Prologue: A Brandy or Two
Your whole life has been about laying flowers on an unmarked grave.
“I wouldn’t have expected you to be the type to use ominous metaphors when you’re drinking.”
I swirled the contents of the snifter, cupping it in my hand with the stump of a stem between my fingers. I let the aroma of the brandy enter my nostrils. I’ve never been one to drink warm liquids when I’m hungover, except a cup of coffee or two, though I usually took my caffeine in the way of fizzy soda pop when my head aches from the prior night’s festivities, especially in the form of an Ale-8 in a returnable bottle. My hangover cure was more about rest and greasy food; too often it was about finding a place to hide at work and doing as little as possible – hair of the dog always felt like death.
The brandy was different, though. It tasted better as it warmed and the scents were even more pleasant as I continued to breathe them into my lungs. I took a small sip and appreciated the taste and felt the ache in my temples ease and the chaos in my stomach calm down to a slow eddy like the Ohio River, despite the burn in my esophagus each sip brought.
All I am saying is too many of your problems were simple ones. You have the kind of problems that most people would be happy about.
“I’m not saying I didn’t create my problems. I have the problems that only exist within the protections of privilege. I know that. I get understanding when I don’t deserve it. I get chances I don’t deserve.”
And you squandered all of them.
“Can’t we just drink,” I said. “Try the brandy.”
The brandy is good. It reminds me of the early days when we postulated essence.
“There you go again,” I said, signaling for the server to come by the table. “Element, can you just relax?”
It’s rare for those in unmarked graves to rest easy. We all want to be mourned and they’re forgotten. In death, they seek to make themselves known.
“I don’t doubt that,” I said, though most of my ideas were based on the very concept of doubt.
You mourn those you have never met while ignoring those you know best. It’s a specific type of tragedy.
“Absinthe,” I said. “Let’s try their absinthe, El.”
Order what you like. I am not in the mood to drink.
“Since when do you have moods?”
This is such a contradictory place.
“Why do you say that?”
It’s been said before about this place and many others like it. It insists on its piety and religion but also indulges in its drunkenness and excess.
“I think most places worth living are full of contradictions.”
Yes, but this place really takes it far. I thought this was a bourbon state? Now we are finishing a brandy and waiting on an absinthe.
“What’s that they say about variety? This is also a state for moonshine.”
I took the last few drinks of my brandy as the absinthe arrived. We would be taking it in the traditional manner. The server placed the absinthe glasses in front of us and poured the absinthe into the glasses. The server continued, placing the slotted spoons on top of the glasses and placing the dish of sugar cubes and a pitcher of ice water between us. I could smell the anise filling the air between myself and Element, who seemed to be rather put-off today.
I thought of how Element had been quite enthusiastic the night before, speaking of the marriage of philosophy, religion, and science in the forgotten art of alchemy. He reveled in the drinks we imbibed and was eager to hear stories about my childhood in Eastern Kentucky and the hijinks that came with over two decades of drinking.
I didn’t remember passing out but recalled waking up on Element’s couch, as my friend stood above me. Element’s frame was massive and his long hair nearly touched the ceiling in his Highlands’ apartment. In truth, Element’s scalp nearly touched the ceiling of every room he stepped into, and I wondered why he hadn’t capitalized on that. Element had explained more than once, that – even though he rarely blended in – in order to survive he had to live a life that wasn’t about sticking out.
When I woke, I could tell Element’s mood was not nearly as cheerful. I sipped the coffee Element had made for me and listened to the lecture I received, as Element used his native parables to try to get me to listen.
Now we sat in the distillery on the periphery of the downtown Louisville. A thunderstorm sprang up not long after we were shown to our table and I could hear the rain splashing into the Ohio River. I felt calm. I usually didn’t.
I placed my sugar cube on the slotted spoon, and I dribbled a few drops of water on it. I sat the water pitcher down and focused on the cube as the water droplets loosened its binding. A bit of water had managed to fall into the absinthe in the bulbous bottom of the specially manufactured glass. I could smell the anise smell growing stronger. I have never cared for black jelly beans or licorice or anything that held the anise flavor, but this early afternoon I felt a comfort in it. The distillery made their absinthe in different varieties, and this particular blend was lightened with citrus which calmed and transformed the strong anise into a more thoughtful nose.
I slid the dish of sugar cubes across the table, “Let’s calm things down.”
I just hate to see potential wasted and all I see in you is wasted potential. I have seen this world, and I have seen so many people through the ages who were full of potential but without the means to do anything about it. You have the potential and the means, but you choose to avoid effort at every turn. We don’t have to talk about it now, I suppose. What is this?
“It’s absinthe, El, you know that.”
It’s a European concoction.
“It is, but this one is made right here in the bluegrass.”
Then, should we say a toast or a prayer?
“We should melt the sugar and watch it turn from clear to a milky white. Then, we should lean back in our chairs and enjoy it. We can consider the politics of it later.”
I thought it was supposed to turn to a milky green? And there you go with that privilege again. It’s easy for you to not consider the politics of it. There are people whose experiences have been unique in the scheme of human existence. I am not opposed to all things European in nature. You know I spent ages in Spain, and it is an unsung gem on that continent. The European has been resistant to all things outside of Europe. You have to admit this.
“I absolutely admit it. We agree. And you are right about this absinthe. This one doesn’t have any chlorophyll. It’s a white absinthe. I say that intending no contradiction to what you just said. Now let’s drink.”
Next, let’s have bourbon. That’s my preference.
“Of course, it is. Everyone on this side of the state prefers bourbon, but that’s one of the few beverages this distillery doesn’t serve.”
One of the few?
“They don’t serve moonshine either,” I said.
Ah, yes, bourbon and moonshine. The polar opposites of a state that’s immersed and defined by its polar opposites.
I raised my glass of milky white absinthe and Element raised his as well. We clicked the glasses together in a toast that needed no words. I felt Element’s mood lighten in the atmosphere of the place.
The tasting room of the distillery had high and vaulted ceiling and the décor was laid out in an industrial design with great pipes and metal in subtle edges. There was little to no wood to be seen in the place. Where one would have expected a shelf made from wood, they saw instead thick, cut glass with the edges sanded down. As sterile as it looked and felt, there was a strange comfort in it as it had a clinical presence about it. This wasn’t lost on me as I tried to heal the bleeding wounds of my hangover.
Most of Kentucky had blue laws that prohibited the sale of alcohol on Sunday (there will be more about that I’m sure), but Louisville and a few other pockets were exceptions to the rule. Alcohol sales in Louisville could commence at one in the afternoon on Sunday, and Element and I were at the door waiting for the boutique distillery to open. A quick survey of the room showed people sipping from glasses still in their church clothes.
This is the bourbon side, correct?
“This is the epicenter of the bourbon side,” I said.
But this is not where bourbon originated, now is it?
“No, but it was bottled here for the first time. This is where it became a business.”
And what is the point of a tradition if it cannot turn a profit?
“I’m not going to argue with that.”
Element gulped his absinthe down in two drinks and his breath worked across the table, and I felt a pinch of my hangover return. I buried my nose in the absinthe glass and let the blend of anise and citrus calm my stomach.
“You know bourbon was always about making money, when you think about it. This city was founded on the principle of making money. It was to be a way to coast down the Ohio to the Mississippi to bring money back to those who seem to own everything,” I said. “That’s my take on the whole bourbon side.”
Is moonshine not about making money?
“No, it’s about making a living. It is about tradition but a tradition that’s more bound to family than culture. It’s about keeping those ghosts from unmarked graves you mentioned alive.”
Ghosts are always dead, but they can never die. This whole world is just a living grave.
“Then shouldn’t we be surrounded by ghosts in this distillery. Shouldn’t this whole room be full of spirits, and not the type I hold in my hand?”
It is, Mason. Stop trying to look, so you can see. There are ghosts all around you. You need to listen to them, or you’ll become one of them. Remember that when you speak to the Master Distiller.
Remember you haunt out of privilege and your life was one about refusing to live.
“Ah,” I said. “The ominous philosophy continues.”
Element raised his finger in the air to the server, indicating he was ready for the check. This one is on me, Mason. The rest of it will be on you.
Chapter One: A Bourbon Barrel Life
“You know, this place was important to me for a long time,” I said. “When I first moved to Louisville, it was called Slim’s. My friend and I came here. Their names were Dave and Isaac. It was a bit of a dive, and we were usually the only paying customers. Occasionally, some drunk would wander in and order a beer. Halfway through that beer the guy would be yelling at Slim or starting a fight with one of us. Then, Slim would grab the asshole by the neck and throw him out the door. Never failed.”
I remember that. I always wondered how it stayed in business. It was a dirty dive.
The table in front of us was scattered with empty pub glasses and a basket of chicken bones stained with an orange sauce, which was guaranteed to make my esophagus twist in pain while I was trying to sleep. The brew pub was busy with servers marching around carrying trays with glasses and shaking their heads as demanding patrons ordered new rounds of craft beer. The servers all wore matching t-shirts and aprons with the logo of the brew pub silk screened on the back.
“It was a dive, Element. You’re right. Slim hated that,” I took a drink from my beer. I felt my face wince as the bourbon barrel aged beer gurgled up through my sinuses. I swallowed it down and felt it create a nauseous bubbling in my stomach. “Why are we here?”
This is where you wanted to come. This is where you said we needed to start.
“That makes sense,” I said. “I guess it’s sort of where I started. Do they have anything that isn’t barrel aged?”
I raised my hand to a server who pretended not to see my upheld hand dancing in the air above my head. I recognized the server from somewhere, or – at least – she looked familiar. One of the things that I always loved about the Louisville Highlands was no matter how much the young people tried to look unique they always seemed familiar. The Highlands were a place that people all seemed to be determined to express their individuality and ended up looking like everyone else. I don’t mean that to be a pejorative and I assumed that was how a culture came into being. The truth is the culture of the Highlands was the first romance that made me want to live in Louisville.
The server passed me by a few more times before making her way to the table where Element and I sat. The table was in the corner by the front window that looked out onto Bardstown Road, and there was a constant stream of faceless individuals passing by as Element and I drank our beers.
“Can I get rid of some of these glasses for you guys?”
That would be lovely.
“Do you have any beers that aren’t barrel aged?”
“This is the Bourbon Barrel Brew Pub,” she said.
“I know, I know,” I said. “I’m just in the mood for something that’s not so heavy.”
“The cream ale isn’t very heavy and the bourbon notes are pretty subtle.”
“Do you have anything darker?”
You’re being very picky.
“I know I am,” I said. I held up his palms to face the server, as if they were supposed to issue some sort of silent apology. “I love bourbon. I love beer. I love boilermakers. I hate anything bourbon barrel aged.”
“Seems like an odd place to stop for a beer, wouldn’t you say?” the server asked.
“I used to come here when it was Slim’s,” I said. “Remember that?”
“I’ve only worked here since it’s been Bourbon Barrel Brew Pub,” she said.
“It was years ago,” I said.
“I think I remember that,” she said. “I was in middle school, I think. We have a dark wheat you may like.”
I’ll have one too.
“Don’t I know you?”
I don’t think so.
“You look familiar,” she said. “I remember you from somewhere.”
I’m a seven-foot guy from parts unknown. People tend to remember me from somewhere.
“Yeah, two dark wheats please,” I said.
The server disappeared towards the bar and I went back to looking out the window.
“Seems like everyone says that to you, El.”
“I know who you are. I know what you are. I know what that means, and it scares me.”
The time for fear has passed, my friend.
The server returned with the beers. Each had a thick layer of foam still settling on the top of the pours. I remembered how Slim served us big box beer in bottles with flat rings worn around them. The bottles were saved and returned to the distributor to be cleaned and refilled with the mass-produced suds that Dave, Isaac, and myself drank on a nearly daily basis, while Slim commented on how he liked our style and encouraged us not to turn into what he called “power drinkers.”
It was the power drinkers that would get angry when Slim told them they couldn’t smoke in his bar. The power drinkers would get angry and throw their lighters at Slim, yelling that he had changed and there wasn’t a decent place to get a beer in Louisville anymore. The power drinkers would throw a “fuck you” or two in our direction and take a swing at one of us. The punch was always blocked by Slim who would wrestle the power drinker out the door and yell for them not to come back.
“You know, Slim told us there was no money in slinging beer to a bunch of drunks. He and his wife, Elma, were going to shut Slim’s down and were going to open up a lobster place. They did, too.”
How did that work out?
“It didn’t. We came here a few times, but it didn’t last long. Slim would fire up a grill on the sidewalk and cook salmon. Elma would make the lobsters and the lobster rolls. It was a little out of place, but a little out of place is one of the things I love about the Highlands.”
I remembered sitting at a table with Isaac, Dave, and Dave’s sometimes girlfriend Marcela. Slim served Dave salmon that was slightly undercooked and Marcela was a vegetarian. Isaac ordered the lobster and so did I, which seemed to make Slim very happy. We threw our shells in the bucket in the center of the table, while Marcela complained about the smell.
That evening had been rather pleasant. I recalled it was a Thursday night and the air was cool for the summer. The four of us planned on going camping that weekend and wanted to soak in a little city before we departed.
“They shut him down,” I said. “Well, he got a low score from the health department. He was required to post that low letter grade in the front window. Business dried up. Now it’s a brew pub.”
What caused the low score?
“The grill,” I explained. “Using the grill in front of the building was technically allowed, but transporting the raw meats through the dining room was considered a serious infraction.”
“They had both had cancer at some point. Slim’s cancer was in his mouth and throat. He lost all his teeth, when he was going through treatments. Afterward, he couldn’t produce saliva. He sat down to eat with us one time. He took butter and lined his mouth. He couldn’t eat much more than soft bread.”
“I don’t really know.”
The server brought a second round of the dark wheat beer at Element’s request. We had finished our first round with no real comment on the quality of the beer, which was almost obligatory whenever we drank.
What do you think of this one?
“I can’t taste it. The bourbon barrel stuff has clogged my taste buds.”
I can still taste the bourbon barrel, too.
“People in Louisville are bourbon barrel crazy. Lexington is too. They make furniture out of it. They make art too, and any other sundry you can think of. They age foods in it and wine and any other thing you can come up with to throw into a bourbon barrel. I guess it goes with the territory. There is a whole industry around aging things in bourbon barrels other than bourbon, as long as bourbon was aged in it first. We’re all living a bourbon barrel life, I guess – at least in this town – putting something immature in a charred barrel and hoping something eloquent comes out.”
You don’t care for this?
“It gets old, I guess, but, like I said, it’s part of the culture. That is what the world expects.”
I took another drink out of the dark wheat beer and took my wallet out of my pocket. I held it up the same way I raised my hand earlier to signal to the server. She walked over handing me a ticket. I looked at it briefly and gave it back to her accompanied by cash. I told her to keep the change.
“Let’s get out of here,” I said.
Element rose and again his head nearly touched the ceiling in the old building that had been too many businesses to count in its more than century-long life. I could see the eyes of the other patrons staring at Element as he gathered his things and his presence took over the room. I’m a short and square person and I felt safer with Element’s mass near me.
We exited the building and I could feel the warm air give me a little energy that I thought was exhausted sitting in the brew pub.
It’s an eclectic neighborhood.
“I guess I have been coming off as critical. I don’t intend to. I do love this city and I especially love the Highlands. I love Frankfort Avenue and the other neighborhoods like the Highlands too. I love that there are places in this city that are unique and interesting. I don’t mean to imply otherwise,” I said.
Then why the critical attitude?
“I don’t know.”
The crowd that had seemed faceless as I watched its progression pass the window now seemed vivid and dynamic. Each face that passed looked more unique than the last. The manner of dress and disposition was ever changing as well. I noticed I couldn’t quite get any of them to make eye contact with me.
We continued down Bardstown Road to the Grinstead intersection. I crossed the street with Element beside me. We walked in silence into the sharp curve that Grinstead Drive was known for. I looked up at the window on the second floor of a house on the corner of Hilliard, just a few blocks from the Bardstown Road intersection. I could see my own face looking out of the window and wasn’t sure if it was now or sometime in the past. I waved and ushered movements intended to gain my own attention, but I refused to look down and make eye contact with myself, the way the pedestrians on Bardstown Road did earlier.
It’s not your ghost. It’s not really there. It’s the spirit of something you survived.
“Do you remember that night?”
No, Mason, I remember the morning after. I remember the look of desperation on your face. Look up there and see if for yourself. It’s imprinted in the ether up there. Like I told you, there’re ghosts everywhere. There is one of them right now. That is the ghost of a moment of pain where someone wanted to die. Something in you died and there that dead thing is.
I looked away, “You know Slim’s cancer came back.”
“It wasn’t long after he and Elma shut down. It was quick that second time around. Dave, Isaac, and I went to his grave not long after. We would’ve gone to the funeral if we would have known about it, but we went to the grave before the stone was set. It’s not far from here. Do you want to see it?”
I would like to. Lead the way.
“It’s in Cave Hill. Let’s go to the corner and get some beers to take with us.”
Will you remember where it is or are we just looking for a grave labeled Slim’s?
“Cave Hill is a big place. It’s an expensive place to be buried really. Slim was a poor man. I’m not sure how he was able to afford a plot there.”
We walked back to the convenience store on the corner and bought tall boys of beer. The brand was not worth mentioning. The clerk stuffed them in paper bags. Element only purchased one can, but I bought three, stuffing the paper bags into the satchel I carried, resting on my lower back. The warm night air contrasted against the cool, conditioned air in the store, and I felt beads of sweat dot my forehead. I cracked open the beer and walked back down Grinstead.
The main entrance to Cave Hill Cemetery was at the intersection of Broadway and Baxter Avenue. I remembered a cold, winter Saturday walking the cemetery with Dave and Isaac. We took our cameras and snapped pictures of monuments depicting a time when men dressed in wool suits no matter the weather and the death of children was an accepted part of life. I remembered poking adjusted aperture of my camera between the bars of a mausoleum securing a soul into eternity.
I remembered waiting for the film to be developed and how disappointed I was when I realized how little a talent I had for photography.
No one carried a camera anymore.
We had used the main entrance that morning, but Element and I would use the secondary entrance on Grinstead Drive. Both entries would be locked at this time at night, and it would be much easier to enter unseen at the Grinstead entrance. Then, we would only have to keep an eye out for night security. I still needed Element’s help to get over the gate. Element was able to gain access unassisted.
You’ve spent some time in cemeteries, haven’t you?
“I have,” I said. “I worked for an undertaker for a while. I’ve worked a lot of jobs, though.”
You liked that one?
“I did. I quit a lot of jobs that I liked. I guess I had higher goals than a job.”
That job was part of that higher goal.
“I guess. There was poetry to it.”
The place is gone.
“The funeral home I worked at is gone. Yes. It burned down.”
And the people you worked with?
“They’re gone too. Both of them were inside when it burned. Neither made it out alive.”
Was there an investigation?
“There was, but I never bothered to find out the results.”
The cemetery was lit by high streetlights illuminating the paths between the graves arranged in neat rows. We wandered through the rows for a few scant minutes, before we arrived at a grave marked Stephen Minix.
“This is Slim,” I said.
This cemetery is an old one. I remember when it was built. I remember turning the spade into the soil, digging some of the first graves. I remember it well. I’ve worked in cemeteries myself, Mason, so I know, like you, what it is to dig a grave. Me and others in the most unfortunate circumstances: we turned the earth and buried the first bodies that made their way into this ground. Look around you.
I lifted my eyes from the name sandblasted into the granite.
There was a sea of black men with crude shovels digging graves. They worked shirtless, sweating and singing as they did so.
This place was intended for rich men. It was one of the first cemeteries consecrated in this town, but let’s not tell lies about history, Mason. Their graves were dug by the poorest among the history of this country. Some of them were so embattled by poverty they could not even afford freedom.
“I know,” I said.
These men toiled in silence. They rest in unmarked graves. Untold multitudes of brave and strong men whose lives were whispered in history’s ear; I remember them. I saw them. I lived among them for a time, but I have lived among many men in many places. I have lived among the women and the children and the men. I can tell you that none of them wanted to be forgotten, but all of them were. I can tell you that none of them wanted to be remembered, but all of them were. Everyone who ever walked this earth lives in the memory of someone who may have never met them. We carry that memory within ourselves.
You will carry his memory for the rest of your days, but you will not carry him into eternity. Someone else will do that for him, as someone else will do it for you.
I finished the first beer I had carried into the cemetery. I crushed the oversized can by placing it on the ground and stomping on it with my foot. The sound of the collapsing aluminum rang through the grounds, and I alerted my attention to watch for an approaching security guard or groundskeeper. After no one appeared, I shook the last bits of beer from the smashed can and placed it back in the bag, folding it so the paper would soak up any remaining beer and dampen my pants as little as possible. I put it in my pocket. I took another can wrapped in a paper bag and opened it.
I continued to look as the phantom crew worked the dead earth.
“History has just been a crime against most people, hasn’t it?”
It has, my friend.
“Yet here we are.”
Here we are among the resting place of many people whose names are still remembered. Some are just remembered here in Louisville and others are remembered around the world. There will be more bodies buried here and those names will be remembered as well. They will live in the minds of many.
“Who will remember you?”
I will be remembered by many and I hold a multitude in my own head. This is the nature of an alchemist. We sought to distill the very essence out of all that we touched. It was not about the metallurgy of turning baser metals into gold. That’s what history remembers, because – as you said – too often history’s memory is little more than a crime of those who lived.
“I won’t be remembered,” I said, continuing to drink the cheap beer. I looked away from the men who continued to be dig graves that will never find a bottom or receive a coffin. I began to walk looking at the graves and monuments. I would receive a smile from the face of the statues of people I had known from television, history books, and commercials.
I repeated the ritual of completing, crushing, and emptying my second beer. Again, I placed it in my pocket, feeling it beginning to weigh down. The humid, Louisville air and the alcohol made me sweat in a way that I knew was not healthy.
You want a grave that people will travel to see. You want to be a figure not a person. You wanted to be one of these people that will be remembered by a society, rather than a family.
“I know,” I said. I could remember my first days walking the Highlands after I moved to Louisville. There was a sense of promise and potential within me. I couldn’t remember feeling that for a long time. Dave was the one who showed me the neighborhood and recommended employment services I could register with.
You criticize the culture of the place where you lived for nearly a decade, not because you dislike the culture of the place. You criticize those who roam the place expressing their individuality, though you embrace their individuality. You criticize, because you never had the courage to do as they did. You criticize them for their courage, and you criticize them for your cowardice. You criticize the culture of this place, because you wanted to be one who influenced that culture. You never made your mark because you never did your work, and this place never noticed you.
I drank from my third beer. Being deranged by drunkenness had always given me the sensation of being famous even when I was alone. I offered no contrary comment to Element’s statements, because I had none to give. I had walked nearly to the front entrance. I could see the traffic and hear the music issuing from the bars nearby.
A story is not about how it ends, as much as it has nothing to do with how it begins. A good story is about how it is told. A good story is about how it remains in people years after it has been told to them.
I finished my third beer and added it to the collection amassing in my pocket. I could see the faces working their way through the bars at the front gate, slowly making their way back to their manicured graves.
You were too busy counting syllables and matching the rhyme scheme to actually write the poetry. You were so busy finding the right chords you failed to compose the song.
“I know,” I repeated. “What now?”
We’ll take this trip, we’ll explore these spirits. Do you want to be one of these souls walking among the living while they live their lives, and walking back to your grave at night to be forgotten? Let’s go out the way we came in, Mason. We’ll shake off these ghosts every day until it’s over.
“Where do we go?”
We go to the places you lived. We go to the places that made you happy. We go to the places you found meaningful. We go to the place where you were born. We go to the place where you will die. We just go, my friend, so let’s go. First, let’s go see a movie. That’s the first step.