We Were Glassassins
by Rob Roensch
Our first name was Big Farting Baby. That lasted one weekend. We have been Jackrabbit Tornado, Tulsa Cold, Five Five Five Five and, almost, Unscissor. We were Glassassins, back when Sean’s cousin was still on the drums, but he was even worse at keeping quiet during the quiet parts than Sean is, and also preferred video games and painkillers to knowing what day it was. So we needed another name. We were just about settled on Skedee, but then Sean group texts at four in the morning that he just had a dream we should name ourselves after what the weather was like on the day I was born, so we name ourselves Stupid Dream.
JJ and Sean’s cousin went to the same high school. JJ and I were on the same hallway freshman year. JJ and I heard Dirk before we met him. He was practicing in his apartment in the same off-campus apartment complex where I lived senior year. When we banged on his window he didn’t seem to hear us. His door was unlocked. He didn’t stop playing or even seem surprised when we walked in, like he was waiting for us, like it was meant to be.
Often near dusk we are on the highway halfway to somewhere and the sky is an assortment of shadowed, puffy individual clouds that have cut open their own bellies and dust and rain are streaming down out in the distances. There are still patches of blue sky and old daylight everywhere, clear but yellowy. In the same way, a song is different every time but also the same.
For example, we are going to play at a house down in Fort Worth with a band with two guys who used to be in a band that was almost on PlankVoyage but Sean’s mom needs the van to help her sister’s boyfriend move so we take JJs car. Sean brings a 2-liter of Mountain Dew and drinks it all before we get past Moore. JJ’s car starts sputtering and jerking so we have to pull over in the middle of the weird rocky dinosaur hills around Turner’s Falls. We fuck around with matches and a flashlight until the tow comes.
We are going to play an all ages show in Tulsa. In the van Dirk makes us listen to Bach. Sean sings invented arias of words from the section of the owner’s manual on how to change a tire. JJ sleeps through it. It starts to rain and Sean doesn’t turn on the wipers until lightning, and right after that we pull over to watch the storm coming toward us across puddled endless fields, lightning spikes bright and sharp as flashes of pain. Sean wakes up JJ by opening his window and letting in blasting sideways rain. We’re late, but we play well.
I taught myself to play guitar by watching youtubes when I was supposed to be asleep. I can strum quieter than a whisper but still hear the implied music. My fingers are very strong. Dirk tells me I hold the guitar like I am strangling it and I tell him that’s because I had to be so quiet.
We are going to play at Sean’s old middle school on a Saturday afternoon for some kind of tornado relief concert and we pull around back and go through what Sean says are the doors that he used to sneak out of in the middle of the day for no reason and then come back again into for no reason. The gym is dark and the windows are high up so the light filters down in; it’s like an abandoned aquarium. A badly painted eagle watches us. We’re setting up in the corner like Sean says we’re supposed to and it takes a while for anybody to say where is everybody else and Sean tells us he made up the whole thing because he knows that’s the only way he could get us all together and illegally inside.
Sean says it’s impossible to practice singing: you can only sing for real. Then JJ says so does that mean when you practice the drums you are doing it for real? Because most of the time it sounds real; real shitty. And I say sometimes it sounds like a drunk buffalo having a seizure. And Dirk says what would that sound like, really.
JJ’s cousin visits from New Jersey. He says driving in Oklahoma the sky is like always being about to get to the ocean, but never actually getting there. Dirk says this is an illusion. Sean says something about how this proves he’s right about how much he hates Texas. JJ’s cousin does not put his coffee change in the Starbucks tip cup. To me, the thing about Oklahoma and the ocean is that it is the ocean, where I have not been in three years.
We are going to play at Trainsong ArtSpace in the city for the fifth time. It’s February, a few cold days after a storm of a sparkly few inches of icy snow, so going anywhere on ordinary streets is like driving on slippery birthday cake. On the highway Dirk rolls down his window, then gets JJ to roll all the windows down, to get us all to listen the wet slushy rushing. JJ tells us he is going to sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem” right before “Scribble Dive.” He doesn’t.
JJ gets the idea to practice inside his aunt’s storm shelter. On the phone with his aunt he sounds like a polite ten-year old, but we don’t make fun of him about it. The storm shelter is this gray metal box inside their garage. While we’re figuring things out his uncle just goes back and forth with his lawnmower and doesn’t pay attention to us because he’s one of those people who can’t see things that don’t make any sense. The door won’t close all the way, because of the wires. JJ has to crouch on the amp he’s playing. “I feel like a bat,” he says. “That’s the opposite,” says Dirk. We all think it’s going to sound like being on the inside of a tuning fork but what it sounds like is the second most improved shoegaze band in Edmond, Oklahoma stuck inside their aunt’s storm shelter.
We get a spot at the Guthrie Summer Night Out and Dirk’s worried because he doesn’t like the way we sound when we play outside. “It doesn’t come back to you in the same way,” he says. The afternoon is windy but so hot the wind is just like more heat. Dirk’s really into the three old ladies in matching dresses the same flower-pattern as my grandma’s couch who sing old croony-tunes like Chatanooga Choo-Choo in brassy harmony. He stands right up front next to the stage, close enough to grab their ankles, with his arms crossed, even though all over the blocked-off street are folding chairs and folding tables. By the time we get up on the covered black stage it’s getting late and the wind turns a little and the clouds are like a dark wave in the distances, and the festival is emptying out so our audience is mostly random clumps of high school kids with magic marker drawings all over the backs of their hands. At one table there’s a dad sticking a finger in his ear trying to hold a conversation on his phone. At another table there’s the old lady singers, tight smiles, hair so tightly curled and in place the wind is helpless. Scattered around are some of our friends, including my girlfriend, amazing almost imaginary Ally, who is leaning listening on a parking meter with her long pale legs crossed at the ankle, still as a pencil drawing, the ghost of a deer, and we nail the temperature change halfway through “Circle,” with a blast of wind bridging us through the stretch of silence. Rain never comes. One of the old ladies comes up to Dirk after and says she can see he’s very serious about his music. Two weeks later I break up with Ally, because I’m an asshole.
Sometimes I’m by myself with the headphones on practicing and I feel like why not just play the same chord or note or pattern over and over and over for real instead of just almost, like we do when we play. Slowing down a moment infinitely is the same thing as living forever, but better, because you never have to let the moment go.
JJ has all these books on the floor and in the trunk of his car, but I never see him reading. He sings a little off-key when he’s sober, beautifully when he’s drunk, and when he’s very drunk he forgets the words and no one can get him to shut up.
Dirk is much better than the rest of us. He also plays in en eerily accurate Led Zeppelin cover band called Stairways to Heaven with some older guys he met on a guitar website. They got invited to play at a fundraiser for the weird Senator.
Sean once made us stop the van so he could go punch a cow.
We have an EP. Sean refuses to listen to recordings of himself; he says it’s creepy. He also won’t look into a mirror in the dark. JJ says he can’t find his copies, and also his computer crashed. Dirk says he listens to it sometimes but he’s lying. I listen to it all the time and want it to be better.
My brother keeps offering to pay for me to get a real estate certification so I can “help him out.”
Dirk walks everywhere. From his mom’s house to work it’s two miles of the sandy shoulder of a traffic-choked four-lane road in his Chick-Fil-A visor, classical guitar in his big black headphones. I imagine that when he cuts through neighborhoods, brightly-helmeted children on bicycles retreat from sidewalk to garage, afraid of him, even though he once he carried a grasshopper across a highway on-ramp to a better meadow. He’s going to end up in the army like his brother.
JJ says he doesn’t want to go away and maybe he doesn’t but he’s probably going to apply to graduate school in California. Sean calls him the weak link even though he knows he himself is the weak link and JJ sneaks up and flicks his ear and they wrestle and then start pretending to give each other blow jobs and go on a little too long.
Silverfish is so much better than us anyway. It’s like they don’t even have to try. Sean says they got a good show booked in St. Louis in a few months and they might need him to fill in, and maybe even after that, if things work out, and how incredible would that be, to drive out to St. Louis and keep going, on to Athens, Savannah, down to New Orleans, and farther, the gleaming black mud and the warm oily green ocean.
Is there anything more beautiful than blood on clean white porcelain?
My father calls the songs “noise.” This is a failure of the imagination. It is also a failure of the imagination that I can’t hear our music the way he hears it. This used to make me angry. Now it makes me sad. Because sometimes, only sometimes, in the song we’re playing, it feels like there is no part of the world that is not also listening, humming, part of the same infinite inner ear. But this is only a feeling and what is a feeling? What is a song?
The day I was born there was snow on the ground. My mother says the first time she carried me outside, the instant we stepped over the threshold from the hospital into the world, into the cold bright parking lot, I opened my eyes; I opened my mouth.
What might be the last show is in a hot crowded white room somewhere we have never been in Norman and we are playing surrounded by many young others, including someone who is ironically wearing Sean’s exact Garth Brooks T-shirt that he hates for you to make fun of and a guy with beers in his backpack is standing-up-rocking-chairing too hard and every time he gets out a Miller Lite it spits and foams up. It is a good night. The room is the exact size of the echo so it is being inside the echo as it echoes. There is a girl, a young woman, right up front, close enough to touch, in an at first incorrect but then devastating orange tennis skirt who does not go up and down or nod while bending and unbending her knees, like most, but stands straight and lets her head go side to side, hair shivering, like she is disagreeing deliberately and with deep sympathy with every beat of our hearts.
Rob Roensch‘s collection of stories, The Wildflowers of Baltimore, was published by Salt. He teaches at Oklahoma City University.