Author Name: Sean Gallagher
Gussy Barthe is a teenager living in the middle of nowhere. It’s 1999, the Y2Kamikaze looms in the distance. Gussy is obsessed with punk and the gutter lifestyle. School starts in three weeks and Gussy is trying to get into as much trouble as possible before summer freedom ends and the world descends into chaos.
Length of Sample (in words): 6,180
Part 1—The Kids Who Shot America
Everything sucked donkey.
End of the world, that’s what the experts were saying, the fall of civilization when the clock struck midnight. This was it, 1999, enjoy it while it was still around, because it was all going away, and school started in three weeks, the last days had to be spent behind a desk. Summer felt like a figment. It all went by both fast and slow, the Fourth of July seemingly just yesterday. August was around the corner. Dread. It was inevitable, growing closer. The apocalypse. Y2Kamikaze, the mutual, self-imposed destruction of mankind, the civilized mass suicide. Boom. Drink the Kool-Aid. Once noobs went away, the Burroughs were left to play. Indefinite anxiety boiled into scattered eagerness to see the destructive shit the new millennium delivered. None of it mattered. All of it mattered. Just a matter of perspective.
Welcome to Bandywise, population fifteen-thousand and holding, the smallest big town in southern Nebraska, occupying a small portion of the Borderlands. It was a town big enough to warrant recognition from outsiders. Yet, small enough to completely forget. People passing through were the lucky ones. Residents were trapped. Named after the town’s founder, Abraham Bandy, who in the early 19th century wisely decided to construct the city on the fertile banks of the Jordan River. An Eden in the middle of the prairie tundra, so flat you could see the curvature of the earth, the telephone poles lining the road dropping off the edge of the world. Bandy attempted to introduce the palm tree into the local fauna. They thrived until winter, the first freeze killing them off with sadistic glee. Bandy persisted in trying to transform this flatland into paradise. Never happened. Bandy never acknowledged this. Kept at it until he died. To mock the man, Bandywise earned the nickname City of Palm Trees. In an ironic twist, noobs flocked, believing the idyllic sobriquet, ultimately learning that the Borderlands was so pointless, so overlooked, it would survive the upcoming nuclear holocaust.
Dusk, feeding time, people flocked to the main drag en masse. Commercial wasteland with flickering optical charms on either side of a four-lane thoroughfare, massive signage stretched sky high, muddying the natural wonder, bleaching out the evening. Behind the bright graphics, twilight was awash with vibrant blues and purples that burned into oversaturated reds and oranges and yellows. The colors collected at the horizon, sun gruelingly settling down. Cars crawled along the two-mile stretch of the Neon Strip. Headlights and brake lights peeled off at random intervals. Hunger was chaos. No one actually went inside the establishments, loitering in the parking lots, socializing and eating and showing off, cars idling, truck engines roaring. From this snapshot, it would appear that only teenagers populated Bandywise, as they were the only ones congregated here.
This should have been a beautiful mixture of consumption and environmental spender. For the No. 1 fangirl of the apocalypse, Gussy Barthe, it was boring. So boring the girl with the colored hair hardly saw it. This sundown was like every other sundown, which deserved no recognition because it would be like the sundown tomorrow and the next day, continuing until the world ended. She was a prisoner. She made due. Confinement wasn’t solitary. The fifteen-year-old lingered under the White Castle sign, resting. She felt the sweat dry to her skin, which was normally a shiny, terracotta tone, but all the time in the sun had baked it to a rich ochre tinge. She wasn’t happy with it right now, feeling a break out bubbling under the surface, which was worsened by the temperatures. It was hot, the sort of heat that caused sweat to collect in the crack of your ass, making you feel like you had shit yourself. The heat made Gussy itch, especially the skin under her bra. Though that could be due to the ratty condition of the thing. Or poor sizing. She hated wearing a bra, but Mother instilled in her the importance of the undergarment, forcing Gussy to adhere to a spiteful habit. She hoped it would disintegrate or she’d grow out of it. The bra and her body were stubborn. Sporting it became a marginally, prickly stalemate. She itched. She adjusted. She ignored. Her hair was dank, sticking to the back of her neck. She gathered it up and tied the damp locks into a ponytail with a rubber band she kept around her wrist. She’d rather just shave her head like Big Brother, but Mother would freak out since she’d just gotten used to her latest style. Sometimes she wore it up. Sometimes she wore it down. Big Brother and Little Sister weren’t afforded the luxury, their hair made frizzy by the humidity, both imparted with Father’s coarse coils, Little Sister sporting an afro blow out the entire summer. It would be interesting to see Big Brother with the same coiffure. Gussy lucked out. She was the anomaly, born with the dense, silky strands of Grandmother, among things.
The parking lot was hardly full, the fast food joint located at the end of the Neon Strip in a rundown mini-mall. Right before Iowa Street collided with the open prairie. Attractions split off down Main Street to Old Town where most adults collected. Breeze was frenzied and boiled. No relief, humidity made the world a sauna. Gussy remained in the heat until the reek of cheap meat and onions spoiled it. She hopped off her bike and parked it in metal stands outside the entrance. She didn’t bother locking it, the bike cheap, a ten-speed drop-bar, bought on the quick because she refused to get her driver’s license, even after Father took all that time to teach her how to drive. No big deal. Gussy rejected compliance with curfew, which denied her car access. Win-win. Her parents lacked much in their arsenal to threaten her, so bedtime was free-floating.
Inside White Castle, the AC was full blast, congealing the stink. Gussy shivered and frowned, trying hard not to allow the freeze-dried stench infect her mouth. Some familiar faces here, acknowledging glances passed around. Only one was register open, single line sluggish. The employee behind the counter struggled to be professional. Worker bees milled in the kitchen, pace between languid and inoperable. This sat nauseatingly on Gussy’s shoulders, bright fluorescent lights hurting her eyes, her stomach bloated and gassy, patrons invading her minimal amount of personal space, grunginess of every surface obvious. She wasn’t a snob. These irritations were due to her period about to start. It heightened her impatience and disgust. Her bleed wasn’t exactly a mystery. She had finished the round of white pills that morning. The remaining green ones openly taunted her with what was ahead. Muggy weather exaggerated the effects of her monthly visitor. She pinched the bridge of her nose, wishing that the headache growling behind her eyes was gone. She distracted herself with a song crashing around her brainpan, which sounded like two hungry dogs fighting over the final bone: ‘…kiss ass while you bitch/but you get rich/while the rich get richer off you…’
Couldn’t recall the rest. For a second, she believed the song was General Motherfucker and the Dick-Nosed Monkeys, but she dismissed the half-assed guess. She hadn’t listened to the band in a month. Overplayed. Sound had grown stale. Even if it were one of her favorites, she needed a break. She pondered with mounting displeasure. The band dawned on her as she crept forward in the line, the Dead Kennedys, another top five favorite. Albums, some great, most good, the rest complete shit. She stayed lost in her head when she reached the register, snapping to attention when the attendant cleared his throat; preoccupied as she summoned reasons she was in White Castle. The attendant smiled, Gussy somewhat recognizing him from school. Looked dorky in his uniform. She didn’t concede familiarity. Food order: twenty sliders, three pops, and a half-dozen fries. Attendant punched it up. Gussy paid and split, standing off to the side of the counter. Didn’t wait long, snatching two large sacks and drinks, fleeing the restaurant.
Heat hadn’t dissipated in the few minutes she spent inside. Intensified, sweat resuming immediately. Gussy struggled to clear her sinuses of the fast food pollution. She struggled to not scratch at the irritated skin under her bra.
She collected her bike and positioned the food sacks and drinks on the handlebars, rolling everything to a destination at the far end of the mini-mall. She walked down the middle of the parking lot, apathetic to the cars, horns honking.
Fuck the rest of society—it deserved to collapse.
The mini-mall was called Potter’s Field Mall. Never caught on as a destination. Most of the storefronts were empty. The L-shaped structure was violently unappealing. If it weren’t for the discount market and the concert hall, the place would be abandoned. The latter meant that Gussy and her crew had a hang out, The Bureau, the hub for the punk scene in the region. Gussy approached one of the others businesses that endured, The Secret Underground, the only comic book shop in the county. Devo, the proprietor, smoked outside, waiting for Gussy. In his thirties, Devo looked both older and younger than his age. No chin, head spilling right into drooping shoulders. Thick, wild hair had streaks of gray, and acne bubbled on his cheeks. He hadn’t changed his style since junior high, a worn T-shirt with a super hero decal, grungy jeans that clung to disappearing hips. His belly dangled over the top of his pants. Against all odds, Devo was married. Janice looked like Devo, but with better tits. Gussy’s best friend was Devo’s younger sister. He was indifferent to Gussy. She strolled to the entrance of his shop, food balancing delicately on the handlebars of her bike. Devo was listless and he made no stab at helping her. Devo judged Gussy’s appearance with no mask covering his expression. Typical. Gussy wore the same outfit daily, black T-shirt, cut-off jean shorts, and worn-out, checkered Vans with no socks, shoes reeking. Devo took a long drag of his cigarette, holding the smoke. “You haven’t changed your hair, yet.”
This wasn’t criticism. The summer plan was that Gussy dyed her hair a different color every few weeks. Now it was green, fading into toxic waste. Mother had finally gotten over her disapproval, just as long as it was somewhat normal for school. Gussy nodded at Devo. Gussy shrugged at Devo. Devo shrugged and shrugged again, blowing smoke. He motioned to the shop. “They’re inside. No camera, thank Christ. Left it at home for once. Can’t stand having my picture taken.”
Gussy labored to keep the bike upright, food from spilling, and door propped open. She managed, leaving Devo on the concrete stoop. Beirut was taking a rest from being an artiste for once. Gussy was ambivalent, but still relieved that the auteur wouldn’t have the lens shoved in everyone’s faces. The AC was set to artic. Gussy was sticky from the slog from White Castle. She appreciated the chill. An uproar spewed from inside the shop, the group sitting around a table. Gussy watched and listened to the three people she bought food for from the hallway as she slowly positioned her bike in its usual spot leaning against the wall. The Secret Underground used to remind Gussy of her grandparents. The old comic books and magazines possessed a rustic pulpy scent in the same way. Gussy wasn’t a geek. She didn’t like comics or the other fantasy blah-blah. The shop was a starting point. If it shuttered its doors, Gussy wouldn’t be heartbroken. There were other places to congregate.
Gussy and her friends were the sort that parents thought, ‘Thank god, they’re not my kids.’ Beirut dominated the conversation that was already in progress. Standard. The others tried to object to this dynamic, but the protests were misplaced in the noise, and the protests were vain since Beirut ignored them. “I’ve been taking too many pictures of my feet and blurry landscapes, so I’m getting into writing heavy. I have this story idea I’m trying to smooth out the rough details about. Mostly, the whole is just notes jotted down when I’m bored. Nothing concrete yet. It’s in the conception stage. But it centers around time travel. But instead of going back, scientists bring people from the past into the present, which is not our present, but the future. Anyway, the story is just scientists bringing people from the past here. The twist though is that the scientists bring the people here to show them current pornography to gauge how they react to it. This is going to be tongue-in-cheek, of course. You know? This can’t be a serious science fiction story. It’s more of a parody of sexual morays. Like each thing I write about has a deeper context. I imagine these scientists bringing someone from Puritan times, you know the Pilgrims who landed on Plymouth Rock and gave us Thanksgiving and the witch burnings, and brought some dude in to watch porn. And the heads just explodes, he just strokes out at all the depraved imagines he sees of people fucking, and he just starts bleeding from the nose, going insane. Screaming about the devil. Then the scientists bring back someone from Rome, like during the time of Caligula, and they are bored, talking about how the things they do back in their time is so much worse. I’m just spit balling. Working with ideas, honing them, getting it perfect before I put pen to paper. Good shit, right? Want to see if having people from the past getting their minds blown. I can’t wait to write it. Trying to think of a title too. Something will come to me.”
Beirut was decked in his regular ensemble, securely lace boots, tight black jeans, a black T-shirt with ‘Fuck Lou Reed’ in white lettering, fingernails painted black, and a variety of metal and leather bangles. Kept his hair long to drape it over his forehead to hide his acne. He was tall, lanky, but not clumsy. Possessed a childish masculinity, giving him a certain charm that was both devious and innocent. Got away with shit due to his arresting temperament. Gussy was jealous how people were drawn to him even though he didn’t stand out. He was neither ugly nor attractive. He was eerily ordinary. He still overshadowed everyone around him, his charisma bursting through the averageness.
Shiloh dropped in. “That’s kind of lame, if you ask me, not that it couldn’t be something better. You have the sparks of a funny story. Just need to get all the kinks worked out. I mean, just to give you an idea of what I’m talking about. It’s not like we invented fucking. Maybe we’re just more open about it. All those people in the other times, maybe they just kept all the crazy sex stuff behind closed doors. I think you need strengthen the plot before you settle on it.”
Shiloh and Beirut were old friends, born days apart. She knew his foibles, lack of bladder control when he laughed too hard, fear of the dark, and hatred of pickles. Didn’t shirk around him, and didn’t gobble down his bullshit. No intimidation. She was diminutive like her older brother, but she wasn’t a demure sprite or a troll. Devo got shit genetics. Shiloh had brains and looks, though both these had parameters. Her intelligence was limited in range and she had the bad tendency to speak without thought or consequence. She was a chubby cute in an overfed mousy way. She squeezed a whitehead on her shoulder, which exploded with pus and fluid. She examined the gunk before flicking it away. “I want to write a story that takes place during a zombie holocaust, but society hasn’t collapsed. Like people still continue on with their daily lives, yet they have to constantly worry about the undead threat. Like smog alerts in LA, people lock up and wait until the problem passes. So, my idea takes place during Thanksgiving, and a group of family and friends collect at a house. Everyone makes it just in time before the local government alerts everyone that a zombie flare-up requires everyone to remain inside, with proper weapons handy, and things locked down. No one is scared. Just business as usual. Meal prep goes on without a hitch until someone realizes that they don’t have cream. This means that someone has to go out and hit up a store so that they can complete the mashed potatoes and whipped cream. One person volunteers and the rest of the story is an adventure tale about sneaking through the zombie hordes for the trivial task of get cream. I think it would be funny and gruesome. And play on the usual themes that zombie movies drive into the ground.”
Shiloh laughed. It was hearty and melodic, perfectly pitched, and infectious, lifting the spirits of a room. Even Beirut was forced to crack a smile. Gussy was already bored. The trio had gone to a creative writing camp at the beginning of the summer and wouldn’t shut up about it. She tried reading their short stories, but only got through a few pages, creating canned responses to not disappoint. Made her feel like a Melvin lying to her friends. They still loved her responses, asking probing questions, which she deflected. She imagined the entire creative writing camp on fire. She hoped that stuffing their faces would make them shut up.
The final member of the crew, Coop, spoke up to remind everyone he existed. He didn’t actually present anything worthwhile. As he spoke, he picked at his jawline. “I’ve been thinking about Robin Hood. Watched the cartoon with the foxes and animals playing everyone. Maid Marian is hot in that thing. I was thinking it would be really cool to write a story that the Sheriff of Nottingham was actually a good guy, who oversaw the township evenhandedly. But, the people are still chaotic, and crime is getting worse. King John, who I would write as a levelheaded man, tells the Sheriff that he has the summer to wrangle in the crime, or he would enlist a crueler man in order to get things in line. So, as a twist, the Sheriff of Nottingham decides to allow the king to replace him with a bad man, and he becomes Robin Hood in order to get the citizens rallied around a common enemy, and fight against the bad sheriff, reducing crime attacking and robbing only the rich bastards the evil sheriff has around. I think it would be cool if it worked out. No green tunics. And Maid Marian is actually the Sheriff’s wife. Still working out the details. Any notes?”
There wasn’t much to say about Coop. Moved to Bandywise a few years ago and incorporated himself in Gussy’s crowd. He loved all things that were derivatively conventional. Gussy sensed he pretended to like the same music. At least he wasn’t a dildo. As a Melvin, he legitimately tried to immerse in the punk scene. Beirut gave him shit for liking Blink 182 and Social Distortion. He was a wrestler, squat, toned and solid, thick necked, blond hair buzzed close to his scalp, and he had yet to lose the boyishness, always looking immature. Quiet and timid, he followed Gussy around like a puppy. Coop hid his crush poorly. Gussy tried to treat him fair. Beirut and Shiloh exploited the boy. But there was no outward hostility. So part of the fold he remained, even if the inclusion felt forced.
Beirut waited impatiently for his time to speak, almost prematurely injecting into Coop’s short rant, his tone desperately condescending. “I want to do something with a fable I heard a bit ago. It’s call the Scorpion and the Frog. I’d turn them to robots or vampires or something. But the story goes like this: A scorpion and a frog meet on the bank of a stream. The scorpion asks the frog for a ride across the water on its back. The frog asks, ‘How do I know you won’t sting me?’ The scorpion says, ‘Because if I do, I will die too.’ This answer seems to satisfy the frog and it lets the scorpion on its back. They set out across the stream, but about halfway, the scorpion stings the frog. The frog feels its body about to cease up as the poison courses through its system. Paralysis prevents the frog from continuing its journey and it starts to sink with the scorpion on its back. As it foresees its own death and the death of its companion, right before it drowns, the frog has enough energy to call out, ‘Why?’ The scorpion sort of chuckles as the water envelopes it, replying, ‘It’s my nature.’ It’s morbid, but it all sorts of speaks to me.”
Beirut drops into a trance, expression vacant, the others unable to respond. Beirut snaps out of his spell, sensing Gussy. “What took so long?”
Gussy set the food and drinks on the table, telling them to dig in. The trio crammed mouthfuls of fries and sliders, chewing briefly before swallowing the junk, washing it down with gulps of pop. The sounds of eating were sickening, Gussy losing what little appetite she had. The bloat and cramps snatched up the rest. Beirut watched Gussy ignore her food. “Not hungry? Can I have your food?”
Gussy gave it up. Beirut inhaled her portion, Shiloh and Coop too engrossed in consumption to talk. Gussy retreated inward, mentally humming a song she didn’t entirely remember, glancing at the colorful covers of the most recent comic releases as further diversion, things blurring together as vibrant messes. Once feasting wrapped, the crew cleaned the mess, shoving trash into the White Castle bag. Coop volunteered to toss the refuse in the dumpster out back. No one objected. Shiloh gave the tabletop a cursory wipe down. Gussy gulped down the remains of her pop, dropping the empty cup into a wastebasket by the register. Beirut was busy composing his outfit to lend a hand. Coop returned, tongue wagging. “We leaving?”
The crew glanced out the window, a growing desire to not return to the heat developing. Night had drawn tight. Bugs mobilized thick in the light of the numerous parking lot streetlamps. Devo reentered his store, annoyed with nothing in particular, clapping his chubby hands. “All right, dorks, time to get your asses out of here.”
Shiloh snorted at her brother’s attempts of imposition. “What big event you have going down? You and your friends playing Magic: The Gathering?”
“When you’re done with the concert, use the back entrance. Don’t want your ugly, pus-covered mugs ruining the good time. It’s a Magic tournament. Have fun paying good money for angry shit played abysmally by untalented hacks.”
The crew fled the comic book shop before Beirut could reply to Devo’s bait. The crew marched to the venue. None of them knew the bands performing. Tonight was dead, anyway. It was Monday. WWE’s RAW was on TV and the noobs had work to worry about. The dildos had better things to do. Melvins and Burroughs were the only ones who flocked to The Bureau on a night like this, which judging by the number of cars in the parking lot, was a fan base of slim to nil. A beefy security guard fortified the front door, sitting on a stool, bored, barely registering the crew as they handed over the five-dollar cover charge. He streaked the back of their hands with a marker. Gussy had a permanent X on the back of her hand, no matter how much she washed, the symbol wouldn’t come off entirely. Just slightly fade until she returned to The Bureau and got tarnished again, a chemical tang left by the fresh X drifting from her skin. Gussy breathed it in deep. The X meant freedom, giving the obvious minors the ability to buy alcohol. Security was indifferent. No one at The Bureau gave a shit. The security guard waved the crew inside.
To no one’s surprise, it was a pitiful crowd, maybe two-dozen. The crew melded easily into the overall aesthetics, ripped jeans, patched-up vests, soiled shirts, Mohawks, and dyed hair. Houselights were up, three members of the first band setting up on stage. Process was DIY, trio lacking key instructions to get their instruments and speakers working. Whatever. They were going to suck. That was the best part. Pure Kick. Attendance wasn’t about seeing talent. It was about fucking with the noobs, fighting the status quo, forming a new world order, finding a place to experience the end of times. Watch it all crumble and destroy itself. Fuck the world. Fuck the dildos. Fuck the establishment. Punk was the Kick, pure sensory sensation, shit or not. Genius was for everyone else. Most performances at The Bureau lacked the ability to deliver this message. Most performances at The Bureau was shitty garbage performed by Melvins.
None of this bothered Gussy. She simply liked the place. It was escape and she was no longer trapped in Bandywise. She was unrestricted in comfortable chaos.
Gussy scanned, determining that the population in The Bureau was mostly Burroughs. It wasn’t difficult to verify, the venue permitted a capacity of 500. There weren’t enough punk fans in the surrounding states to even get a tenth of that limit. This was further hampered by the general shabbiness of the space. With the AC kaput, the ancient contraption hiccupped warmish vapors. This proved too much even for Melvins. It was tropical in here, thick cigarette smoke completing the image. It smelled like a swamp surrounded by a forest fire. Coop waved a hand in front of his face, coughing. He rubbed the X on the back of his hand, eyeing the bar. “I’ll get the first round.”
Gussy snatched a pack of cigarettes Shiloh kept wedged in a back pocket. She lit up with a lighter wrapped in duct tape, returning the pack. She wheezed globs of smoke. Shiloh fueled her own budding nicotine addiction, glancing at Coop. “I want cheap shit. Light beer.”
Shiloh was a different person here, less self-conscious. Shiloh tried on numerous personalities. Her mantra was that life was short. Or not. Life was also a drag. Her affirmations were in constant flux. Dealing with her made even the shortest lifespan feel like infinity. Her most constant attribute was her massive breasts, which looked even bigger on her tiny frame. In the noob world, she was ashamed of them, knew that they gave her the wrong attention, so she secreted them under tight sports bras. This was fruitless since Shiloh tended to reveal loads of skin. Her newest persona was that of the tomboy. She had plans to go try out for rugby or soccer or track when school started. Her summer look included cutting her brown hair extremely short.
Coop put up his hands in surrender and headed to the bar. He broke the bartender from a stupor. She produced beer because everyone at The Bureau drank beer. Liquor bottles behind the bar were dusty. Only Melvins and dildos ordered mixed drinks. Shiloh and Gussy puffed and exhaled quick bursts of toxins in unison. Beirut adjusted his junk inside his pants, licked his lips and disappeared, heading straight to the alleyway behind the venue in search of drugs, from the tame to the hardcore. All sorts of depravity happened back there. Gussy did her best to avoid the spot. Beirut attended concerts for the music. He also attended concerts to get high. The balance leaned more towards the latter. Sometimes, bands started late because members were too stoned to remember they had to perform, riding out the high in the alleyway. When the stage was empty, the crowds got rabid and Fat Tina had to post guards to make sure the place wasn’t torn apart. Beirut always reappeared by the time the last act wound down, always happy and vacant, always glassy-eyed with a droopy casualness on his face, always swaying to feedback resonating from the speakers. The crew kept him among from straying too far. It was the trade off since Beirut’s popularity made them popular.
Fat Tina strolled up. She was doughy with tattoo-covered arms, leather pants, black button-down, and gray-streaked hair. She gave Gussy and Shiloh a meaty hug. “Good to see you girls. Thought no one cool would show up. Hired these guys and I can’t even remember their names. Can you guys pretend to be fans?”
Gussy and Shiloh nodded, enthusiastically. Fat Tina owned The Bureau. She took the cigarette from Gussy’s hand, taking a drag, leaving purple lipstick on the filter. “Trying to quit. It’s been a decade, but I’m getting close. Don’t even start. It’s a terribly awesome habit. Have fun. Going to see if these idiots need help getting their shit ready.”
Fat Tina handed back Gussy’s cigarette and moseyed to the stage, floorboards groaning. Not because of her weight. The duress was from the secondhand nature of The Bureau. It used to be a honky-tonk bar. The shoddy DIY repairs did little to cover up this fact. Fat Tina used her connections to allow the venue to remain open even if it was stuck in a constant state of neglect. The floor especially. It was either slick or soaked or sticky accompanied by something cracking or crunching or shattering or squishing with each step. Gussy saw never an ashtray. She didn’t want to think about how old the cigarette butts around her feet were. All this was negligible after the houselights dimmed. It was only about the Kick.
Coop returned, dishing out lukewarm beers, hand brushing awkwardly across Gussy’s hand. She hid her discomfort, dropping her cigarette to the floor and mashing it. She thanked him for the brew. Coop smiled, shyly. “Special night, these were only a dollar apiece. Bottoms up.”
They clinked the beers together before taking sips, suppressing repulsion for the taste. The alcohol did little to loosen their mouths. Conversation dried. They watched Fat Tina take complete control from the incompetent band. This was routine. Modus operandi for the summer, so far, head out after dinner, then sneak in well after everyone was asleep, tipsy. She heard far too many bands at The Bureau, all of them combing into a dust bunny of noise. The endless supply of disenfranchised white males who wanted to haphazardly smack poorly tuned guitars, pound on drums like uncoordinated maniacs, and scream into microphones meant Gussy never saw the same band twice. She had a sneaking suspicion that they were the identical people performing under different guises. White people all looked alike. The bands represented different levels of rotten. If they tried a bit harder, practiced a bit more, they’d crawl their ways up to shit. A noob might believe the performers worked hard at being terrible. This person would be an asshole. It wasn’t about talent. It was about getting the place crashing hard. No one stood still. Some raised glasses. Some thrashed. Some screamed. Some pumped fists. Some raged with roaring eyes. This is what the apocalypse would feel like. The Kick filled in the empty space, making The Bureau feel a hundred times more packed. The immediate was important. If the performers played fifteen minutes, that was a great set. A large percentage struggled to hit the ten-minute mark. The whole concert was over in less than an hour, and this included set-up and dismantling.
Tonight’s acts were no different than other nights spent at The Bureau: crap, crap, and more crap. Fat Tina announced the bands to the crowd with robotic excitement. The first band was called The Pipers, a trio from Piyyut. The Borderlands, or Sheol County, was made up of three towns. Bandywise was the oldest. Shoah was the county seat. Piyyut was the outcast, where local crime either originated or concluded. Gussy recognized the The Pipers from school. They pretended to be good, but there was no amount of polish to disguise the turd. They played two songs, slamming on their instruments to create sound, opening with an original composition called Tom-Tom, which sounded like a vengeful ghost haunting an ancient manor: ‘…bomb, bomb, the viper’s tongue/stole a gig, and away did hum/the gig was sweet/the bomb was neat/and the bomb went roaring down the street…”
Complete shit. A mosh pit still managed to form near the stage, the few participants thrashing and slamming into each other with unhinged happiness. In the back of the venue, Gussy whipped her head around, spilling beer, and screamed and pumped her fist. The audience was relentless in condemning the band. Once anyone started playing, it became a gladiatorial match, thumbs up/down on a careful balance of earnest ineptitude and breezeless genius, scale tipping too far into shittiness or awesomeness requiring abrupt decapitation. Respect and ridicule such a mystery that most Burroughs loved to hate their own favorites. Upstarts had no chance to succeed, which was true punk tradition: burn out bright and hard. To complete the set that had lasted a whopping three minutes, The Pipers finished with a cover of Tiffany’s I Think We Are Alone Now, which sounded like rusty nails dragged across fresh paint: ‘…children behave/that’s what they say when we’re together/and watch how you play/they don’t understand/and so we’re running just as fast as we can…’
The second group up to the shooting gallery was a nicer looking band, boys from Shoah, probably college students, so they looked experienced and rich, but they were, in fact, worse than The Pipers. This quartet had decided on the name The Flowers, and they sounded like they had blossomed in a pile of shit. No rhythm. No musical abilities. They must have picked up the instruments earlier in the day. Shoah, the Kingdom of Lights, was twenty minutes to the north, where the wealthier demographics lived, and where Nebraska State University, the fighting Prairie Devils, was located. To Shoah, everyone else in the county was poor. Bandywise and Piyyut were brethren, sharing a high school. Jordan River Magnet High School, the Warriors, consistently dominated in football, especially against the Shoah Wildcats. Football was the only currency in the Midwest. For an area drowning in the great expanse of barren flatness and cornfields, when state and division rolled around and the Warriors brought home another title, Bandywise and Piyyut felt like super stars. The Flowers opened with an original composition that might have been titled Tippany, which sounded like a plane crash on a snowy runway: ‘…what will you take for a strip, any power/and what will you take for a danzy/I’ll take a while for that strip, any power/and some bliss for the shitty danzy…’
Whatever the fuck that meant. The band also closed with a cover of Tiffany’s I Think We Are Along Now, which sounded like a murder victim fighting back: ‘…look at the way we gotta hide what we’re doing/cause what would they say/if they ever knew/and so we’re running just as fast as we can/holding on to one another’s hand/trying to get away into the night…’
The final act hailed from the region. Kansas, most likely. The dickish attitude exuded by the three members of The Sun Travelers earned them catcalls for being Melvins and dildos. As much as they tried to sound bad, they were actually good, and that meant they practiced. They were charlatans and everyone in the crowd called them out on it, tossing empty beer cans until they were chased off stage without completing their set. Gussy liked their sound, but hid this opinion, tossing a beer can with excitement. The one song they managed was called Is Not a Bed. It was catchy and hardcore, which sounded like shit smeared on someone’s face: ‘…while here at home, in sighing day/We round the runny harden spray/each little Indian sleepy-head/is being squeezed and put in a shed…’
Beirut managed to make it back inside with just enough time to weakly lob a beer can at the band before they disappeared off stage. He spilled words half-formed, using Gussy and Shiloh to stay afloat. He giggled, his eyes slits and distant, pinching Coop’s ass until Coop retreated out of reach of Beruit’s advances. Fat Tina pulled the plug, The Sun Travelers fleeing, flashing middle fingers at the crowd. The houselights brightened. The few Burroughs still in attendance dispersed like rats. Fat Tina saw Beirut’s incapacitated state and offered to have him sober up in her office. No one objected to the proposition.
Two security guards easily carried Beirut to sleep off the drugs on a couch Fat Tina had for these circumstances. As Gussy left The Bureau, she realized there was only a handful of concerts left before school started and she got depressed.
When the Dead Awaken, I Choose Noise, We Ship Ghosts, Girl No. A, Mesquite
Projects or Proposals Offered:
Cat and Robot, a picture book for children
Excerpts from Reviews or References:
Amazon review of Mesquite: “I loved this book! All the quirky little details were great fun. Each character had a bit of background, so you got a sense of complete understanding of the characters. He even gave a detailed background of the “monkey”! It was a super fun, twisted and disturbing (in a good way) book and I didn’t want it to end. I actually read this book a few months ago and I’m thinking about reading it again this weekend.”
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