Or: a portion from a wine-stained notebook. A story
I was having visions in those days. They came mostly when I was drying out, not drinking, waiting around for money or something to arrive, and the visions were very real Technicolor and with music mostly they flashed across the top of the ceiling while I was on the bed in a half-slumberous state. I had worked in too many factories, had seen too many jails, had drunk too many bottles of cheap wine to maintain any sort of cool and intelligent state toward my visions
"OH, GO AWAY YOU BASTARDS! I BEG YOU! GET THE HELL OUT! YOU'RE GOING TO FLAKE ME FOR SURE! OH MY GOD OH MY JESUS, MERCY!"
It was San Francisco. Then I'd hear a knock on the door. It was the old woman who ran the place, Mama Fazzio.
"Mr. Bukowski?" she said through the door.
"Are you all right?"
"Can I come in?"
I'd get up and open the door, sweat now cold behind my ears.
"You need something to keep your wine and beer cold, you don't have a refrigerator. Even a pan of water with ice in it would help. I'll get you a pan of water with ice in it."
"And I remember when you were here two years ago you used to have a phonograph. You'd play symphony music all the time. Don't you miss your music?"
Then she left. I was afraid to lie down on the bed or the visions would come again. They always came just the moment before sleep. Or the moment before one would have slept. Horrible things: spiders eating fat babies in webs, babies with milk-white skin and sea-blue eyes. Then came faces, 3 feet across with puss-holes circled with red, white, and blue circles. Things like that. I sat in a hard wooden chair and peered at the San Francisco Bay Bridge. Then I heard a rumbling sound on the stairway. Some giant beast crawling toward me? I opened the door. There was Mama Fazzio, 80 years old, pushing and twisting an ancient stand-up green wooden Victrola, the wind-'em-up kind, and the thing must have been twice her weight and clumsy up that narrow stairway and I stood there and said, "Jesus Christ, hold it, don't move!"
"I can get it!"
"You're going to kill yourself!"
I ran down and grabbed the thing but she insisted on helping me. We took it into my room. It looked good.
"There. Now you can have some music."
"Yes. Thanks very much. As soon as I get some records."
"You had breakfast?"
"Come on down to breakfast any day."
"And if you don't have the rent, don't pay it."
"I'll try to have the rent."
"And excuse me, but my daughter was helping me clean your room when she found some papers with writing on them. She was very fascinated with your writing. She and her husband want you to come to dinner at their place."
"I told them that you were funny. I told them that you wouldn't come."
After she left I walked around the block a few times and when I came back there was a huge pan of ice with 6 or 7 quarts of beer floating in it plus 2 bottles of good Italian wine. Mama came up 3 or 4 hours later and had a beer.
"You goin' to dinner at my daughter's?"
"You've bought my soul, Mama. Name the night."
She fooled me. She named the night.
The rest of that night I drank the stuff and wound up the old Victrola and watched the empty felt-covered wheel run at different speeds, and I put my head down to the little wooden slits in the belly of the machine and listened to the humming sound. The whole machine smelled good, holy, and sad; the thing fascinated me like graveyards and pictures of the dead, and the night went well. Later in the night I even found a lone record in the belly of the machine and I put it on:
"He's got the whole world
in His hands
He's got you and me, brother
He's got the little babies
in His hands
He's got everybody
in His hands....."
This scared me so much that the next day, hangover and all, I went out and got a job as a stock boy in a department store. I started the day after. Some old gal in cosmetics (she seemed to be at the bad age for women 46 to 53) kept hollering that she had to have the stuff RIGHT AWAY. I think it was the insistent shrill insanity in her voice. I told her: "Keep your pants on, baby, I'll be along soon to relieve you of your tensions...." The manager fired me 5 minutes later. I could hear her screaming over the phone: "If that isn't the damndest SNOTTIEST STOCK BOY I ever heard!!! Who the hell does he think he is?"
"Now, Mrs. Jason, please calm yourself ..."
At the dinner it was confusing also. The daughter looked real good and the husband was a big Italian. They were both communists. He had a fine fancy night job somewhere and she just laid around and read books and rubbed her lovely legs. They poured me Italian wine. But nothing made sense to me. I felt like an idiot. Communism didn't make any more sense to me than democracy. And the thought often did come to me as it came to me at the table that night: I am an idiot. Can't everybody see that? What's this wine? What's this talk? I'm not interested. It had no connection with me. Can't they see through my skin, can't they see that I am nothing?
"We like your writing. You remind us of Voltaire," she said.
"Who's Voltaire?" I asked.
"Oh Jesus," said the husband.
They mostly ate and talked and I mostly drank the Italian wine. I got the idea that they were disgusted with me but since I had expected that, it didn't bother me. I mean, not too much. He had to go to work and I stayed on.
"I might rape your wife," I told him. He laughed all the way down the stairway.
She sat in front of the fireplace, showing her legs above the knees. I sat in a chair, watching. I hadn't had a piece of ass in two years. "There's this very sensitive boy," she said, "who goes with my girlfriend. They both sit around and talk communism for hours and he never touches her. It's very strange. She's confused and ..."
"Lift your dress higher."
"I said, lift your dress higher. I want to see more of your legs. Pretend I'm Voltaire."
She did show me a little more. I was surprised. But it was more than I could stand. I walked over and pulled her dress back to her hips. Then I pulled her to the floor and was on top of her like some sick thing. I got the panties off. It was hot in front of that fire, very hot. Then when it was over I became the idiot again:
"I'm sorry. I'm out of my mind. Do you want to call the police? How can you be so young when your mother is so old?"
"It's grandma. She just calls me 'daughter.' I'm going to the bathroom. Be right back."
I wiped off with my shorts and when she came out we had some small talk and then I opened the door to leave and walked into a closetful of overcoats and various things. We both laughed.
"Goddamn," I said, "I'm crazy."
"No, you're not."
I walked on down the stairway, back over the streets of San Francisco, and back to my room. And there in the pan was more beer, more wine, floating in water and ice. I drank it all, sitting there in that wooden chair by the window, all the lights out in the room, looking out, drinking.
The luck was mine. A hundred dollar piece of ass and ten bucks worth of drink. It could go on and on. I could get luckier and luckier. More fine Italian wine, more fine Italian ass; free breakfast, free rent, the flowing and glowing of the goddamned soul overtaking everything. Each man was a name and a way but what a horrible waste most of them were. I was going to be different. I kept drinking and didn't quite remember going to bed.
In the morning it wasn't bad. I found a half empty and warm quart bottle of beer. Drank that. Then I lay down on the bed, started to sweat. I laid there quite a time, became sleepy.
This time it was a lampshade that turned into a very evil and large face and then back into a lampshade again. It went on and on, like a repeat movie, and I sweated sweated sweated, thinking that each time, that face would be the unbearable thing to me, whatever that unbearable thing was. There it came AGAIN!
"AAAAAAAAKKKKK! AKKKKK! JESUS! JESUS EAT PUSSY! SAVE ME, OH LORD JESUS!
The knock on the door.
"Are you all right?"
"I said, 'Are you all right?'"
"Oh fine, just fine!"
In came old Mama Fazzio. "You drank all your stuff."
"Yes, it was a hot night last night."
"You got records yet?"
"Just 'He's got the little babies in His hands.'"
"My daughter wants you to come to dinner again."
"I can't. Got something going. Got to clear it up."
"What do you mean?"
"Sacramento, by the 26th of this month."
"Are you in trouble of some sort?"
"Oh no, Mama, no trouble at all."
"I like you. When you come back, you come live with us again."
I listened to the old woman going down the stairs. Then I threw myself down on the mattress. How the wind howls in the mouth of the brain; how sad it is to be alive with arms and legs and eyes and brain and cock and balls and bellybutton and all the else and waiting waiting waiting for the whole thing to die, so silly, but nothing else to do, nothing else to do, really. A Tom Mix life with a constipation flaw. I was almost asleep.
"AAAAHHHHHHHHKKKKK! WHEEEEE! MOTHER OF MARY!"
"Are you all right?"
"Oh, fine, jus' fine!"
I finally had to get out of San Francisco. They were driving me crazy. With their free wine and free everything. I'm in Los Angeles now where they don't give anything away, and I'm feeling a little bit better...
HEY! What was THAT??? ...
Reprinted from National Underground Review, May 15, 1968, courtesy of David Stephen Calonne.
From the forthcoming City Lights collection Portions from a Wine-Stained Notebook: Uncollected Stories and Essays 1944-1990, edited by David Stephen Calonne.