Last Chance Saloon
'I will be blunt, Mr London,' he said, before I'd even time to button my shirt. 'You have entered the last chance saloon.'
I know I'm a literary man but my wits must have slowed since I turned forty as I didn't catch his meaning straight out. His manner had gone all official and serious though and I soon reckoned that all his prodding at my belly and gazing at my urine must have caused this outburst of figurative talk. But still flummoxed I played for time.
'My kidney stones hurt real bad doc, and I've had the runs for four days now but I guess a few doses of morphia will see me right.'
' Your liver is failing,' he opined, all literal now, 'as well as your kidneys, and in my view excessive drinking of alcohol is the root cause. You must cease drinking all alcoholic beverages immediately and forever.' I didn't like the direction this conversation was now headed so in view of his rhetoric, and since all doctors know their Latin I just smiled and said:
'I'm a writer doc, and no verse can give pleasure for long, nor last, that is written by drinkers of water.' However, he wasn't the literary type and turns out he was a prohibitionist to boot.
'You won't be able to hold a pen much longer if you continue to drink alcohol,' he said.
'Then I'll purchase a mechanical typing machine like Mark Twain did. Reports of his death were also once greatly exaggerated, as I recall.'
'Your constitution is wrecked, Mr London,' he said. 'I am not exaggerating when I tell you plainly that if you don't stop drinking you will be dead soon.'
It makes me mad now to think of that humbug, with his soft white hands and fancy education, advising me so. Seems to me, he knows nothing about anything, except how to take a fat fee from the sick and needy. I go to him with the runs and a feeling of being all tuckered out and he gives me a quick inspection, smells my breath and delivers a death sentence. I'd like to see how that 'dry' crusader would have fared on the Chilkoot trail, that wintertime, carrying six months supplies on his back and eating nothing but beans and hardtack for the last three. I wager he still has all his teeth. He would have skedaddled after the first night's bivouac. It was strong liquor kept a man alive up there and staying alive is a hard habit to break. Your good health!
'I am a teetotaller,' he told me pompously. Well I never trusted any man who doesn't like a drink. The old sawbones in Dawson City, he was a proper doctor with a kindly disposition and he never dished out sermons on morality and knew his Latin too. Rictus Sardonicus, Per Rectum, Delirium Tremens and all that jargon just poured out of him. His favourite shout was for a tincture of whiskey, and he always ended up so laundered that one time he pissed himself under the saloon table into my boots. I didn't have the heart to tell him the next morning. Bottoms up!
I've been in the Last Chance saloon more times than that quack's had hot breakfasts and he probably ain't even heard of Johnny's bar even though it's just down the street from his office. Practically lived there for a time, I did. It was Johnny lent me the cash to get some schooling at Berkeley. I guess I should've stayed there and not lit out for the Klondike. I would've done but for that pig William Chaney, who refused to acknowledge he was my biological father. Listening to that fraud, it's no wonder my dear old ma' went crazy. Anyways if I hadn't spent all those nights at Johnny's by the Oakland Ferry terminal I would have never met Alex Mclean, the meanest, toughest sailor ever lived who gave me Wolf Larsen and it was there I dreamed up Buck and them other wolfdogs. Being in the Last Chance saloon, mister clever doctor, made me what I am. Met the best men living there, and also some wild rogues, hard cases and other low company too, but did my best work sitting by that pot-bellied stove. To absent friends!
Last time I went in, the floor was still slant from the earthquake. A man might think he's wall-papered before he's had his first shot with a floor like that I said to Johnny, but he thought the feature added to the ambience of his saloon, like the wood walls, made up from that wrecked whaling boat and Jim Jeffries boxing gloves. Best heavyweight ever lived he was and he would've beat Jack Johnson easy if he hadn't had to shed over a hundred pounds to get in shape for his comeback. Here's to you, Jim!
I did a bit of boxing myself and was fit as a fiddle before the Klondike. Although I was green then, I still wouldn't change what I did. I got the call, just the same as Buck. Soft-living I can only stand for so long and brute nature will take us all in the end anyways, voluntary or not. Well if tomorrow I leave for an unknown destination like what good old Ambrose Beirce wrote just recently, before vanishing in the Mexican war, I would only regret not seeing my little darlings again or my dear old ranch, even with Wolf House just burnt down. Tchin, Tchin Ambrose, wherever you are!
Refused me any morphia that sour, shrivelled medicine man. And that is a literal description, not figurative. My liver may be shrivelled to the size of a walnut but he is shrivelled inside and out in my opinion. He ain't suffering the pain I got, doesn't have to sleep on his porch all weathers. I'd like to pluck out that doc's cynical eyes , which might improve his vision for inspection of the next sucker waiting to hand over a wad of greenbacks for a temperance lecture. Anyways I'm all played out and it's a good job I got a little bit morphia stashed as I have an inclination to pen some words to Joan and Bessie now. I want them to know how much I loved them both and writing will take my mind off the colic.
I might just break open that lost bottle for a sip, because I meant what I said to that Latin-free quack. Old Horace probably did as well, I guess. To life!
Whether a tranquil old age awaits for me
Or death hovers with black wings
Rich, poor, at Rome, or banishment perhaps
Whatever the complexion of my life
I will write
Jack London was found dead on his porch on 22nd November 1916. Heinold's First and Last Chance Saloon is a waterfront saloon opened by John (Johnny) M Heinold in 1883 and is situated on what is now Jack London Square in Oakland, California. For many sailors it was the first and last chance to drink alcohol before or after a long voyage. It is also known as 'Jack London's rendezvous.'
The stranger was sitting at the bar, just as Garrick had been told. He even had his back to the door. Garrick could shoot him right there and then. But there’d be another one sooner or later. There was always another.
He tipped his hat to Jed and Frank as he walked towards the stranger. They were playing cards with some of the hands from the Camberson ranch. Jed tapped his gun as Garrick walked past, but Garrick shook his head. He didn’t want any more bloodshed than there had to be today. He knew the names and the families of everyone in this dusty saloon. He didn’t want to be telling anyone’s mother why their son wasn’t coming home tonight.
The stranger barely looked up as Garrick took a seat on the bar stool next to him.
“Whisky,” said Garrick to the bartender, who slid a dusty bottle and a cloudy glass towards him along the bar. He met the gaze of the stranger in the mirror behind the bar as he poured himself a drink. “So you’re the one who’s come to kill me?”
“I don’t have to be,” replied the stranger. “You come quietly you’re worth as much to me alive as dead.”
“They’ll hang me anyway so what’s the difference?”
“I won’t have to carry you.”
“Well son, I’m sorry to tell you I’ve got no intension of ending my days at the end of a rope.”
The stranger allowed his hand to slide towards his gun.
“Oh hush yourself son,” said Garrick. “I’m an old man. If I was going to make a fuss I’d have shot you already. How did you find me anyway?”
“Luck mostly,” answered the stranger. “Not many folks would trail you this far out into the frontier. Why did you pick this place?”
“I liked the name, ‘Redemption’ sounded like a good place to start again.”
“Just about every other town out here is called Redemption, and the rest are called Paradise. I ain’t seen nothing worthy of the name in any of them.”
“Then I’m thinking bounty huntin’ has made you a pessimist son.”
“I don’t get to keep company with the best folks old man, that’s true.”
The stranger finished his drink and turned to face Garrick. He was a young man, but with a face weathered by experience. The gun at his side was clean and well kept, the holster worn with use. A long time ago Garrick would have cut a similar figure, albeit one on the other side of the law.
“So old man, how is this going to go down? I’d rather take you in alive, but I’m taking you in either way. I’m giving you one last chance to come quietly.”
“I used up my last chances a long time ago boy. Been running on last chances most of my life. I take it as a kindness that it took someone like you so long to find me. There’s always been a bullet with my name on it out there somewhere. I ain’t gonna cheat it by hanging from a rope.”
The stranger stood up and put his hand by his gun. Garrick finished his whisky and got up from his stool too.
“Outside though son. I don’t want to see anyone else get hurt.”
As Garrick and the stranger walked outside, Jed and Frank stood up, along with some of the other men in the bar. With a smile, Garrick noticed even Peggy May had picked up a shotgun and stood ready at the back.
“Easy boys,” said Garrick. “Man’s got a warrant.”
The stranger gently pulled out a piece of weathered paper from his jacket. It fell open to show a picture of Garrick as a young man. But it was a wave of Garrick’s hand that got the patrons in the saloon to take their hands from their weapons. Garrick nodded to the stranger to follow and they stepped out through the swing doors into the sunlight. The crowd in the bar followed them out, like a small stream flooding into the dusty street.
Garrick and the stranger took up their positions facing each other a few paces apart in the centre of the street. The crowd from the saloon along with a few passers-by carefully lined the wooden porches of the shops and houses that made up the long main street. A few hurried away, eager to avoid the imminent gun fight.
Garrick looked up to feel the sun on his face and smiled. The stranger stood facing him, tense and focused, his hand close to his gun. Garrick noticed how tense he looked and remembered that feeling, but then the stranger had more to lose. Garrick gently pulled back his long coat to clear it from his own gun and saw the stranger shift his stance in anticipation. The whole town fell silent as their eyes met.
It was Garrick who went for his gun first, but at the last moment he paused for the briefest of moments. He wondered in that moment if he wanted to carry on, if he had any right to kill another young man so he could remain alive until the next one came to find him. The split second pause was all the stranger needed.
Before Garrick’s gun had cleared the holster he felt three bullets hammer into his chest. He tottered backwards and sank to his knees. He went to tip his hat to the stranger, but fell dead to the ground before he could raise his hand.
Jed was already running up to the stranger before Garrick hit the ground. But he paused when the stranger levelled his gun at him.
“You’d better give me a look at that gorram warrant bill or you’ll not be walking out of here,” said Jed.
The stranger said nothing but handed him the bill. It clearly pictured Garrick, with a reward posted under the picture and a list of his crimes. Murder was the least of them. Jed stood there amazed; it was nothing like the man he knew.
The stranger reached into Garrick’s coat and plucked off the tin star that was pinned to his waistcoat. He tossed it to Jed.
“Looks like your town needs a new Sheriff,” he said.
“He was a good man,” said Jed.
“Maybe he was. But the past always catches you, and he had his last chance a long time ago.”
She was pragmatic. She was coming up to 27 and considered to be a little stale already so she was preparing for a marriage of convenience but hinted in small ways- that if I were serious my offer would be considered.
I was and I wasn't. If she had said yes I would have gone along with it but I needed her to be more into the idea than she seemed, as well. At least that's what I told myself then. I think that evening I'd just panicked a little. The fact is, I'd let several women come and go albeit that I thought with good reason. Reasons were that we weren't on the same wavelength, wanted different things or that the physical attraction wasn't strong enough. And, of course, I was never in love. I knew what I wanted and knew I had to be patient. But naturally I was wondering all the time when this so called Mrs Right would show up. I thought maybe I was a fool to leave Lily in Chongqing, she had such a beautiful laugh- a hee hee hee hee laugh, like a naughty child- that I still miss, she was a nurse and she was er, liberated in bed. What wasn't to like? Nothing I could really think of. Then there was Roselin in Zhengzhou. I kept seeing her in an advert for Calvn Klein after we split. Of course it wasn't her but the fact that I was getting my ex confused with a supermodel says a lot. She was hot-something that became more obvious after the fact and there was nothing spoilt or supermodelish about her behaviour. She was always in a good mood. Happy to eat in KFC. Didn't ask for presents. Satisfied with me and my everyday guyness. And then there was Baozhai, also known as Betty, who was older than the others but who treated me with an adoration that never got old. I think about her everyday because she's such a fine woman. And I don't recall a serious argument with any of these women, either. Maybe that was the problem. The lack of passion. But my last relationship taught me something. That you can be with someone and not realise you love them until it's too late. It doesn't have to be Hollywood love with big swooshing orchestras or holiday love with a moonlit ocean swim. It's everyday love. It's all the little things about them that you didn't realise you'd miss. And all those things that I used to think would matter- like intense intellectual discussion or the same tastes was now something I didn't particularly care for. I liked the way Betty and I would go and sit in a cafe and just be together, like two pensioners sitting outside a beach hut staring at the sea.
Like I say, I think I made the right call at each step along the way but I began to worry. I was young for so many years and then suddenly I wasn't. Finally, things came to a crunch in TongLiao because by the time I moved to Inner Mongolia I had clarity in my mind on certain issues. One, at 38, I simply wasn't the marriage prospect I once was in China and never was in the UK. Unlike a lot of expats I hadn't settled. I'd simply travelled from city to city, working tourist style. I hadn't saved money, built up contacts or started a business. I hadn't many friends. One afternoon I realised-particularly resonantly-that I didn't amount to much and needed to think seriously about my future. Two, unless I got married that future probably wasn't going to be in China. I was done with the life I was living there and was potentially facing a life back in Europe. You can't go back to the UK with no job, no mortage, no money and expect for much of one but I had family and roots to think about.
Chasuna was crazy busy with her masters degree that Autumn but she spared me 2 hours on my birthday. As I say, she was supposed to be dating this guy but she fell asleep on my sofa and we almost got it on. I figured the door was still open. On her birthday, six weeks later, she agreed to come over for half an hour or so between doing one thing and another.
Don't know if it was because she was Mongolian but Chasuna was more direct than my Chinese lovers. When she came round she called me an asshole and said she hated me because I'd eaten a sandwich I'd made for her. Obviously that remark was built on the strength of previous acts of unimpressiveness I had committed though none I can recall. Such is the mind, that self-censorer of what it is about ourselves that bugs others. Anyway, I made her tea and the disappointment with the sandwich was soon forgotten when I started humming 'Happy Birthday' in a silly voice and brought out her present.
“Are you going to open it?”
“Why? Because I'm having my tea. Are you ok recently?”
“Not really, no. Lonely.”
“Lonely? How about your website girls?”
“Not much joy there. But that's okay, that's life, isn't it? I know my life is pretty good going compared to others.”
“Some others like?”
“People in prison, people in North Korea.”
“North Korea?” She said, a little bemused. The sufferings of the North Koreans were not on the news agenda in China.
“Mmm,” I said and took a sip of my tea. I wasn't explaining that one.
“Darling, you've got such big arms,” I said instead.
“Nice to know.”
“They're very sexy.”
“Nice to know.”
“Has your boyfriend given you your present yet?”
“Oh. Sorry to hear that.”
“Liar,'' she replied and then after a pause, “Can you give me a tissue?”
“Do you miss me?
“Yessss”, I said. Like my mother had asked me if I'd put the rubbish out. Actually I hadn't missed her that much.
We then argued about where she could put her cup down. She wanted to put it on the sofa arm of my new sofa, I didn't want to risk it being spilt.
“You don't want to give me even a little trust. It is a problem. Always.”
“Like that time we agreed to meet in Xinhua square and I said how are you going to get here on time if you're in Baotou and you said, if I say I will be there I will be there and I said 'Ok I trust you' and you were 2 hours late?”
“Ok, if you talk like this than I'm gonna leave.”|
“Please don't leave. I'm sorry, I'm sorry. I forgot. You are always right.”
“Yes. I am. I'm super woman.”
“You look like super woman. A more curvaceous version of her. You look fabulous.”
“Thank you,” she said sweetly.
“So. You'd better open your present.”
“Do you want to say something before I open it?”
“Um...can you guess what it is?”
“Chasuna, the sandwich is ancient history.”
As I was saying this fireworks were going off outside. Not the colourful kind, the loud banging variety that you cannot seem to pass a day in Chinese city without hearing go off somewhere and usually to mark the opening of something, such as a corner store or clothes shop. But then they stopped.
“The look you give me now I remember when we first met," Chasuna said.
“Really? It was rude of me to look at you like that when I'd only just met you,” I replied.
“You should have asked me out yesterday.”
I sat down beside her and looked at her closely.
“You know you'd have said no.”
“You never tried.”
“Laugh my ass off. I'm always pestering you and you say don't put pressure on you.”
It was true, as well. That whole semester I'd been sitting in watching episodes of Lewis and messing around with my sandwich maker. That wasn't how it was supposed to be. I thought if I moved into an apartment on campus she'd be round every five minutes. Of course, the 10.30 curfew for foreign teachers didn't help. But I'm a fantasist, that's the main problem.
Chasuna was silent for a few moments and then replied “happy to meet you,” which is difficult to translate. Happy that we'd met or, most probably, glad that she'd stopped by that afternoon.
After that she opened her present, which was a dress and said she liked it because it was from me.
“Are you going to try it on?”
“No. I have to go.”
“Ok, well, thank you for coming over. Have a good evening...Twenty seven years old.”
“Yeah. Twenty seven. I don't like twenty seven.”
“Why am I drinking your tea?” I asked.
“Are you happy?” She replied, not to my question.
“Now, I am, yes.”
“I mean not only today.”
“Well I'm getting old and it just seems like I'm going nowhere in my life and I want to find someone to settle down with and maybe I never will. I have all the usual worries too. Money problems, family problems, existential problems. What about you? Happy?”
“No. Not really. I am a little confused about my life. I want to travel but I don't think my boyfriend gonna wanna do that.”
“So why don't you ditch him, go abroad next year after you've done your degree and go and work somewhere. Live a little.”
“It is not that I don't want to. Maybe I will marry and then divorce and then I can do what I wanna do.”
Chasuna wasn't kidding. She was wanted to get out of Hohhot and see the world but she didn't want to end up on the shelf, she didn't know whether to pursue her dream of travel or be sensible. Certainly her family wanted her where she was.
"Chasuna, I want to ask you something."
"Do you want spend the night in a cheap hotel?"
"What? You know I have a boyfriend."
"No no. That's not... what I wanted to ask."
"Would you like to take part in a mock marriage ceremony?"
"What is a-"
"Like a fake wedding."
"No. I don't think so."
“Alright, alright. What I really wanted to ask is: can I be your teddy bear?
“Your teddy bear? What," Chasuna paused to remove the remote control from the sofa cushion and chucked it across the room "others are there?,” and snuggled up to me.
As I started telling her-iguanas, giraffes, penguins, bonobos, mangabeys- I stroked her hair.
"I've missed you," she said.
"I've missed you too, sweetheart," I said.
We didn't mean it. It was a moment as disingenuous as one of those 'we care' moments in a banking advert. We wanted it to be true, so we said it. Our relationship was just about sex, on both sides but sometimes one or both of us would get confused and hope it was something more.
When we said goodbye at the airport my eyes were getting moist. Chasuna was surprised to seeme overcome with emotion but I think it was just the occasion.
I think I made the right call going home. Sitting here in my bedsit my body heats the duvet nicely and sometimes, when I'm sickened by the gratuitousness of online porn I think of Chasuna. She says it's nice to know.