Happy Thanksgiving, by Jeffrey R. Schrecongost

ORIGINAL STUPID IDEA JUNK DRAWER PROMPT:
Anything that has the words “Fuckin A, Nikki!” in the denouement.
— Matt Perez

 

“He’s the wolf screaming lonely in the night.
He’s the blood stain on the stage.”

-- Motley Crue, “Shout at the Devil”

Thanksgiving night, 1997.


     “Happy Thanksgiving,” Carl said.
     “Speak for yourself, scumbag,” a burly, bearded man in the front row replied.
     Carl winced, and the band began to play. Their typical set list was comprised of original, upbeat, power pop tunes and extended, often psychedelic, improvisational jams extolling the virtues of peace, love, tolerance, and non-narcotic drug abuse. Betty demanded rage, but Carl wanted to maintain the band’s artistic vision. He wasn’t going to fold without a fight:


1. “Let Me Be Your Joy Pill”
The band’s opening tune, “Pill” combined funk beats and melodic bass grooves with racy lyrics and swirling guitar riffs. The line, “Put me in your mouth and let me dissolve,” was a tidy summary of the band’s philosophy of sexual intimacy.


2. “Smile For No Reason”
This unapologetically optimistic song spoke to the emotional benefits of smiling at all times. An eight minute jazz-rock workout, its zenith was the line, “At your boss’ bad breath or in the face of death, smile for no reason.”


3. “The Upside of Home Invasion”
An effort to encourage understanding and sympathy for those less fortunate, “Invasion” tackled economic injustice from a Marxist perspective. It lurched forward with a good time, reggae feel. Most memorable line: “You might get tied up, you might get beaten, but how long has it been since your attacker has eaten?”


* * *


     Carl Jung and the Restless was a four-piece band, with twenty-six-year-old Carl Young on tambourine and lead vocals. Tall, thin, with long, curly, black hair and a handlebar moustache, he had a fluid, breathy singing voice and an effeminate manner on stage that would catch and hold the lustful attention of every woman in the audience. When performing, he donned beaded necklaces, tiny, unbuttoned women’s blouses, skin-tight blue jeans, and cowboy boots. For added effect Carl would, minutes before each gig, strategically position in his jeans a cucumber and two small, red potatoes. This ploy could backfire at times, for if his jeans were not tight enough, one or both of his potatoes would shift to anatomically impossible locations, infuriating the women in the audience (“How could you?” they’d scream).
     Jon “Machine Gun” Dunn, twenty-four, played drums. His stocky frame and imposing, red afro mirrored his powerful, percussive style. Skilled in jazz and Latin rhythms, he could glide from soft and subtle to freight train intensity. Jon didn’t place much importance on his stage look. He pounded the skins and cymbals of his fifteen piece set in nothing but baggy, white, Fruit of the Loom briefs.
     Harry “Rock the Room” Bloome, thirty, was the bass player. Perhaps the grooviest man in Clarkton, Harry looked like Ricardo Montalbon. He was acutely aware of the resemblance and wore a white suit and shirt with a black tie and black, patent leather shoes on stage. He plucked his bass with an authority and funky ferocity that made the other Clarkton-area bass players sound like struggling beginners.
     Finally, there was “Daring” Darren Corvalis, twenty-eight, on guitar. A child prodigy, Darren could play any style, any song, flawlessly. His solos, picked with fierce, mathematical precision, pulled audiences into aural fantasy lands. In contrast to Harry, he was completely bald and sported a black suit and shirt with a white tie and white, patent leather shoes, fueling rumors he’d sold his soul to Satan in return for guitar prowess. Darren did not deny this rumor.
     Carl Jung and the Restless had never played Betty’s Lounge, or any place like it, before. Gigging professionally together for only just over a year, they stuck to the college bar circuit, peaceful, outdoor music festivals, and the occasional wedding reception. But when Wink Pike and the Bullshitters cancelled at the last minute (Wink claimed he’d damaged his left testicle in a “hunting accident”), Betty’s niece, Lana, a Carl Jung and the Restless groupie, suggested Betty book the band.


* * *

     Despite a thirty-degrees-below-zero wind chill factor, Betty’s Lounge was filled to capacity. Not unusual, for the Thanksgiving night show at Betty’s had been a Clarkton tradition for fifteen years. 
     The place was small, with a bar on the left stretching from the entrance to the restrooms in the back. Fourteen battered, aluminum tables with four rickety chairs at each table filled the space in front of the half-circle stage. 
     Framed photographs of past PBA bowling champions and outlaw artists like Johnny Cash, Hunter S. Thompson, and Ken Kesey covered much of the pink and black-striped walls. Large glass jars of hard-boiled eggs drowning in rotgut whiskey and fist-sized sausages cemented in a gelatinous goo were lined up along the scratched, wooden bar top. Soupy clouds of cigarette smoke hung just below the ceiling, nudged back and forth by the exhalations of boozy-breathed patrons.
     Everyone was a regular, and they were an angry lot – a bat shit anger usually misplaced and stemming from a sharp hatred of their physically demanding, low-paying, and uninspiring jobs at the Grimes Hot Dogs plant across the highway. They resented those with white-collar careers, much money, and few problems, reclining joy-stoned before big, fancy fireplaces with their joy-stoned spouses and joy-stoned children.
     Betty’s clientele had little money, many problems, and nothing much to be thankful for, and, for them, Thanksgiving was almost as foul as Christmas.
     Several times a night patrons would step outside Betty’s, round the corner, light a cigarette, lean back against the gray, cinder block wall, and glower at the lights above the plant. Their sloshy, clamorous voices competing with the screaming highway, they cursed the pork-grinding behemoth until it got too cold to light up another smoke.
     Betty’s Lounge was an outlet for their collective rage, and they preferred a style of live music that reflected this rage. Cover bands at Betty’s were encouraged to play bitter, gutbucket blues numbers and provocative, heavy rock songs like Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Gimme Back My Bullets,” AC/DC’s “Highway To Hell,” The Rolling Stones’ “Bitch,” and The Kinks’ “Destroyer.” And anything by Motley Crue would drive the unstable crowd into a blissful, street fighting frenzy.
     Betty, a tall cornstalk in her late-fifties with thinning, jet-black hair, no eyelashes, and no eyebrows, served only four, rage-fueling drinks: whiskey and Coke, whiskey on the rocks, whiskey straight up, and, for those with pesky stomach problems, whiskey and whole milk. Because she didn’t have eyelashes or eyebrows, she was as angry as her customers, often spewing a hell-broth of profane insults and serious threats from her perch behind the bar.
     After the band’s audition on Thanksgiving eve, Betty shook her head in disgust and said, “You pansies suck ass-cheese, but it’s too late to book anyone else. There’s no cover charge on Thanksgiving, so I’ll pay you a percentage of the bar revenue. Remember, these people are pissed off, and they’ll want to get more pissed off. The more pissed off they get, the more whiskey they drink. The more whiskey they drink, the more money you’ll make. Choose your fucking songs wisely, and be here at five tomorrow night to set up. Show starts at nine.”
     “But we don’t have any anger songs,” Carl said. “I mean, we all used to be in rage-metal bands before we formed Carl Jung and the Restless, but we quit those bands because we wanted a sound more Brian Wilson, less Phil Spector.” 
     “That’s your problem, fruitcake,” Betty said as she hurried back to her office.
     Carl stuck out his tongue and menacingly shook his tambourine in her direction.
     “Okay, guys,” he said, “Just in case we need them, everybody pick a few tunes from the rage-metal days, and we’ll run through them tonight.”


* * *
 

     When the band finished their third tune, they were met with silence. They soldiered on:


4. “Be Patient At The Post Office”
An elegant, slow-moving tune pleading for empathy when in line at the Post Office. A riveting tambourine solo, followed by the line, “They work so hard, north, south, and coastal. Don’t make ’em mad, don’t make ’em go postal,” gave this song an unexpected boost.


5. “Beloved Sunshine, Part One”
Perhaps the band’s most poignant song, “Sunshine” faded in with a classical guitar clinic, then exploded with breathtaking, four-part, lyric-less, a cappella harmony. The vocal high-wire act then dissolved into more classical guitar, followed by more a cappella harmony. The band repeated this pattern eleven times, with the climax being the “Oooooooooaaaaaaaaaoooooooooaaaaaaaaa” section of the bridge.


* * *


      “It’s not working,” Harry whispered, leaning over toward Carl. “Nobody’s drinking anything. We’re not gonna get paid, man.”
     “We’ve gotta finish the set,” Carl said. “We believe in our music. It’s about the love, man.”
     Harry shrugged, Carl snapped his fingers, and the band plunged into the last half of the first set:


6. “I Had A Dirty Dream About You Last Night”
A steamy number addressing the psychology of erotic, nocturnal fantasy, it began with a primal, Native American, ceremonial-style drum sequence, then drifted into a nearly plagiarized, “The Way We Were”-like opus. Best line: “I tried to make love in ways never tried. Some requests were granted, some requests denied.”


7. “Help Me Make It Across The Damned Bridge”
An unusual track delving into bridge-crossing anxiety. The band started off with a manic bass and drum flurry, followed by an in-and-out, hard-driving rock groove that mirrored the I’m-about-to-pass-out panic all four band members suffered when crossing bridges. The setting? The bridge to Arlington National Cemetery. The line, “Airplanes overhead, Potomac below, never should’ve left the Lincoln Memorial, you know?” nicely summed up The Fear.


8. “Beloved Sunshine, Part Two”
See song five.


9. “Good Lookin’ Woman In A Baseball Cap”
This tune explored Young’s affinity for attractive women in baseball caps. A simple, straightforward, country-rock song, “Cap” combined Spanish guitar with subtle percussion and understated vocals. Best line: “When you wear your baseball cap, I feel a tingle in my lap.”


10. “You Wanna Break Up, But I Don’t”
The last song of the band’s set - and their masterpiece - “Don’t” was a fourteen minute meditation on how breaking up is difficult if one person doesn’t want to break up and the other person does. The band really came together on this ballad, with the drums, bass, guitar, and vocals working together in unison to paint a musical picture of despair and confusion. Last line of the song: “I admit I’ve slept around and stole some money from your purse. But, babe, don’t let me down. After all, it could be worse.”


* * *


     Again, silence. Not even the tinkling of ice in glasses.
     “Thank you,” Carl said. “We’re gonna take a short break. We’ll be back in about twenty minutes.” 
     “Fuckin’ A, Nikki!” said a woman in the back standing on a table.
     “Who’s Nikki?” Darren said.
     Carl shrugged, and the band walked off the stage, past the restrooms, and out the back door into the icy air. Betty leapt over the bar and followed at their heels.
     “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” she said. “I haven’t sold shit all night but whiskey and Coke with no whiskey. And glasses of ice! You’re putting people to sleep. This peace, love, and understanding crap ain’t gonna pay the bills, you twerps.”
     The band members looked down at their feet, then Jon said, “We’ve got a set of songs that might piss people off. From our rage-metal days. We sort of reinterpreted them last night. Gave them a Carl Jung and the Restless edge. We think they’re sufficiently vile.”
     “Now that’s the spirit,” Betty said, then she stormed back into the lounge, slamming the door behind her.
     Carl puckered his lips and shook his tambourine at the door.
     “Sorry guys,” he said. “I hate to compromise our ideals.”
     “We need the bread, man,” Darren said. “I need a new black suit. No one who’s sold his soul to Satan walks around with missing cuff buttons.”
     “I heard that,” Harry said. “I could use some new ties. I mean, Mr. Rourke probably had, like, fifty of ’em.”
     “And I need some new underwear,” Jon said.
     “Okay, okay,” Carl said. “Let’s do it.”


* * *


     Carl stepped up to his microphone and gazed through the smoke at the not-all-that-pissed-off audience. 
     “We hope you like these songs. We want you to be as angry as possible.”
     “Fuckin’ A, Nikki!” the burly man in front said.
     “You know, he’s right?” Carl said. “Fuckin’ A, Nikki!” then snapped his fingers four times, and the band began their “Hate and Rage” set:

 

1. “I Never Really Liked You”
In stark contrast to “Let Me Be Your Joy Pill,” this bitter little opening number explored the moment when one reveals to another that, for all these years, any hint of affection was nothing more than cold, calculated manipulation. An aggressive rocker, the bass and drums provided the thunder, while the guitar lines wept in betrayal. Best line: “You thought it was all Christmas mornings and motherhumpin’ honey, but, you beast, you swine, I was only after your money.”


2. “Bliss Sucks”
An ironic piece, with a delicate, bucolic acoustic guitar melody floating behind lyrics like, “We hold hands, laugh, and very gently kiss, but to tell you the truth, I hate your bliss.”
3. “Your Butt Looks Fat In That Dress”


A commentary on the perplexing, damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t, “Does my butt look fat in this dress?” phenomenon, this tune was a funk-fest. Heavy slap bass and wah-wah guitar licks joined lines like, “I’ve been lying for years, but I’ll tell you tonight, it’s your butt in that dress that makes it look tight.”


* * *


     The band finished their third song. 
     Silence. 
     Carl looked at Harry. Harry shrugged. Jon twirled his drum stick. Darren fiddled with his amplifier. 
     Then the burly man said, “That shit pisses me off. Yeah!”
     There was a mad rush to the bar. Loud applause. A fight broke out near the restrooms. Betty looked at the band and grinned, giving them a thumbs-up.
     The band ventured into the middle of the set list:

4. “Kill The Whales And The Dolphins, Too”
A call to hunt and kill defenseless sea creatures, this ugly tune included guitar licks that mimicked whale and dolphin calls. Memorable line: “Let’s eat her blubber, if she complains, just club her.”


5. “Smelling Like Hot Dogs”
A shot at the heart of the crowd’s anger, “Dogs” reminded the audience of their miserable work environment at the plant. Punctuated by a brief, wicked drum solo, the tune exponentially upped the tension in the lounge. Best line: “The odor of pork seems always to linger. Is that a hot dog or my co-worker’s finger?”


6. “Pollute The World”
Here, the band again sang a cappella, four-part harmony. Borrowing the melody of “We Are The World,” the soaring vocal blend peaked with the line, “Pollute the world, pollute the future, together we can make life hell for humanity.”


* * *

     Pandemonium. Shouting. Huge applause. Five deep at the bar. More fights. Chairs flying. Tables tipped over. The band went into their last two songs:


7. “Hold A Grudge”
“Grudge” criticized the concept of forgiveness as an exercise in futility. Imploring the crowd to stay angry, the aggressive rocker pulsated with a repetitive, nasty-sounding rhythm. Of particular interest was the line, “Turning the other cheek means you’re a gutless wimp. On revenge don’t skimp.”


8. “Punch Your Buddy”
The band concluded the show with this warhorse rocker. A nine minute, in-your-face jam celebrating assault and battery, the tune began and ended with primal scream vocals. No musical accompaniment. Just vocal chord-shredding screams.


* * *


     The crowd was uncontrollable. Never in Betty’s Lounge had so much anger been felt so deeply by so many.  
     The burly man jumped on stage, took a swing at Carl, missed badly, and said, “I just wanted to thank you, man. I haven’t been this angry in a long, long time.”
     “Thanks, buddy,” Carl said. “We did our best.”
     An hour later, patrons were still demanding whiskey, still fighting, still destroying property. From behind the bar Betty grabbed a battery-powered bullhorn and warned the rabid crowd she’d track them down one by one and ruin their lives if they didn’t leave at once. No one doubted her, and they exited the lounge long-faced but in an orderly fashion. She locked the doors and jogged over to the stage as the band was packing up their gear.
     “You girls made me proud tonight. You really showed me something. I’d kiss you if I weren’t so pissed off,” she said. “I thought I was gonna run out of whiskey.”
     “Thanks,” the band said simultaneously.
     “Here,” she said, handing Carl a manila envelope. “There’s three grand in there.”
     The bandmates looked at each other, eyes wide.
     Betty stepped backward toward the bar.
     “You come up with more songs like the ones you did in your second set,” she said, “and I’ll book you for Christmas Eve. Talk about a pissed off crowd. Fuckin’ A, Nikki!”
     Harry, Jon, and Darren looked at Carl.
     “Why not,” Carl said, shaking his tambourine. “To hell with peace and love. Rage is where it’s at. Rage never left. Plus, I could use a few new blouses.”


* * *


     Carl Jung and the Restless changed their name to Bitter Scowle and the Despicables and played the Christmas Eve gig at Betty’s Lounge. The show was a tremendous success - fourteen patrons were injured and the men’s room toilet was blown to pieces by a small pipe bomb concealed under the rim. Every ounce of the bar’s whiskey was consumed. The band made eight thousand dollars, by far their biggest payday to date. 
     Betty booked the band every weekend for the next three years. Bitter Scowle and the Despicables were the most in-demand group in Clarkton. Then came offers for out-of-town gigs. Even a few in the big city. After a gig at a violent barn dance in Doddsville a greasy talent scout from Dillydally Records offered the band a recording contract, and they accepted, signing the papers on the hood of a beat-up DeLorean.
     The band’s first album with Dillydally, Hate Thy Neighbor, peaked at number ninety-nine on the Billboard Top 100 list, then tumbled off the charts. Dillydally, disgusted with the band’s embarrassing sales figures, soon dropped Bitter Scowle and the Despicables from the label, leaving the band with a $100,000 debt to the record company. Album sales covered neither the promotion nor the outrageous tour expenses ($15,000 for whiskey, $10,000 for room service, $18,000 for blouses, ties, black suits, Fruit of the Loom underwear, drugs, etc.).
     The song was over. The circus left town. The band broke up.
     What are they doing now?


Jon “Machine Gun” Dunn sold his drum set and is now an underwear model for JC Penney. He lives in Malibu, California, with his wife, soap opera star Eileen Marsh.


Harry “Rock the Room” Bloome plays bass guitar for The Chandeliers, Carnival Cruise Lines’ Ocean Princess house band. His home the sea, he forever drifts on a melancholy quest for a thing he cannot name.


“Daring” Darren Corvalis is the lead guitarist for punk-rock-turned-New-Age-band, The Dirty Ashtrays. He lives on an imposing estate near Paris with his wife, French actress Claudette Mouliere. Last year he was voted Guitarist of the Decade in a Rolling Stone poll.


Carl Young, now a supervisor-in-training at Grimes Hot Dogs, married Betty in August, 2003. The pissed off couple live happily in an apartment atop Betty’s Lounge. Carl gave up singing because, well, Fuckin’ A, Nikki!   


Jeffrey R. Schrecongost received his M.F.A. from Converse College and currently teaches English at Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana and Spartanburg Community College. His work has appeared in South85 Journal, Blood Lotus, BlazeVOX, and Gadfly. He lives in Muncie, IN, with his loyal Golden Retriever, Molly.