On summer days you could find Stella Antoinetti panhandling in front of 7-11 for beer and smokes. She wore a dozen or so jangly bracelets on each forearm and sang to herself to pass the time. Sometimes, if the song was coming out just right and she was coming up on her favorite part, she would forget to ask a passerby for change. When that happened, she was no longer a panhandler, but instead just a half drunk lady with a half assed dye job singing in the sun.
Her two sons would be at the skatepark a mile away trying to make names for themselves. Mostly they were successful. Skyler, her youngest, had a section in the new Think video, and Raphael was winning vert competitions up and down the state and in Nevada. When they traveled for competitions and video shoots they referred to themselves in the singular, as The Machine. The term encompassed their busted ‘94 Camry, their collective skate careers, whatever mission was at hand, and, as Skyler had expressed it once, stoned before a park heat, the shared consciousness that suffused all things and bent the universe towards their inevitable success. Raphael had been double checking the camcorder batteries during this, his brother’s latest hippie-dippie ramble, but he shifted his focus to the words at hand, and eventually found himself nodding. Then, during his vert heat later that morning he imagined that everything around him, Skyler, of course, but also the dry grass, live oaks, vineyards, blackbirds, and even the lazily moving clouds, all of it was urging him towards a perfect score. And with a 9.4, he got as close as he ever had.
They stopped by 7-11 on their way out of town to celebrate the new high score. They were headed to the city for the premiere of the Think video, where there would be cheap beer in abundance, Pabst most likely, or Tecate if they were lucky, but in honor of the 9.4 they were going to buy something fancy, something hoppy for the road. They parked and immediately spotted a figure sprawled out in the planter box under the left hand window, the one advertising a sale on taquitos. The figure, of course, was their mother. Skyler went to her and then called out to his brother. He showed Raphael the still bubbly puddle of vomit next to the planter box. It had swirls of red in it and, to Skyler’s eye, looked a little like fiery tie dye.
After some back and forth it was agreed they would drop her off at the ER in Santa Rosa. They laid her in the backseat, but she came to two blocks later. She groaned, said she needed a drink, a cigarette, said she just needed a fucking break in this shit sandwich of a life. When her sons told her where they were taking her, she laughed.
“You puked blood, Mom,” Skyler said.
“How many times has that happened?” Raphael asked
“How do you feel?” Skyler wanted to know.
“Thirsty,” she said.
Skyler went to hand her his gatorade, but Raphael grabbed it from him.
“For booze. She means she’s thirsty for booze.”
“It’s like you know me,” she said.
Though she hadn’t been in their lives much, the boys did know some things about their mother. Her smell, for example. Coconut and mentholated cigarettes. Even now it filled the car and tugged at something in the boys’ chests. They also knew her laugh, a raspy staccato that had the same texture as a worn out motel towel. But they didn’t know her birthday, medical history, or where she’d been born. They didn’t know any of her relatives, what her first job had been, or what she’d wanted to be when she grew up. They didn’t know her favorite type of dog. They had been raised by their father’s mother, a quiet churchgoing woman who collected porcelain figurines, who was forever reopening her door to Stella, who, like a stray cat unaccustomed to domesticity, would wander right back out of that open door and then be gone for months, sometimes years.
For her part, Stella knew her sons’ birthdays, but not their medical histories. She knew where they’d grown up, because here they all were. She knew her eldest Raphael had a heightened sense of justice that, while always well calibrated, could use some tempering if he was ever going to squeeze some enjoyment out of life. As for Skyler, she knew him to be a sweet boy with a generous heart, and she worried about him being on his own. Because of that, she was glad she had been mostly absent: it had forced the boys closer. She knew they were much better off with each other than they would’ve ever been with her.
“Where are you two swashbucklers off to this lovely evening?” she asked.
“That sounds more like it. Buying up on the way? Whose dick do I have to decapitate to get a road soda?”
Raphael tried to tell her that she wasn’t coming to the city, that they were going to drop her off at the ER and then it’d be see you later until the next time they dug her out of a planter box, a gutter, or a ditch. He merged onto the freeway. The speed of the redwoods whipping by, the hills flattening out, vineyards that now stretched out for miles, it all had a hypnotic effect on Stella, so that she didn’t think to reply to her son, and instead commented, practically in a whisper, that they should go to the beach. Ocean Beach. She’d taken them all there when they were young.
“No, you didn’t,” Raphael said.
“How old were we?” Skyler asked.
“Two and three. Seems like you boys have somewhere important to be tonight, but look. A beach sunset with your old mom. Then you get off to your thing. I have people I can stay with in the city. Then we’ll just see each other in that ditch you mentioned.”
“We’re taking you to the ER,” Raphael said.
“No, you’re not.”
“Mom, you puked blood. That’s a big deal,” Skyler said.
“I didn’t. I had Hawaiin Punch. Your dear old mother got nostalgic for a redneck daiquiri, that’s all.”
“Fuck me, why didn’t you say that?” Raphael asked.
“Because here we are, and it’s been too long.”
The corniness of her phrasing, the twenty five cent poetry of it, something about it made Raphael, if not agree with her, at least lose interest in arguing. Skyler, of course, needed no convincing. He found his mother’s words sublimely philosophic, without realizing, of course, that he too often spoke in the same airy tones.
They rode the rest of the way to Ocean Beach in silence. The boys continued to take in their mother’s scent. Stella, for her part, wedged her sons’ backpacks against the door, forming them into a cushion that she lay against. They had both packed fairly dirty clothes that stunk mildly through their packs, and she could tell which bag belonged to which son by smell alone. She knew Raphael’s bag for his heavy metallic twang of old pennies, while Skyler’s smell was citrusy and light. She pretended to sleep, but with each inhalation more fuel to the fire of memory was added. She remembered the boys as infants, fat faced and with milk perennially on their chins; as toddlers, sitting on their grandma’s living room floor in the sun, babbling away while their father, who hadn’t disappeared to Alaska yet, drank a fifth of schnapps on the couch and laughed until he fell asleep sitting up; as little boys, always hungry, and the smell of grilled cheese with ketchup, one of the few things she’d ever cooked for them. By the time they got to the beach she was drunk on these memories, so that when Raphael said he was walking to the liquor store to buy up and asked her if she wanted anything, she replied she was good.
She walked down to the sand and set up their spot close enough to the water to watch the surfers, but far enough away that the tide posed no threat. Once the boys were set up with their beers, she walked up to the liquor store and bought chips and peanuts. She unshelled peanuts for herself while her boys flew through the two family size bags of chips before the sun had hardly moved.
The sun went down and the surfers started filing off the beach in their shining black wetsuits. Some passed near enough for Stella to wave to them. The surfers smiled, waved back. To them it would’ve looked like a normal enough scene: a mother enjoying a sunset with her two grown sons.
Years passed. The boys no longer wondered when they’d see their mother next, or even if they’d ever see her again. They were no longer boys in that way.
“Nice truck,” Skyler said as he kicked off his shoes in his brother’s entryway. When Raphael had bought this sprawling tract home he considered the proximity to the skatepark a bonus, though neither of them skated very often anymore. The house was also close to the 7-11 where their mother used to panhandle, but if Raphael had any feelings about this he didn’t express them to anyone, not even his wife.
“Better be. The insurance alone.”
They went to the backyard and sat on patio furniture that still smelled of spray paint. Skyler talked at length about the challenges of managing a team of skaters.
“These kids are so sensitive. I don’t remember ever being like that.”
Raphael nodded. He talked about his own recent promotion, the one that had afforded him the new truck. He was in charge of all purchasing for the biggest lumber company in town, but he missed being down in the yard and working with the product itself. He especially missed the close up smell of freshly cut timber. Now things were more complicated, more abstract. His brother agreed that they needed to get back to basics. They needed to go for a skate some time. Maybe hit some spots in the city, like back in the day. They could even try to find that warehouse they’d skated and slept in after the Think video premiere, after the sunset they’d spent with Stella.
“Speaking of that,” Skyler said, “Look what I brought.”
He took out a bottle of Hawaiin Punch and a fifth of Captain Morgan’s.
“God damn,” Raphael said, “Redneck daiquiris, huh?”
“It’s Friday. You have ice?” Skyler asked.
Skyler fixed the redneck daiquiris and they moved to the kitchen. It had been dark for a while, and the frogs were going wild in a nearby drainage ditch.
“Tastes like hummingbird feeder,” Raphael said.
“Well, those little guys move pretty good.”
“Wait a second.” Raphael got a lime from the fruit bowl and cut it into thick wedges that he then squeezed into their drinks. They drank.
“Wow,” Skyler said, “The lime kind of makes it.”
“It does, doesn’t it?”
“I wonder if she ever made it like that.”
Stella Antionetti was drinking at the B&B Lounge when she met the retired cabinet maker. He looked natty but endearingly uncomfortable in the gray suit he’d worn to his nephew’s wedding earlier that day. The man was hulking, bearded, had dimples you could drink milk out of, and Stella found herself inching closer and closer to him throughout the night, until he finally put his arm around her. She wasted no time, immediately burying her face into his meat slab of a shoulder. Despite being retired, he still smelled like dry wood and lacquer. She kept her face in his shoulder for quite some time, didn’t ever want to take it out, in fact.
His name was Len, and though he was originally from the area, he had been living by himself down near Joshua Tree for years now. He invited her to come down for a visit anytime, and a week later she showed up with all her things. They stayed up all night drinking and talking that first night. The next morning he proposed marriage.
Most evenings Stella sat on the little patch of astroturf in front of their mobile home drinking beer and smoking her third cigarette of the day. The flagrant purples and pinks of the sunsets more than made up for the bleakness of the daytime desert. Sometimes while sitting out there she would get so nostalgic that she would make up her mind to get in the car and drive the seven hours up to the boys’ grandma’s house. She could sleep in the guest bedroom and then be fresh enough the next day to go and pay each of them their own visit. The idea excited her so much that she usually ended up drinking too much and passing out right there on the patio furniture.
Soon, though. Because these days she only drank enough to steady her hands, and it was rare that she got fall-down drunk anymore. She had been to see a doctor at the free clinic after that day with her boys (it hadn’t been Hawaiin Punch that she’d vomited, it had been blood). The doctor she’d seen told her in no uncertain terms that she was drinking herself to death. She remembered looking at his hands, soft looking hands with perfectly trimmed nails, hands where even the dark hair on the knuckles appeared well cared for. These were hands she could trust. She knew that. After the visit she made sure to shake his hand. Sure enough, it was warm and smooth, like one of those hairless cats. Though he hadn’t asked her to, she promised that she would cut back on her drinking.
“This is just what I needed,” she said, and Dr. Kerner couldn’t have known that she was referring to the handshake, couldn’t have known that she was drawing power from it, and that she would for years to come.
Cutting back meant she could hold a job at the Goodwill. Holding a job at the Goodwill meant she could afford drinks at the B&B, which, of course, was how she’d met Len. Somehow she’d known that doctor was an angel, and after all these years she still remembered his name, Dr. Kerner, the patron saint of not destroying your liver.
One evening she invited Len to join her on the little patch of astroturf. It was understood that sunsets were her alone time, but for this occasion she had lit candles and gotten out the nice glasses. She even put ice for the drinks in a crystal bowl, complete with little silver tongs that she’d dug up from somewhere. She served the redneck daiquiris and looked at him expectantly as he took his first sip. Like her, his customary drink was beer.
“It’s good,” he said, “Surprisingly good.”
“I’m glad you like it.”
She told him about her boys. He’d had no idea she had kids, but he wasn’t bothered. In the few months they’d been together she’d learned there was practically nothing she could do to bother him. Sometimes this irritated her, but at other times, like now, it came in handy.
“Raphael’s the serious one. I bet he’s some type of supervisor by now. I’d be surprised if he didn’t have kids, and if they weren’t little A plus students. Skyler took after me, bit of a free spirit, bit of a rule breaker, but also a people pleaser. I’m not too sure where he got that, maybe just wanting his older brother to accept him. They were always close. Even when they were infants in separate cribs, they would reach out to each other. They’re a little team, the two of them, I doubt they’ll ever live more than a few miles from each other.”
“They have you to thank,” Len said.
He was right, of course, but not in the way he thought he was.
“Enjoying your drink?”
“I am,” he said, “Pretty sweet though. I don’t think I could have more than one”
“Yeah,” she said, “you’re right. Something’s missing.”
Despite the cloying sweetness, they kept drinking the redneck daiquiris late into the night. They drank until the coyotes started talking to the darkness, and they found that the more they drank, the more they forgot what was missing.
Christopher Williams lives in Oakland, where he works as a medical interpreter. He writes fiction in his spare time and frequently visits family in Healdsburg California, where he was born and raised, and where “Redneck Daiquiri” is based.