Rollie was convinced that what Michael Stipe was really singing was come into the Winnebago and that “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite” was about child abuse (the evidence in the lyrics: candy bar, falling star, The Cat in the Hat), but nobody on the boards was having any of it. The other newsgroup members pointed him to the FAQ—he pronounced it like a word in his head, rhyming with whack—and congratulated him on figuring out Usenet, now stop being a sorry-assed troll.
They were out there, ducking in and out of rec.music.rem to show off their pistol wits as artfully as the white-dot VAX graphics allowed. He imagined, from how they strung together eloquent sentences or tucked in extensive literary .sigs, that they were English majors like he was, only they blew off their classes to read Baldwin, Nabokov, and Bertrand Russell in paperbacks with their spines broken. They spun hard-to-find seven-inch vinyl at their campus radio stations. They had outsized personas and carried pocket handkerchiefs and drank whiskey in heavy glasses and dashed off verse on cocktail napkins. They got no joy from rage. They didn’t hook up, they made love.
Were he able to swing the postage, he would send everyone on rec.music.rem the new issue of Smug Fossil. There would be one hundred fifty copies of Issue Three, twenty-four pages of poetry and fiction and cartoons and rants folded and stapled and hand-numbered and brilliant. A few souls humored him by tossing a poem or doodle his way, but most of Issue Three was the work of himself and Alyssa, who now sat at the main table of the Writing Center, folding and stapling and numbering the issues and stacking them inside a printer-paper box. The school didn’t know it had loaned the paper. Rollie and Alyssa had hid under the table as Campus Security did midnight sweeps. Then they kept the lights off while the copier went to work, emitting its patient hums and hot black musk.
He logged back into email to see if there was another message from Melody, the sophomore at Ohio State whom he had met in alt.music.betterthanezra and with whom he had been pen-palling for much of the semester, she dropping him lessons in conversational French and sharing complaints about Newt Gingrich. He worked out that a trip to Columbus from New Hampshire would take twelve hours by bus. Melody had mentioned a boyfriend back in October, but since then the guy had thinned out promisingly to a murmur.
The Writing Center was on the top floor of the library. From the darkened room, the windows showed a nice night for stargazing. Howlers were out, stumbling back along the Rape Trail. Through Rollie’s lenses, the new lamps along the trail were halos.
Alyssa had finished with the issues and was now squinting at the Boston Phoenix. “Pavement’s coming to the Middle East,” she said.
Rollie said, “I hate the new album.” It came out hostile. Then he said, “Let me see if I can turn up funds.” There have been more of these suggestions to ditch campus and have adventures in the city. One month ago, a mosh pit on Lansdowne Street: Juliana Hatfield with special guest Cold Water Flat. Their friends disappeared. Rollie had the urge to muscle up against the BU fratholes copping handfuls of Alyssa’s tit as she crowd-surfed. Then she accidentally on purpose put her left shitkicker into one frathole’s ear, and when the guy came to, Rollie was the one he wanted to fight. He sort of felt something for her then.
But Alyssa hung too close. She had read Prozac Nation, and began to suspect that Rollie’s every eccentricity was a warning sign. (Rollie couldn’t finish the book, too annoyed by the platter of opportunities handed to the author.) Alyssa found him on the roof of the science building, stripped to the waist in subzero temperatures, gazing out at the lights of Manchester Airport with Automatic for the People spinning on repeat on his Discman.
The school called his parents. Rollie refused to talk to them. They’d say he was being a brat. Alyssa made him promise to get counseling. His symptoms were consistent with manic-depression, she said. It made Rollie think of the hair dye they sold at Newbury Comics.
Why did he choose to go to school with these unhappy walled-in Catholics, with their flip-flops and Irish kegger politics and pajama drama, their proud aversion to complexity? At other schools, it seemed, you could hang in the lounge all night, pass around a two-liter of Mr. Pibb and watch Barton Fink or S.F.W., and not have to explain any of it, and it didn’t matter if you lacked the thumbs for NHL ’94.
Diane at Health Services—an aunt-type who talked hip and let Rollie smoke in her office, his Chucks up on the split, electrical-taped upholstery—pressed him to find a creative outlet. So he started Smug Fossil. It was cathartic: a fuck you to every hacky-sack-playing, Cider Jack-drinking, Neil Young-listening mock-anguished trust-fund baby who had ever stuffed a towel under a door. If ten people opened the thing before chucking it into a garbage can on the quad—last spring, the pages piled up everywhere, caught in the wind, snagged in bike racks—then there was the satisfactory chance that one or two might bleed a little bit.
Alyssa put the cover on the box, then stretched back in her chair. Her t-shirt rode up. She said, “You’re awfully quiet.”
He was thinking that if he returned to his room he would find Shep’s gray ankle sock slung over the doorknob, insultingly content in its limp threadbareness. On that floor, it only encouraged knock-bys.
“Need a place to crash?” Alyssa asked.
“Thanks. I can sleep here.”
“We were going to deliver these in the morning.”
“I said I can sleep here.”
“Until security throws you out, then what?”
“They won’t find me.”
He did want a cigarette. He would have to go outside, and then he wouldn’t have a way back in.
Alyssa lived in one of the community houses set aside for straightedge kids. Her roommate was visiting a friend at UVM. She and Rollie used the Rape Trail to cut across.
The box was heavy. The cardboard handles cut into his fingers. “I need to stop,” he said.
He shook out a clove cigarette and lit it, and shared it with her.
Alyssa looked up. “You can’t see shit now since they put in these lights. This was the best spot on campus.”
“The science building.”
She looked at him.
“I know a way in.”
“So do I, remember?”
It involved going through a window. Alyssa, a foot shorter than Rollie, had to stand on the box to reach it. The cardboard almost gave way. Rollie then passed the box through the window and followed her inside.
They moved hushedly, though nobody was there, no alarm had sounded. Up four flights, through a service door. They were on the roof. He wedged the box inside the door to hold it ajar.
“Is this why you come up here?”
“Shh. We might see a shooting star.”
But every twitch they spied turned out to be a plane. The airport twinkled to the east. With his head craned upward, Rollie started to lose his balance; he let Alyssa lean against him. They lost themselves in the whirl of blues and blacks and lavenders, the visible static: light-years, ecstasy, shiver of a proof of God.
Beneath his chin she said, “Nobody’s going to read your stupid zine.”
“Tell me about it.”
“Everyone already knows what’s in it. None of it’s you. All your talent, and you’d rather be a creeper in a world that’s crammed with ‘em.”
Rollie lay in Alyssa’s roommate’s bed feeling the weird scratch of flannel, his nose tickled by a strange shampoo. Posters looked down on him in the dark. Alyssa, removing any doubt, fell right asleep on her side of the room. Shadows of feet darkened the light beneath the door. Rollie passed the time making lists in his head. He pondered second acts. He wondered if he should transfer to another school, or drop out and learn a trade. He wondered if he should try Pavement again, if the new album would grow on him.
Neil Serven lives in Greenfield, MA and works as a lexicographer. His stories have appeared in Atticus Review, Pithead Chapel, Washington Square Review, Cobalt, and elsewhere.
Image by Sarah Clark