Wine on Ice, Part 3

The Cliff Room, Cancer, and Sombreros on the Mesa

Matt Kettmann

When they told me I had cancer — and before I was led into the muddled forest where the wild things are inscrutable chemotherapy strategies, radiation assaults, and outlandish collateral damage — I sold my car and booked passage to Australia, there to float above the largest living thing on the planet. That trip to the bottom of the world ended with me in a coma somewhere in Bali, waking up at an unheralded dawn, strapped to a gurney, naked except for the sort of diaper in which Jesus and Gandhi died. I was in Singapore, and why had the nurses hidden my wedding ring? And then all the other things I missed suddenly, desperately — my passport, my cash, my youth, my health. But then, my wife appeared with some luck and some true friends who saved what is now the rest of my life.

I learned to walk again in Santa Barbara — to take to the alleys and the backstreets, avoiding the rare hill and identifying the sunny side of the street. Or I took the bus. There is much to be learned on the bus. Here, it is democratic and popular with the poor, working men and women, the disabled, tired cyclists, and hopeful pilgrims like myself on their peculiar way to the oncology floor at a hospital called Cottage. The drivers are invariably helpful and happy. People leave the front seats empty for the elderly and the indisposed. There is an unarticulated comradery among the riders. Maybe the same brotherhood exists among owners of BMWs, but I doubt it.

I went down to the ugly depot and caught the number 13 to the Mesa, there to meet with my mad philosopher at the Cliff Room, sandwiched between a fine used book store, a Taco Bell, a sushi restaurant named Ichiban’s[CQ], a liquor store, and a tapas bar. Inside, it’s as dark as it should be, so I paused by the jukebox to let my corneas do their job. There was a deafening hair band playing on said machine. Since no one else was in the bar, I asked the bartender if he would turn it down. He did. I ordered a glass of house red and a tumbler of ice. He brought it over, and I pulled out the New York Times but kept my right eye on the door.

He came in, as I suppose I did, wrapped in a nimbus of glare and the sounds of traffic on Cliff Drive. He nodded to me and sat to my right, nearer the door that closed and sealed off the light and sound. He was wearing a sombrero and a UNLV T-shirt. His hair was still dyed. His eyes were spooky blue. In the beer sign light, he looked younger than he had at Joe’s, but that is why there is such light. He ordered a Long Island Iced Tea, which, by any standard, is a cry for help or at least attention; the sombrero was another. He drank the vile thing in a three heroic gulps, and his eyes were no longer so blue.

What’s with the hat?

It’s a sombrero

I know. You know Mexicans don’t wear those things unless they’re in a parade or a mariachi band.

You sure?

I am. Did you go to school in Vegas? What was that like?

No, I worked in Henderson. I was a blimp repairman.

Of course you were.

They are beautiful things, blimps. A triumph of chemistry and architecture. They make these colossal shadows in the desert that fool snakes and prairie dogs into thinking that evening is gathering. They start hunting at the wrong time. Blimps have all the attributes of grace. They’re quiet and clean.

He ordered another lethal cocktail. The walls of the Cliff Room are red, punctuated by black-and-white photographs of athletes, old fishermen, the Mission in the ’30s. The stools weren’t anchored, the Christmas lights still up. There was a joke about credit and how it didn’t exist here. How many days until St. Patrick gets his. The bartender hung at his end of the bar by the trivia machine and a suitably butt-scarred pool table.

The Former Blimp Mechanic took a desultory but considerable swig of the cocktail and said he was going out in back “for a smoke.” I paid the machine a dollar, and it played “Gimme Shelter,” “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” and “Season of the Witch.” I went back to the Times. I wasn’t all that surprised when he didn’t come back. For reasons I don’t understand even at this moment, I felt obligated if not compelled to settle his bill with the mostly mute bar man.

It was very bright outside on Cliff Drive. There were wired-in teenagers on skateboards, old people crabbing along in their walkers, business guys, and students saying, “Awesome.” And the girls in their summer dresses. It was hot and bright, and my corneas were challenged again. I moved toward the bus stop. I was ready for a nap and another of the afternoons where I sit with a book on a balcony, waiting for the next flip-flop to drop.


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