All Stories, General Fiction

Elbows With Fishes by Leila Allison

-1-

Holly More first got drunk at the reasonably late age of nineteen. On a late summer Saturday night in 1977, he dropped in on a pair of college classmates who shared a shithole studio apartment at the base of Seattle’s Capitol Hill. The roomies extolled the virtues of “Bokay” apple wine, which sold for sixty-nine cents a bottle. Ritzy nectars such as Boone’s Farm, T.J. Swann and, Allah-forbid, Lancer’s were too fancy-pants pricewise for students who earned $2.10 an hour at Work Study jobs. That left MD 20/20, Night Train, Thunderbird and Bokay. Since the first three were what the Pioneer Square bums drank, the guys went with the Bokay. Holly later found out that Bokay was the wine of last resort amongst the Pioneer Square bums.

“Elbows with fishes,” said one of the guys (whose name was either Brandon or Bradley) as a toast. It was an in-joke taken from an Anthropology prof who always went to great pains to remind his students that all peoples share humble origins. “We’re all just fishes with elbows.” Brandon or Bradley liked the soul of the phrase better the other way around. It was just something he said–His catchphrase, same sort of thing as his roomie (either Gary or Jerry) annoying habit of calling other guys “honey” even though in all other words he made his heterosexuality indisputable public knowledge.

Guess what? The Bokay tasted like gasoline, that’s what. Something close to that leapt into Holly’s mind when it was still a fifty-fifty ball whether he’d hold his first swallow down or not.

It stayed. He drank more. Got wasted. And a darkness in Holly’s mind stirred, for its time had come round at last.

“Holy Jesus, fuckin shit’s awful,” Holly gasped, yet he was already lifting his glass for more.

“You get used to it, honey,” said Gary or Jerry.

“Same way the damned get used to hell,” said Brandon or Bradley. “Elbows with fishes, gentleman. Let’s have some fun.”

Guess what? It was fun. That’s what. Few of life’s pleasures are fun the first time round. Even at last dispensing with one’s virginity is a greater source of worry than it is anything else. Ain’t nothing like that first hit, right? Ain’t nothing like watching those legendary doors of perception iris open; ain’t nothing like falling through the looking glass; ain’t nothing like “discovering” a mountain that was already old news to the local Indians back when the world was new.

About three glasses into the night, Holly found himself deeply in love with Farrah Fawcett. He seldom watched television and didn’t know the difference between Charlie’s Angels and The CBS Evening News. But he knew beauty when he saw it. And there she was, a radiant goddess in a one piece red bathing suit, smiling like a quasar in what time has judged the greatest cheesecake poster in all human history (“iconic” as said by persons who have no idea what iconic really means). Now, in 1977, that poster was everywhere you found males best described as guys. Couldn’t walk into a wall that didn’t have one. But Holly never paid the poster much mind because Farrah was one of those rare persons too perfect to fantasize about–he figured that his slouchy self esteem would throw up its hands in despair and say “Yeah, right” if he dared to “invite” someone like Farrah Fawcett to his mental theatre. Yet the strengthening Bokay urged Holly to look into it.

There was nothing sexual about this. Although that might prompt the “Yeah, right” response from the reader, it was true. Both Farrah and Holly had amethyst eyes, the sort you find in a Siamese cat. Her paper and print eyes met Holly’s and he fell into a memory. He was very young in the memory; he’d just once again awakened from the dream in which there was no anxiety, no pre-schizophrenic mother making oatmeal in the kitchen, no cramps in his belly caused by an urgent need to pee. Although he had had the dream countless times between ages six and eleven, he could never remember it. But he knew every time it had again happened due to the great emptiness he felt upon its departure and his unhappy return to an existence that was harshly over-lighted, mindlessly noisy and seemingly dedicated to tending to one little pain just to immediately contract another. Something in this woman’s eyes spoke of that dream; he could almost remember…

“You’re sweety’s nippin’, honey,” Gary or Jerry said, filling Holly’s glass. “I’d do her the favor in a pinch, but I’m partial to brunettes,” he added, motioning at a poster of comely Linda Ronstadt in a cub scout’s uniform. Beside her, Stevie Nicks was lying flat on her stomach atop a corvette.

“Had a dyke sociology major come by once to borrow a book,” Brandon or Bradley chimed in. “Called us chauvinistic swine–you know, the typical hairy-pit patter, after she got a load of the posters. Told her these girls posed for these of their own free will and for a pretty penny to boot, no doubt. Told her I thought that none of them were dumb enough to think that they were agreeing to do something that was going to hang in the fucking Lourve.”  

Holly had wanted to punch Gary or Jerry for the interruption, but he wasn’t a fighter. And just prior to taking the tipping point swallow of wine, after which such things didn’t matter anymore, he wondered what in hell possessed him to drop in on these guys. When Holly was five, his father did the old “going to the store for a pack of butts” routine and hadn’t been seen (or missed) since. Holly grew up without a male presence in his life, which had been far from unusual in the neighborhood he grew up. Maybe he didn’t hate men as much as he always felt uncomfortable around them–even “guys” like these two, who were men in only the technical sense. Holly wasn’t gay–far from, but his only real friends were female. The best friend he’d have for life often told him “You’re a lesbian trapped inside a man’s body.” He used to think that was a joke, but in time he had to wonder.

Guess what? Like life needs death to give it meaning, Saturday Night needs the same from Sunday Morning. That’s what.

-2-

Holly awoke the next morning still seated in a beanbag chair which had begun to spin sometime after midnight. There was this nasty dampness which spread from the crotch of his jeans to his lap. He’d either peed his pants for the first time since he was a baby or had vomited pure alcohol on himself in his sleep. Holly found the vomit theory the least disgusting of the two, so he went with it.

Few things are more forgiving than a healthy nineteen-year-old body. Alas, few things need forgiveness more than Bokay fortified apple wine–as well as the decision to willingly imbibe it. It’s called intoxication for a sound reason. Regardless, Holly’s nineteen-yearishness had already shrugged off most of the poison whilst he slept, and he’d be rid of the lingering aftereffects much the same way the summer sun dismisses fog well before noon. Yet there was something else, a purity of pain which clung to his mind and stayed on longer, a hushed indescribable sadness; a prophecy unveiled.

A grotesque yellow light shone through holes in the drawn shades. It made everything it touched ugly and infected. Garry or Jerry was snoring face down on a rescue sofa held together by stains and stenches. Brandon or Bradley was either dead or passed out in a lawn chair across the room. So moveless had Brandon or Bradley been that an unsmoked cigarette which had ashed from tip to filter was in his hand. The ash curled slightly forward at the top yet held steady. They say in baseball you’ll see something in every game that you’ve never seen before.  

The same can be said about the world of drunkenness: Although Holly never smoked (which placed him in a tiny minority), he remembered that ashed cigarette for life, and not once had the trick ever repeated itself.

And that ruthless yellow light peered into Holly’s memory of the night before. That was, and always would be, the worst part. Even after years of experience tantamount to worldliness accumulated in his being, he never got over a drunk’s tendency for the astonishingly casual spilling of dark secrets. On that first Saturday Night, he had spoken freely of his mother’s suicide to guys whose names he had a hard time keeping straight–an off-limits topic he steadfastly avoided sharing with the few people he’d loved for life. What felt like freedom, had in fact been a cheap escape, fool’s gold put to words and music. And those tears he had shed were just a part of the act; tears that were dishonest and shameful accomplices in a naked grasp for attention. In time Holly came to embrace Fitzgerald’s definition of dissipation: “the act of turning something into nothing.”

Holly rose and tied the windbreaker he had worn the night before around his waist to conceal the stain. Before going, he approached the Farrah Fawcett poster that had almost revealed the only secret worth knowing the night before. She remained every inch smiling perfection–so flawless that it somehow detracted from her perfection. Yet in the yellow light her eyes still spoke to him, this time not of was and when, but of that darkness inside him whose time had come round at last. Holly understood. His future contained many Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings; he was at the start of a journey on a path so old and set that it was indistinguishable from fate. Before her eyes permanently set in the expression captured by the camera, they radiated a mixture of pity, compassion and, yes, convivial humor.

Holly laughed a little. “Guess what?” he said. “Elbows with fishes, that’s what.” 

Leila Allison

Image: Google images

5 thoughts on “Elbows With Fishes by Leila Allison”

  1. Hi Leila,
    I always like stories that give me references that bring back memories.
    You may think I’m going down the Charlie Angels perving route but no.
    In order of shite booze that I can remember (For so many reasons) our youngsters depending on their teenage years weaned themselves on:
    Scotmac – Thunderbird – Merrydown Cider – White Lightning – M/D 2020 – Buckfast – Dragon Soup. (Out them all, I’ve only ever drank White Lightening – I know it’s alkie juice but it is actually a very nice dry cider)
    I think every country or maybe even city has had kids drinking these types of drinks through the years.
    I thought the reference about life being about Saturday nights and Sunday mornings was very poignant. When I think back, most of my memories revolve around the weekend and never my working life. Hah! – May see why I am where I am!!
    I liked this, it had a rawness to the situation and any self revelation came through the situations he found himself in more than any deep meaningful thinking.
    It also made me smile when puking on yourself was more acceptable than pissing yourself.
    I’ve never lost control of my bladder and I considered being sick being disqualified.
    Oh and if I was pushed regarding Charlie’s Angels, Farah didn’t do it for me. Jaclyn Smith was the most stunning out the three but there was something about Kate Jackson.
    I really need to get the box set of ‘The Six Million Dollar Man’!!
    Brilliant as always Leila.
    Hugh

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    1. A toss of a bouquet to Diane for locating a picture of Bokay.
      I only have second hand information from my grandmother on the subject of cheap wines. I was as cheap as anyone, but I started my underage drinking career on bottom rung lagers– like Lucky, which you could get a “Big Six” for two dollars. Hell, I’d still tip Luckys if I could find them.
      I think that the worst possible “hazmat” awakening was accomplished by Spud in Trainspotting. It looked as though a bottle of Hershey’s syrup had exploded in the bed.
      Thank you,
      LA

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      1. thank you – it’s fun seeking out the oddities. Also thank you for that very visible image of the Trainspotting scene. I haven’t watched the film for just those sorts of reasons – eurgh. Take care

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      2. Finding Bokay was impressive. As far as the film goes, it is a brilliant one but also contains two, maybe three of the nastiest non-violent images ever placed in a major motion picture.
        Regards, LA

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  2. That part about the confession to his drunken friends rings very true. “Fools gold put to words and music.” But saying it did make a difference. Interesting and I think ironically sensitive look at the end of a boy’s teenager hood in the seventies.

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