A Dash of Gunpowder
Sometimes you want to go where everybody's got your number.
I don’t go to bars anymore, but when I do, which I don’t, I usually head over to the Khamsin, the priciest hotel in town. (But not the best hotel, that would be the Apiary. Nor the most clandestine, that’s the Laundromat.)
I’ll admit the Khamsin is a bit much. The main atrium features a waterfall of basil-scented shampoo, and the glass elevator includes a string quartet and a crepe bar, leaving no room for passengers. But the lounge in the lobby is like a perfect glycerin bubble of tranquility. It has this icy lighting that makes everyone look luxe and deadly. And it makes me, someone who could never afford a room there, feel like I belong.
Here’s what I do: I stroll in trying to look like I’m distracted by many weighty thoughts. (I am not.) I order a drink and ask the waiter where I can get a quality shoeshine. I park myself in one of the overstuffed leather chairs and nod as I pretend to read the newspaper. I glance importantly at the watch I don’t have.
You do that for 45 minutes and you feel like you have your shit together. Everyone there assumes you know what you’re doing in this life and why wouldn’t they? They have nothing to gain from poking holes in the lies you tell yourself.
But some nights you don’t want to feel that way. Some nights you don’t want tranquility. Some nights you want tightly coiled menace.
That’s the Embers. Not the worst bar in Fort Hook (that would be Dave’s Chalice) but definitely the Hook-iest, if that makes sense.
I found myself there last night, and found myself seems like the right phrase. You never decide to go to the Embers. The Embers just happens.
It was originally a dentist’s office (specializing in toothpulling and golden prostheses) until an ether explosion burned it down. Now it’s a murky, low-ceiling’d tavern with the flavor of smoke woven into every drink. Dark wooden chairs, unshaking tables, bottom-heavy glassware. Framed oil paintings of evil dancing fauns. Music so ambient you don’t hear it until you go outside to hurl and realize it’s no longer there.
The barkeep is called Blue Eye and she does, indeed, have one blue eye—it got stabbed out decades ago and has since been replaced with a star sapphire. Blue Eye is not of the bartender-as-therapist school. She has papers under the till that grant her legal permission to fire a musket at a customer as long as it hits below the waist.
But I like to think she hates everybody but me. (As does everybody.) When I bellied up, she said she had a new concoction she was working on and needed a guinea pig. I said I’ll drink anything if it’s on the house. She asked if I was familiar with Godfrey’s Cordial. I said of course: sassafras, laudanum, ginger—basically every Hook toddler’s favorite sleepytime beverage. She said her new variant adds black coffee, corn whiskey, and a dash of gunpowder. I said sounds terrible let’s have it.
I took a tentative sip, then two very confident sips, then I watched as one guy accidentally bumped against another guy. Then I savored the sound of a few dozen barstools scraping against the floor as every single dope got up and started brawling.
It took literally three seconds for the entire place to descend into a riot. There was incoherent caterwauling, fists thudding into guts, cue sticks being thwacked against heads, yes even a dude being thrown against the jukebox and abruptly changing the song to something more rockin.
But that’s the thing about the Embers: it’s always three seconds away from pure mayhem. Every sot in there is just waiting around for any valid excuse to grind someone’s rye-soaked jowls into the peanut shells that litter the floor.
And as I drank Blue Eye’s increasingly not-terrible cocktail, I felt something I never feel over at the Khamsin. I felt like I was home.
This has been Chokemail. Dictated but not read by Fireland. Shipped from Chokeville.
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I am sitting on a bench by the ocean and giggled aloud a bunch. Fun stuff!
Genuinely don't care if the Chokeville stuff ever coalesces around an actual plot or not. The short vignettes really just do such a good job at setting up a sense of place, I could read 'em all day.