Joyland

New York |

Girlfriend

by Deirdre Coyle

edited by Kyle Lucia Wu

Another cockroach crawls through my hair. I lift its body, watch its legs wiggle. I hate to kill anything, so I flick him into a corner of the garage and look up from the cement. Johnny, Karl, Sean, and James fold over their instruments like skinny hunchbacks, fingers fumbling. A scream of feedback reverberates.

They suck, but their focus gets to me.

***

When Johnny first asked me to come to practice, I couldn’t understand why he wanted me there. They practiced at his place, so it wasn’t like he needed a ride. He shuttled me through his house and into the garage, then asked me to stay. I wanted to say that I had shit to do—and I did: fires to start, strip malls to burn down, gasoline in the trunk of my car, ready to go. But I couldn’t say that to him, or anyone, so I stayed.

Tools and lawnmowers lined the walls, a moldy blanket in one corner; amps and instruments and pedals and wires clustered into a rat king in the center of the floor. The garage door didn’t even work—something about a broken spring that Johnny refused to fix. So when Johnny said, “Make yourself comfortable,” I wasn’t sure what he had in mind.

I sat against the wall. They played a song, all heavy distortion and down tuned guitars. It sucked. Johnny’s body hooked into a C-shape, his eyes focused on the frets, on his fingers, his red-orange hair fluffing outward as he bobbed his head. I watched his face as he forgot I existed, as his body reformed itself into a house on fire: a house I could never enter. Burning buildings make terrible homes, but I’ve never wanted to live anywhere so badly.

Staring at the boys, I felt suffocated by my bones and organs and skin, claustrophobic inside myself, incapable of immersion in anything. After two songs, I had to go.

At Wendy’s, I ordered french fries and ate them in the parking lot while listening to music that didn’t suck at maximum volume. Some kids banged on my window and screamed at me to turn it down, but I just slouched further in my seat. After finishing my fries, I drove about fifty miles north, got off at a gas station, bought a cup of coffee and turned back. I drove for hours. My mind sparked hot as a trick candle, off and on and off and on and never quite cutting out.

***

Again, I tell Johnny I have to go.

“One more song,” he says. “We’re playing that one that I played you those chords from the other day.” My mind blanks. He does this all the time. “You liked it?” he says. “C’mon, babe. Stay a little longer.” A pustule glistens beneath his left nostril. My fingernails dig into my palm, trying not to pop it.

“Okay,” I say, sitting back on the cement. I had plans today—setting fire to Old Navy and watching it burn from the McDonald’s next door. Instead, I watch the band play a song called “Death Swallow.” Their instruments funnel them into some kind of fugue state, and I can barely differentiate notes between the noise and feedback, Karl’s cigarette-scream vocals. The chorus might be something about cum and sailor’s mouths, but it’s hard to say. Whatever trance they inhabit together, I’ve only experienced alone.

***

After practice, Johnny’s busy with the guys, so I leave.

Behind Old Navy, three giant dumpsters lean against a brick wall. I lift the lid off the blue one—mountain range of recyclables, a clean sheet of cardboard sticking out the top. I take a Bic lighter out of my bag and light the edge of the cardboard. It glows orange for a second, then goes out. I light it again. I reach for some newspaper beneath, fire that up too. Throw it in deeper. Watch the paper products turn into monsters. I take a few steps back, sit on the asphalt. I shouldn’t stick around, but nobody’s here. When I’m alone, my focus recalibrates. Everything’s red, orange, white, and I feel so calm. Loneliness powers its own fire—brightens up that shit behind my breastplate. Warmth spreads outward, touches my sweaty forehead, my cold fingers. I take my shoes off, look around the lot. Even now, I’m looking for roaches.

***

Next day, I’m in 7-11 buying gasoline. Lighters line the counter, one with a tattoo-style Lady Luck lifting her thigh in salute. I pick her up. The cashier looks at my choice, looks at the red canister in my right hand. I smile sheepishly, put Lady Luck down. I continue walking around the store, pretending there is something else I want, picking up granola bars and single-dose Advil packs and plastic funnels. I hear a familiar voice and see Sean—Johnny’s drummer—with some other guy. Our eyes meet across a bag of potato chips. “Hey, Sean,” I say.

“Oh,” Sean says. “Hey.” He glances at the other guy and gestures to me. “This is Johnny’s girlfriend.”

“Tim,” says the other guy. We nod over the potato chips and don’t shake hands. Sean scratches his neck. “Tim” smiles weakly.

“Okay,” I say, hoisting my can of gasoline in mock salute. “See ya.”

I hide the gasoline in my trunk. I light napkins on fire in a back alley. I wonder why I ever do anything.

***

In McDonald’s, I’m sitting near a woman with a black gig bag strapped to her back. As I dip fries directly into torn-open ketchup packets, I squint at the case, trying to determine its instrument.

She catches my eye, pushes a shiny blue bob behind her ears. “Hey, what’s your name?” she asks.

I bite into three stacked fries, chewing silently. I don’t recognize her.

“Did we go to school together?” she presses.

Ketchup drips on the table. “I don’t think so.”

“I’m Elsie. Elsie Fisher? I went to Monacan.”

“Sorry.”

“You look so familiar. I must have seen you at shows.”

“Maybe?”

“What do you play?”

I shake my head, too quickly. “I don’t want to make music. I only want to make fires.”
***

The boys play “Death Swallow,” “Aggro,” and “Pistol Whippet.” They pause when they run out of beer. Johnny walks over to my spot by the wall. “Come with me for a beer run, babe?”

“Sure.”

“Can you drive? My car’s out of gas.”

We drive to BP and pick up three six-packs of Rolling Rock. “Is this enough?” I ask. Johnny shrugs.

In the car, I say, “‘Pistol Whippet’ is a good name.”

“Yeah. Karl thought of it.”

“Isn’t it about James’ dog?”

“Yeah, but Karl thought of the pun. Karl’s really good at puns.”

“I saw Sean at the gas station the other day. With someone named Tim.”

“Who’s Tim?”

“I don’t know. I thought maybe you knew him.”

“I don’t know him.”

“Okay.”

“Wait, what was his name?”

“Tim.”

“Oh, Tim? Yeah. Tim. I know that guy. Do you think we got enough beer?”

***

They play “Sock Rocket,” “Spoils of Peace,” “Kill Sauce.” I watch Sean’s hi-hat catch the light from the bare bulb on the ceiling. Johnny’s head keeps hitting the chain that hangs from the bulb; the chain swings around and around. Light flickers over and under my eyelids. A cockroach ambles near my fingers, and I move my hand so it’s not in the bug’s way. It scuttles past me, doesn’t even look at me. Jesus Christ, I think. I thought we were friends.

***

After practice, Johnny and I go to Wendy’s. I try to play some music that doesn’t suck but he turns it off.

“You can’t turn that off,” I say. “This is my car.”

“Please, babe? I really want to listen to this demo. C’mon.”

“Okay,” I say, thinking about the gasoline in my trunk. It’s funny to keep gasoline in the trunk of my car, because it’s, like, supposed to be there. A cop could search my car and find nothing wrong. It’s almost like there is nothing wrong with me.

***

We head back to the garage. I perch on a speaker cabinet, eating my fries. Johnny spreads himself across the rat king with two cheeseburgers, chicken nuggets, a large soda.

“Does it go to eleven?” I ask.

“What?”

“This.” I pat the amp. “Does it go to eleven?”

He takes a bite of the second cheeseburger. “I hate that movie.”

After dinner, I go down on Johnny, and he falls asleep in the wires—pants off, flannel on. I find half a beer on the floor and finish it, grab Johnny’s jeans from below his feet, fold them over a fat audio cable. I press my face into the makeshift pillow and fall asleep.

***

In the morning, I’m alone with amplifiers and abandoned instruments. Maybe Johnny went to the bathroom, or maybe to his actual bed. The door to the house is locked. I knock, but if Johnny’s passed out, he won’t hear me. I push the garage door button, even knowing it’s broken. It depresses beneath my thumb without acknowledgment. No movement, no mechanical buzz, nothing. My exit strategies are running out.

I’m not staying in this garage forever, fighting my way into someone else’s fire.

***

I’d hidden the gas can in the mold with me, and I stare at its cheerful red shell. My fingers close around the cap and twist, idly at first, until the scent of petrol sharpens my focus and tightens my grip. Pouring slowly, I write my name in fuel across the center of the rat king, splashing an extra dose on Johnny’s discarded jeans. Piss-colored liquid drips through the rubberized tangle, darkens the cement. What happens to wires when they burn—do they melt, or explode?

I drag Sean’s throne to the garage door and sit. I’m ready to destroy the objects whose owners I can name: to see Sean’s bass drum burn and blacken, Karl’s mic stand light up, fire eat through the varnish on James’ bass, strings pop off Johnny’s guitar. To leave them unarmed, unfocused. I pray to Lady Luck; I pry the safety off my lighter.

***

Illustration by Carolyn Tripp