23 Jul

Incremental Fiction (Pretending To Wake Up), part 3

We both go to New York for college in ’87. James studies history for a semester but drops out so he can “model” and “play bass” full-time, which means just enough to score. Over the next couple years I see him less but I hear stories—he’s back home, in a band called That Darn Cat who all live together in a house on Harriet, where they noodle with feedback and do drugs. Now he’s back in New York. Now he’s gotten his model girlfriend pregnant and they both still use. He seems embarrassed around me, overcompensating with meanness; after awhile I start to let the friendship slide away.
When I go back to Minneapolis on holiday breaks, I walk and walk and walk. Unconsciously, I think I’m looking for the energy that saved me, I’m looking for Goofy’s Upper Deck but it’s closed; The Replacements are on a major label. The scene knows itself and some of the energy has dissipated. I want this place to freeze itself in time so I can come back and taste that desperation and then leave again when it’s convenient. Why is my hometown smoothing out its edges? Why is it growing up?
This is the last time I see James: 1992, we are both twenty-five and he’s a full-fledged junkie. He shows up at my door one evening and takes me to his apartment, a former storefront on Ludlow Street, where the lights have been turned off by Con-Edison and a naked man nods on a naked mattress with blood from a bad puncture drying on his forearm. Half feral, rib-thin cats mewl and nose at empty cans of Friskies. (A few years later I’ll unwittingly walk into the same space, now a clothing store, to buy my wife an $80 sweater for Christmas, made from the salvaged scraps of vintage cashmere.)
James shows me where he’s cut a little piece of plaster out of the wall, behind which he’s hidden anything of value: a picture of his baby girl he doesn’t have visitation rights to; a few dollars; a mix tape I’d made him for our road trip to New Orleans. I’ve given up on him and he’s saving this? 
We walk around the city for a few hours and he tells me he is down to a couple bags in the morning and a couple to get to sleep. I don’t know what this means but it doesn’t sound reassuring. He says he doesn’t want to end up one of those guys he’s seen at meetings, telling everyone what a good day it was because he was able to sit down in front of a TV show without wanting to claw out his eyes. He has a junkie’s remarkable ability to slip from coherence to abject superstition in an instant. “Did you know,” he asks me as we stop somewhere for a drink, “that they did a study of addicts and over two-thirds are Scorpios?”
15 Jul

Incremental Fiction, (“Pretending to Wake up”), part 2

James and I start going to all-ages shows tucked away in sweaty holes by the University, five-band-five-dollar nights of half in-tune guitars and screamed rants distorted through a cheap sound system. The first is headlined by Husker Du, and it is terrifying. Bob Mould screams, red-faced, and grinds away at a Flying-V guitar; he has a paunch, bad skin, big black shorts and boots. Grant Hart looks like a hairy caveman bashing his drums. It sounds like a car accident I want to get killed in. The bands sweat and careen for us and we do the same in response. Our favorite player is Bob Stinson, guitarist for The Replacements, who shows up onstage wearing only an adult diaper or a thrift-store prom dress. He gets so drunk before gigs that a roadie has to help him strap on his guitar. He is equally legendary in Minneapolis for his brilliant solos and his ongoing calamity of a life. What he plays is what I hear when I can’t sleep.
James’s and my friendship expands to include nights at Embers’, the only all-night restaurant within walking distance from our houses, a tinted glass diner populated by post-bar drunks, staffed by a waitress with a wandering eye. We spread our homework on the table to look reputable, drink coffee and talk about bands. When the sky starts to glow, predawn, we sneak back home and pretend to wake up for school.
On the bus one day, James mentions heroin to me. He’s tried it with the motorcycle boys he’s gotten to know, and asks me if I want to do it, too. He says it erases all his desire and anxiety, he says it’s like the feeling after sex. Still antsy all the time, and awkward in my own skin, I’m thinking this sounds like exactly what I need, even if the idea of sticking a needle in my arm is scary, and even if I don’t know what sex feels like, though of course I nod my head. I tell him okay, but at the appointed time I chicken out. We don’t discuss it after that.
08 Jul

Incremental Fiction (“Pretending to Wake Up”), part 1

It’s 1982, I am in seventh grade and I can’t sleep. I’m involuntarily replaying the previous day’s events in my head: schoolmates’ little insults; subtle rebukes by girls I’d like to kiss; what I should have told the math teacher who gave me a C. I’m tossing and turning, fumbling through Minneapolis’s numbing selection of late-night radio in my basement room: Pop, Country, Muzak, Classical, news. At some point during the night, I land for the first time on KFAI, a local station, and a show called Rock of Rages. The reception is spotty, but two songs come through clear enough: “Blue Spark,” by X and “Kids Don’t Follow” by The Replacements. The guitar is fuzzier, the voices are desperate, the beats race. Is it possible that The Replacements actually come from my hometown? Until now I’ve known this city to be a place that is white, still and cold, where no one ever quite approves, where you are always too loud, too quiet, too weird or too normal.
There’s one kid in South Minneapolis, James Frierson, who will hang out with me if everyone else he knows is busy. We ride the bus together up Lake Street to the Hi-Lake Mall, past used car lots and the Scandia Bakery, the bank and American Rug Laundry and Embers’ Grill. When we get there we pace the aisles of Target and play with the walkie-talkies at Radio Shack until the manager tells us to stop.
Already James is so good looking that when he walks to the back of the bus all the women and some of the men turn to watch him pass. Sometimes I rush to sit down first so I can see it happen. He is apple-cheeked, blue-eyed, soft-voiced and big-boned. I am gangly, buck-toothed, uncoordinated. We are a perfect odd couple.
James had come back from spring break a few weeks back, having traded the Izod shirts and khakis we all wore for something else. His t-shirt was ripped, he had a bandana around his neck, he wore tight black jeans and his hair was spiky. “It’s not Preppy anymore,” he informed me with disdain, “It’s Punk now.” He was so sure of this fact, and it was so clear that whatever punk was, I was not it, that I knew it was just a matter of time before he’d ditch me for good, and only hang out with all the other kids who had always known it was punk the whole time.