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No Amplifiers

 
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Chris Leslie-Hynan

Polaroids by Scott Hug

 

Colin had been watching half an hour for the dust cloud that meant the band had turned off the highway, but as soon as he saw it he made himself go into the bathroom. He straightened his V-neck and tried to breathe evenly, stroking his thyroid with his thumb.

“Anguish and travail,” he said to himself in the mirror. “Endure and prevail.”

In the lot he found five men packed into an outmoded green Corolla with Idaho plates, the engine still running. He was going to wave them around back when he realized there wasn’t much gear to unload. The passenger window lowered and fell suddenly away. Colin found himself looking at a pockmarked face blockaded by a pair of smeared glasses.

“Park anywhere?”

Beyond a single strip of new blacktop, the lot was just dirt all the way to the trees. The car circled backward and the men got out.

“Welcome to the Hyacinth,” Colin said. The band looked around. The sign extending from the roof was blank. The supplemental panel read: CASINO, COCKTAILS, GIRLS.

“Is this what I think it is?” the tallest one asked.

Colin grinned. “We’re still renovating the casino.”

“When do you open?”

“Four o’clock, for now. We’re expanding soon. You guys go on out back at nine.”

They popped the trunk. There was only room for three guitars, and Colin felt a wave of intense anticipation: the gear that he’d bought would be tested and judged. Fear and excitement felt so alike to him now that he could no longer tell them apart.

“We got no amps,” the tall man said.

“It’s fine. We’ve got mics, amps, a house kit of course. Everything’s premium and new.”

The man in the smeared glasses was still looking at the sign. “When do the girls get here?”

“Three-thirty,” Colin said. It was just half past noon.

 
 

The band was called Yønder. They were from Seattle, although between their aesthetic and their heritage they were regularly mistaken for Danish. They’d had four consecutive albums score in the low eights on Pitchfork, the latest scraping into Best New Music territory. They’d managed to evolve their sound from an unusually rancid and tensile iteration of fourth-generation Joy Division into something surprisingly more mature. Everyone had learned to actually play their instruments and their singer had only grown more disturbingly attractive.

While giving them a tour of the venue, Colin wondered if the band were imposters. The drummer and rhythm guitarist were nondescript even in press photos, but they were supposed to have a Kenyan bassist named Shiv. Maybe he skipped this tour? Colin eventually placed Smeared Glasses as the lead guitarist, Kerry, but he was balding and seemed to have aged ten years since the two-year-old concert video where Colin had watched him solo. The tall, handsome singer had also sprouted the beginning of a double chin. A beer gut suggested itself beneath his tight black button-up.

The stage was a low riser that he’d bought off a shuttered school district. The Hyacinth was brick and mortar, but his venue was nothing but a fifty-person tent to break the wind and to keep off rains that never came. The band gave no sign they found it lacking, but Colin ushered them inside before they could change their minds.

Stepping into the dark, he felt the forty-degree temperature change hit him like a nosebleed. The club was lit for business hours, and the lights of the gas fireplace in the VIP section flickered in the reflection on the dancers’ pole.

Colin went behind the bar to pour six pints of ice water.

“We drinking yet?”

“Hell yeah,” the drummer said.

“Beers and rails are in your rider. What’ll you have?”

“Tequila and Tecate?”

He pulled six tall boys from the ice chest and popped them open with the speed blade. Then he hauled up the Sauza and looked at it. The salt wasn’t poured yet; they wouldn’t have limes until the cook rolled in. He weighed his need to run the board later against the fact that he was about to shoot tequila with Yønder and reached back to get something better.

“You guys are lucky he’s a liquor snob.”

The whole band turned to the sound of a woman’s voice. Mal stood next to the DJ booth, spinning a rolling suitcase by the handle.

“Oh hello,” Colin said, trying to sound casual. She must have slept in the dressing room again—he had no idea she was around.

“That your wife?” the singer asked.

Mal laughed.

“My work wife,” Colin said.

He knew Mal wouldn’t stay long. She declined the Herradura he’d have to spend most of his night’s wages to replace, but she put her arm around him for a minute to let the guys know he meant something to her.

“You working tonight?” the other guitarist asked her.

“Yeah, but I’ve got to run home to feed the dogs.”

She kissed Colin on the cheek and rolled her suitcase out the door into a white light that seemed to disintegrate her. He tried to ignore the fact that the band was almost certainly looking at her ass. He swayed with the gravity that seeing her always gave him, even now.

 
 

They’d met at a club in Portland. He’d fallen for her so completely that every trace of maturity he’d managed to accumulate had been vaporized. If a through-line still existed between the sheltered boy who preferred softcore and the hardening degenerate of the Hyacinth, it was Mal. Colin didn’t know if he loved her, but he knew that he had taken what was left of his romantic naivete and handed it to her to be melted down into currency. She’d smiled and said thanks.

He knew they would never make anything like love. They had never even kissed. What remained after his long blindness to these facts were the ghost feelings that built up around something fundamentally transactional. People who didn’t know better told him that she felt nothing, that she was just pumping him for all he had left. But when he’d told her he was thinking of moving to Denver, she’d begun to cry right out on the floor. How could that be money alone?

Once she was gone, the drinking started in earnest. Who was he to tell George and Kerry from Yønder to rein it in? He figured as long as he was managing their buzz he could find the right time to show them the gear. They splayed out on the VIP couches and he threw an on-deck sixer on the low metal table.

“When you didn’t pull up in a van I wasn’t sure it was you,” he said.

“Yeah,” said Kerry, his eyes blinking shyly behind the panes of his glasses. “Our stuff’s still back in Washington. Not the amps but, you know, our pots and pans and shit. Looted by the Surenos or the pillheads probably.”

“It’s not like we wanted to sell the van,” the drummer said. “But inflation’s crazy. We got twice what we bought it for in Boise and put our gear in storage.”

Colin had work to do, but before he could stand up George reached for another tall boy and asked Colin about the talent.

“The girls are great,” he replied. “There’s a lot of Portland in our rotation now. You know the type. Tats, goths, Burner girls. Some fans of your music, I’m sure. And then a lot of people are just road people now. Civilians are turning to things they didn’t think the future held.”

“Asylum seekers,” the new bassist snickered.

“You got any tales from the road? What’s it like out there now?”

“It’s insane, man. All those places basically doubled in population overnight. Spokane, Boise, Bend. They all have rings like Saturn.”

“It’s weird to see slums full of white people,” said the drummer.

“How have the shows been?” Colin asked. “It seems like all this would just make people more into what you’re doing.”

“Hell yeah, man. The energy’s been totally off the charts.”

The rhythm guitarist laughed. “Tell him about the chick at the UI show.”

George put down his beer with a grin. “We were playing Moscow, and it was the tightest show. The crowd was crazy. And this girl kept climbing onto the stage and hugging my leg—I’m trying to walk and she's just bear-hugging me. I was wearing these really tall Doc Martens, and she was just licking them up and down. I'm just like, holy shit, this is ridiculous. So I looked at her, and she opened her mouth, and I just spit in it. She was so down.”

He heard a dry snicker, like a snake choking. Feeling eyes on him, he laughed along.

“Sick,” he said.

“Eventually, security had to pull her away.”

Kerry was cackling, his glasses askew. “Her boyfriend was in the opening band and he didn’t even care.”

Colin couldn’t help wondering about the boyfriend. You were always the boyfriend, unless you were Yønder. The band had the icky, inky magnetism of actors in decline. Their clothes were grease-stained and their faces were as road-worn as the men who washed their necks in rest stop bathrooms, but they still had it. He’d felt them bend Mal’s curiosity.

He worried he was getting too underfoot, becoming the band’s lackey. He saw himself years later, having made a success of the venture, politely cutting off the tequila and retreating to a back office to do professional things. But he had begged for this job, and even when he got the green light he expected to be booking acts off the Reno casino circuit. This was a real opportunity.

 
 

At three o’clock, the front door banged open. Colin expected the cook, but it was Shawn himself, the owner. Colin stumbled to his feet as if caught out at something.

“This is Yønder,” he called over his shoulder. “We were just about to head out back.”

As soon as he’d gotten in, Colin had taken the club’s gear out of storage and laid it out in the shuttered casino. He’d set up the drums near the old roulette wheel and the amps in front of the faded blackjack table. He’d taken the covers off the gaming boards and trained the lights so they would fall just so.

“We’ve got a Peavey and a Marshall you guys can take your pick of. The bass amp’s a Mesa/Boogie. You need anything in the way of cables, let me know.”

Colin had worried he’d come off like a clerk at Guitar Center, but the proximity to handsome gambling objects dispelled his fear. The band put down their beers and came forward to examine the gear. He handed George their best mic and made himself stare into the speaker grills so he wouldn’t have to look Kerry in the eye.

“Nice, man. Heads and cabs. I thought we’d be working with combos.”

He let the compliment hang for a second, did not acknowledge it. “The kit’s a basic four-piece. Fourteen-inch hi-hats, a nineteen-inch crash, and two rides.”

The drummer shrugged. “I got my own cymbals.”

Colin held the door as the band rolled out the amps on their dolly plates. It had not been his own money, of course, but he was proud to have talked Shawn into a higher budget, and it was all money well spent. Having the gear out in the sunlight gave him the sensation of carrying too much cash in his wallet, and he reminded himself to ask the bouncer to help him put it all away as soon as the show was done.

He knelt to arrange the monitors, the tequila singing in his veins. When the drummer raised his sticks and tested the snare, Colin felt the sound go through him like a man hit by a firing squad.

Soon he stood before the analog mixer Kerry had charitably referred to as old school and felt the band come to life in his hands. Walking back inside from sound check, George clapped him on the back as if he were their own road warrior.

“You’re gonna take that stripper home after our set tonight. Aren’t you, buddy?”

He promised them that he would, feeling as if the vow were both striking him down and extending upward from him into the blind sky. He promised them that the deed was already done.

 
 

Three-thirty came and went. One by one the girls arrived in their hoodies and cutoffs and carried gym bags full of thongs into the basement. By now he knew most of the dancers’ real names. Nevertheless, he still treated the person and the persona differently. Paula was not Domino and Kat was not anything like Victoria Secret. The rational part of him knew that their beauty was mostly youth and that their mystique was entirely technique, but the Malarie who had come in hungover and wearing a cutoff T-shirt of a food pyramid made up entirely of slices of pizza could emerge from the dressing room as Mal, wearing the same shirt with no bra under it, give him a simple touch on the upper arm and a little lingering eye contact, and suddenly she was a lambent flame. All the moths crawled out of his wallet and flew to her.

Mal was late coming in, and Colin found himself hoping the door would open on a substitute. She had already seen him in the band’s orbit, and if she returned to work a shift she might fall under their dank allure. He stood in back by the DJ booth and talked to the cocktail waitress as the place filled up. Yønder was posted up on the patio, soaking in the adoration and cadging for shots.

“Next time you go out there, could you bring them a round of club soda or something?” he asked Cecily. “Just as kind of a hint?”

“Aren’t they like a professional band?”

Cecily had an innocence that sometimes struck him as a form of trolling.

“They were,” he said.

She put her tray beneath her arm and glided away.

Colin watched the customers. Pride beards, undergut beneath football jerseys, wifebeaters worn to force the world to look at the totality of paste-white, untoned arms: it had taken him a long time to accept the grotesque fact that these were his peers. A certain subset of the regulars seemed to be legitimate biker gangs, but most of them seemed to Colin more like biker LARPers. He watched a pair he knew swaddle up to the bar, one with a camo bandana and another wearing what appeared to be a leather jerkin. They’d been 86ed the month before for refusing to take off their brass knuckles, but Shawn wasn’t a fan of permanent bans. Victoria Secret came up between them, linking one arm with each of theirs, brushing their orclike shoulders with her satin wings. They went on into the back.

Then there was nothing to think about, and it was terrifying. Colin checked his phone.

Malarie: Uh like how well do you know these guys?

She hadn’t texted him in months, and he was halfway across the bar before he checked himself. He went into the bathroom. The men’s was in use so he ducked into the ladies’.

“Love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice,” he said to himself in the mirror, stroking his neck.

Why pity? he wondered. Why pride? They were old words. They’d fallen out of the noble lexicon. Perversely, he owed them to Yønder, who’d worked the speech into the intro of one of their songs.

 
 

Out back, the band was demonstrating love and honor to Mal and Domino beneath a Corona umbrella. Domino regarded him from between the bassist and the drummer with a fixed smile. She was wedged so tightly between them that it seemed like they were trying to crush her. He waited to snag Mal’s eye while Kerry told her a story about snails. They both looked up at him at once. Kerry grinned and punched him in the thigh while he waited to see whether Mal would give the signal to get the bouncer. He had the sense of being a double agent, betraying everyone at once.

But Mal kept her hands in her lap. George made space next to him at the table. As road-haggard as they were—as halfway gone to seed—these men respected him, and Faulkner, and maybe even women. There was nowhere else he would rather be.

“Dom tells us we’ll be the first band to play here,” George said. “Were you booking somewhere else before?”

He shook his head. “Just another Portland musician. I thought I was coming out here to hole up in some cabin and make a record.”

“You’re like Bon Iver,” Domino laughed.

“He even looks like Bon Iver,” Kerry said.

“But I didn’t make a record,” Colin said. “I just started going to the strip club again.”

As soon as he got the words out, he started coughing. Some kind of grit had lodged in his throat, in the spot that stimulated the cough reflex. He reached for his water and ducked beneath the table, hacking violently.

“I’ve got some crap right on my cough button,” he explained.

The furthest he’d gotten in the music business was running the boards twice a week at Holocene, after college. He was in charge during the main engineer’s off days, otherwise he was house tech and ran the green room. Bon Iver had played there and it had been his job to remove the plastic bottled water and replace it with glass carafes in keeping with the singer’s environmental policies. I was not magnificent. It felt like an epitaph now.

When Colin recovered enough to raise his head, Kerry asked a question. “I’ve been wondering. Why aren’t there any Afro-American dancers here?”

“Black girls?” Mal asked. “Two reasons. No supply and no demand.”

“There must be some,” he said. “I’d like to see one.”

“I would, too,” she said. “It’s not like it’s a policy, but there haven’t been many applicants. Black folks don’t really look at this as a settling-down region. Can you blame them?”

Colin was admiring her tact in dealing with the question when the new bassist reared his head like he’d just been helicoptered in from some other party.

“Black guys love strip clubs.” He said it angrily, like they were trying to hoodwink him on this point.

“Right,” the drummer said. “They also love white women.”

“Everyone loves white women,” said George. He looked at Mal and winked. “May their beauty never perish from the earth.”

“Why would it?” Mal asked.

“I love Afro-American women so much,” Kerry said.

“You’re S.O.L., man. This here is our white homeland.”

“We have a Filipino girl,” Domino said. “We have some Hispanics.”

“I just want to spit in someone’s mouth,” Kerry said. “Is there anything so wrong with that?”

George put his hands over his face and fell sideways like something shot out of the sky. Burned in Colin’s mind was the afterimage of the grin that he’d cracked before his hands arrived to hide it. Kerry’s face remained a picture of earnest inquiry, and the rest of the band became quiet and watchful. Colin saw himself as he had been two nights ago, in front of his computer, watching Kerry take a frail sixteenth-note lead into the heavens. He had been alone and high and had cried at the sheer beauty of it. He wished these men were imposters so that he would not have to be responsible for bringing them here.

“See, that’s the type of shit that makes me wonder about you guys,” Mal said.

 
 

“Who needs another round?” asked Cecily, heroically carrying eight pint glasses of seltzer on a tray, along with eight shots of tequila, eight lime wedges, and a dish of salt. She chattered brightly into the silence and then was gone.

“Don’t take him serious,” the bassist said. “He’s just trolling.”

“He’s just sad we won’t get to play Atlanta anymore.”

“Why not?” Mal asked.

“Our new record is a transition,” said George. “It’s harder stuff. We’re not sure how it’ll play outside of places like this right here. This beautiful place.”

Wishing he could return the vibe to what it’d been when he was reciting the names of amplifier manufacturers, Colin asked if they’d be debuting any new songs that night. George and Kerry took turns describing their vision, which was by turns too vague to mean anything and so clotted with unexplained references you had to be in the band to even be able to guess what they meant. Was it a metal record?

“To the future,” Kerry said, passing the shots. “To a new Cascadia, and to the Hyacinth.”

Colin raised his glass reluctantly. They all clinked each other. He watched Mal shoot the tequila, spitting it covertly into her soda water and laying the glass aside. “Last one before the set,” he said.

“Hey now,” George said. “We’ve got a little time. We’ve still got time for a little fun.”

“Speaking of,” said the new bassist, reaching into his pocket.

“That’s right,” said George. He gave Mal a wide, square-jawed smile that brought back every fading asset he had left. His hair was lank, his teeth were going yellow, but there was a structural beauty threatening to press itself through the layers of fat and self-abuse.

“Can we see the girls, then?” the bassist asked. He began to lay dollar bills over Domino’s shoulders with careful, ironic deference. Her top was tied behind her neck. In taking it off, the bills would rain down.

“Can we see the girls?” George echoed, looking at Mal. He opened his hand and the rhythm guitarist laid a stack of ones in it.

“Look at the time,” Colin heard himself say.

The drummer put his hand around the back of Colin’s neck and squeezed. “You don’t mind if your friends make some good money, do you?”

George was flicking bills now. They swooped and fell like bad paper planes.

“Later,” Colin said. Mal wasn’t looking at him. She wasn’t looking at anyone. She was collecting the bills. “Afterward.”

“The thing of it is, Col,” George said. “I know she’s your favorite girl.” His feet were up on the opposite bench and he was giving Mal all his attention. From the corner of his eye Colin could see the dollars fall off Domino. “It just makes me want her all the more.”

“It’s nine,” Colin insisted.

George tried to take Mal’s chin in his hand. She pulled back beyond his reach, staring at him, eyes bright.

“I have something I want to show you,” he told her, fingering the upper buttons of his shirt. “If you don’t want to do it here, maybe there’s somewhere else we can go?”

“It’s time to play,” Colin said, standing, his ears filling with the shrill command of a person not used to being obeyed.

Kerry nodded, adjusting his glasses. “It’s time to play,” he said.

 
 

Before the set, they went to the rail and watched Mal dance. Domino sat topless in her chair, making origami from the bills that the bassist gave her. Mal spun on the side pole between George and Kerry, and Colin felt himself rendered invisible. They were all hollering and waving their arms to augment the fact that they were only making it trickle. He tried to partake in their demonstrative joy, but he could feel on his face the hard blank mask he saw so often on strangers, responding to the miracle of Mal’s body by looking like he was in a police lineup. By contrast, George and Kerry seemed like good clientele. When Mal leaned backwards between them, George grinned enormously and whispered something to her as Kerry bashfully laid a twenty on her navel.

When her set ended, Colin shooed the band out back with all the force he could muster, pushing George out the door when he tried to linger. He turned and Mal was there, frowning at him, naked still, holding two wads of bills in front of her stomach.

“He wanted dances,” she said.

“They have a show to play.”

She motioned for him to follow her into one of the dance rooms. He knew she was angry with him, yet he felt buoyant. He had foreseen George going into the room with her, foreseen it breaking him.

She shrugged into her top, stepped into her thong with a snap and turned to him. “Your feelings are fucking with my money, Colin.”

“They’ll get dances after the show,” he said, naming his fear. “Once Shawn pays them they’ll go crazy.”

“I won’t want to be around them then. Do you understand?”

But he didn’t. He thought she was just trying to win the argument. “You think that guy’s hot,” he said. “I can tell you’re into him.”

She blinked, her face dangerously blank. “You think I’m into him?”

“I do. Men like him are having their way now. I guess they always have.”

“Colin, that guy’s a loser. He preys on weakness.”

He shrugged. “You like to be choked. He’s the hand.”

Mal shook her head. She was still holding the money, and she turned her back on him and stuffed it away into a long-stringed cloth bag. Then she turned back, put her hands on his shoulders, leaned in so close that their noses bumped together, and screamed.

 

Colin watched from behind the boards, adjusting the levels as Yønder launched into unrecognizable jags of new material. George put on a pair of black leather gloves and his presence became commanding and malevolent, ten times what he’d been in the bar, which had not been meek. He stalked the stage stomping his boots on the monitors and screaming into the mic like a wraith while the band played impassively and with incredible volume behind him.

There were certain motions you could make with your hands which were asking for trouble in much of the Western world, some that were only very rude, and then some that were worse than that. George made a game of these gestures, a bait-and-switch. His arms began familiar motions with such authority that Colin thought he knew where they would end, before veering at the last moment to something safer. Instead of the middle finger, the pointer. Instead of the flat hand, the fist.

But then Colin saw the brass-knuckle guys start to make the motions back, out of the audience, for real.

When bandana and jerkin started saluting—and not with the fist, but with the flat hand, like they jailed you for in Germany—there was a moment of almost total uncertainty. Colin’s guts seemed to stop and gather themselves, to wait for the world to be redefined. Were they joking? People were laughing, but their laughter seemed to Colin to sidestep the traditional with/at binary and express deep unease. If they weren’t joking, were they being deliberately transgressive? Or were they expressing what had somehow become a tenable minority opinion? Colin watched the faces in the crowd, and he watched the terror come over them as they realized that these were not questions they could leave for others to answer, nor have the luxury of answering later in repose.

A couple guys came up and shoved the saluters, but tentatively. The men shoved back. They yelled in one another’s faces, and then they all kind of turned back toward the music. It was as if the music had turned their confrontation into dancing.

But then he saw Victoria Secret. She had been with the saluters, had pulled her strings aside and shown them every part of herself. She shoved the men, first the one and then the other. At first they just ignored her, but she kept shoving, first the one and then the other. She shouted at them, the tendons of her neck taut with words Colin wished he could hear, so he could know what you said in a moment like that. Finally one of the men shoved her back, and then it turned out that Victoria Secret was very small, really. She was tossed to the ground and her wings came off and for a moment one of her breasts was bared before she could re-cup it.

People knew what to do after that. Led by the dancers, including Mal, they surged, hemming the men in. Punches were thrown, mostly harmless but adding up in bulk, and quickly the two men started falling back, struggling not to go down. Once the crowd had them out into the lot between the cars, they shouted some things and then turned and ran. The men in the crowd, it seemed to Colin, were surprised at themselves. They were filled with a sudden self-satisfaction at having turned away a weak and pathetic evil that they had severely outnumbered. They turned back to comfort Victoria Secret and to enjoy the band.

 
 

The show went on, somehow. No one had seen George do anything outright. Yønder stopped playing to condemn the men and give a brief, ready speech about the history of Nazi chic in punk rock culture. These symbols of humanity’s utmost evil, George explained, were being used to interrogate contemporary notions of strength and power, and to shock mainstream culture out of its complacent sense of moral uprightness. This was why, he explained, Siouxsie Sioux herself had sometimes, in the early days, worn a swastika.

During the encore, George went crowd-surfing. People stretched out their hands to touch him, to carry him across the human sea. Somehow his shirt came unbuttoned and people saw the tattoo he had on his chest. Then the crowd dropped him and he disappeared from view.

 

Confusion reigned. George had been swallowed up. A single bouncer waded toward him. The band played on. That was when two trucks broke through the side of the tent. One was black and bulbous, the other an old pickup with a decal of Calvin peeing. Colin’s first impulse was to find Mal. Then the tent collapsed, covering everything.

Feedback shrieked so intensely that it took Colin a minute to realize that he was the only one who could silence it. Drunken shouting rushed into the void, cries of pain, the sound of motors. He heard the bouncer exhorting people to grab the canvas and pull it toward the parking lot, but even with the mixer in front of him Colin lost all sense of direction.

He willed his head to stop spinning. He willed his legs to rise. The boards kept him free from the crush of the crowd, the terror and trampling going on next to him. He was responsible for all of this, he knew. He might yet make it right.

“Mal,” he shouted. Feeling a paralyzing self-consciousness, he belatedly called out for other dancers as well. “Victoria? Domino? Mal!”

“Lift the tent,” the bouncer shouted. “Lift it first.”

“Lift the tent,” Colin echoed.

“Everyone needs to stop moving. Just get to your feet and lift.”

The air seemed to lighten and grow stiller. Once the canvas stopped swirling and jerking, it was easier to think. He could still hear the trucks idling and noises from the stage, but they were in the periphery. He could see the frail white arms of other people lifting the canvas around him like new shoots finding light.

When they’d created a canopy, the bouncer shouted, “Okay now. We’re going to leave the tent where it is. All we want is to get out from under it. Nice and slow, and keep your hands up. We’ll move toward the parking lot one step at a time on my count. And one and two and step!”

It was a little bit miraculous how single-mindedly they carried out his orders. Suddenly they were ants, and for whom? This was Jakob, one of the secondary bouncers, who had ear gauges and never worked the door on weekends. And yet here he was, leading them out of the wilderness. Humans, Colin thought darkly—they would follow any order given to them in a strong tone.

Row by row the crowd got free, holding the tent for those behind them as the abandoned canvas settled to the ground. Colin’s belated sense of responsibility buoyed him as he joined Jakob and other self-nominated men in holding up the tent until everyone else had gotten out. It would have been very easy, he realized, for someone not to have gotten out.

They were all clear. The edges rippled to the ground. With both center poles down, the tent lay flat as a tarpaulin. Feeling as though he were dragging his eyes through heavy resistance, Colin made himself look at the stage. The initial jerk of the trucks snapping the tethers had wrenched the canopy clear of the riser. The two trucks had pulled close. The stage was empty. The band, their instruments, and his gear were all gone.

 
 

He saw the man with the bandana from earlier behind the wheel of the black truck. The drummer peered out of the rear of the double cab, a look of morbid curiosity on his face. The two doors of the old truck were open as the last of the amps were loaded into the back. Colin began to run, the crowd flowing against him. When he’d shouldered his way through, George walked around the far side of the open truck.

“Great show, man,” he laughed.

“The amps,” Colin said.

“Sure. They’re yours, aren’t they?”

“They belong to the club.”

“They’re yours, now. Hop in. We play Twin Falls on Saturday.”

He watched as George removed his gloves. Blackening blood curled from his earlobe. He had a sick grin on his face that did not help Colin determine the seriousness of his offer. The man in the leather jerkin strode by them, back toward the club, as grim as a man deputized.

Colin thought back through the day in search of any moments when he would have seemed to invite such an offer. He had shown them hospitality, he had gotten them drunk, he had given them respect in keeping with their reputation if not their actions. And had these actions, until the last hour, really warranted anything different? They hadn’t gotten out of the car talking about spitting in women’s mouths. No, he had behaved exactly as he had wanted to, and it had still come to this. He began to laugh.

George was making him this offer because he had earned it. They thought him sympathetic. It was only when Mal had been there that he had confronted them. They had respected that, too.

And then Colin saw that the vast, untraversable waters that existed in his mind between himself and these—what, these nationalists—were not so wide at all. If you jumped in the water, it would not spit you out again. If you did not turn back, you came soon enough to the other shore. George had done it, Kerry had done it. Knowing how thin the gulf really was, they beckoned him now from the other side.

And, really, what would change? The world would continue to be ruled and squandered away by men with faces like his. Even if the women and the brown people were to somehow topple them, what kind of searworld would be left? No, it would make no difference. It was a private decision.

He closed his eyes. He felt an invisible hand grappling awkwardly at his chest, squeezing at his heart to determine whether there was actually anything but the blood and self-interest of a sophisticated beast. He wanted to stand in the strip club parking lot forever and hold his heart with clumsy fingers until he finally came to some kind of fleeting, undeluded knowledge of its workings.

But he knew how that would look. Guy asks if you want to go be a fascist with him, you’re supposed to say no. Everybody knows that. People were watching, people who might have overheard the proposition. His heart slipped away from him, back to wherever it lived.

“I can’t,” he said quickly. “My girl.”

Again George laughed. He put his arm around Colin and with his thumb he indicated behind them to where the man in the jerkin had disappeared into the club. “You think we’re leaving without her?” he asked.

 
 


Chris Leslie-Hynan

Chris Leslie-Hynan’s debut novel, Ride Around Shining, was published by Harper and nominated for the 2015 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction. His short fiction has appeared in American Short Fiction, ZYZZYVA, Harvard Review and Epiphany. He grew up in Wisconsin and attended Carleton College and the Iowa Writers' Workshop. He lives in Brooklyn.



Scott Hug

Scott Hug is an interdisciplinary artist working in New York. He is the founder of K48; an artist’s fanzine (2000-2010). His past work investigated politics, pop culture and media obsession. Currently he is working in social documentary photography and a forthcoming feature length film—The World is a Poem, about the physicist turned poet, Bern Porter—investigating themes of consumption, waste, and the Atomic Age.



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