Esmé was standing with crossed ankles again. "You're quite sure you won't forget to write that story for me?" she asked. "It doesn't have to be exclusively for me. It can--"
I said there was absolutely no chance that I'd forget. I told her that I'd never written a story for anybody, but that it seemed like exactly the right time to get down to it.
She nodded. "Make it extremely squalid and moving," she suggested. "Are you at all acquainted with squalor?"
I said not exactly but that I was getting better acquainted with it, in one form or another, all the time, and that I'd do my best to come up to her specifications. We shook hands.
"Isn't it a pity that we didn't meet under less extenuating circumstances?"
I said it was, I said it certainly was.
"Goodbye," Esmé said. "I hope you return from the war with all your faculties intact."
I thanked her, and said a few other words, and then watched her leave the tearoom. She left it slowly, reflectively, testing the ends of her hair for dryness.
Le Mixeur Sharky: Nine Stories is Sunday, March 11, 5-10pm, at Inner Chapters Bookstore & Cafe, 419 Fairview Ave N, Seattle. Tickets are $25 (includes 3 cocktails) and should be pre-purchased here: http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/229073
"He is perhaps the most graceful, affable, and considerate bartender that I have ever witnessed in action."
This is what Richie Boccato, the brains behind Dutch Kills, PKNY, Tribeca, Weather Up, and who knows what else in NYC, wrote to me about Ben Perri. I asked Richie if I could quote him in writing about Ben for this event. He didn't respond. I'll take that as a yes.
(editor's note: Richie will be hosting a Le Mixeur Sharky event at PKNY and Dutch Kills on April 15, more on that to come once the Seattle massacre is done after this weekend).
Pardon me for belittling the craft of writing, but I'm going to quote myself on Facebook here...
"Tonight, at Zig Zag, I asked Autumn to ask Ben for the dirtiest, nastiest, strongest thing he could conjure up... He gave me his phone number."
So Ben is a bartender at the Zig Zag Café. When Murray left Zig Zag, there were those who did a lot of hand-wringing. But there were certain visionaries such as me and Ben and Murray and others who knew it would be a blessing. Ben and the mighty Erik Hakkinen were more than ready to assume front stage and carry on what we'd all loved about Zig Zag. And some of the groupies subsided. And we all lived happily ever after. And so did Murray.
Ben routinely tests my will to not play favorites. The only thing preventing me from saying that Ben is my favorite bartender in Seattle is all my other favorite bartenders in Seattle. Let's just say there's none better. How can we conclude who the best of anything is? As Steven Wright said, a conclusion is the place where you got tired of thinking.
And as Sharky once said, when asked who was his favorite, Batman or Spiderman, "Batman and Spiderman." Or as Sharky once told me, "my favorite color is green, blue, red, yellow, and purple."
Picking favorites is for the weak. Ben Perri is for the strong, strong at heart, strong of spirit, and strong of base spirit. I'm not going to prattle on any longer about the man. Just go to Zig Zag and enjoy what he does for yourself. He is truly a marvel. And even better, a genuinely good human being.
For Esmé - With Love And Squalor is my mother's favorite story in Nine Stories. I trusted Ben with the creation of a drink in its honor and naturally he did not disappoint.
FOR ESME - WITH LOVE AND SQUALOR
1 ounce Evan Williams bourbon
½ ounce STRONG Earl Grey Tea syrup*
¼ ounce Cocchi Americano
¼ ounce Bonal
dash of Cinnamon
stir and strain into flute
fill with champagne
garnish with lemon twist
*Earl Grey syrup is 2 parts very strong brewed Earl Grey tea, mixed with 1 part rich simple syrup. Rich simple syrup is 2 parts suga' dissolved into 1 part wata'. Wata' is a chemical substance with the chemical formula H2O. A wata' molecule contains one oxygen and two hydrogen atoms connected by covalent bonds. F'shizzle.
HEY ARE YOU GOING TO TELL US ABOUT THE STORY?
But not much. It's late and I'm a little drunk.
For Esmé - With Love And Squalor is a story about a little girl whose sincerity saves a grown man's sanity in the face of the horrors of war. The man meets her while stationed in rural England, undergoing specialized training before being sent off on some sort of madcap mission in WWII. They have tea, along with her younger brother Charles, and share conversation of an illuminating sort. She shares with him that her father died in the war, and while she puts on a brave face he notes the oversized men's wristwatch on her wrist. He shares with her that he writes stories, and she makes him promise to one day write one for her. She herself promises to write him a letter.
The story jumps forward to the officer post-war, still stationed in Germany. He is falling apart. He is now referred to in the story as "X." He shakes uncontrollably, avoids sunlight, smokes constantly, rarely eats, never leaves his room, torments friends who attempt to speak to him, and cannot sleep.
"When he let go of his head, X began to stare at the surface of the writing table, which was a catchall for at least two dozen unopened letters and at least five or six unopened packages, all addressed to him. He reached behind the debris and picked out a book that stood against the wall. It was a book by Goebbels, entitled "Die Zeit Ohne Beispiel." It belonged to the thirty-eight-year-old, unmarried daughter of the family that, up to a few weeks earlier, had been living in the house. She had been a low official in the Nazi Party, but high enough, by Army Regulations standards, to fall into an automatic-arrest category. X himself had arrested her. Now, for the third time since he had returned from the hospital that day, he opened the woman's book and read the brief inscription on the flyleaf. Written in ink, in German, in a small, hopelessly sincere handwriting, were the words "Dear God, life is hell." Nothing led up to or away from it. Alone on the page, and in the sickly stillness of the room, the words appeared to have the stature of an uncontestable, even classic indictment. X stared at the page for several minutes, trying, against heavy odds, not to be taken in. Then, with far more zeal than he had done anything in weeks, he picked up a pencil stub and wrote down under the inscription, in English, "Fathers and teachers, I ponder `What is hell?' I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love." He started to write Dostoevsky's name under the inscription, but saw--with fright that ran through his whole body--that what he had written was almost entirely illegible. He shut the book."
X eventually delves into that catchall for at least two dozen unopened letters and finds one is from Esmé, sent many many months earlier. He reads it. I have so far avoided giving away endings, but I'm going to do it here, because the story at hand is so beautiful. So stop reading now if you want to read the story in its entirety, which I highly recommend, and so does my mother. You need to read the whole story to get the beauty anyway. So you might as well go away now.
No. Seriously. Fuck off.
Go buy a copy of the book.
Impatient? Here's a link to the full text:
OK and now here's the part I wanted to share.
"DEAR SERGEANT X,
I hope you will forgive me for having taken 38 days to begin our correspondence but, I have been extremely busy as my aunt has undergone streptococcus of the throat and nearly perished and I have been justifiably saddled with one responsibility after another. However I have thought of you frequently and of the extremely pleasant afternoon we spent in each other's company on April 30, 1944 between 3:45 and 4:15 P.M. in case it slipped your mind.
We are all tremendously excited and overawed about D Day and only hope that it will bring about the swift termination of the war and a method of existence that is ridiculous to say the least. Charles and I are both quite concerned about you; we hope you were not among those who made the first initial assault upon the Cotentin Peninsula. Were you? Please reply as speedily as possible. My warmest regards to your wife.
P.S. I am taking the liberty of enclosing my wristwatch which you may keep in your possession for the duration of the conflict. I did not observe whether you were wearing one during our brief association, but this one is extremely water-proof and shockproof as well as having many other virtues among which one can tell at what velocity one is walking if one wishes. I am quite certain that you will use it to greater advantage in these difficult days than I ever can and that you will accept it as a lucky talisman.
Charles, whom I am teaching to read and write and whom I am finding an extremely intelligent novice, wishes to add a few words. Please write as soon as you have the time and inclination.
HELLO HELLO HELLO HELLO HELLO HELLO HELLO HELLO HELLO HELLO LOVE AND KISSES CHALES.
It was a long time before X could set the note aside, let alone lift Esme's father's wristwatch out of the box. When he did finally lift it out, he saw that its crystal had been broken in transit. He wondered if the watch was otherwise undamaged, but he hadn't the courage to wind it and find out. He just sat with it in his hand for another long period. Then, suddenly, almost ecstatically, he felt sleepy.
You take a really sleepy man, Esme, and he always stands a chance of again becoming a man with all his fac-with all his f-a-c-u-1-t-i-e-s intact."
And in case you haven't figured it out yet, this story, For Esmé - With Love And Squalor, is the story X promised he would write for Esmé. Duh.
And nighty night.