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The Meaning of Life
I'm not proud of how drunk I was--nor do I know exactly how drunk I was. I only know that there was a 7-tier pyramid of cans on the television set, and a spotty carpet of assorted bottles and cans between the sofa and the TV cabinet. I stood, my legs feeling like my favorite flavored jello, and tipped the beer can up to lap up the last few drops. Then I placed it on top of the pyramid, making a nifty little tower on it. Then I tip-toed between the empty cans and bottles, clumsily knocking them into each other, causing a few hollow clinks to echo in the dimly lit room. At last I reached the door and stumbled out into the hall.
I thumped my way past the stairs, (even in my drunkenness, I wasn't keen on tumbling down to the lobby) and came to stand in front of the elevator door. It took me two tries to get the damn button with the downward facing triangle to light up. I waited for the ding of the elevator box's arrival and lurched in. I had trouble with getting the lobby button to light up too, but I eventually got it, along with a couple other ones to keep it company. Then I went to the corner--i don't know which one, and I'm not sure that it matters--and I sank down to the elevator floor. I sat with my head hung between my knees, and rode out the nauseating stops and goes as the elevator made its slow jerky decent.
Luckily, no one joined me, and I finally counted to the sixth ding that meant I was at the lobby. I peeked out the open doors and was relieved to see the familiar sight of lobby sofas and the front desk. No one noticed me as I climbed out of the elevator and made my way through sofas, coffee tables, and floral arrangements, heading for the revolving door. I slammed into one of the transparent rectangles, felt instant vertigo, then
Light. Bright and blinding, the sun shown down on me with afternoon strength that made me wince and flinch. Keeping my head down so my longer-than-average hair could fall in my face and protect my eyes, I weaved down the sidewalk, probably gaining a queer look from a random passerby or two. All the while the sounds of the city prevailed; motors roared, angry drivers honked their horns, and men and women called out to one another. I walked in the midst of these until a large looming shadow fell over me and engulfed me in cool semi-darkness.
I looked up and saw, through a haze of light induced tears, a garbage cluttered alley. I blinked and rubbed my eyes dry with a single rough stroke, then took it all in with much more clarity. There were dingy...well dingy everything. There were three garbage cans, two to one side and the last one opposite, and a whole lot of assorted rubbish piled on the floor between them. Mostly it was paper, some wrappers (colorful ones) and some cardboard. Taking a final glance at the side walk and street behind me, I began to walk down the alley.
My steps were small, heavy and uneasy. Once I reached the first dumpster, my feet got caught in a plastic shopping bag, and I barely caught myself by slapping my hand on the dumpster. It squished into something gooey, but I forced myself not to recoil in disgust, as I would much rather have a goo covered hand than be sprawled in heaps of rubbish. After some time I felt able to let go, and did.
The world took a violent turn and I felt my gorge rise in reaction. I bit down hard, grinding my teeth together, and swallowed it back. The bile burned my throat on its way down, a pain worsened by the amount of alcohol I'd drunk. I coughed and gagged and grimaced until the feeling passed, then I realized that I was on the floor.
I must have fallen to all fours during that moment of displacement, or maybe my falling had caused it. Which ever was true, it didn't change my position, and that my face was just inches from a brown-tinted bottle. A sad truth about drinking is that when you start, and start in earnest, it's hard to stop. I reached out and picked up the bottle. It was heavy, and when I shook it I heard the almost musical swooshing and slopping of it's contents.
Struggling to get up, I changed the bottle to my other hand and reached up to the rim of the dumpster and my hand slipped into goo, I hoped it was the same goo, and pulled myself up. Once I was standing again, I wiped my hand clean on my pant leg.
Another sad truth about drinking is that a drunk is always steadier on his feet with some alcohol in hand. I proceeded down the alley, with my stumble reduced to little more than a limp, only to stop two steps beyond the second dumpster to tip the bottle back and take a swig. It burned like hell and tasted twice as bad. I started to cough, even gag a bit, and as I fought to regain my breath I realized that the bottle had no label. God knows what I had so willingly and eagerly gulped down. Then, as I finally drew a garbage smelling breath, I decided a didn't care.
"Care to share?" said a voice. I looked down to see what a first seemed to be a bundle of old clothes piled up against the dumpster. After a moment of staring I recognized a dirty face overgrown with a beard and moustache, and with two beady, red eyes that were trained on me. No, not me, my bottle. Who knows why, maybe even drunk I recognized a kindred spirit, but I took a step toward the bundle of clothes, turned and dropped down to the ground next to him. Then, I put the bottle out towards the person under the rags.
A hand, even dirtier than the face it belonged to, rose up from somewhere within the soiled clothes and took the bottle. The man tilted the bottle up the way I must have, and gulped like a fish. He lowered the bottle, sat up, and started coughing all at the same time. I grinned sympathetically, but simultaneously thought "Thank God I'm not the only idiot to have done that." I continued to grin as the man's breathing became normal.
"Ah," he said, in the tone reserved for the all knowing. "Tequila." Then, turning to me, "You don't look hispanic."
I took the bottle from him, and tipped it back again, careful to take a small drink. I replied, after pulling a face, "I'm not."
"Well I am," the man in the rags said suddenly, and snatched the bottle to take another large gulp. The dirty face pulled a face, though probably not as bad as mine, and my grin slid off, somehow dragging my hair down with it.
"Mother's milk," he sighed, and I tried to say something about how mother would probably kill me, kill me by drowning me in alcohol. Mom was always fond of poetic justice. I must have gotten at least the idea through, because the man in the rags laughed, a sound deep and rolling like a thunderstorm, and said he was never going to die.
This was when all that drinking really spun around and bit me on the a**. My thoughts went from "never die" to "immortal" to "god." And before I could go Superman and stop this would-be train wreck, my intoxicated mind took it one step further:
"Are you God?" I asked, suddenly filled with unfathomable reverence. I handed him my bottle, which had somehow ended up in my hands again, with no intentions of taking it back from this superior being. He downed it all right then and there, then exclaimed in disgust at the bottles newest state and tossed it at the wall in front of us. I heard it shatter and felt a shard or two whiz past my face, I flinched, closing my eyes, but not before I saw an infinitesimal splinter of glass catch the light in front of the man in the rags' face. My eyes snapped open again, I was immediately convinced that I had just glimpsed some of his supernatural powers.
"Sure," he said, grumbling as if the drink was already making him surly, but I knew it was the lack of drink that was making him surly.
"Sure, I can be God." He said, nodded, looked at me, then looked away and added: "Buy me a drink and I'll tell you everything I know about the world."
So we traveled through the alleys, staying close to the shadows like vampires, and dodging blaring cars as we walked to the nearest bar. Well, not the nearest, but the first to cross our crooked, blind-man's path. We slammed in the door and advanced to the bar, trying our best to keep our feet untangled until we took our seats.
The bartender strode over to us and asked, in that I-can-say-this-all-day voice, "what it would be."
"Alcohol" the man in the rags said. The bartender looked at me, looking for me to verify or clarify. However, I could not understand how this man could look for a second opinion on an order directly from God, (or so I thought) and nodded vigorously. For a second the man stayed there, then, when I put a five dollar bill on the bar, he took it and went away.
I turned toward the man in the rags. His hair was jaw length, absolutely greasy and somehow stayed away from his face. The rags still had hints of the color they were before he had picked them out of dumpsters and garbage cans. We waited, him for his drink and me for the drink and for him to start to delineate the mysteries of the world.
Sometime between when the bartender took the five dollars and when he brought us back our drinks, I thought that this man could be Jesus. Living in poverty, all knowing, telling me how the world is, if only I bought him a drink. The drinking part is the only one that doesn't add up, but then, that's all they drank back then. Was I really lucky enough to drink with Jesus?
The bartender brought us two beers and placed them on the bar before us. The man in the rags snatched it off the bartop even before it really touched, and took two long gulps. This seemed all the okay the bartender needed, and he disappeared to assist his other patrons. The man in the rags waited until I had drunk from my own bottle before he began to speak.
What followed was like any other drunken speech ever made, but I still listened intently. He spoke on and we drank away the first five dollars, then another five, then ten, then twenty. As I became more intoxicated I lost more of the man in the rags' speech. What I'm left with now is a large potentially beautiful jigsaw puzzle with pieces missing. All of what it could possibly mean, and all I could possibly take away from it, was lost in those gaping holes with the pieces missing. However there was one moment that stuck with me and I still consider pure genius.
As the man in the rags ranted on, building on every past word of his monologue, the bartender had taken to listening as well. He would come and stand at an inconspicuous distance, disappear when he was called, then return. Then during one of the pauses when the man in the rags would stop to drink, he asked:
"With all these brilliant ideas of yours, why are you in here, when you should be out there making a difference?"
The man in the rags put his drink down, and replied: "Do you think I want to be here? I don't. It's not my fault, it's theirs. The best things in life were free, then they went and put a price on everything." He drank again, and added, "Let me ask you something. What is the meaning of life, eh? What are we all here for?"
The bartender fell silent in what I thought was shame, but what really was thought. Then he lifted his gaze to meet the man in the rags', and he spoke a single word.
The man in the rags laughed loudly and drank deeply from his drink. Then he coughed and laughed some more. " You can't be serious!" He yelled at the bartender.
"Dead serious." The bartender replied calmly. "Tell me, man, what is there to live for if you love nothing? We were created by any God and all gods for one reason, and that's so that we could learn to love. Not so we could gain all we could want, but so that we could give all we could give. Hell, livin without love isn't livin at all."
"Bulls***." I whispered into my bottle, just loud enough for the bartender to hear.
For a second he looked about mad enough to kick us out right then and there. In fact, he looked so mad he'd be happy to do the kicking himself. Then, unexpectedly, his face softened and he took a step back from the bar.
"What was her name, eh?" Then, before I could answer, he turned to the man in the rags. "And you? What woman did this to you?"
"Wasn't one." the man in the rags growled.
"Then why you bouncing around in the gutters? Tell me that why don't ya?" The man in the rags just drank from his bottle. I raised my gaze to the bartender and suddenly felt that I could trust him.
"Her name was--"
"Don't tell me her name now, sonny." He told me. "It don't matter. Hers don't matter anyhow. The only girl whose name you should always remember is your wife's. You and this past lady, you didn't work out because you weren't supposed to. That doesn't mean you should quit. You quit now and you won't ever meet that other lady later. Whoever she is, you two are perfect together, and do you really want to condemn her to life with the wrong guy?
"You shouldn't be in here drinking because you're heartbroken and you feel dead. You should be in here because you're in love and you've never felt more alive. And that's the honest to God truth."
The barroom erupted with applause. Every drunk and half-sober person in the bar had fallen silent to listen to the bartender's lesson. I found myself carried away by the emotion and clapping along with them. The bartender waved a hand at us and began "cleaning" a spot on the bar, obviously embarrassed.
Slowly the noise returned to its normal barroom quality as people returned to their own small group conversations. I turned toward the man in the rags only to see an empty bar stool. He'd left, probably while everyone was cheering the bartender.
This didn't bother me as much as it would have before the bartender had had his say. I stood, put a final five dollars on the bar and walked out without finishing my beer. Outside the sky had gone dark but the world hadn't. Headlights and store fronts with neon signs lit the streets. I took every color in with a happiness that had become unfamiliar in the past month and I was glad it had returned. Feeling incredibly sober I began to walk in the direction I believed would take me to my apartment. However, when I had walked further than I should have without seeing my building, I was forced to admit that I was still drunk and I walked into the first hotel I could find.
Drinking with the man in the rags had left my wallet much lighter, but luckily I still had enough to rent a room for the night. The woman at the front desk gave me a card key, and told me my room number. I then left the lobby in search of my room, which also took me longer than it should have. When I finally found it I got in no problem and took just a second to look at the room.
It was a simple two bed room with a bathroom and television set. I walked to the nearest of the two beds, pulled back the sheets and slid between them, not even bothering to take off my shoes or clothes, and I was asleep as soon as my head hit the pillows.
In the morning I could barely remember what had happened the night before, and despite my aching head, I was convinced it had all been a dream. I even half expected Olivia to walk out of the bathroom with a towel wrapped around her head in that turban-like fashion that almost every woman seems to know by instinct.
However, when I looked around the room, I knew that she could not possibly be here too, and I got up to go to the bathroom.
As soon as I opened the bathroom door, the strong smell of bile hit my nose head on. I rushed to the toilet, slipping on a puddle of puke that hadn't quite made it into the bowl, and pulled down the lever. Once the water and vomit in the toilet swirled down the drain, I took it upon myself to clean up the floor. I knew I would never want to clean up anyone else's puke, and took pity on the maid. I finished, then put the last twenty dollar bill I had in my wallet, and placed it on the pillow I had used. Next I went to the lobby to check out, without any luggage to slow me down, I was out of the hotel lobby in record time.
I was back at my apartment in ten minutes--half of that time was spent trying to figure out where in the hell I was. As soon as the door closed behind me, I began to bag and toss out all the bottles and cans I had collected in the three days of constant drinking. When I was down to the last ten bottles, I set them aside, telling myself it would be fun to make a working parachute and send them down to the street in that fashion. I bookmarked a website with the "optimum" square inch to ounce ratio for a scale parachute on my computer, and headed out.
I walked to the nearest pub, and purchased three bottles of beer, which was all the money I had left the apartment with. I took the bottles to an empty corner booth, set all but one down opened it and took the first sip. Then I took out the old worn composition book I had brought with me, and turned to the first unwritten page, which was somewhere in the last half of the book. I clicked my pen and traced the familiar symbol on the top corner of the page. I didn't know were I would go with this one, but I knew were I would start. On top of the first line of the page I wrote "The Meaning of Life."