Shred Through the Pain – Casper Kelly
December 22, 2023
I just remembered your dad died. How many years has it been? You don’t know I know this, but once at a party I wasn’t invited to, you were drunk and tried it on with this girl, some guys said you were a creep. I didn’t listen, I said “Oh come on, he was drunk, besides it’s not even that bad.” It wasn’t that bad, truthfully, you’re a good guy. Someone on the football team said she fucks like an ironing board. Maybe you were there, at the cafe opposite school, buying one of those cute little sponge cakes they did in a perfectly shaped plastic carton, I swear they tasted like nothing else. Maybe you heard and took pity on her, maybe you heard and wanted to see if it was true. Maybe your dad was the same in school, feels like ancient history. You know I had a crush on her once? We were in Psychology for a while, I was one of two boys in the class. I got high on the attention from the girls. All that squirming about Freud, waves of goosebumps travelling around the room like a boomerang. Ew, ew, ew, ew. I wondered about the girls who were quiet. Rumour of the one who never talks, underrated cutie, making out with someone in the dark room. I’d go to the computer room and fuck the silent time, talk about Death Cab For Cutie, think about how maybe I have a chance. She was getting back with her boyfriend, this dude in a band with a terrible name, something like Parade On Sloane Square, or something just as bad. Thing is with names like that, one day we’ll get sick of hanging out here and now your band is just about the parade that never happened in a place we wish we never spent all of our money, had our first kiss, running through mists of perfume, tangling up in the high fashion, leaving our teenage bite marks on everything. Ever go into a drugstore, pick up a little tub of hair wax and there’s a finger sized hole poked right in the middle of it? That was me. Sometimes I get hit with a whiff of the cheap colognes they tried to get rid of every Christmas. I always think it’s you.
It sometimes feels like we just died there, wherever there is. Did your dad die there too?
I’m thinking about it because I’m walking around on the other side of the city, one of those late summer evenings where the wind is loud up in the sky, but it isn’t hitting us down here, the pedestrians are spared. I can hear it ripping up the clouds. I left my window open up on the 7th floor to let my place reset from all of the hiding away I’ve been doing this week, I can imagine the wind is just burglarising my room. If I turn back now and look up at the block, will I see a trail of all my shit flailing out like a snake of trinkets over to your side? Up into the sky past where we can’t see anymore, where people go when they die. There goes my books I never read, there goes my broken cameras, there goes my bed. With all of the cigarettes I hid underneath it. Remember when my mother found them in the shoebox? I had been stealing them from my stepdad, one each day, knowing he’ll be drunk as shit and never notice. The real cheap kind, illegally imported, they still had their neat little design on the box, in Italian or something. Tasted like shit and still when I go home for Christmas, it’s all he’s got. When I’m in my near-quitting desperation, I fold every time. And I don’t know why, but I’ll rip them up and pour their insides into my own rolling papers, I’ll find something to tear off and crush into a little roach, light it on the stove. Anything I can do to make this not feel like the cigarettes I would hoard in that little shoebox, Converse Star Players, white and navy, soon to be dirty. My mother gave me hell about it, I must have been 15. I told her they were yours and I was simply just keeping them for you. Let’s be honest, it wasn’t the greatest lie but at least me, you and my mother all know your mother—incredibly anal, would totally flip if you ever drank, used to shout at us for playing Halo too late into the night. It only made sense I’d be doing you a solid, but it was actually me, stealing cigarettes to smoke on dates with girls who did drugs before I ever did. We tried to get to sleep without laughing but it was impossible, four of us packed into your room, a quartet of sleeping bags passing the headset around, taking turns volleying slurs at online strangers. Let the night run its course and come morning time, we spring from the sleeping bags into butterflies of boyish stupid. Hungry for eggs the way your dad did them. Do you think your dad ever smoked those Italian cigarettes? Maybe only step dads do, in their little shit faced step dad communities, in the social clubs they vomit upon their entire martial woe. We joked once or twice about the step dads trading lines: “I’m not your dad!” one would say. “Oh now that’s good…” the other would validate, “I gotta use that on my girlfriend’s son tonight.”
Man, your dad used to take us home from rugby. He used to take us to the cinemas every Saturday. God, all of those shitty movies we watched! I just feel like there isn’t that much trash anymore. Red 2? I hadn’t even seen the first one, but we saw it. About five of us. The cinema was a graveyard, they didn’t even bother cleaning up from the last screening. Tumbleweed of popcorn boxes. We spent the whole movie dicking around the back row, sometimes zoning in and out of consciousness to watch Bruce Willis do the very same thing. It’s funny, sometimes you take a moment to realise that hundreds of people were involved in making this movie, blood, sweat, tears, whatever. There was some degree of a vision involved, there was a budget, there was families involved. There was an actor maybe going through a divorce or tackling the beginning of a brain rotting disease. And it was playing to no one that day, broadcast to the corners of our eyes as we slurped a Tango Ice Blast through one nostril and out the other. That was 2013. Everyone knew about your dad, but not you. We were skipping stones at the creek.
It keeps me up at night, thinking about you burning into 4AM with:
“How curable is brain cancer?”
“Is brain cancer a terminal cancer?”
“How long can you live with brain cancer?”
Things you won’t ask us. It’s going to incinerate you.
“What does medulloblastoma mean?”
“What is an intracranial tumour?”
“Is my dad going to die?”
You’re ashes, the sleeping alarm rings, you’re born again every day.
You were never late for school but these days you just found that there was no time left, all of the time. And the breakfast eggs were different now.
Because I was the same as you, only a few years later:
“Breast cancer chances of survival”
“Is breast cancer hereditary?”
“How does chemotherapy make you feel?”
Homework just blew away in the wind, friends meant nothing.
“What’s a mammogram?”
“What does triple negative mean?”
“Is my mother going to die?”
I wanted to puke acid on the whole world.
Wave Of Mutilation. Eating Glass. Between Love & Hate. I Will Follow You Into The Dark. Love Will Tear Us Apart. I Know It’s Over. I Can Change. Time To Pretend.
We were showing each other how to download songs onto our iPods.
Crazy Train. Beautiful Disaster. Pull Me Under. Spiderwebs. Never Too Late. Go Your Own Way. Feel The Pain. Everlong.
Remember Guitar Hero at your house? Shred through the pain. I’d sit there and it would just clunk, clunk, clunk, missing every note. I never even asked about your dad. Now I’m wondering if you ever told me or if I ever cared or if I was just a million miles away. I know this song well but I’m still screwing it up. I’m starting to think of the days you weren’t in school and you just didn’t play rugby the same and your face never got red with laughter anymore, am I just imagining ever noticing this? Crowd starts booing. And the first day I ever met you, I thought you were gonna bully me. English class, first day of school, I walk over to my seat, you’re just this big square, you’re gonna kick the shit outta my seat, spit in my hair, fling rubbers at the back of my skull. Time for the guitar solo. As I meekly slide past the people I’ll spend the best part of a decade with, I see you take your book out. Death Note. We’re gonna be best friends. I love you, man. Clunk, clunk, clunk. Was his name Thomas? The lights go out. That’s my dad’s name, too. Unplug the controller. I don’t how everything ended up like this. Our band sucks.
Light it up, our YouTube epic fail compilations, re-runs of memories, making our own version of Jackass. The undisputed king of awesomeness, self professed, of course, will now be attempting one of the most daring stunts of all time! Beginning here on the top of this humble shed, for this crowd of adoring jesters, I will break the sound barrier and perform the miracle of flight, then fall onto this trampoline right onto – you. I soared through the sky right into you, lying there like “Oh God, oh God, oh God.” My nickname was Flying Squirrel, for like a week. When I landed, I nearly bit my tongue off colliding into your shoulder. Some adults make a career out of reverting back to boys but for us it seems that window closed. You’re a doctor now. I wonder if you have any patients with brain cancer. I bet you wish we could go back to jumping across the river across school. Getting bruises like little badges of honour. We went to go see our favourite band and everyone looked at us weird for jumping around, arms wrapped each other, screaming all the words in exaggerated Scottish. We had bat wings on, some kind of inside joke I can’t remember. I found some old film photos of my uncles when they were teenagers, they don’t seem much different to us. Sometimes it feels like we couldn’t be more different from our parents but maybe that’s what we choose to believe. Surely there is no way I will get cancer too, right? A photo in North England: my uncle Michael, mid air, gliding over a river.
Now we are older and suitably crushed by adult life, and jobs have poked little breathing holes in us for bits of wisdom to sneak through, and pocket money has been replaced by pay days, and the arrow of time has surely began to inflict its slow bleed, I want to ask you if you ever wished it was you who got the cancer. What a gruesome feeling. My mother was a tangle of blue veins, I could almost see right through her, like her ghost was already haunting her bed. She was as bald as my uncles, a big bunch of shiny domes, shaving the residue of what hair they kept hold of in solidarity. And I, like I did on the walk to school, would turn down my music when I walked past people, in fear that they would hear I’m blasting nothing but noise. How are you doing? Fine is glowing, okay is radiating from me, just dandy is going strong. Until nightfall, when I became a double helix of vomit and vodka, swivel eyed crazy, bleeding on parties, making nests in the long grass on the side of the highway, when I had given up walking and needed to let the drunk in me go to sleep. After something like that, I wonder how we ever have arguments with people anymore, after seeing how trivial it all appears, but we do. We are so furiously argumentative, as if in spite of death, hurtling ourselves against the audacity of being a snot nosed punk. It’s my mother’s prognosis and I’ll cry if I want to. Did it get its fangs into your family like it did mine? It bites hard, it hurts forever, it bleeds like a river.
My mother survived and your dad died. When we got the all-clear, it was a wonderful moment, a moment that didn’t last too long. We just went right back to whatever it was before the end of the world, weirdly anti-climatic. Only, I wasn’t quite the same teenager, I didn’t have the same records, I didn’t have the same clothes. This is the post-apocalypse. Near-life experience. I had prayed to God, who didn’t even know I was here, to somehow transport the black inside of her over to the black I had collected over the years, what’s a little more gonna hurt? Make me see-through. Cancer can’t be talked over, although we try, bellowing out, our echoes swell down the tunnels and eventually disappear, whilst cancer is much more like an impenetrable siren, a peal of lightning, crashing like thunder. And people at the funerals I frequented in my childhood, as seemingly everyone was dying for a little while, talked of butterflies appearing almost magically, divinely, as if ghosts of our grandfathers, uncles, neighbours, touching us one last time. I wondered, are butterflies everywhere, all of the time, or do we only seem to see them when death is around? After all, the butterfly is the manifestation of a rebirth, the death of the former self, and in my wiser adult brain I’ve figured out that perhaps God designed butterflies with a metaphorical purpose for us to wield as a healing balm. Perhaps he also made people with all their hair appear like dandelions and cancer as something of a furious wind that blows it all away like little florets. Now I no longer kick their heads off, watching them explode into wisps, like we used to after school.
On the bus home, I would wait for you near the swimming pool. I didn’t need to get the bus home, for I lived walking distance away from my mother’s, so I would travel up the bus route with you to my grandmother’s and then walk all the way down at night back to home. We would sit and share earphones in which you take your iPod Touch, that was custom inscribed with “Merry Christmas, Love Dad” on back of its metal plate, and play me The Smiths for the very first time. I Don’t Owe You Anything, from their self titled debut album. “Life is never kind” he sings. Before you couldn’t claim adoration for The Smiths without clarifying you’re not a racist, there was just: “I love The Smiths” and it was perfect and simple and it was 12 years ago. How you must’ve understood me (I didn’t say that I needed to hear something that saw me) as you played Barbarism Begins At Home from Meat Is Murder. How we must have been hit with the same silly, juvenile realization when we huddled around the gentle flame of Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others. Of course they are, but it still makes me tear up, thinking back to a time where this would be a shocking revelation. Now nothing seems to shock me.
Potential band names: Bizarro, Guts, Oopsie, Jackpot, Kaijus, Sonic Poof, Exorcist 3, Time Crisis. We were flip-flopping between Alternative Endings and Deleted Scenes before we started to think “How about just something like &?” Too Prince. “How about we don’t have a band name?” Okay, that could work. In the end, we didn’t even really have a band, just a few bedroom rehearsals, mostly Resident Evil, mostly drinking Pepsi. It’s where I seem to go in my dreams, right after an old crush has shorter hair or one of our friends died. Dreams of still being late for school, I beg my brain gives me a fucking break. We never covered a house in toilet paper, now all of our friends live at the top of an apartment block, in dreams we’re bats, flying to the top and drenching the whole thing in paint. I quit drinking so I didn’t get those burps that dropkicked me back into Melissa’s back garden, flirting with her sister and drinking blackcurrant. Eating apple rounds, taking polaroids in the daffodils. Ever since then, I feel like I’ve been chasing the wiring back to where it emitted the most vibe, trying to catch more than its asthmatic aura, barely reaching me now. Nothing is ever going to be the same, my mother’s hair still grows thin, she’ll never be a redhead again. And your dad is never coming back. We coulda wrote a song about it.
So let’s shred through the pain. Guitar Hero World Tour, 2009, Nintendo Wii, Feel The Pain by Dinosaur Jr. I read once J. Mascis’ father died during the writing of this album. This was always one of our favourites. I see tears in your eyes, pop the cork. “I feel the pain of everyone, then I feel nothing.” Green, red, yellow, blue raining down on the fretboard then you rip the star power open and blue lightning explodes around the stage. That’s us, leather clad and mohawked, Danzig’d all the way up the eyeballs, a 700 note streak imprinted on the lava flavoured sky, shining through LED and blitzing the dark in your room. Dual wield spirits, sparring guitar heads. I only revisist here in dreams, remembering is simply not enough. I can’t feel the fabric of this moment quite the same. Only dreams can transport me. Transports me in the form of a teenage razor blade, shaping me into a cerebral incision, a lethal blow to the piñata of memory whose guts I make cry open a billion flickering films. I’m medicating myself so that my shadow falls down the gap between awake and asleep, I get my nose full of crystal garbage, I drink on top of all these pills and all at once: fuzzy cathode-ray tube beams, Cola-drenched embarrassment, moments compressed into square stars from the memory vault-squash, others ribbed with the gaps of my fingers as I’ve suffocated them into pathetic little moulds, memories reverse-smashing back together like explosions of vase shards, tethers slithering silent like moths and jittery like stop-motion, songs summoned gorgeously in flying falsettos and guttural growls, pain brisk and brilliant spikes in my gums like dentist tools and in my cock I swell crude and intimately, the sun in my veins dying out and turning into a frozen tundra, behind my eyes bursting the colour vessels and blooming everything into bizarre lomochrome, I suddenly belt far above the Earth and find my head scraping past the lunar landscapes, winking through the guard rails: your dad is alive, he’s smiling, he’s waving. I know this is gonna end, this is another one of my blips. I am only just high, I am only just the same as I was an hour ago, without you, you without me, you more without anything than I am without anything. I should be there for you. I got a little closer to being trapped in one of those eternal drug-dreams I’ve heard stories about, where people live an entire new life for years only to suddenly snap to consciousness once again, somehow travel to the past and butterfly-effect your dad back to life. But everything flattens back out from the 4D I was droning in, everything is restored and nothing changes at all. I hate this part, you know, where the drugs end. Some songs end in those ethereal fade-outs, chiming on into the sunset. My song ends much more like snagging my headphones on a door handle.
World is fine though, I get home, my room is unblitzed, the wind has ceased and gone to sleep. I bend down under my bed and take the shoebox out, there are a few secret cigarettes still rolling around. I’ll ring you tomorrow and we’ll go to the grave and we will smoke these things. Sober, quiet, grown up. Snap a little part of ourselves off, trade and call it quits for another few years. When we’ve figured it all out, we’ll speak of reunion world tours, a LAN party from hell. Fizzy drinks, peach rings, sleeping bag wrestling match, return of the Flying Squirrel. Spend all day covering the entire apartment block in toilet paper. Pretend life is a movie. Maybe we’ll just pretend nothing ever happened. Maybe we aren’t gonna die. Maybe river jumpers live forever.