My guest arrived early.
A mere nine days after I’d placed my order with an online absinthe supplier, my package—deftly slipping through the hands of U.S. customs along the way—had concluded its long journey from the Czech Republic and landed safely in my mailbox.
It was modestly attired in a plain brown wrapper with nylon strapping, but I knew under this unassuming skin flowed the blood of royalty, a king in fact.
I removed its clothing with the delicacy of a randy Goth weekending in Rome, laid it bare on my kitchen table and tried to restrain myself for a moment.
I’d tried absinthe before, yes, but not like the stuff sitting in front of me. I’d had my way with the mild E.U.-sanctioned varieties and the raw homemade versions, but they were all half-hearted pretenders to the throne. What I had before me was the real deal, illegal even in liberal Europe.
This was the King of Spirits. It said so right on the bottle, below a sketch of a rather disturbed-looking Vincent Van Gogh. Stuck in his rather thinning hair was the word ABSINTH (get used to variety of spellings, Europe can’t seem to make up its mind on how to spell absinthe/absinth). I also noted there was a not entirely disconcerting inch of sediment and herbs sitting at the bottom of the bottle.
The key word on the label, the four letters that excited me most, were laid out in fancy script: GOLD. Below was its creed, spelled out in Eastern Europeanese: More than 200 years old recipe. 70% Vol. For Experts Only. Pure Natural Liquer. Thujon: 100 mg.
And that was the key. That was why it was Gold: 100 mg. of thujone. Ten times the legal amount allowed in Europe. An infinite amount stronger than allowed in the U.S., which still bans the liquor.
And to think this visit from a king only set me back $200.
And why shouldn’t it? It was hand-crafted, for crissakes and, most important of all, its thujone content was pure old school. This was the same psychoactive strength that had seduced Van Gogh into thinking that slicing off his right ear and posting it to his true love was a positively smashing idea. The strength that opened wide the sluices of the Lost Generation’s highly productive imaginations.
In other words, this was the good stuff.
I swore then and there to drink the entire bottle in a single sitting. It made perfect sense. I mean, which seems more exciting to you: Five trips to a Czech restaurant in Peoria or a single non-stop flight to Prague?
What follows, for good or ill, is a log kept while absorbing the potent power of this particular bottle of the Green Faerie. The spelling and grammar have been corrected to make it coherent. Relatively speaking.
Goddamn, the first taste always jolts me.
Somewhat more bitter than regular absinthe, yet paradoxically more smooth—the usual sharp 140 proof edge appears to be in hiding in the herbs.
I haven’t been this excited since my first LSD trip in college. All right you goddamn Amazonian Green Faerie, let’s dance!
Second glass. This time, I dunked the sugar cube in the absinthe and set it aflame. Purely theatrical. Strictly for the amusement of the yokels, namely me.
There were complications. The absinthe in the glass caught fire and when I put my hand over the rim to smother the flame I nearly spilled the glass and set my lap on fire. Must be careful. I notice on the bottle that Van Gogh is sketched (a self-portrait?) with his head turned so you cannot view his right ear. The errant ear. The ear that offended him. My ears, on the other hand, are inoffensive to the point of subservience.
I must try to remember that.
Third glass. I’ve abandoned the spoon-drip/lighting myself-on-fire nonsense and have settled on absinthe on the rocks with a dash of sugar water. My usual drink is Beam rocks, but this stuff is making my lips numb. Non-filter Pall Malls are perfect as a chaser. Already feeling a little weird. Trying very hard not to be psychosomatic. Apropos of nothing, Screaming Jay Hawkins jumps out of the radio with “I Put a Spell on You.” Perfect. Ah, yes. Yes!
Fourth glass. My neck is tingling. Not your usual drunk feeling. I’m getting buzzed, but feeling very fine and sharp. Am browsing Hem’s very fine short story “Hills Like White Elephants.” Does anyone speak with that manner of whip-crack repartee anymore?
It strikes me that I should visit Hem’s grave. Surely not tonight. It’s in Idaho, for crissakes. That is certainly five hundred miles of full-throttle driving. Highways undoubtedly thriving with state patrolmen and there I’d be, on the side of some goddamn lonely road, trying to explain myself:
“Well, you see, Officer, I was sitting at home drinking a king-hell bottle of voodoo absinthe, by myself, mind you, and I just got this overpowering urge to go see Papa. You know, hunker down on his grave with a bottle of rum and crack a few walnuts of wisdom with that cool cat. What could be more natural? What’s that? Walk a straight line? Good God, man, I can barely stand up.”
Bad scene. Better to go up to the roof and examine the skyline.
From the roof I watched packs of drunks roam downtown, looking for kicks, and had no desire to join them. Vincent, old pal, we are all we need. Never liked packed bars anyway.
I look across the room at the half-full bottle of Beam perched atop the refrigerator. My favorite. The amber light of my life. This absinthe though, I wish they served it in the bars. I’d switch sides like a goddamn French collaborator. I tell you, this absinthe drunk is far superior. No wonder it swept the Belle Epoche. No wonder so many good books came out of the Lost Generation. They had an edge on us. They were onto something.
Okay, sixth drink. I reexamine the label. For experts only. That’s perfectly hilarious. Can you imagine that on a bottle of whiskey or vodka?
Feel rather charged up. That is the gift of thujone: I should be cockeyed by now, and in a sense I am, but, on the other hand, I feel utterly on top of things. I also feel strangely nostalgic, it’s almost the same feeling as getting off a plane in a strange country with no idea where you’re going to sleep that night.
I feel as if I can drink this stuff for eight days straight and remain somewhat sensible. Of course, I am sensible enough to know that that may change at any passing moment.
Seventh (or is it the eighth?) glass and I feel odd. I feel like calling every friend I have ever forgotten and rebuilding every burnt bridge. Start fresh. Feel incredibly alert. Strange, almost acrid taste lingering in my mouth. Extremities tingling. I’m taking it straight on the rocks now and it is goddamn delicious. Always hated black-liquorice drinks, but this is delicious. A man must adapt. Weird thing is, I did a shot of Beam just because the bottle was eyeballing me and I could barely get it down. The Faerie doesn’t like rivals, it appears.
I look to my right and see that full glass, the dew dripping so artistically down its sides. Lovely. A vessel so full of potential, so full of hope and sheer, unadulterated joy. There is nothing like it. Nothing. I must ride this train to the end of the line. I can’t wait to see what’s waiting at the station.
Jesus. It occurs to me there are billions of people swarming this planet, billions for crissakes, and somehow I find myself in a strange little dark corner to call my own. A kitchen table in the center of the universe. And that’s how it feels—dead fucking center. Equal distances all around. Jesus!
Feel smooth and clear. Am now drunk, yet I am above it all, riding a white-noise wave; I’m riding it and looking down on everything. Have odd thoughts about being back in the Paris of the Lost Generation—to have sat there when Hem and Fitz and Ezra and Gertrude were at the table! Good Christ, why can’t this generation of drunks find that sort of brilliant camaraderie? What skills do we lack? What pressures must be brought to bear to weld us together? Do we have to wait until MADD drives us all overseas as Prohibition did with those cats? Would it take a foreign locale? Dreams to memories, memories to ghosts, can the future recapture the past?
Okay, now I’m getting fanciful.
Sleep seems a million miles away. I am living in a bright light on the top of my skull. I’m going to sit at my white-Formica, dramatically-lit kitchen table and read some more Hemingway. Seems a very natural thing to do. Can’t go visit the guy. They’d throw leg irons on me and put me in a cage.
“Don’t you love your mother, dear boy?”
“No,” Krebs said.
His mother looked at him across the table. Her eyes were shiny. She started crying.
“I don’t love anybody,” Krebs said.
It wasn’t any good. He couldn’t tell her. He had only hurt her. He went over and took hold of her arm. She was crying with head in her hands.
“I didn’t mean it,” he said. “I was just angry at something. I didn’t mean I didn’t love you.”
His mother went on crying. Krebs put his arm on her shoulder.
“Can’t you believe me, mother?”
His mother shook her head.
“Please, please, mother. Please believe me.”
“All right,” his mother said chokily. She looked up at him. “I believe you, Harold.”
Krebs kissed her hair. She put her face to him.
“I’m your mother,” she said. “I held you next to my heart when you were a tiny baby.”
Krebs felt sick and slightly nauseated.
Took me what seems like an eternity to copy that from the book. Eyes going a little crazy. I don’t know why that Hemingway passage from “Soldier’s Home” has always appealed to me. I love my mother. Yet there is something very true about it. Especially now. I don’t necessarily feel alienated, but I do feel rather alien. What’s more, I feel as if I’m an actor in a noir film. Dramatic shadows everywhere. What are my lines? I’m starting to talk to myself, but what is the harm in that? So long as I don’t get into any arguments?
Am now down to Van Gogh’s chin on the bottle. It is a strange sketch of the man; he seems rather inscrutable, save for a hint of suspicion. Eyeballing me. And now, this can’t be real, Chris Rea’s “Fool If You Think It’s Over” comes over the radio and I haven’t heard that song since I was in Germany drinking—if I remember right—absinthe. Weird connections, strange moments separated by a decade of time finding each other, it cannot be real. Is my memory false or is there a suborder to the universe?
Goddamn you, Vincent, you keep eye-fucking me and I’ll not display your corpse on my goddamn unstately refrigerator.
The girl has stopped by. Made her up one with full ritual. She was very impressed. Did the fire shenanigans. She thinks the music is too loud but she is obviously too sober. And Glen Campbell comes on with “Wichita Lineman.” What could be more sublime?
She thinks it’s very bitter. She is going to put some 7-Up in the absinthe and try it again. She still doesn’t like it. More 7-Up, she says, and I say, Hold on now, you will offend the Green Faerie. The Green Faerie is vengeful. Now she is trying to dance to AC/DC. She cannot dance. She does not like the Green Faerie and she cannot dance to AC/DC, but she is somehow rather perfect. And we both love our mothers, by God.
Time seems to be crunching, fast then slow. Clock all screwy. Slow danced to Peggy Lee, “The Way You Look Tonight” but now its “California Dreaming” and she tells me it’s getting late and I tell her no, you are just early. There is no later, just the future, however we take it. Psychedelic Furs now and there’s an army on the dance floor and she’s showing me the new 20 dollar bill and what the fuck happened to American money? It is Monopoly cash and I would like to buy Boardwalk, please. No?
Fine. Going back to Hem.
Girl just suggested we start keeping champagne on hand at all times and she’s dead right. Will mix it with the absinthe and take back a better past. Says she can get if for three bucks a bottle from work, we must have it. Now she is lying about two-dollar prime rib steaks from some hook-up but I still love her. She is going to retire soon, she says she is going to read a bit, I look askance of her fish-hook eyes because I will not give her sex because I am going to finish this goddamn bottle, yes!
Read Hemingway for what seemed like ages. Read stories I’ve read countless times before and found new shiny things to keep. I have new eyes. Am drunk now, by God. Yet alert. This is true. Do not question me on this. I can shake this off. I am feeling very fine now. I am going back to the roof. Need a view, need to look down and absorb the majesty of it all. I am below the KING level on the bottle and, by God, I feel like a king. No throne, no power, no riches, no nothing, but since when do the trappings define the king?
Okay, I’m on the rebound. Put her to bed and went outside and it’s too fucking cold for a t-shirt but I watched the sunrise and it was more than I can goddamn say. There’s maybe four pours in Van Gogh’s loose grip and it’s all weird herbs floating and I’m going to pour another. Cannot stop now. Swimming now in a moonlit lagoon. This is too fine. Will brace up a tall glass and go back out and watch the fucker really rise, Apollo was just warming up for his big act. Then back to finish it.
What a strange drunk this has been. Still feel very cognizant, though my fingers may lie. But they always have. From the beginning. But I forgive. Because I was always laughing anyway. And that cannot be bought.
I notice she brought me smokes and that counts. That counts more than I can say. I have plunged deeper into the well and I feel drunker and clearer now than before. This is my renaissance period and good Christ I know that’s spelled wrong. (Ed. note: It was spelled rainnesscance.)
Very fine. Examine, if you will, the well-risen sun out the window. Did it all without me encouraging it with sleep or that cruelest of inventions, the fucking alarm clock. Smash them all, only then will we be free of time’s cruel yoke. Sky looks very fine and golden and true. I reckon I can have two drinks from this bottle if I pour them short and there’s no way I should be this alert considering the strength of the booze. A testament to thujone. Must explore this further. It is 6:38 in the morning, I am drunk, yet I want to indulge in some reading. That cannot be right.
“Vice,” said the young brown man, “is very strange, James.”
He looked out the door. He saw her going down the street. As he looked in the glass, he saw he was quite a different looking man. The other two at the bar moved down to make room for him.
“You’re right there, sir,” James said.
The other two moved down a little more, so that he would be quite comfortable. The young man saw himself in the mirror behind the bar. “I said I was a different man, James,” he said. Looking into the mirror he saw that this was quite true.
“You look very well, sir,” James said. “You must have had a very good summer.”
Christ. Must have took me a half hour to type that. Fingers twitchy, you start typing a word and they start galloping off in another direction entirely. From Hem’s “The Sea Change.” Haven’t we all felt that way? Feel that way right now.
Ah, the last drink. It’s amok with floating herbs. Like a salad, it’s so thick. By honor, I will drink it. Strain it through my teeth. Started mixing water with it again, to drag it out. I like it here, I don’t want to go home. Gripped by sangfroid, as cold and clear as Genghis before the weekly slaughter.
Feeling—Christ, I feel . . . sorta in control. Still feel as if I have a grip on this bastard. Like a monkey riding a tiger, bouncing around and hanging on for dear life, because you know what happens to monkeys that fall off tigers. Don’t know if I’ve been dancing with a saint or Satan. A king, yes, but what are his motives?
Next time I’ll sneak this feeling into a bar. Can’t explain myself, my brain is buzzing on a low frequency. Wish I had a cold beer to smooth it out, to draw back a little. I know even after the bottle is bare I will not sleep. I’ve trained this weird tiger, it canters along nicely now, but it will not let me rest. Will not let me crawl off its back. And now I take the last glass to task.
Christ, the last swallow is still as bitter as life and I love it. I do not feel right, that is for sure. I feel like Fellini.
The Day After
I fell asleep at around ten in the morning then spent eleven hours wrestling with a colorful gang of strange and intricate dreams, the sort where even the subplots have subplots. I woke up lethargic, but without the pain of a proper hangover.
I felt as if log jams had been cleared from my head, I felt very sharp and sociable. Strangest of all, I remembered the entire evening, I didn’t pass through a single blackout tunnel during the journey, I could even remember 90 percent of the songs that came on the radio, which I certainly can’t do when I’m sober. I can only conclude that thujone must stimulate the memory centers.
All in all, it was one of the most interesting drunks of my life. The king was an expensive guest, yes, but what he brought with him made it a more than worthwhile investment.
I can hardly wait for his next visit. Only this time I’ll introduce him to some of my friends.
So long as they chip in.
To get your bottle of the King, go here.