I am going to tell a story. Nested within this story, like so many matryoshka dolls, is another story already known to pretty much anyone who knew me ten years ago. I expect everyone can handle that, but I felt a caveat was worthwhile at the beginning. I’m going to tuck this story below the fold.

As we all know, a few weeks ago I went up to DC to visit some friends and attend their going away party. At this party were actually several of my friends, more of whom than just the hosts were imminently departing the District towards other climes and times. One of these friends, who asked that his identity be obfuscated in some way, had a small gift for me and I wish to tell you of this gift.

The friend – let’s call him Hank – and I have been friends for, oh, fifteen years or so. Ten of those years ago we were both in college and he approached me with the suggestion of a brief road trip to Tennessee; specifically, we were destined for the hills of Eastern Tennessee, a tiny town in a remote corner of the craggy Appalachians I grew up looking at from the other slope. “Why?” I asked.

“I’ve got something I need to pick up while I’m there,” he said.

A very little bit of prodding led to the whole of the situation: we were to drive up there on a Friday in Hank’s truck, spend Saturday repairing a mutual acquaintance’s computer and drive back on Sunday with our bartered payment. The payment in question? Two gallons of moonshine.

Two gallons. I immediately agreed.

The trip up was uneventful as far as Asheville but let’s be honest here; much as I love my mountains, there is just nothing to do in the middle of the night between Asheville and Knoxville except stare in anticipation at the arrival of the massive fireworks vendors tucked behind one hilly curve and then another for miles and miles, each lit up like the Lincoln Memorial and three times as huge. Hank was driving and as the night wore on I got progressively more and more sleepy. At a stop for gas I picked up a small bottle of the then-legal highway stimulant of choice: mini-thins. I began to eat them like shiny candies. By the time we crossed the state line into Knoxville I was practically vibrating around the cabin of the truck, singing along to the radio with lyrics I made up on the spot. Hank joined in and we managed to scan the dial long enough to pick up a rock station in that desert of country & western. As Pearl Jam’s “I’m Going Hungry” blared from the speakers we screeched alternative words: I’M THROWIN’ MONKEEEEEEEEEEYS, YEAAAAAAAA-YEAH-AH-AH.

Sometime very, very late on that Friday night we turned off the interstate onto a state highway, then onto a back road, then eventually off the paved road entirely. We had arrived at our destination. Our host for the weekend opened the door to greet us and had, if I rightly recollect, two glasses of ice. “Howdy,” she said in my memory of the occasion. “Let’s get you boys some drinks.”

“Some drinks,” it turned out, were moonshine screwdrivers – shinedrivers as Hank and I came to call them in short order. A shinedriver is a glass of iced moonshine with a healthy dose of Tang orange-flavored drink powder stirred into it. We sought the wisdom of experience from our host in terms of its drinking and she said this: “See, first you get’cherself a ‘shine screwdriver – and I don’t mean a weak one – and then you get’cherself about eight Xanax…” Though I recall declining the offer of Xanax, as did Hank, my memory of the rest of the weekend immediately goes dark. I remember reclining on our host’s couch and wondering if I would ever be sober again and I recall that by the light of the following day I could see that her home was… well, picturesque. It was a beautiful home on a generous patch of lush, well-tended flora. I remember being stunned. I’d come several hundred miles to spend my weekend drinking moonshine in a house that could be on the cover of Southern Living. I do remember our host’s computer, in that it was set up on a large desk next to a picture window that offered a view of the expanse of greenery behind her home. In some other life or on some alternate Earth she would be a well-known Southern author of books about the quiet death of feeling in stultifying, extended families or maybe a humorist with a sharp wit that drew blood from all of us on every page, I don’t know – didn’t know her well and still don’t – but for right then she was the lady with the hooch in vast quantities.

Sunday we left with two gallons of moonshine on the floor of Hank’s truck, between my feet. We joked that if we got pulled and the cop inquired as to their contents we would say they were water for the radiator. Then we prayed that didn’t happen for fear we would be expected to pour moonshine into a hot radiator. Then I started popping mini-thins and I don’t really remember the rest of the trip. When we got back, I ended up with a couple of quarts that went the way of all booze in my possession at the time and Hank spent years experimenting with the six in his care. He divided his gallon and a half into quart jars and turned some into “brandy,” left some straight, all sorts of things. I remember a party to which he brought a flask filled with pear “brandy” and, as he and I tended the outdoor fire at our hosts’ request, he would from time to time open the flask and just flick a little splash onto the fire. The result was an enormous whoosh from the fire barrel and screams from other party-goers.

Those were, suffice to say, other days and times. It’s been a long time, many years, since I was a problem drinker. Pesky issues of self-esteem and purpose sorted themselves out somewhere along the way and I could finally put the bottle down when I wanted to. Back then, though? Heavens, back then. Tsk.

So anyway… in DC a few weeks ago, at the going away party for Deadblob and his wife, Hank reached into some container or carton or bag, I know not what, and said to me, “Hey, there’s something I need to give to you. I can’t figure out how to take it with me.” I was naturally intrigued by this. We were standing sort of in the middle of Deadblob’s kitchen and thus in the middle of his party when Hank said this and all conversation died for ten feet in any direction.

Then Hank pulled it out: a single quart of the moonshine from Tennessee. It was sealed up – had been sealed for a decade – inside a simple Mason jar. Maybe it was a Ball jar, come to think of it. I’ll have to go check now, it’ll bother me otherwise. Regardless, he lifts this – hefts it – into view to show me the bounty he has brought and I – well, I think I gasped.

“The moonshine,” I said. Discretion is ever my watch-word, of course.

Hank smiled and nodded at me. “The very last, and I am not about to try to get it onto a plane.” Hank was one of the people there who was likewise departing DC in the near future. It was pure dumb luck that I was there to get it in the first place. Everyone else had immediately stopped what they were doing and were staring at the moonshine for the moment it hung there in Hank’s hand, displayed for all eyes to see, then tucked back into whatever case or valet or HazMat drum he’d brought with him.

“If I take that with me I’ll have to take it on the Metro to get back to the hotel,” I said. “Are you prepared to declare the Clarendon Metro stop a complete loss? Because that is exactly what will happen if I drop this thing. It won’t spill, it will go off.” We laughed and exchanged a few “oh, remember the mini-thins!” giggles over the trip and then I leaned in a little closer to Hank and said, “You know, it’s been a long time since anyone sidled up to me at a party and said, ‘Hey man, I need you to hang onto something for a while.'”

When I left Deadblob’s that night, I carried the quart with me. I tucked it into the crook of my elbow like a small baby and marched, head high, right into the metro and right down the steps to the platform for my train. Two of the other people at the party – locals to DC whom I’d only met that night – spotted me and waved. I walked over to them and their eyes immediately fell on the quart jar. “Oh my god!” I remember the utter shock of one of them so very well. “Is that the…” I nodded, patting it with my free hand. “Are you bringing that on the Metro?” I gave her a Look and said, quite matter-of-fact, “It’s 2am on a Saturday night. I won’t be the weirdest person on my car.”

Suffice to say, that quart sat out on my bedside table for the rest of my trip. I did not open it. Christ alive, no, I did not open it.

When The Boyf picked me up from the station that Sunday night, so very late, and we were driving around the corner and through downtown Raleigh to head back toward Durham, I remember that as he was downshifting on his way to a red light I suddenly and excitedly unzipped my carry-on and said, “You won’t believe what Hank gave me!” I, as he had done, lifted the jar high and held it by the lid so that the glass would catch the light. It gave a sloosh from the movement of the car. The Boyf had heard all the stories a million times already. His eyes flitted over to it for just a moment, then right back to the road.

No one,” he said without skipping a beat, “Is going to drink that.”