By Rodger Jacobs
Some people who treat life like a dangerous and reckless adventure, it is said, have a bullet with their name written on it. Until the day I was summoned from the void and assigned my mission I always dismissed the bullet notion as a tired and over shopped metaphor because when you think about it in a larger sense everyone has something with their name written on it: cancer, a massive heart attack, the grill of a Mack truck bearing down on your bumper at eighty miles per hour on a rain-slicked highway at three oíclock in the morning. Your death is somewhere out there with your name written on it.
Consider my excitement, then, as the day of my mission drew near. There was a moment of dread apprehension when a derelict who managed to panhandle six dollars almost bought me but then he realized that for six bucks he could buy two bottles of Thunderbird and still have enough left over for a Big Mac and fries. The poor guy hadnít eaten in at least a week. He was an unwilling participant in the vast, forced migration of vagrants and derelicts that was happening quite frequently in those days.
The L.A.P.D., whose jurisdiction extends west to the border of the Santa Monica city limits, would regularly sweep up all of the homeless along Santa Monica Boulevard and dump them across the border into the city of Santa Monica where they would temporarily become the problem of the citizens of that liberal-minded community. Once the stabbings and the muggings started, though, the Santa Monica police chased the homeless throng back across the border into the L.A. city limits. It was a vicious game of ping pong with societyís rejects being tossed back and forth over an imaginary net.
If that derelict hadnít changed his mind that afternoon and opted to suckle on my neck instead of a bottle of sickly sweet wine I most certainly would have killed him, not because my intent was lethal no matter who picked me up. No, I would have killed him out of spite because he would have interrupted my mission. And my mission was one of greatness or near-greatness, though you may find that boast rather grotesque.
When Bill finally walked into the liquor store on Wilshire Boulevard I willed myself forward a few inches on the shelf behind the counter. I had to stand out, to catch his wary eye, to disguise my contents as something warm and inviting to be craved, not as the instrument of his death.
The owner of the store was a grizzled piece of jerky who had escaped a great many bullets with names written on them. He was an infantryman in the Second World War and witnessed more violence and brutality than most people could endure without going around the bend and never coming back. He did, however, develop an almost manic addiction to Bazooka Joe Bubble Gum after he got back from the war, which was how he came to buy the liquor store. This same store he came into every day to buy his pound of Bazooka Joe went up for sale in 1960 and he thought, ďWell, at least Iíll be getting my bubble gum for free.Ē So he got a V.A. loan, bought the joint, and went into business for himself, which was better than sitting home by himself all day, chewing on his Bazooka Joe and trying to forget the unspeakable things he saw when his regiment liberated a Nazi death camp in Germany.
Bill and the owner were on friendly terms. There was even an autographed photo of Bill hanging behind the counter, next to signed glossies of Brian Keith and Buddy Ebsen. The bottles on the shelf behind me tensed as the ownerís palsied hand reached for the vodka. They knew what my mission was and each and every one of them feared that they might be accidentally selected instead of me. They were cowards, the proud owners of a conscience, each and every one of them, and they didnít want Billís death on their list of accomplishments.
The crisp paper bag was a snug fit and I nestled there in the darkness next to a pack of cigarettes for the short ride back to Billís high-rise apartment. It was a crisp November evening and Bill was anxious to take the chill off with a little nip or two, maybe slip between the sheets and catch an old movie on TV, as long as it wasnít one of his own movies. Bill hated to watch himself on TV.
He had already been drinking earlier in the day. I could smell it on his breath when he cracked my label and upended me toward his wizened, parched lips. He took another slug before the first swallow had even penetrated his Swiss cheese of a liver and then he carried me to his bedroom with a spectacular view of the Santa Monica Bay.
Bill placed me on a glass coffee table near the window. I could hear the sound of water running in the adjacent bathroom so I bided my time thinking about how damn old and beaten-up he looked. He honestly looked like someone who had been taken out to the desert to die and once there forgot what he was supposed to do.
After about ten minutes Bill emerged from the bathroom. A white terry cloth robe was draped over his hefty frame. He stumbled across the floor toward me with feet still wet from the shower. I was so looking forward to spending these last hours with Bill but then a cruel fate intervened. A rug. A simple little throw rug on the floor that he caught with the ball of his foot. He stumbled backward, righted himself, and then slipped again, coming down in a face-forward fall that he didnít even try to stop. His creased forehead hit the sharp edge of the coffee table and I witnessed a spurt of blood and then silence.
Bill was on the floor, unable to move, incapable, in fact, of understanding the extent of his injury. I wanted to call out to him and Iím sure he would have welcomed my embrace but he had already had too much to drink so all he could do was lay there and force me to watch his life ebbing away.
Bill left me unfinished, sitting there on the glass coffee table, staring out at the lights twinkling in the Santa Monica Bay and wondering what kind of order there is to the universe when a coffee table trumps a vodka bottle.
© 2004-05, Rodger Jacobs