Step one: Know your ingredients
On the counter next to the sink sits a tray, a bucket of ice, two glasses, a bottle, a jug, a box of salt and a shallow dish. I pick up the fifth of Smirnoff, remove the cap. The smell burns my nostrils. The grapefruit juice tastes sour. But I drink it anyway. I am my mother’s daughter, responsible, reliable, determined. Today is my first day bartending and I need to know the ingredients.
The salt is sharp and heavy. A little girl, braided yellow hair, saunters in the rain, twirling her umbrella. I have dark hair, blue eyes, freckles spackled across cheeks and nose. I look into the mirror above the sink and see a smiling, 11-year-old looking back at me. I feel like I’ve won a prize or competition because usually Daddy would have asked mom or maybe my older brother to do this grown up job. This is the first time he’s asked me.
Step two: Mix with an artistic touch and the precision of a scientist
Pour two fingers-worth of vodka into a squat rocks glass. No one likes weak drinks, Daddy says. Cap the vodka. Settle the bottle back into its place and lift up the jug of grapefruit juice. This I slosh into the liquor. Scoop ice cubes from the motel room bucket. Plop plop them into the glass. Pick up a second glass. Seesaw the mixture back and forth. Daddy doesn’t like it stirred with a spoon. He says it makes the drink taste harsh and metallic. I don’t know why but will agree blindly, and even after becoming an adult, always order my drinks shaken, not stirred.
Step three: Garnish with care
Lemon juice burns where it hits broken skin but I am careful not to cry out. Signs of weakness are remembered. Instead, I slice a wedge and rim it around the edge of the glass. Now comes my favorite part: turning the empty glass upside down. I trace a circle in the bowl of salt. Salt-grimed on all sides, thick like the fur coat around the neck of Cruella de Vil in 101 Dalmatians. I’m too young to understand cocaine metaphors (adults insert one here).
Step four: The finishing touch
Crowning takes luck and concentration. Pour the drink, ice and all, from the shaker glass into the salt-encrusted one. The hard part is getting the liquid in without washing off the salt from the rim. No one wants a half-salted, half-assed drink, Daddy says. If I get it right, I’ll be allowed to make drink number two. If not, he will ask my brother. I lean against the counter, take a deep breath and pour. The liquid sluices perfectly into the salted glass, the rim unmarred. Triumph!
Step five: Serve with a smile
Leave just enough of the drink in the shaker glass for a surreptitious sip. I gulp it now, the sting of the vodka softened by the salt I’ve sprinkled on my tongue. I choke and cough, then glance up into the mirror and slam into my mom’s hazel-green eyes. The shock startles me and I almost drop the glass. She’s seen what I’ve done but says nothing.
Instead she stares, her eyes cold and burning at the same time. Her gaze sweeps the counter, the drink in my hand, my father reflected in the mirror. Her mouth is pulled tight, her hands crocheting a blanket in her lap. She’s annoyed, with me or with Daddy, I’m not sure. A flash of guilt mixes with the liquor in my stomach. I’m wrong for helping him when I know she is right. He drinks too much. We all suffer the consequences.
But I’m a girl in a man’s world. In my father’s view, there is a real and very clear division between men’s work and women’s work. Men’s work is earning the money, making decisions, telling everyone what to do. Women—and girls—are meant for cleaning and serving. Daddy never asks me to do anything but help Momma take care of the little ones, wash the dishes, fold the clothes and peel the potatoes at dinner time. All chores I hate and resent deeply. There are so few chances to win his approval, his attention, his love.
I tiptoe the drink over to where he’s sitting and hand him the glass. Salt flakes onto my fingers. He takes a sip, nods approval and then his eyes flick back to the television without a word. The drink is accepted and that means he’ll ask me again.
Step six: Pretend everything is all right
Later they may fight or maybe he will pass out and sleep through the night. Momma will feed us, bathe the little ones and we’ll all go to bed early. Tomorrow he might be better. Maybe he’ll feel like driving. We’ll pack, load up the truck. The next town might have a beach or a bookshop or a park to visit. Or maybe the drinking will continue until there’s a blow up and he’ll get angry, throw the empty vodka bottle across the room.
Years later, when I’m in college, I will feel proud that I can suck down Salty Dogs as if they are sodas. I drink heavily for years. Not to the point where my life falls apart. But enough at parties, on weekends, to stop caring for a while, to stumble home drunk or ride the subway so blitzed out I end up in Coney Island when I’d meant to get off at Avenue J. I drink what my father drank and in that way, feel closer to him, further from the trifling girl I used to be.
Back at the counter to clean up the liquid I’ve spilled, I look in the mirror and see Momma glancing again at me. But I look down, pretend I didn’t notice. She will be mad; I will feel guilty. For the first time I realize we will both get over it. This realization opens a distance between us. It is the distance of a look lobbed across the room, volleyed back through a refusal to see.
Thinking back, I wonder about depression, anger and guilt. The trifecta of lines bisecting, dissecting my family. The points, like crystals of salt on a counter. Some clump together, wet and sticky. Some scatter, sparkle, divide. Momma from Daddy, she from me. I dodged the guilt for helping him drink, and felt freed. Guilt can also be a drug of choice, addictive both for the one handing it out and the one consuming.
That night I zone out. My head feels fuzzy, malevolent. I lick the salt from my fingers and find a place on the floor next to my siblings. We watch TV and I’m sucked into the story, forgetting about my dad, now snoring in the bed, and mom, humming quiet and resentful in the corner.
Jamie Etheridge is an American expat writer living in Kuwait. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Burnt Breakfast, Eastern Iowa Review, Emerge Literary Journal, Inkwell Journal, (mac)ro(mic), and X-R-A-Y Lit, among others. She is currently working on a memoir about her fugitive father and her childhood on the road. Reach out to her on Twitter @LeScribbler.