All original work © 2009 - 2018 Alexey Provolotsky

11 January 2018

ONE WHISKY, FOUR CIGARETTES



They called him a lotus eater. At least I did. The name came from a short story by Somerset Maugham and told of a man who chose to settle on a remote island to see his life to the very end. He had his savings and he was determined to never work again. The man had it all planned out, and on the final day, when the money and the food supplies were supposed to run dry, he would shoot himself in the face. This, however, did not happen, as when the final day arrived, the man could not pull the trigger. He chickened out, and was reduced to spending the rest of his life as a beggar. I may have misplaced a few details here and there, but this is the rough outline of one of Somerset Maugham's better stories.

My lotus eater was not a beggar. After all, every Wednesday he came to one of the best bars in the city to have a drink. The drink was whisky sour. The man never actually had to order his drink because the moment he got to his stool (third from right, which mysteriously remained vacant even when the bar was crammed with a hundred people), the barman knew the size of the cube he was supposed to carve out of a huge block of ice. Occasionally, there may have been two solemn, barely visible nods, one denoting a question and one denoting an answer.

"The usual, sir?"

"Sure".

But I never heard him speak, except once. When he finished his drink, and it usually took him from forty-five minutes to an hour, he simply placed one ten-dollar bill on the bar counter, grabbed his hat and his cigarettes and left. Sometimes, again, there was a nod, but you had to be a regular like me to register a minute ripple in the air that was vomiting clouds of dense, thread-like smoke.

And then there were rumours. These rumours were summoned by the quiet whispers uttered by invisible barmen when they got sick of talking about Bitches Brew and the dead shadows of their ex-girlfriends. They said, for instance, that once there had been risky investments reaping great returns, and lots of them, but there had also been a few bankruptcies. Eventually, he shut it all down and was currently living off the money left after the devastating court cases. "Just like that lotus eater", I whispered back through my cigarette and was met with a stare both ignorant and polite. I did not question the story as it made perfect sense to me, and in a bar, late at night, you agree with whatever doesn't kill your thought process. The barman suggested that the man was probably trying to ration the whole thing now, what with one whisky and four cigarettes, and the memories of the Maugham story came flooding back.

One whisky and four cigarettes: that was his routine. I believe that my interest in this man was first expressed when I noticed the strange pattern that never got broken. The single variation could be the gap between cigarettes that was relatively random, even though he never failed to synchronise the last drag with the final sip of whisky sour (terribly watery, as I knew from my old-fashioned, yet totally irresistible). In other words, you knew the exact succession as well as the fact that he would not stay longer than one hour. After which he would put on his felt hat, pull up the grey trousers and be gone. And more often than not he would remain unnoticed all the way through. But then if you ask me, only a dead soul could miss a lone guy at a bar counter staring at the latest new cocktail chalked on the board and never actually bothering to order it.

And, indeed, only a dead soul could overlook the fact that his trousers were two sizes too big and that he was wearing black suspenders strapped over his impeccably white shirt. Suspenders were significant as I always believed that they had once belonged to the original lotus eater. Besides, they were the sort of thing that was worn either by tiresome hipsters or people whose midnight croon you were dying to hear (something told me he could do justice to Coltrane's Ballads that were often played in the bar).

I did of course want to talk to him, oh numerous times, but equally I never imagined the conversation. To be able to project, to have an impression, you need a sample, something to go by. I never had that sample, or rather, when I did, it was too late... Also, and I realise how odd this may sound, I was afraid to disturb some balance. I did not want to be that butterfly that always has to clap its wings with such mindless effrontery and with such intense silence. Or else I did not want to spoil my Wednesdays in the bar, of which there were suddenly more and more.

All those questions I wanted to ask him, from his past to the size of his trousers, they all had to be stored away indefinitely. Besides, there was no way for me to start that conversation without making a complete fool of myself (human nature's biggest nightmare), even if I was sitting right next to the smell of his strangely odorless Dunhill. So that I was reduced to looking at the way the barman cut the block of ice into perfect cubes and distributing them among the glasses touched with bitters and sugar. I knew through the corner of my eye that he was equally enchanted by it. After all, the process was much more intricate than the mixing part that, when you got the hang of it, seemed arbitrary. "That's some skill, you don't find?" "Haven't I seen you here before once?" "These barmen are the absolute business!" "Fuck the weather tonight". Etc. All of it seemed fake, none of it had a remote chance of success, and as the ice melted I realised the futility of breaking it with my clumsy attempts. Still, I was obsessed.

As for that one time I did hear him speak, it happened in late January. The Christmas tree was still there, purposeless and abandoned, and there were just a few people inside due to the storm outside which for once amounted to something bigger than average media overreaction. Apart from early Monk and the clinking of the ice, the only sound was coming from a young couple talking in the corner. Everything else was quiet and stately, coated with crooked fingers of smoke. 

It had the feel and the look of the first date. You could see it in the initial silence. You could even see it in the way the girl was holding her glass, which was all wrong as her wrist was too tight. These two, they must have been here by accident, and I've seen chance drifters like that a million times. They come and they order cheesecakes only to find out that the place does not sell any cheesecakes. Or, alternately, they never get to the point of ordering as they see the in-crowd and walk out. Or else they hear the music, which is usually Ornette Coleman when they come. This couple, however, they may have been pushed here by the weather but they chose to stay. And by staying they talked.

In a bar, your conversation has to be fulfilling yet utterly meaningless. It is not fed with words but with sips of various lengths and pitches. Like everything that has any value, this conversation cannot be taught but comes with time. The young couple had no such time and they were doing it the wrong way. They were talking in punchlines, they were in desperate need of making sense. They were modern. They were loud, too, which in a bar is anything above audible. 

The lotus eater was sitting to the right of me, doing the familiar routine of one whisky sour and four Dunhills, gazing at empty space as though it had molecules and atoms that did not add up and made visible shapes and figures instead. As if the conversation, conspicuous to the point where the barman was supposed to make a polite remark, was not happening in his timeline. But it was, and at first I could not for the life of me figure out how it happened that I heard his voice. To this day I cannot believe that at some point between cigarettes number three and four he spoke to Thelonious Monk or to God or to the block of ice which had been transferred from the fridge seconds ago:

"You shouldn't be with her, you know. She is not your type".

Which was five seconds followed by absolute silence. We all know how it happens: disbelief at first, then it sinks in. All the air is sucked out of the room and suddenly you notice something you have never noticed before. Like that carved, opulent pattern on your old-fashioned glass. Then, thirty seconds later, you admit to yourself that the words have indeed been spoken and everyone has heard them right. And slowly the room hums back to its former self and that is no one else but Sonny Rollins playing in the background.

Having said what he did, the man smoked his fourth cigarette, finished his cocktail, placed a ten-dollar bill on the counter, picked up his hat and left. His voice? Just the kind of husky baritone I had always imagined.

His own words had no effect on him and might have easily been written off as my drunken fantasy but I knew there was more to it. The young couple had changed. Their conversation was all but dead. Some new tension, horribly asexual, had punctured their whisper, and suddenly they looked random and even more out of place. Like those chance drifters, like someone who came to see the Christmas tree that was not even supposed to be there. It was half an hour later that the young man paid in silence and they left.

As I did, too, at my usual time.


This happened a while ago now, and I only remembered it yesterday, when a barman leaned towards me and asked how the drink was. I looked up in disbelief as it was not the sort of question you should ever be asked in a bar. But it was a new barman, and I nodded. Of course. Of course, it was good. I asked him if it was his first day and he said that he had been working in that bar for over a month now and had seen me numerous times. I was a bit stunned but then it could easily be explained. After all, you can talk to a barman, but you are not supposed to see him. Now I did and his face was saying nothing to me. And then, completely out of the blue, he asked about the old times and how well I remembered them.

"Pretty well", I said.

"I was just wondering if you'd seen the man who used to come here once a week...".

And I knew straight away whom he meant. I hadn't really seen him since the time when he talked, but that had nothing to do with him. It was me. I had stopped coming to that bar for reasons perhaps connected with work or some other matters. It must have happened immediately after the incident. And then, when I did come back years later, the man was gone.

"You are talking about the lotus eater, aren't you?"

"Sorry, sir?"

I realised now that I hadn't thought about the man in years, and now this new barman, of all people, was telling me about him. And I kept listening as I kept remembering.
  
"Oh God. How?"

"Hanged himself in his apartment. I thought you knew - this was a few years back. And no one knows why. Apparently the man was an absolute legend. Every great bar should have one, you know".

"I guess".

He then asked me a few questions but there was not a lot I could say as I was too easily distracted every time the tune changed or the door was swung open.

So it was after this conversation that I began thinking about the lotus eater again. I was looking at the clumsy way the new barman was cutting the ice and I was wondering why all those years ago, when we heard that baritone, husky and old, neither of us could get it out of our system. And why I was sitting here on a Wednesday evening. And why it was mid-January and they no longer had a Christmas tree.