The night that they say I killed Percy LeBlanc is the last in a total shit show of a tour.
The van is trashed. Our asses hurt. Our fingers and wrists are arthritic with steering. Though you wouldn’t have guessed it, tonight’s our homecoming: The Arctic Circle, New Orleans. Thirty-five shows in forty days and this should be our grand return, but it’s not even close, it’s a fucking disaster. We’ve also just had an insane yelling match that, for some of us, might be relationship-burning. It had started when Reese said to Percy, “A whore is all you’ll ever really be,” and Percy put hands on his chest, saying, “Whoa,” and Beau piled on with, “Judas wept,” and Rian lashed out at them both with, “He’s trying! It’s only that, shit, man, he doesn’t know how,” and Reese and Beau both groaned at that and I had said, “Hey, guys, let’s not do this now,” and everyone there, even Percy LeBlanc—especially Percy, who loathes a soft-belly—had turned their accumulate rage onto me:
“Crap ass yacht rocker!”
But all of that is over now, and everyone stares straight ahead.
We’re endlessly crossing the Bonne Carre Spillway and Percy’s on fire to be out of the van. He juts above the center console, making blast beats on the dash with his palms. In the cupholder wobbles a tallboy of High Life, Percy’s third inside the hour. Motorhead’s “Bomber” is shaking the speakers, but Percy’s rendition is wild and way off. Percy’s been drinking ever since Lafayette. That and something extra peppy on top. His lips are chapped white and there’s muck in the corners. Every time we stop to piss he’s the last one to come charging out of the john.
Reese (keyboard) is in the back.
Rian (rhythm guitar) is next to Reese.
Beau (drums) is next to me.
Lucky me (bass), I’m at the wheel.
Oh, and there’s the Roadie, who doesn’t say much. He’s in the way, way back, alone.
Together, we are Bethlehem: howling dark star of New Orleans black metal. But we’re not anymore—not after today. It’s happened before but this time, man, we mean it.
The Mississippi rushes past. Dirty gulls drop from guardrails, swoop down. Beyond the edges of the road, a tattered and sun-beaten distance expands. The ragged screen of cypress trees shows New Orleans’ skyline against the horizon: low roofs of Treme and the Superdome, rising. Beau lights a cigarette, cranks down the window. Percy’s hair whips in his face. “Float me one of those,” he says, but Beau just ignores him, smokes harder, and squints. Percy lunges at Beau and gets right in his face, goosing Beau’s pants for where Beau keeps his ciggies, but Beau pulls the pack out and wings it at Percy. “Get up out my area code, motherfucker.” Percy laughs dark and bitter, the hair flying from him. Smoke fumes from his nose-holes and like that, he’s live, letting loose the cathedral-high, strangled-crow screech and then the growl he barely uses—lower, rougher, thick with blood. It’s the growl of a guy puking up razorblades while a serval cat rips its way out of his chest. A growl of unbeing, the Bethlehem growl.
The van is a 1999 navy blue Chevy we all went in for on at the start of last summer. At first, we’d vowed to keep it nice, communal living space on wheels, but slowly the stickers have started their creep from the face of the bumper and over the doors, Percy broke a window crank and the frame has been sideswiped and doored all to shit in the bad neighborhoods where our fans put us up. Not to mention the inside is putrescent with biomass stink and our various vices: Beau’s cigarette butts, Rian’s sunflower seeds, Percy’s beer cans, Reese’s Cliff Bars. See, the van was already this murder-y shit box. Now it just screams: pull us over.
We head down Claiborne past the lube shops, turn right on St. Roch, and then right up St. Claude. It’s just before twilight. We’re on in four hours. In lots of America right now it’s winter, freezing dark battening over the roofs, but here in New Orleans it’s seventy-five. The air’s still got that swamp-ass in it. There are brown baggers walking St. Claude in a daze. One of them almost gets creamed by a truck. Crusties with off-leash pitt-mixes, panhandling. Mustachioed hipsters in Wellington boots. A row of old-timers in front of the tire place, tipping back tallboys in tipping-back chairs. We move through it all but we’re part of it, too, in this heavy dark way, like a hurricane’s eye. “Sammy, just slow down the van!” Percy says. “Just slow down the van and fuck, man, I’ll jump out!”
“You swear I’m doing that,” I say.
Percy is practically humping the console, right up against the van’s windshield. The Arctic Circle’s coming fast: ice-colored marquee with black, spidery letters. Percy leans forward between me and Beau and cranks Motorhead up to its maximum level—“Killed by Death,” his favorite track—the van’s speakers burring with indistinct noise. He pounds the ceiling: “Uh—uh—uh!” And then there’s this moment with Percy nearby when he’s yelling his nonsense right into my ear—“New Orleans, baby! You fuckers, we’re home!”—not “New Or-leens,” the way that the tourists pronounce it but the way that the born and bred residents do—“New Or-le-ans,” the tri-syllabic—and his cigarette-beer breath is blasting my cheek, and his hand is clamped onto the top of my thigh, and I feel his scruff skimming my burning ear cartilage, and he’s yelling, “Roll, Sammy! You roll and I’ll jump! I’m Percy the hedgehog, you fucker, I’ll roll!” and he’s monstrously chugging his champagne of beers before jamming it into the crease of my legs, and I hear the long sound of the door sliding open, and Reese is sliding to the left, and Percy is grabbing the can out again as he flings himself into the street at rush-hour, and goddamn it, I’m rolling, I’m letting him go, just like Percy said I would.
I see him in the rearview mirror, deranged spider monkey of hair and black denim. He’s beautiful flying and landing upright past the edge of the curb in a wild gymnast’s stance, how he kneels on the sidewalk, one knee to the earth, the other one pumping along with the music. Thrash balloons in the van when Reese closes the door.
Coming upright again Percy shouts something at us. It’s muffled through the music and the thickness of the door, but as the van stalls there he shouts it again. “Fuck y’all very much, I’m done!” And then he does this little bow, his hand circling as he bends at the waist.
The Roadie’s out there with him, too. He stands behind Percy, beneath the marquee, hands jammed in his hoodie like some stickup kid. I hadn’t even seen him jump, but between Reese and Rian, the way-way back’s empty. In the rearview, Percy kills his Miller and flings the empty into traffic. He throws the world a sloppy goat: his pointer and pinkie extended like horns. It’s the universal symbol for DRINK BEER, HAIL SATAN. A couple of passersby raise the roof at him. The last time I see him he’s down on all fours and he’s kissing the foul, riven street of New Orleans, and he looks like a man who’s been shot in the head on the very first contact he makes with the earth.
Not like we hadn’t known already, but it’s nice to hear someone pronounce it out loud: Bethlehem is broken. Fin.
Our howling dark star has collapsed on itself.
Beau tells me to circle the back of the club and drop him off around the side.
He’ll go and check in with the Sherpa, he says—the guy who owns and runs the place. He’ll make sure everything is straight. “In the meantime,” he says, “I’ll be not getting drunk. Just in case you need to reach me.”
By which he means if he did drink. He’s straight-edge except for the cigs, obvs. And for all but three days of the forty-day tour, Rian had been his sober buddy—drinking tonic with lime while we swayed at the bar, going out for a smoke when the baggies came out. But Rian’s fallen off the wagon and Beau’s been on his own for the last several days. He’s the one who makes spreadsheets for seven-day tours. He’s the one who calls venues if we’re running late. He always wears this little backpack haphazardly covered in death metal patches in which he keeps his water bottle, a gaffer’s tape roll, and a fresh pair of sticks. Tonight he walks bowed underneath it, a burden. I drop him off around the block. But it’s not Beau I’m scared for. He’ll handle himself. I’m scared for Percy—shitfaced, hopeless. And as soon as I’m no longer playing chauffeur, I know I’m going to have to find him, make sure he’s in working order. After all, it’s what I do. By the time Reese is parallel-parking the van—while Beau, just emerged from the back of the club along with the Sherpa and Greem, the head bouncer, watch us in a smoking huddle—it’s way after six, and the sound sound check is over.
The Roadie and Percy are nowhere in sight. The mood is exhausted and punchy with doom. There would’ve been more sold-out shows in the future. More profit than even the meager amount we’d just started making through downloads, LP sales, grueling regimens of touring. A record contract, maybe, with a semi-major indie. Wait a year, we’d be headlining Maryland Death Fest. They say, “Don’t quit your day job,” but I hadn’t listened. I have no fucking clue what I’m going to do next.
Down from the early birds lining the curb (usually oldheads who have to leave early or try to stay for all the bands) there’s another tour van, its windows tinted. The scent of herb comes on the breeze. Beau tips his chin as I approach. He doesn’t seem the least bit stressed, which is close to not breathing for Beau, and it’s weird, especially given his big desperation to be out of the van, away from Percy. All he says is, “Sup.” We nod. He’s got the perpetual cigarette burning. He smells like an ashtray and, maybe, perogies, the sour cream and applesauce sweet on his breath.
The Sherpa looks us over, smiles. “Percy on the rag again?”
Rian rolls her eyes at this portly Gen-X-er pretending to understand what we’ve been through, what the rest of the night holds in store for us still. But, like, the Sherpa isn’t wrong. Everybody knows our singer. Greem (like Grim, but kind of cheery, because Greem is the cheeriest bouncer there is) has strong-armed his ass out the door more than once, the weathered, strong face with its golden faux hawk moving high through the dark, Percy stumbling before him. “So, Bethlehem unplugged?” says Rian.
“Motherfucker can stay gone for all that I care. Chase that dragon from here all the way to Biloxi,” Beau says almost giddily, and that’s when the van behind ours shuttles open on a sheering expulsion of weed smoke, bro laughter, and the shuddering depths of a huge drop-D groove—Weedeater or EyeHateGod. A black-clad succession of dudes trundle out and slouch toward the Arctic Circle. These jokers are Ex Inferis.
They’re Baton Rouge sweatpants mouth-breathers, the worst, and they hold the remains of Popeye’s in their hands. Their chestnut hair is soft and bright from Mane & Tail shampoo with vitamin extract. It smells delicious when they bang. They wear XL band shirts with grim, thorny logos that proliferate smaller down their sleeves, and as they approach in a glaze-eyed procession, their mouths chapped and hard through the scruff of their beards, they strike me as some sacred order of rednecks which is, I suppose, what they actually are.
Their singer flips the bird at us (his name is Jaemez, pronounced just “James”) while their bass player (Jay-Bob or Bob-Jay or something) mutters at us, “Hey there, bitches.” They call themselves “trve kvlt” black metal—the old Norwegian designation. Their hooks are cold. Their cuts are rough. To them, we’re just hipsters with key carabiners latched onto some loose edge of their scene. But for serious, fuck them. They live with their moms. They round up their hair into pert ponytails for their IT department or graphic design jobs. They’re the soft, junk-food old-guard. They loathe what we’ve built, the sinuous path that we’ve blazed through their world. With a last, disgusted look from Jaemez, Ex Inferis goes into the club with their shit. The Sherpa smirks and says, “My office?”
We enter the doors and we go through the club, past the two poker tables behind the arcade (Aerosmith Revolution and House of the Dead) where Ex Inferis, hunkered down among torn open boxes, are sorting their merch.
Of everyone the Roadie’s there, erect behind the second table. I don’t recall seeing him load out the merch—our T-shirts and LPs and stickers and patches—but that’s not atypical of him, I guess. He’s shady like that—literally, a creature of shadow, who tends to de-materialize before reforming somewhere else, and he stands here arms folded above all the merch with his close-shaven head and his pall of tattoos. He’s got stuff on his neck, creeping onto his face. I think he’s running out of room.
We go through the back of the club, through the kitchen, where guys from Eritrea, Chad, and Honduras make Polish street food for the kids with drunk munchies. The kitchen is hot and patois sails around us. The perogies and beef stroganoff hit me hard.
Someone’s in the Sherpa’s office, sitting in the Sherpa’s chair. His hair is buzzed along the sides and long and wavy down the middle, like some South American bad boy of soccer. He wears a black T-shirt with azure screen printing that reads, “I’m Sick to Death of LOW.” One of his boat shoes wags over the floor as he bobs in the swivel chair watching us enter, scanning us from head to toe. One after the next, we react to his presence, like a high-tension wire has gone tunneling through us. All except for Beau, I guess, who enters with his eyes turned down. “What a bunch of hot messes,” chair-guy tell us. “You guys just got here, didn’t you?”
“What’s he doing here?” says Reese.
Beau looks at him hard. “What you think, man? I called him.”
“Red eye from Kennedy,” says the guy, sighing. “God, I love this goddamned city. The smells, the ironwork, I mean, a New York kid could just get lost. You got any bourbon?” he says to the Sherpa. “I only drink bourbon as soon as I’m here.”
The Sherpa opens up his desk and pours from a bottle of Sazerac Rye.
“Pour me one of those,” says Reese.
“I’m a double,” says Rian. Reese stares at her, hard.
She sits down in one of five prearranged chairs. Beau sits too, he gets all comfy. But I can’t yet. I stand with Reese, a ways off from chair-guy, practically in the hall. With Bethlehem, I’m always like this, even though I’ve played bass in the band for two years. A ghost haunting the mausoleum where Bethlehem will one day rot.
The guy in the office is Damien Makepeace.
Makepeace had been, and still is, the cofounder of the Brooklyn indie label UnderMajordomo Records. About five months before the tour that scrambled our kismet beyond recognition, Makepeace had gotten in touch by email to gauge our interest in a two-record deal. After a gold-star review in Pitchfork and a sidebar in Spin where the writer proclaimed us “black metal’s answer to My Bloody Valentine,” we’d come into knowledge regarding ourselves we’d barely had time to digest or accept. Like Mastodon or Deafheaven, Bethlehem had distinct crossover appeal. UnderMajordormo was making a play. The email, at first addressed only to Percy and forwarded on to us several weeks later, had laid out Makepeace and the label’s desire to cultivate a “heavy base” for what had been mostly an indie rock staple. UnderMajordormo, he had told us, was evolving.
The rest of the email went something like this: No more waifs from Omaha and no more goddamn EDM. We need dirty south-blackened post-metal right now, and we needed it yesterday, ya’ll, so let’s talk! We loved Midnight on Lake Geneva. You guys been doing any writing?
Recorded by Phil “Hoarfrost” Gessen at King Doom Sounds in Little Rock, Midnight on the Shores of Lake Geneva was Bethlehem’s debut LP. That Makepeace had fucked up the name is his email was absolute proof of his bunkness to Percy. That, and UnderMajordormo’s production track record, which was all mixing-board crystalline definition—“death metal polish,” Percy called it. Whereas Bethlehem’s sound was like Mayhem or Darkthrone’s, but with little segues into goth and shoegaze and the early-aughts indie we’d all listened to when we were too lame to know anything better. Yet make no mistake: not a prepackaged band. We were raw as an un-fliered basement performance. We were bootleg and strange and unclean as a snuff film—where you don’t even know what you’re seeing at first then you hear a low moan as blood splatters the lens.
Damien Makepeace, according to Percy, was destined to sand down our tetanus edges. Make us something that we weren’t. Still, Makepeace flew us out to Brooklyn all expenses paid that summer. Due in no small part to Percy, the weekend had been an unnerving disaster. The offer of a deal had tanked, Percy giving zero fucks. And the rest of the band? We had borne it in stride. Letdowns like this were the price of his genius, was how we came to rationalize it—everyone except for Beau.
“I get it,” says Makepeace. “Ya’ll—hey, can I say that?” Makepeace looks at Reese, who frowns—like he’s the keeper of the word. Makepeace continues, “Ya’ll just need some space. Trapped inside that rolling deathtrap, all up in each other’s shit. So take a load off. Really—do!” He waves at the Sherpa who hands him the bottle, which he offers across the office to us, even though we all have some. “Sweet mother of Jesus, this stuff is amazing. They sell it in Brooklyn for, like, forty bucks? Reese,” he tops Reese off. “You, Sammy.” Makepeace waves me over and forces more on me. “Rian—Riiiiiiian. Naughty girl.” Makepeace wags a finger and triples her double. “Beau, good buddy, Beau!” he toasts. “Decisions like this are best made on the level.”
“Decisions?” say Reese and I, almost at once.
Rian just shakes her head and sips. She’s feeling that buzz now and nothing else matters, but at least Rian’s here and at least Rian’s trying. That’s more than I can say for Percy. And a lot of the time that’s why she lets him coast, shrugging off his toxic bullshit. With her just as much of a fuckup as he is, she must figure she owes it to him.
Mock-outraged, Makepeace turns toward Beau. “Oh. My. God. You didn’t tell them?”
“Fuck, man, what am I—black ops?” Beau responds. “Percy was never not ten feet away.”
Grinning, Makepeace shakes his head. “Beau told me everything—Percy, the drugs. Not that I didn’t see it coming. And after what happened, I tried to forget you, but something about you just stuck in my craw. Because, like, I get you guys, really I do, and not just the music you play, which I love. Which is like”—and here he grasped for words—“like, Emperor fucked Dead Can Dance from behind while Hawkwind got off in the corner, you know? And then they birthed this messed-up child! But this beautiful child and unique and born free. So why don’t we just say his name?” He marshals group eye contact. Nobody speaks. “The name of the guy who’s the reason, tonight, that everyone’s so fucking done.”
“Ronnie James Dio!” yells Rian and laughs.
Reese, who would normally join her, says, “Percy?” He says it in a monotone.
“If I have learned one thing,” says Makepeace, “in all my years of signing bands and watching them go on to cut flaming records—records that would melt your face—it’s that front men,” he flings up air-quotes, “like your Percy, are way less crucial than they seem. AC/DC, Joy Division. Mayhem, guys! I mean, come on.”
“The singer of Mayhem shot himself,” I volunteer.
All eyes on me—in that flickering, uncertain way that they have when it’s finally time to address me head-on. “Right,” says Makepeace, studying me. “What did the note say?”
“Excuse all the blood.”
“You black metal kids are so fucked. I adore it.”
“Percy’s not dead. He’s a mess,” says Reese.
“I won’t work with Percy—not ever again. So, I mean,” Makepeace says, “Percy is dead to me?”
Reese lets that hang in the air of the room. I notice he hasn’t touched his drink. I’ve still only partially entered the office, my hands all twitchy at my sides, but I’m comfortable here in the dim of the hall and don’t want to get any closer to Makepeace. I don’t want the smell of him anywhere on me in case I meet with Percy later.
Reese man-spreads and studies Makepeace. “If you won’t work with Percy then why are you here?”
“I’m here to give you one more chance. I’m here to give you one more chance because I am an awesome dude, especially after the shit that he pulled. Did you know that I had to call all of my clients to explain what had happened weeks after the fact? I won’t work with Percy, not ever again. But that doesn’t mean that the rest of you can’t. You two,” he says, “specifically.” Makepeace points to me and Reese. “Every genius needs his handlers. Got to channel those fuckup instincts for the good. You work with him, I work with ya’ll.”
“What makes you think he would even agree?”
“He knows he’s on the final leg. And now—well, fuck—he’s got no band.”
“That’s why he flew out here,” says Beau, leaning forward, but a different, more confident Beau than before. “If Percy hadn’t shat the bed I don’t think he would’ve come out here at all.”
I try to imagine Beau’s convos with Makepeace, all that covert reconnaissance Beau had been on in those rest stops and gas station bathrooms on tour when we’d come upon him with his phone to his ear. I try to imagine who called who, the startled silence on the line. If it had been Makepeace, I picture Beau shocked, unable to believe his luck. If it had been Beau, I hear Makepeace’s outrage, Beau’s slavering apologies. “So what are we talking—still signing?” says Reese. He looks at me, careworn, exhausted.
“I was hoping for something like that,” Makepeace says.
Reese is our filtration system, Bethlehem’s first and last line of defense. If anyone’s going to get anything done, the process will unfold through him. “And what if Percy doesn’t bite?”
“We shuffle the lineup around. We rebrand.” Reese looks at him like, For real? “Beau here stays on drums,” says Makepeace. “Rian moves up to lead guitar.”
“Feeling that,” she says and drinks, and I can hear her ice cubes tinkling.
“Sammy,” says Beau, “takes on rhythm for Rian.”
“Reese,” says Makepeace, grinning, “sings!”
“Who’s going to play the bass?” says Reese.
“We’ll find someone for you. I’ve got names in mind. Maybe Sammy could recommend someone,” says Makepeace. “And besides, Sammy, sorry to bring this up, really, but wasn’t that how they found you? You were only some transplant who answered an ad? After what might be termed the unfortunate business? I am here in New Orleans. I have boilerplates with me.”
Reese furrows his brow and studies Makepeace. “You know it ain’t that simple, man.”
“Right,” says Makepeace, satisfied. “When life isn’t simple you just let it be.”
There is a house in New Orleans.
It is on Chartres Street, north side of the river, between a junk shop with a red marquee sign and an overgrown lot with a bowed chain-link fence. The house is Victorian, grey with red trim, but its wraparound porch has gone canted with rot, its turret sheered off at the peak. Its yard gapes. Its gable rooftop has caved in after decades of rain being burned off the shingles, and the house’s insides are its outsides turned strange; a shadowy labyrinth of hallways and rooms that turns on a spindle of downpour and sunlight.
There is a house in New Orleans, but it is not the only one. There are other houses just like it all over, houses fallen to ruin in one way or another. They are houses that shouldn’t have people but do: the ragged and dope-sick, the patchwork and pale. The pregnancy-bellied and rightly with child.
I don’t need to knock on the door; it’s unlocked. The stairs are unnaturally soft underfoot. There are sections where less cautious legs have punched through. At the top is a parlor or bedroom with a high raftered ceiling and nature-scene moldings. The wallpaper is streaked with rot, beneath the corruption a grape-arbor pattern. There are clusters of people at large in the floor where a couple fires burn out of old coffee cans.
It smells like burnt plastic and cigarette smoke. It smells like human feces, too. Buckets line the room’s far wall. Blankets and bedrolls form drab little islands. I wander the floor space, eyes searching for Percy, his frayed battle jacket, his untroubled face. Every time I come for him across the industrial tracks in the night, I’m sure for a moment I won’t find him here among the unseemlies. Like this shirtless, hunched dude on a derelict mattress, its whole center blackened as though from a fire, the rest of it covered with baggies and needles, his head bent, peering into the membranous dark of his toes. Or this other guy, thin, in a ratty sport coat with a pair of cracked eyeglasses perched on his nose who strides before an audience of wino gargoyles perched on crates while professing to them about “Al Qaeda chemicals mixed in the beef,” taking breaks to smoke meth from a one-hitter pipe that he shields angrily in the trap of his hands. And still there are others, alone or by twos, the kids who strike out for this town by the hundreds—here where you can get fucked up in public—here where you don’t need a bedroll to sleep—arriving by boxcar and overnight bus from Daytona and Charleston, from Knoxville and Athens, their black skinny jeans masking-taped to their high-tops, their clothing a patchwork of crawling band logos for Venom, Noothgrush, Assuck, Darkthrone, Magrudergrind, Anal Cunt, Necrotic Priapism, Wolves in the Throne Room, Celtic Frost—their ears stretched with plugs and their faces tattooed and their tongues riven surgically down through the middle. At house shows, through weed smoke and noise, I have seen them, faces hovering past with no bodies attached like the souls of the young and the damned held at ransom.
No one there calls out to me. Percy’s nowhere in sight. I walk the borders of the room before cutting right down a hall half-collapsed from the fierce ministrations of thieves digging copper, and the firelight recedes. The passage itself is a slew of old wood and squatter trash and mangled piping and it gradually leads to the dim turret room, where the turret is torn open wide on the night. Katrina or Isaac, take your pick.
The hole in the roof shows a spotlight of moon and there at the center is Percy LeBlanc. He’s sitting on a pile of boards that rises like a funeral pyre. His arms, statue-white, not a single tattoo, are hanging down between his knees and he’s bare-chested under his black battle jacket. His head is bowed mournfully, penitent almost. He’s bombed out of his fucking mind.
Without looking up he says, “Sammy, you came. You want to know something like really fucked up? I thought you’d never come for me. I thought you’d leave me here to rot.”
“You know I couldn’t do that, dude.” It sounds like bullshit but it’s true. I love him as much as the first time I saw him the night I got to New Orleans, and he had done somber, buzz-kill karaoke beneath a flashing gator sign. He’d been a stranger to me then. How does he appear even more of one now?
“I’m done—for realsies,” Percy says, but slurs his words more like, Aym-duuum. “I’m done,” he says, “but you’re not, Sammy. None of y’all are done—not yet.”
“But you said, dude . . .”
He shakes his head. “You think it’s just a band,” he says, “but you’ve got to start thinking beyond that—tonight. Because Bethlehem isn’t a band anymore. Bethlehem is something else.”
Whenever Percy gets like this, the best response is nod and smile. He clears his throat, straightens his back. His fingers are tracing the shape of his face and in their wake a bold, white stripe. It’s a line of cake makeup, the first of the corpse paint. He always wears it when we play. Corpse paint’s usually for the Black Metal Fascists, the fliers of the double-bolt. The pig-carcass-mounters and church-immolators—the Europeans, in a word—but Percy has always been clear on one thing: Bethlehem is an American band. We appropriate only as much as we please. We’re in charge of the message we send to the world. Percy’s main message was always his face. And none of that Halloween pharmacy junk, Percy’s exclusively MAC and Sephora: thirty dollars for powder, twenty for pencil. Once, on a day trip to resupply at Lakeside Mall I’d gotten a peek at his receipt when he’d left his bag lying around at the food court: $56.09, plus tax.
“We’re supposed to go on in like twenty-five minutes. You know that, right?” I say.
“Chill, Sammy.” He cradles the little black clamshell in shadow, as gently as something just hatched from its egg. He swoops the foundation down over his cheeks and swirls it in beneath his eyes.
“Man, what are you doing up here, anyway?”
“Well,” he says, “for starters, drugs. But I guess you could say I’ve been thinking. Meditating on shit. The condition,” he says. “These suits of meat we wear, you know? And I keep coming back to those gyres,” Percy says. “Those ones I read about in Yeats.”
“Oh, right,” I say.
Percy’s always been rock-hard for Yeats and his ilk—those decaying doomed poets, and painters, and critics, and enfant terribles, and men of aesthetics. He got his chosen name from Percy Bysshe Shelley, nineteenth-century English poet and husband to Mary (who also wrote Frankenstein, Percy’s all-time fave novel.) “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; / Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!” was the Shelley go-to he loved most, and it’s so fucking metal, I mean, who can blame him? But he equally loved the Romantic composers—Berlioz, Liszt, Paganini. Percy could sight-read them on his guitar not because he was braggy, but because he got bored. There’d be all of us trying to time out a break or get a chord progression down, and here would come Liszt’s “Symphonie Fantastique,” Percy’s eyes dark and calm as his fingers advanced.
The gyres that Percy’s on about are these little sketch drawings from Yeats’ A Vision. It’s Percy’s favorite thing from Yeats. Never mind that A Vision’s not poetry, really, but Yeats’ occult ramblings on the cosmos, the after-life, time, consciousness—a real beach-read. Percy had shown me the gyres on one of those long, stony evenings we shared my first summer with Bethlehem, my second one in New Orleans. Heat like a dog’s mouth I couldn’t believe. The city homicidal with it. But me and Percy stayed inside, smoking spliff after spliff with the AC at ten while listening to records and lying around. Every once in a while, Percy got up excited, his skeleton gangling away in black jeans to retrieve this or that from a table or shelf.
A first pressing of Blood, Fire, Death. This fancy sacramental cup. Or an archival copy of A Vision, crisp and occult in its plastic dust jacket. We flipped through its pages, alone in this bubble, sock-feet bumping, AC blasting. The gyres were these cone shapes that Percy traced for me, his elegant fingers caressing the page. Each cone was impaled on the other one’s point, the space diamond-shaped where the cones overlapped. I could picture them separately only a moment before I had to look away. Yeats said they symbolized not oppositional but complementary forces of being; like beauty and terror, or birth and decay. These forces shaped history, our planet, the cosmos.
“You know what Yeats said about how they were formed?”
“How he drew them, you mean.”
“No, man, how they formed. Because Yeats didn’t draw them. The spirits dictated that shit through Yeats.”
“The spirits, like ghosts?”
“Yeah, dude,” Percy says. “Yeats was a Spiritualist—didn’t you know this? Yeats knew that the dead had a holding on the living. But those gyres he dreamt up were some next-level shit. They broke open everything, abracadabra, and the one motherfucker in all of creation who could never one-up himself finally did because I have been up here straight tripping, you know, and it’s not even, like, running through me at all. It’s like this pigment in me, man.”
Percy pounds his chest once, leaving small dabs of white.
Now would be the time to tell him. About UnderMajordormo and Makepeace, see where it gets me. And even though I really want to, none of it matters if I can’t have Percy. We have to go, I keep on saying.
“Where to,” he says.
I say, “The show?”
He closes the clamshell and tucks it away. “You should really talk,” he says. “Who’s down at the club selling merch while you’re here?”
“The Roadie’s on it.”
“Yeah?” says Percy. His eyes are craters in his face.
He takes out some eyeliner pencil, uncaps it. Then he tilts his head back in the light of the moon and he’s scowling to flatten the skin of his face, and one of his eyeballs appears to recede down a tunnel of darkness like some malign prophet. Then he moves in a line down the flat of his cheek, stopping a few inches over his mouth. He repeats the effect on the opposite cheek. Weeping tar in the moonlight he stands balancing upon the pile of splintered boards.
“Samothrace,” Percy says, reaching out for my hand.
It’s his pet nickname for me and sounds pretty metal even though it’s the name of an island off Greece. My mom calls me “Sammy,” my dad calls me “Sam-o.” But Percy, I guess, needs a word of his own. I grasp his hand and help him down. He minces, stepping over nails. When he gets to the bottom he swings in so close I can smell the drug sweat and the booze on his skin. “It’s not too late,” I say.
“For what?” But I only observe him in silence a moment. He looks campy and glorious, tender and badass, so close to death yet so alive. “What isn’t it too late for, dude?”
I pause, make a show of the clock on my phone. “To make it to the show,” I say.
The evening goes more or less as you’d expect, except that it goes far, far worse.
Me and Percy’s descent through the opiate gloom and our ride through the city at night to the club where Bethlehem receives us ranked upon the stage. Nobody needs to give deep, baleful looks. Nobody needs to say anything pissy. How late and fucked up we all are is enough, me and Percy dead last, exploding through the front door and pushing our way through patchouli and weed stank and crusty-ass denim and that night’s house special (Molson Ice and Evan Williams), the familiar smell of our cranky, drunk fans who murmur at us and talk shit as we pass. How Percy can barely get up on the stage, and over the mike you can hear Reese exhaling as he leans from the darkness and offers his hand. And then there’s Beau, forever Beau, wide-eyed and expectant and perfectly still behind his gleaming throne of drums, who looks at me, like: what’s the deal? I’m glad, in a way, that everyone is so nervous because it absolves me of having to say it: I couldn’t do it after all. Couldn’t make Percy their secondhand offer. Makepeace must be somewhere near but I can’t see him where I am.
Bethlehem has this tradition before we go on. We converge around Beau at the back of the stage and lean in around him, four curtains of hair. Like a cadre of penitent knights before battle. Like what we’re going to do tonight we wouldn’t wish on anyone. The Arctic Circle’s fucking packed. There’s the sound of the crowd milling back past the lights, clinking their Hi-Lifes and yelling, “Hail Satan!” and some among them, “Beeeeethleeeeheeeem!” And then there’s Percy, pale and stooped, his guitar strap bound up with the side of his jacket, leaning forward so, so far beyond the limits of the stage.
Reese begins a feedback loop. Our death cult is stretching its terrible muscles. The crowd doesn’t know that tonight is our last and their ignorance makes me feel wild, sorry for them. We don’t even get through the build to “La Mort.” When the first power chords finally come, Percy sways. And then he’s tipping off the stage with the mike stand reflexively clenched in his hands which he tries to maneuver to lessen his fall, but the microphone drops, feeding back on the floor and the bare armature clobbers him in the face. A mask of blood covers his mouth and his chin as raises himself from the floor, peers around.
Percy’s usually bright and unguarded with fans. He feeds off their energy, loves when they lose it, slapping them five at the foot of the stage, but now he just sways there—incognizant, bloody. Someone says, “You okay, Percy?” He smiles wolfishly; he’s got blood in his teeth. Then he blows his nose, which births a viscous skein of gore and he flings it out over the heads of the crowd who scatter before it, revealing the exit. Percy lurches wildly after.
In the gloom of the merch space the Roadie’s head swivels. Then he’s gliding after Percy. Somewhere toward the back of the club is Makepeace, who never gets to see us play. Percy bolts through the door, leaving blood on the threshold. The club door crashes in his wake. The rest of Bethlehem are watching. They all know what to do but me.
Reese moves down the keys like a brothel pianist: that’s all, folks! He’s laughing crazy. Rian’s laughing even harder, but to herself and wholly silent. Beau abuses the snare-drum a moment with blast beats, which swells the crowd with briefest hope, but he beats on it rabidly, tearing down through it before he proceeds to kick over the cymbals, to unscrew the hi-hat in one expert motion and discus it over the heads of the crowd. Greem is shouting, “Whoa, whoa, whoa,” rushing up from the back of the club, palms raised.
“Like I give a fuck,” says Beau.
“Well I do give a fuck, personally,” Rian says.
“He’ll come crawling back,” says Reese.
But I don’t say anything, taking it in, my eyes on the door through which Percy has gone. We’re grouped at the foot of the stage, loading up, when Makepeace, emerging from shadow, says, “Well. I think you know my feelings on it.”
“What did Percy say?” says Beau, like he suddenly very much still gives a fuck.
I hesitate a second, thinking. Percy’s guitar is still sprawled on the floor. “I’ll find him again,” I say.
“Don’t, Sammy.” Reese is right in my face and his eyes are dead white. “Don’t give him the pleasure.”
Outside of the club are the Children of Odin, smoking and talking along the sidewalk, like a plague of mosquitoes. Zipping their hoodies and checking their phones and talking shit about the bands. When I’m several blocks out from the club, I start running.
Warehouses and neon signs. The shotgun homes that line St. Claude. Running toward the Ninth Ward Bridge, I make a list of Percy’s haunts. At Mazant, I cut right from St. Claude, now speed-walking. I pass Royal, Dauphine, and Burgundy to Rampart, which more or less follows the tracks as they turn, and then I come upon a region of overgrown lots sectioned off by chain-link and a lakebed of gravel, the canal bed beyond. To the right is the land spit that leads to Old Muddy, to the left the train tracks in a dim parallax across the bridge to Holy Cross. Now I’m crossing the tracks toward the dark of the river. There’s a sharp gradient and it carries me up.
No one’s on the hill tonight. It’s a long spit of earth inundated with grass between the industrial canal and the city, what the hipsters and crust-punks and Burning Man-weirdos all refer to as “The End of the World.” Daylight sees it populated with people day-drinking and walking their dogs but now it’s this nothingness, trodden by breeze. Riverward, demonic lights from the sides of the lock as the river runs past it. Landward the F. Edward Herbert Complex, engineered by the Navy then ditched post-Katrina, razorwire fencing off grouped Porto-Johns.
Midway out, I pass someone heading in the opposite direction who I’m sure is the Roadie. He’s coasting along through the watery dark, his skull limned in red like a cigarette butt from the bright warning signals that border the lock. If the Roadie sees me then he doesn’t look up. I turn and I watch him blend into the dark.
At the end of the land is a ruined watchtower, graffiti-tattooed, wearing Mardi Gras beads. Past that there’s a steep bank that leads to the river. I walk to the end of the concrete embankment and study the willows, the weird cypress knees. I think of Percy out there somewhere, certain that he’s been forgotten.
Heading back down the spit toward the lights of the city, I pause for a beat at the ruined watchtower. There’s a scummy outcropping of bushes and concrete beyond the watchtower leading down to the river where many nights and most days, too, there are crusties brown-bagging it, watching the boats. I hoof it down. At the opposite end of the spit where the train tracks run over the Ninth Ward Bridge, I think I hear voices aloft on the wind.
I’m kneeling there checking my phone for new texts when a looming awareness comes over my soul, and I turn my gaze onto the dark of the river as the mammoth portside of a cruise ship goes by me, its riveted flank in the lights of the lock with ELATION in pleasure-script painted upon it. Right as I’m looking it sounds off its horn. Then I’m back at the start of the spit, near the tracks. My phone pings with a text from Reese: Any luck?
I text back: Tumbleweeds.
Something catches my eye from the way that I’ve come: a small drifting light-source. It looks like the flashlight on somebody’s phone. I’m turning back the way I came when I hear, back behind me, a long, hollow moan, moving down the railroad tunnel. It’s the moan of a person.
I study the tracks.
There’s the wide, stationary abyss of the tunnel, two floodlights above it, just one of them working, and into the scrim of that light comes a figure—achingly, slowly, encumbered by something. The way the figure’s stumbling at first I think it’s just some junky, some Crescent City ghoul. It’s Percy. I start running forward, I call to him, “Dude!”
But he doesn’t respond, just keeps stumbling toward me.
“Dude, Percy!” I call out. “It’s Sammy! It’s me!”
The corpse paint that covers his face is all runny like he’s laved water on it to sober himself, and his gait is atrocious, he’s not working right. He looks like a zombie from some silent movie, limbs out of sync with the instinct that drives them—time seems to hold him in curious ways, unnaturally fast for a second or two, creaky and slow, then fast again, like something spliced up from a cutting room floor. He’s moving toward me and I’m moving toward him.
He’s moaning wild and sick and crazy.
In the tunnel’s floodlight, Percy’s right eye is gone. Or not gone but obscured, something blotting it out, and he’s grappling his face in a fruitless attempt to clear the object from his eye. The mess on his face isn’t makeup but blood. At which point the film reel that holds him speeds up, runs into the terrible meat of the moment. My arms are spread wide and he’s falling into them. There’s an old railroad spike buried past the midpoint in the raw circuitry of his orbital socket and I freeze for a moment like what should I do, what the hell should I do, and it’s all much too much and I see myself backing away from him, stiff. He falls through the absence I make to his knees.
I kneel and I cradle him swooning to me. I make small, nervous movements about the protrusion as though the railroad spike is hot. Then, without thinking, I jimmy it free. The pressure escapes. There’s a fountain of blood.
At first, I’d thought the spike was massive, though it’s really the size of a novelty pen—something someone might sell in some French Quarter shit shop. I want so bad to put it back, to put Percy’s blood in his body again. “It’s going to be okay,” I say.
“I can fix it,” I say.
“It’s not even that bad.”
Percy moans and claws his cheeks, the blood running between his fingers. He blows a blood bubble that pops on my face, little specks of him tickling my eyelids and lips. With the feeling comes something I know but don’t name: the worst of what follows is only beginning.