This is exactly what friggin happened. Every word’s the truth.
I’m sitting at the table reading an ad in the paper for Hellnail’s Ride the Reaper tour, trying to figure out where me and Keith could scam the cash for a ticket, when Mom comes into the kitchen and tells me I’m kicked out of the apartment. It’s all over some story Frank sold her about me being the kingpin of that fire down at the arena—not like he’s got any proof. The kicker is, this is Culdafik Bay, where you’re a wuss if you get your parka out before we hit minus thirty, so if I’m gonna be curb-surfing in the middle of February, I know I better get something going quick if I don’t wanna end up bear bait.
There’s no love lost between Mom and Gramps—took me till I was ten to realize his actual first name was Spike and not Goddamn—so I figure I’ll swing by his place first. Gramps comes to the door of his trailer and goes, “You’re a little shit, Stu, whole town knows it, but so am I. You treat me decent and I’ll have your back. Won’t ask you no questions, but that deal’s gonna have to be reciprocal.”
Gramps lets me sleep in the bedroom. Says he mostly takes the recliner anyway, on account of his rotten lungs. He tells me he’s going down to Fort Wyatt in the morning to catch the Hellnail show and I can come with if I want to because his buddy left him hanging with an extra ticket.
The next day we drive six hundred clicks through a snow squall, slip into the Rock Swamp about eight seconds before Hellnail hits the stage, and it’s worth every white-knuckled minute. The show is epic, and I scream for two solid hours while Zoran Zotto rips up the stage. Black leather, pierced face, and tattoos from eyeballs to ass-cheeks, Z flies out above the audience on a cable rig with his goddamn legs on fire and belts out the lyrics that become my creed:
“You gotta ride the reaper. Down. Down. Ride him through the ground till the devil wakes.”
Z sings about darkness, hellfire, and all the thick muck that’s churning underneath my own goddamn ribs, and our seats are so awesome that there’s this one point where Z gets down real low to the stage and points his black fingernail right at me, so close I could almost touch it, and for the first time in as long as I can remember I feel seen, like totally visible to another human being. I look over at Gramps and he’s just swaying there beside me, half grinning, sorta muttering, and it doesn’t matter that I can’t hear his words, I know just what he’s saying: “Friggin A, man. Friggin A.”
Me and Gramps get along fine as roomies, just stay the hell out of each other’s way mostly. Gramps is kinda like a four-foot-eight Clint Eastwood. He doesn’t talk much, but when he does, you better listen good because whatever he says, it’s gonna be crucial. One night after we catch the hockey on the tube, he leans over and goes, “Stu, you gotta stop screwin around. Get a plan.”
I know he’s right. School is five years gone and I spend most of my time with Keith just kinda hanging around outside RadioShack, smoking and giving people the gears. So Keith gets this idea that we could sell some weed out behind the Legion and that works out fine, until it doesn’t.
A few months into it, two cops bang on the door of the trailer with a warrant and I know there’s about two pounds stashed in the bedroom closet, so when the one cop goes, “This yours, Stuart?” I figure I’m pretty well screwed. But then I hear Gramps’s voice cut in from the doorway, and he goes, “That there’s mine. For my arthritis. You wanna take me down to the station, officer, I’ll get my boots.”
I can tell from the way the cop looks back and forth between me and Gramps that he’s not buying it, but what the hell can he really say when Clint Friggin Eastwood just told him that there’s his weed? He pretty much has to go with it.
And he does.
On Gramps’s second day in the slammer, he falls and breaks his goddamn hip. At first I think he must’ve got in a fight with some juiced-up gangster in the jail yard, maybe got all “go ahead, make my day” and next thing you know—smash—it’s blood drops bouncing off the hard-packed snow. Turns out he just slipped on some water in the cafeteria, but I guess the judge feels sorry for the old boy because he goes ahead and suspends the sentence. So, with only two days served, Gramps goes free.
So just when I think we’re golden, Gramps gets a bit squirrelly after his hip operation. He’s not completely bonkers but just enough gone to let Mom take control of the whole situation and throw him in the White Moose Lodge Nursing Home. Then Keith hears from some guy up at the drive-thru that they aren’t letting Gramps have his smokes because they have him on some crap called the “Prevention Pathway” and, brother, there’s just some shit you can’t let stand.
Mom puts me on the no-fly list at the front desk of the Moose because by then Frank’s got his hooks right into her about my being a bad influence and everything. When I cruise by with Gramps’s smokes, I have to go around back and chuck the carton up to his second-floor balcony. Gramps was never a chatty dude at the best of times, but once he’s locked up at the Moose, it gets so he won’t talk to me at all, even if I bring him the Du Maurier Specials. I get pretty torn up about it, but I tell myself he’s just out of his friggin mind now and then try not to think about all the legit reasons he might have for giving me the high-hat.
One time I go by with the goods and he’s up there staring out at the poxy moon like he’s some kinda werewolf and he goes, “Wasn’t trying to off myself, Stu, despite what your mother tells you. Just came out for a drag and the door froze shut. I hollered out, but everyone was downstairs so I just lay down and thought, ‘Spike, you’ll likely die of hypothermia before the smokes run out, so there’s worse ways.’”
I don’t know what the hell he’s talking about because Mom would sooner converse with the ass-end of a horse than me these days, but it’s the most he’s said to me in months so I try to keep him rolling. “Good thing they found you, Gramps.”
“If you say so.”
I don’t like the sound of that, so I scare up something to lighten the mood. “Hey Gramps, remember when we drove down to see Hellnail in that friggin blizzard?”
“Get a load of this. They’re comin to Culdafik next month. Gonna play an outdoor concert right out on the frozen bay. How’s that for hardcore? Minus forty and I bet Z will still find a way to set himself on fire.”
Gramps doesn’t say anything for a long time, so I just sorta stand there freezing my ass off and watch the little red comet of his cigarette bounce around in the moonlight. Just when I think I’m about to lose my left nut he goes, “Stu?”
“You gotta get me to that goddamn concert.”
Keith says the best thing is to just bust in there and grab him, old-school style. So the night of the concert, we “borrow” Frank’s van and haul ass over to the Moose. Keith cruises in to case the joint, I sit lookout on the hood of the van, and it’s not long before this girl in a security uniform comes over to check me out. She looks solid, sorta like a She-Hulk type, and wears this purple eyeliner that makes her eyes look nice and catty. She catches me looking and goes, “You Stu Guichet?”
I get all nervous for some reason so I go, “Who’s friggin asking?”
She looks at me like I’m boring the hell out of her and goes, “Name’s Twyla. Got your picture at the security desk, says you’re not supposed to be here.”
I’m just about to wow her with a slick comeback when Keith comes shooting out the main entrance with some jerk-off in a crew cut hot on his tail. Keith’s not much of a runner, so the guy catches him pretty quick and next thing you know he’s got Keith in a half nelson. Keith starts shrieking like a goddamn parakeet, and if there’s one thing I can’t stand it’s when folks mess with Keith, so I spark up fierce and take a run at numb-nuts there. I’m just about to get the upper hand when I feel myself being lifted through the air, and then Twyla’s got me pinned to the side of the van while Crew Cut throws a tantrum about Keith screwing around in the “restricted zone.” I struggle a bit and manage to fire off a few good lines at Crew, but then Twyla leans in beside my ear and goes, “Why’nt you get the frig outta here while you still can?”
I feel her hot breath on the side of my neck, and it smells just like Juicy Fruit and Player’s Light. I start to feel dizzy and I look down at her giant fists, still balled up in my jacket, and I’m sorta in a trance as I go, “Your hands are like two beautiful crabs.”
We decide Crew Cut’s not worth the grief, and as we fishtail out of the parking lot Keith goes, “That Twyla is some woman.” I gotta agree with him on that one, but it’s too much to think about when it’s T-minus-twenty-minutes till Z hits the ice stage, and Gramps is still up there in his goddamn cage. I drive around town in a sorta panic and I go, “We need a friggin backup plan, Keith,” and he goes, “Should’ve had that before we tried the first one.”
I’m ready to rip into him, but just then he looks in the back of the van and goes, “I got it, Stu. Turn this mother around.”
So there’s us, hunkered down in the woods behind the Moose, packing snow down on top of a piece of plywood we got from the back of Frank’s van, and Keith starts going on about a fixer so I go, “What the frig’s a fixer?” and he goes, “You know, someone on the inside, to grease the goddamn wheels?” And he’s right, our last plan would’ve worked fine if J-crew there hadn’t been such a hero, but we are running seriously short on time so I go, “We gotta roll, Keith. The present is friggin now.”
That’s when we hear footsteps coming from the direction of the Moose and I think, “Well, here’s the part where the whole thing goes balls up,” but then Twyla hits the scene, fixes me with her feline eyes, and goes, “Guichet, why did you say that freaky crap about my hands?”
Since I’ve been trying my best to block that ace line out of my memory, I’ve got no ready answer so I go, “Dunno. Just something I was thinking about.” I feel my heart sucker-punch the back of my tongue as Twyla goes, “What’s a person’s fists got to do with friggin crabs? Doesn’t make any sense.”
I look down at her gloveless hands and I gotta say, her fingers look pretty red—almost like a bunch of juicy claws from the All-You-Can-Eat Bucket O’Sea special at Salty Stephen’s—but I don’t say anything because all of a sudden it hits me how I am a failure at literally friggin everything in my life, and next thing you know I start sorta crying, so I take a whole handful of snow and rub it all over my face so neither of those two arseholes can see my shitty tears.
Twyla must not notice because she just keeps right on talking.
“Spike’s a good old guy. Riffs with me about the metal scene sometimes. Said he could die happy if he just saw Z rock the stage one last time . . .”
I try to take it all in, but Twyla’s words run over me like a goddamn avalanche.
“. . . Told me you were the only one in his family who ever gave half a shit about him. Said I should maybe give you a go since you weren’t near as much of a screw-head as folks give you credit for. He was kinda calling out for you when I found him out there frozen on his balcony.”
The sound of the Hellnail roadies running the sound check rings in from the distant bay, but I’d sooner shit syphilis than interrupt Twyla.
Twyla jams her hands in her pockets, widens her stance like the cop did right before he asked me about the weed, and goes, “This is how it’s gonna happen. In fifteen minutes, there’ll be a small commotion in the front entrance involving the fire alarm. A lotta things might go un-monitored for a bit while we sort that out.”
Keith gives her a nod and I know just what he’s thinking: looks like we got us our fixer.
We cruise up behind Gramps’s balcony with the snow-packed plywood strapped to the top of a sled we stole from the Bargain Shop. It takes a couple of tries, but eventually we land the board so one end rests on the top rail of Gramps’s balcony and the other end digs into the snow at our feet. Gramps is waiting up there in his parka, and he struggles up the side of the rail just as the fire alarm starts to wail. The way he sways gives me the willies, but the old guy is tenacious and all of a sudden he’s up there on top of the snow ramp, and next thing you know he’s down with us on the ground.
I’m glad we have the sled because I can tell from the way Gramps is puffing there’s no chance he’s gonna make it down to the bay’s edge on his own steam. The great thing about parkas is you can’t tell who the hell anyone is when their hoods are up, so nobody even gives us a whiff as we pull Gramps down Princess Street. Like I said, Gramps is a bit of a shrimp, so everyone probably thinks we’re just pulling some kid.
Turns out the whole friggin town is out to get an eyeful of Hellnail, so we get stuck way up the hill and need our binoculars to even see the stage. Partway into the first set, Gramps starts to look a bit smurf so I go, “Hey Gramps, maybe we should take you back.”
He looks up at me with those Clint-y old eyes and goes, “Stu, I’m going in.”
He holds up his beer like he’s handing me his goddamn sword and then chucks himself forward on the sled.
We lose sight of him for a sec because the faraway sound of someone yelling my name grabs my attention. I look down the hill, and there’s Mom chugging up toward us like a five-foot-nothing freight train with old Frank bringing up the rear and hollering like a hound. I remember about the van and how it’s still parked in the lot back at the Moose. I fish Frank’s keys out from my pocket and chuck them in the snow beside me. Keith knows what time it is, and he gives me a nod.
Can’t prove it? Didn’t friggin happen.
Suddenly Frank and Mom disappear from view as the crowd parts like actual Jesus-water, and in the middle of it appears Gramps whipping down that hill like the sled’s on rails.
I know I should run after him, but I just stand there frozen—like literally, they don’t call this place Cold-As-Fuck Bay for nothing—and then I hear Mom’s voice say, “Shit, is that Spike down there on the sled?”
When Gramps gets to the bay, some drunk dudes lift him up above the crowd and start to volley him toward the stage. I put up my binoculars and there he is, one fist in front of the sled, holding on tight, the other one up in the air pumping in time with the drums.
I hand the binoculars to Mom, and just as she’s adjusting the focus, Frank starts up griping so she tells him to stick a cork in it. When she gets an eyeful of Gramps, Mom goes, “What is he doing, Stu?”
I know she’s already guessed the answer, but I say it anyway: “Riding the friggin reaper.”
“Jesus Christ,” she says, but I can tell from the way she says it that she’s just figured something out.
“Friggin A,” I say. “Friggin A.” And we both nod because there’s nothing else left to say.
When Gramps falls down, I try not to think of him lying there broken up under everyone’s feet. Instead I think of a pair of gloves I saw in the Bargain Store when we went in for the sled. They were salmon orange, fleece lined, and size XL. I think hard about those gloves and wonder if they would keep a person’s hands warm if they happened to be out on their night rounds at the White Moose Lodge Nursing Home.
I’m not making a plan or anything.
Just thinking, is all.