The kitchen guys knew I was leaving the college town for New York and had started stealing beers from the walk-in cooler each night. One day, close to the end, I cleaned the grime behind the bar on a slow afternoon and found the bottle of Cynar in the well of bottles we never used. I picked it up and smelled the contents and remember the smell like the corner of my grandpa’s barn where the nameless cats pissed and hid their kittens in stacks of hay bales. I poured my water out of my plastic kid’s cup into the dish sink, and poured some Cynar in. I ducked to hide from the cooks. They liked to shoot the shit with me while I cleaned. That’s how they made slow shifts go by faster. I had my own way.
They Cynar wasn’t bad, or at least not as bad as it smelled. It finished chalky, bitter, some sort of spice. I would have guessed cardamom, though I’m not quite sure what that tastes like. I stared at the bottle for a while and sloshed the liquid inside. It’s one of the bottles that had been in the restaurant since before I worked there. It would have remained after I left, if I hadn’t started taking shots of it before my shift.
I’ll admit that, but it was the only thing that changed from the time I decided to move. I drank more on the clock. Everybody did it, and I always had, within reason. That being said, drinking some neglected bottle of amaro wasn’t going to set my boss back, but the kitchen guys taking bottles of Bud heavy from the stock cooler started to add up.
The moment the cooks announced last call to the servers, Satchel, the sous chef, would turn off the grill and descend into the basement, only to come up three and a half minutes later with four beers, one for each person in the kitchen. As bar manager, I had to call them out. My boss, a Brooklyn native who previously owned a restaurant named “Mooselini” and once told me, “Hitler would have been more successful if he had the Internet,” would see the spike of Budweiser sales in my weekly liquor order and know something was up.
“Guys, you can’t steal beer.” I told them, “I shouldn’t have to say this.”
“It’s just our shift drinks,” Satchel said. “We’ve earned it.” The kitchen guys all nodded as they scrubbed or mopped or saran wrapped.
“We don’t do shift drinks here. It’s not in my budget.”
Our head chef, Morgan slicked back his shoulder-length, curly hair from under his chef’s hat. “What do you care, man? You’re about to leave here. You’re so checked out.” Morgan’s beady eyes blinked too much. Probably from the chemicals in the grill cleaner he just used.
I didn’t know what ‘checked out’ meant, and I still don’t. I’ve thought about the term a lot, and don’t think it applies to anything I was doing. If I were ‘checked out,’ I wouldn’t care enough to ask them to stop stealing beer. Maybe it would have been better to have been checked out rather than to care at that point.
I offered a compromise. “I’ve been working on this drink with new liquors. I really like it. Instead of taking Buds, I’ll make you guys a cocktail and you’ll give me feedback.”
Osmin packed up his knives and shook his head, “Beer is easy.”
“Easy, but expensive.” Why did I care so much? Maybe it was the power of being the manager. Maybe it was my Midwestern farm boy sensibilities. Maybe I just wanted them to taste this strange drink I’d been playing with.
Morgan agreed it was best. “Well,” he said, “Aren’t you going to make us a round?”
“Haven’t you already had your shiftie?” I didn’t want to get him too drunk or he’d get lazy about closing and I’d get yelled at by our boss. Plus he had started to blow off his parole and go to the freshman bars in town, where he was nearly twice as old as the usual patrons. I didn’t want to see him while I was trying to relax after work. Morgan used to be a CNA at the university hospital, and a promising psychology student before that. He just couldn’t manage to keep himself away from blow or harassing young girls with powerful lawyer fathers.
I made them a round of my drink anyway. “It’s my take on a negroni,” I explained. “Gin, vermouth, and a bit of this.” I held up the bottle I had brought back to the kitchen and placed it on the convection oven.
They all cheersed while my customers sat at the bar waiting for me to bring their check.
Osmin said, “Mierda.” Morgan grimaced. Satchel spit it on the floor. Richard, whose real name I can’t remember, but that’s what we started calling him because it implied he was a ‘dick,’ despite being a generally okay kid, didn’t say anything, but just set his drink down on the prep table and kept closing the kitchen.
And I said, “You guys don’t mean that.”
I took the bottle from the oven, unscrewed the top, and smelled the barn from the bottle.
I have a distinct memory of my Uncle Keith from the day he pulled me out of the creek. He was wearing this red and white stripped stocking hat with a red puffball on the tip. I can almost see it bobbing as he laughed while I striped my wet overalls on my grandma’s kitchen floor.
My mom’s little brother was my favorite part about moving into my grandparents’ house. My uncle was an accident, but then again, so was I. Five years my senior and the closest thing I had to a brother. I had to leave all the friends at my old school in the Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood, but was willing to be brave if it meant we could get away from Rob and my mom would stop crying as much.
When Rob locked us out of the house for the final time, we moved back to her parents’ home. My grandparents were happy to have us. My grandpa picked me up and said, “Another farm hand.” My grandma hugged my mom and asked her if she had seen Erin Brokovich. My mom went to back to school to get her masters. My baby sister got her own room, but I got to share with Uncle Keith, who seemed to understand our situation, despite being a teenager.
Uncle Keith reassured me my new school was great and I would love fourth grade. He thought it was funny when I called him ‘Uncle Keith’ instead of just Keith. He was always trying to make things seem light and always ‘on’ to convince everyone he was okay. He had a prosthetic left arm he would take off like a magic trick. When I was young, I thought it was hilarious each time he’d pop it off and say, “Whoops.” He gained the prosthesis after an auger accident, while helping my grandpa grind feed for the cattle. Uncle Keith always kept in good spirits. He supposedly told the nurse at the time, “Good thing I’m right handed.”
Uncle Keith was good with the animals, while they seemed to hate me. The chickens would peck my feet when I brought them food, the sheep would buck me, and I didn’t dare tempt the cattle. He’d laugh and push me towards the cow’s gate. “Touch their nose. This sonuvabitch loves it,” and he put his baby steer in a headlock.
It was post-New Years and we were due back at school any day now. While we lived at Rob’s, I would be on his Playstation all day until he came home from work, but Uncle Keith always convinced me to go outside. “Want to see the gilts? They’re due any day now, so they’ll be huge.” I liked the farrowing barn. It was warm and smelled like wildflowers, even during our winter break. “You’re not going to see shit like this in the city,” he assured me.
He was right. Once we entered that barn, things were different. There were some piglets crawling around the tired sows, and there were some piglets that weren’t. I asked, “What are we going to name them?”
Uncle Keith shook his head, “Goddammit. Dad said we had a few more days.”
I squatted down and reached my arm through the bars, trying to touch one of the piglets with my mittens, but only managing to pet the mama pig. I pointed at a lively one and asked him, “How about Rupurt?” Then pointed to a less-active one, “And Ginger for this one.”
“We need to clear out the dead ones. I hate this part.” He took off that red and white hat like he was defeated and told me, “I need you to go to the big barn and grab me some empty feed sacks.” Then he kept saying “Goddam, goddam” while I retrieved the paper bags.
I brought two back. “I’m going to need a couple more than that, Jerry. There’s four gilts here.” He looked over them again. “I mean, four sows.”
So I gathered two more bags and helped Uncle Keith put the dead piglets from the last pig in the bag. I hated how squishy and unresponsive they were and only gathered three of the sixteen dead ones, while Uncle Keith cleaned up the other three stalls before pulling the dead babies from the last one and putting them in my feed sack.
I knew I was too old to cry about something so stupid, but I did. Uncle Keith patted me on the back with his prosthetic arm and asked me to grab some twine from the big barn. I took a long time getting it for him. I was trying to get all my crying out while petting the kittens that I could catch. A black one with white paws. Or maybe a calico, I can’t quite remember.
When I finally came back with the twine, Uncle Keith asked for another favor. “In the house, there’s a box of matches in the drawer on the left of the desk. Can you grab them and some paper? Any paper.”
I ran into the house. The new boots I got for Christmas didn’t quite fit, but my grandma assured me that was a good thing. She told me, “My parents survived the depression. Anything that lasts is a good thing.”
In the quiet house, I rummaged through papers and envelopes with my mom’s name on them, some with my dad’s name, and a handwritten note from Rob. The adults were at work and my little sister at daycare, so I took a moment to appreciate what it meant to be alone. I found the matches, along with a deck of Uno cards, a Polaroid camera, and some scratch ‘n sniff markers that I remember smelling like rotten fruit. I pocketed the matches and the papers with Rob’s name on them.
I thought I stalled for a while, but Uncle Keith had only managed to bring two of the four feed sacks down to the burn pile by the time I got back.
“Good timing,” he said. “Grab that last one, will ya?” I followed him down the slight hill dragging my sack to the ravine where he threw his feed sack like the hammer throw. He asked, “Do you want me to get it?”
“I can do it, Uncle Keith. I’m not a baby.” I mirrored his throw, but didn’t have the distance. The package broke open and the dead piglets came tumbling out. Uncle Keith shoveled them back into the bag and said, “Don’t worry, Buddy. I got ya.” He launched the bag with his good arm and it landed with a ‘squash’ next to the pile.
Satisfied, he said, “Paper?” I gave him the letters and he looked over them and laughed. “Don’t worry, you got rid of him. I think I’ll just use this.” He removed the letter from the envelope and handed the letter back to me.
He crumpled the envelope at the base of the pile. “Now give me those matches and paper, will ya?”
I passed him the matchbox, with lettering declaring who to vote for in an election long passed. He held the box in his teeth, and with his good hand, struck the match against the side. He cupped the flame with his prosthetic and tried to catch fire to the feed sack, to no avail. He tried again. And again. But couldn’t get a flame to light.
Uncle Keith stretched his back. “Jerry, I need you to gather some tinder. Can you do that?”
I assured him that I could.
“It can’t be wet.” He pulled his hat down lower over his head, “We’re going to have ourselves an afternoon bonfire.”
I walked further into the woods until I reached a clearing. The water from the pond had stopped running in the cold. A fourteen-point buck trotted down the woods and met me head on across the stream. I say fourteen-point, but I didn’t find out the point system was based on their horns until years later. I felt like I was in a Gary Paulson novel. Like I could do this, live in this world, on this world. I reached out my hand and the buck didn’t move. The buck chuffed and a billow of breath escaped from his mouth.
If I couldn’t master those cows, I was surely more of an outdoorsman if I could subdue a wild deer. I took a step forward with my hand outstretched, like I had something to offer him. The buck moved a half trot closer. I stepped again, and the ice creaked beneath me. The buck twitched his ear and ran away.
“Come back,” I yelled after him, and stepped forward over the ice, which immediately caved and vaulted me headfirst.
I remember the cold, the aching cold. And I remember the pull at my chest, though Uncle Keith said he pulled me by my ankle. And I remember the creek looking infinite there under the surface of the ice, but last time I walked by it a few years ago, the creek was three feet deep, tops.
Then I remember crying, and being carried, and my grandma coming home from her salon and pulling out that Polaroid camera to take a picture of Uncle Keith laughing as I took off my soaked overalls.
But I can’t remember that moment right, because I remember Uncle Keith’s face laughing, as well as my own bawling. Logically, I can’t remember my own face, but I remember seeing that Polaroid. I remember carrying that picture in my breast pocket when I was a pallbearer at Uncle Keith’s funeral when I was in high school. I remember being angry because I had to carry the coffin of nothing. His body was pulverized after a semi’s grill devoured his motorcycle. I remember crying and I remember laughing over the irony that he would throttle and shift the bike with no problem, but his prosthetic couldn’t operate the horn. And that’s what got him. If he was even sober enough to honk in those days.
I remember him being so happy.
I forgot about my shift drink cocktail until years later when I had tried to make it at a New Years party I went to with Sophia, my new-at-the-time girlfriend. Her cousin in Chicago invited us to stay with her and her husband while they had people over. I didn’t tell my mom or sister and her family that I was in the Midwest from New York, because I had seen them a month before during Thanksgiving and didn’t want to intrude again.
Sophia told me her cousin lived in Logan Square, because it was the ‘hip place to be.’ Which wasn’t how I remembered it. She said, “We could take the el downtown during the day and check out museums, and take it back tonight to eat somewhere good around here.”
We got up early and started walking in the wrong direction to the train stop, then through a balmy park. We corrected ourselves when I said, “You know, I lived around here when I was a kid?”
Sophia craned her head at me through the hood of her winter jacket. “You said you grew up on a farm.”
“We moved to the farm when I was in second grade. Before that, we lived somewhere in this neighborhood.” We waited for the light to change at an intersection. “I’m not quite sure where, though.”
“You should ask your mom.”
“Naw. I don’t want to bother her.” Sophia looked a little disappointed, so I said. “I remember the school though. Darwin Elementary. We used to watch cars tear down the one-way from the classroom windows.”
Sophia looked it up on her phone. “We’re only like a block away. We have to go.”
I said, “It’s weird to go out of your way to walk by a grade school.” But we turned down the street anyway.
We reached the school and leaned on the barricade that divided the street to a roundabout. Sophia smacked her lips, “I thought you said this was a one way.”
“I could have sworn it was.”
“Should we go find your old house?”
Rob’s house. “No, I don’t think so.” There was no way he could still afford to live there, if he was even still alive. Or was he richer than I remembered? He did own a Playstation. “We should probably get going before the museum gets too crowded.”
Sophia looped her arm around mine as we walked away from the two-way street.
Later that night, Sophia’s cousin’s husband, the host of the party said, “I’m going to pour you a shot and you’re going to hate it.” He then handed me a novelty shot glass from a Hard Rock Café with a pale yellow liquid in it. I took a sniff and recognized it instantly. He eagerly watched me as I threw the shot back without hesitation. I smiled as the familiar chalky taste covered my tongue and flooded my mind with images of the bar.
“That’s the most confident Malort face I’ve ever seen.”
A bit confused, I assured him, “I go way back with this one.”
“Oh yeah? What do you think of it?” He started mixing a drink for himself. His form was sloppy. He added too much vermouth in his Scotch. He’d never worked behind a bar, maybe never worked a day in the service industry at all.
“I love Cynar,” I told him. “I used to make a drink with it at the bar I managed in college.”
He scoffed and took a sip of his unintentional Rob Roy. “That’s not Cynar. You’re drinking Malort. It’s a Chicago delicacy.” He handed me the bottle.
He was right. The bottle bared Jeppson’s family crest, not the artichoke label I was expecting. This was a cheaply made bottle with a plastic screw top, not unlike a well vodka, but I remember the taste so vividly being associated with the turn of a red, metal cap. He asked me if I could still make the drink from my college bar. I felt my face flush. “You wouldn’t like it, I told him. Nobody likes it but me.”
He said, “Try me.”
If I wanted to make the drink, I could’ve texted Morgan or Osmin to ask if they remember the recipe, but I wasn’t even sure if their numbers were their numbers anymore. I could have made the drink from memory, add a little gin, a little vermouth, a splash of Peychaud’s Bitters, just for a reaction from these people I had just met. Or worse, to watch everyone pretend like they love it.
As the room spun, I just said, “Maybe another time.”
I made my way towards their guest bedroom where I pulled the old Polaroid of me and Uncle Keith from the pages of the book I was reading on the plane, then held my head in my hands as someone shouted, “Fifteen minutes until midnight everybody.”
Joshua Bohnsack is an MFA candidate at Northwestern University, a fiction editor for TriQuarterly, and an editor for Long Day Press. He is the author of Shift Drink (Spork Press – forthcoming 2018) and his work has appeared in The Rumpus, Hobart, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, and others. He ran an ice cream shop in rural Illinois until he moved to Chicago. joshuabohnsack.tumblr.com