R.E.M. Lyrics and Blowjobs at the Altar

Physics in SepiaI was in high school when a friend told me the story about this guy who ripped a hole in the bottom of this popcorn bucket perched in his lap, and sat patiently until his quasi-date found his cock waiting on her greedy little hand. According to my friend, they were all watching one of those early IMAX films that focused on the size of the picture, and didn’t put a lot of investment into plot. It was either about deep-sea exploration or the Serengeti — one of the two. Whatever it was, it had the girl’s attention. She was so taken by that encapsulating, screen-in-your-face experience that she never noticed Romeo over there sawing away at the bucket with his car keys.

This guy didn’t know the girl. Not really. He was jimmying his dick into a bucket for her, but I doubt that he’d ever even seen the upstairs of her house or could tell you her locker number. They went to the same ridiculous Atlanta prep school (which costs more than most colleges), and he was technically still a member of the youth group (which she attended religiously), but really, they were just two good-looking people that ran in the same circles. They’d most likely talked to each other a few times, but no one I knew could recall ever seeing that happen. But there they were, out on some quasi-date together, so they must have said something to each other at some point. Are you joining Sydney and Janet over at The Bucket Shop? Have you talked to so-and-so? Did you hear that Beth found a Darth Vader vibrator in Ms. Denorex’s car? Whatever it was that they’d said to each other over the years, it must’ve made enough of an impression to result in a: Sure, I’ll go see that IMAX film about the Serengeti or deep-sea exploration with you.

Still, it was most likely one of those dates where neither of them were sure whether it was actually a date: the invite casual; the ticket costs split; and the two of them sitting there with a row of friends. I guess the origin of their date detail is just one of those things that got lost in the telling. But given his blatant disregard for food-sharing protocols, it is difficult to make the argument that he was ever invested in pushing for a second date.

I’ve heard the story a dozen times, and I still can’t even imagine the shit-eating grin that he must have had each time she blindly reached in and got a little closer to the cock-laced glory hole. Eventually, that popcorn at the top got a little scarce. She dug deeper. Felt it. Screamed at it. And flung the bucket of popcorn into the air,[1] while running out of the dark theater and tripping over some poor schmuck’s lap no less than three times before he moved. Meanwhile, Mr. Popcorn was just sitting there with his dick standing there in his lap, laughing through the entire getaway.

I’d heard of other guys trying this same trick (I guess it’s a bit of an urban legend), and always thought that the true cruelty would be if the girl actually decided to play with it for a while. A stiff chub being yanked on in a bucket full of butter and half-popped kernels can’t be a fun time. But as long as that doesn’t happen, I guess it seems like it could be worth the laugh.

Everybody figured that the guy with the buttery choad was going to burn out before his twenty-first birthday. I’d only met the guy once, but I had the same assumption. He had that vibe about him that said he was ready to fuck the world, whether it wanted to be fucked by him or not. He was the guy that acted like Dean Moriarty without ever knowing Dean Moriarty or how much hell he brought into Sal Paradise’s life. He was a fabulous yellow roman candle for sure — just waiting for that last spider of light to fade into a memory. But that’s the thing that people love about guys like him. They all see that extraordinary spidery light dancing through the air, and it’s too fucking spectacular to worry about what happens when the show is over.

All of that has to fade off soon enough. It’s just the natural way of things. Before those theater ushers bent down beneath that massive screen to find the final few bits of popcorn hiding in the folds of darkened velvet drapes, this guy was sitting beside his father’s casket, playing R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts” on an acoustic guitar that he learned how to play during another lifetime, when he still went to church camps. They say he didn’t push his hair back behind his ears, like he usually did. Instead, he just let the darkened locks fall over his face as his eyes reddened, and he choked through Stipe’s words: When your day is night alone. Hold on. Hold on.[2]

This guy’s dad used to be a big deal in Atlanta. He worked at one of the massive wealth management firms in Buckhead. He drove a 7-Series. And I can only image that he also had a membership at the Piedmont Club.[3] But this guy’s dad got tied up in an embezzlement scandal, and ended it all with an antique revolver a few months before the son went off to college. They said he walked out to the bank of the Chattahoochee, near this important Civil War battle site, and pulled the trigger.

I’ve thought on it for a while, and for the life of me, I still can’t figure out how the kid could’ve gotten up there in front of all of those people and sang a song with that coffin sitting next to him. You can well imagine the loud sobs and agonies that would’ve been protruding out from that congregation. Crook or not, the man’s son was up there by his casket singing a song that already makes you want to cry when you hear it on your car stereo.

Dude held it together well enough until he got to college at Emory. Then it all turned to shit. The guy filled his arms and his chest with all of these unsavory tattoos of unsavory women (at least that’s how my friend’s mom described them), and picked up a coke habit that would’ve made the Eighties proud. By the end of his sophomore year, he was a complete burnout that couldn’t even tell you what classes he was enrolled in.[4] And it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to find ways to have fun in Atlanta when you’ve got a little bit of a trust fund and no course work to slow you down. And from what I’ve heard, this guy had plenty of imagination. The Dean of Students and his mom decided that it would be in the best interest of all parties if he just didn’t come back after the summer.[5] His mom tried to make him get a job and sober up, but it’d be another two years before he got his shit together and took a job at this old-school menswear establishment that clothed all of the Coca-Cola money and the attorneys from both East Pace’s and West Pace’s Ferry.[6]

He’s now one of their managers, and has led the store in sales for the last several years. My friend tells me that no one saw that coming — which makes sense. He also says that the guy was lucky that this one tattoo that snuck its way up onto his neck didn’t come up past his shirt collar.[7] But I’d guess that this guy tried hard not to let things get too far out of control, no matter how dire it all appeared at the time. As they say: Money begets money. Power begets power. Even the most prodigal of sons has to have a contingency plan. Especially if the guy has the wherewithal to get up at his crook of a dad’s funeral and sing that R.E.M. song without loosing it. 

My friend and I were laughing over the popcorn story a few days ago. He told me all about the guy’s suit-job, and how he’d heard that this job was just one of those stepping-stone gigs—or a place to build up his own connections. “The guy has plans,” my friend told me. “There’s been talk of him sliding into this cush job at one of those big management firms over there in the Atlanta Financial Building. You know, that big black glass building that you drive under when you’re on 400.”[8] None of them ever thought he’d live to get drunk on his twenty-first birthday, and now the guy has a house in Inman Park and is making plans to pick the shit up where his dad left off before he started embezzling everybody’s embezzled money.

Almost as an afterthought, I asked if my buddy had recently heard from the girl that flung the popcorn. (Her nickname might’ve been DT[9] back in high school, but she’d always been smoking hot — and she had one of those faces that had a bone structure that would probably age well.) Most people agreed that she was the whole package in high school, and then she went onto Vanderbilt with a full ride. She was a Kappa and she ran cross-country, and was apparently a pretty big deal up at Vandy, until things caved in on her during the last months of school.

She still graduated and all, but she got caught up in a titillating scandal in her senior year, and never did a whole lot after that. For a while, people assumed that she went off to grad school, or moved to Europe to travel and be an au pair. (That’s what I would’ve done.) But it turns out that she came right back to Atlanta, and has been living there ever since. Word is that she got engaged once, but it didn’t take.

Now my friend tells me that she’s been off losing her DT prudishness one dick at a time.[10] He tells me that she has this job of sorts, but no one can ever seem to decide what it is. It has something to do with selling this change of lifestyle plan, which sounds a lot like selling health insurance, but isn’t. Whatever it is that she’s selling, it sure isn’t with anyone that ran around in any of her previous circles. The only thing my friend knows with any certainty is that she lives in one of those apartments near the Dome with three other roommates, and that she slept with some guy he works with. (According to my friend, this guy is a troll who spends the majority of his time at the office making awkward sexual innuendos and popping pimples — a born winner.)

My friend went on about there being some talk of an abortion somewhere along the way, but that shit’s just rumors and speculation, and I don’t want to get caught up in all of that.[11] What I do know is that she got caught giving some guy head in the President’s church during her senior year of college. The guy was in high school,[12] and she was helping chaperone their church choir trip. It was a pretty damn big scandal when it happened. She’d been helping out with her home church’s youth group all through college, and was passing up a week of blackout beach-drinking in Key West to travel to DC and watch a bus full of teenagers sing the Alleluia chorus. In hindsight, it should’ve always seemed a bit odd. But all the way up to the moment when the kid’s mom walked into the sanctuary and saw her son’s “O” face as he wrapped his fingers into the Vandy girl’s locks, people just assumed that she was still out doing good deeds and living up to her nickname.[13]

It didn’t take long at all for everybody to hear about it. I was still up at Wofford College, and I think I knew every single one of the details before her bus made it back to Atlanta. At the time, my friends and I thought the story was hysterical. The parents in the church didn’t laugh much.

She went back to Vandy for those last few months, and people moved on, I guess. But she sure as hell knew not to move back into Buckhead and try to get a job through the usual connections. Instead, she faded off into obscurity in a city that begs for its elite youth culture to pick up their parents’ torch and be seen by everyone who cares to look.

The thing that surprised me was that she didn’t pack up her shit and move off to Europe, or grad school, or New York, or any number of other places and light them on fire. Aside from that late-night altar call, the girl was damn near perfect by anyone’s definition. She was brilliant. Ambitious. Gorgeous by the Heidi Klum standard.  And she had such a friendly personality that every guy in high school thought she was teasing him. That’s a golden ticket if I’ve ever seen one. She could’ve gotten the hell out of town, and no one would have ever looked at her with those you might as well be on the sex registry eyes. But instead, she stuck around and sulked down into lower-level management, small-commission obscurity, and only came back up into conversations when she happened to accidentally fuck someone who knew someone who she used to know.

Anyway, I get that all of this is kind of a cliché.[14] The rich guy with the problems that the whole city knows about, gets caught up in drugs, gets kicked out of college, and people assume he’s getting curb stomped on rock bottom[15] — only to find out that the dude got his shit together, and is making a run at taking over the whole goddamn city. While the perfect girl with problems that only she could see, makes a damn-fine spectacle of herself, before floundering off into promiscuity and mediocrity, while she either settles or passively waits for someone to take her to the heights that she could’ve been out there reaching for all along.[16] (Throw in some drama with a poor, underprivileged kid living on the other side of town, and it almost sounds like a Tom Wolfe novel.)[17] But for whatever reason, I couldn’t shake the story.

If you really sit there and think about it, it only sounds cliché when you let your friend tell it to you, while you sit in a yuppie coffee shop in Virginia Highlands, slurping a nonfat honey vanilla latte. Because when he tells it all to you, the story is just there — rolled out on the table like some ongoing drama on the WB.[18] It is just the highlights that make it sound trite. Or maybe it’s the outcome? Maybe it’s this sexist predetermined script that high school guys learn (girls that the guys are too scared to approach are either prudes, have nicknames like DT, or are sluts secretly waiting on the right guy to save them from their own sluttiness)[19] and then hold on to, despite their efforts to transform into genuine nice guys? Whatever the case, this story is not trite — it’s not cliché. Not when you take the swanky coffee shop away from it.

If you stop long enough to see the track marks both hidden and protruding from that unsavory tattoo of a woman swimming up Mr. Popcorn’s bicep. Or if you listened to his mid-morning phone calls back to his old youth director, and heard that the uncomfortable silences (which were hastily filled with small talk about suits and Kevin Kenney concerts) were actually cries for a teenage version of himself that he couldn’t seem to find again. When you stick around after the guy leaves the girl’s apartment and you feel the silence that comes alongside the lonesome folds of a sheet that is now cold. When you think about the girl, sitting in traffic, waiting to get to that job that is too nondescript for anyone to even be able to (or care to) really describe it,[20] and you allow yourself to be bold enough to imagine what she may be thinking — you realize that the events that make a life look cliché are actually pretty fucked up.[21]

Vandy girl’s life didn’t make some sudden turn when she decided to go down on a high school kid beneath the cross. It was just a silent burn before that. Some people sing about their pain in front of everyone, and then go around showing it off with rebellious tats and public coke habits. And others just let that shit build, while they run on the cross-country team and take control of their sorority meetings.[22] But we keep the true depth of it all locked up inside. If we were ever to let anyone see all of that baggage — they’d run like hell.

I was sitting in this grad seminar on Nietzsche a few months back, and I was naïve enough to argue with my dip-spitting professor that it isn’t essential to always hold back a layer of the truth from our friends, in order to stay on that friend’s Christmas card list. I didn’t give two shits about Nietzsche, and spent most of my time sitting in the back of the room, searching for random shit on eBay, or G-chatting with the girl in front of me, who cared about the class but was just too lazy to keep up with the readings and ever really invest in it. But during this particular class, I was fucking passionate. Maybe it was because G-chat girl had her computer closed, and I was too poor to actually buy the vintage pair of Ray-Ban that was undergoing a last-minute bidding frenzy. Whatever it was, I was sitting back there arguing like every relationship I ever had was riding on the outcome of this dip-spitting charade.

I believed what I was saying. You could crack everything open and let your true friends and lovers dig around inside your chest, while you told them about every one of your unyielding Woody Allen moments of neurosis.[23] And if you did that, and showed how damned vulnerable you were, those few people who really loved your ass would let you put your head in their lap, and they’d close and caress that broken chest cavity of yours. They would un-mat your unkempt hair and say to you that it was all going to be alright — that you weren’t some fucked-up, twisted version of an Eastern European freak show. Instead, they would whisper what you needed to hear. They’d say that they saw themselves, and their mothers and fathers, and their future offspring swimming up through your depraved words. And then you’d be asked to sit up and watch as this person that you loved opened their own chest, and let you see yourself — so that you too could realize that you weren’t that freak, or some lonesome outlaw, who rode through flattened plains each night, begging the sky for sleep.

But the thing about it is — I no longer believe any of that.[24] The damn dip-toting Nietzschean was on to something. We always have to hide a portion of our truth. Most of the shit that swims around in our head is toxic, and it was never meant for large-scale consumption, anyway.

It’s only when the shit’s fiction that we are comfortable soaking in those demons of ours that are splayed open across the page. When it’s fiction, we are okay saying that those imaginary characters are real, and that they are a tragic enough personification to be heralded and anthologized.

He is the everyman’s hero, who is universally recognized. She is the brave heroine, who is misunderstood by those assholes all around her — but we, the readers, truly get her, and only wish that we lived in a world where novelists didn’t have to remind everyone else of the tragic plight of the misunderstood woman.[25] That’s what you get when nobody is saying: This shit really happened. If Holden Caulfield ever took a break from talking about ducks and cut a hole in some popcorn, we’d see the meaning of life in the flying kernels.

We are all quite bold when we break down to analyze texts with our fictional prowess.[26] We read that shit without a care in the world. We bring the book into our bedroom, and we wallow in our beds with it nuzzled over our crotches. We let the words get soaked up into the sex-drenched folds of our unlaundered sheets — and there is not one second when we worry about the residual stain that it may leave behind.

When it’s nonfiction, we lose our sensual brashness, and cover our tits with modesty. We turn our heads and wait for our ragged claws to retreat back into the kitchen, where yellowed bellies rummage around for something that won’t burn. When we talk about nonfiction in coffee shops, we say what’s needed in hushed tones, and we wish we were back in our kitchen. We know that the soccer mom with the Silky Terrier wouldn’t understand. It’s only when we are at home that we let the boldest nonfiction skim past that surface and peel back the top layer to reveal the frothless mess that so much of our fiction thrives on. And even then, we’re not comfortable. Their boldness may be seen as bravery, or maybe even relatable to some niche little audience of babbling sociopaths, but we still wearily cover ourselves and wonder if we remembered to draw the shades. (Neighbors (like soccer moms) are nosy gossipers that just read Sparknotes, and can’t be trusted to know that it wasn’t you on the page, snorting your son’s Adderal and gleefully fucking your neighbor’s wife.)

Then, with the shades drawn and our robes pulled high and tight, we sometimes let the whole thing rip open — and the cracked contents shimmer out onto our table, but still, we are careful not to look at it head on.[27] Difficult angles can sometimes allow us to see that other brave person who was willing to let everything pool out onto a stranger’s kitchen table, without seeing our own face slog back at us.

The thing we know, but don’t say, is that there is a reason we keep it all in the kitchen. Hard surfaces. No saturation. No place to lay your head in someone else’s lap. There’s no room for residue that lingers after we pull down the roll of paper towels and wipe away at the mess, until we can contain that world that we carelessly let spill out past the page.[28] And that’s the fucked up part of it all.

We are too goddammed scared to let it all get into the messiness of the bedroom — where spills can saturate and become memories. We are horrified to see the universal in the torrid details of that rambling mind at play, beneath all of that nonfictional foam. If you were to follow the babbling homeless man around and try to figure out the backstory that strung all of his incoherent bullshit together, you might just end up believing that the government and his dad were in collusion with each other to bring back polio and rid the city of working storm drains, while killing off the squirrel population one little varmint at a time. And you want to believe that the danger of investing in the untold details of your friends, or the memoirist who’s sitting there with you in the kitchen, could lead you to a place that is just as fucked up and foreign as all of that conspiracy theory bullshit.         

That’s what we tell ourselves anyway. If we want to look at our fucked up interior, we look to Dean Moriarty, or to Holden Caulfield, or if we’re a little less honest, Sal Paradise. We don’t look to our friends or to the quasi-date, while sitting under that massive IMAX screen, for those details. We are content to read about them elsewhere, while we pass the time talking about Michael Stipe and popcorn flailing through the air.  It would just be too difficult to have it any other way, and risk letting it spill out. Because then, we might have to look directly into it, and acknowledge the reflection that we all recognize. And none of us should be expected to handle that — especially if it points to a place that strangers would call cliché.[29]


[1] Not really sure on the physics behind this account. I mean, to fling the popcorn up in the air, after accidentally grabbing the dude’s junk, would indicate that she either then grabbed the bucket and intentionally threw it into the air, or that she recoiled so forcefully that there was some type of Street Fighter level hadouken bullshit — which created a downward wind tunnel effect, which shot the popcorn upwards. Either way, that’s the way the story was told to me, and so that’s how I’m relaying it to you. 

[2] According to all accounts, he sang the rest of it too, but aside from everybody hurts and a few more hold on’s, those are about the only words that I can think of right now.

[3] All of my friends’ important parents were members of the Piedmont Club.

[4] Another friend of mine stopped going to class all together when The Legend of Zelda came out on Nintendo 64. His roommates swear that he was defeating Ganondorf at the precise moment when his classmates were finishing one of the exams that he should’ve been taking. My friend got a 0.0 GPA that semester (low even by Georgia Southern standards). The Dean placed the guy on academic probation, and he had to get a 4.0 the next semester just to stay in school. He was doing alright until Quake II came out, and he went on a three-week pot-infused bender. He never waited on the official word from the Dean. He just came on home.  

[5] I heard he eventually went back and graduated from Emory without any honors.

[6] This place is easily the preppiest store in Atlanta. I would doubt very seriously if any of their costumers had any tattoos that weren’t a part of the Greek alphabet.

[7] See previous footnote.

[8] I knew the one he was talking about.

[9] DT is short for dick tease. People used to love to play this game where they tried to see how many DT word combinations they could sneak into a casual conversation without her noticing. Dawn Turner. Deep Tracks. Dunwoody tri-athletes. Donald Trump. Damn trees. It didn’t take her too long to get really sensitive about it, and start yelling at random people for innocent DT word combinations. Daytime.

[10] I know it’s hard, but please try to excuse the overt sexist language. It all sounds pretty fucked up, I know. I’ll try and explain it a bit more later. I may or may not be successful. 

[11] Let’s just try and deal in second-hand stuff here. Once you get into third-hand accounts of things that supposedly happened, you’re dealing in straight-up nonfiction anarchy.

[12] Supposedly a senior. Possibly a junior.

[13] After the event, someone tried to give her the new nickname of Dick Talent, but it never took off. I think Dick Tonsil would have stuck.

[14]  I am also fully aware that it sounds a bit cliché to talk about it being a cliché.

[15] There is pretty much a unanimous agreement that this moment came around the time that he got arrested for dropping a shit in Piedmont Park during broad daylight.

[16] You can start to see where the sexist double standards in this yuppified culture have taken root and made their way into this ongoing narrative that I’m trying to explain to you.

[17] Or with the right degree of suckedness and romantic melodrama — a Nicholas Sparks’ novel.

[18] A lot of the dramas on the WB are filmed in the Atlanta area. I didn’t know this until the girls from their show, Vampire Diaries, were arrested for flashing oncoming traffic while standing on this overpass a little south of Atlanta. I also just found out that my cousin (who lives with my other cousin who lives in Atlanta) was an extra on their show, Teen Wolf. He was a full-bearded high school lacrosse player. It was thirty degrees, and he had to stand outside all night in mesh shorts while this group of B-rate actors tried to deliver their lines. My cousin is currently trying to get on AMC’s The Walking Dead. His friends tell him that AMC treats their extras better. I doubt that I’d recognize him if he makes it on the show.

[19] I am aware that the formula and buried sexism goes a lot further than this, and by leaving it here, I might be seen as this writer who is as clueless about his own chauvinistic attitude as Brett Easton Ellis, or even Tom Wolfe, but I am going to have to leave it here (and you’ll have you trust me) so that I can get back to the original point about clichés.

[20] There is a certain degree of Atlanta snobbery embedded into this last assertion. The job might be a kickass job that she loves. She might love her life. I am a sexist asshole.

[21] In fact, this entire paragraph is conjecture and speculative masturbatory thinking. I don’t know anything about their interior thoughts or the temperature of Vandy girl’s sheets.

[22] Once again, I have no idea if she took control of their sorority meetings. She very well could’ve been rocking herself off in the corner somewhere because she was still freaked out by The Blair Witch Project. I kind of doubt that would have been the case, but my point is — I just don’t know. 

[23] I love Woody Allen films, but they seriously stress me the fuck out. A year ago, I decided to start taking Klonopin before I watched any of his films. Since then, I have watched fifteen, and managing to enjoy even the most neurotic ones. Fucking benzodiazepines.

[24] I tried to rip open my chest one time, and let it all spill out and be seen. I thought it would be freeing. And that the lap I rested my head in would stare into all that bloody pulp and point to herself, buried deep beneath a discolored lung, and then we could both laugh at the silliness of it all. I hoped we might even fuck because of the silliness of it all. But we didn’t. Instead, I was left sitting there with all of it hanging out for anyone to see. When I looked down, I’d hoped I might find the guy with the popcorn—­after all, he’d gotten his shit together. Or maybe even the girl that was afraid to hear someone say Dick Tracy. (At least she was getting laid.) But I didn’t see them. I saw a touch of myself, but I was too afraid to keep looking for the rest of it.

[25] This is where I try and convince you that I am not a sexist asshole.

[26] I’ve even seen an eighth grader write a convincing paper on the meaning of Caulfield’s ducks.

[27] We all remember what happened at the end of The Raiders of the Lost Ark.

[28] If you don’t recognize yourself in this we that I am placing on all of us, you are a better and more honest person than me. If you ever wrote a memoir, I would read it in my kitchen with my curtains nailed shut — and I would judge the hell out of it with each swipe of my super-absorbent paper towels.

[29] I know what your judge ass is thinking, and before you start getting too self righteous with your talk of how you share all of yourself with your friends and lovers — just answer me this one simple question: When’s the last time you told anyone about the day you were hunched over the toilet rubbing one out to the thought of being taken by that hot mom that sat a few pews in front of you at church? What page in your memoir are you devoting to that little gem?


William Garland teaches English at the University of South Carolina, where he is a recent graduate of its MFA program in creative writing. His work appears in The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Real South Magazine, Black Fox Literary Magazine, and other literary journals and anthologies.