Track 18 – The Slip - Les Savy Fav

He was facedown on the asphalt surrounded by a halo of glass and blood that stretched back behind him like a comet tail. His body was at odd angles, a marionette with the strings cut. It’s no way to give up the ghost, skidding on your face for twenty feet. It’s lonely violence and it feels wrong, the motions don’t make any sense, there’s no one last squeeze of that hand, it can’t be rationalized by any frame of mind. It’s ugly. Plain as day. It smells like shit and copper.

They both stared down at him. They had walked over to him without a word, without thought. Now they were standing on either side of him transfixed until Scooter was forced to step out of the way of a growing pool of blood.

He cleared his throat as if to eulogize and said, “His shirt says Doug on it.”

“Seemed like a good enough guy.”


They stood there and looked. The crash had shut off all sound, but now Jake could hear the wind.

“You’re bleeding,” Scooter said.


“Look.” He pointed at Jake’s left arm, and Jake looked down and saw a crooked red line going from his forearm to his wrist. It slowly ran to his index finger.


“What happened?”

Jake wiped at his wound with the front of his shirt. “It’s metal.”


“It’s small.” He pinched it between his fingers and pulled. It gave easily, a little triangle stained pink in the sunlight. He threw it over the guardrail into the brush. They stood in silence awhile longer.

“Are we gonna move him?” Jake asked.

“You really want to try?”

“I dunno, I feel like this is our mess.”

“It’s not our mess. We’ve got our own mess.”

A bird circled overhead, hoping for an easy meal.

“Get his wallet,” Scooter said.


Scooter bent down and patted the man’s back pockets. There was no wallet. He stood up and walked over to the bent and broken car, glass and asphalt crunching underfoot. He pushed a piece of safety glass out of the way and poked his head in, coming back with an opened box of Ding Dongs.

“You want one?” he called back.

“Those are his.”

“He’s dead.”

“They’re still his.”

Scooter opened a cellophane package and stuck a Ding Dong into his mouth whole.

“This is real, man. Those are his.”


“Why are you being an asshole?”

“Well, a fike mahor wood say iss a hiffense mefanism.” He swallowed large. “But I see it this way. Doug was alive. Now he’s not. That’s it. He doesn’t exist. And someone who doesn’t exist can’t really own some fucking Ding Dongs.”

Jake looked at the sun like he was trying to tell time. He didn’t want to look down anymore, and he took a few backwards steps towards the station wagon and noticed the lazy arc of the carrion bird in the sky.

“That crash was fucking astounding,” Scooter said. “The way he just flew out.”

“This isn’t entertainment.”

“Yes it is,” he said, but it sounded like he didn’t believe it, like he was just posturing for the audience. But he had a point. “Don’t you watch TV?”

They stood on opposite sides of the road, a dead body between them, doing everything they could not to look at it or each other. Jake looked at an ant bed. Scooter looked down the road. I’m paralyzed in this paragraph, because who knows what should happen next. I stop time so I can think a minute. And I mean really stop it, so that light waves stop moving and you can’t see anything anymore and you can’t breathe because the atoms have gone still. It’ll start up again in a minute.

. . .

Scooter brought Jake around to his nihilistic view of property ownership while they waited for their car to cool down and for somebody to pass by. They yelled at the bird. Scooter tried to crack a joke but it just fell flat. When Doug’s car didn’t catch fire, they decided to siphon the gas out of it. This is how the police officer pulled up to see Jake retching in the road and Scooter hunched over a red plastic gas can next to the wrecked car. Admittedly, it looked suspicious. Admittedly, the timing was inconvenient for everyone but me.

He flipped his siren on and off to get their attention and stepped out with his hand on his gun. He used to be an archetypal cop with a belly bulging over his slacks and straining the buttons on his tan shirt, the kind of cop that wore mirrored aviator sunglasses that gave off the impression of looking a shark in the eyes. The kind of cop that lorded power and chewed on a toothpick. But I’m sitting here thinking that that’s boring and I’ve done that trick twice already, that you’re going to start thinking I’m not doing it on purpose and that it’s just a crutch.

So this cop was well under six feet and scrawny, he walked toward them with purposeful and controlled energy, he still wore the sunglasses because I like the way they look. He said, “Stand up and move over to your friend,” to Scooter, and then he looked at Jake and said, “You put your hands on your head and keep your mouth shut until I ask a question.”

They did this. When he saw Doug in the road behind them he drew his gun and held it in both hands in front of him, pointed at the ground. Then he looked around, still standing ten feet away from them. “Is anyone else here?”

“No, sir,” Jake said.

“Is that man dead?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Did you do it?”

“No, sir.”

He looked at the cinder blocks in the road. “Kind of looks like you might’ve.”

“No, sir.”

“Would make a pretty good news story. Way I see it, two guys on the side of the road set up an ambush, steal the gas. Straight out of Road Warrior.”

Scooter said, “This isn’t peak oil scare mongering. It’s a car accident.”

“What did I say about talking?” The cop said it with the same flat, considering tone as he said everything, but Jake noticed his right hand tense around the gun grip.

“Don’t move from where you’re standing,” he said. He walked around them wide, making sure to give himself enough distance to have time to shoot before they could cover the distance between him and them. He stooped over Doug and came back, this time standing just a few steps in front of them.

“Yup,” he said, “this just in from the four dollars a gallon department: two white males arrested for reportedly murdering a local man over the gas in his car.” He chuckled to himself.

“You have to know we didn’t do this,” Jake said, pleadingly.

“That’s strike two on talking. Go ahead and try it again, I got a pregnant wife at home who yells all day and don’t put out, and you’re gonna ask me to work out my personal demons on your face if you talk again. So try it again.”

They were silent, hair blowing in the wind and gas and bile all over Jake’s shirt front and caught in his beard. Jake looked down at his shoes, but Scooter and the cop met eye to eye and played an age-old game, the staring contest between authority and resistance, however petty both of their stances.

“Where’d the bricks come from?”

“Fell off a truck going up the road,” Scooter said.


“No bullshit. We just happened to be here.”

The cop looked at Jake and said, “Why’s your friend look so beat up?”

“He got in a fight.”


“Not in your county,” Scooter said.

“Good answer, but I wasn’t talking to you.” He thought for a second. “Alright, I gotta take you guys in for questioning irregardless.”

“You can’t hold us without charging us,” Scooter said.

The cop leaned in close to Scooter, and he gave off the impression of a tightly coiled snake. He raised his gun up and gave Scooter’s forehead a sharp tap with the butt. “You real fucking smart, ain’t you, kid.” Even in this his voice only showed a mild bemusement and nothing else.

“Scooter, shut up,” Jake said.

Scooter rubbed his forehead. “No. No. We’ve got places to go, and if this guy isn’t charging us with a crime then I’m not going to volunteer a statement.”

“If you try and walk away from this you’ll be resisting arrest. I’ve still got both of you on misdemeanor theft.”

“Then write the ticket, but you’ve got no right to bring us in,” Scooter said.

“Scooter, let’s just go with him, Jesus,” Jake said.

“Listen to your friend.”

“No, man. No. This is bullshit.”

He turned and tried to walk away, but the police officer grabbed him around the neck and hauled him down sideways. He caught himself, but the cop grabbed one arm out from under him and was on top of him immediately, forcing his face into the hot asphalt. The cop had his cuffs out and on Scooter’s wrists in a matter of seconds, and then drove his face into the ground once more for good measure before standing up and facing Jake, legs apart, one slightly in front, gun held forward.

“Turn around.” It’s funny how he talked, everything was with the same even tone. This is what Jake was thinking. He said it again: “Turn around.” Jake just kept thinking about how he was saying it, how there was no anger in it, just control. He wondered what kind of man this was in front of him, if he was a zen master or just a sociopath. Did he talk like this at home? Was this how he treated anyone who challenged him? This is what Jake was thinking when he got hit in the left ear with the pistol and fell down beside his friend.

And all of this happened because I couldn’t think of any better way to get where I’m going. If it weren’t for this, I’d never get my happy ending.

Track 17 – Automatic Man - Bad Religion

The men’s room of Harry’s EZ-Stop was not the pinnacle of modern civilization.

Rather, it was the shit-cave of some ancient tribe of nomads, truckers, and transients. The walls were brown to yellowish-brown. The floor was concrete, stained white under the soap dispenser and in front of the urinals. Cleanliness and piss had the same effect.

We got here in about eight hours. Here is about half an hour outside Albuquerque, if that’s how it’s spelled. I’ve done this trip once before, but I don’t remember how long it takes to do certain stretches. Eight hours feels right, and I remember this bathroom pretty well.

Jake chose a stall, shut the door, and locked it. Knob and lock were both rusted. The paint was peeling off the metal walls and door. Looking up, Jake could see the ceiling tiles were covered in water spots. He only hoped the liquid on the floor was from the ceiling, too. There was no toilet paper dispenser, but there were holes that suggested that yes, something was missing. The roll was sitting on the toilet tank. Jake took a deep breath, dropped his pants, and sat down.

The walls were covered in the markings of those just passing through. Who brings a writing utensil to shit? It was almost peaceful. While he did his business, he did the only thing there was to do: He caught up on local culture.

In days of old when knights were bold
And condoms weren’t invented
You rolled a sock upon your cock
And babies were prevented

Shit or get off the pot.

We are here on earth to fart around.
Don’t let anybody tell you any different

Call Jenny. She sucks good cock. 555-288-9121
So does your mom!

San Dimas High School Football Rules

You’re a fag!
Why are you reading this?

I didn’t write any of this. It’s all out there, somewhere. Someone else’s idea, someone else’s words. But I compiled them here like a mix tape and now Jake was reading it and for him I did write all of it. Anthropologists will find bathroom walls in a thousand years and puzzle out our language and it will all be so profound and mystical. They will marvel at Jenny’s ability to suck cock and wonder what the words mean, but right now it’s just more bullshit. He read it all a dozen times and memorized the phone number. He didn’t have a pen, so he couldn’t add anything. When he flushed it would be like he had never even been there.

. . .

There's something aboriginal about gas stations, little spots on the landscape reminding us every few miles of who we are with a yellow clamshell and ever-increasing numbers on the sign. It's one of the only American scenes left, the gas station, and people make small talk over the pumps because their mutual commitment to squeezing the land is connection enough. Here's the cross-cultural community we were promised—the dream of equality is found in the shared motion of unscrewing the cap. And when we run out, we'll just invent bacteria that's been engineered to make more, faster, rather than slowing down. We stay in motion, baby, stopping only for the biggest drinks and the shiniest pornographic magazines and for gas. There are roads yet to be seen, vast expanses to cover. At every stop the air is filled with fumes and bumblebees and discontent.

This was what I had for Jake as he walked out of the crisp, laboratory cold air of the gas station, which was in stark contrast to the bathroom he hadn’t ever been in, and into the ugly afternoon heat. The car was parked in the first spot by the door, and Scooter had the tailgate of the wagon open and was sitting on it, drinking a can soda with gas station sandwiches and chips beside him. They both sat drinking their sodas and eating lunch when an old four-door sedan that was all straight lines and jagged edges pulled into one of the spaces. A middle-aged slob emerged with wild hair blowing in the hot wind, a man whose eyes were just bits of glass sunken between his shag brows and unshaven face. His clothes weren’t washed, ironed, or starched. They were the wrinkled elbows and wrinkled shirts of the Invisible Workers of America. His arm hair was slick with sweat, and he had his name embroidered onto his shirt. This man was the end result.

He went inside for a few minutes and then emerged with candy bars and cigarettes. He exchanged mumbled hellos with Scooter and Jake, the kind of unpronounced civilities that placate and deny further words. He got back into his car and went back in the direction he came from, trailing the fading sound of worn tires on asphalt behind him. He’ll be dead by the end of this song.

. . .

The scenery has changed but the scene has not. Jake and Scooter are on the tailgate of their car drinking can sodas and eating chips by the side of some side road that led to a lone office park and a new housing development. The hood of their car was open, and from the opening came the gurgling sounds of a car that’s overheated.

Anyone passing by would have seen a baby blue station wagon steaming with two people on the tail, looking dejected as if a promise had been broken. But nobody passed by. This place doesn’t really exist, and there’s no reason for them to have come so far down this road before pulling over, but they did.



“Your car overheat a lot?”

“First time.”

“Are we going to sit here?”

“Give me an alternative.”

“Walk back to that gas station.”

“Too hot. Too far.”

Off in the distance, Jake and Scooter could see a speck of a semi truck shimmering in the hazy heat. It turned on to their road and started getting bigger.

Other than that there weren’t really any signs of human life. It was mid-afternoon, that dead time of day when real people are at their jobs or in their homes, not driving cross-country to a life worth living.

Still it was getting bigger, the truck. Now they could make out a big silver grill, all teeth, a windshield, a bumper. Jake was suddenly reminded of a shitty movie from a stupid short story, Maximum Overdrive, where trucks came to life and terrorized a gas station. It’s the kind of thing you only watch late at night in a friend’s basement. Too bad he wasn’t Emilio Estevez.

Bigger. Bigger. Exhaust pipes. Flatbed. Tires. Tiny face inside. Side mirrors. Little oval. Says Peterbilt. Hauling a flatbed of construction odds and ends.

As the truck came closer, a chain that wasn’t secured to anything at all on one end rolled off the back of the truck and then bounced along gleefully behind the truck making sparks here and there. It was supposed to be holding down cinder blocks, but it wasn’t, so they were bristling with potential energy. The laws of physics were about to have some fun. There was a pothole in the road about fifty feet from Jake and Scooter and their little blue station wagon that couldn’t.

Jake saw the chain come loose and whip around the back of the truck, out of sight. He saw it dragging the road as the truck went by. He saw the cinder blocks wiggle over the bumps, and he saw the truck’s front wheel dip in and out of the pothole like a toe checking bathtub water.

One after another, half a dozen cinder blocks tilted ass-end off of the truck. They were in the air, briefly, and then landed in the road, strewn about haphazardly like God would have done. It was obviously a deus ex machina, I made it happen for a reason, but nobody knew it yet.

The chain continued to whip around behind the truck. The driver wouldn’t notice until he got to where he was going.

Scooter just said, “Huh.” Jake said nothing. A few minutes passed.

The cinder blocks were spread out along the road ahead of them at odd angles, menacing in their own inert way. A few had broken along their intersecting lines, creating unimpressive bits of rubble in the road.

Jake and Scooter noticed another car coming. It was a beat up old sedan, the one from before that had wandered into my story. The man who was a janitor and who subsisted on gas station lunches, he had to get back to the office building so people could look down on him. He was late. He wasn’t paying attention. He was thinking about calling his daughter when he got home. He was changing the tape in the tape deck. He was spilling a soda in his lap. He was asleep for three or four seconds before jerking awake. He was scratching his ass. He was checking the speedometer to see that he wouldn’t get pulled over on the other side of the bridge. He had a million excuses for what was about to happen, but really I was going to kill him and that was that.

He looked up in time to act, I guess. He cranked the wheel hard to the left, and then hard back right. The car’s wheels locked up, didn’t respond quickly enough.

The car and the guardrail met like drunk lovers, hungry for their first kiss. The man was not invited. He went through the windshield, a violent spray of diamonds or glass coming with him, and came to land face down in the road. He was leaking. The car had come to a stop, smoking, smiling. It had done its job.

Track 16 – This Year - The Mountain Goats

What generation are we, anyway? We're the ones who hate the kids these days while we're still the kids these days. We're the ones who saw the world past our mothers' lips and said with our first breath, "Fuck caring about any of this." We were bred to be world-enders, guzzling down whatever we can get our hands on without even feeling like that's enough. We should all take mallets to our own heads. We are a generation of parasites. Even our spiritual journeys are exercises in consumption. Our greatest weapon is complacency. Our greatest weapon is thinking everyone else is an asshole. Our greatest weapon is our own stupid mouths that can run unceasing while our hands do nothing. Take your pick, smile all the way, stop worrying about it and listen to the story.

We’re back at the hospital again. I’ve been writing all this out of order. It’s full of inconsistencies that I’ll have to go back and fix a million times until I’m never satisfied. Maybe an editor will come through behind me and clean it all up, but I want this sentence left in. And this one.

Because every word of this book is put on paper for a reason, although I can't recall or even tell you why right now as I am putting them down. Sometimes I think anxiety and doubt are the only feelings I have that are real. I just know that the words seem to go together just so, and it’s the only way possible, at the time. Maybe it is more behaviorism—the sum of my experience. It would explain why I change them every time I get it in my head to do so. I’m sitting here, feeling sick in the pit of my stomach, having just heard some bad news, cutting words away and patching in new ones, cobbling. I’m here at my desk with the shades up, watching the wind, hoping for just the right next word for you. I’ve been trying to hide myself from you. I’ve been trying to remove little bits of consciousness and just tell the story. But I can’t.
Right now, this story is just about two people careening from one event to the next in a vacuum. Atoms in my body may or may not be bouncing back and forth in the same way, I don’t really know how they work, but I like to think so.

Molly is there again, like every day. She is sitting on the bed, on the space Jake had cleared by losing a leg. She says that’s ironic. Everyone is always arguing about whether or not something is ironic because the word has taken on so many fractured meanings that it now means nothing. Most things just happen, though. They are both being very quiet. It’s lunch time—it seems like it’s always lunch time. This whole story is just a collection of meals. Jake is going to be allowed to go home soon. He’s trying to decide where that would be now.

Molly jiggles his gelatin in the palm of her hand. I call it gelatin because Jello is trademarked and I don’t want to read about fair use if it’s not regarding song lyrics. I just remember that one band had to change its name when I was younger.

Someone told me that my writing style keeps changing, but then they got distracted and didn’t elaborate. They said I should focus. My creative writing teacher in college told me that my flirtation with post-modernism, well, he didn’t really say anything about it, he just gave me a C+. He said I didn’t need to include myself in my stories. I said fuck him, and went home and screamed and wanted the A- because I thought it was really good but not great. What do you expect given the generation I belong to. When I read that story now I can’t help but agree with him. When I used this book to get a master’s in English, my thesis director said it was either shit or it was a masterpiece. He couldn’t tell which.

My mom says I swear too much in this book and the ending isn’t happy. I told her I’m just writing the honest language of my generation, the ones who don’t bother knowing any better, and she needs to look closer because I think it’s about as happy as any Goddamn ending.

Molly is jiggling the gelatin in the palm of her hand.
“Jake,” she asks, “how did we meet?”

Jake looks up from the picture he’s staring at again and smiles. I’m withholding the picture from you on purpose, thinking I should go back and take it away from Jake until it really matters.

“What do you mean? You don’t remember?” He’s teasing her.

“Shut up, assface,” she says, still staring at the non-food in her hands that we never like to admit is made from hooves. “I’m interested in your perception of it. I mean, how did you get there? It seemed an awfully out of character thing for you to do.”
Maybe that’s an out of character thing for Molly to say. Maybe she’s stealing my thoughts again to frame the story and move the plot forward. It has occurred to me that I do not know Molly that well.

“Yeah,” Jake says, “I know.”

“Well, then, why did you do it?”

Jake looks back down at the picture, at the past reaching out to him, trying to grab him by the throat and choke the life right out of him.

“I was tired of myself. That’s why I left Barker in the first place.”

Molly doesn’t really understand because he didn’t actually say it out loud. He is withholding things on purpose too. He doesn’t know that he’s ready to say anything else out loud just yet. He hasn’t figured out what his home is yet. He hasn’t figured out how she fits.

Track 15 – Heart A Tact - Kid Dynamite

After dinner they jogged back to the bolted down tranquility of room 112, back to safety. Scooter closed the door behind them and locked it, then he leaned against the door frame and said, “Well what the fuck is wrong with you?”

“Me? What the fuck you?”

“You just going to sit there and watch your best friend get the everliving shit kicked out of him?”

“Fuck off, man. You wanted me to see that.”

“No, I wanted you to jump over the table and get involved. Either fuck shit up or get yours fucked up. Be a fucking hero.”

“That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. What the hell is heroic about hitting a child?”

Scooter crossed the room, grabbed his backpack, and took it into the bathroom. He threw his toothbrush in and zipped up, then he turned on the sink and washed the blood from his face. Jake heard all these things from the other room.

“Damnit,” Scooter called, “this cut is dead center of my face. Symmetrical scars look so stupid.”

He came back a moment later with some toilet tissue held to his forehead and his backpack on.

“Where are you going?” Jake asked. He had been cut off on the way to a good boiling anger, and he kind of wanted a shouting match about now.

“We’re leaving.”


“Think about it. A parent does one of two things. They blame the kid or blame anybody but. And if they decide their son’s been victimized, then what?”


“Or lawsuit.”


“Right. And any jury in this town will think more about who has the most tackles and the best shot at a scholarship than who punched first.”

Jake sighed. “So pack my things.”

“Pack your things.”

. . .

They left town while they were still anonymous. Jake was all worked up, expecting a phalanx of pickup trucks to appear in the rearview mirror at any second, bristling with gun racks. It didn’t, and the familiar tape hiss calmed him down. Scooter drove. In the darkness the roads were bordered by a thin line of brush and then nothing behind it. There may have been cars or fields or houses or anything, really, but it didn’t matter. Jake had nothing to look at.

“You know,” he said finally, “you can’t expect me to stand up for you in that kind of situation.”

“Good friends drink together and fight together.”

“Christ, that’s not all friends are.”

“You sound like a grown up.”

“We are technically grown ups.”


They both watched the darkness for awhile, and the stars and the empty world made Jake think he’d been shot into space.

“I guess I can’t blame you,” Scooter said.

“Oh yeah?”

“It’s behaviorism.”

“What is?”

“Everything you’ve ever done, everything that’s happened, it all adds up to little computer programs in your head. You’re just a bunch of unbreakable code. You’re just the sum of your experience.”

“Fuck you.”

“I’m not trying to knock you. At every turn you see defeat.”

“Fuck you, Scooter.”

“Look at that kid. He hit me because he had to, because his manhood was challenged and that’s the only response he knows. He was afraid and had to mitigate. And we look down on him while—“

“I didn’t look down on him. I thought what you did there was real shitty.”

“Don’t lie to me. You didn’t say it but you did. We look down on him while he looks down on us, and both sides are blue in the face over who’s better at being human. Being oppressed or being oppressors. It’s all the same. Stimulus. Response.”

“If you really believe that, you’re an asshole.”

“You’re only saying that because Americans have been told to fight for independence. Stimulus response. Your dad would drive you all down to the big fireworks show and you would wave your cheap plastic flags, ignoring the fact that fireworks and flags were made in Communist China, and—”

“Just shut up. You shut your mouth about it right now.”

And he did.

Track 14 – Oh, Susquehanna! - Defiance, Ohio

They stopped as the sun was going down. More often than not, Texas feels never-ending. They found a tiny little town with one motel and one restaurant. It was the kind of place somebody would call sleepy or quaint in an attempt to romanticize it, but really it was like every other place, just without a Wal-Mart. Jake pulled in to the deserted motel parking lot and put the car in park.

“Here?” he asked Scooter, who just shrugged.

“It’s as good as anywhere else. I’ll get a room.”

They had plenty of money for food and motels for the next few days, and even after that it would be easy. When you’re on the run from yourself you can still use your credit card and access your bank account—you’re not going to find the trail unless you let yourself.

Scooter came back out to the car and threw a key through Jake’s open window. Then he tried to slide across the hood of the car, but his jeans stopped him halfway and he ended up with his face on the fender.

“Shit, that’s hot!” he yelled, and rolled off onto the gravel, because sometimes the things I see on television are wrong

. . .

The key was for room 112 on the end. It was all fairly nondescript, and we’ve all been in room 112 before. The dark green carpet with white dots. The eight layers of bedding tucked in way too tight. The water that doesn’t get hot enough or is too hot and feels different on your skin than you’re used to. The grimy bathroom floor and the A/C unit mounted underneath the window next to the door. The end of the toilet paper folded into a triangle. Two plastic cups and an ice bucket. Bolts in the television. Bible in the drawer. All across America the image is static. The only thing that changes is the rotating cast of characters, and even then most of us wouldn’t notice.

. . .

They jogged across the freeway when the coast was clear and made their way into the parking lot of a rundown looking barbeque restaurant called Jojo’s. The restaurant was rough wood on the outside with a low roof, a lonesome and dusty half-finished landmark standing out in the history of these people’s lives only because it was there and it was a place to go and other places weren’t. The glass doors said “Come on In, Y’all!” Jake hated Texas. Scooter was indifferent about the matter.

They came on in and were struck first by the jarring noise of a crowded room full of lifelong friends and next by the half-wave of a sixteen-year-old girl at a cash register. Her face was acne-ridden, and when she smiled her teeth were shackled in braces. She was the quintessential before picture, the kind of girl you hope can take a joke for survival’s sake. Just looking at her made Jake uncomfortable.

Jojo’s BBQ was packed, all locals. It was a cheap buffet-style restaurant with fake wood on the walls. The tables must have been from my high school cafeteria, twelve plastic seats attached to a sheet of particle board. On the wall right behind the girl and the cash register was a mural of a giant football helmet emblazoned with what could have been any type of generic mascot cat, snarling but so poorly drawn that all the menace was gone from it. Underneath, it said “Division II-A Champs ’96 ’97 ’99.”

The whole place was decorated with high school football bullshit, but the worst was on the far wall: a shrine to the local god of war. It was a six foot painting of a man with his arms crossed and a big grin on his face. He wore a blue polo shirt, and his head was huge under his curly blond hair. Coach Brooks was written underneath. He was clearly a paragon of coaching excellence, the mark which all assistant coaches and opponents should measure themselves against.

Jojo’s Barbeque is the kind of surreal place that has to exist, at the very least in order to validate our stereotypes. I know because I’ve been there. It should be a shrine. There should be pilgrimages. But there’s just dry meat under hot lights.

Sitting below the mural was the American God himself, Coach Brooks, gorging on a plate of ribs. He was wearing an old red embroidered polo shirt that must have been from his glory days, whenever they were. His shirt tugged at his body, revealing every detail of his breasts and distended belly. His jeans were too tight around his inhumanly small legs that didn’t belong to the obese man atop them. His jawbone protruded from a big bowl of fat under his chin. In short, he was even more perfect than Jake could have possibly imagined.

I am being unfair to him by making him into a symbol like this, because in truth he is a complex man. He loves his wife. He knows how to tell a joke. He only hits his kids when they really, really ask for it. He tried out for the NFL but didn’t make it, and this moment is a long way farther along his descending trajectory than he’d like for me to write about. But Jake would not understand all of this, so I made Coach Brooks into little more than a model for the American version of God, for my friend’s sake.

Jake was staring openly when the girl in front of him spoke up.

“Are you guys getting the buffet?” she asked.

“Sure.” Jake said it nervously. Talking to people makes him nervous.

The girl smiled at him and tried to make eye contact, which Jake took as an act of aggression, as if he were caught up in a canine hierarchy. He looked at her nametag instead of meeting her eyes. Joyce, it said. Hello, Joyce. The gold letters on your nametag are faded, the Y is peeling at the bottom. This used to happen to my nametag at Fargo’s. It’s funny how there’s always some point of connection. The K in Jake, the Y in Joyce.

Jake often rehearsed conversation, bagging up and preserving bits of small talk without ever uttering a word of it, swallowing whole his concept of a stranger, creating a whole life before this chance meeting and then aborting the whole effort by remaining silent. Suddenly he realized that her nametag was placed over her chest, and to anyone looking his fixation was with her under-developed breasts.

His head snapped up and he looked anxiously across the room at Coach Brooks, wondering if he had seen and was rendering secret judgment.

Joyce smiled that awful pubescent smile that spoke only of the planning stages. “Drinks?”

“Yeh.” Jake wasn’t even sure he’d said it until she punched it in and told him the total. $17.56. He handed her a twenty, and as she reached out to take it she touched his hand, just barely. It was probably an accident, for all that I put it in words out of a dozen other subtle motions she had made that I ignored. Jake thought that somehow she was making fun of him.

She gave him his change and a receipt, and she brushed his hand again, and she brought out two plastic trays, two cheap plastic plates, two plastic frosted glasses. My high school must have had a yard sale.

“There’s a great future in plastics,” Scooter said as he grabbed his tray. Joyce smiled that awful smile at them again. Jake wished he was invisible because he had ogled a minor right in front of Coach Brooks.

“Enjoy, Hon.” She winked at Jake. Maybe she was already figuring out the rural customer service heuristic, but Jake took it as another cruel joke of unwanted attention. This is one of the ways that author and character converge: pleasantries are acts of violence.

The buffet, it was wood paneled like everything else. Some of the panes of glass in the sneeze guard were missing. Others were chipped at the corners. Each thing under them was either deep-fried, sitting stagnant in its own oily juices, cooked into tough and dry fibrous protein, or had the consistency of a mass of heaved up bronchial fluid, spongy and wet. Choosing food wasn’t a matter of what they wanted but rather the avoidance of what they didn’t. The options presented seemed to be more about mortality than anything else.

“Man this shit looks awful,” Scooter said, loudly enough that all the people getting seconds and thirds looked up at him. He sucked air in through his teeth at the macaroni and cheese, which was somehow at once yellow and gray. The end of the buffet was marked by the presence of doughy, undercooked rolls that are produced en masse on sheets and carry a wholesome industrialized goodness in the gluten. Here, alive again in this restaurant, in the food and the people, is the America I grew up in. The crowd was depressing—Jake had never seen so many people who were either terminally ill, terminally fat, or terminally old, which is what we all have to look forward to in one way or another. Even the people around Coach Brooks were sad and lost, but his radiance was hardly diminished any by it. In the back corner was a table half-filled with high school kids, a collection of teenaged caricatures that don’t bear describing. Scooter and Jake claimed the end of this table, which caused a momentary quieting. I want to abort this scene that I’ve filled up with old tormentors, old problems, but I’m a little angry with Scooter for what he’s going to do later, so I want this one kid at the table to just kick the shit out of him.

Scooter leaned down the table towards the kids. “Hey! What’s up?”

They all just looked at him. He started eating with a stupid grin on his face. Jake was nervous again.

One of the kids, the one who used to stare you down in the lunch line while fucking the girl who wouldn’t talk to you, started talking again. He was big and muscular, a proud look into the homogenous future of America. This is what he said:
“Man, that fucker at practice today. I hate his fucking guts. Said if I didn’t hustle I’d be riding more wood than the community cunt on Saturday.”

One of the kids at the end of the table laughed, which was greeted with a challenge from the future community cunt.

“What? It was funny.”

“Doesn’t matter. Point is I’ve got more tackles than fuckin’ Evans anyway, and he don’t ride his ass near as much.”

The kid kept talking for a moment while Scooter kept looking over and then looking back at Jake. Jake just looked down at his tray, wishing there were some kind of pattern on it to look at. It was just yellow.

“Well, you’re the protagonist of this story, so it can’t be your fault.” This was Scooter, talking to the kid Jake would not look at. Scooter had had enough already.
The kid looked over at him, disgusted and shocked that he was being addressed. “What the fuck did you say?”

“I said you’re a fucking idiot, you shit-faced prick.” Scooter said it as he took a bite of corn, and he continued with his mouth full, totally at ease. “If you weren’t, you’d realize that if you spend your time after school knocking people over and learning the proper way to give a concussion then it should be no big surprise that your fire is fed with hatred. You should be on your knees sucking his cock as a gesture of thanks, not bad mouthing him.”

The kid said it slower this time. “What the fuck did you say?”

Scooter flashed a grin bigger than his whole face. “I said you should go with him to the prom, and then at the end of the night take him out to half field and swallow whatever he offers.” And he went back to his dinner, poking at green beans with his fork.

Jake just looked straight down at his plate. He had mashed potatoes, brisket, some barbeque sauce, fried okra, and the kid stood up and hit Scooter square in the forehead in one rigid motion. Scooter fell off his chair and out of view, but he was up again almost instantly with food on his shirt and a gash centered between his brows running blood. He got the kid once in the jaw before the kid landed an open hand at the side of his throat which sent him to the table. His eyes and Jake’s met and he smiled without any hint of panic in his face and blood now ran into the corner of his left eye. The kid grabbed his hair, and they were too close together for a real punch, but the kid tried anyway, mashing a fist into Scooter’s face. Around them a space had cleared but for Jake, who sat riveted with fork still in hand.

The kid let go of Scooter and he sat back down in his chair thanks to gravity while the kid stood over him. Scooter immediately pulled a piece off of his roll and put it in his mouth, chewing with his mouth open because he couldn’t catch his breath. The restaurant had stopped in the meantime. Everyone in the restaurant sat there looking at them in mid-sentence, mid-bite. They were all still life paintings, Portrait of an American Asshole. Coach Brooks finally stood up and started a long slow walk to their table.

Scooter found his fork and took a bite of his green beans while the kid watched with flared nostrils. “Stop eating,” the kid said. Then he said louder, “Stop eating.”

“Maybe we should go,” Jake said, and he rose to leave.

“Sit down and finish your dinner,” Scooter said. Blood ran into his mouth. Jake sat down but kept his hands in his lap.

“Stop eating.”

“Come on. Eat.” He turned to the kid. “It’s over, man. Let’s all sit and eat.” He looked out to the whole room. “It’s a restaurant. Eat.”

Coach Brooks arrived finally, placed a hand on each corner of the end of the table, and leaned in real low, the kind of pose that belonged to football coaches. “What the hell is this about?” he asked.

“Well, sir,” Scooter said, “my friends and I are just fulfilling our biological imperatives.”


“Eating and fighting are both a product of the guts.”

“That’s mighty philosophical, son, but what say you get the fuck out of here?”
The kid, still standing over Scooter, started to speak, but Coach Brooks had only to look to shut him up. Jake thought that Brooks must be a spectacular kind of asshole to command that kind of respect and still scar generation after generation for life. To have a mural painted in his honor because he called the local children cunts.

Jake again made a move to go, but Scooter pointed his fork at him with a full mouth, chewing loudly. His left eye had started to swell already. Brooks looked at each of them in turn and then pushed himself off the table so hard it shook.

“Finish eating, then go. And you,” he pointed to the kid standing over Scooter, “are in a world of shit. I suggest you sit down and finish your dinner. I suggest you and your friends tell your little stories and laugh, and then I suggest you go straight to hell home, because you’ll want to be there telling your parents what happened so that my phone call isn’t such a surprise.”

The kid nodded and sat down. All of his friends followed. When Coach Brooks was far enough away, Scooter said to Jake, “I ever tell you about the time I got punched in the throat at a house show in Fort Worth?”


“That’s because it’s not a story worth telling. I didn’t even black out on him. The kid couldn’t hit worth a damn.”

Track 13 – The Ramblin’ Boys of Pleasure - The Lawrence Arms

They left that night. There was really no question that Scooter was going. If you didn’t know that either you need to pay closer attention or I need to be doing a better job. Jake put all his CDs and records into boxes and put them in the back of the car. Then he went over to Scooter’s and they packed up his record label.

Together, they took it all to the storage space where Scooter’s band used to practice. It would be safe there among the shitty amps and toy drums. The place was paid up through the next six months.

In two weeks, Jake’s rent would be due. The owner would come knocking, put up his eviction notice, et cetera. Then they would take all his stuff out and give it away or burn it or whatever. Fernando would live on scraps until someone new moved in, or he would starve to death and the new tenants would wonder about the smell. There goes a boring story about a boring life.

They stopped at a gas station and bought an atlas of America, a five gallon can and a length of hose that were Scooter’s idea, some beef jerky, and a thirty pack of shitty beer. They threw it all in back with their backpacks that held enough clothes for a day or two and their toothbrushes. Scooter started mapping out a route. They drove north to the freeway.

Jake had become the D.B. Cooper of the food service industry. He had hijacked his dignity and now he was gone forever. But I should mention that saving yourself isn’t heroic. This can’t be compared to surviving the Holocaust or the Bataan Death March. A crappy apartment isn’t Darfur. Jake doesn’t know this kind of perspective. He’s got his own personal tragedy of mediocrity and bad circumstances. Even so, I’ve got to keep telling this story.

The roads were deserted except for the occasional police car. All the drunks were at the 24 hour diners or the Taco Cabana, and cops were running routes that took them by each one like carrion birds. Jake’s empty world was expanding to encompass the entire town, and eventually the whole country. It was beyond all scientific explanation, and no one would notice. They were stopped at a red light.

Jake looked in the side mirror. Back there was everything that he was indifferent towards, everything he hated, and the tiny little part that he loved but would never admit to. He imagined himself back there, waving as hard as he could, like an eight year old would wave, using the whole arm and smiling, smiling like his face would split in half. Good bye, Jake! Don’t come back! Don’t come back.

Kimmy might listen to the tapes, and maybe she would get it. Then again maybe she wouldn’t. It didn’t matter anymore.

And here, he said his goodbye to all the people he was isolated from. The ones he wished he knew, the ones he would miss without ever knowing. All those times he said “maybe next time” when he meant never, and now it was never and he can’t take it back and he wanted to. He wanted to know Andy and Derrick and Craig and Jason and Tree and Heidi and Amanda, Tina, Bubbles, Kristin, Nick, Zach, the other Zach, Kim, and all the rest just like I did, but we had both said “maybe next time” and now the curtain is down forever and the only way they will live again for me is to put them right here on paper.

Jake cleared his throat and said, “I won’t be able to breathe until we’re on the freeway.”

As he turned left onto US 290 he lifted his wrist in a half wave back at himself and everything else. Good bye, Jake. Good bye.

They drove for hours, listening to the mix tape that Jake had made. The magnetic tape started to wear a little, but with each listen it just made more and more sense. It was perfect. Or good enough. Slow to fast, loud to soft, smooth melodies and guttural screams. It was the embodiment of everything, the sum of Jake’s experience. They knew it by heart after one listen.

Soon they were singing, softly at first, but then screaming along with the windows down, letting go of all pretension and modesty. It was a big, ugly, loud way to live a life. All hoarse voices and missed notes until the pain settled in and they were whispering it again, no longer timid but graceful.

Yellow lines became one long yellow line as the eyes started to blur, just like the commercials late at night. It all becomes a dull roar and a blur as all the hurts and the fears of your life fade out to road noise and your favorite songs until a gurgling in your stomach signals the time to get food and switch drivers.

. . .

“I felt like one day I was going to wake up and find out that no one really liked me. It was all just a trick. The number one fuck you from everybody.” Jake stared down into his cup of coffee, wondering if he would find any grounds when he got to the bottom. He always looked for the coffee grounds at the bottom.

“That wouldn’t ever happen.” Scooter was looking across the restaurant at the painted cow skull hanging from the wall. It was the requisite red white and blue, the only real bit of color in the place. The rest was all done up in brown and darker brown, with some tan thrown in for good measure. The cow skull stood out as an unintentionally comical tribute to America. I used to eat here, drunk, at two in the morning, and we would always say that someone had embraced the tradition of using all of the buffalo in that cow skull, and that hopefully somewhere there were cow testicles painted up with the stars and stripes.

“Why not?” Jake looked up at Scooter, who was barely paying attention.

“It’s already been done. They made a movie about it,” he said as he continued to look at the cow skull.

“Oh.” Jake went back to looking at his coffee as he waited for his cheese fries with ranch dressing. He opened a small container of creamer and some of it got on his shirt, then he poured it into his mug, watching it slowly swirl and color of its own volition. White and black make brown, apparently. Part of him couldn’t wait to be away from ranch dressing on diner food. Did they have ranch dressing in Seattle? He hoped not. In Texas, it and cream gravy flow through the very veins of the restaurant industry.

“And besides,” Scooter said, “don’t you think people would have been nicer to you? Or, I don’t know, involved you?”

Jake didn’t respond. The waitress came out with two oval plates, one with cheese fries and another with chicken fried steak. The waitress was more dignified than her plaid shirt and stained apron allowed. She was going gray at the temples and had wrinkles around her eyes and lips, the consequences of a lifetime of smiling. She winked at Jake as she placed his plate on the table. It was disconcerting. Jake still couldn’t get around the idea that everybody was faking, and the woman seemed to him little more than big hair and an apron, which was exactly how she would be on television.

“Okay,” Scooter said, holding up a sloppy piece of fried meat on the end of his fork, “What about me?”

“You’re either the only one I can trust, or the best fucking ringleader in the world.”

Scooter just smiled and chewed his food. He played games. He was always playing games.

“God,” Jake said between bites, “You’re such an ass hat.”

Scooter swallowed and took a sip of water. “Whatever. So is it my turn to drive?”

Jake nodded.

“You know,” Scooter said, “your car doesn’t go for shit, and this food tastes like a fried tire.”

“It’s gonna be a hell of a trip.” Jake said it sarcastically, but with just a hint of sorrow.

They ate in silence for a few minutes and Jake’s face turned more and more toward his plate. Finally he was staring down at it intently, frowning like he’d found Jesus in the rubbery cheese and little pools of grease, and it wasn’t what he was looking for after all.


“I don’t know. I guess I just thought leaving would feel more liberating, but it’s just a big downer.”

“What are you talking about?” Scooter’s words were muffled and halted by chewing. “You’re getting a second chance and we’ve left that awful town behind us. You should be excited.”

Jake watched the waitress clean her fingernails as he spoke, “Yeah, I guess, but it’s just odd. When I lived in Barker it felt like I was at summer camp all year round. No matter what I did it wasn’t home, and it would never be home. Nothing made it comfortable. It’s like the whole town was a dorm room, and eventually I knew I had to leave. But now that I’ve gone, it was home. And I’ll never go back again.” He looked back down to his cheese fries. “Things have changed forever for the rambling boys of pleasure.”

“First of all, that’s a good use of a song quote for once,” Scooter said as he scraped his knife back and forth on his plate. “And second of all, what’s so good about a home? They all just fucking break anyway. You, of all people, should know that.”

“You, of all people, should fuck off.”

“Come on man, I‘m being honest. There’s nothing in a home that’s worth holding on to. Everyone in the world is just another disappointing person, even the ones that share DNA. Even you. Even me. Eventually, we’ll either hate each other or just fade out of each other’s lives.”

“Thanks for the negativity. I must be rubbing off.”

“It’s not negativity, it’s honesty. Cling to now. Be your own home.” Scooter had taken on the same kind of energy that he had on stage, a resolve and hardness found rarely outside of religion. The two locked eyes for a second, and Jake thought that the waitress was listening to them even though she hadn’t shifted from the spot where she was cleaning her fingernails across the restaurant. It became clear that he was exposed in a way that he always avoided.

They didn’t say much of anything else until they were back on the road. They just sat there and chewed their food.

. . .

They drove for another four hours as the sun came up to their left, for the first time offering promise for all concerned. They made awful time and blew thick blue smoke all over the scrub fields and sad little towns and fruit stands. They waved to the Mexicans building the roads and the inmates cleaning them. Keep them out. Lock them up. They don’t look like you, they don’t act like you.

This was Scooter talking. Scooter had a million stories about how America was fucking us and everyone else, about depleted uranium shells that kill the soldiers that use them, about old black men who aren’t allowed to vote, about dropped bombs that don’t make the daily news. I don’t know, I wasn’t really paying attention to any of it, and neither was Jake.

“But who’s to say that their problems are any worse than mine? I’m dying too. I’ve been fucked too.” Jake had listened to it for three months now and finally had something to say about it.

“That’s true.” Scooter answered, “But the question is, how do you use that? I’ll tell you something I’ve figured out: life is made up of a series of shitty events designed to turn you into exactly who you need to be. You think you’re making decisions, but you’re not. It’s all just chemicals and market forces. You can’t control any of it, so you might as well use it.”

Scooter didn’t believe any of this, not really. He’s trying just as hard as I am to cobble together a philosophy for himself and for Jake. Fate is just a way to not feel guilty.

They both watched the road, silent, as the tape started over. Out in the scrub fields a dead mesquite tree made a half-hearted grab for heaven, and for fourteen seconds it was just that tree and the wind.

Track 12 – Adventure - Be Your Own Pet

Jake went up to work to get his stuff out of the office and to tell Scooter he was leaving. Mostly he was looking for some CDs and a flyswatter he had bought for summertime when the bugs hover inches from the food, never quite settling on anything long enough to swat. He didn’t really need it, but he didn’t want to leave behind a trace of himself at Fargo’s.

He saw Meyer’s car when he pulled up and instantly his stomach turned. For once it wasn’t alcohol or the buttershits. Normally he shrank from a situation like this, and he was tempted to wait it out across the street. The dickhead had to go home sometime. How else would he enjoy the fruits of our labor?

But he was pushed by a bigger desire to leave this place behind forever. Maybe it was the lesser of two cowardices. He turned off the engine and got out of the car. Slowly and surely he started walking across the parking lot to Fargo’s Subs, making sure to look straight ahead. He was a point on a line to the office door.

Meyer saw him in the parking lot and got up from the table he had been sitting at all day with Chris, the GM. Chris, the GM, stayed seated but stared openly with a mix of amazement and horror at what was to come. One of the other managers leaned over to him and said, “That dude is so fucked.”

Meyer was yelling before he got out the door, and Jake was still ten steps from hearing any of it. All he saw was the mouth moving big and wide while Meyer walked toward him. He was introduced to the tirade in the middle as Meyer swung the door open, but he got the gist of it, like a sitcom only seen from the first break on. He’d seen it all before.

“… have you been? You think this job is a fucking joke? You better fucking look at me, you little shit! Are you amused? Why didn’t you answer your damn phone?” He was red and sweaty like Jake had never seen.

Meyer continued toward Jake, and they met three steps from the front door. Jake kept walking and ducked through the door while it was closing again, leaving Meyer behind him. It was almost like he passed right through him. Staring straight ahead, Jake did his best to ignore that this was dog shit ground into the carpet, the kind of mess that can’t ever be undone. He just wanted to be out of there before it hit him that it couldn’t be taken back.

The door was yanked open behind him, and Meyer just kept on yelling. Jake found that by looking straight ahead he could make it a buzzing on his consciousness, like seeing the roaches out of the corner of his eye, or the flies hovering over the food. They were a nuisance, but they sure as hell weren’t a threat.

Scooter watched everything from the griddle with a look of mild interest as Jake passed the table that the managers were sitting at.

“Chris,” Jake said in casual greeting that was the most they had spoken in months, but nobody heard him over shit fuck ass motherfucker doesn’t know what he’s doing. Jake opened the office door and Meyer was right behind him.

Jake found his CDs. The flyswatter was nowhere to be found, so he grabbed something else he’d be needing instead. Then he turned around. Meyer was blocking his path, like a bull about to charge. His nostrils were flaring. This would be harder than Jake had planned.

Then he noticed that Meyer had a booger dangling from his huge nostrils, clinging for dear life as it trembled in the wind. It turns out Meyer was just a caricature, a cliché, laughable and overblown. He’s just a construction, cobbled together from the ugly parts of every job I ever quit. If he wasn’t, we might be stuck here.

Jake couldn’t help but laugh. Thanks to the small kindness of dry mucus, he was empowered, he had free will. If only for a moment, he was visible, alive, and he didn’t even have to use the twelve-inch kitchen knife. Meyer didn’t know what to do about it.

“What the fuck are you laughing at?”

Jake looked Meyer right in the eyes for the first time ever, and suddenly found he wasn’t in control of the situation any more. He had to speak, he had no choice.

“This place is bullshit,” Jake said. “You are bullshit.” He squeezed past him out the door and walked past the manager’s table again. “Chris,” he said, this time as goodbye forever. When he reached the door he put up the sign he had taken from the office.

He turned around to see Meyer standing right where he had left him. He was going to say, “You know, Meyer, you were right. This town is great, there’s always somebody else who’s willing to do my job.” But come on. He shuffled backwards with his lips parted and couldn’t do it. Instead, he waved to Scooter and went out the door. He never looked back. He didn’t see Scooter jump over the food line, take off his apron, and leave it in the lobby without saying a word to anyone.

And that’s how the Help Wanted sign went up.

Track 11 – Oh, There’s Legwork - None More Black

Jake woke up on the futon feeling like a vise was on his head. He was prone to dwell on this kind of thing, and he thought that you could turn the crank until the bone just gave suddenly, leaking ideas and blood everywhere. In his mind it happened in his eighth grade woodshop class. He was bent over the table and his teacher, who had all of his fingers, was giving it a quarter turn and yelling out, “Cursing is a crutch!”

For a minute, he forgot about last night, which is good because even in his own self-concept he would have become more of a pathetic loser than a tragic hero. I am not implying, however, that Jake is going to do something heroic. He tried to get up and fell over before he remembered his ankle. He was so tired of waking up to surprises and a hangover. He was an hour late for work already. He decided not to go, which was a monumental occurrence.

When he sat down in front of the computer and shook the mouse, he saw the conversation from last night on his screen. He stared at it for a moment, then quickly got up and turned off the monitor. Instead of thinking about it, he turned on the TV.

The TV had plenty to say about the state of the world. America was maybe invading somebody else again. A black man killed some white folk, but for some reason nobody white committed any crimes. An old lady needs air conditioning or she’ll die. Bees! Killer bees! They were the kinds of things that Scooter would talk about, the things that are Wrong. America is going to die foaming at the mouth with a bullet in its head. Jake wrote that down because he didn’t have anyone to say it out loud to.

He turned off the TV and went hopping over to his stereo. Taped to it was a note with drops of dried, rusty brown blood on it.

There’s a tape in the stereo I thought might help.
PS – I didn’t shit on you

The phone rang and Jake ignored it. He bent over and turned on the tape. It was a song he’d heard a hundred times. I didn’t write it—it’s a real song by a real band. The songs I wrote were never any good. It’s called “Scream Until You’re Coughing Up Blood” by Against Me! The exclamation point is theirs, not mine. Here are a few lines:

Everything you’ve got to hold on to,
Everything you relied on to be there for you is completely fucked.
There’s a skeleton of loyalty hanging in the gallows of your heart
(no one wins this one)

The phone rang its usual death rattle. Jake ignored it. The song is about friendship, I guess, and about not being complacent. Here’s another line:

Are we just drinking buddies playing with each other’s dearest vulnerability?

Jake pulled out a blank tape and started pulling CDs down. This was the song. It was the ending he had been looking for forever, and he had never heard it like this before. It was beauty all in and of itself. It was his mission statement.

Really, it could have been almost any song. In fact, it probably wasn’t this one. What mattered most was Jake realizing that the songs were just a start, that there was more to him than guts and atoms and music. He could play the tape for Alex and then say that this kept him alive for a time, but she could keep him alive now. And it would be okay again. He felt like it was destiny, and as misguided as it may be he was trying a new survival scheme. Every story Jake had ever read was about a girl.

The phone rang. Here’s another line:

I don’t feel anything unless we are living and dying for each other every second of our lives.

Jake knew exactly what he had to do. Suddenly his miniscule world could no longer contain him. It felt like a coffin. Or a falling elevator. Here’s another line:

If we don’t get out of here right now we’re just gonna end up
Drunk fucking, fighting, and working machines.

It was done. Jake pulled it out and wrote his name on it with a marker, knowing it was finally as good as he would ever make it. It was as good a reason to live as any. It was as good a reason to leave as any.

. . .

Jake finally answered the phone as he pushed stop and pulled out the mix tape. It was Kimmy.

“Jake, shit, where have you been?”

“Here. Why?” He was nonchalant, indifferent. None of this mattered any more.

Kimmy’s concern was motherly and almost visible. “Meyer’s been calling you all day. He is so pissed off.”

“Let him be.” He meant it.

“Are you serious?”

“Look, I hate the phone. If you want to talk come over.” He invited her to his shit-hole life. He had done it because he wasn’t ashamed of it, and it was all crumbling anyway.


“I just feel like a talking head on the phone. If you’re coming over come over.”

. . .

“I’m sorry, I’m leaving.” Jake said it with a straight face the way he often did when he quoted something no one in the room had heard of because he couldn’t think of anything better.

“What?” Kimmy’s eyes were as empty as ever, but Jake knew now that it was an illusion. She wasn’t stupid, she wasn’t empty. He had been empty and he wasn’t telling. That’s why she never got it.

“I’m sorry I cut you out. I’m sorry I didn’t touch you back that night when you hung all over me.” Kimmy’s eyes were getting shimmery like stars or saran wrap, Jake couldn’t decide which. “And I’m sorry I can’t like you. I’m broken. You don’t know the half of it, and I’m sorry about that too.”

Kimmy just looked up at him. He didn’t know what to do.

“Here, I made these.” He handed her his box of tapes. She looked inside it and put it down by her feet.

“For me?” she asked plaintively.

“No, they’re not really for anybody.” Jake was truly sorry about all of it, but he didn’t know how to do this.

“What are they?”

“It’s me. At least, it’s parts of me. The parts I’m leaving behind.”

“I don’t understand.”

Jake was looking down at his shoes with his arms crossed. After a long pause he said, “It’s all just a bunch of bullshit and I’m tired of it. I’m sorry you knew me now and not before, or maybe later.”

He didn’t say I’m sorry you don’t really know me at all.

“I’m not.” Kimmy looked up at him with hope that maybe all her persistence and happiness had maybe, just maybe, made him want to come back here some day.

“You know,” Jake said, breaking into a sort-of laugh, “You’re the only nice person in this town. Don’t forget it.”

He turned away and started pulling the music off the wall. He needed some boxes if he was going to store it somewhere.

“I’ll miss you,” she said, staring down at the box, not knowing what else there was to say.

“I know you will,” he said, not turning around. He worked with a purpose—he had to go as soon as possible. It all had to be dismantled and put away for safekeeping. Just the music. He heard her pick up the box of tapes and open the door. When he turned around again she was gone.

It would be okay. She was still whole. She would get over it, and she would be smiling again. That’s why she didn’t get it. That’s why he couldn’t save this.

Track 10 – Waste of Paint - Bright Eyes

Jake had a big bag of ice wrapped around his ankle and he was pissed about it. It was the time when you didn’t know whether to call it night or morning, and he was working on a mix tape. But he couldn’t get to the records on top because of his foot. You can’t make a mix tape with L through Z.

Scooter had cut both his hands open pretty badly. Jake took him to the hospital and committed insurance fraud, ignoring his foot because Scooter wouldn’t do anything about bleeding to death when it would bankrupt the record label. Jake had been scared white the whole time they were at the emergency room. He tried his best not to limp or wince or look drunk. Afterward they split up the painkillers. Now Jake was at home self-medicating and Scooter had gone back to his house to pick at his stitches.

So Jake kept thinking about a middle-aged, gray-haired executive penetrating his asshole in white collar prison and getting shanked in the shower. All Jake knew about prison was the clichés. He wanted to scream. He pressed record before remembering he had rewound the tape to check the pacing, and just like that he had ruined a night’s work.

He pulled the tape out and threw it at the back wall, disgusted. It wasn’t coming together right anyway.

He decided to get on the internet.

Let me tell you something about the internet: the internet is better than TV. The internet isn’t constantly calling you ugly. The internet doesn’t concern itself with your having lots of money, or having the right things, or how much sex you have. The internet loves you for your mind.

That is, unless you’re looking for sex. Then you can find all manner of uninterested, glazed over women doing things you hope your mom doesn’t know people do. They won’t say anything about the uncle that used to touch them when they were young or the gang rape when they were in junior high. Or they won’t say that they were just bored and needed the money. They won’t say that this is the only way they can ever feel, and even now they don’t feel anything. Jake didn’t see the point of masturbation anymore. There’s always too much guilt involved, and he starts thinking that maybe he should be donating to charity, or he starts thinking about the ways he disappointed his dad. Maybe that’s depression—being too sad to jerk off.

Anyway, there’s something slightly off about the internet. It’s like being in a movie set that looks like your bedroom. Almost real life. Almost. It’s why any story that involves email or instant messaging instantly loses any claim to validity.

Lex3Goon: hey

Jake stared at this little window on his computer screen, thousands of ones and zeros coming together to form words and syllables.

LessThanMe: hey?

Lex3Goon: its alex

Jake’s eyes grew wider as he stared at those two words with seven letters. The neurons and synapses in his brain took over for the ones and zeros, alcohol and painkillers lubricating the whole thing as they created her image in the room.

She was as stunning as always. Her brown hair had gotten a bit longer, and she was perhaps an inch taller. Her green eyes were shiny, and her face was fresh and new like she had grown up in a world without despair and hatred. She was wearing a sterile white jumpsuit with red piping and a nametag that said “Lex3Goon.” She was made primarily of Lone Star Beer and Codeine, and to Jake she was enough. But I need to assure you that she was fake, as all sterile things are.

She stood there with her arms crossed and her hips cocked, like she used to when she was trying not to laugh at Jake being stupid. When she spoke a little bubble formed over her head like in a comic strip, typing out the words.

“Lex3Goon: how r u?”

Jake was fumbling, trying to figure out what to make of things, what to say. He could plan out his thoughts, craft something wonderful, dynamic. Of course, he didn’t.

“LessThanMe: I’ve been ok, I guess. I hurt my ankle,” he said, gesturing downward, “how about you?”

She smiled, buying his lies. “Lex3Goon: ive been great, im working for a publishing company up here. they pay me pretty well and ive been taking classes at nite”

“Lex3Goon: howd you hurt your ankle”

Jake couldn’t think straight, he was so excited. All he could say was, “LessThanMe: that’s cool.” And then, as he read: “LessThanMe: oh, just being an idiot with a friend.”

“Lex3Goon: sounds like a blast. were you durnk?”

Jake smiled, she still couldn’t type.

“LessThanMe: no just stupid. do you like seattle?”

“Lex3Goon: i love it!!1 its so much fun” She was so beautiful when she was excited. She was pure and simple like ones and zeros.

“Lex3Goon: are you still playing music?”

Jake didn’t remember her ever saying anything about his band, but it had been a long time and she knew it had mattered to him, once. He didn’t know what to say. He didn’t want to sound like a failure, despite everything. But he couldn’t lie about this.

“LessThanMe: everything i made is trite and cheap and a waste of paint, of tape, of time.”

She crossed her arms and frowned down at him. “Lex3Goon: don’t you quote Conor Oberst to me. If you want to get down on yourself do it in your own words.”

Jake had always tried to get her to listen to something good, something she had never heard of. She was always caught up in the latest thing. Maybe she had finally taken his advice.

“LessThanMe: you like Bright Eyes?”

“Lex3Goon: not really. Its awfully pretentious.”

Her face went serious, and she took a seat across from him. This is all happening too fast for my taste, but I can’t seem to come up with anything more. She put her hand on his knee and said “Lex3Goon: well, listen, i just wanted to make sure you were ok. i know its been awhile since… everything. but you cross my mind a lot, and i still remember.”

She knew some of what everything was, but not all.

Jake smiled big. His head was clearing. She remembered him. He played it cool.

“LessThanMe: i’m fine. Its good to hear from you.”

Alex stood up, satisfied, and started toward the door. She called out behind her.

“Lex3Goon: well thats great. listen, ive got to get to sleep. stop by if youre ever in seattle ;)”

She winked as she walked out the front door. It closed with a canned sound file. Kachunk.

Jake called after her. “Wait, Alex! Wait!” and then, softly so she couldn’t hear, “I miss you.” It all faded away and he was in his room, alone, talking to no one. It was how it always was, but suddenly he couldn’t bear it anymore. He had hallucinated some of it or even the whole thing, but to him it was real and it had wrecked everything. He fell out of his chair and cried.

He cried because he didn’t feel anymore, and he was tired of it. He cried because he was invisible. He cried because there was nothing left to do and he was empty. He must have loved her. He must still love her. It was the only possible explanation.

Track 9 – Boat Dreams From the Hill - Jawbreaker

“You know, the only two things I remember my dad saying, like, clearly, in his own voice,” Jake said, “was, ‘Make us proud’ and ‘don’t quit your day job.’”

Dad always had a cliché handy. Jake hated clichés. It’s why he hates the world I’ve made for him, and probably why he hates himself.

They were sitting at the edge of a twenty-foot-tall concrete ramp. I think it was at the town dump. At any rate, there was a lot of junk around. Burned out cars, steel girders, toilet seats, and below them, broken beer bottles. Scooter had found the place and brought the bolt cutters. Jake had brought the ice chest full of beer.

It was the kind of place that Jake was always looking for. It was full of symbolism and fit the mood and said a lot about consumerism and what was wrong with this picture. It was the kind of place that was dusty because grass didn’t grow and had a smell most people would call offensive, like thick wet pizza left out in the sun. It was the kind of place where pieces of paper stuck to the concrete by the power of gum and chicken scraps and a rotten orange, and the corners flapped when the wind blew. It was the kind of place where animals go to die.

“You put those two together and you have the worst advice I’ve ever fucking heard.” Scooter dropped an empty bottle to the ground below. It shattered in a satisfying, crunchy ring.

Jake smiled and leaned back on the ramp until the blood was going downhill to his head. It mixed with the alcohol to make him feel good. Far away, an old man sat on the hood of a car underneath a light pole, wearing a heavy military jacket and drinking from a paper bag. From this distance he was a formless shadow in the halo of light, grays and greens barely moving in soft lines. His face lacked expression, either from the inability to make it out or from a long, hard truth. Jake watched it upside down, unseen in the darkness, as the man sat there, motionless except for his right hand attached to that bag.

Scooter leaned over too far to spit, balancing himself on the edge. Sometimes Jake could swear Scooter had a death wish. Besides getting beaten up by frat boys (even now, he was covered in fresh bruises and one of his eyes was crisscrossed with red veins), he would often cross the street at random to see if people would stop. He would trip on purpose and not catch himself. And he would probably jump off the ramp before the night was over. But for now he leaned back too far and said, “So why’d you give up your band? Just because your dad’s a dick?”

“Was a dick.” Jake was starting to take things in stride. Maybe it was because he saw in Scooter some small chicken scrap of something to cling to. Maybe it was because he was a masochist too. Or maybe it was something else that I can’t seem to get the pulse of, but the ebb of it makes sense to me. He stopped, leaned up on his elbows, took a swig of beer, and thought about it.

“It was actually the first show we’d ever played. We were playing some dinky festival in a parking lot. This was after… you know, everything… had happened, and everybody said I should just keep at it, that life gets better.”

Scooter had pried Jake’s whole life out of him up to this point, so he knew what everything meant. At least, he had a nice summary to work from, enough to file things away in the right drawer.

“What was your band’s name?”

“I’m not telling”

“Why the hell not?”

“It’s ridiculous,” Jake said, sprawling back out on the ramp.

“Christ,” Scooter said, looking up at the stars. “You know, it’s impossible for everything you do to be awful.”

“Fine… it was called Jungle Gym Fever.”

Which is funny, because that was my band’s name. This story I’m telling is full of odd coincidences like that, each an oblique sharing of my failures. Jake continued before Scooter could comment, knowing that he wouldn’t but wanting to be safe.

“Anyway, it was really fucking windy out, I mean really windy. We started the first song and the drummer’s set list blew away, and then I forgot what song we were playing. At one point in that first song we were playing three different songs at once.” Jake let his beer roll down the ramp, tilting his head back to watch it roll into the dust. “It didn’t matter. After two songs there was only one person there watching. Even my dad had walked off. It was the most depressing thing ever.”

Scooter laughed and said, “This from a guy who later walked in on his dad hanging himself. So, is that why you don’t talk to Alex?”

“What?” Jake wasn’t listening—he only half asked it—because the old man had stood up and started trying to break open the car’s door. He pulled on the handle a few times and it groaned, but nothing happened. He set his bag on the roof and picked something up off the ground, Jake couldn’t tell what, and he put it through the window, the sound of it mimicking the broken bottles below them. Then he brushed the glass aside with his sleeve and crawled through, laying down on what must have been a bench seat.

“Because you can’t handle rejection.”

“Shut up.”

“I’ll shut up when you stop being a pussy.” Scooter said it as he looked Jake right in the eyes, dead serious. Jake hated that word—his dad used to use it when there was no one else around.

“I thought you didn’t use the word. You said it’s degrading to vaginas everywhere.”

“See, I gave you a chance to dodge the question, and you did.”

Jake sat up and let the blood go back to his legs. They had fallen asleep, dangling over the side, so he pulled them up and sat with his legs crossed. He turned around to watch the old man, but he was still lying down in the front seat, out of view. Jake wanted another beer but didn’t want to get up and walk over to the cooler.

Scooter, still lying down, looked at the sky and smiled. “And anyway, what alternatives are there? There’s really no other word than pussy for when you really mean it.”

Jake stood up slowly to get that beer. He walked over to the cooler and pulled out a bottle, twisting the cap off with his shirt.

“You still haven’t answered,” Scooter said.

Jake sighed, knowing that this would go on forever if it had to. Over the course of a few months, Scooter had shifted tactics, from manipulation to trickery and now to nagging. He wouldn’t let it go—he wanted everything about Jake in its proper place. Scooter, for all his DIY assuredness and bloody-lip zen, often had the finesse of a toddler. Jake rarely noticed this—he took a sip of beer and gagged a little bit on it.

“Fine,” he said, “You know the mix tapes I make?”

Scooter looked up at him. “They’re for her, aren’t they?”

“I can’t explain.”

“I understand.”

“No,” Jake said, “What I mean is I can’t explain to her how I feel, who I am, anything. So I’m making her a tape.”

Scooter sat up fast and fell off the ramp.

“Goddammit!” Jake yelled, hobbling over on his tingly legs to look. He got down on his hands and knees because he didn’t trust himself and peered over the edge.

Scooter was on the ground, face up, holding his wrist and laughing. It was too dark to make out more than shapes—everything was blacks and grays. Jake just saw a shaking mass rolling back and forth down there. It was almost like trying to make out the old man and his bottle in a bag.

“Are you dead?” Jake called down.


“Are you a fucking idiot?” Jake said this as he stood up to come down the ramp.

“Most assuredly,” Scooter responded, and then, as Jake disappeared from his view, “If you come down the ramp any other way than vertically I’ll shit on you in your sleep. I mean it.”

Jake paused and turned around to look over the ledge again. He knew Scooter did whatever he wanted, and he knew Scooter could pick a lock. He’d done it more than once before. He was pretty sure Scooter could shit under pressure. Scooter could do a lot of things.

He weighed the options. He was drunk now, but he would have sobered up by the time Scooter broke in to shit on him. He would also sober up pretty quickly at the hospital. It was a fairly even split, except the smell would probably linger on his skin, and he couldn’t imagine smelling that with a hangover. Smells are more important than pain with enough beer in the equation.

“Just try to land on your feet, and don’t put your hands in the glass like I did.”

Jake took a step forward so that his toes hung over the edge, but he wasn’t going to do it. He just wanted to see what it would look like.

“And bend your knees when you land, or the shock goes straight to your balls.”

Jake turned around to see the bum sitting up in the car, watching him. Somewhere along the way their roles had reversed. Now he was interesting. Great.

Jake began to whisper to himself. “This is so fucking juvenile. I can’t believe this shit. Oh God Dammit.”

Track 8 – Returning to the Fold - The Thermals

Jake sits up in his hospital bed and eats his lunch. Molly is asleep in the chair next to the bed, and the soft light coming in through the blinds makes her an angel again. Jake supposes she must love him—it’s all very new to him. At the very least she doesn’t want him to die. And she visits him every day, which is nice. It’s been five years since anything’s been nice.

But still he doesn’t know what to do with her, so he just looks at her while she sleeps. That’s really all he can do, anyway. He still hurts too much for anything else. It’s the kind of pain that radiates outward and never settles in one place, perhaps because there are too many options in his body. Every four hours they come and give him something and he feels a little better. They say he won’t be able to leave for weeks. His health insurance running out at the end of the month says otherwise. Jake now and then considers that quitting his job wasn’t the best thing to do before a car wreck.

She opens her eyes and smiles at him. “How’s your head?” Jake asks as his pounds away miserably. It isn’t so bad with her awake.

She sits up, still smiling. She’d been complaining of a headache right before he passed out again. The doctor said that the blackouts would happen for awhile but would pass in time, that it was just the nature of a traumatic head injury. Don’t take that for truth, though, because I made the doctor up and all his degrees are fake. Jake is used to it from drinking so much, anyway. Who knows how long ago that was, but now he has lunch.

She leans forward to put her hand on his leg, but the sheets collapse under her hand’s weight. Her smile fades and she apologizes for calling attention to it.

Jake tries to cheer her up. “Don’t worry, I’m somebody’s fetish now.”

“That’s not funny,” she grumbles, and then breaks into her half-smile. “You only lost one leg. They’re not going to want to look at you unless there’s some kind of symmetry in your loss.”

“They’ll change their minds after they see the stump, baby.”

This whole conversation is fake, but they smile through it anyway. Jake reaches forward and grabs her hand, squeezes it once mechanically, and then lets it go.

Molly looks up at him and smiles for real. “You’ve really got to learn to show affection if you want to keep me around.”

“Who says I do?”

“You know, it’s not too late to lose the middle leg.”

This is the first time they’ve talked that’s approached normalcy, as if there really is moving past loss outside of it being a nice concept. For now it’s fake, but maybe not forever. Jake looks her right in the eyes for the first time since he left her there in that hotel room. He has spent all his time since then either avoiding them or unconscious. They are wonderful, sparkling blue and very inviting. He clears his throat to say something, but she looks away before he speaks and he holds his tongue.

She might as well have left the room. Her eyes gloss over and she’s very far away and she pulls her knees up to her chin and she’s so tiny in that chair. Jake plays with the buttons on his bed, moving up and down until she looks back at him. Her face is showing a subtle sorrow that can just as easily be perceived as blankness or something caught in the teeth.

“I hope you don’t mind,” she says, “but I went through Scooter’s things. I guess… I was making sure there weren’t any more surprises. Anyway, I found this.” She digs into one of her front pockets and holds forward a crinkled photograph that Jake has never seen before.

Jake takes it and holds it up to the light. “Jesus Christ.”

“My thoughts exactly. Read the back.”

Molly leans forward and steals Jake’s dessert while he’s looking at the picture. It’s pudding, and she’s being playful so she won’t get in trouble and so maybe he won’t have to take it all in at once. She’s being playful because I need her to be. To draw out the inevitable. I gave Jake the photograph just now, which is bad storytelling because I’m not going to give it to you until later, but I gave it to him because he’s lucid and awake and it’s time to start processing things. “So, you never said how long you’d known him,” she says.

Jake puts the picture on the bedside table and looks down at his tray. He shoots Molly a dirty look when he sees his dessert gone and she just waves the spoon mischievously. “I’ll give you a bite if you answer me.”

“Three months, I guess. We hung out pretty much every day after work. If it was a weekday we’d go get drunk at the Wash Room. Sometimes I helped him mail out records. That was about it. Some nights he would go out and get beat all to hell, and then crash on my floor, but I never went with him then. Now that I think about it, he went with me everywhere, but I never went with him to anything that was his idea.”

He remembered watching bad zombie movies all night. He remembered drinking in all kinds of public places where they shouldn’t be. And he remembered waking up to blood in the toilet and Scooter sprawled on the dirty tile.

“Oh yeah,” Molly says, leaning over with the spoon to give Jake some, “you guys were really onto something revolutionary.”

Jake tries to take it, but she pulls it away at the last second.

“Oh, I see now,” he says.


“You’re a bitch.”

“Very funny.” She gives him some pudding for real, then says, “There’s a little record store down the road from the hotel. I thought you might want something from there.”


“You sure? It’s not my money anyway. I feel weird spending it all on me.”

“He’d want you to spend it.”

“He’d want you to spend it more.”

Jake sighs and looks out the window. “Me and him are square.”

She takes a spoon of pudding and taps his nose with it, leaving a shiny brown dab on his nose right where his eyes can make it out. “You’re being stubborn.”

He wipes it off and eats it, and she puts the pudding down on his tray and sits back in the chair. He goes back to eating. She draws up her legs again and looks out the window while Jake eats. It becomes very apparent that she is not looking at him on purpose, just like the last time. She’s going through motions, acting out how she thinks this should go, spoon-feeding it all like it was a damn pudding. She’s rehearsed this, she has an agenda. Jake wonders what he should do with her.

“What?” he asks between mouthfuls.

“You know, Jake,” she says, “I have to tell you something else.” She leans in too close again and takes his hand, “And you’re not going to like it.”

“What?” Jake asks, steeling himself for a display of emotion he won’t be able to handle. He doesn’t want to fuck up whatever she is supposed to be, even if he doesn’t know what that is.

“I… when….” She doesn’t know how to say it after all. “I knew.”

She looks down and starts crying. “I knew all of it. He asked me not to tell you, that it would work out. I wish I would have told. I don’t even know why he told me.”

Jake looks at her hands grasping his. They were so small, so fragile. He turns his hand face up and squeezes hers.

She looks up at him with a wet mask of a face.

“It’s okay.”


There is a long pause before Jake answers.

“No,” he says, and he pauses again, “but it will be someday. It happened his way. It always happened his way. You couldn’t have stopped this anymore than I could have. And I don’t know that I would have wanted to.”

The truth is I needed it to happen his way. I needed it to happen more than you could possibly imagine. Otherwise I wouldn’t have a story, I wouldn’t have these friends. I wouldn’t have anything left anymore.

Track 7 – I’m a Panic Bomb, Baby! - Bomb the Music Industry!

At the end of the shift Jake found Scooter on the back stoop, smoking. It struck him as strange, because smokers normally asked for a smoke break every two hours, and Scooter never had. He had also been sent home a long time ago.

“You smoke?” Jake asked.

Scooter looked up at Jake. “Nah, it’s just what everybody does out here.” Then he flicked his cigarette out over the gravel, sending orange sparks skittering into the street.

He held up his almost full pack and said, “Want one?”

Jake sat down next to him. “Only when I’m drunk.”

For some reason Scooter didn’t make Jake nervous, even though he was more confident than anyone Jake had ever met. There was just something there, it was very disarming.

“Speaking of, I was supposed to have band practice tonight, but then we broke up. Want to go get plowed?”

They shared a general indifference to the world is what it was. Jake shrugged.

“Sure, why not.”

Scooter smiled. “Good, ‘cause I need a ride to the bar.”

Jake didn’t know what else to say, so he just looked down at Scooter’s shoes. They were red Chuck Taylors, ratty as all hell, and they had writing all over them.

Checkered patterns in black ink across the bottom, little doodles all over the canvas, and written across the toes on one God may call me home and on the other But the devil drives me onward. Jake thought they were to attract attention, but he didn’t know why Scooter needed anything like that. Jake desperately clung to other people’s outer illusions. He convinced himself that maybe they were a reminder.

Jake wanted to ask about them, but he couldn’t word it, so he just said, “Why’d your band break up?”

“My drummer’s penis found its way into my guitar player’s girlfriend. Hilarity ensues.” Scooter picks up a piece of gravel and throws it after his cigarette. “I guess it’s good I have this day job.”

Jake wanted to laugh but he felt like it would be ruining something. Instead, he frowned at the stream of soda syrup that was running between them from the kitchen, bisecting the stoop into two awkward halves. “You know, I don’t remember saying that, about the day job.”


Jake didn’t know what he meant. “It's what my dad said to me, when I was in a band.”

“That’s bullshit,” Scooter said, spitting between his outstretched legs.

Jake didn’t know what Scooter meant by that either. He was fumbling his way through a real conversation like he hadn’t had one in a long time, which was more than true enough. There were sarcastic remarks to make Kimmy laugh, and then there was this morning, but that was it. “No, it’s really not.”

“Yes it is, and you should tell him so.”

“I can’t,” Jake said, watching a bird hop among the food scraps left by a ripped bag of trash. “He’s dead.”

Scooter let out a sarcastic laugh. “Well, there’s some fuckin’ exposition for you. How’d that happen?”

“Hung himself.”

“Well, it’s probably because you weren’t good enough.”

Jake didn’t say anything. It wasn’t that he was hurt—he was used to people chewing him up. It’s just that he was walking in on that broken ceiling fan with the rope tied to it all over again. He was looking at the bloated, blue face with the black tongue and the ruined family and now he was all that was left and did that make things better? They had always hated each other.

“C’mon,” Scooter said as he slapped Jake on the knee, “let’s go get drunk before the conversation gets depressing.”
. . .
The nice thing about a bar is that two men can talk without looking at each other. The truth from a man is a skittish thing, sometimes, and confiding eyes can kill any mood. They were back at the Wash Room, back at the logical beginning of this story. They sat at the bar on one end by themselves. Scooter didn’t ask the usual questions. “Where are you from?” “What do you do?” “A/S/L?” He didn’t expect them, either. The answers didn’t really matter to him—he was concerned with who you were right now. He asked real questions.

“You ever do a girl in the ass?”

“No, never did a girl in the ass.” Jake had spent a great deal of the afternoon trying to laugh at the appropriate times and looking straight ahead. He was getting better at it.

“Don’t. It’s not worth the conversation or the risk.”

“Got it.”

“I’m not kidding, man. This is a serious thing with consequences. The guy says it’s about acceptance and understanding, that kind of usual manipulation, and he presses the issue for months, and then before he knows it she’s shit all over his dick and he’s doing his best not to throw up on her. Grim business.”

“Duly noted.” They sipped their beers.

“Damn right duly noted. Relationship ender. Juliet defecates on Romeo.”

Jake started laughing nervously.

“What, too much?”

“No, it’s funny.”

“It’s not funny! It’s a tragedy!”

“Yeah, I know.”

Scooter sighed and shook his head. “I think you need more beer.”

Scooter walked over to the bartender who had given him the finger and ordered two more cheap beers. He came back and set one in front of Jake.

“Okay, follow up. What the fuck are you doing in Barker?”

“I could ask you the same,” Jake said.

“Fair enough, but I asked first.”

“College dropout. Then management material.”

“Run your own store one day, son.”

“No, I think they knew I would level off.”

“Run your own shift, then.”


“Day manager at a restaurant. You’re living the first generation immigrant’s dream. Your papers say Jakewitz, but here in America we’ll call you Jake.”

They took a long sip each.

“Okay, your turn,” Jake said.

“Couldn’t tell ya.”


“Serious. Kind of drifted in. Guitar player went to college, I was his roommate, so I went to college. We lived together for a semester before we hated each other and I rented a house. I like being near a college. Every now and then I still sneak into a class on thermodynamics, English, whatever. Reminds me what I’m doing with myself. You can play music anyplace, and I’m here.”


“Not to mention I’ve been twenty-one two months now and haven’t been carded in the past three years in this town. It’s a matter of don’t look like an asshole with a fake ID.”

From this point, Jake and Scooter quickly discovered their common religion, which was music and drunkenness. Jake bought the next round and they talked about bands they liked and didn’t like. It was a test of wills. Whether or not Dear You is the best Jawbreaker album. When, specifically, Alkaline Trio became a ridiculous self-parody. Scooter claimed the Descendents only made one good record, Milo Goes to College. Jake thought that was horse shit. They danced around these dropped names for an hour and drank. I won’t give it all to you because it sounds like what it is: mating rituals for dysfunctional children.

Then Scooter said, “Don’t be alarmed but I’m changing the subject.”

“I’m alarmed.”

“That Kim girl.”

“Nope. Hell no.”

“Why not?”

“We just hung out the one time. That’s it.”

“Right,” Scooter said, “at the show. Well, why not? I know your dad doesn’t disapprove.”

Jake stared down at the floor without talking, trying to look upset that Scooter would talk about his father like that. Mostly he didn’t give a shit because they had always hated each other.

Scooter saw right through it. He laughed into his beer and said, “Just wanted to see if you’d dodge my question about the girl.”

Jake sighed and turned around in his stool, facing out. “No, it’s nothing between us.”

“Really.” Scooter emphasized the word so Jake knew he saw right through it again. “Pool?” he asked, pointing towards the back door with his beer.

Jake followed him out back, and they had the porch all to themselves. Scooter racked up while Jake picked out a cue. They were all warped and crooked, and two of them had cracks running longways down the side. Scooter grabbed one of them and broke. Jake grabbed the other one.

Scooter didn’t say anything else—he was concentrating on the game. One shot after another he sank each of the stripes, running the table before Jake got a chance to play. Maybe he was proving a point.

Jake watched as Scooter sank the eight, and he had a feeling that this was how the night would go if he didn’t answer the question honestly. Watching it roll smoothly into the hole was enough.

“Alright, fine. There’s this girl named Alexis. Alex. She lives in Seattle, but we haven’t spoken in years. Jesus, are you always this manipulative?”

“I didn’t say a word,” Scooter said, and then burst into a wide grin, “and no, mostly I’m very up front. So call her.”

Jake lined up the shot for the second break, but it caught a bad spot on the felt and hit left. “I don’t have her number, just an old IM screen name.”

“Well then, message her,” Scooter said as he sank the one and seven balls in one shot.
“What, you think things are that easy?”

Scooter smirked and took his next shot. The four ball ricocheted around the side pocket and popped back out as the cue ball rolled back the other way into the corner pocket. “Maybe I don’t.”

Jake couldn’t tell if the scratch was on purpose or not, but he was starting to think Scooter did everything on purpose. He pulled the cue ball out of the cracked leather pouch and set it on the felt.

“Okay, my turn to change subjects,” Jake said.


Jake leaned down to peer at the cue ball straight on. It was a matter of angles lining up just right, like most things. He put his hand over the ball and rolled it over to another spot on the felt, letting it play against the cage of his fingers. “Okay, I got this problem with blackouts due to being alcoholic.”


“So what the hell did we talk about last night? I remember walking up to you, but then it’s like nothing until the next morning.”

“Well,” Scooter said, going over to the railing to get his beer, “you came up and said you liked my shirt. And I said ‘thanks’ and you said something about how you used to be in a band or something and I just nodded and then you said ‘don’t quit your day job.’”

Jake took his shot and missed completely. “Sorry.”

“Don’t be. Anyway,” Scooter sank another one without considering it. “I got pissed and threw my shirt at you, said you could have it and stormed off.”

“Oh.” Jake said as he traded places with Scooter.

“Then you took your shirt off and followed me outside and said we should trade, which was hilarious, by the way.”

Jake thought about it. “Yeah, it makes perfect drunken sense. What you had done was such a bullshit move, and I figured I needed to do the same. But now, you don’t seem the type to do something like that.”

“I’m not,” Scooter said, “but I figured it’s what you expected me to be.”
. . .
They finished a few more rounds of beer and pool and it was time to go because it was Saturday and the kids would be out soon. There was a short, hazy drive to Scooter’s house, which was a run-down shoebox home in the forgotten part of town, not far from Jake’s shit-stained, gray life. They both lived where alumni donations and tuition money didn’t reach, the places that were swept under the rug, the places that weren’t part of the parents’ weekend tour package.

The grass was overgrown in some places and beaten and brown in others. The driveway was cracked in a hundred crooked segments and a rusted basketball goal hung from the side of the house. A dirty net hung from one rung, waiting for only a hard rain to bring it down to earth with the rest of the garbage.

Jake’s station wagon fit the tone perfectly, which made sense, as this is a story. They got out and went around to the back door. Scooter opened it without producing a key.

Inside, the kitchen and living room were stacked high with taped up boxes, all the way to the low ceiling and labeled with six digit numbers. There was no furniture, no pots or pans, no anything besides boxes. Scooter went over to a stack and pulled a cordless phone off the top. He pushed the button to check his messages.

“What is all this?” Jake asked as Scooter held the phone up to his ear.

“See for yourself,” Scooter said, “I gotta take a shit.”

He took the phone with him into the bathroom and closed the door.

Jake pulled down a box at random and picked at the tape. Slowly a corner came up and he pulled it across, bringing part of the box up with it. Inside were seven inch records, a few hundred of them, by a band called Faint Forward. The art was hand drawn and photocopied, and each one had a number on it out of five hundred. On the back were the track list and the words These Are Records.

Scooter came out of the bathroom with the phone still up to his ear. It chattered away but Jake couldn’t make it out. Scooter didn’t seem too concerned with it.

“What is this?” Jake asked again as Scooter hung up the phone, cutting off someone’s aggravated voice.

“It’s my record label,” Scooter said, leaning up against the boxes.

“You have a record label?”

“Yeah, mostly just seven inches, people’s pet projects and stuff, but every once in awhile I’ll do a full length or a compilation.”


“C’mon, I’ll show you,” Scooter said, gesturing to the bedroom. Jake followed him.

It was definitely not a bedroom. The only place to lie down was a ratty old couch that I saw outside a Salvation Army. There was a desk and a folding chair with a computer, fax machine, and printer. The printer had several sheets of paper sitting in the tray, which Scooter took out and set on the desk.

The walls were covered with pictures of bands playing. Scooter had written underneath them on the drywall. Each picture had contact information and Scooter’s personal opinion underneath in black marker.

Jake took the whole thing in.

“What do you think?”

“Holy shit,” Jake muttered.

Scooter smiled and said, “This is what I do when I’m not working for you.”

Jake looked at the wall and saw more than one of his favorite bands in snapshots, playing shows, loading gear, just hanging out, being normal people. Here’s Scooter and Chuck Ragan. Here’s Scooter and Craig Finn. Here’s Scooter with Sleater-Kinney. He was amazed and troubled by it. Apparently his ten-mile radius world was populated with real live people he’d never even known about except as voices and sounds arranged around his own life.

Scooter explained the whole thing to Jake over ten dollars’ worth of the cheapest beer in Texas. He only did mail order and internet orders, nothing brick and mortar. There were no in-store displays or What’s Hot stickers. The single was not on the radio. In fact, there weren’t singles. It was as pure and un-commercial as any business could possibly be.

If Scooter saw you play a show and liked it he would fund a seven inch and only keep enough to fund the next one and buy food and beer for a few months. The rest went to the bands. It was that easy. It wasn’t a business plan, it wasn’t a marketing strategy, it was wanting to hear good music. It was a mix tape on a larger scale.

It was the only reason Scooter had a computer. For a one-man operation with a limited user base he was wildly successful, but he would never say so. Jake realized it himself as he flipped through the label’s catalog, seeing he owned more than a few of its releases without knowing. Scooter said it was more fun to change the label name every few months than build a brand of some kind. For now it was These Are Records, but it had gone by a dozen other names.

Scooter would always take a few of each release to record stores around town and sell them so they ended up in the used bins. Since they didn’t have SKUs and were from largely unknown bands and an unknown label, he only got a dollar per. They sold for three. Jake knew this because he was one of the only people shopping the used record section in Barker, Texas.

Jake quickly began to discover that even though their lives had the same ruined aesthetic on the outside, Scooter wasn’t in any way empty or invisible—he was just anonymous. He was a success, not in the way a degree conferred or your dad told you about, but at being himself. It scared Jake half to death.