“We’re celebrating tonight!” yelled Robin to everyone and no one in particular . I grabbed an empty stool midway down the bar top, and before I could settle my behind properly into the contours of the seat, a shot glass appeared before me — Blam!
“What can I get you, Mr. Mark?” said Robin, who was obviously enjoying herself.
I would’ve liked to have said, “Martini, shaken not stirred” like James Bond, but I wasn’t much of a liquor drinker. In a panic, I made my first mistake of many that night.
“I dunno. You choose something for me.”
Actually, there were multiple mistakes with this response. Not only did I immediately lose control — however slight — I might’ve had over my drink choices, but I also implied that I was willing to proceed beyond the first offering, at least in Robin’s mind. I would come to regret this.
“How about a Jager?”
“Well, I don’t know. What’s a Jager?”
“Oh, crap — you’ve never had a Jager?!” Robin said, incredulous. “It’s Jagermeister. It’s the best German liqueur ever.”
Before I could reply, she grabbed an odd, squarish bottle out of a small cooler and poured brown liquid into my shot glass. The stuff was ice cold and the glass began to sweat.
I did the shot, and she was right — it was good. It had a woody, licorice flavor, and didn’t seem all that dangerous. I had scarcely swallowed before Robin was refilling the glass. Glug, glug, glug.
A man seated beside me turned and introduced himself. “I’m Ed Smith,” he said, offering me his thick, hairy hand. “Nice to meet you. I’m the ‘Norm’ of this bar.”
I didn’t say it, but he did kind of remind me of Norm, of “Cheers” fame. Late 40s, thick glasses, on the overweight side of stocky, a thick head of wiry black hair with a spray of gray in the front.
“So, let’s get down to business,” Ed said, watching me carefully. “The guy who just left didn’t do much Buffett. He only did ‘Margaritaville’ and ‘Come Monday,’ and he butchered that. He was an asshole, too. So, can you do much Buffett?”
I drained Jager No. 2 and smiled at Ed.
“Let’s go at it this way. Why don’t you name a Buffett song you like, and I’ll tell you if I do it.”
Ed’s eyes narrowed and he leaned closer.
“Okay. ‘Changes in Latitudes.'”
“‘A Pirate Looks at 40.'”
“‘Son of a Son of a Sailor.'”
“Don’t waste my time.” I stared into Ed’s eyes without blinking. He leaned back and grinned.
“Okay,” he said. “Let’s dig a little deeper.”
“‘One Particular Harbor.'”
“‘Tin Cup Chalice.'”
“‘Cheeseburger in Paradise.'”
“Please.” I yawned and stretched.
He was starting to sweat. “I bet you can’t do ‘Honey Do,'” he whispered. I gently placed my glass on the wooden bar and turned to face Ed square-on.
“I’ll see your ‘Honey Do,’ and raise you a ‘Dreamsicle,’ ‘Door Number Three,’ ‘Death of an Unpopular Poet,’ and ‘Chanson pour Les Petite Enfants.’ Care to continue?”
“Holy shit!” Ed shouted, and lept off the stool. “We got us a winner, here! Hot damn! Josh! Lilly! Chris! Get over here and meet this guy!”
The crowd around me grew. Blam, went the shot glass. Glug, glug, glug. Blam! Glug, glug, glug.
As the night wore on, things got a little weird. I was introduced to a gaggle of regulars whose names instantly vanished into the ethersphere of my rapidly diminishing brain function. Robin’s sunburned, laughing face kept pouring Jager shots, and any good judgement that may have existed within me two hours earlier — and might have produced the words, “No, thanks. I’ve had enough” — had been thoroughly subdued and silenced by the alcohol. Dreadlocked Rastas spoke to me in a dialect that would’ve been difficult for me to decipher had I been sober. Tanned college coeds chatted about their sororities and their boyfriends and other things I couldn’t care less about.
Meanwhile, a local musician named Jim Brady was filling the gap between me and the asshole who didn’t play enough Buffett, and had whipped the crowd into a frenzy. Brady was a St. Croix legend, and luckily for me, he usually played on the other side of the island. Nevertheless, he was good enough that worry and self-doubt began trying to slip into my brain through a back entrance that wasn’t being carefully blocked by over-exuberant German liqueur doormen. (At least that what it felt like.) My self-doubt, however, was now compounded by a new fear: my drunkenness. Somewhere down deep, a voice was speaking to me. Dude, look at what you’re doing to yourself. This is your first night! You haven’t even opened your guitar case and these people think you’re great. Tomorrow, they might absolutely hate you, and then you’ll not only be bad, but you’ll be a bad drunk!
It all finally ended, though I have no recollection of how or when. At some point, I managed to get myself back into the upstairs apartment. I collapsed onto the bed and fell into a fitful, tilting, swirling sleep.
I awoke roughly four hours later, at around 6 a.m. I could see the sky lightening through the window. Soon, I would be able to look out and see the Caribbean Sea for the first time in my life, and then, float in its buoyant water.
Not so fast.
The exuberant, jolly, licorice-flavored Germans wearing wooden clogs and dancing arm in arm from the night before had changed. They were no longer jolly. Now, they were mean and ugly. They had morphed into Nazis, pushing and shoving my brain against the inside of my skull, and my stomach against my ribcage, blowing shrill whistles, leading mean, snarling dogs, and demanding to see my papers. When I tried to close my eyes and go back to sleep, the Nazis yelled obscenities and forced open my eyelids. When I tried to stand, they fired their weapons into the air and shoved me onto the floor. In spite of their screaming and shoving, I crawled the interminable six feet from my bed to the bathroom. Hanging my 40-pound-melon-of-a-head into the toilet, I did as the Nazis ordered before crawling back under the barbed wire and whizzing bullets to the bed.
This process repeated itself over and over. At one point, I bribed one of the Nazi guards into letting me place a phone call to Robin. She picked up the phone sounding chipper. “Hello?”
“Robin, for God’s sake, it’s Mark,” I croaked. “I think there was something in those shots. I think I might be dying. Really, I’m not joking. Can you come bring me a glass of water?”
Robin laughed cheerfully.
“Oh, silly,” she said. “You’ll be fine. Can’t wait to see you play tonight! See you around 7:30!” Click.
It was more than I could take. The Nazis began yelling at me again and I passed out on the floor, leaving the phone receiver dangling.
When I came to a couple hours later, the Nazis were gone, replaced by a dull, thumping heartbeat in both my head and stomach. I staggered to the window and squinted into the morning sunlight. At the end of the street, I could see shimmering blue water. I pulled on my swim trunks and a T-shirt and walked in a delicate straight line down the steps into the courtyard of the old hotel. Gecko lizards scattered in every direction within the fallen leaves of the big mango tree as I stumbled toward the street. I fumbled with the lock on the wrought iron gate, but managed to open it.
I walked into the streets of St. Croix, and let my left foot follow the right foot that traveled “down to the sidewalks unglued,” as Buffett once said. I was a long-haired country boy, a mountaineer from the highlands of the northwest North Carolina Appalachians who now had to pretend — convincingly — to be a Caribbean club entertainer. It seemed I had lived a lifetime since my plane had touched down less than 24 hours before. I was hung over, confused, and petrified, and I had about 6 hours to pull myself together.
First things first. I flip-flopped my way toward the healing waters.
(To be continued.)