I don't know the name of this place, but it has that type of distinct feeling of dread and despair. Anyone in here could pass a corpse in the bathroom without taking deliberate notice. This isn't the place you came to save others. It's the place you came to forget yourself. I saw this as a refuge from the evils that would seek a man out in this world.
But it was just a stop on the way to Vancouver, Canada. We've been traveling out of Austin in an old BMW van. There was nothing about the great north that attracted me so much. It was an inner impulse to suddenly flee, to escape familiarity and its lingering curses. There was nothing I could say against that great city, the wonderful ground where I was born, or the fields where I spent my youth. It was an almost predictable feeling. My subconscience always interpreted some sort of fuse, burning through knots and twisted ends. This journey was bound to happen.
"Goddamn recession," a frayed piece of flesh sits next to me, "Good men can't find decent work no more." To an uncultured eye, he was bewildering and potentially frightening. I'm sure that the greatest threat he poses to me involves tall tales and exaggerated stories. Cold beer soothes my aching soul. "I was born here on Helena Street in one of the alleyways. And I keep coming back to the same bar." I made eye contact with him, but I didn't have enough strength or good will to force a smile. I was still facing the surrealist concept that I simply walked out of my home by at least a thousand miles. "When I worked at the steel mill, I came here everyday after work to get drunk with my co-workers. Now it's my resort for alcohol, greasy food, and darts." The point of the conversation became apparent. I still met his comments with balanced and approving gestures. Another swig. I could feel him, waiting for me to act. "You enjoy Pabst?" he asked, "Let me buy you one." I could feel the bartender, waiting for me to respond, to fulfill some ordinance of social grace. Not watching, because that would be rude, but sensing for it, listening for it. And soon, the whole bar was watching us, this spectacle. I said nothing.
And then he kind-of shook his head, trying to forget that he had attempted conversation with me. He grabbed another pint and reserved himself in a booth across the bar. I took one last inhale off my cigarette before smothering it. "Another beer," I said, sliding two more dollars across the table. The bartender obliged.
I stood up and took my drink to my acquaintance's booth. "I'm sorry," I said, "I've been stuck in this city for nearly a day and a half now, and between lack of sleep and the cold, I haven't been feeling too personable. I'm Henry." I offered him a smoke and he took it.
"I'm Walter," he said, "Nice to make your acquaintance
"Where you from?" he asked, lighting his cig.
"Austin," I said.
"A southern boy," a smile lit up on his face before he could exchange eye contact. He had me pegged on his general radar.
"And you?" I asked.
"Well, I already told you that," he smiled, "That alleyway, remember?"
I took a swig of booze. "That's right," I said, "I've never been this far up north."
"What do you think so far?" he asked.
"It doesn't feel much different," I said, "Accents changed in my journey, but not the people or the land."
"Not in town for long, then, I presume?" he asked.
"No, well, that's not the intention," I said, "Seattle was supposed to be like Denver, Las Vegas, or San Francisco. Just another city to pass by. But I might end up staying longer."
"Why's that? Did our gracious city catch your fancy?"
"Well, that, and my friend ran off with the van," I said, "I'm drawn to this bar more by circumstance than will."
"And what was your will?"
"What does that city hold for you?"
"Just that it's not Austin, Texas," I said.
"And Seattle isn't good enough?" he asked.
"No," I said, "My opinion has changed since I started."
"Did Canada just seem as far away as possible?"
"That was probably the only thing I was thinking about when I left," I replied.
"What's waiting for you back there?" he asked.
"Nothing's waiting for me," I said, "Either in British Colombia or Texas."
"Have you been to British Colombia before?" he said taking a shwill.
"Then how could something be waiting for you there?" he asked.
"When I departed, my only thought was that something was waiting for me somewhere far away," I said, "And several thousand miles away from Texas sounded like a fine place to start looking."
"You could have tried a neighboring state," he said.
"It wasn't far away enough," I replied.
"So whatever is waiting for you," he said, "Has to be very far away?"
"I'm thinking so," I said, "The only thing I know about it is that it wasn't calling for me in Austin, Houston, Denton, or anywhere else I grew up."
"Do you know what it looks like?" his words oozed between a growing confidence and alcohol.
"No, I don't," I said, "Nor do I know what it sounds, tastes, smells, or feels like."
"How do you know you've found it?" he asked.
"When I'm happy..." I took a shwill, put down my beer, and leaned back. There were a few seconds of silence.
"Just like a woman..." he took a big shwill, "By the time you get to this thing waiting for you, I'm sure some other dreamer would have found it by then." The old man made me smile. Small drips of beer, hopefully fresh, clung to his massive beard. "You're trying to find a state of mind by looking in different places?"
"No," I said, "But I needed to change something. And maybe changing was what I was really looking for."
"You've found it," he said, "You're very far away from the place where you know this thing isn't. Are you happy now?"
"I'm not sure what I feel," my finger connected dots of condensation on the glass, before I lifted it to soothe my soul.
"You come this far alone?" he asked, "You'd have to be pretty brave to leave the state you grew up in alone and come this far."
"No, I had friends with me," I replied.
"Had?" he said, "Were they really friends?"
"Yeah, I think so," I said, "Maybe they didn't know what I was looking for. Taylor left to go back to San Francisco. We hit a bar in that city, and he ended up getting laid by some hot girl. He wanted to go find her again."
"Maybe he was looking for the same thing," he said, "But instead of looking in different places, he was looking in different people."
"Is it human nature to be perpetually unsatisfied?" I asked.
"Depends on the human," he killed his drink and I mine.
"Let me get the next round," I said, "Pabst, right?" I brought over the beers and sat down comfortably.
"Just a pretty, young woman that fell into his life and fulfilled his lusts?" he asked.
"Maybe more than that," I said, "We've met a lot of people in our journey this far. We picked up a pair of girl hitch hikers right on the Nevada border. All of us split on a motel room; to get privacy, he fucked one of them outside."
"Ah, outdoor sex," he said, "There's nothing like the leaves, the twigs, and the rocks pressing into your body when you fuck, as if the earth itself were getting in on it."
"Yeah, mother earth can be some slut," I smiled, "But why he would want this girl in Frisco, and not the other, I couldn't say."
"Is that the extent of your knowledge on women?" he asked.
"Pretty much," I smiled and nodded.
"Well, to your credit, maybe he didn't know any better either."
"I'd like to think as much," I said. As he took a shwill, I noticed on his arm, there was the tattoo of a mermaid and I complimented it.
"I got that when I was seventeen," he said.
"It looked faded."
"Where do you think mermaids come from?" he asked me.
"Probably the same place as all other sea monsters," I said, "The imagination of sailors."
"That's probably the most honest reply I've heard when asking that question," he said, "It had to have been their imaginations, but maybe something more was at work. The ship had a destination, but the sailors didn't. After the cargo met its loading dock, the ship met its port harbor, and the wages met the pocket, there was just the next voyage. Looking out forever into the endless seas of blue, it wouldn't surprise me if a man saw someone he was thinking about. Between the crashing waves and the ripping tides, you could swear you saw someone you knew. Right as her image glimpses passed your mind, you think you saw her raise quickly from the depths of nothing. As soon as attention comes to grasp, she's gone, and you had to choose whether it was a delusion instigated by thoughts of a woman, or whether it was an angelic and unaccounted creature of the oceans. And with good enough friends around, only a fool would deny the latter."
"And this girl in San Francisco," I said, "Was she just another riptide, carrying seaweed and driftwood, reminding Taylor of an old love?"
"No one can really say what goes through another man's mind, but I wouldn't doubt it if that was the truth," he said.
"Ha, maybe he was thinking about his mother," I chuckled, "And we all know Freud's opinion on that." He was amused, and we drank to fill our voids.
"What did he say when he decided to leave to go back for her?"
"He said that he never orgasmed like that before in his life."
His eyebrows lifted, "Really?"
"No, actually," I giggled.
"I was about to say, if that were the case, why would he keep traveling?"
"Valid argument," I shwigged my beer.
"Women can be like that," he eased himself into a more comfortable position, "For some men, they are the dreams of utopia. Everyone finds their happiness by going after something. If you need to cross every border to find love, then you will. And if you believe that being with another is enough to fend off all the evil forces of the world, or at least to make them bearable, then nothing can stop you." The old man had touched something deep inside of me; I had no way to show it, except with buying the next round.
"I had on old friend once," I said, "A traveler type. We went to the same high school together, and one day he simply vanished, never seen by the town again. I had a few chance meetings with him, in the most unusual places. The only thing I can be sure that he said, was that traveling for a woman was the worst idea."
"And if I were in that conversation with him," he said, "I wouldn't have disagreed."
"A man who went that far for a girl certainly learned more than me," he said, "And I'm not going to advise a man where I'm ignorant."
"You could have told him that you found your own peace without going so far for another soul," I said.
"Then I would only be repeating what everyone told him before he left," he said, "And maybe what I could have said would have been identical to what those told you when you left."
"I wasn't sure myself what to say to him," I replied, "The many who have crossed untold distances went for so many reasons. Some for land, some for freedom, and I guess, some did it for a love."
"What land could you travel to for love?"
"Anyplace with a low male to female ratio sounds like a good idea," I mixed cynicism with sarcasm, alcohol mixing with my blood. Another shwig. "Would you travel for a love?"
"I would rip through mountains and rivers as easily as a child cuts through paper with scissors, if it meant Angela, my wife and my love, was on the other side," he said.
"Perhaps none of us are all that different then," I replied.
"With enough mileage on my feet, then I wouldn't be much different than your friend Taylor," he said, "But did he love her?"
"I asked him that," I said, "And now that I remember it, I asked him a few times. For all the good his answers did, he may as well have spoke in parables."
"Nobody knows what they want," he said.
"I was about to say something like that," I replied.
"In a moment, he remembered he was in love and took off with the van?" he said, "That's not a very friendly person."
"No, Taylor went on his own," I said, "The van belonged to Carly."
"There were three to your convoy?"
"Yeah," I said.
"And where's the third?" he asked, "Did they both go back to the bay area?"
"Carly," I took a shwig, "She's the bright girl who should've been born in Tokyo or Madrid, not in some farm house in north Texas. I know she left those dust-filled plains for the same reason I did. There's an imaginary bubble we were all taught to stay within. It wasn't enough to just dare the borders. Her van, my idea, and Taylor thought it would be a fun ride. I guess we were just three people who knew each other and had nothing better to do but ride around the country in a van. I know why she left, but I also knew she wasn't looking for the same thing as me."
"Did she find what she was looking for?"
"Maybe she just wanted to know that there really was a world outside of Austin," I said, "She wanted to confirm that there were places outside of books, that a determined will can do anything, that the stars are just as dim and blurred in Denver as in any city. She wanted to see if things could be real. I suppose she just ran out of mileage. Taylor might not have been looking for anything, and then thought he found something. But for her, it was only a matter of time before her wonder and inspiration turned into homesickness and isolation. She had a good faith and knowledge of what she was going to find, but she never thought she could lose anything. I can remember her exact words. She told me some shit story like...
'I woke today in the van and just asked myself, "What the fuck am I doing here in Seattle?" We had our fun. We had our kicks. There's nowhere left for me to go in this journey and its mundane destination. Why the fuck would Vancouver be a great place to visit? What's there? It's just another point on the map. Anyway, I'm through. If I came out here to do something, I already did it, and I'm heading back in the morning. You really should come with me. Taylor can have his mom greyhound him back to Texas when he gets bored of playing with that girl, but I'm sure your parents would make you hitch hike back. I can't make you do anything, though.'
"She just had one of those mornings where the sky's gray clouds made everything brittle and fall apart," I said, "A morning like that is enough to make you rise up and throw yourself across the land at any cost. And it's just as powerful enough to send you back to wherever you came from."
"I've had mornings like that," he said, "What man at my age hasn't? If a person finds themselves in a situation where they feel stuck, they just have to get out at any cost, even if it means abandoning course. Isn't that why you left in the first place?"
"That could be it," I replied.
"It wasn't just waking up and feeling broken that made her want to get back to Austin," I said, "Taylor leaving really affected her. I felt it when he told us at George's Diner. We were eating together as a unit, drawn by our strength, but when he told us he had to leave to go find that girl, I could feel Carly detaching. His sudden urges to go back south in pursuit of some hot, wetdream girl made her think that our own voyage had as much thought and value to it. If this really wasn't some trip to test the borders of our fate, then it was just same lame excuse to get out of town and cruise the nation's bars. It was in her tone after that conversation with Taylor. It was almost expected that now she would want to turn back."
"She left?" he asked.
"Yeah, this morning," I said, "She asked if I wanted to go. And I wanted to do anything but that. Then at ten o'clock, the time in the motel ran up and I thought that I could really use a drink right now. And that's what brought me here."
"If you kept together, you think you would've been able to travel as a pack forever?" he asked.
"No, maybe not," I said, "But I'm sure we would've at least gotten as far as Vancouver."
"I know much of their stories, but little of yours," he said, "Why they might've left their home is clear. As far as I can tell, you're still just looking for a random dot on the map. Maybe you weren't learning the same things as your traveling partners in this journey."
"Or at least not as fast," we shwilled the last of our drinks.
"I'll get the next," he sat up and went over to the barkeep. I pulled out a cigar, unwrapped it, and started to light it. He brought over the drinks.
"I got this in Vegas," I said, "An imported Jamaican cigar. I planned to smoke it the first moment I got to rest. Now is as good as any."
"You've been on vacation and haven't had any time for rest?" he asked, downing his alcohol.
"The vacation seems to have ended here," I said, passing him the cigar and consuming my beer, "I couldn't keep this thing in my backpack until I got to Vancouver. Let's burn it now and forever be rid of it."
"Like a past that haunts you in nightmares, destroy it by living through it and then let it be the freedom of your soul," he chewed the smoke and scented it with fermented barley. It was a bar scene. There was the constant clatter of glass on tables or being pulled out of some, fourth-hand purchased dish-washer, cigarette soot dancing through levels of air, and a barman serving alcoholics and the afternoon crowd; he wasn't sure what his real value should be in life yet. The atmosphere felt its tiny influences from our tempered conversations, our healthy appetite of liquor, and our appreciation of a fine, imported tobacco. He passed the cigar and the nicotine air pours out of my nose.
"That is a classy blunt you have there," he commented.
"What were you telling yourself you'd find when you reached British Colombia?" he asked.
"Someplace new and free," I drank confidently, "That's what I thought. An internationally-recognized subculture for marijuana, healthcare for all citizens, and virtually no poverty or homelessness, it sounded much better than anywhere else reachable by a BMW van and friends."
"You were just going to blend and meld into the Canadian population?" he asked.
"Sure, why not?" I said, "I'm just another person and I'm sure that assimilation wouldn't be more than just a minor trial."
"My friend, are you really sure of what you want?" he asked.
"Sometimes I know I am," I said, "And if I didn't keep questioning, I'd probably find myself chasing something that didn't make me happy." I killed my drink and stood up.
"Well, it's almost three o'clock," I said, "I need to start now if I'm going to start hitch-hiking to Vancouver."
"Wait," he said, "I never told you my story."
"What's your story?"
"I was born on this street, I lived here for forty-seven years, and there are many things I've endured and experienced, many loved people who have passed through the fingers of fate, and there is too much I would have taken back if given the chance," he said, "And maybe if I was younger, I would join you."
"Maybe if you didn't have so much to leave behind, I'd let you," I smiled and took my leave. It's only 119 miles from Seattle to Vancouver, Canada. I wonder if I can make it in a night.