We first heard about the reporter when she wrote a piece on Belly’s Bakery. Belly’s was right across the street. Rain often streaked our windows, but when the skirt of water moved aside, the opening revealed the dim red lettering of Belly’s and their logo, an oven overfilled with flames, stretching over their front doors.
Around seven, when we were busiest, the outside world waned, dimmed, until there was only the scuffed hardwood floors, the metal industrial chairs with no arm rests, the crisscrossing fluorescent lights hanging from various points from the ceiling with black wire. When one looked up, all they saw were floating lights suspended against the black paint, the void—except for one exposed wooden beam, which was the first one our mothers constructed. We were a brewery. Proud of our beers and matching sandwiches. Our name: Sea Brewery. So, it was no surprise, with our busy schedule of working the taps, changing our name board with the ever-changing menu of beers, and thinking of new ways to entice people to try our sandwiches—that we missed the reporter entering and leaving Belly’s. But when we saw her review in the paper, we started paying more attention.
Belly’s has something for everyone. I sampled most everything, from their lemon bread to their cupcakes, and I found each bite as delectable as the last. Their Piggy Pockets and pastries are like a spa for the tongue. Over time, I suspect they will get into the business of selling their goods regionally, which will be much to our enjoyment and pride.
She had given Belly’s high praise for their unique and complicated pumpkin pouches filled with cream and drizzled with dark chocolate, which they called “Piggy Pockets.” The article went on in great detail about the inviting and comforting environment: the vaulted ceiling with exposed wooden beams, Tesla lights and their soft antique glow, the spools of rope and tackle that honed in on our town’s location, minutes from the Pacific, moments from families and lovers and friends and dogs and birds and mice and crabs dancing together on smooth-rough sand.
Although Belly’s was a fine enough place to grab your typical pastry, cashing in as much as it could from the seasonal tourist traffic, they were by no means a special experience. They sold doughnuts with little ships iced on top; they sold turquoise-frosted cookies decorated with crashing waves. They sold a myriad variety of breads topped with frosting, glaze, and other goodies. They had cupcakes with sprinkles to evoke our nation’s flag: red, white, and blue.
While we were happy about Belly’s glowing review, we couldn’t help but wonder how they had wowed the reporter, and we certainly didn’t expect the crowds. Not only had peopled read the article—the fluffy piece with a couple of photos in grainy newspaper ink of the owners in aprons smeared with flour, their faces beaming, exuding the forced happiness—people had responded by showing up to Belly’s by the dozens. They walked to the bakery. They arrived in cars and parked on the street, some cars half on the curb. Some rode bikes, others skateboarded, while others from the country, the rolling hills inland, hopped down from their horses and tied them up to streetlights.
The day after the article appeared we noticed, while we prepped to open at noon, a bus from a town over parked right in front of Belly’s. We couldn’t see them, but we knew it was a lot of people. The bus slowly rocked and rose an inch or two higher as they disembarked, and remained still for hours, until around three in the afternoon, when the bus settled lower and lower, and left with a puff of black smoke.
We thought about how to make ourselves stand out. We sat up late at night in the half-darkness of our brewery, glasses only an inch full, and threw ideas at each other like paper airplanes. One of us suggested bigger signs; another mentioned extended happy hour; we talked about coupons, updating our sandwich menu, moving away from sandwiches entirely, perhaps, or painting our storefront a vibrant color. Green? Blue? We mulled these suggestions in our heads, took them with us to bed, had dreams with them, woke up in the night with a sigh, and felt the crackle of our synapses.
The reporter reviewed our town’s diner a couple weeks after Belly’s. Then she ventured to our bowling alley, our grocery store, post office, tackle and bait shop, general store, parking garage, vet, clinic, piers, even the garbage dump. She moved from shop to business, from cemetery to funeral home, from the center of town to the outskirts. But, as she worked her way through, she missed a couple of businesses, like the salon next door to us, and the art supply store on our other side. As people flocked to each place she reviewed, all very favorably, those two shops, the ones right next to us, closed down. We left our brewery late one night, and when we walked back the next morning, we saw the Closed signs hanging in their bare windows, scraps of paper and debris hiding in the corners, the main rooms as empty as a dead bird’s ribcage.
The pull that other businesses got from the reviews excited and scared us, as if we were about to touch a live wire. We spent weeks during those reviews trying to figure out how to garner more attention. We bought bigger signs and screwed those above our doors. We painted our store front in a combination of neon yellow and green. We mounted speakers outside that played music, and when commercials came on, they were our own prerecorded messages about how great our beer was when paired with our gourmet sandwiches.
Try our Ocean Carver Pale Ale with our BLT! Thirsty and over the age of 21? Come on in and give our Tree Octopus Hazy a try with our claim-to-fame Monte Cristo! In the mood for a beer? Nothing cools and alleviates those mid-day blues like our Squatch IPA! Pairs well with our grilled ham and Swiss sandwich! Fresh all day, every day!
We found multi-colored spotlights that changed colors with the music for our patio at night. With the help of a contractor (who she reviewed later in an online post), we installed propane heaters for late nights and early mornings. We even changed our schedule for a couple of weeks, opening from six a.m. to one a.m. But these modifications seemed to have the opposite impact. People started coming less and less, drawn to other places around town by the reporter’s articles and suggestions about how great this gas station was, or how wonderful and intelligent this ATM was. For a moment, we contemplated repainting our ceiling, including our exposed beam, a different color, maybe yellow or blue, but we never got the brushes.
We felt sickened when we opened on Friday to no one waiting, only the bare street dusted with sand.
We should’ve known—the article about the dump had run the day before, and people were trying out the new activity there, as outlined by the reporter. Tourists, and even locals, participated by bringing trash directly to the collection station, standing on the edge of a huge garbage pile circled by seagulls, and chucking in their old toasters or sewing machines. Then, when everyone had disposed of their trash, they rolled out mats for morning or afternoon or night-time yoga, depending on what time slot you had, as the dump now requested reservations to protect the environment and biological stability from hundreds of enthusiasts.
A hidden gem in our community is where we throw our trash away. All around the edge of this growing mound of debris are wonderful places for relaxation and meditation. I recommend that everyone come by, say hello to your friendly waste collector, and stay for the beautiful shrubs and trees. With lots of flat, grassy areas, I envision this dump turning into a delightful yoga space.
So, as people flocked to the dump, and some mobile vendors corralled the entrance, we felt the air leave our little brewery. The more articles appeared for other places, the more disconnected we felt. Our smiles weren’t returned when we walked down the sidewalks. Doors were locked as we approached. Streetlights turned off as we made our ways home, as if a cloud of electromagnetic energy hung above our heads. From above, from the eyes of eagles and falcons and hawks and owls, the town must’ve looked peculiar as temporary, miniature outages occurred wherever we walked. Then the rain stopped falling on our brewery–or it rained only on us. Ferns seen only in the country before, never in town, sprouted through our sidewalk, pushed up tiles in our bathrooms. Vines snaked out of spouts and taps. The smallest flies fizzed over the tops of beers like carbonated bubbles.
Black smudges coated our eyelids. Our noses leaked white mucus; mold coated the backs of our throats. We tried to clear out our sinuses by pouring beer into our noses, gurgled warm ale while the rain poured all over our brewery. Water trickled down the sides of our walls, pooling in shallow puddles around our feet. Bread ready for sandwiches became soggy and cold. Cheese decomposed at warp speed in its containers, turning to milky paste. The ham, bacon, turkey, chicken left one day, we don’t remember when, though we swore we had stored them in the fridge.
Then she showed up at our door at one p.m.
It was as if we were in a trance, deep in the sub-brain, deep underwater, under tunnels and salt mines, under the roots of cedars and redwoods. When she talked, we focused on her lips moving around and around—they never seemed to close completely. She walked through the wreckage of broken wood and upturned stools. Beer mixed with rainwater on our counters and silos of glasses half-empty and forgotten stood proud like the ruins of Greece or Inca. With each step, the reporter took in her surroundings, touching the tables that were dry, admiring, it seemed, our front window smudged with mud and dried pastrami, before finding her way to the bar. Her purse flopped down in a puddle of ale and she looked around for someone to take her order. We imagined she wrote:
I had no idea that when I entered Sea Brewery, a family institution for nearly a hundred years, since Maureen Cea traveled to our shore, that I would have trouble finding a spot, but to my fortunate dismay, there was one spot at the bar that wasn’t occupied by a patron. I sat at a comfortable stool and admired the aesthetic: industrial furnishings from chairs and stools, to Tesla lights burning softly over the polished stained cedar bar. On suggestion from the welcoming staff, I tried a Starfish IPA. The wonderful aroma of vanilla and orange wafted all around. In short, I was content, and excited to return in the future. Give Sea Brewery a try this week!
We were so enthralled by her appearance and demeanor that we forgot for a moment that we were the caretakers of this place. Then we found a clean glass under the sink, poured her an ale, the only tap of ten that worked, folded our arms and leaned.
The reporter gripped the handle, raised the glass to her lips and tilted the amber liquid. She held this position for seconds, minutes. Her arm never wavered. Her eyes remained half open in anticipation of the beer. Her pupils never moved. We didn’t know what to do, so we waited against the bar with the beer taps behind us dripping away the time.
Outside, people jostled about our front door. They peered inside, shone their phones through the windows. Some fed hoses through cracks in the wall to hear or sniff our actions. The muted scratches of boots and sandals and flip-flops and bare feet on our roof told us of their determination to get in. Belly’s Bakery staff, flecks of pudding covering their cheeks, shouted up and down the street about how we were going to be the next big place. But inside the brewery, nothing had moved in over an hour.
The reporter sat motionless. The beer inside her glass was so still, it looked lfrozen. We leaned and blinked in unison with the melody of drips behind us. People left, and soon cold crept in. It was snowing. While it had been only one pm when the reporter appeared, the sun’s dying light cast oblique and acute shadows and threw light through empty beer glasses like birdshot.
Mice moved in and began brewing their own concoctions. Drunk mice stumbled over our toes and fingers, puked in our nut bowls; some climbed into empty beer glasses and danced, painted symbols on the inside, took over our ruins. They started chipping away at the counters, pulling strips of wood away. From these they constructed houses and businesses. Teacher mice rode to a little school house on the backs of beetles. They rolled glasses into spiral patterns, structures in which monk mice drooled over hops. As we leaned against the bar, mice explored our brewery, conquered the spiders in the bathrooms, destroyed the hornets in the cash register, demolished a colony of pill bugs and used their shells as armor and bowls. The stench made us sick, but we held our position against the counter, watching the reporter, holding down our bile.
Outside, we heard seagulls. We heard the rolling of the surf, saw pebbles and sand and razor clams and sand dollars and bits of bright plastic wash over us. Under the water, cold as our beer, we felt the ripples of a seaweed forest alive with the scuttle of crabs. Starfish snapped and crackled against rock.
Sunflowers bloom from the ceiling. Rain pools at our feet before falling upward onto their yellow petals, which shake and bounce with each raindrop and sway with the ceiling fans. The reporter’s hair morphs from brown to black to gray. Our bones show heavily through our skin; our fingernails are six inches long. People board up our windows and doors. Thud, thud go the nails into our brewery. We can’t see, but we know amber and red ale bleed from those nails. Soon, tarps or trash block out all natural light. All we hear as the day slips into night or night slips into day or moon breaks through morning clouds or rain pelts our roof or high tide or low, is the no-noise of the reporter drinking and the beer taps dripping, thrumming to us in the dark.
Benjamin Murray is a graduate of Eastern Washington University’s MFA program and an advisor for Transformation Tuesday, a poetry and performance event with a focus on marginalized voices. He enjoys roaming the woods of the Pacific Northwest for Sasquatch and kayaking rivers. His work has been published or is forthcoming in Arkana, Cobalt, Rock & Sling, Pamplemousse, Sweet Tree Review, and Stone Coast Review.