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Thrillville, USA

Stories

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About The Book

WINNER OF THE AMERICAN ACADEMY OF ARTS AND LETTERS SUE KAUFMAN PRIZE FOR FIRST FICTION

A raw and remarkable debut story collection concerning substance abuse, societal alienation, and doomed romance from a writer whose work has appeared in prestigious literary journals including The Paris Review.


An amusement park employee overdoses after eating the gel of a fentanyl patch. Two homeless men discover the body of a drowned woman. A sister encounters a dangerous stranger while driving her brother to rehab. Ex-lovers seek to rekindle their relationship with the aid of an earthquake.

In the nine masterful stories that comprise Thrillville, USA, debut author Taylor Koekkoek depicts Americans living on the margins of society, seeking escape from isolation and underemployment in drugs, booze, and self-destructive relationships. While the action is set largely in the rural Pacific Northwest, the characters’ malaise and disaffectedness is endemic of the country as a whole. The title takes its name from the aforementioned amusement park, but Thrillville is as much a state of mind as an actual place—a sardonic commentary on contemporary America consumed by opioid addiction, social media obsession, wealth inequality and political polarization.

Yet as haunting as these stories are, they are not hopeless. Gorgeously written, they share a transcendental quality—an acknowledgment of and appreciation for the beauty in all things, even the most profane and grotesque.

Excerpt

1. Thrillville, USA THRILLVILLE, USA
IN THE FIRST week of the last season at Thrillville, USA, a boy got all fucked-up in the Haunted Mine. The animatronics tore a wasp nest apart somehow, and the kid came out stung to hell. Poor kid was riding alone, too. I’d always thought you could slip from the lap bar if you really wanted to, but I guess not. The minecart lurched out to the loading zone with this kid shrieking his head off, all pink and lumpy, a face pinpricked with bruised dots of blood. Denny and I didn’t have any clue what to make of it at first. This deranged, swollen child shrieking like a cat set on fire. Then Glenn with his prosthetic leg came vaulting up on his forearm crutch, shouting for us to kill the ride and release the lap bar already.

It took us a while to figure out what had happened. The kid didn’t know those were wasps that attacked in the dark. He believed the Haunted Mine was really haunted, and with such conviction that I felt a bit skittish around the ride afterward. Glenn and I had to walk through the Haunted Mine with flashlights and find the shredded wasp nest buzzing to realize what had happened. I got stung on the hand. The kid was hospitalized, but he was okay. Glenn settled it out of court. He knew the kid’s mother. They’d been sleeping together. She used to hang around and he’d made a point of introducing her to everyone. She and Glenn strolled about, sometimes disappearing into his office trailer while the kid roamed the park off-leash. Glenn didn’t move too well and he carried some extra weight on him, but he was never without a girlfriend for the moment. We’d met a few of his short-stint lovers by then. He was a good guy, but we guessed it was the leg, the missing one.

“I mean, he looked bad,” I told Jen. “Really fucked. Probably he got stung in the eyes.”

“How bad though?” she asked. “Like medical-wise?”

“I don’t know what you want from me,” I told her. I was so hungover, the whole day felt like an anxiety hallucination. “It looked like a pissed-off witch doctor just went to town with a needle on like a little voodoo doll version of the kid.”

“Oh my God.”

Denny said if voodoo were real he’d carry a little doll version of himself around and jerk it off and lick its ass all day. He knew the kind of jokes I liked and told them, watching me from the corner of his eye. He was my very tallest friend. When he was drunk, he tossed me around like a little dog. It was great. Jen told Denny to grow up. The ambulance hadn’t even left yet, she reminded us. That was the boy’s mom in hysterics with the paramedics.

Jen glowered at Denny with an expression that seemed to say, you’re just the worst, babe. The two of them were having a secret affair that everyone knew about. My least favorite part of the affair was that I had to play clueless about it, although Denny had clued me in from the start. Denny, right after their first night together, told me all, too much—the noises she made, the color of her nipples—but Jen, he insisted, wasn’t to know that I knew. So they fiddled with each other’s genitals when they were at one side of the game counter and me at the other. I couldn’t see the action, but I knew what was happening down there. Their mouths were half-open and eyes half-closed. Denny and Jen thought they were doing the most interesting thing in the world together. When they touched, they seemed amazed that something hadn’t stopped them from touching. Nobody cared at all, but to them it was magic.

One time, Denny was on a bender and I was having trouble hunting him down, and I asked Jen where he was. It troubled her that I expected she’d know Denny’s whereabouts. “I’m not his keeper,” she said, indignant, as if I were the one who should be embarrassed, just for knowing the facts, just for being anyone other than the most ignorant person in the room.

Denny was seeing a high schooler then. Girl named Katie. She was pretty and freckled, but she was too young, legally speaking, so they just kissed cheeks, he said, and sent each other dirty texts. “Sow the seed,” he told me, “and pluck the tomato a little sour, little green, before anyone else takes it for their own caprese.” Then he kissed his pinched fingertips with a big “Muah.” He often used nonsense gardening metaphors to talk about Katie. Shucked corn and mushy peaches, et cetera. It was all geared toward the eventual eating of something. He was twenty-five and she was sixteen. One night, when Denny was super fucked, he told me they did hand stuff sometimes, but when he sobered up the next day, he said he was just joking.

Maybe Jen was not quite as pretty as Katie, Denny theorized, but that might have been a virtue of Katie’s leg up on her youth-wise. I was a poor audience on this subject because I believed Jen and Katie, between the two of them, had more prettiness than Denny warranted. Jen’s hair was so black that, right when I met her, I decided everyone I’d ever thought of as having black hair really had very dark brown hair. And she was mean, too. I loved that. Jen was technically married to a badass Mexican guy from Salem. He had a left shoulder full of cigarette burns. Dozens of mottled, ring-shaped scars overlaid like a gory octopus arm. He burned himself whenever he drank too much, even though no one had dared him to since middle school. He and Jen had a courthouse marriage in a spur-of-the-moment situation just before he shipped off on his first deployment. They didn’t talk anymore, but they were man and wife in the legal sense and in the eyes of the Lord.

What inconvenienced me though, about the affair, was that I’d had to move out of the one-bedroom apartment Denny and I shared. It made getting to work a hassle if I missed my ride with Glenn, since Denny and I’d gone in together on an old, two-hundred-dollar Ford Pinto. We loved it. We drove it around like a go-cart. The rear bumper was torn up like a busted lip and the front bumper just dropped off one night on its own. Technically Denny and I shared custody, but mostly he kept it. I was reasonable about parting with the Pinto and apartment both. The apartment lease was in Denny’s name, and it was his mom that helped with rent. It was her old raggedy sofa I slept on, too. Fair was fair. Denny’d told me his stepbrother was moving back to Turner, and needed help getting on his feet, but then his stepbrother never showed up and Jen was always over, her clothes on the bedroom floor, beauty stuff all over the sink rim, strands of her long black hair in the drain. I put it together. Glenn let me crash on his couch. It wasn’t like I was out on the street. He had a massive old tube TV and a bachelorly place in the mobile home park at the next exit down I-5.

The foot was the first thing I noticed about Glenn when we met a few years before. It didn’t move right. I was only twenty-one then. I asked if his foot was fake during my interview. He said that’s poor interview etiquette. Then he bent forward conspiratorially and hiked up the cuff of his jeans so I could get an eye on the metal prosthesis. He told me that in the nineties he was hand propping his ex-brother-in-law’s Cessna, but when he yanked the motor running, the brake block beneath the tire must have jimmied loose because the airplane budged forward just a hair and the prop caught him right above the ankle. He said it flipped him a rotation and a half onto his head and it shot his foot across the hangar bay with such force it dented the hangar wall. “The foot,” he said solemnly, “exploded.” He took painkillers for his phantom limb pains. Some days it felt like his foot was still there, he said, ghost toes wiggling on command, but it also felt like the foot was pinched in a vise. The pain flared up when he was stressed-out or lonesome or feeling ashamed, which accounted for all his time on earth. Denny and I figured he probably just had a pill problem like everyone else we knew, but we left him his story because, first off, we partied too and, secondly, because we liked Glenn, and also because Denny snuck us pills now and again from Glenn’s stash. Glenn kept his pills in his office desk. He didn’t like to keep his meds on him because he ended up relying on them too much, he said. I told him, sure, the desk was a fine stowing place.

GLENN HAD OWNED Thrillville, USA for four years then, and each year of business was a miracle. The wasp incident was terrible timing. It came on the heels of another bad one. The previous season a heavy drunk managed to launch himself from the Magic Carpet Slide, then plummeted a floor and a half down to a concrete walkway. We didn’t think that was even possible, but then the guy came soaring overhead with his shirt off. Cracked his pelvis clean through. Messed his pants on impact, instantaneously. He messed his pants so fast, we thought the mess in his pants might have been a preexisting condition. I’m making light of this now, but it was really a horrific thing to witness.

Insurance and maintenance would have been enough trouble, but park attendance was at an all-time low. We broke low attendance records every month. We shut down midday all the time. Stood attendant to the idling rides, humming and vibrating for no riders. Money vanished into the park as into a pocket with a hole in it. Glenn, though, even desperate as he must have been, seemed to grow more affectionate toward the place with the loss of every dollar.

Before Thrillville, Glenn ran a carpet cleaning business that did okay for a while before it went out. He opened a bait and tackle shop once by the reservoir, but that was practically DOA. He said he wished he knew how to work for someone else, but he was always the first guy fired. Glenn was left by two patient women in his life, though they remained on friendly terms. Some days they brought him meals wrapped in foil. They worried about him. It had always seemed obvious to me that Thrillville wasn’t built to last, and that Glenn had practiced his whole life to see it off. He was its perfect hospice worker. Or he was like the servant who buries himself alive with the pharaoh.

Thrillville, USA had been owned by a series of unlucky men over the years. Each built additions without any thought of continuity, a total thematic fiasco. The feeling it had was like some madman’s roadside collection of carnival antiques. At the southern side, nearest the interstate, there was a sort of fairy-tales thing going on—the Magic Carpet Ride, Enchanted Forest, and Haunted Mine. Up above that, the park phased into an indiscriminate mix of Greek and Roman mythology, starting with the Flight of Icarus, which flew not at all, but instead spun passengers around and around and was generally considered a terrible time. Neptune’s Wrath, our one water attraction, which you could see from the parking lot, spiraling five or six times above the fence. No one rode it. Wasn’t worth the toweling off and change of clothes. At the other end there was the Screamin’ Eagle, which might have been patriotic, except it sat opposite the Cuckoo Ka-Choo, so maybe it was just avian. Glenn hadn’t added any attractions in his tenure, except for a new photobooth and a penny press machine, which mashed pennies into ovals, thin as a toenail. The machine imprinted the pennies with THRILLVILLE, USA SINCE 1977. Denny loved to watch the penny press work. He thought it was like a magic trick. He said, “You gotta spend money to make money.” But he said that all the time. Buying a beer at the Golden Nugget, buying a pair of shiny orange bowling shoes at the Salvation Army: gotta spend money to make money.

Glenn decided to host a fireworks night every second Friday of the month for that summer season. We shut all the rides off, except for the Ferris wheel and the Rock-O-Plane cages so that visitors could be drawn in from the highway by the flashing passenger carriages. That was fanciful thinking, I said. The surrounding county was ready, had long been ready, made its demands of the city council already, for Thrillville to shut down. It was, by popular opinion, an eyesore, a noise pollutant, and a death trap. They would be glad to see it gone, and to see us gone with it.

THAT FIRST FIREWORKS Friday, I was turning down the Ripper, the oldest steel coaster in Oregon over such and such height—or so claimed Glenn anyway. By now it was fairly run-down, and you heard plenty of rumors about it. According to one rumor, the coaster cars beat so violently around the curves that a woman once lost her pregnancy at the first turn. In another version of the story, the unborn baby was a young boy who, while riding with his mother in the rearmost car, was flung from his seat at the turn and scattered dead into the parking lot. If any of that was remotely true, I think I’d have heard about it from Glenn. I removed the pocket trash from the footwells, then wetted a rag with disinfectant and rubbed down the seats, the asswells—shaped in such an impression as I have never met a living ass to match—then the shoulder bars, the buckles, so on, before I called it satisfactory and hit the lights out. I spent the next quarter hour wandering around beneath the coaster with a flashlight, looking for dropped wallets and cell phones. If any jewelry ever turned up, it was the faux, plastic stuff. I didn’t find anything this night except a flip-flop, which I left floating upturned in the small, leechy pond.

Denny was sneaking himself between the park, where Jen saved him a spot on the yellow lawn, and the untenanted gravel lot that lay adjacent to Thrillville. A dozen high schoolers assembled a bonfire there and ringed their parents’ cars around it and laid out on the hoods to watch the fireworks. Katie was there, hoping Denny would sneak off with her for the finale. I told Glenn those high schoolers were seeing the show for free. Glenn didn’t mind. He thought it was a step in the right direction.

We’d set floodlights up around the concessions pavilion, and with the lights placed down low and angled upward, they had strange shadows dancing around in the dusty evening. Glenn was messing around in the launch zone, which he’d stanchioned off and fixed with handwritten warning signs. Andy, a rail-thin seventeen-year-old who’d started at Thrillville partway through the previous season, was selling beer on the down-low out of a cooler for three dollars apiece. He was drunk early. When he was drunk, he winked a lot and drew a finger gun and clicked his tongue.

“That little alien dude does a shit human impression,” Denny said.

I went back through the park to stake my spot for the show and came across a low rustling in the dirt along the back side of the Scrambler. I pointed my flashlight at the noise and clicked it on, and in the sudden brightness two teenagers materialized, groping each other passionately. The guy rose up on an elbow and shielded his eyes. He called out, “Whoa whoa, man, get outta here!” I stood there blinking at them, shining my light in their eyes. The squinting girl giggled in a low tank top and held herself. I saw the bluish color of veins in her pale chest. That killed me for some reason. The guy gathered himself upright, huffing indignantly, and he told the girl to come on, and they darted off into the dark like a pair of deer.

I hung around fidgeting for a while, electrified with longing and shame in equal parts. Then it occurred to me: It was those two that were behaving badly, wasn’t it? That audacious horndog had scolded me as if I’d barged into his dorm room, but they were the ones fooling around in my place of business. I decided I’d find them, tell them the score, or maybe just keep an eye on them. I didn’t know what I meant to do, but I was already on the move. I had something to live for all of a sudden. Far off in the distance there were voices speaking in that tone they speak in when a show is about to begin.

I’d nearly given up the search when I heard one high, clear note of laughter ring out from the Magic Carpet Slide then vanish beneath the low hum of Thrillville, USA. I switched off my light. The slide was eight-lanes-wide yellow fiberglass and descended to the earth in a series of gentle waves. The underside was all cobwebbed rafters and beams like the space beneath a set of bleachers. Now and then Denny got lit and nodded off beneath the slide. He told me he’d once come upon shadowy figures humping each other under there. The trouble now was the lighting. I edged up around a corner of the slide and crouched by a buggy shrub and trained my eyes blindly at where the action sounded to be. I felt light-headed. It sounded like chewing. It sounded like they were eating each other alive.

Then the first mortar reported overhead, and the sky exploded with golden light and then green light, red light, blue. One flash at a time, I saw the teenagers pulling at each other’s vulnerables. The reports grew in frequency and choked the sky with light and the eggy smell of combustion. I felt the mortar concussions in my chest, like ka-kunk ka-kunk. And my heart doing something similar, ka-kunk, ka-kunk. The boy spread himself over the girl as if he meant to cover her entirely, the way a soldier jumps on a live grenade lobbed into the bunker, like in the movies. And then, in the fiery light, the girl adjusted herself, turned beneath her lover, and I saw her illuminated. She lay her head in the golden nest of her hair, and her face was the golden baby bird of a face, and it was perfect absolutely. She had one of her pale breasts out and her boyfriend held on to it for dear life. Of course, I lit up too. Like the lighted statue of a pervert. I saw her and then she saw me, unmade, each of us, into the dark every other second, made back again in the light. She patted her boyfriend in a panic. “He’s back,” she said.

“Where?” he said, spinning his head.

“There,” she said. “That’s him.”

They rose again and ducked out from beneath the slide. “Why won’t you fuck off?” the guy said as they passed, holding hands. The girl didn’t even glance up at me as they went, and before I could apologize, they were gone. I sat slumped beneath the booming sky and felt flat-out rotten about myself. Then the show ended, and everyone went home.

“SEE,” GLENN TOLD me at the house, “I knew a firework show wouldn’t be so hard to set up. It’s a scam—all the permits, the paperwork.” Without any mind paid to legal or regulatory processes, Glenn had taken a Tuesday and trekked out north to the Chehalis reservation in Washington, where the fireworks that were illegal in Oregon in any season were sold year-round. “Next time I’m thinking we might put the show to music.”

I shrugged. “I mean, knock yourself out.”

“Yeah. Okay,” he said. “I will.” Then he was quiet for a while. “You’re probably right.”

“About what?”

“None of this makes a difference, does it?”

I told him I didn’t mean anything by it. And he told me it didn’t make a difference anyway.

So we kicked our shoes off and slumped into the couch and watched his behemoth TV. He’d seemed bummed to me for the last few days. It was more than just the financial straits. At close each night he walked around Thrillville with a heartbroken smile as though he’d just finished reading a long, sad book about love. “Think I’ll give her the once-over,” he’d say. “I’ll meet you at the car.” Seeing Glenn low messed with my buzz.

So I asked him what gives. Maybe it was the wasp incident, something about the kid’s mother, I thought, but no. Glenn said there was a girl he’d loved when he was a kid. He’d always thought that he’d see her again somewhere down the line, and who knows, maybe things would finally click. So then last week he thought to himself, “I own my own business, right? Got the respect and admiration from my employees. Still one good foot. Shoot, next year I’ll probably have less than I do this year. That’s been the way of things.” In a manic spell of bravery, he’d looked her up on the internet, guessing she was probably married, but it turned out she had died of a heart infection in the mid-nineties.

“Holy cow,” I said.

“I know it’s terrible, but the whole time I keep thinking, what did I lose, then? Because it feels like I lost something, me personally, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. Nothing seems to have really changed for me, on the day-to-day, but I have this feeling now like my life is over. Or like it’s been over for a long time and I’m just now realizing it. I always had this feeling like the real thing was about to begin.”

“That’s a tough one,” I said. “That’d fuck anyone up.”

“Yeah, I think it must have messed me up.”

Then Glenn winced and I asked what was wrong. “Foot,” he said. I asked what was wrong with his foot. “No, the left one,” he said, tapping his left knee.

“Oh. Right.”

“It wouldn’t be so bad,” he said, “the phantom sensations. But the pain. It wouldn’t be so bad if it didn’t feel like a dog was chewing on it all the time. Otherwise I might find some comfort in it, even. Like, close my eyes and think, yeah, still there.”

Then I learned that Glenn had recently swapped meds. His doctor switched him from short-release Vicodin tablets to long-release fentanyl patches. He showed me one of them, and then thumbed it delicately onto his arm. The patches had a sort of opiate jelly inside. He told me not to tell Denny about them. “You gotta be careful Denny’s not a bad influence on you,” he said. “Why?” he asked. “Well, all I know is, I see you on the one hand, right, my best employee. The best employee I ever had in all my enterprises. Honest to God, Coop. And you know who’s my worst employee?”

“Who?”

“Come on,” he said.

I asked what’d Denny ever done that was so bad. Glenn scoffed and said just last week Denny barfed on some kid’s sandals, which was true. No way around it. “Okay,” I said. “But what’ve I ever done right, then?” Because I’d barfed on a lady’s handbag one time at the Lancaster Mall and I felt awful about it. I thought it had the ring of the one small last thing that would tip the scales and send me to hell.

“You’re a quick thinker, Cooper,” he said. “You’re not afraid to take action.” I asked Glenn for an example. He said, didn’t I remember when I shut down the Haunted Mine to help that kid out? Saved the day. “That was quick thinking.”

“I only stopped the ride when you told me to, though.”

“Yeah, exactly. You stopped the ride exactly when I said so. You took action. Denny doesn’t take action. Denny’s idea of action is stealing my meds. I know a little something about what’s going on under my own nose. What am I gonna do, get the kid arrested? Those aren’t just party favors, Coop. I need them. Look, I love that kid, but he doesn’t have any folds in his brain.” Glenn said he knew he should just leave his meds locked in his car, but the walk was a pain on his prosthesis. He was running out of hiding places in the office. “I don’t know how Denny does it. Doesn’t matter where I hide them. He’s got a sixth sense for it.” I said he could try the little freezer on his office fridge.

He wasn’t going to give me one of his patches, but I dogged him into it eventually, and then we split a pack of tallboys and we both had patches on our arms. Later, Glenn went to bed, and I slept where I usually did on the sofa. I felt like I was floating in warm, black water. And like the dark was throbbing around me with my heartbeat. And then it felt like the couch was breathing beneath me. It was like I laid my head on a giant, benevolent chest that was breathing. Then I slept like a dead man.

THAT FIRST FIREWORKS Friday resulted in a modest bump in business. No one but Glenn had actually guessed it’d have any effect, but we didn’t close down midday all through the rest of June except for twice. Glenn even wanted to talk about the long-term future of Thrillville, which I thought was sort of dubious, but I indulged him. He drafted wonky expansion designs on a pad of graph paper. I didn’t know about those. Glenn lacked spatial reasoning or something.

We did our internet research and went to FedEx and doctored some papers to look like a permit for a fireworks show. Nothing too convincing, but enough to flash the sheriff if he showed up with questions. The sheriff did come around, too, but he came with his wife and told Glenn he wasn’t there in any official capacity. “If you blow yourself up, I’ll treat it like part of the show.”

I didn’t have cash on me and I wanted another beer, but Andy wouldn’t float me any more freebies from the cooler. I wasn’t about to ask Glenn for cash, though, because I promised him I’d be no-funny-business until the show concluded, plus he was liable to shut down Andy’s operation if he caught a whiff of it. Then Denny walked up in some sort of daze and patted a kid’s head, who then looked at his mother like, Did you see that? But she hadn’t seen. Denny tried to sit down on Andy’s cooler, and Andy shooed him away. So Denny backed up alongside me saying, “All right, little guy. Keep it holstered.” He leaned up against the concession stand wall and crossed an ankle over the other, then tweaked my nipples through my T-shirt. I told him he looked fucked-up. He asked if he’d look cooler smoking.

“Katie out at the bonfire?” I asked.

“She just left.”

“Before the show?”

“I guess so, man.”

I asked what for. Denny said Katie had seen him in the Pinto with Jen.

“That’s bad,” I said. “What’d she see?”

“She got an eyeful, anyway.” Denny said he’d been going down on Jen in the back seat, his pants already off—this was a reciprocal situation being made good on—his bare ass backed up to the window, which turned out to be the window that Katie peered into through her cupped hand. Denny seemed to think something over. Then he told me, “Like, I always said she was more mature than us, you know, and maybe she is, but now I’m thinking I also said that because I knew she was too much a kid still.”

“Yeah. That sounds right.”

“She just kept asking like what’d she do wrong.”

“Poor girl.”

“Yeah,” he said. “Poor Katie.”

Denny stared into the floodlight. He said, “I wonder what’s like the meanest thing I ever said about you. You know?” I told him to knock it off. “No, no,” he said. “Not like to your face, I mean. Like, just about you. To someone else. Like, what’s the meanest thing I’ve said about you when you weren’t there to get all butthurt?”

“Yeah, I get it already.”

“Yeah, yeah,” he said, then seemed to think. A couple teenaged girls huddled up to Andy nervously and he sold them two beers for the price of one. Then Andy turned to me and asked what I was looking at. He already gave me two freebies and two loaners. Then Denny went on, “I guess sometimes when we meet new people, I just want them to like me better than they like you. Does that make sense? Especially if it’s a girl. Is that just like human?”

And I said, “Yeah, I get you, Denny. You don’t have to explain more.”

“Yeah,” he said. “You get me.”

“Christ. Where’s Jen at anyway?”

“I think she’s messed up about the Katie thing.”

I asked if he was going to go track her down and he said yeah, maybe he would. Then he said, “There was this one time, like early early on, Jen asked me about you, like your qualities, and I said, yeah, Coop’s an okay-enough guy, but if I never see him again, I won’t miss him. I said we’re only friends because we like getting messed up the same amount. That would’ve stung if you’d overheard.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I guess it would.”

“Makes you wonder what the meanest thing someone who isn’t your best friend said about you. You know? Had to be brutal.”

Denny kept staring into that floodlight, swaying a little in his boots. Gnats appeared and disappeared in and out of the slanted column of yellow light.

“How you feeling, Denny?” I asked. “You look especially fucked.”

“Me, in a word, Coop: prettygood.”

He said I’d been right about the mini fridge. Glenn’s stash of fentanyl was in the freezer compartment. He said the patches were like tiny slushy packs. He said the goo inside tasted awful.

“I think I tore the package a little. Hope Glenn doesn’t notice.”

I told Denny he better steer clear of Glenn until he wasn’t so messed up. “We’re testing his patience, I think.” Denny said he’d go chill out somewhere. I told him to sleep it off in the Pinto. Denny started to go and I asked him, before he went, did he have any beer money.

“You dog, you,” he said, and rummaged in his pocket. He offered me three pressed pennies. He jostled them around in his palm.

“What for?”

“For a brew, blockhead.”

I told him a beer was three dollars.

“It costs a dollar to make a pressed penny, plus the penny.”

“Why’d you spend three dollars on these?”

“Three dollars and three cents,” he said.

“Sure, but why?”

“Gotta spend money to make money, man.”

Denny tipped the pennies into my hand and kissed my forehead with a loud smack. Then he pointed upward, and I think he tried to tell me something about the sky, but he couldn’t make himself clear. He kept calling it the ceiling. “Listen,” he said, “I know exactly how God felt when he made the ceiling because that’s how I feel when I look at the ceiling, and when I look at the ceiling I feel so lonely!” Denny waited to see if I understood, but I didn’t, so he shrugged and wandered off.

GLENN SAID I only had two responsibilities during the firework show. First, I was supposed to start the music on his mark. He asked me to guess the music, and I said I’d rather it be a surprise, and he loved that. What was the second responsibility, I asked Glenn. “Find a perfect seat and take it all in,” he told me, grinning. Also, he said to take some mental notes if any improvements occurred to me. It was high time I started pulling some of the strings around here. I went back to Andy and told him, when Glenn signaled for the music over the walkie, I needed him to press play on the sound system for me. I showed him the button and clicked my walkie off. Andy winked, finger-gunned me. “Got you covered.”

I eyed Andy for a moment and then told him if he didn’t give me another beer I’d tell Glenn about his operation. He looked up at me with heartbreak in his eyes. But I trusted you, is what his expression seemed to say, though he only stood there, searching my face over for something. I never had brothers—just one sister—and I wondered now, was this how a little brother looks at an older brother after a wedgie or a nut kick or whatnot? Andy hung his head and turned and he lifted a beer from the cooler, a tallboy too, God bless him, and he held that out to me. I looked at the beer.

“Ah, shit, I was kidding,” I told him. “I was only kidding, Andy.”

Andy smiled and nodded. “Okay,” he said. “Yeah, okay, Coop.”

Then I left the lawn. I went off through the central corridor of Thrillville, looking for wallets, looking for phones, and in particular I was looking for teens fooling around again. I couldn’t help myself. A man hard at work. I absolutely did not think a pair of teens would invite me to join in their lovemaking. There was no reason for it. They had everything they required. They’d have to be crazy. They’d have to be stupid drunk.

Then Jen passed by and asked if I’d seen Denny around.

“He’s all whacked out.”

“Where?”

I shrugged.

Then I saw that she’d been crying. She tried not to look at me squarely, but I saw she was raw and puffy around the eyes. “Make him call me if you find him, okay?” I said sure and asked if she had any petty cash, but she kept walking. “Hey, Jen,” I called. She stopped and turned back. Jen, at that distance, in the darkened aisle, was all shadow, her wet eyes buried darkly in the shape of her face. I wanted to tell her I heard about the Katie incident. I wasn’t sure exactly what to say about it. Maybe not to beat herself up too much if she could help it. Or that it was mostly Denny’s fault anyway. Or that I thought she was a good person all in all, even though I had a shit barometer for that sort of thing. None of it seemed particularly useful or true. Then a mortar shell whistled up white into the purple night and exploded downfield. Jen lit up blue in all her heartbroken loveliness. “I’ll keep an eye out for him,” I told her.

Jen nodded, and then she turned and left.

But dammit, Andy, where was the music? Here were the fireworks. Here was the sky very obviously exploding with fireworks, but no music. I knew I was going to catch hell from Glenn. I gave Glenn up in my heart, just like that, and hurried on, thinking of nothing but teenaged lovers. I made my way to the Magic Carpet Slide and stood, shivering, listening for sounds in the dark.

There was not a pair of lovers underneath, but there was someone sitting upright against a support beam. I was too horned up to be surprised or unsurprised. The sky flashed and flashed, and one glimpse at a time I studied the seated figure. Then the music began. “Take Me Home Tonight,” that Eddie Money song. The guitar lick throbbed through the mostly empty park. Glenn’s favorite song of all time. I could have guessed it. He’d played it at both his weddings, he said, after the vows and kiss and everything. If there were ever a third marriage, he’d play it there, too. “I feel hunger,” it went, “It’s a hunger that tries to keep a man awake at night.”

“Hey,” I called out. “Denny, that you?” But there was no stirring.

I ventured in, ducking beneath head-height beams, high-stepping over low beams, negotiating the dusty space like an attic crowded with boxes. Yeah, that was Denny, with his eyes closed and his ankles crossed. I was a little peeved, but not in any way that was defensible. It was like finding a catfish in the crawdad pot and all the crawdads spooked off. Denny and I had once lived on crawdads alone for an entire week just to see if we could. It was great. We caught them in a wire trap and spent hours by the creek telling each other the same jokes, with minor variations, for hours and hours. The thing about it, when you sit like that all day long, smelling the water, feeling the cool air off the water, speaking just to hear the sound of voices—birds are calling in the timbered hills, but you can’t see a single one—it’s almost like you could forget your own name and that would be A-OK.

“What’s wrong with the Pinto?” I asked. “You know the sheriff’s here.” The trouble would be how to move Denny in such a state without Glenn or the sheriff witnessing anything. I seriously considered leaving him as he was, but I couldn’t quite bear that. Imagine Denny coming to alone in the dirt, in an empty Thrillville, behind locked gates. One thing I knew about Denny that most people didn’t, was that he cried easily, sometimes for no apparent reason. “All right,” I said. “Let’s give this a go, then. Up, up.” I spoke singsongy as the chorus came on. “Let’s take you home tonight.” When I kicked his foot, it flopped around like a slab of rubber. Right then—though I’d call his name a few more times, kick him again, shake his shoulders, slap him, and feel for a pulse—I knew Denny was dead.

I SAT THERE for a long time looking at Denny, or at the dimness where he lay, faintly illuminated in the firework flashes, then gone in the dark, back and forth. I watched and hoped in the light he would not reappear. Or I hoped that he would reappear, but he would be risen on his elbow, asking what we were doing in the dirt like a couple of blockheads. We’d see it later that he’d torn a fentanyl patch in half and stuffed it up his nose. Eventually the fireworks ended. The music cut out. The visitors left. They took their distant, happy voices with them. I sat waiting for something else to happen and nothing did. With the passage of every minute, Denny seemed more and more irretrievable to me. I cleared my throat and dried my face on my sleeve and radioed Glenn. “Hey, Glenn,” I said, sounding shakier than I’d hoped to. “There’s a problem.”

“Cooper? Where the heck are you? I swear to God, Coop.”

“Shit, Glenn. It’s real bad.”

“You’re messed up, aren’t you? You promised me no funny business. You promised, Coop.”

There were multiple walkies out there. Andy had one. Jen too. There were half a dozen out there, and I didn’t want to broadcast over all of them. Glenn would understand that. “Don’t go anywhere,” I told him. “I’m coming to you.”

I found Glenn and Andy beside a pair of dollies stacked up with crates of mortar launch tubes and a spool of green fuse. Glenn was shouting at Andy, who was wrenched over yacking in the lawn. “You’re all a bunch of lowlives!” Glenn shouted. “Everyone messed up all the time. Everyone sucking everyone off all the time. I should fire every one of you and start from scratch.” Glenn wetted a paper towel with a water bottle and handed it to Andy. “I’m calling your mom,” he said. “I’m sure as heck not driving you home. Maybe Jen will, if you’re lucky. Well, I’m sure as heck not. I’m the very last resort. Okay, Andy?” Then he saw me coming. “My God, Coop. What am I supposed to do? I’ve tried everything with you. Opened my home to you. Help me understand, Coop, because I don’t get it. I give you some responsibility, and you hang me out to dry.”

I told Glenn he had to come with me.

“You crap all over me, Coop. I don’t get it. I don’t understand why you do it.”

“Okay, Glenn,” I said. “I’m an asshole and a lost cause, but you have to come with me now. Fire me after if you want.”

“Dammit, Coop. What’s so important, then?”

So I showed him.

I WATCHED GLENN blow into Denny’s mouth and pump his chest for a good ten minutes until we heard a rib crack, then Glenn gave up and buried his face in his filthy hands. It hadn’t occurred to me to try to resuscitate Denny. I don’t like to think about that.

“Denny, you big idiot, Denny,” Glenn said. “Goddammit.” Then we sat for a while longer, beneath the slide’s fiberglass underbelly, not saying anything. I lost track of time. Or time came and went. Time wanted nothing to do with me.

Then Glenn said, “Cooper, tell me they weren’t mine. Tell me he got it somewhere else.”

I couldn’t make out Glenn’s face, only where it ought to be. I looked at that darkness where his eyes might have been closed or open and I didn’t say anything.

“Ah man,” he said. He began rocking. “Dammit. I killed him, didn’t I?”

I told him it wasn’t anyone’s fault, but I wasn’t convinced by my own voice either. We sat in silence again until I felt a sleepiness shivering over me. I thought we might spend the night with Denny in the dirt. It struck me then, in full force, if I slept there, how exactly I would feel in my first forgetful moment after waking, and then the moment after, when I’d remember everything and I’d turn my head and he would be there and I’d see Denny’s face in the daylight. I said I guess we should call the sheriff back.

“What for?” There was panic in Glenn’s voice. He rose to a frog squat.

“What do you mean what for?”

“You know how this will go. I lose it all. Thrillville? Thrillville’s gone. You see that, right?”

“You don’t know that.”

“An employee overdoses on my meds on company property?”

“Glenn. Shit,” I said. “He’s dead. What else can we do?”

“You should head home. I’ll meet you there.”

“What do you think you’ll do when I go?”

“I don’t know, Coop.”

“You’re thinking you’ll move him?”

“I don’t know.”

“Where would you even move him to?”

“Coop, I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe to the Pinto.”

But the Pinto was on company property too, so same difference. Glenn said he’d move that, too, onto the neighboring lot. I expressed my doubts that he could move Denny more than a few feet on his own, not on his prosthesis. Denny must have been forty pounds heavier than Glenn. Plus, the Pinto was a manual, and without a real left foot, Glenn wasn’t any good with a clutch. I rummaged through Denny’s pockets.

“Coop, what are you doing?”

“Getting the car keys,” I said.

“You shouldn’t be here. I want you to head home.”

I paused with the keys in hand. Then I said I was going to get the car.

GLENN WAITED WITH Denny as I moved the Pinto as close to the slide as possible, beside the Ripper, which left us another thirty yards or so to close on foot. I saw the parking lot was empty. The bonfire in the next lot was empty too. All the teenagers had gone home and left their fire to burn itself out. I parked and stepped out and made my way back under the slide and announced that it was me.

Glenn asked where Jen was.

“Don’t know,” I said. “Her car’s not here. She must be at home.”

“Think she’ll come back looking?”

“She might.”

“Well, there’s no sense in taking our time.”

We were too scared to use flashlights. We worked in the dark. I scooped Denny up beneath the arms and Glenn took him by the ankles. He was heavy and limp, so we went slow. Denny’s ass dragged on the ground and knocked against beams, which sent metallic shudders through the slide. I asked Glenn if he needed a rest, but he said we should just get it over with.

We could move faster once we got out to the paved walkway. Could see better, too. We waddled on with Denny slung between us like a dead man in a hammock. His head dangled back and his mouth was hung open. Glenn retched and halted without warning. Denny’s arms yanked from my grasp and he dropped. The back of his head cracked against the pavement like a coconut covered in skin. It was too much for us. I started crying. Glenn too. We gathered Denny up, apologizing to each other, and him, and went weeping to the car.

We opened the Pinto’s two back doors and Glenn lifted Denny in as I pulled from the other side. We laid him down on his back and tucked his legs in, then we climbed in front, and I started the car. A phone rang but it was not mine and it was not Glenn’s, and we didn’t say anything else about it.

We parked at the edge of the gravel flat and waited there, watching. Glenn opened his window and we listened for voices, but there weren’t any. He took the clipped fentanyl patch from Denny’s nose and found another patch in his pocket. We had to go, Glenn said. It wasn’t safe for us to linger there. He paced over the gravel, and I agreed that it was not safe to linger. Then I sat for a while longer, sensing very dimly the momentum with which my feet would hit the ground, and how quickly they would carry me away from this. I sensed how much of this I’d have to leave behind if I was going to leave at all. I looked around. In the gravel there were tossed beer cans. Beer cans stomped down into jagged aluminum disks. The fire crackled in little red bursts. Embers trailed upward spirals in the opening of trees. Denny lay just behind me in perfect silence until his cell phone rang in his pocket again. It rang and rang and then stopped ringing.

WE WENT TO lock up Glenn’s office trailer and found the door to the mini fridge ajar and the package of fentanyl torn to shreds, left split on the floor and the patches scattered around. “That damn maniac,” Glenn said. “Anyone could have come by.” Glenn gathered the patches in a pile on the desk and swept them into an empty Styrofoam cup and snapped a lid on it. Then he rubbed his face on his shirtsleeve and stood there sniffling. We turned the lights out, and I waited as Glenn fumbled with his key and the lock. He kept missing. Then I saw Jen. She came up from the dark, huddled inside an oversized sweatshirt.

“Cooper, he didn’t come home.”

“Denny didn’t?”

“Who else?” Then she looked at Glenn. “Did you see Denny go anywhere?”

“No,” Glenn said. He had a coffee cup of opiates in his one hand. His other was shaking with the key ring. “Sorry, Jen.”

“Well, the Pinto isn’t in the parking lot, and here you are, so Denny went somewhere with it. He won’t answer his phone.”

“I don’t know, Jen,” I said.

“Dammit,” Jen said. “I’m here picturing he got trashed and drove into a ditch again, you know? I’m picturing him all smashed up somewhere.” She looked at us, one then the other. “Why am I the only one freaking out?”

Then Jen turned and left, and we watched her go. From the wooden set of steps that rose to Glenn’s office door, we watched Jen walk down the park’s central aisle and through the front gate into the nighttime lot. She stepped out a few paces and hesitated, then she stopped. It was as if someone had just called her name from the dark. She stared off at the bonfire flat. Jen turned back to look at us again, or I thought she did. Then she went to see.

WHEN THE AUTHORITIES were finally finished with it, they returned the Pinto to me, and I got another six years out of it before it finally crapped out at the side of a country road outside a high desert town. By then Thrillville was gone and where it had been they’d made another mobile home park. The way I heard it, Glenn’s heart just wasn’t in it after Denny died. I’d already left Turner by then, and Jen came with me. I phoned her that I was going, and she asked me where to. When I told her I didn’t know, she said she wanted to go there. We ran around the Pacific Northwest together for a few years. For eight months we lived by the ocean with a hippie who loved acid, and that was all right. Glenn tried to call me for the first couple years, but eventually he gave up.

Jen’s husband, who she’d nearly forgotten by then, wrote her to say that he was AWOL. Jen’s mother forwarded just that one letter to her. The seal was broken. Jen’s husband wrote that he’d met a young woman in South Carolina and that they were in love and that they would live together with her grandmother in Guadalajara. Jen told me the letter went on but wasn’t interesting. He was sweet enough, she said, in his dumb way, but she wouldn’t say how. One night Jen was drunk out of her mind, whimpering at dream people in the room, and I took my chance to snoop through the back shelf of the closet, where she kept her secrets. I found the envelope, his writing on it, the letter, and for once I stopped short. This wasn’t mine to look at, was it? I didn’t have any right, did I? And then I put it all back the way I found it.

Another time, somewhere southeast of Tacoma, Jen and I found ourselves at the edge of an old wood, which lifted out abruptly into a long and bright stretch of farmland. Round bales of hay lay unattended across the high green fields. Behind us a barkless pine lay sidelong, segmented and silvered by age. Jen was going like a gymnast on it, barefoot, her arms outstretched, stepping heel toe. She’d removed her shoes first, almost ceremoniously, I thought. I jogged back to the Pinto and retrieved one of Denny’s pressed pennies from the coin tray. All this time, I’d kept them there. I held the penny out to Jen, as a gift or talisman, I didn’t quite know. I hoped she would understand. She asked me why in the world I had kept it, then tilted it from her hand into a clover tuft, where I was too embarrassed to go looking for it. Jen was even pregnant for a while, but she didn’t have the baby and she told me it wasn’t mine anyway, and then one morning she was gone before I woke up. Where she went, I don’t know. I’ve lost track of anyone who would. A week later, I stepped into a bar and emerged three months later at my first rehab clinic.

It wasn’t that I’d meant to keep the pennies so long, or that I was even aware of them most of the time. I just never thought to get rid of them. When the Pinto finally died, I took my two bags from the trunk and then I returned to the driver’s seat and sat there with the door open and the hood popped, one foot in the car and the other on the road. I looked at the two elongated pennies I had left, mixed up with regular pennies and dimes and gum wrappers and a cigarette that was snapped in half. Then I hiked the fifteen miles to town, where the mechanic guessed it would cost more to tow the car than it was worth. He said, didn’t I know, Ford recalled most of the 1970s Pintos decades ago, after the lawsuits and explosions. A shoddy tank design made it so any rear-end collisions could turn the whole thing into a fireball. No, I said. I wasn’t aware. So I left it where it lay and what happened to it after that I don’t know. Someone hauled it away. Maybe someone saw something in it that I hadn’t, because I looked at that old beater and thought there was not one good thing worth keeping.

About The Author

Photograph by Joselyn Takacs

Taylor Koekkoek received his MFA from Johns Hopkins University and was a Carol Houck Smith Fiction Fellow at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. His work has been supported by the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference and Oregon Literary Arts, and has appeared in The Paris ReviewTin House, Glimmer TrainPloughsharesThe Iowa Review, and elsewhere. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (March 21, 2023)
  • Length: 208 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781982155612

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Raves and Reviews

"These nine stories capture Americans at society's margins." The New York Times

“Desperate situations, mordant humor, and a wonderfully skewed stance introduce characters who are blessedly without self-pity. A distinctive new voice that avoids the predictable, and takes a reader somewhere so much better.” —Amy Hempel

"Koekkoek treats the reader to moving, sometimes painful tales of calamity and waywardness in perfectly tuned, gaspingly funny prose that is itself a joy and consolation. Thrillville is a wondrous debut." —Wells Tower, author of Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned

"This is maybe forbidden in blurb-speak but let me address the question on your mind: yes, absolutely, Taylor Koekkoek’s stories are fun to read. Pure fun. Also, beautiful. Are they also Western, teased by that old dream and its torments? And is this our new Oregon Trail, winding up in Thrillville, USA? That, I can’t say. While the lives of Taylor K’s characters may be scrappy and improvised the stories they inhabit are absolutely worked until the art is done saying all that it sees. This isn’t a world that holds still for quiet epiphanies but the strange and brilliant images we encounter along the way remain in the mind’s eye for days, burning as miracles burn, not for heat but illumination." —Charles D’Ambrosio, author of The Dead Fish Museum and Loitering

"A rip-roaring ride. Koekkoek delivers thrills and laughter-inducing shocks of insight via electric prose and some of the most unpredictable characters in literature. Hands down the sharpest sentences I’ve read in years. Thrillville, USA is storytelling at its finest." —Jonathan Escoffery, author of the national bestseller and National Book Award longlist selection If I Survive You

“You will not find a better debut collection of stories than Thrillville, USA—not this year, not any year, and probably not for a long time to come. This collection ranks with the best I know, counting backward through the decades. All nine stories are gentle, generous, wry, surprising and fluent. (Imagine Raymond Carver if he’d known more kindness early on, if his enlarging sweetness had been allowed to flower sooner.) Buy this book, in many multiples, and share it out to the people you think the most of. And be grateful the world still makes them like it used to: excellent, and for the ages.” —Michael Byers, Cascadia Daily News

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