The Moth Eaters
Savarno and Cantrell called out to me from the other side of the street, and I cut out into the traffic and worked my way over there. They had this girl with them, rather plain, and Cantrell engaged me in a little waltz accompanied by his gravel baritone, around and around the cracked sidewalk out in front of the Rock Shop where old Clarence sat gloomily looking out over his precious stones into the hot morning. I disengaged myself from Cantrell and took up dancing with the girl, moving in long sweeping strides down the sidewalk past the Meat Market and the Old West Art Gallery, handling her gentle because she seemed so frail. Cantrell and Savarno moved along with us. The dancing stopped naturally, and all four of us frolicked back across the morning’s business and tourist traffic to Gertrude’s Cafe and Cocktail Lounge.
It was pushing noon, and Gertrude’s was packed. We went up the winding fireman’s stairwell to the lounge and it was packed up there too, mostly local businessmen and some officials from the courthouse. We got a table back from the sunlight and placed our orders–bloody marys for Savarno and Cantrell, a screwdriver for me, and for the girl, whose name was Diamond, a glass of ice water. I had the shakes, I was trying to come down from a three-dayer, but I could tell by the kind of energy Cantrell and Savarno were putting out that I wasn’t going to be able to do it, and so I also ordered a roast beef sandwich to help fortify my stomach.
The sandwich never came, which could have been an oversight, but then it could have been due to Cantrell singing at the top of his lungs and clubbing the table with the cast on his right arm. It’s too bad about Cantrell’s arm, he’s lead guitar in one of the hottest three-man rock bands around, but he’s lucky it wasn’t his chord hand he smashed when he put it thru the wall. Just one little broken bone, that’s all, but it got set wrong, and the doctor told him that what he’d have to do is bust it again, cut into the hand and hack out some bone, slip in a pin made out of rust-free something or other.
“I’d rather have a crooked bone than a pin,” Cantrell said, and out the door he went. So Cantrell was in high spirits, clubbing the table with his cast which was covered with witticisms and signatures, and after two drinks I gave up on the sandwich.
I kept noticing the girl. She didn’t fit in, but she didn’t know how to get out of the situation. I wondered where she’d come from. Her personality seemed like it had been run thru too many wringers, bleached out from too many washboard scrubbings. It seemed as though someone had cut her open and sewed her up again, leaving out a few vital parts. Not the heart or lungs or anything like that–other things, nameless but vital.
We left without paying and went over to the Corral.
At the Corral Cantrell came back into the cocktail lounge from the dining area smiling dreamily and carrying a chocolate-cream pie. Not just a slice, the whole thing, still in its tin. He walked up to Savarno and put an arm around his shoulder and let Savarno have it right in the face. “Happy birthday, motherfucker,” he said.
Savarno sat there with pie all over him. There was pie on the bar and pie on the floor and pie all over Diamond who was sitting next to Savarno. Little globs of chocolate and cream were flecked on the clean glasses on the rack behind the bar, and the barmaid was laughing and wiping at the glasses with a bar towel that smeared the pie around. I was laughing and the only other customer at the end of the bar was laughing and we were all laughing too loud. Savarno was laughing now too, a slow, reflective laugh, shaking his head from side to side, and Cantrell was still standing there with his arm around Savarno’s shoulder. Savarno didn’t make much of an effort to clean himself up, he did it mostly by running his index finger around the sockets of his eyes and down the crevices of his nose, removing the pie and eating it. Cantrell joined in, removing pie from Savarno with his finger and eating it, and he began singing in his gravely voice.
“You guys!” the barmaid kept repeating. She was uptight. Then Jackson the owner came into the bar. He wasn’t laughing. He said something into the barmaid’s ear and I finished my drink and said let’s go.
“Go?” said Cantrell.
“Yeah, let’s go down to the Stymied Eye,” I said.
“Na,” said Cantrell. “Let’s have another drink here first.”
“We’ve been cut off,” I told him.
“They won’t serve us.”
“Is that right?” Cantrell asked the barmaid.
She stopped laughing and nodded her head.
The Eye doesn’t serve hard liquor like Gertrude’s and the Corral, it’s a beer and wine bar, and none of the local businessmen or officials from the courthouse go in there for lunch or for any other reason. It’s a poorly-lit place with the smell of hard living about it. It’s the sort of place that on a summer’s day children come coasting up on their fenderless bikes, pull to a stop along the wall outside, and without getting off the bikes, cup their hands to the tinted glass and look inside, the way they might peer into a muddy pond at minnows.
The Eye is run by two bear-like brothers, Harry and Danny, and it’s the kind of place where if you drink yourself senseless trying to figure things out, they’ll deposit you on a couch in the basement to sleep it off and give you coffee or another drink when you make your way back up out of that dank, convenient limbo. Harry was still setting up the till when we came in. He scanned us critically and sighed.
“I don’t want any trouble,” he said, and then started sliding beers down the counter at us. At first everyone began snapping open bits and pieces of yesterday’s paper that were lying scattered on the bar, frowning down into the obituaries, the sports section, the huge generalities of the headlines, and it looked like things might settle down. But then Wild Bill came in, and no one had laid eyes on Wild Bill for quite some time. He sat down at the end of the bar, ordered up a beer, took a long hit off it and then set the can down on the bar. “How they hangin’ Cantrell?” he said. Cantrell was about five empty bar stools away.
“Okay,” Cantrell said. “How about you, Wild Bill?”
“Just finished doing time in an Idaho prison,” Wild Bill said.
“Is that a fact?” Cantrell said. “Harry! Give this man a beer!”
Harry opened another beer and slid it down to Wild Bill. “Here’s another beer from that cheap bastard down the bar,” Harry said. “And here’s something to really wet your whistle.”
Harry scooped a quart chalice full of ice and began pouring Liebfraumilch over the ice. He was emptying two bottles into the chalice at once, and when there was no more room he kept right on pouring, the wine spilling all over the bar. Suddenly there was alarm in the air, like with the pie incident at the Corral.
“Celebration time!” Harry sang out, and he handed Wild Bill a straw. Harry had a straw too, and they stuck their straws into the Liebfraumilch and began sucking it up.
Then we were all doing it, sucking up chalices of Liebfraumilch with straws, all but Diamond who stayed with her ice water.
Cantrell got to his feet after he and Savarno had polished off their chalice, let out a roar, and scooped Wild Bill up in a bear hug. They went over on the floor, wrestled around, and then they got to their feet and held each other at arm’s length.
“You sonofabitch!” Cantrell said. “I thought they’d salted you away for a good long time!”
“Well they did,” Wild Bill said. “I’m an escaped convict.”
Wild Bill went thru another chalice with Cantrell, and it hit him like a sack of stones. You could see it in his eyes. His clear just-out-of-prison eyes went dull and took on a strange focus, and it was as if he’d never left town. Cantrell didn’t look too good himself, and it was only one in the afternoon. Diamond was sitting quiet behind her ice water, and Cantrell got a glass with ice in it from Harry and filled it with wine. “Drink this baby,” he said. “It’ll make you feel good.”
Diamond shook her head no and stared down into her lap where her hands were resting.
Then Savarno came over and leaned down close to her, taking her hand in his and talking poetry to her in a confidential tone. I could see her face from where I sat, the brow furrowed, the smile turned down. It struck me then that she didn’t understand; not just Savarno, she didn’t understand anything.
After awhile Wild Bill went out to his truck and came back in with a lid of grass and a brown paper sack full of firecrackers. We smoked a number out in the alley, all but Diamond who stayed in the bar, and then Wild Bill began tossing firecrackers around. Straight people walking down the sidewalk gave us sour looks.
“Man, where did you guys come up with that chick?” I said.
“Hey, that’s my baby,” said Savarno. “My sweetheart.”
“My honey,” said Cantrell.
“Everyone’s darling,” said Wild Bill.
Back inside, Harry was walking around with enough Q-tips sticking out of him to qualify as a porcupine. He had Q-tips sticking out of his ears, nose, mouth and from the curls of his hair. He had one sticking out of his fly and he was walking around as though nothing was out of the ordinary. The customers who had come in since we arrived were in stitches, and I went behind the bar and got the big box of Q-tips and soon we were all walking around with Q-tips up our noses and sticking out of various other places.
Then firecrackers started going off in the bar, and Harry put away his Q-tips and got serious. “Okay, party’s over,” he said. “Go terrorize someone else’s place of business.”
About then Tall Jimmy came in, a moody boy whose promise was already tarnished at the age of 22. When we went out the door, he tagged along.
Jimmy rode with me and everyone else piled into Wild Bill’s truck–a Japanese number with Idaho plates and wires dangling from behind the dash that Will Bill touched together to start the thing.
On the way over to Cantrell and Savarno’s place, Tall Jimmy and I stopped for a bottle of Jack Daniel’s and a bottle of V.O. I picked up some wrapping paper and a card at a gift store, and we turned the Jack Daniel’s into a birthday present for Savarno.
The house was a wreck. It was so bad that rooms had begun losing definition–dirty dishes and books in the bathroom, a tattered roll of toilet paper unraveled diagonally across what had once been the dining room but now had nothing in it but three orange crates and small mounds of rubbish, paintings hanging lopsided on the walls and busted up in the corners, two rooms up a dark flight of stairs totally empty with curtainless windows.
When Tall Jimmy and I walked in they were all there, drinking from a case of beer. There was a dilapidated old sofa with no cushions out in the middle of the room, and two or three metal folding chairs scattered around. All four of them were crammed together on the sofa, Diamond toward the middle, the faint smile stamped on her face. Not only was it impossible to pick up a trace of Diamond’s personality, it also seemed that her body was hardly there, that it was a tenuous thing held together by loose and hurried stitching that at any moment (if she were to make a sudden move or if someone were to twirl her around too fast) would rupture and send fine sand pouring out in a little hill on the floor.
I handed Savarno his present. Tall Jimmy had already opened the V.O. and nearly half of it was gone.
By the time we’d done in the Jack Daniels and V.O., inhibitions had vanished. Savarno came out with a can of shaving cream in an attempt at retaliation against Cantrell for the chocolate cream pie, and in the process he sprayed everyone else in the room, even Diamond who in slow motion curled up in the corner of the sofa, her blouse pulling out of her jeans and revealing the milk-white skin of her frail back, her spine a parabola of knots leading down into a dark-purple bruise that had not yet begun to yellow.
The shaving-cream attack set off a series of battles, and soon everyone was dripping shaving cream and beer. Every so often someone would get the vague feeling that the situation was getting out of hand and try to slow things down, but then there would be another rush of madness, and we would all be swept along.
I watched Tall Jimmy go out thru the front door and walk right off the porch to a ten-foot drop. He pitched out and sideways, and Wild Bill and I went crashing down the steps, laughing but feeling pangs of concern gnawing up thru the wildness. Jimmy was already getting to his feet, a sweeping abrasion on the right side of his face. We got him back inside, closed the door, and turned to see Cantrell and Savarno tugging at Diamond’s jeans. She’ll break, I remember thinking. She’ll rip apart.
I should have gone back to my room at the Harrington and crashed, but the way the day had gone, I didn’t feel like I could sleep. Instead I changed clothes and went back to the Corral.
It was the evening crowd, and the place was packed. I squeezed in between two people I didn’t know and ordered my usual screwdriver. It was the way I usually drank, squeezed in between things, steady and methodical, not saying much, not causing trouble, then going back to the Harrington when the bars closed, bringing a six pack along if it looked like I was going to have a hard time sleeping, sitting in the dark by the open window, looking thru the curtains at the street below and the last stragglers at closing time, the roaring torment that issues from them at that hour, all the toads and worms of their lives brought to the surface for exorcising while the squad car circles the block.
I sat in the Corral for two drinks and then little beads of sweat broke out on my forehead and my body went clammy. I got out of there, got a pint of Wild Turkey from the liquor store, and walked to the edge of town where the Barn is located.
I seldom go out to the Barn, it’s just what it sounds like, a barn-like dance hall that caters to cowboys. By the time I got there I’d finished the Wild Turkey and my body was relaxed.
They were charging $2 cover, and there was Savarno at the door, collecting the money, showered and shaved and in a clean change of clothes. To look at him, you’d never guess what he’d been up to all day.
“Hey, man!” I said, uplifted to know he’d pulled himself together.
“Two bucks, Jabony,” he said, and held out his hand.
I could see the day in his hand, a mild trembling. His doorman act was a front, the whole thing was a front, I didn’t have any more idea who he was than I did about Diamond.
“Where’s Diamond?” I said. “Where’s your honey?”
Savarno stared at me with his hand out and said it again: “Two bucks.”
“I’ll just hang around the door,” I said.
He turned away and stared off at the dance floor where a few couples were moving to the music of a county/western band.
When the next couple came up the steps, I moved out under the circular tube of neon and began my old barker’s spiel that I’d used in New Orleans. Savarno spun around on his stool, but I’d already collected the $4. I stamped the backs of their hands and handed the money to Savarno.
“That’s it,” Savarno said. “Either pay your two bucks or split.”
“What the fuck,” I said.
We were deep into a stare-down when the dirt parking lot filled with thunder and dust kicked up by a about twenty bikers with their mamas riding shotgun. They backed their bikes in and cut throttle and the band music was there again, flat and thin.
Two bikers and a woman came up the steps to the door, and I stepped out under the neon that floated like a halo just a foot above my head. It was like stepping off into outer space.
“Good evening, gentlemen,” I said as they hit the landing. “Good evening ladies and gentlemen!” I focused on their faces for the first time and found myself looking straight into Diamond’s eyes.
“Hello, Diamond,” I said.
“Is he one of them?” the big biker said. I looked at him and saw that he was the muscle, and then I looked at the other one and saw that he was the mouthpiece, it was in his eyes and his build and the structure of his face. And then I looked up the way a man about to be burned at the stake might look up, and there were flying things above me, a world of moths blapping off the neon tube. My hand went up without haste and my thumb and index finger pinned the wings of a moth together, bringing its vibrating tiny essence down out of the night. I popped the moth into my mouth and while looking into the eyes of the bigger biker, chewed it thoroughly and swallowed it. The taste was chalky at first, then creamy and bitter. I reached up and brought a second moth down from the neon and it went the way of the first.
“Two bucks a head,” I said, and they reached for their wallets.
HCOLOM PRESS is the heir to Vagabond Press, which began as a main player in the Mimeo Revolution of the Sixties and continued publishing right into the jaws of the new millennium. HCOLOM PRESS embodies the spirit of Vagabond Press, retooled for the times we live in.
Hcolom is Moloch spelled backwards. Moloch is an Old Testament deity to which children were sacrificed, a practice society still engages in with increased enthusiasm. Consumerism is the new Moloch, manifesting itself like cancer in war, politics, the arts and religion, in every nook and cranny of human endeavor, draining the intrinsic beauty out of life and mutilating the innocence and magic of childhood with its commercial meat hook. HCOLOM PRESS intends to publish books that by their nature repudiate this pernicious force–novels, poetry, children’s books and books that transcend genre.
Our launch book, in June of 2006, was John Bennett’s novel, Tire Grabbers, a fable of sorts, a reality book rooted in the fantasy of our times, the story of the coming of Moloch and the children who rise up in rebellion against it.
Books of kindred spirit will follow close on its heels. Go for it by clicking here… or hit the Hcolom logo above… or just hit any of the following covers…