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Today's Story by Benjamin Wachs

This, he told himself, is how great countries fall: letting kids like this grow up with heads full of dreams.

The Water of Life

Professor Dusek – he preferred the title to “Dr. Dusek” because “professor” was a higher title than “Doctor” back at the Czech universities – had trouble pronouncing the names of the chemical elements in ways that were clear to his American students.  He rolled the “r” on “carbon,” and he stressed the second syllable on “oxygen,” so that it came out “ox-Y-gen,” and they laughed behind his back and he knew it.  He was a joke.

They asked themselves, what else can you expect from a crappy community college but a burnt out chemistry professor who got his degree in the Soviet fucking Union?  And he told himself:  what else can you expect from the cast-off kids of the Kentucky educational system, who didn’t have the parental guidance you need to make it to a real college?  Of course they were this way.

He needed to pay his bills and they needed to pretend they had a future, and during the year there was nothing else to say.  This, he told himself, is how great countries fall:  letting kids like this grow up with heads full of dreams.  He was not an unkind man, but he heard how they laughed.

He had a better pedigree than he needed to be here, but not one so good that he could have found a job this secure in the better universities of the east coast, or the west coast, and when he’d realized what Kentucky was, he’d taken the offer.

During the summer he drove through the hills and hollows, collecting peat from the ground and tasting the wheat and the barley and the rye the small farmers made.  He bought the old bourbon barrels, too, off the families whose whiskey he particularly liked.  They usually sold in bulk to the Scottish distillers, but he paid well for just a few barrels off the top.  His needs were small.

None of the farmers or the bootleggers laughed at him.  They could tell the kind of man he was by what he knew about their land after he tasted their grain.

At the end of each summer vacation, when the leaves were just beginning to turn, he finished his mash and set it in the barrels, just like he had done in the old country behind the fake wall at the chemical plant.  In those days he’d had more equipment … whole machines had been ordered and then lost in exchange for the promise of a barrel of the good stuff … but the ingredients here were so much better.  America was truly blessed to have soil like this, and people who know how to use it, he thought.  What he would have given to be one of them, to have come from one of those Kentucky families who had passed the secrets of liquid fire down through the generations.  They were poor, it was true, but so was he:  and they had family and clan while he had escaped his homeland to be a stranger in theirs.

Each fall, as the leaves turned, he set new barrels aside.  They would age 20 years.  They would be ready long after he retired – if he ever did.  He hoped he would live long enough to taste it.  But this was the life he’d chosen, and he reminded himself of that each year as winter set in, and the laughter of the children to whom he was trying to teach the secrets of the universe started anew.


Benjamin Wachs has written for Village Voice Media, Playboy.com, and NPR among other venues.  He archives his work at www.TheWachsGallery.com.

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