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Chili Night and John Lennon

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Chili Night and John Lennon

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A surreal experience having one of your Beatles die and watching it at the hotel bar where you lived off chili night and popcorn and endless cups of coffee.

The ghost of John Lennon got confused at his place of residence and asked for a bowl of chili beside me at the hotel bar. He had a bullet in his heart and nobody mourned more for him than me, a just-turned-thirty-young man who sang his death song going up the charts. Lennon looked at the crackers he broke for the chili, spooning his appetite slowly, unsure if the dead could eat. His brown hair shone in the bar light on this blizzard night. A rich walnut-colored color free from every going gray. I lived at the hotel. Sometimes I filled in for the desk clerks, discovering it was easy to check in ghosts and answer phone calls from Hades.

At the switchboard I was happy to be alive, despite my girlfriend being in Paris. But she had been there at the bar when John Lennon died, they said so on national television. Her shiny black hair made her look more beautiful, a young woman of nineteen who shared my bed every night on the fourth floor in a room next to Mister Marshall. Who was Marshall you ask? He was an elderly curmudgeon who frowned at lovers next door making any noise louder than a whisper or a kiss broken by an unexpected sigh.

“All you need is love” was John Lennon’s reply to the bartender who asked if he wanted another vodka. Blind eyes could blaze like meteors. He talked about constellations above the East River and the alien saucers both he and May Pang witnessed one night. His Liverpool voice tuned up that voice of not disbelief but longing to soar above the East River. May Pang could come too, his personal photographer and live-in girlfriend who had returned to New York from Los Angeles with the semi-disenchanted musician. Above all, he wanted a number one hit song, and that hadn’t come in years since leaving The Beatles. “But, dear John, you are dead.” I wanted to say and maybe I did as his eyes crashed from his meteor sky into his chili.

Mouth opened a bit, his walnut-brown hair messed over his brow, a hand wanting to pull it off in one grasp, he talked through his nasal twang, as if firing off his own shots into my heart at close range. A musical killing like many other times before with his sardonic held tones. The bartender, who was an urban geographer in disguise, heard the retort, holding the vodka bottle out for another Russian splash into his small glass. Lennon drank them neat. No fucking ice, and napkins, pour it as if my life depends on it. But whose life? Could this really be Lennon I was talking to, or trying to talk? And did the bartender see I was talking to nobody but had two small glasses for neat vodka to drink?

“Life is very short,” he once sang to Paul’s “We Can Work It Out.” But work what out? John never expected his assassin to be at the door of The Dakota, but there he was as if some trouble he had never dealt with properly. And I wondered if I had dealt with my girlfriend’s dissatisfaction of being with an older man, not that I was old, just older, and she was in Paris now. I heard John say, “Fucking May Pang, she never wanted to come with me to California, but once in my bed she didn’t want to leave. She fell in love with this strange Beatle whose son came to visit us in Malibu.”

The urban geographer poured the vodka without our consent. I had no idea if I had any money in my pockets. Lennon leaned forward on his bar stool, he talked about Mimi and his mother run over by a car in Liverpool, he persuaded himself that he could write a number one hit but what was the song about that refused to slip from his gob. Lennon drank his next vodka as if he were sixteen, grimacing at the alcohol content. He was unaware of me really, thirty years to his forty staring at the bar mirror whose reflection held both of us. The bartender walked up and down, cocking his ear at times to hear his account of singing “Twist and Shout” at Abbey Road during that ten-hour marathon session. “You never felt such a thing as a razor being taken to your vocal cords.” He spooned chili like a dying man, but his death already troubled the world who mourned his loss. “Why are you looking at me like that?” he asked me suddenly like I was someone about to trigger a revolver. A good question, they were all good from Lennon whose nose appeared to be destroyed from drugs, as if he needed a nose job somewhere along the way during those days of his comeback (if you could call it that). He hoped for a number one song, and the only one he ever had as a non-Beatle was with Elton John. Even “Watching the Wheels” couldn’t hit number one on the charts after he was dead, and perhaps he was considering this as that song began playing on the jukebox in the bar. There was an active shuffleboard player. His bosomy girlfriend laughing in his ear as she spilt beer into the shuffleboard. Nobody seemed to care. Not the urban geographer bartender who watched her boyfriend kiss his laughing girlfriend who still held her glass of beer and slop more onto the shuffleboard sawdust.

I never understood why the dead spoke to me. There would be the dead Richard Brautigan whom I had checked in at the hotel. He wouldn’t kill himself here, he could have thrown himself out the window of the fifth floor but waited until he got back home to Bolinas, California, for his final attempt at living. He wore his pilgrim hat and hippie beads, a vest open to a burgeoning belly, and squinted through his greasy wire-rim lenses. He had walked off his cover with Benjamin Franklin in Washington Square. I watched him scribble his famous name and he looked up at me and smiled.

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He was dead now, and Lennon lifted his empty glass of vodka for what? Oh, more vodka. “Leave the bottle,” he soused and the urban geographer grimaced, stared at me to see if I was hallucinating the former Beatle too. I nodded my head. The bottle stood upright like a post in a cemetery: it would be both ours. He kept blathering about May Pang being the real inspiration for “Watching the Wheels.” She had sat with him in Malibu, later in New York City by the East River, just watching their own “wheels” turning. Mostly they were naked. How many times did he make love with May Pang? She kept track in her journal, a number as high as three hundred times for Malibu alone.

“She was always scribbling down what I said,” John revealed to me, both of us figures in a mirror that were trapped in this nightmare. He patted me on the back, as if I deserved gunshots in the chest, wherever an assassin could spatter his venom for the world. John kept squishing up his wire-rims to the bridge of his nose, a very famous bridge where those granny glasses would be perched forever unless he opted for the Kingdom of Myopia (as he had done all those years ago with the Beatle Boys). He needed a clear-sighted reason as a dead man who found himself on a bar stool in the Upper Peninsula.

“Can you tell me where we are?” he soused at me, like an angry cat back on his hind legs. “Snow falls and falls and those scraping trucks go winding around the block in a burst of sparks and noise.” Lennon tousled back his walnut-colored hair from his brow; he snarled into the mirror behind the urban geographer who was blocking his view of himself. “Please, sire, if you could tell me where I have landed in hell?”

If he was dead, then I could be treading the aftermath of my small thirty-year-old world. I wanted to tell him about my Emily in Paris, but he made May Pang into a song, repeating the words until the barmaid in her low-cut blouse talked through her tits. He replied by tweaking each loosely represented one shifting with her hefty upper half. Not that Rita was fat, she was pleasantly obese. If you could bite on that word without offending the likely candidate, you would be lucky. Lennon was all luck, vodka in hand, and his windpipe burning from chili.

“Who’s playing my song?” he lashed out, as “Watching the Wheels” enlivened the jukebox again. Rita, with her half-blonde and brunette hair, started asking, “Aren’t you a Beatle?” He hadn’t let go of her tits, and she gazed into a bulldog roaming around in his head about to bark. A Beatle, of course he was a Beatle down to the bone. But now he was somebody else—dead maybe—but that other self was actually enjoying his night out of hell as it snowed crazily outside on the street.

“Won’t someone tell me where I am?” he cried out like a scalded cat being chased by a bulldog. And Rita, she would play her part in this strange chronicle of Beatles and dead men. It wasn’t easy to hold a glass of vodka while clamping fingers around a woman’s nipple. But Rita wanted to be touched and a dead John Lennon would do. Her voice rather on the husky side like Marlene Dietrich managed to explain he was in the Queen City. And now the urban geographer leaned his elbows forward on the bar counter to hear what was being said. He had watched the news on Lennon’s assassination on the TV above his head. But all there was on the screen bolted left to right, upside down and slightly greenish tinged, as if radiation was leaking from its fucking tubes.

“And where is this queen located? I am from Liverpool, lived in Los Angeles for a year, before moving back to my death in the Big Apple. All I can see out the window here is snow, so much snow in its almost Fellini-like glow imitating the color of snow. At forty I wanted to return to movies, relinquish this rock and roll persona, ask May Pang if we could move back to our one-room apartment over by the fucking East River where we witnessed aliens flying around the buildings. If she wanted me, we could have had children. Her hips were thin but between her legs it was big enough for all of me.”

Rita was forty, had children, or small people like children with hungry eyes all the time penetrating her Greta Garbo role as a woman who wanted to be alone in a bar full of people. Her tits took John up from his bar stool. He wouldn’t give them up. My kingdom for tits. Vodka he could drink with one hand by lowering his mouth to her chest. “Please sire,” he asked me, “if you could find a bed for me and my kingdom of tits.” And he was looking at me as if I could manage to postpone hell for another hour.  It had been hellish for me without Emily, who was visiting Paris and forgetting all about me, her former boyfriend who had shared a narrow bed in an over-priced hotel room with her. And I lay there under the crocodile dreams attempting to swim ashore to a place where she would be waiting. When I woke up under the sheets, I heard the sounds of a trolley car riding up and down the floors. Once a month I changed rooms. That’s when I got clean sheets. On that trolley car the maids rattled were shining sheets and fluffed pillows, anything you wanted to add to your loneliness if you could pay for it.

Lennon was led by Rita who didn’t mind this unusual attachment. She told the urban geographer whose name was Steve she was taking her break. The only other customer seated beside me had been Lennon and he was gone before I could ask him about Beatledom. And I nursed my vodka in the tumbler, the ice I had asked for melted like the icebergs lost in the warming ocean. Steve told me that was not John Lennon; he was dead, killed on the street by a crazed fanatic. They couldn’t revive him at the hospital. The doctors remarking we were letting fucking John Lennon die. But he had been dead for years with that other woman; his only chance had been to escape through May Pang’s legs and to curl up inside her forever. John’s song on the jukebox would have ended but someone else had invested another quarter to keep “Watching the Wheels” spinning. And we heard his voice, even though we wanted to know where Rita’s tits had taken the Liverpool boy, that hopeless, heartless voice crying out inside the lyrics: “I’m just sitting here watching the wheels go round and round.”


Lifetime Spent as a Beatle Stranded
On a Couch before a Television

John Lennon, naked, holds in a melody
he has to smoke out, till he understands
why he got so old at seventy.
His heart beats rapidly, perspiration
on his skin, remembering how large
his heart was that night of his near death,
and screams Beatle cadences from “Twist and Shout.”

Without all the bones of winter dug up,
he hooks that crooked trademark nose
to Central Park and sees himself walking below.
Through the blustery drifts he looks down
at his assassin, hiding in the shadows,
waiting for a second chance to kill him,
for all the bullets missed his heart
the first time, in spite of it being huge
as a cathedral that night standing
in the cold outside The Dakota.

He mumbles to the television
not turned on, his heart wants to be big again,
fearless with an engineer in a studio
cutting new songs, and to hear it beat
unashamedly for a woman—he doesn’t care
who it was. And like a rock star about to get a hit,
he turns his back to the window, let it be now,
one more bullet to send him up the charts.


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Russell Thorburn

Russell Thorburn is the author of four books of poems. Somewhere We’ll Leave the World, published by Wayne State University Press in 2017, draws on the poet’s own experiences while imagining fictional characters and personal heroes. He has received numerous grants, including a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs.