Jesse Millner: The Bus Driver's Book of the Dead

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  MEMOIR by Jesse Millner
Polish Wedding  Devolution  Aliens Among Us  Eddie Jones  Dave   Tom MarionStarved Rock State Park  The Alcoholic Point of View   My Lost Season  Listening for God  
I Remember a Pet Peeve  Hair Salon Panic Attack! • 
Please Don't Bury Me in that Cold, Cold Ground

I Remember a Pet Peeve: Florida, 2006

Last night I told my class that everyone should experience divorce at least once. Then I told them about my own divorce, 1988, Chicago, late March. I walked from the Lake Street el station over to the Richard J. Daley Center with its rusted core ten steel and ugly Picasso guarding the plaza where a few city folks braved the early spring cold. I took an elevator to the twelfth floor, could see Lake Michigan falling away from the east windows as I walked into a courtroom for my uncontested divorce, taking in the bored judge, “in God we trust” risen above his bald head. He asked me a few questions and then it was all over; I was free from ten years of hell, free from the feminist who grew to hate me and soothed her anger in the arms of other men.

One of them, a transvestite named Les, got himself arrested once for taking his panties off in a park in Hinsdale. My wife told me that Les’ interest in female clothes began when he was a boy in rural Georgia and he saw his mother’s frilly underwear through a crack in the lime-scented outhouse, which gave him a thrill and influenced his clothing decisions for years.

I walked out of the Daley Center into an afternoon that had warmed into the 50s, so vendors were out on Randolph Street selling hot dogs, fruit, and pretty flowers. I bought myself a celebratory banana and enjoyed my first minutes of freedom, thinking it had been worth the $600 I’d forked out for a lawyer, worth the late night pleadings with my wife to sign the documents, which she did eventually, mailing them back from San Diego where she lived in a tiny house near the Pacific, and each time I talked with her, I thought of the ocean, that vast treasure of blue, and wished for her some kind of Pacific peace, like the kind Balboa must have felt when he first gazed upon that western ocean, the one that stretched all the way to spice islands and cannibals and beautiful places like Hawaii where Cook was righteously butchered.

My wife’s name was Lilliana, though for most of our marriage, she was just Lillian, and she was born in Chicago at Columbus Hospital, grew up near North Avenue and Milwaukee, the heart of the old Polish neighborhoods, and we were married at her church, Immaculate Conception, by a hippie priest named Tom who didn’t care that I was a fallen Baptist who worshipped only booze. In fact, the morning of our marriage, a cold Saturday in early January, I’d swigged down a few belts of Jim Beam before I’d imprisoned myself in my tuxedo.

I would never wear women’s clothes and I’ve never been to Hawaii. I’ve never had the urge to eat human flesh or venture to the South Pacific on worm-infested wooden ships. But what a thrill it must have been for Cook and Bly and the rest when they gazed upon that beautiful shore with the mountains falling away green and pretty women frolicking on the beach while others swam out to the Endeavor and danced upon its briny decks where no woman had been for months, and these beauties brought them many exotic flowers.

After we had separated in 1985, Lillian moved to San Diego. And for a while like one of Cook’s seamen, I, too, lusted after every woman I met. But unlike those sailors of old, I had little luck as I plied the taverns near Wrigley Field on the north side of Chicago. And because my students are so young, I’ll caution them about the perils of alcohol, how it makes you feel more attractive than you really are, and worse, how at 4 a.m. even the obese bartender looks like some glittering mermaid who’s just swum up to your own private island. But she weighed three hundred pounds and hated me because I was the last patron at the Cubby Bear Lounge, the difficult one who whined for one more drink with a tongue so heavy, she thought I’d asked for a “shrink” and wished I’d go see one and save her from consoling me over my lost wife.

I survived my rocky nights at the Cubby Bear, eventually stopped drinking in early March of 1986. But I still remember the flowers, the transvestites, the barmaids, because, as I tell my students, it’s all about the naming, and if I had to put a name on those days in Chicago, I would call that season sorrow, and maybe I’ll take back my recommendation to my students that everyone should experience divorce. No it’s really not necessary to hurt and hate another human being whom you once loved so deeply that you kissed her in the pouring rain outside her mother’s condo on Jefferson Avenue beneath a darkened sky where the planes were skidding down toward O’Hare, filled with people and their own dreams of the world, their own memories of oceans and mountains and flowers.

What a nice moment to end this, but I don’t think I’ve talked enough about Les, how I actually liked him, despite the fact that he slept with my wife and adored women’s clothes. One night at the Piano Man on Clark Street, as my wife chatted with Detroit Junior, that evening’s live entertainment, Les and I talked about pet peeves, and I told him everyone should have one, that they’re small and fluffy like lambs, and we spent four hours spinning yarns off peeves until last call when the music stopped and the tavern lights were turned on.

The Piano Man yielded to brightness, and Lillian and I walked home and Les headed over to the cheap hotel he lived in on Broadway, right next door to the Golden Apple Restaurant, a kind of cheap imitation of the famous Chicago chain, the Golden Nugget, only the Apple, by way of its uptown location, attracted the homeless, addicts, prostitutes and all the other city folks who had fallen like Adam and Eve fell from a Paradise, yes, fallen city angels whose wings were broken and whose mouths were blotted with cheap lipstick or cold sores, whose hearts hurt in the way despair becomes a physical pain, one that requires the intervention of needle or bottle or quick sex with a stranger.

I must confess there were nights after much drinking that I, too, ventured to the Golden Apple, sat in a red booth in the back near the smelly bathrooms, ordered the Denver Omelet, glistening on the plate, a greasy apparition, a vision of the food we’ll eat in heaven. Perhaps Jesus will multiply the omelets.

Can I tell you this? On those drunken nights at the Apple, when my stomach hurt from booze, and my head as if it was stuffed with cumuli or cotton, on those nights I would look around at my fallen brothers and sisters and manage to see something beautiful in our shared suffering, as pale hands shook around coffee cups, as the waitresses fanned out in every direction, delivering food and refills. As early morning traffic stopped at the intersection where Broadway splits into Sheridan, and the headlights of stopped cars splintered the Apple’s dirty windows turning every one of us into luminous creatures, into angels, the desperate kind with long haggard faces and bloodshot eyes, the real angels who have lived in this world of pain so that they might truly rise when the earth breaks open and all the nations are shattered, when the moon itself glows lonely, when the dead stars ply the empty oceans, when all the bars are shuttered, when all the whiskey on the planet flows out of broken bottles to fertilize the cold, hard ground.


© 2010, Jesse Millner

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