By the time Allen fired up the grill at The Great Midwest Beer Fest, we were already food truck experts, smash burger virtuosos, burrito hotshots, savants of kimchi slaw. When I glanced up through the service window, the crooked queue of beer enthusiasts stretched out past the kegerator tents, proving Psychedelicious Street Food’s weird allure. Allen told me, Who doesn’t like beer and greasy grub? What could go wrong? A culmination of his batshit dreams and our grueling effort, of nights where Allen killed his beer and hit the hay, leaving me to soak and scrub the dishes alone. This was success, and we shared the pride between us. What could go wrong, I wondered, when Allen always won? A question I, the loser, was too caught up in his shadow to properly ponder.
We traded food for sample pours from Dad Bod Beer, the festival’s host, names like Double Dry-Hopped Terpene Dream. Live bands droned from the stage in the meadow and heads swarmed with woozy vibes. I told the customers twenty minute wait. Twenty five. Thirty. Allen said: Catch-up. I mangled a name barely audible above the psych rock background din and passed the paper tray to the appropriate hungry hands. My mouth was dry so I tipped the last sip of beer foam and felt wings fumble around my mouth before the stinger pierced my tongue. I screamed and the wasp missiled out, undamaged. The taco tray hit the ceiling and I lurched into Allen. His palm sizzled on the grill. We spun, tumbled, collided, the space too tight to dance out of one another’s way.
He said, What the fuck?
I said, Mfhfmblfth.
The swinging slapbox of Allen’s hands. The dodge and mumble of my swelling face.
The plan for the summer was to stuff myself in a space too hot, too cramped to think. A relief. My philosophy was that if I kept busy I could clear my head, but my thoughts continued to reel. I’d been listless since April, before I defended my thesis and graduated with a masters and a mountain of debt. PhD rejections piled on and my partner, Callie, signed up for a doctorate out west, said we should take time to ourselves. I was hesitant and lacked focus. I broke my lease, drove the six-hours from DC to Ohio, and took up residence with the wolf spiders in my parents’ basement. Academia was a ladder, but what happens when you run out of rungs? The answer: I laid in bed for a week. No clear direction, no definite point. I’d put so much effort into drawing a line between my promising future and my more troublesome past. New number, no social media, a jumble of addresses without forwarded mail. I’d never considered my mom handing me the cordless, another relic. I didn’t expect Allen’s voice in the receiver, my best friend from a life forgotten. I answered with a frown. He said, Welcome home Billy Boy! Good timing. I had a dream!
I sat up. Riveted. I said, What?
He said, Listen. We gotta act fast. Come by.
Sure, I said. I had nothing better to do.
We formulated a plan. Two days later, he pulled out the Hide-A-Bed in his spare room and offered me a place to stay.
Allen said he was better now, a changed man. A few drinks per day and a bit of pot. He looked clean. This fresh incarnation with his tight haircut and button down, long sleeves that sheathed his stick-and-pokes. He’d lost two fingers since I last saw him. I noticed when he held up the envelope of food truck seed cash. He explained: Outback Steakhouse meat slicer. Grease-slicked floors. A wake up call. A boost forward. A settlement. Ambition. Cash. He shook the envelope, fingerless, in my face.
I backed my car out of the drive and he explained his success. He said, I listened to this podcast. All about putting your plan out there. Speak it. Write it. The universe will respond. He said that the plan for the food truck came to him while he slept, the night before the meat slicer accident proved it a reality. Luck. Fate. All you had to do was pay attention, keep your eyes peeled for a sign.
Hokey, I said. I didn’t want to be a dick, just reasonable. I rebutted that it wasn’t that way for all of us. I said some people work hard all their lives and never get an answer.
He said, It’s not about you. Don’t force it. The universe is saying something right now. Roll down your window. Take a hit. Breathe in the air.
He reached his vaporizer toward me, but I waved it away. Clean for seven years except the occasional drink. All I saw was sunshine, the sprigs of knee-high corn, the wind’s judder through the cab. I merged from farmland into downtown Westinghouse, Ohio: Derelict banks and offices, the boarded up Worlinger Department Store. The same city, same abandoned buildings I’d explored with Allen back when we were delinquents, drug heads. The same bent signpost where we’d practiced boardslides and the rooftops where we’d stargaze, stoned, awed by the cosmos. As I took a left onto Main Street, though, I noticed the meters were replaced by a single kiosk. The fire escapes repainted or gone. Westinghouse, a city we knew from brick to rumor, now featured coffee shops, galleries, a microbrewery in the refurbished space that used to be a mortuary. The sign over the beer garden depicted a phoenix emerging from its pile of ash. Renewal. A message too blatant to be mine.
We were supposed to pick up a retired FedEx truck from Hillbilly Oz, a neglected company town once hailed as the heart of the opioid epidemic. At the time it was a thrill to be at the throbbing center of anything at all, but as I entered the old park, I looked down at the trap homes from my eco-friendly ivory tower and my stomach turned.
I said, You promise no drugs, right?
I cornered past one old dealer’s house, spinners on a Caddy parked in the dirt yard.
He shook his head. I told you, man. I’ve changed. We all have.
The road broke down to gravel, signs that threatened Beware of Dog and Trespassers Will Be Shot, the words Rusts Recks spraypainted onto plywood without the apostrophe or the W. Pitbulls paced my Prius. Familiar hope and dread. I was tickled with the hot blood promise of fresh painkillers, giddy with the rekindled fire of expectation that’s adjacent to the high itself. I barked the tires and shook my head to clear out the past, but it lingered, nostalgia and trauma in the same dose. The dogs squatted, straight-edge teens in between songs, panting, ready at any moment to mosh.
Allen was telling the truth: Rust wasn’t any longer the scrawny pit-eyed thug who’d funded carpools to Florida pill mills. He banged out of his trailer to meet us, belly slung up in a tucked-in tank top stained with Doritos crumbs. When we hugged, he slapped the wind from my lungs, but there was comfort in his hairy arms, his greeting: Missed you, bub. There was comfort in the lazy way he recounted the peaks and valleys of his career: His drug ring busted, followed by a battle to scrape by above the board. He said, When Allen told me about this investment, I figured a second venture couldn’t hurt.
We passed a row of dismantled Jeeps, not enough parts between them to piece together a full Wrangler.
I said, Investment? Venture? I turned to Allen for an explanation, but Allen changed the subject. He said, Look at us! Business owners. Who would’ve known?
The vehicle heaped in a lonely spot of yard. A retired FedEx truck in all its mud-smeared glory. It was as Rust described it: A fixer upper with a wasp problem. One hell of a deal.
He handed us each a can of RAID and we braced ourselves. The mad buzz rushed my ears as Rust rolled up the door. We opened fire.
My summer dove into a muggy Midwest slog, but I took the oppressive heat as my penance, learned to see the sweat of my brow as liberation. Our schedule was packed with visits to farmers and butchers, buying organic, local, and in bulk. Our fingers ached throughout days of dicing, adjusting recipes and prep time. Our fare skewed towards adventurous palates, multicultural delicacies blended with working-class American flare. Allen had the idea to add alcohol to every dish, so there was a shot of mezcal in our guacamole and local rice lager toned the bulgogi marinade, a quirk, a niche. We sampled, wordless. Nodded or shook our heads. Weird. Delicious. Fresh. Other days I scoured crannies of the truck for secret wasp nests while Allen Sawzalled windows into the walls. We followed YouTube tutorials on electric and gas, bolted coolers to the floor. When it came time to sandblast the exterior, we rented the machine and blew through the layers to the original dull shine. Blank space. Stripped down to nothing, it was easy to rebuild.
Despite my better judgment, Allen tripped mushrooms and we jammed The Flaming Lips, went wild with the paint. He said he’d be fine. A couple caps, not a spiral. Inspiration, he explained as the name, Psychedelicious bloomed large along the paneling, psychotropic splashes of color against black rims and bumpers. Mistakes turned freeform sprawl, unrestricted, wild.
Allen said, Pretty good for an art school dropout, yeah?
And I had to agree. I stepped back, took it in. Impressive. A business to be proud of. Our own.
A drum solo beat arrhythmically at the fog that late May morning. Angels and Demons at Play. When the paint hardened, we parked the truck in the driveway for all to see and shuttled serving trays to the front yard: pulled pork sliders with kimchi slaw, tacos with chicken, bacon, ranch. At first I argued about regulations, inspections, licenses to serve, but I gave in when the money began to flow. Day two we backed up traffic for a block. We passed fries to the nurses of Westinghouse general, dipped cups of pickle potato salad for shift change cops. Day three, overwhelmed, Allen talked me into taking a hit from his weed pen on a trip between the folding table and the grill. One tiny puff, for medicinal reasons, a celebratory buzz, and as I wadded patties and pressed them into the grill, I popped each bubble of worry that floated through my head. We tipped the health inspector with cupcakes. The mayor tweeted our photo: Westinghouse’s own!
The day that the truck passed inspection, we walked to The G&T Bar to celebrate. Both of us broke from our investment, but I offered my credit card to start a tab and ordered shots of Patron. Allen thunked his finger stub gavel on the bar and ordered another shot and I thought about how far we’d come. On our own terms. He added a drink to my tab for the woman beside him. Didn’t ask me, but we weren’t the type of people obsessed with money. I didn’t pay rent. We shared. I said, I got you. As long as we did what we loved. As long as our business scraped by. Another shot and I met the bartender’s gaze, aware that I was overdrinking. Drunk. She winked. Another round. A celebration. I met her eyes and smiled into my beer. A corner turned. Let’s try this again.
What? Allen asked. He texted furiously and slammed the phone into the bar.
Her, I said, The bartender with the tattoo.
Allen was back to muttering curses into his phone. I said, Should I tell her I dig the tattoo?
It was a bird on her bicep adorned with a crown and I had an inkling of the folklore it referenced, but I’d forgotten how to flirt. Allen thumped the phone back down. Distracted. Yeah, He said. Hit that shit.
He said, Let’s have a smoke. Come on.
He bummed two cigarettes from a couple on the patio and stuck them both in his mouth to light. I didn’t smoke anymore, but he waved me away, plugged the Newport into my mouth. For old time’s sake. Needles of menthol, fire and ice. My head floated.
I said, About that bartender.
Allen clawed my shoulder. This is serious, He said, If Rust comes around, you need to call the cops.
He held his phone in his right hand and it lit up with text after text. It was going so well. We’d see profit in a matter of weeks.
Seriously, Billy Boy. He’s trying to fuck us.
How? I remembered Rust’s words: Investment, venture, our. I said, You cut corners, yeah? What did you do?
He said, Jesus, dude. You’re so uptight.
So, we owe him? What?
The patio lurched and my stomach barrel-rolled, the booze catching up. I hit the cigarette which drew the heat from belly to head, but only for a moment. Allen said every time he tries, it’s like there’s something there to fuck him up. Something out there to get him. Everything he does, there’s someone who wants to bust his balls. But it was hard for me to listen. My stomach crawled up my throat. I mumbled and wove off to find the bathroom, slipped inside and bolted the door, bowed to the toilet, and all the pressure poured out, each doubt and hesitation purged, flushed away. I stayed there for a time, waiting, sobering, spilling my guts. Someone knocked, but the knocker moved on. I puked again, waited till I was sure I was empty. I couldn’t remember the last time I was drunk.
When I returned to the patio, Allen wasn’t there. He wasn’t at the bar when I sat at my stool and the Deadhead owner returned with my tab. He said my friend had taken off with the other bartender. Inconvenient, Her leaving him alone. A damn shame.
From the parking lot, I saw the sky splurged with stars. So little light pollution, traffic so many miles away that time itself was reduced to a plod. I couldn’t any longer claim this town. I had no name here. Little to call my own. It’s not like I’d asked the bartender out. I never asked Allen to wait. My fault: I’d been to drunk, to unsure, to act on my desires. Of course she chose Allen, confidence over indecision. It wasn’t so awful to wander home alone, too busy, I decided, to bother with falling in love.
The Midwest Beer Fest was in July and Psychedelicious scored a coveted invite. Mad respect. Our name was known. It appeared to me that the business was flourishing but Allen grumbled that we weren’t making shit.
The morning of the beer fest, he woke up late, but I drove fast and hustled with the set-up and we were parked, windows wide, meat on the grill just in time. While I shuffled orders around, he complained about the heat, his headache. He cursed and drank as he shuffled meat around the flat top. All the vibes from the month before had swiveled. This was the old Allen, grubby, angry, bored. I did my best to pick up the slack, to keep the fervor flowing towards our future.
I sipped my beer and was wasp-stung, Allen-smacked. Swollen-tongued, languageless, I stumbled off the truck alone, pitched past the line of hungry zythophiles and Cicerones, past the booths of Malty Mother Brewing and Humble Raccoon. The heady beer humidity carried me to the first aid tent where Lilly, the volunteer nurse, fed me cubes of ice until the swelling went down. She dropped two Ibuprofen in one hand and set an IPA in the other. Take this, She said. You’ll survive.
She had purple hair and a gentle touch that fluttered my heart. My tongue was too beefy to speak, so she filled in the next half hour of my silence. The hoppy beer she passed me was West coast, the only style she drank because the brewing world was oversaturated with hazies. It was a recipe she’d experimented with while at med school and perfected when she was kicked out of the dorms. Now it was the flagship at Dad Bod Beer who hosted the festival each year.
A touch of honey, She said. In your case, it’s a bit ironic.
I must have looked confused, because she said, Yes. A woman. A brewer. But part of me used to want to be a nurse.
I nodded, beamed apologies on brain waves from inside my head to hers. I didn’t know what to do with my hands, how to respond, but she refilled my fist with a fresh drink, and carried on. She pointed at my shirt, the Psychedelicious logo, and said she’d heard positive reviews. She said, Heard the owner’s an asshole.
I laughed around my tongue, but the swelling was diminished.
She pulled a joint from behind her ear and fired it up, a shrug like, What are they gonna do? Fire me? She explained, No one ever signs up to volunteer at these things. It’s generally just me.
I imagined the two of us in the future, my chef to her brewer, at subsequent beer fests, volunteering at the first aid tent, curing hydration with Gatorade, food for those who overpoured and wound up drunk. Beer and Advil for the pain. She offered me the joint and I was too afraid of fucking up all our possibilities to decline. I didn’t inhale, though, only swished the smoke and when the taste grew faint, released it.
She said, Come on. You gotta really hit it, and before I could make up my mind to ask her out, she drew deeply and kissed me. College party, shotgun, kidshit, the smoke shared between our open lips. When she pulled away, I coughed. Bubble-worries busted before impact. My tongue loosened and I talked. It all came out. The wasted degrees, the failure. Allen’s warnings about Rust. The food truck had been fun, had been magic, but as I sat with Lilly, I realized I didn’t want to go back.
But you love it, right? She said, If you’re doing what you love.
I nodded, but I wasn’t really sure if it was my love or Allen’s, if it was the food itself, or the truck itself, or that over the last few years of disappointment I’d outsourced my joy, glued it to other people’s plans. Before I went to school, I wanted to be a gangster like Rust and Allen. But that path was untenable for a scrawny confused white boy. Now I was onto something new.
What do you love? She said as she lifted a finger and guided the cup to my lips, a marriage of Riwaka and Nelson Sauvin hops. My body hovered, divine as her kiss.
Beer! I said, holding up my cup. I was only half joking. I said, I don’t know. I used to think I was a writer.
The sun was hot, but not as high as when I’d entered the tent. The air outside wasn’t so stuffy as the live music wailed and growled. Voices carried, indistinguishable and across the lot and Psychedelicious squatted, lonely, shuttered, without a line. Allen had given up. I crossed the lot and lunged aboard, ready to open back up and finish out the day, but the flat top was scraped clean, the prep table shut, everything bungeed, resecured. Allen was hitting his hash in the back corner. He said, Fuck this shit. I’m tired. Let’s go.
The truck spat gravel as we exited the lot, bouldered onto the open road. The dream was in its death throes. But my phone vibrated in my pocket: Lilly. It would all work out. Each vibration was a piece of my ever-evolving plan. Allen cornered too hard and the truck tipped, so he slammed on the brakes and we swayed, righted. Fucked up. Restless. Filled with rage. I offered to take the wheel. The least I could do was get us home alive, but Allen thumped his finger on the wheel, that confidence remerging. He said, I’ll get your ass there. Trust me.
I didn’t. Another sharp curve. Up ahead, the road Y-ed off with a stop sign coming the other direction at which no one ever stopped. The sightline was awful. The place was known for accidents. Allen sped up. He asked how much we’d get from the insurance? Twenty, thirty thousand? The name, the recipes, all those adjustments and repairs.
I said, You better fucking not.
I read and reread Lilly’s text, a mantra.
More work than it’s worth, Allen said. Barely any time to sleep, and for what? We give Rust his cut just to sit around?
But he went on. All the problems that money alone could solve. Allen treated words as currency: as if he could throw enough out there to right any wrong. He talked too much and didn’t listen to the buzz, too tuned in to his excuses to see the whirlwind of wasps around his head. A nest I must’ve missed. A swarm.
He punched the headliner, said, Sometimes, you listen to the universe and you think you’ve heard it right, but you really heard it wrong. Listen harder! He slapped at the insect cloud around his face.
I said, Stop! Pull over.
But Allen wasn’t done. He barreled us towards the intersection. He said, I know I haven’t been straight with you about all of this, but we’ll get our money. We’ll make it right.
This was the old Allen.
I said, Stop!
He cursed and slapped. His eyes bulged in recognition. The first sting. He swerved, stomped the brakes, and the truck swayed, implements crashed in the back. We skidded sideways and I saw all of it, a vision of the end.
Years later, Lilly and I would tour the breweries of Virginia together, myself as a reviewer and Lilly as a beer rep. And though we would break off our engagement after half a dozen years of life together, our relationship wouldn’t be wasted and eventually we’d move on and eventually Lilly would call me from Westinghouse, Ohio, where she now worked as head brewer for a micro specializing in sours. I’d be in Colorado at the time, writing, savoring my beer, and she’d tell me Allen passed away. No cause listed, only in the night, which at only forty five years of age rings nefarious. And I’d know what I knew all along: That the fervor can’t last forever. That you can’t make meaning by glomming onto other people’s dreams. I would thank Lilly for letting me know. I’d worry that I might cry. But I wouldn’t let myself cry.
Instead, I’d think back on the summer when I started a food truck with my best friend because it made him so happy and because he wanted me there and I didn’t know what else to do. I’d think back to the moment when the swarm descended on us, skidding sideways along Ohio backroads, and how I hesitated, afraid to make the jump. Afraid to leave Allen alone. But he shouted another fact about the universe, another platitude or mantra, like if we went with the flow it’d all work out. He said, Trust me. A stupid thing to say. I didn’t. I chose. The truck was still careening, but I pulled and the door slid open. I flung my body out.