Saturday, June 28, 2008

The Shop

Note: This piece is my response to a challenge issued by Scot Young at Be Not Inhospitable To Strangers . The challenge was to interpret Charles Bukowski's poem The Bluebird in either poem or prose. If you'll visit Be Not Inhospitable To Strangers starting Sunday, you'll be graced with all the responses to the challenge... as well as a whole lot of other good poetry.

The Shop

The shop, tucked neatly between a haberdasher and a candle maker, nearly escaped my attention as I walked by. This particular neighborhood seemed foreign somehow, even for San Francisco, an eclectic blend of old and new, foreign and domestic. Even the modest sign, crafted from poster board and scripted in a simple blend of India ink and water colors with a sprinkling of glitter for effect, offered only the vaguest reference to the business: Woolgatherer’s Emporium.

Briefly, I considered the name, nearly walking past, figuring it to be just another head shop run by aging hippies hoping to network with yet another medical-marijuana user intent upon obtaining a quick score. However, seeing no bongs, rolling paper ads or psychedelic drug paraphernalia of any sort in the window, I allowed my curiosity to overcome common sense and pressed the weathered brass thumb latch holding the door in place. The heavy oak door yielded immediately, offering me a glimpse inside.

Floor-to-ceiling bookshelves covered every inch of available wall space and the tiny enclosed floor space within held only a small table covered with a brocaded linen tablecloth. Sitting placidly atop the silk, a bi-fold sign boasted “Sale Today!” I assessed the sign as well as I could, given my present state of confusion. Nowhere did I see a cash register, attendant or even a sales counter. The books appeared dusty and unkempt, with nary a single book jacket protecting the contents within. Used book store… Carefully, I put my index finger on a handsome leather-bound edition, tipped it toward me and tried to slide it off the shelf. A shadowy image appeared before me, a woman’s face that I’d seen before, although I couldn’t identify her. She mouthed some words that I could not hear, her eyes imploring me to listen. The book remained in its original position, unfettered by my advances.

As I looked around the room, the shelves seemed to blur slightly in the low light, as if someone even now turned down a rheostat. Presently, a woman of indeterminate age stepped from behind a shelf and timidly asked me, “Do you see something you like?”

Rather an exotic-looking woman, she wore a loose-fitting garment that chastely covered all visible surfaces of her body save her arms and face, but she emanated an air of attractiveness in her stately countenance. Were I to speculate, I’d guess the fabric to be silk, but I know little of such things. It could just as well be satin or some lesser form of knock-off for all I knew, and I’d be none the wiser. Frankly, I didn’t care one way or the other; if she felt the necessity to convey an image so important that she was willing to perpetrate a visual fraud upon my retinas, so much the better, I could respect her for that… first impressions are important to some folks. But that color— a lustrous shade I could only describe as purple—shimmered haughtily, emanating its own vague light source and compelling my gaze.

“I’m just looking, thank you. What do you sell here?” Given the surroundings, the question immediately sounded stupid and I wished I hadn’t asked it.

“That depends…” she shot back, her eyes fascinating as they not quite engaged me head on, “what are you looking for?”

“I see books… are they for sale?”

Judging from the spirit in her voice, this amused her. “You see books because you choose to see books. You see, everything is for sale, my darling, it’s all a matter of cost, isn’t it… and the ability to assess if the price is fair?”

I said nothing momentarily as my mind raced to decipher her meaning. “You don’t sell books?”

“Do you want me to sell you a book?”

Well, she had me there. Did I sense a certain peevishness in her voice? “No, I don’t believe I’d like to buy a book today. But since all you seem to possess is books, I guess I should be going and stop wasting your time.”

Turning away, she thrust her arm into the air, dismissing me with a passionate flourish. “Well, if books are all you see here, be gone. Time is the master we all serve.” And she glided as much as walked toward the back, assimilating with the bookshelves.

Ordinarily, I’d have merely walked out the front door, but as I stood there stupidly scratching my balls and wondering what I failed to understand, a voice said, “She’s right, you know.”

I blinked and the books, along with their shelves, disappeared. In their place, a verdant meadow unfolded as far as I could see. The shop no longer existed… gone, right before my eyes. Presto. Poof. Vanished.

Now, I guess I should tell you, at this point, that I’m not particularly a ‘meadow’ kind of guy, be they verdant or otherwise. I live in San Francisco for a reason… I like the order provided, I think. Oh, I don’t mind the occasional day trip to Muir’s Woods if the breeze off the ocean doesn’t remind me that I’m about to have to run for cover and I’ve been known to sit and feed the pigeons in Golden Gate Park… hell, I even took the ferry out to Angel Island once. But, given the choice, I’d rather spend my time at The Swig or The Hemlock or any one of a number of little watering holes in North Beach. At least there, I don’t have to worry about anything being verdant, with the possible exception of the urinals, and I’ve personally witnessed quite a few that qualify, if color and that certain methane-rich barnyard odor are the standards of comparison.

And the only voices I hear come from Twila, the loud-mouthed whore who hangs out at Clancy’s, or the assemblage of pseudo-poets and/or junkies who wile away their fog-beset hours begging someone to listen to their crap. I don’t spend a lot of time with verbalizing my wants and needs, either. Give me the back booth anywhere on Geary Street, I’ll even settle for the Edinburgh, and I’ll be content. Just don’t invade my space uninvited unless you bring a tumbler of Weller’s, preferably with a splash although I’m not picky, or I guarantee you’ll hear my voice as someone extracts my boot from your ass.

I spread my hands out in front of me to make sure I wasn’t getting the DT’s. Steady as a rock. There was no particular reason for them not to be, the only place I’d been this morning was the bank. I didn’t even stop in to see Jaime the Spic this morning, so no reason existed for me to be hallucinating.

Then, it happened. I felt a flutter of wings on my shoulder and the sharp prick of bird feet trying to gain a foothold. Instinctively I reached my hand to grab it, but I was no match for the creature’s agility. Again fluttering, it came to rest before me, sitting on top of the table I’d previously identified, collapsing the bi-fold “Sale Today!” placard. Eyes much too large for his bird-skull stared at me… blood-shot eyes, at that.

“Okay”, I shouted in a voice much louder than some might have thought necessary, “I think this little farce has proceeded just about far enough. Frankly, it’s mid-morning and I’m beginning to teeter on the brink of withdrawal, so if you’ll kindly return me from The Twilight Zone, I’ll be on my way. I’ve a powerful thirst and three days’ pay!”

“Go if you like, it’s up to you… there’s no anchor on your ass,” the bird said, in a voice that I can only describe as annoyingly similar to my own, “I’ll catch up with you later on.”

“That’s enough. Later, asshole!” I turned to walk away, but meadow extended as far as I could see, with no shop, no door, no San Francisco anywhere. Panic forced its way to my forefront. Stopping abruptly, I closed my eyes and put my hands on my knees, hoping my little mirage might fade. It did not.

Now, a padded booth replaced the table and the bird (a bluebird, I think, although I’d never be confused for an ornithologist) sat contentedly atop, body covering feet as though nesting. “Care to sit? Perhaps we could chat a little, maybe understand one another a bit.”

“You want to understand me.”

“And you, me”, he replied, his answer a bit smug, in my estimation.

This called for considerably more consideration as I felt his intimidation drizzle under my skin and come to rest somewhere between my conscious and my subconscious. “What if I just grab you and wring your scrawny neck, right where you sit? How would that be?”

“Your threats are nothing new to me. I’ve dealt with them for more years than I’d care to think about. Take your best shot, but why don’t you have a drink first? I wouldn’t want it to be said that you made a decision without your medication.”

Admittedly, the bottle of Weller’s and glass looked inviting, but I didn’t like his tone. “Who are you and what do you want?”

He didn’t speak right away, so after deciding that one little shot wouldn’t hurt and would, in all likelihood, snap me out of this delirium, I poured a shot into the glass.

After a time, he stated “I want only what is rightfully mine.”

“And I’ve got it?”

“You’ve always had it. You’ve even written about it… perhaps not eloquently, but I’m not here to judge you.”

“Let’s review, just so I don’t miss your point. You’re a bird, and you’ve come to claim that which I’ve withheld from you… for my entire life?”

“Now you’re making sense.”

The second shot cleared my head and made my nostrils bulge a bit, but I was now on a roll. “Boogity… so help a veteran out, would you? What, exactly, is this precious gift I have to give you?”

The bird looked at me once again with those big, cow eyes with intensity that threatened to penetrate me and impale my soul. “I want you to recognize me, and admit I exist.”

The voice, soft and dewy, was little more than a whisper, yet the words hit my brain like a blow from a lumberjack’s maul. I felt rage rise from my stomach and proceed to fill my lungs. “Recognize you? Who the fuck are you?” My fists pounded the table and I felt my chest heaving with each breath.

He didn’t move. “Charles, I am only a part of you, apparently the part you’d like to pretend doesn’t exist, as though acknowledging you have a bluebird in your heart would make you less of a man. Then, you’d be like them and who’d buy you drinks while you warn the world of sentimental whores and alley fights and knives at your throat. So you deny my existence. Well, no more. I now recognize that you don’t need me, so I’m now dead not only to you, but to myself. Now whom will you bully?”

Bluebird of my heart? Yea, I vaguely remember, from back in the days when a person could afford such extravagances. The little bastard left and took the bottle with him. Well, good riddance, I say, I don’t need him or his sugar tit. I’ll be drunk before midnight or my name isn’t Charles Bukowski!

Damn, look at the time… if I don’t get to Clancy’s I’m going to miss Happy Hour… bluebird, indeed.

Bob Church©6/26/08

The author is not much to write home about. In fact, his existence is an anomaly of nature, proof that God has a sense of humor. It is recommended that you ignore him at every turn.


paisley said...

oh bub,, this was a melody.. i mean it.. i hesitated reading it,, because the bluebird meant something all together different to me,, and the last few days have been kind of emotionally wrought for me,, and i couldn't really handle anything along the sentimental lines that i felt the blue bird would take me... i am soooo glad i came back and read this... it was my pleasure and time well spent...

kaylee said...

Outstanding story
and very well told.
I thought the blue bird
was a nice touch,
lookin for more and more
love from the wet north
kay lee

Scot said...

liked this--good one bob--tough ass for a little guy

Jo Janoski said...

True to the Bukowski's heart, I imagine. Well done, as always.

Bubba said...

Thanks, everyone... I appreciate your support.

Anonymous said...

Ahhhh!!! Outstanding!!! (in your meadow? *g*)

Jo said...

Yep, you did a great job here, really enjoyed this, and the ending was perfection.

Anonymous said...

one of the great things about literature is there are multiple interpretations...a thousand people will bring a thousand different experiences to a piece...just as you have done here, with adtroitness and poise...

lissa said...

i really, really enjoyed the different direction you took this.

one more believer said...

as a reader of bukowski... i thoroughly enjoyed it... mirrored the thoughts of many of man w/a shotglass in one hand and a terrified heart in the other...

Bubba said...

You all make some very good points. I tried to paint Buchowski with my own brush, certainly, but I dipped it those hues that the great poet himself provided. The manner in which I smeared them across the page is open to public scrutiny, of course. Thanks for all your comments, it means a lot to me.

R.L. Bourges said...

Forty-seven years ago, I informed God he should give me a good explanation for the warped shit he calls humor. I haven't heard from him since.

The bluebird, on the other hand, I've seen around on occasion. Sometimes, he likes to pretend he's a tiny blue beetle in the meadow near the river over here. But mostly he hangs out as a bluebird, that's true :-)

Good stuff, bubba.

Anonymous said...

Bob, not only have I "stumbled" upon some delightful reading, but I've the sense of stopping into a family-style bar to discover and to have a drink with some good friends.

Bubba said...

Lee-- Bluebird, beetle, whatever... the important thing is not what he shows up as, but that he shows up at all...

Anonymous-- Hey, thanks... I'm gratified that it left such an impression. Makes me feel rather nice about the whole thing.

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