notes from the road: Monkey Wharf
“I can’t really afford to pay you tonight. The monkeys seem sick.”
“What’s wrong with the monkeys?”
“They just don’t seem very lively, and those two there piss everywhere.”
I wandered for a moment through my monkey files, and all I could compare the ailing monkeys to was a grizzled Orangutan masturbating for embarrassed visitors at the Memphis Zoo.
“Could be worse.” I commiserated. “Except for the part where I don’t get paid.”
“No one showed up. I’ll give you 14% of the till.”
The thought of pocketing the waitresses tip money had lost it’s appeal years ago. That sort of behavior, outside of Oregon, meant sleeping cold in the van.
“No thanks. How bout $10 for gas home?”
“Are you coming back?”
This was always the hardest question. Would the bar manager be more likely to pay me to leave, or to never come back?
“That one is pissing.” I said, trying to be agreeable. “Maybe some Cran-apple Juice.”
“Nah, then they want vodka.” The manager hit the secret button on the register and a minor founding father flew out and into my hand like we’re were trading Gucci.
“I appreciate it.”
2 a.m. Anchorage in February whistled through the door, a halo of snow crystal surrounding two Nordstrom girls; well, one Nordstrom girl, and one who knew how to shop the thrifts. I knew which one I was going home with because her only key was in my pocket. Behind them, the ever-forlorn trumpet player followed along, hoping for fall-out. But twenty below zero is to cold for fall-out. You learned to swallow and make do by early December, each year afresh.
“Baby! Love!” The manager swooned in the coming Chanel draft.
The glittered one made a sound like lawyers shifting in pleather chairs, but she was only walking. My waitress, and the prospect of her floor, struggled with a safety pin in shadow. She looked up with the secret smile that showed we had met at Value Village on a Thursday afternoon. I laid the money down and ordered a Rusty-Nail, and a K & C for her. That left $3.50 for gas and a wall of sick monkeys staring through glass. The manager and his siren were sinking to the floor behind the bar, a jangle of silver tennis chain and faux bangles. I grabbed up the glasses and drifted toward the table by the door where Connie sat lacing on her snow pacs.
“You’ll feed the cat, right?”
“Sure, just tell me what you need.”
Her face was the closest thing to sunshine for three more months. I didn’t even care that she carried a gun.
“Do you mind if I change in your van?”
“Do you mind if it’s 20 fucking below?”
“Not at all. You are the one without a coat.”
Some things you can’t argue with. I actually did have a coat, my ‘marlboro man’ sheepskin from Lord & Taylors. Only I had ripped the sleeves off the year before so I could wear it to a gig in Winter Park, Florida. A cold snap of 42 degrees meant I had my last chance to look like Clint Eastwood while the impressionable ladies still knew who he was. No one showed that Siberian night either. Except for a police dog who sniffed the nobodies at the pool table for a thief.
“Let’s steal these drinks and leave, Connie.”
“Yeah, we’ll sell the glasses for clothes.”
She pushed, and I banged through the blackened door, once more fish on ice, breathing shallow in disbelief as the insides of our faces began to freeze. The Inuit of the farther north have 100 words for snow. Connie had just one.
“Jesus Fucking Christ!”
Like glass talking. Connie had thick corn-silk hair, grown long enough to wrap her face beneath her wool scarf. She was a pro in her third winter. The snow drifts had surrendered every clue to their inherent wetness, squeaky and grippy, like we were walking on styro-foam.
“Do you know what’s wrong with the monkeys?”
“Yes.” This was typical conversation at 20 below. Get to the point and make your stand.
The wet salt of Florida still hid behind the expired plates, and in the locks of the van, so we stood swearing at the harsh reality of fingers and toes while we aimed bic lighters at the lock.
How long a soul may stand a hard thing with courage and a calm face, dissolves as soon as the portal to salvation opens. Connie went in like an expedition class down sleeping bag in full fluff, a few downy feathers rising impossibly. I heard her fall over the tube-less amp I still hauled everywhere for the name, and knew it was my turn. The heavy guitar case found it’s own way to the floor next to the passenger seat; which was one of my great-grandmothers porch rocking chair from the Mississippi Delta. The drivers seat was stiff and slick with cold. Fat asses had a place here. The tortured sludge in the engine resisted the machine to the point I swore about buying a new battery again.
Looking back, I saw Connie already out of her second layer and yanking her shirt over her head; an aura of steam glowing her peeking breasts charcoal blue in the sodium street-light.
It was pretty clear who was sleeping on the floor again. Waitresses make a pretty good day-dream if you’ve never tried one. Other-wise, it’s simple Judaic Barter. I heard the wheel of her pocket gun swing, and the little hollow thumps as she loaded .357 magnum hollow points.
“I hate this fucking job.”
That combination of armed resistance, bought and paid for. Connie worked second shifts as a security guard to an empty lot, because the only people coming to the Monkey Wharf, didn’t mind a crew of sick monkeys, and those types never tip. She squeezed into the rocker and heaved my guitar over her shoulder, which clattered about in a muffled key of drop-D gravity.
“Still beats a bad season of crabbing the Bearing Sea though.”
Connie wasn’t particularly beautiful, but she was warm, now armed, and making rent. We crunched flat-spot frozen tires to her apartment, cla-whumping past a bored police cruiser traveling in it’s own womb of transitional heat and moisture. The indigo sky drank it all into the clearest stars ever shown.
As she dug deep for her key, she sighed out her one concession.
“Look, you don’t have to sleep on the wood floor. We’ll share the bed; only I’m not a dog.”
“I know.” I admitted my flawed gentlemanly nature, that had precluded my getting laid since high-school. Except for the student nurse who climbed through my bed-room window one night.
“Open the door, It’s freezing!”
“Oh, yeah!” I excavated the key from my jeans, wondering if she would marry me, and how that may or may not eventually affect our sleeping arrangements. This type of conundrum was ever present in my life. I routinely slept with women, all fragile and stone hard, for nothing more than radiant flannel warmth. One was true to an untrue airline pilot who only showed up once a fort-night, the next wasn’t ready yet. Ever. But simple failure is not enough to combat Alaska winter, so we shared space next to her hungry wood-stove, she confessing all the sins I was to have none of, in poetic detail, while I fed the remaining planks of my beach-house water-bed frame to fuel a pointless fire.
The door swung open. A large grey tom-cat flew from the shelving as a whining german shepherd pawed up my chest to chew my last remaining sheep-horn button.
“You didn’t say you had a dog, Connie. You only said your weren’t one.”
“Well, I don’t forget to feed him. See you at six.” She deftly lifted my keys out of my pocket, and spun out the door with a glint of nickel-silver.