Cake Vodka * Fiction * M. Leona Godin

There was this blind kid, a really young large kid, but very sweet, very sensitive kind of soul. He’d walk in and come straight to the counter. He moved fast. The bells on the door would just finish jingling and he’d be in front of us saying politely, “Hey how’s it going Could you grab me a bottle of that Cake Vodka?”

In the beginning, he always came in wearing a shirt and tie. He said he worked at some blind organization on Varick, and I guess we were on his way to the subway. He got around real good. He’d bolt down that street, swinging his stick, and people would jump out of the way like he was swinging a saber. Sometimes I watched him stand on the corner, and people would offer to take him across and you could tell that he was politely refusing their help. It amused me to see the smile on his face when he told them he didn’t need their assistance and the frown on the face of the disappointed sighted person. Then the light would change, and he’d leave them in the dust.

One time I asked him, “How do you know when the light changes?”

“I listen, and walk when I hear the parallel traffic go.”

He didn’t seem to mind my questions. He wasn’t angry or anything, like you see sometimes. Like Al Pacino in that movie where he plays that angry blind guy and then out of nowhere the babe shows up. Seems pretty far-fetched to me.

Funny to think how I held my breath the first time Dave–that was the blind kid’s name–came into the shop, as if he’d go ploughing through the place knocking over bottles of champagne. Instead he called out “Hello?” And when I answered, Marco Polo style, from behind the counter “Over Here,” he came right over and never had to be told again where it was.

Back in the early days, Dave was always in a good mood. He’d stand at the counter and chat with us, and sometimes other customers too, about the weather and it being the end of a work day, and other stuff strangers talk about when they’re thrown together and feeling chummy. I guess it made his just standing there waiting for his cake vodka less awkward. And it was always cake vodka, always a liter.

People get into these ruts with their liquor consumption. It’s strange. For instance, there’s this really nice distinguished couple. They’re in their twilight years and always seem happy. They come in and spend twelve hundred dollars a week on wine. Not on a case. On a few bottles. Sometimes three hundred a bottle, but always the same exact bottles. All that money. We try sometimes to steer them in a new direction. “Why don’t you try this Barbaresco?”–This bottle, not one of us can pass it by without drooling–but no, they don’t budge. Some people just don’t like change, and others can’t get enough of it.

Then again, even the people who want something different get sort of the same kind of thing, variations on a theme you might say. Like a new whiskey every time or a new California chardonnay–though not on my watch. California chardonnay is the Devil’s own, as far as I’m concerned. I usually try to steer them to France, but if they insist, I wash my hands of the situation, pass them off to John or someone else who doesn’t mind selling people that oaky buttery swill.

Then there’s the flavored vodka people, usually chicks. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got nothing against chicks, but demographics get very stark, very black and white, in a liquor shop. It’s rare that someone really surprises you with their purchase. But yeah, the girls tend to go for the flavored vodkas, the young pretty girls who bop in with their glitter and bubblegum glamor. They even smell like the flavors they choose, like the vodka is just another accessory to their cuteness, their deliciousness.

Dave, I’m just thinking now, maybe didn’t know all those flavors existed. Maybe he would’ve liked to try Peanut Butter & Jelly or Apple Pie, but was too shy to ask. We would have been happy to tell him about the others. There’s even bacon-flavored vodka now.

It’s all chemicals of course, just like Red No. 3 and Yellow No. 1. Like how watermelon Jolly Ranchers don’t taste anything like real watermelon, but you couldn’t get enough when you were a kid, least I couldn’t. And then they use these same chemicals to flavor these shitty vodkas. It should be illegal, like candy cigarettes.

We can blame the mad genius of the food and beverage industry for countless strange addictions. For example, I can’t get enough Pringles. They’re not even really chips. They’re like the platonic ideal of potato chip, potato meal sculpted into unnatural perfection. I crave them. Get a tube pretty much every night after work, and finish it. Sometimes there are just a few left in the tube when I wake up the next morning, and I say, “Blech,” and toss them. “Never again.” But of course that’s never true. Everyone’s got their demons.

Dave started out buying a liter of cake vodka every four days or so, then it went to one a day, and then he came in for two. I remember the day he got two liters, and I was like, “shit dude,” but of course I didn’t say that. It happens all the time in this business that you have to watch someone fall down, real slow, you have to watch them fall into the booze hole. Things tend to get real focused down there.

There’s this old lady who buys a handle–that’s one thousand seven hundred and fifty milliliters–of Ketel One every other day. She weighs ninety pounds, if that, and she’s kind and needs help crossing the street. Once I saw her get almost blown over in the wind crossing Greenwich. And this little old lady drinks almost a liter of vodka a day. And we know she lives alone because a few of the guys have delivered to her. She’s just as sweet as can be–your grandma–and she packs away all that booze and still lives. It’s heroic.

What I’m saying is that, generally speaking, the true alcoholics dispense with all the bells and whistles and just drink. Dave was like that, except for the cake flavoring, which if you ask me was the only such addiction in the history of alcoholism. Once he got to the two-liter days, there was no more shirt and tie. And not much chitchat. He was always polite, but you could tell he was going down. And he was young. In his early twenties. He had been kind of one of those big jolly fellows, except blind, and then he wasn’t anymore–jolly I mean.

The French Fuck always had at least one prostitute with him

It was around that time that the incident happened.

We had this French Fuck who came in every weekend and spent probably two grand a month on pints of shit normal people don’t touch. He wasn’t blind, but we had to describe every bottle like he couldn’t read. All these Eurotrash pints that we keep up at the counter: cognacs, cordials, liqueurs. And of course we’d be slammed because it’s a weekend night and he didn’t give a shit. He made us go through these things and would hold up the line. He wanted new cough syrups every time, and he’d be hopped up on coke and aggressive and acted like he was the center of the universe. His mantra was “Do you know who I am?”

Every time we tried to move the process along a little, or got fed up with his Kirsch this and his Benedictine that, he said, “Do you know who I am?” And we didn’t. We didn’t care. He always paid in cash so there was no accidentally seeing who he was. As far as we were concerned, he was the French Fuck. But Donna, that’s our owner who knows more than she should about all our high rollers, informed us once that he was the scion of some French flavor and fragrance corporation, which maybe explains his fetish for outrageous flavors, but doesn’t seem to have anything to do with his predilection for coke and prostitutes.

The French Fuck always had at least one prostitute with him. At least one, sometimes two. These women were as ragged as he was, but still had some conscience. You could see their skin crawling and it was really something. They were embarrassed! These were the most haggy worn out women you’ve ever seen, and even they got this look like, “Get me outta here.” But they didn’t go. They stuck it out with that French Fuck. Till the end, from what I hear.

That night, he came in early for him, and Dave, he came in late. They shouldn’t have met. It was one of those really unfortunate coincidences.

The French Fuck was hogging all the counter space and generally being his strung out obnoxious self. And John was working with me that night, and losing his cool a little, as we all did when dealing with that guy.

The French Fuck asked John, “Where is this Eau de Vie de Poire coming from?” in his hard-living accent that made no effort to sound like anything other than French.

“What?”

“The pear brandy,” he said, rolling his eyes, as if speaking French was our problem, and the line snaked out behind him.

That’s when Dave came in. There was a little flicker of the jolly person he used to be there, like he was looking forward to something. He even had a nice clean shirt on again. And, like he always did, he came right up to the counter to get assistance. I said, “Hey Dave, I’ll be right with you.”

“No problem. Thanks Stephen.” He was amazing at recognizing our voices.

I rang up customers as fast as I could, praying that no one would ask for anything complicated. I finally got caught up and turned my attention to Dave, who said he wanted to try something new.

“I’ve got a friend visiting. She says she likes chardonnay.”

“Hot date?” I said, and he got a big grin on his face.

“Naw, just an old school friend.” But you could tell, whoever she was, she had potential.

“No problem. You got a price in mind?”

“Is forty bucks enough for something good?”

“Definitely. I’ve got just the bottle for you.”

“Awesome. Thanks man.”

“I’ll be right back,” I said and walked up the three steps to France and Italy, next to the table where a few people were bunched enjoying our weekend tasting.

The French Fuck wanted to add absinthe–that guy was a walking cliché–to the night’s collection, and John told me later that Dave said something simple like, “What’s that? Or what’s in that? Just to make small talk. Like I said, he was very sensitive, and he probably felt the tension.

So John started addressing his spiel to Dave as well, assuring the French Fuck that the botanicals were distilled and not just mixed and that yes, it was the real deal with the chlorophyll, not green food coloring, and yes, of course wormwood–it’s not banned in the States anymore.

At the mention of wormwood Dave apparently made a funny face and said, “wormwood? Or “What’s wormwood?” and laughed, which is when the French Fuck laid into him.

I was in Burgundy with my hand around the neck of a romantic bottle of Chablis, when I heard those puckered lips flapping. “Look at this fat blind boy, telling me what I should drink.”

By the time I got back to the counter, Dave was not smiling. And French Fuck was spewing all kinds of nastiness. “It’s a shame you are stupid and tasteless too blind boy. You eat too much cake blind boy. Do you piss yourself blind boy?”

“Alright, that’s enough. Time to leave.” I said, dropping my retail voice and picking up the bouncer routine. I’m this shop’s heavy.

“What? You are kicking me out? Do you know who I am?”

“I don’t care who you are. Just leave. I don’t want to hear another word from you.”

French Fuck’s face turned purple, he was so furious. But he was this little scrappy old guy, disgusting sinewy muscles. I’m not little or scrappy or old–not yet. I could have picked him up and tossed him out on his head if it came to that. I knew John would back me up. But all I had to do was inflate my chest and herd him and his hookers towards the door with much snapping and snarling on all sides. That was not the first time I kicked the French Fuck and his entourage out, or the last. But it was the last time I got any kind of pleasure out of it.

Recently Donna told us the French Fuck died of pancreatic cancer. He stopped coming in about a year ago. Maybe it’d been growing in there even that night. Funny how you come to like even the ugly things. He harassed us for years, but it was a pain in the ass you kind of get used to. Hard to believe I’m still here. I’ll be getting my gold star for ten years soon. Not exactly what I had in mind for myself when I moved to the city, but not everyone gets to live the New York dream, right?

“Where’s my cane?” Dave asked the mad void

Dave left with his bottle of wine. I could see he just wanted to get the hell out. Still, I should have told him to wait. But the customers were clustering after the hubbub and the phone orders started up furiously and people all not very nice on a Friday night when they have too much money and an immediate need for their end of week debauchery.

“Stephen,” John said, “I think Dave needs help.”

I looked out the window and saw, in the mirk of the Village just beyond the fluorescent glow of our sign, one of the whores tugging French Fuck by the arm, trying to drag him away, and the other trying to hail a cab. She looked just as trashy as could be, and it was beginning to rain, so it wouldn’t be easy.

The French Fuck, ignoring the pulling, was standing tall and yelling up at Dave like he was a child. If Dave wasn’t blind he could’ve squashed French Fuck like a bug. He probably could’ve done it anyway, since it wouldn’t have been any trouble to locate the source of the little tyrant’s yapping, but Dave didn’t have it in him. He wasn’t that kind of person, blind or not.

I moved like mud through the customers. As the door jangled in my hand, I saw through the pane the French Fuck snatch Dave’s cane. Dave lurched and practically fell over trying to grab it back. I got out just in time to see Dave, looking almost comically like Frankenstein’s monster, move clumsily in the direction of the French Fuck.

“This will teach you to talk to me,” the French Fuck taunted. “Fat boy, fat blind boy.” He skipped to the gutter and Dave stepped recklessly towards him and the whores screamed, and I think even I screamed, as the French Fuck let the white stick drop into the black between the grates. “Bye bye blind baton!”

Dave looked stricken. He shouted, “Give it back! Give it back! Fuck you, give it back!”

Just then, a cab pulled up. The whores dragged the French Fuck in and they sped off. My hands were itching to pound that little fucker into the ground, but Dave needed my help, so it’s probably best that I didn’t get arrested for assault.

“Where’s my cane?” Dave asked into what must have seemed to him a mad void of evil revelers.

“He dropped it into the gutter,” I told him. “I’m sorry man. That guy is a fuckhead.”

“My cane is in the gutter?”

“Your cane is in the New York City Sewer system. It’s gone man.”

“Oh.” His face crumpled. I thought he might cry.

“Can I get you a cab?”

“Ok.”

“You wanna come in the shop before you take off? Drinks on the house.” I tried to make my smile hit my voice.

“Naw. Thanks.” He hung his head and it seemed as if he was looking into the darkness where his cane had gone, but the gutter wasn’t right there. It was a few paces off, but still it looked like he was seeing his cane down in the depths, drifting away from him in the flow of debris and detritus.

“You sure?”

“Yeah. Just please get me a cab. I wanna go home.”

“You have another cane?”

“Yeah,” he said, the idea of the other cane seeming to make him feel even worse.

“Do you need me to go with you?” I felt I was going too far, but I didn’t know the extent of the predicament. Could he get into his house without his cane?

“I’ll be fine. Just please get the cab.”

Hate to say it, but I was relieved. Donna would have had my ass for leaving on a Friday night, even if I had a good reason. I walked into the street, waving around and whistling, but the rain was steady now, and the hotshots in their headlong rushes needed to keep their heels dry.

I kept looking back at Dave in his nice shirt that was now running with rivulets and clinging to his pudgy chest and his face that showed nothing except a disheartening wetness. I hoped he could reclaim his romantic evening with his girl. He was embarrassed now, ashamed. I know how that is. But the night was still salvageable. He still clutched his bottle of wine. It was a beautiful bottle.

I finally got a cab and told the driver that my friend was blind and asked him to hold on, let me get him. The driver, he had a turban, and he said, “Ok, but hurry. Friday night.”

I grabbed Dave, which was apparently the wrong thing to do. He startled. But then I said, “It’s me man, Stephen, I got a cab. Come on.”

“Don’t pull me like that!” It was not exactly anger in his voice, more like intense frustration.

“What?”

“Sorry. I just need to take your arm.” He pulled his arm free of my grasp and felt for my arm. I think I understood, but it stung. I was just trying to help. Then I tried to put him in the cab, but he got turned around somehow. I didn’t know what to do. He seemed lost in the tiny triangular space. Finally he felt the seat and got in.

The driver said, “Where to?”

“Forest Hills, please.” Dave back to his autopilot politeness.

The driver gave me a look. The “fucking Queens” look, and I ignored him. I said to Dave, “Can I give you a twenty?”

“No thank you,” he said, tight lipped.

It almost pissed me off, the way he turned from me, like I was the bad guy, but I let it go. “Ok then. Have a good night. I’ll see you next time.”

“Sure,” he said.

I shut the door and tapped the roof. Dave’s cab joined the dazzling stream of headlights carrying weekenders uptown. It stood in traffic for a couple minutes, glinting along with all of Greenwich in that magical way it does when it rains. Then the light changed and the cab picked up speed. I saw the arm reach out with a bottle in its hand and let go. The bottle exploded in the street, a tiny firework in the perpetual sparkling that is New York City.

*M. Leona Godin is a writer, actor, and educator who is blind. She received her PhD in English Literature from NYU. She is a Catapult columnist, and has been published in PLAYBOY, FLAPPERHOUSE, Quail Bell Magazine, and more. She serves on the editorial review board of Newtown Literary and is the founding editor of Aromatica Poetica.*