This is how my drinking binge begins. Not with booze—not yet—but in my girlfriend's bed with another girl ten years younger than me. My tortured, pussy-juice-glazed face pops up above her muff and I look up the length of her body, past her flattened titties to her upturned chin, thinking about how my entire life—the entire world, maybe—is clamped inside a vice just like her legs. A hungry blackness is gnawing at my insides, taking over. Before I allow myself liquor, I'll lap her up, drink her dry.
But she rustles on the bed, waiting for my next maneuver. The life-giving poonanny is just below my furry chin. Thoughts don't go far when you're inches away from poon. They flit like snowflakes and melt in its dark, exotic warmth. It's midmorning. February light stretches its arms wide open across the blue lake behind the blinds I've closed to block it out, and I can't clearly see her face but I know she's annoyed. She didn't want to come here, but I begged her, so I seek to finish, rearing up and dipping my joint a few times, pulling out, and squirting into my cupped palm. A man produces enough sperm to populate the U.S. of A. each day. There it is: the nation of Jerry Darn in the fleshy crevices of my hand. A Mississippi and all its tributaries, being wiped into an old sweat sock I found on the floor next to the bed.
"I didn't have an orgasm yet," she says, scooting up in the bed and lighting a cigarette. "And that beard is ridiculous, Jerry. You gave me a rash on my thighs."
I root through the heap of blankets, find my checkered boxer shorts, and slip them on. The waistband stops where my gigantic gut hovers over the elastic like a suspended pink avalanche. I then climb into the tattered red union suit I've recently pulled out of a garbage bag of old clothes and button it up.
"Sorry," I say.
"Whatever," Taylor replies. "I didn't expect much more. And you need to lose some goddamn weight. You look fatter than you did two months ago. I thought you were supposed to lose weight when you got sober. Jesus. And I don't even want to get started on the long underwear situation."
Unlike the Jennys, Lisas, and Sarahs of my time, this 19-year-old comes out of the supposedly more "unique" generation of Dakotas, Ariannas, and Taylors.
"I know, I know," I say, but I'm unabashed. I heave my gut around with pleasure. I like to think the scarlike stretch marks snaking up my hips are gills and I can breathe underwater. I revel in my flesh as I recline into it. More of me to bury.
I situate myself in the space next to her and soon we look like the sort of proper couple that would own this gloriously expensive condo in Streeterville. Sarah, my girlfriend, is away on a business trip at the moment, paying for it. I light a cigarette and Taylor places the ashtray between us. I'm not even supposed to be smoking in here. Sarah would definitely be pissed.
"Have you ever heard of Jonathan Edwards?" I ask.
"The psychic guy?"
"No, the 18th-century Puritan preacher. 'Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God?'"
"Doesn't ring a bell. Are you trying to show off or something?"
"From what I remember, he envisioned all humans as sorta being pinched by God, like by the collars of our shirts. We're all pedaling our legs and flailing our arms in midair, about to be sent down into destruction. Hell and damnation, that sort of thing. Well, if the old fart was right, I think we're there. Our feet have lost their grip."
"You're so melodramatic. And you're mixing your metaphors. You just can't accept change. You need to leave her. You're not too old."
But I feel old. Ancient, in fact. Like all of history is crammed into me, but I'm still hollow. I'm 29, due to turn 30 in a month.
"I don't know why I bother with you," Taylor says, "Especially when you're never going to leave That Girl. You need to lose weight. You need to shave that stupid fucking beard."
"I need an extreme makeover. I need rock-solid abs and mind-blowing confidence."
"Now you're being an ass."
"I have death on my mind," I say, but don't tell her why, even though it's the reason I pleaded with her to come over.
"Well, I gotta go to work. Stop being so depressing. Self-pity isn't attractive. And neither is that stupid fucking beard."
She crushes her cigarette, hops out of bed, and shimmies into her panties, her small breasts and teeny tiny nipples bouncing in front of me. Her furry little crotch—my savior, my eternal love hole to hide in—quickly disappears. She pulls on a white tank top. Bye bye, titties, too. I feel the push of my ding-dong on the bottom of my gut inside the union suit. I blow smoke. I want her before thoughts start coming.
"When can I see you again?" I ask.
"When you finally leave her."
"Well, my friends and I are going to see the Cutlery at the Metro tonight."
"They're doing three shows three nights in a row instead of selling out and playing some corporate shit hole," Taylor says. "You're welcome to come. I've got an extra ticket."
"Contemporary music is just a sign that the end is nigh. All art made in the last 150 years is. The human spirit is nothing to be celebrated anymore."
She likes when I speak prophetically and flops on the bed to kiss my jiggly belly. Then she slides up and rests her head on my chest so the smell of her shampoo is in my nostrils. I'm inhaling deeply and I'm stiff again. I run my hand through her hair. This calms her. This makes her like me. This flash of tenderness will pass, though. They all do.
"Why are you so depressing? Why won't you come to the concert with me? My friends will be there. You've never even met them."
"There will be other times."
"Not unless you leave That Girl."
"Then I'll see you when that happens."
"You're such a pussy," Taylor says.
"I'm sorry," I say, "but she's way better than you."
"Don't call me anymore, OK? I thought maybe you were ready to be done with her, but I know you're not, even though she makes you miserable. You'll never be done with her."
"You're such a cliche, Jerry Darn," she says,
And with that, Taylor departs.
Earlier that morning I was lounging on a sofa in the red union suit, eating a mixed berry yogurt with my bare feet on the glass coffee table. I hadn't left the condo in three days, hadn't showered, hadn't even gone down to the lobby to get the mail. With the beard and long johns, I felt like I should be prospecting for gold or cooking for a band of outlaws in the Old West. Instead, I was in the fourth straight hour of a Magnum, P.I. marathon (I'd slipped the first season into Sarah's Netflix queue) when the telephone rang.
It was the landline phone, a cordless, sitting on a little table only five steps from where I sat watching Magnum. His gun was drawn as he chased a bad guy through some palm trees in the hypnotic warmth of Hawaii. I don't own a cell phone, so the condo line is the only way to get hold of me. Still, I let it ring a few more times, not wanting to rise, figuring it was Sarah checking on me. Sometimes, I don't even answer. But this time I did, not even bothering to look at the Caller ID, so sure that it was Sarah.
"Hey," I said.
"Hey, nutfuck," a gruff male voice replied.
"Hello?" I said. I still had the spoon and was licking the creamy red yogurt residue off of it. "Who is this?"
"You know who it is, nutfuck."
Nutfuck, I thought. Yes. Kirk. Kirk McCoy, older brother of Joe, one of my best pals growing up. Kirk used to torment me when we were little. He'd wrestle me to the ground, pin both my arms down with one of his thick forearms, and punch my breastbone until I'd either recited the entire alphabet or started crying.
"Kirk? How'd you get this number?"
"Your old man gave it to me. Listen, I got some bad news. Fucking towelheads finally got him, the cocksuckers. Fucking suicide bomber came up while Joe was on watch, blew himself up. Both of them—Joe and his buddy he was on watch with."
"Joe's fucking dead, man. Those fucking Ay-rabs. Those motherfuckers. Fucking dickless motherfuckers."
I could tell Kirk was drunk from the way he slurred into the phone. I pictured him in the kitchen of Joe's house, my second home from the time I was allowed to walk around the corner from my own house on the south side. All the kitchens in the neighborhood looked the same: brown cupboards, brown and yellow linoleum, and smoke-stained wallpaper. I could see Joe's mom, old Dora, trembling at the kitchen table while smoking a Newport 100. She was probably drinking the same mix of Southern Comfort and Mountain Dew that Kirk was undoubtedly sucking down—a staple beverage at the McCoys'. Joe's dad, Terry, a steel rod of a man, was most likely flicking his ashes into the same ashtray as his wife.
Kirk went on about Arabs, towelheads, sand niggers, the desert, and camel fucking. I only heard half of it. I stared at a blue pen on the table in the kitchen, where I'd wandered with the cordless. Sarah had been paying bills before leaving for Milwaukee. A pen. Bills. A table. An empty Diet Coke can. A truly American tableau. A pile of charred bits in some casket draped with an American flag, being wheeled out of a plane at Midway.
I asked Kirk about funeral arrangements.
"Viewing's in two days, funeral's on Sunday."
He gave me the name and address of the funeral home, which I wrote down with the blue pen on the top corner of an old Tribune, and for some reason set the pen back exactly the way it'd been, angled on the table.
"I'm really sorry, Kirk."
"And make sure that nutfuck Mick gets to the funeral. I heard his shitty band's in town. My mom really wants him there."
"I don't know if I can do that," I said.
"Well, you better. I gotta go. Just get Mick to the funeral, all right? For Joe's sake."
"OK," I said. "I'll do it."
I hung up. Joe McCoy, Irish boy from southside Chicago, was dead. Another notch on the belt for Death.
That's when I dialed Taylor's cell number, even though I hadn't spoken to her in the two months since I'd stopped drinking. "Please come over," I pleaded into the phone. "Please."
Now I'm in bed, smoking another cigarette a few minutes after Taylor has gone. The phone rings again. I stick the smoke in my mouth and cross the room to answer. This time it's Sarah.
"Jerry Bear," she says. "I only have a few minutes. What're you doing?"
I've been stoic up until now, but hearing Sarah's voice sets off the waterworks. I start crying uncontrollably.
"Jerry? Jerry, what's wrong?"
"Joe's dead," I say.
"Joe, your old friend? The one in the army?"
I've wandered back into the kitchen with the phone. I start the sink and hold the smoke under the charge of water to put it out, set the wet butt on the counter, and turn off the faucet. Then I stare at the newspaper with the funeral arrangements written on it. I can't stop crying. I explain what happened.
"Oh my God, Jerry. That's so terrible. What can I do? What can I do?"
"Nothing. Nobody can do anything," I say. I'm still sobbing, the tears running down my face, moistening my beard.
"You're not drinking, are you?"
"No," I say.
"Please don't drink, Jerry. I'll be home tomorrow. I'll take care of you. Just please stay sober. For me. Please."
She's pleading with me like I pleaded with the 19-year-old. Taylor may know how to heal the body, but Sarah knows infinitely more about the heart.
"You promise me?" she says.
"Yes, I promise. Stay on the phone with me."
"I can't, Jerry Bear, I've got a presentation in ten minutes. I'll be home tomorrow. Don't get drunk. Please, Jerry Beary. I love you, but I gotta go."
"'K," I say. "Bye."
"Stay home. I'll call later. Bye," she says.
And she, too, is gone.
Drinking binges seem like something out of the past—something a Fred or a Gus at the end of the bar in a porkpie hat went on in the old days, despite his furious, rolling-pin-wielding wife. Those fellas are long gone, but the tradition is alive with me. I'm at the Mutiny, a dark, sewer-smelling bar with an Old Style sign creaking on its hinges over the door. I'm on my fifth drink and it's only one in the afternoon. I've got no intention of stopping.
After hanging up with Sarah, I dressed in the same threadbare Wranglers I'd been wearing since November, a black wool turtleneck sweater, a burgundy knit cap and, for sentimental reasons, the green, hip-length army coat Joe scored for me several years ago, when he enlisted. I grabbed the 100 bucks of fun money Sarah had left me, hopped in a cab, and now sat at the bar with a giant mug of beer. Three drained shot glasses surround the mug like moons trapped in its orbit.
I order another shot—Beam, the cheapest—from Sandy, who's in her 60s and the oldest barmaid at the Mutiny. She doesn't care about tips, takes her time getting you your drink. There are only two others down the length of the bar: dejected-looking guys in baseball caps, almost invisible in the darkness. I don't care to strike up a conversation with them. I suck down my shot and mull my past, a common activity for a man sitting in a bar alone in the middle of the day.
Joe, Mick, and I grew up together. Mick and I started Strange Days when we were 15. Joe was our roadie in the old days, when we played house-party gigs in basements and transported our shabby equipment in his mom's purple Dodge Caravan. We were on the verge of hitting it big—recording contracts, music videos, snorting lines of blow off the giant tits of beautiful girls in California—when I had my meltdown and quit.
I haven't spoken with Mick since then. The last time I saw Michael 'Mick' McGerkhin—now Mick Dagger, guitarist and lead vocalist for the famed rock band, the Cutlery—was three o'clock one morning in August 1997. I was holding him down in a bush on his front lawn, drunkenly ramming my fist into his nose until it spurt blood, scaring both of us.
"Whoa, fuckers!" Joe said, throwing down his cigarette, running from the purple minivan parked at the curb, and jumping on my back. He'd been laughing while we had a slurred argument on the front lawn. I yelled about selling out. Mick yelled about getting out of this piece-of-shit neighborhood. It'd been an ongoing argument since we started the stupid band, but now, with the attention Strange Days was getting, the fights were becoming more frequent and intense.
"Get off him, Jerry. C'mon. What the fuck, man. Get off of him," Joe said. He was laughing.
Joe was small, about the same size as Mick, but with fiery red hair and pink skin like a newborn puppy. His taut shoulders were freckled. He had arms like knotted tree branches that couldn't be broken no matter how hard you swung on them. He had me off Mick in a second and separated us, standing on the cement pathway leading up to Mick's front door while we stood in the grass on opposite sides of it. Joe had his palms on our chests, like a boxing referee.
"We're supposed to be friends here," he said. "C'mon. Let's go back to my garage and have some more beers. Let's get fucked up. I ain't fucked up enough."
Mick and I both refused. Mick wiped the blood from his nose with his sweatshirt sleeve, which had holes cut into it for his thumbs.
"I'm never talking to that motherfucker again," Mick said. He turned and went into his house.
And that was how Strange Days broke up. Now, ten years later, Mick is in the Cutlery, a band hailed by Rolling Stone as "one of the best American groups ever." I started hearing about them years ago, at the hipster bars my girlfriend Gracie and her college pals would drag me to—the kind where trust-fund kids in raggedy clothes and ironic shirts slum it by drinking PBR and Schlitz.
"They're, like, gonna be the biggest thing to come out of Chicago," Gracie's friend Joan told the circle at large, grouped in a dark corner next to a jukebox. I was drinking whisky at the time, slamming back as many as I could before Gracie got drunk and angry and stopped buying them for me. She, too, had a trust fund. "Don't you know the singer? Wasn't he in your band?" Joan asked me.
I hadn't listened to any music or read anything about new music in years. I didn't know what she was talking about. I shrugged.
"It's Mick's new band," Gracie said. She'd never met him, but said his name like she had. It gets that way with famous people. Gracie and I broke up soon after this night.
"Oh. Yeah. We grew up together. I gotta squirt," I said and headed for the can.
Weeks later, I read this in Rolling Stone: "Slice, Slice, Slice, the new album by Chicago-based the Cutlery, is redefining rock as we know it. Their sound is harsh but gentle, poetic but accessible."
I loathe rock magazines, critics, and reviews. I hate their shitty similes ("this breakthrough album sounds like your intestines after a night of pillaging a cannibal nudist colony") and the all-importance they attribute to a form of expression that's essentially for moronic, head-bopping teenage cunts. Except for the sermons of Jonathan Edwards and celebrity news, I hate all writing. Writers are just so keen to comment on things when they really don't know shit, don't know anything more than anyone else.
Regardless, Mick is famous now. He always had the personality for it, that's for sure. I see pictures of him in those glossy magazines I love to flip through in the supermarket checkout lane. I read as many articles as I can and look at all the hot celebrity ta-tas. And then there he is, lolling on a far-off beach with some blonde, big-titted, fun-loving gal—playing in the waves, tattoos wrapping his skinny arms and torso. Mick, who I've known since second grade.
I don't get envious and I have no regrets. Mick can have those titties and all the titties in the world if he wants them. At least I have. . . . I'm not sure what I have. Usually a 12-pack of Old Style and some frozen pizzas on the conveyor belt at the Jewel while I'm tucking Mick and his hussies back into the magazine rack. I've got something, though, I do. I'm just trying to figure out what it is.
Needless to say, I absolutely do not want to be responsible for getting Mick to the funeral. It takes two more mugs of beer and three more shots to get me out of the bar and into a cab, which delivers me to the Metro. It's around five, and I'm pretty hammered. I stumble out of the car and pay the driver, tipping him way too much. Kids are lined up down Clark, freezing in the cold, waiting to get in. Some of them have their winter coats unzipped and I see they're wearing black Cutlery T-shirts with pictures of silver blades on the front.
The doors haven't opened yet. I decide to seek out more booze rather than wait in line. My formidable gut and I push through the kids towards the Gingerman. I see something through the window before I go in that makes me stop. Taylor is at a table, bending forward, tongue kissing some skinny little twerp with tattoos streaming up his neck, silver hoop earrings in his lip, and black things the size of wine corks in his ears. They pull away from each other, look into each other's eyes, and start talking. A few half-ass-looking girls, Taylor's friends I'm guessing, sit at the table with them, involved in their own conversation.
I storm in and hustle over to the table.
"Hey," I say.
Taylor looks up at me and smiles.
"Jerry? What're you doing here?"
Her friends have stopped talking and everyone is looking at me now, including the razor-thin twerp in the skin-tight Cutlery T-shirt and black jeans. His dark hair is in his eyes, which makes it seem like he's looking at me from under a blanket.
"Who's the oldster?" he says. He has that stretched out, lazy way of talking that suggests he's only getting the words out with the greatest difficulty.
"I'm Jerry Darn, who the fuck are you?"
"This is my friend, Caden," Taylor says. "And he's way better than you."
Taylor laughs. The kid smiles. All her friends giggle. I don't know how much they know about me.
"Sorry, Jerry," she adds. "I didn't know what to do with the extra ticket."
"I don't need a ticket," I say. "I'm on the guest list."
I turn and walk out.
I drink Bloody Marys at another bar until I'm pretty sure the doors at the Metro have opened and all the kids have gone in. It's dark and furiously cold on the mostly empty sidewalk, the wind channeling down the street in fierce gusts. I go up to the bouncer, a large bald guy standing in the entranceway of the club, wrapped in a winter coat. I already know getting in is going to be a problem and finger the two twenties left in my pocket.
"Hey, what's up, man," I say.
He grunts and nods.
"Listen, I need to ask you a huge favor, man. You know Mick McGerkhin—I mean, Mick Dagger—the lead singer of the band that's playing tonight? He's not exactly expecting me, but—I mean, he was supposed to put me on the guest list, but then I told him I wasn't going to make it, but now here I am."
He looks at me with no expression.
"Now, if you could just somehow get back to him and tell him Jerry Darn did make it tonight, I'd really appreciate it."
The guy's face suddenly lights up. He smiles.
"Jerry Darn? You guys used to be in Strange Days together, right?"
"Yeah," I say. I sigh and take my fingers off the twenties.
"I used to love you guys, man. Fuck. You guys were awesome. What happened?"
I pause and say, "There's already enough noise in the world. I didn't want to keep adding to it."
The bouncer ignores this.
"So, you like Mick's new band? They fucking rock, don't they?"
"Yeah," I lie. I've never heard them. "So, you think you could go talk to him for me? Tell him I'm here and don't have a ticket?"
"Sure, man," he says. "No problem. Jesus. Jerry fucking Darn. No shit." He turns and mutters my stupid name one more time under his breath.
I'm given a white backstage pass with red lettering. I stick it on the lower part of my sweater so it's hidden by my coat, the way I used to do when we played here ten years ago. I haven't been in the building in as many years, and it takes me awhile to remember where the backstage area is. I keep an eye out for Taylor and her friends. I don't want to run into them.
I flip open my coat to show my pass to a short, skinny bouncer at the backstage threshold. He nods, unclicks the fuzzy red rope from the brass stand, and lets me by. I wind my way back through the corridors, trying not to let my memories make my head all sappy. I have one goal: talk to Mick, get him to agree to come to the funeral, and get the hell out.
Fey rock 'n' roll people abound backstage. They're all tattooed and pierced, drunk, or buzzed on blow. I don't recognize a single face until, as I walk into the main backstage room, I see Mick reclining on a couch, still stringy and thin. His arm, sleeved with colorful tattoos, is draped around one of the hussies I've seen him boogie-boarding with in US Weekly. She looks familiar, and I suddenly realize she's on one of those idiotic TV shows Sarah makes me watch at night.
"Holy shit. It really is Jerry Darn. Fuck, man. You look like hell. What's with the beard? You look like a man on the run," Mick says, his voice still high-pitched and irritating.
I stand in the middle of the room, not knowing what to do with myself. There are about 20 other people hovering about, holding drinks and plates of food. Mick doesn't introduce me to anyone. They all glance at me because Mick has smiled and spoken to me, and then continue with their conversations.
"Joe's dead, Mick," I say.
"I heard. My sister told me," Mick says. "Grab a beer, Jer. They're in the other room."
He points down a hallway, which I follow to a room where a table is laid out with platters of sandwiches and five plastic tubs filled with ice cubes and bottles of beer. I grab a sandwich and, while wolfing it down, help myself to three beers. I tuck two in my pockets, open the other, and start drinking. I head back down the hallway to face Mick.
"I see you found the food, too," Mick says. "You got some mustard in your mustache there, Jer."
I wipe at my fur and take a slug of the beer.
"So, heard the new album yet? It's selling like a motherfucker."
"Joe's mom wants you at the funeral. They told me to come and tell you you better be there."
"Yeah, it's too bad. Can't make it. We're gonna be in Cleveland."
"What do you mean, you can't make it?" I say.
"I haven't even talked to Joe in ten years. What the fuck does it matter? I got out of that shitty fucking neighborhood for a reason," he says. "I don't ever want to go back, not even for a funeral. You're sticking around for the show tonight, right?"
When Strange Days was together, I imposed a strict proletarian onstage dress code of white undershirts, blue jeans, and short hair. Art and artists for the masses. Like a rebellious child who can't wait to flip the bird at his parents' sensibilities, Mick has the Cutlery dressed in the most garish, outlandish costumes I've ever seen. They all wear black shoulder pads with plastic knives sticking straight up from them. All of the guitars are shaped like sharp objects: the bass is a cleaver, Mick's guitar a dagger, and the second guitar an axe. To offset the black on top, they wear skin-tight pink jeans.
I've told Mick I'll stay for the show. Standing offstage, I see that the club is packed. I drink and think about Joe, who used to hate coming to see us play at places like this. He quit helping us cart around our equipment as soon as we started playing the bigger gigs.
The Cutlery takes the stage. I screw the top off my third beer, watch Mick flail about in his shoulder pads for three songs. Then, as he starts the fourth, I'm too livid to stay still anymore. I drop the bottle, charge the stage, and tackle Mick in front of his bewildered bandmates and an even more bewildered crowd. I lay into his face just like I did so many years earlier. The music stops and everyone just watches me pound the hell out of Mick, not knowing what to do. The stage lights are hot above me. Joe is no longer around to stop the fight, but three enormous bouncers with buzzed heads and black Metro T-shirts are. I keep punching even when they're on top of me. I look down at Mick's bloody face as they pull me away. I say it with my eyes: There, fucker. There.
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