July 11, 2012
He’s been drinking with this guy for a long time.
It was a rough day and this just sort of happened. The guy sat down and ordered a bourbon, neat, and after ten minutes of silence, the two of them saying nothing and drinking their drinks, looking up at the TV, they started to chat. First about the basketball game, then about campus, then about classes, then about the cold. Then women.
“There are amazing women in this town,” he says. “You know? It’s crazy.”
“That could be it.”
He’s completely drunk now, and he can’t see very well, but he’s been talking a lot, he’s sort of opened up to this guy, and the guy has continued to listen. He likes him. He’s a listener. He likes anyone who will listen to him when he gets going on a rant, but he likes this guy specifically because he’s tuned in. Listening in that good way. Bars are funny and it’s tough for two strangers to start talking because everybody’s got a thousand friends and everything is a party and everyone’s always on the way somewhere, and somehow he doesn’t have any friends anymore. But apparently this guy came here to do the same thing: sit down alone and drink out the gremlins.
“We make a good pair,” he says. “You know? We’re like Pancho and Lefty.”
The guy nods. “Yes. Totally.”
Gremlins is the word he uses when he thinks about everything bad within himself.
“I’m completely feeling it right now.”
The guy says he is too.
They’re both quiet for a bit.
The guy asks him if he wants to go get high.
Then: “Yes,” he says, nodding at his drink, furrowing his brow, very serious about it, because sometimes he has panic attacks and he doesn’t want that to happen this time. “I think I do. Let’s keep it going.”
“Okay,” says the guy. “Let’s go.”
They both put on their jackets, get up, and walk out of the smoky bar.
Outside it’s freezing, but it’s a nice relief from all the cigarette smoke.
The guy says, “I’m parked down here. Around the corner.”
“This’ll be interesting,” he says, raising his eyebrows, following the guy.
He doesn’t really know what he means, he thinks, looking down at his feet, watching them walk him. Everyone in Madison’s a pothead, though. It’s a real thing.
They turn off State Street, cross Johnson, and walk down Henry.
He’s sort of sick of it. He’s sick of a lot of things. It’s dark here. Pretty much everyone is a pothead.
“That’s an awesome jacket,” says the guy.
“Yeah?” he says, looking down at his own sleeve. “I never thought about it.” In truth he has not.
“It’s just so cold. That looks warm.”
“I have this thing, but it’s never as warm as it seems like it should be, you know? I mean, for the money I paid. It eats it.”
“I actually like it.”
“I like yours. You like mine. We should switch.”
“But people never actually do things like that, you know.”
“Did you say you lived here? Or you’re visiting?”
“I live here.”
“I’m not sure how I feel about it.”
“Okay, right here,” the guy says, nodding at a car. They both stop by the door.
“Here we are.”
“Cool,” the guy says back.
The guy unlocks the door, leans in, reaches across to the glove compartment, and rustles around.
Now the guy’s got something in his hand.
“You wanna just smoke on the street?” he says, squinting at the thing in his hand. “Or what? Maybe we should just sit in your car? It is cold. I knew it was cold, but I didn’t know it was this cold.” And it’s an amazing thing, he thinks, how cold it gets, and how nevertheless we usually do okay. He has something of a moment while pondering this.
Take hypothermia. Take, for instance, the stories of the lost men who wander away from their trapped vehicles in search of roads, in search of cars, in search of help. Even as a child he was terrified by these stories. Usually there is a family left behind. Maybe a mother and an infant. There’s no more gas and they’ve been there for days and they’ve finally run out of crackers. The father decides he has to go for help. He’s tried to be reasonable up to this point, but it’s now or never. He leaves the car and goes out in a blizzard. He walks around in circles and almost always dies frozen, alone, and excruciatingly close to his starting point.
As a child, he would hear these stories and think to himself: how could this be possible? How could something so terrible and cruel even be possible? But this is what nature does to people.
“No,” says the guy. “I don’t want to smoke on the street.”
The tone of the guy’s voice awakens him from his brief, mediocre reverie.
“Where, then?” he says.
“It’s not that,” says the guy. “I’m sorry about this. I really am, dude. I’m actually going to kill you now.”
“What did you say?”
“It’s the principle,” the guy says.
Then the guy hits him over the head with whatever he’s got in his hand.
When he comes to, he’s confused, and what he worries about first, for some reason, is the smell. It smells like wet towels. Musty. Moldy. It’s terrifying to smell it. Then he worries because he doesn’t know how much time has passed, then he worries because he starts to remember.
It’s pitch-black now, not just dark, and he can hear the sounds of the road.
It takes him a few minutes of careful thinking to remember the bar in detail, to remember the guy, to remember that they left the bar, and to make sense of the pain in his skull. He hit him. The guy hit him in the head.
Eventually, the pieces all tumble together.
He’s contorted in here.
He scrapes around in the dark, remembering what the guy said at the end.
He said it was the principle.
He scrapes around some more, tries to push.
He starts to pound.
At some point he starts to scream.
Patrick Somerville has written four books, and you can find out more about them at patricksomerville.com. He lives with his wife and son in Chicago. Follow him on twitter at @patrickerville.
Adapted from This Bright River by Patrick Somerville. Copyright © 2012 by Patrick Somerville. With the permission of the publisher, Reagan Arthur Books.