The other night a young man drinking at my bar took a liking to me, and to show his gratitude for said likeability he asked if I’d like to join him and his buddies after work to, as he put it, “do a little snow blowing”. You may find this hard to believe considering the hip and trendy swagger I conduct myself with on a nightly basis, but I have never done a drug in my life, despite the fact that I am not the Pope, or even Amish.
More accurately, when I tell people that I am drug-free, it is not disbelief that I see on their faces as much as a look of pity, as if I’ve just confessed that my parents never threw me a birthday party. “Not even pot?” they ask. “Not even once?” They can’t fathom why I’d choose to miss out on such a grand adventure.
To avoid any further judgment, I quickly and proudly tell them that I may have never done a drug in my life, but I did start drinking at the age of ten, to which they nod with condescending skepticism. “Sure you did,” they say and walk away shaking their heads, disappointed that out of desperation I had resorted to exaggeration to gain their favor.
But it’s true. I did start drinking at the age of ten. I have never felt the need to experiment with drugs, as I’ve always achieved a satisfactory high from alcohol, and later on gambling. My favorite hobby today is to sit in my boxers in front of the computer sipping Woodford Reserve on the rocks and gambling online. You see? You don’t need drugs to become an impassionate lump. My lethargy is decidedly organic.
The people who don’t walk away from me are curious how I could have began drinking at such a young age, and so I will tell it. As with most stories that begin with young people becoming involved in criminal behavior, there was an older boy who held heavy influence over me and my friends. My best friend’s brother, Dillon, was sixteen when we were ten. He loved whiskey, football and Led Zepplin, in that order, and wielded a dangerously sarcastic wit that dissected one’s self-esteem with an artistic savagery usually only witnessed on shows like The Jeffersons, in which George and Weezie fire insults at each other for a half-hour each and every Friday night.
Here is Dillon now, thirty minutes before my very first shot of liquor. He strides ahead of us, powerfully, like a platoon leader who knows his destination. His school backpack is strapped to his shoulders; he holds a .22 caliber rifle in his right hand. We march behind like good soldiers, three abreast: me, Howie, and Dillon’s brother Brandon. Brandon has been my best friend since the first grade. He is short and defensive, especially about being short. Howie is fat and red-headed and pathetically desperate to fit in with his peers. We are all bowl-cuts and jeans.
In consideration of our age, the three of us carry pump-action air rifle BB guns. We are hunting deer, Dillon informs us, despite the fact that I’ve never seen one in these hills. At best our BB guns will bring down small birds, but Brandon carries a metal tin of pellets in case we encounter something more vicious, perhaps a fox. Or a chipmunk.
The day is grey and muted and a light mist settles on our gun barrels like tiny bubbles of white paint. We negotiate graveyards of fallen trees and protruding branches over ground that is soft and damp and sponge-like.
Dillon places both hands on a giant log and leaps over it with the nimbleness of a house cat. We crawl over it with great difficulty, hugging its girth for balance and then slide off on the other side. Dillon watches us with his hands on his hips like a superhero, and then laughs when Howie rolls over the log and lands on his back with a grunt. “At least you’ve got all that blubber to protect you when you fall,” Dillon says. Brandon and I laugh because it isn’t us.
Dillon turns and forges ahead. His leanness is difficult not to fixate on. His muscles role and ripple beneath his t-shirt with remarkable clarity, like a panther’s do beneath its fur. A junior at Shasta High School, he runs like a greyhound and scored four touchdowns in last weekend’s game. He could be a poster on my wall.
After another half-mile Howie begins to complain of a side-ache. “Can we rest?” he calls out.
“Stop your whining,” Dillon calls over his shoulder.
“But it really hurts,” Howie says. He is wheezing and sweating through his shirt despite the chill and mist.
“Stay here then,” Dillon says. “Get eaten by a mountain lion, see if I care. It’s bad enough that I have to babysit you pussies, I don’t need to hear you crying like one.”
We eventually emerge from the woods and Dillon stops us at the edge of a field and pulls off his backpack. “Fine, you want to rest? Let’s rest.” He pulls a brown paper bag from the pack and then carefully lifts a nearly full bottle of Jack Daniels from it. “This should help the pain in your side,” he says, unscrewing the cap. “I know it will help the pain in my ass you’re giving me. Courage up, boys.” He lifts the bottle to his mouth, takes a swig of the brown liquid and then wipes his mouth with his sleeve when he’s done. The mist has turned his black hair slick and glossy, a perfect mold of shiny plastic. “Who’s next?”
I am petrified and exhilarated. This is serious stuff. Brandon shuffles nervously and kicks at a rock submerged in the soft grass, though he appears unsurprised by his brother’s actions, as if he somehow knew a trek into the middle of nowhere with Dillon would eventually lead to something like this.
Howie is the only one sufficiently moronic enough to refuse Dillon publicly. “I’m not drinking that,” he says. “My dad will kill me.”
“Your dad’s not here is he, fat ass,” Dillon says. “Stop being such a vagina.”
“I’m not being a vagina,” Howie replies. “It’s just…”
“It’s just what? You need a tampon for your pussy? Howard the Coward strikes again. How about you, Allred?” Dillon thrusts the bottle towards me. I feel like I’m in a scene from a gang movie and this is my initiation, but instead of killing someone I just have to take a swig of whiskey. The fear of engaging in illegal and unscrupulous behavior is struggling with my thirst for Dillon’s approval. If I say no he might just shoot me in the face, or worse, I could become a doormat, like Howie.
“Give me that,” Brandon says. He grabs the bottle from Dillon’s grip and hoists it to his lips before he can change his mind.
“Atta boy, little bro,” Dillon says, clapping slowly.
Howie and I watch with wide eyes and mouths. Brandon holds the bottle to his lips for a long time. Too long, in fact, because something unnatural is taking place: there are no air bubbles gurgling to the mouth of the bottle. Brandon drops the bottle down and makes a face like he just swallowed a bug. “Good stuff,” he says.
“You didn’t even drink it,” Dillon shouts. “You just held it to your lips.”
“I did not,” Brandon yells back. “I drank it.”
“Bullshit, you fucking midget. I can’t believe I have a pussy for a brother.”
“I am not,” Brandon screams. “And don’t call me a midget, faggot.”
I see my chance to become Dillon’s pet. I take the bottle, look at it briefly and then raise it to my lips. I take a good long pull. It burns my throat and nose and I think of the turpentine I used to remove the paint I spilled on my dad’s workshop floor. I pull the bottle away from my mouth, coughing and choking. Dillon laughs and slaps me on the back. “Look at that,” he says. “We have a real man in the group after all.”
A jealously motivated Brandon snatches the bottle from me and drinks for real this time. The results are identical. He sputters and coughs and his eyes begin to water.
We trek on, no longer pretending that we’ll actually encounter a deer. We sing the theme from The Dukes of Hazard. Dillon is visibly pleased with the progress of his troops, save Howie who has become invisible to him. Howie senses as much and falls far behind, tired and disgusted where his morality has landed him.
At the edge of the field we come to a dirt road that is mostly mud because of the rain. The three of us are breathing heavily and we stop to catch our breath.
“Look,” Brandon says, pointing ahead. Dillon and I look up and see a Volkswagon Bug sitting in the middle of the field, abandoned here for reasons unclear.
“Come on,” Dillon says. We start toward it as Howie shouts from behind for us to wait up.
The Bug is old and the color of a Doughboy swimming pool, the upholstery torn and faded. A thick layer of dust blankets the dash. Whoever left it here doesn’t appear too concerned about retrieving it. Eventually Howie arrives, puffing and heaving like a provoked rhino.
“What’s that,” he asks.
“It’s a fucking boat,” Dillon snaps. “What do you think it is, retard?”
“Who do you think left it here,” I ask. Brandon shrugs.
“Maybe some hippies drove it out here to smoke some dope,” Howie says.
“I’ll tell you whose it is,” Dillon says with a smirk. “It’s the fucking Ayatollah’s. TAKE COVER, MEN!” Dillon dashes behind the nearest oak for cover and raises his rifle to his shoulder. The three of us are slow to react and stare stupidly at Dillon.
“No way,” Howie says. “No way are we doing this. That could be anyone’s car.”
“Shut up, Howie,” Brandon says. “Stop being a pussy.”
“Yeah, Howie,” I say. “Why are you such a drag all the time?”
“I’m not…I’m just sayin’…do you guys really approve of this?”
Normally I’d share Howie’s concerns, but the liquor in my blood stream has suddenly reached its full power and I feel downright invincible. Not woozy or unbalanced at all like you see in the movies. Just fucking invincible.
A loud crack sends a thrill through all of us and we jump. Dillon has taken the first shot and glass explodes from the right headlight and tinkles to the ground. Dillon’s eyes are as bright and lucid as a wolf’s. Something in them tells me he would hunt humans for sport if it was socially acceptable.
Brandon and I send a sideways glance to each other and then raise our guns. My head is muddled and the barrel of the gun waivers, but the skill it takes to shoot a car from ten feet away is comical. We instinctively aim for the other headlight and take it out. We reload, re-pump, re-fire. Over and over we repeat the process. The bursts from Dillon’s gun roll and reverberate off the hills like mini-thunder. Our air rifles spit small copper beads and seem like toys compared to Dillon’s .22, but they do the job. Howie watches and shakes his head.
By the time we are finished, the Bug is riddled with holes and pock marks. Tiny triangles of glass litter the ground. We shake our guns into the air and scream like wild Indians at the sky. A dejected Howie looks at the ground and stomps Reebok tread marks into the mud.
Our kill elicits a celebration. Dillon begins a rhythmic hopping from foot to foot that is not unlike a rain dance. He even hoots and shouts, a jubilant warrior. Brandon and I join in. Howie allows a smile.
Lining either side of the dirt road are wide puddles of water, or more accurately a bog with a layer of water on top. The rain has been relentless all week. In a moment of spontaneity Brandon leaps into the water and immediately sinks to his knees in the thick soupy muck. I follow suit. Howie, seeing his opportunity to rejoin the group, hops in as well.
With the leather strap, Dillon shoulders his gun and watches with serene interest from dry land, like a father at a picnic watching his boys enjoying the day. He appears strangely satisfied, as if the shooting of the Bug has somehow saved an otherwise worthless journey into the hills.
The three of us struggle to climb out of the quagmire but all we can manage is a slow-motion marching in place that only cements us deeper into the muck. Brandon merrily announces that he has lost his shoe. We all start to giggle. Before long we are into it up to our waists and to avoid panic we begin laughing so hard our faces turn the shade of ripe plums.
I begin to have visions of cartoons and old television series, perhaps Tarzan, in which a floundering female protagonist stumbles through the jungle, eluding pursuing villains, until she eventually slides into a giant reservoir of quicksand. The hero who comes upon her always bellows the same advice—“Don’t struggle”—which makes perfect sense until you are the one sinking to your death.
Hysteria sets in. Howie is still laughing but the expression in his smile is one of pure horror. We look to Dillon for help but I can tell by how much he is enjoying our predicament that “hero” is a not role that motivates him much at the moment.
We are exhausted. I wonder how long Dillon will torment us before he finally pulls us free. I look down the dirt road to where the bend disappears through the trees. I am certain that at any moment the owner of the Bug will come toodling along and find his car shot to shit, and the three of us, conveniently gift-wrapped in our mud trap.
Before I can shake the image from my mind, the prophecy fulfills itself.
“Shhhhh!” Brandon hisses. We all freeze and cock our heads to the side. From a great distance we hear the gentle hum of a motor approaching and the consistent clang of metal as the vehicle negotiates large rocks in the road.
“Holy shit, holy shit, holy shit!” Howie screams. “What the fuck? I told you guys we shouldn’t have done this. Fuck!” We begin twisting and writhing with frightening intensity. Approaching lava could not have inspired us to fight harder to escape, but the mire of brown taffy has an unforgiving, vacuuming grip on our legs. Both of my shoes have been sucked from my feet. Like a ridiculous line from a movie I think, They belong to the earth now.
Howie has begun crying, muddy tears streaming down his freckled cheeks. We look to Dillon with drowning eyes, baby birds begging for their mother to feed them. “Dillon!” Brandon screeches. “Help us out of here!”
But he will never save us. I have seen it in his eyes, as I see it now. The eyes of the wolf. His only concern is that of his own survival. He looks at me and sees that I see him for who he is. He looks back at the approaching truck before he indulges us with a remarkable impression of a man making a difficult decision.
“It’ll be ok,” he says. He shoulders his pack, eyes the truck, turns back to look at us one more time and then turns to go.
My head is foggy and still spinning from the Jack Daniels, but strangely it helps me surrender and to accept the circumstances more easily. I am unsure of the severity of what is about to happen, yet somewhere in my mind, at the root, I am somehow perfectly aware of what will come.
The men will come. Large construction-working men who move cinderblocks all day long and smash beer cans on their head for sport. They will emerge from their truck and assess the damage that has been done to their car. Incensed beyond description, they will turn to us for answers, and like all ten year old boys we will ridiculously deny that we had anything to do with the vandalism not thirty feet away, despite our BB guns lying nearby: exhibits A, B and C. The men will threaten and intimidate us until eventually Howie will cave and tell them the truth. Dillon will be left out of the story completely.
The men will pull us from the mud with a sucking sound and shake us by the shoulders and ask what the hell is wrong with us. We will apologize but it will be an empty apology because the only thing we will truly be sorry for is that we got caught.
Later, we will face our executioners and I will experience an agonizing, piercing guilt from the look of disappointment and grief on my mother’s face. We will all write notes of apology to the victims of our carelessness, and I will spend the next eight months working off the money to pay for the damages. I will not see my friends outside of school for a very long time.
Because I am friends with Brandon, I will know Dillon for another decade. He will receive a full-ride to play at USC but will lose it to drugs and debauchery. Eventually he will drop out and work at a Chevron fixing up Fords and Chevys. Never once will he ever look me in the eye again.
The truck is almost upon us now. The three of us are perfectly still, rooted to our fate. The mist has turned to rain. My shirt sticks to my skin like plastic wrap. From my right I see Dillon move from behind an oak tree. He takes one last look at his troop of POW’s and then takes off on a full sprint, weaving and dodging Manzanita bushes as if they are linebackers and free safeties. And then he is gone.
Cheers, until next time.