15 January, 2009
CHAPTER TWO: MIDNIGHT AT THE DOGFISH
copyright 2009 by Jim Nail
Outside the Dogfish you can hear the surf, pounding and breathing in the dark. It’s an ancient sound, one of the seven primal sounds of the universe, out of which all the other sounds are formed, the same way that all music is formed out of the eight tones of the octave, or the way that all color springs from the six hues of the rainbow. Everyone is affected by the sound of the ocean, although different people respond in different ways. Some people get peaceful, like they’re listening to a lullaby. They buy recordings of the ocean that they can take home and put on their stereos whenever they need that peace in their landlocked lives. Other people get restless, like they’re listening to a clarion horn, calling them out to adventure, or mystery, or danger on the jagged rocks. Still others wax philosophical and muse on the contrast between the evanescence of their lives against the eternal rhythms of the tides. There are even people who get annoyed by the sound of the sea, and they bolt their windows against it at night, so they can get some sleep. That sound! It’s always there. It never stops!
The Dogfish itself sits on stilts. It’s doors open out onto Gull Street, while the wide lounge window in the back offers a sweeping view of the Pacific Ocean where whales can be seen spouting on fine spring afternoons. But tonight the windows are steamed over. There is nothing to see in them except for some squiggly signatures and a finger drawn replica of a Picasso nude. It’s midnight at the Dogfish. The place is packed.
Wilbo sits at the bar, third stool down, next to the salty shell peanut bowl, his usual spot. There’s a drink in front of him, mostly ice, an amber liquid and a maraschino cherry. There’s also an empty beer glass and another beer glass with some dregs and some foam. Next to the beer glasses is an elaborate piece of architecture constructed entirely out of empty peanut shells.
He’s talking with Carl Rogers, a hefty bearded man in a blue work shirt and red suspenders. Behind Carl, Levon Blue Lake Moon sits at a table with his wife Opal Moon. Levon’s graying hair is long and tied back in a braid. His eyes are like a camera, taking in everything. Opal, her eyes closed, is singing, quietly, wordlessly, a tune that seems to draw its intervals from the voices surrounding. Opal often sings.
Wilbo’s hands gesture fluidly, sloppily, like he’s trying to make a point but he keeps missing it. Carl is hunkered down, well-centered on his stool, motionless- just his head moves; he nods slowly, thoughtfully, weighing Wilbo’s words.
“It’s the inner beauty, Carl. The inner beauty.” Wilbo is speaking. “Some people have it and some people don’t. Maybe everybody had it once, but most people let it die out. To protect the status quo. Most people get ugly. But I can see the inner beauty in a person- I can see it coming a mile off. That’s what I do for a living. They say beauty is only skin deep- that’s bullshit! Beauty has nothing to do with skin. Beauty isn’t the way your face is put together. Beauty expresses itself in the way you walk- the way you carry yourself, the way you hold your head, the way you swing your arms. I got an eye for that, man. I can see it coming a mile off.”
“You make fun of people, Wilbo,” says Carl. “That’s what you do for a living.”
“Well, of course I make fun of them. They deserve it. They’re all fools. They need someone to wake them up. They’re all caught up in this oscillation that keeps repeating itself, ka-chunk, ka-chunk, like that, over and over. They need electro-shock therapy- like Gurdjieff said, they need that first conscious shock.”
“And another thing I notice, Wilbo.” Carl turns in his chair ever so slightly, just enough to throw Wilbo off his rhythm.
“You favor women.”
“You do, you favor women. I’ve watched you do it. Even your pictures. When you draw a picture of a man you always bring out the worst in him. But when you draw a woman, she’s always pretty. You always make her pretty.”
Wilbo leans over in a long, slow arc until his forefinger strikes Carl squarely on the chest.
“Well, there’s a reason for that, Carl. Women are not men. Women haven’t been in charge around here for the last two thousand years. That’s why they still have their beauty! Women need to be respected and protected. The future belongs to women, man- you wait and see. But not through power! Not through power, Carl! Through beauty! Beauty, man! You wait and see! If there’s any hope for the future, it’s women!”
There’s the sound of applause- the sound of two hands clapping. Everyone in a four foot radius turns to look. It’s Doralina Steindl-Klas, an ancient, sturdy woman; her button-clad hat is flopped down over one eye and she’s holding up a glass of something dark and crimson.
“Ergo sum!” she salutes. “The orangutan speaks my mind!”
Wilbo slips off his barstool and lurches forward. He throws an arm across Doralina’s shoulder.
“Look at this woman!” he proclaims. “Look at the beauty here! Does this woman have power? No! She doesn’t have power! She holds no office. She pens no laws. She doesn’t dispatch troops to third world nations or guide the course of large corporations. No, this woman has no power. This woman has beauty! She spreads beauty among us, secretly- in the night!”
His enthusiasm is mildly contagious. A few people cheer and whistle. Doralina just beams.
“Now, just wait one minute here.” Carl has laboriously rotated his considerable girth around on the barstool and now he faces the small crowd gathered around Wilbo and Doralina. “Take a look at this place. Look around. Look at us, every one of us. Oddballs and misfits, that’s all I see here. This is not a representative sampling of western culture.” He makes a sweeping gesture with his arm, throwing energy out of his fingertips onto Wilbo, Doralina, and a few other unsuspecting innocents who happen to be in the path. “Alien scientists could come down here from another planet, gathering data on the human race, and leave two years later without any inkling that people like us even exist.”
“Damn straight!” someone yells, and an unidentified fist pounds three times on the bar.
“Well, that’s not a bad thing, Carl.” Wilbo has let go of Doralina and started the uneasy trek back to his barstool. “Would you want it any other way?”
“Well, of course it’s not a bad thing. The deviation can never be the norm. Hey, what do you think happens when the deviation becomes the norm? What does it become?”
Wilbo knows this routine. It’s like something out of a Laurel and Hardy movie directed by Frederico Fellini. He obliges willingly. “That’s a silly question. It becomes the norm.”
“Yeah, right. It becomes the norm. Then if it’s the norm, it can’t be the deviation anymore. It’s the norm. Get it?’
Behind the bar Karen the bartender is drying a wineglass with a pink towel. “Carl, I don’t think there’s much danger of things getting normal around here real soon.”
Wilbo reaches his barstool and sinks his weight against it. He does not sit. Carl turns to make room for him.
“Hey, Wilbo, do you know the true definition of the word eccentric?” Carl nods his head and smiles. You can tell he takes pride in what he’s about to say. “Well, I’ll tell you the true definition of the word eccentric. Eccentric. It means outside the center. Out on the distant radials of the wheel. Think of a wheel. Dig deep into your mechanical knowledge. The hub is slave to the shaft. The hub takes the energy of the shaft and translates it into spin. The hub spins the wheel. All the motion of a wheel comes from the hub. The eccentrics don’t have anything to do with the spinning of the wheel. But do you know what the eccentrics provide?” He leaves a little space for this question, but Wilbo knows Carl better than to answer.
“The wobble.” Carl intones. “The eccentrics provide the wobble.”
“The wobble!” Doralina is delighted. “Of course! And don’t forget the wobblelet!’
“Carl, Carl, Carl, that’s all good and fine, what you’re saying,” Floyd Collins, seated at the bar next to Carl, still has his nametag on from work. Professionally laminated and sealed with gold trim, it bears the name of the mother company in bold letters, but Floyd’s name, merely FLOYD is scrawled below that in green marking pen. The top of Floyd’s head is a shiny dome rising above a cloud of unkempt curls. He’s been listening closely to the whole thing, taking it all in. “But Carl, what will the eccentrics do then, if they’re not empowered? That wobble you talk about. It will just go away. It’s already going away. Look at this place. Look at us here. Five years ago we were different. We thought something was happening. We were excited about the future. We thought we were the edge of a whole new vibration. But now look at us. Old farts already. Old farts in just a few years. And the young people today, the ones that ought to be the caretakers of the vision. They’re impoverished. They can’t get jobs. They can’t buy homes. They can’t even get credit approval! There’s this voiceless mass of people out there, all because they look different, or they think different. There’s so much they can tell us.”
The tableau has returned to its original position. Wilbo has sprawled out on the barstool with his back to the bar while Carl sits Buddha-like, staring into the row of bottles on the wall.
Wilbo and Carl. They sit side by side, facing opposite directions.
“It’s a moral question, really,” says Wilbo, after some thought. “It’s not just a matter of wobbling outside the center, as you put it, Carl. There has to be a code of ethics.”
“Yeah, Ok, a code of ethics.” Carl replies. “So how does making fun of people fit into your code of ethics?”
Doralina leans forward and wags her finger playfully. “And don’t forget- favoring women!”
Wilbo sighs. “I think we’ve already been here.” He says. “Where’s my drink?” He wheels around on the stool. “Hey, Karen, can you just top this off for me please?”
Karen already has the bottle in her hands. She dispenses a generous drizzle down over the melted remains of Wilbo’s ice. At that moment there’s a commotion at the front door. The sound of the ocean comes in and there’s a shuffling of feet. Karen looks up and a troubled expression crosses her face.
“Your brother’s here, Wilbo,” she says quietly.
Wilbo makes no attempt at concealing his dismay. He spins round rapidly and slams his fist down hard on the bar. “Fuck.” he mutters. Then to Karen, “What does he look like? Is he staggering?”
Karen scans the crowd. ‘Actually, he looks remarkably good for this hour of the night. You’d better go see him, Wilbo. He knows he’s not allowed to drink in here anymore.”
Wilbo picks up his drink and tosses it back in one gulp. “Yeah, yeah, OK, I’m going.” He pushes himself off from the bar as if he was a boat and begins a troubled voyage through the crowd to the door.
“Just be yourself, Wilbo!” Carl calls out after him.
Everybody in the bar seems to know what’s happening, or at least that something is happening. People step aside and conversations lull as he passes. A draft of outside air brushes against him as he moves, carrying with it a damp fetid smell, like the underside of a dock.
Arno is standing in the open door. People around him have given him some berth, but no one is speaking to him. In fact, he does look completely sober. His clothes are a bit rumpled, but they’re clean- brown slacks, a white shirt- salesman clothes. He’s standing erect, his eyes are clear, his hair is combed. But as Wilbo get’s closer, he sees that Arno is trembling all over. He’s breathing in quiet shallow puffs and his lower lip quivers.
“Wilbo, I’ve got to talk to you. Something has happened to me. You won’t believe what’s happened to me.”
Wilbo looks around the room. People are not being successful at ignoring this scene. Conversations are resuming, but the voices are subdued and furtive eyes are stealing glances.
“Well, sure man, you can talk to me. Let’s just step outside.”