There was a small restaurant in the area I grew up in that was simply called Uncle John and Aunt Annie’s. It was your typical small town restaurant that served home cooked meals and was run by a nice older couple.
The two of them must have been in their late thirties or early forties when they opened it. What made the place so special was not the food, but the drinks. The couple was brewing their own homemade booze. They had their own juices, beers and even a variety of hard liquor. The one that was the most popular was called Aunt Annie’s Ale. It was a sort of reddish fruit liquor if I remember correctly. Everyone loved it, but there was never much of it available. Uncle John always said it took a long time to make it.
It was supposedly really strong and tasted amazing. There were many people who came to the place not so much to eat, but simply to drink the Ale. I don’t think they ever sold any bottles of it, but instead served it exclusively during meals. A pretty clever strategy I must say.
I know that many people asked how it was made, but the couple never revealed anything about it or the ingredients used. There was even a story about some trouble one day, when someone tried to break into their place at night to find out how it was made. It was pretty crazy how popular the stuff was.
Even long after the restaurant had closed and the couple had retired, people continued to go there to ask them about it. To this day, people continue to talk about Aunt Annie’s Ale. While the place itself is almost completely forgotten, it is this one drink that everyone still knows about.
It is exactly this Ale that brought my best friend and me to my old hometown. We had put our savings together and started our own little restaurant. This had reminded me of the old place in my hometown. After I had told my friend the story about the Ale, we soon decided to get back and try to get the recipe of the stuff. If it was only half as good as everyone had made it out to be, we could make some serious money.
After some research and getting in touch with some old friends I found out that Uncle John had died almost a decade ago. Aunt Annie was still alive though. She must have been in her seventies by now. As soon as I had found out that she still lived in the same building that had housed their restaurant, we were on our way there.
When we reached our destination I recognized the old restaurant right away. There was even the old display. Most of the colors had faded and some of the letters were gone which now made the name an indistinguishable mess. As we left the car and made our way towards the building, I could see movement behind one of the windows on the second floor. Before we even reached the door we were greeted by a tiny old lady. I remembered that back in the day Aunt Annie had been an older, but crafty, happy and boisterous woman, who was friendly to everyone. Seeing her now, it looked like she had shrunk to only half her size. The first word that came to my mind when I saw her was frail.
For a moment she only looked at us and didn’t say anything. Then she opened her mouth.
“If you boys are looking for a place where you can have a meal, sorry to tell you, but this place here has been closed for a very long time now. You’d best be off and try the place down in”, she started to think, trying to remember a name.
I spoke up right away.
“But Aunt Annie, it is me, little Jerry, don’t you remember?”
She looked up and examined my face for some time, but then she started to smile.
“Oh of course, little Jerry! How nice of you to come and visit me! Come in, come in!”
My friend looked at me, brows raised, but I shushed him to be quiet. Of course my name wasn’t Jerry. There might have been a kid with that name in town, but I couldn’t care less. The moment I saw Aunt Annie, I had already guessed that her state of mind might be as frail as her body and that old age had taken the better of her. When she recognized me as little Jerry I knew.
She probably had no idea who Jerry was and just assumed that I was a relative of hers or her brain had conjured up an image of a random family member. It was kind of sad seeing her like that, but what worried me the most was that she might have forgotten about the Ale. She motioned us up the stairs into her living room and told us to take a seat.
Aunt Annie’s place gave one the feeling of traveling back in time. The furniture must have been old even when I was a kid. The television set was a huge clunky piece that one would be lucky to find at a scrap yard these days. Even the smell of the place was old and moldy.
Aunt Annie had been talking ever since we entered the place. I didn’t understand half of what she was saying and didn’t care about the rest, but she happily chirped on about how glad she was that someone came to visit her and whatever else. I simply nodded, said it was nice and smiled a lot. That did the trick.
I soon shifted the topic to the old restaurant and how things were different back then. She went on to tell us stories about herself, Uncle John and the many people the two of them had known back in the day. To be honest I have no idea if even half of it was true, but I could tell that her mind was all over the place. This went on for almost half an hour before I even got the chance to ask for the Ale.
The moment it had left my lips she looked up right at my face. It was as if she had suddenly snapped out of her drowsiness.
“It is all gone.” she hissed at me.
“Every last drop.” and after a little break she added “Stuff of the devil.”
“What are you talking about Aunt Annie?” I asked her.
“I am not here to get any of it. I just came to visit you.” I assured, but she didn’t react at all.
She was too agitated and murmured to herself. I finally got up and put a hand on her shoulder.
“Aunt Annie?” I asked.
“Oh Jerry, I am sorry, what were we talking about? Sometimes I forget.”
I nodded smiling and told her we had been talking about the old times. She smiled and started talking again. I wondered what had caused this sudden episode. I assumed it was just the frustration with all the people, who had come here constantly after the years.
I decided I’d try a different approach. I told her that my friend and I were starting our own restaurant and that we’d like to get some tips or hints from her. After all her place had been the talk of the town back in the day. There was nothing she could tell us. They simply prepared food and people came.
“People need to eat, right?” she said smiling.
I sighed and cursed.
I asked her if she had any recipes. She started to think hard, but said that nowadays she didn’t cook much anymore. She often forgot ingredients or part of the process and ruined everything. By then I was starting to get frustrated. I told her that the last time I was here she had promised to hand me her old cooking book.
That’s when she lighted up a little.
“Oh you are right, the book, the book. I am sorry Jerry, I forgot all about it. My mind is not as good as it used to be. Where did I put it again?”
“Don’t worry about it.” I said and nodded.
She motioned me to follow her along. She went into a little kitchen and then just stood there for what must have been minutes, thinking. Finally she went to an old drawer and after rummaging around for a bit, she got out a tiny old notebook. She smiled happily and handed it over to me. I flipped through it quickly, but all I found was recipes for the various meals they served. There was no mention of any drinks. I started to get seriously mad at that point.
“Well that is all nice, but what happened to Uncle John’s notes? The ones about the drinks. Wasn’t it his drinks that made your place as popular as it was?”
Her mood changed right away as the word drink came up. Again she started to curse and murmur to herself.
“What is the matter Aunt Annie?”
For a moment she just stared at me open eyed.
“Is it because they all wanted to get more of it?”
“More of what dear?” she asked. The episode was already over again.
“More of the Ale, Aunt Annie.” I confronted her.
“There is no more of the ungodly stuff. We had to stop making it” she broke off.
“Why, I asked?”
“Because it was wrong John! We can’t anymore. I can’t” Now she seemed to be lost again. Tears welled up from her eyes and ran down her cheeks.
“Why can’t you?”
My friend had gotten up and had entered the kitchen and looked at me with a sullen face. I didn’t care.
“Because we used them!” she cried.
“Who are they?”
She started to cry heavily, shivered all over and almost collapsed, crashing against the kitchen.
“It was wrong John, all of it, we can’t ever go down there again.”
“The basement, John. Everything down there is wrong.”
She went on and on but I couldn’t really make out the words anymore. Not that I cared.
Aunt Annie was clinging to the kitchen counter. My friend looked at me in disgust.
“That’s enough man.” He said and went over to the old lady. I simply shrugged.
“I’ll have a look at what can find down there.”
With that I simply left. Judge me all you want, but there was most likely no other way to find out about it.
It took me a while to find the door that led to the basement. It was at the back of the house at the end of the old dining room.
As I approached the old door I found it locked. No surprise I thought. For a little while I searched for the keys, but when I didn’t find any I went back to the door. Fuck it, I said to myself. After two heavy kicks the door already bent inwards a little bit. Three more and the door swung open.
I couldn’t see a thing as I started down the stairs. Thankfully I found a light switch that was still working.
A lonely light bulb swung from the ceiling near the bottom of the stairs. I went down one step at a time, testing each stair before putting my weight on it.
When I had made it to the bottom, I looked around but didn’t see anything of interested. I saw some old, empty shelves that must have once been filled with supplies. There was a tool here and a box there, but nothing else. It didn’t take long to look through most of it. Then I found yet another doorway which lead to a second part of the basement.
In this second room was an old self-made still that must have belonged to Uncle John. I smiled to myself and started to search the room. There was another shelve here, covered by an old blanket.
I made my way there but then I saw the little desk next to the still. It was hard to see since the light bulb in this room was broken and there was only a little bit of light coming in through the doorway. I went to the desk and opened the drawers.
The first one was filled with an assortment of tools and spare parts. The second one was the same. It was in the bottom one that I finally found what I had been looking for. A notebook and a couple of sheets of paper.
The first thing I checked was the sheets, but it was just instructions about the still or drawings of its various parts. I put those down and opened the notebook. Bingo.
The first page showed that I had found what I was looking for. It were the instructions for an herb liquor called Herby Herbert. I went through the pages and there was a variety of other liquors and drinks all with equally dumb names. Bobbie’s Berry Booze. Long Leg Larry’s Liquor. It went on and on like that. I had to admit some of these names were pretty funny and creative.
When I came to the last page I was confused. There were more than two dozen drinks in here but no Ale.
“What the hell. Why is it not in here?” I cursed.
I checked the single pieces of paper again, then carefully went through the whole notebook again. Nothing.
I threw the notebook to the ground and went back to the drawers. I had gotten a little idea. If this really was their secret brew then maybe they had hidden the recipe.
It took me not even five minutes to find it. There was a little secret space at the bottom of one of the drawers. A stack of notes was hidden there. They were old, dirty and clipped together.
“That must be it.” I said to myself in triumph.
There was no name on it, instead only some handwriting on the top page. The notes were pretty dirty and I couldn’t read a thing with only the little amount of light in the room. I went back up from the basement and sat down at one of the old dining room tables.
I unfolded the notes and soon noticed that the handwriting was different from that in the notebook. The notebook had probably been written or copied by Aunt Annie, but these here must be the raw notes by Uncle John.
For a moment I was confused about what exactly I was looking at. While the first page was covered in notes the second one showed different drawings of glass jars. A whole number of them, all with individual notes. The third page held more instructions and the last one listed all the ingredients. I read sugar, fruits, strawberries and a couple of other things. That was it. There was no name on the pages, but the ingredients left no doubt that I had found what I’d come here for.
I started reading the notes. Creating the drink was a very long process, because acquiring a so called special ingredient took a long time and was very hard due to the limited amount available. I was intrigued and wondered what it was.
As I read on I found out how you had to prepare some of the ingredients and how to let them age, till they were ready to be distilled. The special ingredient was mentioned a number of times, but it was never revealed what it was. Apparently it was put into the glass jar and let ripen in there for weeks or even month till it was ready. The process was mentioned in excruciating detail. As far as I understood the most significant factor was time. The process itself wasn’t too hard.
I checked all the notes, looked for a kind of secret message, but never found out what the special ingredient actually was.
I remembered the page with the glass jars. On here it was explained how you added one ingredient after another to the jars. How you mixed them with water and other liquids and then it was explained what the different stages looked like. At a certain point it was mentioned that you had to add it to the rest. Then it took some more time to get ready.
“What the hell is it supposed to be?” I cursed at the notes.
Then I remembered the shelf next to the still that had been covered.
I went down there right away and pulled the blanket away to see what was behind. The whole shelve was filled with jars. Most of them were empty, some had liquids in them and there was two that contained something else.
I stood there dumbfounded and fell on my ass. What the hell was that supposed to be? Was this some kind of sick joke? I looked on, but it was true. I had found out the identity of the secret ingredient and almost vomited. Two of the jars each held a human fetus in it and had a name tag on them.
I am no doctor, but I damn well now what a fetus looks like. I stumbled to my feet, but before I could even reached the next room I vomited on the ground.
Aunt Annie’s Ale. Now the name made sense in a sick and twisted way. It was indeed made out of something that came out of her. I have no idea what must have driven them to create something like this. It made sense that the stuff was always extremely limited and that at a certain point they just couldn’t make it anymore. There was a point in time when Aunt Annie simply couldn’t get pregnant anymore. Thinking about it made me vomit again.
I started thinking. The town had been a devoted Christian community. Abortions or complications during birth were often condemned by the people. So they hadn’t talked about it? Had the sadness of losing their children brought them to keep them for whatever reason?
I couldn’t find any explanation for what could have brought them to do … this though. Only imagining Aunt Annie, the nice, happy, boisterous lady of my childhood and Uncle John making this drink out of their own… I would have thrown up a third time, but my stomach was empty by now. I stumbled back up the stairs of the basement and into the kitchen. I took the damned notes and wanted to throw them away.
At that moment my friend came in and asked me where the hell I had been.
“You found anything?” I looked at him and then hid the notes in my pockets.
“Nothing.” I told him.
He looked at me for a while.
“You alright man?”
“Yeah, just the damp air of that freaking basement. Must have been down there for an hour.”
I didn’t say goodbye to Aunt Annie. I left the place right then. I honestly contemplated burning the whole damned place down with her inside when I had stepped outside.
Our restaurant started out well, but soon declined. It is tough competing with the big fast food chains and Subways these days. My friend told me that we’d have to close the place down if nothing happens soon. I had nodded. If nothing happens. I had found those crumbled up notes the other day. I should have thrown them away back then and there.
In small town there really is a limited supply of the special ingredient. In a city with a population numbering in the millions though, you can get your hands on it quite easily. At least if you know where to look.
I seriously should have burned these damned notes back then, because now there is no turning back anymore…