After last call at The Friendly Beast, Celena Lyon picked up the glasses and swept away the straggler barflies while her boss stayed in the back room with his fingers in his ears so as not to hear himself sing. It was a gimmick bar, one meant to capitalize on a long dead fame. In another time, in another part of America, The Friendly Beast wasn’t a bar at all, but a band, fronted by her boss, Riley Holcomb. Riley bristled at the label “country,” but country claimed him, and for the course of one full moon to the next, the country music machine made him a semi-star. While the band didn’t last, The Friendly Beast translated perfectly to a country-themed bar, even if customers sometimes had to squint to find any theme at all. It fit snugly in the space all music rests when it’s lived in too long—the junction where a song about depression could transform into depression. At the end of the night, someone would inevitably load up the jukebox with his songs, and that set Riley in a rage.
“How did I create a bar for old men?” Riley said, bursting out of the back room when the music stopped. “‘Titans of a new sound.’ Spin said we were ‘titans of a new sound in country music.’ Now I serve these arthritic fossils, fingers as stiff as a fourteen year-old’s dick, lifespans as short and disappointing as a fourteen year-old’s dick.” He pinched the bridge of his nose. “And I don’t want to alarm you, but I think I might be bad at metaphors.”
“How drunk are you?” Celena asked. “You’re eyes look as red and swollen with blood as—well, I can’t think of it right now.”
Riley leaned against a counter and opened a Cherry Pepsi. Celena thought about how every detail about Riley felt either too old or too young for his age. He put Bryllcream on his shoes, and his breath smelled like watermelon gum. Tonight, he looked older, which he attributed to lack of sleep. His son had started a fight at breakfast because he was unhappy with his birthday. “He was born June 11th, 2002,” he said. “Exactly nine months after 9/11. Says if we humped while the towers were burning, it means we’re unfeeling.”
“Tell him you were doing research for that country song.” Celena rubbed sanitizer into her hands. “You know, ‘I’ll stick my son in your vag, it’s the American way.’”
“He don’t even like country,” Riley said. “I told him pregnancies don’t last exactly nine months.”
“Well?” she said. “Did you screw his mom on 9/11?”
“Who can remember?” Riley said.
“You approach that day differently than the rest of us.”
This was in Baltimore, neither of their homes. Celena came from West Virginia, and while she never saw Riley on stage in person, skinny as a shadow, singing bitter love songs and sappy vendettas, she remembered listening to his music as a girl, staring at the mountains lining her town, mouthing his lyrics as a way of understanding the dark. In that way, Riley, acted like her busted compass, unreliable but pointing her toward home.
The same song that made The Friendly Beast famous wound up unraveling it. Riley’s single “Seek God In Volume” shot up the country charts. It gained a second life almost immediately when a folk trio from Bend, Oregon covered it, removing Riley’s yowling twang and adding a second part to the harmony. The song was a tribute to Riley’s father, a notorious country crooner himself. “Seek God in volume,” was the last thing he said to fifteen year-old Riley before walking onto a stage in Blacksburg, Virginia and shooting himself in front of a horrified crowd.
“There is a home for little boys who lie each time they pray, the uninitiated call it hell/It’s not as bad as advertised, just very far away/They can only hear you when you yell.” Riley ends with a chorus with his father’s inexplicable advice. “Seek God in volume/Shout at the sky/Whatever the answer, call it goodbye.”
Country fans liked the song, but they loved the story. Knowing the title was advice from a doomed man gave retroactive weight to the words. Even though Riley was thirty when he sang it, people looked at him like the fifteen year-old keener on the side of his stage, watching his world disappear out of the back of his father’s head. It was dark and halfway pretty, and vague enough for everyone to pretend it was their favorite type of love song. “I’ve almost got a second album,” he told a Nashville DJ. “All that’s missing is for Mom to shoot herself in public, so I’ll have material. I think it’ll be relatable.” People even took that seriously, lauding him as a troubled kid of bottomless depths, a broken mirror reflecting hard truths.
He almost rode that image into a noble obscurity, but then came the song’s third life, its dark life. A young couple in Pittsburgh taped themselves singing the song to each other before holding hands and leaping off the Roberto Clemente Bridge. They left their camcorder running, and it was twenty minutes before anyone thought to turn it off. The song played on repeat on a portable CD player in the background, serving as an explanation. Then within a year, the ukulele player of the folk trio was night-swimming while whiskeyed to the gills, and she caught her foot under a stone. Her friends said she didn’t scream for help, just smiled and ducked her head underwater. Two months after that, a Church Camp bus in Athens, Georgia flipped over, killing four and injuring sixteen. A counselor was videotaping the ride, and the campers were singing “Seek God In Volume” when the driver lost control of his vehicle. The students sang the song tunelessly, as if reciting a catechism, and then the screen turned upside down.
“A cursed song?” Riley said at the time. “Thirty people on that bus and twenty-six survive. If God can’t kill better than 13% of them He’s cursed, then, I’m sorry, He’s lost his fastball.”
By then, it was too late. Rumors spread that it was the favorite song of school-shooters and spree-killers. Even the mentally ill aren’t original. The curse became trendy, so people quoted it in their manifestos, their suicide noes, or their demands to the media. Riley wanted out. “When country singers outlive their career, they open a church, a chicken restaurant, or a bar,” he told Celena. “I love drumsticks and gravy and telling people they’ll rot in hell, but one of those three’s cooler with drinking at work.”
Riley didn’t believe in the curse at first. “I left all that in Nashville,” he said, like he believed in ghosts but not ones that could cross the state line. But twenty years of daily shame had weakened his nerves. When “Seek God In Volume” came on at the end of the night, he’d come out of his backroom depressed and paranoid. “It’s coming right?” he said. “They’re going to roast my ass like a hobo roasts a snow tire.”
“Listen to yourself,” Celena said. “Homeless people burn snow tires for heat or as a protest against the snow tire industry. What’s anybody got against you?”
He worked a crick out of his neck. “Someone’s following me,” he said from the side of his mouth, like he didn’t have the heart to fully open his lips. “Mint green Mustang, purple pine tree air freshener. Didn’t get a look at the driver.”
“Then how’d you see the air freshener?”
He took a piece of paper out of his jacket pocket and unfolded it in front of her. “I found this at my door.” The note read, “I Know. You Know. Everyone Knows.” Next to the words was a drawing of a stick-figure in a necktie bleeding profusely from the nose.
“Is that you with the nosebleed?” she asked. “Are they threatening to give you cocaine?”
“I shouldn’t be laying all this on you.” Riley poured them both a glass of pale ale. “I just need to talk. Believe it or not, there are men in the world who just want to talk.”
“Believe it or not, there are women in the world who don’t want to listen.” She raised her glass in cheers. “That which does not kill us makes us linger.”
“I can’t lose my son,” Riley said. “He’s a teenager, I get it, and teenagers are assholes, but he cares about everything, takes it all personal, like he feels too much. He’s like the polar opposite of an asshole.”
Celena leaned forward. “An ass-pile?”
Riley tapped the note. “This is what they can’t forgive. I’ve been a bad husband, a bad friend. I 86’d The Friendly Beast when the rest of the band needed money. For all that, this is what they’ll kill me for. I wrote that song. They won’t be happy until I see Dad’s body each time I close my eyes. Hear the echo of the shot, the way his band kept playing for a split second. That’s the only way I can undo this curse.”
“There are no curses,” Celena said. “There’s only us.” She squeezed the back of his knuckles. It sounded right, but she was lying. Of course he was cursed.
In her home in West Virginia, her parents played music constantly. These were traditional ballads, ones older than America. The meanness of the songs stuck with Celena. Not only did Barbara Allen die of bitterness, but the world saw the thorn growing from her heart. A ghost returns to steal his wife from her house carpenter husband, and only after she agrees, he reveals he’s taking her to hell. A Civil War Captain tells the girl he loves, who hesitates in loving him back, “If ever I return, all your cities I will burn.” In their world, love wasn’t pleasant—it’s what kept the monster chained an inch away from the damsel’s face. Celena didn’t think these songs were cursed as much as they were curses—small hatreds turned beautiful.
“Your songs used to scare me,” she told him. She remembered the fuzzy radio turned low, whispering his voice as she stared out the window, at the moon lighting the mountaintops. “I didn’t know about the bullshit that followed, but hearing you sing in an accent like mine, it made me want to stay inside and turn on all the lights. In the mountain darkness, even the quiet has fangs.”
Riley looked up and past her. “I never wanted anyone to stay inside. No one writes songs where the moral is to stay inside. That’s not how I wanted it to end.”
His lips were stained with red wine and dead skin. Her own voice was still ringing in her skull. Darkness is different in the mountains, she thought. So is silence. It doesn’t feel like a sound or a sight, more like a waiting, like you’ve stepped in the center of an enormous jaw about to snap shut. Maybe that’s what Riley’s father meant by “Seek God In Volume.” Whatever drowns out that endless yawp of the mountains, that constant lip-licking threat, that’s where you’ll find God.
She thought of Riley’s son. He said he didn’t want to lose him, but people are never lost. They’re obliterated, deformed, revealed, abandoned, but never lost. The body leaves ink, and ink turns to evidence.
Celena had no kids of her own, but she’d been pregnant once. During those nights, with one foot in her dream, she’d tell herself, Everything is doubled now. Your body has two hearts, two livers, two bloodstreams, and two brains working at two different purposes. In the fight against extinction, numbers are our only weapon. That’s all Riley was suffering from, a desire for the double-life. One life where his song was forgotten and blameless; one life where his song was powerful enough to crack the sky. One life where he felt everything, like his son, and one life where he felt nothing, like his father.
She remembered her comic books when she was a girl. The traveler to Mars would see two moons, one on either side of the sky. Who wouldn’t want the double-mooned night? One to follow and one to light the path. To always be leaving and always returning. If all we have is life, why not heap it on our plate? God grant us our gluttony.
She felt a distant desire to sing. It didn’t matter which song, just something loud and clear that was impossible to explain there’s only one moral to any song—to survive long enough to be the singer and not the subject. The world will destroy what it can’t quiet, so use a breath to make melody, and the bystanders will mistake it for survival.
WILLIE DAVIS, from Whitesburg, Kentucky, is the winner of The Willesden Herald Short Story Prize, The Katherine Anne Porter Prize, and a fellowship from The Kentucky Arts Council. His fiction has appeared in The Guardian, Salon, The Kenyon Review, and The Berkeley Fiction Review. He is the author of the novel Nightwolf.