The night is cool on the porch as I stare out over the hillside lined with oak and cedar and slanting shadows of midnight blue. It’s a new moon. I’m alone except for the farm dog’s silhouette as it keeps watch from down in the yard, dignified in his distance from a visitor like me. As the light coats the darkness in its own subtle quilt, he rises once in a while to walk in circles, seek the center of his plot and nest back again somewhere warmer. And tonight he is the only thing stirring. On the hill across the lonely dirt road, there are a million breathing things, and they are all perfectly still. Even branches which could wave in the fall breeze don’t. It is a massive stillness that’s odd to a stranger’s eye. Tonight I have watched this scene like an optical illusion, looking for a picture made out of its parts. I’ve watched it until could easily imagine a sudden madness, some fluke stroke that changes everything forever. Out here it could happen, and I can’t help but think that on dark, creaking porches all over the outskirts of Lynchburg, it does. But now and again you’re pulled back from it by a stray dog or pickup in heat and on its way to the next unincorporated town looking for what it can’t find at home. I’ve come to this place since I was old enough to walk, and my younger self knows it well. But this older one, now back to visit, he’s not so sure. Is the dark getting deeper with age? The stillness now seems able to consume that distant and modern world whole.
“C’mon in here. Got something to show ya’.”
I start as I turn to see my father’s cracked smile pressed against the screen door. I can still sneak up on you, boy, it says.
A new pocket knife. A bit of twisted, historic metal unearthed by hours of free time and Civil War reverie. Doesn’t matter. I’ll bite. It’s my job. The folding chair knocks over a water bowl, and I plod past Matt Dillon and Festus, past the tiny bathroom smothered in plastic flowers, and into the kitchen. He’s already rummaging in a cupboard, shoving aside cans and boxes of Minute Rice. Elbow-deep in Bush’s beans, he retrieves something delicately, as if it were his samurai sword. I give him the questioning look he expects, and he hands it to me. Only after I turn it over in my fingers do I realize that it is not empty. Now it’s my turn to smile.
I hold the Mason jar up to the dim bulb overhead. He’d said for months that the boys who own the land up on the hill behind the property line were a source, but I’d long written it off to his penchant for storytelling. Something old and new at once. A quart of myth.
I unscrewed the jar and put it to my nose. Potato vodka with a kiss of corn.
“Heh. Go on-n’ try it.”
I raised it to my lips, ready for the burn.
“Yep, that’s some good stuff right there. A lot of it you cain’t even drink, but I like this. I put it in my Coke.”
I took another drink, having wanted to taste homemade my whole drinking life. Its legend has always been an intriguing one, a fairy tale pointing straight to the south, this very area too, where my mother’s father carved out a life between hill and holler. With so many tales that fade away come adulthood, tasting this now was something special. Visions of iron kettles. Black and whites careening down dirt roads just to take them out. Sepia men snaking jars in false Ford floorboards, their chests cutting through the night, fighting with the presence of buckshot. Brimstone deputies hell-bent on holding together a right and decent land for one more Sunday.
This may have been bootleg, but tender care in some backyard or basement had planed down the edges of a truly epic proof, sanded down the rough finish to something approaching art. As the spirit finished sliding down my deflowered throat, it occurred to me. Was this discovery just the first? What else about this special piece of history could be unearthed? Would the present reality of Everclear end up not rife with mystery and character, but sterile as an office park, complete with dull glances toward empty parking spaces? For now what I knew for sure was that some ‘shine is as good as anything you find on the shelves today. And, more importantly, the real thing is still very much alive and as close as my parents’ cupboard. I handed him the jar and watched it disappear back into its camouflaged lair before being covered with an old checkered tablecloth.
As Miss Kitty lovingly scolded Festus for his time in the saloon, I passed my dozing Dad and returned to the porch and the new moon. I looked out into the dark and the stillness that I once knew well. I took another sip and saw something stir somewhere in the blackness. Maybe it was time. Time to reconnect. I could trace this rare juice back to its source, if only to gaze on the wellspring as it exists today. I could study my own blood through stories that still echoed in the town. I could go back in time with these older eyes, decide for myself what is myth, and what is just plain larger than life.
Michael K. Gause has taught German, sold men's clothes, stocked diapers at midnight, and served coffee to people he hopes never to see again. He was once told he'd never write anything good. Last year he was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He figures that makes things square. He assumes responsibility for two chapbooks and is creator and host of The Dishevel’d Salon, a monthly gathering of Twin Cities artists.