“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.”
“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.”
“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.”