Aki is lying on the stage, shredding away at his air guitar to “And Justice for All,” his shoulder blades against the hardwood holding up his torso, his pelvis thrusting. His eyes are shut tight and he’s lost in the solo like he’s on his bedroom floor and not in front of hundreds of people at 45 Special, a legendary Finnish rock bar. He jumps up and bangs his head, stomps around the stage, cranks out the next riff, the air guitar behind his head, the air guitar between his legs in horse-riding position, the air guitar vertical in a twelve o’clock pose. He finishes with a windmill, and the crowd, Penelope in the front row, whistles and applauds. The stage lights heat his face, sweat drips from his long snarl of hair. He sticks out his tongue, raises the metal horns, and prays his performance will be enough to get him through to the next round.
Aki and Penelope, wearing matching black T-shirts, hold hands and amble through the hotel lobby. The complimentary “Air Guitar World Championships” bag is strewn across Aki’s back. The concierge is the opposite of him—tall, pale-skinned, neatly cut mouse-brown hair. He smiles as he checks in guests, but Aki senses he’s watching them, judging them. They already asked him how much a room would cost and know they can’t afford one. Still, they hang around the front desk like stray cats circling dinner tables for scraps. Beyond getting to Finland, they hadn’t thought through much else.
Aki’s cell phone vibrates in his skinny jeans. It’s a text from his brother. Pou ‘se, malaka? it reads. Where are you, jagoff? Aki slides it back into his pocket.
They sit in the shiny leather lobby chairs and spread the map open between them. Penelope’s black hair dangles over the Gulf of Bothnia. Aki yawns; he hasn’t gotten much sleep of late. She points to a hostel in the village of Kello, about 25 kilometers north of Oulu. “Let’s see if there’s a bus that goes to it,” she says.
The American steps out of the lift. He resembles an Orthodox priest—hair pulled back into a ponytail, long beard draping from his face—but for the red Spandex, the white-framed sunglasses, the AC/DC cutoff. “Nice job, Air-istotle. You riffed our faces off.”
Aki nods sheepishly, says thank you. The American is last year’s champion. He was interviewed on the BBC and does Dr. Pepper commercials now on American television. “Air Jesus” they call him. He slurps from a can of Sandels Finnish beer. There are contestants from twenty different countries, and each has a nickname. Aki—the Greek—goes by “Air-istotle.” There’s the Belgian, Hans “Van Dammage” Van Deer Meer and the Argentinian, Santiago “Buenos Air-ace” Carrizo. Hirotaka “Electric Ninja” Kinugasa is representing Japan.
At sixteen, Aki is the youngest competitor here. Five months back he had never even heard of the competition. The drummer in his old band signed him up for the Greek nationals at the last minute, and, somehow, he won. He’s been practicing every day since. Penelope is the only person who sees his routines before he goes on stage.
“What are you guys looking for?” the American asks, his beard rippling as he speaks.
“The hostel,” Penelope says. “Do you know it?”
“That’s far, dudes. You need a place to crash? Crash in my room. It has two beds.”
Another competitor, this one in a Viking costume, marches through and bumps his beer against Air Jesus’s. “Kippis, motherfucker!”
“Let’s go party,” Air Jesus says.
Aki and Penelope’s eyes meet. She nods in agreement, so he folds up the map and stuffs it into the bag as his cell phone buzzes again. He barely pulls it from his pocket, hesitates to look at the message. Malaka! Pou sto dialo eise? he reads. Where the hell are you?
There are dozens of them—airheads—packed into the tiny bar, jumping up and down to “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” heads narrowly missing the low ceiling. Aki can feel the bass reaching up into his chest. The American is on the small podium taking his turn at airaoke, mouthing the words, his left hand wrapped around an imaginary neck, the other crunching down on invisible strings. A banner hangs over him with the competition’s motto: “You Can’t Hold a Gun If You’re Holding an Air Guitar.”
Through the darkness and fog, Aki scans the various faces and costumes, drinks in the air, arms around shoulders. There’s Hello Kitty armor and fake mustaches, black leather outfits and sequined vests, tuxedos and face paint. It’s like Greek Carnival.
Aki and Penelope stand against the bar, each holding a beer compliments of the American even though they’ve never liked the bitter taste of it. Penelope is looking at her phone, its screen lighting her face, her bracelets sliding down her arm. He asks her who it is but can’t make out her response. He knows it must be her parents anyway, checking in on her. They think she’s in Rhodes on holiday with friends.
The Viking squeezes past Aki, presses his sweaty body against him, and leans across the bar for another drink. He tousles Aki’s big curls, his trademark. “Love the hair, brother,” he says. Air Jesus is still on the podium, his face contorted. He sings along with the others in unison. With the lights out, it’s less dangerous, here we are now, entertain us.
Later that night, back in the American’s room, Penelope is asleep in bed. Aki and Air Jesus stand on the balcony, arms folded, having a cigarette. Aki can see the cross atop the Oulu Cathedral. Below, the last partygoers are stumbling back to the hotel, chanting Finnish drinking songs.
“Things are pretty messed up in Greece I hear, huh?” the American says.
Aki nods, blows smoke. “Terrible. There’s no work, especially for the young people. My brother is twenty-five years old and can’t find a job.” The thought of his brother conjures up a cocktail of feelings: guilt, fear, embarrassment. “That’s why I want to win and be like you,” Aki says and smirks.
Aki wants to make Dr. Pepper commercials. He wants his winning performance to have a half million YouTube views. He wants the grand prize too. A few months ago he cracked the neck of his guitar, so his band broke up. If he wins the tournament, he gets a hand-crafted Finnish electric signed by Brian May, the guitarist from Queen. Even when the American tells him he has a real job, that he’s a graphic designer in Los Angeles, that no one makes a living on air guitar alone, Aki just lights another cigarette with the tip of the last one.
Aki can’t sleep. He tosses and turns and then tiptoes out of the room, propping the door with a red high-top. He walks down the hallway, so quiet he can hear the buzzing of the lights. Television chatter and laughter escape from a room at the end of the hall. He thinks about his brother. He promised him he’d be there today, at the meeting, even though he knew he wouldn’t. And he’s supposed to be there tomorrow too, in front of the Parliament building with the rest of them. He’s supposed to be there waving the Greek flag, shouting nationalist slogans, hurling rocks at riot police.
“We’re going to save our country from these fucking government traitors and these illegal foreigners, you understand?” his brother had said to him once at the kitchen table, his eyes a burning sun Aki had to look away from. “We’re going to bring Greece back to what it was.”
People say the Golden Dawn, as they’re called, are neo-Nazis. They’ve been accused of killing immigrants—Albanians, Pakistanis, Bulgarians. Aki’s brother doesn’t answer when he asks him if it’s true. Aki creeps back into the room and lays down. He can’t get Nirvana out of his head. With the lights out, it’s less dangerous. He shakes Penelope, wakes her up, and she holds him until he falls asleep.
Aki and Penelope are almost late for the bicycle tour of the city. While she swipes Finnish coffee and porridge from the continental breakfast spread, he runs over to check the standings posted in the reception. He scans the board and finds his name. He’s made it through. In his head, he sings, Hey I, I, oh, oh, I’m still alive. The airheads are waiting outside the hotel. “Bravo, Aki mou,” Penelope says and wraps herself around his arm. Bravo, my Aki. They grab hands and hurry out, Aki tearing off a bite of a rye bread roll.
“Let’s go, little Greek bro with the fro,” the American says, straddling the seat of a yellow single-speed cruiser with high handle bars, his backpack in the rear basket. He’s holding up a tandem bike for Aki and Penelope.
Aki is ranked last among those remaining so he’ll be the first to perform that night to the secret song chosen by the tournament organizers. The American is atop the leader board. He’ll have the advantage of seeing everyone else perform first before he has to get on stage, so Aki will have to wow the judges from the get-go, earn triple sixes—the max score, leave no doubt.
The airheads head toward the city centre, the American leading the way with Aki and Penelope beside him, an unimposing bike gang, maybe thirty of them, a United Nations of girls and guys with crazy hair and body art.
They get to the Market Square along the waterfront, surrounded by wooden storehouses turned into restaurants and handicraft shops, bicycle tires rattling over cobblestone. Locals sit and drink coffee, and old women carry bags full of vegetables and fruit, reindeer meat, and honey. The airheads hop off their bikes to take photographs with the stout bronze Policeman statue and to buy souvenirs—bottle openers fashioned from antlers, hats made of reindeer fur. They take videos of themselves playing air accordion next to a real accordion player in a white beret.
Aki’s phone vibrates in his pocket and it’s another message from his brother. Pousti, is all it reads. Faggot. He imagines they’re preparing for the rally now, handing out torches and flags and stacks of leaflets. When Aki stares at the message—Pousti—he feels anger, though he’s not sure at what—at his brother, at himself, at the American who’s smiling now and making the peace sign for a picture with the accordion player?
They ride on to see the Oulu Castle and then across the river estuary toward Nallikari Beach, hidden behind a curtain of pine trees.
“So what else do you like to do, dude?” the American says. “What do you want to be when you’re older?”
“I don’t know,” Aki says, pushing his hair from his face. “Music is the only thing I like. The only thing I’m good at.”
Aki lives in a shitty suburb of Athens. He’s never done well in school, hates reading. He has one photo of his dad and knows just that he built boats at one time so his brother is the only real role model he’s had. Penelope, on the other hand, is smart, has a good family, stays out of trouble. Aki constantly wonders what it is she likes about him. He’s sure she’ll leave him eventually, though she swears she never will, and move to London or Munich to become a doctor or businesswoman like so many other Greeks.
When they get to the beach, the airheads leave the bikes and run for the water. Aki and Penelope sit down amidst sunbathers, take off their high-tops and bury their olive feet in the brown sand. Aki pulls his shirt over his head, exposing his gold cross and long, bony torso. The air is cool and carries in the stench of everything that’s out there, alive and dead, regenerating.
“So,” Penelope asks, “are you ready?”
Aki nods. He looks at the American, his new friend and mentor, splashing through the shallow waters, chasing the Viking, and he gets excited at the thought of unseating him, taking over as the air guitar world ambassador, grabbing endorsements for everything from potato chips to shampoo. “Sagapo,” he says to her. I love you.
Back at the hotel, the flat screen in the lobby is tuned in to the BBC news. It’s showing the demonstration in Athens turned violent. Aki and Penelope stop to watch. “Po po,” Penelope says and puts her hand to her lips. My God.
Black-clad youth holding torches and waving flags chant Anti-everything slogans. Anti-government, anti-Turkish, anti-American. Fifteen-hundred left-wing Greeks have unexpectedly descended on the demonstration to protest against the Golden Dawn. They’ve taken over Constitution Square. Burning tires send plumes of smoke into the sky, and Aki swears he can smell their bitterness. Riot police fire tear gas into crowds and down subway stations. Protestors hurl petrol bombs and stones. Golden Dawn chants boom through the television speakers: “Foreigners out of Greece!”
Aki looks for his brother, though he hopes he doesn’t see him. He hopes he’s run the hell away from there, but he knows him better than that.
“Glo-ry to Greece!” the chants continue. “Glo-ry to Greece! Glo-ry to Greece!”
Aki stands at the side of the stage. He leans forward to look out as people continue to pour into the square. Thousands of them. Photographers with giant lenses line the front row. A young girl in pigtails sits on her father’s shoulders. Aki’s outfit is less ornate than most, and he now worries it will count against him: black knee pads, black Megadeth t-shirt (from the So Far, So Good…So What! album), and zebra-patterned stretch pants. His right knee trembles. He has one minute to prepare for a song he’s just heard for the first time—“Plane Crash” by The Toadies. He shakes his hair so it falls over the acne on his forehead and does his cross three times. The emcee stomps across the stage, energizing the crowd. “The axes are invisible, but the chops are real…” and there’s applause before Aki hears the emcee shout his name. “From Greece, ladies and gentlemen, Air-is-totle!”
Aki trots out and pauses for a moment, center stage, locates Penelope on the left, three rows deep. He points to the sky indicating he’s ready to begin. When the song kicks in—an angry, punk-rock riff followed by a high-pitched scream—Aki thinks he knows what he has to do so he races to one end of the stage and then to the other, leaps as high as he can and kicks. The hot lights flash, blue and red and gold. He bangs his overflowing head of hair because that’s what he has over all the other competitors, even over the American. He doesn’t know the words but tries to mouth along anyway. He hears “Bravo!” yelled out and it can only be Penelope and so bangs his head some more. He gets lost hammering away at the strings of his air guitar, punching at the air to the drum beat, jump-kicking like he’s bursting through a brick wall, and miscalculates sixty seconds. When the song cuts out he’s on his knees, thinking about pulling a limbo-of-sorts maneuver but not quite, and he blows the ending, a gymnast who doesn’t stick the landing.
When the judges go around and raise their scores—5.4, 4.9, 5.2—Aki knows his journey is done. He knows there’s no chance it’ll be good enough. He knows he’s leaving Oulu with nothing.
He rushes off the stage and doesn’t even look for Penelope. He pushes his way through the crowd, not responding when people pat him on the back and compliment his performance. He finally breaks through to open space and then lights a cigarette, disappears into the Oulu streets, smoking one after another as the sun sets. No matter how far he walks, though, he can’t escape the music. He eventually heads back to the hotel. The concierge eyes him as he cuts through the lobby and Aki glares back. He hurries up to the room and goes straight for the American’s mattress. He lifts it up, heavier than he thought it would be, and manages to shove it off and wedge it between the bed frame and the wall. He does the same to the other mattress too. He grabs a red vase and shatters it against the floor, then tears the art from above the desk, a black-and-white print of Helsinki at night, and smashes it over the headboard. He stops to catch his breath, the room throbbing from the bass below. And he realizes he’s a failure at even this, the greatest of rock n’ roll acts, because the music is drowning out his show.
Aki steps out onto the balcony and lights a cigarette. He can see the American performing on the big screen beside the stage. He’s in tight black leather pants and a leather vest, a silver-studded belt, and a neon green tie and sunglasses. The square is packed, the air thick with machine-made smoke. The American is a performer, he’s Hollywood, and doesn’t miss a detail. His foot is pressing an imaginary pedal as his hair whips across his face. He’s singing along to the words flawlessly like he’s been practicing for years. We know what we really want, we know what we really want. He points to the crowd, then flings the air guitar around his back, catching it in front.
Aki comes back inside and takes the American’s Euros from the nightstand. He rifles through his open suitcase spread across the floor and pulls out his wallet, iPhone, iPod, and MacBook. Outside, he can hear the crowd erupting. Cigarette ash peppers the American’s folded clothes. The door opens and, for a moment, Aki hopes it’s the skinny concierge so he can throw him to the ground and pound on him with his real Greek hands, real Greek fists. But it’s not, it’s Penelope. She doesn’t say anything, just stares at him, shakes her head, gives a look of disgust. And he imagines that now, finally, the epiphany has set in that she deserves far better than him. Aki keeps taking things from the American’s suitcase and stuffing them into his own backpack. Penelope walks away and he doesn’t follow. “Asto dialo!” he shouts after her, as loud as he can. Go to hell! He regrets it immediately. He grabs his complimentary Air Guitar World Championships sack and the American’s too and storms out of the room leaving the door wide open.
When Aki steps out of the hotel and into the crowd, he hears the emcee say, “Where’s Air-istotle? Has anyone seen Air-istotle?” And then young Fins in scarves and sunglasses are howling and pushing Aki up toward the stage. The competitors are huddled together and clapping as the grand prize—a real, clear-body lucite guitar—is strapped over the American’s neck.
While Aki shuffles forward, his phone vibrates. He presses it to his ear and cups his hand over his other ear. “Mama?” he says. He can’t make out what she’s saying, but can tell she’s speaking quickly. Something about his brother, he thinks. She sounds panicked. The intro to “Rockin’ in the Free World” rumbles out of the speakers and the emcee invites the audience members to pull out their own invisible instruments. Aki loses the call. “Mama? Mama?”
On stage, a group jam breaks out. A shirtless Electric Ninja body surfs the crowd, his blond wig flapping like flames; Van Dammage and Buenos Air-ace hold each other up with their backs and pound away at their air guitars. Aki looks out at the mass of people, cameras flashing, but Penelope is nowhere to be seen. With a bag full of clothes and electronics pushing down on his shoulders, his legs feel heavy. He’s between the American and the Viking who are hopping up and down. The Viking ruffles Aki’s hair and the American throws an arm over him and screams: “You’ll be here again next year, brother.” He hands Aki the electric guitar and hangs the strap over him.“This’ll be yours one of these days.”
Aki runs his calloused fingers against the raw strings. He holds the smooth neck in his hand, starts to strum with the other. He almost forgot what a real guitar felt like and now he doesn’t want to let go. He keeps searching for Penelope. He begins to imagine that maybe this doesn’t have to be their last time in Oulu. Confetti falls from the rafters. He plays along to the verse—E-D-C, E-D-C, E-D-C—while his phone vibrates in his pocket.
Steve Karas lives in Chicago with his wife and daughter. His stories have appeared in Friend.Follow.Text. #storiesFromLivingOnline (Enfield & Wizenty, 2013), Necessary Fiction, jmww, WhiskeyPaper, Little Fiction, and elsewhere. You can visit his website at steve-karas.com.