The Real Duncan


[for Part Six… in “Unpublished Novel”]

Dave had been drinking all day every day for some weeks. Crawling out of bed that Monday morning, still dressed in yesterday’s clothes he scrabbled for his wake-up beer. After wetting down his skin a bit with cold water, he took his exercise, clomping downstairs for a six-pack. Got back to his pad, put his feet up on the windowsill, and worked on it with the help of a few cigarettes. Drunk again, he observed the grainy grey sky from his fifth floor window. Same thing, every day.

It was almost nine o’clock, too early to call anyone to help him drink, but he thought he’d try Duncan anyway. Dialling his boyhood pal, he let it ring more than twenty times, humming the theme from a TV show. When at last over the wire he heard the beloved, sleep-clogged sound of Dunc, Dave bellowed with joy, “Rise an’ shine, Dunkerino, Dave’s comin’ by with your wake-up beer.”

They had only just parted some few hours ago.

Great to have ol’ Dunc the Skunk on a bender again, no-one was as much fun to gutter-roll with. Legendary tearing-up of ye ol’ brand-new Brooks Bros. tweeds last night…

“So how’s yer suit this morning?” At the answering silence Dave’s brow wrinkled slightly. There had been a recent shortage of good times, as Dunc’s new old lady was a real bitch and a half.

The summer heat had kept Duncan up long after Dave’s departure, that and the fight with Patsy, who’d poured the whole quart of good scotch down the john. Duncan had almost broke down the bathroom door to get at her. Fortunately for all involved he was too feeble and weedy a guy to break down any door. But she’d come out swinging and cussing, for a real low-brow, knock-down drag-out; she’d scratched at his eyes again. Unforgiveable attack on a painter.

“Goddamn Dave do you have– to call so goddamn early? Didn’t you go to bed?” But Dave was soused too deeply to hear.

“Hey an’ whaddaya say? I bring ya a li’l bit of tha’ cognac, too, bring ya some a this ‘ere … open yer eye.”

“Dave, I gotta take a day off … I’m broke anyhow.”

“Tha’s okay!” his pal encouraged him, “I’m gettin’ paid today!”

Patsy would be at her office until a little later than five. Duncan sat up and his head cracked open, “Aw no way Daverino, lemme get some more shut-eye.”

There was a pause at the other end, as though Dave might have fallen off the edge of something. “Hey Dave? Dave!”

A strangely elated version of Dave’s voice replied, “Dunc, are you okay? What’s the matter man, are you hallucinating again?”

Duncan could hear Dave was in bad shape, so he went along with him, “Oh yeah, ha ha, guess I am. This isn’t a real phone call, then, I guess, is it? You didn’t wake me up. Great. Guess I’m still asleep! Good-night!” and he hung up. He had himself been often enough in such states to know not to get too violent behind bizarre intense phone calls at weird hours.

Nor try to reason… Duncan considered most people – the squares – to have an idea of Reality that was just too weak. They tell you, Face up to Reality, but what they mean is, Doom yourself to Tedium. Rubbing your nose in some shit, like taxes, or a job, patting you on the head that This is the Real Thing. No-one with two cents worth of brains could fall for it!

Real Life – Living – was something else, a thing total and ecstatic. From the legendary depths of month-long bacchanalia, through daily shared blackouts, frenzies without beginnings, and grinding hungover ends, Dave and Dunc had been the best of friends, their souls’ holy fabric tangled up in the imperative of wildest indulgence.

And when down at the bottom they groaned, “This is Living, man!” their Absolute Ideal had been achieved. Even if Patsy disagreed. “You all are just a Beatnik’s behind!” What did she know? She didn’t drink, and didn’t even want to find out how to.

Only a fool, or Dave could hack an actual job. Duncan, son of a corporate lawyer, his Manhattan rent subsidized, tried not to pity poor Dave and his fast-food career. Dave’s version of making it in Manhattan: “I don’t think about it Dunc I just go for the cash to keep me stoned.” Duncan on the other hand was a painter of great promise, though no gallery yet. But he was only two years out of art school, and painting every day. When he wasn’t drunk.

In the six years since he and Dave had come to New York, Duncan felt he had done something with his life. He knew people now – the right ones – was a well-known figure in the fashionable world of Art. Why only yesterday he and Patsy had been invited to the famed McDamler’s ball – a party he could never take Dave-Party-Animal to. He was going somewhere, his Rolodex was full, while Dave was the same but for a grosser capacity for beer.

On towards three o’clock Duncan was in the kitchen polishing off a cocktail consisting of last-night’s used gin, warm beer and the dregs of Campari. Someone or something thudded against the front door and every hair on his body stood up on end. He knew he was in bad shape but when he opened the door to said dull summons in walked the lunatic figure of Paul — his other best buddy.

Paul was sopping wet as if he’d fallen in the Pond on his way across Central Park. “Sure is hot out!” His heavyweight blue jeans were wringing wet from the waist to crotch, as he insisted, even in one hundred percent humidity, on wearing the same dirty yellow wool sweater. The sweater itself, fetidly moist, clung to a wet t-shirt stuck to his big chest. Flaccid pale red hair adhered to his long skull, and his untrimmed beard was dripping. He lumbered to the couch, sat down and began to mope.

“Nothing left in the house but Kahlua,” Duncan apprised him. Paul raised his mug to the ceiling in an agonised rictus. “For Chrissake Paul, at least go wipe yer face!” Duncan bristled. “Oh uh yeah okay” he mumbled and shuffled off to pollute Patsy’s towels.

After adjourning to the cash machine, Duncan and Paul hit the nearest bar for a beer, or two, or three, then got two six-packs and a quart of Campari. Paul cussed out Duncan who had to make his stop for ice and lemons and club soda.

“You drink like a fag!”

Then they hunkered down in the painting studio to mull over the sorry state of — Dave. Now each man knew they were alcoholics, and one day they’d have to quit — one day probably soon. When the summer was over, because who could stand the heat otherwise? When Paul had at last finished his epic poem on Nausea – how could he write without a little liquid inspiration? When Duncan finally got his gallery – he’d clean up his act, then! Maybe next year it’d happen – after New Year’s Eve they’d go off the sauce for good.

Duncan knew he could stay off at least a year. Once he’d done six whole months. But Dave – Dave never even thought about it. He didn’t think there was anything the matter with his drinking schedule. Dave was making no plans at all.

Duncan and Paul agreed Dave’s brain was starting to get wet, and that he didn’t know it. What about he way he forgot everything? Even something they’d just said to him! And when they talked about drying out, Dave would clam up, drink faster, and finally bellow that loud, insane laugh.

Neither Dunc nor Paul could admit they needed Dave, that he served as a template of the most fucked-up. Otherwise their own serious plans might be rendered burlesque. So they could, with new courage, drink on.

Patsy called at five from her office, “Meet me at the movies, why doncha? I need to see something weird, this new German director … after all the shit I had to swallow today. Are you drinking?”

“No … not really.” “Who’s with you?” “Paul.” “Not Dave?” “No.” “Don’t bring Dave … meet me at the Regency.”

Duncan slammed down the phone. ” ‘Don’t bring Dave’, she says. Fuck her, the bully.” Dunc was dialling Dave’s number.

“Hey Dave you just got paid, dintcha? Oh did I wake you up? Meet us at the Regency theatre, now. Yeah, leave now. C’mon Dave you know you don’t have to decide what to wear!”

When Patsy entered the theatre, the film had already started. She found the damned merry trio ensconced near the front, slouched down in their seats. Duncan was nipping vodka straight from the pint; Paul was sipping through a straw a jumbo rum, with a dash of Coke (“filthy stuff, Coke” he’d cursed, as he poured it down the urinal to make space for the Bacardi’s); and Dave was sucking up a McDonald’s strawberry milkshake laced with the cheapest of fruited brandy.

Patsy snarled in Dave’s direction, ignored Paul, and threw herself down next to Duncan. He tried to kiss her, but her face was set. “You reek,” she managed.

She tried to concentrate on the film – a social comedy on murder and lesbian love, but the boys kept lurching out of their seats to go have a pee, a cigarette, or gobble down whole boxes of Goobers. Dave trampled on her foot, she felt deliberately. He stank like a field of rotting apricots.

Outside the theatre she grew even more furious when taking a gander at the poet. Paul was truly frightening – his clothes seemed glued to every crevice of his body with sweat. A hat she’d given Duncan for his birthday – a suave little chapeau – was squashed down porkpie-style on the tip of his sweaty head, as he jived and snapped his fingers, mouth hanging open and eyes rolling back like some jazz-demented Negro out of the twenties. People were staring but did Paul give a good goddamn?

“What makes you sweat like that Paul, after sitting in frigid air-conditioning?”

“Universal angst, baby… no rest for the wicked.” Clutching his battered McDonald’s cup Dave reeled and chortling tripped and fell off the curb. Paul and Duncan set up a howl. “So it’s to be yet another evening of joyful gutter-rolling I see,” wasped Patsy, “You promised to stop, Duncan,” and so it went, as per usual, et cetera. She could stamp her feet and bawl all she wanted. In front of his friends he razzed her. She turned and began walking down Fifth Avenue…

The trio wandered off towards ‘Dunc’s pad.’ Dave outdoing himself non-sequitorially, as Paul made doggerel verse of a line of Aristotle. The glory of Beat poesy, to boil down to staccato, was not forgot, that clear split-off syncopated talk just not tried for, but achieved. In these higher realms of deep boozing, the unconsciously realized becomes the pearl. Not so much ‘Beautiful, man,’ as ‘It’s a blast!’ as in blast and stutter, blast to ground-zero, blasted-out ske-daddle brain-pan omelette, with shells.

Dave was majorly flipping as they turned on Duncan’s block, “Hey Dunc hey man it was so great! It was so great. You paid half-price, and got to see all four movies!” Huh, wah? I dunno, shaddup. Paul was crying, real tears, unable to recall for his pals the line he had slaved over for a day and a half, as Duncan preened and fancied himself Montgomery Clift, the beat-up sensitive type, to Patsy’s crazy Cherry, as per ‘The Misfits’… though no-one could scream like Monroe.

Home again, home again, grovel and groan … goddamn doorman! “ ‘Sworked here a month and still preten’s he don’ know me?” “Who are they?” he dared ask of Dave and Paul. “Like maybe they’s a coupla lock-pickin’ burglars I’m totin’ home? None a yer cotton-pickin’ bidness, and call secur’ty while yer at it, you goddam flunky.” Some people just couldn’t stand to see people having fun.

His heart thumped and missed a stroke as they went up in the elevator. Fun. Fun. Patsy screaming at him, “I HATE FUN!” Dave now out of nowhere bawling accusatory, “Whenever your mother comes to town, you do that!” Huh, wah? I dunno, shaddup. Enough to sober you up. His heart ka-thonked again, and he pressed his hand to his chest. Goddammit, and Patsy on the rag and not a dime in the house.

He felt suddenly like ditching the eternally drunk and friendly bearded and mustachioed six-foot-plus hulking faithful pair of them. He was beat, and Patsy due home any second to rampage.

Then Dave produced from the storehouse of his army jacket a pretty little fifth of Jack Danny. Duncan went to the china closet, took down Patsy’s Venetian goblets, measured out equally three portions and swallowed his down like water. Paul guzzled and grumbled, grabbed at a stack of art books and squatted in the corner.

“Wanna look at slides?” Dunc asked Dave. “Yeah, sure!” crowed Dave, “Can I do the carousel?”

Projected images of chic art party crowds… of Duncan and Patsy on the beach at East Hampton… Duncan posing next to a Kandinsky at a Paris opening… naked blonde nieces in a bubble bath Dave gazed heavily upon. At the last Dave barked, “Hey don’t let the pedophile see that one!” “Wah?” honked Paul. “Nothing, nothing, c’mon Dave, speed up the show!”

Dave sat on each slide, lugubriously demanding of Duncan detailed information about each picture. Duncan didn’t mind supplying narrative but he couldn’t help noticing that Dave was not really listening. Patsy came in, slammed the door, and within ten minutes was mopping the floors. The stench of pine disinfectant enfolded the drinkers.

“You bloody animals are drinking out of my Venice crystal? Duncan, what is WRONG with you?” She went for Dave’s nearly full glass.

“Don’t let her! She’ll pour it down the john!” Dunc yelled. Dave got a grip on his and grinned malevolently at Patsy who hissed, “How’d you like the pointy toe of my boot up your ass – for starters?”

Paul pronounced from his corner, “You can take the girl out of the dungeon, but you can’t take the infernal depths out of the girl.”

“Yes and you should know alot about such infernal matters, being a habitual resident of your own private hell.”

“Oh ugh. Ever since you stopped beating men up for a living you’ve been a nightmare!”

“She can’t stop. Now she just beats up on us!”

“I do not!

“Yes you do!” they all screamed at her. She began to cry, and Paul consoled her, “Reformation is the hobgoblin of a petty mind, anyhow.”

“Oh go reform yourself, you quack!”

By the end of the fourth carousel Duncan was exhausted, but Dave was seemingly more fascinated than ever. Duncan had seen the slides at least ten times already, and rarely got bored, but he liked them at a certain pace , a background drift of chat, not a solemn parade of ikons.

Patsy cussed them out again as she passed through the studio and caught them staring at a nude photo of herself. Duncan reached over and clicked to the next slide. A blank white square glowed. “Well, that’s the end of it.”

Paul roused himself from a doze, as Dave insisted, “Got any more?”

“C’mon Dave, we gotta go now,” urged Paul, disturbed at last by the fluid rancour abroad in the apartment.

Dave heard Patsy apparently denting pots in the kitchen, “Hey are you guys makin’ dinner? I’m hungry!” Duncan prayed Patsy hadn’t heard that … but a jar of mayonnaise flying through the studio, and hitting the wall but inches from Duncan’s head apprised him otherwise.

Paul heaved himself up and stretched – for a full minute – then like a dog, shuffled around himself in a small circle in preparation to walk out. Dave was again staring at the white glowing blank on the wall, the last, blank frame on the carousel.

“C’mon Dave, get your ass in gear!”

Dave snapped to, and cheerily responded, “I’ll go on out with you Paul, and then come back, Dunc, with another six pack!”

“Dave, naw – I don’t feel like drinkin’ anymore beer.”

Dave stared at his old ‘beat buddy’ as if he had never really seen him before. And it went on for more than a couple beats… Duncan was unnerved.

“Hey Dave, you okay?”

Dave still said nothing. “Hey c’mon, Dave!” Duncan whined, “I gotta get to bed, I didn’t sleep a wink last night!” gesturing in the ominously quiet direction of Patsy.

“But what about me?” Dave whined back, “I haven’t slept yet — in my WHOLE FUCKIN’ LIFE!”

Patsy’s voice pierced the air, “Duncan, I MUST speak to you for a moment IN PRIVATE!”

Paul was at the door, “Dave, man — she’s on the rag, we gotta go!”

“Izzat so?” muttered Dave. He sank his 6 foot 5 inch frame deeper into the confines of Duncan’s favourite chair, and grabbing the carousel remote, began clicking the frames round again, so the slides flew up into view again, very fast, and in reverse.

“DAVE, MAN!!!”

Dave’s response was to stop on a smiling image of Duncan in tennis whites, his parents on either side of him, all of them holding old-fashioneds aloft. He gave forth with a long, drawn-out sigh.

“Dunc man, what I’m wondering about —“ as if no-one had said a word to him in days, ” — is why there are no pictures of the real Duncan.”

The lunatic now hoisted himself from the chair, and moved jerkily in Duncan’s direction. He shuddered and tried to dodge his friend, whose big hands settled on his narrow shoulders.

“Dave, man cool it now!”

But Dave gripped harder, and slammed Duncan against the wall, “Why izzat?”

“Dave, cut it out!”

“Why izzat there are no pictures, of the REAL DUNCAN?”

He was sliding Duncan along the studio wall, and slid him right across a wet painting.

“You FUCK! Dave you fucking idiot, get your hands off me!”

But Dave held him pressed into the paint, ignoring Patsy’s hand on his arm.

“I just wanna know? Where’s the terror? WHERE’S THE PICTURE OF DUNCAN IN TERROR?”

Dave stared into the wide open dreamy painted eyes of a child in a garden, “and I don’t mean shit like that!”

He was addressing no-one, “Don’t you wanna to see that picture? Of Duncan in terror? I mean – like RIGHT NOW?” Patsy and Paul were running downstairs for the doorman.

“Doesn’t anyone have a camera? Where’s the camera, the camera that can take this picture, NOW, of the REAL DUNCAN?” and he gripped his friend so hard he cried out in pain.

Paul had thought it best not ot leave the two alone, had reappeared in the apartment. His voice now quietly clamoured into the chaos of Dave.

“No, Dave. I don’t think we want to see that.”

Dave instantly dropped his hands, hung his head, began gasping brokenly and making a strangling sound “Naw. Naw… I guess we don’t.”

As Patsy, the doorman, and a uniformed police officer were coming up in the elevator, Paul and Dave were sliding down the backstairs banister.

“Yer brains’r on hold, buster, time ta dry out!”

“Whatchoo mean? Speak for yerself, genius poet from Nowheresville!”

“How truthfully doth the dolt speak!”

They passed through the empty lobby, hit the street and headed downtown.

“Home, Downtown… where our derangements might still serve us as a pedigree.”

Dave, concurring, barked.

[Edited December 7, 2015]