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Bird’s Nest In Your Hair

Chapter Three

He’d spent so much time putting his poems together that he’d neglected his studies. The drinking probably hadn’t helped either, even though he had convinced himself that he could study just as well after drinking a couple of shots as he could sober. Writing poems was a different matter entirely. Although he’d never bothered trying to write when he was drunk, in the exhilaration of an early morning hangover he had managed to produce lines that he later judged to be excellent. Not that he ever wanted to depend on an altered state of mind, but since he’d been drinking for just about as long as he’d been writing it had become personal policy that he should make use of it as best he could.

Over the years Jeb had accumulated a number of reasons to go on the occasional binge, both good and bad, and even now he had a few reasons for feeling lousy – lousy enough to justify a night spent drinking. He was struggling in Callahan’s Greek tragedy class, and had the feeling that the final exam wasn’t going to go very well at all. And though he’d been able to print his chapbook and deliver it to Diana, she hadn’t said anything about it when he’d gone by the bar to visit her. In fact, something seemed terribly wrong with her when he’d last seen her; her face was either a complete blank or on the verge of a terrible scowl. He was horrified to think that she’d been unhappy with the copy of Under the Overpass he’d left on the bar for her, but knew better than to ask and left simply hoping that she’d be in a better mood next time.

Nobody else had seen the book either, although he had submitted many of the poems to be published in different poetry magazines. One rejection followed another. There had been one short break in the battle. One day he received an acceptance letter for one of the poems. He was ecstatic. No longer unpublished! Of the many poems he’d submitted, the one accepted shared the title for the entire collection. The magazine Letter Xhad accepted the title poem, as he learned from its editor, Amy Christian, whose letter he vowed to see framed one day:

Hi Jeb,

With your permission, I would like to use “Under the Overpass” for the next edition of Letter X.

Thank you,

Amy Christian

He’d been looking forward to this for a long time. He ecstatic – beside himself with happiness – and only because with this letter he had proof that someone had read his poetry and found it enjoyable enough to pass on to other people. It seemed nothing less than miraculous. Though he’d never considered himself much of a believer, the woman certainly seemed well named.

Certainly this was good news, – good enough to celebrate with a night drinking. And if this wasn’t enough, there had been a second email from his new publisher, right on top of the first, this one informing him of a literary event called “Word”, taking place that very weekend at some place called the Rendevous, downtown on Second Avenue. Jeb had attended a few of this sort of event, usually preferring to hang out in the back in the back and just listen to others reading. He was confident enough in what he wrote, but this confidence didn’t extend to standing up in front of a crowd of strangers and going public with his most personal thoughts and feelings. Several times he’d tried to screw up his courage by throwing back a few shots of Jameson’s, but this hadn’t helped much and on one occasion had actually made things worse. At an open mic night at the Richard Hugo House (that legendary landmark on the Seattle literary scene), during the reading of one particularly awful short story, novel chapter, or some kind of prose piece, Jeb had become belligerent and started heckling the reader for his nonsense. A few others in the back had laughed, but everybody else in the audience had turned around and glowered at him as one of the house officials put a hand on his shoulder and asked him to leave. He shook the hand off, but left compliantly, stumbling out the door more embarrassed than angry. He’d been scheduled as the next reader, and the reality was that he’d been too scared to go ahead when he should have been encouraged by the awfulness of the obviously diminished talent preceding him.

Jeb had a number of other reasons for feeling lousy – lousy enough to commiserate with himself in a night of drinking. His relationship with the married woman was probably over, and of course he was already regretting its swift conclusion. Waking up one morning at the divorcee’s, he’d tried to explain why he couldn’t go on another weekend getaway. He had paper’s to write, and he was falling behind in his classes. He said that he needed more time for himself, but what he could also have explained was that he was thinking about Diana all the time. He hadn’t meant to break anything off, but she responded by saying, “Well, I never expected this to last forever anyway. But it’s been fun.” She looked at him blankly, and he left with a vague feeling that they ought to shake hands.

And though he’d been able to print his chapbook and deliver it to Diana, she hadn’t said anything about it when he’d gone by the bar to visit her. In fact, something seemed terribly wrong with her when he’d last seen her; her face was either a complete blank or on the verge of a terrible scowl. He was horrified to think that she’d been unhappy with his little book, but knew better than to ask and left simply hoping that she’d be in a better mood next time.

The completion and delivery of his little book had also nearly coincided with St. Patrick’s Day, so Jeb felt duty-bound to celebrate the occasion with a couple of shots of Bushmill’s. So he left the library and began walking toward Queequeg’s, but since he had no desire to get drunk with Diana as the one serving him, or for that matter anyone who worked with Diana, he continued down Eastlake before catching a lift in the back of a pickup from someone who drove like he was even drunker than Jeb. He climbed out when the truck was parked underneath the Alaskan Way viaduct near Pioneer Square, about equal distance from the edge of downtown, the new sports stadiums, and the ferry terminal on the waterfront.

It wasn’t long after his arrival there that Jeb started to get the feeling that he was being followed. Jeb had staggered into a pretty run-down joint called The Spouter’s Inn, paid the bartender for a shot and a beer with a ten and a promise to leave a bigger tip on the next round. He went upstairs to the second floor (really a kind of balcony affording a view of the floor below) and grabbed a chair next to the railing and looked down at the patrons below him. While he was scoping out one of the women seated alone at the bar, he saw the guy in the blue jacket from Queequeg’s. He was ordering a brew where Jeb had stood just a minute before, and then nonchalantly walked over towards the jukebox and grabbed a stool beside a counter that ran along the wall opposite the bar. Above the bar were large, black and white photographs of various locations in Seattle at different times in the city’s history. In one there were streetcars (there still was actually – one, anyway, running along the waterfront shops under the viaduct), crowds of people who seemed to be dressed only in black, and even a few horse and buggies. The guy from the Queequeg was looking at the pictures as well, specifically at a picture of the waterfront and a giant ferry that looked more like a submarine than a ship made to carry cars. It struck Jeb as an odd coincidence to see him here, but on reflection he half convinced himself that perhaps it wasn’t really all that extraordinary. Queequeg’s and The Spouter’s Inn were fairly similar in atmosphere, after all.

He forced himself to quit being paranoid by turning in the other direction and striking up a conversation with the couple on his left. After a few drinks in a strange crowd he was always able to introduce himself as a poet rather than a student. The couple accepted this as easily as if he’d introduced himself as a plumber. The man identified himself as a musician; she was a psychic.

“How ‘bout that. So can you read my palms? Tell me my future?” asked Jeb.

“Not here I can’t. I need a quiet atmosphere. I need to be in the right frame of mind.” She pulled her purse around from her back to her front and reached into it for her wallet. She pulled out a business card and handed it to Jeb. He looked at the fees printed below her name and whistled faintly.

“Steep.”

“You can call me here and we can set up an appointment for later though.” She smiled after she spoke.

She looked about twenty-five or thirty years old; what Jeb noticed were the glasses with purple frames. “Cat’s Eyes” was the name for the style of those frames, he thought. She looked like the kind of young woman who worked in a library or a quiet shop somewhere, which – who knows? – she possibly did as well, all the while moonlighting as a witch invoking dark gods of chance and destiny for twenty five dollars per half-hour session.

“Can you just give me a brief preview?” asked Jeb, plaintively. “Sort of a sample?” Jeb had always been big on samples.

“Like what?’ asked the girl’s husband, or guy friend, or whatever he was. Seemed a little peeved, this guy. Jeb was just making conversation.

“It’s okay, he’s nice,” said the girl. “You’re just being friendly, aren’t you?’” said the girl to Jeb. Was she being condescending? Or did it have something to do with her vocation?

“Yeah, of course. I just wonder about all this psychic stuff . . .”

“Okay.” The girl stared straight into Jeb’s drunken eyes for a second in silence.

“This is how it is: you’re going to get drunk tonight . . .”

“He’s drunk already,” said the bodyguard.

“You’re going to get so drunk tonight you pass out in an alley, and in the morning you’ll wake up somewhere other than home and hate yourself.”

“Oof,” exhaled Jeb, “I think I knew that already.”

“Call me for a real appointment,” said the girl, smiling, and leaned back into her companion. “Maybe we can straighten out the mess you’re about to get yourself into.”

Jeb shoved the card in his front pocket, then turned back towards the table to finish his beer. When he looked back toward the railing the girl and her friend were already making their way over to the stairs. He waited for them to appear below and followed them with his eyes as they walked past the bar and out the door. He looked back towards the counter and the jukebox and saw that his spy was gone as well.

It was only when he started down the stairs that he realized how drunk he really was. But not so drunk that he couldn’t enjoy it. The problem, as he saw it, was that when it came to drunkenness it was a case of either too much or too little. Finding the balancing point was difficult. He grabbed a stool at the end of the counter opposite the bar and looked at more of the framed photographs on the wall. How was it that the country had ever gone through prohibition? The picture inspiring this was of a group of gentlemen in three-piece suits, holding books in front of shelves filled with more books. The date, 1935, was scrawled in white in the corner of the picture with what looked to be a pretty shaky hand. Lawyers, most likely. The thirties must have been a rough decade for lawyers. And poets. He couldn’t speak to the plight of attorneys, but what was the fun of being a poet without the occasional bout of public drunkenness?

Whatever the librarian-looking psychic had predicted, he wasn’t about to pass out now, so he followed the path he’d watched them take just a few minutes before and found his way outdoors. The cool air felt good on his face and helped him sober up a little more.

He lurched his way across Pioneer Square, past benches occupied by sleepers already turning in for the night, if they hadn’t been there all day, despite the noise of revelers all around them. He stumbled over to the MJ’s Café. A five-piece band was grinding out some R&B on the stage at the back. Jeb grabbed on to the bar and ogled some of the women close by. At a nearby standing table bachelor’s party was in progress, with a tall, bald guy loudly calling for shots of tequila all the way around. He was at least six and a half feet tall, taller by far than the meek lot that stood gathered around the table. Somehow one of the shots ended up in front of Jeb.

“Looks like this guy is gonna have to stand in for ya!” said the bald guy to someone else in the party, swatting Jeb on the back with a fairly hefty wallop and dragging him into their group. “Here’s a real player. Not like the girls in this crew!”

Of course Jeb was game, even if he’d never been a big fan of tequila, and tossed back the shot without waiting for the toast. He liked freebies as well as samples.

“This,” said the bald guy loudly while throwing his arm around Jeb’s neck, “this is the attitude I’m looking for! Get this guy another shot!”

Another little glass appeared in front of Jeb.

“You’re not getting married, are you?” he asked Jeb.

“Nah,” said Jeb. ‘I’ve got finals starting next week. Greek.”

“He’s got a final, everybody! Let’s give him a real study break! Sambuca, for everybody!” Since nobody seemed to have heard him he went over to the bar himself to order the drinks.

“The mofo is crazy,” said one of the lambs on his left. “My advice is to get out of here while you can. We’re all here to protect the groom.” He nodded towards the end of the table and saw the groom smile weakly in response. “But they’re going to be family a week from now, and then he’s on his own.”

“Famly?” asked Jeb.

“Yeah, that’s the brother of the bride getting the drinks. We don’t even know the guy. I think he’s taking some kind of revenge.”

“Revenge?” asked Jeb. “Thass not so nice, bringing a guy into the famly like that…”

The brother of the bride was back with seven or eight more shot glasses held between the fingers of his enormous hands.

“A little dessert now, boys! Samboooooca! Everybody drinks!”

Jeb waited for the toast this time, and when he tossed back the drink he enjoyed the sweetness sliding down his throat much more than the tequila. It was only then that he remembered he was supposed to be on his to the poetry reading at the Rendevous, and realized as well that he’d had too much to stand up in front of a crowd of people, or maybe even stand up at all. He’d be in trouble if he didn’t slow down now. Maybe the walk up towards the Market would help him get it together.

The trouble was that he felt the Sambuca working its way back up. Jeb ran towards the bathroom at the back of the restaurant.

The future brother-in-law bellowed behind him, “Thar she blows, gentleman, thar she blows!”

Jeb burst through the door in the back expecting to find a bathroom and found the alley instead. Lucky for him that nobody else was around, and he found a broken yellow mop bucket into which he was able to vomit with relative comfort. He instantly felt better, but he also felt tired. Although there were several doorways in the alley he was afraid of the darkness, and instead chose a rather steady looking brick wall to prop his back up against while he sat and caught his breath.

He sat still against the wall and waited for his head to clear. Across the alley a man dressed in rags was arranging a piece of cardboard in a doorway for a mattress. Jeb himself felt ready to go to sleep for a while and was tempted to keel over onto his side. He watched the man in rags across the alley settle into his cardboard bed. Thinking back to the words of the psychic, he said to himself, “Must … avert … fate ….” and worked his way up by walking himself back up the wall with his hands. Once Jeb was standing again, the bum looked across at him and began clapping. Jeb waved back and then decided it was time to leave. Rather than try to go back through the MJ’s, he walked to the end of the alley to get back to one of the main streets. It wasn’t even 10:30 yet, but if he wanted to get his ten minutes on stage he would have to get moving. Walking helped writing; maybe it would help reciting as well.

Comments

  1. You repeated a paragraph.

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