(something written based on the agenda for my Monday Writers’ Group, set in 1960 America)
The Demon Drink
Johnny pitched. The dirt-smudged ball curved out right, swung back, left Kirk Kennedy flailing at vacant air, and sought the warm comfort of the catcher’s tanned steerhide gloves.
Kirk stepped forward, half in anger to wave a threatening bat at Johnny and half in the momentum of missing his target.
‘Hell, Friedman, how’d you do that? You couldn’t underarm it straight like a girl last week!’
‘Guess I’m a fast learner.’
The batter trudged to the dugout, bat trailing a dusty furrow in the sun-baked soil of the college ballpark.
Johnny sat in his bedroom, staring out the window at the backyard his ma liked to call a garden. Behind him an array of faces smiled across the room: Pa’s posters of baseball icons Roger Maris, Dick Groat, Vern Law, Mickey Mantle. They fought for Johnny’s attention which all too often fell upon Nancy Sinatra and Natalie Wood who stared down at the bed with smiles making sliders and curveballs seem obsolete to most seventeen year olds.
Kirk had been right. Johnny couldn’t have pitched right to a Minor League rookie before it happened. Gee, he wouldn’t even have offered to pick up the ball and try. Baseball wasn’t his love, much to his pa’s disappointment. He preferred sitting in the black-lit movie theater idolising his idols and planning a career as a big buck Hollywood director.
Until Thursday last.
He’d clambered out through the washroom window at the end of the movie, The Unforgiven, his mind half split on avoiding old man Getty spotting him as a non-payer after he’d climbed in the same window earlier, and half replaying the images of Audrey Hepburn flashing across his teenage mind. Then as he landed his foot had slipped on a bottle.
Johnny had drawn back his sneaker to send the offending vessel high over the fence when a voice cracked the humid late August air.
‘Hey, cut that out. I got feelings you know. Bouncing against wood ain’t pleasant.’
Johnny had spun on one foot, lost balance, and backed against the cold brickwork of the theater.
He looked around, expecting to see Getty or his goofy assistant Larry Riggle, standing in a doorway, a half smoked Winston dangling from itchy fingers just waiting to grab his collar.
But no-one was there.
Or anywhere, as Johnny swivelled fast eyes glaring hard to accustomise themselves to the lighter darkness of the real world.
‘Come out, whoever you are.’
Johnny’s voice wavered, uncertain who or what he might be facing. A line from the movie came into his blood-pounding head.
‘Or dammit, I’ll kill you before I eat breakfast.’
‘Don’t make me laugh. It sounded cool when Cash Zachery said it, but you ain’t no Audie Murphy, Johnny Friedman.’
And not just because the voice had spoken his name.
A movement had caught his eye as ‘Audie Murphy’ was mentioned. From the bottle.
Heck, yeah, the bottle.
In the murky light coming from the washroom window he could have sworn the glass moved. Like lips parting and closing.
Gee whiz, what had been in that soda he’d drunk inside the movie theater?
‘You gonna stand there all night gawping at me? Or you taking me home?’
Johnny saw the lips moving on the bottle this time for sure.
‘A talking bottle? Someone slip LSD in my M&Ms? And why the hell would I take you home?’
‘Because, sonny, I can change your life.’
And that’s how it began. For some crazy reason Johnny picked up the bottle with its weird moving lips and scuttled off home.
Back in his room Johnny studied his find closer. It was strangely clean and unmarked considering it might have been lying in the dirt of the movie theater’s parking lot for days, even weeks. Embossed in the glass was a feint word. Johnny ran his fingers over the letters. Yeah, he murmured, it said ‘Demon’. He’d never heard of a beer named that, or seen an advert anywhere or heard his pa mention it, and his pa knew most beers in this town.
‘So, what can I do for you, Johnny Friedman? Wanna date a hot chick who’s outta of your league? Be the quarterback who throws the winning pass to win the college national fame? Name it, buster.’
Now, any sensible, sane person would have thrown the bottle away and put the whole episode down to watching too many horror movies or drinking too many root beers. But Johnny Friedman was at a low ebb. No luck with the girls, schoolwork getting beyond his understanding and a pa forever goading him over his lack of sporting success. What’d he have to lose?
‘Well gee, if I’m not tripping out on some moonshine mixed with one of them psycho-what’s-it drugs, then make me a star baseball player at my college.’
‘Seal the deal, sonny. Take a sip of me.’
Johnny noticed for the first time there was liquid sliding around inside the bottle. The top unscrewed easy. He sniffed. It smelt sweet. What harm could he come to?
The fluid slid down. As Johnny garbled away at how he wanted to be the next Whitey Ford, number one pitcher from New York last year, he could have sworn he saw more liquid in the bottle than before he swigged that mouthful. But he was away in Dreamland, making his pa’s chest burst with paternal pride.
Within the week Johnny was pitching untouchable balls to every college player after turning up unannounced at evening practice. Coaches looked on open-mouthed. Friedman had been dismissed the previous year as a no-hoper for the sports squads. Now he was rapidly promoted through the ranks to replace the golden-haired Dan Loomis whose throwing arm too often now wrapped itself around cheerleader Janice Mayfield. What Loomis didn’t realise was that one week later it would be Johnny’s hand which gripped Janice tight while still pitching unplayable knuckle curves.
Soon Johnny walked down college corridors being backslapped by every jock and nerd, and eyelash-fluttered by every girl so long as Janice wasn’t hanging off his arm. The teachers overlooked low grades, glowing in the college’s new found reputation, and predicted fame for Johnny on the baseball diamond and endorsements to rival a movie star’s.
But Johnny’s ma noticed something others missed, or were blinded to as her son was carried off shoulder-high after every victory.
‘You’re still eating proper, Johnny?’ You seem thinner.’
Johnny pushed away a half-eaten bowl of Frosty O’s.
‘Stop fussin’, Ma. I’m fine. Just all the sports I’m doing now.’
He got up from the table, tightened his belt a notch to stop his jeans slipping off his hips and slunk upstairs. He needed another sip from Demon, there was a big match that afternoon.
Johnny wiped his lips, placed the bottle on the floor and belched.
‘I been feeling kinda off today, Demon. Summat wrong with your drink?’
The lips smiled wide.
‘Nothing wrong with me, Johnny.’
‘But how come you’re nearly full. I been drinking from you for weeks now.’
‘Ah, well, you see, Johnny, I give you something, and you give me something back in return.’
‘Me? Give you what? A room to stay in, ‘stead of a trash can or being set up for young kids to take pot shots at with catapults?
‘No, you give me more, Johnny.’
‘You give me your soul.’
Johnny reached across towards the bottle but lurched to one side as his latest consummation of liquid took away more of his very self and his legs crumpled beneath him. As he hit the carpet the last thing he heard was the Demon laughing and that laugh being echoed by ten thousand thousand similar bottles across the States.
So, children everywhere, beware the demon drink…