The Big Finale
Matt will be leaving tomorrow for Michigan's Upper Peninsula. I've promised him beer and brats before he disappears for two weeks and gives me a vacation. The grill is set up, and I drench it with charcoal lighter, then drop a wooden match onto its bed of coals. A gray cloud begins to belch from the circular opening, drifting up towards the hazy helmet of summer sky.
I arrange our chairs and a wicker table on the brick patio, and strategically place my new Trek Navigator next to the house. At $700 it's a beautiful bike: Shimano crank and twenty-four gears, alpha aluminum frame, and front suspension fork. I'm ambivalent about riding it, afraid the pristine metal workings will get coated with dirt. And a scratch─a scratch would kill me.
Matt arrives at 7:40 and backs up the driveway in his white Jeep Cherokee. He jumps down with a toothy grin, and I tell him I like his costume. He's wearing a safari hat, a tie-dyed tee shirt, long shorts and leather hiking boots.
"You've got to look the part to live it," he says, slapping my shoulder. "You, on the other hand, still dress like a goddamn college student."
He's right. I've got on my signature khakis and running shoes, and my hairstyle would please any Republican. I'm as predictable as milk.
We enter the house I'm renting, and Matt opens the refrigerator. The beer is in full view, but he doesn't make a move.
"Look at the size of this fucking jelly. You having third graders over?"
I ignore him, and he opens a Tupperware container and sniffs its contents. Feeling somewhat violated, I reach around his shoulder and grab two bottles of Miller Lite. He grunts, okay, okay, and follows me outside. I twist the caps off the slippery longnecks, and Matt walks over to my bike and sits on the seat.
"Not bad for a social worker. How much?"
"A little over five hundred." I lie without hesitation. "I bought it on sale."
"Good price. I should get one too."
His fat fingers wander over the brake levers and shifters, as if they're new hand tools. Every movement makes me cringe, and I suck on the mouth of my beer. He finally climbs down and I give him his bottle, a gesture that's oddly familiar, like shaking the hand of an uncle you haven't seen for years. Back home I passed beers to Matt on a hundred of occasions, while shooting pool, fishing and standing around bonfires. We've been friends since grade school and lived in Cadillac, a small northern town best known for having two lakes and a canal linking them. I later fled to The University of Michigan, and Matt followed me, attracted by the Huron River, Ann Arbor's many bars, and its Big Ten football team. He became the maintenance supervisor for a large apartment complex, ideal for someone who liked telling people what to do. And to his credit, he often hires teenagers from my clinic for lawn care, kids with mental illness and on probation from the juvenile justice system. Matt's a pain in the ass sometimes, but he gets me good jobs.
He guzzles his beer then tells me to start the brats. "If we wait any longer, we'll be eating them for breakfast."
I shrug and get up from my chair. In the kitchen I open a package of sausage and bloody juice squirts onto my hand. I move to the sink and turn on the faucet, and see Matt's wide head through the window. He radiates a tense energy, like someone released from prison with no place to go. Carrying our food on a plate, I grab two more beers and join him outside.
I load the grill and ask about Andrea. We both dated her our senior year, until she chose the man before me, the neo-hippie cleaning his nails with a Swiss Army pocketknife. I knew she simply wanted the dinners Matt could buy at expensive restaurants (he was building houses with his father and carried hundred dollar bills), along with the ski weekends at Boyne Mountain. I last saw Andrea two months ago, when I went home for my mother's birthday. We briefly talked outside a party store, and I thought my heart would leap through my jacket.
"I stopped by." Matt grins and shows his teeth. "She was happy to see me, and I fucked her on the kitchen floor. She asked about you, and I told her you were spending time with boys."
"Thanks. You're a real friend. She thinking about taking you back?"
"Why, you jealous? She didn't actually say it, but I could see through her small-town vamp routine. I could get her to move to Ann Arbor, and maybe we'd get married. I just don't know if it's what I want─I can get better sex without a relationship."
I get up to check the brats and question whether Matt's friendship and jobs are worth his bullshit. His chair flexes, and I turn to find him riding the bike around the yard. Metal grinds metal from gears not meshing, and I kick my lawn chair.
"Come on! Just leave the bike alone."
"Sorry. It's just so hard to resist. I'd sure like to take it on my trip."
"No way. Get that out of your head." I take the bike, lean it against the house, and consider wheeling it inside. But getting Matt fed is my highest priority, so I lift the lid to the grill and find the sausages swollen and with leathery skin.
Matt says he needs to use the john and enters the house. I light the citronella candle on the wicker table, and he returns a short time later with two more beers.
"Hey," he says, stopping to scratch an armpit, "did I ever tell you about my thing with Ryan?"
I pull on my beer, shaking my head.
"Oh, you're going to love this."
We sit down, and the color in Matt's tee shirt is now muted. His hat casts a shadow over his face, and his eyes are dark holes. The brats hiss behind us. Crickets screech from cracks in the pavement.
"I went up on the Fourth of July, and Ryan and I watched a DVD, some lame shit from Jackie Chan. His movies are pointless, sort of like Kung Fu Jerry Lewis. Ryan starts telling me about his new job─a gutter installer, can you believe it? But not just any gutter installer, a seamless gutter installer. The kind made for the job."
Matt pauses to gulp his beer, and I picture Ryan in his Carhart jacket. I'm glad he's moved beyond the roofing job he's had since high school; it didn't pay much and left him with skinned knuckles and banged-up knees. I get up and switch on a porch light. Checking the brats I find the bottoms are black as my bike's new tires.
"Sorry, Matt. Looks like they're a little burned."
"Way to go. I guess I can settle for some pizza. Why don't you order one of those Hawaiians."
Matt driving away would be my first choice, but I want to hear the end of the story. I call for the pizza, and then go to the bathroom for a piss. Matt enters the house, the refrigerator door sucks open, and his footsteps move to the living room just off the kitchen. I find him lounging on the sofa and turn on a lamp. It's now 9:25, and I want the night to end, but defiantly finish my old beer and sip the one Matt has just opened.
He continues: "So I said to Ryan, 'What, you're a fucking craftsman now?' And he throws a beer can and hits me in the chin─the last thing I expected from that little shit. Then we were on each other. I had him in a head lock, and he was pinching my stomach like a goddamn woman."
Matt outweighs Ryan by thirty-five pounds. This was a fight between a bully and the smallest kid on a playground. I last wrestled Matt in tenth grade gym class. He called me a faggot and I threw him to the floor, where I slapped his left ear with my open hand. The same ear's still prone to infection; he complains about it often. Matt sobbed, as the teacher pulled me off, and I had to run twenty-five laps around the gymnasium.
"I didn't want to hurt him." Matt feigns sincerity. "But he wouldn't give up. Then our pal Ryan started pulling my hair, and there was a pain in my scalp I'll never forget. I reached around with my free hand and pried at his fingers until I got one loose. I wrenched it back, and the damn thing broke. Ryan started crying, and I glanced over to the TV. Jackie Chan was into his grand finale, this impossible fight with ten guys with swords. It was perfect timing. You should've been there."
In the moment I don't know what I can't stand more─Matt's voice or the story he's told. The pizza comes, and he doesn't offer a cent. We eat without talking and, after gobbling four pieces, he stands to leave. I switch on the porch light and follow him out, holding my beer and burping pineapple and cheese. Matt turns away from his truck and heads towards the back of the house. I place my beer on the porch and follow.
"I'd sure like to take this." He grips the bike's handlebars. "Come on, it's just two weeks."
"You're delusional. Out of the question."
Matt pushes the bike forward and disappears into the cave-like shadow along the driveway. I run a few steps and grab onto the seat, and the bike stops. He yanks the handlebars, and the seat slides through my hands.
"Matt, just go home."
"It's a joke, Tim. Relax."
I take the bike, walk it up to the front porch, and Matt climbs into his Cherokee. Rolling down the window, he shouts over a wailing guitar, "I think I'll visit Andrea before heading up north. I'll give her a hickey and tell her it's from you."
As he pulls into the street, I throw my beer. The bottle hits the Cherokee and shatters the back window: diamonds of glass rain down on the pavement; and foam cascades off the bumper. Backup lights then fill the area with a shock of white light, and my yard is illuminated─it could be a set for a movie. The Cherokee crunches through the gravel towards me, and I hurry to stash my bike in the house. When I step back onto the porch, Matt is walking towards me. His hat is gone and his hands are balled into meaty fists. I rush him and nail his left ear so hard I fear I might take off his head. He cries out like an injured dog and falls to his knees, and I push him over into the grass.
Inside I turn off the porch light and sit on the sofa. A storm of adrenaline mixes with the alcohol and makes me feel psychotic. Andrea and Ryan emerge from the chaos in my head, and memories of us multiply, until I close my eyes and picture them next to me.
About the author:
Thomas Boulan is a social worker living in Ypsilanti, Michigan. He assists the homeless in finding direction, hope and housing, and belongs to a writing group that meets in a pathology library at a local hospital. (Unfortunately, no specimens are available for viewing.) His poetry and fiction has or will appear in a number of print and online journals, including WordWrights, Carriage House Review, Natural Bridge, jerseyworks, The Dogwood Journal, Pboz, The MacGuffin and Oyster Boy Review.