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Authors: Patrick Dewitt

Ablutions

BOOK: Ablutions
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Ablutions
Patrick deWitt

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
BOSTON
·
NEW YORK
2009

Copyright © 2009 by Patrick deWitt

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

For information about permission to reproduce selections from
this book, write to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publishing Company, 6277 Sea Harbor Drive,
Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.

www.hmhbooks.com

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
deWitt, Patrick, date
Ablutions : notes for a novel / Patrick deWitt.
p. cm.
ISBN
978-0-15-101498-9
1. Bars (Drinking establishments)—Fiction.
2. Authorship—Fiction. 3. Alcoholics—Fiction. I. Title.
PS
3604.
E
923
A
64 2009
813'.6—dc22 2008037772

Printed in the United States of America

Book design by Robert Overholtzer

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
VB

A portion of this book previously appeared, in different form,
in
Userlands: New Fiction from the Blogging Underground.

For my father, Gary deWitt
the last of the old, bold pilots

One

Discuss the regulars. They sit in a line like ugly, huddled birds, eyes wet with alcohol. They whisper into their cups and seem to be gloating about something—you will never know what. Some have jobs, children, spouses, cars, and mortgages, while others live with their parents or in transient motels and are on government assistance, a curious balance of classes particular to the parts of Hollywood devoid of klieg lights and make-believe. There are sometimes limousines at the curb out front; other nights feature police cars and ambulances and vicious street scenarios. The bar interior resembles a sunken luxury liner of the early 1900s, mahogany and brass, black-burgundy leather coated in dust and ash. It is impossible to know how many times the ownership has changed hands.

The regulars are warm with one another but generally come and go alone and as far as you can tell have never been to one another's homes. This makes you lonely and the hearts of the world seem cold and stingy and you are reminded of the saying, every man for himself, which as a child made you want to lie down and "be killed."

You do not take much stock in the North American definition of the word but you suppose these people are alcoholics. They like you, or anyway are used to you, and they reach out to touch you when you pass as though you are a good-luck gambling charm. You once found this repulsive and would circle the bar with your back hugging the wall rather than move through the network of fleshy red hands, but you have reconciled yourself to the attention and it has become familiar, even enjoyable for you. It now feels more like a commendation than an intrusion, recognition of your difficult job, and you nod and smile as the hands grab you around the waist, rubbing and slapping your back and belly.

From your post at the side bar entrance you watch them watch themselves in the mirror behind the bar. Preening, pecking, satisfied by their reflections—what do they see in their murky silhouettes? You wonder keenly about their lives prior to their residence here. Strange as it seems, they must have been regulars at some other Hollywood bar, but had moved on or been asked to move on, and they sought out a new retreat, settling down with the first free beer or kind word, some bartender's impotent joke mutilated beyond recognition in its endless retelling. And the regulars turned to tell the joke once more.

You wonder also about their present lives but to make inquiries is purposeless—the regulars are all sensational liars. But you want to know what it is about their existence that fuels the need to inhabit not just the same building every night but the same barstool, upon which they sip the same drink. And if a bartender forgets a regular's usual, the regular is cut down and his eyes swell with a lost suffering. Why? It bothers you to know that the truth will never reveal itself spontaneously and you keep on your toes for clues.

When you first come to work at the bar you drink Claymore, the least expensive or what is called the well scotch. This was your brand when you were out in the world and you are happy to finally find a never-ending, complimentary supply. You have been at the bar for two years, drinking Claymore in great quantity, sometimes straight, oftentimes with ginger ale or cola, before the manager, Simon, asks why you don't drink the quality liquors. "There aren't many upsides to the life, but I drink the best booze," he says. And so each night you sample a different scotch or whiskey. There are more than forty-five different types of scotch and whiskey and you are very tired at the end of your quest but you find at long last the quality liquor Simon spoke of. As someone who spends a good deal of time surrounded by alcohol, people often ask what you drink, and now you do not shrug or cough but look up and say directly, "I drink John Jameson finest Irish whiskey."

You fall in love with Jameson Irish whiskey. Previously when you held a bottle of alcohol in your hands you felt a comfort in knowing that its contents would simultaneously deaden and heighten your limited view of the world but you did not care for the actual bottle, as you do now with Jameson, you did not trace your hands over the raised lettering and study the exquisite script. One night you are alone in the back bar doing just this—the bottle is in your hands and you are mooning over the curlicues at the base of the label—and the name John Jameson brings into your head the child's tune "John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt." You are humming this
to yourself when Simon, the man responsible for your discovery of Jameson whiskey, enters the bar singing aloud
this very same song.
He waves to you and walks past, into the front bar, and you are staring in disbelief because there is no explaining so obscure a coincidence and you feel you have been visited by the strongest of omens. Good or bad, you do not know. There is nothing to do but wait and see.

Now a group of drunks up front have picked up the song and are singing in the single voice of a runaway giant.

Discuss the ghost woman that hovers beside the tequila bottles. Like all murdered ghosts she is in need of impossible assistance. There is a mirror running the length of the bar and as you set up for business you see or believe you see furtive movements of light just over your shoulder and in the reflection of your eyeglasses. This happens hundreds of times, so you come to take it for granted when, one night, alone in the bar, the ghost stops you in your tracks with a cold weight-force centered at your shoulder. You feel as though all the air has been pulled from your lungs and mouth and you cannot breathe in or out and you push forward again and this time do not feel the terrible force but the tequila bottles rattle as you move past. You cannot leave the bar unattended and no one will arrive to assist you for over an hour and what you really need is a nice big drink of Jameson but you cannot bring yourself to walk past the tequilas to the whiskey assortment. If you ever hear the rattling again, you say to yourself, you will drop your head on the metal sink edge and knock yourself out, and you see in your mind the image of your unconscious body sprawled on the rubber mats behind the bar. The ghost is fully formed and hanging over as if to injure you but your
lights are out and nobody's home and so the ghost, dissolving, returns wanly to the tequila.

You have bad teeth and your breath is poor. Your tips consequently are also poor and there is clotted blood in your mouth and you lose tooth pieces on soft foods like mashed potatoes and rice. You are talking to the bar owner's wife when an entire molar comes dislodged and lies heavily on your tongue. You hope to keep the tooth a secret but you are speaking strangely and her head is cocked in wonder. You have begun to sweat and blush and you pray that she does not ask what the problem is but she is opening her mouth and this is just what she does. You swallow the molar and hold out your palms to show that you are not hiding anything. You are an honest man with a clean, hopeful heart.

Discuss the new doorman, Antony, who at the end of his third night on the job accidentally cuts a man's thumb off. Antony is a talented mixed martial artist known for first-round knockouts and an apparent inability to feel pain. He is bitter that he has to pick up bar shifts to survive and he wonders if his management team is skimming more than what is customary. You find him intriguing and are impressed with his prejudice when he tells you he listens exclusively to West Coast hip-hop. Anything written or produced outside of California is of no interest to him; there are no exceptions to this rule. Antony takes a shine to you because you are so skinny and white. He is Puerto Rican and wonders at your drunken life. He asks if you eat only one Cheeto per day
and you tell him that sometimes if you are famished you will eat two. You tell him you are available as a sparring partner on Tuesdays and Sundays.

The lights are up and Antony is shouting for everyone to leave the bar. He is learning that people want more than anything not to leave and will have many excuses at the ready, but now their excuses are running thin and his mood is ugly. He has kicked everyone out and moves to close the heavy steel door when Simon calls out his name and he turns. He speaks with Simon while trying to close the door but it is jammed and he slams the door three times with all his weight and finally the latch catches and he walks away but hears a wailing outside and returns to look out the peephole and there is the man with the missing thumb spinning around and bleeding and Antony is stepping on something, later he says he thought it was an old cigar. The thumb is cleaned and wrapped in ice and given to a friend of the man who lost it and they rush off to the hospital together, and you tease Antony, calling him a terrific racist intent on de-fingering innocent white men. His eyes rise level to yours and you see that he is heartbroken by what he has done. "I know how important a man's hands are," he says. His shoulders are trembling and the bar workers say nothing. It is at this moment that you fall platonically in love with Antony.

When you sleep, your dreams are those of a dullard: You polish ashtrays, stock the ice bins, reach for a bottle and find it there or not there, and exchange names and pleasantries with familiar-looking customers. These scenarios run in a spinning wheel and are identical in texture to your drunken memories. As a result you have only a dim idea what
is fact and what is fiction and are constantly referencing past conversations with people you have never spoken with or else ignoring those you had for fear you had not. And so the general public is of split minds about you: Some say you are stupid, and some say you are rude.

Discuss the ingesting of pills in the storage room at seven o'clock and waiting on a barstool for the high to hit. There is a faint chalk line of daylight at the base of the front door and two customers are looking over at you. Their drinks are empty and they want to call out but you make them uncomfortable. Why, they are wondering, is that man smiling? The bar is silent and the pills congregate in your fingertips like lazy students in an empty hall.

Discuss the effects of the full moon on the weekend crowds and the dread you experience when you see the full moon wedged in the corner of the sky. Discuss the short muscleman who is stripped to the waist and eager to fight. He hits a larger man over the head with a bottle and is apprehended by a doorman. The muscleman makes a show of taking his time to leave and so when he reaches the exit there are many angry people waiting for him on the sidewalk. You move to the door to watch because the world is full of short musclemen wanting to fight and you hope to see one hurt or killed.

The muscleman stands behind two doormen and spouts profane threats to the people on the sidewalk; the man with the head wound stands at the front of the pack, proud of his
bloody face. His injury has awakened a subtle greatness in him and he licks at the blood and his eyes are wild and wonderful and it is just as he says: He is going to murder the muscleman. The doormen are in no danger but do not like protecting a villain and finally they give up the muscleman to be slaughtered when he will not keep his mouth closed. He is backed against the building and to the last is confident he will emerge victorious and he asks the crowd of twenty who will be first and there comes an answer in the form of a tremendous fist in his face. The fist belongs to the man with the head wound, who is delighted with the punch, as well he should be—it is as in a heroic dream. The muscleman drops like a stone and the crowd swarms over him in search of available openings.

Discuss Curtis, a disconsolate black man and regular with a law enforcement fetish. He wears a bulky leather motorcycle-cop jacket and mirrored cop sunglasses and a heavy leather gun holster without a gun in it. He has another holster on his belt for his Zippo lighter; he knows many tricks involving the lighter and offers people cigarettes so that he might showcase them, though Curtis himself does not smoke. He suffers from the skin condition vitiligo and both his hands from the knuckles to the fingertips are patchy with raw, pink flesh. He plays the Rolling Stones' "Memory Hotel" over and over on the jukebox, a song you once liked but which he has poisoned for you. He sings along, eager to show that he knows every word, and his tongue falls from his mouth like a tentacle, his gums like dirty purple curtains. His hair is short, with a part shaved into the side of his head; he has a silver-dollar-sized bald spot to which he applies an egg-smelling cream,
the scent of which oftentimes alerts you to his presence. His head bobs deeply as he drinks and his neck stretches long like caramel taffy on a pull.

BOOK: Ablutions
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