I thrive on the underbelly of Nomaville the way Amazonian mystics lick the tummies of certain tree frogs to invite hallucinogenic visions. Yesterday, however, while spelunking a local wine cave, I found myself no longer on Nomaville’s underbelly (which is to say, negotiating the purchase of a bottle of wine alleged to contain one of the devil’s own tears) but rather in the town’s digestive track. Specifically, the lower intestine, at least so far as I surmise from a map hastily drawn by the dealer on a cocktail napkin.
This dank corridor was an algae-slicked labyrinth that I had no sooner entered than wanted to exit. It was lit by a symphony of votive candles plotted such that it resembled a scale model of a constellation – Chiron, in this case, from the mythical toll-taker at the river Styx when en route to the underworld. Of course, I wasn’t on my way to the underworld, I was on my way out – or at least I hoped I was, though this premise began to dim with the waning candlelight.
As I passed the last flicker I was pleased to hear voices cavorting around the corner and deduced that I would either emerge in a nearby tasting room or City Hall, which, according to local lore, sits atop a nebulae of such tunnels and caverns radiating below the Plaza like the arms of a vast subterranean starfish. Either way, I figured I could likely charm my way through an awkward entrance by brandishing my reporter’s notebook and a knowing smile (engineered to imply that I’ve already got the answers to my questions, “so let’s buy me a drink and chat about public perception”). No such luck. I had stumbled into what was clearly a very private party and suffered the wrathful glare of a couple dozen rough-hewn revelers – in jerry-rigged miner’s helmets.
“Surface dweller,” one spat, before downing what was left in his glass and shuffling toward me. In the moment I had before landing atop a wine barrel from a deft thump to the chest, I realized that the phrase “surface dweller” had the vague glint of a racial epithet.
“Listen, I didn’t mean to crash your ‘eyes wide shut party, gents,’ I just took a wrong turn, you dig?” I sputtered, folding my notebook back into my breast pocket. So much for the charm, I thought.
“And you’re a reporter,” the hirsute gent clucked, eyeing my hand as it retreated from beneath my lapel. “We don’t like reporters. Or newspapers. They’re only useful by the toilet.”
“No shame in reading on the john.”
“We’re not reading ’em.”
I made a mental note to ask the Sun brass if we might someday have a “moon” edition, before making a dodge for the door – an escape that was foiled when I tripped over a case of wine and landed on my good knee, which in that moment, became my other bad knee.
The cavern filled with howls of derisive laughter. A brutish hand pulled me to my feet.
“You think you got something on us, do you ‘surface boy’?” the man chided, as I flinched from the light on his helmet.
“Besides vitamin D?” I retorted, which was rewarded with a sudden slug in the gut.
“Looking for a story to break in your rag?”
“No, I’m looking for wine.”
The troglodyte eased his grip and looked me hard in the eye.
“What kind of wine?”
“You know, the blasphemous kind,” I panted.
He took a step back to regard me, even lifted my chin to better survey my blanched face.
“The Devil’s Dew?”
“The one with the tear, whatever it’s called,” I wheezed back.
“Oh, dear,” the subterranean said as he brushed off my coat and straightened my collar. He snapped his fingers and his helmeted minions began to arrange the crates and barrels lying
about the floor into an improvised tasting room.
“Our apologies, sir. A lot of tourists wander off wine cave tours and well, you know, it’s bad for our kind of business. Would you like to see the tasting menu, then?”
“Please. Would you mind if I took notes?” I asked as I was seated upon a case of magnums, glad for the turn in my luck.
“The press receive complimentary tastings as well as a 30 percent discount on all purchases.”
“I thought you despised reporters.”
A glass filled before me.
“Well, you’re not much of a reporter are you, Mr. Howell?” he said and winked.
I took out my notebook and sifted to a fresh page. Then I wrote: “Must work on charm.”