The Coolest

Short story by Michael Botur

 

The moment we agreed Matt Lamb Junior was the coolest kid was when he turned the tables on the bully. Jakeyboy had this thing he loved doing – sticking his finger up his butt and forcing everyone to smell his finger by jamming it in people’s noses, progressing from the back of the class up to the front while the teacher was off running errands and class was unattended.

Jakeyboy was pulling the stinkfinger on everyone one Tuesday when he arrived at Matt Lamb’s desk and put the finger right up in Matt’s nostril. We were seven years old and hardwired into a circuit of silliness. Jakeyboy’s finger went up Matt Lamb Junior’s nostril. Matt didn’t flinch. He looked in the eye of the pale skinned, googly-eyed bully and calmly said, ‘Smells like your mum.’

A torrent of laughter flooded our eardrums. Kids were getting out of their chairs and falling to the ground in hysterics. Jakeyboy began flinching, looking over his shoulder at the accusers, not sure which way to react.

He tried to reclaim his position with a threat. ‘You’re dead.

Matt coolly folded one knee over the other, laced his fingers behind his head and eased back in his chair. ‘If I’m dead, why you talkin to a zombie?’

It was the most gangsterist comeback any of us had ever heard. Already popular because his mum drove a cool car and he was allowed to watch R-rated movies and because he always had chewy fruit snacks in his lunch that hadn’t even been advertised on TV yet, Matt Lamb now had a non-stick coating of cool. The rest of us would have to eat shit occasionally, but not Matt Lamb.

At eight, he ran the cross-country race backwards, glancing over his shoulder every ten seconds to stay on track. We dumped an avalanche of cheers on him.

At nine, Matt Lamb Junior contributed to the school newsletter, labelling a photograph of Principal Finlayson standing beside the new, three story tall war monument with the legend, ‘Finlayson shows off his erection.’

At ten, Matt Lamb got Missy Chrissy Townsend, the big mature girl in the wheelchair who’d been held back a year, to surrender her bra. Matt strapped Missy Chrissy Townsend’s bra around his belly and charged each of us fifty cents for a peek under his shirt. We imagined we saw milkstains on it, perhaps a curl of pubic hair, the imprint of her nipple, maybe. It was an artefact from an alien dimension.

By eleven and twelve, Matt was getting other kids to do stuff for him. That kid from Borneo was tasked with climbing to the top of the water tower and pissing off it; Cedric Chang was tasked with writing his history speech in Igpay Atlinay.

Thirteen was the turning point. Parties were suddenly hardwired into the rest of the world. No more making it up. There were expectations, now. You had to play Spin The Bottle and get with somebody. It began in a basement at this German kid’s house, Matt shushing the party with a conductor’s finger, spinning deftly and receiving a perfect pash. The trend was set. We all followed.

Pussies wanted to know how they could stare someone like Jakeyboy in the face and say real-life Schwarzenegger shit. Nerds wanted to know how they could command their pimples to lay low. His hair grew long as any heartthrob, erupting down his head, thick tight cylindrical curls like tater tots, sometimes in a topknot, a couple times as an undercut. Once, threaded in glowing golden braids. A gorgeous fleece no other kid could sport.

Girls wanted to date Matt, of course, though you couldn’t get to him. Soon as Matt’s mum picked him up, he was inaccessible. She dropped him at school in her convertible and fetched him after, often early, always revving and rumbling, never leaving the driver seat before whipping him away. She had a fierce ferret face, tiny lips, eyes ringed with black. People said her spine was fused. A short woman with a head of blonde that didn’t seem to belong to her. A smoker, a driver of an expensive, wasteful car. A buyer of weekly sneakers and basketball caps for her son. Always shopping and tossing cardboard bags at her boy, unimpressed. Mrs Lamb had clawed her way out of some slum, some monetary miracle that elevated her from pauper to posh overnight, it was said, though this raised questions about a husband. Trinidad claimed to have spotted a father-figure in a fragment of a memory from kindergarten, though the man in his story had wheels and a cape, that story went. Trinidad was known to always clutch an X-men comic, so his suggestion was dismissed. He was likely thinking of Professor X.

At fourteen, Matt was dressing years ahead of us. He wore a bandana to the exact day that bandanas entered the mainstream – then dropped his bandana that very afternoon. He got to Rubix Cubes before they got to us, and Chatter Rings, plus he knew yo-yo tricks. He taught us how to glue our McDonald’s trays to the tabletops with ketchup. He showed us how to get lifetime free refills at Burger King by buying a single 99 cent cup, folding the cup down to the size of a postage stamp and cramming the cup between the cushions of the vinyl booth where no cleaner would ever discover it. 

His boogers were flicked effortlessly into the backs-of-heads of kids in front of us. His paper planes were stealth bombers. He would high-five the teacher as he flipped his bag over one shoulder and walked out of class early, headed for the convertible growling in the parking lot where we built a mosaic of memory conjecturing what could be inside. Each day she’d lurch out into traffic and hooned away, leaving us in her wake. Mother and son co-conspirators, sitting on some mountain of mystery money.

*

Around 16 we all got obsessed with wrestling which of course led to weights and protein powder and we were allowed in the gym at lunch time. Matt was trialling Gemma Lancaster at the time. Gemma Skankass-ter, we secretly called her, because she dressed like a slut but didn’t put out for anyone who wasn’t elite. She had suspicious eyes and a body that mutated constantly, silver hair and black leather one month morphing to red the next month with neon and highlighter tights. Piercings in her eyebrows, her lips, her tongue. Gemma despised everything – except Matt Lamb. She knew she should never take him for granted.

Gemma Skankasster would walk Matt to the gym door and leave him with us, though she never had any place in the gym itself – she disdained sports and preferred vodka, which of course made her ten times sexier. She’d guide him in then go wait in the parking lot in her car.  Most of Matt’s workout session would consist of chestbumps and hugs and wassups. Actually pumping iron was too low to stoop. Matt never broke a sweat. He had just enough muscle to appear like he belonged in the gym, while also being slim enough to be accepted by the soccer kids, what with soccer shooting into popularity because of our country kicking ass in the world cup and all the European kids suddenly becoming cool.

It was for a Thursday night soccer practice, actually, that Gemma Skankasster picked us up. We slid into the passenger seat and clicked our belts without commentary, looking forward. We were going to a concert together, an exhibition, a show. A viewing of Matt Lamb.

We pulled into the carpark by the sports field and eeled up close to the island of green brightness, each of us staring straight ahead from our black parking lot.

The soccer boys had Matt on their shoulder. It looked like he’d just scored a goal. He came close to where Gemma and us lurked by the fence but didn’t say Hi, just studied the car, studied us, then did a secret handshake with some friend from the team. The players scattered and began zipping hoodies over their steaming bodies.

There was a spare three minutes before practice resumed and people were soon gathering in the middle of the field. Gemma tugged Matt towards the concrete bunker with a female sign on top of it and Matt sighed and followed her in. Someone had to keep watch outside the toilets while Gemma got Matt inside her. Matt was the first to exit – jogging briskly, boots hitting the backs of his buttocks. Gemma swore and complained and was scratching inside the straps of her tank top as she emerged half a minute after.

We watched Matt Lamb immerse himself back in the team, receive the ball, make some serious metres with it, boot for goal. ‘There he goes.’

‘There he goes,’ Gemma agreed.

He got some decent headers. When he was asked to play Back and defend his goal, he was good. A fistfight broke out. Matt got in some good punches; no one felt right hitting him back. The coach dashed around like he was trying to herd bees back inside a hive.

Afterwards, Matt said he was going off to play Dance Dance Revolution with some of the rich Chinese kids.

Gemma drove around the park, pissed. Directionless without Matt Lamb Junior. She smoked five cigarettes in a row, biting the filters, then drove home.

Her place was a caravan out the back of a house with an old lady snoring on an armchair, waking occasionally to suck a cigarette. Inside Gemma’s caravan was a shrine to our curly blonde god. Yearbooks from school were Sellotaped open showing the parts with Matt. In the Year 9 photo, Matt had a ssh finger over his lips. The Year 10 one, he was doing a hilariously serene Gandhi pose. By the third photo, Matt had inspired the rest of his class to pull goofy faces, while Matt alone held up his chin and with a dignified smile.

‘I got more stuff on him, if you don’t mind,’ Gemma said, pulling a box from under her bed. In it were clippings, love notes, condom wrappers, assorted bottles – a Nestea summer fruits iced tea bottle with a little juice in the bottom; a Diet Coke from the clean eating fad he’d introduced; an apple juice. ‘He drank that, umm, let’s see… .’ Gemma pulled a diary from under her mattress, fingered the pages. ‘Oh yeah, duh: that’s Last-day-of-school Juice. Matt was drinking that final day, last term. Bout 1pm, 1.15.’

We asked her about the empty packet of pork rinds. Matt had eaten them during assembly right behind the principal’s head. Every time Principal Mohammed’s head had turned, Matt had held the pork rinds packet up and frowned, playing the part of an authority disappointed to have discovered the unhealthy snack.

The prank worked on so many levels.

Gemma smoked as we pored over the Matt Museum. We got to flicking through his baby photos – that twinkle in his eyes! It was so Matt Lamb – and we eventually crawled into bed with a thick photo album and fell asleep on each other.

 

*

Matt Lamb’s seventeenth birthday, at Bowlapalooza, was widely open to anyone. A crowd gathered early, humming like a hive, waiting for our leader, who was the only one not to have showed up. We even wondered if we’d been pranked, humiliated large-scale, for which we would have given our leader a round of applause.

Nobody was surprised that, yet again, the party wasn’t at his house. One kid had snuck onto the lawn and taken photos of his supposed house, but no kid had ever seen inside.

We flinched every time Bowlapalooza’s sliding doors opened, expecting to see Matt enter. Instead, when the advertised time of 12.30 was reached, Matt coolly spun around from the Speed Racer slide-in game he’d been playing all this time, hiding over in the games corner, and got up and stretched. ‘Who’s all time high scoring player and has two thumbs?’ he asked, ‘This guyyyyy.’ All of his clothes were white – a cotton hoodie contoured perfectly to his body, white track pants and puffy white Nikes.

‘Ladies, gentlemen?’ he said to our stunned ensemble, hefting a bowling ball, ‘Shall we get down to business?’

Many of us got spares, turkeys, with the occasional strike. We occupied four lanes. Matt’s name was on each. He strolled from lane to lane, keeping up four or five conversations; he’d toss in perfect ripostes when required. A joke here; sarcasm there. A sprinkling of philosophy; a threat against one kid who borrowed his ball; some sexy suggestions that made the girls titter.

Three strikes in a row earned him a bonus roll, and he came from behind to lead two, then three, then all the games. ‘Oh, sorry, have we started?’ he would say, tossing his bowling ball into the ten pin tonsils.

His mum was the only person at Bowlapalooza unimpressed. She shuffled the handbag on her shoulder, checked her watch, fielded phone call after phone call, pacing, resting her leopard print pants against the wall, rubbing her knee high leather boots together. Something about the pharmacy was overheard. Something about ‘what do you mean my painkillers aren’t ready?’

A birthday cake arrived, gifted – on the house – from a bowling alley manager besotted with our haloed leader. Matt – who was leaning against the bar, sipping the same gin and tonic as his mum – took a twenty metre run-up, blew the candles out in a single breath as he walked through our claps and cheers before bowing and bowling a final strike, strutting out to his mum’s car and into history.  

*

School was ending. We’d all hit seventeen-and-a-half and a few of us were toeing 18 and spilling over. Booze; driver licenses. The first few pregnant girls. Yearbooks. There was the first party where a kid got stabbed; the first quiet wallflower kids who disappearing then reappeared enlisted in the army, sending us instant messages, imploring the rest of us to be all we could be.

It was disappointing, to us, to not be able to have Matt remain in our lives. Still, it would have been wrong to stain him with our boring ordinariness.

We tried to socialise where we could. We chose Gemma’s checkout at the supermarket and made chit-chat with her while she beeped our groceries. No matter what her hair colour that month we could spot her from the coloured patch on her on her throat, the dark letters she’d been dared to get etched one night when we were passing around a goon bag of wine. In curling, graceful script, she’d had Property of Matt Lamb inked forever on her neck.

We talked about these things when we hooked up. Gemma was always available a couple times each month for sex. Inside her trailer (her parents were dead; the trailer stayed on) she adjusted us behind her til our angle was perfect, exactly the angle Matt Lamb used to make love to her, and she guided us inside her. She got us to nibble her spine exactly as Matt had. Gemma told us precisely where Matt’s fingers slotted between her ribs, sliding down til the fingers could pinch her nipples. There was one hot night when Matt had ejaculated deep inside her with no condom when they were drunk on summer. She’d counted each of the 148 thrusts and made notes. We recreated the sex exactly and erupted warmth into Gemma’s core, our eyes rolling back inside our skulls. For a moment, we were him, a titan, a god, living on a cloud.

We made it a regular thing, Gemma and us, adding a sand-coloured curly wig which roughly approximated Matt Lamb’s head of hair. We kept his memory alive. He wasn’t dead, he’d just taken a plane to Surfer’s Paradise one evening during an X-Box party. It was his biggest mike drop ever, a stunt that spanned years. A pop-up advert had materialised on his phone, he looked at the foam lapping the land, the salt air and skyscrapers and blue horizon. He went to his room, packed a suitcase, took a taxi and left us standing around his house holding plastic cups of beer and debating when he’d be back.

 

*

Gemma was the first to turn 21, or was it 25? Her party was in a country barn where the feds couldn’t tell us off. We’d always suspected Gemma’s tattoos and piercings and fuck-you in-your-faceness was because she’d lived a couple of months more of life than the rest of us. She’d been scarred and scared and shocked by what was out there in the future. The cold cruel grownup world had pocked her cream skin, made her voice sharp, made the gas flame of optimism in her eyes dwindle and die. She was getting fat around the arms and she carried heft in her hips.   

There were shitloads of new faces at the party. It wasn’t a school thing anymore now we were all in our 20s. Our circle been infiltrated by new people from other schools, other codes. Churchies, musos, thugs, personal trainers. New haircuts. Adult jobs. Some kids even trained as teachers and went to work at our school.

Out among the gravel and cornrows Gemma went from group to group, squinting into the black to check on each of us. She’d been partying since she was 10. Tonight was just work to her. We asked her how were things at the supermarket and she snorted. She was working full time as a massage therapist, now, well, with some sideline stuff as an escort. Her voice had sunk so deep it seemed to thud on the ground.

Matt Lamb Junior didn’t make the surprise entrance some of us bet money on. Every conversation mentioned him. Charn and Trinidad recreated that time Matt had been set upon by a pack of juveniles in the city, how he’d laughed as he tossed one of the hoodrats into the fountain, pushed another through the safety glass of the McDonalds, shoved another into the path of a passing car. The boys’ wild violent theatrical re-enactment, lit by lapping bonfire flames, attracted one or two of us at a time, til we were all standing in a circle, contributing lines, details, keeping Matt Lamb alive, and then he did this, and can you believe he said THAT, and you’ll never believe what he did next! Gemma had a new anecdote she agreed to unwrap only when everybody was silent and the bonfire was under control and she had a fresh white cigarette and a lighter and a glass of Smirnoff. Gemma sat on a beer keg, cleared her throat, held her hands up for silence, then began. She had once needed to hand in an assignment about Hamlet, and she’d been clubbing and driving all night. 9am was looming and she had nothing to hand in. Matt had escorted her right up to old Mrs Rahmati’s desk then looked Mrs Rahmati right in the eyes to hypnotise her while his subtle spider fingers deftly pasted a sticker saying Gemma Lancaster right over the name of some poor other kid. Gemma had gotten an A-minus thanks to the other kid’s work. Mrs Rahmati even wrote in red pen her appreciation for the neatly printed name.

When there was five seconds’ silence and we realised her speech had ended we gave Gemma a standing ovation. This woman had lain with a king. That made her a queen.

New tidbits about Matt Lamb emerged first as a trickle, then a spout. B-sides, offcuts, demos. Undiscovered insight. There was one new story about the time Matt Lamb persuaded girl scouts that came to his door to give him six packets of cookies, which he promised to on-sell and – at a later date – return profit to the scout troupe. Of course he ate half the cookies and threw the rest at the neighbour’s labrador.

There was the story about Matt secretly recording an R&B album, though he supposedly did it under a pseudonym so you’d never know.

There was a story revealing Matt Lamb’s middle name, the effortlessly cool Ethan, about which we nodded and said ‘Ohhhh’ and raised our cans in a toast.

Rumour had it there were little Matt Lambs out there somewhere, with powerful blue eyes and incredible angles in their little faces and that HAIR, the golden fleece. Perhaps Matt wouldn’t be hard to find. He was a builder, apparently, which somewhat rang true, though it wasn’t exactly sailor or secret agent or rockstar. His house in Queensland looked exactly like that of his neighbours. It wasn’t even near the beach, a well-informed source had told us. He had bikes and a boat in the garage, a patio and a four burner barbecue. He rolled his truck onto the same black tarmac every morning and drove to work.

The hours spilled over til 1am, then the giddying gossip kept us in a trance which lasted til 3, and then the sun was coming up and we were throwing onto the embers every detail were remembered about our leader. How he swum, how he played basketball, how he smelled of fabric softener. We recounted his patois, his proverbs, his idioms. We recited what he ate for morning tea on day 24 of term 2 of Year 12. Jane Scranth had once come to his door selling magazine subscriptions and when his mum had answered (wearing a kimono), she’d spotted a shag carpet conversation pit and some mechanical lifting device, like a hoist which presumably Matt used to cultivate his power. Paul Wrightson told us he’d once seen a black van hovering outside Matt’s house, engine running as it lowered a robotic ramp. There was that one time Trinidad was walking to school and he realised that for ten minutes, Matt had been perfectly aping each of his footsteps, practising spycraft with a satisfied smirk.

These days he never posted about his life on social, though you could tag his empty profile. He’d been spotted in Dubai, expats claimed, or was it Darwin?

All of the stories combined gave us 60 percent of the man’s life, maybe 70. There remained a mystery about the man.

 

*

At our high school reunion, we nursed our bottles of beer, standing in a circle on the pitted floorboards, just off the disco, where nobody could force us to dance.

Matt Lamb Junior was rumoured to be flying in. He was all we talked about. Our discussion about the FIFA world cup led to a remembrance of that time Matt scored a goal off a header. Talk of jet skis turned to talk of Matt’s Instagram with him on a jet ski out on the lake. We talked of his mailbox, his basic building qualification spotted on LinkedIn, the fresh black asphalt in the boring cul de sac where his children cycled on their BMXs. What were the children’s names? We opened our wallets and lay down bets beside the punchbowl.

We talked of the regular old Toyota he drove to his ordinary job where Matt had ended up painfully normal, surely unappreciated. We talked of the rare glimpses inside his life: rare lift home in the mum’s car; a swim in his pool; seeing inside Matt’s school bag; that time Matt was encountered at K-mart.

Finally, after everyone was full of quiche and potato chips and looking at their watches, the doors opened and a man scuttled in, dodging dancing couples, and stood in the middle of the hall and spotted us, and slowly walked over.

Matt Lamb began with an apology. He’d struggled to find a babysitter, plus his motel was miles from here. He was sorry he hadn’t lived here for a decade. He’d remembered the city all wrong.

We gave Matt a position near the middle of the circle. Everybody squeezed his hand and kissed his sunburned cheeks. His eyes were faded and scratched, now. He scratched his bald, shiny head. It was coated in fine sandpaper stubble had little of the yellow glow on its. He rested a glass of punch on his belly fat.

As we passed around baby photos on our cellphones,  Matt became lost in the circle. Half the people were taller than him, many of us equally bald. When we found him in the crowd and made chit-chat, he answered questions with a hand cupped around his ear, apologising for being slightly deaf with an occasional polite “Not to worry” or “Hmm?” Yes, he had two little boys, both with a babysitter who was costing him an arm and a leg right now. No, he’d never shagged that trainee teacher, but she had hugged him at the school disco. No, his mum wasn’t a Rothschild – she had received a payout because his father was crushed in an accident at the factory when he was two. She was an alcoholic, always angry at him cause he reminded her of his dad, a man with bent limbs shivering under a shawl where he spent decades with a colostomy bag for a friend. All the money was gone by the time he hit 20; his mum carried on borrowing til she died of liver failure.

Matt was surprised at the information about himself coming across the circle, but he nodded as he took in each description, as if agreeing with a fatal cancer diagnosis from his doctor. His wife, sitting in the car, was texting him and he would have to go shortly. Matt said something about her diabetes. She couldn’t drink alcohol and didn’t like people. He began to issue thanks and See you laters, but we convinced him to stop as he tiptoed towards the exit door. Somebody shunted a chair under his arse. We pushed his shoulders down. Just one more story.

We told him about the time Matt Lamb had climbed the rope in gym class to the top of the building then stayed up there, living in the rafters til the Fire Service brought a ladder in. We let him know it was Matt Lamb who turned the school pool pink with industrial tins of beetroot stolen from the camp supplies. We recounted the ballad of Why you talkin to a zombie which caused Matt to burst out laughing, spraying us with mist.

Gemma had a live webcast on RealGirls which had to start at 8.30 on the dot and she had to jet but she stared at him as she backed out, smiling.

Several times he looked poised to contradict the memories, or ask a question about himself, but he couldn’t get a word in. We were the last in the hall. The security guard yawned and tapped his foot. We told him every legend we could come up with, laughing til our stomachs hurt and we had to put our beers on the ground as we doubled-over, faces burning with joy. We kept him alive as long as we could.