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Literary Cocktails

Preston Grassmann is a Shirley Jackson Award nominee for The Unquiet Dreamer, released by PS Publishing in the summer of 2019. His most recent work has been published in Nature Magazine, Strange Horizons, Shoreline of Infinity, and Futures 2 (Tor). He is a regular contributor to Nature and works as a freelance editor for Titan Publishing in the UK. He currently lives in Japan.

I knew there was something different about Literary Cocktails the moment I walked in--it was mostly silent and much too sober, save for a few people who sat hunched over their drinks, speaking quietly to themselves. When I approached the counter, a few customers stole nervous glances in my direction.
"You just came out of the Scrublands?" the bartender asked.
"How do you know that?"
"I've seen it often enough," he said. "This is a place people come after a purge."
"To forget?"
"To make new memories," he said with a wink. "Did somebody refer you to this place?"
I took out the card--it read GOOD FOR ONE FREE DRINK. Above that, in small black Baskerville font, was the name of the bar and an address. "Yeah, somebody handed it to me when I got out."
"How much do you remember?"
When I tried to recall what I'd lost, the memories were like sinkholes in a half-familiar landscape--whole texts and conversations had been purged by a state-enforced erasure. But sometimes, a few scattered fragments would drift to the surface:
I'll hold onto the world....
Stuff your eyes with wonder....
"Not much," I said.
"I've been through the Scrublands a few times. I know how it feels to lose a part of yourself." The bartender leaned forward to produce a menu from under the bar. "But we have a solution here."
Next to each listed cocktail, there was an author's name. As he noticed me looking at the White Russian, he began to quote:
"Man has such a predilection for systems and abstract deductions that he is ready to distort the truth intentionally, he is ready to deny the evidence of his senses...."
I knew that I was breaking the law by being there, but curiosity and defiance was something the state had never been able to take away.
"What is that from?" I asked.
"Notes from Underground. In truth, I like a good White Russian more than Dostoevsky, but you get both for the price of one."
"I'm not sure I understand," I said.
"Standard Russian vodka, Kahlua, and a splash of heavy cream. And a famous literary text by a 19th Century Russian writer. You might want to see how it works for yourself," he said, nodding to the others at the bar.
There were two customers sitting next to me. One of them was a young woman staring into the murky depths of her drink. The other was a large, white-bearded man with an empty glass, waiting to order.
"You think you can show our friend here how it works?" the bartender asked.
The bearded man turned slowly in my direction and smiled. "How about a Rye Old Fashioned?" he said. I watched the bartender work, mixing two ounces of rye whiskey with bitters, a strip of lemon peel, and one teaspoon of sugar.
"The Catcher in the Rye," the man said.
I watched him take a sip, stunned into silence as he began to recite Salinger:
"What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours...."
When the bearded man was finished, the bartender explained how each ingredient, taken alone, would have little or no effect--undetectable if the scrubbers ever came. But taken together, a given text could be unlocked, and transferred directly to the mind of the drinker. It could then be recalled with a simple mnemonic device--the memory of taste.
The woman at the bar began to quote from another text as she drank:
"There was a chance that if they kept on shaking their chains, one day, someday, the clasps upon the shackles would part...."
"Nights at the Circus," the bartender said, nodding in her direction. "The Kitchen Magpie--whiskey, boiling water, honey, ground nutmeg, lemon, cloves, and cinnamon."
I listened to them both for a long time, alternating between the recitations of Carter and Salinger.
"What do you recommend?" I asked.
"That depends on you."
I scanned the list on the menu until I came to a familiar name. "How about this one?" I said.
"You've come to the right place," the bartender said. "I make one of those at least once a day."
I watched him carefully as he poured Kahlua into the bottom of a shot glass and added Irish Cream and Grand Marnier with a spoon. At the end, he pulled out a bottle of 151 rum (the 1 changed to look like a 4) and he lit the whole thing on fire.
"A Flaming B-52, or as I like to call it: Fahrenheit 451."
The End
This story was first published on Monday, September 7th, 2020

Author Comments

The most fascinating aspects of narrative dystopia, for me, are how characters overcome adversity and face their oppressors. The worlds portrayed in books like 1984, Fahrenheit 451, and (most recently) Sarah Pinsker's A Song for a New Day, were never meant to be advocated. And yet, here we are, playing out absurdist versions of the worlds they imagined, in one way or another. For me, books and stories (and art in general) are sanctuaries from oppression, the means of holding on to those incontrovertible aspects of ourselves that others might try to purge--our souls, if you will. That was where this piece came from. "Literary Cocktails" is also my tribute to Ray Bradbury, a man I've met on several occasions, but never had the pleasure of drinking with. I hope you enjoyed it.

- Preston Grassmann
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