My parents do not drink. At all. Never did.

I had my first drink at age five, maybe six. Whiskey. Neat.

Even though my parents did not drink at all.

Or was it somehow because of it? Or because it was so condemned, so vilified as to give it an allure? In that light, shall we try naming a thing that was put off limits to me in my childhood that I did not go toward? I speculate there are few to none.

For my mother, her unyielding disposition of anti always seemed to be due to holy expectation. And control. For my father, not drinking was due to experience with an abusive and neglectful alcoholic father. Among other reasons, perhaps. 

Naturally then, my first access to alcohol came outside our family’s house. And my first access to alcohol led to my first drink. Secretly, of course. Sneakily. I have always been curious, always preferring first-hand knowledge. And when the walls of authority stand so absolute and stern, secrecy is the only way to procure it.

My older brothers, both of them, had been hired to paint the house of a man who typically paid them to mow his lawn. On at least one occasion, I was taken with them, the three of us dropped off together. My brothers to do their work. Me to be … somewhere.

I was allowed to pass the time inside the house, alone, while my brothers, around 11 and 14, give or take, were painting outside. In hindsight, these details of the story seem unthinkable. Impossible even, given the ages of the three of us. Some might chalk it up to being Gen X kids of the 80s.

There was a big screen television and a bar in the man’s house. I’d seen neither at anyone’s house before. Behind the bar, which stood next to the entrance to the kitchen, there were travel-sized bottles of booze on a shelf.

I crouched behind the bar, out of view of the door to the side yard where my brothers were, and the windows to the front. I inspected the little bottles, their labels and the colors of their contents. I knew enough to know it was alcohol, and that it was forbidden. 

My heart pounded as I decided to open one, breaking the seal. Jack Daniels, I think it was. My visual recollection shows me the label was black. I smelled it. Then I tipped the bottle to my mouth, taking a swig off the tiny opening. My tongue lit on fire. And then my throat, as I swallowed.

I hurried the few paces’ distance to the kitchen sink. It was piled with dirty dishes. I filled a dirty shot glass with water from the tap and poured it onto my tongue and down my throat, trying to douse the burn. Again. Again. And again. More water than I wanted in my belly yet not enough to extinguish the shock. I exhaled fumes and started to cover my tracks, wondering how I’d keep from being caught.

I recapped the bottle and placed, partially consumed, back on the shelf in the bar. The man who owned the house must have been confused when he eventually found it. Did he suspect anyone in particular? My brothers, perhaps?

When our dad picked us up in his pickup truck, the four of us squished together on the bench seat, with me unavoidably snugged up against him. Would he smell the fumes on my breath? Would my brothers? I surely would be found out. How could I not be?

I now try to imagine being my father in those minutes it took to drive home across town. The windows no doubt were down, letting the summer’s wind blow through. Nonetheless. He must have been sensitive to the smell of alcohol, conscious of a Tennessee whiskey’s fragrance. Wasn’t he? 

Assuming he was, what must the dissonance have felt like, the waft of 80 proof and the fact that the only other people exhaling in the cab of that truck were his sons, three young boys? The oldest being 14 and the one sitting nearest, the guilty one, a soon-to-be first-grader. 

Were the hot, humid winds of the northern Missouri summer my protector, diluting and dissolving my guilt? Not even my brothers cast accusatory glances or words. Maybe it was only my paranoia. A burden of fear. But,

If my dad smelled alcohol in the truck that day and dismissed the unthinkable, it wouldn’t be the last time he extended the grace of doubt in my favor.

The Whiskey is #Eleven in the weekly memoir series, Among Other Things. What’s it about? Read Introducing ‘Among Other Things,’ A Weekly Memoir Series.