In our early twenties, my first wife and I sometimes hosted what might generously be termed “intimate gatherings,” but more often, revelers filled every room of our mobile home and spilled into the yard. Preparations usually consisted of buying a Coors party ball and some whiskey, finding ashtrays for the stoners, turning up some loud rock and roll, and waiting for the crowd. My best friend Gene helped. No one, to my knowledge, designated a driver.
Friday nights in our small town consisted of driving around or finding a keg party or a bonfire in somebody’s field. There were no good restaurants, no theater, so we turned to drugs and alcohol and sex. Romanticize rural life if you wish, but it will not stop your bored son from trying bath salts or your daughter from drinking a fifth of Jim Beam and driving a hundred miles an hour into a tree.
During one such party, I drank beer after beer, eschewing the Jack Daniels because mixing types of alcohol turns me into a nuclear-level asshole. I’ll fight you for no reason. I’ll dump a beer on your head just for fun. I’ll mack on your girlfriend just to watch your expression. So I stuck to Coors as I greeted people. I poured drinks and changed the music whenever some pussy ballad encouraged someone to slow-dance. One of our classmates, whom I’ll call Christine, arrived alone and sat at our kitchen table with Gene. Most of the time, I would have sat there, too. People often gathered around that table, standing if necessary, to play Quarters. No one had started a game yet, so Gene asked me for a shot glass. I gave him one. He dug a quarter out of his pocket. People still carried change back then.
“You wanna play?” he asked Christine.
Gene explained the rules. Christine demurred. He spent a few minutes trying various strategies that amounted to Aww, come on. Then he made one of the worst mistakes of his life.
“How about this,” he said. “You’re drinkin’ beer. I’ll drink that. Straight.” He nodded at the full bottle of Jack Daniels, 1- or 1.75 liters.
Christine looked at me, one eyebrow raised.
I shrugged. “He’s good,” I said. “But straight Jack versus beer should keep you in the game longer.”
She watched Gene for a moment. Then she smiled. “Okay.”
I drifted away, greeting new arrivals. Most of them brought their own beer or a small bottle of something harder. Smokers milled around the yard. Soon, the scent of cannabis drifted inside, so I went looking for the doob.
The next time I saw Gene, he was unconscious.
* * *
Christine, it seems, was the “Fast Eddie” Felson of Quarters. If you have monetized the game, don’t let her play, or you’ll wake up with a hangover and an empty bank account. Neither Gene nor I had attended a drinking party with her, so we had no idea. Maybe she didn’t, either. Maybe her innocence was real and her capacity for bouncing a quarter off a wooden table and into a shot glass surprised even her. Since I didn’t see the game, I had no chance to read her Quarters face, her body language, her glee or surprise or indifference when her success, and his own cockiness, meant Gene drank shot after shot after shot of Black Jack. I can only tell you that Christine walked by later, her eyes a bit red, her gait a little wobbly, but otherwise okay.
“Hey,” I called. “I thought you were playing Quarters.”
“I was,” she said. “The game kind of—ended.”
Someone else spoke to her. She turned away, and I walked to our tiled kitchen, where Gene literally lay under the table.
This was unprecedented.
Somebody helped me drag him into the carpeted living area. I put a throw pillow under his head and propped him on his side against the couch, where three or four drunks used him for a footrest. I dug up a spare pillow and pressed it to his chest, draped his arm over it, and told everyone in the vicinity to watch him.
My wife had gone to bed, having exhausted her desire to host. I got another glass of beer. That party ball would not empty itself.
* * *
Cut to maybe 2:30 AM. The party had ended when rumors of a police DUI roadblock somewhere in town sent people scrambling for new getaway routes. Safely ensconced in my trailer, I kept drinking while Gene slept at my feet. I put a movie into the VCR and pretended to follow the plot while I got drunker and drunker.
I have never been addicted to any substance, but my relationship with alcohol used to be both codependent and volatile. Some people are fun drunks. Some turn angry, or wistful, or sad, or suicidal, or homicidal. In my darkest, drunkest nights, I could be any of those, or any combination. That night, I had been a fun drunk. Even alone, I felt the kind of perfect peace the inebriate feels just before passing out. In moments like those, it would be fine if the world ended or the house burned or you exploded, because everything seems so cool and cosmically aligned. Accosted by a burglar demanding your wallet, you might smile and hand it over, saying, “It’s cool, dude. It ain’t nothin’ but money. By the way, nice .38.”
Perhaps an inch and a half of beer remained in the party ball, plus a bit of Jack and the odd half-full bottle of wine. I intended to drink it all, though my having nearly reached Drunk Nirvana suggests I wouldn’t have made it. But we shall never know, because while I sat above Gene, drifting in mental hyperspace, he vomited all over our carpet.
“Goddammit,” I said, standing in my socked feet and avoiding the foul puddle—pure liquid, mostly Jack. When had Gene last eaten? Had he made the rookie mistake of entering a Quarters game on an empty stomach? Cursing and straining, I grabbed Gene’s legs and dragged him away.
He stirred, looked at me from underneath fluttering eyelids, and said, “Am I movin’? Or is it the room?”
“You’re good. But you puked on the floor.”
“Aw, fuck, man. I’m sorry. I’ll clean it up.”
He tried to sit up. It didn’t go well. I told him to relax. Then I retrieved a roll of paper towels, a wet rag, and our oldest, rattiest bath towel. I blotted as much of the vomit as I could. Then I wrung water over the carpet and dabbed at the soiled area with the rag. Finally, I bunched up the bath towel and pressed it against the floor and left it there. I was not yet prepared to find, select, and use an actual cleaning product.
Gene sat against the wall, knees drawn up, head down. “What happened?”
“Christine kicked your ass.”
“Dude. Look around. Everybody’s gone, and you just woke up in your own puke. You really think you won?”
“Fuck, man. She said she’d never played before.”
Gene leaned against the wall, eyes closed, repeating that last sentence. He slurred his speech. The words “alcohol poisoning” drifted through my own altered consciousness like neon flashing through fog. So did “hospital” and “driving under the influence” and “you’re fucked, asshole.”
I had to pee, so I walked down the hall and closed the restroom door behind me. As I relieved myself, thumping noises emanated from the living room. Only God knew what Gene was doing. His unintelligible voice carried down the hall.
When I rejoined him, he was struggling to put on his shoes. First, he tried to stick them on the wrong feet. Then he couldn’t tie a knot. I offered to help. He waved me off, moving with the palsied slowness of a ninety-year-old. I drank some water and took a BC powder to stave off the massive hangover that would otherwise strike in a few hours. Eyes watery, mouth hanging open, Gene seemed to be waiting for me to answer a question he hadn’t asked.
“What?” I said.
“You ready?” he asked.
“To take me home.”
That explained the preoccupation with his shoes, though I had no idea why he wanted to go home. He was temporarily living with his parents across town, back in his childhood room. In our little burg, “across town” didn’t mean what it means in a city, but several miles separated my trailer and our old neighborhood. If the rumors about roadblocks were true, who knew where they were, or how many? There was a back roads route, but cops had been known to stake out those streets, too. One night, they had stopped me at an intersection on the most direct path to Gene’s house. One asked if I had any weapons or drugs in the car. I said no, and he waved me through—the silliest roadblock ever. Who would have said yes? “Just a key of coke and a few assault rifles in the trunk, Officer.”
Neither Gene nor I could pass for sober, but it was clear I would have to drive. If the police caught us, my ass would be grass.
“Bro,” I said. “It’s the middle of the night, and it’s not like you’ve got a curfew.”
“Don’t matter. I need to go home.”
“But I’m your ride, and I’m wasted, and those roadblocks—”
“I gotta get home.”
“Just sleep here. I’ll take you tomorrow. Just let me sleep off this drunk—”
“I gotta go.”
“Dude,” I said. “I can’t take you.”
“Don’t worry about it,” he said, swaying. “I’ll walk.”
“But I’m your ride, and I’m wasted, and those roadblocks—”
“You can barely stand up. You’re trashed, and you don’t even have a coat. You’ll get lost or catch pneumonia.”
He started to leave. I practically had to tackle him. After five minutes of veering from urgent pleading to near fist-fights, I finally got him to sit down long enough to try one last solution.
I woke up my wife.
“What?” she snapped.
She was like that. Her moods changed without warning, and you could always tell from her first utterance whether you were getting the kind, sweet person or Godzilla.
“Baby,” I said, “Gene’s awake, and he wants to go home.”
“So?” she said, as gently and kindly as a chainsaw that had somehow contracted rabies.
“Well, he’s too drunk to walk, and he doesn’t have his car. I’d have to drive him.”
“I’m too drunk to drive.”
She turned over and looked at me, expressionless, indifferent. “Let him walk.”
“He’s liable to wander into the woods or fall asleep in the road. He could die.”
“Not my problem.” She turned away.
I don’t remember my exact response, but it was something really mature and feminist, like “fucking cunt.” She didn’t reply. I left the room, hoping Gene had passed out again. But he sat straight, as wide awake as you can get after drinking that much Jack in such a short time.
“She won’t drive us. Dude, you really need to stay here.”
“Nah, man,” he said, struggling to stand again. “I’m good.”
My best friend was ready to risk his life for no reason. My wife had abandoned us. Our friends had gone home. There was no one else.
“Fuck it,” I said, and got my keys.
In those days, I drove my Mom’s old gray Buick. It was probably ten years old and had seen a lot of rough miles—most of them with me at the wheel. My friends and I treated our cars like extensions of ourselves, which meant we pushed them hard and fast and didn’t think much about accumulated damage. I kept the tank full, changed the oil every few thousand miles, and monitored the tire pressure, but I had neither the knowledge nor the means to maintain it. Still, when we set out that night, there was no indication of danger. Not until it was too late.
The night was clear and cold by Arkansas standards, probably in the forties, perhaps even the high thirties. The moon glowed, its light diluted and broken by tree branches thrusting toward the sky. Despite the temperature, Gene sat in the passenger seat with the window rolled down so he could puke. I took the most direct backroads route, betting I could spot any roadblocks. Still, I pushed the car to seventy on forty-five-miles-per-hour lanes. With the road to myself, I swerved back and forth, laughing when Gene blew chunks and begged me to stop. He insisted on going home? Well, we would do it my way.
We approached the first intersection. I turned off my headlights. If I saw any others approaching, I’d stop. If not, I’d blow through. I had done it a million times.
Headlights coming from my left.
I pressed the brake pedal.
“What the fuck?” I said.
I pressed it again. Still nothing.
“What?” Gene muttered.
“The brakes are out,” I said.
The intersection, and the headlights, approached.
“They worked when we backed outta your driveway,” he said.
“No shit. But they aren’t working now.” I pumped the pedal over and over. Nothing. The intersection loomed. The headlights looked brighter. With the crossroad hidden behind houses and trees, I had no idea how close the other car might be. “What the hell should I do?” I said, but Gene had passed out again.
I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t signal the other car. We had only one chance.
I floored the gas pedal. The car shot forward, the force pressing us against the seats. Gene’s head lolled.
Seventy miles per hour. Seventy-five. Eighty. Eighty-five.
I could read the stop sign. The other car’s headlights had brightened so much it seemed impossible we would miss each other. Had I miscalculated? Would it have been better to maintain speed?
No way to know. No information. No clear thinking. No time to change plans.
We flew over the crossroad, airborne for a second, the wheel jerking in my hand. I gripped it as hard as I could and kept us straight.
In the rearview mirror, the other car passed by. I’ll never know if they even saw us.
I took my foot off the gas and turned the headlights back on. My pulse pounded like a heavy-metal drum solo. And we were still only halfway there. Ahead, several ninety-degree turns.
When we reached the first one, the car had slowed to around thirty miles per hour. It had been a long time since I had driven past that turnoff, and I could not remember where the road led. I said “Fuck it” again and whipped the wheel around.
In the movies, making ninety-degree turns at high speeds looks fun. In real life, when you’re plastered and shifting from a paved road to gravel, with woods on one side of a two-laner and a big ditch leading to somebody’s field on the other, you pray your dulled senses and the tires’ tread will see you through.
When we hit the gravel, our ass end fishtailed as I worked the wheel to account for our drift, cursing and sweating, wishing painful torture on Gene for making me drive and my wife for refusing to help and everyone who had ever worked on the Buick for letting this happen. Somehow, I righted us, and soon, gravel turned to pavement again.
The next turn took us from the backroads to the highway, where we would only drive for twenty yards or so before entering the old neighborhood. Given the distance and how the road gently rose, I had to accelerate just to reach the intersection—but not too much. The car crawled onto the mercifully empty highway without incident.
Puttering along at five miles per hour, I eased into the left turn leading to our subdivision. Gene slept, right arm and head out the window. Every house on every street sat dark and quiet and still. I let the car’s momentum drop to almost nothing. Then I tapped the gas, just enough to keep us going. Another right turn, down the street, and one more left. Gene’s house was the second on the right, across from a grown-over field of tall brown grass and weeds. The car moved through sheer inertia.
Turning into Gene’s driveway, I tapped the gas to crest the incline. We bumped over the gravel and into grass, where I stomped on the brakes just in case, yanked on the parking brake, and threw the car out of gear. As the Buick shuddered and skidded into the yard, its momentum dying, I turned off the engine. We stopped, nearly in the backyard. Despite the night air pouring in through Gene’s window, I had sweated through my shirt. My damp hair clung to my face. I sat there for several minutes, breathing deeply and exhaling slowly.
“Bloody goddam fucking hell,” I said.
“Mmffgghh,” said Gene.
I got out and walked around to his side. I opened the door and unbuckled his seat belt. His head hung, chin on chest. Still trembling from the adrenaline dump, I had no confidence I could carry his dead weight, so I shook him, called his name, gently slapped his face until his eyes opened.
“Dude,” I said. “We’re here.”
Alert now, he got out of the car with some difficulty. “Thanks, bro,” he said, heading toward his front door. I followed. I hadn’t come all this way to let him go inside and walk face-first into a wall.
In that neighborhood, not everyone locked their doors. Gene’s parents hadn’t. He opened the screen door, turned the knob, and walked in. I trailed him, my hands on either side of him like a parent ready to catch an unsteady toddler. We walked through the darkened kitchen, the dining room, and the hall, turning left through the first doorway, his room. He collapsed face-first onto the bed, still fully clothed, mouth and nose buried in the coverlet. More or less sober after the drive, I grabbed his legs and hoisted the rest of him onto the bed and took off his shoes. Then I took his pillows and bedclothes and built levees against his chest and back so that he would lie on his side and not drown, should he hurl again.
Satisfied that Gene would likely survive the night, I exited his room and bumped into his mother, who stood in the dark hall in her nightgown.
“Gaaaah,” I said.
“What’s going on?” she asked.
“The party took a turn. He passed out. I put him to bed.”
She walked me to the kitchen, where I told her my brakes were acting up. I didn’t admit we could have died half a dozen times. She let me use her phone. I intended to get a ride home, and damn anybody who got mad when I woke them.
My brother-in-law, who had been at the party, answered. He didn’t even sound sleepy.
“Dude,” I said. “Can you come to Gene’s and give me a ride? My car’s busted.”
“Yeah,” he said. “Be there in a minute.”
Why hadn’t I checked with him before? I had been so wasted I hadn’t even considered the comparatively sober drivers living next door.
I thanked Gene’s mom and told her I’d wait outside. She probably had questions, and I didn’t want to answer them. “I’ll get the car out of your yard as soon as I can,” I said. “Hopefully tomorrow.”
“Okay,” she said. “Y’all drive safe.”
Unless you’re a surveyor or mapmaker or geologist, you probably never appreciate the subtlest differences in landscape, in the Earth’s multitudinous surfaces, in population density, until your life depends on it. Then you understand the functions of friction and surface tension when your tires grip and roll over sometimes-broken asphalt, washboard gravel, and dirt in the span of less than a minute. You calculate the years you might shave off a prison sentence if you drunk-drive a brakeless car through only one house on a backroad instead of four or five homes or commercial properties in town. You comprehend the life-or-death difference between thirty and thirty-five miles per hour when the road is narrow and dark. You feel in your gut the hair’s breadth between your slower-than-usual reaction times and what the situation might require.
Sometimes you create the circumstances for your own destruction, and sometimes it’s only God or fate or luck keeping you alive.
Yet these events taught us nothing. Gene missed it all. I slept off my hangover and threw another party. We drove drunk all over southern Arkansas and northeast Louisiana for years, not quite wanting to die but not quite caring if we did, never considering how many people we might take with us. And yet we have grown older, into our late forties. We have had children and grandchildren who, we hope, will make better decisions than we did. Those kids only exist because something kept us safe when we stuck our heads in the lion’s mouth, over and over.
Only with age do you begin to wonder if you used up all your luck.
Brett Riley is the author of The Subtle Dance of Impulse and Light (Ink Brush Press), Comanche (Imbrifex Books), Lord of Order (Imbrifex), Freaks (2022), and Travelers (2022). His short fiction has appeared in journals such as The Baltimore Review, f(r)iction, Solstice, Folio, The Evansville Review, and many others. His nonfiction has appeared in CrimeReads, Role Reboot, Broad River Review, Rougarou, Green Hills Literary Lantern, Literary Orphans, Under the Gum Tree, Wild Violet, and Foliate Oak Magazine. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram: @brettwrites. Find him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/BrettRileyAuthor.