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**PRINT: FRIENDS FROM CINCINNATI: Installment 24 features this part coming-of-age short by Chicago's Patrick Somerville, author of the Trouble collection of shorts out in 2006. | PAST BROADSHEETS |

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Eric Lab Rat

He was talking about State Street in the 70s:

"There used to be this guy who'd stand under the big marquee at the Oriental Theater, sweating grease and half-dancing in dress shoes, who'd tell all these emancipated women that they were going to Hell for wearing pants and they'd all laugh and keep walking. Now he stands in front of Old Navy so he can catch fags and tell them they're going to hell for holding hands and they roll their eyes and swallow their tongues and keep on walking. Every night he gets down on his knees at the foot of the bed like we all did as children and asks God what happened to all the men and women in America and every night God just laughs and roll his eyes."

I think it was supposed to be some kind of parable. I don't have a clue as to what the fuck it was supposed to mean but Mad Matt seemed really fucking pleased with himself for telling it, smiled so his teeth showed real big and crooked and caramel colored in the fire and spit at his toes. I don't think he told it to us so much as himself, or maybe to the flames.

We were roasting chicken on a spit we made in an old steel drum. Every few minutes we'd have to shake off water the wind blew in from the lake. The fire would fart and grumble but wouldn't go out. I spat back at the lake and called it even.

Matt stood still, eyes on the fire. Warming his hands, eyes on the chicken. Kind of like he thought we would take it from him once it was ready. The bird danced in the fire, kicked its arms, kicked its big fat legs. Made for a real showy death scene. Of course, it was dead when we got it. Didn't have a fucking head on or nothing, but we weren't gonna take it from him. It wasn't like that. It was a gift.

Me and Ronnie wanted to go to the beach and have a barbecue, but it was too cold by the beach, and no one was calling me back so me and Ronnie went to the Curve. The Curve is this cement rim around the lake near all the museums right where downtown turns into the south side. Sometimes there are other kids here partying, sometimes late-night anglers and squatters with no place to rest with their poles and bindles and backpacks and buckets; sometimes hobos like Mad Matt and his friend come out here. There's a cul-de-sac that runs between all three museums that gets lined with cars at night like an assembly line full of people getting blow jobs. I've never been one of those guys in that row of cars, but sometimes it's fun to watch. Either way, the Curve's usually spotted with bonfires and me and Ronnie wanted a barbecue.

Mad Matt's friend didn't say much, not a word since we'd got here. Just sat there and read this dog-eared paperback. The flames lit up the face of the book, which had no cover. Something by James Joyce. It cast a shadow over his face so all you could see were his flesh-colored eyes. I looked at him and then looked at Ronnie looking at him and Ronnie turned towards me sipping a beer with his face lit up and his eyes all wide...

I'm gonna fuck with him.

He said it without speaking, and before I figured it out he'd leapt on top of the guy. Hovered over him, squatting like a frog and grabbed his collar.

"What are you? What the fuck is wrong with you? You're gonna sit there and read your book and drink our beer and eat our fucking chicken and not say shit to us?"

He shoved him.

"You think you're fucking better than us?"

He shoved him again.

"You fucking bum."

And faster then we could realize he snapped up and cracked Ronnie's head with a pint bottle of Brandy. Backwash seared Ronnie's eyes and he was slapping at his fucking face all blind as he fell back over himself at the bum's feet. The bum hacked and coughed, like he wasn't gonna be able to stop hacking and coughing, choked on his breath and spat to the side, picked his book up off the ground and dropped the pages back into his lap. As he caught his breath, he realized he was still holding the top of the pint all broken in his hand. He put it down at his right, replacing it with a can of beer, pulled the tab, cocked his head and let the white foam trail down his shirt. Between the old man's legs Ronnie started laughing. He was bleeding from the top of his head and he was laughing, and the laughter forced out more blood.

"I didn't think that old bastard would waste his fucking booze on me," Ronnie said. He said it like "ooze," disgusted and a little nervous. He braced for a foot to come down, laughing and crying at the same time. Nothing happened till Mad Matt started laughing. It was contagious -- Matt was holding his sides by the time I cracked. The other bum, whose name I still didn't know, started laughing last. He looked around before he did it, and it came out as a hard wheeze. He reached out and helped Ronnie to his feet, offering him his half-beer. Ronnie tipped his head back, brushing off pieces of dirt and glass, and poured the excess Stroh's over the wound, flinching and throwing himself back in a twitch and an awful face.

"Fuck, that stings."

"Why the fuck did you think that would help?" and I laughed, realizing just how drunk I'd gotten. All four of us laughed. Ronnie shrugged.

The wind came in and sprayed us with salt, and the fire told us to shut up as it tugged away at the chicken. Fat began to melt, with the roasted skin drooping underneath it. I peeled it as best as I could, losing most to the fire. White fat spilled out like pus. I shoved a strip of brown between my teeth and spit it out immediately. Mad Matt looked at me like I was an idiot.

"It's too hot, and it needs salt," he said, proceeded to pull the rest from my hand and tear into it like nothing's fucking wrong.

Ronnie stood, quiet again. Bleeding. He didn't want to go to the hospital, which was good, cause I didn't want to get caught. Or go home. He didn't even want me to go to my truck to look for a bandage. He wiped his head with his t-shirt, the faded evergreen cotton a soupy brown now.

"Chicks dig scars", he joked. Grinning. I wondered how anyone could be so fucking untouchable.

"If you wanna stay at my folks' house, we'll have to go soon. I gotta be back before my old man wakes up." We both know this, but I'm always the one that has to say it. I sipped my beer.

"You never call Frank your 'Old Man'," Ronnie tells me later, "Why do you want to impress those fuckup bums so damn much?"

Guilt, I think. And it's not the bums I'm trying to impress.

We devour the chicken. Mad Matt eats the most, followed by Sam, who is the other bum. We laugh. The whole time Matt is telling me about State Street in the 70s and Maxwell Street in the 60s and Lincoln Park in the 50s. He doesn't seem like he belongs in any of those places. Sam finishes his book and smiles. It's a joke he won't let us in on. Ronnie asks if he can borrow it. Another fucking joke. Ronnie doesn't read. Can, but doesn't.

"Oh, for you?" And Sam throws it in the fire, which is dying. The flame jumps up a tad, thanking us in red and orange. "Enjoy."

We go back to my truck on Blow Job Lane. At 3:30, there are only a few cars left. We decide we're too fucked-up to drive so we'll sleep for half an hour. I close my eyes for fifteen minutes as Ronnie traces the stars over the planetarium. By the time we pull into my parents' garage it's nearly five. We slide in through the basement window, into an iron sink. Ronnie bangs his head and the blood starts to go again. We'll have to be up by seven but we'll probably skip. Once we get out of the house we'll call in for each other at gas stations, get high and go to the woods by the river. The first thing Ronnie does is grab a can of Hamm's from Dad's fridge in the rec room. I tell him not to. Dad counts. Says he does, at least.

"It's cold," he says, holding the can against his head (closed this time). When I turn my head I hear it pop open. Fuck it. I grab one for me.

We unfold the couch and turn on cartoons. Some kids are trying to disguise a small dinosaur in sunglasses, a backwards baseball cap, and the fat kid's jacket. Ronnie takes off his shirt, which is covered in blood and smells like beer and Old Spice and smoke and brandy backwash. We hide it inside the couch with the empty cans. The dinosaur accidentally smashes the principal's Lamborghini but everything works out allright. I offer Ronnie the couch bed and take a pillow to the floor.

"Faggot. What are you, afraid you'll get turned on sleeping next to me?"

"Shut up, asshole."

Obediently, I climb into bed breathing hard. The springs creak every time I adjust, but he's already snoring. I close my eyes hard, the springs creak, and I can feel his breath on me. I close my eyes tighter, so tight a drop of liquid squeezes out. It feels like a tear, but it's not. I grit my eyes tighter, so that nothing can escape, and they only loosen when I fall asleep.