Well Drinks of the Damned (or “The Defenestration of Venice”)

Pozzo dei Dannati


45.44° N, 12.31° E

Though there are some disagreeable things in Venice there is nothing so disagreeable as the visitors

Henry James (1909)

Vic Neverman should be drawn & quartered & sixteenth with the resulting part & parcel to be scattered as bird-feed to the ravenous pigeons of St Mark’s Square, Kornberg says as the skies rain down upon us. Kornberg is making decrees as if someone made him Doge-for-a-Day. And then a spontaneous act of heavenly mercy occurs as Hell opens beneath his boat shoes and, with the abhorrence for vacuums Nature is known for, Kornberg is flushed away with gushing rivulets of rain water and street filth. I blink, but cannot shake the bulbs of rain from my eyelashes. Street-lamps reflect wildly off precipitation, further perplexing my perception as I attempt to make sense of the slurping of my travel agent into, we imagine, some devil’s den.

Was it luck or divine reprieve, this reverse-rapture of Kornberg? But where did he go? And am I obligated to follow? If I were standing in a monsoonal jungle, as I am wont to do, I would have guessed the travel agent placed a foot into the wrong mudslide. But this is no monsoonal jungle. This is contemporary Venice. There are few places for gravity to take you when you’re already at sea-level. Perhaps a sewer grate gave way beneath Kornberg’s heavy footfall. He had drank fourteen Bellinis today; those feet were falling heavy regardless of how much peachy Prosecco exhaust he belched.

I follow the path of least resistance downstream to discover a void in the city street. I yell into the abyss, Hulloooo! Water continues to gush downward like a broken toilet. Shall I throw a rope, I ask to no response. I look at my immediate surroundings, the streets are as empty of tourist and vendor as they are of daylight; nope, no rope. While I have been certifiably trained in certain underwater rescue operations, here I am in Italy with no snorkel. Let me see if I can find a gondolier, I holler after Kornberg, assuming he can hear me from whatever hells he flounders within. All I hear in response is the movement of water, as above so below, until Kornberg’s baritone hollers back from the depths. There’s booze down here, he says, and sandwiches. Sandwiches? Real sandwiches, I ask, or those questionable crust-less sardine sandwiches? There is no response. I take a deep breath, hold it, and plunge into the depths after Kornberg, carefully descending the staircase into this basement bacari, a dive bar calling itself Pozzo dei Dannati, which roughly translates into “Well of the Damned”. I find there is, in fact, booze and I am grateful for it.

Behind the bar of Pozzo dei Dannati is a duo of slap-happy local lads shadow-boxing. They turn at our entrance and immediately identify us as a pair of soggy Americans. How’s it hanging dudes, one or the other asks in practiced American colloquial English. Kornberg doesn’t take the question lightly, or rhetorically. We should be hanged, the travel agent tells the lads, like disgraced Roman legionnaires after the Battle of Lake Trasimene. Cool, the bartenders nod their heads in unison.

Pozzo dei Dannati has a doomed U-Boat vibe, reeking of iron and under constant pressure from without to crush us within, which somehow puts Kornberg at ease. Nicco & Flavio are the submariners at the helm. Both learned English by watching reality television, specifically Jersey Shore. Instead of having to interpret their native Italian, Kornberg and I have to translate their New Jersey pidgin. Surely, I say to Kornberg, one of your marital dabbles must’ve included a Jerseyite, allowing you to understand some of this garble. Don’t call me Shirley, Kornberg references Leslie Nielsen as he mentally sifts through the archaeology of prior marriages. Maybe…, but these fellows might as well be speaking Greek. Kornberg says this figuratively as he has a classicist’s recall of the Grecian tongue and whatever Nicco & Flavio are saying is not Greek. 

We ask the fellows behind bar to elaborate. Flavio explains to us “GTF” is his modus operandi: Gym, Tan and Find “Slop-Tarts”. Nicco describes a slop-tart as a breakfast of women who are “DTF”. Ahh, Kornberg is catching on, “down to fuck”. Do you know who is DTF, Kornberg asks the submariners before hooking a thumb back at his own chest. Nicco & Flavio laugh nervously. But this guy, Kornberg says, harpooning my chest with an indignant index finger, is a negligent navigator who has ruined all hope of love for me in this lifetime. Dude-man, Flavio says to the travel agent, that sucks dick for Skittles. Kornberg is unaware of the Jersey Shore candy reference, but “suck dick for Skittles” makes enough sense in context, allowing the travel agent to confirm. Exactly, he says, it sucks a bag of dicks for Skittles.

Vic, Flavio, Nicco, Kornberg at Pozzo dei Dannati
Horses of St Mark’s Basilica

Kornberg orders a scotch to wash away the taste of dick-sucked Skittle. I order a Negroni. There are familiar brands of gin bottles on the walls, but they are filled with water. There is nothing in the Well of the Damned except unwell spirit. My Negroni tastes like a drop of petrol mixed with a rusty nail to the vein. Was this gin made with gunpowder Marco Polo brought back from the Far East? Was the apéritif distilled in Nicco’s Nonna’s bathtub and dyed-red with the tears of Saint Padre Pio of Pietrelcina? I can sense the enamel melting off my teeth, can taste it, can feel the grit of it on my tongue. I drop a Euro coin into my drink and when I fish it out it has become an American nickel. And my fingernail dissolved in the process. Meanwhile, Kornberg has finished his scotch. In Kornberg fashion, he says, it is too late in the day for a second scotch, but it is too early in the night for me to give a fuck. Play it again, Sam!

Nicco, the bartender, reminds the travel agent no one here is named Sam as he refills the scotch glass. I push my Negroni away and ask for a bottle of Moretti. 

Scotch revived, the travel agent asks the lads for their highest window because he’d like to throw me out of it. Nicco & Flavio shrug. We’re underground. There aren’t windows. If you punch a hole through the wall, we’d be flooded with canal junk: dirty water, shitty-sewage, cigarette butts, spent-condoms, decapitated mime heads, gondolier hats, selfie-sticks and etcetera. Kornberg remains determined to throw me off the bell tower, referencing the Defenestration of Prague as if the bartenders were well-versed in the Thirty Years War by way of proximity. Kornberg announces to the bar he is initiating the Defenestration of Venice and will throw every last motherfucker out a window who stands between him and Federica… and/or Francesca. Flavio perks up, oh, this is a love story. He turns to Nicco who changes the music from Sinatra to something they feel more appropriate, Michael Bolton. Fuck yes, this is a love story, Kornberg the travel agent affirms to When a Man Loves a Woman. I am in love with at least one woman, but this motherfucker, he points in my direction, this motherfucker screwed the pooch like the A-1 grand-master champion pooch-porker he is.

At the beckoning of Nicco & Flavio, Kornberg tells us his love story. He saw Federica through the thick of a thousand tourists, at the far end of Saint Mark’s Square, and she saw him. They could have been the only souls of Venice as the rest of the world fell away. I listen and I do not argue, but… he hired Federica sight-unseen as a tour-guide before we ever arrived in Italy (NOTE: Bildungsroman Travel by Kornberg & Associates, LLC, has expertise in the Rhine Valley, the Low Countries and much of the former Soviet Eastern Bloc, but not Italy, thus his need to outsource a local guide). Some nights ago, in a jazz bar in Zagreb, over a bottle of Slivovitz, Croatian plum brandy, the travel agent and I watched Slavic soccer and plotted a heist to steal the four bronze horses of St Mark’s Basilica and return them to Old Constantinople. It was a fool’s errand, a drunkard’s hero-quest, but nevertheless, we found ourselves at St Mark’s Basilica within the week, eyeing those bronze horses with a random guide who happened to be the very beautiful Federica. They were no star-crossed lovers, just a burned-out travel agent and a local tour guide who wanted to party.

Federica is intelligent and fluent in English, with a rousing accent and demonstrative hands which flapped as the wings of a dove. She is, or for a time, had been a rare bright spot for us in the greasy diesel fog of the cruise-port of Venice. Kornberg tells Nicco & Flavio, I had been broken, my heart shattered beneath the elephantine footprints of a Carthaginian peace, but Federica scooped my cardiovascular ashes into her dustbin to make me whole again. And then this motherfucker, he says, pointing at me, loses her phone number. 

Nicco & Flavio are rather disappointed in me. How dare I interfere with this true romance between a middle-aged American Romeo and an impassioned Venetian Juliet? And not just one, but two Juliets!

Having heard of Federica, Flavio begs of Kornberg to hear of Francesca. Kornberg is keen. Have you ever been lightning struck, the travel agent asks of Flavio. Have you ever been swallowed by the whale, the travel agent asks of Nicco. They both say no. Kornberg continues, I felt as though I had been both lightning struck and swallowed when Federica introduced me to the idea of Francesca. The travel agent tells us over his third scotch, Francesca is a former burlesque dancer who teaches music to deaf-children and she loves American cowboys, she sells shitty cocaine to her friends and her boyfriend happens to be in Austria this week. She sounds perfect, Nicco says. I saw a picture of Francesca, Kornberg tells us, and I was immediately in love with either one of them: Francesca or Federica. 

I order another Moretti and sit alone, pondering the Inferno. Dante Alighieri’s lesser known “10th Circle of Hell” is a midsummer’s day in Venice, a special damnation reserved for gluttonous cruise-ship tourists and prideful social-media voyeurs punished for their sins by being surrounded by flatulent, belching, perspiring human cattle herded through endless turn-styles of St Mark’s Basilica as winged-harpies gnaw on their hemorrhoids and norovirus serpents course through their intestines. Pozzo dei Dannati is merely a sub-basement of the 10th Circle where Kornberg continues to defile my reputation.

First of all, I return to the bar to mount my defense. Fredericka never gave me her phone number. Kornberg counters, so you admit you didn’t have it! I am speechless. I try to reason, yes, I got us lost in Venice, probably somewhere on the wrong side of Rialto. I think we turned left at the wrong statue of Pope Pius, but who knew there were twelve Popes Pius? Nicco raises his hand, yes, I know this. 

You sir, Kornberg points at me, are no Lord Byron. Another point I cannot argue. I counted on you, Kornberg says as he turns back to his scotch. He counted on me for my navigation skills. Insomnia paired with Croatian brandy had somehow dislodged his inner-ear, leaving Kornberg operating on a broken compass. Meanwhile, as a retired pizza boy, it was a bygone assumption I would have the directional savvy to follow the trail laid out for us by Federica. Thus the animosity on his part. I was his hound dog and I lost the scent. Then the rains came, but they could not dampen our desperation. We were standing in a plaza with the water, courtesy of the acqua alta high tide, up to our ankles. It was then Kornberg’s phone hummed “LA Woman” by the Doors. It was Federica. Apparently, she had his number if we didn’t have hers. He answered the call and splashed away looking for high ground. Venice is sunk. Ten years from now, what would be left of “the Floating City”. “The City of Bridges” would be a city only of bridges.

The phone call went as expected. Federica was highly agitated Kornberg and me standing her and Francesca up. She damned us all and expected us to pay for the cocaine Francesca brought. Kornberg and I didn’t even want cocaine. 

That sucks dick for Skittles, Nicco says this time. 

There must be an 11th Circle of Hell reserved for negligent navigators and transgressive travel agents, a region where they are eternally punished for their mockeries and trespasses, damned to a soggy U-Boat descending into lagoon muck as swamp-gas and peach-puree bubble-in through the crevices, where the periscope finds love always out of reach, where the gin tastes like chewed tin-foil, but there is at least, behind the bar, a couple lads who offer their sympathy for any poor devil climbing down into the well of the damned. 

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