I come into contact with a good number of goofy band names in my “journalistic” (how’s that for abuse of the term?) work. I have decided to put some of them to a new use. Thus, I welcome you to the first edition of a possibly ongoing series: Band Name Fiction.
Ollie Clemens had come up in the world, and he went to pains in looking the part. His hair was now cropped into fashionable order above his pale forehead; he wore jeans whose only function was aesthetic; the thought of flying for the weekend to New York was extravagant, but not beyond the realm of possibility, and Ollie not above letting this fact slip out in conversation. He had moved away from Burns, attended Oregon State on a Rural Education grant, and landed what was not a glamorous job, but a job that he figured was more impressive than anything else the Clemens family had attempted since its initial crossing of the Atlantic. He worked with computers, whereas his forefathers had worked with dirt, and his classmates from high school were still working with two Budweisers at lunch to take the sting out of a dying trade in agriculture. It was getting to the point where Ollie’s trips back home were taking on the character of deep-sea exploration. The threadbare rugs, the refrigerator stocked with deer meat and leftover rice—it all seemed small and grubby. He felt like a virus in his old house, his family hovering about him with the impeding instinct of white blood cells. His mother prepared dinners for him, mumbling as she served the mashed potatoes that she hoped this was “good enough.” They gathered after dinner on the secondhand sofa to observe with narrow-eyed suspicion that he “really seemed to be doing well.”
Ollie had learned to smile and await a change in subject whenever his parents wandered off along these lines. As he had been doing since the age of eleven, he let his parents follow their respective trains of thought to their terminal points while Ollie himself retreated into the more interesting warrens of his own mind to observe these sad creatures from a more studied remove. The conversation was annoying—“parochial,” that was the correct word for it—but it caused Ollie an amusing association, and he savored this slice of memory. As a child he had been for a summer obsessed with a picture book called “City Squirrel, Country Squirrel” in which the title characters, brothers by birth, met up after a long separation to find how one (the Country Squirrel) had grown in the intervening years to be physically robust, naively honest and absent of social grace. Meanwhile, his city-dwelling relation had become fastidious, moneyed and affected in his tastes. As Ollie vaguely remembered it, the two wound up coming together at the end on the grounds of their shared love of acorns, or something like that. It didn’t matter; what Ollie had retained from flipping through the pages of that yellowed picture book was the image of the City Squirrel. Erudite, supercilious, prancing about the gleaming world of the city in a suit of tweed—this is what Ollie imagined when people talked in cautious tones about his having “come up in the world.” He had grown up to be a moneyed rodent. He smiled at the idea, told his parents how he was just glad that he got to see them, and began counting the days until he could head back to San Francisco.
He was living in the Mission District, in a walk-up situated above a bodega and a nearly abandoned storefront church. The apartment had been retrofitted, emerging butterfly-like from its original life as a warehouse. It boasted three bedrooms and a sunroom, or “art room” as Ollie’s roommates had christened it. They were a computer programmer, a law student, and a DJ who made part of her living working in a cafe. Ollie mostly ignored his other two roommates, but the DJ came up with good parties, and since Ollie had more money than everyone else, and was willing to pay for liquor, he was always invited. He worked early mornings during the week, so in order to party on the weekends he had to do coke or pick up a couple energy drinks, either of which would have him set. San Francisco parties didn’t ask too much out of you, was Ollie’s opinion. They required energy and excitement, but that was about it. They weren’t like the parties in Burns; they didn’t ask for blood.
He had discovered the same thing when he first went to college, and although he complained about it, he had secretly enjoyed the change of pace, which seemed better suited to his method of living. He’d never done very well at the Burns parties, just as he’d never done very well in Burns as a rule. About the closest he’d come to a moment of pure excitement was being kicked down the stairs at a house party to which he hadn’t been invited. It made him laugh now, to think back on that humiliation. He was better than those people, and he was glad that the universe had provided him with a chance to prove it. He had never been a fighter, but at least life had forced him into a couple situations where he had no choice but to fight. There was the time out behind Tyler’s barn, the bonfire where he’d gotten the shit beat out of him by Jeremy Whitaker after having spent all night working his way up to making out with Whitakcr’s girlfriend. He still looked down on his college friends, and now the San Francisco artistes, for never having had to face life on those terms. Who was he kidding though? Those were his terms now. He had earned the right to commute through cities by bike and worry about getting reservations at restaurants and lay down thirty dollars on a meal without succumbing to heart failure. Big bushy tail, big tweed suit.
At parties, when he was feeling dour and eloquent, Ollie would draw grand comparisons between his refurbished apartment and the city that surrounded it. “In the case of both,” he said, whiskey and ginger diving in frothy spume from the edge of his glass, “we have the privileged upper class coming in and pushing out the lower classes, but keeping the trappings of poverty. It’s fashion, really. You have all these art students and would-be poets who want to appear to be making the sacrifice of living in the ghetto without having the grapes to live in an actual ghetto.”
“So what does that make you, then?” It was a girl, a pretty one too. She sat on the kitchen counter, wearing a bowler hat cocked to the side of her head and her shoulders concealed by an Indian-looking shawl.
“Oh, I’m right there with the worst of them,” said Ollie, dipping his nose once more to the whiskey and ginger. “I save myself by being honest about it.”
“So are you an artist or a would-be poet?”
“Neither nor,” said Ollie. “I do something much cooler: network systems administration. I work with a subcontractor out by Palo Alto. We do grunt jobs for the Big Boys.”
“Wow.” Now that he could focus on her more clearly, Ollie was beginning to think that the bowler hat made her look too young, like a kid who had raided her parents’ storage boxes in the attic and was playing dress up. The shawl made it so he couldn’t see if she had any tits. “You make a lot of money?” she said.
“Big stinking piles of it,” said Ollie. “Big fat, fickle gobs. I might be the only person in this neighborhood whose parents aren’t paying his rent.”
The girl laughed. She was drinking wine, Ollie noticed, a middle-shelf chardonnay. She kept the bottle in her left hand and poured it into a stained wine glass that she held in her right. Why bother to put on that particularly cumbersome air? It seemed wasteful. These people. They hadn’t grown up rough. They hadn’t grown up at all. Why did he keep coming to their parties and laughing at their smug jokes and making do with this celebration of youth wasted? It was because of sex. He liked sex, and this is where it lived and set itself out like a buffet, ready for the taking. No. That, Ollie dear, is a lie. Don’t fool yourself. You can perform all kinds of abuses to your person, but don’t you dare fool yourself. You hang out with these children because you’re one of them. You have wanted to be one of them ever since you were a high schooler with teeth all a-shamble and hand-me-down jeans a half-size too large, sitting lonely and mocked, stinking up your private corner of the cafeteria. You have fought your way into this sordid scene—all those years of college and now shopping at the boutiques that your dear Ma and Pa couldn’t even walk into without looking about all nervous and clutching at their purses, worried they might break something. Out of place is what they were, outgunned. Well, now this is your place, and you best learn to enjoy it.
“So what am I?” said the girl. She was still talking to him; he was surprised. “Artist or poet?”
“Doesn’t matter,” said Ollie, “but you’re an artist.”
“Oh yeah?” She smiled into her wine glass. Perfect teeth. “How can you tell?”
Ollie let the question ripen for a second. He was in no hurry. He investigated the ice in his whiskey ginger, observing the melting cubes as they clacked against each other and drew together by means of a sticky, fluid principle. He’d been forced at some point to learn the specific name for that cohesion. What was it called? Hydro-something.
“It’s because your cunt stinks,” Ollie said to his drink.
“Excuse me?” The wine glass dropped from her face.
“I can tell you’re an artist because all artists’ cunts stink. They don’t shower and so everything starts to stink. I can smell it from all the way over here.”
She laughed, but it was really more of a cough, like someone had poked two fingers into her diaphragm. She stood, looking about with a smile that flickered on the edge of angry tears. Ollie watched her, grimly obsessed. He felt like he was floating, suspended in a translucent fluid that separated him from the crowded kitchen and all its diverse sounds and smells of life. He was ready to receive whatever sort of slap or invective was, deservedly, headed his way. He almost liked this feeling. It was like the moment before a roller coaster begins its sharp dive or before you smoke pot for the very first time. Pain sat in its terrifying preparation. But the girl disappointed him. She stood, wine glass in hand, and stormed out of the kitchen, taking care not to look at Ollie. “Jerk,” she said, under her breath.
Ollie sniffed. He tipped his whiskey and ginger—now watery from the ice—up to whet his lips. It crossed his mind that he should be looking over his shoulder for a boyfriend, or some other valiant, coming to try and break his nose. It wasn’t like he’d be a hard person to pick out. Ollie was dressed better than pretty much everyone else here, had a haircut that had been performed by a barber, rather than executed on one’s self. He shouldn’t have said that. There was no reason to say that to her, she was probably perfectly nice. Stupid stupid stupid. He pursed his lips and made a scan of the kitchen, trying to catch accusing eyes or other such impediments. He was planning to duck out of doorway or prepare a functional excuse. But there was no one coming, just the shaggy heads of the chattering crowd, the dull hum of laughter and the thump of a stereo. This wasn’t the sticks, he reminded himself. These were civilized people, and they didn’t do that kind of thing here.