No 18 - September 2002
Al Smithee was born in 1955 to middle class parents. An only child, his pre-teen years and adolescence on the south Devon coast were happy. He enjoyed Westerns and wrote magazine articles on their history. Encouraged to work hard at school, he went on to London University where he mixed with the Modern Jazz crowd and spent a lot of time listening to Monk, Mingus and Miles Davis. Soon after graduating with a lower second in English, he married someone he’d fallen in love with at the age of four, and went to teach in Bath, a city he knew from previous visits.
Al Smithee walked slowly down the street of terraced houses to the Georgian square. He felt better for the sleep and the long, long summer evening that Insisted it would not end, that the light would continue, even if diminished, and it would never be winter again. As he drifted, hands in jeans pockets as usual, he went through his habitual checklist: keys, tobacco, money. Yes, he was all right for the evening.
The noise of a drinking crowd eddied up the side street and Smithee felt a surge of excitement, an adrenalin hit, as he pushed his way into the bar and up to the counter. His bar stool in the corner was taken so he knew the evening would start in isolation. As he walked with his pint of Old Peculiar to the bench seat against the wall he caught Ham’s voice surfacing above the talk and the jukebox playing Procol Harum’s A Whiter Shade of Pale.
God, that must be over ten years.
“He was had up for necrophilia,” Ham shouted across the bar.
God, he must have stayed here all afternoon.
“His defence was that he thought she was an American.”
Still, he’s a really nice guy under the surface. He has an elusive charm.
Smithee rolled a cigarette and concentrated on the feeling of relief as the nicotine got into his system. He finished his drink and went up to the bar for a refill. Ham saw him and yelled, “Shag last night?”
“I’m married, remember?” Smithee replied in a near monotone.
“Oh yes. I hear she bangs like a shed door In a thunderstorm.”
When he sat down, one of the women who seemed to live in the bar and had a crazy longing for Ham came and sat down beside Smithee. “Is he drunk?” she asked.
“My God. I hope so.”
She thought for a moment and then, “Does he really get that bad? He was saying at the lunchtime session that sometimes he gets the shakes so bad that if he leaned against a wail he would beat his own brains out.”
“A joke,” said Smithee.
“My life is spent in sexual climbing and social deviation,” shouted Ham to the room in general, but no one seemed to be listening, or, if they were, to understand.
Al leant towards the woman beside him. “I think he thinks he’s Alistair Crowley or Rimbaud or something. The next thing he’ll come in here dragging a live lobster on a lead - or something.”
“Or something,” said the woman. “But he can be so cruel. Someone told me that when his first wife announced to him that she was pregnant, he said ‘What, I leave you alone for one night and you go and get yourself pregnant?’ That’s not a nice thing to say.”
“A joke - just a joke,” said Smithee.
“Aga Khan and Immanuel Kant,” yelled Ham as he thrust his empty glass at the barman. “Do you shag?”
Smithee sat and smoked and dreamed. He occasionally returned to the present when people left or came into the bar, some quietly, some noisily. Then he felt another adrenalin hit. This time it was the sudden, sharp shock of recognition. It was her. She was back after all these years. The time everyone was playing Procol Harum.
He just sat there looking. Just looking as she walked into the bar and waited to be served with her friend, whose Mediterranean darkness made Sarah look as delicately English as ever.
Smithee sat there. What the hell shall I do? Then he came out of his corner and she saw and recognised him. He took her right hand in his then changed to intimacy by leaning in and kissing her inaccurately on cheek and ear. “Sarah. How are you?”
“Fine. How are you?”
“Fine. I didn’t know you were back.”
“No. It’s just a surprise visit. I’m up in London now.” She introduced her friend who she was staying with. When they went to sit down, Smithee’s seat was taken so they moved into the dark quiet at the rear of the bar where they had a table to themselves. They questioned and answered one another about people and events and the fragility of the conversation was palpable. Left out, Sarah’s friend drifted to the jukebox to lean and read titles. Soon she was chatting to a group of men.
“How are you really?” asked Smithee.
“Oh ... it’s all okay.”
“I am really sorry. You know that,” said Smithee.
“Yes, I know.”
“Let me get you some more to drink.” Smithee left her lighting a cigarette and went to the bar and waited until he could be served by the owner. After a quiet conversation he came back to Sarah’s table with a bottle of red wine and two glasses.
They drank and talked intermittently. Towards the end of the second bottle of wine Smithee started to cry silently.
“It’s all right,” said Sarah. “She’s being well looked after. They take a good deal of care on matching them to a good family. And she really is wanted.”
His divorce was not clean. Smithee moved to the U.S.A. and disappeared for years.
Al Smithee came back from the motel coffee shop and saw the man at the ice machine again. He was shaking even more noticeably and had difficulty filling the ice bucket. He was sweating badly too. His clothes and beard could have placed him in Haight-Ashbury all those years ago - his music should have been The Doors rather than the Elkie Brooks number that escaped from his just-open door. Pearl’s a singer. Maybe there was someone in there with him. Sitting out the three days so he didn’t have to do it alone. That would be it. He had a babysitter.
Back in the room, Smithee lay on the bed and channel hopped but ended up with the football as nothing else could hold his attention. He knew he should eat, but could not make the effort. He fell asleep again as the television randomly lit the room like an unsynchronized strobe. The commentary was given rhythm by the sound of the airconditioning unit and the interior of the room increased in entropy.
Later - he did not know how much later - he woke to noises coming from the poolside. Deciding to wake himself with a swim rather than coffee, he went Out into the sudden dense heat and humidity. He slowed his movements and mind. The pool area was now deserted bar a pale body stretched on a sunlounger partly under an umbrella. Smithee slowly walked down the steps into the water and had to suppress a moan of pleasure at the novel experience of refrigerated water on his body in a pool. So that was the reason for all those roadside motel signs: “Cooled Pool”.
After a few languid lengths, he climbed out of the water and lay on a lounger one away from the figure he now saw to be a bikinied woman. Late twenties, he guessed.
“Cool, isn’t it,” she said softly.
New York, New England?
“Yes, great,” said Al.
“Yes.” And also great if she’s one of those that goes for the accent and thinks all English men are cold fish or queer and what a waste and I could cure him. He wouldn’t mind some therapy from that body.
“Yes. Driving down to Key West.” That should add some weight to her ideas on the sexual tastes of English men.
“St Petersburg, me. Got a job in a club, singing.”
She plays the piano too, I know, thought Al. Pearl’s a singer. She sings songs for the lost and the lonely.
She leaned over to a styrofoam box and pulled a Budweiser from the ice. She held it at arm’s length in his direction.
“No thanks. Thanks but no thanks.”
He relaxed and floated into semi-consciousness as the can was popped and glugged. She wanted to be Betty Grable. But now she sits there at the beer-stained table, dreaming of the things she never got to do. All the dreams that never came true.
Another can popped as his mind swam back to his own space and time.
She interrupted her glugging with: “Well, I’ve got to go,” picked up her things but stopped when Al said: “Dinner?”
“Six, here?” she asked.
She arrived at the restaurant on time. They both ate large steaks with no hors d’oeuvre or pudding. Free steaks were part of the motel’s deal. She talked a little about her work and asked Smithee little about his. She finished her beer and the dinner with another, “Well, I’ve got to go, but added, “Have a nice vacation.”
Smithee lingered over the coffee he had been having topped up since the beginning of the meal. He rolled and smoked several cigarettes and wondered what the woman’s name was.
When the parents of one of Smithee’s contemporaries, who had died of breast cancer, were going through her possessions, they found two postcards initialled A. S. One was from Venice and one from Naples, but they had U.S. stamps and Florida postmarks.
Al Smithee became fuzzily aware of the words, You’ve touched her perfect body with your mind, the still humidity and the glaring sunlight. She’s touched your perfect body with her mind. And then he was sharply focused awake in the now.
He pressed the remote control on the empty side of the bed and the TV lit up. Hurricane Diana was moving to the Atlantic to tire and die.
Smithee measured tobacco onto a paper, rolled and licked, then smoked at times while wet shaving and dressing. He quickly read a paragraph from a small paperback, then picked up money, keys, matches and tobacco pouch, slid on his sunglasses and walked out of the motel room to the beach.
Sea birds were skimming over the surface of the water or sitting looking. There were pelicans and species strange to him that seemed exotic. The only other life he saw was a labourer with a red baseball cap raking up seaweed. Smithee undressed and walked into the water until it came up to his thighs then plunged and crawled out towards the reef. The water felt solid and stationary as his hands and arms pushed his body forwards. He was pleased at this sign of his strength and fitness. The sea felt like a warm bath so he tired more quickly than he expected. He turned back to the beach.
Lying on his back, away from the palm covered shelter, Smithee watched the salt crystallizing white on his deeply tanned body, and luxuriated in the heat and sensuality. She’s touched your perfect body with her mind surged through his mind.
When the sun got too high to be comfortable he put on shorts and tee-shirt and walked back to the motel.
That evening at the barbecue, he was picked up by Cindy. He had seen her at times the previous week but had not spoken. Now she just came across and introduced herself. She got him food and talked a lot about herself and said, “Do you like music?”
“Jazz, rock, that sort of thing,” said Al.
“Right, I’ll show you the town. There’s Caribbean, Cajun, jazz, all the music you want here.”
The streets were busier at night than day. Smithee and Cindy moved from bar to bar wherever there was live music playing. They only talked between numbers and in the streets. She told him what went on in the town, how various people they saw made their livings, how she came from Baltimore. He talked a little about how it used to be in England and how he had come here and the drive down through the Everglades and how the road across the keys had blown his mind. In the early hours she said she would take him to her special place.
Loud rock music. Toughly dressed men and women crowded outside the bar. Then red and blue and white lights were flashing and sirens blanketed the music. Smithee couldn’t take his eyes from the holstered guns on the policemen’s hips. The years had not made them seem normal. He heard the words stabbing and meatwagon.
Upstairs, the piano bar seemed very quiet. The barman was friendly and the three talked for a while, then Cindy took Al by the hand across the room to sit at the side of the piano. He noticed that nearly all the people in the room were same-sex couples and a few were embracing and kissing.
The piano player sang several Nina Simone songs in his whisky and cigarette smoke-cured voice. Al put his hand around Cindy’s waist and she leaned into him.
“Let’s get outta here,” she said.
Outside it seemed more humid after the air conditioning. Reaching her beaten-up car, her clunker’, Cindy switched on the engine to get some cool air. They started kissing quickly, impatiently.
“C’mon, let’s go,” she said.
It’s all starting again, thought Smithee. There are heroes in the seaweed. There are children in the morning.
At a London University reunion, Al Smithee’s name came up in conversation. Someone said that when on holiday in Florida, they thought they’d seen him in Key West, but couldn’t be sure.
“C’mon, let’s go. Let’s get outta here.” Late morning and Al Smithee was sitting on the front steps in the sun with the cat. She had come Out of the white clapboard, single- storey house, tossing her car keys from hand to hand. She refused to say where they were going except to pick up a Coke at Pizza Hut. In fact, a large paper cup of ice topped up with cola, which she was in the habit of drinking while driving around town, first through the campus, then down Dickson Street with its bookstores, launderettes and private drinking clubs.
They did that and Smithee didn’t mind being aimless on that noble metalled, golden, Ozark day. From the business section, the car eased across the lights then suddenly nosed down into a part of the town he hadn’t seen before. It was Black. The white wooden houses were the same as the rest of the town but the scattering of people were Black. There was an overflowing car park lapping at the islanded church. Dark brown and ugly concrete blocks of houses upset the gentle landscape of fall trees. A ghetto. That was why the town looked so Anglo-Saxon with its few token Blacks and Hispanics.
Up from that valley into the trees again, below Skyline. A stone archway and they stopped. “This is it,” she said. They got out and walked under the inscription, Confederate Cemetery.
It was tidy and cool with evenly spaced trees, some of their leaves fallen early. Small headstones, each the same as its neighbour, patterned the segments of the stone-walled enclosure. Fallen before their time, a few hundred anonymous men had lost a small battle near here and it had been made into a victory - transmuted, base metal into gold. Or perhaps the lasting truth was that even victories are defeats.
Through a space between the trees Smithee could look across the valley of poverty to the island of modern, high-rise buildings that made up the business section of the town. The crowding together of these tall buildings made a whole. The unreason of building up rather than out, not because of lack of space but just because it was possible to do so, echoed ancient monoliths, menhirs. He felt the same surge of excitement as when he first saw the towers of Oklahoma City appear on the plain.
“I used to come here and study, to be alone, and look across to the campus and Old Main.” There were tears in her eyes. “C’mon, let’s get outta here.”
And that was how that one ended.
When, in 2002, Al Smithee was killed in an auto accident, there was a rumour that he’d been making money by rolling cars so that their owners could claim on insurance. But that was considered crazy talk by the residents of Eureka Springs, Arkansas.
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