The Percentage Game

By Gerald Withers

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The ABV of a bottle of Luxco Everclear is 75.5%. It sounds like a lot, sure. It sounds like a lot more when you’re on your fourth cup of it. You’re drinking this stuff, with its 75.5% ABV, because maybe you just broke up with your girlfriend. That vicious one, the one named after a beer (good luck trying to order a Miller Lite after that). Or maybe, you just got your first failing grade in college, and you don’t know how it happened. You were sure—let’s say, 75.5% sure—that you would pass. You rarely felt like going to class, but you did all the online assignments, and you were there for every test at least. But you failed. Or maybe, it’s the day after your roommates moved out, and you have only a few weeks to find a new place to live. You’re all alone, alone with the bottle of Everclear, a leftover from the party you were at the night before. It’s 75.5% empty, but there’s enough in there for just you—no roommates, no girlfriend. Just you. The liquor makes you feel better up to a certain point. Then worse. You wake up the next day feeling like there’s sludge in the gears, a headache you brought on yourself for once. You glance around the $800-a-month apartment, which is empty, save for you. You put the pillow over your head. You’re 75.5% sure that you can’t do this.

Booker’s Bourbon is upscale. It’s $65, and 65% ABV. You buy it to commemorate moving in with your best friend. The apartment is farther away from school than the last one, all the way across town. It’s also more expensive than the last place you were living, and Tyler isn’t the best with money. But neither are you—you just bought a $65 bottle of bourbon. It’ll be alright, you tell yourself. It’s more expensive, sure, but you have a better job now, and Tyler makes more money than your last roommates combined. He’ll be good for the money. You’re farther from school, yeah, but maybe a change of scenery will help you focus better. It won’t affect your grades. You’re 65% sure these concerns are nothing to worry about, so you shrug them off and unlock the door to your new apartment. It’s empty, except for the TV you moved in first thing. You place the bourbon and the solo cups on the floor, sit down next to them, and lean against the back wall. Tyler puts a movie in the Playstation as you pour a couple shots. He sits next to you, grabs his shot, and the two of you toast to things to come. Anchorman 2 lights up the dark living room, and the bourbon warms your chest as the two of you keep drinking and laughing. You’re 65% sure things couldn’t be better.

There are a lot of 100 proof (50% ABV) vodkas out there. You’re unsure of what kind is in your drink as you sip your Moscow Mule. You don’t care for vodka, and you don’t care for 50%–make it a higher percentage so it knocks you around a bit more, or make it lower so that it tastes better. 50% is just unpleasant. Tyler is across the table from you, yammering to Nathaniel and Anthony about his upcoming decision. He’s had more than you, so he’s in that talkative state he gets in after drinking too much. His says it’s about 50/50. He’s got a lot of thinking to do. He knows it’s a big choice. He doesn’t want to leave Rock Hill. But he’s always wanted to join the Air Force. He doesn’t want to give up on the band. But he doesn’t feel like he’s going anywhere in life. He’s already talked to the recruiter. Things are moving quickly, he says. A 50/50 shot sounds generous to you. You know how Tyler is. You know when his mind is made up. He may not be around for the last couple months of the lease, he admits. “Unless we get signed by a label,” he says with a laugh. You smile. “I’d give it a 50/50 shot,” you joke.

Kraken Rum is 47% ABV. You can’t stand the taste of it anymore, but it was one of the first things you and Tyler ever drank together. You were older, and you had a beard, so it wasn’t hard to get once you hit 19. It didn’t always work—in fact, it worked probably a little less than half the time, maybe 47% of the time—but that was often enough to keep you and Tyler happy. You had to know the right liquor stores to try, and Tyler would keep the car running in case somebody said they were going to call the cops. Nobody did, so far as you guys knew, and you’d usually walk out with a bottle, anyways. Once you started college, you’d get a handle of Kraken for every party you threw. It was a staple. This was back in the first place you lived, the one next to campus. Back when Zac and Tyler would get drunk and crash on the couch three or four days a week. You see Zac 47% as often now. And Tyler is leaving. So your friends are throwing an “old school” party to send him off. With Kraken. You bought a bottle, unaware that at least two other people had already done the same. Tyler’s leaving. The night goes by quickly, even though nothing particularly fun happens. Somebody made a playlist of songs, songs that you all used to listen to, songs that you wrote together. It’s all background noise to you. You take shots of Kraken, make Kraken and Coke, drink Kraken from the bottle. Your stomach hurts, and your head is buzzing in that unpleasant way it does when you’ve had too much liquor to be comfortable, but not enough to pass out. You sit on the floor of the bathroom, waiting to throw up. Outside, you hear Tyler talking about his decision. “I can be retired by the time I’m 40,” he says. “It’s just the kind of opportunity I’ve always wanted,” he explains. “I’ll have plenty of free time to come visit, too,” he assures. You’ve heard this rehearsed speech before. You hear the others try to convince him to stay. “You made this decision really quick, dude,” they say. “What if it’s not what you’re expecting?” they ask. “You could always just get a two-year degree or something,” they offer. You’ve made the same argument they’re making before. A choice is a choice, and he made one, you tell yourself. The urge to vomit finally comes, and you do so. Once you’re done, you lean against the back wall of the bathroom. A few tears cool down your hot face. Tyler is leaving. And you’re not even 47% sure of what comes next.

Months have passed, and you sit alone in your new two-bedroom apartment. It’s new, but it’s in the same complex as the apartment you lived in before you lived with Tyler. It’s two-bedroom, but you have no roommate. You have a loveseat, but it isn’t big enough for anyone to crash on, and nobody sits next to you at the moment. A movie is on—background noise as you drink. But you drink alone now. Nathaniel left an 18-pack of Coors Light the night before. You guys had intended to drink most of them, but didn’t. The majority of them now sit in your fridge, and you’re slowly but surely making your way through them. Coors Light is 4.2% ABV. It’s pathetic. It’s the stuff you would drink to wind down after a round of shots and a slew of mixed drinks. But it’s all you have right now. Tyler is probably running a mile right now. Or maybe he’s being yelled at by a drill sergeant. Maybe he’s making new friends in the cafeteria. And you’re here, drinking 4.2% beer. You keep cracking cans. You drink almost all the beer, the cans rattling at your feet every time you adjust yourself on the couch. You feel bloated. You hate drinking beer to get drunk. Tyler probably won’t be allowed to drink for months. He’ll probably have three square meals a day. Maybe he’ll even have a curfew. You drink until the early morning, and then fall asleep on the loveseat. You wake up a few hours later, with a mixture of rocks and bits of glass rattling inside your skull. Today’s the day you’ll figure out what you’re doing, you tell yourself. Tonight’s the night you go without a drink, you promise. You know there’s roughly a 4.2% chance you’re telling the truth.

Gerald Withers