The President sits tuning the strings of his guitar, drawing the dense jungle of wire into agreement. Around him, people mill about, their arms laden with electrical cords, rolls of duct tape, fill lights, colored gels, planks of wood, amps, switcher boxes, scaffolding, effects processors, make-up kits, hammers, saws. Orders are barked indiscriminately through headsets or hipslung walkie-talkies, coordinating the movements of the chaotic mass as best as can be expected. The President is oblivious to the buzzing hive surrounding him because he is capable of profound concentration. Beyond the dark folds of the curtain, the hum of the crowd’s growing restlessness adds a note of urgency to the manic buzz. But the President takes an inordinate amount of time to tune his guitar. The jangling anemone springing from the neck of his guitar changes its dimensions by degrees as the President listens for changes imperceptible to those around him. His genius affords him his eccentricities.
The hive has been given strict instructions to avoid making eye-contact with the President, if not avoid looking at him altogether. It’s for their own good, as staring at the President has been known to induce hypnotic trances in those foolish enough to steal more than a passing glance. There is a persistent rumor circulating that a young girl of 16 was walking home from school when she caught a glimpse of a poster of the President and was immediately struck blind. Whether or not this is true or merely a cautionary tale is unclear, though certainly it’s true in a metaphorical sense. With all the heavy equipment being lugged about, it’s best not to take any chances. Anyone caught staring at the President for more than three seconds is docked a day’s pay.
The make-up artists, whose very jobs demand exemption from this rule, tend to the various unique features of his face—a face that, they assure him in their faggy, flamboyant lisps, will soon adorn the bedroom walls of brooding, horny teenagers everywhere, burrowing down into the fertile folds of their minds to fuel their first urgent, fumbling discoveries of sexual gratification, staring down from above countless beds to hold court over first kisses, over the first glimpse of a naked breast, over the slowly dawning awareness of an erection prodding desperately into a hip, over awkward and inappropriate confessions of love, over the hasty, slapstick shedding of clothes.
And his music will be the soundtrack to a thousand lost virginities, to a million, forever linked to the joy and panic of the moment, to the jittery cadence of belts being undone, to the awkward geometry of the back seats of cars, to the nervous, seasick swell of a stomach trembling beneath curious, inexperienced fingers. Teenagers will roll wet towels beneath their doors and stare together at his face through dense clouds of smoke, at the weird half-smile, the pensive crease in his brow, and argue for hours about what he must have been thinking at that moment. They’ll look at the way he’s leaning back, the way his head rests casually in the palm of one hand while smoke from what squares assume is a cigarette curls lazily around the fingers of the other, and they will thrill at this secret insight, this accidental window into the inner life of the President.
Pregnant mothers will play his albums and stand with their swollen bellies pressed against the speakers. Marching band instructors will condense his music into challenging but nonetheless playable medleys which, while inevitably sacrificing a level of its sonic complexity, do so in the hope of inspiring a new generation of musicians to reach beyond the vast, blank canvas of their lives, though the flutes and clarinets will warble away obliviously, unable to see how their repetitive, feathery trill fits into the larger picture, unable to detach themselves from the relative plainness of their part enough to recognize the vital role it plays in the President’s plan. After practice they will break their instruments down and walk to class utterly unaffected, cackling about the weather, or some cute boy, or a party one of them has heard about, and they’ll graduate and find good jobs and get married and have well-behaved children and stack issues of People in wicker baskets next to their toilets. In the mornings they’ll drive their children and the children of friends to school in blue minivans, and one day one of the President’s songs will come on over the radio and trigger some dim and untroubled memory.
But the trumpets, trombones and tubas—those poor bastards will wander the field in a shambles for hours, long after the sun has gone down and the lights of the city begin to sparkle in the distance, their hearts racing painfully in their chests, not from the physical exertion of marching, but from the thrill of touching, even in such a debased and impure form, the third rail of the President’s brilliance. They’ll spill blindly into the streets, fingers running over phantom valves, lips drawn instinctively into embouchure, staccato tongues darting against their teeth, and when passersby see them, see their hands fluttering spastically, hear the air hissing violently through their lips, they’ll gather their children close and quicken their step. They’ll leave school and pawn their instruments and use the money to buy motorcycles, and they’ll drop acid and ride into the roaring mouth of the desert, engines revving higher and higher, asphalt singing inches below the scuffed leather of their boots as skeletal desert trees rake the air around their heads and their bikes soar like black eagles beneath them, needles hurtling toward impossible speeds, and when their friends and family beg them for an explanation, beg them to come home in their small, sad voices, they will find themselves at a loss for words so complete and profound that they won’t even be able to say goodbye before hanging up the phone.
Middle-aged fathers and their irritated sons will fight over the radio while stuck in traffic, only to come across one of his songs and settle into a petulant but secretly grateful compromise, their bemused half-frowns masking the desperate fervor with which each clings to it, as one clings to the last disintegrating bridge stretching across a valley that seems to grow deeper and wider every year, and they’ll find themselves singing along despite themselves, singing along with the President and with each other, and for a few moments things will be the way they used to be before the terrifying possibilities of adolescence and the creeping panic of middle age took root like weeds. For a few moments they’ll again be fathers and sons, and only through a great deal of effort will the fathers be able to keep themselves from reaching over and grabbing their boys, to cradle them tight against their chests, to hold them like water in their cupped hands.
A final turn of the machine head and the frown of intense concentration melts from the President’s face. He stands. The makeup artists, their work finally finished, flutter away like the foggy halo of a dandelion.
The hive pauses, mesmerized by the unexpected movement, fixed in place around the President like insects trapped in amber. Some of the younger workers laugh nervously at the sudden stillness, the joyless laughter that bubbles up from the oily dark of a blackout in a crowded room. He steps forward into the mass of bodies.
A small-breasted woman with black glasses and bright red lipstick shouts urgently into the rosebud microphone jutting from her headset as she grabs dazed workers by the backs of their necks and shoves them out of the President’s path. The hive goes about its job with renewed urgency, parting around him like a river around a boulder, breaking upon him as waves upon the prow of a ship.
The President walks onstage to uproarious applause. If he is affected by it, it’s impossible to tell. The cheers reach a deafening crescendo as he approaches the microphone. The President adjusts the strap of his guitar and turns to face the band. The drummer’s sticks hover above the cymbal and snare. The bassist’s fingers arch over the strings. A quick nod from the President and they tense—the sharp intake of breath before jumping into cold water, the rippling leg of a lion crouched low in the grass. The crowd is a roaring black sea.
The President raises his pick into the air. A hush falls like snow. People cling desperately to one another in the coiled silence. They say to each other, When it falls, everything will change. When it falls we will become the people we want to be. The pick hovers in the air like a promise, like a dark cloud on the horizon, like something so important it doesn’t need to be said.
About the author:
Benjamin Wright always had a crush on you, but was too shy to say anything.