by Simon Covey
I captured a memory in an empty mezcal bottle. I watched it crawl around the bottle tapping the glass with its mantis like claws. Hell was a state of mind, and I was in mine.
My friend had came to Des Moines for the weekend… we were going to have a guy’s night. I wanted to show him a little wine bar. The bar was ran by a Spanish student whose existence lived and breathed European culture. The bar had superb food and small local batch vintages.
I met my friend, Jin, at Cosco. I had been there the night before people watching. It was a different breed from the typical Walmart. Less swamp monsters and more garden gnomes sniffing the flowers and taking selfies next to Halloween figurines. I told him there was good wine, surprisingly. I had found it the night before. He bought a bottle for nineteen. His career had taken off in recent years. He was an engineer working in refrigeration. When we both had started in the working world our pay was similar, now he made close to six figures. He didn’t mind footing the bill. He was a generous sort, especially with his friends. We didn’t plan on debauchery. It was supposed to be a nice weekend eating good food and drinking fine wines. That was the plan anyway. We popped open the wine from Cosco. We had a glass each. It was a nice cherry, raspberry, smooth, and a silky finish. It was a nice table wine. For a meal, not much else. I ate a psychedelic mushroom he had brought along. He had gotten the mushrooms from a former classmate friend. His friend was going to share some spores. Jin and I were going to go into business together. I told him I’d push it. Mushrooms was a product I could believe in. We headed to the wine bar.
The place was dead. There wasn’t a single soul there besides the ghostly little owner with his spectacles and his pip squeak voice. The owner sounded static. Too much wine and too much song the night before. Jin and I took a seat at the bar next to the record player which sat silent. I wanted jazz. I wanted to hear that needle cackle against the vinyl. The owner put a record on before I had to ask. My pants ripped when I slid my ass on the stool. I had patched them months before. My sewing job wasn’t any good. We ordered a glass of wine from the Rhone region in France. The water there tasted clear, clean even. The wine was composed of a strong black pepper note and a forward currant. I recommended Jin get an order of gildas. A gilda was anchovies, a yellow pepper, Spanish olives, kalamata, and a thin slice of baguette. He liked it. It was around this time I realized I had forgotten my passport. My license had expired. I needed the passport if I was asked for id on the way into the casino.
We went back to the house. I changed pants and got my passport. We ate a mushroom each. He decided to take a baggy with a round Oreo of molly. We were finally ready for the casino. I had him take backroads. I had the superstitious belief that by taking the backroads the casino wouldn’t see you coming. Not that it mattered. Every person that came to the casino besides the very rich was invisible. I imagined it to be like a living thing. In some ways it was, it had its own culture, it had little independent cells that worked together to keep the visitors poor and their master rich. It was like a fire breathing dragon sitting on a pile of gold. It always got its money back in the end.
Jin had a strategy for the roulette table. I didn’t want to gamble. I had my share of gambling when I moved here. I had gotten my confidence raised by a small little river casino. I had been on a monthlong winning streak. Shit, I was so full of myself I bought an eight-hundred-dollar chain. It was on sale for four hundred, but I was out of a job. I had quit my job to move to Ankeny before I had found another. The plan was the same every day. I went to gamble the same time every day. The place was filled with professional gamblers. The geriatric youth spinning the slot machine wheel to make nickels and dimes. They had nothing better to do. They had worked their entire lives saving and saving. I would get to one hundred and twenty and leave. I’d get close to a day’s pay and leave. It worked most days. I was disciplined. I deviated from that plan when I got to Ankeny. I was lucky. I wanted to see how far I could push my luck before the casino got my number. It didn’t take long before my head was aglow with the glow only a loser knows. The glow felt when the loser started to win. Down on my luck I pushed my luck with any other sort of crimes.
I got a little money out. I didn’t want Jin to play alone. I hit on a slot machine. I usually didn’t fuck with slots, but I wanted the casino time to be over. I figured I’d either win or blow. I won a hundred. I didn’t leave like I was supposed to though. I played on. I joined Jin at the electric roulette table. I placed a bet. I got ahead one hundred. I had to keep pushing. The tide started turning. I bet bigger wagers. It wasn’t long before I was losing money. I cashed out when I lost back to the amount I had started with. For some inexplainable reason. I put my cash into a slot machine and ran it down to half the amount. Jin, like the good friend he was tried to help me get my money back with his strategy but the casino had my number. One thing it could never take away was friendship. I walked away with my head still high. We went to watch the quarter horses. We had originally wanted to place some bets, but we were past that now. We imagined instead what it would be like to have the kind of money it took to own one of the lesser horses even. A million dollars likely went into each horse. A million would last me for life.
After the races were through, we decided it was time at last to leave the casino. I wanted to show him a little hole in the basement gothic bar in the East Village. The East village had all the little hip joints. The bar had good existentially themed mixed drinks. The bar was dead. There were two bartenders preparing for the night. Any other time I had came here it was packed. Jin kept saying it wasn’t what he expected. He was shocked by how small it was. That made it cozy. The best part was it was as dark as night lighted by red Christmas bulbs. I was anxious. The shrooms were starting to turn on me. The bartender asked what’ll have. I was sweating. That was the first comment outta his bald, big mouth. He had one job and that was to shut up. He wanted to talk about my beanie and demin jacket attire. I knew it was too hot, but I liked the look for the night. Besides, I thought it would get colder—it was fall after all. I ordered mezcal with spicy dirty dish water. At least that was how it tasted and by getting a good feel from the bartender it would be a safe bet it was. My brain was locked I don’t know what I said as a response. All I know was it didn’t make any fucking sense. My brain was too slow jarred between prescription drugs to keep my feet planted and the shrooms trying to get my lead feet off the ground. I told Jin let’s get a table. There was nobody there yet. We had our pick of tables. I picked a table in the corner. I sat the menu up to block view of me. I used this blind spot to carve my and my girl’s initials with a plus sign. I felt like my old Tom Wait’s days again. I hated that time. I imagined I was somehow sophisticated, but I couldn’t handle a simple small talk conversation flow. I was a joke. I was a clown with a beanie. I sucked down my drink.
I asked Jin if he wanted to go back in time to a nineties arcade bar just down the street. He didn’t want to go there. He said it was the sorta place that ate away the time but leaves you unsatisfied. But I wanted to go there for the pizza not the games. The arcade bar sold giant New York style wedge pizza. I got pepperoni. My daughter had taught me how to enjoy pepperoni pizza. Before I only liked sausage. I wolfed down my pizza. It came outta the microwave hot. I went to take a piss. I stood at the wall and looked over the scribbled messages without reading them. I was doing my best not to look at the man’s penis at the urinal stall next to me. There was always the curiosity what another guy was packing. It was always a little flex not being able to see their penis. That meant mine was bigger. Or at least from my point of view.
When I got out of the pisser to my horror Jin had bought ten dollars-worth of arcade tokens. It was two for one night, so he got double the amount. It would take us all night. The bar was a monument in time before technology dominated our lives before we were pulverized into oblivion by the oversaturation of connection. It was a carnival of nightmares. We started at the skee-ball. After a few rolled rounds, we descended into the bowels of the underground. The basement smell of stale beer and mildew. I was transported. All it needed was a cute little minx. There was one just passed me handing out beer to the people. I didn’t want a drink. My mind was swimming between the Mario mushroom I had eaten and the mezcal drank. The mix was toxic. Too all over the place worse of all I was on the downers from a prescribed upper. I had ran out a few days prior. Two to be exact. I wanted to go back to the wine bar. But we needed to run through the tokens. I led him over to the Xmen game. That one ran through tokens quick. There was a price each level down. The coin use increased as you died easier. That was the point obviously. If you wanted that reward, you’d have to spend the money.
We played every other game until we got bored. The problem was there was still tokens. Tokens meant money to blow. We picked an aerial shooter player. It ate the coins faster than the Xmen which was likely why nobody played it. We got bored and went back to the upstairs skee-ball. One of the machines broke. The owner was fixing or attempting to fix the machine. The owner a middle-aged woman with sandy colored hair informed us there were three more machines downstairs. We had already knew that we were trying to escape the hell that was the nineties. We started rolling balls again. My anxiety was growing. The machine I picked was also broke. It kept shooting out balls. It was giving away free games. It defeated the point, but I couldn’t help but to take advantage of the free games. I was playing awful. I kept rolling the ball and it rolled back to me again. The effect without win, without loss was torture. There had to be a point. When in fact there was no point at all. The game was the simple act of trying to roll a ball into a hole. No one can tell me that the game was essential to survival. The cute little minx asked if I was okay or if I needed anything. I didn’t need another drink. A drink was the last thing in the world at that moment I needed.
“No, I’m not alright,” I shouted, “I am in the middle of an existential crisis.”
She went wild eyed and became afraid. What psycho yelled about an existential crisis at a worker trying to get through their shift without suffering too much abuse. She recoiled in horror as if I had sexually harassed her. She didn’t want to think about her own existence. But that was like telling someone not to think of something while commanding them not to.
“Good luck with that.” She fled.
Jin had a good laugh. People were not aware. I was there to wake them up. Or at least that was what I told myself. We went back to the aerial shooter and used up the rest of the coins.
The nineties nostalgia had ate all our time. I suggested to go back to the Black Sheep. The suggestion was met with disdain. Jin didn’t care for mezcal. I liked mezcal and tequila. It took my mind somewhere else to a new plane. I took him to a mixed drink seventies tiki lounge called the Bellhop. I ordered a pistachio drink called pillow talk. I didn’t understand the name. Jin didn’t much like the place. He said the drink was too rich, too sweet. We left.
When we got back to the car, Jin put in the directions to the wine bar. It was closed. We decided to eat another mushroom. I broke the molly in two and handed him the other half. The other time I had taken molly I didn’t feel anything other than an increasing frustration with one of dudes I was around. Jin was at an elevated state at this point. He was drumming up ideas. He wanted me to succeed at some endeavor. The writing wasn’t panning out. I wasn’t worried. It would happen when it happened or if it didn’t it didn’t change anything. Success was a seven-dollar word, I had a few cents. I didn’t have room for any sort of nonsense. I had a child and was expecting another. My adventure days were nearing the end. I was going to be a responsible adult. This was a last hurrah. And that was okay. We were chasing a high that we had felt before. As any drug addict knows, that initial high never comes back. It was like biting the waves before they crashed against the sand.
We drove back to my new place. I topped off the wine glasses with the remains of the bottle from earlier. We ate two more mushrooms. I was spent, but I felt I had to keep entertaining after all he was a guest. I decided to put on some vinyl. We sat in the dark silence and listened to the solemn wails of Bob Dylan and Tim Buckley. I cracked open a window to let in the autumn air. The high never came. The night air felt good on our skin.