Poisoned By My Own Hand; Death By Chambord

The Royal Vial of Poison

It was the worst hangover I ever had.  And I’ve had a few over the years, but this one wins the gold.  The National Anthem plays, and I put my hand over my heart.  I humbly accept that I had something to do with its shining success.  I’m the man behind medal.

Lets see.  Beer, tequila, champagne, some wine in there, somewhere, then more beer and tequila.  A little weed to give the merry-go-round a good spin, then a cheap cigar.  Good party.  I loved everybody.  Everything was hilarious.  I came home and wasn’t quite done.  Just needed a little knick-knocker to bang the box closed.  Nothing to drink except an ancient bottle of black raspberry liqueur that I brought back from my grandparents’ house after they both had died.  Some shit called “Chambord.”

From Wikipedia:

“Chambord is made from red and black raspberries, Madagascar vanilla, Moroccan citrus peel, honey and cognac.

Chambord is produced on the premises of a traditional Loire Valley Chateau, using all natural ingredients. Whole raspberries and blackberries are steeped in French spirits for a period of several weeks to produce a fruit infusion. This infusion produces a distinct raspberry flavor and aroma.

After the infusion is extracted, a second set of spirits is added to the fruit and allowed to rest for a few weeks.  After this second infusion is drawn off, the remaining fruit is pressed to obtain the natural sugars and juice.  The fruit-infused spirits and juices from the final pressing are then combined, and finally, the berry infusion is married with a proprietary blend of cognac, natural vanilla extract, black raspberries, citrus peel, honey, and herbs and spices. The liqueur is 16.5% alcohol by volume.”

Oooh!  Sounds wonderful, especially that 16.5% alcohol part.  What they don’t mention in the article is that all that fussing and fruit-infusing produces a lethal toxin, and that drinking it will give you a hangover you’ll remember and write about almost twenty years later.

It came in a fancy bottle that looked like the orb a King holds to symbolize something symbolic, His Majesty’s Royal Thing.  I remember looking at this very same bottle as it sat on their shelf for over 30 years gathering dust.

I never saw anyone drink from it.  People must have been hip to it.  They must’ve have known it was death in a bottle.

I didn’t know that then.  All I really knew was that it was a bottle of booze, and I wasn’t going to let a perfectly good bottle of booze go to waste.  After my grandfather’s funeral, I threw it into my suitcase.  I was never much into liqueurs and shit.  Too fucking sweet.   If I want to drink something that tastes like cough syrup, I’ll drink cough syrup, thank you.

The bottle continued to sit on my shelf for another year or so gathering more dust.  I just kept it around.  Hey, you never know when you’ll need it.

Like right now.  I picked up the royal globus cruciger and uncorked it.  I quickly took four or five deep swigs to get it down before the taste hit.  The sickly sweetness made me want to retch.  Dear God, that’s some evil shit.  Who would drink this by choice?

It wasn’t long before the synergistic effect from introducing this unholy concoction into my already multifaceted drunk finally pushed me over the falls.  I stumbled over to my mattress and let myself fall face first.  Sweet holy oblivion!  The Universal Void!  Oh blessed dissolution!  My soul’s husk entombed in the dark City of Pyramids, where I shall dwell with no name, hooded and faceless, in the Desert of Desolation for eternity.

Then, almost instantly, a loud alarm clock.  Time to rise and shine, and give God your glory, glory!

I knew when I opened my eyes.  This was no ordinary hangover.  This was going to be special.  Today, I would become a man.  Calling in was not an option.  Not because of any heroic work ethic, but because my finances were strung so tight, any day’s pay lost would spell my doom.  I was $64 away from The Abyss.

I worked as a laborer for a local plumbing company.  Most of the time I just dug trenches and ran the jack-hammer.  The average day usually didn’t lack some brutal pain in the ass, but now it was winter and freezing cold.  Everything would have a little extra suck attached to it.  It had stormed three days earlier.  Santa Fe was covered with 6 to 8 inches.  I got Friday off because of the snow, so I was out of the blocks quick that weekend and had an early lead.

By Saturday night, I was at a world record pace.  Remember being 86’d from Luna.  Helping Marko push our car out of a ditch.  Being at some St. John’s party where we almost got into a fight with some visiting Dutch dudes that looked like The Bay City Rollers.  Eventful for sure, but we were on our A Game, and dealing effectively with what we had to deal with.  I was just navigating my way through a fairly typical week-end night.  Nothing yet to foreshadow the personal milestone I was about to be set.

It was the shindig at my friend Collette’s house on Sunday night that really propelled me to my bitter victory, and it was those last slugs of  Moroccan citrus peel and honey that pushed my nose across the ribbon.  I’m sure the Chambord assured that this Monday morning would become immortalized forever as my worst.

There was the most amazingly brutal, temple-banging headache, the kind that beats at the eyeballs so hard it jars them blurry.  My stomach was clenched in nausea.  Throat burning from bile.  Hands already beginning to shake.  I got out of bed, walked a few steps, then actually had to take a knee, like I had been chop-blocked.  Fuck me.  This is some new super strain of hangover.  After all, I wasn’t a little baby about alcohol poisoning at this point, but this kind of suffering was almost biblical.  This was very different.  Why?

Beer, wine, tequila, champagne, beer and tequila and beer.  Check.  Nothing amiss there.  Hmm.  Oh, the fucking Chambord.  That was the last, so that’s whose fault it was.  Chambord.  That’s the X factor in our equation.  Fucking Chambord.  From France.

I rode the walls down the hall to go outside and start the car up.  I walked out in my underwear and one sock.  I saw the lady across the street getting into her car to go to work.  She saw me, and I saw her, but neither of us waved.   The Olds Omega was a block of ice.  The door was frozen shut.  I got one foot up on the car and was trying to pull the car door open like it would make me the King of England.  I finally got it open and after a few dozen tries, got the engine to turn over.  I went back inside.

Breakfast was out of the question.  I took a shower and put on my Gumby suit, which is what Marko and I called our green, cold-weather coveralls.  I could only find one glove and settled for that.  One of anything is better than nothing, except maybe tumors and shit.  Or a hangover like this one.  None of it would be a lot better.  So much for that axiom.

I drove to the plumbing office late where Joe, yes, the plumber, was already waiting.  Joe was an ex-speed freak from Farmington, NM.  He wore his long blond hair in a single braid.  He could be cool sometimes, but more often was one of the most hateful and sarcastic bastards that ever crawled the earth.  I could forget about getting any sympathy from him.  It was all I could do to get him to stop at a drive-thru so I could attempt food.  He pulled into Hardee’s.

I hated Hardee’s but it was this or nothing, and except for tumors and a bunch of other stuff, something was always better than nothing.  I got the 99 cent hamburger and a small coffee.

We drove up towards the ski basin.  I pushed the burger down against a rebellious gag reflex and nursed the coffee.  We drove in silence for a while.

“Whew! You really smell like liquor,” Joe said, rolling down the window.

“It’s Chambord.”

“Well lah-dee-fucking dah!”

We drove up to the job site.  It was up by Hyde Park.  We were putting in a gas line to this multi-million dollar home belonging to an actress that starred in a terrible movie with Richard Dreyfuss.  They couldn’t get a back hoe in on the side of the steep rocky hill, so it was up to me to jack hammer up the rock, then pick and shovel a trench about forty feet across.  I had been working on it for three days and was only half the way there.

I had kept myself going by picturing myself in a Russian labor camp.  I used to pretend that I was The Iron Prisoner, a man doomed by fate to a life sentence of hard labor.  I would suffer silently and with dignity.  Resigned and resilient.  Bent but not broken.

When I climbed into that trench that morning, I was broken, and bent.  Joe had gone inside the house to top out some drains and left me to my misery.  I put on my glove and lined up the jack hammer on a cluster of rocks.  I was just about to pull the trigger when I let go, turned, and puked my hot coffee and 99 cent burger.  I watched it steam and sink into the snow.  Seeing that made me puke again.  Fucking Hardee’s.

After watching my two dollars disappear into a puddle of slush, I went back to the hammer and pulled the trigger.  All hell erupted in my skull.  A jack-hammer is an unpleasant tool to operate, even when you’re well-rested and in love with a beautiful woman, but hung over, poisoned to the pores, hating the very concept of existence, it’s…really…something.

I tried to picture myself in a cozy cabin sipping a pint of stout, with a nice roaring fire and a bi-sexual punk rock girl posing dirty for me on a bear skin rug.  Hell, even folding laundry in the garage would’ve been better.  Just about anything anywhere else than here now.  My suffering silently and with dignity was now being broken up with periodic puppy whimpering and weeping.

At one point, I thought about just ending it all.  I could lay down, put the chisel bit of the jack hammer in my mouth, then reach up with my foot and press the handle.  I would kill myself by jack-hammering a hole through my skull.  It seemed dicey, and if I didn’t pull it off, I’d be subject to teasing from the rest of the construction guys forever.  Nice idea though.  Maybe I’ll have a character in one of my stories do it.

I’d go as long as I could, then let go of the trigger handle.  I was sweating champagne and Chambord.  Dizzy and dry-mouthed, I’d cup a handful of snow and rub it into my face.  Looking around, I could see I was surrounded by absolute beauty.  We were up on spacious lot of land, with a lot of snow-flocked trees, and from the hillside, I could see all of Santa Fe below.  The sky was deep blue.  The sun bright.

The contrast to my inner landscape, the blighted, bombed out bummer within, was notable.  I remember thinking, “Wow, everything around me is beautiful, and that’s very different from what’s going on inside.”  Why was I always running away from Reality, when Reality looked better than the alternative I created?

My drinking was an escape, for sure, but an escape from what?   Was it from Reality?  Or just from the man experiencing it?

I put the hammer and the big questions aside, and took a few swings with the pick to break up the chunks.  I scraped what I could with the shovel and threw it over the side, then pulled the jack-hammer back up and resumed blasting away.   The open-minded punk rock girl was long gone by now.  Nothing left but bitter irony to chew on, and maybe some hopelessness from a hose to wash it down.

That was pretty much lunch since I didn’t bring anything to eat.  I spent it smoking a couple of cigarettes near a little fire one of the workers built in a fireplace.  After lunch it was back to the trench.  I was still pretty sick and the next four hours dragged.

I hammered and clawed and scraped and got to within seven feet of the end when Joe finally came out to tell me to roll it up.  I dragged the tools and my ass back to the van.  The headache and nausea were almost gone, but I was beat.  Joe finally finished talking to the foreman and got in.

“You look like shit,” he said.

“I’ve never felt better,” I told him, “That Chambord stuff must be some kind of youth tonic.”

He dropped me off at my car.  The left front tire was low.  I’d deal with that tomorrow.  I got in and drove to Kelly’s Liquors.  There was a sale on Beck’s.  I bought three six packs, just to be sure I didn’t Chambord myself again.

One thing I knew by then was that I couldn’t be trusted.  All day long I had been telling myself I’d never drink again, and here I was at Kelly’s again.  Just because I swore off Chambord, didn’t mean if I ran out of beer I might not be tempted to try it again, expecting different results.  Alcoholics are fucked up like that.  We never learn.

Well, almost never.  I never drank that poison again.  Eventually, I even managed to stop drinking.  But, it took a lot more than the worst hangover of my life to want to.  I had to really feel bad.

Am I dead yet?

The Laboring Laureate

The Great Writer

The jack hammer broke through the floor and almost pulled me into the basement with it.  I had been wrestling with its 90 lbs. of kinetic rage for years by then, but never learned to love it.  I named this particular pneumatic beast “Sciatica Rex.”  I yanked it back up, and pulled the trigger.  My brain rattled against the inside of my skull like a lychee nut in a paint can mixer.  I could feel my Mexican dental work shaking loose.  The two cigarette butts I had stuck in my ears hardly dampened the din.  It was 1:30am.  I was in an Italian restaurant at the San Busco shopping center.  My coke-headed boss had decided that this was the best time for me to be working on this.  That way the noise wouldn’t bother anyone, but me.

I didn’t care.  He was gone and I had a six-pack of beer to keep me company.  I knew that I would be up late drinking anyway, but now I had an excuse to sleep in a little longer.  Besides, I was in a good mood.  That night I was convinced that my writing would finally save me from the stupid, brutal life I was living.

I based this knowledge on the flimsiest of evidence.  A few hours earlier I had read some of my work at The Center for Contemporary Arts.  It was an open reading hosted by local poet, Joan Logghe.  My little bit seemed to go over well.  I got some laughs, and the applause was a notch or two above polite.   That was it.  That was the skinny little brad nail I had hung the entire weight of my world on.

There was only one way to propel myself through the malarial swamps of depression I was wading through, and that was to fart myself forward with clouds of self-delusion.  My hope seemed to come in crumb form.  When I did find a crumb, I tied on a big linen bib, lit a dinner candle, and sharpened the cutlery, before gnawing on it like the desperately hungry rat that I was.  So now I gnawed.

I thought about a woman who read some of her work that night.  Her poems were melodramatic and strange.  She did one about smashing sea shells with rocks while naming every broken relationship she’d had.  She seemed a little unbalanced, and volatile.  Not immediately attractive, she compensated for her fading beauty with accessories and heavy eye make-up.  That was fine.  We all do the best we can.  Outfit-wise, she was doing the gypsy thing,  and it worked for her.  Her hair was a little much.  She wore it frizzed up into a weird shape, sort of like an Ace of Spades.  She looked like Bride of Frankenstein meets Gloria Swanson meets Troll doll.

After the reading, she came up to me in the parking lot.  Her craziness seemed to electrify her with enthusiasm.  She told me she thought I was “a genius.”   This woman was clearly insane, but somehow she was beginning to look more attractive.  I pictured myself reading her my work while she sat topless on a milk crate, opening a bottle of wine.  I figured I could make it work.  I thanked her and told her I would see her around.

The jack hammer dropped through the hole again, but his time I was ready for it.  I pulled it back up in a swinging loop, and had it on the lip again in one move.  Very professional.  I seemed to do better when I felt better.  A smattering of applause and a compliment from a madwoman were enough to keep me going.

I had been writing off and on since I was a kid.  It was good to know my imagination was good for something other than torturing me with vivid fears.  However, I did notice that writing about stuff that really happened was more interesting than the stuff I could make up.  In my case, reporting the facts trumped creative fiction.  I just needed to make sure interesting stuff kept happening around me.  That was the part that was getting me into a lot of trouble.

The evening’s line-up was a mixed bag.  There was some good work, and some of the other kind, too.  Poetry is like milk, you either like it or you don’t, but when it goes south, it really stinks.

There was a guy that read just before me.  He wore a big cable-knit sweater and meticulously tousled hair.  I wanted to throw him a bar of Irish Spring to carve into while he flashed his dazzling smile to the lassies.  He read poems about love, or some version of it.  The women seemed to eat it up, but I saw through his vile little harvesting operation.

“My tongue dances slow lazy eights on your heaving porcelain pelvis,” he intoned.

I turned to my friend, Samantha, “And my finger crawls slowly towards the back of my heaving tongue.”  She reached into her purse and handed me another beer.

“Tender tear drop licked, aching wound, gently salted sadness, shuddering against the sheets…”

I nudged Samantha.  “I knew he was an abductor.  It’s the “sensitive” ones that you have to get restraining orders on.”

“Our writhing ecstasy twists in a torrid torrential torment, a brief eternal spasm, black velvet of oblivion descends…”

I knew plenty about the black velvet of oblivion, (and for my money it couldn’t come quick enough) but I would have never thought about putting “brief” and “eternal” together.  That was a limitation I put on myself.  As insane as I was, I still felt compelled to make sense when I communicated.  It seemed like in order to be a good poet I had to put that compulsion aside.  I needed to loosen the fuck up.  I was still a square.

The hole in the floor was big enough.  I lowered the work light, the beers, and the hammer, then climbed down into the basement.  I was surrounded by spider webs.  I had to blow a hole out of the side of the wall down there.  That meant holding the jack hammer sideways.  I swung the hammer up and started blasting.  As the dust blew into my eyes, nose and throat, I pictured myself on a Communist poster glorifying the working stiff.  I was building a brighter tomorrow.

That night I had decided to read a piece I wrote about Wayne, a guy I had met in the labor van taking us to work.  He fascinated me.  Wayne was a  blob of southern lard, but as eloquent as John C. Calhoun.  He was a living paradox.  He would sit there in his grimy wife-beater, sunburned belly peeking through the holes, and give symposiums in the van on subjects like convenience store chocolate milks.  He did this in a deep, sonorous, Southern defence attorney voice.

“This here Surefine brand of chocolate milk is an excellent chocolate milk,” he announced one morning, “It has an exceptional creaminess, and I appreciate that.”  He held the plastic bottle up for examination.  “The quality of creaminess is the characteristic by which I judge the various chocolate milks.  Now Hershey’s chocolate milk is, in my opinion, the creamiest brand, whereas I find Nestle’s Quik to be watery and sub par.  Chocolate milk should always be smooth and creamy. ”

I watched him take a deep slug.  He was really making me want some creamy chocolate milk.

“I look forward to the month of October in my native Florida,” he continued, ” Because October there is Hershey’s Chocolate Milk Month.  For the entire month, all the convenience stores in Florida sell quarts of Hershey’s brand of chocolate milk for a mere 99 cents!”

“Knowing Florida,” I said, “I bet that price holiday was state-legislated.”

“I’m not certain if that’s the case, but I do have to confess to consuming a lot of chocolate milk during the month of October in Florida.”

“I fucking bet.”

Another morning on our way to work, he offered me some gum.  “Would you care for a piece of Hubba-Bubba?” he asked.  I declined the Hubba-Bubba from Bubba.  “Suit yourself,” he said, popped a piece into his mouth and started chewing.  “Now this Hubba-Bubba brand bubble gum has a distinctly fruity flavor,” he said smacking his lips, “And I appreciate that.”  He then leaned towards me, and in an almost conspiratorial manner said, “You know, I have found that it really helps to have a fruity flavor in your mouth when you’re operating a jack hammer.”  He paused, and then delivered, with the dramatic poignancy reserved for the final words of a stage play, “It really does…it really does.”

He wistfully looks out the van window.  Lights fade.  Curtain falls.  I felt like I should stand up and applaud, but I just looked at him.  Who could make this shit up?

Anyway, just because I found Wayne so interesting, didn’t mean an audience would.  I was relieved to find they did.  They got Wayne.  It made me feel good for Wayne.  It made me feel good for me.  I had lots of stupid stuff like that to write about.  Maybe that was my purpose.  Maybe that was my way out.

I poked through the wall.  Victory!  I set down the hammer.  All I had to do now was widen around it, and that would be easy.  I opened my last beer and toasted myself.  “To breaking through!”  I crouched down and could see street lights through the hole.

Looking back now, I can see I didn’t break through to anything, except maybe another holding cell.  There were more gigs, even some paying ones.  There was also a weekly column in The Reporter for a few years.  Things seemed to go along okay and then they didn’t.  Between all the drinking and having to constantly bullfight my problems, I couldn’t sustain the writing.  The research alone was killing me.  If it was hard to write while drinking, it was even harder to write sober.  I can’t tell you how many hours I evaporated staring at a blank screen.  I couldn’t write for almost eight years.

So let me tell you, this feels good, this clacking away, tossing empty cans of Hansen’s Diet Tangerine Lime soda over my shoulder while ripping out the words.  It feels like a real breakthrough, and not because it’s going to save me from my brutal, stupid life.  I’ve dialed down the brutal and stupid, so now I don’t need to be saved from it.  That’s a relief, especially to everyone who’s had to row my lifeboat for me in the past.  No, it feels good because I can finally deliver a message, my message to the world.  What is that message?  That it really helps to have a fruity flavor in your mouth when you’re operating a jack hammer.  It really does.