The Kurt Shirt. Short story by Michael Botur

The Kurt Shirt

Michael Botur

The heavy 13 year old in the long sleeved Misfits t-shirt lumbered down the back of Geography class and stood over Johnny’s desk. It was mufti day. The huge kid’s eggplant body cast a shadow.

‘Epic Kurt shirt, man.’

‘Thanks, man.’ Johnny touched a nervous hand to the Kurt Cobain face over his heart and looked up at the big kid with black fuzz on his chin. He had a ponytail and round glasses and sleepy black dugong eyes. Johnny had experimented with a Mötley Crüe shirt last mufti day, which no one had noticed, and the Pink Floyd shirt hadn’t gotten him any likes either. He’d never listened to Nirvana, but he would. You spend the money on a shirt, you’ve got to check out the music at some point.

He moved his feet under the desk so Sage couldn’t see how sporty his sneakers were. ‘You’re Sage, eh man. Did you choose your own name, honest?’

‘Yeah man. It’s more than a name, though. It’s a state of mind, man.’ Sage pulled a chair under his feet and leaned back against the wall, facing out the same way as Johnny, chewing on invisible bamboo. Johnny was unsure of the next steps in getting cool, but sitting down the back of the class felt right, and putting his feet on a chair helped a lot. You could go near Carson when you were cool, that was the other thing. Carson, who was in the same year but had girls and cars and a dangerous dad, decided what was cool and what wasn’t. He was on top of the world.

Sage stayed down the back and spent the rest of Geography talking music with Johnny. Sage completed the ten quiz questions easily, especially the three questions about rivers in China, seeing as his dad was from there. Sage said his dad was an arsehole. Johnny gave him points for that. When they were allowed to pack up, the sandy-haired white boy leaned toward his big new friend and said in a voice just quiet enough that they wouldn’t get told off by the teacher, ‘How come it says Murmur on your folder, man?’

Sage looked down for a moment at the surfer-style MURMUR letters sketched on the cardboard of his geography folder. ‘It was gonna be my band, man. It’s just me at the moment, need a drummer and a bassist, man. Murmur’s gonna be our band name. It’s from an album in my Rock-o-pedia guide that tells you, like, the whole history of all rock music, ever.’

The teacher clapped two books together and said something about where to hand in their quizzes, but the boys weren’t listening.

‘I’ll totally show you my Rockopedia. You doing anything after school?’

*

Sage moved from the front passenger seat of the car to the rear because up front his hot mum kept calling him Edwin and he kept saying “It’s Sage, bitch, I changed it,” and Johnny put a hand over his shocked mouth and enjoyed the ride, enjoyed the way putting Sage’s mum down was like a booster seat that raised him up a little. Getting driven around was so awesome; usually Johnny sprinted home, but suddenly exercise seemed gay. He recognised most of the streets they took to get to the mall, although the house numbers and the colours of the fences were slightly different now that he was viewing them from the windows of an interesting person’s car – not quite a person on top of the world, but someone to the side of the world. Someone not contained by gravity. Johnny was still way too scared to call his mum a bitch, but being around someone that did was exhilarating.

 

Across from the mall was King’s Emporium, which had second hand clothing and used furniture up front. The shadowy rear of the store, lit by two naked bulbs, was crammed with records, CDs, listening posts and even tapes. Johnny pulled out a few CDs which he thought had cool covers, and Sage either said, ‘Too gay, man,’ if the CD wasn’t worth getting, or ‘Under-appreciated, man,’ if he approved.

Sage’s mum trailed him with an armload of school shorts, keeping the four metres away that her son had instructed. She tousled Johnny’s hair and said, ‘At least you’re good,’ and Johnny made a mental note to have a wank over the mum before bed that night. He liked how Sage’s mum’s youngness seemed wrong, slutty in a way. He liked the way her blonde hair seemed faded brown with stress. He liked how her beach singlet clung to her ribs, her cut-off jeans-shorts and jandals, how she seemed to stoop a little, exhausted or drugged or both. He liked how Sage made himself as a rockstar and his mum a groupie.

Sage hated music that was more than a year old but gushed about music from the 70s and 90s. Johnny focused hard to work out the rules of cool. Sage lugged 16 Rolling Stones vinyl records until he started sweating and let Johnny carry some. Sage seemed heavy with intelligence but he didn’t have much muscle for a tall dude.

‘Probly can’t even get these anyway,’ Sage complained, resting his records on his belly. ‘Bitch won’t raise my allowance.’

Allowance. Sage had chosen to use a far-cooler American word than pocket money. It turned out most things Sage liked were American. Johnny vowed to stop calling his evening meal tea and start calling it dinner. Adverts were commercials, now.  The most American thing Sage liked was this band called R.E.M., which he said were from Athens, Georgia. R.E.M. stood for Really Excellent Music, Sage said. In maths and home ec and woodwork, Sage had explained the story behind all these fascinating monikers, like No Talking Just Head, which was formed by the guys from this band Talking Heads who formed a side project when that weird-looking guy quit. Johnny added that band to the 60-something artists he’d already promised to listen to.

R.E.M.’s first album, Murmur, was a critical darling, Sage explained, pushing the Rolling Stones pile away, flipping through the R records. He’d pay anything if he could find Murmur on vinyl. Johnny asked what was so good about vinyl, and Sage put a chunky, black-haired arm on Johnny’s shoulder and leaned close. His breath smelled like the exotic Japanese crackers he always had on him. ‘Vinyl’s the only way to truly listen to music.’

Johnny had spotted in the M section of records a six inch LP which read, Clean Edit Murmur – R.E.M. For Promotional Purposes Only. He took the record to the giant 13 year old who had backed his scrawny mum against the wall of the changing rooms and was cursing at her. Sage’s mum was a head shorter and she couldn’t get past him.

‘Scuse me, guys– dude, I found you this, man. I think it was in the wrong place.’

Sage’s mum scowled at the $29 price tag. ‘It’s practically thirty bucks, and you, my friend, have five.’

Johnny, who hadn’t been to the movies in months because his usual friends felt like old clothes, pulled out his Ghostbusters wallet. It had six tens from six movies he’d told his dad he’d been to. ‘I can loan you, man.’

Sage looked down from his mountain as he shook Johnny’s hand. ‘You have no idea how much this is worth, man.’

*

On Saturdays and Sundays, Johnny got a lift to his usual friends houses, waved his mum’s car away, then sprinted to the alleyway and cut over towards Sage’s place.

Sage lived at 60 Lisbon Street in an average white house, but his bedroom was like a church, covered in posters of Bob and Lou and Jimi and Reverend Maynard. In Sage’s temple, Johnny didn’t have to waste time with Nerf guns and Playstation. Johnny learned about things that actually mattered to people who actually mattered. Sage pulled Johnny up onto his plateau and showed him how to play chess and skateboard and how to slash the knees of his jeans.

They had sleepovers and ate American pizza and watched Singles and Reality Bites and Dazed & Confused and High Fidelity. The pizzas had to have mozzarella cheese and anchovies. Sage drank only Pepsi and called ad breaks commercials. He allowed Johnny to have one of the Twinkies he’d made his mum import. Johnny was allowed to see Sage’s guitar in its case. Its strings seemed stiff and likely to cut his fingers. Sage played a couple of songs that sounded vaguely like Smoke On The Water and Smells Like Teen Spirit and Johnny tapped his foot to the rhythm.

‘The fuck are you doing?’ Sage frowned. ‘Don’t tap like that. You’re supposed to mosh.’ Sage thrashed his head. Johnny was in awe of the long, black hair Sage had had the patience to grow. ‘See? Like that. Tapping’s gay.’

‘You were saying that guy from R.E.M.’s gay. I thought gay was good?’

‘I didn’t mean gay like that, I just mean, like, tapping just is gay, man. Unless it’s ironic.’

‘What’s ironic?’

Sage always hassled his mum when she didn’t know things, but when Johnny didn’t know things, he rested his hands on his belly and patiently explained them. Sage didn’t have any dad helping him out with knowledge, so Sage was top of the knowledge-pyramid in his household, up there with god. ‘Ironic’s when you do something, or say something, but you don’t mean it.’ He talked about an Alanis Morrissette song called Ironic but which didn’t have many examples of irony in it, and how that meant the song itself was ironic and deeply complex. He talked about Alanis’ guest vocals on some album by Tricky, who was from a band called Massive Attack, who frequently collaborated with Portishead, who were admired by Nirvana, who had a singer called Kurt who considered the Melvins and the Pixies the greatest artists ever.

‘Everything comes full-circle to Nirvana, man,’ Sage said, and chuckled. ‘I mean, the musical legend who overdoses on heroin mid-20s? That’s the archetype, man. They’re the centre of everything that matters. That’s me in the future, man.’

‘What does archetype mean, man? And what’s Nirvana mean?’

Sage scratched beneath his glasses, took a deep breath. ‘Let’s just say, my understanding is heroin leads a person to enlightenment. I mean, that’s gotta be why Kurt named the band Nirvana, it has to be. I have this theory, you know? I’m gonna write about it for Rolling Stone. Maybe.’ He pushed his glasses back where they were. They watched Sid & Nancy, and Sage explained the dynamic of famous rock couples. Johnny asked if Courtney really killed Kurt.

Sage snorted. ‘Does a bear shit in the woods?’ He explained anyway, talking until the strip of yellow light at the bottom of his mum’s bedroom door went black. She was asleep. The boys were free.

When Letterman finished, they lay on the lounge floor in their sleeping bags. No one said anything except the crickets chirping. Sage’s hand spidered across the floor and crept into Johnny’s sleeping bag. Johnny’s diddle was alert and ready. Sage squeezed and moved his grip up and down for a few minutes before Johnny’s knees spasmed and he lost control and gasped. Johnny lay there panting, then moved close and tried to kiss Sage. ‘Don’t be gay,’ Sage said, and rolled away.

 

*

Johnny placed in the top ten of the cross country run and the SwimLympics. He got second in the long jump. He could kick a ball and catch even better. They did basic boxing practice one time in the gym, and Johnny could hit the pads and coordinate hooks and jabs, but he’d seen his first ever fight – Carson striding into the handicap toilet to smash this retarded Ethiopian kid who’d called Carson a Fag and kicking the boy in the face – and Johnny knew that out in the deep waters of the world, people fought by stomping and stabbing and using hard weapons and, like Carson, didn’t go easy on you if you were weak or apologetic. If ever someone tried to fight Johnny, he’d go through with it, and maybe win, but he didn’t like thinking someone might challenge Sage to a fight some time. That would be like fighting a priest. Carson had stepped into Johnny’s peripheral vision this year, same as Sage. Carson smelled of dangerous and exciting things, brutal innovation, innovative swear words. Carson drove a convertible and smoked cigarettes and something called “pot” and etched 187 on a teacher’s car with a nail. Carson listened to Two Pack, an artist Sage had never once talked about. Sage hardly talked about black people at all.

Kids still invited Johnny to pool parties, where there would be balloons and shredded wrapping paper and fizzy drink and Johnny said he was sick every time. He was through with playing in shallow water. He moved out of those kids classes and got himself in Sage’s class.

The only class Sage and Johnny didn’t share was Art. Johnny was disappointed to learn through reports from other kids that Sage didn’t sit by himself in Art, and instead sat in the International Zone with his coloured pencils, designing album covers for The Murmur Project. He’d speak Italian with these exchange students, Lina and Mónica and Carmela, girls so ten-out-of-ten that all the domestic girls hated them, and Sage and the Tens would talk about bands that this country was too unhip to play on the radio yet, like Interpol and Mr Bungle. Racing up behind his friend in the art room corridor, Johnny asked Sage why Sage never spoke Italian to him and Sage just rolled his eyes and asked the Tens to excuse him for a while. Sage looked over his shoulder before he spoke. ‘This country’s like total harsh realm, man. We need to catch up to Berlin. Berlin reached nirvana a long time ago, man. We’re 20 years behind Berlin.’

Johnny’s family paid for him to go on a sports camp, and Sage was off sick for a few days, and Johnny and Sage had their first week apart. Then, Sage did something remarkable in the Creative Corner segment of assembly, which was when the thousand-odd kids packed into the hall normally called out things that would hopefully dissuade the creative kid from ever daring to perform again. Mostly kids coughed and yelled ‘Fag’ so they wouldn’t get in trouble.

Creative Corner was Usually some girl playing the bagpipes or a tribal dance set to a hip hop beat, but when the curtains parted, Sage was sitting on a teacher’s chair with his guitar on his lap. The guitar was plugged into an amplifier. Johnny’s heart stopped. Sage was no longer straddling mainstream coolness and alternative coolness.

He’d chosen.

Someone switched the projector on. It painted the wall behind him with a giant Project Murmur logo, which looked pretty much like Pink Floyd’s The Wall. Beside him was a black box, almost as tall as him. Sage stood up, shunted the microphone towards him, and stroked his long black hair until it concealed his face. He strummed the high strings of his guitar and a PLING erupted from the speakers at the rear of the hall. All of a sudden, Johnny needed to piss badly.

With every note Sage played, Project Murmur became more real, and no one yelled out any disses. KRN, BRM-BLIM-BL, KRN, BRM-BLIM-BL, KRN, BRM-BLIM-whumwhumwhum.

Then: Sage had a voice. ‘I’m so happy / cause today I found my friends / they’re in my head.’ The song gripped people with its harsh, stark sarcasm, its simple, repeating melody, but of all, because when it hit the chorus, Sage stood up and screamed, ‘YEAH YEAH! YEAAAAAAAH! YEAAAAAH YEAH YEAH YEAH!’ and his bulk thundered inside his flannel shirt.

The school had never seen anything like it. For a week, Sage was getting stroked and hi-fived and getting his hair brushed on the bleachers by homegirls. Sage was lending people his acid rock CDs, then sliding Limp Bizkit and KoЯn into the boombox on the basketball bleachers and getting told off. Johnny even spotted Carson inviting Sage into the front seat of his convertible, and Sage giving his mum the finger as she hovered in the driver seat of her car, honking and looking mad. People started listening to The Hives, The Strokes, The Killers, whatever bands had The in their title. People started listening to Kanye and Jay-Z because Sage told people ‘Them two niggas is gonna blow up,’ and everyone started saying Nigga instead of Man, and two weeks passed with Sage and his guitar case getting rides home with Carson, then three.

When school let out on the last mufti day of the year, Johnny stood on the edge of the parking lot in his ripped jeans and Kurt shirt and watched Carson and Sage practising their special handshake as they went to drive away.

‘Don’t let him sleep over at your place,’ Johnny said casually as they passed, shifting his schoolbag from shoulder to shoulder so it would cover Kurt up.

Carson stopped. Sage pretended he was interested in a bush.

‘You telling me what to do, son?’ Carson was almost 16 and always seemed tired. He popped No-Doz and sucked energy drinks and mentioned his dad and his dad’s plane a lot.

‘This guy here, he tried to touch my cock, one time, when we were sleeping over.’ Johnny started walking across the carpark. He couldn’t wait to burn his Kurt shirt when he got home. ‘Just thought I’d give you a heads-up.’

Sage said he had to grab some books from the library and shambled away.

Carson squinted as if Johnny was speaking Russian. They looked at the spot where Sage had been.

 

*

Johnny got a ride home in Carson’s convertible every day for the next month of that year and every month of the next year. Their summer uniforms felt breezy and light and life smelled like sunshine and lawnmowers. Johnny made his voice go deeper. A month later he was kissing girls, getting skin from Carson, talking without squeaking. He went from second base to third base and beyond with Carson’s sister, sometimes, and sometimes Dipika, who was Carson’s girlfriend, mostly, though Carson hated bitches so much he said he could give them away if he wanted. Bros before hoes, Carson said.

 

Carson had had his dad tattoo Thug Life across his ribs. When Carson explained it was a Two Pack thang, the world finally made sense. Johnny had discovered the real reality. Carson said only grumpy, scathing words, wore gold, shaved his scalp, cultivated a moustache, always put his cold drinks in a brown paper bag and loved his mama. That was his most interesting feature. He didn’t have a mum, she was in prison, but he always said respectful things about his mama, and put on Tupac’s Dear Mama song in the car most days. The girls liked it. Johnny liked, it sort-of. It was weird, playing one song over and over. He couldn’t believe he’d ever admired Sage for dissing his mum, or let Sage make him think it wasn’t okay to play one song over and over.

Sage was seldom seen, now. They never drove past him on the street. Sage simply lumbered up to his mum’s car at ten past three and got inside silently. The car would sag and kids would throw acorns at it and Carson would yell ‘FAAAAAAGGOT’ and ‘GAAAAAYSIAN’ in front of a hundred kids.

During school time, Sage retreated to the art block. He was never seen in the company of males again. When someone threw a paper aeroplane with boogers on it at Sage’s hair, he would leave Economics or Maths and head over to the art block, into the art room, behind a curtain, beyond a heavy door, behind another curtain and into the dark room. He’d come out hours later, reeking of pot smoke. The photographs he hoped to turn into album covers were only photos of leaves and tree bark, since no one would allow the Gaysian to photograph them, because the photos would end up on his gay porn website, everyone said, and it was true that Sage knew how to build websites. Some of his writings had been reprinted in Spin and NME, the principal had told assembly. No one had clapped.

Sage’s shoulders got heavier and he grew a beard. The international girls were the only ones who still talked to him. He made a sculpture, called it Attaining Nirvana. He’d smashed his guitar and glued fragments onto an amplifier and wrapped it with guitar strings.

*

After the gym they got drive-thru McDonalds then drove to Carson’s dad’s expensive-looking house in the hills. Carson’s dad had a garage full of boats and motorcycles. He never closed the garage. Carson’s dad wanted people to fuck with his shit, Carson explain. The dad himself didn’t say much. He was hunched over a Harley Davidson. Johnny watched a conversation zig-zag around the garage, with Carson’s sister and Dipika asking Carson’s dad about the bikes. Johnny thought the dad might’ve fucked Dipika, and felt sick. It wasn’t just about missing out on owning her. Johnny was about to get his first tattoo. It was going to sting.

They waited for the tat and when they started to run out of conversation, Johnny updated Carson on Sage.

‘Who?’

‘The Gaysian, man, I mean bro,’ Johnny explained, sitting on a work bench. ‘I wasted two years on that guy.’

Carson silently read a text for 20 seconds, holding a Patience finger up, then looked up. ‘Why you so obsessed with that nigga?’

‘I just hate fags, that’s all,’ Johnny said, and put a smoke in his mouth.

‘Attaboy,’ Carson’s dad called out.

‘Shit, nigga, no one hates fags as much as this guy,’ Carson said.

‘Want a bet?’ Johnny said, pulling his tank top over his head. ‘Yo, sir? I want the word Faggots in the middle of a circle, with a red line going through it,’ Johnny said. ‘That can be my tattoo.’

‘Our boy don’t like no homo,’ Carson’s dad said, and patted the tattoo bench. ‘Pay up and we’ll get into it.’

Carson took a swig of the beer he’d taken from his dad’s fridge and swallowed it without wincing. ‘Yo, pops – do me up, too.’ Carson’s sister and her friend Dipika rolled their sleeves up. ‘Do us all up. Fagbusters, motherfucker! Fagbusters!’

In the brown light of the garage, Carson’s dad yanked the beer bottle out of Carson’s hand. ‘Don’t tell me what to do, ever.’ Then Carson’s dad went over to the wall and switched on his tattoo machine. It buzzed like a dishwasher. It hurt like a dagger. It hurt cause it was permanent. It had to be permanent. He couldn’t let himself get all soft and sensitive again.

*

Johnny and the others tiptoed along the edge of 18 then fell in, Carson first, then Dipika and Carson’s sister, then Johnny. The pair of Thugs and the girls they called their bitches had been doing a lot of grown-up things already for a year now – going to the casino, using credit cards, getting speeding fines. The only new barriers to cross were buying Lotto tickets and fireworks and joining the air force, which was what Carson was expected to do.

They were excited about their Fagbusters tattoos for a couple of weeks, initially. They went cruising for gay cunts to smash, but when they finally did corner a gay-seeming boy with dyed silver hair and three girls in the park, all they did was call the kid some names. Because they didn’t punch the kid, he seemed relieved when they left, which was frustrating. They took a video of the kid crying, anyway, and photos of everyone’s Fagbusters tattoos. They made good profile pics until they replaced them with graduation photos.

Johnny’s parents didn’t have to nag him too much to study for his final exams. Johnny managed to play soccer, ride with Carson, fuck Carson’s sister and memorise essay notes for what could be the last pieces of academic writing in his life. He scored goals, passed his exams and had sex in the changing rooms at K-Mart. He would have liked to fuck a different bitch but there were no other options in his quartet. Prom night was coming up, and the two boys and two girls didn’t have any options as to who they would take. Messing around with any non-Fagbusters would be a step down. Stepping down was something that Sage did in the hallway, ducking into the handicapped toilet to avoid Carson’s posse.

Johnny sat his final exam, Accounting, staring at the Italian Tens and trying to figure out a way to get with them, but the only way to make those girls like him would be to act like Sage, learning Latin or whatever, and writing expressive opinions about how much Sarah Maclachlan songs mean to the sensitive man. Fuck that.

The teachers shook Johnny’s hand before he walked out into the world, seeming to relish the handshake more than Johnny did. Johnny was Cool.

On prom night, Sage had two Italian dates. Sage got drunk, he walked past the Fagbusters’ table with his Tens on either side of him and muttered some joke about ‘The Johnny-Carson Show.’ Carson got up and hit the wall with a bottle of non-alcoholic wine. The bottle didn’t smash, so Carson picked it up waggled it in front of Sage’s face. Mónica knocked it out of Carson’s hands and screeched at him and make scary hand gestures until he sat down. Sage had already sprinted to a taxi and gone home. His mum told the Board of Trustees she was going to sue for sexual harassment and homophobic abuse, and Sage, for once, didn’t cuss her out or shout her down. Johnny saw him once, kneeling on the doormat in the school’s Reception and begging his mum not to go into the meeting with the principal.

*

Carson’s dad moved to Australia for some motorcycle thing and Carson moved with him instead of doing the air force cadetship, which Johnny thought was kind of weak, seeing as Carson was 20 now. Sure he was someone’s son, but you could be 60 years old and still be someone’s son if you thought about it. Carson wasn’t even a teenager anymore. Carson’s sister moved to Australia too, and with the group halved, Johnny finally had an excuse not to see Dipika. Her family expected him to marry her, and Johnny carried a knife, briefly, in case her brothers really pushed the subject. It wasn’t like those old pool party fags would have his back if he got rushed.

Johnny went to university to study commerce, in his home town, a 25 minute bike ride away. He’d spent eight years showing the world which bits of it he wouldn’t tolerate and now it felt safe and familiar like a bedroom. At university, most of the guys in the commerce clique had the same haircut as Johnny and the same easy ability to impress important people. At parties, they pumped heavy R&B through the speakers and Johnny’s quiet hopes that they would bust out some Nirvana flickered down and died out. He’d thought maybe he wouldn’t have to listen to that sort of music after Carson moved away. It was sort-of okay to have thirty brothers, but sort-of annoying too. When they sauna’d together after soccer practice, one of them asked him why he’d got the Fagbusters tattoo on his shoulder, and he realised every guy in the sauna was listening and they’d stopped congratulating him for that epic pass that got the goal. Johnny put his towel over the tattoo but they still wanted him to report.

‘I dunno,’ Johnny explained, eventually, standing up and tightening his towel.

‘It’s so not cool,’ one of the guys said. ‘Just wait til you try get laid and she sees that.’

‘I’ve been laid already.’

‘Hope you made the most of it, cause it’ll probly be your last time, bro.’ The boys laughed and high-fived.

Carson would’ve smashed these niggas. High school Johnny would’ve brought them onto his side.

‘It’s not even real,’ Johnny mumbled, facing away, and walked out.

*

The summer after his third year, he interned at Kickstarter. His job was to monetise financial pledges to make the world a better, more tolerant place. It was sort-of cool, he liked drinking with his new team but didn’t like it when things got political. Johnny had no opinions on all that Brexit and gun control and progressive Islam shit. Then a campaign came in to fundraise for the family of a gay kid who had committed suicide, and Johnny took his iPad and locked himself in a toilet stall and logged into Facebook to check if Sage was still alive. That gay suicide campaign inspired another campaign, then Kickstarter pledged a Feature Campaign to eradicate all homophobic bullying from schools permanently.

Johnny left the company on a sabbatical, enrolling enrolled in a postgraduate social work diploma. If he qualified to be a high school guidance counsellor, Johnny would be just six years older than the oldest students. He could fuck those girls and enjoy the fruits of being the most muscular, richest and most powerful out of all the cool people at the school he was posted at. He’d been out of his depth; going back to school would feel right. Chasing the counselling qualification sucked up his money, though, and the clinic said they could not laser off the tattoo. The first male nurse assigned to look at it snorted and said he had to go check something and left Johnny sitting on an examination table wearing only a shift. Finally they sent a female to look at him instead. The ink was too deep in Johnny’s skin, they said. Whoever had done this to Johnny was not a qualified tattooist, they said. The ink had been pushed in too deep, way under the fourth layer. It looked like a garage job, they said. Were you unconscious when they did this? What does it mean? Was this a hate crime, sir? Do you want us to call somebody?

After he’d paid the graduate school $7432 in fees, handed in six assignments and completed three stints as an Intern Counsellor, and sent in 120 applications for counselling-related roles for jobs as far away as Malaysia, Johnny demanded a meeting with the grad school’s Chancellor of Humanities. She wouldn’t meet with him until Johnny paid $300 an hour for four hours of a lawyer’s time. Finally the chancellor agreed to see him.

Shifting her pot plant to one side, the Chancellor turned her computer monitor so Johnny could see the reason he would never work as a counsellor. She was a woman with jowls, old-style earrings and short, spiky dyed hair. She seemed to dislike touching computers. The monitor showed a photograph of Johnny without a shirt on, standing on a table covered in beer bottles. The photo had been taken from his Facebook and posted on GayTimes.com. A blog had led to a Kickstarter campaign to ban the Commerce Society from campus; CommSoc had responded saying that Johnny had been kicked out and CommSoc clique in no way tolerated homophobia.

‘This is going to stick to you like a… .’ The chancellor searched for the right expression. ‘Listen, um… Let me think a second. The Libertarians, the free speech club? They might be able to help?’

‘Can’t I, like, sue that website or something? Can’t you help me get it taken down.’

‘It’s not my job to take sides, sorry.’

‘Can’t I apologise, though?’

‘It astonishes me, sometimes,’ the chancellor said, and looked out the window, and didn’t finish her sentence. Johnny stared at her short haircut. It was really short. Like, boy-short. ‘Anyway, thanks for coming in. Best of luck.’

The Sunday papers all published variations on the story and put on the front page a photograph of a smiling Johnny with his Kickstarter team. The story quoted his boss at Kickstarter, Johnny saw, but Johnny knew what the quote would probably say and put the paper down before the words got into his head.

Johnny didn’t come back to the office, or grad school. He stayed inside for a week, reading all the stories that mentioned him, and reading online news for hours a day, then read every piece of Sage’s writing he could find. Sage’s Sages was the edgiest music column in America or anywhere. They cited Sage’s words in news sites across Japan and Britain and Europe, and especially Italy, where Sage was sometimes interviewed on TV. He was the number one musical representative in his hemisphere. Mónica addressed him like an old friend. The subtitle gave his proper name, Edwin, but when she interviewed him, Mónica called him Sage. When it was the 20th anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s death she needed him.

‘Being unmolested, being left free to expressive without hassle was never an option afforded to Kurt,’ The Sage told MTV Europe, staring through the television into Johnny’s sticky eyes.

 

*

The only decent part about managing the Lisbon Street broadband accounts was the salary, which passed the teens and landed nicely at $20.50 an hour. His money was just over the national median, which brought him relief. For Jono, it was essential to be slightly more successful than the average benchmark, but not so successful that it made a person seem like an outsider.

Everyone at Vodafone except Jono was brown. It was their job to go house-to-house when there was a fault and tell the type of scumbags who were home in the middle of the day when the outage would be fixed. Seldom did hot desperate housewives come to the door, and Jono wouldn’t have plunged into sex with them anyway, if they weren’t 17 and weren’t in high school. 17 year old pussy was the only pussy worth fucking. He hadn’t had sex in almost a year, cause people recognised him from the thing in the news, but still.

Jono walked along Lisbon Street with his iPad and his clipboard and his pocketful of business cards feeling increasingly anxious. Partly it was calling himself Jono, which was a necessary lie so people couldn’t find shit about him on the internet. Partly it was the sun baking his brain, partly it was looking like a Jehovah’s Witness, and partly Jono was worried about what would happen at Number 60, with its drawn curtains and flaky paint and lawn with waist-high grass. It had been hard, creating the Jono persona, deleting most of the references on his CV, squirming out from his old identity.

Jono knocked, muttering a rehearsal of his spiel. Hi, I’m here representing Vodafone. We understand recent lines work has interrupted the continuous flow of broadband which you value, and as such, I’m here to personally –

The man with the sleepy dugong eyes and the black beard and the Eddie Vedder shirt opened the door, looked down from the top step and smiled.

Sage’s glasses were the same ones Carson had thrown mud at seven years earlier, and he still had the height, and a long goatee – but Sage was skinny.  His gums and teeth protruded a little, his hair looked brittle and his jaw stuck out, with no fleshy cheeks to bury it under.

Jono knocked his sunglasses down over his eyes, but it was too late.

‘Oh, hey man, long time,’ said Sage, taking a tired, deep breath and coughing up mucous, which he spat politely away from Jono.  ‘What can I do for ya?’

Jono nearly said, ‘I came to check and see if you still hate me.’ Instead he said, ‘Sir, I’m here representing Vodafone. We understand recent lines work may have interrupt– ‘

‘Oh, that’s no bother, man,’ Sage said, and chortled. Sage had always talked about the 27 club, how most of those people were hooked on smack and died from drugs at that age. That’s you, man, thought Johnny.

‘Hey, you’re just in time, I wanna show you something.’

‘Sir, recent lines work has interrupted the continuous flow of –

‘Dude! Chill!’ Sage patted his shoulder. His hand had no heft to it anymore. His 13 year old self could’ve kicked his 27 self’s ass. Jono could see records on the floor. Sage had carpeted his house with records. There was a chandelier of CDs, record covers stapled to the wall, and huge posters of Jimi Hendrix. ‘Come in. Mum died, like, ages ago.’

‘Bro – I mean, sir? – I mean, Sage, man: I’m like epic-sorry.’

‘What, sorry about mum? That bitch is the last shit anyone should be sorry for.’ He extended his arms and fingers, like skeletal winter branches sticking stiffly out of the side of a tree. ‘Got the estate all to myself. Here, have a seat.’ The thing-to-sit-on in front of Sage’s computer wasn’t a chair. It was a plywood crate, which Sage has presumably had records delivered in. ‘I wanted to email you this, but your address kept bouncing for some reason, plus I couldn’t find you on Facebook.’

‘I don’t go by Johnny anymore.’ Stench wafted up from Sage’s shoulders and Jono saw some tiny scabs on the back of Sage’s hand. Sage noticed Jono staring and buried his hand in his crotch.

‘Here. On Amazon. Check this out. Type in “six inch LP Clean Edit Murmur R.E.M.. Just do it.’

‘Look, I’ve just gotta apologise for the interruption to your broadband and then I’d best be– ’

‘Internet’s fine, pssht. Vodafone never come through, gotta expect the worst from those guys. I got a new super-router to jump the signal. See? See how much that fuckin’ record’s going for these days, Johnny?’

‘Clearly your internet’s not fine, because this isn’t displaying right. Lookie – says a hundred grand. I think it’s got too many… ’

‘Too many zeroes?’

Jono looked into Sage’s eyes, searching for some kind of set-up. He found excitement and lust.

Sage switched off his monitor and folded his arms. Behind him, Jono could see a dinner plate with bloody clods of cotton wool, three needles, two lighters and a blackened tea spoon. He supposed Sage’s thinking was muddled.

‘This is where you do all your blogs and reviews and stuff?’

‘This is where the magic happens. Hey – you heard of The Money? They’ve asked me to design their album cover.’

The Money? I mean, of course. Hell yeah. Uh… congratulations. Didn’t they score a Grammy?’

Sage handed over a prototype album cover with a grainy, retro-looking photo of Johnny showing off his tattoo.

‘Jeesus… you want my permission to, what, this is gonna be The Money’s album cover? This picture? Of the tat?’

‘It’s ironic, right?’ Sage said. “You’ll be famous in artistic circles as the man with the ironic tattoo. Irony’s big these days, man. Irony’s hip. You could be a trendsetter. There’s the definition of irony for ya. I’ll tell people you were way ahead of the curve. Right?’

Jono swallowed. ‘Right.’

Sage swivelled around in his chair, fetched the plate of needles and swivelled back.

‘Help a brother out. Tie me off if you can.’

‘Eh?’

‘Tie my arm off.’

‘I don’t understand this.’

‘In which case, I shall explain. I believe it was the late, great Scott Weiland who said the opioid family brings a sense of enlightment, a golden glow from your fingers all the way to your stomach. “Like a drop of water rejoining the ocean,” he once told an Italian journalist friend of mine. I have to say: I concur.’ Sage grabbed a black t-shirt and tossed it in Jono’s lap. The shirt showed a yellow smiley face turned wobbly on drugs, its eyes dead crosses. ‘Make yourself useful and tie me off, eh?’

‘Sage, what the FUCK, man! Why are you doing this, man?’

‘Just relieving an old injury,’ Sage said, smiling so broadly Jono could see his yellow teeth. He focused his pink eyes on his old friend. ‘Wrap it around the bicep there. That’s it. Stick ‘er in aaaaaand reeee-lease. Seriously, I’m so happy you’re here.’

 

 

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