Two men walked into a bar.
The barman, speaking to one of the men, said, “What can I get you?”, to which the other man replied, “I’ll have a beer and—” he threw a thumb toward the man the barman had been addressing “—pay for whatever he’s having.”
Now if you think this is the start of a joke and are waiting for the punchline, stop. It isn’t a joke. What I’m telling you is what actually happened. I’m one of those men. I’m the one who offered to buy the other a drink.
So at this point the other man did what any decent person would do when a complete stranger offers to buy them a beer; he declined the charity, instead insisting he would pay for his own. This made sense because at that point he didn’t know who I was. I could’ve been anyone. A real estate salesman, a conman, an axe murderer or an alien parasite. Hell, for all he knew I could’ve even been a politician.
I argued politely with the man but capitulated easily and let him pay for his own. He ordered. The barman listened, nodded then, out of habit, slid a coaster in front of the guy. The barman looked toward me.
“That one,” I said as I pointed to a tap of mid-strength ale. “And a large pack of beer nuts too, thanks.”
The barman nodded, placed a coaster in front of me then trotted off, busy.
I turned to the other patron.
“Don’t mean to be pushy, just new in town and feel like talking to someone other than a computer.”
“Ahh, it’s…” The man waggled his head as if undecided on something before putting on a reluctant smile. “Name’s Adam,” he said.
I told him my name was Steve.
The establishment we had entered was a big, open, airy pub that was popular with the locals on Friday and Saturday nights but never at any other time. As it was now mid-afternoon on a Thursday, there were only two other patrons in the joint, so we almost had the place to ourselves. One of the other patrons was sitting at a table wedged into a corner. He was an old, unshaven guy and was busy whispering hateful things to his beer and in the process drowning it in spittle. The other patron was situated at the far end of the bar. He was a lonely, red-faced, rotund man who kept looking in our direction as if wanting to slide up and join the conversation. I put my back to him by casually leaning one elbow on the bar, hoping it would be enough to ward him off.
The barman returned and put a bowl down in front of me before emptying a large packet of nuts into it. Scrunching up the packet and tossing it into an unseen bin, he went about pouring the beers. I took my hand out of my pocket and slid the bowl left until it sat partway between me and my new friend Adam.
“Help yourself,” I said.
“Thanks,” Adam said, but made no move toward eating any.
Our drinks came, we paid for them and both of us stayed at the counter. Adam pulled up a stool and I remained standing. I told him a joke, the one about three people walking into a bar, a grandmother, a criminal and a psychopath. The punchline had the criminal dead, the grandmother upset and the psychopath lamenting his actions. It was an old joke and probably more shocking than funny, but Adam hadn’t heard it before and laughed when it ended. So did the red-faced, rotund man at the other end of the bar. I ignored that guy.
To keep Adam talking I asked a few pointed questions that he would’ve known the answers to. I added a few witty comments and fortunately for him when I put the effort in I can be quite entertaining. We finished our first beers, I successfully bought a second round for us both and now lubricated, our conversation flowed easily.
Adam told me he had a wife. Her name was Eve. He had heard all the jokes and seen all the disbelieving looks before, so when I raised an eyebrow the only thing he did was nod his head and say, “Yes.”
However, even knowing he would’ve already heard it I couldn’t resist asking a question.
“If you have a son, you going to call him Jesus?”
He looked at me funny then reached into the bowl of nuts and took out a small handful. “You’re thinking of Mary and Joseph,” he said before slapping his hand to his mouth thereby passing all the nuts inside. He started chewing.
“Oh,” I replied. He was right. The only thing I really knew from the Bible was the old phrase, an eye for an eye.
With his mouth still full, Adam asked, “What about you? Got a wife? A girlfriend? Child?”
Yes. Had. Once.
“No,” I said.
“Huh. Divorced then?”
No. They left without saying goodbye.
“Something like that,” I said, turning away.
I felt him staring at my head, probably willing me to embellish, but I refused to look back. Instead I opted to take another pull of beer and fixed my attention on the mirror situated behind all the rows of spirit. I felt Adam turn his attention that way too.
“So, what, ahh…” he scratched his head, trying to think of a question “…do you do for a living?”
My gaze shifted back to him. That subject was fine. I told him I was out of work. I told him it had been that way for a while. He looked thoughtful. I told him not to make it his issue because…
“…until now it has been a waiting game, but I expect there’ll be something in the next day or two,” I said. I took another small pull of beer.
Adam dipped his hand into the nut bowl again, took it out and shook it like he was playing craps. He then lifted it to his mouth as if he were about to kiss the dice for luck, but instead of kissing, he transferred the handful in. He started chewing and while asking his next question one or two little dustings of nut sprinkled out.
“So what are you doing while you’re waiting?”
“Not much,” I said, sliding my beer further to the right, further from Adam, further from those little dustings. “I’ve spent most of my recent days in my laundry, watching the bacteria grow.”
Adam laughed. The guy at the other end of the bar snorted.
“It’s the humidity,” Adam said. “Take in a space heater and open up a window. That’ll kill it off but…” He kept giving advice for a little while, and although I nodded at the right times I had no intention of following through on any of his recommendations. At least not immediately. But Adam, not realising I had been cultivating the bacteria on purpose, kept talking, telling me how I now needed to buy some bleach.
I nodded, seemingly agreeing with him.
Not being an expert, it had taken me a good couple of weeks to isolate the right strain. I’d purchased some offal, a free-range organic chicken, a bit of turkey and a few reptiles; reptiles carry a lot of bacteria. I turned all that into a slurry and let it rest a while. I had also gathered a whole bunch of chemicals and organic compounds such as malachite green, monopotassium phosphate, salt and soya peptides as well as a few fertilisers which I then mixed all together and added to water, creating a broth, although not a broth you would want to drink. That broth I planned to use to isolate and enrich the bacteria present in the slurry.
My initial plan had been to use a blood agar, which I had also purchased, to isolate and identify the strain which I would then transfer to the broth. In the end, however, I went with the shotgun approach and straight up added some of the slurry directly.
In order to manage the temperature I purchased a few aquarium supplies from the local pet store, and in regard to increasing the atmosphere, I wasn’t sure I needed to do anything. While the bacteria could grow under varying pressures, I wanted to select one that would further isolate the strain by inhibiting other microbial growth. However, in the end I decided that as human intestine operates at a pressure of about 1.02 atmospheres I wasn’t going to overcomplicate things by attempting to regulate that aspect of the environment. I kept everything brewing in a hot-water bottle resting in the aquarium.
Now don’t misinterpret who I am. I’m no Louis Pasteur. In my past life I may’ve owned and managed an assay laboratory, but most of the grunt work was carried out by others and we never grew stuff, we only identified it. My specialty was in theoretical science and telling others what to do. And if there’s any similarity between those activities and cultivating salmonella, I’m yet to find it.
Sorry. Yes. I didn’t mention that, did I? It was salmonella I was cultivating.
You might’ve come across it before and may even remember it producing such errant thoughts as, “When did I start sweating so much?”, “When will I stop vomiting?” and “When the hell did my ass turn into a fire hydrant and, oh God, why won’t it stop?” When this happens it’s usually because anywhere from a few to thirty-six hours prior you had eaten some dodgy takeout. As for how long the food poisoning remains, typically it will stick around for anywhere between two and seven days.
“Is it bad?” Adam asked. “You said you had just arrived in town, so I assume you’re renting. If it’s bad you can always call your landlord and get them to sort it out for you. It’s their house, their responsibility.” He took another sip of beer and then reached for more nuts.
“No. It’s not that bad,” I said. It wasn’t a lie, at least not unless you were too young or too old. If you’re fit and have a decent immune system then the food poisoning symptoms are usually only a mild irritant in your otherwise drab life. However, salmonella’s not always fun and games. For a small number of people, it can cause complications such as reactive arthritis and if it enters the bloodstream it can possibly cause brain damage, heart damage and damage to bone marrow. You probably already knew that in order to kill it you need to cook certain foods properly. But did you know that salmonella can survive freezing and that it can be desiccated and still be viable? Of course, it isn’t as robust as anthrax, but if it’s kept at a low temperature and away from sunlight then there’s no reason why it can’t survive in a pocket for years. It also has no taste. That’s why any time you’re handling food it’s always advisable to employ good hygiene and frequently wash your hands.
Speaking of hands…
I took mine out of my pocket again and put it into the beer nut bowl, pretending to pick some out. I pretended to take them to my mouth and pretended to put them in, all the while ensuring that none of my fingers went anywhere close to my face. It was easy. Adam wasn’t watching, the barman was busy cleaning and I had my back to everyone else. I pretended to chew. After a short while I pointed to the bowl.
“They’re good, aren’t they?” I said to Adam, getting his attention. “You should have some more.”