I drank down the pint of bourbon faster than I wanted to and was drunker than I wanted to be this quickly. It was these types of thoughts that confused my sense of balance and allowed hallucinations to creep in. I had just arrived at the seedy motel ten minutes ago, it seemed, and now the pint was gone and I was swaying.
I surveyed the room and sat down on the bed. The bed squeaked under my full body weight. There were chips in the wood of the bureau. The bathroom was bare without soap or shampoo. The lone window had venetian blinds covered with a dark green blackout curtain. My room looked out onto the parking lot around the back of the motel and I could see a man who was living out of his van.
On the bureau was a wooden box. It was cognac brown wood with a ballet dancer carved on it. There was a bronze windup key beneath the bronze hinges on one side. I opened it up and looked at a miniature machine, almost like a large watch movement with springs and circular toothed gauges connected to a stem that led to the turnkey. I closed it and wound the bronze key. I then opened it again. It started to play Beethoven’s “moonlight sonata.” I pondered why a music box would be in this room. It really didn’t belong here. I placed it down to play after picking it up and opening and closing it a few times.
The music box serenaded me with that beautiful sonata in the tenor of a child’s harpsichord. I stood up entranced and grabbed at the open space for my invisible dance partner and proceeded to air-waltz around the room. I felt the strings of Beethoven’s moonlight caress my broken heart. There was a moment when the clutching beauty of the song arrived simultaneously with sad memories of love lost both crushing the fibers of my heart then massaging it back into shape.
After a few turns my waltz collapsed onto the bed and I rested there for a few minutes as the music box wound down to silence. The dim twilight was now coming in tentative shafts through the venetian blinds. Darkness overtook the room in silence. As quickly as the bourbon entered my system to light me up, I felt that twinge of pestering sobriety working inside me. It was time to explore my surroundings and get more booze.
I had no luggage just a briefcase with some books and a moleskin notebook. It was winter in coastal Oregon with a brisk wind and mist in the air. I put on my rain jacket and started walking. There was a boardwalk nearby with several stores. It was well lit and though it was a weeknight there was some life walking by: a coupe going to a restaurant and a romantic pair holding hands and walking slowly along the boardwalk.
There was still a vestige of sun kissing the horizon with a blush of yellow and magenta. Wispy clouds withered in the junction of sky and ocean while blinking lights from Dories illustrated fishermen completing their day. The open expanse of sand on the beach welcomed the mad roar of these Dory boats when they slid back onto land. A lighthouse stood majestically a quarter mile north with its lights blinking boldly.
As I walked I noticed several well-lit stores on the street-side of the boardwalk. The two art galleries adjacent to each other were inviting and I admired a vividly painted canvas of a woman ‘s face framed in red hair from a distance. There was a fish market that also had a restaurant, a taffy and candy store, a diner and a convenience store. Hidden a little farther on was the liquor store next to an arcade that fronted the most boardwalk space of any of the stores.
I walked to the liquor store and went in. This time a bought a fifth of bourbon and a two liter bottle of Coca Cola. The proprietor looked me up and down and I found myself staring at his ear-lobe gauges. Pygmy discs that represented the unyielding deforming force life puts out against those who refuse to accept their station. Curiously there were no visible tattoos. I fund this unusual. Certain bodily demonstrations go together. I judge, yes I do and people can see it in my eyes. I paid and walked out.
There was a park bench fifty yards away on the boardwalk in from of the arcade. I sat down and opened up the bourbon for a nice long pull. I opened the Coke with a sudden fizz and chugged several gulps of the dark carbonated syrup. Burn followed by chaser burn deep in the chest where the soul lived and nurtured me. There were pleasant background noises all around. The bells and cartoon slide-horns and comedic downturns signaling the game’s end all emanated from then arcade while an audiophile quality stereo punctuated the chaos with Green Day and White Stripes.
The periodic forlorn cries of seagulls rose from the ocean along with the foghorns from boats, the laughter of patrons and the stillness on the sand all coalesced with electrical wires buzzing like hummingbirds as I enjoyed the wave of ease that washed over me. A seagull walked close to my feet. The crinkling of my bag must have alerted him to the promise of bread or a French fry. He was a bold little guy now practically standing on my shoe. I let him be there. I didn’t have anything to offer him, so he meandered for a few minutes and walked on. Then he came back.
I turned around and inspected the interior of the gaming room. I saw mostly men, not boys, somewhere around twenty guys in there aged thirty-five to fifty-five, some bald with graying beards. There were no modern games. The room was filled with old-school games from before the computer era took hold. It was a time warp from my childhood. There were only games I would have sought out as a teenager: Pacman, Joust, Defender, Space Invaders, Ms. Pacman, and walls of pinball machines from Elton John’s pinball wizard spectacle. It felt like an establishment stocked in 1983 and left alone for fads to fade and then return. The machines survived on the ether of a bygone time. Here and right now a man in his fifties enters this realm broken off from the chain of time and he carries with him all his own losses and failures and heartbreak since the decade of the 80’s; he carries all this to the gray windy beaches of the pacific northwest to fuel these gaming machines with those haunting memories that give breath and energy to theses creations from a lost time and in the process this all defies the passage of time and the need for repair.
I wondered why certain memories that I tried to wish away kept returning forcefully and more vividly with time in tow. Other recollections disappear quickly never to return unless grouped in with an unsavory batch. The unwanted memories shuttle in on memories wrapped in desire.
I took a burning drink of bourbon followed by Coke before I decided to go into the arcade. I stood up and the confused seagull scurried away. There was a man flying a kite on the beach in the dark. He was halfway between the boardwalk and the ocean’s edge. He was standing barefoot in the sand. The kite was really pulling him towards the ocean and he was fighting it. He was a large muscular character and I watched him inch reluctantly towards the foamy fingers of seawater creeping up on the sand. The force of the wind was pulling the kite out to the ocean with increasing vigor and soon he was ankle deep in the ocean. There was at least three hundred yards of string out there and suddenly he let go. The kite now rose higher as the string danced on the ocean as it unspooled. I stood and watched the kite blend into the darkness. As it got smaller it took on a translucent sheen projecting moon glow and starlight before transforming into a diamond in the sky as seagulls crisscrossed its path to disappearance.
The man then walked towards the boardwalk after letting the kite go. He looked familiar to me. As he got closer I saw that it was my old high school friend and teammate Keith Glasgow. We played football together on the line and after he graduated college he became a firefighter. I was overcome by surprise and then I realized that Keith had been killed in 911. There was no doubt this was him as passed me and I waved while making eye contact but he did not acknowledge me. He kept walking towards the arcade.
I walked over to the bench and picked up my bag of drinks and walked over to the entrance of the arcade. I paused and stood there dumbfounded. All these middle aged men playing games, the sounds from the past. Pacman gobbling and gaining ground around the squared-off maze being chased while engulfing whatever was in the path until ultimately being cornered followed by that disheartening sad-sack music of failure. Wah Wah Wah wah…
A man about my age was playing the pinball machine next to pacman. It was a game styled after the movie “space jam’ from the 1990s with Michael Jordan. I owned that very pinball machine in my house when my kids were small and money was no object. It was vintage with all the elements one desires in a true pinball machine After I bought the mansion with the covered pool and the luxury cars and boats and the vacation home and the expensive clothes and shoes and watches, then, well, what does one spend money on? One fills up a game room with more toys and pinball is an iconic game from my generation and a childhood love; easy to play, easy to play well but always maddeningly evasive. That ball always finds a way during a crucial moment to split the center between the two flippers.
I carefully observed the man playing the pinball machine. He was tall, about my height, salt and pepper beard like mine, his sense of style very similar to mine: suede Chelsea boots, jeans, a colorful western shirt and leather jacket. He also had a limp similar to mine that I noticed when he walked up placing more weight on his left leg, even when he stood still, and he was quite skilled at Space Jam. I watched him play one ball for almost twenty minutes. His nose was off-center from a previous break and he had the same scar on his bottom lip that deformed the even hair growth of his beard. He was my twin, my doppelganger and I stood there observing myself in this existential time warp. I felt like alcohol was inducing a hallucination, playing tricks with my mind. Or maybe I needed more alcohol. Where was I? I was suddenly frightened and at the same time eerily at home. The elements from my younger years back in Brooklyn were flooding my present consciousness giving me comfort and trepidation all at once. Why was I being forced to view myself during a time when my life was all work, one great distraction of work. Why was Keith here? Where was he now? Who was he here with?
I found a bathroom and went into the handicapped stall where I sat on the toilet fully dressed so I could have another drink and think. There was no one else in the restroom. I unscrewed the bourbon fifth and took a long pull that warmed my chest down to my xyphoid and belly. The Coke was room temperature now but a sip took the burn away for a moment until the next long sip of bourbon. I sat there for ten minutes then I ventured back out into the arcade. About half the fifth was now gone.
I walked back outside for some air and then back in. I saw Keith with some other men by a miniature bowling game. No one was playing it, they were all gathered together talking and looking in my direction. Faces that I now realized were all clearly familiar to me from high school. Standing around Keith was Mike Percy. He was a teammate also, two years ahead of me and he became a fireman after he graduated college. Mike was the toughest high school linebacker I ever saw and when I earned Mike’s respect as a sophomore that was one of the best feelings I can ever remember. Mike and Keith were best friends. They were accompanied by Victor Spadarro, also a linebacker and guard, who became a firefighter right after high school. Victor and I drank together in high school and we were in the same year.
What was happening here? Where did these high school teammates who later went on to be firefighters come from? All of them were involved in the 911 explosions and they all died including Danny Suhr who just now showed up. He was a linebacker from a rival high school in Brooklyn and we became good friend after graduation. Dan was the first of these four brave men to enter tower one. They were all in the same fire house and none of them got out of the towers after the collapse.
I was starting to sweat and my heart was beating faster. I was amazed to be standing next to my brothers with whom I sweat with and bled with on the field during the years when we grew from boys to men. These were powerful men who were indestructible back then, who rushed headlong into the towers to save others never believing for a minute that these modern skyscrapers would collapse like they did. They never came out and not a cell or hair of their remains was ever recovered.
As I stood there in the throes of a nostalgic reverie, Victor made prolonged eye contact and then walked over and hugged me. All of them followed suit and walked over and we hugged while tears streaked our faces. We started laughing and then Mike shared that they had been looking for me, that they were all worried that I stopped contacting any of them. I was still in the process of registering this chance meeting and though my conscious mind knew these guys were all dead, it felt entirely natural for them to be expressing concern about my whereabouts and lack of communication. I was going through the worst period in my life and I had lost everything and everyone who meant anything to me over the last two years. I was sleepwalking through life and drinking heavily while barely surviving. I needed a breakthrough of some kind, some sign that pointed to a viable direction for me.
I shared with them all that if I didn’t lose everything I gave it away and was on my last legs. My existence was hanging on within a corridor that was dark and full of hopelessness where faith had lost out and drink still allowed one foot to fall in front of the other. I was courting a bitter end and I could see the blood mixed into the foam as the waves encroached on me. The pacific coastal towns with their overabundance of evergreen vegetation admixed with dilapidated stores and dwellings were the only places I could call home even though my wandering soul was lost and didn’t fit anywhere while I searched for relief. Had I found a moment of relief here? Was this a reprieve from the nightmare?
I reached into the bag, and lifted the bourbon out and we all passed it around. We drank to the old days and to finding relief. I was overcome with tears and we all put our arms around each other. This was it. We drained the bottle and though I had questions I was feeling compassion for the first time in a long time while also feeling understood and I knew I was feeling closer to peace as I leaned on my brothers and there was no reason to ask those questions when it all felt this right.
The answers were as self-evident as Keith’s kite that just escaped. There didn’t have to be a fight anymore against that rope’s pull. The inevitability of the ocean’s draw was now my faith and all the loss I had endured was granted to me and in this moment it rose up as a gift of such gratitude that I could not imagine having those attachments anymore. I was free.
While our arms were interlocked we walked slowly on the sand towards the water’s edge. The fears we all carried were loosened into laughter. The warmth of our connected bodies felt like a new form of relief and at the same time a cool mist in the air remained as a sad silence where I could now only hear the abrasion of my own shoes on the rough sand as my feet now met the water and I continued to walk up to shoulder depth where I stopped for a moment when I heard a voice back on the boardwalk.
Hey Fella, what are you doin? That water is freezing and the tide ‘ll pull you out and kill you.
Fella? What was he talking about?
I ignored him and continued to walk into the ocean like it had just been parted. It was freezing cold but I was determined to meet my fate. Soon my face and head were submerged and I just continued breathing in the cold briny water into my lungs choking and gasping yet believing there must be some rich oxygen down there and soon my lungs were filled up with the brilliance of the pacific ocean and I just kept walking…