Gus easily found Nigel slumped at the bar on the terrace, looking despondent. “How’s it going this evening, Nigel, or is it Nic, tonight?” he said, taking the next stool, “I’m having a good time but it’s been pretty weird so far. And you?” He looked at the waiting bartender. “A vodka and tonic wouldn’t hurt, though.”
The lanky monk looked at him and drained his glass, wiped a hand across his lips, and ordered another gin before answering. A small vial with clear liquid sat before him.
“I can’t really enjoy myself until I explain things, Prof. I don’t know how your hippie friend nailed me like that, but he caught me to rights,” Nigel confessed. “But Gus, I’m sorry. I wasn’t really trying to put a con over. Do let me buy you a drink and enlighten you, okay?”
“I’m listening,” Gus said, but the noise caused them to turn. They watched as a small noisy party now including Skip followed Cindi and Barefoot Left onto the long verandah.
“Look at that lamb prancing to his slaughter. Lovely, just what I need, to witness her devour another fool,” Nigel said. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say it was to spite me.”
He contemplated the small vial before him. “Tell me, Gus, how was it, growing up as a boffin in the shadow of your brawny brother?”
“Hmm?” Gus said. “Peachy, why?”
“I guess you never felt out of place or put upon, then. Good on you.”
“Oh that, sure. At school, you’re right, I was a true nerd, geek, whatever we called it back then. But Skip stood up for me,” Gus said, “well, most of the time. Make that occasionally.” Cindi’s husky laughter resounded across the patio. “Okay, sometimes, when he wasn’t leading it. He was a high school quarterback, after all. A quarterback – oh never mind; if you’re any kind of Texan, you know exactly what I’m talking about. It’s their religion.”
“Even if I wasn’t, as a geek, I understand fecking jocks all too well. Strange how footballers become bloody gods everywhere, isn’t it?
“I didn’t have a brother to torment me; my shade was enough,” Nigel explained. “One was black: One great-grand-pappy punched cows after Juneteenth, another was Commanche, and there’s Irish in there, too. Way out where we lived there were lots of us mongrels, half-breed Indians, Mexicans, and whatnot – color didn’t matter because everyone was too poor to care. I discovered its meaning, the hard way, after we moved to town.
“Never had many friends but I sure knew the bullies. Which is how I am certain I never saw that rum twit Sundog before in all my life. But I learned fast and was clever and desperate enough to win a year at Oxford. It changed everything.
“The girls, Gus,” he continued. “Lord, you wouldn’t believe them. Those English birds at university were sharp and amazingly, they enjoyed chatting me up – they said I sounded like John bleeding Wayne! They ate it up, and so did I.” He took a sip and toyed with the tiny glass jar.
“By the time I came home to Texas, I’d acquired a British accent of sorts without intending to. Same thing happened. American sorority chicks who had made fun of my hick Texan drawl now thought I sounded cute and smart. I learned to blend in as an outsider, ironically.”
“Oh, so you did it for the white girls,” Gus said. “Who could blame you?”
“Don’t knock if you haven’t tried it, mate,” Nigel said. “But there were more advantages than that.” He turned at the sound of his name being called. Cindi and Barefoot Left’s drummer, Native David, who both preceded Nigel and later replaced him in her affections, waved at them to come and join the fun. He smiled and blew them a kiss. “The accent admitted me to places I couldn’t have dreamed of going otherwise.”
He swung around and ordered a couple more mixed drinks. “I never meant to live a lie. But it worked like magic for my career. That accent opened new vistas by making me exotic. On my first big piece, I realized those snake-handling rednecks were far more tolerant because I spoke like a curious alien rather than a local boy from just up the road. I wasn’t a threat.” He decisively dumped the contents of the vial into his gin and tonic and took a long sip.
“You want my forgiveness?” Gus asked. “Done, I owe you for what you did for Skip back there. But stay away from my sister – and that’s not prejudice either after what you just admitted, dude. At least you have an independent career. Everything I’ve ever done has been judged against my action-hero father or oh-so-glorious brother.”
Nigel laughed. “What are you complaining for? Things are good. You won the debate and Fatamorgana was as gracious as he could be. What could possibly go wrong?” A burst of laughter behind them again drew their attention.
“True,” Gus said, “I even got sexy vibes from a nun. Cheers.” He took a deep sip.
When he looked back, Nigel paled. “Uh, Gus, you didn’t order a gin and tonic, did you?”
“Now that you mention it, it was supposed to be a vodka and tonic.” Gus looked at the half-full glass, and drained it. “Not bad, though,” he said, smacking his lips. “Next one’s on me.”
“Oh merciful Jesus, Gus. This is truly not good. That was my drink.”
“Sorry, I’ll buy you two.” He waved at the barkeeper.
“Augie, old bean, have you ever tripped before? Drop a little acid, you know? Eat magic ’shrooms? Maybe try funny cactus?” Nigel asked without actual hope. “In college, maybe? Go to raves or anything?”
Gus stared at him. “I ate a few psilocybin mushrooms once during a summer internship in Mexico: an interesting experience from what I recall. So much so I said, never, ever, ever again. I can’t eat them in fresh salads without my teeth feeling soft.”
“Augustine, my friend, you’ve had enough,” Nigel said, and meant it. “More than enough, in fact, way more. We’d best get you back to the hotel while we can. Because maybe tripping at a place like this might not be such a great idea. Especially for a bloody novice.”
“Tripping? What? The party’s just started,” Gus said. “Although I admit, I am suddenly feeling a little strange.” He looked wide-eyed at the palm of his hand. “Wow, I never noticed how much like a road map it looks.”
“Bloody hell. I’m sorry, mate, so sorry.” But it was far too late for either of them.