Fiction by Alan Catlin
“Storm late at night, heavy rain, a thunderstorm racket, the windows shaking. I heard my name called. A woman’s voice in hell, pleading with me to join her. I sat up in bed and listened, and was then too frightened to go back to sleep.”
— Leonard Michaels
The noise in the bed, not of my own making. What could it be? And the body part, this arm, not my own, bare and limp beside me. I am awake, awake enough that I cannot be dreaming, cannot be dreaming myself awake, as if I were in some hypnogogic state. A state where I am seeing myself in this rumpled bed from a great distance, from a great height, as if out of body, out of mind.
The only certainty is: I’m more than a little drunk. My body feels limp, flaccid, as if all the energy had been siphoned from me while I slept. As if all my bones have been removed with some kind of human-skeleton knife by an expert practitioner in the lost art of boning a dreamer.
The dreamer asleep within the dream. Is that how I feel? Is that who I am? Or is that the body next to mine? The dreamer of the dream? Separate pieces of the same reality. Or separate realities with the same pieces?
I am afraid to find out. Afraid to roll over and find out what part of myself I am sleeping with. Or is it the separate pieces of myself that I am afraid of? In my confusion, within the sub layers of my alcohol-induced coma / sleep, even my skin feels as if it belongs to someone else. Belongs to someone else in another dream that does not end well.
Dreams for me have often ended on the edge of nowhere, in a holding tank so fetid and inhospitable, it is almost inconceivable that anyone could ever have fallen asleep there. Of course, what I was doing there was something like sleep but not sleep itself. Unconsciousness is not sleep. Not really. Not when you are as drunk as I have been. Have been and continue to be.
Other dreams have ended in rooms with bars for windows and a constant low hum of electric light fixtures. Somewhere beyond the cell, the distant sound of radios improperly tuned into popular music stations: Talking Heads, golden oldies distorted by static and power surges, a disharmony that makes the music sound more like a torture device than something vaguely rhythmic.
Other dreams have ended on hard floors, amid an overwhelming stench of body fluids, a riotous mixture of forced-out insides and blood, combining to create something so disgusting, it is almost beyond the scope of humanity. Waking thus, my body feels the full effect of that awful wrenching, the horrible effort of expulsion. A feeling that has left my body drained and exhausted, left me leery of finding the way out to somewhere else less inhospitable than where I have awakened.
None of these dreams has ever involved a bed, with covers and blankets and pillows, though many of them have involved bodies. Some of those bodies were impossible to move. Were discolored and cold beyond belief, or seemed not to be bodies at all, but replicas of bodies. Imagined beings. Alien things. Those were the most difficult dreams to forget; the most difficult dreams to reconcile once it was determined I was actually awake.
All of these dreams were disconcerting. Involved a gradual process of personal examination, of memory searches for a key to the insoluble riddle — the riddle of how I had managed to arrive at this particular place, at this particular time.
All of these dreams involve a black hole in my life swallowing vast chunks of what I am. Swallows, even as I try to recreate the sucking morass of memory from which I have arisen — into which I continue to fall. Life has been like this for so long, it is impossible to imagine it otherwise.
I open the eye not pressed down into the mattress, trying to determine whether this is one of those rooms with bars for windows. As far as I can determine, it is not one of those accursed, ill-fated other rooms, as well. There is hope for me yet. Hope that, whatever this place is and whatever I have done to arrive in it, my remaining here would not prove too awful.
Cautiously, I reach over the side of the bed, reaching about, in the vain hope that I might find a glass or a bottle waiting for me. Often, before passing out, I leave a bracer for these moments of complete confusion that come with waking as I am now.
Often. Sometimes. Maybe.
More often than not, however, I am too greedy a drinker to leave anything untouched before I crash completely. The only sure way to find out is to grope carefully in the darkness or, worse, in the awful blinding light of a new day, actually looking for the strategically placed, salvation-providing drink.
My search is not progressing well. My hand touches nothing. Nothing resembling a drink.
The body beside me snorts awake and speaks, “Hey, you,” and it touches me in what could only be thought of as an aggressively familiar, sexual way. It is human, female, and appears inordinately fond of me.
Not bad, I think. I’ve done a hell of a lot worse.
“Hey, baby, you’re not going to stay asleep on me?” she said, fondling me as she nuzzled closer.
Baby, I think. Oh, my. She slept with me and still feels affection. The night is long and empty, but it has so many wonderful creatures in it.
“Yeah, baby,” she says, as if she can look inside me and sense my confusion, the missing parts that make up what I am. “You’re my main man, my hard-driving man.”
I smell smoke, taste the beers and whiskeys we must have drunk. Feel her lips on my back, her tongue tracing a slow, languid circle on my skin, and I wonder where we’ve been, wonder where we are going.
I see us somewhere in the night, see us coming together, down and out, slumming in some sad café like refugees from a Carson McCullers novel. Jesus, I hated not knowing for sure, where I had been, how I got there, or where we came back to. But once I got going, there was no stopping what would happen. Not wanting to, either, not caring, just going on and on and on. There is no point speculating.
No point to anything.
Once upon a time, I made reference to McCullers to some female creature in a bar. I was trying to be all smooth and sophisticated, and she said to me, like she was bored as hell — she couldn’t be bothered to move the wad of gum she was chewing, from one side of her mouth to the other, so that a spray of spittle accompanied what she was saying, not that anyone noticed, not that I noticed — “Carson McCullers. Sounds like some kind of one-horse town in the middle of nowhere Nevada.”
Well, she was half right, in a way, pulling down her too-tight skirt as she got up from the vinyl barstool. The imprint of her ass on the cushion, the only reminder she had ever been there at all. And that was covered almost immediately by a swarm of giggling girls, hugging the bar as they used their older sisters’ proof of age to buy drinks. Drinks they had heard mentioned in some movie they had gone to see with boys in drive-ins, between sessions of heavy petting, when they sat up briefly for air or called for a piss break.
“Come on, baby. Tell me a story as if you adore me.”
Still, I wonder how we could have hooked up, in what rundown, off-alley, cheap flat-beer and greasy shot glass, no name, dive bar we could have met. One where a folksinger could be found, displaced in time and place, 20 years too late for acoustic guitar solos. A place of poems set to music, of protest songs about masters of war running amok in a world gone crazy, or worse. I would have thought, What kind of bad habits did the singer have to sustain that would compel him to perform at all, at any price? Why bother, when no one was listening? They weren’t listening then; they’re not listening now.
I expect the singer also swept the floor, played for tips and whatever booze he could grub from the dead souls clustered along the bar. If you weren’t a regular in a place like that, or knew someone who was, you would have to work overtime to find it, even by chance. I wondered if I were a regular there? I was a regular in a lot of places. Places I didn’t even recall ever having been to. Thoughts such as these were disconcerting, but much of my life was disconcerting when you really thought about it. I didn’t like thinking about it, so I didn’t any more than I had to.
No one else ever had, either. Until now, apparently.
“Come on, baby. The South will rise again, and so will you.”
It was difficult to hate a person of the female persuasion for persistence when it came to sex. It might have happened to me before, but it wasn’t likely. I’m not sure if I would remember, even if it had. Remembering was something I was getting less and less good at as time went by.
“Baby. Sweet cheeks. Give your momma some lovin’.”
Sweet cheeks! Man, whatever this girl has for me, she has it for me bad. I almost hate to disillusion her. Not that I want to necessarily, just that I would. I always do. Disillusion is what I do best.
I’m not sure what I want more: her or a drink. Usually, a tie went to the drink. It’s not hard to imagine what happens after that.
There didn’t seem to be any alcohol handy, so there isn’t really much of a choice. I try turning toward her. I hope she looks vaguely familiar. It always helps if they do. Sometimes, I might recall a name or a place or something familiar. Usually, they like it when you could call them something other than the all-purpose, “Babe.” Whatever happens, I am going to have to face facts. First, the woman; then, the booze.
Turning, I see myself standing in an alley outside a bar. A door opens, and a young woman steps outside into the light rain near where I stand. I think I see a stage inside, a band highlighted by deep blue and red spotlights flashing on and off in the otherwise totally darkened room. The darkness heightened by a thick haze of smoke: cigarettes and pot and who knew what else.
I am leaning against the bricks, inhaling deeply on a Marlboro Red, as I lean forward from my hips. The hand not holding the cigarette is shoved inside my jeans pocket, the collar of my maroon CPO jacket turned up to prevent the rain from sliding down my back.
“Too crowded in there for you?” she was saying.
“Yes. No. Maybe,” I said.
“A man who knows his mind. I like that.”
I forced a smile and raised my head slightly.
“Got a light?”
I handed her my cigarette. I watched as she held the glowing end of mine to the unlighted end of hers and puffed hard. I could see she had deep blue eyes. Eyes you could lose yourself in if you tried.
“Thanks. Wanted a breath of air myself. Hotter than a fucking bitch in there.”
“A breath of air and a cigarette. That makes sense. I like a woman who knows her mind.”
She must have thought that was funny. I could hear amusement in her voice as she spoke, “I could like someone like you. Maybe.”
“Maybe, if I tried. You’ll have to help me some. So far this relationship has been pretty much one-sided.”
“So, this is a relationship. I often wondered what one of those was.”
“Sort of. At the beginning stage. You know when people meet and exchange things, personal stuff. Like this.” She leaned forward, kissed me hard on the lips. Like she meant it. Felt good. Excellent, in fact.
“None of the bullshit stuff for you,” I said. “You cut right to the chase, don’t you?”
“That’s me. What kind of bullshit were you thinking of?”
“Little stuff: names, dates of birth, astrological signs, phone numbers. Say, what’s your major?”
“I don’t go to college. Might have once. Too long ago to remember now.”
“You’re not old enough for that to be a distant memory.”
“No? Try me; I might fool you.”
“Don’t think I’d mind trying you at all.”
“Be my guest.” The way she was saying it made it feel like a dare.
“Drink?” I asked.
“What kind of question is that?”
“A good one?”
“Damn straight.” She had my attention but good now.
“Here or somewhere else?”
“Here is as good as any,” she replied. “Hell, it’s even Happy Hour.”
“Happy Hour. What could be better than that?”
Nothing could be.
Inside a bar. Some bar, some place, sometime later. An old, out-of-the-way place, dimly lighted, tarnished back mirrors, dust settling on the top-shelf bottles, the brown-colored solution pickled eggs float inside of, like scientific experiments gone wrong, and left behind in glass gallon jars as exhibits for some atrocity exhibit. An antique, wrought-iron, hand-crank cash register behind the bar, and an old man who spoke through a hole in his throat with the aid of an appliance that looked like a microphone but wasn’t.
“Before you ask, it weren’t no cat got my tongue. Was the cancer. Saves a lot of time explaining it up front. People always ask. Wasn’t the tongue, neither, that got cut out. Two more of the same?”
I nodded yes, though there was no one with me at the moment. One greasy beer glass in front of me, and another nearby he filled to the brim. I watched the heads evaporate, the beer turning flat in the glass immediately after he had placed it on the bar. I must have been buying, as he left change in a small pile near my glass. I seemed to have several piles there. Seemed to have been here awhile, with someone, who might return from wherever he or she had gone.
I looked around the bar, hoping for more information. The requisite older men leaning forward on the wood, staring into a distance only they could see the end of, cigarettes burning down toward their yellow-stained fingers, as they sat motionless as carved statues of old men. The smoke the only movement in the dark.
The acrid, dank smell of old beer and piss, burnt wood, and all manner of human waste, an almost living presence in the room, in the spaces between the bartender’s strange amplified voice and my thoughts. I reached for my beer glass, and a voice spoke behind me.
“One false move, and you’re dead.”
I felt a hard, stiff object thrust into my back. I froze, my arm in midair halfway between the glass and nowhere. Raised my head slightly to try and see what or who was speaking to me reflected in the bar mirrors but could see nothing. I waited.
Waited for a long time.
Trying to receive more information to process. To determine who, what, where I was. But there wasn’t much to process. In this place, in a high-backed, vinyl, padded booth. A glass pitcher of beer on a Formica-topped table before me, almost empty. Two glasses on cardboard coasters, and an ashtray full of still-smoking butts. A warm hand on my upper thigh, holding me, caressing me slowly. The closeness of another body somewhere in the dark. Somewhere close by. Rain on the picture window, drops of light sliding down the glass, a bright neon flash of color, rhythmic, hypnotic, hypnogogic.
“Finish your beer,” the voice nearby said. A female voice. “Finish mine, too, if you want. I don’t want anything anymore. Don’t want anything but you.”
I turned toward her. Felt those thick, giving lips on mine, the savage slashing tongue caressing my lips, easing inside my head as she sucks the very breath out of me. As her hand kneads my thigh, nails digging into my skin: hard nails, deep pressure.
“Where are we?” I asked.
“Nowhere. We’re together; that’s all that matters. You and I. Together.”
A blinding, moving light, approaching where we stand in the rain. The distant sound like car brakes. Of skidding tires, metal impacting on something solid. Something solid that gives and breaks and moves in the night.
Voices. Spinning lights. In the rain, different-colored blinding lights. Neons and halogen. Brightly focused lights. White and antiseptic. Cold and metallic, like a stainless-steel slab, a stainless-steel carnival ride. Without the carnival, just the blinding flash and the night and the rain.
Two of us. Together.
In an alleyway between buildings. Old Victorian buildings, constructed in the heyday of a city that had died long ago of natural causes, leaving only the shell, the body behind in the form of block upon block of near-derelict buildings. Period pieces for a downward progression, a recession into a night that never ends. Carved faces in the stonework, in the masonry: gargoyles and death heads, replications of lost civilization that couldn’t be.
“Light?” she asked.
“Why not?” I said.
“Want a hit?”
“What is it?”
“Does it matter?”
“I thought as much.”
“Sure, what the hell. What if it kills me?”
“What if it does?”
“I guess that doesn’t matter much, either.”
“No, it doesn’t. Not really.”
“Didn’t think so.”
“You’re a fast learner.”
“That’s what they tell me. This is good. How long does it last?”
“As long as you want it to.”
“That could be a long time.”
“You got that part right.”
“Will you always be here to share it with me?”
“Maybe. You’ll have to wait and see.”
“Wait and see. The story of my life.”
I turn to face the woman in the bed with me. The one I couldn’t wait to see.