When I first met Stan in Father Derrida’s Bookshop I thought he was a hobo. He was drunk and rambling about the president, but he wasn’t getting carried away and so I moved closer, and the proprietors of the shop, seeing that I was coming to sit down, stood up and left. Stan must have sensed my suspicion, so he told me he was famous and made me look him up on Wikipedia. His novel Buen Día had been made into a film by Portland’s own, Steve van Hoorn, who won the Palm d’Or at Cannes some time ago. Buen Día was van Hoorn’s first film and remains the only one of his in the Criterion Collection, Stan said. He had me at Criterion. Then he pulled out a copy of Kerouac’s Desolation Angels from his wheeled black bag and started reading. People forget about this one, he said. I told him I wanted to read his book. He said he had the only copies left from the last printing. Here, he scrawled his name and number on a scrap of paper taken from a nearby desk. Then he got distracted by a group of Latvian basketball players who entered the shop and I returned to the other room where the poetry reading I came for had resumed. Halfway through it, in the back of the crowd, I noticed Stan pause and listen for a moment before he disappeared.
I called him that week and we met at Olé Olé, the burrito joint on Burnside. I’d just gone food shopping and when he suggested we go to his place to have a drink I told him I had a bottle of vinho verde we could share. So we sat in his room, which shared a bathroom and a kitchen with four other people living down the hall, his squalid room where his paintings of angels and devils sat on stacks of books and his sleeping bag lay on the floor in a corner. He squatted on a stool while I sat on the chair he forced me to accept and he played a Joan Baez record as we drank. He picked up a book of Zbegniew Herbert’s poems and when I told him I’d never read him, he sealed it in a manila envelope and gave it to me. Then he asked for a ride to the library off Sandy Boulevard. Before he got out of my car, he said that when the weather got nice we’d have to go for a drive.
The following Sunday I stood under chunky cumulus clouds with sun strong on my face. He wasn’t there yet, so I went into Olé Olé and had a few tacos. Eventually he appeared, rolling bag in tow, and sat on the patio. I joined him. He pulled out a bottle of wine and clandestinely poured himself a glass. I asked him how his week had gone and he seemed nervous, as if this were a first date, and he rambled on about preparing his estate and I listened, smiling, waiting, wondering if we were going to take a drive after all.
I’m almost done reading your book, I said. I’m really enjoying it. I’m up to the part where your character goes to Mexico—
And you like it, huh, he said amused, you can relate to it?
Well not so much to the sexuality of the protagonist, but yeah, his desire for adventure.
Those reviewers, the media, they never understood the sex, they made it all about that, they never understood that I loved those fuckers. They didn’t even speak English. Ramon, aha, gawd he was fun, he came here to pick strawberries, no papers, just riding trains to send a few measly dollars to his family in Sonora, stealing when he had to, but he was a good kid, they didn’t see that, none of them did.
Stan reached in his black bag for a plastic bag of brown powder.
Cumin. He extracted a plastic spoon, and muttering about circulation, ate a spoonful. I placed the scent as his, and as he chomped away I realized he probably didn’t eat real food because he no longer had any teeth. Slightly revolted, I noticed his other physical defects, marks of old age, black hairs growing from the bridge of his broken nose, short but aquiline; the stray neck hairs so many old men neglect while shaving; and the cumin smell mixed with a crusty scent which many poorly washed older men have.
He asked if I was ready for a drive.
In the car he turned on the jazz station. Brubeck’s “Take 5” played and couples walked down the street, oblivious to us sitting in a red BMW watching them. I felt like I was in an Antonioni film, as if this was the beginning of something, but what I did not know. Stan poured himself another glass of wine and asked if I was ready.
We drove south on 99E toward Oregon City, where he grew up, at the end of the Oregon Trail. I turned on the heat but Stan told me to turn it off, he was wearing enough layers. I glanced at his outfit, brandless, cheap clothes, a black raincoat with a yellow stain—cumin perhaps—a purple beanie worn high on his head, in the hipster fashion.
A few miles on we came to a bend in the river. I was still hungover from the night before, and after I parked, I walked to the river to relieve myself. I considered asking Stan for a glug of his wine as hair of the dog, though I felt guilty because he was so poor and so reliant on it, but my pain soon outweighed those feelings.
Help yourself he said, passing me the bottle.
The wine hit my throat cool and dry and the knives in my brain turned into dull throbs. With another glug they were soft-bleating lammykins and oh, I started feeling right. I sighed, glugging again. Those whiskeys last night… I trailed off.
Whiskey’ll kill you.
I thought all writers drank whiskey.
I steer clear of the brown, I only drink wine. He refilled his glass. It goes down so easy, like grape juice, he said, wet lips smacking.
I like whiskey but it brings out the darkness in me and I’m trying to minimize that.
Stan passed the bottle again and the wine filled my throat cool and wet and smooth and it was so good, so so good, the river and trees took on a hazy glow of relief. But at least I acknowledge it, I said, the darkness. Some people pretend it’s not there and then it erupts and they can’t control it.
Stan removed his purple beanie, exposing his bald pate. He smoothed the white fringe of hair around his skull and replaced his hat so it stuck up tall on his head. To my left, I gazed out at the McMansions on the far bank, the green hill that protected the Eastmoreland Golf Club, the tiny white boats floating halfway between the sky and the water’s gray. Then from upriver I spotted a large raptor, which closed in, soaring lower, so its golden beak and white head came into relief and I said, Look, a bald eagle! It passed right over the car and flapped on in the direction we were planning to go.
A good portent, I said.
Portent? Stan repeated.
No, he said, but what you were saying about the dark and the light—that’s important.
I tightened my lips.
Come on, we gotta get some more wine. I’ll take you to where we can get it cheap.
I followed his directions as McLoughlin Boulevard opened up into four lanes, a valley of mattress stores, car washes and pawn shops. Stan smoothed his coat and set his palms on his malnourished thighs and pointed out the Food Saver.
You may want a basket he said as we entered. He moved down the aisle and told me to get a purple vial of B-100 Vitamins to help my brain when I’m drinking. I asked how a half-gallon of organic milk could be a buck-thirty-nine. Then I noticed it expired in three days and said maybe I don’t need it.
Come on, where did you learn anything? And he tossed it in my basket.
In the wine section he picked up two bottles of chardonnay. I bought five bottles, sauv blancs, Slovenian greens, pinot grigio.
Hey if you have the dough, Stan said.
At the cashier, he thumbed at me. He’s never been here.
It’s true I replied, This place is great.
Stan distended the word for some six seconds, his voice entering a register that would have made a dog’s ears rise. It was as if he were casting a spell, and the cashier looked up, seeing him as more than an old man with a purple beanie, and broke out of his Sunday evening routine and smiled, showing brown crooked teeth, and said, We had one of these stores where I grew up in California. My dad used to call it the used food store.
Stan laughed, manipulating an Oregon Trail Snap card. Then a woman appeared and Stan asked for a box for my wine and she, sensing the rapport between us all, happily obliged.
Outside the sky was ready to crack. Damn, Stan said. This damn rain. What time is it anyway?
Well it’s too late to go to the falls, we’ll just have to go to the bins.
North, Stan directed me to a Goodwill parking lot. We’ll stay here a while, he said, have some drinks and then check out the books. He extracted his small cylindrical glass and opened a new bottle.
I unscrewed the Slovenian green and gave it a long pull. Ooo that’s good. I wiped my mouth. Thankfully my mom’s a drunk, I said. That’s why I’m so good at drinking. It’s inherited.
Your parents still together?
Nah they’re mortal enemies. Shame, really. My mom used to be so strong but her resentment for my dad stays in her. I think it’s her darkness. It saps her strength.
You have a picture of her?
I pulled out my phone and looked for one she’d sent me the other day, half her face, head on, showing her new hairdo.
Stan reared, That’s a powerful woman. Gawddam, she’s a goddess.
She used to do reiki, you know, Japanese laying of hands. She was good at it, but I think it drained her. She don’t do it no more.
You pray for her?
You do pray don’t you?
A few months earlier I’d been praying daily, getting down on my knees at sundown and saying aloud what I wanted to happen, but most of my prayers were selfish, and only sometimes would I mention my family and other people I loved. It only lasted a couple of weeks but I lied and said, Yeah I pray.
Good, Stan replied. I don’t trust people who don’t.
I glugged from my bottle.
Come on, he said, let’s go in.
The fluorescence caused me to squint. Many people around the bins had one egregious flaw, premature baldness or a large hairy mole or they were very very short. Their hands flickered through limp clothing in a searching intensity, their expressions bored.
You see, Stan whispered, this is why I come here, for the humanity. Then his eyes rolled into the back of his head and he looked up to the ceiling and said, Gawd I love being drunk.
From the bins I picked up The Quiet American, a Taschen on Max Ernst, and All Quiet on the Western Front. Stan held up Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, Volume One. He won the Nobel Prize, he said. I seized it.
Then Stan led me to the clothes bins. You know Stan, I said, if you need vestments I’ve got plenty to offer.
I don’t want your clothes, it’s too weird. I don’t want to fuck you so why would I wear your clothes? He held up and tossed aside a dress, shaking his head. No, it’s too close. And besides I only like what I choose.
Suit yourself, I said.
Again, I noticed Stan’s clothing, his khakis neither too tight nor too loose, too dressy nor too casual, his white off-brand sneakers dirty and beat-up but with no holes—Stan’s fashion, I saw, was perfectly appropriate to him. His dark clothes didn’t make him look old or poor; they were outside trends. Except for that purple beanie. Yes, I nodded, Stan had cultivated a hobo riche style of loose, form-fitting clothes that seemed comfortable and well-worn, practical for the time of year, with a sense of having been carefully selected. The old dog managed to put himself together rather well.
After I’d paid for my books, Stan said, Let’s have another little drink.
You don’t eat much do you?
I don’t need to. Wine’s like grape juice.
You old wino.
He looked coquettishly at me and said, White wino.
I clucked and opened the car. The Slovenian green wine beat back my exhaustion, the sleepiness accumulating after not-enough sleep, my blood alcohol content dipping again… Wine was our fuel.
Stan emptied his glass again and re-poured and said, You want to watch a TV show on the life of Jesus? It’s playing at the McDonald’s off Sandy, they play CNN there. We can go after this drink. Or not. It doesn’t matter. I already know everything about Jesus anyway.
When he was done with that glass the rain was angry and Stan told me to be careful, I’d been drinking and I didn’t want a DUI on my record. I drove back the way we came.
At 42nd and Sandy I pulled up in front of two grizzled hobos looking mean under the Mickey D’s overhang, safe from the rain.
What do you think of these guys, Stan pointed, you respect them?
I looked at the hobos, their thick fingers marked with cuts, holding cigarette stubs, their narrowed eyes and layers of heavy clothing. Yeah, I said. I mean I don’t respect them any more than other people, but sure, I respect them.
They’ve struggled, they’ve overcome. These guys are survivors. I know them, Stan said, they’re my friends.
Okay, but lots of people struggle and survive and overcome. And besides, they don’t look particularly friendly or kind or even like they have much light in them, if I’m being completely honest.
You’re right. Fuck these guys. They’re assholes anyway.
I moved to open my door. Now hold on hold on, Stan shouted, let’s have a drink first.
My Slovenian green was empty. You need a refill? I asked him. He looked at the inch of wine in his bottle and said no and then thought better of it and said yes. I handed him one of mine from the backseat and opened a sauv blanc for myself.
Thank you he said graciously.
No prob. We sipped in silence for a second and I said, Hey I’m pretty hungry, I’m gonna go in for a sandwich, you want something?
No no. He waved me off.
I ordered a chicken wrap while The Life of Jesus played on a flatscreen behind me. Through the window, the rain had slowed to a drizzle and Stan was kicking the car door open, jowls flapping in that way old people have of trying to get themselves together. His blank gaze made him seem particularly helpless. I paced the brightlit floor waiting for the cashier to call my order, and unwrapped it before I got back into the car.
I was munching away when Stan asked, What does poetry mean anyway? I looked at him, ready to respond when I saw that he was not talking to me but to his hand. It was large for a man who at his age was rather short, with fingers almost feminine in their delicacy and a thick palm. God, he spit, why did you give us poetry? What does it mean to write poetry God, what does it mean, he yelled. I winced. Does any of this matter? No, he answered himself. It doesn’t matter if I wrote a great book. I’m the goddam poet laureate of this city, but nobody cares, I’m just a lonely old man. I don’t care. I don’t care if it goes anywhere after I’m dead, it’s all bullshit anyway. If I’m a great poet, does it matter no one knows it, that only he knows it? Here Stan jerked his thumb at me. Or do we just do it for our own vanity, for our own sad little lives?
The McDonald’s was sobering me up, making me less dependent on wine for sustenance. Checking the time, I wanted to go home. Even the hobos had left. I waited a moment and said, Well whaddaya think we shove off here? I think it’s about that time.
Fine, he agreed, suddenly soft, perhaps sad to go home to his rat’s nest and stacks of unorganized books, decades worth of papers and paintings, dusty records.
I started the car and started down Sandy. Where are you going, he asked.
To drop you off.
You’re going the wrong way.
No I’m not.
You are, you’re going the goddam wrong way, now turn around!
Stan I’m not going the wrong way, this is Sandy, I’m taking you home, just relax.
No one tells me to relax! No one fucks with me! he shouted. Turn around!
Listen, I said, my own voice rising, no one may fuck with you but no one fucks with me either, now shut up and stop yelling, I’m taking you home!
He pulled back and looked aghast at me. You told me to shut up, he whispered. And then he yelled, That’s the gawddam Taco Bell, you’re going the wrong way!
Stan I swear to god if you don’t shut up I’m going to drop you off right here. Look, this is Twenty-Second, this is your street.
So it is, he said. But you know what? You almost destroyed our friendship back there the way you told me to shut up.
Sorry, I said, I just don’t like being yelled at.
I pulled up in front of his house and offered him a hand in reconciliation. No, he said, and kicked open the door, moving his black bag onto the road to support himself.
Stan! I called as he swiveled.
You’re gonna have to learn, he said. Then he stepped backwards and tripped over the curb and for a second I thought he might fall and break his hip, that in his drunkenness he’d crack his head open on the curb, but he didn’t, he caught himself against a bike rack, regained his balance and without another word closed the door. I feared he might spit on the car but he didn’t, he just turned and wheeled his bag down the sidewalk to his steps. I wondered if he’d make it okay but didn’t wait around to find out. I drove away, shaking my head.
Stan called me the following week. He said we probably shouldn’t get drunk together, we were both so intense that it was dangerous. I said, Well maybe if we keep it to a couple of glasses of wine we’ll be okay.
I didn’t hear from him for a couple of months, not until one tranquil May afternoon when he called to invite me to a reading at Mother Foucault’s. It was a celebration of one of his dead friends’s poetry, he said. I was glad to hear from him, glad to go.
I arrived early to a small group of older adults, Stan nowhere in sight. These former hippies had a binder of the deceased’s poems, and on its cover was a picture of him and Burroughs together, the former looking starstruck, the latter disgruntled.
Stan arrived twenty minutes later. He wore a ripped sombrero, a long-sleeved pink button-up with a tear along the breast pocket, and a loosely tied tie. He had brought with him an old tape recorder and after calling attention to himself, disrupting whatever conduct had existed, he harangued the widow to deliver some words about her husband’s memory. At first baffled, she finally acquiesced, and read one of the poems in the catalogue. Stan then suggested we take a brief intermission, to the displeasure of the crowd, for whom it was approaching bed time.
I had a bottle of rosé in my bag from which I presently took a long pull, Stan as my excuse. I moved into the side room and perused some Raymond Chandler when Stan began to squawk and there came a crash. Old hippies began to walk out, muttering and shaking their heads, and Stan appeared, wine spilling from his short cylindrical glass. He greeted me and introduced me to a man behind him, a redheaded Persian named Natal.
Come on, Stan said, we’re going to his house, he lives up the block.
Natal was an antiques dealer and his studio apartment was full of rare and strange objects, from Aztec fertility figurines to Syrian opium pipes and Chinook salmon beating sticks. See here, Stan said, grabbing a clay phallus, this one’s my favorite. What is this Natal, Inca? Seven hundred a.d?
Please be careful, Natal said, I bought that back from a dealer I sold it to.
You bought it back huh? To match with its pair? Stan pointed at a sculpted cleft, about six inches long, resting on top of the cabinet. How much you pay?
Twelve hundred dollars, Natal said. Please be careful.
Shut up! I’m not gonna break your goddam toys. Stan replaced the phallus and took a seat on the floor.
Would you like to sit in this chair? I asked him.
No. I’m not a dying old man, I don’t need to sit in a chair. I do need some wine though.
So I poured him some of my rosé.
As the night wore on, Stan’s yelling increased in volume. Natal told him repeatedly to keep it down, his neighbors were unkind and often complained about the slightest noise.
I’ll talk to them, Stan said, preparing to stand.
No, please, Natal said.
I’ll tell them to go—
Stan, I interrupted, I have to talk to you about something serious. He paused, mustache bristling. I went on, I think we should republish Buen Día in a sexy little edition without the appendix. The way I see it, the appendix is superfluous; the novel is art, it doesn’t need justification, and if it has the right marketing it could sell a lot of copies; you’re the city’s Poet Laureate, after all.
Without the appendix? That’s absurd!
You’re a goddam ascetic, I yelled back. Look, I said, I’m not out to make a profit here; I want the best for your literary reputation and I know what sells.
Natal sat watching, half in awe, half resisting to tell us again to keep it down; it was already after midnight.
When the last bottle was gone I told Stan I’d drive him home. I was far drunker than I’d been after our own Buen Día, but I didn’t worry, I’d driven with a few drinks under my belt before.
When we arrived at his house, I parked on the corner and we chatted for another twenty minutes about who knows what, drunken conversation lost in the ether, like whatever is made and forgotten through the union of casual lovers.
A few weeks later I received news that I had been accepted to study abroad. I didn’t go back to the bookstore again, with the future to look forward to and prepare for, and my brother being in town and then my friend coming to visit, my focus shifted.
Finally, three days before I left for Europe, I went drinks shopping and spent fifty bucks on wine and beer and bottled water. At home my old man and his wife were waiting for me, there was a big burger with my name on it and I opened a bottle of rosé and poured myself a glass. Then I had a second, and then I poured myself a scotch with a dash of Topo Chico and I decided to call Stan, to say goodbye.
He answers and he’s all crotchety and asks what I want, and if I’m just calling because I heard he was in the hospital then he doesn’t want to talk.
You’re in the hospital? I said.
Yeah, I was drinking and I had a fall and now I’ve got a neurosurgeon monitoring my brain, hematoma…
I’m sorry. I had no idea.
This softened him and he explained with a chuckle, Apparently I’ve got to start eating real food and cutting back on the wine or else I’m going to die.
Please do, I said. I want you to live as long as possible, I was calling to say goodbye, I’m going away to study and I won’t be back for at least a year.
Oh, well that’ll be good, that’ll be good for you.
Well if I don’t see you before I go, I hope you’re well soon.
After he thanked me and we hung up, I went downstairs, with another little whisky and some ambient beats when I got a call from a friend in town only for the rest of summer.
Brother! he said, I’m downtown, you should come.
I’ll be there, I replied. I threw back my whisky and drove to meet him.
When I arrived at the bar, I realized I didn’t have my wallet and I told him this and he bought me a shot of whiskey and I slammed it down. He said Let’s go somewhere else and I said sure thing, I’ll drive.
You’re not driving, he said.
Yes. I am.
And we got into my car and he directed me to some building off Burnside where his friend lived, a lovely woman from Namibia. Then I drove us to 21st Avenue, to a bar where they didn’t ask for my I.D. and someone bought me a sake. Which I proceeded to drink as much as I could before we left and I dropped them off at hers. And drove home.
Well, on the way up into the hills there’s a hairpin turn and I must have taken it a little too fast, because I drifted into the guardrail and the airbag went off. So I’m sitting there, trying to start the car, with the faulty airbag deflated and hanging from the steering wheel like a used condom, turning the key and nothing’s happening, but I’m turning it like if I get lucky the car might start and I’ll be home in a couple wags of a lamb’s tail. Little did I know that when the airbag goes off a cord is cut so the car can’t start. I call my old man six times but it’s three in the morning and he’s not answering. Then I look up and a cop’s standing outside my window.
License and registration.
Officer, I left my wallet at home.
What are you doing tonight?
Just trying to get home officer.
I don’t think you’re goin anywhere, your car’s pretty beat up.
Look, he said, casting his flashlight into my eyes, You’re drunk.
I hung my head. I’m…I’m sorry.
I’m gonna talk with my partner about what to do with you. Just stay there.
So I sat, too drunk to be scared. Crickets hummed, it was a cool late summer night and I just waited, ready for whatever fate was in store for me.
Here’s what we’re gonna do, he said, reappearing. We’re gonna leave your car here; you’re gonna have to pay for it to be towed in the morning. You’re gonna get out and come with us. And we’re gonna take you home. Come on.
You lucky fucker, I can hear you saying.
I get in the back of the cop car. Cop asks if I know where I live. Yes officer, I say, pleased to be less drunk than he thinks I am.
He gives me his card before he drops me off in front of my house. And I go downstairs and go to sleep.
I woke up the next afternoon before one. In my bathroom vomit splattered the sink. I remembered the car and hoped it wasn’t totaled. After digging through Google and calling the police bureau I got the name and number of the towing company and the lady there told me the car looked pretty bad, the front passenger wheel was hanging.
When I got off the phone I noticed the card the cop gave me. I called him later that afternoon. I got his voicemail. I thanked him for saving my life, tears filled my throat. Next day I found out the car was totaled.
As my mom always used to say, it all comes full circle, the story of Stan’s and mine good day wasn’t over until my bad night. Since, I’ve no longer relied on alcohol the way I used to, I don’t prefer my drunk self to my sober self or embrace being a wino, don’t embrace the hobo riche style, don’t want to live in a rat’s nest when I’m seventy-seven, sharing a bathroom and a kitchen with four people down the hall.
Next time I’m home, I’m going to meet Stan, if he’s still alive. We’ll share a bottle of wine in his crowded, squalid room, and I’ll tell him what happened.
I wonder what he’ll say.
Daniel Adler was born in Brooklyn, NY. He studied at NYU and Edinburgh University. His fiction has appeared in The Opiate, Five2One, ThoseThatThis and elsewhere. He tweets @danielryanadler.