Barely visible in the early morning mist, one of the monstrous seagulls of Venice pecked at a dark mass floating in the middle of a canal. Moving slowly with the current of the incoming tide, the bird screeched a warning to others to stay away. A passing boat sent the gull into flight, causing his perch to roll in the water, revealing the bloated and gutted corpse of a young woman.
Brigham Stone walked the ancient streets of Venice at night in search of a good martini. Streetlights glowed through the misty air, casting eerie light on the old bricks and ghostly shadows in the fog, like specters hovering above the paving stones.
The opening measures of Mozart’s Requiem still pulsed through his head, as did the images and names of friends and family members who had died recently, too young. His cousin, only a couple years older than he was, died of cancer; attorney colleagues in their forties. He had left the church tonight thankful that the concert was over.
He raised his collar against the chill and checked his watch. Nearly ten o’clock. The bars would be closing soon. A man and a woman, dressed as nobles from the eighteenth century, walked past him, staggering and laughing, three-cornered hats on their heads, masks in hand, cloaks billowing behind. It was the time of Carnevale—they must have been to a ball.
He craved a martini, but the darkness, the time, and the cold conspired and worked against him. He pushed his scarf up around his neck and pressed forward in resignation to the diminishing probability he would quench his thirst this misty night.
Then, through the window of a bar, he beheld the lovely emerald-green glow of a bottle of his favorite gin. He peered in. His breath fogged his reflection in the glass. After a few years in Venice, he knew it was rare to find a bartender in the city who knew how to make a martini or one willing to take instruction. He went in nevertheless, hopeful.
When Brigham began to recite the recipe and procedure, the barista held up his hand and said, “No problem. I know.”
All right, then. Brigham left him to his task and went to the men’s room. When he returned, the drink was waiting for him on the bar. Immediately, he knew there would be trouble. At the bottom of the glass sat a bright yellow strip of lemon peel. For the love of God, where was the olive? Don’t panic. Taste it. Maybe it’s okay. With the first sip he was confronted by the horrible taste of pure vermouth. The bartender blinked at him expectantly, then inquired as to the quality of the drink.
“Truth be told, I can’t drink it.”
“What you mean, you can’t drink it?” the bartender asked loudly, his brow furrowed.
“I think the proportions are a tad off,” Brigham said, holding his forefinger and thumb an inch apart.
The bartender’s face reddened. “What? I don’t understand.”
As an American, Brigham couldn’t just come out and say something was terrible. Italians, on the other hand, had no trouble doing this, so he decided to make like a local. “Honestly, it’s terrible. I think you put too much vermouth in it.”
The bartender screwed up his face. “It’s Martini, like you asked.”
“Ah, that explains it. I asked for the cocktail martini, not for a glass of Martini. Who can drink just Martini?”
“I give you what you asked!”
Brigham had learned through experience that mixology was not part of the Italian culture. Neither did they have a word for customer service. Used to being treated like crap by merchants and waiters, he had had enough. He was sick and fucking tired of being given shit when he had asked for Shinola, and then having to fucking argue about it. This bar had a bottle of the finest gin in the world, and the bartender said he knew how to make a martini. Fuck him. He wasn’t gonna take no for a fucking answer this time.
“Sorry,” Brigham said calmly, trying to keep all them fucks out of his sentence, “but take this back and just give me a glass of Ten Gin, and another glass on the side filled with ice.” He slid the glass toward the bartender. “And I ain’t payin’ for this.”
As the bartender shouted a string of obscenities in Italian, a man emerged from a back room. The barista yelled and gestured wildly in the other man’s direction. The man, apparently the boss, shouted at the bartender, who stomped off behind a curtain leading to the back.
The boss smiled. “I’m very sorry. Let me make you a proper martini.”
Brigham nodded. “That would be lovely.”
Ah, this man knew how to make a martini, for not only did he fill the glass with ice and water to chill it while he mixed the drink, he garnished it with an olive rather than a twist of lemon, an act of barbarism no doubt learned from the English.
He put the drink on the counter. “Please,” he said, pushing it slightly toward Brigham. “Offre la casa. On the house, as you say.”
Brigham sniffed the drink and smiled. He tasted it. The cold, juniper-
flavored herbal joy of the gin slid over his tongue like the word of God into the ear of the faithful. He took his time with it, held each sip for a few seconds, and let the elixir infest his blood and brain. He held the olive above the glass on the end of its toothpick and twirled it around. The light shining up from the glass bar made it glow like a little green planet. What a beautiful thing an olive was, particularly when soaked in gin. Nibbling it, he stared unfocused at the bottles behind the bar, the gin having taken the edge off the damp cool of the night.
“Sorry for my barista,” the boss said.
“Niente.” Don’t mention it.
“I should get rid of him, but he’s my sister’s husband, and you know—”
“I understand. No problem. This is delicious.”
Brigham sat on a stool at the bar gazing into the crystalline drink punctuated by what was left of the olive. Who thought of the shape of this glass? Behind the counter a mirror reflected his disheveled, rugged features. Rough and grizzly, ugly to him yet apparently attractive to women, or so he’d been told. He often caught them staring at him.
He finished the drink, thanked the man, and stepped into the night, feeling a hell of a lot better than when he went in, almost believing in God and all his angelic hosts. The warmth of the drink contrasted perfectly with the chill of the air. He walked in happy solitude through the misty and silent darkness, thinking thoughts all high and philosophical, contemplating his mortality. He would turn fifty-five tomorrow. Happy fucking birthday, dead man.
A figure hurried past him, long cape flowing, a tri-corner hat darkening his face. Nothing more than a shadow in the dim and hazy light. Continuing a short distance, the man turned abruptly to the right and disappeared. Into a solid brick wall.
Brigham studied the wall and the pavement next to it but found nothing. The white marble outline of an old door now bricked in stood where the man had gone. He pushed on the bricks, but they did not move. The mortar between the bricks and the marble was solid. There was no evidence of the man and no hint as to where he might have gone.
Good gin. After one stinking martini he was seeing men going through walls. Christ, wait till Rose got wind of that.
AT HIS APARTMENT HE WRESTLED with the lock, cursing the key, which had never worked properly. Why had he never had a new one made? Finally getting the heavy wooden door open, he let it close behind him and climbed the marble steps. Their two dogs, a corgi and a mutt, waited for him at the door. The corgi stretched and howled in delight and the mutt danced around shaking a stuffed toy. Brigham got down on the floor and tugged on the toy with the mutt, who shook it violently, growling. The corgi barked with excitement and jumped full force on him, knocking him over, and commenced to lick his face. “Aah, dog germs!” Brigham cried, buzzing his lips to free them of corgi juice.
His wife, Rose, sat in bed reading, her pink-framed glasses perched on her delicate nose. “Get up, you nuts,” she said, laughing.
He and Rose had been high school sweethearts, gone off and married other people, had kids, got divorce, and through a few twists of fate, met up again and renewed their relationship. Now they had been married for several years. He worshiped her.
“Where’d you go?” Rose asked, not looking up from her book.
He put his hand on her shoulder and kissed her forehead. “I walked to the Rialto and back. They were playing Mozart’s Requiem at Santo Stefano, so I stopped in to listen.” He sat down next to her.
“Where’d you stop after that?”
Translation: What did you have to drink? He knew she wasn’t bustin’ his chops, just making conversation, although she clearly knew he had stopped for a drink. It wouldn’t take a bloodhound to smell gin on his breath.
“I found a joint with Ten gin, and the bartender actually knew how to make a martini.”
She peered over her glasses with sparkling blue eyes. “How many did you have?”
“I worry that you’ll fall into a canal and drown. Remember that guy last year?”
“I’m not drunk. I had one little ol’ martini. Anyway, that guy was a tourist.”
Brigham got up from the bed to find the dogs standing in parallel, staring at him in silent conspiracy. It was their turn to go out. He took the leashes from the coat rack and opened the door. The dogs dashed to the bottom of the stairs and waited to be hooked up.
As he neared the first bridge, a little old lady saw the corgi. She bent down to it, saying, “Ciao, ciao,” and asked what kind of dog that was, and what his name was. This always happened because the breed was rare in Italy. People who would otherwise shove him out of the way and kick him in the ass lit up with joy when they saw the corgi. If he sat on the street begging with this dog, he would make a bloody fortune.
At Campo Santa Margherita, Carnevale revelers milled about, and a rock band played loudly at the far end of the square. Dodging the occasional firecracker and ducking from glow-in-the-dark whirligigs being shot into the air by street vendors, Brigham made it to one of his favorite wine bars, no longer concerned with the late hour since establishments stayed open later in this part of the city.
He ordered a glass of red wine, then sat with the dogs at an outside table, despite the chill in the air. They allowed dogs into bars, and there were a couple there already, but he preferred the cooler air and the less crowded tables outside. The gin and walk had warmed him sufficiently, plus the dogs seemed to love watching people as much as he did. Tonight was more interesting than most, as many people wore costumes and masks. One person had dressed as the “plague doctor,” wearing a mask with a long beak; a large, wide-brimmed hat; and a long black coat. A frightening but historically accurate getup.
He finished his wine, and they returned home.
Back at the apartment, the corgi panted as if he had gone a hundred miles and grinned with accomplishment. Everyone seemed happy. The dogs for the walk, Rose because he hadn’t drowned in a canal, and he was happy to have found a place with Ten gin.
He joined Rose in bed, where they usually read for a while or discussed matters of the world before going to sleep. It was after midnight. She was wearing a selection from the birth-control collection: PJs made of sexy plaid flannel, ingeniously designed to not leave any exposed skin.
She kissed him on the cheek. “Happy birthday.”
Brigham frowned. “Don’t remind me.”
“What’s the matter? Feeling old?”
“I am old. I’m gonna be dead before you know it.”
She removed her glasses. “Oh, what a happy thought,” she said and held up her arms for him to come closer. “Come here.” He slid over and she hugged him. “Stop it. You’re not that old.”
“Do the math.”
“I know the math. I’m right up there with you.”
“Well, I want to live forever.”
The mutt came into the room and lay on the floor next to the bed.
“You can’t live forever,” she said. “People die.”
“How do you accept that? Don’t you know that one of these days you’ll cease to exist?”
“I believe in God. I won’t cease to exist but will live forever in Heaven.”
Brigham held up an index finger to emphasize his point. “There’s where we differ. As you well know, I don’t believe in God. When you’re dead, that’s it. No Heaven, no Hell, and nothing in between.”
“Maybe you should see someone. Whether you believe in God or not, if you sit around thinking about dying, you will drive yourself nuts.”
“I’m already nuts.”
Rose laughed. “True.”
“You’re supposed to say ‘No, honey, you’re not nuts. You’re perfectly normal.’”
“But you’re not normal.”
“Did I ever tell you you were funny?”
She rolled over and put her head on his chest. “All the time. I am funny.”
“That’s it. Lights out.”