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ADELAIDE Independent Monthly Literary Magazine / Revista Literária Independente Mensal, New York / Lisboa, Online Edition  

 

 

 

 

 

BEER BEFORE LIQUOR
by Daniel Davis 

 

 

Ronnie’s brother, who’d been in our shoes himself after graduation, bought us a case of Natty Lite and left us alone in their basement. We had a bathroom, snacks, a TV, an Xbox, and a sofa. Everything, we understood, that we would require.

            Ronnie immediately went to town on a bag of mixed nuts, spilling some as he popped them open. “I can’t believe we did it,” he said.

            Cole took a deep swig of beer. He was the only one of us who’d drank regularly through high school.

            “Well it’s done,” he said, and belched. “Gonna pussy out?”
            Ronnie rolled his eyes. “I said surprised, fucker. That’s all.”

            Ronnie’s surprise seemed genuine, which struck me as odd. His was a military family, going back five or six generations, depending how long you listened to his father drawl on about it. Pictures of men—and, if one looked carefully, only men—in uniform lined the walls of their home. Medals, too, though not a great many. They were a family happy to serve, even without distinction. Ronnie had been brought up knowing he would enlist one day, just like his brother.

            Cole was the one who was most bemused by the whole thing. He’d barely graduated, his diploma more the result of the football coach’s influence than any academic success, most of which came from copying—poorly—off my homework. I would never have said it to his face, but he’d long ago struck me as something of a stereotype: not good at much except being a friend, following orders given by a larger and tougher superior, and acting older than his age. Higher education was not for this young man, and his parents had been laying recruitment brochures out since eighth grade, letting the idea sink in. He didn’t let on, but I think he dug the idea, knew that he needed the discipline. He wasn’t good enough to walk onto a college football team, not even Central Illinois Community College, where all you had to do was toss the ball moderately well and take a hit without crying.

            I tried to match Cole’s swig with my own, and managed not to choke too obviously. I hadn’t developed the taste yet, but the thought of getting plastered was appealing. I was terrified. Scared absolutely shitless, in a way the other two, though nervous, weren’t. And it’s not like I’d been pressured into enlisting. My parents had been against the idea, actually, and I could see their point: I wasn’t a genius, but I wasn’t an idiot. I could get an Associate’s Degree—maybe even a Bachelor’s at State, though let’s not push it—and support my inevitable future Midwest family on a respectable blue-collar career. Future Moose Lodge Member Walker Wainwright, at your service. Shit, if I really did good, maybe Chelmsford Country Club Member Walker Wainwright. Wouldn’t that make the folks proud?

            But the thought made me nauseous. I wasn’t bad at school, but I hadn’t liked it. I had almost strutted across the stage the previous night. Thought of flipping the principal off as he handed me my diploma, though I never in a million years would’ve actually done it. But college made no damn sense to me. Why pay to go to college and learn when the Army would pay you to join them and do the same thing? Plus free room and board. Travel the world. All that brochure shit, which appealed even though I knew half of it was horseshit. The money, though, the training and the education—those were real. College would provide parties and girls and a nice piece of paper, but that was nothing compared to what the Army had to offer.

            Plus, and this was the one thing all three of us would admit, we just wanted to kill terrorists. Shove Old Glory up their ass until they choke on it, as Cole sometimes put it.

            So we’d enlisted, all at the same time, the way we’d gone to senior prom together—with dates, of course; dates who, it turned out, didn’t much like each other—and the way we’d had birthday parties together and camped out together and done pretty much everything else together going back six, seven years. Cole had football; I had baseball and golf; Ronnie had coin collecting and that freshman experiment with basketball. The rest, we pretty much shared, which generally made things easier to predict. What am I doing Saturday night? Well, what’s Cole doing? Yeah, and Ronnie’ll be there, too.

            The way we were rebelling tonight, if you wanted to call it that. Ronnie’s brother knew, obviously, and his parents had conveniently decided to spend last night congratulating their son, and tonight visiting some family upstate. One had to wonder how far back this tradition went in the McConnell family. Had his granddad gotten sloshed on moonshine while his great grandad skipped stones or whatever the hell they did back before color television? It struck me as a nice tradition.

            We put in Ronnie’s brother’s Call of Duty and played Zombie Mode for a while. Ronnie liked to make “pew-pew” noises, despite the realistic—or was it?—gunfire from the game. Cole, as usual, took it a bit too seriously, elbowing me when I failed to kill a flying zombie-thing—looked like a turd with eyes and fire—which directly led to his death. Ronnie and I lasted long enough to find a David Hasselhoff Easter egg, then promptly died, and we started it all over again.

            Cole held his alcohol best. But after an hour we were all feeling it. Making stupid mistakes in the game. Finally, when we realized it was useless to continue—only Cole insisting on one last attempt, then throwing his controller down when he didn’t make it five minutes—we turned off the game and found Adult Swim on the TV.

            As we watched cartoon creatures do adult human things, Ronnie said, “My uncle died in Desert Storm.”

            We knew, of course. There was almost a shrine to him upstairs. But in our drunken stupor, Cole and I were awed by this sacrifice.

            “He died saving his brothers,” Ronnie said. “That’s what they told us.”

            Cole sighed. “Man, if that’s how I gotta go, then let me go like that.” He meant it. Him, or the beer.
            I nodded. I did not mean it. Not that I was against sacrifice. I just didn’t want to fucking die, which struck me as a perfectly realistic view to take. Can’t you save your fellow soldiers and live, too? Why isn’t that ever an option?

            Ronnie said no more on the subject. The three of us took turns using the restroom. We had already broken into the Cheetos. Ronnie’s brother had supplied us well. Knew what it was like.

            “I wish I had a basement like this,” I said, and Cole said, “We’re gonna see some shit, boys.”

            We thought about what said shit would entail. Ronnie probably pictured a legacy, glory enshrined behind framed glass. Something his own kids would discuss one day. Maybe a parade on his return home, where he would use his service to get a good job—his grandfather had been a cop; Ronnie had often spoken of becoming one himself. Cole probably pictured a career of it, a second family where everyone was your teammate and you had their backs and they had yours. Not something to pass down to those who come after, but a foundation upon which to build your own life. Ronnie wanted a past; Cole needed a future.

            Which begged the question—I asked myself, almost aloud—what was it was I searching for? A future, sure, but not a career. Hope, maybe? Money? Could it be as simple as money? And, if so, was there anything wrong with that? Wasn’t that what public school was supposed to prepare you for—go out into the world and contribute to society? And most people only contributed by making, and spending, money, right? Just all a part of the great big American machine, making me yet another product to get shat out into the world—

            “Hey,” Ronnie said.

            I blinked. The world swam back into focus, which was how I noticed it had been out of focus in the first place. I was sitting on the floor somewhat slumped over; Cole was on his back beside me, staring at the stucco ceiling and tracing patterns with his fingers. Ronnie lay on the couch, turned onto his side as he fumbled between the cushions. His hand disappeared; I thought of a big fish swallowing up a smaller fish. I thought of a vagina, though I’d only seen one in person once, and not much had come of it. Then I thought of a fish with a vagina, and laughed.

            Ronnie pulled his hand out, clutching a fifth of something dark and sexy.
            “Hey,” he said again.
            Cole sat up. “Cool,” he said.
            I just stared. Was that what I thought it was?
            “Yeah,” Ronnie said. “Whiskey.”
            “Gimme,” Cole said.
            Ronnie gave. He said, “Patrick must’ve forgotten about it.”
            I didn’t think that was likely.

            “Me neither,” Cole said, then took a quick pull. He winced, and part of me trembled. If even he, the seasoned drinker amongst us, didn’t care for it—

            He coughed. “Not bad.” He said. He handed it to me. “Don’t think, Walkie, just do it.”

            So I did it, threw up a little in my mouth, swallowed that down and did it again, then passed the buck to Ronnie.

            “We’re gonna hate ourselves in the morning,” Cole said, but he was grinning.

            Ronnie barely pushed the whiskey down. He belched, and it looked like it hurt. My head swam. Surely it was too soon for that?

            “Chaser,” Cole said, handing me a fresh beer.
            “Thought you were supposed to use Coke.”
            “Read that in a book, nerd?” But he was just teasing, and we both grinned as we drank our beers.

            The whiskey enlivened us. We gave Call of a Duty another fruitless go, but even Cole didn’t get angry when we all died spasmic deaths in the first few minutes. So we switched back to the TV and it seemed funnier, even the commercials were a riot. My vision alternated from not seeing much to seeing two or three of everything, but I always found my way back to the beer can or the fifth of whiskey, which I took shorter and shorter pulls from. Ronnie was the first to pass out; one minute he was laughing, the next I glanced over my shoulder and he was gone, mound hanging open and drool trailing out.

            Cole laughed. “Shit,” he said. “I had money on you, Walkie.”
            “I don’t think I feel too good,” I said.
            He frowned at me. “Gonna puke?”
            I shook my head, which wasn’t a good idea so I stopped. “No. Just…not good.”

            He looked at me for a moment. I couldn’t see his face very well so I couldn’t read him, but when he spoke, his voice seemed heavy, and I somehow knew it wasn’t just the alcohol.

            “Me neither,” he said. Either he shook his head, or my vision swam. “And not because of this, man. I mean…because of all of this.”

            I wanted to say something profound, something intuitive and brotherly, to express my gratitude at his friendship, to show how the three of us were still in this shit together, even though we’d been pushed out into the real world, where we were about to be split up for the first time ever. I wanted to say what I felt, which I couldn’t quite understand but knew he shared, that this was the end but also the beginning and middle, that life could end but go on just the same. I wanted to say all of this, and more, because there was so much more to share, there was an endless universe of possibilities at play here, and I opened my mouth to tell him as best as I could, and that’s the last thing I remember.

            The next morning, we were miserable, taking turns vomiting in the toilet and moaning on the floor, chugging the water that Ronnie’s brother brought us, popping Excedrin like they were Pez, and mutually agreeing we’d made a terrible mistake but not really meaning it. A few months later, the three of us were in the desert. It went about as well as expected.

 

 

About the Author:

D.W. Davis is a native of rural East-Central Illinois. His work has appeared in various online and print journals. You can find him at Facebook.com/DanielDavis05, or @dan_davis86 on Twitter.

 

 

 

 

 

     
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