back to the Black Table

Nobody ever believes this story, so maybe if I put it in print, people will no longer doubt me.

I am always envious of people who didn’t go straight from college graduation to the working world. In retrospect, it really seems like I should have taken some time off. It seems like most people took the summer after graduation to enjoy themselves, travel, recharge their batteries for the tough, infinite struggle ahead. Some people went to Norway. Some people stayed at their college apartment and drank for three months. Some people spent some final time with their parents. The transition from the collegiate world to the capitalist one is a jarring one, and I figure I should have prepared myself more.

My mistake was listening to my father, who pounded it into my skull that I needed a job as soon as possible. He was right, of course; he’d paid for college and was no hurry to see the return on his investment loafing on the couch watching soap operas, particularly when that investment had just asked a woman to marry him. It left me believing I was more ready for the adult world than I was, so when I was offered a job, with a magazine in Los Angeles, I gleefully snatched it up, even though my first day was less than a week after graduation. When everyone was wearing their caps and gowns, discussing their relaxing getaways, I was making travel plans and loading possessions in moving vans.

My father and I were going to drive to Los Angeles (the ex-fiancee was to come out a month later; she ultimately arrived changed, to say the least), so I had just one more day in Champaign before it was time to go. We had this friend named Scott who lived off-campus, in Urbana, and his apartment was the place where we could indulge ourselves without fear of any possible appropriation. The whole gang was there, my newspaper crew, the ex-fiancee, random stragglers. For some reason, it didn’t resonate with us that it would be the last time we’d all be together. We should have known it would be, but, like all self-respecting college students, we didn’t look past the instant for any perspective on much whatsoever.

Instead, we concentrated on the trifecta: Alcohol, nitrous and bong hits. Pot had always made me paranoid, and nitrous cartridges, all the rage in Urbana, struck me as too infantile to justify the admittedly powerful but brief high. (Nitrous gets you high by destroying a ridiculously high number of brain cells in a compact amount of time; this always seemed vulgar to me, barely a step above banging your head repeatedly against the wall until you found God.) So, as usual, I drank and drank; I believe we’d bought a couple boxes of wine and were toasting our sophistication.

There were five of us outside, smoking cigarettes and posing for pictures, an act that, typically, I was insistent upon. Mike, Joan, the ex-fiancee, MDS and myself. MDS had an advantage over us; he was merely a sophomore and had plenty more ludicrousness on his schedule. Our foursome was on our way out the door, so he took most of our pictures. We drank some more, and then chuckled at our friend Dave, who had taken so many tequila shots he was lying in the sidewalk apparently wetting himself. Friends like Dave are nice to have.

It was a cool May evening, requiring most of us to wear light jackets, and we spent most of it on the front lawn (Scott had never let us smoke in the apartment, which made no sense, considering he seemed to have a hookah welded to his coffee table). For some reason, I was wearing a tie. About eight glasses of Franzia in, I walked to the sidewalk, stepped over Dave and looked up at the sky. It was clear, and stars stretched infinite. I wonder if the sky will look like this in Los Angeles, I found myself thinking. I brought my head back down and, at eye level, as if dropped from those stars, I noticed something you’d think I wouldn’t have been able to have missed. I looked at it, touched it, kicked it, even slapped myself to make certain it was real. There was no way it could be real.

I turned around. MDS was standing behind me. "Holy shit," he said. "What the hell?"

Parked before us, like some freshman had just pulled in and left it there before heading to a goth party across the street, was a 10-foot long, eight-feet high, camoflauged, with a camper and everything ... military Humvee.

This was serious government issue. Jaws dropped, MDS and I walked to the drivers’ side door and peeked in. It appeared to have been left there by someone rushing into battle. There were fatigues folded neatly in the front seat. A helmet sat to their side, along with some goggles. It was enormous, the size of three Toyota Camrys. The door was about as sturdy as a porch’s screen; we could have poked a hole in it and unlocked the door easily. Jokingly, I pulled on the handle. It opened.

I looked at MDS. "Let’s get in."

We crawled in and looked around. The hatchback, presumably to carry soldiers into the shit, was also open, and we saw mysterious and frightening leather cases with contents too intimidating to consider. The Humvee was in gear but still had its emergency brake set. We sat there, grinning like morons, until we noticed the key. It had a rabbit’s foot on its key chain. "No way. Couldn’t be." Next to the keyhole was a button with the word "Start" printed on it. I began to wonder if someone had slipped LSD into my beer.

Naturally, I pressed the button. The engine, cranky, rusty, out-of-practice, whirred to life. The entire vehicle began to shake, violently at first, then settling. We just sat there, silently, too scared to think. I then looked at MDS. Something about him, his madman hair, his wizened ripe genius, his Neal Cassady-in-Journ-350 demeanor, something made me realize I was with the right guy.

"Hey, MDS ... whaddya say we take this for a spin?"

And we did. We drove it exactly one square block, a right turn, another right turn, and then another. We parked it right back where it was, turned the key to the left, exiting the vehicle and sprinted inside and started turning off lights. We stayed up most of the night, drinking, checking the patio to make sure we hadn’t imagined it. When we all woke up in the morning, the Humvee was gone. The next day, I left for Los Angeles. MDS is now married and living in Long Beach, Calif. I now have a corporate credit card, a 401k plan and a bad back.

OK, I’m not sure we really drove it or not. It was a long time ago, and we were pretty drunk. I think we did. Who can remember anymore? But it was definitely there. I couldn’t have dreamt that.



Life as a Loser runs every week. Join the Life as a Loser discussion group at: