10 for 10: Short Stories Inspired by Turn on the Bright Lights
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Even if you hate Interpol you’d have to admit Turn on the Bright Lights is a significant album. The moody, frosty, untouchable New York opus has been responsible for tears, make-outs, teenage-isolate companionship, city-street theme songs and a couple millennial virginities. It’s hard to believe it’s been a decade. It’s hard to believe we can talk about the 2002 debut like a modern classic.
To celebrate the anniversary, I gathered nine other writer friends of mine and asked them to write a short story inspired by one of the songs from Turn on the Bright Lights. The results were predictably goofy, melancholy, lonely, horny, ruminative and passionate. Ten stories for 10 songs on the 10th year the record has existed in our consciousness, (we combined “Obstacle 1” and “Obstacle 2” simply for aesthetical congruency). In some ways interpretive fiction is the only way to talk about these soul-searching songs. I hope you enjoy.—Luke Winkie
“Untitled” by Luke Winkie
They said I was brave. I’m not sure what that means, but that’s what they kept saying. Brave.
You are brave.
They scratched behind my ears, long plastic fingers drifting down to my tail. I do not know these men, but I know that I love them. I know that they make me feel whole. I know that I look up into their milky eyes, and they look down at me with dimpled smiles curved behind paper masks.
You are so brave.
My name is Dingo, and I am very small. I used to live out in the cold, under the box, next to the warm bricks of the great black snowy buildings. But that was at least a thousand years ago. This is my home. These are my friends. Down the white hallway, into the small room, I’m so full of food and love my heart could pop wide open.
I do not know these men, but I know that I love them.
We go out sometimes, we play games. They took me where the foundation beneath my legs got soft, then wet, then not there at all. I fetch my tennis ball from the great watery end, bound my way back, over and over again. They put me in tight areas, dark areas, I crawl my way out. There’s always love waiting on the other end. I curl up against these men, they touch me, they make me feel good.
When they first found me I was alone, I was starved, I was crying. I ate things that made me sick, but not eating made me sick too. It was cold. I was alone. I was starved. I was crying. They all came at once, they put me in their car, and then they put me here. They told me I was Dingo. I didn’t know at first. But now I know.
Two days ago they took me somewhere else. One of the men stayed with me, looked into me, and put me in the back of his big car, and took me into his big building. I rubbed my fur all over him. I chased and played with his kin. They fed me, and I loved them. I fell asleep against the wide windows, peering down into the grey trees and ugly waters. The man came around again, rubbed my fur again, told me I was good. I was a good boy. I was a good Dingo. Tomorrow was “the big day.” The day to be brave. My day. Dingo’s day.
I woke up on the big day and they took me down different hallways, through different doors. We emerge outside, in the sheared sunlight. A great, towering thing looms over us; I’ve only seen it in photographs. Porcelain white, splotches of dusky black, pointed towards up towards nothing. I feel the hands of the men hoist me up, slowly trudging towards the Great Towering Thing, up into the Great Towering Thing. Its silhouette removes any sky or any ground.
I’m bound here. I can’t move. There was a small opening, and they set me down, in the guts of the Great Towering Thing. They pulled cords from its bowels, crushing hard into my skin, keeping my legs down and defiant. Then they left. I am alone. I don’t know where I am. I don’t know what is happening. Is this to be my new home? When will I see those men again? I love those men. I need them.
A great rumble oh God. Oh God I am scared. Oh God what is happening? Everything is getting so warm; everything is getting so out of control. I scream as loud as I can, but I can’t hear myself. Oh God I am so scared. I point my eyes towards the little window but there’s nothing to see. Just air and anger and rush and wind and unknown. I feel sick. I don’t feel Dingo. I need someone. Someone please. Someone PLEASE. Make it all slow down.
It’s quiet now. It’s been a few hours. It feels like a few hours. A chunk of the Great Towering Thing sheds off, and slowly drifts out of view. I don’t know where I am, but it isn’t loud anymore. It’s peaceful, out-of-the-way. I’m drifting, I feel my body begin to lose itself, and I like it. Out my window it’s all twinkles and dark. An everlasting sphere below. Smudgy pastels, coated in the occasional frosty white. I don’t know where I am, but I know what that is. I know that that’s where I came from. I see the great watery end, and how it doesn’t end. How it keeps going to the other side. It’s just a great watery beginning.
It’s getting cold now. I still miss those men, I still love those men. And I know they still love me. I know I’m here because I’m brave, because I had to be brave. They told me I was brave, and I can’t let them down now. That wouldn’t be brave. I know what it means now. I am the best Dingo there ever was.
I’m not all that hungry, I’d rather sleep. I nestle my head on top of my paws, and the lights of the everything turn around, and around, and around.
“NYC” by Hanson O’Haver
“You know, when I was younger I used to dream about moving here. Probably we all did. I visited in 2003 and I wore a pin with ‘YYYs’ written on it in pink paint pen, on top of whited-out Cramps logo. I had a SPIN subscription at the time so I was all about those bands. I went to a show at CBGBs with my dad and my little brother. I bought the Yes New York compilation. I think I still have it. I spent the whole trip going to vintage shops trying to find a peacoat, but they were all too big. I had long hair and I went through puberty late, so the whole trip people kept mistaking me for a girl. I remember the guys who run one of those inexplicable camera stores in Times Square asking my mom about her daughter. And then there was the man walking into the bathroom at JFK and turning around, thinking he’d accidentally walked in to the ladies’. It’s weird how nothing has really changed.”
“What do you mean?”
“Not that people still think I’m a girl. Just like, how when I was a teen it was hard, because being a teen is always hard. But I felt like when I was older it’d be better, I’d be able to do all those things I fantasized about. And now I’ve sort of done those things, in an objective sense. I mean, my apartment’s downtown, I know people in bands, I have this job, etc. etc. And I mostly just feel the same as I did then.”
“Everyone feels this way,” she said, “they’ve always felt this way. You have to know that. There’s a song called ‘Everything Happens to Me’; it was written in 1940.”
“Anyway, you know what this song makes me think?”
“‘Everything Happens to Me’? Or the one playing?”
“The one playing.”
“I don’t know, 2003? That’s probably the last time I heard it. Misshapes maybe? That blog about Carlos D. giving a girl herpes?”
“I guess that too, but no. I was going to say that NY Mag does this thing where they ask people what makes someone a real New Yorker. And the answers are always ‘When you’ve lived here for five years,’ or ‘When the guy at the bodega knows how you like your coffee,’ or ‘When you stop looking up.’ But honestly I feel like at our core we all know that the real answer is: If you were here on 9/11. Everyone who was here before is a real New Yorker, on the 12th they were a real New Yorker, even if they moved here on the 10th. And if you moved here after you’ll never be. I’ve been here since ‘07 and I don’t feel like I’m at all close to being one.”
“I think that’s your own thing.”
“I don’t know. It’s like, all stories about New York are about 9/11.”
“All stories about New York are about 9/11, in the way that all stories about Germany are about World War II and every Nirvana song is about Kurt’s suicide.”
“That’s not true,” she said.
“Okay, maybe not if you were here, if you were here you’d know what it was like then, so you wouldn’t have to wonder. But I think the rest of us keep it on the back of our minds, almost forgettable but not quite, like a damper. Have you ever sprained your ankle?”
“And when you first wake up, it takes a few seconds and then you think, ‘Oh, right, shit, my ankle. I can’t walk.’ It’s like that—we’re always almost not thinking about it, but we can’t go all the way.”
“Annie Hall is not about 9/11,” she said.
“Okay, maybe not if it takes place in the ‘80s. But every story about New York in the ’90s is about the carefree days just before it, and every story from after is about how it changed us. And every fire truck is a memorial and every construction site is a flashback. My cousin came to visit and she said something about 9/11 and I joked, told her that she can’t say that word, that only people who live in New York can say it.”
“That’s not an OK joke.”
“I know, but it’s kind of true, you know? I bet you never bring it up to People Who Were Here? It’s this huge thing—words are obviously failing me here—that happened not very long ago, and it’s everywhere. It’s in the police response to Occupy, it’s in the way everyone flinches a little when someone enters their subway car from an adjoining one. But, and probably for good reason, no one ever really talks about it.”
“There’s no way this song is about 9/11. They wrote it in 2000. The lyrics don’t even make sense. The subway is neither feminine nor a porno.”
“It doesn’t matter when it was written. Look at the title. Just because you tell a story doesn’t mean you know what it’s about. Just because it’s your name doesn’t mean you know how to pronounce it.”
“That doesn’t mean anything,” she said.
“PDA” by Andrew Winistorfer
It always starts the same way.
It’s the final dance of Evan’s sixth-grade year. He is 12 years old. His school has a dance at the end of every quarter, and for the fourth straight dance, he’s pressed to a wall alongside his friend Paul, as the two of them snicker at the idea that anyone would want to dance to this music, like a Celine Dion song and awkwardly rocking with your hands on someone’s hips adds up to anything other than certain humiliation.
“Can you believe this?” Paul always says, looking over at Mitchell and Sam as they dance to a song about a boat crash. “Mitch’s boner is probably all over her. And she likes it? Why are we even here again?”
“Dude, because we’re supposed to be here,” Evan always says. “This is the event we’ll remember for the rest of our lives. We’ll probably lie about this in 15 years, and say we totally grabbed someone’s boobs.”
Paul laughs as Evan starts scanning the dancefloor, looking for her: Carla, the most perfect 12-year-old girl on earth, the only woman Evan is sure he will ever love.
By a twist of fate, Evan and Carla were seated next to each other on the first day of third period algebra. Evan couldn’t believe his luck; the hottest girl in his entire class would be forced to interact with him every Thursday during group study time. He started to notice little stuff about her he was sure everyone else was missing: The way she scrunched her nose up when she was concentrating really hard. The way she tried to cover her braces when she laughed. She, on the other hand, barely seemed to notice him at all, opting to talk to her equally beautiful best friend who sat across the strait between the rows of desks.
Then the seating chart changed, and she ended up seated next to Mike, who became her boyfriend after they sat next to each other for three class periods. Three class periods! Evan sat next to her for 121 periods, and all that genetic abnormality needed was three, and she’s holding his hand, and smiling that smile up into his 5’11” face.
And there they always were, across the gym, smiling, surrounded by friends, illuminated in that way that the popular kids always seem to be whenever the geeks look over at them in movies. What was Evan thinking? Even if she was single, she’d never dance with him and he’d never have the courage to ask her. Her: A confident girl of 12 who could conquer men and level civilizations as soon as her breasts started coming in in the fourth grade. Him: A fat, awkward nerd wearing a Mighty Mighty Bosstones T-shirt, genetically engineered to long for girls like Carla since his breasts started coming in in the fourth grade.
“Fuck this Paul, let’s get the out of here,” Evan always says.
And then, always: “LAST DANCE! Fellas, last chance to dance with your special lady. Ladies, ask that special guy to dance. This is the last song,” the DJ says into a scratchy microphone.
They always start weaving through the crowd trying to leave, and then he always feels that gentle tap on his shoulder. He always turns around, and looks down into her lightly freckled face and her gentle, smiling brown eyes.
“Can you come here a second?” She always asks. Sarah. The girl who every geek thinks they could definitely date if they wanted to, but never ask out, because being rejected by Sarah would be more emotionally devastating than dying alone. She was the one girl geeks could talk to; why ruin it by trying to date her?
“Uh yeah,” Evan always stammered.
Sarah takes Evan’s hand and leads him out of the crowd. He becomes keenly aware that his hands are sweating. Why is he so nervous all of a sudden? Then she always looks up at Evan with those brown eyes.
“Will, you, uh, dance with me?” Sarah always spits out quickly, too embarrassed to let everyone know she had asked him to press up against her for a few minutes.
“Sure! I mean, I guess,” Evan always says, realizing for the first time that someone of the opposite sex might want to spend time with him.
She was wearing a new leopard-print shirt. Oh that shirt! Tight against her hips; he’ll always remember how the stitching felt where it met the fabric and the way that it matched Sarah’s tanned skin. And how she smelled like exotic, expensive perfume as they moved closer to dance.
He’s always surprised he can sort of do this. Dancing is surprisingly easy. All it is is rocking back and forth with a girl between your arms. He’d have to rethink his position on dances now. He always feels her burning a hole into the side of his face by staring at him the whole time they are dancing, trying to make eye contact, and failing to will Evan into looking back. He’s afraid if he looks, she’ll know how much he likes it.
Then the song always stops.
“Thank you so, so much,” Sarah always says, blushing, stepping away. She seems to be waiting for something else. Anything else. She blinks. She blushes again. She seems embarrassed to have liked it so much.
“Uh, yeah. Sure. I mean, yeah,” Evan always stammers, before promptly turning on a dime, and walking straight out of the gym. He never looks back. Never says anything else. Just moves like an NFL linebacker through the crowd.
“Go back, you idiot,” he always screams at himself. “Jesus, go back! She’s in love with you! What are you doing! This is your last chance! Another girl will not love you as much as Sarah loves you RIGHT NOW! She’s perfect for you! She laughed at your Matt Foley impersonation that one time! She wants you to ask her out! What the fuu ”
Then Evan sits up in bed. 27. Alone.
It always ends the same way.
“Say Hello To The Angels” by Abby Johnston
The same time each day they take their baths, padding barefoot into the large marbled room in an endless line. It isn’t a fastidious attention to hygiene, just another way to occupy their absolutely useless lives. There was only so much embroidery to fill the harem. They march in for the only point of the day where they are not costumed peacocks. I hate them. No matter how many layers of silks they dressed themselves in, how much rouge they painted on, they are nothing more than qualified whores. Objects, purchased for the sole purpose of viewing and fucking. Sometimes I am surprised they can even move at all. They are just as lifeless as the gems they wear, polished and picked and able to reflect something whoever sees them. They look lovely, but they are not. These are the lowest beings in existence—except for me, their guard. I truly hate them.
The women who bore sons and the pretty new initiates leave behind a pile of jewels when they start to undress. Purple, blue and gold fabrics fall piece by piece into heaps. It is torture. No matter how times I see them slip shining material off of their shoulders the anger of inability wells up. Where bulge should rise as I take in their bare breasts there is nothing. The curves of their ass—nothing. I have been chopped and hacked into smoothness, so long ago that I can’t remember any different. There is no way to designate me as a man, because I am not. I am a monster. It is the very reason I am allowed to see the faces of the harem whores, because while any other man could use them for their intended purpose I am rendered incapable. But I think about it. The same time each day they take their baths I think about what I could do to them.
It is a queer conundrum that arises when primal instincts are thwarted. It is a feeling beyond frustration that extends to every fiber in my maimed body. What I experience is not unrequited lust because I have never lusted. It is not a romantic attachment because the only women I have ever known are property. I’m not sure I’m even capable of love. It is need to make up for something that I lack. The perceived idea that I am a subhuman levels me somewhere behind the same cunts that I guard in the harem. No, the only thing I desire is their throat to crush their windpipe in my hands. I desire their neck that I could snap with little effort at all.
The women stand unclothed at the edge of the bath. Nothing. As they stare at themselves in the water’s reflection I wonder what men feel when they see this foreign form. I know what monsters feel, but not of the way I was born. When the now-naked concubines lift their eyes to throw me a sultry gaze I want to laugh. These women are so accustomed to reverence that the idea of someone looking at them without longing is incomprehensible. They expect the same lust from each other. When the sultan is away for long periods of time, leaving his women under my watch, they turn to each other for pleasure. Lesbianism, an offense punishable by death, all to achieve the same carnal pleasure for which the sultan bought them. I don’t understand, I can’t understand. These things all done under my watch, knowing that if I cared enough I could end their life simply by recounting the indiscretions.
A sultan’s son once took one of the king’s harem as his lover. He was drawn to her youth, sharing the same affinities as his father for her subdued, sweet nature. But the woman’s position in the harem was a tepid one. She had birthed two daughters previously, and the sultan had, for all intents and purposes, lost interest. Or faith. Or both. The whore and son were close in age, both beautiful. The affair lasted for some months and the woman became pregnant. The sultan, deducing the child was not his, ordered her killed, a task that fell to me as the chief black eunuch. If there was a feeling that I could achieve close to ecstasy, it happened as I laid lashes again and again on the bitch’s back. Her screams opened a window straight to my deepest, most guarded places. I’ve never felt more connected to another human being as I watched her writhing body slowly immobilized. I hate them.
Women’s sexuality and submission, men’s power and primal dominance, it all means nothing to me. In more ways, I feel that I have more control and quiet power as a result, I can’t be bothered by such trivial matters. As I watch the women slowly turn whirlpools with their toes, steam rising around them, I feel, again, the need to laugh. The hole that sex left is the lust for blood. It is the only desire I have to fight.
“Hands Away” by Phillip Pantuso
It began the way most things do, which is to say it began without notice. Just: one day, something, where before there was nothing.
A roadside diner in Connecticut. An hour outside the city on a good day. Late afternoon sunlight spiking downward through the peeling windows. A waitress, backfat like melting clay, keeping my coffee cup full. A cold formica tabletop with empty packets of sugar. I pushed my ham and eggs around the white plate, getting colder all the time. I’d taken some pills that made my teeth feel hollow. I didn’t want to go home. My wife was different than she used to be.
We met when I was 23 and she was 21—six years ago. A span of time long enough to turn into a person you no longer recognize, skimming along the frozen surface of feelings that once defined you. In 1986, I was fresh out of college, drunk on that liberation, and she was working in the emergency room on the night Saul and George and George’s girl Jessica and I attempted to sneak into the Dry Dock Playground pool. It was 3 a.m. or some other angelic hour. We’d chased our whiskey with rum and we tried to climb the fence to get to the pool. But I fell right off the top, breaking my arm. I had to climb back over the fence with one good arm just so I could be taken by my friends to the hospital.
Molly—that’s my wife’s name—was an orderly at the E.R. She came into my room to hang the X-rays. She was small and willowy, barely there at all, with water blue eyes and blonde hair like straw.
“Jesus,” I said. The fracture looked like a printing error. “That bad?”
She made a cute show of studying the images thoughtfully. “That bad,” she said, frowning.
“Jesus Christ. My right arm, too.” Of course I was right-handed.
“You’re gonna be needing someone to look after you, especially these first few days, while you’re taking the pills. You’re liable to be a little loopy.” Was she from the South? I decided she was.
Maybe it was the whiskey, but I could tell before she left the room that she liked me. It was the way she laughed at the end of all her sentences. We got married after about a year. We were much younger then, with that forsaken, destined feeling, careening toward tragic futures unknown. We imagined something would kill us before long and it wouldn’t be our fault. But somehow we always survived.
Then Molly’s mom died. She tells me about dreams she has. There’s one where she’s wandering around downstairs in some house, and she can hear her mom calling her name from upstairs, only there’s no staircase.
I wonder now, did it all start then? That’s the thing about change. It can creep up on you.
…next thing I knew my hand was on the letter in the pocket of my coat. It was a love letter to her, not from me, filled with the kinds of promises you’d make to someone whom you never expected to test them. I’d found it in the outside dumpster three nights ago. Somehow I knew I’d find it there.
I could hear the paper in my pocket. All of the people in the diner, colliding and coming apart, seemed doomed.
The waitress ambled over with the check. I paid and left.
Out in the parking lot there was a man in a dirty brown coat just sitting on the curb by my car.
“Hey,” he said. “Where are you heading?”
I looked right past him, as if he hadn’t said a word at all. The sky was a bruise.
“Hey,” he said, a little louder. “I’ve broken down. Can I have a ride?”
“Sure,” I said, after some consideration. “Why not?”
The man’s name was Jack. In addition to the brown coat he was wearing beat-up sharkskin boots and a black, wide-brimmed hat, like Robert Mitchum’s preacher wears in The Night of the Hunter. He kept taking off the hat to wipe his brow. He carried a knapsack and was heading either to or from New York. I honestly don’t remember.
We observed the silence for a while. Eventually he asked me if I’d accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.
“Oh fuck…” I started.
“Now look—I’m not trying to convert you to something you’re not interested in. And I do appreciate you givin’ me this ride. I’m just lookin’ to have a conversation.”
“Right now is not the time,” I said.
He reached down into the knapsack and withdrew a small black book. He placed it in the glove compartment. “I’m just going to leave this here, if the time comes round.”
I waited in the parking lot of a Jiffy Lube while Jack purchased a container of Pennzoil. For a moment I imagined what he would look like doused in the oil, on fire, the black brim of his stupid hat curling skyward. When he came back to the car he could tell something was wrong with me. Suddenly my scalp was hot and the world quivered.
And then the man was holding both of my hands and looking at me straight in the eyes. I must have told him everything. “We think we know the ones we love,” he said. “But we don’t. We don’t know anyone.” He sighed.
Now I have these dreams where I’m trying to tell all of this to someone, only they keep interrupting.