In Wisconsin a person’s first time drinking is almost a rite of passage. Here, drinking isn’t something typically done in moderation. Here, people boast about their DUIs like they’re some sort of fucked up merit badge. Everything done in Wisconsin be it drinking, eating, loving the Packers or hating FIBs is done to excess. New Year’s Eve 1999 was the perfect occasion to push things to the limit for me and my best friend Paul.
Paul and I had met through some mutual friends a few summers before, but our friendship grew when we became co-workers at a local grocery store. We excelled at looking busy but in reality we were masters of mischief. One of our favorite activities was taking our aggression out on boxes with a piece of re-bar and talking like dirty gangstas. “Where’s my money bitch,” we would scream just a few feet from the paying customers as we mashed corrugated cardboard, “You said you’d have it this week! Where’s my money, bitch?!” Thank god they didn’t have security cameras back then. Another time-passer was taking office supplies and throwing them as hard as we could into the insulation in the back room. From about 40 feet we’d launch our bosses’ office supplies and the insulation swallowed ‘em whole, never to be seen from again. We mostly just threw pens and pencils but someone once buried a stapler in there, and we’d laugh until we cried then scurry off to do some work, like facing up yogurt or cans of soup, while holding back laughs.
I was 16 at the time and Paul was 18, but both of our bosses were dirty old men. I worked for Bruce, a wiry middle-aged bastard who had face like leather from years of smoking. Bruce wasn’t big on personal hygiene; in fact I’m pretty sure he owned two shirts: a red and black flannel for after work, and a dirty white polo for work. I guess Bruce appreciated the fact that since we were teens our hormones were raging, because he made it a point of letting us know about every sexy female shopper that came into our store. Bruce would creep up from behind and suddenly whisper, “Hey Ben, go check out aisle 7. Check out the tits on that!” So I’d go and mosey on over to aisle 7 and purvey the scene, usually to be disappointed. Let’s just say at his age, approximately 40, and his appearance, it didn’t take much to trip Bruce’s trigger. In the rare instances Bruce picked out something worth seeing, I’d giddily run over to Paul in the dairy section and let him know. But most of the time Bruce would be directing our attention to an adolescent girl, which needless to say was disturbing, not sexy. It wasn’t long before we took to naming our boxes in the backroom, Bruce, and smashing their imaginary faces in with our steel rod.
Since our grocery store was the source of so many of our hijinks it made sense that in that parking lot I would pick up Paul and I’d stake my claim to being a true Wisconsinite by virtue of my whiskey drinking prowess.
For as long as I could remember my parents had a bottle of Kessler whiskey tucked away in their liquor cabinet at home. Well, it wasn’t much of a liquor cabinet. My mom never drank and my dad, for the most part, kicked drinking when my little brother Corey was born. However, after a long day of cutting wood, picking rocks in the field or bailing hay for my uncle’s farm, my dad and grandpa would sit in the garage pouring whiskey into a plastic cup and drinking it straight. Other bottles of booze would come and go from our cabinet but that bottle of Kessler never moved. Kessler’s motto is “Smooth as Silk,” but if liquor was a fabric Kessler was most definitely something far coarser like wool. Hell, the stuff was $8 a bottle so it was more like drinking steel wool it was so abrasive. But it’s not like my dad was a whiskey connoisseur so I never knew why the bottle hadn’t moved. So, like many times in my life, I saw something that wasn’t mine but wasn’t being used, and made off with the goods.
The plan I hatched was premeditated. Paul worked until 10:00pm that night. I told him my parents were unduly harboring the whiskey and he was cool with getting his millennial drink on, courtesy of my folks. The plan was I would pick him up, so together we would chug the bottle of whiskey while I drove past a party to see if it was busted by the police or if it looked like a fun time. After driving by the house, I’d return Paul to his car in the parking lot, and he’d go to his party and I’d go to mine. The round-trip would take no more than 30 minutes. By the time we got to the house, approximately 15 minutes, half the bottle of whiskey was gone. The party looked like a good time so it was imperative that I get back quickly and display my new awesome drunken powers to my friends before shit really hit the fan and I was unable to drive.
I remember dropping Paul off at his car and taking one last pull of whiskey each, just a few ounces left. When I arrived to the party I was told to go down into the basement, which luckily for me was carpeted, because not long after my arrival I fell down the stairs, bottle of whiskey in hand. It seemed the only awesome “powers” I had left to demonstrate were how to lose motor function, how to slur your speech and how to vomit all over yourself. My friends immediately assumed I had drank the entire bottle by myself and feared I might die. Somehow, a concerned friend was able to wrangle Paul’s number from me and place a call to him, just to verify what had happened and that I had not consumed 30 ounces of whiskey alone. I vaguely remember talking to Paul and remember hearing he was in the same predicament as me: crawling on the floor, world spinning too fast and holding on dearly to a toilet seat.
I lay in the bathroom for several hours heaving, until my abdomen hurt and nostrils burned from stomach acid. I remember people from the party walking in to piss while I laid there, barely conscious. They tried to wake me up to watch the ball drop, but I was out cold. Later,I woke up to find vomit all over my shirt and pants, but feeling rather sober and empty inside, I was able to drive home (against everyone’s wishes) at about 4 o’clock in the morning and fall into bed. The fact that we drank a bottle of whiskey between us teenagers (and my first time) wasn’t what made the night so legendary. Nor was it the fact that I was stupid enough to do the whole thing loaded, driving in my Ford Escort wagon. No, what would make the night stand out in my mind for the rest of my life were two factors that followed.
In the coming days and weeks my parents would question me about the whereabouts of the bottle of Kessler. “Nah, never seen it,” I’d say. “I don’t have any clue what you’re talking about.” I had an older sister but she was more like a wine cooler girl at that point in her life so it would have been far-fetched that she stole it. I knew my parents knew it was me but I just couldn’t bear to tell them especially when they would come to tell me about the significance of the bottle which I had so recklessly consumed and regurgitated, all in a span of a few hours.
The bottle says a lot about my family, who we are, and the humble redneck roots we have. On my parent’s wedding day my dad’s dad gave him a bottle of whiskey as a wedding gift. My parents were saving that bottle of whiskey for their 25th wedding anniversary. When we so callously emptied that bottle of into our bellies it was 19 years old. It was older than both Paul and I. I never copped to it. I thought about buying a new bottle and putting it in the cabinet, and after it collected some dust, I could pull it out and proclaim, “Look, it’s been here all along! It was just behind these old rags!” But that would be taking an evil deed even further, perpetuating my colossal fuck-up. By the time my parents had interrogated me I’m sure they had the real culprit nailed down. They didn’t seem to care that much and I did would do far worse things to hurt them growing up.
I wasn’t the only one who would hurt people. The summer after our NYE 1999 bash Paul went off to a prestigious college, and although we remained close, our bond wasn’t as tight as it was in those earlier years. He changed, grew cold to the people who cared about him most, distanced himself from most everyone; however, he and I always shared a special bond that no amount of whiskey could ever jeopardize. Just one year later Paul dropped out of college and moved out to Colorado. I was all set to visit him for the first time in almost a year, two weeks before I graduated high school, when he decided it wasn’t worth going on and took his own life. There was no vomit the day I heard the news, but I felt more empty inside than any night of stolen-liquor could ever make me feel. However, that didn’t stop me from trying to remedy the pain with bottle upon bottle of booze.
That New Yea’rs Eve bash sums up my time with Paul. We reached the highest of highs; we laughed, sang and partied together without regard for the future or anyone else. Rarely did we care if we careened out of control. We were masters at cramming as much fun into a short time together, both that night and over the course of our friendship. But, much like the phone call laying on the bathroom floor on NYE, our entire friendship seems to have happened in some sort of blurry, drunken dream. I can remember him laughing before I hung up the phone and before I slipped into darkness on the bathroom floor. I didn’t ever get to say goodbye, that night or 2 years later. Often I think of him and I smile but other times I hear his laughter and I slip back into the darkness of a cold, wintry Wisconsin night.