It wasn’t our fault. It was the city of Curitiba, with that coarse appearance common to all cities in the middle of nowhere; it was the recipe we found with a quick Internet search; it was the Jack Daniels we drank that day, straight from the bottle; and—most important—it was William Faulkner. All because we’d decided, after reaching peak levels of whiskey, to act out some scene or other from literature. First, we tried Tom Stoppard’s play The Real Thing. I never could have guessed our dinner would be converted into a theater or that we, naked, would begin playing serious actors, in the candlelight, circling about between the furniture, speaking English.
Declaring Loving and being loved is unliterary with a forced British accent.
Until, a second later, out of the blue, leaving our home theater dramatics behind, Car l’Homme a fini! L’Homme a joué tous les rôles!, Catarina began to recite Rimbaud. Alcoholic polyglots. In other words: a pretentious young couple—laughable, ludicrous. In other words: a young couple seeking shelter in literature. A young couple pretending it was possible to surpass the limits of the same old daily routine, of that city so inadequate, of our very lives. An escape. A short-lived one.
My friend—my new girlfriend?—soon tired of the poet. What I really wanted was a romantic, lovesick Rimbaud; which of these writers here is the most romantic? Faulkner, I joked. And I pulled Sanctuary down from the shelf—as though, without realizing it, I were pulling a trigger, firing off a deadly idea. Her curiosity limitless, Catarina leafed through the book; while I staggered—staggered—toward the kitchen only to discover that the Jack Daniels—goddammit—had come to an end.
“Half a glass left.”
“We drank it all?”
“It was already open.”
“What’s a moonshiner?”
And then, in her nasal voice, Catarina recited a dialogue from the novel:
“Was that why you left Belle?” Miss Jenny said. She looked at him. “It took you a long time to learn that, if a woman don’t make a very good wife for one man, she ain’t likely to for another, didn’t it?”
(First in a forced British accent, then in a forced, blasé French, and a forced, drawling English—hillbilly?—from Mississippi. Mixed with her natural Curitiba accent; its natural, undulating singsong. Stretching out certain vowel sounds. Emphasizing certain vowels at the beginning of words. Aaaaacc-ent. Phonetic orgies one after another, pathetic and far from successful.)
“But to walk out just like a nigger,” Narcissa said. “And to mix yourself up with moonshiners and street-walkers.”
“A person who made moonshine: an illegal, potent liquor, made at home. Made—I think—from corn. In enormous receptacles, bathtubs, vats.”
“Why not make some of our own?”
There it was. The ultimate idea.
“We have a bathtub, don’t we?”
“Not only do we have a bathtub, but we used it earlier, didn’t we, babe.”
“We’re out of whiskey, are we not?”
Scouring the Internet, Googling “How to make moonshine,” we found a straightforward recipe. Catarina, grabbing a notebook, copied the instructions: 12 cups corn flour, 30 cups sugar, 1 cup yeast, and—drunk, her excitement growing by the minute—Cheesecloth, metal buckets, a giant pan, a pressure cooker, and we need to drill a hole in the pressure cooker, do you have a drill?, and we need a copper tube, fucking A, where are we gonna find one of those, if only it weren’t so late, it’s almost eleven, we don’t need a bathtub, even better, we can make it right on the stove.
Curitiba, with the same unremarkable appearance common to all cities in the middle of nowhere; enormous yet empty: both in terms of contents and the breadth of territory. A shallow, calm ocean. The area creeping into view—tiny one moment, growing larger the next. Beyond the eighth-floor window, the Campo Comprido neighborhood full of potholes, six araucaria trees, low-rise buildings at a remove from one another: the gap-toothed city. Wide avenues. Curitiba. Endless horizons. Curitiba.
At eleven at night, going out to buy anything at all—impossible.
In the meantime, Catarina—in a matter of a few minutes and some groups on WhatsApp—had managed to find all the ingredients. After throwing on some wrinkled clothing, she set off to collect them—the car, I imagine, zigzagging the whole way—into the night: Rua Walenty Golas, Rua Professor Pedro Viriato Parigot de Souza, Rua Professor João Falarz, Rua Monsenhor Ivo Zanlorenzi and the rest, the route going and coming back, a question mark. In the brief interim, I focused on punching the hole in the pan.
“How’d you swing the copper tubing?”
Tubing connected to the pressure cooker—a still, who knew?—and all the materials at hand, we, impulsive and persistent, began the meticulous process. Step by step. We boiled gallons of water. We cooked in the corn flour. We dumped the resulting mixture in the bucket. We returned the resulting mixture to the pan. We cooked the corn paste with sugar and yeast. Using the cheesecloth, we strained the mixture into the pan. What next, Popcorn Sutton?
A week’s worth of waiting—
for the mix to ferment.
We slept in each other’s arms
and the time soon passed
and when the next week arrived,
we still felt
like a true young couple
Sober now and anxious, we transferred the fermented liquid—cheesecloth once again—to the pressure cooker. Catarina, a smile on her face, whispered Improv at its best. The copper tubing, stretched toward the sink, floating in the makeshift condenser full of water and ice; rising to the surface, it continued toward the second bucket, positioned on the floor below, where the moonshine would drip out. Perfect? We’d barely lit the stove when the landline began to ring.
“Can you keep an eye on it?” I asked.
Through the living room window, three, four, five araucarias. Five. Hadn’t there been six before? I was sure of it. I picked up the phone. Limited-time promotion, some cellular service provider; telemarketing. I hung up quickly and, intrigued, stood observing the landscape. Curitiba. Before returning to the distillery, a lapse in the bookshelf leaped out at me: arriving at Faulkner, books out of order. Sanctuary and Light in August were mixed up—chronological order being As I Lay Dying, Sanctuary, Light in August, Pylon—no sooner was this flaw corrected than I heard a wild, thunderous explosion.
Catarina suffered third-degree burns: seventy percent of her body destroyed. My new girlfriend. As though viewing dark, violent film frames, I can remember them arriving, the fireman, the ambulance, the hospital, the family, the word Deceased. I know, I should have been there with her, embracing her even in death, but it wasn’t my fault: it was the telephone—telemarketing—that rang at the wrong moment; it was the five araucarias I’m positive there were six; it was the books out of order; and—of course—it was mostly the fault of William Faulkner.
© Felipe Munhoz. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Eric M. B. Becker. All rights reserved.