by Richard Rosenbaum
Polly knows what she wants: to be in the greatest band in the world. Oliver knows what he wants: Polly. Together they are The Oughts, a duo trying to attain the unattainable, one basic chord at a time.
“Richard Rosenbaum’s The Oughts jabs its sticky little fingers right into your heart and swirls them around in there for a long, long time. Its characters unfold in pitch-perfect awkwardness and tender apathy, and readers will be struck by the surreal hinges and twitching imagery that Rosenbaum flawlessly weaves in. Writers in the audience should take note: Rosenbaum has created a writhing work of fiction that any scribe would aspire to be capable of pulling off.”
— Liz Worth, author of Treat Me Like Dirt: An Oral History of Punk in Toronto and Beyond and Eleven: Eleven
Her hair that burnt-out crunchy orange that’s the colour of attempting to remove all colour, like maple leaves on the ground in October. Oliver stares, follows it from the crown of her head, hanging stiff and stringy, down till its abrupt end at the point of her chin.
“I booked us five days of recording time at the studio next week,” the hair says. Well, the owner of the hair. Polly. “And if you don’t get that guitar of yours fixed by then I swear to fucking Apollo I will impale you through the lungs with it, do you hear me?”
Her lips thin, viscerally pink. Oliver’s fingers strum idly, discordantly, at the strings of the guitar in question. Polly’s eyes green and serious. Oliver’s head nods, maybe at Polly’s words, but maybe at the unheard beat of some imaginary drum, which only infuriates her further.
She must have broken up with him, he thinks. That’s why the impatience. This is good news. Inside his head Oliver flips the little kill switch connected to his brain’s “crush on Polly” circuit, and imagines hearing it click. When she’s involved with someone there’s no point, but when she’s single Oliver can enjoy some nice unrequited longing.
“Everything okay?” he says. “You seem, like, upset.” Inside him, Oliver’s lungs expand in Polly’s direction. Inflating; deflating.
“I am upset,” she says, as if just getting the words out is a really exhausting task for her. “Because it is the year 2009 of the Common Era, and our band is called The Oughts, and the whole point of calling it that was to capitalize on the, like, zeitgeist of the first decade of the twenty-first century, and that decade is now nearly over, and we have no recordings that are not total shit and we haven’t ever made more than a hundred dollars playing a gig and this is unacceptable!”
Oliver strums, looking really sort of understanding and friendish.
“You broke up with him, right?” His voice low with compassion; inside, a livid heart pumping.
“Fuck you,” says Polly. Pulls her gloves down over her wrists as far as she can, her eyes leaving Oliver’s. “Yes,” she says.
“He was a dick anyway,” Oliver says, which is not true. Oliver actually kind of liked this one.
“You’re a dick,” Polly says, “and I’ve had it with your dickitry. I’m serious about the guitar thing. Get it fixed. Or get a new one. I won’t have that piece of crap crapping out on us in the middle of a studio session. Will you get it fixed?”
“You’re right, you’re right,” Oliver says.
“Will you get it fixed?”
“I know, it needs fixing.”
“Will you. Get it. Fixed.”
“Say it. Say the words.”
“I’ll get it fixed!” He clutches it to himself like he’s afraid she’ll take it away from him. A sound like metal reverberates from its body into his ears.
“I promise, I promise.”
Damn, Oliver thinks, but more with, like, admiration than resentment. She knows him well enough to know he’ll never do anything unless she makes him promise to. And she only makes him promise things that are actually beneficial. This is one reason why they get along.
They meet in their last year of high school. Guitar class. Both of them in the front row.
That first day, before the teacher arrives, Oliver sits there with the standard-issue public school acoustic guitar in his lap, expending his full concentration on plonking out the bass line from Come as You Are—which is the only thing he knows how to play—over and over and over, like a needle in a scratched vinyl groove. He doesn’t even notice when Polly takes the seat beside him.
“That’s a good song,” she says, alerting him to her presence. He stops playing and looks at her. He knows her by sight as that pretty girl who always has her guitar case, but they’ve never had any classes together and their circles of friends don’t overlap, so they’ve never really spoken.
“Oh, thanks,” he says, which is stupid, so then he says, “I mean, yeah, it is.”
She’s got her blue wooden acoustic, wider at its widest point than her body is, and it’s covered with stickers for bands that must be good because Oliver has never heard of them.
“Can you play any of the rest of that album?” she asks.
“Oh man, no way,” he says. “This is literally the only thing I can even play at all. That’s why I’m in this class, I want to learn.”
“Gotcha,” she says. “I’m in this class for the easy A. I’ve been playing since I was eleven. I can play anything.” The way she says this it doesn’t come off as arrogant, just confident, self-aware, because it is clearly actually true.
“Nice,” Oliver says. “I’m Oliver.” He reaches out to shake her hand, and her bare hand reciprocates. Her fingers long, with blue-polished nails.
“What does that stand for?”
“Uh, Polly Jane. Everyone calls me P.J., though.”
“I like Polly better,” Oliver says. “Do you mind if I call you Polly?”
“No,” Polly says, a little bewildered. “No, I don’t mind.”
about the author
RICHARD ROSENBAUM is a writer from Toronto. Also: Associate Fiction Editor for the Incongruous Quarterly (incongruousquarterly.com), and Broken Pencil (brokenpencil.com), plus editor of an anthology of short stories culled from the latter publication, titled Can'tLit: Fearless Fiction from Broken Pencil Magazine (ECW Press 2009), which you can peruse at killcanlit.ca. A couple of his stories can be read for free online at joylandmagazine.com/stories/toronto/the_fence and on your mobile device at cellstories.net/info/share_welcome/54.
from the library
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