Her dress swings in the sudden breeze, the black cloth fluttering up like ravens. The wind stills, the water quiets, and I watch her disappear up the river. This far down from the city, the water is relatively clean but for some random bits of escaped refuse. Scraps of paper scuttle on as makeshift skiffs. A plastic bag, puffed and bloated, gurgles idly along looking more and more like a Portuguese man-o-war. I consider giving chase to the phantom, but I’m on a mission: I must start here at the end, and work my way up to the beginning, stopping only to refill the madness. I must find the man known as Olaf. I must follow the whispers, search some lofty tower, and find what strange elixirs he creates in the aftermath of a full moon.
Up the hill and across the asphalt, soaked and pulsing with the sun’s fire, then down the non-descript steps into 1919. Eyes bide their time adjusting to the darkness while jazz plays quietly. The dim bulbs come into focus and I take a seat at the lengthy bar. I order a Sazerac from the happy hour menu. The absinthe coats the sides of the tongue, stays light, while the rye goes straight down. It hits the stomach and sends shivering warmth up into the heart and throat. It is that first good sip of the day, forever chased, but never caught again.
Ragtime piano plays, and feeling well soothed, I move onward, further upstream, following phantoms and chasing madness.
The river ripples and reflects upside-down Monets. I pass under the Johnson Street Bridge, the Arsenal Street Bridge, and others, listening to the cicadas’ songs. The washed out nests of Mud Daubers graffiti the cement walls beside me. I’m getting closer to the city’s heart. The smell of roasting meat lures tourists down into that circle of hell which they most likely will not escape. River boats float past, full of gawking onlookers. I quickly head to the surface level and enter the Esquire.
I stand at the “longest bar in Texas” while the old man next to me mumbles profanities at no one. I order something with whiskey and absinthe, wanting to stay on the same spree of alcoholic folly. The bartender hands me a Sazerac. I’m completely fine with his decision. I move away from the old man and sit between two groups of businessmen. Sports plays on the two large flat screens. This drink is sweeter and heavier on the absinthe. I must remember my mission.
Purple petals coat the surface of the river under the Pecan Street Bridge. The sun is setting, sheathing the city in a skin of fire. I take the Navarro Street exit, go up the steps and witness the white lightbulbs forming the word, “Ocho.”
My attempt to stick with the Sazerac is thwarted when I am informed Ocho doesn’t have absinthe. I choose the Hemingway Daiquiri instead. When all else fails, you must pay your respects to Papa. I dine on a steak kabob and rice. The bar manager, Hector Vargas, makes me another cocktail with vodka, St. Germain and Champagne. The lights of the chandeliers dim. It would be easy to stay, to drink all night in this room full of aqua and shining glass but there is somewhere I am meant to go.
I follow the lamp-lit path along the blackened river. I come up to street level at Brooklyn Avenue.
Surf music plays and somehow I’m surrounded by Hawaiian shirts. I lucked into The Brooklynite’s “Tiki Tuesday.” I sit down and ask for something with whiskey and absinthe. Jeret Peña hands me a take on a drink called the “Suffering Bastard.” It’s got bourbon, grapefruit juice, lime, homemade grog, a bar spoon full of absinthe and is topped with ginger beer. The strange Tiki-man cup stares at me. He has a cocktail umbrella for a hat and a sprig of mint for hair. There is a sick scowl across his face. I converse with a friend, now a blacksmith’s apprentice. The absinthe is taking hold.
I stumble out and head toward the Pearl, searching for the smokestack illuminated with the word “Pride.” Was it pride that led me here?
I go up the steps slowly, into the loft, overlooking the rest of Blue Box. Behind the bar stands Olaf, his visage shining bright under the bar lights. A few regulars turn to see me, exhausted, eyes mad with absinthe and whiskey.
“What will it be?” he asks.
“Something with whiskey and absinthe…” I mutter.
He thinks for a moment, pulls some bottles down and starts mixing. He hands me a drink made with scotch, sloe gin, Cynar and Cardamaro. Hearing of my journey, he jests, “Let’s call it ‘The Heart of Darkness.’”
“The horror! The horror!”
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