Everyone at Scusi Cellars is drunk before brunch rush, so I too gulp Cabernet to rosy up my cheeks before I hoist my tray and serve the masses. I take my first table, a book club sans books who crowd two high tops with juicy gossip. I lean into the tableful of ladies and let my tight slacks do their work. I say, French Kiss Viognier, Sweet Lips Gewurtz, a voluptuous, smooth, and buttery Chard. They stop their chatter, all attention on me. I catch them off guard with a vulgar joke. They order. I wink. I pop the cork. I’m working for tips, and tonight they’re rolling in.
Back at the bar, Dunk waits with two shots of grappa like a fun-drunk uncle. He says, To Saturday night! and we touch glasses, slug the liquor. Then we prepare the flights. I say, Zin! and Dunk underhands me the bottle. He fumbles as I chuck it back, but recovers to a dribble of applause. We know that when our clientele of Midwest bourgeoisie take the elevator from the cavern, when they blink into the daylight that glints off Lake Erie and stumble to their convertibles or tour busses, off to the other wineries in Oldtown, they will remember us: clumsy Dunk and suave and sexy Sly. We’re fun. We’re seductive. We know our wine.
I go to lay a smooch on Al when I get home that night, but he leans away and swivels back to pop weed chocolates from their molds onto the cooling rack. He gave up palming dime bags at dive bars when medical use passed last year and he has eyes on a permit, on storefront with a sign. No more secret stashes, no more sketchy glances at cops.
Al says, God, you smell like booze.
I say, Oh come on, boyo, I was celebrating.
I slap my wad of tips on the counter but Al doesn’t even look. I’ve explained my Condition to him before, how Doctor Dez suggests a couple shots a day to dampen my Intrusive Thoughts, but still Al gives me shit. He’d rather I toke myself into a red-eyed blob, but the booze warms me like weed never could. It smooths my inhibitions, dials up the charm. Plus it’s my job to know which wines to recommend.
When Al isn’t looking I swipe a chocolate for my bath. He says, But you’re still drying out after New Year’s, right?
Dunk says detox is pointless, says he used to sober up every year during Scusi’s January shutdown. New Year’s Day he’d fake a vacation, stock up on tomato juice, ice cream, and plenty of seltzer, lock the door and turn off all the lights. Anyways, he says, When you get back to work your tolerance is down and you wind up stumbling before dinnertime.
I’ve seen this personally. Once I dragged a drunken Dunk to the cellar’s cot to sleep it off mid-shift, pulled a full house for two hours solo. But I’d like to think Dunk would do the same for me.
I’d like to think Dunk cares. I slip into the scalding water, drink out of a bottle of blended red, and relax. Al only wants me to sober up because his homophobic father used to chug Old Crow. But his dad was a dick before the booze, born again a pig. Al tells me I’m mean when I’m drunk, selfish, but he’s just deflecting. As the water prunes me, I remember I have a job, an income. I support our way of life.
After my bath, I wrap myself in my ratty robe. Al’s reading in bed and I kiss him on the cheek. He pecks me back. If I was selfish I’d lie down beside him, but I’m not. I care. I head to the couch because I can’t help but keep him awake with my snores.
I discovered Doctor Dez about five years ago, after my bachelors, while floundering in my parents’ basement. Those days I didn’t have a job and my alcohol dependence really was out of control. I started my day with no recollection of the night before, covered in bruises from fights or falls. I developed this strange habit of losing my clothes, of walking home barefoot and waking up nude. I would lie in bed through the afternoon worried I would ruin every relationship before it had a chance to flourish. So I cracked the vodka and pregamed. A fifth was all the confidence I needed to hit the bars and flirt.
I had these Intrusive Thoughts of physical violence, but Doctor Dez, with PhDs in Spirituality and Wisdom Studies, says that people like us aren’t weak, but powerful, as long as we learn to control it. He calls us Supreme Empaths, more in tune with emotions and this sensitivity is why Perpetrators of Evil are able to Intrude our minds. On his YouTube channel, Doctor Dez says that Intrusiveness is often misdiagnosed: Anxiety, Depression, Bipolar. He says medication leaves us hollow and void. But his exercises help us find our Holy Self and a strong sense of being to fight back.
With Doctor Dez’s guidance I began to manage my drinking, my weak sense of being. I got a job at Scusi and learned to enjoy the flavors, the nose, to pick apart the colors and mouthfeels, respect the wine before each drink so I was partaking, not just getting drunk. That summer, Dunk invited me to the Festival at the Cliffs where we camped with some of his old DeadHead buddies which is where I met Al. He sold us magic mushrooms and we tripped throughout the night wrapped in stoner light shows and I felt the universe calm around the significant center of my Holy Self. With Doctor Dez’s wisdom and Mr. Scusi’s tutelage, I learned to control my Intrusive Thoughts. I moved in with Al to live a mostly normal life.
I can tell Dunk’s already in his cups when we meet Mr. Scusi at the front door the next morning to press Cabernet. Dunk and I aren’t morning people, and I’m hungover, squinting at the sun and Mr. Scusi’s bright cherubic cheeks. He says, Cabernet! and gestures wildly at the world around us.
I say, Off to the dungeon! Which brings head-splitting laughter to all and we ride the elevator down to the cool vaulted cavern.
We get to work ladling fermented grape must into the press where the hydraulic rubber bladder smashes the skins against the sieve, the juice waterfalling into buckets. As Mr. Scusi watches the action, Dunk and I funnel containers of unaged wine into barrels. When a barrel is full, we bung it and roll it away to age in the musty back rooms. My stomach turns as we work, head ball-peened and ringing. An Intrusive Thought squeezes in and I see myself crush Dunk’s body in the press, crunch of bone and blood oozing out of the spigot. I close my eyes and focus on my Holy Self, but the thoughts don’t stop, and this time I shove Scusi himself into the barrel headfirst and roll it down the docks into the murk of Erie.
After four barrels we break to clean the sieve. Mr. Scusi dips a glassful of the fresh unfiltered wine and passes it to me. First sip I feel the warmth shoot through. I drink again and my skull loosens, eases into a fresh new day. I say, Is that black currant I taste?
Scusi swirls, sniffs, and swigs. Says, Tannic, dark fruit, wet gravel. He kisses his fingertips.
Dunk kills the wine. Refills. Re-kills. Mr. Scusi unsheathes a wine thief, unbungs a dust-smothered barrel, and suctions out a vintage draught. He holds the glass vial of grappa to the light, pleased with his premium port-barrel-aged reserve. He lifts his thumb and the liquid dribbles into his mouth. Dunk and I have waited on this barrel for years, eyeballing the patinated iron straps, the indiscernible faded label. Scusi clicks his tongue at the taste, rolls his eyes, says, Not today. But almost. He hammers the bung back in.
Ten a.m. and we should be open but instead we’re three wine enthusiasts edged up to the bar, slobbering with laughter over Mr. Scusi’s latest run-in with the cops. Last week he drove his Porsche the wrong way down Main Street when a semi turned left off Second into his path and he had to take to the sidewalk, cracking a telephone pole. This! He shows us a picture on his phone of the battered luxury car. Totaled!
Dunk says, Bet your wife was pissed.
But Scusi just says, Wife? Phhbt. I have money!
He lays a hundred-dollar bill for each of us on the bar before leaving.
When I stretch up from the couch the next morning I’m greeted with the smell of pancakes and coffee, the living room a dazzle of sun, my blankets tossed on the floor. Al appears beside me and I say, Good morning boyo. I try to open up a smile.
He says, Hope you had a good sleep. It’s noon. Breakfast is cold, but I’ve got something to show you.
The thought of food makes me want to puke anyway. I say, Show.
Al sits and opens up his laptop. He says, It would be a great getaway for both of us. They believe some of the same stuff as your Doctor Dez. Meditation. Finding yourself.
It’s an email confirmation for a twenty-eight day stay at an Ibogaine clinic in Juarez. I click on the website to read about third eyes, psychotropics, guru-guided souls searches. I scroll through the details. Thousands of dollars. I say, There’s no way we can afford it.
He says, Well.
He says, Your parents agreed to chip in.
My parents? What the fuck do my parents have to do with it?
They’re coming over today so we can talk more.
And that’s when I see it, right there on the home page: This treatment alleviates symptoms of alcohol withdrawal and elevates the spiritual recovery from addictive substances.
I say, Oh fuck no. You’re sending me to rehab?
He tells me to listen, but I don’t listen. I say, I told you I’d quit.
He says, Sly, babe, I’d like to trust you but last night you pissed in the tub. I’m not going to get mad. I promised myself I wouldn’t get mad.
I say, That’s the problem. That’s my condition. I drink so that I don’t get mad.
He says, You always blame your condition? What’s your condition and what is you?
I don’t know what that means, but I close my eyes, stay level as my guru. I keep breathing while I look for my keys. He whines some more as I get in the car, as I keep the windows closed and back my Buick out of the drive.
In fifteen minutes I’m deep in the bustle of Oldtown, twenty and I’m taking the elevator down. Scusi Cellars has employee showers and a backroom stocked with clothes and towels. There’s wine on the bar with my name on it. There’s everything I need.
Mondays are slow, so Dunk and I shoot grappa and I bitch about my lover and Dunk says wise and careless things about love being a passing thing. It’s going on 11 p.m. and the closed sign’s been out an hour and I continue to ignore Al’s texts about how we need to talk and where am I?
And am I ok?
And am I coming home tonight?
I leave my phone under the counter and walk off to smarm the couple who have been here three hours but don’t want their thirtieth wedding anniversary to end. They say, This booth! Right here! This was before your time, but he got down on one knee and it was just a plastic mood ring because that’s all we could afford. They say, Sorry to keep you over, but it’s our anniversary!
They are drunk.
I think, this is love.
I tell them it’s no trouble. And it’s not except I struggle with Intrusive Thoughts where I bash their skulls in with a chair. Each time my phone goes off my anxiety shifts into a higher gear and I imagine eviscerating Dunk before I set him on fire. I look at the last of eleven messages: I’m worried, babe. Just let me know your fine. I can’t take it. I refill my glass.
While I scrub the last of the dishes, Dunk holds up a carafe to check for spots and his eyes tremble closed before he timbers stiffly over. He smacks his skull on the sink and stemware shatters on his body, on the ground. I reach out as he falls, too far away for me to do anything. I stand over him saying, Fuck! Dunk! You okay? But he doesn’t even mumble, just shakes and finally stills. He makes the smallest, cutest fart that echoes its way to silence.
My phone vibrates with another fucking text from Al: Please tell me your not dead. Should I call 911? I swipe his dramatic bullshit away and call the ambulance myself.
Doctor Dez says to know your limits and I don’t know where to find a pulse. I don’t know CPR. I have no clue how to save a life. The couple leaves cash on the table and jets with apologies while I watch Dunk’s breath run shallow. Then it finally stops. All alone with his empty body and all I can do is wait. I turn off my phone and drink from the bottle, remembering Dunk’s dirty jokes, his avuncular advice. I think of the time a patron grabbed his ass and the look on his face and I laugh. Then I chug. Heady Oak-notes, upfront tannins.
When the bottle’s about half way gone, Dunk gasps and opens his eyes. I lift his head and trickle some booze into his mouth. I say, Don’t worry. The ambulance is on the way. He spits up purple on his shirt.
Minutes later he’s on a stretcher disappearing through the elevator doors. One paramedic stays behind to get his info, but there’s no wallet, only a wad of cash. I can’t even remember his full name, just Dunk. I gulp dregs from the bottle. This paramedic is blonde and youthful. He asks if I can drive. I slump and slur. I say, How bout you give me a ride, boyo? But his look doesn’t change. He says, Maybe you better call your boss.
Sometime after I’ve wiped down the anniversary couple’s table and closed up for the night, I’m sitting in the parking lot beneath the fluorescent light watching docked pontoons bob and buoy when Al appears to help me up and I retch my guts into the brickwork. He catches my fist as I swing it at his chest, listens to me curse every name that comes to mind. I curse the way the water always smells like fish and I curse the group that stops to nudge one another, before barhopping their way along the drag. Al drives me home, crutches me to bed, takes off my clothes, and I fade into sleep while he holds me close.
I tell Al that of course Dunk’s heart attack was a wake-up call and I try to cut back over the next couple weeks. The grapes have all been processed into barrels, wicking oak from the Bulgarian wood and I sample sparingly through my shift. The night before Scusi’s end of season party, I’m a bit tipsy after work, nothing crazy, when I tell Al, Sure, boyo, I can make it through the party sober. I’ll just eat a chocolate if things get rough. I tell him it will be a test. If I can do this on my own, we’ll tell my parents Juarez is off.
Al says, I trust you babe.
The winery closes down for this one day every November and I spend my day off sleeping in. Around noon I pour a cup of kombucha from the fridge, watch as Al mixes his chocolate in the kitchen wearing only briefs and a frilly thrifted apron. If I could freeze this moment I would, keep this kind of peace, a comfortable house, a steady job, stable love. But then in the shower I can’t stop thinking about hard seltzer and I wonder if maybe I am too far gone. Maybe I’ve overindulged. But then I remember how Doctor Dez says not to give in to uncertainty. He also pushes the supreme power of the mind. I breathe. I focus. My Holy Self can accomplish anything.
When I walk out of the bathroom, I drop the towel. Al’s at the foot of the bed wearing nothing under the apron now. He says, Kiss the cook? And the apron falls, and we become just limbs and bodies, all thought evicted, all kisses and touch. We breathe together. We make each other windless.
We shower again once we’ve untangled, leave the apron on the bedroom floor, wash the wonderful sweat and stink of each other off of one another’s bodybodies. I think of the grappa, the burn of it, warm as a blanket, a reward, but there’s nothing in the house. All the alcohol is gone.
Since I’m not drinking, we take my car to the party, stop-and-go traffic through the bustle of an Oldtown that’s cooling into winter. We get stuck behind the pedal-powered mobile bar filled with frozen frat boys tying one on. We inch by Jimmy Buffet burger bars, overfull tiki drinks, dance-parties of blinking lights.
When Al and I take the elevator down to Scusi, the cavern is black tie, a hardwood table in the center of the room rimmed with high backed chairs. I imagine we are entering a castle, the echoic ancient ceiling and party guests grouped by caste. Dunk and I hang with the wait staff at the bar while the kitchen all bundles together in their own corner and Mr. Scusi’s coterie of wealthy sycophants circle his wife in the center of the room complimenting each others’ suits and dresses. Mr. Scusi himself perambulates with the caterers who hoist platters of fist-sized shrimp, caviar, champagne, and cocktails.
Dunk tells the story of what it’s like to be dead for two minutes. He says, Sly’s the man! This dude saved my life. He raises a glass to me and Al squeezes my hand as I hoist my water in response. Once Dunk moves onto his next story, I excuse myself to the restroom. I straighten my tie, splash water on my face. I’m sweating, but not hot. I wipe myself with a fistful of paper towels.
I open the door to Mr. Scusi mid-knock who proffers up a snifter of viscous pink liquid. He says, It is ready! He says, Drink. Drink. He hands me the glass and says, Finish it.
This is what Mr. Scusi’s been keeping from us, a small batch of ancient high gravity liquor finished in port barrels to smooth its edge. I can’t imagine saying no. Just a sip. The liquid moves through me, toes to fingertips, blessed elixir. I breathe in air after a day underwater and I take another drink, swish before I swallow. I sip one final time, then hide the drink behind my back, waiting, watching Al at the bar.
When Mr. Scusi returns, though, he won’t take back the booze. He snatches a flute from a tray and flicks his fingernail against it, rings the room to silence. His wife comes to stand beside him and he opens his arms to everyone as the kitchen doors swing wide. Scusi says, Pièce de résistance! and out comes the chef followed by two waiters balancing a tray with an octopus the size of a small child wriggling wildly. Red tentacles grip and pull, suction and slither, dragging the blob of head toward the edge.
The cellar inhales, all except for Al who glares over the masses as I hold my drink up to toast this masterpiece. I try to look away, to hide. I’m too late. I blush, but Scusi’s hand is on my shoulder and I can’t move as the chef, bearded and toqued, describes the preparation, a Cabernet braise, fresh sea salt. He strops a scimitar-sized knife. He says, The beauty is in its simplicity. We prepare the octopus fresh, as soon as we sever the head!
There is applause and then there’s chatter. When I turn back toward Al, he is gone.
Pools of people gather like mercury bubbles around shrimp and olives. At the bar Dunk is loaded, and tilts into the service area where the one interested waitress still listens. Neither know where Al went. But he can’t be gone because I still have the keys. I weave toward the elevator, but Mr Scusi blocks my path.
He says, My boy! This way! He hugs me toward the kitchen. And there it is, the octopus, splayed on a sterilized table like an alien body, limbs held down by sous chefs, restrained for biopsy. Bodies pack in behind me. The chef is beside me, slaps me on the back. His black hair curls around his toque and his eyes spark with something wild. He holds the scimitar, slaps the blade against his palm, then clasps it between two praying hands, handle at my chest. Scusi says, Sly, You must do the honors!
The roomful watches, waits for me to breathe, but my breath is caught, then it’s heavy and fast. I don’t know what to do. The chef says, Yes you do. The head. He makes a motion somewhere between a slice and a saw. And in that moment the thoughts intrude, a battlefield of bloodied kitchen staff, the octopus now with Al’s soft mouth, and the blade trembles in my hands. Scusi says, To Sly! The man of the hour!
I am pitstained, shaking, undone, and the octopus is Al and I am his slayer and I cock back. I am in control of none of this. I am hacking through him, cutting the tentacled spectacle to chum. There is applause then there is silence.
We barely talk on the flight, but Al holds my hand as I gulp down airplane bottles of Sutter Home over ice to stop the shakes. Once we’ve made it through customs we take a cab to the clinic where we sign our names a dozen times. The orderlies let us strip together, fill separate lockers with our belongings and take our valuables to the safe. They check our bodies for contraband and I watch Al lift his junk, spread his cheeks, then I follow suit. We are naked for our goodbye kiss and then we’re given bathrobes and led to separate, windowless rooms.
I lie in a bed as soft as rain and I wait for the door to open, for the guru to appear. I imagine a man like Doctor Dez offering the dose, or me tipping back the Ibogaine ramekin to Scusi’s wild gestures. Or maybe this guru’s more wise and bumbly, like the burned out blaze of Dunk. But then I realize he’ll be like none of them at all, just another man I’ve never met who doesn’t know me. He’ll ask how I’m feeling and he’ll offer up the cup. He’ll say, Are you ready? Do you wish to change your life? My body will be a helpless puddle, worry flecked around a center of hope, and I will answer. All set.
Nick Rees Gardner
Nick Rees Gardner is a writer and critic from Ohio and Washington, DC. He holds an MFA in fiction from Bowling Green State University, and his writing has recently appeared in Adroit Journal, Epiphany, Ocean State Review, and Cleveland Review of Books. His novella, Hurricane Trinity, is forthcoming in 2023 from Unsolicited Press, and his book of sonnets about opioid addiction and recovery, So Marvelously Far, is available through Crisis Chronicles Press.