MARCH 2008

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Beer: A Story of Love
By D.E. Fredd, Feb 04, 2008

“You know, when two people have been ‘exclusive’ for over a year and the guy, on the spur of the moment, asks his special lady to spend a week in Paris, there are certain expectations on her part.”

I had just gotten off the N17 south of Lens in Northern France and was looking for signs to the A21. Most guideposts were pushing me towards Lille, a congested area to be avoided if I wanted to be at the Abbey of Saint Sixtus by 10:00 AM. Brenda could've been of enormous help if she’d looked at the map every now and then.

“You should have seen the looks I got when I told everybody at work you were whisking me off to Paris. And where am I now? Out in the middle of the French equivalent of Kansas, headed to stupid Belgium for beer of all things.”

“I distinctly remember mentioning France only in a general sense. I said I wanted to catch up with friends and establish a few contacts for my new business venture. Flights to Paris were more affordable than Brussels or Amsterdam.”

“So last night’s cheapo creepo hotel room at Charles de Gaulle Airport was all I’ll ever see of Paris?”

“If you’re not going to help me get on the right road at least sit back and be quiet so I can concentrate. This was where World War I was fought, and there’s mile after mile of photogenic mustard fields.”

“So you’re telling me to shut up, is that it? I thought last night was a put down when you and those two guys talked about beer until god knows when. I could have walked around the room naked and no one would have noticed.”

***

I graduated from Carnegie Mellon with a degree in chemistry. Six years ago I came up to Boston to do graduate work at MIT. During the first semester I fell in with a crowd who went pub crawling every weekend. Boston is loaded with brew pubs, and I got into beer from the connoisseur aspect as well as the brewing process. I dropped out of school and spent a year picking the brains of several master brewers. I found a job at Hancock’s, which is an exclusive, upscale beer and wine shop on Beacon Hill. I am now the manager and resident guru when it comes to beer recommendations. I’ve written over a dozen articles for different publications and am in the process of developing a web site for the true beer aficionado. My European trip was strictly beer-oriented (I swear I never mentioned Paris other than a jumping-off point), focused on outstanding Belgium and Netherlands brews. I wanted to have a contact lined up in each country who could keep the web site up to date on what’s happening in the world of beer from those areas. There’s money to be made on the net in merchandising, beer clubs and advertising, which is my entrepreneurial goal. Bringing Brenda Rothstein along seemed like a decent idea at the time, but, if the whining about romantic Paris was a sample of what the next four days were going to be like, I’d be tempted, like Richard III, to order her drowned in a barrel of malmsey wine.

***

“And what’s the big deal about beer anyway. You almost orgasm when you talk about it. Most guys I know drink it then piss and puke.”

“This is the N41 here at Douvrin. From here on it’s a straight shot up to the A25 which goes direct to the Abbey at Westvleteren.”

“You know I’m Jewish, don’t you.”

“I’m well aware of your cultural heritage.”

“So you have to humiliate me even more by taking me to a Christian Abbey.”

“First of all, you’re not religious. And we’re not going to the Abbey as such, just to the road below it and the reason we’re doing all this is because these monks make the best beer in the world according every reviewer. You can stay in the car the whole time if you want.”

She slumped down in the passenger seat of the rented Citroen, put her feet up on the dash and adjusted her skirt to flash plenty of thigh to any lorry drivers who cared to gaze down from their perch. I had a speech ready about passion, about those of us in the world who find our niche be it stamp collecting, baseball cards or Coca-Cola memorabilia. A great beer is a work of art. I teach a course at the Cambridge Center for Life Long Learning, and people are genuinely stunned when I go into the history of brewing. Wine is child’s play compared to the complexities of making fine ale. But Brenda was not being reasonable today, not that she was most any other time.

We met at a speed dating conference. It was one of those deals where you sit for ten minutes, a bell rings and you go on to the next table. At the end of the evening, you hand in the numbers of anyone you “connected” with and the people who run the thing get in touch with the party to see if they feel the same way about you. Somehow we matched up. We get along after a fashion, but I’ve always had the feeling Brenda just patronized everything I liked: beer, soccer, black and white films from the 1940s. She’d say she was up for something, but, once we got doing it, she was a wet blanket. I’m really not a romantic person; I admit that. I did take her to an inn on the Maine coast, which she liked. It was a bit too muffin-puffin for my taste as well as pricey. I tried to include her in last night’s round table discussion with Geoff and Pieter, my French beer contacts, but she kept making everyone uncomfortable with the jet lag talk, wanting to go to a cafe and refusing to taste any of the nice hefeweizens they brought for me to sample. God knows what her time bomb personality will do when I get to Amsterdam by nightfall and introduce her to Johan who runs the best beer shop in the entire Netherlands. I didn’t mention that we’d be crashing in his storeroom for three nights in sleeping bags.

***

“Do you know what you are?”

She was back, batteries fully charged. “I suspect you’re going to tell me regardless.”

“You’re one of those Euro-wannabes. You hate the fact that you were born in dopey Pennsylvania USA.”

“I don’t have anything against Pennsylvania. They’ve got some good stuff there. The first beer I ever drank was Rolling Rock, which, as domestic beer goes, gives no offense.”

“How far are we from the beer church?”

“About thirty kilometers and it’s The Abbey of Saint Sixtus at Westvleteren in the Flanders region.”

“See, that makes my point.” She clapped her hands and did a drum beat on the dash. “You always use the metric system; even when we’re in Boston. It’s so affected! That time we were with Stacey and Jeremy out in the Berkshires you kept using it, and they gave me funny looks like ‘what’s up with him.’”

“The metric system is standard operating procedure in science. America should adopt it.”

“What’s my weight?”

“It was 55 kilos last time I knew. So, big deal, I think in metrics. That’s all the evidence you have?”

She turned towards me. Her high-pitched tone was like my older sister on long car trips. “You subscribe to English soccer on the cable. No one I know does that. Pro football, yes, but never the Premier League, and I used to think baseball was boring. And the way you eat....”

“I’m left-handed so it’s natural to use my knife that way!”

“You’re always dropping French or German words like ‘weltschmerz’ and ‘je ne sais quoi’ into every conversation. You call potato chips ‘crisps!’”

She faced the highway again after uttering “crisps” and folded her arms emphatically across her chest in what she obviously felt was complete and total victory. I could have defended myself, but it would have taken away my concentration from getting off the main road and negotiating a left on Leeuwerikstratt, followed by a hard right two kilometers later onto Nonnenstratt, which magically became Kallenstratt for no earthly reason known to man since the 16th Century.

I kept driving, the map between my knees comforted only by the fact that the Abbey had signs directing me. Brenda complained about the heat. She thought Belgium was at higher latitude than Boston, which it is, so why wasn’t it cooler? A rolled down window brought dust in so we suffered the August heat as the lesser of two evils. I re-thought sleeping on Johan’s floor and decided a cheap hotel might help the relationship, although anything in the Singel canal district had to be pricey. She right-angled her head towards the countryside, doing everything she could to avoid looking at me. I could see by the reflection that she was close to tears.

“There’s a small café across the road from the Abbey. We’ll get a bite there after I buy my supply. They serve Westvleteren beer so you’ll be able to sample what it tastes like.” Still no response from her, but I could tell the idea of a quaint café overlooking a Belgium town had struck a chord.

“I am a bit hungry.”

“I don’t know if they have a big menu. The last time I was here they were big on cheese, most of which they made themselves. You’ve got to be careful with the beer because it packs a punch. It comes in 8, 10 and 12 percent alcohol units. You can only buy six bottles, and they open them right there so you have to drink it right away.”

“Is this some sort of secret society like in The Da Vinci Code?”

“They’re Trappist monks. Each monk lives a life of seclusion, prayer and manual labor. Long ago they made this beer for themselves, but it was so good other people wanted it. They only make so much. They don’t export or want to go commercial. It’s not supposed to be for resale. You can only buy three cases per person or six for each car. It’s not that expensive, but Johan says you always need to overpay, like a donation because the proceeds go to help the needy Christians.”

“So a Jewish girl from Long Island who went to Brandeis would pollute the spiritual environment.”

“Not at all. There will be a line of cars. They only sell on Thursday. A monk comes along, takes the order and gives you an order slip. A truck comes down the hill, cars pull up, you hand in the slip, load the allotment and off you go. You can sit in the car or in the pub across the road. As long as you don’t look like a big time wheeler dealer and are respectful, they barely say anything.”

“I’ll stay in the car and fiddle with the radio. Every station I get is so 1980s musically. This country loves ABBA.”

“It could be a while depending on how many cars there are and for God’s sake don’t play anything really loud or stuff that might offend.”

“Can I read at least or, unless it’s the New Testament, is that against the rules?”

“You could look at the maps and plot a course for Amsterdam. That would help big time. Maybe find a hotel in the guidebook that seems decent but reasonable and don’t forget to convert euros to dollars. I might spend some time schmoozing with people in line. Lots of these people are really into beer, and it’s nice to network, share stories and exchange info.”

***

We made it to the Abbey and got in line. Brenda busied herself with the guide book looking for suitable accommodations, snidely commenting that there were very few in my price range that had running water. We waited twenty minutes, Brenda complaining all the time, before a monk started working his way down the line with an order book. The delivery truck was parked by the steep incline and beginning to fill the requests so I told her it wouldn’t be too long. I spotted Deiter Claeys who runs a beer club over the internet I admire and jumped out to meet him, making sure to go over the drill with Brenda about getting six cases but, if there was any trouble, just take what they’d give us.

I shot the breeze with Deiter and a few other people who really know their brews. Sometimes you have to give information to receive some so I dropped a few nuggets about the Magic Hat Brewery up in Vermont and a smoked ale they were bringing into their product line. Deiter said that Amstel, which only sold Amstel Light in the States, was thinking of exporting some of their seasonal brews to some micro-breweries. I spent thirty minutes or so with the gang and then saw that the line was moving quickly, and the monk was past our car so the order was in. I trotted back to the Citroen and hopped in. Brenda had her sweet face on.

“Did you order the six cases?”

“You’re not getting any beer today.”

“What!”

“Just what I said. They don’t want to sell to you so we might as well pull out of line and head to Amsterdam. I think I found us a good place in the Central Dam area, wherever that is.”

“What happened? Did he just come up and say he wasn’t going to sell to us? Are they out of the 12? I’ll take the 8 or 10 if they are?”

“I flashed him.”

I put both hands on the wheel and leaned my forehead against the steering column trying to keep calm tone. “You—flashed—the-monk,” the words dribbled out of my mouth like a last breath.

“I thought it might help. I asked for as many cases of the 12 he could spare. He said the limit was three per person. I said you were down the road. He started writing up a slip for only three so I pulled up my tank top, batted my baby brown eyes and asked him if he could do a little more for us, wink wink.”

A horn beeped behind me so I started up the engine and ground the car into first. “If you want to know the truth, I made his day. I think somebody back there wants you to move.”

I pulled across the road and headed to the café, a few hundred meters down on the right. “You will never forgive me, will you?” I was silent. “It’s entirely your fault, you know. I thought you were going to ask me to marry you. I bought sexy underwear but last night I slept in an airport motel with two hairy beer guys in the double bed next to us. I don’t think you’ve kissed me or said one endearing thing. This trip is all about your beer.”

“I told you it was a business trip when I first mentioned it.”

“How was I supposed to know business meant ‘business’ and not the two of us making love and saying how we felt about each other in the most romantic city in the world? Besides, there is something wrong when beer is the only thing you think about when you have this.” She raised her shirt again, baring her breasts for my benefit as well as a few folks who were passing by. “I got more attention from that monk in three minutes than I have from you in two days! I think I know what sin he’ll be committing under the blankets tonight.”

“It’s over with now. You win. I’ll make up some story for Johan as to why I couldn’t get him the Westvleteren ale. Right now I have a headache, probably from the tension and not eating. Go into the café and see if you can find us a table. At least I can savor a bottle of the 12 so the trip is not a total loss.”

She got out of the car. “After this we’re going to Amsterdam, right?”

“Yes, you can use your cell phone to check for a room while I drive.”

“Should I order something to eat?”

“Just two beers and some cheese or local ham if they have it.”

She headed off towards the pub, negotiating the path slowly to keep as much of the sand and gravel out of her sandals. I put the car in neutral, got out and took her back pack out of the boot. I got her purse from the front seat, checked to see if her passport and airline ticket was in it and placed it neatly on top of the back pack. I took out two hundred euros and stuffed them inside the purse. I placed everything neatly by the roadside. I got back in, put it into first and pulled out into what little traffic there was. Three hundred meters away I slowed down to see if someone might have seen her stuff and tried to swipe it, but then I saw her sprinting across the road, breasts bouncing, carrying her sandals in her one hand. I was sure she’d be able to get back to Paris. If not, Trappists are known for their hospitality the world over. She could tell them her romantic tale of woe.


D.E. Fredd has been published in several journals and reviews. He received the Theodore Hoepfner Award given by the Southern Humanities Review for the best short fiction of 2005 and was a 2006 Ontario Award Finalist. He won the 2006 Black River Chapbook Competition and most recently received a 2007 Pushcart Special Mention Award. A novel, Exiled to Moab, published by Six Gallery Press will debut in 2008.

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