It was gonna be another night without much sleep, I figured that pretty quick after Kay closed the Showdown and I set out on the mile and a half towards pleasant thoughts of Felicia and a warm Busch tallboy back at the South Congress Motel, where I wouldn't be the only person stumbling in. Generally, I'd get there at 2:45 or so, and you'd listen to late-night drunken flesh-slapping, or fighting, or both, and so I figured instead I'd grab something to eat and give the other drunks a chance to settle into a sobering sleep.
I stopped at the Magnolia Cafe on the way south, the Capitol dome sticking straight up behind me. I could see it if I were able to adjust my vision that well against the amber downtown lights through the dope-film across my eyes, but I didn't bother. I knew it was there. I figured maybe I should go for a visit one of these days, just like I should go to some of the art galleries strewn around downtown. That was the kind of thing I had done in Boston, but nothing from those days seemed relevant now. Maybe someday, but not now.
This guy who was staying at the South Congress in the room two doors down, Max -- who knows what his real name was, he always just said, "folks call me Max," whatever that means -- was at the Magnolia when I got there, nursing a cup of ink-black coffee in my favorite booth -- in the corner with a view of the street and the whole restaurant, perfect for people-watching -- and more because it was my favorite booth than because I wanted to talk to Max, I slid in opposite him, my body squeaking against the pine-colored naugahyde. Someone entering the frame of his dead-man's stare startled him, and half his cup wound up on the table. It took him a second to recognize me. We knew each other pretty well but always under rather drunken circumstances -- or , better put, during one of our various benders -- so I never knew if he'd remember me from one meeting to the next.
I was feeling riled up between the legs -- that non-discriminating half-drunk lust -- and was glad to see that Rebecca was the waitress for our booth. She was my favorite waitress, and the combination of my favorite booth and my favorite waitress pushed a smile onto my face, and made the thought of Max bearable. It was her tongue-ring that drove me wild, and her pale face and black lips and . . . whatever color her hair was each night. A kind of a deep cherry tonight, and I told her that. Electric auburn, she corrected, then smiled at me warmly, and I stared back at her, waiting for that flicker of excitement to be exchanged between us.
She cleaned up Max's spilled coffee while I ordered, though, and so the flicker never came, and I doubted it ever would, but her smile at me and the way she knew I liked my coffee sugar-no-cream was enough for me. It would get me through the night. I had gotten worked up earlier, thinking about Kay, thinking that tonight I wouldn't snort so much of her coke and could actually finish, but despite a couple of looks my way, she had hurried us all out of the bar pretty quick, and so it looked like another night of just me in front of the television, but with Rebecca's smile I had plenty to go on. I tried to focus away from her and on Max.
"Motherfuckers," he was saying, had said twice now.
I suppressed a sigh, turned it into a yawn, not that it would have mattered. The thing about drunks is that they don't recognize the subtleties of others' expressions -- this is its advantage, too, of course. "Who's that, Max?"
He got right to it -- the sons of bitches down at Curly's who cut him off again, some new bitch who didn't, etc., etc. I knew this would last awhile, get louder and louder in his retelling until Rebecca would have to come over and ask us to be quiet or leave. I liked staying on her good side, figured getting him out of there would give some points with her, maybe, being a sensitive enough guy to take care of this sunken-eyed old soak, and so I just nodded, paid her for our coffee -- trying to get another look, but she gave me nothing -- and took off south back to our haunt. I'd been there about as long as him, but Max was a regular. He was on the ninth week of about his sixth stay. He'd married some woman who lived over on South Fifth, but it sounded like either he'd get drinking or she'd get drinking and the next thing you knew, there were shotguns and sirens and one of them having to find someplace else. It was her place, sounded like, so Max would bring his single taped-together lime-green suitcase over his second home. He could hold things together enough for two, three days out of the week that he could do day-labor kinds of stuff, make enough for rent and Bud pints, which he normally got at Curly's but when they closed him down, he got from me. A word of advice: unless you're a masochist, never give an alcoholic the impression that you were willing to give them free booze. But maybe I'm a masochist.
I handed him a 40 back at my place. He took it and pulled a long one, then poured some into a plastic Texaco mug I handed to him. He collapsed into the guest chair, a beat-up white dinner table chair that sat next to the folding plastic tray that served as the TV stand. Felicia got up on my lap the minute I got home and started her little love-fest thing where she'd bury her claws in my thigh and purr -- if you've got a cat you know what I'm talking about it. It hurt like a motherfucker but I loved the hell out of that cat so I let her do it. I clenched my teeth and listened to Max carry on for a while about the soon-to-be ex-wife I knew he'd soon go back to, about that new bitch at Curly's that cut him off just because he was threatening to rip some guy's balls off if he asked him to move because of his pool game again, and about this fucking climate, this fucking state, this fucking country . . . until he had about half his second 40 left and I could steer him out the door and down the pavement towards his room.
I got down to my underwear and grabbed another tallboy from my ice bucket, which was just a plastic kids' pail I'd found driving down I-35 on my way to Austin, and which was now more of a tepid-water bucket than an ice bucket. I turned up the fan that was blowing cooler and cooler air through the room. I got a waft of chicken thighs frying with onions and peppers, figured another of my neighbors was fixing a 3 a.m. snack, and got semi-hungry -- nothing's better than fried onions and peppers on a tortilla at the end of a long night, but the effort involved, firing up my electric pan, chopping up the shriveled pepper and onion I had stuffed in my bottom drawer, all seemed like too much. I laid down with Felicia instead, promising myself a big breakfast at the Magnolia tomorrow -- chorizo and eggs, with lots of corn tortillas, hot sauce and Dos Equis. Felicia arched her back and swept her tabby tail across me -- she was all white except her tail and a little monk's crown on her head. She never really said anything except when she was hungry, but at night I'd lay down to read or watch TV and she'd just throw that tail across my face, over and over again, to tell me she was happy to see me.
She never made me mad when she did it because cats never made me mad much, anything they did. I've always figured cats were about the smartest things put on this planet. They had our number, got what they needed from us without sacrificing their integrity the way dogs did. And Felicia was the best -- how many cats would have traveled halfway across the country and hardly ever complained except when she had to take a dump? Plus, sometimes it'd be real hot and she'd go sleep in the bathtub -- I figured 'cause the porcelain was nice and cool -- and I'd wake up sometimes and be feeling lonely or whatever and go get her and drag her out to the bed and shove her up against me just so I could hold something, and most mornings I'd wake up and she'd be right there still, in my arms, her tongue hanging out from the heat. That's something, I think, anyway.
Nothing was happening on TV, so I picked up a book and was hoping that eventually it would put me to sleep, but I wasn't able to focus so good. You know how sometimes you think you're pretty sober and then head to bed and realize you're not and think you should maybe get up and wait for a while or eat something or whatever? I picked a book off a stack I'd gotten from a professor who had been living next door and opened it at random. I read the line "The only thing prettier than ladies is an I-beam painted bright yellow" and looked at the front cover of the book but the name or whatever didn't really stick, didn't really even register. I kept reading for a while, absorbing nothing, when I heard a knock that kind of jolted me.
It was quiet, but I was jumpy at night. I figured at first it was a knock on one of the other doors -- Jesus Christ, someone knocked on any of the 24 doors in that fucking place, and it sounded like it could've been yours -- but then it came again and since I was sitting up I could tell it was from right outside. Max looking for another, I figured, and told my heart to settle down.
I heard my name, then, and recognized the voice, but not the tone, and I jumped up, my heart in my chest. The tap-tap-tap didn't quit, so I couldn't tell if my footsteps were audible or not, but I tiptoed toward the door. A thousand scenarios run through your brain when you hear the bartender you just saw an hour ago and just slept with a night ago knock on your door. Even though my heart was still going, I tried to put on a calm face, standing there in my underwear, and figured she was coming over for a second round. But that wasn't the way her voice sounded.
What I would remember later is that even though I saw the blood, saw the ashen color of her face, I wouldn't lose my hopeful, seductive smile for a while yet. It didn't occur to me to. My brain went into a jumble.
But some central part of me struggled to stay on task, process the situation and try to deal with it. Anyone who ever tells you they sobered up instantly is a liar. You don't sober up instantly, no matter what. When you open your piss-yellow, smoke-stained front door and see a gutshot woman, you figure that's something that's gonna sober you up. But it doesn't. Your mind still runs to weird places. For a second you wonder if the sight of the apple-red blood trickling over her fingers is going to make you sick, then you wonder if while you've had the door open the damn cat has gotten out, then you finally realize that you need to take her inside, and that you need to run hot water, and that you need to use every towel you've got left in the room, and that you're not operating quickly enough, and that you've got a very, very long night still in front of you.