Onto and into the second chapter of “December, 1919″, a serialized novel written by Oliver Gray. New chapters will be published every Wednesday. Links to all published chapters can be found here.
I’ve always likened the brewery to a newsroom; a teaming hive of lives all running about on singular errands, but working towards the same ultimate goal. But where the newsroom housed literal lives, men in ties making phone calls and attacking paper with pen, the brewery overflowed with the sensation of life, pungent yeasts procreating, malt melting into sugary wort, nature allowing us to ever so briefly throw a bridle over its power. I’d spent most of my youth in that warehouse off of Market street, not so much helping as observing. My dad tried to instill a sense of work ethic in me, but there’s only so much seriousness a ten-year-old can stomach. Darting between copper kettles, across grated floors, over the new woven linen hoses, I watched men – no – titans, impossibly large and ribboned with muscle, heave bags of malt. They towered over me, sweaty, menacing, rough-hewn and dangerous, until they flashed me a smile. Sometimes, father would scoop a tiny bit of cracked malt into my hands as an odd, but welcome treat.
Nothing had physically changed, and the kettles still steamed their work into the cold morning. My father’s ghost hadn’t found its way back here yet, apparently, and his normal spot, next to the brew log, looked shadowed and sad. The boil bubbled subdued and doleful; even the birds who normally chirped and wrestled over strewn grain sang some subtle sorrow. The brewery itself, the building and all the equipment my dad has poured his life into, was in mourning.
Will spotted me first. “My boy, oh my dear boy. I’m so glad you came. You didn’t have to, you know. We can all take care of this place until you’re ready.” he said, clearly trying to be gentle.
“No, it’s fine,” I said, “I needed to get away.”
William turned and ushered me onto the brewery floor. He waddled, his knees unsure, and occasionally reached down to pull up the belt that was desperately trying to slip off of his huge belly. What he lacked in physical coordination, he made up for with wit and business savvy. “We’ve still got several orders to fill. Dobbin’s on 9th needs another barrel, but we’ll be late on our orders for Petsworth” he said, trailing off as he looked upward at the rays bouncing through the skylights.
A voiced boomed from the catwalk near the grain hopper, “Not that any of that will matter in a few weeks!” To those who didn’t know him, George looked frightening. A burst pipe and a fist of steam had badly burned the side of his face five years ago, and left his right eye milky and dead. He towered too, over six feet, built like some mythological hero. Father joked that George was descended from Hercules. “So, Jack, I guess you’re it now?” he said, venom sneaking into every word.
“Oh nevermind him,” said William, slightly under his breath, “before the war, he’d thought your father would leave him in charge, is all. I’m sure you’ll work together to get this mess sorted.” This mess. Now it was my mess. Twenty-three states had twisted closed the hydrants of free-flowing booze before the US had trenched into Europe, and now, even the capital had pulled the plug on any form of distillation. In part thanks to a dozen or so politically smart and stubborn brewers in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania had stayed sane, and our brewery had survived the initial drought. But that “nonsense about the 18th” (as my father called it), stood signed, ratified, a hydra snarling its prohibitionist and protestant heads at our entire operation. It was only a matter of time before the gavel cracked, and the statist fingers of the law, supported by the Anti-Saloon League and the Temperance Union, crept in to ruin the business.
My mess. The only conversation I’d had with father about the coming tide amounted to, “don’t worry about it,” which was proving decidedly unhelpful now. I’d overheard him talking about using the brewery to make “near beer,” exploiting a loophole to skirt under the listed alcohol limits but still make beer and turn some, if much lesser, profit. There wouldn’t be much else to do with a brewery in a world where alcohol was illegal, aside from dismantling the copper and selling the space to some cannery or fishmonger.
“It’s not just that.” George had come down from the catwalk and now stood in front of us, massive arms locked across his chest. “He’s too young.”
I didn’t argue. This past October had been my seventeenth. While standing in for father during the war had tempered my boyish immaturity, I was terrified at the prospect of being in charge. I was my father’s son, especially temperamentally, but I had a fair share of my meek mother rattling around in my genes, too.
“I know, George. I need your help,” I said, stifling tears. The last thing I needed was to cry in front of him. He slapped a huge hand on the back of my head and pulled me forward until our foreheads were touching.
“Your father was a brother to me. I can’t change his decision now, but I can and will tell you what’s best for this brewery.” he said. I could see the pain in his one good eye. As tough as he was, the loss had lodge a knife into his heart. William batted at George. He let go of my head before nearly crushing me in a hug.
“We do need some sort of plan.” William said, “none of us quite know what Andrew was going to do.”
“We keep brewing.” The newest voice lilted in sharp opposition to William’s shrillness. Brow covered in malt dust, plaid sleeves rolled up, walnut hair tucked up and back, Virginia appeared from behind the kettle like a Venus just emerged from the fermentation tank. “We do what we do,” she said, a playful madness flashing across her green eyes.
“We brew. We mash and boil and ferment until they come in here with guns and force us to stop.”
To be continued…