Looking Back at My Lot's Shaker of Salt
by John Kendall Hawkins
Johnny G could never figure out how he got himself into these things.
Recently, he had dutifully signed up for a course online at Johns Hopkins to become a certified Covid-19 Contact Tracer. He found it "really interesting" he told his partner Jillian, a concert pianist at the local bordello. At least, that's the way he put it to himself. His university-level course that, upon completion, allowed him to print off proof that he'd finished the "classes" and received the certification that would lead him to fatefully obtaining a job as a tracer. Jillian laughed her ass off when she returned home one night and saw his "sheepskin" pasted to the wall near his desk, the colors fading, the printer needing a new cartridge, again. She was alluring but not double-take stuff, and this thought concerned him as she emptied out her purse onto the kitchen table and he saw her rake up bills like fall leaves with fingers. She saw his expression.
"Tips," she said.
Tips of what, he wondered, but uttered, "For your Rachmaninoff?" He wasn't complaining really, as he was the sole beneficiary, as far as he knew, of her tender glissandos applied to his muscular curvatures and spinal hardware. But her rendition of Sergei's six Moments Musicaux, Op. 16, on a honkytonk keyboard, which she'd started playing at the bordello in celebration of his birthday, stopped wastrels in their tracks, barmaids wept, I myself felt an urge to defenestrate to relieve the tension of her disruptive, erupting beauty in my "soul."
"I've been offered a permanent position."
"Oh, well now," He said. "We'll have to talk about that."
He didn't actually know what to say. They needed the money and permanent permanent just meant she's graduated at the juke joint from gig economist to employee with benefits, and as long as those benefits didn't extend to the employer taking advantage of her, dropping comments in her ear, making passes with warm, soft glove-maker's hands, or otherwise drawing extracurricular inferences in her tip hat, an old straw flower-banded thing her grandma had left behind, he could deal with it. He himself was still gigging, from venture to venture, the way his old man used to describe working as a temp for Manpower. People laughed at his lifestyle, but he told them when the dicks at work got especially dysfunctionally erectile he'd be on his way to another venue, new phony smiles of greeting, a new desk 'for the time being,' new sashays walking away that would mean nothing because no perms dated gigs. It was beneath them. A gigster had his or her own glass ceiling problems. Plus his fantasy always reminded him that he was married. Looky no touchy. Although he and Jillian were both open, at times, to an early scratch of the Seven Year Itch.
He'd worked just about everything in his life of gigs. He'd been a plumber at an old folks apartment building pulling gray hair out of shower stall drains and repainting patches of wall when photos got taken down and revealed fade, smelly cats and kooks everywhere; he'd run pizza pies for Domino's, back when you had to have it there in 30 minutes or it was free (meaning no bonus), him a lout with the clutch, lurching; he'd had a summer gig at a GM automotive factory cutting rubber injections thingies and getting called a "retard" for work quality by kids with no educational degrees or degrees of separation from lower primates (Ecce Homo, my ass, he thought); he'd filled helium balloons at a mall for a clown (also gigging) who reeked of rum - and coke; he'd mowed school lawns; he'd tended bar at a small cavern in Central Sqyare where failed bar examinees, looking hung out to dry, went to get wet and whistle dixie; he'd shellacked and bunged wooden coffins; he'd pumped gas; he'd even written "copy" at minimum wage for YouTube "clients" looking to hit it big as monetizers.
Now he traced Covid-19. The job description said it all:
Case investigation and contact tracing is the process of working with a person (patient) who has been diagnosed with an infectious disease to identify and provide support to people (contacts) who may have been infected through close contact with the patient.
He was all that. A case investigator you didn't want to make angry. Of course, this was entirely the wrong disposition to be possessed by, as tender mercy was mandated by both Johns Hopkins and the situation. Maybe he should have been a skip tracer. Johnny G was prone to sounding as if his callees had an STD, in addition to the capitalist virus of economic growth with its ugly symptom of conspicuous consumption that spread rapidly amongst the Joneses, and he acted as if it was his personal responsibility to chastise their habits and the types of people they hung around with. He was surprised when they listened and sought atonement. He was conscious of his over-play and wondered about it, drawing the conclusion, finally, that it may have developed out of the mini-homilies his mom would have to hear at the rectory when she would take him as a child to essentially beg the Church for a food voucher good at the local shops -- on the one condition: listen to the good father's pontifications and admonitions. As he recalled, Jesus just quietly distributed bread and water-turned-to-shiraz. Amen.
"Well, do you have something to say," Jillian asked.
"I worry that you'll find another man and dump me," he said frankly. "You gotta promise to remain devoted." She smiled, in what could be taken as coy. "Could you pass the bong, please, Jills?"
She handed him the plastic tube and bag of "medical" mayjay. "You needn't worry about me stop loving you. I'm hopelessly devoted to you." He gave her a quick evil eye, wondering if she had deliberately invoked that Aussie girl, Olivia Newton-John, for effect, while he stoked an ember, burbled, and held the smoke and blew it in her pretty face.
That "devotion" was sorely tested in the weeks following her "promotion." She came home later and later. Her clothing and complexion changed: jeans were exchanged for fishnets and blouse lost its top button; lipstick the color of Moulin rouge lit the night, and her previous soft, gorgeous eyelashes were now supercilia. Still, she brought home the bacon, and as far as the home budget went she called the shots. All the bills were paid. Meals were often ordered in, generous tips allotted. Between the two of them, they lived a comfortable condo existence. Made regular love. Tried Kundalini while high and cracked up at the yoga-esque requirements f pretzel love. And her rehearsals of Schumann's Fantasiestucke (Op.12) on the spinet in the lounge/dining room made him long to be as mad as the composer was said to be when he notated such perfect paens to Romantic desire, filled, it's said, with ardent melancholy and, strangely, amor fati resiliencies. Sure, he had to be hospitalized for such sentiments. But, then, Van Gogh never even tried to sell a painting in his lifetime. Luckily, there was still a God back then to bless Schumann: Nietzsche had not yet double-tapped the Old Geyser to make room for the postmodern relativism we all so enjoy today like there's no tomorrow.
# # # # #
The next day while Jillian was tickling the ivories at what really wasn't so much a bordello -- well, okay, yes, it was. Johnny G's wife worked at a bordello, a whorehouse, a pimper's paradise (as Bob Marley put it), but he was regularly assured that she was above the fray and frat. During the day, he received his notifications from St. Francis of Assisi Hospital of newly hospitalized patients who would have to cough up a list of people they'd been in touch with prior to their diagnoses. They would each need to be contacted, discreetly, of course, and answer a questionnaire over the phone.
His first contact of the day was one Mildred Baltimere, 42, from Queens, personal assistant at a boutique Turkish import carpet place (Osman Imports) that sold only rugs and kilims from a tiny cave-ridden village near Cappadocia, in Anatolia; buying their carpets, Mildred said, without solicitation, was like donating to a Save the Children campaign. She held up her fingers with a look that recalled Mary looking up at the dying Jesus. He guessed that's where the boutique came in. After they established rapport, Johnny G waded into the messy nitty gritty of his position as a quasi-governmental interloper who was on a mission to save free enterprise from a virus. As far he was concerned, Covid-19 was communism. Or at least that was the register of his voice that came across to Mildred.
"So, who are these people you made contact with?" he gently probed and probed.
"Tabatha, Jimmy, Rheingold, Aristotle, and Jimmy," she offered, machine gun-like, as if he were a member of Joe McCarthy's House Un-American Committee, and her future in rugs depended on her answers to his tense discretionary queries.
"Are there two Jimmys, then?"
"Yeah," she answered. "One's my hair salonist. Nice guy. Gay. The other's my ex-boyfriend. Not a nice guy. But not gay."
"Mmmm-hm. And can you give the dates and times you last were in proximity to them and for how long. Also, their phone numbers, as we will need to contact them."
"The royal we. You know, I kind of speak for the government."
It went on like that, seemingly pointless banter peppered with official-sounding questions and answers, occasionally a contact glad to be of help and offering TMI anecdotes, taking the rapport too far, and once in a while getting a real growler at the end who threatened to punch his lights out for calling in the first place. One woman, a webmistress for Craigslist, suggested they meet "discreetly" for drinks, and to get to know each other better. New York, right?
His days were filled with such now-banal communications with people, not unlike himself, he thought, who were just trying to get through what Nature threw at them. Pandemics, Climate Change, Russians, Donald Trump. Whatever. Sympaticos by birth, free and coping, and moving on up, if they were lucky.
As he took a lunch break (pickle slices, hardboiled egg, beets), Jillian called to say she wouldn't be coming home for dinner, or at all, and when he got feisty in his wonderment of what got into her and why?, some thug, sounding like a reptile with sinusitis, got on the phone told him, in no uncertain terms, that she had left him for another man, a man whose identity he wouldn't want to know because then he'd know too much. You believe me, don't you? he told Johnny G. He could hear Jillian's sobs in the background. . Clara Schumann was in trouble. That was all the siren call he needed. In his mind, the beefeater could go fly a kite on a windless day.
The subcontinental Uber driver dropped him off at East 24th Street, at a dark little "establishment" that might as well have been lit up in neon with "trouble." Outside, he swore, was the feather-capped pimp from Taxi Driver. He knew how that ended, and De Niro was packing heat; so, he worried for a moment, then rushed past and into the bordello where his Jillian was playing "Circe's New Circle of Friends" on the out-of-tune (or cracked soundboard?) "instrument." He grabbed at her and said, "Let's go."
"No," she said and kept playing. "I'll never gig again. This is home now. Scram."
Phew! His head spun. New paradigm time. Hallucinations: He felt like he was swallowing himself inside out, terror, years ahead of empty rooms filled with ghosts and, eventually, old geysers looking out windows nobody could see at pasts they probably never had. Phew!
Then the saving grace. There she was. A consenting aged Lolita. He'd rescue her. He pulled at her. The pimp pulled a pistol. Jillian, to save him, though it would cost her a beating later, hit the pimp over the head with piano stool. El Kabong! She dissed Johnny G away with her fingers, and he took Persephone, the understudy, away, and they hopped in a cab and they headed home and Johnny said to her, "Don't look back, Seph, you never know what's gaining on you." Satchel Paige, summing up Black history in America. And things were fine for a few blocks, but then she looked back to see if they were being followed by goons or cops. And that was a bad idea. Because she turned into salty mess right there in the cab. Crying, carrying on. The cabbie said, "I'm gonna have to let you two out here. I can't have that kind of thing going on in my cab."
The short of it is he soon loved her and forgot about Jillian. She was salt of another sort to him now. Persephone was his life now. And, Jesus, did she cry. And trauma tales? To spread the wealth of her story, between the tears he bottled her sobs, labeled them Lots Salt Droplets, and distributed the vials through a crew of ex-Amway salespeople who knew the door-to-door ropes, them knowing the pitch for Love's viaducts. Some folks bought them as seasoning for sizzling backyard steaks; some saw them as Fatima wonder drops you daubed behind the ears for comfort; some bought them like Jehovah's Witness material just to get the f*ckers out of your face, and the drops got lost amidst the bottles and squeeze tubes collected from hotel room stays collected in a rarely opened drawer in the study where the Internet was kept.
Tears were Johnny's last gig. The furious pimp, and that Black guy from Pulp Fiction who gets sexually transported to a new paradigm by the unzipped Gimp, catch up with Johnny and ask him a series of rhetorical questions he couldn't possibly have answers for. He guessed that's why they call them rhetorical. And, much later, in the hospital, he tot he taw a pooty tat -- Jillian visiting -- and he did, he did, he did, he taw a pooty tat. And, on his meal tray, a little vial shaped like a duct of Lot's tender tears they say went great with fries.
The pimp shot dead in a case of mistaken identity - apparently, it would be mischaracterization to think no two feathers are the same. Jillian quit her day job, and stayed home to bottle Seph's tears. Jillian and Persephone were now an item. Truly a TMI situation. Not that there was anything wrong with that. And Johnny G. succumbed to a Schuman-esque fantasia requiring nothing more than the relinquishment of the gig economy that had become his practical philosophy and it sustained him all the days of his remaining life on the ward.