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.