A Sardine on Vacation, Episode 15
Social Pets, Part II
McNulty has had many years to cultivate idiosyncrasies. Observing them the past fifteen, the Sardine cannot find fault in them; indeed, he can attain satisfaction watching the peculiar McNulty processes unfold. The Sardine, however, does not desire to emulate them.
Take his most unconscious action. Smoking cigarettes. Menthol, two packs daily. Usually smokes them three-quarters of the way to the filter. When he stubs the remainder into the ashtray, he knocks the hot end from the butt and then dances the remainder of the butt around the hot glowing ash. He never crushes or touches this hot end. Never. In fifteen years. Nor has the Sardine asked why not!
A superstition? The way he had been trained?
As if the firm red glowing ash were a sacred flame which must extinguish itself. A sacred flame memorializes his self-destructive pleasures by, paradoxically, his never wanting to see the ash die.
In the same vein, he must derive sublime satisfaction from this Epicurean ritual. The Polish writer, Witold Gombrowicz, records this type of ritual in his novel, Cosmos.
One of its characters, Leo, patriarch of a family that runs a boarding house, is observed rolling pellets of bread at the dinner table. Into the pellet Leo places toothpicks. The activity is dismissed by all except the narrator, who understands the secret delights within Leo’s apparently absurd activity. This and other like activities are called “bergs.” The word suggests iceberg, and in the social milieu we instinctively know to avoid these bergs, especially in conversation.
Maybe McNulty made secret bets with himself as to the duration of the fire in the ash. You would think you were engaging him in the deepest conversations in philosophy, theology, cosmology, while his eye was furtively taking in the ash and his watch.
What were the stakes in these bets? None, if he were truly involved in his berg. Nor would it matter practically. Not after a lifetime of observing the hot ash at the center of the ashtray.
The Sardine would never dare to disturb McNulty's ash. I had more respect for it than he had for Frank Weathers' favorite television show. The ash was his berg. For, a berg was an authentic social pet!
Others might call McNulty's respect for the hot ash a symptom of fifty years of finicky behavior tolerated by a loving wife and a respectful public. But you haven't seen finicky until you have observed McNulty's other social pets (without the degree of berg-ness that the sacred ash had).
The drink ritual would surely scandalize the Health Utopians as would his two- pack-a-day habit.
"Uh-uh-uh," warned Father Grindgrad, "remember the court injunction."
During an evening out, McNulty starts with two vodka and tonics with a squeeze of lime (the second vodka might be substituted with a Bloody Mary). At dinner, he takes a glass of red wine, Bordeaux or Merlot and barely eats two-thirds of the food portions. The afterdinner drinks start with a Grand Mariner (if he's bad he'll have two), another vodka and tonic, then to cap the evening's proceedings an Anisette in a large snifter and/or a bottle of Samuel Adams.
Nothing happens, nobody proceeds to the next level of the evening out until each stage of the drink ritual is completed. And this is the quality that a “berg” does not contain: the conscious feeling (by those around him) of being imposed on. Tension rises at several intervals during this ritual, for instance, when the tonic's lime has inadvertently deposited a seed or two into the drink (AKA "the seed problem"). Or when McNulty still has a drink and a half thirty minutes after last call. The last especially depresses bartenders like Joe T., who always seems to have some place to go thirty minutes before last call. The Anisette takes forever to be finished. The only hope is that Honey, McNulty's wife, is there to drag him home (she usually finishes her one drink an hour before he has started on the Anisette).
Worse than the seed problem is the "sticky glass" problem. Occasionally, McNulty orders a snifter of Grand Mariner or Apricot Brandy and every other time the glass sticks to his fingers. No matter how busy, the bartender is expected to bring over a wet rag to rescue this sticky situation.
Like my reaction to the sacred ash, the bartenders leave McNulty's "problems" unremarked. The bartenders know that an evening with McNulty will entail one of the above problems if not another problem I have no space to mention. Indeed, they curse to themselves or remark smartly when they see the white head of hair crossing the parking lot. They think they are unhappy to see him.
Little do they or others who believe they “put up” with McNulty’s habitual foibles know that he has secretly (to themselves) become their social pet.
His civility, sense of humor, and good conversation even softens the impatient worlds of Joe T. and Frank Weathers. His presence, despite the annoyances, is cherished, nearly wished for--until he orders the Anisette on the rocks, which also gets a squeeze of lime, which could perpetuate the seed and sticky glass problems simultaneously and then, as my Pun Pal might say, all pets are off.
The Sardine's essays, articles, and stories have appeared around the Internet in the last few years at 3 A.M., Facets, Eclectica magazine, Fiction Funhouse, The Fiction Warehouse, 5_trope, and several film journals. Who and what he is probably will be revealed at various points through the articles appearing at this site. If you want to reach him, his address is firstname.lastname@example.org.