I check into the hotel late, and the guy at the desk is asleep. When I peek over the counter, I see the gun resting next to his roller chair. I feel bad for waking him, but he should be alert, keeping watch for the Enthusiasts. Otherwise, go empty: an empty desk at least has theoretical menace; who knows what could be lying in wait for a sneak attack. I’d go empty over sleeping old man. To his credit, he wakes quickly. I have already discredited him for being asleep and not stirring at the sound of my footsteps, so this credit brings us back to zero, and frankly a credit of zero would sound good to a lot of people I know.
Or: used to know.
The guy reaches for his gun, sleep and age washing from his face.
Take it easy, I say. I have a reservation.
Where’d you get a reservation? he says, gripping the barrel of the shotgun tighter.
I got a Bluebird Wing reservation from Lyman, I say. Old work buddy, I don’t say, because I don’t want to sound that safe. Used to be, when you asked for something in the nice section of the hotel, you’d get a smile. He doesn’t smile. He doesn’t flinch in disbelief, either. He just says: Cash or charge?
Cash, I say, and I open my backpack.
I hand him Tusk, Amnesiac, Paul’s Boutique, and Steve Miller Band’s Greatest Hits 1974-78.
I feel the weight of whitechocolatespaceegg in my pocket. I keep that one there, tell myself no one else likes it anyway. When I’d talk about it and how it represents the secret peak of Liz Phair’s career, my wife would say: you should have been a music critic. A generous assessment. I never told her about the music column I wrote for my college paper.
I’ve got this one he says, re: Steve Miller.
You can trade it for Tom Petty or something, I say. Where’s Bluebird?
Who am I going to trade with, he says. No one around here wants to trade. You got any female artists?
Look, maybe the next guy will come in with a real hankering for Steve Miller, I say, but not really my place to speculate.
You speculated I’m some Petty fan, he says, spitting.
Oh, you seem like about the age, I say, with a friendly smile, and this shuts him up.
Bluebird section is on the sixth floor, he says. There’s an elevator and it mostly works but you might not want to risk it.
I climb up the flights, echoing in the stairwell. I hear a skitter when I start and I think: rat or child? It is not a distinction I have mastered, even when I was coming home to my own kids. I’d hear them in the next room and think: oh Jesus, rats got in and they’re chewing through everything. But it would be the kids—my kids. Another time I went to see what was causing my daughter such a fuss and it turned out to be a rat caught in an oscillating fan.
It only got worse from there.
I’m not even sure if the rats were technically the Ethusiasts’ fault. They were probably on the rise before. The Ethusiasts just aren’t much damn good at managing that stuff. You can’t really blame them; most of them, they aren’t so far off from being confused with rats themselves, age-wise.
The halls of Bluebird Wing are pretty quiet. Maybe even a little cleaner than when it was a regular-style pre-Enthusiasts hotel. I might have stayed in another one of these, back when it was chain. But if I did, that was another state. I know I’ve never been to Florida before this week. It was a point of pride, once.
Walking down this hall, I have no idea if some of these rooms are even occupied. I hear something, low murmurs that are probably not rats or children, could be television or grown-ups. I find my room. The door opens, the light turns on, everything’s in order. For a moment, everything is perfect, and I drop to the bed, too tired for safety checks.
I wake up in the middle of the night in a panic, my body telling me to hide my goods around the room. There are rules of thumb: Never have a single stash. Maybe have a fake stash for thieves. Get jewel cases and liner notes for good stuff, Stankonia and All Hail West Texas and Rubber Soul, fill them in with decoy discs, because the smart ones will remember what the weight of an empty jewel case feels like, and then hope that the thieves don’t check the discs until they’re miles away, or maybe even when they try to use them to buy lodging or weapons and then they see it: Blues Traveler’s Four, Blues Traveler’s Four, Blues Traveler’s Four, worthless as nickels. Blues Traveler’s Four, I have never listened to you straight through, but I love you: I have fucked over so many thieves and bandits with your help.
There may not be bandits at this place, especially not in Bluebird, but if there are, they will unwittingly line their pockets with Blues Traveler’s Four.
When I’ve finished hiding everything, I call room service. It’s my first day; I can afford it for now. I’m not sure if they’ll pick up at this hour, but they do.
What’s left for tomorrow morning, I say.
Two-egg omelets, the guy says, sounding too distant to be in the same building. Comes with toast and chips, he adds. He is not using British slang.
Can I get double toast? I say.
What do you have to offer? he says.
I look at the discs I’ve left at the foot my bed, unhidden, set aside for incidentals. The Fat of the Land, I say.
By the Prodigy? he says.
Why don’t you just offer me Throwing Copper or Monster? So we can make it real clear that you’re offering fuck-all and should get fuck-all in return.
I am silent in my desire to offer him twelve copies of Blues Traveler’s Four.
If you want double toast, he says, you’ll have to pay something worth anything.
What about the Postal Service record? I say.
They only had one, I say, unless you count the reissue and I sure don’t.
A pause, then: Okay. Six a.m. tomorrow, double toast. Then another pause. Then: I don’t count the reissue either. Then a click.
He has not worked with customers much, I can tell. Even nice hotels like this are lucky to wind up with more than a handful of people who care about service. The rest are just clocking their shifts, with even more conviction than the average worker that they could do better, because in many cases they probably had what they thought was evidence, before it slipped away as the Enthusiasts took over. When the Enthusiasts started getting noisy, in the early days, they probably laughed. I know I laughed. Not giddy, out-loud laughter: the kind that’s mostly a puff of air escaping the nose and mouth. Without the smile, it wouldn’t count. That’s the way we laughed at the Enthusiasts. Got their name wrong: called them the Aficionados or the Excitables or the Stupid Fuckheads.
People said it was a generational thing.
They started as mobs. No, they started as fans. No, they started as babies. But at some point babies get bigger and pick out music and some of them pick out music based on some fizzy chemical reaction between hormones and eardrums and taste buds. That’s what I thought about this singing dancing kid who all the babies loved: hormone ear candy stuff. Though there was that one song; that was okay. But the babies, they loved him unconditionally, and they listened to his songs and they listened for his instructions.
He’d get on Twitter and go: babies (only he didn’t call them babies, because they weren’t mostly), donate money to the Red Cross, and they’d scrounge up their allowances and their birthday money and sometimes money from their parents’ wallets, and they’d send it to the Red Cross.
He’d go, demand my new album at the stores, and they’d storm the stores and say goddammit you better get his album here tomorrow and the stores would say it’s not out tomorrow it’s out next week, or what are you saying this is a hardware store, and the babies wouldn’t hear because they were too busy knocking over shelves and throwing merchandise against the walls.
He’d go, boy, I know I am blessed but I can’t stand the haters, and they’d find the haters in their neighborhoods, scratch at them, bite at them, call them names.
He lost control before he knew he had it.
The mobs roamed the streets. They overpowered police, who were reluctant to use their guns. They slashed tires. They started fires. They infiltrated the military. They disregarded bedtimes.
By this point, I imagine the singing dancing kid was probably a little perturbed. He didn’t make any statements to that effect. The one interview of him I heard, I didn’t completely understand, like he was talking in code, and this was before all of this even happened and people started to suspect he really did talk in code. After the first big uprising, he did this Christmas special, and the way he phrased his holiday greetings, kept saying “big seasonal ups all the way down,” sounded to me like an incantation I was missing.
I don’t think this roughed-up landscape is what he had in mind. But what could he do? Renounce his throne and tell the mobs to fuck off? They could turn against him. And if he abdicated to a sounder decision-maker, who knows, that guy could order him killed first thing, then drop some singles and keep control.
So he accepted it, and stayed in power. And a lot of things stayed the same. Most of the traffic lights still work, for now. Lots of senators fled but lots of mayors stayed. Certain foods, like bread or vegetables, fall short, but there’s still plenty of cereal. Sometimes the mail still comes; it’s erratic, but it was going that way anyway. Streets are a little less safe; people still put out fires, though sometimes that’s more on a volunteer basis than a strictly salaried and organized deal. The mobs don’t try to control much of that; infrastructure isn’t really their jam. A lot of record stores closed, just said fuck, not worth it. But they were on their way out too, far as I understand. Can’t remember the last time I went to one, even before.
Comm is monitored: that’s the biggest thing. You have to be careful what you say online. You’d think this would be pretty easy, but no one can resist. If you slag on the guy on Facebook, they’ll find you. If you post an anonymous craigslist ad ranting about his miserable earworm songs, they’ll find you. If your birthday wishes to him on Twitter sound the least bit sarcastic, they’ll find out.
And forget about making music recommendations. They do not enjoy those. At all.
So we wait for everyone to age.
I slip out of my room, quiet as if I’m sharing it, and then walk the halls. One floor down, I find a game room. It may be the room of the hotel that most closely resembles the way it looked in the before times: a little grimy from thousands of hands running over everything, pressing and gripping, but too much motion for much dust to settle.
There are three punks in the game room. I don’t mean that in the pejorative sense. These are real punks by which I mean fake punks because I’m pretty sure punk is dead. There’s a song about that, right? So maybe I mean that pejoratively in the sense that I think they’re dipshits. Good music, though, at least at first, until they need something harder and louder, and then they’re on to thrash and then hardcore and then black metal, and none of it sounds like the roughed-up Beach Boys anymore. But early on, before that addict’s escalation kicks in: pretty good music. The opposite of chicks who like the Grateful Dead: cute girls with dipshit taste. I heard that in the middle of all this, some hippie kids started a Dead cover band, which sounds awful but at least Bob Weir wasn’t there, and some other kids started following them around the country, like their grandparents and great-grandparents did, just following them around to bullshit gigs in parking lots and fields and abandoned buildings. Then the hordes got wind of it and sent some of their own out after the kids, but the kids were crafty and stayed ahead of them. So there’s a train winding all around the country in counterintuitive loops and curlicues: the pretend Grateful Dead, the pretend fans, and a horde on their trail.
The weird thing about these punks, besides that it’s not 1977 or even 1994, is that when I look closely at their jackets, there aren’t any buttons and patches for bands I’ve heard of, or haven’t heard of. They’re patches and buttons and even custom-drawn likenesses of the kid—at first I think I’m seeing it wrong, but no, there’s the hairdo, the swoopy pompadour, shaggy on the sides, that the hordes so adore—even if he hates the style by now, he wouldn’t dare change it and test whether he controls the hordes or the hordes truly control him.
The punks are looking at me looking at them so to avoid a situation, I say: Nice gear.
And gesture to their patches.
Is that sarcasm? says one with hair bunched into short spikes. I have already nicknamed him Spikes.
Is that? I say, pointing to one particular patch with the kid smiling through a particularly seductive squint.
A shaved-bald punk glares at me, looks at Spikes to see if he should do more. Spikes keeps his eyes on me.
Why would you ask me that? he says.
I just haven’t seen patches and buttons and stuff, of him. Usually more like… t-shirt and folders, you know?
So we can’t look like this and listen to this guy, is what you’re saying, says Spikes.
It’s just not what I’d expect.
There it is, says one with long hair and scars on his cheeks. We aren’t what you expect so we should just fuck off and die, huh?
You should neither fuck off nor die, I say. Maybe they’re undercover.
Spikes stares at me. You look like a guy, he says.
Thanks, I say.
A guy we met up in Hotlanta, he says. Claimed he knew real punks. He asked us, what would they say in ’77 if they saw you looking like this? And we said…
I said, says Bald.
He said, fuck those pricks, says Spikes. He said, they sell t-shirts of all your fucking bands, your fucking bands are the establishment, you are the establishment.
Now that it’s illegal… says Bald.
It’s not illegal, is it? I say. The bill never passed.
Now that it’s illegal or whatever to like other music, says Bald, everyone thinks they’re fucking punks for liking anything else. Smug complacent motherfuckers. Beating up on some kid. It’s bullshit.
So you really like him, I say.
Admitting you like it is punk fucking rock, says Spikes.
Also, if you pay attention, his production is really good, says Scars.
It’s an attractive line of reasoning. I have often wondered if my desire to piss off punk kids makes me, in fact, the most punk rock person of all human existence.
I have wondered this, rather than knowing it, because it is untrue.
Fuck Colin Troy, I say, and kick the side of Ms. Pac-Man, hard, and immediately feel bad because the most punk rock person of all human existence need not be a monster.
They look at me like I’m at the end scene of a nature documentary.
Say it a little louder, why don’t you, says Spikes. He’s not admonishing me.
You guys gonna tell on me? I say.
No, says Bald. We don’t need to. Or particularly want to. But you know how it works. You know they’re everywhere.
Also, says Spikes, I might tell on you.
FUCK. COLIN. TROY. I pump my fist with my shouts.
Either my ears play tricks or they’re looking out for me: I swear I hear something in the distance just then, a little rumble that’s probably someone upstairs moving his bed up against the door to protect his complete They Might Be Giants discography.
Here’s a taste of what’s coming, says Scars as he shoves me to the ground.
Yep, says Spikes as he kicks me in the side. I hear a crack from the Liz CD, hopefully just the case.
I’ll play you at Street Fighter if you want, says Bald. But it might be your last time.
I don’t really play videogames, I say.
Well, your life has been shit, says Bald.
* * *
If I had been caught recommending Bob Dylan, I could have been a martyr.
They say he’s still out there somewhere, Dylan. There was a movement, after the hordes of Enthusiasts came out full-force, for him to emerge as the face and voice of the counter-insurgence. When it didn’t happen, some wondered if he was dead—the arrogance, assuming someone is dead because he won’t turn up for your party. People who wondered if he was dead because of old age get a pass. There are also rumors he’s recording, at his age. With every passing year, you hear at least one person murmur: I hear he’s got an album coming out next year. My guess is he has five or six albums, not coming out yet, but put to tape, or computer, or in his head. Wife used to tell me, whatever keeps you going. I said, no, the albums would not keep me going, even if they came out. This is just my guess about what keeps him going. What keeps me going is not wanting to die.
But that would’ve been something, death by recommendation: clicking “like” on Together Through Life, maybe even commenting on it being underrated, and going down for it. If I made enough noise, I would’ve sounded like a real hero.
Instead, I said, on the Internet: Fuck, when are the balls of our exalted leader gonna drop?
And then: So sick of his squeaking.
And then: an abbreviation that basically means something about having no dick.
To be fair, that was probably slander. I’m pretty sure he has a dick.
They came for me the next night, just long enough for me to have convinced myself I was safe, that everyone living in fear of reprisal was a bunch of crybabies. The thing about babies is: they cry for a reason. I remember that from my kids. They would cry and I would change them and feed them and they’d still cry and I would look at them and say why, why, why, why, why, why the fuck are you crying, and they would answer me with crying because babies are inarticulate as fuck. But I could tell they were not crying for no reason, just no reason they could tell me. That didn’t mean it wasn’t there, deep down in the baby core of their baby feelings.
When the Enthusiasts came for me, I cried. I cried out about the unfairness and stupidity, I cried to my wife that I keep a gun in the top cupboard above the kitchen sink and that she had to protect our kids, and I cried about the protective instincts I always thought would kick in, sitting dormant somewhere inside of me, or maybe just drowned out by my self-preservation instincts, which I’ve never worried about, could always feel pulsing just below the surface.
Then I ran.
Fast at first. Slower now.
* * *
I go back to my room but I don’t sleep much, already awake when my breakfast turns up. I hand over the Postal Service album for my extra toast, then retrieve my other discs from their hiding places, packing them up. At this point it seems like I’ll have to make a run for it before my room gets broken into and ransacked. I am surprisingly calm as I head down to the lobby. Gotta keep cool and the lobby will have better AC.
There aren’t many people in the lobby, just a girl at the desk and a couple of small groups talking amongst themselves, like the beginning or tail end of a party.
There’s one kid, looking as out of place as he would at a chic apartment at night. He looks like one of mine, by which I mean he’s short, has hair, wears a shirt. So maybe not that much like one of mine, or maybe one of mine looks like anyone else’s.
He used to say to me: do you like this song?
Sometimes about a song on the radio, sometimes about a song on a CD I just put on, sometimes about TV ads that weren’t songs at all.
I’d try to be straight with him, even as I got older and the songs became less familiar. I wouldn’t sugarcoat. I’d say: since you asked, I don’t like this song because the rhymes are cloying and they fail to get me interested in a little white whale on the go.
I walk by the kid in the lobby, busying himself with a smiling toy train, and introduce myself to two blonde women and a prematurely gray-haired man standing together, make sure they know I’m not a threat. I wonder if they’ve heard about me, if they smile back because they know if they get close, they can throw me to the Enthusiasts when they show up looking for the guy who said Fuck Colin Troy.
Are you two sisters? I say to the women.
They’re not sisters. They just met yesterday but I’m the third person to ask that since then. The man says nothing, looks smug: I’m asking about things he already knows. I try to change the subject to things he won’t know, for spite. Spite is the artificial heart that powers the body of my conversations; they might survive without it, but why take the chance? I ask about the hordes. None of them have seen them recently, but they come from towns that got hit hard, and decided to move here. I wonder which direction they come from, if they’re headed from the coast, or towards the ocean or over to Mexico. The Enthusiast hordes aren’t always urgent enough to inspire travel plans without a map.
They talk about traveling light, not too much cash. The women get specific: Carole King’s Tapestry; CrazySexyCool; the Eagles, not even saying what record because they’re talking about the greatest hits.
The man keeps quiet about what cash he might be carrying, says instead: Now I hear cassettes are coming back.
Damn, says the shorter of the two women. I would have been rich, back in the day.
I talk about albums that would be great on cassette: Treats by Sleigh Bells. Something by The New Pornographers. I don’t let on that I have CD copies in my bag; even if they turn on me, I don’t want them ransacking my stuff. Recommendations have to stay between the lines. Even there, they can probably find the warnings that I’m bad news, that I can’t leave well enough alone.
The taller one says: You been to the pool?
I prepare for this to be a sex thing.
Sometimes, when the world is crumbling and people are at hotels, it becomes a sex thing.
The other woman says: Yeah, but it’s drained, right? Or did they fill it?
This sounds less like a sex thing.
You should check it out anyway, the first woman says to me, touches my arm. She then makes it a grip, leads me. Come on, she says. You look like the type.
Now I know it’s not a sex thing: too easy. Could be a murder thing. Maybe the punks ratted me out.
I’m staying in Bluebird, I say as she takes me through the lobby, toward an escalator, halted and grubby, just in case that will help, just in case that is a reason not to murder me or at least break my arm by throwing me into a drained pool, like the grim skeleton of a scene from the kind of stupid movie where people get tossed into pools per their comeuppance. Maybe she knows about my outburst; maybe she knows that’s why I asked about the hordes; maybe she’s seen them coming from a telescope in her room.
I should have a telescope. But they’re just so heavy.
You mentioned that, she says, dragging me down the ribbed, jagged escalator steps, and I realize maybe in this movie I deserve comeuppance because I’m staying in Bluebird. Maybe they don’t know about the outburst at all, but Bluebird is the wing of uptight deans and mean mother-in-laws and preppy bullies and platinum rewards members, and my final platinum reward will be a semi-petite blond woman throwing me to my death.
If I run, though, I will lose face. If they see me running away, they might figure me for what I actually am: a runner who will lead everyone to their end if he can scrape together a few extra minutes.
She smacks through the frosted glass doors without flinching at the cha-chunk, and we are out back, following a concrete path alongside the hotel, past some shrubbery that would have looked better neglected than tended with such unsure hands, around a bend and then: the pool, dry as promised, but not deserted. A handful of guests—just transient enough to be guests, not enough to be real transients—stand around and at first I mistake the crackle, from a distance, for a trashcan fire. Only when I follow the semi-petite blonde woman down the shallow-end steps do I hear the sound for what it is: a record player with tinny built-in speakers. An orange electrical cord snakes up out of the pool, plugged into an unseen outlet.
The record wavers, a little watery and uneven as the song goes on about other songs, other bands, stuff I don’t know. I recognize the sound quality from the player a buddy of mine set up, prepping for the vinyl revival. He had the entirety of the before times to figure out how to level it out, find that lush warmth the vinyl guys always go on about, and he never did. Possibly the solution was not buying cheap shit record players but what did I know about record players. I stuck with CDs until the end. They’re easier to cart around, for sure. Records have different numbers, I know that; confusing. The singer goes to the chorus again.
The semi-petite blonde gestures like: okay, you should like this, and turns to leave me there; it will be awkward if I follow. The others in the pool just stand there, unconcerned with my presence, unconcerned with each other. We’re out in the open, and they won’t let us back into the hotel if the Enthusiasts come storming in, so my brain wants to start mapping out escape routes. But it’s stuck in my body, stuck with the rest of me. And I’m at the bottom of the shallow end, surrounded by cracked blue-green paint, listening to that chorus about getting together and then the next song, and the song after that, either you know them already or you don’t much care.
Enjoy this track list inspired by the text.
Jesse Hassenger was born and raised in Saratoga Springs, Upstate New York. Now he lives in Brooklyn, edits textbooks, reads submissions for One Story, and co-edits the culture site SportsAlcohol.com. His short fiction has appeared in Threepenny Review, The Toast, Southern California Review, Westchester Review, and Brooklyn Review. His film criticism appears in The AV Club, The L Magazine, and Brooklyn Magazine; his personal criticism appears in passed notes and private emails. If you are wondering what albums he’s listening to, then you are in luck, because someone invented Twitter, where you can follow him under the name @rockmarooned and also where you can find out if a celebrity has just died, or what.