So a butterfly flaps its wings or whatever,
and suddenly I’m in my car, lining up next to two
girls in a convertible. The song on the car stereo
insists, No I don’t have a gun, and I unconsciously
start singing along. I look over at the girls who
are pointing in my direction as they pull away,
ponytails trailing in the breeze.
Short hair, scar, I’m not much to look at, I guess.
I’m pretty normal, kind of boring, actually. I don’t
recall if I was ever popular or anything in high
school. For most people, I guess the answer lies
between yes and no. Personally, I don’t
remember much about anything, not even how I
got the scar. It runs from the bottom of my
mouth to just above my right eyebrow, making
me look like a real zipperhead.
I’ve tried a shrink who told me go backwards to go
forward and an elderly guru with a gap-toothed
grin who told me to be thankful, whatever wiped
out my memory did me a huge favor. His name is
Mr. Char. I still see him sometimes and bring him
a bag of groceries from the co-op.
It’s not much later, in the little apartment I share
with my cat Mephistopheles, that a strange feeling
comes over me. Like I might be wasting my time
being this person with the warehouse job that
doesn’t occupy too much of his brain.
I’ve started writing for the past few months when
the big cheese isn’t looking, just random ideas that
come into my head, mostly empathetic thoughts
going out to my fellow man, if you want to know
the truth. But with some satanic stuff thrown in
just to maintain a healthy balance.
And so I do a mirror check. I’m super scrawny,
anemic looking. I tend to get bored eating food.
The taste wears off after the first few bites and
then you might as well be munching drywall.
Maybe I’m some kind of parasite and just haven’t
found the right host yet?
On second thought—those organic calf brains at
the co-op are kind of tasty.
Today, the blue eyes staring back in the mirror
don’t quite seem like mine. They are more like
two transplanted organs out of a B-movie starring
Vincent Price. Dead-man eyes supplying visuals
from a past identity, one I need to find out more
I hate that I just wrote that. It sounds totally gay.
I’ll skip to this next part. I eventually find myself
in a plastic surgeon’s office, telling him to lose the
scar. He has asked me to bring in a picture of
myself before the “disfigurement,” and of course I
don’t have one, so he has to feel up my skull like
he’s searching for a missing link.
I guess it is lucky for me he is this older guy from
the Fifties who kind of resembles Mr. Drysdale on
“The Beverly Hillbillies.” He glares at me with a
pissy expression on his face then gets down to
Next thing is, I discover the voice.
My way of unwinding is totally antisocial, drinking
some brews and strumming along to tunes on the
FM stations, mostly oldies from the seventies and
eighties, on a guitar that cost me two weeks’ take-
home pay. Like I said earlier, pretty boring. I
have always had a decent voice though, not like
some of those contestants on “American Idol” who
get lost in the no-man’s land between singing
along to tracks and singing solo.
Maybe it is the invisible man wrap I am wearing
that emboldens me. Or makes me yell louder just
so I can hear myself through the gauze. It’s a
couple weeks after Mr. Drysdale. I’m in my
apartment, in the middle of a new song. Out of
nowhere comes this exorcist voice that startles
Once the Damien voice kicks in, I begin playing
around with it. I have to quit after an hour or two
because the growling kind of makes my stomach
hurt. Probably it’s a primal aggressive response
that generates a lot of stomach acid.
If you’d care to flash-forward another two months,
I am looking in the mirror again, but now I’m
seeing a new face. The scar is gone and the hair
has grown out, a blond so light you’d swear one of
the Beach Boys dumped a whole bucket of Clorox
over it. I have a little tuft of a goatee, flecked
with white. And for the first time I can remember,
I like what I see. At least, looking at me wouldn’t
make the average person puke.
Some strands of past lyrics start to come back at
this point, almost on a subconscious level, like
proto-memories. The Gothic scariness of being
stuck at Grandma’s house when you’re a little kid,
the terrible realization that your dad is not a
superhero, or just wanting to keep things
righteous with the girlfriend.
I have a new job now, at a Guitar Center, of all
places. Customer service is not exactly my
specialty, but I get a lot of stares, and that’s kind
of a welcome change. I’d be lying if I said it gets
old after awhile. It’s only been a little while. And
the customers aren’t so bad. Waiting on them is
kind of like a rehearsal for real life.
Yeah, people are pretty cool. My heart goes out
to them sometimes.
My co-workers I don’t really understand, on the
other hand. Kids whose lives are centered around
technology, video games, cell phones, and iPods.
Just buying into the system, if you ask me, and
racking up enough debt to remain there forever.
They actually talk about things like going on
cruises with their parents.
I’m starting to hang out at the occasional club. I’ll
pay the cover to sit at the bar and listen to the
band, but rarely stick for the second set. Unless
someone is covering the Ramones or something
like that. I’ll hang around to finger the cords on
the edge of the counter and maybe peer over my
sunglasses at the bartender if she’s hot.
Once, at the Guitar Center, I pretend to be
demonstrating an expensive model. I pick it up
and play a letter-perfect “Serve the Servants.” A
crowd of about twelve is watching me curiously.
This is a kind of cool, but not entirely pleasant
experience for me. I feel like Koko the monkey
being ogled at through the glass by an army of
I leave work that night wondering if entertainers
aren’t the true latter-day saints for constantly
interacting with people, signing autographs,
sacrificing their normal lives. I think for some
reason of Mr. Char, his basic good nature and
consideration for others, at least until the
Alzheimer’s kicked in. It must be a real blow for a
person like that to realize he is divorced from his
optimal self, sapped of the energy to keep on
I perceive that there are many people out there
feeling alone. I’d like to bond with them in a way
I can’t really explain. I’ve been practicing into the
night lately and have started to wonder if it would
be cool to try to hook up with a band.
I consider an open-mike night, then catch myself.
I’m still in the process of synchronizing the Damien
voice with the guitar. If I miss a beat, it will be a
joke, like watching the subtitles trying to catch up
with the kick-ass martial arts action in a Bruce Lee
No, I know it sounds corny, but I set my sights on
the karaoke bar.
The first night there I’m just listening at a little
table by the kitchen while the other patrons get
their buzz on. It’s the usual Thursday crew of
after-workers and regulars cranking out the oldies
and applauding way too loudly for each other. I’m
looking at the playlist, which includes lots of
grunge songs I can growl, like “Pennyroyal Tea”
I’m wearing light shades, a lumberjack shirt that’s
big enough to swim in, with a Pixies t-shirt
underneath for moral support. I’ve been nursing
the same beer for over an hour now, doing a
better job of that than an LPN. The cocktail server
barely glances at me when she kicks open the
double doors leading into the kitchen.
I get my courage up when only two or three other
tables are left, and without removing the shades,
take the microphone and kick into “Dumb.”
Simple song, easy to manage. So of course I
almost screw it up, because I’m squinting at the
monitor when I don’t need to. I fall into the trap
of the rhyme scheme and start to follow Lesson
learned with Soothe the burn instead of Wish me
luck. But I recover quickly. And I don’t look up at
all until I’m finished.
Apparently, a large table of co-workers sitting
near the stage is in the right demographic to have
recognized it. They are clapping and calling for an
encore. The DJ tells me why not, I’m the first
person who’s been in tune since the end of happy
So I kick into “Pennyroyal Tea,” intentionally not
looking at the words so I don’t lose my place. The
sunglasses are off now. I need to concentrate
because the new voice is about to make its public
debut. When I hit the refrain, it really catches the
attention of the table-sitters and even the cocktail
server, who pauses and watches me. I make it
through the whole song without hitting a false
note, despite the fact that the front table has been
generating more than its share of raucous
I finally finish and hand the microphone back to
the DJ, who is real complimentary this time,
mentioning something about a contest Saturday
night. I’m heading back to my table when this
woman pulls at my sleeve and rasps, “Kurt, Kurt,
come join us!”
I pause for a moment. When I look back at her,
point blank, she goes catatonic, repeating, “Oh,
my God. Oh, my God!” I thank her but am out
the door before she can summon a friend.
Friday, I take a day off work to rehearse for the
contest. First prize is five hundred bucks, not too
I practice and practice until I reach the point
where I’m sweating like Richard Nixon after
chasing Checkers around the block all day. Then
suddenly, I just sit down in the middle of the rug
and think about nothing. I don’t mean I blank out
entirely. I actually feel super alert, like my nerve
endings are sticking out of my skin like broken
strings. I’m just thinking about nothing in
Only later do I actually reflect back on all the
elapsed time and remember the feeling that came
to me of raw energy. Like my ectoplasm could
explode in a million directions at once.
On Saturday, it’s naturally way too crowded to
even sit, so I hang out at the back and watch the
other contestants. I’ve paid the entry fee and
listed “Lithium” as my first song, saving “Smells
Like Teen Spirit” for the next round if I make it.
Wise strategy? Time will tell.
The contestants are mostly pretty decent. You’ve
got your typical lineup of Mariahs and Shanias and
Garths. They are all dressed up and accompany
their performances with lots of hand gestures. Not
that many people pay attention to me when my
turn comes, so I don’t feel too much like test
meat. I just focus on the song and get it right.
I guess I must have been in the zone or
something, because ten minutes later, I can’t
remember a thing about the performance.
Honestly. I find myself dancing with one of the
Shanias, who’s really friendly in that country sort
of way. I don’t tell her I don’t care much for the
real Shania, who ripped off Aerosmith’s “Uncle
Salty” for her first big hit.
At about 10:00, the DJ cuts in and says that it
would be a good idea for me to stick for the next
round. Happy trails to my dancing partner.
This time, I shake out the hair and stare out at the
crowd before the song starts up. The first guitar
riff comes up, and I begin counting beats
carefully. “Load up on guns and/ Bring your
friends/ It’s fun to lose/ And to pretend,” I begin,
without much effort. Kind of appropriate lyrics for
a karaoke contest, I can’t help thinking.
I continue on through the string of hellos and how
lows, slowly coming alive and edging out toward
the audience members with a familiarity I can’t
I get an immediate reaction. Then I really nail the
chorus, screaming into the mike and exploiting the
sudden break for all the shock value it’s still
worth. Audible cries go up of “Kurt! Kurt!”
During the next verse, I back up and lower my
head. I’m definitely inhabiting the space of the
stage now, trying to project that sense of
camaraderie outward to the audience, which,
despite including my remaining competitors
(a few), is dancing and applauding.
I writhe around and scream some more. The
irony is that the song isn’t really about having
100% fun. I think it’s more about the downside of
having to perform on demand. I have totally
mixed feelings about it, I guess you could
A half hour later, I am five hundred dollars richer.
I’ve shaken some hands and gotten quite a few
invitations for drinks from some pretty
affectionate people. But instead, I am being
pushed back up to the stage for an encore.
“Lithium” begins for a second time, and the crowd
engulfs me. By the middle of the first verse, my
self-consciousness has melted away.
A sudden rush of energy rises up from my
abdomen and courses through my chest and neck,
all the way up to my forehead. I have a foolish
grin on my face, no doubt.
Kurt Cobain said it best: “All in all is all we are.”
I think I know what he meant.
M.V. Montgomery is the
author of Dream Koans
(Fast Forward Press) and
one upcoming book of