“You’ve never even visited me here,” I reminded my mother. “The last time you came to see me was for my college graduation, and that was eleven years ago.”
“I’m not much of a traveler, honey, you know that. Your father was the one who had all those crazy ideas, and he was the one who loved to travel.” She paused. “I just don’t have the interest in it anymore.” Another pause. “But your cousin has decided that it’s time for him to see a little more of the world, and he’s coming your way. You should treat him nicely, like family.”
“He is family,” I said.
“Exactly,” she said. “Maybe I can come out there this Christmas,” she promised, and when I reminded her I usually came back to Chicagoland to visit her at Christmas, she said, “Perfect.”
We called my cousin “The Fool.” There was something wrong with him, but my Aunt Rosa would never name what it was, exactly, because she said then we’d never treat him like he was normal. But denial only goes so far. Even at Fourth of July barbecues, he was strange, always trying to get us to play a game no one else had ever heard of or trying to get our dog to eat something that wasn’t food. I hadn’t seen him much since I moved to the Capitol, though, so when I answered the knock on my door, I said a little prayer that he’d changed. Of course he hadn’t, and when I opened the door, he stood there, bowl-cut and slump-shouldered, wearing a windbreaker and high waters. His only luggage was a grocery bag with a braided wicker handle. “Come in,” I said, and stepped aside for him, but he didn’t move. So I stepped back from the door and turned my back on him, and then he stepped through into my place.
“It’s small, buddy,” he said, looking over my apartment, mostly one big room, with an oversized closet for a bedroom, and a bathroom without a door. “But we’re not a big family.”
He set his grocery bag down, reached into it and pulled out a glass coke bottle. “Do you have a bottle opener?” he asked, and without waiting for an answer, wandered into the kitchen to look for one. Of course, it wasn’t a real kitchen, just a waist-high counter that separated the linoleum floor from the carpeted main room, or whatever you wanted to call it, where the TV was catercorner to my computer and faced a busted old couch I’d dragged up from the street four years ago, when I first moved in.
Let him go through my kitchen drawers, I thought, don’t even fight it. He pulled open one cabinet then another, pulled open the drawer next to the sink and pulled out the revolver I bought when I decided this is where I wanted to live. “Look at this,” he said, pointing it at me.
“Yeah,” I said. “It’s not a toy.”
“I can tell, buddy,” he said, and then threw it up in the air and almost didn’t catch it. He slid it back into the drawer. He was making me nervous, so I went to help him find the bottle opener. But by the time I got there, he’d found the metal church key and popped the top of his bottle. He tipped his head back like he was in a commercial, and his Adam’s apple jugged up and down as the beverage washed over it.
“Glass bottles,” I said when he came up for air. “You don’t see that every day.”
“It’s Mexican Coca-Cola,” he told me, and tipped the bottle a little, to look at it like a scientist in the lab. “Made with real sugar. The other stuff, it’s so full of chemicals it’ll make you live forever.”
“And who wants that?” I asked. When I was in high school and the doctor told my dad that he had three months to live, I bargained with God for more time. For a day, I let myself trip off the edge of a sidewalk and scrape my arm. For a week, I cut my thigh with a razor from the medicine cabinet. For a month of extra life, I drove an unsterilized safety pin through my earlobe and left it in even when my ear swelled with infection and it hurt to sleep on that side. If my dad lived past six months, I’d probably have died myself, but he didn’t. Maybe at my dad’s funeral was the last time I saw the Fool: he must have been there, but I couldn’t remember him, whatever Foolish thing he must’ve done.
“What’s there to do around here, buddy?”
“You remember Sparking Jetsons,” I asked, thinking even the Fool would remember the most famous band of the last twenty years who never quite made it big. They weren’t the band with the sweet boy and girl singers who of course married between the third and fourth albums, and then divorced after the sixth. Nor were they the band with the two songwriters who went after the same girl till one of them quit the band and between them released two of the best albums that year. They weren’t the band with the despotic front man who treated the rest of the band like hired help and who fired them all the day before their headlining tour, then brought in replacements to play his songs before the start of the tour, then fired the replacements before the tour finished so he played the last four shows solo and defiant. By all accounts, Sparking Jetson were good friends. When they broke up the band, they did it for the usual reasons: they weren’t making enough money on the road to justify touring, never sold enough records to pay for the producers and studio time it took to record new music. Rumor had it that it was the sale of the streaming rights to their old music that gave them the capital to launch this new tour, but that was just a rumor, and it was the juiciest one of their career. They were the textbook illustration of how good people got left behind.
“I never understood why they were called that name, buddy,” the Fool said, and drained the last of his Coke. He set it down on the counter top and began moving more bottles from his grocery bag into my fridge. It seemed like that’s all he had in that bag, Mexican Coke.
“Well, Sparking Jetsons, they got back together and tonight they’re playing here. My friends and I are going to see them play.” I paused to see how the Fool would react to this news, but he didn’t even seem to be listening, just loading cokes into my fridge. There must have been at least ten bottles, twelve. “Some of us are going to out to dinner before the show. Do you want to come with us?”
“I’ve never been to a Mexican restaurant, buddy,” he said, and folded up the now empty grocery bag and slid it between the fridge and a cabinet, like he was saving it for later. I wanted to get away from him, just for a few minutes, but my apartment was too small. So I stood in the front room and watched the Fool pull out my kitchen drawers and when he was done, I called my friends to tell them we were going to be eating Mexican.
Finn used to bring his own bottle of hot sauce to the cafeteria when we were in college. He went from table to table after each one in turn kicked him out for being a weirdo till he ended up at ours where no one seemed to care. Carrie even thought it was cool. When the busboy brought over two baskets of chips and two small bowls of salsa, Finn asked him to bring more salsa before anyone had dipped a single chip. “Remember this place?” he asked us, the same question he asked me on the phone when we were trying to decide where to meet. “Their tacos nights? What was their beef, really?”
“And here we are,” I said, and passed a menu to the Fool.
“What are you getting, buddy?” he asked, and I said that I was getting arroz con pollo because that’s what I always get. “Show it to me,” he directed, and I had to find where the dish was in the menu to show him. His lips moved when he read the description, and then he let his finger slide further down the menu. “Camarones,” Fool said, like he was tasting them instead of just saying the word. “Those are those fancy little sandwich cookies.”
“I think those are macaroons,” Carrie said, and raised an eyebrow at Finn.
“Camarones are shrimps, I think,” Finn said.
“My mother said I shouldn’t eat shrimp, buddy,” the Fool said.
“My Aunt Rosa is famous for what she wouldn’t let you eat,” I volunteered. “I think the first time I had a gluten-free cake it was at a birthday party there. It was Sandy’s birthday party. Do you remember that, Fool?”
“I had a lot of food allergies,” the Fool answered, to no one in particular.
“I read something last week that said that whole gluten allergy, there’s no medical basis for it,” Carrie said. “It’s all in your head.”
“Maybe so,” I said, even though I knew the Fool was weird inside and out: a thousand people might let an allergen go by without a sniffle, and it’d lay him up for a week. I remember once asking him about Titanic, and he told he didn’t like monster movies because they were too scary for him. But he was my cousin and houseguest and could take care of himself. He ordered the shrimp fajitas and seemed tickled when the waitress brought it to the table. “Careful,” she said, “hot plate,” and that was all Fool needed to let it sit in front of him for five minutes before he’d even touch the plate with his fingertip.
Finn dumped the extra-salsa he’d asked for on top of his cheese enchilada, and then mashed it all together with his fork so that there was just one big gory mess on his plate.
“Gross,” Jackson said, and Carrie turned to us.
“You should see the way he eats at home. Fred and Barney are going to grow up and think their parents are Stone Age savages.”
“You did name them after cavemen,” I said.
“Touche,” Finn said, and then the Fool said, “I remember them from TV.”
The Fool didn’t make any fajitas, but he still ate his way through all the component ingredients, one item at a time. He speared a mushroom, spongy and brown and looking faintly like a chocolate macaroon, with his fork and put it in his mouth. He bit down and chewed, but I couldn’t tell from the expression on his face what he thought about how it tasted.
“Have you guys tried to listen to Sparking Jetson lately?” Jackson asked. “I’m not talking about the new stuff, I mean the classic stuff that we loved when we were first into them?”
“I listened to them all afternoon,” I said. “It was still amazing.”
“You know, I posted my ticket for sale on the backpage of the City Paper. Just to see how much I could get for it. I couldn’t even recoup face value.”
“There’s new stuff?” Carrie asked, and Jackson said, “Oh yeah. There’s a leak of the demos for a new album. I can text you the link right now.”
“I wonder if they’ll play ‘Steam heat,’” Carrie said.
“Are you kidding?” Jackson scoffed, but I’m sure he meant it in a nice way. “If they don’t play it, I’m going to ask for my money back.” We’d all gone to see SJ play a show when we were all college djs together, at this same club. Back then, this was a rough neighborhood for middle-class white kids; you’d step over people to get onto the sidewalk and fear they’d grab your pant leg and drag you into the gutter with them. Now, there was a line at the door of folks in retro-distressed jackets and brand new sneakers waiting to get in. Our tickets were scanned under black lights to detect forgeries, and after they checked out IDs, the door guys snapped plastic bracelets around our wrists. It used to be that if you were old enough to drink or had a fake ID, they’d splodge your hand with a flying saucer stamp.
Inside the club, it was crowded, and the members of the Sparking Jetsons were right there, standing at the bar and chatting. Without even saying anything to us, Jackson walked off and introduced himself. I should’ve been faster and got myself there ahead of him. I bought the “Hard Light” seven-inch first; I played it for Jackson, even, before he’d ever heard of them. But it was too late now. The Fool tapped me on the shoulder and said, “I don’t feel too good, buddy,” and I looked him over. He did look a little green around the gills. “The bathrooms are that way,” I said, and pointed. Then, I ordered a drink and took it to a spot on the other side of a post that you couldn’t see from the bathrooms.
One way that this show was different than the shows I used to see fifteen years ago was that everything started on time. Probably a lot of the people there were like Carrie and Finn and had childcare they needed to think about and things like that. Sometimes I felt bad for people who just couldn’t do what they wanted, chase their desires. But tonight, it was like all those feelings were being redeemed into joy.
The band started the set off playing “Dazzler,” of course, and I was right there waiting for it, the moment when McKinley stepped on his distortion pedal and it let out a scream and I stepped right into it. The hairs on my arms stood up to defend me, and I felt it in my heart, too, that impulse to run away from the sound. I loved the way it frightened me and that’s why I did it, because a little fear is like a vaccine. It felt good, and the band seemed to be enjoying themselves and I didn’t even know how it happened but by the time the band played “Steam Heat,” I was back almost at the far edge of the crowd. There was a time I would’ve pushed my way back to the front, but I was into it just as much where I was standing as I would’ve been if I was closer, and no one was pushing and shoving me, either.
I was looking for the music, I was listening for it and waiting for it to find me, like it always did when I was younger. And then someone was tapping me on the shoulder.
“What the fuck!” I yelled, because I was almost there, exactly where I wanted to be the whole night.
“Hey,” a young guy wearing an employee t-shirt from the club said to me. “Your friend’s making a mess of the bathroom. Take care of him or we will,” he said. “Your choice.”
“Yeah. All right,” I said. I knew it was the Fool, I just knew it. He wasn’t even my friend, especially not now. I walked back to the bathrooms, a stucco lined switchback of a hallway, and there he was, the Fool, leaned over a sink covered in vomit, his hair in his face. The camarones, I thought. I shouldn’t have let him eat shrimp.
“Hey, buddy,” he said, and turned at me and then vomited on his shoes, his ankles, and the drain pipe cuffs of his high waters.
“We’ve got to get you out of here,” I said, still listening as intently as I could to the thump of bass, the snap of drums, the snarl of guitar strings as they made room for bolts of electricity. I couldn’t fucking believe I was walking away from this; the band hadn’t played a show for seven years before this tour! I walked over and put my arm around the Fool and hugged him around the ribcage, like I was a tug boat and he was some huge barge of shit and vomit, which is just what he smelled like up close. I wanted to puke myself. But he let himself be guided, and drifted away from the sink to follow me.
In the hallway to the club, I passed the bar guy who’d told me the Fool was sick in the first place, pushing a mop and a bucket. The doorman shook his head at us as we walked out and I wanted to curse him. I got us maybe halfway down the block before we sat on the curb, our feet out in the street.
“Maybe we should’ve listened to what Auntie Rosa said about the shrimp,” I said.
“I’d never been to a Mexican restaurant before, buddy,” the Fool said and vomited between his legs.
“Yeah, well, they’re not all as good as that one,” I said, and we both laughed for a minute, and then I had to remind the Fool to wipe his mouth off.
“Do you remember my dad’s funeral?” I asked.
“Oh yeah, buddy,” Fool said. “We talked about everything that day.”
“I don’t remember it, at all,” I said. I hoped the Fool didn’t think I was challenging him, or making fun of him. “What did we talk about?”
“Knots, mostly,” he said, leaning forward with his head between his knees. He let a long ribbon of drool slip from between his lips, and it fell down to the splash of vomit on the street. “We shared our favorite knots, buddy. I liked the slipknot,” he said, and looked up, squinting at one of the abandoned furniture factories across the street like by staring into the windows, he could see the past. “You liked the sheepshank.”
“I don’t even know what the sheepshank is,” I laughed and pushed his shoulder, playfully.
“I know, buddy. I felt the same way. So we traded.” The Fool groaned a little, then smiled to cover it up.
“How’s that working out for you?” I asked him, to keep the conversation going and take his mind off the way his stomach was treating him.
“You’re looking at it, buddy.” He turned to me and smiled, and then, just a second after I got out of the way, he puked where I had been sitting. Then he pulled himself up, wiped his mouth, and seemed like nothing had happened.
“I’m going to go back inside,” I said. “You’ll be fine out here. If you need me, you know where to find me,” I said, and nodded in the direction of the club.
“You’ll get me something to drink, buddy,” Fool said to my back, and I said back, “Of course I will.” Fucking stupid Mexican Coke. I walked up to the bar first thing on getting back into the club, and there was Jackson, leaning hard on the wood like he was holding it in place. “How’s it going?” I asked him and told the bartender I wanted a water with some ice. The Fool was dehydrated. He needed water more than sugar.
“I’m good, man. I’m good,” Jackson said, but he seemed hesitant about it. “Can you believe it came to this?” he said, looking at the people throwing themselves against each other in glee.
“Of course I can,” I said. “We make all the money now,” I reminded him. “We call all the shots.” I laid a five-dollar bill down on the bar for the Fool’s water and was ready to walk away when McKinley, Sparking Jetson’s singer, asked everyone up on stage. “We wrote this one for you,” he said. “We want you to help us sing it.” And then he reached down and pulled a couple people on stage, and then all the band were doing it.
“What do you think?” I asked Jackson, but he was already moving past me. I don’t know what he was responding to, the idea of finally connecting with the band or being part of a crowd this happy and self-assured. I didn’t know what Jackson was thinking because I didn’t know myself, but I wanted to be there to experience it, whichever it turned out to be. It turns out the song the band wrote for us was “Sun-Burst,” their one pseudo hit, the one that was the single off their only major label album and even at the time, I knew the song wasn’t written for me. It was for someone else, but I appreciated the gesture. And then, before the bridge, they dropped into minor chords and played “Handshakes” and it was awesome, a great show closer. All there was left to do after that was to walk away, so we did.
Jackson and I waited a couple minutes for Finn and Carrie to turn up, and then we all walked out of the club and back to the train station. There was a whole crowd of us, just like commuters on a Friday afternoon like you’d see in videos from Tokyo. And then people started to bottleneck. People stepped off the sidewalk and spilled into the street to get ahead of the crowd, to see what was happening. Carrie came back to us before I even knew she’d gone ahead to report there was a fire. One of the buildings ahead of us was burning. The crowd on the sidewalk got wider, made an ellipse, and then we could see it.
“I think I used to work at that place,” Carrie said. “They sold maps.”
“I remember,” Finn said. “I used to bring you lunch, from that Bento place on the corner.” She took his hand; he slid his arm around her shoulder. The fire ate the two-story yellow brick building, roaring, one wall at a time. A fist of fire punched out a glass window from inside and someone cheered.
“Can you believe those assholes?” Jackson asked me. “I’ll bet half-a-dozen homeless guys lived there. And now what? Plus, it’s dangerous.” We both took a step closer; the fire cast singular shadows, long and deep. A burst of sparks erupted from the roof when a tongue of flame licked the stars. Two kids dressed the way we did in college, skinny blazers and the kind of vests only war correspondents should wear, darted close to the flame and picked up bricks and lobbed them at each other underhand. It was the same feeling I had racing downstairs after someone pulled the fire alarm in the dorms. All that adrenaline from being awakened to terror and then nothing to do with it till the firemen came to reset the alarms.
“You want a tip?” Jackson asked me. We went through this every time we got together. He tried to find a way for me to make money so he wouldn’t have to feel like he was slumming when he saw me, which was maybe once every six months, even less often the last year or two. I didn’t need to answer, just look at him. “Real estate,” he said. “This place next week, there’ll be a sign, condos going up right here.”
“You saying you think this was arson? You know something about it?” I asked. I never knew how seriously to take Jackson’s spooky intuitions.
“You don’t need to know anything,” he said. “It’s the market at work. There’s money in it.”
I looked away. It’s not like I didn’t believe him, but I didn’t have money to put into real estate. I wouldn’t even know where to start. I was like the rest of the slobs out here, enjoying the carnival of this fire like it was an encore for the band. “Hey, isn’t that McKinley?” I asked Jackson, because of course it was.
“Why am I not surprised,” Jackson said but he watched McKinley like a jealous lover. McKinley was talking to a trio of girls, and then he put his arm over the shoulders of one of them. “Before the show, he was telling me they’ve sold more merch on this tour than all their old tours combined. They had to have boxes of old t-shirts shipped from his parents’ basement before they played Buffalo.”
I remembered finding out McKinley grew up just a couple streets away from me. That my cousin Sandy went to school with him. That I’d lived so close to where genius came from. “Shit,” I said. “Have you seen the Fool?” Jackson shrugged. I looked at the flickering flirting shapes of people in the crowd, but couldn’t see the Fool anywhere. If he’d been there, I’d have noticed him right away. “I need to go find my cousin,” I said. “He could get lost or hurt, something like this.” Jackson nodded, maybe not even hearing me.
There was no one in the street aside from the folks gathered at the fire. The only other light came from the club. I walked back to it like a beacon. And there he was, sitting at the bar, by himself. Maybe the bartender had left to watch the fire, or maybe he was in the cooler, restocking. The Fool was sitting on a stool, sipping a drink through a straw. He lifted a weak hand to me in a wave without stopping his drinking.
“I was looking all over for you,” I said, mad at myself for how much I sounded like my aunt.
“I was thirsty,” he said. He held up his yellowed drink to me. “I don’t think this is Mexican Coke, buddy.”
“I don’t either,” I said. “But if we hurry, we can get some back at my apartment.”
The Fool sucked his straw for a minute longer, contemplating my offer, and then said, “Okay.” He got off the stool and followed me, leaving his drink behind. The crowd at the fire had mostly died down; the band were still chatting up the girls, but Carrie was huddled under her jacket and shivering, and Finn had his arm around her. Jackson was standing off at the edge of the platform looking for the train.
Because we were kind of behind the crowd, there weren’t that many people with us on the platform waiting. Which is good, because now that he’d had a little something to drink, the Fool was primed and ready to pump again, and spit up two more bellyfulls before the train came, and one more on the way back to my apartment. But finally we made it.
“I’m going to sleep in there,” I said, pointing to the bedroom, the only door that shut in the whole place. “But if you need anything, you’ll let me know,” I said, after I’d laid out a blanket on the couch for the Fool to climb under and a pillow for the Fool to lay his head on.
“Get me a Coke, buddy” Fool said, and kicked out on the couch so that his foot slipped out from under the blanket. I wanted to tuck it back over his foot, but the Fool seemed happy. “For my stomach,” he said.
“Okay,” I said, and walked back to the kitchen. I pulled open the fridge and pulled out one of the Fool’s Mexican Cokes. The bottle opener was still on the countertop, and I tore the cap off the bottle. “Do you want it in a glass?”
“That would be nice, buddy,” the Fool said from his place on the couch. So I poured it in a glass I took from a cabinet.
“Why’d you move away,” I asked, walking back to him with his coke.
“I never really lived there, buddy.” He lay back on the couch and tried to drink from the Coke bottle with his head resting horizontally. I waited; he coughed and sputtered, but didn’t spit anything up.
“Yeah?” I said when I was sure he’d be able to keep it all down. “I have some really great memories of you and Sandy and Beth and Auntie Rosa and my mom. Do you remember that Thanksgiving when my mom made lasagna instead of a turkey?”
“You should make a scrapbook,” the Fool said, and tried again to drink his Coke lying down. He burped. “Is the gun still in the drawer?”
“I didn’t move it,” I said. “Did you?”
“No,” he said, and then asked me, “Will you bring it to me? It’ll help me to feel safe. To sleep.”
“How about this.” I said. “I’ll take it in my room, but I’ll leave the door open. That way, I can hear you if you need me.”
The Fool thought about it for a minute. “It sounds like we have a deal, buddy.”
Matt Dube teaches creative writing and American lit at a small mid-Missouri university, and reads submissions for the Coffin Bell Journal. His stories have appeared in Moon City Review, Minor Literature(s), Front Porch, and elsewhere.