Thanks to Kevin Still for this incredible short story, a submission for the Tap Room series. I decided to post the entire story here because I thought piecing it out was doing it such a disservice. Thanks Kevin. You're one of the good ones.
*** TAP ROOM - SECOND FERMENTATION
“The recipe calls for a batch of dry hops in the second fermentation,” she said, pulling a pint glass towards her face. “But I think I can live without it. Spend all that time cleaning shit out of the first batch just to throw it back in on the second run? Doesn’t make any sense. I say screw the recipe.”
She stopped talking long enough to take a swig of her beer, bright orange with white belt laces marking her sips along the insides of the glass, and Alan marveled again at how much she looked like a man. An old man. He even found himself second-guessing her with his eyes. Checking her profile. Her chest. She hadn’t said a name. And he wondered.
“What do you think?” she asked, rubbing her mouth with the back of her hand.
“Yeah. No, yeah, I agree,” Alan said. “If a second fermentation does anything, it filters out the crud. You gotta keep it loose till bottling.”
She smacked Alan’s arm, “I’m talking!” He guessed she was agreeing; at least, her voice was full of enthusiasm and she was smiling. He did not know this woman. She was already at the Tap Room bar when Alan sat down for a pint. Five minutes later they were talking beer recipes and fermentation cycles, which Alan knew nothing about. He bluffed his way through the brewing conversation. She didn’t seem to notice, or mind, and Alan appreciated the distraction. He came looking for a quiet afternoon. He found a chatterbox working through a solid beer buzz instead. And he liked her instantly.
She swatted at the bartender walking by, the one who tried to put money on the High Definition tennis match playing over the bar. Thumbing a gesture at Alan she said, “Dale, this guy knows what I’m talking about. He said skip the dry hops, too. Shit, pour him another something good.”
The bartender looked at Alan. “You ready for another beer?”
“How about a burger?”
“And how you want that?”
“Cheddar. Everything on it. Could you burn the meat?”
The bartender flittered his eyebrows in amusement. “Alright, cheddar, everything, burn the meat. I think we can do that.”
Alan thanked him and sipped his pint.
“I tell you though,” she started again, “only thing I love more than beer is being on the river.” Alan turned to listen but saw a waitress over her shoulder. Bouncing between tables, the waitress was pretty. Maybe nineteen or twenty. Short skirt. Long socks. Firm thighs. She was tall. Light brown hair fell over her collar while a thin line of skin shown beneath her chin. Alan wondered what she smelled like up close, imagined the softness of her neck. The sight of the young waitress made Alan swirl back towards his glass.
“My brother and I kayak once every three months,” she was still talking. “Shit, I came in town today to pick up some camping equipment at REI. Bought two new pairs of running shoes on sale while I’s at it. My girlfriend nearly bleeds everytime I come to town. She knows, even though I’m coming to get more camping gear, that I hit the Tap Room while I’m at it. Do it everytime. How could I not? And she knows I have three pints before driving back to Kinston. But, hell, it’s a straight shot. So.”
Alan thought her voice sounded like she’d stopped smoking five years before but ten years too late. He suddenly wanted a cigarette. He didn’t even smoke, but he wanted something that would burn his throat. He wondered if his new friend smoked Winstons. His dad had smoked Winstons, which meant Winstons were the first cigarette Alan tried. Twelve years old, he and his friend Michael hocked a pack from his dad’s carton on top of the fridge and skittered down to the woods behind the house. They didn’t know how to inhale, so they puffed in and puffed out, feigning coughs every few breaths. Alan remembered the way they leaned back against the trees, crossing their arms over their chests and their legs at the ankle. Michael was the closest thing Alan ever had to a brother. By the time Alan was old enough to buy cigarettes, Michael wasn’t there to practice leaning on trees or carhoods, to practice smoke rings and inhaling without the coughs, so Alan didn’t care anymore.
He wondered if his new river-loving friend here at the Tap Room might smoke weed. He’d never tried that. Always wanted to, though. She held her glass up to Alan for a toast, “But you can’t blame a girlfriend for caring. And sometimes you just got to let a woman talk her fill, right?” Alan picked up his glass, clinked hers, and drained the final bit of his beer. Yes, Alan thought, looking at the lady sitting beside him. Sometimes it’s good to just let a woman talk.
Not like the bastard in the parking lot yesterday, the one that flagged Alan down as he left the Mexican restaurant. Alan loved good enchiladas verdes, and this place served the best he’d found. He was always careful to take one enchilada, covered in thick green sauce, home for lunch the next day. The only thing better than fresh enchiladas verdes was day old enchiladas verdes, after that green sauce had time to marinate and fester and wallow in itself overnight. Alan had his leftovers in the passenger seat. He wanted to get them home and in the fridge quickly. He had a fear of meat sitting out too long. And then, sure as flies laying maggots, a guy with a broken down Crown Victoria flagged him for help.
Alan stopped his car, looked around the parking lot, and realized they were alone. Reluctantly, he rolled the driver side window down. A middle-aged man in khaki shorts and a button-down Banana Republic shirt covered in palm trees started towards Alan’s car but stopped half way, leaving a good six-foot clearance between the two men. “Sir, thank you. Thank you for stopping. You wouldn’t believe how shitless the people are around here to help a stranger.” The man, easily twice Alan’s age, was sweating more profusely than he’d ever seen a man sweat. He wondered if drugs were involved. Or torture by cartel. The man looked rough.
Alan did not want to get involved, but then he heard himself ask, “What do you need?”
“Sir, I just need a jump, just charged enough to get across the street. I’ve even got my own cables.”
Alan looked out the passenger-side window and saw an Auto Zone on the corner. He looked down at his leftovers, packed in Styrofoam, the meat growing warmer by the minute, bacteria setting in, illness, all that beautiful green sauce gone to hell for a dead battery. Not to mention, Alan knew this “jump-my-battery” routine was a typical ploy to rob people stone blind. He’d seen it on TV. Fellas put on a semi-nice shirt, drench themselves in salt water, stand by a car and flag down some big-hearted Samaritan with a wife and two kids. The Samaritan jumps out, leaves the car running, and then gets smacked square in the forehead with a tire iron while feeling good about himself. The wife and kids get dropped off – maybe, or maybe they’re taken hostage – and the Samaritan is left on the ground hating himself and the Bible stories he rode in on, and for what? Alan ran all this through his mind, looking down at his leftovers with nowhere to go but his empty refrigerator. Screw it, Alan thought. If this guy gets me, he gets me. More power to him. In fact, I hope he tries. I want him to try. I want to know which side of the head a guy like this works on before taking another man’s car.
Without speaking, he pulled his Forerunner beside the Crown Victoria, hood to hood. He killed the ignition and jumped out, leaving his car door open. The man already had his own hood up, one end of the jumper cables attached to his own battery and the other end clanking together, sparking carelessly in the air. Alan wondered for a half-second if the guy would knock him down, attach the cables to his chin and left nipple, then leave Alan’s body flapping like a shored up bluegill as he drove away with Alan’s car.
Curiosity made Alan move closer to the sweaty-man. He smelled like cat piss.
A moment later the cables were attached. “I just bought this damn battery. Spent $94 on it at that same Auto Zone. I think my alternator is out, draining the battery.” Alan didn’t know what the man was talking about. He knew nothing about cars. He thought this might be street talk for hope-you-like-the-sound-of-this-fancy-sounding-car-jabber-before-you-get-jacked, Jack. “Think you could rev up your engine for me, sir?”
Alan gazed at the old man, held his eyes. He wanted to say, “What’s with the ‘sir’?” Or better yet, “You do it. You climb in my car and rev it up. Car’s empty. I’m not even sure you hooked them batteries up right. What say I stand straight, plum over them and find out. Just toss me my leftovers as you drive away.”
But Alan knew the moment had passed. The batteries were attached. The man was kind. Grateful. Still, Alan imagined explosions. The sweaty-man behind Alan’s steering wheel covered in glass and upholstery.
Alan climbed in the driver’s seat of his Forerunner and keyed the ignition. The sweaty-man gave him a thumbs-up, smiling like a Southern Baptist over fried chicken.
“You a Boston fan?” the sweaty-man asked as Alan climbed down and closed the door. The man reached up and fingered towards his own forehead to indicate Alan’s Red Sox cap.
Instinctively, Alan grabbed the brim and tugged it down on his forehead. Aubrey had bought the cap for him years ago, before the twins were born, back when Alan decided that all American men should drink Budweiser and watch baseball. Aubrey laughed when he said things like this. “Tell me again, why not the Cardinals? Don’t they play in Budweiser-land?” she asked when she gave him the Boston cap as a gift. “Maybe I like Boston because I like Irish music,” he answered. “You talk baseball like my sister picks shoes,” she laughed, “you match your hobbies to their accessories.”
Alan stopped thumbing his hat and crossed his arms over his chest. “Hell, I don’t keep up with baseball. Didn’t even keep up with it when I said I was keeping up with it. This is just an old hat.”
The sweaty-man kept smiling and sweating. “1975. I was in Cincinatti. Saw the Reds play the Red Sox in a World Series game.”
Without noticing it was not his car, Alan leaned back on the Crown Victoria. “Is that so?”
“Oh yeah. Went with my brother.” The sweaty-man checked the cables and wiped his brow with the bottom of a palm tree. “Great game. Saw Pete Rose play. Will never forget it.”
There was a silence. The car engines hummed between them. A few people came out of the Mexican restaurant. A family. Father, mother, three kids and a grandmother. Mom walked grandma. The kids jumped and ran circles around the car. They all had Styrofoam boxes. Kids can never sit still for long, and they never eat their food. The sight of them lit a match in Alan’s chest. He looked away and fidgeted with his hat again. He wanted his new friend here to keep talking.
“Who won?” Alan asked.
“The game in Cincinatti?”
“No. The Series.”
The sweaty-man laughed. “Hell, you really don’t know anything about baseball. Reds won. Took the title in the seventh game. I wasn’t there, but my brother and me were home listening on the radio and wearing our Reds hats.”
“You guys have a big hurrah that night? Get blitzed and dance around the house in red underwear and hats?” Alan felt clever. He could hear the kids in the parking lot behind him. One kid said to another kid “no, you’re dog poop.” The father yelled at all three of them to get in the car.
The sweaty-man paused, looking at Alan, appreciation dropped to pity in the man’s face. “Sure, kid. Sure. We kicked back some Schiltz’s and celebrated on the porch. Slapped each other with our hats. We were brothers. We were happy.”
“Sure,” Alan added, still feeling clever. “Damn right, you partied. Should of taken money off folks for a game like that.”
The sweaty-guy leaned over Alan’s hood, a few rogue beads of salt-water dropped off his chin onto the radiator. “Know what else we did that night, kid?”
Alan checked the family getting into their cars. Mom was closing grandma in the driver’s passenger door. All the kids were inside, probably still yelling. Probably still getting yelled at. Alan turned back to the man with the dead battery and shrugged.
“We burned our Cinncinati hats that night. Burned them in a barrel behind the house.”
“Why the hell for?” Alan asked. “Too much Schlitz?”
“My brother and me decided you can’t stick with the winners always. You can’t have the winning team two years in a row. The glory happens one time. And we didn’t wanna chance the Reds winning the Series in ’76.”
The car hummed. Alan heard voices behind him, but did not turn to look.
“Did they? The Reds?”
The sweaty-guy laughed and moved towards the Crown Victoria. He called over the hood, “Let’s just say my brother and me didn’t look like posers when the Yankees limped home the next year. Cinncinatti was a mighty loud place for three or four days. And they had reason to be. We even bought new caps for the Series, then burned those, too.”
This was strange talk over broken batteries, Alan thought. Too much like father-son bullshit to pluck out of the air in a Mexican food parking lot.
The sweaty-guy started the Crown Victoria and let out a yelp. Alan released the cables from his battery and handed them to the other man. Feeling awkward, wanting to leave, Alan slammed his carhood and heard himself ask, “Your brother and you catch many games after the ’75 and ‘76 series? I’m sure you did.”
The sweaty-guy closed his driver’s door and leaned out the window. “Sure, we saw plenty,” he said. “Went to Kansas City. Saint Louis. Milwaukee. Back to Cincinatti a few times.”
“What’s the next game you guys gonna catch?”
The sweaty-guy looked towards Auto-Zone, illuminating with orange and white lights. He looked back and smiled at Alan. “Benny passed away ten years back. Brain tumor. It was a long road there for the family. I tried to go to a few games after that. Tried to take his kids. But it never worked out. I quit going, quit taking them after awhile.” He looked at Alan and smiled, “Maybe glory really does happen only one time.”
Alan dropped his eyes, fingered for his keys in his pocket and realized his car was running. The enchiladas were probably pretty warm by now. He needed to get them in the fridge, so he turned to his driver’s door.
“Hey, thanks again for the jump. Sorry I kept you so long. If you’re family was here, I’d tell them they had a good man.” The sweaty-guy put the car in reverse, pulled out of the parking spot, and slipped across the street to the corner.
Alan sat behind the steering wheel and stared through the windshield. The smell of salsa and sour cream filled his car. He watched another family walk out of the restaurant. A man, a woman, and a small girl. The man had one hand on top of the little girl’s head, and he walked slowly with her across the parking lot to their car. Glory, Neil thought, happens only one goddam time. He reached over to the passenger seat, dug in the Styrofoam and grabbed the leftover enchilada with his bare hands. “One time, motherfucker,” Neil said. “Here’s your one time,” then he crammed the entire enchilada in his mouth. He vomited on the first swallow.
“Burger burnt with cheddar cheese,” the waiter said, dropping a brown basket of food in front of Alan. “Everything look alright? You need anything?”
Alan checked for ketchup on the bar. A full bottle held up a stack of menus.
“No. I’m fine.”
“Let me know if you need anything. Maybe another beer. Alright?”
“Sure. Thanks.” Alan checked his glass. It was empty. He’d finished it off toasting with his new friend about something. He couldn’t remember. Something about women talking. Letting women talk, yeah, he could drink to that. He came to the Tap Room often, nearly every Saturday. Alan always drank when he was lonely. A couple beers worked wonders to quiet the echoing silence. Conversation with his new friend had been just what he needed. Nothing, Alan realized when he saw his glass empty, cured a lathered-up libido like chatting home-brewing and river-bends with this lady.
“My brother Justin, lazy sonuvabitch,” she was still talking, “he’s the hardest prick to wake up in the morning. I say, asshole, get up and get the tent packed. I’m cleaning camp and setting the kayaks in the water. And he don’t move shit.”
Alan tasted his burger. Crisp dark carcinogen edges burned the sides of his tongue. It was perfect. When the waiter walked by again, he would ask for a stout. Something strong enough to stand next to the blackened burger.
“My girlfriend, bless her heart, I love her but she’s as bad as Justin when it comes to these trips. Justin always takes a pony keg of something nice for me and him, keeps it on ice in the truck, while my girlfriend always, without fail, brings a case of Corona. I swear to God, if I didn’t love the woman and her kids I’d leave her in the woods.”
Alan watched another waitress over his new friend’s shoulder. Her legs were longer than the first waitress, which made her skirt shorter. She turned and Alan watched her profile move against the window. Her lines were perfect. He liked them long.
He wiped his mouth and picked up his empty glass. He looked for the bartender, who was slicing lemons at the far end of the bar. Alan decided to wait rather than call him across the room. “Where’s your next trip? When you going?”
She had turned to watch the same long-legged waitress near the window. There was a pause. He thought he heard his new friend grunt. She turned back, and ran her fingers over her lips. He thought she wanted to smoke something fierce.
“Shit. Justin can’t get off work and away from the wife till November. So, let’s see – August, September, October, November –” She bobbed her finger with one eye closed along the tap-handles on the wall in front of them, counting the months on labels of pale ales and India pale ales and stouts and lagers. I have measured out my life in tap-handled brews, Alan thought to himself as her finger bounced like a sing-a-long ball on children’s television. “So yeah, four months. My girlfriend will give her kids to their daddy and we’ll leave middle of November for Kentucky.” She smiled to show all her gaps, “Bourbon country, baby! Canoes and tents and Hillbilly fishing.”
She had a buzz cut, like a lady straight out of the Army, and a feral cat look in her eyes. She’d mentioned her beer barn, set back behind her property. She and Justin had built it a few years back. She said it was “like a small rental apartment you’d find in the city.” She said that’s where she and Justin brewed their beer. Said her girlfriend rarely came back to the barn to visit, so when she did, walking jagged-legged and toting a Corona bottleneck between her fingers, Justin would jump up and leave for the house cause they all knew it was “time.”
Alan ordered a stout, something with a long name from California that the waiter served in a wine glass. His new friend paid her tab and said she’d best be going. She had to stop at the Iranian gas station on the way out for driving-beers. Maybe some Corona for the lady.
As she stood, she slapped Alan on the arm and told him to stay cool. After she passed behind him, she stopped and leaned over him, dropping her face into his. “By the way, my name is Jody. I’m in here every other Saturday. I come in twice a month to check REI for camping sales. Sometimes I hit the homebrew store, too. But I come to this here bar every trip into town.”
Alan smiled and awkwardly nodded as he turned from her back to his burger. He took another bite and gazed at the wall of tap-handles. The waiter slipped in front of him and poured a pint of German wheat. A large white head foamed over the brim of the cup, running down the edge of the glass into the bar gutter beneath. That’s when Alan noticed the wall of pennies behind the tap handles. A single sheet of plexi-glass extended from one end of the bar to the other, framing a massive display of pennies in different shades of copper. Wishes. Thousands of wishes propped vertical and mocking those sitting at the bar. Alan swallowed his burger, reached for his glass, and felt another hour splash into another day like one more penny into endless water.
Alan needed something to happen. The man in the parking lot had stopped going to baseball games. Alan knew the need to stop. He’d already stopped doing most everything except hitting up the Tap Room and looking at the waitresses.
“Jody,” he called, turning his chair. She was standing at the waitress station. A tall 20-something girl with short-green hair leaned against the counter. Her socks came to her knees, her skirt rested mid-thigh. She was tan. Brazened. Her eyes as wild as moonlight on Coca-Cola bottle rims. Her neck was long, like her belly-button peach stomach where Alan so often imagined swimming. He drank when he felt alone, and, if he was honest, the beer made the loneliness louder.
But Alan did not look at the green-haired girl now. He was looking at Jody, imagining rivers, barns, canoes, expensive running shoes trekking through the woods. Jody had a girlfriend, who had kids, and a lame-ambitioned brother. Pine trees. Bobcats. The absence of pleasantries. They could go camping and fishing and kayaking. Maybe Montana. Maybe Kentucky in November. The Green River crammed in between large grey rocks, like tombstones, caving in on the water. Rivers swimming into oceans. Oceans swimming into continents. Alan, two women, and an imbecile looking down the river, pouring into the ocean, never ending.
Alan would pay for it. The whole trip. Life insurance paid $20,000 for a spouse. $15,000 for each biological child. By the Spring, he would have collected $50,000 in life insurance. The checks, sure as bubbles in beer, came every month like the stacks of paperwork he and Aubrey signed had promised. And the money had been good. The checks, so far, had helped. Allowed him to quit his job. Given him time. And he needed time. He needed time more than money, but money bought time. And he needed more. He needed so much more of so many things.
Right now he wanted to stop stopping, even if it meant crawling into the woods with Jody and her river-rat family. There was too much to clean up here. New lives were harder to put in place than the old ones. And you couldn’t rebuild a life while standing still.
Neil and Jody looked at each other. The green haired waitress switched her weight, revealing more thigh.
“Hey,” he said. “I was wondering if I could maybe. . . ”
He had sold most of Aubrey’s things already. He had rented an apartment a few months earlier, a place to wait while the rest of the house sold. While he figured out what to do with everything else. Storage units seemed too unforgiving. He still had most of the twins’ things in his apartment. Little mounds of pink stacked up in every room. He felt he had more of Aubrey with the kids anyway.
“Yeah, what you got, bub,” Jody said
Alan took a step forward, his hip jarring the bar stool on the way. He thought of the storage unit doors he’d looked at. They were green for Christ’s sake. Green means go. Everything means go. All of a sudden, everything means go. Everything in his life was moving, going somewhere. Everything except him. He lived in a world of little pink mountains. And pink meant stay. So he stayed.
“Jody, I was thinking maybe,” and then he grabbed the bill of his Boston cap. Aubrey had tugged the bill of his cap over his eyes after she kissed him. Be right back, she said. Grab me a sixer, will ya, he said. Sure thing, love, she said. Then she walked out the door with the girls, backed out the driveway, and never returned. Later that day, he’d seen Aubrey’s car. He’d seen the long black bags lifted and placed in the back of the ambulance. For months afterwards, he laid in bed listening to sounds that were not audible anymore. Still, he listened. And he waited. Although, deep down, he knew.
“Bub, whadya say we do this again some Saturday? You think?” Alan saw that Jody had her hands on her hips. She was ready to go. She needed to go. Everybody was going somewhere. Grab me a sixer, will ya, he said. Sure thing, love, she said. And then Aubrey was gone.
“Yeah, Jody. We’ll do it again. I was just thinking you should go with the dry hops. See what happens.”
“Really?” she said.
“Hell, it’s worth a try. Screw around with that second fermentation a little. Kick it up a notch.”
“Alright, maybe so. I’ll let you know.”
The green haired girl returned to the waitress station. Jody turned to her, and they hugged each other long and familiar. She really should start smoking again, Alan thought, turning back to his burger and stout. He took a bite of his burger and chewed slowly. It tasted good. He took another bite, and pulled his phone out of his pocket. He had missed a call while talking to Jody. He did not look to see who it was. Probably his real-estate agent. Maybe somebody answering one of his ads in the paper. They were calling for the bookshelf or the twins’ kitchen set. He deleted the message without knowing. He didn’t have time to fool with it. Alan needed to finish his burger and beer. He felt like he had somewhere to go.