Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Killing Bill 

This is a very old story, about some adventures from last year. I wrote it last fall but don't think I ever posted it.

Ruining the Kill Bill Party, the Prologue: Lately I'm always waking up at the wrong times. Sometimes, when I am supposed to be at a meeting with clients, I find myself lying in my bed never having heard the alarm clock. My clock is very old, very reliable and very loud. It has two hammers that hit little bells above its dial. Sleeping through its bell ringing is unlikely but somehow has become increasingly common. I say "somehow" but I know exactly how: my impenetrable slumber is built on a foundation of whiskey and bars that stay open into the early hours of the morning. When I discover I'm awake, I'm usually not particularly disturbed that I've missed the meeting. I can still manage to spend a quarter of an hour lying in bed, staring out my windows at the Empire State Building. Maybe I'm losing faith in working, employment and diligence.

Sometimes I find myself waking up in other places. A stoop near the East River where I had paused to watch the sun come up. A booth at the Bulgarian bar. The roof of a building on Orchard street. Exactly when I fell asleep, or what I was doing immediately before falling asleep, is usually unclear. My eyes closed so quickly that I never formed the thought "I am falling asleep." Sometime later the thought that I was asleep awakens me. The walls of the room snap back together shutting out whatever dream I've been having. Voices grow closer.

This time the floor I had been sleeping on was white marble. Beside my head was a wicker bin of some sort. I stretched out across the floor of the small room. Nothing seemed out of place. My shoes shined in the bright light, laces tied. There was still a sharp crease running parallel to the tight pin stripes of my pants. My belt clasp reflected ceiling lamp. My tie was slightly loosened, and the top button on my shirt was undone. By the way my jaw scraped against my collar I knew I had shaved yesterday but not today. Nothing hurt except my head. According to my watch it was a quarter past one. I decided it must be afternoon because I couldn't imagine myself passing out in a bathroom as early as one in the morning.

I sat up, and pulled myself off the floor by holding the sink. I splashed some water on my face. My eyes were very bad. They were narrowed to small tiny, dark canyons. A place the hero would start to suspect an ambush. The blue of my tie pulled out their color a bit, but it was like catching sight of the bright underbelly of a fish in polluted water.

Beyond the door of the bathroom was a narrow hallway, leading to a lobby of some sort. Straight ahead I saw Central Park. It was a beautiful, crisp autumn afternoon. To my left was a concierge desk. To my right Jean Georges. I needed the solitude and the space promised by the park but I was probably here with someone who was expecting me to return. How long had I been asleep?

I stepped through the glass door. I didn't recognize anyone at the table immediately in front of me. No one I knew was at the bar. I wondered if the people I was with would call out to me or wave me over. I decided they wouldn't know that I had forgot who I was with, that I'd been asleep, that I was absolutely out of my head. No one would call me.

My cell phone started playing the theme from Cops. The caller id said "Don."

"Mickster! Where are you? You said you went to make a phone call and disappeared. Stuck me with the check you bastard. We're over at Whiskeyland [bar name changed at Don's request]. Meet us here. I've already ordered you a digestif." Don's Australian, and sounds ridiculous when he uses foreign words like digestif.

On the walk to Whiskeyland I recollected bits and ruins of the day. Don is journalist for a foreign-owned and yet xenophobic tabloid newspaper in New York. It's the sort of place where the editors sit around before going to press trying to best each other with punned headlines. Don is the reigning champion on the strength of the phrase he coined to describe European dissenters from the recent war in Iraq. I know Don because he used to drink with my father. My father gave up that kind of thing, or rather passed it on to me. Don is part of my patrimony.

We had been at lunch with two younger guys who are also journos, and three young women. I didn't think I'd ever met the women before. We were celebrating something. Someone had written a book, or given up writing a book, or taken a new job or lost an old job. The women were probably purely decorative.

They were all in Whiskeyland. I'd forgotten the girls were gorgeous. They were sitting around the bar, Don on one side and one of the younger guys on the other. The other guy was standing in front of them, telling a story about having sex with someone's girlfriend in a bathtub. These two younger guys write for gossip pages, and tend to pull girls way above their paygrade based on their presumed associations with the wealthy and celebrated, and the prospect of transforming a young actress or model into a celebrity by mentioning that she was spotted having lunch at Jean Georges.

I sat next to Don. He pushed a snifter of Congac toward me. I couldn't imagine drinking it.

"Drink before you start talking crazy again, okay?"

The bar was closed but Don had arrangement with the bartenders who allowed him to drink there during the lunch hour. New York has become the sort of place where you need to have your lunch hour drinks in closed bars where no one from your office will report you to your boss.

I dipped my upper lip into the Cognac. My sense of smell was entirely gone, and I could barely taste anything when I licked my lips. Don was giving a lecture on how to win fights. I'd heard this one before. You poke the guy in the eye with your forefinger, and you bite his nose. It's not bad advice.

The young journos were getting somewhere with the girls. They were laughing at the stories, and stretching their legs to touch the ground from their barstool. The one sitting next to them had slipped his arm around one of the girls, resting it on the bar behind him. When he wasn't talking, and attention was shifted toward someone else, I noticed she leaned in toward him.

My glass was empty and Don was ordering a second. I couldn't take another drop of Cognac. "Scotch, " I told the bartender. I looked up at the bottles behind the bar. They hadn't turned on the bright panels behind, so it was hard too see what they stocked. "Oban. Rocks. No, not rocks. Rock. Oban, one rock."

"That's a lad," one of the young journos said. He wore expensive looking blue jeans, had a beard and sounded like he may or may not have been British. He was drinking vodka and cranberry. The other guy was mostly bald. He was drinking gin and tonic. I raised my glass to them, and then to the girls, and then knocked it against Don's straight vodka. The alcohol sliced right through my mouth, so that the whiskey was completely tasteless. In a moment the ice would begin to melt, and would lower the alcohol ratio in the glass, and this would be a real drink.

There was no going back. I could remember what we had planned. Last night I had been drinking with Don at Irish dive near Times Square. He mentioned he was going to Kill Bill the following evening. I told him about seeing Pulp Fiction in Oxford under the influence of half a bottle of rum and still-unidentified pills. The film was spectacular. It is a very good film viewed straight but amazing seen with half your brain tied to Captain Morgan's ship. Only under the influence does it reveal its classical structure, built around the motives of honor, fear and interest, with only honor holding out the hope of redemption. Don announced that he was going to get me into the premier, and that we were going to get drunk beforehand. And then I suggested we stay out until the opening. Which is what happened.