The Saragossa Bottling Company began on a rainy Tuesday night in our dank cinderblock basement when my uncle Ringo mixed West Coast hop vodka, juice of dallis grass, greengage extract, lavender tea and a tablespoon of Marmite.
An unusual combination, certainly. But not only was there a sudden new demand among the nouveau riche of modern times, the sultans of back-office mercantilism, for an original and exclusive new liquor, but my uncle had reason to believe that certain compounds would grant the one who drinks a particular expansion of sensory perception. None of us could have realized what gurgled before us, or what lay ahead in subsequent days.
My parents knew nothing. They had washed up from dinner, read the newspaper, done a little crocheting, and gone to bed. They did not feel the tension in the air, had not sensed the premonitory spirits. But my uncle did, and, like my clairvoyant oracle twin, he innately knew that I also read the omens and wondered at their meaning, young though I was.
When my parents’ bedroom light finally turned off and the house fell dark, I slid out of my bed. I levitated down the hallways and staircases having seen the look on my uncle’s face at dinner. His usual cavalier bachelor charm was gone and had been subsumed in a cold-eyed, wooden aspect with little tremors that rattled his head and neck like a chihuahua.
Enoch and Hagar heard me sneak out and they crept behind me twenty paces in the dark gripping their fuzzy blankets. Ringo jolted, looking up to see me descending the wooden staircase into the subterranean vault where his little cot was pushed aside and a decrepit wooden table stood in the center. I don’t know if the strange hunch in his back was due to my ghostly appearance or the dark elixir that bubbled before him, but he viewed me like a cat spying an extroverted pet-shelter escapee.
The only other person in the room was an ancient First Nation man dressed in dusty denim with two long black braids hanging down his chest, a bootlegger that Ringo had partnered with during prohibition. He looked at me through deep folds of skin around his eyes and mouth and a wizened expression of curiosity. The two of them stood at the table with a cooking pot and various jars and bottles. Nobody spoke a word.
Outside the storm grew more fierce and water seeped in around the high oblong windows. Ringo waved me to come closer and signaled for the two younger ones to keep their distance and sit down on the stairs.
As the brew simmered, paisleys of rising steam burned my eyes like chopped onions, but the bouquet was unlike anything any of us had ever smelled. It immediately went to my head. I tasted metal and ozone. A rush of love and wonder toward all my fellow men welled up in my breast. A sudden laxative effect took hold of my colon while images of ornately sequined Chinese dragons wriggled before my eyes.
A single, unfrosted lightbulb hung from an extension cord stapled to the ceiling bathing the dank space with harsh incandescent light until, synchronous with a bright flash outside, the power went out and Ringo was forced to use a tiny flashlight. (I learned later that to light a candle at that moment would have been fatal for all.)
The power now off, the simmering mash began to cool. He stirred the mixture pensively with a wooden spoon, the same wooden spoon that was used many times on the backs of my legs whenever I called my siblings wankpuffin and smeghead, verbal indulgences that were one of the few unalloyed pleasures of my young life.
When the giddy brew had decocted sufficient to Ringo’s intuition, the pair of them filled six blue glass bottles, pouring through an old kitchen strainer and corking and wrapping the necks in gold lame and tying the fabric off with red ribbon. With a detailing paintbrush, Ringo wrote Saragossa in white paint on the side of each bottle.
The chief then gave Ringo a cloth bag with a string-tied mouth and took the bottles in a box up the stairs and out the back door of the house, plunging recklessly into the torrent. I was certain the bag contained something like Spanish doubloons or a shrunken head, but he tucked it in the pocket of his coveralls and I didn’t see it again until one momentous day several weeks later.