Johnny Cash in the Viper Room (Cowboy Asylum)
by Mark Anthony Jarman


FOR centuries I waited inside, waited out those fierce Irish immigrants on their black Blasket rocks surrounded by waves and weird red-legged birds and Viking raiders on the horizon. I was inside them, a salty cell or two, like a tiCony starfish glued to a rock, and now I am risen in southern California, rising at dawn with a long-board to scan the surf breaks and weak peelers and some hours later I drive crowded miles on Route 1 to enlighten you re: today’s inevitably disappointing specials.

“My name is Michael and I’ll be your server,” I say, practising my new lines while bent like some hunchback, arachnid, almost on all fours surfing the rabid curl. “Do you have reservations?”

Fall into surf and the ocean eats me, but the drowned rat look is huge here. “I want us to keep in touch,” Anna said once. Sure, okay, that seems nice. I felt stupid, but later I followed her down, that north to south routine, the bottom of Canada to the top of Mexico. I have reservations, I think to myself. Many reservations.

Anna and I have a history, we walked the waxed halls of the same windowless school, we skied hazy Chinese-looking mountains together, Goat’s Eye, Devil’s Chimney, rolling numbers on the chairlift to a peak, ascending, both of us descended and decoded from those dramatic Blasketmen who got loaded on illegal batches of poteen, island families rarely even making it from the Blaskets onto the Irish mainland.

Of course high school sweethearts are doomed. Anna likes the idea of California, orange groves in the valley, the pier at Santa Monica, X and the Blasters playing Madame Wong’s club, no weather. Anna adores Rivers Phoenix or whatever his name is, has a big poster of him looking sensitive on her wall.

“Something about him seems ok,” she says, “really real, not like those phoney stars.” She wrote an essay about him for school, is a bit of a fan. But then he’s in the Viper Club washroom, a snort of Persian Brown. “This’ll make you feel fabulous.” His universe wrenched in a moment.

Those rangy-tang islanders, on the Blaskets they were just different, separated by storms, weather, separated by DNA and Blasket Sound’s four miles of treacherous water, separated by generations from that life and they didn’t care a fig. There is something different about islands. Algerian pirates landed there in the 1600s and stole flitches of bacon and stole women for slaves, harems in the Mediterranean. I pity those poor women snatched from their garden, running barefoot and nowhere to run, their universe wrenched in a moment: what kind of brutal life were those women dragged to? The orange sails by the island, a ship sailing away, the women below with the sailors. I’ve stepped on that island beach, the black cliffs and the tricky paths down to the rolling breakers, the Atlantic.

“Thank you,” I sputter as I surf, as I wipe out in the drink, the Pacific, nostrils full of saltwater. “Sit wherever you like.”

I don’t belong here in California or at this upscale lobster palace, but Anna left me in Montana, she came down here tempted by, you know, the standard list: decent burritos, the promise of deco Laundromats, the 23 year old star in O-D mode.

“I can’t breathe,” the star tells his sister Rain, “take me outside,” he says, then thrashing his fine famous head on the sidewalk for several minutes outside Johnny Depp’s club on Sunset Boulevard. That high grade Persian Brown or China White or Crystal Meth or Yukon Mindfuck, fabulous, and now the shrine to his death takes up the sidewalk. The Valium didn’t help him, he was on his own outside the Viper Room.

How many in your party? Who knows. Always a third walking with us.

Who are your people? the charming older people ask me. Our ancestors and uncles believed themselves lordly – now this is going way back – believed themselves separate from the Irish, our own island kingdoms of collision and kinships, our curraghs made of hides, such tiny boats in high waves and maritime noise and pointed kingdoms of stone, my ancestors boasting bright red sashes, black hats with flat brims, their clothes almost Spanish, flamboyant, dancers on stone and heather, and their feet dance as if always perched on a narrow boat, in their muscles, like surfing, learning tiny movements and corrections, directions home, human gyroscopes, in curraghs like dark kayaks spinning out after a few fish, a load of peat, the smell of both cargoes a given, something genetic, in you like algebra, like endorphins.

Balance comes to you, bodies come to you. Bodies nimble up high on a narrow boat, but not so nimble down in the wide water. No one can swim, no one learns that. Canada is due west of the Blaskets; Newfoundland’s trash floats there.

On their stone island brown rabbits gallop high windy paths on the cliffs and three hills, thousands of birds but no trees, no wood anywhere, imagine that, burning turf hauled from the mainland, sheep and peat piled in tiny boats, surf surging up and down greasy rocks, shore the worst spot, bodies stuck in white surf, pinned, though moving up and down, and a young woman like Anna wondering whose young brother is that? The surf eats you. Up and down, familiar bodies, their backs, face down, so close, gannets smashing water and magically out again, but the drowned brothers don’t come out again and mourners on a black cliff staring down from tiny paths beaten in grass, less and less of them left on the island and then the grandparents shipped the hell off by the Irish government and their island sold from under them like a used car.

Anna my ex is Viking blood, remnant of ancient raids, ancient rape, prow scraping the beachhead. Her form and favours, a pure product of those wars and attacks, and I can’t get her out of my blood. At high school talent night we sang a duet of “Girl From the North Country,” her doing the Dylan part, me attempting Johnny Cash.

Anna moved away, moved to Tacoma and Seattle and Calgary and Vancouver, went to college, waitressing, worked a record store in a Chinatown alley, came back home looking altered. Anna wants to travel, move on. Everyone moved on, emigrants scattered and I followed inside my people (who are your people? they ask). Anna and I were possibilities, coals glowing, codes hidden in clouds of sperm, scattered, moving. Inside of those people (my people!) I vaguely drifted through those families and famines, lived inside my grandmothers and great uncles, hurlers and coopers, lived invisibly in the DNA of demented second cousins who fought the Boers, the Huns, fought the big one, went through depression and The Depression, made it run on time. Our Canadian uncles landed puking and shooting at Dieppe and likely some other branch of Holy Roman Empire relatives shot back at them.

We were all so cold in the surf, went through the Cold War, Anna and me, shivering, goosebumps, order goose-down parkas from Land’s End.

The famously fatuous, famously crooked Irish politician owns one of the Blasket Islands now, owns an island and a yacht and stud horses on a civil servant’s salary. Stunning views of the Atlantic and Dingle Bay and Kerry’s mountains and to the south the Skellig rocks rising like glass pyramids out of the sea. The pretty lines of surf where we survived Viking raiders in the tenth century, survived the English, the Dutch, Spanish, Algerians, the priests, but the islanders can’t stand up to the 20thcentury.

In 1853 or 55 my great-grandfather sailed to America, a man following a woman the way I follow Anna from Canada. Tralee, Liverpool, Boston’s docks and the Quincy market, but they lay nauseous on separate ships. Was he too late? He followed new rails west, clicketyclack, and each tie laid on the ground a dead Irishman, a man killed working the railroad. Later I worked for the railroad, but the job got cut. My great-grandfather walked his way across a new country: the bricks of Chicago, the Minnesota Massacre, south to Show-Me Missouri and Kansas City, joining the U.S. army, cavalry, deserting the army as soon as he got out west to go mining, wandering way north to Powder River and Crow’s Nest and Butte, the mines down deep, big sky at the top of a hole, copper, silver, dynamite, fire in the hole, shafts flooding and my genes moving through good brick bars, narrow and long and dark, long godless brawls wrecking Victorian bars, oak furniture and fixtures, all that hard work and hard alcohol and devoted orgiastic destruction.

One hundred years later Anna and I touch our fingers, touch coins on those same giant mahogany bars, ornately carved and chiselled and dragged up the Mississippi and overland to tiny railroad and cattle towns that were booming, but now quietly evaporating.

In my Dad’s air-conditioned Buick LeSabre I drive to them, I will follow, an explorer, an ambulance chaser. Oh gold-rush hotel, Oh milky flyspeck windows, Oh Bitterroot Mountains! I will study bloodshot maps and eat Fred Radomski’s deer sausage and drink warm bottles of beer at the ornate bar with Anna in white pants and her glassy eyes always looking beyond me, far out the windows made buttery by a century of smoke. My great-grandfather didn’t find her, he was too late.

These lost American towns just under Canada’s shadow have a wall-eyed one-sided look: towns facing trainyards and stockyards that are vanished, vast railroad hump-yards and cow-calf schools of protein and glue and lumberyards, facing what is no longer there for the eye, though you sense all of it. The closed store, the bankrupt implement dealer, lopsided towns out of balance, like gandy dancers poised on a railroad track, like ghostly Blasketmen about to exit a rocking boat.

Dilaudid, Oxy, E, Special K, BC home-grown, Rolling Rock, Coors, gin, Crown Royal. For a while Anna and I used the border for personal gain, crossing lines, moving choice items in different directions – pills, whiskey, movies, coin-op TVs, X-Boxes – nothing serious or hard, avoiding the bigger crossings, the cameras – money to be made on both sides of the line, driving up to the Badlands, the Blood reserve, lost riverbank coal mines and dinosaur bones, way up there past the Going-To-The-Sun Highway which seems the roof of the world, though it is not the roof of the world. Canada is above, a river over a river, another world on top of a world.

Anna knows her way through yellow hills and controlled burns, a good driver, used to gravel and distance. She knows back ways and ways back, she plunges us through gaps in the map, gaps the glacier left. More room for bottles and TVs and video games and Ziplocs with the backseat pulled out of her sedan. Rolling down from quiet Canada we listen to Skip James, Wall of Voodoo, haunted muzak, and Anna stops the car in her meadow of glacial erratics, big grey boulders the buffalo used to scratch their itch, and me itching, mosquitoes into me, me into her, bonfires and bottles, blankets that won’t stay put, stars over pines, lunar coteaus, grape-coloured mountains, tilted mountains with alternating stripes like some crushing parfait, white snow and black shale, miles of river breaks, ashen soil and wheat, landscape rippled, wrinkled like Anna’s fine brain, wrinkled like her loose flannel shirt minus a button or two and I am lord of the trembling hand.

Anna’s five brothers raise gazehounds, sleek retrievers and whippets: low noses permanently to the ground, seriously insane cattle dogs. The dogs play games with coyotes, but the five brothers shoot any coyote dead as a nit, lost too many calves to coyotes; the coyotes isolate the calves in the skinny poplars and pin them down in their own rain of blood.

Rain falls on Anna in the back of the pickup, in the yard by the gas-tank on stilts, lightning and hard rain leaking into the mudroom at the back door, rain drifting from the dedicated purple storm, the storm with its TV-related duties and numbers. The brothers all tall, a sect of ball-cap clones with dark hair and I cannot tell them apart.

“You hungry?” The ball-cap brothers shoot their way though life, shoot their way through tiny birds to cook tiny dishes, the creatures fly into the scalding iron pan, miniature guts into the fire. They fry a snake or two, drive the snakes from their land, drive out the buffalo, build fences, mend walls, open the doors, and Anna’s drinking in the bar with her brothers, Butte, Montana crazy on St Patrick’s Day, lunatic drunks fighting, heads smashing brick, bloody walls and fancy bluegrass falsettos from arched gothic jukeboxes that belong in a cathedral.

Anna waits in the M&M Cigar Store looking angry and private. Because of her ways I now view angry and private women in a different light; they seem possible and compelling where others see a write-off only. Now that Anna is gone I study serious women and wonder don’t I know them a bit.

“Lo there, Charlie,” I say to the grizzled bartender.

A drunk man stands at the bar, yells, “Oh yeah, swerve on there, buddy!” He has giant feet like a clown, he buys me a Mexican beer and I return the favour.

Anna possesses a Don’t Mess With Me public face, but we have our moments of fun – had our moments. I felt I already knew her face when I met her, or else I knew her well in several slow moments, knowing the same sturdy limbs my great uncles knew and followed, fell for, the fringe of hair over her private eyes. I don’t like a car right on my ass. I’m not a leader – I’m happy to follow, let them get the ticket.

Anna’s demeanour relaxed me somehow, there was no acting when we were alone, unless that itself is an act. I’m not really sure now, and of course time plays tricks, a brain plays tricks on its own brain, goes back in time to make little adjustments, and a brain goes forward too, onward, upward – move close to her at all and brain and a lower organ responds as if by instinct, knowledge, blood forward, an immigrant in a new land translating the selfish landlord’s missive. Look at my diction, my interests. How my dear ancestors would despise me.

There are gangs of Irish here in our high-plain boondocks, but they do not count, they are common, from every county in Eire, but they are not Blasket Islanders. But then the midget drummer plays with a string band at the crossroads dance. What is this place we find? It’s like the extreme west of Ireland, I see my ancestor’s stovepipe hats still around, smoking clay pipes like my great-uncles, our own eyebrows and faces surround us.

Chinooks, mud, killer dust, snow then mud again. These plains held under the mountains are a long way from sharp islands and Spanish faces and eyebrows, the shawled mourners, the black Irish of rumour, of olive skin and dark brows, of Spanish shipwrecks and sailors, luckless or tricked onto rocks by lights for salvage, for treasure. Those Irish shipwreck tales are likely a load of shite, but perhaps a kernel of truth there. Some of the locals do look the part and Spain is not far as the crow flies or the sailing smack steers.

I’m in the car’s passenger seat. They stare at me and the serious woman driving.

“How you making out,” I ask the stovepipe hat people.

“Copacetic, I suppose,” they reply.

Doesn’t Anna yell, “Help! Help! He’s kidnapped me! Help! Oh take pity on poor me if you’re any kind of men!”

What the hell is Anna doing? Then Anna hits the gas and speeds away.

“Why the hell’d you do that?” I ask.

“What? Lighten up,” Anna says. “It was funny.”

“Lighten up? Bags of pharmaceuticals and you yell, He kidnapped me.” I keep looking in the rear-view for State troopers, but maybe they’re off quelling riots on the state farm or fighting wars in the Middle East. “I was about to ask if they were Irish, if they were my people. I wanted to know.”

“Oh, you wanted to know,” Anna says. “Maybe some other time, huh. We’ll come back some other time, bucko,” she says flatly.

What do you make of that? Like it’s a company picnic that got rained out.

After WWII Anna’s family hit oil and had leases and flare-offs and her family went to hell in a classic manner: big fins on the car, trips to Hawaii in the winter, her father’s cigar and glittering eyes, huge loans against the land, buying up more and more quarter sections and sections until the farm shows up on satellite maps, rivals the Hutterite spreads. Then the downturn, the recession, the new marching orders from a distant head office, the phone calls to the kitchens, and Anna’s father’s suicide.

“Got to talk to you pronto,” says the banker. “This is not up to me,” he explains.

Low prices, high interest, can’t make the durn deal work no how. Sell off chunks of land and sell some more, no more trips to the dentist, stop painting the red buildings. One of the lanky brothers beat up the banker after he called in their loans, beat the man badly, pulled a little jail time (inside joining the Aryan Nation boys and once out of the Deer prison he moved west to the mountain valleys of Idaho). Rip open the mail, the money gone, collateral gone, negative figures on the monthly statements.

Some are killed by war, earthquakes; some of us are killed by fine print, small details. Walk away from the ranch, the woman, the island, sold out, pushed off our little islands. Anna’s father won’t walk, won’t talk, the burly widower lights a final cigar, shoots his dogs, then shoots himself. Coyotes sit across the highway, watching the man’s swayback barn burning like a painting, a Carl Beam acrylic.

And I’m afraid Anna will burn her house down with her candles everywhere, her antique bed and available light, candles hung in pewter storm lanterns, light the colour of an anvil. Anna is not clumsy, has grace on her feet, but such is her luck that her room could burn and I worry about her and always will. In California she tells me she is couch surfing. On the phone I am suspicious, sick envisioning different tanned men on her, tattooed miscreants, mutant beach-boys, indie metalhead drummers. That’s so fascinating, she would think of some malnourished dork, how edgy.

Yes, if by edgy you mean moronic and a lifetime of bad decisions.

Couch surfing, bah. I remember her green family couch and our happy hours sailing on it. Nice just to lean on each other. A shirt coming off, leaning over her like a cliff and a beach, nature breathed on us, nature hated us, put us together.

I remember each of Anna’s ribs, the finger’s progress up, each to each (in Canada I was the only one on the road), reaching under Anna’s legs from behind and asking, who are your people while readying the long English for business. We are all breathing, we are works in progress.

But, dear reader, my plump partridge drinks, my vixen is moody. Things seemed not bad, but Anna had some lifestyle questions. Plus several local bikers explain they don’t appreciate us selling our wares on their turf, politely asking us to cease and desist. The full-patch bikers, they are good with language, they’re moving dump trucks of coke, they have little machines that count money and they must keep their various machines humming.

Before going south, Anna spoke to me of new horizons, journeys to self esteem, validation, closure, me doing the goddam dishes once in a blue moon. If there was a message I didn’t really care to listen. There are times it is better not to know.

One day Annie gives away her books and plants and fishing rods, cancels cable and drives a used ice cream truck through Utah to L.A., water pump shrieking in protest, sliding doors open and cold air off the mountains rushing though the back of the ice cream van. She’s gone, Daddy gone.

Months later, moments later I followed her down (baby won’t you follow me down). I drove a car up the Grapevine like it was a waterfall, I was wounded, I wondered and wandered fallen basins of Los Angeles. The mountains at the avenue’s end, driveways everywhere, red tiled roofs, signs in Spanish, and I squandered time working as a dough-fry man, rent-a-cop, valet, framer. Park that car! Stow that trash! Clean the terrazzo! Whip those weeds, tote that barge! Wait for the clock hands and watch for the fingers peeling cash off a roll. It’s better than a maquiladaro.

The driver with yellow beacons and plainly worded signs about the immediate future, that little car that warns us that a big trailer or wide load is imminent – that’s a job I could handle. Hear ye hear ye, Paul Revere here, Wide Load coming down the pike. Late at night pedal steel sounds sublime, I’d pay someone to play pedal steel as I go to sleep, as I still can not find her in California’s rolling brownouts.

Cal Edison and Pacific Gas & Electric are insolvent, no windmills running, no gas turbines, the new humility and hostility. Blackouts in Santa Monica for lunch and Sunset Boulevard blacked out for supper. In California’s dimming lights I will find her. They give out mandatory sunglasses at the state line; if she’s wearing sunglasses in the blackout, I will do the same. The ocean shoulders right up against the Mexican border; I expect a dayglo yellow stripe to stay put on the water.

Little turnstiles mark the Mexican border, as if a country is a soccer stadium. Canada does not exist down here. Canada’s borders have a churchlike hush, the air incensed with ritual and guilt, confession and relief. This southern portal is carnival, revelry, hurly-burly. Down at the southern docks boats bump, Mexican men in outfits not that far removed from my family several generations before, and I am reminded not of cheese-head Canada, but of Ireland, men in hats, women in bright shawls, lost islands, lost uncles, every mother’s son. There are even horse races on the strand, post to post, exiles from Iberia, Hibernia, and modern kayaks the exact size of my ancestors’ boats made of hide and tar.

You can balance, you can dance across boats, each a fiberglass shoe, can cover miles down to a border walking on the water. I’m confused; I can’t tell if this world is old or new, Spanish or WASP. In Tijuana I see Johnny Cash drinking Bohemia and Negra Modelo with his daughter Roseanne and Rodney Crowell looking neither happy nor unhappy. He has evaded the Viper Room. As if waiting to cross, they sit by the river, but there are no seats near them.

Years before I drove up to Canada to see Johnny Cash sing in a hockey barn, a picture of the Queen above his pomade head. She seemed to disapprove. His record label had dropped him, he was playing small towns and the faithful gathered there. Guitar pointing, he charged around the small stage like a rhino. I don’t know if he was past the pills yet. Now he sits by the river looking older than that hockey arena night, deep grooves in his face, jowls, wispy grey hair. He has travelled from 1950s greaser to Old Testament prophet.

Dogs wander ravines in Mexico and I step into yet another new life, head altered like a carrot by a shovel, step into a bar and drink mescal instead of poteen, exchange worlds, our talents carried within like gin in a gut, like lost connections, strange voices on water bumping like boats, islands pointed. You can’t balance, can’t stay, just a minute in her, salvage and salvation, our hidden slippery harbours, hulls so close to the rocks, what we treasure so close, we crash or we deliver the goods, push into harbour, insert slot A into flap B.

In a crowd of tattoos and goatees I walk back to San Diego, cross the border, our DNA with us, beauty and beast-ugly both, our DNA working the room.

Anna goes into her new place with her DNA, her wet swimsuit, and I follow. Anna gives me her new number. I found her at the shrine to the dead star, I see her now against a pink wall. “I’ve lost weight,” she says, “I’m down to 110.”

Anna is changing. I know her skin is white and cold under the wet bathing suit, now Anna is changing into a long light hippie dress in the sun, I know this item from Montana. Now she has a poster of Depp looking sensitive; she’s moved on. Anna wrecks her ankle on the stairs, why is she so clumsy? Wrong decisions, me one of them. Me and my current lack of relation with the lines of her familiar thin underwear. A line of panties like sailboat pennants on her shower curtain, but none for me. I can’t see, but I know from experience that, as Anna leans forward to talk, I know that one elastic borderline across her backside dips lower and reveals more, and an almost vertical line swoops down, curving down under her, another border, but here I can’t cross.

I look in her eyes and talk, drink red tea, slice apples with her dead uncle’s bone knife, her section and my section. I bring her that special pungent cheese she loves. I look in her wary eyes, my blood telling me to just walk to her, cross state lines into her, to follow yet again, an immigrant with no brains. Who cares about her new movie star boyfriend.

California silicon breasts up everywhere. Anna says, “I had a kid young so I never had a chance to be perky.” My ex-girlfriend who drops tears and shakes her fist at God. Mexican kids sell gum at the border. Her kid gone, it was when she was away, her private sorrow, Anna doesn’t like to talk at times. We are disconnected.

“I do want us to stay in touch,” she says, “I’m just not good at it,” she adds as a codicil.

Back in Montana Anna was sleeping under sheets, a diorama. Wake up, wake up, I whispered, hurry, I just have a minute or two then I have to go, passing by, wanted to say hi. My bread truck around the corner, I opened the door, came up the stairs, she’s warm and her ass covered up and her soft breasts uncovered, my mouth hadn’t been on Anna in so long, forgotten her taste, wake up, I say, she’s sleepy, hurry, just a minute, fast, like violent air around a train, then we go back to being ordinary, the parade stops. That was the last time, baby the last time.

Now we come from separate islands, islands moving apart. She is another person. I go surfing at dawn, a surfer, your server, a serf. Those women stolen from the Blasket Islands by Algerian pirates – where are their offspring? Do their children walk southern shores and curse The Great Satan? All these eons of history, all this trading and scrounging and brawling at Fair Day and fires and crops and black-faced sheep and wonderful light sprawling on water, all these generations and genetics I seem to know or remember, all this leading down to this lobster shack and a star’s skull banging the pavement from too much junk taken in. River had a blue coffin. Maybe I can meet his sister Rain, sing a duet with Rain.

How long have I lived in California now? I can barely remember. In California there is no such thing as memory. I love my new accountant, my new accent, my new place where light pushes over everything like a table of pastries and punchbowls at the hotel on the strip.

Who stole my tips? Michael! Where is everyone!? Who’s got table 5?!

No idea.

My father would insist, When you’re older you’ll understand. Do you follow me boy? He’d ask. Do you follow?

Up in Canada there are wolves moving and wolf willow shading a stream, and cool wind in a world’s frenetic grasses. My empty childhood steppes. I follow, all right. Down here it’s devil’s weather, cars, narrow boats, pointed boats, young men drowning, too many surfers brawling in the crowded waves, and wary tourists won’t step in the door.

In narcotic convulsions, a head bangs the sidewalk, Anna’s hippie dress rattles on a metal hanger, a surfboard floats by itself. Bodies come to you. We study the water in dread, guessing at intent, to face some wave we can’t know. Who are these aliens, who are these crazed pirates come to destroy us? Are they us? I have no idea, lost my Panavision, lost my sense of home on the range. We scan the horizon glare, that border, sense something out there past the power of our eyes. You entertain vague hopes that the referee will move you half the distance to the goal line, but instead Johnny Appleseed morphs into the meth lab in the desert.

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