"There is nowhere left to go when you’re the handsomest man in the world."
Seemed Jonas was kidding when he said that, only Jonas never was much of a kidder. That and he was ugly as a stump, at least in my opinion. You never could tell with Jonas. He'd hang you up by your balls and you'd laugh, but deep down, you wouldn't ever get the joke and everyone would leave feeling a little more thoughtful. I'd only been half-listening, so first thought it was the end of some joke until I saw the look on Kate's face. Whatever he'd been saying was pure sad.
"Just about the only thing I can remember now is my grandfather driving the boat, gently, when all us kids were little," she was saying, "and Mum mum’s ginger cookies."
I wasn’t sure what either of them meant and, at 10 p.m. on a Tuesday, I wasn't sure I wanted to. Tuesday nights ain’t bad but they ain't no good, either. I always thought that if you were blessed with a marriage, and an American family, weeknights wouldn't feel like a chore, but I was wrong. Once, in another life, I was a college professor with a painted mailbox that read The Fravishis, two kids named Mykel and Carli and a wife that turned out to be pretty intolerant for a gay Democrat. They say the beauty in the bottom of the barrel comes from up being the only direction, but I always thought it meant you could take solace in not being able to go any lower.
"Fuck Tuesdays," I said.
"Come on, sweetheart," Kate said, and winked. There was definitely a wink. I glanced at Jonas.
My exclamation was followed by a cheerful chorus of agreement from around the bar that unfortunately did little to lift my spirits.
Bag-of-bones Jonas was perched like a delinquent crow with half his ass on a barstool, feet hardly touching the floor. He was flipping a bottle cap in a perfect imitation of some movie-magic gangster tossing two bits except in his case, the bottle cap was lazy as hell. When it flipped, that cap turned drony summersaults. It also stopped in midair, which gave me shivers when I saw it out of the corner of my eye until I remembered I was looking at someone who’d been there, done that, because he could. Someone who had probably lived the Olmec thing and the Toltec thing and the Aztec thing complete with Tonacatecuhtli then played tag with an F-5 Tiger. That kind of guy.
Someone with a quarter made that she’s got legs song start up on the jukebox, giving me something to chew on. ZZ Top, written by Frank Beard, Billy Gibbons and Dusty Hill, released on Eliminator...that’s the sort of thing I’m good at. I have the details but never the specifics. I suppose that's haunted me all my life. Every man's got a reason for drinking and that might have been mine. When I'd bring cocktails to bed, I'd tell my ex-wife that it was my glasshouse lullaby, and that she shouldn’t throw any stones. That'd piss her off.
Kate, my beautiful, busty, bespectacled beanpole, was in the Wunder Bar every evening at five because she had to be. It was her job (after a full day's shift at Caffe San Marco) tending to us upper Paleolithic nobodies. A good day's work is what Katie did and we needed her about as badly as she needed us. Probably more, since we were the thirsty ones. Me, I hadn't had a job in years, save the odd gig here and there, putting up fences or laying down sod, always something with my hands. I came to the Wunder Bar for the floorshow, which couldn’t be beat.
I could drink anywhere, but Jonas only played one venue.
When I started waxing poetic about drinking to forget like all the other poor slobs in the world, Jonas had a habit of pulling something nice and fancy, like Samuel Adams Utopias or, God help him, Cotys Champagne 1955, out of his ever-present knapsack. When one of us got too full of himself, he'd fix us up with a tale of his years in the halls of the Norse gods and the sixth coming of Ragnarok and how he hid in the branches of Yggdrasil when the Aesir and the Vanir and all the assholes like Gefion, Hoenir, Jormungand, Aegir, Ymir and Heimdall were fucking around. He liked to say that if he had kids, he was going to name them Lif and Lifthrasir.
And sometimes, if he was bored, or it was a time to break up or a falling out of love with friends kind of night, Jonas would stop the clock. Literally.
That night, I was hitting it hard, drinking Sky and watching Kate work the bar through the usual fug of smoke, while thinking about my younger siblings and often ignored vacation destinations like paying off debts and making love. The usual people were in their usual places in that late hour. Nanna was sitting by the window, with her card-carrying National Rifle Association gun-freak of a son. Ahes Legba al-Uzza III, better known as God’s gift to women, was crowding the floor, flashing his bright veneered choppers at the ladies in the room. Billy Boyd, our resident shorty, was trying to start a conversation with one of the fresh chicks through the intense radiation of those teeth but was obviously frustrated that she kept getting distracted.
"That one," Jonas said, flicking the bottle cap over the bar and, those of us leaning on the bar could tell, straight into a wastebasket, "looks just like Bona Dea."
He was pointing at one of the new bloods.
"Whoever the hell that is," I said.
Kate stepped away from a gaggle of youngsters that looked only slightly shy of underage and said, "The Roman goddess of virginity," before resuming her quick pass of the rag over the bar top.
"Garang and Abuk?" Jonas asked.
She only had to think about it for what seemed like less than a second, but you never could tell when Jonas was around.
"The first man and woman in the mythology of the Sudanese Dinka people. Come on, give me a hard one."
"Hey, when did everyone get so attractive," I suddenly said, half-heartedly trying to catch her attention because Jonas made me jealous as hell.
Isn't it funny how the first thing you start to hate about someone you loved always seems to be one of the first things that made you love them? The first time I saw Kate was at a party up by the lake. She was absentmindedly discussing how to urinate standing up with a girl named Sedna but drew me in when the conversation turned toward mythology and I felt inadequate with only my sweaty notepads filled with undergraduate anthropology like Yanomamo ritual and the significance of Kula trade. To this day, I've never been in any situation that struck me as quite so absurdly sexy.
"Aido Hwedo," tried Jonas.
"Easy. The west-African demi-god created by Nana Buluku."
"No, no, no," I said. "You don't understand. You can't stump her...Katie-honey, get me another Sky...See, she's got a system."
"Do tell,”" said Jonas.
In that moment, the world stopped. The whole thing. People all over the world probably felt a tiny hiccup or maybe it was something only developed minds like dolphins and newborns could feel. When Jonas snapped his fingers, you only knew if he wanted you to. Nanna and her son were frozen in the perpetual argument that I figured would define their relationship until the day she died. Meanwhile, Billy’s girl had gravitated toward Ahes, who had, in turn, gravitated toward me, leaving Billy flat-footed, kicking up a spray of spilled beer that hung in the air like glinting sequins.
One of the other cats, a guy we all called Ryujin but who liked to call himself Long-Wang, tried to step over the beer cloud on his way to the bar, but accidentally knocked it around anyway, sending a part of it into a crazy zero gravity ballet. I looked around at all the familiar faces and the newbies, and prayed that none of this was fucking us up on a molecular level.
“We want to know about the saucy Hofstra University co-ed Kate,” said Ahes.
I timidly glanced at her. I couldn’t ever remember her being a saucy co-ed even when we were spending winter afternoons in my room, studying naked with the heat turned to full blast. Or, rather, she would study and I would watch her turn her pages and scribble her notes onto the legal pad balanced on her knees.
“Nothing doing,” I told the curious Ahes while stealthily trying to indicate that a woman is truly her privacy by wildly gesturing my hands toward Kate’s position. Some guys can’t take a hint.
"No need to be defending Eve," said Kate, rescuing me, as it was her habit to rescue any patron-in-need. "He's not lying. While all the other kids were out drinking and fucking, I was holed up with him, reading. Studying books. I swear to God."
She crossed herself.
"And look where it got you," someone said. Had I seen who it was, I would have punched them right in the eye.
"The system,”" she went on like no one had said anything, "was just about memorization, so nothing too exciting for you perverts tonight. Let's say you’re a starving student who needs to remember Renenet or Wadjet or even," Kate looked right at me, "Homo antecessor or the really complicated guys like Orrorin tugenensis and Sahelanthropus tchadensis."
She remembered! Years later, one failed marriage under my belt and my Katie still remembered. That gave me an erection like an anvil, so I scooted closer to the bar to hide it.
"So what happened?" asked Ahes. I made a mental note to make him really uncomfortable some day.
"Nothing," answered Kate. "I dropped out. I went to bartending school, learned some canning wisdom. I got stuck."
"Introducing yourself to the large-breasted man was always your strong suit," I mumbled.
I don't think anyone heard me, most importantly not Kate. Jonas started time up really quickly after that and, thankfully, distractions were always readily available when he was around. Kaang! went the chime hanging just above the front door, a sound that made every available man in the room turn his head which just goes to prove that some things never change. It wasn't, as Ahes would have labeled it, a lucky night, not for us poor slobs anyhow. The stranger who stepped in, letting the door slam behind him, was soaked to the skin but it wasn’t raining. Sometimes I didn't know if was Jonas playing tricks, or it was just me, but just then, I swear, time started shuffling its feet.
"Come on in!" cried Nanna.
Her good-for-nothing son gave her the finger as her back was turned. Nothing new there.
The stranger stepped up, and smiled what looked to me like the self-satisfied smile of someone who knows he is evil and loves it. He wasn’t just wet, either, he was tall and wide and grinning like the devil. Even the fug wouldn’t touch him.
"What'll it be?”" asked Kate.
"Taweret, dagda? Serketamnaburinwepwawet?" was the response that came out of the strangers mouth as a string of what seemed like nonsense syllables or maybe, just possibly, some language from another time and place. A really distant time and place. Just to be safe I sucked down what was left of my vodka.
But by that hour, I was too drunk to care, and threw in a couple of upbeat "mousterians" and "acheuleans" to cheer him on. Friendly is as friendly does, especially on a Tuesday.
"Zanahary? Dumuzieshuudjat..." he tried again, this time giving his head a bit of a scratch.
That's when we noticed his clothes. Wet looks wet, be it feathers or fur, but the whole point is that none of us would have been expecting either and yet that's what we saw. It's hard not to notice a seven-foot tall man fluffing his plumage. One thing led to another and we all sort of noticed his face at the same time. If I'd have seen his striking visage in the solemn halls of some museum I would have classified him as something kin to Australopithecus boisei or, at the very least, Australopithecus robustus, except taller and, um, more feathery.
"Get thee behind me, Satan!" yelled Billy, who was already halfway to the exit when our no-longer-so-mysterious stranger snapped his fingers and Billy became one with the floor.
Then the stranger sighed a very human sigh and turned around with all the compunction of someone who's been through this before. He cleared his throat.
"I'm not exactly on great terms with Satan and technically, I am behind you. Anyone else want to speak their mind or can I get on with it?"
We, by which I mean all of the regular and newbie patrons of the Wunder Bar, shook our heads and then nodded in unison.
"Fantastic," he said, turning back to the bar. "Jonas, it's lovely to see you again."
We, by which I again mean us, turned to our resident miracle man who was staring and nodding.
“Perun. A pleasure. Freelancing again?”
“Perun, god of thunder, the striker, the smith, the punisher, Perun?” stuttered Kate.
She looked so shaken that I felt it was my duty, as a friend, to go behind the bar where I could better support her. When I put my arm around her waist, she practically melted into my crook. So I lied. The floorshow wasn’t exactly the only thing that got me out of the house in the evenings.
“Last I heard, you were hanging around Wayland’s Smithy,” said Jonas.
“That dive? If you really must know, I came here to search for the Ogdoad.”
“The eight. That would explain the getup.”
A quick scan of the room showed me that Ahes and most of the young bloods were too busy poking an immobile Billy to care what was being said at the bar. The old timer who always occupied the third stool from the right was plum passed out in his juice and Nanna was looking kind of green. Somehow, things always ended up like this.
“I’m supposed to be Telepinu.”
“A Hittite agricultural god,” whispered Kate.
“This guy right here thinks you look more like Australopithecus garhi or something,” said Jonas.
“Lived in Ethiopia two-and-a-half million years ago,” I whispered back to Kate. “Had a mix of advanced and primitive traits. Not feathered.”
“Anyway,” continued Jonas, “how is masquerading as Telepinu supposed to help you find the eight?”
“Here’s the beauty of it. I heard from Montu, who heard it straight from Tefnut, that Khnum, Heket and Nehebkau are throwing themselves a little party. Guess who wasn’t invited.”
“You know I hate gossip,” said Jonas.
“That’s right! Meretseger and Anuket. They were never much for a party, but I thought, how clever would it be for those two to hear about it from the Ogdoad?”
Kate was having trouble keeping up, but she managed to give me the gist. I vowed to study up on my mythology. Obviously, contrary to what I had told her during many an argument in college, it did come in handy.
“So what are you doing here?”
“For goodness sake, Jonas, one of these days I’m going to smite you with trunkbutt. I need a little juice. Fuel. A little something to kill the pain. I want the good stuff, not anything that moves. I’ve been looking for love in all the wrong places. I want to groove to the music of my choosing. I want to spin something.”
A loud, whomping thunder-crack shook us all in our seats except Billy, who got unfrozen that same minute, and fell squarely onto his face.
“I don’t know if I have the kind of medicine you need,” said Kate, letting go of me and pointing to the door. “Bon voyage monsieur DJ.”
“People,” he said.
And, of course, he disappeared in a puff of storm clouds.
“Don’t worry about him, Kate,” said Jonas. “He likes to ignore the rules of recreational trespassing into other worlds, but one of these days it’s going to bite him in the ass.”
The collective hmmm was like a chord that struck us all at once.
“Doc won’t give me no more of that kind of medicine,” called Lynn Johnston, breaking the tension. Hers was about the only real name I knew besides Kate and Jonas, mostly because she’d had breast cancer the year before and someone had to find out where to send the collection to. “This here’s my codeine substitute.”
“What you need,” came a yell from one of the tables near the door, “is a visit to the stone, giant rock…the integratron. Eternal health and eternal life.”
That was S.K. Thoth, our resident unskeptic. He was good to be around if you wanted to know about stuff like SkinCola, the right time to harvest hot springs panic grass or that making offerings to Baal was out, and believing in the Dropa disks and the bunyip was back in. He had funny ideas about eventually being sent to some planets he called Abarrach, Pryan and Arianus, but he always settled his tab, was never too contrary and could drink all of us under the table, so we respectfully paid him half an ear whenever he got on about something the rest of us considered crazy. Then again, we’d just had a visit from a Hittite god, so who were we to talk?
"I don't need eternal life. What I need is a couple of cases of industrial-strength bloussant."
No one laughed until Johnston, who bore the burden of a radical mastectomy, sat up straight, grabbed her shirt and pulled, in an approximation of a pair of tits that would have made Pam Anderson jealous. Then we all went crazy. When Johnston started coming back to the Wunder Bar after the surgery and I couldn’t stop staring, she pulled me aside and said that we knew there would be kissing, and breasts, but she'd never expected either to last forever.
"Screw that," said Thoth. "I'll cook you up a couple of boobs, one made out of Terbium and one made out of Ytterbium."
We all waited, our ears perked for a punch line that seemed just out of reach of us mortals, but never mind the silly-sounding syllables, Thoth only grunted and we all resolved to do some fact checking. Kate made rounds of the room, bussing bottles and rubbing shoulders.
Drinks were purchased, downed and glasses returned while Johnny Paycheck and Parliament Funkadelic kept time with a song in fear for all of us drunks and the tap was manned by an expert.
Then, at some point in the evening, I let go of whatever measly thread it is that keeps most men sane. I leaned over the bar and gestured to Kate who looked at Jonas who looked at me. The world hiccupped.
"You know why we never got together?" I asked her.
"Because you said 'we're getting married' and then went off and married someone else?"
"You have to admit that I was going to marry you first."
Believe me when I say that, as many inebriated fools have in the past, I thought I sounded quite clever.
"When pigs fly," she countered. "Why don’t we talk about men’s reluctance to try friends?"
"I wanted you. I wanted you bad."
"And baby wants gravy. You were always more interested in your best friends Australopithecus bahrelghazali, Kenyanthropus platyops and Homo rudolfensis to want me."
"Come on, Katie-love," I pleaded, "who am I now that you're gone?"
"Everything is love, love is everything," said Jonas, out of the blue.
After a man lets go and says something like that, it's usually fate that whatever place he's in is going to go so quiet that people don't hear the music, no matter how loud it's thumping. Only something bigger can fight the awkwardness that follows. Good people know that and sometimes miss their cues but when Jonas is around, they know when to step up to the plate. He has that effect on people.
"It's always a good idea to tell people you love them if you do," shouted Johnston from her corner.
Bravo, I thought, bravo woman.
"Alfred Tennyson said 'tis better to have loved and lost," said Billy, who had since recovered and was nursing a pint from the corner of the bar top.
"There isn't anything new to say about snow, or broken love," said Nanna's boy.
We'd never heard him speak to anyone but his mother. Nonetheless, it was too depressing for us that strange night.
"How about find the right people to love and be loved by, and you'll find happiness," suggested the oldtimer, who’d woken up sometime around Perun's thunderclap.
Strange things were happening. Someone put something slow on the juke and the air got a little thicker. Jonas was tossing his coin again, in negative time and with moon gravity. I wasn't drunk anymore. Nanna and her son were tossing straws back and forth like feathers instead of fighting and Billy had found himself a girl. It was like the heaviest summer day without the heat, but with all the sweaty anticipation intact.
"I suggest you dance. If you need a reason, I'm sorry."
Kate had whispered it so softly that the tickle it caused didn't stop at my earlobe and I hadn't even seen her come around from behind the bar. That tickle ran down my neck, forked into my spine and headed down to my most ticklish parts. I suddenly felt important, like a million eyes were watching me and I was with them even though I had my butt planted firmly on the barstool at the time. How can you be in two places at once when you're not anywhere at all? I didn’t know and I didn’t care.
I had somehow gotten the idea that there was an end to everything, the city grime and the sex games, on some cold day in hell when, bang, everything goes on the fritz. The end. Game over. It had always been so very tragic and poetic, something I needed to keep with me to keep going, but I understood just then that none of that was more real than Katie, standing in front of me with her hand out, wanting to boogie even though she knew I had two left feet. What was a guy to do?
"This is the beginning place," said Jonas, as I let Kate pull me onto my feet and I was on snow plains, filled with kisses, unwrapping a Christmas story.
Like I said, he was never much for kidding around.