Chris got there at three-thirty just to be safe. At the door of the basement apartment he smelled something and stopped, looking at the bottom of his Nikes to see if shit was in the tread, but it wasn't. He looked over his shoulder for the crazed dog, or its steamy, powerful bomb. He didn't see anything, so he knocked.
Ken answered the door in his Red Wings jersey; it was the same jersey he had always worn in high school. Ken said, "Where you been?" He turned and walked back into his basement apartment.
Chris started to follow him through the flimsy wooden door, but when his foot hit the cheap flaky linoleum that was peeling up in the corners, he stopped short. He found the crazed dog smell. It was inside.
The heat gave the apartment a spoiled, torrid feel. The smell was powerful, and Chris choked out the words, "I just wanted to make sure your wife was gone." The apartment was small—tiny kitchen, one bedroom, a living room with a window that showed off a grand view of the front sidewalk.
Chris got his pack of cigarettes out and as soon as he lit his, Ken asked, "You got an extra?" Chris had another one waiting in his hand and Ken took it eagerly.
From the window inside the apartment, Chris saw black feet, as a giant man in flip-flops walked by on the sidewalk, his feet making sticking slap sounds. The window was open but the still, summer air stayed outside.
"Yeah man," Ken said, "sorry about the mess."
"Hmm?" Chris asked.
"The apartment. I'm sorry it looks like hell." Chris still wasn't listening to Ken; he was trying to find what the smell came from. He thought it might be coming from the half-filled bowl of cereal flakes or maybe some of the clothes strewn about. Closer to his feet was a trio of used diapers.
"Shit, sorry. I was just thinking about high school."
"Fuck, man, I feel old, don't you? We've been out for three years now. Can you believe that?" Ken yawned and leaned back, revealing part of his stomach. "Oh damn, let me get us some chairs. So what have you been up to . . ." Ken's voice faded out as he went into the next room, but the apartment was small enough so that his words were still audible, "we haven't seen each other in . . . "
"A semester, almost a semester." Chris had no problem finishing the sentence; he knew how long it had been.
Ken walked back into the main room with two chairs in his arms.
"Where is the little guy?" Chris kicked a diaper.
"He's sleeping," Ken's voice dropped slightly, "so be quiet, man."
"Oh, sorry, but isn't it weird? Colin is already like almost three. I mean he's gettin' old for a little guy. He'll be in school soon."
Ken made room for the chairs, pulling aside a paper plate with half-eaten crusts on it and kicking at t-shirts and blue jeans. "Man, he turns four in like three months."
Chris sat in the brown, fake leather chair. It was ripped all over so that it had almost no upholstery. Because the metal legs were uneven, it bounced every time he adjusted himself or leaned over.
Ken went to the kitchen, opened the refrigerator, stood there, then came back with nothing. "Well, Colin can't go to school if he still shits his pants. I don't think we'll ever get the little guy potty trained."
"What?" Chris had his hand in front of his face furtively covering a laugh. The skin on the sides of his face was still soft; he was on the border of the last rites of manhood—legal drinking age, facial hair.
The other, nicer chair Ken had saved for himself. It was a yellow, 70s looking chair, thick and supportive. It looked like it had gum smeared on the ass cushion.
"We've been trying to train him for way too long now. He just can't get it down, man."
"What about his binkie?"
"Look for yourself." Colin was standing in the hall, bare chested, wearing nothing but a diaper, dragging a white blanket with stuffing coming out of it and the face of a rat on it.
"I'm surprised your wife got a job," Chris said. "She always said she just wanted to be a mom."
Ken walked across the room and picked Colin up. "He just fucking laid down." Ken's hair wasn't combed and his face was thick with stubble. "What's up, little man, you still tired?"
Colin had some orange stuff on his chest and some red stuff on his face. "NarAnnARink." His binkie obscured his words the way a tinted window leaves only the shadow of a face.
Ken's head tilted back, "What?"
Colin repeated the sound, but Ken gave up trying to understand. He looked over the boy's shoulder. "Well, last summer she took night classes and got her diploma. You remember that, right?"
"I think so, yeah."
Colin started screaming and kicking, so Ken him down. "You need to stop!" Colin's diaper made a plop sound when his butt hit the carpet. He got up fast and his little body shot across the room until he tripped on one of his mom's shoes. He fell down screaming and came up adding a head bang. He kept picking his head up and slamming it back down hard into the carpet.
Chris tried to raise his voice above the crying. "You know I was busy last summer with classes and work and what-not. We didn't get to see each other much." He tossed his cigarette in a cereal bowl.
Ken looked even angrier than Colin. "Well, after that," Ken pointed at Colin, "Shauna didn't want to just sit at home anymore, so she got that diploma, then a job. You smell that, Chris?" Ken pointed at Colin's diaper, "You better not have shit your diaper. Damn it, Colin, you tell me if you have to go."
Chris was at the point where he only slightly noticed any smells at all, and he definitely didn't notice a new smell. But he knew it smelled bad. "Something doesn't smell right."
"I'll get some incense." Ken went to the other room again. "So how is school going, man?"
"Earned enough credits for an associate's degree last summer." He was getting out another cigarette while he spoke, "So where is it?"
Ken came back with the incense and pointed toward the corner of the living room. Plastic drinking glasses both full and empty, some turned over, were on a TV.
Chris turned to the 32" screen TV, and underneath it, along with the chipped paint and the red and purple marker stains, was the new Alpha video game system. This was why Chris had come over.
Chris could barely see the video game system because of all the things stacked around it—a toy, an overflowing ashtray shaped like a giant leaf, half-torn playing cards, dried noodles of some kind.
Colin stopped crying and instead started sprinting from one end of the room to the other.
Ken lit some incense. It just made the bad smell into a flaming bad smell. It was like burning tires, except it was burning shit and socks.
Ken turned on the Alpha, and for the next hour, while Colin banged into walls, cried, and threw toys, they made electric love to video game hockey.
They were each five games into their twenty-six game season when Chris asked, "When does your wife get home?"
"In like two or three hours, man, we got time. But, uh, hang on."
Ken left the room with Colin. He came right back in and said, "I hope he can stay asleep this time. I could really use a break."
"So Ken, where are you working now?" Chris felt comfortable enough with the gameplay to talk. And while he did, his Flyers brutalized the opposition.
Ken sat there watching Chris play, "Doesn't the crowd sound intense?"
Colin shouted, "Ifruffy." Chris was amazed that he hadn't noticed Colin walk back into the room until the little guy shouted.
"Goddamnit!" Ken got up, "You already drank all the juice, buddy." Chris laughed. He was glad he was single and in school, that he didn't have all this going on in his life. Ken walked to the refrigerator and Colin followed. "How about some water?"
Colin raised his arms like he won a race. "EAAH!" His pacifier spilled out of his mouth, bouncing off one of the several filled garbage bags in the kitchen, and finally landing on the linoleum floor. Ken picked it up and handed the pacifier back to his son.
"Nice. I like the way the announcers yell out the goals on this."
Chris was 20 and Ken was 21, but Chris knew there was more difference between them than a year. Chris had just left the dorms and moved into a new apartment with a few friends, he was in school, he worked at a department store on the weekends. Chris always left Ken's feeling helpless and petty, like he was gloating, so he tried to stay away. But he always came back. Sometimes it just took awhile.
Chris pressed his analog stick in different directions while the announcers yelled goal. This made different effects go off—whistles, sirens, and shouts from the crowd. "So where are you working now, Ken?"
"I'm not, man. I hurt my back at the yogurt plant, so I'm trying to collect worker's comp, but they won't pay. They say I'm faking. But I saw the company doctor a couple of times about it before I quit. Man, I even pissed my pants. I slipped some kind of disc and my bladder let go. Do you know how embarrassing that is? I can't believe they think I'm faking. Fuck yogurt."
Chris wasn't sure if Ken was telling the truth; he sometimes lied and took things in high school, but he also worked hard at football and band, the only things he liked. Chris decided to just keep playing the video game and nod so Ken could take it anyway he wanted.
Ken handed Colin water in a tiny cup, then he picked his son up. His 5'10", 250-pound frame didn't flinch or tense; he'd played tackle at their high school. "Damn it. Fuck. Man! He shit." Ken put his son on the kitchen counter. "Colin."
Ken had a new job every time Chris came over, which at one time was every couple of weeks. This time, it had been a semester. Ken always had a new reason not to work and a new job lined up. He always said it was the temp work that was killing him; that the companies never wanted him full time, they just wanted to keep him temp for as long as they could. "So where does Shauna work? I mean, is she making the money now?" Chris asked.
Ken took out Colin's pacifier, and helped him with his drink.
"Shauna? No, she works at Burger King. But once I get this settlement from the yogurt plant, I'm going to start working at this water softening place as a deliverer."
"Dude, Ken. Come check this out. I'm in a fight. Fights rule on this!" Ken turned around but he stayed with his son while the announcer yelled the blow by blow.
Fight! A right hook. Upper Cut. The shirt is getting pulled over his head. It's over. The Philadelphia player is the only one standing. This one spills blood!
"Everything does," Ken said confidently. "It's the Alpha. Hey man, what's the score?"
Chris turned away from the screen, "Wow, I actually understood Colin."
Ken walked into the living room, sat on top of a plastic milk crate in the living room and put Colin down. Ken peeled off his diaper, revealing a large diaper rash. "I don't have any problem understanding him. I guess you just have to get used to it, man. Damn it, we're out of wipes!" Ken turned his head and squinted, then he threw the used diaper on the floor.
"It's three zero now."
"Damn, Chris, you just keep winning."
"Yeah, the Red Wings must suck on this because you're taking the boot in OT all the time." Chris knew his comment irritated Ken, because Ken's face got red. Ken was always proud and competitive, and video games were always one of the things Chris beat him at. "You better get your ass in gear if you want to make the playoffs."
When he finished changing Colin, Ken took him back to bed.
"So Ken, how do you afford this big TV and the Alpha?"
"Don't forget the CD player, we just bought that."
"Yeah, we got our tax returns back and a couple new credit cards so we bought some stuff."
"Oh, so are you going to be able to pay for all this?"
"Yeah, we should be fine. How much time is left in the game?"
"Less than a minute. Oh, bam! I just crushed Forsberg into the boards."
"Did you see that? I checked the puck away from that jerk and put it in the net. Oh. This system rocks."
"Be quiet. I just put Colin back to bed."
"Sorry." But Chris felt hot. His face was red and he was glowing. He had even forgotten about the smell. It was like high school again. Just him and Ken—checking out girls in the hallway of their school, drinking beer on the weekend, slamming bad movies loudly at the theatre, playing video games, feeling like they would conquer the world.
"Four zero. I rule."
"Yeah, you suck, bitch." Ken started his game. A minute and thirty seconds in, Detroit gave up a goal. Ken threw his controller and turned the Alpha off.
"Hey, man," Ken said. "Shauna and I haven't been getting along very well . . . So do you mind?"
"What about the season?"
"Yeah, yeah, but hang on a minute, man. I kinda want to tell you something about porn."
"What?" Chris asked, thinking of all the possibilities—Ken having an affair, leaving his wife, getting locked out in his underwear again. He wondered what it could be; Ken and Shauna usually watched porno together. "Okay, what?" Chris asked, sitting up and clasping his knees with his hands like an eagle grabbing a fish, not being able to help being openly interested, saying to himself that listening is what friends do. Chris was about ready to say, "What?" again when Ken finally started.
"Alright. So I got to a good scene. And I was standing there, you know, jerking off to the movie."
Chris imagined Ken's 250 pounds standing up and jerking off to a movie. He was still wearing his Red Wings jersey. His bottom was bare, his hairy ass jiggling as he moved and swayed to the flashes and moans on the screen; his khaki shorts and white underwear were at his ankles. Chris smiled. It was hilarious to him. This big guy jerking off right next to the window everyone had to walk by to get in this crappy apartment building. His kid in the next room. His wife making burgers a mile up the road.
Ken continued, "And right when the girl on the screen starts to get off, I'm flame on, too. I mean I timed it perfectly. Except . . . " Ken got up, went to the kitchen, opened the fridge.
"Where the hell are you going, Ken?" Except what, Chris thought. What happened that mattered? Chris yelled out, "Dude, come on! Tell me, already." He had forgotten all about the Alpha, which was covered up by a giant pair of red jean shorts that Ken's wife wore. His wife saw him jerking off. That was it; Chris knew it. "Come on. Don't tell me just half the story."
Ken walked back from the fridge slowly, with nothing.
"Well?" Chris demanded, "Well?"
Ken sat back down; the chair bounced and he grabbed at his back.
"Man, this is a hard story to tell. Okay?"
Chris nodded, waiting. He didn't think about the smell; in fact, he was just thinking about how quiet it was. Chris leaned forward in his chair.
Finally, Ken said, "Man, Colin was standing right there looking up at me. I had my junk in my hand, and I was messin' all over the floor."
"No shit?" Chris bent over in his chair with laughter. "Damn . . . Damn." He couldn't think of anything else to say. And he didn't say anything else. He was embarrassed and disgusted, yet he enjoyed the hell out of it.
"Yeah man, and get this, when I looked over at Colin, he took his pacifier out of his mouth and said, 'HEY MAN, DON'T PEE ON THE FLOOR!'"
"Dude." Chris said. His eyes were watering. His face was splotchy.
"What did you do?"
"I yelled, GO BACK TO BED, DAMN IT!"
"Oh, dude." And Chris was trying to catch his breath. It was almost too much for him. It felt like his stomach was tightening, like he was getting ill, everything was constricting and pulsing. He was so hot. "What did he do?"
"He ran out." Ken paused. "You think it'll fuck him up?" Ken paused again. "I didn't mean it. For him to see me."
Chris said nothing. He lit his cigarette and tried to relax for a minute, but Colin suddenly ran into the room screaming and holding a truck. Chris put out his hands to keep him away, but when Colin hit, he was so soft, pliable, and small, he slipped right through Chris' squeezed hands. The impact reminded Chris of being hit with a pillow when he wasn't looking. He went backward in the chair with the kid uncontrollably wriggling around in his arms, and it seemed like everything in the world came down on him—food, clothes, toys. The apartment seemed to be caving in and it was all on top of Chris, suffocating him. He couldn't see anything. He just felt the giant mess on top of him and Colin in his arms, the child's heart beating against his.