In the mornings, we shuffle onto elevators, our tight jeans and cartoon t-shirts and throwback sneakers, our ironic tattoos and lopsided haircuts, our thick framed glasses and battered canvas shoulder bags. We are aware of ourselves in ways most people cannot conceive. Our music is a band of whom you’ve never heard.
In our cubicles, we Reddit and TUMBL and Tweet while we SEO and DOM and SQL. In the break room, we play pinball or Minecraft or ping-pong. We drink coffee. We joke about our coffee addictions. Our mugs are caldrons. Each one must be bigger, or at least big enough.
Every now and then, a shadow crosses the windows, but we do not see it. Or if we see it, we think it is a bird. Or if we see it and know it too large to be a bird, we do not say it is too large to be a bird, or even continue thinking about how it is too large to be a bird, because some part of ourselves knows the size and shape of this shadow, but we ignore this part of ourselves so we may continue playing and laughing and breathing and drinking until it is time to head back to our cubicles where we type and click and breathe and drink and listen to that new band, the one everyone is talking about, and of whom you have never heard. Where do they find these people? To what music deity do they pray? Search for a website to make you as powerful as they until some part of yourself, the part that still holds guilt, no matter that the court declared you not guilty, says you are wasting company time, time-theft, the training video called it, so you bookmark the websites that might prove oracle, and lift your head-sized coffee mug, and work on the SEO for this company who last year bought an old shipyard warehouse and called it a revitalization project, which the city loved so much it razed the entire waterfront so this company could slap parking lots over the slivers of marshland that bloomed beside the river, which means that the people who misjudge the wind, or the angle, or their own leaping abilities from the bridge no longer have a soft, quiet place to land, a place where their bodies might remain mostly whole until the city workers collect them.
Five o’clock arrives and we pull on our shoulder bags and cue-up our music and implant our ear buds and walk out into the parking lot to our Hybrids and bicycles and bus stops. Some of us go for drinks. Others go home to game or get high or have sex or all of these things.
It was an albatross. A drone. A fast moving cloud. A plane too close to the earth.
There are weekly meetings. During these meetings, we keep our eyes on screens or doodles or versions of ourselves which we have yet to abandon, ones where we are road musicians or poets or graffiti artists. We will invent a killer App and live in South America drinking all day and wooing women with our impressive wits.
One day the speaker goes silent. We look up. She stands rigid. Mouth agape. Eyes fixed on the windows behind us. The screen above her shows a woman in a low-cut shirt seated at a desk. A man stands beside her. The man’s eyes are on the woman’s chest. Gray letters spell HARRASSMENT? above them.
I’m sorry, says the speaker. She looks around her as if she cannot remember how she has come to be standing in that room.
Right, she says. If you’ll turn to page 36 of your packet.
We turn to page 36. We take the multiple-choice test. We ace it.
In the break room afterwards, the discussion is of the woman’s breasts and other breasts they have known. You have never held a woman’s breasts and are glad when the talk moves to music, but it once again lands on a band of whom you’d never heard. None of the websites you thought would help have mentioned them. When it is your turn, you say something generic about the beat, but can tell by the way they lift their coffee mugs to their mouths that you have not said the right thing, and as you feel the space expand between yourself and the others, you throw across the divide a band of whom they have never heard.
Joie Neck? they ask.
Joie Neck, you say.
What’s their sound? they ask
Kind of Ledbelly meets Bowie, you say.
They nod their heads. One asks if Joie Neck is based out of Portland. Another says he thinks an ex-girlfriend opened for them at Bumbershoot. I doubt it, you say, and walk back to your cubicle smug in your proprietary knowledge.
It is a moment before you remember that you invented this proprietary knowledge. It is another moment before you begin inventing it further. Cropped blurbs from music journals. Tour dates in cities no one would have backpacked through the summer after graduation. Pilfered Facebook and Instagram photos. The woman wears long, shapeless dresses and the man has an unkempt beard. They request that no one film them. The physical space and live listeners are as much a part of the sound and feel of their art as the chords and lyrics—to record them is to destroy them.
On the elevator at the end of the day, everyone thanks you for turning them on to Joie Neck. They can’t wait to see them live.
And this one band would have been fine. Joie Neck could have broken up somewhere between Hungary and Croatia and people would have been satisfied. And you could have spread a few more bands, or maybe a few bloggers, over the course of the next year, enough to keep you admired, not so much to incur familiarity. It took two other lives before you found this balance. The haircut. The shoes. The television and movies and music. The origin story of an only child, parents dead in a car accident in a large Midwestern city. Everyone knows the you that makes them not know you.
But you, you fuckwit, you have never been able to maintain. Isn’t that what your brother always said?
Simon, for Christ’s sake, just maintain.
But not you. You tap that feeling you get from their praise again and again and again, and because the real cannot break, it is the imaginary that crumbles. Questions, you know, are the first fissures.
How did you hear about Joie Neck?
Which one was your favorite episode?
Just tell us, one more time, with as much detail as you can remember, where were you that night?
It does not matter how well you answer the questions. The fact that they exist means you have failed. A believable fiction subjugates the inquisitive. You did not know this when you created your first story. Had it not been for the lazy ignorance of the small town police force, you would not have been given the chance to revise.
But you were given that chance. And then remember what happened in that first revision? And the next one? How many more drafts do you think you will be granted?
You know this one has failed when you walk into the break room and pick up the red ping-pong paddle and no one picks up the green paddle. Instead, everyone turns to the window. This was not rehearsed. In the glare of your false light they are searching for the most real thing, the river, a thing so real it existed before there were stories about rivers, before there was a word that meant river, and so, in this way, it is because of you they see the body fall.
No one speaks. No one moves. The man’s flailing arms, the watch flashing on his wrist, the tie flapping across his body, are too real. And what they imagine below. The hard line between body and asphalt. This is also too real.
And so we turn back to you. You are all we can bear to look upon. You are the only one who can save us.
Amanda Bales received her MFA from the University of Alaska. Her work has been nominated for the Best New American Voices series and has appeared in Southern Humanities Review, The Nashville Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, and elsewhere. She lives in Illinois and teaches at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She sometimes blogs at amandabales.wordpress.com.