by Kevin Sterne
Thomas Burned Down the Applebee’s but the New Record Sounds Amazing
Kurt and Thomas had a noise band that played hazy, atmospheric stuff that was good for getting high to but not much else. The band had played a few dive bars, some house shows, and one very confused birthday party. People had not only showed up, but were into their sound. The natural next step was to record an album, a process that took most of the spring and summer because they had no money and got by mostly on favors.
The name of the band was Hamm’s. Like the beer. Explicitly named as such for two reasons, which Thomas laid out:
“If Hamm’s hears of us,” he reasoned to Kurt, “they’ll either sponsor us or sue us. And both of these scenarios are good.”
Thomas would do his fires while listening to the recording sessions. He raided dryer lint from laundromats and used it as a fire starter. And he never carried a lighter with him; he was a purist and used matches, the wood-burning kind with the long reach. It was in this way that Thomas fitted his own sense of order to the chaotic world of noise bands and arson.
“It’s my ritual,” he told Kurt the night he set fire to his first Applebee’s. “It helps me really hear the record.”
That was great, but, why Applebee’s and not, like, an old shed?
“The casual suburban dining experience is a drink that needs to be stirred,” Thomas explained. “You ever see Fight Club?”
Kurt had seen it when he was 12 or 13 but any significance was lost on him.
“We need to embrace disorder. The Applebee’s franchise needs disorder.” Thomas said as he, Kurt and Jerry walked to the back door by the dumpster. “Take, for instance, these classic appetizer combos? The other day I only put out three spicy drumsticks on the plate instead of four—an accident, a brain lapse, perhaps—but this husband, a father of two mind you, he went totally ape shit. Started climbing up the walls and nearly burned the whole place to the ground.”
The air in the employee parking lot hung like stiff, dead horse meat. Kurt could detect something buttery and rotten by the backdoor. A street lamp hummed in the haze above them. Higher still, the moon was a clipped fingernail nearly lost in the starless sky.
“What’d you do?” Kurt asked.
“The ape shit husband.”
“Nada. I’ve been waiting until tonight.” They had just tracked Kurt’s guitar parts, a swirling wall of moog and fugue and delay. Everyone was feeling this sort of “unified high” and so Thomas’s suggestion of committing several major felonies didn’t seem so crazy.
“Never trust a man like me with your security code,” Thomas said to the group. He punched 420-69 into the key pad, and Kurt and Jerry followed him to the walk-in cooler. This is the same Jerry who would later shave half his head.
Thomas said he’d been very particular about the dryer lint for this one; he’d kept it in a Marijuana grinder to get it extra fluffed. But this also made it more delicate and prone to getting blown around by a sneeze from Jerry, who seemed to always have a cold.
Thomas exhaled a deep sigh, a man momentarily eclipsed by the pains of the unplanned and the unexpected.
“You’ve fucked up my Zen, Jerry.” Then he smiled. “We’re using your hair now.”
And Jerry was made to sit on a milk crate while Thomas waved at his head with meat scissors. Jerry had been growing his hair out, aiming for something between a caveman and Dave Grohl. Thomas had other concerns. He slashed his long arms wildly through the air like he did while playing drums. You could hear them, they whistled like a football spiral.
“Do you feel in control here, Jerry? Because I sure don’t.” Jerry was too scared to reply, eyes closed and lips curled inward and out of the scissor’s path. When Thomas was done, Jerry was missing a significant chunk of hair, which definitely would not blend well.
“It’s for the album, Jerry, it’s for the greater good.” Kurt nodded in agreement and Thomas placed headphones in his ear holes. “Now, leave me to my meditation.”
Fire starting was Thomas’s meditation, but music was his religion. Kurt was willing to go along with it all because the album sounded good so far. Like, really good. And if this was Thomas’s method for creating distance from the music so as to view it with more objectivity, then who the hell was he to interfere with that process?
“Thomas has problems,” Jerry told Kurt as they walked to Kurt’s van.
“We all have problems, Jerry. The important thing is that he’s trying to cope with them in a healthy way.”
The fire made the news. Kurt watched it on his dad’s TV, while his dad rested in his chair and breathed with the help of his oxygen tank. Kurt’s dad had bad lungs and breathed with a wheeze in and a wheeze out. You got used to it after a while, like living by train tracks.
His dad said something about hating the appetizers at Applebee’s, and took a long shaky drink from his Hamm’s beer. Kurt kind of nodded. He was too scared to say anything and too scared to even open his beer. He and Jerry had almost been caught.
When they had left Thomas inside the Applebee’s, then Kurt and Jerry had hopped in Kurt’s ’99 Windstar van. But they didn’t go anywhere because Kurt couldn’t get it started. He had rammed his head repeatedly into the steering wheel, kicked at the gas pedal, and punched the moth-eaten ceiling. And when that didn’t work he slumped and stared out at the road, listening for police sirens and anticipating his demise. In the rearview mirror, he could see flames licking the vinyl booths in the Applebee’s. Real or imagined, somewhere inside, Thomas’s figure was casting a long, foreboding shadow.
“I’m not ready to die yet, Jerry.”
To which Jerry had said, “Do you have a hammer?”
Kurt was handy, but he didn’t know shit about cars, so he let Jerry bang on the engine block with a hammer. “I know what I’m doing,” Jerry had barked over the ringing of the fire alarm. Somehow, the Windstar started up. Things like this were why Kurt kept Jerry around, a contingency plan against chaos. And—Jerry seemed to have a way with vans.
Later in the summer, Kurt was heading from the recording studio to his dad’s when the Windstar shot its own dick off. Engine, A/C, clock-radio—the whole shebang. He piloted the thing to the side of the road and fumbled with the ignition as the windows started fogging up. Rain was coming down in long, rude blotches. The world outside was a Rorschach test of black ink and gray brains. What did it all mean? He felt on the brink of some revelation about his situation. Thomas’s chaos could not rule him; there must be some plan to all this. He banged his head into the steering wheel, kicked the gas pedal, and punched the ceiling. But when he looked up at the ceiling he saw that someone had written in pen the words: Jerry Saves.
Jerry who lived less than a mile away. Jerry who shaved the whole right side of his head after Thomas cut his hair. Jerry. Yes, that Jerry.
“Fuck you, Thomas,” Kurt said to no one. He grabbed his sleeping bag from the back bench seat to shield himself from the rain.
He found Jerry outside painting the front of his house. Plastic tarps were draped over ladders, like a tent, with a lot of duct tape holding everything together. Water pooled in big, wide pockets. Jerry stood under the biggest one.
Kurt recognized My Bloody Valentine blasting from a CD player; Jerry loved loud, droning shit. He seemed to channel the spirits of the music and the rain into his painting and gesticulated his arms with big, sweeping arcs. And appeared less concerned about properly painting the house than with the singular act of swiping the brush.
“Jer.” Kurt tapped him on the shoulder.
Jerry pointed to his music box. “I have to play it loud to hear the bass on this thing.”
“Yeah. But can you turn it down?”
“Well, then I can’t hear it.” Jerry turned it down. “What can I do you for?”
“Why are you painting in the rain? You’re gonna catch a cold.”
“I took a lot of mushrooms.” Jerry stared at him with unblinking eyes, and spoke like he wasn’t totally sure he was a better man for what he’d done.
Kurt told him about the Windstar. Jerry watched the paint drip from his brush for a while, a man caught up in the mysteries of life.
“Can you still feel a pulse?”
“There might yet be a pulse, Jerry.”
Jerry agreed to check it out. But seemed to forget this commitment almost immediately. Soon he was back to painting the house again, but this time with just his hand, no brush.
“We should go now,” Kurt suggested and Jerry said “We need to get out of here.”
Jerry made Kurt hold his hand the whole way, like the blind leading the blind. And Kurt had forgotten the sleeping bag in Jerry’s front yard and they were drenched when they arrived at the Windstar. They would both catch colds.
The two of them kind of stared at the van for a while, listening to the rain pelt the roof and windows. Vehicles on the road zoomed passed them making loud whooshing sounds.
“This all feels like a Déjà vu,” Jerry said.
“I just need to get to my dad’s,” Kurt said.
Jerry waved his hands over the engine, feeling for the machine’s aura.
“Do you have any gum?”
Kurt, in fact, did have a pack of spearmint in the glovebox. Jerry chomped on two pieces with great enthusiasm while prodding at the engine with a stick from the side of the road. “An engine like this forgets sometimes that it’s an engine,” Jerry said. “You brought me here to remind it of its purpose.”
“What are you saying?”
“I’m saying this is the best gum I’ve ever had.” And he continued smacking the engine with the stick. When it seemed like Jerry had lost interest in this venture he told Kurt to try starting the van.
Kurt looked at him. “You can’t mean the car.”
“Should wake right up.”
It did. Then, almost on cue, the rain stopped. There was just the sound of the engine breathing.
Jerry climbed back into the passenger seat. “I need to go wherever you’re going.”
“I’m going to my dad’s.”
“Your sick dad? The one who is sick?” Jerry stared deep into his own palms like he was seeing them for the first time.
“Does he know I ate mushrooms?”
There was a long pause and then Jerry said “Don’t tell your dad I ate mushrooms.” And then Kurt said “My dad’s dying, Jerry.” They both kind of looked at the ground, then the van, then the black sky, but found no comfort in any of these things.
Kurt’s dad was worse now. He had to lug the oxygen tank wherever he went, which, around this time, was from his chair to the kitchen. The tank had a long strand of tubes that wrapped round his ears and plugged into his nose. When they arrived, Kurt found him in his recliner wheezing hard. He had his feet propped up, the tank at his ankles, and was fumbling with a pack of cigarettes in his lap. Kurt looked down at him from the doorway and his dad looked up him at from his recliner. Kurt pointed at the cigarettes. “When you do things like that, it makes it harder for me to feel sad.”
His dad just waved his hand and wheezed on the oxygen tube in his nose for a while. “Another Applebee’s is on fire.” He pointed at the TV, which indeed showed flames engulfing the neon Apple sign. He laughed and then coughed. “They did it again.”
“I never really cared for their food,” Jerry said staring deeply at his shoes.
“Who is they?” Kurt asked his dad.
His dad pointed at the TV again. “Let’s go see it. It’s just up the street.” Kurt’s dad was up and moving now, oxygen tank in tow. “Get my wheel chair.”
They drove a few blocks until they found fire trucks and a crowd of people. It was immediately evident the Applbee’s wouldn’t recover. The roof had collapsed in on itself, the steel supports had bent like the insides of a shareables platter. The big neon Apple sign was a smoldering husk. Onlookers, eager to get their faces on TV, were gathered behind the news reporter. They jostled and waved at the camera while the reporter said, “Authorities think this is the work of millennials.”
Kurt pushed his dad in the wheel chair, oxygen tank in his lap. They found Thomas by the dumpster near the back of the parking lot. He had his headphones in and was staring intently into the fire, about where the kitchen used to be. “I can’t get enough of it,” he handed Kurt the headphones.
They all kind of stared at the fire a while.
“Is this a religious ceremony?” Jerry surveilled the scene with wide, lucid eyes.
No one said anything to this. Somewhere in the carcass of the burning Applebee’s an old soul was transitioning. Kurt caught his dad lighting a cigarette, but decided this time to leave him alone.
Kurt’s dad coughed smoke into the night. “What?”
“You want to hear our record?”
At some point, Thomas turned to Jerry and handed him a Ziploc bag of hair, Jerry’s hair. Jerry inspected the bag and its contents. He turned it over in his hands and massaged the brown tufts under the plastic. Then he reached his arm back and tossed the bag of hair in a big arc into the middle of the fire.
Jerry Used to Get Drunk Off His Sister’s Hairspray
Around this time Jerry couldn’t afford regular alcohol, or much else, and would obtain his vices and necessities for free: leftovers from the Applebee’s dumpster, clothes from those donation bins in church parking lots around Avondale, hash from drifters not unlike himself, etc. etc. If what he desired wasn’t in these places, he’d steal from those close to him.
Jerry had fallen into a habit of breaking into his sister’s place. He’d cut a circle through the back window with the glass cutter he’d found in the Applebee’s dumpster. Gather up whatever alcohol she had and then see his way out. This was after he’d lost his vacuum repair job, but before he went to prison for jumping in front of a car.
Liz suspected him all along. “Who the fudge breaks the window when the front door’s unlocked?” she’d asked. This was the night she caught him.
The moon was a clipped toenail in a starless sky made so by smog from the vacuum plant across town. All was quiet except for Jerry, who—ignoring the ajar backdoor—was liberally cutting a hole in the bay window, making noise like a train slamming on the breaks.
“Quiet, quiet, quiet,” Jerry whispered achingly to the glass cutter. “She’ll find us, she’ll know.”
“This noise is all in your imagination,” the glass cutter leveled. “Have I ever let you down?”
Jerry—lubed from the neck down in oil and grease from a nearby dumpster—slid into Liz’s living room. He knew exactly where to go: down the hall, step over his niece’s gate, don’t slip on the parquet flooring. Perfect. In the bathroom cabinet were three aerosol cans.
“Take all three,” the glass cutter told him.
“Only one,” he fired back. “She’ll notice.”
“Take what is rightfully yours, Jerry.”
Jerry grabbed all three cans in his free arm and admired himself in the mirror, three purple Aussies, arranged like a bouquet from the crook of his tattooed arm to wrist. He smiled with the pride of a winning race horse donning a flower blanket.
Jerry was galloping back through the window hole when Liz leapt from behind the couch. She grabbed Jerry by his bony ankle. He straddled the window in his underwear, two bottles of purple hairspray tucked in his waistband; the third he held in his right hand, glass cutter in his left like some swashbuckling alchy pirate.
“Run,” the glass cutter yelled. But Liz was wiry and strong from her high school lacrosse days and soon had her brother down in a choke hold. Mustache smooshed into the hardwood floor.
One of the waistband canisters dislodged and rolled across the floor.
Jerry reached for it, but Liz was too quick. She grabbed a fistful of Jerry’s greasy hair and climbed her way over him, snatching the rolling can and digging her knees squarely into his chest.
Jerry collapsed on his back exhausted and breathing heavy. He had lost.
“I need to cut it down to two packs a day.”
“Why are you covered in mud?”
“It’s vegetable oil,” Jerry wheezed, “in case I need to squeeze through.” He nodded to the hole in the bay window.
“You kicked me in the ear, you Jackfruit,” Liz said, digging her knees into Jerry’s chest.
“You deserved it,” said the glass cutter.
“Don’t listen to him,” Jerry said. “I’m sorry.”
Liz had read on the Internet about dealing with people like Jerry. Alcohol was their only motivation. Alcohol did the talking and glass cutting. You shouldn’t trust an alcoholic as far as you can throw them, and with both her knees pressed into his chest, Liz was in no position to throw Jerry. She loved him, but she couldn’t trust him.
Jerry took Liz’s free hand and started crying into it.
“I’m so sorry Cabbage Patch,” he said while running the sleeve of her pajama’s on his greasy face.
Liz yanked her hand from him and wiped at the blood running from her ear down her cheek. Something—the smell of the vegetable oil or the nick name Cabbage Patch—reminded her of when, as a kid, she had showed Jerry how to make fake blood by mixing red dye and corn starch. Jerry had used the fake blood on their dog, Coco, to freak out their mom.
“I need this,” Jerry said, “Just let me have this one thing.”
“Let us have it,” the glass cutter said. “Let us have the potion.”
Liz lifted herself off her brother and offered her hand to help him up. Jerry reached for the can of hairspray instead. She didn’t relent.
“Let’s have them now,” the glass cutter said. “Just a peek. Just a sip.”
Jerry removed the cap. He could practically already taste it. Sweet desire. He held the nozzle up to his mouth, his chapped lips. Nectar, come to me. He pressed his finger down and the canister rattled. It was coming. Then it went limp, fizzled. He pressed down harder, but it was cashed.
“She tricked us,” the glass cutter screamed.
Jerry writhed in pain at his sister’s feet; his skin prickled, like spiders were crawling underneath. He grabbed the tops of both her ankles with his hands. “Please,” he cried, his eyes red.
“No, Jerry. No!”
He lifted the glass cutter high above his head and smashed it into the empty aerosol can.
“Stop,” the glass cutter screamed, “You’ll kill us both.”
It felt good to make something as empty as he felt, to smash and smash. Liz stood idly, not intervening and not crying. Jerry was pulverizing some monster deep inside him. If this was the bottom for her brother, then it could only get better from here. She hoped.
Jerry stared at the glass cutter in his bloody hand. He didn’t sob and the glass cutter didn’t speak.
“OK, I’m done,” he mumbled, and climbed out the broken window and into the dark.
A week later Jerry was arrested for jumping in front of a moving car. He’d found someone else’s neck brace in the Applebee’s dumpster and threw himself out into the road to bribe cash from the driver. Problem was, the car he jumped in front of was a police cruiser. Jerry laid out the whole plan to the arresting officers: how he wasn’t really disabled, how he just wanted some money to buy hairspray, how the neck brace told him to do it all.
Kevin Sterne is a writer and journalist based in Chicago. He is the author of the prose chapbook I’ve Done Worse. His stories and fiction have appeared in Drunk Monkeys, Praxis Magazine, Word Eater, Defenestration and others. Kevin writes about music, craft beer and culture for Hop Culture Magazine and Substream Magazine. He works in landscaping and has been known to do labor-intensive odd jobs for money or beer.