I was sitting in a bar minding my own business when who should walk in but the ghost of Charles Bukowski. He was as one would expect: a tippling drunkard who with graceless charm stumbled into the stool beside me.
"Play some Mahler," I ordered the bar keep. "This is the writer Charles Bukowski. And serve him up a whiskey sour."
Despite his ethereal shroud, he looked much the same as he does in his book jacket photographs. His face was pock marked. His hair was oily and combed back long. His yellow teeth were well beyond Crest White Strips. Then there were his eyes. They burned with that peculiar lonesome and observant intensity that belong to the great chroniclers of the dispossessed. Didn't Zola have such a gaze?
Finally I spoke to Mr. Bukowski. "I know you've been dead all these years. So what have you been doing with your time?"
"I been up in heaven hanging around the beats," he replied. "You know, Ginsberg and Kerouac and that wild guy Cassidy. I still write in my boarding house while spinning Mahler and in the evening I go the track and drink and watch has been horses go round a badly kept track. At night sometimes me and Hunter S. Thompson chase some cute winged angels."
He took a sip from his whiskey sour and asked me: "So what are you doing with yourself, kid?"
I told him I look at files all day, digging up dusty school records. But I blog a bit and watch late night TV. Sometimes I have the occasional beer.
"That's it," he said.
"Well I had a colourful great grandmother who died before I was born. During prohibition she made bootleg gin in her bathtub and could cus' out anyone. A real character for the time, they say."
"I know your great grandmother. She's the one who sent me."
I grew embarrassed enough to change the topic because I knew what he was getting at. I told the old dead writer I was a big admirer of his and I always kept his poem The Laughing Heart in my vest pocket.
"It's that line of yours I like the most: in life you can't cheat death but you can cheat death in life, sometimes."
I turned my head and put my hand into my blazer to draw out the folded paper with the poem. I turned back and he was gone. All that remained was a billow of white smoke, like a cloud from a slow burning cigarette.
"He does that all the time," the barkeep said. "Either him or his alter ego Henry Chinaski. You going to pay up?"
I paid for the drinks, left behind a generous tip, and made my way home.
It's just now as I write this I figured out what happened that evening. The good God of Get Off Your Ass sent Bukowski to tell me to get off my ass because heaven ain't what most people think. It's not some permanent airless euphoria of endless bliss. It's really a mixed bag. It's a shadow world of what happens on earth. What you do here you do there but for ever. So if you look at files all day it's your eternity. Anyway, that's what I take from the ghost of Charles Bukowski.
I Wish I'd Written This
6 hours ago