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June 6, 2012 / josephesque

Fiction: This Piece Received Honorable Mention in the Wormhoudt Prize for Fiction.

Excerpt from a short novel “Art of the Fanbase Compilation”

San Pedro, CA

02 Aug ‘04

            “So, did you listen to it?” Harold shouted after wiping his lips.

“What?” Cynthia raised her voice above the blaring distortion and poetically discordant angst of the opening band.

“The tape.”

“I can’t hear you. I think they’re almost done.”

They shook their heads and bobbed up and down until the song ended, and the rush of applause tapered off to a blend of voices. After the thump of an amp turning off, Harold grabbed Cynthia’s hand. He thought she would notice his was sweaty, but the stuffy venue was reason enough not to worry about it.

Paint fumes filled the room and Cynthia coughed, hiding her face. Pops, a local misanthropist, was working on a mural, scowling at admirers; nevertheless, it was on the flier for the house show that he would be painting, and he probably did draw a small crowd. However, Harold only glanced at him occasionally – he was more focused on Cynthia, and she looked back at him after clearing the exhaust.

Someone pushed past Harold, and he repositioned closer to Cynthia. Through the dense crowd, people maneuvered, uncomfortably mixing sweats with those who were dancing to the first band. Smoke filled each room of the house, some more organic than others. It became an enveloping haze that watered eyes of allergic, unfettered, hipsters. Harold looked through a reflective enclave of black rim glasses and hair far too styled to complement the scruffy, hobo chic of the younger crowd gathered at the historic San Pedro home, which was lived in and run as a venue by aging punkers. Punkers who somehow held their daily jobs but at night would not pass on any drink or drug. That evening, meth and blow circulated through the bedrooms and bathrooms. Harold’s eyes moved from Pops’ hallucinatory steampunk Abbey Road mural to the neighborhood cat that was coughing just outside then back to Cynthia.

“So did you listen to it?” he clutched one of her shoulders, bringing her closer, rubbing her arm. She smiled coyly through her auburn bangs.
“I did. Well, I listened to the main one. The important one. A few times actually.” Cynthia pecked his cheek. “And thank you. I loved it.”
“The important one?” the tone in Harold’s voice sounded faintly disapproving. The thwack of a needle slipping into the grooves of a record interrupted his thought.

“Let’s go outside,” Cynthia shouted over the opening volley of Diamond Dogs. She pulled Harold along while shuffling through a maze of young and old, sober and high, socially hip and awkward, through the back door into the yard which was a weedy graveyard of cigarette butt tombstones and hardened soil. Beer cans filled a large, metal trash can; the overflow was stacked around the derelict remains of a built-in gas grill. The two hustled to the corner against a Pops’ mural he titled “The Surreal Evolution of Johnny Depp.” The smoke overhead masked the night sky.

“You should really listen to the supplementary tape,” Harold started, only to be interrupted by an impulsive cry of laughter spawned by the coughing cat. “What’s with that? I don’t get it.”

Cynthia, chuckling a little, asked, “What’s not to get? The cat’s flailing on the ground coughing. It’s unnatural. It’s funny,” She straightened her vintage blouse and grabbed Harold’s hand.

“Is anyone else worried about the cat?” Harold asked.

“No, that cat’s always coughing. It’ll be fine.” She paused. “Look. I should have listened to the other tape, right?”
“Well, I explain why I put on those songs.”
“Okay, I didn’t realize. I just got so busy.”
“No, it’s alright” Harold said looking down, and Cynthia found the heart to murmur “Know that I love you too,” but it was muted by another cat-evoked outburst of laughter, and Harold gazed at his shoes, missing the mouthing of words her lips pursed. Words he had been waiting to hear since Houston.

He reached out, splayed his arms, said, “I missed you – so much,” and Cynthia plunged forward into his chest. He wrapped his arms around her, and they breathed on each other’s necks while the cat coughed and the hipsters laughed. The crowd began to shuffle inside as the sound of a tuning electric guitar squealed its way outside. They stayed in embrace, and the cloud of smoke began dissipating slowly while the band started. The screech of distorted guitars pierced their ears, even from the lawn; bass rhythms vibrated their feet.

“That was fast,” Harold said, as the record stopped abruptly. “These guys must be using Kiltoe’s gear.”

Cynthia looked straight into Harold’s eyes and smiled. “Let’s walk.”

The two moved through the weeds in the side yard and escaped the rumbles and electricity of the house through a splinter-laden gate to the sidewalk.

“I know this is your return show, and you’ve been talking about your tour with everyone all night, but tell me a little about it.” Cynthia held Harold’s hand firmly as they walked through the warm August night, down a residential street with spotty, overhanging lights.

Passing a bum lying on top of and covered in cardboard Harold thought resembled a hoagie, he started, “Jesus. There’s just so much. I guess there was really just, like, all these different things that happened, but none felt so important. I mean, they did. And there were definitely a few things that maybe changed me, although I’m not quite sure how yet.”

“Like what?”

“Like this “Zen” moment, for lack of a better word. Have you read Dharma Bums?”

“Well, remember when Kerouac and Jaffy… God, what was Kerouac’s name?”

“Wasn’t it Ray or something?”
“I don’t think so.”

“I think it was.”

“Well, anyway,” Harold smirked, “it was like that mountain hike, run, stroll thing. When everything outside just took over. I went on a hike by myself and… Well, I was in Chattanooga, and we were swimming, and there was this giant rope swing, and there was a mom shouting at her kids, Zeke and Kyle, and every time I heard her yell at her kids to eat lunch or get sunblock, I’d have to wonder if she realized it sounded like ‘Seig Heil! Seig Heil!’”

Cynthia lightly laughed. They continued to stroll past an old army surplus store with rusted bars over the windows.

“You can’t be serious,” she grabbed his hand again, slightly sweatier.

“Oh, dead serious.” Harold’s face began to gleam in an unusually bright street light, and he realized they were approaching a major intersection. A sort of restless excitement began to churn in his blood, and he began to anticipate something important was going to happen. “We should probably turn around. We don’t want to go too far in case the band calls and needs me.” He glanced at his cell phone, clicked away a couple notifications with the END button, and dropped it back into his pocket.

“Hey, I’ve got something I’ve been thinking about too. Since you’ve been away,” Cynthia humbly muttered.

“Oh, awesome. But let me just finish. I mean, if you don’t mind.” He rubbed his cheek, noticing Cynthia’s expression shift and feared he may have stifled something important, not knowing what. He smiled sweetly, offering, “really… only if you don’t mind.” She nodded apprehensively, and he continued.

“So, when we were there laughing at the Zeke! Kyle! chants, I started to realize that the entire time to that point, what exactly I had been learning about these people I was on tour with. My band. We were in this van, going from state to state, and some serious shit surfaced. And seriously light stuff too; like did you know Darcy, like, seriously wants to be Matthew McConnaughey?”

“What?” Cynthia began to giggle.

“Yeah, for real. That’s part of the reason he took up drumming. I mean, he won’t say it, but it’s fucking true. He drives the car he thinks he’d drive. He has all of his movies on DVD; at least that’s what Vince says. He always says stuff that sounds like quotes like ‘You know why I like them high school girls? I keep getting older and they stay the same age,’ but totally original variations. It’s really strange.”

“Wait. So can I ask him about this?”

“No, no. This is the identity he’s chosen, and that’s what’s fucking important to him. And he’s becoming unique in that. I mean, he’s a copy of that, but a personalized copy of that. And it’s like my cousin. I mean, when I was a kid, I always looked up to my cousin. I liked the shows, movies, music, everything he liked. I tried to talk like him, which didn’t last long since his Oklahomese didn’t go over well at school. But he was like my model. And that’s what we do as people. We model ourselves after others, and try to be more individual from that starting point. That’s what I realized out there.

“So I went on this hike, and when I got back, all the sudden, people just started glowing to me. I mean, glowing’s the wrong word probably. But it became all about the small shit that seemingly doesn’t matter, like Darcy’s penchant to take his shirt off whenever possible. It’s likely he’s just hardwired to like being topless, but it’s also just as likely that one of his favorite people in the world, Matthew McConnaghey’s swagger and confidence inspires that. But there are hundreds or thousands of attributes people copy, borrow, or take, and that’s what makes people so unique yet so familiar.”

“I think I see what you’re getting at. Like, there are a bunch of different lines of personality, and where they all cross makes a person? Kind of?”

“Kind of. yeah”

They both walked silently for a moment. Cynthia kicked a rock into the street and rubbed Harold’s back in sort of an appreciation of the sentiment but also in an abandon of her attempt to fully get it. Her expression shifted back to a nervous gaze. Harold started to stare at the lights as the sound of music crossed the horizon, and they were getting close to the house again.

“Hold on,” Cynthia said. “It’s getting too loud. Can we stop here and have a smoke before we go back?”

“Yeah, here…” Harold pulled two cigarettes out of the box in his shirt pocket, lit them both, and handed her one. “You know, I think what I realized is that it’s worth it to not just take people as they are for who they are, without really trying to see who they really are. There’s a lot more to every goddamn person, and we need to find that. And I think if it wasn’t for you, and just, you know, me completely falling for you, I probably wouldn’t have been able to learn an appreciation like that for other people. And I’m still learning, obviously. Still figuring it out. But I think…”

“Hold on,” Cynthia interrupted and took a drag. She faced him and the two made an awkward eye contact. Cynthia’s nerves began to pulse while Harold’s mind filled with visions of a potential I cheated while you were gone conversation about to start, but the delusion fell to the ground as she began to speak.

“You know, Harold. Since you’ve been out on the road, I’ve been thinking a lot about us. You called me a few times, and one time you freaked me out. Think about it. We aren’t technically even dating, although we’ve just been lying to ourselves, because we are. I mean, be honest. We are. And that time you called me fromHouston, you dropped a bomb on me, and I didn’t know what to say. And…”

Cynthia’s eyes were welling up and a shade of rose began to surface on her cheeks. Harold wrapped himself in what he thought of as an offering of tangible affection – what he only imagined a requited love would feel like. A warmth enveloped his feet and moved up his body as he threw his cigarette into the street and closed in on her with his embrace.

“You don’t need to say it,” he whispered in her ear, thinking she was going to say the words he had been waiting for. “I love you so much. I missed you.” She returned the hug and the two welded together in an unbreakable bond.

As a song from down the way ended, a cheer echoed through the street. Cynthia moved her mouth next to his ear, and with a quiet, honest breath said, “move in with me.”

At that moment, Harold lost control to a spurt of laughter, although still in an embrace. A brief panic that she would think he was laughing at her left as quickly as it came.

“I’m sorry. This is just the best thing you’ve ever asked.”
“I’m not asking,” she said through a smile that Harold could hear but not see as his chin was over her shoulder. Between the fading of the applause and that calm before the explosive start of the next song: a quiet splat.

Cynthia didn’t bother to look, but Harold opened his eyes and peered at the ground to see the burgundy splatter. He lightly loosened the grip of one arm and felt, with his finger, a stream of warm blood slowly pour from his nose. God, not another one, he thought. Not now. But in fear of breaking the moment, he let his nose bleed onto the sidewalk, keeping his chin far enough over her shoulder that it wouldn’t get on Cynthia’s clothes.

“Of course,” Harold whispered over a reckless guitar solo.

He squeezed her tighter, and she firmed her hold, weaving them more tightly into each other, becoming the most honest things happening in San Pedro that night. Then the blood trickle began to evolve into a sort of light pouring. It glimmered as it designed the sidewalk behind Cynthia’s heel. He loosened his grip, fearing this was becoming more severe and knowing he needed to stop the flow, but in the moment, he couldn’t break his grip.

The sound of applause and a fading out of feedback was so distant from Harold’s consciousness, he only thought between the ideas of treating himself medically, which would simply be cleaning up his nose and lip and shoving a tissue up in there to stop his nosebleed, and empowering himself with what he and Cynthia shared at that moment. And between those ideas, his mind drifted in joyful distract.

Cynthia broke the silence, “Aren’t you supposed to play now?”
“Oh shit.” Harold said, coming out of what he would later call his “perfect haze of being” when referring back to the moment. He made a kissing sound and said, “I better get in there fast. I love you. I’m so happy right now.” And not letting Cynthia see his face and the red that had doubtlessly begun to dry on his lip, he gave her a final squeeze, and quickly turned and ran. She watched as he sprinted down the street, past the coughing cat which was now on the sidewalk, and into the house, past the people and smoke.

Feeling what Harold had in that moment of connection left Cynthia confused by his hasty escape, but she figured it must have just been nerves. And when flicking down to stomp out the cigarette she forgot to smoke, she noticed a splattered blood design on the sidewalk, but thought very little of it if anything at all other than that it was actually quite pretty.

San Pedro was not the safest city after all.


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