Jess Walter: The Urban Outdoors

This is the kind of story I used to read in the Drama in Real Life section of my grandparents’ Readers Digest-one of those harrowing winter stories in which a group of intrepid adventurers treks out into the wilderness, only to have something go terribly wrong and leave them fighting for their lives.

This is what happened one harsh, unforgiving winter’s night several years ago, when I came face-to-face with death. Well, not death exactly, but a really painful case of hiccups.
I was on a bar-crawl.

For the urban outdoorsman, there’s nothing as thrilling-or dangerous-as a winter bar-crawl. First, it involves what some might consider the “questionable wisdom” of binge drinking. And it’s cold.
Our method was to choose a street (say, North Monroe) and then go on foot into every bar on that street and have at least one drink in each place. There were only two other rules: 1. No drink may be repeated. 2. Okay, there was only one rule.

The crawl ended when one person in the party either (a) couldn’t drink anymore or (b) couldn’t walk anymore. It often ended with a team member doubled over and the other team members giving him a respectable distance so as not to get vomit on their shoes.

In harrowing outdoor adventure stories like this, the group always makes some small decision that mushrooms into a tragic error and spells their doom. Maybe they don’t factor in bad weather, or they don’t pack enough food, or they ignore the “Bear Feeding Ground” signs and slather each other with turkey gravy before climbing into beef jerky sleeping bags.
It was like that for us. We made the classic mistake of deciding it would be funny to also eat something different in every bar. We sampled the worst in bar cuisine, not just Buffalo wings, but pork rinds and pickled eggs. We were approaching the eighth bar when I gasped in some cold air and got an epic case of hiccups.

I had never lost a bar crawl but my stomach was churning. There was no way I was going to make it. We staggered into a bar and ordered booze and food. I got curly fries. My brother ordered a corn dog. I watched over my brother’s shoulder as the bartender opened the freezer. He felt around for the box of corn dogs, couldn’t find it and was about to tell us they were out when he saw something in the corner of the freezer and stood up holding a single, shriveled freezer-burned corn dog-not in any kind of box or wrapper. I watched as he stared at this abomination for a few seconds, then shrugged and dropped it in the deep fryer.

I knew I should say something, but I was crazy with booze and hiccups. As often happens in survival situations, it became every drunk for himself. I watched as the corn dog was delivered to our table, looking like something that had fallen off a cadaver.

That’s when I realized I couldn’t do this to my own brother. I opened my mouth to warn him. “Hic.”

“Ha ha!” my brother said. “Him’s got the hiccups!”

I closed my mouth. To this day, I am haunted by my decision. Until I remember my brother doubled over on the sidewalk. And then I laugh really hard.

Jess Walter’s new novel, The Zero, is available in bookstores

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