The Man and the Boy pushed the shopping cart slowly down the empty Road. Inside, under the two solar panels the Man had found at an abandoned lumber yard, were their clothes and a bunch of canned goods. It was all they had room for. He’d hooked up the panels to his phone, not because there was any phone service anymore, or anyone he knew to call if he could, but for the music on it. He’d found a cable splitter in the burnt-out rubble of a phone store so that each could listen with both ears. The Man didn’t often do that: he had to listen for other people, to be ready on a second’s notice to get off the Road and cover up.
“What does this remind you of?” the Man asked the Boy, hopefully. The song that was playing was This Ain’t the Summer of Love, from the album Blue Oyster Cult Live at Rock of Ages Festival, July 30th 2016. You could stream it at Spotify before the lockdowners had shut that service down. And then the whole web went down. And then most of the world. The Man and the Boy hadn’t seen people in a month.
“The verse sounds like Steve Wynn. The chorus sounds like the Stones,” the Boy replied.
He’d learned well!
The Man cursed himself for not loading more old favorites onto the phone: almost everything was new, or relatively new, from since the time he’d bought it. All the same, he’d tried to construct a history of music from the albums and tracks he had. When the two first hit the Road, he’d made sure to give the Boy a lesson every day. Too bad there wasn’t any Bach organ music. The Boy had suffered in silence through the St. Matthew Passion and the Klavierubung on piano. But he seemed to dig Rachmaninoff, and Shostakovich, especially the String Quartet No. 8 which the Man had forgotten was on the phone. Played by an obscure quartet, but still plenty chilling.
Trouble was, there was hardly any hip-hop, no country, not much blues, and trying to interest the Boy in jazz turned out to be a lost cause.
The Boy liked metal.
Good thing there was plenty of that, starting with a weird bunch of bands playing Sabbath covers and a solid Metallica mix. So far they’d burned through Q5, Black Swan, Wovenhand, Heavy Temple, Solace and Firebreather, and they were on BOC now.
The Man had left all his records, including the first ten BOC albums, behind at the house, and he resolved to fix that after they got off the Road, further south where it was warmer. He’d find another house, hopefully with no decaying corpses in it, another abandoned Home Depot, get some more panels, and rig up a real stereo. And build a still, and find a truck with a stick shift that would start if you pushed it fast enough. And maybe someday they’d go back to the old house, running on alcohol since all of the gas stations were empty now, and collect all the vinyl.
That was down the Road, though. Right now they had to get south enough to where they wouldn’t freeze to death if it snowed. That would take a couple of months, and it was already September.
“What’s up with the can of beer?” the Boy wanted to know. The song was The Golden Age of Leather.
“That’s a toast. And something for the band to engage the crowd with. You remember when we went to see Metallica, how people would raise their lighters? Same deal but with beer.”
“I don’t like this,” the Boy told the Man. “They play the same thing over and over again.”
The Man didn’t tell the Boy how people who were high when they heard this liked it that way. “Wait til you hear the original version, when we get situated and get all my vinyl down with us.”
“What song does this sound like?” the Boy wanted to know. In an off-key falsetto, he sang a famous 60s pop riff: “I love the ‘something, something’ she wears.”
“That’s the Beach Boys,” the Man replied. “You like the Beach Boys?” he asked, quizzically.
“I hate the Beach Boys. The Beach Girls,” the Boy sneered.
The Man was hopeful. The Boy rarely spoke anymore. Any sign of engagement with the world was a good thing. Everything had been looking up until his mother had taken the vaccine, and six months later, the immune deficiency had reared its ugly, inevitable head, and then she was dead.
As the Man and the Boy reached a hill, the blackened shell of a hospital stood stark against the sky, over the trees. First the lockdowners had vaccinated the doctors and the nurses to kill them off so they could use the hospitals as death camps. Because the National Guard had rebelled and refused to vaccinate people, the Australians had been called in. The lockdowners had shut down the food industry there, so the only way an Australian could eat was to join Trace and Track, or the vaccine army and go to the UK or the US. That’s when the Resistance started burning hospitals and liberating everyone who’d been locked up there, accused of carrying the virus. But it was too late. They’d all been vaccinated, at gunpoint, and they died off fast.
Apppropriately enough, the song that was playing was Burning For You. “You like this one?” the Man asked the Boy.
“It’s ok. What’s a b-side?”
“It’s the flip side of a single. You remember those 45 records your mom had? You know, the ones with the big hole in the middle? Those are singles. The b-side is the song on the other side. It’s not usually as good as the one on the a-side.” The Man kicked himself. Talking about his dead wife was something they’d come to avoid. He hoped the Boy wouldn’t go back into his shell.
“You wait til you hear the album version. Killer guitar solo. That’s Buck Dharma. The rest of the band here is mostly a bunch of replacements, but he’s one of the original guys. Him and the singer. Eric Bloom,” he explained.
And silently resolved to turn the Boy on to the album version of OD’d on Life Itself, too. That was the next song. This version didn’t have that insane peak, where the lead guitar comes spiraling out of the bridge. Here it was haphazard, jagged, not bad, but not something that would rip your face off the first time you heard it.
Oh, the unwindingness of it all
As if from Barraclough to the pubs of Ulster
A metaphor, yea
Whoah, stop right there.
Where did that awful Irish poetry come from? Nix that.
Now where were we?
The band were five tracks into their set by now and the song was a relatively new one, Harvest Moon. A backbeat tune. The Boy hummed along with the riff to All Along the Watchtower, then played air guitar when the twin solo kicked in. This kid had good ears, the Man reminded himself.
ME262 was the next song. The Man didn’t say anything about how it was on the slow side, or how the cynicism had been reduced to phony barrelhouse piano and doot-doot backing vocals. Just wait til you hear the original, he promised the Boy, silently.
The Boy did air guitar again for Buck’s Boogie. “It’s kind of like ZZ Top, huh?” he asked.
“Blue Oyster Cult blows away anything ZZ Top ever did,” the Man snorted. Still, this had gotten the kid’s attention. Good thing there was a bunch of BOC on the phone.
The Boy scrunched up his face and bobbed his head for Lips in the Hills. A deep cut with the creepy feel of the band’s classic 70s era, the Man thought. Forty-five years after they started, still going strong. If only I last that long.
Then Came the Last Days of May was next. About halfway through the first verse, a phone rang. The man whipped off his headphones. “Did you hear that? he asked the Boy.
“Yeah,” the Boy said, suddenly energized. “I didn’t think there was phone service anymore.”
The Man picked up the line. No signal. He restarted the song, and sure enough, there was a ringtone on it. Somebody in the band had forgotten to turn his phone off before he went onstage.
The two fell silent, through a weird, spacy Richie Castellano synth solo and the point where drummer Jules Radino and bassist Danny Miranda took the song doublespeed as they always did. The end of the guitar solo, the band really cooking by now, jarred the two road warriors out of their funk.
“Cool solo,” the Boy remarked. “Is this an old song?”
“Really old,” the Man replied. “First album. They always played it this way, real fast, when I used to go see them.”
“Do you think there will ever be concerts again?” the Boy asked.
“Oh yeah,” the Man responded, projecting as much casual confidence as he could. “As soon as we meet other people…”
“…Who aren’t cannibals,” the Boy interrupted.
“Yeah, who aren’t cannibals,” the Man concurred, picturing the headless infant cooked over a spit that they’d stumbled over a couple of weeks before. That was why they had to be careful, to keep one ear on the music and the other on the Road.
On their earbuds, the band had launched into Godzilla. It wasn’t that heavy, the Man told himself; the Boy picked up on the Led Zep quote. The apple obviously hadn’t fallen very far.
Don’t Fear the Reaper was the last song, a long, surprisingly fresh version. “Are you afraid of dying?” the Boy asked the Man.
“Nah,” the Man replied, hoping the blitheless in his voice would rub off. “But we aren’t going to die. We’re going to get off this Road and pick up where we left off. The old normal. No New Abnormal, right?”
“No New Abnormal, yeah,” the Boy replied. On the Boy’s lips, the Man glimpsed a flicker of a smile.
[Apologies to Cormac McCarthy, whose book would have been a lot better without all the extraneous attempts at poetry.]