Here are some of the things that Megan sells at her job:
Breeze Machine T-shirts.
Breeze Machine hooded sweatshirts.
Breeze Machine stickers (three for five dollars).
Breeze Machine’s first album on vinyl.
Breeze Machine’s newest album on compact disc and vinyl.
Breeze Machine wristbands (for irony, she assumes. They sell well but she’s never seen anyone wearing one. It’s also possible that people buy them because they’re cheaper than the T-shirts).
This is Megan’s second tour with Breeze Machine. She sold merch for them last winter, and the cold air made her job feel glamorous. Now it is summer. Now she is in Cleveland.
The previous merch girl, tour before last, was promoted to tour manager. Megan does not want to be the tour manager.
“Are you for sale?” says a man from Cleveland.
“Sold out, actually,” says Megan. A friend of the man from Cleveland laughs to distance himself.
“You’re funny,” he says.
“I’m a semi-professional,” says Megan. She does not elaborate. She does not mention her stand-up comedy career.
The man from Cleveland is a lackluster example of a common occurrence. Slowly, major city by major city, trying to impress Megan at the merch table has become a national pastime.
“Is this album any good?” says another man from Cleveland. This one is younger, with black stubble spread over his face, which is almost square-jawed. She knows she is supposed to be taken aback by his frankness. The album in question — the new one, Here on Out — is one of those return-to-form records that sounds like the band’s first album. Breeze Machine went back to an independent label, released some demos online, and did some half-honest interviews where Quint Max, the frontman, slagged on their last few albums, saying things like: Maybe we weren’t all feeling it. And: It wasn’t my favorite time.
The truth is, Here on Out more or less sounds like the other four Breeze Machine albums, but it does have one great song. Their other albums, even the classic debut, have lots of good songs but hardly any great ones. Having not only listened to all of these albums at length but actually spent time with Breeze Machine, Megan has determined that this is a result of the finite amount of talent that Breeze Machine can contribute to a single album. At some point during the recording process, they just run out, so they have to either ration out the inspiration slowly, or push hard until they’re scraping bottom. On the new album, track three is amazing and there’s nothing good after track seven. She thinks they’ve finally made the right choice.
That’s what she thought about the first time she was asked if this album is any good, back in Philadelphia. Now she smiles at the thin man, taps the CD he’s holding, and says, “Track three.” He buys it.
It doesn’t always work.
In a lot of cities, Megan sells more merchandise for Horsefeathers UK, the opening band. Horsefeathers brought their own merch girl on tour with them, but her nightly appearances at the table became progressively briefer until before disappearing for the entire East coast leg. She rejoined the tour a few nights later, playing tambourine onstage in Horsefeathers, and her minimal eye contact with Megan ceased. Horsefeathers has buzz, only slightly muffled by buzz for another band with almost the exact same name, necessitating the addition of “UK.” At present, no band called Horsefeathers is actually from the United Kingdom.
After the show, Quint, still several drinks away from groupies, is talking to fans at the merch table as Megan makes change. Brian, the drummer, comes up and says: “Bad news. Bartender says there’s no bowling in the neighborhood.”
For the past few nights Megan has been going bowling with Breeze Machine and most of Horsefeathers after the show. Megan and Laura, the bassist, giggle for a few hours, and the men bring them drinks. Mac and Nedders, the rhythm section of Horsefeathers, are especially good at fetching drinks, medium good at bowling. Megan doesn’t know if they have real names.
Whenever Laura goes back to the hotel early, Megan misses the bonding, but picks up extra attention. No one in the bands will hit on her, for reasons more logistical than sexual, but by the time they’ve gotten offstage, they all get sick of talking to each other, of regarding other men.
One night they spent an hour in western Pennsylvania, using what Nedders called “bowler’s intuition,” and with a little help with what Brian called “that guy, on the corner, him, pull over now,” they found an alley. But tonight’s show at the Grog Shop has run late, and the greater Cleveland area does not inspire in either band an interest in exploration.
“So,” Ben says, “I guess it’s off to the cemetery with me, then.” Ben is not visiting dead relatives. Ben is not in Breeze Machine. Ben looks after Ed Slaugherty, frontman and creative force behind Horsefeathers. Ed does not go bowling. Ed goes off.
“Family in Cleveland?” says Brian.
“Ed called me and said he was in this cemetery. He asked me to come along.”
“When did he — I mean, is he OK?” says Quint.
“Halfway through your set,” says Ben. “He saw you guys do ‘Knockabout,’ at least. But after that he got a little jittery, said he felt the eyes on him. So he took off.”
“You didn’t try to stop him?” says Quint. Ben sighs.
“He went off to use the bathroom, and I made him promise that that’s where he was actually going and that he’d come right back. A few songs later, I followed him in there and the window was open and he was gone. He wrote ‘I’m sorry’ on one of the urinals in black magic marker.”
“I think that was there before,” says Brian.
“Anyway,” says Ben, “bartender told me Lakeview Cemetery is a less than half a mile from here.”
“That’s where he is, then?” says Brian.
“Pray to God,” says Ben.
“Well,” says Quint. “We could all go. Go check out the cemetery.”
“I’m going back to the hotel,” says Laura as she walks by, glowing EXIT sign in her eyes.
“I’m up for it,” says Brian.
“Megan?” says Ben, with slight gratuity.
“Sure,” says Megan.
The Lakeview Cemetery is not as Megan pictured it. It is not gnarled or creaky. It’s more like a state park, with trim grass, maps to sites of historical interest, and a brick wall, polite but firm, surrounding the perimeter. It doesn’t look like a place where Cleveland kids go to get drunk on Halloween.
The austerity of Lakeview seems to be taking Quint by surprise, too. Earlier, as they approached the locked, not at all rickety front gate, he stopped short and began pacing back and forth, along the brick wall, looking like he might break into a sprint and flee the at the first hint of accusations or authority. But a call from Ed, to Ben, convinced everyone to scramble up the bricks and land on the short, not very soft grass below. Ed is the kind of guy who has shocking success at convincing people of things, considering how much healthier it would be if occasionally someone could convince him of something, anything.
Now Brian, Quint, Ben, and Megan are in the cemetery, following a winding driveway. Lakeview is designed to be entered by vehicles, during daylight hours, preferably with a specific gravesite in mind. Small roadside signs provide guidance for browsers. Signs are the only reason that Brian, Quint, Ben, and Megan know they’re heading toward Rockefeller’s grave. They’re not sure which Rockefeller. Ben’s phone is off, because Ed kept calling, giving cryptic clues as to his location, and abruptly ending the call lest someone could trace him. Ben is attempting to decipher these clues — not to figure Ed’s location, but to suss out what he might be on. Ben is on the verge of giving up.
They almost miss the Rockefeller plot at first. The cemetery is dim but not dark, illuminated by an unseen light somewhere in the distance. A sign points them to roadside stone steps carved into a hill. They don’t see the gravestones until they reach the top. The main Rockefeller’s is the tallest.
Megan sits down on the grass in front of Rockefeller’s grave. Given the dim light and the size of the family, she thinks, she may be paying mild disrespect to some Rockefeller or another. But she’s not trying to. Quint and Brian keep walk without looking back, through the field of graves, talking about the need for more visually striking stones and apparently in search of them. Rockefeller’s just sticks straight up. Ben stays behind, looking up.
“Ah,” Megan begins, but Quint and Brian don’t hear her and she leaves it at that. Ben stands above Megan, looks at her, and looks at the others becoming outlines in the darkness. He looks back at her, and back at them, and Megan tosses her hands up and says, “oh come on.” He sits down next to her.
“They’ll come back,” she says.
“Not with Ed,” says Ben.
“Well,” says Megan, “I mean, they don’t drive a paddy-wagon, so. No.”
“Yeah. Fucking Ed,” he says, adjusting his glasses, and rubbing his hair, a little too short to be mussed, “and fucking Horsefeathers. Fucking U fucking K.”
“At least you get to say you’re with the band.”
“At least is right.”
“What did you do before Horsefeathers, again? I feel like you told me it before but I totally forgot.”
“I used to do a zine,” says Ben.
“I don’t remember forgetting that,” says Megan.
“I probably told you my actual job.”
“What was your zine about?”
“Local gigs and vegan recipes,” says Ben.
“Was that the name of it?”
“Cause I thought maybe I read one with that name once,” says Megan.
“Probably,” says Ben. “Were you in that scene?”
“The zine scene?”
“Yeah, wherever you lived.”
“I read some of them,” says Megan, “if that’s what you mean. I don’t know. I wasn’t one of those girls going to all of the local shows. But I liked to be aware. I liked to know what it was like.”
“So basically you read the zines to make fun of the local bands.”
“No. Well,” she says, “except one.”
“Yeah? Anyone who made it?”
“No. They were called The Posters. They still play reunion shows over Thanksgiving. The Breeze Machine guys sort of remind me of them.”
“They were that good?” says Ben.
“Um,” says Megan. “Sort of the other way around,” she adds, smaller, head turned, voice cast into the grass. She is stuck there for a moment, wondering whether to pretend she hasn’t said anything, or risk repeating it.
“If you were George Washington,” says Ben with the deliberate slowness of a breakthrough theory, “would you be pissed off?”
Megan considers the many reasons for George Washington to be pissed off — the nickel, the hair, sharing a holiday with Lincoln even though Columbus, Martin Luther King, and the concept of labor all get their own — before asking why.
“Everyone’s tombstone rips off your monument,” says Ben. “You know… check me out, I was a big deal, build it straight up and narrow, like that Washington guy’s.”
“So in this hypothetical situation,” says Megan, “you are assuming the voice of a corpse, who only kinda knows who George Washington is, giving instructions about how to build his own grave.” Sometimes she has trouble telling if she’s making an additional joke or ruining someone else’s.
“OOOHHHHHHHHHH NOOOOO,” says a voice somewhere down the steps, maybe in the plot across the road.
“Holy fucking shit,” says Megan as she struggles to think of a non-supernatural explanation for a voice in the night.
“Holy fu — oh,” says Ben. “ED?” he yells. “Can you hear me?”
“YES! YES! I CAN HEAR YOU! WHO IS THAT? WHERE ARE YOU! SHOW YOURSELF!”
“ED, STOP fucking yelling SOMEONE’S GONNA call… I’M OVER HERE BY ROCKEFELLER,” says Ben, torn between a yell and a whisper.
“OH,” says Ed, followed by something else that may or may not be “let’s go pick berries.”
Megan brushes against Ben as she falls on her side — she goes down giggling, not really strong enough to topple but letting herself go down anyway — but stops when she realizes, lying on the grass, that Ben has moved to his feet.
“Just a second,” Ben says, running toward Ed’s voice. Megan thinks about whether he was saying that to Ed or to her before deciding that it’s a stupid thing to say to either of them or possibly anyone.
II. St. Louis
St. Louis is a festival date. Who exactly is responsible for this festival has not been determined. The consensus on the Breeze Machine bus, achieved through a series of murmurs, glances, and sighs, is that the club is making the best of a booking error. This would explain why the festival is being held indoors on a Tuesday night. Breeze Machine is up first, which is the reason their driver would give for speeding if pulled over.
Horsefeathers UK has disappeared. Officially, it is because they enforce a strict anti-festival policy. “I don’t like festivals,” said Ed with a small, far-off voice and the hint of a British accent that usually only comes through on a few select songs. Megan and Breeze Machine would find this protestation more convincing had it not come over a cell phone, several days after the band went missing somewhere between rest stops on I-70.
A few miles outside St. Louis, Quint comes over to Megan to ask her to open for Breeze Machine tonight. He uses his serious face — it’s a face where you can tell he’s holding back his sly frontman smile, and resisting the urge to lean into you like you’re a camera lens. You can also tell that he considers this an unnatural act. Megan recognizes the face from the movie he did during a Breeze Machine hiatus.
Quint goes on about how Ed and the others really let them down, and he knows Megan is someone he can trust, because she handles all that cash at the merch table, and because she’s pretty funny. Megan knows the real reason for her break: so Breeze Machine won’t be considered the opener for the other band on the bill. They could find a local band, but no one volunteers to check out the St. Louis scene.
“So do you do impressions?” says Quint.
“I do a mean Agnew,” says Megan. “But it’s almost too accurate? People think that they’re actually in a room with Spiro Agnew, and then the mood of the crowd really shifts. They get more interested in asking political questions and stuff. It goes in a more Q&A type of direction. I’ve tried to broaden it up a little, use a little more exaggeration, but it’s hard. Once you’re in the Agnew zone, you kinda lose control.”
“So stuff like that,” says Quint. “Okay, well,” he says, and leaves it at that.
Once Megan accepts, the rest of the afternoon is bits and pieces, like an unsatisfying nap.
That night, from side of the stage, Megan looks over the crowd and eyes the merch table. Jamie, a newbie roadie, is going to cover for her while she performs. She sees Jamie laugh and offer a girl in the 18-25 demographic a high five. No sale, though. Megan thinks about how she does not have many marketable skills, but at least she doesn’t waste time or money in favor of pussy. She has learned so many synonyms for “pussy” since the tour began that she’s started to try out the different versions in search of the funniest. On deck for tomorrow: “poon” and derivatives thereof.
Megan’s act has been through half a dozen performances and roughly eleven times as many revisions over the past few years. It has, at various points, included two funny voices (one intentional, one not); three different curse words, used sparingly; family stories that she says are true but feature cousins she does not have; several versions of a Spiro Agnew joke she has yet to perfect; and one attempt at physical comedy. Tonight, she performs the second-most recent version: fake cousins, four curses, Agnew version 2B, hold the gesticulation.
After her set, more chuckles than guffaws, Megan recaps it to herself approximately one thousand times until it is impossible for her to discern what actually happened — what jokes she did, which words she used, if she went a little too fast or way too fast.
Nervous that an antsy crowd will start to chant for the second band, Breeze Machine comes out quickly, just ten or fifteen minutes after Megan leaves the stage. She watches them open with “Knockabout” and bobs her head, but relief swims from her gut to her brain when they follow it up with “Mr. Reactor,” a song from their second album that generally makes Megan feel nothing. Glancing over at Jamie, who’s smiling and blushing a little as if the crowd must be watching him, too, by brand-name extension, she makes her way towards the exit.
Outside, she walks, keeping time with Breeze Machine’s set in her head. They are, by her estimation, two-thirds of the way through when she passes a park entrance. The sign says: JEFFERSON NATIONAL EXPANSION MEMORIAL. Another reason for Washington to get pissed, she thinks. Jefferson’s memorials are expanding westward. Washington’s stop dead on the East coast.
She walks past the still-open entrance, past a parking garage, and across a highway until she reaches a dead end overlooking the Mississippi River. The water is dark gray, but the lights from a nearby bridge illuminate Illinois, across the way.
“Thanks,” she says into the river, “thanks for coming. Horsefeathers was supposed to be here tonight, but they wanted to play someplace with more cocaine. So they’ll be playing the Burger King downtown, and then prison.” She speaks slowly and does not rush.
Here are some of Megan’s physical attributes:
Curly dirty-blonde hair that doesn’t reach her shoulders.
Relative height. She is, as an ex-boyfriend put it, “tall for a girl.” Like five-five, he elaborated.
A sloping stomach that sometimes peeks out of the bottom of her Breeze Machine t-shirt.
Breasts, medium, to distract from the stomach.
Glasses. Technically, this doesn’t count as physical, but when she started showering them with them on, Megan figured she could start counting.
These parts of Megan, as well as her wallet and keys, are all present and accounted for as she approaches the George R. Brown Convention Center with Laura Scott at her side. Yesterday on the bus, Megan and Laura agreed to have a girls’ night. Today they agreed, without telling each other so, that it was a rash decision and a vague plan that should still be followed to spare each other’s feelings. Which is why they are crossing the street, away from that night’s club and towards the Convention Center, in the middle of the afternoon, with no other girls around.
They are not attending a convention. The new, less vague plan: find free food, don’t let anyone recognize Laura, and get back in time for soundcheck.
On the other side of the Convention Center, there is a whole block of just grass and trees. Megan feels that it would be inaccurate to say there is a lot of grass in Houston, even though she has seen more here than in the last few cities. It’s more, she thinks, that there are a lot of yards in Houston. Even the parks look like yards, trimmed but patchy.
“Is this a teenager convention?” says Laura, eying guys in shorts and girls in sweatpants and a few of both in ill-fitting suits, filing into the building with them. “We should’ve brought flyers.”
“Do teenagers know who you guys are?” says Megan.
“Maybe not. But they could come to the show and make us look punk-rock and youthful,” says Laura.
“Then you’re a baby.”
“You’ve got less than a decade on me,” says Megan. “You’ve had entire magazine stories published about your hotness.”
“Yeah, yeah,” says Laura.
“Although — I was in Hot Baby magazine,” says Megan. “All of the other kids in preschool were drooling over my barely concealed way-underage box.” She studies Laura’s reaction and concludes she would need a microscope to reach any firm conclusions. Then Laura looks up to read a banner and she’s reacting to something else.
“Oh, man,” says Laura. “We crapped out. Job fair.”
“I’ve never been to one,” says Megan.
“Let me tell you one thing about them,” says Laura. “There is rarely free food.”
How correct Laura turns out to be depends a lot on how you classify mints. Laura doesn’t rate them at all; as soon as she and Megan enter the main concourse, she scans the table tops, shakes her head, says “bathroom,” and walks off.
Megan is so willing to avoid fast food, gas station food, or bar food that she decides to experiment with filling up on mints. To her left, she spies teenagers unwrapping the candy-striped kind, walking away from Booth 2: Houston Book Outlet. She worked for a chain book outlet back home in California and wonders if this is the same company. Perfect question for this poor representative, she thinks, and then comes my weight in mints.
She gets in line behind a tall guy in jeans. She thinks about applying for a job for practice. She hasn’t applied to anything since college. Everything since then, she’s known someone.
The tall guy in jeans, who really is unusually tall, not just tall the way most guys are taller than most girls, turns around and looks at her three times. The glances get progressively more subtle, but Megan only notices this because the first one was so obvious. But she sees the effort too, and lets him introduce himself.
“Matty,” says the guy, offering his hand for a shake that turns into an awkward wave when Megan does nothing.
“I’m Megan,” she says finally. “So is this your first choice? Your safety?”
“Not really. I don’t know. I’m just looking for a day job. Something with computers,” says Matty.
“I hear those are really catching on.”
“Yeah, slowly. I’m surprised you understood my tech-speak.”
“What’s your other job? The one that can’t pay the bills.”
“I’m in a group.”
“That’ll do it.” Megan sighs and tries to picture Matty’s position on stage and, once he’s designated rhythm guitar, his band’s genre. Matty must be patient because he just stands there while Megan racks her brain, no particular smile on her face. “I’m not in one,” says Megan. “But I know what you mean. I work with one. We’re actually across the street tonight.”
“What do you do?”
“I work the table. Selling merch and stuff.”
“My group is an improv group,” says Matty, “so we don’t have any merch.”
“In that case,” says Megan, “maybe you should check out our table. See what it’s like. You’re not going to make any money selling improv albums, I can tell you that.”
“I’m probably not going to make any money in general,” says Matty.
Walking out of the convention center with Matty, Megan thinks:
Oh my God, did I just pick this guy up?
He must be over six feet, to make me feel this short.
I think this is the first time all tour I’ve used my guest-list privilege. Man.
I told him my name, right? Maybe I shouldn’t’ve.
No, wait. I brought Katie in New Haven.
Fuck, I just forgot Laura.
When Megan enters the club and sees Laura already there, her guilt melts away, leaving only a small puddle of umbrage. Laura stands near the stage with Quint and Brian, talking to the owner. As Megan and Matty approach, the owner turns to leave, muttering about how it was good enough for the Stones. They were probably asking him about the sound system. In Hartford, the sound system worked for Nirvana, and in Des Moines it was good enough for the original lineup of Pink Floyd.
“Guys, this is Matty. He’s going to help me with the table tonight. I thought I’d put him on Horsefeathers detail,” says Megan.
“Aren’t we sold out of that shit yet?” says Brian. “I thought the OD would clean us out for sure.”
“All we’ve got left is some lighters and the misprinted t-shirts,” says Megan. “I stopped displaying them, but people still ask, and technically Horsefeathers still owe us a couple hundred bucks for the hotel that charged us extra for the bloody sheets. So I keep selling them.”
“Okay, if it helps us ditch that stuff,” says Quint. “As long as he doesn’t get a cut.” Everyone else laughs and pretends he’s joking.
“He’ll get a cut if he messes up.” Megan waves her imaginary butterfly knife. “Oh and Matty, that’s Quint. He sings. That’s Brian, the drummer. That’s Laura, bass.”
“So you must get sick of all the bassist jokes,” says Matty.
“What bassist jokes?” says Laura.
“You know, like ‘what’s the hardest part about being a bassist?'”
“What?” says Laura.
“Owning a bass,” says Matty. Laura looks at Megan. “That’s how the joke goes,” says Matty.
“Let’s rehearse,” says Brian. “Before he tells us his drummer jokes.” He’s joking but nobody laughs.
The bassist crack gives her a hint, but a few hours at the merch table confirm it: Matty is not one of those music nerds. In fact, he’s one of those nerds who doesn’t know music. This typically happens when a nerd latches onto something with its own albums that can replace regular pop music; science-fiction nerds have their movie score soundtracks, for example, and literature nerds have their audiobooks. Matty clearly has comedy albums. She knows this for sure when Breeze Machine takes the stage, and he nods his head to between-song banter instead of the music. Megan likes it; he gets jokes, and when it’s quiet he asks her lots of questions.
For example: “Are there groupies?”
“Some. This kind of band has kind of a respect problem, if you want to call it that. People don’t throw themselves at them. But they all get sent signals. They’re not in their twenties anymore. Suddenly fucking on the road can seem like a chore. Sometimes it just ends in making out, believe it or not.”
“The same amount of making out, or is there a disparity?”
“Disparity,” says Megan. “Always.”
“How does it rank? Guitarist, bassist, drummer?”
“From what I know, that’s about right.”
“What about for Breeze Machine?”
“Obviously in this case it’s different because the bassist is Laura. She goes to the top of the list. No one in this room wants to sleep with anyone else the way that the male fans want to sleep with Laura.”
“Okay,” says Matty. “But what about in a band that’s all guys? Is it drummer or bassist?”
“What do you think?” says Megan.
“I think probably the bassist.”
“You think right,” says Megan. “Generally, the drummer is lower. However, Brian is also the pickiest one in the band. So he takes himself out of it. In that way, he’s a bigger get.”
“Bigger than merch girl?” says Matty.
“Oh God,” says Megan.
In Matty’s car on the way to his apartment, Megan finds herself acutely aware of the sensation of not traveling in a bus. She swears she can feel the street through the floor, scraping the bottoms of her sneakers. She loves it; if anything, his Honda feels too roomy. She squeezes her fists and wishes for the car to shrink around them to three-quarters scale, constricting and swaddling her, a metal blanket.
“Tell me the truth,” says Matty. “Did I really piss Laura off?”
“Maybe,” says Megan. “But she’s got other stuff on her mind. Look, the thing about these music people is that they don’t think of the joke first. But then they aren’t thinking about it at the end of the night, either, so it’s fine. It balances out. Right now, Laura is probably thinking either about how good her backup vocals sounded, or how Quint kinda stepped on her intro on the first song. Her thoughts of you were over and done with after she gave me the thumbs-up on my way out of the club.”
“Was it a sarcastic thumbs-up?”
“I’m not sure. I’d say it’s about a fifty-fifty chance.”
This seems to satisfy him.
“So I don’t know if we can go back to my apartment yet,” Matty says after a moment. “There’s kind of a situation in my apartment. I have a roommate.”
“Like a girlfriend?”
“No, like a regular roommate, a dude. But it’s a one-bedroom. We switch off, and tonight’s his night. But he works third-shift so he should be out of there in a few hours. I didn’t want to be presumptuous or sound weird or anything before…”
“But now that I’m safely in the car, you feel like you can break that one out.”
“Oh, wait,” says Matty. He hits the auto-lock. “Okay, now.” Megan laughs before thinking about the creepiness factor.
“You didn’t even think about the creepiness factor,” says Matty.
“Bingo,” she says. “So what should I see in Houston besides your apartment?”
“There are some historic mansions.”
“Yes,” says Megan, “I would like some ice cream, thanks.”
Megan and Matty wait at the restaurant for his friends. They have a window seat for brunch. The friends are actually his improv group, plus another friend who sucks at improv, so he plays drums instead. Megan is back in the world.
“Your friends are late,” she says.
“It would be nice if they called when they were going to be late.”
“They’re not that late,” says Matty.
“Not yet,” says Megan. “But when they are, will they call?”
“Actually, uh, they did. Yeah, they just texted me,” says Matty, gesturing to his switched-off phone. “Jordan is in the hospital. So they’re gonna be like ten minutes late. Now that you know, I bet you feel bad about complaining, huh?”
“Um, why would I? You know Jordan always does shit like this to spite me. Remember when he accidentally shot his foot with a nail gun after I told him he wasn’t holding it right?”
She keeps coming back to nail guns lately. That came from somewhere. Something Brian said, half-asleep on the bus with the interstate rushing by.
“Or how he got the flu after you complained about the smell of throw-up?”
“Or how the last time I had my period, he had a stroke? Yeah. Like that.”
“I would think you’d pity him by now,” says Matty.
“I would think — hey,” says Megan, picking up her phone. “They just texted me to say that Jordan is all bandaged up and they’re on their way. And to let you know,” she squints at her closed phone, “that they’re taking you off the phone tree. Huh.”
“That phone tree is seven years old! It’ll never survive without me. They’re bluffing.”
Hoboken, Rochester, Sacramento, Hartford, Sioux City. Not in that order. She can never remember the order. But she was in those cities with a band and a crew and sometimes other bands she recognized. The tour made money — not a lot, but her checks cleared, and the band had their picture taken, sold some vinyl, got on blogs. Megan was next to success. She has left no trace. She hopes she got turned around: that it is in front of her, now. Juliet, the tambourine girl from Horsefeathers UK, got in a magazine. Megan knows that no one is entitled to success. But, she thinks, if they’re just handing it out, maybe me next. She should get credit for degree of difficulty. Jokes are harder than tambourines, and then she tries not to bring doctors or lawyers into this.
“I think I know when someone is bluffing over a text message,” says Megan. “I’m not illiterate.”
“It always comes back to that,” says Matty, “doesn’t it? You always have to mention my functional illiteracy.”
“As I’ve said before, you ought to just be happy with the functional part.” Megan pauses, leans in, and raises her eyebrows, which is all Matty needs to go for another minutes or so on his functional-illiteracy riff. To his credit, he changes it up pretty consistently. Megan admires this. After she re-uses a joke, she still has to force herself to wait until no one else is looking so she can make notes about phrasing. At the end of the last tour, she had filled half a pad with the results of the great pussy/cunt/hoo-ha experiment.
Megan does not want to do improv. Sometimes she does it anyway, but it’s just the life kind, she tells herself. Practice for later. She has made people laugh by herself — that was her graduation.
Matty keeps going, on to functional cultural illiteracy and functional information illiteracy, and Megan steals glances out their window. She strains her eyes looking down the sidewalk, past everything she can expect to see: the line for brunch, the approaching figures of Matty’s friends, cars rushing to stoplights, kids on bikes. She tries to picture the next thing.
Jesse Hassenger was born and raised in Saratoga Springs, Upstate New York, which is why he gets really excited whenever a story or movie or TV show mentions Albany, Stewart’s, or Price Chopper. His short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Threepenny Review, Southern California Review, Westchester Review, and Brooklyn Review. He is on Twitter.