The Self-Righteous Brother
“I’m not sticking around for your party,” Genevieve said.
“But I need you there,” Jensen said, pulling her closer. She knew he was nervous Tianamen Square Dance wouldn’t show. The band had embarked on a tour through sleepy southern towns and he had no way of contacting them because their lead singer, Stacio, said cellphones disrupted his inner chi while traveling. He first got Stacio’s number from the inside flap of their latest release, Steak in My Cupcakes, a critique of carnivores. They’d encouraged fans to call and book shows anywhere in the continental U.S. as long as they were willing to fork over $150 and cover their gas. At first Genevieve thought the record was some country throwback since its cover art pictured a sketch of a couple engaged in a two-step. The inside flap featured a naked caricature of Dick Cheney, though, the former Vice President, but also a man who’d shot his friend in the face while hunting, then made that friend apologize on live television for getting in his way. Dick’s genitalia looked microscopic and, armed with a rifle, a thought bubble appeared above his head: “I’m the original gangsta.”
The band had no manager, no schedule in print, and no real incentive to play Jensen’s New Year’s Eve party save a few hundred bucks. Genevieve had spooked him yesterday by pointing out that band members always were overdosing or dying on tour. Buddy Holly. Ritchie Valens. Duane Allman. Robbie Van Zant. Janis Joplin. She’d wondered out loud how there was rock and roll at all.
Leading up to Christmas, Genevieve had taped to the top of Jensen’s guitar case as hints pictures of a bubblegum-colored KitchenAid mixer and a pair of Docs she’d seen at Kinectic, the skate shop over on Main. He’d said he bought her both, but told her on Christmas he had to return them because he didn’t have enough money to pay the band. Now, she stomped away in her worn black Docs, hoping to remind him of what her feet could’ve looked like, but didn’t.
“You had plenty of money to pay the band and get me at least one present,” she said.
“I told you I’ll buy everything back,” he said. She stomped some more. She knew Jensen’s plan to buy back her gifts mostly involved his certainty that his musical heroes would recognize his brilliance as soon as he struck up the first chord of the opening set, inviting him to also join them on stage and later on tour, solving his financial troubles. She tried to be supportive, but as far as she could tell Tianamen Square Dance wasn’t exactly selling out stadiums or even pool halls and Jensen spent more time working on his look than practicing. He’d blown most of his recent paychecks on tattoos. “2 + 2 = 5” was inked across his arm, a reference to a Radiohead song, though her parents simply thought he was bad at math. Two large falcons were inked across his chest. He told Genevieve these meant nothing.
Jensen didn’t know she’d planned to whip up with her new mixer fancy finger foods for their guests. He also didn’t know she’d planned the perfect outfit to coordinate with her new boots, wanting her cousin to indirectly report back to her mother that she was capable of living a sophisticated life without her. Now, with nothing special to show off, she was certain that same cousin would focus on the living room wall that needed spackle, the broken garbage disposal, the toilet tank that never stopped running—all problems she’d nagged Jensen to fix.
She flipped on The Price Is Right, then turned it up. A woman had no idea how much fabric softener cost, her ignorance causing a yodeling mountain climber to trek closer and closer to the cliff’s edge. She didn’t know either, but she still shouted guesses until the climber crashed. It was difficult to avoid Jensen without leaving the house. It didn’t have a den or a basement. The washer and dryer were on stilts underneath the carport. He’d often referred to the house as his bachelor pad before she moved in, but there was no hot tub, no top-shelf scotch. Luck was on Jensen’s side if there was hot water for his morning shower and the ant baits did what they promised. She didn’t want to leave, though. She wanted to believe he still was thoughtful, his dedication to his art clouding his judgment. She reminded herself that a creative man was a complicated man.
Genevieve entered the living room and circled the tree, a small spruce they’d chopped from the backyard, righting askew ornaments. It had been raining when they brought the tree inside and, when they carried it across the room, its branches swished against each other, scattering droplets of water like pearls across the scratched hardwood floor. Jensen had crisscrossed blue and silver tinsel through branches and strung colored lights from top to bottom once the spruce dried.
He grabbed a leather jacket from the sofa, then climbed on the makeshift stage in the room’s center, re-arranging the microphone. “Where’d you get that coat?” she asked. It looked perfect on him, like the type of coat Sid Vicious would wear, or at least a Sid Vicious groupie.
“My Uncle Graham. Said it didn’t fit him anymore.” He strapped his 1956 Epiphone Les Paul Jr., her Christmas gift to him, around his neck. “Jen-sen. Jen-sen,” he chanted, closing his eyes, likely imagining a roomful of fans.
He’d graduated from high school two years back and had been teaching guitar lessons and working for a construction company since. Still, most of his friends were living with their parents or in college dormitories. Genevieve had been living in a dorm, too, until Jensen rescued her from her born again roommate. Before his recent tattoo binge, he’d been the only one smart enough to earn more money than he spent so he didn’t have to live with his real family anymore. He could rent his own place and pick a new family—a handful of goldfish, one gray and several orange that he called KC and the Sunshine Band, and Genevieve Pfrang.
Genevieve’s mother had begged her to move home and commute to college, something she’d rather die than do. Her father was more reasonable, but still reminded her that if she wanted to focus exclusively on music, transferring to a conservatory would make better sense than moving in mid-semester with a struggling musician. For a while she’d just wanted to drop out and record songs with Jensen, though. They’d co-written at least a song per day during their first month dating—she sang and he played the guitar—but they’d written just one song over the past month. He said he had difficulty writing lyrics for a girl to sing. He instead became more focused on his other band with Decktor and Toner, the band he said he could be less sentimental about. The pair weren’t stellar musicians. They weren’t even so-so. Though he never admitted this out loud, she was beginning to think Jensen didn’t like publicly playing with musicians better than himself.
Jensen returned his 1956 Epiphone Les Paul, Jr. to its case, then headed towards the refrigerator for a snack, rolling up a slice of bologna like a cigar. He often told his friends he was vegan and touted “veggie Ethiopian anything” as his favorite dish, but the truth was he mainly lived off dino chicken nuggets. “Do you want me to make you something?”
“No, but thanks for asking” she said, finding herself still wanting to believe in Jensen in the same way everyone other than her parents seemed to trust that, even when he was screwing up, it was alright to look away because this inattention might somehow will him to make things right. “I guess I’ll start getting ready for the party.”
“Jensen, you’ve gotta cut my pants,” Toner said as he entered the house. “Couldn’t find any decent shorts so we’re going to have to DIY it. Otherwise, I’ll roast in this place once it gets packed.” He was wearing the nice pair of brown slacks he’d told Genevieve he purchased. He liked to discuss fashion with her whenever she answered Jensen’s phone for him because he was too busy to talk. One of his rules was to never make himself seem too available, even if he just was playing Rock Band. According to Jensen, availability made people lose interest. Toner shoved scissors towards Jensen’s chest. “I don’t trust Dektor to do it. You always look good.”
He took the scissors, then knelt beside Toner who was tapping his feet. “Stay still,” Jensen said, cutting off the fabric at Toner’s knees so he would be comfortable drumming. As soon as the bottom half of the second pant leg hit the linoleum floor, Toner dashed towards the kitchen. He stuck his head under the sink’s spigot, then turned its knob. “Genevieve, you’ve got a hair dryer and spray, right?” he asked, his voice muffled by the sound of running water.
“I wanna blow dry my hair upside down,” Toner said, now talking to Jensen. “It’ll take an interesting shape that way. Think that’s a good idea?”
“Our band needs a name,” Jensen said, suddenly more concerned with their show in a few hours than fashion. “How’s this performance going to put us on the map if we don’t have a name for people to repeat when they talk about it?” Dektor and Toner were silent. “C’mon.”
“Alright, alright. How about Arr-gon?” Dektor had a mild obsession with pirates and the periodic table of elements. He was majoring in chemistry.
“Untitled?” Toner suggested.
“That art show I went to at the library had a bunch of untitled pieces,” Jensen said. “They all had numbers, though. What number would our band be?” The numerical possibilities were infinite and Genevieve decided he only was interested in one mathematical equation: Jensen + guitar = rock god.
“The Self-Righteous Brother,” she said.
“That’s it,” Jensen said. “The Self-Righteous Brother. Cool.”
“I love you, Genevieve,” Toner joked. Dektor backslapped him. Jensen didn’t bother. Genevieve knew he didn’t feel threatened by a guy who didn’t like to open his mouth too wide around girls because he’d lost a tooth screwing up a kickflip on his skateboard. But Jensen wasn’t all machismo. He often told her she was clever, listening just enough to her friends’ chatter to offer pearls of wisdom when they were in a bind, mainly adages borrowed from outlaw country singers or punk legends. Jensen found charming her trust in the insights of musicians. “Pull yourself together and take advantage of scientific advancements,” she’d told a friend after a pregnancy scare. “Loretta Lynn would’ve popped birth control pills like candy as a teen if she’d had your options.” When Jensen told her he was having trouble getting his band to focus, she’d echoed Kathleen Hanna’s sentiment that, with so many great artists doing incredible things, it was a waste of time to focus on boring people.
Jensen’s Uncle Graham arrived with the keg. Part of Jensen’s appeal coincided with his uncle providing alcohol whenever his nephew asked since he and most of his friends were underage. “Sick jacket,” his uncle said, patting Jensen’s shoulder as he helped him haul the keg to the bathtub. “I might need to borrow it sometime.”
Genevieve retreated to the guest room, the one where she still housed her things so she could tell her mother she and Jensen kept separate rooms. The one time she’d visited, Genevieve rolled around on the bed, smearing make-up on her monogrammed pillowcases before she arrived to solidify the illusion. She knew she’d have to confront Jensen about his lie, but she didn’t know where she’d live if they broke up and she didn’t feel like getting into it in front of Decktor, Toner, and his Uncle Graham.
Genevieve surveyed from the kitchen the guests speckling the yard, the party already seeming less exciting than the mundane string of cookouts they’d hosted throughout the fall. Usually, Genevieve played croquet in fancy sundresses and Jensen’s friends mostly came to watch her play croquet in fancy sundresses before skateboarding in an abandoned pool at the property’s edge. Tonight, everyone just stood around.
Jensen proudly pointed out to her when she joined him the three cars with out-of-state tags parked on the lawn, as well as the fact that his friend Claudia traveled all the way from Baltimore with her new set of college friends, people who kept referring to themselves as anarchists. She’d graduated from high school with Jensen, but managed to get out of the state thanks to a sizeable scholarship to Goucher and a number of government loans. Jensen ignited a fire in a barrel in the backyard, inviting people to roast marshmallows and tofu hot dogs, maybe trying to compensate for Genevieve not preparing any of the snacks she’d planned, but more likely trying to distract from Tianamen Square Dance being more than two hours late.
“Wanna go fishing out on Lum’s Pond tomorrow,” Jensen asked Dektor and Toner. “Catch some crappie?”
“I’ll pick up the bait,” Toner said.
“And I’ll fill up your truck’s tank,” Dektor said. Before Jensen could respond, an unfamiliar guy sporting a drug rug approached.
“I knew I recognized you,” drug rug said.
“Everyone knows Jensen,” Dektor said.
“Yeah, well I hate when I can’t put a name with the face,” drug rug said.
“What’s the verdict?” Jensen asked.
“I sold you that leather jacket on Craigslist yesterday.” Jensen turned to put his arm around Genevieve, but she stormed inside. He chased her. She stood on top of the kitchen table, nearly stepping in the salsa Jensen had dumped into a bowl. “I have an announcement,” she said, spinning a noisemaker. Reba McEntire sang about how a person can act ugly when love is unrequited, but she didn’t like her kind of country and, so, she didn’t trust her. Besides, she decided it was far uglier to outgrow a particular love than to not be loved back as that pointed to one thing—her being wrong. “It doesn’t look like Tiananmen Square Dance is showing.”
Jensen wrapped his arms around her legs, nearly causing her to topple. “What she means is they’re running a bit behind schedule.” He fished around in his pocket for his smokes, but he’d gone through the whole pack. “I had every intention of buying you back those things,” he whispered.
“That band was supposed to be here hours ago,” she shouted over his head. “I think you’ve been misled.”
Jensen stumbled towards the stage, grabbing the microphone. Dektor and Toner rushed to their places, confused. Jensen screamed “Fuck you” and counted to three; the Self-Righteous Brothers played a heavier, grittier version of Bill Hayley & His Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock” and all of the guests seemed to forget what Genevieve just had told them. Those who had been lingering in the yard rushed inside, squeezing between guests who already were mesmerized by Jensen’s performance.
He was shy during rehearsals, but now he was singing and jumping like a nut. He ripped off his T-shirt, then made a few shallow cuts on his side with a razor for effect, channeling Iggy Pop or Sid Vicious. Genevieve was certain he wasn’t sure which. He smashed his fist against his skull and spun around like a top. Those watching went wild, although Jensen likely was disappointed no one was chanting his name. Still, Genevieve heard people insisting that if Jensen made it big, they all could share this special moment, having been at his first live show, the way old people talked about Monterey Pop or Woodstock. The crowd hung on Jensen’s every word, though the feedback from his guitar made it difficult to do so. The bass made the windows rattle and she pictured the tiny white-haired woman next door who probably was trying to sleep. She hoped she’d call the police. She seemed like the only person with the power to stop him.
After a string of covers, Toner suggested playing an original song. Jensen said no, but Toner started in on the drums anyway and there was no turning back. Jensen slurred his words: “Banks occupy your wallets/ Banks occupy your heads. / Anarchy, anarchy now / Kick “The Man” out of your bed.” During rehearsals he’d refused to share his lyrics. He’d told Genevieve he was certain they would sound stupid if they weren’t delivered at just the right moment. It occurred to her now that there would never be a right moment to share those lyrics.
Everyone was talking at once. He even lost the attention of Claudia and her anarchist friends. As the band started their next song, Jensen seemed to purposely make his words unintelligible. He focused instead on his guitar licks, cursing into the microphone between songs and ultimately keeping his mouth shut altogether. He’d been playing guitar since he was six, but suddenly that didn’t seem long enough. Genevieve had wanted everyone to see Jensen as fake, but now she wasn’t satisfied. Perhaps it was easier to feel sorry for someone when no one else did. She wanted to tell Jensen to hang in there like Merle Haggard’s liver, but she didn’t do anything.
Everyone in the crowd was drunk. Some guys heckled Jensen. Others threw tofu dogs and marshmallows at his head. Those with better etiquette simply left. Jensen ran off of the plywood stage, heading towards the bathroom. Genevieve could tell he was going to be sick.
As Dektor and Toner pulled out the sleeper couch, there was a rap on the front door. Genevieve had traded in her party dress for a pair of sweats and one of Jensen’s worn Clash T-shirts. Her hair still was wet from a shower, leaving splotches of water across the shirt’s front. She thought of changing, but corralled Jensen instead while Toner answered the door.
“Sorry we missed our gig,” Stacio said, pointing to the van parked in the driveway. “Good to meet you.” He shook Jensen’s hand. “We got a flat. Didn’t have a spare, but we passed the time in some biker bar.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Jensen said. He rubbed crust from the corners of his eyes, then motioned for Stacio to come inside.
“It wasn’t so bad. The regulars were real friendly,” Stacio said. “Offered us a bunch of shots on the house. We have a strict no drinking policy, but they had no way of knowing.”
“How’d you fix the flat?” Genevieve asked, noticing Jensen trying to steady himself, probably wanting to look sober.
“Some dude gave us a spare in exchange for playing a set.”
“You missed the party,” Dektor said, still wearing a party hat.
“Well we won’t accept any money, but we’re still going to play,” Stacio said. “We said we would and I’m a man of my word.” He motioned for his band to start unloading the van before anyone could object. “Since instruments already are set up, mind if we just play them?” Stacio asked. “Since it’s so late?” Jensen reluctantly eyed his 1956 Epiphone Les Paul, Jr.
“No problem,” Genevieve said.
“Any other bands play tonight?” Stacio asked.
“Nah,” Jensen said.
“Mind if we clean up a little, then do a quick workout before our set?” Stacio asked, sliding an Adidas sweatband over his head. “The stage is a little sticky. Besides, it’s sort of our routine. Helps us get pumped and stay fit.”
The room was spotless before they retreated to the front lawn. While Genevieve watched them do push-ups and planks, Jensen finally approached her. “Here,” he said, handing her the money he’d reserved for the band. “I’m sorry. Go buy yourself whatever you want.”
“No,” she said, closing her hand, balling her fingers into a fist. She went to the kitchen until the band finally took the stage, Stacio screaming into the microphone a confused, “Happy New Years?” She could tell by the sky the sun was about to rise.
Jensen plopped between Dektor and Toner on the couch facing the stage, while Genevieve stood off to the side. The band played with a potency that made her forget The Self-Righteous Brother’s unfortunate performance a few hours before. Stacio’s staccato screams were loud, his guitar and its feedback even louder. He didn’t pull any of the stunts Jensen borrowed from previous rockers, letting the music speak for itself. He looked like he shopped at the Gap.
The band members didn’t look that much older than her. They’d accomplished so much so young and she felt like Jensen had been wasting both of their time. Her mother thought her and Jensen’s music was some pipe dream, that she should change her major to something sensible like fashion merchandizing or culinary arts. She’d started to agree. Watching three guys who were making it work re-enforced to Genevieve her desire to want to do the same, however. They might not be Iggy and the Stooges, but they were scraping by doing what they loved and that was far more important than having her life mapped out for her at eighteen. She realized she’d been arguing with her mother about the wrong things.
“Do any of you want to jam with us?” Stacio asked. “Before our last song?”
She waited for Jensen to jump to his feet. He constantly played along with their albums. Instead, Toner and Dektor looked at each other and Jensen focused on the floor. “I play guitar and a little bass,” Genevieve said, surprising herself, her words coming out as more of a question. “And I sing.”
“Sing something. Maybe something from the Clash?” Stacio said, acknowledging her T-shirt.
“I’m more into female musicians,” she said, joining them on stage. Stacio put the 1956 Epiphone Les Paul, Jr.’s strap around her neck and she liked the way it felt. She made a mental note to take the guitar with her when she left. Her voice crackled and popped at first as she started in on “Cannonball.” Without a flowing dress to spin around in and Docs to tap, busying her hands and feet in between strums, she felt naked and lost. But the more she sang, the more Genevieve’s voice steadied. Even with just three people watching, she felt so much energy. It was like the crowd from the party still was there, watching, applauding. “Maybe you could sit in with us at our show later tonight,” Stacio said when she finished. “You’ve got skills.”
“I might have skills, but I also have plans,” she said, recalling Jensen’s advice to always seem less available. Their relationship hadn’t been a complete wash. “I might be able to move some things around. Let’s hear your last song.”
Tiananmen Square Dance played their entire catalogue for those same three people who watched Genevieve, a set that lasted twenty-three minutes. She didn’t make comparisons to Monterey Pop or Woodstock like the earlier crowd. She was certain she wouldn’t be talking to Dektor, Toner, or Jensen fifty years from now to recount this collective experience. Besides, it didn’t feel like a collective experience. It felt like the type of moment she alone would recall as the one that pushed her away from the pack and out into the world to discover it.
Maybe Jensen someday would look back and feel the same. She considered how just a few hours back he’d told his band he’d given up music forever. He’d been considering restoring old houses instead of building new ones because they had more character. But while Tiananmen Square Dance played, she’d heard him tell Toner he changed his mind. He was considering going to college for music or maybe repairing busted guitars, studying abroad or working as a tech and traveling the country. She couldn’t understand why, but she hoped he was right. Stacio announced the band’s upcoming shows in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and Trenton, New Jersey as if they could and would follow them from town to town.
As they stepped off the stage, reds and blues flashed in the driveway. The neighbor must have called, complaining about the noise, the thing Genevieve had wanted most just hours before. Now, the officer’s arrival reminded her of the nights she prayed for snow as a child, hoping school would be canceled, only for the first flakes to start falling on Friday afternoon, too late to be poetic or meaningful or lovely because she already was free.
Lindsay A. Chudzik grew up just outside of Philadelphia. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Chiron Review, Clementine Unbound, Crab-fat Magazine, Defenestration, Dogwood, Fredericksburg Literary & Art Review, and Ghost Town, among others. Her short stories have been nominated for Pushcart Prizes, her creative nonfiction has been anthologized, and her plays have been staged. Currently, she is Editor in Chief of Feels Blind Literary, an Assistant Professor of Writing at VCU, and a recent recipient of a Gulf-South Summit Award for excellence in community-engaged teaching. She spends her free time contemplating creative ways to incorporate Kathleen Hanna and Courtney Love into her syllabi and working on her new YA novel, The Most Cake.