“The Putting Down of the Mint Julep” by Matthew Gavin Frank


Found in Willow Springs 73

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THIS SORT OF SIPPING has nothing to do with the martini, or anything as astringent as olive, resinous as juniper. This is drink as barrel, as honey, as toothpaste. This is how we satiate our nervous hearts, prepare to kiss our lovers and nephews, as we watch the round, oaken feet of such muscular animals pounding our earth, compacting everything we walk on and take inside us, with hardly a whinny.

Your uncle muddles three leaves of spearmint with two pinches of white sugar into the bottom of a rosy rocks glass, using a miniature Ebonite International bowling pin, the toy he received as a trophy for twenty-five years of "striking" service at the bowling ball factory in Hopkinsville. He twists the essential oils from the mint leaves, the menthol and menthone streaking the sides of the glass, then pours more than a splash of bourbon, less than a splash of water, and mutters into the burly tobacco field of his chest hair, anticipating his first sip of the morning, "Turkey . . . turkey . . . "

Uncle curses the horses on television. Tells them they'll soon be lunchmeat in Lexington. Out the window, you watch the tobacco leaves brighten from what Uncle calls off-white to yellow. You wonder what it is that makes a color off. Uncle swallows the last of his julep and burps, cleanly.

You wonder if there's something wrong with the light here. Those horses on television look reflective. The tobacco leaves shrivel, the air does the curing. The earth here seems to howl, as if pressed of its own juice, as if giving itself to the muddler. It is the light that does the crushing.

Uncle says it is the light that makes things taste good, that releases the flavors in things. He says, in spearmint, is the spear. Before he makes his second drink, he mutters something about the hierarchy of violence. How, here, to puncture a thing is to release its flavor.

He mutters something about fighting back.

Another name for the mint julep: the mint smash.

Uncle talks himself back from his hangover with racehorse deaths. Ruffian, he says, 1975. Sesamoids in her right foreleg snapped. Went on running. Pulverized her bones, tendons. Went on running. Ripped the skin off her fetlock. Ligaments trailing behind like a bridal train. The jockey—Vasquez—desperately trying to pull up. It was the sound of it, he later said. The hoof flapping about. Useless. At the end of it, all this thrashing, this spinning in circles. They tried to cast her, but she kept knocking the cast against her good legs, smashing those, too. All that was left was the gun. Dumb motherfucker went on running, Uncle says, stirring the julep with his good pinky, his fingertip reddening, the mint oozing its oils, heaving like seaweed, and ripped herself open to win. Boy, he says, you should have seen it.

Uncle knows he's supposed to sip his julep from a silver cup, or one made of pewter. He's supposed to hold the cup only from its bottom, to allow the cold bourbon and water, the ice cube or two, to grow frost on the vessel's sides. He knows this even as he blows bubbles into the rocks glass, grasping it desperately with all of his hands, muttering something about the aunt you never met, and how heat is better, heat is better. How he will make his juleps smooth as a bowling ball. How, at bottle's end, he will turn this entire living room into goddamn Pro Shop Gold.

The word julep derives from the Persian golab, meaning rose water. Early versions of the drink saw rose petals, rather than mint leaves, muddled with sugar at the bottom of the glass. On the television, it looks as if Uncle's horse will win, then lose. Either way, he says, stirring cube to cube with the toy bowling pin, I'm drinking a fucking corsage.

He tells you about the man from Louisville who wanted a rose embedded in his bowling ball. You should have seen his sunglasses, Uncle says.

Rhinestones and shit. You're about to say something about all that glitters, about how beautiful it is—the way the light catches his glass, the ice there, the tobacco shadows on the sheetrock, inspiring the mint leaves to lift themselves from their suspension, give themselves to this man's mouth. Uncle breathes deep of the julep. He tells you that glass is too clean, that he misses the smell of plastic.

Uncle knows: there's more folkloric romance inherent in the mint leaf than in the rose. In this way, we are trying to coax a kind of love from the drink whose own name resists it.

The mint julep should be sipped in a dark, cool room, or while stepping carefully down a spiral staircase, and the splash of water should be a splash of limestone water, and the sugar should be loaf sugar, and the ice crush ed, and the mint should be young, and laid over the coffin of ice until muddled, and, before the muddling, the drinker—anticipatory, discerning—should test the softness of the foliage against his, or her, ear.

Here, we listen to the mint for its youthful cooing, before smearing its guts over pewter.

In the compound fracture, so many broken things. The sound of it . . .

The silver cup, Uncle says, should have a copper core to keep the julep frozen and frothy. He takes off his undershirt. The tobacco outside—like his third drink, like his skin, like all things copper, eventually—goes green.

Uncle thumbs through Blood-Horse magazine, then uses it as a coaster. Old Rosebud, he says, 1922. A windy day Couldn't tell if those were the tendons blowing, or some awful head of hair . . .

Uncle says the julep makes the man. The more the mint, the more feminized the drink, but the more the mint, the more likely the drinking man is to be kissed. It's your classic dilemma, he says , as he tries in vain to use the bowling pin as a telescope, staring beyond the television and the silent horses chewing at their bits, staring beyond all things Kentucky—its number-one status in production of non-alfalfa hay, its bluegrass and cardinals and tulip trees and goldenrods, and all things capable of muddling birds and petals and leaves and lawn—factories that produce bowling balls with names like Dyno-Thane and PowerHouse and Hammer, strong things thrown by good Kentucky men to knock other strong things down; balls your uncle gave his fingertips to; balls he made of wood, then rubber, then plastic, then urethane, then reactive urethane, then particle, then epoxy. Balls whose cores should never be muddled from them, balls who, in your uncle's hands, become oddly sentient—the mint predicting the kiss—remembering the original sport, when human skulls were used as pins.

Uncle stirs his julep with the toy, and you think of the stuff inside his head, your head, as eminently crushable.

When he misplaces the toy, he uses the last good fingertip he has left. That pinky. Then: Dark Mirage. 1969. Raced only twice. It was the fetlock joint that went. The cannon bone exploded. The ligaments of the pastern rolling up like a window shade. He looks at his left thumb, the way it hangs there, sips his julep, silently curses the bowling ball. You know he'll soon start speaking of euthanasia, and all death we call good.

It's easy to forget that to muddle means to confuse, to make indistinct. You suppose that crushing something likely confuses it.

Here, in the pulverizing of a thing, is that thing's best expression. We think of our own bodies. How else to let the sweetness out?

And Uncle, like the state that refreshes itself with bourbon aged in wood, with the sort of mint that allows the nation's highest concentration of deer, and turkeys, and coalfields to scatter, to disappear into tobacco fields and the cave behind the pins, pulls the blanket over his head . . .

. . . beyond all things Kentucky—its Mammoth Cave, named, Uncle reminds you, for yet another giant extinct thing.

That Kentucky derives from the Iroquois word for meadowlands is quaint enough. That the Cherokee called the land a dark and bloody ground compels your uncle to lose himself in the muddling.

You know your uncle can only wish he had a bone named for a cannon. What else can he do but crush some skinny leaves until, in his mouth, they are allowed to refresh, until he believes he is strong, or strong enough.

The pastern bone of the horse is the thing in nature most anatomically homologous to the largest bones in the human finger. Uncle probably wishes he had a knuckle left to crack.

Go for Wand. 1990. Leading by a head when her right cannon bone openly fractured. Threw the jockey—fuckin' Randy Romero—then limped across the finish line. Right into the winner's circle. They say she broke her leg just as she passed the flagpole that they buried Ruffian under. How crazy is that? Because she was screaming, they euthanized her right then and there. Right in the fuckin' winner's circle. Because she was screaming, he muted the TV, listened only to his own mouth slurp at the ice cubes as they buried her in the middle of the fuckin' infield, and the wind took a banner bearing her name into the air, and the crowd held—just held—their plastic cups.

The tobacco whips, and that thing you feel in your chest communes with the thing we all feel in our chests, and we imagine the sound of it as a bone breaking at full speed, as pins crashing against pins, as a skull, like pottery, smashing against epoxy, as Uncle hushing himself as he whispers, lustily, to the glass bottom.

In sugar and alcohol and mint is not the toothpaste we expect, but that doesn't mean our clean-seeming mouths are illusory.

Illusory: the putting of a bone back together. The expectation of velocity, of a mane becoming a blur. The mint as an expression of affection. The small sipping. Uncle's voice growing smaller. The handshake he once called the firmest in Christian County. The living room through the glass bottom. All recovery.

Dulcify. 1979. Crushed Pelvis. Mummify. 2005. Foreleg. Lamb Chop. '64 Broken body is all they said Cryptcloser. Ha. 2000. Fell past the wire. Crushed shoulder. White Skies. '55. A bullet horse, they called her. A tobacco eater, because she was bought by some tobacco farmer outside Lexington, I can't remember the name. Compound fracture. Right hind cannon bone. Couldn't get to the volume fast enough. Who could predict these things?

Anyhow, you should have heard the ripping sound That's the important thing . . .

Here, like the sip before the swallow, the ripping precedes the scream.

We inherit this sweetness into our mouths, our bodies onto these couches. We inherit these shadows on the wall, the wind that allows them movement. We stay inside with our juleps and curse the weather, though there's not a cloud in the sky.

. . . George Washington. 2007 Ankle. Crushed ankle.

We close our eyes. We sleep it off. We have crushed things inside us. We have things inside us waiting to be crushed. We dream of horses. We name them after forefathers. We can't tell if they're cheering or screaming. So, we keep running. In this kind of wind, bullet can mean so many things. In this kind, we are the things we try to outrun.

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