Justin Brouckaert

 

Frick had been running his rig around the country for over a year when they pinned him with his third strike. I’m laying the synth on a new track when he walks in and tosses his keys on the counter like he’s only been gone the weekend.

“Beer?” he asks, but he’s cracking a Bud before I can tell him where. I’ve got questions, but I just close my laptop and try not to force it. Frick’s got plenty of stories in him. Usually all you’ve got to do is wait.

“You ever get ringworm?” Frick walks into the room scratching his balls.

“Tell me about it,” I say. It’s just been me and the music for so long, even hearing about Frick’s hygiene sounds like a good chance of pace.

But instead of pulling down his pants and talking fungal infections, Frick tells me about his first strike: a missed weigh station five miles outside of Denver.

“It was the lights,” he says. “I was driving into the city and I couldn’t look away.”

“I don’t get it,” I say. “They’re just lights.”

“These were Denver lights,” he says. He pauses for a minute, like he wants me to take that in.

“So?” I say.

“Denver,” Frick says, “is the greatest goddamn city in the world.” He pauses, nods, and drains the brew in a single pull.

*     *     *

I jammed with a band called Penis Flytrap in high school, but we split clean when the other guys left for college. I wasn’t serious about the music—not back then. Instead I spent most of my time with Frick and Al and the Graham twins, two heavyweight wrestlers who’d outgrown the sport but were left with the bodies.

We all lived in a house together rent-free because Al’s aunt footed the bill. The cops knew us all right, but they knew Al’s old man better, and Al could have probably talked his way out of trouble even without the pass.

One day after a trip to the river, Al left an open cooler on the back porch. There was a half bag of Cheetos and a few empties inside, and that night it filled with rain. A week later a pigeon smacked our back window and dropped dead inside the box, and after Halloween the Graham twins added a shriveled pumpkin to the mix. A new game was born: what can you put in the cooler to make it more disgusting than before?

Hosts and guests alike stepped up to the challenge: in went dip spit and piss, liquor and beer, condoms and cigarettes and vomit, a half-pound of ground turkey that was already starting to rot. The houses were spaced further out where the city turned country, but if we’d had neighbors, the smell would have kept their kids out of the yard.

One night Al and I put twenty on a game of beer pong against the twins, and when it went to overtime we raised the stakes, loser takes a sip. Right away they hit three straight, Al and I missed the rebuttal, and the next thing I knew the twins were dancing and we were pacing the house, downing shot after shot to muster the courage.

Al and I regrouped in the kitchen to shotgun a beer, to taste one last good thing before we were ruined by that milky ooze, but Frick got impatient waiting for his turn to play. He marched past us to the porch and knelt in front of the cooler, gripping both sides.

“Pussies,” he grinned. He saluted us both, and dropped his face into the sludge.

*     *     *

I had time for my music when Frick was on the road. I was going to make it solo if I was going to make it at all, and I was working on a new sound—all instrumental, plucky but muted. Soft at first, but chaos when it comes together. Think Bon Iver meets Explosions in the Sky. You’d have to hear it to really know.

I would plug in my Telecaster for the guitar parts and use my laptop for everything else. Before Frick came back, I was pumping out a song a day, putting the final tracks online, picking up a about a hundred followers in only a couple of months—if nothing else, it was a start.

Now my time gets hijacked by pick-up football games and camping trips and parties where Frick only kind of knows one girl and we always end up fighting fat dudes in cut-offs smoking Black & Milds in the garage.

It’s Frick’s life, not mine—but the dude has pull. How do you tell your friend you’d rather spend your night alone when he’s got a fifth of rum and enough trouble lined up for the both of you? Lately I’ve been getting real about it, playing any chance I get until my fingers bleed. Work all day, party all night. I figure I should be able to handle at least these two things—my music and my friend.

I’m locked into a new song now, and this one’s got promise. It’s all about the rise and the drop, the single second of pause before the instruments crash together, jangling and wild. With each new song I think, “This’ll be the one that takes me,” but never like this. All I need is one to catch the right pair of ears, and I’m so close I can taste it.

I’m deep in a final mix when Frick comes in without knocking and tells me he’s got a case with our names on it. I tell him not now, but he just drops the thirty on the table and stares. Sometimes living with Frick is like having a kid around—anything I want to get done has to happen when he’s sleeping.

“Give me an hour,” I say.

Frick cracks a can and grins.

“I ever tell you about my second strike?”

This one came in rural Illinois, twenty miles south of Champaign, when he slammed on the brakes so hard he skid onto the shoulder and nearly toppled the rig, all to avoid a mother duck and her ducklings crossing the road.

“I said to the cop, ‘What the hell was I supposed to do?’ and the good old boy just says ‘Next time don’t be funny.’ Gave me a two-hundred dollar ticket for reckless driving. Said I could have killed someone, like it wasn’t just me and him on that empty-ass road.”

“Well,” I say. “He’s right, isn’t he?”

“Are you crazy?” Frick says. “What about the ducks?”

*     *     *

On some nights I do turn him down. I get cranky when my guitar sits for days.

“I want to go, I do,” I say. “I just need to work.”

“You worked earlier,” Frick says. He’s got to know I’m locked in, guitar in my hand and mix on the screen, but he just looks me straight in the eye, stupid, like none of it’s there. It would be one thing if he’d just go without me, but instead he stays in, paces around picking scabs and eating soggy fish sticks wrapped in tin foil.

“You call Al?” I ask. “The Graham twins?”

Frick shakes his head. He gets real quiet—turns in early, sleeps past noon. There’s a feeling in the apartment like I’m being shunned. Like I’ve betrayed him in the worst way.

I feel so bad about it, the next night I cut work early, walk down the hall to Frick’s room with a case as a peace offering. Part of me hopes he’ll turn me down and that way we’ll be even, but that’s never how it’s worked with us. I already know his answer before I even start to knock.

*     *     *

I got a call from Frick at least once a week back when he was on the road. The calls always came late at night or early in the morning, and though he never admitted he was calling to keep himself awake, he always started off groggy and got sharper as we talked. You hardly got a word in once you got him going about the old days, the house and the parties and the girls.

Back then I didn’t mind getting woken up at three in the morning to hear a little bit about Frick’s day, the cities he was passing, the bars he drank in, the makeshift gym he’d set up in the back of his rig. Sometimes he’d catch me when I was still awake, stuck on a song, and afterward I’d figure it out and work through to the morning. Something about Frick out on the road missing home reminded me why I loved what I was doing, why I was working part-time and living poor for my music while the rest of my friends were busting their asses forty hours a week at the plant and hating every minute of it.

One late night, just days before he came back, I talked to Frick for an hour, then told him I had to get some sleep. There was silence on the line, and then he just kept on talking, as if instead of saying nothing, he’d asked to keep going and I’d said Yes. So I lay back and kept the phone on my pillow, letting Frick’s voice go on while I settled on my side. I fell asleep that way, him narrating the shifting landscape of western Oklahoma, the flatness turning rocky around him, an inventory of everything he could see, for as far as he could see it.

*     *     *

Frick says his final strike came on a night he was travel-worn and filthy, when the ringworm and jock itch and rashes were at full-fester. I slept through his call and he drifted into something like sleep, taking a wrong turn off a Missouri freeway onto a service road that got too skinny for his rig to follow.

“I woke up like that,” Frick says. “Stuck.”

He came to, tried backing up and took down a power line that totaled his back end. Two days later, he was home.

Frick tells me all this from our couch, where he’s been parked for the last three days eating Cheetos, leaving orange stains on the handle of the bathroom door. He was hired at Ford but didn’t make it two weeks on the line before they let him go. He had rashes and scabs and a bulging hernia. He hadn’t earned any sick days, and his health insurance hadn’t kicked in besides.

None of this phases Frick. Not really. He just wears his pants a little lower. He learns to walk with a hunch.

*     *     *

After Frick gets a few days rest in him, he conjures the idea of getting hammered and taking kayaks into the river. I’m plucking at something new when he asks. The last song had promise, but it didn’t age well. A week later the magic was gone, and I was searching again. I say no to Frick at first—been having job trouble myself, had to talk my boss out of firing me for coming in too many mornings hungover and late.

“Maybe tomorrow,” I say.

“Come on,” Frick says.

Tomorrow,” I say, and my voice has a bite to it that surprises us both.

“What’s your deal, man,” Frick says. He hobbles up to me angrily and he looks so pathetic, fat and limping with his hernia popping out, I can barely look him in the eye. “You’re so pissy all the time. If you’ve got a fucking problem, you should tell me.”

When I’m with Frick, I’m filthy. I’m broke and stupid and drunk. I leave my guitar for days, and when I come back to it I feel useless, like I’m wasting my life. But when I look him in the eye, none of that matters. I can feel myself slipping and there’s nothing I can do to stop it.

“Come on,” he says. “You want me to leave, you can say it to my face.”

I gear myself up to say something real mean, something that’ll cut through Frick like a cleaver, something that will let him know this is serious, that he can’t expect me to live the way he lives forever. But his mad act’s a front. His lip starts to wobble, and I know that it’s hopeless. I just can’t fight the pull.

“No,” I say. “I’m sorry. Let’s get some beer and go.” And Frick’s face slowly changes shape until he’s grinning wide as a pumpkin.

We shotgun two beers each and he shells out what has to be the last of his cash on another case and two cheap-looking kayaks. He drives us through the city from the store to where the river flows through, but not before we get turned around and do some swerving and looping and finally end up parking on a side street of a nice neighborhood a half-mile from the water.

“No worries,” Frick says. We drain what’s left of our road beers and pack our pockets with more. To get to the river we have to walk across someone’s big backyard and through the woods, so we take off across private property holding kayaks on our heads.

We’re in the woods long enough to stumble a little and lose our way. We walk for what feels like hours, passing the same trees again and again. The beers hit us like waves on a shore. We stop and stand for a minute, wobbling. I’m about to tell Frick to hold up and help me listen for the water when bright lights flash behind us. A car door slams. We’re told to stop where we are.

There’s a command to put our hands up. Boots on leaves. I follow the officer’s orders and the kayak slides off my head and into a tree. I feel the late-night wind like I’m wearing gloves—the callouses on my fingers are that thick. Frick and I stand right where we are, dumb and drunk and winded.

“Just let me do the talking,” Frick says.

It’s a quiet night. I listen for the water. I wonder if I can run fast enough to leave him behind.