Prendre la lune aux les dents...
-- “to take the moon by the teeth...”
an antiquated French expression meaning
“to aim at impossibilities...”
The Roadmaster found that his two guests were a bit too demanding without the caring mediation of Diana Flatrock. In her absence, the coincidences of interest between them dwindled. At the same time Buick’s estimation of the importance of continuing life in Blue Moons became nil. Ms Nin of Paris and Mr Theodore of Hollywood departed, shrieking at one another across that separating distance through vocal cords belonging to a teenaged boy from northeast Texas.
Blue Moons Pharmacist Tri-Larry Daigle slipped Betty Baskin a large vial of high-dosage Valium in hopes of easing the boy’s pain. Or at least lowering his volume.
Buick ate the tablets like breath mints for a few days and did eventually quiet, in the end finding himself momentarily alone. The torment had left his short-term mind temporarily vacant between tenants. He used the down-time to think about what had happened.
He had found love’s effects and lost its cause in short order. This love thing. He’d had no idea what he was walking into. His feelings for his mother and what he felt for Diana weren’t the same at all, and that itself was a revelation to the inexperienced young man. He had thought it was supposed to be the same.
The solo Buick felt tortured and abandoned, a hole left in his life by Diana’s departure. He thought about going to her humbly and guaranteeing that no one would ever come between them again, but he knew his promise would be a lie. He was not in control. Diana already understood that. He could tell she understood, by the calm, thoughtful presentation she had made to him. She had thought the whole thing through. She knew him quite well and had told him plainly: “You’ve no idea who’s coming down the tubes, Buick. I can’t live with that hanging over my head.” Then she had left.
End of Diana story.
She was right, but that didn’t make it hurt any less. Finally, after a very short period of introspection, Buick could bear the pain no longer. Diana still lived only blocks away from him, but they were separated by an infinite space. He had to face that. The survival instinct in Buick told him distance might make a difference. He scuffed through boxes of tomes, found a well-worn early edition of Kerouac, grabbed his guitar and without asking permission beat it out of the village of Blue Moons in his mom’s old car. The equally pained Buick V8 sputtered to a stop just outside the village limits, rumbled and backfired for a few moments, then began producing a most ominous smoke. As auspicious a sign as its flesh-and-blood namesake could imagine.
The other Baskin Buick decided that hitchhiking was much more to Kerouac’s liking anyway.
That same night, a green-eyed slightly deaf Jack Kerouac sat quietly in the Eldorado Lounge on the outskirts of Mesquite, Texas. He had almost made Dallas in a single day of hitching. The progress in distance from downtown Blue Moons -- and lowdown Diana Flatrock -- gave him some small amount of satisfaction.
Buick tipped back in his chair, waiting to order a drink. His scruffy jeans were tucked inside well-worn Justin American buffalo cowboy boots. Earlier in the day, he had traded his only real possession, his ‘65 Silvertone electric guitar, for the boots and thirty-five bucks in cash. It was a good deal. In Texas hill country, the Ventures and surf rock were well behind him. He intended to do a serious bit of traveling, and the boots looked like they’d hold up fine. He was proud of them. Buick hooked the tall black heels on the piano bar’s padded edge for what he considered proper display of manly footwear.
The bartender was not impressed with rare domestic leather.
“Git yer goddamn shoes off my box, kid!”
The Eldorado’s resident pianist, a blue-haired hunchback in a brightly flowered muumuu, nodded with the bartender. She hadn’t attained the upper edges of her rather moldily unwholesome seventies by disagreeing with management. Despite Buick’s second fifty-cent tip and request for an obscure Dexter Gordon composition, the woman came to yet another rousing conclusion of “Red Neck, White Shirt, and Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer”. Marking her third time through that patriotic musical gem since Buick’s arrival, and proving once and for all that this was neither 1952 nor the Lower East Side. His rock ‘n roll deafness served him well on this occasion, as he missed both the pianist’s music and message.
Buick Baskin realized how much of life continued to pass him by, every day.
He didn’t consider that a bad thing at all. His disregard protected him. It was his method of dealing with being awake, and very unlike the rest of his family. Except, in some strange and indefinable way, for his mom.
Buick took Kerouac’s feet down off the piano bar. A broken heart had weakened his independent resolve.
That girl child got to me in a big way, ole Jack thought. Well, that’s OK. This time around, I’m out here for good. No more Blue Moons. Maybe I should head out to the coast and see who Neal’s sleeping with. Or go scrounge some drinks with Old Bull Burroughs down in New Orleans. Crazy bastards’ got woman trouble, too, both of them in the lurch, just like me.
But Jack knew deep-down that his march toward serenity had been caused to stumble and drift off track, even before it got started. He’d lost a great girl whose only sin was an aversion to paternally-financed polyester filigrees.
Oh, man, I’ll never get it together again, not this time. Mom’ll never forgive me, speculated Kerouac, who, as he well remembered, also had his own share of mother problems.
Jack thought drinking might help his depression. It always had. Buick, unlike his guest, seldom drank, and never before hard liquor.
The bartender walked over to stand in front of his customer and allowed a “Yesssss?” to slide fluidly from the edges of his mixological scowl. Buick heard and watched the question. Very impressive. Jack made a note to use the facial expression in a later book. But in the immediate present tense, Buick’s confused Kerouac was unable to come up with either the name of a suitable On the Road liquid or a word of stalling dialogue.
The bartender asked his pleasure again, more gruffly. In his panic, Buick remembered an earlier patron’s order.
The tired old hooker had sounded so certain, so knowledgeable, that Buick had rightly deduced that she held yet another bit of valuable life information. After the bartender had walked away to mix her cocktail, Buick had asked her the ingredients of the drink she ordered.
“Chivas Regal. My very favoritest scotch, baby,” she’d said, “and flat coke to make it go down perfect. No bubbles, no ice.”
“Ah, thank you so much maam,” said Buick. Now the drink’s name made sense. Flat coke. Scotch. Buick clicked back to his own present situation.
“Ironed Kilt,” said an inspired Buick to the bartender. She’d ordered an Ironed Kilt, and so would he.
Suddenly Jack took the upper hand. Buick began to wonder if he should have stopped in a place that fit so easily into Kerouac’s lifestyle. One little victory and now he was opening his mouth with no idea of what was going to come out. Jack, ole Jack was at the helm, and Jack was definitely headed directly -- though God knows happily -- against the prevailing winds.
“Anything ever happen in this dump?” said Kerouac tacking abruptly.
“What the hell do you mean, “this dump”, buddy?” said the bartender, as he stood still holding the Ironed Kilt. “You just tell me exactly what you mean, and do it now, ‘cause you ain’t getting shit to drink until I get an answer. And it better be good.”
Jack was not in any way intimidated.
“Now sir, I look around and notice this one elderly chanteuse you got on the piano here, thank you but no thank you maam, and a few minutes ago right there sat that lovely working girl whose first trick may have been Sam Houston himself, and she blasted back her first quick one of the day like it was a room service OJ and coffee, and here I am wondering, ‘What I am trying to convey to this gentleman?’ And I think the answer is another question. Simply: discounting those two ladies, are there any real women who come in here? Something with a skirt and without hooves, maybe? Something to take a poor fellow’s mind off the trials of the road and loves long lost? You’re looking at a boy that needs some attention, my friend.”
This was not a diplomatic answer, at least in the bartender’s mind.
“And you’re looking at some serious trouble, now aren’t you, kid? I knew it. You come in here looking for trouble. I knew it from the start. Bothered sweet old Wilma with stupid questions. Put those goddamn boots on my piano and just kept right on a’goin’. Well, you’re stoppin’ now. You can take your six bits and your fast mouth and get the hell outta my bar, because I don’t have to put up with you and your insults. I own this place, and I don’t have to listen to anything I don’t want to hear. Not a damn thing,” he said, starting to get himself worked up.
“Hell, I got a good mind to come over there and knock the living daylights outta you, you wise-ass penny-ante kid. You think you can fool around here, come in looking for trouble, do you? Well you ain’t getting nothing but trouble fooling around with me in my own place.” The bartender put the drink on the shiny surface of the bar and walked round its far end. He started to pull off his apron as he moved closer to his young customer.
“Bet you I know where you got them shoes,” said Jack, looking down and pointing.
“The hell you do.” The bartender, striding forward and preparing for battle, was suddenly knocked off mental and physical course.
“Very nice, those shoes, and I know exactly where you got them.”
The bartender paused an uppercut’s length from the nose of Jack Kerouac. He looked down at his brown wingtips. The leather was faded into a mottled brown pattern, but shined perfectly. He could see a blurred reflection of the bar’s red ceiling lights in the shoes’ dimpled tips. Somehow this stranger had noticed them, the only bit of his apparel that he actually maintained or cared about.
He’d bought the shoes in Pensacola on a weekend furlough from the Naval Air Station during the waning days of the Big One. WWII had ended before he got a chance to complete his pilot training, though, and he had been mustered out and sent home before he even realized what it meant to him. He had planned his whole life around becoming a pilot, even if it meant getting killed in battle. If he survived he could have moved into the airlines, flown the world, and spent an early retirement traveling about the country in a luxurious motor home. If he died he would have been a national hero buried in Washington, DC. Instead, he owned a bar in a godforsaken once-a-week bus stop town in northeast Texas, and he spent every morning cleaning the two tortured public restrooms in which his patrons seemed determined to create a continually-expanding Everglades of unthinkable composition.
His clothes might smell of disinfectant, but the shoes reminded him of clean blue skies and a white-sanded Florida panhandle. The gagging waves of the bar’s ammonia floorwash dissipated in the cleansing memory of fresh sea breezes, the mixed perfumes of flowering scrub pines and emerald salt water. He shook his head.
What did this kid say?
“No way. No way you could know,” he told Jack.
The bartender saw himself, the young naval air cadet spying the dust-covered shoes in the window of a little shop near the Pensacola waterfront, some twenty years earlier. They had been expensive, those shoes, and were getting lighter in color as they sat on display in the window. Leaving them out there, the proprietor was gambling that they wouldn’t be totally ruined by the bright Gulf sun, as he tried to lure some big spender in to take them off his hands. The shoe man had thirty bucks tied up in the single pair, and they were getting old and out-of-style. The prospective airman had bought them for thirty-five, thinking that a pilot ought to have one top-flight outfit for pulling in the ladies. Starting from the ground up, which the shoes were.
The wingtips, though they had not been used as their unflying owner originally intended, had indeed been well-made and durable shoes, and worth the money. They were now on their eighth set of heels and their fourth complete re-sole. The shoes were as close as their owner would get to a perfect three-point landing in Honolulu with its accompanying hot night in the scented grass skirts of a wahini enamored of flyboys.
“Don’t be messing with me now. You got no chance of knowing,” he said, pulling his pants leg up for a better view of the familiar footwear.
“I’d be willing to bet you a friendly handshake and night’s worth of drinks that I can tell you to within six inches the precise spot where you got ‘em.”
The boy didn’t look like he’d ever made Pensacola. Besides, the shop was undoubtedly long gone.
“And if you’re wrong?”
“I have very little money, but as my part of the bargain I will stand here very willingly, hands at my sides, and let you take your best shot at me.”
“You got a deal, buddy.” The bartender leaned back across the bar and pulled the Ironed Kilt toward him. Droplets of moisture ran onto his fingers as he picked up ole Jack’s drink and toasted his young patron’s downfall. He was confident of his bet. Drank the drink himself in three violent contractions of his Adam’s apple.
“Glup, glup, glup,” he said. Then, “Let’s hear it.”
Jack opened his two big greens wide and honest. Stared the man in the eye. Jack was never more solid.
“You know the terms of our bet, right?”
“Yeah, yeah, and I am -- oh you bet I am -- looking forward to the sound your head’s gonna make hitting the floor of my dump.”
Jack dropped his hands to his sides and pushed his chin forward, a poor but honorable man putting his stakes on the table and getting ready to lay his cards down.
“I do know where you got them shoes, and if you can look me straight in the face and tell me I’m wrong, I’ll give you what you got coming, just like I expect you to do the same.”
“C’mon, c’mon, quit stalling. We both know you’re fulla shit. Admit it. You don’t have a clue where I got my shoes.”
“Sir, you got your shoes on your feet. And your feet are in front of the bar in the Eldorado Lounge in Mesquite, Texas, USA. Now, is that where you got them shoes or not?”
The bartender was more than nonplussed. He was stymied. What an idiot he felt. His head was doing a six-hundred mile about-face from the sugary white beaches of Pensacola to stare six feet straight down at the dark stained concrete floors of his own bar. There were his shoes.
“Shit,” he said.
As the simplistic logic of Jack’s answer fell into place, the bartender’s mind made the audible clunking sound. Again. He’d been taken again by the same pair of shoes. He’d been meaning to buy some sneakers. This settled it. Time to move on in life. The single-engined planes, the glory, all of that stuff was a thing of the past.
Can’t hold my fuckups against the kid.
“Where’d you get that one?”
“Sucker punch they use day-in day-out on Bourbon Street in New Orleans. My friend the Bull tells me half a dozen guys been standing between St Louis and Toulouse Streets every day for the last twenty-five years making a living off that same question. Always a new set of tourists begging to give their cash away thinking nobody knows where they live and nobody knows where buy their precious shoes. Pretty damned silly, you ask me. But it kept you from punching my lights out. At least I hope it did.”
The bartender considered the situation. The reappearance of Pensacola had taken all the belligerent wind out of his sails. The gale that had carried him on to blow this guy out of his bar was gone.
The kid ain’t to blame, for sure. Just got a little extra moxie. Like I used to have.
“Ah, fuck it,” he said, turning his back on Jack and returning to his place between the lines of bottles and humming coolers. He held out his hand. Jack took it and the two men shook as men do when things are alright between them.
“What’ll ya have,” said the bartender.
“Ironed Kilt,” said Jack, smiling but beginning to fade with the adrenaline that produced him.
As the bartender turned to mix the drink, Buick Roadmaster Baskin began to seep through his guest, back into his own body. His shoulders slumped. He began to breathe more regularly. He coughed loudly, a sudden tickle in his throat unbearable. He began to choke.
“Just a minute, buddy. Have your drink in just a minute,” said his new friend.
Buick pivoted on his barstool to hide his coughing, only to find himself again facing the gnome at the piano bar. Since she now had an attentive customer, and one approved by her boss, the body and what remained of the mind beneath the blue hair promptly began banging out an only-slightly-spastic instrumental rendition of “Hey, Look Me Over.”
Buick began to think. He was in Mesquite drinking Ironed Kilts.
The marriage of an overpriced Scottish blend and a degraded American standard. Perfect. Betty Daniels-Baskin would appreciate the irony in anesthetics. His own mother was a woman of substance and patience, Kerouac or no.
What will I do without Mother to talk to? Was I too dependent on her? Did I need to go?
Was that why I chose Diana? To drive me as far away from Mother as I could get?
“Or did I really love her?” Buick Baskin said aloud.
“I dunno, honey. Ask for something I know,” said the pianist.
Read the next chapter.