North Dakota is different than Dennis expected. For one thing, the Fargo International Airport is bustling with life. Everyone has a weird accent, but not a single person looks like a cowboy. It’s loud; the airport’s hum of activity hurts Dennis’s ears. After several minutes of staring into space just outside of the gate where he left, he comes to the conclusion that he needs to get out of North Dakota as soon as possible.
He finds a desk for ticket sales across the airport at concourse A. When he gets there, there’s a line. It’s extremely irritating; why are there so many people in his way? Why in the hell do most of them look happy to have a layover in this hellhole of a state? He shoves his hands into his pockets, and clenches his fists. By the time he gets to the front of the line, he’s managed to swallow most of his anger.
“I’d like a flight to Philadelphia, please,” he says to the very pretty blonde ticket saleswoman.
She types it into her computer, and nods. “The next flight to Philadelphia is at 9 PM.”
“What? That’s five hours from now!”
The woman nods. “We only have planes that fly in and out of Philadelphia twice a day.”
Dennis scoffs. “That’s preposterous.”
“I’m sorry sir, that’s just the way it is. Do you want a ticket?”
“Fine. Whatever. One ticket to the 9PM Philadelphia flight.”
She nods, types it into the computer, and prints off the ticket. As she hands it to him, Dennis says, “Is there any place nearby where I can grab a drink?”
“There’s a sports bar down the street. It’s a bit of a ways to walk but –“
“I don’t care. Which direction is it in?”
She points straight across from herself. “If you keep following along the road, you’ll find it. It’s called Buffalo Wild Wings. I’m not sure if you want to walk without a coat though. It’s a little chilly–”
“I didn’t ask you to pass judgment, ok? I just want booze.” He walks away, and shoves his ticket in his pocket.
It really is cold as shit when Dennis leaves the building. He had expected to land with his wet tee shirt in sunny California; instead, it’s bitterly cold and the sky is white. Dennis wraps his arms around himself, and begins trudging through the crunchy grass. Within seconds, his shirt becomes equally crunchy. He can see the sports bar if he squints. If it weren’t this cold, the walk wouldn’t seem very long at all. After several feet outside, he checks out a weather app on his phone. 10 degrees. Ridiculous.
Cars whiz by him as he walks, a ridiculous number for what is supposed to be nothing but open prairie and farms. People are going about their daily lives even as there’s sheets of ice on the road. The sports bar isn’t even the only building nearby – there are gas stations, fast food places, and apartments. He looks up at the sky again; it seems to be getting darker. The sun is setting at 430. In a strange way, he can feel it settle inside him, like a dead weight dragging him down. Then again, maybe some of the 20 beers he drank are finally wearing off.
His fingers grow numb as he approaches his destination, and Dennis is surprised to find that it feels nice, actually. There’s a sort of calm in outward numbness matching his inside. It’s God Hole weather, grey and empty and sterilizing. It seems impossible that loud and happy people live here, rather than whole populations of people like him. Then again, it’s unlikely that many people exist who are like him. Hell, it’s probable that he’s the only one who has ever felt as empty inside as he does.
When he enters the sports bar, he is immediately greeted with noise. There are televisions everywhere and loud men cheering as they down beers. Dennis enjoys raging as much as anyone else, but he’s starting to get a headache and this is only making it worse. He taps his fingers on the table rhythmically. They turn red and burn as the numbness leaves them.
The waitress is pretty and blonde, almost indistinguishable from the woman who had sold him plane tickets. She smiles brightly at him as she says, “My name is Amanda. Can I start you off with something to drink?”
“A rum and coke, please,” says Dennis. She nods and leaves. Dennis unfolds the sticky menu, and gazes at the food selection. Everything looks unappetizing except the booze.
When she brings the rum and coke over, he downs it before she even leaves. “Another one,” he says. Her eyes widen, but she nods. After his fifth, he’s feeling well and truly drunk again. He puts a handful of cash down on the table with fumbling fingers.
“Done. No more,” he slurs to no one in general. Then he leaves without saying anything else.
It’s fully dark outside now. He coughs when the frozen air greets him. Dennis’s nostrils feel sticky when he breathes. Rather than immediately heading back to his destination, he sits down on the curb, and stares up at the sky.
He always thought that out west he would be able to see stars, but the sky is as black here as it is in Philadelphia. Dennis doesn’t even know what he would do in the presence of a starry sky; it sounds bright and overwhelming. Perhaps it’s the way that nature intended, but Dennis wants no part of it. The all-consuming unnatural darkness speaks to Dennis. He’s not what nature intended either.
It starts to snow, and Dennis closes his eyes. The wet flakes land softly on his face one by one. He’s surprised he can feel them; much of his skin has grown numb again from being outside in this brutal weather. Closing his eyes makes him feel disjointed and dizzy, so he sprawls out in the parking lot next to the curb. It’s doubtful that anyone will walk by, let alone care. Cars, they can drive around him. They’ll figure something out. Or he’ll get hit and he can sue the pants off of some Great Plains Trash. Whatever.
His friends are probably almost to California by now. Charlie is definitely going to win; he has the liver of an ox. Dennis isn’t even sure Charlie can die. He hates to admit it, but Charlie’s body is sturdier than his. It takes a lot of work to keep his body functioning; meanwhile, Charlie’s body chugs along in good condition like a steel freight train run on cat food and cheese.
Dennis never really cared about winning; going on the airplane to get wasted just seemed like something he should do. The things expected of him fall into neat patterns: get drunk while looking sexy as hell, seduce women in fresh and exciting ways, and keep up with his standards of bodily excellence. Follow that illustrious path until you die at a hundred years old looking not a day over twenty-seven.
It’s becoming harder and harder every year to care about any of those things. The gaping hole of apathy inside his chest is growing all the time, feeding on him like a parasite. He’ll be a shell by the time he’s a hundred; everyone will care about his long and storied life but him.
Snow is falling harder now, settling into his eyelashes and hair. The only warmth is the continued burn of rum in his stomach; everything else is frozen. His head is swimming, thoughts becoming jumbled and confused. Maybe this is all a hallucination and he’ll wake up in Philadelphia tomorrow having done – well, something awesome. The reason he’s lying on concrete and colder than he’s ever been in his life is becoming less clear by the second. As his thoughts begin to white out, he feels something poke him in his side.
“Hey, are you ok?”
Dennis groans as his eyes flutter open. The blurry face of another pretty blonde woman greets him.
“Can you understand me? Are you drunk?”
He tries to open his mouth to say I’m sober, but instead just coughs for a really long time. The woman extends a hand to him, and he grabs it. She pulls him unsteadily to his feet.
“I’m Dennis,” he slurs. “And you. . .very pretty.”
“Uh. . .thanks. Can I call you a cab?”
He wants to say something smooth like Only if you come with me, but he’s interrupted by puking in his mouth a little. Dennis settles for “Yeah,” instead.
The silence is awkward as they wait for the cab to arrive, but Dennis has no capacity to fill it. He hasn’t felt this drunk since college. He thanks her when the cab finally shows up, and manages to tell the driver to take him to the Fargo International Airport. Somehow he hasn’t missed his flight. Maybe it would have been better if he had. Dennis failed to make the beer drinking record on a cross country flight, but he’s definitely in the running for ‘number of times a person puked on an airplane.’
When his friends ask how his layover in Fargo was, he doesn’t mention the sky or the snow or the rum or the beauty of feeling his entire body grow as numb as the rest of him. He simply says, “North Dakota changed me,” and lets them piece together the rest of the story for themselves.