1. Radio Oracle.
It is occasionally surprising how hard it is to find a place to sit and collect your thoughts when you are on the road. There are already a hundred things that can go wrong when you leave the house anyway, and the negotiations you have to make with the outside world can often be bewildering and tedious, full of finding places to store your things, people who can connect you with the resources you’re looking for, and when all is said and done, find a warm dry place to curl up for a few hours to keep the crazy at bay. And yet, missing among all of this (no matter where you go) is the constant problem of needing to find a place to go when you want to be by yourself. Where can you go to do that if not back to your own place?
It’s the problem Odysseus tried to solve all those years ago, and one I have no firmer grasp upon. However, there are times when you are still several days away from home, and you’ve exhausted the kindness and beer of all your friends, and you find yourself wandering, trying to seek out the place you can next intrude upon, if for even the briefest attempt to find out what to do next. This is its own challenge unto itself, a journey that could be an epic told in several parts. But invariably it comes down to a question of music. Not only can the sound be as enticing as it is valuable in creating a sense of comfort and security in a place that could be otherwise jarring, but it can be a fantastic social barometer when attempting to make sense of a new locale.
Depending on where you wind up, this can take some time. As I was on my way home from another case elsewhere, I felt it was important to take stock of what had happened before I got home. I always find that it is important to get your story straight before you have to start explaining yourself to anyone. Once you get home, there are always questions. What have you been up to? Why did you spend so much money? Are you going to take a shower, or stink like that the rest of the day? Where are you going again so quickly? You just got home… It has always felt more comfortable to take an extra day or two in getting back, so that you can really reflect on the trip you took. It helps replenish your magic quicker, and gives you a chance to sleep 16 hours straight somewhere remote. This has, on occasion, led to other trips that I often need to recover from again, but even in these cases I have felt that the effort was well spent. Many joke about needing a vacation from their vacation, but I have found few who take that point as seriously as they should.
This is how, in of all the places, I came to find myself wandering around St. John’s one morning, only a few miles from home but close enough to make me start to consider other exotic locales. It was still a bit too early for the average Joe to consider having a cocktail, but most of the local drunks had already been at it for a few hours, and some of the more athletic consumers of liquor were about to prepare for a bit of a nap before they continued with their favorite pastime. The occasional postman, delivery truck, or cigarette-breaking dishwasher dotted my landscape, but it was a typical place in the world in that there was a 9 to 5 veneer on a strip that also had a vibrant – if not, somewhat seedy – nightlife.
I had a few itches to scratch as I was wondering around. I had some notes I wanted to jot down about the work I was just wrapping up, before I became distracted with unpacking and returning all the calls that I had ignored when I was out of town. The day was already getting on and I still hadn’t had any coffee, bourbon or food, and all three were swimming around in my mind, looking for a bassline to help root it in the real world. And it wouldn’t hurt to invest a little duty now for the future, and roll a few smokes, top off the flask, and review the contents of my satchel. It seems that, no matter how well I pack, I inevitably lose something every time I go anywhere, and It might be good to get back to the status quo before my next outing. And it wouldn’t hurt if there was a little visual stimuli, either.
A variety of factors were present in a few of the places I passed, and part of me wondered if I could wander for the entire day, if waiting until I could really find the perfect place was the way to go, but in the end settled on a relatively empty bar called Slim’s that had a fairly decent menu and an even more decent bartender who seemed to be as aware of her own assets as the other men in the bar were, too. I’d been drawn in by the sound of a radio that offered my mind something to sink into, and I felt as if I was about to have something revealed to me if I were just patient. I grabbed a seat out of the way and arranged myself in a manner that could not only make an exit one handled with alacrity, but gave me a good sense of the entire place without having to turn around and look behind me too often.
Curves That Wouldn’t Stop asked if there was anything she could get me, but I compromised my own morals and asked for a shot of something strop, a cup of something hot, and a glass of something beer, adding that I might be able to come up with a few other things if she let me sit back and watch for a bit. She obliged and I feigned looking at the menu while I took in my surroundings. A pair of older men were humping a video poker machine and Elvira’s Scared Stiff pinball in concert with each other, whacking at buttons and pulling levers in comical displays of misplaced dignity. Each of them was huffing and puffing, talking to themselves, each other, and the bartender. Almost in an effort to outdo the barflies themselves, the thirst of the bar seemed insatiable, and the bartender slinked around filling napkin dispensers, bending over to replace empty bottles, and finding new reasons to stretch, raise a leg, and occasionally adjust herself to reveal a little more chest each time.
There was an ancient staleness around us, years and years of spilled beer and indoor smoking. Of smoldering cigars and desperation, or moments when pure romantic joy transpired all over the wall and carpet, and of the countless “fucks” and “cunts” that were uttered all around us. The bar felt like a worn spot, like a scab that was mostly (but not quite) healed, and where some sort of spirit infection is trying to take hold, but if failing constantly. I could tell that what little reserves I had left were not available for even a basic spell here, as if it was a black hole, where emotions are sucked out. The carpets were woven with this narrative, coming apart at the edges and the seams, trying not to let the stains of its own confusion speak any louder than it did when it was once new.
“I Know There’s An Answer,” sang the radio at me.
When I’d taken in enough of the view to tide me over for a few more weeks, I motioned to the bartender to ask her for a pair of eggs and a few accoutrements for them. She quickly called out the order and freshened up my coffee and my fantasies with a few new shakes of her hips, and I pulled out an index card and began to take notes. There always seemed to be so much left to be said, that no matter how much I say up front, there is so much left unsaid. I jotted down the highlights of the previous case (a kidnapping that was as ugly as it was depressing), and with almost no one to collect expenses from, and had to slink back to my own nest and lick my wounds. Still, I used the excuse to meet up with a few friends and burn through even more of my savings, so that at least I could feel as if I’d done something useful with the time. It took my mind off the body count and the hole in my heart that it had caused me, and while I was enjoying this bartenders attempt to fill it with coffee and booze, I had a feeling that the best thing to do was to consider that part of my live closed, so I could move on. I pocketed the card once I’d gotten a good outline down for the case file later, and dug into something fried and distracting.
“Found his wheel and nature scene / quenched his thirst way it had never been,” continued the radio.
I tried to imagine what things were like before, but I was already so immersed in this new life that my days as anything else felt distant and unfathomable. I started using the name Dexter Roland only because it felt appropriate, like the old name was of that other life, full of disappointing jobs and compromises and coming home to an empty apartment, filling my time with re-runs of whatever’s clever, trying to find the least depressing porn to peruse before bed. Sure, I was in the same shitty apartment, and some problems never changed, but at least in this line of work, when the case was closed, the case was closed. You could move on and know that you were trying to help, that finding answers – even unsatisfying ones – can sometimes make all the difference.
At least, I would tell myself that after a cigarette to reflect on.
Could I settle down again? Supposing the bartender gave me the time of day beyond what she’s showing off to earn a tip? Is there a city nearby where we would move to so we could save money, where we’d consider adopted a cat and get into heated discussions about curtains and where a new set of shelves should go. Could I give up magic, setting the spellbook aside, never to be tapped again? Can either of us look each other in the eye after 15 years of routine sex and the same ten stories being repeated ad nauseum? Who would give up first? Who would break their promise to the other, making mistake after mistake until that inevitable day when neither of you wants to talk to the other anymore? Which of you would be 100% content, and would try hard to make it work every day?
Who’s afraid of the answers to those questions?
I doubled the tip I was going to leave, and glanced back at the unanswered message on my phone from Suzanne, my business partner and office manager. How much longer could I ignore it?
I stubbed out my cigarette and thumbed my phone, trading one vice for the other. As I suspected, it was a case. Someone named Dangerfield, claims to know me. Says I should stop by some afternoon so he can catch up. I didn’t doubt the message, but I couldn’t even imagine who this might be. There was an address, too, which was not only between here and The Office, but also rang a bit of a bell.
“All of the rock and roll DJ’s, got their fingers on the world / Cause they play the songs that make you and me feel so good,” sang a speaker behind me, and as I made contact with the bartender again, it was clear that I had to shit or get off of the pot.
I checked the message again, jotted down the address, and opened up the next case, whatever it might be.