The first chapter of a partly completed novel...at present, undergoing a brief hiatus.
Ken Finch woke with a hangover. Looked blearily around to locate himself and slowly, slowly sat up.
“That’s strange.” He said out loud to nobody.
The hangover wasn’t strange. Waking with a clear head would have been strange.
He looked around again, his eyes slowly beginning to focus properly. He careful rolled off the dirty plaid sofa, upon which he had woken, and peered under it. He pulled himself to his feet and stumbled into the kitchen.
Waking up on the sofa wasn’t strange either. It wasn’t usual though either. Where he woke up in the morning was something of a lottery. Just this week, he had woken up in the back yard (covered in bug bites), the bedroom of a woman (name forgotten), his best friend Dave’s living room floor, his own bathtub (thankfully empty), in his car (again thankfully, parked in his driveway, not at a stop light), a pawn shop doorway in the less than desireable section of downtown, and now his sofa. Sometimes, he even managed to wake up in his own bed.
He pushed around some dirty dishes in the sink, checked the trash can, under the kitchen table, under the pile of pizza cartons and junk mail on the kitchen table. Wandered to the bathroom. He peed, leaning his forehead against the cold tile and beginning to feel better, hangover recovery was becoming a rapid process these days, headed into the bedroom.
The doorbell rang as he was probing through the rats nest of underwear and t-shirts under his bed. He glanced at his watch – missing; looked at the bedside alarm clock – red digits flashing 12:00; pulled aside the curtain and squinted into the brightness – sun was at approximately 10 in the morning.
Checking his clothes, mainly to make sure he was wearing enough, not too concerned with the condition, since the chances of finding some in any better condition were small, he opened the front door.
“Good morning sir. Are you the man of the house?”
Ken blinked and nodded. The hangover was really just the memory of a hangover now, but he still wasn’t sure how well he would be able to master speaking yet.
“My name is Martyn. Just like Van Buren, only with a Y.” Martyn looked at Ken, saw there was not likely to be an imminent response and continued. “The Y replaces the I not the M.” he grinned. Widely. A smile that the Beach Boys would have killed for.
Ken hated conversations in general. But he hated morning conversations on principal. At least later in the day, the conversation might be leading towards some interesting or eventful destination. In his 34 years, Ken had come to the conclusions that morning conversations rarely if ever led anywhere at all. He was thinking back to the last time a morning conversation had led somewhere, interesting or not, when it began to slowly; geologically slowly, maybe; that Martyn-with-a-Y was a salesman.
“I am part of an organization (a small part admittedly) called Does It Reward the Young. What is your name sir?” he reached out a hand to shake. Ken looked at the hand briefly, shook it, and muttered his name in reply.
Martyn was apparently very good, without breaking his grin, or faltering in the slightest, he managed to translate the mutter into the correct name.
“It is great to meet you Ken, and a wonderful day to meet you.” Ken had the sinking feeling that not only was this conversation not headed anywhere he wanted to go, but that it was going to take a long time getting there, and that the doors were locked and there was no way out of it either. Martyn handed him a laminated card. Ken looked at the card, it seemed to be expected of him. At the top was the word “DIRTY” in a large, serious font, below it a picture of Martyn and his full name, which he was amused to learn was, Martyn Loofa. He attempted to hand the ID back, but Martyn seemed not to want it.
“I have been meeting your neighbors, Ken, and they are just great. You must love living in this neighborhood.”
Ken looked up and down the street, feeling increasingly like a third wheel in a two person conversation. True his house was the most unkempt in sight, but only just.
“I’ve been sent out here by DIRTY to meet 3000 great people like yourself. Do you have any kids?”
Ken managed a hoarse “No”, while wondering what kids had to do with any of this. Maybe DIRTY bought unwanted kids from drunks like him? But then, why would they need a salesman?
“I guess you are too young to have any yet. That’s too bad, though I guess having kids around would really cramp your style. Am I right? Sure I am. Anyway, DIRTY want me to get out and meet 3000 good folk like yourself, to help me get over my social anxiety and help me recover from HPD. Do you know what HPD is, Ken?”
Ken shook his head.
“No reason why you would, not a go getter like yourself. Human Phobic Disorder. It’s becoming a real problem amongst the young of America, like you and me.”
Ken began to wonder whether Martyn was strangely deluded regarding what constituted ‘young’, or blind, or whether he was just making fun of him. At 34, Ken certainly didn’t think of himself as old, but he knew he didn’t look young. 20 years of fun times had plastered themselves over his face in the same way that 20 years of laying in the sun would cover a person with leather, only less attractive.
“So, by introducing myself to 3000 people, DIRTY are going to help me with my condition and, this is the really awesome part, they are going to sponsor me and help me start my own business. Do you have your own business, Ken?”
Another head shake.
“That’s too bad too. It’s not for everyone, I know, but for me, that’s been my dream since I was 4 years old, and now I'm on my way to making my dream come true. How awesome is that?”
Maybe he expected a response, but Martyn clearly wasn’t phased by Ken’s stoic silence.
“For every 3000 people who do me the service of helping my phobia, DIRTY are going to put $1000 into an account with my name, for my business. I'm thinking a surfboard shop.”
A surfboard shop? Unless last night was a serious blackout, Ken lived nowhere near the ocean.
“And that’s not the best part! Turn the card over!” Martyn’s enthusiasm wasn’t contagious. Ken looked at the back of the card, but didn’t need to read it.
“See there, the person who earns the most gets a free trip to Vegas! That’s where I should have been born you know. Its in my character chart. I’ve had my character profiled by a professional.”
A professional what?, wondered Ken.
“My character is idealy suited to Las Vegas, blonde women, and cheeseburgers. I’ve had tons of cheeseburgers and I love them, so that’s how accurate my reading is. And I just adore blondes, but I’ve never been to Vegas. I just know you will be able to help me.”
Ken liked cheeseburgers and blondes too. He sensed the conversation might finally be reaching its destination. Which was good, because he was ready for a drink.
“Are you married, Ken?”
Suddenly the conversation veered off on a sightseeing detour. “No.” he grunted, unconsciously licking his lips.
“Well that’s great, that means you would be free and clear to come to Vegas with me! I’m going to need buddies to help me spend my winnings on the blackjack tables, and help me out with all the blondes out there. Not to mention downing a whole bunch of long cold drinks. Right?”
Ken’s mind loitered for a second on Martyn spending his business start up fund on blackjack, before finally focusing on the important part. Long cold drinks. Didn’t even have to be that cold as far as he was concerned. Liquid and alcoholic were all that really mattered. A trip to Vegas with his new ‘buddy’ started to sound pretty good.
“I can tell you like the idea. I can read you so well buddy. You know when I first saw this block, I just knew in my heart there was going to be somebody here, somebody special. We are like brothers Ken, I can tell. You’ve already helped with my HPD, I know you want to help with my business, and now we are buds! What an absolutely perfect day.”
Ken looked around the street again. It was a nice day. Clear, sunny, warm enough without being unpleasantly hot. It made him want to find a dimly lit bar and camp out till sunset. But then, most things did.
“So here’s how you can help me.” Martyn handed him a sheet of paper with a list. “These are all incredible classic box sets, stuff you can’t buy in stores. This stuff doesn’t even get advertised on late night TV infomercials. This stuff is you, Ken, really you!”
He looked at the list.
Creeping Dreads – All the hits (1971 - 1973) $25
Way of Easy Love – Love is it (1969 – 1974) $30
The Beatles – Unauthorized Cover Collection (1965 – 2000) $40
Blind Willie and the Whiskey Cups – Down and Dirty (1973 -1974) $25
Dave Clark’s four and a Spider from Mars – Acoustic (1969 – 1978) $30
It was pretty much latin to Ken, though he recognized one or two phrases in the deep back part of his brain. The part that was pretty much turned off most of the time. It slowly dawned on him that this was a list of obscure music.
“Pick one, pick two, pick as many as you want!” said Martyn, wrongly inferring from Ken’s perusal of the list that he was interested, rather than simply slow thinking at the moment. “Every one, you buy adds to my 3000 person goal, you can really help me get to Vegas, buddy!”
Ken looked at him, then back at the list. The conversation was definitely near its destination, there was a conversational cliff looming ahead.
“I don’t have a tape player” he said, proving that he was able to speak more than one word at a time, though it caused a flare-up of the hangover to do it.
“Ken! Who has a tape player these days! Nobody! You really think I would try to enrich your life with tapes? These are all CD’s, digitally remastered too!”
Ken began too feel a little sorry for letting Martyn talk for so long. Not as sorry as he was feeling for himself, or as sorry as he was that he wouldn’t be going to Vegas with his new buddy after all. But a little sorry, still.
“Don’t have a CD player either.” He said.
“Ken, don’t be such an asshole!” What happened to buddy? “Everyone has a fucking CD player, even losers like you have a motherfucking C-fucking-D-player. If you don’t want to help me, you could just fucking tell me, like a fucking decent fucking human being. You fuck.”
Ken sighed and shut the door.
“Fuck you and fuck off” he heard from the other side of it.
He ignored his now cursing, former buddy and returned to searching his house. A less cursory search was clearly required. Having decided to start in the kitchen, he made it only as far as the sofa, before saying out loud, for the second time that morning, “That’s strange”.
He hadn’t lied to Martyn when he told him he didn’t have a CD player, he simply didn’t. Hadnt had one for years. Had no CD’s either. He had a radio somewhere, but hadn’t turned it on for possibly a year or more. But despite, being certain, being beyond certain that he didn’t own a CD player, there was one sitting on the bookshelf at the end of the sofa. Plugged in, its digital display flashing “12” at him.
He closed his eyes for a long minute and opened them again. The CD player was still there. He had done some strange things, during drunken blackouts before. If he was honest with himself, a lot of strange things. Like cutting a neighbors grass in the middle of the night with kitchen scissors. Or that time he woke up in Dallas-Fort Worth Airport, confused and bewildered, and immediately booked a flight home, only to discover upon arriving home, a note stuck to his fridge reading, “Don’t forget to go to Dallas… Moms funeral.”. But even for him, buying a CD player, not to mention a CD to play in it, seemed particularly out of character.
He pressed play.
In those few seconds, as the disc whirred, before it began to play, Ken experienced a flush of dread. A feeling that if the CD started playing Blind Willie and the Whiskey Cups he might totally freak out. Nervously he stared at the mystery CD player as seconds seemed to pass like molasses through a sieve.
“First I was afraid, I was petrified.” Began the music. Gloria Gaynor. I Will Survive. Very, very loud. Turned up to full volume, he discovered, and turned it down, but for some reason, not off. Bad as ‘I Will Survive’ was, he was too relieved that it wasn’t one of Martyn’s bizarre collection, to care. It was strangely comforting, during an already strange morning, to have something, strange, but not too strange, happen.
Back to the kitchen and some earnest searching. He checked the kitchen cupboards. Some cans of condensed soup, stale saltines, instant noodles. The general supplies found in the homes of single men and in fallout shelters deserted since the cold war. Food that was there, in case he ever felt the need to eat something other than pizza. One or two mismatched coffee mugs, some cracked plates, a large collection of pint glasses, stolen from an equally large collection of bars and taverns.
He checked the drunk drawer. Nothing but junk. Back to the living room, checked the bookshelves, and under the sofa again. In an antique sideboard, the only thing he had claimed from his mothers estate when she’d died, aside from the contents of her liquor bottles which had once lived in the same sideboard, but they hadn’t made it back from Dallas. Nothing in there but old unopened mail. He pulled it all out too make sure there was nothing under or behind it, then re-filed it.
Bathroom, nowhere large enough in there, aside from the shower, which was empty except for some mould. Checked the medicine cabinet, but he was right, too small. Nothing much in there anyway. He went back to the bedroom, unease mounting. Checked sock drawers, clothes closet, bedside drawer. Found many things he had forgotten he owned, but not what he was looking for. Panic wasn’t the right word, but he was feeling something close to it. He went back through the kitchen, out the back door and rummaged through the garbage can.
There was literally no evidence of alcohol in his house. Totally strange. That had never happened before. No bottles, unopened or half drunk. No beer. No box of wine. Not a drop. Even stranger, there were no empty bottles or cans. Not on the floor under furniture, not on the table, not even in the trash. He had woken in an alcohol free zone. That had definitely never happened before.
He sat on the sofa. The CD was now playing “Every Breath You Take”, The Police. Better, but still very, very odd. He tried to go back in time. What had happened last night. As usual these days the parts of his memory that weren’t fuzzy were missing in action. He was almost certain, there was a bar – but that may have just been because there was always almost a bar. There might have been an incident with a cow, but that also could have been days ago. Going back a little further, he was convinced that last night, before the bar, there had been a bottle of cheap bourbon. And as memories began to take root, he remembered that he definitely hadn’t finished the bottle, he could clearly remember thinking there was plenty left for after the bar. Even further back, he knew for a fact that it was either yesterday or the day before that he had visited the liquor store, enduring the smug smile and innuendo laced conversation (another morning conversation!) of the store clerk, as he purchased a couple of weeks supply. The phrase “Shall I put these in a bag, or would you like to back your truck up to the back door”, had been uttered. He knew that had been very recent, because he remembered that it was two nights ago he had woken up in the unnamed womans bed, and knew that the reason he had been in her bed was that he had refused to bring her to his bed, because his room was littered with weeks of empty bottles and he hadn’t wanted her to think he had a drinking problem. As it happened she had probably guessed anyway, the night was far from successful.
But now, unless this had been the mother and father of blackouts and had sired a monstrous brood of baby blackouts, just a day, two at the outside, his house had apparently vanished it all. Empties and potential empties alike.
“Fucking strange.” He said.
He dug his phone out of his pocket, as well as a crumpled $20 bill, which was nice, and a half eaten burrito, which wasn’t, and dialed. Reached voicemail.
“Brian, its Ken. Its morning, sometime. I think. Just wondering, strange question, I know, did you come over to my place last night sometime? Call me when you get a chance.”
Brian Boyd, his often-time drinking partner had almost certainly been with him at some point last night, hopefully he could fill in some blanks. It was possible, he had come over and taken away all the booze and evidence of it, but was pretty unlikely. Less unlikely than that the house had somehow swallowed it all up, but still really pretty unlikely. Brian was rarely in a less drunken state than Ken himself, and Ken couldn’t think of any reason that would motivate him to go to Brians house and remove all the alcohol. Well, if he was honest, he could see himself removing the alcohol, if he was really desperate or broke, but certainly not the empties.
There was really no-one else he could think of who might have done this. His mother? Well, even if she were still alive, it would have required an airline flight and substantially more interest in him than she had ever shown while she was alive. Other friends? There really weren’t any. There were people he knew – mainly people he met in bars. Some of them he knew their names, but doubted that any of them knew or cared where he lived. Brian was really the only likely candidate. Ex-girlfriends? Much like friends, there were exes, but almost certainly none who had given him a second thought since they became exes. Probably hadn’t even given him a first thought. Possibly hadn’t given much thought even before they were exes.
He considered calling his most recent ex, and not only because she was the only one he could clearly remember. But that break-up, or to be more accurate, break-ups, hadn’t gone well at all. She had been abundantly clear that she didn’t want to see or hear from him ever again – both times, apparently – and had told him she was going to live with her sister in Canada, just to make sure he wouldn’t forget. It seemed more likely that Martyn had done it, than that Isobella had returned from Canada overnight, to clear him out (and give him a CD player, mustn’t forget that), then disappeared again before he woke up.
He was pondering this, and trying to recall any other ex-girlfriends or acquaintances or family members or even strangers, who might have behaved in what was frankly a disturbingly surreal way, when his phone rang. Brian.
“Ken, just got your message.” He said.
“So,” Ken paused, saying it out loud somehow made the question sound even more ridiculous, “Did you come over here last night and take all my booze?”
“Sorry, not me. I got lucky last night. Remember, we left the Iron Bar around midnight? You said you were going home, I was going to go find somewhere else?”
He didn’t remember. “We left the Iron Bar around midnight? Why on earth did we do that?”
“Well, left is a polite way of saying kicked out. Better stay away for a few weeks, I think. Anyway, I found this biker bar. Thought I knew every place around here, but I swear I have never seen this place before. No name, no ambiance, no beer even, but plenty of whiskey.”
“I think I’ve been there.” Said Ken, “Think I’ve been banned from there too.”
“How can you get banned from there? You are insane Ken! Anyway, I was there for a while, and there was this girl, and I just had to rescue her from the pond scum there. I just this minute left her place. Nice place. Clean. Scenic.”
“Her name. Doesn’t really suit her. Then again neither did the biker bar. She needed rescuing. So, someone stole your stash? Need some money to reload?”
“I'm ok, just found a twenty. I'm just baffled.”
“Ken, you are always baffled. That’s why I love you! Call me tonight, we can check out the biker place again. Gotta go.”
And he hung up.
Ken reminisced for a moment about the good old days. The days when his friend sleeping with a girl named Scenic would be the weirdest thing that happened to him. Then he gave up on that, turned off the CD player, gathered his phone, the twenty and the burrito (just in case) and headed off to the liquor store.