Showing posts with label fiction. Show all posts
Showing posts with label fiction. Show all posts

Monday, October 3, 2022

Deliverables, fiction by Andrew Welsh-Huggins


Carruthers walked carefully down the icy steps, wary of a fall, and tried to push the man’s dismissal out of his mind. As cruel and mocking as they came. And did he really need to slam the door so hard? Brooding, it wasn’t until he crossed the street and eyed the next block of houses that he realized the mistake that likely instigated the encounter. At some point that evening, in the dark as the snow came down, he had unknowingly crossed the line from Grandview—the city of Columbus neighborhood—into Grandview Heights, the stand-alone village. The transition indistinguishable by the naked eye—the same early 20th century Dutch Colonials and Cape Cods and cottages lined avenues in both places. On paper, though, forget it. House values doubled or tripled once inside the urban village limits. Good luck finding anything under three-hundred-fifty thou these days, minimum. And with those house values came a certain expectation, chief among them: early evening was not a time for the community’s good burghers to be bothered by cable salesmen. Especially in the winter. And especially this winter.

        Carruthers adjusted his blue medical mask, uncomfortably damp from the snow, and considered his options. Seven-thirty. Four sign-ups short of today’s quota, and he was already in the hole by three from the day before. The pickings slim from this point on unless he turned around, but he’d already covered most of the city neighborhood streets behind him. He needed to move to another part of town, but this late in the evening that would put him knocking on doors after eight. That wasn’t going to fly no matter how poor or wealthy the area. He sighed and consigned himself to his fate. He’d try one more block, despite his low expectations. What else was he supposed to do, at his age, in this economy, with everything going on?

        A swift dismissal at the next door. No one home at the following house. A pitying glance from the woman at the house after that, but not pitying enough to entertain his offer to switch cable services, regardless how fast the broadband he offered was, or how many channels were available. One more door, Carruthers told himself, back on the sidewalk. Tomorrow would be another—

        “Excuse me?”

        He glanced to his left. An SUV paused in the street, the passenger side window rolled down, wipers squee-squeeging against the snow. The driver leaned toward him.

        “Excuse me?” she repeated.

        Carruthers looked up and down the sidewalk out of force of habit, and then took a step toward the car.

        “Yes?”

        The woman driver, wearing a floral print mask, gestured wordlessly at him to come closer. A moment later she pulled the mask down briefly, showing her face. Carruthers’ eyes widened in surprise. The look of recognition flustered the woman, and for a moment, she didn’t or couldn’t speak.

        At last she said, “I’m sorry about my husband, back there. The way he spoke to you. That wasn’t necessary. Particularly on a night like this.”

        The wife of the man who dressed him down and then slammed the door in his face.

        “It’s all right. I’m used to it. It’s an intrusion, I know.”

        “It’s not all right. Not in the least—”

        A car approached and stopped behind the woman’s SUV, the sideways falling snow illuminated in its light beams. The woman shook her head in frustration and pulled ahead, then over, banking the vehicle against the curb. Carruthers, not certain what else to do, took a few steps forward to meet her.

        “I brought you some coffee,” the woman said abruptly, raising a cup toward him. “You must be freezing out here.”

        “You didn’t have to do that.”

        “Please take it.” She reached the cup toward the window. As she did, a sudden gust kicked a curtain of snow into his eyes that felt much closer to sleet.

        “What a night,” the woman said. He heard the click of unlocking doors. “Come in out of this. Just for a second.”

        Carruthers hesitated. He still had the final house he had committed to trying, and it wasn’t getting any earlier. But the snow was also getting worse, stinging him where the mask left unprotected skin. And the smell of the coffee was beckoning...

        He opened the door and slid inside. The woman raised the passenger window, shutting out the elements. The car was warm, the heater blasting, and smelled invitingly of leather and the woman’s perfume. Even his seat was warm, he realized.

        “Thank you,” he said gratefully, taking the Stauf’s cup. He raised his mask just enough for a sip.

        “It’s the least I could do.”

        “It’s bad out there,” he said, not sure what else to say.

        “Can I drive you someplace? Is your car near?”

        “Just around the corner. There’s really no need. It’s just nice to warm up for a second.”

        “I’m sorry again about my husband.” She stared straight ahead. Carruthers took another sip of coffee and studied her face, illuminated by the streetlamp a few yards down. Early forties, he guessed, to judge by the quick glimpse he got of her over her husband’s shoulder at her house and the peek she gave him removing the mask just now. Pretty features but watching life through sad and tired eyes. Blonde hair pulled back by a scarf. A rock on her ring finger that glinted in the dark as she inched her hands up the steering wheel. He peered as closely at the right side of her face as possible without drawing attention to himself. Trying to decide if he was imagining things. He didn’t think so.

        “It’s really all right.”

        “He doesn’t understand how bad things have gotten for people.”

        “It’s a difficult time,” Carruthers agreed, again not sure what to say. He was already thinking about the politest exit line to return to the street.

        “Someone like you, for example.”

        “Sorry?”

        “I don’t mean to pry ...”

        Carruthers sat quietly.

        “But is this not what you really do?”

        “What do you mean?”

        She gave a little shake of her head. Carruthers could tell she was embarrassed. He was embarrassed too because he knew what she meant.

        “It’s just, the way the economy’s been,” she said quickly. “So many people out of work. I only wondered if—”

        He spared her further agony. “I’m not a career cable salesman, if that’s what you mean,” he said, keeping his tone light.

        “It’s none of my business, I know. I just feel so bad. I’m Christy, by the way.”

        He paused and then responded by reciting a name for himself.

        “What kind of work were you in, if I may ask?”

        Carruthers hesitated for just a moment.

        “Deliverables,” he said.

        Christy sighed.

        “What?”

        “Nothing. It’s just that that’s my husband’s field as well.”

        “What does he do?”

        “He sources polypropylene,” she said, stretching out the syllables as if pronouncing a foreign dignitary’s name. “For takeout food containers. He’s on the numbers side of things. Not very exciting, except that business is booming, as you might expect.” She stopped herself. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—”

        “Don’t worry. Deliverables isn’t supposed to be exciting. It’s a means to an end.” He snuck another glance at her face half hidden in the shadows.

        “He thinks it’s exciting.”

        “Maybe it is for him.”

        “Maybe.”

        She grew quiet. Carruthers took another sip of coffee. It was the best coffee he had had in a while. Since right around the time his income dried up between the first and second wave of the sickness. He realized with sudden clarity that he did not want to leave the warmth of the SUV and the balm of the coffee for another cold, fruitless walk up a set of porch steps. He looked at her again.

        “May I ask you something, Christy?”

        “Of course.”

        He studied the bruise on her right cheek. “How often does he hit you like that? Your husband, I mean.”

        She froze as if Carruthers himself had just raised his fist. After a second or two her eyes brightened, and she choked back a sob.

        “I’m sorry,” he said. “That was completely inappropriate.”

        She shook her head wordlessly, hand drifting to her cheek. “No,” she gasped. “It’s not that.”

        He waited.

        “It’s just that I didn’t think it was so obvious.”

        They sat in silence for nearly a minute as the heater pushed warm air into their faces, gusts of wind whipped the snow sideways, and thin rivulets of melting precipitation ran down the windshield.

        Carruthers broke the silence. “Is there anything I can do?”

        Christy shook her head.

        “Is it, you know, possible for you to leave?”

        “No,” she whispered. When he didn’t respond, she said, “It’s complicated. I’m the second wife. There’s a prenup. Oh God. I shouldn’t be telling you this. I’m so sorry. I just wanted to do something nice for you, after what he said. I didn’t mean to burden you.”

        “It’s not a burden.”

        “Don’t be ridiculous.”

        Half a minute passed. Each took a sip of coffee.

        “I should go,” Carruthers said.

        She nodded.

        Neither of them moved.

        Nine months and three days, in fact, since he could afford to buy such good coffee.

        “Christy?”

        “Yes?”

        “May I ask one other thing?”

        “Sure.” She laughed with the hopelessness of a woman staring at a foreclosure notice in her inbox. “Anything.”

        “Could I tell you about the job I had before everything happened?”

        “Of course,” she said, her eyes bright again, but now seemingly with relief that the conversation was moving away from her.

        So he did.


        Carruthers was not surprised to learn that Christy’s husband still went into the office most days. He couldn’t stand working at home, she told him, and while not a sickness doubter, he was skeptical of the conventional wisdom on transmission. Carruthers could have managed regardless, but the husband’s preference made things a little easier. His office was in the Arena District, one of the new brick-and-glass developments within walking distance of the hockey arena, Clippers stadium, and the new Crew field. The office parking garage sat a block down. It took a couple of days to work out the best sightline but eventually Carruthers found it atop the old municipal power plant off Hocking. He went back and forth but decided on a Tuesday morning, his preferred day, since the few brave souls now returning to the office after months at home were back in the rhythm of the work week by then and focused on the day ahead. After a week of reconnaissance, he figured he was looking at somewhere between 8:15 and 8:18.

        Not bad, he thought that following Tuesday morning. 8:17 a.m. The benefits of punctuality. He settled in and leaned forward, letting the scope cup his right eye. He reached for the trigger but took his time, dissipating the rustiness that had set in over the past several months. It had been an unusually long respite; even in 2008 and 2009 jobs found him, if a bit sporadically. He was accustomed to ebbs and flows, but the sickness threw those models out the window. He paused, took a breath, released it, and squeezed off four shots in succession.

        The first evaporated a brick at the corner of the parking garage just above the sign with the daily parking rates. The second eviscerated the rear driver’s side tire of a car in line for the garage. The third shattered the rear driver’s side passenger window of the next car up, sending a shower of glass into an empty child’s car seat. The last shot, directed at the front window of a black Lincoln Navigator waiting for the garage gate to rise, removed most of Christy’s husband’s head.


        These things took time, of course. The speed with which ones and zeroes traveled through cyberspace when money was involved didn’t apply to every transaction. Especially this one. And especially with the various layered accounts the money needed to move in and out of. It was complicated: prenup, and all. But eventually Carruthers was paid, both the down payment and the final deposit. After all, he delivered his service without complications. Police were still looking in vain for the spree shooter who targeted several drivers, tragically killing one. Just to be safe, he kept the cable job until all the money arrived, paying closer attention to borders between neighborhoods. One week, he even met his sales quota. Despite that, his supervisor didn’t seem surprised when he turned in his notice.

        “It must be hard out there, someone your age,” the young woman said.

        “The days get long,” Carruthers said in agreement.

        It wasn’t that much money, was the thing. He had offered a discount rate to Christy, given the circumstances. With his obligations, his and his wife’s, maybe enough to last them six months. He would have to drum up new business in-between or look for another job. Maybe retail this time, he thought. Both Target and Walmart were hiring. He was filling out an online job application in early spring when his phone rang. Not his personal phone. The other phone.

        “2029,” Carruthers said, reciting the last four digits.

        No one spoke for a moment. Then he heard a woman’s voice.

        “Hello?”

        “Yes.”

        “I’m calling because ...”

        He waited.

        “My friend Christy gave me this number.”

        Carruthers did not say anything.

        “The thing is ... She said you might be able to help me with a problem.”

        Carruthers saved his work on the job application and shut down his browser. He examined the area code on the caller ID. Louisville, he was pretty sure. Not so far.

        “Go on,” he said.


Andrew Welsh-Huggins, an Associated Press reporter and freelance writer, is the author of the Andy Hayes private eye series, including the Shamus Award-nominated An Empty Grave, and the editor of Columbus Noir. His short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery MagazineMystery MagazineMystery Tribune, the 2021 Bouchercon anthology This Time For Sure, the collection Mickey Finn Vol. 1: 21st Century Noir, and other magazines and anthologies.

Monday, September 19, 2022

23andMe, fiction by Terena Elizabeth Bell

This all started when Sally asked Jackson if he wanted her old deodorant and he said, No I most certainly do not, why would you ask that, but of course Sally would ask: She had only used it three times.

I bought the men’s because it was 20 cents cheaper, she told him, and you know they’re made from the same things except—and this is the important part—fragrance. If you look at the ingredients on the back, they both have it, Sally twisting the tube around in her hand, but it’s not the same fragrance, is it, women’s deodorants are usually lavender or ocean breeze. So Sally had thought no big deal, she really truly did, but then she used it. And just because she didn’t want to smell like a man is no reason to throw a perfectly good stick of deodorant away.

Cheapskate, Jackson wanted to say, but instead he told her, I think you have that gene.

What gene?

You know, the hoarder gene. The one that makes it impossible to throw anything away.

Now, Sally is not a hoarder. She likes to save money and if that comes from your family — if the fact that 20 cents matters is inherited—then it’s from being brought up poor, sheer basic need, and there’s nothing she could do about that. Hoarder gene, Sally snorted, the my ass implied, and Jackson said, Oh no, you’ve totally got it, picking up a piece of Saran Wrap from her kitchen counter and putting it in the trash.

Hey, Sally said, I was going to reuse that, but Jackson would not let it go. That afternoon, then the next day, then the day after that, he kept going through Sally’s place, saying, You don’t need this, what are you saving that for, judgment after judgment from a man who’d never once been short on cash.

I don’t know how many times I have to tell you, Sally said—Jackson still at it a whole week later—I do not have that gene, and he told her, Fine. You’re not a hoarder, prove it, Sally asking, What proof do you need?

            Now, this whole story is basically my very long way of telling you why she did it, why Sally went on 23andMe. She wanted to prove Jackson wrong, that was all, she wasn’t looking for you, I swear. She didn’t know you were there to find.

            It’s the neurotrophin receptor gene, Jackson said, You’ve either got it or you don’t. You spit in a tube, then the company takes six or seven weeks to send results. I’ll pay for it.

That was all Sally wanted—to prove Jackson wrong. Again, this wasn’t some conspiracy to find you. Not that I’m not glad you were found—but she didn’t know you existed. Like I said, she just wanted to prove him wrong. Plus Sally never turns down anything free.

            I know this can’t be easy, to know the only reason you found out who your family was is due to a half-used stick of alpine scent deodorant. Sally always has been on the frugal side, but like she told Jackson, it’s because she had to be. She doesn’t have it, by the way—the hoarder gene—and neither do you, of course—but, as you probably noticed by now, no one in our family ever had more than two nickels to rub together. Well, nobody that is but you.

            Anyway.

You can imagine Sally’s surprise when she got the results, Jackson calling, Are they back yet, over and over for weeks, Sally saying, No, and Jackson laughing, I’ll bet they are and you don’t want to admit it. You’ve totally got the gene. So when Sally finally did get her results, that little email notification popping up on her phone, the first thing she did was look for that part of the test—the hoarder gene—but it took a while for her to find. I’ve never been on 23andMe’s page or whatever, but apparently their website doesn’t say, “Click here to see if you’re a hoarder.” It’s buried—or so Sally told me—with all this other information, and took a while to find.

Jackson was with her when the email came, the two of them out to lunch, and finally Sally just got so frustrated going through the thing, she tossed her phone across the table, saying, You’re the one who wants to know so bad, you look it up.

            So Jackson got to clicking—and, my, did he keep her in suspense—but eventually he found it and Sally could tell from his expression she was right. Let me see, she said, reaching for her phone, but Jackson wouldn’t give it to her, trying to save face as long as he could, and he just started flipping, going through all these other things they test for, like did she have neanderthal genes or when she got old would she get the gout, and that’s when he said, Shit.

            As I understand it, whether you want them to or not, this company, these 23andMe people, well, when you send them your spit in the mail, they compare it to everybody else’s, which is how they could tell you’re my daughter—yes, I know you know how it works, but if you’d just let me through my story—this company took Sally’s DNA and compared it to yours and that’s how she found you.

            Now personally, I wasn’t sure what was going on when Sally called. She was freaking out, poor dear, her and Jackson sitting outside the Mexican joint, and at first I didn’t understand —she was just so hysterical, you see, and kept saying your name, did I know anybody of that name, and of course I didn’t. Why would I? I knew what I’d named you. She was saying the name that they gave you—the people who adopted you—and never once had I heard it.

So I asked Sally, Why would I, but she wouldn’t answer. She didn’t even tell me she’d got the results. She just kept screaming, Momma you have to, Momma are you sure, out there on the restaurant patio, How do you not know who this is, and Jackson said, Sally this isn’t the place, and that’s when he took her phone.

            Mrs. Sisk, I am so sorry, we’re at Caballeros, do you mind if we get everything boxed up then ring you back, calling again once he’d got Sally home, leaving me there that entire time thinking who is that, never once dreaming it was you. I knew what I’d named you.

Now before we get started, Jackson said, the good news: Sally does not have the hoarder gene, and what I would have give to’ve seen the look on Sally’s face.

            I’m still going through the particulars, his voice getting serious and his tone getting low, but what we do know is this, then he explained how DNA matching works, saying words like centimorgans and haplogroups that I’d never heard before, Sally crying in the background.

            I’m telling you this because you need to understand. I need you to know what she went through when she found you.

            Now, in addition to being frugal and enjoying being right, Sally is also, well, I hate to say this, but she’s always felt alone. She didn’t make friends easy growing up, and heaven forbid I wish she had gotten along better with kids her age, but she didn’t.

            So the first thing she wanted to do was call you—or message or whatever it is people do on that app. She was worried if she didn’t reach out ASAP, it would hurt your feelings. That the app would notify you, tell you she was there just like it did her with you, and then you’d see that she’d logged on and didn’t message you. She didn’t want you to think that you weren’t wanted. She was worried you were alone.

            I told her not to. I said, Let it go, wait and see what Jackson finds out—he was doing all this research on the margin of error for DNA home testing, had 23andMe ever been sued for confusing people’s spit in the lab. He thought there’d been some mistake.

But Sally wouldn’t listen. She had so many questions: Why didn’t I tell her? Why didn’t we keep you? Were you loved once we gave you away? She thought you’d gone on 23andMe to find us, you see. She got in her head you were longing to be found.

            Sally just spent so much of her childhood wanting others to accept her. She had it real hard growing up, and Jackson, he’s wonderful, but one man can’t erase a whole childhood. In a big city, I think she would have done better—why, look at you, you turned out fine. She only wanted to know how much you were like her. She wanted to be your friend.

Of course, now we know you and Sally don’t have that much in common—despite your looks—but I would contend, again, it’s because of how you were raised. I’m not saying you should forgive her because she was brought up poor. I’m saying forgive her because she’s Sally.

Your daddy and I, we tried. We really did. We tried for both you girls. But you can’t make much out of nothing; you can only make something. And we could only afford one child.

Now, you’ve obviously had lots of money and I’m glad. I know you didn’t want her there, but Sally said that house you live in is real nice. If I hadn’t let you go, you would have never had that life.

Your father and I, we knew letting other people raise you was a risk. But you never went hungry, did you? With adoption at least, you stood a chance. The idea, it gave us hope. And from the looks of it—those clothes and the way you talk—well, something tells me you’ve never had to buy men’s deodorant because you always had the 20 cents.

            Giving you away wasn’t easy. But Sally, knowing you were out there, how easy do you think that was for her? If you had been raised with us, I would have known you and loved you and done everything I could—just like I’m doing right now for her. We really are doing the best we can here, Sally and me both. I want you to know that.

All she wanted was to know you, that’s all she wanted at first: to send you a message on that app. I’m the one who told her no. And the longer it went on, the more time that passed after she got those results, well, the harder it got for her to do nothing, telling Jackson, I know she’s my mother but I disagree; Jackson saying, Sally you need to let her run point on this, making the case that since I was the one who had given you up, I should be the one to reach out.

And just how is she supposed to do that, Sally asked, She’s not even on 23and Me, Jackson saying, Sally there are ways. She could Google her for starters or, better yet, call the Baptists. They had the records, they could have given me your number if you’d wanted them unsealed.

Google, Sally said, Okay.

            Now if your father were still living, none of this would have happened. He could always calm Sally down. He would have said, Sally slow down now, your sister’s waited twenty-four years to find us, she can wait a little longer, give your mother time to get this right.

You would have liked him, your father. He loved you so very much.

            But he isn’t here. All Sally has is me—me and poor Jackson who really was doing his best. It started with Sally not able to sleep, Jackson staying over nights. She would lay in her bed and stare at the ceiling, pretend conversations with you in her mind. Then when she finally could fall asleep, she woke up screaming and crying.

            Shh, Jackson said, it’s okay, resting his hand on her shoulder. Breathe.

He even offered to pay for Sally to go to somebody, like a sleep doctor or a shrink. He didn’t think that she meant it when she said she might come here: Jackson, I just have to see.

Come on, he told Sally, let’s go to the movies, trying to get her mind off. Shopping, the park, but none of it helped. She got mad at him too, saying, You and your stupid hoarder gene.

I’m sorry, he said, I truly am. I don’t know how to fix this.

He’s a good one, Jackson, and I hope she hasn’t run him off forever. You know he feels like this was all his fault. He every bit as much told me so down at the police station, saying, Mrs. Sisk I was going to ask her to marry me, and that’s why he had Sally do 23andMe.

Not that he cared if she was a hoarder. He loves her as she is. But Jackson wanted Sally to do the test because he knew she wanted children. And in addition to the hoarder gene, 23andMe looks at will you get this or that disease. There’s Alzheimer and cataract and all sorts of things and, more importantly, what you could pass to your kids—that is if you and your husband both have it. That’s what Jackson wanted. He took the test and just didn’t tell her and that’s why he wanted her to do it. Because what if they carried the same horrible disease and passed it to their child? Not that he wouldn’t have married her if she did have something, but because she might not have wanted to marry him.

            I never cared about the hoarder thing, he told me, I just picked on her about it because it was funny.

            And yet here we are.

            I guess what I’m trying to say is that people take those DNA tests for all sorts of reasons. Maybe you wanted to find us. Or maybe you just wanted to know what genes you carried. I don’t know. I had no proof you wanted to find us. Who was I to disrupt your life? I made my decision and stood by it. A roof over your head, food in your belly, and never to know want. They screen people who adopt, the Baptists; I didn’t give you up through the state. In my mind, you were happy—happy and better off. So I told Sally no. I’m the one who told her not to message you every time she asked. Which basically means this is my fault.

The way she found out, mailing her spit in some tube? How would you expect her to react? There’s no way to prepare for that. Those 23andMe people, they don’t give you a heads up. They just list strangers in there as relatives like you already know who they are and there’s no advice on that site, no nothing. No “we could upend your life, make you question the truth, we could land you in jail.” Nothing.

            Again, I am very glad to see you. To look upon you, grown up, it’s a wonder. That company, they didn’t prepare you either and I’m sorry. I am so sorry you had to go through all this confusion and that Sally scared you. They didn’t tell you what you were getting into either; you didn’t even know you had a twin, much less what she would do. I’m sure you saw her name on that site the same way she saw yours. You had to be wondering how to handle this just the same as we were.

            It drove her mad.

            I should have known. She is my child. When Sally gets the bit, she doesn’t give it up. She goes and she goes and she goes until she gets what she wants or plunks over. And with all this mess, Sally has downright plunked. You know it. You’re the one who pressed those charges.

            This has to end. Jackson said a trial could go on for months. You don’t need that. You and me and Sally—our family needs this over. It’s you I’m thinking of. I am your mother—whether you feel that way or not—and, as I said, the first thing I did was think of you. I didn’t want to upend your life. If you’d wanted to know me, you could have found me. They could have unsealed those records for you the minute you turned 18. You didn’t want to know me. Why would you? I’m the woman who gave you away.

            But this case against Sally has got to stop.

            She won’t do it again, I give you my word. And I know my word isn’t much to you—I would have liked for you to know me, to know I mean what I say and I say what I mean, but that isn’t possible. What is possible is for you to drop these charges. I’m begging you as a mother. Sally didn’t want to hurt you. She only broke in to see your life—what it was like, make sure you were okay. She’s not a danger any more than she’s a hoarder. She only wanted to know you. She just wanted to see. And you are the one who went on 23andMe.


Terena Elizabeth Bell is a fiction writer. Her debut short story collection, Tell Me What You See (Whiskey Tit), is forthcoming Holiday 2022 and her debut novel, Recursion (ELJ Editions), March 2023. Her work has appeared in more than 100 publications, including The Atlantic, Playboy, MysteryTribune, and Santa Monica Review. A Sinking Fork, Kentucky native, she lives in New York City. Fund future writing at buymeacoffee.com/terenabell.



Monday, September 12, 2022

Mezcalero, fiction by Anthony Neil Smith

Sip this.

Savor it, hold it in your mouth. Let your tongue embrace it fully.

What do you taste?

Smoke, you say, sir? People always say smoke. They think it makes them, if not an expert, then at least smarter than the tourist who still thinks there’s a worm in every bottle.

None of you think that, do you?

This is my first attempt as the maestro of this palenque, a position held, until recently, by my adoptive father, Leonel. You were wondering, I see it in your eyes, how a white blonde boy, the only son of an American mother, ends up becoming a maestro mezcalero.

Sip again.

Close your eyes and really think about it.

Lean your head back and swallow slowly, almost as if you are letting the mezcal flow down your throat in a stream.

So, we’ve got smoke.

But how would you describe the agave itself? The Espadin?

Grassy? Fresh mown? Yes, now we’re getting somewhere. Mezcal holds onto the wildness tequila tries so hard to tame. With mezcal, you are enjoying the land itself, my friends. It’s as if you are barefoot on the soil. Your fingers and toes covered in soil we mezcaleros consider almost sacred.

I say almost.

If it was really sacred, you would not be here now at this tasting, yes? You would not have been able to pay for the privilege.

Ha ha!

No, no, I think not. If there’s one thing I’ve found Mexicans hold sacred, it’s calling things sacred and meaning it.

Instead, I will say this: being drunk on mezcal is a nearly identical experience to religious ecstasy. The closest most people ever come.

I’m sorry, what did you say?

Heroin, she says. Ladies and gentlemen, did you hear her say heroin?

Did you think that was a cute joke?

Some powder manufactured in a lab by scientists who know how to easily pacify and manipulate their users? You think it’s funny to compare that to the tradition, care, sweat, and blood that goes into making blessed mezcal? Something as good as my dad made? Something as good as my older brothers – they were supposed to be my brothers, anyway, although they made it their goal in life to be my merciless tormentors as we grew up. Then they both fucked off to the States and partied until Dad ran out of patience and cut off their funds, forcing them both back home to take the business seriously.

But me, I was there all along. I was learning the secrets, too. I was mastering the craft right before Leonel’s eyes. To me, it was much more than a job. An obligation.

It was my life’s ambition.

But when the time came to name his successor…

The espadin absorbs whatever it is that makes the soil so special. Maybe it really is sweat, the way our jimadors muscle the pinas from the ground, slicing away the leaves with a nasty blade on a long wooden handle. A coa de jima.

You’ve all had a chance to see the pinas, haven’t you?

Yes sir, like pineapples. We have a poet in the house, everyone.

Percy Wordsworth Obvious.

Roberto Blandano.

Don’t pout. It’s just a bit of fun. A bit of fun is all.

If we can’t laugh about ourselves…as my brothers used to say.

Those pineapples, as you call them, are gathered together and thrown into a pit of burning oak and hot rocks, where they are slow roasted, although “roasted” is misleading. Yes, we set fire to the wood and heat the rocks, but it is the steam from the pinas doing the real work. We cover the pinas with banana leaves and dirt. It smolders for days and days. This is where the smoky taste comes from.

You might notice a touch of bitterness to the smoke.

That would be from the charred remains of my brother Fernando.

Yes, it’s funny. I agree. Very funny.

Fernando was the reason I never slept through the night. I’d wake to his face hovering inches from mine, his hand over my mouth. I would count my bruises taking a bath the next morning. Shivering. I began to lose my grip. When would he strike? What was real and what was nightmare?

He was silent. Never insulted me, like our oldest brother Benedicto did. In fact, I barely remember him saying two words to me our whole lives.

But I never felt safe when he was here. He would strike at anytime, anywhere. School, home, the toilet, the market, in the middle of the night, halfway through dinner.

The one time I approached my adoptive father, asking, begging, him to do something about it, he wouldn’t look me in the eye. Just continued sipping and spitting his latest concoction, tinkering. “A man must find his own way. I hope you will find yours. But if you want to make a way in this family, over your brothers, I cannot cheer for you. I do not bear you ill will, either. You will have a harder time than my blood sons, but that will make your victories only sweeter.”

How I loathed him. Loved him, in a way, but truly loathed him, too.

Even as I fumbled with my first serious girlfriend in the backseat of Dad’s Lincoln Town Car, parked up on a ridge overlooking the agave field, only an inch away from my first time, there came Fernando, flinging open the door and yanking me out onto the ground in front of all his friends, my jeans around my ankles, and literally whipped my ass with the wooden handle of a coa de jima.

Everyone laughed. Except Fernando, I mean. Everyone laughed except Fernando.

My girlfriend laughed.

There she was in the backseat, covering herself with the dress I’d taken off only a few minutes before, laughing to the point of tears.

As I rolled around on the ground, mi culo throbbing and splintered, she invited Fernando into the back of the car.

I limped home.

He dated her for a couple of years after that. Meaning she was always around the house, always around the palenque, always anywhere I tried to regain a shred of dignity. She was never awful to me about it, never mentioned it again.

She called me her conejo bebé – her baby bunny.

When Fernando left for the States, I admit, foolishly, that I approached her again. I brought her flowers. I asked if we could try again.

She laughed, though not as loudly or as cruelly as she once had. “My baby bunny, it would be like sleeping with my own brother. I can’t see you that way, never again.”

Yes, I am drifting from the purpose of the tasting. The mezcal, its secrets, its mystery. Please, stay, and I will get us back on track. I promise.

One last thing about Fernando. When he returned, our father gave him my job. I had been his right-hand man all this time, but Leonel demoted me, placed Benedicto at the top, with Fernando right behind.

Fernando didn’t even like mezcal. He preferred vodka full of sweet mixers.

He did pick up with his old girlfriend again, even though she’d gotten engaged to another. She thought it was a torrid affair, like a romance novel. Fernando thought it was an easy lay.

She got pregnant.

He threw a thousand dollars at her and told her to take care of it.

Her fiancé found out and called off the wedding.

She used the thousand dollars to move to Cancun, where she had the child alone and found work at a resort.

I’m sorry. I had promised.

Bitterness is not always unpleasant, if you think about it. There are many bitter notes in our favorite foods. The blackened crust on a flank steak on the grill. The char on a roasted habanero. These flavors work in concert – the smoke, the bitterness, Fernando’s bones.

Which brings us to the next step in the process.

Once the pinas have cooked in the ground due to all the steam, it is time to crush them.

I’m sure you know, those of you who haven’t fled, that we use traditional methods here. Others are switching to autoclaves and shredding machines to speed the job along. But my father always believed in the ancient ways. He wanted his mezcal to taste as natural as possible. I’ve seen him be offered tastes of others product, as his opinion was highly valued in the industry. And I’ve seen him spit onto the ground at their feet, saying, “It’s just pina piss.”

When it’s time to crush the pinas, we use the tried-and-true method, as you saw earlier, of the tahona. The stone, yes, the stone. A giant stone, pulled around our crushing pit by donkeys. A stone seasoned by nearly one hundred years of crushing pinas this way, as Leonel took over from his uncle, who had no children, who had taken over from his own father, who had stolen the palenque from his neighbor in the bad old frontier days.

Some may tell you there’s no difference between mezcal made with an autoclave and a shredder and the nectar we produce here using the old ways. Some may tell you the updated methods help reduce the bitterness and funk of wild agave, which is more palatable to the growing American market.

I find it all very strange. Very strange. Why drink mezcal that’s been distilled until it becomes, God rest Leonel’s soul, pina piss? Nothing more than smoky water?

For instance, sir, you mentioned that you also tasted something like iron, or a coppery flint. What’s that? Pennies, yes, old copper pennies.

That’s not something you’d find if you distilled it the way your fellow citizens prefer. All impurity washed away.

Instead, what you’re tasting is the blood of my eldest brother, Benedicto, who I treated on his birthday at the local watering hole, before dumping him into the crushing pit with the pinas and letting the tahona finish him off.

Did he deserve it?

Well.

Whereas Fernando had been an unholy terror, it was Bene who was evil incarnate. Whereas Fernando did his damage out of sight of Leonel, Bene’s poison was in his words. He could destroy me in front of our father, send me running from the table wracked with guilt and shame, without Leonel so much as spilling his spoonful of soup.

It was Bene who filled in the holes of my history.

Leonel had told me, when I was nine, that a young American girl unable to support her new baby had tearfully left me at a church in Oaxaca, and my adoptive father’s sister, a nun there, asked if he would take me in. And so he did.

But Bene said, “Your mother was a Spring Breaker, your father any one of countless frat boys, and if she’d known she was pregnant sooner, you’d have been forced out by a clothes hanger. Instead, she was too drunk to realize and her parents sent back here to give birth at an orphanage, so their friends would never know. She couldn’t get away from you fast enough.”

Bene said, “The only reason my father took you in was the monthly check promised from your mother’s parents to help support you if he would keep their secret. As you can tell, he didn’t spend much of it on you.”

Bene said, “If I were to let Fernando kill you in your sleep, my father would be angry, only because the check would stop coming.”

It was Bene who first got me drunk on mezcal when I was seven. Very nearly killed me. It also happened to be our father’s favorite reserve, which in my stupor I had smashed a case of to the ground.

Leonel did not respond…well.

It was Bene who taught me about sex. He showed me in the old encyclopedias. He showed me in old magazines with dried together pages, bondage, blood, whips, and other kinks a boy should not have a crash course in.

Bene told me I would be cast out of the family as soon as I graduated, if his father even let me get that far in school.

He and Fernando moved away well before I graduated. Leonel did not cast me out. I proudly stood beside him learning his craft, all his secrets, making them my own. It had begun as a passion. An art form. But now, it could make a man rich.

Bene said, upon the brothers’ return home, “You won’t get a dime out of this place. And if you try to start your own palenque, I will send Fernando to burn it. Any success you have in life, we will be there to take it from you.”

The next day Leonel announced his retirement and named his sons – his blood sons – to take over the business.

A month later, our dad was dead.

Regardless, I was there to celebrate Bene’s first birthday without our father. I kept buying him shot after shot of tequila. Not our beloved mezcal, no. But blue agave tequila, aged in scotch barrels, a deep amber color, the aging process blessing it with notes of caramel, vanilla, and tobacco.

Anejo.

Then I brought him back here – had to nearly carry him, and he’s so much bigger than me. I was determined, though. He might not have noticed how little I drank during the evening, as I had faked it.

Shades of Edgar Allan Poe, yes?

On the road home, Bene told me he was sorry for the way he had treated me. That he and Fernando were afraid of me, of my potential. They didn’t want their dad favoring me over them.

I don’t know if you can forgive us, forgive me, but I can hope.”

It was far too late, and it was only the tequila talking anyway.

Once we were inside, alone, I helped him to the crushing pit, let him drop dead weight. His skull cracked like an egg on impact. While he convulsed his last breaths, I hooked up our strongest donkey, threw in some pinas I’d been saving for this occasion, and –

I see we’re really separating the wheat from the chaff here now. The strong from the weak. Please, those of you leaving, don’t forget to stop by the gift shop for sample sets to take home.

But to you remaining, my faithful few, my adventurous conspirators, you want to know what’s next. You can’t help yourselves. You’ve come too far to back out now.

Once the pinas are crushed to a pulp, they are moved to tinas – wooden vats – to ferment. Yes! It is no longer just a plant. The magic has begun. I still use my adoptive father’s special blend of yeast, cultivated from years of trial and error.

Then we wait. We can stir, we can pray, we can bargain with the devil, but we cannot rush the magic.

From there, we move into the distillation phase, using copper stills. Again, only the most traditional methods here, my friends.

What’s that you say? That you think it tastes a little of barbecued pork?

Indeed, ma’am you’re right. You’re absolutely right. You are drinking a very special type of mezcal called a – can you tell me?

Almost! Give her a hand. It is a pechuga.

Yes, a mezcal de pechuga is made for momentous occasions. Weddings, funerals, coming of age. Traditionally, you would make these by hanging a mix of fruit and nuts inside the still, above the mezcal, to enhance the flavor. That includes hanging a raw chicken breast as well. Sometimes turkey.

But you say it’s more like pork, and there’s a good reason for that.

You see, each family has a special perchuga recipe, and which fruits and nuts and herbs they choose make a difference. Sometimes, instead of chicken or turkey, a mezcalero might try venison or rabbit. Or, yes, a pig.

Or, in this case, long pig.

Which you might not know is what cannibals call people, because we taste so similar to pork.

That roast pork flavor infused in this batch is due to my father’s head hanging in the still.

Along with pears, plums, pecans, and cashews. My special mix.

No, he died of natural causes in his sleep. I know, because I was there. I made sure of it.

This is his finest creation, in a way. They always said “he put all of himself into his work,” but it took me for that to become even remotely true. I literally put Leonel and Sons into Leonel and Sons Mezcal.

But I am renaming the brand going forward: Les Entrañas de li Familia

I hope to introduce it to the States soon, though. I shouldn’t be telling you this, but there has been a lot of interest from an American actor to invest. It’s far too early to say who, but I’ll give you a hint: “Hi-ho Silver, away!”

That concludes our tour.

I believe this is the best mezcal you will ever drink.

Don’t worry. I won’t tell if you won’t.


Anthony Neil Smith is a novelist (Yellow Medicine, Slow Bear, The Butcher's prayer, many more), short story writer (Cowboy Jamboree, HAD, Blue Murder, Punk Noir, Bristol Noir, many others), and professor (Southwest Minnesota State University). He likes Mexican food, cheap red wine, and Italian crime flicks from the seventies. His dog is named Edmund, who is the devil.