"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."
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.
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."
"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."
"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.