Published Monthly



Good Ol' Ponce
by Aaron Gilbreath

(For George Singleton - thanks)

A trail of pounding footsteps kept booming past Peter’s door and wrenching him from sleep. He laid in the hard hotel bed, stiff bleached sheets blocking the moonlight from his eyes, and told himself he would get up the next time it happened, that it couldn’t happen again. And when the pounding rushed back by, he threw on his khakis and sighed so loud the guests in the next room heard.

“Could you keep it down?” His stern managerial voice echoed through the hall. “It’s eleven o’clock.”

The young woman glanced up with the sloth of a sleeping cat. “Huh?” She was bent at the waist, panning a digital video camera over the rows of locked doors.

“Whatever you’re doing sounds like a bunch of elk running through my room. Drop it down a notch.”

Judging from her flawless skin and funky, mismatched clothes, Peter guessed her age at twenty, twenty-two at most - who else could afford to be running around so late on a Thursday night? She stared at him for a moment and tried to sound surprised. “Oh, I’m sorry.” The line sounded rehearsed.

“Alright.” Peter flattened his hair then folded his arms over his bare flabby chest. “Thank you.” But instead of slipping back into his room, he watched the woman lay flat on the carpet and press her face to the viewfinder.

Peter was regional sales manager of Arizona’s tenth largest cement supplier. He had come to Tucson from Phoenix, as he did every other Thursday, for a Friday morning business meeting, and was staying in the same chain hotel off the Interstate where he always stayed. The hotel was clean without being comfortable, cozy without being quaint. The owners knew him, served free muffins and coffee, and usually kept the place quiet; nothing had ever interrupted his sleep there before.

Painted a golf cart tan and baby blue, in daylight the hall reminded Peter of a Kinko’s copy shop; at night though, with the lights dimmed and its dual rows of mauve doors, it had the feel of the inside of a hive: rows of brood cells housing incubating businessmen, parents, traveling retirees, all mimeographs of an archetype drone.

The woman twisted the lens a few revolutions and seemed to immediately forget that Peter was there. She wore a heavy backpack with a tripod strapped to it and a pen behind her ear. She had too serious a face for someone so young, Peter thought, but he knew the type: the quiet, introspective, oddly dressed artist, fishing for attention, thinking the world should step aside while they made their art. Though he’d seen a hundred such artists, he still found himself wondering what she was doing, and it irritated him that he even cared.

“So what are you doing?” The question came out before he could sensor himself. He hated to seem sympathetic to someone he was making demands of - it was bad managerial technique - but if it wasn’t her banging keeping him up, it would be his mind speculating about her project.

“Filming a movie,” she said.

“Are you a student?”

Her green eyes grayed with boredom. Her mouth hung open, begging him in its silent gape to go away. “Yep.”

“That’s cool.” When he said it he wondered if cool was even still a word people her age used. “I used to make movies. Not like wedding videos but actual movies. Shorts. I loved it.” In his excitement, he found it hard to keep his voice down, and when he heard his words squealing through the bedtime calm, he no longer cared about the other patrons. “I was pretty into it.”

She shifted so the camera faced the wall and her back faced Peter. “You made films huh?” The F came out hard, like in German, and gave the word a sense of cosmic significance. If she had a dollar for every time some person on the street told her their art school stories, she could have upgraded her camera every year, so she goaded him. “How’d that work out for ya?”

Peter ran his fingers through his hair. “Oh, not so good. I haven’t done it in eons.” He watched her position the lens and eye the next shot, watched her swivel the camera left to right, rotating it in millimeters across the dull, industrial carpet. “Well, you must have a very specific vision if you’re forced to film at a bore like this.” He laughed, and for a split second, what felt like half the duration of a blink, a trace of amusement creased the young woman’s cheek, and a spark of connection, a faint acknowledgment of their shared humanity, shot between them. “It’s hard work.”

His honesty impressed her, but for the seconds she looked into his tired eyes she felt sorry for him. “It’s definitely not for everyone.”

“Yeah.” He pulled the tailored bottoms of his khakis out from under his heals. “Well. Anyway. I’ll let you get back to your thing.” He slipped through the door. “Good night.”

He returned to the stiff mattress feeling old and surpassed, the way his dad must have felt after trying to talk to Peter and his friends during high school - “Hey guys, see any good bands?” He pulled the sheets back over his head, but his thoughts kept him tossing in bed until one a.m.. And when he finally fell into a deep R.E.M. sleep, all his dreams had the dark rim of a camera lens around them.

***

The Friday meeting was another boring exercise in statistical analysis and motivational speaking: reviewing quarterly reports, plotting annual sales peaks and troughs. The six participants drank weak coffee, ate cheap Danish, then scurried to their air conditioned cars or into their cubicles, anxious to finish the day. It seemed like the same meeting every week; “Dance of the dry erase boards,” Peter liked to call it, and few fiscal changes ever seemed to result.

With four hours to kill before the end of the work day, Peter decided to rent a camera from a local shop instead of making the two hour drive back to Phoenix. It was Friday. He was a regional manager. No one expected him back at the office.

With only a manila folder and toiletry bag for luggage, he kept on his khakis and removed his collared button up, exposing his favorite microbrew t-shirt underneath: Sand Crab Bitter. Not ideal clothes to film in, but they would do.

In a city filled with college students, finding a video camera was easy. Point ’N Click - the shop catered to the procrastinating student, and its prices were tailored to those with approaching deadlines and their parents’ money. The clerk, a smooth-faced, energetic kid with died black hair and R2-D2 tattooed on his wrist, dove into a hyperventilating lecture, describing digital imaging systems, rattling off model numbers and high tech features that sounded like engine parts on a space ship. Peter just nodded; he recognized the routine: enthusiasm moves merchandise, catch, sell, release.

When the kid took a breath, Peter wedged a word in. “Thank you, but I’m just looking to rent.” He smiled. “And I know exactly what I want. The XR four ninety-three.” His old camera.

“Oh,” the kid said, “I’m pretty sure they don’t make that anymore, but let me see.” He studied the contents of a locked display case, scratched his hairless chin, then presented a small, papaya-shaped camera that fit in the palm of Peter’s hand. “Yeah. This is the model that replaced it.”

Peter happily signed the bill, ignoring the insurance waiver and liability agreement, and slung the camera bag over his shoulder. “Thanks for your help.” He may look goofy, Peter thought, but the kid was a good salesman. He took a business card so he could call the store manager and tell him so; customer comments always looked good on an annual performance review. “If I like it enough,” he told the clerk, “I’ll come back and buy it.”

The kid shrugged. “Cool.”

It had been years, twelve to be exact, since Peter last made a movie. Video photography became a hobby in college when his dad bought him a digital movie camera for Christmas. There was not much extra money to spare, but when his father scraped enough together, Peter took that camera everywhere: on camping trips, to parties, around town to historic buildings’ demolitions and small concerts. Tapes filled with hours of footage piled in his dresser. Using new layman-friendly software, he edited footage into sequences, overdubbed music, and traded his concert footage on the internet with other amateur photographers. He even archivally transferred his grandpa’s old black and white home movies onto digital for his dad.

Peter drove through the University District into parts of town he had never been before: down Euclid Boulevard past coffee shops and bookstores, down streets lined with antique bungalows, their porches crowded with beer bottles and mangy sofas. People were everywhere, riding bikes, riding skateboards, shuffling to and from campus.

He turned onto Fourth Avenue, a social hub lined with bohemian boutiques and vegetarian cafés. The street buzzed with activity. Intellectuals in oxfords and black Converse sat at patio tables reading books. Young filthy travelers, passing through town on the freight train, panhandled beside swollen duffle bags in front of the co-op. Hippies in flowing skirts danced down the sidewalk, laughing, sipping juices, strumming guitars; one had a grown cat on her shoulder. Excitement filled Peter like a deep diaphragmatic breath, tickling his stomach muscles, tingling his fingers with an adrenalized charge.

He parked in front of a record store. Bright sunlight lit the sidewalk molten white. Plumes of kiln-fire heat curled around his ankles as the scent of clove and curry infiltrated his nose. He lifted the camera, framing the street scene through a building’s front arches, and pressed record. Minutes elapsed. He turned the camera slowly, swiveling on his heels, taking in the panorama: cop cars, a homeless man, a lady walking a poodle. He hung a lit cigarette from his lips and let it spread a cloud of smoke around his face. His skin stung under the punishing sun, but it thrilled him to be filming again.

He paced Fourth for over two hours, filming as he walked. Past the Co-op. Past the Camel’s Eye Smoke Shop. Past windows filled with hemp shorts and turquoise jewelry. He hoped people might ask him questions like “what are you filming?” or “get anything good?” He even stood in front of store fronts, fishing for comments, but people just walked by, seemingly immune to the street’s excess of artistry.

Peter drove south on Fourth Ave for a change of scenery. The road led him under the tracks where young drifters hopped the train, passed between old tin-sided warehouses turned art galleries and studios, and ended downtown. Smoke filled the air-conditioned cabin as he strained to think of something else to shoot - a place, a plotline, maybe the desert, or the new construction along the freeway. His employer, Sonoran CementCorp, had just sold the cement to a company building two thousand houses east of town, but that’s all he could think to film. Movie ideas, he recalled, had never came with great frequency. The walking around part was fun, but the ideas for characters and plotting and dialogue and lighting, that was hard. It was like his new car: the black Italian leather upholstery looked comfortable and classy and inviting, but during summer, even with the air conditioning on, it got hot and tacky and stuck to his legs as tightly as seranwrap around a turkey sandwich. Maybe he should have gotten the tan velour.

There was an undeniable attraction to, a debilitating, pathogenic contagion about, the arts. Music, painting, photography, sculpture - there was something about their effect on people that Peter envied, something missing in marketing and accounting and spread sheets. He saw it in the art students in his college math and Spanish classes - they dressed wildly, didn’t seem to stress too much about school, appeared to actually be enjoying their lives. Peter would walk by the college of art on his way to class and see students on the steps or in fold-out chairs smoking cigarettes, laughing, doodling. Sometimes he saw teachers conducting whole classes on the lawn. He briefly considered switching majors, getting into film or photography, but, like his Dad suggested, he stuck with business, stuck with annuities, microeconomics and consumer theory. “Gotta pay the bills,” his Dad used to say.

While stopped at a light on Congress Street, Peter noticed a black awning and neon sign on a tall historic building: Hotel Congress. He remembered hearing the name, something about a music venue and a funky bar, some place college friends had gone. With his skin sore from the sun and his eyes bleary from a six a.m. wakeup call, Peter decided staying another night would be easier than driving home. He turned off the camera. Anyway, he told himself, another night would be fun. It should be fun; it was his weekend.

He squeezed his sedan into the last open spot in the hotel’s gravel lot, between a rusted pickup and a cherry ’66 Ford Galaxie. Unlike his usual mid-price chain hotel, no men wearing loosened ties wandered this lot talking on cell phones, no retirees carried ice buckets to the pool, no loud traveling families crowded the breakfast bar with screaming kids. The Hotel Congress had no pool or free breakfast. It stood in downtown just as it had since 1919, frozen in time, like a ragged old welcome matt that everyone knew they’d miss if it ever was replaced. More people hung out in the lobby bar, he remembered hearing, than stayed overnight. It had that particular magnetic frequency that attracted more artists and people of questionable states of employment and varying levels of sobriety than tourists. That kind of energy was contagious. Sales had taught him that. Maybe inside he could think of a storyline, maybe create some character ideas. Worst came to worst, he could just film the lobby. Either way, the worst night there couldn’t possibly be as dull as the sushi restaurant and wine bar he and two friends went to every Saturday night in Phoenix.

Through two swinging screen doors Peter stepped inside. The hotel was arranged around a large central lobby, tiled in glossy brown squares and split in half by two rectangular columns. The walls were painted in oranges and browns, decorated with stylized yellow katchinas and art deco lamps. The tall winding staircase of a haunted house crept up the east wall, like a column of campfire smoke, snaking over the bar and the club’s front door.

Peter stood at the front desk watching the concierge stare transfixed at a computer screen. Peter tapped his fingers, watched the light flicker on the man’s parched face, waited for the faintest trace of acknowledgment.

Beside the front desk, Peter gazed into the noisy café. Young messy-haired hipsters filled its bright interior and outside tables, flipping pages, stirring mugs of hot tea, their dull chatter mixing with the clank of dishes and silverware. One man in a fedora, jeans and a black t-shirt ate a salad beside a chapped, brown, turn of the century, leather doctor’s bag. Peter watched him tap his napkin to his lips, then, instead of a scalpel, pull pad, pen and novel from the bag.

Finally Peter heard a voice. “Did you need something?”

“Yeah,” Peter said, “I’d like to get a room.”

The concierge clicked his mouse and rose from his stool. “Well why didn’t you say something?” His voice was tired and distant, bogged down by the weight of boredom and cynicism.

“I assumed you were helping someone else.”

The concierge, a gruff middle-aged guy with platinum blonde hair, slapped a white form on the counter and slid Peter a pen. “Have you stayed here before?”

“Yeah.” He lied to save face.

“So you know the rooms don’t have TVs?” Peter nodded, and the clerk seemed amused by the attempted deception. “And you must be in the computer then?”

Peter waved his hand. “It was years ago.”

The clerk laughed and sat back on his stool. “Let’s try this again: the rooms don’t have TVs.” He tapped the credit card machine awake. “There’s one in the upstairs lounge next to a computer with internet, but both are down now.” He typed Peter’s personal information into the computer and stuck out his hand. “Your credit card.”

The clerk handed Peter a receipt and a key. He never quoted Peter a price. He never even looked up.

Peter climbed the stairs to his room. The hall was painted hellfire red, the shade he had seen in a cheap 1960’s murder movie during an orgy scene in a cult leader’s den. The TV left a glaring absence in his room, but it fit with the décor: gray and white print wallpaper, wrought iron bed, and a period rotary phone set on a nightstand beside and a vacuum tube, slide rule dial radio. It looked like the set of L.A. Confidential. All that was missing was a beehive-haired operator stationed at the nightstand, chewing gum and plugging cords into a wall of jacks. Peter was feeling old, but seeing those furnishings, he felt good to be younger than something.

After arranging his toiletries and hanging his sport coat, Peter found a spot along a wall outside the Hotel and lit a cigarette. A dented off-white cargo van pulled up to the curb and four young men filed out. The guys rolled vintage amplifiers past Peter and lugged cords and guitars and metal racks to a backstage entryway.

When Peter asked one musician if they were playing tonight, the guy scowled, as if the comment was a joke, then mumbled “Yeah” from behind his back.

When the band had carried all their equipment into the club, the musicians paced the sidewalk talking on their cells. They seemed excited, calling friends and girlfriends, people they called “honey,” to tell them about the tour. “We’re in Tucson,” the grumpy guy said. “San Diego next.” Peter overheard the shaggy-haired drummer describing the Hotel: “It’s historic and painted all crazy. They even give you a free room to stay in as part of the deal.” Hearing the guys made Peter want to jump in his car and drive to California.

The last time he’d taken an extended road trip, one not tied to business or a family funeral, was during college. He was twenty. He and his best friend Brent took Peter’s dad’s old beater up the Pacific Coast from LA to Oregon. For three weeks they camped in state parks, hiked Federal wilderness areas, and slept in the car when they couldn’t find a place to pitch a tent. Brent had since married and moved to Connecticut for a job as a trial lawyer, but whenever they talked they still spoke fondly of the trip: the loud music they’d played driving over the Golden Gate Bridge, the raccoon that stole their hamburger buns in Big Sur, the pot they kept in their toiletries bag. But they both agreed that the thing they like best was the freedom: the ability to fashion their itinerary as they went along, how they could camp in one spot overnight or for days or just drive aimlessly exploring, living according to the fluctuation of whim and fancy. Peter filmed the whole thing. But that was back when Peter was young

He wondered if he would enjoy that same trip now: straight eight hour drives, twenty mile hikes to marshy campsites plagued with mosquitoes and biting flies, nights spent trying to sleep upright in the truck’s tattered seats, parked outside a Denny’s. Probably not. The problem was, it all still sounded so good in theory.

Back inside, Peter peered into the club, a spacious blue chamber set beside the lobby and beneath the rooms. A kid with a neck tattoo was setting up a cash register by the front door. “Who’s playing?”

The kid pointed to a poster. “Splayed Daisy and Bitch’s Sister.”

Peter had never heard of them. “They any good?” The kid shrugged and plugged the cord into the wall. Way to sell tickets, Peter thought. If he were one of my employees I’d fire him.

With no TV to entertain him and no one to talk to, Peter considered filming the quirky lobby and bar but could not bring himself to do anything so tragically touristy in front of that concierge; it would just be more useless footage to put in storage anyway. So, instead of eating to pass the time as he was inclined to do, Peter bought a paper in the Hotel café and sat in a chair by the window in his room. Finding a clear signal on that transistor radio took more patience than his best putts. He spun the dial slowly, watching the cracked needle pass over the yellowed lines on the paper inset; the needle looked like a bone. He wondering why anyone, even a collector or the painfully hip, would keep such a technological dinosaur around. For Christ sake, they actually made satellite radios with reproduction vintage bodies. When he found the faint hiss of piano jazz after five minutes, he settled in his chair in the path of a soft breeze.

At eight o’clock a rhythmic banging cut through the air and overwhelmed Peter’s peace. He peered out the door. Speedy guitar chords thundered through the hall. Baselines tickled the soles of his feet. He knew live bands played at the club downstairs but didn’t expect to hear them through two hundred feet of wood, carpet and concrete. Peter tried to ignore it, tried to concentrate on the breeze and the business page, but the sound was so intense that, had he known the lyrics, he could have sung along word for word.

He called the concierge. “How late do bands usually play downstairs?”

The voice was cruel and stoic. “Anywhere between twelve and two a.m..”

“Jesus.” Peter sighed, genuinely frustrated, hoping to get an apology or complimentary coffee or a free slice of pie - the proper customer service response. “It’s really loud. I mean, it sounds like it’s coming from the closet.”

“I apologize,” the voice said. “There is a sign posted about it at the front desk.”

Melancholy, more than frustration, overwhelmed him. Where had his old stamina gone? Ten years ago he would have been happy to hear a free show. Now all he could think of was seven hours of sleep, seven hours of sleep. If he was going to get any, he decided, it would be with the help of a drink, a nice cocktail to set his mind at ease.

***

As he descended the steps, the lobby came into view. It was packed, not with frat boys, football players, or prom queens - they were at the college bars - but with tattooed arms, pierced faces, died black and red hair. People in jeans and vintage horn rim glasses mingled in the yellow light. The noise rose up the stairs like Jacuzzi steam. Smoke swirled through the prisms of the chandelier. It made Peter want to crawl back upstairs and hide under the sheets.

Despite the crowd, the bar was comfortable: two long leather benches, not unlike those of a small town train station, divided half the lobby for bar seating; a dark walnut counter ran under a north window decorated with bottles of liquor that, lit by the last violet rays of the setting sun, glittered like faceted diamond.

Peter fixed himself onto the bar’s one vacant stool. Guitars, voices, clinking glasses all mingled and echoed off the tile and high ceiling. It was a painful ringing in his ears, how he imagined the whole world sounded at age seventy. Despite the noise, he managed to eavesdrop on nearby conversations. Three tattooed men with rings in their lips described which women they liked and how they planned to pick them up. The bartender greeted people by name - “Jake,” “Link,” “Tennessee.” A group was discussing music at the table behind him and laughing so frequently that Peter worried he might be the punch line. He ordered another gin. He was the only loner in the bar.

Two nearby women leaning close to each other spoke with hypnotic intensity. “I really enjoy exploring that medium, you know?” one said. “Acrylic is just so personal, so, I don’t know, honest.” Uch, Peter thought, what academic fantasy-world gobbley-gook. “Jen’s thinking of doing a semester in France. Art is so much more a part of culture there.” That, Peter thought, is the sort of pre-graduation crap people say before they start living paycheck to paycheck, before car repairs and mortgages and insurance deductibles crowds their world. Envy knotted his stomach like a cheap margarita. He found himself tapping his foot and grinding his teeth. He was thankful there was no one to admit his feelings to, not because he found his venom unbecoming, but because he wanted no one he knew to see such seething envy.

“My work is really grounded in the subconscious,” the woman told her friend. “The whole process fascinates me.”

Peter heard his voice screaming inside his head, “Oh please,” yelling, “you sound like a bunch of sheltered idiots. You.” He pointed to the verbose one. “Michelangelo, go paint some sale signs on a storefront and see what it’s like to have to earn a buck.” His inner voice sounded like his father.

Peter twisted in his seat and sucked down his cocktail. “The emotional place I’m at now,” the woman said, brushing her hair from her face, “is really great.”

He waved at the bartender. “I’ll take another please.”

Peter’s only story-driven film was called “Four Door Disaster.” It involved a dying mother’s trip to a junkyard in search of the car she and her family had driven on their last vacation twenty years before, the same vacation where a drunk trucker killed everyone but her. It was Peter’s first and only film with a plot, and he liked the idea. There was emotion there, something dramatic, a loose retelling of the way his mother died. But after a month of work and hours of editing, the result still seemed like disconnected scenery - junkyards, highways, graveyards - like a silent, uninspired, avant-garde film. He sold the camera three years later to help offset interest on student loans.

Peter’s temples throbbed as more people piled into the lobby. Young women, barely out of high school, dressed in self-conscious arrangements of scraps that barely covered their breasts, pubes and butt cheeks, chattered like hungry blue jays while paying for tickets. When the bartender turned her back to the bar, one girl, dressed in a short flowing skirt and baby blue tee, reached over a glass of whisky and, with long red nails, plucked three cherries from a tray.

She was beautiful, with long dark hair that rested on tan shoulders and downy fuzz along the sides of her cheeks. As her arm shot back with the loot, she looked up, and before he could think better of it, Peter shook his head. “You know better than that.”

The girl’s nose crinkled and she spit her words like teeth loosened from a punch. “Thanks dad.”

Dad? he thought. People had called him mister, sir, even masseurs, but that word, Dad, spoken in her shrill, adolescent voice, made him feel older than all the others combined. The scenario played back in his head like a scary movie, how it went, how it could have gone, the horror. He could have said something cute, been playful, but as he swallowed more gin, he realized he no longer cared. He watched the girl light one of her friend’s cigarettes and told himself not to feel too bad. She had so many tattoos she looked dirty, like a blue pen had exploded and smeared ink across her shoulder and ankles.

Ed, the grumpy concierge, stepped behind the bar and handed a young drinker a CD. With short sandy brown hair and cheeks that dipped below his eyes like sandtraps at a cheap golf course, Ed couldn’t have been younger than fifty, but he still looked pretty cool: worn jeans, leather work boots, a short-sleeved thrift store shirt tucked in to show a turquoise belt buckle. Fifteen years his elder and the guy still looked so cooler than Peter.

“Thanks Ed.” The kid and his friend leaned together to study the CD’s track list and cover. The second guy was surprised to see Ed was still on his own label. “Yeah,” the first guy said, “but only so he can have artistic control.”

His buddy laughed. “Or because no one will pick him up.”

The first guy shrugged. “Guess that’s why he still works here.”

Loosened by the booze, words intended as internal spilled from Peter’s mouth. “Artistic control,” he said. “Please. Working a crappy day job to support your music is no life.” The two men stared at him like he’d just insulted Elvis at Graceland. “Trust me. I know. That is no life. It’s either music or day job. Either or. Not both.”

“Hey,” the guy holding the CD said, “the desk is better than a lot of jobs. At least he’s happy.”

Peter laughed. “Try worrying about happy when your power’s turned off and there’s no gas in your car, dude.” The last word sent such a spray of saliva that the two men raised their hands to shield their beers. “You got to give up things to survive. They don’t teach that in college, but wait a few years, you’ll find out.”

After his fourth drink, Peter was almost yelling, addressing the air. Everyone dodged his gaze, feigned deafness, so his attention attached to the barkeep. Random words spilled out. “How did I get thirty-five?”

The bartender slid her hands into her pockets. “Same way I got forty-two.” She stared at him hoping the heat of her gaze would make him look away. “Entropy,” she said. “The inevitable descent of order into disorder.”

“That’s bullshit talk, I’m talking real life.” Peter stared into her eyes as if they were distant road signs he couldn’t read. “I bet the government already invented a secret potion for perpetual…” He squinted into the counter top, searching, the bartender thought, for the next word, and when he looked up, his eyes had grown even more glazed, blank as wooden beads. “What’s it called? The, uh. With the French guy? He landed on an island?”

“Ponce de Leon,” she said. “The fountain of youth.”

“Um.” Peter scratched his nose. His eyes blinked with the speed of a caterpillar’s strut. “Fountain of youth!” His head shot up and his elbow knocked over his glass, spilling ice into a container of margarita salt.

The bartender swept a rag past his arm and replaced the salt. “It wasn’t an island,” she said. “It was Florida. And he was Spanish.”

Peter didn’t hear her comments. He didn’t hear anything anymore. People came and went, sitting beside him long enough to drain a beer and notice his bad company. The bartender hustled between patrons, filling glasses, pouring ice, but Peter kept talking. “Ponce. Good ol’ Ponce.” Slowly he licked his chapped red lips. “I wish I had that fountain. Getting old.” He stuck his tongue out in disgust. “Uch. Avoid it like the clap.”

A fat, grizzly skater, annoyed by the constant babble, shoved Peter’s shoulder. “You got the clap?” He pointed to Peter and called to his friends. “Watch out everybody, this guy’s got the clap.”

“No,” Peter sputtered, “it’s like the clap.” He waved his hand, letting it slap on the counter like a slice of cold bologna. “They gotta do something about that. Invent a medicine.” He aimed a finger at the skater and his voice dipped into a gargled register. “Get the President on that pronto.”

A group of kids surrounded Peter as the stools emptied. He vaguely remembered addressing a group at the counter, could picture them raising their glasses and cheering about something. He didn’t know it was about the bartender’s decision to cut him off.

One guy started calling him “mid-life.” Someone would make a joke and the kid would turn to Peter and say, “Hey mid-life, what do you think about that?”

“What?” Peter repeatedly tilted back his glass, never remembering how the last time it had been empty. His head bobbed back and forth, like a pollen-heavy flower on a withered stem, and a voice in the crowd said, “Margie, get an oven mitt, this guy’s cooked.”

It was eleven o’clock.

***

Peter awoke to the heat of sunlight on his back. His breath tasted of gin. His skin stunk of sweat. Wearing his pants and shirt and one shoe, he straightened his crooked spine and unraveled the bedspread from his foot. His body spread diagonally across the top of the sheets. He couldn’t remember how he got there.

Stepping toward the bathroom, he spotted a bill on the dresser. It was written on hotel stationary in red pen. “Fifty dollars for carrying you to your room,” it said. “One hundred for protecting you from the cops. Two hundred for the steamy sex.”

“Oh Jesus.” Peter checked his wallet and found all but a single dollar bill gone. He looked for the camera. Searched the dresser. The nightstand. The bathroom. It was gone too.

After a long shower, he slid back into his khakis. They reeked off smoke, like they’d spent a day in a tobacco flue, and when he reached into his pocket for his keys, he found newspaper clippings. “Tax-free erectial dysfunction medications,” the first one said in big yellow letters. “Professional Canadian clinic. Discrete billing. Insurance friendly.” The other advertised “Five-star senior living” and included a photo of a manicured golf course with three silver-haired men and women sitting in the shade of a gazebo.

He quickly gathered his stuff, and, at the door, found the locks disengaged. He slipped through the lobby with the stealth of a barge rat. Bright new light shocked Peter into a painful awareness, and after a moment, when his eyes adjusted to the molten lot, he noticed the band’s van beside him. The van, dented on the corners and missing a bumper, sat in a narrow spot beside Peter’s sedan, its paint, stained nicotine yellow, retained only specks of its original pure white. And inside, crowded by amps and guitar cases and cases of beer, slept one of the members, a thin twenty-something with the facial hair of an old sailor. His head rested against the passenger window. Shirtless, arms folded across his tan chest, he sat propped upright in the tattered seat like a scarecrow, enduring the heat, protecting his equipment, pursuing his dream in deep sleep.


Aaron Gilbreath lives with his ferret and cat amid stacks of Jimmy Smith CDs in Portland, Oregon, though his heart is in the Sunbelt. Mixed breeding of a New York Jewish mother and a small-town-Arizona-by-way-of-Oklahoma father has yielded a desert-obsessed son suffering conflicting urges for chicken soup and BBQ pork. Watch him clean up books at Powell's.

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