My favourite waitress is Marlena. She's Polish, been in the country for years but still has the accent. She has a Polish attitude towards booze, too – it's her answer for everything and she's generous with the spirits when she's making you a martini. Not to say she's irresponsible about it; she'll cut you off like that if she knows you're driving and she'll often ask one of the locals to walk each other home when someone's been hitting the tiles pretty heavily. But if you've had a shitty day or your dog just died or your heart's been broken or you have a cold, you can count on a shot glass of Marlena's "Polish Stomach Vodka" to appear in front of you at one point. And you'd damn well better drink it.
I noticed something at one stage. Whenever Marlena is ministering her particular brand of comfort to one of her favourites, it's always from the same bottle that she keeps stashed under the counter behind the CD player. The label's half worn off so you can't read it and there's about a third of a bottle swishing around in the bottle there. The thing is, though, it's the same bottle I remember her pulling out for me when I lost my job last year. I can tell from the label – it's torn half-way through the word "VODKA" so it's a bottle of "DKA", something I noticed with the clarity of the very drunk. It seemed weird that it would last so long considering I thought I saw Marlena using it once every couple of weeks (she has a lot of favourites and it's been a crappy year for a lot of us), but I figured I was probably wrong. But it was something I started paying attention to, perhaps because while I was out of work, I didn't have anything better to do than to make a note every time she pulled that bottle out. And what do you know, after six months of heavy use, that damn bottle was still a third full.
So I asked her about it one evening when it was close to closing. It was winter, cold and snowy, and I was the only customer in the bar apart from a couple ensconced in one of the booths.
"Marlena," I said, oh-so-casually. "Where'd that bottle of Polish vodka come from? You know, the one under the bar?"
"Oh, that one." She looked a bit guilty and started wiping down the bar top. "I don't really remember. Why do you ask?"
"Because it never gets empty, that's why." I showed her the notebook I'd been keeping notes in. Dates, number of shots, who they went to, it was all there. "I know it's the same bottle, the label's torn in the same way every time. So either you're refilling it, or there's something weird going on."
She got this stricken look, her eyes huge in her face and for a minute I thought she was going to burst into tears. Maybe she had been refilling it with something else. Then she grabbed my hands and clasped them tightly in hers. "If I tell you, will you promise to keep it a secret?" she pleaded.
"Sure," I said, as comfortingly as I could. After all, who'd believe me anyway? "I won't tell anyone, I'm just curious about it."
She bent and pulled the bottle out and poured us each a shot, before setting it on the bar. As always, the scent of alcohol was strong enough to make my eyes water.
"Back in Poland," she began. "My great-grandfather met a man on the road. It was late and very cold, and my great-grandfather felt sorry for him and asked if he would like to come back to his home, for the hot meal. The man was very surprised and very grateful as he had been walking all day and was very tired, and went home with my great-grandfather.
"My great-grandmother wasn't very happy with the surprise visitor, but she was always the good host and made sure he was comfortable. There wasn't a lot of food back then so they had to make the dinner stretch, but they did and the man gave his thanks. At the end of the meal, he pulled a bottle of vodka out from under his jacket.
""Where I come from," he said. "It is tradition to give your host a gift. I did not expect such a generous offer, so all I have is this bottle of vodka, but I want to share it with you."
"My great-grandfather protested and explained such a gift was not necessary, but the man insisted and it would have been rude to refuse. So my great-grandfather took the bottle. "One thing about this vodka," said the man. "If you share it with others, it will never be empty. If you drink it alone, it will soon be gone." And then he excused himself and was gone into the night."
I looked at the bottle. "Are you trying to tell me this is the same bottle your great-grandfather got from some random stranger?" Marlena nodded.
"It is. See, here…" She lifted the bottle and showed me the bottom, where someone had etched with a knife point or something similar, a date: '31/12/1942'. "My grandfather wrote that," she explained. "When my grandfather gave him the bottle on New Year's Eve."
It wasn't solid proof, but this was Marlena. She was awful at lying – she couldn't even pull an April Fool's joke without blushing. And here she was, wide-eyed and vehemently telling me this was a magic bottle of vodka.
I looked at the bottle and I looked at Marlena. Whatever the truth, this was the story she believed, and it was a good one at that. I picked up my shot glass and she did the same.
"To your great-grandfather," I said, and she smiled and nodded.
"Pijmy, bo szklo nasiaka." Marlena grinned at me. "It means, 'drink up, your glass is getting spongy.'"