Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

Home Brew

Owen King
From Prairie Schooner, Vol. 85, No. 2 (Summer 2011)

It suddenly seemed like every man in Daisy's acquaintance was brewing his own beer. At parties thrown by her girlfriends, husbands served the stuff up in jam jars and made a show of raising their full glasses to observe the filter of the light. Daisy almost never drank the stuff. She hated the smell. Home brew always carried an odor of undergrowth, like the homes of old people.

A few of the men pooled their resources and ordered a crate of expensive hops from Belgium. When the box arrived, they all dropped to their knees around it, and ran their hands through the mounds of cones, like movie pirates rejoicing over a chest of shining doubloons.

"Oh my god," said Daisy's husband, Brian. His tone was awed. "The smell. The fucking smell of it."

The men's excitement over their beer—about boiling temperatures, about the wort and mash—had a sexual edge that irritated Daisy. In college, at a movie, Brian had once leaned over and whispered in her ear, "The first time I saw you, I almost came in my pants," and abruptly slid his hand between her legs. The press of his fingers through the denim of her jeans had been uncomfort-able, and the being in public had been nervous-making, but his want had been undeniably compelling. There had not only been an urgency but also a substance. That was the real stuff. This beer thing, by comparison, was clearly ephemeral, a game for boys, like trading baseball cards or collecting comic books or leaving out plastic barf to see how people would react. Daisy couldn't think of anything more boring.

After a recent weekend session with their neighbor Ed Hinchey, the king of the suburban beer makers—whom Daisy often encountered as he lugged his garbage bags to the curb, mash-speckled laboratory goggles plastered to his face, and who used a mammoth turkey cooker to make vats of ale in his garage—Brian had announced that he had never felt "like more of a man" than when he capped off the first bottle of his personal concoction, "Shockerbock."

Daisy didn't feel unwanted, exactly. They still had sex. They still laughed, about the way some animals acted human and the way their son acted like an animal. What was missing was that shared exigency, but a decade of marriage along—fourteen years if you counted from when they started dating—that was probably not so unusual.

Maybe desire was like a shirt: the threads had a way of loosening, and once they did maybe you could never quite pull them back into shape. Even a favorite and durable piece, a lambswool sweater knitted by capable hands, fell out of rotation after a few years and was replaced by other enthusiasms, newer garments.

Or maybe desire was like the insipid results of making beer with the same grain twice. One of the men at one of the parties had gone on about how it still made you drunk even though it tasted like nothing.

"Are you going to try it?" asked Brian. He held out the bottle of Shockerbock. Ed Hinchey had a special gadget for making beer bottle labels, and this bottle had a picture of electricity dancing on a lightning rod shaped like a rooster.

"It's infused with pears and honey. You know, like ambrosia. ‘The Food of the Gods,"' Brian cackled. "Except that it will destroy your mind."

"You know I don't like beer," said Daisy. She started to reach for it anyway, but Brian turned, shrugged, and walked away sipping.

"More for me," he said.

Some months later she was digging around for the E-ZPass when an accordion of prophylactics spilled out of the glove compartment of Brian's car. Daisy, a high school math teacher, returned them and continued on to work. After the bell rang, she instructed her class to do the fourth exercise at the end of chapter 12 and left for the bathroom.

Her digital watch had a timer, which she set for five minutes, before taking two shuddering inhalations, and exploding into sobs. Seated in a stall, Daisy bent forward and cried into the lap of her tweed skirt. She dug her nails into her knees in an attempt to nerve herself straight, to take the fear that was too large and abrupt for her to see the edges of it—much less begin to grasp— and to swap it out for the simple hurt of cut flesh.

But it kept coming. The fear couldn't be fooled, and it wouldn't shut up:

The other woman could be pregnant. Daisy needed to be tested for HIV, for everything. What if, in gross violation of all the rules of fairness, Daisy were the one of the three of them who died of the disease first, shivering out in hospice? She imagined the other woman, whoever she was, at Daisy's funeral, hugging Brian Jr., consoling her son, replacing her.

A series of burbling notes sounded from her watch.

Daisy let go of her knees with a gasp. She flexed her fingers and then pressed her skirt flat. When she left the stall Daisy did so very gingerly—her kneecaps ached where her fingers had tried to pry them up. She washed her face, checked herself in the mirror. She told herself that she was fine, that she would get through. Daisy said it aloud. "You are fine. You will get through."

When Daisy returned to the classroom, a boy named Frankie Renner jabbed the barrel of a gun against the back of her head. "I'm sorry, Ms. Lord, I'm really, really sorry, but this terrorist bullshit has got to stop. It has to stop, okay, all the terrorist bullshit, okay? We shouldn't have to live this way. It's bullshit! It's not right!"

Daisy stumbled ahead of him to the far corner of the room where most of the class was now sitting and dropped down to the hardwood.

"There, okay?" The tears that streamed down Frankie Renner's cheeks glistened in the trenches of his acne scars. His mouth shook. The gun, a pistol, was small and black, and as Daisy looked at it she could feel it in her mind, icy and so, so heavy.

Several of her students were sniffling; one girl was praying, asking God to take care of her parents, her brothers, her friends.

"Frankie," she said, but he was already stalking down the classroom's center aisle, gun swinging at his hip.

At the front of the room Frankie Renner had quarantined three football players, forcing them to lie face down beneath the chalkboard.

"Now all these jock terrorists are going to make out with each other, right fucking now, or I will fucking kill everyone!" Frankie made this announcement in a cracked screech and kicked a chair clattering on to its side. "Kiss each other! Suck tongues! I know you want to!"

"Dude," said a football player from the floor.

Frankie kicked another chair. He bent down and stuck the gun against the football player's neck. "Right now, right now, right now!"

In the course of this exchange, Daisy found herself rising, walking down the aisle. Initially, this movement seemed thoughtless, but around the third step, she realized that she was going forward because the gun simply could not be real.

She considered what she knew of Frankie Renner: a severe kid, uptight about his grades, a blinker and a stutterer, a favorer of hooded sweatshirts in muted colors, a submitter of tests wrinkled by palm sweat, undoubtedly a target for ass-kicking by multiple groups.

He was a pussy, she thought, and this was something Daisy had never thought about anyone before, and something she had never thought that she could think about anyone, ever. But Frankie was one, she knew he was, knew he was a total pussy.

Which meant that the gun was a toy, an extremely realistic one, like the kind an uncle had given Brian Jr. for his birthday. (Not that her son had any interest in such toys. He had examined the cap gun by holding it up with the handle between thumb and forefinger, as if it might somehow stain the "wizarding" robes that his grandmother had made for him. The robes were the only gift Brian Jr. was truly enthusiastic about.)

Daisy was now an arm's reach from Frankie Renner. "Frankie." She put her hand on his wrist.

He turned to her. His mouth bent into a frown that was so pronounced it was clownish. For a half second, Daisy glimpsed him as a baby, bald and agonized. A white bubble hung at the opening of his left nostril.

Frankie gasped. "You, too?"

"Yes, me, too," Daisy said, and even as she twisted his wrist— twisted it hard enough to make something crack, harder than she had known she had the strength to—she couldn't help feeling sympathetic. Betrayal made wailing infants of us all.

The cap gun was pointed at Daisy's stomach when it went off, and the puff of air that accompanied its ringing blast caused her to double at the waist, as if she had actually been gut shot. She wobbled back a step and fell onto her rear end, bracing herself with both hands, deaf to the slap of her palms against the hard wood.

The school was emptied and everyone was sent home.

In the students' rush to subdue Frankie Renner—who was finally removed from the classroom on a stretcher, unconscious, his face like a plate of leftovers no one wanted—someone stepped on Daisy's right pinkie finger and broke it.

After Daisy had given her statement, the police insisted that she call someone, so she called her own answering machine. In the one-sided conversation that followed, she reassured her husband that everything was fine.

"Really. Honey. Honey. It's, like, by far my least important finger." Daisy managed a sort of chuckle. "Don't worry about me." For the benefit of the officer standing nearby she paused for a few seconds of silence. "Uh-huh, great. Super. Love you, too."

In the hospital waiting room, the television was showing continuous coverage of a cruise ship on fire in the Adriatic Sea; the listing vessel looked like a guttering wedding cake, oily creepers climbing the tiers. Daisy's cell phone rattled in her pocket.

She answered. It was the coach of the Rams, Brian Jr.'s ymca indoor soccer team. The coach said he was just going to tell her: he believed the boy had defaced the team equipment bag. There was a print of a Ram on the side of the bag, and someone had used a marker to draw a lightning bolt onto the Ram's forehead and spectacles over its eyes. Suspicion had naturally fallen on Brian Jr.

"I don't understand," she said. "Could we talk about this another time? I'm having a difficult day."

"Look, I'm not trying to be a hard ass here, but I need to be reimbursed for a new equipment bag. And if Brian would like to come back, he's going to have to apologize."

"Wait, wait. Let's back it up. You don't even know it was him."

"Your son plays soccer in ‘wizarding' robes, ma'am. It doesn't take Sherlock Holmes to put two and two together." The coach added that Brian Jr. often referred to his teammates as "muggles."

"He doesn't like wearing shorts," said Daisy. "He's fair-skinned. He thinks his knees look funny."

The coach sighed. "This isn't Hogwarts, ma'am. It's ymca soccer. The bottom line is we need a new bag, and your son needs to apologize. That's the bottom line."

"The bottom line is we paid two hundred dollars, and you never put him in the games!"

The coach said good-bye.

With exaggerated calm, Daisy closed her cell phone and slid it into her bag. She did a few of her childbirth breathing exercises. The cruise ship turned slowly clockwise. It was about three in the afternoon.

"Excuse me." The man in the seat across from Daisy had a bulging bandage over both his eyes, which gave him the appearance of a B-movie monster. Head angled thirty degrees to her left, he explained that he was a lawyer, and she sounded like a person who needed one.

Daisy asked how he could tell. (She was by herself for the moment. The wearingly solicitous police officer who had driven her to the hospital had gone to the cafeteria for coffee.)

"The breathing exercises," he said. "If you were in labor they would have taken you away already."

His business card introduced

Win Greenbaum

Attorney-at-law

"Haven't you suffered enough?"

Without his sight, Win Greenbaum said he believed that his other senses had been enhanced. His teeth showed a comforting yellow-white as he smiled at the space to Daisy's left.

"Is your condition—permanent?"

"Maybe," he said.

A doctor x-rayed her finger, pronounced the break clean, and in a summary manner, snapped the digit straight, briskly taped it up, and gave her a pat on the shoulder. "You okay, hero?"

First, the shock had traveled hot all the way up her arm, and then, for a few long seconds all the feeling had drained away completely—before sensation returned in a ticklish cascade that was like being nibbled on by countless tiny teeth.

She released her other hand's grip on the examining table. The paper crinkled. Daisy brought her hurt hand close to her face and observed the pulse jerking in the meat beneath her thumb.

"Miss?" The doctor's expression was kindly.

Daisy shook herself. "Yes. Thank you, I'm fine. Thank you."

The hospital was close enough to her house to walk. She left the emergency room via a rear door; nothing against the cop—she figured someone would let him know that she had left before too long—but Daisy didn't feel like talking.

A nameless neighborhood park—a couple of benches, a swing set, a tetherball, and a four-square path of cracked concrete bordered by low hedging—sat between her house and the last couple of blocks. She decided to cut through.

The air was cool and crisp. It held a dry leaf smell, dusty, faintly sweet. Autumn already, October, and everything was done growing, but somewhere, some man was mowing his lawn again. A fine wind carried the engine snore above the treetops and away. Her head was clearing. The fresh air on her tongue was like mouthwash. She told herself that this day was like something awful she had eaten, and she just had to get the sick off her breath and lie down. Something squeaked. She needed to lie down with the window open and let the breeze take this day. A man in spandex shorts stood on a bench on the park's far side ostentatiously performing tai chi exercises. Something squeaked again.

At the bottom of the tangle of hedge at her right, a rumple of white fur was crying. The kitten lay curled in a nest of leaves. It was the size of a tennis ball. A damp green eye blinked.

Daisy crouched down on the cement path. She parted the branches at the base of the hedge, slid the cup of her uninjured hand under the kitten's body, and lifted it. The creature blinked at her twice more. It gave another small cry. There was a rattle in the cry. Daisy held it gently against her chest, and the feeling was wet. "Shh, little girl. Shh."

She started to rise, and as she did, Daisy shifted the little weight to her other hand. This revealed the blood on the hand she had been using. The blood was very dark, almost black, with the texture of jam.

The wind blew and fur lifted from the lifeless body, white hairs swirling off in a miniature eddy. The green eye had closed.

"I'll just put this back where I found it," Daisy said to herself.

Brian wasn't home. This was a relief to Daisy; she had no idea what to say to him. She wasn't sure she was going to say anything at all.

At the door of Brian Jr.'s bedroom she pressed her ear to the wood and listened: her son was playing one of his audio books. The reader was jumping expertly back and forth between various parties in a discussion of wizarding affairs, while everyone sipped from mugs of a beverage called butterbeer. Daisy didn't know what to say to Brian Jr. either. A layer of hard, dry grit seemed to have formed at the back of her eyes. Her knees still ached from when she had dug her nails into them.

But she was going to have to do something, she realized.

As if in protest at this recognition, Daisy lowered herself to the hall carpet and stretched out.

It was not as soft as it had looked.

Her son's door cracked slightly, making a gap only wide enough to peek through. Brian Jr. stared down at her. In his faded purple robes, pilled from constant wear, and with his tight, grave frown, he appeared to his mother like a monk from some misbegotten brotherhood. His eyes were brown, the same as his father's.

"Don't worry. I'm just resting," said Daisy.

For a few seconds Brian Jr. continued to stare at her. Then he nodded and shut the door.

The audio book, which had been paused, started again. A fresh round of butterbeer was ordered. Daisy did some breathing and eventually stood up.

In the bedroom she threw her sweaty blouse in the hamper, put on a fresh t-shirt, and went into the master bathroom to pee. While she did her business, Daisy's eyes were drawn to a belly-sized white-purple lesion quivering in the far corner of the ceiling—a leaking pipe. Countless beads of water glittered on the surface of the distended drywall. It was evident that any minute now, the boil was going to give way. Daisy knew little about plumbing, but she knew that this was apocalyptic—and so she decided not to know. This, Brian could deal with. She made a visor with her bad hand and used it to block out that part of the room.

Visor firmly in place, she wiped and flushed, and left. Once in the bedroom, she gently and firmly secured the bathroom door behind her. Daisy lowered her bad hand. From inside the bathroom there came an inhuman groan, followed by what sounded like a rush of falling water, thundering down onto tile.

As she passed Brian Jr.'s room, she heard the wizards still at parley over their drinks.

In the kitchen she dug around in the fridge for something alcoholic. There was nothing but a quarter bottle of Chablis from last year that she sometimes used for cooking. She checked the freezer and found an unopened bottle of gin, coated in frost. Back in the refrigerator there was no tonic and no ginger ale, just orange juice and milk. She had heard of people drinking gin with milk, so Daisy tried that.

When it was poured, the combination of ingredients rolled and slid within the tumbler, as if they were wrestling with each other. Daisy drank some anyway. The taste was fetid and the liquid burned all the way down.

In her pocket, her cell phone shook. She took out the phone, read "Brian" in the window, opened the refrigerator, placed the cell phone on a shelf, and shut the door. Then she reopened the door. Beside the trembling cell phone stood the milk carton. She squinted at the tab at the top of the carton: 10/10/10, four days ago.

Daisy dumped her gin and milk in the sink.

A regular drink, that was what she needed.

Next door, in his garage, Ed Hinchey sat tipped up in a gray velour armchair at the rear of the open-floored, two-car bay. She had let herself in through the unlocked side door. It was as if he had been waiting for her.

"Hey."

"I saw the light on," Daisy said.

Ed wore his goggles. They were grisly with spatter. He had a beer nestled in his crotch. A stocky, hard-bellied, bearded man, in the past he had always projected a jolly air. Now he seemed sleepy.

She hugged herself, clasped her elbows. The garage was not too cold, but Daisy's body was like an aircraft above a magnetic field, dials spinning backward, needles planted fast.

"Anyway, I just thought I'd say hello." She began to retreat toward the side door.

"Better have a beer," said Ed.

With a pump of the armchair's lever, his boots thudded down onto the concrete floor of the garage. He strode to a ceiling-high, riveted steel shelving unit that covered the length of one wall. Brown bottles lined the top shelves. Stacks of uncut labels were piled on a lower shelf.

Ed ran his index finger carefully along one row of bottles, and then another, searching. The bottles clinked softly against one another.

Daisy lingered near the door. "I should really go," she said, but Ed didn't respond, and she didn't move.

Her gaze skipped around. Near her hip was a long worktable that ran the entire length of the other wall. Tools, buckets, bits of tubing, a radio, and other miscellaneous objects covered the surface. In the middle of the garage floor crouched Ed's famous turkey cooker, which resembled a small bathtub. The room smelled like yeast, nothing but yeast, arid and moldy and warm.

It was odd—odd to see her neighbor sitting in his garage in his chair in his goggles, and odd for her to be here.

Daisy felt obliged to say something. "Do you ever cook a turkey in that? In the turkey cooker?" she asked.

"No," said Ed. "It's not for that."

He gave an ah of satisfaction, plucked a bottle, and spun around. He strode to the far end of the worktable where a bottle cap opener was bolted down and opened the bottle. Ed brought the beer to Daisy.

She thanked him. It didn't have a label. She considered the possibility that it might be poisoned, or dosed with rohypnol, and took a long pull while these thoughts laddered smoothly from one deck of her mind to another without stopping.

The taste of the beer was light and heavy at the same time, in the way that certain very expensive pillows are simultaneously light and heavy, catching the back of your head in a great, soft mitt—and Daisy's head did lift. There was a sugary note as well. She thought she tasted fruit. It bubbled on her tongue.

"Is this the beer you made with Brian?"

Ed shook his head. "That was ‘Shockerbock.' That's an anniversary beer, for my wife."

"What's it called?"

Ed said it didn't have a name yet.

He glanced around, not meeting her eyes. "Beerlene, maybe?" His wife had been named Arlene.

"What's in it?"

"Premium yeast, Belgian hops, cardamom, raspberries. Many bags of chamomile tea. Many, many bags."

"Well, it really hits the spot. I've had—" To try and explain her day was, it suddenly became apparent to Daisy, totally fucking impossible. "—You know, things have been better," she finished.

Daisy drank some more. The bubbles tickled her throat and her brain bobbed pleasantly. Her sole meal of the day, a breakfast of wheat flakes, was by this point a spot on the shadow side of the globe. She went to the worktable, looked at Ed—he nodded his permission—and so she cleared a spot and jumped into a sitting position, legs dangling.

Her neighbor crossed over to the shelves and found another beer for himself, deposited his empty in a garbage can, returned to his armchair. He smiled at her. It was a high smile, the teeth very wet, the beard very bristly. Whether he was drunk or just absent, Daisy couldn't tell and didn't care. He still wore his filthy goggles.

"I'm glad you like that beer," said Ed.

"Wait a minute," said Daisy. An appalling awareness had, with no warning at all, descended upon her. Ed Hinchey's wife had been named Arlene—had been, before, in the past, when she wasn't dead.

An image presented itself to Daisy: a church pew, bricked solid with the shoulders of burly men, Ed Hinchey's co-workers from the lumberyard he managed, and beyond them, candles burning, a priest swinging incense. In the spring Brian and Daisy had attended Arlene Hinchey's wake. That part of the memory was vague, though. What Daisy mostly remembered was that afterward, they had gone to a chain restaurant, her family. She and Brian had laughed about the way Brian Jr. ate his chicken fingers, nibbling the breading away before he ate the meat.

"You look like a squirrel, kid," said Brian.

"A squirrel dressed as a wizard dressed as my son," said Daisy.

The adults broke into giggles. Brian threw his arm around Daisy and gave her a squeeze. Across the room, they were doing that clapping-singing thing they do at chain restaurants. The lamp-shade above their table was made of colored panels, and the wall was covered in faux-antique tin squares advertising Coca-Cola. After a cold spring night, the room was warm. Other people at other tables were smiling, too.

Brian Jr. had belched, not glancing up from the chicken finger he was whittling with his teeth. "You crazies need to lay off the Shockerbock," he said.

"Oh-oh!" Brian slapped the table in delight.

"Hey now, cowboy," said Daisy. "I don't drink that shit."

"Oh-oh!" said Brian again, and they had all laughed then, and Daisy remembered thinking, wholly without irony, Wow, we're really having a good time here.

The wake had simply evaporated from her mind, cooked off by the happy feelings that followed. "Oh my God," said Daisy.

"Please," said Ed, "it's okay. Please."

"I forgot. I can't believe I forgot."

"Months ago." He made a go-by gesture.

"I'm so sorry, Ed."

Her neighbor nodded, repeated the go-by gesture. He drank. Daisy drank. She said she was sorry again. She hiccupped and her face was full of tears. "I don't usually do this. I've been crying all day. Brian and I are having problems, and Brian Jr. is having problems, and it's—you know? It's not perfect. And some little shit took my class hostage. And there was a dead kitten." She finished her beer. Ed brought her a fresh one and went back to his seat.

She wondered if Ed knew any good plumbers.

"Good ones?" Ed shook his head.

After a prolonged silence, he told her it wouldn't always be this way. He told her that sadness grows hot and boils and thickens and burns the eyes, but finally it gathers new colors and becomes a memory, and you can pour it into a new, living shape. Ed drank.

"God, I need a lawyer, too." She took Win Greenbaum's card from her pocket. While Ed had been talking, she had decided that, in fact, she had suffered enough. She stuffed the card back in her pocket.

"Brian's going to need a place to crash tonight," said Daisy.

"Sure." Ed said the couch was his.

"D-I-V-O-R-C-E," spelled Daisy.

"More B-E-E-R?" asked Ed.

The answer to that question was affirmative. Ed retrieved two more bottles.

"Do you know what the hell butterbeer is?" She blew her nose on her shirt, laughed.

Ed made a noise of contemplation. He tapped the toe of his boot on the floor a couple times. "That's what adolescent wizards drink, isn't it?"

"Uh-huh." She laughed again.

"I bet it's a near-beer," said Ed.

That was probably right, Daisy agreed. They nodded at each other and drank.

The bubbles had borne the top of her head away, and the fluorescent lights were raising the temperature of her brain, making her thoughts balmy and slow. She was drunk; she felt easy. Had she told him about the kitten? Ah, now that had really been too bad. "In my hands," said Daisy. "You know? She was right with me, and then in the next moment—she's—nothing. Right in my hands."

"Yes," he said.