SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
July 24, 2016

Monomania

 

You know how it works. I was a little drunk, it was comparatively late for me, and I was puttering around the apartment. The radio was on, and I half-caught a snippet of what sounded like a Middle Eastern pop song. There was something in the hook, though, that got stuck in my head like a hot BB. I knew it, and I knew I knew it, and I knew it didn’t originate in any damn Middle Eastern pop song. It was older than that. Again, you know how it goes. That hook, just eleven easy notes, began swirling around and around in my head as I did the dishes, trying to force it through to the next note, a word from a lyric, anything that would reveal the original source. What the hell was the name of the song? No other thought would be able to gain a foothold until I had it, and lord knows I wouldn’t be able to sleep until my mind could relax again.

            Those notes circled in a tighter and tighter orbit as I started making wild guesses just to be done with it. For a few brief seconds I thought it might’ve been Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs,” or maybe something by the Tiger Lilies, but no. Christ, what was it? I had the sense I was getting closer somehow, more of a shadowy form was emerging from the darkness. A vague sense of the instrumentation, anyway. But fuck all what was it? My stomach was starting to clench up. This was madness. I had to make it stop somehow.

            Then, maybe triggered by the flow of warm water over my hands as I rinsed the dishes (always seems to work for me), it hit me. It was the opening theme from the Fifties Lone Ranger TV series, when they stopped using the William Tell Overture for some reason and went for a dreadful narrative song instead. But yeah, that was it, so I could relax again. How that hook had found its way into a Middle Eastern pop song was none of my concern. It had only taken half an hour, which may be a new record. All I can say is thank god my brain remains little more than a depository for worthless and stained bits of shattered cultural flotsam.

            Somehow, though, the ordeal got me to remembering an encounter of sorts from earlier that morning. To my mind anyway they remained closely linked.

            It was a little after ten when I finally found the entrance to the liquor store. Positioned as it is in the middle of the block, it always takes a few tries, a few dead ends no matter how many times I’ve been there, but I’m persistent. I pushed the door open, stepped inside, walked a couple of yards straight ahead, and stopped. The counter was to my left, but considering the store featured so many randomly placed and teetering displays of expensive hooch in glass bottles, well, it was just better I stayed put and let the clerks come to me. No need to turn the trip into a scene from W.C. Fields’ It’s a Gift, right?

            First time I went in there, some six years back or so, it was winter. I was wearing my ratty and torn trench coat and a gray fedora that had likewise seen better days. “I would like!” I announced loudly after stepping through the door and planting the cane firmly in front of me. “Your cheapest bottle of rye, please!” For some reason they’ve been very nice to me ever since.

            My mission that morning was much less dramatic, It was too hot out for dramatics, and almost too hot for cheap rye. It sounded like I’d have to wait a minute though, as the fey and patient clerk was doing his best to help another customer.

            The customer, it sounded like, was a hulking, disheveled figure in his sixties, whose accent was a strange and phlegmy blend of Russian and East Indian.

            “I want Georgi!” the man announced. “You got Georgi?”

            I felt my stomach lurch to the right a bit. Christ, Georgi, the cheapest and ugliest of all vodkas. They didn’t make it from potatoes, or even potato skins, but those weird alien tendrils that sprout out of potatoes left in a drawer way too long. That’s why it cost about seventy-nine cents for a half-gallon. Georgi is a liquid hangover and nothing more. If you ever see anyone willingly drinking Georgi, you know you’re either dealing with a stupid kid who doesn’t know any better, or a forsaken juicer who does, but has no choice in the matter. It’s also a forsaken type who’s well on his way out of the game. Christ, you have to be pretty far gone to drink anything out of a plastic bottle.

            “I’m afraid we don’t have Georgi,” the clerk explained. “but we do have other vodkas, if you care to look at this shelf over here.” I heard him step from behind the counter, and the man shuffled after him a few feet. “We have Smirnoff, and Absolut . . . ”

            “Georgi. I want Georgi.”

            “I’m afraid we don’t have Georgi.”

            “I talk with someone. They say you get it in.”

            “No, I’m sorry, we don’t carry that.” It sounded like his patience was wearing thin, but he was still doing his best to maintain that fey and patient demeanor. The fact they didn’t carry Georgi didn’t surprise me at all—they didn’t even carry Wild Turkey. Guess it was just that kind of place.

            “You told me you had Georgi.”

            “No, I told you we don’t have Georgi. Look, the Smirnoff here is just seven ninety-nine.”

            “What is?”

            “The Smirnoff.”

            “How much the Georgi?”

            Oh, there but for the grace of god, I’m telling you.

            “We . . . don’t have . . . Georgi.”

            Another clerk came up from the back of the store to ask if I needed help, and I nearly waved him away. I wanted to hear how this was going to turn out. I quickly told him precisely what I wanted, and he went away to pull it off a shelf in the back. Meanwhile, what was turning into a bit of classic radio comedy seemed to be winding down. Something, somewhere and somehow had leaked into the man’s deeper consciousness, and he finally accepted the fact there was no Georgi in the cards for him today. I considered for a moment suggesting he try the liquor store two blocks away on the other side of the street, but thought that might be bad form, sending a would-be customer to the competition. Or maybe they’d give me a free bottle in gratitude. It was a moot point, though, as my drunken monomaniacal friend here had relented and agreed to go with the Smirnoff.

            The clerk brought it to the counter and rang it up. “That’ll be eight sixty-six.” The man handed him a ten-spot, and the clerk counted his change back.

            “Wait,” the man said. “Why is this? You say seven ninety-nine. I give you ten.”

            “That’s the tax,”

            The man pondered this for a long and silent moment. “You pay tax?” he finally asked.

            “What?”

            “You pay tax?”

            “Umm, I pay my taxes, yes. But this is the sales tax you need to pay on this.”

            “Don’t pay taxes. I know.” the man said, and for a minute I thought we were about to enter act two, where he demanded he not be forced to pay tax on his bottom shelf vodka. Instead, he was merely making some kind of muddy political point. “You shouldn’t pay taxes. Nobody pays taxes. I know.”

            With that, he grabbed his bottle of slow death (slower than the Georgi, anyway) and headed for the door. It took him a very long time. I edged closer to the counter, still waiting for the other clerk to show up with my bottle. Once I heard the bells jangle over the door and knew he had left, I turned to the clerk, who I must say did a yeoman’s job there. “Georgi’s the devil,” was all I said.

            “Oh God, it’s terrible,” he replied.

 

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