Fiction by Alex Behr
A backtrack. A rewind. Not too far. Just a taste.
A moon curve lit my way. Punk kids were hanging outside an all-ages warehouse, sucking the edges of their blankets, with bleeding fireworks going up their spinal cords. In their wake were sparks shooting to their fingers and the soles of their feet. They knew more about their bodies now than they did sober, and what they learned scared them, so they sucked their blankets. Some were once yellow, and some were once pink.
Before Royann knew I was back to town, I met with her in secret, in an aural land of phone calls late at night. She didn’t know I was calling from across the river. The water lapped. It brushed against piers. It touched the fur of muskrats and fish died in it, suffocated by sewage, damaged by prescription drugs flushed down toilets. I couldn’t hear the river, couldn’t feel it, but I knew it gave me some protection. I didn’t want to see her in person.
I called from a phone booth outside a Dollar Tree. The phone book was torn off the plastic holder, except for one page, on which I wrote fragments of our conversation with a pencil stolen from a bar. I put my finger in the metal slot, searching for extra coins.
“The electric guitar is not an instrument on its own,” I said. “It’s a relationship with the amp. If you plug it in straight, it’s boring and flat. It has to be loud enough so the strings resonate, so there’s a sympathetic vibration. You’re never going to get anywhere with Connor if he has guitarists with a clean sound.”
“No, he’s moving away from that. He’s got a new approach. He’s a dick, but I think he’s going somewhere. Danny quit.”
“What’s he going to do now? He has no life.”
“He’ll figure out something. They weren’t talking toward the end. It was time.”
“But you liked him,” I said.
“We only slept together once,” she said.
I didn’t answer right away. I never knew if I talked too much or if Royann’s steady breathing and occasional grunts indicated a soulful understanding. Sometimes I didn’t even know if she was listening. Maybe she put the phone down. Maybe she was watching the TV on mute. Sometimes I believed I could hear the bubbling of the aquarium—or was it the hiss and bubble of a bong?
“Are you still there?” she asked.
I was getting cold. I was wearing just a t-shirt and jeans.
I nodded, hoping she could feel that, but she said, “I have to go. Don’t overthink music. Don’t go on dead-end tangents. It’s just stupid rock.”
I hung up and picked it up again to hear the dial tone. It soothed me, as if it remembered the talk, her voice, her cadences, and could link me to her again.
Somewhere on this side of the river a band was playing. It didn’t matter where. I found a band and the bar they were playing in, showing my ID to the chick at the door and then waiting in the back, so no one would talk to me.
The bar was long, narrow and painted dark gray. The lamps on the walls were barely functioning.
The singer was walking on top of the bar. He wasn’t singing actual words, just vocal complaints and off-key obscenities. Goose-stepping down the bar knocking over people’s drinks. Kicking them into people’s laps. People were lunging at him, but he’d shimmy out of their way.
I walked closer. I wanted to be near the singer. I wanted to feel something. I could punch myself in the face and it would mean nothing. Would someone hit him? I wanted to see. It’s not like I was a sadist or even a masochist, but the singer couldn’t keep time, couldn’t sing in tune, yet you couldn’t not watch him. His skin was white and greasy, and his chest was covered with tiny cuts, like he slept in rose bushes.
The drummer played a lot of toms—his fills seemed copped from AC/DC’s greatest hits, and the bassist was competent, earnest, looking at his fingers on the frets, making sure they were getting a good tone. The guitarist played loud, with a screechy high end, smiling like the pain he was sending through people’s bones would make them feel better in the morning.
You wanted to believe you’d lived through something. That the music wasn’t empty. That the muscles and blood and skin were put together for some reason beyond a pissing match between the bartender and one singer with a chipped tooth, now breathing heavy, having been punched in the stomach by a skinhead.
I didn’t mean to sleep with her. I needed a place to stay. She looked like me. We had eyes the same color, brown, and we each had a mole on the inside of our elbow. I licked her eyeball by the bathroom to see what she’d do. She didn’t flinch.
But that didn’t mean we needed to sleep together. I was lonely for Royann. And this chick, she said, “I’m high. Can you take me home?” She said it in such a fragile voice. She seemed to trust me. I didn’t have to tell her anything about me. I told her my name was Joe. She told me her name was Jolene. Who was I to question her fake name? We were the same height. We were the same weight.
She pointed out the sound guy. She said, “Don’t look at him at the same time I do,” and she leaned against me. He had a scarred face, from acne, and deep-set eyes, and brown hair that loped over his face. I recognized him. He was good at his job. He put his hair in a pony-tail to work, and didn’t care how stupid he looked. He was supposed to mix the opening band lower, so the headliner would sound better, but he didn’t like to follow that rule. He waited to see if the opening band had anything to offer. If the band could talk to his drugs, they would get good sound.
But no one wants to know these people, the opening band.
They didn’t have drugs to sell.
The guy outside: he did.
The guys in the car: they did.
They marched in line to the back door; they put out their cash; they got their bindles.
The sound guy stood behind the board, with wires linked to boxes linked to the stage, to the direct boxes, to the mikes and amps and monitor speakers.
“He gives me money sometimes,” Jolene said. “Sometimes I put it in here.” She pulled out a purse she’d made from under her dress. Her skin smelled good, even dressed in smoke.
“I need you to walk me home,” she said. “My bones are dissolving,” she said. I got her out of there. She was wearing her Granny’s party dress. It was black like her hair, the neck encrusted with fake jewels. And someone had tipped her over into a bad trip. She wouldn’t say who. I guessed it was the singer. He had poked her chest and said something about death.
I walked her home to an apartment one floor up from a dry cleaners.
We slept together, but I wasn’t disloyal to Royann. I stayed clothed, staring at the votive candles lined along her windowsill until the flames died in limp wax. I tell you, she didn’t sleep either. She sat with her back against two black pillows and pet a kitten all night, still high on acid, still afraid to pee or undress or walk. Our feet touched each other but couldn’t get warm. The orange kitten scratched her arms with its tiny razor claws and Jolene never noticed.
“I don’t want to kill it,” she said, over and over. I wanted to take the animal away from her, but was afraid she’d hold it tighter. Her bones were dissolving in her body.
I wanted to know that feeling, so I could put it into music.