Hey, kid. Come on over here.
What, you afraid? Ain't nothin' to be afraid of, kid. Not in a nice neighborhood like this, leastways. Got a story for ya, kid. One worth hearin'.
See, kid, I'm a guy who likes to know the truth. That's my business. People come to me, tell me their stories, and want me to find someone. Or lose somone, sometimes. By the time you get to be my age, you've heard 'em all, kid, and sometimes what you hear ain't so pretty. In my line, sometimes you see the underside of the boot, where the gum sticks and the water splashes up as you walk down the alley. Sometimes, you see the back side, the zig under the zag, the things behind the world they show ya on TV. You watch TV, kid?
'Course ya do.
Anyway, I was gonna tell you about the night this dame came into my office. It was hot that night, and humid like the jungle had sidled on up to the city and passed it a tenner. You couldn't see the stars for all the fog in the alleys, lit up by the sputtering neon sign outside my window. It ain't a nice view, kid, but it's all I can afford. The view sure got better when she came in, though.
"I've heard that you're a man who can find things," she said. Her voice was low and smooth, like a new set of subway rails.
"Depends," I said, "on what you're looking for." I looked her up and down. "And what you're offering."
"I'm offering five hundred a day, plus expenses."
Well, that got my attention. I sat up a little straighter. I'd had a look in my wallet a few minutes before. My wallet and the Buddha had something in common, kid--they were both filled with true emptiness.
"All right. Why don't you sit down, Miss--"
"It's Mrs., for the moment. Mrs. Von Bingen."
"Where's Mr. Von Bingen? He doesn't mind you being out like this? Or is that what I'm looking for?"
"You're looking for this. Find it, and you'll find him."
She pulled out a photo. They always do. It was grainier than a silo in Iowa, but I could make out a shape I knew all too well. A bottle.
"Your husband got drunk and disappeared, ma'am? Is that it?"
"No, he went off searching for something. Something he heard about in that stupid club of his."
"Ma'am, why don't you tell me all about it."
She told me the story about how Mr. Von Bingen belonged to this club of conoisseurs of strange beverages from all over the world. They met in an old gentlemen's hangout over a billiards hall and passed around the craziest concoctions that they could find, stuff from all over the world. Well, apparently one night, one of them brought in something really special. Mr. Von Bingen had one sip, and couldn't stop raving about it. When he came home that night, he kept his wife up until all hours talking about it. He said it was something called "Malta India", and that he had to go find more. She told him no, begged, even pleaded--and I have to tell you, kid, I wouldn't be inclined to refuse this lady if she asked me something. But he was in the grip of this Malta India, and it wasn't about to let go. He left that same night--she assumed he'd gone to Bombay.
That was six weeks ago, and she hadn't heard anything since.
"Well? Can you find him?"
"Yes, ma'am, I think I can."
"So when do you leave for India?"
She gave me a look that said she wasn't in the mood for games. And while I'd bet she'd have hotels on Park Place and Boardwalk in less time than it took me to get a house on Oriental Avenue, I wasn't playing this time.
"Look at the bottlecap in the picture, Mrs. Von Bingen. Can you read it?"
"No, I can't make it out."
Her face was right next to mine, now, and I could smell her perfume. It was quite a relief from the smell of gunpowder, alley, and cantaloupe that you usually get in my office.
I love a good cantaloupe.
"It says 'Malta India, Puerto Rico. Your husband is there, ma'am."
"Well, why does it say India?"
"The world doesn't always make sense, ma'am."
She game me a look which went from colder than the blizzard I saw on Little House on the Prairie to warmer and sultrier than Sesame Street in July.
Well, we went to Puerto Rico. I'd been there once before, but the local magistrate and I had had a difference of opinion regarding my activities around the local fruit market, so I hadn't been back in a while. When our flight landed, it was dark and humid. The puddles in the alley from the airport to the hotel reflected the brick and neon of the walls of the city, and the sign of a local liquor store. The sign in the window read "Malta India Our Specialty."
The door opened, and a man came stumbling out, clutching four cases of bottles. As he got closer, I saw three days' growth of beard, and eyes that looked out from his deep sockets like a man seeing the last life raft drifting away from him as he goes down on the USS Lollipop. He dropped the cases and clutched at my coat lapels.
"Here! You...have to...take it. Don't...let...them get it. Hurry..."
He pushed a bottle into my hands, then slumped to the ground like a rod of Silly Putty on the sidewalk in Kansas in August. I heard voices, and footsteps coming around the corner. Mrs. Von Bingen and I just made it back to the hotel in time.
"Who was that?"
"That was your husband, ma'am. And he died to make sure we got...this."
It was a bottle of Malta India. And we knew, looking into each others' eyes, that it was time to take the quaff. The ingredients list said that we'd find malt, corn syrup, molasses, and hops. I wondered if we'd find hope, or if that was the sort of thing you couldn't buy at a corner store in Puerto Rico.
Where and when: purchased on a dark night, when the heat felt like someone threw a couple of old horsehair blankets over the city, in April 2009 at Galco's, Los Angeles. The City of Angels. What a laugh.
Color: a dark, dark brown. It reminded me of a drink I had once, in Marrakech. It went down like a parrot on crack, gouging my throat as it went. But after what I'd just seen, I barely felt it.
Scent: The smell went up my nose like a ferret who just spotted a ferret broad wearing nothing but two sheets of fabric softener and a kind word. It smelled like hops, mixed with a bit of marsh water and a cup of good honest joe. Smelling it reminded me that it had been three days since I'd had time to wash my socks.
Taste: Tell me, kid, have you ever taken a good left hook right to the jaw? The kind where you can tell what high school the other guy went to cause his class ring is embedded so hard in your face? Well, maybe you haven't--not a nice kid like you. But let me tell ya something. I've had that kind of friendly goodbye from more bar bouncers than you had candles on your last birthday cake, kid, and it never gets any easier. Given a few of 'em, too. This stuff hits your skull like one o' those, but with a couple of shots of rum and Coke thrown out the door onto the wet pavement you landed on. It 's a malt, sure--I remember those chocolate malt balls the other kids used to throw at me when they made fun of my trenchcoat back in fifth grade. This tastes kinda like those, with a touch of the bitterness that hit me when I saw the way the collar had been turned down. But it ain't all bitter, kid.
I saw you lookin' at that dame in your class. You couldn't take your eyes of her, could ya, kid? She sure looked like a sweet girl. This drink's got some of that same sweetness, kid, kinda figgy, the kind that'll make the street a little less cold when it's 3 in the morning, the Italian professor's trail's gone cold, and the corner store just ran outta Pringles. Yeah, it's sweet. But it ain't sweet enough.
Nothing ever is, kid.
I think the Kibbitzer-in-Chief said it best, before she was gunned down by the guards in that Tibetan temple.
"It tastes like someone made beer out of prune juice."
Quaff rating: 2. The bitter of the malt goes oddly with the hops and sweet. Not very pleasant.
Cough rating: 2. Blech.
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