When a man finds a never-ending, eternally replenishing case of craft beer at the local grocery store, you can expect a corny allegory, the kind of groan-worthy and forgettable Twilight Zone episode sandwiched between two better ones. At best, this must be one of those SNL skits relegated to the last half hour, where the comedians stain the screen with their flop sweat while the guest host shrugs his way to the conclusion.
I, however, have read enough magical realism to not immediately check out. My last boyfriend, an aspiring drag queen, celebrated both the classic South American novels of his home country and the current flash fiction of his avant-garde contemporaries, small tales that are nevertheless bloated and spiky, like a rare fish you have to sign a waiver before eating. Either way, the stories traffic in impossible events, teasing the joy of fantasy right up to the end, when the helpless characters finally succumb to the absurdity of life.
This is all the more important because the man I have followed home, the one with the bottomless case of beer, is an English teacher at the same college where I teach Physics to three sections of glassy-eyed freshman. He represented his station perfectly at faculty happy hour, with his worn slacks and wrinkled shirt, the rumpled ends untucked, like late autumn leaves clinging to a tree. The first thing I heard him say was a proclamation about a recent indie movie, decrying its tangled themes and poor acting, and I thought, oh great, one of these guys. But he dropped the analysis after meeting me and seemed genuinely interested in writing in LaTeX, and the adjustments to moving to the mountains from the Bay Area. Eventually, the two of us peeled off from the other academics and began to chat about the deficiencies in the local bar scene, the one good movie theater downtown, the boyfriends we’ve each left behind in distant cities, and, when he was ready to reveal it, the secret beer stash, newly discovered. So new that I am the first to hear of it.
Two hours later, he’s ushering me shyly into his kitchen. His whole house, a tiny place on the west side, exists to cover wall space. There’s the bookshelves, of course, but also paintings and photographs and scraps of maps, and some kind of woven mat thing above the couch. In one corner, framed concert posters. In another, photographs of dogs. A defunct fireplace takes up most of one wall, the mantle displaying a white enamel clock with gold scrollwork, perfectly Liberace in its faux-French excess, the most fabulously gay item in the house. The wall art continues into the kitchen, where an identification guide for basic herbs hangs above the stove.
“Watch,” he says, opening his dull white fridge. I peek around the door, and there, as promised, is the generic brown cardboard case of beer, the top open. He reaches in, easily halfway into the box, and pulls out a gleaming silver can, no label. He hands it to me.
“And now one for me.” He takes another.
“Wow,” I say, all deadpan sarcasm. After all, I didn’t follow him home because I thought the story was true. I liked the way he told it. And that he’s cute.
“You want to double fist?” he says. He takes out another, shoving it in my free hand. “Triple?” Another can. “Quadruple?”
He pulls out cans until I’m cradling eight in my arms. All silver, all without labels, too many to fit into that one twelve-pack box that is clearly half-empty.
“No way,” I say, and tumble the cans into his sink. He steps aside while I inspect the box. Boring cardboard packaging. Exactly five cans inside: two in the middle cradled by three on the bottom. Tilting the box doesn’t reveal a secret compartment below. I take one can, then another, looking away for a second to make sure both are secure in my left hand. When I look back in the box, five cans. I almost drop the two cans and look over my shoulder, sure he has sneaked up behind me to perform the trick, violating personal space I have not yet given him permission to violate. He stands at the opposite counter, too far to interfere, already drinking from his unmarked beer.
I put the two cans back in the case and shut the fridge before finding out if the seven cans turn back into five. “Okay, cool, you’re a magician, too.” Hair stands on the back of my neck, my cheeks are flushed. He got me. I believe the impossible, if only for a moment, which makes me a fool.
“I told you you wouldn’t believe me,” he says, opening one of the beers and handing it to me.
“I still don’t believe you.” I lean on the counter by him, but not too close, since this ridiculous scenario will require he deliver an actual apology before I touch him again.
The apology comes in the form of the beer. I’d forgotten this part of his promise, this extra layer of absurd storytelling. Earlier, at the bar, he told me the beer was not only bottomless, but the most amazing elixir on God’s earth. Another fun lie meant to draw me in, tease me, show his playfulness.
I’ve had how many beers at this point in my life? Not just individual beers, but the categories they are shuffled into, rearranging as tastes change, alcohol content rising and rising before falling and rising again. Ales, pilsners, stouts, imperial stouts, IPAs, Brut IPAs, West Coast IPAs, hazy IPAs, session IPAs, mango IPAs. No new styles exist, just trendy fruits added to old beer, and new beer added to old whiskey barrels. The wonder of discovery is gone, replaced by appreciation for the familiar.
The smell of his miracle beer is bright, somewhere between the sweet malt of a lager and the sweet grape of a wine. The first taste reminds me of a Belgian beer, rich textures of fruit and spice, but it’s far too light for that. The mouthfeel matches my initial impression of a lager, but without the salty carbonation that accompanies American pilsners, or the spicy German hops of craft lagers. After swallowing, I feel no crackling on my tongue, no bitter aftertaste, no lingering dryness that calls for another drink. I feel refreshed, like drinking a glass of water. No, it’s more than that, both more substantial and more ethereal, like drinking the evening sun’s reflection off a still mountain lake.
I look at him, and he’s no longer smiling as he was before, no longer enjoying a rigged game at my expense. He watched it all, every emotion as I took my first sip, rolling the liquid across my tongue, assessing its quality with open wonder and disbelief. Yet he looks at me now with worry, as if I might not have experienced something magical, like this isn’t the most unbelievable and unlikely thing that any human has ever come across. He seems to think I will say, “this shit is just Bud Light,” or “the best beer is the one in your hand.” Either way, his anxiety is palpable, tracing every tense line on his body, and his wide, blinking stare awaits my response.
I stare back in kind, afraid to admit that I tasted exactly what he claimed, that this is the best beer I’ve ever had, and yes, it comes in endless amounts, can after can from that stupid brown box. All I can do is admit I believe. It’s all true. The fear, of course, is that he will laugh at me. He will drop the act, explain the trick, and reveal the magic as a technical series of hand gestures and misdirections. Fully excited by my naiveté, he will proceed to lay me out as yet another gullible sexual conquest lured in by the promise of the impossible.
But even worse, he might do none of that. In the most sublimely terrifying scenario, he will draw me close, kiss me, and admit that he doesn’t know why the beer is so good, or why it keeps reappearing, no matter how many times we reach for it.
The clock has just struck midnight and the most fantastical possibility is that he is just as big a fool as I am.