“Call him Ishmael,” Charlie roars.
“Don’t you fuckin’ dare!” Ishmael — that’s me — roars back.
Kokoloko and the rest of the crew seated at the bar roar too, with laughter, lifting their mugs and spilling their shots as they throw them back.
I’m drunk. Charlie’s drunk. (I know this because Charlie, who never quotes his namesake, keeps quoting his namesake: “Find what you love and let it kill you,” he yells at the top of his ratchety voice.) His parents really did that to him. It must be hell to be named Charles Bukowski Nwosu–O’Brien. Just like it’s hell when your parents name you for the most famous character to have “lived” in these parts, and his sidekick. But I fooled ’em. I use a pen name: Hester Prynne, literature’s second-most famous New Englander. People like the idea of an adulterous woman getting even with the world by writing obscene limericks, with beginnings like “A chesty young lady named Charlotte / Pursued a career as a harlot” instead of “There was a young man from Nantucket” (which I won’t write, because Nantucket happens to be where I was born. I’ve lived in Pittsfield since I came back from Vietnam. It’s quieter. And cheaper).
Being a Nantucketer, whaling’s in my genes, which is the other reason Madre and Padre named me Ishmael Queequeg Jones: My great-great-great-great grandfather was the captain of the whaler “Industry,” and his sons and grandsons sailed and impaled the huge blubber-ing beasts with their Temple Toggles.
That’s what my leg is made from by the way: great-great-granddad’s harpoon. I could have had a real prosthesis — the Army would have paid for it ’cause, after all, I’m a hero — but I had this lying around and I figured, Hell, why not. Nobody else had a wooden leg in those days (in these days, either), much less a wooden leg with a hook.
People are real careful when they see me coming. The hook sneaks out below my cuff. Looks mean. It’s covered, but you don’t know that till you know that: the covering’s clear plastic. Kokoloko loves it. He insists its visible in every publicity photo. He says it gives me “distinction.” Besides, he says, it’s good for Hester’s image: a hooker (so to speak) with an honest-to-God hook.
Anyway, Charlie and me are at the bar celebrating the release of The Collected Works of Hester Prynne, Volume 1 (which has a huge red “A” strung from a whalebone corset on the cover. You can’t say my publisher doesn’t have a sense of humor) with a bunch of my friends including my agent, Kokoloko — a chest-length beard with a pint-size, shrill-voiced, wild-eyed man attached to it who swears he’s half an inch too tall to be called a midget. He’s lying, but he sells a lot of books so we, his clients, let him get away with it. Besides, he usually buys the drinks and attracts lots of women which, until TCWoHP,V1 was published, helped out when the leg and my forty-years-out-of-date, Jim-Kelly-in-Enter-the-Dragon Afro and the gravitational pull of my bodacious personality weren’t enough to magnetize me.
We’ve been here since the signing ended. Scads of women lined up at the bookstore (that Hester is a man is a pretty widely known fact, which makes her all that much more intriguing), freshly purchased copies of V1 in hand, and oohed and ahhed and quoted my work to me. I now know how Gellett Burgess must have felt. (For the unaware: He wrote “I never saw a purple cow,” to his everlasting chagrin.) I even had a few offers, which I turned down. “Bad idea,” Kokoloko warned me before I settled myself at the table, red Sharpie in hand. “Besides, there’ll be plenty to choose from later. Dig?”
So. I drank, like always; I roared, like always; I shook a few hands and kissed more than few lips, like always; and then I went home in a cab by myself (because I was — like I am most of the time — too drunk to receive company, if you know what I mean) with Charlie’s words ringing in my ears. Hey, I found what I love and it is killing me. I mean, I get up most mornings and I’m bleary-eyed and hung-over, but I have a couple cups of Irish coffee and half a dozen cigarettes and set to work. On a really good day I can turn out three, four, five, limericks (writing them is not as easy as you think; it took me a week to come up with “And she plied her trade in a used car lot,” which is how “Charlotte” ends. Kokoloko thought it was brilliant and I guess it must be, since women frequently ask if I want to check out used cars on the way home).
Anyway, TCWoHP,V2 is getting done. Kokoloko has already sold the serial rights to Playboy. I’m gonna be rich.
If I live that long. I mean, it’s like: A drunken old poet from Pittsfield / Wrote lewd limericks till his wits failed / When he was asked “why”/ He replied with a sigh / It’s a life.
Okay, so it’s not finished. Like I said, “Charlotte” took forever.
I gotta change the way I live.
Evan Guilford-Blake writes fiction, plays, poetry and creative non-fiction for adults and children. His stories have appeared in numerous print and online journals; they have won 13 competitions and received two Pushcart Prize nominations. Noir(ish), his first novel, was recently issued by Penguin. About 40 of his plays have been produced; eighteen are published, and he’s won more than 40 playwriting contests.