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Guest Writer

The Eastlake Dutchman
by J.K. Mercury

hile his double-tall mocha cooled, Jason opened the new Hate comic and spread it across the table in the front window of the Eastlake Cafe.

With careful nonchalance, he stretched his left elbow forward and let the edge of his eye glance at his left shoulder. He frowned. He folded his T-shirt sleeve up twice and glanced down again. Too obvious. He rolled it halfway back down.

About half of the tattoo showed. It would have to do. He considered rolling the sleeve all the way down. He still wasn't sure about the tattoo.

He could have had a snake, but that was too macho and the flower too hippieish and the skull too bikerish. He liked the girl in the bikini, but chicks might not be impressed. He settled on the dragon because it could be interpreted as spiritual, or Eastern, or artistic, without losing that masculine ferocity that would keep him from getting chased out of tough bars.

Now he had a troubling thought: could it be interpreted in other ways? What if he had to explain the irony?

Jason heard a rattle and looked up. The front door blew open, coughing in rain and wind and a cloud of what might have been fog and might have been smoke and might have been the capricious haze of time and memory.

A body staggered from the cloud. The door slammed shut, the mist dissipated and Jason found himself pinned back by a gaze so rigid that it could only be either the cold clear gaze of enlightenment or the glassy stupor of intoxication.

Jason yanked his eyes down to his comic and held them there so fiercely that he could not spare the extra energy to actually read it.

He heard a step and the squeal of a chair. The stranger flopped down across from him like a child's favorite doll; the one she loves the most even though it's dirty and ragged and the eyes and arms are about to fall off.

Intoxication, Jason decided.

The guy looked like '60s Nostalgia Day at the Union Gospel Mission: a tie-dye shirt and army jacket; a moustache that drooped to his chin; hair that had been slept on more often than combed; and a floppy newsboy cap that had been recently used as a Frisbee on a muddy field in a rainstorm. Jason put his head down and snickered. He felt the man's attention for several long minutes before he heard his voice.

"Man, doesn't that lip thing get in the way when you're making out with a chick?"

Jason brushed his tongue across the lip ring. He could ignore him, but that would only be an invitation to stay.

"No way," he said. "Chicks dig it."

That stony gaze, searching for understanding. "You're shitting me." A long pause, while the wheels turned in that scraggly head. Jason watched. So predictable. Like a character in a one-joke sitcom.
The guy's mouth stretched into a one-sided smile. "Maybe I should get one."

And boring. Like a character in a one-joke sitcom in its twenty-second week. Jason snorted. "You can try it and see if it helps any." Pathetic, really. Like a dinosaur shivering through an Ice Age, like a teen idol whose fans have grown up: a tragic wanderer lost outside his era and unable to find his way back to a home that no longer exists.

"Does it hurt to get one?"

"Yeah. It hurts. Don't do it, dude. No use subjecting yourself to a little pain. Be mellow."

Even with his eyes back on the comic book, Jason could feel the guy's unwavering stare as he processed the words and sorted out their meaning.

"If I got one, would you stop wearing yours?"

That startled Jason. That hinted at a bit of intelligence, a bit of humor.

By the time Jason thought of a good reply ("If you got one, chicks would stop digging it.") the moment for a response had already passed. So he just gave the guy a contemptuous shake of the head and turned back to his book.

"Hey, man, don't be pissed off. I'm just asking. I always wonder about what's hip. It's always changing. Hard to keep up."

Jason sighed. It was time to stop wasting irony on the guy.

"You ever think you're trying too hard? Don't tell me; you've been searching for years, for decades, wandering the globe. The Flying Dutchman of Hipness. Haven't found it yet, have you? Maybe you should give up. Some people just don't get it. Most people don't get it. It's nothing to be ashamed of."

"But you get it, don't you?"

Jason smiled but said nothing. It would be uncool to confirm that.

Then the thing happened that turned everything upside down for Jason; made him suddenly feel like he was bouncing in a ship on a choppy sea.

The guy laughed. Lucidly. Like a bell ringing, clear and deep. As if he were not a foggy-brained, red-eyed, drug-addled survivor clinging desperately to his last few brain cells. As if he was aware of some mysterious knowledge.

"You're exactly the guy I've been looking for, my friend. Glad to meet you. I'm so glad to meet you." He shook Jason's hand before Jason could pull it away. "I've been stuck in this freaking limbo for decades, looking for someone to take this off my hands. You are the perfect one. Thanks, brother, it's all yours now."

Then the guy slapped Jason across the shoulders. It wasn't hard, but the sound was loud and sharp, like a gunshot, and Jason jumped to his feet. The guy yelled, "Tag, you're it," and then he was gone.

Jason swiveled around, wary of another slap. The guy wasn't behind him. Jason looked under the table. The guy wasn't there.

Jason leapt away from the table into the center of the room. There was no one hiding around the table. The only others in the room were the blond guy at the counter, making an iced mocha skinny for a woman with yellow hair, and Dave, the manager, reading a newspaper in the room's dim corner.

Jason ran over and stood beside Dave. "Did you see that guy?"

"What guy?"

"Old hippie dude. Big floppy hat, tie-dye shirt."

"Big moustache? Red and blue striped pants?"

"Yeah, that guy."

"Never seen him," Dave said, working the crossword. "I guess he floats through here every once in a while. Some people see him, but I never have. Did you see him?"

"Yeah. Uh-huh."

"He hassles my customers, calls himself the Ghost of Hipness Past, or some kind of shit. Then he fades away. Nobody ever sees him leave. Did you see him leave?"

"Sure I did. Why wouldn't I?"

"Nobody else has seen him leave. But if you have, maybe he's really gone now."

Jason felt the center drop from his stomach, like when the carnival ride suddenly starts up and jerks you forward. His head felt funny, and Dave's face began to waver in his sight.

"If I'm lucky, he won't come back," Dave mumbled. "Hey! You okay? You're looking faint. Here, sit down. Don't fade on me, man."

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