“I’m gonna tell you one more time—keep your head up when you throw up. You really don’t want any of that crap stuffed in your airway while you run.”
Brown-black snotty tendrils traced a line between the stony earth and Kenny’s nostrils, pooling in a sludgy stream already coursing down the harsh incline of Turkey Mountain as he leaned over, head down, hands on his knees and spitting. He didn’t feel any better. “Too late, Coach.”
Off to the side, in cargo shorts and hiking boots, Donnie shook his head, dissatisfied. He held a stopwatch and a legal pad; by his feet was a compact Coleman cooler. “That’s a penalty lap, anyway. Basically an instant loss, come gameday. So get your breath.” He popped the cooler open, withdrew a red can of dark ale, dripping wet, and popped the tab. “Chug, chug, chug, my brother—the clock is ticking on you.”
Kenny took a deep breath, stood, tried not to fall backwards down the scraggly hillside. He fired something monstrous out his nose and nodded. His throat was raw, the world was dizzy. He took the can from Donnie’s outstretched hand and closed his eyes. He chugged.
One might be inclined to wonder why two grown men would spend their day off together behaving in such a way. The scarce families on the trail, hiking by with toddlers in tow, certainly seemed to disapprove. Kenny raised his eyebrows to a passing mother, baby strapped to her chest, her face a rictus of repulsion as he finished downing the putrid ale, hacked, coughed, fired more bile out his nose, smashed the can between his hands, and tossed the empty toward the trees. “Ma’am,” he said in greeting, in a gentlemanly way.
For Kenny Kaiser, the purpose of all this was simple—this was destiny. He didn’t suffer without purpose; this was training. He had one week left to get his body prepared. One more week until the race—one more week until the Beer Mile. He was halfway up the hill, dazed, hurt, half-drunk already, and he had two laps left to run.
Kenny had never been an excellent runner. He wasn’t even above-average, and often the first to say so, unwilling to accept the occasional compliment that seemed to overstate his speed. Better than the typical person on the street, unpracticed and out of the exercise habit for whatever reason, sure—but he had no business in a field of actual athletes. Fourteen-minute miles, routine for many, eluded him in an enduring way—his average time was more like twenty, even though he’d been at least a hobbyist at running since he was a preteen child, going on fifteen years at least. Where he excelled, if anywhere, was in endurance—he could run far. His Sunday runs, where he would routinely meander from one end to his city to another with a set of headphones and two or three albums for ten, fifteen, sometimes twenty miles, were meditative affairs, stress relievers, that he conducted without undue strain at a slow but, he felt, at least somewhat respectable pace.
Donnie Walker, in the meantime, had never picked up an athletic habit. He had always been the kid in the trailer park who lived on Mountain Dew and McDonald’s to the exclusion of all else and yet, by some hillbilly magic, remained rail thin and wiry, stronger than he had any right to be. As things go, this was fading with adulthood, with more than a little doughiness accumulating, especially compared to his contemporary, Kenny. But he was a fantastic cheerleader. Before it had become personal, Kenny taking on the Beer Mile had initially been his idea.
“Four laps, four beers,” he’d explained over a crumpled flier at their favorite local brewhaus, The Well-Hung Pole, an ethnic portmanteau of a name that, as far as punny bar names went, was worthy of at least some light applause. Donnie, reading off the little poster that he had, was referring to a longstanding local tradition of some renown, the Crybaby Craft Beer Lionheart Mile, sponsored by a coterie of local brewers, a fellowship of ale makers in the township known collectively as FOAM. The Lionheart aimed to be more than a typical beer mile, the press materials alleged. Already challenging in itself, this was a race run with “Real Beer”, not relying on big name corn-fermented, watered-down lagers to fuel the challenge, but rather expertly crafted, heavy, hoppy ales bearing radical names like Hideous Sister, Screwjack, and The Jism, whose alcohol content hovered between 6 and 12 ABV, all occupying a space on the color spectrum somewhere in between chocolate syrup and pitch.
Kenny had more than a passing familiarity with the race. In childhood, he had seen his father win it. Like Kenny, Kenny’s dad was not a natural runner, nor a practiced sportsman. Kenny’s father was a drunk. An immigrant from Hungary, Viktor Eli Kaiser had been a figure of some considerable renown, back before he’d hit the road and disappeared in the summer of Kenny’s fifteenth year, never to be heard from again. If anyone could ever have been described in quaint old terms as the town drunk, it had been him. They even had a name for him—well-meaning but racist, they called him Greek Victory. It could truly be said to have been a name of affection, a fitting title for a folk hero. He had been a terrible father, but when it came to alcoholism, his exploits inspired awe.
“Do you remember the time, my eleventh birthday, he bought that keg of Busch, just for himself?” asked Kenny, reminiscing.
“Of course I do,” said Donnie. “You were wearing that Cubs jersey. Cute as the dickens, man. That was the first time we got drunk.”
Memories came rushing back. “I threw up on the birthday cake. He called me a ‘fail son.’ He told me my birthday was canceled. He said I brought shame to entire nations—America, and his ancestral home.”
“He hit the road for a couple years the next day, didn’t he?”
“In the breeze.” Kenny took on a heavy accent. “When you drink beer… you drink Busch beer. Only advice he ever gave me I remember. Hell,” he added, with a little melancholy. “It’s not even particularly good advice.”
Slowly and drunkenly, a plan had emerged—Kenny would run the race this year. It’s time for you to prove him wrong. He would take his father’s challenge on, beat his record, and usurp him. He would prove his worth on dad’s own turf.
They discussed their plans over duck fat fries and Hefeweizen. If Kenny was going to do this, he’d need to train his body, build it up beyond a baseline tolerance to handle the full force of four high-octane beers while running as fast as he’d ever run in his life. It would be grueling. There could be blood. Part of their preparations, they decided, would include a day visit to the Jonesborough Medical Center for a consultation with Kenny’s lifelong primary care physician, and also some lab work.
“If I’m going to be coaching you, I have to know your body,” Donnie explained, convincingly. “The ins and outs. We need to know your weaknesses and compensate for them.”
Kenny cocked his head, eyes displaying a little hurt. “Weaknesses?”
“It’s just an abundance of caution, Kenny. For strategic edge. For what it’s worth, weaknesses? I don’t think you have any.”
“Pretty much the perfect guy, in my book.”
“I’m just looking out for you.”
“It’s what you’re here for.”
They clinked glasses. “I love you.”
“You really do.”
So they began the regimen, cramming what they could into two long, grueling months of prep. The goal was learning how to run plowed, keeping the booze down. He’d had years of practice running, good form, and the genetics of a true rake in him. All there was to do was get used to the feeling of running a full sprint while a liter and a half of cold beer wreaked havoc in his gut—to make it as close to second nature as they could.
Training took them to the Turkey Mountain hiking trail, sprinting headlong up hills and scrambling down without losing his lunch or cracking his skull. They snatched hurdles from the high school track, on thin rationale. He drank and jumped on a trampoline to get used to the physical torment. They took their training downtown, slamming beers and running steps at city hall to bemused weekday audiences until the cops showed up.
“Hey, hey!” shouted Donnie, stepping in to interfere. “Fellas, this isn’t public intoxication. This is an athlete! This is the son of Greek Victory!”
Not that the name of the legend moved the officers, much, though maybe the enthusiasm with which his protest was delivered encouraged them to let this slide, so long as they poured out the beer and left immediately. Kenny wanted to protest—“This beer is over nine dollars”—but prudence pushed him to stand down. He couldn’t race with criminal proceedings looming on his mind.
“That was almost a whole hour of my workday poured out on the steps of city hall.” Kenny mourned at their postmortem, back at the brewhaus, refueling their energy stores with sausages and cider. “I hadn’t even taken a sip yet.”
Donnie, ever the cheerleader, wouldn’t tolerate dejection for a second. “Don’t worry about the money. Just think about the prize. This will all be worth it when you claim the prize. It’s your birthright, Kenneth.”
“There’s no prize money, though.”
“No—but there is beer, beer fit for kings. They’ll never stop the taps for the Son of Greek Victory. You’ll drink for free in this town forever.”
“If I win.”
Donnie raised his sausage, as in a sort of sword salute, smiling in a wily way. “No,” he said. “When you win.”
Kenny awoke on the day of the race feeling like his guts were made of steel. For once, he could truly say he felt his heart then knew no fear—the only tension he had was the expected anxiety of anticipation. He woke at dawn despite himself, against Donnie’s advice—the race, of course, wasn’t until sometime midafternoon. But still, perhaps other competitors found themselves doing the same. He walked around the block, eating a breakfast of a banana with a sports drink, thinking of his father. He hadn’t faced this strange expectancy. He had never even trained. He was a drinker, not a runner. But there was something inside of him that day that made him fly. Soon, Kenny would know if he inherited it.
Donnie was at his house by noon, rubbing his legs, guiding him through stretches, breathing, even trying to coax him into meditation. “I’ve been studying the principles of the ani-hu exercise. Spiritual chanting. Chant this with me. Water is my life force, and beer is like water to me.”
But Kenny’s mind was on the task at hand, by this point. “It’s too late to learn anything new,” he said.
Donnie nodded agreement. “That’s right, that’s right. Okay—you’re right. Everything you need to know, you already do. All that’s left is to believe in yourself. I know I do.”
“Are you ready to go?”
“It’s time for you to upturn the world.”
By two o’clock they were at the starting line, along with the thirty-two other competitors. Kenny looked upon his competition for the first time. “You’re seeing what I’m seeing?” Kenny asked Donnie.
“Always. Some of these fools did not come correct. But look at you! Your body looks perfect,” Donnie replied. “You’re ripped, roaring and ready to go.”
Only a couple of people gave some cause to be concerned. There was Ricki Yamaguchi, a local track phenom for years, finally able to participate in the only local race that mattered, all of twenty-one. She was fast—legitimately fast. A consistent presence in the winner’s circle at races nationwide, usually with the gold around her neck. In a regular mile, she would leave all competition in the dust. And then there was Johnny Razors, local degenerate, his salt and pepper beard braided into two long tendrils down his chest, twigs and dirt affixed to it like it was the fur of a scrounging raccoon. Yes, there was a wide and diverse array of competitors—all ethnicities, male, female, and everything in between. But the most important thing was missing—the fire in their eyes. The other thirty-two were mingling, laughing, some, like Razors, pre-gaming for the race with a mickey of whiskey and, you might say, reckless abandon.
Kenny couldn’t be angry to see other competitors taking the competition less than seriously. How could he? You run your own race. Let them learn how ill-prepared they are out on the battlefield.
The race announcer was the Rev. Dale Habernathy, who between his duties with the local Church of Christ Scientist ran a brewery called Feral Cat, that was quickly becoming known for its string of rookie releases, a critical three-for-three composed of the salty Mouseeater gose, That Darn Pacific Northwest IPA, and the ale they brewed in conjunction with the local soccer club, Kiss the Pussy Pale. And as much as Kenny would’ve preferred to quaff the latter—packed with electrolytes, it was marketed as a post-workout drink, and had the lowest ABV—the race would be run on the worst, most grueling option, a new invention to the market—Wolverine Black.
The beer of the contest was announced but two short minutes before the athletes were to post up at the starting line. Kenny made a beeline back to Donnie—“This might be a wrench,” he admitted. After all, they’d only trained up on the other three. “Have you ever even heard of that last one? They didn’t even say what sort of beer it was.”
Donnie was already deep into his phone, searching for intel on the Beerme Broseph social app. “I’ve heard about it, but not much. Nobody has. Rumor has it it’s a motherfucker—it doesn’t look like it’s a good beer, so be ready for that. Ah, tasting notes of needles, tar… this one guy says ‘Thanksgiving fart’—that’s helpful. They’re only serving it in one micropub so far, on tap, and only on Sundays, down in the middle of the state at the student union of St. Bertram’s.”
“You know anyone that goes there?”
“No one I can get ahold of in two minutes.” He pocketed his phone. “Look—baby, baby, baby, you got this. Think about your father.” He tapped two fingers into Kenny’s chest. “Greek Victory is in you, Kenneth. You are your father’s son. He’s inside you, and if you want to think about it this way, hell, so am I.”
“I can’t thank you enough for everything, bud. No matter how this turns out”—
—they clasped hands like two commandos, speaking as one—
—“It’s still KD for life.”
“Til the end of time, my friend,” said Kenny.
“Now get out there and murder ‘em. Lemme slap your ass.”
“We’ll do that later, okay?”
Kenny had never run a race before, not since high school, not since track, where he had been so apathetic about the activity that he once stopped beside the track during a mile run to collect thirty-five cents from off the ground. So memories were fuzzy, there. At your regular race, Kenny assumed, there was probably a certain air of solemnity in the seconds before the starting gun. A great tension, an excited tittering. The organizers passed the beers around, 355 ml cans of aluminum with no label but the Feral Cat logo. He put his toes to the white line of lane number one, and got himself into position—left foot front, right foot back, fingernail beneath the tab, just so.
“Alright,” Dale said, “Runners! Here comes the starting gun. May Jesus Christ be with you.” It looked like he was finger-gunning it. “Ready! Set! Bang!”
Ca-RACK! There was a swell of applause and cheering from the crowd, go! Go! Go!, and Kenny had the beer up to his lips, head back, throat open, imagining himself in purely physical terms. Down the hatch. It went down so quickly that he couldn’t even taste it. He held the can above his head, upturned, only sprinkles falling out, and in seven seconds he was off. Now the applause was just white noise, same as the whipping wind. He swung his arms like never before, arms like the a T-Rex, clawing at the air, pushing his mind into and his legs, pushing off each step, making himself feel his muscles tighten and contract as he ran in step, bounded, flew. He leaned into the curve. A smile almost crossed his face—this felt like nothing. He was so pleased with how little difference the beer seemed to be making that he almost didn’t notice Ricki Yamaguchi soaring past him on the curve, tearing away from him so quickly that he never even saw her face. By the time Kenny realized what was happening, she was strides ahead of him, on the straight, pulling away. But this was expected. They knew this would be coming. Have your moment, little girl—I have not yet begun to fight.
Kenny ultimately ran up to the first lap’s end trailing seven, but the beauty of the beer mile—the great equalizer—was that til the beers were finished, the leaders of the pack couldn’t leave. For all her massive lead on him, Kenny was one-on-one with Ricki once again, taking her second can at a staccato pace. Pour, swallow, wince. Pour, swallow, wince. “Take your sweet time, beeyotch.” Kenny said, apparently aloud. He cracked the tab. Water is my lifeblood, and beer is like water to me.
But the second went down harder—no straight vertical pour in one shot. Bolstered by the first beer, the second bubbled up inside his throat with more resistance, and he simply had to take his time to swallow, or it’d all come spewing out—a grievous error that, while not disqualifying him, would automatically extend his race by one more lap, and one more beer. It would be all but over, then.
Now, Kenny was beginning to actually taste the contents of this beer, and it wasn’t the taste so much as the downright granular mouthfeel that made this brew hard on the palate—it was like someone had poured the jagged crumbs at the bottom of a corn chip bag in there. It made his stomach feel like a neglected swimming pool. But it was just uncomfortable—that was all. He tipped up the empty. Two beers down.
The field ahead of him had closed to three. Ricki, an older man in Fila gear, and to Kenny’s amazement, Johnny Razors. Here was a man whose bulbous belly could house a small family, a man whose visage was one part liver spots, one part scars, and two parts rawhide leather, bald on top and long in back, who walked in perpetuity as though he’d just gotten off a horse. But on he sped. He passed by Donnie on the inside of the track. “I think the beer is making him stronger,” he gasped.
“He’ll die horrifically in a matter of months,” Donnie shouted to his retreating back. “Forget about him, go, go go!”
And indeed, the gap with Razors closed the fastest. He couldn’t help but share a little nod with him in the few steps before he pulled away. Razors knew his father, he remembered, not that it was likely Razors would.
By the close of the halfway mark, Ricki’s lead was still commanding, dwindling slightly as it was. Surely she was saving some reserves for the last kick. That was her advantage—she knew strategy. She knew how to actually race. The only question was whether she’d retain that knowledge, three beers in and onward.
Kenny opened the third can so hard he ripped the pop top off like it was a can of the classic style, prompting panic from the sidelines—if he’d increased the size of the opening even a little bit, that would count as worthy of disqualification. But he couldn’t worry on that now, or check to see if it had happened—damn the consequences now. He raised the can over his mouth, careful not to spill it down his cheeks. From the corner of his eye, he saw Johnny Razors pause for a moment, and check his phone, a Cingular wireless flip from perhaps forty-six decades prior. And then he poured his beer into his stomach as quickly as if he had been sucking out its contents with a vacuum. “Cheers!” he rasped congenially. And then he was off, picking up speed down the straightaway in lane three, two, three again. Kenny finished his soon after—for the first time since the starting gun, he was leaving the line ahead of Ricki, the young phenom.
By now, it had become clear that the race for the crown was coming down to three fighters. The older man in Fila was in lane six at the starting line, hands on knees and vomiting while his three children and his wife looked on and laughed. “I told you honey!” came a voice. “Look at your daddy, kids, oh, look at him, oh no.”
"How’s your bitch-ass daddy, now?” Kenny roared in the direction of the family, as he rounded the first curve. “Hope he’s got a fuckin’ will!”
One down—hardly the first one. At least four other competitors had yakked so far, some on the grass, some on the track, some a sort of combination move where they just aimed halfway down their shirt. Another six had clearly quit, jogging down the straightaway, past the curve, off the track, beelining for the toilets. Two were face-down, weeping, one with an arm protruding crookedly onto the track in Kenny’s lane. “Move your limp wrist, asshole! I’ll put you out of your misery if you don’t roll aside, amigo!”
“Call the ambulance,” he heard the figure mumble.
“I’ma call your mama, bitch.” Whether or not he heard that last one, Kenny didn’t know. Nor did he care. He scanned the straightaway ahead, knowing he was third place now, but seeing only one ahead. Panic set in for a second, until he passed a tree and saw an idle Johnny Razors, stopped just off the track behind a tree, trying to spark a Parliament with matches not cooperating with the breeze.
So then there were two. “Every step you take you’re getting drunker, track star!” Kenny called at Yamaguchi, who might’ve been too far ahead to even hear. “You ain’t going to the Olympics, fool! Your knees are going to explode by thirty! Your elderly life will be nothing but pain!”
He swung around the second curve, Donnie waving him through like an overexcited third base coach. “You got this. You got this. One more. Get her.”
Kenny caught up to her at the start of the last lap, and finally saw her showing weakness. Hands on her knees and her beer on the ground, she’d yet to even pop the tab. Supercharged with the beautiful image, Kenny ran through the line with such speed that he almost overshot his waiting ale. Four of four. The final can.
Ca-RACK! By now the beer had ceased to taste like beer. It tasted like punishment—it tasted like poison. Kenny’s belly bloated like an overheated corpse on the verge of bursting, and the web of musculature around his head was tightening, dehydrating, squeezing the organs in his skull into spaces smaller than they could fully function in. He was belching so much, so powerfully—each burp was like a battleship’s broadside, they had recoil—and they took up precious time, because the human mouth can’t well push air out and take beer in at the same time. He took the pauses between swallows to improve his race strategically. Forcing himself into Ricki’s field of vision, he mimed vomiting, stuck his fingers in his mouth, said “hyyyuhhh”. It was mindgames, mentalism. “You are getting very queeeeeasy...”
Ricki’s eyes were wet, either from the burn of the alcohol, the acid of Kenny’s tongue, or more likely her own weakness. “Stop yelling at me,” she protested.
“Go fuck yourself, Tokyo!” And he flipped his empty overhead in her direction, departing on the final lap with his fingers up in double birds.
One more, one more. This was it, this was his game now. Endurance, perseverance. Kenny always had enough to go a little farther. Never the fastest to get there, but his tortoise constitution never faltered. He rounded the curve alone, ahead and invincible. He saw his father in his mind’s eye, both hands in the air and cheering. The pride behind his cataracts. The gleam of his double Busch tallboys, silver beacons held up to the sky. This is for you, Greek Victory.
But the sounds of his footfalls slapping against the track began to double in volume, and before Kenny could even formulate the thought, there she was—Ricki “The Cheetah” Yamaguchi, back in the race. And that’s when Kenny damned his arrogance—she wasn’t back in the race. She never left.
For the third straight they were parallel, and Ricki’s eyes bored into the side of his head with the righteous fire of a true athlete. Kenny caught her gaze—it took his breath away. Man or woman didn’t matter—her ferocity was universal. Her eyes had the kind of look that people tend to see before they die, blown out of this universe by an enemy who outmatched them. And Kenny’s heart sank to his shoes. Through the hoppy haze, through all the pain, it all became clear, his fatal miscalculation. For him, this race was everything—this had become his passion, his mission. For the first time in his wasted life, he had wanted more from himself than to get by—for the first time, he wanted to win. But Ricki had been winning her entire life. He saw that in the wildfire of her eyes, a full-blown assault against his ego and self-worth. Everybody thinks they’re championship material until they meet the one that’s going to win.
And then, to seal the point, she stopped toying with him. Halfway down the final straight, she took off on her kick. This was it, what she was famous for, her final overdrive, where she would drain her plentiful reserves to their very last drop.
She left Kenny in the dust.
The sound went out of his perception. Father… He could feel his dad with him again, that old familiar look of disapproval, disappointment. All my life I say to you, do what you do and be good. But no. For years, you fail. You always fail. You never try. You are a fail son, best at but one thing—bringing shame into my once-proud heart.
That was the last memory he had of his father before he left town. It had always made him burn with shame, but now, for the first time in his life, Kenny realized that his dad was right.
“Faster, faster, Kenny! Faster! Pick it up! Sprint it out! Run!”
This from maybe Donnie, for who else could be cheering for him now? But this was as fast as he could go. He was running as fast as he could. The best that he was able. He swung his arms and kicked his legs as though wolves were at his back—he was not, would not, couldn’t give up. He would see it through, sprint the last of it until his heart exploded if he needed to. But none of it mattered—he was losing. It was lost.
Distant from his inner world of darkness he heard the crowd well up, whooping and hollering, celebrating their champion, the truly impressive Yamaguchi, the go-getter winner that everyone deserved. It was noise, just noise. He began the final curve at his full speed, resolved to leave it all on the playing field, at least, as he came to the end. Run your own race, he reminded himself, a thought that often raised his spirits. But his eyes were at the ground between his feet—all the better for them not to see him cry.
If he hadn’t looked up at the last second, he would have bowled Ricki right over. She was stuck between lanes, hands on her knees, head to the ground—spewing.
The roar of the crowd surged in his ears, as though he had been wrenched back to reality from the brink of a very real death. In twenty yards, the race was over, mere seconds that slowed down in his perception as he realized what he’d done.
Ricki The Cheetah was losing her lunch, and Kenny Kaiser had taken the lead.
The crowd was hysterical. What a race! “Penalty lap, penalty lap!” Some were high-fiving, rooting against the track star for whatever reason. Others had their hands around their heads in shocked concern. “She was so close!” But one voice stood out above them all, clear in Kenny’s ears, broadcast on a frequency so familiar he could pick it up in a room full of millions.
“That’s! My! Boy!”
It was Donnie calling to him, leaping at the finish line, his face radiant with the mania of the moment. “Run it through, run it through! Don’t you stop! Take the crown!”
He was halfway down the straightaway again, only beginning to raise his hands aloft in triumph. His legs downshifted, his body running with the breeze, decelerating slowly. He’d lost himself inside the moment. The cheering in the distance followed him, receding as he reached the edge of the track, staggering to a stop down the little stretch that jutted off adjacent to the curve, heading toward the treeline. He came to a stop in the long jump pit, taking his final, tired steps into the sand on rubber legs. For this brief, beautiful moment, he felt like something above human, more than just a runner’s high radiating in his chest and inner being. This was why people moved to push themselves. This is why we run. To have that moment, that wonderful moment, where you push your body so hard that your soul takes wing and leaves it, and you realize what it’s worth to be alive. Now more than ever, he could feel himself acutely, one connected spirit among all the beauty in the world. Of course he was also shitfaced.
Nothing from that moment on seemed to happen in coherent order. Donnie had him by the shoulders, and they were leaping, spinning, embracing. Kenny gripped his best friend’s arms at the biceps, tears of joy pooling in the rims of his eyelids “I could kiss you right now, Donnie.”
“You should! You should!”
Behind Donnie, Kenny could see Ricki rounding the first curve on her penalty lap with the other racers, her pace perfunctory relative to her usual great heights, but still probably fast enough to trounce him any other day. And then, for unrelated reasons, he keeled over violently at the waist to Donnie’s left and proceeded to noisily vomit what felt like fourteen gallons of frothy, acidic hop sludge. It was a Niagara-esque deluge. His face exploded, those bad sweats coursing down his face, snot cascading in thick ribbons out from his nasal passages down into the brackish muck. The ground felt like it was getting closer. He was not convinced, at this point, that he wasn’t somehow spinning in place.
“Ohhhhhh Donnie—” Kenny bellowed between heaves. “Ohhhh Donnie, I’ve never been more—HUAGGggggh!—more proud—huch—Father!—HOOOGuhh—so—AGGGGGh—so happy—”
Donnie patted his back with a patience in a fittingly parental way. “Shhh, shhh,” he whispered. “Get it all out, baby, get it all out.” Kenny had never been a good vomiter as a child. It was the most loathsome part of sickness—it burned, it was undignified, it made him cry, it made him fearful he would suffocate. But since his first brush with booze at age eleven, he had become so proficient at the task that he could make himself throw up at will, jabbing fingers down his throat with ease when a drink went down with a little too much heat to it. It had become more routine to him that he was maybe ready to admit. This particular instance, though, was beginning to feel a little different.
When he toppled to the ground face-first into his own massive moat of emesis, on a distant intellectual level, he didn’t really feel like anything was wrong, and he grew angry at the group of spectators that had gathered, ringing him, a halo of concerned expressions. “Don’t give me that look,” he thought, or perhaps snarled aloud. “Take your sympathy and shove it! I just kicked your ass.”
At Jonesborough Medical Center, his problem wasn’t so much inebriation as was shellshock. Four beers, even strong beers, really wasn’t that much, at least to Kenny’s body, long a member of the drunkard’s major leagues. Once he had some juice, an IV, a change of clothes and a place to lie down, he was just feeling a little fucked up—but not, y’know. Not medically.
Dr. Haverhill, his physician for years now, was at his side by the time the sun was in its downhill journey into night. The lecture was uninteresting—Kenny would remember later only checking in at the phrase “pieces of your stomach lining.”
Kenny caught Donnie’s eye, grinning wildly. “Dude,” he said. “I vomited my guts out.” He leaned out and extended his hand. “Bump it.”
“Simply the best,” responded Donnie, bumping it.
“Your behavior,” Haverhill pressed on, “Is so concerning that I frankly ought to call your mother.”
“Eh, she ain’t gonna care. Anyway, Doctor, I have one question,” Kenny said, abruptly pivoting into a tone of grave seriousness. “And this is… literally the only thing I care about. When I get out of here, will I be able to defend my crown?”
“The next time you do this,” said Haverhill, “I’m admitting you as an attempted suicide.”
They left the hospital that evening, Kenny and Donnie, looking out upon the parking lot with that same melancholy that one always does, wondering who drove these cars here, speeding and concerned, what loved ones they were tending to, what losses in their lives they toiling with, struggling to delay. Donnie had left briefly to grab his friend a change of clothes, something more suitable for a Saturday night. “Didn’t really think the day would end this way,” Kenny mentioned, scratching the back of his head and chuckling a little sheepishly.
“Who says the day is ended?” Donnie asked.
Kenny looked about the surroundings, catching his bearings. “I think there’s a nice little dive bar down the street in this neighborhood. Emerald Aisle, with an ‘A’. I think they spelled it wrong on purpose.”
“That works for me.”
“It’s a gay joint, officially, but they keep it pretty low-key.”
“Oh yeah, I go there all the time. It’s good.”
Kenny took a quick page-through of his wallet. “You wanna grab a beer with me?” Formality of a question, really; they were already walking on their way.
Donnie threw his arm up over Kenny’s shoulder, and Kenny wrapped his arm around the other’s back. “Tonight, tomorrow, til the end of days, you champion.”
“At least til the next Beer Mile.”
“You might have what it takes to get a record. A state record, at least. There’s a site that tracks these things—your time was really up there. You might be a better runner than you think. After all, you are the Son of Victory.”
“Yeah, yeah.” They stopped at a crosswalk, waiting for a pause in the passing cars. “But you know what I think is more important?”
“I’ve got the greatest friend in you.”
“I love you, Ken.”
“I love you, too, Donald.”
“Get that crown on when we get there, champ. We’ve got kegs to empty, yet.”
Sarah Szabo is a child of America. An ardent student of liquor, internet memes, and Greek history, she lives and works on the second floor of an old brick building just off Route 66 in northeastern Oklahoma.