The Lemon
for Jeff Mellin


By Garrett Caples


Among the few perks working the overnight shift at the front desk of the Hyatt in Hampton, VA, believe it or not, are the celebrity sightings. The hotel’s an inch away from the Coliseum, and there are no deluxe hotels in Hampton to accommodate a sizeable crew, so the Hyatt punches above its weight. You might see a big movie star comedian like Kevin Hart, or a Christian megabastard like Joel Osteen, but mostly it’s musicians. Anyone from a young douche like Justin Bieber to a grizzled roadster like George Thorogood to a living legend like Bob Dylan. You might get P-Funk and Earth Wind & Fire on the same package tour, or see a beefy bodyguard tote Ariana Grande around like an exotic python. Make a new keycard for Eric Church or guide an inebriated Ying Yang Twin back to his room. It’s not every night; some evenings at the Coliseum are devoted to more anonymous spectacles like bullriding or monster trucks or Disney on Ice. But musicians of varying levels of fame are frequent enough to keep you on your toes.

You gotta be cool and professional, and you get blasé after a while. And you age out of it; I once mistook BTS for a group of South Korean entrepreneurs staying on a different floor. I figured they were in cosmetics or skincare. So I barely raised an eyebrow when, as I clocked in and Ol’ Marilyn clocked out, she told me in hushed tones that Ringo Starr & His All-Star Band were in the building. Now if this had been 1989, say, when Joe Walsh, Dr. John, Billy Preston, and about half the Band were in the group, I might’ve been impressed. But the wattage of the All-Star Band had since dimmed considerably. Colin Hay (Men at Work) and Greg Rolie (Santana, Journey) splitting a bucket of beers and some garlic fries wasn’t exactly gossip column fare; even TMZ would tell you to fuck off.

So I forgot all about it; I had Bolaño’s Savage Detectives with me and got down to it, with only the most fleeting interruptions. When, in the middle of the crazy blow job scene in the first part of the novel, the front desk phone rang around three a.m., I barely paused reading long enough to give a “Front desk, how can I help you?”

The voice on the other end was British—regional, working-class British—and oddly familiar, though I didn’t place it.

“I asked for a lemon.”

“Pardon me?”

“I asked for a lemon; I was told there’d be a lemon for me in the suite.”

“Oh, I’m terribly sorry, Mister...,” I pecked the suite number on the keyboard, looked at the screen, and suddenly swallowed hard. “....Starkey.” Holy shit—Ringo! I checked the activity log. “It says here we left you some lemons, but we must have made a mistake.”

“They’re slices.”

“I beg your pardon?”
“Lemon slices. I need a whole lemon, a lemon I can squeeze.”

“Of course!” I said, not knowing what I meant. “We’ll send up a lemon at once; is there anything else?”

“Just the lemon,” he said, tersely, hanging up. I slowly placed the receiver on the hook and stood frozen at the desk, pondering the magnitude. I’d just spoken with a Beatle! Granted it was only Ringo, one-time pitchman for Sun Country Wine Coolers during a particularly low ebb in the ’80s, but now Sir Richard, knight of Her Majesty’s realm. Fully half the surviving band. Technically, in the artistic scheme of things, I should have been more excited about Nobel Laureate Dylan, but all I ever got out of Dylan was, “Is there any more of that hazelnut creamer?” Ringo and I had conversed. About a lemon. Ringo needed a lemon. At three a.m. The booking terminal said 3:03, and this was enough to snap me out of my stupor and launch me into action.

The kitchen was under lock and key at this hour, but all I needed to do was slip into the men’s room from the lobby, hit the inner door with my keycard, and bam, I was in Mingles, the hotel bar. And I wasn’t alone. J.D. the bartender was still behind the bar, cleaning idly, but actually drinking margies with Ol’ Marylin and some schlubby fella I’d never seen, clearly a guest, not a coworker.

“Hey, chief!” J.D. called everyone “chief” to save him the trouble of remembering names, so I was surprised at first when he then addressed me by name. “Hey, Claude. This is Steve Lukather. You know, the guy from Toto!”

I knew nothing of the sort. But I accepted his proffered mitt.

“Nice to meet you,” Steve Lukather said.

“Meet you all the way,” I said.

Steve Lukather rolled his eyes. I didn’t have time for this.

“Listen, J.D., you got a lemon?”

“Right here, chief” he said, indicating a plastic tub of lemon wedges, next to the olives and cherries.

“No, I need a whole lemon,” I said. “Uncut.”

“This a grocery store, chief?” J.D. said, instantly territorial over what was in fact the Hyatt’s lemon supply. I didn’t have time for this either. I was about to pull rank, but was saved from this unseemly display by Steve Lukather.

“I bet it’s for Ringo,” he said. “Ringo and his lemons!”

J.D. shot me a look like, “Seriously?” and I nodded with all the solemnity I could muster against the pastel backdrop of Mingles’ ocean-themed interior.

“No kidding?” Ol’ Marilyn said, while J.D. bent to rummage around the below-bar fridge. “What’s he need lemons for?”

“His voice,” Steve Lukather said. “He’s got a special formula he gargles with; it’s like brandy, honey, lemon juice, vinegar, some other stuff. Same recipe George Harrison used on the Dark Horse tour.”

“Jeez, that must work,” I said, alluding to George’s notorious laryngitis during that star-crossed outing. Steve Lukather glared at me like I’d told him to fuck the rain down in Africa. Fortunately, J.D. popped up from behind the bar with a lemon.

“OK, chief,” he said, “I was gonna make twists with this, but this one’s for Ringo; tell him J.D. sent it.”

“Sure.”

As I headed to the men’s room to return to the lobby, he called after me.

“That’s a lemon you owe me.”

Back in the lobby, the clock read 3:08. I was wasting precious minutes. At this hour, I might have run up to the deluxe suites without worrying about coverage, but what if Ringo invited me in and regaled me with stories about filming Caveman (1981)? Unlikely, but I needed to be ready. We were only 500 miles from Nashville; what if he wanted to reminisce about recording his country album Beaucoups of Blues (1970)? I had to allow, in other words, for the possibility of a personal encounter with the conductor emeritus of Shining Time Station.

I paged Raoul, the night porter, from the front desk. It was never clear where Raoul absconded to when he wasn’t actively assisting guests, but as long as he turned up when paged, I couldn’t worry about it. In this case, he came in from outside through the automatic doors, in a cloud of cigarette smoke.

“Yes, boss?”

“I need you watch the desk for a minute,” I said, brandishing the lemon, “while I bring this upstairs.”

Raoul held out his hand. “Want me to take it?”

“No,” I said, instinctively concealing it in the pocket of my Hyatt-issued blazer. “V.I.P. service. Just watch the desk a minute and I’ll be right back.” Raoul shrugged.

“Yes, boss.” He went behind the desk and immediately began leafing through The Savage Detectives without so much as a by your leave. But I didn’t have time for it. I headed to the elevator bank and soon was on the fifth floor, where the deluxe suites are. Despite its size, this Hyatt’s more horizontal than vertical, so fifth’s the best we can do. Ringo was in suite 500, all the way down the hall to the left. I checked the time. 3:11. Not bad, all things considered.

Yet I hesitated. My left hand gripped the lemon tightly while my right hung frozen in air, failing to knock. I felt unexpected terror. I tried to compose myself. Phlegm gathered in my throat and I involuntarily cleared it, which seemed to make a deafening sound in the otherwise noiseless corridor and ultimately forced my hand.

“Room service,” I said, with a discreet two-knock knock.

An eternity of silence seemed to elapse. I hesitated to knock again, given the lateness of the hour and my terror of the man I was trying to summon. I listened hard. I thought I might have heard some adenoidal noises from deep within the suite. Then I definitely heard the creak of a door, a faint jingle as of keys or belt buckle, and I prayed to that God I don’t believe in except in moments of fear that I hadn’t just interrupted the drummer of the Beatles during a shit. I heard some carpet-cushioned footsteps approach the door, saw the peephole briefly darken, and heard the sound of a series of latches unlatching and bolts unbolting. I steeled myself for a face-to-face encounter with the one and only Billy Shears. The knob turned and the door slowly began to open.

Kkkkkthung!

The door had only opened about four inches, abruptly halted by the taut length of chain. Through the opening a hand appeared, a hoary old brace of fingers with large knuckles, attached to a surprisingly hirsute wrist. Below one of the knuckles was a large silver ring, with a jeweled inlay in the shape of a star. The black-haired hand held itself out, wordlessly demanding the lemon. I slowly placed it in this imperious palm, and the once-blistered fingers of “Helter Skelter” fame closed around it like a tarantula seizing its prey. The hand began to pull, and in an instant I realized I couldn’t let go of the lemon.

A fury boiled up within me. Was Ringo giving me the high hat? Not even facing me, or thanking me, after I’d tracked down a squeezable lemon at this ungodly hour! Who’d he think I was, Raoul? The hand, meanwhile, unaccustomed to its desires being thwarted, was furious, pulling with all its might. Was he not going to say anything? No “Let go of the lemon, you twat”? No anecdotes from Beaucoups of Blues?

“Goddamn it, Ringo!” I heard myself say. “It don’t come that easy!”

I grabbed his hand with both of mine and began to pull, but instead of resisting, the arm immediately gave, stretching like a hairy, pale-skinned strip of taffy. And as I kept pulling I soon had to let go of the hand itself in order to keep pulling this strip, though as I pulled the tenor of its resistance changed and I felt more like I was unspooling some huge reel of cord or cable or even chain. And as this reel unspooled it took on the aspect of certain incidents in the life of Ringo Starr. It’s hard to describe, but it was sort of like that massive Diego Rivera mural, Pan American Unity (1940), if each panel depicted some representative scene focused on the Beatle drummer, but there was still a linear aspect to the unspooling as the images went by. At times it felt like it was a montage set to “Ringo’s Theme,” the instrumental version of “This Boy” from the Hard Day’s Night (1965) soundtrack, but the imagery clashed with it, like harshly lit videotape from his ill-fated variety show special Ringo (1978), but then it seemed to open up like a sublime vista of clouds set to the opening chords of “It Don’t Come Easy,” but mixed uneasily against the orchestral passage of “A Day in the Life,” and it looked more like Ringo’s pre-Beatle nightclub days with Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, in a bright red suit, beard, and pompadour, yet it was still somehow his unspooling arm and it seemed to be accumulating in massive tangled coils behind me filling up the corridor leading back to the elevators, and I thought surely I’d gone well past the arm by now and was drawing on some more essential core of Ringo, getting deep in the weeds of Beaucoups of Blues, which is far and away his best solo album for its unity of vision and how utterly suited the project is to his limited but very real charms as a vocalist, and constitutes the closest thing to a Beatles/Elvis collab, since D.J. Fontana plays some of the drums, the Jordanaires sing backing vocals, and even Scotty Moore is there for some strange reason engineering the sessions, and then it ended abruptly like I’d pulled the whole thing off the roll and I was left holding Ringo’s other hand. And throughout the entire unspooling my ears were ringing with a steady tinnabulation of Beatlemania teen girl shrieking and my nostrils stung by the acrid scent of orgasmic urinary release said to accompany those public outbursts of collective hysteria, until I realized I was the one screaming and copiously pissing my pants in front of a concerned Greg Rolie, who was standing in the doorway of a nearby suite in his bathrobe.

I stopped screaming and I heard the elevator ding and open, and out popped Steve Lukather and Ol’ Marilyn, drunkenly giggling, but they pulled up short when they registered the scene they’d just stumbled into. Ol’ Marilyn’s eyes went wide.

“Again?!?!” Steve Lukather said.

He immediately began rummaging through the coils of Ringo and found the hand clutching the lemon, which he pried from the fingers. He started peeling the lemon, looked at me—glaring like he’d just remembered I’d told him to fuck the rains down in Africa—then dismissed the thought and turned to Ol’ Marilyn instead.

“We’re gonna need more lemons.”



Garrett Caples is a poet who lives in San Francisco.  His latest book of poems, Lovers of Today, is new from Wave Books.  He is editor at City Lights Books and has edited books by such poets as Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure, Stephen Jonas, Samuel Greenberg, and Frank Lima.

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