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?

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The Ghosts of Christmas Parties Past, Volume 3, “The St.John’s Incident.”

The party was festive enough when I got there.  The place was mostly packed with students from St. John’s College, in Santa Fe.  Classes had ended, and this was a little blow-out before people went home for the holidays.  The music was loud, people were dancing, drinking, and laughing.  Good cheer was in the air that night, but the mood would take a decided turn by the time I had to leave.

I guess if I had been more aware, I would’ve picked up that she was with someone, but I was on a mission to blot out anything even remotely resembling awareness.  I also wanted to find a special friend to celebrate the warmth and joy of the season.  The prospect I had chosen was a busty, bespectacled, little brainiac in a button down sweater.  The combination cat glasses, cardigan, and cleavage is a personal kryptonite for me.  But, when a guy stepped in and told me she was with him, I backed off and apologized.  Even at my worst, I tried to honor The Code.

That should have ended it right there, but he had to give me this shitty smirk.  It said, “Yeah, a proletarian sack of lug-nuts like you wouldn’t even have a chance with a woman like this anyway. You probably haven’t finished a book since Charlotte’s Web, and we Johnnies pride ourselves on the high intellectual caliber of our literacy.”  I might have been projecting, but it sure looked like that kind of smirk.

In Lithuanian, we have a phrase, “Ot snukis, kuris plytos praso!”  It translates roughly to “Now there’s a snout just begging for a brick!”  His was begging for a whole backyard barbecue’s worth.  I looked him over.  He was about my height, a few pounds leaner, more handsome, secure, smug, and self-satisfied.  He was cologned, well-groomed, and nicely coordinated in a wool pullover and pleated slacks.  I suddenly felt ashamed of my work pants and sweatshirt ensemble.

“I’ve never even read Charlotte’s Web,” I told him, “but there’s a lot of other books that I have read, and not just about Stalingrad either.”

“What are you talking about, Duuuude?”

I realized I didn’t know what I was talking about.  I was talking to his previous smirk.  “Nevermind,” I said, “Enjoy having sex with your girlfriend.”

I think he thought I said, “I’d enjoy having sex with your girlfriend,” because he got right up in my face.

“Why don’t you get your drunk ass out of here?” he yelled, poking at my chest, “Before you embarrass yourself anymore!”  I don’t like anybody telling me when I should stop embarrassing myself, but I really don’t like to be poked.  A poke is so demeaning.  Hitting a man in the face is more respectful than poking at him.  He was saying that I was not even worthy of the expenditure a beating would require, that a few forceful thrusts of his finger would be enough to cow me into submission.  Between the smirking and the poking, I could feel my insides tearing up the social contract.

I grabbed his finger and twisted.  He dropped his egg nog.  Over the years, I learned that in a crowded situation like that, you can’t excite the herd too much.  The more people that realize a fight is breaking out, the more will eventually swarm you.  At this point, the guy was going to his knees, but he might’ve been just getting down to the funky beat.  So as I twisted his finger, I acted like I was dancing with him, to sort of camouflage it.  I waved my free hand in the air like I just didn’t care.   Here we all are, just shaking it loose to Oasis.

Anyone who was actually watching wouldn’t have been fooled by my pantomime.  The girl saw what was happening, lunged at me, and began clawing my face.  Now, I had a problem.  Although I had the guy under some control, (it’s not like I could walk him across the floor like a pedigree, but he wasn’t going anywhere) the chick wrapped around my back, shredding my face with her garden rakes, was seriously hampering my dance moves.  I couldn’t seem to shake her off.  We crashed backwards into a Christmas tree.  Now, nobody thought we were dancing.  However, nobody was entering into the fray, just yet.

There’s a pause before other people join in a fight.  It’s only natural to take a moment to size things up and see if you want to add to the merriment.  How long that pause is depends on the crowd.  It doesn’t take long for an Irish bar crowd to rush in.  Country Western folks don’t tend to over think things either.  But these were St. John’s students, and they were going to wax philosophically about cost versus reward, one’s duty to society versus self-preservation, savage warlord glory versus possible ass-kicking and jail time.  They had some heavy things to sort out before joining in.

I had a small window to act.  The she-bitch on my back was the main problem.  I couldn’t get her off of me without hurting her, and the way I saw it, we had something once, before he showed up.  I was getting desperate.  I was alone at this party, with no back-up from buddy boys, and I knew the crowd would eventually come to defend one of their own, especially a boyfriend/girlfriend combo.  There wouldn’t be time to take to the podium and explain the passive-aggressive nature of the poke, or how certain social cues can be misread by the overly sensitive, so I decided to give her my Banshee War Cry.

This is a form of psychological warfare.  Like the rebel yell, or the Japanese Banzai, the war cry is used to demoralize one’s opponent into paralysis.  If done properly, it also makes you look like a total psycho- one that nobody wants to deal with.  But you have to sell it, and in order to do that, you have to sell a piece of your soul’s self-respect.  I turned around, looked right into her face and unleashed the most demonic, possessed-by-a-wraith, crazy-eyed shriek I could summon.  It’s funny when I think about how earlier in the evening, I was hoping  we’d be kissing each other’s naked bodies, and now I was screaming in her face like some tortured mythical monster, and not in a good way.  What a steep trajectory our relationship took.  How fickle the flight of love’s arrow.

She quickly disengaged.  I got up and bolted for the door.  Only when I was clearly in retreat did the crowd finally decide to jump in.  Now, everybody wanted a piece of me.  Saving face at that point was futile, so I ran like a villain in a silent film, out through the yard and down the street.  I was being chased by an angry mob of young intellectuals.  How absolutely, fucking embarrassing.  I really legged it and managed to get away.  I barfed a bit, waited in the bushes until it was safe, got in my car and drove home.  I stayed up a few hours that night feeling weird about things, then passed out.

The Christmas parties I attend now are pretty tepid.  They start early and end early.  Sober people only say things once, so their get-togethers don’t last as long.  The highlight is usually coffee and cake.  That may not be some people’s idea of a party, but that’s what I prefer these days.  My idea of a good holiday party was a brutal experience, an endurance contest that destroyed the victor and vanquished equally.  Peace and goodwill towards men, got trampled under foot in the stampede for kicks and oblivion, and somebody usually got hurt.  Now, I’d rather have cake and coffee, and not get poked or smirked at. Cat glasses still kill me.

Christmas on The Western Front