David raised his glass quickly but carefully, in one, thoroughly practiced motion. The amber sloshed perilously near spilling, the gyroscope of his wrist and hand the only thing keeping the bar from a beery bath. “Here’s to life!”
The cry pierced the air above the bar, setting into motion an avalanche of reaction: displeased glares, questioning glances, humorous smirks. Even the drunk karaoke girls stopped to look at David, who by now, was standing on the foot rests of his bar stool like some inebriated half-giant.
Geoff looked at him down the glassy length of his shaker, smiling through his sip.
“Good to see you’re back to your old self,” Geoff said, as he set the glass on the bar. He picked it up again, looking down at the watery ring of condensation kept afloat by the bar’s waxy finish. He set the beer back down halfway on top of the first ring making a tidy two-ring Venn diagram. He turned to David, “Maybe you should slow down..”
David looked back at him, eyes half glazed by the beer worming its way through the folds of his brain. “No, I’m fine. Gotta be such a cop all the time.” He waved at the bartender, trying to get his attention through the commotion of a Friday night.
“Because I am a cop, idiot.” Geoff had already slipped the car keys from David’s coat pocket into his own. He knew David too well, knew his tiny bladder and even tinier tolerance, and didn’t trust him not to fumble to his truck in three beer’s time, when he was well beyond a reasonable state to be awake, never mind drive. He checked the time on his phone. “Dave,, I gotta run. Cathy’s expecting me and I’ve got a long shift tomorrow.”
“Just one more, come on. COME ON!” David taunted him, holding one fist-defiant index finger near his face, scrunching up his nose and mouth, part demanding, part begging, part unsure he should even have one more himself. Geoff laughed, threw down two twenties, and shook his head. “Not tonight. Next time. Got your tab, though. And your keys. There should be enough there for a cab, too.”
It took another half hour to process that Geoff had meant his car keys; thirty full minutes of crawling around in the stale beer-fog of under bar, looking for any glint of metallic silver of Chevy logo. The beer had done its job and was still billing hours to the client of insobriety, so David didn’t even entertain being mad at the long-gone Geoff. He smiled at fate, and let the beer decide with infallible drunk wisdom that the best bet was to walk the eight some miles home, not call a cab.
The late summer air soothed his sing-along-sore throat; Vicks VapoRub on Colorado wind made of purple poppies, peeling pine, and that undeniable smell of coming thunderstorm. David loved August nights in Breckenridge, and for a while, lost in an alcohol-fueled flood of senses and emotion, didn’t mind his hours long saunter.
He came upon the bridge, an old parker-style in need of paint with rust pocking its metal like acne on a teenager’s oily forehead, and could smell the fishy waft from the river below. The crossing marked the halfway point of his trip home, that moment where he was equidistant between bar stool and bed, between drunkenness and sobriety. He took a moment at the center of the bridge to lean out over the rushing, storm-swollen water. Odd detritus lined the bank near one of the concrete supports: several mismatched tires, probably dumped there by Tom from the auto-shop on Lincoln; a soggy, algae stained futon that looked like a reject from an IKEA as-is section; a shopping cart upturned and abandoned at least a mile from its normal home at City Market.
The river passed by without noticing David noticing it, upstream looking exactly like downstream as if it didn’t matter where water began or ended, only that it flowed. If it hadn’t been so late, if he hadn’t been just one beer past buzzed, David might have dangled his legs down over the edge of the bridge and sat there a while, let summer sink into his soul, let the river wash away the night, let the peace of nature remind him how lucky he was to be alive.
As he turned to finish his journey home, some movement near the water caught his eye. A shape, tall and thin, a man down by the bank, near the access road, swaggering in shadow. Then he saw another man, a bigger man, approach from behind, thinking for a moment he heard shouting and crying on the back of the wind. He watched, too far to help, too close to cry out without jeopardizing himself, as the larger shadow slung something out of his pocket and snapped serenity in two with the crack of a cocked hammer colliding with primer.
Had his mind been clear, he would have immediately called Geoff, had the entire Breckenridge Sheriff’s department on the scene in minutes. But panic closed its powerful grip on his mind, and he could do nothing but run. Across the bridge, down a side street, through bushes and under trees. Muscle memory guided his feet, the world passed by, half buzzed by sprint, half buzzed by the booze still sloshing in his stomach, and he soon found himself on his own front lawn, lungs grabbing desperately into the night for more air.
A viper, two green slits on dark grey, stared at him from across the room. His eyes adjusted slowly like auto-focus on a dying camera lens, regret manifesting behind them like two jack hammers of you-should-know-better. 11:03. Not so bad, given how late (or early) he had slipped into the silky caress of his down comforter after his mad dash home.
He knew he should call Geoff, but was worried he hadn’t really seen what he thought he saw, that Geoff would just laugh him off and tell him he needed to go to AA. Even if David had wanted to talk to him, he couldn’t find his phone, and weight of his eyelids and slouching slurch of his stomach suggested it might not be time to get up anyway. He let his head fall back onto the pillow and watched the snake disappear behind a horizontal curtain of black.
When he woke again, the viper was gone, replaced by two turtles rolling on into infinity. His headache had mellowed into a gentle sluggish fog, like his brain was covered with an entire bottle of Elmers. The hangover had cleared enough, enough at least, for him to sit up without worrying that a fault line might open up on the back of his skull. He dug around in his jean pockets for his phone, not surprised to see more than a few missed calls, mainly from his mother and Geoff, both of whom, he was sure, were checking to make sure he’d made it home in as few pieces as possible. He brushed away the notifications and nudged the phone with his thumb to call Geoff.
It rang four times before being deposited, like some lowly letter, in a voice mail box. “Hey man, it’s Dave. I’m fine, just really, really hungover. This is going to sound weird, but I think I saw someone get shot last night. Like seriously. I was pretty plastered, but I’m going to go check it out. Meet me at the old bridge at ten and I’ll tell you the whole story.”
The sun had long since exited stage West by the time he pulled into a spot by the old deserted fish packing warehouse. From here he could see the silhouette of the bridge like a lattice against the night sky, lights from down in the city giving just enough glow to make the sky look eggplant, not ebony. The night was calm except for the wind that swept down from the north in sporadic, energetic bursts.
David was late, but so was Geoff. Another fifteen minutes disappeared into unrecoverable history with eyes glued to the street that ran into pines on the far side of the bridge, waiting to see a squad car come rolling past the treeline. Another twenty passed and still no squad car, still no Geoff. Sick of waiting, David decided to see if he could find any evidence of what he witnessed almost exactly 24 hours before.
The water chilled the air near the bank, enough for David’s arm hairs to unfurl and stand up straight, like a frightened porcupine. He moved to where he thought he’d seen the shadow scuffle, searching the ground for signs of blood or foot prints or shell casings, using all of his best TV crime drama knowledge.
If anything criminal had gone down in the midnight deep, the river had washed away all evidence. David was sort of happy Geoff hadn’t shown up, and hoped he hadn’t even heard his voice mail. He’d obviously embarrassed himself enough the night before; no need to add this little costly piece of police involvement. He turned back, laughing at himself and his drunken hallucinations when he smelled the unique smoke of a clove cigarette. Before he could trail it to a source, he heard a loud pop, and pinch a stab of pain in his left side. Slick, stinking mud stained the knees of his jeans. His hands felt numb, like he’d slept on them for too long. The river and his vision danced red, then white, then dark.
He heard the beeping first. A whole cacophony of machine generated pings and dings, some high pitched and rhythmic, others low, growly, but random. Despite sending many signals from his brain, his eyelids refused to part, his mouth refused to open, his throat refused to produce sound. He floated, robbed of three of five, only smelling, listening.
David bobbed in the cosmic darkness for what felt like two eternities. He thought he was thinking about things, about philosophy and theology, chatting up Alpha and Omega over a pint of porter, learning all about life before, and after, and now. Voices from across the bar occasionally chimed in with comment, but one stuck in his mind like an echo: “You’re going to be OK.”
Voices outside the bar, muffled voices, some he thought he recognized, others as foreign as a Japanese tourist in Texas, started to become more common. He regained some audibility, mainly in grunts, but enough to signal to the distant disembodied speech that he was there, and should not be ignored.
Eventually light snuck in, a piercing, awful light, as if he’d just emerged from some dank cave into the brilliance of a Gobi afternoon. Pupils constricted and dappled ceiling tiles formed a landscape, telling David he was lying down, in a building of some kind. A plus. Geoff loomed over him, a huge face hanging like a moon over his bed. “Dave!”
Two weeks later, the grape sized wound near his left kidney had healed sufficiently for David to be discharged. As soon as he was conscious enough to talk, Geoff filled in the hospital-induced blanks. He’d been late to the bridge because the battery on his phone had died, and he hadn’t heard the voice mail. By the time he had arrived, David was already face down near some old tires, blood seeping down into the river like a sanguine tributary. They’d gotten him to the hospital in just enough time to prevent him from bleeding out.
Despite many, many objections from the nurses, doctors, and Geoff himself, despite his near brush with death, David demanded they go out for a celebratory beer. Convincing him like only a best, old friend can, Geoff obliged him. “OK. One beer. Guess you deserve it.” At home, David ditched the mint scrubs the doctors had given him since his clothes had been taken as part of the investigation to find the shooter. He threw on a fresh t shirt quickly, already imagining the lager sloshing sultry across his tongue.
He parked his truck and met Geoff by the door. The bar was lively, even for a Friday night, and a group of tipsy college girls were bullying the touch screen on the Karaoke machine. Geoff pulled up a stool, and helped David onto his, worried about disrupting the stitches. David nodded to the bar tender, ordering two ambers, two ruddy wonders poured perfectly into branded shakers. “I think this moment deserves a toast.”
David raised his glass quickly but carefully, in one, thoroughly practiced motion. The amber sloshed perilously near spilling, the gyroscope of his wrist and hand the only thing from keeping the bar from a beery bath. “Here’s to life!”
Oliver Gray was raised in the suburbs of Maryland, and earned his M.A. from The Johns Hopkins University. His essays and stories have been published in Tin House, Good Men Project, The TJ Eckleberg Review, and 20 Something Magazine. His beer and writing blog, Literature and Libation, won the North American Guild of Beer Writers’ “Blog of the Year” award in 2013. He currently lives just outside of Washington DC and is working on a beer and brewing themed book.