I once fancied myself an alchemist of alcoholic beverages. I’d mix three or four miscellaneous drinks and come up with a mind numbing, fiercely intoxicating concoction that’d put even the most seasoned drunks to bed. I honed this technique first out of desperation, but I soon realized that it was a gift handed down by the Lord Almighty.
My friend Bill Simmons and I were sitting in my apartment on a miserably dreary night picking cigarette butts out of an ashtray and trying to find something to do. Our ambition was to hit a bar and get annihilated, but neither of us had a job and we were both running on empty—financially speaking, of course.
My refrigerator was empty save half a bottle of Vodka and three bottles of Sky Blue—a hideous hip drink that tasted like citrus flavored asshole. On any other occasion we would have chugged the booze no questions asked but, for some strange reason, on this specific night we were craving beer, and the thought of anything else made us physically ill.
Simmons had a couple of items that he wanted to pawn off, but it was late and the pawnshops were already closed. We tossed around the idea of breaking into a few cars to get enough coinage to afford a few pitchers of ale at ye ole bar, but that idea was trumped by his probation officer, who loomed over him like a phantom—shaking her finger with the authority of a crazed parent with a head full of narcotics—and the fact that I was a scared little bitch.
“Wait a minute,” he said suddenly. “I think I got some change out in the van.”
He flew through the door, bounced down the stairs, and dove into his recently purchased van—a hulking brown number with rusted fenders and tinted windows—and scoured the interior, looking for enough money to buy some booze. I waited inside and swallowed a bottle of Sky Blue down in two drinks. The thing was so nasty that I could only finish it if I finished it immediately.
Simmons bolted up the stairs with the world’s biggest smile on his face, hooting and hollering, shouting at the top of his lungs.
“What’s up?” I asked. “You find some money?”
He held out his hand and slowly uncurled his closed fingers. A wad of singles was balled up in his sweaty fist.
“Holy shit,” I said. “How much’s there?”
“Thirteen dollars. Enough for two pitchers.”
“Thank Buddha.”—beat; looking a gift horse in the mouth.—“Where the hell’d it come from?”
“My old lady. She musta’ left it in the glove compartment.”
“Well, fuck it. It’s ours now.”
“You’re damn right it is. I’d a’ taken it if she was sittin’ next to me when I found it.”
“Well, let’s go get drunk then.”
“Hold on, hold on.”
He withdrew a half-empty (or, if you have the cognitive capacity to ignore reason, half full) bottle of rum from his pocket and shook it around, stirring its contents. I leapt off the ground and thrust my clenched fists in the air. “Kick ass,” I said.
“Let’s get a buzz goin’ before we hit the bar.”
I ran into the kitchen, ripped the fridge door off its hinges, and grabbed the Vodka, Sky’s, and two cans of diet coke—that was everything that I had in my fridge. I ran back into the living room and dropped the bottles and cans on the table.
“That everything?” he asked.
He eyed it with a high level of uncertainty. He’d been away for three years and apparently hadn’t heard of my mastery of alcohol alchemy. I waved my hand dismissively and shooed him away. I was in the zone and I needed my space.
I grabbed two dirty glasses that had been sitting on the table for god-knows-how-long and set them in front of me, and then I pulled up my sleeves and opened all the bottles and cans. This, after all, was an art form, and I had to be both physically and mentally prepared.
Now, mixing miscellaneous drinks isn’t something everyone can do. It takes a brewers nose and a chemist’s sense of measurement. If you put too much of a single ingredient in then—kaboom!—it’ll blow up in your face.
I filled the bottom of the glass with Sky Blue, tossed in some rum, dabbed a few drops (i.e. a shitload) of Vodka in and topped it off with a healthy portion of Diet Coke. Mixing it, I handed it to him and proceeded to mix mine.
He waited till I finished before taking a drink. He wanted me to try it first. I laughed at his naiveté. Hadn’t I assured him that I was a master alchemist? Why was he so worried? So I took a drink and found the concoction so delicious that I promptly swallowed it in one go. He took this as a good sign and chugged it down.
“Damn,” he said. “It’s not bad. Not bad at all.”
“See,” I said. “Never question a master Alchemist.”
So we arrived at the bar with a pretty good buzz. The place was booming; young vampires danced to the crap spewing from the jukebox while phonies and liars lined up to place themselves on display in a typical post-modern meat market.
I spied a sign announcing that they were having a dollar shot special and we agreed to skip the beer in exchange for thirteen shots of wonderful alcohol. See, Simmons and I had been drinking since we were teenagers. We were always proud of our ability to slam booze. Then I came across something awful. It was so terrible that it actually put our reputations as old drunks on the line. These were, of course, several studies on binge drinking. Now I’ve been bingin’ since before bingin’ was cool, and I was crushed when I realized that all the studies were exclusive to college students. I found this personally offensive and decided to lash out against the doctors and statisticians who wrote them; I was intent on showing them what binge drinking was really all about.
According to Joseph A. Califano, Jr., the President and Chairman of The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASA), “some research suggests that binge drinking is confined to college and that students mature out as they move from early to late college years or from college to the world-of-work”.
That insulted me greatly. I binge drank and I was 25 years old, did that make me immature?
“That shirt is disgusting and offensive,” said a drunken woman who wobbled over to me.
“What are you talking about?” I asked.
I looked down at my shirt. This was scrawled on it: Anorexia is Phat! I laughed. I’d forgotten about it. “Ha, ha,” I laughed. “Phat.”
“I have half the mind to slap you.”
“Apparently you just have half a mind.”
“Fuck you,” she said, and she walked away.
I whistled and tipped my hat to her.
“What the hell was that about?” asked Simmons.
“Apparently she’s anorexic,” I said.
“Well, she’s failing miserably. Look how fat her ass is.”
He popped a few coins in the pool table and set out to rack the balls. Simmons was the world’s worst racker. It’d take him hours to put together a decent rack. So I decided to kill a few minutes by thinking about that goddamn study.
“Student binge-drinkers tend to be younger—freshman and sophomores, white, male and tend to binge drink on weekends, which at many colleges begin on Thursdays. Typical student binge drinkers also tend to have relatively low GPAs and binged in high school.”
Now this offended me. First, I had a high GPA in high school, regardless of the fact that I was drinking. I didn’t make it to college, but had I gone, I’m sure I would have studied hard and partied less—seeing how I’d be paying for it and all.
But that was neither here nor there, I supposed.
The fact was that I was a binge drinker and I wasn’t being represented. I wanted to be acknowledged, not just as a binge drinker but also as a master Alchemist. And tonight is my night, I thought. I’m already buzzing and Simmons is at the bar right now getting our first shots. Yes, indeed, I am going to get fucked up.
He returned with the shots and I chugged mine without question. I didn’t care what it was; I just wanted to get f-ed up. That was, of course, until I actually drank it.
“Jesus Christ almighty,” I said. “What the hell is this?”
He shivered as he swallowed his drink, then he looked at me and laughed. “It’s 151,” he said. “Now quit whinin’ and go get us another one.” He tossed some wadded up singles my way and preceded to chalk his cue stick.
“Go ahead and break it while I’m gone,” I said.
“Oh, I was plannin’ on it.”
I walked over to the bar. The Beertender had his hands full trying to fill orders for a group of old fucks standing on the other side of the taps, so I took a seat and lit a cigarette, sensing that it’d be a while before he’d get to me. I turned around and watched as Simmons made a shot. He was shooting at a stripe, but he missed it, so he walked around the table and nudged it in with his index finger. That son of a bitch, I thought, wait till I get back over there.
Two college kids sat beside me at the bar. They were watching basketball on the massive big screen TV hanging on the wall, and they’d hoot and holler when their team made a shot—and curse and moan when they’d fuck up. I never understood sports and I certainly didn’t understand the point of going to a bar to watch a game. Bars are for whoring and boozing—nothing more.
They were weird looking birds. One cat wore a platinum wig and bright yellow sunglasses. He was a heavyset fellow with big jowls and a handlebar mustache. He drank what I suspected to be straight whiskey and he’d shiver whenever he took a sip. His sidekick, a skinny little son of a bitch, wore shorts and a plaid shirt. His drink of choice was beer; he had an entire pitcher for himself.
I looked up at the screen and watched as a dingle berry missed a decisive three-point shot seconds before the third quarter buzzer sounded. The two college kids moaned and pounced on the bar.
“Goddamn it,” said Handlebars. “That fuckin coward always chokes.”
“When they gonna learn ta quit passin’ it ta him?” asked Skinny.
“Hey,” I asked. “Can I ask you guys a few questions?”
They looked at me with violently hollow eyes, as if I was in a church denouncing the Preacher’s sermon.
“You a fag?” asked Handlebars.
“No sir. I’m a writer. I’ve got a few questions I need answered and I think you’re just the men to do it.”
“What kinda writin’ do ya do?” asked Skinny.
“The boring kind. But what I have to ask you is of the utmost necessity.”
“Shoot,” said Handlebars.
“First off,” I asked. “Do either of you go to college?”
“Yeah,” said Skinny. “IU.”
“Good, good, very good. If you’d a’ said no I’d a’ had to walk away and leave you scum to your own devices.”
“The fuck you just call us?” asked Handlebars.
“I didn’t call you anything.”
“Bullshit. You called us scum.”
“No,” I laughed. “You musta’ misunderstood. I said I’d have to leave you to cum in two paradises.”
“The fuck does that mean?” asked Skinny.
“Never mind that,” I said. “The beertender’s drawing near, I haven’t much time. Okay, ahem, so— do either of you partake in what is referred to as binge drinking?”
“Fuck,” said Handlebars. “I just drink, man. I don’t classify my partyin’.”
“Not you, too,” said Skinny. “I just received a bundle of pamphlets from school before the break. They’re really tryin’ to crack down on it down there. IU has the highest amount of binge drinkers in the country.”
“No shit,” I said. “You must be proud.”
“It ain’t no thing.”
“Are you one of them?” I asked.
“Well, that depends.”
“On your definition of binge drinking.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, the school claims that anyone who consumes five or more drinks in one sitting and who does it more than twice in a two week period is a binge drinker. If your definition is the same as theirs then, yeah, I’m a binge drinker.”
“Wow,” I said. “I didn’t know it was that dire. More than five drinks? Fuck. This is serious, man.”
He solemnly nodded his head and Handlebars rolled his eyes and slowly drew his eyes back to the basketball game. He didn’t care for me or my line of questioning. Skinny poured another glass and dourly looked at the liquor that no doubt corrupted his innards.
“I know a guy who died from alcohol poisoning,” he said.
“Tell me about it.” I said it so rudely that Handlebars looked at me with a snarl on his face.
“You don’t have ta say shit,” he told Skinny, who was looking down at a lighter that he was nervously lighting.
“It’s cool,” said Skinny. “I wanna talk about it.”
The Beertender came over to me and asked me what I wanted. I ordered three shots of his choice. “Make it good, though,” I said. “And strong.”
“You got it, bud.”
He went off to make the shots and I turned my attention back to Skinny. “So,” I said. “Tell me what happened.”
“We were just out havin’ some fun, ya know. We started drinkin’ around five, six o’clock. By midnight we were both pretty crazy. I felt a powerful stomachache coming on, so I quit drinking. But he seemed to want to pick up my slack and started drinking twice as much. It was crazy. He was chugging whiskey and gin like there was no tomorrow. I tried to get him to mellow out, but he wouldn’t listen. By the time the bars closed he was so drunk he couldn’t speak. I had to take him home. He couldn’t walk either, so I had to help him up the stairs. I stuck around for a while to make sure he was all right, which he wasn’t, but I woulda felt like a real scum bag if I’d a’ just shoved him through the door and left. He passed out on the couch. He seemed fine; everything seemed okay. I even took a sheet off his bed and covered him up. Then I left.” He looked down and sighed. It was a long windy sigh, as though he were trying to control his crying fit before it snuck up on him. “Anyway, so, yeah, the next morning my girlfriend came over with red puffy eyes. She’d been crying. She sat me down and told me he was dead. It was the worst time of my life. I wanted to be lying next to him on the gurney, ya know. It was all fucked up. The doctors said it was alcohol poisoning. Then the school really fought back, they wanted to eliminate the drinking culture entirely.”
He looked sad and suicidal. I genuinely felt sorry for him. I had a penchant for saying the wrong things at the wrong times, so I decided to keep my trap shut. “Sorry” was the only word I could mutter.
The Beertender brought three shots over. They were dark and looked heavy. I picked up a glass and smelled it and it smelled like gasoline. “Jesus Christ,” I said. “What the hell is this?”
“Hey,” he said. “Can’t tell ya, it’ll ruin the surprise.”
I brought a glass to my lips and sucked it down. It hit me like a freight train. My eyes watered and I could actually feel my chest expanding, as if my lungs were so frightened of this lethal intruder that they had to get out of the way for fear of death. I gasped and slammed my hands on the counter.
“Goddamn it,” I said. “What the fuck was that thing?”
He laughed and shook his head. “Just a little concoction I came up with.”
“My brother in arms,” I said. “You an Alchemist, too?” He looked at me with confused eyes. I shook my head and waved him away. “Forget it, I understand. You don’t have to tell me.”
He nodded and walked away.
I took another shot and fought the same airy battle. It tasted like a combination of paint thinner and butane. It was absolutely hideous. Someone slapped my right shoulder as I fought to catch my breath and I spun around with hatred in my eyes. It was Simmons, cue stick in hand.
“Just in time,” I said. “The man just brought the shots out.”
“What the hell took so long?”
“He’s been busy, give the poor man a break. He works hard to make an honest wage and he doesn’t need people like you defiling him.”
“Calm down,” he said. “Fuck, he yer boyfriend or something?”
“Ha, ha, ha. You’re a fuckin hoot. Drink up and get us another round, will ya?”
“Are we even gonna play pool?”
“In a minute,” I said. “There’re more pressing issues at hand.”
I turned back to Skinny. He looked lost and confused. He was looking down at the ground, flicking his lighter. His half-empty beer glass was strangely sitting on the other side of the bar, close to the Beertender, as if he’d given up on drinking.
“Hey,” I said. “You still with us?”
He looked at me with tears in his eyes. “I don’t know why I drink anymore.”
“I don’t know why any of us drink.”
“Yeah but I shoulda stopped when Jit died, man. It woulda meant something. Otherwise he died fer nothin’.”
I nodded solemnly and looked away. I knew what he meant. It was ridiculous when I thought about it. I gave the bulk of my life to booze and the only thing I had to show for it was a foggy memory.
“I see you’re done drinking for the night,” I said. “Maybe you should just be done with it. Know what I mean? As a way to honor, what’s his name, Jit?”
“Jit, yeah. That was his nickname. His real name was Jeremy.”
“Jeremy,” I repeated.
“Maybe you’re right,” he said. “Maybe I should quit.”
“Don’t give me none a’ that ‘maybe’ shit. Tell me you’ll do it. Otherwise I’ll be up all night worryin’ about you.”
He cracked a smile and looked up at me. “You’re right. There’s no maybe about it. From this moment on, I’m done.”
“Good man,” I said. “Good man.”
Handlebars looked at him then at me. “Are you fuckin kidding?” He asked, then to Skinny: “I paid fer that goddamn pitcher, you better finish it off. No one leaves here with booze in their glass.”
“Fuck you,” said Skinny, getting to his feet. “I ain’t drinking no more. I’m fuckin done with it, Todd. Here, you can have it.” He slid the pitcher over to Handlebars, who pushed it away.
“I don’t drink that shit.”
“Neither do I,” said Skinny. He scooped up his cigarette package, shoved it in his pocket, and headed for the door. Handlebars stood up and followed after him. He looked at me and shook his head.
“Just tryin’ to help someone in need,” I said.
“Yeah, well, fuck you and yer help.”
He followed after his friend.
The Beertender handed our drinks to Simmons, who nodded and slid one my way.
“What was all that shit about?” asked Simmons.
“That?” I asked, grabbing Skinny’s pitcher and setting it in front of me. “That was the old convince-someone-to-quit-drinking-so-you-can-have-their-liquor routine. And, as usual, it worked like a fucking charm.”
We shared a good laugh.
“Man,” I said. “That guy was a real sissy.”
I reached over the bar, grabbed two glasses, and set them in front of me. I dumped my shot into the pitcher, grabbed Simmons’ shot and threw it in as well.
“What the hell’d ya do that for?” he asked.
“Just wait, just wait.”
I stirred the contents with a straw and poured two glasses. He took a long drink and sighed. “Damn,” he said. “It’s not bad. Not bad at all.”
“See,” I said. “Never question a master Alchemist.”