With a mixture of sly humor and subtle dread, this story gathers an absurd cast of family members around the table to share drinks and stories. Bottles pass 'round. Children argue. Elders laugh. As their glasses go empty, each memory inches us closer to inevitable tragedy. — JACOB JONES
Cute kid, huh? That's me. Eleven years old. Crew cut. Big ears. Red, plump cheeks to match my red, plaid shirt, sleeves rolled up like Brando. My smile is crimped by a bit of arrogance, unjustified by my lack of years. "A bit of a wise guy," my teacher once noted.
And yes, I am sitting at the head of the table, which you'd think would be reserved for an honoree of some sort; just as two days ago at Christmas dinner, when Great Grandfather William sat here, silently watching over as we celebrated the birth of Christ with encore performances of gluttony and drunkenness, all predictable to the point of being ritualistic, our own Purgatorial Twelve Stations of the Cross.
No, I sit here because it was the only place to sit. The other seats were stumbled upon and claimed simply because they were nearest to he or she who stumbled. These are "The Remnants," as Uncle Le-o-nard calls these Christmas celebrants who don't have to get right back to work, or back to school, those who have nowhere better to go.
There are four to my right: Cow Girl, my older cousin; then Eddie Einstein, Cow Girl's new sidekick; next to him is Grandma Gwendolyn, looking as serene as I've ever seen her; and next to Grandma is her leather-skinned sparring partner, Circus Sidney, the man who taught me how to fish and properly cuss.
The other side of the table is reserved for Mother, who is setting out glasses, running to the kitchen, yet to actually claim her seat; and D-Dad, looking old, still wearing the same T-shirt he wore to Christmas dinner.
"Well, shall we get started?"
Standing at the end of the table is the master of ceremonies, Uncle Le-o-nard, unshaven, wearing bleached-out jeans and a well-worn Mao jacket, barely buttoned over his expanding 35-year-old belly. His mop of wiry, white hair is perpetually charged with static electricity, drawing many prolonged stares in mid-'60s Post Falls, Idaho.
And there's this delicate subject: Yes, Uncle Le-o-nard is the same Leonard whose tragic death — and the media sideshow that followed — we the people of the future eventually read about in the newspapers. Some papers even published the shocking photo of the crucifix-like piece of jagged metal — shrapnel from a nearby explosion — protruding from his forehead as if some conqueror had crawled ashore his face and claimed it for the king. The stories all featured scandalous headlines like: "Disbeliever and Family Purged" and "God's Revenge on Atheist Activist?"
On the table in front of Uncle Le-o-nard are six bottles of various alcoholic spirits, one contributed by each of this year's participants.
"Interesting," he says. He picks up a dark, rectangular bottle with a colorful label. "Okay, who here brought the Manischewitz? — a kosher Jewish wi-"
"Oh, for god's sake, Helen," says D-Dad.
"Damn it, Thomas!" says Mother. "You're supposed to let them guess."
"You're not Jewish," D-Dad says, "That's my guess."
Mother interrupts D-Dad's further protest by loudly clearing her throat. She unfolds a tiny piece of paper and squints to read her minuscule handwriting:
"Manischewitz is a name steeped in tradition. For over 60 years has provided high-quality kosher wines. All Manischewitz products are produced under strict rab-bin-i-cal supervision."
"Holy Christ," D-Dad says.
"It's blessed by rabbis," Mother scolds.
There is a smattering of applause. I can tell from her thin smile and slow way she blinks her eyes that Mother is happy with her performance. It is that same gleam of triumph and contentment that says, the kitchen is finally clean, the laundry done. Then, the gleam is gone, and she is off to solve the next series of problems.
Mother is very meticulous about the way she goes about her problem-solving, ever since solving the first of life's big challenges by marrying an older man with a nice house and a good job, a real future.
I have no theories on why Mother thinks she's Jewish.
Sadly, Mother will expire in a tragic car rollover when she swerves her '52 Studebaker to avoid a milkman fully enveloped in flames and staggering down the street like Frankenstein.
"Outstanding, Helen," says Uncle Le-o-nard. He carefully steps around the table, pouring an ounce or so of the purple wine into the vessels of all those eligible. "Tom, I'm assuming you brought what you always bring: a case of Oly stubbies."
"In the Frigidaire if anyone wants one." D-Dad says. He takes a sip from the one in his hand.
"It's the water," says Uncle Le-o-nard.
Ironically, D-Dad made it through D-Day but lost his final battle when he asked Mother to drive him to the hospital in her '52 Studebaker after he suffered third-degree burns trying to twist a 525-degree doorknob.
Still, I find it hard to blame D-Dad for chugging the stubs. This is his house, which he bought when he came back from the war, and in which he grew old even before he met Mother. Every year at this time it's invaded almost exclusively by Mother's kin.
D-Dad's house is popular because it is huge, and happens to be located in the midst of Mother's clan: on one side, the river people, the families of the St. Maries/upper St. Joe area, represented today by Grandma Gwen and Sidney; and on the other side, the city slickers from Spokane, represented by Uncle Le-o-nard, Cow Girl, and Einstein.
Uncle Le-o-nard completes the tour around the table and back to his makeshift podium. I look down. To my surprise, I find in my cup a generous dose of high-quality, rabbi-blessed, kosher wine.
I gulp it down. Not pleasant, to be sure, but certainly not horrible, and now this interesting, warm, buzzing thing wriggling throughout my core. Yeah, I could be a Jew.
Before I'm able to fully assess the wine's qualities, the next bottle is going around. Again I find my cup blessed. But this time Cow Girl has witnessed Uncle Le-o-nard's corruption.
She will not rat on me, though. It is her bottle of Peppermint Schnapps making the round; this is her spotlight. She goes on, spattering her cud and yapping about this "snappy mint flavored liqueur."
By the way, it's not "cowgirl," as in the complement to her cowboy. No, it's Cow Girl, the girl who is a cow. She once dumped a coffee can of frog eggs in Mother's purse knowing I'd be blamed. This is her first year of booze eligibility and she's going on like she just won the Harry Utter Award at the Spokane County Fair.
Cow Girl retired her mortal frame and waddled into the big Manure-and-Mud-Filled-Fenced-in-Area- in-the-Sky after she walked up to a burning gas truck... Not something I'd do. I hope I'd consider the obvious possibility that it could blow up. Which it did.
I toss back the liqueur. To Cow Girl's credit, I'll be damned if "snappy" and "mint" aren't the first words that come to mind.
"Is it kosher?" I ask, completely serious. Everyone laughs, most of them still ignorant of my newfound criminal indulgences.
Cow Girl tries to go on with her presentation, but to no avail. The table's interest has shifted to a glass milk bottle filled with clear liquid that Uncle Le-o-nard holds up like the head of a defeated warrior.
"Grandma Gwen!" everyone shouts, except me, and Cow Girl, who jabs me in the leg with a fork.
Grandma Gwen issues a strange cackle. Since she rarely speaks anymore, her nonsensical interjection imposes a short, uncomfortable silence on the crowd.
Grandma was bartender of the secluded Big Eddy Tavern on the St. Joe River for over 30 years, all the while chain-smoking Pall Malls and drinking Lucky Lager. She and Sydney knew every fishing hole between the Big Eddy and Gold Creek Road. I once heard their high-decibel bickering through a half-mile of thick woodland.
I am happy to report that Grandma Gwendolyn is to die peacefully in her sleep. This is debated by some in the family, mostly the city slickers. But I was there. I was the only one with her when she died.
Circus Sydney, on the other hand, was incinerated in a horrible fire before anyone could discover why he was called Circus Sydney. No trace of his body was ever found.
"I should warn you-," says Uncle Le-o-nard, and goes on with the standard bit about Grandma's famous moonshine, its potency, how it's made, and so on. All interesting stuff, but I've heard it before.
What I haven't done yet is taste it. So imagine my dismay when, following Uncle Le-o-nard's next lap, I find a few paltry droplets in my cup.
Fortunately, Nature calls Cow Girl. Just as I'm about to purloin her hooch, her pansy-ass chum Eddie Einstein dumps his drink into hers. Without hesitation, I grab the double drink and dump it into my cup, then refill her cup with water, right before Einstein's astonished eyes.
I sip small, expecting hellfire. But, no, it is smooth like chocolate milk. I sip large. It is lush and snug and perverse, like a bear hug from the circus fat lady. The rabbis got nothing on Grandma Gwen. I swill the rest.
Eddie Einstein blinks awkwardly and says, "I really don't think-"
"I can see that," I shoot back. I snarl, accidentally, but I go with it. I'm consumed with the desire to kick his wimp ass, and just as I'm about to say so, two identical Cow Girls return from their pie dumping in the back forty.
"What's happening what's happening?" they say to Einstein, who is unfazed by the doppelgänger. Einstein tells the bovine twins they're just in time.
Uncle Le-o-nard steps around and straddles lime wedges over the edges of our glasses. He pours us each a shot.
"You can only buy it in Mexico," squeaks Einstein, like it's a big secret.
Eddie Einstein will perish when he goes to retrieve his camera from his car and discovers his car rolling slowly down the street. He runs up, hops in and stops it, only to put himself in the worst possible position in regard to a milk wagon and an out-of-control gasoline truck.
I muddle the lime with my middle finger. Cow Girl watches with wonderment and disgust. Still, I see beyond — deep down, she's enormously attracted to me.
"Here, split mine," says Einstein. "I've had enough." He pours a bit into Cow Girl's glass then dumps the rest into my cup with a strange plop.
Cow Girl picks up her glass. "All in one?" she says, all flirty. "Bet'cha y'can't." She puts it to her lips.
I drain my cup in one mighty saloon-cowboy slurp and immediately realize I have stumbled upon new territory: Nothing snappy or minty here. In this has Satan soaked his feet. It is Witch gargle. Ogre drool. And something more. There was something else ... in there...
"I know what you're thinking," says Eddie Einstein. "Now that I've eaten the w-"
The participants sit motionless. It is as if a spray gun misted everyone with precisely spaced, purplish micro particles of a snappy, minty firewater/bile/turkey sandwich cocktail blessed by rabbis.
Grandma Gwen is the first to move. Her ancient hand creeps like an old cat across the table. She fishes in her cup with forefinger and thumb and retrieves one tiny Red Worm from Oaxaca, Mexico.
"Well I'll be go-to-hell," says Grandmother Gwendolyn.
D-Dad laughs first. Then Mother giggles, girl-like. Her and D-Dad's eyes meet strangely. Soon everyone is laughing, except for Grandma, who somehow nods off to sleep, even in this ruckus.
Neither is Uncle Le-o-nard laughing. He looks at me directly and mouths RE-MEM-BER ME, then quietly slips out the door, unseen by the others.
"Ah, forgiveness — that's what family's all about," says Eddie Einstein, laughing. "We should get a picture. I'm gonna run out to the car and get my camera." ♦
about the author
Steve St. George of Spokane wrote for EWU's The Easterner and The Scene Magazine in the early '90s, but has primarily dedicated himself to short films in recent years. St. George helped write and perform in A Drink in the Dark, a finalist in the international 13th Annual 24-hour Film Race in May. He also writes cultural commentary at OtherSpokane.com.