Leo's Grandmother

This story won the April 2012 London StorySlam at Southbank Centre.
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Leo’s grandmother was half mad and a quarter Navajo and she made a damn fine tequila that was so clear and smooth it drank like water - and could take your legs out from under you in - pretty much - nothing flat.


It could take your legs out from under you in pretty much nothing flat.

The old lady lived in a cave up the hill and sometimes she disappeared in to the desert with her ugly little burro and a week’s worth of water and her machete. Leo had seen her chop wood and cut hide and deliver a stillborn goat with that knife and she carried it with her always, tied by a braided leather cord around her waist.


When she her beast returned from the desert they carried dozens of de-limbed agave cactuses and the old lady piled the agave in to a great stone oven and spent a long time building the fire and a long time stoking it. She distilled the cactus juice again and again until the tequila was sharp and colorless.

On Fridays the old lady sat at the mouth of her cave with her machete across her lap and waited for the men to come down from the copper mine with their wages and their empty lunch boxes and when she saw them she nodded them over.

It was Leo’s job to count the money and ladle the tequila into their coffee-stained thermoses. The men sat and drank—and sometimes they talked. Sometimes they fought. But mostly they were quiet and propped themselves against the boulders that clustered around the mouth of the cave. The men stretched their legs in front of them and the old lady kept them company until the night’s true blackness came. In the darkness she returned to her cave and after a while the men stumbled or crawled home — stopping to piss their epiphanies back in to the desert.

Leo walked down the road to the house where his mother kept dinner waiting for him.

* * *

Leo’s grandmother had been dead for nearly fifteen years when he lost his house in the divorce. He took an old army cot and a camping stove and went back up to the cave and moved in. He bought a generator and erected some boards across the front and even hung a real door and put out some lawn chairs.

In the back of the cave where he couldn’t get to without a good flashlight and some sturdy boots he found most of the old lady’s still. Next to it were three big barrels hewn from mesquite and they were heavy and full and sloshed when he put his weight against them. Leo came back with a pry bar and a clean mason jar and wedged the top off of one of the barrels and when he did he was hit by a wave of sweet heat that took his breath away and left the taste of smoke deep in his nose.

Leo dipped his jar into the barrel and the aged tequila gulped in and he lifted it to the light.


That’s what was in that jar: monsoon sunrise.

There is a kind of sunrise in the desert when a night monsoon clears just as the sun breaks and the whole world glows like wet gold. That’s what was in that jar: monsoon sunrise. The almost colorless stuff his grandmother had put it away was now a deep rich yellow and it RADIATED in Leo’s hand.


He held the jar to his lips and took a shallow drink and it burned—but there was something sweet and dark under the alcohol. He took another sip and he pushed the golden liquid from side to side across his tongue and then he let it trickle down his throat.

By his third drink Leo could feel it behind his eyes and his lips were a little numb—his chest was warm and his face hot. He knelt to the ground. There was something like a good idea coming to him. He could almost see it. A solution to his life, to the divorce, to the house. He sat on the ground and propped himself against the great belly of the open barrel.

He took another drink.

“I’m going to need a knife,” Leo thought, “I’m going to need a damn big knife.”