The Common Man's Beer

by D.W. Davis

The sun-faded bottle of Budweiser by the side of the road twitched. Chris bent down in the gravel, peering past the label. A large water beetle of some kind had crawled inside and could not seem to find its way out. Chris gave the bottle a tap, which sent the beetle scurrying futilely against the glass.

"Stop that," Tori said. "That's disgusting."

Chris wondered if the beer was his father's. He knew his father and his friends drove around these back roads at night, the radio turned up and a cooler of beer in the truck bed, within each reach through the back window. This was his father's brand, but it was also "the common man's beer," as his father put it.

His sister shifted her weight behind him. "Come on, numb nuts," she said. "We're gonna be late."

Chris figured if God really wanted them to make it to church on time, He would've given them enough money for a second car, so their mother could take them when she went in early to set up, instead of riding her bicycle. Or maybe He could've convinced their father not to sleep off his drunk somewhere else. Chris tried to remember the last time his father had spent the night at home. He thought he'd heard him come in the previous Wednesday night, but that may have been a dream.

Chris picked up the bottle and turned it upright. The beetle fell to the bottom with a click. There was still some beer in there, a few drops, and the beetle panicked when it hit the alcohol, splashing and sputtering its wings. It banged furiously against the glass, each collision hard enough to shake the bottle. Chris wondered if the bug would eventually break through, or if it would bash in its brains first.

"Oh, Jesus," Tori said. "Christopher William, that is so disgusting."

His sister thought everything was disgusting. She, with her spotless white blouse and polished church shoes. She, who couldn’t even stand a leaf or a bit of dandelion fluff in her perfect blond curls. Tori was born prematurely, Chris was often told, and had spent her first month in an incubator. He didn't think she'd ever grown out of it. He and his friends called her "Bubble Girl" behind her back.

Chris thought of shoving the bottle in Tori's face, but he was fairly certain she'd tell their mother. He wouldn't be punished immediately—as a deacon and Sunday school teacher, their mother would be busy most of the day—but she would get around to him eventually, and she wouldn't go easy. As his father spent more and more time away from home, Chris's mother had become increasingly irritable, easy to provoke. As the only male around, Chris took the brunt of her anger. Not that Tori was spared, either; his mother was constantly reminding her not to "act like a little tramp," or "take what isn't yours." On an almost-subconscious level, Chris knew what this signified, but anytime the thought approached the surface, he shoved it aside.

Deciding not to risk it, Chris titled the bottle sideways and gave the bottom a slap. The beetle slid to the lip of the bottle, and Chris briefly upended the glass. The beetle landed on the rocks in a small puddle of alcohol. The blow stunned it; the bug didn't try to crawl away, didn't even twitch. For a moment, it was perfectly still.

A sudden swell of anger rose up within Chris, like bile. He raised his foot and brought it down hard on the beetle. He heard it pop like a pimple beneath his shoe. Felt its shell crack beneath the pressure. When the sole of his shoe met the rocks, he twisted his foot back and forth, like he remembered his father doing to a cockroach once. Gotta make sure you get 'em good, he'd said. Get the job done right the first time.

Chris sighed. He felt something come out of him as he did so. His stomach felt lighter. The sun seemed a little brighter. He couldn't tell if it was just in his head or not, and he wasn't sure he wanted to find out.

"What was that?" Tori asked. "Was that a bug?"

Chris turned the bottle back up. Not all of the beer had spilled; a little pool remained, almost as an afterthought. Chris ran his finger over the label; the glue beneath had come loose from the sun, and the label shifted under his finger. He pushed at it until it started to peel off. Then, without fully realizing what he was doing, he raised the bottle over his face, stuck out his tongue, and tipped the bottle forward.

The liquid fell onto the tip of his tongue. Flat and warm. Stale. Something else, too, something from the muddy and damp and dark places in the soil, where the sun never reached and the worms lived. He could feel it spreading along his tongue, hitting each taste bud in turn, sinking further into him. An invasion of flavor, of overwhelming earthiness. He hocked saliva and spat into the gravel, again and again, until his mouth was dry. Even then, he could still taste it.

Behind him, Tori gagged. She started to say something, but all that came out was a wet gurgle. Chris turned and saw his sister kneeling, a thin strand of vomit hanging off her chin. She coughed a few times, bits of spittle flaking the dirt. Then she stood and gave him a look he had never seen before. A look that said he was something foreign and unknowable and possibly dangerous.

Without speaking, Tori marched off towards the church. Chris watched her go. She would tell their mother everything, and he wouldn't be able to sit right for a day or two. But he didn't regret it. The musty flavor had faded into something else, a dull warmth that he imagined his father must taste towards the end of the night, or whenever and wherever he woke up. The kind of flavor that, even though he'd just tasted it for the first time, felt to Chris like something he'd known his whole life.

He looked at the bottle for a moment, then heaved it towards the trees. The glass, weakened by exposure, cracked against a tree, but he couldn't throw the bottle hard enough to shatter it. The bottle fell into the grass at the base of the tree. The morning sunlight danced off its surface.

Chris ran his tongue against the top of his mouth, trying to push the taste deeper. He had something in common with his father now, he knew, even though he was certain that hadn't been his father's bottle. His father would never have let even such a small amount of beer go to waste.

———

D.W. Davis is a native of rural East-Central Illinois. His work has appeared in various online and print journals. You can find him at Facebook.com/DanielDavis05, or @dan_davis86 on Twitter.