by J. Bateman
A modern tribute to Edgar Allen Poe's "Cask of Amontillado"
|The blade called “vengeance” is sharpened and honed with not a whetstone, but rather tools named “misery,” “torment,” and “malice.” Every slight against me, taken in stride at the time of the incident, has been remembered with the strictest sense of accounting. Rather than create an awkward moment by addressing each of Otis's personal or social trespasses, I merely have, as the good book has instructed, turn the other cheek. Without a doubt, Otis interprets one turned cheek, injured and red, as a new opportunity; surely, turning away the bruised side of the face only exposes another undamaged cheek. Every injurious behavior, every ruse, every unfortunate accident... I have remembered them all.
Engaging in the futile task of itemizing the multitude events that have led to this moment of perfect and righteous revenge would, dear reader, take many volumes. Surely, who has the time? The nature alone of Otis's misdeeds directed toward me are too many alone, ranging from schoolyard bullying, teasing, and name-calling to the more sophisticated injuries like theft, dangerous practical jokes, and assigning blame to me for his own misdeeds to escape punishment. Progressively, his antics matured to severe damage of my personal property, insulting and injuring my family and its good sensibilities, and women for whose honor I have stood gallantly. At his most extreme, Otis has been capable of crimes much worse, harming myself and those near and dear to me. On more than one occasion, a vehicle has been rendered undrivable, a pet has ceased to exist, a barn full of livestock failed to be remedied by the speedy action of the local fire department, and ultimately the courting-away of my one true love.
Otis is without remorse. He lives his life with much joy, traveling domestically and abroad, and settles locally on the family farm. No social gathering would be complete without Otis relegating his audience to stories of such questionable honesty from such faraway places that the simpletons, gathering up his thick tales as though his words were golden honey, could not ever possibly provide a suitable retort. When he bores from telling tales of his travels, he switches to stories about his wife, his love life, his money, his vehicles, or his general affluence and good standing in the social order of the small community. In truth, the only task he carries out with any authenticity is carrying his family's name.
So, Otis, no more shall I stand for a single iota of falseness. No more shall you injure me personally, socially, or emotionally. You shall have your very own cask of Amontillado.
The planning was simple. We lived in a small town of 2,000 people in the outskirts of a coal-mining community. The heat of summer had finally relented its hold on our days and the glimmer of autumn-to-come began to paint the leaves of the oaks, maples, and elms to the colors of death, letting the green pass out of them incrementally. The autumn festival had come! People from all around the county had traveled for the hopes of local music, fresh meats and vegetables, and unconsumable batter-covered items mounted on sticks and fried at temperatures that could only be described as disfiguring. Games of skill would bilk teenage boys out of chances to win plush merchandise for the ladies on their arms. Younger kids would exchange tickets for rides in rocket ships, miniature cars, and roller coasters.
Near the beer-stand I would find Otis undoubtedly maintaining the center of attention among mulletted shirtless worshipers. After a quick lap around the fairgrounds, I proceeded toward the odorous melodies of fried dough, cotton candy, fish n' chips, and corn on the cob. Just past the source of the culinary dispensaries were the purveyors of liquid refreshments. Looking past the elderly and the underage, I was able to make out a large crowd standing near one particular pavilion, adorned with colorful vinyl banners proclaiming the price for a plastic cup filled with room-temperature water-filled local beer. I stalked my prey and approached to begin the game.
“Otis! Friend! Back from Mexico, I see! And just in time for the coal festival. I wondered if you might not make it back in time this year!”
“I've never missed a single Coal Fest since I was old enough to walk. I wouldn't start now. How many chances do I get to hang out with this lot of merrymakers and social miscreants?”
“Well,” I digressed, “I, too, have been abroad, and I made a dubious purchase that I thought maybe, just maybe, you could help me to know if I bought wisely or if I was taken advantage of for being an American on foreign soil.”
He stepped away from the crowd, which carried on its' revelry in his absence. “What did you buy?”
“I am assured that it is authentic, but with my limited knowledge of such things I can't be sure. At any rate, it is a bottle of Absinthe. I purchased it at a street fair in England and had it shipped back to my home.”
“From a street fair? By what likelihood is it real? From such a place, surely it is not Absinthe; surely it doesn't contain wormwood!”
“I have my doubts. That's why I sought you. So that you could educate me on the subtleties of such an exotic liquor.” We began walking farther from the fair. The ambient noises were quieter, and the sun had almost fallen behind the stage where the band was setting up.
“Well, smart move on your part! There are many artificial Absinthe brands being sold in America now. None of them are authentic. You could just as easily find these fakes overseas sold for the price of the real item to tourists that have never tasted real Absinthe. Where is your bottle? Let us go to it at once!”
“I hoped that would be your proclamation, dear friend. I happen to have the bottle, along with a slotted silver spoon, some distilled water, and some sugar cubes in a cooler in the trunk of my Malibu. Shall we?”
Like two teenagers sneaking off to a party with the intent to drink underage, we two middle-aged adults quietly scampered off behind the bandstand toward my parked car. We stuck to the longest of the shadows provided by the oldest of trees for our cover in making our escape. We finally got to my vehicle just as the band started it's opening song, “American Pie” by Don MacLean. Inspired, we drove my Chevrolet Malibu to the levee of the Kaskaskia river less than a mile away, from where we could enjoy the Absinthe in secrecy and still watch on one side the goings-on of the fair, and on the other side the flow of the river, high on its banks after an unusually wet summer.
We sat in the front seat of the car with the engine off. The windows were down, and we could hear the echoes of the band some distance below us.
“Absinthe, if it's real, has a tendency to get you severely intoxicated very quickly, you know,” I challenged.
“Well, be sure that I'm very skeptical that you have indeed come into a real bottle of Absinthe, so I have precious few concerns about my ability to maintain my composure after but a taste. I am blessed with remarkable tolerances for alcohol, and I dare any man to step before me with a claim that he can hold more!”
As he entered my snare, I opened a bottle of Jaegermeister. I took a sip, made a sour face, and passed it to him. “Let's see what you can do with this, then, while I open the Absinthe.”
He accepted the bottle and drank mightily from it, then passed it back. We exchanged the bottle back and forth until it was empty, a process taking not much more than five minutes. I was starting to feel the effects of such high potency liquor in such volume. I was unsteady, and he was doubly so, for he had been drinking beer prior to our encounter, and I made sure to drink much less of the Jaegermeister than he did.
“So where's the bottle of Absinthe? You told me there was Absinthe!” he bellowed, unsteadily pointing his finger at no one in particular.
“Coming, coming... don't rush a good thing. Here, light this and get it going while I pour the bottle.” I handed him a meticulously rolled joint made of my favorite exotic strain of marijuana. Prior to rolling such an instrument, the buds were soaked in formaldehyde.
We stepped to the trunk of the car. I pulled out the bottle and showed it to him. “Oh, my! This is the real thing! This is from one of the most respected distilleries in all of Europe.” I set the cooler on the ground and placed two glasses upon the lid. He began to light the joint and inhale the vapors deeply as I poured. The silky texture of green lace danced into the bowl of each glass, swirled, and settled. The light of the moon hinted at emeralds in the sand. I placed a cube of sugar onto the spoon and dissolved it by pouring the water over it. The sweetened liquid dripped through the slots of the spoon into the green pool below, turning it a ghostly milky white color when the mixture met the liquor.
“That's it! That's the sign that the wormwood is present! When the water turns the Absinthe pale white, you have it! Oh, my... I must confess... I have only read about this. I have never tasted it. Can we? Can we drink it?”
I prepared the second glass and offered him the first. After smelling the aroma of liquorice wafting from his glass, he took a delicate sip, followed by a powerful glass-draining gulp. I offered him the bottle, and he drank a straight shot of Absinthe.
“Oh, God! Is this going to make me hallucinate? Please... you need to do something. Make sure I don't hurt myself or anyone else. I don't feel right.”
“Sure, Otis. Wormwood is powerful, and after that joint and all the Jaegermeister and the beer, it's likely that if you keep drinking the Absinthe you'll start to hallucinate just like the artists and writers of Paris did back in the day. I'm not going to rob you of such a powerful experience, my friend, but I'll protect you from harm. Here, get into the car so that you can't walk around anymore. I have a bit of rope to bind your hands with so that you don't get the urge to fight or to drive.”
Otis got into the car and offered up his wrists, which I bound tightly with the rope. “But I can still drive like this, if I was so inclined.”
“You're right. Get back out of the car. Ok now shut the door. I'm going to tie your hands to the steering wheel through the window so you'll still be tied to the car but incapable of operating it. Better?” Clumsily and drunkenly, he agreed that this was the most eloquent solution.
I continued to pour Absinthe down his throat and continue to supply him with the formaldehyde-laced joint. He fell to the powers of the toxic chemical cocktail he had ingested at my insistence, and was near falling asleep. He moaned and groaned about how scared he was, and how sick he felt, and that if only I'd let him, he might just die. He thanked me for making sure that didn't happen.
Amidst his ill-sounding speechless stammering, I assured him that I would take care of him by taking the keys from the car. Through the passenger seat, I reached the keys in the ignition and turned them forward, unlocking the steering column. I knocked the shifter into neutral and retreated from the Malibu.
“You're safe as long as the police don't come up here and find that joint on you. Plus that bottle of Absinthe could put us both in jail for the night. Help me push the car off of the levee.” I began to push. He couldn't push at all, and could no longer judge direction or logic. He merely walked alongside the car, tied to the steering wheel, as it rolled from my pushing.
Soon, the laws of physics took over. The car gave way to gravity and rolled straight down the levee. Otis was pulled helplessly along and by the time the car hit the water he was so badly bruised and scraped and incapable of speech that he could merely react to the greater pre-determined mission of the automobile. Slowly, the interior compartment filled with the rushing brown water of the flooded Kaskaskia and I bode farewell to both my car and it’s reluctant passenger. In the distance, the sounds of “Sweet Home Alabama” carried from the fair.