Image by Tak Toyoshima
IT WAS A TYPICAL WORCESTER night, right before Halloween, when the leaves had mostly fallen, and wood burned in fireplaces, and chilly raindrops soaked our backyards. Charlie sat there dribbling Kodiak Ice Mint into an empty Bud bottle. Blackbird—who still lived with his mother and who had promised to quit dipping after sloshing his can of tobacco spittle on her Ulster linen tablecloth—sat next to Charlie, sniffing the minty air like a salivating dog. I was on the other side of Blackbird. A typical Worcester night.
Blackbird, Charlie and me were two drinks in before one of us asked: What would you do with ten minutes left to live?
Blackbird shrugged his thin shoulders. “Beats me,” he said, staring into Charlie’s dip bottle. “Get plastered?”
I said I’d call home and talk to Annie.
“Bullshit,” Charlie said. “You’d call your six year-old daughter and tell her you’re about to die? ‘Hi honey, brush your teeth and say your prayers. Daddy’s not coming home.’”
Blackbird shook his head at me, confirming how right Charlie was, and how wrong I was, with a grin.
“Fuck you,” I said to Charlie. “What would you do?”
“If I had ten minutes to live?” Charlie said. Blackbird and I nodded. We knew something was coming.
Charlie smashed a twenty on the bar and ordered a fresh round of beers with bourbon chasers. He scooped the wad of tobacco from his lower lip and tamped it down the throat of an empty longneck. His eyes roamed around the bar, packed that night with the usual crowd: old guys from the Main South Legion Post, girls from the local college. They had either come from, or were headed to, a Halloween party, one of them in a short skirt with cat ears and a tail; another dressed as some kind of super hero; another dressed up like a mermaid with sparkling green tights, cardboard seashells pinned to a bikini top and a long blonde wig.
“If you’ve only got ten minutes to live, and you know it,” Charlie said, speaking louder, exaggerating his voice as if he were on stage, “then the answer’s simple.”
He stepped toward the college girls and tapped the super hero on her shoulder. Curly dark hair spiraled down her back and she turned, blue eyes flashing. Charlie leaned in and whispered something. She smiled, pulled her hair back, then shook her head and turned away. But Charlie threw his hand back up on her shoulder and twirled her around, almost like he was dancing with her. Beer sloshed onto her leotard.
“Get your fuckin’ hands off me,” she said. But she didn’t slap him or toss the rest of her beer in his face. She just stood there, with one hand on her hip, a silver-dollar beer stain above her right breast, waiting to see what Charlie would do next. Her stunned friends watched in silence.
“We’re constructing a theory,” Charlie said, smiling and shouting over the noise of the bar and the icy looks of that girl and her friends. A few people turned their heads. “If you’ve only got ten minutes to live, and you know it, what do you do? I say, you find the hottest woman around,” He paused, looking at her for emphasis, “and convince her to take one last romp in the proverbial hay.”
It must have been the way he said hottest woman or proverbial hay because two minutes later, that college girl and her friends were drinking with us.
It didn’t take much to get the crowd going that night. The Sox had just won their second World Series in three years, the Patriots were undefeated, and two weeks before, Blackbird had won a thousand bucks on a scratcher. He was finally taking his mother down to Tampa for Thanksgiving. Sitting around the bar, shooting back beer and bourbon, none of us thought about things going bad.
Charlie said it would be easy to convince someone to have sex while the clock ticked down. He said everyone secretly wanted to, and it was only courtesy that held us back. He said that he could prove it.
“When faced with the certainty of death,” he said, “all that shit flies right out the window. Trust me on this.”
He kept drinking, getting louder, and started theorizing about the different ways it could happen, how death could come but leave you ten minutes warning. You needed to have ten minutes too, not nine, not eleven. Eleven minutes left too much time to think; nine was not enough time to get-off.
One of the first scenarios, the one I came up with, was of a giant asteroid barreling toward earth.
“The entire planet would be one big Roman orgy,” Blackbird said, and everyone laughed.
“You’re nuts,” I said. “People aren’t that shallow.”
“You have no idea what you’re talking about,” Charlie said. “Shallow’s got nothing to do with it.”
Then Charlie was really on a tear. He spoke of sinking ships, of floods, sinkholes, tidal waves, apartment fires, hurricanes, hostage scenarios and plagues, even suicidal stuff too, like popping a bottle of Ambien and chasing it with a fifth of Jack.
“With just the right amount of pills and booze you can leave yourself ten minutes,” he said. “Of course there’s a problem with that one.” He hung a limp finger from his waist and appeared deeply concerned.
Blackbird and I laughed. The mermaid and the girl in the cat costume laughed. Everyone laughed. Charlie stood there grinning, like he was Christ himself come down from the cross, and Blackbird and I were just those other two mopes crucified next to him.
The super hero kept touching his forearm. One of her friends, in a short jean skirt with cowboy boots and a stetson smiled at me and said “Hey, I’m …,” but I didn’t catch her name. I thought she said Wind or Wand. She twisted red fingernails through long, blonde hair and fiddled with the plastic gun in the fake holster slung low on her waist. Her skin was so pale it seemed almost translucent, but her cheeks and neck were flushed, as if she’d been outside in a snowstorm. I felt sixteen again. And everyone around us seemed to feel that way too. The bar just buzzed. We all listened to Charlie, fueled by booze, music and the sound of clanging bottles. It was one of those nights, a good night, amidst a whole series of shitty ones before and after. Everything about it felt scripted but spontaneous too, like when your friend wins the lottery and afterwards you think of all the little decisions he made that could’ve changed the outcome. How he could’ve taken a left on Salisbury Street instead of right, and gone up Park Ave, hitting all those red lights, and then how he would’ve walked into Cumberland Farms four minutes later and some cashier from the Big Y would’ve already bought that winning scratch ticket instead of him, and how she would’ve spent the money on a flat screen TV, and how he wouldn’t have taken his mother on that ill-fated trip to Tampa. That night—with those girls, with our theory grabbing all that attention, with the smell of fireplaces and kids getting ready for Halloween, with Caroline still at home, tucking Annie into bed—it kind of felt like winning the lottery.
People shouted out questions.
“Would you have sex with a dude if there were no chicks?” Blackbird yelled.
“Fuck you, you prick,” Charlie said. Then he added, “If there was no one else?”
“Would you screw an old lady?”
“Walker or wheelchair?” Charlie replied.
“An old man? A dog?”
“First, you make contingencies,” Charlie said. “Backups. You make a list, and you don’t get hung up on things like looks, gender or species.”
Charlie was quick as lightning. The girl with wintry skin and red fingernails, Wind or Wand, kept getting closer to me, so close I could smell apple shampoo in her blonde hair. And there was good music playing. Charlie kept saying he was going tell us a story that would illustrate his point. But I knew all of Charlie’s stories, all of Blackbird’s too. I thought he was just showing off. He started talking about how he makes a list as soon as he enters a place, about how proximity matters, about how quickly you’d lower your standards. And none of us were trying hard either, that was the best part. It was so easy, so fun. Springsteen boomed from the speakers, and the girls started singing, “I prove it all night.” Blackbird and Charlie and me, we were chatting with those girls like they were the only people in the world that mattered, like we were living out the last ten minutes of our lives.
Over and over they shouted: “I prove it all night, prove it all night,” along with the chorus, which would get Charlie saying he could prove his theory. We were hitting on them a little, but it was safe and easy. We loved it and they loved it. When the song ended, we clapped and clanged our bottles again and the girls bowed. Charlie, me, and Blackbird, we weren’t trying to bag any of them. We didn’t need to.
“So? Prove your theory,” one of the girls shouted.
But instead, Charlie started to talk about airplane crashes, and I’m not exaggerating, people leaned in and watched as he scribbled out figures on a bar napkin, calculating that if a plane started to freefall from thirty-thousand feet, it would take precisely ten minutes for it to smash into the ground. He was explaining about the math and about the speed of gravity. I hadn’t laughed that hard in a long time. I didn’t know that the Pats were going to blow the greatest season in all of sports and be accused of cheating. I didn’t know that Caroline was cheating on me with a guy who drove a Pepsi truck. I didn’t know that Blackbird was sitting there with the angel of death on his shoulder. All I knew was that Charlie at the plate, and he was knocking ‘em out of the park.
“Tell us the fucking story!” I finally said. I didn’t think he had an actual story to tell.
Charlie grabbed my shoulder and squeezed. Then he smacked Blackbird on the arm, reached for his beer, raised his hands above his head, and told every one to listen.
“Five years ago, I’m on a plane,” Charlie said. “We’re out over the Midwest somewhere, Chicago or St. Louis, and the pilot comes on and tells everybody to buckle up. Thunderstorms ahead. You could see lightning flashes. Then the whole thing goes in the crapper. The plane drops like a stone. Lights start blinking and bags are flying all over the seats.”
Blackbird was resting his elbow on the bar. He loved Charlie, I suppose. He admired him. Hell, so did I. How could you not? We all basked in the warm glow of Charlie.
“It’s bad turbulence. I’m mean really bad. Toss-your-cookies, shit-your-pants, and say-a-rosary bad. People are shouting, babies are crying. I’m in the aisle, with an empty seat next to me, and in 12A is this hot chick. And she’s looking at me, and she’s terrified.” Charlie lifted a longneck and smiled. “And out of nowhere, I get a boner.”
The whole bar roared then, even if people couldn’t hear the story itself, laughter had taken over. We were all sitting there, imagining Charlie on a crashing plane with a hard-on.
“I look over at 12A and she sees it,” Charlie said. “She looks down at my lap and then looks up at me, and I’m dying. I’m ready to crawl inside in my seat. But then she reaches for it. She doesn’t say a word. She just starts stroking it over my pants.”
Blackbird almost spit out his beer. “You’re so full of shit it’s coming out your ears,” he said.
Charlie swore up and down that it was gospel. You couldn’t even hear him anymore because people were laughing so much.
“What the hell did you do?” I asked.
But rather than answer, Charlie suddenly stopped talking. A blank look crossed his face. All of us around him were hanging on his every word, waiting to hear what happened next, but his story stopped cold. Charlie sat on that bar stool, staring into space, for what seemed like eternity. It was probably only ten or fifteen seconds, but it felt like minutes passed in weird silence. And we didn’t say anything either. We were all frozen in place. I swear the music even stopped.
I kept staring at him, waiting for him to speak, and Blackbird did too, and all those girls, all of us were wondering what the hell was going on.
When he finally snapped out of it, he chuckled, but it was a nervous laugh, as if he were a stand-up comic who tanked a joke, but still had fifteen minutes left on stage.
“So I was getting into it,” Charlie said. “But the plane leveled out, and the bouncing stopped, and the pilot came back on and apologized and everyone clapped. Twelve-A yanked her hand away and stared out the window at the lightning flashes. A moment later, she excused herself and changed seats.” He took a long pull from his beer.
People laughed a bit more as the story ended, but moved away rather quickly. Everyone went back to their corners. The college girls stayed a little longer, but eventually they smiled and said they had to go to their party. Wind or Wand winked at me as she walked away.
A few minutes later, it was just the three of us again at the bar, me and Charlie and Blackbird. I wanted another round of drinks, but Charlie waved his hand at the bartender.
“I really thought we were goners,” he said. We settled up and Charlie drove us back to Blackbird’s house.
That October night was the last time the three of us were together. Twenty days later, Blackbird and fourteen other people, including his mother, went down with their commuter plane in a blizzard.
Blackbird’s sister stands to make a lot of money from the airline. Losing a brother and mother on the same flight looks like a solid seven figures. Good for her, I say.
Caroline blames me for the affair. She told me I didn’t pay enough attention to her, that I spent too much time hanging out with my friends. She said it was my fault that she started meeting the Pepsi guy at the Route-9 Motel, dropping Annie off with her parents before dropping her pants. We went round and round over furniture, finances, and blame, but in the end, she won, almost all of it. Except for Annie. The judge awarded me half-custody.
The Asteroid Theory has become a tragic joke to everyone down at Crowley’s, to the ones who were there that night and to the ones that weren’t, like one of those fish stories where a guy snags a six inch perch but sticks the hook into his wrist and he needs a few stitches. After a while, that perch is a shark, and that hook is the shark’s teeth, and those stitches are the reason the guy walks with a limp. Stories can grow and grow.
People talk about how Charlie had a premonition that night. Blackbird’s plane split apart in mid-air and everybody suddenly believes Charlie’s a fortune teller. People who barely knew Blackbird ask Charlie to speculate about what might’ve happened on that plane. Did Blackbird, with his mother sitting right next to him, find a willing partner as his turboprop corkscrewed down? And Charlie never fails to play along. I guess everyone deals with grief in different ways.
I don’t go to Crowley’s much anymore. I can’t watch Charlie, grinning on his barstool like he’s an oracle. In different ways, I lost my two best friends, but I gained something too. On that rainy, fall night, I glimpsed the way life could be, when everything breaks just right.
After the bar, when we got back to Blackbird’s house, we sat together in the dimly lit kitchen, Blackbird, me, and Charlie, a silver crucifix floating above the door, faint odors of spent candles mixing with old-cupboard mustiness, and everything felt holy, like midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. Tacked up on their fridge was a packing list from Blackbird’s mother. The word “beer” was scrawled on the bottom of the list in huge letters, but then scratched through with a red pen and two large exclamation points. She hadn’t been on a vacation in twenty years.
I wanted to ask Charlie if his story was true. I wanted to ask him about why he’d stopped talking at the bar, in the middle of all that laughter. Maybe he knew that it wasn’t a laughing matter. I wanted to ask him, but I didn’t. Instead we sat there together in silence, three friends drinking the evening’s final beer.
Rich Farrell hopes to one day overwinter in Antarctica with a big stack of books and several cases of wine. Until then, more of his writing can be found at Contrary, Descant, Hunger Mountain, Numéro Cinq, and various other journals.