Read Exile on Kalamazoo Street Online

Authors: Michael Loyd Gray

Tags: #humor, #michigan, #fratire, #lad lit, #menaissance

Exile on Kalamazoo Street

Exile on Kalamazoo Street

A Novel

by

Michael Loyd Gray

Coffeetown Press

PO Box 70515

Seattle, WA 98127

For more information go to: www.coffeetownpress.com

www.michaelloydgray.com

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously.

Cover design by Sabrina Sun

Exile on Kalamazoo Street

Copyright © 2015 by Michael Loyd Gray

ISBN: 978-1-60381-235-1 (Trade Paper)

ISBN: 978-1-60381-236-8 (eBook)

Library of Congress Control Number: 2014944705

Produced in the United States of America

* * * * *

F
or my mother, Dorothy Gray; and Stuart Dybek, Monique Raphel High, Joe Taylor, Anthony Squiers, Darren DeFrain, EH, Moonpie, Kathryn Sellers, my late agent Pauline Vilain, my new agent, Siobhan McBride—and the two new cats, Suzie Lucifer and Yoda Lucifer.

“The more you overtake the plumbing, the easier it is to stop up the drain.”

—Scotty,
Star Trek

* * *

Chapter 1: Jim Dandy to the Rescue

W
hen I was drinking, it was like Ulysses hunting the head of Medusa: for a long time I dared not look drinking in the face. And I favored bars without mirrors behind them so that I didn't have to look into my face, either. I was fairly sure I wouldn't see leering snakes and turn to stone, but I feared I might not recognize myself. I resisted looking into the face of the stranger wearing my clothes. To be a good drunk—and by
good
I mean proficient and not admirable—it's useful not to see who you really are, never to meet your actual self.

A good drunk naturally locates other good drunks. It's like having internal radar, a GPS for drunks. And there's sort of a gravity affecting drunks that pulls them together and holds them in place, creating a tribe. This gravity throws together people who might already be friends since their innocent childhoods. Or from years at a dreary job. But often they are just people on the barstool next to you—strangers about to become your buddies. The tribe is always open to new members because new members can be milked for drinks, the tribe's true currency.

But the members of your tribe aren't truly your buddies, just as drinking is not your best friend, but it's the friend you can always reach the quickest. It's the friend that's motivated to spend time with you. If tribe members really were your friends, true friends, they'd cast you out of the tribe. But they need you. They don't want to drink alone. Drinking alone is for when they finally have to go home. For when the bar is closed. For when not even family can fill the void.

My tribe camped at Louie's Trophy House Grill on the near north side of Kalamazoo, Michigan. It was an ancient neighborhood of crumbling factory buildings. Gibson guitars used to be made in that neighborhood. The Kazoo from Kalamazoo. Elvis Presley and Keith Richards visited the Gibson plant back in the day. Other big names, too. But this was 2012, and many buildings were vacant, the human and mechanical sounds of work silent for decades, bricks slipping the foundations like dead skin peeling away. Elvis was long gone and Keith Richards had become a lovable zombie.

Louie's is where I first met Bennie Amundsen. The only empty seat at the bar was next to him. It was the last one at that end, and I liked the idea of having only one stranger next to me instead of being sandwiched between two. But I hesitated and looked down at the other end of the bar to see if anyone was about to leave. Bennie turned to me.

“I'm Bennie,” he said with enthusiasm, offering a large callused hand with dirt under fingernails that needed to be clipped. It was a catcher's mitt of a hand. An aircraft carrier of a hand.

“Bryce,” I said, accepting the hand reluctantly, but with a smile nonetheless. “Bryce Carter.”

My hand seemed pink and inconsequential trapped in his grasp. A baseball splatting into the leather of a cavernous, gnarled mitt. There was an awkward pause as several other tribe members—wrinkled, bearded men in faded blue overalls—looked up from their drinks and glanced our way. The only sound in the bar was ice cubes clinking against each other in glasses.

I pointed to the empty stool and said, “Anyone sitting here?”

“Just you, Chief,” Bennie said.

Chief
. I smiled thinly. ‘Chief' was a common greeting from a tribe member to a stranger. If the crowd at the bar was much younger—like in a bar over at Western Michigan University, for example—it would have been ‘dude' rather than ‘Chief.' At Louie's, it was ‘Chief' all the way. ‘Dude' would have seemed too hip at Louie's.

“Much obliged, Bennie,” I said as I slipped onto the stool and pushed a half-full pint of warm beer away from me. The bartender was not behind the bar. I looked around quickly, felt Bennie's eyes on me. I knew it was his unofficial role to judge whether I was a new member of the tribe, or just a member of another tribe merely passing through to see how it goes with another tribe. The special gravity governing drunks allowed them to pass in and out of the galaxies of other drunks, always allowing for the potential of a better fit with a new tribe.

Upward mobility.

After another awkward moment, Bennie said, “Bruce, is it?”

“Bryce. Like in ice.” I had no idea why I said that and so I just grinned. I was really ready for a drink. I was a drunk—I
needed
a drink. But there was still no bartender in sight.

“Bryce like ice … how the hell are you?” Bennie said.

“Fair to middling,” I said, knowing it was bedrock blue-collar lingo. “How about you … how's it hanging?”

“It's hanging,” he said, smirking, amused.

‘How's it hanging' is more bedrock blue-collar lingo. Tribal dialect.

Now, names aren't necessarily exchanged right away, or even at that first meeting when encountering a new tribe. Sometimes not for months. Or longer. Names don't matter all that much. A nod will do, a knowing smile, a subtle wave, as one orders the rocket fuel of the day—Crown Royal in Bennie's case. Canadian Club on the rocks for me. There has to be a period in which two tribe members meeting for the first time get acclimated and used to sitting fairly close together as strangers.

Tribal banter.

But a squirt of industrial strength booze lubes the gears, and soon they mesh nicely. Soon there's a chat about the Bears or the Lions—Kalamazoo having about as many fans of each because it's almost exactly halfway between Chicago and Detroit. I was a Bears fan, having come up to Michigan years before from northwest Indiana—Hammond, which is a solid blue-collar town and something to mention at the right moment, I reminded myself on that day.

Bennie offered his hand again—drunks often forget they have already performed that nicety of tribal diplomacy—and we shook hands briefly, but not terribly firmly.

“Bryce,” he said flatly.

“That's the name they gave me,” I said, arching my eyebrows.

He nodded and appeared to ponder it.

“I think it might be sewed into the band of my underwear, too,” I said, getting in the spirit of it.

“Bryce, like ice,” he said again, this time softer. He seemed to assess the sound of it. He even cocked his head to the side. Bryce no doubt sounded a bit refined in an unrefined bar of Bills and Bobs and Jims and Joes and a few Janes and Bettys. But Bennie was a good name to the tribe because it had a friendly sound. It rolled off the tongue quite nicely.

Bennie the friendly drunk.

But Bryce … a little stiff when it plopped off the tongue.

A bit too curt, perhaps.

A bit too much like a guy Bennie figured would hold court at the Kalamazoo Country Club, which I have never visited and likely never will. But thanks to the magical lubrication power of booze, focus on a name dissipates quickly. It becomes only a word, too familiar to worry about. The tribe accepts it and moves on. It's not unusual to forget someone's name and still be in their tribe for years. It's not like tribe members have name tags. Or uniforms. Or bylaws. There's no secret handshake or monthly newsletter or monthly dues or fraternal saying or guiding principle—other than remembering to buy drinks for each other from time to time. It's about the alcohol opening up a drunk to another drunk and forcing out anger and confusion, but sometimes also bliss and satisfaction, in ways booze wouldn't quite do with a wife or a husband or a mother or a father. Pain or pleasure—drunks often have a hard time dealing with either one.

Or they wouldn't be drunks.

Bennie abruptly dug around in a pants pocket and then handed me his business card. He was a plumber for Roto-Rooter, and being a plumber is an honorable profession, I know. But Roto-Rooter is one of the most ridiculous names I've ever heard.

“You never know,” he said, handing me the card, which was smudged from handling. “You wake up one day and you need Bennie the plumber to fix your toilet or sink.”

“I don't have a card, Bennie,” I said. “Sorry. But thanks.”

“That's okay,” he said. “Plenty more where that one came from.”

“Good to know,” I said, making sure I gave the card more than just a glance—tribal etiquette. “Blue. That's a good color for a card.”

He looked pleased. “That's my personal card, not the company's. I get a discount from a guy. I fixed his toilet off the clock.”

I nodded. “Sounds like you did a good job.”

“I did it up right,” he said, winking. “Now that shitter's got enough suction to swallow the Titanic.”

“The Titanic,” I said, smiling. “Boy.”

I looked one more time at his card before slipping it into a pants pocket. A nicety of breaking the ice.

“The Titanic,” I said again. “That's some image.”

“Kind of sticks with you, don't it?”

“I may not sleep tonight,” I said.

Actually, not having a card was good when first encountering the tribe because a lack of a card could mean I wasn't important enough to merit a card. And if I didn't merit a card, it was almost assured I wasn't someone to envy or fear. Thus the tribe did not have to be suspicious of me—or even resent me.

“Don't lose that card,” he said. “You never know.”

“Goes on the fridge door, for sure,” I said. “Might come in handy.”

“Trouble comes right out of the blue,” he said. “Your toilet working okay?”

I nodded. “Seems fine. Good flow. A nice flush, I'd say.”

“Well, good, but you just never know,” Bennie said, more to himself than me, it seemed. Almost subdued. He was drunk and working on drunker.

“I haven't spotted the Titanic over at my place yet,” I added and he seemed to visibly perk up. “But I'll keep an eye out.”

“You'll know her when you see her,” he said, taking a long sip from his drink. “And from a long way off.”

“I'm sure I would,” I said, wondering whether he was actually visualizing the Titanic. “I'll watch for icebergs, too.”

I actually
did
have business cards, but never carried them. They were somewhere in my house and locating them would require a search party. I've never been a card kind of guy.

“My cards are on fridges all over Kalamazoo,” Bennie said absently, sipping his Crown Royal. “You just never know when it's Bennie to the rescue.”

“Like that song,” I said suddenly, and immediately regretted it because it was a spontaneous thought uttered at a crucial point of entering the turf of a new tribe and the opening round of tribal diplomacy. It was like auditioning to play in a band and then hitting some clunker notes all of a sudden.

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