City Song
Published in

City Song

Verse 3

A shrine to underground punk

At 7:23, Reg stepped off the bus onto the curb and got his first sight of Three Stories Public House. The brick face of the two above-ground stories stared down at him with orange-glowing windows. The clear night, though free of any snow falling from the crispy sky, bit at his cheeks with cold. The windows had gold-leafed lettering proclaiming it the Three Stories Public House, est. 1932. The glowy light from the inside looked warm, which attracted Reg. The deep breath he took, to steady his nerves, made him cough. The cold air hurt his lungs.

He trudged to the door of the bar, walking with care across the damp-looking sidewalk, unsure if it was wet or covered in ice.

The inside smelled warm and wooden. The floors were wood, the ceiling was wood, and all the chairs and tables were wood. Some people played pool at one of two tables in a deep corner of the main room, and Reg could hear the clicking balls even over the music. The music wasn’t too loud, probably because it was still early in the evening.

Unless his ears deceived him, the song was “Humans Being” by Van Halen, which comforted Reg somewhat. In his experience, bars might play Van Halen fairly often, but he’d never heard “Humans Being” in public. He didn’t know why nobody seemed to like “Humans Being.” Reg thought it was a solid Van Halen song.

Seeing as it was not quite 7:30 on a Thursday, the crowd in the bar hardly filled the main room. The people at the back playing pool made up most of the crowd. Five guys in button downs and slacks laughed over a couple pitchers of beer at a table. Aside from a few other individuals scattered around, the floor had plenty of room for even the most aggressive elbows swinger to have plenty of space.

Lounging at the bar, where Reg had pretended that his attention had not been immediately drawn the moment he walked in, Poppy Swicker watched the door. She wore pants of black satin with redundant zippers and metal loops on them, and a shiny silver shirt with no sleeves. Her bare shoulders looked strong.

Thick, dark makeup around them made her eyes bright in the dim bar. A smirk pulled half her face up when her gaze lighted on Reg. He walked toward her, although it felt like stumbling.

She reached behind the bar when he got close.

“Can I get a drink?” Reg said.

“You drink water, soldier-boy,” she said, slapping a moist bottle of the stuff into his chest. Picking up a black satin jacket equipped with as much redundancy in the zipper and loop department as the pants, she led him through the bar to the top of a set of stairs. They went down to the last story of Three Stories Public House.

The long, claustrophobic room smelled faintly of drywall and old beer. It had a dark, unoccupied bar at one end, and a dark stage at the other that loomed by being so very, very motionless.

Between the bar and the stage, maybe fifteen people sat around on folding chairs at folding tables. Barks of laughter punctuated their murmuring.

Reg somehow liked smaller crowds least. Big crowds kind of faded into faceless mush. Little crowds had expecting eyes and easily seen sneers and just, generally, made the whole experience of nobody liking his material more real. He tried not to muse while he walked toward the stage about how his idea of comedy would probably never entertain anyone. He tried not to think about it, because that way lay despair and the decay into “jokes” and “topical humor.” That was the path of the sellout.

And the fact that Reg struggled with it every time he thought about doing a gig might be something Reg should pay attention to.

Too deep in now, he decided. He took a long swig off the water bottle from Poppy. It barely wetted his throat, but he felt grateful for it anyway. His hand shook around the bottle.

“Want to give me your jacket?” Poppy asked. She stopped at an empty chair at a longer table at the front of the crowd, set up like it was for the judges to sit at for some competition or other. The sight of it and the several people at it facing the stage, one with a legal pad and a pen, sent his wobbly nerves on a little dance.

Yeah, weird was the right word for the gig.

Swallowing again, Reg handed Poppy his coat and scarf and his bag. He sweated without them anyway.

“Well, there’s your arena, soldier-boy,” Poppy said, gesturing toward the stage. She lounged into her chair and relaxed into her smirk. The cockiness radiated so hot off her it itched.

Reg took another swig of the water. The walk to the stage felt like a dream-lengthened slog through pudding. Reg tried to see the funny side.

He climbed onto the stage with slow care. A microphone stood in the middle — it put Reg in mind of a stripped sapling leftover from storms of mediocre acts. It was, aside from that, empty, and dark. He set the bottle of the water at the back of the stage, and took half a second to look around.

He saw scratched messages in the wooden cases for the amps mounted on the walls. Messages from bands, scratched into the wood or written in thick marker, sometimes around and sometimes over and sometimes through a patchwork of stickers — The Windermeres, the Potato Pirates, TV on the Radio, Tattooed Strings. He saw scratches on the floor in distinctive patterns — here the persistent hollowing from a base drum and pedal, from a snare, over there the less consistent clawing of a guitar stand.

He stood in a shrine of the underground punk scene, a place of rage and noise. It gave him a brush of calm so he could walk to the microphone without tripping.

A spotlight flashed onto him. He would have liked the drama of a large, mechanical clack to go with it, but all he heard was a little click from the sound and light board off on the side.

When the light flashed on, Reg shied, throwing his arms up to block his eyes. “Gah! I’m melting!”

Dead silence. It was satisfying in that it felt so familiar.

“Wrong crowd for that one, I guess,” Reg said. “Maybe there are some real vampires in the audience who take umbrage at people making light of their daily problems. Or should I say nightly. Am I right?”

Still nothing. Someday, he felt like he might learn.

Swallowing, Reg tried really hard not to let his hand shake. He took the microphone out of the stand. “Good evening, lefties and Genevans. It is true, I am only a part time vampire. I would have gone full time, but the hours sucked. What?” This last word he said in a raised voice to the shadowy audience, because somebody had said something.

“Is that true?” they said again in a deep voice. He did. Him or a very large woman with a voice like a volcano.

“That I’m a part time vampire?”

“Yeah. How true is it?”

“Well, if you’re asking in the existential sense…” Reg started, assuming that they weren’t asking in the existential sense.

“Yeah, let’s go with that,” the voice said.

Unsure how to put a comedic spin on it just then, Reg zoned out for a second. “I try to be more of a giver than a taker, I think,” he found himself saying. “Although I will take all of your tips,” he said, snapping himself out of his little reverie. “But just the tips. Whoops, that came out wrong. A little like your tips in her mum.”

One, solitary snort from some dark corner of the room accompanied Reg’s sigh of shame from the cheapness of the dirty puns. He worked hard not to roll his eyes. He considered dirty puns the basest and least worthy form of humor, and they always made him laugh, so he often indulged in them.

“I was going to do a lot more vampire based humor in this set, but I’m thinking maybe not. So here’s my racist stuff. Everyone likes some racist stuff, right? I know what you’re thinking: but Slim Jim (can I call you Slim Jim? I had better be able to, there, Slimmy Jimmy). But Slim Jim, you’re thinking, isn’t it too late in the year for casual racism? I hear you thinking. Isn’t this the season of going balls out with everything? Because if you don’t you may as well just bring in a crash test dummy, for all the good you’ll do. Ain’t that right, Slimy Jemima? I bet that’s what you’re thinking. To which I say, ah-hah, but I’m one step ahead of you. Because, you see, I only make racist slurs about Canadians. So pull up your plaid, folks, it’s aboot to get polite in here. What was that?”

Reg raised his voice again because someone had something to say. Reg decided to listen, more the fool that he was.

“Do you know any Shakespeare?” said the deep voice again.

Reg stood stiff, one foot back, and shaded his eyes to peer off the stage. He always hoped, but rarely believed, he looked like Buster Keaton doing it.

After a moment, he could see well enough into the gloom to make out the people at the table, only just. At the far left, a big Samoan had almost a smile on his face. His dark eyes almost twinkled. He looked as ready to dismiss Reg with a crude grunt as to start chuckling. Something about him seemed merciless, like he would as readily laugh at Reg’s failure as his jokes that worked.

Reg raised the microphone to his lips again.

“As wicked dew as e’er my mother brush’d with raven’s feather from unwholesome fen drop on you both,” Reg said. Or, rather, recited, not at first giving the words any life. “A south-west blow on ye and blister you all o’er.” His voice gained a little confidence as he went, and sounded more natural and louder. “Be patient, for the prize I’ll bring thee to shall hoodwink this mischance: therefore speak softly. All’s hush’d as midnight yet,” His voice began to rise. The long suspicion that he was being screwed with lent energy to his words. “Nor fetch in firing at requiring; nor scrape trencher, nor wash dish ’Ban, ’Ban, Cacaliban has a new master: get a new man.”

He finished the bit o’ Shakespeare and stared into the continued silence from the scant audience.

For a few heartbeats, he felt like he’d broken into some barrier. Everyone out there stared at him. He felt their eyes. They didn’t stare awkwardly, or incredulously, or derisively. He didn’t see any smirks — except on Poppy’s mug, but that seemed to have stuck there. Although nobody seemed particularly impressed either. It sort of felt like the silence after the rant from someone who had just had it up to the neck and couldn’t take it anymore, and everyone else got it, everyone else felt it, but everyone found it a little irritating that he had pointed out some social injustice that they’d been ignoring.

Then he felt embarrassed. He swallowed and cast his eyes down.

From out there he heard a weird, earth-deep sound — like a repetitive rumble. Reg couldn’t identify what it was. When the Samoan stood up, scraping his chair back on the cement floor, Reg identified the source of the earth-deep sound: the Samoan’s chest.

He turned away.

“I’ll warm up the car,” he said.

His movement broke up the silence. The few people further back in the room broke off staring and began their murmuring conversation again. Poppy started talking to the people at the table with her.

“Bonzer, you got what you need?” she said. The person with the legal pad nodded, then left the table and followed the Samoan. “Reiki, get what you need to keep lookout, right? Hurt’s got nothing to gain ambushing us, but ain’t no reason to trust him.”

A tall woman with black dreadlocks stood from the table and hurried away, saying something about knives in the dark.

“Could you turn that spot off the half vampire? I can smell him roasting from here.”

The spotlight darkened. Reg fell for a moment into the unbalanced dark of a strong afterimage. It started to clear up in a few seconds. Reg had always had a quick recovery time between dark and light and light and dark.

“Come along, dear. We’ve places to be,” Poppy said, holding Reg’s coat and bag out to him.

“Where — ” Reg stared.

“I’ll explain on the way,” Poppy said, leading him by the shoulders to a door marked “Employees only” where the Samoan had gone, and Bonzer soon after.

Rethinking what she said, Poppy amended it. “No. I probably won’t, now that I think about it,” she said.

“Explain?” Reg asked.

“You’ve got it, gammy-fingers,” Poppy said.

She hurried him through a dark storage room, mostly empty except a few shady shapes — here a table, there a bed. They went out a door onto a set of stairs that led up into the alley behind the Three Stories. A large town car fluffed fumes in the alley. The Samoan sat in the driver’s seat, and Bonzer got into the back seat on the passenger side. Poppy opened the door to get into the back seat behind the Samoan, pulled Reg in behind herself, and slammed the door behind him.

There was a feeling of finality to that door slamming, like a cleaver coming down on a chicken’s head.

Reg swallowed. He’d left his bottle of water on the stage, and wished he hadn’t.

The tall woman with the black dreadlocks got into the passenger seat in the front. Her door slammed.

“Is this like those scenes in movies where the hero gets into the car he shouldn’t have and only discovers later that he should have been listening to the ominous swell of the music, while the audience screams about how stupid he is?” Reg asked.

“Oh, yes,” Poppy said.

“Why don’t I leave,” Reg said.

Poppy smiled a slow smile. It had a little twitch of a slim eyebrow. Better than any words could, the smile said danger ahead — and you will enjoy yourself in that silent language reserved for women like Grace Kelly, Gillian Anderson, and Poppy Swicker.

Reg swallowed again, and he decided not to get out of the car.

The Samoan put it in gear and started to drive.

Earlier that same day, a man called Hurt sat at a small table on the patio of a café. He sipped a cappuccino as if he did not mind, for today at least, the mere reminder of the café in Florence where he went to get a proper cappuccino. He wore a pale grey silk suit and black wool raincoat, and he wore them in a manner like he never did and never would wear anything else, except on a warm day when he would leave the raincoat behind. His vague expression — nearly a smile and halfway towards a sigh — generally inspired people to begin to question themselves and act like they had nothing to prove, which came across as disingenuous because it was acting.

He looked at peace. The view from the patio was a long, sprawling view of this young city, this relatively little cluster of angular, glinting hives on the face of these Great Plains. He looked east, and he could see all the way past the city to the long, far empty that even today stayed sparsely populated. You couldn’t do that with Chicago or New York or Los Angeles. You could barely get high enough to see to the ends of them. And no city in the old world — where the magic was old and the ownership was old — had such youthfulness. Not a single thing visible had stood on this land for more than two hundred years. The land had barely noticed the presence of humans yet.

It looked ripe to Hurt.

Falling hard on his reverie, two big hands clapped on Hurt’s shoulders. It did surprise him, but he expressed it only by closing his eyes and cocking his head a wedge or two left. The fact that he had been surprised at all told him who it was. Hurt always had wards of defense and warning maintaining his personal bubble. Only a few people could evade them, and only one of those people smelled of black licorice that had been tossed into a charcoal fire.

The one that everyone knew as Jack Ketch flopped his long, broad body into the other chair at Hurt’s little table. Mr. Ketch also wore a pale grey silk suit, but he wore it like he had stolen it and it would please him if everyone knew that. His small eyes and gorillarish jaw had a dangerous effect on people who tried to outwit him. People who had tried gave him his air of always being about to smile a mean smile. The smile never quite came alive to replace the liar of an expression usually wearing his face: brutishness trying to avoid the effort of thinking.

For a while, Mr. Ketch looked out at the city with his unfaltering expression of thoughtlessness, and Hurt looked at Mr. Ketch without trying to hide his dislike.

“Somehow, I think this conversation will get going when you say something like ‘word on the street is…’” Hurt said in his precise voice.

“Now, why would you have to say that?” Mr. Ketch said. He had a calming voice, fit for reading poetry, that did not go with his face. “An old friend can’t visit without you coming over all suspicious?”

Hurt’s mouth flicked into an expression that had the shape of a smile. It couldn’t be called anything else because of the shape, although it only hinted at that. It lacked any of the emotions that a smile usually conveyed.

“Fair enough — that wasn’t much better,” Mr. Ketch said, his voice seeping through the air like the steam from warm mint tea. “We are creatures of unforgiveable cliché at times, Hurt,” he said, almost with a sigh.

Hurt had nothing to say to that. He didn’t agree.

A long time passed when neither of them spoke. The cold breeze wafted the winter around. It carried smells of snow and running heaters. When it wound around and drew air from behind them it carried the smells from the café. The smells of coffee and the long-lingering smell of bread could not quite hide the wicking smell of the bleach that doused everything in the shop after closing hours.

The cold didn’t seem to bother Hurt or Mr. Ketch. When a harsh gust came up and slapped them, Hurt’s only reaction was to take a deep breath and let it out slowly in what looked like a growl but made no noise. Mr. Ketch did not react to it at all in spite of having no coat over his suit.

Both these men generally communicated by waiting for the other person in the conversation to explain the situation to themselves. When they sat down to speak together it became a battle of wills where they would always see who would break the silence first.

Due to their natures, Hurt almost always lost. Mr. Ketch had most in common with a stone, sat in the middle of a desert that had once been a sea bed and before that been miles under ground. Heat may beat on him — cold may freeze him — water may work him. But he would still be after.

Hurt was a flame, and he shared many of his character traits with that element. Including the low smolder that never quite went out.

“Have you bought property here yet?” Hurt asked. He gestured with two fingers, barely lifting them off his leg, and managed to encompass the countryside for a hundred miles in every direction with the gesture.

“A little,” Mr. Ketch said.

“Did you like your realtor?” Hurt asked.

Mr. Ketch looked at Hurt for the first time since sitting down.

“I never met her,” Mr. Ketch said.

“And yet you know she’s a woman,” Hurt said.

Mr. Ketch’s stony face had not gained a new expression, and it did so in an expressive way. He looked back out at the city.

“Erica Hernandez,” Mr. Ketch said. “I guess I like her. Goat never complained.” Goat was one of Mr. Ketch’s aides.

“Do you think I could get her card?” Hurt said. “It can be difficult to find a realtor who respects our particular needs.”

“Ain’t that the truth,” Mr. Ketch grunted. “I’ll have Goat send you her digits.”

Hurt nodded his thanks.

They sat for a few more quiet seconds. Hurt sipped his cappuccino.

“So you haven’t,” Mr. Ketch said.

Hurt offered another of his smile-shaped frowns.

“Bought any property here yet, I mean,” Mr. Ketch said.

Hurt’s not-a-smile lingered.

Mr. Ketch grunted deep in his throat. A knowing noise.

“Sent you out here without a plan, didn’t he?” Mr. Ketch said. “Ah, just like the old wizard.”

The old wizard, Ronan Craw. The capo at the top of Hurt’s organization.

It was just like him to send Hurt with only half a plan. Because Dr. Craw operated according to a different idea of urgency than Mr. Ketch did.

Hurt knew that Mr. Ketch only prodded at the point because Dr. Craw’s business, overall, represented one of Mr. Ketch’s main competitors. Hurt knew that he ought to be able to rest on that with confidence.

Dr. Craw’s enigmatical calm wasn’t here now, though. Mr. Ketch’s gruntish, disarming face was, however.

And Mr. Ketch irritated Hurt.

“You’ll land on your feet,” Mr. Ketch said. “You always do.”

Hurt turned the whole, limp force of his ghostly non-smile on Mr. Ketch. Mr. Ketch obligingly ignored it.

For a while longer, they looked out at the silver and stone outbreak of acne on this cheek of the world. Hurt spent the whole time wishing that Mr. Ketch would leave.

The sun set behind them. The earth breathed out cold, and shadows from the mountains clawed across the city.

Soon enough, Hurt had to leave to make his way across town to his next appointment.

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Oliver “Shiny” Blakemore

Oliver “Shiny” Blakemore

The best part of being a mime is never having to say I’m sorry.