Joyland

PNW |

The Stage-Divers

by Kevin Sampsell

edited by Kait Heacock

He was just turning fifty, newly divorced, and never felt comfortable anywhere. His ass started to ache while he sat at his desk at work. He felt nauseous driving his own car, his broken windows unable to roll down. Walking to the store became a battle against sore knees. His bed felt sloped at night, scratchy second-hand blankets falling to the floor before the sun came up. He couldn’t figure out what was wrong and thought maybe his body wasn’t his anymore. Maybe he just needed a couch. He didn’t even have a goddamn couch. He used to have one but his wife won it in the divorce. Now some guy named Ben was enjoying the couch, getting comfortable, probably getting his back scratched.

His name was Ben too, but he preferred Benjamin. His wife never called him Ben, though she tried to at first. Maybe she wasn’t into three-syllable names. Making her say Benjamin was almost like some kind of penance for speaking to him at all. Now she could say it one-syllable style all she wanted: Ben this, Ben that, Ben, Ben, Ben, Ben. Her name was Lou.

Benjamin smoked pot now, hoping it would help him relax. His comfort levels were at an all-time low, even when he was high. Outside the new cannabis store, he met a man named Dylan, who was frantically looking for enough change in his truck’s cup holder to buy a shake joint. Benjamin gave him two more dollars and Dylan gave him a tamale out of a cooler in the backseat. They got their weed and then debated the best albums to smoke out to. Turns out they were both into obscure old post-punk bands. When Dylan mentioned The Dog-Faced Herman, Benjamin thought there was strong friend potential. He hadn’t made a new friend in a long time. In fact, he lost most of his friends in the divorce. Lou actually made a list with eight names and crossed out six of them. “You can keep the rest,” she said, and her lawyer signed it like an official document. One of the remaining names belonged to his dead friend, Benny. Two syllables. No need to say them out loud anymore.

Benjamin and his new friend Dylan met up two days later and they drank beer and listened to Big Black in Dylan’s garage as they talked about bands they saw in the 90s. Dylan’s younger housemates only listened to techno, folk, and techno-folk and didn’t like his old records.

“You ever see Swans?” Benjamin asked. Dylan looked confused, like he didn’t know who that was. Benjamin got worried for a second but then Dylan cracked a smile and started laughing.

“Shit, man,” he said. “They were so loud, I threw up and had to leave before the third song. Does that count?”

Benjamin laughed along with Dylan and he thought about how nice that sounded, two men laughing about vomit and noise inside a garage. It felt carefree, almost like joy. Then he realized that he felt comfortable for the first time in months. Maybe it was the couch they were sitting on. He found himself admiring it now, though it seemed like any ratty old couch. It was golden, almost velvet-like fabric, kind of dirty around the edges. One of the corners had been clawed by a cat or maybe chewed on by a dog. It was in bad shape in that particular spot for sure. But nothing in or on his body ached and Benjamin said as much out loud. “I’m feeling really good.” He pulled a joint out of his front shirt pocket.

Dylan changed the record to Shadowy Men On a Shadowy Planet. A couple of minutes passed. The sound of twangy surf-rock guitar mingled with the marijuana smoke. “I feel good, too,” said Dylan.

“How old are you?” Benjamin asked. He felt like the conversation was getting real.

“Forty-three,” said Dylan. He ran his fingers over the scalp on his head as he said this, as if making sure his hair was still there. Dylan felt too, that suddenly over the span of the last fourteen spoken words, they were suddenly on a different level. Personal, even. They were both at an age where new friends didn’t come along so easily. When they were in their twenties, the Internet wasn’t as popular yet and friendships were made in real life, not through screens. Dylan remembered bonding with other men about music and then losing track of these friends a year or two later when they got married or had kids or moved to Canada or Spain. Actually none of his friends had moved to Spain. Two of his girlfriends moved to Spain. Back when his friends were in their twenties, they were all seeking something, even when they acted casual about it. Dylan didn’t know what to think about seeking. He never thought about it. If he ever did think about it, he’d probably fall asleep.

Benjamin was a seeker. He once read a book by The Dalai Lama. He was vegan once. He loved genealogy. He once only dated Jewish girls. He skydived. He lit candles and sometimes meditated.

“This used to be my make-out record,” said Dylan.

Benjamin thought about that a moment. He forgot all about make-out records. He used Cocteau Twins once to seduce a goth girl. His ex-wife used Serge Gainsbourg on him. A good make-out record used to have a lot of value, Benjamin thought. He listened to the cool galloping bass line of the Shadowy Men and realized it was the theme song from the TV show Kids in the Hall. “This guy is such a good bass player,” he said.

“Yeah,” said Dylan. “But did you know he died a long time ago?”

Besides weekends, the schedules of Benjamin and Dylan didn’t seem to allow them to hang out together during the week. Benjamin commuted a couple of hours to teach semiotics at a college somewhere outside of town and spent most of his time on campus. Dylan worked swing shift at a Costco but failed a drug test and now worked early mornings for something called PriceCo. He was always telling Benjamin what the best off-brand cookies were. Dylan was starting to gain weight with this new job, but he wore it well. His clothes actually fit better.

Sometimes, during the course of the day, they would text band names that they just remembered to each other: “Sandy Duncan’s Eye… Suburban Lawns…Coffin Break…godheadSilo…Steel Pole Bathtub.” They would respond with exaggerated monosyllabic words like “Yesssss…Oooooh…Fuuuuuuck.” Once Benjamin texted: “Ever see Babes in Toyland play?” and Dylan responded with a selfie holding a concert ticket from 1992. Benjamin thought that was funny and started coming up with different photo responses for some of the bands they reminisced about. Killdozer = a photo of Flannery O’Connor. Helmet = a brick wall. Seaweed = a T-shirt that said Tacoma on it.

One weekend, they drove to Seattle to see a Butthole Surfers show. On the way up from Portland, they listened to CDs and talked about their lives, even their childhoods. Up until that point in their friendship, it was as if life began in the late 80s or early 90s for both of them. But now, they went back further into their respective histories. The deep cuts.

Benjamin talked about his parents’ divorce, his brother dying of a drug overdose when he was in middle school, the time he saw his high school art teacher have a seizure.

Dylan squinted up into the glaring clouds rolling over them as they sped northbound. He realized that he only talked to other people about music, TV shows, and pot. Maybe the last time he talked to anyone about anything else was when he tried therapy at the age of thirty-five. And he had only done that at the suggestion of his doctor. With Galaxie 500 playing quietly in the CD player, Dylan talked about almost drowning when he was eight and how he was scared of rivers and oceans, he talked about a babysitter he had when he was eight who pulled on his penis to see how far it would stretch, he talked about his little league baseball team winning the city championship when he was eight. A lot of formative things happened when he was eight.

“By the time I was twelve,” Dylan said, “I was kind of just numb or unimpressed with life. Then I heard Black Flag.”

The air felt suddenly thin in the car. Two friends lightheaded with the freedom to reveal anything.

“It’s weird getting older,” Benjamin said. “When I was married, I was content but restless. Now, I’m not content or restless. Just aimless and uncomfortable. Who would have guessed?”

Then Benjamin told Dylan about his affairs, his infidelities with the truth, his regrets, his back taxes, the year he flunked a student out of spite, and the time he checked out of a drug rehab and did cocaine four days later.

Dylan told Benjamin he once slashed the car tires of an ex, that he stole clothes from the expensive Goodwill downtown, and that he had never dated anyone for more than five months. For a moment, it seemed like Dylan was going to cry, but he just stopped talking. He sniffed a couple of times as the CD faded into silence. They were back to being two awkward guys in a slow-moving car.

Up ahead was an accident. One car flipped onto its top, another one with its passenger side smashed in. Glass everywhere. A man sat on the back bumper of an ambulance with his head in his hands.

“Oh, man,” said Benjamin, as they slowly moved past it all. “That must really suck.”

At the show, the audience felt subdued and tired, as if everyone had also driven three hours to get there. Benjamin and Dylan nodded along with the thumping bass but in their heads they were thinking the same thing: What happened to rock and roll? Shouldn’t this be better? Is it the band’s fault, or my fault? They cringed while watching a man probably older than them, wearing a button-down dress shirt and khaki pants stage-dive into a group of annoyed millennials. That could be me, they were both thinking. I’m glad that’s not me, they both thought. But Benjamin was also wondering if Dylan wanted to be the stage-diving type.

After the show, their ears rang unpleasantly as they dragged their feet down the sidewalk trying to remember where the car was. Their T-shirts and zip-up hoodies were damp and pungent with sweat.

Benjamin asked Dylan, “How old do you think is too old to stage-dive?”

Dylan rubbed his chin and pondered before saying, “Probably thirty.” It seemed to Benjamin a safe—if not slightly ageist—answer. But he was glad to think that Dylan wouldn’t ever stage dive at a show they attended together. “Or forty,” Dylan said quickly, looking at the hair on his knuckles. Benjamin shot him a look to see if he was joking. Dylan shrugged, saying, “I was thirty-nine when I stage-dived at a Regina Spektor show.”

“Regina Spektor?” said Benjamin, almost laughing.

“It was the encore,” said Dylan, trying to justify his behavior. “Some of her songs are pretty punk.”

Benjamin was secretly a Regina Spektor fan, so he felt this was a fair statement. They started singing “Your Honor.”

I kissed your lips and I tasted blood.

Da-na-na-na-na-na-na Da-na-na-na-na

I asked you what happened and you said there’d been a fight

Da-na-na-na-na-na-na Da-na-na-na-na

They located the car finally. It was on a quieter side street with no parking meters. They wanted to smoke a joint but they couldn’t remember what the Seattle marijuana laws were. They rolled the windows down, pushed in the lighter, and took their chances.

“Do you think we’re getting too old for this?” Benjamin asked. “This, uh, rock and roll?”

“I thought I’d always go to shows,” Dylan said. “I pictured my hair getting gray and my clothes just like, you know, transitioning to nice jackets, maybe some ties. I thought I could look like the FBI or William S. Burroughs. But now I think I’d just like to not be noticed. You know? I just want to enjoy the show.”

Spacemen 3 was coming out of the speakers as they smoked. The layered guitars sounding especially psychedelic in the dark. The men sat silently, letting the smoke get in their heads. The whole moment felt, to them, disconnected from the rest of the world. If the car had a sunroof, they’d roll it back so the pot and music could turn their heads into balloons. They could float away.

“You’d look good in a Burroughs suit,” Benjamin said. He was feeling good. He wanted to give his friend a compliment.

“I’d do what?” said Dylan. His ears were shot from the show.

Benjamin started to reply but started to laugh and couldn’t stop. Dylan laughed too. A strange, tittering sound from the back of his throat that almost sounded like crying. Benjamin turned on the dome light to make sure Dylan wasn’t crying and they started laughing more. Their faces turned red and tears did come.

When Benjamin returned home the next morning, he scanned his cupboards for food and realized they hardly held anything that was good for him. A box of Frosted Mini-Wheats cereal, some Planters Cashews, chocolate cover graham crackers, a jar of peanut butter, and a bottle of Vitamin D for the cloudy months. He opened the refrigerator and saw an abundance of healthy food that all belonged to his roommates. Leafy vegetables spilling off their shelves, various brands of hummus and organic condiments, almond milk, bags of dates and lentils, and some kind of meat replacement that was supposed to be better than real meat. Cold brew coffee. They were a lesbian couple that Benjamin met through a friend of a friend. They owned the house and rented out the basement bedroom to him. He sometimes heard them upstairs laughing about something. He imagined that they made jokes about his meager food and cow’s milk, which was always pushed to the back of the fridge, like they didn’t want to know it even existed. “What is wrong with this fifty-year-old man and his box of Lucky Charms,” he imagined them whispering on some nice couch in their master bedroom.

Benjamin looked at a loaf of bread in his retro breadbasket on the kitchen counter. He picked it up and sniffed it and then squeezed it into the fridge. He’d always be afraid to look at it after that and it would mysteriously disappear a week later.

He went to his room and started to feel panic about his existence. This new part of his life was maybe too blank. Benjamin had nothing on his walls, no new goals, a job he wasn’t excited about, and he felt like even his clothes were falling apart or not fitting him anymore. He wondered if he was going to be alone the rest of his life and if his hair was falling out. He looked in the mirror and could tell he was losing his looks rapidly. He had heard other people talk about how their fifties were a great time, but those were people who planned ahead and had good luck, not people like him who clumsily imploded his own life. He felt shame about being divorced, the way it was like an announcement about his imperfection and how it stained the people close to them as a couple. Benjamin and Lou, never to be again.

He tried to think of something good in his new life and he pictured Dylan in his mind. Dylan was probably a friend for life unless he screwed that up too. Dylan was a good thing. He almost felt confused by how nice it was.

In one corner of his room, there was a tiny desk with a pile of bills and student papers to grade. His laptop had a Spongebob Squarepants sticker on it that his ex-wife’s niece put on it just a week before the word divorce was uttered. Under his desk was a paper bag from Burger King that was full of snotty Kleenex from a cold he was getting over. Benjamin started to sob.

Dylan woke up at his place and made coffee and thought about walking up to the dispensary for a couple of joints. Maybe he could drive one over to Benjamin’s place, he thought. He’d just gone on a road trip with him though. Maybe he should smoke up by himself for a change. He plugged his headphones into his phone and found a Superchunk playlist.

He went outside and felt the morning sun warm up his face. He hadn’t shaved for a few days and could feel his thick whiskers on his jaw and neck. Sometimes it felt like he was wearing a mask. A song called “Yeah, It’s Beautiful Here Too” played in his ears and gave Dylan a bounce in his walk. He texted Benjamin and wrote in all caps: SUPERCHUNK.

At the dispensary, Dylan waited in line behind a young guy with a lot of questions for the employee and a mother and daughter who were filling out paperwork. He felt his phone buzz and looked at the reply from Benjamin. It was a photo but it was too blurry to tell what it was. For some reason, it made him laugh and he texted back, “Are you having a stroke, old man?”

The next photo came in clearer. It was a dick pic. Dylan double-checked to make sure it came from Benjamin’s number and it had. He looked at the penis for a while to see if he could tell if it was his friend’s or if it was maybe some random image from the Internet. He blew it up on his phone to look closer and then noticed the mother and daughter glancing at his phone. He put it away quickly as an employee asked him what he was in the mood for. Dylan asked him if he had something good to help fight off fatigue and help wake him up.

“We just got more of this great strain called White Shadow,” the employee said. He explained what it was and Dylan bought two, pre-rolled.

Walking home, Dylan wondered about the dick pic and how to reply. Instead of going inside, he went straight to his truck. He sat in the driver’s seat and waited for his phone to buzz again. He looked at the photo again and realized that it was Benjamin. He saved the two photos—the blurry one and the clear one and he swiped back and forth on the screen of his phone.

His friend was reaching out to him, he decided. He didn’t want to judge this. There was something brave about it. Maybe it was foolish or desperate, but who could say? He hadn’t had a friend this close in a long time. He looked at the two joints in his lap and then closed his eyes, trying to concentrate on what this moment felt like inside himself. It was dark but also felt strongly present. He started his truck and decided he would share.