.As always, shot from Afton Prairie in DeKalb, IL, through my Orion ED80 Telesccope on a Canon T2i
I co-wrote an article for Cracked! Check it out, and please share if you like.
DANCE YOURSELF CLEAN
by Holden Wilson
Old notes hummed out the amplifier. Good notes. Comforting notes. Each song the band played took them back to the good old days.
The light in Town Hall Pub was sparse. That which was produced by the overhead bulbs was almost nonexistent. Their glow barely reached the floor, drowned by the wash of red and green neon beer signs behind the bar. Other than that, it was just the two blue spots on the stage, lighting up the band for the whole dive to see.
The spots gave form to cigarette smoke, which permeated the air. It was still technically illegal to smoke inside a bar, but nobody who cared ever came within fifty feet of the ancient Town Hall Pub, still barely going after seventy four years, since 1969. The place hit its zenith near after the turn of the millenium, but was long since abandoned by all but a few loyal regulars, relics of the neighborhood from a different era. Tonight there were only two, besides Matt the bartender, polishing mugs behind the counter to keep himself busy.
None of them paid much attention to the band, cramped on their little stage, which was really more of a step, but they played their hearts out all the same. They grew up on these songs, and knew them better than their own spouses. There was Michelle, her long gray ponytail swaying as she rocked the drum-set, and fat Kevin on guitar and vocals, an old man doing his best Isaac Brock impression.
No one played with more soul, however, than Nelson Rivera. He was heavily balding, fat in his gut but lanky everywhere else, and rocked a pair of aviators. Nelson thrummed the underline of “MIssed the Boat” on his bass guitar, nodding his head and pounding the stage with his heel, all the while never letting go of the eucalyptus flavored toothpick lodged between his teeth. The skin beneath his his eyes sagged with his posture, and at the age of fifty-six, Nelson didn’t look like much of a rock star, but he knew how to move like one. Nelson shut his eyes and swayed with the beat, letting the band’s sound wash over him while he plucked the intricate notes.
The front door opened, caught by a cold wind that blew down the foyer and all the way to the stage. Nelson shivered, trying to spot the new audience member. The glow from the streetlamp outside silhouetted a figure so tall he had to duck beneath the doorframe, but too skinny to fill much of the space on either side. The shadow moved slow, tentative, unsure of itself. It took a few nervous steps down the little hall, and emerged into the dim light of the barroom.
Nelson got a good look at him when he sat at a table ten feet from the stage. He was just a kid, no older than mid-twenties. His hair was red and neatly parted, his face round with baby fat. Whatever he looked like, someone his age certainly didn’t belong in this bar.
The boy listened to them play for a solid minute, tapping his hand on the table arhythmically, unable to find the beat. Nelson nodded to himself, another confirmation that young people just didn’t understand good music.
But he was grateful for an audience all the same. Nelson gave up his dreams of being a rock star many years ago. Young families and aspiring musicians don’t mix well together. Still, he would always play for fun, even if he couldn’t make a living at it. Nelson was never happier than when he got to perform with his band for people who would listen.
A bright green flash took Nelson out of the moment. He squinted and saw the screen, projecting through the air out of the kid’s eyes. He was beaming at the bar, trying to scan the tap for information. “Good luck,” Nelson muttered to himself. Most establishment’s this pup frequented were likely set up for augmented projection, but not the Town Hall Pub.
The light was annoying. Nelson ground his teeth and shook his head. He glared at the rude little shit, but the kid was utterly lost in his projections. Was this kid bored or something? Nelson cursed, unslung his bass, right in the middle of the song, and walked over the sound board. He lifted the shades off his face, revealing a pair of glassy, sunken green eyes, and swiped the touchscreen of the main breaker.
The music cut out to nothing, and Michelle’s drumming followed a moment after. The room became heavy with silence. Cutting off a classic like “Missed the Boat” was worse than interrupting sex, but Nelson had to show the punk what was what.
“Turn that shit off,” said Nelson, slow and deliberate so the dumb kid would understand. Nelson was a lifelong mumbler, and no stranger to repeating himself.
The kid’s eyes flicked upward, his projection vanishing in an instant. When he realized Nelson was calling him out, his face went petrified. “Me?”
“What the hell is wrong with you, playing with your little toy in the middle of our set?”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t realize-”
“Yeah, kids your age never do. Let me enlighten you. We don’t allow that augmentation shit in here, alright? Next time you interrupt me, I’m throwing you out myself.”
Matt put his hands on the bar, letting out an exasperated sigh. “Just play the songs Nelson. You’re supposed to be bringing customers in, not scare them away.” Matt turned in the kid’s direction next. “You gonna buy something?”
“Beer is fine. . .”
“What’s your name, son?” Nelson asked from the stage.
“Kyle. Kyle Ingram.
“Ok, Kyle. Do you mind if we finish the song?”
Kyle slouched in his chair, meekly shaking his head. Nelson gave his smuggest grin, turned the wireless back on, and finished the song.
When the set was over, Nelson slung up his bass and walked over to the bar. Matt already had a foamy mug of PBR ready for him. Nelson took a deep gulp, and noticed that Kyle was pacing near the foyer, shooting glances toward Nelson like he was psyching himself up for something.
“Looks like you have a fan,” Nelson heard Kevin’s voice from behind him.
“That or he wants to kill him now” said Matt, laughing with Kevin.
“Hey,” Nelson called over to the kid.
Kyle Ingram jerked his head up like a nervous deer, then fled out the door.
“Jesus, Nelson,” said Matt, “I oughta throw you out there.”
Maybe Nelson had been a little hard on the poor kid. It wasn’t his fault after all. The whole generation was defective. In truth, Kyle reminded Nelson a little of his own boys, now about the same age and just as clueless.
“Lemme go talk to him.” Nelson emptied his mug, and walked out into the cold.
The night was bitter and dark, street lamps making orange halos in the winter fog.
Kyle was about ten feet down the block with his back to Nelson. He was paused, holding his hands at arms length shaping his fingers into a picture frame, pointed south at the skyline. A low beep emitted from the kid’s head, and a well composed photo of Halsted street, Chicago’s landmark buildings behind it, appeared midair in front of Kyle’s face. The kid waved his hand in front of it, and the picture vanished, presumably downloaded into his brain drive or whatever the hell it was called.
“Nice shot,” said Nelson, and Kyle jumped a foot into the air, whirling around with tense posture.
“Am I that scary?” No response but an intent stare. Nelson studied the pinpricks of digital green light behind Kyle’s pupils, and that creepy look he’d grown all too accustomed to from the young. “I know you’re reading me, kid. What’s it say?”
Kyle’s dark brown eyes widened, and he backed away. “Nothing. You need an implant for me to read.”
Nelson advanced after him, “You know, that light your project is distracting.”
“I said I was sorry.”
“What are you doing in an old dive like this, anyway?”
“Came for the music.”
“I’m an art history major over at the college. I’m researching early millenium music.”
Nelson stopped. “Is that what they’re calling it now?”
“I need to interview someone who still listens to it. My dad said this bar would be the place.”
“Still listens to it. . .” Nelson couldn’t believe this fucking kid. “That was Modest Mouse. You might have heard of them? Music when I was your age was real.”
Now Kyle stopped, raising an eyebrow and leaning forward to stand taller. “You mean like auto-tune?”
“Don’t insult me. That shit was for little kids. The music I listened to was dope.”
“Seriously, ‘dope’? What year is it?”
“Bah,” said Nelson, waving his hand in a way that instantly reminded him of his own grandpa.
“Will you sit down with me? Just for five minutes and a couple questions.”
Nelson mumbled some words he didn’t even completely understand himself, crossing his arms.
Kyle extended a hand. “I’ll buy you a beer. Utility, friend. Help the Universe.”
“Great,” thought Nelson, “A religious nut.” It was funny; when Nelson was growing up, people thought religion was on the way out, but the need for Church must be hardwired into peoples’ DNA, because young people had simply replaced the old faiths with something weirder. They worshipped galaxies and stars and shit. Nelson was never a religious person to begin with, but this new Cosmosism was utterly foreign to him.
But Kyle seemed like a nice kid. Nelson shook his hand, and followed him back inside.
Kyle chose the table, sitting with his back straight in optimal projection position. Nelson sat across the table, askew in the backwards chair and leaning forward.
“You guys sounded good,” said Kyle.
“Didn’t seem to hold your interest for very long.”
Kyle sighed, and his face turned slightly red. “A really emotional pulse went out over the WEB. I couldn’t ignore it.”
“You see, that’s the problem. You’re so jacked into those augs that you don’t know how to live in the moment.”
“I’m connected to every moment on the planet If you were the same as me, I could literally pick up your energy on my systems, read what you’re feeling.”
“It’s empowering! And helps people get along better.”
“Well. . . can’t you at least do it with a keyboard and mouse? A touch screen?. . . You could hold it in your hand! Do you know when I was a kid, nobody even had cell phones. We got one that plugged into the cigarette lighter of our car when I was four. Called it a car phone. Car phone, can you believe that?”
Kyle was vacant, lost somewhere in Nelson’s inane mumbling. Nelson chuckled to himself. He should have known better. The concept of using a device that was separate from the body had been abandoned for almost twenty years now. A phone was as irrelevant to this kid as a fax machine had been to Nelson.
Nelson could tell Kyle was straining just to understand the old man’s mumbly speech. He tried to enunciate more.
“Just don’t get it, I guess. Kids plugged in all the time, everybody reading your mind.”
“It doesn’t work like that.”
“Aren’t you worried it’ll turn you into. . . you know, a machine?”
Kyle rolled his eyes. “At least find something original to pick at. You sound like every other old fart on the news. ‘An augmented teen went killer robot on his mom and dad, or shot up his school!’ What is the world coming to!” Kyle wiggled mocking spooky fingers in Nelson’s face.
The old fart pushed them away. “You’re not worried about it. . . Not even a little?”
“The world has always been a shitty place. What’s augmentation got to do with it? Plus, your generation totally started all this. You were born in what, 1980 or something?”
“Ha!” said Nelson, “How old do you think I am?”
“Whatever, you’re the same age as my dad, so I know the web got big when you were a kid, and I also know your parents spewed the same bullshit about you. Digital generation: lazy, self-absorbed, assholes. Well, it turned out to be true, didn’t it?
Nelson humphed and crossed his arms. Kyle went on, “The millennials were the last people to live egocentric fantasy lives in their own head. Their children are smarter, more pious, and more enlightened than the parents could ever hope to be themselves.”
“We said the same thing when we were your age. You’ll grow up someday, too.”
“Except with the Cosmosism and the WEB, things are different. It’s real this time.”
Nelson shook his head. “The technology you all are addicted to may have it’s benefits, I’ll give you that, but it’s a slippery slope I’m telling you. . .You’re gonna lose yourself in that shit. If you spend your whole life living through other peoples’ experiences and emotions, you’ll never be an individual.”
Kyle’s voice trembled with reverence. “Individuals die. By connecting ourselves, we’re plugging into the Universe, giving ourselves to its great consciousness. And then we live forever.”
All Nelson could still think was ‘creepy’. This kid was delusional, but the worst part is that they all bought into it, even Nelson’s own two boys. What the fuck was the world coming to?
Nelson said, “You all aren’t gonna be human anymore.”
“Oh, come on!”
The kid’s sudden anger was surprising. Nelson said, “Maybe we should get back to the music. . .”
“Fine by me,” muttered the clearly offended Kyle.
Nelson tapped his fingers on the table, wondering how to clear the awkward air. “What do you like to listen to?”
“Don’t just listen. I play.”
“Oh, a musician, I didn’t realize. Sorry, I don’t hear much music from people your age. What do you ‘play’ then?”
“I like Cerebral.”
“Ok, stop right there. I should have known.”
“What?” shrugged Kyle.
“That projected crap?”
“What’s wrong with digital music?”
“Do not insult the term. Electronic is dope, but those fake sounds you kids all call music is nothing but cheating.”
“Cheating!” Kyle looked like he was ready to storm out.
“There’s no instruments. Not even a computer. You just think about a melody and like magic it appears. How is that not cheating?”
“Not my fault technology makes things easier. It’s not the tool, grampa. It’s how you use it.”
“By which you mean puke out garbage and slap a song-title on it.”
“I don’t have to take this shit.”
The whole bar echoed with the sound of Kyle’s chair scraping against the floor, as the kid shoved it backwards and vaulted to his feet. He marched toward the door.
Nelson huffed and said, “Figures. That’s what young people do now. You walk away from problems instead of facing them. You retreat into your little web and hide like a pussy.”
Kyle didn’t flinch. He kept making for the exit.
Nelson said, “If you think your mind music can stand up to the classics, why don’t you prove it.”
Kyle froze in the doorway. the same black silhouette as when he entered. His shoulders were tense as could be. “I could play the pants off you old man,” he said, without turning around.
Nelson got out of his chair, groaning from the sharp pain that shot through his knees. He took his time walking to the stage, back up towards his beloved bass. “Why don’t you bring your set-up tomorrow.
“I have finals tomorrow. “
Kyle turned his head, and Nelson caught a glimpse of his eyes. Even across the entire bar, that little green dot behind the pupil was still visible. The kid said, “Just make sure you bring your doctor. In case you break your hip trying to keep up.”
The door swung shut, and Kyle was gone before Nelson had a chance to retort.
Clark Street and Foster was a goldmine of illegally parked cars. The intersection had been a commercial hub even since Nelson was a kid. People darted into stores, hoping to get away with a few unpaid minutes in the metered zone, but Nelson was there waiting, like a cat in the shadows.
He didn’t relish ruining peoples’ day, citing them ninety dollars for a harmless offense, but he did it anyway, every day for twenty-two years. Without those tickets, he wouldn’t make quota. Without quota, he would lose his job, and without the job his family had nothing. Since the Early Millenium Crash of Nelson’s youth, the work situation for most of the first world had never recovered. Employers learned to do more with less, and never looked back. It had got so bad that governments had to step in, and force businesses to give jobs back to a certain percentage of people, even though they could automate those duties for a fraction of the price. Charity Jobs, they’d come to be called. Whatever the term, Nelson was grateful to have one, even a job as shittily soul crushing as parking ticketer.
At least it was easy. The city was so overcrowded these days. Chicago was packed when Nelson was young, too, but those days seemed full of empty space compared to the present. The increased frequency of mega-storms on the coasts had caused a mass migration inland, stuffing the heartland cities far beyond capacity. Traffic gridlock was endless, and so was prey for the urban hunter, slinking around the corner in his yellow vest and waiting to pounce. It was so quick and easy now, compared to printing hard copies when Nelson started. His multi-tool was programmed to project, like an external version of augmentation. Writing a ticket was as easy as pointing the thing, which printed a digital violation right on the windshield. In and out, with no confrontation.
Originally, the job was supposed to be temporary, just something to pay the bills until Nelson’s music career picked up. But that path had never materialized, and as age set in, bills piled up, and current music tastes slipped away from him, the day job had become his actual job.
But not his whole life. He still had his nights at the Town Hall Pub.
Nelson scanned the street, and saw no unpaid cars. One would turn up sooner or later. While he waited, Nelson looked through a chainlink fence across the street. A schoolyard was behind it, where little kids in uniform played kickball in gym class, except it wasn’t any version of the game that Nelson recognized. Their ball was made of light, but danced across the grass or into the hands of a child like a real object, an entirely digital game played by fools in the real world. Nelson lamented that they’d probably never hold a real ball in their hands, or learn the lesson of a missed catch by cruel sting.
People were leaving the physical world behind, giving themselves more and more over to the digital.
“Old people said the same thing about me,” Nelson remembered. He recalled his parents’ complete bamboozlement at even the simplest task on a good old desktop computer. They looked at the mouse like some artifact discovered in a crashed UFO. After much begging, Nelson had convinced them to let him get his first cell phone as a sophomore in high school and admittedly got quite addicted to it. He could talk to his friends at any time and did, spawning his greatest bouts of teenage rage when Mom and Dad took it away as punishment.
“Maybe they had the right idea after all,” thought Nelson. Cell phones led to smart phones, led to tablets, led to bodygear, and now to surgical implants, full connection to the machine.
An ambulance blazing by interrupted his train of thought, sirens wailing right past him. Nelson watched as every car in the traffic jam on Clark pulled aside to make room for it. None of them hesitated. Letting the injured through was second nature. You’d want people to do the same for you.
A purple porsche pulled into the corner of Nelson’s eye. Its occupant was slender, with cropped red hair and freckles, and couldn’t have been older than twenty. The moment she got out of the car, there was projecting out her damn eyes. The girl was lost in her own world while she sauntered into a liquor store, not giving the meter a second thought.
“Now you’re just asking for it,” said Nelson. He drew his projector from its holster, clunky compared to the augmented version his younger co-workers used, but it did the job. For Nelson, no amount of tech advantage could replace grasping a real device in your hand. He pointed it at the girl’s windshield, but before he could pull the trigger, he was interrupted by a sudden pounding on the window behind him. The girl had spotted him, and was shaking her head while mouthing the word “no” over and over. Nelson shrugged. The job was the job. He re-aimed his projector.
When he pulled the trigger, his projector buzzed. An error message: “This vehicle had four minutes of paid time remaining.”
He looked back into the store. The woman was projecting onto her arm, furiously dialing digits made of light. She’d beat him to the punch, paying the meter via projection before Nelson could print the ticket, even though he’d had all the advantage of surprise. When did he get so slow on the draw? “It’s the damn technology,” he decided. He was still quick as ever.
But doubt began to gnaw at him then, about his face off with Kyle Ingram on Sunday. What good was being quick if some computer could project just as well as he could play, without the lifetime of practice to get there. . . When Nelson was Kyle’s age, he’d have beat the kid with his eye’s closed, but now he wasn’t so sure. Nelson may despise Cerebral and the brain projection that went along with it, but it was the most popular music on the planet. The viewing public would have no mercy, regardless of how he lost. Nelson was all alone.
“Spare a few for the bus?” A haggard man had his hand stretched out, breathing boozy breath into Nelson’s face.
Nelson rolled his eyes, “If you’re gonna bullshit for money, maybe moving away from the liquor store would help.” The bum recoiled and widened his eyes, then hung his head.
A nasally voice said, “Here you go.”A young man with a neatly trimmed beard gave the bum a five dollar bill.
Nelson couldn’t help himself. “You know he’s gonna blow that on booze, right?”
“Whatever helps,” was all the man said.
“What do you mean?”
“He lost his wife and both his kids in a car wreck, three years ago. He can’t find a job.”
“You know him?”
Nelson didn’t know what to say. The young man wrinkled his nose and scratched his head. After an awkward silence, he walked away, scoffing just loud enough for Nelson to hear.
Nelson just stared at the beggar. Sure enough, there were the telltale green pinpricks behind his eyes. This starved man who couldn’t even afford to buy beer still had a projection implant, broadcasting his history and emotions to the whole world. Was Nelson the only one left without? What a strange and unfamiliar place that world had become. Nelson looked the beggar in the eye, trying to take in every scar and wrinkle, wondering what it would be like to tap into this man’s soul via technology.
Through the whole course of human history, despite all the advances, the cities, the science, the society. . . People had never quite learned to get along with strangers. The unknown was a potential enemy. Safer to stay selfish. But, if strangers were done away with. . . If every person you look at could be known in an instant, then every person you look at becomes important. Had this stunted generation really cracked the empathy barrier? Kyle Ingram seemed to think so, and the connection between the beggar and his young benefactor was hard to argue with.
For a moment, Nelson considered submission to it all, going down to the Aug Store and installing a projector in himself. But even now, the thought sent chills through his body. He just wasn’t ready, and realized he never would be. He felt the resistance down in his bones. It was a part of him. If the young could change the world, they would with or without Nelson’s help. He’d be content to just stand aside and watch.
Besides, he could still join them in his own way. The old fashioned way.
“What’s your name?” he asked the beggar.
There was a long pause, and then a tentative, “James. . .”
“Here James.” It was a fifty dollar bill.
“Okay, kid,” mumbled Nelson into the mic, “What are you gonna play for us?”
‘Us’ was really just Matt behind the bar, Kyle Ingram in the closest seat to the stage, and four locals who’d responded to Nelson’s texts. An audience of four was still an audience.
Above them all, on their little platform, stood Nelson himself, with his bandmates Michelle and Kevin.
Kyle shifted in his seat, looking a little nervous. He didn’t answer.
“We’re waiting, Mr. Kyle.” Nelson flashed a wicked smile.
“I’ll play what you play,” he said at last.
Nelson chuckled. “This’ll be good. Ok. . . Do you know ‘Dance Yrself Clean’ by LCD Soundsystem?”
Kyle’s eyes rolled into the back of his head for a moment, then came back down to reality. “Got it,” he said.
“You’ve heard it?”
“Just now, yeah.”
“Wh-. . . The song is like ten minutes long. You couldn’t have listened to it.”
“Absorbed the whole thing. See?” Kyle extended both arms taut, sticking out the index finger on his left hand, and his thumb, middle, and pinky fingers on the right. He used them to air-drum a few clean but drab measures of the tune, drums, bass synth, and all. It was identical to the recording Nelson remembered from when he was a teenager, in all but soul.
Nelson halted Kyle with a raise of his hand. “Why don’t you let us play it for real first?”
Michelle kicked it off, with the laid back opening drum riff, ever so lightly on her snare, accented by Kevin’s cowbell on the offbeats. A few measure in and Nelson joined her, plucking the two note bass line, and the song’s beginning fell into a groove. It was one of the band’s favorites, one of those tunes that transcended time, and could make anyone dance, no matter the age.
But it took a while to get going. The song was content to just chill for the first couple minutes before the good part kicked in. Nelson could hit his notes with minimal attention, and found himself constantly shooting glances over at Kyle, trying to gauge the kid’s interest level. He was nodding his head along with the band, but otherwise seemed kind of bored. For some reason, the thought of Kyle not liking the song was unbearable.
Nelson had to laugh at himself. Here he was desperate for the approval of some kid. The world really was upside down.
Being aware of it didn’t help. As the song dragged on, Kyle kept rubbing his eyes, clearly bored and eager to project someplace else. Nelson kept subconsciously rushing the tempo. He only realized what he was doing when Kevin dialed him back with his low key vocals and exasperated glares.
Three minutes later, the song kicked into gear. Nelson kicked the switch on his pedals, transforming his notes into deep and synthesized punctuation, cranking up the volume along with Michelle. Now Kevin was screaming, and Michelle was pounding ‘2’ and ‘4’ on the bass drum as loud as thunder. In the span of a second, the song was new, throwing out the chill to pulse with energy instead. It was like magic every time.
Every body in the room started to move. Best of all, Kyle’s head jerked upwards as the song grabbed him. Nelson envied him, hearing ‘Dance Yrself Clean’ for the very first time. The way the song suddenly flipped was like a triple shot of espresso. Kyles head nodding became heel tapping, which turned into stomping his entire foot on every beat. Soon, Kyle was on his feet dancing outright.
Nelson couldn’t hide the smug grin which etched onto his face. No contest. If Kyle still thought his Cerebral nonsense measured up to this, he was hopelessly delusional.
Nelson thought he had the face-off locked up, but the kid had other ideas. Kyle hopped onto the stage, waltzing into the middle of the band without shame. He extended his arms like before, and played right along with them.
He happened to start right at the bridge, a complicated bass solo made of syncopated scales and arpeggios, the hardest part for Nelson to play. The old man’s first instinct was territorial. No way was this squirt going to steal the show from him. Nelson wrinkled his nose and prepared to gnash his teeth, like a dog guarding a steak.
Until he heard what Kyle was playing. He wasn’t upstaging Nelson’s solo, but augmenting it, adding a sound to each note that gave Nelson’s bass a quality that was exact to the original recording, which Nelson had never quite been able to replicate. It sounded so good, that for the moment, Nelson thought like he was in LCD Soundsystem himself, the rockstar of his dreams, and his smile reached higher than it had in years.
Kyle smiled back at him, and the two nodded their heads in sync.
Hand painted in water colors, and inked.
Image modeled on the map in “King’s Quest Companion, 3rd Edition”.
You can buy maps like this, or order a custom made one at our Etsy shop:
Taken with my t2i and Orion ED80 telescope
My first photo of a deep space object.
Taken from Afton Prairie, near DeKalb, IL. Andromeda is the closest galaxy to the Milky Way, and about the same size. One day, it will collide with it, and our galaxies will combine into one.
When Edwin Hubble discovered it in 1925, we learned that our own galaxy was only one of hundreds of billions.