Midnight, eighty-six degrees F in the middle of December. Hamilton Swift sits in his office, a converted hot-water-heater closet off the kitchen in a scanty bungalow in central Hollywood. Chain smoking rolled tobacco, listening to “He’s Gone” (Doris Duke, I’m a Loser, 1969), drinking the insipid, cold white from some far-flung, pastoral valley in—says the label—Marlborough, New Zealand.
Perks, Hamilton thinks. Wine perks. He gazes into the bottle as if it might hold answers in lieu of taste.
In bawdy chugs, he slurps it down. There is an entire case of the stuff sitting in the weary icebox next to a molding chunk of California Gouda and a gunked-up flask of catsup. Trickles cling to the corners of his lips, cry off his chin, and onto his chubby, bare belly as he sucks on the wine. It is the first decade of the twenty-first century, but might as well be 1969, or 1946, or 1978.
Hamilton Swift stares at his machine and exhales a gauze of smoke that covers his eyes.
Holly’s Woodland Saloon
It’s all he’s got. Nothing more to show for a few hours in front of the remarkably preserved 1946 Smith-Corona Silent series portable on his desk. Cataleptic it stays, same as Hamilton. At least he has the wine and cigarettes.
The song changes and the world grows quietly older without Mrs. Duke. “The House of the Rising Sun” begins. The words on the paper go out of focus. His body goes slack in the chair. Lost time, old places, one question, one woman—omnipresent—crash in alternating waves inside of him. Days of unmitigated despair turned ghostly, anesthetized. And now, “The House of the Rising Sun.” The only song he ever sang karaoke, and just once, on their honeymoon in the city of the rising sun. Firmly not his thing, but for a woman—the unyielding love of a woman—for her he did it. Surrender, yes, the serious things and the fickle things we surrender in love, for love, making even a worthy, facile example out of stupid fucking karaoke. And then—
Have you ever seen your wife shot in the head?
By a government assassin?
The typewriter stares back blankly.
New Orleans is fucked now. Hooray for Hollywood.
But the sun never rises on this house. Only it sets.
Hot desert winds belt the other side of the cracker-thin plaster wall. The Santa Anas. It went from fifty-seven F damp to ninety F dry overnight. Roaring heat riding the Mojave line.
Hamilton Swift raises one straight from the bottle. “Here’s to you, idiot wind.” There are no glasses left in the house to toast this anniversary.
Hamilton draws in another toke of tobacco, holds it on his tongue as if it were three-hundred-dollar Burgundy, and swallows. The bland white wine he gurgles like beer.
“Holly’s Woodland Saloon,” he says. The little room listens. “The House of the Rising Sun” is over, and now: quiet.
“I ordered …”
He can’t remember. Hamilton doesn’t even taste the food anymore, even though food was one of the few things he still enjoyed. Lately, when it comes time to put words to press (deadline for this one is 9 a.m.), he struggles to find the flavors, the recollection of them in his mouth. It gets worse with every gig. Hamilton’s fingers rattle against the keys, but nothing.
He’d written a novel once. He’d written a better collection of stories and an even more superior novella, adapted into a stage play for the Fountain Zephyr Theater, a good-running smash turned a big-money screenplay, never produced. He’d cashed the checks and readied himself for something over the cusp—ah, old Hollywood, here and let’s have it!—a book that would hit like a trophy largemouth in the cold waters of his Midwestern youth. But that was all before, before. Now Hamilton Swift is a food critic for an insignificant, free neighborhood weekly.
Hamilton Swift is numb. A finality of numb courting nonexistence, and, lately, if he felt anything, tired is what he felt.
Hamilton takes another swig. It crawls in his stomach with the restless dead. He sets down the bottle and it catches the edge of the desk, sending it to the floor. It does not break, but spills. A small puddle creeps under his feet. He picks up the bottle—a third of the wine still there—and, looking down at the mess moving between his toes, he notices his foot, the right foot, and an inflamed red growth the size of a large kidney bean beneath the edge of the nail on the big toe. An ingrown hangnail, infected by the look of it, bulbous as a gorged tick. He hadn’t felt it before and still doesn’t now while poking at it. Hamilton backs away from the typewriter and pulls up his foot, rests it on the desk. He picks further at the malignance, wondering if there are any nail clippers in the house. The middle toenail on his left foot hangs half an inch into space.
Life has come to this: numbness, brutal ache gone over the tall cliff, the gods returning to the caves, and toes and their harlot nails living sordid lives of their own.
Hamilton pushes back the chair, drains the rest of the wine, and goes into the bathroom. He relieves himself and looks in the medicine cabinet. Toothpaste, two travel packets of ibuprofen, no nail clippers. He sits on the toilet, puts his foot up on the edge of the tub, and tries to tear off the ingrown hangnail. He manages to rip it some, and a bit of yellow-green pus oozes out. The toenail is thick and tarnished. It needs to be clipped away, or dug out with a file. Outside, the rattle. The wind coming to take something away from him, again—only roof shingles now.
Hamilton walks into the bedroom, reaches under the mattress and finds his father’s knife, a large bowie knife given to him just before his father died. Sharp then—in Vietnam his father had killed a tiger with it out of self-preservation—and sharp still.
Sep 15, 08:12 AMPurchase or Subscribe to Slake: Los Angeles
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