Fiction — From the January 2009 issue
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I arrived with my insulated travel mug filled with clearly superior off-site coffee, I stood against the sheetrock perimeter of the wall-less playpen of an office, and, at moments when the action seemed most unworthy of note, jicked my ballpoint and started writing. I’d perfected the timing of my jick, and without thinking now could sense the most innocuous moment to employ the jick, thereby creating, amidst the outfit staff, a Chinese water torture kind of expectant dread. I refused to take a lunch break, ingesting instead a few tubes of cashews from the vending machine, the sort that can be poured into the mouth, Pixie stick–like. At 3 p.m., I energized the staff by loudly getting into it with the mustache-and-sunglasses guy who sat near the south-facing plate-glass windows. I asked him about the appropriateness of wearing sunglasses at work, and he said that his glasses weren’t sunglasses, they were regular glasses with light-sensitive lenses, and it was utterly beyond his power to prevent them from going dark. I nodded compassionately and jicked him anyway.
I stayed until 6:30, even though the staff dismissal time was 5:45.
Without speaking to anyone, I left.
Because of the expiration vibe at the Tuck Inn, I tended to spend much of my spare time away from it. Thursdays I ate Cincinnati chili at a restaurant housed in an old brick building that came to a point at a five-way intersection, and was called The Point, and sold souvenir aprons and mugs that read, “What’s The Point?” This perfectly suited my usual Thursday post-jicking moods.
But on January 18, the unusual Thursday, I decided to return to my hotel room, which, although lacking a television, did feature a clawfoot enamel bathtub, enamel being less porous than plastic and thus easier to sterilize, even by a half-hearted chambermaid. I lounged against the inflatable headrest and read a local tourism magazine called The ’Natti, which I’d found under the faux-leather stationery ledger and whose unwritten masthead slogan was, “What’s So Bad About Here?” What’s the rub of living in Cincinnati, save the fact that you’ll always be working for subsidiary outfits and forced to pay top dollar for a parmesan of middling quality? We’ve got competing mix-in ice-cream franchises. We’ve got local silversmiths of some talent. We’ve got something that mall developers call “Frontier Spirit.” We’ve got Thai-bo, and can, for a medium-sized urban center, boast the country’s lowest percentage chance that you’ll be killed by a suicide bomber. Cincinnati was, in other words, a place commendably low on zeal.
I called the concierge to ask if the hotel had a restaurant.
Not only a restaurant, he told me, but a famous cocktail lounge called the Cruise Room, where one could also grab a light repast. A person I’d never heard of named Ruben D’Angelo considered the Cruise Room to be the best cocktail lounge in the Midwest, and this was back in the Forties, said the concierge, when people were much more serious about their cocktails. Quite unlike today, said the concierge, a cocktail era defined by an overdependence on vodka, an alcohol he demeaned as a “blunting elixir.”
I took the elevator to the basement, as instructed, and followed the woggly black line someone had painted on the wall. It concluded at a door with a large porthole from which emanated a lipsticky pink glow.
The bar inside was horseshoe-shaped; the pink glow came from the light box behind the liquor bottles. The effect of the bottles in front of the pink lightbox was that of leftover skyscrapers silhouetted against the twilight ruins of a prettily bombed city. The rest of the room was in shadow, or in what might be termed “declining pinkness.”
The bartender—a tiny-headed man wearing a white tuxedo shirt—gestured me toward a booth and produced a book that resembled, in its squatness and its thickness, a Gideon bible.
“Cocktail menu,” he said, placing it on the table. “Unless, of course, you already know what you want.”
“I’ll have a blunting elixir on the rocks,” I said.
The bartender, a standoffish fellow, refused to get the joke. I opened the bible.
The cocktails were organized into three categories: Mellifluidies, Revigorators, and Amnesiacals. I narrowed my search to the Revigorator category, then hovered between the Grinning Necrophiliac and the Vengeful Subsidiary (there really was such a cocktail; it featured, among other mysterious ingredients, a liquid to be administered with a dropper, called Hercules). I signaled the bartender.
“I’ll have the Vengeful Subsidiary,” I said. “Is that served on the rocks?”
“I’m afraid my dropper’s missing,” said the bartender.
“Not a problem,” I said. “You have my permission to wing it.”
“You’ll have to order something else,” the bartender said.
“What is Hercules, by the way?” I asked, attempting a runaround. “I’m dying to try it.”
“Hercules is a substance that must be administered via dropper,” the bartender said. “If you’re dead set on Hercules, you might think about a cocktail that has Gluden in it.”
“Sure,” I said. “Why?”
“Because Hercules is derived from the Swedish wormwood shrub. Gluden is also derived from the wormwood shrub. Not the Swedish wormwood shrub, of course.”
“Of course,” I said.
“The Gludenites begin on page 476,” the bartender said.
I turned to page 476.
“The Nagasaki, then,” I said, showcasing my decisiveness.
“Dropper,” the bartender said.
“I need my dropper for that one.”
“As the name implies,” I said.
No smile from the bartender.
“Fine,” I said. “Bring me The Santosbrazzi Killer.”
The bartender nodded. “Would you care for some food?”
“Just the drink,” I said, having lost my appetite. “And nuts, if you have them.”
“Nuts,” he said.
“Nuts,” I said.
Heidi Julavits is the co-editor of The Believer and the author, most recently, of The Uses of Enchantment (Anchor).
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Diary — October 26, 2012, 1:49 pm