Joseph S. Pete

Creative nonfiction

Double-Time to Nowhere


The lanky, bearded guy overheard me talking about the Moulin Rouge film as we clambered down the stairs out of the dormitory cafeteria. I don’t remember what I was saying, but I’m sure it was banal. At the time I was a young man who assembled precious tidbits of information like a wine-swilling turtlenecked art collector or a lepidopterist with airless cases of pinned butterflies but didn’t know what to do with them or how to contextualize the sterile data points more broadly. I lacked real knowledge and insight but possessed a well-curated nest of glinting cultural baubles.


Anyway, I was going on and on about Moulin Rouge, and he swiveled around to interject some point or other, and then his eyes swelled wide with recognition. He knew me. From that time, it turned out, that I was incapacitating drunk lying on the curb on the edge of campus, by fraternity row. He had helped me up, hoisted me onto his shoulder and dragged me back to safety on the damp, close-cut lawn.


Nothing. A complete blank. I remembered nothing of the incident. A car could have crushed me like a wrinkled blueberry fallen onto the kitchen floor, but I didn’t remember my near-brush with death until he brought it up out of nowhere. I had been sloppy, blackout drunk, just stewing in the sauce.


Back in my dorm room a few months earlier, with my nerdy Cuban roommate from Miami or somewhere adjacent, we were trying to pull off a college party, or our blinkered idea of one anyway, even though we were stationed in one of the lamest dormitories, which I picked because it was right across from the Herman B. Wells Library that I habituated almost every night. The urban legend was that the university's main library was sinking slowly because the architects failed to account for the weight of the books. That turned out to be canard promulgated at campuses across the country, as I found out after I went to do professional journalism training in a conference center at Northern Illinois University campus more than a decade later. Long story truncated, we weren't the bro-dude rager types.


Our party was not co-ed. It was just a few random guys from the dorm hall consuming whatever contraband booze we could scrounge as college freshmen instead of holing up in our rooms, playing first-person shooter video games and immersing ourselves in library books or the artsiest films we could find.


During our sad approximation of festivities, I filled a white porcelain coffee mug with vodka, pouring heavy-handedly at first and then measuring it out carefully to the brim, not realizing how potent the fermented potato juice truly was, having just graduated from high school a few months earlier. I tried to drink the liquor down quickly, and it wasn’t long before it hit it full force.


My head swam, churning violently. I attempted to lie down, but the ceiling whirled around in kaleidoscopic circles. I had to escape, get some fresh air, walk it off. I went out for a head-clearing stroll and ended up lying insensately in the gutter.


I laid alone in the street, oblivious to my surroundings. I could have died if a passing Good Samaritan hadn't scooped me up and hauled me out of harm's way. Some bacchanal it turned out to be.


And yet, the drinking in college paled in comparison to the drinking in the Army, where I ended up after 9/11, not because of the booze but because I spent all my time at Indiana University at the student newspaper, college radio station, and yearbook, seldom bothering to attend class. I was a workaholic who feared I'd never land a job in the cataclysmically contracting media industry if I didn't amass the best clips, the most impressive bylines, the glinting, shimmering hardware of a few lustrous awards. I just wanted to get paid to write and knew editors would care far more about my bona fides than that I got a B- in sophomore film studies class.


The Army was filled with hardcore drinkers, the grizzled, uncaring type who'd buy a few cases at the Class 6 on Friday and lock themselves in their barracks room for the weekend. They’d get trashed, pass out, show up late or violently queasy to Monday morning formation. Weekends and even weeknights were times reserved for video game marathons and drinking, heavy binge drinking in which the empties piled up mountainously.


Francis O’Hara, a platoon mate who was one of my closest friends, could really put the beers away despite his small stature. He stood no more than 5-foot-3, yet was completely larger than life.


His drunkenness in fact once got him kicked out of the entire city of Seattle, making him a legend in our unit. We had gone to a concert at Neumo’s in the hipster Capitol Hill neighborhood. He left the show early and then didn’t answer his phone, leaving us, his only ride back to post, oblivious to his whereabouts. In the Army, you don't leave anyone behind.


So we, his platoon mates, split up and canvassed the neighborhood, poking our heads in various bars, coffee shops or organic groceries proffering wheatgrass shots that were still open late. Eventually, we found him on the sidewalk, arguing with a well-tatted bartender with spiky short hair and a withering scowl. He had kicked over her prized Vespa.


Suddenly, a swarm of cops appeared out of nowhere, which seemed both shocking and inevitable. They approached slowly and quickly surrounded us, leaving no means of exit.


Sozio and I pleaded, presenting ourselves as piteously as possible. We were about to deploy to Iraq, and we needed him to watch our backs over there. We couldn't go short-handed. We’d take care of him, get him safely back to the post in a half hour. We were sober. He got away from us a little earlier in the evening, but we had been trying to rectify that and could handle it from here.


A bald African-American cop, who seemed young and sleek and sexy enough to star in a prime-time network medical drama, stepped forward and took charge. He might not have even been the ranking officer on the scene, but had recently completed his enlistment at Fort Lewis and just started on the force, so he could relate to our plight. Empathy, there's something to be said for that.


“Get him out of here,” the cop said. “You know what, he’s banned from the entire city of Seattle for the weekend. If we see him anywhere within city limits, we’ll arrest him on site.”


“I’m banned!” O’Hara trumpeted. I’m banned from Seattle. Life accomplishment unlocked.”


“You’re just going to let him off, just like that,” the Vespa-owning bartender spouted, incredulously.


“Get him the hell out of here, and we better not see him again. Not this weekend.”


We ferried O'Hara back to the post about 40 miles south, incredulous at our good fortune. We had expected to stand fearfully at parade rest in civvies back at the barracks, getting chewed out by a frothing sergeant with veins pulsing in his neck. Instead, we were reporting back to base as though nothing happened that night. O'Hara rambled excitedly at first about his stumbling adventures around Seattle but passed out about halfway home.


It was just one of many mishaps with alcohol in our platoon. Stephens got Article 15-ed and busted down in rank after holing up in his barracks room for the weekend, polishing off a few cases and missing Monday's morning PT formation. We had to hunt for Tater in neighboring woods because he was barred from drinking for disciplinary reasons and decamped into a mossy Pacific Northwest forest where he could continue to nurse a bottle of George Dickel whiskey, as he did back home in rural Tennessee.


O’Hara was always getting drunk. I thought nothing of it since it was an ingrained part of the culture. We had been to war after all and that was how many self-medicated. You wanted to blot out what you saw over there.


I didn’t realize the depth of his problem until many years later. We both left the Army after our first enlisted. I returned home to Indiana, finished college and started a newspaper job. O’Hara returned to Connecticut, started working for his dad’s snowplow company and got hooked on smack.


He got a little reprieve because he got called back into military service through stop-loss, a fate I feared through my sweaty pores and hyperactive glands. He got redeployed while I tried to get my life back on a more conventional track.


O'Hara called me after he got out of jail while I was basking in the sun's warmth by my apartment complex’s rippling pool. He conveyed a convoluted tale about how he was ordered to dump dirty snow out by the coastline, which he didn’t know was banned by the city of New Haven and that they ended up arresting him because he had a prior for possession and had been holding at the time.


He spent 30 days in jail and now wanted me to write his story down. Everyone in my platoon knew I, a bookish nerd to the core, aspired to be a writer. I often talked about writing a memoir “Double-Time to Nowhere,” the title of which was inspired by Robert Graves’s hauntingly melancholically titled “Good-Bye to All That,” which lingered with me long before I ever took up arms for my country in a futile, irrelevant war. I still haven’t written the damn book I said I would, but O’Hara was convinced I was a great writer who could immortalize his drug-fueled exploits. Every exploit he described over the phone with his well-woven words seemed aimed to shock and appall.


He was shooting up heroin, diving into rough parts of town in order to procure the heroin, trying to hide his intractable habit from anyone who was dumb enough to love him while I was swimming laps thirstily trying to impress women with my still-toned physique. Honestly, I didn’t much care for his Trainspotting-like escapades through seedy squalor. It seemed like such a distant world. After drying off with a towel, I lounged around on deck chairs, burnt out from long days of chasing news stories about goings-on in the community that fewer and fewer geriatrics paid to read, making stable employment in the media a perilous high-wire walk that just added to the stress of a Herculean workload.


Still, we talked for hours every day and made plans for us to reunite along with our friend Sozio during a trip to New York City, since the three of us had been an inseparable trio of battle buddies in the Army and in Iraq. I didn’t quite buy O'Hara's assertion that he deserved a biography but listened to whatever he had to say.


Until he died.


O’Hara overdosed, a few years before heroin and opiates became a national affliction that inspired alarmist national media dispatches from the heartland and viral images of overdosed parents handing out of car windows while their scraggly, sorrowful kids watched on from the backseat, before overdose deaths grew sixteen-fold over the last decade and became the leading cause of death for adults under 50, according to the Centers for Disease Control, before the opioid crisis was labeled a public health emergency. He wasn’t the first in the platoon to suddenly die after coming home--another platoon mate fatally crashed his motorcycle not long after he returned from Iraq, where he had survived the deadliest battle since Vietnam in Fallujah. An estimated 22 veterans commit suicide every day, according to a 2016 study by the Department of Veterans Affairs, and far more engaged in self-destructive behaviors like O'Hara did.


He was dead, and he wasn’t coming back. It was difficult to process. I tried to leave a moving eulogy on his online obituary page, since I wasn’t able to get out to Connecticut for his funeral, couldn't really afford it on my entry-level reporter's salary anyway. But it wasn’t enough. I had done what soldiers were never supposed to do: I left a man behind, I left a man on the battlefield.


We were supposed to meet up in New York City and never did. I could have at least indulged him for longer each night on the phone. I could have typed down notes, written up some of his anecdotes. I had no delusions I would have been able to save him, pry him from the grip of his terminal, spiraling addition. No matter how close-knit our previous history, I was hundreds of miles away and completely divorced from his day-to-day life. I was a ghost to him, a specter from his past. But he wouldn't have kept calling me if I didn't offer him a glint of hope, something to latch onto. I could have been there more for him, offered him more care and concern, at least given him more emotional succor during his final days. Every needle-full of junk he injected was a Russian Roulette, I knew that and he probably knew that as well. But like so many others, he couldn't stop himself.


To hell with William S. Burroughs, Jim Carroll or so many of my other youthful idols, there's nothing romantic about junkies, nothing at all.

Shortly after learning the dreadful, heart-wrenching news, I wandered down to the neighborhood dive bar and drank until my head swam. I popped in a liquor store across the street and grabbed some cheap Hamm’s, hoping I could drown my failure after enough empty cans. But no matter how much the trash bag sags under clinking beer bottles and crunching cans as you ferry them out to the dumpster, no matter how much oblivion cascades over you, you can never wash away the acrid bitterness of guilt and your own pitiful, gaping inadequacy at a time when it really counted.

Joseph S. Pete is an award-winning journalist, an Iraq War veteran, an Indiana University graduate, a book reviewer, a photographer, and a frequent guest on Lakeshore Public Radio. He is a 2017 Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominee who has read his work for the Fictitious series on the iO Theater stage and who was named the poet laureate of Chicago BaconFest, a feat that Geoffrey Chaucer chump never accomplished. His literary or photographic work has appeared in more than 100 journals, including The Tipton Poetry Journal, Chicago Literati, Dogzplot, Proximity Magazine, Stoneboat, The High Window, Synesthesia Literary Journal, Steep Street Journal, Beautiful Losers, New Pop Lit, The Grief Diaries, Gravel, The Offbeat, Oddball Magazine, The Perch Magazine, Bull Men's Fiction, Rising Phoenix Review, Thoughtful Dog, shufPoetry, The Roaring Muse, Prairie Winds, Blue Collar Review, The Rat's Ass Review, Euphemism, Jenny Magazine, Vending Machine Press and elsewhere. He once learned the ancient secret to writing a good bio, but promptly forgot it.