A few years back, I'd been seeing someone for a while. We weren't getting along. I needed to leave Chicago, even if it meant going with her. We packed the car and after the afternoon rush hour passed, started to drive out of the city to the South. Can two passive-aggressives volleying funks be described as fighting? We were disagreeing. I wanted to keep on the fast and bright and narrow, the rocketing impatience of the interstate, but she wanted to take side roads, see small-town decorations twinkling in the quiet sleepy dark, gangs of tiny Jesuses swaddling on corners near and far. The first mundane town off the highway was as charming as a movie set: bright and unmemorable and unpopulated. Ice crystaled the branches, bushes sank from weight. Every sound in the crisp night bit and crackled like we were listening with dogs' ears.
She insisted on driving. I was still going too fast. We drove out of the town and down a ridge. Black and ice shone in the basin below. Snow crunched under the tires. The car started to slide.
"Turn into the slide," I griped. She tried, but the Toyota hatchback shimmied and then sank into the six or seven inches of slush under the ice that surfaced the pavement. She stopped. We glared. I saw the thin lit line of freeway in the near distance, traffic silent, zooming past, not sluicing and slaloming like us. We exchanged glares again. She gunned it. We sank deeper.
There's very little drinking on either side of my family. She and I had stocked red wine in the back to make it through the three, four days I'd be home. I got a flash of when I was small, of how at holidays we'd all gather at the house of my Daddy Frank, who was my father's father, and my father's seven brothers and their wives and the cousins and second cousins. This was the couple of years before my Granny Jewell died too young. Daddy Frank and Granny Jewell would make boiled custard.
Boiled custard makes eggnog seem like mineral water. Eggs and milk in profusion, this thick, silken emulsion of liquescent super-butterfat ice cream rushing down your throat. A slightly burnt taste to start. For an almost-dry family in a dry county, I also remember an awful lot of half-pint flasks of Old Crow fetching up from hip pockets. A few hours into the afternoon, even the kids came up smelling like rye. Then Uncle Laddie would take out his upper plate and wag his tongue at us, already an old man at 25.
We leave Illinois. Across the border, hello and hugs to my mother, my father, my brother, his girlfriend. I parked my companion, who I dearly did not love at that moment, next to my mother and the photo albums and scrapbooks, which had not yet been fully annotated, footnoted and contextualized on the last visit. She shot me that... look.
Kentucky is not as cold as it once was. The sky was gorgeous that night, that moment, the air bracing. I got only a chill without a shiver, wearing just a sweatshirt. I foraged in the luggage in the trunk for the corkscrew. I walked to the back of the property. I drank from the bottle. The sky was blacker, the stars brighter. A dog bayed. Another answered. I drank. I sat under the apple tree I planted when I was 7 and cried.