Six

TALISKER

Top Round Melt, White Cheddar, Grilled Onion, Umami Mayo, Peppers. On Rye.

Talisker was the favorite Scotch of Robert Lewis Stevenson. In his poem, The Scotsman’s Return From Abroad, he writes. “The king o’ drinks, as I conceive it, Talisker, Isla, or Glenlivet!” Stevenson, the author of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Treasure Island and other adventure books, all of which I devoured as a young man, was a sickly child, afflicted with tuberculosis from an early age. He died, 42 years old, in 1894. After writing Jekyll and Hyde, his wife Fanny threw the manuscript into the fire because she thought it was beneath him. Stevenson spent the next three days lying in bed rewriting the book all over again. That’s ten thousand words a day, which is pretty good for a tuberculosis sufferer. Or very good for any other writer. The book was a bestseller, and for the first time Robert and his wife Fannie had enough money to live on. Perhaps I should ask my wife to throw a few of my manuscripts into the fire.

Noticing that the Penny was relatively uncrowded, Sherry and I ducked in for a drink on a Thursday evening. Josh, the waiter, fetched me a Talisker Scotch that I ordered for no good reason other than it was on the list. I couldn’t remember if I had ever had it before. It was another good one, though a bit on the sweet side. I don’t remember top-shelf Scotch being as sweet as the last few I have ordered from the list. Perhaps the style now is to lean toward sweetness. Somehow I can’t imagine a crusty old Scotsman from years past sitting in a smoky pub with his mates, having a dram of whiskey as sweet as these modern versions.

An odd thing happened the other night.

I tend to wander around in the middle of the night when I should be sleeping. This is especially true if I’m working on a novel, or some other piece of intensive writing. This blog qualifies. All my writer friends will understand. When one is in the clutches of a project, particularly a novel, the imagination does not rest. Your writing brain is at work even when you’re not actively thinking or physically working on the project. This is also true when you are asleep. Sometimes I’ll wake up and turn on a light to make a note of an idea that I don’t want to forget, and sometimes I’ll even get out of bed and sit down and write for as long as I can stay awake. Other times I just lay in the dark and think.

So I was awake around 3:00 AM. I always know the time because the house is full of clocks: the clocks themselves and those on all the appliances. I say I was wandering around in the dark, but all the little LEDs give off enough light to keep me from stumbling, so it’s never really pitch dark.

I climbed quietly out of bed, put my robe on and crept down the stairs. I know the number seven stair creaks, so I make sure to tread on the outer edge where it doesn’t make any noise. Being married to a writer is enough punishment for my poor wife; I don’t want to add waking her up at night to all the other annoyances.

Safely downstairs, I went back down the hallway that separates the two rooms in the ancient core of the house, back to the kitchen where I drew a glass of water from the refrigerator door. I stood, holding my cool glass, looking out the window into our fenced back yard, which is brightly lit by a streetlight that hangs over my neighbor’s house.

Some nights I see our resident fox slinking through the backyard, a graceful, low-silhouetted form. This night, all was quiet.

I went back down the hall to the TV room and sat in one of the “easy” chairs there, planning to think about where I was with my 69 Drinks blog. Sometimes the cat jumps up in my lap. This night she didn’t. Sweetie, the cat, is all black, and she’s damn light on her little cat feet, so it usually gives me a start when she jumps up that way in the dark. I pulled a light blanket off the couch and draped it over my legs and settled back. I began to think about where I was going with the blog and the possible connections between whatever drink I’m writing about and my life.

I needed to go to the bathroom.

To get to the bathroom, I had to cut through my wife’s office, which is a small, attached room at the front of the house. A set of old, wavy glass windows look out onto the front yard. We’ve never figured out what this room originally was, we think maybe a porch or the original kitchen.

I was halfway across this dark room when a glint of light caught my eye. I looked down. There are cracks between the floorboards, cracks that I didn’t know were there. I could see a bright white light shining through these cracks.

I have to admit, this gave me a second’s, what? Fright? Yes! My heart lurched and skipped a few beats.

At first I thought maybe there was a fire underneath the house, but the light was, as I said, bright white. Flames are orange and flickering. I bent down on my arthritic knees. I leaned close to the floor, but all I could see was the bright light glinting toward me through the cracks between three or four boards over the space of a couple of feet. Nothing else. I thought about this for a few minutes and since nothing seemed to be moving around down there (thank God) I climbed to my feet and went back to my chair. I have learned to check the chair before sitting down in the dark, sweeping my hand over the cushion and pillows, searching for any black cats lying there invisible in the night. You really don’t want to sit on a black cat in a dark room late at night; the resulting yowl will scare the shit out of you and wake the entire household, meaning Sherry sleeping innocently upstairs.

I sat in my chair. I kept sneaking looks into my wife’s office, though I couldn’t see anything of note. By that I mean I couldn’t see, from this vantage point, any lights coming from beneath the house from the crawl space. My heart calmed down.

Let me give you a short lecture on what a crawl space is, particularly here in the south and even more particularly its nature when it lies beneath a very old house.

Short version: because of soil composition, basements are more difficult to build and to keep structurally sound in the south. So houses have foundation walls and what are called pillars, usually three or four feet high, propping up the floor joists. The space beneath the floor of the house and the soil is called the crawl space. For obvious reasons. It’s too low to stand, so if you’re going to maneuver around you have to crawl. In general, no one goes under there unless something needs to be repaired, i.e. plumbing, heating and air conditioning units or vents, electrical or the cable guy. No one ever wants to go under these old houses, and I don’t blame them. It’s dirty and coming face to snout with a creature — mouse, rat, raccoon, snake or other beast — is always possible. I don’t know how tough you are, but even the roughest workmen don’t like to get under there.

I’ve been in the main area of our crawl space, where, for a few feet in either direction, you can almost stand up. That’s where the heater and air conditioner are housed.

The area under Sherry’s office is not stand-upable. The area under the office shouldn’t have anything but ductwork. It shouldn’t have a light, and it doesn’t have one that I’m aware of.

And yet it obviously does.

By now it was nearly four A.M. and I couldn’t think of anything to do about the light right then. I didn’t think there was any danger. Look at it tomorrow, I thought.

I fell asleep in my chair.

I woke up in an hour, sleepy and confused. I shuffled back into Sherry’s office. The light beneath the floorboards was still there. I hadn’t imagined it. I went to bed.

The next day I woke up early, pulled on my old jeans and went scouting. I found, right beneath the windows of Sherry’s office, a low wooden door with a latch that allowed access to the crawl space. I pulled the door open, laid down on the ground and scootched my torso halfway under the house. I found that there is indeed a light bulb hanging from a wire right beneath where I saw the light last night. There is no timer involved, nothing fancy, just a bare light bulb with a small chain pull. The light was off.

I pulled the chain and the light came on. I pulled the chain and the light went off. I crawled back outside, closed the door, dusted myself off and went inside the house.

Since that night the light has remained off.

I have several questions.

  1. Who turned the light on?
  2. Could it have been a workman? Could it have been the inspector who did the inspection when we bought the house? It could have been a plumber or electrician from before we bought the house. It could have been any one of a number of folks who had access to the crawlspace. But that’s not what I really want to know. After I saw the light on last night, my real question is…
  3. Who turned the light off?

 

 

FIVE

GLENLIVET

Red Wine Braised Pork Melt w/ Gorgonzola, Grain Mustard and Grilled Onions on Marble Rye

I was happy my good friends Burkey and Donna were in town for a visit. I took them to the Penny because I owed Donna a debt. A year ago my wife Sherry and I were staying at their wonderful beach house in Delaware. Both Burkey and Donna are designers and the house, exterior and interior, showcases their many talents. They weren’t at the house when we were, so Sherry and I had the place to ourselves.

Donna had decided to learn to drink Scotch, so she bought herself a bottle of Glenlivet, an expensive and delicious set of training wheels. All I brought with me to the beach was a gallon of Tanqueray gin, which I quickly tired of. I helped myself to a taste of her Scotch, remembered how much I loved it and thereupon, over the week, drank the entire bottle. I intended to replace it, but in the end I forgot and we left. I confessed to Donna when we next saw them and she was gracious; Donna is always gracious, but I felt guilty; as well I should. This is not the first time I have committed this particular sin. So when I heard they were coming for a visit, I rushed out and bought her a bottle of Glenlivet.

But one of the rules of the 69 drinks is that you can’t drink a spirit at home and claim it even though it’s on the list. So we took Burkey and Donna to the Penny where I bought Donna and myself a shot of Glenlivet.

I was happy to pay the $16-a-shot freight for the Glenlivet. The Penny serves a 12-year-old version, the youngest of the distiller’s many older choices. In my town, here in North Carolina, you have to buy your liquor from a state store for home use, so they jack the price up on everything. The cost of the Glenlivet is too much, but it’s worth every penny, so to speak. Glenlivet has a special 50-year-old version (not at my liquor store). Only one hundred bottles from one cask exist, each in a hand-blown glass container with a gold stopper. One bottle recently sold for $38,000.

On my night at the Penny with Burkey and Donna, I was reminded of how Glenlivet, in my limited, but growing, experience, is the perfect glass of Scotch whiskey. It holds all the usual flavors that you read about when professionals bullshit about the merits of whiskies — berries, other fruit, chocolate, leather, etc. – and of course peat, but none of that really matters, the overall combination is everything you could want. If I were told I could have only one brand of Scotch to drink for the rest of my life, this would be the one I’d choose. That may change; I have 12 more brands to taste in my odyssey.

Let’s return to Sherry, my wife. Last week when I was sitting with my pal Mark, and we were testing the Aberlour, he asked me, “Have you cleared this project with your wife?”

Good question.

As a matter of fact I had. Sherry is a good sport, and while she’s not cheap, she keeps a close eye on what we spend. She handles all the financial matters in the family. “You realize it’s going to cost you around $1200.00,” she said to me. “We’re retirees, remember? We need to watch our expenses.”

“I’ll just buy the drinks,” I said. “No chicken wings or fabulous cheeseburgers.” She agreed. As I said, she’s a good sport.

Back to the Penny with Mark. “At any rate,” Mark said, “it’s got to be a lot better than Gay Talese trying to explain to his wife that he was going to be hanging around California screwing other men’s wives as research for his book, Thy Neighbor’s Wife.” Mark was right. I know, most of you are probably too young to remember Talese’s book, but it was awesome, as the kids say. Good point, Mark. I wonder how Talese sneaked that one by his wife.

Glenlivet is a great Scotch, everything you want in the genre. It tasted fine at the Penny.

I think Donna had a drink or two out of my home bottle, and I polished off the rest. As usual.

 

I said at the end of the last entry that there was a mystery central to my old house.

My town is hip deep in history, from the Revolutionary War through the Civil War. Off the main street to the left as you drive north there’s a lovely old yellow house with red trim (not my house) that sits atop a gentle hill surrounded by a manicured lawn and an aging garden. This is the Ashburn School.

The Ashburn School flourished in the 1840s (1835-1857). It was the only progressive school in the south for young girls. Progressive is a term one seldom hears applied to the South, particularly North Carolina, in this, or any other time. Progressive meaning socially forward or even liberal. In the mid 1800s, the idea of educating girls was a progressive idea. Actually, it was pretty much unheard of.

The Ashburns, husband and wife, had 12 children and knew they would have to teach them at home if they were going to get a decent education, especially the girls, so they decided they would open their home to the daughters of other like-minded, socially forward parents in the area. And since Reverend Ashburn never earned more than $400 a year as a preacher, they would charge these other girls for the privilege of attending their school. Eventually two hundred girls from the ages of 6 through 14 attended the Ashburn School over a period of 22 years.

The Ashburn archives contain a letter directing a carpenter in town, one Benjamin Watley, to build a single room schoolhouse of 16 by 36 feet. There were to be ten windows of nine lights (panes). This school building, situated to the north of the Ashburn’s house, was built in 1847.

The historical record, then, becomes confused. Sometime in the late 1850’s the two-room schoolhouse beside the Ashburn’s home was taken off its foundation and dragged several blocks away, where it was jacked up on low pillars in the center of a lot, almost an acre in area.

Over the years, the old schoolhouse was added onto until it became what is today known as the Daisy Lynch House. This is the house I live in.

We found our town by happenstance. We wanted to leave our 1970’s, large, suburban house in Maryland but weren’t sure where to go next. While researching an article I was writing, I came across a uTube video of Lee Smith, a well-known writer, talking about the small town she lived in, a town that had a disproportionate number of writers. I took note and told Sherry; we visited the town, fell in love with the old houses and liberal community. Over the course of two years searching, we found the Daisy Lynch house. A Craftsman style, rambling old pile with the original Ashburn school building nestled inside.

The guest room in our house is a large cube, 13 by 15 feet with ceilings that are eleven feet high. If not strictly a cube, it feels like one. The owner before us called it “the ancient inner core of the house,” with one square window that lets in very little light. It’s dark, isolated from the rest of the house, and just a little bit spooky. We joke that our guests don’t know what they’re in for when they go to bed. Most stagger out the next day at least ten hours after they went to sleep. Our friends, the men in particular, are known as go-get-em guys, the type who leaps out of bed, even in retirement, at what would be the crack of dawn, ready to tackle a new day.

Not here. They, like everyone else, sleep in. Eight hours, ten hours, and when they do appear they’re muddle-headed, half dressed and confused.

“Man, you slept in late,” we always say. They agree, surprised.

Some mornings it becomes so late I fear they are dead in there.

Four

CONNEMARA

Spicy Chipotle Chorizo Tacos w/Pineapple, Jack Cheese, Lettuce

Connemara, the Internet tells me, is the only Irish whiskey to be “peated” like Scotch. Readers of this blog know I’m all for peat smoke in my drinks, and this one instantly landed on my “favorites of the 69” list. I’ve been a Jameson’s man for many years, mostly because you couldn’t find much else in the Irish whiskey aisle in the liquor store or on the shelf in a bar. During the winter, or at least the cooler months, I like to stop at the Penny and order an Irish and a side of coffee. It’s no use ordering an Irish coffee as they put them in froo froo glasses and serve them with whipped cream, just like every other bar. Not for me.

The Penny is situated square in what you would think of as the center of town, though the town is barely large enough to have a center. There’s one main street with four stoplights, three excellent restaurant bars — including the Penny — a couple of churches and a group of government buildings, many old and some newer; Hillsborough is the county seat for Orange County. Charming is the word most people would probably use to describe the town, though I prefer “historic.”

Parts of my drinking habits have been formed and deepened by my love of history. Some of the reason I like drinking scotch is that it has a deep smoky past. I like things that are old. I have written many novels set in the past, and I love reading and researching history.

I live in a very old house, which suits my love of history. Although the origins of the house are a bit misty, it was probably built in an early form around 1842. Rooms of the house were added over the intervening years. When I am settled in my overstuffed armchair in front of a gas fire surrounded by the craftsmanship of men who lived more than a hundred and fifty years ago, drinking an 18-year-old, Speyside whiskey, I feel connected to the past, my surroundings, to history, to life and the lives of men and women long dead.

I’m new to the south, but it is undeniable that one feels closer to the past here than in other places I have visited and lived, historically and spiritually. And in my house, everywhere I look I am reminded of this. The other day I noticed that the hardware on all the doors is from a number of different styles, from “japanned” copper doorplates to pressed bronze strikeplates and locks. I believe it would be possible to date various additions to the core of the house from these clues alone. Every room in the house has a lock on it, interior and exterior. The keys, most of them the type we think of skeleton keys, are long lost. One has to wonder why there are locks on all the interior doors, even the closets. What were they trying to keep out? Or keep in? This is just one of the many small mysteries that surround me when I’m at home.

There is a larger mystery that concerns the origins of the house. Let’s take a sip of Connemara and I’ll tell you about it.

Three

Three

ABERLOUR and LAPHROAIG

Fresh Catch Drum Over Local Acorn Squash and Sweet Pepper Risotto

 The Aberlour hits with a soft sweet heat, not a burn. Delicious. It’s a classy Scotch, obviously expensive and crafted with the finest ingredients. I take another sip, which is even better than the first. I push the glass over to Mark and he tastes it. We sit in contemplative silence for a moment as the Penny roars around us. “Good,” Mark says.

I’m disappointed. Not in Mark, but in the Aberlour.

Let me explain.

In my last entry, I told the story of my father introducing me to the world of drinking and manhood by teaching me to appreciate liquor for its basic taste rather than as an ingredient in a mixed drink. Back in those old days, the Scotch I learned to drink was Dad’s brand, Cutty Sark, a modest blended whisky with mild peat notes and a medium mouth burn. Not to be snotty about it, I outgrew this whiskey many years ago.

I have noted before, I’m from West Virginia. We didn’t have a lot of money, but we were never poor. My father worked away from Parkersburg during the week and was home on the weekends; during the week he stayed hundreds of miles away in motels. All the towels and bars of soap in our house were “acquired” from these motels. This was a long time ago; back then you checked into a motel, paid cash and no one asked for anything as far as identification, usually not even a driver’s license. So, light-fingered Dad stole all the towels that we used in our house. He brought home the extra complimentary little bars of soap as well.

When I was in high school I once stayed the weekend at my friend Freddy Klein’s house. I found the soap there to be a thick round oval that barely fit in my hand. It smelled nice. It was ten times larger than any bar of soap I had ever seen. The towels were a pillowy-soft, fluffy, baby blanket-sized terrycloth that made our thin, short-knapped motel towels look and feel like large, rough washcloths. I had no idea that this was what other people had in their bathrooms. Drying with one of these fluffy monsters was a revelation. If something as simple as a towel can be this luxurious, I thought, what else have I been missing?

After my weekend at Freddy’s, I went back to my usual soap and towels and forgot all about how the other half lived. It’s a funny thing, familiarity; funny in the way it has of molding a person. As years went by and several of my marriages fell by the wayside, I had occasion to buy new towels. When I was asked my opinion on the choices I always deferred to my wife/partner because, frankly, first of all, I didn’t give a shit, and secondly, I disliked them all. Don’t you have anything thinner? I wanted to ask the salesperson, smaller, maybe with the name of a cheap motel on it? I didn’t ask, because I knew this was ridiculous, and knew that my early familiarity had imprinted on me the idea of towel that was different from the rest of society, at least civilized, middle class society.

It was the same with the Scotch.

I was taught to drink a rough, peaty, mid-level blend, and probably because it was my first, that became my benchmark, even though I was not aware of it. When I could afford better Scotch, I enjoyed it, but secretly, I was disappointed. Where’s the peat? Where’s the burn?

Aberlour is a wonderful drink, but when I looked it up I found it isn’t even smoked, that peat isn’t involved in the distilling process. So I went back to the Lead Penny and ordered a glass of Laghroaig, which was on the list. This is an excellent whiskey, one that I was familiar with, and I knew I was going to get a heavy peat component, the taste I was looking for.

Yes, I received the heavy peat hit, the taste I learned to love from my Cutty Sark days. The Laghroaig delivered this in waves of smokiness. It’s a class drink. But here, surrounded by the low roar of the Penny, I realized, in this case, I wasn’t looking for a drink, and I was never going to find one that fulfilled my expectations. Such a liquor didn’t exist, not even a straight shot of Cutty Sark would fit the bill. I wasn’t looking for a brand of whiskey; I was looking for a memory.

And I’m still looking for a cheap brand of towels. Nice and thin, nice and rough.

 

Two

Two

ABERLOUR SCOTCH WHISKEY

Double Local Cheeseburger w/ American Cheese, Chili, Red Onions and Mustard

I told the bartender to sign me up, or whatever you do when you take the 69 Drinks Challenge. He, the bartender, is a sturdy, bearded young man whose name I don’t know. I think of him as Big Guy. The wait-staff at the Lead Penny is uniformly helpful and cheerful. BG dragged over a plastic milk carton, climbed on it and snagged a bottle of Aberlour Scotch whiskey off a high shelf. He handed me a 5 x 7 inch sheet of paper with 69 liquors listed, pulled out a pen and put a date and a signature on the paper. Sign it, he said. I nodded. You would think the occasion would be a bit more formal, maybe including a waiver that released the Penny from any legal obligations if you died of cirrhosis of the liver, but no, here at the Penny a man is as good as his word and decisions are made without dwelling on the details or calling your wife to ask for permission.

Why am I doing this?

As a book author and reviewer, I like plots with a ticking clock. Here we have the number 69 — the number of bottles to sample. If you were actually able to have one drink a week. (Yes, of course, one can drink much faster than that, but I intend to write a blog entry to accompany every drink, and it takes time to write a blog entry, though it may not seem like it.) That’s almost a year and a half if you adhere to a schedule of one a week.

When you’re my age, 72, there’s always the possibility you could drop dead tomorrow and no one would be particularly surprised. 72 –year-old men drop dead of natural causes all the time. So whenever I accept a task that has a time element, I’m aware that I am putting that task up against the number of days, months, years I have left on this earth. I find this interesting. I do not find it worrisome or morbid.

But that faint question of why still floats in the background.

Maybe it’s the commitment. At my age you need a few commitments. Especially ones that incorporate a ticking clock. In my mind I can hear Old Nick – Lucifer — scratching around, sniggering to himself, muttering in his best Devil voice, you know the one, low and gravelly and hot in your ear, Sure, go ahead cowboy, commit yourself, because you have no idea how long you’ve got. How much time can it take? 69 drinks. Months? Years? Are you sure you can finish the race? Let’s just see.

It’s true, my cohorts have begun to fall by the wayside. My beloved sister has recently left us for some other unknown plane. Occasionally the simple act of living has a tenuous feel. You want to make a commitment, go ahead, I think to myself. Mr. Irony, the Devil is right over there, offstage, waiting.

Go ahead and wait, Old Nick.

 

I’m from West Virginia. I was not born there, but was raised from the age of five in Parkersburg, a medium-sized town on the Ohio River. My mother was born in the country not far from Parkersburg. My father was from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, a steel town. He was the son of a Lutheran minister, and he was a meticulous man, my father. Every night before climbing into bed he carefully combed his hair, so he would look his best, I guess, if death came to fetch him home during the night.

When I was around the age of 16, my father felt I needed some drinking advice. “If you’re going to drink,” he said to me, “you should learn to drink like a man. No rum and Cokes, no bourbon and Seven-Ups. You’ll learn to take your liquor straight. What you want to do after that is up to you.”

I was sitting at the end of the dining room table as if I was applying for a job or waiting to be punished. In front of me was a heavy shot glass 1/4 full of Cutty Sark scotch. “Go ahead,” Dad said. I took a sip.

I’m not sure what he expected my reaction to be. Maybe the purpose of the exercise was to cause me to spit out the vile liquor, the Devil’s Drink, and vow that another drop would never pass my lips again. But I didn’t. Not bad, I thought, and took another sip. I asked what the unusual smoky flavor was. I had nothing to compare it to. Peat, Dad tells me, and explains how the process of making scotch involves smoking it over burning peat. Or something. He wasn’t really sure about the process, but he spun a pretty picture of solid Scottish workmen wearing colorful tartan kilts, cutting peat, whatever that was, out of the ground and carrying it to the local distillery and setting it on fire. They also heated their homes with this peat. Who could have imagined such a thing?

 

The Big Guy sets a classy, low-ball cocktail glass with a generous pour in front of me. Behind which he places an identical glass, filled with absolutely clear ice about the size of Scrabble tiles. It’s a nice presentation. There’s a certain undeniable drama about it. It speaks to me. It says that we are a special few, these Club 69ers, serious men and women who have gone before, struggling against the odds, facing the big question square on: Do you have what it takes to plow your way through the list of 69, to persevere, to stay the course? Are you man enough for this? And maybe the most deadly: Are you too old for this?

I look at the amber liquid. Aberlour whiskey.

I raise the glass.

I sip.

One

Special of the Day

 Pork Belly Melt W/Cheddar, Balsamic Onions on Sourdough

Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? But I’m not here to eat; I’m here to drink.

A small, scrubby bar about the size of an ordinary living room (additional seating outside). Over the years, beer signs, chalkboards and photos have haphazardly covered the walls. The chalkboards list the daily specials and a dozen local drafts that change daily. There’s a life-sized cowgirl sign, she’s sitting on a fence blowing smoke from the barrel of her revolver. A print of the famous picture of a sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square on Victory in Europe day hangs over the hallway at the back of the bar.

The bar, in Hillsborough, North Carolina, is jammed. It’s always jammed. I’ll call this friendly, crowded bar, the Lead Penny. It’s always noisy, lots of laughing, the music is eclectic: George Jones followed by The Clash.

I’m what might be thought of as a retiree, though I’m still doing the same sort of work I’ve been banging away at for the last thirty-plus years. I write. I’m a retiree only in that I’m about the age most people are when they quit their gainful employment and fall back on savings, Social Security and pensions. If they’re lucky enough to have them. I’m lucky enough to have a lovely black-haired Irish beauty of a wife who has had good jobs and now a pension and various income streams that seem to be enough to keep us from sharing a can of Friskies with the cat, not that I’d feed my beloved cat Friskies. The cat’s name is Sweetie.

I’m 72 years old and look like many of the guys around my age who are in reasonably good condition — no canes or walkers. (Knock on wood.) I’m lucky to have a full head of hair, which is a silvery, pewter color. My lady hair-cutters always compliment me on my hair, not that I have much to do with it; lucky genes. I have a grey goatee; I’m what we used to refer to as portly.

As noted earlier, I’m a writer. Over the years I have had dozens of books published, fiction and non-fiction, primarily a series of time travel books featuring a history professor named Alex Balfour. Alex does not rely on a machine to thrust him back into the past, nor does he have a closet with a special opening in the back. It’s just kind of a skill, which is genetic in his case. The series did relatively well, though not well enough. The publisher canceled it years ago. I still have many kind fans who email asking me to continue the series, but it takes me a year of work to write a book, and I fear I don’t have that many years left in me. If the books made money, that would be something different, but they don’t. Or at least not enough. You can find my many books on Amazon here.

Back to the bar: The Lead Penny.

The Penny has a great kitchen with several daily specials and a menu of smaller items that are prepared by guys you might call chefs rather than cooks, though they’d probably rather be called cooks than chefs. They are known for their spectacular chicken wings, which I recommend if you can fight your way in on Chicken Wing Night, or any other night for that matter.

As I said, I’m not here to eat; I’m here to start my drink odyssey, my 69 Drinks. I was sitting in the Penny at the bar and noticed a strange plaque on the wall. I then realized there were a number of other such plaques all around the room. It’s hard to read the writing on them in the dim lighting; crudely fashioned, they have a carved portrait of a man or, in a few cases, a woman, a name, the words Club 69, and a date. You could easily miss these plaques among the jumbled profusion of advertising signs and photographs of patrons doing silly things.

I ask my drinking partner, Mark, also a recent retiree who lives two doors down from me and is currently sitting on the bar stool one over. “What gives with the wooden plaques?” He’s a regular at the Penny. It turns out that these plaques commemorate a small cadre of brave men and women who have taken the Lead Penny Challenge: to buy and consume at least one drink from each of the 69 bottles in the back bar that stretches around several walls of the barroom. No time limit. However long it takes you — hours, days, weeks, months, years. If you complete the challenge, you get a free carved wooden plaque commemorating your achievement. I am reminded of Alice, she of Wonderland, who finds a small bottle and a note that says, Drink Me. Who could resist? Certainly not Alice. After about half a minute’s thought I make my decision: I’m in.

I’d like to add right up front; this is not going to be a blog about the delights and characteristics of various liquors or the pleasures of the drinking life. Scores of blogs already hand out advice and information on spirits. I find these blogs only mildly interesting, and I have no interest in duplicating their efforts. Then what is this blog about, you may reasonably ask?

It is about me and my interesting small town, history, aging, friendships and anything else I find compelling. It’s about living, making my way through what I call my third act. A few years ago I wrote a memoir, and I enjoyed looking back and seeing how my life has been influenced by events large and small, mostly small. I am reminded of Homer’s Odyssey (really, who isn’t? Joke!). In the beginning, Homer’s narrator explains why he is going to tell the story of Odysseus and his great journey. Here’s Homer…

“Speak, memory…

For myself I declare that there is no greater fulfillment of delight than when joy possesses a whole people, and banqueters in the halls listen to a minstrel as they sit in order due, and by them tables are laden with bread and meat, and the cup-bearer draws wine from the bowl and bears it round and pours it into the cups. This seems to my mind the fairest thing there is.

It’s a story. I’m a minstrel. I’m just pouring wine into the cups, 69 drinks, one by one.

Am I, like Alice, about to slip down a rabbit hole?

I certainly hope so.