I quit my job at the hotel in San Francisco and became a Nirgrantha, free from all ties. I would never wear a tie again.
I took a cab to Key West. It took three days. The driver dropped me off on Duval Street.
He said, “That will be fourteen thousand dollars.”
I gave him all my money and my watch for a tip. I went to Sloppy Joe’s bar. I asked the bartender for a shot of the oldest whiskey in the world.
The bartender poured me a shot from a rusty, brown jug. It tasted like an egg cream. He said, “That will be fourteen thousand dollars.”
I said, “I just gave my last fourteen thousand dollars to a cab driver.” He told me I could wash dishes to pay off my tab.
I washed dishes for six months. The worst part was the pots for the conch chowder. “At least I’m not wearing a tie,” I thought. “At least there is a purpose to my work.” I ate lime wedges from the compost bin. I slept in the alley. When my tab was settled, I took a seat at the bar and asked the bartender for a shot of the oldest whiskey in the world.
He said, “I’ll need the money up front.”
“But you know me,” I said. “We used to work together.”
“Sorry,” he said. “New rule.”
“I’m a little tight right now,” I said, “Is there anything I can do to work it off?”
He said, “I’ll tell you what. I’m down to my last bottle of this stuff. If you swim to Cuba and fetch me another bottle, I’ll give you a shot on the house.”
“I’m not much of a swimmer,” I said. “Do you have a rowboat I could use?”
He said, “Maybe you could join the Navy and use one of their rowboats.”
I joined the Navy. I asked my superior officer where the rowboats were. He said, “Peel these potatoes and then we’ll see about rowboats.”
I peeled the potatoes. There were a million of them. It took four years. When I finished, I went to find my superior officer to find out where the rowboats were. I was told he no longer worked for the Navy. I asked where he was working now. No one knew. I asked my new superior officer where the rowboats were.
He said, “Paint these battleships and then we’ll see about rowboats.”
I said, “Sir, would you offer me any assurance that the Navy in fact possesses rowboats?”
He said, “I’m through talking to you about rowboats. Paint these battleships.”
I painted the battleships. It took two years. When I finished the last one, the first one needed to be painted again. I painted the battleships again, this time faster. It took a year and a half. I earned a month of leave.
I cashed my paychecks and gave all the money to a homeless person who said he ate fresh tuna every day. I asked him if he could point me toward Cuba. He did. I swam to Cuba. It took five days. I swallowed a piece of seaweed. I wasn’t much of a swimmer.
I washed ashore at Puerto Escondido. I saw a woman in a yellow dress meandering on the beach. I asked her if she knew where I could find a bottle of the oldest whiskey in the world.
She said, “I know an old man who is able to keep whiskey around for a long time without drinking it.”
I kissed her on the forehead. She tasted like a lemon drop. She took me to see the old man. I asked him to give me a bottle of the oldest whiskey in the world.
He asked me, “How much money do you have?”
I said, “I gave all the money I had to a homeless man.”
“Ah,” he said. “You are a Nirgrantha. You gave what you needed to someone who needed it less. That is truly the spirit of generosity. I will give you a bottle of the oldest whiskey in the world if you defeat my nephew in a wrestling match.”
I accepted the challenge. I defeated his nephew swiftly. His nephew was eleven years old. He was missing an arm. I put his other arm in an arm bar. He said, “Tap.”
The old man rode the Via Blanca on horseback to Matanzas. He was gone four days. He returned with a rusty, brown jug.
He said, “This is the oldest whiskey in the world.”
I took a sip. It tasted like an egg cream. I offered him a drink. He accepted.
We drank half the bottle.
I tied the half-empty bottle around my neck and swam back to Key West. It took four days. I saw a jellyfish. I became better at swimming.
I washed ashore at the Southernmost Point. I met a man there who was watching for things that might come crawling out of the sea.
“Why have you come crawling out of the sea?” He asked me. I said, “I am a Nirgrantha.”
He said, “I noticed you weren’t wearing a tie.”
I asked him if he would like a drink of the oldest whiskey in the world. He said he would. We drank the rest of the bottle. I invited him to go have more drinks with me at a bar on Duval Street.
He said, “Your generosity is an inspiration. Generosity is truly the secret to peace. But I can’t.”
I said, “A man free from attachments and aversions finds nothing impossible.”
He said, “I agree. But I have to be back at the Navy in ten minutes.”
“I’m in the Navy, too,” I said. “I’m thinking of quitting.”
“Good idea. You know they don't even have any rowboats?”
“I was beginning to suspect that.”
He said, “Non sibi sed patriae.”
I was sad to see him go. I wondered if he would die in a Navy war.
I filled my rusty, brown jug with seawater. I took it to Sloppy Joe’s bar and gave it to the bartender. He poured me a shot on the house. It tasted nothing like an egg cream. I asked him for something to cleanse my palate. He gave me a slice of lime. I squeezed it in my mouth. It helped.
He said, “Slice of lime two dollars.”
I said, “I’m a little tight right now. Is there anything I can do to work it off?”
He said no.
I bet him two dollars that I could run faster than he could. He accepted my challenge. So far, I’m winning.
Phillip Barcio is an American fiction author and art writer. In addition to appearing in Swamp Ape Review, his work has been featured by Space Squid, fēlan, Papergirl Bristol, 13Zine, IdeelArt and Tikkun. He lives and works in Evanston, Illinois.
To learn more, visit www.philbarcio.com.