by Jeffery Ryan Long
Two drunks were thrown out of a cab on King Street just outside of Star Market, the drunk riding shotgun having painted a red, fan-shaped smear of vomit outside his window on the side of the car. When the taxi stopped and the driver said “get out, get the fuck out of my cab” the two drunks only understood that “Put a Little Love in Your Heart” had been playing over the radio and that someone had rudely turned it off.
The drunk in the back pulled himself forward by the headrests of the front two seats. He vaguely sensed that the driver didn’t enjoy fingers brushing the back of his neck.
“What happened to the tunes?” the drunk in back said.
The one in the front coughed outside the window and the sound of a large splatter was audible in the afterburn of the Honda Civic gassing past them.
“Your friend is fucking up my cab, man. Get him out of here.”
The one in the back blinked for a few moments, and some animal’s cunning that cut to the top of his foaming, drowning, outraged brain with its rat’s teeth said, or could have just as well said, “Do not piss this man off.” So instead of what might have been an inconvenient episode of bloody noses, possibly broken, and most likely police and a jail cell, the drunk mitigated his spluttering indignity into spluttering remorse, and apology after apology fell out of his mouth, so naturally it seemed he’d been saying “I’m sorry” his whole life, which he had.
The drunk in back paid the fare with a substantial tip that rounded off his last paycheck to an even 20 dollars. He had a dim awareness he wouldn’t see the cab fare again, especially paid in recompense by the nearly unconscious drunk in front. Speaking of whom, had just settled into his seat, wiped the back of his hand across his mouth and said softly, “That feels a whole lot better.”
And as the drunk in front’s eyes closed, the one in back opened his door and pulled him by his arm to his feet on the street-lit sidewalk.
“What?” the drunk said, and the other drunk said, “Just shut up and close the door.” He smiled and waved to the driver through the rearview mirror after the driver, with an inspiring display of dignity, pulled away slowly then force fed the two drunks rubber smoke from his squealing rear tires before rocket-launching to the next red light.
It was now only the two drunks with the dead cars in the Star Market parking lot reflecting white street lamps above them. The rest of the world surrounding the drunks, the health food store and the Subway sandwich shop across the street and the park with its towering Korean memorial, might have just as well been the blank unreachable universe that had hung over their heads for both of their lives, as much interest or even cognizance they had of anything not liquid and directly in front of them.
“Looks like we’re walking,” one drunk said to the other. One cab an evening was expensive enough—two cab rides was a fairytale. Two cab rides in one evening was the same as wearing jeweled crowns and fur. The buses had all stopped running.
“Magoo’s is up the road,” the other drunk said to the first. Wobbling in place, he leaned forward as if he could see through the haze the industrial bulbs had thrown all over the place. As it was, he could see as far as the perimeter of the parking lot. “One beer and we’re done.”
Each of the two drunks was drunk in his own way, but from one moment to the next each drunk experienced a constant sliding into the other’s psychology of drunkenness. It hardly mattered that one was a bit stouter than the other, one had more hair than the other, one wore a t-shirt while the other wore a polo shirt, one wore jeans and rubber slippers and the other wore khaki shorts and tennis shoes, or that one drank because the greater part of the day he’d had no opportunity to say what he really thought about anything in general or in particular, or that all of his feeling barring an enthusiasm for industriousness and a bland friendliness to colleagues was promptly censored lest it expose him as a libertine or an insurrectionist, which he was at heart. And it hardly mattered that the other drunk exhausted himself daily in an attempt to make people who had no affection and little respect for him do exactly what they did not want to do, so that the results he could identify in his labors was a common misery shared by everyone with whom he associated. The characteristics that distinguished one drunk from the other vanished as this evening—like all other evenings—progressed, each drunk’s drunkenness intensified into a frenzy complementary to the other by beer after beer, whiskey after whiskey. And the bars were all the same—the Varsity, which the drunks still referred to as Magoo’s, was the same as Anna Bananna’s, was the same as On Stage, was the same as Champions and 8 Fat Fat 8.
At the beer garden they called Magoo’s they repeated the cycle that had occurred at the other places, that had occurred between all drunks since the first Egyptian drank fermented honey from an owl’s skull and got his bosom friend involved in his discovery, the cycle that would continue until the world was only a forest of mushroom clouds.
There was the same false demureness, coupled with a barely concealed hostility, shown to the bald bearded bouncer slouching over his podium at the front, which was plastered with posters of sweaty beer bottles. It was the same attitude they’d shown and would show to all bouncers and bartenders who checked ID’s either on general principles or because they were dickheaded enough to think that the drunks weren’t over twenty-one, which both were by about ten years. After the entrance was the survey of the room for attractive girls, the buying of drinks, the taking of seats at a vantage point suitable for blatant eye-balling. And so the cycle continued, with the language growing coarser and louder, with “fuck” and “douchebag” falling in front of every third word. At one point the sound system would play a song that would make both drunks shut up for a moment, each awash in a maudlin and completely fabricated sentiment provoked by the all-too-clear image of a love who had left him precisely because he was who he was and could not, in all probability, be anyone else. At these moments the drunks’ clarity of vision would shine a light inward to the shapes in their hearts, mostly populated by all they ever wanted and did not get or what they had lost, or everything they’d thrown away. Perhaps it was Marvin Gaye that night, or Sam Cooke or Mariah Carey or the Spin Doctors. One of the drunks was stabbed in the chest by his finer feelings, those feelings that, when even only lightly applied, go all the way in and through the other side, those feelings only a poet has the suicidal nature to express. But this drunk had only the limited ability to express this sweet pain with the tonality and articulation of a simpering baby.
“That’s the way it goes, I guess,” one drunk said.
“It doesn’t matter,” the other drunk said, really believing that it mattered a damn bunch.
After the gauche and, to risk redundancy for emphasis, maudlin sentiments had been exchanged, the inappropriate comments about people they didn’t know bubbled out of their mouths, the singling out of an individual they made the oblivious recipient to their mounting rage—“that goddamn fucking douchebag, who the hell does he think he is? Look at that stupid fucking bitch, just sit down already and get out of my line of sight”—their anger buffered and given nuance by the small indignities at work and at the hands of friends and family. On this night a tall blond girl entered after they’d sat down and took a table with a male friend not far from theirs. One of the drunks closed his mouth and simmered—at some time, at some bar, the other drunk had convinced him to ask for the girl’s number and he’d done it. She’d given it to him, and he’d left ridiculous text messages on her phone asking her to the movies, to which she’d never responded. Now he stared at her thinking she ought to come up and talk to him in person, when she’d never bothered to send him a reply via the letters on her cell phone keypad. The other drunk alternated between telling the first drunk to forget about her and apologizing for telling him to get her number in the first place. This went on until someone yelled last call, and the lights blinked off and on.
As it always was, the two drunks did not recall buying a clear clamshell full of chili nachos or the foil-wrapped hotdogs at 7-11, but the nachos and hot dogs were in their right hands with Gatorades in their left hands, and it didn’t matter who ate what because one of them had eaten nachos, and the other had eaten hot dogs, and vice versa, hundreds or millions of times before, and would continue to do so until hot dogs and chili nachos ceased to exist. The food was always the same, but the beverages had the tendency to vary—most times it was Gatorade, but it was also water, Dr. Pepper from the fountain, an Aloha Maid juice from the can, or a Snapple. When one of the drunks realized that a hot dog or nachos, or a water or Gatorade, was in his hands a couple of blocks away from 7-11 in the grainy dimness of the freeway underpass towards Kapahulu and Kaimuki, and the whole time he hadn’t wanted to carry anything at all and suddenly despised what was in his hands, he pulled back like a pitcher and flung the nachos or hot dog into the street and, after it, the capped drink that was unbearably moist and slick in his palm. A burst followed the touchdown, the giving way of liquid encased in plastic to asphalt and grit.
“What are you doing?” the other drunk said.
But by this time the first drunk, with exhaustion sweeping aside intoxication and some manic sobriety pulling at his conscience as if trying to open a locked door, could only muster up mumbled curses to his enemies in response. He stepped forward uncertainly, but stepped forward nonetheless, along the running stream below him he disregarded, for now he was too tired to invent something to drop into the black water undulating with milky white spots, reflections of the world above him.
The other drunk shrugged, followed, and ate.
They had a long walk to the end of Kaimuki, and most of it was uphill. Though they’d made this drunken stroll over and over again they did not consider the most expedient route—all that existed was the way forward, no matter how strenuous or slow.
On Lincoln Avenue, just outside the bottom level of Market City Mall, one drunk recalled, for reasons unbeknownst to rational minds, that the other had been stonewalled by the girl he pretended to be in love with—which he really was, no matter how tawdry and tarnished and desperate the sum of his love now was. During empty moments at work the other drunk had imagined walks on desolate beach walls, along strange coasts, illuminated by the constant richness of a late afternoon sun; he envisioned a proposal, an acceptance, a shared household, a child, a long uninteresting existence shared with this woman. It was the same fantasy he had managed since he first loved a woman, except the faces had changed and the details had become so exacting as to be perverse. This other drunk would have to wait for another face, another transparent vessel into which to dump his unattainable dream life.
“Too bad about whatzername,” one drunk said to the other from behind. “Well, fuck her anyways.”
The other drunk had reached the dead ends of every feeling he held in his heart. His nervous system had been broken down into its basic components, and now he was simply acting upon vague memories of thoughts or feelings, hardly the thoughts or feelings themselves.
“I’m not mad at her,” he replied, not knowing what would happen as he approached the Honolulu Advertiser dispenser that stood outside the front door of Sekiya’s Japanese restaurant. “I’m pissed off at the guy who told me to ask for her number in the first place.” With that, he grasped the locked head of the newspaper machine and pulled it face down to the sidewalk, and scraping, slamming metal reverberated through the park behind them. He then continued the walk up Lincoln.
“Pick that up,” one drunk said.
“Fuck that,” the other drunk said.
“Pick that shit up,” one drunk said.
The other drunk, with neither chagrin, nor remorse, nor resentment, lifted the newspaper machine from where it lay and set it back in its place next to the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. He continued the walk up Lincoln.
Later, they had somehow moved off of Lincoln Avenue, via some walking bridge over the freeway—somehow they discovered themselves on Pahoa Street, the night world powered by the street lights’ garish imitation of day, the hills painted in suburban orange and green and brown and dirt red. What had been a steady incline to Kokohead Avenue—their destination was a block past the fire station—was now an excruciating slope of Alpine proportions, and one drunk suddenly had enough, had sweat through the shirt tied to his head, and just before he went down to one knee and then fell on his back on the soft, clipped lawn of a stranger’s house he tore the shirt and its tied sleeves from his head and flung it toward the street.
The other drunk collected the shirt and dropped it next to the collapsed drunk’s body. “We’re almost there.”
“We’re not almost there,” the drunk said. “I’m just gonna sleep for a second.”
“You’re not sleeping for a second,” the other drunk said.
The drunk on the ground saw only an enveloping blackness as soft as the ground beneath his back and wanted nothing but to surrender, to let go of all the shit he’d been through this night, all the shit of his entire life—he had at last made it beyond the point of love and rage and if only this could be what life felt like from now on he could bear it, he could even excel. As it was, it was too hard feeling so many things all the time, it was too hard not having the people around who might have listened to what he had to say. Sleep now and he could forget, and start completely over in the morning.
“You’re gonna regret it if you pass out here.”
The drunk opened his eyes and looked up at the other drunk, whose face in shadow had lost its tightness and now looked like loose, dark cloth hanging from the front of his skull. The other drunk swayed slightly above the drunk on the ground and held out a swaying hand. The drunk took it, pulled himself to his knees, then his feet, and the two of them took the hill up into Kaimuki with the faltering steps of an elderly couple. Self-abnegation, in its most sublime sense, had reduced their collected psychologies to a temporary zero, and they found their way home like dogs at the end of an incredible journey.