“Stand up . . . stand up . . . stand up mate! You’re sitting in a fucking pile o’ piss!” Two tattooed arms forklifted Walter to his feet. He staggered to a nearby canal where he again collapsed to the ground. He crawled on his belly to the canal’s edge, then evacuated his demons into the water—about four still-semi-solid pot brownies.
“God damn it. Now you’re really fucked,” the Aussie stranger said. “The locals don’t take lightly to tourists chundering in their canals. That’s what these dunnies and rubbish bins are here for. You’ve really got your head on backwards don’t cha mate?” He went over to Walter. “Come on, we’ve got to get out of here before the police find you.”
He helped Walter to his feet again. Walter stood like a wobbly fawn. The unknown Aussie put an arm under him for support. “Holy shit you reek,” he said. “Can you make it a few blocks? I’ve got a flat up the road; let you clean up and get your head on straight if you’d like.”
Walter’s head was still spinning from his nosedive back into reality from inner space. As his vision stilled, his rescuer came into focus. He was a mustached man, about the same age as Walter. His mouth rested in a permanent smile with a severe gap in the middle, which was periodically interrupted by the cigarette he was smoking. His medium build was dressed in black from his ragged Cleveland Indians cap to his dirty and frayed Vans shoes. His unkempt hair stretched out wildly under his hat and his jeans only reached his ankles. His pulled-back black flannel sleeves revealed an extensive collage of horror movie figures, obscure metal bands, and bizarrely, more Ohio sports teams. He was part clown, truckdriver, and bum. There was something frightening about him, yet also congenially welcoming as if he was a chimera stuck between two orders of character.
“Do I know you?” Walter asked.
“No you don’t, but now you do. I’m Dug, Dug DeMargo. And that’s spelt D-U-G. You can thank my illiterate mum for that.”
“Okay…” Walter said still confused. “Then why are you…”
“Saving you? Don’t know exactly myself. I’m a wee drunk, but it seems the right thing to do. I’ve never laid down in the bottom of one of these dunnies, but sure felt like it many times. It was so dark I almost pissed on ya until you suddenly started talking to yourself—or somebody. Whoever it was, ya had me in stitches mate. The least I can do is help you out for the entertainment. So how ‘bout it?”
Walter stared at him questioningly.
“What?” Dug said. “You afraid I’m going to take you home and pull some Buffalo Bill shit on you? Ha! No, I just wanna take that purty face of yours to bed.” Walter’s eyes widened. “Sorry, just kidding. Never mind me. I’ve just got a sick sense of humor I suppose. But really, nothing nefarious, just one mate trying to help another mate. Just adding to my collective of karma you could say. Never know when you’ll need a withdrawal. Plus, I don’t think you’re in any shape to be on your own. You can barely stand and you’ve got puke and piss all up and down ya.”
Walter looked down and realized he was right.
“But your choice,” Dug said. “Just thought I’d offer. I’m just as fine leaving you here and letting you be someone else’s problem—most likely the police.”
With a broken cellphone, no clue where he was, and no recollection of the hotel he was staying in, Walter was desperately in need of a savior, and indeed Dug was a savior for the desperate. All points of logic advised against going to some stranger’s home in an unknown foreign land. However, cluelessly combing the streets covered in excrement didn’t seem much better. And a shower did sound so nice.
“I guess you’re right,” Walter said. “Uh, thank you. Thanks a lot. My name is Walter.”
“Walter? What are you a seventy-year-old man? I’m gonna call you Walty. And don’t mention it. It’s been a shit night anyway, so I’m willing to throw the dice on a dose of different. C’mon, this way,” Dug said and skipped away.
“So you like the Indians?” Walter asked, seeking to learn more about his new friend. “You don’t sound like you’re from Ohio.”
“That obvious, huh? Nope, from a little place in Queensland, Australia called Edmonton—nothing like its Canadian counterpart. I had a roomie back in uni from Cleveland who turned me onto them and all American sports.” Dug tore out his right arm from his flannel and pulled up his shirt sleeve to reveal a huge Cleveland Browns helmet tattooed on his upper arm and a Cavs logo on the inside of it. “Naturally, all of Cleveland’s teams became my favorite . . . So lemme guess, you’re from Cali-for-nee-ya?”
“Is it that obvious?” Walter said.
“Yes, all you Cali-for-nee-yans look and sound like people in the movies.” Dug paused in front of an upscale Victorian apartment complex.
“Is this your place?” Walter asked.
“Yep. Not a bad little shag pad, huh?” Dug said, then waved an electronic fob over a sensor on the entrance to the foyer. He then ran his fob over another sensor to the elevator, and they took it to the top floor, then went to a door at the very end of a long hallway, where Dug waved his sensor again to unlock it.
When the door opened, the polarity of Dug continued to perplex Walter. In contrast to his black attire and disheveled appearance, the immense apartment was colorfully and immaculately styled in loud tones of red, orange, and dark blue. From a windowed balcony door, the Herengracht Canal was visible, and the lighting of an overpass below cast the room in a charm that one could only compare to Christmas—even if you weren’t a fan of it.
“Shoes off,” Dug said. “And don’t even think about sitting on anything with those stinking fucking clothes . . . Here, you can put ‘em in this.” He handed Walter a trash bag from the kitchen. “Shower’s down the hallway, and I’ll get you some new clothes and put ‘em in the guestroom for you. We look about the same size…” He then looked Walter over puzzlingly. “Shit, now that we’re in the light, you actually look like you could be my brother or something. But what’s up with those hideous flares mate? You go to a throwback party before this or something?”
“I’ve always worn bellbottoms—or ‘flares’,” Walter said. “Many have tried to get me out of them Dug, but bellbottoms are just a part of who I am.”
“Ha, right! Probably because they’re so goddamn tight.”
The shower was a renewing lift, just enough of home to help Walter find the rest of his mind. After, Dug showed him the guest room—or as he called it, the “Box Room”. Dug ran a small indie record label and it was chocked full of boxes of records, shirts, and other paraphernalia. Boxes were stacked neatly three to four high along every wall of the room. Other than a queen-sized bed and a small nightstand, the boxes were the room’s only inhabitants.
“It’s nothing big,” Dug said of his operation. “Just a grassroots type of thing. You probably never even heard of the bands, real off-the-wall metal stuff, jazz, hard house—stuff no one listens to.”
“Seems more than a grassroots type of thing to me…” Walter said gesturing to the elaborate abode around them.
“Well,” Dug said aloofly, “let’s just say I come from some money, and that’s what pays for the digs. This…” he gestured to the boxes, “this is just my rich kid pet project you could say . . . But anyhow, here’s some pants, socks, and some unworn undies I had,” he said throwing them on the bed. “Feel free to take whatever shirt you want out of these boxes here, but only these ones,” he said pointing emphatically to four boxes of band shirts on the right-side wall. “Anyway, I’ll leave ya be now.”
The pants Dug gave Walter were highwaters like his. While he wasn’t fond of them since they showcased his cankles instead of hiding them, his bellbottoms were irredeemably soiled.
For his shirt, he found one in the box of mediums with a woman and words painted on it which stirred his imagination as to the band behind it. The woman was feral-looking and blue-skinned, with wild red hair and four arms centered between two encircling, orange butterfly wings. She was formed from a chaos of splashed paint and organic matter which looked to be swirled into ten-thousand more, tinier worlds of chaos and organic matter. Her eyes seemed to follow his as his head moved back and forth over the shirt. He then faintly heard music in his head and a voice he imagined was her. She then began singing his thoughts into lyrics as if she was reading his mind.
He put down the shirt.
He took a few deep breaths and shook his head. Perhaps it wasn’t completely cleansed of bad chemicals yet. He then picked up the shirt again and read the all-lowercase Sanskrit-like print ringing the image:
to say life has no meaning is not to say it has no value – luna hunny
Why did that sound like an answer to a question he didn’t know he was asking? He then remembered. Amber’s suicide note.
“Who is Luna Hunny?” Walter asked Dug as he came out of the room. Dug was in his kitchen, behind an island counter, pouring himself a beer from a tap built into it. Dug’s eyes shot up quickly, and for a moment Walter thought he saw a flicker of panic in them.
“Uh, sorry, what’d you say?” Dug asked.
Dug squinted at the shirt. “Bloody hell if I can remember,” he said. “I’ve had so many bands over the years, I can’t remember ‘em all. I’m mostly just a European distributor for vinyl reissues and bands outside Europe. I hardly ever meet bands face-to-face, and they’re always coming and going. It’s a cool shirt though . . . Care for a pint?”
“I’m good for now,” Walter said. “Just enjoying being sober again for the moment.”
“Figured, but thought I’d ask.”
Dug then viciously clamped onto his beer and guzzled it like a crocodile swallowing a small fowl. It was followed by two less rapid shots of Jägermeister, Dug seeming to enjoy them more.
“Hm-hm-hm…” he said. “Don’t care what people say about it, but Jäger is the shiz tits. Stuff tastes like Dr. Pepper and always makes me feel better. However, it’s usually also what made me feel bad in the first place. But you know, the hair of the dog that bit you or some shit. But in that case…” a large, Jack-Nicholson-like grin overcame his face—however not quite as sinister since he had that gap, “…there’s something else I need to make amends with.” He then ducked beneath the counter and reappeared with a large bag of what looked to be cocaine.
“Want some?” he offered to Walter.
“Never really been my thing, but don’t let that stop you,” Walter replied.
“Wasn’t planning to.” Dug poured a pile onto the countertop, chopped it into two fat lines, then dove into them like a seabird. After, he arose more relaxed than he’d been the entire night.
“I have a feeling you’ll want my next treat though,” Dug said and dipped again beneath the counter, coming up this time with a large glass bong blown into the shape of a nude and upside down Marilyn Monroe. Her legs were wrapped around the mouthpiece protruding from her crotch, and inserted into her mouth was the bowl. While the American icon looked absurdly degraded, it was hard to deny the awesome artistry of the piece.
“Wanna take a hit outta Marilyn’s pink bits?” Dug asked. “The finest Pineapple Express you’ll ever find. If you need up, it brings you up; if you need down, it brings you down. It’s never treated me wrong; hangovers, spins, binges, depression, anxiety—it cures it all. I swear it’s fucking magic! I got it from this Sinatra-looking motherfucker up the road. He grows it for himself and only shares it with his friends—never sells it, but I managed to get a couple of ounces by trading him some rare records.”
“Well, if I need to pick a poison, that’s the one,” Walter conceded. “And after all, I am in Amsterdam.”
“Hey, I’m not forcing you, but I guarantee you won’t regret it. Let’s go enjoy it on the balcony though. View’s much better.”
Dug’s weed was good—almost too good. But Walter had a better grip on the steering wheel this time and a companion in the passenger seat as he cruised through the celestial orbits of his thoughts. They both sat in silence, saturating the sounds around them while passing Marilyn back and forth. The top-story balcony overlooked a bend in the canal, allowing their eyes and ears to venture far into the city. Bicycle bells chimed, water lapped, a classical guitar played distantly, a group of girls giggled from below; the city was alive and murmuring with a cadenced clarity. A freeform jam of life, Walter thought.
“Ya know…” Dug turned to Walter with his index finger pointed to the air as if readying a conductor’s baton. “There’s music in the sound of life, you just have to shut up once in a while to hear it.”
“Did you just read my mind?” Walter said. “I was just thinking sort of the same thing.”
“Na mate, it’s this weed. It creates connections between people, puts ‘em on the same plane of perspective if you know what I mean.
“Yeah, maybe so . . . Either way, this is great fucking weed.”
“Walty, I don’t do anything but great—or I at least always try. God knows I’m far from perfect though.”
“At least you’ve never managed to end up in the bottom of a urinal talking to yourself covered in piss and puke.”
Dug laughed. “Well, while I’ve never managed that in a literal sense, I sure have plenty of times in a metaphorical sense. I’ve really gotten myself deep in my own shit.”
Dug momentarily lost his loose posturing and fell into straight sternality as he lit a cigarette. “My life’s full of fuckups,” he said after exhaling his first puff, “great, giant, donkey-dick ones. But it comes with the territory of trying to live in the moment; of trying to live the most exciting life I can. And I’ve learned over the years, that my troughs, detours, and setbacks are just as important as the termini in life, because there’s no peaks without valleys if you know what I’m saying?”
Walter somewhat did, but conversing with Dug was like a game of philosophical charades.
“I’ve learned to treasure my mistakes,” he continued, “because otherwise they’ll lead your life astray from the moment. I see it all the time, and it usually has one or a mixture of three flavors: people who don’t want to face their mistakes, so they lead their lives in the future—real anxious types; ones who can’t forgive their mistakes, so they dwell in the past—real depressed types, and ones who try to mask their mistakes with someone or something else—real pathetic types. But it’s only natural. Living for yourself and with yourself goes against the very success of our evolution. We are afraid to be alone with ourselves. However, if you can find comfort in that fear, the world gradually becomes a much easier place to navigate.” Dug then relaxed back into his careless manner. “But again, I’m far from perfect, so what the fuck do I know?”
“So what ‘navigated’ you to Amsterdam?” Walter asked genuinely wondering what kind of life created Dug. He couldn’t pinpoint it, but he felt an odd sense of chirality to him.
“As trite as it sounds, a girl,” Dug replied. “But she was just the ending of a long journey and the beginning of a much shorter one. I originally came to Europe to study mathematics at Cambridge.”
“You studied mathematics at Cambridge?” Walter said surprised.
“Yeah, but in my second year I realized it just wasn’t my scene or thing, so I decided to move to Paris since it always seems to be the place where people go to figure shit out. I got tangled up in the late-night jazz scene, and about three months later I was putting together my first operation, reissuing old American jazz records that had long gone out of print. I then took on some local acts, and before you know it, I was off and running.
“Soon after that, I met this beautiful Parisian girl—and when I say beautiful, I mean damn near perfect. She also had the best ass I still have ever seen. Anyway, she was a cabaret dancer, but her true passion was painting—real abstract shit. She’d mix her vomit into the paint, along with some other things at times: semen, blood, piss—it seemed the weirder the better, and that was also her philosophy in bed too. I mean, sometimes she’d have me put four fingers right up her bumhole just to make her cum properly.” Dug held up his right four fingers and spread them. “I’d have to spread ‘em nice and wide too!” He lit off a firecracker-like laugh.
“Anyway,” he continued, “she was the freak of freaks. And I’m not gonna lie, daddy liked—actually, I loved. I loved her so much I let her convince me to move my label to Amsterdam after only a little more than six months together. She had lived in Paris her whole life, and as an artist she said she needed a ‘change of scenery’ for new inspiration, and I was happy to appease. However, three months after I moved here, she told me one day she’d fallen in love with someone else and that was it. I never found out who or how, but after a while I didn’t care. I realized it was my prick that was in love, not me, and I haven’t seen her for almost two years now. Not sure if she even still lives in the city, but despite everything, I ended up really liking Amsterdam, a lot more than Paris, so I stayed.”
Dug took a long toke of his cigarette, then blew out a perfect smoke ring before snubbing it out in an ashtray. “Anyhow,” he said, “been passing out enough pieces of me. What’s your story Walty? What was your journey to the bottom of an Amsterdam dunny?”
“I’m still trying to piece that together, but before that I was on a Contiki tour. Have you heard of Contiki?”
Dug began laughing. “Ah, you came on Contiki,” he said. “Explains a lot. There’s hordes of you idiots running around Amsterdam, but I don’t mind. Can’t tell you how many one-night stands I’ve returned to Hotel Nieuw Slotania.”
“Is that the Contiki hostel? I kind of forgot where I’m staying.”
“Jesus, and to think if I never found you? Yes, and it’s not that far. You begin walking now and you’ll be there in twenty minutes. Hopefully you stick around a little longer though. I’m really enjoying our time together. Haven’t laughed this much in a while.”
“Me too. I’m glad you found me Dug. It’s weird, but I feel like I know you from a past life or something. I was actually a physics major at UCLA.”
“Physics mate! That’s what my uni roomie from Cleveland was studying—actually still is. Sometimes he still sends me stuff to get my take on it, but mathematics is obviously a much more leisure activity for me nowadays.”
“Physics is for me too. Mind if I throw some stuff at you though?”
“Of course not! I hardly ever get to talk shop anymore.”
And so for the next half hour they did.
“Not that I’m any authority,” Dug said, “but I think you might’ve undersold yourself on theoretical physics.”
“Thanks,” Walter said. “I do miss it a lot sometimes.”
“Hey,” Dug thumped him on the chest. “It’s always still in there. You can go back any time. You don’t need school. Fuck, they’ve got MIT courses online for free now. If someone wants to become a theoretical physicist without school, it’s never been a better time.”
Dug looked at his wristwatch. “Well, surprisingly it’s only a little after midnight,” he said. “If you’re up for it, we can blab more someplace else—preferably an establishment with alcoholic drinks and some women. Plus, it is your only night in Amsterdam. But don’t worry. I won’t let you end up back in a dunny.”
“I am feeling much better now,” Walter said. “And you’re right. I do only have tonight in Amsterdam. Okay.”
“That’s the spirit mate. We’ll keep away from the Red Light District for now; go to a locals’ sector. There’s a great lounge I like. But first, shall we partake of another bong rip before we get on the bike?”
“The bike? What do you mean the bike?”
“I’ve got a custom tandem bicycle—a beach cruiser from your part of the world.”
Walter let out a belly laugh. Nothing could’ve sounded better to his stoned mind than a tandem bicycle ride through Amsterdam.
After pulling it out of his garage, Dug threw his leg over the beastly tandem. It was the gaudiest thing Walter had ever seen. It was more motorcycle than bike, painted candy gloss white with red pinstripes running down each of its oversized fenders. Attached to the front handlebars was a chrome headlamp, large enough for a motorcycle, and a basket with a built-in stereo. Dug flicked a switch in the center of the handlebars and the bike became accented with more red and amber lights than a semi-truck. “Safety first,” he said. “You ever ridden a tandem?”
“No, can’t say I have,” Walter said.
“Well, you’re in for an adventure. But first, some rules. First, the bike paths can be hairy, so leave the piloting to me up front. As you can see, you also have handlebars, but they are connected to my seat, so if you try to steer them, the only thing you’ll be steering is my arse, and you’ll knock me off balance if you do. Rule two is synchronicity. Peddle with me and not against me. And lastly, don’t ring your fucking bell unless I say so. Now get on.”
Walter threw his leg over the beast and sat on the over-cushioned seat. “All right, position yourself…” Dug said, “…and on the count of three, we’ll take off . . . One, two, three!” The bike had a wobbly launch, nearly tipping over. By instinct, Walter tried to correct by steering. “Whoa! What’d I say about steering?” Dug shouted back. “Never fails, I swear.”
The streets of Amsterdam welcomed them back warmly. A slight breeze carried the sounds of a city still very much awake at twelve-thirty in the morning as the enormous bicycle floated down the paths like an old, cushy Cadillac. Cool wind tickled every follicle of Walter’s scalp and stretched his cheeks into a broad smile. The sky had cleared, leaving a dark backdrop for the evening’s show of stars, while Dug blasted Queen’s “Bicycle Race” on repeat and barked incoherently at the moon. People’s reactions to the bike were mixed; they either shook their heads at its ridiculousness, or chimed their bells with approval as they passed by. In the latter case, Dug would shout, “Ring the bell!” and took a swig of Jäger from his bottle riding shotgun in the basket.
They crossed over three major canals, then went through a network of back alley residential streets that ended at a line of local dives and restaurants along an intersection of two smaller canals. As they drew closer to one dive, Walter was hit by music and a voice unlike any his ears had ever heard. A funky rhythm line loped like a three-wheeled jalopy, while a wild vibrato snarled with sensational emotion. The music and voice then lifted like a geyser. “California!” The word waterfalled over the air. “California!” it spouted again.
“What bar is that?” Walter asked Dug.
“The one with the music.”
“Some old man’s blues joint. You don’t wanna go there. It’s horrible. No girls, only grimy old men.”
“But that sounds like a girl singing . . . God, that voice, it’s-it’s . . . I don’t know, but it’s doing strange things to me. It’s so moving, yet strange and sexual all at the same time. I’ve never heard anything like it. We have to stop.”
“Believe me,” Dug said noticeably frustrated. “You do not want to go there. It’s not a place for tourists, just a lot of old men and seedy scumbags who will probably pickpocket you the moment you step in. Where we’re going is much, much nicer; a lounge full of fine women who get drenched at the sound of an American accent. Don’t worry, we’re almost there.”
“But I’m more of a dive bar type of guy anyway. Can’t we just check it out?” Dug ignored him and kept pedaling. “Dug!” Walter shouted. Dug turned up the music and remained unresponsive. “Fucker!” Walter said then pushed back on his pedals and gave his handlebars a sharp jerk to the right.
“What da fack!” Dug yelled as the bike went squirrely. Unable to regain control, it eventually ejected them off, and came crashing down on its side, its bells shrilling painfully as it skidded down the pavement.
“What the fuck did you do that for?!” Dug screamed.
“I’m sorry,” Walter said. “I don’t know what came over me. I just wanted you to stop.”
“Well, we’re stopped! You happy?! Jesus Christ, I save you, bathe you, and clothe you, and you repay me by wrecking me bike? You’re a real fucking wanker, you know that? . . . My baby!” Dug cried as he lifted the bike and inspected it over for damage. “Great. I’m gonna have to get it repainted now. Look at all these scratches.”
“I’m sorry Dug. I’m really sorry. I don’t have a lot of money, but I’ll give you everything I have left for repairs. I’m so sorry.”
Walter’s beggarly face seemed to soften Dug a little. “Oh fuck, it’s fine,” he said. “It’s not that bad I suppose. I can probably paint ‘em over myself. But just why Walty? Why would you do that when I’ve been nothing but a mate to you?”
“I don’t know,” Walter said just as confused. “I just wanted you to stop so badly. It was like this sudden urge. Then when you ignored me something came over me…”
Walter’s attention trailed back to the music which had continued to chug along unchanged. Dug noticed and shook his head cynically.
“Please Dug?” Walter begged again. “Just a song or two? It’s my only night in Amsterdam. Shouldn’t we be spending it how I want to?”
“No. You lost that privilege when you decided to crash my bike.”
“It seems I never had that privilege to begin with.”
“Well, if it was any other bar, I’d be fine, but not that one. Really, I’m looking out for you. Remember, I’m supposed to keep you out of trouble, and that bar is not a tourist-friendly place. C’mon, the other place is just five minutes more up the road.” Dug then put his leg back over the beast.
Inside, Walter was being torn apart. The music—and especially that voice—had gaffed his heart and wouldn’t let go.
“Fine,” Walter said after a while. “If it’s five minutes up the road, I’ll meet you there. I’m sure the big bike out front will make it easy to spot. I just need to see who that band and especially that girl is. I’m sorry.”
Dug shook his head. “Of all the bars in Amsterdam,” he said, then pressed the pedal forward, soon disappearing into the night. And like that, Walter was alone again . . . alone again.