The Drinker by Paul Cezanne
Just like the old days! A party! I hadn't been to anything like this since, well, since the 1970's had turned the corner and disappeared slowly back up into its own abyss of lost and wasted lives.
Maybe it was even the 1960's!
"Welcome to Birtha's Bar", a high, excited voice beckoned me.
"Ah, Bertha!" I ventured.
"Birtha, with an i." said she, eyeing me with a light-hearted baleful look.
"Oh, why, an i?" I singsong rhymed, grabbing myself a glassful of carrot-coloured concoction, which I later learned was in fact carrot juice, laced with gin.
"I've been rebirthed," said she, and introduced me to the others in the bar. The bar was indeed like an ordinary-looking bar but of course, it didn't have a licence. Roger told me that when he invited me to come out here, to get me out of the house-husbanding rut that I had been niched into for too many years for me to count comfortably without breaking out into a cold leathery sweat of disinterested boredom.
Birtha's bar was situated in Port Parawera, a small seaside community east of the city. It had long been a haven for dopers, no-hopers and people with quirky life-styles and philosophies. It had been said that well over half of the female population were lesbians who met every Sunday in the former masonic hall to smoke dope and do yoga.
"We started up the bar so that people wouldn't have to drive over the motorway to the Green Bay Tavern and risk killing themselves and others. Or getting picked up." Birtha added, explaining to me and a couple of other newcomers: "The police turn a blind eye to the bar."
Birtha introduced us to Freddie the Brewer, a short, big shouldered chap with thin features who made the home brew for the bottles and kegs. I'd seen him before somewhere. He had been an insipid looking fellow in those old flower power days when everybody was into Zen and dope, and the women were into solo parenthood with a vengeance. Freddie's eyes then were like imploding waterfalls. Black drapes hung from the ceiling of his student flat. Green and yellow bulbs were strung low from from the ceiling and the inevitable stained mattresses lying in the corners of the room had been busily unstuffing themselves. Hendrix, Joplin and Monk blared out and the atmosphere had been 'total'.
"Hey, didn't you vanish?" I asked Freddie.
"Where? ...here I am!" said Freddie, who admitted to having the second name of Brownley, long since forgotten and not known by any of this bunch here. There was a lot of speculation at the time. Some people thought he might have overdosed then rotted away somewhere. A body was found in some bush north of the city some years later. That re-fuelled speculation as to Freddie's fate. There were no dental records because Freddie had never been to a dentist. Still hadn't by the look of him.
"Oh well, you lose 'em, you find 'em." I said, disposing of the glass of carrot juice pickled in gin concoction hanging limply and unwanted in my hand. I grabbed a plastic glass from the bar and filled it with home brew.
Birtha had changed very little. The rank thinness of her features was accentuated by deep ravines entrenched in her neck. Her hands had strong splotchy dark coloured muscles overlaid by yellow veins. The bones in her body appeared to be bursting to break into the hollow muzziness of the bar.
Now we were into the '90s, it appeared Birtha had finally achieved private means for herself. Her main occupation was in running the bar twice a week and feeding the poker machines at the Green Bay Tavern. A Trust company apparently looked after her income. I suppose all of that gave Birtha the feeling that she didn't have to do anything much in order to justify her existence. I knew the feeling, when one's self-esteem seemed to drain away. The feeling of not being needed for anything. I knew, though, there was an instinct for survival that told me that it didn't matter about not being wanted.
These days the rage was the New Age. No more flowers, dope, conservation, multi-person relationships, OD's and crash pads. Now it was "caring" relationships, usually with the same sex, dope, and broken down beach cottages. Gone was the purity of greenie politics, peopled part time by by people who doubled as brain surgeons, barristers, history lecturers, honours students in money and economics and who were often beneficiaries of large estates. I must admit I had gone along with the flow at the time. Now, pushing the wrong side of the half century mark, here I was married to Laura who tutored at the medical school. We had children late. Two girls and a boy who was into Dungeons and Dragons.
So here I am, trapped in a concrete suburban blockhouse with large aluminum windows looking out over the double garage towards the screaming, farting, spitting motorway. Airliners hovered overhead like flies circling raw meat. I did the washing, cooking, developed reasonably healthy neuroses and avoided social gatherings like they were the plague.
Birtha had moved with the times. But I wonder, had anything really changed? I saw Lewis over in the corner. He had been an intense psychology student in flower power times. Always questioning existence, religion, the meaning of life and all that. I moved over to have a listen. A fulsome girl with red hair was leaning over him intensely.
"...Could God be a woman, do you think?" she asked.
"Oh, no, not really."
"Well, we wouldn't be calling her him, would we?" said Lewis.
Good enough, I thought, warming to the conversation.
"You're just like the rest—a woman hater." red hair said petulantly.
"Mind you", said Lewis, "a woman God might have done a far better job..."
"Oh, yes..." Red hair hung on, her eyes little bright orbs.
"Just a pity he's a man, that's all." said Lewis.
Lewis hadn't lost his touch. I grinned at him. Red hair introduced herself to me as Rosalie. She sucked on a roach somebody nearby handed to her and looked me up and down.
"Where you from." she demanded.
"Home." I said.
"What do you do?" she asked.
"A woman's work." I said mock sourly.
"You think you're God or something?" Rosalie pouted.
Rosalie pouted and turned to talk to someone else. I listened. Gretchen, a nicely proportioned girl with fine black hair was talking about "TT" in modern nursing. What's that, you might ask.
"TT, or Therapeutic Touch, in nursing, asserts the patient's right to access the full range of caring and healing interventions. It is a response to complementary modalities as far as patient driven needs are asserted..."
"But what is it?" I asked.
Gretchen fixed me with a steely un-nurse like glare, "It means soothing and curing with hands." she said. The conversation turned to the alleged proof of the powers. Rosalie brought up the experience of the 'power water'.
"...and so he held the jar with his hands and the energy was transferred into the water. Then the water was poured on to the plants, stimulating plant growth and enzyme production."
"Water makes plants grow anyway." I interrupted. "Hey, anyway, glass is an insulator—it doesn't conduct electrical energy..."
There was a silence.
Rosalie spluttered. "Ah, but it must be a nonelectromagnetic specific biological energy..."
"Ah, sure." I said. "You people—if you can't find a scientific explanation for something, you choose an unscientific one."
Then they got on to blue light.
"People feel better under blue light." stated Gretchen. She was referring, presumably to blue flourescents in hospitals and clinics. She described the huge database that had been collected in the USA about the effects of light on health. It reminded me about when they changed the red telephone boxes to blue ones, here. That resulted in less of the blue ones being smashed. I was not willing to concede the point about blue light and healing, however.
"Sure." I said. "Blue's real good. Especially on a nice day when there's no clouds about."
Rosalie shrugged and reached for the roach again, sniffed it and threw it away. Gretchen went away to the bar. I looked around. Somebody had put on some non-threatening, unobtrusive music. Enya or something, I recognised it. My wife used it as a relaxant along with her Chateau de Cardboard after a hard day at the office, while I fussed around with the tea for the kids. I went in search of another beer. Nothing had changed. From adulation of the real power of nature in flower power days to the real, or unreal power of the mind, and magic rocks and things, in this New Age.
A self-centering process had now settled in. The rush of technology in recent years, with its sheer maddening complexity, had frightened people half silly. It had shaken loose the security they used to have in their own mind processes. They were breaking free from the sciences that had been used to construct the social and political menaces that were now constantly threatening them.
The job market had crashed. A whole generation had become disgorged from the mainstream.
From 1978 to 1990, the unemployment rate had shot up. Before that anyone with half to three-quarter brain power could get a job somewhere. Now the "missing generation" was untrainable and unwanted. It was a world geared for full employment where tens of thousands were unemployed. The "unemployment boom" was directly related to the growth of the New Age phenonomen.
Now the New Age was turning back into business. Telecom, the Electricity Corporation and other big utilities had high powered New Age people from the USA coming here to hold motivational seminars based on New Age ideas. Their executives were compelled to attend. They were starting to give the catchcry, "Maximum Commercial Advantage" a brand new meaning.
I tuned into a conversation at the bar. Sam was pot-bellied, with grey baggy pants, red horn- rimmed glasses and a blue check bush shirt. He had been an accounts executive for an advertising agency and had done a lot of consulting work for past governments.
"...so, Luke, after I had spat the CV out from my computer, I wrote my letter of application. Do you know how many letters of application I have written?"
"No, but carry on." I said, interrupting. Sam turned to Luke.
"Never mind how many. On this one I put 'Reasons I should be employed by you' with a box to tick after each one. First, 'I have been out of a job for ten years and have bills to pay and deserve a break'. Second, 'My wife is pregnant again and we have been unable to keep up our lifestyle requirements'. Thirdly, 'I need a job to get out of the house because the home brew I make all the time is killing me'.
We laughed and waited in anticipation for the next bit.
"Reasons why you should not employ me." Sam went on. "First, 'I'm too old', Second, 'I'm a male' and thirdly, 'I'm over qualified'." Sam looked at us and smiled. "Guess what boxes they ticked?"
"Oh, the last three of course." we said.
"No, none. None at all. A computer generated person simply sent me a letter saying 'Thank you—but, sorry...' and so on. They didn't even have a sense of humour!"
Sometimes, Birtha's bar stayed open until nearly five in the morning. My wife was still out of town at her motivational seminar. I stayed on. The vegetarian pies in the pie oven had long gone. Birtha produced some raw steak somebody had brought with them. She spent some time with helpers shredding it through a grinder. After the raw steak had been marinated in sherry, it was spread on nice fresh buns. I didn't have any. Everybody else did.
The pool table had been well patronised. The more earnest of the players including John the sculptor and Ron, who had the best and most secure enclaves of good-growing dope around, went off soberly in their red HQ Holden ute.
I went over to the girl who had a set of crystals. She would hang them in front of you while you peered into the depths of her tidy little breasts. Lucilla, as she was called, put up a good case for the viability of the power of her 'hot rocks'.
"Of course you can't measure the power of the crystals." she said. "Some things are unmeasurable. It's called orgone."
"...a fancy name for the unknown?" said someone.
Gretchen the nurse overheard and pounced. "Hey, orgone is in the hands, not rocks. "It's in the healing hands!"
Aware of my nuisance value and eager to get into the act to while away time, I ventured the opinion that only Gaia, the Mother Earth, or female respondent of God on high, knew or could measure orgone. Or anything else for that matter. This was because Gaia was part of the system of rocks under our feet. Gaia, the womb of the people. Soon there was a raging controversy around that corner of Birtha's bar.
"The man God rules the heavens and the woman God is Gaia, our earth." I said loudly, warming to my subject. "Mr & Ms God, in short. Everybody is happy. Men and women have each got a God. No conflicts about faith and deity, any more."
There was a stony silence.
"Who invited him?"
At that, I slipped away and went into one of the little side rooms for a look to see what was happening there.
Something was, alright. Birtha, who was now quite drunk, was in earnest confab with a full- figured woman. They were grabbing and fingering each other. They didn't see me.
"Look, come on, take me..." said Birtha to the full-bodied woman. Birtha dropped her trousers and stood there in all her glory. The action was hotting up. I didn't wait to see what would transpire. There are some things in this world one does not wish to contemplate. I went back to the argument about rock crystals, hands, Gaia and God. It was difficult to tell who was winning. The raw meat was all gone. Freddie the Brewer had departed with his barrels and bottles, driving away in his antique two cylinder Bradford. Chug-popping up the gravel drive and into the main drag.
I decided to stick with good old sedate suburbia for a few more years. Maybe I could get with all this stuff when I was going senile and it didn't matter any more. Roger had gone home long before. Someone else gave me a ride home. It was the flat-nosed thin girl with the long swishy blue dress. I semi-drunkenly shouted at her not to smoke in her car because of my sinuses and asthma. She ignored me. I wondered, idly, if she had warm, healing orgone hands.
To reward her for being so kind as to take me home, I invited her around to tea the next week.
My wife could do the cooking this time. A man had to have a rest sometimes.
Trevor lives in Dunedin, New Zealand, on the 45th parallel south, and has been writing and publishing for 32 years. Stories, poems, articles and reviews have appeared in many print magazines in the UK, USA, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada during the '60s through to the early '80s. He began working life as an accountant and in management but with further study in philosophy and English, quit the world of commerce for literature and the arts... and literary administration. Former editor of "Cave" international print magazine, Otago University Review (New Zealand) and active as a book publisher (over 50 literary and general titles), exporter and importer of literary and general books, from 1971. Published New Zealand's first anthology of women's poetry, Private Gardens in 1979. Trevor has an abiding interest in genealogy and, with his wife, Judy Wolfe, saving the world from large hydro dams. He and Judy edit Southern Ocean Review, NZ's first quarterly international on-line magazine of literature and the arts.