It had been a tough couple of months.
Members of my extended family had died: a couple of uncles on my wife's side of the family, plus a cousin, who was only 39. Shortly before he died, a work colleague died only two months after learning he had cancer.
Old age had claimed the uncles; cancer claimed my cousin and work mate. Cancer was a bastard. My best friend's mother was also dealing with cancer, but that's not what took her.
Death had me stressed out. People were getting sick, dropping like flies. I was realizing that I, too, was getting old, that heart disease and cancer ran rampant in my family. One of them was going to get me: it was only a matter of when. Most likely, I thought, I have fewer years in front of me than behind me.
Best to enjoy life while you can.
It was at this time, where I wondered about life, that I found myself in the LCBO. It's one of my favourite stores to visit on a regular basis, right up there with book stores. It was a couple of years before I began reviewing beer, when I was more likely to pick up a good bottle of wine over a six-pack of ale. But I would still check out what was new and shiny in the craft beer section, which was much smaller, even those few years ago.
A shelf full of stubby bottles caught my eye. A friend of mine, who made beer, was known for producing his ales in neck-less bottles. It had been a while since I had picked up some of his brew, since I learned that the company that bought his beer had started messing with his recipes.
Sure enough, the bottle showed his brewery: it was an imperial stout, and what caught me about the label, other than the fact that the name had changed and the label was different, is that the label itself was barely staying on the bottle. It was as though only one end of the label had been affixed with glue or that the bottles had been immersed in water and the labels were peeling off.
It was time for a phone call. I hadn't spoken to my friend in months and I missed him, any way.
"I'm holding your stubby," I said to him. Neither of us could resist an opportunity for a dirty joke. "Why had I not heard about this imperial stout?"
"It's the last beer I'm making for the company," he said. "I'm leaving the biz."
"Really? How come?"
As successful as he had been as a brewer, it was really hard work, with long hours and heavy work. "I'm having problems with my heart," he confessed, "my doctor has me taking tests but I think the stress is getting to me."
For a moment, I couldn't catch my breath. "What? Are you okay?"
"I'm fine," he assured me, "I'm going to take it easy."
We talked a little more, sharing news about our families and what we were up to. We promised to get together soon. I asked him to keep me informed about his condition, and wished him good health.
"Before I let you go," I said, "I'm going to let you know that I'm clearing the shelves of your beer. What's with the labels?"
"Poor bottling equipment, not my responsibility. I just made the beer."
"It's coming unglued," I said.
"So am I," joked my friend, and we ended the call.
My hands were shaking as I gathered about a dozen bottles, adding them to my basket and heading to the cash.
The store was almost empty, only a few stragglers were at the cash registers. The LCBO was closing in a few minutes. I took the stubbies from my basket and placed them on the counter, in front of the cashier. She was young, pretty. She picked up the first of the bottles of imperial stout and scanned it.
"These labels are awful," she remarked as she totaled up the purchases.
"I know," I said, holding up my phone, "I just talked to the brewer about it. He knows too." My voice cracked, I took a deep breath, and let out a soft sob. "Everything is going to be okay."
The cashier gave me a strange look as tears started to roll down my cheek. She didn't know what to say and I couldn't talk, so we quickly finished the transaction in silence. Her eyes tried to assure me that she had confidence that the labels didn't affect the flavour of the beer, that she was sure the brewery would fix the labels for the next batch.
It had been a bad couple of months, but things were going to get better. My friend is still going strong and the frequency of family deaths was on the decline.
And, for a couple of months, I avoided that LCBO.