I’ll never forget Stephanie Halverson. We met one night in late spring at the Black Rooster, the only bar in the small town of Long Lake. It was the place people like me, a local guy with not much else to do, hung out trading stories, complaining about our jobs and getting drunk. I was twenty five and maybe should have known better but didn’t, being drawn to her long dark hair, tight black jeans and red cowboy shirt unbuttoned just far enough to send my imagination into overdrive. Hell, why beat around the bush? I was just a horny guy looking to get lucky and I did. Stephanie (Steph) went back with me that night to the little one room apartment I lived in and for all I knew the next morning that was going to be that. But it wasn’t. She stayed, and it started me off the wrong road, one to this day I’m still not sorry I took.
Steph had just turned twenty-one and lived with her older brother and some of his friends northwest of town in an old trailer parked in the back of her grandparent’s farm. She introduced me to him that first week we started hanging around together. (Calling it dating would be too generous for what we were doing at the time.) His name was Luke.
“Hey Ron,” he greeted me that first time Steph and I walked into the trailer, “What’s goin’ on?” Except for the work boots, blue jeans and tee-shirt, he looked like he could be selling insurance in the office next to the hardware store I lived above. Unremarkable, to say the least.
He was about my age, had an average build, a clean shaven oval face, lively brown eyes, short brown hair and a prominent nose. Even more prominent, though, when he turned his head slightly, was the strawberry birthmark on the left side of his face that stretched from his cheek down his jaw to his neck. I thought at the time it made him look unique and soon found out he was, both in looks and how he lived his life.
We had walked into a big living room that made up most of the trailer. There was a radio on in the background tuned to classic rock and a poster of Einstein tacked to the wall. Off to the right was a kitchen area and he was sitting there at a round, yellow Formica table rolling a joint. I hesitated just a tick before stepping across the worn but clean linoleum floor to shake his hand, just to be polite. The inside living conditions were pretty basic: a couple of couches, overstuffed chairs, big screen television and the table he was sitting at; nothing fancy but it was all tidy and neat looking, I had to give them that. The main thing that would set it apart from your average family owned trailer home was the overwhelming aroma of pot in the air.
Luke looked at me and then at Steph and said, “So this’s the guy?” He stayed sitting as he leaned forward and shook my hand hard, looking me right in the eyes while he did it. What he saw in me he didn’t give away. I was tall and thin with long hair and a scraggly beard, dressed in faded jeans, a blue flannel shirt and work boots. In retrospect, I probably didn’t look like much to him.
“Yeah. This’s him,” Steph said, putting her arm around my waist and giving me a squeeze, “He’s my new guy.”
New guy? What was she talking about? I had thought up until this point we were just fooling around and having a good time. I looked at her and she smiled a big, happy smile. It occurred to me right then that maybe I was something more to her than I thought I was and I have to say that it was a nice feeling, one I didn’t remember anyone having toward me before. I immediately warmed to it and nervously cracked a smile back at her.
But it was Luke – there was something about the guy, an energy would be the best way to put it, emanating from him that I felt right away when we shook hands – an electric buzz. He held my gaze and his eyes bored into me seeming to go deeper into my soul than even I’d ever been before, which, believe me, up until then hadn’t been very far. It came to me at that moment that here was a deadly series dude who was wasting no time in letting me know he was in charge. I knew right then he was not to be messed with could also possibly be dangerous.
He released my hand after giving it one final squeeze, which this time hurt, and said, “Well, sit down then.”
I grabbed a wooden chair and did as told, suddenly a little uncertain as to what was going on. Steph ambled off to a couch in front of the picture window and sat down. She picked up a well worn magazine and started paging through it. I looked at her once and she grinned at me and then went back to what she was doing, leaving me and her brother to ourselves. Luke looked me over, rolling the joint (still unlit) between his fingers and I can only imagine what was going through his mind. I was nothing more than a regular guy who had grown up in the same small town I still lived and worked in, not ten miles from where the trailer was located. A big deal I wasn’t. His expression gave away nothing, but at least he hadn’t kicked me out or beat me up for hanging around his sister. Maybe that said something.
Finally he said, “Steph says you’re a mechanic.”
“Yeah. I work at Swant’s Service.”
He asked me what I did there and I told him about my job at the little gas station and auto repair place in Long Lake where I’d worked for the last eight years, ever since my junior year in high school. It was a block from the Black Rooster and two blocks from my little apartment. (Like I said, it was a small town.)
He asked me about cars and I told them I was pretty good with them – that they’d been a hobby of mine ever since I’d helped my dad tear apart one of the pieces of junk he was always messing around with in the front yard of our rented house two blocks off the main highway through town. Even though he left my mom, my little sister and me for good when I was fourteen, at least he left me knowing how to take apart the engine of a 1979 Buick Skylark and put it back together. That was something.
The more I talked with Luke, the more my initial discomfort faded. He seemed, if not friendly, as least interested in what I had to say (not many people did), so I relaxed a little and, embellishing my skills somewhat, told him I could fix just about anything mechanical and automotive related, which was seventy-five percent true.
“In fact, I’ve got a ’57 Chevy that I’ve been working on for a few years. You know, restoring.” I paused, enjoying the image of that shiny, two-tone teal and white beauty in my brain. Well, what I hoped it’d eventually look like anyway. Right now it was slightly rusted with an ugly tan and brown paint job. It also needed a new carburetor. And a new transmission. And…well, it needed a lot. I shook my head dejectedly, “It takes time,” I told him, “And money,” I added to which Luke nodded and replied, “Yeah, I get that.”
We’d been talking for maybe fifteen minutes, just him getting to know me more than anything else, when there was a pause in the conversation. Luke looked over at his sister and gave her a slight nod. Like I said, I’d only known Steph for a week, but apparently her word was good enough for her brother and he seemed satisfied with what he’d heard from me so far. He flicked a stick match and lit his joint, took a deep hit and then offered it to me. I took a hit and motioned it to Steph who declined, so I gave it back to Luke who gave his sister a ‘what’s up with you look,’ that she responded to by grinning coyly at him. My thought: what the hell is going on between these two?
He took another hit and then suddenly stood up. “Let’s go,” he told me, sticking the joint in the corner of his mouth, “I’ve got something to show you.”
I got to my feet to follow him, and immediately had to steady myself against the table, feeling the sudden, fast affect of the weed. Man, I thought to myself…then I couldn’t think anymore. My mind seemed to go numb and I took a moment to collect myself. It didn’t help. The world started to spin a little and I almost had to sit down. Thankfully, Steph rushed to me and helped me maintain my equilibrium. It was the strongest hit I’d ever taken in my life.
“Careful,” she told me, holding my arm tight and guiding me across the floor, “I should have warned you about Luke’s weed. It’s pretty strong stuff.”
She could say that again, but I wasn’t thinking about Luke and his pot at all right at that moment. The fact that she was so close to me…man, she sure smelled good. Sweet and fresh. And the way she squeezed my arm…Well, what can I say? It was all nice. Maybe it was the weed affecting my emotions, then again maybe not, but it occurred to me that maybe there was something more to us being together than I thought. I found myself suddenly hoping so.
With Steph gripping my arm to steady me, we went out the front door and followed Luke around the back of the trailer. It was a sunny day in early June with a clear blue sky and a light breeze. The sunlight kind of burned my eyes and I immediately wished I had my shades with me. From somewhere Steph picked up a beat up straw hat and put it on my head, “There you go. Now you’re a real cowboy.” I adjusted it and glanced at my reflection in a window on the trailer as we walked by. Not bad, I thought to myself. I kept it on. If Steph liked it, who was I to argue?
Nearby, a tall cottonwood tree was tossing off white seedlings like a spring time snow storm – an image that wasn’t normally associated with my thought process and right away I knew that the pot had really hit me. As we walked I tried to get myself together. I didn’t want to seem like an drug addled loser in front of Luke. Or Steph, for that matter. But, the day was beautiful, that was for sure, especially with the scent of fresh mown hay in the air and, stoned or not, it reminded how I was glad I didn’t live in a big city.
The land we were on was in the western part of the county. Steph’s grandparents lived in a farm house about a hundred yards from us. She told me once they were both in their eighties and, as she put it, “Kind of old. They can’t do much for themselves anymore. Me and Luke help them out.” When I asked her about her parents all she told me was, “Don’t ask,” so I didn’t and never brought them up to her again.
Being outside in the fresh air and sunshine was helping to clear my brain somewhat. I looked over at her grandparents place, a nicely kept up white, two story frame home with a porch on the front. It had a few tall shade trees in the front and back and a little vegetable garden off to one side. “Nice place over there,” I said.
“Yeah, with our parents gone, Grandpa Harold and Grandma Rosie are all we have left,” she told me, “I keep the place clean and Luke pays their bills. We do what we can. They’re good folks.”
Her grandparent’s land was out where old three and four generation farms were being sold off for new housing developments and huge homes we called McMansions. But there were still holdouts, people wanting to hold onto their land and keep their old way of life going as well as they could and it was apparent that Steph’s grandparents were among them. My guess was they had at least 180 acres. Their property and the land around it was mix of rolling hills and fields of corn and soybean with woodlots and the occasional pond tossed in for good measure. It was pretty in a pastoral kind of way. (Was that the pot talking again?) I guess that’s why rich people moved out here to the country – to live the rural life while working at high paying jobs forty miles away in Minneapolis and commuting back and forth. It made the area a mix of young, freshly scrubbed new comers and old, manure shoveling farm families. I really didn’t mind one way or the other, my interests leaning more toward just hanging out and having a good time. Politically or culturally aware…well, not my strong suit to be honest, though I’d have to say, if pushed, my allegiances would always fall with the rural way of life. I was never comfortable the few times I went into Minneapolis or any other big city for that matter – too many people and too much noise. Too much of everything, in fact.
The trailer was a two hundred feet off the county road and had its own gravel driveway. There was small, old barn fifty feet behind it. Luke stood at its side entrance, a sliding wooden door, and waited for Steph and me to get to him. “Let’s move it along,” he glanced at the hat Steph had given me and I think frowned a little, but said nothing. She only squeezed my arm a little harder and giggled, joking with her brother.
Luke ignored her and slid the door open. “Come on inside,” he said, “Take a look at what we’ve got in here.”
Luke lead the way and I followed inside.
I’ll tell you what I expected: what I expected was to see a falling apart building smelling of rotting manure with daylight coming through the ceiling and filled with old bales of straw, pigeons fluttering and flying around, and mice running all over the place on a spongy wooden floor littered with loose hay and pieces of broken farm equipment. In short – a junk filled mess. What I saw was not ever remotely close.
“I’ve fixed it up some,” Luke said, grinning in response to my slack jawed silence.
I’d never been in a hospital before, but it’s what the inside of the barn looked like I imagined an operating room would be like. It was a big, clean, open space, remodeled and brightly lit by huge florescent lamps hanging by chains from the ceiling. It’s walls were newly framed and sheet rocked and painted a shiny, glossy white. The floor was spotless and looked to be made of poured concrete. I’d never seen a room as clean in my life. While the outside was beaten up weathered grey siding that looked as old as it probably was, the inside was completely different. It was clean and it smelled brand new, not at all like the dingy, rotten smelling mess I’d been expecting. Not by a long shot. And the amazing thing was this: in the center of the space were a bunch of big, shinning, stainless steel sealed containers with dials on them and copper tubing connecting them, like a bottling plant or something. But I was just pissing in the wind. I really hadn’t the faintest idea what they were or what they were being used for.
“What do you think?” Luke asked, watching me, obviously enjoying my amazement, “Take guess.”
I didn’t know what to say but I took a stab anyway, “Are you brewing beer?” I’d seen stories in the news of people starting their own micro-breweries. It was a shot in the dark, but the only thing I could think of. Turns out I was wrong, but not too far off.
“Close,” he said, grinning, “Guess again.”
Steph came up behind me, put her arms around my middle and squeezed. “Think of the olden days in Kentucky,” she breathed in my ear and I had to struggle to maintain what little composure I had. Then it hit me. It was something I vaguely remembered hearing about once in high school, maybe in history class.
“Is it a still?” I asked cautiously, not wanting to seem like an idiot in front of Luke and especially not in front of Steph.
Luke laughed and slapped me on the shoulder. “Good man,” he said, “That’s exactly what it is.”
I don’t know why, but I felt good that I had guessed right. Like I had won a quiz or something.
“Let me tell you what we’ve got going on here.”
He started with the four shining, six foot high, stainless steel sealed drums, all grouped together. “That’s where the mash is cooked,” he told me. “We use corn. Organic corn, in fact, from a few of my farmer friends around here and in the southern part of the state. There’s nothing better for what I’m making and it’s part of what makes my stuff so great.” (I found out later he employed about ten farmers to grow the corn for him.)
Then he showed me the next step in the process. Each drum was connected by copper tubing to one big, eight foot tall container, “We call this the Thump Keg. This is where the alcohol vapor travels to after it’s boiled.”
He talked like he was giving some people from the local Chamber of Commerce a tour and it was plain to see he was proud of his operation. He caressed the Thump Keg almost seductively, “If any mash from the still comes in with the vapor, it falls out here.” He smiled at me, “My stuff’s real pure,” he said with obvious pride, “We compost the mash along with whatever solid stuff is left behind.” He gave Steph a sly look before turning back to me, “I’ll show you how we use it later.”
He moved over a few feet, “Then the vapor is reheated and goes here.” He pointed to a third and just as shiny container twice the size of a fifty gallon drum, “This is called the Worm Box and it’s where the alcohol distills out.” He must have seen my blank look. Science and stuff like that was never my strong suit. “It’s where the whiskey is formed,” he told me.
Got it. A nice, simple explanation. I could understand that.
On the side of the Worm Box near the bottom was a tap. He stepped to a nearby row of shelves and grabbed a glass jar, like the kind my grandma used to use to can tomatoes, and drew off some liquid from the tap. He swirled it around and held it up to the light. It was so pure and colorless that I could barely see it.
He turned to me. “This is my stuff,” he said, “It’s 97 % pure grain alcohol. Maybe you’ve heard of Everclear. It’s 95% pure and everyone thinks it’s the purist alcohol you can buy. And it is. Legally buy, I mean. But mine’s way better than that. Plus I put some stuff in so it tastes good, not like you’re drinking rubbing alcohol.” I watched him slowly swirl it around in the jar. It was mesmerizing. “Want to try some?” he asked.
My hangover from the night before was almost gone. The effect of the pot was easing too, but must have still been present a little because I suddenly felt quite confident.”Sure,” I told him, thinking I’d have a little just to be polite. He handed me the glass and watched as I took in a mouth full and swallowed, just as he was reaching out his hand and telling me to, “Take it easy.”
Oh, man. Whatever I thought it’d taste like, I was wrong. Luke’s “stuff” as he called it, hit me like that mule kick you sometimes hear about except a hundred times stronger. Make that a thousand times. I actually felt weak in the knees and I’m sure I staggered a few steps. I caught myself on a nearby table and was looking at him, unable to speak, when he raised a finger like, ‘just a second’ and then the moonshine really hit me. The heat in my throat went all the way down through my esophagus into my gut, burning like what I imaged lava from a volcano would feel like it you were fool enough to swallow it. I’m not kidding you, it was scorching. But after a few moments that sensation went away and was replaced by a warm, mellow feeling radiating from my stomach and flowing outward throughout my entire body – from the tips of my fingers down to the tips of my toes and then back up my spine all the way to my brain – a nice warm feeling like I’d just been wrapped up in a soft quilt sewn by my dear departed aunt. I kid you not when I say that, other than fooling around with Steph, it was the best feeling I’d ever felt before in my whole entire life.
Luke took me by the arm and guided me to a couch set against the side of the barn where he sat me down. Steph, who had wandered off, ran back and sat next to me.
“Luke, what the hell?” she yelled at her brother. “Didn’t you warn him?” She rubbed my shoulder blades. “You could have killed him.” I think I was perspiring. I leaned back against Steph and let her work my muscles. Somewhere along the way Luke must have taken the jar from me. My hat had fallen off, too.
“Don’t get mad, Steph,” he said, “I just wanted to test him,” he grinned at both her and me and moved so he was standing in front of us. He shifted the whiskey to his left hand and stuck out his right. “Shake, Ron,” he said to me. “You did good. You did just fine.”
I reached up and shook his hand after missing it the first time or two and then let go to wipe my brow. Luke smiled and looked at the jar with fondness. He was obviously proud of what he had been able to concoct in an old barn out in the rural farmland of western Hennepin County. Then he quickly lifted it to his mouth and drained the colorless liquid, savoring the flavor and smacking his lips. There was absolutely zero effect on him other than pure joy and serious pleasure. Apparently you had to get used to drinking Luke’s “stuff.” I took a look at the still and the operation he had going and had the immediate thought that it would probably be a long time, if ever, before I ever did get used to it. Turns out I was right.
Luke interrupted thoughts of my future ability to drink 195 proof alcohol, when he asked, “You want to see what else we got going out here?”
What else? You mean there was more? I looked at Steph and she smiled at me and nodded her head, encouraging me. Then she kissed me quick on the cheek, letting me know she was having a good time, and (I hoped), happy that Luke and I were getting along. I figured, why not? If Steph was happy, I was happy, even if I was a little high and probably drunk as well.
“Sure,” I said, having no idea what could possibly top Luke’s kick-ass moonshine whiskey.
“Ok, then.” He gave me a friendly pat on the back and started walking across the floor of the barn and said over his shoulder, “Steph bring him out to the greenhouse.”
She stood me up and got me steady on my feet. I’m not sure what kind of scent she was wearing, maybe it was just her own natural sweet aroma or whatever but, man…being so close to her and not being able to do anything about it was starting to get to me.
“Steph, Ron, come on,” Luke called to us impatiently, interrupting my rapidly escalating fantasies. He stood at the sliding door and I swear he was tapping the toe of his boot. Steph hurried me along the best she could (I only stumbling a couple of times) and in a the next minute we left pleasant coolness of the barn and stepped into the bright sunlight again. I covered my eyes with my hand and Steph plopped the cowboy hat back on my head. I never even noticed her pick it up.
We went around the barn to a glass sided greenhouse about the size of a two car garage. He took me inside and before I had a chance collect my thoughts and to forget about the whiskey still we’d just left, he laid another surprise on me. The greenhouse with filled with plants. And not just your regular garden variety pansy’s and petunia’s either. It was packed marijuana. Big, healthy looking specimens, evenly spaced out in pots set on waist high wooden frame tables covered by chicken wire (to let the water drain through, I found out later.) There had to have been over two hundred plants in there.
Luke smiled at my surprise. “What’d you think I had in here? he asked, “Friggin’ daisy’s?
Well, actually, I sort of did, but I didn’t tell him that. All I could say was, “Wow.”
I looked around, like I had done in the barn and took in the scene, stunned beyond all belief. Luke not only had a moonshine still producing kiss-ass whiskey, he also had another operation that was producing what I figured had to be kick-ass marijuana (if what I had smoked less than half an hour earlier was any indication, and it turned out it was.) He had big blower fans strategically positioned along the sides keeping the air circulating, and some kind of a stainless steel tube and frame system with hoses attached to it running the length of the greenhouse above the plants – which turned out to be an automatic watering system. It was a complicated yet simple setup and it was working. The plants were lush and green and healthy looking, even to my untrained eye.
It finally dawned me that my new friend (because that’s what he eventually became) was in the drug business.
I looked at him again and tried to improve on my previous comment. “Wow and wow,” was what I said and he just laughed.
We took a few minutes wandering around inside looking at the plants. I told him time and time again how impressed I was.
“It’s not that big a deal,” he said when we finally made our way back to the door. “I always liked science as a kid, but I never wanted to work for anyone. Too much of a hassle taking orders for other people and whatnot.” I understood him completely but, of course, like most people, I’d never done anything about it. What impressed me about Luke was that he had. “I started doing this,” he pointed around the greenhouse and back to the barn, “Just for fun. Then I started taking it further and selling it. Turns out I can make money at it,” he paused, giving me a direct and knowing look, “Good money.” When I nodded my acknowledgment, he added, “Seriously good money.”
“Do you sell the pot, too?” I thought to ask.
“Some of it,” he said, “I use the left over mash for compost for the plants. I found out I could use the flowers in the whiskey, so that’s mainly what I use them for. You know. Just to give it some extra kick,” he added, laughing
Steph laughed, too, “It’s part of what makes Luke’s stuff so special,” she said and fooled around with my hat, “Just like you are to me.”
Luke glanced at his sister and she shrugged her shoulders and laughed at him. I could see she enjoyed messing around with her older brother. It was kind of nice to see, like a little family, and it made me want to be included and become part of it.
We went outside and Luke lead the way behind the barn to a shaded grove of cottonwoods where a ring of field stone had been placed to form a fire pit. The grass had been recently cut and some Adirondack chairs painted bright green and blue were arranged nicely around it. We stood for a minute looking out over a nearby field of soybeans that were dark green and healthy looking. Steph, still holding my arm and playing around with the hair poking out from under my cowboy hat, told me her grandparents rented the land out to a local farmer. On the far side of the field was a stand of hardwood trees that looked like maples and oaks. I heard some crows cawing and looked up and watched as they flew over us. It made me feel good to see them. Way off to the right in the distance I heard a tractor, probably the farmer who rented the land out working one of the fields. It was the only evidence that anyone was around other than us. With the light breeze and blue sky and puffy clouds, looking out at the land was unexpectedly peaceful and relaxing – like I was on vacation somewhere or something. Or what I imaged a vacation would be like, anyway, since I’d never been anywhere before in my life except Minneapolis a hand full of times and St. Cloud once or twice, and that was just to get car parts. No wonder they had a built their fire pit where they did.
We all sat down. Luke took a few minutes looking out over the countryside, seeming to take some measure of satisfaction as well as some inspiration from the rolling fields and land. Then he looked at me and turned serious, “Ok. So you work at Swant’s and you’re good with cars. That’s what Steph says and, after talking with you, I believe her.”
I looked at Steph who was watching our conversation closely. She reached over and took my hand, “I told him that you could fix anything.”
Nice to be appreciated, I thought to myself. No one had ever told me that before.
I turned to Luke, “Sure,” I told him, thinking of how this would put me in good with Steph, “I’m a pretty good mechanic. What do you have in mind?”
“So you’re good with cars. How about driving? You good with that? We’re expanding our operation and what I really need is a good, reliable driver. Someone to deliver my moonshine.”
A chance to work for Luke? A chance to get to be closer to Steph? I didn’t have to think, “Yeah, I’m a good driver,” I told him.
“He’s real good,” Steph chimed in, “He’s good with his hands…got a nice, soft touch.”
I felt my ears go red. She stood up, came over and gave me a quick kiss, then sat on the arm of my chair, nice and close.
Luke ignored her and looked at me.”Good. Then that’s what I have you do. I’ll have you drive for me. I’ll supply the car, you do the driving. We’ll give you a try. If it works out, you’ve got yourself a job.”
It dawned on me finally that this whole meeting with Luke had really been sort of a job interview, which apparently I’d passed. The image came into my mind of old black and white movies I’d seen with battered cars being chased by the cops down the back roads of Kentucky or Tennessee with ‘guns a blazin and bullets a flyin.’ Maybe it was the alcohol in me, or maybe the pot, probably both, but all of a sudden I had a romantic vision of Steph by my side as we outran the law, running moonshine whiskey and making a name for ourselves as outlaws and folk heroes.
Then I had a more sobering thought as I went back to the ‘guns a blazing’ part of my fantasy. Wait a minute. This whiskey running thing could be dangerous.
Luke must have seen my expression because he coughed out a laugh and said, “Don’t worry, Ronny boy, it’s all perfectly safe.”
I blinked my eyes and got them back in focus. Steph had stood up and moved behind me and was rubbing my shoulders, her long skilled fingers playing with muscles under my skin I didn’t even know I had and, I have to say, it was feeling real good. I had a sudden vision of her and me going back to my little apartment and fooling around a little. Or out to the back forty nearby if it came to that. It occurred to me, then, that working for her brother would really put me in good with her.
I looked at Luke. There was something about him that I liked. He had confidence. He was sure of himself and had enough initiative and knowhow to build up what looked to be a nice little business. What the heck…he seemed to know what he was doing, way more than me anyway, that was for sure. I was glad to get a chance to be a part of it.
I put out my hand. “You got a deal, ” I told him and we shook on it.
Steph pumped her fist and yelled, “Yes!” enthusiastically. Then she hugged me tight, knocking my cowboy hat off again. Then she kissed me hard.
“Good, man,” Luke said, ignoring his sister as he stood up, “Come on. Let me show you what I’ve got for you to drive.”
With Steph smiling and kissing my cheek and nuzzling my neck and holding my hand we followed Luke. It felt good to feel so…well, it felt good to feel like she cared so much about me.
We walked to our right off the lawn through an area of tall grass and weeds to an old building further out past the greenhouse. Luke took a moment to unlock a padlock and then pushed open the door. It was nothing more than a dilapidated shed. He motioned to me and we went inside. This time what I’d imaged was correct. It was just a busted up storage shed but without the hay – an old, decrepit outbuilding with a dirt floor that smelled of grease and oil. In a good way it reminded me of the service station where I worked and I felt right at home. It was my kind of place. Except for this…
There was a vehicle inside covered with big, old sheet. Luke motioned to me help him pull it off and I did, dust flying. Underneath was the car he told me I’d be driving and let me tell you, that first time I first saw it I wasn’t impressed at all. It was a piece of shit looking ’82 four door, two-tone grey Ford Crown Victoria. I took a minute walking around it, looking it over as best I could in the dim light. The paint was faded and covered in rust and looked like it wouldn’t start without a jump, let alone run at all. But, as they say, looks can be deceiving.
Finally, I looked at Luke and said, “Really? This’s it?” I didn’t try very hard to hide my skepticism.
Luke grinned and took a set of keys out of his pocket and tossed them to me. “Start her up.”
I climbed in, pumped the gas and turned the key, not expecting it to even turn over. I was wrong. Way wrong. The Ford not only started first time, it literally roared. I revved the engine a few times getting the feel of it, the engine vibrating through the steering column and steering wheel into my hands and all the way up to my shoulders and down to my butt. It felt like a stock car that could be racing at the Daytona 500. It felt good. Real good. I couldn’t wait to drive it.
Luke tapped on the glass and motioned for me to roll down the window which I did.
“Sounds great,” was all I could think of saying, because it did.
Luke smiled and patting the roof, “Yeah, I paid a guy up in St. Cloud ten grand to over haul it,” he told me, raising his voice to be heard over the loud, rumbling idle of the suped-up engine. Then he poked me in the shoulder. “If I’d known you were so great,” he looked at Steph, standing, as always, nearby, “I’d have hired you.”
I juiced the accelerator. The mechanic must have bored out the cylinders. Probably added a bigger carburetor, too. The engine sounded like it had been modified to be was twice as powerful as the 400 hp I guessed it was rated as.
I looked at him and smiled, “Don’t worry about it.” Then I juiced the accelerator again, visions of racing cops down dusty back roads under a nighttime full moon filling my brain.
Luke must have read my mind, “Don’t get any ideas. I want you to drive this car like you’re an old grandpa. I had the guy in St. Cloud give it some more punch, just in case.
I nodded, getting his point. At least, at the time, I thought I did.
He motioned for me to turn the car off which I reluctantly did. I got out and helped him cover the Ford and we all went back to the fire pit and spent the rest of the afternoon smoking his weed and drinking his whiskey. (Well, sipping the whiskey on my part.) At one point three guys wandered out and joined us. Luke introduced me to them as his crew of helpers, Lonny, Garcia and Big Frank, all in their mid-twenties and all of them, like Luke and I, fairly quiet.
Steph told me later that Luke liked to keep things simple. He was in charge of the whole operation and he didn’t want any hassle from his employees. “He pays well, but he won’t take any shit,” she told me. From what little I knew of her brother I had no reason to doubt her.
Later on, I think I remember the sun setting and the stars coming out. I think I remembering wandering with Steph out to the shed where the Ford was kept. And I think I remember…ah, forget it. I don’t remember anything after that.
The way it worked was this: Luke had expanded his business to include moonshine buying customers throughout the seven counties immediately west and north and south of Minneapolis. They’d call him on a secure number, place an order and then do something totally unexpected in this day and age of electronic banking. They’d send him a check for the whiskey through the mail! When I asked him about it, Luke told me it was the safest way.
“That way, I control everything,” he said, “Makes the transaction really simple to do and easy for me to keep track of and there is absolutely no risk.”
Made sense to me, but then again I was just the driver, Luke was the brains of the operation.
He made the deposit and once the check cleared the bank one of the crew would box up the order, pack it in the trunk of the Ford and I’d drive off and make the delivery.
Sounds simple, right? Well, it was. All I had to do was drive, watch the speed limit, meet the customer and drop off the order (that’s what Luke called it- an order), then head home. Easy.
Mostly Luke’s customers were well to do young professionals who lived in big McMansions plopped down on what were once fields of corn or soybeans, or pasture land for cattle and horses. Generally they were nice enough and treated me well, and if their fancy houses and three acres of lawns didn’t seem to fit into the old rural Minnesota way of life, who was I to argue? I’d just drive up at a prearranged time, ring the door bell, listen to the chimes echo throughout the house and wait for either Zack or Ryan or Emily or Kara to answer. They usually had me bring the delivery in, so I got to see the inside of their home: their huge living room carpeted nine times out of ten in white or some shade of beige, their marble fireplace, the fancy tables with the inevitable vases of colorful flowers on them and on and on and on. (I made a mental note after my first transgression to always remove my boots at the entryway when I came inside.) I’d take the delivery to whatever room they wanted it, unpacked the jars (usually twenty, sometimes thirty-six), take the box or boxes with me when I left and hit the road. More often than not I was given, if not a twenty dollar tip, maybe a fifty. And once or twice, a hundred. I got the impression these folks had money to burn and enjoyed showing off their wealth. I was happy to oblige them.
I found out from Steph that our customers liked to have what they called Moonshine Party’s. I could only image what they were like. Having been exposed to Luke’s whiskey that first time had taught me a very valuable lesson: go slow. Real slow. And for god’s sake sip it, man, sip it! My one experience was good enough. If you drank it too fast it’d wreck you, if not kill you. In fact, in the lessons learned department, I pretty much quit drinking Luke’s stuff or any other alcohol after that first day I’d met him. A beer or two on occasion yeah, maybe. And, of course, the weed. I did really like Luke’s pot but the point I’m trying to make here is that for once I felt I had a future that I hadn’t had before and I did my best to embrace it.
Steph trimmed my hair for me and I made it a point to keep it washed and she even convinced me to shave the scruffy hair off my face. I bought some new flannel shirts (with Steph’s help, of course) and even some new work boots. I felt good, even a little confident in myself, like I was really cleaning up my act, so to speak. I had direction in my life and, at twenty five years old, didn’t ever foresee it ending.
And, I have to say, driving those country roads was fun. Most of my deliveries were after six at the evening, when I my shift at the service station was over. I’d drive my Chevy out to the trailer, shoot the breeze with Luke and his crew and then take off in the Ford. I made deliveries almost every night and I got so I loved it. The Ford handled like a dream and was fun to drive, but it was more than that. I found myself enjoying being out in the country. I liked the rolling hills, the farm fields lush with tall corn and low growing soybeans. There was a certain rich, earthy aroma in the air that made me feel good. Usually I got to see a fiery orange sunset which to me was one of the most beautiful sights in the world.
Sometimes, if I was out way past sunset, I’d even pull over and stop on some out-of-the-way dirt road, turn off the engine, get out of the car and just stand there looking up at the milky way and the stars. Every now and then I’d even see a comet shoot across the sky, and, if they were out (which they usually were) I’d listen to what seemed like a hundred frogs all making a racket in nearby swamps. Being out in the peaceful countryside during those times was pretty special and something I’d never really done before and I couldn’t believe I was taking the time to do it, but I was. And, (I hope this doesn’t sound too weird), I have to say that I liked the feeling of serenity it gave me.
The country I drove through was populated with way more old farms and farm houses than I thought I was going to see. I got the feeling that the rural life was alive and well in this part of the state in spite of the new subdivisions and those big, modern new monstrosities I delivered to. I even started imagining that maybe one day I could buy an old farm, move in with Steph and fix it up and have a place of our own to call home. In short, over those months I drove for Luke I felt I was changing. I wasn’t the skinny, grease ball mechanic who’s only other skill was hanging out at the Black Rooster getting drunk. I’d never had any kind of dreams for the future before, but now with Steph I did. It was something I wasn’t used to, but I but I was growing to like it. Maybe I was maturing or something.
And speaking of Steph, sometimes she’d ride with me. She’d usually sit close, nearly in my lap and put her left arm across the seat behind me and snuggle up next to me with her head on my shoulder and her right arm around my waist. Sometimes we’d talk, sometimes we’d just be quiet and enjoy each other’s company, just like we were a serious couple, which we definitely became over that summer.
“Steph, I’ve got a question for you,” I remember asking her on one of our drives together, “Do you like it out here. In the country, I mean.”
It was in early August and we were driving north on a smooth, blacktopped county road through land where there were green fields of nearly seven foot high corn rolling off to our right and left, and scattered wood lots and old farm houses mixed in with the occasional double wide trailer. A fiery orange sun was low on the horizon, another picturesque sunset. No McMansions in sight. I had slowed down to take a look at a quiet, little pond with cattails lining the edge, watching a muskrat and some ducks swimming around before I accelerated slowly back up to forty five miles an hour.
She kissed me on the cheek and went back to laying her head on my shoulder. “Sure, Ronny, as long as I’m with you.”
Man, had I lucked out.
I’m not much of a thinker but, in addition to falling head over heels in love with Steph, I had time while I was driving to think about the other changes I was going through. My dad had worked for Cramer Electric in Long Lake as an electrician before he left mom and me and my little sister, never to be seen or heard from again. Mom had worked the next town over at Winslow’s dry-cleaning but I guess after dad left she pretty much lost interest in most everything. She started drinking more than usual and a few years later died late one night in a head on crash on highway 12, a few miles outside of town, when I was eighteen. My sister was two years younger than me and she went to live with our aunt in Minneapolis. We split a little insurance money from mom, which I stuck in a drawer and tried to save but eventually blew on the Chevy. I stayed in town. I had started working at the service station when I was seventeen, so I got my apartment that summer mom died and had been getting on with my life ever since – essentially going nowhere and not doing much of anything.
Meeting Steph and now working for Luke had been an unexpected change in my directionless existence. For the first time in my life I felt I had a purpose. I wanted to stay with Steph and I wanted to keep working for Luke. Steph and I were good together and Luke was someone, the more I got to know, the more I admired. He was smart, he was savvy, he had a thriving business. What more could I ask for? I felt that I was on a roll for the first time in my life.
By the end of the summer I had a plan worked out. Luke paid well, so I had opened a bank account and was saving five hundred dollars a week. I figured if I could keep driving for him for a few more years, I’d have enough money in the bank for a good down payment an old farm on the land I regularly drove through in one of the counties somewhere north and west of us. It was exciting for me to dream about. Things were looking good.
On top of that, Steph helped me clean my apartment so it didn’t smell weird anymore, a complaint she’d had ever since that first night together. I remember that day well.
“Cleans up pretty good,” she told me, standing in the middle of the room and looking around. It was early September. I had just used class cleaner (for the first time in my life) and cleaned the only window in the place, the front one, which now was wide open letting in fresh air. Then, together, we had sprayed the cleaner on any other surface we could think of, using almost half a roll of paper towels to wipe everything down. It was pretty disgusting, I have to admit, but finally we got everything clean. Finally, I installed a new set of bright, white curtains Steph had brought over and when I finished we both admired them as they billowed out and blew a little in the breeze. For the first time since I’d moved in seven years earlier, the place smelled and looked the way a home you cared about was supposed to be – clean and sparkling and fresh.
We were both happy with the result and Steph moved next to me to give me a big hug. “I just might keep you around.”
Well, how could I argue with that? I was happy and had a future that was looking as bright as the window we’d just cleaned. Brighter, even.
Luke had been selling his moonshine in small quantities for about a year before I started driving for him. He’d had no problems with customers or run-ins with the law that entire time. Then he’d increased his production and expanded his business and hired me. Things still went smooth, with me driving throughout the summer and into the fall without a hitch. Then we had our first issue, and the weird thing was it had nothing to do with me – in fact, not even one of our customers, but one of our customer’s friends.
The way I heard it was this: about thirty miles north and west of us in the next country over there had been a moonshine party in conjunction with a Halloween celebration for adults only. You can probably imagine the rest. Apparently, one of the guests had been drunk out of him mind, tried to drive home dressed as Darth Vader and crashed into a tree, having passed out after he’d only driven a few miles. Soon after the crash, a guy out for a late night jog found the wreck and called 911. An ambulance came and Darth Vader was taken to the hospital in St. Cloud. He was cut up and had a slight concussion, but other than that he was alright. While the police questioned him I guess he let slip about the party he’d been to. Word had it he was crying and everything. I knew from experience that Luke’s stuff could affect you in unexpected ways, so when I heard how the guy had broken down under questioning by a county deputy while he was probably still drunk and laying in an unfamiliar hospital bed – well, the fact that he then ratted out his friend who had given the party didn’t surprise me at all.
The long and the short of it was that the next day two deputies went unannounced to the party house, had the unsuspecting owner let them in and proceeded to easily find Luke’s whiskey in the liquor cabinet in the downstairs amusement room. As you can imagine, that didn’t sit too well with the deputies. Word back to Luke from the customer was, ‘They sounded like somebody pissed in their own personal punch bowl.’ They confiscated the moonshine and a judge eventually fined the customer some serious money, more than usual given the circumstances, because our he wouldn’t say where he bought the moonshine from – which earned him a free case of whiskey from Luke, which the customer regretfully declined, saying to Luke, “Sorry, man, I’m going to have to lay low for a while.”
Which was good advice and we should have followed it. But we didn’t.
Luke was confident he wouldn’t get caught. “I’m not going to be pushed around by any jerk cops, you can trust me on that,” is what Luke told us at a meeting in the trailer a few days later when he filled us in on what had happened. “I’ve got a business to run.” So we went back to the way things were: Luke and the crew making the stuff and me driving the deliveries.
The problem was that now the cops in our county and the next couple of counties over were aware that something fishy was going. In retrospect, Luke should have just shut things down for a while, but he didn’t.
“I’ve got good money coming in so why stop?” was his reasoning. “We’ll just be extra careful,” he said and gave us all a look like he meant us. We got it.
So we soldiered on.
Luke had me oversee a modification on the Ford. In lieu of using the trunk, we put a false bottom in the backseat and that’s where we put the case (or cases) of whiskey – hiding them just to be on the safe side in case I was stopped for some reason and the trunk was searched.
I was also told to drive extra cautiously, which did.
Within a few weeks things were back to normal and the moonshine making operation was again running smoothly. Word got out about the cops being on the lookout for us so we lost a few customers but we gained a few also – people who most certainly were drawn to the potential danger of buying from us. We didn’t care – money was money. So all was well.
Luke calmed down and was happy and started working on a new formula to increase the whiskey’s potency (as if that was necessary!) Steph, who never worried about much of anything anyway, was extra happy and started making plans to paint my little apartment sage green or something like that. And I was happy, too. I enjoyed working for Luke. I had a full time girlfriend who I thought of as the love of my life and I was saving money for our future together. I couldn’t have asked for anything more. Then we had an early snow storm and everything changed in an instant.
It was the week before Thanksgiving and up until then the weather had been fairly sunny and mild, around forty degrees or so during the daytime. Then for two days the temperature fell to single digits at night and rising to only the low twenties during the day. A leaden sky settled in with a thick blanket of gray clouds hanging low over the entire area. At this time of year the fields had been harvested and the leaves had fallen from all the trees so the land looked dull, bleak and brown, a stark contrast to the verdant, rich greens summer and the brilliant oranges and reds and yellows of fall. Now, with the gray skies and cold weather, everything looked just empty and frozen and dead.
Steph and I and Luke and the rest of the crew switched to wearing heavy jackets and gloves and knit hats with earflaps and waited for the inevitable first blast of winter – snow. It began early that Saturday morning. The wind came up strong from the northwest, gusting across the land – hard blowing snow causing white-out conditions on the roads, adding to the steadily worsening driving conditions. It continued throughout the day. When I got to Luke’s that night he met me with a caution, “I just heard on the news, at least a foot has fallen and the roads west of here are pretty icy.” He tossed me the keys, “Be care out there.”
“Will do,” I told him.
I hiked through knee high snow drifts to the shed and got the Ford running. Lenny or one of the boys had plowed the driveway so it wasn’t too hard to get out to the country road. I turned left and headed out on my deliveries.
This was the first major snowfall of the season and it took some getting used to driving in it. The Ford fishtailed a little when I accelerated so I back off on the gas and settled into around forty miles an hour, ten mph or so less than I’d normally drive. In a snow storm like we were having the windshield gets covered up fast. I had my defroster on high and used my wipers to keep it as clear as I could but even with that, I couldn’t get it all – some streaks of ice formed and wouldn’t come off and after a few minutes it accumulated and built up a thick layer, causing the wipers to be ineffective and making the visibility pretty bad. I had to stop about every fifteen minutes or so to scrap it off with ice scraper. Plus, at this time of year it’s dark out and the few cars on the road had their headlights on and they seemed extra bright coming right at me reflecting off both the ice on the windshield and snow blowing across the highway. Not the best night to be out and about, that was for sure, but I was confident I could handle the Ford in the rapidly diminishing driving conditions.
But however confident I was, I could tell right away that even though the roads had been plowed at least once earlier that day, the wind had continued to howl and the snow had continued to fall, covering the surface right back up. That made those little traveled back country roads icy and slippery, causing the big Ford to fishtail and slide if I pushed the speed too much. So I kept my cool and drove as carefully as I could, stopping to scrape the ice off as was necessary, which slowed down the delivery run big time, but I decided it was better to take it easy and be as safe as possible rather than risk an accident.
During that night I drove nearly a hundred miles in just over three hours, making three deliveries. Other than a few slips on black ice on the roads, there were no problems.
After my third delivery I glanced at my watch. It was nearly 9 pm. I had one more stop to make before heading back to Luke’s where I’d pick up Steph and we’d go back to my place to ride out the remainder of the storm. My final stop was a for couple who had been customers for only a few months. I’d only been to their house twice before but couldn’t exactly picture in my mind how to get there, especially with the snowstorm making visibility so poor. I peered through the windshield, trying to keep the powerful Ford in the center of the highway while looking for any landmarks that would jar my memory. I couldn’t see much. My headlights cut into the night illuminating the falling snow and nothing else. I could barely make out the road in front of me let alone anything on the side. I felt like I was driving through a swirling tunnel of white. On top of that, the wind was relentless, buffeting my car and causing it to shimmy every now and then, which scared me a little. I had to use both hands to keep the big Ford on the road. I hadn’t seen another car in over half an hour.
The house I was looking for was on a small lake in an out of the way area of the county. I turned off highway eighteen onto country road thirty five and slowed down, mindful of the steep ditches on both sides and the ghostly shapes of trees faintly visible past them. The snow, which had been falling heavily for the last few hours, abated a bit, allowing me to see a little more clearly, but I’m being generous. The next day the news guys would refer to what I was driving in as one of the biggest blizzards in the state in ten years and I wouldn’t disagree with them. It was bad. But the weird thing was that spite of my worry about the ice on the roads and the white-out conditions, all things considered, this first snowfall of the season was really quite pretty – it made me think of a snow globe I once had as a young kid which was one of my favorite all times toys.
To be honest, I think my mind wandered a little – maybe I was imagining Steph and I living out in the country during a snowy night like tonight, curled up in front of a fireplace with a crackling fire, sipping hot cocoa, snug and warm and cuddly, handmade quilts wrapped around us for extra warmth…or something like that. Anyway, the snow suddenly picked up and started blowing again in gusting blasts. I couldn’t see more than twenty feet in any direction so I slowed down even more, just to be on the safe side. There were no tracks in the snow to follow. I felt I was the only person in the world.
I was in the middle of the road heading up a steep hill coming up onto the top of the rise. My eyes were flipping back and forth between watching the speedometer and the sides of the road all the while trying to keep the car from slipping off into the ditch, when the next thing I knew I was met head on by a vehicle coming up over the rise from the opposite direction. It was an oversized pickup truck with huge, wide tires, and it materialized out of the storm riding up high on heavy duty springs barreling hell bent right at me. It’s high beam headlights hit me square in the eyes, blinding me temporarily and I jerked the wheel to the right to avoid a collision, blinking fast to clear my vision. The truck blew right past me, snow swirling around it, buffeting my car and obliterating the road in its after wash. I didn’t panic. I’d grown up driving these kinds of roads and in these kinds of conditions. I quickly got control of the car, held the steering wheel firmly, took my foot off the gas and pointed the big Ford straight ahead down the other side of the rise all the while slowing my speed, waiting for the snow to swirl past me so I could see again.
My first mistake was assuming the road was going to go straight down the opposite side of the rise. It didn’t. It dipped downhill and curved to the left and by the time I figured out what was going on, it was too late. My other mistake was forgetting about the icy road surface. I spun the steering wheel to the left but my wheels skidded on some compacted ice and I felt the sickening sensation of losing control of my car as three thousand pounds of steel seemed to slide in slow, slow motion off to the right side of the road. Then, bang, it crashed into a snow bank left behind by a snowplow, shuttered once and then came to rest. The only good thing was that the snow bank kept me from sliding further off the road and all the way down into the ditch. But it was little consolation because even though I was still partially on the road, I was stuck, that was for sure.
I cursed to myself, turned the engine off, got out and hurried around to the back of the car and checked my predicament. I was in trouble. The plows had been down the road earlier and I had slid into what they had plowed up and left behind – a slushy, messy pile of snow, packed and frozen as solid as concrete. My car was jammed into it and was now tilted with the back end angled down toward the ditch. The situation didn’t look good but I had a glimmer of hope. While three wheels were stuck in the snow, the near left one was still on the pavement. Even with the wind blowing and the snow flying, my spirits lifted. Momentarily thinking I might get free, I jumped back into the Ford, got it running and rocked it back and forth, shifting the automatic transmission between drive and reverse. The tires spun and spun and spun some more. Then, just when I was thinking I might be making some headway and might be able to get the car free and up on the road again, the back end gave way to gravity and slid further down into the ditch, leaving the front end pointed up at an awkward angle. Me and my Ford were stuck and stuck good.
I slammed my hand on the steering wheel, turned the engine off and got out. The snow had picked up in intensity and I had to wipe it out of my eyes. The temperature outside was getting colder too – all in all, not the best night to be standing out in the country somewhere wondering what to do.
Both sides of the road slopped down at least ten feet. There was a forest on the side the Ford was on and I didn’t see any lights from any house or farms of any kind coming through the trees. On the other side was some thick underbrush and more trees. I looked and looked and then saw something through them I hadn’t noticed before. It was a lake. And since it was early in the season the water hadn’t frozen over yet – it was a big black hole in the night and looked dark and cold. Totally uninviting. But I could see lights coming from the houses on the shoreline, the nearest a hundred yards away. They looked warm and cozy, just like I imaged Steph and I being in our own place one day.
I was enjoying this brief mental interlude, picturing the two of us in our own snug little place, when my thoughts were interrupted. From the distance somewhere behind me I thought I heard a siren. I listened carefully, the sound being carried away at times by the wind, but after a minute or two I could tell it was for sure a siren and it was coming toward me. And as I was just beginning to wonder what was going on, I saw coming up the road from the direction I’d been headed, through the all of that blowing snow, the last thing I expected to see on a night like tonight, a guy and his dog.
He huffed up to my side and silently raised his hand in greeting. He was bundled up in a heavy jacket with a fur-lined hood pulled tight around his face and he took a moment to catch his breath. Then he told me he been out walking his dog. He’d seen my near miss with the truck and subsequent spin out and crash on the side of the road and was worried someone was hurt so he’d called 911.
“Are you Ok?” he finally asked, his breathing getting toward normal. He was old, maybe seventy. The part of his face I could see was windblown and ice and snow were frozen into his mustache and beard. In spite of all that, he was able to smile a friendly, concerned smile which I appreciated. He seemed like a nice guy.
“Yeah, I’m all right,” I told him.
We both looked over at the Ford. Then we looked at each other, neither of us having to say what we both thought, ‘That car’s going to need a tow.’
The guy went to check my car more closely while stayed back with his dog and fooled around with him, happy that I was going to get some help and get pulled out of the ditch. Then the reality of my situation hit me. Shit, the moonshine!
Just then the guy looked in the back of the Ford and yelled back to me, “Man, what you got in here? It smells like someone tipped over a bathtub of rubbing alcohol.”
In the background the sirens got louder. Whether it was cops or an ambulance or both, the end result was going to be the same and it wasn’t going to be good. When they got to me hard questions would then be asked about the moonshine. Questions I didn’t feel like answering. I took a look at the woods nearby and momentarily thought about making a run for it. I could see myself jumping into nearly twenty inches of snow leaving a nice trail for the cops to follow. Who was I kidding? They’d catch me in no time. I looked around trying to figure out some other way to escape, but it was pointless. The Ford was stuck, I was out in the country in a blizzard and I had nowhere to go. I was as stuck as my car was.
I walked a little ways away from the guy and his dog and turned my back to the wind. I took out my phone and hit speed dial.
Luke answered, “What?”
“We’ve got a problem,” I told him.
And I did, not realizing it was the last conversation I’d ever have with him.
If I’d known, I’d have thanked him for being a friend and for all the other things he’d done for me (not to get too sappy about it, but I can’t help it. He was a good guy who believed in me and gave me a job and didn’t mind me being with his sister and all of that. Plus, I liked being around him.)
But I didn’t say any of that. All I said after telling him what had happened was, ‘Good bye,’ and when I hung up he only said this, “Be safe.”
Then I went back to the Ford, stood around in the snow, shot the breeze with the old guy and waited for the sirens to get to me. I even played around with the guy’s dog some more, a friendly border collie if I remember correctly. In thinking back to that night, I can only say this – I was certainly pretty naive. I didn’t have a clue how much my life was going to change.
It was the cops that arrived first and when they did they took one look in the back of the Ford and they knew right away they had the guy who’d been running moonshine throughout the western metropolitan counties. It didn’t take a lot of detective work: the whiskey had broken up under the back seat and leaked out all over the inside the car and was even dripping out under the bottom of the door into the snow. You could smell it from ten feet away in spite of the wind. They found the false bottom under the seat in about thirty seconds and two minutes later I was in the back of the cop car heading for the county jail in Buffalo, about ten miles from where I’d been standing and twenty miles from Steph and Luke’s place. They called on the way in and told the ambulance not to bother. At least I was warm.
I was booked and held on bail that I couldn’t pay, so I remained in jail until my trial right around Christmas time. The judge wasn’t happy with anyone breaking both state and federal laws by making moonshine, so I got two years in prison in Stillwater. Happy holidays to me.
What happened to Luke and Steph and the crew? They got away. How did they do that, you might ask? Easy. I didn’t rat them out.
“No, it’s just me, no one else,” I told the judge and anyone else who would listen to me, even my public defender. “I’m just an independent guy living an independent life doing my own independent thing,” I said over and over again, trying to create a believable image of myself.
“And I’m not telling you where I make it either,” I emphasized whenever anyone asked (which they did a lot, believe me), which I’m sure didn’t help my case but I didn’t care. I thought of Luke as my friend, and Steph…well, let’s just say I thought of her as lots more than just a friend. I wanted to protect them both.
The cops were smart and I’m positive they didn’t believe a country bumpkin like myself could pull off an extensive whiskey making operation and they were probably right. But one thing going for me was that I think they thought I was a little nuts, so maybe that gave them enough reason, if not to believe me a hundred percent, at least give them enough wiggle room to at least pretend that they had the right guy. So that was good. And in the end, no matter what the cops thought, at least dealing with me took their attention away from Steph and Luke, and that’s all I wanted them to do.
The only wrinkle in my plan to keep them safe was the Ford. If I was afraid it would be traced back to Luke, it showed how I had underestimated him. It turned out the plates were stolen, the VIN number had been acid removed (probably by that guy in St. Cloud who’d done the overhaul), and the car for obvious reasons was not registered, so my friends were safe. I played along with what Luke had done with the car except I made them think it was me that did it, which just made the case against me far worse. But that was all right. By the time the trial was over, try as they might they couldn’t shake my story that it was just me running the moonshine business, even though I’m sure the judge and everyone else didn’t believe me. There was nothing they could do except make me pay which is what they did. In addition to prison, they confiscated all the money I had in the bank. I guess it went into some general fund for county improvements or something. Like I said, the judge was mad at me. Anyway, by the time it was all over I was left with nothing except my old Chevy. Apparently no one thought it was worth much and they were probably right.
I did my time in Stillwater Prison which is east of Minneapolis and St. Paul on the St. Croix river, the border between Minnesota and Wisconsin. All the time I was incarcerated I never once heard from Luke or Steph. Which bummed me out initially, but I figured, what the hell, they probably had their own reasons.
When my eighteen months were over (reduced by six months because of time off for good behavior, which actually made me feel sort of proud) did I expect to see them when I was released? I didn’t know, but I’ll tell you this, I secretly hoped I would. It was the images I concocted in my mind of Steph and I living a peaceful life somewhere on little farm in the country that helped keep me going while I was whiling away my time trying to stay safe and sane and working in the laundry (just like my mom used to do – except not in prison, of course.)
Steph was primarily in my mind all those months but it was also thinking about my friendship with Luke that helped too. I spent many idle hours laying in my prison bunk remembered nights at his place after my deliveries, sitting out back at the fire pit behind the barn, me and him and Steph, talking, smoking his weed, watching the moon and stars and hanging out. We all even played three handed cribbage occasionally. He was as close a friend as I’d ever had in my life and I not ashamed to say that I missed him.
So when I was finally released and stepped out into a warm spring morning a year and a half after my spin out and didn’t see either Steph or Luke, I was a little disappointed I will tell you that. I took my time, enjoying my freedom as I stood in the bright sun while holding a plastic bag containing my few belongings. I killed some time, looking around the big parking lot for maybe half an hour, watching cars and trucks come and go, sometimes even taking a recently released inmate with them, but no one came for me. Finally I gave up and walked the two miles from the prison into the river town of Stillwater. I’d earned a couple of hundred bucks working in the laundry so I used some of it to take a series of buses back to Long Lake, getting in late that afternoon.
While in prison I had kept in touch with both the service station and the hardware store. Charlie Swant gave me my old job back (part time) at the station, telling me he always thought I was a pretty good mechanic, which was nice to hear.
Jerry Sorenson, the owner of the hardware store and my landlord, let me rent my old apartment back saying, “I liked the way you fixed it up, Ron. You’re welcome to it, if you want.”
I took him up on his offer since he’d been nice enough to save it for me. I only had to move a bunch of stuff out he’d been storing there. I aired it out, too – the place kind of stunk.
Charlie Swant had always liked my Chevy. He’d offered to buy it from me after I was sentenced and I thought it was a good idea. I figured my treasured car wouldn’t do me any good while I was in prison so I told him he had a deal and sold it to him just before I was transferred to Stillwater. He told me he’d hold the money until I was released so the state wouldn’t take it which he did and he gave it to me after I got back to town. It was nice to have some cash. I reopened my old bank account and put the money in it.
So within a few days, I had a job, a place to live and some money in the bank. I was starting to build my life back again.
About a week after I returned I was working an afternoon shift at the station when Charlie took me aside and put a friendly arm around my shoulder. He was nearly sixty years old and always treated me like the son he never had. “Good to have you back, Ron. You doing Ok?”
It felt great to be free of prison and be able to do whatever I wanted to do, I can tell you that. “Yeah, it is,” I told him and we were both quiet for a minute, neither of us much for making idle conversation. But he had something on his mind and after a minute he looked at me kind of funny. “What?” I asked him.
“After I got your car, I put it away in storage for a year. Last winter I took it out and got it running, got it painted and all of that. Looks real nice.”
Yeah, put another knife in my heart, is what I was thinking. “I’m glad,” I told him, not really meaning it. I really had loved that car.
Sensing my mood, he quickly hurried on, “Anyway, I forgot that I found this under the carpet mat on the floor in the back.” He shoved a small, pink envelop into my hands. It was addressed to me, ‘Ron’ with a heart drawn around my name. “I guess it’s for you,” he must have noticed something in my expression, so he added, “Take a few minutes, if you want, and then get back to work.” He shook his head and gave me what looked like a sad expression. Then left me alone, thinking it had to be bad news. If he only knew.
It was Steph’s hand writing. I kid you not when I tell you that my heart leaped and started pounding in my chest like one of those kettle drums I saw a guy play once on television. Then my hands started shaking. I was so excited I didn’t know what to do. Finally I went out back of the station for some privacy. It was warm in the springtime sun. Across the street Long Lake was blue and fresh looking and its surface sparkled like diamonds in the bright sunlight. There were a few boats on it with people fishing. It was a beautiful day, the kind of day that would be perfect for good news. But if was bad news? Oh, man…if it was, I didn’t think I’d be able to take it.
I sniffed the envelop, thinking it might have a scent like Steph, but it didn’t. It smelled like my old Chevy and a gas station, but hell, it’s been a year and a half so what’d I expect?
As I held the envelope images of Steph suddenly came flooding back. The good times we’d had – riding in the Ford out in the country and making deliveries, hanging out in the county parks and making out and fooling around, stopping on dusty back roads near old farm houses and imagining buying one and fixing it up for ourselves – all the plans I’d made and that we’d talked about and that she’d been on board with. So many of them. I’d never been closer to anyone in my entire life and I doubted I ever would be again. If there was such a thing as ‘the love of your life,’ she was it for me.
But, be that as it may, I had reluctantly talked myself into believing she was gone forever. I’d borrowed Charlie’s station’s service truck the day after I’d come back to Long Lake and driven it out to their trailer just to see what there was to see. I didn’t have to go any further than to pull off to the side of the road at the entrance to the weed choked driveway. The trailer was dilapidated and uncared for, rust stains running down the siding under the windows. Grass and brush and weeds had grown up all around the property and the place had the feeling of total abandonment. It was easy to see it had been vacant for a long time. After a few minutes I turned around and had driven back to the station feeling more alone than I had felt like when I’d been in prison. It was a bad feeling. I was convinced that she and Luke were long gone and I’d never see them again.
Now there was this note…I took a deep breath to calm myself, opened the envelop and unfolded a small piece of pink paper. It read, “Go out to the shed and look under the floorboard on the northwest corner. Love, Steph.”
Well, well, well…maybe all was not lost.
I’m not sure how I got any more work done the rest of that afternoon. My heart was racing so badly I thought it was going to have a heart attack. What had she left for me? My mind flew but I couldn’t think of anything. What I really wanted was to see her and hold her and be with her but of course that was out of the question. No one in town had heard from her or Luke since I had been tried and sentenced. They had completely vanished. What would I find in that shed?
I had to wait until after my shift was over to find out. When it was I borrowed the service truck again and drove out to the farm.
The grandparents house was still there and the lawn looked freshly cut and the premises well cared for. This time I stopped in and said a quick hi to them. They were nice people and never had any idea what Luke had been up to on their property.
“Have you seen Steph and Luke?” I asked.
They hadn’t, only telling me that Luke sent them money every month with no return address.
“So we can stay here on the farm,” the grandma told me.
“Until the day we die,” the granddad added.
They both laughed at their little joke. Like I said, I always thought there were nice folks.
After I said goodbye, I went to the shed like I’d been instructed. The door was closed and the padlock was hanging so it looked like it was locked but it wasn’t. I removed it and pulled on the door. It creaked on its hinges and I had to pull hard, but I finally got it open. The inside probably hadn’t seen the light of day since Steph and Luke had left but there was still that faint grease and oil aroma I’d smelled the first time I’d been there. It smelled just as good.
With the door open I looked inside and had a start I’ll tell you, because what I was looking at right then was a dirty sheet with the shape of a car under it just like back that first time with the Ford. I took a moment to collect myself. What the hell was going on? Was I dreaming or something? Or was someone playing a sick joke on me? If they were it was too strange to be even remotely funny.
I hesitated for just a moment before my curiosity got the better of me. I reached out, my hand trembling. I half expected to see the old Ford underneath except I knew that wasn’t possible. It probably had been junked long ago by the county. I pulled the sheet off and as it fell to the ground and revealed what was underneath I gasped, not believing what I saw – something I never in a million years expected to see. It was a bright and shiny, teal and white, 1957 Chevy! I was stunned beyond all belief and nearly fainted. But I didn’t and, instead, reached out with a shaking hand and touched the hood just to make sure it was real. It was.
And boy did it look cool, just like it was brand new. My eyes quickly scanned over the surface, taking in its glossy beauty – the depth of the paint, the shimmery glow, the smooth feel of the refurbished steel. To say that it was incredible would not being doing justice to what I saw before me – it was the best looking restored automobile I’d ever seen and I’d seen a lot of them. It was perfect. Then I noticed an envelope addressed to me under a wiper on the windshield. I opened it and it read, “This is for all the hassle. I’m not sure how well it will run after two years, but if anyone can fix it, you can. Thanks for not ratting us out. Luke.”
Well, I never…
I went around to the side and opened the door and sat down in the driver’s seat. Luke must have put some peppermint inside to keep the mice away. It smelled good and looked even better. The interior was completely redone: the seats were teal and white like the outside, and the dash panel was shining teal and chrome. He’d left the key on the floor and even though I knew it wouldn’t start I had the feeling that all the electrical lights and wipers would work as well as the radio. (When I got it running, they did.) It even had a new, white steering wheel. I took a deep breath and let it out. The car was just like I imaged my old Chevy would have looked like if I’d been able to restore it like I wanted. But this was even better, though, because it was from Luke. Right away I thought of that guy up in St. Cloud who had done the work on the Ford. A smile spread over my face. Luke had taken it upon himself to do something nice for me. He hadn’t forgotten about me. To say I was touched by his generosity would be putting it mildly.
Something made me turn and look in the back seat and when I did I couldn’t believe what I saw. It was my old straw cowboy hat. Steph must have saved it from my apartment and put it there to surprise me. Boy did she ever. It was a touching gesture and made me feel as good as the car did – even better in some ways. Well, in most ways, actually. Neither Steph nor Luke had forgotten about me. I reached back to pick the hat up and put it on and when I did I smiled at the memories that came flooding back to me – memories of Steph and Luke and all of us together. I sat there in the front seat reliving the best times I’d ever had in my life. I sat there for a long time.
Finally I forced myself back to the real world. Steph’s note had told me be go back in the corner of the shed so that’s what I did next. I got out of the Chevy and found the loose floorboard and pried it up. Jammed under the floor joists was a plastic bag wrapped up and bound with duct tape and twine. I took it out and used my pocket knife to cut it open. It took a minute to realize what I held in my hands. It was a thick bundle of money. I quickly fanned it out and couldn’t believe what I saw. It was a stack of hundred dollar bills. It took me maybe five minutes to count all up and when I had finished it came to just over twenty thousand dollars. Twenty thousand dollars!
And another note from Steph. “We moved the operation to Iowa. Here’s the address. I’m so sorry about everything. Hope to see you soon.”
No, ‘Love, Steph,’ this time but I didn’t care. She hadn’t forgotten about me. I knew right then and there what I had to do.
It took me less than a month to get my new Chevy running again, which was easier than I thought it’d be after sitting in the shed for a year and a half. Once I put on a new set of white sidewall tires, cleaned out the carburetor, put in new plugs in and tuned her up she was ready to go.
On the day I was set to leave I checked to make sure the twenty thousand dollars Luke had given me was safely hidden on the floor under my car seat. It was. Then I shook hands and said a final good bye to Charlie and my landlord. “I’ve got a job lined up,” I told them both, “Got a chance to make some serious money.”
I’d told them all of that probably ten times before, but they were gracious enough to pretend I hadn’t. They both told me to take care of myself and I told them I would.
Then I got in my Chevy, put on my straw cowboy hat and started her up. The engine rumbled through the glass packed mufflers and twin tail pipes and sounded like it would kick a little ass if I needed it to. I sat for a minute imagining for about the thousandth time since I’d read Steph’s note what might lay ahead for me. I was headed to Iowa, land of corn fields and rolling hills and old farmhouses. I was going to find Steph and get back with her and with Luke and the crew. My dream was alive again. I’d work for Luke, save up my money, and Steph and I would find a place of our own to fix up and live in – an old farmhouse somewhere out in the country. Life would be good. Luke was the best friend I’d ever had. Steph was the best girlfriend I’d ever had. In fact, I was convinced she was my own true love – the love of my life. I didn’t want to lose her again. We were meant to be together, of that I was sure of.
I put juiced the accelerator and listened to the motor purr. I’d done a good job getting her running. I had the sudden thought that maybe I’d use the Chevy for the moonshine deliveries in Iowa . But then again, maybe Luke would want me to use some old beater of a car like we’d done with the Ford. It’d be less suspicious. Anyway, whatever Luke wanted, that’s what I’d do.
I looked out the windshield, resting my hands on the steering wheel. I could see my future playing out before me and I liked what I was seeing. I was sure I was ready for it, especially with Steph by my side. Then, out of the blue, I suddenly made a decision I’d been thinking about ever since my first day in prison if not way before then – something I’d been imaging off and on for what seemed like forever, and right then and there at that moment I decided I was going to do it. And that decision was this: when I found Steph, I was going to ask her to marry me. Then we’d be together for the rest of our lives. Then life would be perfect.
I pasted a big grin on my face, adjusted my cowboy hat, put my car into drive and turned onto the highway. In a few minutes I was out of town. It felt good to have a plan and to be on my way. I brought the Chevy up to speed, hardly paying any attention the corn fields streaming by on either side as I took a county road out toward the interstate. I rolled the window down and cracked the side vent to get a breeze on my face. The sun was shining and the air felt fresh and clean. I was on my way to Iowa. Hopefully, a year from now I’d have enough money saved to put a down payment on my own place with Steph. All I had to do was drive those back country roads and make deliveries of moonshine – just like I’d done in Minnesota. I could do that. Easy.
I pushed the Chevy faster, eager to get back with my friends as soon as I could. Then I had a sudden, sobering thought. I remembered my last delivery for Luke and the snow storm, the blizzard and the wind and the truck’s headlights and my spin out and getting stuck and getting caught by the cops and finally being thrown into prison. There’d be snow in Iowa in the winter too, just like in Minnesota. The driving conditions would be just as slippery and just as treacherous. So this time I’ll be extra careful on those Iowa back roads. No more accidents for me. No sir. And no more jail time either. Lesson learned. This time I’ll keep my eyes on the road and treat that moonshine whiskey with the respect it deserves. And this time, for sure, I’ll watch out for the ice.