Posted on August 22nd, 2016
You couldn’t really call the sound of the saxophone anything but blurry, he thought as he licked the grey foam from the edge of his glass. The beer made his mouth feel grainy and thick. He wiped his nose with the knuckles of his right hand; he leaned forward and licked the foam again, this time trying to taste it. Steel and spit, like the music, a strange empty sensation like the constant blab of the saxophone that blared beneath every phrase like some dark and fundamental presence, something older and grittier than the granite bedrock that kept the town from sliding into the river and out to sea. He ran a jagged fingernail along the wood of the bar and wished he were anywhere else.
Outside it was the end of a summer day, the nasty kind that leaves a gummy second skin between your shorts and thighs. Inside the bar it may as well have been last year, or the dawn of time, or that moment that will come in a hundred years or so whether you want it to or not, that moment when, for the first time since your birth, no one you ever knew is alive anymore and never will be. The moment that keeps you up at night, although it will only come when you’ve been dead for years. The moment where the ripples you made when you fell out of the sky and into the tepid pool of life vanish for good under black peaks of wind-lapped water.
He thought about these things when he visited home, which was probably too often.
His name was Stephen and no one here knew it. He came to the Dockyard to hide from the weather and because it was a discreet place for business. He did not come to drink the beer. No one came to drink the beer. He came when the sun was still in the sky. He came often enough to call it a habit and seldom enough that none of the worn faces along the bar or at the tables in front of the stage recognized his smooth cheeks, a little too round for his jaw, or the light blonde hair that didn’t quite match the curve of his skull. He was more than a stranger here – he was invisible, a pasty ghost drinking cheap grey beer from a tap with no label and wondering who might come by to see him, and when. He only ever came home for business, and business never quite seemed to happen. Business wasn’t exactly legal, wasn’t exactly wrong, and seldom turned out to be real. Business always called to say it was running late, then later, then in another direction. Business made excuses about other business that was better business, and left poor Stephen wondering why he even tried, and whether he should find a job in an office, and made him order more grey beer and wonder how to make his face look, and reminded him that no one here knew his name.
The saxophone blared and blabbed as the rest of the four-piece band swayed above it, the soundtrack to someone else’s jazzy gothic nightmare. Stephen turned on his barstool to watch. He had nothing else to watch, and the strange mustard lights – anywhere else they would have been amber, but in the Dockyard they were mustard – made it almost seem like a spectacle. Just some kids trying too hard, younger than anyone he still knew, slaves to delusions of fashion and grandeur, but at least they looked like they meant it. At least they weren’t no one.
A heavy-set man with dry black hair set himself down on the barstool to Stephen’s left and ordered a beer of his own, a bright reddish thing that at least looked nicer that Stephen’s glass of foaming cement, though for all he knew it tasted of bricks. “Really great band,” the man said without turning. “They really pour their souls into the music.”
For a sad moment, Stephen thought that maybe the man was business, come at last to make a deal or at least to turn one down in person. Then the man turned back to the music and his beer. Just another regular who would never call him Stephen. He took a small sip of the grey foam at the top of his own glass, closed his eyes, and tried to hear, to really hear the music, the way he used to really hear music while lying on basement floors at high school sleepovers. Every note they played was blurry, blurry vocals over a blurry rhythm section with that blurry saxophone blaring beneath it all, the saxophone that he couldn’t help but love although he knew it should terrify him. The music made him feel stoned. It made him feel like stone, mossy stone, the kind that never rolls. Maybe they know a thing about business, he thought. Maybe they would want to do business with me. Maybe I should have learned to play bass.
The singer leaned toward the microphone and let out a sort of half-sarcastic whoop that seemed to come from another decade, another lifetime even. She flung her hair around like a mop and shouted something that made the handful of hammered groupies at the low tables in front of the stage bang their fists and holler in collusion.
“You ever heard them before?” asked the heavyset man with the dry black hair.
It took Stephen a moment to realize that someone had spoken to him. It almost never happened to him once, let alone twice. “No,” he shouted above the music, and paused as some small voice inside him told him to end the conversation there, to get up, to walk out without paying and drive south without so much as glancing into the rear view mirror. But Stephen never listened to small voices. “What did she just yell?” he asked, and felt as though a part of him had died.
The heavyset man with the dry black hair did his best to imitate the singer’s flourish and screamed, for Stephen’s benefit, in a voice surprisingly like hers, “We arrrrrre the Midgard Serviettes!”
“The Midgard Serpents?” asked Stephen, who remembered a thing or two about monsters and books.
“No,” said the man. “Serviettes. Like napkins.” He paused, took a long draw of his red beer. “It’s a metal thing, I guess. I don’t know. Post-ironic mythcore or something like that. Come on, drink up. Let me buy you round two.”
Stephen drank, which should have been difficult. But the gritty brew felt good inside him, as though his body craved lead, cement anything to fill it up and weigh it down. Ballast. That was the word for it. He kept one eye on the band and watched as the singer slung her hair again like a fistful of golden whips, chanting a high and wavering dirge into the microphone that quivered on its stand and seemed to jump up and down to the beat. Whatever she’s singing, thought Stephen, she means it. He swallowed the last of his grey lager. I never mean it, he thought sadly. I’ve never meant anything.
The bass and drums roused themselves into a fury as the singer let the last note of her verse fade into a single point of air. She left a hand on the microphone as her eyes rolled back into her skull. Groupies shrieked with glee.
“Jackie,” the heavyset man with the dry black hair shouted to the bartender, “another of mine for me, and another of his for him.”
“You got it,” said Jackie, who also didn’t know Stephen’s name – but then, he hadn’t known hers until now. He’d never asked. She poured another glass of the fiery red stuff for the black-haired stranger, and she drew something golden and clear from the same unlabeled tap that had coughed up his foamy grey brew an hour before. They must have changed the keg, thought Stephen, and toasted the stranger with an unsteady hand before drinking. This, he thought. This is better. It tasted like headstrong sunlight, the kind that will warm your bones or burn your skin depending on whether it likes you. It felt like a warm spear tickling his heart. It made him want to sing and scream and cry. He liked it. He guessed it was Belgian.
“So,” he said, and he grinned and scowled at the stranger as though daring him into a battle of wits. “What’s so special about this place, anyway?”
The stranger took a long sip of his fiery red stuff and smiled. It did strange things to his jowls. “There’s no place special, really. No such thing. But I do like it here. Don’t you?”
Stephen rested his glass against his chin and stared hot daggers at the pudgy man. “I never said I did, did I? It’s not like there’s anywhere else to go in this town.”
The stranger’s glass was almost empty, though Stephen hadn’t seen him drink. He laughed as he lowered it. “The Tap House. The Freedom Chalice. Quarry Road. Fine places, fine people, fine pints. And yet you keep coming here.”
Stephen turned away. The stranger wasn’t worth his time, and the band was good – blurry, but good. The singer held her trance pose without twitching. The drummer hunched over her cymbals and swapped out her rock beat for a hushed, hissing web of steel brushes, while the bass player leapt from the shadows and loosed a storm of bone-shaking low notes that made Stephen’s bowels leap to the beat. A little jazz, a little blues, a touch of the avant-garde, all delivered with the force of a thunderstorm at sea, but also calm, calm, like the sea’s blue belly. The groupies held hands and stomped their feet as though they wanted to summon something old and generous. As the bassist’s hand crept up the fretboard into the weird, ethereal high notes near the top of the instrument’s range, his mouth split open in a huge grin like a heap of bones in the noonday sun, and his dark glasses darkened a little more as though something behind them had fizzled out for good. The last muddy wail faded into silence and his grin remained, a frozen contortion of bliss. Groupies punched each other’s shoulders, each blow an embrace.
“Here,” said the man with the dry black hair, pointing behind the bar, “have another.”
Stephen took the beer from Jackie’s hand. It was thick and brown like the vital mud at the bottom of a riverbed, and it coated his lips like dark honey. He smiled. He’d never felt so damn welcome in all his life, not even when he was a kid here, not even in his own home with his mom and dad and his big brother who taught him baseball. He slammed his glass against the stranger’s, which was full again with his ale as red as fire, and he offered him a taste because the whole world had to know just how good it felt to drink what he was drinking in the best basement watering hole in the greatest town on Earth.
“Oh no, but thank you,” said the jolly stranger, with a little smirk and a wink. “I always save mine for last.”
Stephen didn’t know what that meant and he didn’t care. He drank the honey-brown beer like a big bear guzzling from a hive. He drank like it was what he’d been missing all his life, and all the bad bets and raw deals of the past decade didn’t make one jot of difference. He felt the whole rumbling earth press up under him like a hungry lover and it felt good, and he flashed a bright white smile, and he turned to Jackie the bartender, sweet, beautiful Jackie, and he asked her for one more just like it.
“Wait just a minute on that, Jackie,” said the jolly stranger. “Better let that one settle first,” he said, turning to Stephen, “I’m in no rush.” He smiled, and in spite of every good vibe in every cosmic barroom across the planet, something in that smile made Stephen shiver.
But the band was good. Hell, man, the band was everything. “They really know what it means to play, don’t they?”
“They really pour their souls into the music,” said the heavyset man with the dry black hair, his cold smile unchanged.
The man took another sip of his fire-red ale, sucking it slowly through his thick lips as the band played on. The blurry saxophone blabbed and sputtered with evil intent under the low grind of the cymbals, and for a moment it seemed as though the song might end in a slow fade of hissing metal. Then, as though a bolt of lightning had hit the stage, the drummer wrenched her body upright and vanished in a blur of limbs, arms and sticks and feet and legs leaping and crossing and beating the drum kit into a furious storm that hit Stephen in the chest and made him feel just for a moment as though his ribs might pop like a wet balloon. Groupies leapt from their chairs and threw their glasses to the floor, pounding at the air with fists like hammers, chanting to the furious beating of the bass drum, Midgard Serviettes, Midgard Serviettes, Midgard Serviettes, like a crew of frenzied sailors straining at the capstan to drag something angry and long-forgotten up from the bottom of the sea, something clinging to their anchor chain with a thousand burning hooves and howling through the deep with the ecstatic pain of its own waking. A shelf of glasses fell forward with an inaudible crash. A tap burst open, spewing yellow piss across the bar. Several ears started bleeding, and one man jumped up on a table to pound both fists repeatedly into his own stomach. Then, with a final roar like a glacier breaking, it ended. The drummer slumped across her snare drum like the victim of a firing squad. Only the saxophone blared on, blurrier than ever in the haze of echoes that hung in the air like smoke from dead men’s pipes, persistent and sustained as though it would outlive the stars.
The heavyset man with the dry black hair coughed once and cleared his sinuses with a wet snort like a trumpet made from something’s bladder. “I think my friend here will take that last pint now, Jackie,” he said, and she handed Stephen something dark and murky. He sipped it, and the bleakest bitterness he’d ever known wrapped itself around his tongue and started clawing its way toward his heart. His glands spasmed like squeezed peas, and the hair along his neck and arms stood bolt upright as though trying to flee his body.
“That’s our most popular IPA,” said Jackie, and turned away.
Stephen scowled at the fat man on the barstool next to his, scowled at the dandruff that coated the hideously padded shoulders of his grimy black sports coat, scowled at the grin widening on the fat man’s face. He thought of grabbing a knife and cutting the fat man’s lips off just to make the smile go away. His fists curled up as tight as his glands and he looked around the room daring anyone to look at him the wrong way. He could stave in the ugly mug of the sun. He could smash steel.
“How do you like that one?” asked the fat man, grinning.
Stephen swept his glass to the floor where it shattered wetly, and he dented the wood of the bar with his fist, leaving specks of blood next to stains from last week’s beer. “I hate it,” he said, surprised at how true it sonuded. “I hate it almost as much as I hate this backwash town. And this scuzzy bar. And all of you!” He slung his left arm outward toward the crowd, who turned their nervous famous toward him. All had gone quiet except for the low and disturbingly expectant growl of the saxophone. “I was born here, dammit. I drag my ass up here from Portsmouth every chance I get. I’m going to die in this bar and they’re going to carry me out on a pallet of empty kegs and dump my body in the river and has any one of you ever even asked what my goddamn name is? Anyone?”
Glances flashed among drinkers, disappointed but unsurprised. The night had to end somehow. A few pairs of feet shuffled nervously toward the door, while several of the less conscious groupies stayed behind to listen to the saxophone finish its sinister cadenza.
“Stephen,” said the heavyset man with the dry black hair, “finish your drink.”
The glass stood once more on the bar before him, somehow whole again and still only half empty. “It’s awful.” He drank it anyway, drank it to the lees, drank down the flecks of unfiltered debris that swam at the bottom like a flock of molecules trying to discover life.
He finished it. He coughed. His insides swarmed, full of bright vitality, full of mellow calm, full of bitter hatred for every corner of the world and especially for the four corners of the arrogant and heartless town he used to try to call home. He put his glass down on the bar, tottered a little. “Another,” he said to no one in particular. “Just one more.”
“No more for you, Stephen. You’ve had quite enough. You’re ready now. Plump, full of all you can hold. It’s a shame, really. I’d cram a few more into you if I could. I should have thought of this centuries ago; it’s so much more efficient this way. But you’ve never been terribly capacious, and when I found you you were so very, very empty. No – no more for you. One more for me, though. A special one I’ve hidden away someplace safe, far from prying eyes. One must be so careful these days, as they say. Oh, Jackie. One more please. For the road. You know which.”
He didn’t see Jackie appear behind the bar, compelled to obey. He couldn’t lift his forehead from the bar. His insides leapt and swam, and he felt a sudden panic as he realized that the saxophone had stopped at last. A sharp silence filled the room. He wanted to scream.
A jet black pint of stout slid passed his half-open eyes, blacker than the bottom of the sea, blacker than the space behind stars. It scurried over the bright wood of the bar as though it had a life of its own, leaping up and sloshing down the stranger’s throat like a lost child running to its mother.
Suddenly Stephen wanted to vomit, wanted desperately to purge himself of the foreign things inside him that he couldn’t quite name, things that belonged to other people, things that he’d never asked for and never, never wanted. He opened his mouth and tried to gag, but the things within him stayed down as though chained there, clinging to his insides with a thousand burning hooves. He tried to say something to anyone, but he knew no one’s name, not even the stranger’s. He hadn’t asked. He didn’t need to.
As he slid off the barstool and his vision went black for good, all he could think was that he would never come back to the Dockyard, not after this. As he fell through the floor, fell through the basement, fell through the granite bedrock that kept the town from sliding into the river and out to sea, he thought with three voices, none of them his, that maybe at least in the absolute darkness of the place they were going, each of them might find something to call home. No one would miss them, no one would find them, and they left behind no unfinished business.
The Midgard Serviettes were:
Fabergine – vocals
SigFig – bass guitar
Millennitia – drums
Hrothful – saxophone
Their debut EP is not expected anytime soon.]