Monday, March 20, 2006

The Oldest Vice

This image was originally posted at Halushki

This story was originally published in the March Issue of Pressed, Taiwan's Literary Magazine. The theme was alcohol. The release party was above Frog One at the Grooveyard on Saturday night. A good time was had by all.

* * *

The bar was suitably dark inside, and what windows were there had long ago been pasted over with fading posters of beautiful, sixteen-year-old girls playing beach volleyball, or billiards, or dancing. Whatever they were doing, they held a beer bottle in one hand and smiled like they were having about as much fun as could possibly be had. Many of the beer names on the ads were faded away, but it didn’t matter; the watery, mass-produced lagers were, like the girls, completely interchangeable.

The barman stood at the other end of the bar slowly pushing the grime around the surface of the wood so it was more evenly spread about. The cloth had long ago lost the ability to pick up grime, if it had ever been able to. Some coalminers were playing pool in the back and swearing for no real reason and without much conviction. There weren’t any women in the bar, not even a cocktail waitress, so what would’ve been the point?

Stanley sat alone at the other end of the bar drinking what he thought was his fourth glass of whiskey. It could’ve been his fifth. He had lost count around the third one, and really didn’t care. The whiskey was working. He was almost completely unconcerned, and nearly ready to let his head drop listlessly onto the oak.

“So I was wondering, what you think about alcohol?” said the man who Stanley could’ve sworn hadn’t been there a moment before. He was now sitting on the next barstool in what appeared to be total comfort. He was dressed in a severely black suit that seemed to blend in with the dimness of their surroundings. He had a meticulously trimmed moustache and goatee, and in front of him sat a Manhattan on a lily white cocktail napkin. Stanley was having trouble finding the edges of the man’s suit, which kept blurring against the background.

Having lost the thread of the conversation, he tried his best, “It’s your best bet for sterilizing stuff, cleaning things, and back when I was younger we would use it to cook down...”

“Not rubbing alcohol; alcohol! As in booze, hooch, firewater, liquor, not to be served to minors, or before piloting jets, type of alcohol.”

“I’ve known some miners, mister, and they were never sober. They’d go down into those mines lit up like Christmas trees, if you know what I …?” he trailed off as his questioning glance met with a blank stare that he felt could’ve stopped a locomotive. “Well, hardly ever.” He added weakly.

“Call me Lou. The question at hand, though drunken miners may make an intoxicating subject, is what do you think about alcoholic beverages? The question may seem unnecessary given that you are in a bar, at the bar, with a drink, which I presume to be alcoholic, in your hand, but I would be curious to hear your thoughts on the matter.”

“How do you mean?”

“Do you feel it’s good for what ails you, a necessary evil, bad medicine, liquid party in a bottle, or humanity’s Achilles heel?”

“Who’s Achilles, friend of yours?”

“No, we never really got on.”

“To tell you the truth, Lou, I don’t drink that often…”

“I invented it, you know,” he said casually, taking out an unfiltered Chesterfield and lighting it with a tip of his tongue before inhaling deeply and exhaling a rapid succession of small, black smoke rings.

“You invented Chesterfields?” said Stanley, now transfixed by the other man’s cigarette. He had never been a smoker, but something made him feel like starting up.

“No. Well yes, I did, but I was talking about alcohol.”

“You invented alcohol?” asked Stanley trying desperately not to look at the cigarette, which now made his mouth water, or the edges of the man’s suit, which made his eyes water if he tried to locate them.

“A lot of people think it was in Egypt during the Naqada Dynasty, but really it was in Mesopotamia, several years before; fermented emer wheat and honey, I believe. It was foul tasting stuff after three weeks buried in an earthen jug, but it did the trick and the Mesopotamians took right to it after the barest of suggestions.”

“Where’s Mesopotamia?”

“Oh, it’s gone now. If you looked on a map you would find Iraq in its place.”

“Iraq? That’s a real Hell on Earth, that place. At least since the world stepped in to help them.”

“You want Hell on Earth; you’ll find it more potently in the Congo. I work in both places, occasionally, when I’m not in DC. But you know what they say, “Which way I flie is Hell; my self am hell!” *

“Look, I don’t want to be rude, mister…


“I don’t mean to be rude, Lou, but it’s been a trying day and on my way home I ran into two of those young boys in the white shirts and the black ties and those little nametags, and they started talking to me about my eternal soul and all. They said they didn’t drink and they were pretty happy about that and they said that their god loved me and wanted to meet me, and after talking to them for ten minutes, and they said they only wanted one minute of my time. Well after about ten minutes, I got a powerful strong craving for a bit of whiskey. I’m sure they were well meaning fellows, but I was on my way home and after talking to them I just sort of ended up here. My wife’s going to have my hide”

“Yes, well, I’m sorry about them.”

“Well that’s awful kind of you, but it’s not your fault.”

“But you see it is my fault because like so much else, I invented them too.”


* John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book 4, line 75

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