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Exquisite Corpse
Issue 8A Journal of Letters and Life

Monterey: Exile's Return
by Pat Nolan
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I'd taken this same road twenty years ago, almost the same road, now a sleek concrete surface that slides past Fort Ord and it's drab, outdated barracks, past firing ranges and bleachers where young troops learn to shoot, past dividers of sand and ice plant till there's a bright blast of light from the surface of Monterey Bay and the pure white dunes that line the shore, shimmering with the froth of breakers. I always forget and am startled by the memory each time I view it. The curve of the opposite shore in the distant mist where it makes the lower lip of the bay is my destination and destiny.
Near full moon
eases frail and white
out of stark blue
Following in my own footsteps, I retrace my past along the rusted rails that pass by Monterey's Fisherman's Wharf and the newly constructed convention center complex of inns and tourist traps. All this used to be cheap hotels, bars, pool and card rooms, dives, and a few of the older businesses that gave the whole waterfront part of town a lot of character and history. The old customhouse and a few of the other Spanish era adobe buildings are preserved but that's practically required by law. Everything else goes, and is gone.
Hotel where I spent
my first few weeks here
now a parking garage
I do as I have always done, before as now, the act I incorporate, the vistas overlaid one atop the other, one place to the next, it has always been important that I arrive at this one place by whatever means, no matter who, what or where. I know I am ruthless in this way and also lost in this way. The labyrinth I have created has windows that look out onto the outside and the remarkable sideshow. My only recourse is music, my escape.
Stare at the gulls posing for snapshots on piers and pilings, crowds of people weave among each other, all gazing at the sights and there's the blast of sound from someone's hand-held orchestra, some blues, as basic as the atmosphere.
Reek of fish
hawk of excursions
on the bay
sidewalk shrimp salad
one fishmonger
complains that
his bait was good
but too big
hooks a sympathetic
look at least
Phone rings forever, no one home. No one is, out of a handful of numbers I try. I've been here before, no one to call on, friends, acquaintances as if they didn't exist, the past rubbed out like some hoodlum in a blank alley. I frequented a jazz club that's no longer there and walked the streets looking at everything as I'm doing now. I had a harmonica then and I played it as I walked, making up songs. I'm much younger than that now.
Where I once
tended bar replaced
by an empty lot
Left to myself, fiction comes easy. The restaurant where I contemplated suicide replaced in the exact spot by a bridal shop, a place where I had my first taste of chili beans, where I licked the bowl, lifted every crumb off the counter with a finger tip, the feel of empty pockets and a broken heart.
I have fallen
in love in this place more
than in any other
The rusted rails leave Monterey headed toward Cannery Row, immortalized by Steinbeck and commercialized by the Chamber of Commerce. I caroused among those old deserted canneries, tried similar methods of dissipation as those of Steinbeck's characters, and came out smelling like Cannery Rose, i.e., fishy. I had a 40$ a month room above the Chinese grocery store then an antique store, now a knick-knack emporium. A padlock held the door closed, conveniences and community kitchen down the hall. The place was managed by a frustrated thespian who acted out his life in the hallway while we listened to the drama in the privacy of our rooms, the origins of the theater of the anonymous. It was a way of surviving even if it was like living under a rock. I served drinks and made sandwiches in a bar down the street when I wasn't drinking cheap wine and making wenches in the sand. An incredible luck helped pull me through some incredible messes and emotional morasses.
If I'd written a song
each time my heart broke
I'd be a millionaire today
It was here that I learned to cut it close, living on the Row after the Palace Bar & Grill closed. This was before food stamps, and the dumpsters behind markets and fruit stands were always good for a hasty salad of mostly moldy melons and some wilted lettuce. Once I scored a case of past-dated American cheese, and another time, it was a case of jars of mincemeat pie stuffing. Saltines and peanut butter were my regular fare. Potatoes. Someone always had a jug. Abalone feasts, bon fires, and revelry down on some secret beach behind the canneries. I was always losing the key to the padlock on my door and had to climb over the fence of the adjacent restaurant and then up onto the roof to get into the narrow shaft that allowed the bookshop below a skylight and me access to the window of my room. The tracks run directly behind the building, tracks I used more often than the daily train to the glass plant in Asilomar, tracks that had become my own private highway.
     The front balcony of the rooming house overlooked the Row.
     We drank our bottles, denizens of a clapboard colony, and commented on the night or to the passersby, mostly customers of the restaurant next door or the bookstore below. We were then the jazz musician, the speed freak, Inga, the exchange student, the Poundian poet, the de Maupassant vagabond, the mystery man, myself as the tambourine man, and of course, the landlord and his gin soaked wife and their three light fingered offspring. Actually, the landlord whose name was King (a stage name he kept after his departure from the boards) disapproved of the balcony barbecues we used to hold on frequent occasion.
     Once he barged into the host apartment that fronted onto the balcony and found Pound, de Maupassant, and myself innocently sipping from a cool pitcher of gimlets (it was a miserably hot day). He wanted to warn us about dropping objects onto the pedestrians on the sidewalk below. Or spitting. The thought had yet to occur to us that day and we protested that we had never done such a thing nor would we even consider it.
     If we did, King continued, he would be forced to summon the gendarmes. We were too surprised by his accusations to really be indignant. Pound extended his most sincere manner and offered King a drink which he hesitated only momentarily in accepting. Soon after a fresh pitcher and some heated conversation about the vagaries of life on the Row, an historical literary monument which was in danger of being overdeveloped by commercial interests and which King had deplored early in the conversation, de Maupassant declared that the Cannery Row should secede from Monterey and that King should run for Mayor of this new political and literary entity. He accepted the nomination graciously and left almost immediately to tell his wife who happened to be calling to him from the street below. That first step was always a little tricky and he tumbled down the dozen or so steps and through the door out onto the sidewalk.
Getting it out
of my system some of it
got into my blood
I had women then. Older women, younger women, women who had been best friends before they met me, women who had no idea how they ended up in my bed, women who were just passing through, women who came to stay, women who still will not go away. All fodder, I thought, for the literary machine. I wrote to be read back then. How naive. Now I'm a cynic who can bus from his parlor and appear, at the appointed time and place, relatively sober to go over things I've been doing lately and read some that may have already been published.
Finally a phone call
brings someone to snag me
from this reverie
I throw back another glass of wine and while the afternoon away. Stayed up late last night recalling my past. Hoarse, I passed out on the couch. Another memory of nights shivering under inadequate blankets or not enough love. The nights spent in this ozone, the bark of the sea lions down the way, lovesick themselves. Light plays its own lovely music, the fantastic shapes and formations that hover above the blue of the bay orchestrate a relaxing symphony.
Cypress sand steep hills
capture the light of water
particular houses sparkle

Shut down by a craving for electric bread, my memories are the heaviest to bear -- if it weren't for the upheave of a sigh where would I be? I wish they were as light as the voices of bees. We tiny little beings among the trees of eternity, tangled in the wild undergrowth of mindscape. Confused senses, thick, mumble. Light dwindles and I am distracted enough to think. The sympathy I deserve finally extended unlike a handshake, but of firm intent. "I'll be there" is the radio's promise of the future. Guitar warble. I float, melody-like, above my troubles. Lost for the moment, I sip and draw, the greatest of my intellectual efforts.
As it was the way
I became known
I wrote and wrote
The lights of a passing car as outside grows darker.
     Effective. Recall's preoccupation. What is was not. Now that I think of it, why not? Who cares, besides? Deep within the well of myself, my thoughts rebound with a hollow clang against the cast iron of my insides, awful, alone, and dangerous. Who would believe me anyway? "All I want is someone to hold on to" echo the sea lions. The story of my life: self-absorption, selfishness, egotism, insatiable desire. If these were my last hours, it would be a miserable statement of what has gone before.

Phone numbers
of friends and contacts
on a scrap of paper

among the fold of bills
I was afraid to lose
I listen to the records made by friends long ago, some of whom who are dead now. At that intersection of our lives, we shared a sense of destiny, of our own greatness, and dreams of success. Life was music and music was life then. My own talents were extra-musical which consisted mainly of booking dates and providing flak for which I was allowed to sit in with the band on occasion and beat the tambourine. Eventually, I worked my way up to giving the invocation, or "the word", as it was called, before the band took to the stage for the night, and for which I earned the title of "spiritual adviser". They couldn't afford a Maharishi.
There is hope in
music any kind of music
(even polka)
Lead down the garden path by my own bad humor, my footsteps falter. My chemistry shattered by who knows what. Denial as big as a tumor and just as malignant, perhaps. A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do, and often does. I had set out by thumb from the Midwest on my first real journey and landed in San Francisco, my destination of choice. At City Lights Bookstore, I had seen the poster for the jazz festival in Monterey that very weekend and had hurried down by Greyhound, a ritual I continue to this day, just to show how little things change. That was how I came to be here in the first place. It took me five years to actually attend a jazz festival seduced almost immediately on a personal odyssey that eventually took me from coast to coast, again by thumb, a marriage, a divorce, and a son in the course of it all. And once again, I found myself back here, starting all over from scratch but reborn in music. This time, too many years later, there is a silence, a dumb, unspeakable silence.

Cat steps through bamboo
leaf shadows speckle stalks
wind chimes

I followed the railroad tracks practically every day from my Pacific Grove cottage to Cannery Row in New Monterey as I do now in my imagination. The tracks, now rusted and pitted, follow the curve of the Bay shoreline out to near the tip of the peninsula where the glass plant used to be. Half way between a cove called Lover's Point and Cannery Row, an old Indian abalone mound sparkles lightly among the cypress, the shells turned to scintillating dust and flakes among the ice plant and the granite. In the center of this quarter-acre mound is a formation of lichened granite, a kind of abstract mini-lith Stonehenge I liked to call "the butterfly", a natural seat in the rocks that afforded a wonderful armchair view of the sea bashing the rocky shoreline. I often alighted here to contemplate the beauty of my surroundings. This was my spiritual home.
By myself
grim to the gills
in the swim of things

It seemed correct for the place where the Monarch butterfly is preserved and protected to have its totem configured from rock and earth at the edge of shimmering sky and sea. And I would often meditate there or sit royally and command the waves, listen to their booming replies. I ruled all I surveyed. Once I even received tribute.
     A man I knew as a writer, a novelist, happened by one day when I was at my accustomed perch. Knowing that I wrote poetry, he asked if I was still at it. I demurred from telling him the umpteen projects I was juggling inside my head as well as on my paper cluttered desk, and just admitted to collecting on the GI Bill by attending the local college. As that was my only source of income at the time, I was nearly always broke. We chatted for a while, mentioning book titles and authors, and when he left, he handed me a dollar bill. I remember accepting with only slight reluctance. In those days, a dollar would get you a pack of smokes and a poorboy of red wine.
Thrashing and
the blanket strays
from my feet
The houses in Pacific Grove are as much a part of the natural scenery as are the sea otters and sea anemones along the craggy shoreline, a shoreline that is an encyclopedia of rock formations. Their quaint simplicity is breathtaking. The tiny pointy roofed sparkling white wood houses gingerbreaded to the eaves packed closely together on the numbered streets are the remnants of an old Portuguese fishing village. Now renovated by the artistically and architecturally minded they sport more varied color schemes. Still the quaintness permeates the atmosphere, evokes a cockeyed wonderland. Set against the Mediterranean blue of bay reflecting sky makes the eyes water with the brightness of memories and the unnamed feelings they call up.
I had given up hope
someone at the other end
picked up the phone
The cottage I lived in for a time had once been the original general store when Pacific Grove had been a Methodist tent camp. It was a box about the size and shape of a railroad car with many tiny windows. It still had the original canvas ceiling, a feature anyone who visited was appraised of. They would prod and push up on it, feel it give under layers and decades of paint, and utter their amazement. The plumbing was probably original. The kitchen featured two spigots over a wide basin. The floor had rotted out in one corner hence the dip in the linoleum. The toilet was housed in a tiny closet that required that one sit sidesaddle on the commode to get anything accomplished. It was also at times a little sluggish. The walls were covered with rock posters and a friend had added a bullwhip. Someone always had to inquire why there was a bullwhip in the water closet. My answer was that when the commode acted up, we had to whip the shit out of it. Nevertheless, it was a quaint little house with storybook qualities. In the adjoining apartment lived a quiet lesbian couple with whom I had to share the one shower, and who, while always very friendly, were forever astonished and maybe a little aghast at my ubiquitous sexual activity.
Entirely new roof
over my old house
inside freshly painted
Pacific Grove lives up to its name, tranquil among the cypress, pine and eucalyptus, the tiny white houses like jewels in a setting. Miles of bright Day-Glo ice plant shoreline, salt weathered wood homes among grass tufted dunes, storm shaped cypress all contribute to scenic overload.
Narrow lane driftwood
rickety white picket fence
                    create harmonious dream
Can't shake the overwhelming feeling of loss. Can't help it. Dreary drug with the way things are. Something has left and now that I realize it, I appreciate also that it's too late. Days have come and gone, and me with them. I am left with questions of my own mortality and of the ones I love. I once belonged here. I can feel the ties. Much has changed, but surprising what has not. The wind suddenly strong disturbs the stillness. I have to give myself up. Cherchez la femme at the end of the tunnel. Afternoon, melancholy, spent. The women who loved me still do which makes it hard for the woman who loves me. That's not the point. My knees are hot. I have become undone.

Rough sputter of
lawnmower starting invades
my empty thoughts
Degenerated, an exercise in mere futility. A low point in my descent. Bounce, resilience gone. Mid-life blues or the real thing, one as bad as the other. Image problem: I see myself as I always am. Desperate conditions breed desperate solutions (wet ones). How poor I am, of spirit, of determination, morality, fortitude, patience, faith, perseverance, exactly the vitamins of conscience I'm lacking.
Sinus headache
lifts from my skull
a bowl of bright blue day
what did I do right
did I do anything
I still don't act right. My days settle down into the drag of sheer mortality. "One mint julep for me, please." The dripping Spanish moss drapes a protuberance which accounts for my Southern drawl. Stymied. The big comedown. Back home. The big event: a balloon of words rises on the heat of feeling but drops like a stone once the passion cools. Then one day, things are back to normal. In exile, silent, cunning.
How could I do it
bus sped down the highway
leaving it all behind.

May, 1982
Monterey, Monte Rio

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