Al took his sweat-stained Panama hat off and sat it on the bar. His ex-wife had given it to him, almost as a joke, seven Christmases ago. At first, he never wore it as the hat always seemed out of place wherever he was. But since he had let his beard grow and his choice of jacket had altered from tailored to deconstructed, the hat seemed to fit.
The bar was a respite from the humidity outside. Papa Hemingway may have called this place Heaven, but Al’s Yankee blood was far to thick for this climate. He took off the linen blazer revealing a sweat-soaked shirt and a surprising amount of tattoos up and down his arm, a reminder of his days chasing tail in Philadelphia. Al hardly noticed them at this point, but often when he was sitting in an airport or lounging in a hotel room, they would break the illusion of a sweet grandpa for some mother and her daughter.
Belly up to the bar, Al wiped the sweat from his forehead with a handkerchief and tucked it back into his chinos as the bartender greeted him with a wry smile.
“What’ll it be?” said the bartender in perfect English.
Caught off-guard by the precision of the bartender’s speech, Al fumbled, for an order. He had wanted a bourbon smash, something sweet and slightly exotic, but the idea leaped out of his head once his presumption of what a Florida Keys bartender should sound like was shattered.
“Daiquiri,” answered Al, “a Hemingway,” he added.
The bartender hid a laugh and said, “Coming right up.”
For some reason, Al had always valued the opinion of bartenders, even when he was younger. As he hopped from one trend to the next, ordering Old Fashions when TV touted slick suits and nostalgia and switching back to martini’s when the latest spy film hit the theaters, Al always asked what the best way to make the drink was (it wasn’t until much later that he realized how obnoxious this must have seemed at the time).
In Philly, he learned that the secret to a proper Old Fashion was a mix of Angostura and Orange bitters. In New York, he learned that the best martini relies on the perfect balance of good (fresh) vermouth, the right gin, and a twist (fuck an olive). And now, here he was after all these years ordering the most cliche drink in the keys: a Hemingway Daiquiri. “Still,” he thought, “when in Rome. After all, this isn’t the rum-running Key West of Captain Callaway. Hell, the entire ecosystem down here is nostalgia.”
He looked around the bar taking in all the old photos of “pirates” and poets. A few he recognized, but most were nameless faces that decorated the wall, in the same way, Italian restaurants plaster photos of Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra everywhere.
The cocktail was slid in front of him, an opaque white mixture of rum, lime, and sugar, and with one sip, Al understood why Papa loved these so much.
He pulled a cigar from his damp pocket, the tobacco a little more moist than when he bought it. Hanging over the bar, just to the left of Hemingway holding a fish, was Churchill chewing a cigar with some quote stenciled in Courier. Al’s eyes were too weak to make out what the poster said, but he was sure he’d read the Prime Minister’s quote before.
He clipped off the end of his cigar with a cutter he had bought many moons ago in some old lounge in Florida. While countless numbers of sunglasses and pocketknives had come and gone, this stainless steel cutter had hung around.
Sitting the cutter down on the table, Al reached for the matches in his pocket, but he couldn’t find them. Front left, back right, nowhere to be found. He lifted his blazer to see if he had placed the matches in his coat pocket, but alas, they were nowhere to be found. It was then, again, the bartender swooped in with a butane torch.
“Gracias,” said Al.
“De nada,” answered the bartender, “what kind of place would this be if I wasn’t quick with a joke, or could light up your smoke?”
Al smiled, catching the reference. Clearly, this was not the first time the young man had worked an old-timer this way.
“Someplace you’d rather be?” Answered Al puffing on the tobacco to light the cherry.
“And give up Heaven? No way.”
“Heaven,” asked Al, “or Hell?”
This time, the bartender’s laugh was genuine, “Don’t worry, amigo, you’ll get used to the heat.”
“One drink at a time.”
The bartender released the hammer from the torch, nodded, and walked back to tend to another customer.
And, as he embraced the spicy-sweet smoke on his tongue and washed down the toxic burn with a splash of rum, he relaxed.
There was a time when Al was more of a Steppenwolf, and all of this would have seemed trite: the drink, the smoke, the coat, even the witty bartender all would have been lost on his younger self. Yet now, all these years later, Al couldn’t help but see the joy in the sun salted island.
And just as an old habit began to creep in, a thought that punctured the moment and almost sent him careening into deep thought, he caught himself and ceased to look for any deeper meaning.
Instead, he puffed his cigar and quelled the thought, sending it back down to the depths from which it came. This was not a time for thinking. This was not a time for pontificating or understanding. This was a time to drink and to smoke, a time to enjoy the vices of life.
He spun around on the stool to face the ocean, not that he needed to see it from that particular angle, the bar was, after all, surrounded on all sides by water. But, he slumped in his chair and looked out at the crashing waves.
He took another sip of his drink and sat it back down on the bar. Then, he pulled a worn copy of a spy novel from his pocket. Al was about halfway through the thin thriller, an indulgence he finally allowed himself: trash fiction. He found them to be to his taste. After years of trudging through the annals of great thinkers, he thought he had earned a few years respite of popcorn fiction. And yet, it was not at all the experience he had thought. There was no self-mockery, no rolling of the eyes, or shaking of the head. No, Al enjoyed every second of the book, from the sex mastering mistress to the epically scarred villain, Al could not get enough of espionage and murder.
And as the sun moved on and the waves crashed around him keeping time, Al drifted away to one exotic place after another and sipped his cliche drink at his cliche bar.
The Egg sat inconspicuously enough in the sitting room, a decorative piece practically camouflaged in the corner, a mere accent to a painting by an artist the host had long forgotten.
Guests uninitiated to the art of antiques gave little regard to its unobtrusive placement. People came and went as the priceless artifact gathered dust.
Year after year, the Egg disappeared into the background: unnoticed, unacknowledged, unappreciated. Until one night, a gentleman of an indiscriminate age sat alone, recoiled from the party one swizzle too deep into depression.
It was his custom to remove himself from social gatherings once his cloud set in, brought on by the spirit and years of practice. In his early days, he would try and mask his grey color. Eventually, he grew weary of the inevitable questions that would follow: what’s the matter? Are you alright? You look as if something is troubling you?
He could never explain to the inquirer that nothing was the matter, that he wasn’t drunk (although, sometimes he was), and he would be fine once the melancholy passed. It was on this fateful evening that he had found a guard against his pain, a shield he had picked up from a magazine or a blog or some indistinct article that had now molded into the abyss. And while the source had dissolved into nothingness, the point remained: name your pain.
If you can name something, you can control it. And so he had. And so he did. And while it did not lessen the sinking feeling of guilt, it provided him a safety net of sorts, softening his landing.
Now, he found himself, alone, in the sitting room of the vast Southern home. His hosts were gracious and warm, a pair of high school sweethearts that had grown into a success. While their budget had grown, their tastes had not.
The house was a hodgepodge of Southern living, the sort of tasteful collage of ideas that represented impulse and magazine ads. Everything looked right. The couch matched the carpet, matched the coffee table, matched the paintings. Unweathered books adorned the shelves, carefully crafted magazines littered the tables, but the entire setting was devoid of personality.
Still, no one seemed to mind, that is, except our hero. He found himself transfixed on this one decorative piece.
Did they know what they possessed?
It must be a fake.
He looked around to make sure no one was watching him and made his way to the Egg. At first, he dared not touch it. If it were real, the mere pressure of his hand could destroy the delicate porcelain, the thinnest layer of bone China and calcium phosphate.
The artisan had crafted the Egg to be admired, never handled. Part of the mystique of the antique was that it had to be carried from a ring at the top, which balanced the pressure evenly throughout the piece.
His face reflected back in the ivory between the delicate brushstrokes of blue. A scene of no importance played out along the equator, families moving about a small English countryside. Yet, hidden within the portrait was a series of puzzles that would rival the greatest alchemist’s codex.
Letters that transformed into mountains, symbols that morphed into faces, and accents that held untold treasures.
And yet, here was this masterpiece of myth in a sawgrass McMansion, owned by a pair of day-trippers who couldn’t distinguish between Monet and Manet.
His palms were sweaty, his shirt drenched. The house was cooled to a frigid degree, but his heart raced at the sight of the Egg.
Lust filled his heart. He had to have the Egg. They were not worthy of such art, which only served to accentuate a reprinted painting from Bed, Bath, and Beyond.
At first, he thought he could undersell the couple, explain that he loved the antique, and had always wanted one. Offer them a substantial amount, far more than they paid for it at whatever roadside store they had picked it up from by accident, but far less than the items worth.
But what if he gave away his intention? What if he revealed the Egg’s real value? Far worse than the item sitting on this undeserving mantle would be this couple rushing to Antiques Roadshow and becoming overnight celebrities, the finders of the Lost LaRue.
No. For that, he would not stand. So he decided, in the moment, to steal the Egg. His hosts would not even notice it missing. It would not take any excellent planning, no heist worthy of Hollywood. He would simply walk out the front door with the Egg suspended from a hook.
“Edgar!” shrieked a voice behind a hand on his shoulder.
In his fantasy, he had lost all track of time. The voice pierced his dream like a bullet through glass. He turned to face the gracious face of his host, a fair featured woman of thirty.
“What are you doing here?”
Had she suspected? What right had she to ask such an invasive question.
“The party has moved outside.”
Relief plummeted through his body. She suspected nothing. She merely wished him to return to the others. A lie soaked in truth slipped from his mouth and put the host at ease. She offered to refill his drink and then said she would return him to the party.
He smiled and allowed her to take his glass, and as she walked from the room, his gaze returned to...the stone?
Where the lost LaRue had once stood, a Faberge egg of the most delicate race, was a crude mass-produced mantle topper.
What trick is this?
He looked around desperate to find a thief in his midst. Perhaps his host had distracted him, noticing his lustful gaze on her priceless artifact.
No, sank his mind. There never was a LaRue.
A hollow smile returned to his face as his host guided him back to the party. As they walked out the French doors, wine in hand, he cast one look back towards the Egg. For a blink, it was a LaRue again, an adventure thrusting him forward, casting him as a great cat burglar. In the next, the Egg dissolved into cold, hard plaster: reality.
Jack was a drunk, that’s about the nicest thing you could say about him. At his best, he was merry and jovial, the sort of Falstaffian character we all love to be around in a pub. At his worst, he was deviant and destructive, the final destination all drunks inevitably make their way to.
Yet, Jack’s reputation for drink extended into every surrounding shire. He was known, not just for his ability to put away pints, but for his craftiness. What he lacked in work ethic, he made up in craftiness. After all, all addicts will tell you, when it comes to scoring your next high, there is nothing you are not willing to do.
Locals were warned. They knew that once Jack ran out of coin, he would turn to whoever was next to him for his next ale. His shiftiness was unmatched. In his youth, his charm and good looks were enough to lure people in. You would be having a good time with your new friend, and when it came time to settle up with the barkeep, you found an exorbitant tab and no Jack; however, once the drink took its effect on Jack’s body, his looks faded. Yet, that did not stop his mind from sharpening. He was quick. He was funny. He was manipulative.
So, in his age, Jack turned to travelers and tourists, giving them a real taste of Ireland, and the story of the town drunkard traveled far and wide. Some people told the story warmly, the time they were conned by an old Irishman named Jack into paying his bill. Others, rightfully so, were more bitter at a barfly taking advantage of their goodwill.
Needless to say, Jack’s reputation as a dreg of society spread far and wide. Names began to attach themselves to his surname: Stingy Jack, Drunk Jack, and Flaky Jack.
Then, one fateful night, the story of Jack reached a particular bar patron.
A handsome, well-dressed man stopped in to have a pint at a tavern where a few locals were swapping stories of the time Jack swindled them into picking up the check. Rather than being appalled, the traveler was impressed by the reputation this “Jack” had garnered. It appeared as though he was quite the silver-tongued devil, almost, some would say, enough to rival “the” silver-tongued devil.
The man closed his tab, thanked the bartender, and then stepped outside into the sharp autumn air. The chill of winter was beginning to settle in, but the colors of fall littered the cobblestone pavement.
There, just outside the tavern, the man lit his pipe and waited.
Eventually, Jack came stumbling down the uneven path, in a familiar drunken stumble that is easy to recognize but hard to imitate. The well-dressed man grinned, emptied his pipe, and tucked it away into his coat.
As Jack approached the entrance to the tavern, he noticed the man. At first, he saw a mark. The tailored clothes and top hat made the man look out of place in a town known for agriculture and community, just the sort of guy Jack could swindle into a drink or two.
But before Jack could ask the man for a pint, the well-dressed met Jack’s gaze with an unmistakable grin.
“Hello, Jack,” said the man in a raspy voice.
Though he had never heard it before, it was the unmistakable voice of Lucifer.
Fear shot through Jack. He always knew this day would come, but he never thought it would go so soon. Despite the fog of a night of drinking, Jack’s mind was as quick as ever.
Before the devil could make Jack a bargain, the old lush thought up one of his own.
“How ‘bout a pint, Satan? One for the road.”
It was true, thought the Great Deceiver, Jack was a charming soul. Just the kind of soul he’d love to own.
“Sure. One for the road.”
But as every drinker knows, one is never enough. Perhaps almost as famous as the story of Stingy Jack is the story of their night of drinking.
As we all know, the Devil loves a challenge, and as the pint glasses mounted up, so to did their tab. Drink after drink, shot after shot, Jack and the Devil toasted the night away.
Eventually, the night dissolved into the morning, and it was just the two men and the demon in the bar. It came time to close up. Naturally, Jack didn’t have a penny to his name and asked if Satan would pick up the tab.
True to his name, thought the Devil, reaching into his purse to pay for the bill.
“Now hang on a minute lad,” said Jack, “this here particular barkeep doesn’t believe you are who you say you are. He knows me, he’s seen me belly-up to the bar a many a night, and tell many a tall tale to a many a wayfarer, and I want him to account for everything that’s happened tonight. Is there anything you could do to prove your salt?”
The Devil rapped his knuckles on the bar, weighing Jack’s request. Satan was impressed by the tactic. Jack was true to his reputation to the end. Even in the face of death and damnation, Jack did not falter.
“Could you metamorphose yourself into something? Like, thirty pieces of silver?”
Again, the Devil weighed his options. He could just pay the tab and take Jack to Hades. But why pass up the chance to show off? It would, perhaps, push the poor bartender to make his peace with God, but it was just one soul.
So, the Devil acquiesced to Jack’s request and transformed himself into the thirty pieces of silver to pay the bartender.
Jack seized the coins and placed them in his pocket, and there, surprisingly, in Jack’s pocket was the crucifix his mother had given him when he was a boy. The cross pinned the Devil to the wall, preventing him from morphing back into his human form.
If the Devil wished to escape, said Jack, then he would have to grant Jack ten more years on Earth. Then, Jack said he could collect his soul, and Jack’s debt would be paid.
Lucifer relented and granted Jack ten more years of nefarious living. After all, why do your work when you can have someone do it for you?
Ten years to the day, Jack bellied up to the bar, only to find the Devil himself waiting for him. This time he came in rags, dressed as an old sea dog.
He was ragged and worn, but when Jack attempted to make his move on the sailor, he found the same Cheshire grin and evil eyes. Jack’s ten years were up.
“No more crosses, no more deception, Jack. It’s time to pay your tab.”
But Jack was not done yet. He had at least one more trick in the bag.
“Then how about a game? One...for the road.”
The Devil was immediately intrigued. Games, after all, were his favorite past-time. Humans loved to risk their lives on winning.
“In the ten years since we last met, I’ve become the greatest drinker in the world. And I bet I can drink you under the table, this time.”
The Devil grinned. No one could out drink him, and he agreed to Jack’s game.
“You win, you get my soul for eternity, rapture, or not. I’m all yours. I win, you can never claim my soul. Deal?”
Jack asked for three pints and three shots of Irish whiskey, promising his seafaring friend would pay for the drinks. The barkeep relented and placed the spirits in front of the two men.
“Now,” said Jack, “here’s the bargain. I bet you I can drink three pints before you take three shots. But, because I know how you operate, you can’t touch your glass until I’ve finished mine, and you can’t touch my glasses, and to make it fair and to show you there’s no chicanery, I can’t touch yours. Agreed?”
The Devil nodded.
“Oh, and one more thing,” added Jack, “you got to give me a pint headstart? It’s only fair, right?”
The Devil thought for a moment and then nodded again.
Jack and the Devil took their positions, each poised to snatch the glass in front of them like sprinters at the starting line.
In a slash, Jack snatched the first ale and chugged it in two huge gulps. The Devil was impressed. He really was the best drinker in the world, but no matter. As the thought slipped from Lucifer’s brain into the ethos, Jack slammed the empty pint glass on top of the shot glass.
“See you around, pal!” exclaimed Jack picking up the other two pint glasses and heading to the other end of the bar.
The Devil relented, laughing. The sound chilled Jack to his bones, after all, he had just won, right?
Jack looked back and the old sea dog was gone, never to be seen again.
Yet, drink has a way of speeding the aging process. If it hadn’t been for the first bet, Jack would never have lasted ten years in the first place. This time around, Jack’s liver did not hold up, and Jack died as he lived, in drink.
Yet, that is not where to story ends.
To his surprise, when Jack died, he found himself at the pearly gates, and not the gates of Hell; however, once he tried to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, St. Peter denied his entrance, rolling out a list of deceptions and malfeasances longer than even Jack had expected. He was drunk, after all, when he had committed the majority of those deeds.
But bargaining is not part of the deal in Heaven. Just because you can craft a good defense in life, does not mean that you can wiggle your way through a loophole in death. And so, with no tricks left in his bag, Jack descended to Hell, where the Devil was waiting.
But this time, the Prince of Hell was not welcoming. Satan reminded Jack of their agreement, he could never claim his soul.
Laughing, Lucifer handed Jack a hollow turnip, and am ember from Hell.
“Show them the path,” said the angel, “and enjoy the roads from Heaven to Hell.”
And so, that’s where the old drunkard wanders, carrying the ember from Hell in the hollowed-out turnip, lighting the way to Heaven for souls, and the way to Hell.
And some people say when the fog is dense, and the moon is dull, you can see Jack wandering from town to town carrying his demonic lantern.
But maybe you’ve heard it a different way. Maybe Jack tricked the Devil into climbing up an apple tree. Maybe Jack was handed a radish instead of a turnip, or perhaps even a pumpkin, if pumpkins grow in your country.
And perhaps, that’s why this story sounds so familiar to you, because this is the story of Jack of the Lantern, or, better known today as, “The Jack-o’-Lantern.”
Brock D. Vickers
This is the beginning of a new part of life: a habit: an idea: a routine to dig at what makes a man great.