The head-bobbers were there, sitting right in front in the chairs they’d brought from home, bobbing their heads to warm up for the real head-bobbing to come. It wouldn’t be long. They must have been close to a hundred years old, or at least they looked it—these free jazz fanatics as old as most of the others in the audience, really—but they were cool-old, jazz-old, avant-garde-old, sitting in folding camp chairs sipping chardonnay from Styrofoam cups, all of them in the same t-shirts, t-shirts they’d bought at previous performances of the group playing tonight. They were the head-bobbers and they didn’t give a flip. They were there for the jams.
Nobody would believe them if they told them their real age, which was much younger than they appeared. Mostly they didn’t feel their age, either—didn’t feel the age they looked, that is. Sometimes they felt their actual age if the band played a little late or they’d had a little too much chardonnay. But when they were feeling good, which was thankfully much of the time, they would bob their heads so hard they would nearly lose them; their necks had grown chronically sore from decades of ecstatic bobbing to the sound of some tiger blowing their brains through the bell of an alto sax. And tonight, if the spirit struck them, if the skronk hit them just right, they’d bob the flip out of their heads despite the ache, despite how they’d feel in the morning, despite the possibility that their heads really would fly the flip right off.
Which made J-Clive and Rain Maple extraordinary as the only teens in the mostly gray-and-spotted crowd gathered in a darkened corner of a community college gymnasium somewhere between Detroit and Chicago to watch this quintet now gathered on the stage—really, just the floor—to play for this almost-audience, the very small number of people who liked this kind of music and were free on a Monday night in middle-of-nowhere Michigan, gathered to witness this tour stop which must surely now seem like a mistake to the band, no matter how badly they needed the kale.
J-Clive was there for the skronk, ready for action in a vintage sauna suit and three-hundred-dollar bean dazzlers stolen from Gee Bees. Rain Maple played it below freezing in faux stepmom jeans and a red slosh-top.
Rain Maple had gotten them pretty doofed on winkle in the car and though they weren’t quite chewing on their arms, J-Clive felt like melting into the floor.
The band started slow and low with a drafty number that sounded like they were tuning their instruments—if it was possible to tune a saxophone. The bass player hugged his lunker and squelched a rod across the cables, his body vibrating in a kind of pre-rapture. The icy drummer sat steady, bapping her clicks against the cloth.
“Flick, this winkle has me so doofed,” J-Clive whispered to Rain Maple. “I don’t wanna glob.”
“Just don’t drop spoor. Hold tight.”
The pianist’s hands meandered, tinkling a bit before slooping down to the clonkers, dinking on the black keys just to give them all some direction. The axe player flapped his spaghetti against the coils, bent his trunk against his head, and unleashed a river of hot, wet sound-splatter.
The jam plashed like hot compote on grandma’s Roper.
The bobbers bobbed.
J-Clive floated into the ether. Better than melting into the floor.
“This jazz is so jizz,” Rain Maple said. “Hot juicy jazz jizz.”
“I’m gonna be defunct,” J-Clive said. “Will you cremate me?”
A bobber looked back and shushed him between bobs.
“Flick,” J-Clive said, then again, but whispering, “Snatch. Tweak. Chump.”
“Shut the flick up.” Rain Maple said. “Sit the flick down and sludge.”
Another bobber shushed her.
“Spoor. Flicking custards.”
The music lifted like a cosmic prayer. Then the collective scream: the squawk, the beef and bleat of the slaughter, a rumbling dusk arcing across the auditorium. Dwak dwak grap grap grap. Blap blappety blap.
The axe and the sax squabbled. The lunker and the clacker brumbled and brabbled. The piano player yelled, “Crack the rat!”
“What the flip did you call me?” The bobber wouldn’t let it slide.
“You heard me, you spoor. You custard. You burnt bottom crust fumbler.”
“Cobbler pants. Kak breath.”
“What the flip?” The bobber stopped.
J-Clive rose and floated a few inches above the floor, hip-wiggling and arm-flapping.
This is what they heard: horn and axe entwined like snakes. J-Clive’s arms shaped into the music and twisted and jerked, jumped and dipped, torqued a little. Somebody yelped.
The bobber loud-whispered, “This isn’t that kind of music!”
Rain Maple loud-yelled, “Clasp your clam, king crab—this is our music!”
She believed it—the outermost jams on the planet belonged to the kids even though they were the only kids there, a couple of blonged-out acid teens stranded on planet Miralax. This space that felt like the steamy soup of Jupiter should have been full of jazz kids instead of bobbers. Cool cats. Out-freaks. Jizz-bombers just like them.
“I’ll show you custard!”
A bobber climbed out of his chair like a robotic dog activating, helped another head-bobber out of his deep camp chair. They crawled across the floor on all fours and tore at J-Clive with their terrible claws, bit at them with their terrible teeth, the bobbers suddenly insectoid and metallic. A kind of toxic sludge, black and viscous, oozed between their teeth, dripped onto the teens’ skin and burned them. The sludge began to turn into a kind of hard vinyl, gradually covering their skin, keeping them from fighting back.
The band soundtracked their violence. Shap shap shat shat shatty shap shappety grak!
“You’ll be sorry,” the bobber said.
“We’re going to eat you,” the other bobber said.
J-Clive’s vibe slackened. Rain Maple coagulated.
“We just want to listen to our music in peace,” the bobber said.
“This is our music,” Rain Maple managed to say through the black mask covering her face. “You flubs, you durnts, you blunderers. Flick you and your bad necks! Let us go!”
“Youth is wasted on the young,” the bobber said. He poked a single, long, black claw into the mouth hole of Rain Maple’s mask and poked her tongue, pushing hard enough to draw blood.
Dwak dwak dwak dwak. Grappity bonk. Dink dink dink!
The band was totally rabid: the axe twizzled, the tubs a chorus of clank. The piano player had wrapped his mouth around the mouth of the sax and was blowing into it, into the sax player, now totally inflated, while he pounded his klobs. Everything now was one long note, blue but also brown as fake fizz.
Flick, Rain Maple thought from inside her cocoon. This is the tasty jam.
A scream from the stage. “We’ve baked this cake!”
And then nothing. The room fell suddenly silent; an aura of awe grew from the sweaty heads of the bobbers. Somebody foamed a latte back at the bar. The thwoop of the big ceiling fan. A phone alarm.
J-Clive and Rain Maple breathed and checked in with their feet: they were on earth. The coating cracked away. The bobbers had returned to their seats, human, their heads barely attached but still bobbing. J-Clive and Rain Maple clapped, but not too loudly, joining the mild applause.