares?

    "My sweetie went away, but he didn't say when." Rhonda blows a cloud and fills it with lyric: "He didn't say when ..." She sways like a woman in love with a feeling, like a woman reaching back for something lost, even though it was hardly grasped in the first place.

    Charles isn't her man. It's clear to everyone else, so why can't she get it? Charles plucks a chord, that's all. He plays the blues. She sings.

    Tony sips until the icy warmth brings him up to even. He doesn't miss Charles or the Charles show or the finale that won't end. Charles' absence makes the place feel good again. Tony wonders why people say gone instead of dead. Rhonda gazes wistfully. And when will she believe what her eyes are trying to tell her? How pitiful; her age and on the make. And what a waste, pining for a man like Charles here in the remains of prime time. Some have thought Charles dead and gone, or same as, for a long time. Ah, there it is, the thaw, the warmth; soon comes the glow.

    Charles went too slowly for some, should have gone long ago. Rhonda croons; now she's all alone without you.

    Charles played out, lost his cool, raved shamefully while everyone else was having fun, became a party pooper, dragging the good times down. The Charles Show began as light comedy, with the chorus girls above and the orchestra below. Those were the nights, when the uprighters can-canned on the bar, the chair-bound spooned, dinged and thumped. It wasn't that many nights ago, that the prone moaned and heartfelt yodels rose here and there from the pit. Over the din wailed the tenor off the cuff on the fall of Babylon; on a man who had sex with a horse; on love and thirst. The bar tab would never be sorted, but who cares about cost on a night of nights, on which the history of nights is written? Nobody is who. One by one they fell smitten. The strong walked home on their knees. Some said Charles crawled home. Some said he squirmed on his belly. Some said he went with a game Samaritan.

    Risen at last to daylight the woeful crowd convenes for caffeine and sugar, for the lament and small antidote so life can resume. Then comes recollection. It groans over who lost her drawers, who peeked, who drank amazing draughts, who had good dope or great toot.

    A tiny fissure splits Kensho Wannamaker's stone face when Cisco recalls Leanne revealing a breast—Cisco asked for two but got only one, because Leanne needs control. He put a hand under the one, gauged it for heft and said, "Wait a minute." He attempted a suckle, but she ducked back under cover and boxed his ears.

    He hefts thin air in the retelling. Leanne is still in bed. He plays her part too, aping her ardor. "She liked it," he says. A whack in the head was nothing for such contact, and yes, he tasted the delectable nub. Dwayne watched, enjoying the fun made available by Leanne's huge set.

    Someone asks why Lawrence sat in a booth for hours with Heidi. Nobody answers, so someone asks if Lawrence might be doing Heidi. Tony Drury recalls Rhonda's bar dance, Rhonda's reach for another night of anarchy in compensation for the rest. It's a blessing when a woman finds her goddess within at Frederick's of Hollywood, but a display like that was not nice. Fine lace and ventilators are one thing, but who wants to look up the dress of a woman with grown children?

    Suey moved on a college boy while Whippet wanted Marylin or maybe only wanted even. So what's new? But what a night. Charles called out with a plague of virtues ... the dying of bitches ... shoving it into the coal black sky ...

    Replay fades without the maestro, most likely hung worse than anyone, sleeping it off most likely in the ash pit of the gravel heap of the garbage dump of pain. Oh, he soaked it with a vengeance. Some ask how a man could set that pace and not have the decency to show for commiseration. Recalling the glory isn't the same without Charles. Someone says, "Mm ..."

    A few heads loll and moan, "Oh ..."

    One mumbles an old love song.

    Some stare vacantly. And it's soon enough time for the pooch to give up another grab o' hair.

    Enter Charles, stage left.

    Fracturing the interlude like rampant growth in springtime, into the lull like a man who's thought it over, shaking his head and stepping boldly into Tony Drury's personal space he says, "I've had enough."

    Tony shrugs. "Then go home. Because you're too much." You don't need to think twice if Charles is messing with you, because he is, because he messes with everybody, an equal opportunity messer. Messing around is what he does, what he is, and you can't do anything about it.

    He says, "You're wrong. Irresponsible and wrong. Greedy and wrong. Weak and wrong." Between indictments he inches nearer, swelling like a thunderhead.

    "Yeah, yeah, yeah," Tony says in the jargon drunks understand. Let him huff, Tony thinks; every bag of wind has its blow.

    "We don't know that you're evil, but we don't know you're not. We sense your vacuum. You take without giving. You have wasted so much."

    Tony Drury will not face his accuser but tells the icy puddle in front of him, "Sometimes you have to overlook the small stuff. Charles, can you forgive me?"

    "I'm going to kick your ass," Charles says calmly as a surgeon as Tony looks up in time to see the roundhouse right rounding the bend. Kensho Wannamaker will critique Tony for opening his mouth on another glib refrain when he should have kept it shut. Others will say Charles would have hit him anyway. Tony doesn't want to fight but this is no slap; Charles' haymaker puts Tony cheek to cheek with the floor, with only a lump between the two. Tony staggers up and steps to the line, because a man in Mexico is easily marked by submission.

    Charles circles like John L. Sullivan threatening a pair of upper cuts. Everyone agrees that Charles has a point, and Tony must defend himself, and it's a fair match, except for the first punch, unless Tony deserved it.

    They circle, Charles grinning like Teddy Roosevelt over a rise from the electorate. Tony moves back, rubs his jaw and shakes his head. Pain answers all questions. "There's no going back," Charles says. "You know I'm sincere." Tony lunges for a clip on the chin. They grapple to the floor, to the dirt and blood, the black and blue.

    As usual with men who accept middle age, Round 1 is best for action. Backing off for a breather makes Round 2 a glare down. Jab for jab and a few lucky hooks highlight Round 3. The ringside crowd want more mixing, so Charles delivers both upper cuts as threatened and jabs at will after that. It looks like Charles walking away with the round, the fight and the title, until he drops his hands and serves his chin on a platter. Maybe he wants to show he can take it, or that he wants Tony in the game too, or that he nurtures a sense of fair play. Or maybe it's a trap to draw Tony near. Tony moves in cautiously, ducks and dances as seen on TV and with fading hesitation lands a left and a right but Charles shakes it off, three-steps, shifts from snake-eye to goose-walk and launches the rejoinder, which makes Tony's face go all rubbery and stretch comically to one side. Some say Charles is drunk—just look at his big red nose. But his chin is never suspect. He compliments Tony's stamina as he pounds Tony's face.

    Tony Drury wants out but knows the game never ends, so he dishes what he can, takes what he must, until Charles gasps agreement to a truce after another grapple. Approaching coronary complexity they defer to the unfitness program that defines their lives. "Nice hustle," Charles croaks. "We'll finish later. Okay?"

    Tony Drury says, "Yeah, later," and lunges with an awkward jab that lands square on the chin. Some say Charles gave it to him.

    Charles blubbers, "Fine. Fine. You got me last."

    Tony mumbles the compulsory obscenities and dabs his cuts with a bar napkin dipped into what was a perfectly good drink. He retreats to safe distance and grouses over idiocy, assault and battery. The judges have it even on all cards. Tony's nose is bent, his jaw unhinged and his head banged into next week. Charles bleeds profusely and can't catch his breath or answer the next bell, so it's called a draw, so Tony saves face if not the pleasant interlude.

    Charles gasps, "Just as well. You know I didn't want to kick your ass." Tony knows nothing. He brushes himself off and goes home in a bad mood to ice his head and have a drink in peace. Charles leaves quietly and doesn't show for three more days. Nobody notices. Nary an eyebrow rises, especially Tony's, which is stitched into place.

    Suey says Charles found a new woman to meet his need, one who doesn't yet know him. She says the three-day prince will return tomorrow on cue, froggy once more. And somewhere out there the new woman will search the narrow streets and wonderful sights for the bliss that was here, or there, she knows it was. She'll look high and low, knowing their separation was a mistake, a quirk of nature easily corrected by simple reunion. How could it be otherwise after that much fun?

    Charles turns up as predicted and bellies up next to Cisco, who says, "I'll skin you alive. I'll drag your sorry ass down the road." He sits up and turns to the aggressor. "I'll dump you down a well."

    "Oh, ho, ho, no," Charles says. "No! Not you. Never you. You're too clean! And big? Jesus Christ, will you look at this guy! Why he'd ... skin me alive! Drag me down the road! Dump me in the well!" Mocking Mother Nature and Cisco, Charles cries, "Balls!" raising his dukes on a half step back, shooting a jab to the hair of Cisco's chinny chin chin. Deftly on another minced move he watches Cisco's wild right whoosh past like an infrequent comet as Cisco wonders what, back in the haze.

    The idiotic grin flashes on the next step—to the inside, where he wraps an arm around Cisco's shoulder and says, "Ha! Gotcha!" Turning away in a duck to slap the bar, he yells for a goddamn drink for himself and his feisty compadre. Cisco isn't amused. Charles pours and raises the toast, "Give me some men, some stouthearted men!" and drinks it urgently. Cisco broods. Charles looks left and right and aims the tenor up: "With a hearty hi-oh, Sil-ver! Away!" And he leaves.

    Some say Charles whupped Cisco too, or just as well could have. Some say Cisco knows it, that Charles altered perceptions that day for the indomitable one. Cisco says nothing until a day later from the same seat, eyes rising from his ice cubes to push a new wrinkle up his brow. Some watch. Some wait. Some listen. Like a man on the verge of conclusion, Cisco yawns, talk bubble empty. But that's his own feint—then he says, "Charles is gone."

    "What?" Tony asks from down the bar where he sits like another fixture.

    "Charles. He's gone," Cisco says.

    "Promises promises," Tony says. Cisco grunts, snorts and mumbles over leaving-time and knowing when.

    Charles' next notable absence is happy hour at the Legion, upon which he once led the assault. Garnering a following for a seek-and-destroy designed to drive the Legion bankrupt, Charles plotted the invasion for happy hour drinks at fifteen hundred each. The new patriots could score an upset bigger than the guns of Navarone, if they set the odds aside and charged with courage. Three thousand to the dollar and an honest pour made the Legion's arsenal stockpiled in the back room enough sauce to down a battalion of special forces who could stand up to a five-dollar buzz or stagger to a humdinger for a few bucks more. The Legionnaires understood soldiers of fortune in need like themselves on limited income. The doors were open.

    Charles harrumphed to a head of steam, exhorting the oppressed to take a stand against conspiracy and exclusion, to face duty with honor, honor with duty—"Are we going to just sit here with our heads in the sand? Are we going to turn our backs on justice?"

    He worked it up to a whistle and hooted down the bar—"Do you think David Niven gave two shits about a bunch of Nazis and steep cliffs and waves! Are you going to tell me it doesn't make a difference if the Nazis are blowing our boys to smithereens! Are you just gonna sit there?" Between his lines another lazy afternoon seeped with blessed silence. A few heads turned. The loud one had erupted a few hours ahead of schedule.

    Some chuckled. Some dozed. Most dazed. Some shooed the invisible mosquito. "Wait! You men wait here!" Charles ran to the back and came out with a coat hanger. Hunched over it, he untwisted and straightened then poked it through two corners of a dollar bill. He tore that off and replaced it with a hundred-dollar bill. He raised the flag. "You can't fight without a war chest! I pledge the honor of this flag to duty! I pledge that together we will take back the Alamo! Now come on men! And women! Are you with me?" So the volunteer army enlisted after all. It was fun.

    The Legionnaires weren't surprised, hadn't been surprised in twenty years. The battalion is down to survivors, a few regulars meeting for cocktails. The long march led south of the border where a body needing a drink and a body pouring a drink comprise a community, an American contingent at large. The Legionnaires welcomed the invasion, joining the spirit of a campaign rife with honor and duty. Nobody believed the Legion could be bankrupted, not by a frontal assault on the bar.

    The Legion is shored up and defended by a single Legionnaire with a gut like a globe. Cuddy Dingham is called Cuddy Atlas for bearing the weight of the world on his belly, or Dingy Cuddy when he drinks too much, or Dingfuck the Cudball just because. Cuddy Atlas stood at attention. "State your business, boys. And ladies."

    Charles stuck the flag in an empty bottle. "Whiskey for my troops and quick about it." Cuddy Atlas asked if turncoats could join. The old vets moved in from the flank and victory was hailed; we have met the enemy and he is us and so on and so forth with drinks all around. The Legionnaires take a hundred-dollar commitment as gratitude and respect, an act of contrition if not patriotism. Cuddy Atlas poured freely, and in an hour alliances were sealed, in two they slurred and by three they were mush: "Eezsh guys ... ey ... fuck ..."

    Not Charles. He stood on a chair. "We will fight on the land. We will fight on the sea. We will fight in the cantinas ..."

    That was long ago, when happy hour at the Legion was on its way to tradition, before it relapsed to a sullen group drinking cheap under a moth-eaten flag in faint recollection of the rockets red glare. The real old guys remember Iwo Jima; the medium old guys recall LSD and Phnom Penh or Toronto. Charles called it historical, the differing factions drinking their way to peace.

    "Charles is on leave of absence," calls a voice from a foxhole as happy hour fades to dusk, as another night settles on the no man's land ahead.

    "Leave from what?" someone asks.

    "We don't need leave anymore!" a Legionnaire asserts.

    "Maybe he's absent without leave," the first guy says. The Legionnaire grumbles; insubordination to a superior officer can land your ass in the stockade.

    "Oh, boy," somebody else says, and Cuddy Atlas moves like a medic at the front.

    Quieter time in town is the first effect of no Charles. "It's like when Charles is around, it's like you can't think. But when Charles is gone, it's like it was a dream, I think." This from Cisco, looking vulnerable, venturing in concepts.

    Kensho tosses in his grist. "It's all meditation, all dream. You lose it with movement, shatter it with desire." Cisco's forehead piles up but eases back out as the eyeballs settle among the cubes for a nice soak.

    The social machine shifts to overdrive, runs smoother on fewer rpm but bogs down at low speeds. People wait for someone to mention something. A funk settles with the dust until expectation gives way to resignation. Some feel relieved, free of the chaperone. Charles' absence allows opinions other than those of the dictator. But none can rise. "What was that one, that book, you know, with the brothers who raised all the hell, and they both liked that woman?" Cisco reaches. Nobody lends a hand.

    Mal says, "Fortyniners-Pittsburg Monday night."

    Kensho says, "I'm going to break a record—not a record, but a ... well, a record." Nobody turns or asks what.

    Heidi says, "I'm going up for a ride." She leaves. Others wait, discussing comings and goings, odd sightings and unlikely potentials. Some slump like night bloomers waiting sundown. Outside an ancient peasant looks two hundred years old at the end of a harsh life—or maybe his life was casual and he's only seventy. Jorge sits on the curb scratching grass from the hardpan between the cobbles. The grass grows back with little rain, less light, but the old man scratches up one side of the gray brown lane and down the other as if by faith he will one day prevail. Hands like tubers with claws at the ends could fare better in the country, hunting truffles or grubs. Jorge looks up for a garble, and the mush between his ears drools out his mouth.

    "One day he'll die too," Charles had laughed, confusing his audience with vague insult, telling them they're dead already, or the difference between them and the old beggar comes to zero, or something.

    Tony Drury doesn't feel dead or that his life means no more than a demented beggar's. He understands the pittfalls of liquor and drugs; they cannot substitute for real life but must complement life as an interesting and often fun tangent for those who can bear up. Like the grass in the cobbles, the strong grow back daily in the miracle of rebirth. Through the days they wait, the strong wait with the chance that anything can happen. Adventure requires readiness; it can begin again any time and a few drinks for the wait won't hurt.

    Waiting is natural for spirits adrift. Hope comes in and out of view like a ghost ship in a fog—society is something to cling to while waiting for something else to cruise by and carry you off. The continuing question is what and where you can be or go, once you are already. But that's a problem for everyone everywhere, so why not drift in good fun with good will in the meantime? The beggar outside is nobody's cross to bear. It isn't like anyone threw him overboard. Charles was wrong on that. Tony enjoys the soft sounds of absence.

    Charles gives the old guy two grand most days, each time announcing, "For luck." The old man slips the coins into his rags that hang like unsloughed skins. His leathery noggin bobs twice like a goat head coming to boil. The voice reaches deep for gratitude. "Nnuhmnrgh." The old man gazes up like he's made a point. Then he drools.

    Charles loves the exchange, loves the play he can produce over and over for only two grand. He goes bright-eyed too, mimicking gutturals. He gets the old man going like they might shuffle off to Broadway for some of the old soft-shoe. But Charles shakes his head, hocks ptooey and laughs, "Nah! Really, I gotta go." He moves up the street leaving some wondering what difference the old man's death will make. More grass between the cobbles is all that comes to mind. Big deal. Charles asks what the old man's name is, then names him Jorge; the old man gets excited, bobbing and drooling as if to say, Yes, that's it! Charles asks him if his mailing address is the same as his residence and if he has a refrigerator. Charles chats with Jorge like a peer, killing a little more reality in never never land, making no difference. "He's us, you know," Charles says.

    "Charles and his artsy fartsy stuff," Cisco says. "Make sense out of that, you'll end up like him." Charles walked away like a man with a destination.

    Some watch. Some wait. Some voice opinion, and life wages on among the socially inclined. Sometimes the line blurs between legitimate opinion and verbal effluent, but it resolves soon enough if you can wait. The place has time and is easy on a dollar.

    Cash comes down from the north or up from under the mattress. Gringo money comes from pensions, dividends, mystery moolah—nevermind the source. The party can last till the money runs out or the revelers croak, whichever comes first. In the meantime it never ends but only pauses for a few hours of daylight.