The Pepsi Challenge
I will never forget the first time I went out on a boat. The year was 1990. I was eight going on nine—a chunky little spud in a Batman T-shirt, toothpaste blue sweatpants, and Reebok Pump Cross Trainers. It was late August, but it wasn’t particularly warm. The sky was overcast. It hung over us like a massive sheet of white paper smeared with pencil lead. The wind was blowing in moist gusts. Lake Erie looked choppy, but our skipper, Terry, assured my dad and me that it wasn’t anything he couldn’t handle.
Terry was my dad’s friend from work. He hit it off with my dad because they’d both been Marines. Terry had been in Vietnam, and when you talked to him, he wasted no time telling you about it. He wasn’t one of these stony-faced vets who “didn’t like to talk about the war.” He loved talking about the war. Whenever I hung out with my dad and Terry, Terry would recall with relish how he’d mowed down scores of Viet Gong during the Tet Offensive, carried wounded comrades out of battle zones, and smoked epic heaps of hash back at base.
Terry looked like the kind of guy you would cast as a Vietnam Vet if you were making a movie about Vietnam Vets. He had a gargantuan General George Custer mustache, a scar running down the right side of his weathered face, and a spooky prosthetic eye. He was tall and sinewy and almost always wore the same outfit—faded blue jeans, an olive green USMC T-shirt, and shiny black cowboy boots. He didn’t look like the kind of guy who would enjoy sailing. I never saw him in top-siders, white trousers, and a yacht cap. But Terry was fanatical about sailing.
The name of Terry’s boat was “Terry’s Always Right.” Terry’s wife was also named Terry, and they both thought “Terry’s Always Right” was about the funniest name for a boat anybody had ever thought of. Even at eight, I knew it was a pretty mediocre joke, but I didn’t say anything. Terry scared the shit out of me, and if I let on that I thought he had a lame sense of humor, I was fairly sure he would kick my ass. “Terry’s Always Right” was a twenty-seven foot express cruiser with a small cabin, a lookout perch, and a rectangular deck on the back just big enough to accommodate four adults. The boat was Terry’s most prized possession. He spoke about it with more affection than he spoke about his own wife.
My dad and I boarded “Terry’s Always Right” from the back, lugging with us backpacks stuffed with sunscreen tubes, swim wear, beach towels, and snacks. We didn’t bring drinks. Terry told my dad he would have plenty of drinks. And as I hopped down onto the deck, I saw he hadn’t lied. In the middle of the deck was a bathtub-sized cooler. I dropped my backpack on one of the deck benches, stepped over to the cooler, and lifted the lid. Unbelievably, the cooler was full to the brim with cans of Budweiser and Pepsi. If my dad and Terry drank all of the beer in there, I thought, I would be sailing us home.
“Welcome aboard, boys,” said Terry, striding out of the cabin to shake our hands. He shook my dad’s hand first, then mine. I always dreaded shaking hands with Terry. He had one of those iron death grips that left your hand limp and throbbing. “Ready to have some fun?”
“Ready, partner,” said my dad.
The plan, as I understood it, was to sail around until noon and then dock at Kelley’s Island for lunch. I had pushed hard for taking a side-trip to Cedar Point, but neither my dad nor Terry were big on roller coasters (“I got shaken up enough in Nam,” said Terry), and they weren’t keen on hanging around eating Dip n’ Dots while I rode. Fun for my dad and Terry was sitting around in the boat, throwing back beers, and talking about their Marine days. I braced myself for boredom.
Terry untethered the boat from the pier, turned the engine on, and we were off, cutting forward against increasingly strong winds. My dad went to the cooler, pulled out two beers, and handed one to Terry. The two men popped the tabs on their cans, and the drink-a-thon commenced.
I decided to get up and get my own drink. At least in that way I could be part of the group—we’d all be drinking. I took a Pepsi out of the cooler and popped it open.
Terry glanced back at me. “Make sure to check the inside of the can when you’re done,” he said. “Pepsi’s got a contest going right now. If you see a number on the inside bottom of the can, you could win twenty grand.”
I looked down at the cooler. There had to be at least a hundred Pepsis in there. One of them had to be a winner. How many Nintendo games could I buy with twenty thousand dollars? I couldn’t even do the math in my head. I started guzzling right away.
The first can I finished didn’t have a number at the bottom, nor did the second, nor the third. The fourth can felt heavier, which I thought was a good sign, but it was numberless as well, and so were numbers five and six. After can seven, I stopped to pee in the lake (the boat’s toilet was out of commission), and then I drank two more cans. Still no winner. By can ten, I was feeling pretty terrible. My heart was doing the Hammer dance in my chest. My skin prickled. There was an insistent, excruciating ache behind my eyes. My stomach was painfully bloated, and I was too queasy to stand up.
Then the wind picked up and the waves grew bigger. The boat started to rock up and down at dramatic enough angles that unsecured things—my backpack, Terry’s bait box, even the cooler, started to slide back and forth across the deck. The bobbing did nothing to ease my condition. I felt a powerful, volcanic nausea building up inside me, rising from my stomach to my chest, scorching my insides and weakening my limbs. I knew I had to get to the side of the boat quick. Otherwise, I would be sick all over the deck. I stood, but it was too late. A thick jet of Pepsi-colored puke shot out of my mouth and splattered all over the deck benches.
Terry and my dad heard me retching and turned around.
“What the hell?” Terry said.
“Oh, Jesus,” said my dad.
Puke continued gushing out of my mouth like water out of a fire hose. My dad rushed over to help, but as he approached, I turned, and he had to jump back to avoid the spray.
“Holy Hell, boy!” shouted Terry. “Point your head over the side of the goddam boat!”
I tried to follow his instruction, but the moment I took a step, I slipped on the vomit-slick deck and went down. The puke stopped coming for a split second—just long enough for me to realize that I was on my back—and then it started up again, bursting up like a geyser. I clamped a hand over my mouth, rolled over, and crawled to my feet.
“Fuck’s sake,” said Terry. “When’s his head going to start spinning around? Call the goddam exorcist.”
“I’m so sorry Terry,” said my dad.
I pulled myself up onto one of the deck benches, leaned my head over the side, and vomited until I was empty.
We never made it to Kelley’s Island. Terry took us right back to the dock in Sandusky, and my dad and I got off the boat and drove back home. I’ve gone on boat trips since then without incident, but that was the last time I ever set foot on “Terry’s Always Right.” And I never did win that damn contest.
Jack Somers‘s work has appeared in a number of journals and magazines including DecomP, Midwestern Gothic, Literary Orphans, Jellyfish Review, and The Molotov Cocktail. You can find him on Twitter @jsomers530.