It’s the night the music comes home. That’s how the concert is billed on the red flyers plastered along the telephone poles that lead into Arcadia. The notices accompany cars through the few blocks of dive bars, all-night diners, and ethnic restaurants that constitute the ragged downtown. Drivers cruise the streets in search of parking spaces, gliding past the ticket holders streaming toward the show and the onlookers loitering under streetlights. Normally people come to make the most of their hours away from jobs at the wheelchair factory, the tire warehouses, and construction gigs, but this crowd has flocked here for the homecoming show of a local band whose songs have gone viral. Their attention is riveted on the theater, its façade lit up like a beacon. A bustling queue of teenagers wraps along the building’s perimeter, bodies pressed tight to keep a claim on their territory. They’ve camped out on the sidewalk for hours, dressed light in anticipation of spring weather that hasn’t arrived, a sampling of what passes for an underground scene in this conservative industrial city. The strip-mall goths, the mod metalheads, the blue-collar ravers, the bathtub-shitting punks, the jaded aesthetes who consider themselves beyond category. Everyone in line has imagined a night that could crack open and transform their dreary realities. This is it.
Xenie clutches one of the red concert flyers while she watches the line grow. Teenagers swarm in tense cliques, unaccustomed to seeing one another away from the usual hangouts—the parking lot of the sandwich shop that sells alcohol to minors, the skate park haunted by the spirits of dead twins, the abandoned flag factory that’s the site of ritualistic revels. Only one band could draw everyone here together. A steady stream of newcomers search for the end of the queue that’s vanished around the corner. The overhead marquee doesn’t bother to advertise the Carmelite Rifles. It simply says SOLD OUT.
Xenie smooths her tattered blouse and thrift-store skirt and scans the crowd, knocking her combat boots together for luck. Somebody has to have a spare ticket. She listens to some kids in tie-dye t-shirts and leather dog collars swapping stories about the band’s incandescent live shows. The one where they dressed as the headlining band and played their set note for note. The epic concert at Echo Echo whose encore spilled out into the courtyard.
—I was at their very first gig, she says. They played next to a washing machine in the drummer’s basement.
Nobody replies or looks up. Maybe she didn’t actually say anything out loud.
The sixteen-year-old keeps pacing in front of the theater. The scalpers skulking along the sidewalk keep a lookout for cops while chanting astronomical numbers under their breath. They assess her with sidelong glances both pitying and predatory.
Farther down the queue, she recognizes several faces from other shows, a tattooed girl with sleepy eyes and a blue-haired boy with pierced lips. Not that she’s ever summoned the nerve to speak to them. Anybody got an extra ticket? she asks.
She holds up the concert flyer to emphasize her point, but it’s the wrong side. She stands there facing the line, desperately waving a page of pure red.
Two teenage boys linger at the end of the line. They stand slightly apart from the shrinking queue. They try not to act alarmed by the low rumble of the opening act’s set, but it’s obvious the show has officially started. The tall skinny boy frantically empties the contents of his billfold onto the sidewalk. His face blazes crimson. I fucked up, he says. I really fucked up.
He turns to his friend Shaun and displays the empty expanse of wallet where their tickets should be.
—I must’ve left them at home, Florian says. I can call my mom. Maybe she’ll bring them.
Shaun is sunk in thought. He casually shakes his long brown hair out of his eyes. Typically calm and unruffled. Still got the cassette? he asks.
—Right here, Florian says.
The demo tape contains several songs they wrote and recorded together. Their latest batch. The label doesn’t list who played what because they share duties on vocals, guitars, everything. They’ve transferred the music to magnetic tape for maximum retro appeal. The case is spray-painted bright violet.
Shaun nods, then walks straight toward the front of the line, past the people impatiently shuffling their feet and the rows of silk-screened concert posters. Florian stumbles after him with his stork-like steps, barely keeping up as they approach the security guard who clutches a wooden clipboard. The teardrop tattoos inked under his eyes make it even more difficult to imagine him crying.
—Hey, man, Shaun calls to the guard as if greeting an old confidant. I don’t know what name he put us under. Maybe you can help us out.
—Who are you talking about? the guard says.
—You know, Mickey, the bass player. We’re his cousins. Maybe it’s under Mickey’s name, maybe it’s under mine, maybe my brother’s.
The guard looks perplexed as he scrolls through the printed names on the guest list.
—Here we are, Shaun says, peering over his shoulder and pointing to an unchecked name. That’s me, and my brother’s the plus-one.
The guard looks skeptical, but Shaun has already extended his wrist to receive a stamp. Florian follows his lead. He’s used to his friend pulling off these sorts of stunts.
At the theater’s entrance, Shaun notices a girl in a thrift-store ensemble and combat boots pacing the sidewalk. The spiky cut of her blonde hair doesn’t entirely obscure her delicate features. She’s singing one of the band’s tunes under her breath, repeating the chorus in a lilting croon. Her lips barely move, but the shape of the song vibrates in her throat.
Xenie watches people file into the theater. Half the audience must be inside already. As the line steadily shortens, she can feel her options dwindling. A preppy girl from school struts past and pulls her lips into a knifelike smile: Not so cool without a ticket, are you? Xenie merely shrugs and mirrors her smile. Nobody is going to ruin this night for her.
She spots a boy leaving the theater for a smoke. He stands under the diffuse glow of the marquee, wearing an absent expression while he lights up. The spooky pink scar zigzagging down his cheek looks self-inflicted, but there’s no time to be picky.
—I don’t have a ticket, Xenie says, hoping she doesn’t sound desperate. And I noticed your stamp.
The kid nods nonchalantly. No problem, he says.
She licks her wrist and holds it out to him. He presses the circular black stamp against her wet skin, and a glistening imprint of the stamp is transferred to her.
She thanks the boy profusely. He exhales a long plume of smoke. Good luck, he says, nodding at the security guard in the yellow staff shirt with the neck tattoo. One of the venue’s infamous goons.
Xenie tries to keep her pale wrist from trembling, telling herself the stamp looks fine even as the circular outline grows fainter with each inspection.
Florian and Shaun follow the surging crowd through the lobby. They’re overwhelmed by the number of people pushing a path toward the bar and jockeying for space along the wooden counter, waving worn credit cards and wrinkled currency. They marvel at the continuous swarm around the merchandise table, people sifting through the multicolored vinyl and screen-printed t-shirts featuring nuns brandishing automatic rifles.
—There’s so many townies and college kids here, Florian says. Never seen any of these people at Carmelite Rifles shows before.
—It’s cool, Shaun says. People are paying attention to the scene. Other Arcadia bands are going to start making it, too.
They’re both thinking about the cassette. Somewhere nearby the band members must be part of this crowd, socializing with old friends before they take the stage. Florian can feel it. He absorbs the charged hum of chatter, strangers striking up conversations, intertwined voices escalating toward a frenzied pitch. Sagging strands of colored lights are suspended across the ceiling, and even in their dim glow people’s expressions seem amplified, their faces greedy with anticipation. Probably he looks exactly like them.
Xenie walks deeper into the theater. She weaves her way down the shadowy corridor through clusters of kids debating the band’s penchant for dramatic openings. I heard Mister Charlie is joining them, a boy says. That homeless dude who lives in the woods and pays guys for their dirty underwear. Come on, a girl counters. I heard they’re going to play some punk classic. No way, another girl says. My friend swears they’re releasing a flock of birds into the audience. Xenie keeps her opinion to herself. She spots a discarded ticket stub on the floor and peels it from the concrete, pocketing it for her collection.
As she enters the darkened auditorium, she discovers the crowd amassed at the front, drawn to the bombastic blare of the speaker towers. They bob their heads and twitch their bodies, reptile brains in thrall to the throbbing frequencies. Onstage, in a small spotlight, a deejay hunches over a turntable. The ballad he’s spinning has never been a favorite, but right now, as its snaking bass line and slow-burn chorus fill the cavernous room, it sounds exactly perfect.
Xenie spots the boy with the zigzag scar maneuvering toward the stage, using his shoulder to knife through clusters of people. She watches to see how well his approach works, then walks down the sloping floor to enter the intensifying heat, the crush of multiplying bodies, the communion of commingled limbs.
The lights flicker on as the deejay concludes his set. People shake off the sound and slowly disperse toward the bar and bathrooms. Florian stares up at the stage, taking in the ring of gleaming guitars and basses, the drum kit embossed with the band’s logo, then looks down at the humble purple cassette in his palm. Maybe we should re-record this, he says. I should really redo my vocals. Or maybe you should sing my parts.
—Don’t be so uptight, Shaun says. It’s genius. Someday it’ll be us up there.
Time is running short if they’re going to connect with the Carmelite Rifles. They comb the crowd, scouting the length of the bar, searching the men’s bathroom, consulting the taciturn woman working the merch table. Maybe they can give the tape to the band’s manager. As they wander through the theater, Florian notices Shaun’s determination is flagging. He seems more interested in the acquaintances he keeps running across—local musicians, older classmates, cute girls—who wave hello, shake hands, smother him in hugs.
After inspecting the remotest nooks of the theater, they return to the auditorium. Among the assembled throng, Shaun spots one of the faces he’s been hoping to see.
—Hold up, he says. Look over there.
He points to the blonde girl in the thrift-store outfit. You know her? he asks.
—Is she with the band? Florian says.
—She was out front of the theater earlier.
—Oh, Florian says. I thought you were interested in Amber.
—Cheerleaders are boring.
As Shaun saunters toward Xenie, Florian stares at the cassette. He worries that it won’t be long before Shaun loses interest in their music or gets lured away by a more established band. While his mind races, he inserts his finger into the reel and spools the magnetic tape, as if he’s fast-forwarding.
Xenie keeps her eyes pinned on the stage. The tall red curtains flutter, but it’s only a roadie coming out to adjust the height of a microphone. He stands at the center of the stage, testing the sound levels by reciting numbers in a practiced monotone. His poker face gives away nothing about the band’s status. The restless audience responds with stamped feet and clapped hands.
—How do you think they’ll start the show? the boy standing next to her asks.
She recognizes Shaun. The blandly handsome boy with long hair who seems to know everyone.
—What do you think they have planned? he says.
Normally Xenie might be self-conscious, but she’s been waiting all night for someone to ask her this.
—They’ll play the songs off their first single, she says. Both the A-side and the B-side.
—Not many people know that one, Shaun says. It was never re-pressed.
—That’s the point, she says. They’ll do it for the fans who’ve been there since the beginning. I mean, that’s what I’d do.
Shaun gives her an appraising look that she doesn’t know how to interpret.
—So which do you like better? he asks. A-side or B-side?
—The song with the scrambled riff where they only sing the chorus once? he says. That’s a weird one. You always go for the B-sides?
—Most of the time, she says. I kind of like songs that take time to figure out.
—I’m always trying to write A-sides, Shaun says. But when I’m listening, I prefer the B-sides. They’re the tunes where the bands bury their secrets.
—Their obsessions, she says.
Xenie has more theories, but she’s never shared them with anyone.
—I bet you have an interesting music collection, Shaun says, smoothing his hair out of his face. I’d like to see it sometime.
He says this casually, not like a come-on. She likes how he listens, likes the easy cadence of their conversation. Despite herself, she moves a little closer, intrigued by his faint aroma of spicy cologne and sour sweat. It’s not a bad smell.
While Florian waits for Shaun to return, he remains on the lookout for the band’s manager. Instead he spots Randy, a boy from school with a small sinuous frame and pointed nose who’s rumored to have a nice drum kit. Randy cracks jokes while circulating through the crowd, passing out flyers offering deep discounts at the Broken Ear, the local record store. Florian half wonders if he should give the cassette to him.
There’s a commotion by the side of the stage. A muscle-bound security guard manhandles a teenager with a nest of brown hair, levering his left arm behind his back. Florian recognizes the skinny boy who twists and flails as he’s frog-marched out of the auditorium. The boy tumbles to the floor and before he can stand up, the guard kicks him in the stomach.
Florian breaks through the ring of stunned onlookers and steps in front of his friend to shield him from further blows.
—You okay, Eddie? he asks.
Eddie tries to nod, but can’t stop coughing.
Florian faces the security guard, a giant whose bottom lip twitches spasmodically.
—Out of my way, the guard says. I’m tossing him out of here.
—He’s not going anywhere, Florian says. You fucking assaulted him. Everybody saw it.
The guard stares at him with blank fury.
—You going to assault me, too? Florian says. Come on. I’m right here.
The audience members encircling them mumble taunting threats. The ring of people thickens as fresh faces push forward, straining for a better view.
The guard curses and backs away into the crowd, which closes around him. Florian lets loose a long breath, then helps Eddie off the ground.
—Damn, Eddie says. That guy could’ve killed us both.
—What the hell happened?
Eddie stares at his shoes. I didn’t have a ticket, so I snuck in through the back, he says. I walked through the backstage without anybody noticing. I was so close, then that goon grabbed me.
His conservative cardigan sweater and pressed jeans are impressively out of place here.
—It’s my folks’ fault, Eddie continues. You know how they are. I thought I hid my ticket pretty well, but they found it and ripped it up. There’s no way I could miss this show.
Florian remembers Eddie’s controlling parents, their unpredictable alcoholic rages, their violent suspicion of music. They scared him as a kid.
—Come on, Florian says. Let’s stake out a better spot.
Eddie coughs violently into his hands and discovers bright red spots. He stares at his speckled palms. That’s hardly any blood, he says, so softly it sounds like a regret.
The lights cut out. Every face in the darkened theater turns toward the stage. As the footlights slowly brighten, the five members of the Carmelite Rifles step into view, marching single file, each of them wearing a white ski mask. Armed with their instruments, they confront the crowd: The boy with the zigzag scar pressed against the lip of the stage. Randy tapping out a syncopated beat on his chest. Eddie perched on his tiptoes to get a better view. Florian studying the posture of the lead singer. Shaun ruminating on the significance of the sinister masks. Xenie widening her eyes and holding her breath. The auditorium is hushed, performers and audience suspended together in this still moment.
In the years to come, this concert will be remembered by the entire community as the apex of the Arcadia music scene. The boy with the zigzag scar will focus on the reckless intensity of the band’s performance. Randy will rave about the abandon of the crowd, which treated the songs as if they were their own. Eddie will remember the violence of the singer smashing his guitar and slapping his own face. Florian will recall the audience clambering onstage during the encore, the mass of bodies engulfing the band. Shaun will marvel over the set lists he found taped to the monitors afterward, and how none of them matched the show.
When Xenie will think back on the concert, she’ll always replay the band’s entrance, the audience stunned into silence, the atmosphere saturated with expectation. She’ll wish she could remain in this moment of wild possibility, her senses dilated, forever on the cusp of the distorted ripple of the first note.