I usually plan the year’s hard cider recipes in early summer when time off from teaching allows more time to daydream, but 2020 kicks me out of school in March. I continue planning lessons to digitally disseminate, but fewer and fewer students submit assignments. By May, my inbox holds nothing to grade, just a void inviting no comments in a world that careens past truth, ignores empathy, rejects science. The school year ends with no one present to notice, so my mind turns to the promise of fall’s effervescence.
In June, I pared the green crowns from the firm flesh of local strawberries. I preserved them in a gallon bag at the bottom of my freezer. Early July, I checked the family blueberry bushes in my dripping swim trunks, but the oaks, too tall now, overshadowed them. Barely a bloom turned to berry, not even a handful of homegrowns for a reprise of 2019’s successful cider, the tart and clean BlueberryChamp. After a solitary Independence Day, rockets of lavender shot from the mulch on the terrace. My youngest son and I clipped stems with scissors, then plucked the tightly wound buds to place them in a bowl. Like purple and green grains of rice we boiled them with sugar, water, and lemon rind, finally straining them into a double simple syrup. The house smelled of dewy calm and citrus. I stored the aurulent nectar in empty vodka fifths on a basement shelf alongside one quart Ball jars of pickled asparagus and the remainder of 2019’s cider in long necks, tall boys, growlers, howlers and swing top 750s. Every flavor to its vessel to wait. Near the end of July, two un-pitted quarts of black cherries hardened atop the dormant strawberries. By August, saffron peaches bobbed in processed jars, such warm stars awaiting a cider sunrise. Simultaneously, blackberries shone in onyx clusters on the tangle of wild canes past our wooded spring. Thorns etched bloody script across my knuckles and deep purple stained the crevices of my fingerprints like ink.
September sends me back to school in a mask. With superhero concentration I must speak loud enough for students and now microphones to hear. Cloth sucks in around my nose like a captive gasping inside a plastic bag, so I continue speaking before I can inhale deeply enough. I must remain calm, project confidence. I take attendance, record, lecture, edit, attach, explain, cut, splice, download, render, upload, post, comment, cajole, website crash, program not responding, online students not responding, in person students despondent, disinfect desks, greet students at the door with a pump of 70% alcohol hand sanitizer, wash my hands, lunch alone in my classroom, eat an apple with left hand, while continuing to type and mouse click with my right, collaborate with a colleague to cover a class I have not taught for 18 years, my fourth prep of the day, but he quarantines a month – close contact with a positive case, call parents, voice mailboxes full, call a different number, out of service, send letters, send emails, all imploring parents, grandparents, siblings, students to please engage with the work or students cannot pass, sneeze inside my own mask, sweat, eyes itch, do not touch them, cough, students cough, they enter school sick, the principal sends them home, my roster changes daily, changes hourly, online, in person, canned program, in person again, quarantined, absent – possibly allergies, unexcused absence, positive case, contact tracing, “What did we do yesterday?” I have no goddamn idea because it is only Monday and I cannot find time to read the new literature, plan a new lesson, replan an old lesson to maintain social distance, add it to the presentation software, plan then deliver state testing in the fall for the entire building for the first time ever, redo attendance to follow new state guidelines, complete contact logs, think of meaningful communication topics twice a week with students I never see who take classes I do not teach, working without a contract, new and old attendance codes: UA, TA, TE for IPs, AS, F2F, 2-way, for OGs, but do not dare use UA for OEs, now VA because everyone is technically an OG but still not for OEs, because if the teachers mess it up we will lose an FTE, my take home pay less than last year, WTF, maintain patience, remain calm, project confidence, run a National Honor Society meeting, collect non-perishables for a local food pantry, leave building two hours after students unprepared to teach tomorrow, rush home, strip at the door, clothes in the washer, scrub to the elbows, prepare dinner, grouse at my children who do nothing wrong, everything wrong, annoyance welling up inside, cannot fall asleep, cannot stay asleep, pop a pill, wake in pain, run 4 miles in the dark, eat breakfast, drive half-way to school before I remember I forgot a mask, turn around, arrive late, must speak loud enough for students and now microphones to hear, cloth sucks in around my nose like a captive gasping inside a plastic bag…
The strawberries softened inside a plastic bag. Rigid with frost in the morning they slouched into a puddle of gel in the kitchen sink by afternoon. My excitement to start the new hard cider recipes bubbled up since noticing my local apple farmer finished his first press of the year. I saw his gallons of sweet cider on sale at the local farm stand and immediately sent him a text. “Jason, when can I drop off 6 five gallon buckets?” The next day I left 6 freshly sanitized pails after a long school day in his pressing room two miles from my great grandmother’s derelict farmhouse surrounded by orchards. She grew an acre of dill, potatoes, corn, carrots, beans and tomatoes, all tended by hand until she turned ninety-six-years-old. She crushed green horned worms off the tomato vines between her thumb and finger before stepping them back into the soil. Here the land still gives and a score of Jason’s field bins brimmed with Honey Crisp, Jonagolds, Fall Pippens, Cortlands and Winesaps so the body of his cider blended with the complexity of a perfume mixed with sweet and tart notes that hung in the corners of his crates. When I returned after his Thursday pressing we talked apples, orchards, cider, school, pandemic. I still donned my mask despite our standing outside in a warm late summer breeze.
“Maybe its like they say,” said Jason. “It will all go away after the election.”
I shook my head. “I don’t think so.”
I drove slowly home on disintegrating country roads. The county recently pulverized half of them back to gravel instead of investing in a future. Here, unopposed Republicans run in village and county elections or pummel an occasional Democrat without fanfare or debate. Precious juice slopped in the back of the car, leaking from the unplugged vent holes even though I creeped around turns and coasted over washboards and washouts. At home I grunted six pails to the kitchen. I cracked the lids to sprinkle two-and-a-half teaspoons of pectic enzyme in every pail to settle the sediment. I covered them again and started the family meal. Protocol required an hour wait before starting anyway.
I volunteered to clean the dishes and wiped down the counters to speed my wife and three children out of my way, my obsession unobstructed. I ran laps downstairs to raise the preserved peaches, black cherries, blackberries and add them to the strawberries waiting in the sink. The lavender syrup stood in two corked towers of glass. Soon I swirled the tawny-russet elixir of one pail into a concave vortex and poured in a liter and half of heavy lavender syrup. It disappeared into the wort, the molecules intermixed, the chemistry begun, the aromas rode currents off the cyclone of still frigid juice. When the whorl slowed, I spun the bulb of the hydrometer until bubbles clung to the glass rod at the 9.5% potential alcohol mark, the stiffest batch I ever mixed. I pitched the ale yeast uniformly across the surface. A thousand bacteria yawned awake on the moist surface, smelling the sugar they would soon devour. I re-sanitized the lid and snapped it tight to the pail, inserted the S-airlock and set the kettle on high. One ounce of boiling water filled the valve. I cut up a card stock post office mailer reminding me when to return my ballot. I printed “Lavender 9.5%” in a blank space and taped it to the lid before placing it in the cold dark of the basement in a row of fellows who blended the berries, the cherries, the peaches into six different solutions. I hoped to all my problems.
In the next two weeks a sweet music of escaping gas percolated from the pails. As the school nights shortened I lay completely spent beside the steady fermentation. “It stinks,” said my daughter. I breathed deep. My six lovelies listened to Beethoven’s sonatas and symphonies so harmony’s vibration might aid their delicious anaerobic dance. When they finally rested, the yeast exhausted, hydrometer reading zero, I lugged them into the light of Saturday afternoon to rack them. Two quick pumps of the siphon pushed a surge of cider up and out of the pail, defying gravity for a moment before spiraling down. Some bits of fruit floated and then coiled through the plastic tube. When the bucket below filled and the one above held only the lees of spent yeast, solid apple, cherry, peach, or berry, I stopped the flow. I cleaned the tubing and all residue from the fermentation vessel. Scrubbed and swirled with a no rinse acid disinfectant, the buckets traded places. The opened spigot above sent a stream through the strainer to remove the larger debris of puree. And I once more capped and air-locked each pail to sit tertiary to mellow.
I should have waited a month or more, but the first ciders of fall never reach the destination date typed in my recipe spreadsheet. I racked again. Magic slept in the still, dry cider. I could not wait to awaken it. I measured the brown sugar a quarter cup per gallon, no, just a quarter cup more. When this cider suitor fully dissolved into a quart of boiling water the sorcerer in me stirred the pot again, arm tiring until I poured the thin syrup in a rising motion with a final snap of my wrist to loose the last drop and cast a spell.
One bottle filled at a time from the spigot: clear, brown, blue, some green, 11 ounces, 12, a pint, half and quarter gallons, painted logo 22s, molded brand names, smooth glass, or sticky with whale spit adhesive from a stubborn label. Some closed with swing caps, a few with screwable lids, but most crimped closed with colorful airtight crowns. I placed them in 6-packs or 24-cases replete with cardboard dividers to protect each precious bottle. On their exterior they appeared patient, calm, confidently inert, but I could not know the exact science swirling inside. I could not plan for every scenario.
I spread my students farther apart, remind them to cover their noses with their masks. We have no cardboard dividers to keep us apart. Their noses dangle over masks like turkey snoods. They still hug each other in the hall burying their noses in the nape of one another’s necks.
My colleagues close their doors. Some put up plexiglass barriers. I use a table to block and encourage space. Everyone walks around them. We all repeat ourselves. Masks muffle, we cannot hear or understand like we once could. We work with vigilant care, insomnia, anxiety, incessant change, exhaustion. Such powerful chemistry inside fragile human vessels. We cannot hope to see into the mad mixture of another when only half of our faces appear available to read, when our heads bend so low pushing through the pressure of more work than we can possibly complete. Each one of us wonders who will drop first. Will the inertia of their plummeting weight take another of us down with them from the emotional and mental strain or succumb to a virus that could devour us like so much yeast through sugar.
My new case of yellow capped peach/mango cider rested on the second shelf beside the water heater hooked to an external wood furnace heat exchanger. On the bottom shelf below the blond beauties, the purple capped high octane lavender cider aged silently. The peach/mango I named “The Cure” with an eclipsed sun on the label. The lavender I christened “Calm.” I intended both brews as balms to salve a savage year. I imagined decanting them into a tall frozen glass where a million weightless bubbles would rise like an illusion racing to kiss the heavens.
But some do not make it.
The scent of alcohol first catches my notice. I nose out the tragedy, then investigate the clues. Eyes, three yellow caps sit low on the side of the box leaning across the thin divider now bearing more weight on their neighbor. Hands, I slide the case toward the front of the shelf and the sodden cardboard sags, threatens to drop the entire batch through to the exposed aggregate concrete. Ears, the grate and chime of glass shards shift lower in the box. Mouth, tightens knowing it will never taste the burst of their champagne bubbles.
Moping while mopping I discover the totality of the spread, the plague, the reaction chain. Three more purple crowned bottles lay in pieces below. A November heat wave sounds like good news, but not for cider. Forty degree temperature swings make the outdoor furnace too hot. The heat exchanger damn near glows four inches from the cases. That extra quarter cup of sugar I lovingly mixed to bubble joyfully into apple kisses to “Cure” and “Calm,” instead woefully detonates. One bottle shears off an inch below the cap, that topples into the next compartment that splits the next bottle laterally from neck to base that crushes the third into a heap of sharp, wet, brown sand. Their bottle-ly fluids drip down the white shelf splattering on the “Calm” below that crack around their bases before toppling a sixth bottle.
Moving them to the other side of the room away from the heat contains the outbreak. Almost 6% of the yield lost. I kick myself for not watching the weather, for not considering heat, for not dousing the furnace, for not moving cases sooner, for dropping focus, for adding too much sugar, for not noticing weaker bottles, for forgetting chemistry, the pressure, for mistaking the bottles’ calm for confidence when they only glisten with quiet anxiety like the eyes of my colleagues peering over masks. I hope we do not detonate wrecking havoc on teachers beside and students below. There are already too many broken bottles.