Let me take you, dear boy,” said McHintry, “to the best little bar in Manhattan.”
I could have told him Donna was expecting me home in good time to find out how my first day in the new job had gone. I could have told him that anyway I never drank much, not just because Donna disapproved of it but because after only a couple of beers my skull begins to feel like a street riot’s in progress within, complete with Molotov cocktails. I could have told him that I hadn’t eaten since my breakfast Cheerios.
I could have told him I’d taken a pledge of abstinence as part of my seminary training many years ago, which would have been a lie on several different levels but a dishonesty that might have been regarded as justifiable by many—Donna, for example.
Instead, I considered for a fraction of a second that this man was my boss and this was my first job since leaving college, and I said, “Sure thing. Just let me put on my coat.”
Rencourt & Blitzen was a medium-sized literary publishing house that had just been swallowed up by a conglomerate, years before this had become the fashion. As a result, the company consisted of a residual dozen staff—plus me, although I didn’t yet realize it—who were waiting for their jobs to be “rationalized” into vacuum. If you Google very carefully today you’ll eventually find RencourtBlitzenMcPhail, a division reporting to a Copenhagen-based CEO and publishing books about sailing ships.
Back when McHintry was inviting me out for a drink, Google hadn’t been invented yet. As a new-fledged editorial assistant, I’d spent all day on slush-pile duty, reading the first two pages of typescripts sent by aspiring authors and mailing them letters telling them their work was wonderful but just not quite suitable for our current requirements. A few were sufficiently ahead of the technological curve that I was able to fax them the bad news.
I’m not going to tell you what it was called, because later McHintry swore me to silence.
“This, ah, bar,” I said as we waited for the elevator, “it, ah, sells food?”
“It doesn’t need to,” said McHintry mysteriously.
The elevator arrived, chugged downward reluctantly in the way elevators did in those days, and debouched us at ground level.
“I think I’d better phone Donna,” I said belatedly.
“Don’t worry,” replied McHintry, charging across a hall that was all stone-colored floor tiles and marquetry walls. “The bar has a pay phone.”
We jostled down Sixth Avenue, cut through crowds along 42nd Street, went down Ninth a while and eventually turned onto a narrow street I’d never known was there. I peered upward to try to see the sign on the corner, but it had been broken off.
“So,” said McHintry, “how have you enjoyed your first day?”
Your new boss is taking you out for a post-work drink. This is not the moment for complaining.
“Very much,” I said, wondering why I was puffing and he wasn’t. “I hadn’t realized,” I added, referring to the slush-pile manuscripts, “how many unique paths there are to universal self-enlightenment.”
“You will find out tomorrow that there are even more, many of them involving high-fiber foods. You’ll also find out the truth of the Taoist principle that all of these paths are the same one. What Taoism fails to mention is that the paths should without exception be rejected—at least by Rencourt & Blitzen.
“Here we are.”
As he said the last words he turned right again. If the narrow street we’d been walking briskly down had been a minor vein, this was a capillary. If I’d been on my own I’d not have noticed the entrance was there. It was something smaller than an alley that yet managed to be a street. At its end, or at least where it kinked at apparent right angles ahead of us, there was a lighted square perhaps ten yards in each direction.
Onto the square faced a bar called …
But, no, I’m not going to tell you what it was called, because later McHintry swore me to silence. Besides, young man, your mother—not to mention that wife of yours—would never forgive me if I helped you find the place.
We went in. The main feature I can remember of the decor now is that there was a lot of oak: polished oak paneling on the walls, and a bar that was likewise polished oak but looked genuine. There was also a little glowing lamp in the corner that showed the symbol of a telephone.
Appearances can be deceptive. The smiling young Christian missionary turns out to be Ted Bundy.
McHintry led me to the bar.
“I’ll just …” I said, gesturing toward the phone.
He waved, his attention on the barman. “Feel free.”
At the phone, I found enough coins to phone Donna. I was fairly certain my credit card would stand the strain of however much McHintry and I would drink tonight; all the same, I hoped he was paying.
She picked up with alarming quickness.
“Have you left yet?”
“Just. Look, my boss is a man called Derek …”
“He’s taken you out for a drink?”
“You guessed it.”
“Just the one, okay, darling?”
“I’ll do my best.”
I looked around at the interior of the bar, of the honey-colored light that filled it. Perhaps it was a bit larger than it had looked from the outside, perhaps not. The bar itself was at one end of a room wider than it was long, as seen from the entrance; the floor was scattered with small round tables. Some of the tables were occupied, many of them not. The bar, on the other hand, was crowded. Yet there wasn’t the usual Manhattan shouting filling the air; if I hadn’t admitted to Donna where I was, the chances are she wouldn’t have known.
“I’m going to have to play this by ear,” I told her.
“The guy could fire me, after all.”
“He could fire you if you threw up on his shoes.”
“I’ll check beforehand that the shoes I’m about to throw up on aren’t his.”
“That’s not funny.”
McHintry was waving to me from the bar, and pointing to a couple of ominously small glasses in front of him.
“I’ve got to go now, darling,” I said.
“Love you,” she said.
“Love you,” I replied, putting the handset back into its cradle.
“Dry Manhattan,” said McHintry, when I joined him.
I slithered up onto the stool beside his, and looked at a broad-topped glass whose brown contents seemed to be wondering if they should smoke or just spill over and eat a hole through the bar top.
“I looked at you while you were talking to that pretty little wife of yours, and I thought to myself, There’s a Dry Manhattan sort of guy!”
“Oh, good,” I said.
I took a sip, and then another.
I suppose I’m expected to say that the world lurched crazily or something like that, but in fact nothing of the sort happened.
Instead, a magnificent taste reminiscent of honey, maple, and long walks in pine-redolent woods filled my mouth and then my throat.
“Wow,” I said quietly, putting my glass down.
McHintry grinned. “Another?”
“I’ve hardly started my first.”
He grinned again, then drained his own glass.
I stared. I wasn’t so stupid that I hadn’t heard of cocktails before.
“Are you sure you didn’t find any even partway promising manuscripts today?” he said.
I stiffened, assuming this was a test: Pour some booze down the throat of the new kid, then see if he’s still capable of using words of more than one syllable.
Back in college a professor had told me there was this axiom of publishing that it wasn’t the masterpieces you missed that bankrupted you but the masterpieces you bought.
I matched him grin for grin.
“Nope. Not one. They were all stinkers.”
Trying to pretend I wasn’t feeling self-conscious—me? no, surely not!—I snatched up my glass and threw its contents down in one.
“Another!” cried McHintry to the barman.
This was my first opportunity for a proper look at the guy behind the bar, but I missed it. He had one of those faces you tend not to notice because you’re looking at the bottles on their serried shelves beyond. If I registered him at all at the time it was to think his cheeks were unnaturally red, his eyes unnaturally likewise.
“But I told Donna …” I began.
“You liked the Manhattan?”
“Oh, yeah,” I told McHintry truthfully.
“Then you’ll be wanting another?”
“I should be going ho—”
“Like I said, Louie,” McHintry told the barman, “we’ll be wanting another for my friend. Another two, in fact. And I’ll have the same for myself.”
“You will?” I said once Louie had gone about his task.
McHintry leaned extravagantly on the bar. For the first time today I noticed he was wearing a blue tie with silver pitchforks on it. I thought it very strange I hadn’t noticed this before.
McHintry nodded as if reading my thoughts.
“Look around you, young man.”
While I’d not been looking, a few more of the tables had filled up. They all had small round tops that looked to be of a darker wood than oak, or perhaps it was just that generations of alcohol splashes had soaked into the surfaces. At some tables there was just one person sitting; a few had a pair of drinkers; none had three. Nobody was holding a conversation. Almost everybody seemed to be a New York Times reader. And nobody seemed to be, well, the sort of person you’d expect to find in a shabby Manhattan bar in the kind of neighborhood this one was in.
Yes, I know, appearances can be deceptive. The smiling young Christian missionary turns out to be Ted Bundy. The grinning clown who performs for terminally ill hospital kids is John Wayne Gacy. But the guys in the bar—there wasn’t a woman among them—were hardly in that league. The standard article of attire was the suit, blue or gray. At the far end of the bar there was a fellow with a white polo neck; everyone else had ties.
“How many people can you see here,” said McHintry, “who’re smashed?”
There are some questions you don’t expect.
This was one of them.
I didn’t have to answer immediately because at that moment Louie reappeared alongside us.
“Your drinks, gentlemen.”
If anything the Manhattans looked more toxic than the last time around. Left to my own devices, I’d have hopped down from my high stool and headed off home to Donna. If I called a taxi there was a chance she could pay for it when I arrived.
“ ‘Smashed?’ ” I said.
“Plastered. Out of their skulls. Whatever.”
I looked up and down. Now that McHintry had pointed it out to me, this was the real thing that was so odd about the place. No voices raised in raucous laughter, no flushed faces, no dull-eyed sightless staring at blank walls. Several of the Times readers were filling in the crossword, and in sensible pencil; others were scanning the paper itself, while one patron had put his Times aside and was now deeply immersed in a book by Willa Cather. The atmosphere was more of the New York Public Library than of a bar that was somewhere off-off Ninth. Yet some of these people were clearly packing the ol’ hooch away at a rate of knots, to judge by the empty glasses around them.
Without thinking, I took another gulp, a big gulp, of my Dry Manhattan.
In terms of my future career, this was probably the most valuable evening I ever spent.
As soon as I realized what I’d done, I waited for the sensation a second glass of strong drink usually gives me: the feeling that the backs of my eyeballs want to erupt out through the fronts.
It didn’t come.
I stared at my depleted glass.
Perhaps I was developing a resistance to hard liquor at last.
McHintry was gesturing toward one of the vacant tables.
Once we’d settled again, he glanced at his watch. “I should think table service will be out of the question by now,” he said, gazing absently at Louie, “so we’ll have to fetch our drinks for ourselves, but—”
“I’m not sure I’ll be needing any more drinks,” I said, trying to make a joke of it. Getting out of here in a fit condition to find my way home was beginning to seem like a fading dream. More pressing was whether I could get out of here alive.
McHintry laughed with me.
“You’ve not been paying attention, dear boy,” he said. “Try putting it all together.”
As if to jog my deductive processes, an elderly man who I’d have guessed as a priest in some ascetic order pushed through the door, walked briskly to the bar, and ordered himself six double scotches.
“I think I’m out of my league in this place,” I began to say slowly, and then realization dawned.
Everyone here was knocking booze back like there was no tomorrow, but no one was showing the slightest sign of wear.
Correction: Not quite no one.
“It’s Louie’s great talent, you see,” said McHintry, confirming my thoughts. “You can drink as much as you want here and stay as sober as a judge—which, by the way, is exactly what several of the regular customers are, judges. All the pleasures of the booze without any of the adverse consequences—you don’t even have a hangover or a sour stomach the next morning. The only person who gets drunk is Louie. He does all the getting drunk and the subsequent suffering for you.”
“He does that every night?” I hissed.
“The place only opens once a week,” McHintry replied. “It takes him that long between-times to recover.”
“So every Monday you …”
He nodded. “Every Monday I come here after work and drink to my heart’s content—drink enough that’d likely kill me in the ordinary way, or at least land me in the E.R. So far as Mrs. McHintry is concerned, I work late on Mondays. If she complains about the smell of booze on me, I tell her I had a beer on the way home to wind down.”
“But if it’d almost kill you,” I said, “and everyone else is doing the same as you are, what’s it doing to Louie?”
“That’s the other aspect of his magical talent,” said McHintry. “He’s a rich man because of it. Sometimes he hospitalizes himself but, where you or I might die, he recovers. And the drinks here cost five times what you’d pay at the Ritz-Carlton …” He put his hand gently over mine to reassure me before panic fully set in. “Don’t worry. This is my treat. No way I could expect anyone to buy their own drinks here on the kind of money Rencourt & Blitzen gives their editorial assistants.”
I chuckled too, because he was my boss. The Rencourt & Blitzen salary had been the solitary bone of contention between Donna and me when we were discussing if I should take the job. She was insistent I should wait for something better to come along. My viewpoint was, the way publishing was even in those days, waiting for something better to come along could well be like waiting for Godot. I should grab what I could, give it a couple of years, then start looking around. Time proved me right, as I’ve never tired of reminding her.
The evening wore on. I had to phone an increasingly exasperated Donna a couple more times. After those first two drinks, I shifted from Manhattan Drys—Dries?—to beers partly because I couldn’t really quite believe, even yet, that Louie was taking all the punishment on my behalf, partly because, if he was, I didn’t want to inflict on him any worse than he was already getting.
Mind you, that didn’t stop me having a few glasses of port in among the beers. And I think there was a gin and tonic or two …
In terms of my future career, this was probably the most valuable evening I ever spent, sitting in that little bar and listening as McHintry imparted to me publishing lore and wisdom he’d spent the best part of four decades accruing. It was something we could never have done in the office, with phones ringing and other staffers demanding attention. Come to think of it, it was a session we could never have had in any other bar but this one, either: As the night wore on, McHintry would have had to shout for me to hear him, which would have meant he’d have been simplifying everything he told me, stripping away the nuance … and anyway I’d have forgotten it all by the next morning.
There really are magical spells and special superhuman powers in this world. But they’re frailer than all the legends say they are.
This, at least, was what I decided to tell Donna as I trekked uptown once McHintry and I had finally torn ourselves away from the bar and from each other’s company. By the time we left, Louie was barely able to speak, or even to open his eyes, yet was somehow still managing—through, I guess, an iron resolve that was yet another facet of his supernatural talent—to serve drinks and make change.
There were fewer people on the streets than usual, it being a Monday night, and less traffic. I was so fired up by sobriety that the very idea of taking the subway seemed repellent. It was one of those rare times in New York when the air smells clean, as if with the promise of snow—a very real possibility, because my breath was steaming in front of me as I walked.
I was damn near marching, in fact. As you know, after surprisingly few drinks my normal mode of locomotion is the stumble.
The only effect all those beers had had on me was on my bladder, but a furtive foray into Central Park took care of that.
It must have been three in the morning by the time I got home to the ratty little apartment that was the first place your mother and I lived in after we got married.
She met me on the doorstep—not a good omen. She was in her robe. Faded muddy pink, with blue bunny rabbits, some hanging half-off. I could tell from her face she’d been to bed, not slept, and got up again to wait for me, sitting at the kitchen table and drinking too much black coffee.
“Well?” she said, another bad omen.
I told her about the bar, and about the barman’s extraordinary talent, and about how I was stone cold sober.
I can’t remember much of the ensuing speech my beloved made, but I do recall the frequent appearance of terms like “skunk,” “loaded,” “all on my own,” “lush,” “douchebag” and even a tentative “staying with my mother awhile”—we both recognized this last as an empty threat, because … well, you remember your grandmother, don’t you?
All this while, the most curious transformation was coming over me.
Holding up my hands as if to shield myself from the barrage of words, I sidled along the short corridor in the direction of the bathroom. The relief Central Park had offered had been strictly temporary, but it wasn’t just that.
There really are, whatever science might say, such things as magical spells and special superhuman powers in this world—I’m absolutely convinced of it. But they’re frailer than all the legends say they are. Unlike the features of the straightforward physical world, they don’t exist regardless of whether or not we believe in them. In the face of any challenge they can melt away like dreams. Any spell can easily be broken by determined disbelief.
Clinging to the bathroom doorframe, I waited for Donna to stop talking.
It was quite a long wait.
When she finally did, I tried, but failed, to draw myself up to my full height. With as much dignity as a man can muster under such circumstances, I turned away from her and began the worst few hours of my life.
But not all of Louie’s magic evaporated. There was one residual effect. The next day, far from the details of that night being lost down the memory hole, I remembered everything—and with crystal clarity.
Unfortunately, so did the spell breaker.
Without any need for magic.
John Grant is author of some 70 books and recipient of two Hugo Awards, a World Fantasy Award, and various others. His A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Film Noir was published in 2013; his second story collection, Tell No Lies, came out at the end of 2014 to be followed, in February 2015, by a book for young adults on critical thinking, Debunk It! He writes about movies regularly at Noirish.