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.
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.