The Kool-Aid Wino
From “Trout Fishing in America”
by Richard Brautigan
When I was a child I had a friend who became a Kool-Aid wino as the result of a rupture. He was a member of a very large and poor German family. All the older children in the family had to work in the fields during the summer, picking beans for two-and-one-half cents a pound to keep the family going. Everyone worked except my friend who couldn’t because he was ruptured. There was no money for an operation. There wasn’t even enough money to buy him a truss. So he stayed home and became a Kool-Aid wino.
One morning in August I went over to his house. He was still in bed. He looked up at me from underneath a tattered revolution of old blankets. He had never slept under a sheet in his life.
“Did you bring the nickel you promised?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “It’s here in my pocket.”
He hopped out of bed and he was already dressed. He had told me once that he never took off his clothes when he went to bed.
“Why bother?” he had said. “You’re only going to get up, anyway. Be prepared for it. You’re not fooling anyone by taking your clothes off when you go to bed.”
He went into the kitchen, stepping around the littlest children, whose wet diapers were in various stages of anarchy. He made his breakfast: a slice of homemade bread covered with Karo syrup and peanut butter.
“Let’s go,” he said.
We left the house with him still eating the sandwich. The store was three blocks away, on the other side of a field covered with heavy yellow grass. There were many pheasants in the field. Fat with summer they barely flew away when we came up to them.
“Hello, ” said the grocer. He was bald with a red birthmark on his head. The birthmark looked just like an old car parked on his head. He automatically reached for a package of grape Kool-Aid and put it on the counter.
“He’s got it, ” my friend said.
I reached into my pocket and gave the nickel to the grocer. He nodded and the old red car wobbled back and forth on the road as if the driver were having an epileptic seizure.
My friend led the way across the field. One of the pheasants didn’t even bother to fly. He ran across the field in front of us like a feathered pig. When we got back to my friend’s house the ceremony began. To him the making of Kool-Aid was a romance and a ceremony. It had to be performed in an exact manner and with dignity.
First he got a gallon jar and we went around to the side of the house where the water spigot thrust itself out of the ground like the finger of a saint, surrounded by a mud puddle.
He opened the Kool-Aid and dumped it into the jar. Putting the jar under the spigot, he turned the water on. The water spit, splashed and guzzled out of the spigot.
He was careful to see that the jar did not overflow and the precious Kool-Aid spill out onto the ground. When the jar was full he turned the water off with a sudden but delicate motion like a famous brain surgeon removing a disordered portion of the imagination. Then he screwed the lid tightly onto the top of the jar and gave it a good shake. The first part of the ceremony was over.
Like the inspired priest of an exotic cult, he had performed the first part of the ceremony well.
His mother came around the side of the house and said in a voice filled with sand and string, “When are you going to do the dishes? … Huh?”
“Soon, ” he said.
“Well, you better, ” she said.
When she left, it was as if she had never been there at all. The second part of the ceremony began with him carrying the jar very carefully to an abandoned chicken house in the back. “The dishes can wait, ” he said to me. Bertrand Russell could not have stated it better.He opened the chicken house door and we went in. The place was littered with half-rotten comic books. They were like fruit under a tree. In the corner was an old mattress and beside the mattress were four quart jars. He took the gallon jar over to them, and filled them carefully not spilling a drop. He screwed their caps on tightly and was now ready for a day’s drinking.
You’re supposed to make only two quarts of Kool-Aid from a package, but he always made a gallon, so his Kool-Aid was a mere shadow of its desired potency. And you’re supposed to add a cup of sugar to every package of Kool-Aid, but he never put any sugar in his Kool-Aid because there wasn’t any sugar to put in it.
He created his own Kool-Aid reality and was able to illuminate himself by it.