Inside the Outside
Inside the Outside
Sneaky Pete's Left Ear was a bizarre name for a bar, but then the building itself was enough of an architectural oddity to have driven Walter Gropius and the boys from the Bauhaus to drink every bar from Cork to Kalgoorlie dry. The façade was a giant human ear cast in concrete and painted bright pink, the outer surfaces of which had faded over the years to a colour resembling breast-fed baby-vomit.
A tall and precarious bamboo ladder was propped against the outer edge of the ear, allowing a thin man wearing stained longjohns and a bowler hat perched on its utmost rung to repair a broken portion of the helix with a hod of fresh cement. A drove of mangy camels burdened with carpet bags and packing crates were tethered to door handles of the rusting cars and trucks randomly abandoned in front of the building, lazily chewing cud and swatting flies with their tails. A teenage quadroon male crouched on the roof of one of the trucks cradled an ancient automatic rifle, apparently standing vigil over the contraband the dromedaries habitually transported for smugglers and black marketeers.
Using his walking stick to clamber over the rough surface of the lobe to enter the ear's orifice which was the entrance to the bar, Joe Cat was relieved to see a small wind turbine chugging lazily away at the side of the building. A wind turbine meant energy, which meant cold beer, maybe a jukebox. Maybe even a T.V. if the wind spirit was feeling magnanimous.
The inside of Sneaky Pete's Left Ear was even more peculiar than the outside. Organic shaped booths with tables like fungal growths sculpted into the curved walls at different levels were linked by an improbable network of Escheresque staircases. The bar itself was a horizontal ear-shaped construction in the centre of the room which appeared to float in a glowing halo of azure incandescence. Disturbingly, the floor was covered in a thin layer of sticky golden yellow goo. Walking with a minimum of cool machismo was extremely difficult without losing a shoe.
Towering tallow candles shaped like stalactites cast warm soft illumination as well as inky black shadows. There was vociferous wheeling and dealing in two languages Joe Cat couldn't identify going on between a group of unsavoury characters at the bar whom he assumed to be the owners of the camels he'd seen outside.
A horde of drunken riff-raff milled about on the lower levels whilst higher up sombre booths were the setting for the gamut of fornication. Scantily clad waitresses swayed up and down the labyrinth of staircases bearing ear-shaped plastic trays laden with glasses, steins, bottles and jugs. There were midgets mud wrestling on a bank of plasma screens and from the jukebox Wiggy Vibe, the doyen of Country and Western singers of yesteryear, rasped out a number whose lyrics lamented the demise of gasoline-powered transport.
Joe Cat found an empty booth, sat in its darkest corner, lit a cigarette and surveyed the scene.
'What's it to be?'
Not quite compos mentis since his episode as a duck, Joe Cat pondered the nature of the disembodied question that drifted out from smoky shadows beside him.
'A most wonderful sensation.' He replied foggily. 'The word bliss comes to mind.'
'Mister. I'm a working girl. You wanna drink, or what?'
When he moved forwards to try to catch a glimpse of the girl speaking to him she recoiled further into the shadows.
'Sorry.' Cat said softly. 'A beer. Cold as it can be before I have to bite it. I can't see you.'
The girl sniffed. 'Better that way. Sneaky Pete always gives me this corner to work. Something to eat? Chef's special's is spit roasted prairie dog with boiled yucca root mash.'
'Just the beer. No. Wait. I'll have some French fries too.'
'Regular or jumbo?'
'Jumbo. Are they made with real potatoes? Fried in real oil?'
'Sure they are. And our beer's made with genuine champagne. And those camels outside? They're really Cadillacs. Where you been these last years?'
'Dwelling in optimism. Is Dolly Parton on that jukebox?'
'Dolly who? Must have been before my time. Oldest thing we got on there is this crap. Pete likes it. Wiggy someone.'
'Did you by any chance notice anything unusual in the sky today? Something falling?'
'A piece of the ear broke off and fell down. Old Earl Whitcomb is up there patching it up. Does that count as something falling?'
Drawing greedily on the cigarette, Joe Cat shook his head.
'What's with the sticky yellow gunk on the floor? Man could lose a boot. How do I get the damned stuff off the tip of my walking stick?'
'Ear wax. Sneaky Pete's idea of a joke. You're in the Ear, you wade in wax. Resin from the tupelo tree. You can lean over at impossible angles but it makes fighting next to impossible. And dancing. Pete says people who dance are sick in the head. A dancing girl out of Dallas sliced his ear off. Just the beer and jumbo fries, right?'
Whilst he was still nodding the shaman Joe Cat realised the girl had slipped away into the darkness, leaving a glowing spectre of deep sorrow etched in the space where she had stood.
Although there hadn't quite been the bar-room cliché where the piano player stops vamping and all heads turn towards the stranger entering through the swing doors when Joe Cat had walked into Sneaky Pete's Left Ear, he was aware that his arrival hadn't gone entirely unnoticed. Now, the one-eared individual indicating he was the proprietor, a wiry yet muscular man with rastafarian dreadlocks bleached white and waxed vertical, iridescent wraparounds and a heavily tattooed torso conferred with a gum-chewing waitress from where he surveyed his seedy domain in an oversized baby's high chair.
After Sneaky Pete had whispered to the waitress, she hiked through the goo to the booth where Joe Cat was about to light another cigarette.
Pushing the gum into a rouged cheek with her tongue, she drawled a short sharp syllable across the toadstool table. Joe Cat imagined a reverberating electrical implant in her vocal chords.
'Not right now. But earlier, I could have grabbed the Van Allen belt and used it to spank Venus. Big bad bubba in the high chair must be Sneaky Pete. And you're Charlene, right?'
Charlene's synthetic smile vanished, replaced by a snarl betraying her crooked heart.
'Hell. You read lips?'
'Books yes. Lips no.'
'C'mon. How'd you know my name?'
'I am he who puts together, he who speaks, he who searches. I am he who looks for the spirit of the day. I search where there is fright and terror. How do you manage to keep your hair so...perfect?'
Charlene was a tough customer who knew how to deal with tough customers, but her previously fluent body language was slipping towards incoherence faced with the stranger Joe Cat.
'Pete was wondering if you wanted a woman.' Charlene whispered, patting the lacquered sheen of her powder blue bouffant. 'We got girls to cater for all tastes. And you're in luck. Big hand just ticked over into Happy Hour. Reduced rates on all the whores.'
'Now ain't Pete sweet. To wonder about my prurient hankerings. Do I want a woman? Sure.' Joe Cat said, vaguely irritated because he couldn't move his feet in the resinous goo.
'Seen one that's caught your eye?' Charlene said, batting eyelids caked with stale makeup. 'If not, there's plenty more upstairs. All shapes and sizes.'
Joe Cat shrugged. 'The girl that just took my order. She caught more than just my eye.'
Charlene hissed scornfully. 'Why that little one don't work no more. Sneaky Pete's orders. Crazy bitch ain't fit to fuck a decent man.'
Leaning forward across the table, Joe Cat shot Charlene an arctic glance that brought her out in a sweat. 'Now what makes you think I'm a decent man?'
Charlene gulped hard. 'I gotta ask Pete. But if you think she comes cheap on account of her condition, you got another thought coming.'
Joe Cat grinned. 'Lady, I am loaded. I am the mushroom of the spirit.'
'Well shit.' Charlene groaned. 'I do believe you're as crazy as a loon.'
'Being crazy is what stopped me going insane. Tell Pete I search where there is fright and terror. And ask him if there's any Dolly Parton on that jukebox.'
Charlene went back across the room to parley with Sneaky Pete. From out of the shadows to Joe Cat's right, a pale outstretched arm slid a tray with a glass of beer and a jumbo cone of French fries before him.
'Beer. Jumbo fries. Mister? I could get hell for telling you this. But you oughta watch your back in this dump. I seen good men come in that door that never went back out.'
After sipping his beer, Joe Cat licked froth from the stubble on his upper lip.
'Can I bring you something else?'
'I'm sure you could. But your name would do for now.'
There came a painful silence from the shadow where the girl was concealed.
'I ain't got no name no more. Sneaky Pete done took my name away.'
Charlene sauntered across the room, ungainly on high heels in the sticky floor.
'Hey. Mister mushroom man. Pete says you can have her. But it'll cost double the normal rate. Reckons you must be some kind of pervert to want shed your load in this one when we got all kinds of unspoilt beauties upstairs.'
Joe Cat took a Jalapeño pepper from his pocket and chewed on it.
Here,' he said, throwing a fat roll of grubby bills tied with a rubber band across the tabletop, 'peel off what's necessary so I can do same to she whose name has been stolen.'
Charlene's grimace looked like a reflection in a distorting mirror.
'Bitch been spilling beans? She ought know better by now.'
'Her lips are sealed. But I lied. I did read yours.'
Charlene's facial muscles were twitching when she spoke. 'Cross me and you'll cross Sneaky Pete.'
Joe Cat laughed. 'Don't fret on my account. I search where there is fright and terror. Remember?'
'Standing up, Joe Cat stepped out of the booth and grabbed the hand of the girl in the shadows.
'Shit. I just lost a boot in this goo.' He grumbled. 'What the hell. A man can't kick fences down with his boots on.'
The palm of the gamine's small hand transpired the sickness of civilisation as she guided him upwards through the swaying skein of crooked staircases. Leading the way into a deep alcove in which a soft red rectangle floated on the floor she extinguished the flickering candle.
Curiosity kills cats. But then there's always an exception to every rule, and old shaman Joe was always a punter for the exceptional. Later, in the tangle of their forsaken clothes he found his jacket, delved into a pocket, retrieved his cigarette lighter and lit a candle. A gypsy moth came from out of nowhere, fluttering playfully around the flickering flame. Joe Cat was perfectly still, mesmerised by the half moon of contentment on the the girl's face opposite the penumbra dividing it as she slept.
'Hey, old buddy.' Joe Cat whispered to the gypsy moth when it alighted on his naked shoulder. 'Thanks for coming to the rescue.'
'Don't mention it, pal.' Said the moth. 'If we can't lend a helping hand, what's life all about?'
'You said it. But all the same. You're a hero. Making such a sacrifice.'
The moth beat its wings gently. 'Think of it as a donation. Anyway, I'll be back. Plan on trying human the next time round, spirits willing. Picking a dobro. Maybe a pedal steel. Watch out for me.'
When Joe Cat moved the candle from left to right, the girl's eyes suddenly snapped open, flooded with feral fear.
'No!' She screamed with fathomless agony. 'Please don't look. Please.'
Joe Cat cradled her trembling body.
'Why did he do that to you?'
Tears flowed as she shook with the revival of the horror.
'Even a whore got to have some self-respect. I riled Sneaky Pete, so he tied me up and poured acid on one side of my face. To remind me of what was and what is.'
Joe Cat stared into her eyes until they closed. The gypsy moth circled down in a graceful spiral from his shoulder to alight on the scarred side of her face. The space blossomed momentarily into astron white luminescence.
'We should leave now.' Cat said to the girl as he watched the moth flit away. 'Move with the times.'
They dressed hurriedly in the darkness. Lighting another candle, he held her shoulders firmly and turned her to face the broken fragment of dusty mirror propped against the wall.
Leaning into the dim reflection, the girl's eyes shone with joy and disbelief.
'How?' She gasped, running her fingers over her face.
Joe Cat kissed the back of her neck.
'I am the the doctor. I am the man of medicine. All I really ever wanted to be though was a pro. football player. You should have seen me. I could do magic with a football.'
On the way down to ground level inside Sneaky Pete's Left Ear they negotiated a passage between unconscious bodies until they reached ground level. Wading through the yellow goo they passed Sneaky Pete in a comatic sleep, the gypsy moth slowly surrendering its life as it diligently reproduced the acid burn scars on his face which he had inflicted on the girl with no name.
Daylight was creeping over a misty horizon when they flopped into the inside out world. A camel farted and the youth with the machine gun on top of the wrecked sixteen wheeler laughed in his sleep.
Joe Cat pressed all the money in his pockets into her coat pocket and bade her farewell.
'I am he who looks for the spirit of the day. So I'll go looking. And you should head back home. Your parents miss you. And a boy that you went to college with? He wants to love you. Give me your hand. Take this. From me to you.'
She looked into the palm of her outstretched hand.
'A feather?' She giggled.
'A magic feather.' Cat mumbled apologetically. 'Keep you out of harm's way.'
The wind spirit waited respectfully before rising up to guide them on their separate ways.
About the author
Michael Loughrey's short fiction has featured in Word Riot, Hobart,