RHYTHM KEEPER by MATTHEW MASTRICOVA

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It starts with boys being stupid at a restaurant. In two days they will board the charter bus and once again become students. They will fall back into the old routine—friends and cliques and classmates going through the motions as if the past few days were just a dream. But tonight they are just boys at a restaurant with unlimited iced soda and as much food as they can afford.

It starts with Connor. It starts as a dare. He licks his finger and smears it on his arm. Tears open a salt packet and pours it onto his bicep. He talks like an out-of-tune trumpet, but he’s still the center of attention. Everyone is telling him: Do it! You have no balls! He takes an ice cube and presses it against the salt. The water drips away and all that’s left is a welt. He moans, and they cheer. One after another boys prove they can take the pain. They wince and yelp and laugh and the waitress comes and goes, takes the empty sweating glasses and brings back plates of mozzarella sticks and buffalo wings. She sees the salt packets littering the table and says nothing.  They all say thank you when she leaves the food, and almost none of them wait for her to walk away before shoveling it in their mouths.

A boy sits at the table with no plate and no scars. This boy’s got the body of a bass drum, and he knows it. He’s heard that the bass drum is the backbone of the orchestra, the only thing close to constant, the glue that holds the music together, and he doesn’t believe a word of it. He thinks it’s a sham. How do we include everyone? Let’s give them a big drum and a big stick and tell them they’re at the heart of everything! It’s boring and ugly and simple, but by god you hold us all together!

They’ve quieted now, but his plate stays untouched. He dunks a hand in his glass and pulls up ice cubes that melt through his fingers.

Can he take the pain? It doesn’t matter anymore—they’ve started watching now. His eyes meet Connor’s and he knows the answer is yes.

He follows the instructions—lick, ice, burn but he doesn’t feel a burn he feels a tingling and nobody believes him when he says it doesn’t hurt. Pain is a blow, forceful and slow and repetitive. Pain is the mallet smacking a bass drum. This is piercing, a deadening constant. And so the people on either side of him press down harder. They crack the ice between his hand and theirs because obviously force is the issue. They think he’s trying to show them all up, but he doesn’t care about the pain. He just wants the battle scars.

Everyone’s hands come up wet, and all there is left to see is the angry welt on the back of his hand. As the dinner goes on, he washes it again and again because the sting won’t leave. He was prepared for pain, for a hefty strike that echoed like a metronome. But not for this. No, not for this.

This is a magic trick—you start with ice and end with a welt. A welt that burns and itches for hours and scars the flesh for months, and even years later he imagines that he can see exactly where he did it. Chemical burns—that’s what he calls them. He wears the phrase as a stupid badge of pride and years later he still tells people

“One time, I gave myself a chemical burn just to feel the pain.”

He repeats this to so many people he forgets that it’s not true.

It’s after dinner and the boys have made it to their hotel. They clog the lobby playing card games. Spit. Hearts. Egyptian Ratscrew. Hands uncoil like vipers as the cards hit the table. Palms smacking knuckles. Everybody is laughing. Nobody is burning. A rumor snakes its way between the tables: Connor’s in his hotel room hooking up with a girl he met in the lobby.

The bass drum boy is playing Spoons. He likes the repetition, the steady pulse of the game. Look, pass, pick up, repeat. When he hears the rumor he tries to keep the heart beating but he can’t get these images out of his head: Connor and this girl in that nebulous state between dressed and undressed, Connor moaning, Connor running his fingers through the girl’s hair, Connor bragging for the next month about how he got a blowjob on a school trip.

“Are you okay bro?”

He has flat-lined, can only focus on the way Connor’s body must fit against the body of the girl. He imagines pounding on the door of Connor’s room, demanding to be let in, welcomed with open arms, and finding that the contours of his body fill the empty space between the other two perfectly. People would talk about them for years. There won’t be a single person whose eyes he won’t be able to meet.

“Do you need me to get someone?”

“I’m fine. Just need to go to the bathroom. Keep playing without me.” He just needs to freshen up a bit. Wash the bite off his welt. That will make everything better. He only needs to remember that his job is to keep the heart beating, keep the rhythm steady, and he’ll be fine.

He walks past his room and toward Connor’s. He checks to make sure there is no one around, and then presses his ear against the door. He strains to hear them, or even something that sounds like them, but all he hears is his own pulse throbbing in his skull.

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About the Author: Matthew Mastricova lives in West Caldwell, NJ. He reviews electronic music at Thuds and Rumbles and tweets from @Bidoofaloof.

Story Song: “Ant” by Tremor

Photo Credit: Leesa Cross-Smith