by Duke Miller
I'm in Mazatlán, sitting at my favorite outdoor bar very near the classic Hotel Belmar, where Duke Wayne and John Huston used to stay in the top floor facing the sea. It's worth noting that Wayne married a Mexican and Huston was an honorary member of the Mexican National Calvary. They were regulars who'd come down to fight with the big fish beyond the horizon. Sometimes they'd bring Kate Hepburn and everybody would get drunk in the Belmar bar.
A literary critic from LA has evidently arrived in town and is now on her way to have a drink with me. I'm thinking about inviting her for a swim at the Belmar's perfectly green pool. The water's surface is totally covered with a half inch of beautiful alga. When you dive in and come up, you take on the look of a slime monster. Yes, a bracing dip and then drip dry in the warm afternoon breeze with cold beers and ceviche beneath the palms. The critic, whom I’ve known for a long time, wants to discuss a review manuscript of my new book. I sent it to her a few weeks earlier. Unfortunately, the book has no beginning, middle, or end, no empathetic characters, no genre; and a whirl of settings. Are those negatives? Upon closely reading it, her first reaction was, "Is this supposed to be in the Congo? I've never been there, but this doesn't sound like the Congo to me. Where are the apes?"
No, I thought to myself, the setting might be a Mexico City butcher shop or strung out along the ditches of a 1,000 mile highway. "I’m concerned," she sighed on the phone. "Really...concerned? You sound like a doctor. You used to understand my odd ways."
I didn’t tell her about my doubts. They have evolved into my feet and at night I put them up on the rim of a porcelain tub so I can make an evaluation. Just like a doctor.
Here I am: watch as the sweat dribbles down my toes and over the middle foot area and toward the ankles. Everything is through the mist of hot water and animals croaking and slithering around. My radio blares a Sinaloa Banda tune and I cover the madness with a pull of Mezcal from a full bottle. The word "turbo" is going round and round in my mind.
I am doomed to write and send messages few will comprehend. Alone inside a life that flutters and stops only to breath and take direction from some unseen voice. I wake early in the morning and play the music loudly and people complain about this guy that I don't know and then all the craziness gets crushed in my hands like flowers.
Listen to this: Her lips move like the clatter of an old movie projector, flickering to the sound of a business card, in green letters, and she is proud of her new job and address: telephone, telex, fax…no email. Can you see her? Short black hair, white teeth like the gates of a wedding cake, deep eyes on one end of the pool, skin a defiant mix of Africa and England, hopes and love based upon the politics of southern Sudan.
See this: She is flying across the intersection in slow motion, her body wanting just one more chance, and she dies with her son inside her belly, there, on the green grass of a front yard edging Gitanga Road. All of the pressure is gone now as she twists away in a last convulsion. Few people have been assassinated by a garbage truck. Part of her fame, no doubt, and the tribes and clans crowd together and jump up and down, trying to pierce the sky, and on into the night they shoot upward, and the fires and the beat of drums and the clank of cans and the dogs running in circles until the sun returns to the myth of Africa.
Everything for her: even the hole and the rock to mark her place.
She was unlucky… this I know… and then her image is gone from my mind as if she is someone unreal and these memories are only a figment; the unclean fruit of some bad meal pitching me into bed.
I believe in luck, more than the oceans or the mountains of the moon. Good luck follows good choices. Turn left or right and reality unfolds accordingly. If I had to sum up how I feel about the footprints of my life it would be: eight blacks in a row at a Reno roulette table or consensual sex with a female stranger from Italy who turns into a long-term ally. They happen if you’re lucky.
The critic is two hours late. Typical. She used to like what I write, but now things have changed. I recall that she thought one of my books was great, back in the San Francisco summer of 1909. She was working for Jack London and living on his ranch out at Glen Ellen. In some of her funnier moments she'd tell me how Jack would get high on morphine and sleep with his dogs.
I am not without references in my writing: one of my good friends, who I used to help get into war zones, was once favorably compared to Jack London. His first name is Larth which comes from Etruscan blood and he is the godfather of my child and as such is committed to support her with sizable blocks of money. Larth now lives in England but we used to roam the world together.
In my pocket is a letter I am writing to Larth. I pull it out and begin to silently read: "I have decided to expose you, BY NAME, inLiving and Dying with Dogs: Turbo Edition. I will cover those events surrounding the time when you lived with me in Nairobi and I took some R&R and you immediately turned my home into a crash pad for prostitutes and downtown Nairobi trash. You had told me you were gathering intel on Siad Barre and Captain Morgan, but when I found the panties and drug paraphernalia in my king bed, I knew that something was not right. Shortly thereafter, I drove you down to a Christian guesthouse and placed you into the custody of a Catholic nun who, apparently, had lost her teeth in a fight with a parishioner. I think you were slightly stunned at that turn of events, but later I slowly allowed you access to everything I owned and facilitated your meeting with some of the most violent people in southern Sudan, as well as young Nairobi women, who I presumed you bagged. You, of course, in total violation of things I can no longer remember, wrote a tell-all article about the bush wedding between Emma and Riek. They were both furious. Commander Riek demanded a meeting with you to discussthe 'strategic situation in South Sudan'. I kept telling him you were in Somalia and so slowly the whole thing faded away. Anyway, that is what I am going to write. If you want your side of the story to be known, please contact me with a few pertinent lies, which I have no doubt will muddy the water to your benefit."
Locations and time are unimportant to me since everybody has to be somewhere and I have found that moving from country to country, year to year, has become my way of finding joy in perdition.
Just in front of me Canadians totter around like mannequins ready to tip over and they look at the flowers and the palm trees in the little park. They seem to be confused and look upward and all around as if their heads are staked upon metal swivels. How did these people get here? Perhaps they are smugglers. One of them, in red pants, looks like the type who would try to get antiquities or endangered species out of the country. He probably wants to put a nice jaguar pelt at the base of his toilet. Maybe they are Mormons. Can a Canadian be a Mormon? That seems like overkill to me; choking on white bread while wrapped in a starched bed sheet. There is probably a secret law somewhere preventing such a thing. I once knew a Mormon who kept quoting the bible to me, as if a Dead Sea parchment was not the very skin of my body.
A local beggar beats a drum and blows on a saxophone: a bizarre scene. His tunes are self-mutilating and get stuck in my mind. Some think his music terrible. I considered it visionary. His lyrics are from blocked days when women sprayed shellac on their hair and men had sex with cows if they wanted. There is obvious humor and sadness in the stories he sings, but I don’t think many people bother to listen. His wife, nursing a baby, stands a few feet away. She holds a white Styrofoam cup in her free hand and shakes it. I can hear a few coins rattle. She wants more. The baby wants more. Death wants more. I reach into my pocket and feed the circus.
I am preparing myself to do battle with the critic. She is a middle-aged, slightly damaged, but elastic woman from Toronto. She refers to me as a "functioning alcoholic" which strikes me more as a compliment than a diagnosis. She is the in-house critic for a glossy, influential literary magazine. A few days before, she'd phoned me about the book and her trip to visit me: "Even if it was free, I’d tell readers not to bother. You masturbate to your words, don’t you?"
"Not really," I replied. "Oh, I don’t know, maybe," I reconsidered.
"Literary fiction… what a joke… you’re so pretentious," was her final judgement.
So why is she visiting me? Well, we have a history. Long ago, when people were dying of the black plague and building bonfires to burn cats, we had been an item. She had discovered me when I was fresh and alive; when I could run the 100 yard dash away from any bar bill on the West Coast. My times were usually under twelve seconds.
Many thoughts go through my mind as I take another sip of my drink. We never should have fucked is one of them. It was too spontaneous, even for me.
I stand up and run over to a 55-gallon barrel and throw up. The Canadians watch me. I return to my table and call to a waitress for a towel and bowl of water. Her name is Tania and she despises tourists. "I feel like a slave," she is wont to say. When we first met she said, "Oh, Dukes of Hazard!" and I replied, "Oh, Tania la Guerrillera!" We laughed together and it felt good.
The restrooms are closed for repairs and since I am a good customer who leaves tips in excess of 20%, I get what I want. Within a few minutes I am clean and Tania is patting my back. The critic, my old fuck buddy, rounds the corner and heads for my table. Her eyes are like prison cells and there is no escape from judgement. It is in all places and reaches across the millennia to find us, even when we are in a weakened state, with our faces in our hands, and there is the growing urge that we need to vomit again, for old time's sake; to remember what went wrong and why we're so guilty. Yet, I will persevere.
I am like a furnace and she will be my ore.
The Canadians are still looking at me. A low voice from somewhere in the crowd asks, "Do you live here?"
Tania replies, "Yes. He is a good customer. I love him."
Duke Miller has many defining moments: being blown out of bed is one. Crossing all those borders is another. Caring about what other people think is also important and like a good shortwave radio, it's made a difference. He is a vegan and currently arguing with a food critic in Los Angeles about how the world might end. Here are some of his other writings:
Writing for the Absent Reader
Living and Dying with Dogs
Tin Hats Blog