Friday, November 20, 2009

The Epilogue to The Drunkard's Tale

Suddenly, The Drunkard stopped talking and sat back in his seat. He took a swig from his flask, took a drink from the glass in front of him, and started whistling.
“Well?” asked The Traveler.
“Well what?” responded The Drunkard.
The Student leaned forward on the table. “You’re telling me that’s where your story ends?”
“Oh, God no. That would be ridiculous.”
The Writer snorted. “As if you have any idea how to tell a story.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
The Writer cleared his throat. “Shall I count off the mistakes you made? No, for that would take far, far too long. I shall, however, say that the entirety of your introduction could have been summed up in no more than two to five sentences instead of the dragging, alcoholism-glorifying dung you threw at us. I mean, really, what was that? Do you expect your audience to slog through such a list without yawning or, worse, chucking your book through a window?”
“And what would you suggest?” said The Drunkard, speaking in a low tone that could only be described as pants-shitting-terrifying. “I instead list off the emotional description one would expect to hear from a Livejournal post from a freshman in high school?”
The Writer matched The Drunkard’s tone as best as he could—which, coming from him, turned into a comical and not at all threatening semi-rumble, “The reader needs some emotion other than the desire to drink.”
“The reader,” responded The Drunkard, “is fully capable of deciding to read something other than the pining love letters of an obsessive, jealous maniac who dumps women because they have the sheer audacity,” he pronounced these words about two times louder than any other, “to wink at a man other than their batshit insane boyfriend.”
“Don’t you dare pretend to be capable of understanding my reasons of—”
“I think,” said The Stalker, cutting through the tension with a steel knife in his voice, “that both of you should stop this bickering before we are thrown out of the pub.” He nodded to the bar, “The bartender is glaring at us and, since you started arguing, the lounge has emptied. Now, as I actually like this corner quite a lot,” he continued, “and would like to return here often, I will say that if the two of you do not stop immediately, you will find several dead rodents in your room over the next two weeks.” He finished speaking with a slurp from his cider.
The bartender nodded to The Stalker and brought over another cider. “Compliments of the house,” he said before walking off.
The Drunkard and The Writer glared at each other with red faces.
“I think,” The Student said, “that the two of you should apologize to one another. Clear the air.”
The two combatants muttered apologies at each other.
“Right,” said The Traveler. “We need to lay some ground rules for the future. First of which being the following: All tales must be finished in one sitting. The tale should not be split up into more than one part unless we are interrupted by an outside force—such as The Interloper. As we have not instituted this rule until now, The Drunkard will be allowed leeway in his tale; he shall be allowed to continue his tale in the manner already proscribed under the agreement that his tale shall not exceed three parts, and each part shall be judged as a singular entity in its own right, without regard to the preceding part. Are we in agreement?”
I, personally, was amazed that The Traveler could exercise such a legalistic turn of mind off the cuff. I would have required at least two days to come up with any sort of rule resembling what he just turned out. That aside, we all agreed to the rule he set forth, as it seemed just and fair for each of us be courteous to the rest and not leave everyone hanging, so to speak.
“Good,” continued The Traveler. “Next, in regards to the criticisms immediately following the telling of a tale: As this is, in theory, an exercise in storytelling, we must treat this contest as a sort of workshop; the ultimate deciding factor—in place of a grade in a workshop class—at the end of a workshop being the final judgment of our party. Now, in a workshop, it is imperative for all involved to be courteous to one another and refrain from personal attacks.”
At this, The Writer and The Drunkard grumbled.
Unfazed, The Traveler continued: “All criticisms immediately following the tale shall be made with the preceding in mind. The tales shall be judged on their own merit, with no pretensions to the belief that there is an all-powerful, overriding definition of what makes a legitimate work of literature. If a tale is a fantasy tale, then it shall be judged with that in mind.”
“But fantasy is—” started The Writer.
“I repeat,” said The Traveler, using a tone of voice usually reserved for angry fathers speaking to children who will not stop complaining, “all tales shall be judged without literary pretensions. None of us—especially you, Writer—are Hemmingways or Dickenses or Rowlings or Tolkiens or, etc. etc. ad infinitum. All tales shall be judged to the merits of whatever genre they are in. If a member of our party has an inherent hatred of a genre, then they will refrain from speaking following the telling of a tale, so as to avoid any unnecessary criticism based on biases. I’ve been in several workshops and—”
“What?” spat the Writer. “When?”
Had you not seen the vein poking out of his forehead at that moment, you would have not known that The Traveler was annoyed at the interruption. “Five years is a while to be in college, and I’ve been in enough Creative Writing classes to know your type, Writer. You’re a bad influence for anyone who is putting the Creative before the Art of Writing, if you get my drift.” Indeed, we did. The capital letters were quite audible. “Now, the best writing classes I’ve been in—the ones that produce stories that have been published—are the ones that act in such a manner, the ones that place respect for the author and respect for the story above all else. Are we all in agreement with the suggestions I have put forth?”
Everyone but The Writer agreed, and he eventually nodded and grumbled the affirmative.
“Good, then we shall abide to these rules to the best of our abilities,” finished The Traveler. “As we have all finished our drinks, we have the option of remaining here or going our separate ways and adjourning our meeting for the time being.”
“I think,” said The Writer, “that I need to go to my café for a while.” What he didn’t say was the words “you troglodytes,” though we could all see that he wanted to say such by the contorted, red face he was making. At any rate, he stood, drained the rest of his glass, put on his flat cap, and left.
“And I,” said The Student, “shall head back to campus. Maybe the cleaners have finished my flat and I can cook before the Chinese turn it back into a swamp.” He put on his jacket and left the pub.
“Drunkard,” I said, “are you sticking around?”
He shot a quick glance at The Stalker and said, “No, I’m… uh, going to head off to… somewhere else. You know. Things to do and whatnot.” He practically bolted out of the pub.”
The Traveler sighed, finished his drink and said to The Stalker and I, “I was thinking about poking around the Cathedral for a bit. I haven’t been in there yet, and have heard it’s absolutely gorgeous inside. You two want to come?”
The Stalker slurped from his drink. “I think,” he said, “that I shall stay here for the time being. Get my thoughts in order.” He pulled out his laptop, started it up, and immediately put in his earbuds.
I turned to The Traveler and shrugged. “Guess that means I’m coming with you.”

The Drunkard's Tale

ITN wasn’t going to win any awards for journalism. Our most controversial and important article in the last year had been on the subject of the university’s landscaping. Specifically: Were the hedges out of control? Not that I hadn’t tried. My articles were hard-hitting; they exposed what was going on behind the scenes, where no one really wanted to look. For example: During one homecoming celebration, I slipped the Dean of Students some acid and showed his latent homosexual tendencies when he—voluntarily—dressed up like Marilyn Monroe and humped the county sheriff. Of course, that one didn’t make it into the paper. The editor said it was too risqué, that the dean would probably shut us down. Of course, I then suggested we use it as blackmail leverage to get more funding, but, once again, the pansies on the editorial board backed down.
Still, they knew I was the only one on staff who wasn’t doing their job just to pad their résumé. I cared. I knew what good media practices could do. I wanted to be like the guys who busted Nixon. I wanted to change the world, to show people that they had a choice in life. That they didn’t have to be stepped on day after day by the authorities. The press, when it’s not in it just to sell papers, is a tool for the people, the only way they can have their voices heard in an intelligent way. Of course, try telling that to the suckers at Newsweek, or, God help you, the putzes at CNN or FOX News.
So, come election time and when the full staff is back at the presses—being on a university paper means that you are held in thrall by summer and winter breaks—who do they turn to in order to get a good look at what’s going to go down on the election trail? Yours truly. Of course, the editor approaches me with a certain amount of fear in his eyes—I was suffering from a massive hangover that day, the result of a night with a Beta Phi and a bottle of tequila, and was in deep thought that I had contracted crabs as a result of said contact with said sorority member—and broached the subject with me. I’d learned that the only way to deal with an editor-in-chief, regardless of whether or not they’re of a magazine or a newspaper, is to treat them like the shit they are. The scum-sucking, brown-nosing schmucks whose main concern is to keep the newspaper selling ad space, and this patsy was the worst of them. So, naturally, I treated him like he was the worst. I shit on his desk once after he struck a paragraph from an editorial of mine on the war. It was more out of principle than anything else: the paragraph was total crap. I listen to this scum’s offer, tell him to wait one second. I pull over a trash can, puke into it, then say, “You give me a spending allowance, then I’ll go.”
He can’t believe me, says that in all his career (career my ass, he’d been EOC one year, and before that he worked at a desk in one of the dorms) no reporter had the gall to demand an expense account.
“Ah,” I said, “you shit-kicker, it’s not an expense account. Truly, that would be absurd. I just want two grand up front so I can afford modest accommodation and sustenance along my merry way. Don’t want your star reporter to starve, do you?” I pulled the trash can close again, puked.
The insect gagged and agreed. That’s why I didn’t have any respect for him: he gave in too easily. All you had to do was say something that sounded even a little bit like logic and the man would cave. If he fought tooth and nail for that meager expense fund the paper had, then maybe I wouldn’t have puked in front of him or shit on his desk. But, there you have it; there are some people in this world that stick to their guns, and some people who don’t. He gave me two grand and a three week deadline. It was September first right now, and I was to have the article in the offices of ITN by the beginning of October, when the editor figured that the election circuit would be winding down—not that I gave a damn about deadlines. Deadlines are for people whose editors have a pair of testicles to their name. I was a senior at this point, one class away from graduation. The university had given me the shaft and essentially forced me to only have one class in my final semester, leading to my almost omnipresence at either the ITN offices or the bar across the street in which I worked and wrote. I arranged with my professor to have a creative project for my grade in the class, and managed to wiggle my way out of work for a month and a half—turns out that they’d make more money without me there to scare off customers.
After I got done with all the administrative bull, I took the check from the editor, cashed it, and got in my car to start my way. My car was an old Chrysler Lebaron that was constantly on its last legs. Emily, as I named the car, didn’t take to starting up and expressed her discomfort by backfiring five times in rapid succession, sounding like a burst from a machine gun. I loved her for her eccentricities. I drove her off campus, down the only road into town, onto the only road in town (Eldritch, Tennessee was a town that didn’t even have a stoplight to its name) and into the only liquor store in town. The county was a dry county by law, but the district representative was from Eldritch and owned the liquor store, so, of course, allowances were made.
The manager and workers knew me by name, knew what I liked, and how much of what I wanted just by looking at me. If I came in slouched over with bloodshot eyes, they knew I wanted vodka. If I came in with bags under my eyes and looking pale, like I had a weight to rival Atlas, then they knew I wanted whiskey. However, today I came in whistling in joy and greeted them in a singsong voice. This they had never seen.
“Now,” said Rob, the manager in the early shift, “I have no idea what we can give you to make your day better.”
I walked to the counter and plopped down my wad of cash totaling two grand. “Fill her up, my boy.”
“That money’s not dirty, is it?”
“Rob, give me credit. I only take money from those who don’t deserve to have it in the first place; and those who would willingly give me two thousand dollars sure as hell don’t deserve to have two thousand dollars in the first place. So,” I said, “fill her up.”
And friends, I had such a cornucopia of booze that Dionysus would be in shock. A gallon of Jack Daniel’s and Southern Comfort each. A case of half-Grey Goose and half-Smirnoff. I had such a wide variety of malt liquor that I could not begin to describe it in anything resembling list form without completely losing your interest. I had the best Scotch I could find, and then, for balance the worst Scotch I could find. I made my way to the exotic, high-alcohol beers, took a look at the selection, and bought it all. Since I was a loyal customer and was spending so much, Rob gave me a fantastic discount that, essentially, had me buying double what I would have been otherwise. About the only thing I didn’t get was wine and tequila. Tequila since it is the devil’s piss, and wine because what I had in mind for the trip was nothing that would justify wine.
We carted the lot out to my car, hoisted it into the trunk and the back seat, and wiped our brows. I still had a twenty left. “Anything else?” asked Rob.
I thought for a moment. That twenty could get me twenty hefty meals from Taco Bell, or a bottle of champagne for when I finished my plan. I scratched my chin—which at this time, sported a fantastic goatee—and came to the conclusion that I could easily purloin champagne where I was going. “No, Rob,” I said, “I think I’ll keep the twenty. Man’s got to eat somehow, am I right?”
Rob nodded. “Right on, man.” Rob may have been a pusher in his own right, but he was an ethical one. He wouldn’t force you to spend your last cent on his product, but he wouldn’t mind if you did. Ask me, that’s the difference between a legal drug like alcohol and an illegal drug like… well, most anything else. That’s also why I didn’t touch the other stuff: It’s easier to get off the hook with a bottle of Budweiser in your hand than it is with a joint.
Rob and I did our handshake. It’s a special relationship, the one between a liquor store owner and his favorite client. “Be seeing you on the news, Rob,” I said.
“Of course.”

# # #

The first beer on the road is a special one, so I made it a special beer. It was a brew gleaned from the trace remains of alcohol on a cup from, I think, a pharaoh’s tomb. Wherever it came from, the contents of the bottle were delicious. There was definitely some grape in there, as well as some hints of honey on top of the usual barley and hops. What was more important was that it was powerful and delivered a hell of a kick. “Em,” I said, patting the dashboard, “if we make it out of this trip alive, I’m taking you to the car wash.”
I backed out of the parking lot and started down the two-lane roads until I reached the Interstate. Now, if I had been coming from somewhere like Knoxville, then I would have been fucked. There are cops infesting I-40 from Crossville to Knoxville, just waiting from some drunk yokel going to get his kicks in the closest thing to a metropolis he’s ever seen. I, however, was not a yokel, nor was I planning on going to East Tennessee any time in the near future, for it’s one of those places you should avoid like the plague. The accent grates on your ear worse than country music or yodeling ever could and blowing up an abortion clinic is seen as a form of legitimate political protest. Aside from the University, an oasis of thought in the madness, there’s nothing for a discerning man like myself in that direction.
I popped the cap on another one of the ancient beers. The road twitched a bit in front of me. It didn’t swim, but there was a definite twitch. I blinked a couple of times and checked the alcohol percentage on the bottle. 20%. Stronger than wine. Fuckin pharaohs knew how to party. I put Emily on cruise control, took another swig, and steadied my hands on the wheel. The road could twitch all it wanted, but I sure as hell wasn’t going to. What I was going to do was check my dashed-up itinerary. I reached in the back, knocked aside a couple of Jack Daniel’s bottles and took a glance. The candidate was first scheduled to appear in a city called Murfreesboro, a little less than an hour south of Nashville. I could get there in about that time, if I wanted to rush it. And, brother, I didn’t.
A very harsh sound came at me from in front of the car. “Fuck!” I shouted, spinning the wheel to the right and just avoiding a semi-truck that had been blaring its horn at me. Now the road swam. I drove another mile and finished the beer when I passed a hitchhiker on the side of the road. Emily’s brakes hadn’t been changed in what would have been eight years, but damned if they didn’t act like pieces of high performance engineering. I left skid marks that went about a quarter mile, then I put the car into reverse and stopped in front of the kid. I poked my head out, turned towards him, and squinted into the sunlight. “Where you going, kid?”
“Murfreesboro,” he shouted. He stood about six feet tall, had feathery blond hair, wore a black suit, carried a black duffel bag, and was just about the ugliest son of a bitch I’d ever seen.
I opened the door, staggered out, and walked up to him. He was virtually standing on the grass at the side of the Intestate, and when I approached, he almost tumbled into the fence marking the border of someone’s tree-lined farm. “Stand still,” I said. “I’m not in my right mind.” I staggered up. “My right mind’s back in my apartment,” I said, belching out laughter.
He let out a crooked grin. “Mister, you smell like booze.”
“Yup,” I said, “there’s a very good reason for that. Hung over. Know the best way to cure a hangover, kid?”
“Mister, I’ve never drank before on account of its being—”
“Shut up. You start drinking again. Thus, in the spirit of good health, I am drinking again.” I looked him up and down. “You’re an ugly son of a bitch, you know that?”
He scratched his head.
“How old are you?”
“Well, I reckoned that I’m probably twenty-one or –two. Mr. Chang, the Census man what got chased off the farm by Mr. Gamble didn’t tell me my age, but he—”
“Old enough to drink, and you never done it?”
“Well, Mr. Gamble only drank after watching me on the plow all day, and then he’d start shouting about the gumment, so I never been that interested in drinking, and so—”
“All right,” I said, “shut up. Let’s get in the car so we don’t attract attention having a chat on the side of the Interstate.” I started walking back and he picked up his duffel and followed. “What’s your name, kid?”
“Cloyd, Mister.”
“Well, Cloyd, can you drive?” I opened the trunk, tossed the duffel on top of a couple crates of vodka.
“Dale let me drive his truck, but that was a few weeks ago, and I think I remember, but it didn’t look nothing like this an—”
I shut the trunk. “Same thing. Press the pedals, turn the wheel. You seem like a reasonably intelligent man, I’m sure you can handle it.” I opened the passenger’s side door and tossed a few bottles of whisky in the back seat before sitting down.
Cloyd got in the driver’s side and whistled. “Gosh, mister, you got a lot of alcohol in here.”
“Sure do, my friend. It’s a celebration.”
“Oh boy!” he said. “What for?”
“The political demise of a charlatan and scoundrel whose goal is the governor’s mansion. Now, this celebration may be a bit premature, but I assure you, it shall not be in vain.”
“No kidding?” Cloyd said. “I don’t know what a charlatan is. Is that a Frenchman?”
I laughed. “Yeah. To the French!” I shouted, raising a bottle of whisky and taking a swig.
“Apple used to tell me about the French. He said that they ate horses and snails and drank wine and did the sex about eight times a day.”
“I…” That was definitely a new one. “Apple? Are you from a commune?”
Cloyd scratched his head. “What?”
I leaned over and turned the key in the ignition. “Let’s get moving, Cloyd.”
He put his foot on the pedal and Emily lurched to a start. It was a little too much for me, and I belched. One of those belches that, if it were just a little bit harder, would have turned into a stream of vomit. “Try to go a little smoother, Cloyd. All this fun is going to make me get sick.”
“Oh, sure. Sorry, mister.” To my surprise he did go a lot smoother. The car, actually, ran better than it ever did with me. “Say,” he said, after a minute or two of silence, “did you mean what you said earlier about me being smart?”
“Sure I did,” I said, taking another drink from the bottle. If this guy were as dumb as he seemed, then he was either stoned, retarded, or from a sheltered life in the lovey-dovey world of some hippie commune. He didn’t stink and he wasn’t so bad off as to be retarded, so I was pretty sure the poor bastard was from a commune. Maybe not The Farm, but it wouldn’t surprise me, someone leaving that place. I did a story about The Farm once: it ended up with me setting fire to their crops and running away in the middle of the night. I never got along with hippies.
“Well gosh! I wish Apple were here to hear that! He always said I was dumb as a big bag of rocks, ‘cept that rocks could pull their own weight and I couldn’t,” he said, a look of either pain or indigestion crossing his face. Yep, he had to have come form a collective; kicked off for being too stupid, probably. Heartless, gutless hippies. “Tossed him by the wayside, I did. I kind of miss him, though. Apple had some great stories. He had this one about a fella named Mack Beth—which I always thought was a strange name for a guy to have—and him going all crazy and seeing knives and spots and witches.”
“The spot was Lady Macbeth,” I said.
“Gosh!” Cloyd said, getting so excited he stamped his foot on the gas pedal and sending the car jerking forwards. He looked at me and said, “Oh, sorry, mister. But you know that story? How?”
“Everyone knows that story, pal. It’s Shakespeare. Macbeth. ‘Out, damn spot!’ ‘Double, double, toil, and trouble.’ ‘Lay on, Macduff.’ Fucking Macbeth, man.”
“Well gosh, I never heard it.”
Those bastard hippies didn’t even teach the kids Shakespeare. How could they expect anyone to get through life without knowing a bit of Shakespeare? It was downright uncivilized. I found I had to take a drink in order to quell the rage rising within me. “Fucking hippies,” I muttered.
“What’s that, mister?”
“Nothing. So tell me, Cloyd, why are you going to Murfreesboro? It’s not exactly a tourist destination.”
“Ah well I’m not going there for to be a tourist, mister. I’m going to go find my dad.”
“And your dad’s in Murfreesboro?”
“Nope, Apple told me he’s in Nashville, but the Silvers—they were this Jewish family that I stayed with for a week and had a great big honking meal with—said that there was a train that went from Murfreesboro up to Nashville and that I could make life easier on myself if I went that way, so—”
“Okay, take a breath,” I said. The kid was panting and apparently finding it very hard to get all of his ideas out at once. “Tell you what Cloyd, you can stick with me as I make my way around Middle Tennessee. As part of my goal, I just happen to have to make it up to Nashville—mostly because this pig is going to be campaigning there. Then again, there are a few girls I haven’t seen in a while and, God willing, they’re still in Nashville.” I took another swig from the rapidly-emptying bottle. “Whaddya say?”
“Well gosh,” he said, “that’s about the nicest thing a person’s offered and it sure would be nice to have someone to pal around with now that I tossed Apple away after he made me leave the Silvers.” I considered the possibility that Cloyd was completely insane, but then again, here I was with a liquor store in my car and going on my way to ruin the campaign of a gubernatorial candidate, so did I really have any room to talk?
“Glad to hear it, Cloyd. We shall be a great team. One for the ages. One day, I might let you drink some of the pharaoh beer. But not today. Today,” I said, screwing the lid back onto the Jack, “that’s all for my inaugural journey.” I took another pharaoh beer from the pack and popped the cap. “How bout some tunes, Cloyd?”
“Sure! Whatever you say, mister—say, what’s your name?”
“Yudavitch. Omar Yudavitch.” I liked Cloyd, but my mom always told me never to give your name to a hitchhiker, and we must always listen to our mothers.
“Omar Yudavitch. Okay. Whatever you say Omar Yudavitch.”
“Just Omar.”
“Wow, that makes it a lot easier.”
I turned on the radio, and one of the stations was playing “Looking Out My Back Door” by CCR. “Ah,” I said, “great tune. Great. Tune.”
“I’ve heard this before,” said Cloyd. “Dale was playing it when he almost ran me over with his truck.”
I took the opportunity presented by the ensuing lull in conversation—Cloyd howled along with the lyrics as best as he could—to think about exactly what I would be doing to this schmuck who had the audacity to pretend that he was a God-fearing individual with the People first in mind. I’d never been one for political protests. As a rule, I found that any time a large group of people marched in unison chanting things, my mind went to Nuremburg or Soviet military parades—not the Civil Rights marches. Up until the past couple of years, I had believed that politics should be discussed in groups of three or four over coffee or beer; but after seeing what havoc could be wrought by those in power, I decided that acts of gleeful prankage were the only things that could turn the tide of rising idiocy in this country.
As the next Creedence song came on—“Fortunate Son,” appropriately enough—I thought about this guy’s track record. He was a vocal member of a fundamentalist Baptist church based out of Memphis and had been sighted at a rally held by the church at which the leader of the church stated that AIDS was the scourge of God upon those who were not clean in His sight. (I thought about how fucked up our country was that hearing something like that come out of the mouth of a clergyman wasn’t that shocking.) He owned a construction company that routinely hired illegal immigrants (this coming from the man whose platform was based on punishing those employers who hired illegal aliens) and intimidated—and, on one occasion, badly injured—union workers. He presented himself as a good head of a moral family; I knew—in the Biblical sense—both of his daughters when they went through Cumberland Rift University on their way to Knoxville. (I wasn’t alone. They had quite the night of debauchery in Eldritch.)
In short, everything this man said about his life was grade-A, USDA choice bullshit. And me, I hated bullshitters. The only people who deserved to bullshit, in my opinion, were journalists—and that was only if they had a good reason to.
“So Mr. Yudavitch,” said Cloyd, “where’s Murfreesboro?”
Suddenly, I realized that the trip would be even harder than I thought.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Prologue to The Drunkard's Tale

A couple of days later, we all met in The Sub-Pope’s Flock to attempt to start off where we were before The Interloper’s tale of nationalism and racism. It was a Monday around two o’clock, and the only one of us who had had a seminar was The Writer. As such, most of us were in the pub for a while before he arrived with the most exasperated look I believe I had ever seen on a man’s face. He walked to the bar, leaned forward on it, and said, “Whiskey. I don’t care what kind, I just need a whiskey to restore my faith in humanity.” He got a Jameson and sat down at our table.
“What’s wrong?” asked The Traveler.
The Writer knocked back his whiskey and said, “The professor actually asked what a story is.”
The Stalker jotted something down in a brown leather-bound notebook. The Traveler cocked an eyebrow. The Student did the same. The Drunkard tilted his head to the side. “What?” he asked.
The Writer leaned forward on the table, took off his brown flatcap and wriggled out of his corduroy jacket. “I’ll tell you what she said. This is verbatim, mind you, ‘If I were to ask you what a story is, what would you say?’ So, this being a Master’s class, I answered that it is a tool to change the world, that the word ‘story’ is indeed a condescending term that should only be applied to filth like Anne Rice and Dean Koontz; I was about to go on further with this train of thought, for the moment had taken me to heights in which I had not dwelled since my time of being an editor, but she cut me short.
“‘Yes,’ she said, ‘that’s all well and good, but what is a story?’ I blinked. I answered the question, or so I thought. But no, she then proceeded to define plot, character, and action. Gentlemen,” said the Writer, “I am in Creative Writing 101. And that is why I was in desperate need of whiskey.”
We nodded, unspoken went the sentiment that truly, his life was in shambles.
“I’ve got a journalism class tomorrow,” said The Drunkard. “I wonder if they’ll ask us what an editorial is.”
“More likely,” said The Traveler, “they’ll ask you, flask in hand, how to stave off the impending demise of the newspaper industry. How was London?”
“Oh,” said The Stalker, slurping his cider again, “I’m sure they found some, ah, oddities that one would not find in any guidebook. Broccoli soup, for example?”
The Drunkard leapt up from his chair, pointed at The Stalker, and shouted, “You stop whatever the fuck it is you’re doing, kid. You hear me? I don’t know how the fuck you keep finding out what’s going on in—”
“I have my ways.”
The Drunkard sat back down, pale.
The Student cleared his throat. “Um, I’m sure you’ll find out one way or another fairly soon. So,” he said, putting his hands on the table, “shall we continue in our contest, or leave it festering in the shadow of The Interloper?”
“Rightly said,” said The Traveler. “Drunkard, I believe it was your turn to tell us a story.”
The Drunkard, though, did not hear The Traveler. He was still pale, locked in a death stare with The Stalker’s black [contact-covered] eyes. The Writer poked him in the shoulder, causing The Drunkard to react by reflex and shove The Writer out of his chair. The poke did the job, though, as The Drunkard shook his head and said, “What? My story time?”
“Yep,” said the Traveler.
“Okay. Well, as you may know, I was once a reporter for the liberal arts college known as Cumberland Rift University. My being the only person on the staff with even a hint of talent, I was given certain privileges that, to be completely honest, they shouldn’t have given me.”
“Freedom of speech, for example,” said The Writer.
I snickered, low enough so that he could not hear me: the worst thing in the world is letting a jerk know that they can get away with being funny.
The Drunkard, for his part, pushed The Writer off of his chair again.
“Anyway,” he continued, “as I mentioned the other day, towards the end of election season and the beginning of the year, Cumberland Rift University’s newspaper, The Independent Times of the Nation—we called it ITN for short—sent me to cover the Republican candidate for governor. They also gave me an allowance of two thousand—”
“You said one thousand,” said The Writer.
“Are you fucking serious?” asked The Drunkard.
The Writer took a small black notebook from the inside of his jacket, licked his thumb, and flipped through some pages. “Yep, ‘they gave me one thousand dollars.’”
A small vein throbbed in The Drunkard’s forehead.
“What?” asked The Writer. “I just want you to be as accurate as possible. Don’t want to lose points because someone’s being pedantic, do you?”
The vein throbbed harder. In fact, it was on the verge of bursting out of his forehead.
“Let it go,” I said.
“Right,” The Drunkard responded.

Our Trip to London, Part the Fourth

The British Museum, if you have not had the good fortune to have been there, is a gloriously gigantic stone building filled nearly to the brim with stolen goods from the British Empire. Of course, they’re not really stolen; they’re just artifacts that happened to have come into the possession of certain influential individuals and then wound up in a giant stone building in London. Stolen would imply some sort of cultural ownership, and that would be frankly absurd. All of that said, there is something amazing about being able to wander in and out of the same building which possesses the Rosetta Stone and, essentially right next door, entire walls from ancient Assyrian temples. Then, there are the revolving exhibitions, usually of artifacts on loan from private collectors or foreign governments. Then, of course, there are the special exhibitions that cost money to see. I did not go to a special exhibition, nor did my companions. On the matter, The Student said, “Rarity of objects be damned! I’m not paying my money to see some hunks of rock.”
At any rate, this dogu thing The Student was talking about was one of the free revolving exhibits on loan, I believe, from the Japanese government. According to The Student, the dogu were the earliest artifacts of Japanese society that showed a tendency towards abstraction of humanity’s perception of the world. I, however, took a different view of the figures when we saw them: They were prototypes of Pokémon. I did not tell The Student this, for fear that he would have then forced me to go into a cultural sensitivity training session.
When we walked into the British Museum, into its black-tiled foyer right after walking in the mammoth front doors, I found myself looking into the Great Hall with a dropped-open mouth. The Student may have found himself in an almost religious awe while being at The Globe, and I finally understood it. On each wing in front of me were bits and pieces of history—and the interesting kind that you can look at and see chisel marks from sculptors, or brush strokes from potters, not the boring critical and analytical stuff we encounter in history classes. “Guh,” I said.
The Student shrugged, “Yeah, I guess it’s awe-worthy in a sense.”
“In a sense?!” I shouted. A security guard looked in my direction, shrugged and returned to reading a newspaper.
“Yeah. I mean, really, this is all bits of rock. Stolen rock. Memories of the brutality of Empire.”
“But—” I said. “But—Mummies! The Rosetta Stone! Cleo-fucking-patra! There’s Rome in here, Student! Can’t you under—”
“Hold your horses, hopalong,” said The Drunkard. “The Student’s right, it’s no big deal.”
“Student,” I said, “this is my Globe. Drunkard, we’ll take you to a distillery, and then maybe you’ll understand what The Student and I have experienced today.”
 “Once," The Drunkard responded, "I was lost in the Jack Daniels distillery. Not that much fun, really. They keep the whiskey under pretty secure conditions. As for history—which you clearly love—well, I prefer the here and now, thank you very much.”
I stammered for a few moments and my companions walked on. I followed suit, and we made our way up the staircase in the middle of the Great Hall, reaching eye level with some of the top figures on a couple of totems from the Pacific Northwest that had been plopped down into the Hall, and walked into the entrance to the Egyptian collection. Right in front of me was a mummified body of a prince. Or maybe a king. Someone important. I walked up to the glass and didn’t notice that my friends had walked on.
“Hey,” said The Drunkard, who had returned to fetch me, “come on.”
“But, the mummies.”
“They won’t be moving. The Student’s dog-men things are in the room across the hall.”
We weaved our way through gaggles of children on field trips. (“You little bastards,” I thought, “you get to go to the British Museum on a field trip. I went to the Grand Old Opry.”) I said, “You’re not as apathetic as you may try to act, Drunkard. How can you not care about these things around us? This is the story of humanity. In the mummies, we see the importance of death and the afterlife, the eternal question that has terrified humanity for eons, that—”
“Yeah,” he said, “I know. And you’re right, it is a pretty cool feeling being right in the midst of all of this. But you, man, you are really into it, aren’t you?”
“I don’t know how you can’t feel just as floored as I am. Are we that jaded as a culture to not be awestruck in thought about seeing three thousand year-old artifacts two feet in front of us? In fact, look:” I brushed my fingertips on a statue of a black cat; the plaque said that the cat had been found in a gravesite and was an indication that the individual buried within was a devotee of Bast. “I just touched a dead person’s statue.”
A passing security guard said, “Please don’t touch the artifacts, sir.”
“Ah, sorry.”
“Hmm,” remarked The Drunkard, “we might be that jaded, true. However, what are your feelings on paintings?”
“Unless they’re surrealist, then they're overvalued, ground-up plants smeared over canvas and gawked at by easily-duped people with too much free time.”
The Drunkard nodded and smiled. “That’s what I thought. Everyone’s got their own little thing that leaves them ‘floored,’ as you put it. Mine just happens to be the overvalued, ground-up plants. I suspect that if we go to the National Gallery, you’ll have a peek at what I look like when I get really excited about something. Now,” he said, holding open a door, “I believe this is the room in which The Student’s dog-men reside.”
We walked into a black room. The walls were covered with white pencil drawings. The Student sat on a bench in the middle of the room with his head buried in his hands. His shoulders quaked a little bit and I think I heard a couple of sniffles. The Drunkard walked up to the first drawing he came to and said, “Dear sweet God.”
I walked to where he was and saw an illustration of a man being disemboweled on a rock. The black and white of the picture rendered it palatable; I’m fairly certain that if the black splotches had shown up on the page with all of their red bloody glory, then I would have found myself in the same position as The Student. The entrails flopped out like snakes, and a group of men stood around the rock in togas, looking on in studious amazement.
“What in the fuck is wrong with this country?” asked The Drunkard.
I went to the next picture, which detailed Death standing over a group of medical students as they performed an autopsy in a crowded auditorium room. I caught sight of one of the students pulling out a rib and moved on. The next one was titled “Torture Devices and Their Uses,” and I decided to skip the rest. I joined The Student on the bench and said, “You okay, buddy?”
He looked up. His eyes were bloodshot. “I just wanted to see the dogu, not this torture porn.”
I nodded. I went up to the security guard standing watch in the corner and asked where we could find the special exhibition. He gave me the directions—incredibly complex ones, at that, and I returned to The Student. We collected The Drunkard, who was still starting in awe at the disembowelment picture, and made our way to the dogu exhibition.
Once there, The Student was back to his normal self and went along the walls studying the various statues and statuettes. They ranged from fertility dolls to depictions of the elderly with canes. Though my initial thought of them being proto-Pokémon flitted across my mind form time to time, I had to admit that it was amazing to see these ancient figurines in such good condition—one placard said that the earliest of the dogu figures was from around 3,000 B.C. One that caught my attention—from the later period of the dogu collection—was a figure that looked like it was dancing like a performer in a rap video. “No,” said The Student, “the placard says that it is most likely positioned in a sort of war dance and could have been made for a child.”
“But,” I said, “it could also be backing that shit up.”
At this point, The Student walked away from me.
After a while, we had our fill of the exhibit and walked out of the museum to find that dusk had fallen and the temperature dropped what felt like fifteen degrees. We had dinner at a cheap buffet near the Museum and debated whether or not we should stay in town for a couple of pints. We eventually arrived at the conclusion that it would be best if we made our return to Canterbury. As it turned out, The Student was in dire straits with finances: While the rest of us went with a bank that had a logical approach to international transactions (namely, settling everything electronically and in the matter of a few days), The Student’s bank decided that depositing money would be best done if an institution took a month to clear a check.
“I admit,” said The Student, when we were all on the train, “I should have gone with a bank that wasn’t named You’re A Schmuck If You Bank With Us, but I thought they were being ironic.”
And so, we made our way back to Charing Cross and boarded the next train back to Canterbury (this time, without making any puns).