The Oracle is hands-down the best daggum bar in Boston. Maybe in all of New England. Not that you’d know it to see it, of course. It’s not the swankiest joint in the area – this is New England, after all, and, while Boston ain’t New York City, these people do love to make things “classier” than they have any need to be. And it doesn’t drip with that dark wood, fish and chips, faux-Brit pubbiness that seems to be the rage with middle-class white folks, either.
To look at it, The Oracle is kind of a dump. It’s lit up with neon beer signs on the walls, christmas lights strung across the ceiling, and the glowing ember of the ever-present cigar in the mouth of the bartender and owner, Dianne. I guess nobody had the guts to tell her that you ain’t allowed to smoke indoors pretty much anywhere in this country. She’s got one of those no smoking signs on the wall behind the bar – the one with a crossed out cigarette on it? Says it just means she won’t tolerate cigarettes. Cigars, on the other hand? Dianne says that this place is her temple and cigars are just the incense and you don’t have to stay if you don’t like it.
No, it’s not a fancy bar with fancy people.
It doesn’t have a hundred beers on tap or mustachioed and bowtied bartenders who take fifteen minutes and twenty ingredients to make a cocktail. The Oracle has exactly three beers on tap (all big name domestics) and a small collection of bottles in the cooler. But one of those is always Abita, so it’s enough for me.
It’s not an exclusive club (you should see the riff-raff that drifts in and out of there, myself included), there’s no bouncer (nobody with a lick of sense crosses Dianne anyway), and the jukebox has approximately zero dance music on it.
What The Oracle does have, however, is a perfect sazerac. It’s not a good sazerac. It’s not a near perfect sazerac. The Oracle is the only bar outside of New Orleans where you can get a perfect sazerac. And that, friends, is what makes The Oracle the best daggum bar in Boston, hands-down.
When I moved here from New Orleans, seven years ago – fresh out of college – I had no idea what I was getting into. I thought I was off on some big adventure. Southern boy off to save the world, you know? Bringing hospitality and gumbo to the heathens. Folks would get a load of my southern charm and creole accent and fall in love with me. And if they didn’t line up for a parade right away? Well, that’d be alright because Boston is a coastal town and so is Nola so, obviously, they’d be pretty much the same. I’d get on just fine.
I found out the truth quickly, unfortunately. In Boston, I was an alien. I was a foreigner – a stranger in a strange land. People heard my accent and thought, “ignorant.” I was friendly to folks and they assumed I was naive and gullible. And I’m here to tell you right now that the Atlantic Ocean? It ain’t nothing like the Gulf. That water is angry with us for some reason, I think. It slams against New England like it’s trying to tear it to pieces one wave at a time.
Three months into my “grand adventure” in Boston and I was so homesick I could barely drag myself out of bed some mornings. It was a cold, grey, unfriendly place. I was real bogged down by it, I’ll tell you. It was at that point, on my way home after work on a frigid night, that I walked right past the bus station without realizing it in my depressed funk. And I found The Oracle. Or rather, The Oracle found me.
I was just walking along, missing New Orleans, when I heard the most beautiful sound in the world. Jazz. Not just jazz, but the particular brand of jazz that’s unique to Nola. Some people don’t realize that there are a bunch of different flavors of jazz. This jazz tasted like home. A clarinet, a trumpet, a piano, and a trap set keeping time, deep in the pocket and locked into that swinging groove that pulses with Big Easy energy. Lord help me, I love that sound.
I followed the music to a jukebox in a run-down building and made my way through the tables to the bar. As I sat down, Dianne (I obviously didn’t know her name at the time) slid a drink across the worn wooden bartop towards me.
“Been waiting for you to show up, mister,” she said. “Made that especially for you. You need it.”
Well, that was confusing for sure but I remember raising the glass slowly to my face anyway and giving it a sniff. The smell of absinthe and rye just about knocked me off my stool. That first sip was like coming alive. I hadn’t realized how down I was until, suddenly, I wasn’t.
I said something stupid like, “Whu? But… how?” Dianne just smiled and took a draw on that cigar of hers before letting out a long, slow plume of smoke.
Dianne is a striking woman. Tall and strong, with broad shoulders for a woman but still fiercely feminine. Long, curly black hair and eyes that are unusually light against her dark skin. More golden than brown. She favors denim shirts with a bit of embroidery on them and always wears black jeans. She looks way too young to own a place like The Oracle. Not that I’d say that to her face. She stands with the confidence of a fighter and those eyes are fierce. And, of course, there’s always that cigar clenched between her teeth. She’s beautiful but she might as well be wearing a sign that says, “don’t feed the lions.”
As I looked up from my drink in wonder, she said, “It’s on the house,” and gave me a wink before turning to help another patron.
I savored that sazerac like I had never had one before. I drank it slowly, rolling each sip around in my mouth before swallowing. Each taste seemed to wake me up more, to burn off the fog of depression bit by bit.
As I lowered the glass for the last time, that perfect sazerac finished, Dianne reappeared and waved a cold, unopened Abita at me with a grin.
“Ma’am, if you ain’t careful, I might just ask you to marry me,” I said. “How the devil did you get Abita all the way up here?”
“I know people,” she replied as she popped the top off and moved to hand it to me. I reached for it but she pulled back for a moment.
“This one is not on the house,” she said sternly, “I got a business to run, you know.”
“Ma’am, I’ll gladly pay whatever you’re charging for that bottle of beer.”
She nodded and handed me the bottle. As she did so, our hands brushed. I didn’t think anything of it but she jerked her hand back and got a serious look on her face.
She suddenly leaned down on the bar, her face close to mine and cigar smoldering in her hand.
“Hey, you alright?” she said, quietly intense. “Because you don’t seem like someone who’s a hundred percent alright. It seems like you’re a young man in need of advice. Only, I don’t just give advice unasked. It’s rude. If you want advice, you’ll need to ask for it. What do you need advice about?”
“What? Advice?” I stumbled, surprised, “I mean, I guess, yeah. That’s what bartenders do, right? Psychiatrists without the couch? Sure, doc, couldn’t hurt.” I smiled at my own weak joke. Dianne didn’t return the smile. She just nailed me to my barstool with the intensity of her stare.
“Advice about what?” she asked again. “You need to be specific. What does a young man like you need advice about?”
“I don’t know,” I replied. This whole evening felt surreal. Dreamlike. Maybe that’s why I actually answered her. “Um, life, I guess? The future? Lord knows I don’t know what to do with my life! What should I do now? What am I even doing here in Boston?” I felt like an idiot the minute the words left my mouth. I’ve known this woman all of an hour and I was asking her what to do with my life?
But Dianne just smiled and took a deep draw on her cigar and let it out with a satisfied sigh. Then, she reached across the bar and laid her palm on my cheek. Her touch was electric and set my mind to spinning. My skin felt hot, like I was standing too close to a bonfire but, at the same time, also shivery cold like I’d been caught out in the freezing rain.
And then she gave me some of the best dang advice I’ve ever been given in my life. No, I’m not going to tell you everything that she said. Suffice it to say that it was specific and personal and surprisingly straight-forward… for the most part, at least. The advice that she gave me stuck with me and has guided me for the last seven years. Without that advice, I would not be a successful business owner and I would probably have drowned in my depression. Maybe literally.
There was one odd bit, though. As she was winding down, she said to me, “Robert, there’s one thing that I need you to remember, though. It’s not gonna make sense right now but it’s important that you remember it.” She took a deep breath before continuing in a rush.
“One day, a man is going to come for you. This man – you’ll know he’s the one I’m talking about because he’ll be wearing all black and he’s going to just feel wrong – he’s gonna come for you and when he does, he’s gonna offer you a drink. Probably water but maybe not. And you’re going to want that water because you’ll be so thirsty you won’t be able to think straight. But you listen to me and don’t drink it because there’s a monster in that water, Robert. A… a gator. A big, mean one. You don’t want that water, trust me. He’ll try to make a deal with you but don’t listen to him. Making a deal with this man would be like wrestling a gator. He’ll just drag you underwater and drown you.”
I opened my mouth to tell her that I had no idea what she was talking about but she held up a hand to stop me.
“Don’t interrupt! I know it sounds crazy, just listen! If you can’t run when the man in black comes, you use this.”
She dropped a small black spike on the bar with a thud. It was about four inches long and looked like it was made of iron. It wasn’t all that sharp but it was heavier than it seemed like it should be.
“Keep that with you. If that man comes for you and you can’t get away, you show him that.” She must have seen the confused look on my face because she rubbed her temple with one hand and said, “Look, just think of it like a good luck charm, alright? You keep that with you and things will be ok.”
I nodded, completely lost but also enthralled by the surreal nature of the conversation. I picked up the spike and put it in my pocket, just to make her happy. Dianne sighed, rubbed her eyes with the back of the hand that wasn’t holding a cigar and made me another sazerac. I paid for that one. It was worth triple what I paid.
Perfect sazeracs always are.
Seven years I carried that spike in my pocket. It really did become my good luck charm. It was in my pocket the time I almost got taken out by a bus. If it hadn’t jabbed me in the leg and made me stumble, I’d have walked right out in front of that bus and made the obituaries. When I opened my own agency, I was rubbing that spike with my thumb like a worry stone the whole time the banker was reviewing my business loan request. I once accidentally left it in the pocket of my other pair of pants the morning after a long night out. I got food poisoning that day and spent the next forty-eight hours puking my guts out. I never forgot it again. It became a part of my daily routine. I didn’t think about it. It was just a piece of who I was.
For years, I was at The Oracle every night after work. It was my refuge; my shelter from the storm. The Oracle was absolutely instrumental to me finding my place in New England. Every night when I left the office, I’d walk past the bus station and through the front door like a man going to church. Dianne would have a cold Abita waiting for me – a welcome and a benediction. On particularly bad nights, she’d have one of her perfect sazeracs waiting. I don’t know how she knew it would be a sazerac night but she always did.
When I finally opened my own marketing agency, I chose a building near The Oracle for our offices so that I could be “close to home.” But owning a business cuts into your free time. I live in the brownstone next to the office now so I’m super close but, even so, I’m only at The Oracle two or three times a week these days.
Yesterday was a sazerac day. One of my clients had a full-on PR crisis and my team went into overdrive to help them contain the damage. By the time we got everything squared away and I was in a place where I could call it a day, it was nine o’clock and I knew what I needed.
The Oracle was pretty dead when I walked in. Two men – local, small-time attorneys and regulars at the bar – were having a quiet conversation about a case at the corner table and a tall fella was studying the jukebox as Pete Fountain’s Darkness on the Delta played over the speakers. As I dropped to my usual bar stool in exhaustion, not even bothering to take off my jacket, Dianne put a sazerac in my hand.
“You’re an angel, you know that, Dianne?” I said with a weary smile.
“Darn right, I am,” she replied, returning my smile. “Rough day?”
“You have no idea,” I said as I took that first, magical sip.
“I might,” she said, taking a draw of her cigar.
Pete Fountain faded out and there was a moment of silence in the bar. The man leaning over the jukebox uttered a quiet “ah” into the silence, punched in a selection, and straightened as a slow stomping and clapping faded in over the speakers.
“Oh, the devil’s gonna make me a free man. The devil’s gonna set me free…”
Dianne frowned as the man made his way across the room and sat down next to me at the bar.
“Hello, friend,” he said, facing me, “mind if I sit here?”
His voice had an odd quality to it – flat, low pitched, and oddly accented – that made me look up from my drink and study him. He was very thin and almost translucently pale with sunken cheeks and deep-set eyes that didn’t seem to blink. As I looked up, he smiled at me – one of those weird, closed-lips smiles that people give you when they’re not actually happy but want to seem friendly. I’m sure it was meant to look inviting but it just gave the impression of a skull. He was wearing a black t-shirt under a black blazer with black slacks and shiny black dress shoes.
“Uh, no,” I replied after a moment, “no, go right ahead.”
“Thank you,” he said, and asked Dianne for a soda water with a lime. Dianne nodded and, without saying a word, slid the man’s water across the bar to him before waving goodbye to the two lawyers as they left for the night, the door jingling as they exited.
“Ah,” the man said after taking a sip, “there’s nothing quite as refreshing as a soda water with lime. Just perks the palate.”
“Sure,” I replied and lifted my drink to him. “Cheers.”
“Cheers,” he replied. “You should really try it. You’ll be surprised at the difference it’ll make for you.” I started to tell him that I was good with my drink but he ignored me and asked Dianne for another soda and lime “for my friend here.”
Dianne frowned but made another soda with lime. She made to slide it across the bar past the man to me but he intercepted the drink and held it up to the light for a moment.
“Water,” he said quietly. “Water is life, is it not? It’s elemental. It’s magical.” He tapped the glass with a fingernail and the bubbles suddenly rose in a fury like a thing come to life. He held the glass out to me. I had to admit, it looked incredibly refreshing and I found myself dry-mouthed and extremely thirsty.
“Here, friend. Drink.”
And, this time, when he smiled, he showed his teeth.
Ragged and jagged, his teeth were strangely twisted and pointed. The way that they overlapped each other reminded me of a gator about to strike and I suddenly remembered that first conversation with Dianne seven years ago.
He’s gonna come for you and when he does, he’s gonna offer you a drink…You listen to me and don’t drink it because there’s a monster in that water, Robert. A gator… You don’t want that water, trust me.
I glanced at Dianne standing behind the bar. She was staring daggers at the back of the man’s head. I swallowed with a suddenly dry throat and shook my head.
“No, thank you,” I replied, hoarsely, “I’m good.” I drained the rest of my sazerac in one gulp. I slipped one hand into my pocket and began running my thumb along my good luck spike.
The man set the glass down in front of me, continuing to smile that gator grin.
“Friend,” he said quietly, leaning in, “Can I be honest with you? I need your help. I need you to tell me where she is, Robert.”
I pulled away from him in surprise. “How do you know my name? Who the devil are you?!”
“Robert,” he shook his head in mock sadness, still smiling, “Robert, let’s not play games. I need to know where she is and I need you to tell me.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about, mister, but I’m done with this conversation.” I turned away from him, pointedly looking at my glass. He leaned in even more closely. Way too close for comfort.
“I think you do know who I’m talking about, Robert. I think she told you some things. Some things that stuck with you. Maybe she gave you some good advice? They can’t seem to resist giving advice and ‘helping’ people. Yes, that’s what she did, didn’t she? She ‘helped’ you through a particularly tricky spot in life?” His voice lowered to a hissing whisper. “I know she did. What she gave you leaves a… a mark on people. An impression.” He moved even closer. “A scent.” He inhaled sharply.
“I can smell her advice on you, Robert.”
My throat was so dry. I raised my cocktail glass with shaking hands to take another sip of my sazerac before realizing that the glass was empty. I stole a quick glance at Dianne again. She stared back at me with wide eyes.
“I know you’re thirsty, Robert,” the man whispered in my ear as he pushed the soda water glass towards me with one finger. “Just have a drink and we’ll talk.”
“I said ‘no, thank you’ mister,” I replied, but my mouth felt like it was full of ashes.
“No? How about something a little stronger, then?” He tapped the glass twice and the soda water turned the deep golden brown of good rye whiskey. I clenched my fist around the spike in my pocket to keep from reaching for the drink. This was wrong. Everything about this situation was wrong but I was so thirsty.
“DRINK.” The man’s voice seemed to rattle around inside my skull, demanding that I drink. I almost did before I caught myself.
“I… I gotta go,” I mumbled and hastily stood to leave. His hand shot out like a snake, grabbed my sleeve with startling strength, and yanked me back down into my seat. I stared at him in surprise as his face twisted in rage.
“Don’t you dare run from me!” For a moment, his face flickered and was replaced by a nightmare. In the place of the pale, skeletal face, was a blackened, cracked ruin of a skull with glittering, glassy black eyes. Two short, black horns protruded from the sides of his head and teeth bristled out of his mouth like a jumble of knives.
I ain’t ashamed to say that I screamed like a girl. You would have too, trust me. I screamed and jumped back, trying to pull away from the monster but he was unbelievably strong and he held on tight.
“I don’t want to hurt you, Robert,” the nightmare said, “I just need to know where she is. Give me what I want and you can go. We’re going to find her eventually, Robert. We’re going to find them all and stop them! You can’t stop us. The twisted life of one anzillu – one abomination – isn’t worth your life, Robert. Give me what I want and you can go.”
“Oh, I’ll give it to you,” I said, anger burning away the fear at the thought of this… thing… coming into The Oracle and threatening people. My people. This is my place. This place is home. Without thinking, I pulled my hand out of my pocket, still gripping that smooth black spike, ready to fight. Only the spike wasn’t black anymore. It was a gleaming ivory, like polished bone. And it wasn’t smooth anymore. It was covered with a pattern of raised lines – an intricate design that looked like it had grown out of the bone.
The monster’s eyes went wide and he let go of my arm hastily, hissing, “iskakku” as he stared at the four inch bone spike in my hands. I held in front of me like it was a sword and took a step towards him.
“Now you listen here, mister… whatever you are,” I took another step and he stepped back from me. “I don’t know what you’re talking about or who you think you are but if you ever touch me again, so help me God, I will put a hole in you big enough to drive a shrimp boat through.”
The pale human mask settled back onto the man’s face and he raised his hands like I had pulled a gun on him.
“It doesn’t have to be like this, Robert.” He gave me another tight-lipped smile. “We can make a deal. What do you want, Robert? Success? Fame?” As he spoke he inched closer and closer to me, his voice dropping to a conspiratorial whisper. “Women? What is it that you desire, Robert? I can make things happen for you. Good things! Amazing things! You just need to tell me where she is. That’s all I need. Just a little information in return for your wildest dreams! Just put the iskakku – that spike – away and we can talk about this. Just… put it down.”
His voice was mesmerizing. Hypnotic. And I hesitated. So help me God, I hesitated and I let him get too close. In a flash of glittering eyes and teeth, he knocked my arm away with one hand and reached for my throat with the other, wrapping long, bony fingers around my neck.
“TELL ME WHERE SHE IS!” he screamed in my face and then screamed again – in pain this time – as I brought my hand around and slammed the tip of that ivory spike into his arm, jamming it in and rotating it, screwing it into his flesh as hard as I could. His skin started to bubble and turn black where the spike bit into his arm and he threw me – hard – against the bar before taking off out the front door.
I blacked out.
Dianne’s face swam into focus as I came to, her eyes wide and worried.
“Oh, thank God,” she breathed a sigh of relief as I tried to pick myself up off the floor. “I thought that Bone Man had done you in.” She helped me stand up and settled me onto a stool before moving to lock the front door and flip the open sign around to closed. Her cigar lay forgotten where it had fallen on the bar.
“If I’m being real,” I mumbled as she moved back behind the bar, “I thought so too.”
Without thinking, I reached for the glass on the bartop but Dianne swiped it out of my hand and dumped it down the sink before I could get it to my lips.
“You don’t want that, honey,” she said. “Let me fix you something.”
I murmured thanks and sat rubbing my throat where I thought I could still feel those cold hands.
“You know,” Dianne said quietly as she threw away the butt of her ruined cigar and wiped up the ashes with a wet rag, “that was a real brave thing you did for me. You could have told him. He, uh, made a real strong argument for you to do just that…” She trailed off, embarrassed.
“Meh,” I grunted. “Guy pissed me off.” I looked up at Dianne as she began making me a sazerac. “You call this place your temple but, for me, it’s home. This bar – you – are important to me.” She sat the drink down in front of me. “I don’t much care for people coming into my house and trying to tell me what to do. He can go hang… freaky teeth and all.”
I took a sip of my drink, closed my eyes, and sighed in appreciation. Perfect as always.
“Lord, that’s good. Dianne, if you ain’t careful, I might ask you to marry me,” I said, rolling the cold glass against my forehead.
Dianne leaned back against the bar and lit a new cigar with a smile.
“Robert, you keep being a hero, I might say yes.”
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