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Citizen Pain

Zacharias Holmes grew up idolizing the anarchy of ‘Jackass.’ Then he took his idols’ vision of chaos to a whole other level. This is the story of Zackass, the Most Self-Destructive Man in America.

Sam Taylor

There was nothing else to do in Hobart, Indiana. Zacharias Holmes had already tried to get the world record for most cinder blocks broken with a sledgehammer on top of his balls. He’d already done the thing where he held a roman candle a few inches from his mouth and lit the fuse. He’d outlined various ideas to try to break his nose, which devolved into his friends throwing mousetraps onto his face while he lay writhing on the kitchen floor. He’d been the Human Dartboard. And something like a tube-light piñata. Near the cornfields, in her lawn chair, his Meemaw pleaded with him not to do any of it, but Zach still spread his legs above the low end of a teeter-totter as his friend Will pushed an old washing machine off a barn and onto the high end.

Zach was infamous in the town where he grew up. For getting impaled by giant fish hooks baited with worms. For blood pooling in his belly button and soaking his clothes. For his mischievous little giggle through the empty spots for teeth that had been smashed out of his grin. For dumping a two-liter of piss on himself like it was Midwestern champagne. For daring his friend Meggan to let him take a piece of lawn equipment to her bikini bottom, for a stunt called “Weedwacked in the Ass!,” and for her parents dragging him to Chicago afterward to appear in an episode of a daytime talk show called “Our Daughter Is Out of Control.”

He thought about this in November 2016. While he was fidgeting, half-naked, in his buddy Frank’s backyard. None of his previous stunts really matched the idiocy or ambition of what he was about to do. Zach had used all his money that day to get 1,000 Black Cats at the year-round fireworks stand near Hobart. The clerk had inquired about the reason for such a purchase, and then said, almost sighing, “That is a bad idea.” The fireworks were strapped to Zach’s bare chest. The clerk’s words were in his ears, his nipples hard under the duct tape. He tried to calm himself by focusing on the pleasantries of the yard, the little frozen pond, the rooster statue with a cap of snowflakes, the wooden bench and the wind chime, the truck marooned in the drive, as he exhaled a plume into the fall Indiana air. He and Frank had bought a camera off eBay, and Frank pointed it toward Zach, and began to record.

“Hi ...” Zach squeaked. The word sounded so unsure of itself, his feet shifting and crackling in the snow, as though his lower body was trying to pull him toward reason and out of the scene.

“… this is Zacharias Holmes ...”

He had never seen anyone do this before. When he was younger he’d loosely taped some firecrackers around a diaper, wore it, lit them. But that was lame; for years he’d wondered what would happen if he did it again, with more fireworks, and without a shirt. You are ASKING to get injured, he remembered thinking.

“... and this is the Suicide Vest!”

Zach took a pirouette for the camera and raised his arms to show his belly, the fireworks, and a Zelda Triforce tattoo on the top left of his chest.

“Look at this,” he said, glancing at himself. “Uh … yeah. This should be fun.”

He fiddled with the fireworks in the gray of the daytime; they crinkled between his fingers as he twisted the fuses together, connecting all the Black Cats to one long trigger. He put his chin down and held the fuses close to him and grumbled something incoherent. Frank’s hand entered the picture with a Bic lighter.

Sssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssss

Zach burbled, and went stiff, the first burning sensation of the fuse against his body—ssssssssssssssssssssssss—driving him upright. The fireworks started to go off. What happened next changed his life, but not because it killed him, which he and Frank feared might happen.

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“Ahhhhhunnhhhhhhhhhhhh,” Zach cried, now hidden in smoke and spent fireworks shells. His instinct was to try to stop the stunt by patting out the explosions himself, his hands recoiling as the Black Cats burst into them, Zach diving into the snow, the camera shaking as Frank followed the smoke to the ground. The XYZ skateboard hat and the glasses falling off Zach’s face. Zach behind the smoke, whimpering, “Uhnnhnhhhhnnnhhhhhh, FUUUUCKKK,” the camera jiggling, Frank bellowing, finally, “Jesus CHRIST …”

It felt like a waste of breath to try to explain such an idea. The stupidity, the self-harm. Any of his videos, actually—what was there to say? That “Pubic Archery” or “Farts & Crafts” were redeemable? That they were art? That snapping his fibula on camera while skateboarding, and coughing “Call 911, please!” while lifting his broken leg like a puppeteer, had been worth a single minute of the horror mixed with strange levity it captured on film? In his experience there had been no real way to justify this as an outlet for expression, to somehow try to explain these imbecilic musings of a bored kid from a town where there was nothing else to do. Even though he knew from an early age that the stunts didn’t just happen; even though what it took to make them special and capture the essence of himself was genuine, pushing his ideas farther than anyone else might be comfortable. Even though details were important to him, details lost in the fires, in the blood, in the nut shots, in the laughter and puke, lost on much of the audience who watched Zach Holmes in a kind of repentant awe. It was the attention to detail and fearlessness that his peers said elevated him to the top of an Instagram ecosystem of millennial backyard stunt persons who’d grown up loving Jackass, but were mostly just lesser derivations.

That show, which debuted in 2000 on MTV, became a national sensation by its second episode, with its cast becoming ubiquitous by nickname, and developing an almost immediate following of what some of its stars would call copycat kids—adolescents filming on early iterations of digital cameras and sharing videos at school. Kids of various ages injuring, and in some cases accidentally killing, themselves in backyard stunts. The show wasn’t long for the world as such, with lawsuits hanging over it, and MTV execs scrambling at the dangerous ideas for the stunts; the very symbol of the show was a skull and crossbones. But it lived for three seasons, the final one gutted by censors. Of course, the idea of the show turned into three really memorable movies that raked at the box office with a fourth on the way next year, 21 years after it all began. Since then the very name Jackass has meant something, like a rebellion against boredom shot through guerilla-style videos of self-destruction and pain, and has become an ethos to two generations, one in its 20s and one in its 30s and 40s, made up of thousands of stunt kids who posted, and are still posting, from towns across the country on Instagram and Snapchat and YouTube.

“What are you trying to accomplish?” Meemaw had demanded of her grandson.

“It’s like I told you,” he said. “I’m trying to do something epic.”

“People think that I’m just crazy, or that I’m just doing stuff for views, or whatever,” he says. “And, like, the funniest one is when people think that I do this so I can have friends. Because I’m fat and do crazy things, it’s like I’m doing it because other people are, like, forcing me to. That’s really funny, because that’s not the world I live in at all.”

Arguing that he wasn’t crazy and didn’t have a death wish had never gotten Zach much back home, except suspensions from school and a job in the photo department at WalMart. Wearing the blue vest that fit him like a sausage casing beneath the halogen lights hanging on the warehouse ceiling, he spent hours daydreaming behind his Ray-Bans about getting his own show.

It had never gotten him anywhere except to the local hospital about a thousand times when he was younger, where after so many self-inflicted injuries he was eventually refused treatment unless he agreed to a psychiatric evaluation, which he also refused. He was never going to be able to explain why he’d “sprayed the shit out of myself with, like, some aerosol thing” at the Indiana sand dunes when he was in ninth grade, or why he flicked the lighter. He immediately fell into a kind of pathetic drop-and-roll to try to put out the flames—the sand flying, his friend hitting him with towels, multiple layers of clothing protecting his skin—and ultimately came out of it unscathed. And it only seemed like he’d done something great after he was immortalized at school for being the title kid in “Chubby pants lights himself on fire.” If people were unwilling to listen to him or to try to understand his passion, then it was impossible to get them to believe in him at all. Except for his small group of friends, and maybe Meemaw, and his dad, begrudgingly—in their lawn chairs, in the backyard, shaking their heads as he bled—and the guy he met in jail while doing a month for weed possession who turned out to be a Taco Bell regional manager and gave him a job.

Until “Suicide Vest,” that is. Until he no longer just seemed like a wayward youth in craven need of attention, a chubby kid wearing a skater hat with his stomach spilling over the waist of his black jeans or a yokel missing a few incisors with his skin in pasty complement to the snow in Frank’s backyard. The fireworks popping and smoking for almost 20 seconds, Zach appearing out of the smoke and still being alive, his skin smoldering and covered in a kind of Black Cat soot, a blast radius circling out from his nipples in place of the fireworks and tape, Zach moaning on his hands and knees, wobbling, then slowly standing, Zach screaming “It hurt so much fucking worse than I thought it would!”

Until one of his heroes, Steve-O, saw that clip. And considered it a kind of revelation, a masterpiece, and shared it with the world. The orgiastic two minutes of pain. Millions of people saw. And Steve-O invited Zach out to L.A. because he had to meet this kid in person, a pioneer of an indefensible art helping to launch the career of another. It was Steve-O who had been one of Zach’s heroes, and it was Steve-O who ended up being his friend and something like a mentor, doing his best to help Zach negotiate a contract for a new show on MTV. Steve-O who critiqued Zach’s work, Steve-O who christened him with a brand-new name. No, after “Suicide Vest,” when Zach Holmes became Zackass, he never felt the need to try to explain what he was doing to anyone else again.

Zackass was cruising below the palms in the leather passenger seat of a used black Beamer, his buddy Skinny Vinny at the wheel. They were headed to a parking lot where they’d filmed before, with a new idea in mind that they intended to bring to life. L.A., four years after the fireworks; Venice, to be exact, where a Zackass idea had become something different; his ideas now really required some type of sacrifice, in blood or bone, and would no doubt summon revulsion in some with even the slightest weakness of stomach or constitution. Instagram was really the only place he could post some of his content these days; his YouTube channel had been shut down for being too bloody, too explicit. If an idea being epic had been stupid back home, it was expected of him now.

When Zackass took off his shirt for stunts, his body rolled out triumphantly, even if he was sometimes self-conscious and claimed he wanted to lose some weight. Removing his trademark black T and baring his ample skin was what people wanted now, his body with the final word on his credibility as an underground artist who had managed to break into the mainstream. He was only 28. His face unwrinkled and eyebrows arched in a jovial way, his short black hair unkempt and often matted in sweat. Yet the whole of him, behind horn-rimmed glasses and Tom Selleck mustache and checkerboard grin, from the top of his skull to his mouth on down, had been stretched and mangled, had already lived through a lifetime of minor destructions. The fires, of course; the fireworks, the third-degree burns that healed but reminded him forever about “Suicide Vest” in faint red shadows on his shoulders; the stitches and the scar from the roman candle, fired point blank into his chin—he hadn’t been able to hold it there for more than a second until he gurgled and recoiled, blood dripping in a horror-movie faucet from beneath his mouth; the mousetraps snapping, pinching, his face swelling, but his nose never completely breaking; the faded paint ball welts, the flesh map of glass cuts partially healed; his legendary cast-iron testicles his friends weren’t even sure still existed, his areolas where so many objects had been hung, his ass with literal holes, the piercings, the gigantic BORN 2 DIE tattoo taking up most of his abdomen in a slimy, depraved font. How harmless Zackass seemed in comparison to the life of his own skin.

It was so beautiful outside in L.A., always, something it was hard to get used to being from a place pronounced Ho-bert. The ocean was nearby. The beach. The Hollywood sign. Parties, podcasters, influencers—he loved to use the word “collab.” The windows were rolled down in the Beamer. Punk rock music mingled with that unique sound of loud air and lots of cars close together.

“Living in L.A., it’s hard finding locations,” Zackass said. “Like, it’s hard to get away with some of the stuff we do in public. Sometimes we’ll film in a homie’s backyard or we’ll film in a random park somewhere I feel like we can get away with it. It’s a guerilla style of filming.”

Both he and Skinny Vinny had their forearms balanced on the doors. Zackass in another black T, of course, with a couple holes worn through the hemline, and Vinny, well, he wasn’t skinny at all, but the nickname was somehow perfect—the tanned skin and pointy beard, the denim jacket, the name fit his shoulders like the tattoos that covered him neck to toe.

“I can just projectile vomit whenever I eat or drink something, it’s just something I can do,” Zackass said.

“Such a talent,” Vinny said.

“As long as I drink something—just give me a drink, I can puke.”

Skinny Vinny had known his friend for two years, since they met in rehab. Zach had been experiencing a prescription pain pill addiction off and on since he was in high school, and still walked to rehab meetings from the house he shared with four other guys in Mar Vista. In Zackass videos, Skinny Vinny had become a sidekick, both behind the camera and then wandering into a scene. Often getting an unexpected punch or tasered or a kick in the groin. This helped start his own Instagram career, which is flourishing.

“I knew about him before I met him. I was a fan of his work,” Skinny Vinny said. “We clicked right away. He was looking for a filmer. I hadn’t picked up a camera in 10 years. I was really heavy into my drug addiction. I just lost all passion for filming, you know? We barely knew each other. Allowing me to film was a huge deal for me. I was really early in sobriety at that point. Most people think this is the dumbest shit, but … we think it’s something special, you know? And it’s, like, I’m forever grateful for that. … Also, we filmed the ‘Vomit Helmet.’ I was like, I just knew that this was where I belonged.”

“Vomit Helmet” had been a singular piece, and required Vinny behind the camera in Indiana filming in the type of outdoor light that sparkled through the trees overhead, as Zach and some of the cast of his MTV show, Too Stupid to Die, stood in a circle formation around Zach’s friend Blazer, who was kneeling, and wearing what appeared to be a giant fishbowl. The stunt called for each cast member to puke into the fishbowl, onto and around Blazer’s head. Zach had chosen to chug milk to try to force his ralphing, milk laced with green food coloring, and it looked exactly like slime when expurgated onto the long brown hair of his friend. The whole scene turned into a church-organ groan of human wretching and uncomfortable gargling and spewage, until the amalgamated vomit was pooling around Blazer’s mouth and he could no longer take it, breaking the fishbowl as he threw it off his face, all the vomit dripping onto him and into his mouth, Blazer doubling over, vomiting himself.

“A lot of this is … you’re like, trying to do something that you know is going to not be good for you,” Zackass said. “You’re trying to do something that’s going to suck. You have to force yourself to do it. Your body is telling you not to do this. Your body is trying to force you to stop, and you have to take control. That’s like ... it’s body over mind.”

Meemaw is the first character in the opening of Too Stupid to Die, Zach’s TV show that aired on MTV for one season in 2018, which was not canceled but has not yet been renewed for a second. She is wearing orthopedic shoes and reading from a piece of paper on her couch. Meemaw helped raise Zach after his mother died when he was 10, and, in every episode, tells him about her disapproval that the show exists. “WARNING: No one to try this at home,” she says. And then deadpans, “Don’t be a moron.”

Then a panoramic shot of haze over a brown field. A green combine lurching through the corn. “Welcome to Indiana, motherfucker,” Zach says, with the last part of that word bleeped out.

The show describes Zach as a “stupid genius,” who explains: “Where I’m from in Indiana, there’s a lot of … churches, Amish people going around on their horse and buggies—there’s, like, NOTHING that goes on here, at all. And that’s why I feel like we do a lot of what we do. You have to create your own fun.”

Over eight episodes, TSTD is not unlike Jackass in its depravities, the individual stunts titled and themed (Too Stupid to DRIVE); but it is much more of a love letter to friendships, and to the plains of that midwestern state. With its fields, back roads, and blue-mitten skies and green crops, Zach Holmes’s Indiana is rust-colored and covered in morning fog, if not coated in barf; there are water towers and yellow bales of luminous hay, abandoned motels, puddles, junkyards with oil drums crumpled and empty swimming pools stained by algae to jump into. He and his friends hold hands and dance like the cast of The Wizard of Oz into the corn. Meemaw in her walker, covering her eyes and acting distraught when Zach gets rammed in the crotch or when anyone uses a curse word. “My crew, they’re like my family,” Zach says in the show. “We’re all in our 20s and didn’t do the college thing. We don’t really fit in with anyone else. So making videos of doing the craziest, stupidest stuff we can think of is how we have fun.”

He and six friends sardined in an old RV, driving through the title sequence, basically sums up the show: the TSTD cast punching and kicking each other, screaming, while singing along to “Bad Kids” by the Black Lips, the RV swerving, mowing into a cornfield as Zach and everyone else flies around inside. The crew, his friends—Meggan, Tommy, Coty, and Chad from junior high; Blazer and Khyler he met later—jumping on pogo sticks and trying to dodge golf carts, tasering each other, jumping off roofs, Meggan driving a car off a ramp into a burning trailer, Blazer putting a scorpion into his jock strap and eating dogshit and a puke smoothie, Zach being taped to a wrecking ball 100 feet off the ground and getting slammed into a maze of glass, Khyler shaving Zach’s pubes and gluing them to his eyebrows—it’s a show about beer bongs full of vomit and kids living with each other in an old farmhouse with a wooden floor, about the boredom and the sweet-heartedness of being from a little town and being alive. A show about what kids in Indiana were doing, and why they would follow a little pied piper around into pools of sharks and into rings of fire, Zach’s dad praying for him in one scene: “Father God, I just ask you to keep Zach safe, be with Zach in this special time right now” just before the start of Testicular Dominoes.

The parking lot was just a gray slab in Venice with some yellow paint in the corner, a homeless guy minding his business sitting on the curb. But this parking lot had seemed special to them, in that nobody had ever called the police to kick them out when they filmed there. He and Skinny Vinny had bled there, drooled there, vomited there, had rolled around on the concrete in pain, had given up something permanent of themselves in faded red splatters in the cracks. Their own little secret in the middle of a random neighborhood, a bar across the street with its doors open and dogs leashed to table legs and people standing around drinking beer when we visited eight months ago, like in another life.

Zackass knew whoever watched this stunt, like anything he did, was engaging as a type of voyeur, as many of his fans had told him they wanted to know what it looked like up close, to see the blood, if it was real. And wondered how it felt to be him, or be near him, for the self-induced calamity of one of his crazy stunts, to hear him moan “Fuck,” which did seem like the very best word he could use to get across how it felt. But instead of wanting some kind of explanation, a glimpse into his mind, what his fans really wanted was to kick him in the balls. When he was recognized around Los Angeles, and it happened a lot, fans had asked whether they could, you know? Please? Or whether he would just do it to them, while taking a selfie? Strangers, begging for the gift of Zackass’s right sneaker.

His balls were a subject of conversation. Yes, especially among his friends. He had gone back to them so often that they were the low-hanging fruit of his oeuvre, a sure thing for a lot of clicks and an easy laugh. He was good at puking, good at howling, had trained his body to mollify a lot of the pain, but his balls were a different story altogether. When asked whether there was any way someone could become conditioned to hurting them, to bashing them, to that unique pain that a person really doesn’t want to feel more than once in his life, he said, “I would say so, but your natural instinct is to not let it happen.”

His balls had been flambéed, and gouged, and mohawked, and bass-pedaled, skateboarded, sledgehammered beneath cinder blocks, tasered, railed, poled, backflipped into, remote-control car’d, patted, poked, punched, straight-up kicked until the idea of getting kicked there again bored him out of his skull; they had been javelined, swung on, cut into, potato-gunned, rammed, jousted from a moving ATV, his Meemaw watching in horror at her grandson clutching the family jewels and wailing; and they had been teeter-tottered by the washing machine pushed off that barn (how he smiled and shook his head remembering that one); and they had been slapped and spanked and thwapped, and to think of the aching, the nausea, the whole body quivering from the waves of pain radiating from that one spot, like a funny bone singing as loud as it could, it was really kind of impossible to imagine, and for god’s sake, he had positioned his legs open like a landing strip for that one memorable stunt where they threw a ball down a steep, grassy hill in Hobart and it arrived bouncing at full speed into the soft padding of his manhood: Extreme Downhill Bowling Ball Nutshot! He knew a guy, who’d, like, stepped on a rake, once, and one of his testicles exploded—but, Zackass himself had never even been to the hospital after any single disaster his genitalia suffered, and so he walked among the mortal and appeared on TV with maybe the most mysterious part about him confined behind the zipper of his jeans.

“I’ve been kicked in the balls, too, a lot, bro,” his friend and musician/internet celebrity Chad Tepper said. Tepper being the person who tattooed a giant rainbow penis and hairy scrotum on Zach’s stomach on the MTV show How Far Is Tattoo Far?

“I have a world record for the longest nut shot. 270 feet with a softball, bro, right in my dick,” Tepper said. “It was the worst pain I’ve ever had in my life. My whole balls swelled up black and blue, for like three weeks. Every time I peed it hurt, it was horrible. With Zach, I have a theory, bro. The TSTD crew, we’re suspicious that his balls are gone, bro. I don’t think he has balls anymore, and I’m not even joking. I think maybe he lost his balls a couple years back and he doesn’t want to admit it.”

Blazer, who’d known Holmes for 10 years, added: “Zach says, like, he can control his testicles. As he’s getting hit, he can suck them up into his body.”

Steve-O kicked Zach in the balls the very first time they met. He put everything he had into it, too, so Zach wouldn’t forget it, like a rite of passage. This kid, says Steve-O, had been standing in the kitchen, a hayseed blown in from Indianapolis, with his chest hanging out, with his nads just sitting there, cradled in little blue boxers. Steve-O had taken it upon himself to tell Zach he was going to do it, and then, THWACK, Zach doubling over, Steve-O shrieking with laughter by his kitchenette trash can. But then Zach just bounced right back.

“His balls … seem to me, they seem to be on a different level,” Steve-O admitted. “I don’t know if they’ve been damaged, if he’s not feeling it, if he’s got padding. But, it’s confounding. I’m just confused. I don’t get how it’s possible for him to be doing it. Part of me is jealous that his capacity for taking nut shots is on a crazy other level.”

Steve-O had really liked Zach since he’d first seen “Suicide Vest,” because that was a stunt that really seemed authentic, and gnarly, and new, and if anyone could tell the real thing, and could feel it, it was Steve-O. There were a million kids jumping onto thumbtacks or puking or stapling their ass cheeks together like he’d done 20 years ago, but nothing like this.

And it was so weird, for Zach, to be standing in Steve-O’s kitchen—THE Steve-O!—naked down to his underpants, experiencing the pulsing ache of being anointed, through Steve-O’s foot to his crotch. The kitchen looked shiny and modern, unlike the kitchen one would imagine belonging to the guy who once put on a space helmet attached by hose to the butt crack of his friend who then took a slow and noisy dump into the hose for “Fart Mask” in Jackass Number Two.

“There’s never been an instance before Zach where I was like, ‘Man, I saw this kid online and I just gotta show him to the world,’” Steve-O said.

In “Suicide Vest,” Zach had been wearing an XYZ hat. Well, that was Steve-O’s first real sponsor, when he was skateboarding. “So I was really psyched, he’s wearing an XYZ hat, blowing himself up with these firecrackers,” Steve-O said. “Tommy Lee, from Motley Crüe, posted that video. Tommy Lee was my hero growing up. I’m like, ‘Oh, fuck, holy shit,’ and I re-posted it. Someone from the production company that would go on to make Zach’s show on MTV saw it in my feed. I was just so jazzed about it; let’s fly him out here, and do something really epic. I’ve got this hike near my house, with fuckin’ cacti. A cacti patch, dude. I bet that kid is so fucking gnarly that he would go into it. And sure enough, man. So we fly him out, and take him up to this cactus patch. He was more afraid of hiking up the hill than he was of riding a skateboard into the cactus patch. He was so averse to exercise, like, that was the biggest difficulty for him was hiking up to the cactus patch. So we set up the shoot, we got drone shots—I’ve got a pretty sophisticated production team around it. We’re flying drones. GoPros stashed in strategic spots. We really made a dope-ass video.”

That became the opening stunt in the first episode of TSTD, Zach standing on a skateboard, wearing only what appears to be a loincloth made out of duct tape. He says, “Eat your heart out, Tony Hawk,” and starts gliding down a ramp of wooden planks that leads nowhere but that cactus patch on Steve-O’s L.A. hiking trail; the stunt ends almost as soon as it begins, with Zach screaming his favorite four-letter word after his body flies off the skateboard and impales on all those needles. Zach grunting “OhmygodOhmygod,” the thong snapping apart to show his red and agitated ass cheeks.

“His whole body was so riddled with these fuckin’ cactus thorns, I became legitimately fucking scared,” Steve-O said. “He was gonna get some kind of staph infection, and I’m gonna be responsible for something genuinely awful happening to this kid. What if he gets a staph infection and it turns into some fuckin’ thing and it’s all my fault? You know, I’m like, on a spiritual path, man, I can’t.”

When he was growing up in Hobart, Zach was never allowed to watch shows like Jackass, so he had to sneak into the basement if he wanted to try. And set the return button on the channel changer to Nickelodeon, should anyone else walk unannounced into the room. That is where he first found inspiration in possibly the strangest person of all time to admire—a buzz-headed kid who himself was doing epic stunts, who was fearless, walking the “Alligator Tightrope” and lowering his jock strap above that tub of snapping gators. The first time Zach remembered seeing Steve-O, he drank a goldfish and then puked it up, and it was still alive. “I thought that was so gnarly,” Zach said. “The whole idea of doing crazy and dumb stuff all the time seemed so fun.”

Steve-O had been flung into the spotlight in his 20s, after the first episodes of Jackass broke viewership records for MTV; he had been an adolescent stunt devil, and then a clown on a cruise ship, made no money even as he’d become kind of an overnight sensation and a type of traveling freak; he was insane, then, and described himself as douche-y, as impossible to stop or to contend with, as all over the place and coked out of his mind, and the show floated around his insanity like the planets around a star. In his memoir, Professional Idiot, he reflected with melancholy that it had often been exhausting for the other guys like Johnny Knoxville and Wee Man and Chris Pontius to even be around him, that he couldn’t shut up, that he sucked the air out of their lungs and into his own, that he couldn’t withstand a second of anyone else getting attention. Throughout his life, Steve-O had destroyed about a billion opportunities because he was always drunk and wasted; one time he even pulled his penis out on the red carpet. But in his 40s, Steve-O got clean, and sounded like someone who’d earned it when he used the word “sobriety” on the phone, and he had new teeth and a healthier liver, and sat with Zach in his truck, driving him to the hospital in fear because of the wounds from the cacti. Steve-O telling him, take care of himself, you know? And that’s when he gave this thorough critique of Zach’s body of work, “What you’re putting out there is very one-dimensional,” Steve-O said. “There’s always going to be an audience for nut kicks, the misfortune of others, but it can get dark and that takes the fun out of it, and more than that, it’s going to run out of steam. I’m not telling you not to be reckless and self-destructive, I get it.”

“I don’t picture myself making it to 30,” Zach had admitted to Steve-O.

Steve-O, when he was shitfaced, and in jail, never pictured making it that far, either; never pictured hiking by cacti or having a really beautiful kitchen, or being, like, someone’s mentor. “And, you know, I love the kid,” he said, in that drolling rasp, that famous adolescent chain-smoker’s hackle, “It made me so sad, but at the same time, when I was his age, I never fuckin’ pictured myself making it to 30 years old either. Part of it when you’re young, and if you’re crazy, the whole deal … I really want to mentor him in, like, the idea of life. Like life being valuable and worth living.”

But Zach had moved to L.A. shortly thereafter, as Zackass. He had not exactly followed Steve-O’s life advice to the T. He had not seemed to want everything that Steve-O wanted to show him or impart to him and, like, he had kept taking pain pills. He had gained even more weight, too. And kept getting smashed and bleeding and kicked in the balls, over and over, really dark stuff. Steve-O had tried to help him build a website, too, but Zach had seemed sort of disinterested. “He’s on a catapult and how far he’s going to fly depends on how much he fuckin’ manages the opportunity,” Steve-O said. He was laughing, because there was no other way to talk about any of this, but through the laughter you could hear a kind of brotherly disappointment in Steve-O’s famous, irreducible voice.

“Part of his charm is that he’s like unsophisticated and bumbling his way through everything,” Steve-O said. “There is charm to that … about him being a kid from Indiana that lacks sophistication, and is like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe this is going on.’ There’s something Cinderella-esque that he’s in the spotlight and has millions of people aware of who he is. WOW, you know, I’m just a kid from Indiana. For him to be a star. My own perspective on life, you know, at the age of 45 years old, I can’t expect to really impose that on him. He’s a young kid. He’s got to have his own experience. Fuck, when I was 28, are you kidding me? I was dying.”

Meemaw still wants Zach to do better. “I don’t agree with everything he films. I don’t like the cussing. I’m not a goody two-shoes by any means, but I do not like the cussing.” Meemaw’s real name is Susan Graves, and she really missed Zach, who hadn’t been home in a while, because of his schedule and because of COVID, hadn’t been back to Indiana or to Arkansas, where she now lived. Home being a relative term; it was wherever Meemaw was, of course. And, goodness no, she had never been out to see him in L.A., certainly not now. But she talked to him nearly every day, because Zach had to talk to his Meemaw. She didn’t honestly know if he was famous now, or what to call it—if her grandson was some kind of star.

When she moved in with Zach’s dad after Zach’s mom passed away from a blood clot to her heart, it was kind of all they could do to keep a family of one boy and two little girls together and somehow sane. “That affected him terribly,” she says. “He was really close to his mom.” His mother, she remembered, gave Zach a little blue, handheld digital camera with internal storage, right before she died, and he had carried it with him for years like he didn’t want to let it go. Meemaw could still picture what it looked like, a little blue gun, Zach walking around holding that camera and pointing it at himself, his friends: “Oh, he always had lots of friends, because Zach is funny. It was usually the wrong crowd, but you know what they say—birds of a feather flock together.”

She had never meant to insinuate that Zach was an actual idiot, that he lacked ambition, no matter how she both covered and rolled her eyes in TSTD. He had talent, she had always known it, even if she couldn’t keep the computer open, couldn’t bear to watch anything that he’d recently filmed. He had been great with that camera, a natural, and at writing—“I used to get a call about once a week from a teacher that he slept through class,” she says, “telling me that he needed to go to bed at night. But then he’d write all night long. Skits. He’d sleep during the day, at school. Which was not funny back then.” Some people the family knew told her when he was still at home that Zach should be going to film school, that he could make it. “But we couldn’t afford it back then,” she says.

She could see him, even now, when he’d been a kid, headed out of the door to the house with the camera, knew that he was on his way for trouble, probably to a nearby grocery store, WiseWay, to lay in front of the door with his friends so that people would have to walk over them to get into the store. “Whenever he left with his camera, I was always worried,” she says.

He got into skateboarding, and eventually did exactly what he wanted and couldn’t be told otherwise, and he didn’t have to hide in the basement, there was no keeping him downstairs pretending to watch Nickelodeon. He started watching and sharing Jackass DVDs. The church called to complain after he had a friend throw tires off the roof of the church onto his groin, the principal called the house numerous times threatening his expulsion, Zach always in detention, “But he always got away with it,” she says. Dr. Phil had called the house after the video of Zach setting himself on fire made a little ripple in the national news, Dr. Phil’s people asking Meemaw, who declined to bring any of the family onto that show, about her and Zach’s dad: “How do you deal with that?”

She answered, “We pray a lot.”

She wasn’t even quite sure how he made money now, through sponsorships or ads or whatever you call it, but he still talked to her and his dad nearly every day, and she knew he still had a text thread with his friends back home called “BOYZ.” It was impossible to completely understand where this all came from, how it had gotten from there, in Indiana, to here, how he’d become “Zackass,” but as a worried grandmother who’d thought about it for years, she just assumed he was doing it for the attention. “I. Don’t. Know. Why,” she says. “I can’t imagine anyone wanting to do what he’s done and talk other people into it. He just loves it. You know? He’s good-hearted. I have a grandnephew. He just turned 12. He’s such a fan of Zach, it’s crazy. For his birthday, I said to Zach, ‘It’s Logan’s birthday,’ I said, ‘would you give him a call?’ Zach said, ‘Hi, this is Zach,’ and he goes, ‘Oh my GOSH.’ My niece and her husband said you couldn’t believe the look on his face, it was like he’s talking to the president.”

In Meemaw’s memory, Hobart was a pretty town, actually, and there had been, at one time, many nice things to do there, many ways to be productive there; well, until they razed the land and put a big mall there. The town itself had looked nice, at least. “But as far as a lot to do now, there’s so many cops there that you can’t really get away with anything. I’m glad Zach’s gone,” she says. “I’m sure someone there would’ve gotten him by now.”

Blood had a particular taste. It was a blackout taste, a headache taste, the taste of body over mind. He bled so much that he didn’t need to think about it, or taste it, again. But he did think about it. The color, the angle, the way it looked on his cheeks, in his pores, smearing over the rainbow/penis/scrotum tattoo and the BORN 2 DIE on his stomach, a type of red that was brighter in person than on video, how to showcase it as a payoff for an audience who didn’t understand blood in such a particular way. He was a stickler, for considering how a viewer might react beyond revulsion, how men might lower a hand over themselves out of a phantom or vicarious pain. He was an auteur for how the camera panned to his fingers stained like he had dipped them in Kool-Aid, pulling objects out of his skin, the flesh sticking and stretching before it let go, a close-up of the concavities left behind. He didn’t want to be one-dimensional. It was art to him, even if it was impossible to explain.

Zackass and Skinny Vinny were next to each other, a little more than arm’s length apart in the parking lot, with a Sony camera on a tripod pointed at Zackass. Skinny Vinny wobbled and moaned from a sneak Zackass punch to his groin. Zackass, with his chest exposed, his shoulders white, his hair matted because of the heat, directly in front of a large punching bag on a spring. Skinny Vinny had lugged the bag out of his trunk and into the parking lot, where they were trying to figure out the very best angle, pulling the bag back so it would then shoot forward and collide with the middle of Zackass’s forehead. Skinny Vinny, he both thought this was an awesome idea and had a light stomach for blood, and reared back the punching bag slowly, then walked it back forward again, to measure exactly where Zackass needed to stand. Zackass pulled his hair away from his forehead, giving the bag a wide-open shot. The bag itself was covered in Scotch tape, and held rows of long thumb tacks with the sharp ends pointed outward. The idea always being that it would hit flesh, and mangle his face in some memorable way—he was wearing goggles over his Ray-Bans—and make him not only bleed, but leak.

Chad Tepper described the genesis of such an idea, for Zach, or tried to. “It’s doing shit that’s never been done before,” he said. “You know, some people have football players, for me and Zach, our idols were Steve-O, Johnny Knoxville, Bam [Margera]. Those were our fucking idols. When you look up to people who are doing stupid shit, you want to do the stupid shit. People fake a lot of shit. He’s never faked anything. So I feel like that’s what really separates what he’s doing compared to other people. You put him in a lineup with a bunch of fucking people and Zach is going to stand out from Day fucking 1. And it’s not just because he’s fat. A lot of people are like [whiny voice] ‘He’s fat, that’s why he’s so famous.’ It’s like, no, bro, it’s not because he’s fucking fat, it’s because he’s a fucking goddamned star. And that’s just the way it is.”

The camera was on. Skinny Vinny pulled the bag back tight on one end of the spring, then let go; it launched forward, with the tacks in the air like the teeth of a monster. There was a kind of squelching noise, the sound of the tacks landing in the middle of Zackass’s face, directly above his eyes.

“Wow,” he said, coughing, gasping, laughing, wiping and smearing the red from his face onto his Cali Bud T-shirt, shaking his arms and dribbling blood in misshapen pools in the parking lot around him.

“Sometimes, you know, some things are just really dangerous, I guess, and if it’s a good enough idea, it’s worth doing,” he said later.

Before the stunt, Zackass hadn’t exactly been in a good mood, he admitted. He had been in the passenger seat, staring out the window in silence. He wasn’t feeling well. But afterward he was talkative and alert. The stunt itself had changed his temperament, and the promise of the day. It had made everything better for him, as he wiped his body with a rag and the wounds on his forehead began to scab.

“Say, like I’m having a bad day,” he tried to explain, “or, like, I’m just not having a great day at all. If I do something dumb like this, usually it makes everything better for me.” He thought maybe it had to do with just getting outside, the air itself, or that maybe he should see someone and look into that more, that feeling; how it had been, too, back home, in Meemaw’s backyard, how it just felt better if he was thinking of an idea and then working on its execution, even if the payoff was always that he hurt himself, and especially thinking about how many people might watch, the attention. It didn’t matter that the clip from the parking lot ended up being too bloody to even put on Instagram in its entirety.

“Sort of like a high, I guess,” he said. Filming—that’s how he described capturing his own destruction on video—well, it always made him feel good, and when the Beamer pulled back into the driveway to his house, Zackass, now in another T-shirt, was in a really good mood, was happy about how gnarly the footage was when they’d played some of it back, when that punching bag hit his face and tore it temporarily apart.

Answering the question that people wanted to ask, well, that was another matter. About what it was like—whether it was real—to watch him up close. The blood just splashed out of him and onto his friend, for one thing. Literally onto Skinny Vinny, like raindrops on an umbrella—Skinny Vinny fighting the urge to retch. It was hard, being there, to suppress a few basic human instincts while watching, for another. Like first seeing the tacks, no, no, no, there were so many, and his unsuspecting and pink forehead, his slight trepidation, and not asking him to stop. And not recoiling as the bag hit in the middle of his face, and not screaming when it stuck for a single macabre nanosecond, not dry-heaving like Skinny Vinny, not shouting, Holy fucking shit, like his other friends who were there, too, before the force that carried the bag forward then pulled it back along with his skin, on its spring. It was awful, yes, and it was hypnotic, the blood in the air, the droplets of blood, the pea-sized circles of its particular shape as it entered the world from inside of him, that it was thick enough to hover as it trailed the bag going backward, the camera on the tripod capturing it in HD. After the moment of impact, the tacks pulled out and left holes where they had struck, Zackass making a noise like an injured dolphin, and the sound blood made when it hit the ground in droplets, when it seeped into his eyes, when he grunted and his forearm raked across the open wounds when he wiped, that it coagulated in his hairline and made it sticky, it was hard not to be repulsed and impressed by his blood and that it could dry so quickly, that, hey, it collected in the bottoms of his shoes, made footprints in the parking lot, and that it was in the car, he dragged it everywhere with him, on the seatbelts, on everything, and that being so close to it, blood had a taste, yes, and Zackass’s blood had a smell, like a bunch of dirty pennies in the wintertime at Venice Beach.

Justin Heckert is a writer living in Charleston, South Carolina. He last wrote about one of the few remaining Blockbuster video stores.

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