High West Campfire Whiskey, Part 1
When an open mic becomes a litmus test of your emotions, you know you’re in a bad state.
When a performer’s set is good, I become heartsick with nostalgia. They’re hungry and talented and young. Meanwhile, when a set sucks, I’m equally adrift. What am I doing here among musicians half my age? Who am I fooling? If I haven’t quote-unquote made it by now — whatever that means — what am I chasing?
The bar’s expanded their whiskey selection, thank God. I order something I haven’t tried before — a blended concoction of bourbon, rye, and scotch calling itself Campfire Whiskey. I order it with the image of stories shared in a tight warm circle. Camaraderie and crackling wood. Falling embers and a western sky. Stars. Space. Possibility.
What I taste instead baffles me. It is a whiskey blended in reverse. If we are to believe in logic, in an artfully crafted narrative, the Scotch should hit the palate first, with its potent nose and subtle notes. Then the rye should arrive, with its spice and fire. Then, finally, the bourbon should take us home — with its punch-to-the-gut, tough love consolation.
However. With this blended whiskey, you get the bourbon first (bucking like a bronco), followed by the rye (the pseudo-peacemaker), which leaves us with the Scotch as a finale. Its medicinal finish makes one long for better days, which in fact occurred only moments prior with the bourbon. It’s as though a little kid’s been promised an afternoon at the rodeo only to end up in the dentist chair.
For all my blathering, I still order a second round, then a third. I ply each glass with ice and await the moment when the distiller’s missteps melt away.
I find Fiona’s number and text: “Coming tonight?”
She replies: “Hey! Where?”
“Open mic.” I wait a few seconds, then add, “I’m signed up.”
“Sry. On a date.” She adds a sad emoji.
“Is your date making you sad?” A pause on her end. “Did he bring up depression?” Another pause. “Always a mistake…” I finish my glass and try to catch the bartender’s attention — he’s avoiding me. “Playing an old song,” I text. “You’ll like it. It’s about sad things.” The ice collapses. “Bring your date.”
A man thumps a ledger book on the bar and signals for a beer. He’s balding with reddish hair, neither heavyset nor lean. His black button down exposes a grey tuft of chest hair.
“I can’t believe anyone still uses those,” I say.
“Tell me about it,” he says. “Just came on as manager. First order of business, get the last guy’s books in order.”
“Can’t be that hard. Math is math.”
He gives me an even stare. “This is gibberish.”
“Let me look,” I say, emboldened by the booze.
“No offense,” he says, “but you look a little sloshed.”
“Sober or not, I can add two and two together.” I suck on a piece of ice, drawing all the whiskey I can out of it. “It’s five, isn’t it?”
My new friend grins. I slide the ledger in front of me, the numbers take a moment to focus. Once they do, the 5% of me that’s sober jumps into action. He sips his lager, clearly okay not doing this himself.
“Question,” I say, pointing. “What’s the actual price for this?”
“Prices are right there.”
“They differ shipment to shipment.”
He follows my finger across the page. “Crap and creole,” he says. “They installed a new POS a month and a half ago, and apparently it was high science.”
“So, sometimes items are listed one way —”
“And sometimes the other, yeah.”
“Sorry to break it to you,” I say, “but the old manager didn’t even get it wrong consistently. The amounts are all over the place.”
He eyes me. “You’re not looking for a job, are you?”
I smile. “Sadly, no.”
“Hey,” he calls to the bartender, jerking a thumb my direction, “Whatever he wants this side of blackout.” We shake hands. “Take care, alright? See you back here real soon.”
Whiskey appears by magic. The next performer starts strong, then fizzles. I fuzzily think through my set.
Suddenly, Fiona is beside me, accompanied by a long-haired skeleton wearing leather and jewelry. “Hello stranger,” she says, mounting a stool. “Didn’t miss you, did I?”
[To be continued…]
This piece appears as part of a serialized fiction experiment by Nathaniel Kressen for At Large magazine. New installments are published weekly, each based around a different liquor.
Nathaniel Kressen is the author of two novels — Dahlia Cassandra (named Best of 2016 Fiction by Entropy & Luna Luna Magazine) and Concrete Fever (Bestseller, Strand Book Store) — as well as the co-founder of Second Skin Books and the leader of the Greenpoint Writers Group. He was commissioned by At Large magazine to publish his third novel in serialization — now available, with new chapters publishing weekly — titled My Life on Rye. And, as one half of the wife-and-husband team Grackle + Pigeon, he’ll be publishing a tome for modern living this fall — Blanket Fort: Growing Up Is Optional (William Morrow). You can find his work at nathanielkressen.com.