This is in response to the TerribleMinds prompt where Chuck Wendig asked readers to create a drink then write a story about it. I hope you enjoy! http://www.terribleminds.com
When he walked, the man carried with him much more than the weight of his worn and aging body. The particulars of a distant incident, a memory he couldn’t quite shake, laid heavy on his back. Years of this weight turned the man’s shoulders inward and his face to the ground. A lifetime of handwork, twisting these, heaving that, bailing this, knotting those, layered his palms with scars and rough patches. The bridge of his nose was steel-sturdy but the rest of the flesh, the cheeks, the chin, the marks under his eyes, had begun to slide, no longer able to keep up with the bone-strong foundation beneath. Time had changed all of him except for his eyes. Blue. They were the kind that caught your attention and kept your interest. Eyes that made you want to look away in deference like a servant to a king but they held your focus, telling their story.
He once told me his story. Three years ago we sat on two stools side by side, quiet. I’d just become a dad two weeks prior and went out for a drink. He rested a forearm on the counter and tapped his neck with his free hand, ordering something called a Siege of Leningrad. Having been in an unusual humor from the days of sleeplessness I said to the bartender, “Give me the same.” The bartender, stock still, looked at the man, waited for approval, then continued after seeing his nod. I started to the old man, “I didn’t mean to…” But he cut me there. With an accent thick with East European history he gave a story.
“It’s been many years now, since I first arrived. This city, the steel city, has been very good to me.” He rolled one of the palms over his gray stubble chin, pulling tight for a moment the strong cheekbones. “Back home, yes Russia is still home to me, back home I lived in a city you may now know as St. Petersburg.” I nodded my head.
“Good!” He exclaimed, “Have you studied the Great Patriotic War?”
I looked at him and took a guess, “World War Two?” He nodded. “A little, in school.” I added.
“Then you already know my story.” He turned back to the counter, our drinks were waiting for us. He added, “And you know not to drink that drink.”
Confused, I asked why. The man faced me again. “That glass in front of you, that mixture of bathtub vodka, sawdust shavings, and flour picked from between the floorboards of the only mill in the city, is not a drink. It is not a warm release from the hassles of your married life. It is a reminder. It is the memory of starvation, of frozen bodies, and the wiggle of teeth in an unhealthy jaw.”
I looked at the man, grabbed the drink and gulped hard. “Then why did you let him pour it for me?” The burn was immense. I gasped for air and coughed into my arm. Sawdust really was inside. I tasted blood.
The old man smiled with unexpected warmth. “We used to say that no man, right in his mind, would drink it after knowing what was inside.” He paused. “But the man who did could’ve survived with us in the Seige of Leningrad.” He grasped the back of my head with the gnarled hand, still smiling. “My brothers and sisters are all gone now. But I think I’ve found a man worthy of carrying on the tradition.” He finished the drink before him and walked out, leaving a stinging pat on my back.
I looked to the bartender, “What the hell is this stuff?” He had no answer other than the old man brings it in almost every week. He said the boss doesn’t mind because the old man is well behaved.
On the way home I researched the siege. St. Petersburg was denied access and food for eight hundred and forty seven days. Scenes of cannibalism were common. It was even noted that kitchen floorboards were often lifted so that people could scrape for flour that had fallen between the cracks.