(To any new readers: my beer “reviews” often aren’t reviews at all. Most of the time I just feature the beer in some story or other context. Maybe I’ll call them “Beertures” from now on.)
Magic Hat #9 was growing up fast. He was starting to fill out his can, his orange color was developing nicely, and his hop flavor was starting to mature. He thought himself a man, even though he was still in high school, and was far from being an adult bottle.
He was confident and bold. His flavors were different than those of his friends, which made him special and popular. All of the girl beers wanted to be with him; all of the guy beers wanted to be him.
This popularity came at a price. He grew arrogant and selfish. Some less savory beers took a liking to 9, and started inviting him to questionable parties. 9’s father, having experienced a hard childhood on the streets of South Burlington, Vermont, knew that this would only lead to trouble. One night, after pale ale school, dad 9 sat down with son 9 to have a father-son style lay-it-all-out-there talk.
Dad 9: “I know you’re enjoying your freedom being a high school student and learning about the world, but I’m worried about you…”
Son 9: “You don’t have to worry about me. I’m 18 years old, dad. I think I can handle myself.”
Dad 9: “That’s exactly what I’m worried about. I heard that you were hanging out with those Natty Boh Boys. They’re bad news. I know from experience.”
Dad 9 rolled back his label. Underneath was a large scar, roughly the size and shape of a bottle opener.
Son 9: “I’m not you! Those guys are my friends. When I’m with them, I’m finally cool. You’d never understand that.”
Dad 9: “I pay a lot of money to send you to pale ale school so that you can get a real brewing experience. Learn from the other ales there, spend time with a smarter, higher caliber kind of beer.”
Son 9 rolled his eyes, dismissing his father’s warning as casually as one might crack open a beer on a hot day.
Dad 9: “I know I can’t forbid you from seeing them, but I’m warning you; hanging with that Baltimore crowd will only bring you trouble. You’re from a long line of strong, tasty ales. Don’t throw that away just to be ‘cool’.”
Son 9 stormed out, leaving his father in the fading twilight of the summer evening. Dad 9 could do little else but watch his son descend into the emotional mires of maturity, halfway between a man and a boy, but lacking the wisdom or innocence of either.
9 was soon skipping school three or four times a week. He’d made fast friends with the leader of the Natty Boh Boys; a witty and mean brew who fancied himself a pilsner, because he had a long lost elder cousin who came from Munich.
He lured 9 in with promises of glory. With chances to break the rules, and live life at the figurative edge of societal acceptance. 9 wasn’t sure why he craved the danger and exhilaration of a life outside of the confines of law, but the more he spent time with the Natty Boh’s the bolder and colder he grew.
They were ready to accept 9 into their gang officially, but he needed to prove his worth. The Natty Boh’s wouldn’t just take any one, especially not some snotty ale from the suburbs. They needed to test his loyalty, and his conviction.
When they picked him up for his last day as an unaffiliated beer, they handed him a gun and a head scarf, as if he was magically supposed to know what to do with them.
In the psuedo-charismatic way that only a gang leader can, the lead Natty Boh explained that The Beasts (a rival gang that called Wisconsin its home) had recently moved into the area and were putting the squeeze on the Boh Boy’s black market malt trade. It was 9’s job to confront The Beasts about it and get them to give up their stash of malts and hop.
By any means necessary.
9’s throat tightened as they got out of the car and moved towards the blue cans wearing red scarves. His experience so far had been indirect and safe; smoking cigarettes, petty shoplifting, and minor bar brawls. This was the first time he’d actually felt legitimate fear. The cold steel of the gun beneath his label only made it worse.
The cans looked tough, but they were no older than he was. He could see tainted childhoods reflecting in their eyes; the pain of missing fathers and drug addicted siblings. The pain that forces a child to walk a path of death and uncertainly, as life has given him no other options.
9 and two fellow Boh Boys moved cautiously towards their rivals, constantly checking for weapons or backup, hiding just behind a nearby wall.
As they got close enough to see the details of The Beast’s faces, the adolescent stubble, the careworn brows, 9 started to feel his fear manifest. It boiled to the surface of his throat like an angry pot of soup left too long on the stove. If it wouldn’t have completely ruined his reputation, he would have run behind some trashcans and puked until he fell asleep.
With all the confidence he could muster, 9 yelled out to The Beasts:
9: “You’re in our spot!”
The lead Beast stepped forward from the center of his crowd. His eyes were piercing and he wore a cruel smile.
Beast: “Who said this was your spot? We been here all day.”
9: “This area belongs to the Boh Boys. We know you’ve been trying to sell your shitty malt here. Find somewhere else before we make you.”
Beast: “You sound pretty smart for some ‘Balmer Boh. What you say we teach this misfit how we do it in Milwaukee?”
Several of The Beasts moved behind their leader, producing bats and knives from seemingly nowhere. The tension mounted like a cowboy prepping for his first rodeo. Knuckles turned to white as they gripped dirty pipes and splintered two by fours.
That’s when 9 saw the gun.
The three or four seconds that passed as he aimed and pulled the trigger felt like birth of a universe. His finger on the trigger was the hand of god, the bullets burning out of the barrel the proverbial big bang. The muzzle flash exploded into a thousand dying suns, and the kick back of the pistol in his hand felt like Chicxulub reenacted.
One shot was all it took.
Before the echo of the gunshot stopped ringing through the alley, everyone but 9 and his victim was gone.
He dropped the pistol and leaned down to check his foe’s breathing. It was too late. The bullet had been well placed; the Beast’s life-beer was all but spent, spilled onto and soaking into the dirty concrete.
9 began to cry tears of hops and malted barley. His desire for acceptance and belonging had brought him to this point. He’d taken another beer’s life in a split second, without thinking, without knowing. One tiny choice. A whole lifetime of regret.
He wiped the handle of the pistol, like he’d seen in so many police dramas. He knelt next to the mangled can and said a prayer to the Old Trappist gods, and sent an apology to the beer and his mother into the humid night air.
Then he ran. As his aluminium legs beat the sidewalk, he thought of his father. All he’d ever wanted was for 9 to live up to his potential. Now he was a fugitive, his future all but forfeit. He’d learned his lessons the hardest way possible.
Guilty by association. Never hang out with bad beers.
As sirens shattered the stillness of the Maryland evening, two lives ended. One in the dirty innards of some bar back alley, the other with a rough tackle from a police officer and a set of shining handcuffs.