Inspired by: “From Blown Speakers”, The New Pornographers, Electric Version (2003)
Smoke prowls around my head, winding in the curls of my hair. My high links past and present. Another moment, age seventeen. Instead of you, it’s Julie Jones passing the joint; instead of standing over our shared bed I’m standing over Julie’s. She’s a wreck of a soul, a former Miss Teen Wordpower—she’ll tell you about it at length, unprompted—and just now the contact high is stronger than the actual one.
I’m nervously smoothing the pleats of my skirt and fiddling with the portable stereo next to her bed. It’s obsolete: a CD player/cassette tape deck. Everyone we know is ripping to beige computers and chunky iPods with monochrome screens.
“It’s fucked,” Julie says with a slow stoner drawl. “The speakers are blown.”
And you, like a bad connection with a split second delay: “I’m fucked up, baby.”
“I want to hear something,” I tell Julie. And you.
“Fine, go ahead,” you both grant.
I have a demo. There’s always a demo. For Julie it’s me, under the influence of my own bad musicianship. For you it’s one of my potential clients with some juvenile moniker; Blood From Bone or Line To The Throne. I make a joke to mask how much I like them. I make a joke to mask how nervous I am for Julie—anyone, really—to hear me raw and exposed like a convict.
The recording is bad; I know it in spite of my moxie. It was bad when I played it; when I burned the disc; when I burned my notebook in a fit of young stupid. But I’m one of the greats on the way, yeah? My decisions are part of my art, if not the whole of it.
That’s why when I’m there with you—naked except these black panties and a little extra weight on my hips—I’m only rep-resenting the art, not embodying it. Variation of an age old curse: an unrealized dream I slid as close to as possible. A talent scout with no talent of her own. This is what decisions really get you: consequences.
“I won a competition,” Julie says, flopping over onto her stomach. “Did I ever tell you? They gave me a title.”
“You told me.”
“It was a big deal back in my old town.”
“So you’re a pageant queen,” I say, “not like that’s something new.” I have to act like I don’t care, like it’s half surprising she’d be a beauty competition winner. But of course I do care. I’d fight to breathe the air she exhales.
“More than that. It’s a debate. It’s a talent thing.” She cares about talent. It’s hot in her room with the door closed. Her parents don’t worry about us, but I wish they needed to. I’ve got the CD ready in the beat up old stereo. Maybe I can’t go through with it. I hesitate here, cursor over the track, wondering what you see in me. Whatever it is, it’s not the same thing I see in myself.
“It’s just a song,” I say.
The hum of the mic, some artifacts in the audio and I wander away from the stereo with its stain of spilled candle wax and worn-off control labels. I pick up a glass bauble with a red rose inside. “Is it real?” Julie barely looks up, shrugs. It almost slips from my sweating hand. “Is it a real rose?”
“Ssh,” Julie scowls at me.
I know what’s coming, having listened to it on a boring gray portable with cheap headphones. Orange foam on the ear-pieces and a thin metal band catching strands of my hair while I bobbed my head and knew it wasn’t good but also thought, maybe.
As the first hum from the recording fades to that tiny pause that electrifies the air with potential, I remember how awful the song is. I remember how childish I sound. It’s going to be obvious that the song is for and about Julie and I have to turn it off. I haven’t had a chance to memorize every corner of her room. Her bare legs fold back while she lies on her stomach, playing with the joint in an ashtray. Her ankles cross above her plaid shorts, the little wrinkles in the soles of her feet as she squeezes her toes together.
She watches my lunge to shut it off. Her eyes are red and heavy, like her lips. Her wet smile breaks when the first terrible chord rings out because I’m too high to find the stop button with the label worn off like that.
And it comes out magical.
The blown speakers suit the wretched songwriting. Their flatulent tones mask my insecure strumming. The chafe of the stereo’s static does wonders for my hesitant singing. Julie’s awful little music box sells it, spins it like a spell book, and she sits up. Stares at the shitty little thing like she’s watching the sound come out. She keeps time with her eyelashes.
“Is this you?” She waits until the second repeat of the bridge to interrupt, determined (I hope) not to miss anything.
I don’t have a real voice, just the one from the CD, so I nod.
You never lay on your stomach with your feet up in the air. That’s not your style. I never find myself without a voice around you.
“Well?” That’s you, but it’s also me, once Julie’s song is over. She’s cross-legged on the edge of her bed. You’re still waiting for your song. I’m still waiting for Julie’s answer.
“Never mind,” I tell you both. I can’t stand to know the truth. What she thought of it. What you think of me.
What difference could it make? There will still be seasons crawling because this—or any other—decision isn’t the art. Decisions are just made, without regard for the truth. I know now we float through them and they paint us, not the other way around.
Julie shrugs. Goes back to doing her thing. Goes back to her own choice to ignore me. Or to talk about her pageant win. Or to compare. In Julie’s mind it’s me versus her. In my mind it’s now versus then. In your mind…
You get up. Cross the room. Lean close to me, stare at my face but not my eyes. Kiss my lips and leave me stripped to my toes. Somewhere there’s an open ended list of lies we tell ourselves. I could borrow your lie. The same one I borrowed from Julie.
Time comes through its own blown speakers. Magical, just for a little while. Until the (contact) high wears off and the lies fade with it. Soberly, we’ll choose our blank adventures again.
Paul A. Hamilton is a writer, editor, and technologist living in Northern California with his wife and two daughters. His stories feature broken people, reassembled worlds, beautiful monsters, and hideous love. He gets his inspiration by impersonating an old-timey bartender, listening to stories told by lonely strangers. When not writing, he can be found reading, drawing, taking photographs, or riding roller coasters. More from him can be found at www.ironsoap.com, and on Twitter as @ironsoap.