Sunday, March 30, 2014

A stranger in the Tempus Fugit.

A storm has settled over New York and its environs bringing an unrelenting, punishing rain. It's rained all day and all night and is expected to rain all tomorrow, too. To be clear, the rain is not all that unwelcome. We've had a harsh winter and filth sits on the city gathering in the gutters of every street. The rain is strong enough to loosen the accumulation and wash some of the less sturdy detritus away.

The rain was wicked last night, lashing against the large window in my bedroom, making noise like a Hollywood Foley. It's teeming, I said to myself, a perfect night, then, for the Tempus Fugit.

In minutes I was dressed and then I fortified myself against the storm, wearing tall rubber galoshes and my ancient oil-skin. I looked fairly like a Gloucester fisherman staring down a furious gale. I was as impervious as a rock. Whiskey, who doesn't mind the rain, meekly accepted her collar and together we made our way to our safe harbor in the storm.

"Something different tonight," the bartender said, instead of hello, as we entered the Tempus Fugit.

"I was hankering for a Pike's."

"It is too brutal out for that. Tonight you need something to warm your bones."

He turned to the back of the teak bar where bottles were standing at attention like soldiers. He moved bottles aside until he lifted one labelled "XPEHOBYXA," in Cyrillic.

"Hrenovuha," he said, "Wren-O-Voo-Ha. It has no English translation. It's vodka from Tsar Peter's time. It's made from horse radish. The Tsar decreed that every farmstead must produce vodka. Hrenovuha was the result."

"Horse radish?"

"Would you prefer a Menshevik this evening or a Bolshevik? A Menshevik is a Hrenovuha with a slice of beet. A Bolshevik is a Hrenovuha with a few drops of Tabasco."

"I've never been a fan of beets," I answered. "Hit me with a Bolshevik."

He poured me a shot and shook in four drops of hot sauce.

"Твоё здоровье!"

"Back atcha," I answered.

I took a tentative sip. My tongue liked what it found and I shot down the rest. I tapped hard the glass on the bar and he filled me again.

"Твоё здоровье!" I said.

As I finished my second, the bartender did the same.

"That ain't bad," I said. "I'll admit I was expecting less from horse radish vodka."

"We mustn't," he said "let the dominant complacency interfere with our unbiased perceptions."

Again I said, "Твоё здоровье!"

He filled me a third time and began polishing the already polished bar with his damp white terry. 

"About 50 years ago, I was right here in this spot, and a small be-hatted, bespectacled and wispy-bearded old man entered the Tempus Fugit. He had under his arm the bottle of Hrenovuha that we drank from. He was a strange, bird-like old man. He handed over the bottle and then asked if he could come behind the bar and stand with me."

"'I am Lev Davidovich Bronshtein, comrade.'

"Lev Davidovich Bronshtein," I repeated. "You're Leon Trotsky.

"'The People's Commissar for Foreign Affairs, Chairman of the Supreme Military Council, President of the Petrograd Soviet,  Full member of the 8th, 9th, 10, 11th, 12th, 13th and 14th Politburos.  Founder of the Fourth Internationale. Exile. And lover of Frida Kahlo. It is I." And he clicked the heels of his well-polished brogues.'

"But you were killed, assassinated. Struck down by the GPU with an ice pick.

"'An ice-axe,' he corrected. 'And yes, I said Stalin has finally accomplished the task he attempted unsuccessfully before. But that was all a ruse. I was merely woundedStalin did not prevail.'

"Trotsky took the Hrenovuha he carried with him and opened it on the bar. He removed four shot glasses from underneath the teak and filled them. Two of the glasses he adorned with small slices of beet he had removed from a small square of waxed paper. 'Menshevik.' he said, and we drank. The other two he garnished with drops of tabasco from a small bottle. 'Bolshevik.' He said as we drank.

"'And this is for you,' he said handing me the bottle of Hrenovuha. 'Let each who drinks from it be a lover of freedom and a fighter for the rights of man. Let the struggle of the working class burn as hot as the coals in the People's furnace.'

"With that short speech, Trotsky shook my hand and left the Tempus Fugit."

"But all reports had him dying in Mexico City," I said, "almost 75 years ago."

He put the vodka away in its place behind the bar.

"Твоё здоровье!"

"Твоё здоровье!" I replied.

I slid two twenties his way. "Your health," I said.

"To Trotsky," he answered.

And Whiskey and I walked home, slightly tipsy, in the rain.

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