~This piece previously appeared in The Duck & Herring Co.’s Pocket Field Guide for Winter 2005-2006 (2005).
My Father Teaches Me To Drink Straight Shots
of Jim Beam when I was maybe fifteen. Or anyway old enough to admire the lesson. Since for years it seems I’d been watching as he’d uncap a bottle he’d pull from the under sink cupboard where he always kept a fifth or quart of JB just for this morning purpose. Down among a tangled undersea of arranged and strewn things: faded pink and yellow dried sponges, a white plastic Clorox bottle, a half-full orange and black Spic & Span, yellow-lettered Tide, green bottled up Mr. Clean, blue but partially rusted S.O.S. pads needing rescue themselves and other coral-bright near-empty or near-full containers of lost or forgotten cleaning supplies. So dad would stand with the cupboard door still open there on the brick pattern red linoleum in his boxer-shorts and white t-shirt wearing those stupid brown slippers everyone always buys their dad for some birthday or other or perhaps Christmas, or probably both, with money your mother really gives you. He’d stand there leaning one forearm against the stainless-steel sink and turn on the cold water tap letting it run slowly while he uncapped the JB and then took a shot glass down from the little open shelf above the sink where the water is by now running cold and fresh as he pours three fingers of tea-colored booze into the shot glass. The trick then, he says, is to hold your breath while you toss back the shot. That’s when you immediately fill your empty shot glass from the running tap and toss back the water as a quick chaser, all before you breathe again. And he set the shot glass down on the pearl formica counter top all in the smooth motion of pouring from the bottle again.
THE STORY BEHIND THE POEM
I grew up with an alcoholic father. The poem’s “lesson” is largely autobiographical but remembered many years later. While at an academic conference in Thessaloniki, Greece, I was prodded by friends while out dining into trying a shot of anise-flavored ouzo as a nod to Greek culture. Essentially a teetotaler (an occasional glass of wine) I nevertheless caved to the good-natured prodding as someone slid a shot glass of ouzo my way. Tossing back the straight shot--without recalling my father’s technique--I gasped as my shot glass was refilled. For the second round, I remembered my years-ago lesson and reached for the water glass while holding my breath to howls of table laughter. The poem came still later as a mixed memory of my father’s lesson and my ouzo experience. The poem’s catalog of undersink items is probably somewhat autobiographical too--but then such items could be from anyone’s undersink. Here, juxtaposed to the stashed fifth of JB, the images play out a verisimilitude of the ordinary that, for me, is a part of the poem’s sadness.
ABOUT ED HIGGINS
My poems and short fiction have appeared in various print and online journals including: Monkeybicycle, Pindeldyboz, Pen Pusher, CrossConnect, Word Riot, The Centrifugal Eye, Mannequin Envy, and Blue Print Review, among others. My wife and I live on a small farm in Yamhill, OR, where we remain unrepentant holdovers from the early 70s “back-to-the-land” organic gardening and farming movement. We raise a menagerie of animals including two whippets, two manx barn cats (who don’t care for the whippets), an emu named To & Fro, and a pair of alpacas named Machu & Picchu. I teach creative writing and literature at George Fox University, a Quaker-founded institution, south of Portland, OR.