Friday, September 30, 2016

Countdown To Halloween Day 1

Conal Cochran: {Y}ou don't really know much about Halloween; you thought no further than the strange custom of having your children wear masks and go out begging for candy.

It was the start of the year in our old Celtic lands, and we'd be waiting in our houses of wattles and clay. The barriers would be down, you see, between the real and the unreal, and the dead might be looking in to sit by our fires of turf.

Halloween, the festival of Samhain! The last great one took place three thousand years ago, when the hills ran red with the blood of animals and children.

Daniel Challis: Sacrifices.

Conal Cochran: It was part of our world, our craft.

Daniel Challis: Witchcraft.

Conal Cochran: To us, it was a way of controlling our environment. It's not so different now. It's time again. In the end, we don't decide these things, you know; the planets do. They're in alignment, and it's time again. The world's going to change tonight, doctor; I'm glad you'll be able to watch it. And... happy Halloween.

~Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982)

Ah, it's Fall! The skies are overcast and gray, the streets are wet, the temperatures are cool when not outright chilly, the leaves are just beginning to show their true colors, and there's a certain... feel... in the air: that Autumn feel so beloved by Autumn People. We're entering what Ray Bradbury called The October Country, "that country where it is always turning late in the year. That country where the hills are fog and the rivers are mist; where noons go quickly, dusks and twilights linger, and midnights stay. That country composed in the main of cellars, sub-cellars, coal-bins, closets, attics, and pantries faced away from the sun. That country whose people are autumn people, thinking only autumn thoughts. Whose people passing at night on the empty walks sound like rain."

All of which is to say, it's time for...

The 2016

From an early description in a blog post I can no longer locate:

"The Halloween Countdown is something of a virtual neighborhood to go trick or treating in. Imagine a neighborhood where all of the neighbors really got into the spirit of the holiday and went all out with decorating their yards and homes and on top of that also handed out the coolest treats whenever some kid in a costume rang their doorbell. Well, you are that kid in a costume, and the participants in the countdown are the neighbors with the cool houses and candy. When you visit their blogs, you will essentially be ringing their doorbell and shouting 'Trick or treat.' rewarded by a solid thunk at the bottom of your plastic Halloween bucket which is their post for the day. In a way that's even better than the actual Halloween (no way! I hear you saying) you get to ring their doorbell and trick or treat every single day throughout October. Not only that, but there is bound to be over 100 houses for you to visit each day as well."

Let's let Stephen Lynch get us in the mood...

Thinking of all the cool creatures
That I will meet... on this night.
Ghosts and goblins and witches,
Roaming the streets... in moonlight.

Bowls of candy and goodies,
Delicious and waiting... in store.
The sound of cute little footsteps
As they approach... my front door.

Letting the children inside to drink beers,
Razor blades hidden in Three Musketeers,
Screams from the basement of kids begging to be set free...
That's what Halloween means to me.

Tightening the clamps that are holding
Their little heads... so tight.
Putting my lips to their ears
As I whisper, "Please... don't fight."

I promise I'll let you go home
If you swear not to tell... a soul!
Well, I'll just untie these—I'm kidding.
Now, where is my chainsaw? Let's rock and roll!

A pinch of your brother, a teaspoon of you,
With the head of your sister, would make a good stew.
I'd give you a taste, but your tongue's in the stew. Irony!
That's what Halloween means to me.

Trick-or-treat, smell my feet,
Give me something good to eat.
Trick-or-treat, smell my feet,
Give me someone... good to eaaaat!

Saturday, November 21, 2015

A Day At the Minute Man Minimall, Part 2

Or, the snark is strong with this one.

So as you may recall, last time I cluttered the Intarweb with pics of me running riot at the Culpeper Minute Man Mini-Mall. I'd like to thank The Girlfriend for her patience, understanding, readily available iPhone, and for curbing her entirely understandable impulse to hit me on the back of the head with a military surplus entrenching tool. She's pretty cool that way, even when she crosses over to the other side of the street and pretends I'm just some random lunatic stranger she happened to encounter while minding her own business.

Meanwhile, since I happened to have my phone with me and am pretty much a Self-Amusing Personality, well, I had to take a few pics to demonstrate why I find these places so deeply fascinating. First up,

Yep. Clowns. There's just something creepy about clowns, as my friend Wayne and a few others can attest. What I find deeply disturbing is that someone, somewhere decided to purchase this particular print and have it framed, more than likely giving it a place of honor in his or her home. I mean, where do you put something like this? The bathroom, maybe? It's a guaranteed sure-fire remedy for constipation.

Ceramic figurines of lighthouses--they're not to my taste, but I can understand wanting to collect them. They're kind of cute and, perhaps, nice little reminders of a trip to the seashore. However, notice, if you will, the central piece. That's Alcatraz. The prison. That prison. Which means some company executive decided it was worth the time and money to tool up the factory and produce miniature Alcatraz figurines, which he wouldn't have done unless he/she thought there was a significant market for such an item. Who buys these? More importantly, who bought this one and how did it wind up in an antique store in Culpeper, VA? It's thoughts like this that keep me awake at night.

Someone for some reason saved an intact and unused 1948 calendar. Someone more creative than I could get an entire novel out of this. I'd read it.

When I saw this out of the corner of my eye I first thought she was holding the deoxygenated heart of her mortal enemy. Even with a closer look I'm not convinced she's not.

It's a Shirley Temple doll from the '70s. That's not so unusual in and of itself, but what pedophile decided it was a good idea to display her on a top shelf with a clear view of her underwear? I mean, if it were a Miley Cyrus figurine, yeah, sure, but Shirley Temple? Ya gotta wonder.

I actually think this is kind of cool. If it was authentic and affordable I would snatch it up in a heartbeat as a present for any one of my coffee-addicted friends (I'm looking at you, Anne!); as it is, it's just kind of neat.

This, obviously, is yer basic racoon clock. In my mind, it needs the proper setting, perhaps on the fireplace mantle of a 1950s tract house den finished in blonde knotty pine paneling. Or above the stove in the kitchenette of your mobile home. Whatever. It needs a good home, but The Girlfriend vetoed its purchase.

I know there's an entire sub-cult of people who collect these oversized lifelike dolls and I'm sure they're all very nice folks, moral and upright, but people, we're in Uncanny Valley territory here as far as I'm concerned. They're just spooky.

Not even Santa Claus (who's also a little spooky) and a reindeer can assuage the Creepy Factor. Imagine, for a moment, walking into a darkened room full of these dolls:

Chucky is downright cute and cuddly, by contrast.

Meanwhile, in another corner of the store:

Yep, it's our eventual friend, Mr. Death, as a salt and pepper holder. I don't even. Seriously, who's the target demographic for this? Are there such things as kitschy Goths? And therein lies a story idea, a trailer park exclusively for Goths (are you listening, Wayne? Martin?).

Then there are the other extremes:

 Still, there's nothing like a fake stuffed raven for all your home decorating needs:

Or a pair of African figurines:

Yeah, the Culpeper Minute Man Mini-Mall is going to be a regular stop for me.

Except late at night when the moon is full and the wind rustles the leaves in the trees.

A Day At the Minute Man Minimall Part 1

Or, Why You Can't Take Me Anyplace Nice.

Ahem. (blows virtual dust off the surrounding digital landscape)

So there have been just a few little life changes since last I blogged. Let's see, I retired, I bought a new car, I grew a beard, I found a girlfriend, I turned 60, I had a heart attack, I had three stents placed in two coronary arteries, I developed Type II diabetes, I had to vacate my apartment in Richmond, VA after 24 years of residency because the landlord wanted to totally gut the place and charge oodles and oodles more rent, I did a major purging of books and possessions thereby proving once and for all I am not a hoarder (stop laughing; I can hear you), I relocated to Culpeper, VA and moved in with my girlfriend and her daughter and her daughter's husband and her daughter's cat...

Yeah. It's been interesting.

But that's not what I came here to talk about. I mean, if anyone is really curious I'll be glad to go into more detail on any one of those topics if you insist, though it's my guess you'd be better served by watching several hours of Nicholas Cage hosting incontinent ninja monkey wrestling.

Anyway, The Girlfriend, knowing my deep, abiding love for all things cool and kitsch, took me to the Minute Man MiniMall, your basic antique store/curio shop/indoor flea market, figuring it would be a fun, entertaining way to spend the afternoon.

She had no idea what she was getting into, poor thing. I mean, me in a store full of oddball items with only minimal adult supervision? Hijinks ensued.

It started innocently enough:

Look! A cool, albeit overpriced, walking stick!
Allow me to strike a stance and look imposing!

But then I started finding The Cool Stuff:

The Girlfriend was unaware of the proper method
for consuming moonshine from an earthenware jug,
so I had no choice but to demonstrate.

Well, it's a fez. You have to try
it on, dignity be damned.

It's Elvis. Attention must be paid.

Well, what else do you do when you encounter a plastic katana?

Then things got downright silly:

Yes, that's Alice from Alice in Wonderland.
Yes, that helmet is too damn small.
Or my head is too damn big.

So all in all, I had a great afternoon, I'm thoroughly enjoying Culpeper, and The Girlfriend is busy reconsidering some of her recent poor life choices.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

My 2013 (Fantasy) Christmas List

Dear Santa,

Well, another year has come and gone during which I have been really good. Exceptionally good. Amazingly, outstandingly good. Not by choice, mind you, for at my age (and income level) the opportunities for being truly bad are few and far between, but we must judge people by their actions and not their intentions, right? Right? Oh, sweet Crom, I hope so.

The Noodle Incident doesn't count.

Anyway, the list...

Kindle books: any (or...ahem!...all) of the items on my Wish List would be greatly appreciated, but what I'd really like is a nice, shiny, new workspace. Okay, so maybe I don't actually "work" in my "workspace", so maybe I just want a cool-looking area to surf the Intarweb, watch YouTube videos of cute animals, suck up whatever looks interesting on Netflix, post the occasional blog entry, and perhaps write some tawdry little short stories (see Darkest Richmond). For those I'm going to need a work surface: the C-119 Flap Airplane Desk looks like a winner. Boy, does it ever! And if I get such a desk, I'm going to need something appropriate to sit on, like a F-4 Ejection Seat modified for home office use. Yeah, that's looking good. You know what else would be good? A new computer and I'm thinking the Alienware 18 Laptop fits the bill nicely. But we still need a touch of class, don't we? How about a tray of Doomed Crystal Skull Shotglasses? The perfect thing for chugging highly caffeinated beverages in small doses, say, Funranium Labs Black Blood of the Earth coffee extract (whose motto should be sleep and functioning kidneys are for the worthless and weak). And, just for the hell of it, how about a fancy letter opener? Maybe Ka-Bar's Black Kukri Machete? And a paperweight. A nice paperweight. A functional paperweight. A Magnum Research Desert Eagle in .50 AE, with polished chrome and muzzle brake. It can sit next to the Time Machine Chronambulator Dial Clock.

*sigh* Well, a fellow can dream, can't he?

Monday, November 12, 2012

Chapter Eight of My 2012 NaNovWriMo Attempt

Chapter Eight

"Honey! I'm home!" Ron shouted as he came down the stairs, clutching a plastic bag and big red cup of something.

"Jesus, dude!" I shouted back, startled. "You scared me! What time is it?"

"I'm not sure. Late. And sorry, that wasn't my intention." Ron was slurring ever so slightly.

"You went across the street, didn't you?" I said.

"I did, I did. That's a hell of a crew over there, y'know? Plenty of booze but not a lot of women."

"Did you see Sarah?"

"Nope. She was around, though. One of those big guys said she was out back doing something with sheet metal and a welding torch. Oh, here's the extension cords." Ron struggled awkwardly with his cup and the bag. "I got two long ones since I figure we'd better run the heater off the kitchen circuit rather than risk another blackout."

"Good idea."

"Oh, and here's a drink for you," he said, handing me the cup. "It's got vodka in it."

Vodka and cherry Kool-Aid, as it turned out. A little sweet, but not bad for a freebie.

Ron cocked his head and looked around the basement. "What's that hissing noise?"

"Oh, Jesus, The still! Ron, do me a favor and go plug in those extension cords." I rushed over to see what was happening.

With a slight whistle, steam emerged from the nozzle of the condensing unit and a few drops of clear liquid fell to the floor. I noted a distinctly chemical smell, vaguely alcohol-like. "Bottle," I muttered to myself. "Funnel." I grabbed a plastic gallon milk jug and a stainless steel funnel, placed them under the condenser, and started collecting what old-time moonshiners called the foreshots.

"Hey, Ron!" I shouted. "It's working! We've got alcohol!"

Ron literally galloped down the steps, almost tripping in the process, and stood beside me, an expression of awe on his face.

"I smell it," he said.

"Me, too." We stared at the steaming still.

"We made that," Ron said.

"I know."

"I thought it would come out faster," Ron said.

"Well, so did I... oh, shit. Cooling water. We need cooling water." I checked the condenser hose connections, grabbed for the faucet, and turned it on full force.


"Oh, damn it. Not again. Please, not again," I said. "This is so not the time." I looked at Ron. "We cannot catch a damn break this evening."

The pipes shuddered and groaned as if possessed, but this time the noise stopped after a only a couple of minutes and, to my surprise, mostly clear water flowed freely from the condenser's cooling jacket.

"Maybe our luck is changing," Ron said.

Not surprisingly, two working heaters and a properly adjusted condenser made a huge difference in performance. I noted a steady but not alarming rise in the still's temperature while Ron stared, transfixed, at the filling milk jug.

"I've got to have a taste," he said.

"Uh, that's not a particularly good idea." I checked the thermometer. "At this temperature, what's coming off now is mostly methanol, you know, wood alcohol, the stuff that makes you go blind and die. There's some other nasty crap in there, too, so you definitely don't want to drink it."

"Well, shit. Is that normal?"

"Yeah, it just happens to be what distills off first, at least that's what all the books and websites say, and it's a good thing it does or the whole batch would be poison. The good stuff should be coming in just a few minutes."

"How will we know?"

"Alcohol boils at 173 degrees Fahrenheit, so once we hit that, we'll start collecting for real."

I stood there watching the thermometer while Ron paced the basement, stopping every now and then to look at me and the still. You'd have thought he was expecting a baby, the way he was acting, and maybe, in a sense, he was. This was all his idea to begin with, his money funding the project, and though I hadn't kept close tabs on our expenses, Ron's bank account had to be considerably drained. The poor guy had reasons to be anxious.

Suddenly, the still started sputtering.

"What's that? What's that?" Ron ran over and looked at the collecting jug. "It stopped. What's happening?"

"I don't know. Wait a minute. Let's not panic." I checked the thermometer again, then tapped it a couple of times.

"It's not going to blow up, is it?" Ron said.

"No, it's okay, we're good. It's holding steady at 173 degrees. Let's switch containers." I moved the first jug out of the way and positioned a second one just in time to capture a steady flow of clear liquid.

"That's what we're after," I said, sticking my finger into the stream and taking a little taste. It was hot and raw and unrefined with just a hint of paint thinner, but beneath that was a certain grainy sweetness.

It tasted like whiskey.

Not great whiskey, not something you'd serve to friends or mix drinks with, unaged, unmellowed, and unblended as it was, but it definitely smelled like whiskey, tasted like whiskey, and burned like whiskey.

"Well?" Ron said. "Can I try it?"

"Have at it, but try and keep your expectations low. It isn't smooth and it's not a consumer-grade product by any stretch of the imagination. It needs to rest for about three to five years in a charred oak barrel."

Ron found my cup of Kool-Aid and vodka, dumped the remnants into the sink, rinsed it with the condenser cooling jacket outflow, snagged a sample from the still, and took a cautious sip.

"Huh. You're right. It's not great, but it is whiskey. Not rum, not vodka, not Everclear, but whiskey." Ron smiled. "I kind of like it," he said, taking another sip and rolling it around on his tongue. "It needs some ice cubes and soda or something to get rid of that solvent taste, but yeah, I can drink this."

"Well, we're not going to be winning a blue ribbon award any time soon, but for a first attempt, I think we've done pretty well. In fact, we did far better than I had any right to imagine, given the night we've had."

The milk jug was almost full, so I switched it out for another, snagging another taste in the process. Yes, it still tasted like whiskey.

"So how many gallons are we going to get," Ron asked.

"I don't know. I'm happy to get one, but with ten gallons of mash, I don't know. Maybe two, possibly three." I checked the thermometer again. "Temperature's still holding. That's a good sign."

"Two gallons doesn't sound like very much."

"It isn't, but remember, this is just a test run. I deliberately kept it small so we could iron out any problems before committing to distilling any significant volume, and man, you saw what it was like earlier this evening."

"A veritable shit storm," Ron said.

"We'll do better with our next run."

"I sure hope so. Oh, I was wondering, how will we know when it's done?"

"Well, I don't want the still to run dry for a couple of reason. One, we'll never get it clean if we do, and two, eventually we'll have distilled out all the drinkable alcohol and start getting some seriously crappy stuff again. Fusel oils and such. We're going to have to sample it at regular intervals and stop when it starts to taste bad."

"I see no problem there." Ron grinned.

I laughed. "Really, I don't, either. Just take it easy, okay? Getting sloshed now could be an unmitigated disaster."

"Moderation is my middle name."

"I thought you were the one always quoting Robert Heinlein: 'Moderation is for monks.'"

"Oh, whatever. I was probably drunk."

We filled the second jug and started on a third.

"This is where we have to be extra careful," I said, "or we could end up contaminating our batch with what real moonshiners called 'the tails' and the stuff will taste nasty. According to the books, this is going to happen when the thermometer reaches about 205 degrees Fahrenheit, but I don't trust that, which is why we're going to do taste tests. If it starts going bad or we hit 200 degrees, whatever comes first, we shut down."

We sat in companionable, boozy silence for a while, listening to the still hiss and the water run, taking occasional sips of our very first batch of home brewed whiskey whenever it seemed appropriate.

"Do you hear something dripping?" Ron asked.

"Actually, I do. What is that?"

"I'm not sure."

Suddenly, the sump pump in the corner roared to life.

"Oh, shit," Ron said. "The sink's overflowing."

"Crap. Oh, man, there's water all over the place. Unplug the still."

I meant for Ron to pull the extension cords from their respective outlets. Instead, he unplugged the heaters and dropped the extension cords into the growing pool of water. Sparks flew, there was a loud bang, and the basement was immediately plunged into darkness. Again.

"Where's the flashlight?"

"On the work bench."

"Where's the work bench?"

"Behind you. Be careful not to..."

There was a soggy thump as Ron slipped and fell into a puddle of water.

"Damn it..."

"You okay?" I was feeling my way to the sink, being very careful not to grab a double handful of hot still in the process. Tepid water filled my shoes as I turned off the tap.

"Yeah," Ron said. "Where's that damn flashlight? Oh, got it."

"If you're planning on changing the fuse again, I'd make sure the extension cords were out of the water first."

"Good point."

I heard a slithering noise as Ron dragged the cords across the floor and placed them on the work bench.

"We've got one fuse left," Ron said.

"Let's hope that's all we need, at least for tonight."

Ron fumbled with the fuse box for a minute or so until the lights came back on.

"This is not a level floor," Ron said, looking around. "How come I didn't notice that before?"

He was right. There was a large pool of water in the corner under the sink and watery pseudopods going out from there and off in several directions following hitherto unsuspected ridges and valleys.

"You think they evened this out with a bulldozer blade?" I said.

"Tank treads are more likely. Damaged tank treads."

"Damaged, rusty tank treads from the battlefields of World War I."

'Damaged, rusty World War I tank treads with bundles of barbed wire sticking out all over."

"Damaged, rusty... you know what? We're a little drunk."

Ron crossed his eyes and made a goofy face. "No, we're a lot drunk. I need to go to bed. We can clean this up in the morning."

I glanced at my wrist watch. "Actually, it is morning, but, yeah, let's deal with this later. Let me cap that last jug."

So there we were, a little soggy, a little drunk, a little tired, older, maybe wiser, with two and a half gallons of homemade hooch from an illegal still in our basement. It was time for bed.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Chapter Seven of My 2012 NaNoWriMo Attempt

Chapter Seven

"Jesus God," Ron said. "This place smells like Satan's bakery. What's in that stuff, moldy sourdough bread soaked in kerosene?"

It was early evening and we were in the basement, surrounded by several vats of fermenting mash, most of them bubbling and roiling like some kind of turbo-charged witch's brew.

"It's just bottled water, sugar, corn, rye, barley, malt, and some of that super-yeast we got at the wine-making store. I kind of like it."

"You would," Ron said, breathing through his mouth. "You like the smell of unleaded gasoline."

"And other petroleum distillates. Let's not leave anything out."

"So where do we stand? I'm getting tired of waiting around with my thumb up my ass. I wanna make some booze."

"Well..." I looked around, did some quick mental calculations, and walked over to one of the plastic buckets. "It's been five days and batch number one should be just about ready. According to the instructions, once the bubbling stops and the yeast settles out, we should have something on the order of thirty per cent alcohol."

"Damn. Hot damn! And that's before we even run it through the still. What are we going to get afterwards?"

"That's a good question and the answer is, I have no idea. We'll just have to run it and see what happens."

"Then what are we waiting for?"

"Nothing, I guess. Help me lift this thing onto the work bench. Gently. Try not to disturb the sediment."

Ten gallons doesn't sound like much, but it translates to over eighty pounds of awkward, dead weight. Since neither one of us had any real upper body strength, there was a certain amount of grunting and groaning involved as we hoisted the bucket onto the bench.

"Jesus God, it smells even worse close up," Ron said.

"It's no bouquet of roses, I'll admit. Now, where's that Tygon tubing? I'm going to siphon it into the still."

Ron nodded, moved over to the still, and started trying to pry off the head assembly.

"Damn, that's tight. Give me a hand, will ya?"

Ron wasn't kidding. The head was on tight. We tried pulling, then twisting, then pulling again and still the head resisted.

"Bang on it with something," Ron said.

I grabbed a rubber mallet off the work bench and whacked the join a couple of times.

"Okay," I said. "That should do it."

It didn't.

I whacked it a few more times, then Ron and I grabbed the head assembly as tightly as we could, twisting and pulling at the same time. Nothing happened for a few seconds, then there was a sudden screeching of metal and the head came free.

"That's one hell of a flange. We should put some grease on that or something," Ron said.

"Yeah, that's a good idea... wait, is that a dead mouse?"

Ron peered into the base of the still. "Yep. Two of 'em. Dead and mummified." He dumped them out onto the floor.

"Oh, gross." I took the base from Ron, carried it over to the sink, and turned on the faucet full force.

"John, don't!"

The room filled with a deafening THRUMUMUMUMUMUMUMSHREEEEEEEEEE as something resembling liquid sewage spewed and sputtered from the tap.

"Oh, damn it all to hell" I scrambled to turn off the tap.

"Let it flow," Ron yelled. "The one thing we haven't tried is flushing the pipes until they run clear. Leave it alone for a minute."

The pipes pounded and vibrated in a manic symphony of demonic noise that would have made Einsturzende Neubauten envious, but the sputtering water slowly changed from sewage-colored to muddy. A minute passed. Then two. Then three. A sulfurous odor filled the basement.

"It's not getting better," I yelled at Ron.

"I know," Ron yelled back. "Maybe we should..."

And suddenly, miraculously, the pipes stopped banging and the water flowed in a steady stream.

"Praise Jesus," Ron said.

"Hail Satan," I said.

I rinsed the copper base of the still, scoured it with sanitizer, rinsed it some more, then carried it back to its place near the work bench.

"Let's try again," I said. "Tygon, please."

I cut off a convenient length of tubing, placed one end just beneath the surface of the liquid in the bucket and starting sucking on the other end as hard as I could, trying to start a siphon. I got one, alright, and a mouthful of nasty-tasting ferment in the process. Quickly, I dropped my end of the tube into the still base and then proceeded to retch.

"Oh, gawd, that's foul," I said, spitting onto the floor. "But judging from the taste, there's alcohol in there." I spit again. "Do we have anything to drink that doesn't come out of the faucet?"

"We've got some Diet Pepsi and some orange juice," Ron said. "I could make a pot of coffee."

"No, I don't want to wait for coffee. It tastes like the entire Russian Army just held field maneuvers in their muddy boots on my tongue. I'll be right back." I dashed up the stairs and grabbed an orange juice for me and a Diet Pepsi for Ron.

Somewhere out front of our apartment someone was playing a sound system at top volume. I looked out the front door.

Vintage rockabilly was playing and a slew of biker types, both male and female, emanated from the anarchists' collective and began dancing in the front yard, drinking from forty ounce bottles of malt liquor, cavorting, and just having a good time in general. There were the occasional sounds of breaking glass, high-pitched female laughter, and good-natured drunken revelry.

Huh, I thought. Sarah never said anything about having a party. I wonder why we weren't invited? Oh, it doesn't matter. We're working.

I went back to the basement.

"Jesus, John," Ron said. "Is there any faster way to fill this thing?"

The bucket was emptying, but oh so slowly. "Guess I should have gotten some wider diameter tubing. I'll add that to my list."

We waited. And waited. And waited some more. Finally, after about twenty minutes, most of the cloudy liquid slop from the bucket was in the still, leaving only a slimy mass of dead yeast and fermented grain.

"Now can we run the still? Ron asked

"Now we can run the still," I said, replacing the head assembly. "All we have to do is plug it in, hook up water to the condenser, and let 'er rip."

"Uh, problem."


"Well, as I see it, the electrical outlets are over here and the sink is way over there where there are no electrical outlets."

"Oh," I said.

"We're going to need a couple of long extension cords or some really long hoses with fittings."

"Do we have any extension cords?"

"I've got one in the train room," Ron said.

"We're going to need two. Two heaters, two cords."

"Okay," Ron said. "How about a really long cord with a power strip on one end."

"Ron, you're a mad genius! Go get it and I'll move the still closer to the sink."

I could tell by the way Ron ran up the basement steps he was really excited by the prospect of running our still for the first time. Ron never ran anywhere, if he could help it. Hell, neither did I, but his excitement was contagious. I started pushing the still closer to the sink.

Which wasn't going to happen without a struggle. Thirty pounds of copper plus eighty pounds of liquid equals, well, a problem.

'Hey, Ron," I yelled. "I need some help here."

Ron clomped down the stairs, a coiled yellow extension cord hanging from his shoulder.

"This'll takes care of our electrical problem. What do you need?"

"Help me move the still."

"Sure. Is it that heavy?"

"Oh, yeah. Give it a try."

Ron pushed, I pulled, and the still moved reluctantly.

"Wait a minute," Ron said. "We're going about this all wrong. Friction is not our friend. Hold on a sec." Ron ran back up the basement steps, then returned with a double handful of wooden dowels.

"We're going to use these as rollers," he said, laying the dowels in a path from the still to the sink. "I don't know why I didn't think of this to begin with."

"Well, it never occurred to me, either, not that I knew we had rollers. Maybe our blood sugar is low."

"Doesn't matter," Ron said. "Let's push."

The dowels worked like a charm and with only a little effort, we situated the still near the sink. I quickly attached the intake and outflow hoses to the condenser while Ron unraveled the extension cord, plugged it into an outlet, then attached the two heating elements to the power strip.

There was a loud pop, a brief flash of sparks from somewhere in the corner, and the room went pitch black.

"Fuck!" we said, simultaneously.

"I'm betting we don't have a flashlight down here, do we?" Ron said.

"I'm betting you're right. I think I've got one in the bedroom, though."

"Let's hope so. When you said distilling wasn't as easy as I might think, I had no idea this kind of shit would happen." Ron stumbled a bit making his way back to the work bench.

"Well, it wasn't exactly what I envisioned, either. Dionysus is not smiling upon us tonight," I said.


"Dionysus. The Greek god of wine, intoxication, and ritual madness. Guess he's busy at the party across the street."

"There's a party across the street?"

"You didn't notice when you went upstairs? Well, cool your jets there, son. It's a big biker bash to which we were not invited and besides, we're working, remember?"

I worked my way cautiously to the steps and went off to find my flashlight.

The party at the anarchists' collective was still going strong; in fact, it had grown. People were milling about in the street, in the front yard, in our front yard, and in the neighbors' front yards. Motorcycles of all shapes and sizes were everywhere, their comings and goings punctuated by loud bass engine noises I felt as much as heard. People were having a good time. Sex and drugs and rock and roll filled the night air. Yeah, I thought. There's our problem. Dionysus is too busy getting down with his twenty-first century posse to shower us with blessings, the freak.

"Where the hell is that flashlight?" Ron's voice came up from the basement.

"I'm coming, I'm coming." I stumbled a bit coming down the darkened steps.

"Well, it's about time," Ron said. "Where's the breaker box?"

We searched around for a bit, my tiny flashlight casting a dim, barely sufficient glow, until we came to a dusty, cobweb-encrusted metal door in the wall.

"Shit," said Ron. "Fuses, not breakers. Old ones." He sighed deeply. "I don't suppose you know where any fuses are, by chance?"

"Couldn't we just jam a penny in there?"

"Besides the fact that's a sure way to get electrocuted, not to mention start a house fire, these aren't screw-in fuses. They're older than that."

"So what do we do?"

"Well, there's nothing in the fuse box, nothing on the fuse box. Let's look on the work bench."

Sure enough, there, in plain sight, was a faded box of old school tube fuses.

"These things are ancient. Better unplug the heaters while I stick this in."

I snickered.

"What?" Ron said.

"You're going to stick in in."

"Are you high?"

"No, just a little giddy. Everything's unplugged."

There was a sharp electrical crack, a couple of bluish sparks, and the lights came back on.

"Well, that was entertaining," Ron said. "Let's try it with one heating element."

I took in a deep breath, inserted the plug, then exhaled when I saw the heating unit's little orange indicator light come on.

"And we have ignition."

"Great. Now what?"

"Now we watch the temperature, wait for things to boil, turn on the water to the condenser, and start collecting our alcohol."

"How long will that take?"

"I have no idea. Probably a while, since we only have the one heating element. You got another extension cord somewhere?"

"No, but if this is going to take a while, I could run down to Walgreen's or someplace and buy one."

"Might not be a bad idea."

"Of course, I just might have to check out that party, too."

I gave Ron my best look of exasperation, then said, "Go ahead. This could wind up being an all-night affair anyway. No sense in both of us being bored."

"I'll be right back, I promise."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah. You'll be right back. I've heard that line before. Try not to to pick up any STDs while you're at it."

"No STDs. Just an extension cord. Got it."

With Ron gone the basement was quiet except for the faint din of the party outside and another noise else I couldn't quite place. Was that bubbling? Were we at a boil already? I put my hand on the base of the still and noted warmth and a slight vibration. Okay, something was going right. The heater was working and the mash was warming up. Knowing I was going to be disappointed, I checked the thermometer and, yep, sure enough, we had a long way to go before hitting the boiling point of alcohol; hell, we hadn't even reached body temperature. I went upstairs to grab my pen and notebook.

Except for the motorcycles and a few beat-up old cars, the streets were empty, the party having moved inside as far as I could tell. No surprise there; it was getting a bit damp and chilly. Then, too, the police only patrolled this neighborhood at night and I was sure no one wearing biker colors, drunk or sober, wanted to tangle with Richmond's Finest. They had guns and Tasers and weren't afraid to use them. In fact, if local folklore held true, the police got quite a kick out of using their Tasers. It was cheap entertainment and I shuddered at the thought.

I wonder what Sarah is up to? I thought. I wonder what bikers and anarchists do at a house party. They probably didn't sit around sipping brandy and reading Kropotkin in the original Russian. Maybe they had wild sex orgies and rolled around naked on torn-out pages from Ronald Reagan's memoirs. Or the Warren Commission report. Who knows?

I grabbed an orange juice and went back downstairs, where I was pleased to note a thin trickle of steam emerging from where the base and the head joined. Good deal! We're getting somewhere now. I sat on a kitchen stool at the work bench and made a few notes.

Chapter Six of My 2012 NaNoWriMo Attempt

Chapter Six


Oh, sweet Jeebus, "Magic Carpet Ride" as interpreted by the entire membership of the International Plumbers' Union while drunk. And on acid. In the midst of an epileptic seizure. I nearly fell out of bed from the godawful noise. Why hadn't giant glowing beach towel Elvis protected me? And who the hell was messing with the pipes? And worse, why did my bedside alarm clock say eight a. m.?

"Rise and shine, little buddy," Ron shouted from the bathroom, his voice only slightly muffled by toothpaste. "Time to rub the sleep out of your eyes and greet the new day!"

Oh, of course. Ron was one of those horrible morning people.

"Who the hell are you, my mother?" I shouted back. "What happened to 'the crack of noon?'"

"Meh. You're going to squander the best part of the day. We've got things to do and places to go. Stuff to move and stuff to buy."

Slowly, painfully I attempted to focus my eyes and roll out of bed. "You know," I said, a bit blearily, "when normal people don't have to work they like to sleep in. Late."

"One," Ron said as he threw open my door, "we're not normal people and we never will be. Two, we are working, or rather, we will be once you get up and put some clothes on."

"Are you on meth or something? You're awfully chipper for a guy who spent yesterday driving around all over the state."

"Exciting times ahead, John! A new day, new beginnings, new projects, we've got to get cracking if we're going to get ahead of the game. Oh, and there's coffee and Krispy Kreme doughnuts in the kitchen."

I looked at the window and said, "thank you, Jeebus; thank you, Elvis, thank you, J. R. 'Bob' Dobbs."

"Who are you talking to?"

"Deities. My very own short duration personal saviors with whom I will be sharing a very caffeinated and very sugar-laden communion as soon as I can find my pants."

"Well, okay then."

"So are we moving your stuff this morning?" I said.

"Actually, there's good news and bad news. Mostly good news for you and some bad news for me."

"How so?

"Well, there's not a lot of my stuff to move, courtesy of the Girlfriend From Hell. Apparently, she went on a rampage after I called her, burned most of my stuff in a backyard bonfire, and now all I've got are a couple of suitcases, a trunk, that stained mattress we were using as a doggie bed, and my computer stuff. I got lucky, I suppose, but some of it is kind of smoky, so heads up. I did manage to rescue, well, you know."

"Oh, Christ," I said. "The layout."

"Yeah, the layout."

Have I mentioned that Ron is a model railroad buff? Yeah, HO scale all the way. He got into it in his early teens and over the years has amassed a huge, and I mean huge, collection of brass locomotives worth thousands of dollars along with rolling stock, miles of track, tons of scenery, and who knows how many itty-bitty metal figures. When he got into model construction, he built what amounted to a small city's worth of structures complete with weathering, advertisements, graffitti, electric lighting, myriads of geeky goodness. It's his pride, his joy, and his singular obsession-- excluding inappropriate women-- an entire world on a nine by twelve foot table.

"Where is it now?" I asked.

"You know the front room across from the living room slash library?"

"What I assumed was the dining room? Yeah."

"It's has been officially commandeered and designated the Train Room."

"Oh. Okay. I've never been one for formal dinners, anyway," I said. "I'm more into microwave burritos and paper plates. Where's all the stuff now?"

"It's here. Downstairs. My sister's husband helped me load it into his truck and those four guys from across the street helped me get it into the house."

"Oh, yeah? Was Sarah with them?"

"No, unfortunately, Ron said with a slight leer. "She's pretty hot in a goth trash sort of way. Oh, who am I kidding? Given the chance, I'd hit that so hard whoever pulled me out would be the rightful king of all England."


"And can you imagine a threesome with her and Tara? Oh, man! What do you want to bet they both have piercings in places you wouldn't expect?"

"Changing the subject," I said. "What, exactly, are we doing today if we're not moving you in?"

"I'm thinking it's time we check out The Little Old Winemaker and spend a little money."

"Color me confused, but who do we know that makes wine? Hell, who do we know that drinks wine, unless it's Boone's Farm? Is this person a consultant or something?"

"The Little Old Winemaker is not a person, it's this funky store in Lakeside that sells beer and winemaking supplies. The guy in Goochland was telling me about it, said it was your one-stop shopping source for all things booze-related."

"What, the guy with the still?"

"The very one. He's done it all: cider, beer, wine; in fact, he had such good luck with wine he wanted to branch out into brandy. He even had wooden casks for aging. You know, we might want to think about that at some point."

"Uh, don't count your barrels just yet. We've got a lot of things to do before we can even think of trying out our still."

"Exactly, and time's a-wastin'. Grab your shopping list and let's see what's what."

I got my notebook, filled a big travel mug with coffee, and grabbed a couple of doughnuts Okay, three doughnuts, but it was early and my blood sugar and caffeine levels were nowhere near optimum.

When Ron said the place was "funky," he wasn't exaggerating. Set back in a little strip mall parallel to Lakeside Drive, The Little Old Winemaker was completely at odds with its surroundings. It was as if a tiny piece of 19th Century rural Bavaria had been magically transported to Richmond and plopped down to live placidly amid the appliance stores, service stations, soul food eateries, and 7-11s. Funky, too, were the smells we encountered as soon as we passed through the door: yeasty bread, dusty grains, a faint whiff of wood smoke, a hint of ripe apples... I was reminded of when I used to visit my grandfather's tobacco farm as a child and play in the hay loft. The walls were darkened wood and covered in advertising posters for obscure beers, exotic wines, and vineyards local and foreign. Well-dressed, soft-spoken customers browsed the aisles and shelves.

It was charming.

"So what are we looking for," Ron asked.

"Well, yeast for one, a couple of ten gallon fermenters, which are just glorified food grade plastic buckets, unless you want to go the stainless or copper route."

"Are they better?

"I don't know if they're better, but they're certainly more expensive."

"Then plastic works for me."

"Let's see, lids for the buckets, a couple of airlocks..."


"One way valves. When we start fermenting stuff, we want a way to keep out the airborne nasties while venting all the carbon dioxide we'll be making."

"This is getting complicated," Ron said.

"I warned you. And we're going to need cheesecloth for filtering, some kind of sanitizing agent for the buckets, some plastic tubing, oh, and a decent grade hydrometer. Then there's corn, malted barley, rye, rye malt..."

"Enough. Let's start shopping," Ron sighed.

The store's layout was a little confusing, but the sales associate was busy briefing this nice-looking gay couple on the finer points of home-aging sherry and port, so Ron and I fumbled around for a bit before finding all the stuff we needed. That was fine as far as I was concerned, since even a cursory glance would tell any astute home brewer exactly what we were planning on doing. Let's be clear: home distilling is illegal. Highly illegal. The Feds don't care if it's a little or a lot; if you're running a still to make alcohol for human consumption, regardless of the quantity and regardless of whether you drink it or sell it or give it away, you're breaking several state and federal laws and can wind up in a dank, dark prison cell for a very long time. Someday the laws may change, just as they did for wine- and beer-making, but someday is not today. I was a little nervous.

We hauled our stuff over to the main counter.

"Okay," said the clerk. "What have we got here?" He began muttering to himself as he tallied up our purchases, then said, "You know this is a Tralles hydrometer, right?"

"What's a Tralles hydrometer?" Ron asked

The clerk looked at Ron for a second. "You use a Tralles hydrometer to figure out the alcoholic content of a liquid based on its specific gravity. You take pre- and post-fermentation readings and from that you can calculate..." His voice trailed off when he saw the expression on my face.

"You're not..." the clerk said.

I stood there open-mouthed.

The clerk's voice dropped to a whisper. "Because I don't want to know if you are."

I stood there at a loss for words.

"Let's speak hypothetically for a moment," he said, glancing to his left and right. "Purely hypothetically."


"If someone, not you two, but someone, wanted to, oh, let's say, ferment a large volume of material really fast, he might want something a little more powerful than champagne yeast."


"He might want a variety of what is called a turbo yeast. It's fast, it's resistant to alcohol, which means it can survive when the concentration is high and make more alcohol, and most importantly, it comes complete with a slew of additional nutrients and pH adjusters so as to make futzing with it significantly trivial. It can survive. It can kick ass. You, uh, he just adds the yeast at the right moment and at the right temperature and lets it do it's thing."


"But it's tricky for wine-making. It brings things to a ferment really fast and it generates a lot of alcohol. A lot. A wine-maker could, entirely by accident, ruin his otherwise perfectly good wine by turning it into something only useful if he were interested in distilling it, which he would not be, in which case the winemaker would not have wine. That would be sad. You understand?"

"Okay." I smiled a little.

"A wine-maker would have to be extremely careful with a turbo yeast or he's going to wind up with a high-proof wine that would be completely undrinkable as it was. It would be beyond insolent and ill-mannered; it would be a pugnacious bully. One would be overwhelmed by the alcohol burn. And that's not what one looks for in a good wine. Excuse me for a moment."

The clerk disappeared behind a curtain then returned holding a couple of test tubes sealed with black plastic screw caps. Inside them was a noxious-looking brown slurry.

"This is a new product, a strain called THX-1138 from the W. A. Sallee labs in Chicago. It's for experimental wine-making purposes only, though it may possibly have other uses. You may also find it... amusing." The clerk smiled and handed me some stapled papers. "And these are the instructions. They reiterate what I said about it being tricky for wine-making. Be sure to read them carefully."

"Okay," I said.

The clerk rang up our purchases, smiled again, and said, "Well, gentlemen, I look forward to hearing about your disasters in... wine-making. Please keep me posted." He winked.

"What just happened?" asked Ron, as we carried our stuff to the truck.

"In legal terms, I think we just gained an accessory before the fact."

"Is that a good thing?"

"I guess we'll find out." I looked at the instructions the clerk had handed me:

So You Want To Make Some Tasty Booze: A Guide to the Effective Use of THX-1138 in Home Distilling.

"It's a good thing, Ron. Let's go buy some sugar."