( Excerpted from the forthcoming Yerba Maté - a Novel )
“I been off the sauce for eighteen years now,” grumbled the gravelly-voiced old man with the nine o'clock shadow. “Lemme' tell you, when a man hits rock bottom, there's nowhere to go but up.”
“Or stay on the bottom,” said Michael Nitrous.
In another universe or in another dimension, Michael Nitrous had run into a man who was a deep-sea pearl collector. That is, he went and collected pearls on the bottom of the deep, deep sea. He did not just go and buy pearls that someone else had gone to the trouble of harvesting, no sir. He went there himself, and faced the dangers that one faces when collecting things while on the bottom of the deep, deep sea. Sharks. Piranhas. Cuttlefish. Jacques Cousteau Disease.
Shark are large, top-level predators that like to eat soft things without a lot of crunch to them. My friend Brian (a friend of Michael Nitrous, as well, in case you were wondering) always used to maintain that there was nothing like a normally soft food that suddenly had a little crunch to it. He was thinking in terms of chocolate and nougat bars and that sort of thing. Maybe a nice soft cheese sandwich. When you hit some nuts or a crisp wafer in your nougat bar, it makes your palate sit up and take notice. You do too, in fact. You might say “wow...this is some nice wafer in this nougat bar.” If you come across something crunchy in your nice soft melted cheese sandwich, there is the same effect. You might say “wow...this is some very nice crispy bacon in this cheese sandwich.” It all kind of goes together.
With the sharks, it is quite different. As I am told, they tend to like nice soft foods like jellyfish and squid, and when they hit something crunchy, like a femur or an oxygen tank, they are less than excited about it. Wouldn't you feel the same?
Piranhas don't actually live at the bottom of the deep, deep sea – they are river-dwelling carnivorous fish with enormous appetites and razor-sharp teeth. They mostly populate the murky waters of the Amazon and late-night horror films.
Cuttlefish are cephalopods who have the most amazing ability (also known as a “super-hero power”). When threatened, they are able to throw off what is called a “pseudomorph” - a glob of ink surrounded by mucous that looks amazingly similar to the cuttlefish itself. It will do this to confuse an attacker, who will bite the pseudomorph and get a mouthful of ink and mucous rather than cuttlefish. How delightful!
Jacques Cousteau Disease is a disease named after a famous deep-sea diver. The disease is contracted by speaking French at extreme depths. Some people have even developed symptoms of the disease after merely thinking in French at the right depths. Native French speakers are immune, however.
The deep sea diver whom Michael Nitrous had met in another universe and another dimension had said something very simple and very profound to him. What he said to him was this seemingly pithy little epithet: “when you hit the bottom, you can only do one of two things – go up or stay on the bottom.”
There you are. Michael looked at Jerry Grogan, sitting there and weaving. Weaving while he sat in a chair – this was no small feat. Michael knew that he was most likely lying about being dry for eighteen years. He could smell the booze on him.
“I have two questions for you,” said Nitrous. “One, how come every time I meet a drunk who has gone through rehab the only two subjects they want to talk about are themselves and recovery from alcoholism? Two, how the hell do you expect me to believe that you haven't had a drink in eighteen years? You stink like a distillery.”
Jerry Grogan sat upright as much as he could. “First, I ain't never been through rehab. I'm a stinking drunk, and I just like talking about myself. Second, I never said I don't drink – I said I've been off the sauce. Clean out your ears, homeslice.”
The phrase “the sauce” or “on the sauce” or “off the sauce” usually had to do with alcohol, you have to understand. You probably do already. “Sauce,” then, was this euphemism for alcohol. To be on the sauce was to be actively (or passively, I guess) allowing alcohol to have a physiological effect on you. Typically it suggested that the person “on the sauce” was drinking regularly and giving into a destructive dependence on alcohol.
The crazy thing is that when Jerry Grogan said “the sauce” he did not mean alcohol. He was actually referring to a sauce. As I am prone to do, I will share the recipe for this sauce with you now:
2 eggs, separated
1 cup white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1 micro-rod of partially-depleted Tropericium (finely ground)
salt and pepper to taste
Beat egg whites until stiff peaks form. Discard. Combine egg yolks, vinegar, mustard and ground Tropericium in a lead bowl. Stir until it forms a smooth paste. Apply paste to base of skull. Sprinkle salt and pepper onto tongue until the taste goes away. Repeat as necessary.
Jerry Grogan had been repeating this far more than was absolutely necessary until about eighteen years ago, when he finally managed to quit using “the sauce”.