Saturday evening we drove down the Malheur River (what a name!), out of the eastern Oregon desert (111 degrees F.), through the Snake River-fed fields of onions and corn and sugar beets and potatoes, into the metropolis of Boise.
I was last there in the summer of 1994, at the end of my drive from Provo to San Diego to San Francisco in search of traces of my brother John, who had died three years earlier.
On Saturday night, after walking with Blue and Lyn along the Boise River, after a fine dinner at The Modern Hotel and Bar where we were staying the night, I walked through the cooling evening into the city center, again in search of traces of John.
Hannifin’s Cigar Store still opens onto Main Street. But the T & A Cafe (Ted & Alice) is now the Oriental Express.
It is the same building with the same door and windows. But this was almost 20 years later and more than 20 years after John didn’t show up for work one morning and a waitress who walked over to his apartment to get him found him dead.
I walked the same route she must have walked, north to Jefferson and then east to 425 Jefferson.
The building has been renovated a second time since the renovation I saw underway in 1994. Turned into law offices then, it has reverted to an apartment building, now called The Senator’s Apartments.
A hummingbird feeder hung from the roof line just to the right of the window on the top left. That corner apartment was John’s. Instead of the window there now, then there was a screen door that led out onto a little balcony where John could sit and overlook the Idaho State buildings across the street. A full block to the west is the State Capitol building. Kitty corner from John’s building is a large stone building that originally was the Ada County building but then became the State Capitol Annex. And, on Saturday night, I discovered that the building directly across from 425 Jefferson is the State Supreme Court. Someday, I thought, perhaps someday soon, the Idaho Supreme Court justices will pass a law giving gays all the rights straight people have. Alternately, the Federal Government will require that of Idaho and John’s successors will inhabit a better world than he did.
I stood looking up at the window of what was his apartment. He lived there, I thought. He died there, I thought.
Is there something obsessive about my visit, 22 years later? I wondered. Why am I still thinking about his death? It is hard, I told Lyn later, back at the hotel, to lose a brother.
I walked back to Main Street, lively with Saturday-night revelers, melodic with live music. I made my way to the Cactus Bar, John’s regular place in the year before his death, only three or four blocks from his apartment. Pylons regulated a line of people wanting to get in. When I finally entered a woman asked to see my ID. Thank you for asking, I told her. She said You’re welcome.
Baseball was still playing silently on TV, but instead of the small black-and-white TV set behind the bar, there were a couple of flat-screened TVs, large and in color and over the bar.
The change the sign referred to as it directed smokers out onto the patio was the law that banned smoking in the bar.
More striking was the change in clientele. These were stylish young people, or people trying to look young and stylish, people on the prowl on a Saturday night. And the Cactus was the place to be. Large new bar/restaurants on either side of the Cactus were mostly empty. But not the Cactus. I fought my way, eventually, to the bar and ordered a Strong IPA. All seats at the bar were filled, all the tables were occupied, the standing room was crowded, but over in the back corner, along a foot-wide counter stretching along the wall, I found an empty stool. I sat there, looking over a pool table covered for the night, at the boisterous Boise crowd.
I remembered the skinny old man I sat with at the bar in 1994, his stories and his final “our feet are the same.” It was one of the most memorable hours of my life, sitting there with him, watching his cigarette burn while he talked with the man to his right, laughing at his jokes and riddles, buying him a couple of Bud-lights, admiring his narrative gifts:
. . .
Do you have a good memory? he asks suddenly, his voice breathy, raspy.
Is your memory good or bad? It’s a simple question.
Good, I guess.
When I went to college, he says, they were amazed at my memory. They did all kinds of tests. Memory tests. The sly brown fox jumped over the lazy dog. What was the last word I said?
The jukebox is loud and I can’t quite hear what he is saying. I nod my head.
The sly brown fox jumped over the lazy dog. What was the last word I said?
No, it was “said.”
Do you have a good head for math? he asks.
Can you do math? It’s a yes or no question. Give me the courtesy of a straight answer to my simple question.
Try this then. There were three people who checked into a hotel room that cost $30 a night. Each one paid $10. The clerk later figured out he had made a mistake and that it was a $25 room. He sent a bellboy up with $5 in ones. The bellboy gave each of them a dollar back and kept $2 as a tip. Each had originally paid $10 and now with $1 back they had each paid $9 for the room. 3 times 9 is 27. That leaves $3 from the original $30. The bellboy kept $2. How do you account mathematically for the missing dollar?
I don’t know.
If that’s how you do bookkeeping they’d rob you blind.
So what’s the answer?
He turns back to the man on his right. They are speaking some Slavic language. I order another beer and watch the baseball game. When he leans back to flick his ash into the ash tray I ask what language they are speaking.
Polish. Do you know what city has the largest Polish-speaking population in the world?
That’s right, he says. I can see he’s impressed. He looks at me a little closer.
My friend here is an orphan, he says. He grew up in Chicago in a Polish orphanage. The Germans went to Wisconsin, the Poles to Chicago.
Where did you grow up? I ask.
You ask too many questions, he says. Too many questions.
He’s in charge of this conversation. I apologize, remembering my reflection in the window on Haight Street. I’m interested in stories, I tell him. I like stories.
He leans his head in my direction, stares at me with watery eyes and delivers himself of a bit of beery wisdom: Never answer a question with a question and never ask a question for which you don’t know the answer.
He pulls up the left sleeves of his windbreaker and shirt and displays a winged tattoo. I got that in Hong Kong for two packs of American cigarettes.
In Hong Kong?
Yes. I spent years in the merchant marine. I’ve seen a lot of the world. I speak seven languages. I have knowledge of what I speak.
Yes. English, Russian, Polish, Yugoslavian, French, German, and Spanish.
You learned them while you were in the merchant marine? I ask. I see a down-on-his-luck man trying to impress a stranger in a bar.
I was a cook for the merchant marine. I could have been an officer. I know how to handle a ship but I hated all that yes-sir, nor-sir shit. You probably wonder what I’m doing here, all fucked up, drunk, sitting in a bar.
I’m sitting at the same bar, I reply. And I speak German too. Wo haben Sie Ihr Deutsch gelernt?
Hier bin ich, he says, total besoffen. Ein alter besoffener Scheißkopf. Aber ich war in Hamburg, auf einem deutschen Schiff. Ein Jahr lang in Hamburg.
He sounds like he grew up in Hamburg. I’m skeptical no longer.
My brother used to come in here, I tell him, about three years ago.
That’s before my time, he says. I’ve got a friend in Boise, dying of MS. It just gets worse, not better.
You’ve got real talent, I say, to learn languages that well.
Those other languages are easy. English is the most difficult language on the earth. It’s an amalgamation of all languages. Tell me a word, any word.
If you look that up in a dictionary you’ll find “derived from.” Not from German, that’s “Hund,” but from Latin or something else. All the languages converge in American. Not English, I mean American. I know English. I’ve been in Blackpool and I can speak their blimey buggered Cockney language.
He spouts a riff of impressive Cockney. Then, losing his train of thought, he begins to mumble Russian into his empty beer glass.
Can I buy you another beer? I ask.
He nods and turns to talk with a young woman who has come up beside him. Age addresses youth. Sickness confronts health. The end admires the beginning. I signal the bartender, then try to ask my neighbor what he wants. He likes Buds, the bartender says.
Turned back to me, a fresh beer before him, the thin man tells a story. Two old maids opened a cat house. One week later they had sold five cats.
There were two whores, he says, one with hemorrhoids, one with adenoids. The one didn’t give a hoot about her shitter, the other didn’t give a shit about her hooter.
Some combination of the blaring jukebox, the baseball game, shouts at the pool table, and his delivery keep me from hearing the whole thing. Would you repeat that? I ask. He does, with some relish.
I was in a ship once, he says, in the Baltic Sea. We must have slipped into Russian territory because they began jamming all our radar and sonar and everything. The captain called over the horn to see if there was anyone on the ship who spoke Russian. I took off my apron and went up onto the bridge and started talking Russian into the radio, trying to explain it was a mistake.
He speaks a stream of Russian into his beer glass. All I can understand is Nyet! Nyet! Nyet!
There’s no lines painted out on the Baltic Sea, he explains. So it’s easy to be a few hundred yards into Russian territory. I talk a blue streak into the radio and the captain slams down the throttle and we’re flying outa there.
The jukebox blares out “Cecilia, you’re breakin’ my heart” and he begins to drum on the bar with open hands. “I’m losing my confidence daily.”
I’ve got the gift of gab, he says when the song is over, and a brilliant memory. That’s why I can speak so many languages. I have knowledge of what I speak. The wise man can be a fool, but the fool can never be a wise man.
I have to agree.
You can’t judge a book by its cover. But you look at me and you think besoffener Scheißkopf. Isn’t that right?
No, I say. We’re sitting at the same bar.
You can’t judge a book by its cover, he repeats. You look at me and don’t know that I’m rich. I’m as rich as God. As rich as God. I believe in God. I do believe in God.
But, he says, pausing for effect.
I raise my eyebrows.
But the God I believe in was standing too close when the Big Bang happened. Now he’s blind and deaf.
He squints at me to see if I get it.
His white-haired friend comes by and they speak Polish, loudly. The friend leaves muttering bullshit, bullshit.
It’s time for me to leave as well. Goodbye, I say. He looks surprised. Before I can move he reaches over, takes my hand between his, looks into my eyes, and says through his crooked teeth: Our feet are the same.
I laugh, squeeze his shoulder, and say Auf Wiedersehen.
What’s your name? he asks.
Scott Abbott. What’s yours?
Carl Cary. Carl William Cary. . .
But on this Saturday night there was no one like Carl Cary in the bar. I left when my beer was gone, walked into the warm darkness, looked up at the lumpy moon, just two nights shy of full, and realized, as so often in the last couple of decades, that I missed my brother terribly.