April 1, 2017 orangeq2017

Young Punk’s Guide to Nicknames

Sean Michael St. Charles

 

The fox was blood and guts and bootprints. Dead for hours. At least as long as they’d been in Boston. They being John Boy, Pip aka Mike P, Brennan (now Sleeves), and Sean. And they were supposed to be into it, or something. They were supposed to be punk rock motherfuckers. Honest-to-god-devil-dealing-blood-sucking-we-don’t-give-a-shit-punk-fucking-rockers. That’s why they were in Boston, after all.

Boston had seemed so nice in the morning. Sleepy sort of town, like Ann Arbor back home. Snow had fallen overnight and all the houses looked the same to Sean. Not brick houses or wood houses or white houses or blue houses. He preferred it that way.

It was his turn to drive that morning. Nothing unusual. He was always driving or next in line to drive. Sean/Pip/Sean/Pip and so on. John never drove. He was a van sleeper. Blue suede seats like a dream: kept him real cozy. Brennan had the inverse problem. East Coast driving made him itchy. Too cluttered. Too move-it-or-lose-it-buddy-and-piss-off-while-you’re-at-it. Driving back home was something else. Not adrenaline pumping, but at least enjoyable. Real scenic and peaceful. Woods along the side of the highway and pine scent and windows down just a crack. Just enough to feel. Michigan, through and through.

So it was up to Pip and Sean. Which was fine. This division (Pip/Sean vs. John/Brennan) simply made sense. It was rhythm vs. lead. Of course Pip and Sean drove: bass and drums, respectively. At the show, they were in the back. First to set up. Tune up. Shut up. Count off and kick it up. Make way for the talent. But out in the real-real world they were in front—driving to the show.

And today it was Sean driving. New York to Boston by way of Connecticut. He never would’ve guessed Connecticut was a traffic-jammed-55mph-shit-hole. Boston seemed nice though. Big and white and blank. Filled with possibility.

 ___

The Bad Boy Shack looked like any other house in Allston: two story Victorian painted peach with white trim and a swing on the porch. Coated in snow it was downright pleasant. Snug as a bug. Home-away-from-home kind of place. If not for the boys on the porch in patched jean jackets, Sean would’ve driven rright past.

The Bay Boys sat on the railing with their backs to the street—drinking Mad Dog 40s out of paper bags, looking like the cold couldn’t touch them. They wore black. Black jean jackets and dark denim pants and black watch caps folded to hit above the ear. They all had matching boots: slick leather, ankle-length, with one-inch rubber soles. Permanent mink oil sheen. Goddamn, they were beautiful.

The driveway lay un-shoveled. Sean parked on the street. He knew the Bad Boys by way of a Massachusetts band he’d booked in Ann Arbor. The band couldn’t play worth shit, but were good guys and had promised him a fun time in Boston. It was the same with every band that came through Ann Arbor. You think this is wild, you should see our shows back home. Kids hanging from the rafters. Punching holes through the wall. It’ll blow your fucking mind.

Sean hesitated in the driver’s seat. There was a foot of snow on the driveway and his sneakers were already soaked.

“Cold feet, huh” John said to him. “Cold feet, cold feet, cold feet” building into a chant that Brennan and Pip happily joined. They pounded the roof with their knuckles and hollered at the top of their lungs. Cold Feet. John had been pushing the name since Cleveland.

“Fuck off, Mr. Pretty-Boy-Hollywood-Hot-Shot. Why don’t you do the talking this time?” Sean tried to get the name out with a straight face but couldn’t manage.

John laughed. He was dangerous in situations like this. “I’ve done the talking every night so far, and you know it. Now get your ass out there, Cold Feet.” His cheeks were flush and his blue eyes twinkled and he looked like Ian Curtis. When John was in a mood, he had real gravity. You couldn’t help but fall into it.

There was no way in hell Sean was going to let Cold Feet stick. He slammed shut the van door and trod up the driveway.

“What’s happening, college boy,” one of the punks called out immediately. No sneer. No mean look. Just a smile, and a drag from his cigarette. Sean wanted to protest, but couldn’t manage it. The kid was right—Sean was a college boy, which was understood to mean Fancy Boy, which was a roundabout way of saying Faggot. They all were. No denying it. Sean wore slim-fit chinos and a white button up with the top button done. He got his hair cut at an old-fashioned barber: faded, combed, greased, and parted on the side—a real 60s cut. He looked clean. There was nothing punk about it.

“Whaddya want,” another boy chimed in, “sellin’ textbooks?” The Bad Boys all laughed. Sean’s face went red.

“We’re supposed to play here tonight, some friends said it was cool.” He sounded disinterested. That was the trick with rough and tumble types: the less you cared, the cooler you were. Within every clique there was certain etiquette. Drink with the street punks; talk animal rights with the hippies; talk shit with the 80s purists; ham it up for the girls. But across the board, you played it cool.

“Right on, load in the through the back,” said the first boy. He took another drag from his cigarette, clearing his throat afterwards and hocking a mouthful of yellow and brown gunk into the snow. Another boy did the same, and another and another until the snow at their feet was riddled with yellow-brown divots. When they ran out of spit they took turns stomping out the spit holes until all the snow was level.

­­­

___

Pip had final say of load in/load out. He was simply good at it. College had prepared him for such real-world situations. Sure—the others had taken plenty of their own classes, but Pip attended his; wrote notes and made study cards and did homework ahead of time. He kept a planner full of dates with actual importance: phone interview with NASA on January the 3rd; presentation for the School of Engineering on the 14th titled, iPhones and the Airline Industry: Writing the Killer App—which admittedly needed some work, but words had never been Pip’s forte.

So he didn’t talk much. Never a pip out of Mike P. Never a squeak. That’s how he got the nickname.

“Bass cab out first, then the amps,” he ordered Brennan.

“Why don’t you move your own fucking bass cab,” Brennan retorted and Pip just stared at him. Tour had an understood list of rules and responsibilities. Pip’s job was to direct and Brennan’s was to do the heavy lifting.

Sean listened to the argument from the front seat. What a pair they were. Pip got a real kick out of seeing Brennan struggle with the cab. It was massive: eight ten-inch speakers, encased in solid wood: ugly as sin—but the tone was killer, and it could make a basement shake at quarter volume.

Next up was the guitar cab, then the amps, then the guitars, then the merch, then finally the drums. Sean only unloaded drums, and he was the only one to touch them. The kit was his baby. It took him three summers of pushing carts at Kroger just to buy the shells. Hand-carved birch with a satin black wrap. Not to mention the cymbals and the hardware and new heads every few months. Being a drummer was expensive and it made him feel valuable. Here I am making the racket. Banging away. Bang-Bang-Bang. I have visible and audible worth. I swear. I swear. I swear.           

John led the way downstairs through a rear cellar door. Ann Arbor didn’t have cellars. Back home, a basement was another room in the house. The Bad Boy’s cellar was a cave.

They set the gear down on a rug in the corner and turned to survey the space. There were your show standards: cinderblock to put in front of the drum kit, PA system with two mics snaking out from it, pillows taped to the wall to absorb the sound, shattered glass littering the dirt floor.

Then there were the oddities. Christmas lights hung from the rafters like some kind of new stalactite. An inflated children’s pool was set up at the foot of a second staircase, and—as far as Sean could tell—was filled with mud. The room was stuffed with knick-knacks of all sorts: a pile of broken toys, four bike wheels, a raccoon pelt, two deer skulls, a box of cafeteria-sized milk cartons (presumably staled), and a statue of the Virgin Mary with lipstick smeared on her cheeks.

The whole cellar stunk of sweat and stale beer, and they didn’t mind so much. After eight days of shows and no showers, they were hard-pressed to find a smell that offended. Not to say there weren’t odor-issues from time to time. Brennan had this problem with gas. He’d been eating energy bars by the twos and threes all tour long. Smart thinking, really. Save a lot of money that way. But all the fiber had to get out somehow.

“You look like you saw something dead.”

They smelled him before they saw him. The boy from the porch was smoking another cigarette as he climbed down the stairs. Sean coughed. Smoke still bothered him, even after eight days.

“Other bands should be here pretty soon.” The boy them tossed them each a Natty Light from a thirty-rack he was resting on his shoulder. “Have a drink. That’s something they teach you at college, isn’t it?”

Again, with that goddamn smile. Sean shuddered. It wasn’t a coffee-and-cigarette smile or a dear-lord-look-at-those-pearly-whites. The boy’s teeth were clean enough and straight enough. Not particularly unusual looking. Almost too normal. Like he wasn’t smiling at all, just holding up a picture of a smile he’d cut from Good House Keeping.

Who told the boy he could do that? Sean wanted to know.

He stood there watching the boy while the others drank their beers. John shot-gunned his. Typical. The boy laughed, and Sean wasn’t sure if it was at John or with him. John didn’t care either way.

“You college boys are alright. I’ll bet everybody thinks you’re the Number One Punks, back home.”

“I wouldn’t say that,” Sean replied for the group. Ann Arbor didn’t have a bustling punk scene. Sure, they booked punk shows at their punk house, but never on exam nights and when they walked down the streets they weren’t those punks they were just that-guy-in-my-Econ-class or that-guy-that-makes-my-drinks-at-the-coffee-shop.

“Well, you’re gonna see what a real punk show looks like tonight.”

The boy still hadn’t introduced himself. He was gone before anyone could ask his name.

“What a weirdo,” Sean said to no one in particular.

“Seems like a nice enough guy,” Brennan shrugged without much thought, and the others nodded.

He did seem nice enough. That was the problem. Sean sighed and set his beer down in the dirt. He never drank before shows. Couldn’t stomach it sloshing around while he played. He found a clean spot along the wall and took a seat. His feet hurt.

It was cold in the cellar. Cold and dark and one-hundred-percent-lifeless. He tried to imagine the room packed with kids, but couldn’t. Didn’t feel right. The cellar was a real nice place, right then. Sean could live in a place like that. He untied his shoes and slipped them off his feet. They were heavier than usual. Still wet. Wetter, maybe. His socks were wet, too. Beneath his socks, his skin was getting mushy.

He considered pulling the socks off by the toe, but was afraid his skin might come with them. That wouldn’t do. He’d need to be gentle. One sock at a time. Starting with the right, he peeled the cotton from his leg and folded it down. The exposed skin didn’t look his own. Loose-leaf-paper-feet. Pale white with pale blue lines.

The blankness was overwhelming. He pressed the soles of his feet to the ground and rubbed as hard as he could. Nothing changed. Another sigh. His feet were raw and filthy, but beneath it all they were white still and still cold and still not his own.

“You’re the fucking weirdo,” John smirked. He walked over to where Sean had set down his beer and picked up the can. “We’re all fucking weirdos.”

John pulled his Swiss Army Knife from his pocket and stabbed the can, quickly popping the top. He looked like a movie star even then, beer dribbling down his chin. Brennan and Pip sipped their beers and together the four of them waited. The cellar was a real nice place, right then.

___

The cellar was full shortly after doors. Turns out the Bad Boy Shack was the place to be. Brennan sat at the merch table with his sleeves rolled up, trying to look tough. He was tattooed—not completely covered, but enough that he could pass for a tattoo-guy in Ann Arbor. Classic American stuff: a black panther with an anvil in its mouth; a Rose of No Man’s Land for his mother. It seemed like everyone in Boston had more tattoos than Brennan.

“Cute ink, curly,” some guy with a skull on either side of his neck threw out as he walked by the table. “Your momma must be so proud.” Brennan was a pretty big kid, but Skull-Neck was the kind of guy who could beat someone up just by thinking it.

Brennan’s “thanks” was nothing more than a squeak. He’d started the whole nickname thing. Before they’d even written a song, he was thinking up nicknames. He wanted to be Clawhammer and Snake and briefly Big Beefy. On the first day of tour he was Chains. By New York he was Sleeves—as in Tattooed Sleeves. He’d take any name that sounded tougher than Brennan. Sleeves would have to go.

There were only two bands on the bill: them and Boston local called Diet Coke Heads. They were playing first. Sean usually hated opening because the crowd wasn’t loose enough yet, but that didn’t seem to be a problem here. If anything, the crowd was already too loose. It was only 8 o’clock and everyone was drunk. Even the frat guys in Ann Arbor didn’t start drinking before 10.

John was drunk and polarizing the room. It made Sean nervous just knowing him. A group of girls had surrounded John in a back corner and every guy around was glaring at him. Not punk girls, either. Beautiful girls—all dressed up and made up and feeling their drinks. Sean sighed. Good-looking girls were welcome in any group: a life lesson if he’d ever learned one.

“You’re like sooooo handsome.”

“You must be a singer.”

The girls were especially fond of John’s Michigan accent. He had a voice like a bonfire—all smoky and crackling. He winked in Sean’s direction. That dog. He led the girls to the merch table and sold them each a t-shirt. Five dollars a piece. “Special deal just for you lovely ladies.”

After the girls left, John put the money in the moneybox and counted his earnings. He’d made thirty-five dollars, all told. Enough to get pizza later.

“How do you always do it,” Brennan asked and John patted him on the shoulder.

“I’m not a punk, that’s how.” He put his hand out and the four of them slapped five.

“Yeah, well don’t my ass kicked ‘cause you’ve been hitting on somebody’s girlfriend.” The mean looks were getting to be too much for Sean.

He sat down and started to set up his drums. Next to him, Pip had his bass out and was going over parts in his head. Brennan tuned his guitar first by ear, then with a pedal. John hummed scales out of pitch. It was those moments they looked forward to most: the sort of calm you’d never think to find amidst the cigarette smoke and broken glass.

Except, Sean couldn’t find an inch of calm, right then.

“Can you guys move my drums for me? I need to take a breather.” He booked it out the door before anyone could say no.

Cold air was hell on his lungs, but it was better than the smoke from downstairs. He took a hit from his inhaler and breathed deep—slow at first, then faster. One-Two-Three-exhale. One-Two-Three-exhale. Everybody-loves-me-exhale. Everybody-loves-me-exhale. Loves me. Loves me. Loves me. The air was sharp and hurt to breathe, but he wasn’t crying. It was the wind in his eyes.

From inside, he heard his band getting ready. John was talking into the microphone. Pip methodically picked away at the opening groove and the whole house shook in meter. Brennan messed with his levels until his amp was shrieking. He was a genius when it came to the guitar. Never took a lesson and didn’t know a lick about music theory, but the kid could play. He learned by listening. Spend enough time alone and you can figure out how to do just about anything

Sean closed his eyes. There was acid in his throat. One-Two-Three-exhale. One-Two-Three-exhale. He thought about running away but the noise from the cellar was only getting louder. The house would blow if he didn’t go down soon. The entire world would shatter into a thousand slivers—sharper than the air outside, and it would be his fault.

He took one last breath and made his way downstairs. Every eye met his. He took off his shirt and sat down at the kit. One-Two-Three-exhale. One-Two-Three-exhale. He looked up at John and nodded. On the count of four. One-Two-Three-Four. Sean hit the crash and Pip strummed and Brennan strummed and everything went black.

John had punched out the light bulb above his head. Motherfuck. Exactly what Sean needed: something to piss the crowd off even more. The reaction was immediate. One of the Bad Boys ran into Skull-Neck and Skull-Neck hit a Beautiful Girl and pretty soon the whole crowd was thrashing about.

And they fucking loved it. Everywhere Sean looked was a smile. John wrapped the mic cord around his throat and Pip turned to face his amp and Brennan knocked over a kid in the front and played even faster. Sean couldn’t believe his eyes. These weren’t his friends. They were animals. They all were animals: every last person in the room, except for him.

He looked away. The animals might see him.

All of a sudden, something stunk. It was the Bad Boy with the smile. He was coming down the stairs—something furry around his neck. A fox with tire marks across its belly. Must’ve been road kill. It looked so fresh.

The boy marched to the center of the room and plopped down the fox. He started stomping it. Over and over and over and over. The guts squirted out and flecks of frozen blood went flying in every direction. The crowd gathered around and cheered as he stomped the fox into the dirt. The skull caved so easily. The eyes sparkled in the lowlight like treasure for a moment, and then were gone. The paws. Oh those precious little paws—seemed to kick with every stomp. He smashed them all but one.

Sean was next. He could feel it. They’d drag him to the center of the room and stomp him to pieces. Oh no. Oh no. Oh no. Oh no. Oh no. He screamed until the guitar stopped and the bass stopped and he was the only playing.

“That’s all, thanks for having us,” John said over the microphone. He looked back at Sean. The set was over.

“Fuck yeah, you guys were really something.” The Bad Boy came up and gave them each a hug. “Some of the best shit I’ve seen.”

They loaded out while the Diet Coke Heads played. Sean sat on the hood of the van and listened from outside. They didn’t sound very good, but he could hear the crowd singing along.

John hopped up on the hood and sat next to him. “You alright? Got pretty crazy in there.”

“Hell yeah it did,” Brennan shouted from behind the van.

Sean didn’t say a word.

John put his hand on Sean’s shoulder. “The kid already paid me, we can take off any time.” He appreciated the offer. John had always been a good friend.

“Hold on, I gotta grab something first.” Sean ran back down stairs.

The van was loaded and ready to go by the time he returned.

He jumped into the driver’s seat. “All set?”

“What was that about,” Brennan asked and Sean just shrugged.

John laughed. “You’re such a weirdo, man. Let’s go.” And they were gone.

___     

After Boston was Rochester and after Rochester was Pittsburg. It was Pip’s turn to drive that morning. Nothing unusual. In the backseat, John dozed and Brennan listened to his headphones. They’d slept in the van last night.

The sun was beautiful behind them—a dusty shade of red only seen at dawn—and Sean stared out the window as they drove. Traffic was sparse so early, just how he liked it. There was no snow on the roads. If they were lucky, they could make it to Rochester in seven hours. Not so bad. They’d been through worse before.

They made a hundred dollars at the Boston show: enough to fill the tank and get breakfast and the world was a nice place, right then. All the world that fit inside the van. They were expected in Rochester that night, but they could go anywhere. Down to Florida, or all the way out to California. They could drive until no one knew their names, or who they loved, or what they dreamed of at night.

Sean reached into his pocket and pulled out the paw. The fur was soft still and the claws were still sharp. It fit perfectly in the palm of his hand. He’d never seen a fox up close before. It was so much smaller than he’d imagined. He felt himself nodding off. Warm in the van. Nice-and-cozy. Pip was driving. Nothing to worry about. Nothing at all.

 

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