No one showed up to the Fusilli Jerry show. Identical twin social maladroits from off-the-grid New England processed sampled slap bass and projected altered Seinfeld clips to a chasmal basement occupied only by resident venue staff, plus one townie with no point of contact with the local whisper network. By the end of the set the feeling in the room had gone from pregnant to stillborn. For forty-five minutes afterward we tried to party, but we couldn’t even manage to turn murmurs into chatter. Tommy had already booked another band to play the next week; he called them to cancel as soon as Fusilli Jerry left. Everyone knew not to bring it up for the rest of the weekend.
The next Friday I walked the hilly mile to Bleak House as soon as I got out of class, braced for an early night of low-impact hijinks improvised in pursuit of the total negation of consciousness a loudly packed room usually offers. Approaching from the road I heard cranky banter coming from the backyard, so I cut across the lawn to where Scott, Tommy, and Dania were sitting in a half-circle around the fire pit behind the house, a pile of sticks spewing wet smoke up into their faces. The sun was still setting, which meant the temperature would drop plenty more in the coming hours, and all three of them already looked like they wouldn’t last much longer. When I passed by Scott he turned and shook his head shrugging. I nodded, grabbed a milk crate, and dropped it between his and a battery-powered boombox sitting on a tree stump playing what sounded like the soundtrack to The X-Files on cassette.
Dania looked at me like I had shown up late to her mother’s funeral in the middle of a phone call, and then said to no one in particular, “Does any of us have a job, besides me?”
Scott gave her the finger. “I’m literally a licensed insurance adjuster?”
Dania nodded. “Right. So I’m the only one.”
“Don’t sell yourself short,” Scott said. “A whole shift a week at the print shop. That’s rent right there.”
“I thought Tommy’s dad paid your rent,” I said.
Eyes moved around. Tommy sighed, frustrated. “He sends me a little money every month. I don’t, like, live on it.”
“So you guys were actually using that money? The money from the shows?”
Frowning patiently, like he was worn out from talking about it, Tommy nodded. “We gave half to the bands. I always told them the deal up front. Fifty people or so, ten bucks suggested, at least once a week . . . it worked out OK.”
Silently, we mourned the end of it working out OK. Bleak House wasn’t exactly a model of sustainable home economics; if Dania never reminded them to stock up when they were running low, Scott and Tommy probably would have gone days at a time without toilet paper, not to mention toothpaste, trash bags, roach motels . . . their bigger priorities were things like batteries, Band-Aids, and beer. Still, we all knew Tommy had access to an amount of money none of the rest of us could estimate, which made the stability of the whole enterprise hard to gauge. Financial arrangements are always ambiguous when no one acknowledges them out loud.
When I felt like enough time had passed, without looking up or even really speaking clearly, I said, “Have you guys thought of trying to, like . . . apologize?”
Dania held out her hands like a fortune teller. “For what? What did anyone even do?”
I took a deep breath. I had opened the wrong door. “Well, nothing in the statement is made up, really. Those things all actually happened.” I looked back and forth between the three of them. “Right?”
“The one time I did that free improvisation and I dressed up like Sun Ra. They didn’t like that,” Tommy said.
“That and apparently Wendy Carlos Wendy was the only non-male artist we booked last term,” said Scott. “Which is not that much of a failure given what’s out there.”
Dania snarled. “That’s such a joke. This is where people go to experience non-male community? The basement where you three huff Lysol and watch Gummo every night? Please.”
I couldn’t look Dania in the eye for long before I looked down. Nothing good ever came of me taking a side. We already had our way of doing things. Dodging the real thoughts and feelings of people who expected more from us kept the space in our heads clear. Sometimes the safe distance left me cold, gave me a headache. I pulled out my phone and wondered whether I’d feel better if I made some excuse to leave until I heard someone coming and looked up to see Tommy, a little mystified, say, “Oh, hey dude.”
“Hey,” said a raised voice behind me. I turned around and saw a tall, thin figure in thrifted foreign army surplus smiling in partial silhouette above our heads. The one person who had actually come to the show was a local guy named Max. After Fusilli Jerry played, before the mood turned dull and forced, he stayed for a few minutes and introduced himself to everyone. He had a manic positivity that came across as friendly, an unhinged charm most people I knew couldn’t pull off without medication. We were all a little thrown off by it, but refreshed at the same time. Something about the way he didn’t fit in made a lasting impression. He seemed like he had ended up in the same room as the rest of us after enduring a series of trials normalized in a subculture that thrived just beyond our awareness, a mirror world of paintball guns and homemade car engines, a place where every local bar is a church.
“It’s off,” said Scott, a little apologetic, but mostly indifferent. “No hay banda.”
Max looked genuinely concerned. “What?”
“The students are boycotting the house,” I explained. “Someone posted something online. Apparently the environment here’s not inclusive enough.”
Max closed his eyes, exhaled, and calmly shook his head. “God,” he said. “Some people.”
Scott snorted a little, raised one hand theatrically and said, “Who are these people?”
Squinting approvingly, Tommy pointed behind Max to the junk piled up against the house. “Grab a milk crate if you want.”
“Take mine,” said Scott. “We need firewood anyway.”
Tommy clapped once and pointed at Scott. “I got you,” he said, standing.
I calculated quickly in my head. Dania would come up with all kinds of material to use against Max. His positivity, his quasi-military look, the way he’d shown up out of nowhere. He would take it well, which would encourage her. I’d be stuck in the middle. “Yeah, me too.”
The sun had fully set by then. Tommy led the way through the quarter-acre of forest behind Bleak House, across terrain messy with rotting logs and damp leaves and dog shit. Walking around back there at night could get dicey quick, even by the light of a phone. I stepped carefully, a few feet at a time, stopping here and there to scan the ground. Patches appeared and disappeared as the light passed over them. “I’m kind of glad we don’t have to host a band tonight,” said Tommy. “All the handshaking and the small talk. It gets so old.”
“My name’s Farm and this is my power electronics project Liquid Plumr,” said Scott.
“My name’s Flem and this is my dark ambient project Frenulum,” said Tommy.
“Frenulum, what is that again?”
“It’s the thing that connects your foreskin to the head of your dick.”
“Your forehead’s connected to the skin of your—” Scott’s voice cracked into a yelp and then I heard a heavy smack dulled by the cushioning of fallen leaves. “Fuck,” he said from the ground.
Tommy turned with a worried laugh. “What did you do?”
Scott pushed himself up off the ground and swiped the dirt off of his clothes. “Nothing, there’s something . . .” he squinted around.
Tommy aimed his flashlight toward where Scott had landed, then jumped over between Scott and me and crouched down low. With the light held up close I could see a hard white dome breaking through the ground like a sprouting tuber. Tommy closed his hand over the top and worked it back and forth a little. He dropped the phone and started digging with his other hand. Eventually he yanked with his whole body three or four times and then staggered up and backward, holding the freshly dug-up object to eye level. The phone, face down, shone its light upward through a set of open holes, a mouth, a nose, two eyes.
“Whoa,” said Tommy, screwing his face into an incredulous grimace. “Baller.”
It was a skull, human for sure, incandescent with arcane meaning like a holographic trading card.
“Crazy,” said Scott, with something like reverence.
Tommy was coughing and laughing at the same time. “What do we even do?”
“I mean,” I said, “I think we call the cops.”
“Dude, why,” Scott pleaded.
“Because if we don’t it’s, like, a felony?” I said, committing to an uneducated guess.
Tommy put his hands up like he was under arrest, the skull still clutched in the left one. “I just have to show Dania,” he said.
They turned back toward the house and I followed. Sometimes I felt like Scott and Tommy and I were drifting back and forth together on the far end of some spectrum, but there was a point I could never pass that neither of them would even notice until it was miles behind them. Watching a human skull swing back and forth in the dark, I wasn’t taking every step with confidence. Still, I kept quiet.
Back by the fire, Max and Dania were getting along better than I had expected. Max was doing most of the talking and Dania looked almost amused. He was halfway through saying something he was obviously pleased by when he saw us coming and paused. “Hey,” said Max, once we were close enough to hear. The fire had gone out. “OK, so listen to this.”
“He thinks you guys should start a web series,” said Dania, neither audibly endorsing nor mocking the idea.
“What do you mean?” Tommy asked. With only the light from a pile of dying embers to see us by, Max and Dania did not appear to notice that he was holding a human skull.
Max pumped himself up as he spoke, like he was presenting a marketing campaign for a new extra-strength energy drink. “Make an account on one of these sites where you can stream your own content live, then pull some kind of stunt to get some attention, something crazy that blows up so your name gets out there, and you can stream a show every week and sign people up as subscribers. You can make more money than you did hosting live bands, and you don’t have to worry about college kids and their, like, ideological crusades.”
The pitch reverberated in the quick silence that followed. “That’s . . . maybe not totally insane?” said Tommy.
“We’ll have to run it by our client,” said Scott.
Tommy lit up. “Oh yeah. We found something. In the woods.”
Dania crossed her arms tight over her chest and drummed her fingertips meaningfully against her biceps. “Is it firewood?”
Tommy bent down and reached toward Dania with the hand still holding the skull and held it, face to hers, just a few inches away.
“Oh, wow,” said Max, solemnly.
Dania turned her head and her eyes lined up with the two empty sockets. Then she flinched just slightly before reassuming the same unimpressed composure. “So I guess that’s a no?”
Tommy laughed, drawing it out to embarrass her for showing the vaguest sign of vulnerability. “Sorry,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
“You might want to clean it at least, if you’re going to touch it.”
“Yeah, I don’t know,” I said. “That thing could be really unsafe to keep around. What if it’s infected?”
Tommy pivoted, skull in hand, so they both faced me. “Does this look infected?”
Dania shook her head. “Great. Another pale freak with no brain.”
“You should obviously keep it,” said Max, firmly and sensibly. He rose, reached for the skull, and gently accepted it from Tommy. Then he sat back down and turned it around in his hand a few times, inspecting it. He raised it toward the nearest window until we could all see it, faint and white in the dark. “You can use it.”
When I first started hanging out at Bleak House, the environment there struck me as a natural end of some process of total elimination. Whether one of us preferred one record to another came down to some slight difference in how we saw things, what shade of black we saw in a room with no light, but we all liked music with no regard for rhythm or harmony or whatever Western tradition imposed, because whatever we saw when we looked at the world around us, we knew it was fake. We couldn’t accept structures we knew had been conjured on a whim, guidance meant to command, not to support or inspire, best practices that brought about a reality made obscure and stagnant by targeted ads and subprime loans and fractional shares of stock. We wanted media that reminded us of the world we really lived in, a world that looked like the corrugated frame of a tank shelled to pieces, a barren plain sweating acrid chemicals into the air, an artificially intelligent heat map of the Middle East striking a new enemy target every second.
Some people think noise music is sheer hellish miasma, nothing but bad vibes, pure depression unloaded on the world like oil into the ocean. Some of it’s like that, but not all of it. I wasn’t into the black leather torture porn subgenres, the grim thrills some bands provoked in the scary gray areas between pain and release. I connected more easily with the stuff with abstract, far out resonances, the mind-expanding potential of the science of sound. The music I liked captured the freedom you glimpse when you realize you’re nothing but a flicker of plasma in the massive random universe of mountains and obelisks and computer server farms. A freak hiccup in the natural order of things, like lightning hitting a butterfly.
My friends probably thought I was uptight, my attachments a side effect of imaginary, abstract problems. The way he talked about it, Tommy’s family had been a mess his whole life. His parents were divorced and his older brother hated their dad so much he made it his purpose in life to reject everything he stood for, which essentially amounted to money. Once after a really nasty fight Tommy’s brother woke up in the middle of the night and tried to set their dad’s bedroom on fire, and then their dad sent him away to a militant rehab program for disturbed adolescents. Tommy was 10 or 11. I don’t think he and his brother were in touch anymore. He put off the struggle to mend their severed bonds by rigging used recording equipment to imitate the sounds of a middle school garage band trapped in a dryer, a warehouse production crew jousting on forklifts, a hearing aid shorting out.
Scott had grown up somewhere in the Midwest, a town I’d never heard of in a state I always confused with another one. His dad was a contractor and he didn’t answer questions about his mom. In his early teens he pulled pranks at school and made trouble around his hometown, getting drunk at gas station parking lots and speeding all the way home, until his dad told him he would kick him out if he stepped out of line one more time. After that, what started as an untamed urge to tear away the social fabric holding his life together settled down into an occasional impulse to poke a hole with a well-aimed barb. He spent the rest of his high school years looking over his shoulder, and then he made sure as soon as he got to college that he would always be able to stay somewhere between semesters instead of having to move back home. He probably could have gone into business with his dad and made good money, but he had other plans. Or didn’t.
Dania was from California. Her mom was single and liked to go away for days at a time and leave Dania behind to take care of herself. Dania would invite her friends over to get high and fuck around and they would always leave the place a mess, and then her mom would come home again and she and Dania would yell at each other all week long, and then it would all happen the exact same way the next weekend. By the time I got to know her, Dania hardly seemed to know the difference between shouting someone down and trying to draw them in. She said she had wanted to get as far away from her mom as possible, but she talked about her life and her friends back home all the time, especially in the winter, when the weather out here started getting really fierce. She always seemed to forget when it wasn’t warm outside. She never wore a coat.
Tommy had moved to Bleak House a couple of years earlier, after he graduated, and Dania had graduated the year after. All her friends moved away, and she moved into Tommy’s room. On campus she had run with a crew of girls who would corner people at parties and tear them apart in front of everyone. Now instead she did the same thing to Tommy. They spent every second of every day together. Scott had never really been friendly, but he guessed early on our freshman year that I didn’t know how to go places and meet people on my own. He invited me out to shows, deflected all the jokes Tommy and Dania made to haze me, asked my opinion when they were trying to find bands to book. In the year since he moved into Bleak House, though, he’d gotten more evasive, more committed to the asinine performance humor he used to keep everyone out of his orbit.
The following Friday I took the same steep walk to Bleak House and got there at the same evening hour. In the twilight, the front facade assumed a vague slasher movie aura, pale but ominous with the promise of bad news, an unstable shut-in skinning cats with a boxcutter or a family failing to contain the spread of a fatal flesh-eating germ. Inside everything looked like it usually did, but a heinous smell, part chemical and part animal, gave the atmosphere a tainted feel, like the early stages of some kind of emergency. At first I couldn’t tell where anyone was, but then I heard someone in the kitchen scraping metal against metal. That was unnerving enough. I didn’t think I had ever seen anyone cooking at Bleak House.
In the kitchen Scott stood by the stove, maneuvering a pair of tongs inside a giant steaming pot. On the counter a tall, gleaming nitrous cracker loomed to his right as he bent forward. He grabbed for it with one hand, but stopped when I moved closer and he saw me over his shoulder. I stepped toward the stove and glanced into the pot. The smell built as I inhaled the steam. The shiny white cap of the skull was just peeking out of the water, now rolling at a steady boil. Scott dropped the tongs and raised his hands in peace as he turned toward me. “It’s all right,” he said. “I’m a doctor.”
I watched him pick up the nitrous cracker, flex his lips around the nozzle, slam it back down and let his face go slack like a cartoon of a mosquito drunk on human blood or a dog hypnotized by a TV. Then he took a deep breath and smiled gently.
Dania passed by and Tommy slid into the kitchen. A DC adapter spun out of the milk crate he held limply with one hand and dragged along the floor. “Is it ready?” he asked, squinting into the pot.
Scott jerked a dish towel from the oven door handle and tossed it at my chest. Then he stuck the tongs into the pot and closed them around the temples of the skull. It rose up out of the boiling water like a sunken ship dislodged by crane and Scott held it, dripping, for five or ten seconds before slowly unloading it onto the fabric stretched over my open hands. I had to juggle it to keep from letting it drop.
When we migrated to the living room a few minutes later, Max was just closing the front door behind him. Someone had set up a camera on a tripod, facing the couch, where Dania lay stretched out, striking poses and winking. Tommy knelt down next to the couch and started tossing mics and cables around on the floor. Scott gave Max a Vulcan salute and said, “Evening, officer.” Max laughed amicably and stood up on the tips of his toes to see over Scott’s head. When he saw the skull still steaming in the middle of the rag bundled up in my hands, his whole face warmed up with emotion.
Scott leaned over the end of the couch staring down at Dania’s head. “Do you mind?” he asked. Dania slid forward, leaving a small space, and Scott squeezed into it and crossed his arms. “I want a divorce.”
Tommy twisted around and jerked his head toward me. “I need that,” he said. “Don’t throw it.”
I crouched down next to him. He closed his palm over the top of the skull like he had when we’d first found it. Then he gently lowered the mandible and inserted the eighth-inch adapter at the the end of a slim auxiliary chord between the jaws, maneuvering it into the small hole at the bottom of the base of the skull and snaking it through until he could rest the tiny speaker at the other end behind the remaining teeth and close the mouth. He grabbed around with his other hand until he found a long, curved object that looked like a cross between a microphone and a sperm cell and handed it to Scott. He plugged the chord and the instrument in Scott’s hand into a little synthesizer sitting at his feet. Then he stood up and waved brusquely at Dania. “Babe, come on, get up.”
“Ugh,” said Dania, grabbing with her heels around the corner of the couch onto the adjoining love seat. Tommy pressed a series of buttons on the back of the camera and sat down next to her with the synth in his lap, and Scott scooted over toward him. Max sat down next to Scott with a sigh of comfort and crossed his right leg over his left knee. They all turned to face the camera and I sat down to watch in the armchair across from the love seat, out of the shot.
Max looked the camera dead on and smiled like an actor in a commercial, which, I realized, was what he was. “We’re coming to you live from Bleak House, the headquarters of experimental music in the Northeast, to give you a sneak peak at our new web series. My name’s Max, and these are my cohosts, Scott, Tommy, and Dania.” Dania blew a kiss at the camera, Tommy played a dinky riff on the synth, and Scott pressed his hands together as if in prayer and took a deep bow. Max continued. “Joining us today is a special guest, one of the major figures in today’s underground music scenes.” He scooped his hand under the skull and raised it until it was level with his own head. “This is our inaugural artist-in-residency, Chad,” he said, turning to face it. “Chad, thanks so much for joining us.”
Scott raised the bulbous microphone to his lips and a garbled but harmonious tone sounded from inside the mouth of the skull saying, “The pleasure is mine.”
Max nodded at Scott like someone would at a grade schooler correctly listing the state capitals in alphabetical order. “Excellent. So, tell us about the tour. How’s life on the road?”
“Life,” said Scott, eyes closed like he was off somewhere else, “is sick.”
“How are the crowds at the shows?” asked Tommy. “Mostly girls, I’m guessing. Massive crowds of super hot girls.”
Dania eyed Tommy sideways, mouth reacting to the taste of an insult by flexing to spit it back out. “Oh my god, of course, look at him.”
“Look at me,” said Scott from Chad’s mouth.
Dania leaned forward resting her elbows against her knees and her chin in her hands. “Chad, how tall are you?”
“I am . . .” said Scott, “. . . so tall.”
“So tall,” said Dania. “What are you, like, six-four?”
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” said Tommy.
Dania’s face went tight with disgust, but everyone in the room who knew her well enough knew she had gotten exactly what she wanted. “Excuse me?”
“I told you a million times. I’m six-one. That doesn’t cut it for you?”
“Tommy, I’m sorry, but I stand up straight and I can see right over your head.”
Max nodded excitedly, coasting on the tension with some kind of studied comic timing, like a child who performs for his parents to keep them from getting violent. “Well, it’s not you, Tommy,” he said. He turned the skull toward the camera and pointed toward its temple. “If you look at Chad’s features and facial structure,” he said, tracing with his finger as he spoke, “what you’ll see is a wide cranial diameter, a pronounced jawline, and a chin that extends forward. All details that indicate superior breeding. Not only is Chad tall, his shoulders are broad, his limbs are long, and his muscular and nervous systems are healthy and developed. Chad exhibits a supreme genetic inheritance, the benefit of generations of evolutionary advantage. He makes a formidable impression because his form announces his biological predisposition to triumph in the hunt, war, and female conquest.”
“Oh my god,” said Dania.
“Uh huh,” said Tommy, sneering. “Then why is he touring show houses in the rural Northeast?”
“That’s the horrible truth,” said Max. “Chad is joining us tonight from several centuries in the future. He belongs to a nation of advanced human beings, but in that nation’s recent history a violent uprising has doomed him and his brethren to serve under the rule of a barbaric underclass. His uncultivated, primitive leaders suppress all sophisticated thought in favor of crude political uniformity. That’s why Chad is here, in our present time. His music is a message to the system and a reminder to all of us to think for ourselves and resist the dumb brutality threatening to take over our world hundreds of years from now.”
Scott looked side to side with his mouth slightly parted through a good long moment of unnerved quiet, and then said, “No joke.”
Tommy nodded, still scowling. “Rad. What’s he asking at the door?”
“Suggested donation is ten dollars,” said Max, without hesitating. “All ages as always.”
“See you in the pit,” said Scott.
Everyone froze, waiting for someone else to say something. No one did. Then, all at once, they relaxed.
“Dude,” said Tommy. “What was that?”
Max pouted proudly. “Something just came to me.”
Dania gave Tommy a condescending pat on the shoulders. “Don’t worry, babe,” she said. “Every girl has that one celeb she wishes she could fuck.”
Scott smiled with idiot serenity. “I thought it was funny.”
Tommy deflated in defeat. “Let’s hope so.”
To make noise music all you need is one basic piece of gear. You can make it with quarter-inch cables and any mixer with more than one output jack, and both of those things are easy to buy cheap from anyone who sells sound equipment. If you plug one cable into one output and plug the other end into an amp, and then plug one end of another cable into the input and the other end into a second output, the second cable routes the audio signal back into the mixer and creates a feedback loop. Turning the knobs on the mixer manipulates the feedback and modulates the sound. Then the second cable routes the feedback to the amp and the speaker amplifies the mixer manipulating its own signal. This piece of gear shows up in practically every noise setup. It’s called a no-input mixer.
Max created an account on a site for hosting subscription content and sent us all the link and the login info. He told us he would take care of all the promotion himself. None of the rest of us knew how to do that, and he was offering to do the work for us, so no one thought twice or complained. Tommy logged in every morning to see if we had made any money, and for the first few days the numbers were low; a few new subscribers a day, surprising to me but still nowhere near what we would need to start paying back the rent they had already not paid. Just as we were starting to talk about making something new, Tommy logged in one morning and activity had spiked, massively, by our standards. Almost two hundred people had signed up. Scott bought a CRT video projector.
Everyone got cocky quick. When I went by the house after class or over the weekend, the place felt like an office building from hell, all three of them throwing out ideas at once, talking over one another with the stereo and the projector on at the same time, fugitive dust from crushed up pills congealing at the edge of every surface. They were going to stream a live set from a different band every night. They were going to record the sets and put them out on tape. They were going to form an LLC and grow it into an outsider media empire. All on an income that couldn’t support a single adult in a midsize American city.
I didn’t know anything about basic economics, let alone the economics of online media. How money was made, where it came from and went, even what it was—all these notions seemed somehow too hard and too easy to understand at once. Money was like sound, as far as I knew: just a kind of motion, a tremor that passed back and forth through the air without ever starting or stopping. It seemed just as hard to capture and hold in my hand.
It never occurred to me to search for the video and watch it, or try to track its engagement. I had seen it live, and I doubted I would catch anything I didn’t catch the first time if I saw it again. I was happy my friends’ output was bringing in enough money that none of them would have to move out of Bleak House, and I was relieved to know that there were people out there who didn’t think we were all just sneering nihilist scum. I didn’t really wonder who those people might be. When I wasn’t at the house, I hung out in my room, toggling inattentively between the three or four books I was supposed to be reading or skimming the Wikipedia pages of theorists I thought I should be able to talk about with authority. That’s what I was doing when Claire called me.
Claire and I had started dating right before I left for school, and managed to stay together for the next two years by visiting each other every couple of months. It had gone as well as these things can go, until she came to visit me and I took her to a themed party at Bleak House. I probably should have known a “September 10, 2001” party wouldn’t end well, but I wanted to stay positive so everyone would get along. Tommy and Scott had played down their commitment to the theme by telling me it was a celebration of lost ’90s culture. I wore a Stetson like the cowboy from Mulholland Drive and Claire dressed up as Rory Gilmore. I knew before I walked through the door I had been too optimistic, but by then it was too late.
Inside we ran into Scott wearing a pair of empty gunmetal eyeglass frames and a sticker hanging off of his shirt with “Hello, my name is” typed across the top and “Donald Rumsfeld” scrawled in Sharpie below it. I made it one syllable into introducing Claire before he said “Counterterrorism passed on new intelligence from Massoud. Two Arab newsmen just crossed into Kabul,” and walked away. I brought Claire to the kitchen to try to get drinks and Tommy was standing there reading aloud from his phone what turned out to be the statement Karlheinz Stockhausen gave at a press conference on September 17, 2001, calling the attacks on the US “the greatest work of art imaginable for the whole cosmos.” By the time Dania started doing her Anne Coulter voice to make fun of Claire’s outfit, Claire was ready to go.
We hadn’t spoken since that night. When she called I avoided picking up until the last possible second, and then, disarmed and embarrassed, I did and said, “Hey.”
She didn’t waste any time. “Did you have anything to do with this video your shitty friends made?”
My teeth clenched. She sounded pissed, which both alarmed and annoyed me. “I was there when they made it. I didn’t really, like, contribute anything to the process.”
“Did you put it online?” she asked.
“No, that was all Max.” I realized she didn’t know who that was. “He started hanging out with us a few weeks ago. Making the video was his idea.”
Now she sounded more exasperated than pissed. “Is he a Nazi?”
“What?” I said, without thinking. “No, of course not.” I wanted to say the same thing again, just to make clear for both of us that Max was not a Nazi. “What are you talking about?”
“If making that video was his idea, and he’s the one who put it online, then either he’s a Nazi or he’s fucking with you guys in a really sick way.”
“What do you mean?” I asked. I was starting to get offended. “We can’t even get anyone on campus to come to a show. Now those guys are finally making some money again. It’s art. It’s a joke. It’s not advocating for violence or anything.”
Slowly, one word at a time, she said, “The people who are sharing it and making it go viral are definitely advocating for violence.”
The muscles in my face flexed like clenching ass cheeks. I swallowed. “What people?”
“Oh my god, you don’t even know.” She sighed like a teacher who was trying not to give up on me but having a hard time. “That video is blowing up on social media because it’s posted on a bunch of blogs for, like . . . radical right-wing noise fans.”
We always rejected the platitude that avant-garde movements and their followers are aligned in some nebulous way with reactionary extremism. Now I was finding out that I had drifted into the periphery of that extremism, stuck out my hand, and introduced myself. I knew politics was too complicated for a metaphor as simple and dumb as a spectrum, but I had really convinced myself that rejecting all politics made you exempt from any allegiance one way or another. I didn’t think dropping out could be another way of doubling down. “Claire, look,” I said, pathetically. “I didn’t know that.”
I could picture her nodding carefully, patiently, with effort. “Well, you better do something about it.”
At Bleak House, some creative process with the potential to generate new content had started, but hadn’t progressed very far. Tommy was manically rerouting cables, trying to minimize a phantom buzz some piece of his gear was feeding through his whole setup. Mic stands flanked him on every side, arranged roughly like they would be if a band was coming to record in the living room. Dania was walking back and forth across the room, arranging weird cutesy objects she’d gathered from around the house and taking pictures of them on her phone. Scott was on the couch, staring at a chess board on the coffee table, the skull facing him from across the board, a few white pawns standing up to its left. No one said anything when I came inside. Tommy and Dania kept doing what they were doing and Scott pointed at the skull and said “Your turn.”
I didn’t know how to announce my reason for being there without some clear invitation to do so, but I didn’t have any choice. “Guys, hey,” I said, at no impressive volume. “There’s something we should probably talk about.”
Scott looked up and nodded gravely. “Climate change.”
Tommy laughed. “Yeah. Mass incarceration.”
“I’m serious,” I said, trying to get angry but only half committing and maxing out at a frustrated whine.
Dania stopped where she was on the other side of the room and turned to squint toward me. “Did you get in a fight on the playground, honey?”
I shook my head. “Look, Claire just called me, for the first time in, like, two years. The video is showing up on a bunch of neo-Nazi noise blogs. That’s why it’s doing so well.”
Tommy straightened up and macheted his way out of the tangle of cables surrounding him. “Wait, what?”
Scott raised both of his hands with his index fingers pressed to his thumbs like he was meditating, and then shook them toward me to punctuate his words while he slowly repeated the phrase “Neo-Nazi noise blogs . . . ?”
“Right-wing extremist. Something like that.” I said. “She didn’t go into it.”
Dania crossed her arms and nodded, unimpressed. “Doesn’t Claire basically think we’re all Nazis already?”
Tommy stepped out of the slack at his feet toward Scott and said, “Pull it up.”
Scott swatted away the chess pieces on his side of the board and opened his laptop in their place. The square of blue light the projector had fixed on the wall disappeared, replaced by a browser window. “How do I even find it if it’s posted on someone else’s blog? What do I search for?”
“Whatever,” said Tommy, squirming on the couch next to Scott. “Just try, like, ‘Bleak House Chad skull video blog noise.’”
The sound of Scott typing ate up a few seconds. We watched, fidgeting, while he scrolled through a series of unrelated results until a link rolled up from the bottom of the page and he said “What the fuck?” and clicked.
A new page appeared with a still image of Max, Scott, Tommy, Dania, and Chad embedded right in the middle, a block of text I couldn’t quite read running below it. The video loaded for a few seconds, and then it started playing automatically. “We’re coming to you live from Bleak House, the headquarters of experimental music in the Northeast, to give you a sneak peek at our new web series,” said Max onscreen. Above, in the top right and left corners of the page, two identical motion graphics of the four bars of the Black Flag logo, rearranging itself to form an SS insignia, hovered on either side of a set of capital letters in a gaudy gothic serif font reading “MIDI Nuremberg.”
Scott swallowed. “MIDI . . . Nuremberg.”
The video kept playing while Scott scrolled down past the post about Bleak House and through the previous posts. He and Tommy read the titles out loud, more scandalized by each one. “Volkisch Currents in Early Live Electronics,” said Tommy.
“National Socialism and the Darmstädter Ferienkurse,” said Scott.
“Sonic Armaments of the Waffenamt?!” Tommy shrieked.
“Wait,” said Dania, “what is the one about us called?”
Scott scrolled back to the top of the page, and then he and Tommy said together in the same tormented voice, “DIY showcase for Westernist Allies in Northeastern United States.”
“Oh my god!” yelled Dania. “What did you morons do?”
“How the hell should I know?” Tommy yelped. “It doesn’t make any sense. What could any of us possibly have said that would make anyone think we were Nazis?”
Max’s voice, tinny and distorted, piped up again from Scott’s computer speakers. “Chad exhibits a supreme genetic inheritance, the benefit of generations of evolutionary advantage. He makes a formidable impression because his form announces his biological predisposition to triumph in the hunt, war, and female conquest.”
Tommy pushed his knuckles up the skin of his forehead. “My dad is never going to let me hear the end of this.”
The sound of the door opening startled everyone. We turned and Max was standing smiling the same way he always did, even though we were all eyeing him with alarm as though he was at the scene of a disaster too lurid and intense for any of us to process. He acknowledged us one by one before noticing the projection on the wall, the name of the blog still clearly legible just above the embedded video. “Oh, nice,” he said. “That one definitely brought in a lot of subscribers.”
A cloud of anxious remorse thickened around the four of us. “You did this on purpose,” said Dania.
Max looked puzzled, even a little hurt. “I thought that was what you guys wanted me to do.”
Tommy moaned. “Dude, what are you saying right now.”
“I think what he’s saying is that he thought we wanted him to post the video we made on a bunch of Nazi blogs,” said Scott.
Max smiled, like he had just figured something out. “Nazi is a bit of a stretch, isn’t it?”
The question and the smile lingered into another moment jacked up with quiet unease. I wanted to be angry, nauseated, but I couldn’t pick up on any malice or will to harm that might have inspired what Max had said and done. He had wanted to help us out. The social heretics who were sending us money because of our reputation on the fascist fringe of the DIY experimental music community seemed to be more interested in forming an ethnostate than in meeting other young people who liked their favorite bands, but Max seemed to think the latter might be a worthwhile means to achieving the former. “Those are the actual symbols designed for actual SS uniforms. There are posts on the blog about National Socialism,” I said. I was doing my best with a broad ideological assumption and a few specious facts and trying to make up for whatever substance I was lacking with confidence. I saw other people do this all the time, but I tried it so rarely I wasn’t prepared for how hard it was. “We don’t even want to be in stretching distance of anything like that.”
This time Max frowned. He considered what I had said. “Look, you needed to find a different audience. Politically correct students shut you down. These people support what you’re doing. Why is it a problem if their ideas aren’t socially acceptable? I didn’t think you were interested in socially acceptable ideas.”
“You know it’s not the same thing,” said Dania. “That’s not something we have to explain to you.”
“You said it yourself,” said Max, almost pleading now. “While everyone else was in the woods. You said you liked it better when people did what they wanted without worrying about whether or not it might hurt someone else. You said you were tired of people who try so hard to be nice to each other. You called them ‘soft-dicked virgins.’ Those were your exact words.”
Tommy looked up. “You said that?”
Dania stepped right up to Max’s face. “That’s not what I meant, you psycho!”
Max looked insulted, vindictive, like a teenager whose dad had just walked through his front door after disappearing without warning five years earlier. “All I did was help you. People are paying you to put on shows, or whatever else you want to do. You got what you wanted. You have no reason to attack me.”
“You have to leave,” Dania said. “Now.”
“No,” said Tommy, standing and pointing at the still final frame of the video frozen on the wall. “You need to take that shit down. Anywhere it’s up, get rid of it.”
On the wall, the page scrolled upward and away from where Tommy was pointing.
“He can do that when he gets home,” said Dania.
The cursor hovered over a hyperlinked ellipsis at the end of a block of text. The mouse clicked and the text extended to the bottom of the page. “Wait,” said Scott.
“Who knows what he’ll do when he gets home?” said Tommy.
“Guys,” Scott said from his position at the laptop, making a more earnest attempt to connect than I had seen him make in as long as I could remember.
Scott leaned toward the screen and squinted, trying to make sure he was really seeing whatever he was looking at. “Some guy just left a comment on this post,” he said. “He says he wants to buy the skull.”
“Do you see what you got us into?” Dania said to Max.
“He says he’ll pay us fifteen thousand dollars,” Scott said.
This time the vibe that clogged up the air was more intrigued than uncomfortable. We were deep into whatever shit we were in already. However the skull made it to where we found it, that story was buried so deep in the ground that only the dirt could tell it. Some metalhead gun nut’s sick joke gone too far, a crime of pure hate dressed up like a ritual to stoke a Satanic panic. Anything can happen in a lost country fighting itself to the death with horror stories and lies. Selling a human skull we’d found in our backyard to an anonymous creep we’d met on a Nazi blog was a bad idea. We were also broke, all of us, and Scott and I were about to graduate into who knew what kind of financial struggle.
Everyone seemed to be waiting for someone else to say something first until Max stepped up. “That’s three thousand dollars each.”
Dania glared at him. “If we do it, we’re splitting it four ways, not five.”
“You never even would have had the chance if it wasn’t for me.”
“It doesn’t matter,” said Tommy. “If two of us pooled it we could pay rent for a year.”
“Tommy,” said Dania, “we get our own place with that money.”
“Whoa,” said Tommy. “That would be major.”
They leaned in toward each other, something happening between them that I couldn’t tell at first was affection.
“So we’re doing it,” said Scott, like he was presenting the measure for Parliamentary approval. He peered over his laptop at Chad, still sitting on the other side of the chessboard, staring back up at him.
Tommy frowned and scratched his head. Dania looked at the floor. Max shrugged, almost smirking, vindicated by the random triumph. Finally I felt the attention land on me. Minutes earlier I had tried my best to walk through the door resolved and ready to lead everyone else forward. Now I was conflicted and scared, but some insidious influence, a pure instinct with more weight than belief, made me nod, and then it was settled.