Whenever people find out that I knew Liam Garvey when I was young, they:
A) Treat me as if I was much cooler than they had previously thought of me, and B) Ask if I knew that he was going to be successful even back then.
I respond by A) realizing that my most significant accomplishment will always be something that I didn’t do, and B) saying yes. Yes, I knew he would be successful. Most people guessed that he would be successful when his high school invention took him to the international science fair, and he won, or they knew it by the time he got into Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, but turned them all down to move to Silicon Valley and begin growing his tech empire. But I knew this earlier. I knew it in fourth grade. It wasn’t the academic achievements or the extra-curricular successes. It was the beer.
We are all nine years old, except for Drew who had an August birthday and would never let us forget it. The five of us, Liam, Pierce, Drew, Oliver and me occupied perhaps the least prestigious real estate a school’s recess field has: the far right corner of the field, against the fence’s boundaries. We came to this locale because none of us had any interest in playing kickball, or flipping off monkey bars, or participating in the bizarrely competitive four square league. We were content just to sit, and pick grass, and talk about robots and Jedis and God, and we had no other plans for our last week of school; however, all thoughts of potentially fantastical beings were driven from our minds, distracted by a strange new object on our turf.
We crowded around it in a circle, like elders preparing for some strange ritual. We all knew what it was. It couldn’t be soda. Its can was too foreign, too garish and desperate for attention, bold colors shouting “pick me,” intermingled with fine print text. It was noticeably different from the soda we were used to, and besides, we knew all kinds of soda. One of our favorite past times was to mix them into strange concoctions when we went to restaurants, daring one another to drink first. Drew was the first to name it, however.
“Beer,” he said in an awed voice, and we let the statement linger. It wasn’t that we were unacquainted with the beer can. Indeed, we had seen them littering the sides of roads, or occupying the hands of our fathers and uncles at barbecues and weddings, but this was different. The can was closed. The beer was still inside, unsupervised and inviting.
“I wonder how it got here,” Liam said out loud. He looked like a Liam. His figures were slightly more defined than the rest of our baby fat visages. His hair was strong and voluminous, defined almost cartoonishly, unlike my own limp threads, which seemed almost suicidal, hanging from my head as if they would rather not exist at all. His eyes were bright blue. The type of eyes that people commented on, and his eyebrows bushy in a way that suggested strength. He was tall enough to make everyone else jealous, but not so tall that he was a freak, and his voice sounded natural on a microphone during spelling bees and school plays. You knew he would be a man.
“It must have been tossed from a car,” Pierce said. Our patch of grass was next to our town’s only highway, and it was not unfeasible that a decent lob could have landed the can where it now lay. He nudged the can over with his shoe, and we read the label Pabst.
“Do you think it’s still got beer in it?” Oliver asked. He had a bad habit of stating the obvious. Perhaps being assigned glasses in kindergarten had caused him to doubt his senses.
“Of course it has the beer in it, idiot. It hasn’t even been opened” I said. I had a bad habit of answering obvious questions with force in mean attempts to make myself seem smart, a vice I would pay for when pubescent insecurity attacked. We continued to stare in silence, unable to conjure any further observations.
Dares hold a peculiar power in a boy’s mind, which cannot be underestimated. There are two types of dares: those that can be accomplished and therefore must be taken seriously, and those that are obviously impossible and can be discarded. “Drink toilet water” is serious. It can be done easily and does not pose bodily harm. It merely requires one to man up and overcome his aversion. “Do a backflip” is not a serious dare because one cannot simply do a backflip, and he is likely to break his neck in the attempt. Furthermore, it would land the one who dared in trouble, which is inherently emasculating. “Show us your penis” is doable and does not cause bodily harm, but this dare and others like it are against the rules. These rules are unquestioned. Later we will call them human rights and some will begin to question them. To retreat from a dare was to be impotent, cowardly, chicken. It left an aftertaste far more acidic than the burn of the actual deed. To complete a dare, was to overcome fear and prove oneself worthy in his own eyes and the eyes of his fellows. There are no rankings involved with dares. A double dog dare does not hold more power than an unadorned dare because the results of any dare are absolute: absolute defeat or preservation of masculinity.
The beer can by itself posed a dare. Drink me, and we all tried to wrap our minds around its validity. Surely it wouldn’t kill us, but alcohol occupied such a forbidden zone in our minds, that there must be some rule against it. No one could remember any such rule or articulate one.
“I sipped my dad’s beer once,” Drew said. “It tasted bad, but nothing happened.”
“My uncle drank too much and died in a car accident. My mother said one beer is enough to kill a man,” said Oliver. We processed this information dutifully, but it did not make the conundrum any easier.
Eventually, we sat down, never taking our eyes off the beer, contemplating it in silence until the teachers blew their whistles and we had to go back to school. We hesitated for a moment. Last chance. Will anybody step up? Alas, we stood up and got ready to go back inside. I was secretly relieved that the test was over, even though I did not know whether I had passed or failed, but before we left, Liam picked up the beer and hid it in the bushes.
The next day, the beer was exactly where we had left it, and we knew that we would be forced to act in some way, either to destroy the beer or to consume it.
When we knew that we could not escape it, we were more forthcoming about discussing our feelings over the situation.
“I’m sure it wouldn’t be that bad if someone drank it,” Drew said, leaving the perpetrator ambiguous so as not to implicate himself.
“But what if we got caught? We’d be dead,” Pierce said.
“Don’t you have to be 21 to drink? Wouldn’t we be breaking the law?” Oliver of course.
“My sister drinks beer, and she’s not 21,” I said. “She’s in college, and she always tells my Dad about the parties she goes to, and she doesn’t seem to get in that much trouble.”
“I think it’s different for big kids,” Drew said.
“Have you ever seen someone get drunk?” Pierce asked.
“I have,” Oliver said, eagerly, “One time my Dad ran into his friends at Applebee’s, and he had six beers. My mom had to drive us home that night, and we had to stop at McDonald’s, so he could pee.”
“My mom and dad have a Christmas party every year, and people get drunk. They mostly just talk louder, though and sometimes they fight,” Drew offered.
The debate continued, but a verdict could not be reached, and at the end of the period, we stashed the beer in the bushes again.
The beer consumed our lives. It was all that we talked about at recess anymore, and it slowly became all that I thought about. Before I fell asleep at night, I resolved to drink the beer the next day. As soon as recess started, I would open it, and drink it. It was as simple as that. Whatever happened next happened next, but I would drink the beer, cementing my fame and establishing my warriorship. When confronted with the actual object, however, I would shrink away, and formulate excuses in my mind for thirty minutes before the cycle began anew.
I dreamed that I was drinking the beer except my mother was watching me, and I was arrested and sent to jail. Other times, however, I dreamed that I had drunk the beer, and everybody clapped for my bravery. It was very distressful, heightened only by the fact that I knew that we would all be gone by Friday, and this may be my only chance to prove myself.
But of course, nothing can stay a secret forever, and soon Jake, one of the four square boys found out about our predicament. I don’t know who told him, but as soon as he knew, the rest of the school caught on immediately. On Thursday, our corner of the field teemed with fourth-grade gawkers, straining to get a glance of the forbidden fruit.
“I’ll drink it,” came calls from the back of the crowd, disembodied voices emboldened with the knowledge that they could not be identified and thus held to their word.
“Don’t be a chicken.”
“It wouldn’t even be my first.”
“Shut up; you’ve probably never even seen a beer before.”
Eventually, Zoe Lisowski pushed her way to the front of the crowd. She stared at the beer, which had been removed from the bush, and lay on the ground. Zoe owned more skirts and dresses than pants, and it was clear that she was dressed by her mother, but she never atoned for this by unbraiding her hair or deliberately inflicting grass stains on herself. She seemed proud of it, in fact. During recess, she kept company with other girls who wanted to be moms when they grew up. Occasionally, she would try to learn how to double dutch, but the skill had died out fifty years ago, and she would return, defeated to hopscotch, which I don’t think she played correctly either. She was almost a parody of herself, and she was also known as the biggest tattletale. When I called her a bitch, I was sentenced to two weeks of indoor recess, and the vice principal personally called my mother. It was the greatest fame I experienced until people began to learn that I had known Liam Garvey when he was younger.
“What’s going on?” Zoe asked, “Is that a beer?” She dated Oliver for a short period in high school, but then they broke up. Apparently, a relationship cannot be sustained on vapid questions alone.
People began drifting away. Involvement was undesirable at this point, and we knew that any speech would be self-jeopardizing. The evidence, however, was undeniable, and Zoe said “I’m telling Mrs. Wagner,” a teacher of legendary malice who was sure to administer swift and cruel punishment. Zoe ran to tell the teacher, and the rest of the kids sauntered off, but we five knew that there was no escape for us. We stood frozen in fear, until Liam picked up the beer, and popped the tab. It fizzed slightly, and Liam began to drink. He drank with quickly and purposefully, and we watched him in admiration and fear, unaware that we were witnessing our first chug.
Luckily, the vigor with which Mrs. Wagner disciplined did not translate into the physical realm, so she approached us with a lumbering gait, while Zoe ran impatiently ahead. Oliver, Drew, Pierce, and I crowded around Liam, blocking him from Mrs. Wagner’s line of sight, and he ducked slightly so that his height would not betray him. When he finished, he dropped the beer on the ground. If anyone else had accomplished such a feat, surely we would have burped triumphantly, but Liam never burped, and he made no exception.
“What’s going on here?” Mrs. Wagner demanded, and we looked up at her, awaiting our doom.
“Nothing,” Liam said confidently, as we stood dumbstruck, “We just found this beer on the ground this afternoon, and we sent Zoe to tell you because we didn’t know what to do with it.”
“That’s not true,” Zoe said, incensed, “they were keeping it a secret from everybody, and the beer wasn’t opened last time. Somebody must have drunk it.”
“The beer was always opened,” Pierce insisted,
“Why would we have opened it?” Oliver asked.
“Yeah, we found it like that. Scout’s honor,” Drew swore, and he even made the scout’s honor sign, with two fingers pressed together in the least convincing lie anyone has ever told.
Mrs. Wagner regarded us with suspicion, and I struggled to swallow. Our lives hung in the balance, and we all knew it. “Well, you should have reported it immediately. You’re all smarter than that. Here, give it to me,” she commanded, and I hurried to pick up the beer, hoping that maybe this small act would bestow some prestige. “Next time you find something that doesn’t belong on the playground, you tell an adult. No more lollygagging and carnival sideshows, do you understand?” We nodded, relief swelling throughout our entire bodies, incredible that we had escaped such doom unscathed. Mrs. Wagner stared at us for another minute to drive the point home, before turning around to stand with the other teachers. Zoe ran away, and we were alone again.
“How do you feel?” Pierce asked.
“Fine,” Liam said.
“Did it taste awful.”
“It was fine,” he answered. We regarded him with awe. Not only had he passed the dare, but now he was going to pretend that he was not even affected by it. He alone had triumphed, and now he was somehow different.
The school year ended, and our group drifted apart. In fifth grade, we were sorted into honors and standard classes, my first official notice that I was not special or gifted or even particularly bright. Liam and Pierce were selected to join honors, and they began playing chess during recess. Nobody ever taught me to play chess, and although it held a certain glamor, I was too embarrassed to ask. In middle school, Liam’s parents called the school, and he began an independent study in math and computer science, and he continued to excel.
After high school, nobody heard from him for a couple of years, and then his phones seemed to become popular overnight. Somebody died waiting for the latest model at a Black Friday sale, and soon Liam Garvey became a household name. They renamed our elementary school after him, and built a statue in our corner of the field, near the road for all to see, and today teenagers play a game where they try to hit the statue with empty beer cans.