Raising the Bar

A week of the drink

When we're parched, we drink. When we're quenched, we drink. When we feel ruined, we drink. When we ace the LSAT, we make a beeline for Remy's. When we want a hook-up, we put on our lipstick and our tightest T-shirt and head to T.G.I. Friday's for a bloody mary. When we ditch the dude, we do it over a daiquiri. We drink joyously, and recklessly.

After a long day, we meet at O'Connell's, where we hoist our mugs, crash them against one another and roar with glee. When we want to catch up with our best friends, we meet at the VFW. We drink to remember. We drink to forget. When we couldn't eat another bite, still we have a glass of port. On one knee, our heart ablaze, we propose and touch our tongues to tingly prosecco. When our brain is mush, our heart lost, and we're horny on a Sunday afternoon, we hit Roxy's and watch naked ladies shove their honey pots into faces of desperate men, buried in longing -- and drink.

We mix to survive the earthquake of dread that threatens day and night to collapse onto our homes. We mix so that we may float headfirst through the pleasure clouds. We concoct cocktails. Oh, the world is an amazing place, and the proof, if you pay attention and your heart is wide open, is in our recipes, our blueprints. It's in what the drunken southern writer William Faulkner called our "puny, inexhaustible voice," one that manifests itself as the signature drink, or recommended wine, or drink of the week.

Jennifer Silverberg
Ask Las Palmas server Humberto Casillo about 
tequila, and his eyes get all happy and he breaks out in 
a smile. "How do you like it, my friend? Strong? 
Smooth?"
Jennifer Silverberg
Ask Las Palmas server Humberto Casillo about tequila, and his eyes get all happy and he breaks out in a smile. "How do you like it, my friend? Strong? Smooth?"
The Shanti is a ramshackle clubhouse with a kajillion 
signs nailed to a wood wall. One reads, "Stay out, 
12-stepper. Your lies are not welcome here."
Jennifer Silverberg
The Shanti is a ramshackle clubhouse with a kajillion signs nailed to a wood wall. One reads, "Stay out, 12-stepper. Your lies are not welcome here."
At the Pin-Up Bowl, they serve this drink called the 
stiletto martini, which is either a reference to the knife 
or the shoe. Did we mention that we love this drink, 
especially at 1:31 a.m.?
Jennifer Silverberg
At the Pin-Up Bowl, they serve this drink called the stiletto martini, which is either a reference to the knife or the shoe. Did we mention that we love this drink, especially at 1:31 a.m.?
On Thursday nights at the House of Rock, a band 
called Joe Dirt plays all the KSHE classics -- perfect 
coupled with a shot of Jägermeister.
Jennifer Silverberg
On Thursday nights at the House of Rock, a band called Joe Dirt plays all the KSHE classics -- perfect coupled with a shot of Jägermeister.
At Slo Tom's, bartender Donna (right) hates Mardi 
Gras. It irritates her, these people getting drunk for 
pleasure, not out of necessity.
Jennifer Silverberg
At Slo Tom's, bartender Donna (right) hates Mardi Gras. It irritates her, these people getting drunk for pleasure, not out of necessity.

But some of us are runaway trains barreling down mountain tracks; we won't stop until we crash and burn. The stories abound of ruined men and women who cannot come to terms with their intake. Then again, who can blame them? Is there any better solace -- at least for a sinner -- than a neighborhood bar? When you're sick of reading, sick of pacing, sick of the sound of your own internal nagging, you can find comfort. Here, kindred strangers and a clean, well-lighted place; elsewhere, chatter.

If nothing else, retreating to a bar is itself an affirmation: Yes, I am alone, but not really. I am alone with others who, too, are alone. We can suffer this burden together. And when the burden lifts (usually between midnight and two) we will rejoice, together. And we rejoice, as well, when we are ordered to embark on a seven-day journey into the bliss-abyss we've dubbed Week of the Drink, a week in which we will drink and drink and drink (and get paid for it!).

King Louie's, 3800 Chouteau Avenue, Midtown

The quest for the perfect drink in its myriad combinations has driven genius barkeeps since the first dumb-as-a-rock caveman stumbled across the first puddle of fermented peaches, sniffed it, then shoved his grimy face deep within and started sucking. In the many millennia since, our species has created some masterful combos.

One example is offered at King Louie's, a fancy restaurant in midtown St. Louis; they offer the Louie's 75, a riff on the classic cocktail, the French 75. It is a great drink: Fresh lemon, pomegranate juice, Champagne and vodka. Perched atop one of the most inspired and expert spirits menus in the city, Louie's 75 arrives in a martini glass. In the soft light of Louie's bar, a palace of comfort, the drink is beige and beautiful, with a few lemon-pulp floaters swimming in the glass. Hanging in the middle, a curl of lemon zest; if you rub your eyes real hard then squint, it appears to be a yellow seahorse. It pirouettes, spinning zest into the liquid.

Pause. It is Monday, 8:17 p.m. Take a deep breath. Empty your mind. Lick your lips. Now tilt, and drink a little piece of heaven. The fizz hits your pillows and tickles them, and a billion bubbles burst. Hallelujah!

This is the start of something. Hold it in your mouth, but don't swish. This ain't mouthwash. Let it impress your buds before floating it down the back of your throat. Oh yizzle, fo' shizzle. Tangy, sweet and puckery with pomegranate and lemon, the depth of flavor explodes then expands like a Roman candle. Don't swig. It would be very sad, pathetic even, for you to dribble some down your chin. Spittle will come later in the week, but by then you'll be less concerned with appearances.

A drink like this deserves its own dessert, and the perfect dessert is a shot of Maker's Mark bourbon, which you enjoy at midnight at the Black Thorn at Lemmons, a way-south city pizza-and-rock-&-roll joint. This is going to be an interesting week.

Las Palmas, 10097 Page Avenue, Pagedale

Ask anyone about their first serious tequila experience and most will tell you about insane cackling, spiral eyes, the evil fun, and soon thereafter, the knees collapsing and the oceans of vomit. But until then, the thrill of discovering salt, then tequila, then lime, is pretty damned exciting.

Ask Las Palmas server Humberto Casillo about tequila, and his eyes get all happy and he breaks out in a smile. "How do you like it, my friend? Strong? Smooth?" Las Palmas, out on Page, serves some of the best Mexican food in St. Louis and stocks 50-odd different tequilas.

At 8:09 p.m. on Tuesday, Casillo returns with Jalisco agave, a mysterious brand housed in a cute little oak barrel the size and shape of a Nerf football, with a cork in the top and a spigot on the end. Adorning the area surrounding the spigot is a crudely carved sun, and a few stars. Jalisco, in fact, is the state in Mexico where the world's supply of tequila is produced -- most of it in the farmlands surrounding the city of Tequila. Toss half into your mouth (there's no reason to waste this in one gulp when you can appreciate it better in two or three), and it hits like a water balloon, then that distinctive tingle-tang.

Casillo -- who peppers interactions with his American customers with a heartfelt "my friend," his Hispanic customers with "mi amigo" -- then returns with another blend, this one a tequila liqueur called Agavero. The ladies like the Agavero, he says, offering a glass. It's softer, with a smoky finish and very little of that distinctive tequila kick. It's buttery and warms your gullet, then your tummy and ultimately your heart. It is as far removed from your basic Cuervo Gold as Mad Dog Plum is from Dom Perignon.

Casillo, who collects tequila bottles as a hobby, fetches a few others, which he uncorks and hands to you to sniff; nicer varieties often have the nose of fine colognes. The excellent Del Dueño arrives in a sturdy cylinder. Yet another is stored in a bottle shaped like a log, with a couple branches jutting out. One is capped with a mini-sombrero lid.

Tequila's just different, a truly unique drunken experience. Each word you utter ends with an exclamation point! Everything's a little more exciting! A little more intense! When Casillo's out at La Onda, a Hispanic club at Hampton and I-44, he and his compadres couple their tequila with grapefruit soda, and the Mexican music booms even louder." Beer will make you full," he says. "You drink two beers, and your stomach is pushed out. With tequila, you can get just as drunk on two or three shots as you can with beer, but your stomach stays the same."

J. Buck's, 101 South Hanley Road, Clayton

The three young ladies across the room keep looking at you and smiling, but you're not sure whether they're smiling with you or at you, probably the latter, because you're hair's looking pretty Sideshow Bob at this point and you probably have guacamole smeared on your cheek. Who cares? The agave juice has successfully diluted your blood, so, my friend, you may as well keep riding the Tequila Express. It's 9:39 p.m.

Oh so pretty-pretty, the tequila sunrise. Next to you, a man eating a salad smacks his lips and slurps his water. "Jack's dead, right?" he asks, referring to the Buck family patriarch. This guy's obviously not from St. Louis. On the stool to your right, a man knocks a pack of menthols against his wrist. Further down, three perfectly reasonable-looking men seem to be enjoying Mich Ultras. They're beaming as they talk about office adventures and fiduciary gymnastics, acquisitions and bastard branch managers.

Honestly, you don't feel particularly at home here. Nobody knows your name, and you don't work in Clayton. You don't wear a tie. You are an outsider, and so, being insecure, you feel compelled to judge, to reveal your shallowness. J. Buck's is best described as a yuppie frou-frou restaurant/bar. Shirts are heavily starched here. By evening, they're crinkled.

At J. Buck's, a Patrón tequila sunrise will set you back a hefty $11 -- which is ridiculous -- so think twice, big spender. But then again, this is on the company dime, so go for it, stud. Just don't make the mistake of asking for Patrón tequila, because it's pointless to sully Patrón with orange juice and grenadine -- especially when the O.J. arrives via spigot and kills the distinctive qualities of the tequila. With the red of the grenadine rolling below the orange juice, a tequila sunrise is the most beautiful of drinks; it indeed does resemble its namesake -- or a homemade hippie candle.

The Shanti, 825 Allen Avenue, Soulard

The Shanti opens at 10 a.m. Outside, harsh late-winter light. On the way, two cars collided in slow motion in a hardware store parking lot, and the sound of impact, approximately that of a dozen 25-ounce Colt 45 cans collapsing in on themselves, will recur in your head until dusk, when it is eclipsed by the poomph of your car battery exploding.

At 10:14 a.m. most stools are occupied. It is dark, stuffy, and the rays that sneak in intensify the smoke rolling somersaults through the air. Patrons are grumbling, smoking like fiends, and occasionally erupting into laughter.

The chorus of the Handsome Family's classic "Drunk by Noon" is running through your head: "If my life was as long as the moon's/I'd still be jealous of the sun/If my life lasted only one day/I'd still be drunk by noon." People drink in the morning, too, which has just got to be hell on the liver. Inside, a mingling of graveyard shifters and a few unapologetic Bukowskis sucking Luckies like lollipops. Where other establishments in this entertainment district are "blues bars," the Shanti seems to actually have the blues.

The joint's a ramshackle clubhouse with a kajillion signs nailed to a wood wall. One suggests an act of kindliness: "Buy your friend a shot!" Another demands: "Stay out, 12-stepper. Your lies are not welcome here." Time for a kamikaze: here consisting of rail vodka and Rose's lime served in a rocks glass. It's your basic vodka gimlet. Good morning, St. Louis.

Soulard is atwitter. In three days, Mardi Gras will descend upon this district like an epidemic, arriving with a dump truck full of cash. It's crunch time, but for the locals who line the bar, Saturday is to be loathed. The weekend warriors are rude and can't hold their Hurricanes, which they puke or piss away in backyards and breezeways.

It's a good kamikaze, but it lacks flair. Oh well. In the a.m., flair takes a back seat to utility. So a kamikaze it is, and after that, another -- because today is a day to drink. "Drunk by Noon" loops in your head, occasionally interrupted by the loop of the car crash: "Sometimes I flap my arms like a hummingbird/Just to remind myself I'll never fly/ Sometimes I burn my arms with cigarettes/Just to pretend I won't scream when I die."

Pin-Up Bowl, 6191 Delmar Boulevard, the Loop

In Heaven, the beer won't bloat you, the dirt weed won't make you dumb. The rivers will flow wine, and those that don't will overflow with Orangina and tart cherries and break off into Lindemans framboise tributaries. Baileys will come via the bloated breasts of ripe waitresses, and all kisses will be wet kisses. In Heaven, baby-blue birdies will fly through a soft pink sky to tie your shoelaces, shave your legs, trim your handlebar mustache and pluck your wasp-nest eyebrows. Chipmunks will run wind sprints through your heart. As you pass the pearly gates, Saint Pete will hand you an iPod (white) programmed to play the first verse of "Heaven" by the Talking Heads: "Everyone is trying to get to the bar/The name of the bar, the bar is called Heaven/The band in Heaven, they play my favorite song/They play it once again, play it all night long."

And in Heaven, the bowling alley will resemble the Pin-Up Bowl, and, like Joe Edwards' new Loop alley, will run videos of "Hey Ya!", "Milkshake" and "Tipsy" and will show King of the Hill and Futurama reruns. Edwards, who also owns Blueberry Hill, the Pageant, the Tivoli Building and an excellent collection of Simpsons memorabilia, opened the Pin-Up a few months back, and it kicks royal ass. Eight black-light-lit lanes of bowling provide challenging distraction.

They serve this drink called the stiletto martini here, which is either a reference to the knife or the shoe. Did we mention that we love this drink, especially at 1:31 a.m.? It's kind of odd, the stiletto. First, there's Glacier potato vodka. Most vodkas are made from grain; a teeny minority, however, are fermented and distilled from potatoes, which makes the finished product more distinctive; you can pick the potato vodka out of a lineup. Next, there's a splash of the French aperitif Lillet Blonde, a blend of white wine, brandy, fruits and herbs. Finally, the dash of olive brine, which adds the dirt, twang and salt.

Bowling and drinking: such a heavenly match. Roll a ball, return to your seat and drink. Then again, and again. You can't simultaneously drink and play football. Too much action; hard tackling tends to break longnecks; not enough downtime. Drinks tend to get spilled. Baseball -- same deal. With bowling, most of the time you're sitting, contemplating the space between the ball and the pins while watching the big booties shake-it-like-a-Polaroid-picture on the flat screens.

The drink menu, too, is out of this world. Cocktail heads will be giddy -- four whole categories of drinks: Signature Cocktails, Classic Cocktails, Modern Cocktails, Martinis. Among them: Dutch harvest, kaffir limedrop, red sangria, Algonquin, El Floridita, maiden's prayer, antifreeze, orange Creamsicle. Huzzah!

House of Rock, 5 Ronnie's Plaza, South County

On your way from Tejas, a new Clayton Tex-Mex place where you loved their mango margarita, to the House of Rock, a south-county rock club, J-Kwon's hit "Tipsy" is booming out of the speakers. The desire to celebrate alcohol through song is universal: from Sammy Hagar's "Cruisin' and Boozin'" to John Lee Hooker's "One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer" to Nina Simone's "Lilac Wine" to Hank Williams' "Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down" -- to this, St. Louis' newest superstar bellowing, "Urrrbody in da club get tipsy," we all want to sing about getting drunk.

"Tipsy" is a good song about celebrating via booze if you ignore the words about the girl getting her tubes tied at 21, but it doesn't rock the way, say, Led Zeppelin's "Fool in the Rain" does, and you are now headed south on the near side of midnight, to south county, to the heart of the mullet, where the mustaches are well coifed and the Wranglers too tight.

Ah, the House of Rock, a joint with perhaps the most obvious and unoriginal moniker in the history of nightclubs. On Thursday nights, a band called Joe Dirt plays all the KSHE classics. The band wears wigs, however, which is just silly. If you really want to rock, you have to mean it. And you can't mean it if, when the gig's over, the hair gets tossed in the corner and Joe Dirt turns back into Joe Blow.

Budweiser is boring, Bud Light is for girlies, Michelob Ultra is for ladies who lunch. And Busch is for wussies (kidding!!). And yet, a very informal poll at the House of Rock revealed on a Thursday at midnight that nearly 98 percent of the crowd -- 150 strong -- were drinking one of those four beers.

Wanting to fit in, you do a shot of Jägermeister, then another, then down a big glass of water, and then another. (Psst: the secret is in the water; drink a lot of it, and you'll avoid a hangover.) Pounding one is akin to getting shot in a bulletproof vest, and for that reason this German liqueur has pole-vaulted into America's consciousness as the shot of record when you're out partying hard. Of the 57 different nettles and berries and herbs that give Jäger its flavor, a very prominent one is anise, which puts it in the same company as both ouzo and chartreuse, both crazy-good liqueurs that, if you're not careful, will gradually drive you and your liver to the grave. The band kicks into "Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap."

Slo Tom's, 6728 South Broadway, South City

The GTO is the house specialty at Slo Tom's on South Broadway, a few miles shy of Lemay, a town all abuzz with talk of the new Pinnacle casino development. This is the rough-and-tumble bar celebrated by the Bottle Rockets in their song "Slo Tom's"; the bar's even pictured on the back of their CD 24 Hours a Day. Yes, that kind of bar.

The GTO comes in two sizes -- huge and super huge. Without even specifying, Donna, who's an angel straight from heaven, fixes up a Super Huge GTO, about the size of a tennis ball canister and, at 2:52 p.m. on a Friday, places it in front of you. It costs $11, but it's about eight times the size of J. Bucks' $11 sunrise. She declines to reveal its ingredients: "It's a secret [and] native to Slo Tom's." Your expert buds, however, reveal that it's sweet, orangey, rummy and Southern Comfortable.

There are five people in the bar on a Friday afternoon: Donna, Clay, some dude, some other dude and the obvious outsider, you, who's a big hit. Clay keeps bellowing, "You are all right! I like you!" He's pretty long gone, a point he emphasizes during one glorious outburst. "I like to get trashed. And I like Donna! I come here for Donna. She's great. You're all right, Mr. Riverfront Times man!" Clay is drinking a greyhound -- vodka and grapefruit juice -- out of a glass that's shaped like a cowboy boot.

He and some dude are talking about vegetarian hamburgers. "The only vegetarian burger I know of is between the legs," says Clay. Great. The talk switches to the pros and cons of menthol cigarettes, and from there to Johnny Cash's version of "A Boy Named Sue." Clay sings along even though he doesn't know many of the words. The result is one long, drunken mumble that merges every so often with the melody.

"I've got a rock & roll heart!" Clay shouts out of nowhere. Unconditionally, you believe him. He is drinking vodka-grapefruits out of a cowboy boot at 3 p.m. on a Friday. That's pretty rock & roll. "You think I talk bullshit, Riverfront Times man, but I've been playing rock & roll for twenty years."

Donna hates Mardi Gras, which is tomorrow. It irritates her, these people getting drunk for pleasure, not out of necessity. "I don't party with them," she explains. "They're amateurs." A moment of reverent silence, then the talk turns to the new casino. "It'll work out well for us and our customers," says Donna. "They won't have to drive far to get drunk after they lose all their money."

"And they won't have to drive far to jump off a bridge," adds the other dude.

Mangia Italiano, 3145 South Grand Boulevard, South City

If you're looking for the center of South Grand nightlife circa 2004, look no further than Mangia Italiano, a totally excellent bar and restaurant that draws a fantastic mix of locals who congregate on a Friday night to eat and drink and listen to live jazz by the always amazing saxophonist David Stone, who should be famous. They sell this Belgian ale called Delirium Tremens that will set your head a-spinnin', especially after spending happy hour enjoying doppelbock at the Schlafly Tap Room. Mangia sells pints of it, and they sell big bottles. You should have one of each, if only to celebrate Delirium's 350th anniversary, which is this year. Plus, it's Friday night.

Delirium is a beer so strong (8.5 percent alcohol to Budweiser's 5 percent) and beautiful and sweet that you just want to kiss it. A beer within a bottle, one of the most visually pleasing bottles that can be had: beige bottle, blue label featuring dancing elephants, strutting alligators and some sort of catfish dragon balancing on top of a ball. Tonight, you are that strutting alligator. You have teeth, and you have pride, and you have been drinking for seven hours straight.

What maybe you didn't know is that Delirium Tremens is also known as D.T., as in the DTs, the medical term describing the severe mental changes, you know, like the psychosis, the brain warps that drunks get when deprived of their alcohol. Lots of fast heart thumps, googly eyes, sweat, red-faced insanity. You seem to remember a story your bar mate told you in the later stages of the D.T. at Mangia on Friday night. It was about an evil villain who roamed from city to city stealing people's noses. He was a bad man who left people without the pleasure of smell and, as a result, the pleasure of taste, just like when you have a nasty cold. This evil villain had a dastardly plan: He was stealing noses for their snot. He stored all these noses in his secret hideout, and he vowed to keep stealing noses until he had enough of them to cover the entire world with snot. He had to be stopped.

Some Dude's Apartment in Soulard

You are in a room in Soulard at 1:04 p.m., smack-dab in the asshole of St. Louis Mardi Gras, and a stranger is wrapping two 40-ounce bottles of beer into both of your hands with duct tape, tight, and directly against your skin. Within five minutes your hands will be unbearably cold. In ten, they'll be numb, and the reality will start to sink in that these 80 ounces of beer, a six-pack-plus, must be consumed. You'll have to drink these two things fast, or your hands will get frostbite and your reputation among drunks will be greatly diminished.

You look like Edward Scissorhands, but of course, not as adorable. And instead of blades, your hands are big glass bottles, one of Bud, one of Miller (the Bud is a better beer) and silver duct tape. Rub your eye, poke it with glass. Strangers look at you and laugh. Others watch out of the corner of their eyes and feel sorry for you, the pathetic jester. A grown man standing at the second-story window of a friend's Soulard apartment, bottle-arms abreast, addressing the drunken masses, bellowing like a banshee to any man passing by. Days earlier, you were royalty, and the jester-type repulsed you. Now you are him.

Soulard, Outside the 1860 Saloon

So it's come to this, Edward Fortyhands. Clumsily, willfully, drunk at 3:32 p.m. Lost in a roiling mass of people, your hands hairless and burning by 4 p.m., stepping up to the hurricane stand, ordering one in drunk-speak -- "I guuh have uh hurricane?" Then, into the ocean of lushes, so many at Mardi, all of whom agree in principle: Let's get loaded!

And loaded you get, on hurricanes, the archetypal Mardi Gras mixers, which, unfortunately, have changed since they were first concocted in New Orleans nigh a century ago. Then, they consisted of Cognac, absinthe and Polish vodka (this tidbit and a few others within courtesy of Dale DeGroff's landmark cocktail book of a few years back, The Craft of the Cocktail). Does that not sound delicious? These, though, are made with rum, more rum, lime and a host of juices.

One of the sadder sights of this joyous day: a grown man, lying face down on the sidewalk, heaving, weeping. Heartless and debilitated, you step over him and continue on your way.

Then, the body revolts, the stomach collapses in on itself. What was once an invisible receptacle, a gaping maw blindly accepting anything and everything. Then this sensation -- you know the one -- the queasy greasy uh-oh, barrels up to your head, which struggles to maintain balance. It will not, but luckily you are a few blocks from home. You stagger with the departing masses, refugees on the Trail of Tears.

Home, Alone

Let's say your father's drink was vodka, at least judging by the bottles you occasionally found hidden about the house -- in the bin of an antique school desk, behind files in a drawer; behind the antique brass cash registers he adored. At fourteen, you found such discoveries confusing. Why would he be hiding vodka? There was a whole bottle in the liquor cabinet. You and your sister had some inkling; a few years prior, he had a mysterious illness that required an extended stay at Barnes, followed by an explanation that Dad couldn't ever have anymore alcohol -- not even Chablis mixed into white sauce -- or he would die.

A few years later, he started drinking again, which is when you started finding bottles, the first clue that something was amiss. Plus, the usually hilarious and kind man turned grumpy. He took a lot of naps. But he was seldom drunk, and never mean. He was just a closet, ashamed drinker. You don't remember him ever slurring or stumbling. He just went out on Saturday afternoons, and many weeknights, then came home and went to bed.

When you were fifteen, Mom and Dad caught you drunk for the first time. They tripped over you on the front porch; when you're drunk, keys can be difficult to maneuver. The next day Dad took you on a drive, but he had to pull over when he started crying too hard to steer. He explained that he understood that you were experimenting, and that you'd have to learn on your own about alcohol. But, he said, he had a drinking problem, and had always had a drinking problem.

A couple years later his liver started showing signs of giving out, and you and your mom and sister drove him as a family to rehab.

He was in that place that David Foster Wallace, in his novel Infinite Jest, describes in great detail: "... then, finally, no relief available anywhere at all; finally it's impossible to get high enough to freeze what you feel like, being this way; and now you hate the substance, hate it, but you still find yourself unable to stop doing it, the Substance, you find you finally want to stop more than anything on earth and it's no fun doing it anymore and you can't believe you ever liked doing it and but you still can't stop, it's like you're totally fucking bats, it's like there's two yous...."

When he returned from rehab, he seemed even more lost. He probably knew his days were numbered. His legs and face were skinny, but his belly was huge, and as tight as a balloon.

Then it got ugly. His complexion yellowed, so did the whites of his eyes, as fluids normally excreted by the liver seeped into his bloodstream. His belly continued to inflate as fluid once processed was now too much for his liver to handle. Mom had a tape measure, which she'd wrap around his belly every day to see if his stomach was receding, a sign that his liver was recovering. Good news, a quarter-inch down today. Bad news, a half-inch up the next day. His liver was dying. His skin got yellower, and his eyes grew sadder, more lost, more I'm-so-sorry. He died a few weeks later, in a morphine delirium.

Roxy's, 210 Madison Avenue, Brooklyn, Illinois

Why are titty bars so dark? To hide the boners, the wrinkled faces, the strippers' stretch marks? Why are you here? Did you not stoop low enough yesterday? Do you not want to vomit at the mere thought of alcohol?

It is 2 p.m. on a Sunday, and you should be swimming laps at the pool. You should be frolicking in Tower Grove Park, reading, or napping, or doing anything else but planting your much-fatter-than-a-week-ago ass in a chair and drinking a rum and Coke at Roxy's watching Sunday afternoon strippers titillate the six men in this Brooklyn club.

Luckily, your ladyfriend has made the supreme sacrifice and joined you in this little afternoon safari. She's your protection. You can stare at booty to your heart's content without feeling the least bit Neanderthal. Suck another shot of rum and Coke; it's a good drink for a headache. And the rum, so sweet, even if it is the cheap stuff, clouds your increasingly acute sense of impending doom. Drink more, loser.

Drink because...because why? Because tomorrow is another day. And tomorrow -- maybe tomorrow you won't drink?

Hope springs eternal, mi amigo. Hope springs into your mouth, that's for sure. Hope springs straight past your gullet, where gravity and a few esopho-muscles drive it down into your tummy, where, depending on your mood and your built-up tolerance to tequila, to rum, to vodka, to beer, it lands either in a swan dive or an explosive belly flop.

Later you lie down for another nap. It is 4 p.m. In your head, skyscrapers are collapsing in slow motion. The weeping man face down on the sidewalk at Mardi Gras could be you. You're not that far removed from him, after all. In a split second, life can turn ugly, can turn pathetic even if you're home at last and your darling is right there next to you. Your body's not used to this anymore, drinking this much. That much, you know. Sleep it off.

The next morning dawns beautiful, and the song in your head is by a band called the Silver Jews: "In 27 years, I've drunk 50,000 beers, and they just wash against me like the sea into a pier."

The birdies are starting to get pumped. Winter's turning to spring. Chipmunks are poking their heads from their underground burrows, sniffing the air, hoping that the warmth is finally returning, and with it, a sense that a week of drink was not in vain.

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