Bird’s Nest In Your Hair

Chapter Eight

When business was slow Diana was conscientious about keeping busy. Sometimes she often said those simple prayers to herself while she worked; sometimes she just worked. Not that anybody listening could have told the difference, since she prayed silently. As for keeping busy, there is always something to clean in a bar, particularly in a bar such as Queequeg’s, with fifty beers on tap and an ample selection of hard alcohol kept on glass shelves in front of the mirror behind the bar. It made for a lot of dusting. At the moment, Diana was rubbing clouds in and out of the copper bar top, which looked lopsided because the smell of salt and vinegar (ingredients in a cleaning compound made by Diana herself) had pushed all the customers to one side. After she had finished one side of the bar she realized that there were too many people there to finish the job, which would soon have her patrons sputtering in their beers from the fumes. Leaning against the back counter she admired the mirror clear surface of the east side and compared it to the grimy half of the west side. It would have made for a good commercial, she thought.

Diana stayed a little later to help the night bartender cover an early rush, but with two of them on there were times when she was able to stop and zone out a little. These were some of her favorite moments at work. Steve was easily able to handle the orders from the dining room and the bar, and the only reason she really needed to be there was to wait for one of the regulars to cash out a tab he had carried since 4:00. Her manager would prefer that she just get off the clock, and on other occasions she might, but she didn’t feel like leaving and Allen was helping the waiters deliver some the first meals of the night. Whenever it was this slow she was able to stand as still as a statue and keep just as silent. The conversations in the room merged together into a steady, babbling stream around her. This took some effort on her part. The trick was to attach as little meaning as possible to even the clearest of voices. In this way she was able to stand apart, on the banks, as it were, incuriously observing nothing in particular. She remained in this trance for a few minutes and slowly took in her surroundings: the glare from various neon signs around the room, the reflection in the polished brass and in a spoon on the counter, where there seemed to be a small pool of dark red cough syrup.

Diana was startled out of her reverie by a familiar voice and looked up to see who it belonged to.

“Hey Jeb. Whatayupto?”

Jeb shrugged. “Studying.”

“On a Friday night?”

“Yeah, but I’m done now.”

“So what’s next?”

“Porter.”

“Ah, the Creosote.”

“Yeah.”

She poured it and set it down on a coaster in front of him.

“Wow. I can see myself in the bar,” said Jeb, standing there as if he were looking into a puddle.

“Well I’m just about to go count my till.”

Jeb looked up and said, “Till when?”

“Ten minutes,” said Diana, not noticing, or not showing it. She asked Steve if he needed anything before she left. He didn’t notice, or didn’t show it; he was working through a large order of drinks for a waitress standing by.

Sensing that this was the end of her shift, some of the customers at the bar began to consider the end of their own. Several shifted in their seats and pulled wallets out of their pockets. Diana emptied out her tip jar and scooped the last of the bills into her shirt pocket. Scooped up a couple of bills pushed towards her, and then traded out the open tabs for cash from Steve’s till. Jeb watched absentmindedly and wondered how much stealing went on behind the bar.

Steve had some second thoughts about what she’d asked him, so he asked her. “Di, can you grab me a couple of bottles of vodka before you go?”

“Not a problem,” she said, while ducking behind him on her way out from behind the bar. Allan, the manager on duty, had come out from the office to survey the rising tempo. He looked over Diana’s handiwork on the counter.

“Looks pretty good there, Di. Why didn’t you finish?”

“Thanks, Allan. Thought it would be better if I didn’t poison the customers. But you know that. Bad for business, right?”

“Well, you could have started earlier. But yeah, nice and sparkling. Almost looks as good as Steve’s jewelery!”

He laughed at his own joke, and Steve did as well. Forcefully.

“Man, if I only had a tie bar like yours, I’d really be styling”

Allen picked up the end of his tie, looked down at the gold plated bar with a tiny emerald on the end and said, “Thanks, Steve.” Steve nodded his head once from side to side.

Diana turned to Jeb and said, “Stick around, I’ll be back in a minute.”

“Just stopped in to say hello…”

“Don’t go; I’ll be back in a minute.”

“The vodka? Di?” said Steve.

Diana smiled at Allen. “Sweetie, could you grab a couple of vodkas from upstairs for me?”

After Diana went back to the office (the bar was getting a little too crowded for her to count her till on the floor) Jeb stayed as she asked. He wasn’t quite as much at ease at the bar when Diana wasn’t there, and shifted his attention from the bottles to the television behind the bar, musing to himself while the juke box played on through the rising din.

‘Those are good lines’, he thought to himself. It was Dylan of course, and he memorized the lines as best as he could. It was hard to make out what the words were because of the voice, which now struck him as nasally to the point of being funny. As he listened he wondered about difference between a good song lyric and a good line of poetry. He thought about Archilochus and Sappho, whose poems were accompanied with a lyre, as his professors at school had pointed out a number of times. Didn’t that make modern poetry, without the accompaniment of either a lyre or its equivalent, something less than either ancient poetry or modern song lyrics? He had always considered it the other way around, but maybe he was wrong about that. Was there even a point to writing poetry, if music was the point? Diana came back just as he drained the last of his porter.

“Care for another?”

“Yeah, thanks.”

“Some of those lyrics are pretty good,” he said as she put down his beer. “Maybe I should pick up the guitar.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Well, maybe. I like the lyrics.”

“Yeah?”

“Especially the last song.” He did his best to recite the lyrics without actually singing them. “Eye for an eye, and then something about in nature the artist never forgives … no man sees my face and lives … I couldn’t really get it.”

“So you like it?”

“It sounds a little sinister. Interesting rhythm. And he’s singing something about an artist, isn’t he?”

Diana, of course, knew the song by heart, and said, “I’m don’t remember anything about an artist.” She grabbed one of the relatively durable paper dinner napkins and turned it over to the side that didn’t have “Queequeg’s” printed below a drawing of the harpooner. She wrote down the chorus:

I and I, in creation where one’s nature neither honors nor forgives.
I and I, one says to the other, no man sees my face and lives.

“So you had some of it right,” she said, handing it to him.

“Thanks.”

Diana was eager to tell him more about it. “It’s from ,Infidels; came out in 1983. Which is about when you were born, I think. I was about ten. It’s a great song. Not sure what it means. “One says to the other”, but then the title is I and I, which is strange. He’s divided, I guess … I’m not sure what he doesn’t honor or forgive.”

“Himself?”

“Maybe. It’s after the Christian stuff, but it’s good.”

“Yeah, you like the Christian stuff.”

They sat there quietly for a few minutes, listening to the music. Diana played the part of disc jockey and said, “This is Every Grain of Sand. She paused for a moment so that they could listen to the jukebox. She took back the napkin and wrote down another set of lyrics:

In the fury of the moment I can see the Master’s hand
In every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand.

Jeb asked, “So Jesus is the Master? Or God?”

Diana looked surprised. “Yeah …”

“Reminds me of Blake.”

“Blake?”

“William Blake, the English poet.”

“Why?”

“It’s pretty direct. Profound. The rhymes are straightforward, like ‘tiger, tiger burning bright, in the forest of the night…’”

“Hmm,” said Diana. “That’s good.”

“Well, these lines, anyway,” said Jeb, pointing to the napkin.

They continued listening. Diana was actually a little embarrassed. Too sentimental. Jeb seemed to be taking it all very seriously.

“That’s a decent song,” he said as it finished. “Sounds like he’s singing through his nose, but it’s good.”

“You should hear his voice now. But it’s still my favorite song. My parents played it a lot when I was a kid, so I grew up hearing it.”

“So why born again? It doesn’t really seem like you.”

“No. I guess not.”

“But it means something to you.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, I couldn’t care less about it. I mean, it’s all the same to me, but I just don’t have any interest in any of that stuff. Being religious, I mean.”

“Yeah, I know what you mean.”

“So what do you do? Go to church?”

“Yeah, but Catholic, nothing fundamentalist. None of that ‘Personal Lord and Savior’ stuff.”

“Is there that big a difference?”

“Well … I have a hard time explaining …”

“I figured something was up when you started talking about the bible a a few days ago.”

“Yeesh. Sorry about that.”

“Well, you were joking.”

“Even worse.”

He didn’t know what to say to that.

Diana continued haltingly. “I talk too much.” Even as she said this, she thought of Sunday mornings at the RCIA session, when she had a hard time stringing three words together. They stared blankly blankly into their glasses of beer – a pair of puddles. Jeb waited for her to say more and thought of his own religious background. He shoveled a few handfuls of nuts into his mouth and chewed them down before speaking again.

“My mom was a Jehovah’s Witness. I guess I could always fall back on that if I needed to.”

“Really?”

“No. Well, maybe I am. It makes as much sense to me as any of the others; maybe more, because it’s personal.” He pulled his head back to show that he’d just noticed something: “There, you see? Isn’t it all personal? Now I’m picking it up from you.”

“But a Witness? Really?”

Jeb shrugged, “Well, why not?”

“So you’d start going door to door?”

“Well, I don’t know, that’d be tough. Like I said, I’m not interested in any of that stuff. As a kid I liked the Kingdom Hall, I guess. I liked the donuts afterwards. And playing hockey out in the parking lot. My mom knew everybody there. She was always popular – she’d stay for an hour afterwards just talking to people. It was a social thing, I think, with a few big answers thrown into the bargain. She wasn’t too good about knocking on doors on Saturday mornings though.”

“Yeah, well, I guess I like it impersonal.”

“Now you’re joking!’’

“I guess what I mean is that it’s objectively true, whether I believe it or not. But I suppose I mean ‘impersonal’ in a social way, too. Not that everyone avoids each other, but they sorta do. There’s not a lot of hugging or people screaming ‘hallelujah!’ or spilling their beans to each other.”

“Hmm.”

“I like boundaries. I can keep my sense of privacy. I don’t feel preached to, sometimes even during the actual preaching. That might seem pretty gutless from an evangelical point of view, but that’s what I like. And even the simplest of services have a sense of going somewhere. As I understand it, anyway.”

“What’s all this have to do with Dylan?”

“Hard for me to say. My parents weren’t religious, and my Dad gave up on Dylan when he went Christian. So in a way I’m picking up where he left off.” She took another sip of her beer. “I don’t know.”

They sat quietly for a moment, waiting for their thoughts to catch up.

“It’s a little strange, I admit,” ventured Diana.

“Dylan isn’t Catholic, is he?” He wasn’t sure what was safe to ask.

“I don’t think so,” said Diana, who seemed to appreciate the question. “Born Jewish, but there’s always been religious stuff.’

“Like what?”

“A song about Saint Augustine back in the sixties.”

“He’s a Latin writer, you know.”

“I do know. Have you read him?”

“Not really. Little sections, here and there. For a class once. ‘Lord give me chastity, but not yet.’’

“Yeah, I’ve heard that one.” She’d heard Adamowicz say it.

“So that’s the connection? To the church?”

“Not sure. I guess I just like the songs.”

“So you’ll listen to Dylan preach with his songs, but you don’t want to hear it in church.”

She laughed. “You have a point there. Not sure I can explain that.”

Later, as Jeb stepped back out onto the sidewalk, a couple passed him on the way in. They looked unhappy, but he naturally noticed what a beautiful woman she was, all the more so for the finely tailored suit she was wearing. He wondered briefly why she looked so unhappy with the guy she was with. What mysteries there are in the lives of couples! What mystery there is in the life of every person. He turned around and watched their backs as they continued walking in the other direction, focusing on her legs in particular.

Thrusting his hands in his coat pockets he turned back down the sidewalk through the glare of restaurant signs, streetlights, and headlights from the passing cars. The night was awash in the color of electric lights. It just keeps getting brighter. “And brighter,” he thought. He felt like a refugee and began walking faster.

It was a short distance to his home, which he made in an abandoned construction shack in the middle of a large, wide open space at least 30 feet underneath eight lanes of I-5 that carried traffic in and out of the city. The pillars supporting the freeway, the underside of the freeway itself, and even the trees, the holly, and the blackberry bushes that grew underneath gave the cavernous space a weird, otherworldly appearance. It was outdoors, certainly, but being an enclosed space it was perhaps not unlike the effect given by standing in the middle of a tremendous gothic cathedral. ‘Or a giant terrarium,’ Jeb thought to himself. The difference being, of course, that the beauty here was never intended, and was in fact all the more beautiful for it. There was even a view of the lake. The shack was situated a short walk behind a group of quiet buildings half way up a hill, where there had once been a project to build a park underneath the freeway. To judge from the condition of the shack, construction must have stopped a few years ago.

Several months ago – week or so after Jeb first began sleeping there – he’d come home to find that an older, sour-smelling vagabond had taken up residence in the shack while he was at school. Figuring that he’d established squatter’s rights, he’d gone to a huge warehouse of a hardware store and bought a new, locking doorknob. After that there had been no further intrusions. Not even by anyone official, which was a stroke of luck. It had been awhile since he’d even worried about being back on the street.

Once inside, Jeb turned on the L-shaped flashlight he used as a lamp, illuminating the few belongings he kept there. On the desk that came with the shack was a stack of reference books from the library. There were several books of modern poetry: Hebe’s Cup and Dim Gulf by John Shade, and Gordon Comstock’s Mice, two auspicious first collections he admired, and to which he hoped his own efforts might some day be compared. And as if the Latin and Greek weren’t enough, he was painfully translating another volume, word by word from a language about which he had not a single clue. It was a volume from the 1950’s he’d found at a garage sale, by Jaromil Something-or-other, a Czech name he didn’t even know how to pronounce. How would it all be sorted out in a hundred years? Who would still be read? It had always mattered to him, but now he found himself asking why. And how would all those Dylan lyrics stack up?

He looked at a dark green, cast-iron plant from Queequeg’s sitting on the desk, and set down his backpack next to it. He sat down on the chair he’d taken out of a classroom late one night. He’d carried it for a mile on top of his head, believing with every step that he was going to be stopped by the police. He never was. On the floor was the air mattress and sleeping bag. There was silence, a lot of silence, which seemed intensified rather than ruined by the traffic running overhead. He had no idea how long he would be able to stay there, nor did he have any idea what he would do if he were kicked out. For the time being it was free, and free made it perfect.

Comments

  1. Henri Young says

    Great stuff Quin.

    Keep posting (remember the ear scene from RESOVOIR DOGS).

  2. Anonymous says

    I'm sorry that by the time I read each chapter I'm so tired with other things that I've forgotten what the last one was about and also not concentrating as much as I'd like to.

    A few ideas in there, which made it nice. I was a bit surprised by Diana's erudition – what's her background? – and that Jeb lived in a shack – is that common in (can't remember where the story's set)?

  3. Quin Finnegan says

    That's okay – the story jumps around quite a bit ("polyphonic" was what I was going for) – and the blog format probably works against this …

    Diana has a degree in biology, and worked in R&D before dropping out under shady circumstances … I think this comes out later in the story.

    In Seattle there are entire communities of people living in tents or shantytowns of some kind or another, although I'd say Jeb's circumstances are determined less by hardship and more by his own ideal of leisurely unemployment. Not an atypical dream, although seldom a reality lived by certain 20somethings inclined towards poetry. Wallace Stevens once wrote that in becoming an insurance company man, he had to put aside his dream of living in a shack on a beach somewhere … I think Jeb took him seriously.

    The story is set in Eastlake, Seattle. Here's wikipedia:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eastlake,_Seattle,_Washington

    Good news article:
    http://www.findseattleonline.com/Images/eastlake-photo-gallery/images/Eastlake%20-%2056.jpg

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