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Till the Wheels Fall Off by Brad Zellar Book

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Till the Wheels Fall Off by Brad Zellar Read Book Online And Download

Overview: It’s the late 1980s, and Matthew Carnap is awake most nights, afflicted by a potent combination of insomnia and undiagnosed ADHD. Sometimes he gazes out his bedroom window into the dark; sometimes he wanders the streets of his small southern Minnesota town. But more often than not, he crosses the hall into his stepfather Russ’s roller rink to spend the sleepless hours lost in music. Russ’s record collection is as eclectic as it is extensive, and he and Matthew bond over discovering new tunes and spinning perfect skate mixes. Then Matthew’s mother divorces Russ; they move; the roller rink closes; the twenty-first century arrives. Years later, an isolated, restless Matthew moves back to his hometown. From an unusual apartment in the pressbox of the high school football stadium, he searches his memories, looking for something that might reconnect him with Russ.

With humor and empathy, Brad Zellar (House of Coates) returns with a discursive, lo-fi novel about rural Midwestern life, nostalgia, neurodiversity, masculinity, and family—with a built-in soundtrack.


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Till the Wheels Fall Off by Brad Zellar Book





Till the Wheels Fall Off by Brad Zellar Book Read Online Chapter One



I.


The past deceives in every direction. The memory plays a game of Telephone with itself and with the present.

Every day at noon, for reasons that have never been clear to me, the bell rings out from the tower at St. Augustine, the huge old Catholic church right in the middle of Prentice. The orbit of my father’s family was centered on that church for most of my childhood, and the ringing comforted and oriented me when I was growing up. At some point in the recent past, however, the bell apparently sustained some damage, and you could no longer refer to its sound as ringing. In the brief time I’ve been back in Prentice, I’m inevitably startled when I hear the bell at noon. It sounds like someone striking a steel girder with a sledgehammer. There’s nothing at all sonorous or sustained or remotely lovely about the sound, which, frankly, is already getting on my nerves. It’s a small town, though, and there’s no way to hide from that cracked bell, no drowning it out. Every day the Catholics insist on calling me to attention at noon and reminding me that here I am.

Two parallel one-ways cut straight through the south side of town—one runs east to west, the other west to east, and both tie in with the interstate highway that skirts Prentice to the north. Once darkness falls, most of the bored teenagers still left in town troll aimlessly up and down the one-ways, the windows of their latemodel cars rolled down and the music from their stereos drifting into the humid summer nights. Sound carries in a flat, prairie town, and this summer there’s no escaping Ricky Martin’s “Livin’ la Vida Loca” and Smash Mouth’s “All Star.” I can expect to hear both songs at least a dozen times every night. A bit later, when the streets are taken over by bored stoners who never left, I’ll hear strains of older, more familiar music, songs by the sorts of bands who never go out of style in a town like Prentice: Yes, for instance, and ZZ Top, Black Sabbath, Journey, Kiss, even Foghat.

Then, an hour or so after the downtown bars close, this little town will grow eerily quiet. There’s an almost otherworldly silence you just can’t experience in a bigger city. It’s still, after all these years, the time I love and the thing I love most about Prentice. It’s an illusion, I know, but it’s thrilling: everyone’s gone to bed, I’m the last man standing, and my music is the only music for miles around.

Last Saturday I drove to Floyd Valley to check out Sergeant Floyd’s, a record store that opened during the years I was gone. It’s a small, decent store run by young zealots I’d probably discover I have things in common with if either they or I had the social skills to start a proper conversation. There weren’t any other customers while I was there, and as a result this awkward tension hung in the air, and I felt self-conscious and furtively scrutinized. I also felt obligated to buy something. I browsed for maybe a half hour and ended up buying Outkast’s Aquemini and Billy Bragg and Wilco’s Mermaid Avenue.

I’ve since listened to both discs repeatedly, and though it’s always a thrill to discover new music, sitting alone and studying the liner notes I was reminded of a quote from Randall Jarrell’s Animal Family, a quote that shattered me when I first encountered it while reading in a motel room somewhere in North Dakota:


In spring the meadow that ran down from the cliff to the beach was all foam-white and sea-blue with f lowers; the hunter looked at it and it was beautiful. But when he came home there was no one to tell what he had seen—and if he picked the f lowers and brought them home in his hands, there was no one to give them to. And when at evening, past the dark blue shape of a far-off island, the sun sank under the edge of the sea like a red world vanishing, the hunter saw it all, but there was no one to tell what he had seen.

I’m sure I have other, earlier memories, but the one that returns to me again and again is waking to loud music and making my way into a still-unfamiliar apartment. This would’ve been no more than a few days after my mother’s marriage to my stepfather, and after we moved from my grandmother’s house to our new apartment downtown. The music was coming from across the hall, from the big, high-ceilinged room, formerly a ballroom owned by Freemasons. Our apartment was connected to this room by a short dogleg hallway—a dark and narrow corridor accessible from the back of our kitchen, next to the refrigerator; you walked maybe seven feet down this hall, took a ninety-degree turn into an identical passage, also dark, parted a heavy velvet curtain, and entered the old ballroom, which was ringed by high transom windows (the only source of natural light) way up near the ceilings. It was early, probably before seven, a Saturday (I’m pretty sure), winter in a small Midwestern town where the winters were merciless and long. The light in that room was dream light, the kind of light I associate in my memory or imagination with ancient cathedrals and temples and other holy places similar to those I saw in the pictures in my father’s old confirmation Bible, which my mother kept on her nightstand.

It was, it turns out, a holy place, or at least one of the few places that occupies a sacred place in my memory.

Perhaps a dozen globes of colored light dangled from the ceiling, purely ambient, or at least ineffectual for anything but establishing a mood. Pastels. Easter egg colors. Also up there, hanging in the middle of the room, was a giant disco ball, the first I’d ever seen, turning slowly and showering the room—the carpeted walls and gleaming hardwood floors—with shimmering polka dots of light. From the high windows on the east end of the room, beams of winter sunlight loaded with tumbling dust motes carved through the murk at precise and startling angles.

My stepfather, Russ, wearing roller skates, was gliding around the hardwood oval that dominated the room, making graceful stirring motions with a long, flat mop he held in his hands. The music seemed to come from all over. The song, I later learned, was Sly and the Family Stone’s “I Want to Take You Higher.”

I stood at the back of the room, just outside the entrance to our apartment. I watched my new stepfather, seemingly in a trance, go around and around, oblivious to my presence. I marveled at the light, the shadows, the music. I was pretty sure that what I felt in that moment—awe and pure wonder that I’d stepped into a world beyond my then-limited imagination—I’d never felt before. I was nine, my stepfather had turned an old ballroom into a roller-skating rink, and I was about to become the person I helplessly am.

Russ’s rink was called Vargo’s Screaming Wheels, and it was above the fire department and armory in Prentice. My father had been killed in Vietnam before I was born, and my mother and I had spent the intervening years living with various family members (or in houses my father’s family owned) before we moved into the cramped apartment adjoining the rink. Russ was socially awkward and music obsessed, to the exclusion, really, of everything else, and from the moment we moved our stuff to that apartment, I was his shadow and loyal disciple. It was possible, I sometimes thought, that I was his only real friend.

I listened to a lot of Russ’s monologues over the years; if I hadn’t been around, I’m pretty sure he would’ve just talked to himself. But as I got older, his monologues became long, rambling conversations between the two of us, and I learned about the Grip, which Russ defined as a claiming desire you discovered at some young age, an obsession or fascination—sometimes kink, sometimes compulsion—that put down roots in your skull and staked a permanent camp, some ceaselessly hectoring preoccupation that wouldn’t leave you alone and ultimately defined you and determined how you spent (or squandered) your time and what you did with your life.

What I’m talking about, I suppose, is sort of the earliest experience with the Crossroads. It’s the thing that grabs you, that gets you in a grip from which it has no intention of releasing you. A brand you get stamped with in childhood or adolescence, something that makes it clear you’ve either been found, fucked, or saved: You will love me always. You will follow me forever and wherever I lead. You will serve me until the end of your days.

There are, of course, a million tiny and ridiculous ways a person can get sidetracked and carried away off the main trail. But in the end, always, you become a hostage to who you are, to what you want or what you can’t say, to what fascinates you, what breaks you down and holds you under; the sense (or nonsense) you feel compelled to build, the truth or meaning you try so desperately to find.


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