David Daniel has a new book: Inflections & Innuendos, a collection of 100 very short stories, many set in Lowell and vicinity. Dave, the author of the Alex Rasmussen mysteries series and several other novels and books, has kindly shared one of the Inflections & Innuendos stories with us – “Beatnik Barflies.” If you like this story, please consider buying Inflections & Innuendos, now available on Amazon in paperback and for Kindle.
My boyhood friend Jarrod moved to Lowell, Massachusetts with his new wife. “Come visit,” he told me on the phone. “It’s great. I’ll take you on a Jack Kerouac pub crawl.”
It sounded okay to me. I was up for a change of scenery. I’d been living in New York, having zero luck making my mark as a rock star. We called ourselves Sturtevant, Zigner & Peale. Crosby, Stills & Nash we weren’t. Jarrod picked me up at the bus station in Boston.
“Dude, this is gonna be sick,” he enthused as we drove to Lowell. “I’ve been scoping it out, talking to people. I’m getting to know the scene.”
“Sounds good,” I said.
“You wanna try to get a gig up here. There’s like a thousand clubs and bars.”
“I don’t know, we’re pretty much limited to playing down there—everyone’s got day jobs and lives and—”
“There’s your problem, dude. Since I’ve known you. You’ve got the talent but not the sack.”
“What sack? We’re a bar band, Jarrod, we know what we can and can’t do. We have a following. We get gigs. Up here, who’s heard of us?”
“And who’s gonna if you don’t try? Anyway—” he shut off my reasoned response with a hand—“you’re my friend, regardless. Womb to tomb, right?”
“Birth to earth.”
“You’re gonna dig Lowell. Kerouac is all over this town.” I nodded, gazing out at the ruined mill city the writer had called home. “Tonight, though, we’ll lie low, if that’s cool.” He glanced over and then back at the highway, but in his brief look I read a story.
Jarrod and I had been friends since seventh grade. I’d always been his sidekick, Pancho to his Cisco, Tonto to his Lone Ranger, and now, maybe, Sal Paradise to his Dean Moriarty. His plan to low-key it tonight likely meant he’d been screwing up of late. “No worries,” I said. If it mattered to him, it mattered to me.
“Anyway, Shelly’s cooking her moussaka. Tomorrow I’ll drag you through the bones and ashes.” He whooped and socked my arm. “It’s been too long, bro.”
Jarrod’s new wife was a tall, dark-eyed beauty named Michelle, Greek and Italian, whom I’d first met last summer, a few months before their wedding. They were living in Boston then, in a place she’d been renting for several years before she met Jarrod. I sensed her sizing me up: was I another of Jarrod’s crazy friends? He had a lot of them in the Boston area. She took me out into a tiny backyard garden, overgrown with flowers, herbs, and vegetable plants. I saw lettuce, tomatoes, eggplant; smelled chives, basil, tarragon. Ivy ran up the enclosing brick walls like a species of lush green flame. Pink blossoms were bursting from a trellis. But she was the most exotic thing there. “Everything’s in revolt this year,” she said with a little spurt of exasperation. “Nothing’s followed the plan.”
“Well, now it’s like a tossed salad,” I said.
She laughed and I think we formed a small bond, as though I’d passed some unwritten test. She grew warm, and the weekend was a pleasant one. For all her Mediterranean blood, Michelle (Shelly, he called her) seemed remarkably patient and even-tempered with her husband-to-be’s Apollonian energies.
I danced with her at their Greek wedding, her mane of mahogany-dark hair held back by the stefana crown. I’d seen her once since, when they came to New York. They visited a club where my band was playing. I sensed she was watchful of Jarrod, not in a clutchy way, like some people can be; this was more a restrained spousal alertness. Because Jarrod is a charming guy, especially when there are women around. He’d been that way as long as I’d known him. He was also a pretty dedicated writer of fiction, though the kind of meta-fictional stuff he liked to write didn’t sell, so he managed to make a decent living writing fantasy. He had a lot of whack job friends, and people who wanted a piece of him, which was probably part of the reason his new wife was watchful. On top of that, he’d been briefly married twice before (I’d known both wives), so perhaps Shelly was right to be awake.
But she loved him, there was no doubting that. She’d decorated their new little one-bedroom condo in Lowell as a shrine to their love: wedding photos and sachets of lily of the valley. Her garden now consisted of potted herbs on a sunny windowsill in the kitchen whose view was across sagging slate roofs. Her moussaka was the best I ever ate. Potatoes, fine-ground lamb, eggplant, béchamel sauce, melting in my mouth like life and time around me.
After, I was enjoying talking with her as we cleaned up the kitchen together when Jarrod called me. She smiled. “He wants to read you his newest story. He values your opinion.”
I listened to the story and was rightfully wowed by it, and had one more reason to hate the sonofabitch. The three of us stayed up drinking retsina and smoking weed.
Once, years before, he had come to visit me when I was a graduate student in Maine. He stayed in my apartment. We went out to a bar in Bangor and got talking to an attractive woman who was there alone. I was very taken with her. At one point Jarrod had gone to the men’s room, and the woman, with no prompting, told me frankly, “You’re a nice person, but I dig him.”
“Yeah,” I said, stoically, “he’s the male version of a femme fatale.”
“An homme fatale,” she said with a lascivious twinkle. “Did you guys come in separate cars?”
There were other times like that. Still, we’d stayed close, Jarrod and me, and now I had the feeling that, of all his friends, I was the one Shelly liked and trusted most. As the three of us drank wine and passed the pipe and talked, I found myself falling a little in love with her.
They fixed me up with sheets for the foldout couch in their living room and when they said good night and went off to their bedroom and closed the door, I was jealous; but marijuana will do that to you.
In the morning Shelly was off to work when I awoke. Jarrod and I sat over breakfast and coffee and then he took me out. My impression of Lowell was of steeples and red brick, rundown storefronts, a big river and graveyards. He drove over to the south part of the city and showed me Kerouac’s grave. It was just a flat piece of polished granite with the inscription:
JOHN L. KEROUAC
MAR. 12, 1922 – OCT. 21, 1969
HE HONORED LIFE
Kerouac’s wife number three, Stella’s name was there, too. Visitors had left mementos: bottle caps, beads, an empty Wild Irish Rose bottle, scraps of paper with scribbles of poetry. The poems weren’t much, but I think Kerouac would have felt pleased nevertheless.
By ten a.m. we were downtown. Jarrod parked and said we could walk everyplace, which was fine; it was a beautiful May morning.
“Here,” he said when we came to a bar along Merrimack Street. “Kerouac drank here.”
We went in and looked around. It was early, but with good times you could always rationalize a drink.
“And he drank here,” Jarrod said at the next bar.
The first couple drinks ignited the kindling of our friendship, sparks of enthusiasm flew: my music, his writing . . .
We had one drink in each place—Heineken, Bud—whatever they had in bottles. We wandered down Central to Appleton. I was getting buzzed. Jarrod was amped, taking me into the skids, places still being swamped out from the night before, smelling of Pine-Sol and worse, though already peopled with drinkers. They were the dedicated ones, beatnik barflies. Atop their stools, they might’ve been perched on tree stumps in the Great Okefenokee Swamp of booze, reached only by leaky rowboat.
I began to sense that Jarrod didn’t really know what he was talking about, or where Jack Kerouac actually drank. His research hadn’t gone deep. But it didn’t matter. It was the spirit and a nice day for cruising and we were old friends and we were getting drunk. The talk grew more grandiose, diffuse.
“Womb to tomb, buddy.”
“Birth to earth.”
“I’ve got the idea,” I said finally, making a stab at wrapping up the tour.
“There’s still a few more,” Jarrod insisted.
“But Kerouac was an alky, right?” I protested in vain. “We’re not. Yet. We got lives. I think Shelly is expecting us . . . you.”
She was, too. She left a note before leaving for work that morning saying she would cook something fun and we could all have dinner together.
“C’mon, what’re you worryin’ for?” he said. “One more drink.”
But it wasn’t just one more. Jarrod was flirting with the barmaids and boozers in each place, buying rounds. I went to the toilet and came back and found him huddled in a booth with a fading blonde in a tank top, her saggy tits showing, tattoos choking on each other on her skinny arms. With them was a guy in a time-yellowed seersucker sport coat. His basset hound eyes gazed at nothing.
“Ever hear of Sturtevant, Zigner and Peale?” Jarrod asked them as I arrived.
I tried to drift back out of sight.
“You know Crosby, Stills ’n Nash, right? Well this’s them . . . for an effin’ new generation. This here’s Bob Peale . . . bes’ ol’ friend, woomatoom . . .”
Nobody knew what he was talking about. Jarrod asked the woman to dance. The guy didn’t care. He seemed catatonic. The only thing moving about him was a fly on the rim of his beer glass. Jarrod and the woman navigated unsteadily on the sticky barroom floor.
After, the three of us (the guy had stayed behind) wobbled along the sidewalk, Jarrod and the blonde with their arms around each other, him talking of some bar where Kerouac might have knocked back drinks with Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso. Or it might’ve been a science fiction time travel story he was riffing to the woman, I don’t know. I wasn’t paying close attention. I’d half forgotten about the King of the Beats but thought of him now, gone in October, way back in ’69. But Shelly, she was alive, and what the hell. She was fantasy fodder that I’d carry around with me for a while, but I’d keep it in perspective.
We were going past a tavern with Pabst neons glowing in the windows. “Wha’ ’bout in here?” I said it this time. Maybe it’d give Jarrod cover. He could blame everything on me.
He squinted, his eyes taking time to focus. “Um . . .”
Even I could tell it was newish, with a banner advertising a 5K road race across its façade, certainly not around in Kerouac’s day, but authenticity was no longer a criterion.
“Shit yeah,” the blonde said, sucking the last smoke from a cigarette, “in we go.”
“But enough beer,” I said. “Is whiskey time. On me. Doubles. On the double.”
Temptations we all found impossible to resist.
As we drank the fading daylight away, things growing ever more blurred, Michelle remained a calm little eye at the vortex of the maelstrom in my brain: tall and dark-eyed and happy/sad in her kitchen, picking basil leaves, smiling bravely, watchful, waitful. The image was becoming a gnawing in me, a hole I was determined to fill with Jack Daniel’s.
I had to.