I've tried very hard in the past few years to bring back my Christmas spirit, which has had a faltering life at best, post-retail employment. But last Saturday I think I finally got things back in perspective. It's all about tradition.
You see, down the street from us there's a little mom and pop grocery store that has stood in the same "Y" in the road since my parents were little kids. My mom has told me stories of how her and her brothers and sisters would walk down to the store on Sunday afternoons and buy penny candy as a treat. And I've been in a few times, on and off, just to pick up little necessities that I don't want to drive all the way to town for.
It's a nice little place, the sort of store that it seems you can only find in little, forgotten towns. It's got a great big front porch, and some rickety old rocking chairs, and a big Coca-Cola tin-backed thermometer that's probably been hanging in that same place on the wall since Eisenhower was in office. And there's that distinct thing that separates country stores from fakes--that smell of animal feed that seems to lurk just under the porch. A soft smell, of cracked corn for chickens and a sort of mealy smell from burlap bags of oats. They're all stacked in the back of the store, but for some reason it drifts up from that porch, too, as though years of trucks being unloaded there have marked the wooden planks. It's a pleasant smell; it reminds me of my childhood, feeding our two old cows.
The screen door always bangs shut if you don't ease it closed with your hand, but that's okay. Inside it's always sort of half-dark, as though the owners are afraid of too much sunlight turning it all to dust. The shelves are all wooden, as are the floors, polished by decades of wear and care to that sort of beautiful satin darkness that only very old, very used wood can attain. And there's always a faint smell of cheap cigars, too, as the owner likes to chew on Dutch Masters panatellas. He doesn't smoke them anymore, and I have to wonder if he ever did. All he seems to do is smile amiably with one clamped in his teeth, and sort of chew them down to nothing, but that faint, leathery tobacco mixed with 'old man' smell is always wafting around. His wife is a pleasant little lady, a heavy-set little dark-skinned creole woman with bad teeth and a huge smile.
They've always got a lot of strange things in the shop, too. Don't get me wrong, it's still a general store, so they've got glass-doored coolers full of beer and Pepsi and Coke and gallons of milk, but they've also got things like Fresca, and Moxie, and Royal Crown Cola. They've got boxes of cheap cigars behind the counter, and yesterday's newspaper is always lying around somewhere. They keep tins of Brasso on the shelf, and scouring pads, and you can even buy fishing lures and cane poles, cricket traps and minnow pails. They carry a small assortment of most everything you'd want to buy if you were in a rush and didn't want to go far. Fingernail clippers. Rolling papers for cigarettes. Those black, unbreakable plastic combs.
I was in sort of a mood Saturday, and was just driving around to clear my head, and thought I'd stop in for a Coke. There's always someone else in there, usually old people, and they always seem to be in no hurry, ready to talk to anyone. The place just has that sort of air, like it's going to go on standing forever, and had stood there forever before. I could almost see my mom and my aunts and uncles, all of them up into their 70s now, as the little kids they used to be, running to the candy counter with their pennies clutched in sweaty hands, and I wondered if my daughter, now eleven, would remember our few trips into that old rambling place.
I got a Coke from the glass freezer (in the 10oz green glass bottles no less, with a nickel deposit,) and was sort of wandering around in the back wondering if I needed a quart of oil for my truck or if I should just go home and hope I had a quart in the shop. I decided to push my luck and left the oil there, but as I turned away to head up front I noticed a little stack of cases on the bottom of one shelf.
I squatted down on my heels, and saw little cardboard four-packs of Wassail. "The real Wassail," the label said, "Hand-made." It didn't particularly surprise me, as it's very common to see things like honey, wine, fruit and vegetable preserves, all sorts of homemade products from local farmers and the small home-producers. My curiousity got piqued because, it being Christmas and all it struck me as one of those things that you just have to do. I was sure it was some sort of ale or light wine, no doubt made out of muskydines or blackberries or some other local berry or fruit, and some restless spirit in me nudged me just hard enough that I had to try it.
So, humming the Wassailing carol I brought the little cardboard container and it's four small bottles up to the counter with my Coke. The little French lady behind the counter smiled, and said something very fast in that coonass french that I can never follow completely, so I just smiled and said "That'll do it for me." She rang me up, I plunked down my cash, gave her another big smile when she called me "cher", which in coonass french is pronounced "shaah," with the stress on the a's and is a catchall for "friend," and went out to the porch.
I knew I was going to have a hard time carrying five bottles of anything tucked into my jacket on the bike, no matter how short the trip, and since nobody was home I decided to drink some of this homemade Wassail and maybe lessen what I had to tuck into my jacket. I was in no rush. And, I decided, if it was nasty I could always just toss it in the big trash barrel there and be done with it, my curiousity satisfied.
So, I popped the little metal cap off, thought about those long-ago and far-away medieval wassailers who would go from house to house with their big wooden mugs and fur coats and sing Christmas carols for drinks to keep the winter's cold from killing them stone dead, and I took a big swig.
It wasn't what I had expected, that's for sure. It tasted a little of a sweet liquour and a little of paint remover, and it for certain had a sizeable dash of cat's urine in it's recipe somewhere. I choked down that mouthful with some regret, and a horrible thought hit me--how long had those bottles sat there? It was definitely skunky, no doubt about it. I mean, some of those items, like the brass polish and the combs weren't exactly fast sellers, and the cans of Spam were always a little suspect, but no, I hadn't thought about that before I ponied up $7 plus tax for four little bottles of homemade hooch. I looked on the box--nothing. I looked at the bottle, and on the bottom, there it was, the "Best If Used By" date.
It had expired in March. March 1670.
My fault for not looking closer.