I dub thee unforgiven

I used to drink at the strange bar on Ridge Street. It was down some steps, a dark little place near my office and the air felt like sulfuric fog. The sign said “The Golden Egg” but I called it Fart Bar. It had a certain ambiance, which one might call a micro micro-climate. It was loud, lonely and laden with a stinking humidity of unknown origin. Now it’s closed and all the people that run it are gone. By gone I mean dead mostly.

Nothing good could happen there, but I liked it. I really did.

The bartender’s name was Dante, who wore a suit of leather and always had a cold. We didn’t speak much, but I liked watching movies with him from the dusty TV on the liquor shelf. For years, I was Dante’s only customer. People would peek in from time to time, but only long enough to take a whiff and shuffle out backwards, the way you might when a public toilet’s overflowed.

The knob held those clusters of golden dented bells you see on small town five-and-dime doors. They announced my entrance to that always-empty room, which I liked best in the Fall, when my shadow cut through the magic hour light, marking a path straight for the jukebox.

Dante would give a welcoming grunt and flick a token to me from behind the bar. It was a green plastic disk with a fading silver print: “The Golden Egg: Good for a Dozen.” Dante poured heavier when I played Metallica, so we often watched the VHS version of First Blood on mute with Ride the Lightning blaring from the speakers.

Fart Bar offered just one happy hour special every day from dusk to dawn: an all-you-can drink order of a disgusting whiskey called “Acheron Shores”, which Dante let me drink on a running tab. I never heard of a booze buffet, but he said the owner had a special arrangement with the distributor. One day I wondered aloud what an arrangement with a cheap whiskey brand might look like. Dante said, “I’ll show you.” But he didn’t take the usual steps of tightening his velcro-strap leather gloves and pouring another into my slowly poisoned body. Rather, he came around the bar, pulling me up from the stool.

“There! To the back. I said I’ll show you.”

Dante led me to long set of stairs to the sub-basement and then down a musty hall, much farther than I imagined the building went. I could hear music thumping from behind a door, which was outlined by a bright red light, the edges softening with movement of shadows behind. I held up slightly. My nerves were beginning to stir from under the warm blanket of booze I had drank upstairs. The familiar stink was slowly losing its power to a feint but metallic sharpness. The smell of something terribly wrong.

“It’s nothing,” he said. “There’s nothing they want with you. And you wanted to see the whiskey, right? Here, come” – and pulling my body forward, Dante pushed open the door, covering our bodies with a wash of red light.

My eyes adjusted and I watched in horror as a giant mass of maggots crawled over every inch of the ceilings and walls, over each other, over us: writhing piles of glistening annuli, pulsating to the beat like a disembodied muscle spasm.

My body was shaking and going limp, but Dante pulled me forward. I slipped and lost his hand, falling into what I could now tell was a layer of warm, sticky liquid. My hands were wet and smelled undeniably like iron. The maggots’ ravenous feeding hummed horribly like a buzzsaw over a steady rhythm. Dante screamed in laughter, “This is it! This is what a deal looks like. Hell, isn’t it? But goddam it’s delicious – look, look, a party! ”

Dante cleared a patch of the wall with a sweep of his leather gloves, revealing a human arm draining out to the maggots below. He scooped up a pool in his cupped hands and told me to drink. I obeyed. He cupped more. I drank. I started to scoop more from the floor myself, over and over, pushing my nerves, my entire moral fiber back down below the rush of intoxication. I batted the maggots away and saw entire bodies reveal themselves to me, dead but not dead, draining, feeding, intoxicating. Dante screamed and screamed and I took up the call like a brother hyena, completely overtaken with a wild self-interest. I was nothing other than this insatiable need.

I was crouching before the head of one of these poor souls, about to take a bite like father Ugolino when suddenly an official looking man called out to Dante, “Take ‘im back upstairs, you fucking idiot! Members only, ya know the rules.” Dante cursed under his breath and pulled me up with a strength hidden under his skinny leather mold. Blood like drool rolled down my chin, bouncing back up the stairs as my eyes rolled back back back….

***

On New Year’s Day some time later, I read the health department closure notice, not surprised but forlorn. I remembered every one of those eternal night rituals, ruing the drudgery that each tomorrow would bring. I remembered every time Rambo cried over “The Call of Ktulu.” I raised my glass once more, knowing that there’d never be a better bar in this town.

Notable Reads: “A Divine Comedy” by Elif Batuman

This month’s Harper’s Magazine includes an in-depth, beautiful picture of the Dante Marathon of Firenze – a collective effort of Florentine Who’s Whos, international academics and common Dante enthusiasts to read aloud the entirety of La divina commedia –  as presented by Elif Batuman, “writer-in-residence at Koc University.” Batuman’s ability to place Alighieri in a sweeping historical context of medieval demonology, contemporary politics, forensic anthropology and even wine production is remarkably natural (at one point she uses the word “douchebags” to describe a subset of la commedia’s cast of characters). Attached you can find a PDF of the essay; also below, links and images to some of its most striking details.

Batuman’s “A Divine Comey” – Harper’s Magazine / September 2011

In a move Feurbachian in technique, Batuman flips the notion of figuration, “a mode of analysis originally devised to reconcile the Old and New Testaments,” into a secular humanist historical device for explaining Dante’s modern legacy. She writes, “The meaning of Dante’s existence is revealed not by his place in the chorus of Paradise but by the fate of his corpse and his corpus in this world.” It’s a nice way of capturing – and negating – the pull religion continues to have on thought (for many) today. Maybe you’re blessed not to have dealt with Catholics growing up, so I will remind you that their lives often are – even if it’s simply in the nagging guilt of, say, sloppy pre-marital boning (“oh my!”) – guided by the notion that their actions in this world can take meaning only in the posthumous judgment of God. Incidentally, it was just in last month’s Harper’s that Vince Passaro, in his excellent review of Scorsese’s unique voice (the working class Italian-American worldview in Hollywood), quoted “America’s last tragedian” thus:

For a Catholic, nothing is too important to discuss or think about, because he’s raised with the idea that he will die any minute now and that if he doesn’t live his life in a certain way this death is simply an introduction to an eternity of pain. This removes a hesitation that a writer might otherwise feel when he’s approaching important subjects, eternal subjects.
[“Scorsese on the Cross: America’s last tragedian” by Vince Passaro
]

Compare this alongside Dante’s description of Ugolino – He raised his mouth from his atrocious meal, that sinner, and wiped it on the hair of the very head he had been ravaging – and we have the graphic literary vernacular of Dante as a figura of Scorsese’s cinematic perspective.

Finally, a photo I snapped of Ugolino at New York’s Met – those arms wrapping around him? Just the kids he is alleged to have eaten in a fit of cannibalism… Dante left very little to the imagination.