Vortex was as strange a town as its name implied, and whether or not I believed in the New Age stuff, which I didn’t, it worked a spooky power over me. This is because of some inborn machinery in my psyche, having to do with suggestibility.
I’ve been a victim of suggestibility problems since childhood, being unable to hear about any spooky danger, horrible disease or other bad luck kick in the butt without having the shakes, symptoms or whatever other imaginary troubles go with the thing.
When I was ten I thought I had syphilis and moped about it until my parents had to take me to the doctor. They laughed on the way there, and this calmed me somewhat, but I was still scared. A pimple on the pre-pubescent peepee does not mean syphilis, but hey, maybe I was the first.
Tina and I had to get out of The Butte Spa where we were staying. She was a cop on vacation, an unlikely new pal for an adman at a blue sky session hosted by a client of unlimited pretensions, but we’d met on the walking path out back in the dewy cold desert morning and hit it off because we both liked bird watching and got excited together about seeing a phainopepla, which is a rare black jay. We’d made a date for that night.
The Butte Spa itself was just too constricting or confining or confounding or con-everything, it being, above all, a con job of the ritziest sort of resort, at least I was starting to think of it that way. And its clientele, mostly aging rich women or celebrities in sunglasses, caps, wigs, scarves or just gray, un-celebrated, natural faces—the best disguise of all—was making me uncomfortable, so we agreed to head away from the grounds into the nearby town of Vortex which was half authentic, half spoiled.
We found a bar called the Cock & Bull and wanted to have a quiet drink, just the two of us, at least that was my hope, but a stranger named Chuck joined us, uninvited, and if Vortex wasn’t the weird capital of Arizona already, he would have been enough to give it the title. The bar was only a little touristy, with a collection of mens’ ties hanging from the ceiling. Apparently the joke was that when some uptight sucker dressed in a tie came in, the cowgirl waitresses would surround the guy and snip his tie off at the knot with a big rounded shears. Aside from this corny but good-natured nod toward the traveling traffic, the place had a decent amount of local color, which meant it had colorful locals and smelled beery.
Chuck was jumpy, acting like he had Saint Vitas Dance; a condition I’d heard old people talk about when I was a kid, but I never thought it really existed. School teachers, or some elderly aunt impatient with a kid’s antsiness, would say whadya got, Saint Vitas Dance? I didn’t know what it meant exactly, except I assumed it had to do with why you couldn’t stop moving, and I was always afraid that if I didn’t have it, I’d catch it somehow anyway. It’s a true medical condition, these days controlled by drugs, like leprosy is. And leprosy is an appropriate thing to bring up, because Chuck was a leper of sorts, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Soon as Tina and I got settled and before we could define the direction our little tete-a-tete was going to take, this big ragged old stranger, Chuck, as I’ve said, slid into our booth on Tina’s side and asked if we’d buy him a shot and a beer. I was offended by this, for a barrage of reasons that included protectiveness toward Tina’s territory, the interruption of what I was hoping would become a nice date, the intrusion on my own personal space to a lesser degree, the fear of this shaky stranger having some communicable disease and the audacity of him begging a shot and a beer. But what the hell, we were in the vortex that is the town of Vortex.
Besides, Tina seemed cheered by his arrival, apparently not minding him on her side of the table, and in fairness, he was sitting at the outer edge of the seat, so as not to presume too much of her area. Tina said, “Sure, we’ll buy you a shot and a beer.”
And we did. The price of a few cheap drinks bought us a good story. Better than any movie we could have seen, had there been a show anywhere in Vortex where we could have taken in a film on our date, which was doubtful.
“Excuse the shakes, please,” Chuck said, shaking. Then he poured his shot glass of whiskey into his right ear, the ear on the side closest to Tina. He smacked the glass up against his ear, hard, hard enough to make his long, sandy hair jump like a pile of springs getting unsprung. He’d splashed the whiskey down into the ear, the way a cowboy in an old oater would toss back a shot of redeye, but it didn’t go into his mouth. It went, as I said, into his ear. The whole movement was sideways, with the ear acting like a mouth, but smaller and without any jaw action, of course.
Chuck seemed to take this in stride, giving his head just a little shake to keep the whiskey in there, keeping the tilt just right so it wouldn’t spill out, although some of it did leak down the side of his neck onto his soiled shirt. No earhole is as quite as big as a shotglass.
“Everyone knows this,” he said, “ But I shot a coyote and that was the start of these problems. I’m figuring, you see, that if I tell enough people about this, I can talk my way out of the thing, or somebody’ll know how to help, but I’m not holdin’ my breath.” And he wasn’t. He talked, shook, then tossed a splash of beer from the beer glass into his ear, the same ear, slamming the rim of the glass “upside the head” as they say in rural parts such as these, but only letting a bit pour in, so as he righted the glass and set it back on the table, it was still mostly full.
“It was a beautiful animal. I was living twenty, twenty-five miles out of town, where the hills run down into the desert and the saguaros start up again. Around thirty-three hundred?”
In this country, elevation is used kind of like street numbers are used back in the world I know. In that sane and normal world, when I say thirty three hundred to you, you know I’m talking about the 3300 block, which starts at 33rd street, and you’re pretty well oriented by that. But out here, thirty three hundred means feet above sea level, and gives you other kinds of information, like about the weather. Above that number, for example, you might get snow when it’s raining below it, and fog sometimes instead of sun, because you’d be in clouds up there above thirty three.
“It’s early, just after sun-up,” Chuck goes on. “And I’m sitting on the steps of my trailer, just watching the day begin. And it’s all totally beautiful, you know, and smells only like it can smell at dawn in the desert, and then I see this coyote walking across the sand flats about a hundred yards off and he might see me or smell me. I reckon he does, since he’s a coyote, but he doesn’t seem concerned about me seein’ him.”
And Chuck poured a little more beer into his ear. It was a neat pour, not much spillage although a little white foam rose out and about around the folds of ear, then took a moment to settle. He smiled at us, so sadly, and started up again.
“The sun was low in the sky, because it was early morning of course, like I said, and shining off the coyote’s fur, looking pretty. I wanted to see it better, so I got my deer rifle with its high-power scope out of the trailer, moving slow, not to alarm the animal, and aimed it at him.”
He stopped. Looked pained, and I thought it was because his story was taking a painful turn, or maybe the booze in his ear was doing something uncomfortable to him in there. Tina looked concerned, all eyes for Chuck, which kind of bugged me. Then he said, to her, not me, which bugged me even more, “Honey, could you possibly stand me to another shot?”
Tina signaled the waitress and ordered shots and beers all around. Nobody said anything while we waited. Chuck’s story took a commercial break and I was trying to phrase a question about why the hell the guy was pouring alcohol in his ear, but couldn’t get the words out. Must have been the clutches of the Vortex on my powers of speech. Tina just looked comfortable. I don’t know why.
The drinks came and Chuck resumed talking. “With the scope, I can adjust the magnification 10 times, get in real close, see that coyote like it’s ten yards away, like he’s in my front yard. Which I do, y’see, and the animal’s really great to look at all big and close up like that, you know? And I figure, how very, very nice it would be to just have it, to own it, to make it become a part of my things, all the wildness and free-ness, and I just don’t want it to go away. Can you understand that? I wanted that coyote to be mine.”
Tina says, “I sorta know what you mean,” but she says it into her beer, not giving too much of herself to this stranger, and I approve of that kind of reserve. Then she adds, “I felt like that about a coyote fur coat I used to own.” She looks at me and gives the cutest wink on the side that’s away from Chuck, although he wouldn’t have seen it because he was dripping half a shot of burning, biting brown whiskey into his ear, just a neat half jigger this time, holding back some for later. I wondered if it made its way down that tube—I’m embarrassed to say I know the name of the tube, the Eustachian tube, because being a bit of a hypochondriac, well, I know such things. In fact I’ve worried that my Eustachian tubes get infected once in a while, especially in winter. But that’s another story.
Unfazed, Chuck continued, “On impulse, I pulled the trigger and put a bullet right into that animal’s beautiful heart. Didn’t really think on it, just did it. Just didn’t want him going anywhere. Wanted to own him, right?”
I’m thinking of this guy shooting a gun, owning a gun—and wondering, where is it now?—probably out in his pickup truck. All these rubes drive pickup trucks. I always wonder what they pick up with them. I never see anything in the bed back there. Seems like a stupid vehicle to me, and part of a redneck ideology that I find a little off-putting and scary to be frank. They usually have rifle racks, these pickup trucks. And Chuck’s rifle is probably out there in his pickup in the parking lot, and he could have it in here in a minute if he wanted to, or follow us on the way out and, who knows?
And I’m thinking of this guy using the gun, knowing about the bullets and the firing, and then how he actually killed a big, living animal like a coyote. It was unsettling. The guy was a murderer of sorts, and he was sitting with us, bumming drinks and pouring them into his ear, interrupting our little sort-of first date. Well, I guess it was making the first date a memorable one so far. I don’t think I could have been as amusing to Tina as Chuck was.
She didn’t seem scared by him. She had a confidence about her, but after all she was a lady cop and probably had a gun in her fanny pack or strapped to her thigh, for all I know, or in a little flat holster at the small of her back. The possibilities! And why are they sexy? Gun or not, she probably knew karate or some fighting skill that gave her confidence. I realized I had no easy idea about how to entertain her on a date, and the creepy Chuck was probably a lucky break.
I said, “You actually killed this animal?”
He said, “Shee-itttt. Happens all the time around here, buddy. But I didn’t do it for the usual reasons. I did it because it was beautiful.”
Tina said. “I think I understand, Chuck. And I’m sorry.”
He raised the half full shot glass in salute to Tina, then a quick, perfunctory little salute with it in my direction, tilted his head and dropped the rest of the whiskey into that same wet ear. He chased it with a dollop of beer dropped down there. This time he wasn’t dainty about the foam and it ran down to his shoulder but he didn’t acknowledge this. In fact he looked like the cold liquid had jogged his memory and helped him recall some detail he’d almost forgotten.
“It was the beginning of the sickness, for me,” he said. “I’d always figured if I came across a dead coyote on the road, one that was fresh killed, I’d take my knife and slice off a tuft of hair from it. I wanted the hair of a coyote, I can’t tell you why, but I just did.”
The juke box started playing Willie Nelson improbably singing Stardust and this haunting background music fit the moment, going well with Chuck’s storytelling, along with the din of other drinkers and the smell of bodies, beer and grease from whatever snacks they fry in the kitchen.
“But I never did see a fresh, road-killed coyote, so I never could get a hank of hair. But now, there was one lying on the ground in front of my home. Not road-killed, me-killed, and for a moment, I didn’t care how it got itself killed. I was going to get my souvenir.”
“Chuck, you poor baby,” Tina said, and I had no idea why. He was poor, that’s for sure, but he was no baby and I didn’t care for the kindness in that word, directed at this clearly deranged stranger.
Chuck knocked back some more beer into his ear; this time neatly as such a thing can be done, and continued. “I put a little leather thong around this clump of hair I took off the dead coyote. Nice brown and red hairs all tucked in at the middle. I wove the long end of the leather strip into my hair like I’d seen a traveling Zuni brave do on the reservation out in the Superstition Mountains years ago. I’d always liked that look. Figured I’d have that coyote, a part of him at least, with me always, and I’d own me some of his, you know, style and power. See what I mean? Is that bad?”
I shrugged. The beer was making me comfortable and stupid. I had no opinion yet about anything Chuck was saying, and no idea what the hell he was talking about. I was just waiting to see if he’d pour something else into his ear, and kind of hoping he wouldn’t, as it was getting disturbing. But then he did it, splash! And he went on, a puddle of beer creamy white on his earlobe and down his neck, his eyes red and unhappy, his voice quivery but powerful with a dementia I felt like backing away from, as though it were caused by germs.
Everything is caused by germs. Cancer, insanity, heart disease, things the public doesn’t normally associate with germs, but on a gut level I know better. And you might think germs are off the subject here, although there’s clearly some insanity in the vicinity, germ-caused or not, but germs are going to play a role before all this is over. Well not germs exactly, but small unseeable little bad things. Just wait.
“Now, that coyote had a thing called mange,” Chuck said. “Although I didn’t see it on him, and the mange is caused by mites, they’re small bugs that you cannot see, but they crawl around on an animal and they can be mean little bastards with teeth and claws, and they’ll eat your skin. But they didn’t go on my skin. They went into my ear, a whole bunch of ‘em, millions, they set up camp in my ear, down deep and started to eat and breed.”
Tina turned to face him head on and looked at him. I thought she’d be showing us some pained feminine sympathy or nurse-like tenderness, but she looked at him coolly, like she was looking at an interesting specimen, a scorpion under glass in the Sonoran Nature Center, which wasn’t too many miles from where we sat. I felt a chill. Tina wasn’t like other girls.
“Made me crazy with the pain of it. I poured hot water in there, and it didn’t kill ‘em. Gasoline did nothing. I poured grain alcohol in there and it was the only thing that numbed the pain and made me feel a little better. I went down to the clinic in Vortex? They gimme pills and tell me to lie down, and they put some green antibiotic shit in my ear and bandage it up, but they ain’t making any promises. Soon I got a fever, and then it just went higher. I was out of my mind with the itch and pain anyways, and then I get even crazier because of the fever. I don’t know how high it went or how long I had it, but the world through my eyes was bent out of all recognizable shape. Mange inside your ear’s a new one on the doctors and they don’t want to say much, but I could tell they weren’t sure about what was gonna happen. I spent the night on a cot in their waiting room, and there was a stuffed bobcat on a shelf above the nurse’s desk. In the middle of the night I woke up and I was out of my head with fever dreams and pain, and I guess the medicine must have made me even crazier, because me and that stuffed bobcat started having a real good conversation.”
Suddenly I flashed on the old poem, Rime of the Ancient Mariner, which was appropriate of course, as this old Chuck character was a tortured soul telling a story to strangers passing by. The jukebox switched to Hank Williams’, Tears in My Beer, while Chuck’s problem all started with a hank of coyote hair, poisoned with mange mites. His eerie story, the memory of the old poem, Hank’s music, they all combined to make the moment a set piece I didn’t mind for a bit of night-out entertainment, but didn’t want to take home with me. I swigged the rest of my beer, enjoying the buzz and spooky feel of our booth, knowing we were in the sway of Vortex.
“About three in the morning, me and the bobcat are talking. It had been staring, mocking me, and I could tell by its eyes that it was enjoying my discomfort.”
And Chuck reached over and without asking permission, emptied the few drops of whiskey that sat at the bottom of my shot glass into his ear. Then used a few drops of beer from his own glass to tamp it down. An ordinary ear couldn’t have taken any of this, but his was battle-scarred and cooperative toward any excesses of booze at this point.
“Finally I say to the bobcat, man, you’re in animal heaven or animal hell or whatever. Wherever the hell you dead animals go to when you’re dead. I know I’m being punished, being put through all this fucken pain for killing your coyote buddy. The coyote’s doing it to me, ain’t he? It’s a curse, ain’t it?”
Chuck looks at Tina, then at me, making sure we’re taking this in. “See, guys, I knew for sure that the coyote had put this curse on me, and I was gonna hurt and lie there all crazy and dyin’ until he’d take it off. And I figured if he knew I was sorry for killin’ him, then maybe he’d forgive and forget. I was feverish, remember.”
He poured a nice slow pour of beer into his ear, cocking his head way over to get the liquid into some spot he might have missed before, and went on, “And the bobcat answers me, sure as I’m talkin’ to you. His mouth moves like a person’s, and his voice is kind of high and old-like, even though it’s mean and purely wild, you know? And he says, ‘Sure, Chuck, I can talk to the coyote for you. I’ll see what he says. Maybe we can work something out. I hate to see you hurtin’ like that. I know something about hurtin’, myself, as you might expect, being’ stuffed and all, and with these marble eyes which don’t fit too good.’ That’s what the bobcat says to me, and I figure, I got something to hope for now.”
The waitress stopped by and asked if she can get us another round, and I’m too interested in what the bobcat’s going to do for Chuck and can’t switch gears to think about beers. Chuck says, “Another round all around, dearie.” And it sounds odd, the dearie, coming from this punch-drunk ear drunk. She takes our empties and leaves.
“Well, I musta conked out for a while, because when I wake up I’m all wet, like I’d been swimming, but it was just sweat. And the bobcat was calling me. I guess he’s the reason I woke up, and he’s saying, ‘Hey, I talked with the coyote and he told me when the pain and itching would go away. Want to know what he said?’” ‘Hell yes, I do,’ I said to my friend, the bobcat. ‘Just tell me what he wants me to do, I’ll do anything.’”
The waitress came with shots and beers. Chuck grabbed the nearest shot and chugged it onto the side of his head, wetting his hair but still getting most of it into its intended hole. Just because the story’s got me and Tina all riveted and painted into this Vortex bar’s scenery like we’d never been anywhere else or would ever go anywhere else, didn’t mean that Chuck would stop ear boozing. Then he began talking again.
“The Bobcat says, ‘The coyote wants me to tell you that your pain and itch and internal head mange will stop on the day that the coyote comes back to life.’ And I say, but the coyote ain’t never comin’ back to life. I killed it. And the bobcat says, ‘the coyote sure as hell knows that’.”
And Chuck raised my jigger in a toast to himself, and tossed it into his ear. He righted his head, looked at us and slowly, sadly shook it. I don’t know if my ear started itching then or it was just my imagination, but I tried to ignore it, glad as hell I’d never shot a coyote and never would.
Mike Lubow’s short stories have appeared in national magazines including Playboy, and many literary magazines. He also writes a regular column for The Chicago Tribune.
Mike writes: "The story “Beer in His Ear” is an attempt to amuse while covering a subject that could be ominous: the contrast between urban neurotics and backwoods country people. Urban types want to appreciate the outdoors from a safe distance, while the others might see it as a kind of vast butcher shop. When these cultures rub up against each other, we could have a civil war of sorts. Or, instead, we could have fun with goofy characters. Especially if there’s a hook, something unusual that makes you say "what?" and keeps you going ‘til there’s a payoff. This story's pure fiction, although helped by experience. There is a bar like this in Arizona, along with spas, vortexes and pickup trucks. There are mange mites that can jump from canines to people. And there’s the true story of John Speke, the African explorer who got a bug in his ear and was driven so wild by it that he actually...well, you don’t want to know."