Vladikavkaz, U.S.S.R. -- The first toast, Felix explained patiently to the infidel from Baltimore via Moscow, is always to God.
The second toast is always to St. George, patron saint of travelers -- since somebody inevitably traveled to the table, if no farther than from the apartment across the hall.
The third toast is to "the guilty party" -- to the guest from afar or the person with the birthday or whoever is providing the occasion for festivity.
After that, Felix said, it's freestyle. You can toast whomever or whatever you want. There are just three rules: 1) You must drain your glass every time. 2) You can't stop on an even-numbered toast unless somebody has died and you are at the wake, in which case you have to stop on an even number. 3) If you reach Toast No. 49, you start counting again from No. 1.
We were sitting in the second-floor office of Slava, one of the biggest-shot bankers in North Ossetia, drinking araka, eating chebureki and watching bad American videos. His boss, Valery, an even bigger shot with a broad, jolly face and enormous, graying mustache, was also there. Valery was the eldest and therefore automatically chairman of the toasting ritual.
The sun had just slipped beneath the still-snowy Caucasus Mountains on the south horizon when I dropped in along with Felix and Sasha. Felix is a historian who provides facts to the North Ossetian parliament in its struggle with the Georgian parliament over who settled what territory when. Sasha is in charge of foreign economic relations for North Ossetia. True, he candidly explained, right now there aren't any. But he remained hopeful about drumming some up.
Sometimes Slava and sometimes Valery worked the remote control on the video, speeding through the boring dialogue to the next nude scene or auto chase or gunfight. One tape was called "Lethal Weapon." The others in Slava's collection of a dozen films I can't recall, except that they were all American movies with names like "Revenge of the Chainsaw Sex Killer," the kind that highbrow film critics don't even bother to pan.
Such movies, with a single, superimposed Russian voice doing translation of all the characters, are the staple of the Soviet video boom. You watch them, and you wonder why after watching such films everybody here wants to move to America.
Chebureki are a greasy pastry filled with delicious spiced meat. You eat them with your hands, and you use a lot of newspaper cleaning yourself up.
Araka is a clear liquid with a slight aroma of kerosene, described by those present as "corn juice." It was in a three-liter glass bottle with no label and had been made, Valery said, "by a woman I know." In other words, it was moonshine.
A Caucasian toast in its full glory is an epic tribute, complete with biography, history, interpolated anecdotes and all manner of digressions. It ordinarily is delivered standing up. Usual subjects are the fellow drinker's health, wife, children, parents, ancestors, job, brilliant mind, fit body and capacity to hold strong drink.
Not draining one's glass at a single go is considered a serious offense. This is a problem anywhere in the Soviet Union, but especially in the macho Caucasus. One Russian friend of mine never travels south without his Sobriety Society pin, a sort of Soviet equivalent of an Alcoholics Anonymous badge. An American friend routinely pleads that he has just had a serious stomach operation that makes alcohol fatal.
They take these precautions even on trips to Georgia, where the proffered drink is generally a light wine. In Ossetia, hard liquor is the rule: vodka or araka.
I fought them as best I could. But the wily Vladikavkazans often outmaneuvered their guest: One would pour two inches of araka in my glass and as I protested that, really, I couldn't drink that, he would launch into a toast to his late, beloved parents or his lovely wife.
To my protests, he would reply approximately: "Skote, Skote, do you not respect my late father, who fought in three wars and lived to be 105?"
I remember discussing who was a Communist Party member: ironically, the two bankers and the would-be foreign-trade man were Communists, the historian was not. The Communists followed up their admissions with embarrassed explanations of why they had not yet quit the party.
I remember that everyone present expressed the willingness to move to the United States, and the sooner, the better. Valery, the big boss, said he would gladly take the job of first secretary of the Baltimore Communist Party, a job I told him I thought was probably vacant, but which might not carry quite the clout the analogous job has in Vladikavkaz.
I remember thinking, Thank God for Gorbachev, because I'm not really concerned that these guys might be KGB agents trying to compromise me.
I remember thinking that if we reached No. 49, then they could start again and stop on an even number, because I would be dead.
But before I died, the three-liter araka jar miraculously was discovered to be empty. We staggered into the street and made our precarious way to the Hotel Vladikavkaz, where I made my excuses and slipped into the elevator.
The elevator for some reason seemed to be going sideways rather than up, but it reached the sixth floor anyway. I retrieved the key from the key lady, found Room 625 and lay down fully clothed on the low, Soviet-style bed.
The next thing I remember is being awakened from my drowsing by a thumping sound that seemed to be emanating from neither my heart nor my head. Gradually I realized someone was knocking on the door of Room 625. I rose to my sea legs and opened the door, blinking at the corridor's brightness.
Horror! The horror of it! There stood Felix, bearing a plate of food that was steaming through the page of Sovietskaya Ossetia, in which it was wrapped. Beside him stood Sasha, triumphantly holding up not one but two unopened bottles of vodka.
"Skote! Skote! Look what we have, Skote!" said Felix. "It's still early, Skote!"
What I replied I cannot say for certain. There was some Russian, some English, possibly some Ossetian. The contents were part curse, part apology, part explanation involving the Sobriety Society and the recent operation I had on my stomach.
Then I shut the door and toppled back onto the bed. I fell asleep wondering whether the thumping in the distance was my head, my heart, or Felix and Sasha, challenging the honor and manhood of the correspondent of The Baltimore Sun.
Scott Shane is The Sun's Moscow correspondent.