Chapter 2 Spirit Lake Hootch
“My friends call me Cheever,” he said, slinking his way down the bar toward me. He looked like a snake. Or someone who’d spent too many years on the swim team.
“What do other people call you?”
“Asshole,” said his friend, and in that moment, I knew they weren’t gay. Or not a couple, anyway. Not that I cared. “Takes all kinds,” as Dad always said.
I’d wondered, the way they came in, leaning on each other even though they didn’t seem drunk.
“I’m Jeff,” said the friend. “I’m Maxi,” I said.
“As in pad?” said Cheever.
“Actually, yeah,” I said. “My sister is Mini. What did you say your name was?
I grinned. “What can I get you boys?”
“The asshole will have a PBR, but I’m wondering if you have anything local you’d rec- ommend. You do that?
“Sure I do. We were on our way to brew pub status before the interstate decide to run right through here. My brother’s a brewer.
“Oh, a brewer in the family. That’s sweet. Way better than lawyer or doctor.” “A Brewer?” Cheever said. “What position?”
“Position?” I said, knowing I was being set up.
“You know—what position does he play. In base—”
“Yeah, I get it,” I said. I thought I should have seen it coming even faster. Keep my eye on the ball.
“See?” Jeff said. “Asshole.”
“Not a problem,” I said. “He’s a Brewers fan, anyway. We all are.”
“Oh, now that’s a problem,” Cheever said. “Let me just say this to you: 1982.”
Which is when the Cardinals beat the Brewers in the World Series. I was only six at the time. Don’t actually remember the games. Mom says I wouldn’t come inside to watch no matter what, and she’d asked nicely, because it was important to my Dad. One of the Brewers relief pitchers grew up where Dad grew up, blah, blah, blah. Three years later, I was nine, which is
– 10 –
not very old, unless you’re in a baseball family, in which case it’s plenty old enough. That series I remember, even though the Brewers were well out of it.
“1985,” I said.
“Oh, Christ,” Cheever said. “You’re throwing Don Denkinger at me? We barely know each other.”
“Never-shoulda-been-a-7th-game World Series, that’s what my Uncle Earle called it.” “He must have been a Cardinals fan.”
“He was,” I said. “My dad’s family is from down there in Cardinals country—Southern Illinois.”
“No way,” Cheever said. “That’s where I’m from.”
“Thought that accent sounded familiar,” I said, sliding him his PBR and tilting a pint glass so the head came out just right for Jeff’s Booty Pewter, my brother’s most recent inven- tion.
“Holy crap,” Jeff said after his first drink. “I know, right?”
“What IS that?”
I smiled. “You might or might not get to meet my big bro—Jack is off trying to put some lead inside a turkey, which he is notoriously bad at. So I shall tell you the tale of Booty Pewter.”
Cheever looked up from the jukebox where he’d stationed himself. “Booty Puker? Is that what you just said?”
“Yessir, it is.” “Just ignore him.”
“Not a problem. So Jack has a nice ale or two, a pale one, and a cream ale—” Just then, of course, since I was enjoying myself, Mom had to come shuffling in from the back.
“Oh, Sweetie, it’s awful. It’s just awful.”
I shouldn’t have, but I did it—I asked her, “What’s awful, Mom?”
“The way the government cheated me out of your father’s land. They’re just asking for a revolution. I might not go. You know what? I won’t go. I’ve got a rifle around here somewhere. I—”
“Excuse me,” I said to Jeff, who nodded. Whose friend was fixated on the jukebox. “Mom, let’s get you settled again, huh. Isn’t your show about to come on?”
“Um, it’s almost 4:00, so Ellen, right?” I guided her to the back, where she and Dad had an apartment. It still smelled like smoke, even though Dad had been gone for almost five years, and the bar had been “smoke-free” for more than three. I fluffed up her pillows on the recliner
– 11 –
and tucked her in with her favorite fleece blanket—pink, with yellow stars (technically my favorite colors, but I have to look at it as much as she does)—and kissed her on her head. “You still got plenty of water there, Mom. You need anything, you let me know.” But she was focused on “that nice Ellen” already.
“Sorry,” I said to Jeff when I got back. “She’s got—she’s not—” “It’s all right,” he said. “You’re gentle with her. That’s nice.”
“I lose my patience sometimes,” I said. “So.”
“So, hey—you were telling me about this amazing beer. Which I’ve almost finished.” “Well, let me pull you another!” I probably sounded too cheerful. But I was happy to
shift back to talking about my brother’s beer making ambitions.
“So he started in the paler ales, I said that, right?” Jeff nodded. “But he was wanting a stout, you know? And he wanted a Scotch ale, too. He wanted a smattering, he called it, several offerings, before we opened the brew pub. So he was experimenting and he couldn’t get—what did he call it—the right tone? I don’t know. It didn’t look right. He brought some for supper one night and said it looked like goddam pewter. Which it kind of does, in the right light. But I took one drink and did just what you did and I said something like it was a cup full of booty call, and there we had the name, but then my Mom says, ‘What’s a booty call?’ and we had to wait until she was in bed to finish drinking it. You’re not driving, are you?”
“What? Oh. No. Cheever’s driving.” At that moment, Cheever drained the last of his tall
-boy PBR, turned it sideways, and crushed it into his forehead. “It’s more impressive when you do it full on,” I said. “Toss me another, would you?” I did.
“Actually,” Jeff said, sighing, “I guess we’re wondering if you have a cabin open.” We did. We almost always do.
For a while, when the government hoohas were trying to figure out where to put the in- terstate, we were all excited. Wow! We’d get our own exit sign, we thought. All the farmers were talking about how much they’d charge to put a billboard on their property. Lois Konkel said she thought we’d be better off paying young hunky guys to hold up signs on whatever overpass they built. “With their shirts off, you know,” Lois would say with a wink. She could say shit like that. She was 87 when she’d died last year.
So she never heard the interstate was coming right through here on account of the lay of the land or some such. Whatever. I’m glad she never knew.
“Sure we got a cabin open,” I said. “A couple, actually. One with a big-screen TV.” “Rustic, huh?”
“Jeffy, let’s hittit,” Cheever shouted as he carefully set his second empty on the bar. “No, we’re stayin,’ man.”
“No way, Jeffy. We are men on the move.” “C’mon, Cheever—big-screen TV.”
– 12 –
“You know I gave up TV for Lent.”
“Good thing,” I said. “We haven’t paid for cable for about six months.”
Jeff chuckled. “Good one.” He had a nice chuckle. Lower than his speaking voice. Kind of throaty.
“Jeff!” Cheever yelled, louder than anything seemed to demand. “Cheev, chill.”
“I’ve got a list of places we need to go for b-b-q,” he said. “Time’s a wastin’.”
“Well, if it’s barbecue you want,” I said, “you’re in the wrong state. You know you’re in Wisconsin, right?”
“I’m traveling with Don Quixote himself,” Jeff said. “You know, a quest.” “Sure, a quest. For barbecue? Definitely in the wrong general quest geography.”
“No, listen,” Cheever said, serious suddenly, as if he’d taken a Handi-wipe and cleared off all the smarm and charm and assholery. “We were in Iowa City, and a guy at a great little restaurant there said there were a couple of places up by the Dells that were good.”
I sighed. “Up by the Dells” is not how we’d have wanted to be known, but when you’re in a hundred-mile radius, that’s what you get. Dad always said Spirit Lake just lacked the abil- ity to capitalize on the bajillions of cars heading to the Dells.
But the capitalists on the other side of Spirit Lake—they know how to capitalize. They have the fancy-schmancy resorts, the custom-built docks and piers, the heliport. So of course when they lobbied for the interstate to come through here instead of there, it did. Now people will be able to take OUR exit, drive a scenic loop around the north side of the lake—“the ap- proach making it all the more delicious when you finally arrive,” one of their brochures now says—and spend a lot of money on amenities we can’t even pronounce. I barely even want to say “amenity.” Or “dementia,” as far as that goes, but there you have it.
“I got barbecue,” I said.
“Ha ha,” Cheever said, the jerk-tone edging back up. “Seriously. My Dad’s recipe.”
Jeff narrowed his eyes.
I sighed again. “For real. But I couldn’t possibly care less if you stay here or not. We’re looking to just break even the next two months before eminent domain wipes this good old vacation spot off the map entirely. And we’ve just about broke even already. On account of selling all the mowing equipment and tractor. Because we’ll be gone before the grass even greens up. So whatever.”
“Real barbecue?” Jeff said. “Because Cheever’s really on a quest.” “It’s real.”
“What’s the recipe?” Cheever whipped out his phone, ready to take notes, I guess. “Like I’d tell you.”
– 13 –
“That sounds real,” Jeff said. “You can’t believe how people guard this shit.” “I can believe it. You want to try it or not?”
“What’s your specialty?”
“Well, when the Packers play, back when we still had TV, I’d put a couple of briskets in the roaster. Pretty great. But I can do burgers for you quick. Also great.”
“I’m in,” said Cheever. “I have this thing, see? I’m trying to figure out the secret ingredient in my uncle’s sauce, and I’m close, but I can’t nail it.”
“Well, I can tell you my ingredients. Nothing secret about it, actually. It’s just ketchup and whiskey and brown sugar and garlic. And cayenne, if you want hot.”
Jeff’s eyes got big. He had nice eyes. “You’re telling your ingredients?”
“It’s not really a secret. The proportions totally vary, though. And Dad would some- times just go crazy and put in cinnamon or something. But mostly ketchup, whiskey, brown sugar, and garlic. You just have to know when it’s right.”
I was already thinking I should take something back for Mom (truly I was) when she came shuffling out. “Is there brisket?” she wanted to know. She had a radar for barbecue.
“No, Mom, but I can make you a burger. You want a burger?” She didn’t. Of course not. She fell in love with a man who owned a burger bar, but she never liked burgers. They ran a 10- cabin “resort,” and she hated being outside. They lived on a lake and she was terrified of boats.
“Could you make me soup? I’d like soup.”
So I opened a can and got it started in between slicing onions and flipping burgers. “The fryer died on Thanksgiving,” I said, “or I’d have offered fries. Hope chips are okay.”
“Mm-hmf,” Cheever said, working on the huge bite he’d taken. “You’re a friend of my son’s, aren’t you?” Mom asked Jeff. “No ma’am, I’m not,” Jeff said. “I’m Jeff.”
“Yes, Jeff. I remembered your name. But you’re not friends anymore? Did you have a fight?” she asked, looking really worried all of a sudden.
“No, Mom, they’re friends. It’s fine.” I tried to get her to head back to the living room, but she wanted to talk to Jeff.
“It’s fine with us if she stays,” he said, and I was grateful. Halfway.
“But it won’t be fine,” I said. “I’ll eat with you, Mom. Just head on back to your chair. Isn’t Barnaby Jones on now?” I had no idea if it was or not, but I knew she’d go look.
She was asleep when I took her soup back.
I should never have showed them the still.
– 14 –
But once I’d had my third Booty Pewter, really, anything could happen. Before I knew it, there we were, dancing, but in my cabin, not theirs, because I’d shown them the still in Jack’s cabin, who never did come back that night from turkey hunting, so I assumed he’d gotten lucky some other way.
They wanted to get shot glasses and get the hootch right out of the still, but I’d been ex- pressly forbidden from doing that, so we went to my cabin where I had a big bottle. And an actual record collection, which Cheever couldn’t get over.
“Vinyl!” he kept saying. We were rocking out to Bowie, “wham bam thank you ma’am,” when Mom crashed the party. It was bad. She had on her party dress, and she thought she was flirting.
“Oh, I love it when my son’s friends come over. Who wants to dance with me first? Don’t wait too long, my dance card fills up fast!”
And also she had on a lot of makeup, I realized, as I got a good look at her in the full light of the living room, once she’d come all the way in.
“Jesus, Mom, you look like Baby Jane,” I said. “Let’s get you ready for bed. Let’s get you cleaned up.”
She actually pouted. “No. I want to stay at the party.”
And when I tried to pull her, I probably tried a little too hard, a little too fast, but don’t even think about saying “elder abuse” unless you’ve walked in my Crocs for a good goddamn minute or two.
“You!” she started screaming. “You selfish bitch! You never want me to have any fun!”
Cheever made a beeline for his and Jeff’s cabin. Fucking coward. I noticed he filled his glass full before he skedaddled. At least he didn’t steal the whole bottle.
Jeff got on Mom’s other side and started charming her. “Ma’am, I’m a good friend of Jack’s. Jeff, remember?”
“Jeff, yes, of course. Always a gentleman.”
“Well, how about we do what Maxi is saying. You do look kind of tired. Big day, huh?” “Maxi,” she said, a ton of contempt in her voice. “She doesn’t care about me.”
“Sure she does,” Jeff said, “sure she does.” And soon as you please, Mom was in my bedroom (I have to have her close at night, but I sleep on the fold-out couch, thank you very much), assuring Jeff she’d come back out to say goodnight once she’d “applied her cold cream and brushed her hair a hundred strokes and put on her nightie.” I could tell Jeff was planning to be gone by then. Couldn’t blame him. But Mom wasn’t quite done. “But I will not speak to that bitch Maxine. She blames it on the government, but she’s the one who stole my money from me. My dear husband left all this to me, but Maxi says I won’t get a dime. She can’t do that, can she?”
Jeff patted her arm. “Oh. Well. I’m sure Jack will take care of it, ma’am.”
I knew I’d regret it, but I wasn’t up for a fight, so I didn’t insist she wash her face. I just hoped I didn’t forget before I saw her the next morning. She already looked scary, and it wasn’t
– 15 –
very smeared. She took her meds after only asking me about four times if I was sure she needed all those pills. As sure as a person can be, I thought to myself.
“You scored a bingo bringing up Jack,” I told Jeff as I poured him just a tiny bit more hootch, as per his request. “She thinks he’s my Dad reincarnate and God and Paul Molitor all rolled into one.”
“Is she asleep?” he asked.
“Yeah—and it’s medicated sleep now. It’ll last this time.” Until 5:00 a.m., when she’d wake up, screaming.
“You okay?” he asked. “I am. Just tired.”
“That must be hard—the things she said. The things she accused you of.” “Well,” I said, “some of it’s true. I can be a bitch.”
“So can I,” Jeff said. We toasted and drank, and he poured us both more. For which I felt so grateful I nearly let out a sob. But I didn’t. I swallowed the hootch and swallowed again.
“Can I tell you a secret?” I said.
“Secret ingredient? I’d have to tell Cheever.”
“No, I told you the ingredients. Ketchup, whiskey, brown sugar, and garlic. Although I maybe should make some with Spirit Lake Hootch. That’s what we’re calling it—that’s what we’ll sell, with the beer, when all this is gone.”
“You opening another bar?”
“Not really—more of a storefront. Part brew pub, part restaurant. No night hours.” “Sounds nice.”
“It will be. We had the closing already. Jack’s doing some remodeling. It’s in Baraboo.” “Circus theme?”
“No way,” I said. “Clowns are just evil.”
We drank to the diabolical nature of clowns. And then mimes. And then one for inter- pretive dance, which I just don’t get.
“So what’s the secret?” He looked like he really wanted to know. “Well, I didn’t exactly steal her money, but, I kind of did.”
“That’s a big secret.”
“Right before my Dad died, he showed me his will, and he’d divided everything four ways, which might sound like it makes sense, but I said, ‘wow, even though Jack and Jackie aren’t your kids?’”
“I thought your sister was Mini.” “That was a joke.”
“I know. But—what? So half-siblings?”
– 16 –
“Jack and Jackie? Like Kennedy?”
“I know. Mom had a Kennedy phase. But apparently she had never bothered to mention to Dad that he wasn’t Joseph Kennedy.”
Jeff blinked. “No shit?” “I thought he knew.” “He didn’t?”
“He didn’t. I thought he did. I think everyone else knows. So then he sprang one on me. Right here on this couch.” I patted the seat next to me. Jeff raised an eyebrow.
“My mom never got a divorce from the man who actually was their father.” “Wait—I’m confused.”
“Tell me about it. I won’t even try to explain. It just gets worse the more you find out. But what happened in the end was Dad changed his will and left everything to me.”
“Yeah—my sister Jackie, my half-sister Jackie, thinks she’s going to be able to put Mom in this swanky retirement village in Madison. But she’s not. I mean—I’ll pay for six months of it. Maybe a year, then Mom can go live with Jackie. Because Jackie sure as shit won’t pay for it. And she could.”
“Does your brother know any of this?”
“No, and I’ll have to tell him at some point. I mean—I’m splitting it with him, no matter what.”
“So…your family just doesn’t talk much?”
“Oh, we talk. Just not about this. Kind of about everything except this.” “So, when the interstate thing—”
“I guess I just keep hoping Mom will die before the check actually comes through.”
I knew it was cold. A cold thing to say. A cold thing to feel. I definitely have this cold-
ness inside me. “I guess you think I’m a horrible person now.” “You’re a bastard.”
“I know—I’m—” He was smiling.
“Oh. I get it. A bastard. Yeah. Well, I usually say bitch, but technically you’re right.” Jeff drained his jelly jar. “Well, Maxine, if we’re sharing secrets…”
“I sure shared a biggie,” I said. “Bet you can’t beat it.” “Don’t bet when you don’t know the players,” he said. I opened my arms wide. “Lay it on me.”
“My mother thinks I’m dead.”
– 17 –
I started to say “no shit,” but nothing came out. “I know, I know,” he said. “But it’s a long story.”
He walked over to the record player and put on some Michael Martin Murphey (not “Wildfire,” thank you very much, the man had other songs). He came and sat by me on the couch.
“So we’re both horrible people?” I asked him, snuggling up a little. “Apparently,” he said.