A drafty place between the river and the highway, blankets nailed to the windows to keep out the cold, but on nights when the band played, the downstairs packed and throbbing, the air slushy with the smell of spilled beer—well, you have to picture it: Connor flicks sweat from his bangs as the guitars drop out and it’s you alone vamping on the drums. He leans into the mic: “If Party Wolf jumps, WILL YOU CATCH HIM?” The partiers respond, an affirmative roar. Connor again: “If Party Wolf jumps, WILL. . . YOU. . . CATCH. . . HIM?” A louder roar and then Baker leaps from the stage.
Baker: chubby white guy in a wolf mask, the rubbery kind with clumps of fake hair. There’s a boogie board in his arms. Intoxicated? Very. He’s wearing a stars-and-stripes button-down shirt, buttons unbuttoned to reveal his curly blond chest hairs and the great gleaming whiteness of his belly. He sinks into the crowd—they would always give a little before bucking him back up into the air—and there he is, surrounded by gems of splashed beer, screaming above the screaming as you kick the shit out of the end of the song. Freeze frame it there and don’t think about what comes after: Baker leaning on the bass amp, sobering up but not sober, a sad philosophical drunk. He’s fumbling to say he misses his mom. She’d died semi-sudden—a cancer or something. Instead he picks up your lighter and begins singeing the hairs on the mask one by one, starts saying he’s never broke a bone, not once, not ever, and this, he suspects, is the root of his problems. He can see that now. Pain, for him, he says, is only hypothetical, a thing without limits. It’s the kids who’ve broken bones who aren’t afraid to get their bones broken.
All of which is to say when you remember Baker now it’s best to remember him with the wolf mask on, and if you remember the weeks you spent dating his older sister, remember only the good parts and the parts that make you look good. Forget how she maneuvered around your sex drive like a Spanish bull fighter (the Spanish ones being the kind that jab the bull each time he passes until he is dead). Remember instead the sparks at the beginning, the birdhouses you built for that b.s. community leadership class, the trip to Lowe’s to pick out the paint, flirty and domestic—did you want Seaweed Wrap or Avocado Supreme?—and remember afterwards how you placed the birdhouses around the frat house and used them as ashtrays, slipping cigarette butts through the holes. Remember the feeling of her, how she was nearly six feet tall. When you walked together by the river it felt like you were dating a pair of legs, which is a funny line that you can reuse and do, even today, but you do not say how her height only made her more attractive, how it gave her an air of power.
She was a senior when you were a sophomore, and she sometimes spoke as if she too had a terminal illness: “One of these days you and I are going to jump naked into that lake.” A bluff, of course, as this “lake” was the scum pond behind the Hardee’s, two feet deep and rimmed with green ooze, a private place to park the jeep and make out. “Let’s do it now,” you said as you made a move to undo her belt. She slid your hand to her hip as she leaned over to press her lips into yours—a picador move if there ever was one.
When you remember, tell yourself that she was pious and slutty at the same time, a real hypocrite. And emotionally distant. The closest she ever came to talking about her dead mother was griping about her Christian friends. “It’s not that I don’t believe in God,” she’d say, cuddled against you in the back of your jeep. “It’s just I’m tired. It comes so easy to the rest of them. They’re too cheerful.” She takes a drink, then rolls back against you and snuggles in. “I just want to be left alone.” We are alone. You imagine your two bodies sliding naked into some warm, clear patch of water, but you are already beginning to sense the truth, which is that for her you are just a phase, a Calypso, and she will soon get religion and leave you, and so it’s best to remember her as a girl who led you on.
How many nights did you come back from the pond and Baker would ask you, point blank in front of the guys: “D’you get some?” “Wouldn’t you like to know,” you’d say, knowing some of the guys might even take that as a yes if you said it right, but Baker knew, you could tell, and relished it, making you feel uncomfortable about dating his sister—each was always quietly looking out for the other, those two. Get some. The disgusting prick. Remember his room? “What’s up?” he’d say without turning his eyes from his oversized computer screen. He lived in filth, empty cans of Pabst and Mountain Dew on every flat surface, lunar formations of dirty laundry on the floor. He was drinking every afternoon. He’d sit in his room with the blinds closed playing post-apocalyptic video games as he sucked down Smirnoff screwdrivers, and in the evenings he’d find someplace to go where he could get trashed for free. Alayna wasn’t sure if he was still going to class. “I’m heading out,” you said as you passed his door. “See yUP,” he belched and on the giant screen shot a zombie in the face with a handgun.
This is exactly why you can’t think too much about Baker, his sister, and their dead mother. You have to remember him as the goofy drunk. Remember how after you got some booze in him he’d sometimes, for kicks, take off his pants and dart into the night. You and Connor and Joey would find him out in the street, in his bare feet and boxer shorts, turning a slow circle as he moaned at the stars, and you would bring him back in the house and punch him in the arm and pour him another drink. At first it was funny, then it became strange, then it became a nuisance, and then, after a while, it just became that thing Baker did whenever he got drunk, which was often. You have no idea why he did it (although, truth be told, you actually do know: he liked the feeling of all those arms reaching for him as he made for the door).
Perhaps it’s best if you don’t remember him at all. Recall, instead, with fondness the makeshift stage of cinderblocks and beer-soaked plywood, the sponginess of it, forgiving beneath your feet: You’re all right, kid. Remember who you were on that stage and remember also the Awesome Sound of the band. “Think punk rock with bongos,” you told Alayna, and she laughed. Sure, you were a token frat band, but you were the best damn token frat band your college had ever seen. When you hit the wrong notes, you hit them with conviction.
Alayna loved the sound, but—and here comes Baker again—she kept dropping hints about her brother’s interest in the band. You don’t remember where the mask came from or why you first gave it to him, but it solved a problem. See him there in his mask, suspended in the air, a great white whale breaching from an amber sea of beer.
Sooner or later though, like gravity, it’s inescapable: you will remember the time Party Wolf huffed concrete, that crunchy chord and then Connor shouted, “If Party Wolf—” but Baker was sloppy drunk and had already jumped, leapt, flew, and he hit the floor face-first. Not the soft wooden floor inside either, but the cement patio out back (this being a defiant outdoor show in November). The song fell to pieces—nobody was expecting him to hit the ground—and when people picked him up, you could already see that he was bleeding and bleeding, all down his neck, and when somebody pulled off the mask, you saw his chin lit up with the blood flowing from his nose.
He looked around with concussiony eyes, and then, unsure of what to do next, he stepped out of his pants and took off, half running, half stumbling, and out of habit you dropped your sticks and took off after him through several backyards and a small field, but somehow he was faster than you—how was he faster than you? Enough is enough—you are pissed. You plunge after him into a patch of woods and out the other side. You find him in the middle of the scum pond behind the Hardee’s. The icy green water is lapping at the hem of his boxers—goddammit—as he stands with his arms out, turning a slow circle and howling at the stars. There is a wet beard of blood down the front of his shirt.
“Baker, you shithead, get out of the fucking lake!” Your shout is a little puff in the cold air and he ignores it so you throw a rock at him. A good throw, it hits his shoulder. He stops turning. He looks over. Then he tugs open the fly of his boxers and begins urinating into the pond. “Baker! Get out of the fucking lake, you miserable fuck!” You pick up a larger rock.
A weary voice from behind you: “Yeah, keep doing that. I think it’s helping.”
She steps out of her jeans. She thrusts them into your arms, and you remember: Alayna wading through the muck toward Baker, the closest you ever got.
Ryan Rickrode's work has appeared in various publications, including The South Carolina Review, Dappled Things, and The Cresset. He holds an MFA from the University of Montana and currently teaches English and creative writing classes at Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania. You can read more of his work at ryan-rickrode.com.
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