Cans of Fire

by Kourtney Johnson —

Mom handed you your first beer at the lake, the idea of a ten-year-old taking a swig of Bud Light tickling her funny bones. To see everyone in the family getting along was a rarity, but the smell of the red clay and pine trees lightened everyone’s spirits. You excitedly drank, finally a part of a ritual you had long observed. After this, you expected laughter and food and fun, as there always was when your mom and stepfather drank from the blue aluminum cans. Maybe there’d be a fire pit. Mom always told you to stay back, but you never listened. You loved throwing in things that didn’t belong: cigarette butts, bottle caps, dead snakes. Everything had a certain crackle to it. You retched as the liquid hit your taste buds, bitterness and anguish flooding your mouth. Despite the disgust, you swallowed, prepared to prove your worthiness. Your parents clapped, congratulating you on your first drink. But quickly, their attention shifted away, back to each other, back to their drinks. They continued to sip on the cans of fire as you contemplated how they pretended to enjoy the taste.

*

     By fifteen, you were over the drinking. You’d done it. You’d seen it. You’d cleaned up after it. That Saturday night had already been long and it was only ten PM. Mom had retired to her bedroom hours ago, head spinning from the Crown, leaving you to deal with her husband, unconscious in a pool of Jager-tinted vomit. He’d fallen asleep in the doorway, his upper half on the white carpet of the living room and his lower half outside on the cold pavement of the back porch. The chilly night air seeped into the house and the rope lights twinkled yellow above him. He might’ve been there all night if you hadn’t ventured out for some late-night Oreos. You hadn’t been asleep. When they got like this, your parents slurred your name and begged you to make them another drink, but you retreated into your room. You pulled his legs inside, never once stirring the man from his drunken slumber. The house was silent, save for the ice crashing into the freezer’s tray. Stepping around the man on the floor, you walked into the cool night air. The backyard was calm and the rabbits under the deck settled in for the night. You absorbed the stillness, taking a deep breath before walking back into the house. You locked the back door, set the alarm, and left the vomit. You never wanted to be that drunk. You made that promise to yourself.

*

     You thought of yourself as an alcohol connoisseur by the time you started college. Sipping whiskey and shot-gunning beers came naturally at eighteen, the taste of alcohol familiar on your tongue. Your parents had unknowingly prepared you for the constant tapped keg of college life. Your roommate was different. You went to one party together during your first year of school, her first alcohol-fueled get-together. The ground, damp from yesterday’s rain, gave a little below your boots. ‘Handles & Flannels’ seemed like a tacky theme, but it gave you a reason to wear the purple button-up buried in your closet. The barn was outfitted with twinkling Christmas lights, a haphazard DJ booth, and a black trash can filled to the brim with cherry red Jungle Punch. Frat parties made you nervous. You much preferred a Crown and Coke in your bathtub to the strange, sweating bodies surrounding you. Zoey stayed close to you all night as you navigated through the pulsing crowd to the liquor table. She poured herself twice as much as you did for yourself. She may have been new to this, but she sure didn’t drink like it. You had fifty pounds on her easy, not to mention the years of experience. An hour and a half later, you carried her out, her drunken tears warm on your shoulder, your own buzz long gone. After shutting her in the back seat of the Dually, you leaned against the grey truck door, some rap song thumping in the barn behind you. You shook your head. Some people really couldn’t control themselves.

*

     The oak table feels good, the wood cooling your blazing forehead. Today is Tuesday. It doesn’t matter. You can legally drink now, whenever you please. The bottle in front of you has enough for one more glass. Since you’ve switched to reds, you drink slower, but the lack of sweetness leaves your belly ready for more. The wine is still cheap though. Drinking a bottle a night requires smart budgeting. The room blurs when you stand to make your way to the sofa, and the dog runs under your foot. You fall against the wall, praying your boyfriend in the other room doesn’t hear the tell-tale clunk of a drunk. The leather couch feels good. Cold. You Google:

Is it normal to drink a bottle of wine a night?

How much to spend on alcohol a week?

Signs you’re an alcoholic

     Your mother calls. I’ve been drinking, she says. Sorry for the slurring, she says. You reassure her it’s okay. You have too. You ask your boyfriend too many questions. You always do when you’ve been drinking. He never drinks with you. Just don’t enjoy the taste, he says, and it truly baffles you. However, you’re okay with his lack of indulgence. He keeps you safe. Your personal designated driver. But you’ve heard that only alcoholics drink alone. It’s only 8:30 when you fall asleep on the couch, an empty bottle of wine on the end table, your work for tomorrow unfinished. You don’t worry. Your parents drink more than you do and they’re just fine. Tomorrow, you’ll buy a new bottle.

Kourtney Johnson is a first-year MFA candidate in Creative Nonfiction at Oklahoma State University. Her work has previously appeared in Frontier Mosaic and Burnt Pine Magazine. She is currently working on an essay collection about the death of her father. She loves black coffee, bad Star Wars memes, and her dogs, Hawk and Bella.