by Don Noel
The key Jeremy discovered was an extremely simple one, albeit handsomely gold-plated. As long as his thumb, it had a hollow barrel and a single uncomplicated square tooth, quite unlike others he knew with complex teeth and grooves. In his adult years he would come to know it as a skeleton key, designed merely to keep doors on furniture from popping open, like the front panels of grandfather clocks.
Or the door to Father’s liquor cabinet. He found the key in Father’s den, in the back of the shallow, narrow drawer of the smoking table, beside the padded leather recliner to which Father repaired after dinner now and then to “let the tensions of the day ease away”.
Jeremy had committed that phrase to short-term memory. He was considering a career as a novelist, and often set such phrases aside the way he supposed some people set aside after-dinner mints for later consumption. Each evening he recorded highlights of his growing-up – embellished with mints, so to speak – in a small, padlocked diary that fit nicely on the bookshelf behind a boxed set of Shakespeare that Gramps had given him.
Jeremy was not a willful or renegade boy, although perhaps not as strictly self-governed as Father and Mum liked to imagine. Soon after his fifteenth birthday, he realized that on Wednesday afternoons, when Mum played bridge at a neighbor’s house, he had an opportunity to explore a few little-known rooms of the big house.
Father’s den was of course an early target: A very small, wood-paneled room with a working fireplace that had a carefully-laid fire but few ashes – he liked that description, and set it aside for the diary – and a wall-mounted television that from elsewhere in the house, at least, he had never heard playing. Apart from the recliner and the smoking table, the only furniture in the room was a tall narrow glass cabinet with shelves just high enough for liquor bottles. It had a filigreed door that – of course – could be unlocked with the gold key.
There were a dozen bottles in the cabinet, mostly different brands of Scotch or bourbon but also a few of sherry, gin, vodka and brandy, each opened and depleted in varying degree. Jeremy’s first thought was that Father could not possibly remember how much he had drunk out of each bottle, and so probably did not pay attention.
He was not by nature devious, but was cautious; it occurred to him that before sampling, he should be sure of Father’s inattention. He examined each bottle carefully, satisfying himself and later telling his diary that there were no pen or pencil marks tracking diminishment. So he was confident that Father gave no thought to whether anyone else drank from his liquor cabinet.
Jeremy had been introduced to beer at a celebratory family picnic last summer, and to wine last New Year’s Eve. That was when Father promised him a first taste of Scotch for his sixteenth birthday. But July was still months away, and he was not inclined to wait.
On the other hand, he had to be careful that his parents did not smell the liquor on his breath. He hurried to his bedroom, to the laptop on his little desk, and Googled “Cover the smell of alcohol.” A simple mouthwash would help, he learned, but wouldn’t be long-lasting. Then, aha! “If you enjoy sweet and creamy peanut butter, you can use it to mask the smell of alcohol breath. The peanut oil produces a pleasant, penetrating smell that overshadows the alcohol odor.”
Perfect! He took from his bathroom a plastic glass – which he could wash out unnoticed – and hurried back to the den, where he chose that almost-full bottle – it was labeled Glenfiddich – and poured a little into his glass. Sitting in Father’s chair (but not reclining, lest he spill), he took a first exploratory sip.
What ambrosia! It was sharp on his tongue, but released what seemed a cloud of fragrance to his nose. Words for the diary, indeed, and more coming! He carefully sloshed that tiny sip around his mouth, appreciating its bite and aroma, like a bouquet of flower blossoms. It made his gums tingle.
He swallowed the first sip – just a bit of fire in his throat – and sat for a while, appreciating the Scotch, his words and his audacity. At length, he took another sip, which turned out to be all there was; he savored it as carefully as he had the first. Then, conscious of time, he got up, looked around to be sure he hadn’t left any traces, shut the den door and hurried to his room to rinse out the glass, pour some mouthwash in and gargle that. Then he went to the kitchen to slather three crackers with peanut butter and sit at the kitchen table to eat them while doing his algebra homework.
He didn’t bite into the third until he heard Mum’s car pull into the garage, so she found him still chewing.
“Needed a little sustenance to tackle the algebra, dear boy?” she teased, and gave him a kiss on the forehead.
He looked up, forcing a smile to match hers, watchful for any hint of doubt. Perfect! Obviously, all she smelled was peanut butter!
“I’m afraid I haven’t planned dinner,” she said. “Any suggestions?”
“That shrimp last week was delicious,” he said, remembering his recent research. “A bit garlicky, but very good. Is there any more in the freezer?”
“There is. Done! Why don’t you set the table, and I’ll get started. Your Father ought to be home any minute.”
And best of all, this was one of those evenings when Father went to his den to deal with the “tensions of the day.” Later, when Father came to his room to urge that he not overdo his studies but get a good night’s sleep, sealing that advice with a paternal kiss on the forehead, Jeremy was sure that any remotely lingering Scotch on his own breath would be overwhelmed by Father’s.
Despite the success of his first venture, Jeremy waited a whole week before returning to the den. Over the following weeks, he sampled each kind of liquor in the cabinet, finding a few diary words for each.
Having completed his initial exploratory round, he went back to the Glenfiddich, which he’d decided he liked best.
He also attempted a scientific study: He timed his reading of two pages of a geography schoolbook before and after visits to the den. He concluded that the tiny amounts he was imbibing were of negligible effect on his reading speed. That evening, he got out the dictionary to be sure, despite the hard g and soft g, that he was spelling negligible correctly.
Fine. Teenage locker room chatter, however, suggested a different effect worth study: on inhibitions. That would call for a different kind of test: He would invite his girlfriend Priscilla to join him for a drink.
She was not only a very pretty girl, but athletic as well – a cheerleader in football season and an excellent basketball player – and the way she let him hold her very close at the Christmas ballroom dance told him she was ready for further experience.
As luck had it, there would be a half day of school two Wednesdays away. He would not mention that to Mum, so he and Priscilla could have a longer-than-usual leisurely afternoon together. They might have a sandwich together at noon – in the kitchen, lest any breadcrumbs be left behind – and then he could introduce her to the mysteries of Father’s den.
They planned it carefully, she evidently as eager as he to have a few hours together that parents needn’t know about. It came about without a hitch. Mum was indeed off to her book club when they arrived from school; they had a ham-and-cheese sandwich and a glass of milk in the kitchen.
He was already, in the back of his mind, phrasing the evening’s diary entry: He was nervous as a kitten as they rinsed and dried the glasses and tiptoed to the den. She was duly impressed by Father’s quiet hideaway, something her own father didn’t have, and enjoyed the smooth leathery feel of Father’s chair.
The rest of it would have to wait until he actually wrote it that evening, He opened that little drawer to extract the golden key; let her hold it for a moment, then took it back, opened the cabinet, reached down the Glenfiddich and held it up to Father’s reading lamp for her to enjoy its amber magnificence.
Which is when he saw the tiny mark on the bottle. It must have been something like crayon or dry marker, hardly more than a brown dot, just at the level of the liquid in the bottle! Father must have grown suspicious, but must be as yet uncertain.
In a hurried but careful survey, he was not surprised to find such a mark on every bottle in the cabinet.
The only cheering note to the afternoon, he told his diary that night, was that dear Priscilla seemed almost as disappointed as he at their change of plans.
Almost, because she’d arrived with a backup plan: In her purse was what looked at first like a small bottle of stuffed olives, but turned out to have been carefully washed and half-filled with an amber liquid. “My father favors scotch too,” she said. “Let’s have a bit!”
So they toasted each other solemnly and sipped with cautious leisure and care. And as he told his diary, she lost no inhibitions: She gave him an unexpectedly wet and wonderful kiss, but slapped his hand gently yet firmly when it chanced to stray southward.
And when they had washed the glasses and gargled mouthwash together, it turned out that she came prepared in other ways. “Look!” she said as she poked into her purse. “Would you like a peanut butter cookie?”
Don Noel is retired from four decades of prizewinning print and broadcast journalism. He took an MFA from Fairfield University at age 81, and in the decade since has since published more than 100 short stories or other pieces – in, most recently, River & South Review, Muleskinner Journal, Sonder, Fatal Flaw, and WayWords.