by Stefani Zellmer
January 10, 2012
Charles Bukowski reaches into his pocket, because the first thing you want to do when you wake from the dead is smoke. Instead of cigarettes, he finds my note and manages to uncrumple it with his calloused hands. He reads 2137 Whitley Avenue, Los Angeles, written in big loopy letters, then the summons—“Come to Dinner?”—that I’d written underneath.
Because I live in Hollywood, I know he won’t need directions. He lived here, too, before retiring to San Pedro where he is now blinking against a moon too bright for eyes emerging from nine years of darkness. He brings his fingers to his face, so he can feel once again its scars and valleys. It is a sad story, told in Braille, of pointed fingers and laughing children. He’s surprised to feel his skin is warm. Working his head against the stiffness, he looks down to find himself dressed in a starched suit. The embarrassment he feels for wearing it convinces him that he is, in fact, alive.
When Charles Bukowski’s eyes scan the graveyard, suspiciously seeking the asshole who dug him up, they are stopped by the recognition of his own name, etched into a concrete slab, above the dates 1920-1994. His soul climbs back into his body when he grasps his epitaph. It reads, “Don’t try.”
While I wait for Charles to arrive, I sprawl out on the couch with a glass of ’89 Sancerre and The Night Torn With Mad Footsteps. His words never fail to make me swoon. The aggression with which he writes, the way he kicks holes in the page with his words, is both terrifying and admirable. As a writer, he is tragic and lovely. He’s an oxymoron who doesn’t fit a mold. He turns the mold inside out. Through his writing, he tells us everything that’s in him. He isn’t afraid to let it pour. With Charles Bukowski, there’s no guess what? There is no withholding. No secrets. No lies. And therefore, no apologies.
I’ve often wondered how these words would sound coming out of his mouth. I’ve wondered how he sits in a chair. What he smells like. How tall he is. While I’m waiting to find out, my mother calls from Dallas.
After about five minutes of catch up, I ask the inevitable, “How’s Dad?”
“Oh, he’s good. Not great. But good,” she says, obviously in the room with him, though he’s not in the room with himself.
“So how are things?” I say. We speak in code.
“Oh, once or twice,” she says.
“A week?” I say.
“Mmm Hmmm,” she says.
We are in one of those attempts-to-control-it phases. These tend to follow the attempt-to-quit phases that never last.
My father quits drinking like people quit smoking. In short, cowardly spurts. Last time I was home I watched him pass out in his chair night after night, lost to the world, lost to us. I try to remember the man he was before he was an alcoholic. I try to see only the father who loves to sail. Who took wood working classes and built us furniture, coffee tables and end tables, in the garage on his table saw. I try to see the glimmer in his eyes, but it is dim and increasingly so hard to find.
“I gotta go, Mom,” I say, when reality starts to itch. She doesn’t argue. We hang up. The polite conversation that we use to remove ourselves from the truth ends, as always, with nothing said, and nothing gained.
I look out over my terrace at The Capitol Records building, and the glistening lights of Los Angeles. The view from my white stucco, 1920’s duplex is breathtaking. When the French doors are open, the night enters in crisp bursts of breeze. Dinner parties happen so frequently throughout the Hollywood Hills that I’m usually either at one or hosting one. I’ve become so clever at being social I’ve convinced everyone that I belong here. I’ve even convinced myself. Hell, even if you were to presume I wasn’t happy here, you couldn’t finger me for it. I’d flat out deny it.
I’m pouring my third glass of wine when Charles Bukowski’s knock comes. Most people ring the buzzer. Charles Bukowski, on the other hand, has some anger to work through. His knuckles need to feel the pain of wood—dogmatic and fierce—against bone.
I tell him I’m coming with the clomping of my boots down the hallway. I stop in front of the mirror and sass my hair out. I apply lipgloss with trembling hands to my gluttonous lips that can’t get enough of it. My heart flits around my chest, desperate for a way out.
Through the peephole, his nose comes at me. His eyes swim around, impatient and fidgety. Charles Bukowski looks like a tube of toothpaste that has been squeezed efficiently, from the bottom.
I let out a sigh, then open the door to my fantasy.
He stands impressively upright for someone just tossed from death. His arms hang long and relaxed at his sides. When I look into his eyes, I see the opalescence of a man who plays Rossini, methodically, in his large German head.
“Pour me a drink,” he says, “whoever you are.”
I offer him my hand and he stares at it like a kid who doesn’t understand formalities. As he raises his blue eyes to my green ones, his mouth slants up on the right in an attempt to smile. He is what my girlfriends and I call Sexy Ugly. Without his personality, he’d be ugly, but with that wicked sparkle in his eye, he’s totally fuckable. I immediately want to do him in my foyer. When he slides his hand into my extended one, it wraps itself around, thick and dry. I parlay that shake into the subtle tug that brings Charles Bukowski into my lair.
“My name is Stella,” I manage to say, barely audible.
“Stella,” he says, confirming my name in his drowsy voice, his eyes looking up even though we are the same height. “Christ! That’s a great name.”
I grin. My shoulders release.
“Stella with the dimples on Whitley Avenue,” he says, making me a poem, right then and there. I immediately wonder if I can live up to his words. If I am capable of poetry.
Before I can muster another word, he is taken by the light spilling out of my kitchen. I follow his silhouette down the hallway. In his wake, he leaves the smell of dry cleaning and oily hair. His tuxedo shoes rap inconsistently against the floor. By the time I join him in the kitchen, he has a bottle of red wine held up to the light, like he needs to look up at its label to make amends.
“Let me open that for you,” I say.
“Yes. Thank you. Stella,” he drones, handing the bottle down to my manicured hand. As I work with the label and insert the corkscrew, he grabs two highball glasses off the shelf with one hand and reaches for the Bushmill’s with the other. Before the wine is breathing, we each have a shot waiting on the counter between us. Charles Bukowski looks me in the eye, raises his glass to the ceiling, and drains it down his rusty pipes.
“I don’t usually drink whiskey,” I say, watching him swallow without wincing, like the professional boozehound that he is. What I don’t say is why. It reminds me of my father’s breath.
He just looks at me, the mole on his left eyelid giving him a perpetual wink, until I finally say, “Fuck it,” and put the shot glass to my lips, tossing my head back quicker than I can swallow, most of it dribbling down my chin. The gentleman in Charles Bukowski, a side I never would have expected, pretends not to notice my sloppiness as he pours us another.
“You must forgive me if I’m incredibly thirsty,” he says.
“Are you hungry? I made chili,” I say. It’s my mother’s recipe. I didn’t tell her I was making it because she would have wanted to know who I was making it for. And my mother wouldn’t approve of Charles Bukowski. He’s not perfect enough. His resumé doesn’t qualify for her dream son-in-law. But tonight, I’m not trying to please her. This night is only for me.
He says, “I have a confession to make.”
“Okay,” I say.
“I stopped at In-N-Out Burger on the way here.”
“That’s okay,” I say, trying not to laugh, “We don’t have to eat.”
I wonder how he got the money to pay for food. I imagine the pimple-faced cashier at In-N-Out Burger who took Charles Bukowski’s order, recognizing him from the back flap of his Black Sparrow books, and feeling a special bond as his eyes sought the craters of the dead poet’s face. Maybe the kid had bought the burger for him. He was telling his friends about it now. They were rolling their eyes.
I set my glass down and he fills it. As I watch the wine glug, glug, glugging I feel him staring at me. His highball glass rests on the counter in his other tight fist.
“Here’s to you being here,” I say.
He peeks into the plum softness of his own glass, like he’s searching for his reflection. It’s halfway to his lips before he registers what I’ve said.
“To being,” he says, touching his glass to mine. He closes his eyes while he drinks half of it in one gulp.
The fluorescent lighting begins to scratch at the moment.
“Let’s go sit in here,” I suggest, taking the reigns of the evening, pulling him behind me into the living room. I sit down on the couch and cross one leg over the other, letting my skirt slide up a bit, because if I know anything about Charles Bukowski it’s that he’s a bona fide leg man. When he steps onto my rug, wearing that crisp, black suit under his crumpled face, his glance goes right where I want it. I’ve got his full attention clamped firmly between my legs.
He stands in the middle of the room with the bottle of whiskey in one hand, swirling wine around in his glass with the other.
“You paint these?” he says, gesturing with the bottle, transferring his weight to one hip.
“Yep,” I say. As his eyes caress my art I get that feeling of swimming through a cool patch in the pool. His eyebrows furrow in concentration as he tries to dismantle the anger lurking within the canvas. Red paint drips from human heads teetering on animal bodies. Random splotches burst from nowhere.
“You’re a sick fuck,” he says. Then, clearing his throat, he adds, “for such a lovely lady.”
“Thanks,” I laugh. “And you’re charming, for such a dead bastard.”
He smirks and walks slowly to the corduroy chair to my right, sitting down a bit sideways, tucking his right ankle behind his left. So this is how Charles Bukowski sits in a chair.
The Mahler, which I’d bought just for him and put on before he arrived, was reaching a peak. I watch him close his eyes to feel it more deeply.
“How long have I been dead?” he says.
“We’re in a different century.”
“Why am I here?”
“I wanted to spend an evening with you.”
“Why would you want to spend an evening with an old drunk like me?”
“Because I wanted to meet the kind of man who can tell stories the way you do,” I say. The alcohol helps me say it.
He puckers his lips to the side and looks right through me. He stuffs his bulbous hands into his jacket pocket and pulls out a little brown cigarette that had been hand rolled.
“Mind if I smoke?” he says.
“If you’ve got one for me,” I say.
I reach forward and take the cigarette that Charles Bukowski lights for me with a lighter that still has the neon green price tag on it. I stare at the cracks in his hands that smell like onions. We sit back and blow smoke into the room. It twists and turns around the Mahler. I turn to look at him and watch his glance roaming about, landing on his own books that hoard three shelves of my bookcase. I’ve collected most of his poetry books and all six of his novels, which are really memoirs of his tumultuous childhood, his menial jobs, his womanizing, his drunken debauchery and the making of one of his books into a screenplay. When I read him I can feel the heaviness of his eyelids. As I look at him now, sitting next to me in my living room, he’s just as vulnerable and raw as his words on the page. There are things I want to ask him, but I’m afraid of sounding trite. I’m sure he’s been interviewed a thousand times by quivering fans. I don’t want to put him up on that pedestal. I relax into the sofa and play it cool.
Charles Bukowski leans forward and holds his wine glass in front of his nose, toasting to me with a forward tilt of his head. While he drinks it down, I get up to get more wine. As I walk back into the room with the bottle in hand and the Bushmill’s under one arm, I notice he has grabbed the box from the shelf under my glass coffee table.
“I used to play Scrabble with Lydia, when my leg was hurt and we couldn’t fuck,” he says.
“Being that you’re a writer, I bet you’re good at it.”
“You mean fucking or Scrabble?”
I feel my face heat up and a tingling between my legs, like driving too fast over a hill and losing your stomach. He churns me. It doesn’t matter that he could have been my grandfather.
He takes a sip of whiskey straight out of the bottle and says, “Who cares? Let’s play.”
Being dead hadn’t changed the fact that Charles Bukowski loves nothing more than a good fight. He fought with his father during childhood. He fought with women. He fought strangers and fellow barflies in alleys across Hollywood. He fought landlords. He fought rejection slips. He fought death and now here he is wanting to fight me with Scrabble.
As I take the board out and set it up I think about how different he is from the men I usually spend time with. I get a pang of emotion when an old scorecard lying inside the box reminds me of Marshall. I feel the sharp daggers in my heart as I remember walking in on him with my friend Susan. The aftershock shakes me. I feel the pang of being made a fool. Charles Bukowski pours us more Bushmill’s. I drink a shot to chase the feelings away.
We seem to be putting out the fumes of our liquor with an evaporating bottle of Cabernet. I can feel tomorrow’s hangover drawing its plans.
Even though I picked the first letters, I tell him to go first. He puts a word down. PUTRID. With the double word score of the first play, and the fact that he’d placed the D over a double letter score, he starts the game with 22 points. Not bad. Not bad.
“Good word,” I say.
“I love a game where bad words are good.”
I smile down at my tiles and begin plotting my retort.
He gets up to get more wine, and isn’t gone ten seconds before I hear the cork pop. He would be eighty-two, seventy-three on earth and nine years in the ground, and still his hands can hustle a corkscrew.
He returns to my side and pours more wine as I make my play. DATED. 14 points. That’s the best I can do.
He drains another shot and stares off into space for a while. I sip my wine and watch him drift. There is something comfortable about sitting here with Charles Bukowski, almost like we’ve known each other for years and have little left to say.
Suddenly, he snaps out of it and looks at my word.
“Dated. I dated a girl from Texas once.”
“I’m from Texas,” I say.
“I recognized the accent.”
I thought I’d lost it after living in New York and then Los Angeles after college. Maybe it was the alcohol. It tended to bring me home.
“Girls are pretty down there,” he says. “They’re like mockingbirds.”
See. It was hard not to love a man who oozed poetry.
We play an entire game of Scrabble. Because I’d drawn the Z and played it on a triple-word score, I beat Charles Bukowski 225 to 198. I’m relieved to learn that he’s a good sport, at least sometimes.
After finishing a bottle of Bushmill’s and two bottles of wine, the room is liquid. We find ourselves swaggering in the middle of the living room floor, barefoot and clinging to each other, trying to dance. I put my straw cowboy hat on Charles Bukowski’s head and pull my head back so I can focus on his hair as it curls around the back edges.
Charles Bukowski slurs, “You’re not my daughter or anything, are you?” I shake my head No. Then, holding himself up by hooking his hands around my ass, Charles Bukowski kisses me. His lips are thick and warm. I hold on by his shoulders. Shoulders that had launched fists into faces that looked at him wrong. Under my buzzing fingertips, they seem finally at peace. In his embrace I feel an understanding, our scars rubbing together, and loneliness melting.
I feel his courage slip under my skin as we struggle to hold each other up. I feel his honesty and truth creep into my blood. I think about my father and I miss him. I don’t want to hurt him but I know it’s the only way. I think about the men who never loved me and I finally know why. I convince myself that Charles Bukowski could have loved me. I hold on to the memory of a man who yanked his heart out for everyone to see. Just like I yanked him from the grave, so he could show me what it feels like to be alive again.
I wake up the next morning tangled in my bed. My tongue pushes against my teeth, thick and sore. Once I gather my head, my memory defogs and I turn over to find the other half of my bed disheveled, but empty.
Trudging through my apartment, I realize Charles Bukowski is gone. The place is a mess of empty bottles and Scrabble letters strewn all over the floor. It appears that at some point we’d gotten into the beer. Parts of the evening are missing. Including the emptiness. He’s the only man who’s ever been generous enough to take that with him.
I am halfway to the Scrabble game, to begin putting it away, when I read his note, spelled out in wood squares across the board. It reads, “Don’t try.”