I drank my first beer when I was 14-years-old. My friend Adam and I were attempting to grill turkey burgers on his mother’s new Char-Broil grill.
“Do you feel like a beer?” Adam asked me.
The question came out of nowhere, had no connection to any conversation during the day. But I was used to this from Adam. His thoughts went from brain to tongue, unfiltered by anything in between.
“I guess so. You have some?” I asked.
“My mother has some in the fridge. Those 16-ounce cans. I think they call em’ pounders or something. I don’t think she’ll notice if we have a couple.”
“Yeah, go get em’” I said.
Moments later Adam was back outside with two 16-ounce Budweiser’s in his hands. He drank his slowly and I copied. I hated the taste but didn’t want to seem like I was backing down. Finally I just tilted my head and let the beer flow down my throat.
It took Adam longer to finish his so I pretended I still had some left, taking phantom sips every couple of minutes. I was already lying about drinking on the first beer I ever had.
Adam finished his, crushed it, and threw it over the fence into his neighbor’s yard. Once again, I copied him.
“You want another?” he asked.
“Sure.” I said, already eager to see what two would do.
While Adam was inside getting more beer I could feel it working on my brain. I could feel the chemicals being released inside of my head and I felt a calm coolness I had never experienced before. It made me smile.
This time Adam came out with four beers, two for each of us.
I didn’t pretend this time. I pounded the first beer and felt the alcohol hit me even stronger. I crushed the can and threw it over the fence.
Adam was now copying me.
“Damn, you drink like and alcoholic,” Adam laughed.
I laughed too. I somehow took the term alcoholic as a compliment, almost like being called a cowboy, and opened my third beer.
By this time we had forgotten about the unlit grill, with gas flowing into the air, awaiting our frozen turkey burgers.
“Aren’t you gonna light that thing?” I asked, motioning to the grill.
“Oh shit, I almost forgot.”
Adam pulled a small green lighter from his pocket, placed it over the grill, and flicked the lighter on.
I felt the heat rush toward my face and quickly retreat.
I looked at Adam who was standing motionless with his arm-hair smoking in the air.
“Holy fuck that was close,” Adam said, staring at his arm that was now free of hair.
I was on the ground laughing. I loved alcohol, I had already decided.
“Holy shit! What the fuck!” Adam yelled.
I looked up and saw Adam rubbing the space where his eye-brows should have been. There was only skin. The heat had completely singed them away leaving a tiny line of smoke rising from just above his eyes.
“I guess we’re not having turkey burgers,” I said.
I hid my final beer in Adam’s bedroom and we decided to walk to the ice-cream store about a mile from his house. I felt like I was walking on a mattress and the sun never felt so beautifully numb on my face.
At the ice-cream store I had none of the usually anxiety while ordering.
“A large chocolate with sprinkles.” I said.
To everyone else in the store it must have sounded completely normal. A 14 year-old boy ordering an ice-cream come. To me it was a miracle. I didn’t stutter or stumble over my speech once. They didn’t realize what I had just done.
Walking back to Adam’s house we bumped into Eric. Eric was a few years younger then me and always asked, “What, what?” after everything you said to him.
“Hey Eric, how old are you?” someone would say.
“What, what? Twelve.” Eric would answer.
“Eric, what color is the sun?” another kid would chime in.
“What, what? Yellow.”
I always hated the kids who teased him, who made fun of his speech impediment. He said was getting help for it, that the doctors called it a compulsion, but no one really listened to him.
But today I was different and his speech impediment pissed me off. I saw my weak, sober self, in Eric now.
“Eric, you wanna play hockey with us?” I asked.
“What, what? I can’t”
“What, what?” I said.
“What, what? What?” Eric answered.
“What? What, what?” I said back.
“What, what? What, what?” He said again.
I let this go on for a few minutes until he realized what I was doing. He walked away with a fake grin on his face I recognized as one I may make. A smile of defeat when you’re pretending you’re not defeated.
I finished the third beer in Adam’s bedroom and I stumbled down the steps into his kitchen. No one was around to witness this so I laughed to myself, even loving this strange new clumsiness.
Later that night in my bed I thought of alcohol and how good it made me feel. How I just came home and no one noticed at all. It was so easy: drink and join the world.
As I sobered up through the night I thought of Eric and what I done to him. This was the first time I felt the stinging guilt of life only alcohol could provide.
Adam couldn’t control his violent outbursts, and couldn’t control his immense generosity. We quickly made drinking our art. I spoke so softly I usually had to repeat myself at least twice but this never seemed to bother him. But when Adam spoke people would turn their heads to see what the commotion was. We were equal parts friends, allies, and alcoholic.
Our progression from sneaking some 16-ounce Budweisers from his mother’s fridge had us, within months, seeking out anyone who buy us cases of beer at a time, or bottles of whiskey, or rum, whatever would get us drunk. We relied heavily on college students who always stole a couple from the case and charged us double the actual cost of the booze.
Through our mutual friend Jim we met a 29-year-old guy who was willing to buy us beer and the only fee was that he got to drink with us. He worked at a local music store, looked like he could have been Eddie Vedder’s ugly brother, and had aspirations of touring the world with his band. He played shows in Boston, and that was good enough for me. We were in central Massachusetts and Boston was an hour away. In my mind he might as well had already been famous.
We walked into the music store to meet him, we were supposed to look for the guy wearing the nametag ‘Carl’ and tell him we were friends of Jim. Carl had long hair, was neither skinny nor fat, and had permanent 5 O’clock shadow. He seemed scared we were there and told us to wait outside until the end of his shift which was over in about fifteen minutes. So we headed outside and waited on the sidewalk.
“Where’d you know this guy from?” I asked.
“I don’t know him. Jim said he’d get us shit for nothing,” Adam said too loud and lit a cigarette.
“I don’t get it, why’d he do that?”
“What’d you fucking care why he would do it, it’s free beer isn’t it?”
I truly didn’t care. Any way I could get alcohol at 14 years old was always without question. Maybe he had nostalgia for his own youth. Maybe he was just damn nice guy. It made no damn difference to me.
“You remember what you did last night?” Adam said with a smile, exhaling smoke.
“Yeah, we just hung out behind that fucking dumpster at the bowling alley, drinking. So?”
“You don’t remember?”
My curiosity was piqued. Blackouts were relatively new to me and I found them fascinating. They weren’t frightening at all. They were simply not remembering when there was nothing to forget. That space of time was just lost, that’s all, and it didn’t matter. It was a hole where you could recreate your life the next morning. You could make yourself the hero of same dire situation. Perhaps you could be superman for a while, save that damn damsel in distress.
“You pissed inside a cop car,” Adam said cracking up.
“Fuck off, I didn’t do that.”
“Yeah you did, you even tried to steal his shotgun he left in the front seat.”
The last thing I remember was a crowd of people running out from the bowling alley. All I could gather was there was a fight and someone had their finger chopped off inside. I remembered thinking for our relatively crime-free hometown of Shrewsbury, Massachusetts the bowling alley had a disproportionate amount of bizarre crime. This wasn’t the first time the police would be summoned to locate a missing finger. From behind the dumpster I saw the silent blue lights of the police cruiser pull up just steps from where we were hiding.
“Holy shit, I remember the cop. Fuck, I almost forgot about that whole thing,” I said.
“Yeah, the cop left his window open and you just got up and took a piss on his seat.”
“What’d you do?”
“Nothing. I just watched. But then you reached in and tried to steal his gun so I ran up and pulled you away. What were you gonna with a shotgun anyway?” Adam asked.
“I don’t know, I was drunk, I was probably just messing around.”
It didn’t exist to me. It was my alter ego coming out when all my defenses were down. Alcohol has that quality in people, especially shy people. I was already using alcohol to combat my shyness and it was working. If I blacked out all the better for me, I didn’t have to experience it. The reason you don’t remember is because it’s not you doing it. It’s this other, alcohol person. That’s how you justify it at least. It’s not you so you can’t be held responsible for any actions under the influence of a blackout.
“Well at least I don’t remember doing it,” I said.
“It’s a good God-damn thing I was there to pull you away. I don’t think the cop would have found it as funny as I did.”
Adam exhaled a cloud of smoke and we sat under the neon lights of the store in silence waiting for Carl’s shift to end.
Carl walked through the door with his hair back in a ponytail and wearing a red flannel jacket. He motioned for us to get into his white hatchback. Adam took the front and I squeezed into the back. Even though I was taller then Adam I liked the seating arrangement. I didn’t have to say anything if I sat in the back and I had a horrible anxiety, like stage fright, of the front seat. You would never see me running toward a car yelling, “shotgun!”
Carl became manic talking about how he knows how hard it is for kids to get alcohol just to get ripped off by some asshole in front of a liquor store. He gave no personal information about himself other then he was in a band and he liked going out with different girls.
He taught us the art of drinking and driving.
“Always wear a ridiculous looking hat with the visor perfectly straight. And always keep a neck brace in the car with a can of O’Doul’s. That way if a cop nabs you just tell him you were at a family cook out and had a couple of O’Doul’s. Tell him you hurt your neck and are still getting used to the neck brace, but you’ll be more careful in the future.”
Apparently it had worked many times before.
Adam and I were cracking up all the way to the liquor store. Neither one of us had a license but the theory made perfect sense. I thought about where I could get a neck brace and wondered if you had to be 21 to buy non-alcoholic beer. My friend Chris mopped the floors of UMass Medical Center at night. I made a mental note to call him.
We pulled up to Harry’s Liquors in the center of town and Carl tucked his long hair under his hat. He buttoned up his flannel jacket to his neck and asked what we wanted. He looked like a different person, he could have been an undercover agent for the FBI.
“A lot of whatever’s cheap,” Adam said.
Without a word Carl was out of the car and headed to the front door, a true professional.
“I think we just found our new best friend,” Adam said.
Moments later Carl was back at the car with a case and a half of Meister Brau and put it on my lap.
“Where do you guys go to drink around here?” Carl asked.
We gave him directions to the woods behind the high school.
Carl pulled his car into a spot darkened by the shadows cast from the trees. It was past 8 p.m. in July and the sun was just beginning to set. We sat in the car for a minute making sure no cops or teachers were around from the nearby high school. After we were satisfied everything was safe we grabbed the beer from the car and walked down the path Adam and I had spent the prior couple of months walking down trying to make our steps as light as possible.
The path had only two problems before we got to our drinking spot. One house had a pit bull that would bark its balls off at the slightest sound in the woods. I envisioned the dog’s ears perking up, running to the window, and alerting its owners that stupid kids were trespassing in the woods. Then the story took a twist. The owner would emerge from his house with a sawed-off shotgun and fire at will until he made sure everyone one of us were dead on the spot. The dog viscously growled today but didn’t bark.
The next issue was the semi-swamp we had to pass through. It’s not easy to carry a case of beer through a swamp and not fall into the mud. Sometimes we would go around but that could add an additional 20 minutes to the walk and our laziness usually got the better of us. And it was safer and more hidden just to walk through the mud. On more then one occasion I lost a loose fitting Doc Marten in the mud and had to dig through the sludge to retrieve it.
By the time we arrived to our spot our shoes and the bottoms of our jeans were
covered in mud. But the place was safe. It had a certain peacefulness to it knowing that if anyone wanted to catch us they would have to walk through all that fucking mud.
Everything was quiet here, the only peace we could find. It was our spot, we felt we owned it, that we should put up our own ‘no trespassing’ sign.
There were two fallen trees facing each other, which made perfect benches and a central area for a fire if we felt like it. We never did feel like it but we talked a good game. Yeah, I could probably start a fire with my bare hands if we got desperate. The place just seemed to be waiting for us to find it. We respected it and almost always cleaned up our empty cans.
It was strange having Carl there with us. But Carl’s end of the deal was he provided the beer while our end of the deal was to hang out with him. It seemed simple enough and I just didn’t question why this guy wanted to hang out with a couple of 14 year old kids.
He gave us more advice about how to escape from the cops. He told us to keep all of our beer in a backpack and if we heard anything to throw the backpack as far as we could into the woods. But never run. If the cops did find you they had nothing on you. If they found the backpack you just said it wasn’t yours, you just came out here to have a fire. It seemed far-fetched to me, I believed there was no way in the world a cop would ever be that gullible. But Carl said it would work and he spoke from experience.
I had never considered the police before. I always felt safe in that spot and I wished Carl didn’t even mention it. The mere mention of it seemed to hex it. It was as if he were talking about desecrating sacred ground, it was something that just wouldn’t happen to us.
I don’t remember drinking my first beer that night and I don’t remember drinking the last. Carl continued his rant on how he understood we needed beer and how he didn’t mind being the guy who would get it for us. Carl became our instant hero. The Alcohol King, The Wise One, He Who Never Shits Where He Eats. Whatever he said was true, and as long as we listened to him we were immune from any trouble. I never questioned the fact he asked us if we could call some girls to hang out with us the next time we hung out.
I stared at the moon and felt it was about to fall on my face. I had a strange feeling the moon was tormented somehow. It’s face constantly with a shocked expression, its hollow eyes like a skull, as if an eternity of watching the earth had frozen him solid. Then I felt an overwhelming sorrow alcohol sometimes brought on and wished I did steal that gun. I wasn’t sure what I would do with it exactly. Maybe just hold it, stare at it and know that if things ever got too rough I had something to take care of my problems. I started making a list in my head of all the people I knew who could possibly get me a gun on short notice. There were lots of depraved looking old men at the bowling alley. And with the right amount of alcohol in me I’d have no problem inquiring about a gun. I could tell them I’d pay them tomorrow knowing that by tomorrow I wouldn’t have to worry about money.
Besides, some of them seemed to like me. They hid me from the cops one night when I got drunk and pissed next to the concession stand. Apparently a mother saw me pissing in public and immediately called the police.
“That kid took off down the road,” I heard one of the old men say giving me a wink while talking to the police.
They almost pissed themselves when the lady who worked behind the food counter went on break one night and, fueled with enough vodka, I took her hat, went behind the counter and tried making grilled cheese sandwiches for everyone. By the time she returned the skillet was covered in smoking bread and boiling cheese. One more minute and it would have been up in flames. Even she somehow liked me and thanked me for the help.
“Christ, honey, take off the damn hat before I get fired,” she laughed.
I took off the visor and handed it back to her. Everyone around me laughed as she cleaned the skillet and scraped the blackened cheese from it.
“How old are you again?” She asked.
“14” I answered.
“Well, you know what, I don’t think a career as a cook is in the cards for you honey.”
“I guess not.”
“You’re lucky you didn’t start a fire here, honey,” she said.
“You know what honey?” She asked me.
“I just got a kitten, damn thing shits all over my house.”
“Sorry about that.” I said.
“Well, it just got a new name.”
“I don’t know, I was thinking about calling it Tom.”
This is what alcohol had done to me in less than two months. I was the blacked out clown burning grilled cheese sandwiches at a run down bowling alley. I was the name waitresses gave their incontinent kittens. I was liked for being a clown sometimes, something people could laugh about later in the night. I had befriended a 29-year-old man looking for 14-year-old girls. I was the pisser of police cars, the stealer of shotguns, and a million other things I will never remember.
Thomas Fitzgerald’s chapbook of poetry “Morning” is available from Finishing Line Press. He lives in Watertown, MA with his wife Virginia.