Brock Peters

Ouzo for Puzo - an Excerpt

"Ouzo for Puzo" is a novella that spawned out of this small chapter, which I wrote almost a year ago. In February 2013, I returned to it and turned it into a full-fledged story. So far I've completed only the first draft and haven't done much revising, but it's a project that I'm quite excited about, and I'm looking forward to doing more work on it. It's divided into sections, such that the headers (here "Sambuca on Moscow" and "Ouzo for Puzo") denote particular points of view and groups of characters.


SAMBUCA ON MOSCOW

Strings of feathers suspended from the wooden rafters were rustled by the breeze every time somebody opened the door. The interior was full of dark wood and the lights were dim. Circular tables seemed almost to be hovering above the floor as though in a haze. Seating three or four people, they were intimate microcosms, isolated entities.

In the center of each table lay a worn and stained copy of James Joyce's "Ulysses." The copies were all different editions, clearly accumulated over a number of years. A stack of the books was balanced on one end of the bar, underneath a glittering bottle of Ouzo, an expensive bottle, the most expensive bottle the proprietor had ever acquired. It was thought of as a Sambuca bar, primarily, but exceptions were frequently made. If the bartender was drunk enough she could be persuaded to break into the stash of absinthe that the owner kept in the basement for special occasions.

Upon entering for the first time, nobody was really certain what they were supposed to do, because the spectacle was different every single evening. There were nights when it was possible to stumble into a roomful of individual patrons at individual tables, engrossed in Joyce while the bartender (a good-looking girl named Tamika, although the regulars were certain that wasn't her real name, and nobody knew what she did when she wasn't at the bar) floated from table to table retrieving glasses and making small talk. Then there were nights when the tables were upended and dancing broke out, or fighting, and not a single word of "Ulysses" was read from open until close. Occasionally the owner's family, who hailed from Puerto Vallarta, would invade the place for an evening and complain loudly that he was selling Greek drinks when he should be selling Mezcal, but nonetheless they would drain several complementary bottles. On nights like these even the regulars stayed away, and the next day it was common to walk in on Tamika slumped over the bar, asleep, exhausted by the ceaseless demands of inebriated relatives. Then they would slide a five into the tip jar and leave having neither woken her nor drunken anything, and so a night of familial debauchery would result in two lost nights for the owner; he subsequently tried to keep these nights to a minimum.

The bar wasn't in any of the tourist books, nor was anyone really certain of its name, because the sign above the door said "Maybeck's Eatery," while the stencil on the window said "McKenna's" and the owner's name was Gray Budwig. Nobody could remember a McKenna or a Maybeck. The joke was that they were Budwig's business partners, and that they were buried in the basement with the premium bottles.

There was a large window in the front of the bar, before which sat a couch with a copy of "Ulysses" on each arm. Here patrons could chose to read or to watch the action on the street outside, frequently an amusing pastime, because Maybeck's Eatery/McKenna's/Budwig's was in a rough part of the city. Public fights and shouting matches were shockingly common.

Once in a while somebody would come in off the street drunk, or ready to cause trouble, or derisive of the literature on the tables, or fixing to grab a bottle and run. They tended to get as far as the bar, behind which Tamika would cross her arms and watch the invader's face as he or she was startled to see that what they'd regarded as merely a shadow in the corner to the far right of the bar shifted and revealed one of the largest women they'd ever seen. The woman bore a scar on her arm and a tattoo of a feather running down one side of her face, and was of indeterminate age and nationality. Nobody could decide which country had spawned a woman so large. At this point the invader was faced with a choice, and generally they made the right one. Those who failed to do so would invariably end up on the sidewalk outside in varying degrees of disrepair, depending on what kind of a fight they'd tried to put up.

The woman in the corner was always there, it seemed, though on some nights it was hard to determine whether it was only the shadow that remained, and she'd taken the night off. Nobody ever sat at her table, the one to the far right of the bar, and if a newcomer (and newcomers were generally welcomed) so much as headed in that direction they were sure to be headed off at the pass.

Her name was Emigdia, and even among the regulars there were few who'd spoken to her more than two or three times. The only person she talked to was Tamika, and they spoke in undertones, Tamika having been enveloped by the shadow so that she became part of it, and people sitting nearby would sometimes give a start when she re-emerged. Emigdia was often seen reading tattered secondhand copies of old crime novels, lots of Agatha Christie, never James Joyce. She drank only the cheapest Sambuca, and she could make a single glass, on the rocks, last all evening. In the traditional way, Tamika would put three coffee beans in the glass before entering the shadow in the corner. This was something she'd do for anyone, if they asked, and there were spirited arguments about what the beans symbolized: some claimed they represented health, happiness and prosperity, while others pounded the table and crossed themselves and excitedly exclaimed that they were reminders of the Holy Trinity. An elderly regular who always rattled his old wooden cane on his chair was adamant that they were used to send messages by the Italian resistance in the war, but he couldn't say how. Someone else thought the practice had Russian origins, and was called "Sambuca on Moscow."

Whenever a patron asked for a "Sambuca on Moscow," Tamika would laugh and call him an ignorant bastard, but she'd still bring the drink, appropriately prepared.


OUZO FOR PUZO

Colours from the darkening sky washed the streets, giving the impression that everything was in motion; lights from lamps and cars streaked through the air like beams of sunlight breaking through clouds. Everything felt slowed-down and surreal. It was like someone had thrown a switch and the world had been plunged underwater into an oozing saline landscape that agonizingly bled its colours out into ours. From the window Puzo watched the city thus moving, perceiving it with satisfaction, while slowly and deliberately tying an old bowtie. It took him a while to complete the bow, but it was perfect on the first try. Nights like these were his element, the perfect temperature, feel, and speed to the air for him to flow through it like a shade, leaving those who crossed his path to wonder whether or not they had actually seen anything at all. Once the sun was gone the moon would hover solemnly, glancing around the clouds every so often, whenever something of interest drew her benevolent glow. Puzo's eyes crinkled at the corners and for a moment he felt very old.