Thursday, March 11, 2010

In Which The Traveler Surprises Us

Sunlight largely disappeared while we were in Argos, and people dashed back and forth between shops. I figured it was nearly closing time for most of the places.
You see, Dear Reader, the people of Europe  view employment much differently  than we do in the States. For the European, work is the punishment for original sin. Seeing jobs in this light brings the European to the natural conclusion that work should be regulated. Americans, be patient. I know, we see the word ‘regulation’ and start screaming ‘FASCIST SOCIALISM! THE REDS ARE COMING!’ and other nonsense phrases. However, having lived in England, I can tell you that this regulation is built out of the most basic tenants of humanitarianism.
Understand that when I speak of opening hours, it is in regards to retail. Think back on your lives. Think back to anyone who has ever worked retail, grocery—any menial, thankless, underpaid job in the service industry. Do you, dear reader, ever remember them gushing about how much they enjoyed their work? How much they wanted to deal with a person who insisted that a cell phone has reception through fifteen feet of concrete; or suggested things like all shoes in a store should be made of steel, because steel doesn’t break like leather; or… well, any other aspect retail hell will suffice. I would bet that the answer to my question is no.
With that in mind, the Europeans have gone back to the ideals of the Enlightenment and decreed that those in the service industry shall not have to work nearly as much as their comrades in the United States. Yes, this is slightly inconvenient for the shopper, and, frankly, it would be strange to not hear some complaint because of this from time to time.
I stood outside Argos in the waning light on the Oxford High Street, clutching three tightly packed sleeping bags. To my right, further down the street and about a hundred yards away, was a church, its steeple lit by yellow floodlights. To my left was the dome of something or other. It was one of those moments I got, from time to time, where I was struck with a train of thought that went something like, “Holy shit, I’m living in Europe. Holy shit, I’m standing in _________.” Yes, I know, it’s laughable because, hey, it’s just another place—but you turn down the cold, jaded skepticism for a little bit, and you start to enjoy life.
The door swung open behind me and The Student walked out tossing a red bag back and forth between his hands. “Ready?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said.

We made our way back to the car and, when we arrived, I saw the Traveler, standing under a ring of light under a streetlamp. At his feet was The Drunkard’s duffel bag. In his hands were two mason jars of a dark purple liquid. “Wuh-oh,” I said.
“What?” asked The Student.
“Keep cool.”
We crossed the couple of lanes of stuck traffic from the other side of the road, and I said, “What you got there, Traveler?” I put the sleeping bags in the trunk.
“I think you know.”
The Student coughed. “Moonshine? Where did you get moonshine?”
“From The Drunkard’s bag.” He clunked the jars together. “You know anything about this, Narrator?”
“Er,” I said. I took off my cap, scratched my head. “Nope. Wouldn’t know anything about it.”
“How’d moonshine get here?” asked The Student. “They don’t have moonshine in this country.”
“Well,” said The Traveler. “If I had to guess, I’d say our passed-out friend has a still somewhere.”
I looked around and saw no trace of The Drunkard. I gulped. “Traveler, what did you do to the Drunkard? Where is he? Did you kill him? Where’d you put the body?”
“He’s passed out in the back. You’re going to have an interesting ride back there. He’s been clawing at the upholstery and muttering about living ooze or something like that.”
I shut the trunk and saw The Drunkard. His head was tilted back, eyes shut, and I could barely make out snoring. “Oh good,” I said. “He snores.”
“Yeah, in between night terrors brought on by—what? Absinthe?”
I nodded.
“Figured. Okay, here’s what’s going on. Before you and The Student got here, I got the directions to Lena’s place. We’re going to drive there, get all our stuff set up, and drink two bottles of shine.”
My head—a reaction that doesn’t happen often, but is a result of hearing something I never understand—retreated into my neck. I turned to The Student and saw, much to my surprise, that he was doing the same sort of thing. “What?” we said in unison.
“You heard me,” said The Traveler. He bent down and replaced the jars of moonshine, zipped up the bag, and walked over to the trunk.
I moved back and let him open it. “I heard you,” I said. “But I don’t think I understood you.”
He shut the trunk. “We’re going to drink the two jars of moonshine. Get it out of the way. Not have to worry about The Drunkard’s surprises possibly landing us in jail for public intoxication.” He shrugged. “If nothing else, it’ll make for an interesting night.”
“What about the Germans?” asked The Student. “Did you ask them?”
“Well, kind of.” The Traveler took out his keys, zipped up his jacket, leaned against the car, and grinned. “I said we’re bringing a little something Southern for em. They may have taken that for innuendo, but hey, whatever.”
“Hold on,” I said. “Don’t you think The Drunkard will object to this?”
The Traveler snorted. “It’s not like we’re taking it and not giving him any. Quite the contrary. It’ll be a communal affair. We’ll all have us some moonshine.” He ended with a strange East Tennessee accent that left me worried.
The Student shrugged. “Well, fuck it. I’d rather have it all off in one go than see The Drunkard have his stomach pumped for downing two jars of the stuff. Besides, it’s been for-fuckin-ever since I’ve had some shine.”
This shocked me. I assumed that The Student was too erudite to drink moonshine. People like him, I thought, wouldn’t drink anything that had the possibility of making you go blind. Hell, people like me wouldn’t do it, and I was a moron compared to The Student. I’d seen the man’s essays on liberal literary guilt in the United States—the man did not, should not, drink moonshine. “When was the last time you had some of this shit?” I asked.
He scratched at his mustache. “Freshman year at UT. A guy two floors below me had a still set up in his closet. Never changed clothes, but he made moonshine. I think he failed out in one semester. That’d make sense, wouldn’t it?”
“You telling me,” said The Traveler, “you’ve never had moonshine?”
There are some things that, when pressed about, a man will lie a hundred times over rather than admit. For whatever reason, moonshine was mine. “Fuck, course I had moonshine. I swill that shit all the damn time. Mouthwash. That stuff’s like mouthwash to me. Here. I’ll fuckin prove it. Down a jar right now.”
The Traveler and The Student burst into laughter. “You’ve never had it,” The Traveler said. “What the hell’s this stuff about mouthwash?”
“Dude,” said The Student. “It’s not a big deal. I don’t blame you.”
And, naturally, being the upright American man I am, I took this as if they were saying I wiped my ass with Old Glory, or went frolicking in a green field with a rainbow-colored cape. “The hell did I just say? I drink this stuff like water. Doesn’t bother me.”
“Right,” said The Traveler. “We’re calling you Jethro, then.” He opened the driver’s door and said, “Jethro, Student, shall we depart?”
“Shoot her!” shouted The Drunkard. “Shoot her!” If you concentrated, it sounded like he was trying to be Australian. We stared at The Drunkard. He was still sound asleep. After a few moments, he whispered, “Clever girl.”
“Okay,” said The Student. “Let’s head out, shall we?”
We piled into the Fiesta and started off.

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