INTRODUCTION BY HALIMAH MARCUS
In the early spring, amid so much fear and uncertainty, there was some speculation about what the literature of the pandemic would look like. Zadie Smith wrote an entire essay collection in what seems like a matter of weeks, while Sloane Crosley cautioned against Covid as fiction fodder in the Times. In Lit Hub, Emily Temple posited that, in future novels, the pandemic would be backdrop rather than subject, like WWI in A Farewell to Arms or climate change in the Broken Earth trilogy.
Oh, how naive we were then. The speculation and soap-box admonishments on Twitter couldn’t have predicted how used to the pandemic we would get. Which isn’t to say people aren’t still getting sick and dying, aren’t still losing their jobs, aren’t missing their loved ones, aren’t depressed and alone. It’s just that, for so many of us, our expectations for our day-to-day lives have been lowered. The pendulum of possible emotions, which in March and April swung wildly, now wobbles lamely at the center.
Nine months in, we can now present fiction about the early days of 2020, with the benefit of hindsight, even humor. Enter “Wild Ale” by SJ Sindu, a wicked story about a married couple, Cam and Adria, who live in an apartment outside Chicago. While the “reopen America” debate rages outside, Cam tests Adria’s patience with her increasingly inconvenient and expensive home-brewing hobby, which enables her increasingly problematic drinking.
I won’t say that “Wild Ale” will make you nostalgic for the early days of lockdown—that’s not possible—but Sindu’s keen powers of observation will crystallize important aspects of those months. The tension in our homes and in our public spaces. The way the virus brought out the best in some and the worst in many others. How it made even well-meaning people turn hypocritical, and participate in self-justifying, circular logic. How, for many relationships, it took whatever conflict was brewing and brought it to a frothy, hoppy head.
– Halimah Marcus
Editor-in-chief, Recommended Reading
A Quarantine Hobby to Stress Out Your Marriage
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by SJ Sindu
My wife Adria and I are supposed to be in Europe, driving a tiny rental car from Amsterdam to the south of France, then ferrying to the Greek Islands. Instead, we’re self-isolating inside our third-story walk-up, a month into lockdown in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Adria tries to tell me it’s better this way, but then again she believes that crystals can bring luck or doom depending on the moon cycles.
“Something terrible could’ve happened on our trip,” she tells me. “One of us could’ve broken a bone. We could’ve been arrested. We were probably saved.”
“Sure,” I say, “our stuffy apartment is so much better than Mykonos.”
Last month we had friends over to taste some beer I’d brewed. We smoked weed and played poker and when the guests went home, Adria and I bickered like usual before going to bed wrapped up in our drunken anger. If I’d known the country would go into quarantine shortly after, I would’ve tried to have a better time. Instead, I fumed at the way our university colleague, a douchebag tenured professor named Dennis who studies modernist literature, hit on Adria every chance he got. After the party, I accused Adria of inviting his flirting, and she called me a jealous tyrant.
It’s a cold bright weekend morning and Adria’s drinking her coffee and reading her monthly horoscope—Gemini, Sagittarius rising, Virgo moon—and I’m researching the Wild Ale Challenge, a Midwest homebrew competition that I’ve decided to enter. We sit facing each other on our green velvet chesterfield, our legs intertwined, next to the large picture window in our living room. Adria’s pillowy hair catches the sun, bending light over each dark coil. She reads my horoscope—Sagittarius, Virgo rising, Aquarius moon—and tells me I need to watch out for bodies of water, maybe I shouldn’t take a bath tonight.
The April sun shines brilliant but somehow, there are tiny hailstones going tink tink tink on our windowsill. On the street below, no pedestrians, few parked cars, one biker wearing a blue medical face mask. A large pickup truck drives by with the Chicago Bears logo painted on its back window. In the truck’s bed lie protest signs saying “Stop the Tyrany!” and “Open Illinois!”
“What selfishness,” Adria says.
“They spelled ‘tyranny’ wrong.”
We both turn back to our phones. I surf past a bunch of social media posts with the hashtag #wildalechallenge. Three weeks ago, I brewed an almond coffee stout. Base of two row and Munich malt, with 45 crystal, 150 crystal, roast barley, chocolate malt, and de-bittered black malt. Magnum and crystal hops at 60, 30, and flameout. WYeast 1056. Fresh brewed coffee, almond extract, and roasted blanched almonds in secondary. It’ll be two weeks until I can drink it, but by all estimations, it should be good.
My next beer will be a wild ale. In the Wild Ale Challenge, you’re supposed to make beer from foraged ingredients. The only thing you’re allowed to buy is your grain bill. No hops. No yeast. No nutrients. No flavorings.
Down below on the street, the truck honks and someone shouts something, the words garbled by our window.
“Chili pepper IPA’s ready to drink today,” I say.
Adria makes a face of disgust.
“IPAs are an important part of beer history,” I tell her. “Did you know they were invented by the British during colonial times to survive the trip to India? The hops served as an anti-bacterial agent.”
Adria acts like she hasn’t heard me. On our first date during grad school, this is the kind of trivia I awkwardly tossed across the table as I clutched my milkshake porter in a smoky Florida dive bar. Adria’s curious eyes lit up in the dim grittiness.
The noise on the street gets louder. When we look, the truck has stopped and a blonde woman is shouting down the owner of the bodega across the street.
“I want my morning croissant!” she yells.
“Online orders only.” The bodega owner is calm but resolute, his arms crossed, his mask on, blocking her from going through his front door.
“This is tyranny!”
Adria sighs and rubs at her temples. “I don’t know how much more I can take of this.”
“I miss those croissants,” I say.
Adria gives me a look like I’m a cockroach sitting on her favorite cake.
I scroll through more #wildalechallenge posts. In a few weeks, I’ll ship out four bottles of my finished beer and get feedback from the judges and, maybe, win a medal. I’ve spent weeks tweaking my recipe, trying to nail every single weight measurement down to the hundredth decimal point.
I close my laptop. “I’m going to try the chili pepper IPA.”
“It’s ten in the morning, Cam.” Adria takes another sip of coffee. Her mug says “Hers,” part of a “Hers” and “Hers” matching set we got for our wedding. The woman on the street gets in her truck and drives away.
“It’s five o’clock in France,” I say.
I pour a 16-ounce bottle for myself. A bit too much caramel flavor, but the pepper extract shines through nicely. It reminds me of our bicycle brewery tour in Denver during our honeymoon road trip across the U.S. We got caught in the rain and danced in the street with strangers, and every brewery had a chili pepper beer on tap. I make a note in my logbook not to add crystal 60 malt next time.
By lunch, I’ve had three chili pepper IPAs and Adria’s in a state. She hasn’t moved from her position on our chesterfield for over an hour. She rests her chin on her hand and stares out the picture window onto the empty street below. The wind whips up the accumulated hail into white snakes on the asphalt.
I sit next to her and shake her gently.
She turns her face to me like I’ve roused her from a deep sleep. “I wonder how many couples will get divorced during the pandemic,” she says.
I imagine the millions of couples around the world, all cooped up with each other and no escape. “Why would you say that?”
“You’re drunk,” she says, cringing from my breath.
The bones of her shoulders jut out more sharply than they did a month ago. She’s been forgetting to eat, lost in a time fog.
I’m glad the world is losing shape around me. “It’s time for lunch. You need to eat,” I tell her.
“What’s the point?”
I go to the kitchen to heat up leftover pasta and press the bowl into her hands.
She stares at three pieces of rigatoni speared on her fork. “Your brewing station’s taking over the kitchen. It’s getting so claustrophobic in here.” She stares some more at her pasta until I feed her, and even then, she only chews a couple of bites before shaking her head.
“It’s just because you’ve been cooped up. We don’t have to quarantine so strictly,” I say. “We could invite over Dennis and Rhonda for some beers.”
“What the fuck is wrong with you?” Adria rubs her eyes with the heels of her palms. “And you hate Dennis.”
“I don’t hate Dennis.” Despite what she says, I know that Adria’s attracted to him. I can feel it like static in the air when they’re around me. But at this point, I’m willing to put up with even that for some damn company.
“He’s a sweet guy,” she says, and I grind my teeth. “You just want him over so you can show off your manly brewing skills and display me like a trophy and feel masculine.”
“That’s not true.” I want her to keep talking so that I can dissect her voice for any clues as to how she really feels about Dennis. Despite her assurances that she’s done dating men, doubt clogs my throat. “You think he’s sweet?”
“Stop, just stop. I can’t do this.”
“What do you mean by this?” The beer makes me reckless. Already I’m itching for another.
Adria covers her face with her hands and sobs. I think about comforting her, but my body vibrates with anger. She was the one who brought up divorces.
“You’re such an asshole,” she says.
I finish the pasta and have another beer. She goes back to staring at the empty street.
The fourth IPA calms me. I go to my favorite homebrewing site—still shipping through the pandemic—and add $3000 worth of equipment to my cart: the fully electric Bluetooth-enabled Grainfather brewing system, which can handle up to six gallons of brew, and which I can control from my phone with multi-step mashes and custom brew times; the SS Brewtech seven-gallon stainless steel conical fermenter with yeast dump valve; and a glycol temperature controller that can heat and cool up to four fermenters at a time. Three thousand dollars is more than I make per class I teach for the university. I close out of the tab without checking out and drink another beer.
Lightheaded and guilty about our fight, I wobble to Adria’s crystal box and pick out two pieces of orange carnelian, which she’s told me inspires and motivates. I place these crystals next to her on the couch.
I check on my mason jars. I’m trying to cultivate wild yeast for my entry in the challenge. Two weeks ago, I filled mason jars with boiled water and dry malt extract and set them outside on our balcony to collect yeast. One smells like plastic. One is growing what looks like a mushroom. I throw those out.
Adria thinks my homebrewing obsession is a manifestation of my inner frat boy. When we first met, she was into my butchness, but now she says I remind her too much of the “douchebag cis men” she used to date. She won’t listen when I try to explain. I love brewing because at its core, it’s simple: water, grain, yeast. With the world in chaos, I find calm in the pristine science of gravity readings, equipment sanitation, and hops schedules. When I brew, I can control everything. Or, nearly everything. Right now, with my ragtag DIY mash tun and my repurposed stock pot as a brew kettle, I can’t keep temperatures as steady as I need to. I can’t ferment at a perfect sixty-eight degrees or crash cool my beer before bottling. For that I’d need my dream $3000 system.
I make a great show of changing into my fleece-lined leggings, coat, hat, and gloves, but Adria doesn’t seem to notice.
“I’ll be back,” I say, and put my face mask on.
Outside, I strip my coat off and stuff the hat and gloves in my pockets. I want to feel the cold sink into my skin. I also take off my mask, because wearing it makes me feel like something heavy is sitting on my chest.
Wind rattles the streetlights as I pass. I walk to the park down the street and pick dandelions and yarrow, which showed up after a week of good weather. I need to collect them before they die from the snow storm predicted for tonight. I pluck whole plants, roots, leaves, and all, and stuff them into my pockets. The park is empty except for a young runner and an old Asian couple doing tai chi, all with face masks on. When they see me, the Asian couple moves away, and the runner mutters “mask-up, asshole,” under her breath. I want to tell her that she’s not going to catch the virus in a park, but I still feel bad.
A truck drives by, the same one I saw earlier with the Bears logo on the back window and protest signs in the bed. The middle-aged blonde woman who yelled at the bodega owner rolls down the passenger side window and leans her head out. The truck slows to a stop in the middle of the road.
“Re-open the country!” she shouts to the four of us scattered across the park. She looks directly at me like I’m on her side. “Sacrifice the weak! The virus is a hoax!” Her face turns red from the effort.
The runner slows down to watch us. The tai chi couple turns our way. The woman waits. I wish I hadn’t taken off my mask.
“Stop watching Fox News!” I shout back to her, holding a handful of plucked dandelions.
The driver of the truck is an acne-faced boy wearing all orange. He could be any one of my first-year English students at the university.
“Stay the fuck home!” I say.
The woman yells, “You stay home, dyke!” The truck drives away.
The next day while it snows, I brew my wild ale recipe using the dandelion greens as a hop substitute, yarrow as a way to add flavor and depth, and for aroma, stinging nettle I found growing wild by the river where I walk every day without telling Adria. I use the same grain bill as a rye wheat beer I brewed last summer that Adria loved: rye malt, Durst pilsner, pale, 80 crystal, flaked rice, wheat, and rice hulls in a multi-rest mash. The stock pot I have isn’t big enough, so I have to brew in two different pots. One boils over, the flaked rice making the wort too sticky.
Called by my screaming, Adria runs into the kitchen and finds me sitting on the floor, my head in my hands.
“Wort boiled over,” I say.
Adria puts her fists on her hips. “I thought something bad had happened.”
Anger rushes up inside me. I jump up and dump the whole boiled-over pot into the sink. Immediately I regret it. I’ve gone from five gallons to three gallons.
I lean over the sink and watch the last of the perfectly good wort spiral into the drain. I think about the Grainfather system, and how this would never have happened if I had it.
Twenty minutes and a chipotle stout later, I wash and pluck the dandelion flowers and nettle, sanitize them by dunking them in boiling water, stuff the petals and leaves into three glass carboys, and siphon the rest of the cooled wort on top. I aerate the wort and pitch yeast from the mason jars. I drink another chipotle stout while I brew, but I don’t need the booze anymore—the rest of the brew went well and I don’t feel like I’ve got glue in the veins of my heart.
By the time I’m done cleaning up, I’ve had a few more beers and my walk is wobbly. My anxiety about our fight yesterday, combined with losing half my brew to equipment failure, makes my stomach churn. Now that I’m not brewing anymore, it’s hard to breathe right.
I find Adria in our shared office, her hair and makeup done, a silk button-up shirt over her sweatpants, video conferencing with her students. Since the university went online and our Europe trip was cancelled, Adria’s agreed to teach a new critical theory class over video. Outside of the camera frame, she’s placed carnelian, amethyst, and rose quartz on her desk. Her face has that plastic smile she wears whenever she’s trying to convince someone that she’s happy.
I’ve agreed to teach two creative writing classes for extra pay, but without face-to-face real-time anything. I told my students it’s to respect their other obligations during this time, and even dropped the buzzword “asynchronous pedagogy,” but the truth is that I can’t hold any thoughts in my head except for beer recipes. I can’t imagine lecturing like Adria does. I’m behind on grading, and I haven’t written anything in weeks except for brewing notes in my logbook, though I’m supposed to be finishing my novel.
“When you read the assignments for next week,” Adria says into the camera, “remember that Schinkel is responding not just to Benjamin but also to a large body of social science where researchers have focused on the causes of violence rather than autotelic violence.”
I stand out of the video frame. We’ve been together for six years, but I’ve never gotten to watch her teach the way I have this month. She made me read that essay about autotelic violence. Violence without a direct cause or goal. Violence for the sake of violence. I remember the woman in the park, her absolute conviction and panic. My palms itch. Maybe this pandemic has made us all into assholes. At the very least, it’s made us into cornered animals, hissing and spitting at the faintest shadows.
“Any final questions before we wrap up?” She notices me lurking nearby. “Oh! Look, here’s Cam.” She says it in a fake upbeat way that makes me cringe.
I step closer and wave to Adria’s students, whose cameras are turned off in a gallery of blank gray boxes on her laptop. My usual short hair is getting shaggy around my ears, and I have dark bags under my eyes.
“It’s a wild time we’re living through,” she says to her students, “so please remember to be kind to yourselves. Eat well. Don’t leave the house. I’m here if you need me.”
Adria closes her laptop and takes her earbuds out. She changes out of her nice shirt into her usual stained tank top and worn-down sweater.
I can’t help myself. “Don’t leave the house?” I say. “Isn’t that a bit extreme?”
“Most of my students’ parents won’t self-isolate,” she says. “They keep going to work.”
“Adria, my own mother won’t self-isolate.” My mother and I aren’t on the best of terms, but we still talk every week. “She said she was going to one of those protests.”
Adria stares at me, her mouth open. I can feel the tirade coming. If I don’t distract her, she’ll try to lecture me on how to talk to my own mother.
“I finished my wild ale,” I say. “Want to know what I used?”
Adria cuts me off before I can tell her about the yarrow.
“We need to pay the credit card,” she says. “I just got the statement.”
“Okay.” My heart skips a step.
Adria puts her hands on her hips and I prepare myself.
“Six hundred dollars on brewing supplies?” she says. Her voice is calm and dangerous.
“I needed grain. And you know liquid yeast is better than dry. And shipping is expensive.”
“You’re going to brew us into poverty.”
I reach for her arm but she snatches it away. I can’t take her look of disdain.
“Then leave,” I say. “Leave if that’s what you want to do. Go fuck Dennis or something.”
Adria is struck dumb. She flaps her mouth open and closed. She takes a big, rattling breath and closes her eyes. “You can’t spend six hundred dollars on beer,” she says. “We can’t afford it.”
Just to torture myself, I picture her with Dennis, the douchebag modernism professor. I picture them laughing, Adria sitting on his lap.
“I can spend whatever the fuck I want,” I say. I plop down at my desk, open my laptop, and load the homebrew site where my cart still has $3000 worth of brewing equipment. “I want this stuff, I need this stuff,” I say. Part of me is floating near the window, watching myself unravel. “You spend hundreds on crystals and have I complained? No.” I know I should stop but I can’t. The image I’ve conjured up of Adria and Dennis—now both naked in bed—blurs my vision. I squint at the screen, click “Check Out” and enter our credit card information. Each form element I fill in makes me breathe a little easier.
“What are you doing?” Adria screams.
From the window, I watch myself turn toward her and flip her off. I watch her incredulous face, her body tilted sideways, leaning on one hip.
Then I click “Pay Now” and it’s done. In a few days, I’ll get the brewing system of my dreams.
Every day, the same Chicago Bears truck drives by mid-morning. The blonde woman leans out the passenger side window to yell at whoever is on the street or in the apartments. The weather warms up enough that we have the windows open, so we hear her. Several times, Adria yells back at her, after which the woman shouts about godless heathens and the truck drives away. Adria hasn’t talked to me since the moment I ordered my new brewing system. I keep wondering if she’ll ask me to call them and cancel the order, but she hasn’t. Instead she shuts me out. She’s frozen solid.
I’ve split my wild ale into three one-gallon containers, each with a different yeast. Every day, I sniff the air locks. I unwrap each container from its towel and look for the krausen forming on top of the wort, a sign that fermentation is healthy. But the krausen is slow to form, and when it does, it doesn’t look as foamy as I expect.
“I just can’t stand it,” Adria says after the fifth encounter with the Bears truck woman. Her first words to me in days, and I note that her voice is normal, as if for a moment she’s forgotten. She massages her forehead with the tips of her fingers.
“People do strange things when they feel helpless,” I say, quoting one of Adria’s lectures.
Adria snaps. “Thanks for the psychology lesson, Dr. Losh. Why don’t you go check on your beer?”
I check on the beer. Five days after brewing, a pale film has developed on top of one of the batches. White, coin-sized bubbles form and don’t pop. The air lock smells like vinegar. I move that container away from the other two. I crush a campden tablet and swirl it into the white-filmed beer, hoping to deter the infection.
“I think one of them’s infected,” I tell Adria.
She’s lying on the couch with her laptop, scrolling through endless social media feeds.
“Hmmm,” she says.
It’s better than silence, so I push forward.
“Have you eaten?” I ask.
“Yes or no, have you eaten?”
“It’s my stomach, my body. Stop micro-managing it. I’m not your beer.”
I kneel by the couch and touch her hand. She startles as if I’ve just screamed into her ear. She puts her hand on my cheek.
“I miss you,” I say.
I do. I miss her like I missed salmon for the first six months after we went vegan. My body craves her. It’s not just the silence in the house. Without the routine of our classes, our dinners out, our hikes, our walks by the river—she feels so far away, even when we’re getting along.
“Let’s just take one walk,” I say. I lay my head on her stomach. “We can go down to the river.”
“The horoscope said you should avoid bodies of water.”
I laugh without meaning to, and she pushes my head off of her.
“I’m sorry.” I’m too sober. I need a beer, or I need her touch. “I’m sorry. I want to be close to you. Please.”
Adria considers me for a moment, and I think she’s going to tell me to leave her alone, but instead she hugs me and pulls me onto the couch on top of her. She runs her fingers through my hair.
“Remember when you made AdriAle for my birthday?” she says. “I loved you so much for throwing me that party.”
When we were still in grad school, I brewed a raspberry sour, though I cheated on the fermentation by adding lactic acid in secondary. AdriAle and the party I threw went far towards getting Adria to fall in love with me.
We fuck on the couch. She bites my shoulder so hard she leaves a mark, and afterward we lie there until my fingers dry, crusty and pungent.
A few days later, two more trucks join the Chicago Bears one, and the caravan stops for a while on our block. Six people get out and circle their parked trucks, honking and waving their signs—“We demand haircuts!”; “The lockdown is killing us, not Covid!”; “Don’t ruin my golf season!”
Adria and I stand at our open kitchen window with our “Hers” and “Hers” coffee mugs—hers with actual coffee and mine with whiskey-spiked chamomile tea. All down the street, neighbors stick their heads out of their windows or watch from their balconies.
“I saw a Facebook event yesterday,” Adria says, fiddling with the citrine crystal she’s wearing on a gold chain. We’re talking again, as if things are normal, but she hasn’t brought up the brewing system and I haven’t mentioned it. “They’re building up to a big protest tomorrow,” she says. “Calling themselves the ‘unheard majority.’”
The doorbell rings, startling both of us. Since the quarantine began, we haven’t had anyone ring our doorbell except for the rare package. Adria looks fearful, so I put on my mask and go downstairs to the door. It’s the brewing system, delivered in three gigantic boxes at the bottom of two sets of stairs.
I drag one of the boxes up the stairs, my body rising in temperature with each step.
“What’s that?” Adria asks as I haul it through the door. Her voice says she already knows what it is.
“Do you want to help me with the other boxes?”
Adria says nothing, but she comes down and helps me bring up the other two packages. The boxes take up a third of our living room. Adria stares at them from the kitchen, her hands wrapped securely around her coffee.
“Sixty thousand people are dead in the U.S.,” she says, “and you spend $3000 on a fucking brewing system.”
“Those things have nothing to do with each other.”
Adria slams her “Hers” coffee cup into the sink, where it shatters and spills its last dregs. She holds her head. I’m itching to open the packages, but instead I put my arms around Adria, and we stand there as the blonde woman and her friends down on the street shout, “This is China’s wet dream!”
Even though Adria’s anger radiates throughout the apartment, I’m too excited to care. Instinctually, I have the urge to protect my childlike elation, to wall it away from her fury.
I open the boxes. Adria retires to the office. I run an extension cord from the living room to the closet where I put the fermenter and glycol chiller. The Grainfather, I set up in the kitchen underneath our rolling butcher block island, displacing the onions, potatoes, and various pots onto the countertops.
After it’s set up and sanitized, I transfer the two gallons of good wild ale into the stainless-steel fermenter for a temperature-stable second fermentation. This is when the flavors will really develop. I turn on the glycol chiller and sit there watching it run for a long time, imagining what the ale will taste like. A sweet note because of the dandelion. A bite because of the nettle. All held up by a smooth rye base. If I win this homebrew competition, I can justify spending all this on the Grainfather. If I win, I can quit teaching, take an online brewmaster course, and join a local brewery. Spending my days elbow deep in grains and yeast will keep me at peace, keep the claws of the world from wrapping themselves around my throat.
Adria shakes me at five in the morning. I wake half in my dream where I was putting together a recipe for a black tea porter.
“The apartment smells like feet,” she says.
I rub the sleep out of my eyes. She’s right. The smell is overpowering, everywhere. Saliva gathers at the back of my throat, my stomach contracting like I’m about to puke.
It takes me a few seconds before I know what’s wrong. The beer. The wild ale.
I stumble out of bed and almost crash into the wall but I catch myself. My knee rams hard into the steel bed frame, and my whole body quivers with pain. I clutch it and hobble to the closet where my fermenter is.
As soon as I open the closet door, the smell hits me and I have to pinch my nose closed as I grope for the pull light. In the sudden brightness, I struggle with the lid of the fermenter.
When I finally get it open, the beer inside is full of unmoving white bubbles, each the size of a knuckle. The white film crawls up the side of the fermenter and down into the beer, all over the dandelion petals, nettle leaves, and yarrow. My knee throbs with pain. The smell is so strong I can’t breathe. Something inside me breaks open like a seed, and it’s not until Adria pulls me out of the closet that I realize I’m crying.
I sob into her shoulder, drenching her pajama top with tears and snot and drool. She holds me, though. When I stop crying, Adria says, “We have to get that stuff out of the house. I don’t want to know how many fungal spores are floating around.”
We open all the windows to the frigid night air and take the fermenter out onto the balcony.
“Shouldn’t we throw this out?” Adria asks.
Even though the batch is ruined, even though it’s too late to save, I can’t bear the thought of dumping it.
I hug the fermentation vessel. The infected beer is still warm under my hand.
“I can’t,” I say, and press my face against the steel of the fermenter. Adria rolls her eyes.
Down below, the quiet, dark street sleeps before its big protest day. I imagine the blond woman with her Bears truck, her supporters at her side, all of them lost in the frenzy of their belief, shouting at the world for daring to put the health of others before their own small freedoms. All this while Adria and I burn our freedoms under our crushing sense of collective duty. I hit the side of the fermenter in frustration, and I keep hitting and hitting and hitting until that anger transforms into an idea.
“I want to put this stuff to use,” I say.
Adria crouches by me and tries to pull my hands away from where they’re clutching the fermenter. “What use?” She sounds exhausted.
I tell her my plan, expecting her to object, but apparently, I’ve worn her down. A smile creeps over her face. And just like that, it feels like we’re back to before, when our love sat deep, knowledge under my doubt.
So we work, Adria and I, in the early morning, as dawn breaks pink and raw on the horizon. We’re out on the balcony in our winter coats, house slippers, latex gloves, and masks that shield us somewhat from the nauseating stink of toe jam. We work until the sun warms the backs of our necks and Adria has taken at least five coffee breaks. By the time the trucks arrive for their planned protest, we’re ready.
This time the word’s gotten out. That Facebook event that Adria saw has attracted at least twenty trucks, all parading down our street. They park in the middle of the road without hesitation. A swarm of people exit. The woman in the Chicago Bears truck has a MAGA hat and a blow horn, through which she shouts, “The revolution has begun! Socialism sucks!”
Our neighbors on the street open their windows and come out onto their balconies. The fancy RAM 1500 Limited has double speakers in its bed and starts to blast out Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name Of.”
“What a weird choice of song,” Adria says, drinking coffee out of the other “Hers” cup.
The protesters on the street chant, “We’re here, we’re right! Re-open the country!”
“That doesn’t even rhyme,” one of our neighbors shouts from a nearby balcony.
The woman with the blow horn points it at him. “You libtards have no idea what’s happening to this country.” She catches sight of Adria and me watching, and wags her fingers at us. “God’s brought down this wrath!”
The protesters start to chant, “We want BBQs! We want prom!”
I reach down into my five-gallon plastic fermentation bucket, filled with what Adria and I spent the morning preparing—small muslin hop sacks packed with infected yeast, dandelion petals, and nettle leaves, all soaked in rank wild ale.
I chuck the first hop sack at the truck blasting music out the back. It lands with a satisfying thunk on the windshield, leaking greasy white film all over the glass.
Adria aims one at the blonde woman with the blow horn. It misses her but lands at her feet, splashing her espadrilles and shins. There’s chaos among the protesters as they try to figure out what’s happening.
Above the booming music, someone shouts, “Dr. Losh?”
I freeze with another hop sack in my hand, ready to throw. Only my students call me “Dr. Losh.” I search the crowd, and then I see her. Maggie Carlson. My star student. She and her girlfriend are standing on one of the truck beds, pointing at me.
I lower my arm and toss the hop sack back into the bucket.
She waves at me, and I wave back. She and her girlfriend are holding a sign that says, “We want to graduate.”
The Rage Against the Machine song ends and Toby Keith’s “Made in America” comes on. One of our neighbors starts playing NWA from their apartment, trying to drown out Toby Keith.
“Throw your bombs!” a neighbor shouts to us.
I stand still and try to block the view of the stink-sack-filled bucket from the street. But the neighbors don’t need us to continue the attack. An older lady three doors down throws a couple of tomatoes at the trucks below, splashing a white paintjob in splotches of red. Soon, many neighbors are rushing back into their apartments to find things to throw. Someone chucks their morning oatmeal, which plops onto a woman’s head. She screams, but in the commotion, no one seems to notice. The food lands on protesters, on their trucks and signs.
Adria’s hand fumbles for mine, and when I look at her, turning away from the chaos, her face is alive and wild with something I haven’t seen in her in a long time.
“Autotelic violence,” she says, her lips quivering into a smile.
Protesters clamor for cover, their chants forgotten, their shirts stained with rotten fruit. Many get back into their trucks and roll up their windows. My student Maggie and her girlfriend cower under a nearby awning, both splattered with eggs. Yolk glistens all over Maggie’s mousy brown hair.
Adria leans back and grabs another sack of infected beer. I hesitate, but only for a moment. Buoyed by the happiness in Adria’s face, I take a hop sack, and together we hurl them onto the protesters, where they splatter with stink.
I lose track of Maggie and her girlfriend, but then I spot them, running away from the commotion, pulling each other along.
We continue to throw until the trucks start their engines. The street is covered in smashed food, and I wonder, briefly, who’ll clean it up. The roar of our neighbors overwhelms the din of the trucks driving away. When the Chicago Bears truck rounds the corner of the block, our neighborhood erupts in cheers.
Adria leans on the railing and laughs. She laughs and laughs. Her skin shines with sweat. I peel both our winter coats off and hug her close. I bury my face in her shoulder. We sit on the balcony with our feet dangling off the edge, listening to our neighbors go back inside their homes, the smell of rank wild ale all around us.