Ann Stewart McBee was born in Kalamazoo, Michigan. She graduated with a PhD in creative writing at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, where she taught writing and served as an editor for cream city review. She has published fiction and poetry in Citron Review, Blue Earth Review, Palaver and At Length among others. She now teaches English at Des Moines Area Community College, and lives outside Des Moines, Iowa with her husband.
McBee's fiction, “Ruth's Red Ale,” was originally published in The Southeast Review Volume 35.2 and was one of our 2017 nominees for the 2018 Pushcart anthology.
Ruth's Red Ale
It was awfully heavy for yeast. A silver packet that distorted their faces in its surface, covered in foreign writing of a sordid red color. Adjusting his glasses, Phil stared quizzically at the oddity. It was on sale… Phoebe said. Phil was particular about yeast strains, the ketones and esters and phenols and such. On this occasion, though, he didn’t ask why Phoebe had made such an odd selection. They had only just learned that Mom’s cancer was back, “controllable but not curable,” which meant little except that in less than a year, Phoebe would face the inconceivable loss of her mother. Best to let some things slide, Phil supposed, and he hassled her as little as possible.
He noted Phoebe’s quivering upper lip, ongoing herald of the dread, and touched it with just his ring finger, right down the divot in the middle. He knew so many dark truths about her: about the dread. That she pulled out her hairs compulsively, leaving tangled piles between the sofa and the end table. That she sometimes chewed the inside of her lip so much that something like a red jelly bean formed there. But thievery was a secret that she kept beneath the silt in a widening channel between them.
They resumed the cleaning process, the onerous long prelude to every batch they brewed together. Phoebe loved the science in brewing. Thick glass and sharp smells made her smile. But brewing beer was mostly about cleaning, a thing Mom would have understood completely: the constant indefatigable avoidance of contamination. They swept the corners of the kitchen ceiling clear of cobwebs and hand-scrubbed the floor. Phoebe sponged counters, cabinets, and the stovetop with hot soapy water, sweeping away crumbs and lifting the burner plates to wipe away the greasy brown rings underneath. She sprayed every surface with disinfectant cleaner and wiped it all dry with paper towels. In the sink, Phil soaked the airlock, thermometer, utensils, and yeast starter jar in hot water with bleach. Steam tickled their mucous membranes, and the sound of sniffling, unavoidable, joined the sloshing and soft grunting. Then the dread screamed with Mom’s voice into Phoebe’s cochlea about the bacteria, the bacteria, the bacteria! Tears pinched her eyeballs. Phil rested a hand on her arm. Too much Clorox.
An initial step in brewing beer was boiling the wort, the sweet ruddy liquid extracted slowly from malt barley that the yeast would ferment into beer. Phoebe and Phil had successfully mashed their own wort from grain before, resulting in a dazzling honey-clear ale with tones of lemon from the aroma hops they added. But they’d also botched a batch that way, producing a muddy and too-sweet amber that seemed flat. Using the extract saved them a few steps. The strange yeast seemed risky enough anyway. Phil watched the three-gallon pot on the stove to make sure the foam that formed didn’t spill over the sides. A boil-over could ruin a batch of beer, as could burned sugar, so he gently stirred the mixture to prevent anything black and sticky from collecting at the bottom, adjusting the temperature dials and spritzing the side of the pot with ice water from a spray bottle now and again when necessary.
In the meantime, Phoebe proofed the mysterious yeast. Opening the packet seemed to send a panic signal to the cats, who suddenly scooted and capered in circles around an invisible entity in the living room. To rehydrate the yeast, she mixed it into a cup of pre-boiled water, covering it with plastic wrap. After fifteen minutes, she introduced a small amount of sugar solution, and the mixture became frothy so suddenly it startled her. Even the cats froze in place, their tails flared and twitching, their eyes as wide and dark as doom. The yeast was alive all right, maybe too animated, too anxious, for being nothing but a tiny orb-shaped organism that ate sugar, shat alcohol, and farted millions of whispering bubbles. Phoebe poured it into the huge white fermenting bucket, placing a finger over her lips before closing the lid.
Phil added the finishing hops as the boil drew to a close and broke. This was the magical process of isomerization, by which two substances become a cozy one. The aroma of hot cereal that filled the apartment, comforting and sweet, became slightly spicy and floral. The dried cone- like little flowers were air-light and packed in an oxygen-barrier bag kept cold so it had no odor until it was opened. This, incidentally, made them easy to shoplift. There was nothing quite like opening a fresh bag of piquant hops. Phil did question her about the hops; though he usually liked to choose them himself. But this too he let go.
Since losing some of their hobbies to poverty, most sadly their annual Halloween cosplay, they spent less and less time together doing anything other than watching TV shows on instant streaming, a distraction that was, for now, affordable. Phoebe spent most of her time at home hunched over her laptop trying to catch up on data entry, now that her intern was no longer funded. Phil usually arrived home exhausted and lay in bed most of the evening. On their first date, Phil had helped her shop for what she would need to become little Edith Beale of Grey Gardens for Halloween, complete with a sweater for a skirt and a skirt for a headdress. That year she had partnered up with Mom, who of course was big Edith: gray wig, wide-brimmed sunhat and horn-rimmed glasses. Mom didn’t fully understand, but she went along. How often do I get my daughter home for Halloween? Not one of their confused relatives could identify the characters at the party, but it had been fun.
At the time, Phoebe had begun to see herself and Mom turning into a version of the Beales, perhaps living in the U.P. instead of the Hamptons. Phoebe would give up on men, move home. Money and things would dwindle away. They’d never leave Mom’s bedroom—just sit and drink vodka and eat pints of butter pecan ice cream together amid a menagerie of flea-ridden raccoons and cats. Phoebe had warmed to the thought of the yard growing wild, becoming tangled with goldenrod and thistle. Full moons of ripe dandelions floating among constellations of yellow mustard flowers. But Mom would never allow such irreverence in her garden. Never. So then: Phil.
After shutting down the boil at last, Phil carefully plunged the pot into their ice-filled bathtub. There was a dreadful danger of contamination, due to the relentless black mold that grew around the edges of the tub. No amount of scrubbing ever discouraged it, so Phoebe held the lid tenaciously onto the pot as Phil lowered it into the tub. When the wort had cooled enough, Phil poured it into the fermentation bucket with gusto, allowing it to slosh aggressively, rallying the yeast into action. Phoebe always admired Phil in this moment, his strength and concentration in controlling the flow of liquid from the heavy pot. She complimented him on it, as she did every time, as he did her when she threaded his needle for him. There was always one part at which one of them was better, for which one stepped aside and watched, while the other said, Let me…
With the lid sealed tight, they placed the bucket in the spare room and inserted the airlock. Typically, it would take twenty-four hours for the airlock to begin bubbling: the thrilling evidence of fermentation taking place. Phil and Phoebe intertwined arms and kissed, sighing tiredly into each other’s mouths. Phoebe let Phil’s T-shirt absorb the sweat from her cheek. She often used his clothing as a hanky, he knew. Like he knew the way she enjoyed the smell of cat piss. Like the way she sometimes thought of murdering their governor. When they peeled themselves away from each other, they glanced at the airlock, by chance, and noticed that it was already bubbling. How much was this yeast on sale for? Phil’s face crinkled. A blank moment went by before Phoebe remembered her sin again, a leaden clump of the dread forming inside her. I don’t remember.
Fermentation always took about two weeks. When the airlock’s bubbling slowed to a halt, they would sterilize the tubing in bleach water and scrub out a set of brown bottles with brushes before baking them in the oven. Until then, they would enjoy the anticipation, a vestige of what Phoebe remembered from her wedding day in Las Vegas, her shoulders bare in the hot wind that smelled of happiness around the corner and not just far, far behind her. But two weeks went by, and bubbles still exploded furiously within the airlock, insistent and aggressive as the day fermentation began. The cats sat constantly outside the door to the room, staring through the parched and fading wood, pupils locked wide open enough for ghosts to slip in. In the evenings they sat there for hours while Phoebe sweated onto the keyboard and swallowed the dread in gluey gray lumps. Phil just shrugged, and they let the brew continue to ferment until the yeast had sated its needs. When it’s ready, it’ll let us know, won’t it?
They drove to Mom’s for Fourth of July, Phoebe attempting the legendary baked beans because Mom was too tired. They chatted lazily about anything but cancer and poverty, breathing in the perfume of local cookouts and firecracker smoke, watching the fluff of cottonwood seeds drift lazily through the waning sunlight, imbibing what they could of a togetherness that suddenly seemed so fragile and endangered. Phoebe was acutely aware that she had adopted a lot of Mom’s mannerisms in a way that needled Phil. Saying God bless you… after he sneezed, even though they were both atheists. Eating ice cream and peanuts in the kitchen, alone, over the sink, in the dark, wearing a blank look that turned swiftly into shame. Saying Careful! in a reproachful tone after he stuck himself with a needle or burned himself on the brew pot (when it was too late anyway). The lip-chewing, the hair-pulling: small compulsions that prompted Phil to tease her and call her by Mom’s name. Thanks for saving my soul, Ruth. How does your guilt taste, Ruth? Oh shut it, Ruth!
The three-hour drive home seemed more exhausting than usual, and they spent what was left of the day in bed, thrashing in and out of unsatisfying sleep. Phoebe had wandered into a recurring dream in which she was screaming angrily at Mom about baked beans, when she awoke to Phil calling her. She blinked away some leftover rage and shambled to the spare room, where the airlock was bubbling as frantically as ever. Phil’s hands rested on his hips, a stance he took when he couldn’t figure something out. He shook his head.
Was the yeast expired?
Well, did the staff say anything about it?
Well, I think we should go back there and ask them about this.
Phoebe considered making up a story, an elegant fairy tale in which the yeast was handed to her between flashes of lightning by a hunchbacked crone who claimed it was magical. Instead, she told him the truth: that it appeared in her hand after the store went dark during a storm, and she stuck it in her purse and ran off with it.
I stole the malt and the hops, too.
Are you kidding?
Phoebe sighed and looked intently at the airlock. Without pause, the bubbles joggled inside it. She fought the dread, which planted a kick deep in her gut.
Why? Why would you do that? We’re not that bad off, are we? I thought we were saving…
Phoebe began to sob. Phil placed a hand over his eyes. They slumped back to bed, leaving the yeast to its work. What business did they have telling it to stop fermenting, when it didn’t really belong to them anyway?
Over the next few weeks, while the airlock continued defiantly to bubble, they clashed over what to give up if they wanted to continue brewing at home. Phil’s savings amounted to $134 and a jar full of change. Phoebe had none. When the muffler fell off of Phoebe’s car, they couldn’t fix it, so she took the bus. The ride took an hour both ways, and by the time she got home she was too tired to eat dinner, so she skipped it and went straight to bed each evening, resentment gurgling in her belly. It was no wonder Phil had his cozy hundred in the bank anyway. Men didn’t even need separate soap and shampoo. Phoebe found herself slinking back and forth in front of the lotions and cleansers at the store, considering which tube or bottle would fit most discreetly in her waistband.
Most of the time, they were too tired to argue. Any time spent in the same room with each other was spent in a sweaty, cranky sleep. They separately checked the airlock every day, which had barely slowed its activity, but despite the online forums that warned about possible bacterial invasion, they let it bubble away. This felt like the last batch they would ever brew, for this reason or that one, and who wouldn’t let the possibility and the enchantment of the process linger? So many things lasted too short a time. The childhood before a divorce. Orgasm. Morning glory blooms. The Wisconsin summer, so ethereal it was almost imaginary, especially as seen from the window of an office or a lab.
During thunderstorms, Phoebe left to go look at the lightning, the dread stinking up the sofa cushions and driving away the cats, and found herself yanking out a pile of brittle, shaggy and graying hair. Finally, she went to Phil’s barber after work, and had it cut off. She hoped for Sharon Stone but ended up looking more like Michael Douglas. She expected Phil to be indignant, horrified. But when he peeked at her from under the covers, he said nothing. In the middle of the night, Phoebe heard him moaning into his pillow. The next day he gave her the money from his savings to fix her car. Phoebe took the last of the year’s vacation and told him the following morning she would be going to Mom’s for a couple of weeks alone. He ran a finger through the sparse gray hairs over her ears and sighed, but didn’t say a word.
Though it had been her decision to leave following the divorce from Phoebe’s dad, Mom mentioned that she would like to see the old house again, if only once in her final year, and she insisted on driving. The house had been designed and built in part by Phoebe’s grandpa, and Phoebe had spent her entire childhood there. Like all the best houses in Michigan, it was by a small lake and flanked on both sides by woods. No one Phoebe knew had enjoyed their youth in a more idyllic or more wild place. Phoebe told Mom that she couldn’t imagine raising a child in her dingy, cramped apartment. The kid whose face she’d blasted with a snowball in the fourth grade had lived in a trailer park and worn clothes from the Salvation Army. He smelled a bit like mold and cigarettes. Phoebe and Phil’s kids would dress and smell the same way. Their kids would probably end up in prison.
The way this world is headed, Mom said, we could all end up in prison.
This is so true…
The old house waited at the end of a long gravel driveway lined with thick maples whose helicopter seeds still fluttered through the air. Its new owners were wealthy Chicagoans who used it infrequently as a summer cottage. It was predictably empty and appeared to have been so all summer. The house looked smaller than Phoebe remembered. The woods had closed in, shrinking the lawn and covering everything in shade. Giant elms, oaks, and cottonwoods canopied the place, hiding the roof entirely. Mom’s rock garden had once been a paradigm of vegetative order, perfectly mapped around a smattering of giant glacial rocks with succulents, violets, and Dutchman’s breeches, carpeted with lily-of-the- valley, forget-me-not, and myrtle, punctuated with verdant ferns, monk’s hood, and veronica. Every space was filled with purple and white and green or with stark smooth pebbles, not a blade of errant crabgrass to be seen. Now the forest plants had encroached, and the fern and lily- of-the-valley had gone downright feral, joined by unruly clumps of trillium and wild geranium. A young maple sapling had even sprouted up, impertinently, along with a tangle of nettles and bent tufts of Indian grass.
Phoebe was surprised that Mom didn’t seem upset by this violation of her design. How’s any sunshine supposed to get through? was all she said. The sky, what they could see of it, was becoming steely gray. In Michigan, thunder was always rolling somewhere. They got back in the car, and glancing back at the house one last time, as if those old sepia memories could materialize again from the ash-gray of now, Mom drove away. Phoebe perused the photos she had taken of Mom’s potted garden on her phone. Mom was no different from a painter who imagined their subject before they made it according to their vision. Feathery red dianthus complimenting round orange marigolds above spilling heart-shaped leaves of sweet potato vines. Yellow and lavender petunias on a foamy carpet of white alyssum. Velvety pink begonias with their little golden eyes surrounded by the lurid merlot and lime of coleus leaves. Crimson- haired bee balm standing in soft beds of white and fire-red impatiens. Mom was an artist.
Are you angry that you had to leave that place, sweetheart? Mom asked.
Not really, Phoebe lied.
I’m angry that I have cancer, you know. I mean sometimes I just get so damn mad. But that’s because I love my life and I don’t want to leave it.
I don’t want you to leave it either.
Please just tell me you’re happy. Tell me you’re forcing a laugh once a day…
It’s out of my hands. A vein of lightning ahead of them illuminated everything: cornflower and Queen Anne’s lace at the side of the road trembled and glistened like jewels. Rain began to smack the windshield loudly.
No it isn’t sweetheart. You can feel however you want to feel…
They ran inside the house, getting shower-wet in the space between the car and the foyer. Phoebe ran to the bay window in the living room and looked out as the pulsating storm assaulted the lake. The dread had worked its way into her lower intestine and pressed itself against her spine, so that standing up felt like running. The sweat crept over her skin and her diaphragm tightened. The gunmetal of the sky seemed to do a back somersault into the sprawling blue of the lake, which committed suicide with a splat into the shady rocks on the beach. The clouds lolled like broken necks against the bloated water, where suddenly it seemed that people were emerging--long phalanxes in cobalt-colored uniforms, sprouting out of the water and gathering in endless convolutions on the shore. The more she tried to tell herself that it was just fog--just a thick mist forming as a result of the sudden change in temperature--the more the dread convinced her that it had heads, arms, and feet. The ever- present knot in her chest tightened so painfully that it took her breath away, and soon she wasn’t looking out the window at all but up at the ceiling, and her leg was pinned awkwardly underneath her limp body.
Mom gently pulled her leg straight again. Stay still, sweetheart. She placed one hand on Phoebe’s belly where the dread usually sat, and one on her breastbone. In through the nose, out through the mouth. Mom’s hand rose slowly as Phoebe took a breath from her abdomen, and exhaled again as Mom applied gentle pressure, nudging the dread down deep and away. As the tightness loosened, Phoebe held her Mom’s hand on her chest for a minute, blinking at the eggshell mundanity of the ceiling.
It was a panic attack. Gee, I didn’t think you still had those.
What am I going to do?
You’re all right, dear. Just rest easy. We’ll have a cocktail.
No. What am I going to do without you?
Mom stroked Phoebe’s bangs. I love your hair. It’s just adorable…
At the apartment, the beer was still fermenting, the airlock’s bubbling as active as ever in its ninth week. Phil had sterilized the equipment and the bottles, expecting Phoebe’s blessing in going ahead with bottling. They would first skim off the trub: the vile, algae-like detritus of hops floating on top, and then pour in a little sugar solution to prime the beer for bottling. Then Phil would leave the siphoning to Phoebe, who had a knack for coaxing the fluid along from bucket to bottle with a racking cane. Phoebe hesitated, not only because it seemed presumptuous, even rude, to disrupt the yeast’s natural process, but because she thought it might be their last brew. But Phil told her that while she was gone, a package had arrived with no visible return address, containing a complete brewing kit with the same silver packaging and mysterious red writing.
There was no note, no packing slip, no invoice. It was sitting dust- smudged in the stairwell one day when Phil came home from work. The students who lived upstairs had neither seen it arrive, nor had they let anyone in the outside door to deliver it. None of their friends or relatives claimed to have sent it. Phil tried to post a picture of it, but it wouldn’t upload.
It’s probably poison. Maybe anthrax, Phil said.
Probably. Or not. It could be good beer. What do we have to lose? Please don’t steal anymore.
So they skimmed, primed, bottled and capped the auburn-colored liquid that smelled sweetly of grapefruit and Malt-O-Meal. Then they went to bed, dreaming of hop vines and cornflower and other things that live on light.
There are only a few micro-brewed ales in the Midwest that can be called the most fragrant, the best finishing, the smoothest, the most flavorful, with the most gorgeous color. There is Sand Creek’s Wild Ride IPA, a cinnamon-colored beauty that comes in like a freight train and goes out like a Caddy. There is Milwaukee Brewing Company’s Louie’s Demise, dark and rich as fudge, but with enough hoppy finish that it’s more flowers than candy. There is Lakefront Brewery’s Fixed Gear: bawdy, sprightly, immodest, arresting. And in spring and summer, from Michigan’s Bell’s Brewery, there is mighty Oberon, a wheat ale made with the brewery’s own signature yeast that smells of citrus rind. So comfortable on the tongue. Oh bright and elegant Oberon. Oh sparkling wondrous Oberon. The color of sunshine. So awake while I am gone, for I must now to Oberon.
But…brown like a moth’s wing and as twice as soft, smooth but brazen on the throat, and tasting like a grapefruit dipped in vanilla… Ruth’s Red Ale beat them all. That weekend they made burritos and drank the new ale at the kitchen table in their underwear, sweaty with joy, their bare thighs sticking to the chairs. The cats seemed bent on jumping upon the table and knocking over their bottles--a behavior they had never exhibited before. When a half-full bottle was dumped over on the table top, Phil ran to the kitchen to retrieve paper towels. But Phoebe leaned forward, tipping her chair and lapping it up as ravenously as a starving orphaned pup.