side A: my dark ages
IT’S THE NIGHT THE MUSIC COMES HOME . That’s how the
concert is billed on the red flyers plastered along the telephone poles that lead into Arcadia. The notices accompany cars through the few blocks of dive bars, all-night diners, and ethnic restaurants that constitute the ragged downtown. Drivers cruise the streets in search of parking spaces, gliding past the ticket holders streaming toward the show and the onlookers loitering under streetlights. Normally people come to make the most of their hours away from jobs at the wheelchair factory, the tire warehouses, and construction gigs, but this crowd has flocked here for the homecoming show of a local band whose songs have gone viral. Their attention is riveted on the theater, its façade lit up like a beacon. A bustling queue of teenagers wraps along the building’s perimeter, bodies pressed tight to keep a claim on their territory. They’ve camped out on the sidewalk for hours, dressed light in anticipation of spring weather that hasn’t arrived, a sampling of what passes for an underground scene in this conservative industrial city. The strip-mall goths, the mod metalheads, the blue-collar ravers, the bathtub-shitting punks, the jaded aesthetes who consider themselves beyond category. Everyone in line has imagined a night that could crack open and transform their dreary realities. This is it.
Xenie clutches one of the red concert flyers while she watches the line grow. Teenagers swarm in tense cliques, unaccustomed to seeing one another away from the usual hangouts—the parking lot of the sandwich shop that sells alcohol to minors, the skate park haunted by the spirits of dead twins, the abandoned flag factory that’s the site of ritualistic revels. Only one band could draw everyone here together. A steady stream of newcomers search for the end of the queue that’s vanished around the corner. The overhead marquee doesn’t bother to advertise the Carmelite Rifles. It simply says sold out.
Xenie smooths her tattered blouse and thrift-store skirt and scans the crowd, knocking her combat boots to- gether for luck. Somebody has to have a spare ticket. She listens to some kids in tie-dye T-shirts and leather dog collars swapping stories about the band’s incandescent live shows. The one where they dressed as the headlining band
and played their set note for note. The epic concert at Echo Echo whose encore spilled out into the courtyard.
—I was at their very first gig, she says. They played next to a washing machine in the drummer’s basement.
Nobody replies or looks up. Maybe she didn’t actually say anything out loud.
The sixteen-year-old keeps pacing in front of the theater. The scalpers skulking along the sidewalk keep a lookout for cops while chanting astronomical numbers under their breath. They assess her with sidelong glances both pitying and predatory.
Farther down the queue, she recognizes several faces from other shows, a tattooed girl with sleepy eyes and a blue-haired boy with pierced lips. Not that she’s ever summoned the nerve to speak to them. Anybody got an extra ticket? she asks.
She holds up the concert flyer to emphasize her point, but it’s the wrong side. She stands there facing the line, desperately waving a page of pure red.
Two teenage boys linger at the end of the line. They stand slightly apart from the shrinking queue. They try not to act alarmed by the low rumble of the opening act’s set, but it’s obvious the show has officially started. The tall skinny boy frantically empties the contents of his billfold onto the sidewalk. His face blazes crimson. I fucked up, he says. I really fucked up.
He turns to his friend Shaun and displays the empty expanse of wallet where their tickets should be.
—I must’ve left them at home, Florian says. I can call my mom. Maybe she’ll bring them.
Shaun is sunk in thought. He casually shakes his long brown hair out of his eyes. Typically calm and unruffled. Still got the cassette? he asks.
—Right here, Florian says.
The demo tape contains several songs they wrote and recorded together. Their latest batch. The label doesn’t list who played what because they share duties on vocals, guitars, everything. They’ve transferred the music to magnetic tape for maximum retro appeal. The case is spray-painted bright violet.
Shaun nods, then walks straight toward the front of the line, past the people impatiently shuffling their feet and the rows of silk-screened concert posters. Florian stumbles after him with his storklike steps, barely keeping up as they approach the security guard who clutches a wooden clipboard. The teardrop tattoos inked under his eyes make it even more difficult to imagine him crying.
—Hey, man, Shaun calls to the guard as if greeting an old confidant. I don’t know what name he put us under. Maybe you can help us out.
—Who are you talking about? the guard says.
—You know, Mickey, the bass player. We’re his cousins. Maybe it’s under Mickey’s name, maybe it’s under mine, maybe my brother’s.
The guard looks perplexed as he scrolls through the printed names on the guest list.
—There we are, Shaun says, peering over his shoulder and pointing to an unchecked name. That’s me, and my brother’s the plus-one.
The guard looks skeptical, but Shaun has already extended his wrist to receive a stamp. Florian follows his lead. He’s used to his friend pulling off these sorts of stunts.
At the theater’s entrance, Shaun notices a girl in a thrift-store ensemble and combat boots pacing the side- walk. The spiky cut of her blonde hair doesn’t entirely obscure her delicate features. She’s singing one of the band’s tunes under her breath, repeating the chorus in a lilting croon. Her lips barely move, but the shape of the song vibrates in her throat.
Xenie watches people file into the theater. Half the audience must be inside already. As the line steadily shortens, she can feel her options dwindling. A preppy girl from school struts past and pulls her lips into a knifelike smile: Not so cool without a ticket, are you? Xenie merely shrugs and mirrors her smile. Nobody is going to ruin this night for her.
She spots a boy leaving the theater for a smoke. He stands under the diffuse glow of the marquee, wearing an absent expression while he lights up. The spooky pink scar
zigzagging down his cheek looks self-inflicted, but there’s no time to be picky.
—I don’t have a ticket, Xenie says, hoping she doesn’t sound desperate. And I noticed your stamp.
The kid nods nonchalantly. No problem, he says.
She licks her wrist and holds it out to him. He presses the circular black stamp against her wet skin, and a glis- tening imprint of the stamp is transferred to her.
She thanks the boy profusely. He exhales a long plume of smoke. Good luck, he says, nodding at the security guard in the yellow staff shirt with the neck tattoo. One of the venue’s infamous goons.
Xenie tries to keep her pale wrist from trembling, telling herself the stamp looks fine even as the circular out- line grows fainter with each inspection.
Florian and Shaun follow the surging crowd through the lobby. They’re overwhelmed by the number of people pushing a path toward the bar and jockeying for space along the wooden counter, waving worn credit cards and wrinkled currency. They marvel at the continuous swarm around the merchandise table, people sifting through the multicolored vinyl and screen-printed T-shirts featuring nuns brandishing automatic rifles.
—There’s so many townies and college kids here, Florian says. Never seen any of these people at Carmelite Rifles shows before.
—It’s cool, Shaun says. People are paying attention to the scene. Other Arcadia bands are going to start making it, too.
They’re both thinking about the cassette. Somewhere nearby the band members must be part of this crowd, socializing with old friends before they take the stage. Florian can feel it. He absorbs the charged hum of chatter, strangers striking up conversations, intertwined voices escalating toward a frenzied pitch. Sagging strands of colored lights are suspended across the ceiling, and even in their dim glow people’s expressions seem amplified, their faces greedy with anticipation. Probably he looks exactly like them.
Xenie walks deeper into the theater. She weaves her way down the shadowy corridor through clusters of kids de- bating the band’s penchant for dramatic openings. I heard Mister Charlie is joining them, a boy says. That homeless dude who lives in the woods and pays guys for their dirty underwear. Come on, a girl counters. I heard they’re going to play some punk classic. No way, another girl says. My friend swears they’re releasing a flock of birds into the audience. Xenie keeps her opinion to herself. She spots a discarded ticket stub on the floor and peels it from the concrete, pocketing it for her collection.
As she enters the darkened auditorium, she discovers the crowd amassed at the front, drawn to the bombastic blare of the speaker towers. They bob their heads and twitch their bodies, reptile brains in thrall to the throbbing
frequencies. Onstage in a small spotlight, a deejay hunches over a turntable. The ballad he’s spinning has never been a favorite, but right now as its snaking bass line and slow- burn chorus fill the cavernous room, it sounds exactly perfect.
Xenie spots the boy with the zigzag scar maneuvering toward the stage, using his shoulder to knife through clusters of people. She watches to see how well his approach works, then walks down the sloping floor to enter the intensifying heat, the crush of multiplying bodies, the communion of commingled limbs.
The lights flicker on as the deejay concludes his set. People shake off the sound and slowly disperse toward the bar and bathrooms. Florian stares up at the stage, taking in the ring of gleaming guitars and basses, the drum kit embossed with the band’s logo, then looks down at the humble purple cassette in his palm. Maybe we should re-record this, he says. I should really redo my vocals. Or maybe you should sing my parts.
—Don’t be so uptight, Shaun says. It’s genius. Someday it’ll be us up there.
Time is running short if they’re going to connect with the Carmelite Rifles. They comb the crowd, scouting the length of the bar, searching the men’s bathroom, consulting the taciturn woman working the merch table. Maybe they can give the tape to the band’s manager. As they wander through the theater, Florian notices Shaun’s determination is flagging. He seems more interested in the acquaintances he keeps running across—local musicians, older classmates, cute girls—who wave hello, shake hands, smother him in hugs.
After inspecting the remotest nooks of the theater, they return to the auditorium. Among the assembled throng, Shaun spots one of the faces he’s been hoping to see.
—Hold up, he says. Look over there.
He points to the blonde girl in the thrift-store outfit.
You know her? he asks.
—Is she with the band? Florian says.
—She was out front of the theater earlier.
—Oh, Florian says. I thought you were interested in Amber.
—Cheerleaders are boring.
As Shaun saunters toward Xenie, Florian stares at the cassette. He worries that it won’t be long before Shaun loses interest in their music or gets lured away by a more established band. While his mind races, he inserts his finger into the reel and spools the magnetic tape, as if he’s fast-forwarding.
Xenie keeps her eyes pinned on the stage. The tall red curtains flutter, but it’s only a roadie coming out to adjust the height of a microphone. He stands at the center of the stage, testing the sound levels by reciting numbers in a practiced monotone. His poker face gives away nothing
about the band’s status. The restless audience responds with raised voices, stamped feet, clapped hands.
—How do you think they’ll start the show? the boy standing next to her asks.
She recognizes Shaun. The blandly handsome boy with long hair who seems to know everyone.
—What do you think they have planned? he says.
Normally Xenie might be self-conscious, but she’s been waiting all night for someone to ask her this.
—They’ll play the songs off their first single, she says.
Both the A-side and the B-side.
—Not many people know that one, Shaun says. It was never repressed.
—That’s the point, she says. They’ll do it for the fans who’ve been there since the beginning. I mean, that’s what I’d do.
Shaun gives her an appraising look that she doesn’t know how to interpret.
—So which do you like better? he asks. A-side or B-side?
—The song with the scrambled riff where they only sing the chorus once? he says. That’s a weird one. You always go for the B-sides?
—Most of the time, she says. I kind of like songs that take time to figure out.
—I’m always trying to write A-sides, Shaun says. But when I’m listening, I prefer the B-sides. They’re the tunes where the bands bury their secrets.
—Their obsessions, she says.
Xenie has more theories, but she’s never shared them with anyone.
—I bet you have an interesting music collection, Shaun says, smoothing his hair out of his face. I’d like to see it sometime.
He says this casually, not like a come-on. She likes how he listens, likes the easy cadence of their conversation. De- spite herself, she moves a little closer, intrigued by his faint aroma of spicy cologne and sour sweat. It’s not a bad smell.
While Florian waits for Shaun to return, he remains on the lookout for the band’s manager. Instead he spots Randy, a boy from school with a small sinuous frame and pointed nose who’s rumored to have a nice drum kit. Randy cracks jokes while circulating through the crowd, passing out flyers offering deep discounts at the Broken Ear, the local record store. Florian half wonders if he should give the cassette to him.
There’s a commotion by the side of the stage. A muscle- bound security guard manhandles a teenager with a nest of brown hair, levering his left arm behind his back. Florian recognizes the skinny boy who twists and flails as he’s frog-marched out of the auditorium. The boy tumbles to the floor and before he can stand up, the guard kicks him in the stomach.
Florian breaks through the ring of stunned onlookers
and steps in front of his friend to shield him from further blows.
—You okay, Eddie? he asks.
Eddie tries to nod, but can’t stop coughing.
Florian faces the security guard, a giant whose bottom lip twitches spasmodically.
—Out of my way, the guard says. I’m tossing him out of here.
—He’s not going anywhere, Florian says. You fucking assaulted him. Everybody saw it.
The guard stares at him with blank fury.
—You going to assault me, too? Florian says. Come on.
I’m right here.
The audience members encircling them mumble taunting threats. The ring of people thickens as fresh faces push forward, straining for a better view.
The guard curses and backs away into the crowd, which closes around him. Florian lets loose a long breath, then helps Eddie off the ground.
—Damn, Eddie says. That guy could’ve killed us both.
—What the hell happened?
Eddie stares at his shoes. I didn’t have a ticket, so I snuck in through the back, he says. I walked through the backstage without anybody noticing. I was so close, then that goon grabbed me.
His conservative cardigan sweater and pressed jeans are impressively out of place here.
—It’s my folks’ fault, Eddie continues. You know how they are. I thought I hid my ticket pretty well, but they
found it and ripped it up. There’s no way I could miss this show.
Florian remembers Eddie’s controlling parents, their unpredictable alcoholic rages, their violent suspicion of music. They scared him as a kid.
—Come on, Florian says. Let’s stake out a better spot. Eddie coughs violently into his hands and discovers bright red spots. He stares at his speckled palms. That’s hardly any blood, he says, so softly it sounds like a regret.
side b: kill city
Day One • NORTH CAROLINA
HE FOLLOWS THE MUSIC. The boy heads in the direction of the sound, drawn to the dim repeating throb emanating from down the street. Like a sleepwalker in a trance, he shuffles down the sidewalk in search of the source.
With his blank expression and rumpled clothes, the boy has little in common with the people around him. The animated drunks clustered outside the bars bumming cigarettes and perfecting their monologues. The college students in skinny jeans pasting flyers along the blank canvas of the construction fence. These posters are adorned with the photo of a bloody panda, but there’s no time to ponder the image’s possible significance because the boy keeps moving.
The pulse grows louder as he passes the rows of telephone poles coated with weathered concert notices that rustle in the breeze like dried leaves. He marches past the clothing boutiques and thrift shops, tapas restaurants and pizza joints. At the end of the block, he crunches across a
gravel parking lot toward a windowless concrete building. The home of the music.
A trio of girls hovers in front of the veterans hall. They’re dressed in matching purple, purses poised on hips, necks arched, eyes narrowed. As the boy approaches, they talk about him in theatrically loud voices, tossing out their words like taunts, as if he isn’t standing close enough to hear them.
—Here comes another one, the first girl says.
—Him? says the second girl. He’s not a musician.
—Might be, the third girl says.
—Come on, the first girl says, rolling the whites of her eyes. I was obviously joking.
The first girl steps forward and hands him a printed notice about the concert, already in progress. It’s a battle of the bands and the list of performers looks endless. The bubbly handwriting at the bottom indicates another group added to the bill. While the boy examines the flyer, the girls pay closer attention to his shaved head and the empty spaces where his eyebrows used to be.
—Is he drunk? one of the girls whispers.
The boy takes the flyer and folds it in half, in quarters, in eighths. He makes the creases perfect and the proportions exact, reducing the paper to an immaculate square. Then he tosses it onto the ground. The move is so swift and precise that it’s clear he hasn’t been drinking.
Bathed in the echoing rumble of the music, the boy pauses at the entrance. He stares at the elderly vet posi- tioned behind the plastic folding table with a metal cashbox. He hesitates, hands plunged in pockets, reconsidering. Or perhaps he’s just having trouble fishing out the few dollars required for admission. He finally produces the crumpled bills, purchases a tear-off ticket, and crosses the threshold.
He steps into a darkened foyer stacked with folding chairs and collapsed circular tables and tracks his muddy footprints across the linoleum floor. Distorted sounds beat around the room like a trapped bird. Looking up, he’s startled by the plastic banner strung along the ceiling. It’s probably been hanging here for decades, greeting successive waves of veterans. The boy’s lips twitch and his eyes shine as he repeatedly mouths the words printed across it. As he enters the main space with its wood-paneled walls, the boy spots the source of the music: a trio of guys in bowling-league shirts, high-top sneakers, and matching flattop haircuts playing a frenetic brand of garage rock that harkens back to an earlier era. They throttle their instruments and crank up their vintage amps, straining to suggest a dramatic crescendo. They finish the song
with the guitarist half-heartedly hopping into the air.
The boy takes a seat at the bar, which is adorned with oxidized award plaques and faded photos of uniformed men in front of fighter jets. Totems of a bygone age. He pulls out a suspiciously shiny driver’s license and orders a beer. The bartender sets a sudsy glass in front of him, then notices the trail of dirt in his wake.
—How the hell’d you get so muddy? the bartender asks. It hasn’t rained here in weeks.
The boy doesn’t appear to understand the question, then he looks down at his soil-encrusted sneakers. He seems genuinely confused. I don’t remember, he mumbles. For some reason, the boy can’t bring himself to watch the band furiously riffing away on the small wooden stage. Instead his gaze is directed at the hunting trophy mounted on the wall above them. Something about the wood duck, hung upside down with its wings outstretched and beak open, entrances him. The glass eyes embedded in the slightly worn feathers preserve the bird’s final moments, a flux of alertness, confusion, fear. No matter how long he
looks, the expression refuses to settle.
The boy scans the packed room. The audience seems mostly composed of musicians. A motley assemblage of jam bands in tie-dye shirts and denim jackets, unbathed punks with ratty coifs and ripped jeans, bearded indie rockers with headbands ironically coordinated to the color of their drainpipe pants. There are even a few long- haired kids immaculately adorned in corpse paint. Some strike poses to indicate polite engagement, while others watch with slitted lids and pursed lips. None of them really hear the music. They all await their turn to perform.
Onstage, the guitarist windmills his arm while the lead singer strangles the microphone stand in time to the beat. The drummer launches into a spastic solo, pounding each part of his modest kit in turn. The band finishes another purposefully sloppy tune and pauses to collect some listless applause. The boy runs his hand across his shaved head, as if trying to loosen his thoughts. On a napkin, he
scribbles a string of vowels that adds up to little more than a wordless moan. His beer glass sits on the counter untouched, the beads of perspiration becoming imperceptibly engorged.
The boy takes a few steps toward the stage. His hand slowly reaches into the small of his back. The movement looks rehearsed, but it acquires a new meaning in the context of an audience. The singer does a series of awkward high kicks, but most likely the boy misses this. His eyes have been closed for several seconds. He produces a revolver from the waistband of his pants, points it in the direction of the band, and pulls the trigger. A single shot is all he can muster. His lids remain shut, his lashes as tightly entangled as a Venus flytrap. Slowly, his irises appear and absorb the scene.
It must have been a lucky shot because the guitarist stutter-steps across the stage in a crabwise stagger, clutching his shoulder. The wound soaks his shirtsleeve in a spiderweb pattern. There’s a quizzical look on his face. Nobody else in the room seems able to process what is happening, either. The sound of the blast is smothered by the spiraling feedback. The boy squeezes the trigger again. A series of small thunderclaps issue from between his hands.
The band is suspended midsong. The drummer tumbles backward, and there’s blood on the wall. A bullet brings the lead singer to his knees. His puckered lips seem to be forming a phrase, or maybe mechanically completing the final syllables of the song.
The boy stands in the center of the room. It’s empty now. Maybe he’s been standing here for a while. The power has been cut and the music has ceased. He continues to face the stage, now populated by slumped corpses, half-drunk beer bottles, a notebook of handwritten lyrics. Droplets of blood are spattered across the grille cloth of the amp. Everything is silent except for the repetition of the boy’s index finger pressing the trigger, the steady rotation of the empty chambers, the rhythmic click of the hammer. Those three interlocking sounds, in continual sequence, again and again and again.