"The odds are against us,” Randall says. “The way I figure it, a town our size is allowed one famous writer, two professional hockey players, and one disgraced politician…and we’ve already had all of those.”
He pours me a glass of home-brewed stout that he says has been aging for the past year in fine Kentucky whiskey barrels. “It’s got civet beans in it. You know those monkeys in Bali that digest coffee?”
I sniff at the black sludge, but don’t say much. I’m a writer, so I listen instead—listen and drink beer. Randall’s always trying strange things with the beer. He used to mix in maple syrup or the tips of spruce trees, while lately it’s been coffee beans chewed by monkeys and coffee beans chewed by koalas and coffee beans chewed by cocker spaniels; he even smoked one beer in his uncle’s shack while the carcass of a deer hung nearby.
Every Friday evening I show him my writing and he makes me try his new recipes. What had started as band practice ten years ago when we were still in high school had devolved into this weekly ritual of small town loathing. When we realized we’d never be The Ramones, Randall gave up drums, I gave up singing, and now every Friday evening after a few beverages I listen as Randall whines and moans about the lack of opportunities this place presents. He even has a chart.
“You see this? There are eight thousand people in our town and we’ve already produced one famous writer. I mean, statistically speaking, there’s no way another writer with any degree of notability can come out of here for at least another hundred years.”
I remind him that the local museum is full of books by hometown writers. Life on the Farm: Adventures of a Mennonite by Anna R. Berg. From Molotchna to Manitoba: The Lord Leads by Cornelius B. Friesen. Our town has plenty of published writers, I tell him.
“None of those count,” he says. “Self-published hackneyed pseudo-religious autobiographies that come prepackaged with cottage cheese at the Mennonite Village bookstore? Come on, let’s face it. We’ve only produced one writer of any worth and she lives in Toronto now. That’s where you should go if you want to make it as a novelist. That’s where I want to go; loads of beer lovers there.”
I tell him leaving for the city is about the biggest Mennonite cliché you can imagine. It’s about damn time all the rebel Mennos stayed in the small towns and wrote their trashy novels and made their craft beer and played in their punk bands and lived with their same-sex partners. The exodus to the city is so twentieth century, I tell him.
He uncorks—yes, uncorks—another bottle of beer. “Beer to me is so much more sophisticated than wine. Such a wide range of flavours. The people around here will never catch on to that. They’ll spit it out, say it’s too bitter, or too sour, or too dark. Half the old Mennos around here are teetotallers and the rest like their beer watered-down. They like their books that way, too.”
Sometimes I wonder why I still hang out with the guy. Heck, the one advantage of moving to Toronto would be the chance to make new friends. I wouldn't have to spend every Friday evening in Randall Dueck’s garage crammed up next to dirty plastic buckets and damp bags of barley. The place smells like a barn. It’s about the most Mennonite place I can imagine.
When I tell him this, he shoots up to his feet. “This, my friend, is the least Mennonite place in town.” I’m half expecting him to haul out a pie chart showing precisely how “Mennonite” or “non-Mennonite” a place is. “My garage is a beacon of civilization in a city stuck in the 1870s.”
A city? Did he just call this little hick town, a “city”? It is true, though—well almost. In a couple years, when our town passes ten thousand people, we get to call it a city—according to a Manitoba government technicality.
Now I stand up. He’s leering over me and shouting and I guess I’d prefer to be at eye level rather than looking him straight in the groin. Once on my feet I glance around the garage. I point out the aroma, the buckets, the pair of rubber boots in the corner, and tell Randall that, in every possible way, his house and attached garage is just like one of the Mennonite house-barns at the museum. This place is all Menno, I tell him, nothing hip or sophisticated about it.
He’s pretty sensitive about all that, wants to think of himself as the town’s Jay Gatsby or something…if Jay Gatsby wore Velvet Underground t-shirts and sported a Hitler Youth haircut. I can tell I’ve got to him because he immediately hauls out his notepad and begins madly jotting down lists and making bar graphs.
“Look,” he says. Actually, he says it three times, “look, look, look,” as he writes down the names of every famous or semi-famous person this town has ever produced, at least according to Wikipedia. Benjamin Reimer—leader of the Marxist-Leninist Party of Manitoba. Leonard Froese—played seventeen games for the Vancouver Canucks in 1983. Amanda Thiessen—wrote a best-selling novel about the town, essentially an autobiography with changed names. Henry Klassen—Minister of Finance, knocked up a twenty-year-old intern. According to his calculations, a town our size can produce precisely 1.3 notable people every ten years. This means I have no chance of becoming a writer. It means he has no chance of starting a successful brewery. Even his cousin Kevin has no chance of making it on Broadway.
I tell him his methods are about as reliable as a horoscope or fortune cookie and he says, “Well, facts are facts.”
I want to disagree with him, but the truth is I haven’t made it as a writer, and he hasn’t made it a brewer, so maybe his charts have some merit. Perhaps the key is to find some untapped niche, some type of notoriety this town has never produced, like an axe murderer or ballerina. How many of those have we churned out, I ask.
“None. No axe murderers or ballerinas. No Michelin-starred chefs, either,” he says, “but that’s because the local supermarket never carries foie gras.”
Randall reaches over to the wall and taps the garage door opener. The door is loud and moves slowly, so we just sit there quietly sipping our beers and creating pie charts, mine to contradict his. We look out onto the street, which is lined with pick-up trucks and minivans.
I show him my chart, no names, no label, nothing, just the most prefect circle the bottom of a beer glass can produce. Randall wants to know what it means. It could be a chart of famous residents of Witmarsum, Netherlands or the customers Randall can expect for his civet beer. Maybe it’s the number of dates I’ve had in the last year or the contents of my credit union savings account. Whatever it means, I leave it for Randall to figure out. I wave goodbye and wander over to my pick-up truck. It’s time to go home. There’s only so much chart-making a young man can take.
The odds are against me in every way you can possibly imagine. If I believe the statistics, the great local novelist Amanda Thiessen has cursed the town—no more writers for a hundred years, maybe a thousand. The best I can hope for is they’ll turn her house into a museum some day. Maybe I can give tours and tell people that I was once a writer, too, but gave up on it all because of Ms. Thiessen’s success and a couple of pie charts.
I look back at my friend, standing there at the entrance to his house-barn. He nods, still holding a beer glass in one hand and a stack of pie charts in the other, while the garage door closes and envelops him in a world of malted barley and statistics.
Despite the odds and the pie charts, I think I’ll keep writing. Maybe I’ll branch out into non-fiction; write one of those family histories or something. From Prussia to the Present Day: A Fehr Family Journey. Or maybe I could write a novel based on my life; just change the names around a bit so Randall doesn’t get offended.
Honestly, I’m not really sure what I’ll do, but I know I’ll keep writing. And when I go back to the garage next week—if I go back next week—I think I’ll show Randall, in one precisely constructed histogram or flow chart, what I really think of his civet beer.
Andrew J. Bergman's work has appeared in Geez, Ballast, CBC.ca, Pictures and Portraits, and others. He is from Manitoba, Canada.