The Angels’ Share

When I started high school — or at least the equivalent grade in the English system — we were in Belgium, where my father had begun teaching at the British School of Brussels. Parts of that year were magical, from halcyon summer days in Tervuren Park, once an estate belonging to the Dukes of Brabant, to shopping for early Pink Floyd vinyl on the rain-soaked boulevards of the capital, to sharing a lunchtime pint with schoolmasters: experiences that in the already-charged terrain of adolescence stretched us enough, in Oliver Wendell Holmes’s words, so that we could never go back to the old dimensions.

But for each electric moment, each moment of expansion, there were twenty dull days. We lived at the time in the little Flanders town of Kortenberg, just ten kilometers or so from Tervuren, and the site of an old Benedictine abbey. Our apartments were modern, though, newly-built, smelling of fresh plaster, adrift in a rural hamlet of chicory fields. There was very little to do. My brothers and I, appropriately, spent our hours kicking a soccer ball against a small wayside shrine that housed an image of the Virgin, and if she had come to life, counselled chastity, told us that if we touched ourselves we’d go blind, I’d probably have believed her. There was no sex ed. We had to learn about sex on the street corner, and there was an optometrist on the street corner.

I think of those backwater days in Wyoming now. In this little subdivision, in the bleak mid-winter, there is a near-complete lack of adventure, and of wildlife. Sparrows and juncos peck salt from the undersides of sedans. Gnats and moths no bigger than a fingernail occasionally visit, in sackcloth colors. But not a single spider. Sometimes, between the magic and the Mardi Gras, our lives are defined by lack. Before and after the wonder, we cool our heels in waiting rooms.

Life lessons, but not the kind we want to hear. There are fireworks over the harbor in Mahon, burning grass, limpid channels the color of malachite. And then nothing. The festivals leave town. Not all of our evenings catch fire; not all of our efforts get rewarded. Some simply go by the boards. But it depends on the task, doesn’t it? Dig a ditch and you can be reasonably confident that a ditch will result. Quickly enough, with a good shovel and pliant earth.

But every student will tell you that precious hours of study don’t necessarily stick. How much do you retain? How much do you lose to fading memory? And if the task is more abstract — say to create goodwill in your community — how many warm greetings, a cheerful wave here or there in passing, how many welcome baskets, pet sits, apple pies, Girl Scout cookies will do it? If you are looking for adventure, happiness, a sense of life fully lived, how do you measure it? What dead-end towns, three a.m. truck stops, blank-eyed looks, fruitless hunches will you suffer through to find your Eldorado? How much of the journey evaporates without issue?

Distillers know the feeling, and they know the amount more precisely. It’s estimated that two percent of whiskey in the barrel is lost to evaporation. More at the outset, more if the cask is small, more if it is humid rather than dry, more above the ground than planted firmly on it — because of air circulation, they tell us. About two percent on average, as much as 40 percent for fine hootch aged 20 or more years. Mostly it’s distilled spirits, but nowadays, with craft beer makers increasingly inventive, concocting bourbon barrel peach coconut stouts and the like, them too. A significant part escapes into the clouds. It’s called the Angels’ Share.

I consider fallow times my angels’ share: lay-overs, the February dead, suburban backwaters where out of necessity, perhaps, we are waiting. Waiting for the tide, waiting for cash, waiting for planning or delivery or for an honest guide. Not all effort is rewarded.

And perhaps the angels require that from us. They love our empty hands, our trials and our trying. When we’re changing a flat tire on the highway shoulder outside of Barstow, it’s not the drift of air from a passing truck we feel, but the tongues of angels licking salt-sweat from our foreheads, their fingers on our temples. It’s not waste; it’s tribute.

I imagine my angel is doing quite well for himself, the accumulation of work and boredom, earnest stabs at art, lucky blindfold brilliance — enough of that has leaked up over the years that he might be pleased. He’s taken to fending off other angels muscling in; he’s taken a proprietary interest in my fate. But then, half the time he’s drunk, of course. Pie-eyed. Have you tried craft beer? Imperial ales can weigh in at 16% ABV. It doesn’t take a large share drifting heavenward from barrel after barrel to make an angel seriously snookered. So, much as I’d like to believe he waits expectantly for the residue of my nomad life to reach him, in truth, it’s a bit of a mess, isn’t it, like a tippler trying to sort his door keys from his dongle. He grabs at what he can find. Some of it is my share. Some of it is yours.

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