'What We'll Mock When We're Older' by Matt Koester
What We’ll Mock We’re Older
I can’t drive right in my dreams. I try to brake and steer but it’s useless. I don’t crash. I just graze. I can’t believe myself. I wake up.
For years, I kept off the expressway, though driving it is easy between the city and dark rural highway where the alpine north yields to the unlit I-90. I avoided this long straight line for driving for its size, the peer pressure being surrounded by eighty mile per hour strangers, but my competitive spirit comes out within few hours. I can be here now.
After a bathroom break, I’m hugging the right lane, waiting for my death by tractor trailer. My station wagon wobbles in the breeze. Grandma’s tape-player blasts a podcast. The rhythm of the highway, in signage, tells me the country has nothing to offer but Taco Bell, gasoline and motel Wi-Fi. There is nothing new or good under the sun, just the chance to move fast enough.
I feel guilty passing the semis. On the highway I’m just a guest where they live. They judge me, I decide, while I change lanes to pass them, then put myself in front of them. Everyone does this. People don’t write about it because there’s nothing to say, but here I am. I cannot fathom the grace of the trucker, immersed in this losing game. One day I decide I expect these men to fight back, to corner me by convoy until I’m fucking dead.
The semis thin out as I near my friend, whose home pushes deep past the labor day getaways in the Wisconsin Dells. I decelerate. The road gets thinner. I can’t see the pines, orange-lit traffic barriers lurk shaking, wavy and weak. It could be any hour, but it’s just eleven. My phone loses connection when I cruise into Spooner, so my friend greets me on his lawn in a green reflective vest. I meet his mother Sunshine. She called my mom earlier to make sure I wasn’t a criminal.
We face each other for the first time in our lives, stare at the floor until eight in the morning. My friend I’d never met, Nick, is an artist and he feels me out cautiously. In him, I see the mind-dead friend whose medicated delusions I once encouraged and recorded. I see my soul-dead friend, whose future and present had collided into a blank gray forever. I see our mutual, year-dead friend whose absence still feels impermanent and imagined and preventable. I skipped this friend’s funeral to vomit at home. I see the Soundcloud rapper I befriended two weeks ago at a party where his friend shot up heroin in his bathroom. I see myself. In gesture and words, Nick asks me what, in the future, will we mock.
Nick has never left his hometown in Wisconsin. He showed up late to his GED and Driver’s License. He seems bound to Spooner. I ask him if there are any fun places to go in town. He says, “I hope you’re joking,”
The next afternoon we wander. Nick says his town is a place where nothing ever happened, a town intensely concerned with its history. Nick on his part collects cassette tapes and reads newspaper archives in his spare time. He works for his grandfather sometimes: odd jobs. His mother owns the town tattoo parlor, Original Skin. It pays the bills for her art. A few months back, he met his father for the first time. He said it made his behavior make sense.
Young and thinking, we prey on the objects around us, the naked sidewalk, the broken-down brick wall train station, the ugly church. We stop into a two-story coffee shop downtown. They’ve got lots of ice cream flavors and highbrow brews. The owners moved to Spooner from Minneapolis. Here on Main Street, I feel decades away from the rest of the city. Drinking a malt, hand shaking to pull the spoon to my mouth, Nick asks me why I tremble. My invisibility is broken. I tell him it’s a physical condition, about the therapy in shorthand. We are glib and introspective. My phone can’t get a signal.
Spooner has a museum for its canoeing and another for its railroading history: industries where the town, and its Native American predecessors once made their names. “Spooner’s railways”, Nick says, “once held a train that would circle the town for scenic rides,” but since he and Sunshine left his apartment to a house in the residential part of town, he’s heard nothing. The tracks sit outgrown with weeds and debris. “I used to throw rocks through that window,” Nick says pointing to an tired old boxcar. He says he’s not looking to deal with cops anymore. I don’t wanna be that bad anyway. A sleepy sedan speeds past us down an unmarked road. I wonder if I’m gonna be found out. It’s so hot.
At my behest, we are in the Canoe Museum. We squinch for reverence at the ancient wood boats that sit before us. I try to look at the rounded wood of these hand-crafted boats as if God or Man could be seen in their image. Nick and I are out of our element here. We could never make a canoe. We make music and art and put together words, but this kind of expertise and toil and regimen is alien and scary. I’m told how the wood is curved on the bow. I forget how the wood is curved on the bow We go into another room where we see a canoe a townsperson is working on. It’s been months.
History majors talk about the past like it’s a big joke: a means to an argument. I’m afraid of the snark that replaces open words in our conversations. We do a lot of thrift shopping. I almost have an asthma attack at the ReStore and take big breaths in the parking lot. Nick’s cats have been making my chest tight and burn.
Spooner is almost a suburb. Its lake is billed in free postcards as a vacation spot, but we never set foot. To those who live in town, it's heritage. People carry confederate flags and guns sometimes. Nick once tried to infiltrate an organization of Swedish Americans. The bar we walk by used to be a rec center, complete with an ice rink.
Nick’s Instagram account now quietly yields 20+ likes per pic from a steady base of internet gawkers. Its mostly street photos of unknowing men and women in public. His photos segment the broken city. Their composure, like their subjects, looks tossed off. Despite a stint in 35 mm photography, Nick’s preferred camera remains his iPhone 6. His photos tend to suggest the voyeurism of Eggleston, highlighting ironies unseen or ignored by its subjects and reflecting a lived-in knowledge of the city. I find joy in the photo of colorful stacked lawn chairs on the side of the road, the one of children hitting each other with sticks by a parade, surgical-masked woman in a plain black dress, sunglasses and flat-bottom shoes walking down the Walgreens cosmetics aisle, the young boy charging his Nintendo DS in the town library’s religion section on a chair under a sign. Watched in sequence, Nick’s Instagram writes documentary. He mixes his own visual art in with it. Nick’s mom was an art student, and their house is stuffed with art books and essays and literary novels. He’s bashful about it, and he was never a great student, but my boy is an intellectual.
A day passes. Nick snaps a candid of two older men playing arcade mini-golf. They’re invested and unattentive to us yipping in an open-doored arcade while I feed fives into the bill breaker. Nick’s picture showcases the left man’s aqua t-shirt. Its back reads Feed Your Wild Side in unadorned font. We tell each other that we envy him. We’ll never enjoy this game like they do, we decide. Maybe we’re just self-pitying. One day we’ll be like this. We already are. Maybe.
After years seeking exposure as a musician, writer and filmmaker, Nick’s photography seems to be his most recognized pursuit, and when I introduce his work to others, his photos are often where I start. He’s done so much. He self-released a short book of short form poetry, nonfiction and fiction experiments called Who Cares a few years back. Some of its stories still make me laugh. He dedicated the book to Subway, where he left the last copy. Eat fresh. He’s released albums online. A year from now, he’ll get one out on cassette tape, although the label never pays him royalties for the sales. His name cropped up on L.A. Times once when he participated in a compilation album of Taylor Swift covers. He ran a Tumblr page called Amazing Birds where he only posted clipart pictures of birds from an old CD-Rom he found. When he found a CD of bird calls at another thrift store, Amazing Birds expanded to Soundcloud and had a brief brush with popularity. He kept posting bird calls until he ran out of clips, long after most of his audience had given up on the gimmick. He’s been doing this stuff forever too, since before his voice dropped, and putting music online since he was around fifteen. When his mom told mine that Nick was quiet and fiercely creative, my mom told her it sounded familiar, but Nick is engulfed in ways I envy. His music interests are outre, sometimes bordering on straight noise, but in his own music, I hear simplicity and melody. I hear something between irony and hamminess. I can’t always play it for other people. Nick says he prefers people listen to his music on headphones. I enjoy it a lot. I go back to it time and time again.
To a socialist or an anarchist, there’s an uneasy beauty to this kind of post-industrial dilapidation. Nick’s town, told as a joke, is funny to me because it is true. Nick’s photographs quietly celebrate his city’s denizens, but usually lay focus on infrastructural contradictions, odes a ramshackle not unlike that of Galesburg, my college town where the departed Maytag factory left the workforce in shambles. As a generation, these towns are places that can only talk to us about what they were. We get jobs in retail, we freelance remotely, we get out, we go online. We try to act like a place isn’t anywhere anyway.
I think Nick’s photos embrace this disconnect, the life that remains despite, or in spite, of being a world surpassed. In two words, Trump Country. Nick says he understands how his city’s irrelevance limits his horizons, though not as much as it would have before high-speed internet allowed to a social escape, but he’s also been lumped in with people who border on the communities that have been sensitive to white supremacy and men’s rights activism. When I start talking about feminism, he usually just goes quiet, tells me he sees what I mean, and stays the way he is. When he votes for Trump a year and a few months from now, his mom will tell him she thinks he’s crazy.
The sleeping town is a hub for us extant boys and we walk unwashed through empty roads, pit-stained and indifferent in the sun through a town we say has nothing to offer to come. I try to find a way to bring up the phrase “rat king” just because I want to say it and I want to feel like it.
I try to possess the land as smart phone photographer and thrift store voyeur. I don’t have my friend’s touch though. Nick tells me about how he used to steal from the orthodontist, chains, abandoned buildings, his leaning tower of pre-owned Casio keyboards in his closet. He tries to explain the sadness of the forgotten thing, the desire to give the forgotten thing a new life in kitsch and art. I speak limply about the true victims of white collar shoplifting/ underprivileged employees, but in the end of the day I empathize. We are passionate, shy and numbed. I try to take a picture of his city, highlighting the pachyderm skin of a street sign, but it means nothing. I don’t frame it right. It doesn’t get a lot of likes. I don’t know.
We spend hours another day trying to make a song because we’re both musicians while maintaining our cool. I noodle together a beat on one of his keyboards while he rambles. I don’t like this, to be honest, but it goes on for an hour. Nothing to eat but ourselves and vegetarian microwave food, we trawl through Youtube. Nick idolizes a sexagenarian who tapes himself lip-syncing original songs in drag. He praises hideous computer-animated cartoon animal videos scored in complex baroque fugues and sung by computerized voices. He doesn’t laugh, he just watches. "He lets me listen to a rap cassette he made before his voice dropped. He says “I should be in the Hall of Fame/ You should be in the Hall of Shame” in it. There’s a few takes on there, and at the end, he runs out the tape with four or five fake-out endings, each one taunting the listener for still listening. I’m in hysterics.
We have trouble knowing what to do. I want him to lead me around, tell me what to do. I catch myself making glances at his wall, one side has some variation of Don’t Kill Yourself written on it, while the other features a massive poster of one of Nick’s favorite films, director Harmony Korine’s blockbuster hit Spring Breakers.
In a few weeks when he releases his newest album online, Nick will tell me about his frustration getting people to listen to it, his exhaustion promoting it. He doesn’t seem too concerned that he gets people to listen, and he knows there’s a community of people sharing his songs, sometimes on illegal torrent sites, even though his music is free. He just hopes they find it.
Nick’s hero James Ferraro is infamous for 2010’s Farside Virtual, an album entirely using Apple’s Garageband. It sounds like the soundtrack to a high school computer science class circa 1994. Ferraro is considered a pioneer of the net music and arts movement vaporwave, but Nick scorns that movement’s focus on aesthetics over content. He can’t understand why people can’t listen to Farside Virtual for its story. When I tell Nick how I cleaned up the sound of one of my keyboards for a song, he listens, but clearly would rather have his keyboards sound the way they do out of their tinny speakers. The search for truth lands us both in the obscure.
Spooner, a town of two thousand has every right to be nostalgic. The aged and disconnected wave their confederate flags at their auto shows and quote Adam Sandler films. The kids that go to college don’t come back, and Nick remains behind with his Harmony Korine films and Ween albums. Before I leave him too, we split a pizza at Denellie’s. He wrote a jingle for this pizzeria years earlier where he said it made him have orgasms. I try to drop my facade for an hour or two and pull his away too. I get talking about my ex. He says he used to take his feelings too seriously, and they weren’t always reciprocated. I see his bones practically.
When I leave, I tell him to keep doing his work. I don’t know how he can change his life. He says it’s another decade before he goes viral. The next year he’ll commute to school. It won’t be any easier than the last time, when he dropped out. I hesitate to leave and don’t get out of town until nearly six.
The ramp up out of town jostles me. Ascent. I’m editing my memories into readied bits. I’m cutting it all up. The stink of our bodies in the heat. His pajama pants. The picture he took of me in the thrift store. On Wednesday, I will be back in school. My loot slides around the car. My new thrift hat, new thrift tapes, new thrift record. I’m not ready to go back, but I wasn’t for this. so I don’t think about it.
At a BP around Milwaukee a man in a leather jacket approaches me, but he’s not dangerous, just hip. He wants to know what the police are doing at an intersection, but I can’t answer him. I don’t know why police do things. He steps out. I go home.
Matt Koester is a multimedia and multi-genre artist, musician, and creative writer from Warrenville, IL. His work has been featured in Cellar Door, Folio, and Catch magazines. His journalism is published in the Galesburg Register-Mail.
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