Uncle Moonshine

Hooch, white lightning, white whiskey, mountain dew, whatever you want to call it, if there was anything Uncle Ray didn’t know about making moonshine, it wasn’t worth knowing. Common knowledge in those days, was that the liquor a person got from a batch of corn mash moonshine could be worth a hundred, two hundred times the price of the raw corn, providing you could find the people to sell it to.

Uncle Ray wasn’t interested in profit. The only reason Ray made moonshine, was that he thought it gave him, let’s call it a second sight. He’ll never know the things he could have seen.

Here’s to you, Uncle Ray. You were so close.

**

My escape began on a Sunday afternoon. Regardless of the weather, Sundays were always the worst for me as a kid. Sunday afternoons hold more potential for doom and gloom than any other time of day or week, I used to think.

My father was out back on his knees and one hand. His cheek was pressed against the concrete. The other arm had been swallowed up to the shoulder by the drain, whose cover he had removed. He closed one eye and stared at me through the patio window.

“Lewis,” he said, “come help me, please.”

I would not, for the reason that Sunday afternoons turned me into the world’s littlest nihilist. And so I gave him the finger in response, and as a result, received a crack across the back of the head which smelled worse than it felt. He sent me to my room, but not before letting my mother have at me, as well.

No kid ever minded being sent to his room; that’s where all of his stuff is, after all. But for me, it wasn’t the first time dad had lashed out, and it was getting worse. The two of them — my mother and he — had started leaving me home alone for a day or more at a time, which, when you’re eleven, is really only fun for the first few hours. After that, adventure turns to worry, then fear, then panic. You go crazy with it.

When they came back, their clothes and skin would be radiating cold, but there was fire in their faces, as if they had just been part of the cheering crowd at a public hanging. Wherever they had been, a sour smell like vinegar clung to them. Neither one would explain nor apologize. They would head straight for the bathroom and lock themselves in there with the shower running, steam rising from the outdoor vent, carrying with it whatever secret they were keeping.

“How much longer?” I overheard my father ask my mother once. “It feels like my damn skin is on fire. I’m burning.”

“Won’t it go hotter?” she asked, to herself, it sounded like.

I would show them what it felt like to be left. I waited until dark, then slid open the painted metal latch on the bedroom window. In under a minute, I was on the sloping roof above the kitchen, down into the yard and out the back at the bottom of Five Mile Hill.

Five Mile Hill describes what seems like an impossibly smooth curve all the way from start to finish, eventually turning back on itself in a giant boomerang shape. Driving up it, one gets the feeling of never being able to round the bend — the never-ending road. Walking — as I was — the effect is more unsettling, since the road looks the same up ahead and behind, making it feel as though you’re trapped on an endless travelator.

What, I wondered as I walked, would I tell Uncle Ray? I had only met the man once before, two years earlier when they buried great aunt May. I didn’t know exactly where he lived, either, only that it was somewhere off the top of Five Mile Hill. He wasn’t married, and at May’s funeral, there had been a white pitbull waiting for him in the passenger seat of his car.

That dog, whose name was Mash, was the first to find me when I reached the top of the hill. Under the Moon, his white coat stood out like a ghost in the woods, as he made his way through the trees and out onto the road. I recognized him, he recognized me. My welcome party of one.

“Hey, boy,” I said, offering my palms for him to sniff. He sniffed them, turned and headed back into the trees, going slowly enough for me to follow. As we got closer to the house, a whispered, droning Vvvvvvvvv began to rise around my head, filling the air on all sides like the rising of jet plane engines. That, and the characteristic Thunk-thunk, thunk-thunk I would come to recognize as coming from the doubler (also called the ‘thumper’) were tell-tale signs that somebody nearby was making moonshine.

After a short walk, the trees opened into a clearing, bedded with a carpet of dead leaves and twigs. Uncle Ray was standing with his back to me, a flashlight held between his teeth. He was standing on a crate, inspecting the lid of a large copper pot about twice the size of a boiler tank. Mash trotted over and barked once in my direction. This made Ray turn around, and when he saw me, he cried out and dropped his light. The crate shot out from underneath him, and he landed on it, ribs-first, causing the gun in his belt to fire a round into the dirt by the pot.

“Uncle Ray!” I cried.

He pointed the light at my face, “Lewis?” He was breathless. “What are you doing?” His other hand had found the gun and was gripping it hard. Something else was frightening him.

“Are you alright?” I asked.

“Don’t come any closer,” he said, then asked, “You on your own?”

I didn’t answer, something was moving along the ground, moving left to right underneath the leaves, making them twitch and rustle. A snake. Mash was in his fighting pose, Uncle Ray fired off two rounds, missing me and the snake by inches. I fainted.

**

When I came to, Mash was pacing by the bedside, waiting for me to wake up so that I, or Uncle Ray, could give him the signal that it was alright to jump and lick. I extended my arm from under the blanket and Mash leap upon it, nuzzling and licking between each finger as though there might be peanut butter hidden in there.

“Did you get it?” I asked. My voice was tired and dry.

“Nope,” Uncle Ray said. “Wouldn’t have made any difference if I had. Damn things are everywhere.”

“You’re infested?” I asked.

“Whole town’s infested,” he said. “Whole country, whole world by now, probably!”

All around the room, the walls were fitted with shelves, each stacked with clear jars of moonshine. Some were clear, others had snakes in them, like the preserved kind you can see at the museum. Uncle Ray was sitting at his desk, screwing caps onto a dozen more jars, his cable-like, salt and pepper hair shooting out about his thin head and face, silhouetted against the lamp light. He looked like he’d been struck by lightning.

“Have they gone?” he asked. “Your folks?”

I shook my head, “Gone where? I ran away. Walked mostly, but — ” He spun a top onto one of the jars and slammed it onto the shelf above his head.

“You won’t tell, will you?” I asked.

“Listen, Lewis,” he said, “your mom and dad are into something that’s not good. You know that, right? You’ve noticed how they are?”

I sat up and let Mash wedge himself under my arm, “How did you know? You know where they go?”

“Does your dad look at you differently?” Uncle Ray asked. “Weird like? Like you’ve never seen him do before?” He searched my eyes with his own, his lips parted in that dry, painful way they often do on people who drink too much.

I thought of how dad had eyeballed me with one eye closed through the patio window. At the time I thought nothing of it, he was shoulder-deep in Fallows family sewage, after all. But then it had been a strange look, deliberate, the way a person squints to look through a telescope.

“And their skin,” he said. “It’s cold?”

“Maybe,” I said. “I heard dad say he was burning. Are they sick?”

Uncle Ray pulled his eyelid down with his index finger, then ran his middle finger across the inside. “Gah, damn itchy — ” he said as he scrubbed at the flesh there.

**

The next morning, we took Uncle Ray’s truck into town. Ray had given me a chunk of bread to eat — bread he had made. He made a lot of other stuff as well as moonshine, as it turned out. Mash rocked from side to side on the backseat, his head poking through between us. He was breathing on, and smacking his lips at my bread. When I was done, I gave him what was left. It didn’t touch the sides.

“There’s someone I want to show you,” Ray said. “In truth, about you coming here, I wish I could’ve gotten you sooner, but you had to come on your own. Too dangerous now.”

“What do you know about my parents?” I asked. He deflected the question for awhile by reaching around and grabbing for Mash, to give him a hard scratch under the chin. “Are they in trouble?”

“Your dad’s not the same kid I grew up with, that’s for sure.”

We pulled up across the street from a warehouse. The gigantic shutters were rolled up all the way and inside, men were working with band saws and industrial electric hacksaws, chopping wood on a miniature factory scale. Out front, the cut up wood was stacked and labelled into piles, and there were people, members of the public, browsing them, taking measurements and such.

“See him?” Uncle Ray didn’t point, just moved his eyes, but I knew who he meant.

“Sure,” I said, “that’s Mr. Kuric. He sells wood to my dad sometimes for when dad makes stuff in his garage.”

“Benson Kuric,” Ray said. “He’s — ” Kuric saw us, saw me, most likely, and headed over.

“Jesus — ” Uncle Ray tried to pull away but the truck stalled.

The window was open, Kuric leaned in, “Morning, Mr. Fallows,” to Ray, and to me, “Lewis. Looking for some wood?” Kuric was big, twice the width of Uncle Ray and taller. He spoke with the loud, confident voice of a man who was used to speaking over heavy machinery. He was a born tradesman, and there was a sweet smell about him, like fine, soft sawdust.

“I don’t think so, Mr. Kuric,” I said.

“How about you, bud?” he asked Uncle Ray. Ray’s knuckles were white, locked around the steering wheel. His electroshocked hair seemed fake, or no, not fake, the opposite — hyperreal, as if every molecule of him was fizzing with fear. He couldn’t look the man in the eye. I know why now, but at the time, I felt like telling him that it was rude not to look at a person when he was speaking to you.

“Just making a mental list,” Ray said, eventually finding his tongue. “Take care.”

“Say hello to your dad for me, Lewis,” Kuric said. I nodded, and he winked at me, and when he did, something churned, seemed to roll over inside his staring blue eyeball.

**

We stopped at a hardware store on the way back and Uncle Ray picked up two boxes of empty jars. He strapped them into the back seat and Mash sniffed at them.

“Why are there snakes in those jars?” I asked. “The ones at your house.” I also asked what the noisy apparatus I’d heard from the woods was, and what he was making, and why he was so frightened all the time.

Ray shrugged, “Something’s happening. I don’t mind telling you straight. You’re a bright kid. Your mom’s involved, so’s your dad.”

“Benson Kuric?” I asked.

“Him especially.”

The pot, as it was called, the thing twice the size of a boiler tank, was made of copper. Copper, Uncle Ray told me, removed more sulfur from the moonshine, making it purer. This was important, he said, because a batch which wasn’t pure didn’t work; he couldn’t see them. I still had no idea who he was talking about, but he was a convincing man, was Uncle Ray, when he wasn’t being scared stiff.

When we arrived back at the house, I followed him into the kitchen. Two huge copper pots were bubbling and steaming on the stove, and two more were simmering away on gas burners connected by plastic hoses to the mains.

“Is this dinner for — ” for ten-thousand, I thought.

“It’s mash,” Ray said. “It’s how the shine starts out.”

“The what?”

He dumped the boxes on the counter, “Come on.”

In another room, this one cold and unfurnished, with a cement floor, were several white plastic drums, each positioned under its own spotlight. There was a slight delay between when Ray flicked the switch, and when each light came on, like a circle of guard dogs waking up. Mash inspected the bottom of each drum, then made a wide circle, heading back outside to watch the woods. The smell in the room was intoxicating, like a thousand batches of bread dough rising in a warm kitchen. I filled my lungs with it over and over again until Uncle Ray noticed and told me to stop.

“I wouldn’t if I were you,” he said. He pulled the lid from one of the drums. I stuck my head over the side and the smell of fermenting yeast came rising out around my face, warm and thick. A big wooden pole was propped against the wall by the drum; Uncle Ray used it to stir the fermenting mash around, and that’s when I saw what else was in there.

The grey, fuzzy bodies of several small snakes, coiled around the bottom of the drum, and now danced in the stirred up mash. The mixture had turned their beady eyes into useless milky orbs, and the skin inside their open mouths had begun to come away in dead, delicate flakes.

I recoiled, “Do you drink that?”

“I have to,” he said, pressing the lid shut. Mash was on me again, but I pushed him away.

I spent the rest of the day wandering around out back, watching for shadows in between the trees. Once or twice, I thought I saw someone, or something, scuttle its shadow through the pines, but Mash never barked or chased, so I figured it was my imagination.

It was getting dark by the time Uncle Ray called me inside. He had made some kind of stew, and while there didn’t appear to be any meat at all, I did check for snakes. “Don’t worry,” he said, “the snakes stay in the shine.” I did worry, and he compounded my fear by not eating anything, just sitting there, his left eye watering profusely.

“You’re not eating, Uncle Ray?” I asked.

“Later,” he said. Then he got up and left, went to bed, I supposed. What else was there to do? There weren’t many books in the house, there was no television, and anyone who thought exploring the trees surrounding Five Mile Hill after dark sounded like a gas, they were just plain crazy. At least I had Mash to guide me through when I arrived.

The bedside digital clock read 02:04 when Mash let out a single bark, and I woke up just in time to see the headlights cutting in through the curtains, turn off. It was my parents, I thought. Uncle Ray was wrong, they had come to their senses and — I pulled on my shoes and jacket, ran for the door. Dad would be angry, but mom would —

“Time to go, Lewis.” Benson Kuric hulked over me, the sweet smell of sawdust muted by the chilly night air.

“Uncle Ray!” I shouted. “Uncle Ray! Mash!” Mash was cowering under a lawn table, and when I looked at him, he retreated, moving low and slow to some further away place. “Uncle Ray!”

“Alright,” Kuric said in that loud, strong voice, “let’s go see Uncle Ray.” And with that, he gathered up my jacket collar and carried me over to the large copper pot. The crate Uncle Ray had fallen onto stood on its edge, Kuric kicked it back down, then stood on top of it, taking me with him. Removing the lid from the pot, he threw it onto the floor where it landed with a heavy clang. With his free hand, he took a flashlight from his pocket and shined it into the pot, then he lifted me up to see.

Uncle Ray’s stiff shock of hair now floated serenely in the grey water about his face. As Kuric’s flashlight picked out the details, I saw that his skin had turned a waxy white, folding around itself in great, odd wrinkles, the most dead a piece of flesh could possibly look, I thought. Like the snakes in his mash drums, Uncle Ray’s eyes had become blind, pearl-colored marbles, and his lips, parted just so, held onto one final expression of horrification. Kuric set me down on the ground as if I were a bag of groceries.

“What do you want?” I asked.

“To give you something,” Kuric said. He turned the flashlight to my face, I squinted and tried to turn away, but he was still holding me. “Something’s going on, Lewis,” he said, “your uncle Ray was right about that. He didn’t like it, but here we are.”

“What?” I struggled, Kuric held on tight.

“You think I did this,” he said “but I didn’t. I wouldn’t. Not to one of our own. He was different, was Ray. Not the type who liked change, not even good change. Maybe that makes him less different. Oh, you see what I’m saying, Lewis?”

“Let go, asshole!”

“You’re right, I’m not explaining myself very well. I’ll show you.”

Adjusting his grip so that I was face-on to him, Kuric turned the flashlight on himself, the way you do when you’re telling a ghost story. “Do you see it?” he asked. “Get close.” I resisted, but he pulled me in, and what I thought I had seen outside the warehouse, when Kuric had winked at me, was now something real and grotesque and mesmerizing. Yet another snake, this one tiny, so small that it twirled and danced with effortless smoothness right inside the liquid of Kuric’s left eye. It glided around in lively patterns, and when it came to the front of the eye, like the piece inside of a magic eight ball, I could see its own eyes, its miniature scales, it was beautiful.

“The things you’ll see,” Kuric said. “Exciting times are ahead, son.”

“Uncle Ray,” I said to myself.

“Come on, Lewis,” Kuric said, frustrated. “Your uncle Ray was one of us, had been for a long time, he just couldn’t remember, or didn’t want to. He was a drunk. All this moonshine stuff,” he scoffed and clanged the pot with his flashlight, “he wasn’t meant for what we’re doing.”

I didn’t say a word all the way into town. I just stared at the back of Kuric’s head, thinking about that worm-sized snake, dancing and whirling in front of his brain.

**

When we arrived at Kuric’s wood shop, he took me by the hand and led me in through a door next to the giant, rolling shutter. My hand disappeared inside his fist.

“Stay close,” he said. We passed by stacks of planks and off-cuts, the machines which had cut them, sleeping cold and heavy on their blocks. A couple of children suppressed tittering laughter nearby, and when Kuric snapped his fingers, they scurried away, passing under a dim green EXIT light for just long enough to expose them. They were twins, very young, their heads fused together at the cheek.

“Those two will be a handful,” Kuric whispered. I felt sick with fear, but the smell of sawdust was like a balm; still is some days.

“What we’re about to do might scare you, Lewis,” Kuric said as we moved down a long staircase. “That’s normal. But when it’s done,” he scoffed again, with satisfaction this time, “This is your ticket.”

He pushed open a door and guided me inside. The warmth there. Not just on my skin, but right away, deep down I felt the warmth soothe my bones and muscles the way no hot bath or summer sun ever could.

“Nice, isn’t it?” Kuric asked. I could tell that a big grin had spread across his face. “Look around.”

All around, the walls and floor twisted into rolling shapes, like taffy or the inside of an old tree. Every surface was covered in lights, not artificial, more like the kind fireflies make, only purple and arranged in neat rows as far as I could see.

“Practice ones,” Kuric said, referring to the lights. “Now, come on. We’re going to get this over with so that you can start enjoying yourself.”

I squeaked out, “I want to see my parents.”

“Right here, Lou,” my mother’s voice. One thing that still surprises me after all these years, still startles me on occasion, is how people around here seem to appear out of the walls. “Let’s not waste any time, sweetheart,” she said.

Walking hand-in-hand with her, Kuric and my father behind, we passed by the gentle purple lights and went further, deeper, until we reached a room where the light was bright, almost eye-watering.

“Sorry,” Kuric said, “I should have warned you. It’s just for now, until we get your implant in.”

Inside the room, two large chairs sat opposite one another, each covered in various straps for the arms, wrists, ankles and head. “We won’t need those,” my father said, as my mother guided me onto one of the chairs.

“What ar — ” I started.

“Lewis,” my mother said, “this is a good thing. Now, you do what Mr. Kuric tells you.”

Kuric was already on me, a small hypodermic needle in one hand, his other hand on my forehead, pressing me back into the headrest. “Here’s yours,” he said, holding up the syringe, his shiny white teeth spread in an excited smile behind it.

“Look inside,” my father said. I focused on the pinkish liquid inside the syringe, what tiny amount of it there was. A thread, no more than a few millimeters long, was living in there, swimming impatiently up and down, twisting and diving.

“The things you’ll see,” Kuric said. He pressed the needle into my eye.

**

At seventy-nine, I am still what The Knot calls a ‘juvenile’, and indeed, I don’t look a day over fourteen. Tomorrow, we’re going out recruiting — something we do almost weekly now — and I love it, never know who you’ll pick up, maybe you, makybe a friend of yours. The things you’ll see, as Kuric says. Exciting times ahead. How right he was, and what a shame about Uncle Ray.

How will you know if it’s me? You wouldn’t, not at a glance, not unless you got really close. But listen, catch my eye, and if you’re lucky, maybe I’ll give you a little wink.