Part 1: Games at JMU Apartment, 8:15 PM
“Grenade, Paul!” Bill yells as he tosses a can of Natural Light across the floor. It bounces in front of Paul, who immediately jumps on it like a soldier sacrificing his life to protect his squad. He pulls the tab and chugs the spewing beer, swallowing half of it and drenching himself with the rest.
The game is called Grenades, and you just learned all of the rules. We’re pregaming (drinking before we go out) in our apartment’s common area. The room’s decorated with carpet stains, a plaid couch, and wrinkled posters from GoodFellas and The Godfather.
We’ve been living together in Harrisonburg, Virginia for a year now, which means we’ve been drinking together for a year. Bill’s the only one in the room with a decent idea of what to do with his life: Despite blacking out nearly every weekend, he’s come up with a solid plan to enter the PR world. As for me and Paul, we’re floundering in vague directions—him towards politics, me towards writing.
But floundering is for weekdays; right now, it’s time to abuse beer of the eleven-dollars-per-case variety. I’m excited tonight because Grenades is a new development—someone introduced us to it last weekend, and it has invigorated James Madison University’s otherwise stale rotation of drinking games. It won’t last long, though, because two girls—Tiffany (Bill’s girlfriend) and Mary (her roommate)—just walked through the door. And girls always want to play Kings.
If you’ve never played this game, do everything you can to keep your Kings virginity. The phrase “drinking game” denotes something that is supposed to involve drinking (for obvious reasons) and fun (since it’s a game). Kings fails at both: Nobody does any serious drinking, and it’s as boring as watching Natural Light evaporate.
Of course, “Let’s play Kings!” is the first thing that comes out of Tiffany’s mouth. Bill hops on board, ever the supportive boyfriend. He spreads the cards in a face-down circle while I resign myself to this awful event. I’m first to go, and I draw a seven.
“Heaven!” Bill yells, and we point to the sky. Seven means you point up, or to “heaven.” The last person to point drinks. Most of the rules in Kings rhyme, which is always a good sign that a game sucks. Paul doesn’t know the rules and thus doesn’t point, so he drinks.
Tiffany draws a four. She says, “Floor,” and all of us poke the carpet. That is, except for Paul, who loses again. He’s terrible at this game, yet he’s the only person who gets to drink, so he wins in his own way. I am sober, jealous and bored.
Mary snags a two. “You,” she says, flailing her beer at Bill. He drains a third of his can, grateful for the chance.
Bill’s card is a six. “Chicks.” I take a drink anyway, and Paul scolds me. I realize that if they played Kings at AA meetings, they could skip the twelve steps—nobody would want to drink anymore.
Part 2: Games at My House, 10:15 PM
“You know the game, boys,” Mark says as he spreads a deck of cards over my dining room table. He’s to my left. A mutual friend, Jay, sits across the table. Behind me, a movie poster advertising The Outlaw Josey Wales hangs on the wall. From it, Clint Eastwood snarls down at us, his face framed by twin revolvers. Mark realizes he’s almost out of cigarettes, and his expression begins to mirror Clint’s.
I met Jay and Mark in high school. Mark was his class’s president and one of the smartest guys in his grade, all while holding down a full-time job at KFC. He didn’t have the money for college, however, and still mans KFC’s kitchen three years later. (He came straight from work tonight, and is wearing his uniform.)
Jay was never interested in high school and, after an unsuccessful try at community college, now stacks lumber at the local paper mill. Between them, Jay and Mark represent the two dominant professions in the area. Whenever they’re off, they drink, and whenever I’m in from JMU they do it at my house.
We’re just outside Clifton Forge, Virginia, which is 90 miles and two worlds from JMU. Students from places like New York and Richmond often remark how small Harrisonburg is, but Clifton Forge and the surrounding area make Harrisonburg look like an urban titan by comparison. And while Harrisonburg acts as a launching pad for thousands of college students every year, my hometown’s most gleaming trait is that it’s a nice, quiet place to retire.
That is, if you live long enough to retire; liver damage could always hinder that plan. We’ve got two full cases between us, but there’s still a good chance we’ll drink it all thanks to the game we’re about to begin. As Mark arranges the cards face-down in a ring, I place a Miller High Life in the center, completing the setup for Circle of Death.
While Kings is an annoyance, Circle of Death is a battle. Mark goes first, finishing his duties as dealer. He draws the Four of Clubs, then nods at me and says, “Count.” Since he drew a four, he’s supposed to drink for four seconds, and since I’m to his right I’m supposed to count out loud for him. I say the word “Philadelphia” between each number and add random pauses, so he chugs for more like ten seconds.
But that’s just a sip for Mark, who weighs 260 pounds. He nods and says “Spades” before he puts his now-empty beer down. He then slides his card under the tab of the High Life center can. This step comes at the end of every turn, and whichever idiot pops the tab has to chug the beer—it’s usually warm by then.
Jay draws next; if he gets a Spade, he’s safe, but otherwise has to drink. He snags the Ace of Hearts, worth fourteen seconds.
“Fuck the seconds, I’m just going to chug this damn thing,” he says as he picks up a full beer. Mark and I nod—any turn can be fulfilled by drinking an entire beer or taking a shot (70 proof-minimum). Jay destroys the High Life in a few swallows, then sets the empty can down. While Jay recuperates, I look at Mark and smirk.
“What’s the suit, princess?” Mark says. Jay grunts as he realizes his error: He didn’t call a suit before his beer hit the table, thus resetting his seconds. He downs another High Life, calls Clubs, then jabs his card under the center can, redeemed.
It’s my turn. I draw the Ten of Clubs, so I can assign the seconds to whoever I want.
“I give them to … myself,” I say, hoping to impress my fellow drinkers with my valor. Two-thirds of a High Life later, it’s back to Mark. If Kings is the cure to alcoholism, then this is the gateway drug.
Part 3: Music at Sunchase Apartment Party, 10:07 PM
I can’t think. Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” is blaring from every speaker in this party—whoever lives here seems to have blown their tuition money on a giant sound system. Each bass blast rattles my ribcage, and shouting partygoers make the chaos even louder. The lyrics are incomprehensible at this volume, except when the line “PUH-PUH-PUH-POKER FACE, PUH-PUH-POKER FACE” cuts through the noise to remind us we’re in Hell.
I followed Bill and Paul here after we suffered through Kings, but I don’t know where they are now—the dance floor swallowed them as soon as we arrived. The entire apartment is a convulsing sea of people: The dancing swarms in the center of the room hump each other to the beat, while those on the edges shuffle between conversations. I already have a dehydration headache and the audio bombardment isn’t helping matters.
A beer definitely would help, though. I begin using my swim move to get past people: I poke whoever’s in my way with one hand, then swing the other arm over them as they turn to look, thus sliding around them. I’m 6’2”, so this usually works in crowds dominated by women, such as this one. My destination—the keg—is outside on the deck, and I’m making good progress until I jab the wrong girl.
“Hey! Wanna dance?” she yells, gyrating.
“No, I’m looking for beer,” I say. Oblivious, she backs into me and starts harassing my pelvis. I decide this beats standing in the keg line, so I start to dance with her; it‘s not much of a change because my dance move looks exactly like my swim move. I’m not drunk yet, though, which is a problem. After a few beats, I spot a bottle of vodka in the kitchen. It looks like fair game.
“Do you want to go get a shot?” I ask the back of her head.
“Yeah, it IS hot in here!” she says. “Poker Face” has made courtship impossible. I try to look like I know how to dance until, mercifully, Gaga has her last vocal seizure and the song turns off. My dance partner turns around, gets her first good look at me, and immediately walks away.
I’m almost thankful; her rejection let me dodge the obligatory, “what’s your major/what do you want to do for a living?” conversation. The major part’s easy, but the career component always gives me pause. I shrug and go back to swimming through the dance floor, thinking that I wouldn’t have to work this hard for a beer at my house.
Part 4: Music at My House, 11:35 PM
Lynyrd Skynyrd blares from my laptop. The song’s about a bluesman named Curtis Loew.
Mark and I wander into a conversation regarding Dave, a guitar prodigy from high school I used to jam with. He was the best player in the area and made it to a music school somewhere down south. But I lost track of him right around the time he fathered his first kid.
I make a toast to Dave, sad at the loss of a friend. Jay just scowls because he thinks Dave ripped him off in a pot deal one time.
We’re about halfway through the circle. The center can’s tab is at a 30 degree angle and won’t last much longer. I’m already filling up, and regret trying to hang with these guys. I think I’m a capable drinker because I learned in college; Mark and Jay are excellent ones because they trained like Olympians in high school. For some twisted reason, I find their prowess admirable.
To match his soured mood, Jay requests metal for the next song. I reach to my laptop and select “One” by Metallica. This is usually a favorite of everyone in the room, and the game picks up noticeably at the double-bass breakdown; however, Jay looks even more distracted than before. It was probably a bad choice to pick a tune about a landmine victim since Jay’s joining the military, and therefore possibly shipping to Afghanistan. I think about switching songs.
“One” heads into a sweet solo, though, so instead of changing it I crack the center can on purpose—my buzz has intensified, and my confidence with it. “Hey-oh,” I say as I raise the beer, thinking that if I drink it fast enough I won’t notice its warmth. As the solo finishes and the song fades out, my stomach buckles, then recovers. I slam the can down next to my other empties. Each of us has a wall of cans in front of us—we have to reach over or around our respective barriers to draw a card.
My thoughts go back to Dave as the game lulls. I remember that Metallica was his favorite band, and that I’ll probably never get to try to keep up with him through a cover of “Master of Puppets” again. I hate the songs at college because they mean nothing; sometimes I hate the ones at home because they mean too much.
Part 5: Conversation at Sunchase Apartment Party, 10:20 PM
I’ve made it to the party’s deck, where the music is muffled. Paul’s out here too, having slithered his way through the dance floor. We’re waiting in the keg line, which is actually more of a rough, amoeba-shaped crowd. The guy distributing the beer is absolutely clueless—somehow he’s managed to unscrew the tap, and the keg is hissing at him.
To pass the time, I’m having a chat with Paul about his future plans. He’s graduating in a few months.
“I hate my majors,” he says, talking about Political Science and Public Policy. “They’re useless.”
“What’s wrong with them?” I already know what his answer will be, but his rants always entertain me.
“All of my classes are the same, and none of it’s practical. I can’t be a politician and I don’t want to be a lobbyist.”
“Could you have picked two worse majors, then?” I ask. Paul glares at me, then directs his visual venom at the tapmaster, who has yet to fill a single cup. Paul’s usually a happy drunk, but the prospect of what to do after college has him agitated.
“What about writing?” I ask, referring to his minor.
“I mean, the only time I feel like I’m learning something useful is in my writing classes. But I’d probably need to go to grad school to go after that, and I’m tired of school.”
“Well, if you do grad school here, I’ll be around,” I say, referring to the extra year I need to graduate—I earned it by partying too much as a freshman. And a sophomore. And a junior. It’s kind of a relief, actually; it puts off the real world for a bit longer. “We could keep doing this shit for another couple semesters,” I say. Paul’s not really listening, though, because the tap’s working again.
Part 6: Conversation at My House, 12:45 AM
The game’s almost over. We’re about to hit the toughest part, which is breaking the circle: If one of us draws a card and a patch of table shows between the two cards that were next to it, a full beer is the penalty.
We make conversation to delay the inevitable. Mark tells us about a scheme he’s working on to get out of KFC: A guy he knows is opening a new restaurant.
“And he wants me on as the head cook,” Mark says. “How you like them titties?”
“Awesome, man,” I say. I point at him with my pinkie and index fingers—my drunk point. “Awesome.” What’s not awesome goes unsaid: This is Mark’s third planned career change in as many years. The first two didn’t work. This one probably won’t, either.
Mark karate chops the cards and grabs a beer at the same time, so that it at least looks cool when he breaks the circle. While he chugs, Jay fills me in on his own plans.
“I’m leavin’ next month,” he says. I nod. The thought of basic training terrifies me.
“Good luck man. It’s rough over there.” I try to say something else but I’m too hammered to remember the phrase “troop surge.”
“I’m not too worried about it,” he says. “Beats stacking logs.”
“Still, dude … you should be careful.”
“I’ll be alright.” Jay’s morale has improved steadily since “One” ended. The five additional beer cans in front of him probably have something to do with it. “What are you gonna do after college?” he asks.
“Don’t know yet. Some kind of writing,” I say.
“Like novels, you mean?”
“No.” I break the circle and wince. “Those are too damn hard.” The beer I drain is even harder to deal with, and it feels like my stomach is full of sandbags. I’m counting cards at this point: There are twelve left, so we have four turns each. Maybe I can survive.
“I’m thinking TV writing, maybe,” I say. I pause and belch, hoping that I don’t waste beer by vomiting. “But it’s real fucking hard to break into that.”
“Even harder to break out of some things,” Mark says. He pokes his KFC hat disgustedly.
Mark’s work ethic is titanic, and there’s honor in holding most any job. Sometimes I wonder if his KFC disappointment is misplaced. But I feel distressed, too. It’s been the same conversation for three years, and none of it ever changes except for the schemes we talk about. Schemes that will supposedly lead to a defined direction. Three years and thousands of beers in, I still have no idea if I want to become a novelist, a TV writer, a journalist, or whatever the hell—I’m just louder when I voice my uncertainty. As for my two friends, they always have a new plan, one they know probably will never work out how they want but at least sounds interesting. I drink because I have no idea what to do with my life; Mark and Jay drink because it’s absolutely clear where their lives are going.
I wrote this in 2010-11, and revised it in 2014. No character name is real.