please return bottle for deposit
BY PATRICK CHAMBERS
I return to Kentucky and leave again, two cartons in tow. Eastern Kentucky. The mountains.
Last time I was there I stood in a gas station in my little hometown, paying for a full tank, readying myself to leave, readying myself for the long drive away, and the girl at the register heard me speak, looked at me funny, asked me where I was from.
Here, I told her.
She didn’t look convinced. Anything else? she asked.
I hoisted the cartons of Ale-8-One onto the counter, twelve green glass bottles in all. Just the soda.
My brother tried to plant a Kentucky coffeetree in our backyard when we were kids. My dad helped him dig the hole. At the time, the early nineties, it was the state tree of Kentucky. It held that designation for eighteen years, from 1976 to 1994, when the state legislature voted to replace it with the tulip poplar. Kentucky coffeetrees have ashy bark and thick, sprawling branches that are bare though much of the year. Cream-colored flowers blush amongst their leaflets in June. Tulip poplars grow tall, big brown trunks and thin branches, a shapely whole when flush with big leaves, and May flowers that flash yellows and oranges and reds. Kentucky coffeetrees are rare, the tulip poplars far more common. Kentucky coffeetrees have even been referred to as an “evolutionary anachronism.” They adapted to animals now extinct, and so struggle to disperse their seeds.
Not long after my brother planted his, our parents went broke and lost the house, and we moved and never saw the big backyard again, never saw the Kentucky coffeetree, if it ever grew.
Ale-8-One is sold almost exclusively in twenty-five counties in eastern Kentucky (“the only soft drink invented in Kentucky still in existence,” according to the company website). The bottling plant in Winchester is one of the standard school field trips for eastern Kentucky schools, along with the longer sojourns to the Louisville Slugger Museum and Churchill Downs. The drink, similar to ginger ale, but a bit citrusy and caffeinated, comes in regular and diet, and is sold in cans and bottles. It’s sold in plastic bottles, non-returnable glass bottles, and returnable glass bottles. The latter of these, the returnable glass bottles with long, slender necks (the non-returnable bottles have snub-nosed necks), in eastern Kentucky these are as iconic as any Coke can. Even though both types of glass bottles are produced by the same manufacturer, are filled with the same machinery, some people swear Ale-8-One from those slender necks just tastes better.
During my first semester of graduate school in Minnesota, one of my professors emailed me a photo essay of Appalachia. The cars rusty, the homes flimsy structures of crooked boards and tin roofs. Children with dirty faces, children with dirty clothes. The faces of the adults in the photos were fierce, were odd and misshapen, alien eyes. The older ones, the creases in their faces ran deep, their eye sockets sagged.
Saw this and thought you’d be interested. How accurate is this?
Well, more and less I said.
It’s not that the photos weren’t authentic. You could drive down a hollow in eastern Kentucky and see any of it. But they weren’t all of it either. Not everything.
I wanted to say more, wanted to offer some defense, but what could I really say? Hadn’t I just run a thousand miles from there?
When I was a kid and we lived with my grandparents, it was pretty common to go for a walk in the evening. We’d walk back in the woods, or go just down the road, down to my uncle’s house. It was usually my grandma, my parents, my brother and me, and possibly a cousin or two.
My grandma just liked to be out and about a bit. Sometimes she’d pick blackberries that she’d toss into a little wicker basket, for making cobbler later.
My brother and I, and my parents too, would bring trash bags along. We’d pick up cans and bottles along the road to take off for recycling, to turn in for cash. Not because we were desperate. But because you make a few bucks if you’re able.
My brother and I were enthusiastic about hunting for cans. We’d pluck them from the weeds and ditches, pry them from the muck. We’d pour out what was left in them, beer and soda mixed with dirty rainwater, stand them up straight, and stamp them flat against the ground in a satisfying crump. Toss them in the bag.
We were especially hopeful of finding Ale-8-One bottles though. The returnable slender necks. On the front, “Ale-8-One” painted in bold red lettering against a white background. Just above that the slogan: “A Late One.” On the back, the nutritional facts, and in all-capital white letters: “PLEASE RETURN BOTTLE FOR DEPOSIT.”
Ale-8-One bottles were worth twenty cents apiece. You could return them to a few of the stores in town. When you walked into Brown’s, you’d see crates and crates of old bottles stacked on top of each other, ready to be returned to the bottling plant in Winchester.
The Ale-8-One company typically anticipates slender neck bottle returns as part of its production process. When returns fell short a year ago, a spokesman for the company lamented that production of the soft drink in the iconic bottles might have to decrease for several months, due to a bottle shortage.
When I’m back in Kentucky, sometimes I think about stopping by our old house, to see if the Kentucky coffeetree ever grew. That no longer state tree.
But I never do.
I imagine I’d be unwelcome. I’d be some stranger on the doorstep, asking the people who live there now to see their tree. The tree that may not exist, that may have found the soil, like the state legislature, too unkind.
For college as an undergrad, I went only so far as the western half of Kentucky. Far enough to leave the mountains. Far enough for the voices to sound different.
In my political science class my freshman year, the professor had us introduce ourselves on the first day and tell everyone where we were from.
The professor told us he was from Winchester. I wouldn’t have guessed from the way he talked. But then, Only a few of you will understand when I say this, he said, but I sure could go for an ice cold Ale-8-One.
Later that semester, we discussed the profiling of Muslims.
Well, the Oklahoma City bomber wasn’t exactly Muslim, I said
Wasn’t exactly Muslim, a guy in the back of the class repeated, in a mocking, twangy dialect, letting the sounds escape his mouth big and dumb and slow.
I felt my face run red. I was scared his impression was closer to the truth than I’d have liked to admit.
And whether the professor heard this or not, he didn’t say anything.
I didn’t speak for the rest of the semester if I could help it.
When I left Kentucky, I took almost nothing with me.
Not my voice. Even though the Minnesotans, too, ask me where I’m from.
But to be sure, two cartons of Ale-8-One. Every time I return to Kentucky and leave again, two cartons in tow.
And I usually find myself wondering, every time I tip back a green glass bottle and take a swig from the slender neck, whether it could be one of mine. One I returned. One I pried from the muck somewhere.
But surely bottles don’t stay in circulation that long.
What would it mean though, if they did? If mine did?
I always buy the slender necks, take them with me on the long drive, a thousand miles, too far to return, too far to replenish the bottle stock, too far to ensure production levels are maintained.
I could simply buy the non-returnables, I guess, feel less guilty. But I’ve head the slender necks just taste better.
So I end up discarding them all. All but one. An empty bottle I keep, just a paperweight on my coffee table. A late one. Just in case.