Boulevard Place appears on no map. Denied in ink on scrolls of any provenance and unreliably pinpointed by rebellious archangel satellites, it remained a blank spot to all in the metropolis of Atlanta but those few lost denizens who happened to wander a street or two over from the carbon monoxide haze of Ponce De Leon Avenue to discover what the eponymous explorer himself could not: the fountain of youth in drinks poured out by old Nick, the demiurge of Nick’s Quixotery. The Quixotery was housed within a ramshackle manse built near the turn of the last century and was owned by an unnamed and rarely seen individual who was supposed to appear only on holidays and at odd hours. Nick was noncommittal and, when questioned closely, roundly cursed the owner in terms that made even the decadent regulars of the Quixotery blush.
“I’m only the caretaker, you bastards. You’re lucky to have me. Who would feed you booze in your sorrowful condition if I weren’t here?”
The Quixotery itself bloomed along a line of houses of similar nature, all in ill repair, which rolled down Boulevard place, each leaning on the other another, invalids of wood and stone, waiting for a medieval king to notice them and place a hand on their broken pons and heal the crumbling shingles. Dripping and sagging the straggled down the forgotten street. Each side was home to the cast off, the disappeared, those who had taken a wrong turn while walking without a guide. Messages were chalked on the broken pavement, read upside down by walkers huffing it up the hill and were skipped over in the same fashion modernity had leapt the plaintive cries of a cargo cult, with a sense of lost purpose and with grave doubt that any angel could read them from above. Nick’s Quixotery sat surely in the middle of this scribbling of the soul, secure, ancient, a pumpkin proud of its rotting innards, noisy in a quiet way, an odd anthill of hope and scorn.
The place itself was certainly illegal. No certificate of business was evident on its stained walls. Kudzu creeping up from a deep ravine behind the manse closed off any possibility of inspection of water, power, or sewage lines. The saturnine leaves climbed the chipped wooden columns to write its name on the roof in a green sans serif. Inside, an old parchment nailed to the wall above the sinuous cracked bar stated that the Government of the Confederate States recognized the de-facto existence of the establishment behind enemy lines and was signed with an indecipherable scrawl. Another beside it declared it anathema by the Pope where it was listed among a dozen establishments recommended closed as dens of the utmost iniquity, spreaders of false doctrine, and exemplars of Dante’s worst moral fears. Swords from various ages hung on the plaster walls alongside war clubs of Creek and Cherokee indians. Stone totems sat collecting dust in the corners mugging at the bibulous crowd who hunched over the bar where they watched Nick set up drinks like rows of tombstones. An old Confederate battle flag, scarred by Yankee bullets which had killed the last true aristocracy, hung to one side, occluding the entrance to the Tartarus Room, where the weekly game of Crawdad was being held. It was this game, one I had attended every Wednesday evening for the last three years, which drew me to the Quixotery just before a lazy mosquitoed dusk.
From the noisy traffic of Boulevard I made a sharp left turn onto Boulevard Place and, vaulting over the daemonic sigils of despair, strolled down the sidewalk and up the dozen wooden steps to the foreboding front door of the Quixotery, curses and imploring calls from lost denizens flying over my head. My hat, inscribed prophylactically with the inscription ‘Harris Tweed’, kept me safe as usual and I ducked through a double door blackened by the soot of a thousand chimneys and the bug-speckled grime of a southern summer blown against its vertical plane.
Nick was in the back as usual, squinting through a frosted monocle as he stirred yet another uncountable martini. The monocle was circled by a gold band and was supposed to have been given to Nick sometime during World War II by a Sicilian Baron who was later paralyzed in an air raid in Salzburg. Nick said it was a gift for some advice about women but no one believed him since Nick didn’t look a day over a hard-drinking thirty-eight. A stocky goateed man, with forearms a thick as Popeye’s, Nick was a consummate liar and known to fib about the weather among other things. When the innocent went to verify his assertion through a grimy cracked portal he returned to find his untasted whiskey or ale gone and no amount of cursing could induce Nick to pour a replacement-the tantalized cherub must order another at full price. Nick was, however, known to be charitable to those who exhibited a real drinking problem, providing drinks gratis when sobbing reached a crescendo. Asked about this behaviour he invariably replied that moralizing was the least of the world’s problems considering the precarious state of the human soul. “It needs to be moved, one way or the other, and not just talked about.”. And when a vestigial conscience motivated one of the stone-faced gargoyles seated at the long forensic slab of a bar to call to the prickly bartender’s attention that tying an anchor to a drowning man was unlikely to result in saving even one soul the monocle would point, a foggy kaleidoscope, at the inquisitor and Nick would proceed to give an exhaustive and unchallenged encyclopedia of all that was wrong with humanity, including its propensity to love too much and get itself in trouble through utopian ideology. Did the soul really want to be saved? Duly admonished, the gargoyles went mum and raised their glasses in a fascist salute, toasting an indisputable and infernal wisdom.
Nick disdained to enter the Tartarus room except on rare occasion and so I ordered my poison across the bar.
“Booze, brown and pungent.”
“Legal or cheap?”
Nick scrutinized me through the monocle, lifted my hat and gave the shape of my skull an appraising look. Then he nodded. “Ripe.”
“Ripe what?” I tossed off the unnamed spirit and narrowed my eyes. “Ripe what?”
Nick put the bottle back under the table and turned his back, making a show of moving dust around on miraculous crocks from ages gone. Nick’s cellar must be spectacular, the regulars speculated, but no one had ever seen him enter it to bring up any nectar.
“Ripe what?” I repeated, throwing a glance over my shoulder at the curtain separating the Tartarus room from the common room.
Nick declined to answer but poured out a second of the volcanic spirit, which resembled something from an alchemist's alembic, redolent of smoky beams running through an old cob house, tarred at the corners and sweating with new grass on the thatched roof. I coughed and opened my eyes. Then I entered the Tartarus Room.