Joshua Brooks

[BIO]: Joshua is an MPH candidate at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health.

 

Sitting

It smelled like dust. Something about the carpet. Is this cedar or mahogany? He tapped on the table. They don’t even look the same, do they? He didn’t really know shit about wood. In his mind, those sorts of dialogues started, but then he remembered he didn’t care. He just wished they had—maybe a desire to wow people with discussions about types of wood, wines and architectural styles, shit like that.

Anyway, the carpet smelled like his grandpa’s sweater. He’d always enjoyed that smell, but something about it had turned. As a child, it laid his hairs down. He was an edgy kid. But, now, being close to it—smelling that smell creeping into his own clothes—such a potent harbinger of his coming after-expiration shelf life, it lost the appeal. Now, it felt like he was that bottle of Snapple—boxed up, crated onto a flatbed and on its way to be restocked at the 99 cent store.

When he walked into the library, that dusty smell made his throat choke up. He’d run into a colleague and start some sentence, like, “I’m gonna GUUUUH,” and whatever that smell was would float into his throat, as though someone was holding his uvula between fingers covered in feathers. He’d cough a few times and wave his good hand around and then, if it was one of the people he didn’t talk to much, they’d look at his droopy face and forearm cane and they’d go on assuming that he was retarded, the way kids always think people with disabilities are retarded because they don’t know any better. He’d grown tired of the assumption now, but he understood—at first, it felt that way to him, too.

He choked up at the smell from the books too, though, obviously—considering he was in a master’s program for writing—he liked books. But, he thought, people always talked about how much they like that old book smell like some right of passage, some sign of high society acculturation, looking off at the stacks just under the overhang around the study room.

He chuckled a little, laughing about the things people say—the wine, the architecture, the smell of old books—then felt his left cheek flop around a bit.  He sensed eyes on him and looked up to find a girl staring from another table. Her eyes hung on his droopy face, the way a cat’s do on a string of yarn.

He saw her through one and a half optic nerves. Hers was a look of sad fetishization. It was the only action he could get nowadays. Save the droopy cheek and the “Mos face,” he still looked quite handsome, which was even more awkward because a lot of people expected disabled people to look like Sloth from the Goonies—for whatever reason, that seemed to fall more into their worldview.

He laid his fingers back on the keys. All he had so far was some shitty stream of consciousness flashback-y type bullshit on the page. Pretty hideous stuff. Sure, he’d read Trumbo. He knew it could work. He could imagine Joe still wasting away somewhere—face and appendages blown off, forever memorialized as a Metallica song—streaming his thoughts of days past, trying to Morse code his ass into people’s living rooms in a glass box to show them the ills of war.

It was funny that a story about a story in someone’s mind, that was never told, left us right where we were at that moment, the same as if it’d never been told. Ills of war? He laughed and tried to imagine what April would be like in Iraq.

His computer screen seemed to linger there in front of him, a gaping hole not unlike Terminator T-1000 after a shotgun blast—the pure emptiness of everything behind it. God forbid I’d use such sad internal dialogue, he thought.

He shifted in his seat and caught the same girl flashing a glance, waiting to see him hobble to the bathroom, he assumed. He sighed. It wasn’t always like this—all this mahogany and dust, paralysis and near celebacy. There was a time before one eyeball turned to creamy coconut-vision, his left ear worked half-time and he had to slip his hand into a crutch every time he stood up to piss.

He typed a bit and then just sat there. His fingers moved again and he dreaded the thoughts that came out, the ideas that blahhh-ed through his hands. Half-heartedly, he’d lend his broken hands to a man who’d gotten his hands, face and butthole blown off. It wasn’t Joe, but it was from the same place.

 

“I told you nothing good starts with ‘hippy’ Charles,” Cole said to him holding a Snicker’s bar, “not one single thing.” He hung over his hospital bed, the caramel pulling into small strands, drifted onto his chin, as he bit from the Snickers. “I mean, look at hippies now. It all started with good intentions to stop the Vietnam war and obtain equal rights, but it’s spiraled into a practice in self-masterbation, South Asian transendental escapism and fuckin’ organic food consumption stand-offs between fellow Whole Foods shoppers.” Charles heard it all through one good ear and half-consciousness. If his ribs would have let him, he would have laughed out loud. After all, Cole’s parents were these people he railed against.

“Nothing good starts with hippie,” he repeated. “That’s a fact.” He was chatting with Charles as though he hadn’t just fallen flat on his face from two and a half stories. He was right, though. Nothing good starts with the word hippie.

Only three days earlier, responsibility had hit with a hollow thud—the sound of a woodpecker with a megaphone in his head. Or, if you’ve been so lucky, the sound your temporal bone makes when it fractures, your femur splinters and almost all of the bones on the left side of your body crack one way or another.

That day, the mountains stacked around them. The water was so black, it was like standing at the edge of a cave. The reservoir mirrored an alternate universe somewhere up above, the kind of thing that validated the existence of heaven to people who believed in God or just needed to pee really badly.

Rocker A, Gordon Bleu, Alva, Metal Mike, LA Layla and Charles’ girl at the time, Anime Jolene, sat on the peak of the rock scattered on towels, coolers, and camping chairs. Charles and Cole came crawling up the steep pathway, water dripping from their heads as they dodged pine needles and dirt built up between their toes.

Nicknames were an art in Boulder and if you’d gotten one, it meant you rose above the background noise of a whole community of people trying to stand out. Rocker A coined his own, which everyone agreed with, considering his interest in dance hall, reggae, and the film Rockers that fictionalized Rastafarianism in the 80s. His name was Andrew. Alva just looked like Tony Alva, the Dogtown skateboarder from Venice—simple as that. His curly hair was gilded by sunshine and he wore lil’ 70s short-shorts. Gordon Bleu got his name from Metal Mike, who, during a break in the film Creepshow, shouted the name out, uncharacteristically, like a child saying a silly insult in a French accent. Gordon Bleu’s name was Gordon. LA Layla was actually from Glendale, but her dad was a producer, which afforded her exposure to actors like Ted Danson and Susan Sarandon (her godmother), who would teach her how to ride a horse and set up her webcam—that kinda stuff. Metal Mike, obviously, liked metal music and horror films. And, Anime Jolene, who Charles had been dating for the past three months, got her name for her love of Japanese anime films.

She was the kind of girl who was built for Boulder, content to have the wheel spin and stop wherever it landed, only to do the same thing the next week or the next year. Almost all of the guys there had either hooked up with her or dated her for a week or two, or, rather, she hooked up or dated them (a matter of perspective, really). Her hair had weird highlights, like one of the cartoon characters in her favorite films or a Japanese pop star, and she wore large platform boots.

But, laid out on a towel on the rock, Charles saw all the tattoos on her side and the ones peaking out from behind her ear or under her bikini and imagined her in her birthday suit, like he had her last night, in all its glory, and merely hoped he could keep that ritual up forever, though he knew that was a preposterous wish. They had about as much in common as a hornet and a bee. They seemed so similar, yet deep down, their relationship was like a fanboy telling a bunny enthusiast about a Batman spinoff.

Nevertheless, he naively made himself feel like it could last forever—a desperate attempt to keep the world as he knew it.  Undergrad would be over soon and, more than likely, all of these people would dissipate like a three o’clock storm over the Rockies. Desire seemed fine. It worked well and, if Charles plugged his nose just enough, it smelled like love.

“Can you do a gainer?” Cole asked Charles.

“A hippy jump?” Charles responded.

“Yeah, a gainer,” Cole responded, face twisting at the word hippy, “you run straight and do a backflip while going forward. You know what I’m talking about?”

Charles nodded his head and smiled semi-securely. He walked over to the rock, grabbed the beer next to Jolene, and drank the rest. He pecked her on the lips, which she reciprocated half-heartedly, then he crumpled the beer can and tossed it at his feet. He felt some sense of satisfaction in all this, a warmth toward having the whole crew together—to having it all, more or less. But, the beer, like anesthesia when mixed with the sun, dwarfed his sentimentalism.

He did a little loop to the back of the runway, looked at Cole and said, “I’ma do a hippy jump right now.”

Charles trotted, ran and jumped out over the massive void of a reservoir, trying to arch his back and kick his legs up to get his body to do a backflip as he drifted forward, but only his left leg extended out and his back failed to arch enough to stay straight. His body twisted in the air and he knew he did not clear as much distance as he should have. Charles’ arms waved in the air, trying to fly away from the inevitability of gravity. Then, he saw the blur of the shallower terracotta-colored rock under the water.

He held his left arm up to his face, felt the air displace around him and a brief delay of two or three feet of water and then severe pain along the left side of his body and that woodpecker with its megaphone in his head, the acute pain of things out of place within your skin, shards of what once gave you structure exploding out like the glass hairs of a terrantula into your own tissue. Then, the electrocution of pain set in deeper like water into dirt. And, the darkness of the water surrounded him.

Charles didn’t need someone to explain to him how things fall apart, as he sat there on the porch of their old house. The wheelchair said enough, really. But, so did the mound of bags and boxes his landlord had stacked out front for him. Metal had packed up his horror film collection only four days earlier, peeled his to-do list off the wall (which Rocker A had added “have sex” to at the going away party) and thrown his clothes and gear into his video store friend’s car to head out to St. Louis. Meanwhile, Alva had moved into his friend’s basement where, as he triumphantly told Charles, he could piss into the home’s storm drain whenever he had to go to the bathroom. Rocker A—a paradoxical kind of person, who carried such a love for dance hall, but would turn down a crowd of friends begging him to the raddest party on campus to stay at home and drink a six pack—had moved home to help his father with his behavioral aid program for autistic adults. Gordon Bleu had retired to wherever it was that he disappeared to when he disappeared and LA Layla was somewhere cool, Charles assumed, talking to Hollywood types in half sentences as they listened half-heartedly (1/4th communication, which was actually where Charles was at now).

A shattered left femur, a cracked pelvis, a slipped disc, five broken ribs (one of which gave a nice stab at his insides), a dislocated left shoulder, and a broken temporal bone, left him hobbled in a wheelchair, still bandaged in parts, face drooping from nerve damage, eye half-retired and with no end in sight. How was it that the word hippy had gotten him into such a quagmire? Weren’t hippies supposed to get us out of quagmires?

Anime Jolene had stopped calling, which Charles had expected. Romanticism (or naivete) be damned, loins still will never trump a rubix cube. Even if you’re that resourceful kid peeling the stickers off the face of the squares and reapplying them, they’re going to curl off eventually.

She came to visit a few times in those four weeks, half-hearted support of her man. Sometimes in a doze, she would kiss his forehead and it felt, Charles imagined, how it would feel to be in a version of a While You Were Sleeping, but if all the characters only half cared. Maybe a phone call or two was left between them then, but she’d all but disappeared back into the cycle of Boulder.

Meanwhile, Charles had nearly a year of rehab left, his doctors predicted, if not more. The next stop was Denver, where he planned on moving in with his cousin and going to the physical therapist around the corner until he could hobble around. But, there was really no guarantee.

A half an hour later, Cole was there with his big windowless van and they were cruising down the 25 with Charles’ shit in the back. The sun had started to brown out the grass along the highway and Charles’ lips peeled at their edges. Sometimes Colorado’s plains were so dry, it felt like your lungs were chapping. Cole stared straight down the road, geriatric sunglasses on his head. Charles looked behind him through the seat and the side of the van, using the poorly adjusted side mirror outside the car. He couldn’t turn around, but he saw some spraypaint on the inside of the van. On the left inside wall of the van, there was a whole bunch of words written in spraypaint. Charles caught a couple of words, “fucking mind,” “world of shit”—looked like a bunch of hardcore lyrics or something—but it was too messy to read it all.

“Who the fuck wrote ‘role forever’ on the ceiling?” Charles asked. He chuckled a bit, but his ribs really couldn’t take much movement.

“One of those lil’ kids wrote it up there, man. Ain’t that funny? We were all getting wasted in the back of my van one night and they were all talkin’ about how awesome skateboarding was and whatever then one of ‘em wrote that up there. Guess they’re not teaching those kids spelling until sophomore year of high school. Ha ha.” Cole shook his head.

“What do you think it’ll be?” Charles asked.

“What?”

“What role will he play forever?” They both chuckled out of their noses.

Cole was quiet for a bit. “What was that one book you always talked about? The two dudes just fuckin’ waitin’ all day?”

“Oh the Places You’ll Go? The Dr. Seuss book we were talking about?” Charles asked.

“Nah, bonehead, the other one you told me about once. The two guys just sitting around on a road waiting for some dude named Go dot?” Cole said.

Charles looked out at the horizon trying to think of anything with that name.

“Ohhh, you mean ‘Waiting for Godot’?”

“Yeah, that’s it. That one where the dudes are just sitting there the whole time, just talking and waiting. He’ll play that role forever. Ha ha.”

“Godot?” Charles said.

“Nah man, Godot never shows up right? Isn’t that what you told me? He’ll be one of the two fuckin’ guys.”

Charles stared off for a bit. Cole drove. The sun was at its peak and the drugs were putting Charles in a trance.

“Ay,” Cole said, startling Charles, “let’s have a man’s day, dude.”

“Huh?”

“A man’s day. Let’s just go out and do shit bad-ass men do.” Charles looked at Cole. They were both men, sure, he thought, and prone to some dumb shit, but the way Cole said it, was the way a frat dude proposes steeling a keg or something dumb like that.

“What do you mean?”

“Let’s go shoot my gun, dude. I have a couple empty kegs in the back. We can unload on them in the gully.”

Charles looked at him. “I got the gun in the back there man. C’mon, you know you want to.”

“Cole, I don’t even know if I can fire a…”

“Nah man, we’re doing it,” he insisted, as he cut across two lanes of traffic and exited off the ramp. “This is happenin’. First I gotta get some gas.”

 

When they got to the gas station, Cole went into the back of the van and started rooting around. He came back with a sweatshirt on and the plastic case he kept his handgun in. Cole unlatched the case and left it sitting open on the van’s middle console next to Charles, smiling excitedly. Then, he slid back through the door and walked toward the Shell store.

They’d done this plenty of times before, so shooting a gun in the gully wasn’t so weird. But, still, Charles felt odd sitting there with the case open. He repositioned himself and reached his right arm over his body, the point where his sternum and ribs meet burning, and shut the case. He lay back, trying to breath the pain away. He closed his eyes.

It must have been a few minutes, then he heard a faint, “Hey. Hey motherFUCKER!” The voice got louder and louder. “GET THE FUCK BACK HERE YOU FUCKIN’ PUNK!” Charles opened his eyes. Cole was speedwalking, trying to keep a cool air about him, a massive bulge in his sweatshirt. The convenience store clerk was standing in the door, looking at the line of people inside, deciding if it was worth chasing Cole, or better to stay inside. Cole kept speedwalking. It was a cumbersome box he had in his sweatshirt, but when he saw the clerk make his decision to step out and start chasing him, Cole began to trot. Charles sighed.

Cole held the box-shaped thing under his sweatshirt with one hand, while flicking away at the caribeener on his belt loop, the keys jangling as he started to run faster and faster toward the van. The bulk in his shirt started swaying around under his other arm. He leapt over a curb and as he landed on his feet, what looked like a line of miniature depth charges started to trail out onto the winter-warn asphalt. The depth charges, birthed from the 24 pack of Coors Lights under Cole’s sweatshirt pounced onto the ground, about two exploding on impact and five others springing leaks and spinning around, releasing pressure as beer fountained out of a pin-sized hole.

Charles looked out at Cole, just shaking his head in disbelief. There was nowhere for him to go. He had no chance of running away. And, as he reached the door, Cole bent down. Charles couldn’t see much, but it looked like he’d crouched down and made a run for it around back of the van.

“Cole, you fucking dick,” Charles shouted, “You’re just gonna leave me here?” Charles couldn’t crouch down and he couldn’t move, but he tried to cover his face with his right hand. Through his fingers, he could see the clerk coming.

Then, the door cracked open and Charles sprung up like a deep sea spear fisherman out of the ocean. He unloaded the 24 pack of Coors into the space between the two front seats and reached across with both hands toward Charles.

Charles couldn’t make it out, but it looked like an old mesh hat. “Here, I found this. Put it on,” he said shoving it on Charles’ head and pulling it down to hide his face. He put the keys in the ignition and started the van, but the path was blocked, so he had to go toward the clerk, who curved into the van, screaming.

“You fuckin’ kid. Stop this fuckin’ car. You sonofabitch,” the clerk screeched. Charles could hear him slapping the side of the van. Cole was picking up speed and he could hear the footsteps of the clerk getting faster. Then, he couldn’t hear the feet on the pavement anymore, but the sound of his rubber shoes on the van’s runningboard. Charles’ window was half open and he just reached to roll it up when a hand jutted in and grasped at his forearm. He looked over and the clerk had a ferocious look in his eyes. He saw Charles, but he could care less whether he was invalid or not.

He hung on the van’s side mirror with his right hand and reached in with his left. Charles tried to shake him free, but he couldn’t break loose. The clerk was unable to fit his head in the window, but he pulled Charles’ arm out just enough and leaned in to bite him right at the base of his hand, just under his thumb. Charles couldn’t thrash. His ribs were aching. He screamed and tried to pull his right hand back. The man’s eyes were bloodshot.

Charles looked over to Cole from under the corner of his hat. Cole was trying to keep the van straight, peering back somewhat apologetically. Then, he looked to the console for something to use as a weapon. In the cupholder, there was a Taco Bell 32 oz. cup and a bunch of change. Cole grabbed a quarter and threw it at the clerk’s face. It ricocheted off of his forehead. He barely blinked.

“What the fuck, Cole?” Charles said thrashing his hand, “Help me.”

Cole lunged at the cup holder, took the cup at its base, looked at it awkwardly in his hand, and started to jab it like an ill-shapen sword. He stabbed repeatedly, poking the clerk in his eyes with the straw. He wasn’t giving up easily, but not even his blinks could stop the straw from jabbing his eyeballs and poking errantly around his face. He leaned back and Charles shook his hand free.

The clerk’s right hand was slipping and his body was turning. As his grip gave way, he looked into the car and whispered loudly, “fuckin’ dicks,” before spilling off of the runningboard, tripping over the curb at the gas station’s exit, and flopping onto his side in the grass between the sidewalk and the street.

 

It was a twenty-minute drive to the gully. Cole took the back roads there, worried the cops might be around. But, it was a measly little shoplifting charge. They’d probably be fine.

Charles hadn’t spoken for the last forty minutes or so and just sat there in his wheelchair at the end of the gully, while Cole set up the kegs. When he walked back, he grabbed a beer and sat down on a rock next to Charles. He still had the hat on—hadn’t had the nerve to take it off—as he fumed. Cole cracked a beer and then nudged it into Charles’ right hand, the cold side burning into the teeth marks in his hand.

“Awwwwwwwwwgggh. What the fuck, Cole? What the fuck was that?” Charles’ voice cracked in anger, “What would possess you to shoplift a 24 pack of beer, let alone when I can’t get up and fucking run away?”

Cole looked down at the ground like a small scolded child. “I’m so-“

“Agggghhh!” Charles shouted in Coles’ general direction.

“I didn’t-”

“Fucccck!” Charles grunted.

“Char-“

“Gaaaaaagggh!”

“Dude,”

“Fuck, fuck, fuck!”

“I though-”

“Shu-“

“-t it’d be”

“Shut!”

“a simple in”

“SHUT, SHUT, SHUT your fuckin’ mouth!”

“and out.”

“Ahhhhhh!” Charles grunted into the air, no energy left to be angry. His tense body relaxed and he slumped even more into his chair.

They were both silent for what seemed like a turtle’s lifespan. Charles sat there, his leg extended out, his body looking like a hand pointing out across the gully. He rubbed his right hand against the armrest, as if trying to rub the pain out of it.

Cole sipped his beer and looked over at him crumpled up in his chair, a tar-stained “World’s Best Dad” hat pulled low over his eyes. He could see it. It wasn’t a mere shoplifting gone wrong that had set Charles over the edge, it was everything—the accident, life coming to a T-junction, shit with Jolene.

Charles stared down the gully, his left leg aimed at the kegs in the distance. Cole acted crazy like this all the time, he thought, but it was always perfect, like they were untouchable. Little things, like when the whole crew figured out who stole Metal Mike’s bike and Cole went into a bar and dripped deer scent onto the back of his shirt. He was just the right kind of crazy, then. Now, now it felt different. Like he didn’t give a fuck who had to deal with it.

They both just sat there and listened to the leaves shhhing around them. Cole sipped at a Coors and when Charles’ breathing calmed, he nudged the beer into his hand again. “Look at the bright side, dude,” Cole said, “You’re on so many antibiotics there’s no way that bite can get infected.”

Charles felt the beer against his hand. Cole was holding it against the cut now—not only offering it up, but offering a sign of truce. “You know I can’t drink that, man,” Charles said. “You just said it, I’m on all those antibiotics. I can’t fuckin’ drink, man.”

“Says who, man? I drink on antibiotics all the time.”

“You’re not fine, man, you’re a fuckin’ idiot.”

“Well, if I’m such an idiot, how do I know drinking this beer will kill the clerk rabies that that possum in a dress shirt just gave you. C’mon, man. Just have one beer. It’ll cheer you up.”

Charles opened his palm up and took the beer reluctantly. Cole snapped it open in Charles’ hand and they both sat there for a while, watching a fly circle around, jumping between the top of their beer cans.

 

Minutes later, Cole had the gun out. The keg in the distance teetered around in the wake of a shot right through its right side. Cole hollered a few times as the bullets tore whole sections of the keg out into abstract shards of metal—irregular arcs of stainless steel, like splashes of water. A few more shots and he sat down again.

“You gonna have a man’s day, Charles?” Cole brandished the gun.

“Dude, I can’t even fire that thing, man. The kick’s too much. It’s gonna make my body ache trying to shoot a gun right now,” Charles said.

Cole stared out for a moment and then put the gun down in Cole’s lap.

“Cole, man, don’t just put the gun in my lap.”

“It’s cool. The safety’s on,” he yelled over his shoulder, intent on whatever mission he now had in mind.

“What are you doing, Cole?”

“Hold on a minute. I’ll show you.”

Cole came walking back with a roll of duct tape. “What the fuck’s that for, Cole? What the fuck are you doing? Cole, that shit’s not funny.” Cole stopped mid track. He didn’t say anything, but he shrugged and held the tape out to his side like, “What?”

Charles started to panic. He laid his hand on the gun’s handle, picking it up and holding it an inch off his lap for a second, long enough for Cole to notice it.

“Dude, wha-?” Cole looked at him, the tape in his right hand, then he stopped for a moment to see what Charles thought he saw.

“Oh. Dude. I’m going to tape the gun to your wheelchair, Charles, so you can shoot it, man. I’m not going to tie you up, moron.”

Charles took a deep breath and then put down his gun. He was still on guard, but when Cole asked him to hold the gun while he tapped it to the armrest of his wheelchair, Charles realized he was tripping.

“Damn, Charles, you’re like a super bad-ass Stephen Hawkings with that gun, man. Ha ha.”

“Fuck you, Cole.”

“Whatever, man, this is probably one of the coolest things we’ve done.”

Charles started off with a few shots across the gully. Cole would adjust him according to his request and when he was lined up, Charles would pop one into the top of the kegs. It was only ten minutes later that Cole had spread the kegs out and told Charles, “Alright, I’m gonna push you up zig-zagging as we move toward the kegs and you gotta strife them as I run. Got me?” Charles nodded. Sounded fucking cool.

“Okay,” Cole said, rocking the wheelchair back and forth, “ready, set, GO!” Charles felt Cole’s feet digging into the earth behind him. The wheelchair had a rough start on the pine needles, but as they moved onto harder soil, Cole got it up to a good pace. Charles looked intently down the path, taking calculated shots as the barrel passed each keg. Tunk! He hit the first one. The second one went wide, Tunk! He hit the third. Cole swung him left, rolling diagonal for a second pass of the three barrels in front of him. Tunk. Tunk. Tunk! He hit all three as they approached the end of the gully, Charles with a smile on his face as he felt himself roll free of Cole’s hands and heard Cole fall to the ground behind him.

“Oh shit,” Charles coughed, rolling to a stop as he tipped the keg over with his right footrest. Cole was wheezing behind him. Charles couldn’t tell if Cole was hyperventilating or laughing. He couldn’t see behind him and held a tentative smile as Cole’s lungs seized for air.

“Are you okay, Cole?” There was no response. “Cole.” Charles grabbed at the right wheel with all the strength in his right hand and managed to turn himself sideways just enough to see Cole on the ground. His face was beet red, but as he looked up, Charles realized Cole’s gasps were deep laughs from far below his diaphragm.

 

“We gotta put a fuckin’ motor on that thing, BionicHawkings.” Charles smiled at Cole, as they drove the van back toward Denver. For some reason, after he heard Cole wheezing, he didn’t feel as free to laugh. “It’s a shame you don’t want to keep that gun on there man. It made you look bad ass.”

“Cole, you know I can’t roll around with a gun on my wheelchair.”

“Yeah, sure, but you should be the exception dude, with a shot like that. Either way, this is shaping up to be quite the man’s day. Fuckin’ A. That was the first time in a long time I’d seen your ‘Mos face’ turn into an all out smile. You were laughing so hard, you couldn’t even see that your face was all droopy, man.”

The ‘Mos face,’ was what Cole called Charles’ paralyzed face—a joke often mistakenly assumed to come from the name Mexican fans called the sad, handsome singer Morrissey. It was actually from a fictious bar, Mos Eisley Cantina, in one of the Star Wars movies. They were watching it in the hospital after Charles’ accident and one of the martian characters had large ears and wrinkled, droopy cheeks. “Looks just like you!” Cole said, laughing.

“Really?” Charles recalled, looking at himself in the van’s mirror. His left cheek drooped again, but it was the first time in a long time that it didn’t bother him so much. Maybe it had gone back to normal for a bit.

“You were shooting like a champ, man, even with just one eye.”

“Thanks, man,” Charles said sarcastically.

“You know what, man? We should keep this man’s day going,” Cole said.

“I don’t know, man, I’m kind of tired.”

“Why not, dude? What else do you have to do, go hang out in your wheelchair with your cousin? I mean, when’s the next time we’ll hang out anyway, man? You’re going to Denver.”

“It’s been a long day, though” Charles mumbled.

“That’s not what I like to hear man. What would Stephen Hawkings do? WWSHD? W. W. S. H. D! W. W. S. H. D?” Cole continued chanting. “I read one of those Guardian newspapers that one English kid, Nigel, brought over with him and you know what Stephen Hawkings likes to do?”

“What dude, what does Stephen Hawkings like to do?” Charles said mechanically.

“Dude, Stephen Hawking’s loves strip clubs.”

 

The sun had set and the dry air had grown cold. Charles could feel it as they both chugged beers in the parking lot of Bud Hunnie’s Gentleman’s Club.

“You got a coat I can wear, Cole?” Charles asked.

“Nah man,” he responded. “But, I got my sweatshirt.”

“You mean, my sweatshirt?”

“Yeah man, you know what I mean.” The sweatshirt Cole had abducted a 24 pack in hours earlier was, in fact, a present Charles got from his brother, who played college hockey up in Anckorage, Alaska. Charles left it in Cole’s car one of the nights they were out drinking in Boulder, right before graduation. Cole helped him wiggle into it and they drank a couple more beers before adjourning to Bud’s.

It was just off of Colfax—the strip club—and before Charles had rolled in the place he thought nothing could embarrass him more than being in a wheel chair. It turned out, being in a strip club, in a wheelchair, was much more embarrassing. At least to such a newly anointed “wheeler.” Still, it’d been a while since he’d seen a woman naked, so the embarrassment slowly faded into excitement. Besides, he was starting to buy into this whole man’s day thing.

“You can’t wear that in here, sir,” the bouncer barked, pointing to Charles.

“Wear what?” Cole said.

“He can’t wear that sweatshirt,” the bouncer repeated.

“What kind of establishment is this, man?” Cole said, shocked. “I thought this was supposed to be a raunchy ass strip club.”

“It is, buddy, but we’ve had too many problems with people bringing in guns and drugs in big coats and sweatshirts,” the bouncer explained. “So, it’s protocol.”

“I completely understand, sir, but you also have to understand—my friend’s a retard.” Charles flinched and scowled at Cole.

“Dude.” Charles said.

“Like I said, sir, my friend here is retarded, sir, and he really just wants to see some naked girls,” Cole explained, “And, he can’t move much, you know, because of his retardedness, so he gets cold and needs that sweatshirt.

“He’s retarded? He just looks like he got fucked up.”

“Well, he actually had a terrible accident. He was riding his motorcycle and a dog was walking across the road,” Charles looked up at the bouncer and noticed he was listening intently to the story. “And, in order to save the dog’s life, he veered out of the way, flipped off of his bike and slid down the highway. He nearly died.”

“You serious, man?” The bouncer asked.

“Of course, man, look at him. Look at how fucked up he looks.” Cole looked down at Charles. “Anyway, he hit his head and sustained major brain damage, which is why he’s all fucked up now and shit.”

“Wow,” the bouncer said.

“Yeah, man,” Cole continued unnecessarily. “The most fucked up part is that he slid along his stomach and all he had on was shorts, so he basically scrapped his dick off.”

“Oooh,” the bouncer moaned in pain, holding his hand up to his mouth in shock.

“Yeah, he doesn’t have a dick,” Charles glared at Cole.

“Dude. What the fu-.”

“See, sir,” that’s all he can say now, “Dude, what the fu-. So, whatta ya say? Can he wear the sweatshirt inside? Otherwise he’s gonna be ‘duuu what the fuuuug-ing’ all night long.”

“Whatever, man,” the bouncer forefeited, “Just let me look under the sweatshirt. Okay?” Charles sat there, incredulous to the whole exchange, but let it slide. The bouncer looked under his sweatshirt, stepped aside, and Cole rolled him just inside the door, stopping to say, “Yeah, man, it’s crazy. It’s not like he completely lost his dick, it’s just super miniscule now. Like, he can’t grab it with his own fingers.”

Cole stepped through the rest of the way and headed into the fluourescent darkness, snickering over Charles’ head.

 

It was a world of women sauntering around, bodies fully exposed, or parts of bodies clothed, but so scant it looked like they mistook the clothesline for clothes. Cole wheeled him up to the circular platform as he mumbled, “Oooh, this one looks pretty,” over Charles’ shoulder.

She was young and it seemed like she was about as out of place in here as Charles was. He never really went to strip clubs. Neither did Cole, for that matter, but maybe they’d both had enough of being so different that it seemed right fitting in with all the chauvinistic choads out there, content to mask the fact that they were broken. Man’s day, I guess, thought Charles.

The girl was a great dancer and they both sat there watching her as she watched back, until Juvenile transitioned into 2 Live Crew. Then, the young girl wiggled away like a blade of grass in the wind, only to disappear behind a curtain.

Only the lights danced around the stage now—through the see-through hoses of LED lining the small single-pole stage. The woman who came out looked like she could have been the same exact girl, only about 25 years older. Charles leaned over, “If we ever need to find a fountain of youth, we’re going to check here first.” Cole chuckled.

The dancer was topless and had a beautiful figure, but leaned more toward the wide-backed Midwestern mom than our former company. Still, she seemed to own the stage, pacing around, swinging off the pole at times. She flashed a big smile, but one that came out awkwardly as though her jaw were clenched tight. Her teeth looked like a doll’s—in perfect alignment, never moving.

She passed a glance across all the onlookers as she spun around the pole, stretched an arm up the gold rod and flipped upside down just as her eyes landed on Charles. Her arms were strong, holding her body upside down with her legs in the air. She scooched her body down the pole, squinting her eyes a little at Charles, trying to see him. Oh God, he thought. He’d acclimated to this only slightly. There were two responses from people now: 1) either extreme sympathy, like looking at a helpless baby or 2) outright ignorance. This was neither.

She continued to drop her body down. The stage was half an arm’s length away. She still held onto the pole with her legs clenched and put her arms on the stage floor, walking her torso out toward Charles. Then, her legs fell to either side of the pole, she clicked her big plastic heels like some sort of firecracker, and lay there staring him straight in the face with her face resting on her hands like some 1950s centerfold. Her feet waved back and forth behind her. She still smiled that weird smile at him. Then, she spoke.

“Ahhhhmahgawd, errrryoufruum Enckhorage, Aalaska?”

Charles squinted his one good eye, “Excuse me?” She arched her back up looking right at him and pressed her breasts together at him.

“Enchorage!” Charles shrugged his good shoulder.

“What?”

“Enchorage! Yuuuu sweaashirrr!” She pointed at his chest. He looked down.

“Oh, Anchorage!” He pressed his lips together, slightly confused.

“Ahhaaa, Enchorage ockay!”

“My brother plays hockey for them.” She crouched down into a gargoyle pose, her breasts directly in his face and drew in a semi-slimey sssssssssss sound between her clenched teeth. Cole and Charles leaned in—a sly attempt to see why she wasn’t moving her mouth when she talked.

“Ahhhmahgawd, err ‘other? At’s emaazing!”

She turned around, her butt toward him and clicked her plastic heels together again. It was a loud hollow knock and both Charles and Cole were startled a bit. Her ass was right in their face. Cole bent in, “What’s up with this girl?”

Charles shrugged.

“Iss is soo eschiting! Mah oyfrien is a uge fen! Ee’s um Enchorage,” she said, as she twirled around the pole. It was a surreal experience for Charles and Cole, who felt like they had just landed on a foreign planet and happened upon an alien strip club where the ten-breasted alien-stripper was making gobbling sounds at them as they tried to understand.

Cole largely ignored the woman’s questions, but Charles leaned in as much as his ribs allowed and tried to decipher what she was sssssshhing at him.

“Ut’s is ame?”

“Huh?”

“Is ame. Ur other?”

“Oh, his name. It’s Arthur. Or Art Thomas.”

“Eeeeeeh, uh ‘eft ‘ing!”

“Huh? Um, oh, yeah, the left wing on the team,” Charles replied.

She was silent for a while as the bass from “Get Loose Now” bounced with her body, as if the jiggle of her hips was creating each reverberation. She crouched down a few times and shot up, twirled around the pole, made her rounds and as the music switched over to Lloyd Banks, she slid her feet over to Charles and Cole. She bent down again and the lights came up a bit. She made a ssssss noise again and pulled the corners of her mouth back, letting her head drop back.

“Ut appen oh you? Oo ew ay ockay too?” she said as she brought her head back. It was as she leaned in again, he noticed that she had two small braces on the teeth just behind her canine teeth.

Cole leaned in, “He fell off his motorcycle and -.”

“Nah, I played hockey,” Charles interrupted, “But I don’t play any more. I actually fell off of a cliff,” Charles said.

“Errry?” She threw her hair and moved onto her knees, crouching before him on the stage.

“Yeah,” Charles said. “I was trying to do a back flip off of a cliff into a reservoir, but didn’t jump far enough, so I landed on a rock.” Her eyes opened wide. She flinched, starting to talk.

“Sorry,” he said, “but what happened to you?” The music bumped in the background. She leaned in ear first.

“Ut?” she said, then heard herself. “Ehh, ew ean mah eeth? Ahm rying to ose some eight.”

“Some what?” Cole said.

“Eight,” Charles and Cole looked at one another. Then Cole’s eyes lit up.

“Weight? You mean?”

“Ahh ha. Mah oyfrien untted meh oo ose some eight, so ee old meh uh ire mah jaw shut,” she said, smiling the kind of uneasy smile someone flashes when they tell their boss they plan to do a job that they don’t want to do. “So, ow id ew et urt sooo ad?” she asked sympathetically.

“Guess I just messed up,” Charles said.

“Ell,” she said, clicking her teeth together twice very quickly, “Souns ike ew inda messes up. Ut, at east ew ere eh one at ade eh decisssion,” and then she slid up into his face with her chest and shook back and forth careful not to jostle him too much. It was like she was used to having fragile men around her. Her words echoed around in his head, repeating themselves for what seemed like hours.

She leaned over and commended Cole for being such a good friend by putting her breasts in his face, then told him to roll Charles over for a budget lap dance, “Annie ing or ans oh Enchorage ochay, spesiary a Thomas other!” They were busy and making okay money for the night, she tried to explain through her wired jaw, so she could comp their dances. They just needed to buy a single drink, which Cole picked up. Mary, the girl with her jaw wired shut, called over the younger version of herself—the one that preceded her on the stage—and they treated Charles and Cole to a long lap dance time warp from two beautiful women at entirely different points in their life. The girls switched between them and the young girl straddled Charles carefully.

“Does this hurt?” she asked.

“No,” he lied a little.

Cole leaned over and tapped the young girl on the shoulder with the back of his hand, “You probably won’t feel his dick,” he said, “because he lost it in a motorcycle accident.”

Mary gave him a playful slap on the face and Cole leaned back and relaxed for a moment.

 

“That whole thing’s kind of weird, huh?” Cole said on the ride back home, “Ladies doing that for work? We’re kind of idiots aren’t we? I mean, men are kind of idiots, huh?”

Charles nodded.

“I mean, I like tail as much as the next guy, but what a weird barter system.”

Charles resigned to silence. He kept hearing Mary’s words, “At east ew ere eh one at ade eh decisssion,” in his head.

“You alright, man?” Cole asked.

“Yeah,” Charles said, “ Just tired.”

“I hear you man,” Cole responded. “I’m gonna go grab some cigarettes,” he said, pulling the van off of Colfax Blvd, “then I’ll take you home.”

Cole rolled the van to a stop at a parking spot in front of the gas station. Charles adjusted himself in the seat to look at Cole, “Don’t do anything fucking stupid, Cole. Just buy some cigarettes and let’s go.”

“Alright, man,” he said, shutting the door.

 

Charles watched Cole intently, this time. He could see him wander back to the refrigerators, look at beverages, and then pick through bags of chips in one of the aisles. He curled around and went to the magazine rack, where he picked up a Thrasher mag and paged through it. He watched his face grow bored with the content as he flipped each page—it was an old issue.

Outside, there was a commotion to the left of the building and Charles readjusted to try and see it better. There was a big guy in a nice suit, long scarf and a Godfather hat shouting into his Chrysler 300. The car was high on 20s and all the doors were open.

“Yo, bitch, git the fuck out da car. I’m tire’ this shit,” he was yelling. He looked over his shoulders and his eyes were wide. He looked yacked up something good.

Charles looked back inside and Cole was staring out at the situation along with the clerk. The clerk slid the cigarettes he had in his hand to Cole. He slid them off the table and turned to the door.  He walked slowly, eyes fixed on the man yelling at his car.

“Stupid fuckin’ trick, bitch,” the man yelled, beginning to walk toward the other side of the car, where it looked like three weathered young women were cowering in a pack behind the back door. Cole looked out at the people pumping gas, the people watching this man lumber toward the woman threateningly. He kept walking toward the van and Charles could see his face turn—he was breathing hard. And, by the time he reached the car, he was huffing deeply and yanked the door wide open.

“She’s not gonna clean it up,” Cole muttered angrily. “She’s not going to clean the fucking blood up this time.” He tossed his cigarettes up on the console, leaned his stomach over the chair and reached down between the seats.

“What the fuck are you doing, Cole?”

“She’s not going to clean the fucking blood up this time, understand?” He said, grabbing the gun from it’s case.

“What are you talking about?”

“The blood,” he said, yelling just into the air. He wasn’t even responding to Charles at this point.

They heard screams in the distance and Charles looked up to see the man backhanding one of the girls. Cole slid the gun around him and put it in his back pocket. The other two put their arms up, trying to shield themselves from him and the girl in the front begged him to stop.

“Cole! Do not go out there, man. We’ll just call the police or something,” Cole slammed the door. “Just come back to the car, man,” Charles pleaded. But, Cole started to jog toward the belligerent man and the cowering women.

The crazy man had one girl by the hair, and she thrashed around. Just yards from them, Cole had slowed his run and approached the man slowly from behind.

“Think you can talk back to me muthafucka? Think you fuckin’ smart, huh?” the man yelled as he punched her in the side of the face.

Charles watched it all, unable to do anything, as Cole slid up behind the man, and, from about five yards away, Cole stood holding his gun aimed at the back of the man’s head.

“Hey,” Cole screamed. “She’s not gonna clean up the fuckin’ blood this time, mutherfucker.”

“Huh?” the man said, still clinging to the girl’s hair. The other two girls had leapt into the car from fear.

“Let her fucking hair go and turn around you piece of shit,” Cole demanded.

“Why?” the man asked.

“’Cause I got a gun on your head and if you don’t let her go, I’m gonna uncap that empty brain of yours, fucker.”

The man’s hands slid out form the girl’s hair, “How you know I don’t gotta gun?” He turned around slowly.

“I could give a fuck. I hope you fuckin’ kill me, piece of shit. I hope I fuckin’ die. Try and kill something that doesn’t give a fuck if it dies,” Cole said. “All I know is she’s not cleaning up any blood. She’s not cleaning up any fuckin’ brains.”

“What the fuck you talkin’ ‘bout kid? I was just puttin’ these girls back in line man. No blood man, just some bruises, you know.”

“Shut up,” Cole demanded. “Get down on your fuckin’ knees like a fuckin’ dog, you sonofabitch. Get that suit dirty you fat fuck.”

The man held his hands up and glanced up at Cole. “I’ma remember your face, kid.”

“I hope you do,” Cole said certainly.

The man got down on his hands and his knees next to the car, like a pitbull. He was a large man, and, if the tables were tipped in any other direction than where they were now, Cole would have had his face bashed in.

Charles saw Cole hold the gun over the man’s head. They were talking to each other and Charles couldn’t hear any of the words they were saying. He looked over to the few people at the pump hiding behind their cars, looking on at the exchange.

Cole stood over the man and then swung his leg back and followed through like he was punting a soccer ball. Charles heard the man’s body slump down on the pavement.

“She’s not going to clean up any blood!” Cole yelled, stomping the man between every break. “Understand?” he concluded. Then, he put the gun in his belt and ran back to the van, started the ignition, pulled onto Colfax, and right off of it again as soon as he could.

 

The ride back was dead silent. Charles sat there in shock. The gun was back resting in the half-open case. Charles breathed deeply. Cole was silent, but had a vindicated look on his face, like kicking some pimp in his head was an everyday occurrence.

Cole pulled into the alley behind Charles’ cousin’s apartment building and stopped the car. Charles knew it’d be best to get down as soon as he could. There was a brief, but poignant pause—a silence—and then Charles said, “What the fuck, Cole? What the fuck was that?”

Cole got out of the van, opened the back doors, and unloaded the bags and small furniture Cole had stacked inside for Charles. He left it all in a parking bay under his cousin’s building and rolled the wheelchair to the passenger’s seat. He propped open the door with the wheelchair’s armrest and slid his hands under Charles’ armpits.

Cole leaned in close and started go get leverage under Charles’ weight. Then, Charles whispered, “Cole, what was that?”

Cole didn’t say anything. He just lifted Charles up, shifted his body around in the chair and sat him on the edge of the passenger seat. He leaned back a bit and looked at Charles.

“You know? They say that you never have friends like the ones you had when you were a kid, but I don’t know if that’s true anymore,” Cole said. He looked at him the way people look at injured animals—concerned, but inquisitive. “You’re made for this world, Charles,” Cole told him, “no matter how broken you get.”

Charles shook his head in disbelief, “Save it, Cole. What were you talking about back there? What blood? Who is ‘she’?” Charles asked.

Cole leaned in again, picked him up, and then lowered him down into the wheelchair. He remained silent. Charles could make out little specks of blood on Cole’s stonewashed jeans. He tried to point them out, but the moment passed, and he just sunk into his chair.

Charles’ cousin came out—cheerful—completely unaware of the situation. “What’s up Cole?” he said.

“Nuttin’, Stephen.”

“Cool,” the cousin said.

“I can roll him in. You wanna come in, man?”

“Nah.”

“Cool,” Stephen said, rolling Charles toward the path to his apartment. Stephan stopped for a second. “We’ll see you later then?”

Charles shrugged.

Stephen turned Charles’ chair back toward the pathway and started up the slope. Cole turned toward his car.

Stephen’s questions about the day fell down around Charles like sprinkling rain. He didn’t have the nerve to respond with anything meaningful. Then, he heard footsteps behind them. Stephen stopped and turned the chair slightly on the path. Cole stood above him. It was a tense moment. Then, he held up the World’s Best Dad hat in his hand and put it on Charles’ head.

“Good man’s day, Charles,” he said. “But, you forgot this.” Charles took it by both edges of the hat and shuffled it down on his head, like he was putting it on a child.

“When you’re a dad one day,” he said, “You can think back on our man’s day and you can wear this,” He paused. “You can wear this as a disguise.”

Cole patted him on the head and said, “Later Stephen.” And, that was the last time he saw Cole.

 

Only about seven months ago, Charles thought back, when Anime Jolene finally called him out of the blue. Charles was hobbling out of his physical therapy class when his phone rang. He hadn’t heard from her in a while, so he asked if she wanted to meet up, but she said she was really busy now working at the sub shop off Pearl Street in Boulder. He took it as a no.

“I wanted to tell you, though,” she said. It was an empty sentence, he felt—one that said nothing, but still had so much weight.

“What’s up?” he responded.

“Did you hear about Cole?”

“I haven’t talked to him in a while. What’d he get himself into now?”

“Charles,” She paused for entirely too long.

“What happened?” he asked stupidly.

“Charles, they found Cole.”

“What do you mean?”

“They found him out at the gully, Charles.”

“Really?” he said, thinking it had something to do with any one of the two gas station situations. “Well, he’s there a lot, Jolene, so that’s what I’d expec-…”

“No, Charles.” Jolene paused. She started a couple times and then collected herself. “Someone found his body at the gully.”

His stomach dropped. He hadn’t seen him since the man’s day. Charles couldn’t find words.

“Did you know anything about his van, Charles?”

“No, what about his van?” he said.

“They found it about ten blocks from your cousin’s house.”

“Really?” It wasn’t like Charles was taking strolls around the neighborhood.

“Yeah, I just don’t know. I don’t,” He could hear her sniffling.

“When was the last time you talked to him?” Charles asked.

“About three months ago,” she said. “On the phone. He sounded a little off, but I never expected this.”

“What happened at the gully, Jolene?”

Jolene paused, “They say he shot himself in the head, Charles.”

Charles remembered the gun now. The one Cole taped to his wheelchair, the one he shot at the kegs, the one he held in his own hand. The words caught in his throat. “Does anyone know why?” he asked.

“There wasn’t a note there with him,” she said, “but I guess there was one in his van.”

“Really?”

“Yeah,” she choked up a bit.

“What did it say?”

“It was in the van, I guess,” Jolene said.

“In the van?”

“Yeah. I guess Alva showed up all fried to Cole’s parents’ house and they were all just meditating, acting like nothing happened. ‘He went into the next world,’ they kept telling him. You know Alva, Charles, he doesn’t know what’s going on half the time, but he came into the sub shop completely shocked.”

“Was he okay?”

“He said he asked the parents repeatedly about the van and they told him, ‘It’s a new beginning. Let his soul lie in piece. It is the energy around us,’ or something like that,” Jolene said.

“Serious?” Charles yelped in disbelief. His stomach churned.

“So, Alva went and found his van on the street—I guess they had towed it back to Boulder—and there was a bunch of graffiti on the inside that was basically a suicide letter.”

Charles gasped. “What’d it say?”

Jolene sniffled on the other line. There was a long pause, “I guess it said something about his sister. Did you know his other brother killed himself only three weeks before you guys graduated?”

“No, not at all.” It was too much to process, honestly. Charles could only be matter-of-fact talking about all this stuff.

“I talked to Rocker A and he said Cole was talking jibberish one night in his sleep about a girl cleaning up brains or something.”

Charles felt like he was talking into the phone, but he just nodded.

“I guess it was in the van,” Jolene said. “The note said something about his sister and how his parents made her go in and clean up their brother’s blood after he killed himself and how the world was shit and he couldn’t live on in it. Something about how he wasn’t built for it and he was going out of his mind.”

Charles stood out front of his cousin’s house, listening to Jolene. He comforted her for a while and then shuffled into the apartment, cracked a beer, sat down and stared at the wall.

It felt like he’d been staring ever since. That was seven months ago. Maybe as an adult you could find friends as good as when you were a kid, he thought, his hands still on the keyboard. Or, maybe you knew enough to value what you got. Back at the mahogany table, Charles sunk into his chair again, looked at the people around him, sniffed in the dusty smell that had started to grow inside his clothes. He had no one to tell anything to in the quiet library, but still, all the words he had no intention of saying stopped short in his throat. The smell wafted into his mouth and he gagged. And, he sat there. Sat there, just sitting.

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